A quick catch-up with Criss Cross

I self-published my first book in January 2013, so  nine and a half years ago.

(note to self, you should have waited until January 2023 so you could do a 10-year anniversary post.)

(note back to self from self: I might still do that, no one will remember that it was only six months earlier that I did this post, will they?)

The book was Criss Cross, and it was the first book of a trilogy called initially the Posh Hits Murders then I changed that rather clunky title a few years ago to the Friendship Can Be Murder mysteries.

Why did I self-publish?

I finished the book in 2012, (congrats, self, it’s been ten years…) and finding that people were still rather scornful of self-pubbed books – and still are today, btw – I tried to persuade around thirty publishers and agents to take it. The responses varied from dusty silence for months on end with tumbleweed rolling by, to responses two or three weeks later of ‘Sorry it’s just not for us, so sorry, but no,’ to responses by return of mail, saying, in effect, ‘Hell no!’

Some people said, ‘We enjoyed it but it won’t sell, it’s not commercial enough. It doesn’t fit into a genre.’ (True)

Lots of them said, ‘Good luck with that.’

And so that was why I thought I would ‘give it a go’ as a self-published author. Whilst waiting for replies from the latest victim, I had read quite a lot about self-publishing and thought it sounded like something even I, technologically challenged as I was, could do. So I did.

It was a long and difficult process as I had never done anything like that before. I knew very little about editing, or formatting of manuscripts. I was still working full time, so I had very little time to do anything ‘extra’, and I had no spare cash to pay anyone to do anything for me. In those days I didn’t know any other writers either so I had no one to ask. I learned it all from a book. and from research on the Interweb.

And then apart from the technology, I had another issue: I was really really scared!

What if people didn’t like it?

What if I discovered that I was genuinely a terrible writer?

What if the publishers and agents had been right and it was a huge failure? Well that one at least wasn’t too much of a problem – if it flopped, who would know or be worried apart from me?

It took a while to overcome my fears and just go for it. But eventually I got tired of wondering ‘what if’ and just – did it.

And yeah, it’s not made me a millionaire. I sell something like 100 of my Dottie Manderson mysteries to every one of the Criss Cross books I sell. But every month I sell a few, a nice little handful of eBooks and paperbacks and even large print paperbacks.

And yeah, not everyone likes it. One of my earliest reviews – which could have stopped my writing career right there if it wasn’t that I am super stubborn and contrary, was a one star review that said ‘This is the worst book I have ever read.’

Quite honestly they did me a favour. Because that was exactly what I had been dreading all that time, so once it came, everything else seemed okay. And by that time book 2 was out, followed by book 3 and book 1 of the Dottie Manderson mysteries.

I think most writers dream of getting an offer from a publisher to publish their works. That’s never happened to me and I don’t know how I would feel or what I would say if it did. I kind of just kept on with the self-publishing as it seemed pointless to waste time trying to place my books when they could be ‘out there’ within a day or two. I make a nice living now from my books. Currently I have ten books published and two more about to come out later this year. I’m not a millionaire. To be honest I’m okay with that. I love the creative control of my books and I enjoy working with other authors to edit or proofread their works or to offer ideas or support.

And I have received so much help from many lovely authors. Now, I quite often get emails or message from readers telling me they like my books. I usually apologise first. then thank them.

Readers, you have no idea how amazing it is when someone tells you that something you came up with out of thin air has given them pleasure. Thank you, wonderful readers, for your kindness and support too.

What’s the book about?

So what’s Criss Cross about?

Loosely speaking, it’s a murder mystery. But it’s written in the form of diary entries by the protagonist, Cressida, and is from a limited-ish first person point of view.

(And those are some of the aspects of it that were not commercially viable for a publishing house.)

She’s terribly posh and entitled, and has a plan to kill off her mother-in-law who is making her life a misery.

I can’t really say it’s a mystery as quite a lot of what happens is told to the reader directly by Cressida. But of course, she herself doesn’t always know what’s going on, so there is that element of mystery. But there is a strong chick-lit vibe, and there’s romance.

(More reasons why it’s not a good choice for a publishing house.)

As the story moves on, the body count piles up, because stuff just happens, as Cressida quickly discovers. Outwardly self-sufficient and uncaring, she is really a fairly lonely person who builds herself a family, and it is these relationships that she wants to protect at all costs.

It’s humorous, a bit snarky, but warm and occasionally poignant. Each story leads on from the previous one, these don’t quite work as stand-alones, I’m afraid.

If you fancy reading a bit more, you can find a sneak peek here.

NB – just to let you know, I’ve been toying with the idea of continuing this series, so who knows – watch this space, it might end up a series.

***

These fragments I have shored against my ruin

I first shared this blog post in 2016. To date, it’s still my best-performing blog post. Not sure if that is because it’s one of my shortest – I am quite a waffler these days.

