A short story about Lockdown:

Here’s a short story I wrote recenty about lockdown. I know a lot of people are by themselves, in flats where they have no access to outdoor spaces. Thinking of what it must be like to be in that situation, I wrote a few lines.

The First Floor Flat

Outside is bleak.

Inside is quiet, except for the soft hum of the laptop. And the silence: silence has a hum all of its own.

I stare through the window again but I’m not sure what I’m hoping to see. There’s no activity below in the street. London is a ghost town. A zombie town. A lockdown town.

I go back to the computer; my next zoom appointment is in half an hour; it’s Carl. I have to talk to him about how he’s tried to find work over the last four weeks. I’m his work coach. It will be a short meeting.

I go over to the old armchair and stare at the mantelpiece. There’s a photo of me with Joanna and the girls from years ago, before the split. I pick it up and run a finger over their faces, over the layer of dust. I haven’t seen Hannah and Daisy since March.

I think about making a cup of tea. I’ll have one later. I sit in the armchair and the sagging cushions arrange themselves around me. I close my eyes, put a thumb and forefinger in the space between them and press hard. It offers no relief.

There’s a scratching sound, spiked claws against the upholstery of the armchair. It’s Bella. She’s revving up to ask for food again.

I bend over and rub the fur between her ears and the softness of it makes me breathe out. I think again that I shouldn’t have brought her home: a kitten confined in a first-floor flat isn’t really fair.

She springs up on my knee and nuzzles my hand, bumps against it with her wet nose, then she rolls over.

It’s the exposed belly that does it: utter trust. The legs lifted wide, the rounded hump, black and white, lightly furred. Her eyes are almost closed; there’s the edge of a fang, the hint of pinkness inside the mouth. I place a hand over her tummy and my palm fits perfectly. She doesn’t move; she is purring, waiting, sure that I will feed her. I press a finger beneath her soft chin and suddenly my face is wet. I swallow the sadness that constricts my throat, the realisation that I haven’t spoken to anyone today, that I haven’t held anyone in my arms for weeks. This small creature waves a leg, curls the tip of her tail: she seems to know.

I wipe my eyes on the sleeve of my jumper and pick her up, holding her against my cheek, then I place her on the threadbare carpet. She’s off, running between my feet, bumping against my ankles as we rush to the kitchen and I throw a few rattling biscuits into a cat bowl. She’s purring again, a little motorized sound of contentment. I decide I’ll make a cup of tea and go back to the computer. Carl will be on the screen soon to tell me how he tried unsuccessfully to get a job at Pret. I’ll need to sound optimistic.                                               

My top five living-life-and-loving-it feel-good films

My novels have often been described as uplifting or feel-good, and I like this epithet very much. While I enjoy a good gothic tale or a thriller as much as anyone else, the idea that my stories entertain and make people feel positive about life is a great compliment.

Recently, I was sent a message on social media from someone who was feeling low: now we’re back in lockdown, the blues had set in and she was searching for films to watch on during the evening to lift her spirit. I recommended something and then wondered what else she might watch.

So I set myself the small task of putting together my top five feel good films to cheer people up. This was much more difficult that I thought it might be: my favourite film in the world, Everything is Illuminated, is uplifting but it also contains scenes of such pathos that I felt the need to re-examine my definition. So, if I mean by ‘feel-good films’ that they will make a person whose mood is low feel more positive about life, then I have to ensure that there is nothing at all in the film that will detract from that fuzzy sensation of warmth, benevolence and uplifting joy.

Let’s be clear: one or two films from the list below wouldn’t necessarily make the list of my top favourite films. I do like a thought-provoking movie, a film that makes me laugh or ones which are cleverly contrived or well-performed, but I’ve made a point of omitting anything that might not be universally perceived to be uplifting, so it’s goodbye for the time being to Inglourious Basterds, Withnail and I and Parasite.

So here goes with my top five:

Number 5. Rocketman

I didn’t expect to like this film. I’m not a great fan of Elton John’s music; Bohemian Rhapsody was just out and achieving great reviews; the musical theatre style of the film seemed an odd choice and the opening scene where Elton attends counselling in full regalia before the film whooshes back to his early life seemed a too-predictable beginning. However, the film really works: I watched the whole thing with an open mind and I loved it. Taron Egerton’s performance takes it to another level and it is an inspiring and moving film.

