Posted in Family, Personal life, Writing

Keep Calm and Tidy Up

Cover of the April 2020 issues of the Tetbury Advertiser
Click the image to read this month’s issue in full online for free

My column for the April 2020 issue of the Tetbury Advertiser, written just as Covid-19 lockdown was beginning here in the UK. outlines my usual response to a crisis: tidying up.

In times of crisis, tidy up.

For years this mantra has helped me dispel anxiety. Sometimes I don’t even realise I’ve deployed it until my husband complains that I’ve rearranged the furniture yet again, expressing his fervent hope that this time I will feel I’ve finally got it right.

We will always have worries in our lives, due to personal, national and global issues. How dull life would be without cares. But any adverse situation in the wider world is easier to handle when your home turf is under control.

photo of packed bookshelves
Very proud of my newly tidy bookshelves – featuring my Alice in Wonderland collection and books about knitting and sewing. With apologies to Marie Kondo…

Not that I’m a disciple of Japanese decluttering guru Marie Kondo. No matter how sweetly charming she is in her books, on her tv show and in the media, I cannot buy into a philosophy that advocates each household should have no more than a dozen books.

Our smallest room alone would fill that quota, and I wouldn’t want to live in there. But having Marie-Kondo’d my usually packed diary to the point of blankness (with apologies for the postponement of my scheduled local talks and the Hawkesbury Upton Lit Fest), I’m planning to fill my windfall of  leisure time by rationalising my possessions.

Calm in a Crisis

By the time the Covid-19 all-clear sounds, my bookshelves, wardrobe, craft supplies, board-games cupboard and larder should all be in perfect order. I’ll have bagged up all surplus items ready to take to charity shops.

Once the weather warms up, my garden will be the most weed-free it is ever likely to be. The year I moved in to my cottage, an elderly neighbour whose own plot was immaculate leaned over our shared wall and surveyed my fine crop of dandelion clocks to offer a friendly, folksy warning:

“One year’s weeds, seven years’ seeds.”

photo of garden with ladders, tools etc
A work-in-progress: the taming of the garden

Given that my garden has never been weed-free since, I daren’t do the sums to work out how many weed seeds are stored up out there, but this spring will surely be my best chance of reclaiming the soil for things I do intend to grow.

Come to think of it, there’s never been a better time to strive for self-sufficiency. If only I had a packet of toilet roll seeds…

 

Shelves Aplenty

interior shot of tidy walk-in larder
The installation of an additional shelf by my DIY-mad husband inspired me to rationalise our walk-in larder

So, while at the time of writing, the media may be full of horror stories of supermarket shelves stripped bare, I predict that later this year, charity shops will have the opposite problem: such bulging stocks that shoppers can barely fit through the door to buy them.

In the meantime, should I tire of my husband’s complaints about the disruption within our four walls, I may find myself fantasising about despatching him to a charity shop with a label round his neck, Paddington-style:

“Please look after this Scotsman (one previous careful owner)”.

But there again he is very handy at putting up shelves. He’s busy installing a new one in the larder as I type. Perhaps that’s what’s missing in Marie Kondo’s life: she just needs a DIY-mad partner to accommodate all her stuff.

To read the Tetbury Advertiser in full online for free, click here.


cover of Young by Name
Earlier columns from the Tetbury Advertiser, available in paperback and ebook

If you enjoy reading my monthly columns in the Tetbury Advertiser, you might like to know that the first six years’ columns are compiled into a book that shares its title with my column in the magazine: Young By Name. Available in ebook and in paperback, it’s a lighthearted collection of short pieces that makes calming bedtime reading. Also a good buy for your smallest room! 

Click here to order as an ebook

Click here to order the paperback from Amazon

 

Posted in Family, Personal life, Writing

Out of the Mouths of Aunts

cover of March 2020 issue of the Tetbury Advertiser
To read the whole issue online, click the image

Every month I write a column for the award-winning Tetbury Advertiser, a not-for-profit community magazine. In this month’s issue, I shared one of my favourite sources of story ideas: eavesdropping.


