I got my first eReader around 12 years ago. It only lasted a couple of years and then needed replacing. But the one I have now, I’ve had since then, almost ten years. The poor thing should be in a retirement home for bewildered gadgets by now.
What do I use it for?
I play games: An eReader is great for playing games on but still looking busy. You’re playing truant really but everyone leaves you alone in case you’re doing something important. What games do I play? Nothing modern – no ‘call of’ anything or ‘squid’ something… I keep it simple.
Woodblock game – it’s similar to Tetris. The thing I really like is being able to change the background, so I can have a wintery scene with snowflakes coming gently down, or a very therapeutic green leafy scene with raindrops trickling down my screen. Love it! Great for hypnotizing me into another world where sudden ideas come out of the blue.
Spider solitaire – I think my win rate is something like 6% – I mean I’m absolutely terrible at it. But it’s great for killing time waiting for something or someone.
all these books on one eReader? Yes – but for me it’s not the same reading experience
I don’t stream anything, I don’t listen to podcasts or even music on my eReader, don’t even have social media or my emails on there. But I could…
My favourite thing about my eReader is Evernote. It’s a note-making app. I very, very rarely go out and about without at least one notebook with me. Though that is a good way to acquire new notebooks – I’m out in the big wide world (at least twice a year, just to keep my hand in) and realise I ‘need’ to buy one because I haven’t brought one with me. It’s not an option or an extravagance…honest! I sometimes need to make a note of something that has either just caught my attention or something I’ve just thought of – so on it goes to Evernote, which syncs with my computer once I return to base. Here is an eclectic array of notes I have on Evernote:
Rose Petals and White Lace (next Dottie book) – William gets demoted and chastised for his ‘mishandling’ of the Parfitt case which resulted in Gervase Parfitt ***************** (spoiler alert! Sorry, you’re not allowed to read that in case you haven’t read the others!)
Story Idea – A woman who works in a big house as a companion or governess, comes out of an upstairs room at night and bumps into a man in a mask and a cape. He smiles and bows and puts a finger to his lips, saying, ‘Shh! I’m a secret agent on a mission!’ She laughs, assumes he is a guest at the party downstairs that evening. She says something like, ‘Why sir, your secret is safe with me, I shall never betray you.’ He could then laugh and present her with a rose, ‘A token of my deep appreciation,’ or maybe (even better!) he could say ‘perhaps this rose will buy your silence.’ Anyway, he compliments her eyes or something. And after these sexy pleasantries are over, he goes back downstairs and she returns to her room. And in the morning discovers there has been a jewel robbery!!!! Or a murder????
Haiku – from Feb 2019 (as I said, I’ve had my eReader almost ten years btw, some of these notes go back a long way) February’s here/Green shoots promise the/end of winter’s icy hold
My daughter, talking in her sleep when we were on holiday, ‘That comment sounds pretty cool!’ I thought it was an odd thing to say. I asked her about it in the morning, she had no idea what it related to.
Exclamations of the 1930s (gleaned from Agatha Christie and Patricia Wentworth’s books of that era): ‘Oh my hat!’ ‘What the devil…?’ ‘So-and-so can go hang as far as I’m concerned’, ‘Oh my word!’ ‘That’s frightful!’ ‘Blast it!’ etc. I try to use one or two of these from time to time – they are so ‘of their era’ that I think they lend a bit of local colour.
Philamot: According to my Patricia Wentworth book, The Rolling Stone, a fashionable colour either late 1800s or early 1900s was Philamot (lovely word) from the French feuille morte meaning dead leaves. (a kind of beigey fawn)
Minette Walters’ The Ice House: I noted, “watching this again after many years, I’m struck by the similarity between the ice house in this and the Neolithic tombs of Skara Brae and other Orkney sites. What if a landed family discover their ice house is not as usual 300 or 400 years old, but three or four thousand years old…?”
Fab quote from TV series Endeavour: ‘Don’t let him worry you, ‘cos his sort’s nowt a pound and sh*t’s tuppence, as my old gran used to say. Northerner.’ (that was Fred Thursday talking to Morse… Love that quote, it made me spit my coffee all over myself.)
Standard issue firearm for British army for both world wars was the Webley mark IV revolver, taking a .38 calibre bullet. It remained in service until 1963.
