Travel Undaunted? Well, the last time I did, was one year ago today. On 26th February 2020, I was in Amsterdam smooching, with my holiday love Ted, in Dam Square.
Tuesday in Amsterdam was cold but sunny-ish, so we made the best of the weather and my cartilage-less knees managed to hobble 5.3 miles. We were in Amsterdam for a family celebration, so nothing would have stopped me from going but, as the best way to enjoy central Amsterdam is on foot, a visit after I’d had my bionic knees installed would have been the sensible option.
As the others took in Body Worlds and the Van Gough Museum, I sauntered through the streets of Amsterdam at my own pace, taking in the sights and sounds.
Dam Square is home to the Royal Palace, where I fell in love with Ted. We both have the same hair, which I think is rather sweet, but I am philosophical, holiday romances never last. I should stress that I am not an advocate of horse carriage rides in cities, especially in places where the temperature can soar, but Ted looked like a happy, healthy, boy to me. I’m just sad I couldn’t fit him in my cabin bag.
In the evening, we went to The Chicken Bar for a meal. Buzzy, great service, and yes, the chicken lives up to its reputation.
“Best rotisserie chicken and ribs in Europe.”
It’s a small restaurant tucked away in Voetboogsstraat, so it is advisable to book a table.
The Eden Hotel, despite a little confusion over our booking, was a great place to stay. Comfortable, very central and, oh, they know how to lay on excellent buffet breakfasts.
I have unfinished business in Amsterdam, and I will go back, maybe during the spring/summer of 2021 with bionic knees.
I need to take a canal trip, explore the parks and more museums, as well as to enjoy a long, leisurely lunch by one of the canals, in the sunshine, is also very appealing.
This GOW Waxing Lyrical throwback from 2015 about my place in the sun, The Algarve, has really hit home. It now 19 months since I last visited the place I love and, as from 2020 had planned to spend more time. Once given the green light, I will be on the first flight.
Sometimes, when looking back at old posts, I do wonder what was going through my mind at the time. The laughable thing about this post is that I was certain I would finish the first draft of my first novel during that two week sabbatical in August 2015 Given I’d only started writing it at the end of June 2015, I can only conclude that must I have written this post after a visit to my favourite bar. Oh, the naivety of a a virgin novelist!
“Welcome to Faro”. The Easy Jet Steward announced on arrival last Thursday. “Please make sure you take all items of hand luggage with you, as well as all your children”. Apparently last week when that particular crew arrived in Faro, someone left their child on board.
I battled to mow the lawn before leaving last week due to the monsoon season having arrived early in Jersey this year. So stepping out of the aircraft into 29C heat at 19.00hrs was just wonderful.
As someone who has always spent everything I managed to save on travel – and I have no regrets, the draw of The Algarve has been like a magnet to me since my first visit twenty-three years ago. It is the one place in the world have I have earmarked as my place in the sun. The place I would like to retire. Sitting beneath umbrella pines at sunset with my laptop, recording the storylines that are stacking up in my head, has a definite appeal.
These days, going away for a two week break, means leaving Cassie the Blog Dog. Seen here giving me a rueful look as I made the final adjustments to my suitcase. I hate leaving her, and hope, one day, I she will be able to come with me.
For now, a friend moves in to look after Cassie and the Cats when we go away. I know they love her and the guilt I feel about leaving her to go on holiday is, slightly, less intense.
So, here I am! I have just over two weeks to finish the first draft of my first novel, with my laptop, under the umbrella pines, in my place in the sun.
Soothing my itchy feet and keeping them happy during these eternal Lockdown days is an ongoing problem. I’ve tried binge watching twenty years worth of travel videos, with my feet propped up on a stool, so they can relive those heady sun soaked, beach filled days feeling the sand between their toes, but they are still not happy. In fact, one of them is particularly grumpy this morning, and is refusing to get out of bed. Seriously.
I’ve never been interested in the contents of my wardrobe or how bouffant my hair is. I’ve always hankered after a backpack and a pair of stout walking shoes, well, flip flops preferably, to cover my itchy feet, rather a Gucci handbag and matching pumps.
I am essentially a hot house flower. Living in Jersey, Channel Islands, UK, I get my fix during the Summer months, but if I don’t soak up some serious sunduring the Winter months, I get seriously crabby.
So if my feet are depressed, looking at this photograph of me in April 2013 soothing my itchy feet in the Indian Ocean, makes me seriously sad.
There is one positive thing that has come out of the endless Lockdown days, having revisited the picture of me with my Amsterdam love, Ted – which highlights that we both had the same colour hair – it really suits Ted, but the washed out bleached look (AKA grey) on me? You can’t be serious?
Lockdown is solely responsible for one good thing. My first venture into experimenting with ‘wash out after 8 washes’hair dye. I am currently dark blonde but, depending on how many more Lockdown days my itchy feet and I are in for, these are what my next few hair colour experimentations will be… not necessarily all at the same time.
I had such great travel plans for 2020, and am now seriously wondering if there is any point in making any travel plans for 2021.
Right, grumpy old woman rant about my grumpy itchy feet is over. We are off to march Cassie the Blog Dog around the fields while remembering just how lucky we are to be able to do that.
At the end of last year, an edit of my first ‘finished’ novel, Just Say It, highlighted a problem – multiple points of views. I largely ignored it, until I received the latest critique which not only highlighted the multiple POV’s issue, but it also pointed out that I was guilty of another writer’s crime, authorial intrusion. So I need to back off, and let my characters do the talking, but not all at the same time!
The writing process is a constant learning curve, and authorial intrusion was not something I had been thinking about during my current strict editing and revising regime – which has been going on for weeks. Well, it’s finally, hit home. I realise authorial intrusion in scenes or chapters is an irritation, as it stops the reader from feeling a part of what is going on.
As for using multiple POV’s, they can work if they are well executed but, head hopping from one character to another during the same scene or chapter, makes it much harder it is for the reader to identify with the individual characters. I love my characters, and I want them to come alive so, for me at this stage of my writing life, head hopping is something I will be avoiding.
So, I’m working on both the POV thing, as well as resisting the urge to butt in and explain to the reader what is going on. Both these basic errors, point to weak writing.
In June 2015, I decided that I had allowed my writing to drift for much too long. I had got into bad habits, i.e. sloppy writing. It is almost six years since making the decision to become a better writer, and It has been a journey, as well as a serious learning curve.
Early in 2019, I felt I was getting there after I received a glowing critique for one of my short stories, An Honest Review, which had been long listed in a competition, but in the critiquer’s summing up, she said:
“Your story certainly deserved its place in the long list. The reason it did not reach the short list? An Honest Review was charming and very readable and in its way perfect (except for a few surprising punctuation errors – wouldn’t it be a shame if you missed out on a prize for the sake of a comma?)”
Writing is a lonely business and I rely heavily on critiques to point out the errors that are holding me back, as well as feedback from all those long suffering beta readers who ploughed through some of the early drafts. You are, and have been, an essential part to helping me become a better writer.
This last critique, has not only galvanised me into making absolutely sure I don’t make any more of the errors I’ve made in the past, but it has also left me with the feeling that I am now moving forward with a great deal more confidence.
There is always a great deal going on inside my head at the same time as I bounce ideas off each other. Too many, on occasions. I flit and float from one thought to the next, so perhaps that is one reason why I have allowed something similar to creep into my fiction writing. Unwittingly, I have been flooding each chapter or scene with multiple points of view.
But, has it finally sunk in? Have I finally realised that I shouldn’t head-hop around the page and allow multi-characters to chip in with their POV’s in the same chapter or scene.
Melissa Levine of Red Pen Editing pointed out I had a POV problem towards the end of last year, but it didn’t really hit home then. It took another few months to fully appreciate that my chapters weren’t working as effectively as the could be because of the switching POV’s, which is thanks to a recently received and invaluable critique.
Well, no more! Gone are the days that I will let multiple characters loose on a page vying for their opinions to be heard. It’s all been part of the learning curve, although I knew that writing a novel was never going to be easy, but now I’m sorting my POV’s out, I can create a more pleasing read. Let’s hope I don’t overdo the flashbacks, eh? There’s so much to learn.
Amid the toilet roll shortages and general mayhem that followed, I took solace in writing and published a handful of humorous books for children, with the hope they would inject a little happiness into the world (no vaccine pun intended).
My choose-the-page StoryQuest series grew in numbers and Santa Claus Has Lost His Drawers was the most popular title, where readers are asked to trek through the sub-zero temperatures of the North Pole to find Santa’s missing underwear (what better way is there to spend the festive period than hunting for somebody’s pants?). I received some lovely feedback from parents about Santa Claus Has Lost His Drawers, including a message from one lady who sent me a photograph of THE REAL SANTA (I kid you not) sitting in her living-room, holding my book. Those sorts of messages are so important to authors and this one really made my day.
