Sunday, 5 November 2017

Remember, Remember, The Fifth Of November

In a nostalgic moment earlier, I remembered our family bonfire parties in Clifton Campville back in the 1960s and early 1970s. We'd take it in turns to host the party with our neighbours opposite, The Cuffes. We both had a fair bit of land on which to erect a big bonfire and the neighbours in our street would all club together to buy the fireworks. Our mums used to put on a fine spread, including lots of potatoes wrapped in foil to cook on the bonfire, served with lashings of butter.

Tonight, for the very first time, we will have fireworks in the garden. On a whim, my husband, Nige, announced this morning that he was off to buy some. I put it down to the strong anti-biotics he's taking.

I had baked potato for tea, albeit done in the electric oven and served sans beurre and with Branston Pickle, salad and ham, not a whiff of foil in sight.

And finally, here's a Flash Fiction I wrote a few years ago in remembrance of those lovely family bonfire parties.....


Jumpin’ Jacks lie like coiled worms on the rickety camping table underneath the kitchen window.
          Mum is wrapping jacket potatoes in tin foil ready to put on the dying embers of the bonfire, and Dad is lighting the Catherine Wheel. The Standard Firework box is almost empty. There’s just the Mount Vesuvius, a cone-shaped firework Dad always saves till last; a Spitfire and a Flying Saucer.
          I hope Toby arrives in time for the Jumpin’ Jacks. I love the way they chase us round the lawn.
          “Come and grate some cheese for the potatoes, Diane!” Mum shouts.
          It’s only when I’m through the back door that I hear a whistle from the garage. Toby must be hiding. He’s four years older than me and teases me all the time. Last week he set up his army play-tent in the kitchen and said he’d give me a tenner if I showed him my privates. I hid the brown note in a pink Tupperware box in our pantry. Mrs Crowther still hasn’t asked for it back.
          I grate the cheese, then skulk off to find Toby. He’s sitting on an oil drum holding a lit sparkler. It’s dangerous and thrilling at the same time. Just the two of us in the garage with the fireworks.
          “Which one shall we light first?” he asks with a grin.
          I point with a trembling finger, then run.
          We never did see the Jumpin’ Jacks. When Mount Vesuvius erupted, Toby turned to ash.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Birthday Books

My birthday was last Thursday and I was lucky enough to receive several books as presents. I admit that quite a few of them were on my Amazon Wish List, so it was easy for my family to choose their selections, but others weren't and I'm touched that my friends know me well enough to pick just the right book.

The Maggie O'Farrell was on my Wish List and my husband purchased it on behalf of my mother-in-law who is sadly now in a care home with dementia and Alzheimer's. I love a nice hardback, especially when it's got one of those beautiful ribbon bookmarks inside. I've almost finished this book, which is a memoir, featuring Maggie's seventeen brushes with death. It sounds depressing, but it isn't. In fact, it's quite an uplifting read and is a novel way of approaching the story of one's life. She continues to be one of my favourite authors and I've read everything she's written.

My good friend, Mandy Huggins warned me that I'd be receiving a parcel in the post, which looked like an Amazon parcel and not to open it, because it wasn't gift wrapped. I was a good girl and didn't open it until the morning of my birthday. Inside was a book I hadn't heard of, but I was delighted to discover the author lives in Saltburn by the Sea, where we've enjoyed many a happy holiday. I look forward to reading it. It's next on my list. Mandy has read it and has been raving about it.

Back in August I had a lovely time in London visiting my friends, Nigel and Tom. We first met at The Bedford International Short Story Award Presentation Evening in January 2016. Nigel and I were both on the shortlist and our stories were featured in the anthology. The three of us got on like a house on fire and we've been firm friends ever since. On my latest visit, Nigel took me to The British Library and we took in the LGBT Exhibition there. It was fascinating. One of my favourites exhibits was Kenneth Williams' actual diary from 1967. He had the tiniest handwriting. I told Nigel that I dearly wished I could have picked it out of the glass case and read it from beginning to end. "Have you not read the published diaries?" he asked. "No, I haven't." So, this duly appeared a couple of days before my birthday. A very thoughtful present and it was beautifully gift wrapped, too. I'm tempted to start it and read alongside the Carmen Marcus novel.

As most of you know, I attend The Theakston's Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival at Harrogate most years. An author I have got to know well is Eva Dolan. She has championed my own writing and been incredibly helpful in suggesting agents and how/when to approach them. I've read most of Eva's novels and they're real page-turners, but with a gritty insight into the political and social issues of our times. I'm now lucky enough to be on her publisher's review list, so I receive pre-publication issues. In fact, I've almost finished her latest novel, due out in January, This Is How It Ends. I won't go into detail here, because I've to write a review, but it's excellent. Anyway, the one novel of Eva's I haven't read is Tell No Tales, which is how it came to be on my Amazon Wish List. My son, Matt knows that I love a good hardback, so bought me the hardback version along with the latest Jake Bugg album on CD, which I've played to death in my car.

