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.’

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…

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

dried maple leaves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

CSC_0561

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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Stating the obvious about anxiety and the virus

There have been some incredible changes this week that affect everyone in ways we couldn’t have predicted. Two weeks ago we were making jokes about ‘car owners’ virus’ and now we’re grumbling about the lack of pasta in supermarkets and being seriously concerned about what the future holds. Most of us aren’t as worried about our own health and what will happen if we get the virus so much as the wider social implications and the health of the vulnerable. I have friends who have been self-isolating for a while now as they have underlying health issues. It’s especially tough for them. In two weeks, life has changed considerably and few of us have any experience of how to deal with the ongoing situation. Things we’ve always taken for granted have shifted and, at times, it feels like we’re in a dystopian novel.

People are reporting overwhelming anxieties about all sorts of things. I know people who are anxious about going outside into their communities and are already asking friends to do their shopping. People are anxious about how they will feed their families over the next few weeks and this leads to panic buying and greed. Some people are just plain scared. Anxiety occurs when we don’t know what will happen and we can’t predict or prepare for change.

The rate at which things are shifting now is very fast: almost daily, theatres and cinemas and cafés are closing. Sports games have been suspended. A lockdown situation may be likely in the near future and schools will probably close or partially close, which is a great strain on all concerned. Kids are worried about their education, their exams. Working parents are worried about who will look after their kids. Many people express anxiety about when and how it will end. Clearly, the most important concern is others’ physical and mental health and wellbeing. We need to make everyone else around us our first priority. We’ll make sure we’re all fine.

I can’t imagine how it would be to be seventy-plus years old and isolated in my own home for twelve weeks. There are only so many books you can read, so much television you can watch, so much cross stitching and jam making and garden digging you can do. I know people can go out for a walk but we all crave human contact: being with others, chatting, empathising. It’s what keeps the world going round and loneliness can be crippling. A friend of mine said she’d ‘go mad’ if she had to spend twelve weeks alone. There are schemes for others to write to lonely people, to Skype them or phone them. It’s a great idea: let’s make friends.

We’ll be all right for toilet roll. The daily tabloids can stop sending out scaremongering news: forget the printed words that whip up fear and hysteria and change the use of the paper: it’s perfect for lavatory tissue. It’s so important to stop spreading fear and start to reassure others that we are equal and in this together and that we’ll all keep each other as safe as we can.

We can all share food; we can Skype or phone our friends. Most of us will be all right. It’s those at risk, the vulnerable and the lonely who need our practical help. What about the number of beds we’ll need in NHS hospitals: where will extra ones be found? What about the health of all those who continue to work in hospitals, who are risking their wellbeing by currently supporting the wellbeing of the entire country? And what about the economic repercussions for all the people laid off from work, the unpaid flight crews and football ground stewards, those who work in shops, cafés, theatres and the many places that will be closed? The retail, hospitality  and leisure industries who have inadequate insurance. How will everyone pay their rent, afford their bills, find food? How will the owners manage? We have to support each other.

People such as Roman Abramovic have been impressive, allocating space from the football club for the use of health workers in the Chelsea area and paying for it. That’s a perfect example of using what resources we have to support others. The best thing that can come out of this difficult time is that people make thoughtful gestures such as this.

I hope the government will put workable policies in place now to support those in greatest need first. I’ve heard a lot of talk about infection and unnecessary contact and how ‘we’re leading the way,’ and that we should ‘expect loved ones to die,’ but not enough calm and focused practical advice and support for those individuals who don’t know how they will feed their kids. I hope this will be put in place soon: extra anxiety isn’t what we need now. I will listen to the daily updates with interest and hope that those people now worse off will be the first in the queue for government help. Political difference and political parties are not important now: call it socialism, call it caring capitalism, call it common sense. We have to help each other.

A few weeks ago, we were all talking about kindness and how we should be more positive. We have to make this a priority. I know a young mum who was scolded in the supermarket by an assistant because she asked for a second bag of nappies for her baby; I know a dad of two who has lost his job yesterday and an elderly gentleman who was shouted at because he coughed in a queue. It’s about supporting each other now, thinking of each other’s wellbeing, both in terms of avoiding the virus and in terms of practical, emotional and economic support.

Each of us has our part to play more than ever. We may not be able to see as much of our dearly loved family and friends as we want to, but we have to make sure we support everyone we can, and when it’s all over we’ll have a massive party and hug each other. There will be lots of things we can volunteer to do over the next few weeks and supporting others’ anxiety is high on the list. Let’s hope something good can come from this difficult time and we can take this opportunity to become a really caring nation. It’s time to put the ‘you’ in community and the ‘I’ in friendship!

The one about the tortured wife, the chicken and the empathy muscle

Recently, a soap opera storyline focusing on domestic abuse had me cringing with horror. The husband threw his dinner in the bin because the wife did not put any meat in the dish. The reason for this was because he controls how much she spends on food and she didn’t have enough money; he holds her bank card and allows her limited time to be out of the house to shop for groceries. In a fit of pique he sent her upstairs to the bedroom while he made a better dinner. Much later, he called her down to share a roast chicken meal with all the trimmings and the wife, placatory and submissive, tucked in and complimented him on the cooking. Watching her enjoy her meal, he told her she was eating Charlotte Brontë, her beloved pet chicken, because the old bird no longer produced eggs. She spat out her food and burst into tears.

