Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas, everyone. And for those of you who don't celebrate Christmas, I hope you have a wonderful festive season and a very happy and healthy New Year.

In case you're not on Facebook, here is a link to my new blog in which I have posted a Christmas story I wrote recently.


See you in 2015, if not before!

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Presents Past

The pun in the title was a terrible one and I apologise, but you can blame my dad. He could never turn down the opportunity for a word-play or a spoonerism and "Sass the pugar, please" was heard round our dining table on a daily basis, spoken in shades of Scouse.

As I wrapped up this year's presents - not nearly so many as in previous years and not because people have passed away, but because several of my close friends have declared that they have everything that they need and would rather have donations to charity - I found myself remembering presents I received long ago.

One of my earliest memories is being in a cot and tearing the wrapping paper off a small green wooden boat. I recall feeling hugely disappointed at this uninteresting gift, which was probably all my parents could afford in 1948, and putting it to one side and playing with the wrapping paper instead. At least the green boat was new, or newish. My only other toy at the time was a threadbare nightdress case and this is why I can pinpoint which Christmas it was, because the following one, I spent in hospital and the previous one I was too young to remember.

The nightdress case was called Spot. He was half a white (or rather, grubby grey) dog, with one embroidered eye, one black ear and half a mouth, and looked a bit like the dog in this photo I found on the web. The other side of the case, which is where the zip was, wasn't embroidered at all. I adored Spot and cuddled him in bed every night. The following December, I can still remember being sped to hospital in an ambulance with the siren going, as I had a bad stomach pain and a temperature of 105F.

Once at Alder Hey Children's Hospital in Liverpool, I was x-rayed and they decided I didn't have appendicitis after all. They didn't know what I had and so I was kept in for observation and was unfortunate enough to catch a dysentery bug that was sweeping the hospital. I then had to spend a month in an isolation room, my only contact with other humans being with the nurses who tended to me and brought my food, and my parents who could only peer through the glass window and blow kisses and wave to me. I was there till the New Year.

Even as a four-year-old, I knew I was being treated cruelly. I remember telling a nurse I was going to be sick. She did nothing, I was sick and I got slapped and shouted at for throwing up on the bed. As if I could help it! I felt a huge sense of unfairness. I had warned, her after all.

Another time, I was brought a mug of Ovaltine that was scalding hot. A nurse stood over me, ordering me to drink it. I couldn't as I would have burnt my lips, so, with a flash of childish logic, I folded the cloth napkin I'd been given over the top of the mug and sucked the liquid through it, protecting my lips. When the nurse noticed what I'd done, I got screamed at, had the mug snatched away and earned another slap. Can you imagine a child being treated like that today? But these were the harsh post-war years when nursing staff were hard to come by.

But back to Spot and the first heartbreak of my life. He was taken off me in the hospital and burnt, for fear he carried germs. I have never loved a toy so much before or since. When I was ten, my maternal grandmother gave me a big, beautiful doll called Rosemary which must have cost her a huge amount of money in 1955, but I refused to play with her and she was consigned to the back of the wardrobe forever. Just seven years ago, I found her in a box and put her on the bonfire, as I felt so terribly guilty about never having loved her. Too late, I realised she was wearing my Christening robe, so that got burnt as well. I can just imagine what my mum and gran must have been saying about it 'Up There'!

About fifteen years ago, I read an article by Beryl Bainbridge in which she recalled having been admitted to Alder Hey as a child and being terribly upset when they burnt the toy she had brought in with her, for the same reason that they destroyed Spot. It was such a coincidence that I wrote to her and received a lovely letter back.

As for the green boat... As I got older, I started to sail it in the bath and had it for many years, until the wood got too rotten and soggy with soap and it had to be thrown away. I honestly believe that the fewer toys children have, the more they value them. My friend's kids break brand new toys within hours of getting them. They certainly wouldn't have the same one for ten or more years. Except perhaps a teddy bear... Oddly enough, I didn't get my first bear until I was 25, when a boyfriend bought me one. He and I split up and I did a runner and forgot to pack my bear. I hadn't formed an emotional attachment to it - or to the boyfriend!

I bet I'd still have Spot with me now. Hand-me-down or not, he was the best present ever.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Mr Turner - bore, boor and boar!

I went to see Mr Turner yesterday. It was beautifully filmed and the sense of period was terrific, as was the acting, but... why on earth did director Mike Leigh think it was a good idea for Timothy Spall to play the great artist as a snorting, grunting hog? It was a very long film, too -144 minutes - and about thirty minutes in, I began to feel that if I heard one more snotty snort and one more set of wheezing, bubbling lungs, I'd throw up. 

Despite extensive Googling, I have yet to find any evidence that the real-life Turner was as porcine as he was portrayed. I read that Spall tried some grunts a few weeks into the filming, and it was decided that he should keep it in. In my opinion, it was a big mistake. There was just too much of it and it got a bit Tourette's-ish.

It was a pleasure to see a film that engaged the mind rather than just the eyes, but it would have been greatly improved by a bit of tightening up and the loss of fifteen minutes or so. For a start, the opening featured credits rolling silently over a blank screen, which got me thinking "Gerron wiv it!". Why couldn't they have been rolled over the opening shot of the Belgian (or Dutch?) dawn, with the windmill and the canal and Turner standing on the hillock with his sketchbook?

I would have omitted the long-drawn-out scene in the Ruskins' living room, which contributed nothing to the story (was the young Ruskin really so lisping and effete as he was portrayed by Joshua McGuire?) and would have shortened the ghastly, wheezing death scenes of both Turner Senior and Turner Junior. To draw them out so much was unnecessary and, like the grunts and snorts, smacked of overdoing things. 

Another complaint. The only sex scenes were the ones showing Turner claiming droit de seigneur over his poor maid (I thought the bookcase was going to fall over and crush the pair of them!). Why didn't they put in a gentle, loving one between Turner and Mrs Booth, as a contrast with the near rape of the maid? After all, Mrs Booth had spotted that Turner had a sensitive soul shining through the gruff, snorting exterior, so what would have been wrong with a little tenderness? Marion Bailey gave a luminous performance as landlady Mrs Booth, who accepted Turner for what he was and didn't care if he was called Mr Mallord, Mr Turner or Mr Booth. I think Bailey deserves an Oscar even more than Spall, as what she did seemed effortless, yet the love and amusement in her face and the play of emotions in her eyes are lingering in my memory far more than the stomps and snorts of boorish behaviour of Turner as portrayed by Spall.

I must admit that it was wonderful not to have one's ears blasted by a musical soundtrack. It was refreshing to hear birdsong and the clip-clop of hooves. I wouldn't go and see Mr Turner again, but, like all Mike Leigh films, it left me feeling challenged and with more questions in my mind than I went in with. Is that the mark of a good film? Whether it is or not, it is definitely the mark of an interesting one.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

NaNo, novels and desktop no-no's!

In just four weeks, ending on Nov 30th, I wrote 54,000 words, did my horoscope column and edited an 88,000 word novel manuscript. I am now geared up and inspired. I haven't finished my novel yet as I want to get it up to 75,000 words, a perfect publishable length.

That's only the first draft, of course. I shall then send it to a kind friend for some feedback, to see which bits need beefing up or changing. It will probably be February before it's anywhere near finished, but I would never even have started it if it hadn't been for NaNoWriMo.

I have recently bought some new specs especially for the computer, as my varifocals were giving me a stiff neck though the constant adjustments I had to make in order to see the screen through the right bit! The specs are great, except... I get up and forget  I'm wearing them and wonder why I can't see as I'm heading through to the kitchen to make a coffee. This means my tiny computer table, which only just has room for a keyboard, mouse, lamp and coffee mug (yes, very dangerous, I know, especially when teamed with a crumbly chocolate digestive biscuit...), now sports two glasses cases and the pair of specs I should wear to see my way across the room with!

It's very cold in the room I work in, which doubles as my bedroom. It was 7C when I woke up this morning and even now, with the radiators on, it's only 15C. I like to think being chilly serves a twofold purpose. 1) it keeps my brain awake, and 2) I lose weight through shivering. In fact, it's probably the equivalent to standing on one of those power plate things, and is cheaper than going to the gym.

