Monday, August 22, 2016

It's a Wonderful Life

So here is the new and lovely cover for my latest book, It's a Wonderful Life, which is coming out in November. Woohoo! I am particularly excited about this book as it is my TENTH published novel, which is a little bit mindblowing. It only seems five minutes since I got the never to be forgotten phone call that told me finally I had reached my dream of becoming a published author, but it is in fact ten years. In this time I have gone from being a mum of four children aged ten and under, to a mum of teenagers, with two adults in the house. Which is why nowadays you'll find me writing far more about the trouble with teens, then the complications of looking after small children.

However, part of the inspiration for It's a Wonderful Life derives from a reaction to those years slogging away at the coalface of motherhood. I have often joked - particularly on family holidays, when as one of my children so eloquently put it once, "the trouble with family holidays is too much family" - that I would love to run away from home. When you are always having to be the responsible one, the one in charge, it is extremely seductive to dream about chucking it all away and going and doing what you want for a change... ... and that was where the idea for the new book came from.

My heroine, Beth, has a successful career as a picture book artist, but with her children growing older and away from her, and feeling stifled by her daily routine, she starts indulging in a What If... daydream, made ever so slightly more dangerous by her meeting up again with an old flame who broke her heart back in the day. She's daydreamed about him on and off over the years, but never expected to meet him again. IF you had a secret fantasy (and COME ON, don't we all? I do but I'm never telling in a MILLION years)and he/she turned up out of the blue, what would YOU do?

Particularly when this happens...

"My heart is thumping as he comes over to me, looking gorgeous as usual. This is horrific. At a moment when I should be concentrating on my family and my husband, my secret crush is standing before me. Fantasies should stay fantasies, not walk into your kitchen looking hot as hell."

The other inspiration I had for this story was thinking about family Christmases, and what happens when they go disastrously wrong. (I can remember one spectacular one in my family where my dad and his brother argued violently and swore never to see each other again). So my story starts with Beth's family gathering for Christmas as usual only for her parents to drop a huge bombshell which will impact on everyone for the whole of the next year. Throw in Beth's husband, Daniel, dealing with his estranged father, two grumpy teenagers, and Beth's sister, Lou,reeling from being rejected (again) by her latest girlfriend, and I hope I've managed to create a story, about love, loss, wasted chances and the ties that bind.

I had a great time writing it, so I really hope you enjoy reading it!

And thanks to all my readers new and old, who have bought my books over the last ten years. There's no point being a writer beavering away at their computer, if no one actually picks up what you've written, so I am immensely grateful, and I hope you continue to keep reading!

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The way I write...

