Posted in Personal life, Travel, Writing

A Penguin’s View of Tetbury

cover of February Tetbury Advertiser featuring penguin
My regular Young By Name column made the front cover in this issue (Click image to read whole issue online)

This post first appeared in the Tetbury Advertiser‘s February 2019 edition.

I make no secret of the fact that I hate February, with its dull, short days, and no redeeming feature besides brevity. At least January includes my birthday (the day I’m writing this). But by February, I am usually pining for blue skies, bright flowers, and green leaves, instead of grey, grey, grey, and I’m longing to flip the calendar to March.

But this year my attitude has changed after reading some books about early polar explorers, including Michael Palin’s Erebus: the Story of a Ship. These books have given me a new perspective not only on the frozen north and south but also on my home turf.

Armchair Travellers All

Although few of us have come close to the North or South Pole, these days we all feel we know what the Arctic and Antarctic landscapes looks like, thanks to television documentaries. Not so for the early explorers. Obviously there was no television, but even photography was in its very infancy. The daguerrotypes taken of officers before the Erebus set off in search of the North West passage were the very latest in 19th century technology. Only in the 20th century did we start to see photographic evidence such as the remarkable work of Frank Hurley, whose accompanied Shackleton and others. The only visual records of the Erebus’s journeys north and south are the crew’s drawings and paintings.

According to Michael Palin, one of the crew in the Erebus’s early 19th century polar voyages was startled at his first sight of icebergs, expecting them to be clear, like ice cubes in a glass of Scotch. They’d never seen Antarctic penguins, either, although they might have spotted variants native to South America, South Africa and Tasmania on their way south.

Picking Up On Penguins

But how much more remarkable would a penguin find the Cotswolds? There’s so much here that is completely absent from the Antarctic: trees, grass, and other terrestrial plants and flowers; stone walls dividing fields; rolling green hills instead of stark mountains; roads and automobiles; four-legged animals; and, for the most part, people.

Set a penguin down in the middle of Tetbury, or anywhere in the Cotswold countryside, and its mind would surely be blown by the extraordinary display of colour, texture, shapes and sizes, even in the middle of winter, compared to the whites, blues and greys down south. If you wanted to break your penguin in gently, you could show a bit of camaraderie by wearing a dinner suit, and find it a field carpeted with snowdrops.

So this year I have a new strategy to stop me succumbing to the February blues. Instead of bemoaning the grey winter days, I will try to view the local landscape through the eyes of a visiting Antarctic penguin. The transformation is remarkable, like the scene in The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy opens the door of her black-and-white house to reveal the glorious Technicolor Munchkinland.

Even so, I’ll still be craving the spring.


cover of Springtime for Murder
And in the spring, Sophie Sayers’ fancy lightly turn to thoughts of… murder!

If you’d like a bit of spring reading to cheer you up, Springtime for Murder, Sophie Sayers’ fifth village mystery, could just hit the spot. Available in paperback online and to order from all good bookshops, and also as an ebook for Kindle. For more information, and to read the first chapter on my website, please click here

Posted in Personal life, Writing

Snowdrops vs Daffodils

photo of roadsign to Hawkesbury with snowdrops

(This post first appeared in the February issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News)

photo of snowdrops on the grass verge beside the road
Snowdrops by the roadside between Hawkesbury Upton and Wotton under Edge

Weary of the continuing long dark nights, today I drove to Wotton in the daylight for the first time this year. Catching sight of the snowdrops lining the roadside banks cheered me up no end.

Visions of their natural successors in order of flowering – daffodils, wild garlic, bluebells – rushed through my imagination like a speeded-up nature film, fast forwarding me to spring.

Despite the plummeting temperature, I felt warmer than I had done for days.

Not for nothing do snowdrops symbolise hope in the traditional language of flowers.

I was reminded of the effect that daffodils had on Wordsworth, buoying him up long after he had got back to his cottage in the Lake District:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

William Wordsworth – from I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud

(click here to read the poem in full, courtesy of The Poetry Foundation)

I like to think that had Wordsworth chosen to settle in Hawkesbury rather than Grasmere, he might have serenaded snowdrops instead of daffodils.

Though he might have found it harder to find a word to rhyme with them.

Posted in Writing

‘Tis the Season to Do What, Now?

cover of Springtime for Murder
My latest novel – published in November, set at Easter (Available in paperback and ebook)

In this column for the December 2018 issue of the Hawkesbury Parish News, I get ahead of myself with the seasons

In the retail trade, buyers plan at least a season ahead. While we’re Christmas shopping, they’re planning their stock for the spring.

I share their sense of being out of step with nature’s calendar. Today, for example, the deadline of the Hawkesbury Parish News’s December issue, I launched my latest novel, Springtime for Murder. I wrote it in the summer months, edited it in the autumn, and it’s set at Easter. Now I’m about to start writing a novel that takes place in May. No wonder I have to stop to think what month it is in the real world.

It doesn’t help that I can’t rely on the weather to give me a natural steer on the seasons. With it often so unseasonably hot/cold/wet/dry, a glance out of the window can be misleading.

Image of first four books in the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries series
The first four books in the series run from midsummer to Valentine’s Day

Taking a break from my desk to go grocery shopping does nothing to put me straight. Why are supermarket shelves still full of fresh summer fruits in the winter? Every time I go to Waitrose lately, there are punnets of strawberries reduced for quick sale, because the shop has more than it can sell. Still, at least I’m full of Vitamin C to guard against winter colds.

Thank goodness for the man-made visual clues around the village. Impressively carved pumpkins dotted around the village heralded Halloween. Mid-November, the poppies on the Plain and in St Mary’s ensured we remember the date we should never forget. Now the Christmas lights will soon be upon us.

