‘Chasing the Sun’: travelling to two gorgeous locations and finding fabulous festivals, fun and food.

As the worst of lockdown is over, despite wide predictions of another possible ‘wave’, we are all looking forward to the summer and the chance to travel again, whether it is to the nearest beach, or to see much-missed friends, or to somewhere distant but safe. It will be lovely to spend time in the summer warmth after a cold, socially distant winter, and we all need to celebrate with much-missed friends and family. It has been tough for most people, and even tougher for so many more.

When I wrote ‘Chasing the Sun, the novel came from a desire to take my readers to stunning locations. From the cold separation of locked down Britain, I wanted to offer the warmth and fun of Spain and Mexico, the chance to join Molly and her sister Nell on their holidays in the sunshine. Molly, a widow, realises on her seventieth birthday that she is restless and doesn’t know where her life is taking her. It’s a perfect reason for a journey of self-discovery, chasing the sun metaphorically, and location is everything.

The great thing about going on holiday is the chance to kick back, relax and enjoy life a little: Molly and Nell spend time on the beach, sampling good food and wine. They visit fabulous locations and meet interesting people; there is the opportunity for fun, mischief and romance. I hope that the reader will enjoy going with them and sharing some of the things they enjoy.

In Spain, Molly eats octopus. I’ve never eaten ‘pulpo’ and although I do research many things by trying them out, but this is definitely not one of them. The sisters enjoy the best Spain can offer them, including sunsets, beaches, boat trips and sangria. I’ve tried all of those…

Then Molly moves on to Mexico, and I was lucky while writing ‘Chasing the Sun’ that my son was living in Mexico City. I’ve been to Mexico myself, but it was useful to be able to call him and ask questions about the local climate, what time the sun sets, what does the local mole taste like. He was the source of all sorts of useful research information, including inside information about El Día de Los Muertos, as he was there during the celebrations and could talk to Mexican people about the cultural importance and vibrancy of The Day of the Dead. I wanted to bring the local colour to readers.

When I created the tapas bar, Sabores, meaning Flavours, I tried to bring a very different taste of Mexico through a plant-based café that served new and exciting dishes. I have made all of them myself, and I’ve included a few recipes at the end of the book, just in case some readers were interested in trying them. The carrot canapé is quite easy, and most of the others aren’t too difficult except for the vegan scotch egg, which is fiddly. Most ingredients aren’t hard to source, especially by using the internet, and the plant-based chorizo using vital wheat gluten and the cashew cream cheese are well worth the effort. I hope readers will enjoy sampling some new food.

The most exciting thing for me during the journey to Mexico, even more thrilling than dancing the bachata and riding horses Western-style, is visiting Chichén Itzá. It is a very atmospheric and beautiful place so, when Molly goes there to see the sun rise with two friends, I wanted to express how breathtaking it is there.

In short, I’d love us all to fly off on a plane to Spain and Mexico right now if it was safe, but it isn’t. So, it seemed to me, that the best way to travel is vicariously, through the pages of a book, and to enjoy good times with Molly and Nell. Molly’s attempts to chase the sun take her to two wonderful sun-soaked locations. The beaches, the food, the people and the culture of both Spain and Mexico are charming and fascinating. I hope you’ll enjoy travelling there between the pages and that, for you too, the summer will be one of sunshine, laughter and fun, whatever the coming months bring.

My next novel, Chasing the Sun

Originally given the working title The Hokey Cokey Woman, I set out to write a story about Molly, a seventy-year-old widow who leaps into situations with complete abandon, later realising that what she’s chosen isn’t for her and she should have considered all options and thought more wisely. But part of Molly’s charm is that she’s spontaneous; she is caring, full of positivity, enthusiasm and she has natural joie de vivre. In the novel, she finds herself in several situations that are the result of her impetuosity, because she acts before she has thought out the consequences. Although her spontaneity might be endearing, and she has boundless energy and enthusiasm, her life isn’t perfect: she’s always seeking something new, chasing something elusive, but she doesn’t always know what it is.

Nell, her half-sister, is a few years younger, wiser and more sensible. But when her own seemingly-solid marriage is in crisis, she appears on Molly’s doorstep, her world suddenly shaken.The husband who had become part of the fabric of her life wants something else and Nell is shocked that the comfortable existence she knew is in the past.

Molly’s reaction is to leap straight into a new adventure, to change the scenery in order to prevent Nell from further heartache, so she drags her off to Spain for a holiday. They have a wonderful time, although Molly’s impetuosity leads her into a few more scrapes, but they both make new friends and initially life appears idyllic. However, after a while, Molly has itchy feet and she yearns to move on and to discover more.