Following on from my previous post about writing sisters, I thought I'd give a few insights into the way I write, as opposed to the way, Virginia does it. Like I said, we're very different! In my early days of writing (and after realising with my first unpublished novel that I really badly need to plot) I started the process off with a longish synopsis, of up to four pages, and a more blurby type thing, both of which I gave to my then editor. Initially I started planning individual chapters, but I found that too stifling, so now my synopses tend to be divided into two or three parts and I give each a rough story arc, so I know where I want to be by the end of each part, and then flesh it out. Basically I get too impatient planning and the writing starts to escape with me (so much so, that sometimes things I've planned not to happen till part 3 turn up in part 1 which can be a bugger I can tell you.). I am allright with a basic skeleton, but anything more detailed and I am dead in the water. By trial and error I've also discovered that my early attempts which would involve writing, rewriting and fiercely editing the first few chapters made me want to slit my wrists, and leave me incapable of finishing the damned thing. So now I throw caution to the winds and just write till the story is out. Even if it's shit, I've got something down, which is a lot more satisfying than staring at a blank screen, I can tell you... I had always typed my first drafts up, till I was on holiday a few years ago and discovered that actually writing by hand is much more productive for me. For some reason I find it easier to get the basic story down. The typing up and faffing about when I realise things don't fit together very well is a damned nuisance, but I actually think I get a first draft out quicker that way. As a notorious procrastinator, I can waste HOURS of my life on twitter and Facebook while I'm supposed to be writing. This way, I take myself off to cafes and libraries to concentrate solidly for several hours at a time. On my best days I can get through at least three chapters, on my worst, one. And if anyone has been following me on FB recently, they might have noticed I've been doing a lot of cafe writing as I was working insanely hard to hit a tight deadline. One of the things I love about writing by hand, is that so long as I have a pad with me, I can do it anywhere. I know I could with a laptop, but I find the hassle of lugging one around a bit of a pain. And over the years as I've been sitting waiting for various children to finish various activities I find it's a great way to maximise moments I didn't know I had. Thus in January I found myself sitting in a cafe in Hammersmith waiting for inspiration. A blank page can be intimidating too, but when you are stuck somewhere for three hours, and you don't have access to the internet, and you have nothing else to do, it is AMAZING how words do come out. Even if you have to force yourself to put pen to paper.
Some days I visit more than one cafe. After about an hour I get bored, so a change of scenery works for me. Though I have to fight with the temptation to run home and go and lie down (Writing frequently makes me want to lie down and go back to sleep) I try to resist the urge. I find this can be helpful to the creative process too. As if I am stuck and can't think where to go next, invariably by the time I get to my next location, I have found a solution of sorts to my problem (even as if frequently when I come to rewrite it's not the right solution. So long as it's enough to move me on, that is good enough for me.)
By the time I am at the end, I am quite demented. Scribbling notes in the column (as I've done in the pic below) to remind myself of where I'm going with the damned thing. But OH the relief when I finally get to the end. I actually never type the end, which is a hangover from my editing days as I know it always gets edited out, so I don't see the point. But nonetheless, there's a great sense of satisfaction when I DO get there.
The end though, isn't really the end. It's the beginning. Particularly when you are mad enough to write by hand. My next stage is typing up - I always try to type up as a I go and then get into the writing and that all goes for a burton. Suffice to say I had ten days in which to type up my first draft and get it knocked into a good enough shape to send to my editor this time. And pray WHAT did I do with all that time. Oh yes, I procrastinated HUGELY. For which I was kicking myself last Tuesday when I realised I had left myself very little time to edit. Although to be fair, I edit as I type, so the first printed draft, is in effect a second draft.
And by the time I'm done I usually have a very stiff neck, and my wrists fill like they're going to fall off. At this point in the process I usually hate the book with a passionate loathing. Especially when I read it through and think all the things all writers do, like it's shit, why would anyone buy this/read this, why do I bother? This dear reader, is part of the process, and has to be got through. It is just as illusory as the other reaction you go through when you're thinking, this is it! I am on fire! This is the best thing I've ever written etc! What then usually happens is a far more sensible response. I scribble notes on the second draft, and go through it one more time. By the end of which I can see further tweaks, which need sorting, and I am far more likely to be of the mind that it's ok, I have written a story, which needs lots of work, but I'm heading in the right direction. This is my fourth draft, and this is the one I send my editor.
At this point I do breathe a sigh of relief, because now it's out of my hair for a bit, although the writer who told me many years ago sending of an ms to an editor is a bit like sending off a job application wasn't far off the mark. There's always the worry your editor/agent will hate it but you have to hope it won't come to that... And while I am waiting, I can spend a bit of time researching more information for the book which I didn't have time to do in the writing process, and selecting songs for my playlist (I always have a soundrack to my books, I shall post the latest one when I've worked it up more), and pay a little attention to sorting my domestic life out. In two weeks time my edits will come in and everything else will go for a burton, so I have to make hay while the sun shines! If you want to know more about the way I write and meet me in person talking to my twin sister Virginia Moffatt about the way she does, check this out. Virginia is crowdfunding to publish her amazing book, Echo Hall with, here: here You can help her do it by pledging to join us for tea! Or if you can't do that, there are other pledges you can make. And if that's not your bag either, please do feel free to share on FB and twitter! Many thanks

Friday, March 04, 2016

Scribbling Sisters

I come from a very literary family. My father was an English teacher and writer manque (he wrote us amazing plays when we were little). We recently discovered my grandmother, Jane Henry, after whom this blog was named had written but not published short stories, and her mother was a poet. Among my siblings I have a poet, translator and a philosopher.

Then there's me and my twin. I have been writing now for eighteen years, and published for nine (this year unbelievably I am having my tenth book published.) It took me eight years to get that first deal, but I was able to write when the children were small because I went freelance and was able to carve out some time.

My lovely twin, Virginia Moffatt has not had that option. She has been writing a novel for ten years, while bringing up three children and having a full time job.Quite frankly I don't know how she has done it, but she has worked away steadily attending writing conferences and courses, and crafting and recrafting her story so it is good as it can be. She has worked very hard, and stayed true to the vision of her story, and I'm delighted that she now has the opportunity to get it published by the amazing team at But  dear reader, she needs help...

If you don't know how Unbound works, it's a brilliant way of helping bringing books to market through crowdfunding. Authors pitch their ideas on the Unbound website and if one takes your fancy you can pledge money to help get the book published.

Here is Virginia talking about her book Echo Hall, part ghost story, part historical, part antiwar - it's a brilliant book for our times, and one that will stay with you long after you have read it.