I felt very sorry for the poor wife. As a vegan, I felt very sorry for the chicken although I would imagine plenty of non-vegans felt the same way: we all love out pets and it’s not easy to eat a creature with a name, albeit that of an expired author. An episode later, we see the husband in a panic because he thinks his wife has left him; he is weak and damaged and he can only relate to the ones he loves with deceit, control and spite. Of course, I felt sorry for them all but the wife’s situation is paramount in this instance. A soap opera, well-written and well-performed, can inspire empathy in the audience. To me, the episode with the slaughtered chicken was a modern-day Titus Andronicus.

I’ve just edited my next novel and one proof othat a story will stand up is that, having  picked through it a dozen and more times, I still feel empathy for the characters. I’m writing a new novel: having reached 75,000 words, I stayed awake at night wondering how the characters must feel in their current situations, feeling sorry for their plight. That’s silly: I’ve already plotted the ending: I know how it works out. But empathy is an unavoidable emotion and it’s good to practise these feelings by becoming involved in literature and drama.

We need to apply empathy to real life situations too. It’s very easy to feel compassion for made-up characters that we don’t really know and then become negative and critical about those we do. And real people we’ve never met are often obvious targets for Schadenfreude and envy: famous faces are sometimes objectified and condemned without empathy in the press and the public are invited to copy their example. Phrases such as ‘body-shaming’ and ‘trolling’ are relatively new terms and are linked to negative actions, words and thoughts.

The plight of the abused wife on the soap opera is not fantasy; the reason such dramas can move an audience to feel compassion is that they reflect the real world from a safer place. They are, as Bertolt Brecht might have said, Lehrstücke, learning plays devised to inform the audience about an opinion and to initiate understanding through acting. In short, if we feel for the plight of the wife, we can apply the same empathy elsewhere, to other people and their situations. For example, if we’re in a café and the waiter is bad -tempered or if we’re on a bus and the driver is grumpy, they might have all sorts of personal problems they have hidden below the surface. Maybe it’s better to smile and wish them a nice day than to report them or leave a bad review.

I watched my team play football the other evening on television: no-one played brilliantly but one player in particular wasn’t on his game. A later player rating in a newspaper would give him 3/10. The commentator said how bad he was; how he was completely reprehensible when an opposition player scored. I cheered pundit Jermaine Jenas when he spoke up in defence of the player, explaining that he’d recently returned from injury and it would take a few games before he returned to normal fitness. How refreshing to be empathic rather than critical.

It’s not always easy to reach out to the bad-tempered, the diffident or the distant people we meet. But it seems important to think beyond what we’re presented with. Because we have no idea what goes on behind the scenes, perhaps it’s important not to judge or to criticise. And there are a whole lot of people out there who are lonely, anxious, stressed. There are people bulk-buying hand wash to save them from viruses; people losing their rights to live and work in this country; people who have health worries, money worries, relationship worries, even imaginary worries. Often people don’t show their anxiety; they make jokes, they shrug their troubles off and then go home and weep alone. We’ve all been in that position at some time, so we all know how it feels.

Reaching out and showing acts of kindness and empathy are not always easy. Often we all have so much to absorb us in our own lives that it’s easy to forget. But the recent soap opera episode reminded me that some people’s experiences, though their lives may seem normal on the outside, are anything but ordinary in reality. I was glad I watched the episode of the soap opera, even though I was horrified by the husband’s cruel behaviour and the death of the chicken: the programme gave me an opportunity to flex my empathy muscle. It’s important to keep it well-toned.

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On being kind to others

Blame isn’t something I want to spend much time thinking about: it’s like anger: it is a negative emotion and, although it has its place, it can also do harm to everybody concerned and mostly it doesn’t resolve problems. Blame is often a knee-jerk reaction to a situation that we find difficult to deal with:  it’s easier to transfer responsibility in someone else’s direction whether they are at fault or not.

As a teenager, I found it easier to blame my parents for things that I thought weren’t perfect in my life. Retrospectively that was very wide of the mark. I was responsible for what I said and thought and did; no-one else was in charge of that aspect of my life. Of course, parents aren’t perfect – why should they be? They are human and fallible – that’s what makes them special. For a short while, I believed my parents dumped all sorts of negative attitudes on me – a low self-image, being an outsider, not being good enough. But that wasn’t true: I was responsible for what was in my own mind. Besides, my parents had parents too and I know they all had a much harder time of it than I did.

