Posted in Events, Personal life, Writing

The Comfort of Consistency

Photo of show schedule with first prize rosette
The schedule for the 2019 show is now available from Hawkesbury Stores and Hawkesbury Post Office to help you plan your entries

In my column for the July issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News, I’m looking forward to this year’s Hawkesbury Horticultural Show on Saturday 31st August – a pleasingly longstanding village tradition and the social highlight of the village year for all ages

In an ever-changing world which seems to be lurching from one crisis to the next, it’s comforting to have some events in life that are dependably consistent – such as the imminent Hawkesbury Horticultural Show (Saturday 31st August).

Although each year the hardworking Show Committee announces a handful of carefully considered changes to the schedule – a new category here, changed criteria there – part of the joy is that on Show Day, the essential formula remains the same.

cover of Best Murder in Show with Amazon bestseller flag
The Hawkesbury Horticultural Show, on whose committee I served for thirteen years, was the inspiration for my first novel – although of course the novel is a complete work of fiction. We do not have any murders at Hawkesbury Show!

But I wasn’t aware of just how true to tradition our Show is until my father recently brought to my attention an extract from a book published privately around 1950, Life in a Hampshire Village by Kathleen E Innes. Her description of St Mary Bourne’s village show at the turn of the 20th century could almost be of the present day Hawkesbury equivalent, without the influence of modern technology and the rise of equal rights for women!

… the village Flower Show was the great summer event. A marquee was hired to protect exhibits from sun, wind and weather and beside it in the field there arrived the day before the show, a fair, with all the traditional equipment of roundabouts, swings, coconut shies and wonderful sideshows… Pennies saved up for months soon vanished in rides on the shiny-painted horses of the roundabout, which went round and round to the droning music, working up to what to the riders seemed a terrifying speed… Amid shrieks and laughter, boat-shaped swngs were worked up to a height far above the horizontal, till it seemed as if the occupants must fall out, but they never did…

Judging took place in the morning, and the judges, who came from outside, did not see the names of competitions till the decisions were taken. Then the cards with names were turned face upwards, ready for the rush of excited entrants as soon as the tent was open in the afternoon. Gardeners had separate classes to prevent them, through any unfair advantage, carrying away all the prizes, but many a non-gardener’s exhibit would have gained the award even in the gardener’s class.

There was always a class for cakes, and a dish of boiled potatoes “to give the women a chance”, but on more than one occasion the prize for the best cake was borne away by a boy who had made up his mind to be a chef…

The scene inside the tent was gay and colourful. Vases of mixed flowers, the best table decorations, bowls of roses, sprays of sweet peas, were placed to meet the eye on entering. Classes of vegetables were in their allotted places on long tables round the edge – marvellous marrows, spotless and shapely potatoes, peas and beans with pods full from top to toe; cabbages solid as cannon balls, cauliflowers round and comely, carrots long and straight. All these were set out as an inspiration and a challenge. Their owners hovered with pride near at hand to hear the freely-expressed envy and admiration.

When the exhibits were removed and the tent left empty, the fair went gaily on till the summer nightfall, the monotonous music of the roundabouts inviting all and sundry to stay and make an evening of it, for it would be gone on the morrow. It was late before even the tired and happy children went to bed.

That nostalgic description has whetted my appetite for the 2019 Hawkesbury Show – now I’m off to find the schedule and start preparing my entries. See you at the Show next month, whether or not my name graces any prize certificates!

Photo of interior of village show schedule showing details of vegetable class entry requirements
We don’t do things by halves in Hawkesbury Upton

Everyone’s welcome at the Hawkesbury Horticultural Show – come and join us on Saturday 31st August for a day to remember! I’ll be in the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival tent, near the playpark and the Pimms stall fun by the Friends of St Mary’s (another committee that I’m on!) More details on the show’s website at www.hawkesburyshow.org

Photo of reader talking to author in show tent
Meet the authors in the Hawkesbury Upton Lit Fest tent at the show (Photo of my mum talking to historical novelist David Penny by another Festival author, Mari Howaqrd)

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Posted in Personal life, Travel

Train of Thought

In my Young by Name column for the April edition of the award-winning Tetbury Advertiser, I’m getting all nostalgic about train travel 

cover of the Tetbury Advertiser April 2019
Click the image to read the whole magazine for free online

Growing up in a London suburb half an hour by train from Charing Cross, I became a seasoned railway traveller at an early age. The slam of compartment doors and the rattle of trains on the line are part of the soundtrack to my childhood.

When I went up north to university, I enjoyed the longer train rides because I always met interesting people. From my current perspective as a parent, the thought of a teenage girl seeking out strangers on trains makes me shudder, but for the teenage me it was all an adventure.