And this one from 2014: if a person is standing when they are shot dead from the front, they always fall and land with one leg crossed over the other at the ankle – this is known as ‘dead man’s fall’. (I think I used this in Scotch Mist…)
Oh yes – I also have books on my eReader! You were probably beginning to wonder. To date I have purchased around 700 eBooks, though my preference is for paperbacks. With eBooks I very often forget I have them on the reader. I only find out when I go to buy them, and Amazon smiles, shakes its head, and says’ You’ve already got that one, you eejit!’
Usually, if an author is new to me, I ‘try’ the eBook as a kind of taster. If I like it I will then – obviously – buy more of their books, but if I really love it, I will swap to paperbacks. I get a lot more out of a paperback, I seem to find it easier to immerse myself in the story whereas reading an eBook can sometimes (for me) feel like it all happens on the surface and I don’t truly ‘lose myself’ in the plot.
What about you? Do you read eBooks? Do you have a dedicated eReader or read books on your phone, tablet or desktop computer? Or are you strictly ‘real’ book all the way? Do please let me know!
I work on several different gadgets, but my own computer in my own office is my favourite!
Of course, I don’t wear the anorak all the time. It’s for special occasions.
I thought I’d tell you ten things you might not know about me. Why? Well, we’re all besties now, right, so that means I can off-load some of my mess special characteristics and just—you know—really be myself with you.
I got a 10-yards swimming certificate when I was ten years old. So if I’m ever on board a boat that sinks really, really close to the shore, I’ll be fine.
When I was out for a walk with my family in a park when I was eleven years old, I needed to go to the bathroom, and there were no bathrooms, so I went behind a tree, and a man and his dog came over and asked if I was okay. (I didn’t realise there was a path behind the tree as well as in front of it.) I was too embarrassed to say I was peeing, so I made up a totally unlikely story about losing my pocket money behind the tree and said I was looking for it. Crouched there as I was, I half-heartedly raked through the leaves by my feet. The only problem was, this kind man decided to help me look for it…. It was about five long minutes before he must have realised what was going on, and with a panicked expression got up, said goodbye, and that he hoped I’d find my ‘pocket money’, then he and his dog ran! Aww. My parents laughed, but I was mortified.
I failed my English Literature ‘O’ level. Though I later went on to complete a Bachelor’s degree in English and History so I certainly showed them!
I also failed my Sociology ‘O’ level. Ironically, it was the only subject I really studied hard for. I must have guessed how bad I was at that subject. To make matters worse, my teacher told my parents I wasn’t going to pass and so they had to pay for me to be allowed to sit the exam. All for nothing. Is it too late for a resit?
I love cats and dogs but I’m allergic to fur and dander.
I love learning new languages, but I am hopeless at it. I always get the different languages muddled in my head, and I may start a sentence in French, but I’ll just as likely end it in Spanish or German…
I once peed myself laughing with my cousin, then had to throw myself in a handy nearby river to disguise my ‘accident’ so as not to get into trouble with the dreaded parents. I was about twelve at the time. I was a horrid child! I also fell into a river on Boxing Day, then sat in a tree in my underwear hoping my clothes would dry in the breeze and went home an hour later frozen half to death in sopping wet clothes. Me and bodies of water do not get on.
My work experience week coincided with my sixteenth birthday, and I was sent to spend a week with the local newspaper. I spent my sixteenth birthday covering court cases as a junior reporter. It was fascinating and I got well and truly bitten by the true crime bug!
I once rode my bike into a fence and smashed it. And I took myself to the front door of the fence owner to confess all. He was so astonished at my honesty that he let me off. (Another pre-teen escapade!)
I got thrown out of our school’s church service for asking too many questions about God. I wasn’t even a disbeliever, I just was asking tricky theological questions, which apparently was not okay. (Still eleven!) Oh well. I also got a prize in school prize giving for Religious Education, so maybe they forgave me after all.
So yeah. That’s me. I can kind of see how I ended up being a writer.
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).
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
This week I’d like to welcome Debaleena Mukherjee to my blog.
Debaleena and I go way back. We’ve never met (who knows, maybe one day?) but have been friends for years. We first met online through a shared love of murder mysteries. Talking about books led to talking about family, work and cake. The important things in life! Debaleena has also been a staunch supporter of my writing, and I am proud now to be able to do the same. Debaleena writes poetry, the first volume of which was published a few months ago by Blue Rose Publishers.