By midweek this week, I shall have finished copy-editing a wonderful memoir by an ex professional dancer who is now a healer and yoga teacher. When it's published, I'll let you all know. Next on the work agenda will be a thriller. Nothing like having a bit of variety in one's working life!

Talking of thrillers, although I read lots of them, I don't think I could ever write one because I don't have the type of brain that can plot things out meticulously, or dream up big enough global threats and nasty enough 'baddies'. But then, I never thought I would tackle the issue my novel is about. So perhaps it's good to set oneself a challenge and tackle something new. Now, there's a good New Year Resolution!

Monday, 17 November 2014

NaNo Never Again!

In the past, I have seen people on Facebook saying they were doing NaNoWriMo and I didn't know what they were talking about. It sounded like a weird form of religion. Then I learned that it stood for National Novel Writing Month and it happened every November and you were supposed to start a novel on Nov 1 and finish it on the 30th.

I have written under time pressure before. In fact, my first ever book, Sweet Temptation,(soon to be re-released as The Earl's Captive) was 85,000 words long and hammered out in just five weeks on an old typewriter, manual, not even electric. No wonder I have arthritis in my fingers! The publisher had given me eight weeks to write it in, but I split up with the man I was living with and had to move house and yet, despite all the tears and upset and a full-time job to boot, I still managed to finish it.

The second occasion, also back in the 1980s, was when Virago wrote to me about a new series they were starting for teenagers, called Virago Upstarts. They had a sudden gap in their schedule and if I could promise to produce a book in just one month, the slot was mine. I did, and it was called City Sax and featured a 16-year-old girl sax player's impossible crush on her teacher, a handsome, worldly-wise jazz musician called Lester. (I am updating this book at the moment as it's been out of print for years and I'm very fond of it.)

The third time was two years ago, when a publisher who shall be nameless asked me to alter a chick-lit book I'd written called Perfect Lives and turn it into a sexy teen novel for the New Adult market. I managed to write 90,000 words in about eight weeks, but, being a lot older and less energetic than I was back in the '80s, it half killed me. I had RSI in my arms and headaches every day! And then they decided not to bring out that particular line of books after all. Now, I wish I had stuck to the original older version and self-published that, but it's too late now.

After these experiences, you'd think I'd know better than to undertake to write 50,000 words in four weeks, without even the carrot of a publishing contract at the end of it. So why did I decide to take up the NaNoWriMo challenge?

The reason is that I needed a kick up the backside to get me started again after the rotten experience I had with Perfect Lives - the promises of multiple book contracts and lots of publicity and the chance to revive my writing career after ten years in the doldrums that just became crushed dust in my fingers.

I decided to leave writing for a younger market behind and venture into writing for adults, something I've wanted to do for ages. In the past, I sold dozens of short stories to magazines like Woman's Realm and Fiction Feast, but I'd lost heart. I actually think I've been suffering from depression. I ticked every box on the depression checklist on one website I visited. I have good reason to be depressed, not the least of which is the poor health of my partner and the fact that I freeze to death every winter in his cold, draughty house.

But NaNo gave me a way of writing a book before winter had set in, whilst I was still able to write without being muffled up in restricting thermal layers, scarves and fingerless gloves. It gave me a deadline, something which I was used to in my journalist days and which I find it hard to work without.

I am now 33,000 words into the 50,000 and I have to say I am thoroughly enjoying it! I feel rejuvenated, The creative juices are flowing and I feel like a writer again and what's more, I can go ahead and publish the resulting work myself, without having to wait for the rejection slips to arrive. I think I am writing well and that the theme of childlessness will strike a chord with a few readers, at least. Having had to give up my own baby for adoption and having suffered nothing but miscarriages since, I think I know my subject matter, though writing it in the context of a marriage required a big application of imagination!

When and if I finish it and decide to self-publish it, I'll let you know. Trouble is, once I've penned the final word, what am I going to do with the long, empty days then? Oh, of course. I'll write another book. Why didn't I think of that!

Monday, 10 November 2014

Books and boxes

It's an exhausting time. I'm trying to clear out my storage unit and go through every box to see what I can do without, and at the same time I'm trying to write a 50,000 word novel in just four weeks. My days are falling into a pattern of walk to the shops in the morning, then sorting through, re-packing and labelling boxes till lunchtime, then writing in the afternoon.

Here is the heap of boxes I have been through in the last three days. I've had to carry everything right round the house, from garage, to kitchen and finally, to shed. My biceps are starting to feel like Popeye's.

Here is the stuff I've got ready to go to the charity shop, as soon as some kind person agrees to take me and it in their car, as we don't have one any more.

As for the book, I started NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) late, so between November 4th and today, the 10th, I have written 14,700 words. The website says I am on target to finish by Dec 5, which is five days past the deadline. Oh dear! We'll have to see about that. 

I shall bring you another progress report in a few days. Now for Grantchester and a glass of wine!

Monday, 3 November 2014

#just sayin'... and other annoying phrases.

There is something about the phrase,'just sayin', that has become such a popular Twitter hashtag, that really gets up my nose. For me, those two words used together conjure up a certain facial expression - slightly narrowed eyes, head a bit to one side, smug quirks to the corners of the lips - and are often spoken in a tone of voice that manages to be cocky, sarcastic, superior and challenging all at the same time: at least, that's how it seems to me. No current popular expression is more guaranteed to make me feel wound-up, put down and frustrated. I'm glad it wasn't around when my sister and I were teenagers because I bet it would have been coming my way every five minutes!

It is an expression that is not at all funny, but barbed, armed with a zillion spikes of unspoken criticisms, festering resentments and the unshakeable belief that the person who is doing the "sayin'"' is completely and utterly right. "Have you ever thought of changing your hairdresser? Just sayin'..." means they think your hair-do, which just cost you £75 plus tips, makes you look like a cross between Albert Einstein and Animal. "Ever thought of getting a cleaner? Just sayin'..." isn't a helpful suggestion but means your house-keeping techniques would be a disgrace to the average pig-sty.

As for, "People above a C cup shouldn't go bra-less. Just sayin'...", well, if it's spoken with a sly glance at some unfortunate passer-by, you can sigh with relief, but if there's a sly sweep of the eyes over your own embonpoint, then you know you're showing enough wobble and droop to make your interlocutor feel slightly nauseous.

There have been other expressions that have annoyed me for different reasons, from the nebulous 'many moons ago' - I mean, we've only got one, so which moons exactly? The moons of Pluto? - to the annoying and ungrammatical 'my bad'; is it short for 'am I bad', or what? It's always spoken coyly and has the effect of reducing the speaker to a five-year-old, even if they are a bearded fifty-year-old prof.

And then there's 'I'm not a happy bunny'. How does one tell if a bunny is happy or unhappy? They don't exactly smile, purr or whine. I suppose if they're busy doing what bunnies do a lot of, i.e. jumping on other bunnies, they might be very happy indeed. And which bunny? A wild field rabbit, or a tame white one munching a carrot? And why 'bunny'? What's wrong with 'I'm not a happy elephant/llama/axolotl'?

Back to 'just sayin': how should one respond? With a sheepish grin? By jumping to one's defence? By changing the subject rapidly? I know what my response to "just sayin'" is. An unprintable two word expression ending in "off!"

Sunday, 19 October 2014

The low season

I always feel low in autumn. If ever I'm going to get a cold, it's at the change of the seasons, and this year is no exception. I have a real streamer, feel absolutely dreadful, haven't slept for two nights and don't think I'm going to get much sleep tonight, either, as my nose is running like Niagara.

Over the last few days, my computer has been acting weird. It was OK until Mr Grumpy suggested I run a program that gets rid of all your temporary files and releases more space on your hard drive. What he didn't tell me before I clicked start was to un-tick certain boxes. The result was that all my passwords were wiped out, so I had to try and remember what the Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, Hotmail, eBay, Babble (and more) passwords were, and of course they all different.

