Blog tours, new books and sunshine days

My blog tour for Lil’s Bus Trip started on 26th August and it continued to the 7th September. I loved every minute of it.

It was organised brilliantly, as ever, by Rachel’s Random Resources and Boldwood Books. I always look forward to blog tours; it’s a chance to meet up again with some reviewers that I’ve only known through previous blog tours but, after seven of my books have passed through their hands, they feel like good friends. I’ve experienced nothing but warmth and generosity, and a blog tour is simply a new novel being celebrated on a daily basis. I’ve met even more reviewers this time, people I’ve not encountered on blog tours before, and I’ve been touched by their kind words and their genuine interest.

Furthermore, once reviews are out, the amazing Boldwood writers’ community flies into action like a throng of doves, sweeping down to like, to retweet and to offer words of encouragement. What’s not to love about a blog tour? It is a real delight, three reviews to be savoured daily, and I’m already looking forward to the tour for my next release in December.

As those of you who know me will be aware, I’m a little bit prolific. I start writing something new, and then the obsession kicks in, and I have to keep going. I try to take time off for reflection before I write the whole thing from beginning to end, and every so often I make sure I enjoy an opportunity to read widely. I have several books lined up: I’ve just finished Ali Smith’s wonderful Summer, and next I’ll read the latest by Jessica Redland, and the upcoming new ones by Maddie Please, Fay Keenan and Louise Douglas. I’m always so thrilled to read books by so many talented writers.

I am writing a novel at the moment that is probably the third in line for 2022, and I’m 60k words in already. I have another book out next year under a new name (not dissimilar to my grandma’s maiden name) in a different genre, a dual time line that will be more than a bit spooky. There are other novels I’ve already written for next year too, stories about fun and friendship and living life to the full, stories about multi-generations and older protagonists who seize every precious moment to enjoy life.

And, while we’re discussing themes and upcoming blog tours, my next novel is out on December 7th. It’s called Golden Girls’ Getaway, and it’s about three women who leave London in a motor home for adventures across the UK. I adore the three protagonists and I’d love them to become my readers’ new best friends. Vivienne, Mary and Gwen are very different characters, as you’d expect, but in their own way they are each a force to be reckoned with.

While Lil continues on her bus trip, travelling across northern Europe to Amsterdam, the Golden Girls are getting ready to start their motor. I have an exciting cover to reveal, and then on December 7th, the new novel will see the light of day. I’m looking forward to making that date a really big celebration.

The blog tour for Lil’s Bus Trip was a truly sunny occasion for me; the weather has been glorious throughout, and the response to Lil’s adventures has been everything I’d hoped it would be. For that I send so much thanks to so many people. Please do read the novel: it’s available on kindle, or large or medium print paperbacks, hardback, or you can listen to it being read on audio, which I know will be incredible. I’m sure the characters, the songs and poems will burst into life.

So, please enjoy Lil, Cassie and Maggie’s frolics in France, Belgium and the Netherlands; it’s just out. In the winter, the Golden Girls will follow, and I hope you’ll want to travel with them and enjoy the wonderful locations they visit in the UK.

Please visit Amazon for the blurb and to pre-order: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Golden-Girls-Getaway-Judy-Leigh-ebook/dp/B09DV2TBPW/ref=sr_1_2?dchild=1&keywords=golden+girls+getaway&qid=1631038588&sr=8-2

And finally, I’d like to say a huge thanks to my readers, wherever you are: you are the people it’s really all about. A book without a reader is simply a closed book. Thank you for reading, for leaving wonderful reviews, and for joining me on this writing journey. Each time a new book comes out, I hope you’ll enjoy reading it as much as I enjoy writing.

 Each new page is a gift. x

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.

The Triumph of the England Football Team

Like many people in England, I stayed up late to watch the exciting match between England and Italy and, like many people, I have been aware of the aftermath this morning on the news: I usually listen to a sports channel in the gym and the programme was full of regrets because the team lost and bad news because a minority of fans have been disrespectful.

