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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.

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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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So, who is the best actor to play Lemmy in a biopic?

I often cast films in my imagination. If I read about a character in a book, an actor will come to mind and I think ‘he or she would be perfect for that role.’ Many times, I’ve considered actors who might be in films of my own novels: Brendan Gleeson and Julie Walters feature a lot when I’m hypothetically casting one of my books in my head, as do Colin Farrell, Emma Thompson and Imelda Staunton. So, when I heard there was going to be a film about the late, great Lemmy Kilminster’s life, I immediately started wondering about who’d be the best actor to play the role of that incredible man.

I saw Lemmy performing with Motörhead in London not long before he passed away; he was quite static on stage but his indomitable spirit, his energy, his love of music that was so loud it made your eardrums buzz and his devil-may-care attitude were tangible. The actor who would play Lemmy on screen would need to do him justice; it would need to be someone who could embody his intelligence, his iconoclasm, his mischief and his rebellious streak. He would need to be magnetic, full of charisma.

I’m quite open-minded about actors who are cast as rock stars: they are actors first, so imitation and interpretation are everything – they don’t need to look exactly like the character they are playing.  Val Kilmer embodied Jim Morrison so well in The Doors. Rami Malek looked nothing like Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody but he managed to portray him with such panache and skill that the character was utterly credible. Taron Egerton was inspired in his performance in Rocket Man: I even conceded that I liked the music, although I’m no Elton John fan. So, for me, the actor who plays Lemmy doesn’t necessarily have to be a look-alike or a predictable choice as their talent comes first. So, here are some of my choices for the role of Lemmy.

The obvious ones:

Johnny Depp is a reasonably good choice to play Lemmy. He’s a musician, a rock star, an experienced actor; by his own admission, he understands the ravaging effects of an alcohol and drug-fuelled lifestyle. He’s a middle-aged sex symbol who can act. He could probably use a good role right now at this point in his career. It seems he ticks all the boxes to play Lemmy.

Robert Downey Junior. As above, probably.

Tom Hardy. He is possibly one of the most gifted actors on screen. He pulled off the roles of both Kray twins in one film; he rescued Venom from the depths of banality and he took the role of Alfie Solomons in Peaky Blinders to such heights that he managed to get away with a character that, in other circumstances, might have been perceived as a bit risky to say the least. He played Heathcliff with such passion that he achieved empathy where the character deserved no sympathy. He is a genius. Just imagine how he’d play Lemmy.

The less-obvious ones.

Benedict Cumberbatch. Not remotely like Lemmy, not in your wildest dreams. But he’s played everything from Hamlet to Dominic Cummings, so I wonder what he’d make of Motörhead’s front man? He could do it, certainly.

Russell Brand. Russell may be some people’s choice; he has the patter, the charisma, the confidence, the bravado to play Lemmy but he lacks Lemmy’s rawness and natural charm. Not for me.

Orlando Bloom. I was really surprised that, as the initial idea of Orlando Bloom as Lemmy made me burst out laughing, the choice really grew on me. Orlando has served his time playing undemanding roles of young, well-meaning fresh-faced heroes such as Legolas in Lord of the Rings, Paris in Troy and Will in the Pirates of the Caribbean series. It would be a challenge for him to take on the gritty role of Lemmy and I think he’d do it justice. I can imagine Mr. Kilminster chuckling over his bottle of Jack Daniels to think that he’d been portrayed by a man who once played the love interest of Keira Knightley, and an elf.

Jason Momoa. He’d be ‘superhero Lemmy’ in the animated version. A hilarious thought!

Joaquin Phoenix. After an incredible physical performance in Joker, Joaquin can do anything in my opinion. He’d make Lemmy leap from the screen.

Jared Leto. He is possibly my first choice to play Lemmy. Jared Leto is an incredibly versatile actor who would be able to show Lemmy’s progress from his early days in Hawkwind where he became a member because the bass player didn’t show up for a gig to his arrest for drug possession on the Canadian border, creating an empathic staging of Lemmy’s final days as Motörhead’s anarchist bassist and well-loved antihero.