With My Magical Christmas StoryQuest Collection completed, I started work on my newest StoryQuest book, The Pirates of Monkey Island. The story features two characters who quickly become the reader’s trusty crewmates: One-Eyed Brenda and Jimmy Smallhands. Brenda has one eye and Jimmy has very small hands – do you see what I did there? They’re both good pirates, the kind of pirates who feed your bones to the fishes then take their grannies out for a nice pot of tea and a slice of cake. But when monkey-pirates steal their stash of chocolate coins, they need help to find it. Can the reader outsmart Big Baboon Bob and survive Stinky Silverback Shelly’s armpits to locate the loot? Well, yes, hopefully they can, because The Pirates of Monkey Island is a beginner level StoryQuest adventure, which means there are no dead-ends like you might find in a traditional choose-the-page book – just keep reading and you’ll finish the challenge, making it perfect for reluctant readers and budding bookworms alike.
In the first half of 2021, I’m taking a break from StoryQuest to focus on a middle-grade trilogy called Chronicles of the Extinct. It’s a lot meatier than my current titles and the first in the series is almost ready for editing. I’m excited to share something a little different with readers and fingers crossed that by the time it’s published, we’ll be living in a world where physical bookshops have reopened and we can enjoy browsing the aisles without measuring how close we are to each other.
Stay safe, everyone, and thank you for reading this post. If you’d like to know more about my work, you can visit www.llamahousebooks.com.
My fascination for archaeology began when I was five after finding a fossilised gastropod in our Gloucestershire garden. Had I not mucked around during my school years, I can only fantasise what my life might have been like as a femaleIndiana Jones
Fast forward to 1981. I moved to Jersey in the Channel Islands, UK, and found myself surrounded by archaeological treasures. Dolmens, menhirs, and La Cotte de St Brelade, fine examples of Jersey’s rich history dating back over 250,000 years, so it took me no time at all for my archaeological geekiness to resurface.
Jersey is the largest and the most southerly of all the Channel Islands, lying in the Bay of St. Malo, which is sheltered between the Cotentin and Brittany Coasts, just 25km west of Normandy.
The earliest evidence of human activity here dates to about 250,000 years ago, but Jersey was not always an island. Until around 6800 BC, Jersey was connected to mainland Europe, so it looked very different than it does today, as it was connected to mainland France by a land bridge. A vast undulating coastal plain, gouged by valleys and a complex networks of rivers.
The land was populated by herds of wild horses, reindeer, mammoths, and nomadic groups of hunter-gatherers, who roamed beyond the River Aa into was what is now northern France. The rocky plateau that would become Jersey rose out of the surrounding grassland, which is thought to have happened during the interglacial periods of ice melt and sea-level rise around 4000 BC when Jersey was cast adrift from mainland France.
La Cotte de St Brelade is one of the most important Ice Age sites in Europe. A natural arch in a granite cliff, which provided shelter for the earliest known occupation of Jersey, by a Hominin species.
In 1881, stone tools were discovered there, but it wasn’t until 1910, that systematic excavations began when the Jersey-born anthropologist, Robert R. Marett, worked on the site for four years and during that time he recovered teeth which, at the time, were believed to have belonged to one Neanderthal person.
Two after the teeth were discovered at La Cotte, a fragment of a Neanderthal child’s skull was also found there.
In the 1930’s amateur archaeologists from the Société Jersiaise, led by Jesuit priest Father Burdo, started recording the findings of this prestigious site.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Cambridge University, led by Professor C.M. B. McBurey, carried out significant excavations of the site and found important examples of Pleistocene mammals’ remains, including a pile of bones and teeth of the woolly mammoth and woolly rhinoceros. Prince Charles, as a student, took part in these excavations. Their findings were published (McBurey and Callow 2014).
Archaeologists also uncovered the bones of the woolly mammoth and woolly rhino arranged in a pile as if the meat had been placed in cold storage. In 1980, Katherine Scott published an article about the hunting methods used by Neanderthals at La Cotte. She argues that Neanderthals drove the mammoths off the nearby cliffs, a theory that has since been disputed.
In 2010, excavations were renewed at La Cotte, by a multi-disciplinary team from British Institutions including UCL, The British Museum the University of Southampton and University of Wales Trinity Saint Davids.
Why did Neanderthals keep returning to La Cotte de St. Brelade?
In the past, Neanderthals were depicted as reactive animals and peripheral scavengers, but new findings suggest otherwise. From evidence found a La Cotte and elsewhere, Neanderthals had the intelligence to fashion tools, make fire, bury the dead and, maybe, even care for the sick.
It is also suggested that they had the social organisation to drive mammoths and butcher them, but why did they keep returning to La Cotte?
During the 200,000±, years hominids persistently revisited La Cotte. Sea levels were lower than they are today, so the site would have provided not only shelter but a commanding view of what would then have been sparsely wooded open landscapes; terrain long-since claimed by the sea.
Many of the Neanderthal tools found in Jersey were made of flint, a stone not found on the island. Jersey is made up of igneous and metamorphic rocks. So, the site could have been used solely as a strategic hunting location, as sedimentation at the site suggests a variable climate-driven accumulation, which may explain why Neanderthal occupation at La Cotte at times, was abandoned altogether.
So, if Neanderthals were so intelligent, why did they disappear? The answer may well lie with ‘those teeth’, and that they interbred with our own species.
A wide variety of archaeological remains survive above and below ground in Jersey, along its shoreline, and within its waters. The Violet Bank site in Jersey is a type of coastal zone known as an intertidal reef. It is part-exposed during the low spring tide, which has given archaeological teams a four-hour window to dig while the tide is out. Sixteen miles from La Cotte, it is somewhere stone tools, and mammoth remains, have also been found over the years.
Jersey was continuously settled during early Neolithic times. The nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle of the Mesolithic period gave way to settled agriculture. As domesticated animals dispersed across the world, there is significant evidence that Neolithic farmers in Jersey cultivated cereals, such as wheat and barley, and herded cows, pigs and sheep, while continuing to use wild resources.
Clay modelling, in the form of pottery, radically changed people’s ability to cook, store and eat food, and bear water. It was also used for religious rituals.
Over 6,000 years ago, the island’s Neolithic farmers, believed certain parts of the island had spiritual significance, which they marked by building stone monuments, known as dolmens and passage graves, many of which are free to access.
Jersey has one of the finest concentrations of Megalithic monuments outside the Carnac area of Brittany, which is indicative of the economic and social sophistication, as well as the religious beliefs, of the island’s Neolithic society.
La Hougue Bie is a Neolithic passage grave and is one of the world’s ten oldest buildings. It was excavated in 1924. ‘It is an exceptional cruciform passage grave intact within its tumulus.’ (Baal et al. 1925). It was re-examined between 1991 and 1995 (Patton et al. 1999).
Les Varines is a c 15,000-year-old Magdalenian hunter-gatherer camp, where archaeologists have found over 3000 stone tools. Between 2014 and 2018, ten plaquettes made by the Magdalenians were discovered there, and they could be the earliest evidence of human art in the British Isles.
La Pouquelaye de Faldouet was built around 6,000 years ago and is a 5m long passage grave leading into an unusual double chamber. This capstone weighs approximately 24 tonnes and comes from a rhyolite outcrop. The main chamber is open and surrounded by a series of small stone cists (boxes) while the end chamber is covered by a massive 24-ton capstone. The site was first recorded in 1682 and was excavated three times before 1910. Human remains were found in the lists, and finds from the chamber include pottery vessels, two polished stone axes and two stone pendants.
Le Couperon is a Neolithic dolmen in the parish in St. Martin, Jersey. It is an eight-metre (26-foot) long capstone chamber, originally covered by a long mound. It was surrounded by a ring of eighteen outer stones, known as peristaliths.
La Sergenté is a Neolithic Passage Grave in St.Brelade, built some 6500 years ago and consists of a circular chamber of drystone construction with a short passage leading into it, which is thought to have been covered by a beehive stone roof.
La Hougue des Géonnais – Neolithic passage grave in St. Ouen.
The Broken Menhir is a menhir at Les Blanche Banques, Chemin des Basses Mielles, broken in prehistory and now restored with the use of a buttress. Excavated in 1922 where the lower part was found to be supported by trigstones.
The Ossuary is a Chalcolithic (from the Copper Age) cist constructed of five blocks below a low mound with a diameter of 9m. The chamber 1.8m x 0.9m contained the remains of at least twenty individuals though none were articulated. It is believed that the chamber was used to deposit the bones of the dead after the flesh had rotted away.
Pottery and flint scapers were also found during the excavation in 1922.
The Little Menhir is a Neolithic granite block at Les Blanche Banques, Chemin des Basses Mielles, standing 2.3m above the surface.
The Great Menhir is a 2m high Neolithic granite block at Les Blanche Banques, Chemin des Basses Mielles, which was re-erected in 1922.
La Table des Marthes is Neolithic flat granite slab at the western end of the railway walk.
Les Trois Rocques is comprised of three flat, squat Neolithic stones, spread over 15m. There were no supporting trig stones of significance when it was excavated in both 1913 and 1933.