I am always interested in the themes of companionship and love, and how different people make different choices about whether to stay single or to choose to be in a relationship: loneliness can affect us all, whatever our age. Molly is a widow, she is independent and has learned to live alone, so she doesn’t stop to consider whether being single is a problem. Nell, however, has had a partner in her life for forty years: she hasn’t known solitude before and being by herself is a novelty. So what interests me in this part of the story is the way both women react to the choices of new love and friendship. Are friends needed to keep loneliness at bay? Is any partner better than no partner at all? Or can solitude and self-reliance be an alternative to loneliness: sometimes we find satisfaction in being alone, and sometimes we yearn for love and companionship. Both Molly and Nell face decisions about their future paths several times in the novel and their responses are very different.To live life independently or to accept a new partner, that is the question. As one character says, being single is not the opposite of being happy. And as the other suggests, once you have tasted champagne, why would you opt for flat lemonade? So the title Chasing the Sun is not simply about wanting to be in warmer climes, it is also about how the characters consider bringing warmth into the cold empty space of their own lives.

The setting of the novel was also an important choice. I began writing Chasing the Sun at the start of lockdown, having previously intended to go to Spain for a few days to practise speaking Spanish and to research the location. When the trip was cancelled, I researched the coastal area of Murcia online. 

I’d been to Mexico several years ago and my son was living there at the time that I was writing the novel, so I took my character there, to a location and a culture where I had some background knowledge already, which was a useful starting point for research. I wanted to offer the reader the chance to experience vibrant, sunshine-filled locations and a rich cultural heritage as a form of escape from what had become the lockdown norm. My intention was that if we can’t go on holiday physically, then we’ll go vicariously, with a character in a novel. 

To that end, I hope the readers will enjoy Molly’s voyages to the sunshine, and also I hope that they’ll like the exploration of the choices between independence, loneliness and romance, the life-choice options considered by Molly and Nell, two very different characters with very different experiences. Chasing the Sun is out on April 8th.

The excitement of writing for a competition…

I enjoy writing for specific events or audiences, as there is a kind of precision and framework to be considered. It’s quite an interesting mental exercise when you have a word limit, or when you have to create something for a specific genre. I like writing newspaper or magazine articles, poems, speeches, plays, all of which mean a writer must consider the use of words and the requirements of an audience really carefully. I’ve written things from song lyrics to pantomimes, and I love the mental challenge of slelecting words and phrases that fit a specific framework. Of course, I enjoy writing novels best: I love the freedom of letting a character take over and run with an adventure. But that’s for another blog post.

Recenty, someone in a creative work-sharing group mentioned that they were enterng a writing competition. In competitions, you’re generally given a few specifics, a title, a word limit, but you have little knowledge about what the judges want, so you have to think outside the box and try to be a bit original. I’ve entered a few competitions and had placings: I’m one of those people who often come second, and that in itself is a source of great happiness. The competition we were discussing demanded no more than five hundred words, based on a theme of Hope, so I wrote something as an exercise, although I have no intention of using the piece for any other purpose than this blog.

Recently, in one of my zoom writing groups, we discussed the importance of strong opening and closing lines, so I decided I’d incorporate this into my piece. In a subsequent class, we were asked to consider the power of the weather on our writing, so I incorporated the weather too.

I decided that, in these lockdown times, it would be easy to write a piece about how much we all hope that the separation and the threat to everyone’s health, mental and physical, ends soon, and that we can emerge from this situation intact and all move forward; that we can somehow use the experiece to grow. So, instead of writing about that as a theme, I thought about choosing a completely different location, a different time, and I moved my story to Canada in the 1930s. I’ve no idea why. Perhaps it’s a metaphor…

This is my piece, below, entitled Hope. I have written exactly 500 words. I hope you enjoy it..

Hope

‘God must be having goose for tea tonight.’

She looked upwards as she walked on, huddled inside the thin coat. Snowflakes fell like fat feathers, large as a baby’s fist, tumbling from somewhere above, filling her eyes, blinding her. She couldn’t see the night sky for the whiteness of it all.

She trudged on. It was fifteen miles to Québec. She would be there by dawn. Her sister would take her in, as long as her husband didn’t mind. She’d be useful.

Her fingers tingled. She’d never owned a pair of gloves. She’d seen kid gloves once as a child; she’d been with her mother outside a store in Québec and an elegant lady had stepped from a car, wearing a fur stole and the softest gloves. She’d never been inside a car: she imagined it was like a house, but smaller and warmer. Her own house had never been warm.

She tramped through the hard-packed snow, cold water seeping through the holes in her boots and she shivered. Her hands flitted to her belly and she thought of the baby there, small as a button. She hoped he or she – it was a girl, she was sure – was warm enough beneath the folds of a thin coat, a thin dress, thin skin. It was for the child she had done it. When the baby was born, she would be better without a father.

