Toast

I must have been feeling hungry the other morning while I was lying half asleep in bed, as I was dreaming about my home-made bread and eating a slice of toast with honey or butter (but not both – one can’t be too self-indulgent!)

I make the toast in this house because my DBH (Dearly Beloved Husband) likes his cindered and I don’t. Our old toaster suffered from burnout, so we ditched it and acquired a new big toaster with four slots and a number of confusing dials – intended for use at big family weekends – but currently under-used, unfortunately.

The old toaster was simpler but in the end its whims and misdemeanours were almost as devious and unpredictable as the coronavirus. That got me thinking that toasters and viruses may have a lot in common.

It’s not an obvious connection I will admit. But strange as it seems, they have a number of shared characteristics. (I think you’ll find my argument persuasive.)

Firstly, both toasters and viruses have to be watched or they start to misbehave.  Humans think they have them under control – big mistake.

Secondly, they are unreliable and change over time: your brand-new efficient toaster turns into an exasperating and perverse appliance, and an emergent but identified coronavirus mutates into an unstable and relentless ‘chimera’ (fabled monster made up of parts of various animals).

Thirdly, their offspring (toast and illness) pop up when you least expect, either too soon or too late.

Fourthly, both toasters and coronaviruses produce extremes – toast comes out either pale and undone or black and burnt; and Covid-19 can be either relatively minor or extremely serious.

Finally, if you don’t have bread you can’t make toast, and if you don’t have big money you can’t defeat viruses or make vaccines.

I rest my case.

When an old toasters becomes too erratic and destructive, we get rid of it and buy a new model.  Coronavirus is a bit more devious, and to survive it turns itself into new variants, which we combat with new and better vaccines.

This is a fight to the death. Only one of us is going to win this battle – humans or viruses (I believe it will be us) – and the loser will be toast!

The Colours of Lockdown

In many cultures rainbows are a symbol of hope. They appear sometimes as perfect arcs, often during a rainstorm, when the sun shines onto water droplets, shattering its white light into an array of brilliant colours. Everyone loves a rainbow.  It produces that frisson of excitement and wonder which is not dissimilar to watching fireworks explode in the sky.  There are many superstitions connected with this phenomenon – the most common being that there is a pot of gold where the rainbow ends.  There have been popular songs such as:  “Somewhere over the rainbow” about the yearning for freedom such as that which bluebirds enjoy when they soar over the clouds.

The earliest story about a rainbow is the one in the first book of the Bible, Genesis 9: 13 – 17, when God, after causing a flood to wash away humanity’s corruption, put the rainbow in the sky  as the sign of his promise to Noah and his family with the animals in the ark that he would never again destroy the earth with flood. The rainbow became  a symbol of hope, a new day, and a divine promise. And so it has been viewed through the centuries.

However in the 20th century  the rainbow has been adopted by movements of social change. In the 1960s a rainbow flag was used at peace marches in Europe and also at demonstrations against nuclear weapons, symbolising a desire for peace. In the 1970s, Gilbert Baker designed the rainbow flag for the LGBT community, and the rainbow flag became a symbol of pride, with the different colours representing ‘diversity’ in the gay community. In the 1990s Archbishop Desmond Tutu coined the term ‘rainbow nation’ to describe South Africa, and this term was used by Nelson Mandela following the 1994 elections, when it became a symbol of reconciliation and unity.

Now in the 21st-century, with the world is living with the catastrophe and the suffering caused worldwide by coronavirus, in the UK we have reverted to using this age-old symbol once again.  Houses adorned with rainbows have become a common sight during lockdown, often in the form of children’s drawings put up in windows.  Rainbows have become a symbol of support for the NHS and public gratitude to all those who are working with the sick and the dying in our communities. It is aligned with the government exhortation to save the NHS.

During 2020 the rainbow with its arc of translucent colours has become once again a symbol of fervent hope that the pandemic will end. It won’t be tomorrow but it may be next year. It is almost inevitable that we will be entering another third lockdown in the new year. And no one knows how long it will last – but many of us suspect it will be some months before things improve with the rollout of the vaccine.

