This final post of 2022 was originally written for the December 2022/January 2023 edition of the Tetbury Advertiser, which was published in the run-up to Christmas
This month my to-do list includes a much-needed weeding of my groaning bookshelves, in the hope that Father Christmas, who knows me well after all these years, will bring me a pile of lovely new books.
Every room in my house contains bookshelves, except the utility room and the larder. (I’ve slipped up there.) Each shelf is jam-packed with rows of books, with more laid on top horizontally to fill all available airspace. It’s clearly time to declutter. But which books should I keep and which jettison? Continue reading “Off the Hook for Books”→
A glance at the many bookshelves in my crowded cottage reveals that I’m an avid buyer of secondhand books. Not because I’m too mean to pay full price for new, but because I collect vintage curiosities. Most cost me pence rather than pounds. Their appeal is their eccentricity, not their market value. The most unusual book I own is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Return of Sherlock Holmes printed entirely in Pitman’s Shorthand. I can’t read shorthand, but I like to think keen code-breaker Sherlock Holmes would love it as much as I do.
My most recent acquisition is My Flying Scrap Book by Major CC Turner, the first professional journalist to gain a pilot’s licence. Published during the Second World War, his book draws on his 36 years of flying experience. Yes, 36. First airborne just five years after the Wright Brothers, he flew planes resembling the Kitty Hawk. He also travelled in hot air balloons and airships.
One of the many things I love about Major Turner’s book is that it conforms to the stringent standards of the Book Production War Economy Standard (BPWES) indicated by a patriotic lion-topped logo. Agreed between the Ministry of Supply and the Publishers’ Association, the BPWES code called for publishers to reduce paper usage by 60%, specified a minimum number of words per page and eliminated unnecessary white space.
Despite thin, rough paper stock and light, plain covers, the books are very durable. My war-time editions of Dorothy L Sayers novels are almost as good as new, whereas my 1970s paperbacks are too frail to read.
The BPWES books are lightweight and slim, about a third as thick as modern paperbacks, and despite the small type, surprisingly easy on the eye.
Interestingly, the code did not constrain subject matter. While books considered essential to the war effort were allowed a more generous paper ration, all books were deemed worth publishing. I even have a BPWES book entitled A Book About Books, by Frederick Harrison, a fascinating jaunt through the history of books, reading and publishing.
Why don’t modern publishers emulate war-time practice to reduce paper use and shipping costs? As well as benefitting the environment, the slimmer format would enable booksellers to stock a wider range. Readers like me who are constantly running out of shelf-space would love them. The argument that plainer books would have less customer appeal does not convince me.
Even with their minimalist production standards, book sales grew during the war, because books provide comfort and escape from the horrors of the daily news – a sentiment we can still relate to today.
Books and reading will always help sustain people in adverse conditions, and if a society can keep producing books, and readers keep buying them, there is hope for us all. As Tove Jansson, writing her first Moomin book in war-torn Finland, has Moominmamma declare, “At last! Books! Now we’ll get by.”
My passion for secondhand and vintage books has spilled over into my fiction. In the fourth Sophie Sayers Village Mystery, Murder by the Book, Hector and Sophie snap up vintage books from a car boot sale in Clevedon, where they go to visit his parents, and one of these turns out to be a rare Gaelic volume which will be at the heart of the mystery in book 8, A Fling with Murder, which I’m about to start writing.
In Sophie’s most recent adventure, Murder Lost and Found, there is a sub-plot about Hector’s private collection of secondhand books, which Sophie is pressing him to turn into a commercial venture. When he employs a pretty young student to catalogue them for him, she begins to wonder whether this was such a good idea.
On World Book Day yesterday I was pleased to be invited to take part in a special online eventrun by CoProduce Care, a not-for-profit organisation connecting people, communities and organisations to influence the decisions affecting the care community.
I’ve been involved for many years with World Book Day both as a parent and when I worked for the children’s reading charity Read for Good. Knowing how a love of books and reading can transform the lives of people of all ages, I was really pleased that CoProduce Care wanted to extend the celebration to adults also, and in particular to the providers and clients of social care services.