But I love that line. It’s line 431 from T S Eliot’s The Waste Land. The first time I read the poem, when I got to this line I burst into tears, because it seemed such a beautiful summation, of the poem, of my life, everything. Words do that to me–I’m a very emotional person, I’m glad to say.

I believe that our lives are made up of fragments. We are, in essence, a walking, talking collection of every experience we’ve ever had. This includes what we’ve read. Words.

So often I am out and about–yes, I escape now and again–and I hear something, see something, smell something which provokes a memory of something I’ve read. Most often it is snatches of conversation I overhear, being nosey and a crime writer, which as we all know gives me special dispensation to eavesdrop on others. (‘I ain’t been dropping no eaves, sir, honest.’) Words seem to lead to more words.

I hear someone say, ‘The wonderful thing…’ and mentally I’ve added ‘…about Tiggers is Tiggers are wonderful things.’ (I didn’t promise it was anything erudite!) Or someone may say ‘Wherever I go…’ and I think to myself ‘there’s always Pooh, there’s always Pooh and me.’ (By the way, Winnie the Pooh is not just for kids. Just read the chapter called The Piper At the Gates of Dawn…)

It’s not just A A Milne, though. So often snatches of Shakespeare, Agatha Christie, songs, poems, plays, hymns, prayers, all sorts of words come into my head. I can’t look at spring flowers without thinking ‘A host of golden daffodils’ or ‘April is the cruellest month’. (The Waste Land again!) A tall person becomes ‘thou painted Maypole’. A mouse is a ‘wee sleekit cowrin tim’rous beastie’. (Burns of course, who else?)

If something annoying happens, I hear Miss Marple whisper, ‘Oh dear, how extremely vexing,’ or I hear someone say something stupid, and Mr Bennett’s frustrated, outraged, ‘Until you come back…I shall not hear two words of sense spoken together’ comes to mind. I share his pain. In extremis, ‘I shall be in my library; I’m not to be disturbed.’ (Not unless there’s cake or Midsomer Murders.) Or I might hear Miss Silver’s indulgent, ‘In their own way, men can be quite useful.’

Or if sorrows come in, it’s Matthew Arnold’s painful comment filled with longing, ‘Ah love, let us be true to one another,’ because he believed that one another was all we have. (Dover Beach).

Or…

There’s always another wonderful sketch of words from someone who lived many years before my time. Or a contemporary. Or the next generation. We all use and need words.

And because of this, none of us can ever come to a text, for the first time, or the tenth, ‘cold’ or ‘new’. There is really no neutral approach in the human soul. We bring with us the sum of all our experiences and emotions, our world-view and our beliefs, and those inform what we read, and mercifully sometimes, what we read can inform all those things too.

When I was studying literature ‘back in the day’, I remember The Waste Land was one of our set texts. Critics deplored it, dismissing it as a pastiche, a patchwork quilt of other peoples’ work, revealing only a good memory for quotations. Students shuddered and declared it was one of the worst experiences of their life. But for some of us, there was a sense of ‘wow, I never knew poetry could be like this!’

When I read his words, ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins’ (line 431), I said to my tutor, I think he is saying that literature, that words, will save us in times of crisis, bolster us when we are at a low ebb. I was told I was wrong, but in spite of that, I still choose to believe this could be one meaning of these, for me, immortal words. These fragments of remembered stories, poems, previous experiences, feelings, of words, I have stored up, internalised, to use as a defence, shored against my ruin, my unhappiness, times of want, misery, sorrow and confusion. Ruin.

For me it is a reminder that many things in life are transient, passing, temporary, but I will always carry within me the sum of what I have read. Just read Shakespeare’s sonnet 18 and tell me I’m wrong. It’s short, it’s sweet, it’s got a cheeky grin at the end. It’s perfect, and all human life is there.

***

More Life Writing: When I Was Four

Of course, I don’t wear the anorak all the time. It’s for special occasions.

My piece a couple of weeks ago about my auntie, Zonya, has inspired me to share more of my life writing. Life writing is a form of non-fiction we often call memoir or diary writing.  I did a module of life writing when I was studying, and although I’m a fiction writer at heart, I do love to reminisce, so here’s another life writing piece. It’s called When I Was Four. (Sorry, it’s a bit long!)

When I Was Four

More than anything, all those years ago, I remember the buttercups. I was—what?—four years old? And standing in the gently sloping field, I remember the delight I felt, the astonishment of being surrounded by all these tall flowers—almost shoulder high, and I looked about me in wonder at the bright golden flower heads, interwoven with ox-eye daisies and other, unknown meadow flowers. All were almost as tall as I was, and I felt I had strayed into a magic kingdom. I’ve been trying to recapture that feeling all my life.

There were bees, and butterflies. I don’t remember much else about that time really, except for two things: the river and the caravan.