Debaleena, welcome. It’s amazing to have this conversation with you! Congratulations on publishing your first book of poems, I’m sure there will be many more. I wasn’t entirely surprised when you announced the book was coming out – you’ve always shared such lively and passionate posts on Facebook and Instagram. Your powers of description are so vivid that I often feel as if I’m there with you. I particularly love your posts about the various festivals you celebrate.
But let’s move on. My first question is, What do you write?
I write poems; and I am now experimenting with short stories. It started with Facebook posts, Book Club reviews: that’s how we met, remember! I would write little notes about my day; like little letters to myself . Then I translated a Bengali poem for someone very close. And I could do it, although I’d been very hesitant and nervous about poetry. Poetry has always been “the impossible dream”. After that little translation, I got a bit braver. One night I started out very very tentatively. And I saw I could do it: very rough and cobbled together; but I could feel my thoughts in my words. My writing is just as the title suggests – Ink smudged dreams: by the reading light. All written in the later hours of the night when I would drowse, browse and write. They are not about any coherent thoughts or convictions. They are more of inarticulate thoughts, emotions: ramblings you could say. So the poems were written.
There is a strong observational thread in your writing, so lovingly shared, that marks you out as a great writer. Question two, What were your earliest influences? What did you read as a child?
I’ve always been a bit of a dreamer; the cobwebs in my mind have never been swept away. As a child I remember, I would sit quietly for hours together, playing in my head. Now this head game was very interesting. I would imagine different scenarios- people, families, foreign countries I’d seen in photographs. I would spin stories in my head about people and places. Then I would imagine myself in castles and mansions. But it all had to be happy. This head game continued and I loved it. Later I would look at houses ; especially old houses; distant windows, silhouettes of people through the windows and concoct stories about their daily lives.
I really can’t remember a time when I didn’t read. Before I learnt to read, I would love looking at illustrated books, magazines. I remember I had a book on dolls and I would look at it all day long. Then, once I learnt my ABC: I found the Ladybird series of fairy tales. Let me tell you the enchantment still remains as fresh as ever. Those covers! My favourite was The Beauty and The Beast. That started my life long enchantment with fairy tales. By the time I was ten, the Enid Blyton world became my world. I simply lived in those books. They were like a perpetual picnic life for me. Of course Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, school stories, they kept appearing in my life, and my head was a lovely place to visit. Then of course Mr. Rochester entered my life when I was twelve or thirteen – all ready to fall in love. By fifteen I got to know Mr. Darcy, whom – I know you’ll be shocked – I did not love. Mr. Knightley was my hero! Then came Charlotte Bronte’s books- Shirley, Villette. And Louisa May Alcott. I used to imagine myself as Jo. We all do. I decided that Professor Bhaer would be my love for life. Until I read about some other character the next day, that is! Isn’t it delightful: to fall in love with so many heroes all at once! And I have a macabre taste for horror. So I wallowed in gruesome murder mysteries. Then I was given an Agatha Christie book: The Man in the Brown Suit. After that there was no looking back. Christie led me to Victoria Holt, Bram Stoker, Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown. As well as a wide range of Bengali literature of all genres. I am also a fan of romantic fiction, esp the mean and moody hunks that are Mills and Boon heroes!
We read very similar things as children and young people, it seems, I was into all those books too. I’ve already touched on this next question a bit, but, next question, do you believe your culture influences your writing, and if so, how?
Oh yes! My culture has a profound influence on my writing, as you can see in my poems. They are imbued with a sense of belonging to my land and my people in every which way. This is more pronounced in the sections in my book, The Prayer and Hymn to the Earth. I am writing about my way of life. I realised that I’ve chosen colours, comparisons, ambience that are totally inherent to my culture. I’ve grown up reading our mythological stories, the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, as well as my parent tongue-Bengali literature- folk tales, fairy stories, poems. For me Gitanjali by Tagore is the ultimate prayer book.
I think culture can often be an almost hidden extra character in our writing. But looking ahead, what can we look forward to in the future from you?
Now that my mind block is gone, and I’ve tested the waters, I have become quite adventurous. Poems definitely. I’ve discovered this about myself that as I grow older, poetry grows more appealing. I find that I now can interpret life and emotions better through poetry. It is an instinctive response.
