Olympics, Football: it’s all about the supporters.

I really enjoyed watching the Olympic games on TV recently. There’s something very inspirational and moving about seeing the performance of talented athletes who have dedicated years to perfecting their skills, the culmination of their training coming to fruition in the Olympic arena against others who are also at the top of their game. It’s very emotional, watching the triumphs and tears, listening to winners dedicate their medals to those who have supported and encouraged them, and also to see the resolve of those who determine to do better next time.

I love to watch gymnastics, cycling and high jump: it’s always enjoyable to see the sports we’ve dabbled in ourselves and know how hard it is to be really so good. There were unforgettable moments: it was wonderful to see Italy’s Gianmarco Tamberi and Mutaz Barshim of Qatar who agreed to share the high jump gold medal. Tamberi belly flopped on the tarmac, rolling around and screaming in delight, a really joyful moment. What a perfect solution to such an exciting and evenly-matched competition between athletes with so much mutual respect.

Other highlights were Tom Daley’s beautifully-knitted Olympics cardigan, his medals and the warm dedication he made on TV to his family. I loved Jason and Laura Kenny’s track triumphs. I was equally moved by GB Cyclist Katie Archibald’s crash, watching her get up and say ‘Never mind, it happens,’ and resetting her focus to win the madison days later. Such moments inspire us all to keep going.

There were sports I didn’t think I liked: I’d never really considered synchronised swimming as something I’d enjoy. But when I watched the Russian team’s performance, I was truly blown away. And the Rugby Sevens gripped me from start to finish: it is such a pacy and exciting game.

Then there were the sports I knew little about but I was so enthralled to watch. Skateboarding, BMX – freestyle and racing. New names and faces emerged on the screen, such as Charlotte Worthington and Kye Whyte, such dedicated and articulate youngsters who are a credit to their families and their country.

I was thoroughly impressed by the coverage on TV, the experts who talked through the different sports with seasoned presenter Gabby Logan, and the brilliant combination of Claire Balding and Alex Scott who brought banter, warmth and a great rapport to their part of the show. It was a real celebration of diverse sports, people and communities.

Indeed, what was truly great about this Olympics was the inclusivity: people from different parts of the globe, different voices and accents, different sports, different outcomes, a celebration of everyone who represented their country, from all backgrounds, with a range of experiences. And we watched the highs and lows, our breaths held, supporting every moment.

And so the football season kicks off soon, and I hope we can take this positivity forward now as supporters of the beautiful game. The backdrop of transfer gossip is already thriving: moneyed clubs stockpiling great players, Grealish moving to City, Harry Kane’s future in the balance. The final Premiership table result at the end of the season ought to reflect the buying power of the rich. What chance do Norwich have? But for the fans, each game is another chance to compete and to win, the thrill of possibility, and each 90 minutes is about the excitement, disappointment, and every triumph is to be savoured.

Supporters play such a key part, even more so if the stadia are full again. Pundits and fans need to do what they are meant to do, support and celebrate. That means not booing players who take the knee, their powerful symbol against racism. It means not haranguing a player who misses a penalty, lets in a goal or has a nightmare of a game. It means not relishing the opportunity to repeatedly focus on someone’s mistake: schadenfreude as a spectator sport is unpleasant to observe on TV during or after any game.

Furthermore, supporting a team on social media should mean positive encouragement and celebration. I was shocked to hear that 20% of the racist abuse on social media last season was directed at just four players. Imagine how they feel! We need to get behind our team and we need to allow others to do the same: it is not acceptable to abuse anyone for any reason. I’m not a Villa supporter, (they gave my team a real pasting last season that I’d prefer to forget but these things happen,) although I respect their style of play. But I have so much time for Villa’s Tyrone Mings, who is a great ambassador for the sport, and I think his comments after the European Championships sum the situation up so well. Not just his taking Priti Patel to task over her dismissive and dangerous labelling of the anti-racism message as ‘gesture politics,’ but his words about how he felt during the Euros, and how the tangible lack of support affected his ability to play his best game on the pitch. He said:

‘I was probably the only name on the team sheet that people thought: ‘Not sure about him.’ And that was something I had to overcome. When 90-95% of your country are having doubts over you, it’s very difficult to stop this intruding on your own thoughts. So I did a lot of work on that with my psychologist. It was hard. I didn’t really sleep very well before that first game.’

