Posted in Personal life, Writing

Dwelling in Marble Halls

My column for the November 2020 issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News (written part way through October), I’m reminiscing about a vivid memory of an unusual building that I admired as a child. 

One of the cheerier aspects of our strange times is the trend for displaying something interesting in our front windows and gardens. Rainbows, teddy bears and thank-you messages to essential workers lift our spirits and foster a sense of community.

photo of teddy bears on window seat

As this issue goes to press and the clocks go back, many of us are putting out pumpkins and scarecrows for two village trails set to brighten half term week, bringing pleasure to adults and children alike.

David Bowie scarecrow with poppy buttonhole
I kept my David Bowie scarecrow topical for a bit longer by adding a poppy buttonhole for Remembrance Day

Such expressions of public spirit remind me of the window displays I love to see on holiday in historic harbour villages. In cobbled streets running higgledy-piggledy down to the sea, the deep windowsills of old fishermen’s cottages are filled with shells, driftwood, glass fishing floats and other maritime treasures, arranged to face the street for the entertainment of tourists.

Marvellous Marbles

My favourite gesture of this kind dates back to my childhood. A few streets from where I was born stood a bungalow whose lower front wall was studded with glass marbles, the currency of the school playground. Not for this householder the boring grey pebbledash that adorned every other house on our interwar estate. To my childish eye, the substitution of marbles for pebbles seemed genius.

Why would anyone bother with dreary pebbles when they could have marbles instead?

It was not as if any children ever pinched the marbles, which were firmly embedded in cement. This bungalow wasn’t Sidcup’s answer to the Parthenon: these weren’t the Elgin Marbles. Besides, we were too much in awe of their beauty to even touch them, and every single marble stayed put.

I used to detour past this house every week on my way home from school to visit Mam, my maternal grandmother, yet I never once saw who lived in the marble house. I hoped he or she knew what joy their random act of fun had brought to local children.

I vowed that when I grew up, I’d decorate my house the same way.

photo of a single marble on my deskUnfortunately, Cotswold stone and pebbledash are not a good mix. I’ve therefore had to content myself with sharing my love of books instead of my love of marbles, via the Little Free Library on my own front wall. At least the books aren’t cemented into place, and passers-by are actively encouraged to extract a book to take home.

But on my writing desk there sits a marble, and it never fails to reignite my childish sense of wonder at simple pleasures.


IN OTHER NEWS

New Quick Read: The Clutch of Eggs

image of paperback edition of The Clutch of EggsMeanwhile I’ve just published a new story that I wrote in the summer, The Clutch of Eggs, the second in my Tales from Wendlebury Barrow Quick Reads series.

This series of stories is set in the village from my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, and which also appears briefly in my St Bride’s School novels.

The short novellas (about 25-35% of the length of one of my novels) feature Sophie Sayers, Hector Munro and friends, and each one regales a series of incidents revolving around a specific theme. There is an element of mystery, as with my novels, and some minor crimes and misdemeanours, but definitely no murders!

As you might guess from the title, The Clutch of Eggs involves wild birds, birdwatchers and oologists – the technical term I learned recently for anyone who studies or collects birds’ eggs. The mysterious appearance of two wild birds’ eggs starts a train of events that ends up putting the village on the map for all the wrong reasons.

Among the new characters joining the regular cast are a handsome oologist and a trio of birdwatching brothers.

Meanwhile an endearing sausage dog called Bunty inadvertently fuels Sophie and Hector’s ongoing argument about which is better: cats or dogs.

Can Sophie save the day and create order out of chaos? Not to mention keeping everyone on the right side of the law – collecting wild birds’ eggs has been illegal for decades.

This story was inspired by a wonderful exhibition that I saw last year at Bristol City Museum, called Natural Selection, staged by father-and-son team Peter Holden (ornithologist) and Andy Holden (artist). It piqued my interest in birds’ eggs and in the psychology of egg collecting, and during the summer I read a lot of fascinating books about birds, eggs and birdwatching.

You don’t need to know or care about birds or their eggs to enjoy this book – just to enjoy tales of village life with engaging characters, quirky events and gentle humour.

knitted bird with bookThe Clutch of Eggs is available as an ebook and as a compact paperback. The cute postcard format (6″ x 4″) that is a great size to slip in your pocket or handback for reading on the move, or to tuck inside a birthday or Christmas card as an easy-to-post present.

It should be available to order from your local bookshop soon, but if you have any problems sourcing it, just send me a message via my contact form here, and I’ll pop one in the post to you.

As always, if you read and enjoy The Clutch of Eggs or any of my books, I would be very grateful if you could spare a moment to leave a brief review on the site at which you bought it. Reviews help attract new readers to my books, and new readers are always welcome! 

 

Posted in Family, Personal life, Writing

Why Forget-Me-Nots Are a Recurrent Motif in my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries

A tribute to my maternal grandmother through the medium of forget-me-nots

arrangement of book cover, candle and vase
Forget-me-nots in my grandmother’s treasured old pressed glass vase

My maternal grandmother, whom we all called Mam, had simple tastes in flowers: the roses that edged the lawn of her suburban garden; sweet peas grown by my grandfather, Pop, in the vegetable patch at the end of the garden. But when as a teenager I bought her cut flowers, her preference was for freesias.

