The official website for Tessa Barrie and her Alter Ego, Sally Edmondson, or is it the other way around? Home of the forgetfully funny Dotage Diaries and squibs about my life to date and how I've survived it.
I stumbled across this image today posted on FB by the author Laurie Buchanan. It made me realise how dilatory I have been recently, when it comes to reading and reviewing the work of self-published authors, many of whom are friends.
Reading and reviewing books by self-published authors is key to their success.
Reviews, good or bad, are important to authors, especially the first timers – whose ranks I hope to join soon. Family and friends might not be entirely honest with you about the quality of your writing, any plot holes, or your saggy middle.
Reviews are also good for potential readers. They help them better understand what the book is about, and whether or not it is the rollicking good read they are hoping for.
A glimmer of hope; our yellow brick road to recovery. Exciting times ahead, but it will be a gradual process, and some things can never quite be the same again. The world at large will have to make significant, and long overdue changes.
COVID-19 was a wake-up call to to the world. It was the pinnacle of man’s destruction of our fragile earth from climate disruption, to racial injustice and rising inequalities. As we tiptoe our way back to life as we once knew it, certain age-old ideologies have to go.
Our fragile planet is in big trouble, and things cannot go back to the way they were. Changes have to be made. We have to change, from the way we work and live our lives, to ensure the devastation of COVID 19 – or something similar – never happens again.
To dig ourselves out of this nightmare, our recovery programme will have to be one of global cooperation. We all need to do our bit to rebuild a more equal, fairer society. We have to do it for our children and for the generation yet to be born.
BEYOND THE COVID-19 CLOUD
My Carbon Footprint
During the first Lockdown, I took a long, hard look at my life. The most important part of our lives are the people in it and COVID-19 so cruelly denied too many people around the globe that Devine.
Where we chose to live during our very short time on earth with the people we love, is also fundamentally important. Furthermore, your home, your feathered nest, does not need to be of grandiose proportions.
There were many aspects about my life I wasn’t happy with. Too much of everything. Clothes, most of them I’d long since ‘grown out of’, but kept them, hoping that that one day, I would wake up and, magically, slip into them again.
CLUTTER! I have hung on to everything, random photos, press cuttings, travel memorabilia, coursing back through decades of my life, including my late Father’s motor mascot… which weighs a ton.
Then, I started mugging up about what I could do to best help the planet.
OUR ROAD TO RECOVERY
Reduce, Reuse and Recycle
If you haven’t already made adjustments to your life, here are some of the basic changes you can make.
We’ve got a long way to go, but it’s not too late, if we act now. It is of paramount importance that we start now!
If we all do something, however small, to save our fragile earth, we can help its regeneration. The future of this planet is in your hands, and maybe, one day, it will return to being the wonderful world we once knew for future generations to enjoy.
The fact I have started writing the Dotage Diaries means I’ve reached that time of my life when I start conversations with the words, ‘I remember when,’ which tells me I’ve, involuntarily, joined the Craft Club.
‘I remember when,’ is a phrase my grandfather started his sentences with. ‘I remember when… I was your age…’ He would say, and I would wait, wide-eyed with anticipation, to hear what sparkling adventures he got up to when he was the age I was then.
It makes me laugh now because, sometimes, I can’t remember where I left my car keys five minutes ago. Yet I can tell you about the time I fell into a bed of stinging nettles aged about five. My big brother had told me umpteen times not to walk along a wall fringed by 4-foot grandfather stinging nettles. I blatantly ignored him, and he got all the blame for my stupidity.
So how come I can remember what my homework was when I was eleven, but can’t remember which floor of the multi-story park I left my car an hour ago? Well, I am reliably informed that it is something to do with decreased blood flow to the brain. I used to be able to stand on my head. I wonder if I still can? It might be an idea to try to precipitate a rush of blood to my brains.
This sad state of affairs is telling me that I have, unwittingly, joined the Craft Club. I remember when… here we go … I heard about the Craft Club for the first time, while I was earwigging a conversation between my late step-father was having with one of his oldest friends and telling him he had joined the Craft Club. I thought it was unlikely that someone as macho as my step-father would be signing up to master the art of crocheting, or mashing up bits of paper with starch to make unidentifiable papier-mâché shapes. But, whatever club he had just joined, it was the source of much amusement.
Then, one of my gorgeous older friends, who always made quick work of the Times General Knowledge crossword, became frustrated when she started taking longer to finish it.
‘I know all the answers,’ she grumbled, ‘I just can’t remember them.’
So, if you don’t know already know, you will have worked out that the CRAFT in Craft Club, stands for Can’t Remember an F-ing Thing.
