Infiltrating The Old Girls’ Network 

My next novel, The Old Girls’ Network, is out on 16th June. I always experience a special feeling when a book is released into the world. Of course, I’ve been working on it for some time, from the moment I had the first scratchings of an idea to the moment I sent off my final edit. A book travels a long distance and meets a lot of people before you finally see the finished novel.

Most of my stories are about older people taking journeys of some kind; in the case of the first three books, my central characters travelled both abroad and within the UK. In The Old Girls’ Network, my fourth novel, Barbara, who is in her seventies, leaves her hometown, Cambridge, to stay with her sister Pauline in Somerset in order to convalesce. There they meet Bisto Mulligan, who has recently left Dublin to go to France where he claims he owns a chateau. The three characters meet in the middle, in Pauline’s home village of Winsleigh Green, and their journeys begin there; although they do not travel very far physically, by the end of the book they have all come a long way.

Barbara and Pauline have little in common; one is a spinster who is self-sufficient but a little crotchety; the other is a widow, warm-hearted but certainly no pushover. The action of the novel comes from the sisters’ relationship with each other and with Bisto, who has fallen on hard times. It also comes from village life, the usually peaceful setting, the cast of characters who live there and the village activities that unfold during the summer, from May Day Morris dancing to a Shakespeare performance on the green.

Barbara is initially an unwilling participant in village life but she soon finds herself drawn into the neighbourhood’s caring world of gossip, love affairs, feuds and fancies. Her relationships with Pauline, Bisto, many of the other characters and even with herself will change greatly by the last pages of the novel.

As with my other novels, The Old Girls’ Network is a romantic comedy, but it also asks some serious questions about friendship, relationships and life. I had some interesting decisions to make about my characters’ journeys by the end of the novel,not least whether they should finally find love or not.

I always consult real life for the answers: in A Grand Old Time, Evie finds love and loses it, then finds it again in herself. In The Age of Misadventure; Georgie meets a man, Bonnie loses one and Nanny finds happiness within her family. In Five French Hens, the women make their own decisions at the end of the novel, some not needing romance in their life; some finding passion and excitement in other unexpected areas. In The Old Girls’ Network, I wanted to see my characters happy: at the beginning of the novel, they all face different demons and they each have to learn to leave them behind.

I usually write two novels a year and the next two stories I’m currently working on deal very differently with the idea of whether a character should end up with a significant other or not. As one character says in a book I’m writing, being single is not the opposite of being happy. Rest assured though, my characters won’t all find true love and some who find it may not always keep it. Some will, though.

There are a variety of happy endings to be enjoyed, including boy meets girl, but that ending is not always a necessary or foregone conclusion. I’m more interested in reflecting real-life issues than tying the final lines up neatly for a happily-ever-after as the curtains close. I can understand the need for books that take the reader to a good place on the last page, but that’s not something I’ll promise to achieve for every character every time.

However, The Old Girls’ Network is an uplifting book about family and friends, about village life, loves and mischief: it’s about two very different sisters, a mysterious badly-behaved outsider, two feuding neighbours in their nineties, two terrible cats, a handsome window-cleaner, a kind-hearted farmer with a crush, a zany hairdresser, the dashing young man at the manor house… I’ll stop there – no more spoilers.

It is a positive novel, one that will hopefully make people smile. The Old Girls’ Network invites everyone to participate in the fun and frolics of a Somerset village summer. In these lockdown times, the opportunity to sit with the ladies on a village green and sip Pimms is the very best I can offer.  

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Lockdown suppers: more ideas for dinner when the cupboard is almost bare

Out here in the sticks, we have a food delivery once every nine or ten days. Day ten’s last supper, before the food van arrives, usually involves a hearty stew of whatever gnarly bits and pieces are left over in the vegetable rack and the fridge. My mother used to be proud that she could make something out of nothing and I’m the same, although the word nothing for my generation means I may not have all that much in the way of fresh produce, but we are fairly well-stocked for spices, herbs, condiments, cans of beans and rice. ‘Nothing’ in my mother’s day meant exactly that – hardly any food at all, so I cook with the realistion of how lucky I am. 

The first seven days were fine. I have tins in the larder and a few items in the freezer such as plant-based sausages, home-made vegan chorizo and a bag of peas but they are just there to embellish any dish I cook. So by day eight, the fresh produce was becoming a bit dog-eared, the couple of remaining potatoes were sprouting. There were a few veggies in the rack: a butternut squash, a couple of  onions, a beautiful big celeriac gifted fresh from my neighbour’s garden, a few sweet potatoes. At the back of the fridge, I had a couple of unhappy mushrooms, a damp carrot or two and a few ends of celery and leeks.

That night I made a leek and onion quiche: the pastry was easy to make with the last of the plain flour, some plant-based margarine and shortening rubbed in, salt, white pepper and a little cold milk. I left the pastry in the fridge wrapped well for a few hours as that really improves the crumbly texture when cooked. I sweated off some onions, garlic, leeks in a little olive oil, turned the pan off and added plant-based cheese, then in a blender I whisked a small carton of silken tofu, a tbsp of plant-based milk and some nutritional yeast. I then combined this mix with the cooked onion and leek mixture and poured it all into a greased quiche tin lined evenly with my pastry, rolled out and placed in just before.