My Windows 8 (should be called Windows Hate) tiles vanished and so did all my icons and I got a blank brown screen. Panic!!! With much grumping, he managed a semi-fix but it's still not quite the same as it was before I meddled. I've never had an easy relationship with technology and swear most colourfully at all my devices. I even managed to do something to my Kindle through pressing the wrong button when I was sleepy.

I think I'll go back to real books. The worst that can happen is that you fall asleep with a book on the bed and it falls off in the night with a crash and wakes you up with a horrible start, making you think there must be someone in the room, either corporeal or ghostly.

Then there's the autumnal weather; a return of grey, damp days, of the last of the flowers, of the trees de-leafing, which always makes me think of that wonderful, lump-in-the-throat poem, Spring and Fall: to a young child, by Gerard Manley Hopkins, which conveys the same core message as all those syllable-dragging volumes of A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, encapsulated in just fifteen lines. If only Proust could have been equally brief.

I've just taken a half dose of Night Nurse. If I took a whole one, I'd sleep till lunchtime. Hang on a minute... what a blissful idea!

Monday, 22 September 2014

Late tomatoes

Last year, the cherry tomato plant I bought at B&Q was so successful that I collected some seeds, put them in an envelope, then forgot about them till, well, March... (didn't get round to planting them)... April... (still didn't)... and they finally got planted in May, which was much too late. Still, five of them germinated and the most vigorous one now has a good crop of green tomatoes which, unless we get an Indian summer, are unlikely to turn red.

I was cross with Mr Grumpy's granddaughter. I know she's only three, but she really didn't need to pluck four of the biggest ones to throw at a spider's web. Grrr! I put them on the windowsill and one of them is now turning blush-pink. Perhaps that's the answer. Or else I'll just have to find a green tomato chutney recipe.

If you've grown tomatoes this year (Jacula, I know you have!), let me know how they are doing. You've probably been eating yours already! Oh well, there's always next year.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Old, familiar comforts

This morning, I felt an odd sensation and looking down, I noticed my white felt slippers that are covered in blue and pink spots had acquired a new scarlet spot - my red-lacquered toenail poking through a hole. My comfy old slippers had had it. There was no patching them up as the fabric had worn too thin. Anyway, slippers aren't exactly expensive so I could afford a new pair.

But, as most of you will know, new slippers are never the same as your old ones. They are too stiff. They take time to mould to the contours of your feet so that they coddle them in a cosy cuddle. It's the same with gloves, yet gloves aren't quite so intimate, somehow. I have never not been able to part with a pair of gloves, but throwing worn-out slippers into the bin gives me a wrench akin to shutting one's beloved pet or helpless granny out in the rain and telling them never to darken your doors again. You couldn't do it.

So my hand, holding the slippers, hovered over the black plastic maw of the bin-liner time and time again, until at last, steeling myself, I thrust them well down and hid them under some sheets of greasy baking parchment. If I couldn't see them, I could pretend I'd never owned them, and if I had the sudden urge to pull them out again, I'd find them covered in grease and grot.

Mr Grumpy is made of less stern stuff than I am. Amongst his shoes are at least five pairs of worn-out slippers, with holes in soles and toes and stains on the fabric. Many's the time I've offered to chuck them out for him, only to be told that he'll do it when the time feels right. Some of them have been sitting there collecting cobwebs for ten years!

The only other thing that I find almost impossible to throw out is a cuddly toy. No matter that the bear, dog or tiger is noseless, eyeless and has stuffing poking out and ears falling off, it is still one's beloved Spot or Wonky and surely the sheer tattiness shows how much it's been loved.

And so with slippers. They clothe one's feet so often and so intimately that, after a couple of years of wearing them every night and sometimes all day, too, if I'm not going anywhere, I swear we swap DNA. To get rid of old slippers is to chuck out part of oneself. So... surely I must be able to scrub those grease stains off with the help of Vanish and as for the hole, well, there must be a large sticking plaster somewhere...

Thursday, 28 August 2014


Gosh, I'm getting behind with my blogging. Since I last wrote, I have had another week in Patterdale, helping my sister set up and man the desk at her art group's exhibition in Glenridding. She sold two paintings and was dreading telling her husband because one of them was his favourite, which she has taken off their wall! As she later explained, she couldn't keep hold of everything she'd done and it was time to move on.

Unlike the blazing sunshine of my June visit, it rained a lot, apart from the last day, which was breezy and cloudy. I got soaked through and was thoroughly grumpy though, looking back, it was all good fun. We also had the thrill of a world-famous mountaineer coming to stay for a couple of days.

I got back late on Wednesday. On Sunday, it was Mr Grunpy's great-niece's wedding. Thank heavens the weather stayed dry for that, though it was overcast most of the day. I hadn't eaten since 8.30 am, never thinking I'd have to wait until 5.30 pm before any more food passed my lips. There were lots of small children there so I only hope their mums brought some food just in case. There was a bar, but you couldn't even get crisps or nuts there. Nothing. Just free Pimms and paid-for beer.

When the food arrived finally, everyone fell on it like ravenous wolves and every plate was cleared apart from Mr Grumpy's, who won't eat out as he doesn't trust anything he hasn't cooked himself. More fool him, I thought as I polished off his left-over pate. By then, the champagne and wine had flowed and by the time the evening disco started (we'd been there since just after midday), I was starting to flake a bit. Miraculously, the fascinator stayed firmly attached and the blue sandals that I'd had for years but never worn turned out to be the comfiest footwear in the world. I'm now trying to track down another pair in a different colour on eBay.

On Monday, I'm off to Camden Town to look after my friend's cat again. I've booked a ticket to see the Virginia Woolf exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, a talk on Richard 111 and a Ray Davies of the Kinks concert at the Festival Hall. On Thursday, I am off to Liverpool to stay the night with my oldest friend, then am lunching at my old grammar school, Blackburne House, on Friday with a group of my old classmates which includes one who moved to Oz so none of us have seen her since we were 18!

I shall be back from all this on the 11th. Whatever you are doing, hope you have a fabulous time.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Motive or imagination?

I didn't realise how long it was since I last blogged. Oh dear! I am about to go to my sister's in Patterdale again, in time for her annual art exhibition. I leave on Wednesday but am packing wet weather clothes this time. 

The other day, I got inspired and started a new book, but so far I have only written the first page. Well, at least it's a start. It's my first attempt at literary fiction, as opposed to romance. I don't know how, or even if, it will work out. 

I've been rather discombobulated by recent changes in Mr Grumpy's life. He has been estranged from his son for 16 years. Suddenly, his son got back in touch and came round with his partner and Alan's little granddaughter, who is just three. She is an absolute sweetie and they are doing a great job of bringing her up. However, when they come, they're not content to stay a couple of hours. They hang on and hang on until we are both dropping with exhaustion. Last time, they said it was a short visit and they stayed three and a half hours. The time before, it was six. 

It's an enormous disruption to my work and, much as I like the little girl, they are not my relatives and I find the son arrogant and overbearing and the girlfriend well-meaning but rather vacuous, and I would much rather retreat to my room and my computer than sit smiling stiffly and trying to make polite conversation hour after hour with people I have nothing in common with and don't even particularly like. I feel as if my space has been invaded, but in fact it's not my space as I am living in Mr G's house, so it's all very awkward, and I have no say as to whether I mind them visiting on a certain day or not. I'm not even consulted, just presented with a fait accompli. More than ever, I feel I need to move out and move on, if only to be able to set aside quiet, uninterrupted time for writing. It feels weird to be presented with this new situation after 16 years of just Mr G and me. I feel uncomfortable with it. Last time they came, Son cast his eyes around the house, commented on the size of the garden and was at pains to tell me that they couldn't invite us round as their rented cottage was far too small and cluttered. I suspect a motive... or is it just a writer's imagination at work?

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Moon Cat, Lion Cat and Sir Felix

Every cat I've ever had seems to respond to one favourite phrase that makes him or her purr and preen. With Petal, the cat I had during my short, ill-fated marriage several decades ago, the words that made her go into ecstasies were 'Little silver moon cat'. When I crooned that line, her eyes would close, her paws would extend and begin kneading and the purr was deafening.