 Number 4. Mary and Max

This is a brilliant Australian stop-motion adult animated comedy-drama film written and directed by Adam Elliot. It is a beautiful story of the pen-pal relationship between two very different people, Mary Dinkle, a lonely eight-year-old living in Melbourne and Max Horovitz, a Jewish man who has Asperger’s syndrome and lives in New York. Their correspondence becomes an emotional lifeline for both characters and reveals the details of their unhappy existences. Superbly performed by Toni Collette, Barry Humphries and Philip Seymour Hoffman

Number 3.  The Intouchables

 This film is a French comedy-drama with a powerful rapport between the two main characters. Philippe is a wealthy quadriplegic who employs Driss, a man who has no interest in the role whatsoever, to be his caregiver and driver. It’s an interesting ‘buddy’ film which is funny and poignant. It has been labelled a heart-warming film; it has also been called condescending, and I can understand both responses: it does rely on some racial, social and cultural stereotypes. But it is watchable and, in its purest form, it shows that friendship, love and respect can be found in many places. It’s definitely a feel-good film.

 Number 2. The Commitments

I adore Roddy Doyle’s novels and Alan Parker’s films. The story is set in working-class Dublin in the 1980s, where young music enthusiast Jimmy Rabbit assembles a soul band called the Commitments. Poignant, well-acted and thought-provoking, this film is funny and heartfelt with some belting tunes, brilliantly performed. It takes the viewer on a musical journey full of laughs and yet it remains authentic and thought-provoking.

Number One. The Birdcage

Robin Williams is, as we know, a superb performer who gave the world so much joy with many roles, from Jakob the Liar to Dead Poets’ Society. In The Birdcage, he plays Armand, a gay nightclub owner who pretends to be a straight cultural attaché when his son brings home his fiancée and her traditional parents. Armand lists the help of various people to change his apartment and act out the deception with truly hilarious and heartwarming effect. Highly recommended – it will make you laugh out loud and fall in love with the characters. That’s perhaps, a true definition of feel-good.

If The Old Girls’ Network was a film, who would play the roles…?

Perhaps every writer dreams of seeing her or his work produced on film.  After all, great stories make good theatre and good television, or good movies. I love to imagine who’d play the major roles in my novels if they were made into films. I’ve always been fascinated by the psychology of casting and, whenever I’ve directed plays in the past, I was told I was quite good at selecting the right person for the role, both physically and in terms of the ‘energy’ they communicate to an audience.

There are two ways of getting the casting ‘right’: one is to select the obvious choice that ticks all the boxes for most people – think Tom Hardy as James Bond – or, alternatively, we can go with instinct and pick an actor who may not be everyone’s obvious first choice for that role but there is something essentially quirky about them that will make it work – think Heath Ledger as The Joker, Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan or Robert Downey Junior as Chaplin. Instinct and essence are right up there and can often work better than predictability.

When I cast my novels as films, I’m dreaming beyond my wildest dreams, of course – should a TV director come knocking, it would be incredible to have access to a range of the most talented and famous actors, although I’ll gladly concede that there are thousands of brilliant actors out there who, although yet unheard of, are yet to make their name and if they are going to steal a scene, I’d love it to be a scene in one of my books.

Before I reveal my dream choice of cast for The Old Girls’ Network, I have to say that when I’m writing a book, I don’t start with famous actors’ faces or voices in my head. I don’t design a character in a story so that it can be played by a particular personality. Nor do I expect my chosen actors to match the character descriptions, age or background of the ones in my book: it’s the essence of the character I’m looking for, not the exact fit. You’ll see exactly what I mean.

The setting of the book is a Somerset village, and I’d need to create a community dynamic between all the villagers, both in terms of tensions and compatibility. So, let’s start with Barbara – she’s in her late seventies, starchy and difficult at first, but also vulnerable; she’s been hurt in the past and she steels herself against further complications in life by being austere. So, to play Barbara I’d go for the staccato voice, the vulnerable facial expressions and the strong character of Emma Thompson who, although she’s much younger than Barbara, is such a talented actor that she’d interpret perfectly the nuances between crotchety and kind; she’d have the subtext of each moment perfectly played out.

Pauline is a softer character but she’s no pushover; she is strong, independent and yet capable of loyalty and warmth. I’d choose Celia Imrie, whose comic background, poise and CV are impressive. Again, despite being ten years younger than Pauline, Celia would be the perfect actor to interpret her strength of character and her resilience while also showing her softer side.

