When I write my lockdown diary entry
tonight it will be for Day 41 and I’ll be starting a new notebook.
It's a very sunny day here in Edinburgh
and my walk in the afternoon took me past gardens and parks filled with pink and white blossom, with trees in all shades of green, and gloriously russet acers. I’m
probably walking more than when I was ‘allowed’ to go out whenever I wanted.
In the morning I did 6k on the exercise
bike while listening to an old episode of A Good Read on iPlayer. Today’s guests were Sally Phillips and Julia
Donaldson. (Number of k in half an hour very feeble compared to other members of my household,
by the way.)
Before lunch I watched the National Theatre
production of Twelfth Night on
YouTube with the wonderful Tamsin Greig (available until 30 April).
So what’s not to like about lockdown?
Well, for one thing, many charities are
going to lose out this year because of the cancellation of the London Marathon.
To help make up that shortfall folk ran 2.6k round their gardens today, or
did other sporty things involving the numbers 2 and 6, and made a donation to the charity of their choice.
I challenged myself with a writing exercise
instead. I wrote a ‘story’ using words/names (selected quickly and at random)
beginning with every letter of the alphabet – in their correct order.
Arbroath! Benny felt the Call of the east
coast for his holiday away from the Delightful but Exaggerated Far south. Grim
though the bus journey was, with many Halts and Ill-making fumes, he Jumped off
feeling happy. After hoisting his Kaleidoscope and his Llama over his shoulder
he admired the Marguerites in a nearby garden. Pinching them would be a No-no;
besides it would be an Ordeal to climb the gate to pick the Petals. Coming from
a Quasi Rural background he Smiled at this seaside Town – even though it was
Under a Veil of fog – because the Waves made Xylophone noises like the band he
saw last Year with Zena.
All except one were previously published in The People's Friend, Woman's Weekly and The Weekly News. The last story, What Prue Didn't Know, won the Woman's
Short Story award, one of the competitions organised by the Scottish Association of
Writers in March 2020, judged by Helen
Walters and is published here for the first time.
The Spaghetti Tree
Seven-year-old Alfie plans an April Fool
joke to play on his Grampa, but Alfie’s dad isn’t sure that Grampa’s in a
Swimming for One
Joe, middle-aged and newly single, is
happily indolent – or he would be if his bossy little sister didn’t interfere.
Re-enacting a Jacobite battle isn’t Lucy’s
idea of (every) Saturday afternoon fun, a fact she’s hiding from her new
To the Moon and Back
It’s July, 1969, and Apollo 11 is heading
for the moon. Meanwhile, on Earth, Mike is trying to keep house while Patsy is
in hospital awaiting their third baby.
Don’t Say Cheese!
Cheese hates the childish nickname she
seems to be stuck with – it’s not the image she wants when she finally meets
her French friend’s glamorous older brother.
A Labour of Love
George arrives home unexpectedly to find a
strange man in the house with his wife. Is his complacency about his long
marriage about to be shattered?
What Would Jane Think?
Is the dishy new staff member ‘in want of a
wife’? Evie tries surreptitiously to find out – isn’t that what Miss Austen
Marnie appeals for her granny’s back-up
when she wants to attend a festival, but Flora has her own musical
memories which she’s not about to share.
Alison and Tommy have moved from Scotland
to London to help their son and his wife with childcare but it’s getting rather
Back to the Sixties
It’s 1999. When Meg encounters a former
classmate who caused her to break up with her best friend she’s at a loss to
know how to behave.
Arthur and the Stone Lintel
When widowed Arthur takes up Architecture
Appreciation classes, led by the obnoxious Roland, the last thing on his mind
is a new relationship.
What Prue Didn’t Know
City girl Prue stays with her new friend
Sarah and her family on their smallholding and makes some unexpected
discoveries about herself.
A paperback will follow. Meanwhile Still Rocking is available as an e-book from Amazon – and hey! it's up in lights!
Find out about my other publications, including three story anthologies, here.
I first heard the quote that gives the blog
post its title from the novel The Day of
Small Things by O. Douglas (sister of John Buchan), encountered by me when
I was about ten in my great-aunt’s house; it and her other titles have been on
my comfort-read list ever since.
She got the quote from the Bible,
Zechariah, iv. 10: ‘Who hath despised the day of small things?’
I have never been more grateful for the
‘small things’ than in these recent, unprecedented, days.
My daughter and I went out a drive on Mother’s Day (22 March) into the beautiful Border country around Peebles. We admired
the scenery, including newborn lambs, without getting out of the car. A lovely
memory to have – and not an experience that will be repeated anytime soon,
because the day after that came the lockdown.