These are just some of Jersey’s archaeological treasures, which keep my Indiana Jones fantasy alive. They are a constance source of fascination and by revisiting these built to last megaliths, from a bygone age, they speak volumes about the people who created them.
My mother started driving a wedge between us when I was fifteen and able to fend for myself, except financially, of course. She and my father were never short of money. Yet I always felt a tinge of envy when my friends discussed their pocket money because I never received any. I worked in the local supermarket stacking shelves after school, which was where I met my first serious boyfriend, Johnny Riley.
My mother, with all her airs and graces, took an instant dislike to Johnny. She never thought he was good enough for me. She used to peer out from behind her bedroom curtains when he came to take me out and watch us walk down the garden path together. She always denied it, but I knew she was there.
If she bumped into Johnny at home, or when we were out, she would say, just loud enough for him to hear, ‘trailer trash night is it, Ellen? And, to his face, ‘Unfortunately for you, you remind me of that ghastly Sex Pistols chappie, Johnny Whatshisname?’
Johnny dropped out of school before taking O-Levels but, leaving his hometown was never a priority. He was content to get a job at the car factory working alongside his father. He wasn’t like me at all, driven by the incentive to get as far away as I could, as soon as I could support myself. I was bright and determined to excel in both my O and A-Levels.
The fact I was so desperate to get away, and he was not, it was inevitable that our relationship would not have lasted. The reason I stuck with him was to spite my mother, because of her constant verbal Johnny battering. Then, I was faced with no option other than to stay with him. Two weeks after receiving my glowing A-Level results, I found out I was pregnant with Karen, so I married him.
As my hopes and dreams crashed down around me, I felt trapped. We started our married life in my bedroom. The alternative was living in a squat, but with a baby on the way, staying put was the sensible option. Two nineteen-year-olds and a baby living under the same roof as my mother, however, was not. It was never going to work. She detested Johnny and began referring to him as a pariah, a drain on society. As for me, I was the black sheep of the family and, in my mother’s eyes, soiled goods. No daughter of hers.
Johnny, no doubt pushed over the edge by my mother, joined the Merchant Navy. For someone who never wanted to leave his hometown, not with me anyway, I was devastated. Karen and I never saw him for months on end. He wasn’t interested in either of us, the lure of girls in every port became too great, so we divorced. By which time, my mother’s stock phrase was, ‘I told you so’, and it was beginning to grate.
Karen and I moved into a bedsit above Mr Carson’s chip shop in Stanley Street. It was hard at first until Karen went to school. Mrs Carson was a saint and looked after Karen as much as she could, so I could help out in the chippy, and the supermarket two doors down.
I used to look at my single mum friends whose mothers happily stepped in to look after their children while they were working, and I remember thinking how lucky they were. My mum and dad always seemed to be away on holiday, cruising around the Mediterranean or the Baltic. My mother never once offered to look after Karen. So, thank God for Mrs Carson!
I met and married Arthur Coolie, a widower, whose six-year-old daughter, Amy, was in the same class as Karen. He had his own house, so it seemed like a good idea at the time. Until I found out, he was an alcoholic. His alcoholism was brought on by his inability to get over the death of his first wife. Even after he married me, I would come home from work to find him slouched over the kitchen table, having drunk a bottle of cheap Scotch.
I saw very little of my mother, but when I did, she took great delight in reminding me, ‘you marry for better or for worse, you know.’ So, I stuck by Arthur, putting up with his physical rages, protecting both Karen and Amy from his flying fists. I had no option other than to face the world with the odd black eye.
I began having health problems in my thirties, blurred vision and difficulty walking. My mother was freewheeling towards sixty without any aches and pains. Even now, careering towards ninety, she is way off using a Zimmer frame.
My mother bought a bungalow after my dad died and moved in with her fifty-five-year-old toyboy, Vincent, who she refers to asher ‘fountain of youth’. She hardly knew him, but she tells the world, ‘he was a Godsend’, helping her come to terms with my father’s death. Loosely translated, being a Godsend meant he took my mother on endless cruises, at her expense. Leaving me to deal with the fallout of my father’s death on her behalf, while struggling to cope with an MS diagnosis, two failed marriages, and two children to support.
After they finished school, Karen and Amy took a year out and worked their way around the world. I adopted a ginger tom, Al, from the local animal shelter to keep me company after alcoholic Arthur absconded with the barmaid from the Cat and Custard Pot. They made the perfect pair, as they were both permanently inebriated but, to their credit, they supported each other through Alcoholics Anonymous. They are still together, so they were meant to be.
Then Al left me too. He wasn’t meant to be. Bored with eating the supermarket food I was feeding him, he moved in with the woman at number 29 who served her cats fish out of a tin. She didn’t have a problem with Al sneaking the odd pilchard, so it didn’t take him long to get his paws under her table.
Karen and Amy got as far as Australia and decided not to come back.
‘We love you so much, Mum, but there are so many more opportunities for us here. Why don’t you come over too? We can all make a new start together?’ I was tempted, but I’d felt I’d waited so long to make my getaway, I think I had started to believe that I would die in the town I was born in.
My mother had long since stopped saying, so-and-so ‘is not good enough for you.’ Instead, the little gem she would impart was, ‘the chance of you meeting Mr Right at your age and in your state of health is very remote.’ I was only forty-four.
When she announced that she had changed her will and would be leaving everything, including her bungalow, to Vincent, I was devastated. Even if she never found it her heart to love me, I was still her only child.
Maybe it was karma but, shortly after my mother changed her will, I won £20 Million on the National Lottery. It was beggars belief, although my mother has always defied belief, she assumed I would be buying a mansion for us both and her fountain of youth, to live in. She feigned devastation when I told her that sharing a house her again, with or without her bloody toyboy, would be the last thing I would ever want to do! She was incensed.
‘But I need you to look after me in my old age, Ellen.’ She wailed. I had never felt so in control when talking to my mother in my entire life.
‘Ah, but you’ve got your fountain of youth to look after you in your bungalow. I’m emigrating to Australia to be close to my children. I love them both with all my heart, and I cannot bear to be separated from them any longer.’
‘I can’t believe you would do this to your own mother, Ellen. After everything I’ve done for you!’
‘And what exactly would that be, Mother?’ I asked, but for once, she was at a loss for words.
I bought a winery in Victoria, and I now live in what used to be the manager’s cottage, with the manager I inherited when I bought the place. It was an instant attraction, something I had never felt before. He is a man who would lay down his life for me, and I have never felt a greater love.
Karen and Amy moved into the enormous colonial-style house, split it into two and live there with their own families. They’ve got six children between them, at the moment, and I am happy to look after them anytime. They all play a part in making Ellen’s Estate Wines into the successful family business it has become.
I have the wherewithal to support all my family now, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Although I never imagined I would find myself supporting ex-family members as well. I started receiving begging letters from Johnny, who was struggling to pay maintenance for each of his children in several ports. Arthur also had the gall to write. Both he, and the tart from the Cat and Custard Pot, had fallen off the waggon again. This time, they both wanted to go rehab.
‘Why should I give them any money?’ I thought. ‘Why should I feel responsible for people who couldn’t give a toss about me?’ But, I am a decent human being, and I have more than enough money to see me out. So why not use it for the greater good? To bring happiness to a child’s face and rehabilitate lives that teeter close to the edge. For total strangers, or for people you used to know, what’s the difference?
My relationship with my mother has changed for the better, now we are 10,000 miles apart. She rings me, occasionally, to thank me for my financial support.
‘Always happy to help.’ I respond, magnanimously.
‘I don’t know what Vincent and I would do without you. God, bless you, Ellen.’
Funny, isn’t it? She had no problem doing without me for years when I hadn’t got a penny to my name.
I don’t write many short stories these days, but I do have a soft spot for An Honest Review because it made the Longlist of the 2018/2019 Fiction Factory competition, then, because I loved the characters so much,it evolved into The Secret Lives of the Doyenne of Didsbrook.An Honest Review focusses ona meeting of the Didsbrook Authors and Writers Group and is a 12-minute read.
George Fowler opens the front door. A broad smile ripples across his face under his Chevron moustache, revealing a fine set of glistening incisors. Surprising for a man of his age with a passion for Cuban cigars.
‘Lucy, how lovely to see you.’
‘Hello, George.’ I respond warmly. ‘It’s good to see you too.’
I make sure all traces of grime on the soles of my shoes are left on the substantial coir matting doormat before stepping over the threshold onto the recently laid New Zealand wool carpet. The memory of Basil tramping dog poo onto its Axminster predecessor is still fresh in everybody’s minds.
The grandfather clock chimes. I have arrived at exactly 7.00p.m. Edna likes us to arrive at 6.50p.m. She is always there to open the door, so we can start promptly at 7.00p.m.