Bisto is easy to cast and I have to say, I had several contenders for this role and changed my mind a few times. Small of frame, mischievous, intelligent but deeply wounded by his past, Bisto would be played by Colm Meaney who would demonstrate vulnerability, warmth and an ability to appeal to an audience through comedy and pathos. He’d be a heartbreaker.

To play Len Chatfield, the love-struck Romeo farmer who is often rendered speechless and awkward, I would select Bill Nighy. He’s a great comic actor and, although he often plays more verbose characters, I think he has exactly the right measure of pathos and warmth to make Len the audience’s darling. A Gabriel Oak character, Len is strong on the outside and gentle inside: Bill would be a perfect magnet for the audience’s sympathy.

Dizzy, the hairdresser whom Barbara says is named after a potato, would be played brilliantly by Amanda Lawrence, who is an ex-theatre student of mine and was in the film Suffragette several years ago. Check her out. Sparky, funny and adorable, she’d be ideal as Dizzy. Hugo, the man from the manor, would be Rhys Ifans, yes, really – he’d do a great job in a smart suit. Kostas the Greek hunk who cleans windows would be Baris Arduç, a Turkish TV presenter who fits the bill in terms of the physical ability to embody the role.

Jamie Bell would play Len’s son Gary: again, he doesn’t exactly match the physical type from the novel but he can blend a broodiness with a sadness that will make Gary not entirely unlikeable. Chrissie the vicar would be played by Helena Bonham Carter, who would bring a briskness and a bit of glamour to the character. Imagine her wanging that welly!

There are several other characters I would cast and, in my dream world, I’d want to use relatively unknown but up-and-coming actors to take all the other roles. The following are ex-students of mine who work in the industry. James Elston would play Andy; Pierre Roxon would play Fabian; Demelza Randall would take the role of Tilly Hardy, the author of raunchy romance novels. I’d like to stay loyal to actors I’ve worked with whom I know are super-talented and industrious.

Then again, just imagine if Hollywood called me with a huge budget and asked for a completely new setting: what if the whole book had to change location and Winsley Green became somewhere in downtown New York? Then I suppose I’d be auditioning De Niro for Bisto, Samuel L for Len, Streep for Pauline and Streisand for Barbara. Now that’s a whole new and very different fantasy!

About the Arts…

I have worked in schools where Drama, Music, Art , Dance, Writing, Media and Performance thrived. I used to teach theatre. I taught students between the ages of 11 and 18 usually but sometimes I would be invited into primary schools to help smaller children fall in love with Shakespeare, and once in a while I would lead workshops at universities teaching undergraduates about Brecht or Buchner or Bent. Once I went to Guangzhou to teach Hamlet and I worked with a jali on a performance in the Gambia.. I taught GCSE, A level, PGCE students. I directed plays, I wrote scripts, and most importantly I interacted with musicians, film makers, dancers, actors, writers, designers, artists and photographers as a normal part of my daily life. It made me very happy.

Occasionally, I worked in an environment where the arts were considered ‘less’ in some ways. I detected a feeling in some people that studying theatre (and other Arts subjects) was less important than studying mathematics, language, science; that learning about performance and theatre somehow matters less. I am not one for buying into division. I incorporated writing, language and science into theatre. 

The arrival of Coronavirus hasn’t changed our love of the arts: it hasn’t changed the importance of arts subjects. They are still fundamental to learning, to growth, to developing who we are as people. What has changed is our opportunity to share them together. The biggest change is in public accessibility to the arts and in the loss of jobs of those working in the industry.

I’m not sure everyone appreciates how important the arts are, both to individuals and to our personal growth as people. That’s understandable: we can’t all understand everything.  

But it’s important now that those people who make decisions about the future of the arts don’t simply offer a token sum. While the emergency funding package from the government is very welcome, for the cultural and social survival of the arts, we need to consider the importance of accessibility to anyone and everyone, not just to the select few.

That means that we all should have the opportunity to be surrounded by the arts from birth, to be immersed in the arts in schools. Then, throughout life, having access to the arts becomes something we all have a right to, and creative enjoyment becomes something we can choose for ourselves and experience as part of everyday life. It will make us all happier people.

In praise of libraries everywhere…

Remember the moment in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, where she falls down the rabbit hole? Or the wardrobe door that opens to Narnia? Or Platform 9 ¾, leading to the Hogwarts’s Express? Or the Doors of Durin in Lord of the Rings? Literature is full of enchanted doors that take us to a secret place, a place full of mystery and magic, suspension of disbelief and wonder.