Like I told you – short stories. I am trying my hand at those. It’s very challenging but extremely interesting. And intriguing. Writing in someone else’s skin, creating another individual, different points of view: I find it extremely fascinating. I have to construct a short story, not just pour it out. So it is a constant process of study too. I have to keep going back to little research, references to literary devices, unity of time, place and action; and above all keep a firm track of all the threads.
Oh short stories are the slippery slope to novels! That’s exciting news for us! We’ve talked a bit about the books that influenced you, but who are your favourite authors? Do you have certain favourite books you return to again and again?
I am glad you asked “authors” and not “author”? You know we cannot have just one favourite. Ever. I of course love re reading the classics like Jane Eyre, Emma, the Little Women series, Rose in Bloom. My comfort and enchantment lies in Mary Stewart’s books. I read them whenever I need a holiday of the heart. Elizabeth Peters is another favourite. I started reading Georgette Heyer pretty late in life, but I find her delightful. What shall I say about Patricia Wentworth! I adore Miss Silver and I still pine for Frank Abbot. One author who is a verbal illumination is Eva Ibbotson. I find her books poetic prose. I simply love medieval mysteries, and I keep discovering authors in this genre. Even more, I like the thrillers based on archaeological mysteries, religious relics, and mythological mysteries. And now: there’s Dottie Manderson. I am loving this return to the cozy mystery genre, very exciting and warmly familiar. Like I said, and I know you too agree: that one cannot have just one favourite.
Absolutely – and I know that like mine, your to-be-read pile is very substantial! What do you do when you are not writing or reading?
I am a homemaker. And not a very efficient one at that please! But I try. I do try! I cook. I cook traditional meals every day. Very often there are kitchen secrets that I dare not share. Of splattered oil, exploding blender. But yes, I prepare our Indian, especially Bengali cuisine ( that sounds so much more impressive than “food”). I enjoy baking, more so because I eat most of the cake myself. Music! That is my soul balm. I love to listen to oldies goldies: English, Hindi and Bengali. Instrumentals are my ‘go to’ solace when I am tired of words. And as I’ve been told “I have the spirit of enquiry”. Do you think it’s a polite way of saying I am nosy? I love people watching. My best pastime is to sit in a cafe and watch the world go by. As I watch people, I make stories about the passerby in my head. Another thing is that I haunt bookstores; especially old books, pre-loved books. All the obscure, dusty corners: I am very good at finding treasures there. Long drives with music in the car. I sit absolutely silent in the car and I soak up the peace and the purr of the car.
I’ve often heard you talking about the meals you prepare – your descriptions make the mouth water. But I remember that you used to be a teacher. How has that inspired you or helped you with your writing?
It gave me insight. That’s the crux of my teaching experience. I’ve learnt to probe into people’s minds and see stories there. Teaching young teenagers and college students made me more receptive and absolutely non- judgmental. That helps when I write. I learnt from students and colleagues, that as a teacher I am not dealing with folders that you open at 9.am and shut at 5 pm. Everyday I found something new in my work. And that influenced my writing . Most of all it heightened my sense of humour as well as the perception of the Absurd in life. Not to forget teaching made me quite tech savvy about which I love preening and boasting.
Debaleena, it’s been an absolute delight and I’d love to talk more about these things. In the meanwhile, where can readers find your book?
Thank you so much Caron for this wonderful and warm interaction. And for giving me this opportunity to talk to you. You’ve always been an inspiration. You encouraged me all the way. But I still envy you Dottie. Thanks so much for helping me reach out to readers with my Ink- Smudged Dreams: by the Reading Light. They’re just that- dreams, that as I penned down, the ink was not candid and clear; but smudged in places with tears, and vivid in places with smiles.
Debaleena, my pleasure xx
ABOUT DEBALEENA MUKHERJEE
Debaleena is a homemaker, who has also been a teacher and college lecturer over the course of years. She grew up in Jamshedpur and did her schooling at Sacred Heart Convent School,Jamshedpur, and Rajendra Vidyalaya, Jamshedpur. She has done her Masters and M.Phil in English Literature from Jadavpur University, Kolkata.She lives with her husband in Bangalore, and she has a twenty four year old daughter. Reading is Debaleena’s way of life. That’s what she is always doing. She enjoys the moonlight and roses kind of music. She loves travelling to places from the pages of history text books. Haunting bookstores is her pastime. She loves going on shopping expeditions for shoes, bags, and bling. Observing people as they go about their lives, fascinates her. At the end of the day she needs her recliner, her books, and coffee. With some cake.