All the mothers who worked on the farm brought their kids with them during the holidays. Some of us, the littler ones, were there all the time, too young to go to school. The group of children ranged in age from toddler to pre-teen, or possibly teenage. I remember the big boys seemed very big, but they may have been just 10 or 12. The school-age kids weren’t there all the time, just during the school holidays, and when they weren’t there, life was a bit boring, to be honest.

While our mothers worked in the fields, planting or earthing up or digging up potatoes, or cutting cabbages, or training beans or hops or picking them, or laying straw beneath the strawberry plants or—joyous task!—picking the strawberries, we kids roamed the countryside freely, day in, day out, while the long days of the school holidays lasted, and then the big kids went back to school and there was just me and a couple of babies.

We may have been bored much of the time, but I don’t remember it. We may have squabbled and fought, but again, I can’t remember it now. And very likely it rained, but I only recall days of sunshine and warm soft breezes, of laughter and happiness and freedom, the way you do many, many years later. I remember how we kids roamed around in a big bunch, chasing one another, and hiding and climbing and running. I don’t remember any fights or bullying, I remember laughing a lot. I remember one of the big kids pulling me out of the river when I fell in. (I fell in a lot actually, water and I always seem to want to come together.) I remember standing on the little bridge and staring down at the water, and that my Dalek, from Woolworths, fell in and it was borne away a short distance before disappearing from my sight. I was inconsolable. My mum was furious.

Yes, the river. Bodies of water have always seemed to draw me—perhaps a link to my Cornish seafaring ancestors?—and between the ages of 4 and around 17, I fell in pretty much every body of water I ever went near. I spent many hours sitting in the sunshine, and even in the cold of a January day, waiting for my clothes to dry so I wouldn’t get into trouble when I got home.

I don’t remember the clothes I first wore when we used to go ‘to the fields’, but after a short while, or maybe after payday, my mum bought me something new, exciting and truly wonderful—my first jeans. I remember the waist was elasticated and that the broad stretchy band was soft and fuzzy on the inside and I loved the feel of it. I doubt the new jeans stayed stiff and dark blue for long, what with scrambling up trees and over stiles and gates, crawling through dirt and up and rolling down hills, plus falling into rivers of course, but I never stopped loving my jeans. I still wear them almost every day.

Of course, for the hottest part of the year, there were shorts. And I did love my shorts, even to the point of insisting on wearing them at Christmas, with long socks and a jumper and my knees turning blue with cold. I hated skirts and dresses and girly stuff. A few years later, to get my head around the misery of wearing skirts, I used to pretend I was Jamie from Dr Who – he was Scottish and wore a kilt. Thank you, Frazer Hines.

Footwear was again a choice of two simple pleasures: red T-bar sandals for the summer and black wellies for the winter. I loved both of these. I’m fairly sure I tried to wear my new wellies to bed once, though that may have been one of my cousins.

So, it was stripy t-shirt, shorts and sandals by day during the summer, my dark hair done up in one long fat plait down my back. And for the winter it was a hand-knitted jumper, jeans and wellies, with an anorak, if needed. What was not to love?

As I’ve said, the river used to draw us kids, and we enjoyed the countryside, chasing, climbing, hiding, but the best, most amazing thing about this part of the farm was what lay at the top of a sloping field. Something I had never seen before, something that seemed at once magical, yet homely.

A caravan.

An old gypsy caravan, it had been parked there, I suppose, as a refuge from the weather for workers or whomever. We kids found endless hours of amusement in it. The girls particularly, were keen to play house and furnish the bare walls and floor from their imaginations.

The caravan had been completely stripped of all the colourful and ingenious fittings that normally make a caravan a home. And I don’t remember if it was brightly painted outside or not.

I can remember how much I loved the echoey noise my feet made as I clomped up and down the bare boards, and how we used to put dusty soil into the abandoned grate and as we stirred it up with sticks, we’d pretend the dust that rose was smoke from the embers of our stories. And I enjoyed sitting on the top step looking out across the fields.

I wasn’t brave or adventurous like some of the other, bigger kids, and they could never persuade me to jump from the top step as they did, it was scary-high. But I managed to jump from the bottom step and the middle step.

There was a handsome young man called Roy. He wasn’t one of the kids. At sixteen, to me, he was one of the grown-ups and he worked on the farm, driving the tractor. He always waved to me, and would often stop and talk to me. I—of course—followed him around with the worshipful devotion of a small puppy. He used to stop the big kids picking on me, so there must have been squabbles and rivalries after all, and I still remember his kindness to a little kid with gratitude.

But looking back to that time, the overwhelmingly pervasive memory of those days for me is that of standing shoulder-deep amongst a crowd of buttercups and feeling as though I were part of something magical and beautiful. I’m still trying to recapture that moment when I was four.

***

 

Zonya and her Big Knickers

T-bar sandals, stretchy hairband and an anorak – my outfit screams the Swinging Sixties!

