My novel Heading over the Hill and the three stages of marriage.

When I wrote Heading over the Hill, I decided that my main protagonists would be a married couple who arrive in West Devon. Having left their children behind in their former house in Lancashire, they are now looking for a new life, an opportunity to start again.

My protagonists Billy and Dawnie are retired and in their early seventies. They have inherited some money  from Billy’s father and they want to buy a new home. Their children have grown, they have grandchild, great grandchildren, so the opportunity to start again is exciting. They have shared fond memories and they have different views on their newly empty nest, but they are both convinced that they have an ideal opportunity to concentrate on themselves.

Dawnie and Billy’s marriage hasn’t been an easy one. It’s been filled with children and laughter but, for some of the time, Billy has been an absent father. Although loyal to his wife, Billy is far from the perfect husband and Dawnie has had to shoulder much of the responsibility for day-to-day living over the years. Their marriage hasn’t been easy.

Billy and Dawnie aren’t a conventional couple. He keeps his Harley Davidson in the hall and she is outspoken and bold, wearing bright wigs and clothes. Not all the neighbours like them immediately but, as a couple, they are inseparable and fiercely loyal to each other.

Many people will recognise the stages of Billy and Dawnie’s marriage and, although I wanted to focus on the ‘third’ stage, a succinct history of the first two stages was important to establish in order to create a background to their story.

They met in their early twenties, besotted with each other, quickly recognizing their soul mate in the other and, without any careful thought for the future, they married and began a family. The first stage of marriage can be, in many cases, a whirlwind of strong emotions, a belief that the relationship will last forever, that it is idyllic and that true love is everything. Love conquers all! Of course, this doesn’t describe everyone’s first stage of a long-term partnership, but  Dawnie and Billy hurled themselves into marriage believing that it was going to be perfect forever, and much easier than they thought.

The second stage of their marriage was the treadmill stage, the mayhem of bringing up children that Emma Murray writes about so wittily in Time Out. For couples who don’t have children, perhaps it’s a more settled stage although external demands like careers and mortgages usually rear their heads for us all. But when Billy and Dawnie’s two children, Lindy Lou and Buddy, arrive they dominate their parents’ daily existence. With Billy not always present, or with frequent changes unsettling the family regime, life is not easy for Dawnie and, in fairness, Billy has a history which remains with him in the present. The love-conquers-all dream becomes simply about day-to-day survival.

Billy and Dawnie decide it’s time to move to Devon and find the perfect house by the sea. The third stage of their marriage is ‘their time’. The children are no longer dependent and Dawnie and Billy have the opportunity to follow their own path and to choose the life they would prefer. They rent a house in Margot Street, immediately termed ‘Maggot Street’ by Dawnie, in order to search for the dream house.

This third stage of marriage should be the most settled, arguably the easiest and the most deservedly selfish. Billy and Dawnie have earned it. They have come a long way together. Instead, they find themselves in a neighbourhood where not everyone likes each other. They make new friends, an enemy or two, and they discover that the empty nest is still a real issue and that they have to rethink a lot of their settled  beliefs about life and marriage.

Heading over the Hill is Billy and Dawnie’s story, focusing on the stage of marriage after the children have grown, but it is also the story of others’ relationships. There are other characters whose stories may resonate: a widow, a lonely man searching for love; two people stuck in a miserable relationship; a blissfully happy couple or two. It is about people reaching out to each other, about fun, sharing, communities and kindness, but also it is about life being lived at its fullest, enjoying each day as a blessing.

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My plant based fish ‘n’ chips recipe… Friday nights won’t be the same again.

I’m not a fan of meals such as fish and chips. I am one of those strange people who don’t like chips, deep- fried or greasy foods, and so I seldom make anything that involves frying. However, I’m so pleased with this recipe, which isn’t greasy at all, that I’ll make it again.

For three people, you’ll need one tin of banana blossoms, which you can find in most supermarkets now. You’ll also need some nori (seaweed) flakes or blitzed-up nori sheets, which impart a ‘fishy’ smell but not too-strong a taste. Again, these ingredients aren’t hard to source. I buy them in supermarkets or local shops.