Of course, it depends on the demands of the screenplay: will the film be a linear story of Lemmy’s life, or a glossy romanticised depiction of his early days as a young man whose youthful experiences were steeped in sex and drugs and rock and roll, or will we see the wistful older Lemmy reminiscing on his life as the speakers blast out the strains of such famous songs as No Remorse and Built for Speed.

Whoever is chosen for the role, I’d certainly watch the film. It will be very interesting to see how the director portrays Lemmy and I hope the film goes some way to do justice to a fascinating and unique musician who remains widely admired by so many people.

This leads me to reflect on similar films to come. We’ve had biopics about Freddie Mercury, Sid Vicious, Ray Charles, Billie Holliday, Edith Piaf. Now I’ve heard there will be a film about David Bowie’s life: I wonder who they’ll pick to play that role. And who would be a good choice to play Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse, Tom Petty, Marc Bolan, Kurt Cobain or Dolores O’Riordan? Are there roles here for established actors or could someone new cut their teeth on such a huge part? It is fascinating to speculate on casting and to look beyond the obvious choices.

How can we deal with the whispering voices of doubt?

‘You’re doing fine. Keep going. You’re nearly there. You’ve got this.’

I remember repeating this to myself on a long walk in the Lake District a few years ago: having climbed Scafell Pike and Great Gable, I ran out of energy on the descent with three miles to go. It took sheer willpower to drag myself back to the carpark.

Developing a supportive voice inside your head, imitating the soothing, coaxing tones of a parent or a best friend, is something perhaps we all need to do from time to time to keep ourselves balanced. Often, the face we present to our friends, the confident one with the positive thoughts and attitudes, is not the same face as that of the anxious individual who sometimes doubts his or her own potential. It’s no surprise that we often hear how people who show a self-assured, cheery exterior are, in reality, quite vulnerable and alone in their darker moments. Think Robin Williams, the most ebullient and talented of comedians. Apparently, even Lady Gaga suffers from low self-esteem.

It is interesting that, often, when other people appear so assured, they have all the answers, they seem to understand the world, say the right things, make all the right moves, it’s no wonder that we sometimes feel isolated, exposed and less capable of doing what is expected of us. The inner voice, less welcoming and supportive, tells us we will mess up, we don’t deserve success: it’s the voice that says we are impostors, we have taken a place we don’t merit and soon we will be found out as frauds, with embarrassing consequences.

I only heard the term ‘impostor syndrome’ relatively recently and, on hearing it, I had one of those moments when things seemed to click into place. It explained exactly what I’d felt on several occasions and, all of a sudden, there was a name for it.

As a child in the playground, joining in with all the others, I knew my family were ‘different’. At grammar school and beyond, surrounded by many lovely people, most of whom were very privileged, I often felt that I had no right to be there, I didn’t really belong and, at some point, someone would jump out from behind a curtain and explain that to everyone.

As a teacher of theatre, my central impetus was for every student to achieve their best, more, if possible, and I was always aware of the injustices that might hold the less privileged kid back. It was something I sought to identify and change.

Now as I writer, I’m still occasionally revisited by the familiar voice that asks me what I’m doing here. I have a smart and brilliant agent; my publishers are wonderful; the editors are kind, astute, cool people who are so self-assured. Everyone is glamorous, talented, warm and friendly and they all have every right to be where they are, bathing in the soft light of well-deserved success. The negative voice whispers in my ear that I must be an impostor.

Of course, the friendly voice in my head takes over at this point. I’m not out of place; I work hard; I can write and my books are selling well. I’ll be ok if I just keep going.

Then realism kicks in; these beautiful, talented writers who publish brilliant books that drip from their fingertips like magic spells are really just like the rest of us:  they sit at the laptop into the early hours of the morning, writing and editing and searching inside their heads for the right phrase, the clever ending, the smart plot points. They wake up in the morning with a head full of stories and they lurch for the black coffee before stumbling towards the laptop, not even having brushed their hair. They have moments of self-doubt which happen on the day before their new novel is released, wondering what will happen if no-one likes it; what will happen if this is the one where everyone thinks ‘Why is she even here?’ Then the sweet voice whispers to be calm:  all this anxiety is completely normal and will fade away soon.