Her feet were stamping some kind of rhythm as she lurched onwards, her hair wet and bedraggled, her face so cold her cheeks burned. The wind blasted snow in her face and she was buffeted by the blizzard, but she forced herself forward.

Ice crunched beneath her boots as she set her feet down sturdily, hoping she wouldn’t slip. In the darkness, the snow was luminous, a soft light. Her thoughts fled back to the freshly-fallen snow outside her cabin, banked high on either side, as she had rushed from the house. He had chased after her, shouting, swearing, stinking of sour-mash whisky. Then he had hit her, full in the face, and she had felt her nose pop. She had pushed him; he’d fallen backwards and hit hard ground, his neck cracking like a twig. The falling snow had covered him quickly as she watched, and she’d been glad to see his twisted angry expression disappear. She’d gone inside, wiped the blood from her face, collected her bundle of rags and the money behind the clock, and ran.

Now, her toes were numb and her legs felt like soft sponge. Beneath the coat, her flesh was ice. She stared up into the dropping snow, blinking, letting the wetness of it fill her eyes like tears for a moment, then she slogged forwards. The road in front of her bent to the left and wound on into shadows.

She pushed her head down, lumbered forwards into the whirling blizzard and prayed between chattering teeth, ‘God, save a bit of that roast goose for me.’

I had so much fun with this writing exercise…

I’m always busy with novels, writing them or editing them or thinking of new ideas. But writing can be a fairly isolated profession, so I’m always glad of an opportunity to collaborate with others. The Boldwood writing community is very special; there’s a supportive group of women and men who seem always to be there for each other, ready to celebrate when new books are published, to coax and support when anyone has questions, to advise and to share happy moments and to read each others’ work. I have read some truly mindblowing books by Boldwood authors recently. There are so many talented writers I can’t wait to meet.

I have friends who are writers, performance poets, poets, people in whose company I know I flourish and become a better writer. I used to belong to an excellent group of writers in Devon who are incredibly gifted, and will be friends forever. There’s a local group where I live now which is bursting with so much talent, it’s breathtaking, and because we can’t meet physically now we catch up on line to share our work. I learn so much from these modest but incredibly able writers.

Then, once a week, I join a fascinating zoom group, led by an experienced and innovative author. This group is exciting because, despite the mix of published authors, journalists, bloggers and those with aspirations to write novels, cookery books and children’s stories, it is a supportive and happy group who respond so positively to the challenges we are set. We’ve written fairy stories, poems, different styles of writing inspired by many and various stimuli, and our responses are always so varied.

This week, the group leader asked us each to finish a sentence without thinking too hard: it was ‘Her had shook as she opened the ….’

Most people replied ‘Her hand shook as she opened the…’ ‘letter,’ ‘book,’ box,’ ‘door,’ and so when it came to my turn, I said the first unusual thing I could think of, which was inspired by a thriller written by a Boldwood writer: I said ‘corpse.’ Silly me: we were then asked to go away and write a piece based on the first line we had chosen. I was left with something that would be macabre, sinister or bloody, which I truly thought about writing.

Then an idea came to me. Here is my response, below. I hope you like it….

Her hands were shaking as she opened…

‘Her hands were shaking as she opened, the corpse at the beginning of her first speech was nothing short of indecorous. To summarise, Fannie Barton was the worst Shrew who ever appeared on the London stage.’ David Garrick sighed.

‘The Spectator wrote that?’ Fannie’s petticoats rustled as she flounced forward to gaze over David’s shoulder, staring at the words on the page. ‘You asked me here to show me this? I didn’t corpse – that was maniacal laughter and, as for the hands shaking, Katherina was angry – why wouldn’t she shake with rage?’

 ‘Our living hangs in the sway, Fannie – we depend on reviews, even if we don’t agree with the boorish hacks who write them.’

‘No, it’s worse than that.’ Fannie whirled round. ‘They want a Katherina who pouts and drops her eyelashes, who is submissive and acquiescent from the beginning, so by the end of the play she’s nothing more than a sodden dish clout.’ Her face flushed pink. ‘All they really want to see is a doxy in a low-cut frock, a white bosom, a shapely ankle, and as long as it’s all thrust under their noses, they’ll write about what a good performance it was.’ She stamped her foot. ‘That’s not me.’

David rose from the couch and moved to the window, pushing back velvet drapes, staring at the road below. A coach rattled by, the horses’ hooves clattering on cobbles. It was raining again, the sky drab as ditchwater; the roofs gleamed, the dull metal sheen of a Hogarth etching. David sighed. ‘But tonight, we must go on again, Fannie, your Kate to my Petruchio. And tonight, there will be other critics there, from the Tatler and the Gazette. There will be more reviews…’ His shoulders slumped. ‘And I have invested much money in this Drury Lane venture…’

‘So, what do you suggest?’ Fannie’s hands were on her hips.