Pledges go from getting your name in the back of the digital edition, to a Bespoke Literary Tour of Oxford with Virginia as your guide.

Ginia has always supported my writing, so it is with great pleasure I can now return the favour., by offering a Tea with Twins in London in which we will talk about our writing and being twins, and how the two things are interconnected.

With that in mind I thought I'd share some thoughts on twinniness.

Ginia and I had very similar experiences growing up. But you know that nature/nurture debate? I would say 100% nature, EVERY time. Why? Because from the off, while we look similar and sound similar, and share many similar views and thoughts and characteristics we also have very different personalities. I sometimes wonder if at some point in the womb, we made a mutual decision to say, ok, I'll do that bit, you do the other, because despite our older brother spending our childhood teasing us that we were one person, we really really aren't (as various wannabe boyfriends found out to their cost - choosing one twin thinking we were exactly alike and then finding out the bitter truth.)

So from an early age I was the conventional, goody two shoes one, and Virginia was the daring one, more likely to get into trouble at school. The main reason she was in trouble, was because she had and has a very strong sense of justice, and couldn't resist pointing out to teachers where they'd been unfair (which they frequently were), which invariably led to her being sent to the Head's office. I swear she spent a whole term sitting outside the Head's office aged 9. I, on the other hand, would be equally cross, but took the more pragmatic approach of keeping my mouth shut and head down. I always admired Virginia's courage though, as I was a massive coward and hated getting into trouble.

At school we were very similar academically, but I learnt a harsh lesson aged 5 when Virginia overtook me by miles in the reading scheme we were following, and I never quite caught up with her after that. She always had the edge on me in everything, particularly Maths, which I found baffling but she could manage with ease. On the other hand, though neither of us were particularly sporty, I was the one who played tennis obsessively and would go swimming, when Virginia would rather read a good book.

At A level we started off sharing two subjects, English and Biology, but I later swapped the latter for History. Being the sciencey twin, Virginia chose Chemistry to my French. Yet I have always had a yen to understand Science better, and Virginia has never stopped loving History, evidenced by the fact that she has written such a good historical novel.

We have both always shared a love of stories, but when we were growing up, writing for a living didn't seem a thing you could actually do, so it wasn't on our radars as a possible career.  Our dad was horrified when I said I wanted to go into publshing which he thought was an unstable career, while Virginia's choice of going into social care was even worse. During our twenties then, when we were establishing our careers, writing was the farthest thing from our minds, although I always scribbled away at things, and I suspect she did too.

Then I started publishing teen romance, and discovered a hitherto unknown love of the genre. My company generously allowed me to publish a couple of short stories with them and I was hooked. When I went on maternity leave in 1998 it was a complete no brainer to use it as an opportunity to start writing.  Virginia came to the same conclusion a bit later than me, probably starting her writing journey around the time I was first published. During that time she has been my most enthusiastic cheerleader, encouraging me with all my endeavours even though romance isn't a genre she particularly likes.

And herein lies another significant difference between us. We have many shared tastes in literature: Dickens, the Brontes, Virginia Woolf , Margaret Atwood, to name a few, but we also have wildly varying loves too. So I don't really understand her obsession with David Mitchell, and my love of Terry Pratchett leaves her cold. This difference extends to our writing. Virginia has spent many years writing flash fiction, and writes wonderful short stories, the like of which I could never do. You can read some of them here: or buy them in this collection I partly helped her put together
She often explores a darkness that leaves me breathless. I do do dark - my favourite of my own books are the ones that touch more on the pain and difficulties of life (The Bridesmaid Pact and Make a Christmas Wish are two I love particularly) - but writing in the romance genre, the upbeat, positive side always wants to come through, and I cannot go as dark as Virginia sometimes does.

Virginia is much more political then me, being active in the peace movement, and that too informs her writing. My politics are on a much more local scale, so my books tend to draw on the things that matter to the people in their daily lives, rather than the bigger world issues that Virginia likes to tap into.. But I like to think we share a view that flawed and difficult as people can be, life always offers hope and the chance to make amends, though I suspect her stories will always end more ambiguously then mine.

If you are someone who likes my books, I hope you will give Virginia's a chance. You won't find the same stories I write (we aren't the same, remember?), but I promise you vivid rich writing, with real well drawn characters, and a cracking and compulsive storyline.

I have been lucky enough to be published for the last nine years, and I can't wait to crack open a bottle of bubbly for when Virginia finally does it too. So, if you can't help personally by pledging, please do support her by tweeting and sharing on FB the posts we put up about Echo Hall, so it can reach the widest audience possible.

