A room with a certain view.

MagpieThere’s no denying that a magpie is a handsome bird.  The trick to keeping that white shirt so pristine is a mystery that would be worth millions, if it could be translated to our laundry industry.  Imagine the sales pitch, ‘Chemical-free cleaning for a happy environment.’  How welcome would that be to soap manufacturers, I wonder?

As for that petrol-like gleam of blue on those black wings, hood and tail, it out-sheens any silk I’ve seen.  Up close, the birds have glamour.  Usually, around here, they’re seen from a distance, as a flash of monochrome, flitting out of the way of cars.  They are, after all, fine refuse collectors, and despite their handsome dinner-jackets, they relish road-kill.

magpie nestThis spring a pair of magpies have moved into a tree across the road.  They’ve constructed their twiggy des-res at the apex of the thin branches at the crown, it looks precarious, I get vertigo just thinking about sitting up there by the hour, but the design is clearly first rate.  Despite strong gusting winds during the last month, the nest remains firmly lodged, and Mrs Magpie seems to be brooding her eggs.

Mr Magpie flits back and forth, bringing home the groceries.  It’s a lot of work, searching out food for a growing family, which our Magpie couple must have factored in when they decided on this spot.  It is, after all, a prime location with several handy garden food stores.  He’s taken control of my bird-feeders, especially the inverted terracotta fat-feeder designed to favour acrobatic blue-tits.

Lacking the agility for swinging upside-down to feed, Mr Magpie paces along branches, assessing the problem from all right-way-up angles.  That’s when I have a chance to observe without being observed, to admire his elegance.  Any other time he keeps one eye always on the house, ready to depart at the twitch of a shadow, but this prize keeps his focus. He can reach the edge of the pot from a parallel branch, if only his beak would bend.

He’s not dainty, or delicate.  He drops onto the grass to eye the mush of fat and seed from below.  How solid he looks, as if he’s a regular at the gym. There’s no denying his qualities as a pin-up, but does that image tell the whole story?  I can feel the twitch of a smile, watching him pace, peering first this way, then that.  When he dives up, beak reaching, stabbing into the pot, gulping down fragments of plunder, I’m tempted to laugh and cheer.  He tries so hard to hover there, the effort is at odds with his usual economy of movement.

This fellow’s not sunny, or funny though. See how the other birds hurry out of his way?  They’re far from charmed by the sophisticated demeanour.  They know that Mr & Mrs Magpie are not ideal neighbours, that with their presence the garden has transformed from a gentle landscape of domestic intrigues into one laced with menace.


Book review: Elizabeth & Mary: cousins, rivals, queens. By Jane Dunn

The past, so L. P. Hartley, famously wrote, is a foreign country.  You must excuse my borrowing the well known quote for my own purposes, I’ve had my nose buried in a double biography at every available opportunity this past week.  So effective has the emersion been, that I’ve felt myself stepping across a border with each entry or exit from the pages.

elizabeth and mary by Jane DunnWhere was I?  In the Elizabethan era, jaunting between England, France and Scotland with two of the most prominent women of the period: Elizabeth herself, and her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots.

I thought it would be a simple read, a matter of fluffing out facts I’ve already absorbed.  These two are, surely, high on the list of the most dramatized characters from Western history, aren’t they?  Aside from the significance of their own lives, they were peripheral characters to other significant adventurers who’ve been the subject of page, screen and stage interpretations.  At one time there seemed to be someone striding across the TV screen in tights, padded knickers and a cloak most Saturday afternoons.

With so much written, I didn’t think much more could be added.  Elizabeth never married.  She fell in love with unsuitable men, may have had affairs with them; wore a ruff, had ginger hair (later replaced with a wig), could be kind, but was mostly masculinely imperious, and signed a lot of death warrants, including one for her cousin Mary.

elizabeth 1stI think these things can be considered documented facts.  I also understand that they allow a variety of interpretations, so that portrayals of Elizabeth can range from evil through all the nuances to benign.  Mary’s life can likewise range from gullible victim to foolish martyr. So I opened this book without expecting much.  I was prepared to abandon it.

