Blog

Christmas is coming!

Passion flowers are more closely associated with Easter than with Christmas!

November has been wet and gloomy here in Gloucestershire. The news, both national and international is as dark and threatening as the weather. That’s not good for anybody’s mental health. I’ve been trying to look on the bright side, as I did with my Instant Lift page during lockdown. It’s only a month until Christmas, and luckily I’ve found some things which I hope will put a smile on your face.

Children in Need raised over £35 million on the night of its annual telethon. The Children in Read segment, which is operated by Jumblebee and the inexhaustible Paddy Heron, ran their annual book auction. I donated a paperback copy of Struggle and Suffrage in Bristol, which will soon be on its way to the winning bidder. Thank you for your generous donation, S!

What A Christmas Prize!

I’ve been finding it difficult to get out and about since the Covid lockdowns, but DD managed to drag me out of the house last Saturday. We visited a Christmas sale of work in a nearby village and had a great time. The homemade cakes were delicious, and the handicrafts were beautiful. We stocked up on Christmas presents and bought some raffle tickets. What do you think? We won not one, not two, but three prizes! A photograph frame, a box of chocolates, and this beautiful hand-made Advent Calendar which doubles as a giant Christmas stocking.

As the raffle was drawn after DD and I had left, I had to go and collect the prizes afterwards. To be honest I had a bit of a wobble about that. It took me several days to summon up the courage to do it, but the lady custodian of prizes was very kind.

Christmas presents in waiting

Although the rain here has been torrential, the weather has been mild. As well as the usual winter jasmine, viburnum bodnantense ‘Dawn’, and winter honeysuckle, a few last buds on the passion flower have opened. We’re enjoying them while we can. Meanwhile indoors, the cyclamen I sowed last spring have burst into flower. I should have pulled out these first flowers to make sure there are plenty for the Christmas festival itself, but I couldn’t bear to do it!

On the international stage, a lovely video was posted on Twitter by @Imposter_Edits. A baby chimpanzee at Sedgewick County Zoo, Kansas, had to be taken away from its mother and put on oxygen. This is what happened when keepers reintroduced the baby. Make sure the sound is on! https://twitter.com/i/status/1593402415985971200

My writing is fuelled by tea, and a kettle burns up lots of energy. I thought I knew all the energy-saving tips about boiling water. I either avoid boiling more water than necessary, or I fill a vacuum flask after I’ve filled the cups. Then the other day a retired science teacher suggested a real winner during a phone in programme. She pointed out how long a kettle stays at boiling point before it switches itself off. The fact is that a perfectly good cup of tea can be made by switching the kettle off as soon as the water starts to bubble furiously.

beverage filled mug beside cupcake
A Christmas cuppa! Photo by Jill Wellington on Pexels.com

Standing over the kettle and turning it off manually the second it boils, I can save at least ten seconds of electricity each time I make tea. That may not sound like much, but over a year that adds up to about three and a half hours of electricity. It also cuts down the amount of steam produced. In this old house, we have to do everything we can to reduce condensation.

Have you got any good money-saving tips you’d like to share during the run up to Christmas?

Blog, Children in Need

It’s Children in Need Time Again!

Friday 18th and Saturday 19th November 2022

As usual, I’ve donated a signed book for JumbleBee’s Children in Read fundraising auction for the BBC’s Children in Need charity. A copy of my first non-fiction book, Struggle and Suffrage in Bristol, is entered as Lot 215. For further details, click here and scroll down to find Lot 215.

The successful bidder will get the warm glow of satisfaction that they’ve helped support a good cause—as well as a signed copy of my book.

STOP PRESS! Congratulations to S (no more clues as I think it’s intended as a present!) who made the winning bid for a signed copy of my book. Thanks for your generosity, S.

Please give generously!

brown wooden desk
Blog, short stories

An Easter Surprise…

I had a lovely surprise this week. My short story The Real Maisey Day appears in The People’s Friend Easter Special (Edition No. 224).

Out Now!

I love writing for The People’s Friend as it’s been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. It was delivered to our house every week when I was little, and most of the recipes and a lot of the knitting patterns were tried out.