Tyrone Mings’s comments sum up perfectly how incredibly difficult it must be to stand in the spotlight and feel alone and unsupported. Psychology and mental health are such a large part of any sport, and negativity from fans and pundits must seep through those players’ shirts and sap their ability to give their best. We can’t ask players to excel when their heads are full of threats, fears and disapproval. We have to change that culture: support doesn’t mean that it’s all right to say negative things about players from different teams, nor does it mean that it is helpful to decimate our own players if they do something human, such as make a mistake. In fact, Tyrone Mings expresses it perfectly: by disrespecting our own players, we are preventing them from giving their best. The essence of support must be the same support we give to our families, our friends and our children, the same support that says it’s all right to make a mistake, to get it wrong: we can grow, develop, progress and triumph.

Back to the Olympic games, consider the performance of Joe Choon. He was the first British man to win gold in the modern pentathlon. Five years after losing a silver medal by poor target shooting, he spent months in lockdown practising on a make-shift range in his back garden, determined to use past failure to create success. He said, ‘I’ve always said I wanted to be the best in the world at something,’ and he has done exactly that. Determination and skill are vital, but also it’s so important to be surrounded by coaches, family, friends, experts who believe that you can succeed and will provide the support to do so.

And I believe that negative words can be the marginal difference between a thriving sports person who forges ahead and one who doesn’t, who is filled with self-doubt and anxiety. So, as the football season begins, let’s take all the incredible positives from these Olympic games, the great inclusivity, belief, celebration, ups and downs, and apply it to the teams we cheer for and support each week. And, within that culture of success and positivity, we will always respect the ones we don’t.

To care or not to care, that is the question….

When I was in my teens, I had a boyfriend – let’s call him Alexander – who told me ‘You care too much about people who don’t matter.’ I was intrigued by that comment and, being a bit of a philosopher, I went away and thought about it a lot. The first bit, I accepted: I maybe do care too much. According to my mother, I was ‘too sensitive.’ I wrote poems, didn’t eat meat, joined political groups that campaigned for fairness, inclusion and equality. I cared, and maybe it was too much at times, but I was a teenager, and passionate. However, the next part of Alexander’s sentence bothered me a lot. ‘…about people who don’t matter.’  I gave that quite a lot of thought. Who decides who matters and who doesn’t? Why do some people matter more than others? What defines the ones who don’t matter? And doesn’t that mean that someone should start to care about those side-lined people? Needless to say, I was a bit unimpressed, and Alexander and I didn’t last very long after that statement.

Of course, I grew up and I realised that what he was probably talking about was simply learning to prioritise. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he meant that he thought I should prioritise the good people, family, friends, my boyfriend… People who were first in the queue as recipients of my kindness were those I should care about first and, if there was space left over, I could then offer a bit of thought and benevolence for those I didn’t know well, or at all.

Alexander’s criteria for judgement were not mine: I wanted to reserve the right to care about who I liked, to be charitable, thoughtful, to seek out people who I may want to care about for reasons that were my own. And that didn’t just extend to people I knew, but to hordes of people I’d never meet, but who have reasons to be considered and supported.

Through experience, I’m beginning to learn that, had Alexander substituted the word people for the word things, he’d have been spot on. I definitely am learning to care less about things that don’t matter. That’s so important. And I’m getting quite good now at deciding which things to prioritise and which to ignore, which to give credence to and which not to even think about twice.

In a room in my house, I have several inspirational posters, ranging from Just Write and You’ve Got This to quotations by Maya Angelou and Sylvia Plath. But on my desk, I just have one inspirational message, that urges me in quite clear language to care less about things that don’t matter. In short, that includes everything negative that worries me, everything I can’t change, everything temporary and secondary, that in the grand scheme of things doesn’t matter. I might learn from these negative things, I might even consider them for a moment, but I won’t care. I include things like mistakes and criticism, (I’m only human and I’ll learn from them, but I don’t need to beat myself up,) negative opinions from people I don’t know, irrelevant things like cars and hoovering, that sort of thing. And it’s really useful to have that reminder on my desk when I’m stuck on the phone trying to talk to some provider or another, and I’ve been waiting for twenty-five minutes listening to the worst possible music. It’s not a priority. I leave the phone on speaker and go back to my typing. In those cases, caring less is a blessing.