The thing with writing about two such famous, such prominent, characters, is that most readers are likely to know the key events.  So Dunn’s preface ensures we’re all starting at the same place.  She opens with the end of Elizabeth’s life, on 24th March 1603.

Having been propped for days on cushions on the floor in her chamber, she had been persuaded to take to her bed at last.  To her Archbishop of Canterbury, silencing his praise, she said, ‘My lord, the crown which I have borne so long has given enough of vanity in my time.’

Ah, detail.  I presume it’s authentic, that somewhere a witness had noted this down.  Reading it, my caricature version of the elderly Queen begins to humanise, and wonderfully, I feel a pull I recognise.  Is it, can it be, that I’m being hooked?

These words struck to the heart of the tragedy that had befallen Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots.  This same crown had been the focus of Mary’s ambition too; her claim to Elizabeth’s throne was the obsession of her adult life from which so many disasters flowed.

Now I know what the focus will be.  How will Dunn work it?

Despite possessing the throne of England, with all the pride of a daughter of King Henry, she was haunted by a deep-rooted insecurity as to her own legitimacy.  When pressed by Parliament to sign Mary’s death warrant, Elizabeth railed in anguish against the crown that had made this unnatural decision hers alone.

She’s going to explore motivations and consequences.

Sixteen years before Elizabeth’s own natural death in old age, Mary was beheaded at the age of forty-four.

mary queen of scotsThere’s a lot to love about this book: the way Dunn twists back and forth along her timeline to provide context and explanation for key events; her use of short extracts from letters and diaries that really bring characters to life, and the alternative motivations and conclusions she adds to the traditional take on events.

Of Mary, after the murder of her second husband, Dunn writes:

Certainly the extent of her culpability and her state of mind were a much more complicated story than any of the simplistic characterizations that have shadowed her from this moment to the present. Mary was still only twenty-four years old.  She was without any real political support or disinterested advice, she had been ill, and was certainly under great duress.

The rumour and gossip soon spread.

As a former Queen of France, Mary might have expected kinder treatment from her traditional allies but in fact it was Elizabeth who emerged at this time as the most sympathetic voice, showing more concern for Mary’s plight than outrage at what the world was whispering.

Glimpses of surprising women, that’s what hooked me.  Sorry can’t stop here longer, I’ve got to see how Dunn spins the rest of their stories.


Strong characters drive the story.

Eve-Myles-Keeping-FaithFor the last eight weeks, we’ve been following the trials and tribulations of Faith Howells as she attempts to sort out the mess of intrigue, corruption and loss that happens after her husband, Evan, disappears.  That is, we’ve been watching a Welsh TV drama called, Keeping Faith, on BBC 1.  Faith’s trying to discover what’s happened to Evan, with not much help from the police or her community, but she’s attacked each new obstacle with grit, ingenuity and warmth, so we’ve mostly cheered her on.

I’m not saying she’s got it right all through.  There have been moments of blatant idiocy when we’ve shaken our heads, agreeing that no mother would do that.  In the first episode she drove off into the night leaving her three small children alone in the house, for at least an hour.  ‘Really?  Would she?’

The answer was yes, she had to.  ‘Get used to it,’ this incident warned us, ‘we’re dealing with a woman who’s impetuous.’ She’s generous and loving and loyal, but she sticks her neck out and trusts.  Of course she does, we should have got that from the title, ‘keeping Faith’ is about playing with all aspects of the meaning.

And, do you know what?  We began to like her all the more for it once we’d accepted who she was.  Faith is a clever lawyer, but she’s been away from work, having children and looking after the family.  She doesn’t know what’s happened with Evan and their law partnership. His disappearance forces her back to the office. As she picks up the cases Evan should be dealing with, we see how capable she is. When she begins to untangle the clues we are on her side, sharing her confusion and trusting her intuitions.