Nowadays, I’m so much better at positivity. Equality, inclusion and fairness are my priorities and I’ll go out of my way to encourage and support others. If I’ve ever experienced impostor syndrome, then other people will have experienced it too. Moreover, there are so many talented people who don’t know or believe in their own potential or have something holding them back, so others should be more often  the focus of my energies.

Of course, self-doubt is normal; we’re all vulnerable, flawed, imperfect, human. That’s what makes us ultimately better at what we do. It’s the very nature of being human that makes us want to Improve our own skills and, at the same time, to reach out, to support and encourage others, to remind others that we deserve to be where we are, that we can aspire beyond the present moment. And, I have to say, my agent, publisher, editors, fellow-writers are all blessed with the ability to inspire and reassure: I couldn’t be luckier.

So, back to the voice in our heads, the one that soothes and cajoles, the one we should listen to more often, and the other voice, the one that criticizes and says that we are impostors who have no right to be here, the voice we should mostly ignore: I have developed the ability to switch them on and off. I know which one to listen to and believe, and which one to discount, to use as the voice of criticism which is there simply to keep me on my toes.

When I sit at my laptop and begin a new novel, the voices are quiet: I’m utterly consumed with a brand-new idea. I can hear conversations between characters; I can imagine settings, feel emotions. I’m off and away when I’m writing. There’s no time to stop and doubt what I can achieve. Hard work and rampant enthusiasm are brave companions.

But it is the quiet time, the time alone, the moments of emotional vulnerability when things are not going as well as they might or the biorhythms have taken an almighty dip that I have to be vigilant. It’s then that the doubt can arrive, the underlying feelings of being an impostor. We are all the same: we all feel similar emotions and suffer similar insecurities. Everyone understands both the feeling of strength and surging confidence and the opposing feeling of self-doubt.

We need to remember that whatever it takes, with the help of friends, family or our own sheer bloody willpower, we can reach our goals. Let’s replace the ‘impostor’ with ‘I deserve to be here.’ Let’s change the sense of being out of place with a sense of equal entitlement. Solidarity is so important. As we join hands and support each other, we realise that together we are stronger, whatever the journey. Let the voices of doubt whisper what they will, we can shout louder. We’ve got this.

 

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Whatever music you need, Escapades hits the right note.

I know some people like to work in silence: writing a novel, a dissertation or doing homework means that concentration must continue uninterrupted and they prefer no noise at all. Others like the buzz of a radio playing music in the background, or the friendly hum of a voice on Radio Four.

I like the pace, the ambiance and the motivating mood of loud music.

I wrote an entire novel while listening to Rory Gallagher playing the blues. Another novel was written with Planet Rock constantly bustling in the background. Once, I changed the music I was listening to as I changed the mood from chapter to chapter; Gogol Bordello for the lively moments, Nina Simone for the tender moments, the scenes of pathos.

At the moment I have started a novel set against the backdrop of the Scottish lochs and that’s where Jack Gardiner’s Escapades comes in. I’ve discovered his album and it’s perfect for when I’m writing.

Jack is from Liverpool, only twenty-six years old, but he’s been playing guitar since he could sit up in his cot. A consummate musician, composer and technically-brilliant teacher, he cut his teeth playing guitar with China Crisis and he has toured with many more maestros in his short but productive time.

Now he’s made a solo album and it is heaven to write novels to. Jack has fingers that spider across the frets at a speed you wouldn’t believe, producing spiky atmospheric sounds, ideal for me when I’m imagining dawn over Loch Ness or the winding roads of Skye. But there’s so much more to Jack’s music than that.

From a musical family, (Jack’s father is a consummate bass guitarist, his brother plays a mean bass and drums and his mother has published articles as a music journalist,) Jack was always destined to perform. The track, 1993, which I guess is named after the year of his birth, is rhythmic, celebratory, with a spacy atmosphere, the guitar playing of a virtuoso. But Jack is no flash-in-the pan exhibitionist; his music comes from astute intelligence and empathy. There is a melodic, echoing tenderness in track 6, Until Next Time; track 4 Lark Lane, is mischievous and funky while track five, Cereal Killer, is more heavily percussive.