More recently, the magazine has been a welcome distraction on trips to hospital with my son. He’s been visiting consultants for multiple health concerns since he was eight years old. As he’s now taller than me (!), you’ll realise it’s been a long road.

While my son would get a comic from the hospital shop, I’d pick up a Friend. The tone of the magazine is optimistic and the stories, whether contemporary or historical, are always thoroughly enjoyable.

I like to think that reading my stories gives people an escape from their worries for a few minutes. It was what I needed during all those hospital visits, so it’s great to be able to give something back.

The Real Maisey Day is a story about friendship, and the very different truth that can lurk behind a public image. I’ve always been a sucker for self-help manuals, and I’ve tried many improving techniques over the years. They’ve all helped me to some extent. My favourite self-help guru is Jack Canfield. He looks so serene, and has a motivating quip for every situation.

My thanks to Mandy Dixon for this great illustration

I thought it would be fun to invent a self-help genius who is anything but perfect—someone who can inspire others, but behind the scenes is as lacking in confidence as everyone she helps to succeed.

Several kind people have contacted me to say they enjoyed The Real Maisey Day, and would like to read more stories about what happened next to the central characters.

I’d love to know what you think might happen to Emma, Daisy, Maisey Day, and of course Pablo, next!

Blog, Book Review

Review: “A Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England” by Dr Ian Mortimer

It’s Spring—yay! That means it’s time to start Spring Cleaning—boo!

I love to see Tottering Towers clean and shining, but I hate housework. It’s such a bore to be stuck inside when so much is going on outside. One way to make this solitary confinement with hard labour easier to bear is by listening to audio books.

“Words are often as important as experience, because words make experience last.”
William Morris

Listening while I work means my hands can be busy with what William Morris called mindless toil, while my brain relaxes with some fiction. Alternatively, my mind can be occupied with what the Wizard of Walthamstow would have called useful work—research.

This week, I’ve been listening to Dr Ian Mortimer’s The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England. It’s a real eye-opener. Did you know that in 1557, there was an influenza pandemic which hit the world far harder than Covid has? We’ve all heard of Plague and the Black Death, but that strain of sixteenth-century flu was a real horror too. It is said to have killed 7% of the English population. Compare that to the quarter of one percent death rate in England so far in the Covid pandemic.

Of course, there have been 465 years of improvements in nutrition, living conditions, healthcare, and information technology since then. The even better news is that the Elizabethan flu pandemic, terrible though it was, burned itself out in under two years.

There’s lots of valuable information about life during the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603), and interesting insights into the lives of beggars, aristocrats, and every level of society in between. One of these, the story of Thomas Appletree, shows the limitation of audiobooks. Their data isn’t stored in a searchable form. To make sure I’d got the details right in the story which follows, I had to resort to good old Google, as it was only in retrospect that I thought to include Tom’s story in this review. To paraphrase Omar Khayyam; the spoken word is heard, and having been heard vanishes forever. I didn’t want to rely on my memory alone.

One summer day in 1579, Thomas Appletree was fooling around in a boat on the Thames with some friends. He had a gun, and was showing off by firing it at random. It just so happened that Elizabeth I’s glass-sided barge was passing by. A stray shot from Tom’s gun hit its captain. Tom was caught, tried, found guilty of attempting to assassinate the Queen, and sentenced to hang. He pleaded his innocence all the way through, claiming that it was a complete accident, and he had no idea the Queen was near.

Right up until the second the noose was put around Tom’s neck, nobody would listen—but then a gentleman calmly stepped out of the crowd to hand over a Royal pardon. It turns out that Elizabeth knew all along Tom was no assassin, but thought he needed to be taught a lesson. Talk about a last-minute reprieve!

Image by jo-B

That is only one of a huge number of stories contained in this book. Every chapter is packed with fascinating facts. The music of Tallis and Byrd is so popular now that it’s hard to believe they apparently lost money hand over fist when they first started publishing it. However, this makes more sense when you learn that each piece of sixteenth-century sheet music only contained one part: for a single voice, a viol, or whatever. That meant no musician or singer knew what any other performer would be doing during a performance, so it’s a wonder anyone could a) afford to buy enough copies, or b) manage to organise a performance of something like Tallis’s Spem in Alium, which is written for forty voices.

