Thursday, November 08, 2012

The Christmas Creche

Am very happy to announce that A Merry Little Christmas (AMLC to you), is going to be spending some time in the Christmas Creche, run by the fabulous Miss Dewey over at

It's all Michelle's idea, and there are alot of Christmas babies taking part too. So could be a whole lot of fun.

In the meantime, in the breathing space allowed me, I'm concentrating on AMLC on bringing Midsummer Magic, AMLC little sister into the world...

And here are all the other babies in the creche. Aren't they lovely and sparkly and Christmassy?

Christmas with Mr Darcy
Married By Christmas
Meet me under the Mistletoe
Mistletoe in Manhattan
Santa Maybe
The Twelve Days of Christmas
When I Fall in Love
Winter Wonderland
With Love at Christmas

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Next Big Thing

My lovely friend Lesley Cookman  tagged me in this meme, for which I thank her!

What is the title of your next book?
The one  that has just come out is called A Merry Little Christmas. My next one is going to be Midsummer Magic.

Where did the idea for the book come from?
AMLC came out of wanting to return to the village of Hope Christmas which I created for Last Christmas. I loved the place and characters so much, and felt I had more to say about them. Plus I've always wanted to write about a family with a special needs child, as I have several friends in that situation, so it gave me the opportunity to bring Pippa and her family out of the shadows. And of course it's a Christmas book, so I go to play around with lots of the expectations the festive season brings, some of them unexpected...

 Midsummer Magic has come about because I was asked to come up with a summery book.  I heard a song on the radio called You'll Be Mine by the Pierces, which sent shivers down my spine (ALWAYS a good sign for me). It made me think of love, enchantment, music and madness, which somehow led me to deciding I'd like to do a modern day riff on A Midsummer Night's Dream. So that's what I'm writing now, and I can tell you it's a blast!

What genre does your book fall under?
All my books fall into the commercial women's fiction/chick lit bracket (though, chick lit, really? Apart from the lovely man in my local market who calls me babe, no one could possibly believe I'm a chick any more!). However, I am a passionate believer in not getting tied down to genre, so I don't want this necessarily to be the only genre I ever write in. I also like to experiment with my writing, so even though this is in the same genre as my other books, I am hoping that Midsummer Magic will be very different from AMLC.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
Do you know... that one is always so difficult for me to answer. Gabriel from AMLC is easy. I always had Richard Armitage in mind for him. Marianne ... hmm maybe someone like Jessica Brown Findlay or Gemma Artherton. I think Hermione Norris might make an excellent Cat, and Noel could be the ever lovely Rupert Penry Jones or Jude Law. Hmm, yes, Jude Law would be yummy.   Pippa could be played by Kate Winslet and Dan by John Simm.  The very gorgeous Michael Nicholas would have to be Johnny Depp.

Will your book be self-pubished or represented by an agency?
I am represented by the lovely Dorothy Lumley at the Dorian Literary Agency and am lucky enough to be published by the wonderful Avon team at Harper Collins

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
AMLC took forever, as it was a very stop start process due to the madness in my life this time last year. I must have started it sometime in the summer, but didn't finish it till around the end of Feb.
Midsummer Magic is nearly at the halfway stage and I started it in August. I'm aiming to deliver by the end of November, which is a bit mental...But I do write quickly when under pressure:-)

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
While I write for a commercial market, I try to put some serious stuff in there too. So I guess I would aim to be writing as well as people I admire like Kate Harrison, Rowan Coleman and Marian Keyes.

Who or what inspitred you to write this book?
As I said above I wanted AMLC to be a follow up to Last Christmas. Which was originally inspired by the chaos of my own family life, and AMLC has well and truly picked up that baton! I'd also say it is partly inspired by notions of motherhood: being mothered, becoming a mother, mothering your own mother, dealing with the unwanted actions of your children... I think it's an interesting area, and one I might well return to.

Midsummer Magic, was originally set off by the song I mentioned above, but really Shakespeare is my main inspiration. Thanks, Bill.

What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?
I hope people new to AMLC will enjoy Hope Christmas as much as I enjoy writing about it & I'd like to think they might shed a tear/have a laugh along the way.

Midsummer Magic is proving a lot of fun to write, and I hope readers will enjoy the mistakes, shenanigans and confusion that my characters are going to be subjected too.

And before I go, I get to tag the following fabulous writers who will be blogging about the Next Big Thing on their blogs next week....

Sara Sheridan
Sara is a Scottish author who writes across the genres.  A woman of many talents and a fabulous person to boot. I am reading her fabulous book Brighton Belle right now.
Gillian Phillip
Coincidentally, also from Scotland, is a wonderful YA author. I know, because I had the privilege to edit her! She's also a formidable defendant of author's rights, demonstrated by the principled stand she has recently taken supporting her friend, fellow writer, Debi Gliori against internet trolls.
Scarlett Bailey
And I shared our pub day last week and had a blast. Her latest Married by Christmas is on my tbr list. Oh and in her spare time Scarlett doubles up as best selling author Rowan Coleman. Awesome.
Virginia Moffatt
Is my lovely twin, and my greatest supporter. Technically this meme is for pubbed or soon to be pubbed authors. Ginia's just finished the second draft of her first novel. But I think you can see from the Friday Flashes on her blog how talented she is. AND she works and has three kids...

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Fact versus fiction: Real life is always more mental...