‘Audiences want pompous, pretentious theatre and I want change. I want the natural passions that reflect real life – but even the newspapers are entrenched in the past. It’s always style, pretence, feigning, over a substantial believable performance.’ David shook his head sadly.

‘Then let’s challenge them, David – let’s show them something they are not expecting. Let’s give them some real passion.’ Fannie walked over to him, grasping his frilled shirt, pulling him so close the breath wheezed from his lungs.

He was alarmed for a moment. ‘Fannie – I have Eva to consider – my wife would not…’

‘And I have a three-year-old daughter who needs warm clothes and a hot meal…’ Fannie’s eyes blazed. ‘These critics think that women in my profession are no better than harlots, flower sellers. So, let’s give them some real-life desire of the flesh.’

‘But Kate is no common whore, Fannie – and Petruchio is just a likeable rake, a penniless scoundrel who drinks strong ale and…’

‘We can make it much more real.’ Fannie seized David’s shoulders through his shirt. ‘Passion. That is what Kate and Petruchio have for each other. We must show the layers of it, the way it fills the body, fires the blood, makes the brain blaze…’

‘I’m not sure I understand you.’

‘It’s simple. Kate is attracted to Petruchio from the start but she is proud: he must not know of it at any cost. Petruchio is besotted with Kate at first sight, but he is afraid of the depth of his feelings, how it makes him weak. So, the space between them sparks, it is fire, it will ignite the closer they become and, despite distance, the blaze explodes, engulfing them. Although the audience will never be told of this raging desire, this unquenchable thirst, they will sense it from the moment Petruchio and Kate’s eyes lock.’

David nodded. ‘It could work, Fannie. Petruchio and Kate try to deny the natural magnetism between a man and a woman at the beginning of the play, but it surfaces and grows, upon each line they speak: it boils over into everything they do.’ He was silent, thinking. ‘The difficulty is, how can we rehearse the play in order to replicate an incredible passion only dreamed of by so many and achieved by so few?’

Fannie laughed, pulling the pins from her hair so that it tumbled around her shoulders. ‘I only know of one way, David.’ He saw the gleam in her eye. ‘We must discover an intense world of our own, away from wives and children and critics and audiences, a world only the two of us will understand as we explore our characters between soft linen.’

‘As Petruchio and Kate?’

‘As who else?’ She raised an eyebrow. ‘It is how we move our art to the level of perfection.’

‘Of course.’ David watched her as she stood, just beyond his grasp, her eyes dark. His whisper was barely audible. ‘Why, there’s a wench. Come on and kiss me Kate.’

Sit by my side, and let the world slip: we shall ne’er be younger.’ Fannie took a step backwards, stretching out an arm, her palm upwards. She shook her head, turning away, almost smiling as she moved towards the couch, her voice low. ‘And where two raging fires meet together, They do consume the thing that feeds their fury.

The Egg

This week I finished writing a novel, some 97, 000 words that I’m quite pleased with. It’s a story of a woman and her neighbour on a quest to discover something new after a life-changing event, and it contains a secondary character I love to bits, an impressive lady who speaks her mind and is very focused on getting what she wants, which is all honourable and for the good of everyone. I’ll say much more about that particular novel later.

Then a new idea for a story came to me this morning, the tale of three very different women who emerge from various incidents together to discover a new future. I don’t want to start it yet – I want to think about it and let ideas bubble. So in the interim, I’m reading a lot of very different books – I have a pile of five novels I’m going to enjoy over the next week. Then I’m extending my time in the gym, walking in the spring sunshine (despite the cold), and scribbling a bit.

I belong to two writing groups and this gives me the opportunity to create new bits and pieces, scribbling over lunch time cups of tea or in the spaces between reading and planning a new idea. I like trying out new thoughts and different styles, so here’s a bit of verbage I wrote based on a picture my daughter painted. It’s about a mythical creature, or rather, the beginning of one. It’s probably a metaphor too. We’ve all been locked down for far too long…

Sending best wishes. xx

The egg

The ocean is like glass, the surface still, soundless, stretching to the horizon.

Then in a flurry, a sudden movement disturbs the silence, a ripple, a whirling funnel of water, and the egg falls, leaden, heavy, until it sinks and settles on the seabed.

In the murky light, the egg lies on sand, undisturbed.

A fish darts past unaware, another, larger, in pursuit.

The egg sits, perfectly round, alabaster white tinged blue, pink flecked, the size of a fist.

At the bottom of the sea, the water is darker.

Everywhere is vast, gloomy, graveyard-still: the egg is motionless.

But beneath the shell’s hard surface is the scratching of a small hoof, nail scraping against a hard wall, a fast rasp.

It stops.

There is no sound, just silence, a pause, then a repeated grating sound rattles inside, solid against solid, a persistent tap-tap.

The beginning of a crack appears, an imperceptible fissure in the egg’s smooth perfection.