‘Oh dear, I’m a little bit late, I’m afraid. All trains in and out of Waterloo were delayed today. Maintenance on the line… I’ve come straight from the station.’ George chuckles as he helps me take off my coat and a whiff of cigars disappears up my nose.
‘There’s no need to apologise, Lucy dear. It’s par for the course when one works in London. The others have only just sat down.’
George is always upbeat on a Thursday. I imagine he enjoys a few hours to himself drinking a glass, or two, of his favourite Scotch and puffing on a Cohiba cigar. I can see a decanter, a cut-glass tumbler and a large glass ashtray, perched on a small table next to his red leather chair the snug.
‘Go on through.’ He says, extending his arm in the direction of the dining room.
I walk in and shut the door behind me. Edna, at the head of the table, is leaning forward. She lifts her ample bosom with her right forearm before resting the pendulous orbs on the edge of the rosewood dining room table as she pulls in her chair.
‘I’m so sorry I’m late, Edna. Good evening, everybody.’
‘Ah, Lucy, dear. There you are. Don’t worry. My spies told me there had been a few disruptions on the Waterloo line today.’ The others look up mouthing words of welcome. ‘Sit, sit!’ Edna pats the upholstered Rococo dining chair next to hers, and I sit down.
Using both hands, Edna rubs out a few ripples in the Cleethorpes check waterproof tablecloth. Since Barbara spilt her Himalayan Monkey tea across the table’s shimmering surface, it’s been used for our weekly meetings. The spillage could have been much worse had Beryl not come straight from the Lido. Saving the day and the Axminster by whipping out her swimming towel to mop it up. Barbara felt so bad about it she bought Edna the easy-care, wipe-clean vinyl Cleethorpes check tablecloth as a present. Edna graciously accepted the gift and agreed to carry on hosting our weekly get-togethers. After Basil put his foot in it and the ensuing £3000 insurance claim, the trivial tea incident paled into submission. We were all amazed when Edna declared she was still prepared to carry on hosting our Didsbrook Authors and Writers Group meetings after the new wool carpet had been laid.
Edna Fowler’s work-in-progress is contained in three lever arch files. Emblazoned down the spine of each bulging green binder are the words Dulcie Darling and the Wizard’s Caldron by E. D. Fowling and individually marked Volumes 1, 2 and 3. Edna is convinced she is Didsbrook’s answer to J. K. Rowling, hence the somewhat suspect non-de-plume. She believes a pen name will be essential after Duclie’s exploits are published; otherwise, her privacy will be exposed.
After she finished the fifth rewrite, she collared me in Hargreaves, Didsbrook’s old-fashioned purveyor of meat. An orderly queue of customers had formed, spilling out of the door and onto the pavement. Didsbrookians prefer to pay twice as much to watch Mr Hargreaves hack off their chosen Sunday joint with his cleaver and give the hermetically sealed equivalent from the supermarket down the road the cold shoulder. Edna has a loud, booming voice and Hargreaves is a tiny shop with sawdust-covered wooden flooring, which amplified her theatrical tones.
‘Of course, once my book is reviewed, and no doubt you will be reviewing it too, won’t you, Lucy, dear?’ I manage a feeble smile and nod. ‘It will be all over the press, the Internet and goodness knows… everywhere else. I’ll have fans turning up on the doorstep asking for autographs every five minutes and, although I appreciate attracting thousands of fans to Didsbrook would do wonders for the local economy, as I am sure Mr Hargreaves here would agree…’ She paused to look at Mr Hargreaves who smiled vacantly, then bore his cleaver down onto an inert carcass as Edna continued. ‘I know they would mean well, but they would take up far too much of my time whilst I’m writing the sequel.’ Us aspiring writers need to keep the faith, and I do wish mine was as strong as Edna’s.
She spanks both hands against the Cleethorpes check.
‘Welcome everybody. I trust we’ve all been scribbling away feverously for the last seven days? I’ve never stopped. Talk about a purple patch. My fingers are on fire, and my memory sticks are about to explode, but the words just keep flowing!’ She laughs, her voluptuous breasts wobbling in sync.
Edna loves a good smattering of her own wit and banter. I flash her one of my very best smiles. Despite everything, our age gap and her unwavering self-belief that she is about to join the ranks of world-renown authors, I am very fond of her. Every inch of her reminds me, so much, of Patricia Routledge’s Hyacinth Bucket. Her work-in-progress and future bestseller is about a fourteen-year-old busybody. No… wash my mouth out with soap. Dulcie Darling is a meddlesome teenager who is blessed with magical powers. Her wizardry inherited from her mother, who, mistakenly, ate magic mushrooms when she was pregnant. Week by week, we are enchanted by Edna’s jaunty readings of the ‘away with the fairies’ Dulcie as she magically extracts herself from farcical situations.
‘Now everybody, let’s get started. What have you all brought along to read to us today? Basil, let’s start with you.’ I sense a degree of venom still lingers in Edna’s tone. She might have erased the Himalayan Monkey tea spillage from her mind but eradicating the memory of the Axminster fouling will take a little longer, now poor Basil has committed a further crime. Basil Bowater is a prolific author; his journals on various species of Insecta have been translated into several languages. Last week, the unassuming Basil committed his deadliest crime. Far worse than the dog poo tramping, he dropped off whilst Edna was reading an extract from the fifteenth rewrite of Dulcie Darling and the Wizard’s Caldron. He could have been listening intently with his eyes closed, but when he started to snore, his crime was exposed.
I am almost Dulcie Darling word perfect, so I was thinking about the piece I hadn’t written for the Didsbrook Echo. The deadline was in 24 hours away, so I would have to write it some time between going to bed that night and catching the 7.30a.m. to Waterloo when I was bought back to the room by a loud, strangulated cry.
‘Basil Bowater! How dare you go to sleep during a reading! It’s outrageous. Not to mention, downright rude!’ We all sat to attention around the table sending understanding vibes to the very red-faced Basil as he grovelingly apologised for his disrespectful behaviour.
We are all so pathetic when it comes to providing Edna with a candid critique. Edna never holds back when it comes to giving feedback to the rest of us. So many of us would-be writers have such brittle egos, we don’t take criticism well, and maybe we all sense it would be the end of the Didsbrook Writer’s Group if we were brutally honest.
After Edna read us the chapter about Dulcie’s remarkable escape from Holloway prison and asked for feedback, we were all rendered speechless. I pointed out that Holloway was demolished in 2016, so wondered how many young teens would have heard of it. Quick to retaliate in defence of her plot, we were told that all these places added educational value to the intrigue.
‘I thought I would read a few paragraphs on the beautiful Coccinellidae.’ Mutters Basil.
‘Ladybirds? Good, good.’ Edna swiftly continues with her round the table interrogation. ‘And you, Tom? Are we going to hear more about your father’s World War II exploits?’
Tom Shuttlewood is the only other man in our group. He is writing a novel, loosely based on his father’s seat-of-his-pants missions in his Spitfire during World War II. I once asked if his father had ever considered writing it as a memoir, but I got shot down in flames. I think Tom sees himself on the same shelf as Ken Follett.
I am, by far, the youngest member of the Didsbrook Authors and Writers Group, better known as DAWG, so I try to mind my P’s and Q’s. My mother knew Edna through the Didsbrook Amateur Dramatics Society, affectionately known as DADS and told Edna she had a daughter who wrote a bit, so I was asked to join the group about a year ago. I was very flattered to be asked and readily accepted. I only found out afterwards that the doyen of the Didsbrook Writer’s Group and someone I greatly admired, the multi-published Jocelyn Robertshaw, had just dropped off her perch. Jocelyn’s death was a real blow to the community, and it was such a privilege for me to be asked to write her Obituary. Edna, without any hesitation, heaved herself into the role of official Group Coordinator and I was wheeled in to make up the numbers.
Including Edna, there are eight of us. Daphne Mortimer has published ten novels to date, and I have read every one. Jocelyn originally invited her to join the group so she could share her experiences of the long and lonely road to getting published.
Now Edna is in charge of the group and is so obsessed with getting Dulcie Darling into print, Daphne doesn’t get much of a say about anything, apart from reading snippets from her excellent work-in-progress.
Then there is Barbara, spiller of tea and our local badger enthusiast, who is compiling her life’s work with British badgers. I imagine her being one of Didsbrook’s few hippies, or possibly the only hippy, back in the day. Now 65, with multi-coloured hair extensions, she makes me feel I have become a little too staid before my time. Barbara spends most nights in a sleeping bag close to badger setts around the country. Her husband left her last year. After thirty years of married badger-bliss, he abandoned her for a younger model. Even my mother, after describing him as a complete and utter shit, thought it was funny that the other woman was Didsbrook’s hedgehog champion. I imagine Barbara slipping home after our meetings and smoking a joint. Something I find very appealing but, as I still live at home with my mother, the likelihood of getting spaced out ever, let alone once a week, is highly unlikely as she gets a whiff of most things within a 100-yard radius.