England lost. They played well, especially in the first half, and they held their opponents to a draw in extra time, meaning that there woud be a penalty shoot out, the most random coin-tossing way to end a game. Then three young English men, two in their early twenties and one just nineteen, took the last three penalties and failed to score.

Of course, after a game, the mamager takes all the responsibility on his shoulders and pundits are ready to criticise the fact that three youthful and less experienced players were left exposed to failure. Southgate himself, when he was a player, missed a vital penalty in an important match, plunging his team into a situation where they lost the game.

Against that background, and I’m sure Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka, are smarting today, there has been horrendous online racial abuse and camera footage of fans breaking into Wembley and behaving badly. Who’d be proud to be English today?

The answer is, the England team and the whole country should be proud of the achievement. There are so many positives to be taken from one narrowly lost match. We should not spend time and give credence to the negative behavour that accompanies the beautiful game. Thesr people are a minority, and do not represent the sport at all, although I hope the online abusers are taken to task and given a thorough programme of re-education – it has to stop.

I’ve never been a great England fan, although I do support my own Premiership team. But England as a team never really grabbed me. In my youth, the national flag didn’t signify much to me. I don’t need to mention some of the negatives that have come from certain flag wavers in the past. So, while I was happy when England did well, I wasn’t particularly moved by their losses.

This England team are different. They promote values that England, or any other national team would be proud of: Marcus Rashford’s tireless work for families in food poverty; Mason Mount visiting sick children in hospital; Jordan Henderson’s rainbow laces in his boots; Kalvin Phillips wearing a shirt with ‘Granny Val’ on the back, in memory of his grandmother. This team are a flagship for inclusion, equality and fairness in society and for me, that is England’s triumph. Forget the foolish few who still use sport as an occasion to be unpleasant. We should celebrate the positives. We have a team of young men who are heroes. They played heroically and the three young lads who stepped up to take those penalties demonstrated three singular acts of bravery.

As a team, England were seen as a united, inclusive and supportive group of men. Gareth Southgate, their manager,was a spokesman throughout for positivity and fairness. The players spoke lucidly about the values they promoted and I couldn’t help but admire them and get behind the team.

England will play again and become a better team for this experience: they are a young squad and they promote a culture where failure is not simply failure, it is a step towards success in the learning process. Yes, it hurts now, but they will be stronger and better for it. That doesn’t help much today – the team came very close to lifting a trophy, incredibly close. Today they will lick their wounds and wonder, if only…

But some of the images that come from the England fans, not the negative ones but the ones that make me cheer, are so important. The Muslim primary school kids in the classroom cheering the team on. The woman in the hijab who said that she suppoorts England because the team represent her. The woman who spoke on TV about being Raheem Sterling’s neighbour, how he used tho kick his ball over her garden as a kid and politely ask for it back. The England team have brought humanity, equality and fairness to football and they are a team who truly represent a country: they are brave, humble, tenacous, focused, fair, survivors.

I believe the England team will be a force to be reckoned with in the World Cup next year. And, whether they are successful or not, each team member should be proud of his achievements. Who says football doesn’t represent the best of a country? These young men were certainly some of the best and I am impressed, not just by their heroic performance, but for the people they are and the positive values they have made England’s throughout their campaign. Long may it continue.

The treasure inside the nutshell: talent that goes unnoticed.

It’s interesting to think about talented people and to stop for a moment and really take in just how good they are, in terms of their skills being so much more than what we know as average. I often use myself as the average against which to compare others, but in many ways, I don’t even make the average mark.

I like running a bit, not a lot: I can run along a beach for a mile or so, simply because of the freedom and the fresh air and the sound of the sea – it sort of buoys me along. But at speed, or for the duration of a marathon? No way. I look at the Paula Radcliffes of this world with awe – I’d never be that good, not if I trained for a millennium. And other sports men and women amaze me: Trent Alexander Arnold is only 22 years old – do you remember that perfect corner kick against Barcelona? And look at Tour de France riders, each gruelling day in the heat and the mountains, and those scary descents? I’m not even average when it comes to a comparison with those fit and courageous people.

