Posted in Personal life, Reading, Writing

The Meaning of Kindness

In the run-up to World Kindness Day (13th November), I fell to wondering exactly what the word “kindness” means – not in behavioural terms, but regarding its etymology.

The dictionary reveals that the noun “kindness” is related to kin, as in family (kith and kin) or race (mankind). As an adjective, it originally meant “with the feeling of relatives for each other” – all very well provided your family members had a high regard for each other. Not until the fourteenth century did “kindness” begin to be used more in the modern sense: “courtesy or noble deeds”, with “noble” indicating selflessness rather than a posh pedigree.

Fast forward to the twenty-first century, and scientists can prove that when we are kind to others, our brains release feel-good hormones such as dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin, bringing us physical and mental health benefits.

My grandma used to tell me “Virtue is its own reward”, but so, it seems, is kindness. Thus being kind to others is also an act of self-care – and a great way to make yourself feel better that is entirely free of calories and alcohol units.

The Random Acts of Kindness Foundation, created in 1995, promotes the idea of spontaneous generous gestures to strangers, such as leaving money behind the till of a coffee shop for the next homeless customer or letting someone go in front of you in a supermarket queue. Many such acts are done anonymously.

The phrase “anonymous benefactor” always makes me think of Magwitch in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, although most nameless donors will have only anonymity in common with Pip’s ex-convict associate.

Plot spoiler alert: Magwitch is Pip’s anonymous benefactor in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. Illustration by J Clayton Clarke (Kyd), public domain.

 

When making online donations I always hesitate before clicking the “show my name on the website” box in case it looks like virtue-signalling. I also wonder whether offering this option is just smart psychology on the part of fundraising sites. Do donors who make their name visible feel obliged to give more money than those who hide their identity? I’d love to know.

Now here’s an easy way to commit an act of kindness that will not only lift your spirits but include a reward in, er, kind: order a copy of Everyday Kindness, a new anthology of 55 short stories on the theme of kindness, each by a different author, one of whom is me. The anthology, launched on World Kindness Day, is the brainchild of its editor, bestselling novelist and philanthropist L J Ross. All the authors have donated their stories for free, and all profits will go to Shelter, the charity for the homeless and those in poor housing. The hardback and ebook may be ordered online via this link: linktr.ee/EverydayKindness, or you can order your copy from your favourite bookshop.

There, I feel better for that!

Click the image to order your copy now

This post was originally published in the November issue of the Tetbury Advertiser

Posted in Personal life, Travel

How Blue Was My Hilltop

In my Young By Name column for this month’s Tetbury Advertiser, I wrote about a sight I’d like to spot more often in the Cotswolds – although they are beautiful enough as they are!

Driving along a lane in the high fields near Newark Park, I spot a mirage-like splash of blue big enough to fill a field. Or is it mauve? Rippling in the late afternoon breeze, the flowering crop is changing colour as readily as the two-tone tonic suits favoured by Mods in the 1960s. Oil poured on water morphs from black to rainbow hues because the floating film is just a molecule thick, but when I park alongside the field, these plants are chest high.

close-up view of flax

I’m used to seeing cars stopping on the roadside in early summer to photograph swathes of pillar-box red poppies among the crops. A few years ago, a field just off the A46 was as densely carpeted with poppies as the famous scene in The Wizard of Oz. An instant tourist attraction, it triggered a proliferation of social media selfies.

poppy field viewed from a distance, a brilliant red stripe in a green landscape
The arresting view of Hawkesbury’s poppy field caused may motorists to divert from the A46 for a closer look

The mauve flowers – or are they blue? – in this field by Newark Park have a far subtler beauty. It is of course a field of flax, the first I’ve seen for a long time, and an increasingly rare sight in the Cotswolds. How I wish I could substitute flax for the ubiquitous rapeseed, whose vivid flowers look all wrong in our gentle landscape. They also make me sneeze like one possessed, a yellow morning mist floating above their fields like mustard gas. While I don’t expect farmers to choose crops for their good looks, I do wish flax could be more profitable.

view of field from by drystone wall

Flax, aka linseed, is certainly a useful and versatile crop.  Chez Young, we add linseeds to our breakfast cereal and salads for their health benefits. Linseeds are rich in fibre, protein, Vitamin B, minerals and Omega 3 fatty acids.

I wish the latter didn’t sound so unappetising: “Mmm, fatty acids,” said Homer Simpson, never.

Research indicates that linseeds improve digestive health and lower blood pressure, bad cholesterol and cancer risk. If that’s not enough to win your heart, linseed oil goes into paints, varnishes, animal feeds and cricket bats.