For a moment, an intake of a breath holds, there is nothing, then a frantic chipping, a harder kick, the shell wall splinters open and the sides of the egg shatter in two, like breaking porcelain.

A damply white creature stands on four weak legs in the centre of the shards.

Wide eyes blink once, then she stretches her neck, lifts nimble hind quarters, tries for the first time to unfold skeletal wings.

 She staggers, one step, another, and pauses, sinking back on soft thighs.

Gazing around underwater, she breathes out bubbles, then she blinks, snorts pearl droplets through black bead nostrils, and tries her wings again.

They unfurl like wide fabric, pushing water, extending above her head, and suddenly her legs are firm and she stands, white furred, feather winged, strong.

One leap, hooves sinking back into sand, and she is up, cutting through the ocean, slicing the surface, water becoming clean air in her lungs.

She is swimming, surging forward, then her wings spread and she lifts up, away from the ocean, a creature of sea and sky, leaving foam splashes of surf in her wake.

 Airborne, she strives for the sun, wings beating, clouds above and below, her eyes wide.

She is free and her future is open as the bright skies.

Lockdown, languages and me. (Warning: much failure, a little success…)

As a writer, I’m blessed with being able to work from home and I’m so lucky to have a job I enjoy, that I return to each day with energy and enthusiasm. Lockdown is a difficult time for everyone in their own way, but some people have real problems in managing to get by in these strange times. There are furloughed people, those who have no jobs, those who are missing people they haven’t seen for so long, and those who are medically compromised, and I whole-heartedly wish them the best.

Not long ago, I heard a celebrity recommend on TV that those who had no jobs or prospects during lockdown should take up a course or a hobby. I didn’t think he was being glib or facetious: I think it was a genuine attempt to turn a difficult situation into a positive one and to suggest that people spent the time they had on their hands trying to acquire new skills. I mentioned this to my daughter and she was immediately on the case, starting to learn Japanese, German and Irish.

So, to support her, I signed up for a few languages and I have to say, it is a daily source of total comedy.

My French is good but, on my phone, I couldn’t work out how to access the advanced level. Instead, I spent each day working through basics, hoping I could get to a level where I’d be able to stretch my skills. Then I discovered how to leap forwards and now I enjoy practising tenses I’d long forgotten and brushing up rusty pronunciation. So far, so good.

My Spanish isn’t bad; I managed to fly through the first few levels and eventually accessed the right questions for my skills. I’m recalling things I’d forgotten, although I’m having to translate the English from US to UK before I try the Spanish: I’m given words such as bathroom (which means toilet), purse (which is a handbag) and store (which translates as shop). These words threw me more than they should have at first. But now I’m fluent in US English too, which is perfect.

Then there was German. I can do basic German, ask for food, chat a bit, but I spent the first six lessons asking Ms. Merkel if she was the chancellor and Herr Schmitt if he was a lawyer. Then I had to ask Heidi Klum if she came from Sweden. After hours of this, I managed to switch my skills to a level where I was making mistakes. Now that was what I needed to do in order to improve: there was no point in getting everything right.

And then there was my decision to learn Romanian. I speak a few words of Romanian, not much… Te iubesc, Noroc, Țuică, Multimesc, that sort of thing. So, naïvely, I thought: rock and roll – what can go wrong? My daughter was steaming ahead with Irish and Japanese: surely I could manage a fairly easy romance language from Eastern Europe? Think again.

First of all, I kept getting everything wrong because I hadn’t uploaded the Romanian keyboard to my phone and couldn’t access letters such as ă and ţ. So everything I wrote in Romanian was a mistake. Once I’d accessed the ability to type in Romanian, I then encountered a problem with the definite article, which took me a week to work out. For example, a boy is un baiat, but the boy isbăiatul. A woman is o femeie but the woman is femeia. It took me ten mistakes to work that one out. Then there’s the exercise when a cross-sounding lady says something quickly and you have to write it down although you haven’t a clue what she’s just said. Then there are the sentences that you would just never ever say: ‘the goose, the chicken and the duck eat the sandwich and drink the water,’ for example which, for reference, is ‚gâsca, puiul și rața mănâncă sandvișul și beau apa’. It fills me full of happiness that one day I might be able to waltz into a shop in Constanța and say that line. (Constanța, by the way, is a beautiful place on the Black Sea – I recommend it highly!)

Then there is the awful sense of failure, which happens when you are steaming through the lesson, which lasts about ten minutes, you achieve 100% throughout until you arrive at the last two hard questions, then you fail abysmally and are greeted with a descending trumpet sound which would normally accompany Laurel and Hardy getting it wrong, and the words ‘You tried hard, but better luck next time…’ Why ever did I need learning languages in my life?