Hurrah, today's the day. A Merry Little Christmas is finally published. Some books have easy births and some more traumatic ones. This one, my friends, as you've probably gathered from my other posts on the subject has had a particularly traumatic birth as this time last year when I was writing it (or supposed to be, I was in fact getting bugger all writing done) my lovely mil was dying of leukaemia and had just moved in with us. A Merry Little Christmas being very much a book about families, some of that experience has inevitably found it's way into the book. In fact, when no 4 read the blurb, she wanted to know if it was about us. You'll no doubt be relieved to know that, no it isn't about us, because the truth is however much I make things up, real life is way more mental then anything I could put on the page. And to demonstrate I'd show you a snippet from the book about the craziness of life in Cat's household. (Cat if you have read Last Christmas is a mother of four, and has a mother with alzheimer's who becomes seriously ill in the course of the new book).

Cat and her husband Noel have just come back from visiting Cat's mother, and this is the scene which they encounter when they get home...

Having established there was no more they could do for Louise, and encountering Alfie in the corridor with a bunch of flowers heading her way, Cat and Noel headed home, where they found World War III raging, as Paige had accidentally ‘borrowed’ Mel’s straighteners, and Mel was letting her have it in no uncertain terms. Meanwhile Ruby was wailing because she’d caught her finger in the mousetrap, and James was teasing her that there was a rat living under the stairs. It took a while to quieten Ruby’s wails, and get James to apologise to her, and Paige to Mel, but eventually things calmed down. Mel meanwhile had disappeared grumpily into her bedroom, so Cat gave it ten minutes before deciding to risk a chat. It was unlike Mel to be so mean to Paige. She usually reserved her fury for Cat and Noel. 

In my real world, this was the kind of thing that was happening on a near daily basis, last year...

Rosemarie had been suffering badly from constipation, so the district nurse came out to give her an enema. The moment she arrived, the engineers arrived to set up Rosemarie's emergency alarm . Just as they left, and long after the nurse had gone, and before a carer was due to arrive there was a  yelp from the front room and the inevitable was occurring...

A little while later I had to go out to an appointment. As I came out, I realised I'd missed an urgent an important call from school. I spent the next half an hour unsuccessfully trying to reach the teacher, and was feeling fairly stressed by the time I got to school. While I was standing in the playground, a kind friend pointed out that I didn't in fact, need to be there, as no 4 had an after school club.

I dashed back home to discover Rosemarie needed the loo. We could still just about manage to get her there, but she had difficulty standing and her feet kept slipping on the floor. She was also rather large, so managing her alone was pretty tricky. I'd just got her sat on the loo, when the doorbell rang and one of children came home and our decorator announced he was packing up for the evening. Said child was desperate for the loo, so I shooed her upstairs, and sent the decorator discreetly away. Ten minutes later, when I had got her sat down a new carer arrived. At that point all hell broke loose as there was an almighty yell from the back garden. No 2 had been holding the guinea pig when it jumped out of her hands and got lost in the garden. No 3 ran round to the neighbour's to see if it had gone next door, and was wailing loudly when said neighbour was out.

Ignoring the carer and mil I was trying to calm two hysterical children down, when I looked at my watch and realised now I really did have to go and fetch no 4...

As luck would have it, the GP turned out to be hiding under a nearby bush, so amazingly is still with us, but needless to say that night I was a gibbering wreck.

I have tried to put some of that chaos into Cat's life,but I don't really think I could throw as much as her as happened to me, because quite frankly I don't think anyone would believe it!

But like I say, A Merry Little Christmas isn't all about me and my family, but it is about friendship,family, marriage, motherhood and more besides. If you are kind enough to pick it up, I do hope you enjoy it!

And if you're a fan of Christmas stories, may I point you to the very lovely Carole Matthews, Milly Johnson and Scarlett Bailey who also have Christmas books out today? It's a privilege and a pleasure to be in their illustrious company!

And if you missed it last week, I did this on google hangout. Isn't the interweb marvellous?

And me talking about A Merry Little Christmas!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Not just for Christmas...

Well best laid plans etc. Over two months now since I blogged. Sorry I think I fell in a time warp and just climbed out. I meant to blog about my summer, watching the Jubilympics, but it's a bit late for that now, so instead, I will give a very big fanfare to my NEW BOOK  A Merry Little Christmas, which is coming  out next week. Available from all good bookshops.

This is a book for all mood swings, as no 2 is about to demonstrate below.

It will make you smile...

It will make you gasp...

It will make you laugh...

It will make you think.....

It will make you weep...

And like a puppy, it's not just for Christmas.It's a book for all seasons...

Oh and if anyone's interested, I'm taking part in a google hangout tomorrow at 1pm with lovely editor Claire Bord, and lovely fellow Avon writers Claudia Carroll and Fiona Gibson talking about writing, inspirations, ebooks and anything you else want to know...

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Getting my blogging mojo back

Lordy, lord. MONTHS of silence, and now you can't shut the girl up.

This is mainly because as I mentioned last week, I have finally finished the rewrites on the new book, now entitled A Merry Little Christmas. I'm waiting for the final final round of rewrites, and am allegedly getting going on the new book, Midsummer Magic, but you know me... Procrastination is my middle name, so here I am instead. Plus, finally after many months I feel a little as if I've got my blogging mojo back.

