Sunday, 26 April 2020

In a good cause

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. 

I know, don’t tell me, it's complete nonsense, but all in a very good cause.

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.

Friday, 17 April 2020

Still Rocking

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 laughing mood.

Swimming for One
Joe, middle-aged and newly single, is happily indolent – or he would be if his bossy little sister didn’t interfere.

History Lessons
Re-enacting a Jacobite battle isn’t Lucy’s idea of (every) Saturday afternoon fun, a fact she’s hiding from her new boyfriend.

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 would do?

Still Rocking
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.

Following Joel
Alison and Tommy have moved from Scotland to London to help their son and his wife with childcare but it’s getting rather overwhelming.

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.

Tuesday, 14 April 2020

The Day of Small Things

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


phone calls


zoom – for enabling meetings of book group and writing class

Face Book (keeping in touch plus there have been some very funny memes and black humour and many heart-warming stories; I don’t read the negative stuff or click through to the horror/tabloid stories)

friends’ blogs showing what their daily lives are like at the moment: Anne Stenhouse and Anne Stormont

cooking something with substituted ingredients that turns out well (those food deliveries, wonderful though they are, are unable to supply plain flour or yeast; who’s got it all?)
Richard Osman’s House of Games – 6pm BBC2, brain-teasing fun


teddies and rainbows in windows

(and in my son’s Greater London street on Easter Sunday painted eggs for children to ‘hunt’)

I can read all day if I want to (and I do), currently the rather wonderful Where the Crawdads Sing and, alternately, a comfort read Mrs Pooter’s Diary.
Joe Wicks’ YouTube exercises (to help keep reader’s bottom at bay)

exercise bike (ditto)

early morning walks through deserted streets (ditto, and for fresh air, and to feel some sense of normality while marvelling at the changed, almost vehicle-less, city)

free theatre productions on YouTube

Malory Towers on iPlayer

large garden (communal, south-facing)

sleep (previously I could lie awake worrying about various things but now with these being eclipsed I’m sleeping like the proverbial log – perhaps some form of defence mechanism kicking in?)

time to put together a new anthology Still Rocking and other stories– watch this space.

(all images courtesy of Pixaby)

Thursday, 2 April 2020

Twelve in March (2)

I read twelve books in March.

You don’t need me to tell you what’s been going on this month. Silver lining is more time to read. I’ve reviewed my twelve books in two posts; the first is here.

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 threads’.
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 purposes).

Noah’s Compass by Anne Tyler
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.

The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry
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.

 The Foundling by Georgette Heyer
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.

Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver
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.
Her The Poisonwood Bible is one of my favourite reads ever.

Stay safe, everyone. Are you getting through your reading pile?

Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Twelve in March (1)

I read twelve books in March. 

You don’t need me to tell you what’s been going on this month. Silver lining is more time to read. I’ll review my twelve books in two posts rather than one huge one.

Confession with Blue Horses by Sophie Hardach
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.

The Other Mrs Walker by Mary Paulson-Ellis
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.

Things We Choose to Hide by Jane Riddell
‘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.’
Read my interview with Jane here.

Journey to Munich by Jacqueline Winspear
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 Shot by Lee Child
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 acquaintance.
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.

The Explorer by Katherine Rundell
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?