And if, perchance any of my witterings here have interested you to discuss it further, do feel free to pledge to join us for tea. We would love to meet you!

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

People are People

I’ve had a line from the Depeche Mode song People are People running through my head recently, and it seems peculiarly apposite to the strange times in which we live.

Because people, whatever their colour, creed, gender or sexuality are just that. And nine times out of ten if you think you don’t like a particular group for whatever weird reason, when you meet individuals from that group you find that actually you get on rather well.

It seems to me a strange contradiction in the human condition that we are at base tribal and yet able to deal with individuals we might think we dislike. On a global scale that means white westerners view dark easterners with suspicion (and vice versa), but on a local scale it’s as simple as my daughter talking about the chavs, the geeks, and the populars in her class. We all feel safer sticking together with people like us. The downside of this of course is prejudice and bigotry against the Other, to which we are all susceptible to some degree or another.

On the other hand, the amazing thing about human beings is their capacity to rise above their petty prejudices when confronted with individuals from whichever group they dislike and discover they have more in common than they first thought.

And that’s the key I think. Prejudice and ignorance exists always. And we should do everything we can to combat it. But on a day to day basis most people reach out to one another regardless of creed and class and form relationships, however tenuous.

We live in an age in which calling out people for their bigotry, whether conscious or not is now de rigeur. In many ways this is a good thing. People today will be more than happy to pull you up for being racist, homophobic or sexist in a way they just weren’t when I was young, which is just as it should be.

However…the downside of this is what you do when the rights of one oppressed group clashes with those of another.

I caught five minutes of CBB the other day, in which I heard Winston MckEnzie refuse to confirm when asked whether he had said same sex adoption was akin to child abuse. The response from his fellow housemates was almost comical. There were some half-hearted attempts to make him fess up, but there was also a move to bring the conversation to a swift end, people not wanting to stoke fire on the flames. My guess is that, conscious of viewers watching even though most of the housemates were quite clearly appalled, they were also worried about fearing to be seen as racist. In this instance racism trumped homophobia.

And who can blame them, in a world where the most innocuous comment can be misinterpreted? Think of Benedict Cumberbatch, using the term “colored” instead of “person of colour”, or the trouble Peter Tatchell and Mary Beard got into with the transgender community simply for saying universities should be a place for open debate? And let’s not even get on to Germaine Greer…

Language has become problematic. It is not enough to think unprejudiced thoughts, we must also be careful with our words, which can be misinterpreted in a dozen ways, as Tim Hunt found to his cost. Orwell couldn’t have made up the contortions to which people will go to nowadays to either appear not to be homophobic/racist/sexist or whatever, or to prove that others are. It is a brave soul that goes against what has become the cultural norm, and says, Actually I don’t completely agree with you.

It is for those reasons I have thought long and hard about writing this post. Increasingly over the years I have found myself more and more timid with my online conversations. Should I venture this opinion for appearing too right wing? (I don’t vote Tory incidentally.) Or that one and be called homophobic even though I’m not? I was recently blocked on a FB page for saying something sympathetic but bantery about a particular cause, which was misinterpreted as bigotry. It’s a fine tightrope we all walk on these days, but I can’t help feeling that our moral compass towards telling the truth has become deeply skewed.

This has been never more apparent than this week as we witnessed the reaction to the shocking events in Cologne on New Year’s Eve. My response to it, and some of the nonsense I have seen espoused online since is so visceral I feel I can no longer be silent, but have to speak out for something which I believe to be fundamentally wrong.

On New Year’s Eve something unprecedented happened in towns all across Germany, not just Cologne. Groups of men deliberately targeted groups of young women and groped, sexually harrassed, assaulted and in some cases raped them. But we didn’t hear about it straight away. The first whispering I heard was when I saw it posted on Facebook by a German friend, and I thought What? My daughter was in Cologne last summer, Germany is a country I know well and feel safe in. When we were in Berlin last it felt infinitely safer to be wandering round late at night than it does in London. I do not often agree with Nigel Farage (oh dear I’ve mentioned the UKIP leader’s name, I MUST BE A FASCIST), but when I heard him talking on the radio the other day saying his first reaction was “Have German men gone mad?” I knew exactly what he meant.

And of course, German men haven’t gone mad, because German men did not perpetrate these crimes. Which isn’t to say German men don’t rape and sexually assault (apparently 12, 000 such assaults took place last year), but German men do not go out on an evening in organised gangs, prowling the streets attacking innocent women. This is just not something that happens in their culture, nor in ours for that matter.