Also, this dish is ridiculously easy to make from scratch and doesn’t take too long.

To make the plant-based ‘fish’, put some gram (chick pea) flour, some nori flakes and some garlic powder in a bowl. I haven’t included exact measurements – a cup and a half of gram flour and a tbsp of the other two are a rough guide if you need one. Add a pinch of salt and pepper, and a cup of panko breadcrumbs or your own home-made crumbs from blitzed bread.

Rinse the banana blossoms under water to get rid of the excess brine and keep them as intact as you can. Shake the sieve but keep the banana blossoms damp, then shove them around in the gram flour mixture to coat them. Wrap the end bits around themselves and don’t worry if the pieces aren’t identical or neat. Put the ‘fish’ in the fridge for half an hour or so.

I air fry the chips – I suppose you could deep fat fry them or use oven chips. For me, air-fried chips are crispy, very dry and not fatty.

Then I cooked a couple of cups of frozen peas, drained them, added chopped mint and a couple of tbsp of vegan cream and roughly mashed them, then I added some ground black pepper and a tbsp water to loosen the peas.

I fried the ‘fish’ in 2 inches of sunflower oil in batches of two, flipping them once, until they were brown.

I served the lot with some lemon mayonnaise dressing. You can make your own or dress up a brand mayo with a squidge of lemon juice and some chopped herbs such as parsley or coriander.

This dish is easy to make, very tasty and a crowd pleaser. I’ve never been one for trying to copy conventional meat or fish meals but when it tastes this good, and banana blossom is accessible and relatively cheap, there’s no reason to hold back.

This may become a regular Friday night thing!

Short story

It’s rare that I write about myself. In my novels, characters and situations are imaginary. I rarely bring myself into what I write, although I include what I know and if I don’t, my ideas will be inspired by other people or based on research. Many of my older characters have something of the inspirational men and women I am privileged to know personally, and I rarely allow a character to behave in a certain way without thinking or asking ‘Could *** do that?’ or ‘How would ***** react?’

But here’s a rare thing – a story about an early experience of my own. I wrote it in response to an exercise in a writers’group andf I thought I’d share it. I was about three years old and I remember it vividly.

I hope you enjoy the short story. I haven’t found a title for it yet.

***********************************************************************

The damp stink of decay hangs in the air. Trees surround me, the tangle of spreading roots visible above the earth, and I stand close to a tall oak. I look up at a graze of light sky between boughs.

‘Stay there,’ my father says, his hands lost in the huge pockets of his coat.

He walks away and I do as I am told. My feet are firmly planted, but I don’t feel safe. I stare down at little wellingtons, wet mud squelching around them; at a few sodden twigs, skeletons of leaves. Empty acorns are scattered a few feet away. I watch the line of trees stretch as far as I can see and my father blends in: his coat is the same hard grey as the trunks, then he’s gone.

It’s cold, November. I know I have to stay where I am. A few leaves twirl down, dull orange, tumbling in the wind, spanned hands waving. I listen. The silence holds a breath and I wait. I gaze up again; branches interlocked, a canopy of foliage overhead, squeezing away the light.

I take a step forward and murmur ‘Daddy?’

 A twig snaps beneath my boot then there’s no sound. It’s quiet; then from somewhere in the distance, a wood pigeon coos, a low warning. I wonder if Death lives in the woods and if he is a man wrapped inside a tree, if he’s watching me now.

‘Daddy?’

I hunker close to a trunk, gnarled branches twisting up like knotty fingers, and put out my hand to touch the bark. It is rough, scratchy against my soft-pudding hands. There is a smell of rotting leaves, wet mulch, and I try not to breathe in too much.

A noise makes me jerk, a single crack like a whiplash, then there’s a fluttering of something falling from high, through leaves and twigs. I squeeze my eyes shut and try not to think. Another sound splits the air, exactly the same, a snap from a rifle, then the gentle tumbling.

I open my eyes and he’s striding towards me, feet soundless, tall in his grey coat. Then he’s here; he takes my hand.

‘Good girl.’

I notice my father’s coat hangs differently now; something else fills the inside pockets besides the barrel, something softer, still warm.