Our optimism is still in check. The future is uncertain. Let’s hope we can see the light and trust in the promise at the end of the rainbow, when the dark clouds finally disappear.

 

 

Keep up the Good Read

As a writer and a reader, I was saddened in particular by the closure of bookshops during the summer lockdown, but I don’t think this meant that people read less.  Although we were denied the enjoyment of browsing in our favourite bookshop, books could be bought online.  I started looking at all the many books I possess, some of which – to my shame – have never been read. In our homes most of us have many books that we bought over the years and subsequently have not had the time or inclination to read. This year we have the time – because so many other activities and leisure pursuits have been denied to us – and we should at least try to arouse some enthusiasm to tackle tomes and classics that we have so far managed to avoid. (Lawrence’s “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” – yes, I have read it and it’s marvellous!  “Bleak House” by Dickens – no I still haven’t – the title that puts me off!) )

Yesterday lockdown restrictions came into force in Ireland and people were asked to stay at home and non-essential shops were told to close. Some of us would argue that books are essential but, whilst it’s true that you can ‘devour’ them, you cannot actually eat them. Tomorrow Wales are entering a “firebreak” lockdown where people are again advised to stay at home.  England will be next. Now that windy and wet autumn weather is upon us, we will have time again to sit down with some good books.  Or lie down  –  I find that much of my reading is done early in the morning lying in bed, awake and fresh.

This year, having read some wonderful fiction, I found the book that most inspired and made me want to get out and act was  “Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm” by Isabella Tree.  I learnt so much from it (for example I was completely riveted by a whole chapter on soil!) Books, whether imaginative fiction or fascinating non-fiction, can change our lives – and they should.

 

 

 

Say it Aloud

I am full of admiration for the fortitude of individuals who have been on their own this summer, confined to their homes and gardens.  Solitude can be a blessing if it is a choice, but enforced isolation is not congenial and causes problems and hardship.  I felt immensely sorry for people in Spain who were not even allowed to go outside during the hot months.  Thousands in this country have had to work from home or have been furloughed or lost their jobs. Coping with this pandemic calls for resilience and compassion.

I have been encouraged by the kindness I see all around me shown by those I know and those I don’t know. We have all made more of an effort to contact those we believe might be lonely and in need of cheering up. Communities and nations have come together to face the threat of the coronavirus, and the suffering and death it has caused. Clapping the NHS has been an example of this.

I hope that when the pandemic has finally run its course that this unity of purpose and energy can be channelled towards resolving the other vital issues which affects the future of our planet: climate change and military conflicts.  Life does not get better by chance – it gets better by change.  Humans need to be less selfish and less greedy and try to live in peace. There has to be a universal commitment to reduce global warming and to end fighting. It won’t happen unless we all want to make it happen.

We can’t control natural disasters – and we just have to deal with them as best we can when they happen. But so many people have died and have suffered from disease, poverty, hunger, and war, and these are all issues that can be addressed. As C.S. Lewis said: “You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.” Let’s act now.

Painted Birds

I love owls.  We live in the countryside, surrounded by fields with sheep, rabbits, mice and the occasional fox, and woods with deer, a few badgers and masses of birds which also inhabit our garden.  Sometimes at dusk, we  listen to owls hooting across the woods and fields, and  have heard three different cries at the same time –  but the barn owl is the one that we hear most often.

I have been painting watercolours for over ten years now, and decided to paint a barn owl.  This is my effort on the left – and I have called him Cedric, for no particular reason other than that it is a wise-sounding name.

We also have buzzards, who wheel about the sky high above the garden watching for prey scuttling around below. There are the usual medley of garden birds including sparrows, robins, tits, blackbirds, thrushes and a wood-pecker.  And we have rather noisy crows and rooks too.