The odd’s against Faith got darker each episode, her list of potential allies diminished, and what did she do?  She grimaced, sucked in a breath, painted on a fresh smile as required, and turned back to her battle.

Eve Myles and Demi Letherby in Keeping Faith (2017)Maybe what our outrage really meant was, no mother should do that.  It’s easy to sit in judgement when we’re safe, but drama is about what happens when the supports are taken away.

One of the first pieces of writing advice I remember being given in script-writing classes was, ‘Put your characters on the edge of the cliff, then make them find a way back from it.’  That’s where Faith’s been, episode after episode.  Each of the people she thought she could turn to have failed her at a crucial moment.  She’s been driven to the edges of literal and metaphorical cliffs, by ill-will, indifference, fear, prejudice, resentments and avarice.

What keeping faith has meant for Faith, is that help has come from unexpected quarters, as a result of her generosity and goodwill.  Characters are not simply good or bad, daft or smart, they’re more complicated.   They don’t all keep tidy houses, sometimes they get drunk, they make questionable choices, they take risks, and too often, the past impacts on the way they make decisions.

I was involved in the action, wondering what, how and when, and willing everything to work out comfortably for Faith and her children. It’s only in retrospect I see the shapes of this drama.

KeepingFaith with Aneirin Hughes

Cats, apples, Isaac Newton and Carl Kahler.

I have a little book, called 100 Cats Who Changed Civilization.  I consider that a nice title, a real hook for someone who finds felines fascinating – that’s me.  I got the book at Christmas, and liked it also because it perfectly fits the narrowest shelf of my favourite bookcase, and since I was midway through reading some other books, that’s where it’s rested for the last few months.

That top shelf is tricky to fill, let me tell you.  In the past, I’ve layered comatose paperbacks on it, which is just not pleasing.  It’s perfect for audio tapes, but my cassette player is in my car – yes, it’s that old – so I keep my half-dozen boxes in the glove-box.  But I digress.

Returning to my compact gem: Sam Stall has trawled through history to create a collection that is, at times, a little stretched. A cat is named as co-author of a research paper, because it had been written with an authorial ‘we’, at a time before word-processors, which meant the whole thing would have needed to be retyped to replace the ‘we’ with ‘I’.

My Wife's Lovers by Carl KahlerI’m not worried if there is a little exaggeration involved.  This, I think, is one of those pass-along books that are heaped on the bookshop counter at Christmas time.  It’s a stocking filler: it’s a story filler, too.

There are plenty of snippets of information I like. For instance, did you know Sir Isaac Newton invented the cat flap?  His feline companion kept distracting him with demands to be let in and out of the house, so he developed a solution.

This, I think could be part of a new story. It could be that the fit will be thematic rather than the story centre, and I’ve no immediate suggestion on how or where that might happen.  It will though.  Trust me.

Let the idea sink in slowly.  Don’t necessarily try to picture Newton.  Writing about Regency Britain could be a little demanding.  Think about cat flaps. Maybe sleep on it.

Have you heard the story about the woman who returned home from shopping to find her Rottweiler dog choking?  She took it to the vet, who rushed the dog off for an operation.

As the woman drove home the vet called her mobile, and told her to wait in her car.  She pulled up, the police arrived, rushed into her house, and arrested a man they found hiding there.  His left hand was wrapped in a bloody towel. The vet had extracted two severed fingers from the dog’s throat, then phoned the police.

It turned out that the burglar had crawled through the dog-flap, somehow not suspecting why there was such a large access point.

This isn’t a story either, it’s an anecdote. It could be more, though.

Add in that Carl Kahler picture, at the top of the post, and I think I’m beginning to see a way with this.


Hidden gems in old books.

The first story in The Children’s Own Wonder Book 1947, a fairy tale, turns out to be set in Parkgate, on the Wirral.  It’s called The Price of Shrimps, and was written by Olive Dehn.

