Posted in Personal life, Writing

A Place for Everyone

What if the new government were to pledge to provide for every community in the land a sturdy and spacious building in which the public might seek comfort at times of crisis?

What if these buildings were on a grand scale, with ample seating for visitors and plenty of space to wander about in?

What if each one was uniquely beautiful, built from local materials to blend in with their setting, and decorated with paintings, carvings, and fresh flowers to please the eye and lift the spirits?

Continue reading “A Place for Everyone”

Posted in Events, Personal life, Reading, Writing

What’s in a Name?

The naming of the new bells in our parish church inspired my column for the July 2021 edition of the Hawkesbury Parish News

Photo of the bell named John
The bell John, decked out in flowers for the blessing ceremony

The closest I’ve been to a christening for many years is the blessing of St Mary’s new church bells last month, in which each one was given its official name.

Only afterwards did I realise the significant difference between the choice of names for bells and for babies:

  • Bells arrive fully formed and their purpose in life is clear.
  • With babies, it’s all still to play for: how the little bundle will turn out in adulthood is anyone’s guess, although their given name will likely reflect parental aspirations.

Thus, when naming bells, there is no need to consult any baby name books or The Times’ most popular names list for that year. Bells’ names are typically those of apostles and saints, indicating their devotion to the church. St Mary’s are thus Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, James, Mary, Arild and Wulfstan.

The Naming of Characters

As a novelist, I’m in a similar position with my characters: I choose names to suit their traits in adult life, rather than to reflect their parents’ ambitions at their birth.

I do however consult official lists of names popular at their date of birth to ensure I don’t end up with anachronisms. Deborah, for example, has not been in the top five since four years before I was born, and I long ago resigned myself to being my generation’s equivalent to a Gladys in my old age.

Masterful Namers

I’m in awe of masters of the art of naming fictional characters, such as Charles Dickens and P G Wodehouse, even though the cynic might find their choices larger than life.

  • Would Mr and Mrs Squiers, parents of the future cruel headmaster of Dotheboys Hall in Nicholas Nickleby really have had the foresight to name their son Wackford?
  • Might Bertie Wooster’s awkward chum Gussie, obsessed with newts, be likely to inherit the surname Fink-Nottle? To my mind, it doesn’t matter – it’s all part of the fun.
photo of two sleeping kittens curled up
We named our kittens Bertie and Bingo after the comical characters in PG Wodehouse’s novels

Nominative Determinism

Whether or not you believe in nominative determinism – the notion that your name anticipates your status in life (Nomen est omen, as the Ancient Romans neatly put it) – it’s hard not to rejoice when you find a real-life example:

Keith Weed, President of the Royal Horticultural Society, I wish you the best of luck.


To find out how the leading characters in my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries got their names, read these posts from my blog archive:

Who Is Sophie Sayers Anyway?

Why I Named the Leading Male Character in “Best Murder in Show” Hector Munro

 

Posted in Family, Personal life, Reading, Writing

The Call of the Bells

In this month’s Hawkesbury Parish News, as new bells arrive at our parish church, I’m reflecting on bell ringing and bell ringers in English churches and explaining why I’m taking up bell ringing. 

photo of Bill Shimmans
My great grandfather, Bill Shimmans, was an accomplished bell ringer

Ever since I learned that my great-grandfather, born in 1873, was an accomplished bell ringer, I’ve felt an affinity to church bells, but never had the chance to learn to ring them. Now that I’m training to ring the new bells of our parish church, I’ve been finding out some fascinating facts about bell ringing – or rather, sounding the depths of my ignorance.

I’d never realised that each church bell has to be tuned to a precise musical pitch. I hadn’t even classified bells as musical instruments. Now I know they are the loudest musical instrument of all.

Nor had I appreciated that in other countries bells are commonly hung and struck in a different way. I thought “carillon” was the name of a tune played by bells, as in Bruges’ Belfort. Now I’ve discovered it’s the name of the musical instrument used to play tunes on the bells. It’s strung a little like a piano, and each key activates a wire that strikes hammers against the outsides of the bells. A single operator sounds all the bells.

By contrast, in so-called English-style bell ringing, bells are mounted on a headstock allowing them to swing through 360 degrees. Each bell is operated by an individual person, and when the ringer pulls the rope, the clapper strikes the inside of the bell twice during each full rotation.

While it was still being constructed in Matthew Higby’s workshop, the framework from which the new bells will be hung (Photo by Sir Ian Macfadyen)

Not for English-style ringers the dainty tunes of the carillon. We make life more complicated for ourselves by defining complex and varying mathematical sequences. Each variation in the sequence is known as a change, hence the expression “ringing the changes”.

My family still has my great-grandfather’s certificates and press cuttings for completing eight- and twelve-bell peals of over 5,000 changes apiece in churches in Bedford, London, Middlesex and Kent. The peals bear unfathomable names that characterise English-style change-ringing, such as the Treble Bob Maximus, Stedman Cinques, and the New Cambridge Surprise Major. (I’d love to know what the surprise was!) Each complete peal took at least three hours, even if the ringers did it right first time. One certificate wryly notes completion on the fifth attempt.

some of Bill Shimmans' certificates for peals
Just a few of my great-grandpa’s records of his bell-ringing career

My great-grandfather died three years before I was born, and he passed on his musical genes to my grandpa, who served for many years as choirmaster in the church where my parents were married and where I was christened. It’ll be a long time before I can tackle a peal of the complexity mastered by my great-grandfather. On the dumb bell in Colin Dixon’s barn, I’m still learning how to control a bell and how to ring it consistently and evenly. But the first time I ring in St Mary’s, I’ll be thinking of my great-grandpa and grandpa, and ringing for them.

photo of the choir of the Holy Redeemer, Sidcup
My Grandpa, the choirmaster of the parish church of the Holy Redeemer, Sidcup- top right

Like to know more about St Mary’s and its new bells?