There are lots of reasons, why it disappeared. The main one being, that creatively my heart and soul has been swallowed up by the Book for the last few months, but also, I think I've been in a period of deep mourning, from which I hope I am just emerging. Losing Rosemarie has affected me more then I thought it would. She was such a huge part of our family life - for years she came to us every Sunday for lunch, and in the last couple of years, we pushed her down the road in her wheelchair, and took her into our garden, so she could enjoy the fresh air, as she couldn't get out on her own. Every time I am in the garden, I see her sitting there, enjoying watching the children play, feeling the breeze on her face, and taking a much more animated interest in the doings of the guinea pigs then I ever do. I miss her more then I can say. She was slightly mad, and said the funniest things, but she was also wise and kind, and always batted in my corner. Something I will ever be grateful for, as that's a rare thing I think, in a mother in law.

The sense of mourning has been probably why I have battled so long and hard with the book. When I started writing it, this time last year, Rosemarie was starting to attend fortnightly sessions at the hospital to have blood transfusions. The staff were immensely kind and supportive, but the majority of patients could take themselves in an out of the unit and they simply weren't geared up for Rosemarie's needs. After the first disastrous attempt to use hospital transport (it arrived late, and the guy appeared never to have pushed a wheelchair before), I took her instead. I'd organise the carers to come in early and go with the children round to her flat, where I'd then get her into the wheelchair, and push her out to the car. This sounds so easy, but it was complicated by a front door which swung back quickly if not held open, and a step that was really awkward to negotiate. My worst moment was the time I nearly tipped the wheelchair in the flowerbed. Luckily no4 who had an instinctive knowledge of what to do to help, was on hand to right it for me.

Sometimes mil walked to the car. But she suffered terribly with her feet, and gave up wearing shoes, so we then had to negotiate a stony path to the car, with her yelping in pain all the way. Then, it was a question of lowering her into the car (she was very tall) helping her get enough purchase, so she didn't fall, and when we'd sat her down, swinging her legs into the car, as she couldn't do that alone. My  brother in law came up with the wheeze of putting a blanket on the car seat, and pulling her across on it, which was a great idea, but jeez it was hard work. Then I had to load the wheelchair and zimmer in, take the kids to school, and then go on to the hospital (luckily within a stones' throw of school), where I'd unload Rosemarie, put her in the wheelchair, load the zimmer and her day bag on the back, and then push her up the steepish slope to the hospital.

Once into the haemotology unit, I'd get her settled in with the nurse, and then she had to endure the longest of days, for someone of her age and in her condition. First, she'd have her blood taken. Poor Rosemarie HATED the sight of blood, so I used to hold her hand and talk loudly about the children while she was having it done. They'd then test to see if she need a transfusion. Nine times out of ten, the answer was yes. On the rare occasion that it was no, we both felt like we'd got out of jail free. On one such instance, I took Rosemarie for coffee up the road - the first time she'd been in a cafe for months, and the waitress was so kind, giving us free muffins, and really looking after Rosemarie, I still think of that kindness and smile. We had a rare moment of pleasure in the misery, and it was the last time I took her out for a coffee.

Then we'd have to wait around for the blood pack to be made up. It always took hours. And I'd have to weigh up at what point I should take Rosemarie to the loo, given it took her a while to get there, and pushing a zimmer, while being attached to a drip is no fun at all. I never asked the staff to take her. They were simply too busy, and like I said, the department just wasn't geared up for Rosemarie's needs. To while away the time when we were waiting, I used to ask Rosemarie about her life in Germany - which is where the stories from my other blog came from. I wish I'd done that earlier, but c'est la vie. I got some of them down.

Once the blood transfusion was up and running, I felt it was safe to leave her. More often then not, bil would arrive to take over, so I could either go home and catch up, or depending on the time, go and do the school run. It was always an exhausting and difficult experience, and for Rosemarie, it must have been nightmarish at times. She bore it all with her usual fortitude and equanimity, but she would be shattered by the time she got home. I did wonder if it were worth it, though the first few times, she certainly seemed less tired then before. And I guess it kept her going a bit longer then if she hadn't had it. Though I suspect she might have been doing it for our sakes, and left to her own devices, would have been just as happy to let nature take it's course.

So during last summer, precious little writing got done. I did sometimes take my notebook and write while Rosemarie slept, but it was distracting and difficult to concentrate. And of course the constant emotional rolller coaster has an impact too.

Come the autumn, it got worse. Rosemarie had been having back pains on and off, and they became so bad she couldn't get up one day. So I called the doctor and despite our desperate desire to avoid it, we had no choice but to let Rosemarie to hospital. It was a grim and ghastly experience. Spouse and I spent a long and hideous day in casualty before Rosemarie was eventually taken to the ward, where she was treated with barely concealed contempt and a roughness which made me want to kill people. HOW anyone can treat the elderly and vulnerable the way Rosemarie was treated that day and call themselves a nurse I don't know. All I do know, was that when we left, we both felt terrible leaving her that night, and it still makes me furious.

Being mil, she got back on her feet, and got herself out of there, thank god, but we were quickly approaching a crisis, and on a weekend away which had we known how things were going, we would have cancelled, we made the decision to move Rosemarie in with us. It was hard for all of us, but particularly for mil, as she had clung to her independence for so long, and I'm fairly sure would have wanted to die there. But we had no option. After a terrible weekend when we'd asked for two carers for each visit as mil couldn't manage anymore with one, we had a farcical situation with the carers putting her in bed the wrong way round one night, and I spent more time with her then at home, mil agreed to come to us. So bil came and moved her bed (carrying the mattress up the road on his head), we packed up all her stuff, and her, and she came to stay. It was a bitter sweet moment. We all knew she was never going back to the flat again, and we kept up the pretence she was staying with us, till she felt better.

