In my last column of the year for the Tetbury Advertiser, I reflect on the strange year that was 2020.
Irrationally fond of round numbers and irrepressibly optimistic, this time last year I was convinced that 2020 would be the antidote we needed to the rigours of 2019. Before 31st December 2019, given ‘2020’ in a word association test, I’d have automatically replied ‘vision’, alluding to the optician’s measure of perfection.
I was also excited at the prospect of a new decade. Could we look forward to our own ‘Roaring Twenties’ – the heady days of economic growth and prosperity that followed the Great War? (Preferably without an equivalent to the Great Crash of 1929.)
Back to the present day, and that neat and tidy number has morphed into a curse. It’s become the standard response on social media to anyone’s report of misfortune.
Car broken down? “Well, it is 2020.”
Washing machine flooded? “2020 strikes again.”
95-year-old film star dies peacefully in his sleep? “Aargh, 2020, what are you doing to us?”
Of course, it’s not 2020’s fault at all. It’s simply the power of association. But who would have foreseen this time last year that so much turmoil and tragedy could be wrought by a microscopic virus and a larger-than-life political leader? (More than one political leader, depending on your personal point of view.)
Neither of these news tsunamis would pass the credibility test I apply while writing fiction. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve said while watching the news this year, “If I put that in one of my novels, readers would complain it didn’t ring true.”
To be fair, I stopped trusting in 2020 early in the year, when I read this piece of anti-fraud advice:
“When signing documents in 2020, write the date in full, rather than abbreviating the year to ‘20’, or tricksters will be able to add any further two digits of their choice to suit their nefarious needs. A will dated simply ‘1/2/20’ could easily be changed to ‘1/2/2000’ or ‘1/2/2025’, thus pre- or post-dating a legitimate current document, with life-changing consequences for the beneficiaries.’
Now there’s a great starting point for one of my mystery novels. The only thing is, would it be a hit with my readers? I’m not sure I should take the risk this year. After all, it is 2020.
Roll on 2021 – and I wish you all a very happy new year!
IN OTHER NEWS
But hang, we’ve still got to get through Christmas 2020 first! If you’re finding the preparations particularly stressful this year, with the added challenges of catering for Covid, here’s a little treat that will lift your spirits and put you into a festive frame of mind…
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In my latest column for the Tetbury Advertiser, I was drawing on memories of a visit to Highgrove Gardens on a glorious summer’s day and sharing how it inspired me to start a new feature in my own garden.
My recent visit to Highgrove to admire HRH’s numerous quirky gardens-within-a-garden inspired me to start a new feature in my own plot. I christened it my Circle of Life Garden, as it’s designed to provide perspective and reassurance in a time when we are all a little more conscious than usual of our mortality. In lighter moments, I call it my Pull Yourself Together Patch or the Get a Grip Garden, but the principle remains the same.
My Circle of Life Garden
At the centre of the feature is a small buddha statue that a neighbour wanted shot of. Recycling or reincarnation? Either way, it seemed an appropriate starting point.
On each side of the buddha are ferns, chosen to represent prehistory. According to the Eden Project, ferns have been around for 350 million years. Predating dinosaurs, they were among the first land-dwelling plants to create the oxygen essential for the origins of man. What’s not to love about ferns?
Representing more recent history, between the buddha and the ferns I’ve laid out all the fragments of china and glass that my husband has unearthed while digging the garden. No, they’re not Roman relics, but refuse buried by the previous occupants of my Victorian cottage before the invention of the council dustcart.
Symbolising the present are wallflowers given to me by my father a couple of weeks ago and a cyclamen my sister brought me when she came to lunch last week.
Looking to the future, snowdrops and crocus bulbs planted beneath a bare patch of earth in front of the buddha are scheduled to emerge next spring.
All of these features are set against a backdrop of rotting logs, the remains of a plum tree that died of old age last year. As the logs decay, they are giving new life to bugs and beetles, which in turn feed small wild mammals and birds, and so the food chain goes on.
Thus in a compact space just a few feet wide, my Circle of Life Garden celebrates the past and the present and promises hope for the future. It’s certainly cheered me up.
There’s only one missing piece of the jigsaw: I’m still searching for a truly immortal plant. Japanese knotweed need not apply.
In Other News
In all of my novels, gardens feature prominently, whether in the village of Wendlebury Barrow, where Sophie Sayers nurtures the garden she’s inherited from her late great aunt, or at St Bride’s School nearby, where Gemma Lamb finds peace and solitude in the extensive school landscape.
I’ve just published a new story, The Clutch of Eggs, that starts off with an episode in Sophie’s garden, when her cat Blossom brings her in a wild bird’s egg, unleashing a comical chain of events that ends up putting Wendlebury Barrow on the map for all the wrong reasons.
