Due to the fortnight’s lead-time for publication, I filed my column for the September issue of the Tetbury Advertiser from the wilds of Glencoe while on holiday in Scotland last month. (Only last month? Seems a lot longer now!)
If, like me, you are restricted to taking family holidays outside of term time, here’s a handy tip: you can gain a psychological advantage by spending August in Scotland. The academic year is different north of the border, with the autumn term starting around the Glorious Twelfth. Local children returning to school add a frisson of guilty pleasure to our Scottish summer holiday. It feels as if we are bunking off.
This year, as ever, when we arrive in Scotland in early August, we make a pit-stop at a supermarket to provision our camper van. Here we find ourselves rubbing elbows in the aisles with brisk Scots mothers and stony-faced children bracing themselves for the imminent start of their new school year.
Gleefully my daughter calculates that even though we’re staying in Scotland for a fortnight, when she gets home, she will still have nearly three weeks of holiday left before the start of her new term. By then, these poor Scottish children will have been stuck into their studies for a month.
Suddenly our holiday feels much longer, as if we’ve stepped through a time-slip, albeit one from which we can return at will.
Travelling in Time
I can’t help wishing that real time travel was available as a holiday option.
My favourite tourist destinations are those that offer a sense of connection with the past. Some of these places are ancient, older than mankind itself, such as the Munro mountainsthat I can see from my window as I type this column. Others are much more recent. A highlight of this trip so far has been an afternoon at a traditional weaver’s cottage that pre-dates the Industrial Revolution. The cottage has been so sympathetically conserved to suggest that the occupant has just stepped away from his loom for a moment and will be back at any minute. By chance, one of his descendants was visiting that afternoon from Canada, adding to the feeling that this was indeed living history.
I’m sure I’m not the only tourist who hankers after time travel. A few days ago, my brother texted me from his family holiday in Rhodes to tell me about the tourist in front of him at the tourist information office. “Please can you give me directions to the Colossos?” the man asked. One of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the Colossos – the same size as the Statue of Liberty and a similar symbol of freedom that once graced Rhodes harbour – was destroyed by earthquake over two thousand years ago. But if the tourist information officer had been able to provide effective directions – “Just step through this portal, sir, and stop when you get to 226BC” – I suspect my brother would have gone along for the ride.
Read the whole of the September issue of the Tetbury Advertiserhere (and you’ll also see the fab picture of the Colossus that the wonderful editor, Richard Smith, used to illustrate it)
Read some of my previous columns from the Tetbury Advertiser in paperback or ebook here
How I named the leading man in Best Murder in Show
Last week I explained how I chose the name for the heroine of Best Murder in Show, the first of my new Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries series, and this week, just three days before the ebook launches (paperback to follow three weeks later), I’m going to reveal how the leading man, Hector Munro, got his name.
Hector Munro is the proprietor of the village bookshop, Hector’s House. Those of a certain age will recognise the name Hector’s House, which was a 1970s children’s television puppet show, featuring a dog called Hector whose catchphrase was variations on this theme: “I’m a great big lovable old Hector”. It was the kind of show that warmed the heart of adults and children alike in the tea-time slot in my childhood, when the Magic Roundabout was taking a break. (You can sample it on YouTube here.)
The name for the bookshop has been forced onto Hector by the benefactor who co-financed its launch, but the name Hector is well and truly his own, chosen by his antique dealer parents who have a passion for the classics.
Though of course it was actually chosen by me, because I wanted something unusual. I don’t know any real-life Hectors, although I’ve since heard of an acquaintance coincidentally christening her baby with that name. My Hector is a creative, unconventional type, who thinks outside the box and is not afraid to do what he wants to do.
…and Why Munro
The name Munro came to me in a flash as a comfortable surname, partly because my Scottish husband is what’s known as a Munro bagger. Munro baggers are hillwalkers who set themselves the challenge of climbing all the Munros – 280+ Scottish mountains over 3,000 feet – which means Scotland’s highest mountains.
How did the mountains get their name? They were named in honour of the first man to map them all, a certain Hugo Munro.
Ever since I’ve known my husband, resident in England throughout his adult life, and so very far from the nearest Munro, he has been pursuing his goal of bagging them all. We spend many summer holidays touring Scotland in our camper van, seeking out the next mountain on his list. My daughter and I drop him at his starting point, then go off to do touristy things before picking him up post-conquest. This year it looks as if he’s going to complete the final Munro.
Therefore in my mind the name Munro is a symbol of challenge, determination and achievement, and also a certain rugged, wiry manliness, without being too obvious. The word Munro is like a code, as any Munro bagger will understand.