And better she did feel at first. Mil had a tendency to take dips down and then rally back again. Her spirit was indomitable and her endurance astonishing. Having not been able to walk for several days, suddenly she was able to get to the loo again with help. But our loo was too low for her (we did have a raised seat) and it was narrow, and there was very little purchase. All too soon, she couldn't manage anymore, and we had to get a commode. To explain all the delays and the difficulties of getting the equipment we needed (including getting the wrong equipment) would take me the rest of my life, but one surreal moment included trying to raise the bed so the newly delivered hoist would work. As sod's law would have it, they forgot to deliver the bed raising blocks, so the hoist would fit underneath it. Spouse in his usual can do, will do anything spirit, tried to prop it up with bits of wood, but it was a disaster, so we went back to square one and got Rosemarie to bed without the help of the hoist (as it happened they'd sent the wrong sized sling anyway).

We had a month where life was like that. I had days where the result of an enema would occur the minute the district nurse/carer left (poor Rosemarie was very constipated, and I swear 90% of the time she performed the minute I was on my own), we had nights where she couldn't settle and Spouse and I were in and out raising her legs in and out of bed, a hilarious night, where she'd tried to get out of bed to go to the loo, and in my attempt to get her to the commode, she ended up on my lap, and a more poignant one, where she suggested I get into bed with her and snuggle up. In the end it was all too much. We were both exhausted, the kids who were amazing  throughout it all were struggling, and Rosemarie's needs had got beyond what I could manage alone (even with the much valued help of my amazing mother - an ex nurse - who came for two weeks and taught me how to lift and roll Rosemarie so she was comfy in bed). One night, Rosemarie looked at me and said, I don't think I should be here anymore.

So that was it. After the last attempt to give Rosemarie a transfusion had failed in October, the consultant had referred us to the Princess Alice Hospice where Rosemarie eventually died. We had a wonderful wonderful nurse who came to see us several times a week, and she arranged for Rosemarie to get into the hospice quickly. So quickly in fact, they came two hours after I called. I wasn't ready, and was heartbroken she was leaving us, on what we all knew was her last journey. The kids were desperate too, when they came home and discovered her gone. She'd always lived up the road from us, and now she seemed very far away.

Being Rosemarie, once she was there, she rallied again. So we were able to visit that weekend, and take her for a coffee in the little cafe at the hospice, and have a lovely lovely afternoon, the memory of which I will cherish for ever. In fact she rallied so much, there was a suggestion she came home again. From having wanted to keep her, I had realised once in the hospice, I couldn't possibly care for her as well as they could (my first experience of this - up until then I felt the so called professionals had let us all down). Now the thought of her coming back filled me with horror. I knew we couldn't manage, and felt lousy for not being able to. Fortunately, it was only a suggestion, and though Rosemarie lingered for another five weeks, it was never again mooted that she should come home.

Her time in the hospice was very strange. We visited daily, bil and I in the day, Spouse in the evenings, the children at the weekends, and we had some wonderful moments. The best of which was the afternoon we took Rosemarie's accordion in (it's 80years old, handmade, laden with mother of pearl), and no 1 played it for her, and one afternoon when I was with no 2 and sang Silent Night to her in German. Daily life continued as normal, but I felt I was stuck in a bubble, where I would forever be driving back and forth to Esher and nothing would ever change.

During that time, Rosemarie told me ever more about her early days in Germany, returning again and again to her childhood. I wrote it down, desperately, wishing each day for one more story. Till we came to a day when she could tell me no more. She was slipping away from us, but still gave a delighted smile when we arrived, and held my hands tightly the whole time I was there, insisting as my poor hands were so cold they had to come under the blanket.

On the Sunday before she died, no 3 and I went in the afternoon. She was cheery and pleased to see us as ever, and still at that point able to talk. I left wishing she'd go like that - a similar feeling to one I'd had just before fil died. As we left the hospice a dark cloud was forming on one side, against bright sunshine on the other. We drove home to not one but two rainbows, even spotting a third. Somehow, that gave me hope and comfort.It seemed so appropriate for Rosemarie somehow.

The next day she could barely speak, and by the Wednesday, was very weak, but still that smile, and that joy when no 4 and I went in. By the Thursday afternoon, the smile had gone, and she was in considerable pain and distress. I couldn't hear what she was saying to me, and no 4 realising that she couldn't either, just took Omi's hand and talked to her. She was only 9 years old, but she showed such a ready empathy. Children are amazing sometimes.

I must have looked rough as hell as several of the nurses asked if I was ok. I wasn't. I felt overwhelmed with it, wondering how long it was going to go on, and feeling for the first time as though I couldn't take it anymore. It was so distressing to see Rosemarie like that. I just wanted her suffering over.

And that night it finally was.Spouse and I went back in the evening, where to my relief they'd upped her pain relief, and Rosemarie was unconscious but calm. I hope she  knew we were there. A couple of hours later we got a call to say we should come soon. No 1 was at a friend's house, so I went to pick her up early. Earlier in the day, we had joked about her indestructible granny. Can I come with you to the hospice? she asked. I wasn't expecting that. She was only fifteen. Was she too young to come? But she was insistent. When at midnight we got the expected call, she was determined to come. No 4 was asleep, but the other two had been up crying, so we left them with chocolate and to comfort each other and drove in the dark to Esher.