CoProduce Care’s event, expertly hosted by Sophie Chester-Glyn, was livestreamed on World Book Day and is now available to watch at your leisure. Click the image below to watch on Youtube:
I’m introduced six minutes into the show, but it’s worth watching the whole thing to enjoy the talks and readings by historical novelist and historian Lucienne Boyce and YA author Luke Palmer, and the Q&A session with Sophie.
About My Talk
I was asked to speak for ten minutes – five minutes talking about books and my writing life, and five minutes reading from one of my stories, choosing a passage relevant to CoProduce Care’s activities.
I don’t usually use a script for talks, but as time was so tight and I wanted to make best use of it, I wrote my talk down beforehand, and today I’m sharing it below in case anyone would like to read it.
Thank you very much. I’m very pleased to be part of this event celebrating the joy of books and reading and writing.
I’ve always been an avid reader, and I enjoy escaping into a good book. When times are tough, books can be especially comforting and even healing. When I had pneumonia a few years ago, the gift of a box set of P G Wodehouse novels seemed a better tonic than any medication. During the pandemic, starting each day by quietly enjoying a chapter or two of a good book has been grounding and calming.
If you’re not sure reading is for you, maybe you just haven’t found the right book yet. To help you find books you’ll love, visit your local library and have a chat with a librarian – they love being asked for recommendations, and they’ll be very pleased to help you find books that you would enjoy.
Like reading, writing has been very therapeutic for me in times of trouble or distress. For many years I kept diaries, and for the last twelve years I’ve been a blogger. I also enjoy writing fiction and non-fiction for other people to read.
Like reading, writing can be an enjoyable hobby that costs you next to nothing. If you’ve never tried writing, give it a go. Writing for your eyes only is fine – no need to share it unless you want to. All you need is a notebook and pen. Just write whatever comes into your head for ten minutes or so first thing in the morning or last thing at night. If you keep at it for a few weeks, you’ll find yourself writing what matters to you, and understanding and working through your own feelings. You may uncover thoughts and feelings you didn’t even know you had, and you’ll feel better for it. You might even find yourself writing stories you’d like to share, as Lucienne, Luke and I are sharing ours today.
I’ve written nine novels and lots of shorter stories. I write what is known in the trade as cosy mystery. This means that despite a crime being the jumping-off point for the plot, the stories are never dark or graphic or bloodthirsty. Instead they provide gentle, upbeat entertainment that leaves you smiling – and they often make you laugh out loud along the way. My stories are all set in the Cotswolds. They have a strong sense of place and a cast of quirky characters, most of whom are lovable, and the villains are the kind you love to hate.
My inspiration comes from my home village in the Cotswolds. When I moved here 30 years ago, I was immediately impressed by how people here look out for each other and support each other in good times and bad times, and I write to celebrate that sense of community. My stories show that when people take time to get to know and understand each other, the world can be a more tolerant and generous place. The conflict in my stories – and also some of the comedy – often comes from initial misunderstandings that are eventually resolved. I hope they might inspire readers to be equally caring about their own neighbours.
About My Reading
For my reading, I chose an extract from The Natter of Knitters, my quick-read novelette, about a yarnbombing event that goes haywire, thanks to the intervention of Ariel, an odd newcomer to the village, who stages a one-woman protest under the slogan:
This is the first post in a new monthly series of blog posts inspired by Dame Joanna Lumley’s charming memoir, No Room for Secrets, in which she tours her London house giving a commentary on her possessions. I’m going to show you snapshots of the Victorian Cotswold cottage in which I write my books, with a commentary on what the objects in each picture mean to me.
My travels may not have taken me as far as Dame Joanna’s, and my friends and relations may not be as famous, but I hope you will enjoy these little insights.
So without more ado, here is the photograph I took this morning of where I like to read for a little while each morning after breakfast – a habit I got into during the first lockdown, when it provided a source of comfort amid so much uncertainty.
The armchair is in the modern extension that my husband built a few years ago. The old part of our cottage has thick, solid stone walls and small windows, which keep it snug in winter and cool in summer, but they also make it very dark. Previously, we could only see our cottage garden from the utility room and my upstairs study.
The new room was therefore designed to give us a panoramic view of the garden and a space filled with natural daylight. We also wanted a high ceiling, in contrast with the low ones elsewhere in the cottage. The stairs lead to a mezzanine floor, added above the old kitchen to make the most of the height.
During Covid restrictions, this light and spacious room, with its view of the great outdoors, really benefitted our mental health.