My husband, Nigel and I visited Howarth Parsonage on a trip to Yorkshire recently and when I saw this in the bookshop I was very tempted. However, I was restrained and put it on my Wish List instead. It was a lovely surprise to open Megan's present and find this. I'm still reading Shirley, so will save this one until I've finished the novel.

I visit my late husband's mother, Doris every Friday for coffee. She's now nearly 91. She loves reading, so it's something we have in common and can chat about. Unfortunately, her eyesight isn't at all good these days and she struggles to read, but she manages. Anyway, she gave me a beautiful birthday card last week and included some cash. I promised her I'd buy books with it, then promptly went into Rugby Town Centre (a rare event) and spent the cash in WH Smith's. It was quite a novelty to buy books from a proper shop instead of online. I had great fun browsing. Hunter Davies A Life In The Day was one of the books I was hoping someone would buy me for my birthday, so this is the one I sought out first (although the Biography Section was very hard to find!). I heard Hunter Davies talking about A Life In The Day on the radio, and last month I bought it for my goddaughter, who is a Beatles fan. I also wanted to read about his wife, Margaret Forster, because I'm a huge fan of her books and most of them are on my shelves.

It's been a while since I read any Marian Keyes, but I'm seeing her latest book everywhere lately, so I thought I'd give it a go. I loved her Under The Duvet collection of anecdotes and articles, so couldn't resist Making It Up As I Go Along.

My final purchase was the brilliant Kate Atkinson's A God In Ruins. Unfortunately, I missed out on the hardback when it first came out. I read Life After Life in hardback some time ago and I absolutely loved it. I've been itching to read the sequel, but now I'll have to read Life After Life again to fully appreciate it. It won't be a hardship, I assure you!

I love birthdays!

Saturday, 9 September 2017

The Retreat West Launch, Reading

I had a fabulous time in Reading on Thursday and I'm so glad my mate Mandy Huggins invited me to attend The Retreat West anthology launch. It was even worth putting up with the horrible Cross Country Trains experience!

We stayed in a fabulous hotel, The Ibis Central, just round the corner from the station. I couldn't fault it for cleanliness, efficiency and hospitality. Antonio on Reception was lovely. He even let me put my overnight bag behind Reception free of charge the next day when I wanted to explore the town and have lunch.

For Mandy and I, our evening began with a lovely meal at Jamie's by the river (I think she's now forgiven me for flooding our table with water! I now have a reputation as being 'a bad pourer').  We'd already sought alcoholic refreshment earlier in the afternoon in the pub next to the station, where I decided it was easier to meet, simply because there weren't any benches to sit on on the station concourse (that was my excuse, anyway!).

I love meeting up with fellow writers. It's also exciting to meet online writer friends for the first time (Amanda Saint and Judith Wilson to name but two). The lovely Jo Campbell and her family were in attendance and I fell in love with Jo's 1960s outfit. How I wish I had the figure for such fab clothes! We had a lovely discussion about Amazon Wish Lists and Save For Later! We promised each other that we'd resume our regular email exchanges and commented that emails had now become something akin to letter writing now that it was so much more instantaneous to chat online via Facebook Message or Snap Chat. Such a shame!

Jude Higgins reading her prize winning Flash

There was a special atmosphere at the launch party in Waterstones with the wine flowing freely and lots of interesting nibbles! There was a real buzz in the room and I dearly wished I'd  entered Retreat West last year. I certainly will be doing so this year, as I would love one of my stories to be published in a similar anthology and be invited to the launch next year. Jude Higgins (whom I've known for many years now) won first prize in the Flash category and read her touching piece about a grandfather in hospital. I met Judith Wilson (and her husband/driver) for the first time, unaware at first that she won the short story category. It was a delight to hear her read her story, On Crosby Beach. I could picture the scene vividly, recalling my first visit to the beach and the Anthony Gormley statues last year.

Towards the end of the launch, Mandy and I decided it would be fun to get our anthologies signed by those authors who had pieces published therein. The idea caught on and it all got very confusing!

Mandy Huggins, Diane Simmons, Jude Higgins and I finished off a great evening with drinks in The Pitcher and Piano and had a lively discussion about MAs and the reason why so many people don't think you're a real writer until you've had a novel published. We then had 'one for the road' in The Ibis Hotel bar. It has to be noted that Mandy was on the Diet Coke by this time and Jude went to bed.

Hotel bar nightcap!
All in all, a most enjoyable evening! I had a lovely time exploring Reading shops and had lunch in Bill's the next day. My son, Matt, has an interview in Reading on Wednesday and I am crossing everything, hoping he gets the job, because I think it would be a wonderful place for him to live and work (and I'd have an excuse to visit the town more often!).

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Too Many Books! Not Much Time Left!