I did have plans to move to London after I graduated, but my father died. I was very appreciative he waited until after my finals, but I felt obliged to move back home, so my mother wouldn’t feel quite so bereft.
Charlotte looks a little like Edna in stature but is nearer my age. She has very red cheeks, especially after she has read us her piece for the week. I don’t know why she gets so nervous when she reads. Charlotte writes very well. Although she has nothing specific on the go at the moment, apart from her unexpurgated tales of living with her Tibetan Mastiff, Bruno, I am sure she will.
I like Beryl too, she is always upbeat, and we go way back. She teaches PE at Didsbrook’s secondary school, including me for seven years. I thought she was a bit long in the tooth for the job then, but she was probably only fifty-something. She would send us out for a five-mile run up the A59 and follow us in her topless MG shouting words of encouragement. Beryl is due to retire at the end of the next term and has been working on a novel. From the rather steamy pieces she has been reading to us, she could well be Didsbrook’s answer to E. L. James. She captures everybody’s attention when she reads, especially Basil and Tom, who are as animated as we ever see them. I can’t help wondering if Beryl is drawing from her own experiences. If she is, I really do need to get a life.
I love my job with the magazine Review UK. I review what’s on in London, as well as new books as myself, but I have a pen name as well. Jane Jones. My self-rechristening came about after The Didsbrook Echo asked me if I would cover events within the community. It was very important to me that my mother never knew who slated her production of Les Miserables at the Didsbrook Arts Centre. Fortunately, my mother dismissed Jane Jones’s savage review as part of the highs and lows of being creative.
I did say to my mother when she told me their next production was going to be Les Mis, that I thought it might be a bit ambitious for DADS, given that the average age of their membership is fifty.
‘It’s a shame you didn’t have a chance to review it before that wretched Jane Jones woman got in on the act.’ My mother had said over breakfast one morning. Her loyalty knows no bounds. She believes that Jane Jones could learn from someone as discerning and as erudite as myself, a Roehampton Creative Writing and Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies graduate, with honours.
Since then, hiding behind my pseudonym when reviewing the work of people I care about, that lacks a little substance, has proved a godsend. Apart from my co-conspirator, the editor of the Didsbrook Echo, nobody knows who the hard-nosed Jane Jones is, which includes my fellow writer’s group members.
In a world of wizards, Edna may well conjure up a publishing deal, and I won’t need to read it to review it because it’s been read it to us so many times during our group meetings. I pride myself on writing honest reviews, which means that Jane Jones will be credited for bursting Edna’s bubble when she writes the review of Dulcie Darling and the Wizard’s Caldron and I won’t have to leave the country.
‘Um, yes, Edna.’
‘It looked like you’d drifted off for a minute there, dear. What have you bought to read to us tonight?’
‘Well, I thought I would read a piece from my novel.’
‘Novel?’ Edna is surprised. ‘That is exciting, dear. I’m so glad to hear you’re being inspired by our weekly meetings.’ Everybody murmurs in agreement. ‘When did you start writing it?’
‘Three years ago actually, just after I finished Uni. Actually, just after my dad died and I’m really close to finishing it now.’
‘Gosh, well done you, Lucy! You’re a dark horse though, you never told us you were writing a novel.’ Daphne is always so enthusiastic, and her comment is met by more mutual murmurings. ‘What’s it about?’
Clearing my throat, I announce with a degree of pride that it is a romantic drama about two people who have both known the pain of loss and the sting of betrayal who are thrown together under very difficult circumstances.’ My voice cracks a little; it’s been a rocky ride.
‘What a novel idea, dear.’ Edna interjects, chuckling at her own joke.
‘That is so exciting…’ Daphne chips in again. ‘I would love to read it and would be happy to give you all the help I can. Perhaps we can meet for a coffee sometime?’
‘That would be great Daphne, I would find that really helpful. Thank you.’
‘It will be interesting to see which of one of us DAWGs will get published next,’ Daphne not only writes brilliantly but she also has a very generous heart.
‘Well, we’ll be all ears, Lucy dear, when it is your turn to read,’ Edna interrupts. ‘Please try to keep all your readings down to about around 500 words, everybody or, by the time we get round to Lucy, it will be time for you all to go home. Now… let’s not waste any more time, I thought I would kick things off tonight and read you the final chapter of Dulcie Darling and the Wizards Caldron. I too am very excited that I’m nearing the end.’ I think we all are very excited that Dulcie’s devilment is about to reach an explosive climax.
‘Call me!’ Daphne mouths across the table and I nod enthusiastically, as a telepathic sigh passes between The Didsbrook Seven as Edna clears her throat and starts reading in her DADS voice. I sit back in my chair with my eyes closed, ready to recite Dulcie’s exploits in my head in tandem with Edna, as Basil whispers in my ear.
‘I would be extremely grateful if you could give my foot a good hard kick, Lucy, dear, if I show any signs of drifting off. I really don’t want to incur the wrath of Dulcie Darling’s creator for the third time.’
A chick, in my book, is a baby chicken covered in downy, yellow feathers up until the age of 6-weeks. I’ve always bristled when the term is applied to young women, and I have always subconsciously disassociated myself from Chick lit, believing the genre to be driven by scantily clad, sex-driven female main characters. I couldn’t have been more wrong and, although I’m not a fan of categories, it’s time to reassess the genre I think I’ve been writing in.
I have just received my first rejection for Just Say It this week. It’s only my first since revamping the manuscript, so I’m not lying down in a darkened room, yet.
‘I’m afraid I did not feel enthusiastic enough about your work to offer the necessary commitment, so I regret it is not something I could successfully handle.’
There are many things to think about when submitting to a literary agent, and choosing the right one is so important. It is also a challenge. I’ve been so focussed on who they represent and what they are currently looking for, that I’ve lost sight of what I’ve been trying to sell them. And, you know what? I think has the proverbial penny has just dropped.
Chick Lit or Women’s Fiction?
I’ve been pitching Just Say It as Women’s Fiction, which may well is my first mistake. If I were to liken my MC to any other famous fictional character, it would be Helen Fielding’s, Bridget Jones, which was published under the genre of Chick Lit.
Just Say It, is without a doubt, Chick Lit. It is my first novel, and I know I still have much to learn. So what do I need to do to stimulate more enthusiasm? What do I have to do to get an agent to love my manuscript and spark their commitment to offering representation? Literary agents have read everything, so they are understandably hard to please. Pitching Just Say It under the right genre might be a good place to start.
So, what audience am I trying to appeal to? Am I delusion in thinking Just Say It would appeal to a younger age group? The story starts in 1957 and finishes in 2002. One editor suggested that I added a short glossary of the ‘factual aspects’ of the story during the 50s and 60s. I am a 1950’s baby, but I still had to research events that happened before I reached adulthood.
A TRIP DOWN MEMORY LANE?
So maybe, Just Say Itis Chick Lit for the over Fifties? A trip down memory lane for those of us who were teenagers in the Seventies, which homes in on romantic relationships, female friendships, to women in the workplace, in a humorous and lighthearted way. In 2018, Cindy Roesel asked the question – Never too old to be a chick? Her conclusion…
After all, us older chicks, are wiser chicks. Right? Well, we have a larger memory bank to draw from, because we’ve been around for longer and, you know what? We might even have been a little bit hip, back in the day.
Maybe the novel in the mix, The Secret Lives of the Doyenne of Didsbrook, will be the one to spark an agent’s interest? I’m quite clear about it being a Murder Mystery genre, even if it is a spoof, but it is a heroine-centred narrative.
Following the joyful inauguration of the 46th U.S. President, Joe Biden, hundreds and thousands of overlayed images of Bernie Sanders started appearing everywhere, ridiculing the mittens he was wearing at the ceremony. It touched a nerve with me. For goodness sake, he is seventy-nine, it was 4C and blowing a howling bloody gale, but I’m guessing his hands were warmer than anybody else’s. So, to whoever started circulating these memes, back off! You’re not so funny!
In my early thirties, I wrote a humorous account of life, the world and the universe, as I saw it. It stretched to about 50,000 words, and – surprise, surprise – I called the first draft Life, According to Me. I sent it to my first writing guru who, for the purposes of this post, I will call Juno.
Juno was the first person who ever expressed any real interest in my writing. Older, wiser and extremely well-read she would, without fail, laboriously handwrite a critique for every piece of writing I sent her.
In Life, According to Me, I started each chapter with a quote by someone worldly-wise, but for one particular chapter, I started with one of my own.
Ah wor born I’ Yorkshire
I am very proud of my Yorkshire roots, so the last thing I would want to do is offend or insult, but Juno felt – at the time, and we are going back a few decades – that such a comment might be offensive to somebody, and I did bang on for a paragraph or two in Yorkshire parlance. A mild example, but avoiding offending certain groups of people when writing in a humorous vein, is always at the forefront of my mind.
Of course, if you are in the public eye, you can expect to be the target of ridicule from time to time, but anybody who shelves out cruel humour on a public platform should be ashamed of themselves.