I particularly liked the illustrations of Elizabethan low-life, with its colourful terms. I couldn’t help wondering whether anyone would really say; “Watch out! That woman’s a demander of glimmer!” rather than “Watch out! She’s a con artist!” (or worse). A second term highlighted another disadvantage of audio books. Despite rewinding and listening twice, I still couldn’t tell whether a horse thief would be called “a prigger of prancers” or “a pricker of prancers”. That’s a criticism of my ears rather than the narrator, actor Mike Grady, by the way.

If you only know Mr Grady’s work from Citizen Smith or Last of the Summer Wine, you’re in for a treat. From direct readings of primary sources to author Dr Mortimer’s own witty asides, he brings everything to life. His narration ranges from sombre to playful, as required.

Image by FotografieLink on Pixabay

Going back to that colourful term for a horse thief, they always say “write the book you want to read, but can’t find”. Listening to this book made me wonder if poor William Shakespeare was driven to write drama because the curriculum at Stratford Grammar was sadly lacking in excitement. I bet Cicero never threatened to “tickle the catastrophe” of any “cream-faced loon”!

I recommend this book as a fascinating read (or listen), and an absorbing introduction to this period in our history. I’ll definitely check out more of Dr Mortimer’s work.

If I go on to use any of this information in my work, I’ll need to get a real, “dead-tree” version of The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England in order to go back to the sources quoted.

Queen Elizabeth I— Pic by WikiImages

That touches on something which applies to all non-fiction books, whether audio or actual. If you are researching a subject, always cross check every fact with other reference works. Use the sources cited, where possible (and practical) track right back to primary sources, and look for work on the same subject by other authors.

No matter how learned and talented a researcher might be, each one brings their own prejudices to a subject. When you’re writing non-fiction, it’s vital to watch out for any unconscious bias.

If you only write fiction, you might think absolute historical accuracy isn’t important. Not so! There’s always at least one reader who knows exactly how much your hero should tip an ostler in 1589, for example. You don’t want anybody in your audience to think your drop-dead gorgeous aristocrat is either mean as dirt, or a reckless spendthrift, so look up the going rate—and double-check.

Reading (or listening) widely will give you the best chance of creating a story world based on a foundation of generally accepted truths, rather than a one-sided imaginary version which might disappoint or annoy your readers.

Spending time with books is always enjoyable, anyway!

black twist pen on notebook
Blog, books, Spring

The Story So Far…

Signs of spring are everywhere

We’re now nearly a week into March. The days are getting longer, and signs of spring are everywhere. I’m taking a week off from writing to do some spring cleaning, as we’ve had the builders in at Tottering Towers. Paul and his team have worked wonders, so I’ve got no excuse. Everything has to be sparkling clean before it goes back into our newly-refurbished space.

The trouble is, housework is a never-ending task. I love to see everything clean and tidy, but in an old house with an active family and pets, it never stays that way for long. It’s very dispiriting.

I wrote here about how I’m following Antony Johnston’s methods for creating an organised workspace, and developing efficient working methods. It’s going quite well. Since the 3rd of January I’ve submitted five new pieces of work. I’ve also managed to keep my accounts up to date, and maintain my journal.

I’ve also managed to enjoy some books, although most of that has been done through Audible. Audio books are my secret weapon when it comes to getting the housework done. I put on a book, and lose myself in that. The time flies by!

Right now, during the day I’m absorbing Dr Ian Mortimer’s A Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England. It’s absolutely fascinating. Did you know that until the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the hour as a measure of time didn’t exist in the form we know it today? During the winter time, hours (as measured out by the chimes of church bells) were twice the length of hours in summertime, as there was calculated to be only half as much light.

In the evenings I’m reading a “real” book: Raymond Blanc’s The Lost Orchard. This is Raymond’s personal exploration of fruit, and his experience of growing and using many different varieties. Much as I love listening to stories during the day, there’s nothing like reading a few pages of this in bed at night before settling down to dream of tarte Maman Blanc, or apple pie…

What would we do without books?