Now for a commentary on the details of the photo…
The armchair, facing the French doors, may seem unremarkable, being standard-issue IKEA, but I bought it because its mid-century design reminded me of the green sofa in the lounge of my childhood home in Sidcup, on the edge of London. I was very happy there.
The jade-green cushion with embroidered bumblebee, one of my favourite emblems as my name is Hebrew for “bee”, was a Christmas present from my old school friend Jane.
The woollen blanket I knitted during the first lockdown, when I discovered “lockdown blankets” were a thing, because they are a great source of comfort during the knitting as well as on completion. I chose shades of the Scottish Highlands in Rowan Felted Tweed pure wool, becaues for the previous 20 years we had spent many holidays in our camper van in Scotland, and I was missing it very much. It was a bonus that my blanket won first prize in the knitting category at Hawkesbury Village Show this year. (Last year’s village show was postponed due to restrictions.)
The rocking horse behind the chair was made by my father, hand-carved with love, when my daughter – his only granddaughter – was two years old. She’s now 18, but you’re never too old for a rocking horse made by your grandpa. It will forever be a family heirloom.
The little table came from a charity shop, and on it is an iBeani bookrest (the purple beanbag) recommended by my friend Carol Turnham, who belongs to my Cheltenham writers group. It’s really useful if your hands are affected by arthritis, as mine are.
The bottom book, Seven Spiritual Laws of Success by Deepak Chopra, was recommended by my writer friend, Michael McMahon.
The book above it, The Bullet Journal Method by Ryder Carroll was bought just after Christmas at TK Maxx – a shop I never usually visit, but my sister had recommended it, and sure enough, there waiting for me was a single copy of this book that I’d been meaning to read for a while. I snapped it up, along with half a dozen beautiful notebooks. (Well, a writer can never have too many notebooks.)
The dressmaker’s dummy was given to me by my Auntie Sheila, 91, and the Paisley shawls draped over it are from her daughter, my late cousin Frances. Frances loved wool and textiles, and elsewhere we have felt pictures and cloth that she had spun and woven. We think of her every day.
The fez is a souvenir of a hugely enjoyable Madness concert at nearby Westonbirt Arboretum.
On the end of the banister is a Sherlock Holmes deerstalker hat which I gave to my daughter a few Christmases ago for her Sherlockcollection.
The basket and parlour palm were acquired from a neighbour during lockdown, when lots of people in our village put unwanted items on their front walls for others to take home. Treasure-hunting like this was a fun diversion when we were living such restricted lives.
Out of sight, behind the dressmaker’s dummy, is a wooden goose, made by my husband as an accessory for my scarecrow of St Wulfstan, which I made for the Hawkesbury Scarecrow Trail two years ago. St Wulfstan was formerly the priest of our parish church of St Mary the Virgin, where I sing in the choir and ring the bells. Why the goose? Find out more here.
Less interestingly, there’s also a length of copper pipe, left over from some plumbing my husband was doing. I’ve no idea why it’s there or how long it’s been there, and I must find it a more appropriate home!
It was only in compiling this list of artefacts that I realised the reason I love sitting here so much. It’s not just the view of the garden or the comfy chair, but that I’m surrounded by associations with people and places that I love. Where better for comfort reading?
Seasonal Comfort Reads
Speaking of comfort reads, if you fancy a lighthearted and cheery story set at this time of year, Murder by the Book, a laugh-out-loud village mystery tale of love, friendship, loyalty and family ties.
It’s available in paperback and as an ebook for Kindle (also in Kindle Unlimited).
Stroud Book Festival describes itself as “a celebration of stories, ideas and community for readers of all ages”, and for six years has been bringing a flurry of events over four days to a variety of pleasant venues at this busy and diverse Cotswold market town.
Although by chance I was away on a writing retreat at the start of it, I caught up with the Festival on Sunday, chairing the Made in Stroud: Historical Novelists panel in the afternoon, and in the evening attending the Stroud Short Stories event of which this time I was co-judge alongside organiser John Holland.