Even so, if you see me shivering in a summer dress in December, now you’ll know the reason why: I’ll have simply lost the plot.  Which really shouldn’t happen to an author.

I wish you all a merry Christmas and a happy New Year!

PS And if you fancy some seasonal reading that is just right for December…

Cover of Murder in the Manger
In the third Sophie Sayers Village Mystery, her school nativity play goes off-script from the opening line
cover of Stocking Fillers by Debbie Young
12 short stories that are the perfect antidote pre-Christmas stress
cover of Lighting Up Time
A sweet but spooky story the longest night of the year
Cover of The Owl and the Turkey
A fun short story inspired by mishearing a snippet of news on BBC Radio 4
Posted in Personal life, Writing

Spring Fever

It seems appropriate to share my post for the March issue of the Tetbury Advertiser on the first official day of spring – also my beloved parents’ 65th wedding anniversary. Such a romantic and positive day for them to have got married, I always think.

cover of the March issue of the Tetbury AdvertiserAdmiring the green shoots of daffodils popping up in my front garden, I’m struck by their similarity to post-hibernation grizzly bears. Both spend the winter tucked away, hidden and forgotten, in a kind of cocoon: bulb and cave, respectively. Seeing them emerge in spring is enough to warm the heart of any mortal, though round these parts you’re more likely to spot the former than the latter.

A friend advises me that narcissi contain a natural form of antifreeze. I bet hibernating bears would like some of that, but unfortunately it’s not in a form that’s accessible to them or to us. Otherwise I could have offered a bunch of daffodils to my husband for his car radiator when its burst hose deposited all his antifreeze on the M4 yesterday.

Fur Fury

Further signs of spring at Young Towers are the little tufts of white, orange and black fur scattered throughout the house. Unlike me, Dorothy, our calico cat, takes no heed of the maxim “Cast not a clout till May be out” (or, possibly may with a little m, as in the flower, depending on which version of the saying you prefer). Dorothy starts ditching her winter coat as soon as the days are noticeably longer. By mid-February, she’s kitten-skittish, despite her middle age.

blue sky over the rec
Big spring skies above the Hawkesbury Recreation Ground

I know the feeling. A single day of forget-me-not blue skies and bright sunshine is enough to infect me with spring fever even in stubbornly sub-zero temperatures. That is, until I stumble across an article identifying this notional affliction as a tangible, physical and serious illness. Common around March in pre-industrial times, “spring disease” was characterised by muscle weakness, wounds that wouldn’t heal, and loose teeth. It could even prove fatal.

C Fever

dorothy looking out of the window at the snow
“Ok, who’s hidden the spring flowers?”

Although the article is hardly ideal reading the night before a dental appointment, I brace myself to investigate. The disease turns out to be scurvy, caused by a winter diet low in fresh fruit and vegetables. By early spring, the only sources of Vitamin C were vegetables that didn’t rot during storage, such as leeks and cabbages, and, once we’d discovered them, potatoes. Given my impending trip to the dentist, I concoct a supper consisting entirely of all three vegetables, just to be on the safe side.

Confident that I can now enjoy my spring fever without losing my teeth, I step out next morning into a crisply cold but sunny day, ready to visit the dentist. But unlike Dorothy, I keep my winter coat on.


Cover of Murder by the Book
Coming this spring: the fourth Sophie Sayers Village Mystery

You’ll find a further taste of spring in the fourth novel in my Sophie Sayers Village Mystery series, Murder by the Book, to be launched at the FREE Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival on Saturday 21st April. The ebook is already available to pre-order at a special earlybird price of just 99p/99c here: viewbook.at/MurderByTheBook

 

 

Posted in Events, Writing

It’s Not Quite Over Yet… Festive Oxfordshire TV Readings Now Available on YouTube

A quick shout-out for  my festive TV appearance before the 12 Days of Christmas are over!

Photo of four authors on TV studio sofa
Festive readings on That’s Oxfordshire TV with Mari Howard, Thomas Shepherd, Lynne Pardoe and me.

In our household, we have a strict rule that the Christmas decorations don’t come down till 12th Night, which we reckon is tomorrow, 6th January. I know there are various theories on when Christmas starts and finishes, but that’s the one we stick to – even though I’m often itching to declutter well before then, and make the house feel a bit more springlike. (Yes, I know we’ve still got a long way to go before the first day of spring on 21st March, but I hate January and February, and like to pretend they don’t exist.)

That Jackanory Moment

However, this attitude is to my advantage today, because it means I can just about get away with sharing with you the videos of two pieces I read on a regional television station for Christmas, when, along with Mari Howard, Lynne Pardoe and Thomas Shepherd, three author friends from the Oxford Authors Alliance, I was a guest at Talk Oxfordshire. We each read short stories or passages from our books with a festive flavour, and they’ve just put the tapes up on YouTube where those outside of the station’s reach.

I did two readings – one non-fiction, one fiction – and you can view them both by clicking the images below.

In the first one, I’m recalling one of my favourite memories from my childhood Christmasses, which features in my essay collection Young by Name: Whimsical Columns from the Tetbury Advertiser 2010-2015.

In the second, I’m reading “Do You Believe?”, a lighthearted short story about a shrewd little boy’s visit to Father Christmas. This is one of the twelve short festive stories in my collection Stocking Fillers.

I’m planning to add more readings soon, so to hear them as they appear, you might also like to subscribe to my YouTube channel.

Finally, as I brace myself to clear away Christmas, I’d like to share a quick anecdote from my great-niece (3), who finding that the Christmas tree and decorations in her house had been taken down overnight while she slept, asked “Where’s Christmas gone?” When told it was over now that January was here, she said crossly “Go away, January!” I know how she feels.