  • Find out more about the beautiful ancient parish church and idyllic setting of St Mary’s, Hawkesbury via our website: www.friendsofstmaryshawkesbury.com (I’m on the Friends of St Mary’s committee and manage this website.)
  • On YouTube, watch the historic service held to bless the bells before they are installed – it’s a service so rare that our vicar had never been involved in one before, and it’s likely that many parish priests are never called upon to do one.

Bell-ringing in fiction

photo of old paperback edition of The Nine TailorsI’m planning to write a story featuring bells at some point, but in the meantime, I’d like to recommend one of my favourite novels that centres around church bells, The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L Sayers – a hugely atmospheric traditional mystery in which a dead body is found in the bell tower of a village in Norfolk, and the iconic amateur sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey investigates. As you can tell from the battered state of the cover, I’ve read it many times. And yes, I named my heroine Sophie Sayers after my writing hero Dorothy L Sayers – and I have a cat called Dorothy!

In case you missed it…

My column for last month’s Hawkesbury Parish News, entitled “Trust Me, I’m a Bell Ringer“, includes a photo of me practising on the dumb bell with an anecdote of how my new hobby almost got me in trouble with the law.

 

Posted in Personal life, Self-publishing

It’s a Wrap!

My column for the October 2020 issue of this month’s Hawkesbury Parish News

When I as a child, one of my favourite features in the annuals we received each Christmas was the puzzle captioned “An everyday object viewed from an unusual angle”. The reader was invited to identify the object from a photo of a tiny detail greatly enlarged or from a long shot of an unfamiliar aspect.

The journey to choir practice last week provided a similar challenge. As I drove down the hill towards Hawkesbury, (the ancient hamlet that is home to our parish church of St Mary), I spotted peeking out from among the treetops a tall white box that I’d never seen before.

view of mysterious object

For a split second my brain processed it as either a newly-landed alien spaceship or a just-built block of flats put up since the recent relaxation of planning regulations. Then I realised it was just the tower of St Mary’s Church undergoing restoration. The last time I’d seen the tower, it had been covered in scaffolding (as per Colin Dixon’s photos on the front of last month’s Parish News). Now, like a skeleton covered in flesh, the scaffolding had been given  a smooth, pristine white coat of protective fabric.

the church in wraps revealed
Revealed!

Then I thought of Christo, the Bulgarian-born artist famous for wrapping buildings, monuments, bridges, and even landscapes in fabric or plastic. In Wrapped Reichstag, for example, he encased the German parliament building in aluminium fabric. Each of his installations was designed to be temporary. One of them, a 14km orange curtain across Ridge Gap, Colorado, blew down in a storm on its second day.

But the fleeting change in appearance of a well-known landmark can change people’s perceptions of it forever.

Christo died in May this year aged 84, and his website www.christojeanneclaude.net poignantly includes a list of “Projects Not Realised”, as well as cataloguing his completed achievements. In a posthumous celebration of the pioneering artist, L’Arc de Triomphe in Paris is due to be wrapped next autumn.

Seeing St Mary’s Hawkesbury in its new white robe, I wondered whether Christo would be pleased with our inadvertent tribute to his work – and as relieved as I am that unlike the ancient and timeless fabric of the church, the white wrapping should be whisked away just in time for Christmas, once the tower repairs are complete.

If you’d like to know more about St Mary’s Hawkesbury, and to see it in its usual unwrapped state, hop over to its website here: www.friendsofstmaryshawkesbury.com. (The eagle-eyed may spot that I’m on its committee and that I also run its website!)


In Other News This Week

cover of Breathe magazineI was pleased to be quoted in this month’s issue of Breathe magazine in Stephanie Lam’s feature on self-publishing. You’ll find the magazine on British newstands everywhere and you can also order single copies and subscriptions online.

I’m currently writing another magazine feature myself, the second in my commissioned series for Mslexia to celebrate successful independent authors. For the December issue, I’m interviewing award-winning children’s writers Kate Frost, Jemma Hatt and Karen Inglis.

Meanwhile I’m busy with speaking engagements. Yesterday I was on BBC Radio Gloucestershire’s Book Club spot (you can listen to it here for the next 28 days, from 2hrs 12mins into the show). Next Wednesday I’ll be guest speaker via Zoom at Uley Women’s Institute, and on Saturday 17th October I’ll be chairing a panel on “Routes to Publishing” at Bristol Literature Festival, held online – you can reserve a free place here if you hurry!

Meanwhile the ebook of Best Murder in Show, the first in my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries is currently free to download, and as I type this it’s #98 in the free Kindle charts in the UK, introducing thousands of new readers to the series. If you’ve not read it yet, download your free copy here. And if you  have read it and enjoyed it, feel free to send this link to any friends you think might also like it.

cover of the Clutch of Eggs
Coming soon! A fun quick read to brighten the dark autumn nights.

And now, back to work, putting the finishing touches to the second in my Tales from Wendlebury Barrow series. The Clutch of Eggs will be out by the end of the month. It’s a quick read for just 99p/99c, to tide you over while I write my next novel – the seventh Sophie Sayers mystery, Murder Lost and Found.

More news next week. Until then, happy reading!