I read about Davina McCall and that dress today. A troll, called Sue Bazley decided to spew her sour grapes venom all over Twitter.
‘Old over sun-kissed woman should cover up … stunning dress but not for the wrinkly crinkly… demure for the mature,’
Get over yourself, Sue Bazley! If I looked that good in a dress like that at fifty-three, I would be wearing it. I flew over to Twitter, but by the time I got there, you’d been struck-off. I was furious because I wanted to troll you myself. I mean, it’s only fair that you should have a flavour of what it’s like to be at the butt end of cruel humour. Still, I’m glad you backed off, because, you’re so not funny.
As we live in surreal times, I decided to call today Tired Tuesday. It is the day after Blue Monday, the official name for the third Monday of each New Year, which apparently, has been noted as the most depressing day of any year – not just one plagued by a pandemic. Surprisingly, I felt quite upbeat, as for the first time in 2021, I felt like I had a wasp up my arse, for the whole day, until I ran out of steam.
I tackled most of the things I’d been putting off for the last three weeks, including mowing the meadow, that used to be my lawn. Only I didn’t quite finish it. It was too much like hard labour. After weeks of monsoon-like weather, it was still oozing moisture and way too long for my electric lawnmower which protested long before I decided I’d had enough. So, I need to push myself out there to finish it off this morning, before it rains, again.
Unfortunately, pushing myself to get stuff done yesterday, has had a knock-on effect this morning. I feel completely drained on this Tired Tuesday. I’ve been feeling exhausted for the last three weeks, and I blame my lethargy on many things.
The build-up to, and the enjoyment of, the weirdest Christmas on record.
The dampened down New Year’s Eve celebrations, although my hangover told me something else, apart from it being time to think about a serious detox programme.
And then Dry January got off to an appalling start. I fell off the wagon after 48 hours. NOTE TO SELF – it’s best not to watch the depressing 5.00 o’clock PM COVID-19 briefings, and having to look at the state of his hair while he pontificates.
Three weeks of vigorous editing – although I took a break from it yesterday – is enough to make anybody feel tired. It’s all that concentration, as well as trying, so hard, to stay blinkered from what is going on in the world right now. Still, I feel fortunate to have writing as a passion and a form of escapism during these surreal times, although it’s hard to find a comedic slant.
The fact I have (several) autoimmune diseases.
The mentally draining COVID-19 nightmare we find ourselves living in – generally.
Lack of sleep. When I do fall asleep I am caught up in a blockbuster nightmare, after several shoot-outs at the not so okay corral recently, it was a bit of a Blair Witch Project last night. NOTE TO SELF: You shouldn’t binge-watch The Haunting of Bly Manor before going to bed as you’ve been doing for the last couple of nights, but there is only one chilling episode left.
Ah, but I have so many reasons to be cheerful, and I count my blessings for all of them. I am looking forward to being being vaccinated and ditching my mask, free to create new adventures away from my home and hayfield of a garden. Yes, I consider myself to be very lucky on this Tired Tuesday, I’m still here to complain about life and the surreal times in which we live because, God knows, too many people have not so lucky. It is now almost dark and I still haven’t finished mowing the lawn but, in my defence, there are still large bubbles of moisture attached to each blade of grass. I am knackered and my lawnmower’s still drying off from Blue Monday, but tomorrow is another day, so let’s hope I won’t have to christen it Wet Wednesday.
Dear Diary, as 2020 was so goddam bleak, I intend to record only positive thoughts and affirmations this year.
January 2nd 2021
Well, hello, 2021! I took down the tree and the Christmas decorations today because now that you’re here, there no point in hanging around, I want to get on with it. You’ve been a long time coming. It’s been the longest 365 days of my life because, as I’m sure you’ve heard, your predecessor was a nightmare. So, I’m hoping for good things from you, 2021 – no pressure – I’m sure you will deliver. Well, you can’t do any worse than your hideous predecessor.
DAY ONE OF DRY JAN
Today is my first official DryJanuary day. Well, I couldn’t have started yesterday because, at the stroke of midnight, we popped the cork on a bottle of fizz to jettison 2020 into oblivion, where it belongs. Perhaps, I shouldn’t have had a Tia Maria frappé afterwards, to sweeten off, as the combination of alcoholic beverages consumed both before and after midnight, rendered me completely useless for the whole of New Year’s Day. That’s all behind me now, detox here I come! Today saw me striding across the fields with Cassie the Blog Dog in my new walking boots, and I will be looking forward to a large tomato juice around drinkies time this evening, and for the rest of the month. Erm…
Well, that is the plan for Dry Jan, but if I’m going to stick to it, I will have to steer clear of reading about Boris’s Brexit Blunderings or watching Hancock’s Half-Hour of painful COVID-19 briefings which, even in small doses, are enough to drive me to jump off the teetotal waggon.
I have quite a few goals on my list which I’ve had to carry over from 2020 because nobody could go anywhere to achieve anything – apart from Dominic Cummings, but he is history now. Anyway, 2020’s outstanding goals need to come to fruition this year. My star sign is Aries, and my patience has worn very thin.
GOALS FOR 2021
It’s quite a long list, so I can email it to you which might be easier. Once you receive them, I would be grateful if you can give me an idea of what the timings are likely to be. So I can start planning trips, etc. That would be great, thank you. In the meantime, here are my top five goals on the aforementioned list that I intend to achieve during your 365 days.
5. Turning into a domestic goddess. I am now packing my new Pinch of Nom cookbooks, and I am planning to turn supper times into a series of culinary delights, rather than just dishing up salads and stews.
4. Travel is high on my agenda, so I hope you won’t keep us caged-up for too much longer after you’ve got the COVID-19 vaccinations flowing, which brings me to number 3.
3. After doing a dry(ish) January and a severely calorie-reduced February and March, my post-Christmas and New Year belly should be beach ready by the end of April for the first, of several, great escapes to Europe.
I will always be a proud European, and I am suffering from chronic withdrawal symptoms, having been deprived of European bonhomie since July 2019.
EU’ve always been the icing on my Black Forest Gateau, the unsalted butter on my croissant, and the creme in my coffee. So, before I fall apart and bring any negativity into this, here are my top two goals.
HAPPY NEW YEAR! In the immortal words of Howard Jones, things can only get better in 2021!
Around 6.p.m. yesterday, I kicked off my jog pants, showered, washed my hair and dolled myself up while mentally preparing to boot out 2020 and celebrate the arrival of 2021.
I took a stroll along the green-carpeted landing from my bedroom to the stairs, looking longingly at the photos and prints, framed and hanging on the walls. The hibiscus, a watercolour from Barbados, prints from St. Lucia and a photo of us all embossed on to canvas splashing around in the Arabian sea between picture-perfect coral atolls in The Maldives. Treasured memories.
We amble downstairs, ready to party. It is a psychological necessity, but we are not going out on the town. New Year’s Eve 2020 is spent shuffling between the kitchen and sitting room because we live in strange times. We cannot go out and celebrate the end of what has been a shit year, but we will celebrate getting rid of it.
My favourite restaurant, Aromas, delivers our meal and it is delicious. The conversation and the alcohol are flowing; I feel warm and loved.
OUT WITH THE OLD, IN WITH THE NEW
After dinner, Jools Holland does his best to keep our spirits high with Tom Jones and Celeste crooning their brilliance to a void where the audience should be. We love the show anyway, bopping around the sitting room, the rug in front of the fire all rucked up. At midnight we hug each other and raise a glass of fizz to welcome 2021. F*&% off, 2020.
When all the guests of the Jool’s 2020 Hootenany take their final bow, we are drawn to YouTube to watch the ‘Best Of Jools’ over the years when the TV set was crammed with an enthusiastic audience, and we squeal with delight when we spot a famous face in the crowd.
I love spending time with the people I care about, and whatever situation we find ourselves in, we will always make the best of it, despite expectations of New Year’s Eve 2020 going off like a damp squib, but we are luckier than most in so many ways. Almost 80,000 people in the UK have lost their lives to COVID-19 during 2020. For their family and friends, there was no sparkle in the fizz last night.
A TIME FOR CHANGE
We face uncertain times ahead. Unable to make any long-term plans until we have been vaccinated. In the short term, there is little to look forward to. For me, a Dry January, while we sit back and watch the Brexit car crash unfold.
I was born in Yorkshire but, these days I’m not so proud to be British. My Grandmother was Greek, so I’m seriously thinking about claiming Greek citizenship as, for forty-seven years, my heart and soul has felt a part of the EU community. If I decide to go down that route, I wonder if Greece would take me as one of their own after the country of my birth abandoned the EU ship?
I dare to dream about life beyond COVID-19, even unconsciously. During the early hours of this morning, I dreamt, very vividly, about moving house. We were looking in 2020, but it wasn’t the ideal year to find your dream home. We didn’t see anything our hearts would want to call home sweet home, but in my dream, we’d not only found it, but we were moving in.