It was baked in the oven for 40 minutes at 180;  the quiche turned golden brown and the leek mixture set perfectly. I left it to cool for a couple of hours as I always find this improves the texture and taste, and warmed it up again for ten minutes with some chunks of sweet potatoes (with a little oil, salt and black pepper, some lime juice) roasted in their skins the oven 20 minutes earlier. I made a  creamy coleslaw, using the last chunk of red cabbage I’d found in the fridge, some onions, carrots, walnuts, raisins and mayonnaise.

By day nine, I decided it was time for the celeriac to step into the limelight. I slow-cooked a few lentils and some old vegetables – a sweet potato, a potato, a drained tin of sweetcorn, broccoli, onions, a bit of leek, some kale that had seen better days and some frozen peas. This was much improved by a dollop of harissa, a bit of paprika, some grated lemon zest, a dollop of coconut yogurt. The peeled celeriac was chopped, steamed and then put in the blender with a bit of plant-based margarine, salt, pepper and the last dregs of a pot of horseradish I found at the back of the fridge. (Celeriac mash is delicious with just a little salt and pepper, but a dollop of mustard would replace the horseradish and take it to the next level.) Served with the slow-cooked stew, it makes a really tasty meal.

Which brings me up to the last meal before the night-time food delivery: the butternut squash was roasted in the oven and added to a pan with a little oil, some sweated onions and garlic and anything else I could find in the fridge, which wasn’t much, (three pieces of kale, three green beans, one very wrinkled mushroom and a bit of celery) plus a tin of chickpeas and a curry sauce made from spices that I roasted in the pan beforehand: fresh ginger, chilli, garlic, fenugreek, coriander seeds, mustard seeds, garam masala and turmeric. These spices, blended into a paste with the last of the coconut yogurt and a spoonful of tomato puree or, in this case, ketchup because I was out of puree,added to the vegetables will create a thick and delicious sauce. I always make curry hours before I eat it and then serve it with rice, home-made naan and papadums.

The alternative is usually to saute the onions, then cook all the vegetables gently with some red lentils and vegetable bouillon. Put the lot in a dish, taste and season the gravy and smother the top with potatoes mashed with mustard and black pepper. This dish is much improved with the addition of a dollop of marmite, brown sauce or even soy sauce to the gravy; a bit of plant-based cheese on top is good too. The picture above shows the shepherd’s pie just before it goes in the oven – it’s another great stand-by dish to make when there are only old bits of vegetables left in the house.

Now the fridge is virtually bare and the vegetable rack has only one onion and one potato. Later, when the delivery van arrives, we will be ok for food for another week, or maybe ten days. I look forward to food deliveries with excitement now in gthe same way  I look forward to Christmas. It’s a joy to have fresh food in the house. Thank goodness for all those key workers who bring things to our door so that we can stay safely at home: where would we be without them?

 

 

It’s a time of surreal and vivid dreaming…

Many of us might have noticed that we are dreaming a little differently in these strange times. These dreams are often surreal, often presenting the most unlikely scenarios. They are very vivid and packed with detail. These have been called ‘pandemic dreams’ and the reason we’re experiencing them is because the situation we find ourselves in currently is very different to what we’re used to. 

Basically, we are now experiencing more REM sleep (our eyes move more rapidly) in the second half of the night and REM sleep gives us more emotive and visual dreams. It is good that we’re able to dream this way, apparently. It is because we are reverting to our natural state: we seem to be more relaxed and unstressed, something which makes it more likely that we will have vivid and powerful dreams.

I used to write a blog called ‘Dream Catching’ under a pseudonym, in which I interpreted other people’s dreams (or sometimes my own). People are very interested in having their dreams analysed. Often dreams can be powerful experiences and they sometimes influence our moods when we wake up in the morning.

People are fascinated by the content of their dreams and many think that their mind has not just simply thrown out some random combination of  subconscious thoughts and waking experiences. Instead, people believe that a dream reveals something meaningful from their psyche and they will often hope for an interpretation that includes a message or some sort of prediction.

The idea that dreams are full of symbols is a popular one. I’ve heard people suggest that a house may symbolise the heart or contentment; that shadows may symbolise death. My mother used to say that dreams were an inversion of reality: if you dream of death, there will be a birth announced soon, that sort of thing. There are many thoughts about why we dream. 

Dreams may represent some people’s hopes and fears; other people may think that their dreams can be visited by others: that if you dream of someone, they are sending you some kind of astral message. Some people think dreams help us to cope with life’s stress; other people assume that a dream is a random jumble of thoughts we have during sleep.

My starting point when I’m asked to interpret a dream, having listened to the person offer me a description, is to enquire about the overriding emotion of the dreamer during and after a dream. If you dream that you are falling from a great height, it will mean something different if you are feeling afraid in the dream or if you are laughing. 

