Posted in Events, Reading, Writing

What I Did at Stroud Book Festival 2021

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.)

ad for panel event

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 resilience amidst 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:

Pauline Masurel with Fledglings 
Claire Jaggard with The Wild Woman 
Ali Bacon with The Pig and I
Jasmin Izagaren with Jumping Season
Melanie White with City Girl
Nick Adams with Demolition
Georgia Boon with Johnny Maunder Came to the Well
Hannah Glickstein with Wild Serenade
Rebecca Klassen with Clothed in Sacrifice
Robin Booth with Painted Ladies

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, 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.

image block with logo and event details

Posted in Family, Personal life, Travel

The Alternative Staycation: A Trip Down Memory Lane

In my Young By Name column for this month’s Tetbury Advertiser, I shared the heartwarming experience of taking my father to visit his boyhood haunts near Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire. His love of the Cotswolds from his experience as an evacuee during World War II is the reason I grew up wanting to live in the Cotswolds myself. I moved here over 30 years ago. 

Here’s one way you can stop foreign travel restrictions spoiling your summer holiday this year: take a trip back in time instead. You don’t even need a time machine, HG Wells style.

image of the original film poster of the 1960 movie, The Time Machine
Original movie poster by Reynold Brown – now in public domain, via Wikipedia.

Instead, take yourself to a place in this country that was important to you in your past. Such trips can spark treasured memories that lurk in the back of our locked-down brains, as well as providing the opportunity to create new ones.

A couple of weeks ago, I did exactly this, albeit by proxy. I took my 88-year-old father for a day trip to the Cotswold village of Todenham, near Moreton-in-Marsh.

Two days after his seventh birthday – and the outbreak of the Second World War – my father, his two sisters and their mother had been evacuated to Todenham from the London suburb of Sidcup, on the edge of Kent. They considered themselves fortunate to be able to lodge as a family with my grandmother’s stepfather and his second wife, rather than being separated and sent to strangers, as so many evacuees were.

This year (2021), on a glorious early summer’s day, together with my sister and my daughter, we toured territory that was still very familiar to my father.

The little village has not changed much in the last eighty years, at least on the outside.

photo of the lane by the side of the cottage where my father lived during the war
The lane beside his house had barely changed at all

We enjoyed listening to my father’s recollections of his time at the village school, watching the village blacksmith at work, hunting for souvenirs from an enemy plane that crash-landed in a nearby field, and enjoying cosy family evenings playing games, reading and drawing by lamplight around the kitchen table.

photo of the parish church in Todenham
View of the church from where my father’s stepgrandparents now lie at rest

When we knocked on the door of the cottage in which he had lived in those days, the current owner – whom, we were glad to see, was taking excellent care of the house and garden – was hospitable and sympathetic. Although relatively new to the village herself, she was able to share news of many people he remembered from his childhood. His friend Dorothy Duckett had become a primary school teacher, for example, and his younger sister’s friend Valerie Poole had moved away but later returned to retire to the village they all loved.

We strolled around the village, going to visit the village school (now the village hall) and the parish church which as a young evacuee he had attended every Sunday. Inside the church, an elderly lady, one of the churchwardens, was welcoming visitors.

photo inside church of my dad and the churchwarden chatting
Chatting to the churchwarden in the church he’d attended every Sunday as a boy

After a few moments of chatting to her, my father asked in sudden recognition, “Are you Valerie Poole?” Indeed she was, and together they shared memories that had lain dormant for over 80 years.

We returned from our day trip as refreshed, moved and inspired as from any foreign holiday.  So if you’re wondering where to go this summer, you could do worse than visit your old haunts, wherever your roots may be.

As L P Hartley said in the famous opening line of his novel The Go-Between, “The past is a foreign country”. Best of all, there’s no compulsory quarantine when you return.

Photo of my dad with his his little sister's friend from 80 years ago
My dad with Valerie Poole – eighty years since they were last at the church together

Footnote: We’re now planning a return visit including my father’s younger sister. 

Cover of Still Young By Name
The second volume includes 2016-2020
cover of Young by Name
The first volume covered 2010-2015.

My father’s love of the Cotswolds inspired the watercolour painting that I used for the covers of my collections of columns for the Tetbury Advertiser




Both collections are available to buy in paperback and ebook.

Order the paperbacks from Amazon via the links below or ask your local bookshop or library to order copies in for you (available from their usual stockists).

Young by Name (2010-2015) paperback

Still Young By Name (2016-2020) paperback 

Order the ebooks for the ereader of your choice here:

Young by Name ebook (2010-2015)

Still Young by Name ebook (2016-2020)

Read the whole of the July 2021 issue of the Tetbury Advertiser online here. 

Posted in Events, Personal life, Writing

Lest We Forget: Remembrance Day 2019

The Hawkesbury Upton village community prepares to mark Remembrance Day at the war memorial on The Plain

Halloween and Guy Fawkes Night may be lively and fun, but what means much more to me than either of these is the quieter, more dignified occasion of Remembrance Day just a few days later.