This is an old post that I am re-sharing today. In fact it’s a life writing piece, based on my memories of my ‘auntie’ Zonya. So it’s not a fictional piece, though I might not be remembering it exactly! When we look back on a memory we add layers of our accumulated experience onto the memory, and of course the passage of time means that all too often we look back and remember the colours far brighter, the events far happier than they perhaps really were.

But Auntie Zonya was a unique and wonderful lady. Her real name was Doris, but she had been, many years earlier, a dancer and had changed her name to sound more in keeping with her exotic stage life. I only knew that later. At the time–we’re talking about 1964 or so until around 1974, I knew her only as Auntie Zonya. She was tiny, she was plump, she had the reddest of red hair–again only later did I realise this was not a natural red, but out of a bottle.

A Georgian house, similar to ours in the street where we used to live.

She turned up living in a room across the corridor from my mum and me where we lived in a lovely old Georgian villa that had been converted into cheap bedsits. She was older than my mum by about thirty years, so she kind of became a big sister/surrogate mum to my mum, and a very loving aunt to me.

Anyway, one day she was ‘babysitting’ me and we went shopping. For knickers. Here’s what happened:

Thinking back to when I was a child, I remember once being in a department store, in Tunbridge Wells, England, in the mid-1960s. I can picture the scene as if I were an onlooker.

I’m buying big knickers with Auntie Zonya. It’s a lesson in economy versus quality. I am wearing a skirt my mother made me and a jumper. My hair is in a long dark-brown plait down my back as always, and I’m probably wearing either a frock my mother made me or stretchy leggings and a home-knitted jumper.

I mean, they’re huge, right? And making a comeback!

They look the same—same size, shape, style and colour, yet these knickers are less than half the price of those others. I’m learning the difference between branded goods and their cheaper, store’s own label counterparts. Zonya, in other ways so stylish and chic for an older woman, favoured the larger undie. Knickers built like modern cycle shorts—up to the waist, down to the knees—and incredibly, sometimes even with a pocket in the waistband. Crimson, stretchy cotton with a little line of black lace trim at the waist and knee.

I can’t imagine wearing anything so huge. By comparison, my underwear at age six or seven or whatever I am is really quite skimpy and small.

We are in BHS or somewhere like that, comparing their own brand of cheap-and-cheerfuls with a far more expensive generic brand-name knicker. Seeing my doubtful looks, she assures me these are warm, comfortable and very, very durable. I’m not convinced. Maybe they will swallow me whole. And the colour! Red like holly berries or Zonya’s lipstick or red like a London bus or a pillar box. Really, really red.

We snap the elastic a few times experimentally. It seems sufficiently sturdy and reliable and so economy wins out and the cheapy knickers are purchased.

I remember it as a fun, ordinary outing, one of the few memories I have of shopping when I was small. I realise now never did ask her how she got on with them.

Sorry it’s a bit grainy. This is Zonya and I at London Zoo, 1965.

If you want to read more about Auntie Zonya, here’s another short piece:

***

Some small happy things – people watching again!

These days it’s quite hard to find something positive in the world. Life is tough. Even 2020 and the onset of covid is enough to fill me with a gentle nostalgia, those seem like fun times compared to right now. But kindness and goodness is not dead and gone, no matter what we read in the media or see on TV. If your mental health is at an all-time low, as many of us are finding, just look around you and you will find small things to make you smile.

Today I saw:

An elderly man ask a young mum struggling with a screaming toddler if she was okay. He wasn’t complaining about the noise. He wasn’t telling her how she should raise her kid. He just asked if she was okay. She said she was, thank you, and told him that her child had just been vaccinated and was crying because of that. But the man’s simple kindness made me happy. Because sometimes we just need someone to ask, right?

And as I was waiting for my other half, a woman–a total stranger–asked me about something I was holding – bird food (as usual!). ‘Is that stuff any good?’ she asked me. ‘Because my sister-in-law bought some and it’s like sawdust. The birds won’t touch it.’

I told her the birds that come to my garden wolf it down like crazy. ‘I’ll get some,’ she said, so I told her where I got mine.

‘It’s a bit pricey, ‘ I warned her.

‘That doesn’t matter,’ she said. ‘My dad’s 96, and watching the birds gives him so much pleasure, it’s worth it just to make him happy.’

Aww. Obviously that small encounter warmed my heart too.

As my mum used to say, good things come in threes–when we got back to our car, the rain had started, and everyone was in a rush to leave. A young dad and very small girl cute in her school uniform, arrived to get into the car next to ours, and the dad said to the little one, ‘We’ve got to get home quick, I’ve put the washing out!’

I smiled. he wasn’t too worried, the child wasn’t being hurried or pushed along, they were just taking life in their stride, calm, relaxed, happy. As I said, small things, nothing earth-shattering, but the mundane minutiae of everyday life. That’s what makes me smile.

Actually there were more than three–the cafe owner where we went stayed back a few more minutes after closing to make a cup of tea for a late customer, an elderly woman. The staff in the shops I visited were cheerful and friendly.