Putting Them Both Together
Putting the two together, I liked the way that Hector Munro tripped off the tongue. I also thought it memorable. But so much for my memory, because I didn’t realise until long after I’d established my character why I’d taken to the name so much. Picking up a copy of a book by one of my favourite short story writers, I was reminded that Saki‘s real name was Hector Hugh Munro.
As if that wasn’t enough, I also realised a little while later that the surname of the proprietor of my nearest independent bookshop is also associated with mountains, or at least large hills: The Corbetts are the next highest hills in Scotland after the Munros. Hereward Corbett, is proprietor of the Yellow-Lighted Bookshop (branches in Tetbury and Nailsworth). Whether Hereward’s parents had anything to with mountaineering, I do not know.
Next in the Scottish mountain pecking order are the Grahams and the Donalds. By chance, the landlord of the local pub in the Sophie Sayers series is called Donald, but I haven’t introduced a Graham yet. I think he’d better come into one of the sequels – I don’t want the Grahams feeling left out.
Hector Munro: His Own Person
But let’s be clear about this: Hector Munro is not based on any of his namesakes in any way. All the characters, settings and situtations are entirely fictional, as in any novel. My Hector Munro is a man unto himself, one not easily tamed or fathomed, as you will see when you read the series and follow how his character develops. To whet your appetite for what’s to come, here’s the scene where Sophie first meets him in Chapter 5 of Best Murder in Show, when she’s seeking a job in his bookshop…
Extract of BEST MURDER IN SHOW
“Hello, can you tell me where Hector is, please? Carol in the village shop told me that he needs help.”
“You can say that again,” came a familiar voice from the back corner. Arranged around three circular tin tables were a dozen old-fashioned folding garden chairs, one of them occupied by Billy, the non-cerebral stout-drinker from the day before. Despite the aspersions he’d cast on Hector’s tea, he was enthusiastically working his way through a large pot of the stuff.
A lean olive-skinned man in his early thirties was leaning on the main shop counter with his arms folded, longish dark curls flopping forward to cover his high forehead.
“I can. But should I?”
Confused, I glanced across at Billy for a clue. That was a mistake.
“She’ll be asking to see your buns next, Hector.”
“Thank you, Billy, if I need your advice, I’ll ask for it.”
The man at the counter unfolded his arms and pointed one finger at his chest. “He’s here. I’m Hector. Thank you for brightening my bookshop with your presence. I don’t believe we’ve met before?”
Despite Hector’s parents having only recently retired, I’d been picturing someone only marginally less aged than himself. After all, when you’re eighty-six, most people qualify as younger. Perhaps it was the archaic name that threw me. Hectors should be wrinkly grey-haired curmudgeons in cardigans, not gorgeous, enigmatic Greek gods.
Hector held out a warm, soft hand for me to shake, before coming out from behind the counter to stand alongside me. “But the more pressing question for me is, how can I help you? No, don’t tell me, I’ve got just the book for you.”
He strode over to the fiction section, plucked a paperback from among the Gs and presented it to me, deadpan.
“Here we are: Travels with my Aunt, by Graham Greene.”
Billy guffawed. “Point to you, young Hector!”
I gasped. “How did you know who I was? Did you recognise her skirt?”
I’d put on a long mulberry velvet one from my aunt’s wardrobe to try to look cultured.
“Have you looked in the mirror lately?” replied Hector. “You are obviously related to May Sayers. Billy tells me that you’re living in May’s cottage.”
“Actually, my name’s on the deeds now. My great aunt left the cottage to me.”
“You’ll have to wait about twenty years before people round here call it your cottage. Your name being…?”
“Sophie. Sophie Sayers. Sayers, same as my aunt.”
“Yes, you certainly are,” put in Billy, who clearly considered himself part of our conversation. “Don’t let old Joshua see you looking like that, whatever you do. It’ll be too much for him. We’ll be carrying him off to the graveyard to lie alongside her, if you’re not careful.”
Hector shot him a withering look. “Billy, really! Drink your tea or I’ll take it away.”
That shut him up. He must have needed the tea to sober him up after his early start on the stout the previous afternoon.
In the ensuing silence, I noticed for the first time the music that was playing softly in the background: Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells. Great Auntie May had long ago taught me to love this classic album from the 70s. It’s not something you hear much in public these days.
Hector’s smile had a hint of smugness about it. “Your tune? Your Auntie May always loved it, so I thought you might too.”
“What? Did you see me coming and put it on specially?”