On the closest Sunday to Armistice Day (11th November), in our corner of the Cotswolds, we gather by the Village Hall to begin a group procession to the war memorial on the Plain ( our equivalent to a village green). There prayers are said, hymns are sung, and a rendition of the Last Post precedes our minute’s silence. It is a simple and moving ceremony that unites the community in honouring our war dead.

photo of Alice in Wonderland scarecrow wearing a knitted poppy
Once the frivolity of Halloween was over, my Alice in Wonderland scarecrow, on the Hawkesbury Upton Scarecrow Trail, donned a hand-knitted poppy as  her mark of respect

Festival of Remembrance

On the previous Friday, a special Festival of Remembrance is held in the parish church of St Mary sharing music, poetry and readings. The church is decorated by Linda Fairney with hundreds of knitted and crocheted poppies and lit withe dozens of candles. Transparent perspex figures representing lost local servicemen sit on the pews among the congregation.

A particularly moving component of the service is the commemoration of each man lost in the wars. This is delivered by churchwarden and chair of the Friends of St Mary’s, Air Marshall Sir Ian Macfadyen KCVO, CB, OBE, FRAeS , and Simon Bendry, Programme Director for the UCL Institute of Education’s First World War Centenary Battlefield Tours Programme, who was born and raised in the village.

Ian announces each man’s name, then Simon recounts a brief biography – where each man lived and worked in the village before the war, a summary of his war record, how he died, and how the news of his loss was conveyed to his wife or mother. As each name is announced, a child from the 1st Hawkesbury Guides lays a poppy on a cross on the altar steps to commemorate the life lost.

Many of the surnames on the war memorial are still present in the village, generations later. It is a sobering reminder that war affects us all, no matter how far from the front line.

Simon Bendry, who grew up in the village, has written a book about all those remembered on the war memorial – a very special local record for our community.

An Outpouring of Poppies

I am glad this year to see that so many communities are continuing the practice established for the WWI centenary of making elaborate public installations of knitted or crocheted (and therefore weatherproof) poppies. Some people were concerned that after the centenary year was over, the public might lose interest in the occasion, but there are no signs of that around here.

I’ve also seen impressive displays in unexpected places, such as this banner, its message spelled out in knitted poppies, in the atrium of Southmead Hospital in Bristol, where I went to an appointment on Wednesday.


banner on wall with "we will remember them" spelled out in knitted poppies
In the atrium of Southmead Hospital

My Own Small Tribute

When so much of the world seems in turmoil, and anxieties are high, to me it seems more important than ever to come together as a community to espouse common values. That’s why in my novel Murder in the Manger, in which the story begins on 6th November, I took pains to include a similar ceremony in my fictitious village of Wendlebury Barrow, this time held in the village school and involving all ages. (Simon Bendry kindly read it for me before publication to make sure it was appropriate.) In Chapter 14, entitled “We Can Be Heroes”, Carol, the village shopkeeper says “Just because we’re a little village doesn’t mean we can’t produce heroes.” That is my personal and lasting tribute to the heroic young men from so many villages like ours who gave their tomorrows for our todays. We will remember them.


Posted in Personal life, Writing

For Remembrance Day

Lest we forget
cover of Hawkesbury At War by Simon Bendry
A moving tribute by a fellow villager (click image for more information about this important book)

I’m lucky enough to live in a village with a profound sense of community, and never is it more strongly visible than on Remembrance Sunday.

On Remembrance Sunday, villagers come together to process down the High Street from the former Hawkesbury Hospital Hall (built to nurse injured soldiers in wartime) to the war memorial on the Plain (our village green) at the centre of our village. All local groups are involved, either in laying wreaths at the service or taking part in services in school or in church or in one of our two chapels.

I don’t remember this degree of commemoration when I was my daughter’s age, living in suburbia in the 1960s.

Perhaps the war was still too close for my parents’ and grandparent’s generation – they wanted to forget. Although it’s now so much longer since the end of the Second World War, I feel much more conscious of it now.

Cover of Murder in the Manger
This Christmas special includes commemorations on Remembrance Day

For this reason, and slightly to my surprise, I found myself writing it into the Christmas special of my latest cosy mystery novel, Murder in the Manger, whose timeline runs from 6th November to the week before Christmas.

My Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries are essentially comedies, but there’s always at least one serious, and, I hope, moving scene. One such scene that I found myself writing in Murder in the Manger takes place on Armistice Day (11th November) in the village school, in which villagers join the children in the village school. During a short service of commemoration, the children recite the names on the war memorial, many of whom, as in Hawkesbury Upton, are still represented in the village by their descendants (Chapter 13 We Will Remember Them). It also draws the reader up to consider who in their acquaintance would be called up to fight should there ever be another such war. (Chapter 14 We Can Be Heroes)

I know that is something I consider every year, as I stand quietly at our war memorial during the service there, observing the young men and women in the crowd who would be sent to fight, or who would not have long to wait for their call-up papers. My daughter, her friends, and her peers.

This small episode in my novel is my small tribute to those that sacrificed their lives in both World Wars and to their bereaved families and all those who loved them, not just in Hawkesbury Upton, but all around the world.

We shall remember them.

poppy field image in public domain