I’m off to see if I can remember how to stand on my head, failing that I’m going to improvise, and hang upside down in a chair.
The final edit of my first born novel, Just Say It, has been ruthless. Sadly, this scene with my MC, Lisa, after bumping into her old flame, Rory, for the first time since he walked out on her eight years ago, has got the chop.
‘How can you possibly think about driving anywhere, let alone in a foreign country, without bringing a map? We’ve been driving around in the dark for hours now.’ Lisa snapped. Rory shrugged.
‘I assumed the campervan would be fitted with some sort of Sat Nav, so it never crossed my mind, but of course, that was before I left home and had no idea, I was going rescue my feisty damsel in distress old friend whose ancient Land Rover expired on the quayside at Portsmouth Docks, and, out of the kindness of my heart, become her knight in shining armour. She then had four glasses of wine when we got on the ferry and threw up all the way to Santander. I know you are feeling like shit, and I know I promised that you would be languishing in a night hot bath at the B and B, La Balbina, three hours ago, but if it were me, on my own, right now, I would get some sleep in the campervan and find the B and B at dawn.’
‘Well, you could have but, as you say, out of the kindness of your heart, you offered to take me and all my goods and chattels all the way to The Algarve, so there is no room for one person to sleep in the back, let alone two. And, yes, okay, I did a bit of celebrating when I got on the boat. I’ve finally left the UK for good, and I bumped into you for the first time since you went to work one morning and never came back. I was just about to report you missing when Finty dropped into conversation that you’d been offered an assignment in Australia.’
‘Well, I was young and feckless in those days, and I did apologise by email.’ Lisa sighed while thinking, ‘as if that made it okay? It didn’t.’
‘Hang on… somebody’s walking towards us.’ A man with a flashlight was weaving around in the middle of the road.
‘Go on, ask him!’ Lisa suggested.
‘Well, I’m not sure…’
‘What do you mean you’re not sure? What is it about men and asking for directions? I’ll sort this out.’ Sliding the passenger door open, Lisa got out of the campervan and walked towards the smiling stranger. He was wearing a check shirt, and a large beret at a kilter, which Lisa assumed was the Basque tradition. He staggered and almost fell, reaching out to grab hold of Lisa’s outstretched arms to steady himself.
‘Oh shit, he’s drunk!’ She thought. ‘Boa Noite, senhor. Estou procurando o B and B La Balbina!’
‘Zer esan zenuen?’ came the slurred response.
‘Li!’ Rory shouted out of the driver’s side campervan window. ‘I think he’s talking Basque, and it sounds like you are talking Portuguese.’
‘I know I am talking bloody Portuguese. I’ve been practising for weeks. The Spanish, I mean the Basque, and the Portuguese are neighbours, so he might speak it unless you happen to have picked up a bit of Basque on your travels. At least I’m trying to sort out this mess we’re in! B and B… La Balbina. La… Balbina!’
‘Shouting won’t help!’
‘Shut up, Rory! Unless you are going to be a bit more useful. He’s about to say something.’
‘Bai… han up,’ came the response. He was pointing up a track and taking Lisa by the hand, he led her back to the campervan, climbed in the back and passed out.
‘And then there were three,’ Rory sighed, ‘but anything’s worth a try. In you get. He was pointing up there, I think.’
They stopped outside an unlit Basque farmhouse as several unseen dogs started barking aggressively. There was only one dimly lit window downstairs, and Lisa, having assumed the role of leader, went to have a look inside. An elderly lady stirred from her sleep in an armchair, and a couple of sheep that lay at her feet got unsteadily to theirs.
‘I really don’t think this place is in Alistair Sawday’s book, Rory. This can’t be La Balbina. They’re very animal friendly here, but it doesn’t look like a B and B to me.’
There was a thud as their passenger fell out of the van, letting rip a selection of Basque expletives as he got up, which silenced the dogs and proceeded to swagger towards the front door singing loudly:
‘Abestu gora Euskadi’
Sing up Basque country
‘aintza ta aintza’
glory and glory to its
‘bere goiko Jaun Onari’
Good Lord from above
The heavy wooden door groaned open, and the sheep came thundering out, followed by the old lady, who let rip more colourful Basque expletives from the female perspective.
‘It must be her husband…’ muttered Rory.
‘No shit, Sherlock…’
Wielding the shepherd’s crook she was walking with above her head, she brought it down with a fair amount of force across the man’s shoulders and unleashed a few more heartfelt Basque expletives, which the man thought was hilarious.
‘Ouch!’ said Rory. ‘That’s not very nice!’ And with one last chorus of Abestu gora Euskadi, he turned to flash Lisa and Rory a beaming smile, tipped his beret, and disappeared inside.
The old lady nodded her approval.
