After volunteering to help man the Swishing rail at a village event run by our local Women’s Institute (WI) later this month, it occurs to me that perhaps I ought to find out exactly what I am letting myself in for. I know that in this context swishing means swapping clothes, but I’m intrigued by the derivation of the term.
Bring Back the Magic Roundabout
When I was a child, national and international news featured very little in my world view. My parents took a daily newspaper, but I would have been too preoccupied with my comics to pay much attention to their paper.
Television news didn’t feature much in our family viewing, because it was only on at tea-time and bedtime. If I caught the headlines, it was by chance rather than on purpose, because I was still sitting in front of the telly after watching The Magic Roundabout, or whatever other children’s programme preceded the news in those precious five minutes beforehand.
The gentle humour and underlying moral message delivered by Dougal and friends provided a warm feeling to brace us for whatever bad news the evening bulletin might bring. It was the televisual equivalent of lining your stomach with a glass of milk before a night out imbibing strong drink.
The radio news was even less prominent in my life, and chiefly in the form of The World at One, its opening pips the signal that it was time for me to go back to school after having lunch at my maternal grandma’s.
I’m forever grateful to BBC Radio 4 for scheduling timeless classics such as Desert Island Discs and Just A Minute at 12.25pm each weekday, when Grandma and I would be sitting down to eat.
The theme music of Desert Island Discs still makes me think of cold lamb and bubble and squeak and Grandma’s delicious gooseberry tart with a slightly metallic flavour from being stored overnight in the tin she’d baked it in.
I think Desert Island Discs must have been broadcast on Mondays, when Grandma was serving up leftovers from her Sunday dinner.
That’s not to say that as a child I was completely ignorant of current affairs. I remember Grandma, born in 1900, impressing upon me the significance of Churchill’s funeral as a tribute to a great man and the end of an era. I would have just turned 5. I can even recall JFK’s assassination, more because of the unprecedented appearance in our kitchen of the sobbing next-door neighbour who ran in to break the news to us, rather than because I had any idea of the political significance. Well, I was only 3.
On our weekly visit to my paternal grandparents, my grandfather used to pass me his evening newspapers when he got home from work. Commuting from Sidcup to London, he’d buy both the Evening Standard and its rival the Evening News to read on the train home. I was only interested in the picture crosswords and the cartoons. The hard news passed me by.
How differently will the current generation of children remember national and world news when they’re my age? In our multimedia age, however their parents consume their news, newspaper, radio, TV or online, children seem to have no escape from gruelling and traumatising headlines. I just wish they’d bring back The Magic Roundabout to soften the blow, for adults and children alike.
This article first appeared in the Hawkesbury Parish News, April 2022.
POSTSCRIPT ABOUT HECTOR’S HOUSE
My love of those old pre-news children’s shows is the reason why the village bookshop in my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries is called Hector’s House.
I’d already decided the proprietor – and Sophie’s future romantic interest – would be called Hector Munro (more about that choice in another blog post here). As Sophie’s late Great Auntie May had been a benefactor to Hector when setting up his bookshop, and had a sense of fun, I decided she would insist that he call the shop by the name of her choice – which was Hector’s House.
Hector and Sophie are not old enough to have seen the tea-time children’s show featuring the amiable puppet dog – but I think Sophie at least would have appreciated his catchphrase and its variants that always closed the show: “I’m just a great big lovable old Hector.”
Find out more about the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries here.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Unfortunately, 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
Meanwhile 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.
The 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!
Writers, Stamina & Jane Davis
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.
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.
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
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:
I hope Mr Bowering would be proud of me.
The Naming of Rooms
My column for the June edition of the Hawkesbury Parish News
Having grown up in a suburban semi, identical to every odd-numbered house in the street (the even numbers were its mirror image), I’d always wanted to live in a house where you couldn’t guess the layout of the rooms from outside. Moving to my Hawkesbury cottage allowed me to achieve that goal.
Here, visitors regularly get lost trying to find their way out.
Our new extension has added a further surprise. Now that it’s nearing completion, we really must start calling it something other than “the extension”. For some unknown reason it’s labelled “the breakfast room” in the plans, although we don’t expect to eat breakfast there. I need to change the name before it becomes ingrained.
I missed that trick with our utility room. Now every time I refer to it, I picture Batman’s utility belt, instead of a laundry.
So I’m going to wait to see how we use our new room before deciding what to call it. I feel like one of those parents who refers to their new baby as “Baby” for a week after it’s born, while trying to decide which name would suit its looks.
I did the opposite with my daughter, naming her Laura some weeks before she was born. What a good thing she turned out to be a girl.
And in case you’re wondering why I named her Laura, and with such certainty, before we’d even met, this post from my archives will tell you:
Why I Named My Daughter Laura – for Lauras Everywhere