On boarding, I’d choose my compartment carefully, walking through the corridor to find the most interesting looking passengers. Before the first stop we’d be sharing the sweets and biscuits bought for the journey while discussing the meaning of life. We felt we were striking up life-long friendships, but of course they never lasted beyond our destination. This is probably just as well, particularly with the middle-aged lady who invited me to bring my swimming costume and sunbathe in her garden any time I liked.

I wasn’t the only one to treat train travel like a social occasion. Once, as I followed a group of girl students into a compartment, its only prior occupant, a middle-aged lady, gave a deep sigh. “So we’re all girls together.” She sounded disappointed. Was the sole purpose of her trip to search for Mr Right in the form of a random fellow passenger? I wondered whether she had a season ticket.

If you didn’t want to chat, too bad. The Quiet Coach had yet to be invented. For a bit of peace, you went out to stand in the corridor.

Then and Now

These days when travelling by train, I always book a seat in the Quiet Coach to avoid irritating mobile phone conversations. This week, too weary to trek to my reservation at the far end of the train, I settled down in a normal carriage, bracing myself for the noise. To my astonishment, it was as silent as the Quiet Coach. Every occupant was staring at an electronic device, most of them further isolated by earbuds or headphones. The train might just as well have had no windows, because none of them once looked out to enjoy the view.

The ever-changing view: another great benefit of railway travel. I still can’t board a train without Robert Louis Stephenson’s poem “From a Railway Carriage” popping into my head at some point along the way:

“…And ever again, in the wink of an eye,
Painted stations whistle by.”

cover of Young by Name
Earlier columns from the Tetbury Advertiser, available in paperback and ebook – click image for more details

So I was pleased to learn recently of a care home that has mocked up a railway carriage for the benefit of elderly residents too frail for real trips. (Click here to see the BBC News report, complete with picture.) Complete with scrolling scenery behind fake windows, and with an excellent refreshment service, it offers them all the pleasures of train travel without them having to leave the building.

I bet they’d be great conversationalists too.


Posted in Personal life, Writing

Life Lessons Learned from School

Click the cover image to read the whole the magazine online

In my Young By Name column in the March issue of the award-winning Tetbury Advertiser, I’m musing about the most valuable and lasting lessons from my schooldays.

 

As my daughter muscles down to revision on the home straight of her GCSEs, I can’t help wondering which of the many facts and concepts she’s memorising will be of greatest value to her in later life. When I ran an informal survey some years ago, asking the alumni of Westonbirt School the most useful thing they’d learned at school, my favourite answer was “Not to sign anything I hadn’t read – and at my prep school, how to steam open an envelope”. While I can’t promise to better those examples, here are the most lasting takeaways from my own schooldays.

How to Write a Three-Point Essay

Our English teacher, Mr Campbell, spent many lessons hammering home this simple but clear strategy for essay-writing. First, pick three points on your chosen topic, outline each one in a separate paragraph. Top and tail the trio with an interesting introduction and conclusion, and you’re done. Why three? Perhaps because it’s the magic number in rhetoric, or because of the limited staying power of a class of fourteen-year-olds – or because that’s all he could face marking. I must have written hundreds of three-point essays during my working life, and I wish he was still alive so I could thank him.

Never Give More Than One Excuse

I can’t remember which two excuses I gave to Mr Crane, the school’s pantomime director, when I wanted to bunk off an after-school rehearsal, but neither of them was genuine. (The real reason was that I wanted to get to the local bookshop before it closed.) Whatever they were, he saw straight through them, kindly letting me off the hook with the advice that, for future reference, giving more than one excuse is unconvincing. I never missed another rehearsal. He was a wise man.

The Masses Are Asses

This blunt statement was frequently shared by Mr Judis, our A Level history teacher, when trying to explain to a classful of teenage idealists why so many bad decisions had been made in the name of democracy. The topics of our study were the causes and effects of the First and Second World War, twentieth-century East-West relations, and the fall of colonialism, but as I listen to twenty-first-century news stories, his words frequently echo in my head.

So if, Desert Island Discs style, I had to pick just one of these school-life lessons as the most important, which would it be? It would have to be the three point-essay. Just cast your eye back up the page. Do you see what I did there?


If you’d like to read my archive of columns written for the Tetbury Advertiser, you can buy the first collection as an ebook or in paperback – click here for more details

 

 

Posted in Personal life, Writing

Writers, Stamina & Jane Davis

STAMINA!

Have you go it ? Where does it come from?

At primary school, our headmaster used to say stamina was the secret of success.

