Posted in Personal life, Reading, Travel, Writing

Let the Holidays Begin!

With my daughter finishing school in June after completing her GCSE exams, our holiday season kicked off early with a week away in the Scottish Highlands at the start of July, showing a visiting aunt from Canada some of our favourite places. Even so, with views like this at the end of our lane, we’re always glad to come home to our beloved Cotswolds.

View of wheatfield full of poppies
Summertime, and the reading is easy… view from the Cotswolds lane in which I live and work

Even better to come home to a relatively empty diary, freeing me to tackle some ambitious writing and publishing deadlines during the rest of July:

  • Secrets at St Bride’s, the first in my new Staffroom at St Bride’s School series, which will go on sale from the end of July
  • my new short Sophie Sayers novella, The Pride of Peacocks, to be distributed free, exclusively to readers who subscribe to my mailing list, also at the end of July (those already subscribed will be sent a copy too)

If you haven’t yet signed up for my e-newsletter and would like to receive the new novella, and to be alerted to the publication date of the novel, just follow the simple instructions at the foot of this post.

I’m also planning to attend some bookish events this month. I’m looking forward to seeing Deborah Moggach in Tetbury next week at an event organised by the ever-fabulous Yellow-Lighted Bookshop. I loved her historical novel Tulip Fever and am looking forward to hearing her speak about her new novel, The Carer. Ticket info here if you’re interested in coming along. And tonight I’m off to the Stroud Book Festival‘s launch party. My good friend Caroline Sanderson, my fellow panelist on BBC Radio Gloucestershire’ Book Club, is the Festival’s Artistic Director, and is putting together an amazing programme for this autumn’s event. I’ll also be catching up with her on 24th July when, with radio presenter Dominic Cotter, our Book Club discusses Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, three hundred years old now and still a cracking read!

header advertising Stroud Book Festival 2019
http://www.stroudbookfestival.org.uk

I’ll be rounding the month off with a trip to the fabulous Rain or Shine Theatre Company‘s open-air production of Shakespeare‘s As You Like It at Swinhay House, near Wotton-under-Edge – a beautiful venue that has added literary appeal as being once used as a set for the Benedict Cumberbatch Sherlock series (my teenage daughter’s favourite programme). They’re touring nationwide in a series of terrific venues, and having seen other productions by them – they’re a great company, well worth seeing, so if you’re in the UK and you fancy seeing them, check out their website to find the nearest gig to you.

Highlights of the Scottish Highlands

But while my Scottish trip is still fresh in my head, I’d like to share a few highlights with you.

Staying in Callander, in the Trossachs region, we were on the edge of the Highlands – somewhere I’ve been holidaying for nearly two decades with my Scottish husband as he pursued his hobby of “Munro-bagging“, ie climbing every Scottish mountain over 3,000 feet, of which there are 227. He conquered #227 last year. So now we can pick and choose where we go, whether or not there’s a Munro nearby!

This year’s high points (ho ho) included a cruise in the century-old steamship SS Sir Walter Scott on peaceful Loch Katrine, a setting that inspired not only Scott but also, more surprisingly, Jules Verne to write a novel set there. Although Verne being Verne, his novel The Underground City was set beneath these peaceful waters!

Photo of SS Sir Walter Scott ready to depart for a cruise on Loch Katrine
No other pleasure craft beside the official cruise ships are allowed on Loch Katirne

We enjoyed wildlife encounters wherever we went, from spotting rare ospreys on Loch Katrine to giant pandas and koala bears at Edinburgh Zoo.

photo of giant panda at Edinburgh Zoo
Edinburgh Zoo has two giant pandas on loan from China
Sign on bear enclosure at Edinburgh Zoo saying "Please don't lean over or sit on the wall. We feed the bears enough protein."
We enjoyed the Zoo’s sense of humour too

We’re always on the lookout for Highland cattle. A tour party guide demonstrated his alarming party trick of sharing a carrot with Hamish, pictured below – one end in his own mouth, the other eagerly taken by Hamish. We didn’t take up his offer to try it ourselves!

Photo of Highland cattle

Exploring Stirling Castle, I discovered a recipe topical to my new short novella, The Pride of Peacocks. (Join my mailing list via the link at the foot of this post if you’d like me to send you a free copy as soon as it’s ready – a copy of the novella that is, not the roast peacock!)