It was so weird,  it was a mild night and the birds were SINGING. I didn't know they did that. We got out at Esher feeling sick to the pit of our stomachs. I thought maybe we would be there for the end, but as soon as we rang the bell, a nurse appeared to say that sadly Rosemarie had died peacefully a  few minutes before. We went to see her, and she did look peaceful. They brought us tea, and we all cried. Bil and sil turned up five minutes later and hugged no 1. She had wanted to come and support us, she said, and all she could do was cry. That's all we all did pretty much for the next couple of days. No 3 felt dreadful as she hadn't been able to pluck up courage to see Rosemarie the previous day, which was perfectly fine of course, and no2 who had been incredible at helping look after Rosemarie when she was with us, was also in bits. It was a very soggy house, but in a good way I think and immensely bonding for us as a family.

I hadn't meant to write any of that, but out it came anyway. Weird how the subconscious works, innit?

From October to Christmas I didn't write a thing, unsurprisingly, I guess, and it took me weeks to get going again in the New Year. It felt like drowning in sludge, but eventually I got the first draft in six weeks late. I had thought the rewrites would be a doddle, but they were even worse. I felt tangled and confused, and making sense of the manuscript was a nightmare. But somehow I've persevered, and am pleased to say my editor likes the result. I hope you will too. There is a strong thread of fictionalised truth running through the book - like any good writer I turn my pain into something useful.

I'm still sorting out in my head what the last year has meant to me, and I don't think emotionally, I'm quite out of the woods yet. What I do know, is this, it was a huge privilege to have held Rosemarie's hand while she lay dying. I still miss her every day, but I am glad she's not suffering anymore. And finally, I'm getting my blogging mojo back. About time too, I can hear her say. Get on with it girl, why don't you?

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Book Review: Are We Nearly There Yet?

I don't often do book reviews. Ok. Readers of this blog if there are any of you left, the rate I'm going at the moment, I don't even blog very often anymore...

The reason I don't do book reviews, is mainly a time thing, but Are We Nearly There Yet? by Ben Hatch was so much fun, I felt impelled to break my usual rule and write about it.

As with so many things these days, I first heard about this book via Twitter. It was garnering good reviews (not always a reason for me to go out and buy a book), but more importantly, the premise was one I found irresistible. The book's subtitle is: A Family's 8000 mile around Britain., and is the completely bonkers story of how Ben and his wife Dinah undertook to write a family friendly travel guide, travelling for five months with their two children UNDER the age of four. I told you it was bonkers.

Now as we are the family who has among other things: taken two elderly parents, a 4month old baby and a 2 year old to Germany; four children under 8 to Spain (twice), gone camping with three children 5 and under while I was 11 weeks pregnant, & driven round Europe more times then I care to mention, this was a book that couldn't fail to appeal. And lots of the places Ben and his family went, we have also visited: Ironbridge , Warwick Castle, Liverpool (we took the same Duck tour as them, but theirs sounded much funnier), and Monkey World among others, so there's a fascination in seeing the same place through someone else's eyes. There's also the shared moments of recognition, such as the moments when children won't sleep,cause mayhem, and the parents collapse in an exhausted heap at the end of the day.

I would have loved this book for that alone. For showing that it's the same for most of us. We muddle through with our kids, particularly when we're travelling, which is possibly the most stressful thing you can do with small children. But I also loved it for the unexpected emotional punch it delivers. Just before Ben and his family set off on this trip, he discovered his father was dying of cancer. His dad insisted on him going on the trip, but much of the journey is punctuated with anxious phone calls home, and the odd dash back. Having so recently attended a dying relative myself, there was much in Ben's story that made me gasp aloud in recognition. The description of his father's last day, could almost have been the one I wrote for mil, and I am not ashamed to say it made me weep. For all of us, there comes a time when we lose someone we love, for most of us, that first experience is with a parent. But at whatever stage of life they or you are at, the loss is tangible and real, and won't hurt any less because someone's had a good innings, or you know they're not suffering anymore. If you've lost your dad, or your mum, or another close family member, you've lost that person, full stop. No amount of rationalising can take the pain away.

And what I loved about the way Ben wrote this, was not only was he honest and open about the way he felt about his dad, and how he coped with his dad dying (at one point on the trip, he wasn't coping well at all, which is unsurprising in the circumstances), but he's taken it beyond the personal, to tell a story that affects us all. And then at the end of it he goes back to his family, and his journey, and their future. Just as his dad would surely have wanted him to.

This is a wonderful book: simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming, it made me laugh out loud (there is an outrageous scene involving a toothbrush, which only those of a strong disposition should read),  and weep in equal measures. But above all it is tremendously life affirming. You don't have to have had a family or have suffered bereavement to enjoy it either, his wry observations about the places they visit are funny whatever your circumstances, and his description of Dinah's turtle phobia made me cry with laughter (I think Mrs Hatch deserves a MEDAL quite frankly). Ben Hatch has the knack of taking the mundane and the ordinary and elevating it to story material which will make you desperate to come back for more. I gather he's just about to go round Europe on another family trip. He's totally mad of course, but I can't wait to read the result.

A walk in the country.