It was the illustrations that caught my eye.  I knew nothing about Olive Dehn, until I Googled her, but I had visited Parkgate.

parkgate the price of shrimpsRuth, Rachel, my dog Zoe, and I, shared a house near Lark Lane in Liverpool.  Zoe, possibly the most anthropomorphic dog I’ve ever met, swopped from country-life to city-living seamlessly, but we humans were prone to cravings for more open landscapes.  We wandered in and out of the city, between essays and classes.

I don’t think we’d have found Parkgate on our own.  It was the culmination of a mystery trip organised by Ray, who designating himself as our native guide, took us to a range of intriguing locations.

Mostly, probably because it was term-time, our destinations were wind-swept, and deserted.  That afternoon, as we drove along the marshland road the wind seemed to drop and the sky cleared.  By the time we arrived, Parkgate was bathed in balmy sunshine.

What I remember is an impression of improbability.  One side of ‘The Parade’ was a row of traditional Georgian houses, all immaculately coated in pastel paint. The tall, narrow buildings belonged in a harbour scene, but instead of facing yachts at anchor, and beached skiffs, the opposite curb of the road held back acres and acres of marsh.  Shimmering grasses seemed to stretch to the Welsh coast, just visible through the haze.

We bought ice-creams, and tramped footpaths leading into the sea of greenery.  There was a time-slip quality to the juxtaposition of that silted-up estuary with the neatly maintained street.  It seemed that someone had transposed two opposing scenes on top of each other.

Dehn’s story, set ‘long, long ago, when Birkenhead was a cottage and Liverpool conisisted of two shops and a church…‘ and ships docked at Parkgate, conjures a picture of a busy port, visited by such famous luminaries as Jonathon Swift, and his friends Mr Addison and Mr Steele.

Those were the days when the coaches rattled through Parkgate at nine miles an hour, and smugglers met on moonless nights in the cellars of the Boathouse Inn.

From 1610 to the 1830s, Parkgate was the place to catch the ferry for Ireland.  It was a town, with a sea-wall, fashionable shops, and lots of visitors.

parkgate the price of shrimps 2At some point (in the 1720s probably), seven year-old Rebecca Mapletop, the seventh child of a fisherman, runs across the sands looking for cockles, and gets caught by the Witch of the West.  She’s held captive for seven years, looking after the Witch in her cave at the bottom of the River Dee estuary.

When Rebecca outgrows her clothes, the Witch allows her a visit home, to borrow some new ones.

“You may go, but for one day only.  I shall be on the quayside at twelve o’clock tonight.  I shall call you as the clock strikes midnight, and if you do not answer” -the Witch’s voice took on a blood-curdling note – “WOE BETIDE YOU.”

“And if anything should happen to you – if you should forget to call me, what then?” asked Rebecca.

Forget!” said the Witch.  “ME? Don’t be impertinent.  Well, if I did forget, you would be free.  the spell would be broken, that goes without saying.  But it is a foolish question,” said the Witch of the West, “because I never forget – NEVER!”

The unhappy girl is saved from return through a clever intervention by Dr Swift and his two friends, but when the Witch realises how she’s been tricked, she is maddened with rage.

…she jumped astride her broomstick of shrimps’ whiskers and shrieked and howled and yelled and screamed up and down the sands of Dee for seven days and seven nights like one possessed…she brewed and baked such storms in her cauldron that the meadows were flooded from Chester to Hoylake, and when at last her fury had abated, it was found that the Dee had silted up and it was no longer possible for ships going to and from Ireland to dock at Neston and Dawpool, at West Kirby and Parkgate.

Those days in Liverpool were long enough ago for me not to remember how many times we visited the silted harbour.  Probably not many.  What mattered, was that feeling of crossing a boundary, which happened each time we turned onto The Parade.  Maybe it was a feeling that belonged to that period of my life.  I hadn’t forgotten the place, but it took Dehn’s story to transport me back to that feeling again.

Fiction, it’s just magic.

parkgate the price of shrimps 3

Illustrations by Trefor Jones.