This was in the days when schools were obliged to have a daily religious whole-school assembly, and although there were always a couple of hymns and a prayer, Mr Bowering also liked to use the occasion to put across some of his own key messages about life, the universe and everything.

photo of Days Lane School, Sidcup
The primary school in Sidcup where I spent many happy years – and learned the meaning of stamina

His favourite activities included:

  • using a remote-controlled system built into his lectern to illuminate capital cities on the vast wooden map of the world suspended above the platform, and we’d shout out the names of those we knew
    (I hardly knew any of them, and envied Simon Evans his legendary total recall)
  • leading a rousing rendition of William Blake’s hymn “Jerusalem” every Tuesday, an extended assembly to include hymn practice
    (I don’t know why it took me so long to join the WI, when I’ve been word- and note-perfect in its anthem since the age of seven)
  • appointing the King and Queen of the Shiny Shoes every Friday
    (I always regretted never having patent leather shoes for instant, constant shine  – the rich kids had a clear advantage there)

But perhaps his most memorable eccentricity was to impress upon us the importance of stamina if we wanted to be a success in whatever we did with our lives.

“What do you need?” he would bellow to the sea of rapt faces through cupped hands.

“Stamina!” we would shout back, as one.

Photo of budgie
Recollections from an era in which petfood ads offering stamina for dogs and making “budgies bounce with health” (Image by Unmesh Gaikwad via Unsplash.com)

Although I suspect I was not the only child to be a little confused as to what it was. The only place I’d heard the word outside school assembly was in a popular television advert for dogfood, possibly Pedigree Chum, which promised to fill your dog with stamina. This was in the same era as the famous Trill birdseed advert that promised to “make budgies bounce with health”. I imagined them ricocheting off the bars of their cages like the ball bearings in a pinball table.

Stamina as a Writer

image of Jane Davis with pile of books
Award-winning novelist Jane Davis shows considerable stamina herself with eight novels to her name so far

But his saying stuck with me, and it does still spur me on occasionally. So my ears pricked up (that’ll be the Pedigree Chum kicking in) when Jane Davis, author of award-winning literary fiction, asked writer friends to explain the secrets of their writing stamina. I am very pleased that she chose to include my response among her findings, outlined in her latest blog post here:

https://jane-davis.co.uk/2019/01/22/novel-writing-self-belief-and-staying-power/

I hope Mr Bowering would be proud of me. 

 

Posted in Family, Personal life, Writing

Plus Ca Change

My column for the December 2018/January 2019 issue of the Tetbury Advertiser

Cover of the December issue of the Tetbury Advertiser
Click the image to read the whole magazine online

Crossing to France via the Channel Tunnel the day after Remembrance Day fills me with fin-de-siècle melancholy. This is likely to be the last time I set foot in mainland Europe as an official European. This column is no place for politics, but I mention it because it’s just part of a general end-of-year yearning for time to stand still.

When I was younger, I used to look forward to welcoming each New Year. Now that my parents are in their eighties, I’m conscious of the growing likelihood of less welcome changes as each year goes by. I hanker after reminders of my younger days, when I had less sense of my own mortality, or of anyone else’s.

Plus C’est La Même Chose

Second-hand books in the editions I enjoyed as a child are comfort reads. I enjoy knowing from memory what will appear on the next page before I turn to it.

I rescue from a charity shop a battered bear of comparable vintage to my own childhood teddy. What misfortune befell his owner that this creature should be consigned, appropriately enough, to a branch of Barnardo’s? I don’t want to answer my own question.

photo of two teddy bears
Galloway (left), adopted from the Dumfries Barnado’s shop, with my childhood Teddy

Vintage. You know you’re getting old when artefacts from your childhood are classified thus, as I’m reminded when I scour the internet to replace the Parker Lady pen I had for starting big school. This diminutive black lacquer, gold-trimmed fountain pen (so much classier than a cartridge model, don’t you think?) was just the right size for the hand of an eleven-year-old girl.

My quest isn’t only down to nostalgia. I wish to right a wrong done to me when I changed schools at the age of 14. Another girl stole my pen and claimed it was hers, despite clearly being perplexed as to how a fountain pen worked. As the new arrival, I wasn’t confident enough to contradict her. In a life of few regrets, that’s one of mine. I’m hoping she didn’t just throw it in the bin when it ran out of ink, as we did with the orange plastic Bic biros bought from the school shop. (Plastics recycling had yet to be invented.)

photo of vintage Parker Lady Pen
A design classic – so glad I was able to track one down again

Et Voilà!

On eBay, I find the perfect replacement: a Parker Lady pen so treasured by its owner that he kept it in its original box. I hope it will comfort the seller, the son of the late owner, that this precious pen will have gone to a good home, though I can’t help wondering why a man bought a Parker Lady pen in the first place. A lost love who never received his gift? Perhaps one day I’ll write the story of what might have been.

So as the year turns, don’t forget to cherish the old as you ring in the new.

I wish you a peaceful and contented Christmas, treasuring and treasured by those that you love.