Flad's ecstasy line is 'Sir Felix Flad'. Every time I call him that, the golden eyes shut and the purr grows to a crescendo as he nuzzles my hand.

And now I've discovered Charlie's favourite compliment. When I call him, 'My gorgeous golden lion cat,' he rolls to one side, then the other, then presents his ginger tummy for a stroke, an invitation I only accepted once as the multiple claw holes turned my arm into a sieve.

Here is Charlie in the garden in the cool of early evening yesterday, displaying his lion teeth!

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Toe of Toe Hall

Poor old Mr Grumpy has a badly infected toe. While I was up in Cumbria, he rang to tell me he might have to have it amputated, which nearly had me leaping on the next train back. He is allergic to penicillin so the doc had put him on tetracycline, which is a bit too mild to do the job. He is also diabetic, which makes him more prone to infections.

He is dressing it twice a day, soaking it in salt water and putting tea tree cream on and it is still purple and terribly painful. He's had to buy shoes in a larger size than usual, so they won't put pressure on it.

I feel a bit responsible, actually. I have been treating a fungal toenail infection for ages. Four years, if you can believe it. In that time, I have tried everything going including a bottle of stuff from the doctor which I slathered on twice daily for a whole year and which made no difference whatsoever. Then one day, as I was scouring Boots' shelves for anything I might not have tried yet, I spotted Canesten Fungal Nail Treatment. I bought it, started using it and it was brilliant. For the first time, I could see an improvement.

Mr Grumpy has a funny looking toenail. Well, more than one; some are downright amusing! He decided his odd-looking big toenail probably had a fungal infection, so he bought himself some of the Canesten stuff. Three days later, he awoke to stabbing pains and it had all gone purple and swollen. (His toe, you fools!) Then it started to ooze and get smelly. I won't go into the latter as it will put you off your Sunday lunch. So off he went to the GP and came back with the tetracycline.

Fast forward six weeks. I was in Highgate, flat-sitting for my friend who is away meeting her newly-born grandchild in Spain when I had a text message to say his toe had gone green and he had an emergency appointment with his doctor. This was last Friday. I cancelled a flat-viewing and a trip to the cinema to see Chef and raced back thinking I might just be in time to bid farewell to his big toe. But I needn't have bothered. The doc has given him another two weeks' worth of tetracycline plus a different antibiotic to take in tandem. They are making him feel lousy and he is limping and grumping around Toe Hall like a bear with a sore... toe?

So I am back off to Highgate for the remainder of my stint, which ends with my friend's return on Thursday. At least it rained yesterday so her balcony plants will have been watered. And let's hope that this time the pills do their job.

My friend's balcony...

The view to central London...

Friday, 27 June 2014

Going cuckoo in Cumbria

Since I last wrote, I've had the most glorious five days in Cumbria. My sister lives by Ullswater in half an old vicarage with views of mountains out of every window.

I haven't been to the gym for months so I knew I was very unfit compared to my mountaineer sister. When we set out on a walk the first day, I was full of trepidation and expected to have to turn back after half an hour and go back to the house for a nice cup of tea and a lie down. To my amazement, as we scrambled up the steep track, I could feel my hip and knee joints flexing and loosening up and could almost hear them crying, "Oh, thank goodness, we're being made to work at last!"

One day, we went to Penrith to our favourite clothes shop, Victoria's, where I bought a gorgeous dress in a sale and it was a size 12! Whoopee! Though it was too big on my sister and she's a 12, so I think it had been mislabelled (boo!).

The weather was warm and sunny the whole time I was there. And - joy - I heard a cuckoo for the first time in years. I have booked to go back for a week in August, for her annual art exhibition in Glenridding village hall. Last time I was there, it had snowed and the path to the door was solid ice. Don't think there's much chance of that in August but just in case, I know where she keeps the crampons.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014


I was feeling melancholic today, looking at plastic bags flapping from tree branches and sniffing the disgusting, traffic-fume-laden air and lamenting the lack of butterflies. When I first came here seventeen years ago, there were so many different species of butterflies, I kept a list. There were stag beetles in abundance and loads of tadpoles in the pond. Now the stag beetles and tadpoles are long gone and as for butterflies, I've only seen three or four. It's so sad. And so I penned this.


Perhaps, when we are gone,
With our poison sprays, our polluted haze,
The beautiful things will return.
The winged things, the finned things,
The secret, hidden things that crawl and spawn.

Perhaps, when we are gone,
With our warring ways, our destroying ways,
A beautiful peace will dawn
And a silver dove and a winged whale
Will sing a hymn of earth-scars healed and hope reborn.


Monday, 2 June 2014

The art on my wall

Apart from the vast monthly sum my storage unit is costing me, another major drawback of having stuff in store is being deprived of one's enjoyment of it. All my books, my entire lifetime's library, is in there. My china, my glass, which I used to arrange on windowsills so that the light could shine through it and give me some colour therapy. And, of course, the paintings and prints I have bought over the years. Sadly, I lost a lot of these in Alan's workshop. Unbeknown to me, he had stashed a heap of paintings in the corner, behind a large mirror where they were hidden from view.

One day, I decided to move the mirror and that's when I made two discoveries. The first was that a heap of my pictures were there (he had helped me move and I thought they had all gone into store) and the second, ghastly discovery was that the corner of the workshop was sodden. Water had leaked in and everything was ruined. Signed prints were covered in black mould. Original watercolours had run and the paper they were painted on had disintegrated. It was truly horrible. I cried as I threw them away, not because of the monetary value, which was about £3000, but because each of them had been specially picked by me as something that really appealed and spoke to me... chimed with something in my nature. A memory perhaps, or a dream, or a combination of shape and colour that pleased me.

Luckily, my largest picture, purchased for £300 at artist Sandy Damon's exhibition in a restaurant in Waterloo Station back in 1987, was OK as I had refused to let it go into storage. Here it is. It's called The Fishermen's Dance and it wasn't until I got it home that I realised that the fish formed the symbol for Pisces. I am a Pisces! The vibrant colours make me happy and this has always found a home in the living room of everywhere I have bought or rented.

After the workshop disaster, I vowed that I would never waste money on art works again. After all, there are a few in the storage unit (though I hear it has been invaded by mice! Eeek!) so when I finally manage to move, there will be a few to hang on the wall. But while I was in Ruislip, I was taken with a picture on display in the Cow Byre Gallery, oil and acrylic, called Dreamland. It is opposite my bed, perched on the table. And yes, it features fish again and I have placed my little fish vase in front of it, as it is painted with the same colours.

I realise that colour is very important to me and that I need art to lose myself in. I am going to the Royal Academy of Art's Summer Exhibition on Friday. It will be like submerging myself in an art swimming pool. If you don't hear from me again, it will be because I am still floating.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Places and petals

I do apologise for not having posted for so long. Hopefully, I am getting my mojo back now, after so many weeks of being ill, followed by depression and worries. I might even be able to start writing again. Haven't even looked at my book for weeks.

Have you ever lived in a place you really disliked - a place that doesn't suit you at all? That has been one of my problems for the last seven years, since Mr Grumpy had his strokes and I moved from the vitality and camaraderie of my corner of north London to look after him. Day after boring day, I found myself wilting like an unwatered flower. There was just nothing to DO around here! None of the things I was used to, including the ability to dive down to central London in half an hour, to meet friends or see a show, and get home easily, perhaps even in a cab. And even if there had been something, there was nobody to do it with and I am too shy to go to group events on my own.

No theatre on the corner, no Sunday poetry readings, no old time music hall in the pub. No dashing out for a coffee or a snack with friends, or a glass of wine in the evening. No dinner parties. No friends - because nobody wanted to make the trek out to the sticks where, after an hour and a half on the tube or train, they then had to wait for a bus to take them the final two miles. (Nobody wanted to drive down the North Circular, either, and who can blame them!)

As months grew into years, I sank deeper and deeper into myself. Mr G has never liked going out, and his illness made him even fonder of the sofa. In my fifties, I was living like my parents did in their eighties, spending every single night in front of the TV, Mum with a glass of whisky and the cat, and Dad with a cup of tea and the newspaper (or, in Mr Grumpy's case, his android pad). It got so that going out by myself - making that trek - seemed too much effort, especially once Mr G gave up driving and a ten minute run to the station because 45 minutes on two buses. And that's before the real journey even began!