School Drama, BBC Radio 4: teaching Shakespeare

This week, I’ve been gripped by a four-part Radio 4 play, School Drama, written by Andy Mulligan.  I’ve listened on the I-Player, rather than as it was scheduled, and it’s available there until 13th April 2018, if you’re interested. Professional actors take the leading roles, other parts are played by students and teachers from Portsmouth Grammar school, where it was recorded. It’s a lively production, with some contemporary sub-plots.

school drama, andy mulliganGeoff Cathcart, ‘has-been actor’, steps in to direct a production of Romeo and Juliet for a secondary school that’s taking part in a Shakespeare competition.  The teacher who was in charge has taken indefinite sick-leave, and his drama colleague would rather direct ‘Oliver’, but is told she must work with Geoff on the Shakespeare.

The two director/producers are as far apart as the Capulets and the Montagues. They don’t agree on how to cast, interpret or stage the play. When Geoff’s innovative approach draws in some challenging students, tensions are hiked-up.

Andy Mulligan, explaining where his inspiration came from, writes:

A few years ago I was hired to direct a Shakespeare play in a school that was inching out of special measures. The project foundered, partly because of internal politics and resentments, but also because the joy of interrogating a provocative play with teenagers didn’t sit well with a school frightened of upsetting parents.

Teenagers, the play demonstrates, are not only capable of exploring the intricacies of the plot, exposure to the whole text transforms them. Given access, and encouragement, the players blossom.  Students from opposite ends of the learning scale earn the respect of their peers, and develop inter-personal skills.

In contrast, the responses of the teachers, bound by the rules of safe-guarding and the dictates of biased school-governers, gets narrower.  As Geoff and the students take control of the play, the teachers, unable to recognise the beauty and originality of what is happening, are driven into increasingly radical action.

school drama 2The writing isn’t so straight-forward as to suggest that Geoff, the maverick, has all the answers.  He’s a rounded character who carries ‘baggage’, and clearly hasn’t enough understanding of the real and wider importance of ‘safe-guarding’.

I don’t think Mulligan was claiming we should abandon the rules.  The problem with the teachers was that rules, and safety, have become everything to them.  Targets, academic and economic, mean that simplifying is standard.  In discussing his own experience, Mulligan writes:

One day I needed a copy of the play, “Romeo and Juliet”. The English Department taught it, but to my amazement, nobody had a full text. Why not? Because the exam would test three particular scenes, so those were the ones photocopied, annotated and taught into the ground. Why waste time reading the rest of it?

I  hope some teachers were listening to this production, and not focusing only on the dangers.  When I was at school we did the whole text of Macbeth.  At the point where we were introduced to it we went to see what, I think, must have been the 1971 Roman Polanski version. There was nudity, blood, and rude jokes from the gatekeeper to make us snigger.  But I remember that every teenager there was hooked.

school drama 3

Performers from Portsmouth Grammar school: Rory Greenwood, Rebecca Emerton, Finn Elliot and Rob Merriam


*Photos above from BBC, include actors, Tom Hollander, Divian Ladwa, Heather Craney, Tony Gardner & Sian Gibson

Here’s another reason for writers to like fairy stories.

This week, my friends Ruth and Annie, who run the Logie Steadings bookshop in Forres, Scotland, (please note, everyone, this is not just a shameless promotion for excellent purveyors of reading material, staffed by brilliant and welcoming staff -though if you’re in the area, do call in! – this post is a few thoughts about reading journeys) have been running a promotion for Ladybird books. Their on-line publicity featured one of the first books I was ever allowed to choose for myself, Puss in Boots, and that I read, quite literally to bits.

Ladybird puss in boots

I’ve no idea how it happened that our junior school gave each child a book, but I’m still grateful.  Until then, books materialised magically, opening unlooked for doors of my imagination.

One year though, was I six, seven or eight? I don’t know, what I remember is sunshine, and young leaves on the copper-beach tree, and mum handing back the glossy leaflet I’d brought home. ‘Which book would you like?’ she said, and when I opened that paper out, there were lists, and lists, of titles.  Each was numbered, accompanied by a little picture and a box to tick.