Jack is a huge talent. He wouldn’t be out of place playing in any band, and he has the potential to become a big name alongside Bonamassa and Page. He would wow in a traditional rock band with bass, guitar and vocalist – he has done this many times before – and he has the skill to stun in a duet with another musician or a singer, but it is this solo album that currently steals the show, that surprises in its confidence, a maturity beyond his years, credibility and the sheer impact of one man and his guitar creating a range of skilfully-played and produced tracks.

Escapades is great for me as a writer; it bubbles in the background like a lively stream as I match the pace and mood with my own ideas and words. But the album offers so much more. I’d listen to Escapades with the lights on low, lying on soft cushions; I’d fall asleep and wake up to it; I’d serve the music up with a meal for my best friends; I’d use it to cheer people up and to soothe the troubled soul.

It is an album that satisfies, that draws the listener in and that impresses. Jack is a young man who will go far; I believe one day his name will spring to the lips as quickly as Clapton’s or Gilmour’s when people are discussing great virtuoso guitarists. And this new album is a gem. Listen to it for yourself and you’ll see what I mean.

Listen to Jack’s album Escapades on Spotify or buy it here: Jack Gardiner Official Bandcamp

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Six books that inspire me to be a better writer

I spend a great deal of my time writing.  My latest novel is out! The Old Girls’ Network was released several days ago and I’ve started to edit the next one, which is very exciting. I’ve also just finished writing another – the life of a novelist is all go! – and I wouldn’t change a thing about it. But in the middle of coming up with a new idea, writing it down, editing it, tweeting about it, and talking to radio hosts, I must still make time to read. 

It’s so important to read widely, not just in order to stay constantly familiar with good writing and good ideas, but also for inspiration. I’ve read a few books by some brilliant fellow Boldwood writers. I’m so impressed with the quality of current novels by Fay Keenan, Jina Bacarr, Shari Low, Emma Murray, Gemma Rogers, Jennie Bohnet, Ross Greenwood, Mary Grand, Beth Moran, Frances Evesham and Jessica Redland, just to name a few (and there are many, many more).

But I’ve selected six books I’ve recently read, below. They each have a specific reason for being inspirational and helpful to writers, offering their own unique skills: they demonstrate how to create character, style, storyline, effective writing. It’s all here, a masterclass for authors to read, reflect and learn.

The Wheelwright’s Daughter by Eleanor Porter

This novel uses language so well to evoke place, time and character. It’s the story of Martha, who is accused of being a witch because she is adept with herbs and remedies and, when a landslide occurs, she is blamed.

The opening is incredibly gripping in its clever use of language to evoke time and place and the whole story is a perfect example of how to sustain tension and hold a reader’s interest through the quality of the writing. Characters and tension are superbly handled; it’s a well-written, well-shaped novel about a woman who is outspoken and strong in a community where small-mindedness prevails and small-minded people are eager to judge.

Twopence to Cross the Mersey by Helen Forrester

Helen’s story is autobiographical; born in 1919, she came from a middle-class Birkenhead family, used to privilege, who fell on hard times in the 1930s and lived in poverty in Liverpool. It’s a brilliantly told riches-to-rags tale, compassionate, humorous and without self-pity, in a style that is firmly rooted in days gone by but it still feels pertinent. The author’s voice is authentic: the use of language is, in fact, fascinating, as Helen uses many phrases and words now seldom used, and the world she creates is one we’d never be able to access without the primary evidence and the powerful way she evokes her story. It’s a very lucid account that reveals so much about the early twentieth century and social change, but the novel is in fact far more than that.

I know  Liverpool well and I thought I understood a little about its poverty in past generations, but the world and the lives Helen Forrester evokes in her novel are a real lesson to us all: the story she tells is very moving. Poverty has always been a part of society and it is heartbreaking to read Helen’s experience and to remember that, although times have greatly changed,so many vulnerable people continue to be let down and children still go hungry today. It’s an important and well-written series of stories about the past that still resonate loudly.