Linlithgow Palace and Doune Castle were both fascinating in different ways. We especially enjoyed the guided tour by local twelve-year-old schoolgirls in Stuart costume at Linlithgow, birthplace of Mary, Queen of Scots. They really brought it to life for us.

At Doune, pictured below, we enjoyed Terry Jones’ narration on an audio guide. Doune was one of the sets for the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Remember the scene where the French hurl abuse – and a black and white cow – from the battlements onto our brave knights below? You can now buy plastic cows as souvenirs from the shop, as well as coconut shells, with which to provide your own horsey sound effects. The first time I visited Doune a few years ago, on a wet, windy day, the only other visitor was a solitary chap surreptitiously filming his own tour, coconut shells in hand.

Photo of Doune Castle from approach
Doune Castle was used as a set for the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail
inside the medieval Great Hall at Doune Castle
Picture this Hall full of Pythons – scene of the Spamalot song
photo of sign for shop showing availability of coconut shells
Oh no, forgot to bring your coconut shells? The souvenir shop can oblige.

We stepped even further back in time at the recreated Iron Age settlement at the Scottish Crannog Centre on Loch Tay.

Photo of Scottish Crannog - a reconstructed Iron Age hut on stilts over Loch Tay
The Scottish Crannog Centre is a fascinating reconstruction of an Iron Age settlement. You can’t go far in Scotland without stumbling across historic curiosities.

We also managed to fit in Glencoe, Oban, the Highland Folk Museum (one of the settings for my planned eighth Sophie Sayers novel – I’m currently writing the sixth), the Beatrix Potter Garden in Birnam (yes, as in Birnam Wood moving to Dunsinane in Shakespeare’s Macbeth – two literary references for the price of one, there!) but my camera was playing up so I’ve no photos to share, but here’s the website if you’d like to take a look: It’s a delightful museum all about her childhood holidays spent in Scotland before her family started going to the Lake District, with which she’s more famously connected.

Back at base in our holiday flat in Callander, we enjoyed exploring this little market town, and especially visiting the secondhand bookshop, where I bought Early in Orcadia, an extraordinary novel by Scottish author Naomi Mitchison imagining the lives of the early settlers of the Orkneys, another part of Scotland that we enjoyed visiting a couple of years ago.

The secondhand bookshop in Callander
The unassuming but absorbing and very well-stocked secondhand bookshop in Callander

I’m always glad to bring home a new book about Scotland, but this visit I also returned with a cuddlier souvenir.

Och Aye the Panda’s kilt is in a tartan especially created to incorporate the panda’s distinctive black and white fur; red, deemed lucky in China and auspicious of birth (they’re hoping the Edinburgh pandas will breed); and green to represent bamboo, the panda’s staple diet

Back to the Writing Desk

I hope your summer has started as well as mine, if you’re in the northern hemisphere – and if you’re south of the equator, I hope you’re already starting to see early signs of your spring, now that your shortest day has passed.

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Posted in Family, Personal life, Travel, Writing

The Best Time to Travel

cover of the September issue of the Tetbury Advertiser
Click the image to read the whole of the September edition of the Tetbury Advertiser online

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 mountains that 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.


Cover of Young by Name
The cover of this essay collection features one of my father’s watercolours

  • Read the whole of the September issue of the Tetbury Advertiser here (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
Posted in Writing

Why I Named the Leading Male Character in “Best Murder in Show” Hector Munro

How I named the leading man in Best Murder in Show

Cover of Best Murder in Show by Debbie YoungLast 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.

Why Hector…

Image of battered guidebook
My husband’s well-worn guide to hillwalking in the Munros

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

Photo of collection of short stories by Saki
Equally battered is my copy of Saki’s short stories (real name: Hector Hugh Munro)

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.

“You’re playing—”

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?”

“Spot on.”

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!

Cover of Best Murder in Show by Debbie Young
Ta-da! Now available to order as an ebook for Kindle (paperback to launch on 22nd April)

Click here to order the ebook – paperback to follow shortly! 

 

 

Posted in Travel

A Summer of Extremes: From Ithaca to Inverness

This post about my summer holidays first appeared in the Tetbury Advertiser’s September issue.

Photo of an Ithacan beach with clear blue sky
Soaking up the sun beside the Ithacan sea

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.

Bust of Homer on a pillar on Ithaca
Statue of Homer on Ithaca at daybreak

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.

Steely-skied Aberdeen beach with sign listing all the hazards there
Not quite so enticing – the beach at Aberdeen

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.

magnetBoth 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.