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 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

The Naming of Rooms

My column for the June edition of the Hawkesbury Parish News

Photo of my childhood home in the present day
The suburban semi where I grew up still holds a special place in my heart

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

 

Photo of a patriotic house, Union flags flying
My Cotswold cottage is definitely a one-off, and moving to this community inspired me to write my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries
Posted in Family, Travel

Putting the Up in Sidcup

(This post about revisiting Sidcup, where I was born and raised, was originally written for the February 2015 issue of the Tetbury Advertiser)

 

Cotswold landscape photo across green fields to SomersetM Monument
View from the village in which I live now

“Quaint”, “timeless”, “historic” – all of these epithets will drip from the lips of tourists as they return to the Cotswolds, their numbers growing as the days lengthen. They will inevitably marvel at the ancient architecture and landscape that we take for granted, and they will boost the local economy via our tourist attractions and shops. (That’s always my excuse for splashing out when I’m on holiday: “Just boosting the local economy, dear”.)

When I first visited the Cotswolds decades ago, I would have been one of those tourists. Now that I’ve lived here for nearly a quarter of a century, a refugee from London suburbia, I realise the area is not as static as it looks. Edge-of-town superstores have effected a sea-change, while high streets evolve less perceptibly but just as unstoppably. I can’t even remember now what preceded Tetbury’s Tardis-like Yellow-Lighted Bookshop (was it the bike shop?), which feels and looks, in the nicest possible way, as if it’s been there forever, and I’m glad that it’s there. The same goes for Hobbs House Bakery.

While some changes will always be more welcome than others, it’s natural to be sceptical and even fearful if too much changes too fast, even though change often brings fresh blood, new ideas and younger populations to keep cherished traditions and old institutions alive.

Photo of house in Burnt Oak Lane
The house in which I lived from ages 3-14

A recent trip to the land of my birth – Sidcup, Kent, on the edge of London’s urban sprawl – made me look afresh at the nature of change in residential areas. Many years ago, I was outraged to discover that half the garden of the house I grew up in had been sold to developers. A three-bed semi on a corner plot in a 1930s garden suburb, it had the generous proportions that came as standard in an era when housebuilding land was cheap and plentiful. When subsequent owners built a new house on that plot required the demolition of my old swing, my father’s garage and his beautiful rose bed, I was outraged.

Photo of 52 Corbylands Road
The house where I was born (when it had neither loft conversion, garage nor cars)
Photo of woodland with brook
The brook in which we played behind my Grandma’s house still looked the same

Revisiting just before Christmas with a more mature eye, I noticed that newcomers had addded style, substance and care to the whole neighbourhood – double glazing, extensions, new doors, smart signage. Even the humble bungalow where I was born had been extended upwards and outwards and had expensive cars on the drive. As a child, I travelled everywhere by bus. The area had leapt upmarket, yet the many parks and green spaces remained. I found myself thinking: “What a lovely place to bring up a child!”

 

Photo of 262 Old Farm Avenue
Where my maternal grandparents lived (the house with the blue car)

So I started the New Year feeling twice blessed for the double life I have led: half in the suburbs, half in the country, and grateful for the subtle changes that help both places to evolve and survive for future generations to enjoy.

Photo of 34 Oaklands Avenue
Where my paternal grandparents lived the house with the black front door – it still has the same 34 on the wall by the door as when they lived there)
Photo of Beaverwood School for Girls
My secondary school – once Chislehurst & Sidcup Grammar School for Girls, then Beaverwood School for Girls in my day (and still a Grammar), and now Chislehurst School for Girls
Photo of Days Lane School
My primary school – exactly how I remember it, without the new security gates (not in photo)

Do you ever revisit the place you grew up? Or do you prefer to keep your memories intact? I’d love to hear your story. 

 

Posted in Writing

Hawkesbury Upton, Centre of the World

English: Automobile Association Village sign T...
Surely all roads lead to Hawkesbury Upton?  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Have you ever been to Hawkesbury Upton before?” a small child asked a group of visiting teachers at Friday afternoon assembly.

The teachers, from six different countries, reluctantly admitted they hadn’t. A ripple of “aahs” went round the parents at the back.

The child must have been surprised, because to our village children, Hawkesbury is the centre of the world. Why wouldn’t these people from Turkey, Spain, Italy, Sweden, Holland and France have wanted to come here before? The British Council clearly considered our village special, because they’d made Hawkesbury Primary the lead school in the Comenius Project. (Well done, Mrs Lewis and team, for your hard work securing the €20K grant to make it happen!)

And hadn’t we seen a steady stream of tourists throughout the summer, on a pilgrimage all the way from Bristol to see “our” Gromit? It would seem reasonable to come from even further to see our lovely village, even without a giant blue dog in our midst as bait.

The prime meridian at Greenwich, England
The Greenwich Meridian (Photo: Wikipedia)

When I was at primary school, I felt my home town was the centre of the world. In one respect, technically I was almost right: Sidcup was very close to the Greenwich Meridian.

Not so here. But what better place could there be than Hawkesbury Upton, with its strong community values, endearing customs, indelible sense of identity, village pride, and streets that stay safe even after council cuts plunge them into pitch black around midnight.

If ever there’s an election for a capital of the world, Hawkesbury Upton will certainly get my vote.

(This post was written for the November 2013 issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News.)

Where do you consider to be the centre of the world, and why? I’d love to know – do leave a comment!