I'm actually very late blogging this, but thanks to deadlines and parties etc....

In my other life, as a busy mum, I have spent many many years helping out on school visits. I have been on coach trips, and museum visits, and visited gardens and tried to prevent small children drowning when they do pond dipping. Most of the time, I've vaguely enjoyed myself but come back with a huge headache and even huger respect for teachers who have to deal with small people ALL the time. But I have to say, the majority of trips have felt more like a dutiful chore then anything else.

However, three weeks, ago, I helped out on the best school trip ever. Our very enthusiastic new head, had the bright idea of taking Year 5 on a long walk in the country, including camping in teepees on Box Hill. His reasoning being that a) it's cheap (school trips get ever more pricey)  b) given that we're surrounded by hills it seemed like a good idea to take the children up some and c) for a lot of children, this might be their first experience of going on a walk like this.

For my children who have been dragged to school every day almost as soon as they can walk, and made to go on "boring" walks in the countryside in all weathers (though funnily enough when we go to Shropshire, and climb proper hills they seem to like that more), walking holds no particular fear, though they might moan about it, so no 4 was quite intrigued by the idea. And as I love walking, and am already a huge fan of the Surrey Hills, I jumped at the chance to help out.

When the idea was first mooted, way back in April, of course we were in the middle of the wettest drought on record. And we all fondly imagined that by June, we'd be having better weather. Wrong... The day before the Walk, it rained so heavily the tepee camping had to be abandoned. We were all fully expecting the walk  to be abandoned too, but luckily new head is made of sterner stuff, so we all met in a damp and muddy car park in the middle of nowhere. I really have no idea where it was, as I was taken there, without a very good map. All I know was it was a long long way from civilsation.

It took a while to assemble the whole party together - there were 56 kids in total, and along with the requisite number of teachers, several parents came to help out. But eventually we were off, across a busy road, and into a very muddy wood. This was where it became quickly evident some kids weren't brilliantly equipped for the weather, having thin trainers, that squelched alarmingly in the mud. I spent the first half an hour with a couple of little girls who'd never done anything like this before, and were simultaneously stunned and enthralled by the mud. In the meantime there was lots of squealing and yelling as feet were getting stuck and trousers getting muddy (including my daughter, who DESPITE me sending her in waterproof trousers, took them off as soon as we arrived as they looked naff), hilariously most of the moaning and screaming seeming to come from the boys. Boys, not liking mud? Whatever is the world coming too.

My companions soon got in the swing, to the point that one of them told me it was the most amazing thing she'd ever done - I asked her again at the end if it was still amazing. She said yes, but she was very tired...

Fortunately the first part of the walk was under shelter, as it rained continuously, and when we eventually got out into the open along the North Downs Way where we should have had stunning views of Leith Hill and Dorking,  all we could see was cloud covered hills. By this time we'd been walking over an hour, and it was time for our first stop at Ranmore Common. Here we were met with an enthusiastic party led by a roving teacher and several mums who had come supplied with cake, biscuits and drinks. By now it was raining really heavily, so naturally the boys decided to have water fights with their water bottles.As you do...

Starting off again, was the only point in the whole day where I heard any moaning. The kids all had a backpack to share with a friend containing a small snack. Despite the fact that said snack was for emergencies, and they'd JUST had a snack, the lot I was with when we started again all wanted to dig into their emergency supplies. I gave up suggesting they wait till later in the end... No one was listening to me anyway. (I'd clearly make a GREAT teacher.) Another problem emerged in the shape of several of the girls becoming quite desperate for the loo. Funnily enough, none of them took up my suggestion to use the bushes, but luckily we weren't too far from Denbies (which in case you don't know it, is a vineyard in Dorking, as featured in this year's Apprentice, as half the children were quick to tell me). Well I say not too far, HT's cheery ten minutes, did turn into about twenty, but we made it in the end. Fortunately Denbies are used to walkers, and didn't seem to mind the onslaught from so many muddy children.

Then it was back up the hill to walk through the Denbies estate and restrain the boys who were starting to stick fight from accidentally hitting the vines. Having said that, I think it was a particular joy on the day to see the boys being allowed to be boys for a change - something the constraints of the National Curriculum often prevents from happening. There was much mud slinging, and play fighting, and they seemed to be having a ball (though I'd say the girls interestingly were nearer the front most of the time and moaned less when they were tired).

As we got towards lunchtime, we had a major road to cross, in the shape of the A24, opposite Box Hill. Being a very busy dual carriageway, this is not especially pedestrian friendly, but luckily there is an underground passage which takes you safely under the road. Hurrah. It was only when we approached the tunnel it became evident there was a problem. Thanks to torrential rain the day before, the River Mole had burst its banks and flooded the tunnel. And we all had to walk through it...I have to say, I thought this was quite entertaining, especially as I ended up standing in the middle of the tunnel cheering on slightly squeamish children (luckily I WAS wearing waterproof trousers, and my walking boots held out enough for me not to be too squelchy). It was slightly unfortunate that we had to have lunch at that point, as it took longer for feet to dry off, but it was a very funny moment in a thoroughly enjoyable day.

