Memories, memoirs, stories.

This week I offered to drop some books in at the charity shop, for a neighbour who’s moving.  ‘Have a look through first, if you like,’ Jackie said.

‘Thanks,’ I said.  If there’s one thing better than browsing an unknown bookshelf, it’s got to be unpacking books.  I’m fairly certain I have developed peripheral-vision super-powers for lines of titles in rows.  That’s good.  When it comes to boxes, though, I feel like Pandora must have done with that box. I had two, and permission to open them.

DSCF8138These boxes were deep.  On the top layers were old school-annuals.  Judging by the hairstyles and clothes of the girls on the paper-coated boards, they were maybe seventy or eighty years old.  I knew how those books would feel to read: the pages thick and fibrous, dry, slightly stiff.  I’d had similar titles when I was growing up, passed on by neighbours, aunts and grandparents.

‘Are you sure Bella won’t want to keep them?’ I said.

‘They’ve been up in her old bedroom for the last twenty-years, if she had, she’d have taken them,’ said Jackie.  ‘There won’t be room in my new house.’

Not in my old house either, but I couldn’t resist a look.  Bella and I had been at school together.  Most of the books brought back memories.  There were the interests we’d shared, the author’s we’d passed back and forth – Heidi and Enid Blyton, a handful of Dean’s Classics, some Ladybird books, a selection of adventure stories and those old annuals.

At junior-school there had been a short phase when several of us were keen on them.   We devoured stories about girls at boarding schools, that had been written to entertain our parents, or even grandparents.  Part of the charm for me was imagining myself into that past.

Some of us decorate our lives with fragments of history, inherited, gifted or bought. I try to remember that when creating characters.



And they call it ‘the flash’…

Thursday afternoon I called in to see my parents.  After we’d caught up on family news, we got to comparing plans. ‘We’re off to Cheltenham tonight,’ I said.  ‘For an open-mic story evening, Flashers’ Club.’

‘Oh,’ said dad, ‘are you reading?’

‘No.  I’m going to listen,’ I said.

‘You’re taking something along though, aren’t you?’ said Ray, when I got home.

‘I’m more comfortable listening,’ I said.

‘That’s because you avoid doing it.  You need practice.’

‘I don’t think I’ve got anything suitable,’ I said, switching on the laptop and trawling through my files.  ‘Most of my stuff is intended to be looked at rather than listened to.’

I did put a story in my pocket. I even found time for a couple of read-throughs, figuring out which bits made me stumble, and making minor changes. I’d done the poetry reading, last year; I sit in front of groups discussing story theory and practice without a qualm, but this was different.

During the twenty-minute drive through lashing rain, we talked.  ‘Is it right at these lights?’

‘No, straight over, then left at the roundabout.’

‘This rain’s getting heavy.’

‘I’ve an idea about your dad’s birthday present.’

There was a five minute dash from car park to street, and the decision about what to order to eat.  It’s so much easier to open the fridge and see what needs using up, than having to chose from a list of tasty dishes someone else will prepare.

‘Where will you be sitting?’ said the woman at the counter.

‘By the window,’ said Ray.

As we settled, two more people came into Smokey Joes, and headed for the glass doors beside the serving counter.

I said, ‘I think it must be open.’  A woman at the next table did too. She picked up her plate of food and migrated through those open doors.

Ray said, ‘You’re right.  We’d better follow, if we want to nab a table too.’

Flashers ClubAlex greeted us with a smile. ‘Three pounds if you read, four if you don’t.’

That’s clever, because it isn’t about saving the money.  How many other events can you find that cost less than a fiver?  Besides, all the proceeds go to charity, so I don’t begrudge a quid.  But, having paid less, not reading would have made me a fraud.

I’d picked one of my shortest pieces of writing, less than a page, double-line spaced, font size fourteen, for ease of reading, and luck was on my side.  My name was not first out of the hat, it was second.  Phew, no time to think, I was up at the lectern, concentrating on my paper and trying not to stumble.

Heart pounding in a way I don’t remember ever experiencing in classes, I tried to breath as I spoke. Slow and clear, I told myself. I concentrated on one word at a time, and followed the punctuation, and wonder of wonders, I arrived at the last full-stop only slightly breathless.