I also love exotic birds such as toucans though we don’t get them in England, of course. And peacocks who are very noisy and proud, flaunting their plumage.  I like storks too, or cranes as they are sometimes called. Two years ago I did a series of paintings on Aesop’s Fables, and my watercolour of The Peacock and the Crane is here:

 

The peacock boasted that he was very beautiful and colourful, and thought crane was very ugly.  The crane responded that the Peacock could only walk upon the ground, where as he could fly wherever he chose and had the freedom of the sky. My peacock looks disgruntled!

I am not particularly fond of crows, but I liked the story of the clever crow who was thirsty, and I did a watercolour version of the The Crow and the Pitcher, which is on the right.  The story relates that the crow was hot and thirsty and could find no water but spied a jug on a table but the level was too low for him to reach when he put his beak into the jug. He looked around and saw lots of stones and started to drop them one by one into the jug, and when the water level rose he was able to drink. Good solution!

My other favourite bird is the magpie, a cool dude in black-and-white who struts around scavenging for food. Just like Marmite, people either love him or hate him.  I’m a fan.

I use this wonderful bird as a symbol in my most recent novel, entitled “Dear Magpies”  where the main character writes to her long lost grandchildren on the other side of the world, addressing them as her Magpies.  There are more myths and stories about magpies than any other bird, so it seems obvious that very soon I should paint a joyous watercolour of a couple of magpies  (‘Two for joy’). The drawing  below is by someone else, far more accomplished than I am:

CoronaSpring

Spring 2020. We are living in strange times. Coronavirus, more deadly than any terrorist, has attacked our world and is undermining hope. People feel threatened, frightened, challenged. Our physical horizons are dwindling but our mental horizons are expanding – people are more aware of what is going on in the world in relation to Corvid -19 than they ever were about many other things. This is a result of collective realisation that disasters aren’t always uncomfortable, sad things happening elsewhere in far off places, but real life calamities which can attack us in our own homes in our own country.

This realisation is caused by a deluge of daily updates of the scope of this dreadful disease. (I love alliteration!)  Two prevalent attitudes of mind result and they are polar opposites.  The first is selfishness, which results in panic buying, hoarding food, complaints against the government, ignoring the advice about social distancing, utter disbelief that the NHS can cope – and no doubt this will lead to despair, anger or depression.  Incidents of physical abuse – from been cooped up at home – are rising.

The second attitude is one of compassion and selflessness, which has caused:-

  1. over half a million people including retired nurses and doctors to volunteer, after a call from the government, to help the NHS, and undertake food deliveries, manning telephones, etc
  2. communities coming together to set up volunteer groups (there is one in our village) to do shopping for the elderly and isolated, collect prescriptions, or phone isolated single people
  3. positive and encouraging initiatives such as online choirs, prayer groups and church services; advice forums, befriending by telephone, and posting gift parcels to others
  4. a more friendly attitude to everyone – and we chat loudly across the regulatory 2 – 3 metres to the postmen, the food delivery van men, those we meet walking or outside supermarkets

Boris delivered a distinctly Churchillian speech a while back (before he got ill) about being at war against this disease, pulling together as a nation, and obeying all the governments decrees which are for our own good. He has said quite openly that many people are going to lose loved ones. It is quite chilling. It is not going to get better any time soon and it could be many months. “The times change they are a’changin”- sang Dylan in the sixties, and by the end of this year many things will have changed.

I feel very sorry for people living in big cities, perhaps on their own in a small flat, feeling isolated and worried.  Almost worse is a large family, all trying to share facilities and a bathroom, and getting on each other’s nerves. It’s going to be tough for a lot of people.  We must be compassionate and sympathetic and do what we can. I’ve taken to telephoning a member of my family and a friend every day – and I’m beginning to learn more about them because I listen to them. We’re growing lots of vegetables with surplus to give away.  We still have a few winter leeks and parsnips, and some apples and onions left from the autumn.  Spring rhubarb is just coming up. Dig for Britain!