Let me try and find an average – I have an A level in Art. I’m an average painter, perhaps. Or I used to be – I’m way out of practice and I never considered myself to be particularly good. So, if I go to an art gallery, it doesn’t matter who I look at – Turner, Van Gogh, Tracey Emin – the artists have so much more skill than I do. Or Music – I love music, and I dabble very badly and inconsistently. Then I consider the skills of real musicians, classical, rock, jazz, and I’m way below average. Again, I’m awestruck by the jaw-dropping skills.

I’ve just read Sarah Winman’s novel, Still Life. Utterly gob smacked. She’s taken her writing to another level. True talent absolutely sings.

Which leads me to wonder whether those special people, those with huge talent, magnificent skills beyond us all, will always rise to the top. Talent always shines, of course. But is it necessarily the case that everyone will see it?

No, it isn’t. Van Gogh, the ‘misunderstood genius,’ only sold one painting in his lifetime. Emily Dickinson’s incredible poems were edited furiously to conform to society’s norms and then only seven of them were published. Edgar Allen Poe couldn’t afford food, and died an impoverished alcoholic, yet he was one of the first to introduce the world to his stylised detective-fiction stories. My favourite poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, published only a few of his poems during his brief life: he died of typhoid in 1889, his last words being ‘I am so happy, I am so happy. I loved my life.’ He was bipolar and had battled depression. But his poems are stunning.

So, it follows that there are some super-talented people out there who are seldom noticed. At least Van Gogh and Emily Dickinson became famous for their genius, albeit after they had died. But there are many incredibly talented people whose skills remain unsung. I’m sure of it – I taught theatre to so many kids who had no idea of their potential and little in the way of self-belief to push beyond the expected ceiling they felt kept them and their expectations low.

My brother is one such person – a blinkered secondary school ignored his many abilities. He can do things that amaze me, both in terms of painting and engineering and in logical thinking, but of course that goes unrecognised when the only expectation of a  student is to be quiet, to conform and to copy from a book. No wonder he was a rebel.

And there’s a friend of mine, whose name I won’t mention as it will embarrass him. We worked together for years. He was a lowly paid technician and jack-of-all-trades who was asked to perform appliance tests and fix small electrical faults. But on sports days, open days, publicity opportunities or at theatre events, a huge burden of work was thrown at him because of his talent, because he was the only one capable of shining. It was seldom recognised, apart from a bit of fleeting thanks or a brief flurry of quickly-forgotten compliments, but the man was a genius. He produced lighting sets, films, recordings of exceptional quality without the proper equipment; sometimes he resorted to using his own equipment, or even having to buy it. The world took him for granted. ‘Oh, could you just… it will only take a minute.’

Then this exceptional man, a gifted musician, a film maker in his own right, would be given a mammoth task, a short deadline, no financial recompense, no change of status, and he’d come up with breath-taking work beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. He was way, way beyond the average, and he certainly surpassed his pay grade and everyone’s expectations. Let’s hope he’ll be remembered for it properly at some point…

Unsung geniuses are amongst us everywhere. They may seem insignificant to others, like the small kernel of a nutshell, but they are made of solid gold. I could mention a musician I know who is such a focused maestro he can’t operate a mobile phone. I know writers, actors, editors, teachers, nurses, engineers, people whose gifts are magical and a joy to behold, and yet these people remain humble, unaware of the extent of their gifts and often underappreciated.

So, this blog post is for you all, those of you who maybe don’t even know how special you are, how strongly your gifts shine, how you are so far beyond the average, you are solid gold, you are diamonds. I can’t remember who said it, but this quotation puts you right up there, where you should be. And thank you for sharing your gifts – you make the world a wonderful place.

‘Skill reaches the ceiling, talent reaches the mountaintop, excellence reaches the sky, but genius reaches the stars.’

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 Last Day of Term

This is a true story from a Drama lesson that took place several years ago, when I taught theatre in a secondary school. I loved my job and it enabled me to do something I really believed in and to have great fun at the same time. I have so many fond memories of so many wonderful people.

I send my best wishes and respect to teachers and students everywhere.

(All names of real people have been changed…)

It was December 21st, the last day of term. The hard bite of the air and the hunched backs against the cold foreshadowed Christmas, as did a few of the dull, beer-fuzzed heads in the staff room, and the broadening grins of the students.