We both listened appreciatively for a moment to the music’s gentle meanderings, while he set the Graham Greene book on the counter, facing me, presumably as a hint. But I wasn’t so easily hoodwinked by his charm into buying a book I neither wanted nor needed. May’s house was stuffed with books.
I pulled myself together, remembering the serious and pressing intent of my visit. If I wasn’t able to get a job here, I’d have to look further afield, and soon.
“So, as I was saying, Carol Barker said you were looking for an assistant. And Joshua Hampton, next door to me, encouraged me to apply. So please may I have an application form?”
Hector patted his pockets as if searching. “Sorry, I seem to be fresh out of them. Bit of a run on applications this morning. How about an application cup of tea instead?”
He gestured to the tearoom. I chose the table furthest from Billy.
“So, tea?” offered Hector, sitting down opposite me. “Not you, Billy, you’ve had enough for one morning.”
Behind me, Billy drained his cup noisily, and scraped his chair across the old oak floorboards. “No matter, I’ll be heading off to The Bluebird for my dinner soon.”
“But it’s only eleven o’clock.” I wondered what scenic route he’d be taking to the village pub, a few hundred yards away, to make his journey last till evening.
“That’s The Bluebird’s opening time. I has a ploughman’s lunch up there for my dinner midday every Tuesday. Washed down with a nice pint of old Donald’s special. Good luck with your interview, girlie.”
He rolled the word interview around his mouth like a euphemism for some lascivious delight.
The shop door jangled to allow Billy’s exit as Hector set down a loaded tea tray on the table between us. The crockery was decorated with the titles of classic novels in old-fashioned typewriter fonts. He’d given me Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations and himself Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale. The teapot was branded Love in a Cold Climate, by Nancy Mitford.
Will Sophie get the job? Will she discover the secret that enables Hector’s House to keep his business solvent? (A bookshop in a tiny Cotswold village – really?) You’ll have to read the book to find out!
This post about my summer holidays first appeared in the Tetbury Advertiser’s September issue.
I shall remember this summer break as the holiday of two extremes – scorching, dry sunshine and chill, torrential rain, as I flitted from Ithaca to Inverness.
Our trip to Ithaca was a busman’s holiday for me. I was helping to run the Homeric Writers’ Workshop and Retreat, so called because the island was the start and finishing point of perhaps the most famous journey of all, that of Odysseus, as chronicled by the ancient Greek master storyteller, Homer.
Our Scottish trip was occasioned by my husband’s own odyssey – to climb all 282 Munros, the Scottish mountains of 3,000 feet or more, named after the man who first mapped them.
On Ithaca, the weather was idyllic: constant sunshine, cornflower-blue skies, refreshing sea breezes, all day every day. The locals apologised that there were clouds in the sky – tiny Persil-white puffballs – apparently not usually seen between June and September.
A few days later, when we flew into Inverness to meet my husband (already there in our camper van, with 20 more Munros crossed off his list before we arrived), steady rain was falling from steely skies. As we headed west for Ullapool, the clouds became more leaden. Linen sundresses, so comfortable on Ithaca, were supplemented with leggings, t-shirts, cardigans, shawls – all at once.
On Ithaca there are constant reminders to conserve water, always in short supply on this tiny island. In Scotland, there is evidence everywhere of the abundance of local water: high and raging rivers, waterfalls and landslips beside the roads. New flood defences are under construction wherever we go, and not a moment too soon. If there’s ever a global shortage of water, Scotland’s a dead cert for world domination.
Yet as we retreated southwards, I realised that my two holiday destinations weren’t so different after all, and not just because they both prompted us to haemorrhage money on dubious souvenirs.
Both have a vast diaspora, thanks to economic migrants driven to North America, Australia, and South Africa by the Highland Clearances in Scotland and by the 1953 earthquake in Ithaca.
Both landscapes are scarred by the ruins of abandoned, simple stone houses, surprisingly similar in structure and appearance.
Both populations departed with a deep love of their homeland imprinted on their hearts. Whenever they can, they return. Australian, American and South African accents abound on Ithaca. In Scotland, 2014 has been declared Homecoming year, to mark the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, at which the Scots trounced the English. (By chance, my husband hails from Bannockburn.)
I feel privileged to have been able to holiday in places that so many people, all over the world, will always regard as home. Yet I’m also glad to return to the Cotswolds, which, as a small child on holiday there, I resolved I would one day make my home.
Because as Homer himself once said: “Nothing is sweeter than home”. At least, that’s what it says on my Ithacan souvenir fridge magnet.