A quick read (a third the length of one of my novels) in my Tales from Wendlebury Barrow series, features all the regular characters from the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, as well as some engaging new ones, including a handsome tourist, a trio of birdwatching brothers, and an affectionate dachshund named Bunty.
The Clutch of Eggs is now available as a a postcard-sized paperback (6″ x 4″) and in all the popular ebook formats. You’ll find the buying links for both below.
In the meantime, here’s the opening chapter to whet your appetite.
CHAPTER 1 – The Foundling Egg
“Look at this, Hector!”
I held out my hand to reveal what I’d carried so carefully all the way from my cottage to Hector’s House, the village bookshop.
Instead of giving me my usual morning hug before flipping the door sign to “open”, Hector (my boyfriend as well as my boss) stood back in awe of the object’s fragility.
“What’s that, your breakfast? It’s a bit on the small side. You’re not on a diet, are you?”
I stroked the pristine white shell with my fingertip.
“No, silly, it’s a bird’s egg. What sort of monster do you take me for? I don’t eat birds’ eggs for breakfast. Apart from hens’ eggs, I mean.”
I was glad I’d had toast that morning instead.
“That’s no hen’s egg. It’s far too small. Did you get it from the village shop? I’d heard Carol had started stocking quails’ eggs, but I thought they were speckled.”
“Yes, she has, and they are. She’s thrilled to have something to put on her Q shelf at last.” Carol organises her stock alphabetically to make things easier to find. “But I’ve no idea what sort of bird laid this egg.”
Hector slipped his hand into his pocket and pulled out the key to his flat above the bookshop.
“I’ll fetch the vintage Observer’s Book of Birds’ Eggs from my curiosities collection upstairs. That’ll help us identify it.”
He turned the door sign to “open” before dashing outside and disappearing round the corner of the shop.
“What if it’s not a vintage bird?” I called after him, but his footsteps were already pounding up the stairs to his flat.
I like to tease Hector about the funny old books that fill his spare bedroom. He’s never read most of them, he just likes the look and feel of them. I can’t understand why he doesn’t add a second-hand department to the shop. He’d have more than enough stock, and it would provide a useful source of extra income for the business. We’re always looking for new income streams. It’s not easy keeping a rural bookshop in profit.
The sun was shining brightly now, so, still cradling the egg with my spare hand, I propped the door open with our cast-iron doorstop, which is shaped like a pile of old books. The fresh spring air was full of the scent of new leaves, the shrubs and trees along the high street acid green with new growth. I lingered on the threshold for a deep breath before going back inside, where I gently set my egg on the trade counter to await Hector’s verdict. To make sure it wouldn’t roll away and fall on the floor, I surrounded it with a little wall of stationery.
As Hector’s footsteps thundered back down the stairs, I headed for the tearoom, which is my domain, and fired up the coffee machine. We always start our working day with a caffeine fix. The smell of fresh coffee helps lure our first customers in off the street, too – mums returning from the school run.
Hector strode back into the shop brandishing a small hardback with a plain tan cover. Taking his usual seat at the trade counter, he started to flick through its yellowing pages. He didn’t look up when I set down in front of him a tiny espresso cup branded with The Birds by Daphne du Maurier. My wit was wasted on him. To be fair, the book he was reading was engrossing. On almost every page there was a precise and beautiful watercolour illustration of a bird’s egg, each one different.
“Surprisingly few eggs seem to be plain white like yours. Or the same shape.”
I gazed at the egg nestling in its pen of pens.
“Surely it’s just egg-shaped? Hence the expression.”
He held the book up to show me.
“This one’s the right colour, but it’s longer and thinner than your egg, while this one is more rounded.” He paused at the swift’s page. “The swift’s is plain white, but it’s too long.”
“Isn’t it too early for a swift, anyway?”
“Yes, you’re right. They won’t arrive for another week or two yet.” He flicked through a few more pages. The lesser-spotted woodpecker lays small white eggs the right shape, but I doubt you’ve got a woodpecker in your garden. They’re a bit shy and more of a forest dweller. Besides, it says here they don’t start laying till May.” He looked up from the book. “You did find this egg in your garden, didn’t you?”
I beamed with pride.
“I didn’t. Blossom did. She brought it in to me this morning. Isn’t she clever?” Blossom is my kitten. Hector’s not keen on cats, but I thought this show of skill might raise her in his estimation. “Do you realise how gentle Blossom must have been to pick up something as fragile as an egg in her mouth without breaking it? To carry it all the way from wherever she found it to my kitchen? I think she meant it as a present for me.”
Hector moved the book closer to his eyes. The print was tiny. Encouraged by his silence, I continued.
“At first, I thought she’d squashed her ping-pong ball, but no. It’s as perfect an egg as you’ll find anywhere in nature.”
Hector harrumphed. “I just hope Blossom didn’t despatch the mother bird while she was at her nest.” He shot me a mournful look. “Although that would cut short the mother’s distress at losing her egg.”