Now think of your local library, a simple door that opens and leads into a space loaded with books. There might be a staircase; shelves everywhere, all sections carefully labelled: mystery, crime, thrillers, romance, historical, classical.

It may be a huge library in a university or a city, a medium library in a school or a town or a small provincial library in a village, but each place is special. It holds the key to may secrets, many stories, many adventures.

In these days where our physical journeys may be limited, the wandering of our minds is still unrestricted. With a library card, we can set imagination free. A library has something – so many things – for everyone: stories in all sorts of genres, books we’ll hold and breathe in and love for ever and never forget.

A library is stacked with audio books, large print books, even my novels which are available in all formats: books that I hope are uplifting, funny, sometimes sad, sometimes philosophical, but always my stories insist that, whatever your years, life is there to be lived to the full.

So, why not call into your local library (I have several in Somerset) and push open the enchanted door?

I can promise you, there will be something magical behind it….

Guilt-free bramble crumble (and dutch apple cake)

I don’t like puddings but everyone else I know seems to love them. At this time of year, when it becomes a bit damp and cool, puddings are a go-to comfort food. There are a lot of apples around at the moment and blackberries are in abundance and free if you’re prepared to pick them from the hedgerows and fill your fingers with thorns in the process.

I’ve found a way to make an apple and blackberry crumble so that it’s nutritious and not full of bad fat.

Nice apples are important – something tart like a Bramley works well. Don’t bother with eating apples. Slice them thin in a large-ish dish, sprinkle with a small amount of brown sugar and then place the washed blackberries on top. I usually do two layers, apple, blackberry, with a bit of sugar on both.

For the topping, I mix some oats, a pinch of sugar, some blitzed walnuts and seeds (sunflower and pumplin, usually, and a tbsp ofcinnamon, in a bowl. I add a tbsp good oil and mix it all up, then spoon the crumble mix gently on top of the fruit.

Baked in the oven for 45-50 minutes in a medium oven, the crumble becomes golden brown, with the juices from the fruit bubbling away underneath.

You can serve it with whatever you like – I usually offer plant-based crème fraiche or yogurt or ice cream. (Or all of these…)

Of course, when I say that the crumble pudding is guilt-free, what I really mean is if you have walked miles to pick the berries before the meal and if you haven’t stuffed yourself with a massive roast dinner first and if you haven’t gorged two huge portions of the pudding piled with cream, then it’s probably quite healthy…

NB. Apples also go really well in a dutch apple cake. It’s easy to make a plant-based one with chunks of apples inside using most plant-based cake recipes, and I use the crumble oat and nut ingredients on top of the cake to make it crunchy and delicious. Again, it’s quite healthy as long as your single portion isn’t the whole cake…

As the year grows older, is autumn everyone’s favourite season?

The sharp scent of autumn has been on the air for several weeks now; it began before the first of September. My social media feed is inundated by glorious russet-coloured photos, pictures of damsons and apples, posts rejoicing in autumn, the cooler weather, the beauty of falling leaves, the abundance of berries and fruits. It seems that many people love the mellow richness of autumn months, the way the cooler weather heralds opportunities to have fun, such as Hallowe’en, Bonfire Night, Thanksgiving and eventually Christmas. (I’ve already heard the first Christmas song on the radio.) (Slade, of course!) I know people who live abroad in beautiful climates who long for the changeability of an English autumn.

I think that, to a limited extent, there’s a lot of love for the autumn months because, this year, everyone’s spring and summer have been heavily affected by the gloom that surrounds Covid-19; naturally, there is hope for some improvement in the latter half of the year. But also, there seems to be an optimism and joy that comes in September that I find fascinating: despite autumn bringing the end of holiday times and warmer weather, people enjoy the arrival of moderate temperatures and the opportunity to experience the changes in nature.

I used to have a theory that people are happiest in the season they were born. I love the heat; I could spend the entire summer on a beach; I can laze happily under the sun and, in truth, I don’t like being cold. I was born slap-bang in the middle of summer. I know a woman, born in October, who loathes the sunshine; another friend, born in spring, loves the soft rain, the pleasant weather and the sense of new beginnings that comes in April. Whether my theory had any sense behind it or not, many people seem to love autumn unless, of course, they’re worried about going back to school. There must be a lot of trepidation felt by students, teachers, parents at the thought of the new term – that’s for another blog post, however: I send them all my very best wishes.