I suspect I first bought freesias because they were the only ones on the railway station stall that fell within my student budget, but she declared them her favourite.

With the hindsight of an adult, I suspect now she’d have said the same of any flower I gave her, but at the time I took her at her word and ever after I bought her freesias.

“Ah, my flowers!” she would smile, when I presented her with the latest bunch.

I appreciated them too, not just for their exotic fragrance, out of all proportion to the size of the flower, but because they were surprisingly robust, their slender stems having a wiry strength. They were also more dependable. Not for freesias the sulky post-purchase droop of hothouse roses.

Not Forgotting…

But there’s a second flower that I can’t see without thinking of Mam, and that’s the humble forget-me-not.

As any English gardener knows, forget-me-knots readily self-seed and spread. Left unchecked, they’ll carpet a flowerbed in no time. Some people even view them as weeds, defining weeds as any plant that grows where you don’t want it to.

But to my child’s eye, they were enchanting, their tiny flowers like little faces nestling among the furry foliage.

They were flowers fit for a fairy.

The Discreet Charm of the Forget-Me-Not

Forget-me-nots were even more charming than the bluebells that ran wild in the woods behind my primary school. In spring, every classroom windowsill boasted a jam jar full of bluebells, picked on our way to school as an offering for our teacher. No matter how many we picked, there always seemed plenty more.

But in Mam’s garden, the forget-me-not was colonist-in-chief.

As I walked up the back garden path on my weekly visit after primary school, I’d linger to admire them, picking a bunch to present to Mam when she came to greet me at the back door.

I was particularly pleased in the years when she let them run rampant, overflowing the flower bed that ran parallel to the concrete garden path. At the time, I wondered why she looked a little wry when I remarked upon a particularly fine crop.

Only later did I realise that the best crops occurred in the years when she couldn’t find it in herself to keep the garden in order: perhaps the year her beloved big sister Auntie Ev had died, or when my grandfather, Pop, had been very poorly with a stomach ulcer.

Even if these little blue flowers didn’t have their distinctive name, they would, like freesias, ever since have reminded me of Mam.

From Fact into Fiction

And that is why, decades later, writing my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, when seeking a flower to be a motif in her stories, the choice of the forget-me-not was obvious.

In the first book in the series, Best Murder in Show (published three years ago today!), Sophie’s eyes are the colour of forget-me-nots. Without spoiling the plot, Hector Munro, who employs Sophie in his village bookshop and soon strikes up a romance with her, comes to appreciate them too. He pays a special tribute with a forget-me-not theme on Valentine’s Day, towards the end of the fourth book in the series, Murder by the Book. I think Mam would have approved.

forget-me-not vase photographed from above on lace tablecloth


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cover of Best Murder in Show
A fun story set in high summer in a classic English village

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Posted in Family, Personal life

Artistic Connections

cover of the November issue of Tetbury Advertiser
Click the image to read the whole issue for free online

In my column for the November issue of the Tetbury Advertiser, I’m talking about what can be found on the walls of my Victorian Cotswold cottage, thanks to the talents of my artistic relatives! 

My Cotswold cottage is full of the unexpected. Having been raised in a suburban semi with the same layout as every other house in the street, I’m pleased that my current home, although modest in size, is sufficiently rambling that visitors have been known to get lost.

I’m also glad to have pictures on the wall that can be found only in my house. This is because they are mostly originals by my paternal grandfather, father, aunt, cousin, brother, daughter and brother-in-law. Not that I come from a family of famous artists, just from a line of gifted and enthusiastic amateurs.

Changing Tastes

Not so in my previous homes. In my twenties, in my first flat in a modern London block, I displayed cheap prints of old masters, clichéd by over-exposure, such as Turner’s “The Fighting Temeraire”.

By the time I moved to a Victorian artisan’s two-up, two-down terrace, I favoured nineteenth-century sentimentality. Think G F Watts’ “Choosing”, in which a teenage Ellen Terry can’t decide between a handful of diminutive sweet-smelling violets held close to her heart and showy but odourless camellia bush. My daughter, the same age as the model, hates this picture with a passion, which makes me wonder how poor Ellen Terry felt about the set-up, painted by her future husband, thirty years her senior. The marriage was short lived.

Keeping It in the Family

photo of pastel drawing of lighthouse
Grandpa’s pastel drawing of a lighthouse

Now I have the family’s landscapes, seascapes, portraits, textiles and calligraphic compositions in almost every room. My latest acquisitions are from an old school sketchbook of my grandfather’s: a pastel drawing of a lighthouse and watercolours of a steam train and a hospital ship at sea. As my grandfather was born in 1905, he would have painted these during the First World War. In the same sketchbook are drawings of an airship and a tank – the latest technology of his day, exciting and glamorous to an Edwardian schoolboy.

photo of two framed painting in situ on the wall
Grandpa’s schoolboy watercolours, now proudly displayed in my front room

I already had Grandpa’s pencil sketch of Kentish oast houses, made towards the end of his life while in Farnborough Hospital. He was still drawing during the final illness that took him too soon at just sixty-six years old.

pen and ink drawing of Kentish rural scene
Grandpa’s painting of Kentish oasthousses

I regret that I lack his artistic genes scattered down the generations. My daughter certainly has them. Her drawing skills surpassed mine years ago.