Three Novelists Inspired by Mid-Century History
I was delighted to have been invited to interview three Stroud authors about their latest historical novels in the delightful setting of Lansdown Hall, laid out café-style with delicious cake generously provided by the local Waitrose. These novels are:
Beneath a Starless Sky by Tessa Harris
(German Jewish girl flees to Hollywood and becomes Fred Astaire’s dancing partner before being recruited by the British as a spy)
The Girl Behind the Wall by Mandy Robotham
(identical twins in their twenties are separated by the overnight appearance of the Berlin Wall)
The Schoolteacher of St Michel by Sarah Steele
(schoolteacher smuggles Jewish children across the border between Nazi-occupied Vichy France and free France).
(The authors are pictured in that order from left to right in the photo at the top of this column, and I’m in the hot seat on the far right.)
My brief was to ask chiefly about research. It was fascinating to hear where they’d found their jumping-off point for their novels, from newspaper articles (one of my favourite sources of story ideas) to chance conversations with residents of those areas.
I was also intrigued as to why they took different approaches to writing about real people – Tessa puts words into the mouths of Hitler, Eva Braun, Edward VIII, Wallis Simpson, and Fred Astaire, while in Mandy and Sarah’s books, key figures of the age are kept at a distance, for example we hear the Berlin crowd’s reaction to Kennedy’s iconic “Ich bin ein Berliner” address, but do not encounter him in person.
To write my books – contemporary village mysteries, set in worlds I know very well – I need to do very little research, and I am always in awe of historical novelists who must (a) carry out enough research to write convincingly about their chosen era and (b) how they manage to tear themselves away to write their books, rather than losing themselves down potential rabbit holes. Covid has introduced a new challenge: to find all you need online when travel restrictions preclude in-person visits to places key to the story. Each of the three authors had different favourite sources: Youtube for Mandy, Pinterest for Sarah and biographies for Tessa.
When so many fiction and non-fiction books have already been written about your era, I asked them, how did you manage to make your topic your own? What differentiates your books from others? Although their books are very different, they each had the same answer: by holding a microscope up to individuals involved.
Their protagonists Lili Sternberg (“the girl who danced with Fred Astaire”), Berliner twins Karin and Jutta, and French schoolteacher Lucie Laval are all strong, exceptional women with important lessons about survival and resilienceamidst enforced separation and deprivation that resonate strongly to readers living through the current pandemic, and I highly recommend all three novels.
Stroud Short Stories Go Wild
After that event I just had time for tea and cake in the Green Room before heading up the hill to The Cotswold Playhouse to greet the ten authors whose short stories had been chosen by co-judges John Holland and me to be read at this twice-yearly event. As all the stories are judged “blind”, ie the judges have no idea who wrote which story until they have chosen the final ten from among dozens submitted, it is always a joy to put the face and the name to the story. A full house in this delightful provincial theatre lapped up the ten very different stories, all on the given theme of “Wild”.
With John a slick, original and funny compere, the ten authors performed their stories to a rapt audience, from seasoned participants of previous SSSs, to those who had never before shared their work in public. They were, in the running order of the night:
Even though I had read and re-read each of the stories as part of the judging process, as is always the way, hearing them read aloud by their authors added to the experience, and I heard more nuances and subtleties and rhythm in the writing than before. All ten authors read brilliantly.
Until Next Time!
When John announced that the next Stroud Short Stories event will take place on 8th May 2022, I’m sure everyone present will have made a mental note for their next year’s diary. My only fear is that the stories were of such a high standard that some writers may be deterred from submitting. Please don’t be: Stroud Short Stories is renowned for showcasing brand-new writers as well as old hands, and with no entry fee, you have nothing to lose by giving it a go. Keep an eye on the SSS webiste, www.stroudshortstories.blogspot.com and follow its always entertaining Twitter feed @StroudStories so that you don’t miss out.
Huge congratulations to Artistic Director Caroline Sanderson and her tireless team for staging such an inspiring series of events and restoring a feeling of post-lockdown normality to the remarkable town of Stroud. I’m sure everyone who took part is looking forward to next year’s Stroud Book Festival already!
Coming Soon! (27th November)
Meanwhile I’m busy getting ready for my next public event – the first in a new HULF Talk series, a spin-off from my annual Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival, bringing together four local authors talking about travel and adventure, from filming whales for The Blue Planet to hunting for yetis in the Himalayas! Admission is by advance ticket only, to enable us to keep Covid-safe, and you can find out more and order your ticket via Eventbrite here.