So here I come to an unpalatable truth, which in these days where we have to be so very careful about what we say has become damn near unsayable. There is a reason we didn’t hear about the German attacks straight away (until they came out via social media and both the German press and ours could no longer ignore them). And it is deeply unpleasant one. These attacks were carried out by men from Arabic or North African origin, some of whom might be among the refugees that Germany has so generously let across their borders in the last few months.

I can see Angela Merkel’s dilemma here. She was feted as the most heroic of the European leaders for letting so many refugees in (and considering Germany’s history I can understand why she did so), but there were many of us (myself included) who thought at the time we should be careful. The humanitarian crisis in Syria is without a doubt one of the most challenging problems our generation faces. We want and should be generous to those in desperate need, but equally we cannot simply let everyone through without doing some basic checks. Inhumane as it may have seemed, I think a better solution would have been to set up decent proper processing centres for people as they came across Europe’s borders. The countries which have borne the brunt of this crisis, Greece and Italy have had their tolerance and generosity stretched to the limit and I think the EU should have been doing far more to help them.

I also think the UK should have taken far more refugees, but that this is not a problem that is solved by telling everyone to come here. We need to address the root cause of this crisis by:  a) trying to bring an end to this terrible war as soon as possible. b) Doing something to stop the people smugglers who create so much of the misery. c) Taking people straight from the refugee camps in the Lebanon and Turkey thereby stopping the need for them taking such long and dangerous journeys and d) creating some kind of safe haven in Syria where people can go to stay until such time as they can get home. 

But that’s not a very emotional response, and the understandable emotional response is to say we have to help these people now, so if that means letting them come in, we won’t question their motives and accept carte blanche the stories they tell us. Which is pretty much what has happened.

I do not think for one moment that the majority of refugees are anything other than appalled by what happened in Cologne on New Year’s Eve. And already there has been the inevitable hateful backlash from Right Wing groups across Europe. BUT… Houston, we really have a problem.

Because not only was there a slow reaction from the authorities in Germany acknowledging what has actually happened, now the story is out some of the responses to it are baffling. I have read a number of posts on social media over the last few days seeking to deny what has happened, or say we don’t know all the facts, or say well 12000 men raped women in Germany last year, so what’s the difference?
Apart from the fact that this is victim blaming of the worst type, it is also more worryingly bending the truth to suit our own political ends. The men who did this come from a different culture to ours, one in which women’s rights are not respected as they are here in the West. Yes, we are still a long way from having true parity here, and nearly every woman I know has a horror story about a sexual assault or near escape from one, but this is different.

These men for whatever reason thought it was ok to come out in public and attack women en masse, and the Police perhaps caught between a rock and hard place didn’t react quickly enough. Fearful perhaps of seeming to be intolerant, they didn’t help those women in time and downplayed the seriousness of the crime. And fearful of stoking up trouble their government said nothing and let those women down. And so hundreds of women who suffered appalling attacks on what should have been a happy night out, weren’t listened to, and judging by the comments I have seen in the last few days aren’t being believed even now, even by some liberal women for whom it doesn't’t fit in with the refugee narrative .

The thing is, by looking away and pretending this didn’t happen, or that it’s some kind of right wing racist conspiracy, we are doing a great disservice to the majority of refugees who are here genuinely for a better life. If people think their truth is being ignored, they will make their own truth and the melting pot of two different cultural norms coming together will ignite in a spectacularly horrible way.

So I think it’s time we acknowledged an unwelcome truth: we do not sadly live in Pangloss’s Best of All Possible Worlds.  Not everyone who seeks shelter under our roof comes with good intentions, and some come to cause us harm. Some of the people who have been let into Europe in the last few months do not understand the way we live, and see women as second class citizens. It is time to face facts and expect people who come to Europe to understand there are certain standards by which we live, and if necessary educate them in those standards (as they are trying to do in Norway). For integration to truly happen and be sustainable in the long term, we need to start being more honest with each other.

It is time for us to start feeling free to say the unsayable, otherwise we have all let those women in Cologne down.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Darkness and Light

Christmas is fast approaching and this time next week most of us will be sharing the day with loved ones, be it friends or family. The expectation is always that it is a happy time, but in my experience it is often a time of contrasts; light and darkness, tears and laughter, joy and sorrow.Which is why my Christmas books tend not to be fluffy and sparkly, though they have elements of it. I find I can't write about the turn of the year without examining the shadows that hover in the corners of the warmth of the fire.

Make a Christmas Wish starts with a tragedy - my  heroine is killed in the most prosaic way doing her Christmas shopping. It's a shitty thing to happen at any time of the year ... but at Christmas? Somehow it makes the pain worse.