The decision was agony.  Even though I dismissed all the non-fiction titles instantly, that left many favourite stories.

So why Puss rather than one of the many gorgeous princesses?  Maybe because he was like our cat, not just in being tabby, but in having a jaunty stride and a knowing tilt to his head.  Look at him, staring right at us, surely he’s about to wink. Sometimes, when stories are illustrated, or dramatized, they become the definitive version.  Eric Winter’s illustrations caught me.

A couple of decades later, when I discovered Angela Carter’s reworked fairy tales, in The Bloody Chamber, I fell in love with Puss-in-Boots all over again. No matter that her feline, aptly named Figaro, was a marmalade tabby: his clothes, his demeanour, his attitude, were a grown-up version of that Ladybird book.

…oh, my goodness me, this little Figaro… a cat of the world, cosmopolitan, sophisticated… proud of his bird-entrancing eye and more than military whiskers; proud, to a fault, some say, of his fine, musical voice. All the windows in the square fly open when I break into impromptu song at the spectacle of the moon above Bergamo.

Innuendo laden Puss-in-Boots made me think again about that Ladybird book.  Other stories might have action, magic, anthropomorphic animals, but how many were as slyly audacious? He lies, he cheats, he steals and charms, those are the events of the story.

Most fairy-tale heroes are defined by their looks, white-as-snow, red-as-blood, fairest-in-the-land, beautiful and they’re always good.  Evil characters put them in jeopardy, and they must maintain their moral ground, resist temptations. Often, they’re not clever, just brave in the face of adversity, and so worthy of rich rewards.

Ladybird puss in boots.jpg 2Amongst all those passive Ladybird characters, Puss stood out partly, because he puzzled me.  What was the message?  Carter played up the ambiguity that had kept me returning to the story.

Do you see these fine, high, shining leather boots of mine? A young cavalry officer made me the tribute of, first, one; then, after I celebrate his generosity with a fresh obbligato the moon no fuller than my heart–whoops! I nimbly spring aside–down comes the other. Their high heels will click like castanets when Puss takes his promenade upon the tiles, for my song recalls flamenco, all cats have a Spanish tinge although Puss himself elegantly lubricates his virile, muscular, native Bergamasque with French, since that is the only language in which you can purr.


The machinations of Puss are not unique.  Go back to Grimm, Perrault, or some of the other folk & fairy story collectors and you’ll find many of those Ladybird characters showing their feisty side.  What might they say, given an opportunity?  You tell me.

When you don’t start with a plot…

I couldn’t think what to write this week.  This is my fifth start.  However, my deadline is approaching, so the pressure is on. I have to go with whatever slips onto the screen.

Actually, I prefer this way.  You know that old Tommy Cooper joke, ‘I used to be indecisive, but now I’m not quite sure’? That’s me.  I’m hopeless with all kinds of decisions if I’m given some space, from what to order in cafés; to deciding on paint colours; which film to see, or which book to read next. In such situations, ditherers like me can be time-consuming nuisances.

Set me a snap-decision-situation, though, and I’m transformed.  In writing terms, I’m what’s technically referred to as a ‘seat of the pants-er’. I tend towards instinct rather than working to a plan.

Even when copying notes from the page onto my laptop, I often stray from the original, and it only takes a couple of extra words to throw a character off-plot.    I used to try and control this, to align the new material to my original plan. It never worked. Situations became forced, characters acted in unnatural ways, spoke lines I didn’t believe in.

Some writers work out every stage of their story before they pick up a pen, or touch the keyboard.  I’ve tried pre-plotting: used post-its, mind-mapping, charts, story-boards…  They’re in boxes at the back of my office, mouldering.  Ideas may have spun off them, but the careful central workings remain untouched. Why?  They feel wrong.