Lunch over, we set off up Box Hill, heading for the zig zag where the Olympics road race is taking place in a few weeks time. As has been the case for some months now, Box Hill is full of energetic people cycling up and down it, and they were probably somewhat bemused to be cheered on by a bunch of enthusiastic children when we reached the top and had a breather. It was still grey and miserable, but fortunately the rain held off, and we were (I thought) heading for the home straight. I roughly knew where the camp site was as eldest has been there several times for DofE training, but it was a lot further then I had thought. I like walking, and I love walking up Box Hill, but I can tell you it was a tough tough walk. And the majority of the kids did it. By the end the boys were bursting into song (mostly rude it has to be said) and in the main, apart from the odd, my feet ache, no one moaned at all.

By the time we reached High Ashurst at around 4.30 (having set off at 10 am), we'd covered roughly 8 miles of quite rugged terrain. The kids were exhausted, slightly stunned, but I think quite rightly, very proud of their achievement. I've only ever walked two miles, one boy said to me in awe. I don't think he could quite believe that he'd walked that far and was still standing.

It was a brilliant brilliant day. I really enjoyed spending it with such an enthusiastic and energetic group of kids - my friend from the beginning, who'd started so uncertain was running by the end, and having a ball. Yes, they were exhausted, and even more so the next day, when they arrived back at school, having walked a further six or seven miles, but I think it will be a trip that will stay long in their memories. It certainly will in mine. It was a fantastic achievement for a bunch of nine and ten year olds to walk so far, and without too much fuss, and I was proud to be part of it, and even prouder of them. So a big thank you to the school and especially the head for organising it. It was quite simply, the best school trip I've ever helped out on. I'm only sorry, as no 4 is leaving next year, I won't get the opportunity to do it again...

Friday, June 29, 2012


I know, I know. It's been FAR too long. All I can say in my defence is that I have been wading through rewrites of the new oeuvre, now to be called A Merry Little Christmas, and winging it's way to bookshops near you in October. I have put my poor editor under untold stress by being horrendously late, but she has been very patient about it, and so I was relieved to finally deliver on Monday, as last night was the Harper Collins author party, and it's so much more relaxed if you don't have to grovel...

The HC party is one of the highlights of my year. (What can I say? I don't get out much.) It is also a stonkingly good event. For the last two years it's been held in the Orangery at Kensington Palace (there's posh), and it's such a lot of fun. For a start there's the obligatory celeb spotting (last year Dan Stevens & David Walliams), this year David Nobbs on the way in - I actually spoke to him but didn't realise till afterwards, and  a couple of famous looking women who it was on the tip of my tongue to say hello to, then I realised I only knew them off the telly, but better then that, is meeting up with lots and lots of author mates. Last night did not disappoint, and I was delighted to catch up with my lovely friends Caroline Smailes, Miranda Dickinson, Victoria Connelly, and meet Laura Ziepe, Erin Kaye, Fiona Gibson and Nik Perring. We were all looked after immensely well by the attentive (and devilishly handsome) young waiters, who had the knack of appearing with more champagne, just as soon as your glass was empty...And we were also thoroughly spoilt by the fabulous brilliant team at Avon, who made sure glasses were never empty and we were fed sushi (which I've never had before) and cake. Thank you ladies, I had a blast.

Sadly I never know when to call it a day, and suddenly realising it was 10.20, had to hot foot it for a cab (again, the wonderful staff calmly walked into the road and hailed me a cab, obviously aware I wasn't quite up to the task) to get me to Victoria. The cab took FOREVER. And I ended up getting to Victoria after 11.30, having just missed the last train home. Stupidly I queued for a burger and didn't take the wise advice of the guys in the queue behind me who were going my way and discovered that if they left burgerless and headed for Clapham Junction they'd pick up the Waterloo train. Apart from sushi and champagne I hadn't had much in the way of sustenance...

So thanks to my greed, I decided to just get on trains and keep going south as far as I could. Always a good plan. Which is how I ended up in West Croydon some time after midnight, suddenly the last person in the carriage. I then had to hot foot it over the bridge to catch a train to Sutton, where I also ended up the last person in the carriage, but miraculously all the other carriages were full as I still had to wait for a cab. I then spent a small fortune on getting home, but I had a very chatty and helpful cab driver and I was ringing Spouse with updates on my whereabouts (oh how times change - in my salad days I once fell asleep on the train and ended up at Dorking, with no money and no means of communication. I BEGGED the driver to stop at my station, where I then had to climb over an eight foot high fence to escape), so I made it home by 1am. A slightly more epic journey home then intended, but champagne will see you through a lot of travel trauma.

It is also exceptionally good for ensuring your head isn't too bad in the morning. An entirely higher class of hangover all together.

Like I say, I don't get out much, but it's always a blast to be with like minded people, talking bollocks (or not) about books, and best of all getting to be a grown up and an author for the night. Even if I don't always behave in an entirely grown up fashion....

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

What price innocence?

Ever since I've had children, I've worried about the over sexualisation of modern kids, particularly as mine are girls. From the barbies, they get when they're four, to the crop tops & short shorts that they're marketed when they're nine, to the teen mags which promote an image of female beauty which is stick insect thin, and all about encouraging men, girls these days are in some ways worse off then I was in my youth. At least we understood there was a male patriarchy we had to overcome (although I refuse to subscribe to Germaine Greer's idea that women have no idea how much men hate them).  But my children? They have vague notions of what feminism, is and think they are equal to men, and yet as they enter their teen years, I think they are more vulnerable to exploitation then we ever were. Depressing but true...