I haven't experienced that particular situation, but this time four years ago, my beloved mother in law was dying. We were given the news that she had incurable leukaemia in the May, so it wasn't a surprise, and it came on top of several years of her health failing involving many many trips to hospital. Three years earlier, she was taken ill just before Christmas. She'd had a couple of funny turns - one at a family party, and one when I found her sitting on the floor having passed out - but she seemed to have got over them. But that Christmas I went to pick her up as she was staying with us for the festive period, to find her sitting in her dressing gown in the dark, unable to move from her seat. I remember particularly how she sat staring at the shaft of light coming through the curtains and telling me how pretty it was. She had a particular genius for finding the light in the darkest of moments. I went into her kitchen and discovered complete chaos. From being able to manage on her own, suddenly it was clear that the effort of tidying up after her had become too much. It was a heartbreaking moment. Rosemarie was an independent strong woman, and from that point she lost a lot of her independence.

After calling the doctor out, I managed to get her back to our house, and she rallied a little. Displaying her usual cheerfulness, and responding with joy to all the things the children had made her. One of my daughters (who'd been there the day I found her on the floor) made her a little angel on which she'd written, Omi, I will always look after you. She was eight years old, and that made me weep. We got through Christmas Day, despite the children taking it in turns to come down with stomach bugs, and then when I went into Rosemarie on Boxing Day I discovered that she'd been sick in the night. Typically, she hadn't wanted to disturb me. Boxing Day was a total nightmare, as we spent the day tending to her needs. We were due to spend time with my family and had to put them off. On the 27th we were seeking for emergency social care cover, which understandably wasn't forthcoming, but thanks to my brother in law stepping in, we were able to get away for a couple of days. We had a happy time with my family, but it was all the while tempered with our worries about what was going on at home.

The following year things were worse. Rosemarie had a fall in the autumn, and spent time in and out of care homes and hospital till Christmas, when it was deemed she was well enough to come home (she wasn't). We were going to have  her for Christmas, but she told us she didn't feel well enough. So we decided to take Christmas to her. We only lived up the road, so I cooked the turkey and we had planned to take it round to her, but when we got there, she was in no fit state to celebrate. She was in a lot of pain and my brother in law had had to call out an emergency doctor. So we had lunch at home while my bil sat with her, and then swapped places, taking the children round to open presents as she lay in bed watching us all. At times like this, having children around is a definite bonus. It was important to us that despite the drama, they enjoyed the day too, and again, they came up trumps, showering Omi with hugs, and giving her little gifts they'd made, including a tiny doll sized pillow that she kept close to her bed ever after that.

The rest of the Christmas season passed in a horrible blur, we had to call the District Nurse out one day,  and she had two trips to Casualty ending in her being hospitalised again. Fortunately, she rallied round after that, and we had a very special year in 2009 when she was 85 and we managed to give her a wonderful party, and enticed some of her German friends and family over. That Christmas, she was well enough to come to us, and we had a lovely time. No one was ill, Rosemarie loved being there; darkness and light. That year was pure light.

However, the following spring it was clear that her health was deteroriating, and it was then that we found out about the leukaemia. She declined slowly over the summer, and by the autumn, much as she wanted to stay in her little flat, it was clear that she couldn't stay there any longer. So she came to stay with us. By then we knew that we were looking at a matter of weeks, and it had been our hope that she could die in our home. However, along with the leukaemia she had huge mobility problems, and in the end we couldnt' manage her care in the way she needed us to. So after a bad night when she turned to me and said, "I think I should be somewhere else", reluctantly we accepted that the best place for her was the hospice.

It was the end of November 2011. Christmas was fast approaching, and with it all the same chores that needed doing: present buying, card writing, getting a Christmas tree. All these things needed to be done, but at the same time, we didn't know how long we had left with her. The hospice she was in, The Princess Alice in Esher was utterly amazing. The staff were kind and thoughtful, and loved Rosemarie, who was a model patient, and even when she was feeling dreadful could always raise a smile. I realised once when I visited her, that her eyes danced across her face. They always expressed love, laughter and courage. She was really the most amazing person. And in those darkest of moments, she taught me how to be strong, how to love, and how to face the future when it seems at its bleakest.

Weirdly, a lot of the time it wasn't sad visiting Rosemarie . We had some very funny moments with her, and a particularly riotous visit when we got out her old accordian and my daughter played and we all laughed a lot. It seemed extraordinary to have these moments of deep joy in the midst of our abiding sadness, but they came these occasional flashes of beauty, and I remain grateful for those memories.