ABOUT THE BOOK
Ink-Smudged Dreams: by the Reading Light is a collection of poems. Poems that reflect the many facets of my life: maybe any woman’s life. Certain moments, fleeting experiences, lasting impressions, unknown anxieties, silly apprehensions, humble realisations, intense joys and every hurt felt; these are the poems’ moods . And above all a growing perception that life is not about tomorrow: it is about today. But all these are not my consciously addressed ideas. Each day, they have gently enfolded me. Then in the quiet of the night, I would sit down and pour my heart out on paper. Drowsy, blurred, and very close to my heart. These are those ink-smudged dreams by the reading light.
You can find Debaleena on Facebook as Debaleena Mukherjee from Bangalore, and on Instagram as m.debaleena
We are surrounded by words. They are there on the side of your breakfast cereal packet, full of persuasive ideas or nutritional information. They are on the wall of the lift as you make your way from car park to shopping mall. ‘In case of emergency DO this or DON’T do that…’ They are on our clothes – a logo, a designer’s name; they are on the label – how to wash the garment, the size, the fabric constituents.
As I say, we are surrounded by words. We as humans have come a long way from the days when we communicated through pictures. The concept of communication fascinates me. Why do we communicate? Is it to know our allies from our enemies, or to form friendships, assist pair-bonding, or create a safe environment for our children? We developed words because if a buffalo or something similarly huge is rushing towards you, no one’s got time to whip out a slate and chalks to create a nice little scene to indicate the usefulness of running away. So words are more efficient, maybe.
But words change us. From our earliest days on the planet, gazing fondly at our mothers, we learn words. We learn how to physically say them by watching and listening, and we learn what they mean by observing consequences and effects.
We connect not just words together to form a sentence, but ideas together to create a narrative or story. We might hear the words, ‘Let’s go to the mall’, but what we really hear are ideas based on prior knowledge of that as a situation. ‘Let’s go to the mall’ becomes a narrative: ‘Let’s go to the mall – where we will walk about the shops, talking as we go, laughing and enjoying being together, and discussing life issues or relationships, or personal goals and dreams, where will we notice and comment on the latest trends, where we will exchange currency (or more likely swipe a small piece of plastic) for new goods, that we can then take home and discuss at length, creating a new shared experience. Whilst at the mall we will likely go and get some food somewhere, so it will become a social event, we will sit and eat, and talk some more, possibly on a deeper emotional level, and this day will become part of our shared memories and we will often revisit the occasion in our thoughts, and enjoy the time over and over again, and the whole experience from beginning to end will enhance our relationship and sense of closeness.’
It doesn’t always work like this. Sometimes we have a row as soon as we get there, sulk all the way round the shops and come home later frustrated and disappointed, still in a frosty silence. The great tapestry of human experience!
Where am I going with this? It’s just this: simply, words are key to the storytelling of human life, whether an ordinary trip out to buy new jeans, or whether we are sitting curled up in our favourite armchair reading words on a pages, pages bound together in one book, a book enclosed by a hard or soft cover, possibly enhanced with a relevant image on the front.
So in these weird times, when we are told to keep three feet away from everyone or to stay at home, and your dodgy neighbours down the road have now acquired two years’ supply of toilet paper, I thought it would be appropriate to see how an earlier generation dealt with this kind of upheaval.
I immediately started thinking about the rationing our parents/grandparents endured during the war years. This week, even the Queen has announced that she will ‘do her bit’ and has urged everyone to adopt a ‘blitz spirit’ of the usual muddling through that we do so well in this country.
My German pen-friend’s dad, when I was 17 (going back into the mists of time, more than forty years ago) told me proudly that they survived war-time rationing by eating daisies from the lawn. I told him that my grandparents had eaten dandelions in salad. It felt a bit like a competition as to who had it the hardest. If I’d known a bit more about it, or had the guts to stand up to this guy, I’d have said that people dug up their lawns to plant vegetables. But it didn’t seem a good idea to have a Germans versus Brits conversation about the war. (He brought it up!) I’m guessing it was a terrible time for everyone, whichever side of the channel you happened to have been born on.
But leaving aside the actual trauma of death, injury, destruction, and uncertainty, there was, it can’t be denied, a sense of ‘all pulling together’ which only conflict with an outside enemy can bring, no matter where you are geographically.