A wave of vicarious guilt swept over me.
“There aren’t any nests in my garden,” I began, despite realising I hadn’t actually checked. Might nests be hidden among the fresh spring foliage? My dense evergreens would also provide perfect camouflage.
Our conversation was cut short by a hum of chatter approaching from the direction of the school, so Hector set down the book to continue his investigations later.
A chilly breeze struck up as the school run-mums arrived. Although reluctant to shut out the spring, I closed the door behind them.
It was only when I was starting to serve their coffee that I realised Hector hadn’t given me my morning hug.
Like to know what happens next? Here are the buying links again:
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In my Young by Name column for the October issue of the multiple-award-winning Tetbury Advertiser, I’ve been musing about superheroes and superpowers
Losing the plot early on while watching a Marvel movie with my teenage daughter, I fell to wondering which of its superheroes’ superpowers I would most like to have myself.
Thor’s exceptional physical strength, de rigueur for most superheroes, doesn’t appeal. While it might come in handy for removing a stubborn lid from a jam jar, it’s not something I’d have much use for in my everyday life. Besides, my handy gadget from Lakeland serves the same purpose just as well.
Nor is there much call in the Cotswolds for Captain America’s martial arts expertise, especially while social distancing rules apply. Turning green and increasing my bodyweight ten-fold, like the Hulk, is a non-starter. I’d need a whole new wardrobe. Jessica Jones’ immunity to mind control might come in handy in our era of social media manipulation, but I’d far rather have her ability to fly.
Being able to take off and soar like a bird would be an undeniably environmentally-friendly form of transport, even more so than my electric car. Just think how many calories it would burn. Plus it would be far more fun than going to the gym.
This makes me wonder why pheasants, designed by nature to fly, are so reluctant to take to the air whenever a car approaches them. There’s always a stand-off between bird and vehicle. Just when you’re starting to think your car is more likely to become airborne than they are, they tease you with a Gallic shrug of resignation and take flight with an “Oh, if I must” expression.
The pheasant’s first choice of tactic to escape from any threat is to run. This is not the smartest move in a single-track country lane with high banks and hedgerows on either side, allowing them only to run ahead of an approaching vehicle rather than to divert out of its path. Although I admire their optimism, their physiology dictates that they will never outrun my car. However, they are capable of flying at up to 60mph*. Surely it’s a no-brainer?
And there we reach the heart of the matter. If logic is not the pheasant’s long suit, we can blame the size of its brain: a mere 4g**. Although impressive compared to a goldfish’s 0.097g of little grey calls, the pheasant doesn’t fare much better than the hedgehog (3.35g), and we all know how ineffective the hedgehog’s preferred self-defence method is against cars. (In case you’re wondering, your own brain weighs around 1400g.)
All this makes me wonder which superpower pheasants would pick to enhance their chances of survival on the road. Given their track record on decision-making, my money is on invisibility.
** Source of brain size data: faculty.washington.edu.chudler/facts.html
In Other News
Despite a post-cold voice like gravel, I really enjoyed giving a talk via Zoom to a local WI (Women’s Institute) group earlier this week, talking about how living in a Cotswold village has inspired my novels.
Pictured left is the cover of a story that was actually inspired by another WI, from Chudleigh, down in Devon, about a yarnbombing event that goes wrong. The Natter of Knittersis a quick read (about 20% the length of one of my novels) and is available in ebook and a slim postcard-sized paperback – the perfect stocking-filler, for anyone who is already thinking about Christmas shopping! Part of my new Tales from Wendlebury Barrow series, it features all your favourite characters from the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries and introduces new ones too.
Like The Natter of Knitters, the second Sophie Sayers novel Trick or Murder? takes place during the autumn. This story sees a conflict in Wendlebury Barrow between Halloween and Guy Fawkes’ Night, fuelled by the strange new vicar, the Reverend Neep.
In the village where I live in real life, Hawkesbury Upton, we usually celebrate both of these occasions in style, but due to Covid restrictions, there’ll sadly be no trick or treating or bonfire parties this year. However, we’re now gearing up for both a Pumpkin Trail along the route of our HU5K fun run, an event I helped found eight years ago, and the annual Scarecrow Trail, for which this year I’ve rashly volunteered to make not one but two scarecrows, one to go outside my house and the other outside the parish church of St Mary’s. So you can guess what I’ll be doing this weekend…
The theme for this year’s Scarecrow Trail is “Heroes and Villains” – and I’ll show you photos of mine once the trails have started. It’s all top secret till then – but it’s a safe bet that neither of mine will be of Marvel Superheroes!
You can buy all my books online or order paperbacks from your local bookshop. Here are the online buying links for the books mentioned above:
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.
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.”
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…
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.
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!
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.
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.)
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.
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?”
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…
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.