The cycle of blame incorporates a mistaken belief that we shouldn’t ever get things wrong. It’s perhaps better to deal with difficulties as they happen calmly and fairly, and not put all the responsibility for life’s occasional negatives onto someone else. I could offer a much longer list of my parents’ brilliant traits than the things I mistakenly blamed them for – love, loyalty, generosity, the desire to enable, to defend; humour, fairness: I could go on. I’d give anything now they are no longer here to tell them what great parents they were. So, thanks to them, I can try to deal with my own problems now by not blaming others. The one single thing we can control in life is our own thoughts and I choose to let negative thoughts go as quickly as possible and try to move forwards.

Of course, it becomes much more difficult not to blame others as the level of negativity increases. We live in a world where bullying happens frequently; it is often even accepted and applauded. It happens in the workplace; it happens in relationships and marriages, between friends and it’s rife on social media. Bullies are not always easy to identify. A boss might disguise bullying as strength, leadership, loyalty to the business or a need to control important outcomes. Internet bullies often don’t reveal their names and  form groups to apply pressure. Sometimes bullying hits the victim between the eyes like a sucker punch; sometimes it’s more like a slow-acting poison – you realise it is happening much later, and the pain eats away for a long time.

I’m sad to say that I bullied a little girl when I was eight years old. She was nine and called Rina. She wanted to be my friend and I hit her and pushed her away because it made me feel less of an outsider if she was even more despised than I thought I was. I did it twice then I realised what a terrible thing I was doing and why I did it. On the estate where I lived, defending yourself was the norm but that was no excuse for cruelty. I’ve been making up for Rina ever since by trying my best to be kind, although that’s no use to her now. I often wonder how she is.

As writers, I suppose we are ‘bullied’ by the odd cutting review. Amidst a throng of kind comments authors receive about our books, a nasty-worded criticism is not important enough to outweigh all the positive support. When I was first published, I prepared myself for a bad review by reading talented and successful writers’ negative comments. Someone thought Gail Honeyman’s number one best seller was so badly written that it wouldn’t pass GCSE English. Someone else remarked that James Joyce’s The Dubliners was complete rubbish. I think that puts the odd negative remark given to more humble writers in perspective perfectly, although I agree with my mother’s wise words when she said ‘If you can’t find something good to say, don’t say anything.’

I read lots of books and some I don’t like: they’re just not for me. I’d never dream of criticising the author: someone else may love the book and what right do I have to want to influence another reader negatively? It’s just easier to put the book down and read a different one. But I do write lots of great reviews. It seems that people who bully or who need to hurt others have real confidence issues of their own and perhaps being nasty offers them a temporary release from their own pain. It’s no excuse but it shows, perhaps, how important it is that kindness reaches everyone.

Shappi Khorsandi, a great wit and comedienne, wrote on Twitter this week about her feelings when she was first trolled. She said her father consoled her by saying that the trolls were probably people who kept their dogs locked up in a shed all day and she should ignore their comments as being worthless, or words to that effect. He’s right, but Shappi’s tweet led me to wonder what sort of people want to bully others, anonymously or not. They are clearly people who are unhappy. Like my actions towards Rina as a child, they hurt others in order to feel better about themselves.

Then sometimes, as a result of overwhelming negativity, tragedy strikes, most recently in the shape of the suicide of Caroline Flack, wounded by so much disapproval from others. Blame has been aimed at social media and unkind critics. But it’s too late now to take back the things that were thoughtlessly said and written. Things have to change: we need to blame and criticise less and be kinder to others. We can control what’s in our minds and it’s important to think good thoughts about other people and not revel in unkindness. The ‘Be Kind’ movement is very timely. It’s important to shift this negative culture of blame and shame, hate and highlighting faults. It’s time to focus on healing, health, happiness and compassion.

I’m a great believer in keeping ourselves healthy and safe in mind, body and spirit. Negativity and meanness create a bad cycle. George Orwell said that people at fifty had the face they deserve and I interpret that as meaning that people who have scowled for fifty years don’t look happy in middle-age. I worked with a woman who took every opportunity to bad-mouth all the people she came into contact with to someone else. I thought it was sad but it may have been no co-incidence when all her teeth rotted. So much bitterness can’t be good for us.

Once during my working day I offered a happy ‘Good morning’ to a colleague and she turned on me, snarling ‘Why are you always so bloody cheerful?’ I told her that I hoped her day would improve. Sometimes kindness doesn’t work, but I felt for my colleague that day as she hurried forward to her office head down, gnashing her teeth. I hoped that someone else would be there to give her support. She was a nice person. Some people’s problems can’t be helped by just a single moment of sweetness.

It’s not easy to keep ourselves positive all the time, but we can help each other. The world brims with opportunities for Schadenfreude, for rejoicing in someone’s plight, for heckling those in the spotlight, for finding fault, envying and baiting others. Blaming and bullying exists on many levels and we must actively try to stop it. Reaching out, smiling, offering a hand of support or a positive affirmation brings its own benefit. We can help people to see themselves in a good light or to walk away from toxicity.

Solidarity with others is an act of kindness. Sunshine warms; ice chills. Let’s all do ourselves and everyone else a favour and be nice. After all, it would seem that the bullies, as much as everyone else, need a gentle reminder that they are all human beings and the world is a better place when we all try to be humane.