As we cautiously juggle our priorities for 2021, I rejoiced when I heard the announcement made by Sir Simon Stevens – the head honcho of the NHS, that all the over-50’s will have had their COVID-19 vaccination by late Spring 2021.
‘Late Spring,’ I thought. ’That would be about the end of April,’ I naively thought but, before I started Conga-ing around the house to Gloria Estefan thinking the butt end of April marked the end of Spring, I thought I better check. According to the Gov.UK’s Met Office, Spring 2021 officially ends on 21st June, so another six months to go creeping around 2021 wearing masks and rose-coloured spectacles.
We’ve been living under the COVID-19 cloud for the best part of a year, so what difference will six more months make? Looking on the bright side, given these predictions, we should be back to normal by Christmas 2021. Hurrah! Ah, but there is B Brexit to worry about as well here in the UK, the land of self-induced isolation.
Since COVID-19 reared it spikey little nucleic acid and protein head, I have dared to dream about how sweet life will be after we’ve all had the long-awaited shot in the arm. I said the other day I would be storming out of the blocks into 2021, but I think it will be a more gingerly approach, getting as much done as we can before we get jabbed.
COVID-19: Margaret Keenan, the first patient to get Pfizer vaccine, receives her second jab.
During the last twelve months, my goals, ambitions and ideals have changed. If I didn’t already know, the things that matter the most in life are not material. No one gives a toss how big your house is or how successful you are; it is what you feel in your heart that’s important. The essence of life is sharing it with the people you love.
I dare to dream that we will find a place where our hearts can call home.
I dare to dream about spending time with the people I care about, without being 2 meters apart.
I dare to dream about going out for a meal, or to the theatre – how I’ve missed the smell of the greasepaint – and listening to Little Black Dress cook up a storm in the Blue Note Bar with other live music lovers.
I dare to dream about a change of scene – I used to write poetry, just as well I gave it up.
I dare to dream about soaking up the sunshine somewhere with the gentle lapping of the sea in my ears, inhaling the exhilarating, briny COVID-19-free air. Joy.
Be patient, stay safe, the good times will roll again and, although it’s impossible to calculate precisely when, in the meantime, please stay optimistic about what the future holds and dream about your plans that will come to fruition when things get back to normal in 2021 and beyond.
At the start of the first UK Lockdown, I was working on two novel manuscripts. As with most of my writing, both have humour at their core. I was enjoying every minute of the creative process when, suddenly, trying to write in a comedic vein felt inappropriate, as well as impossible.
Like everyone else, I was in a state of shock, consumed by the surreal horror going on around me. I couldn’t focus on anything other than the devastating effect COVID-19 was having around the world.
Fortunately, my writing to cope mechanism clocked in. I started writing a dismal, but therapeutic, blog, Life Under the Cloud – The COVID-19 Diaries, releasing the thoughts and images backing up in my head.
Ten months on, after enjoying a degree of normality for a few fleeting weeks, nothing much has changed. We are all laying low again, our daily lives curbed by the threat of contracting COVID-19. Our daily lives ruled by dreary Governmental briefings. There is only one piece of news that we are patiently waiting for – when it’s our turn to have the vaccine. Without this live-preserving serum, we cannot make a hint of a plan for 2021.
My home town, usually the vibrant, beating heart within the finance industry, is a sad reflection of its former self, apart from the essential workforce going about their business as usual. Hospitality venues long-since closed, and non-essential shops having put up ‘we are closed’ signs again on Christmas Eve.
HOME TOWN GHOST TOWN
I imagine walking down the usually buzzing main shopping street, with the theme from The Good, The Bad and the Ugly ringing in my ears. The only other sound is my boots connecting with the pavement as I walk. It is only me and tumbleweed. It’s a sad fact, and I don’t mean to be flippant, although the reference to tumbleweed is artistic licence. I never thought I would live through a global pandemic. Let’s hope I do; it’s not over yet. The threat of succumbing to COVID-19 is constant, especially now three different variants of the virus have been identified, but I am reliably informed that viruses always mutate. I wish this one wouldn’t!
THE UK’S DISMAL COVID-19 TALLY AT THE TIME OF WRITING
On 29th January 2020, the first two patients in the UK tested positive for COVID-19. Today, 28th December 2020, 256,220 people have tested positive in the UK, and a heart-wrenching 79,349 people have lost their lives after testing positive for COVID-19.
To all the scientists worldwide who have worked tirelessly under intense pressure to produce a vaccine – we salute you. Your life-saving vaccine will need to be mass-produced on a global scale and in double-quick time. Without the vaccine, our lives can never get back to normal. Those carefree, halcyon days when we were able to mingle, hug and kiss all the people we care about.
As enter 2021 with a degree of trepidation, writing will see me through the surreal COVID-19 crisis we all find ourselves in.
In the fuggy aftermath of a thoroughly enjoyable Christmas Day when, for a few hours, we successfully managed to banish all thoughts of the craziness going on around us, my blurry waking thoughts centred around my top 5 New Year Writing Resolutions. Look out 2021, here I come!
I will come out of the 31st December 2020 starting blocks with the bit between my teeth, fuelled with inspiration. 2020 has been a pretty good right off for us all. None of us will be sad to leave it in our wake.
I will get Just Say It into print. I had a ‘near-miss’ in 2020. No more ‘near-misses’ in 2021!
“There is an alarming trend among young, aspiring authors who have little desire or inclination to read. Reading is the foundation of writing. You cannot cook without eating. You cannot live without breathing. And you cannot write without reading.”
Well, I think we all know that I am not young, but I am aspiring and, the more fixated I become about getting into print, I should be allowing myself more time to read.
Jean’s 7 top tips to becoming a better writer are:
I started off December 2020 in a bah humbug state of mind. Now, here we are on Christmas Eve and my mental state hasn’t improved. Two days ago, I rearranged the sitting room and forgot I’m not in my prime anymore, when I swung a heavy, high-backed chair from one side of the room to another and, my back gave way—what a time to self-incapacitate.
The Christmas tree may be up and looking gorgeous. All presents are wrapped – apart from the ones I haven’t got and can’t do anything about now, but walking around like the living dead is not useful when Christmas meals need to be cooked, and the constant rounds of clearing up are about to begin.
But, hey, you have to look on the bright side of anything positive in 2020. Things have improved this morning, yesterday I needed help putting my knickers on.
A #thankyou to #everyone who has #liked and #followed www.tessabarrie.com in #2020. It’s not been the #bestofyears for any of us. #HappyChristmas to you all and may #2021 see you #acieve all the #hopesanddreams you had for yourselves in #2020!
Jack is the love of my protagonist, Lisa Grant’s, life. He always has been, but they split up when Lisa was twenty-two after Jack proposed. Lisa had panicked, turning him down for a multitude of reasons. Too young, fear of commitment, terrified of going through the ‘momopause’ and turning in to her mother. Instead of talking it through with Lisa, Jack walked away, leaving her alone at the foot of the Eiffel Tower. Eighteen years later, and in the throws of getting back together, Jack has another hissy fit after misinterpreting an intimate moment between Lisa her ex, Rory, and flounces off back home to New York.
Going the Wrong Way
Jack was holding the neck of an empty miniature bottle of Bombay Sapphire Gin between his thumb and forefinger, tapping it against the tray table in front of him. He was in a foul mood, questioning his reasoning for going back to New York. The woman sitting next to him was trying to read and cleared her throat, glowering at his tray table. He stopped tapping, shrugged and said, ‘I’m very sorry… I was miles away.’
BLAME IT ON THE MOTHER
She nodded curtly and went back to her book. Jack glanced at the cover, Julia Quinn’s The Viscount Who Loved Me, and Elizabeth flashed into his mind. The bloody woman had a great deal to answer for. He felt sure Lisa would have married him years ago if it hadn’t been for Elizabeth. Her twisted obsession with finding Lisa a husband, when she was incapable of being faithful to either of hers, poisoned Lisa’s views on marriage. It wasn’t too surprising Lisa crossed marriage off her list of lifetime goals from a very early age.
He squeezed his eyes tightly together, recalling the painful memory from eighteen years ago, as he stomped off down the Champs de Mars after Lisa turned down his marriage proposal. Walking away was not something he was proud of. In retrospect, he had behaved like an overgrown schoolboy whose conker had been annihilated. Jumping into the first taxi he saw and commanding the driver to ‘Take me to Charles de Gaulle airport, tout suite!’ The word immature flashed through his mind.
Once back in London, the blurry recall of rocking around on a barstool at the Flying Horse in the Tottenham Court Road, with Brenda Stark all over him, and his alcohol-fuddled brain fuelling the words, ‘Brenda, you are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.’ Words that made him cringe. It was a blatant albeit drunken, lie, as well as being the most ridiculous statement he’d ever made in his entire adult life.
The following morning, disorientated, and with the hangover from Hell, he struggled to open his eyes, reaching out his arms expecting Lisa’s sylph-like image to emerge from the bathroom. Instead, the outline of a much fuller figure, with a mane of red, pre-Raphaelite hair, approached him on the bed. Her lips overwhelmed him, as he found himself smothered in a bright auburn thicket.