It was done.  I could sit back and enjoy the other readings.

What a selection, aliens, memoir, fantasy, vampires, crime and comedy.  This is why, even if you think you’ll never ever stand at the open mic, you should seek out your nearest story-reading event.

‘The difference is,’ said Ray, on the way home, ‘in class you’re talking about other people’s stories.  Tonight, it was just you, revealing glimpses of your imagination, of yourself. Vulnerability! We don’t do that, do we?’

A day in the life of a bookworm.

I’ve been travelling a bit further to work the last few weeks, doing a few classes in the next county.  There’s a bit of a drive involved, but it’s not too far, and it’s a route I don’t otherwise see very often.

Malmesbury TownThe only downside to having a more distant destination is that I pass by so many intriguing places.  Sometimes I catch glimpses of them, and make wild promises to myself that I’ll allow time to stop off, on my next journey.  There’s always a strong reason why that doesn’t happen.

This week though, I had posters to deliver, so I needed to call in at Cirencester.  The way I worked it out, was that if I had to make the effort to find a parking space, and walk to the museum, I might as well drop in on the charity bookshops at the same time.

This, I pointed out to my busy, scheduling-obsessed alter-ego, would mean I could look for the collection of Pritchett stories I need for a future class. It would take an hour, no more.  I would count it as my lunch-time, and get straight to my desk when I got back. Who knows, I might find two copies.

The things I think of.  You’d expect by now, that I might recognise my own tricks.

I managed to resist the museum, though it’s gone up a couple more notches on my list since that glimpse from the foyer.  So I stepped briskly back onto Park Street with a feeling of efficiency.  Office workers were drifting, tapping at their phones, but I was on a mission. I threaded through them, conscious of myself as a woman with a purpose.

Actually, my knowledge of Cirencester is sketchy, to say the least.  Had anyone noticed my smug speed they would have grinned to see me brought up short, in the middle of the pedestrianized road, as the shops ran out, and I had to retrace my route.

oxfam bookshopFinally though, I made it to the Oxfam bookshop. The door pinged behind me and that calm biblio-ambiance enveloped me.  I stepped up to the nearest bookshelf.  Time slipped onto a slower cog. Names slipped past me, titles leap-frogged over each other, vying for attention.

None of them were Pritchett.  I resisted.  Kept browsing, drifting around the walls seeing titles I knew I’d never get round to reading.  That’s how I arrived at the bargain table, the last stop before the door.

There, I found a name that I’d been discussing that morning, Rosamond Lehmann.  Not a virago reprint, but a 1944 hardback from The Reprint Society. It was ninety-nine pence.  Lack of a dust jacket didn’t bother me, I grabbed it before anyone else recognised its value.

Yet again, I had followed the rule that always applies to my second-hand book browsing, and went home with a different book to the one I set out to buy.  At least, this time it was only one.

DSCF8126I knew for sure that this one was meant to be, when I found that it perfectly fitted the last bit of space on my shelf (after my Christmas reading binge).  I suppose I’ll just have to keep looking for that Pritchett.

Perhaps I’ll try one of those little towns that punctuate my route home from the last class in Wiltshire, later this week.

It’s a hard, hard life, isn’t it?

Economy in the short story.

pg wodehouseWhat ho, folks.  This week I’ve been reacquainting myself with that great wag, PG Woodhouse.  As usual, it’s only on reading him that I remember how much I like the old fellow.

Yes, he may be a little dated, on first glance.  Mostly he’s skipping through the 1920s and 30s with a series of bright young things.  Is he aware of the general state of the nation? It’s not easy to argue in the positive on a broad scale, though it’s possible to look between the lines and find some social commentary.  Picking it out is one thing, deciding on whether that’s a key part of the writing is altogether another game.

If he’s not, does that matter?  Aren’t the bookshops and library shelves crammed with historical fiction intended only to entertain us?  So really, he’s just one more, with the added bonus that his stories aim to raise a smile.