The stalk, with fibres three times stronger than cotton, is the source of linen. The Ancient Egyptians considered linen a symbol of purity and allowed only priests and mummies to wear it. Much as I love linen clothes, that’s not a sacrifice I’d be prepared to make. Flax fibres are also used in the manufacture of cigarette papers (boo!) and teabags (hurrah!)

So why don’t we grow more flax on the rolling hills of the Cotswolds? When I google its preferred growing conditions, I discover it’s not just a matter of money. Flax thrives on alluvial soil, ie rich in sediment deposited by running water on a floodplain. With an average elevation of over 100m in the Cotswolds, I’m guessing alluvial soil is not our long suit.

As the sky begins to darken ahead of a thunderstorm, I realise I must make the most of this rare scene, so I capture it on my smartphone before returning to my car – and, like a tourist on my home turf, to social media.

poppies in a Hawkesbury field
More poppies, spotted on my way home from Newark Park

array of seven books in series
Follow the changing seasons of the Cotswolds year from one summer to the next in this seven-book series

SERIES OF GENTLE MYSTERY NOVELS INSPIRED BY THE SEASONS IN THE COTSWOLDS

Watching the changing seasons in the Cotswolds is one of the inspirations for my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries series, which follows the course of village life from one summer to the next through the eyes of newcomer Sophie Sayers.

Click here to find out more about this seven-book series.  

Order the first ebook in the series here. 

Order the paperbacks online here.

Or ask your favourite local bookshop to order from their usual stockist, quoting ISBN 978-1911223139.

All the books in the series are available in both paperback and ebook, and Best Murder in Show is also available as an audiobook (order direct from me via this link for a very special price), and production is about to start on the audiobook of Trick or Murder? 

Posted in Family, Personal life, Writing

Running to Stand Still

In my Young By Name column for the Tetbury Advertiser‘s June issue, I’m anticipating a return to almost-normal life – and being careful what I wish for. 

Inheriting my parents’ strong work ethic and optimism, I have developed a lifelong tendency to try to do more than is physically possible in the available time. Even so, people often remark that I’m prolific, usually in the same breath as asking me to do something for them on the old “ask a busy person” principle. (I really need to learn to say no.)

The upshot is that most of the time, like the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking Glass, I feel as if I’m running to stand still. “It takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place,” the Red Queen tells Alice. “If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that.”

I occasionally write a ‘done’ list to prove to myself that I have been more productive than I think, but who has time to do that every day?

drawing of Alice and the Red Queen running by John Tenniel
(Image by John Tenniel for Lewis Carroll’s “Alice Through the Looking Glass” in public domain)

Jumping Off the Treadmill

Cover image of Secrets at St Bride's
I loved the pattern of the year working in a boarding school, alternating between busy term-time and long holidays – the inspiration for my series of school stories!

When in 9-5 jobs I stepped off the treadmill for holidays, I was conscious that my work would come to a standstill while others beavered away in my absence. My favourite time to take a break was therefore during the Christmas/New Year break, when almost everyone else went on leave too.

When I worked on a year-round contract in a school office, I rejoiced every time term ended, because in the absence of teachers and pupils, much as I loved them, I felt I had time to catch up with myself.

Stopping the World

To help me stay on top of all my tasks, I used to wish I could put the rest of the world on hold, in the manner of Sleeping Beauty’s fairy godmother making the kingdom sleep for 100 years. My only proviso was that I wouldn’t age a century by the time I woke everyone up again. What a shock that would be for my poor husband!

Covid-19 has put paid to that fantasy for good.

photo of the authors parents
My parents on their 65th wedding anniversary, when we took them to Bourton-on-the-Water

As we emerge, blinking, from the quasi-hibernation of lockdown, I’m hoping this past year is the closest I will ever get to casting that magic spell. As I predicted in the April 2020 issue of the Tetbury Advertiser, for me lockdown resulted in tidier bookshelves, larder, wardrobe, etc, and I’m pleased about that. But going forward, my priorities have changed.

Top of my to-do list post-lockdown will be hugging my parents.

That’s one action I’m happy to keep adding every day. 

Posted in Personal life, Writing

The Comfort of Blankets

It’s good to welcome back the trusty Tetbury Advertiser for its first issue of 2021. Its February issue was cancelled due to lockdown, so as there is always a double issue for December/January, my March column was the first I’d written for them since November. Normal service has now been resumed – hurrah! 

The Tetbury Advertiser springs back into action

Although I don’t remember having a comfort blanket as a child, the older I get, the more I appreciate the concept. During this strange last year, when any source of comfort has been welcome, three kinds of blanket have caught my attention.

The Weighted Blanket

Ever since secondary school, I’ve enjoyed knitting and crocheting blankets. From the age of 11, we were bribed by house points into knitting six-inch squares. Our squares were made up into blankets, and sixth form volunteers took them to the local care home. We made so many blankets that we imagined the residents swamped under their weight.