We walk back through the forest, with no sound but our feet snapping twigs and the sinking squelch of boots in mud.

My mother will be waiting at home: she’ll have everything ready, and then she’ll make supper.

A short story about Lockdown:

Here’s a short story I wrote recenty about lockdown. I know a lot of people are by themselves, in flats where they have no access to outdoor spaces. Thinking of what it must be like to be in that situation, I wrote a few lines.

The First Floor Flat

Outside is bleak.

Inside is quiet, except for the soft hum of the laptop. And the silence: silence has a hum all of its own.

I stare through the window again but I’m not sure what I’m hoping to see. There’s no activity below in the street. London is a ghost town. A zombie town. A lockdown town.

I go back to the computer; my next zoom appointment is in half an hour; it’s Carl. I have to talk to him about how he’s tried to find work over the last four weeks. I’m his work coach. It will be a short meeting.

I go over to the old armchair and stare at the mantelpiece. There’s a photo of me with Joanna and the girls from years ago, before the split. I pick it up and run a finger over their faces, over the layer of dust. I haven’t seen Hannah and Daisy since March.

I think about making a cup of tea. I’ll have one later. I sit in the armchair and the sagging cushions arrange themselves around me. I close my eyes, put a thumb and forefinger in the space between them and press hard. It offers no relief.

There’s a scratching sound, spiked claws against the upholstery of the armchair. It’s Bella. She’s revving up to ask for food again.

I bend over and rub the fur between her ears and the softness of it makes me breathe out. I think again that I shouldn’t have brought her home: a kitten confined in a first-floor flat isn’t really fair.

She springs up on my knee and nuzzles my hand, bumps against it with her wet nose, then she rolls over.

It’s the exposed belly that does it: utter trust. The legs lifted wide, the rounded hump, black and white, lightly furred. Her eyes are almost closed; there’s the edge of a fang, the hint of pinkness inside the mouth. I place a hand over her tummy and my palm fits perfectly. She doesn’t move; she is purring, waiting, sure that I will feed her. I press a finger beneath her soft chin and suddenly my face is wet. I swallow the sadness that constricts my throat, the realisation that I haven’t spoken to anyone today, that I haven’t held anyone in my arms for weeks. This small creature waves a leg, curls the tip of her tail: she seems to know.

I wipe my eyes on the sleeve of my jumper and pick her up, holding her against my cheek, then I place her on the threadbare carpet. She’s off, running between my feet, bumping against my ankles as we rush to the kitchen and I throw a few rattling biscuits into a cat bowl. She’s purring again, a little motorized sound of contentment. I decide I’ll make a cup of tea and go back to the computer. Carl will be on the screen soon to tell me how he tried unsuccessfully to get a job at Pret. I’ll need to sound optimistic.                                               

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.

If The Old Girls’ Network was a film, who would play the roles…?

Perhaps every writer dreams of seeing her or his work produced on film.  After all, great stories make good theatre and good television, or good movies. I love to imagine who’d play the major roles in my novels if they were made into films. I’ve always been fascinated by the psychology of casting and, whenever I’ve directed plays in the past, I was told I was quite good at selecting the right person for the role, both physically and in terms of the ‘energy’ they communicate to an audience.

There are two ways of getting the casting ‘right’: one is to select the obvious choice that ticks all the boxes for most people – think Tom Hardy as James Bond – or, alternatively, we can go with instinct and pick an actor who may not be everyone’s obvious first choice for that role but there is something essentially quirky about them that will make it work – think Heath Ledger as The Joker, Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan or Robert Downey Junior as Chaplin. Instinct and essence are right up there and can often work better than predictability.

When I cast my novels as films, I’m dreaming beyond my wildest dreams, of course – should a TV director come knocking, it would be incredible to have access to a range of the most talented and famous actors, although I’ll gladly concede that there are thousands of brilliant actors out there who, although yet unheard of, are yet to make their name and if they are going to steal a scene, I’d love it to be a scene in one of my books.

Before I reveal my dream choice of cast for The Old Girls’ Network, I have to say that when I’m writing a book, I don’t start with famous actors’ faces or voices in my head. I don’t design a character in a story so that it can be played by a particular personality. Nor do I expect my chosen actors to match the character descriptions, age or background of the ones in my book: it’s the essence of the character I’m looking for, not the exact fit. You’ll see exactly what I mean.