Autumn has wonderful bright weather when it’s not raining; it’s ideal temperature-wise to go for brisk walks, twigs crunching underfoot, leaves whirling and tumbling. We can enjoy the taste of hot soup, hearty casseroles, log fires, hot chocolate drinks for months to come. The football season begins; we can binge-watch a whole series in front of the television; we can read for hours by the fireside; we can wear chunky warm clothes; we can bake; we start making plans for Christmas, for a new year, hopefully for future summer holidays. What’s not to like?

Each season brings its own special form of happiness; it’s important to enjoy spring for its freshness, summer for its warmth and relaxation, autumn for the gift of mellowness and winter for the pleasures of hibernation and comfort. It’s lovely being outdoors in all weathers; there’s something cleansing about rainfall, celebratory about sunshine and thrilling about intense cold, as long as we are healthy and safe.

When I’m writing, my desk is next to a window and I look out on trees, a field and the sky. I’m constantly reminded of the changing weather and evolving seasons, and I love the chance to use the power of the weather in my writing. In A Grand Old Time, Evie travels to France in her campervan during the summer months; naturally, the story ends as the first flake of snow falls. Nanny Basham’s adventure is in the late winter months, finishing at Easter. The Five Hens hit Paris in springtime. In The Old Girls’ Network, Barbara and Pauline meet Bisto in summer, where Winsley Green is at its most active and exciting. In Heading Over the Hill, Billy and Dawnie arrive at ‘Maggot’ Street in June, with plans to move into their dream house by Christmas. As seasons change, so do characters’ circumstances and lives, and their progress is often reflected by nature and external changes. All seasons are wonderful, as are all stages and ages: change is natural and we hope that change can be beneficial, rewarding and positive.

Most of my central characters are older people; I love the fact that they share optimism about the future and that, as the seasons change, they often change too. They may become more rounded people, happier, healthier; they may find new love or friendship or new learning; they may experience new places, fun, laughter, mischief and a few tears on the way.

My main hope is that the protagonists in my novels will be received as characters, wise characters, experienced characters, characters who’ve lived a long time, but not just  ‘old’ characters. I recently had a discussion with friends about age, asking them at what age do we ‘become old’? Answers included the following replies: ‘forty’, ‘sixty’, ‘seventy’, ‘eighty’, ‘a hundred,’ ‘when you feel old’, ‘when you get your pension’, ‘when you give up trying’. No-one was really sure. My own response is that I don’t really care about numbers: what I do care about is challenging the perception of less opportunity and worth that sometimes goes with ageing. When we reach a point in time where age isn’t seen as a reason to make negative judgements about people and the word ‘old’ isn’t seen as detrimental or an insult, we’ll have arrived at a place where it doesn’t matter what age people are; it only matters that they are healthy, safe, happy and loved.

Like the seasons, the stages of life change from fresh to warm to mellow to cool. We can enjoy being all ages as we enjoy all seasons and all weathers. Each time brings something wonderful, fulfilling and good; it just depends on how we embrace and accept it and how we support each other.

Happy autumn. May all your seasons be abundant, safe and joyful.

dried maple leaves

How can we change patterns of behaviour through practising self-nurture?

Much of what we think, feel and do, I suppose, is acquired or learned, nature or nurture, and goes a long way to make us who we are, to make us happy or sad, to define us in some small way. Along life’s paths, we acquire some good patterns of behaviour and some we’d be happier without.

The first step to changing behaviour patterns that are entrenched in our normal practice is to identify them: the second step is to want to change. I’m going to try doing this in a small way, as an experiment, to give it a go.

I’m going to start with something seemingly insignificant, which I think I can change. If it works, I can step up to bigger challenges and change huge things that have affected me since childhood.

So, starting small and identifying the problem, I have a habit of skipping lunch when I’m by myself. I might eat a rice cake or a handful of nuts. This doesn’t seem like a bad habit: I’m not consuming vast amounts of bad calories although it may mean that I fancy a slice of toast by four o’clock or that I justify a big meal at six.

But if I examine the underlying factors, the following points come to light: I miss lunch because I’m alone. I can’t be bothered to cook something just for myself. Probably, I don’t think I’m worth the trouble. If I had a guest or family or friends, I’d push the boat out. But if it’s just for me, nah, why would I bother?