As an inveterate eavesdropper, I shamelessly raid overheard conversations for fun phrases to put into the mouths of my fictional characters.

While I may not remember a meeting time from one day to the next (top tip: hold all meetings to coincide with elevenses), when it comes to other people’s one-liners, I have the carved-in-stone memory of a Ten Commandments tablet.

Impressive Pledge

Inspired by old memories

In my twenties, I worked alongside an ardent vegan, in the days when this now common lifestyle choice was rare. One day over coffee she announced that she could only ever marry another vegan. The chance of falling in love with a man who met this as well as all the usual criteria seemed to me about as likely as the miller’s daughter guessing Rumpelstiltskin’s name. Twenty years later, I used her declaration of intent as a starting point for “Housetraining Thomas”, my short story about finding partners in my collection Marry in Haste. (In case you’re wondering, my friend she eventually settled for a vegetarian and in true fairytale style they are living happily ever after.)

Legendary Lessons

A Westonbirt alumna’s quote borrowed with her permission

Working at Westonbirt School in the late 1998, I harvested a great line from former pupil Jane Reid. When compiling alumnae’s memories for the school’s seventieth birthday, I asked, “What’s the most useful thing you learned at school?” Without hesitation Jane replied, “At my prep school, how to steam open an envelope and at my senior school not to sign anything I hadn’t read.” With her permission, I lent her words of wisdom to Miss Harnett (aka Hairnet), the eccentric headmistress in my recent novel Secrets at St Bride’s.

Family Favourites

cover of The Natter of Knitters
Auntie Minnie helped!

I’m equally insouciant with members of my family. Like Bertie Wooster, I’m blessed with a fine collection of characterful aunts. When my father was reading my new novella, The Natter of Knitters, he instantly recognised a favourite saying of his Auntie Minnie’s, spoken in my story by a character worried about the well-being of a very slender neighbour: “Where does she keep her organs?” In a similar vein, my grandmother, spotting someone bending over would say “Have you seen my nice bottom?”

old family photo
Grandmothers and aged aunts – a great source of quotable quotes

I wonder whether I shall pass any memorable phrases of my own down the generations? At the moment, the main contender is “Steady, Teddy”, said to any small child who is getting out of hand (and occasionally my teenage daughter). And that, I confess, was copied from my favourite television programme as a toddler, Andy Pandy. Once a thief…


cover of Young by Name
Earlier columns from the Tetbury Advertiser, available in paperback and ebook

If you’d like to read more of my columns for the Tetbury Advertiser, you’ll find the first six years’ worth in this collection, available in paperback and ebook. I’ll compile another at the end of this year.

Click here to order as an ebook

Click here to order the paperback from Amazon, or ask your local bookshop to order it in using ISBN 978-1911223030.

Posted in Family, Personal life, Writing

Nought to 60 in No Time At All

Click the image to read the whole magazine online

For ten years now, I’ve been a regular contributor to the Tetbury Advertiser, a multiple-award-winning community magazine run by the Tetbury Lions. As well as providing a valuable community news service, it donates any profits from advertising to local good causes. I’m proud to be a part of it. 

The monthly deadline is around the middle of the month prior to the cover date, so I wrote my column for the February issue around the time of a very big birthday…

When the calendar flipped over to 2020, I was very pleased. I’ve always liked round numbers. 18 days later, another round number was due to enter my life: I was about to turn 60.

It was hard to understand where all that time has gone. But when I wondered why I was having trouble sourcing a new refill for a favourite pen, I realised I’d had the pen for 42 years.

For the Love of 60

headshot of Grandma in a beret
My beloved Grandma – always me + 60

Despite my natural aversion to growing old, I have always loved the number 60. Write it in Roman numerals (I’m currently learning Latin), and it looks like the suffix of a luxury car model:  LX.