I was teaching Hamlet to a GCSE group; I knew the themes of death and revenge would spark a lively response in the enthusiastic sixteen-year-old students, who had a strong sense of moral justice and loyalty.

The students put on costumes and set the space in the classroom for ‘The Mousetrap,’ the play Hamlet stages in order to expose his Uncle’s guilt. This is the big scene, where Claudius reveals that he has killed Hamlet’s father.

Claudius, played by Danny McCormick, was seated by the full-length window next to his new wife, Gertrude, Cheryl Egan, who gazed at him with disgust – he wasn’t her favourite choice of husband. Danny, however, was kingly material, spreading out his legs and stretching his arms behind his head in a triangle, a perfect praying mantis. Hamlet, Gertrude’s moody son, was Gary Gornall, cast because he displayed a natural condescension in his facial expression. ‘Do I get to kill Danny in this scene, eh, Miss? I mean, I am the boss, like.’

I explained that Hamlet would expose the king’s guilt in front of the entire court and Gary was even happier when I said that he could flirt with Louise Jackson as Ophelia: the idea brought an immediate expression of manly pride to his scowl.

There was a scuffling above us, from the library on the first floor. Friday period one always meant that Gordon Fishwick, tall, bearded and erudite, was teaching 5C in the library. I was used to the noises which occurred during their study time, usually accompanied by a regular booming demand for ‘Silence in my library’. To cover the noise, I used Queen’s song, ‘Another One Bites the Dust,’ as backing music for the mimed ‘dumb show’. The rest of the class, in role as courtiers in the audience, cheered and applauded as the villain killed the player-king and the player-queen’s histrionic gesture sent her falling to the floor in a faint, the villain brandishing a ruler as a prop.

Gary launched loudly into an improvised verbal attack on King Claudius. ‘Hey Uncle -.yer big meff – is there anything you wanna tell me? I know you been wit’ me ma – is there anything’ else you wanna confess though, pal?’

The king rises,’ yelled Ophelia, word-perfect, bang on cue. The class caught its breath as one. Then the singing started above us.

          ‘While shepherds washed their socks at night in front of the TV…’

‘Oh, Miss!’ the entire class sighed and rolled their eyes upwards as the carol singing from the library increased to the volume of a football chant.

‘Shall I go and tell them to shut up?’ offered Hamlet graciously, waving a fist.

The play’s the thing…’ I prompted with a grin, and the action recommenced.

Hamlet leapt towards the indignant Claudius, his face furious.

 ‘Who’s guilty now then, pal?’ he asked, his brows knitted in filial obligation, ready to revenge his father’s foul and most unnatural murder. 

‘Leave your uncle alone, Hamlet.’ screeched Gertrude, suddenly protective. ‘Or I’ll give you a good talking to!’

As if to foreshadow the next piece of action, a loud rumbling sound like thunder came from the library above. We all turned in unison to see books flying past the window, and an erupting groan from 5C above signalled their unanimous disapproval.

‘Hey, Miss – they are ruining our play. We can’t work in conditions like this.’ moaned Hamlet, gesturing in the air with despair.

‘Go and sort them out, Miss.’ Gertrude suggested, folding her arms in annoyance.

‘Let’s carry on,’ suggested Ophelia. ‘The King rises!

What? Frighted with false fire?’ grunted Gary Gornall, now embodying Hamlet in all but school uniform.

‘Oh, no – look at that!’ gasped the loyal Horatio, Billy Beer, as we all saw the library curtains descending from the skies in a flourish of flames.

Lights! Lights! Lights!’ yelled Polonius, his glasses reflecting the leaping conflagration. The class applauded; the spectacle of Shakespearian theatre was alive in the room.

Hamlet was whirling around, full of antic disposition, his face shining.  ‘Marry, this means mischief.’ he told the audience with a wide grin.

At this point, Mr Fishwick himself made his entrance behind the widow, head first. His glasses slipping down to his brow, his mouth a spherical silent scream, he was being lowered from the gallery to the stalls by his ankles, quickly whisked back up into the air and lowered again, screaming.