The answer is simple: it’s the chance to communicate, to learn, to improve, and when I get it right, it will be a great feeling. I dream of a time I can sit in a café in France or Spain and chat easily to the locals, or saunter into a biergarten in Munich and order something delicious. I may even one day be able to have a conversation with someone in Constanța about something that isn’t a farmyard animal and at least I can already ask for a sandwich and water.

And, of course, there’s always the chance that perhaps the next lesson will teach me the word for wine…

Imagine Five French Hens as a Hollywood film with this huge cast…!!

I love the way films and live theatre give us as an audience the opportunity to immerse ourselves in a story through the eyes of the characters we meet. It’s fascinating how a few lines on a page, a book or a script, can be turned into something visual and vibrant in front of our eyes. Several years ago, I was part of a cast performing Steel Magnolias on stage and I had a great time working on a lively script with strong, talented actors. I watched the film of the play out of interest, and it was great to see older female actors playing feisty roles, investigating the themes of family and friendship. I thought about how few films there are out there that cater for older actors as protagonists, especially women. Some of the most popular ones include Calendar Girls, The First Wives’ Club and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. There were a few more films with one or two older females in the cast, Philomena, On Golden Pond, but there aren’t many that show groups of women in their older years having fun and living life.

I often consider how my own novels would be cast as movies as the stories are often quite visual, they have colourful locations, and the characters are older women and men who enjoy life and have fun. Having seen Steel Magnolias on screen, I imagined that the eponymous characters of my novel Five French Hens came from an American city, not a small town in the UK, and that the five fun American women who visit Paris were played by Hollywood actors.

Imagine all those incredible older Hollywood superstars we could choose from. I’m thinking big here with my casting, and I mean really big. I haven’t held back on glamour, fame or talent. Nor have I held back on the characters’ energy, sass and big personalities. Imagine the frocks in the casino scene…. (Imagine them all together on set before filming starts!)

So, this is my imaginary, dream cast list:

Jen: Jen would be played by Sally Field, who was Forest Gump’s mum and the ex-wife in Mrs. Doubtfire as well as M’Lynn in Steel Magnolias. She’s a great choice as she has the ability to be both calm, strong and thoughtful, but also there is a sense of vulnerability and sensitivity. She would be enthusiastic and excited about her marriage to Eddie, but she would convey Jen’s doubts and the desperation not to be alone. Moreover, Jen is lively, popular but with the capacity to be quite secretive; Sally Field has the warmth and depth to make this character take the story forward.

Della: I’ve chosen Queen Latifah as Della. She would bring an energy and strength to the character: she would be playful and feisty in her marriage but caring and full of loyalty for her husband. Queen Latifah would steal a few scenes in Paris. I can imagine her in the final scenes too, when she comes home to her beloved Sylvester and everything isn’t as she expected.

Tess: I’d select Goldie Hawn to play Tess. She’s really good at comedy roles and I can imagine her in an awful marriage with Alan at the beginning of the film, and yet, once in Paris, she flourishes and becomes a party animal. Goldie Hawn would bring initial vulnerability to the role, later showing her strength and compassion.

Rose: I’d choose Brenda Fricker to play Rose. Initially hesitant and quite solitary, Rose is transformed into a leader and a trouper. She is talented, but her skills are wasted at home; Paris brings out the flamboyant best of Rose and I’d love to see Brenda play the final role on stage as Rose becomes Rose-On-Wye, accompanying Greta Manchester on the piano!

Pam: I’d choose Cher as Pam. She is strong, independent, feisty and nobody’s fool. Athletic and a leader, Pam is the one who knows her way around Paris well and supports the other four hens when they need it most, but she has her own secrets. Her external toughness hides her vulnerability and her shadowy past. After her great performance in Moonstruck, I can imagine Cher embodying this role so well.

Eddie: I’d select Robert Redford. He is dashing and dapper, so we can understand why Jen is so attracted to him. He is personable and persuasive too: Robert Redford has that sense of clean-cut honesty which might draw Jen in and impress her with his potential to be the perfect husband.

Vladimir: Robert De Niro. Enough said. Great actor. Full of the promise of a better match for Tess. Big hearted, generous, expansive. Nothing else to say except that he’d be perfect as Vladimir.

Alan: I’d cast Richard Dreyfus as Alan, Tess’s husband who’d rather play golf than spend time with her. Richard Dreyfus is talented and would have the ability to hint at Alan’s duality and untrustworthiness, cranking up his unpleasantness as the role progresses.

Daz: I was surprised how few really young Hollywood actors I knew: in the end, I chose Taron Egerton who is a versatile performer. He has a warm personality, is outgoing and has a sense of fun. He’s a strong character actor and he can sing too. Perfect.

There are lots of other roles that need consideration, from Elodie, the woman who fortells the Hens their futures, to the unfortunate Celia and the lovely Sylvester. I can’t think who’d be most ideal.