So that was a good day. I had a lovely chatty  lunch with my family, the sun shone (briefly) and I saw at first hand some simple things that showed me that there are good people in the world, and not everything is horrible. And I thought I would tell you.

Next week, I promise, it will be more about writing genre fiction.

***

 

Happy New Year! Let’s party like it’s… (insert decade of choice here)

There’s one thing we can say for sure about the changing taste of different decades. We might do it differently but we still do it. Party, I’m talking about, you smutty people. We humans have always loved a celebration. And no matter what we’re celebrating, that will definitely include music, and if at all possible we can all ‘get down and get with it’.

Here are a few playlist recommendations, depending on your era of choice.

If you fancy partying like it’s the 1740s, check out these bad boys, guaranteed to get you in the party mood as New Year comes around:

CPE Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto in A Major (There are not enough harpsichord concertos if you ask me.)

Thomas Arne’s Rule Britannia. I’ll admit this is not for everyone, especially if you’ve suffered under our oppressive yoke. Sorry about that. Blokes with a superiority complex, boats, flags and guns, what can you do? But it is a banging tune.

GF Handel’s Hercules Oratorio (no, I don’t know it either…)

CPE Bach’s Harpsichord Concertos in E and D minor, and in E major. I feel like CPE has got himself stuck in a rut here, but again, if you’re good at something, maybe it’s a good idea to stick with it.

And finally, Vitali’s Chaconne in G minor – a great end to a fabulous evening.

Or say you’re in the mood for something a little more modern, you could boogie down with my amateur sleuth Dottie Manderson and the best of them to these fabulous tunes from the 1930s:

My absolute favourite from the 1930s:

Midnight, The Stars and You. Such a romantic title, and romantic concept. What more does anyone need than those three things? This was brought to us by the Ray Nobel orchestra, featuring Al Bowlly (of course) on vocals. It was famously used in The Shining, and is the title of my next-but-one Dottie Manderson mystery, book 8 which should hopefully appear either at the end of 2022 or the middle of 2023.

Let’s not forget also, other 1930s crowd-pleasers such as Stormy Weather (another wonderful and evergreen song) by Leo Reissman and his orchestra and with Ethel Waters singing .

Then you could move on to Night and Day, a Cole Porter song from 1933, I love the Ella Fitzgerald version.

Or you might like another one by Al Bowlly – how about The Very Thought of You. another romantic one for close-up smooching in dim lighting. Ah!!

And you could round the evening off with a rousing chorus of one of the follwoing:

Judy Garland – Somewhere Over The Rainbow

Cab Calloway – Minnie the Moocher (not as good as his late-life version as per The Blues Brothers, in my opinion.)

Artie Shaw – Begin the Beguine – another perennial favourite, I absolutely love this one. Or if you want a different approach to this classic, you could try the really wonderful Louis Armstrong version…

And finally…

These Foolish Things – the Benny Goodman/Teddy Wilson version with Billie Holiday.

Not quite right for your bash? How about something from the 1960s? Get your beehive hair-dos and drainpipes ready…

Now you can really have some variety – try putting together a list featuring some of these great 60s tunes:

Daydream Believer – The Monkees

Concrete and Clay – Unit 4 + 2

Always Something There To Remind Me – Sandie Shore

Natural Born Bugie – Humble Pie

Nights in White Satin – Moody Blues

I Only Want To Be With You – Dusty Springfield

Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow – The Shirelles

Yeh Yeh – Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames

Do You Love Me – the Tremeloes

Maybe that’s a bit too up-to-the-minute for you and you want something a bit classier? How about some great dance music from the Regency era? This is the era that invented line-dancing, albeit somewhat more stately than we have now:

Let’s open with the amazing Beethoven piece for piano, Für Elise. That’ll really get ’em all out on the dancefloor.

Then next, maybe we’ll shake things up a bit with a singalong, the opera Adelina by Generali and Rossi

Or maybe an excerpt from an opera by Beethoven – he was The Man in the early 1810s, with Schubert close behind. This might be the perfect moment to play a bit from Symphony number 8 in F major. Let’s all hum along with the chorus…

For a bit of slow dancing with your beloved, you can’t beat Schubert’s String Quartet in C major.

Due to the rather lengthy nature of this kind of music, we’ll leave it there, closing the evening’s entertainment with Ferdinand Ries’s bestselling top-twenty hit, Concerto for Two Horns. (Admit it, you were missing the concertos, weren’t you?)

One thing is for sure, since time immemorial, humans have loved to come together to celebrate something–anything–and that has included music, dancing, big frocks, bigger hair and quite possibly alcohol.

Happy New Year! May 2022 be everything you long for. Just go easy on the resolutions.

***

Autumn brings renewal

I know I say this every year, but for me, it is not Spring, but Autumn and Winter that form my season of creativity. I have no idea why this is. I don’t know why, but for me, autumn is not the season for rest and consolidation, but of flights of imagination taking wings. I get quite excited about the approach of autumn and winter. Maybe it’s the cuddly jumpers, I don’t know.