So it’s not surprising that many older people look back with almost fond memories of the war, hopelessly idealised, of course, with dance band music, dreary clothes and an urgent sense of seizing the moment that we just don’t experience today. We hear about our grandparents or great grandparents meeting and marrying within weeks instead of months and years, of 48-hour pass honeymoons in Brixham or Bognor rather than the Algarve, and the uncertainty of ever seeing one another again after that. Is it any wonder that wartime romance, of all things, stands out as a bright moment, like a jewel on a dirty piece of string?
I have a number of reference books about ‘life during the second world war’. Here are a couple of the most interesting, bought from the shop at Cosford Air Museum: If you enjoy browsing through reproductions of the actual information supplied to people’s homes, then these are for you as they contain dozens if not hundreds of ads, advice booklets and articles.
Above right is the back of a railway ticket – with the usual warning to not gasbag in public. And I think most of us have heard the ‘coughs and sneezes’ slogan (probably courtesy of Tony Hancock) featured on my favourite item: this post card (top). I blame footballers for the fact that these days everyone thinks it’s okay to spit on the ground – a revolting habit once punishable by a hefty fine for the way it (possibly) contributed to the spread of viruses and bacteria.
When we think of roughing it during the war, the main thing that comes to mind has to be rationing. Now kind of back in force at the moment in an attempt to stop greedy or panicking people from buying far more than they need, let’s hope the current rationing doesn’t continue for too long.
Here is a reproduction of a ration book: with the name and address of the recipient of the ration on the cover, and inside, the name of the specific merchants who were to provide the family with their food or other items.
If you were going to stay with someone out of your area, your auntie for example, or future mother-in-law, you had to take your ration book with you – or they wouldn’t be able to feed you. Not legally anyway! This is the kind of detail I love that crops up all the time in Agatha Christie’s books, and others of that era.
The government produced thousands of leaflets at that time to explain to people how to make their food ration last, and how to make sure family members got enough nutritional value from the diet to be healthy.
This tiny booklet contains a number of ‘healthy’ or ‘economical’ recipes for the housewife to use. But don’t expect anything exciting! A quick glance through will show you a heavy dependency on potatoes and for desserts or baking, dried fruit especially dates. I can only imagine the excitement people would experience of some ‘exotic’ food such as tinned fruit, or dairy products, or biscuits and chocolate. In many ways, it is a healthy diet – I’m pretty sure if I worked on the land five or six days a week and ate Ministry food, I’d be half my weight – definitely a good thing. But remember, rationing in Britain didn’t end until July 1954! Can you imagine eating this way, living this way for fourteen years? It must have been incredibly difficult, until after a while, it just became normal. I think many people would have been quite slow to go back to buying whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted once the rationing of food ended.
Some of the recipes make me feel so grateful I didn’t live through that time. Many of us today eat a very different diet to those of that of most Brits in the 1940s. Tripe and Liver Hot Pot? Eww! And as for the Mock Turtle Soup I’ve read about in various novels of the era… surely mock turtle soup has to be morally and gastronomically superior to actual turtle soup??? It must have been a very desperate person who decided to try eating a turtle. (Turtle soup: to prepare, first catch your turtle…)
In Eat For Victory there are also recipes for Potato and Cheese Flan (potato, cheese, celery and onion), Potato Stew (potato, onion and a tiny smidge of bacon), Potato in Curry Sauce (potato, apple, ‘one small tomato’, and the inevitable onion), Potato Sandwich Spread (??????????), Potato and Bacon cakes (patties I think they mean, there’s no icing on this guy), Irish Potato Cakes (same as above but without the bacon), Potato Soup (essentially just a potato, boiled but not drained…), Potato and Watercress soup (pretty that’s grass) (or dandelions).
So I’m guessing things got a bit mundane. No wonder everyone smoke and drank so much. I think I would have too. Try drawing a straight stocking seam up the back of your leg after a dinner consisting of potato soup and two glasses of 1930s cooking sherry.
But now I’ve whetted your appetite, here are two versionsthe famous Mock Turtle Soup, not at all a recipe for wartime deprivation as I imagined, but very heavy on meat and grossness and originating in the 18th century. Feel free to share. And here is a brief history of that soup. 🙁 I would definitely rather eat daisies or dandelions. Or Sainsburys’ Petit Pois and Ham, with a very buttery slice of toast – om nom nom.
Take care people and share your loo rolls, please.