Having three light nutritious meals a day is better than what I’m doing now. Breakfast is at half six, usually oats or wholemeal toast and beans or cereal. Then I eat in the evening: vegetables, protein, grains, fruit. For twelve hours in between, I graze on walnuts, a piece of toast, grapes. I will change this.

So, on day one, after scrambled tofu on toast at six, I decided that at one o’clock I’d cook something or at least make something that would be tasty, healthy, good for me, that I’d enjoy. In fact, I’d make myself something special. So, I made a lime-dressed salad of walnuts, pear, mixed leaves and vegan cheese followed by roasted courgette and garlic soup. And, in all honesty, it felt good.

I sat down properly at the table as opposed to munching a hand full of nuts at the laptop. I used a favourite bowl and presented the meal well and I ate slowly, enjoying every morsel. I know I have learned bad behaviour from childhood – wolf it down before someone else gets it, so I tried to savour every mouthful. It was great.

The result was that I felt a bit special, a bit looked after, cherished, important. And nourished too. I hadn’t eaten a lot – calorifcally, it wasn’t a hearty lunch and it was balanced protein, a bit of carbs, good fat. But I left the table satisfied, not just in terms of no longer feeling peckish, but my eyes and taste buds had enjoyed a feast too.

It’s not my general pattern of behaviour, to put myself first, to feel that I’m important. My mum served herself last at mealtimes with the left overs and it’s engrained in me to do the same. If I’m the least important member of a family, then why would I bother making lunch for just myself? And, of course, the knock-on effect of lowered self-esteem is to believe that I’m not worth cooking for.

But all that has changed. Or rather, it is changing: I’m currently working on it. Small things first, then bigger self-esteem things.

It has to be said, most people who know me wouldn’t think my self-esteem was low. I’ve even been called arrogant once, although I think that was a long time ago and probably unfairly, simply a euphemism for being a confident female who, in the view of someone with even lower self-esteem, needed taking down a peg. (That phrase was used too, as I remember…). But as women, as older women, as people, as human beings, don’t we all have occasional problems with self-esteem?

I do think self-image might become worse as we get older and, dare I say it, more invisible. Nowadays, I manage on photos and videos to look like the worst possible version of myself. It won’t ever get any better. I don’t edit or think about lighting, so the results tend to be very careless and random. I recently made a video of myself reading an excerpt from a novel, with lockdown hair and poor lighting. It was just ugh! While other people tell me the photos are ok, I think they are horrendous and assume the other person is being kind or not really looking. It’s about perception, yes, but it’s also about self-worth.

So, on day two, I made celery and onion soup. It was simple and tasty, and I added a seeded roll that I’d baked myself. On day three, I made a raw salad dressed with sesame and miso. Day four, I had a buddha bowl with nuts and quinoa. It seems to be working … I feel a little more valued by myself and, of course, if we value ourselves then others are more likely to….

I’m going to try to continue this and to find ways to extend the good practice of self-nurture. It’s having a positive effect on my mood: I’m feeling cared for. I’ve a long way to go before I start treating myself to  holidays and designer footwear. That’s not really me – I’m a two-hours-in-the-gym-a-day person then I loaf around in shorts or leggings and a tatty t-shirt – and post-Covid, who knows where or when we’ll be able to travel, so perhaps holidays are not likely to happen. To some extent, the uncertainty about the future is part of the current anxiety we all share. But, for me, living in the present is the answer and so that means treating myself well and with respect each day.

I still have changes to make but starting small is a good way to begin. Let’s see what happens at the next mealtime…it certainly won’t be toast and marmite.

 

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What I’m writing now…

Since the restrictions of lockdown, we dream of a time and a place before Covid where we could travel freely without risk of a virus. We have no idea, however, how things will change in future months and years, whether travel as we knew it will become normal again or whether it will be subject to changes. As a writer, I’ve always enjoyed giving my characters the opportunity to travel. Evie travelled through France; Nanny Basham visited Brighton; the Hens went to Paris; Barbara and Bisto visited Pauline in Somerset and Billy and Dawnie zoom around North Devon on the Harley.

I have to decide how far to allow the virus to intrude upon what I write, and that means to what extent my characters can travel. We all watch the future with interest. I’m setting the novel I’m writing now in the Highlands. Last year I visited Loch Ness for the first time and, enchanted by the magical atmosphere, the warmth of the welcome and the breathtaking scenery, I decided to set a novel there and I went back again – just for research purposes, of course.