So, back to Alexander, all those years ago. He was only young, and I’m sure what he meant could be summed in the words, ‘think about the effect that caring has on you yourself.’ Perhaps he was just being caring. And perhaps he had a point, but didn’t phrase it right. So, wherever he is now, I hope he’s caring about all the people in the world who matter. That’s pretty much everybody. And I hope he’s happy.

Note to myself as this time of restrictions comes to an end…

Like many people, I have dreamed and planned for a long time what I’ll actually do to celebrate when the time of Covid restrictions comes to an end. I haven’t spoken to most of these people face to face, of course, but at a social distance and, more times than not, over social media. There’s been a lot of talk about how we’ll enjoy throwing away face masks, meeting friends down the pub, hugging beloved and much missed relatives and going to gigs and theatre again. Planning holidays is a favourite topic – there are so many places we’ll be so desperate to go. And it’s no surprise. Once restrictions are lifted, it’s natural to want to live a little, a lot, to catch up, to make up for lost time.

Many people have started celebrating already – I have friends who’ve been to the theatre, to football matches, who have taken off on motor home holidays across the UK. Once we’re double-jabbed and we feel safer to be out and about, we’ll all deserve to have a good time. I’ve done my best to start getting back to normal – I’ve met up with relatives I haven’t seen in too long; I’ve organised to go away for weekends in the van.

But, as August approaches, something unexpected has crept in to slow my plans down. I just don’t seem to be able to organise anything. I’m a sociable person; there are so many people I’ve missed, so why am I not rushing to email, phone and text them to arrange visits, invite friends round for dinner? And the answer is very simple – torpor.

I don’t understand it. There are so many people I’d love to see again. We message each other regularly, exchange views about books, tell each other we’re dying to catch up and send streams of emojis. So why am I filled with a lethargy that tells me I can sort it all out tomorrow? It doesn’t make sense.

Unless, perhaps, the restrictions we’ve been living under have somehow seeped through our skin and made us feel that this old way of life, being separate and distant, is now normal. This strange hesitation to ring friends and throw our arms around them is due to the fact that we haven’t thrown our arms around them for far too long. Coronavirus has had the effect of continued electric shock treatment and, like the babies in Huxley’s Brave New World, we are afraid to reach out and grab that which we want in the fear of being stung again. What happens if there is another spike of the virus?

Or perhaps the torpor is really not torpor at all, but a learned lethargy? We’ve sunken into a habit of slobbing around the house in pyjamas, taking zoom calls half-dressed. Someone told me recently that they were nervous about going back to work in an office because they hadn’t worn ‘normal clothes’ in so long. Being among people again and relearning the codes we readily accepted before may be more difficult to assimilate than we realise. It’s as if the skills to socialise and the impetus to resume a normality have become temporarily dormant.

Of course, so many key workers put their heads down and worked on while many others of us have stayed at home: thoughts of getting back to normal are not happening to them because they’ve had to run on the treadmill of a strange new normal for the last eighteen months. For that we will all be eternally grateful.

But what about my social life, the one that I’ve left on the shelf to sort out tomorrow, or soon, or some time in the future? I have so many friends on social media that I talk to regularly, but that’s no replacement for real life eye-to eye contact, that exciting buzz of live meeting of minds and sharing of thoughts and ideas. I’ve said too many times, ‘we must meet soon,’ ‘we must get together.’ Now I need to actually do something about it. I need to invite people round, meet them for coffee, dinner, walks, whatever. I need to get my old life back, and soon, while I can. I’ve used work, deadlines, time frames, distance and Covid as excuses for far too long and that has to stop.

So, whether it is lethargy, torpor or the fact that I need to change from the old tattered vest and shorts into proper clothes and actually put some shoes on, I need to be active. Then, and I’m sure everyone understands this feeling, when I’m back to normal and laughing and enjoying the company of friends, I’ll wonder what held me back and why it took me so long.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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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