Things became a bit better when I made a friend in the area, a woman of my age and a spookily similar background, both from the north of England, both having worked as journalists, and both having been involved with music and literature. Then my new friend was diagnosed with cancer and has bravely fought it over the last year and is now, we hope, in the clear. She is not a 'popper-outer'. She likes a properly organised event. So on Friday night we are going to see an amateur production of an Alan Ayckbourn play, a first for me as I am not familiar with his work at all.

She has also been kind enough to run me to Ruislip for a series of anti-ageing facials I am having (don't laugh) and together, we have discovered that Ruislip is a fantastic place. We're both very excited about it. It's got everything that my own area lacks. Lots of arty events, a gallery, a wonderful weekend market and the most amazing historical buildings dating back to the 13th century. Yesterday, we stood by the duck pond, looking at hordes of fluffy ducklings and baby coots while a dragonfly whirred by. We have discovered that the local Cafe Rouge does the most divine fish cakes, and you can have coffee and cake for around £4. (Yesterday, we had lunch AND coffee and cake!)


I don't think I will ever grow to love this part of outer west London. I ache and yearn to get back to Highgate and East Finchley, to walk over Hampstead Heath, to return to streets that were home to me from 1968 to 2007. But I feel slightly better now I have discovered Manor Farm and have made a good new friend to explore with. I think I have been homesick and lonely for ages. (I went for a psychic reading at the spiritualist church and was told it was as if I had fallen into a deep pit and was trying to climb out. That's exactly how it felt.) Years ago, I used to tell people I would never feel lonely as I had too many interests. Oh, how naive that smug statement was! But I feel that my spirits are starting to rise now. I have found somewhere to go, somewhere to walk, somewhere that feels like 'me' and, having started to worry that I was going mad, I now feel more like my old self. Still a bit fragile, but lifting my petals to the sun.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

An inspirational blog

Siobhan Curham used to run the Uxbridge Writers Group, which is where I met her. Since then, she has moved away, written a brilliant, bestselling book for teenagers called Dear Dylan (Egmont Press) and now has a new book out called Shipwrecked. She also runs writing workshops.

Her blog, Dare to Dream, is inspirational. I don't know anyone else who can turn a negative into a positive the way Siobhan, a trained life coach, can. You can find her on Facebook, or Google her blog. I think you need to subscribe to it but, especially when you're going through a bleak period like I have lately, her tips are a real pick-me-up. Her latest post is a Beginners' Guide to Meditation. I have always wanted, and often tried, to meditate but my babbling brain refuses to shut up. This time, I am going to follow Siobhan's breathing and relaxation exercises and really give it a go.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

News and mews

I am depressed at the moment. I have an ear infection and am deaf, but don't want to take antibiotics so I'm taking echinacea and selenium to boost my immune system and hoping the earache will stop. It's been going on for weeks, ever since I went down with that virus in March. I haven't been able to do any writing, property prices have whizzed up and I still haven't found anywhere to buy, and there are some other rather heavy, emotionally painful things going on. So please forgive the lack of posts.

On the upside, I might have a website soon. I have a guy working on it. But then I shall have to start a new blog in my real name! Though I suppose I could keep this one for things that really matter, that I don't want to discuss with my nearest and dearest (or worsest!). Hmm...

Oh, one funny thing has happened lately. At the age of sixty-something, I was chatted up by a Salvador Dali look-alike at an art exhibition in the library! He had a foreign accent - German or Austrian, maybe - and said he was a sculptor. Unfortunately, I had to dash off to meet a friend for a coffee, so I never found out his name.

But, for a moment, the encounter made me feel young and full of hope again. It took me back to days when, in my twenties and thirties, I would roam the National Gallery in the hope of having an encounter with an artistic male who would make me his muse. It never happened. Though I did meet a photographer once who took some artistic nude pictures of me with a tabby kitten curled up on my lap. I wonder what happened to them? Would they suddenly surface if I became a bestselling author? I would love to see them - though the man who took them is probably pushing up daisies by now - and so, sadly, is that sweet little kitten.

I wish I hadn't said that! Boo-hoo, mew.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Ms Nice v Ms Nasty

I was so bemused by the flu that I posted this on the wrong blog! Here it is now...

Sorry I haven't posted for a while. I am still laid low by a ghastly flu-type virus which began over six weeks ago. I got over it and then whammo!, out of the blue it came back on Thursday and I am streaming and shivering all over again.

At least I managed to be well for seven out of my ten days cat-sitting in Camden Town (again). I got back last Monday and didn't do a stroke of work while I was there; I didn't even think about my book once, even though, with four-fifths of it written, I am hopeless stuck. The problem lies with the anti-heroine. She's a feisty, over-emotional character who jumps to conclusions a bit too quickly (like me!), but I could do two things with her towards the end of the book. Either she could do something really bad to the heroine, then have second thoughts a bit too late (which would show some character development), or she could have the second thoughts before she does the evil deed, which would lead to a less exciting, but more heart-warming denouement.

I posted my dilemma on Facebook and several people opted for the nasty version, but I'm not sure. Thing is, I quite like her. In fact, her vivid personality is in danger of swamping that of the real heroine, so I have to tread very carefully. I suppose if she takes the evil route, it will swing readers' sympathies round to the heroine, thus ensuring people don't prefer Ms Nasty to Ms Nice. So far, I have written three different sections, trying it various ways and wasting about 20,000 words! My poor fingers.

I'm hoping inspiration will strike and guide me to the correct conclusion. Perhaps a large dose of Night Nurse tonight will do the trick!

Monday, 24 March 2014

Too many ghosts...

I'm listening to Bruce Springsteen's latest album as I write this. Not altogether sure I like it. It's an odd mishmash of styles and I think I read that a lot of it was old material that hadn't made it onto other albums. I've also bought the new Suzanne Vega and like that a lot. Anyway, enough of music. I have just returned from a trip back to my hometown of Liverpool. I hadn't been for a couple of years and every time I visit, my Scouser friends try to persuade me to move back permanently. One thing I love about Liverpool, apart from the wit and the creative energy of the city, is the amount of green space. Sefton Park, Calderstones Park, Otterspool and Greenbank Park are all close by in my old area of South Liverpool. In Hillingdon, where I currently live, parks are in short supply. In fact, unless you drive, you can't get anywhere to have a decent walk. There are plenty of recreation grounds, patches of dog-stained land surrounded by flower beds full of crisp packets, beer cans and struggling, scraggy rose bushes. Not terribly enticing.

If I take a bus, I can walk by the Grand Union canal, but once you pass the end of the moored houseboats, it gets a bit desolate and dangerous-feeling. I only walked there alone once and was constantly alert for lurking hoodies with knives and mugging on their mind. Perhaps it's having survived two knife-attacks and one gun-point assault in the past that has made me so nervy, but I can't relax unless I know there are plenty of people around. No walking along gloomy towpaths and sinister city streets for me.

Here's a photo taken in Greenbank Park. My old school playing field was over the road. I think it's been built on now.

Sefton Park houses the famous Palm House: http://www.palmhouse.org.uk/what-we-do-history-and-renovation.php  completed in 1896 and surrounded by statues of the famous, including the gardener Le Notre  (1630-1700):

and Christopher Columbus, captured in stone as if forever searching for the next New World:

Although I was born and brought up in Liverpool, I had never set foot in the Palm House before last Wednesday and was surprised to find this colourful knitted patchwork giraffe amongst the plants: that's my friend Claire trying to spot its head amongst the foliage:

When I find myself back on the streets which witnessed all the angst of my teenage years (including the time when, aged 17, I decided to end it all, swallowed a bottle of aspirin and ran to the Prom to hurl myself over the railings and drown dramatically in the grey-green waters, only to find the tide was out and my poetic ending would have consisted of being sucked down into the hideous, glutinous mud), something strange and sickly comes over me, a kind of vertiginous nostalgia.