Meanwhile, a few months ago, I wrote a novel in which the main two characters visit Spain: I booked a holiday there a while ago for April 2020 and, like many other people, I couldn’t go. I still wrote the story, though.

So, now I’m writing about the Highlands, and it’s another story of second chances for both characters, a woman in her late eighties who used to be a chorus girl in London in the 1950s, and a woman who is on holiday near Loch Ness, who is almost sixty, independent  and rootless. The characters’ lives intertwine and their ultimate destinies come from their interdependence.

I’m writing chapter sixteen already, thirty-eight thousand words in, and I’m enjoying the characters and their story. The time line is from August until January: the setting is so important as the Scottish backdrop changes dramatically during this time: the vibrant colours and the cooling temperatures are all intertwined with the action.

I don’t do spoilers but, interestingly, both characters’ journeys are parallel, in terms of love, loss and self-discovery. The fifty-nine-year-old character isn’t looking for what she finds: she’s happy enough as she is. The eighty-eight-year-old is lonely and lives her life in the past, immersed in memories, but the present brings both women surprises. Of course, events change both characters’ outlooks, expectations, and they both discover a new chance, although not necessarily with similar outcomes.

One thing I love about being over a third of the way through a novel is that it will still surprise me and it will still change as I write it. The novel I want to write will develop considerably from my current plans and it will be improved by the end – if not, I’d file it away and forget it. I have a structure, a plan, but it’s not set in stone. My ideas are changing already. I know how it will probably end for one character and for the other, there are several options.

In terms of the story’s timeline, we’re well into September as I write. There has already been sunshine, mist, a thunderstorm, rain. In October, there will be a balmy trip to the Isle of Skye. November will bring autumn leaves, deer frolicking in darkness. In December, there will be ice, snow-capped mountains. I’m looking forward to writing about Christmas and Hogmanay.

I expect to finish writing this story in October, although I’ll walk away at intervals and come back to the story afresh, to check if it works. Then, when it’s finished, I’ll leave it for a fortnight, then read it through again and decide what needs to be changed and developed. A week or two after that, I’ll give it a thorough edit, then another. I still won’t be finished with it as a story. Some things will be wriggling in the back of my mind: inconsistencies: the need to develop a scene or a character some more; an idea which can be improved or altered to make the whole thing more cohesive. I have to walk away and think, then come back.

I’m so glad I enjoy working this way, with ideas and a loose plan in place but also ready to fly by the seat of my pants and realise new ideas: I have several friends who are painters, poets and artists, and I’m often aware of how similar our working pattern is. We sketch stuff in, rub it out, improve it, stand back, make alterations, paint over, fuss over details, cross out and then fill in the spaces with colour. It’s great fun to see how something develops, but only when I’m confident that it works.

Of course, what makes it ‘work’ or not is based on a complicated journey and many ports of call. It takes time for a novel to change and develop before I’m happy; I ask reliable friends to read it as I progress and I request feedback. I have an agent and editors whom I trust, who will tell me honestly if something needs adjusting, from a character to a simple phrase. There’s a lot of work by a team of people before a novel reaches the reader. And when it does, of course, that is the ultimate test we writers all hope to pass.

Scotland Loch Ness

A message for everyone suffering from Lockdown Blues

This morning I heard on the news that stress, anxiety and depression in lockdown times was a real issue shared by so many people. And a few days ago, I noticed a message on my Facebook feed that asked friends for tips about how to cope with mood swings and depression. I was surprised to see that there had been 169 responses and I read each one as I was interested to find out what people recommended. In every case, the responder agreed that they felt low and depressed at the moment, and the advice was pretty much as you’d expect: be kind to yourself, try to meet up with friends if you can, get plenty of sleep and lots of exercise. One man wrote ‘I cope with depression by being cynical about everything. It works.’ Suddenly, I understood every cynic I’d met in my life a lot better.

The impact of lockdown on people’s lives has been quite devastating: things we took for granted, like meeting friends for a coffee or going to the gym, were not possible for a while. Isolation, one of the biggest problems when we are trying to be cheerful and positive, became commonplace. Many people couldn’t go to work and socialise, they couldn’t meet friends and families, they couldn’t have a social life. All the things that cheer us up, hugs, conversation, sharing, were suddenly a luxury or out of reach.