The setting of the book is a Somerset village, and I’d need to create a community dynamic between all the villagers, both in terms of tensions and compatibility. So, let’s start with Barbara – she’s in her late seventies, starchy and difficult at first, but also vulnerable; she’s been hurt in the past and she steels herself against further complications in life by being austere. So, to play Barbara I’d go for the staccato voice, the vulnerable facial expressions and the strong character of Emma Thompson who, although she’s much younger than Barbara, is such a talented actor that she’d interpret perfectly the nuances between crotchety and kind; she’d have the subtext of each moment perfectly played out.

Pauline is a softer character but she’s no pushover; she is strong, independent and yet capable of loyalty and warmth. I’d choose Celia Imrie, whose comic background, poise and CV are impressive. Again, despite being ten years younger than Pauline, Celia would be the perfect actor to interpret her strength of character and her resilience while also showing her softer side.

Bisto is easy to cast and I have to say, I had several contenders for this role and changed my mind a few times. Small of frame, mischievous, intelligent but deeply wounded by his past, Bisto would be played by Colm Meaney who would demonstrate vulnerability, warmth and an ability to appeal to an audience through comedy and pathos. He’d be a heartbreaker.

To play Len Chatfield, the love-struck Romeo farmer who is often rendered speechless and awkward, I would select Bill Nighy. He’s a great comic actor and, although he often plays more verbose characters, I think he has exactly the right measure of pathos and warmth to make Len the audience’s darling. A Gabriel Oak character, Len is strong on the outside and gentle inside: Bill would be a perfect magnet for the audience’s sympathy.

Dizzy, the hairdresser whom Barbara says is named after a potato, would be played brilliantly by Amanda Lawrence, who is an ex-theatre student of mine and was in the film Suffragette several years ago. Check her out. Sparky, funny and adorable, she’d be ideal as Dizzy. Hugo, the man from the manor, would be Rhys Ifans, yes, really – he’d do a great job in a smart suit. Kostas the Greek hunk who cleans windows would be Baris Arduç, a Turkish TV presenter who fits the bill in terms of the physical ability to embody the role.

Jamie Bell would play Len’s son Gary: again, he doesn’t exactly match the physical type from the novel but he can blend a broodiness with a sadness that will make Gary not entirely unlikeable. Chrissie the vicar would be played by Helena Bonham Carter, who would bring a briskness and a bit of glamour to the character. Imagine her wanging that welly!

There are several other characters I would cast and, in my dream world, I’d want to use relatively unknown but up-and-coming actors to take all the other roles. The following are ex-students of mine who work in the industry. James Elston would play Andy; Pierre Roxon would play Fabian; Demelza Randall would take the role of Tilly Hardy, the author of raunchy romance novels. I’d like to stay loyal to actors I’ve worked with whom I know are super-talented and industrious.

Then again, just imagine if Hollywood called me with a huge budget and asked for a completely new setting: what if the whole book had to change location and Winsley Green became somewhere in downtown New York? Then I suppose I’d be auditioning De Niro for Bisto, Samuel L for Len, Streep for Pauline and Streisand for Barbara. Now that’s a whole new and very different fantasy!

About the Arts…

I have worked in schools where Drama, Music, Art , Dance, Writing, Media and Performance thrived. I used to teach theatre. I taught students between the ages of 11 and 18 usually but sometimes I would be invited into primary schools to help smaller children fall in love with Shakespeare, and once in a while I would lead workshops at universities teaching undergraduates about Brecht or Buchner or Bent. Once I went to Guangzhou to teach Hamlet and I worked with a jali on a performance in the Gambia.. I taught GCSE, A level, PGCE students. I directed plays, I wrote scripts, and most importantly I interacted with musicians, film makers, dancers, actors, writers, designers, artists and photographers as a normal part of my daily life. It made me very happy.

Occasionally, I worked in an environment where the arts were considered ‘less’ in some ways. I detected a feeling in some people that studying theatre (and other Arts subjects) was less important than studying mathematics, language, science; that learning about performance and theatre somehow matters less. I am not one for buying into division. I incorporated writing, language and science into theatre. 