Milkman by Anna Burns

I love this book because it’s so brave, challenging and fresh. Set in an unspecified time and place, the community that unfolds as the story develops is both credible and terrifying. The writer has taken a chance with this book and it has worked so well. It won’t be everyone’s idea of a good read: it is a story of tribalism, patriarchy, religion and conformism and the Milkman himself is an incredibly scary character. 

It’s a gripping tale that is an excellent example of the writer taking its readers outside their comfort zone and making the story sing so loudly that it resonates a shocking truth about our own lives and our futures. I imagine the style and the concept won’t be for everyone but it’s the sort of book that will make many readers sit up and reflect.

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

This novel is successful because of its style, panache, protagonist and its political energy. The writer is not afraid to be a little subversive and it is the strength and courage of Queenie that shines through. It is about race, straddling cultures and the experiences of a twenty five year old Jamaican-British woman, told in a breezy and humorous style. This story pulls no punches, though, as it deals with the title character’s journey as she splits up with her white boyfriend and attempts to navigate the modern world and all the prejudices and difficulties that it brings in terms of relationships, experiences and self-worth. It is strong, moving and superbly written from the first page to the last.

Circe by Madeline Miller

Not only is this book excellently researched, but it is also a strong cleverly-told tale about a character who defies others’ restrictions and expectations. This is a beautifully constructed and written story, which evokes character and place so well and is powerful in its ability to draw the reader in and to create empathy. Circe is a nymph, she is immortal but she is a woman who is scorned and isolated because she does not fit the mould others dictate for her. She learns to become a witch – it doesn’t happen by magic – and she develops power, strength and independence, which makes her a force to be reckoned with. A cleverly written story which is gripping and inspirational in so many ways.

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

I had to include this book. It’s an interesting read for its wisdom, its logical arguments and clarity. As writers, we are always trying to make what we write accessible and meaningful to readers, and not to overcomplicate what we are saying, but to explain thoroughly and accurately. This book is very well-written, but it is so much more. In a time when a ‘white lives’ banner is flown over a football stadium and some Facebook posts demonstrate that there are people who don’t understand the issues at stake, Eddo-Lodge explains her perspective perfectly: it’s not just about discrimination and prejudice, it’s also about power and institutions and the meaning of privilege. This is an important, powerful and relevant book, and it offers a necessary dialogue to be continued so that we can thrash out the best way to end racism.

Football is Back!

I feel like I’ve been waiting for ages for the football calendar to resume, although it was only back in the middle of March that the decision was made to suspend the football season due to COVID-19. But now, this week, as I’m sure you will have noticed, football is back on TV again! And the excitement and anticipation in our house is incredible.

The first game of the resumed season was a neutral one for me: Aston Villa up against Sheffield United. But my family and I gathered around the TV, plates of lovely, hot poutine on our knees (see the pictutre below), celebrating an indulgent opportunity to ‘veg out’ in front of a game, and we were treated to a steady but intriguing match that resulted in a 0-0 draw.

Binge watching for the evening, we then sat quietly through Man City vs. Arsenal, expecting both teams to be raring to go: two Premier League giants ready for a big face-off. The 3-0 result went some way to suggest how unimaginative and out of practice Arsenal were. Man City were the better team, and it was clear that several weeks without a game had left all the players far from being match-sharp.

The return of top-flight football was marked with support for the Black Lives Matter movement, in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Players have had ‘Black Lives Matter’ emblazoned on the backs of their jerseys and everyone on the pitch took a knee in solidarity with the movement and to highlight the importance of this message.

There is no doubting the power and meaning attached to these gestures, nor the impressiveness of many of the young men acting as terrific role models combating the racial prejudice and injustice which is still prevalent in football, across our society, and in many others around the globe. I hope these powerful gestures and eloquent footballers will be heeded, but more importantly that their words will be followed up by action by those with power that makes sport and society more inclusive and more just.

On Sunday, Father’s Day, we made a special dinner, a brazil nut and sage roast and all the trimmings, a bottle of wine, beer, and we gathered around the set for the much-awaited derby game. We expected our team to win: the presenters suggested that Liverpool would beat Everton easily, even though our main man Mo Salah was on the bench. When pundits make comments like that, I always expect things to go wrong.