This morning I was eating breakfast (cranberry and orange bread with crunchy peanut butter, if you're interested) and became aware that the bread (even though I'd bought it yesterday) wasn't particularly fresh. In fact, I didn't even like the taste much either. Rather than wade my way through it, I put it in the bin. Life's too short to eat something that isn't hitting the spot. It occurred to me that it's the same with reading.

The older I get, the more discerning I get about what I read for pleasure. I think that one of the reasons for this is that I'm all too aware of time running out. There are so many damn fine books in the world, that it is impossible to read them all. I have hundreds of books on my shelves that I haven't yet got round to reading (yet I still continue to buy more) and, as one of my Facebook friends said in a recent post, ploughing through a book you're not enjoying for the sake of feeling you have to finish it, is a waste of time; time that could be spent reading something wonderful. Other friends swear by the Page 50 Test. In other words, if you're not enjoying the book fifty pages in, then cast it aside, because it's unlikely to get any better. However, I have been known to abandon a few books fifty pages before the end!

I admit I feel a little guilty about casting books aside without having read them cover to cover, but I do give away the books I've finished with,  either to the secondhand bookshop at the National Trust property where I volunteer, or I give them to friends and relatives. It's not as though I throw them in the bin or (heaven forbid) set fire to them.

I've struggled to find books I'm passionate about recently (maybe this is a sign of getting older!). I get a lot of freebies from publishers as well as goody bags from literary festivals and I have to say it's unusual to find a real gem amongst them. Having said that, All The Wicked Girls by Chris Whitaker (one of at least a dozen freebies from Harrogate Crime) was an amazing reading experience. Why? The characters, sense of place and wonderful writing made it stand out from the crowd. For once a crime novel that didn't rely exclusively on plot!

I'm currently reading Shirley by Charlotte Bronte (inspired by a recent visit to the Bronte Parsonage in Howarth). Boy, could that woman write! It's an old battered hardback copy, a New York edition, in fact, that belonged to my late mother, who was incidentally called Shirley. You even learn a bit of history, too. Can't be bad.

In other news, I had a busy day yesterday, beginning with a bike ride in torrential rain. Tuesday is my National Trust volunteering day and, although we had fewer visitors than in recent weeks, it was an enjoyable day and I got a great short story idea from a young couple.

Another bike ride today, but I managed to avoid the rain showers. I also tackled some much-needed housework!

And yes, I did manage to enter The Writers' Forum Short Story Competition on Monday.

Monday, 4 September 2017

Black Hole Blogger

It has been almost two years since I wrote a blog post. I can't quite believe it when I used to be such a regular blogger. So why did I stop?

Basically, I think it was because I didn't think I had anything interesting to say. For some reason my confidence has taken a knock in recent years and I've been struggling to keep my head above water. It's as if I fell into some kind of black hole.

Hopefully, I'm back to stay now. If any of you are friends with me on Facebook, you could be forgiven for thinking that I'm living the life of Riley and that I'm always away on trips. As we all know, we can present any facet of our lives on Facebook and give a false impression. Yes, I have been away on lots of 'jollies', either visiting friends, attending writing events or having a night or two away with my husband. And great fun all that has been, too. However, I have been struggling with my demons and I haven't been as prolific on the writing front as I could have been.

I have had some wonderful writing successes in the two years I've been away from the blog. I've had more stories published by Woman's Weekly and The People's Friend. I've had one or two competition successes, although I haven't entered very many at all. I've also done a lot of competition judging, including being on the reading panel for The Bath Short Story Award and one of three judges of The Rubery Book Award.

In February this year I started volunteering as a room guide at a National Trust property in Northamptonshire. This has given me a great deal of pleasure and I've made some lovely new friends. I love the role and enjoy chatting to the visitors. This has given my self-confidence a much needed boost and it's something I hope to continue with for many years to come, despite me 'losing' a whole day's writing a week. I do think it's good for the soul to get out of the house and interact with real people instead of fictional ones! It has also provided me with some great story ideas (even though I haven't written them yet). They've even asked me to run a 'Spooky Stories' workshop for children during October half term.

I recently signed a contract with a publisher for a Flash Fiction Collection. I probably shouldn't say much more about this yet, as it's early days, but I'm hoping it will be published next year.

Today I have been out cycling (something I love to do and must make the effort to do most days, as it's brilliant for my mental health) and I've done some writing. I hope to have something to send to The Writers' Forum Competition and I'm working on a new story with no idea of where to send it yet! I've also got a second novel on the go. I'm having fun writing it, but we'll see... I don't think I'm a natural novel writer.

On Thursday I'm off on yet another trip, this time to Reading. My lovely friend, Mandy Huggins invited me to The Retreat West Anthology launch. Mandy has a story in the anthology and I believe other lovely writer friends have, too. I'll be meeting up with Diane Simmons and Jude Higgins again as well as meeting Amanda Saint for the first time. I can't wait.