‘La Balbina?’ Lisa asked, hopefully.
In broken but perfectly understandable English, the old lady replied, ‘Go back down there, turn left, and then right. La Balbina is the first place you see, and I thank you for bringing home my old mozkortuta.’
Looking at the blank expressions on Lisa and Rory’s faces, she added, ‘My old drunk.’ Then she went back inside, closing the creaking door behind her.
Twenty minutes later, Lisa was languishing in her promised hot bath.
The growing pains of a virgin novelist are real. It will be six years at the end of June since I started writing my first novel. At various intervals during that time, I celebrated reaching ‘The End’ but realised, after all that deluded carousing, writing a novel is more than just telling a story.
I had just been made redundant when I started writing Just Say It and during the first carefree Pantser-style writing year, I poured out my post redundancy frustrations into the novel I’d carried around in my head, for twenty years.
I wrote all day and most of the night. I would wake up around 3.00a.m., and going back to sleep would be impossible because all I could think about was getting the story out of my head on to my hard drive.
I listened to music and drank wine, whilst I was writing – obviously, not at 3.00 a.m. The words flowed, along with the Pinot Grigio, and my confidence soared. BUT... with each break I took from it, I went back to it, knowing it wasn’t right, and spent another year rewriting and revising.
I’m not sure if a more methodical approach at that stage of my writing life, would have helped. I might have looked less like a spaced-out zombie, but there was no time to be disciplined. I needed to unleash the beast but, in hindsight, the snapshot ideas I’d been carrying around my head for years meant that I wrote my first novel the hard way. I ended up having to unpick it and put it back together, countless times.
I wasted months trying to write the story dipping in and out of the backstory until I confused myself with the timeline… so no hope for any potential reader.
I wasted a huge amount of time zapping the clichés and idioms which should have never been in there in the first place.
My saggy middle was a real concern for some time.
My biggest mistake? I was naive enough to start sending the MS to agents, when it was wasn’t ready for my closest friend, and biggest (only) fan, to read.
Inevitably, the rejections began flooding in and I had more than just a wobble, it was a total confidence meltdown BUT… you pick yourself up, retrieve your MS from the dustbin, and start over.
Info-dumping, stage directing and extreme scene setting. I plead guilty to them all. My biggest problem has been repeatedly using multiple point of views in the same chapter/scene, as well as the another issue. My author’s voice was constantly intruding and I wasn’t aware I was doing it, so it is imperative that you get as many people to read your MS as you can before you send it anywhere. Writing is a lonely business and, in my case, I carried on making the same mistakes over and over again. Your MS needs to be pristine, so you need to develop good writing habits.
Come up with an engaging plot, fully develop your characters and make sure you have a watertight, beginning, middle and end. No saggy middles!
Constant editing and revising is key and, when you’ve done it a hundred times, do it again!
The biggest lesson I’ve learned from writing my first novel, apart from all of the above, was that my pantser-style had to go, along with listening to music and guzzling wine while writing. I scrupulously plotted my second novel, and completed the first draft in four months.
So don’t make the silly mistakes I made when writing your first novel. Relieve yourself of some of the pain! Plot it, go deeper, not wider, don’t faff around with subplots, focus more on you MC and their emotional dilemmas.
I’m not sure when your dotage is supposed officially supposed to start, but I fear the tell-tale signs have been around for a while now. Just small things. I haven’t got to the stage where I open the fridge door and find my confused but well fed cat suffering from a mild case of hyperthermia. It’s more like leaving my bunch of keys in the car door when I go shopping. Fortunately, on both occasions, I was shopping at Waitrose, the posh place to shop, according to Michael McIntyre, so they were still there when I got back.
There is nothing good about getting older, which starts with middle-aged spread. I used to have a waist but it has now taken on the proportions of a well-filled potato sack, and the wintry looking, brittle strands of hair, that used to be blonde, is depressing.
I knew all the answers to the Times 2 crossword this morning, but I just couldn’t remember them. Sigh.
Every morning, I look in the mirror and find another blemish has appeared on my face over night. Age spots? Marmite-coloured manifestations that come in a various shapes and sizes, and not just on your face.
The eruptions of a crispy consistency that have started appearing on my face, are a concern. I scratched the last one off. It hasn’t come back, yet. As a teenager I never suffered from blackheads or pus-filled pimples so I suppose I am paying the price now.
Most mornings I wake up and my joints seem to be wrapped in invisible straight jackets.
I blame all these manifestations on Autoimmune Disease, because living with it is a trial, but I really can’t hold it responsible for not being able to remember what I watched on the TV last night.