Coronavirus is sobering and levelling. The numbers of cases and deaths are frightening and we are all coming to terms with a truth that we often avoid – which is that we might die sooner that we expected. But there may be some good things that will come out of this worldwide pandemic.  Many of us in lockdown have idleness enforced upon us, and have begun to realise that we do need more rest and relaxation in our rushed and overworked lives. Nature too may experience some healing. Many industrialised places and cities that have been shrouded in smog with terrible air quality have begun to see blue sky and experience clear air to breathe. In the quietness, with the lack of traffic, we hear birdsong.

For myself, no social life means a better reading life.  Though a writer, I am often deprived of enough time to write, but now I have all the time in the world. I’m going to do more painting, even though the local art group has temporally disbanded. I am managing to get done a few of those jobs I have been putting off for years. And I might even start to feel guilty because I am enjoying the peace whilst others are suffering.  When I turn from listening to the bad news and go outside to get some fresh air, within minutes, with the warm spring sun on my skin, I feel uplifted and there’s a smile on my face. I can’t help it. Hope is irrepressible.

I am reminded of a short poem by one of my favourite poets, Emily Dickinson:

‘Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul,

And sings the tune without the words,

And never stops at all.’

Take a Leap

There are about 5 million people in the world who have their ‘real’ birthday every fourth year on 29th February.  People born on 29 February are sometimes known as “leapers” or “leaplings.” The odds of being born on a leap day is often said to be 1 in 1,461. (4 years have 1,460 days plus 1 day for the leap year). This makes most leaplings feel unusual and extremely special.

I was reminded about this recently, while sending a card to a friend of mine in Canada who will be 13 on 29th February this year.  She has just become a teenager and also she has two adult children, three grandchildren, a PhD and other senior qualifications, a successful company that she started up and a lovely home, from where she travels worldwide to lecture.

Today, on 29th February I was amused to listen to Eddie Mair, who is the presenter of PM on BBC Radio 4 who was reporting about listeners who have been asked during the month of February whether they’d be prepared to take advantage of this extra day to do something different. Apparently, there are a lot of people out there who are prepared to use this distinctive date to take a leap.  Here were some of them (I have borrowed them from the PM blog):

One man said,” I resolve to speak Mandarin all day long.”

Another said, “I have often meant to take a roof tour of Lincoln Cathedral but never got round to it.”

After six years one woman will finally decide the wording for her husband’s headstone.

Some people are at last scattering the ashes of loved ones, having put it off for years.

There’s a woman taking up the hula-hoop after more than 50 years.

Another woman intends to have some chocolate today – her anorexia has been a problem for years.

A man who suffers panic attacks will try to make a bus journey.

A woman in her sixties has decided she will get a tattoo.

This set me thinking – what can I do?  It is already evening and I am at home.  Since I am a writer, the only thing I can think of is to write a blog on 29th February and end it by wishing all the Leaplings an extraordinarily Happy Birthday. You are a rare breed  – so celebrate!

 

Magpies took off a Month ago

So my book, my new novel, my fourth book, Dear Magpies, has been out for a month. It was published as a paperback by SilverWood Books on 18th November – and, it seems, people are reading it. Amazing!  I’ve been running around Dorset having book launches, doing some signings in bookshops and other places, and giving a few talks too.  It is humbling and, I have to admit, very gratifying that people are buying it – and reading it. And I’m getting back some very positive comments about the book.  Not many yet – but then it has been for sale only for a month, and I never expect those who buy it to read it immediately.  Like me, readers often have a pile of books and work their way through.  There can be nothing more annoying than buying a book, and then being asked by an impatient author to give an opinion about it, well before there has been a chance to open it!  So I never ask and I wait for people to volunteer their feedback or tell me what they think of it in their own time.  Though of course I’m dying to know!  The book is in stock in some bookshops and available to order from any booksellers, and from the publisher SilverWood, and also of course from Amazon. It costs £9.99, but there is an e-book too for £3.99.  Here is a copy of the front and back cover of my book:

 