The class cheered in unison; Act 3 Scene 2 could not have ended with a better fanfare.

The bell rang. The cast of ‘The Mousetrap’ went off to Geography and I went up to the library to make Gordon Fishwick a cup of chamomile tea and remind him that the Christmas holidays were just a few lessons away.

My top five living-life-and-loving-it feel-good films

My novels have often been described as uplifting or feel-good, and I like this epithet very much. While I enjoy a good gothic tale or a thriller as much as anyone else, the idea that my stories entertain and make people feel positive about life is a great compliment.

Recently, I was sent a message on social media from someone who was feeling low: now we’re back in lockdown, the blues had set in and she was searching for films to watch on during the evening to lift her spirit. I recommended something and then wondered what else she might watch.

So I set myself the small task of putting together my top five feel good films to cheer people up. This was much more difficult that I thought it might be: my favourite film in the world, Everything is Illuminated, is uplifting but it also contains scenes of such pathos that I felt the need to re-examine my definition. So, if I mean by ‘feel-good films’ that they will make a person whose mood is low feel more positive about life, then I have to ensure that there is nothing at all in the film that will detract from that fuzzy sensation of warmth, benevolence and uplifting joy.

Let’s be clear: one or two films from the list below wouldn’t necessarily make the list of my top favourite films. I do like a thought-provoking movie, a film that makes me laugh or ones which are cleverly contrived or well-performed, but I’ve made a point of omitting anything that might not be universally perceived to be uplifting, so it’s goodbye for the time being to Inglourious Basterds, Withnail and I and Parasite.

So here goes with my top five:

Number 5. Rocketman

I didn’t expect to like this film. I’m not a great fan of Elton John’s music; Bohemian Rhapsody was just out and achieving great reviews; the musical theatre style of the film seemed an odd choice and the opening scene where Elton attends counselling in full regalia before the film whooshes back to his early life seemed a too-predictable beginning. However, the film really works: I watched the whole thing with an open mind and I loved it. Taron Egerton’s performance takes it to another level and it is an inspiring and moving film.

 Number 4. Mary and Max

This is a brilliant Australian stop-motion adult animated comedy-drama film written and directed by Adam Elliot. It is a beautiful story of the pen-pal relationship between two very different people, Mary Dinkle, a lonely eight-year-old living in Melbourne and Max Horovitz, a Jewish man who has Asperger’s syndrome and lives in New York. Their correspondence becomes an emotional lifeline for both characters and reveals the details of their unhappy existences. Superbly performed by Toni Collette, Barry Humphries and Philip Seymour Hoffman

Number 3.  The Intouchables

 This film is a French comedy-drama with a powerful rapport between the two main characters. Philippe is a wealthy quadriplegic who employs Driss, a man who has no interest in the role whatsoever, to be his caregiver and driver. It’s an interesting ‘buddy’ film which is funny and poignant. It has been labelled a heart-warming film; it has also been called condescending, and I can understand both responses: it does rely on some racial, social and cultural stereotypes. But it is watchable and, in its purest form, it shows that friendship, love and respect can be found in many places. It’s definitely a feel-good film.

 Number 2. The Commitments

I adore Roddy Doyle’s novels and Alan Parker’s films. The story is set in working-class Dublin in the 1980s, where young music enthusiast Jimmy Rabbit assembles a soul band called the Commitments. Poignant, well-acted and thought-provoking, this film is funny and heartfelt with some belting tunes, brilliantly performed. It takes the viewer on a musical journey full of laughs and yet it remains authentic and thought-provoking.

Number One. The Birdcage

Robin Williams is, as we know, a superb performer who gave the world so much joy with many roles, from Jakob the Liar to Dead Poets’ Society. In The Birdcage, he plays Armand, a gay nightclub owner who pretends to be a straight cultural attaché when his son brings home his fiancée and her traditional parents. Armand lists the help of various people to change his apartment and act out the deception with truly hilarious and heartwarming effect. Highly recommended – it will make you laugh out loud and fall in love with the characters. That’s perhaps, a true definition of feel-good.

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