It seems as though the rest of the world is full of new life in the Spring. Is it because I’m an October baby, my lifecycle naturally goes from Autumn onwards? Or because when we lived in Brisbane, October was in the Spring? But how can five years there undo the habits of the other fifty-six years I’ve lived in the Northern Hemisphere? Or maybe it’s because for parents everywhere in the UK, Autumn is when the children go back to school and you at last get two minutes to sit in silence and just enjoy hearing – nothing. Ah, bliss!

New ideas are taking shape, even before the old ideas have been put to bed. I’m thinking about what I want to say in a new story. I’m having a wonderful time creating book covers, and though I’m struggling to come up with new titles, I have some ideas to mull over.

I’m always drawn to old stuff, I’m drawn backwards into the past. I’m thinking of long print frocks, ladies in beads, feathers in their hair, tea-dances, afternoon picnics on wide sweeping lawns, croquet. I’m thinking of couples dancing on a veranda under the stars, the doors open to let out the soft lamplight and the music from the gramophone. The music is softened by distance and the soft evening breeze ruffles hair.

I’m thinking rural, villagey, fields, water, trees. I’m thinking of sorrow and haunting, of deeds never talked of, of the guilty secrets of the past. I’m thinking of shame and sacrifice, I’m humming old pastoral songs and rhymes, Scarborough Fair, children’s songs and folk songs, ‘Bobby Shafto(e) Went To Sea, He’ll Come Back And Marry me… Bonny Bobby Shafto(e).’ Or the old folk song and pop hit from the 70s, Whiskey in the Jar – ‘When I was going over/the Cork and Kerry mountains…I saw Captain Farrell and his money he was counting…’’

I’m remembering the duplicitous nature of the minstrel, wandering, legitimately able to plant one foot in each camp, never on any side but his own. A useful means for conveying information, often ill-gotten. And he can sing out in public everyone’s secrets, and how can you stop a man doing that?

I’m thinking of myths and legends, hillsides cloaked in mist, an unseen bird calling in the gloom, of the soft insinuating sound of the wind, like a sigh, like a breath, or like a dragon’s terrible approach. I’m thinking about the returning home of the prodigal, how we carry the past with us, inside, even when we are looking forward and moving on, something draws us ever back.

I am thinking, staring at the falling leaves, driven across the grass by a pushing wind, I’m lost in my thoughts. I am thinking of long ago, of people who may not have existed, but who could come into being in my imagination. I see images in my mind, people, objects, places, and weave stories about these imaginary characters.

I am thinking of a man at a window staring out, his mind working on things he cannot put into words. What should he do? Has the time for action finally arrived?

I’m thinking of a woman, always waiting, wringing her hands in front of the window, her own shadow cast out across the lamplit stones of the yard. When will he return? Will he ever return? The waiting woman. The unspeaking man.

I’m thinking of a boy coming over the hill. Of grass, green, long, dewy. Of the sun, soft, golden, gentle as a mother’s hand, just touching his hair, his shoulder of his white cotton shirt. How long has he been away? How much has changed? Will anything ever change?

If I never have another new idea, I’ve already got enough to keep me writing for the next twenty years. I only hope that’s possible.

‘Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,/And all the air a solemn stillness holds.’ Thomas Gray’s Elegy.

Autumn – not for sleeping but for creating anew.

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Finding inspiration – coming soon to a cafe near you!

I often talk about sitting in cafes, notebook and pen in front of me, along with a cappuccino and – ooh, naughty – a bit of cake. It’s my favourite thing.

Yes, I know we have coffee at home. And even – occasionally, cake, or I could buy a supermarket cake and eat a slice at home for a fraction of the cost of a cafe. Or, I could bake a cake of my very own – it could be any size, shape or colour. I could have any flavour I like, and it could be a tray-bake, a torte, a good solid fruit cake with cherries on top, a long sugary loaf oozing with bananas or dates. It could be a sponge with ganache or cream or even just jam in the middle. It could have nuts on the top, or frosting, or strawberries in a creamy heap.

There are just two problems with that: 1. I’m a terrible cook. And 2, that wouldn’t inspire me to write. Which is, after all, the whole point of this exercise.

I love to go to cafes with my family, singly or en masse. But those are occasions for talking and laughing, not times for me to be alone with my thoughts. And as we know, ‘You can’t write if you’re never alone.’ (It was Winifred Watson who said that. She was a very successful author in the 1930s who gave up writing once she married and had children. Her book Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day was made into a film starring Ciaran Hinds and Frances McDormand and I highly recommend it.)

Also, I love people-watching. Sitting in a cafe is a bit like sitting in a theatre, with the play going on around you. For around £6 or £8 you can get a lovely piece of cake, a gorgeous big cup of frothy coffee (and not have to wash up the dishes afterwards) and a stage-side seat to LIFE. Just make sure you’ve got plenty of paper and a couple of spare pens.