The cover has been much admired but it has puzzled a few people.  To explain:  Josie, a woman who has been searching for her grandchildren for over 10 years, is writing letters to them, which she cannot post or email, as a way to try and connect with them. She used to call them her ‘magpies’.  This nickname arose because, when they were small children, their father had given them some black and white towels which they used at bath-time, and the boy had scampered about in his towel, flapping his arms.  When Josie writes to them, she begins her letters with Dear Magpies.  The cover, brilliantly designed by my publishers, shows the heads of the teenage boy and girl in silhouette, because Josie does not really know them after such a long estrangement and is in the dark about what they are like. The magpies flying upwards are a visual image of their nickname, but they are also soaring up into the ‘pale blue yonder’ which underlines her dilemma, which is that she has no idea where they are in the world. She aches to see them again, and misses them enormously.  The quest for her magpies has truly stolen her peace of mind. But I’m not going to give any hint about what happens – you must read the book to find out.

Book Launch in Sherborne

Two weeks tomorrow, on Thursday 21st November at 6.30pm for 7pm, I am having a Book Launch for my new book Dear Magpies, at Winstones Books in Cheap Street, Sherborne, DT9 3PX.  I will be giving a talk about my book, answering questions and signing books.  Refreshments will be provided and anyone interested in coming along will be welcome.

I am delighted to be having this launch at Winstones, which is a fabulously light and well laid out independent bookshop based in the beautiful historic town of Sherborne, Dorset.  Winstone’s has won the British Book Awards South West Bookseller of the Year four times and was winner of the Independent Bookseller of the Year nationwide award in 2016.

Dear Magpies is my fourth book and the first one in which the main character lives in Dorset. It tells the story of Josie Cuff who has been trying for ten years to trace her young grandchildren, the only members of her family still alive, who have disappeared on the other side of the world. She now lives in a small rented cottage in England after a turbulent life in South America. She writes her grandchildren lively letters which may never be sent, telling them about her past and about the eccentric inhabitants of the Dorset village where she is seeking to make a new life and new friends. Threatened by a sinister intruder who invades her home and privacy, Josie fights to cling on to hope.

Come along to Winstones on 21st and find out more. You might even like to buy the book! (£9.99)

Dear Magpies

Creating a book and getting it out into the world is a little like having a baby – though it usually takes far longer. It grows more erratically and more slowly and its birth involves many people of different skills.  But both baby and book are hugely fulfilling.

The idea for my new book, Dear Magpies, to be published on 18th November 2019, had been floating around in my head for months before I started the research for it. As a lifelong writer of letters, I had always wanted to write an epistolary novel – one that is written as a series of letters or diary entries. This book, about a woman searching for her long lost grandchildren, lent itself to the form and so I worked out my plot and worked on my characters. The writing the first draft took over a year, after which I planned to re-read, reflect and then start on the edit.

However, I got a time-consuming job and work on the book came to a halt whilst I got to grips with a very different working life, one that took all my energy and commitment. I didn’t revise or revisit my draft manuscript for eighteen months – which was not ideal, but at least I could see more clearly what needed to be changed. Then began the PEP stage – pruning, editing and polishing.  What a marathon! I took advice from a few people who had read my manuscript and I must have done at least seven edits.

Then followed the publishing which took many more months. My publishers, SilverWood Books, so helpful, efficient and sensitive, have been responsible for getting my book into print.  And so, about five years after the initial idea, last week the first copy arrived at my home and into my hands. My ‘baby’ had arrived – it was a good moment.

Dear Magpies

I love the front cover, designed by my publishers, with the silhouette heads of the teenage grandchildren, Tom and Lottie, who flew off into the pale blue yonder and, like magpies, stole the peace of mind of their grandmother, Josie, who writes them letters she cannot send.

The big question – “Will it please the reader?”- has yet to be answered and I will have to wait until after publication to know. It pleased me to write it, though at times the progress was painful. Now my child has reached maturity and is about to leave home and make its own way in the world. I wish it well.