It was the most dismal morning of his life, which turned into 6,570 dreary mornings after she told him she was pregnant, and, as Will had done before him, he did the right thing. So why, after eighteen years of married misery in New York City, was he going back there? If he thought it was because his children wanted to see him, he was deluding himself, because they didn’t, Brenda had turned them against him. The divorce was finalised, she had screwed him for everything he had, and was still screwing Barnaby Ziff, which she had been doing, long before the divorce. Workwise, he had cleared his desk and, although he had been offered the role of CEO in the London office, he wasn’t sure he wanted it.
He had spent the last few weeks trailing around the world like some lovelorn puppy wondering if his first, and only love, still had feelings for him. After watching the millennium sunrise with Lisa in Portugal, he felt sure that she did. Nothing about her had changed. She was still the person he had loved with all his heart. Her confident exterior still betrayed a degree of vulnerability lurking beneath the surface, which she always tried to hide with her sense of humour. Eighteen years on, his feelings hadn’t changed. All he had ever wanted to do was to wake up next to Lisa.
He had only spent a few days in the Algarve, but he had fallen in love with the country and had allowed himself to fantasise about living there. Thanks to the magic of Google, he had earmarked a property in need of renovation just off N125, which would be perfect not only as a home but for hosting writers retreats, which he knew Lisa was planning to do, and he could be a great help to her. The outbuildings had already been converted into self-catering units; there was a pool, and it was in spitting distance of Playa do Trafal, Lisa’s favourite beach. He had even started drawing parallels between himself and Will. Marrying someone he didn’t love because she was pregnant, before creating a new life with the love of his life in Portugal after the divorce. But, unlike Will, he had lost his nerve at the hint of a little competition. He swilled his gin and tonic. He wasn’t sure about anything anymore.
From his window seat, he watched as the 747 gobbled up the miles in cruise mode, every second taking him further away from Lisa, the only person he had ever wanted to be with, so why was he doing it? Because he felt she’d ignored him after they returned to Gloucestershire, and then he’d seen her with her arms around Rory’s neck. Now on his second gin and tonic, it didn’t seem such a big deal. She hadn’t been ignoring him; she’d been frantically sorting everything out in the wake of Arthur’s death, which included kissing and hugging everybody who offered sympathy.
As a young man, he enjoyed staying at Silkwoods with Lisa, and fondly remembered all the evenings they had spent with Arthur, soaking up his wit and wisdom. What would Arthur have said to him now? He would have probably thrown a Moliere quote at him. Hearts are often broken; when words are left unspoken and followed it up with, ‘Have the courage of your convictions, man! Tell her how you feel!’ But he couldn’t get the image of Lisa draped around that philandering photographer out of his head.
The sound of giggling made Jack lookup. A man and woman were walking up the aisle, his hands all over her like an octopus. Jack tut-tutted disapprovingly. They were old enough to know better. The lean, dishevelled figure in a crumpled, cream, linen suit looked very familiar. The recognition was reciprocated as Rory raised an arm in his direction.
‘Bloody Rory, what the hell is he doing here with his arms wrapped around a brunette?’
WHEN YOU REALIZE YOU’VE GOT IT WRONG
He closed his eyes as the enormity of his misconception sank in. His stomach lurched, and his intestines reeled from what felt like a Lennox Lewis punch in the solar plexus.
‘Jack! You are the very last person I expected to see up here. I thought you and Lisa would be tucked up in your cosy little love nest by now. Did her proposal scare you off so much you felt the need to escape?’
‘Her proposal! When I said goodbye to her the other day, she said she wanted to ask you to be with her for the rest of her life, as her soul-mate and lover, you know rather than her lawfully wedded husband. You will remember how bloke-ish her views on marriage are. This is the gorgeous Célia by the way. We are off on the first leg of our round-the-world trip. I will be taking stunning photographs of the world at large, and Célia here will be writing deliciously seductive pieces to accompany them. All funded by Focal Point, would you believe?’
‘Pleased to meet you, Jack,’ Célia purred, but he wasn’t listening; he was staring out of the window. Bailing out at 38,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean was not an option.
‘He’s not normally rude, Célia. He’s just realised what a tosser he is. Am I right, Jack?’
Rory persevered, raising his voice, which made the woman sitting next to Jack shift in her seat, glowering from Rory to Jack.
‘If your facial expressions are telling me anything, mate, I think you just might have made the biggest mistake of your life. Jack? Are you listening to me?’
Jack was still staring out of the window, so the woman sitting next to him elbowed him in the ribs.
‘Oh, for goodness sake! Listen to what he has to say, then I can get on with my book,’ then nodded to Rory to continue.
‘Lisa needs you. She always has. She’s always loved you, Jack. I might have caused a distraction, for a while, when she thought she would never get you back, but it’s you she wants to spend the rest of her life with. She told me. She said the biggest mistake she’d ever made was saying no, to you.’
Resting his elbows on the tray table, Jack put his head in his hands as a frustrated groan escaped his lips.
‘You see, Célia, the penny’s finally dropped! He knows what a knob head he’s been.’
‘I saw you two together the other day, and I drew all the wrong conclusions.’
‘Shame on you, Jack, and you a publishing man! Never judge a book by its cover. Isn’t that what they say? Ah, well, good luck, Jack. We were stretching our legs a bit, back here in cattle class. Let’s go back and have more champagne in Club, and drink Focal Point’s health.’ He turned Célia around by her shoulders and leaned over to Jack.
‘We should arrive at JFK in about four hours and, if you have any hope of salvaging this mess, I suggest you get yourself booked on the first flight back to London. Better still, book Concorde, she might just save your life.’
Edna is a member of both DAWG, the Didsbrook Authors and Writers Group and DADS, the Didsbrook Amateur Dramatic Society. She is blessed with an unwavering self-belief that she is about to join the ranks of world-renown authors, convinced she is Didsbrook’s answer to J. K. Rowling, hence her rather suspect non-de-plume, E. D. Fowling.
Dulcie Darling and the Wizard’s Cauldron is Edna’s current work-in-progress. Her fourteen-year-old protagonist, Dulcie, is a meddlesome goody-two-shoes.
Blessed with magical powers inherited from her mother, who, quite by accident, ate magic mushrooms when she was pregnant, Dulcie wreaks havoc wherever she goes.
Week by week, members of DAWG have been enchanted by Edna’s jaunty readings of the ‘away with the fairies’ Dulcie as she magically extracts herself from farcical situations.
Edna’s conviction that her work-in-progress will reach the dizzy heights of ‘world best-seller’ is unshakable. She often regales her envisaged scenario to DAWG, the one about rubbing her ample shoulders with her idol, J. K. Rowling.
‘A pen name is my only option. Once ‘Dulcie’ goes into print, my privacy will go to pot, when I become a household name.’
Edna collared me in Hargreaves, Didsbrook’s old-fashioned purveyor of meat after she’d finished her fifteenth rewrite. We were standing at the front of an orderly queue of customers spilling out of the door and onto the pavement. Didsbrookians prefer to pay twice as much to watch Mr Hargreaves hack off their chosen Sunday joint with his cleaver and give the hermetically sealed equivalent from the supermarket down the road the cold shoulder.
Edna has a thunderous thespian voice. Her enunciation lies somewhere between Queen Elizabeth II of England and Eliza Doolittle, born within the sound of Bow Bells. Hargreaves is a tiny shop with a sawdust-covered wooden flooring, so it served to amplify her theatrical tones.
‘Of course, once my book is reviewed, and, no doubt, you will be reviewing it too, won’t you, Lucy, dear?’
I manage a feeble smile and nod. No doubt I will but, I will be hiding behind my pen name, the savage Jane Jones, so I don’t have to leave the country.
I’m not alone with my assessment of Dulcie Darling. Only at last week’s meeting of DAWG, poor Basil committed the deadliest crime a writer’s group member could ever perpetrate. He fell asleep while Edna was reading Chapter 16, Dulcie Dices with Death. He could have been listening intently with his eyes closed but, his crime was exposed when he started snoring. As Dulcie’s monotonous magical monologue drones towards The End, all seven of in the group are in danger of falling asleep.
‘It will be all over the press, the Internet, and goodness knows everywhere else. I’ll have fans turning up on the doorstep asking me for autographs every five minutes and, although I appreciate attracting thousands of fans to Didsbrook would do wonders for the local economy, as I am sure Mr Hargreaves here would agree…’
Edna paused to look at Mr Hargreaves. His vacant stare and lazy smile betraying his feelings of not giving a toss, then bore his cleaver down onto an inert carcass, as Edna continued.
‘I know they would mean well, but they would take up far too much of my time whilst I’m writing the sequel.’
God forbid, a sequel! I know us aspiring writers need to keep the faith, how I wish mine were as strong as Edna’s.