TIP: Never, ever tap people on the arm, ask them to repeat what they’ve just said so you have more time to write it down, don’t ask them how to spell their auntie’s dog’s name, and never, ever say out loud, ‘Wow, he’s a moron, you should dump him’ or ‘How dare she say that to you!’ or that kind of thing. People don’t mind you watching them discreetly, just don’t make it too obvious.

I’m often asked where I get my ideas. But inspiration comes not from one, but from many different places. It’s more that ideas come looking for me than I go looking for them. I’m incredibly nosy about other people, and I am an incurable people-watcher. This fuels my imagination and leads me to ask myself questions, develop scenarios until… ooh, look, a chapter from a story!

I don’t advocate, as a writing tutor in Brisbane once told a group of creative writing students, that you should actually follow people to get ideas for your story or to experience what it’s like to ‘shadow’ someone a la detective fiction. BUT I must admit I do covertly eavesdrop and watch people, especially in a coffee-shop situation. I don’t actually record conversations or film people, though it is SOOOO tempting.

Tip: If you sit in a cafe or restaurant with your notebook open in front of you and your pen tapping on your chin as you ponder, I guarantee staff will panic-tidy the whole area near you, smile and ask if you’re well, and possibly ask if there’s anything else they can get you – even in self-service cafes. At first I didn’t know why that was, now I’ve realised it’s because they think I am a food critic! Once I made the mistake of saying that I was a writer, and got a look that was half eye-roll and half disgusted sneer. They left me alone immediately.

And so that’s why I go to cafes and eat cake. What’s your excuse?

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Life Springs Ever Green

I’ve been thinking about colour(s).

There’s a surprisingly large amount of theory about colour. Colours have meanings, they create feelings and emotions in us. So much so, you can have colour therapy, where you sit in a room (white I assume, or maybe completely dark) and they bombard you with light in the colour you require to produce the effect needed. I quite like that idea. Maybe I’ll try it sometime.

Picasso had his Blue Period, then his Rose Period, where these colours dominated his work in a range of hues.

I don’t know if other artists, or writers, have times of colour. I see it in my life from time to time, a particular colour seems to draw me, or mean more, or stand out or in some way influence me. This year my colour is green.

When I was a teenager, wanting to wear teenager-black all the time, my mother nagged me out of it. She associated the colour black with depression, grief and mourning, with oppression and poverty. So I can understand why she hated to see me swathed neck to ankle in black. But it’s a colour people–especially teenagers–wear when they are still trying to find their identity, or when they are part of a crowd of others who all wear black, it ‘goes’ with that mind-set of searching earnestness.

And of course we always say black is a slimming colour, and if you are a larger lady like me, you’ll find huge chunks of a retailer’s range of clothes are only available in black. It’s also the colour of formality so you find loads of people wearing black in offices, you see everywhere the ladies in their black trousers with a shirt or jumper or a jacket and slinky top. I used ot have a ton of black ‘work’ trousers. I think it’s also a practical colour, again in clothes, seeming to show the passage of time less noticeably than other colours and going with pretty much everything, and suiting pretty much every complexion.

Red is the colour of guts and courage, of anger, of ‘Stop!’ and ‘Attention’. Red used to be associated with masculinity, no doubt due to its use in military uniforms, of blood, of bravery. For this reason, (I’m talking about 120 years ago) pink was the accepted normal colour for baby boys as a kind of watered down red suitable for little men. Yep. Pink was for boys, blue was for girls.

Why? Well as we all know females are at constant risk of madness and hysteria due to their female body parts, and therefore have to be swathed in blue from earliest babyhood to calm them down. Blue is a calming colour!

I think it was a member of the royal household around the 1910s who first defied convention and clothes her daughters in pink – and thus a new convention was born. Now, as soon as we see a baby in pink, we know it’s a little girl.

I can remember when my daughter was very small, and clothed (partially at least) in pink, an elderly lady said to me ‘what a beautiful baby, what’s his name?’ And I smiled and replied, all the while thinking silently to myself, ‘mad old bat, clearly she’s a girl, look at all the pink!’

Yellow is another colour I love, but depending on the shade, doesn’t always suit me. Yellow is believed to promote higher thinking, creativity, reasoning and logic. It’s also a happy uplifting colour, as we know when we get a lift every time we catch sight of a patch of daffodils after the dreariness of winter.

For a long time, I’ve been wearing black, grey and blue (jeans mainly), with white or occasionally burgundy accents.

but for the last few weeks, I’ve been craving green. I’ve dusted off my existing green tee-shirt, and bought another one. And I’m enjoying looking at greenery in pictures. I’m not looking at beach scenes (blue & sort of sandy brown), it’s the green of leaves and grass etc that appeals ot me. I get a kind of little ‘bong’ in my chest when I see them (Remember Lovejoy and the sensation he used to get in his chest when he ‘divvied’ a true antique?)