At primary school, 60 was my favourite times table answer. My love affair with maths ended as soon as we got beyond arithmetic.

I also liked 60 because it was the age my beloved grandmother turned just after my entry into the world. Throughout my childhood she was therefore my age plus 60. To my childish imagination, this seemed a significant bond, almost like us being twins, despite her being a Victorian.

The Perks of Turning 60

Back to 2020, and as my big day approached, there were reminders everywhere I went. Signs enticed those over 60 to claim extra points at Boots, 25% off at the local optician, and a significant discount with a railcard.

A few days before my birthday, I found myself in a hospital’s charity bookshop. I’d been meaning to read more Graham Greene since enjoying his autobiography last year, so when I spotted his name on the spine of an ancient Penguin (the book brand, not the bird), I pulled it off the shelf without checking the title.

A Special Vintage

headshot of Debbie Young against Cheltenham Lit Fest logo
Reading at Cheltenham Literature Festival at the tender age of 56 and channelling Grandma’s love of hats

It turned out to be A Burnt-out Case, set in a leper colony in the Belgian Congo. (Whoever donated that novel to a hospital bookshop lacked tact.) Wondering when it was published, I consulted the copyright page. You’ve guessed it: 1960, same vintage as me. At secondary school, I wrote a history essay (possibly with that now empty pen) about the Belgian Congo gaining independence, but I couldn’t remember the year it took place. I looked it up on line. Who’d have thought it? 1960.

Finally, when I woke on the big day, I was relieved to realise that not only did I feel no older than the day before, but that my grandmother, if she were still alive, would next month turn 120 – exactly twice my new age. That pleased me immensely – and made me feel much younger. Then her daughter, my 89-year-old aunt, wrote in her birthday card to me that the sixties are the best time of your life. So, all in all, I’m sold on the idea of turning 60 now. So let the good times roll… and with discounts!

CLICK HERE TO READ THE WHOLE OF THE FEBRUARY ISSUE OF THE TETBURY ADVERTISER FOR FREE ONLINE


For the Love of Knitting

One of the many traits I inherited from Grandma was a love of knitting – the theme of my latest book, The Natter of Knitters.

It’s now available as a cute compact paperback the size of a picture postcard – the perfect size to slip in a birthday card for knitting addict friends! -, as well as in all ebook for

cover of The Natter of Knitters
The first in a fun new series of quick reads

mats.

It’s a quick read – a short novella, about 20% the length of one of my novels – and features Sophie Sayers and friends from Wendlebury Barrow, as well as introducing new ones, such as the officious Mrs Fortescue, organiser of the village yarnbombing event, and Ariel Fey, self-appointed defender of local sheep.

Posted in Family, Personal life, Writing

Golden Slumbers

In my column for the July-August issue of the award-winning Tetbury Advertiser, I arrived at some surprising conclusions about my erratic night-time sleeping habits.

“If 60 is the new 40” – my spirits lift as I read the start of this meme on Facebook, only to fall at its ending: – “then 9pm is the new midnight”.

Sensitive to the approach of a Big Birthday next year, I reluctantly agree. Once an ardent burner of midnight oil and two-ended candles, the older I get, the earlier my bedtime. Not so for the rest of my household: we operate on three different time zones.

Sleepers

My teenage daughter follows the classic morning-sloth-cum-party-animal schedule.

I could learn a lot about sleeping techniques from this koala, encountered at Edinburgh Zoo last month

My husband, long free of nine-to-five commitments, stays up so late and sleeps in so long you’d think he was working nights. One warm, dry night in May, I was surprised by the sound of a lawnmower starting up after nightfall. Yes, he was cutting the grass in the dark. A few nights later, at midnight he leapt up from his seat in the kitchen, rubbed his hands together enthusiastically, and announced, “Right, back to work in the garden”. Gardeners’ lore states that potatoes should be planted by the light of a full moon, but he’s not growing potatoes. Still, who needs daylight when you have a headtorch?