I’m sure there are lots more talented actors in their older years who’d be absolutely perfect to play The Hens. It’s great fun casting hypothetically and there are some wonderful names to be considered. Why not imagine yourself as director and, if you come up with a perfect cast, do let me know.

The true story of the inspirational canal couple.

I’m really lucky to have several local walks I go on which, whatever season, are beautiful. My favourite walk is up on the top of the beacon, which means an uphill path through farmland, a stroll through the woods, a hike across flat grass with a panoramic view of the whole county and finally a vista that, whatever the weather, is breathtaking.

          The most local walk to my home takes me through fields and woodlands – it’s a three-mile stroll crammed with the most beautiful plants and creatures, and often my cat Murphy comes with me.

          However, the canal walk is very easy, and it can be a long or short stroll: it’s a four-to-twelve-mile walk that is completely flat, historic waterways on one side, with barges, ducks, swans and herons. In the late summer and autumn, it’s a great place to pick blackberries. In the spring, it’s alive with colour. Always, I meet dog walkers, strollers, ramblers, runners, cyclists and, over a period of time, we become acquainted with each other. A year ago, last January, I was sauntering down the canal path in scarf and boots and, as I often do, I was thinking about a novel, planning a character and a scene, working out details.

I saw a runner coming towards me and as I stepped back to let him pass, he grunted thanks. He was a heavy man, probably in his forties, panting loudly. He was wearing a thick vest and a pair of shorts despite the cold weather and his skin was red with exertion. I was about to walk on, but I decided to wait as, in the distance, a woman with a pony tail was approaching, jogging at a sluggish pace. She was clearly tired from her effort. I assumed she was following the man and, I had to admit, I was very impressed. They were both overweight and working hard to put one foot in front of the other, but it was clear that they were determined to complete the run. As I turned to retrace my steps an hour later, I saw them again coming back, flagging and exhausted, but still going.

I recall walking along the canal, blackberrying, in September and the couple ran past me again. I had to look twice to check they were the same people. I thought at first that the man must be a marine; he was muscular, strong and very fit, but I recognised his face, although it was leaner. One step behind him was the woman, who was jogging at a fair lick, her pony tail swishing. She was slimmer, stronger and comfortable in her stride, as if she’d always been that way.

My admiration for the couple was boundless. They had set themselves fitness goals and they had achieved them. The two lumbering, tired runners who had staggered past me nine months before had become two athletes. What must have originally been a desire to become healthier and a hope to improve, a New Year’s resolution even, had become a reality and a life-style change. The man and woman I saw in January looked like they’d never become an Adonis; as they struggled along, red and sweating, they appeared unlikely to make it to the end of the run, let alone go out again. But their resilience and determination won through.

It’s January now and apparently the most depressing time of the year, especially compounded by the current Covid restrictions and anxieties. I’m thinking of the many people who want to change something this year, who are taking up a fitness challenge like the canal couple, or who are learning a new language, searching for a new career or hobby, battling an illness. At times the going looks tough, almost impossible, but I will take the example of the man and woman running along the canal path with me for ever now. If they can do it, and they did, (and I imagine they are still regularly running along the path,) then there’s hope out there for the rest of us. Aspiration, intention and following through with determination are everything. It’s not easy, but if we try, we might even just get there. And if we don’t, we can always try again.

If you’re on the path to something new and exciting, or just something new and better, I wish you a safe and successful journey. Happy New Year.

The glorious outdoors

I’ve always been thankful for blessings. Family, friends, good health, food on the table, shelter and warmth are things I’m grateful for every day. There are other areas of my life that I’ll be ever-grateful for; my work has always made me happy: learning, researching, teaching drama, writing novels. It is an incredible feeling, being able to make others happy, to offer something creative that embellishes others’ lives in some way.

But over the last nine months, something has shifted. Simple things I took for granted have disappeared: sharing a drink in a cafe with a friend, dropping round to someone’s house for lunch and a chat. The old normality has changed and things I thought of as ordinary are real blessings that I can’t wait to have back again. First on my list is to hug my son again, and then his girlfriend. They live in a first floor flat in London and not a day passes when I don’t miss them and hope they’ll be all right. And I’m not alone in these strange times: we are all together in this experience of separation and anxiety, no one more than many many front line workers who deserve so much more than just our applause for their brave and vital contribution.

One thing I have come to value more than anything now my normality has been stripped away is the beauty of nature. Once, I could jump in my camper van and go to the beach, drive to a different county, to another country. Travelling makes me happy, and now I can only travel down the road on foot to the local woodlands. It must have been that way for people centuries ago, and how fascinating it is now to be in the position where our horizons have changed suddenly. It makes me feel a different kind of gratitude, both for what I once had and for what I am limited to now.