The arrival of Coronavirus hasn’t changed our love of the arts: it hasn’t changed the importance of arts subjects. They are still fundamental to learning, to growth, to developing who we are as people. What has changed is our opportunity to share them together. The biggest change is in public accessibility to the arts and in the loss of jobs of those working in the industry.

I’m not sure everyone appreciates how important the arts are, both to individuals and to our personal growth as people. That’s understandable: we can’t all understand everything.  

But it’s important now that those people who make decisions about the future of the arts don’t simply offer a token sum. While the emergency funding package from the government is very welcome, for the cultural and social survival of the arts, we need to consider the importance of accessibility to anyone and everyone, not just to the select few.

That means that we all should have the opportunity to be surrounded by the arts from birth, to be immersed in the arts in schools. Then, throughout life, having access to the arts becomes something we all have a right to, and creative enjoyment becomes something we can choose for ourselves and experience as part of everyday life. It will make us all happier people.

In praise of libraries everywhere…

Remember the moment in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, where she falls down the rabbit hole? Or the wardrobe door that opens to Narnia? Or Platform 9 ¾, leading to the Hogwarts’s Express? Or the Doors of Durin in Lord of the Rings? Literature is full of enchanted doors that take us to a secret place, a place full of mystery and magic, suspension of disbelief and wonder.

Now think of your local library, a simple door that opens and leads into a space loaded with books. There might be a staircase; shelves everywhere, all sections carefully labelled: mystery, crime, thrillers, romance, historical, classical.

It may be a huge library in a university or a city, a medium library in a school or a town or a small provincial library in a village, but each place is special. It holds the key to may secrets, many stories, many adventures.

In these days where our physical journeys may be limited, the wandering of our minds is still unrestricted. With a library card, we can set imagination free. A library has something – so many things – for everyone: stories in all sorts of genres, books we’ll hold and breathe in and love for ever and never forget.

A library is stacked with audio books, large print books, even my novels which are available in all formats: books that I hope are uplifting, funny, sometimes sad, sometimes philosophical, but always my stories insist that, whatever your years, life is there to be lived to the full.

So, why not call into your local library (I have several in Somerset) and push open the enchanted door?

I can promise you, there will be something magical behind it….

Guilt-free bramble crumble (and dutch apple cake)

I don’t like puddings but everyone else I know seems to love them. At this time of year, when it becomes a bit damp and cool, puddings are a go-to comfort food. There are a lot of apples around at the moment and blackberries are in abundance and free if you’re prepared to pick them from the hedgerows and fill your fingers with thorns in the process.

I’ve found a way to make an apple and blackberry crumble so that it’s nutritious and not full of bad fat.

Nice apples are important – something tart like a Bramley works well. Don’t bother with eating apples. Slice them thin in a large-ish dish, sprinkle with a small amount of brown sugar and then place the washed blackberries on top. I usually do two layers, apple, blackberry, with a bit of sugar on both.

For the topping, I mix some oats, a pinch of sugar, some blitzed walnuts and seeds (sunflower and pumplin, usually, and a tbsp ofcinnamon, in a bowl. I add a tbsp good oil and mix it all up, then spoon the crumble mix gently on top of the fruit.

Baked in the oven for 45-50 minutes in a medium oven, the crumble becomes golden brown, with the juices from the fruit bubbling away underneath.

You can serve it with whatever you like – I usually offer plant-based crème fraiche or yogurt or ice cream. (Or all of these…)

Of course, when I say that the crumble pudding is guilt-free, what I really mean is if you have walked miles to pick the berries before the meal and if you haven’t stuffed yourself with a massive roast dinner first and if you haven’t gorged two huge portions of the pudding piled with cream, then it’s probably quite healthy…

NB. Apples also go really well in a dutch apple cake. It’s easy to make a plant-based one with chunks of apples inside using most plant-based cake recipes, and I use the crumble oat and nut ingredients on top of the cake to make it crunchy and delicious. Again, it’s quite healthy as long as your single portion isn’t the whole cake…

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