No going into shops for us for health
reasons. So we are very fortunate that many local small businesses have stepped
forward to be a lifeline in delivering food to the door – fruit and veg boxes,
bread, milk, eggs, other groceries, butcher meat and fish.
One company delivered the goods and after that phoned for payment which
restored my faith in human nature to quite a tearful extent.
On second thoughts keeping people fed is no
small thing – it’s massive and I’m so
grateful, and for:
WhatsApp – for keeping in regular touch with family
and friends, whether for reassurances regarding health and well-being, doing
silly little quizzes together, dress-up Friday photographs and much more
zoom – for enabling meetings of book group
and writing class
Face Book (keeping in touch plus there have
been some very funny memes and blackhumour and many heart-warming stories; I don’t read the negative stuff
or click throughto the horror/tabloid stories)
My daughter has been pressing this on me
for a while (long before the current situation) and I resisted, thinking it was
going to be very depressing about the state of the NHS; however it was on the
TBR pile beside my bed which I now have time to work my way through. And I
loved it; the blackest of black humour is delivered in such brilliant turns of
phrase eg the pregnant woman who declared she wanted to eat the placenta after
her baby’s birth is described as being ‘50% goji berries and 50% Mumsnet
It would enormously help the NHS if people
didn’t do mind-bogglingly stupid things to themselves (in the current situation
I hope that toilet brushes and Kinder eggs are used only for their intended
I got this lovely American hardback edition
in a charity shop. No, it’s not about someone called Noah although the reason
for the title becomes clear towards the end. Liam, a rather solitary character
although he has an ex-wife, three daughters and a grandson nearby, finds he has
memory loss after being attacked. When trying various methods to retrieve his
memories he meets Eunice, a quirky woman (to say the least) twenty years
younger than him. Maybe, though, Liam’s loneliness is blinding him into
thinking this could be the start of a new relationship.
I bought this last year at the Borders Book
Festival after an event by the author, a granddaughter of JB. Some reviewers
commented that it shed no new light, i.e. it didn’t dish any dirt. And that’s
because, although of course he had his flaws like everybody else, there is no dirt
to dish. He did not have feet of clay.
I have been a little obsessed with the
Buchan family since reading his sister (pen name O. Douglas) as a young girl (they
are still my comfort reads) – her novels draw heavily on her immediate family
history. I’ve also read other biographies of him and his own memoir.
What I find particularly fascinating about
him is his capacity for work (which I don’t think would leave him any time for
‘dirt’ …). As I said in an earlier blog post:
‘Now maybe JB didn’t have to worry about
what to make for dinner, nor did he have to update his Facebook page or worry
about his Amazon ratings and he didn’t have the option of slumping in front of
a movie. But as well as being the author of around 35 novels and 50 non-fiction
titles, including single-handedly completing the 24 volumes of Nelson’s History of the War, he was in the course
of his 65 years a lawyer, diplomat, WW1 propagandist, publisher, MP and
Governor General of Canada.’
With all that it’s rather ironic that he is
best remembered now for creating Richard Hannay and his adventures in The Thirty-Nine Steps – a book he didn’t
think much of himself.
Ambrose Parry – aka best-selling novelist
Christopher Brookmyre and his anaesthetist/medical historian wife Dr Marisa
Haetzman. This is a brilliant mash-up of their talents.
It’s Edinburgh, 1847. Will Raven has just
become apprenticed to the renowned (real) Dr James Young Simpson in whose
household is maid Sarah Fisher who would aspire to the medical profession
herself were it an option for females.
When bodies of young women are found across
the city Will and Sarah join forces to investigate. I loved it. Perhaps it’s
not for the squeamish though …
I’d like to find out more about Dr Simpson
who seems to have been a larger-than-life, generous-hearted man as well as
earning the thanks of women everywhere for advocating chloroform during
childbirth. I had my children in the hospital that was wonderfully named for
him, the Simpson Memorial Maternity Pavilion. I believe in its new location
it’s called something much more prosaic.
Continuing my journey through Regency
England in Miss Heyer’s delightful company. Unusually, the main character here
is a young man – a young Duke, in fact – who was a delicate child and feels he
is still mollycoddled by his family and retainers although on his approaching
25th birthday he will fully come into his inheritance. He longs to have just a
few days of being ‘Mr Dash from Nowhere in Particular’.
Along the way on his adventures he finds
himself in charge of a runaway schoolboy and ‘the foundling’, a beautiful but
‘bird-witted’ girl, and comes up against some characters who would seek to get
some of his wealth for themselves.
Read for book group meeting on 1 April …
which went ahead virtually, courtesy of Zoom.