The week before she died, I took one of my children in. It was clear now we were in the very last stages, and I was praying that she would go soon and quickly, while at the same time yearning for one more day. I can't remember what we said to one another, but it was a very happy visit, and as we left the hospice a rainbow appeared, which somehow seemed fitting.

By the Wednesday, she was deteriorating rapidly, and finding it hard to talk. One of the doctors came in and with extreme gentleness, held her hand, and said softly, "That smile is still there, but a little less energy today."

The following day, the day she died, was utterly harrowing. Rosemarie could barely talk and was in great distress. I was exhausted and desparing and didn't know what to do. That time, my youngest daughter, with the simplicity of a child took her hand and just babbled nonsense at her. I came away thinking, I can't do this anymore. A selfish thought perhaps, it wasn't me dying, but I couldn't bear to see her pain. A very dark moment indeed.

Fortunately, I opted to go back in the evening with my husband. By then Rosemarie was on a morphine pump and unconscious, but she was peaceful, and not most importantly not in any pain. So our last sight of her before we left, was a comforting one.

That night we had a call at 10pm to say we should prepare ourselves. Our eldest daughter was out, so I went over to fetch her home. And then we waited for the phone to ring. At 11.45 the call came. The older three all got up, and our oldest daughter insisted on coming with us. It turned out they had discussed it and decided she should come to look after us. Just writing those words makes me well up. We left the other two weeping and comforting each other with huge bars of chocolate (which I'd bought in advance in case of such an eventuality).

The journey to the hospice was swift and silent, but I was struck by how loud the birdsong was as we got out of the car. Rosemarie would have loved that, she was always keen on wildlife. We were met at the door by the staff, "We're sorry, they said, "your mother passed away five minutes ago."

So we went into see her, lying in the room we had visited for so many weeks. Radio 3 was playing and as per our instructions, the window was open to let her soul fly out. It was a deeply sad moment, but at the same time I felt at peace knowing she finally was.

Dark and light, tears and laughter, joy and sorrow. These are always the things that will stay with me about Christmas now. And for that reason I will cherish the moments I have with my family this year, good and bad. We have to hold on to those we love. They will not be with us forever.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Make a Christmas Wish: The playlist

All my books usually have playlists, which I normally compile as I'm writing the story. However, this year due to a combination of lack of time and computer problems I was a bit late in the day sorting it out. So here it is for your delectation and delight; the songs that inspired the story, and helped it on its way...

Livvy, the main character in MACW, came to me fully formed some years ago. She jumped into my head, and all I knew about her was that she was a very angry ghost. Initially I was inspired by Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit in which a dead wife haunts her husband. But then when I was looking for a new Christmassy theme, it struck me that A Christmas Carol was also a great place to go for inspiration, so I married the two themes together and came up with Livvy, Adam and Emily's story.

If you haven't read the book yet, Livvy is knocked down at the beginning, just after she's discovered her husband, Adam is having an affair with Emily. So the first song on the playlist, has to be Wuthering Heights, by Kate Bush, which perfectly captures Livvy's distress and anger about being shut out of her old life; all she can do is look on from the sidelines.

Livvy and Adam have a son, Joe, who has Asperger's. Although Livvy is an imperfect mother at times, she loves Joe with a fierce protectiveness, and fights hard for him to get what he needs. So cheesy and all, Joe's song for his mum is You Lift Me Up by Westlife; although he can't express his emotions very well, Joe adores his mum, and all he wants for Christmas is for her to come back to him.

Run to You by Bruce Springsteen is for Adam and Emily. They know their love affair is wrong, and they don't want to hurt anyone, but they are drawn together by a force which they can't control. When Livvy dies, they are left in limbo - do they ignore their feelings, or do they carry on? And how long is a decent enough time to wait...

Wire to Wire by Razorlight is for all three of them: Livvy, Adam and Emily. Livvy and Adam's relationship ended up being a toxic one, which is what has sent Adam into Emily's arms. Yet if Livvy gets her heart's desire, and a second chance with Adam, Emily will be heartbroken. No one wins in this situation, and it's an impossible dilemma.

The Ghost in You by the Psychedelic Furs is for Livvy - who is at once apart, as no one can see her but Joe, but also very much missed, by her son,  her husband, and her mother.

Murder on the Dance Floor by Sophie Ellis-Bextor, is for the ghosts who inhabit Underworld, a nightclub for the dead underneath the local theatre. I had a blast writing their part of their story - just because they're dead, it doesn't mean they can't party!

Spirits in the Material World by the Police - I like the idea that all around us there are the spirits of those who've not passed on yet, lingering (I hope) mainly because they can't quite leave their earthly loves and lives behind.