It was workshops that helped me to become comfortable with ‘pants-er’ writing. Taking part in timed-exercises, when the aim is to produce a first draft for re-working at home, often I’d produce something that felt close to complete.  Sometimes it was only as I took my turn in reading out, that I realised the sense of what I’d written.  I’d come away from those sessions walking on air.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGradually I learned to trust my creative responses.  Over the years I’ve stopped measuring how random or surreal a starting point is.  I let the words, the characters, lead me.  Sometimes they go no-where, but I keep them.  I’ve found, often, that it can take time for the sense of a piece of writing to become clear.  The opening lines for one of my stories that made it into an anthology waited over a year in my notebook, before I began to see what it could become.

*Picture by By Petar Milošević – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40274671

Warning, genre shifts in progress.

Danger_Of_Death_Sign_fullAnyone who knows much about British crime fiction will be able to tell you that there are certain areas of Britain that have notably high ‘unexpected-death’ rates.   In case you’ve missed out on the genre, then take my advice, and don’t think of moving to places such as Oxford, Grantchester, Broadchurch, Midsummer, Shetland, Lochdubh or Carsley.

Also, should you find yourself sharing ‘an ‘otel’ with a Miss Marple or Hurcule Poirot, move to another one immediately.  That may well put you to the head of the suspect list when the bodies start falling, but at least you’ll not be amongst the deceased.  Better the shenanigans of hen and stag parties in the bar beneath your back-of-the-building bedroom, than that, surely.

Such deductions, you may think, are stating the obvious.  Well yes, that’s my point.  Know your genre, and there are certain givens we can rely on – even anticipate.

danger-of-death-signIt hardly needs me to add that in those other genres death tends to be an occasional occurrence, so why have I?  Well, I enjoy a radio soap opera called The Archers.  It offers listeners a fifteen minute visit to a village called Ambridge, in the heart of England, six days each week.

The programme was created in 1950, to educate farmers and small-holders about the latest farm-technology.  There were small and large farming families displaying varying degrees of efficiency and enthusiasm for change: it was dramatized propaganda about increasing food production.

Growing up, The Archers was a small part of my background, because it followed the news, which had followed the weather forecast, which was always on at lunch-times.  By then, there was a stronger focus on family story-lines.  We laughed about the characters, but continued to listen. I’ve taken breaks, sometimes for months, but it’s easy to slip back into the routines.

This week, though, I missed two crucial episodes, and when I tuned in on Friday evening I was tipped straight into the death scene of a young mother.  Where did that come from?  Apparently, Nic cut her arm on a rusty nail on Sunday, and her cold symptoms were actually sepsis taking hold.

In retrospect, it was heavily foreshadowed.  Lately Nic has been spending a lot of time with her grandfather-in-law, Joe Grundy.  He’s a widower, and they’ve been discussing relationships and love in great depth, with a lot of emphasis on how he coped after the death of ‘my Susan’. Clearly, this was not just Valentine-fever, it was preparation.

I forgot that The Archers has shifted its target from farm-issues to general social-issues.  I was partially lulled by assuming that there had been enough high-drama in recent years, and we were probably due a restful period.  As it is, at the moment we’ve got toxic waste seeping into the local river where several of the younger characters have been wild-swimming (yes, in the middle of winter – brave souls); a drug-dealing teenager who nearly caused the death of his cousin, and a local businessman covering-up his part in creating a flood that caused the death of Burt Fry’s wife!

Thinking about that, I began to look back.  I’m hazy on dates, but since Nigel Pargetter’s fatal fall from the roof of Lower Loxely Hall, there’ve been several other serious incidents and there are already more ominous foreshadowings seeping across the Borchester landscape.

I’m picturing the office at the BBC, where the Archers is planned, disappearing under a heap of information leaflets about the latest issues that should be included.  Maybe, when Julie Beckett, the programme producer walks into the production meetings she takes a heap and auctions them off to the writers.  What other explanation can there be for this descent into darkness?

hazard warning


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 probably published seventy or eighty years ago.  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.