Set in New Jersey, there are two strands,
one in the present day and one around the middle of the 19th century which
features a real person, a naturalist called Mary Treat who corresponded with
Darwin and other (male) scientists of the time. There’s also a high school
science teacher whose headmaster does not believe in science.
The modern family, seen through the eyes of
Willa, live in an old, inherited, house that is quite literally falling around
them; if it turns out to have been inhabited by Mary Treat in the past they may
be eligible for a restoration grant.
Willa also has to cope with a horrible and
horribly ill father-in-law (her conversation with a health official telling her
he’s not covered by insurance makes you weep with thankfulness for the welfare
state here), an infant motherless grandson, and a daughter who thinks Willa’s
generation is far too materialistic. Plus (as if that wasn’t enough) it’s 2016
and ‘the Bullhorn’ is making unexpected inroads into the race to be President …
Willa does have a lovely husband though, the laid-back Iano.
I love BK’s writing; it’s so dense and yet
so clear As usual all her characters leap off the page. If I have a criticism
it’s that sometimes chats between characters are more polemic than a real
conversation would likely be.
Poisonwood Bible is one of my favourite reads ever.
Stay safe, everyone. Are you getting
through your reading pile?
Read on Kindle for book group. Ella and
Tobi live in London now but have unanswered questions about their childhood in
East Berlin including the family’s failed escape attempt in 1987 and the subsequent
disappearance of their little brother – ironically only two years before the
wall came down. When Ella finds some of their mother’s old notebooks she goes
to Berlin and the Stasi archives to find out what she can. A beautifully
written mystery/family story/history.
Margaret returns to Edinburgh in 2011 after
her life in London falls apart, and with no other means of support she moves
back to her mother’s flat. Her mother, Barbara, has always said that she has no
family and she has refused to tell Margaret who her father was.
I was attracted to the premise of this
book, being a fan of the TV programme Heir
Hunters which features a company who look for relatives of deceased persons
who have property/money but who have died intestate and with no known family.
Margaret finds a sort of similar job (to do
with what kind of funeral takes place) tracking down families of those who have
died alone. Interwoven with that is the story (not in chronological order) of
three sisters and their lives in London, from 1929 to 1980, encompassing, among
much else, abandonment, madness, paedophilia, thievery and abortion. All this
grimness is well evoked and I liked having to keep my wits about me to work out
what was happening and when.
BUT <spoiler alert>It did beggar
belief that the deceased in Margaret’s first case should turn out (I think) to
be a relative.
I wasn’t mad on the writing style. Which
tended to be a bit choppy. Like this. And like this. There was lots of
repetition too. Lots of repetition, and bracketed comments. (But that was
deliberate and not lack of editing. I think.) These stylistic tricks were a distraction away from the story.
It’s such a dreadful thought, dying alone,
estranged from or without family, sometimes not being found for days, weeks or
even years. I see that MPE’s new book has an heir hunter called Solomon
Farthing – clearly the subject is very fertile ground for a novelist.
‘After ending a long-term relationship,
Rachel Grosvenor goes to stay with friends in Florence, where she meets the
attractive Sicilian businessman, Tommaso. Despite her friends’ concerns, she
marries him weeks later, only to learn at the end of their honeymoon, that he’s
been less than honest with her. Gradually she stumbles upon more unpleasant
secrets in his life. Set in Italy and India, this is the story of one woman’s experience
of deception, jealousy and finding love in unexpected places.’
I’m a big fan of JW’s Maisie Dobbs
character – she’s a private investigator/psychologist and this is the twelfth
title in the series (currently there are 15). Here she goes to Munich in 1938 on
behalf of the British Secret Service.
I’d also recommend following Jacqueline
Winspear on Facebook – she’s a Brit living in the States and has a lot to say
that is thoughtful and wise.
One of his best, I think, and completely
page-turning. A man is apprehended after six people are shot dead; all the
evidence including forensics point to his guilt. His sister however doesn’t
believe he was capable of such a thing. All the man will say is ‘Get Jack
Reacher’ but it turns out they weren’t exactly buddies on their previous
Did you see that Lee Child is going to stop writing the Reacher novels and has handed the job over to his brother? I wonder
how that will work out.
I have just discovered children’s writer
(for children of all ages) Katherine Rundell and her Rooftoppers was the very last book I read last year.
I loved this one too – a plane crashes in the
Amazon jungle and four children are left to survive in it. The different
personalities, talents and backgrounds of the three older ones mean they all
have something useful to contribute.
What do tarantulas taste like? What does it
mean when they find a cigarette box tied to a high branch? And all those
stories of lost cities – could they be true?