I admit, it’s an old-fashioned style of smile.  Think early rom-com films with wisecracking pairings like Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn, or Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. Realism is not the intention, this is about sitting back and enjoying the ride.

Try this excerpt from a classy piece of Wodehouse, The Reverent Wooing of Archibald.

People who enjoyed a merely superficial acquaintance with my nephew Archibald (said Mr Mulliner) were accustomed to set him down as just an ordinary pinheaded young man.  It was only when they came to know him better that they discovered their mistake. Then they realised that his pinheadedness, so far from being ordinary, was exceptional.  Even at the Drones Club, where the average of intellect is not high, it was often said of Archibald that, had his brain been constructed of silk, he would have been hard put to it to find sufficient material to make a canary pair of cami-knickers.

pg wodehouse 2All would be well, if the purpose of Archie’s life continued to be seeking out new designs of sock for his collection.  But one day, as he’s sitting at a window of the Drone Club, sipping a cocktail and looking out on Dover street, ‘there swam into his line of vision something that looked like a Greek goddess.’

Are you hooked, yet?  What I love about this story is that it has style, and elegance.

There are two narrators.  The outer, omniscient one, is economical.  Just look at the neatness of his opening sentence:

The conversation in the bar-parlour of the Angler’s Rest, which always tends to get deepish towards closing-time, had turned to the subject of the Modern Girl; and a Gin-and-Ginger-Ale sitting in the corner by the window remarked that it was strange how types die out.

It’s long, but there’s an awful lot packed into it, and really, no more is needed to set the scene, is there?  After this, we’re moving forwards into the story.

Soon Mr Mulliner takes over the narration, and adds his distinctive turn of phrase to that economy, as in the description of his nephew Archibald, quoted above.

As for that tricky business of introducing a clutch of secondary characters into your story without confusing the dear reader, has anyone ever bettered Wodehouse’s decision to define them by their drinks?  It allows him to add in a ‘Draught Stout’, a ‘Small Bass’, and ‘A Double-Whisky-and Splash’, and even though in a page or so they’ll disappear from the rest of the narrative we’ve not expended enough energy on them to regret their absence. That’s what I call a witty solution.

So, dated or not, I think this old boy still has a few tricks we can learn from. And if you’ve not read him before, The Reverent Wooing of Archibald is a good place to start.

I’d like to recommend: The Night Watch.

night_watchI hold my hand up and admit that this was my first Sarah Walters novel.  I’d enjoyed the tv adaptations of Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith, but somehow, never got round to following them up on paper.  So when my good friends Ruth and Annie gifted me this novel for my birthday, just as my classes were finishing, I didn’t add it to my TBR shelf, I put it ready to start once my decks were cleared.

What a gift it was.  Beautifully written, intriguing characters, and a neat piece of plotting.  The story opens in London, in the summer of 1947.  The weather is hot, many of the buildings are still war damaged, and people are struggling to fit into their peace-time roles.

Just as I was beginning to grasp who the central characters were, and how they fitted together, that segment of the story closed.  The new segment jumped me back to London in 1944, and that terrible destruction of properties, and lives.  Again, no backstory, instead the four lives are revealed by their actions and relationships.

The third time slip was to London in 1941.  Here several of the characters intersect for the first time.

The events that happen in this section are going to lead each of them to become the person I met when I opened the first page of the novel.  Had Walter’s written this story chronologically I wouldn’t have guessed the outcome, I might even have objected to some of the connections.  But experienced in rewind, the eventual outcome for each choice feels inevitable.

That’s worth thinking about.  Truth, we are often warned, is stranger than fiction.  In other words, the improbable can happen in real life with surprising frequency, and those tales make some fascinating pieces of journalism.  But in the world of stories readers require cause and the effect. That’s what the backstory provided.

So the reverse chronology made me work.  As the narrator uncovered each layer of the experiences that formed the people I met in the first part of the novel, I rounded out my understanding of them.

I’ve seen this reverse telling before.  I wonder if Walters read The Long View, by Elizabeth Jane Howard?  I’d like to think she did.

night watch

Causing offence and making apologies.

Top of the British news yesterday morning, was another person with a slight claim to fame, saying that their words had been ‘taken out of context.’  The particular words she’d used were a series of racist remarks that she had messaged to a friend.