Longing for my bed by 9pm, I’m first up every morning, yet I’m often awake for an hour or two half way through. Does that make me insomniac?

Wakers

Apparently not. It turns out my two-stage sleep has historical precedence. According to Roger Ekirch, author of At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, this was how everyone slept until artificial lighting skewed our body clocks, encouraging us to pursue a single shift of seamless slumber. Not only did our forbears to go to bed at dusk and wake at dawn, they also got up in the middle of the night and were active for an hour or so. Many cultures and languages, including Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, refer to “first sleep” (dusk till around midnight) and “second sleep” (early hours till dawn) as if they are the norm. While to twenty-first century ears it sounds absurd for monks to celebrate Matins at 2am, to the average medieval it was a constructive use of standard waking hours.

What You Will

Those without holy orders could do what they liked between sleep stages. Activities that didn’t require illumination would be more practical – and no, not only what you’re thinking: 2am was also prime time for theft. Me, I favour a cup of tea and a biscuit, with a few chapters of a good book.

So now when I wake at 3am, I do so happily, knowing I’m simply following a classic habit enjoyed by our ancestors until relatively recently. Until I stumble across a YouTube interview with Roger Ekirch describing two-stage sleepers as “as not insomniac, but pre-industrial”. Doesn’t that make me one removed from antediluvian? Now I really do feel old.

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Posted in Personal life, Writing

What a To-Do!

My column for the June issue of the award-winning Tetbury Advertiser

cover of June issue of Tetbury Advertiser

As I delete the latest task management app from my phone, my quest for the perfect automated to-do list resumes, in parallel with my perpetual search for the ideal handbag.

When I downloaded this cutely-named app, it seemed full of promise. I imagined my days streamlined and efficient, my desk and my conscience clear by wine o’clock every day. However, I quickly went off it when it began to take over the decision-making process. It refused point-blank to allow me to change my mind about priorities or even to move incomplete tasks to the next day.

I really need an action-list app with a mañana setting, although the ever-patient editor of this esteemed magazine may disagree.

The last straw was the app’s highhandedly adding events to my calendar that were of no relevance to me. Bank Holidays I could accept, and I don’t mind a reminder of the Queen’s birthday, but the Battle of the Boyne? Really? All that did was make me feel inadequate that I couldn’t think of an appropriate to-do action to add to my list. “Wear orange,” suggested one waggish friend when I protested the fact on Twitter.

Which brings me to a different approach to productivity management: the What Not to Do list, for logging time-wasting things to avoid. If you know of any app designers out there, tell them I think there’s a gap in the market for this. I don’t mean only for recording evergreen items such as “Don’t spend too much time on Twitter (except to “like” @LionsTetbury’s wisecracks, obviously)”. I formulate new ideas for mine every day.

This morning, for example, I’d have added: “Don’t match up the pile of odd socks that your husband has discarded on the bedroom rug while searching his wardrobe for a pair – he is not a toddler. He can sort his own socks.” Although to be fair a toddler would handle this task very well, if at the stage of enjoying shape-sorter toys and memory games of pairs.”

I must add to my action list: “Recruit affable toddler.”

So it’s back to the drawing board for me – or at least to pen and paper. A handwritten list by my keyboard will have to suffice. Sometimes old technology really is the best option, just as old wives’ tales so often prove to be founded in fact. Old-fashioned does not mean obsolete. My favourite sage old saying? “The best way to get something done is to do it.”

As in writing my column for the Tetbury Advertiser.

(You see what I did there?)

Tick!


Like to Join My Mailing List?

To be among the first to know about my new booksspecial offerscoming events and free downloads, just type your email address into the box above and click the grey button. You’ll also receive a free download of a short novella, The Pride of Peacocks, a lighthearted quick read in the Sophie Sayers Village Mystery series, available exclusively to my subscribers. I promise I won’t share your email address with anyone else and you may unsubscribe at any time. Thank you!

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