I see myself in shrunk-in-the-bath Levi's and black polo neck; in mini dress and blue patent shoes; in navy gym slip and emerald green school beret. With pigtails, ponytail or waist-length red hair; with horrid, unflattering specs and braces on my front teeth. I see my little, curly-haired sister, hear her laughing; see my father in his tweed jacket and trilby hat, camera round his neck, sucking one of the peppermints that he was never without, and my mother with her softly waved, strawberry blonde hair and freckles, her wonderful blue eyes (why didn't I inherit them?) sparkling as she makes a slightly smutty joke that gets us all groaning, "Oh, Mum!"

Ghosts of myself flicker around every corner like pieces of the jigsaw of my life; like feathers dropped from passing seagulls whose cries take me right back to nights when the booming of ships' sirens in the night would remind me that I was not alone and that soon, dawn would come to remove the monsters from inside the wardrobe. A few weeks after my mother died, the gardener was mowing the lawn when he looked up and saw my mother waving to him from the bedroom window. I wonder if she is still there, haunting our old house? We sold it in 1996 but it's changed hands several times since then and is currently up for rent. There are too many ghosts of my own past in Liverpool. The place calls to me. I feel it in my gut. But I know I must resist.

Going back would not be healthy for me. It would negate all the efforts I made to leave, to hitch-hike down to the Big Smoke (where I soon discovered the streets were paved, not with gold, but with chewing-gum) and make my fortune: well, at least achieve my dream of working in publishing. I must resist the pull of the ghosts, yet, is the lilac tree still there in the back garden, with the vaporous shade of my dad's striped deckchair beneath its boughs? And our old cats, Sandy and Cloudy: do they still haunt the rockery, springing out at the shades of long-dead mice? See what I mean about not being healthy? I would die of nostalgia if I ever went back to live anywhere near my old home. No wonder they call it home-sickness. It's a sob in the soul, a moan in the memory, a tug on the ancestral umbilical cord. And yet...

Saturday, 15 March 2014

The End of the Line

I live in a place where, it is said, old lags come to hide and grow old and die. Hillingdon is an anonymous, end of the road, out in the sticks place. I don't know who would choose to live here unless they were brought up here, or are studying at Brunel, or working at Heathrow. I have met a few ex crims round here, including Mad Mick the Murderer, someone who used to play chess in gaol with John McVicar and some others who it's safer not to mention. Just last week, a Mafia boss was flushed out who had lived here undetected for twenty years.


It's that kind of place. Nondescript, suburban, where nobody really knows their neighbours. Where every street culminates in a grotty main road full of cheap curry houses, nail bars full of illegal Thai and Vietnamese girls who by night turn tricks in the flat above, and estate agencies that vanish as fast as they have appeared.

Here, I cannot wear the clothes I used to wear in north London. I can't be myself. I would get stared at and mocked in my beautiful embroidered velvet coat. It has remained in the wardrobe for six months, ever since I last wore it to go to an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. Acceptable clothes here mean duvet jacket, leggings and boots. I can do acceptable, but I'd rather not.

But tonight, I went out loud and proud in my gorgeous velvet coat and purple dress for a pre-birthday meal. I met my friends in a local restaurant where the acoustics were so bad that we had to bellow in order to converse, being drowned out by a table full of twenty teens next to us. Looking round, everyone was in their teens and twenties. We were by far the oldest. But the food and wine were good and I was enjoying myself until...

Until I came back from the loo to find the friend who was treating me to dinner (apart from the £20 I'd thrown in for a second bottle of wine) having a stand-up row over the bill with the waitress, who looked most distressed. After the waitress had departed, I asked what was wrong and was told that my friend had objected to the fact that the card machine automatically added the tip on. I didn't see the problem, but she was irate and it meant we left on a sour note, with the staff, who had been so sweet and so willing, glaring after us.

As usual at weekends, the tubes weren't working and, this being the end of the Metropolitan line, our North London friend, who had borne the brunt of the replacement bus service to get here (two hours door to door from NW to West London), decided to get the express bus to Shepherds Bush. The rest of us planned to go to a music gig at a pub that started at 9 pm. By now it was 10 pm. We nobly agreed to see our friend onto the bus first.

Bus stations aren't beautiful at the best of times. They are places of brutal architecture, of gales blustering round sharp corners, of mumbling winos and slumbering junkies and people who would rather be any place but here. They are like holiday resorts at the end of the season, when sex and heat have gone into hibernation, leaving behind echoing footsteps of desolation and lost lovers and a wind that wraps dead leaves and chip papers round your ankles. They are the hub of shattered dreams, broken sleep and soon-to-be-slit wrists. They are not places to celebrate your birthday in. Yet 35 minutes later, we were still standing there like loonies, waiting for the bus that never came because, when I checked the timetable again with wine goggles that were starting to defog, I discovered that the last express had left at 9 pm.

The non-express came and I got on it, together with the Primrose Hill pal who wouldn't see his bed before midnight. I am now back home, with it having been banged home to me even more forcibly than usual that I am not an end-of-the-line person. I didn't hitch-hike from Liverpool to London in 1967 to end up living in the place where old criminals come to die. Me and my velvet coat have bigger plans than that. Beam me up, Scotty!

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Approaching the Denouement

First, let me say it's my book I'm talking about here, not my life! I have been working so hard that my muscles are protesting, my wrists aching and I can hardly raise my left arm above my head. I've just passed the 70,000 word point and have, to my surprise, gathered all my main characters together in one room, Poirot-style. I didn't intend it to happen, but, if you're a writer, too, you know how your characters can gang up on you every so often and take over the action!

So now I have to write the showdown - dialogue, emotions, tears and slaps. I am so involved that I am right there in the room with them, dodging the flak. I think this is the only way to produce authentic-sounding fiction. Author as method actor.

I still find writing without the backing of a publisher a scary prospect. Yet, when I recall all the piddly little royalty cheques - only one was every over £1000 and most were considerably less, in fact I think my last one was £27! - I cheer myself up by thinking that even if I only sell 50 books, at least I'll get a larger share of the profits. Some of my early contracts only gave me a 6% royalty. 6%! That meant the publisher kept 94% and I'd done all the hard work. Yes, self-publishing's got to be better than that.

Friday, 7 March 2014

What the editors want in 2014

Literary Agent Andrew Lownie publishes this very useful round-up every year, using his personal contacts to get the inside gen on what's hot and what's not. I haven't had time to read it all yet, but I'm hoping somebody, somewhere, might be in the market for my latest offering... *crosses fingers*


Monday, 3 March 2014

Short story competition

Haven't felt inspired to write a new blog entry lately as I have been working flat out on the novel I started six years ago and have suddenly decided to finish. It's the first time in decades that I have written a book with no commission and no publisher lined up, not even an agent to handle it. Gulp!

Anyway, I was reading my daily publishing business newsletter that plops into my inbox and came across this info about a monthly short story competition. The cash prizes aren't great, but hey, anything's better than nothing! I did notice a typo in the website's details - you story' instead of 'your story', which doesn't inspire much confidence. Also, I couldn't read the Terms and Conditions, so who knows what could be lurking there. However, you can read previous winning stories so at least there's some free reading material there!

The March Global Short Story Competition is open for entries.
Begun six years ago, the competition runs every month with a £100 first prize and a £25 prize for highly commended writers.
The competition, which has topped £10,500 in prize money handed out, has had entries from more than 50 countries over the years.
Each month's competition is judged by Fiona Cooper, an author in North-East England, where the competition's organisers Inscribe Media are also based. The competition can be entered at www.inscribemedia.co.uk

Thursday, 20 February 2014

The curse of the voucher

We all like to get something for next to nothing and about a year ago, having been badgered by friends who were forever telling me about the wonderful bargains they'd got from Group or Wowcher - cheap holidays, shoes, even computers - I signed up. And soon realised that buying deals wasn't always a case of what you see is what you get.

I have had a couple of excellent, good value spa days; in fact, I shall be having another next Monday in a central London hotel. I've bought enough Oral B electric toothbrush heads to last for the next two years - the toothbrush will probably die before I run out of brushes for it. I have a year's supply of antihistamines for my itchy eyes and drippy nose. All truly useful and good value.