It was a slow game and it might be fair to say that the 0-0 draw reflected the lack of end-to-end excitement and the match would have been much improved by the excited singing and baying of the crowd. However eerie it is to watch a live game with no supporters, safety comes first.

Everton might even have deserved to win the match. Tom Davies hit the crossbar; Seamus Coleman and Mason Holgate both had a strong game and they very effectively nullified Liverpool’s attacking intent. The only consolation was that we are another point closer to achieving the title, but understandably, after such a long lay-off, and having no crowd presence to raise the players’ game, the tension and excitement of football isn’t quite what it used to be.

Our next games are Crystal Palace, who appear to be in fighting form having handily dispatched relegation-threatened Bournemouth in their first game back, and then Man City who hammered Burnley last night. There will be some twists and turns in the Premier League before this season is over and before we can finally celebrate that long-awaited title. But football is back and we have everything to play for. Bring it on!

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The launch party for my new novel, The Old Girls’ Network is virtually perfect!

Lockdown has affected everyone’s life in so many different ways. I have been lucky: I’ve been able to work from home and go outside. It has been a real privilege to be able to spend time with my family while they’ve been home, and that’s what I’ve focused on. These are interesting and unusual times and, while it would be easy to focus on the negatives, it’s a great opportunity to spend quality time together.

I’ve written another novel in lockdown, but it’s not about lockdown, it’s about the opposite. It’s about being outside, being able to travel, to experience life. I love being able to write about being outdoors, exploring the world, making changes happen, growing. A good friend of mine recently described his experience of lockdown as ‘dull,’ another friend said he was ‘lonely’ and, although I believe I could write a lively lockdown story that celebrates the things I hold dear, it’s nice to step outside of current restrictions and rejoice in freedom and fun. Enter The Old Girls’ Network.

My new novel focuses on the intertwined lives of three characters: two are sisters, Barbara and Pauline. They are very different and lead different lives. Barbara is difficult to warm to at first; she seems  starchy and aloof. Life has made her that way and she uses her bluntness as a coping mechanism to keep her safe from being emotionally bruised. Pauline is the opposite: warm and good-natured, but strong. At first the sisters clash over their differences, then the enigmatic Bisto Mulligan arrives on the scene as a house guest and the three characters’ adventures in the Somerset village of Winsley Green lead to them being able to develop, to learn and to grow.

Winsley Green is the setting for the novel and in many ways the story is a perfect antidote to the negative side of lockdown. Much of the action takes place outdoors: there are antics on the village green, a cricket match, a Shakespeare play, Morris dancing, welly-wanging, a local fête – all sorts of colourful activities. I’ve also included a bright array of local characters who interact with Pauline and Barbara and who befriend Bisto, from whom much of the mischief, mayhem and mirth comes.

I’m hoping readers will find the book fun and enjoy it as a celebration of life. It’s a mixture of comedy and contemplation, and a validation of human nature as each character strives to develop their horizons, to be happy, and to be the best person they can be.

But, in a time of lockdown, I can’t have a physical launch party for my new novel. I usually enjoy some sort of get together with friends and family – I’ll take any opportunity to celebrate. It’s fascinating to try to find ways around the restrictions we’ve come to rely on for safety, and one way of launching The Old Girls’ Network will be to toast the novel’s journey individually and at a distance, either to meet on zoom or to send photos of each person celebrating the novel. Boldwood Books are kindly willing to put photos on their website, people holding copies of the book, or kindle downloads, lifting a glass of something, dressed in ‘country-style clothing,’ whatever that might mean. I’d welcome photos – please upload your contributions to Twitter and tag me in, @JudyLeighWriter

Today, Tuesday 16th June, is the release date for The Old Girls’ Network, and I hope you will all have as much fun reading it as I had writing it, which was a great deal of fun indeed. Please do raise a glass and, if you wish, send me a nice picture of yourself celebrating. Lockdown won’t last forever and I hope we will emerge healthy and happy, wiser, better educated and with a firmer grasp of our priorities as a society, and ready to party again.

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