Uncertainty contributes to anxiety. When you’re not sure when you will be able to find work, embrace your relatives, meet your friends, go outside or buy toilet rolls, it is normal to feel fretful. We all know that wearing masks in public places and social distancing are important, but it feels unnatural to be around people who look like bandits and who move well out of the way when you pass them in the street. We’ve had to get used to a lot of change very quickly, with uncertainty about jobs, rules, safety, health and what will happen in the future. Already a second lockdown has been forecast: I can understand how the cynical person on Facebook survives by expecting the worst.

For me, however, it became important to notice the negative thought patterns that arrived with lockdown. Anxiety about friends, family and health were soon followed by negative thoughts about so many other things. Practical worries such as shortages of pasta or how the family will afford the next meal or if family and friends who are key workers will be safe soon metamorphose into a state where anxiety becomes the new normal way of being.

So, I’ve thought carefully about the way forward. The advice on the Facebook post holds good: eat well, be aware of basic safety measures, take regular exercise, all these are all very important. But perhaps there are other ways of keeping ourselves safe too.

In a way, we may now be grieving for the past, for times not so long ago when shopping was a chore and meeting friends was routine. Now these things are treats, opportunities, even fun. Once they were boring and normal. Now we long for the normality before everything changed and now, we embrace tasks we took for granted as being real pleasures. But that in itself can’t be bad…

First of all, I think it’s important to identify any negative thoughts, especially those that are frequent visitors that refuse to shift. That voice in our head that whispers that we are not good enough should be listened to only in order to identify that it is there and then we can try to find ways to neutralise it. When does it happen and how can we change the pattern? Thoughts that tell us that we are responsible for mistakes, that we are hopeless, we are not interesting enough, popular enough, beautiful enough, nice enough or even just enough need to be questioned and opposed. We are enough. Past mistakes and past troubles are in the past. Yes, we are human, we get things wrong; we learn from them, we are better because of them, we apologise, we move forward. We are not defined by the past; we are here now, in the present. We have a future.

So, how can we change omnipresent negative thoughts when we have been so willing to listen to them, to believe them? Why will we listen to a voice that tells us that we are failing rather than one that tells us we can succeed? It’s probably all to do with past habits, but we are in the present now and, COVID-19 or not, we can do more than survive, we can be happy and spread our happiness to others. We are enough. We are more than enough.

Firstly, doing yoga, meditating, taking exercise will get our bodies moving and make our minds calm. That’s a good place to start. Not everyone likes to go out for a run or a bike ride, but going outside, being in a quiet place, walking, dancing to loud music, simply stretching muscles: it all helps.

Telling others how you feel is useful. For some, a confidential counsellor is important, being able to tell someone you don’t know who will listen empathically is so helpful. To say to a friend or a family member ‘I’m struggling with this…’ can be a step forward. A good cry, even letting off a bit of steam, can be a catalyst for change. The important thing is to know that negative thoughts are simply our minds telling us our worst fears and kidding us that it’s reality and perpetuity. Then perhaps we can start to throw a few of the unhelpful thoughts away. We can change our minds and listen to a new voice, one that tells us we’re ok, we’re better than that; we are respected, liked, nice, able to move forward. We’ve got this.

Solidarity is important. We are all going through similar things. Some people have it very tough now, working in key roles where their safety is constantly under threat. Others have no job at all, or they are furloughed, or they have been separated from loved ones for a long time. Others are very worried for their own safety or that of someone they love. Many people have lost their livelihoods, their hope for the future has been shaken. We need to stand with those people: they are friends, family, neighbours, people in the community who have businesses, people we are yet to meet.

There are friends and family members who will put on a brave face to hide the anxiety they really feel and we can reach out to them; a chat, lunch, a smile, sharing feelings: we need to find ways to make others happy too. After all, we are the same; we share the same anxieties; we are all in it together. By being there for other people, we are often there for ourselves.

We don’t know when this current weirdness will end or how it will end. But we are here now, together, and we are doing our best. Suspicion, feelings of hopelessness, negative thoughts about ourselves and others won’t help us to move forward. It’s natural to experience negativity, ups and downs, caution and mistrust, but we can keep ourselves safe and others too. At this time when so many things are not as we’d like them, it is important to keep mind and body and soul together and to stay safe.

It won’t be like this forever. And perhaps we can all emerge from COVID-19 stronger, happier and ready to revel in the wonderful things the world can offer. Why not?

 

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