On the other hand, the size L thermal leggings would have been too small for a stick insect and the torch refused to shine. I got the latter replaced, but had to wait weeks for it to be processed, and as the leggings came from Taiwan, I decided it was easier to pass them on to a very tiny friend.

Just lately, having filled my bulging cupboards with everything I could possibly need, apart from a deaf, mute man with a tongue like an anteater and a PhD in computer skills, I launched myself into self-improvement, shelling out £49 for a £499 course in how to build your own website, with a company called Skillsology. The blurb on the voucher site claimed that the course was 'suitable for beginners'. Huh! I reckon I could have done them under the Trades Description Act because, once I'd redeemed the voucher on the company's website, which meant I could no longer claim a refund from the voucher company, I was told that before I could download the course, I had to fill in an on-line questionnaire.

It turned out to be no ordinary, simple, dumbed-down questionnaire, of the 'did you find our p&p charges excellent, good or poor' type. There were 43 questions, they were timed - you had 30 minutes in which to complete them - and you weren't allowed to change your mind and go back, you had to plough on. I looked at Q 1. It was pure technological gobbledygook. I clicked a random answer. Q 2 also made no sense. I only understood one word in three, as the rest referred to things like WX3Z26 protocol, or some such thing. By the time I found myself staring in bemusement at Q5, 20 of my 30 minutes had already elapsed and I had collapsed. I realised I had as much chance of designing a successful astronautical reverse wormhole thruster as I had of correctly answering even one question correctly.

Almost in tears by now, I emailed Skillsology, complaining that the course was absolutely not suitable for beginners and asking if it was possible to get my fee refunded. That was a few days ago. So far, they haven't bothered to reply.

Meanwhile, this morning a friend forwarded a voucher offer for a course on how to format your e-books for Kindle, including designing a cover. Only £29 and sounds just what I need! But then, so did the website one. Let's face it, I'm about as techy as an amoeba. There is no hope. I shall end up like my mum, who gave up on televisions once remote controls were invented. Thank heavens video recorders have bitten the dust. I was still trying to work out how to use mine when they invented the DVD! Though I'm not as bad as someone I know - male, too - who, unable to work a mobile phone, goes out with a walkie-talkie phone. Tin can and a piece of string, here I come!

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Bell, Book and Kindle

For the last week, I have been reading a 'real' book. By that, I mean one with a hard cover (£1 in the Sally Army charity shop and the third in Carol Drinkwater's superb Olive Farm series, if you're interested) - one with paper pages to flutter with one's fingers. I tell you, even though it was heavy to hold in bed and my hands outside the bedclothes got very cold, I found it a wonderful, affirming experience and it made me realise that, despite the convenience factor of an e-reader, I shall always have plenty of room in my life for books made of paper.

Of course, not everyone would agree that paper is good and e-reader is bad, so, class, let's discuss the relative merits and disadvantages of paper book versus electronic book. Ding-ding... Start now.

The smell, the feel, the ability to whip back and forth through the pages to find something you want to check or re-read. From a writer's point of view, the sense of triumph at holding your book/baby in your hand, the end product of all those months of hard work. When you look at your groaning bookshelves, the feeling of ownership: indeed, in years gone by, books were bling, a show of conspicuous wealth. They were so expensive to buy, not being mass-produced the way they are nowadays, that they really were jewels in your bookcase. The interesting, sometimes beautiful covers and, in some cases, the pictures inside. The ability to annotate the pages (in pencil, please!). The chance to get them signed by the author. The opportunity to stick a decorative label inside, indicating ownership, if you are prone to lending books out.

Then there are all the other things a book comes in handy for. To prop your magazine against while reading at table. To use as a doorstop. To build a step to help a rickety pet mountaineer onto the bed. To hide illicit love-letters in. To press flowers or a dusty four-leaf clover. As an aide-memoir, to take you back to the phase of your life you were in when you first read the book, which might even bring back an elusive memory of being read to as a babe in bed, from that very book... the smell of Johnson's baby powder and your mother's sweet perfume. And let's not forget the stains that books acquire. Warped, wiggly pages from where you dropped it into the swimming pool in Mallorca when that gorgeous boy pushed you in. The muddy paw-print from a long-deceased pet. Tear-stains between the pages of your poetry book, from when you mourned a departed lover by reading Christina Rossetti, or No Worst, There Is None, by Gerard Manley Hopkins, to a sad accompaniment by Leonard Cohen (try Bird on a Wire, or Suzanne).

I'm sure you could think of many more, so, class, let's move on to...

Weight and size. That's all I can think of. You easily couldn't slip Fifty Shades into your handbag, though you might just manage a Mills & Boon.

Tinkle-ding. Are you awake at the back? Sit up and pay attention for now we come to the digital era.

Small, light and brilliant for travelling as it can hold your entire holiday reading library, meaning you can stuff more shoes and bikinis into your suitcase. (Pause... sound of brain being cudgelled. Bam.) Oh yes, you can increase the print size, which can be a very good thing as I have sometimes been put off reading a novel because of the tiny, eye-straining font size. And some of them come with the ability to increase the brightness of the screen, so you can read in bed, or at night on a plane when they turn off the lights, without disturbing partners and neighbours. You can also read red-hot erotica without anyone knowing. I still giggle when I think of how I pasted the cover of a geometry book onto Lady Chatterley's Lover so we could all read the dirty bits in class.

E-readers are expensive. They can break, or get lost or stolen. You can't navigate through a book as easily as flipping through paper pages. I wanted to re-read a couple of pages of The Goldfinch and my Kindle flatly refused to take me back there, to my immense frustration. (I promptly despatched the book to The Cloud and will look out for a paper copy in the charity shops.) There are no page numbers and, on mine, no option to put them in, so your only method of seeing how far you've got with the book is to look at the stupid percentage sign in the bottom corner, or the other figure telling you how many minutes you are from the end of the chapter. Who cares about that? And doesn't it depend on how fast you read? What a stupid piece of technology.

You can't scribble on e-book pages. You can't turn down the corners of the pages to mark the dirty bits, or the place you were up to. Instead, you have to use a virtual bookmark consisting of a little triangle in the top right corner, rather than a splendid marker of your own choosing (mine has a wonderful description of my star sign, Pisces, on it and a long red tassel). You can't smell e-book pages, or listen to the breeze ruffle them as you recline in your deckchair on a summer day. They are not alive in the way paper pages are. You would never remember what you were doing at the moment you were 42% of the way through Chocolat.

Many e-readers display books in black and white only, so you miss out on the wonderful covers and if there are illustrations or photographs, you cannot see them in all their glory.

Books don't have to be re-charged. E-readers do, which means you have to check if you've got enough battery power to get you from London to Brazil, and you mustn't forget to pack the damn charger for, if you forget it, you will end up buying a real book at the airport, this negating the entire raison-d'etre of an e-reader.

Now we have come full circle, it looks as if the e-reader Con list is as long as the paper book Pro list. But does that mean the paper book has won and the Kindle or Kobo should be banished? Or will technology eventually prevail and all books become historical relics?

Before I toll my bell to banish to Hell whichever of these two word-purveyors is the work of the Devil, let's pause for a moment. Could it be that there is, and always will be, room for both to exist comfortably side by side? I think so. I hope so. E-readers will come and go, in various shapes, sizes and states of development. There will be those who embrace the e-reader wholeheartedly and give away all their books to the charity shop. There will be those who scorn the cold, grey piece of hardware and continue to lug their latest reading material around with them and buy another Billy Bookcase from Ikea when their groaning shelves can't take one more volume.

And there will be those like me, who tread the middle ground; who love their paper books like old friends and still add new ones to their collection, but who recognise the convenience of an e-reader and so divide their reading time between paper and screen, according to where and when they are doing their reading.