I Put a Spell on You by  Nina Simone. I adored writing the character of Laetitia, the mysterious spirit guide who lives in Underworld, and offers to help Livvy. If you've ever seen the film, Death Becomes Her, I drew inspiration from the character of Lisle von Rhoman, who seems to offer Meryl Streep the chance of eternal life. As in a lot of magical films - you might not necessarily like what you wish for...

You Know I'm no Good by Amy Winehouse.  Livvy has to finally face up to what has happened in the past before she can move on, and this is for the moment when she discovers some very unpleasant home truths. I don't believe that Livvy is no good, but that she has been overwhelmed by a very difficult situation. What always shines through is her love of Joe.

Do you hear what I hear? by Whitney Houston and Carol of the Bells by John Williams are both lovely Christmassy songs which I thought were appropriate for the ending of my story.

And finally.... Angels by Robbie Williams. I've used this song over and over, because it's such a good one for mothers. But this time it's Joe's tune. To him, Livvy will always be an angel in heaven, and a star in the sky....

If you have Spotify and would like to listen to the playlist you can here.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Having your own weather

I have mentioned this before, and I am mentioning it again, as since I have entered a perimenopausal state officially (unofficially I reckon I've been in it for several years) I have come to realise my woeful ignorance about something which affects all women eventually, and goes on for YEARS. And yet is a subject people shy away from as somehow embarrassing or awkward.

I was therefore delighted to hear  Dame Sally Davies, The Chief Medical Officer say that this is a topic which shouldn't be taboo, especially in the workplace. And pleased to hear Kathy Lette on LBC the other day, talking about this very subject. Her dry comment that, You get your own weather was particularly apposite on a day when I was fanning my face constantly. Hurrah I thought, finally, the menopause is being discussed openly.

Just think about this for a moment. Not all women have a bad time at the menopause, but many do. Symptoms include: heavy periods, incontinence issues, forgetfulness, moodswings, hot flushes, dry vaginas, loss of libido, anxiety, exhaustion, stomach problems, etc etc  And all while we try to carry on our normal lives, be it working, looking after chidlren, or most often than not dealing with elderly relatives .

 It can be exhausting and demoralising realising that even the most simple tasks sometimes feel overwhelming. And yet it's something we DON'T talk about. It's not just at work. I don't think I ever discussed the menopause with anyone properly till it started happening to me. And it starts off a bit furtively - Oh yes, I have heavy periods too, yes I'm always hot, before you realise the majority of women your own age are going through similar. Information is scarce - I have suffered heavy periods for the past ten years (I have a bulky womb apparently, but we shall let that pass) - and only discovered in the last couple that the mirena coil can help with that. Incontinence issues are really common, particularly if you have had children. I only learnt what my pelvic floor was when I was pregnant for the very first time aged 30, and though I have done exercises on and off over the years, it's not apparently enough. I think ALL women should  be taught about this at school, because ignorance, and embarrassment talking about it makes for a very miserable middle age.  Over the last year I've been seeing a fantastic women's health physio (I didn't know such people existed, but frankly they are the unsung heroines of the NHS) who taught me among other things that you can have physio on your vagina and IT HELPS. Why did I not know this earlier?  As an educated middle class woman my ignorance is staggering.

So... going back to Sally Davies. I think she's right that women should be able to talk about this openly with their bosses in the workplace. Although the reasons she gave:  the forgetfulness, woolly thinking and tiredness aren't the ones I would mention. Flooding - a sudden surge of blood when you are having your period - is commonplace for perimenopausal women and though it hasn't happened to me at work, I know many people who've experienced this. Along with the incontinence problems, these are two horrible physical things that can happen to women, which are embarrassing and humiliating. It isn't something I'd want to rush up and announce to people (luckily I work with women so that makes it a bit easier), but if there was at least an understanding that these things happen and it is no big deal, I think it would make life a lot easier for all of us.

And as for the guy who texted LBC to say all women should retire at 46 because of the menopause, all I can say is I'm glad I'm not married to you. Because the simple truth of the matter is if you have lived with a man for many years, he will be used to your bodily cycle and be aware of what is happening to you now (or should be!). I have had several frank conversations about it with men my own age, which I couldn't have imagined having a few years ago. Men do not need to be protected from this, they are living with it too.  So what's wrong with talking honestly about something we're all going through together?

I applaud Sally Davies for raising the issue, and I hope it gets debated more. Maybe then women can enter the third phase of their reproductive cycle without feeling furtive, and somehow tainted by the process. After all, it's just nature innit?