My walk takes me from my house, along the muddy roads, across a field, along a bridle path, over a style and through a kissing gate, then around a wavering woodland track. Whatever the weather, whatever the season, nature keeps on giving. My walk has been framed by bluebells, blackberries, holly berries, nuts, falling leaves, horses, pheasants, squirrels, foxes and the occasional badger or deer. I am privileged to be able to go outside and walk: if it’s cold, I wrap up; if it’s raining, I wear wellies. Whatever the weather, I know I am lucky to be outside, to breathe fresh air and to feel the sun, a breeze or rain on my face and the hard soil or squelching of mud underfoot. It’s a walk that takes me an hour and a half: during my walks, I have solved simple daily problems, devised novel plots, developed characters; I have sung, danced and climbed trees. Sometimes, my cat comes with me; Murphy loves the woods and if he feels tired, I pop him inside my coat to rest for a while. He’s seldom too tired to run the last downhill stretch with me.

I’m learning to be happy with small pleasures. A walk in the woods, a log fire when I get home, a simple bowl of steaming hot soup, these things will never replace hugging my child and my brother, or talking politics and philosophy and sharing a curry with dear friends but, in their own right, these small things are special and I am blessed.

Hopefully, before long, some sort of normality will return for us all. We can meet people, break bread together, share wine, embrace, have parties again and dance on tables. It will be wonderful and we will have so much to celebrate when we get our lives back again. And there will be so much to repair in our society: the effects of illness, loneliness, changed fortunes, new and systemic poverty and inequality: I hope we will all move forward, caring for and supporting each other.

But I won’t forget the small things I have now; how the simple gifts of nature will still be there, how I once took them for granted and how at this moment in time, although I have little else that remains from the old normality, their importance is huge. And I hope that by valuing the small things, I’ll value the larger things even more, and emerge from the current situation feeling totllay grateful for the many blessings life offers.

Sharing my New Year’s Eve buffet with friends, in the only way currently possible…

Apparently, the entire month of January is celebrated by many as Veganuary, a time when people eat vegan food for a month. Perhaps it is a fresh dietary choice for some, perhaps it is an antidote to the Christmas excesses for others, or even just curiosity, but I thought I’d share my New Year’s buffet on a blog post as a way of celebrating plant-based food. After all, I can’t invite you round at the moment.

The triumph of the buffet table was the deliciously savoury and sweet focaccia bread, topped with apple and onions. The loaf was straightforward focaccia or pizza dough, rolled out and topped with thinly sliced apples, onions, parsley and thyme, gently fried first in olive oil. The bread was cooked in a medium oven for 20 minutes until golden brown and risen. Loved by all who try it, it’s a winner.

I also defrosted some filo pastry and then I sauteed onions, garlic, mushrooms, adding chopped chestnuts and a handful of spinach, then a handful of plant-based cheese, and seasoning the lot. This was the filling for several sheets of pastry, rolled over to make a long sausage shape, then cut into chunks and baked for 20 minutes in a hot oven.

Along with a mixed bean salad with peppers and tomatoes, a green salad, a rice salad with peas, and a few dips such a hummus and some garlicky aioli, I also served a few more savoury dishes. I fried some onion bhajis in a gram flour and water paste, spiced with turmeric, cumin and coriander, and some samosas stuffed with potatoes, mushrooms, onions, garlic, peas and spices. These were served up with chunky mango chutney.

Finally, I made some dim sum buns, stuffed with mushrooms, peppers and onions cooked with garlic and ginger, wrapped in a coconut milk and flour dough and steamed for fifteen minutes. These were served up with a tangy sweet and sour chilli sauce.

I made a pan of glühwein, warmed spiced red wine with fruit chunks, and after the buffet I brought a plant-based tiramisu to the table. It was a spiced sponge, with cinnamon and ginger, covered with a whipped mixture of coconut milk, plant-based cream cheese, coffee and kalua coffee liqueur, topped with chocolate.

I’m looking forward to my next book launch in April, for Chasing the Sun, or maybe the one after that later in the year, when I’m able to invite people round, and we can share a good buffet together. It’s a great feeling, to spend time planning and making a buffet for others, then to offer a variety of finger food and watch people pile up plates with their choices and enjoy nibbles.

Next time, I may add some little curried pies or mini quiches, some mini pizzas or a sliced vegetable tofu frittata. I might also add an interesting plate of no-pigs in blankets with my own home made ‘ba-con’, an eggless scotch ‘egg’ and some salmon-free canapés with herby cream ‘cheeze’ made from cashews. Watch this space, as I’m bound to blog anything that works well enough for me to want to share it with guests at some point in 2021.

As I see it, if I can’t invite you round and offer you a plate of food, the next best thing is to share it on a blog.

With warmest wishes to you all for a Happy New Year.

(Apple and onion focaccia bread.)