Setting aside the questions I have about this woman’s judgement on several levels, what struck me is how often that phrase, ‘taken out of context’ is turning up lately.  Isn’t it about time we went back to the idea of challenging users of this defence to put their words into a context?

I know some would counter this by saying that to do so provides the user with a wider platform: it is.  Call me naïve, but I can’t help thinking that making offensive behaviours a mainstream media topic is a positive action.

Sidestepping arguments in the legitimate media pages is no longer a solution to offensive behaviour.  Most of us can access a whole range of public platforms with ease, and, as the majority of these ‘taken out of context’ stories prove, there seem to be few boundaries to that access.  Maybe it’s time we re-thought the strategies for dealing with offence.

What seems to be happening in this case is somewhat typical of other situations I’ve noticed: everyone connected to the woman in question has condemned her, but practically in the same breath they’re now arguing over her higher profile partner’s political future.  In this way, the focus has shifted from what she said, to will he or won’t he go?

cartoon under the carpet

Are you okay with that?


An in-valid reading prescription

Okay, so I’m not asking for sympathy, but it was my turn for the lurgy this week.  Not flu, just some nasty, energy-sapping, head-clogging virus, that made me add logs to the fire and snuggle under a blanket sipping cup-a-soups and eating oranges.

The only way I know to speed along those kinds of miserable hours is reading, but it has to be the right book.  For the first day, to counteract shivers and headaches, I want something easy and comforting.

pixabay woman readingLondon, The Novel, by Edward Rutherford has been taking up a huge amount of space on my TBR (to-be-read) shelf for a long time now.  I flicked through the pages, a good size font, short-ish chapters and fairly thick pages.

The plus about heavy novels, when it’s possible I’ll fall into a feverish doze, is that there’s more space for my resting arm to mark my page.  Small books, I find, slip off my lap and Rusty, loyally and comfortingly curled up on my feet, isn’t keen on getting brained. That happened several times with my next choice, E.V. Thompson’s Chase the Wind, a 1982 Pan paperback, on day two.

Yes, I was speeding through them, despite my infectious state. The Thompson was a good read, but not a keeper.  By now I had a plan.  If I had energy to do nothing else, then I was going to tidy my bookshelves.

What next, though?  Not something classic, or challenging, nor anything I’ve looked out for especially.  It must be interesting though. I wanted entertainment, and there, half forgotten, was a biography of Rudolph Valentino.

Non-fiction, picked up on a whim, perfect.  A bit of history with a lot of Hollywood glamour, gossip and scandal, and it wasn’t a big book.

I romped through it in an afternoon, and without a second thought, dropped it into my discards bag. An unofficial biography of Richard Burton came next.  After that there was Jean Harlow, then Cary Grant.  Phew, I should be getting quite a good overview of Tinseltown, wouldn’t you think?

I like fiction because there I understand the rules about narrators.  In those biographies I got lost.

Often they seemed to be aiming for distance.  There are masses of dated events with long lists of accompanying names. This is a piece of solid research, that suggests, backed up by quotes from contemporaries of the subject.

Take George Burns, who claimed, “Gracie loved scandal.  I didn’t.  Those things didn’t interest me.  I’m not interested in anything that happened yesterday.” Good for him, said I.  Except, he was included precisely because he would dish the dirt: “I vividly recall… What are you going to do about Archie’s…homosexuality?…’

So now I’m lost.  Did Burns tell the truth, or spring some kind of joke?

Then, there’s Jean Harlow, who according to the CG biog ‘…died as a result of a clumsy abortion done by her mother with knitting needles…’ Horrifying, but I’d probably have accepted it if I hadn’t just finished reading a harrowing account of kidney damage caused by beatings from her first husband.

What’s a reader to do? I checked the internet. Harlow’s medical records, sealed until the late 1990s, say kidney failure as a result of scarlet fever caught in childhood.

If that’s not tricky enough, the impartiality would keep slipping.

Photographs of him at the time show a softer, rounder, less ruggedly masculine face than millions of women would soon respond to in motion pictures.  In some costumes, he even looked positively effeminate, as though he were aching to appear in drag.