Some dreams are clearly based on anxiety. Something like the dreamer’s  teeth falling out implies that normal waking worries about any sort of thing from meeting deadlines to disapproval may still be lodged in the mind. These anxieties infiltrate dreams. Context is everything, as is emotion experienced during and after the dream.

Those people suffering from the worst stresses of Coronavirus – being jobless, concerned about managing money, family stresses, loneliness, working long hours, feeling unwell – are less likely to enjoy the benefits of these vivid dreams. In fact, they are more likely to suffer from sleepless nights and periods of restlessness.

While many of us are experiencing wild and whirling dreams and are benefiting from the best sort of sleep, many other people are wide awake, keeping the rest of us safe and well. I wish them safety, good health and I send my thanks that, while we are all enjoying the peace of vivid dreams, they are out there, allowing the dream of returning to normality to become possible again by keeping us safe in the interim. To selectively quote Hamlet, my favourite Shakespeare play, “What dreams may come… must give us pause.”

How does lockdown affect creativity?

I read something a few days ago about a writer who couldn’t work during the Coronavirus lockdown period because she couldn’t think straight with all the current change and restriction: basically, she said, her brain was in ‘flight or fight’ mode. She said that it was hard to concentrate on creating something new and exciting with her thoughts all over the place, anxieties about Covid-19, wondering how long the self-isolation will continue and what might happen next. 

That is very understandable: I can see how the writing process might be affected by anxiety. Her situation led me to wonder how the current situation and the separation and lack of social interaction might affect other people who work creatively. How much do we need to interact with other people beyond our households to be better creators? Is it possible that some people work best in isolation? Will our period of lockdown, however long it may last, result in a glut of exciting new novels, poems, art of all kinds, or should we be prepared for a dearth of them? (I heard from someone connected with the writing industry that there will be so many novels about lockdown romances and murders emerging in several months’ time. Why am I imagining gritty inner city crime thrillers about people visiting the local Morrisons twice a day?…)

Many of us who are writers or artists tend to work from home in isolation. There is an old stereotype of a writer wearing glasses, perhaps perched on the lower bridge of the nose, bent double over a clanking typewriter, typing away in a garret with a small slice of light seeping through the window. Complete the image with a wine or gin or whiskey bottle not far from view. It seems quite normal for writers and some other creative artists to work alone, to use what’s in their heads as inspiration for their work and from that place create something innovative. Should the lockdown change anything?

I have several friends who are painters. One of them has joined a national artist’s group to share her work on a website that helps to sell paintings; it’s a great idea, to support artists to make a living during these difficult times and to profit from the solidarity of a group of like-minded people. Another friend was finding stimulation difficult, being home alone, but by joining a scheme online in which a group of artists painted at the same time every day, she was able to respond to a schedule and she has produced some wonderful work. What both of these artists have in common is that a collective group has given them the encouragement or structure to work towards a common goal, despite being alone.

For writers and novelists, although many wonderful and encouraging collective groups exist, we find it easy to work in isolation once we have our initial idea. Editing and upgrading work requires focus and a clear mind but it is, for the most part, easy to do that type of work alone. Creating a novel from scratch, however, demands energy, enthusiasm and the belief that an idea can readily transpose itself on the page to something substantial, entertaining and satisfying.

For me, being outdoors is a great aid to writing. Ideas come quickly and blow through my mind as new and exciting thoughts when I’m outside; being able to roam around, surrounded by nature, is where I think best. And many of my novels involve travel or journeys; I like to be on the road, in the camper van, going to old places or new places, talking to people I’ve never met before, experiencing different locations. Ideas come from new things.

I’m sure some people will say that their ideas come from inside their head, from wide reading, from past experiences, from who they are, from dreams. All that’s probably true. But, for me, the richest resource is beyond that, the resource of new experiences and interactions.

I don’t have the necessary background in psychology or anthropology to understand what effect the lockdown will have on the creative mind of any individual. I am aware that enforced isolation will bring about loneliness, anxiety and all the ensuing problems for many people: we are all naturally social animals. But it’s interesting to consider what effect it will have on our potential to think, to innovate and to create.

I’m lucky – my next novel is out in June. I have already written the subsequent one; I’m editing the one after that to improve it and I’m 20,000 words into the one after that, so I’m well ahead of the game. I’m also good at working for long periods. I’m very focused and I seldom procrastinate. If I wake at four in the morning and end up planning for three hours, it’s not a problem – it’s part of the writing process. Similarly, if I take a day off and go for a walk in the woods to get an idea in focus or a character into perspective, it’s part of my working day. I never feel guilty if I do nothing at all if I’m allowing thoughts to ferment: it’s all part of the working process.

The lockdown has given us a chance to rethink who we are and what we do each day, to evaluate the times we used to enjoy, to look forward to appreciating the future when normality is restored. More than that, I think we are emerging with a better sense of the people we can be and, most importantly, the social animals we are meant to be. And that involves sharing with others, including them in our plans and considering their well-being more than perhaps we did before the virus.