So I’m giving in to my green period – a time of rebirth, perhaps, or of tranquil moments, rest and recovery. or a time of peace and a return to nature? Who knows? I just know that this is what is feeding my soul at the moment.

Of course green is also the colour of jealousy – the ‘green-ey’d monster’ of Shakespeare’s Othello. Or of inexperience and innocence – also Shakespeare, (Anthony and Cleopatra)  ‘My salad days. When I was green in Judgement.’

But I’m ignoring that side, I don’t think I’m particularly a jealous person. And I’m too old to be inexperienced, although I love to learn new things. So I’ll just embrace the restorative and peaceful nature of Green.  Have you found the colour that fills you with joy?

Here are a few quotations about ‘green’:

Green is the prime color of the world, and that from which its loveliness arises.

Pedro Calderon de la Barca (17th century Spanish dramatist)

 

The garden of love is green without limit and yields many fruits other than sorrow or joy. Love is beyond either condition: without spring, without autumn, it is always fresh.’

Rumi (Persian poet from 13th century)

 

‘When the green woods laugh with the voice of joy, And the dimpling stream runs laughing by; When the air does laugh with our merry wit, And the green hill laughs with the noise of it.’

William Blake (UK Poet/Artist 1700s-1800s)

 

‘All theory, dear friend, is gray, but the golden tree of life springs ever green.’

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (German author/poet 1700s-1800s)

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More vintage magazines for women

Last year I posted a couple of articles about women’s magazines from the 1930s. (If you missed them, you can find them here.)

Over the last two weeks I’ve been fortunate enough to acquire two more vintage magazines aimed directly at women. what impressed me about these was first of all, that this magazine – Woman’s Own – is still in circulation and massively popular today. The second thing I noticed is that there really isn’t a lot of difference between the WO of 1934 and those of 2021.

Have women’s concerns changed very much in 90+ years? I’m not sure they have. for many women, the home and family is still one of the most important things in life, and I’m not saying that in a patronising way, nor ignoring the fact that women today have many more opportunities to have a career, and that the concept of ‘the family’ is miles different – and rightly so – to that of the 1930s.

But at rock bottom, many women are interested in and still worry about how to care for, manage or improve their relationships, their attractiveness, their budget, and their partners and children.

My Woman’s Own mags are from Feb 1934 and this week’s copy – by chance I nabbed a ‘diet special’. Here are a few snippets that struck me as interesting:

Hubby Management: It’s the wife’s job to make her home as welcoming as possible to induce the man (and man ONLY!) to stay at home instead of going out gallivanting. tips are given on how to do this, though the mags expert – whoever that was, possibly (we don’t know!) a bloke – comments that some men will always stay out and shouldn’t get married in the first place. Too late if you’ve got one of those, girls!

We have the readers’ letters, essentially a problem page. My faves are ‘should cousins marry?’ (Surely they know the answer to that?) and the ‘worried wife’ letters. I feel for the worried wife. She knows exactly what the answer will be but doesn’t want to admit it. Poor woman. Did she sling him out? Or – as I feel is more likely – did she just suffer in silence?

There’s a load of fashion tips and ideas, mostly, I was interested to note, clothes you could make at home. This magazine is aimed at the upper working class and lower middle class, women who have a little money but not enough to buy off-the-peg items and certainly not bespoke. ‘Home economy’ was one of the watchwords of the day, and it included apparel.

I personally think this looks absolutely horrid, and a cross between a Christmas panto costume and something out of Red Riding Hood. This one below is slightly nicer, but again, still all your own work.

Although the models in the designs look about 35 to 40, in fact some of these are aimed for teenagers from 14 years of age. not much difference in those days between what mums and their daughters were wearing.

And of course, the eternal battle with the scales. I was interested to see things haven’t changed much here either, although some of our modern ingredients – chorizo and the whole gluten-free plan would have been completely alien to women of the 1930s.

Looks like this lady – a nurse, not a nun as I first thought – was following the crap-yourself-thin diet. 18lbs was a good result! Was she just a bit constipated after Christmas? All those mince pies…

Looking good appears to be a perennial issue for many women. We want to keep our looks as long as possible, after all, and keep ourselves in good condition. So I suppose it’s not surprising magazines for women contain so many hints, tips and advice. With the growth of city populations, the expansion of the suburbs, many women would have been cut off from their usual channels of information: mothers, grandmothers, aunties. Equally, magazines adopt a sisterly or motherly tone to offer the advice so desperately needed in those times. Today, magazines are more likely to have a friendly, conversational tone, inviting you to confide and share like a friend coming alongside to offer a sympathetic ear.

I’m in awe of the fact that this magazine has been around so long. It’s fascinating to read that the same ideas preoccupied women before my mother was born, as they do now. We may have Smartphones, the Internet, Netflix and Just Eat, but at the end of the day, we still want to look good, feel good, and keep our man where we can see him.

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