I have no control over these things, the weight gain, the forgetfulness, the facial degeneration, they just seem to happen, but, let’s look on the bright side, at least I am still in control of my bladder, well, it’s only when I laugh.
It is very important to me that Just Say It gets into print.
This bittersweet story follows the first four decades of Lisa Grant’s life.
Turning forty, Lisa still bears the scars of her dysfunctional childhood. Her narcissist mother, Elizabeth, is responsible for her insecurities and Lisa needs to break the negative emotional hold Elizabeth has over her. Harnessing her journalistic skills, Lisa investigates her mother’s past and is shocked by what she uncovers.
After finding out the truth about her mother’s early life, can she find it in her heart to forgive Elizabethfor her appalling behaviour over the last forty years?
I cannot begin to imagine what NHS staff have been through during the last 12 months. All the sacrifices they made in their own lives to save the lives of others, including Boris Johnson’s!! This is not just an insult but hypocrisy in its worst form.
Out of the dark, comes the light and the sounds of a commotion. I am focusing on colours, flickering and dancing behind closed eyelids. I snap my eyes open, but the light is blinding, and I close them again. My heart is fluttering, and I imagine a swallow flying in the summer sun.
It is cold. So cold. The icy chill has worked its way into every pore, every cell. It has seeped into the very essence of my being. I am wet. Lying in a foul-smelling ditch, I feel like an alien forced to land on an uncharted planet. I don’t know where I am.
‘She’s down there.’ Someone cries. Who is she? I wonder.
My head is throbbing. Something is trickling down my forehead, over my eyelids, pooling in the corner of my eyes, blurring my sight. It dribbles over my nose and into my mouth. I run my tongue between my lips, they taste salty.
I inhale deeply and wince. My ribs hurt, as a pungent, metallic smell drifts through my nostrils. The constant drip is blood, and I panic. I want to wipe it away from my face with my hands, but my arms won’t move. Pain sears through my body and I start to scream. A strangled wail, as through the pain, I remember what carnage looks like.
Driving in the early hours of the morning, I have the motorway to myself, there is nothing on the road ahead of me as far as the eye can see.
Then, out of the darkness, a thunderous crash. A van travelling in the other direction careers across the central reservation. It shoots over the barrier and into the air like a stunt motorcycle flying off a ramp. There is a light in the cab, the driver and his female passenger look like they are floating. Their arms are flailing, and their terror-ridden faces pressed up against the windscreen. My heart freezes inside my chest, and they slam into me.
Squealing breaks, crunching metal. The stench of fear and screams that are not all my own. Slow-motion, contorted images in the darkness. Bodies, limbs flying. My car rolling, bouncing, plummeting, splintering glass. Then nothing.
‘Lily, can you hear me?’ A disembodied voice asks, I blink my eyes open again and see a blurred outline. Human, alien, I can’t tell. I can hear, but I can’t speak. I can smell, but I can’t feel.
Yesterday at dawn, I was woken by my cat purring in my ear. There are worst ways of being woken up. Throwing back the curtains, I was greeted by a spectacular sunrise bursting across the horizon and the inspirational light, together with the birdsong, quite took my breath away.
A vast, glowing sphere of hot gas that shimmers just above the horizon for a few minutes before powering its way into the sky. A surreal moment, during unprecedented times.
I have often waxed lyrical about the sunrise bursting above the horizon and it is never quite the same. Its radiant, luminous glow of deep orange and flame red, lifts the spirits and spreads an inspirational light on a darkened world and heralds endless possibilities for new beginnings.
I savoured the moment. My brain flooded with hooks and cliff hangers, and I’ve just had one helluva dream. Maybe I could turn it all into a mini-series?
I went downstairs to boil the kettle. The start of what was destined to be very productive day.
To be honest, in 2019, I didn’t have a clue about about how long the editing process was going to take. I was so excited to have ‘finished’ my first novel, I believe I would have laughed out loud if someone told me I’d still be editing the same manuscript, two years on.
I have been doing other things in between, but stepping away from yet another edit for a few weeks, before reviewing it with fresh eyes, is an essential part of the process.
I don’t think that, even after reading this, very accurate, C. K. Webb quote in 2018, that the enormity of the task ahead of me had sunk in.
“Edit your manuscript until your fingers bleed and you have memorized every last word. Then, when you are certain you are on the verge of insanity… edit one more time!” C.K. Webb
For a long time I thought writing the synopsis was the greatest challenge, how wrong was!
Getting over the final editing hurdle is the biggest challenge I have faced during the whole novel writing process. To be an editor you need to be disciplined, a skill I have had to develop.
It’s such a tough process that it makes me wonder how many first-time novelists fall at the final editing hurdle?
I’ve been very close to giving up, many times, but I have gone too far for that now.
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.’