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.

Posted in Personal life, Writing

Remembering Forget-me-nots in the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries

My contribution to the Authors Electric collective blog this month
Visit their website to find a different post by a different author,
every day of the month (I post on the 30th)

Photo of Debbie in a bluebell wood
I’m also very partial to bluebells (Photo: Angela Fitch Photography)

As a novelist, I like to think I make everything up. 

While the standard disclaimer appears on my copyright pages declaring each book a work of fiction, little details creep in from real life.

Snippets and snapshots are dredged up from the ragbag of my memory.

Sometimes this is for no apparent reason, such as the recycling bins that appeared in three separate stories in my flash fiction collection, Quick Change. I didn’t even notice the repetition until one of my beta readers asked why they kept cropping up. For fear of seeming obsessive, I replaced one bin with a bonfire, which made for a much better story.

Other times I manage to wrestle the reasons from my subconscious after I’ve finished writing the story, such as the forget-me-not motif that runs throughout my Sophie Sayers Village Mystery series.

In the first novel, Best Murder in Show, Hector, the local bookseller, remarks on the colour of Sophie’s eyes. She’s in fancy dress as Virginia Woolf on a book-themed carnival float, while he’s playing Homer, togged out in a toga.

“Your eyes are the wrong colour for Virginia Woolf,” he tells her. “Hers were grey. Yours are forget-me-not blue.”

As the series progresses, forget-me-nots become a symbol of all that Sophie stands for. (I won’t spoil the plot by explaining what that means.)

The Roots of My Fondness for Forget-me-nots

Only after weaving this motif into the story did I realise my affection for this humble little flower dates back much further. It originates in the unlikely setting of a suburban London garden most unlike Sophie’s home in the idyllic Cotswold village of Wendlebury Barrow.

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

You see, forget-me-nots flourished in my grandmother’s back garden, in my childhood home town of Sidcup. Visiting after school, I’d skip up her garden path, admiring the low clouds of tiny blue flowers edging the concrete path beneath her washing line. Often I’d pick a bunch to present to her on my arrival, complimenting her on how beautiful the garden was looking.

Compared to the carefully cultivated garden of my other grandmother – the one I picture when I write about Sophie’s Auntie May’s cottage garden – the forget-me-not grandmother’s garden was sparsely planted. The only reason those flowers appeared there in such profusion was that she often didn’t bother to plant much else. With no competition, they quickly took over the flowerbeds. My grandmother may even have regarded them as weeds.

To my childish eyes, with their sky-blue colour and fairytale name, they were as precious and exotic as the very best hothouse roses.

I’m very glad that Sophie likes them too.

A Growing Fancy for the Little Blue Flower

Since writing them into Sophie’s stories, I’ve started to acquire forget-me-nots all around my writing desk – fake ones, of course, so they last all year round. The latest addition is a vintage pottery candleholder decorated with forget-me-not transfers, a must-buy at the local Guides’ jumble sale. Seeing my little forget-me-knot collection every day spurs me on to write more and makes me happy.

What Next for Sophie Sayers?

save the date notice for Hawkesbury Upton Lit FestTheir manifestation in my current work-in-progress, Murder by the Book, came to me in a flash, and I’m very pleased with how it’s worked out. Set between New Year and Valentine’s Day, this fourth Sophie Sayers adventure will be launched at the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival on Saturday 21st April.

But I’ll have to wait till book five, Springtime for Murder, before I can allow the real flowers to blossom in Wendlebury Barrow. Oh no, hang on, I mean fictitious ones.

Roll on, spring, I’m ready for you, real or not.

FIND OUT MORE ABOUT THE SOPHIE SAYERS VILLAGE MYSTERIES HERE

Posted in Family, Personal life, Travel, Writing

Old-fashioned Cameras vs the Smartphone – or Why Less is More with Holiday Snaps

In my column for the July/August edition of the Tetbury Advertiser, I ponder the dilemma of taking too many summer holiday snaps in the age of the smartphone and am nostalgic about the rarity value of photographs taken with the old-fashioned cameras of my childhood

Laura and Grandpa on the beach writing in the sand
Possibly my favourite holiday snap of all time: Laura with my dad on the beach at Mousehole

Lights – Camera – Inaction

Passport – check. Tickets – check. Currency – check. Camera – er, no, actually. These days, I don’t even possess a camera, having transferred my photographic loyalties to my smartphone, for several reasons. Firstly, it means one thing less to carry. Secondly, it means one thing less to remember. (Always good news once you get to a certain age.) Thirdly, as if by magic, the photos from my smartphone are automatically uploaded to cloud storage, so I don’t even have to do anything to get them onto my computer.

The downside is that I now have a vast number of photos up there in the ether that I’ve completely lost track of. Even so, I still snap everything in sight when I’m on holiday, because it’s free and easy to do.

Scarcity Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

Photo of Instamatic camera gift set
(Photo by Carsten Corleis – Own Work. Photographed with a ‘Praktica Luxmedia 4008’ digital camera, CC BY-SA 3.0)

What a change from my childhood, when I had one of those new-fangled Instamatic cameras. Remember them? The film came in an easy-to-load drop-in cartridge, so you no longer had to feed it into a spool inside your camera in a darkened room. It was the most democratising development (if you’ll excuse the pun) since the introduction of the Box Brownie, making photography more accessible and affordable for the untechnical masses. If you needed a flash, you popped a little cube on the top of the camera containing four bulbs, burning your fingers when you removed it after use. Well, one must suffer for art.

 

Latter-Day Rationing

The only big decisions were whether to choose film for slides or for prints – slides were a big thing in those days, and I had a small battery-lit box on which to view them – and whether to opt for twelve pictures, twenty-four, or, if you were feeling flush, because processing costs were in proportion to the number of pictures, an extravagant thirty-six picture film. On a pocket-money budget, I’d eke out one film for a holiday, rationing myself to a picture or two a day. Occasionally I’d have spare pictures to take when I got home. Films came with use-by dates, after which they’d start to degrade, so sometimes there’d be a mad rush to take the last few shots before a film expired.

The Unavoidable Lens of Digital Cameras

To my daughter, such limitations seem laughably quaint, but I wouldn’t mind returning to that style of photography. These days, it’s too easy to end up viewing half your holiday through your smartphone screen, self-imposing tunnel vision, and missing out on the third dimension.

Pictures Are Better in Your Head

So this summer, while I’ll still be taking my smartphone on holiday to send texts instead of postcards (sob! how I mourn for that endangered species!), I’ll be making a conscious effort not to spend so much time snapping holiday shots. After all, just as the pictures on the radio are better than on TV, the memories stored in your head will always be superior to your holiday snaps.

Wherever you’re spending your summer holiday this year, I wish you a wonderful three-dimensional time.

SavedPicture-201383133138.jpg

If this post has whetted your appetite for more on the theme of summer holidays, you might enjoy:

Cover of Young by Name
Collected columns from my first six years of writing for the Tetbury Advertiser

If you’d like to read more of my monthly “Young By Name” columns for the Tetbury Advertiser, you can buy them in a single volume as an ebook (£2.99) or in paperback (£6.99) – dare I suggest these short, light-hearted whimsical pieces might make good holiday reading? 

Order Young by Name from your local bookshop quoting ISBN 978-1911223030 or buy from Amazon here

(IMHO, it’s worth buying in paperback to get the beautiful watercolour cover image provided by my talented father!)