Bertie’s blanket is scaled down to suit him, as is his little bed

But I need not have worried: these days, weighted blankets are all the rage. They incorporate tiny bits of ballast to achieve the same heft as a cat on your lap. (That’s my chosen measure, not the designers’ – it sounds more appealing than saying 5kg.)

Originally developed to calm people with autism or anxiety, weighted blankets are scientifically proven to reduce blood pressure and heart rate.

According to the promotional blurb of the one I’ve just bought, they also “stimulate deep-touch pressure to release feel-good endorphins typically obtained from a long embrace”.

In the no-hug zone of Covid lockdown, no wonder weighted blanket sales have surged. (We bought ours from kudd.ly.)

Bertie tests our new weighted blanket and is asleep within seconds

The Temperature Blanket

Dorothy finds brushed-cotton duvet covers equally satisfactory

Another recent discovery for me is the temperature blanket, created through the course of a calendar year.  At the start of January, you choose a time and place to record the daily temperature and a colour palette to reflect each thermometer reading. Knitting a couple of rows a day in the right colour for that day’s temperature provides a dramatic visual record of the seasons.

If where you live the climate barely changes all year – the Canaries or Costa Rica, perhaps – choose a smaller scale to avoid a monochrome result, eg a different colour for each degree rather than for every five.

Not a problem that will trouble the knitters of Tetbury.

A fleece blanket also goes down well with Bingo and Bertie

The Lockdown Blanket

The lockdown blanket (not to be confused with the blanket lockdown) is the cousin of the temperature blanket. Again, working a few rows each day provides an oasis of meditative calm, as well as a record of a specific timeframe. Make from oddments you have in the house or choose a colour scheme that will lift your spirits.

For my lockdown blanket, I channelled the Scottish Highlands. Every time I picked up my needles and yarn the colour of mountains and glens, I was transported hundreds of miles north without leaving the safety of my home.

Because sometimes there isn’t a cat around when you need one. This is my Scottish panda, bought at Edinburgh Zoo. Beneath my lockdown blanket, he’s wearing a kilt in the official panda tartan!

As we flip the calendar over to March, and with my first dose of vaccine in my arm, I’m looking forward to using a different kind of blanket altogether, once we’re all allowed out to play again: the picnic blanket. But in the meantime, I’m ordering another two weighted blankets to stop the family fighting over the first one.

So much for its powers of stress relief!

Click here to read the whole of the Tetbury Advertiser online for free.

Bertie is fond of symmetry

 


In Other News

Another cover image by my talented father
cover of Young by Name
The first volume covered 2010-2015.

In the absence of a February edition of the Tetbury Advertiser, I took time out to collate all my columns from the previous five years into book form. Still Young By Name is the sequel to the first volume, Young By Name, which was published five years ago (no surprises there!)

Reading through my archive of columns, it struck me what an extraordinary five years we’ve just lived through, including the rise and fall of President Donald Trump, what seemed like the interminable process of Brexit, and of course the arrival of Covid-19.

I was slightly spooked when I discovered I’d written the first column in this new collection as I was recovering from flu.

The cover of the new book features another slice from my father’s rural watercolour painting that I used on the first book in this series. I do love the composition and calm mood of this painting.

I did wonder fleetingly whether it was wise to have a picture of a cow’s bottom beside the title, but it made me smile, and If it makes others laugh too, that’s fine by me!

The launch date for the ebook is 21st March (my parents’ 68th wedding anniversary, which seemed a good omen), and the paperback should be out shortly too. In the meantime, if you’re in the UK and it’s a Kindle ebook you’re after, just click here to pre-order.  Other buying links to follow in my next post.

 

Posted in Personal life, Writing

Stranger than Fiction

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.

graphic of an eye
So much for 20-20 vision

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.)

photo of four flappers dancing
The shape of things to come – a new Roaring Twenties? (Image: public domain)

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!

firework of the numbers 2021


IN OTHER NEWS

cover of Stocking Fillers by Debbie Young
12 short stories that are the perfect antidote pre-Christmas stress

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…

My collection of warm, witty short stories set in the run-up to Christmas will make you laugh and count your blessings.

“A fabulous festive treat! I’m not normally a short stories reader but I adored this little book. So well written, such an interesting mix, and perfect bedtime reading. Put me right in the mood for Christmas. Loved it.” – Jackie Kabler

Just 99p for the ebook or £4.99 for the paperback (or local currency equivalent worldwide), it’ll make you fall in love with Christmas all over again.

 * * * Buy the ebook here * * * Order the paperback here * * *