Really?  ‘Aching’?  How can the authors know?

It’s been an interesting convalescence.  I’ve cleared space on my shelf for some of the heap of TBRs by my desk, and have decided that on the whole, I prefer the reality of fiction.

*image from pixabay.

For old times sake.

So here we are, how many years has it been? Let’s try not to look, not to think about time passing.

new year imageMostly that’s possible, even today, when every interaction begins, as it should with an exchange of ‘Happy New Year’ wishes.  What does that phrase imply, if not the turning of another page, the moving on in our story?

Words slip between us, signalling.  There’s a lot of space between my thoughts and my fingers flapping at the keyboard, scoring in shapes that might have slight variations between the meaning I give them and the use you make of them.  The gulf between us shrinks.  Hello, hello, how are you?  I’m so excited.  You’re reading my words, and for that I thank you.

It’s so lovely being able to meet like this, sharing these lines of connection.  As I struggle with that balance between verbose, my favourite mode of self-indulgence, and minimalism to the point of obscurity, my second favourite default, here you are, still with me.  Thank you, I’m so glad we connect.

Best wishes for a Happy New Year to you and all of your loved ones. I hope that 2018 will bring you health and happiness.

fireworks- pixabay,cin

*Images from

Festive season good wishes to everyone.

Amongst the vintage cookery leaflets I was gifted two weeks ago was a guide to Christmas entertaining.

This little gem…

christmas cookery 4is full of invaluable advice. After all…

christmas cookery 1

…at this time of year.  And then…

The hostess is confronted with the problem of cooking for a much larger number than usual with no other appliances than those she has fitted in her kitchen to suit her normal household requirements.

The thing to remember is that…

christmas cookery 2

…including, apparently, the local bobby, and the man with the red scarf.  Have they been invited in to admire the goodies?  There doesn’t seem to be a spare seat.


All [the hostess’s] difficulties may be overcome by careful planning and methodical arrangement with the aid of the reliable “New World” cooker.

The key, it seems, to keeping guests happy is a …

christmas cookery 3

And, by the looks of it, some unfortunate maid to keep all the plates loaded up. Not sure about that hosepipe, doesn’t suggest fine dining to me.

Still, it’s to be hoped that with all those bottles on the table, the happy diners will leave her some generous tips.  My guess is that she wishes she had a ‘reliable New World cooker’ of her own.  I know I do.

The hosts role, it seems, is to carve the turkey.  Ah, the good old days!

I leave you with my best seasonal good wishes, and hope that no matter what your take on the festive preparations happening in many lucky households today, you too have plenty of gravy.

What else is there to know?

‘Are you teaching the first world war now, then?’ said Eric, as he helped me gather up the papers I’d scattered across his kitchen table while I was child-minding.

Book cover‘Well I was,’ I said, ‘earlier in the autumn… in a way.  We were discussing short stories about the first world war. It’s a course I don’t get to do very often, which is a shame.  It’s such a great anthology, and I can’t seem to persuade many groups to do it, even though next year will be the anniversary of the armistice.’

‘I suppose,’ said Eric, ‘there are so many books and diaries from those times that there’s not much need to read more on the subject.’

‘Oh, but stories aren’t exactly about the knowable facts,’ I said.  ‘We don’t talk individual battles, or much about the trenches.  These are imaginative responses to experiences.’

‘Everything’s been said, though, hasn’t it?’ said Eric.

I paused, as always struggling to find a way to explain the joys of cracking open a short story, when not actually discussing a specific example.  ‘Do you think so?’ I said.  ‘There are so many ways it impacted, not just on the people who were at the front, but at home, then and later.’

‘Maybe,’ he said, as he walked me to the door.

I know that ‘maybe’.

Eric reads a lot.  He likes history, biography and novels and I share some of that taste, so sometimes we swop books.  He’s not a great talker though.  If I ask, ‘What did you think?’ he uses one of three basic responses: ‘it was okay’;  ‘that one was a bit of a struggle’ or ‘I got a couple of pages in and couldn’t be bothered’.