Right, class, I'm putting my bell away now and you are free to go. No, not you, Sanjit. I need you to show me how to set up the wi-fi on my Kindle.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Flats, cats and chapters

I managed to get to my friend's the following day and had a week in Camden, cuddling Mo, her sweet little ginger cat, and going out and about. Frustratingly there were no properties to view, but on my next to last day, the tenants next door to my friend's moved out and I met the landlord. He asked if I wanted to rent the house for six months. It's tempting, as I could get all my things out of storage at last, but, at £350 per week rent, it would be a big chunk out of my savings. Hmm... Maybe I'd be better off waiting until I manage to find somewhere to buy, even though every viewing means a whole day away from my writing.

Getting back to Uxbridge last Tuesday was a complete nightmare. Those of you who saw my post on Facebook can skip the next two paragraphs as I wrote about it there. After I had sat for an hour on the Tube (and was dying to go to the loo), there was a signal failure two stops from Uxbridge. The train sat... and sat... My legs crossed and uncrossed and crossed again. After half an hour, the driver announced that he was having to move the train back to the previous station, Ickenham. When we got there, I didn't have a clue where I was, or whether to turn left or right out of the station (which had no loo, of course). I followed some people to the left and found myself on a high street where there was a bus to Uxbridge. Every hour. What on earth use is that? But to my joy, I spotted one of those ghastly modern public loos where you put in a coin and pray that the door won't open while you've still got your knickers round your ankles. (That happened to me on a train once.) I put in 10p. Nothing happened. I pressed various buttons. Still nothing. I pressed the Coin Reject button. Nowt. I found another 10p (thank God I had one) and this time it worked and the semi-circular door slid silently open. Nobody came in while I was enthroned. I was lucky.

Much relieved, I dragged my ghastly suitcase further down the broken, bumpy pavement. It was cheap case which I bought in Hisaronu, Turkey, years ago and the wheels don't turn smoothly. It was like dragging a heavy box along a pebbly beach. I found another bus stop and this one had buses which ran every 15 minutes. It started to rain. A bus came. A crowd of school kids surged on and nobody else was allowed to enter. All the adults were left standing in the rain. There was a Wendells behind me so I bought a sausage roll and a coffee as it was 3 pm by now and I was hungry. More and more ghastly kids kept arriving. It was like a swarm of bluebottles, all of them in their navy-blue uniforms, buzzing with gossip and energy. Two more buses came and went and I didn't have a hope in hell of getting on. By now I was wet and cold and almost in tears after having stood there for forty-five minutes. Home was only four or five miles away, but getting there seemed impossible. And then along came a taxi! I leapt into the road and hailed it. Another woman tried to barge past me but I had got there first. Hard luck on her. I had suffered enough!

Soon, we were on our way. But we'd only gone a mile and a half before we hit a traffic jam. As we sat there unmoving, I watched the meter tick over: £4, £6, £8. An ambulance tore past, siren blaring. There had been an accident further up the road. I rapped on the partition and asked the driver if there was any way out of the jam. He drove up a side street, turned left and right a few times and suddenly I recognised the street we were in as the one I used as a cut-through when visiting a friend. But the cabbie was determined to drive to the far end and reconnect us with the main road. "Stop!" I screeched, banging on the door. He was wearing headphones and didn't hear me. "STOP!!!" I bellowed and banged even harder. He stepped smartly on the brakes, almost colliding with a green saloon car that was turning out of a side street. I got out. Paid him the princely sum of £14. Then I rang Mr Grumpy and started to drag my wonky wheels down the narrow path between two lots of school playing fields. I found him waiting at the far end of the lane and he wheeled my case the last few yards. It had taken me three and a half hours to do a journey that normally took an hour and a half.

Now you can see why it is so difficult for me to get to North London to see my friends, to go out for an evening and get back again, and to view properties. I hate it here! If only Mr G would consider moving further in, but he won't.

Yesterday, I had an email conversation with my agent about which of my projects to complete first. Perfect Lives Book 1 is all ready for Kindle, but Book 2 was still lingering in the form it had been in when the original publisher decided to pull the plug on their new imprint. She thought I should finish Book 2 and get both books out there. We had a discussion about whether it should be published as one massive book of almost 100,000 words, or two of 50,000, even though I felt it was cheating the reader if they only got half the story in Book 1. We decided that I should write a 'story so far' to be placed at the start of Book 2 and that if they were priced around £2.50 each, people might not mind having to fork out twice. I finished my tweaks this afternoon and have sent it off to my friend in Camden who has agreed to proofread it for me.

Having just stopped work on a book full of sizzling sex, I now have to think up some ideas for sweet, innocent teenage romances for a Norwegian publisher. A chaste kiss is going to seem very dull after cling film and double cream!

Monday, 13 January 2014

No more happy pills!

As yesterday wore on, I felt sicker and sicker. By the evening, my head was reeling and I kept almost fainting, so I took to my bed, which is where I have stayed for nearly the whole of today. I was meant to set off to Camden to look after my friend's cat again today, lovely little ginger and white Mo, as her 95-year-old dad has just died so she has gone up North for the funeral, but I had to arrange for a neighbour to feed him instead, as I felt far too ill to drag a suitcase across London by tube and train, followed by a mile walk uphill from St Pancras to the housing estate where my friend lives and to which there is no public transport. Added to which, the rain is bucketing down and I haven't eaten since Saturday. Oh, why did I not learn to drive when I was young?

I have stopped taking the tablets. I read the list of possible side-effects and symptoms like mine - nausea, dizziness, ringing in the ears, aches all over - happen to one in ten people who take them. They even warn you about a potentially fatal heart condition! It also says that people who have had stomach ulcers shouldn't take them. The doctor should never have given them to me. Back to the homoeopath, I think. Far safer.

The drug was called Citalopram. Anyone else ever taken it? If so, were you ill, too? I'd love to know.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Screeched to a Halt

I suddenly found I couldn't write any more of the new book because it was getting too autobiographical. I need to take a step back and see how I can make it a bit less personal. I also found I had come to a full stop myself, in terms of low energy and high anxiety. I have seen my GP and she has prescribed some 'happy pills' but warned that they might take a fortnight to work. They certainly haven't started working yet! But if I started skipping round the room and singing, "Calloo, callay, oh frabjus day," I shall let you know!

Oops, visitor arrived. More later.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

2014: pretty awful so far.

I had high hopes for this new year but it hasn't brought me much luck so far. On Thursday, I went to see Cinderella at my local theatre and had a great time singing and yelling, "Oh no, it isn't!" etc. I had a glass of wine in the interval and was feeling on a high when I left, but when I switched on my phone I found a message telling me that Mr Grumpy had been taken to A&E.

My friends kindly drove me there and I found him with a tube in his arm and a nurse checking his blood pressure, which had gone through the roof. He suffered a small bleed on the brain three weeks ago, which affected his speech, but he was getting over that. They decided his BP meds weren't working as he hadn't had a review for five years. They gave him a pill and took his BP at half-hourly intervals, then when they saw it was coming down, they let him come home. Next day he visited his GP, who prescribed a new pill regime.

I didn't sleep all that night. I was shivering, even though I was wearing a dressing gown over my long nightie and had a hot water bottle. So on Friday I didn't go out at all. It was pouring, anyway. This morning, I had a half-hour trudge around the pavements, then came home and decided it was time to open my credit card statement, which had been sitting on my desk since before Christmas. It had been a deliberate decision not to open it as I knew the bill was going to be HUGE.

Unfortunately, it was a lot huger than my worst nightmares. Someone had managed to get hold of my details and go on a sizeable spending spree at John Lewis's. I just rang Barclaycard to tell them - and of course the Fraud Team don't work on Sundays! Anyway, they have the details and now I await a form to fill in.

"Aren't you going to block my card and send me another?" I asked the man in Mumbai, or wherever. "No," was the reply. Extraordinary. What happens if, having got away with it once, the bastards do it again?

It happened to Mr Grumpy once, after he had used an ATM at Sainsburys. Someone used his card to withdraw money in Rotterdam at 4 am! It was lucky he could prove it wasn't him because he'd just come out of hospital and couldn't walk or drive. How am I going to prove it wasn't me buying whatever it was in John Lewis's? I hope they'll believe me.

So that's two rotten things that have happened in the first week of 2014. I await the third with trepidation. Cross your fingers for me, won't you?