Indelible Lines

But still we connect, my grandfather and I. In a light-hearted conversation with my eighty-seven-year-old father about decluttering in old age (my message: don’t bother, just enjoy what you have and leave the decluttering to your descendants), he said with a fond smile: “I remember Mum saying to me after Dad died, ‘But why did he need three fountain pens?’”

Silently I opened my handbag, withdrew my pencil case, unzipped it and spilled out onto the table three fountain pens. Artistic or not, I am my grandfather’s granddaughter.

photo of my pencil case with three fountain pens

 


cover of Young by Name
The cover illustration is a watercolour by my father

If you enjoyed this post, you might like to read more of my columns for the Tetbury Advertiser, which I’m compiling into books. The first volume, Young By Name (the name of my column in the magazine), covers the issues from 2010 through 2015. The second volume, taking us from 2016 through 2020, will be out at the end of 2020.

Order from AmazonOrder ebook from KoboOrder ebook from other online stores

Or order from your local bookshop quoting ISBN 978-1911223030.

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cover of The Pride of Peacocks
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Posted in Events, Personal life, Writing

Casting On for Autumn

My column from the October 2019 edition of the Tetbury Advertiser was all about knitting

To read the October issue in full, please click the photo

Winning first prize in the knitting category at a village show has ignited my winter addiction to knitting a little earlier than usual. It generally kicks in as the clocks go back, the evenings become long and dark, and any excuse will do to spend more time in my armchair by the fire.

Knitting gives me the feeling of doing something constructive while just sitting down and having a rest. The rhythmic, repetitive movements of the needles and yarn quickly send me into a pleasant meditative state, especially now I’ve swapped old-fashioned steel and plastic needles and artificial yarns for smooth bamboo and natural fibres warm and soft against my hands.

Every stitch feels like a caress.

Childhood Pattern

I learned to knit at the age of five, and under my mother’s coaching quickly learned to knit and read simultaneously. Before long, I rose to the dizzy heights of having my own named box in the backroom of Rema’s, our local wool shop. Here were stored the requisite number of balls for your current project, and you’d buy them one at a time as it progressed – effectively buying a sweater on the instalment plan.

In those days, everyone knitted because home-made jumpers were significantly cheaper than shop-bought ones. The downside was the slower speed of delivery. When I was ten, I grew faster than the jaunty orange, green and brown striped sweater on my needles. On completion, I had to keep pulling on the sleeves to make them reach my wrists.

Later, I knitted countless sweaters for boyfriends. At university I knitted the same Fair Isle pullover in different colourways for two different boys in quick succession. (I must have been keen.)

My prize-winning tea cosy, knitted for this year’s village show

Downsizing for Charity

These days I prefer to make small items for charities and have found enough outlets to keep my needles busy through the winter. The most innovative is a Canadian project to provide small knitted dolls instead of styrofoam chips in humanitarian medical aid boxes. Twiddlemuffs are another great idea: knitted hand muffs adorned with buttons, beads and other decorations to comfort people with dementia.

But for now I’m keeping it simple, making blanket squares to be taken to India at half term by pupils of Westonbirt School. (Frankenstein blankets, as my friend Charlotte calls them, for obvious reasons!) My teenage daughter is doing the same for Syrian refugees. It’s humbling to be able to help others while, with our pretty yarns and silky-smooth needles, we’re just indulging ourselves in a soothing hobby.

But my prize-winning knitted tea cosy, with its thirty-plus individually knitted flowers and leaves, all sewn on by hand, isn’t going anywhere. Well, they do say charity begins at home.


Coming Soon

This episode has inspired me to write a new Sophie Sayers novella centred around knitting – look out next year for my first collection of novellas featuring Sophie and friends, working title Tales from Wendlebury Barrow. In the meantime, if you’d like to read the first Sophie Sayers novella, The Pride of Peacocks, you can do so for free by joining my Readers’ Club mailing list via the form below.

Join My Mailing List & Receive a Free Ebook

To be among the first to know about my new booksspecial offerscoming events and free downloads, just type your email address into the box above and click the grey button. You’ll also receive a free download of a short novella, The Pride of Peacocks, a lighthearted quick read in the Sophie Sayers Village Mystery series, available exclusively to my subscribers. I promise I won’t share your email address with anyone else and you may unsubscribe at any time. Thank you!

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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To be among the first to know about my new booksspecial offerscoming events and free downloads, just type your email address into the box above and click the grey button. You’ll also receive a free download of a short novella, The Pride of Peacocks, a lighthearted quick read in the Sophie Sayers Village Mystery series, available exclusively to my subscribers. I promise I won’t share your email address with anyone else and you may unsubscribe at any time. Thank you!