There are a number of reasons for this. First is the prevailing attitude that sex is something you do next. I noted with relief last year that all no 1's friends were quite put off by the notion that they were going to be "legal" on their next birthdays. But inevitably, they have picked up boyfriends since then, and in a rather depressing leap, all appear to have decided that once they are legal, that's what they'll do. Like taking GSCEs, hit 16, tick the Had Sex box. Now I am not saying they are necessarily wrong to do this, if they are in a consensual loving situation, but for a lot of these girls, it's their first boyfriend, who may not be around very long, and I find it a bit sad. Whatever happened to a bit of fumbling and experimentation in the back seat of the cinema? Which, apparently is now the LAST place you would snog your boyfriend, that would be embarrassing. Instead, people seem to get up to all sorts in the bushes in the local park.Sleazy or what?

Now you might say, twas ever thus, teens have and will always experiment with sex at this age, and it is only my innate prudishness and my tiger mother instinct making me uneasy. And to a degree you would be right. But what HAS changed since my day, and not, do I think for the better, is that girls are under more pressure then ever to have sex with boys. At 13/14, I know of girls who have been "fingered", had oral sex, and even in some instances gone the whole way, because the boys they are with expect that that's what they should be doing. Not only that, girls that young are already shaving their pubic hair, because (as I was told in no uncertain terms, it's really gross not to, and everyone else is doing it). Why? I said, because boys want you to? That, and TOWIE, where apparently the majority of the cast, go out to get waxed and get "verjazzled" - ie, have what the urban dictionary defines as giving: " the female genitals a sparkly makeover with crystals so as to enhance their appearance." (gay guys, get perjazzled. Yuk.). At least no 2's response to that is, "ergh, I wouldn't want anyone touching my fanny.", but the overall message that you need to even be thinking about anything like that their age, is one, I frankly find depressing.

The other distinct difference, between now and when I was young, and this is crucial, is the ease at which boys as young as eleven have access to porn via the internet. Now, again, there is nothing new under the sun. At Spouse's school, there was a stack of porn mags stolen by various boys from their dads, hidden in one of the classroom cupboards, and passed round under the desk in lessons. When Spouse got to Epsom College, he was such a fount of knowledge, he made money out of his superior status. The difference now, though is, the sort of mags he was looking at were tame compared to what is available online. Forget parental controls, any savvy techie kid worth their salt can override them, and have access to a world they will barely understand, where women are sex objects, and there just to give pleasure to men. No wonder the 13 year old boys my daughter knows expect the girls they meet to be up for it, and are disappointed when they're not. They have no real understanding of how things develop organically and how sex fits into relationships. Not only are they too immature, and nature is making them want sex all the time anyway, the images they are getting via the computer screen are totally distorting their view of it, and more importantly their view on girls.

I was relieved at the end of this discussion to discover my daughters understand the power of saying no, and I have emphasized it to them again, but jeez, how incredibly sad that at their ages they should have to worry about this stuff, on top of all the other crap that goes on in their lives. I don't want them to be naive, but experiencing an innocent burgeoning of love which doesn't necessarily have to include sex, and does let them keep their self respect isn't too much to ask, surely?

On the upside, no 1 is progressing so slowly with her recently obtained boyfriend, I don't think I need worry about that kind of thing for at least a year, and yesterday no 4 informed me that her older sister has banned her from reading the next book in the Cherub series (her current favourite reading.) Why? I said, is it rude? She looked embarrassed and said yes. Do you not want to find about rude things, yet? I asked. No, she said firmly. I don't EVER want to know about that.

What a relief. At least the ten year olds are still innocent...

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Some thoughts about Shakespeare's birthday... or a literary kind of post

Oh dear. This blog is in danger of becoming a dead blog, deceased, no more.  I am not quite sure why, but I suspect Twitter is partially to blame. However, I do occasionally have things to say that require more then 140 characters, so the blog is here to stay, and I will sporadically keep posting...

It seems of late I have been spending a lot of time doing things of a literary nature. Which is fine by me. Literary things being my life blood as it were. However, with the constraints of family life, I don't get as much time for indulging my literary leanings (apart from the writing of course) as much as I would like.

Anyway in the last week, I have had plenty of opportunities to indulge myself, which has been just fine and dandy with me & it being Shakespeare's birthday week as it were, seemed like a good opportunity to blog about them too.

So last week, saw me at the London Book Fair. I try to go every year, but since they've changed the venue from Olympia to Earl's Court, the date has also changed, and now it invariably ends up in the Easter holidays, so I missed it last year.

The London Book Fair is were the great and the good of UK publishing meet their counterparts from around the world & strike up those amazing 6 figure deals you're always reading about in the papers. The first time I went, around twenty years ago, I was working for Scholastic and spent two days working my rocks off on their stand, meeting & greeting people. It was fun, hard work, but in the main entertaining. And luckily I didn't draw the short straw like my colleague who had the unenviable task of wandering round the Fair dressed as Postman Pat. In those days, LBF as it's known was more, well, parochial then it is now, and dare I say it, slightly more relaxed. Now it's very very shiny & a recent innovation, particularly with the advent of POD, self publishing and the ability to download your entire oeuvre onto Kindle is that authors now turn out in their droves. In my day, you hardly saw an author at the Fair, which was ever so slightly odd, considering it's all ABOUT THEM, but it was seen more as an opportunity to do business deals & sign contracts, whereas now promoting your author by actually having them there and getting them to meet potential publishers is actually seen as a good thing.

When I was first freelance, I used to go along to catch up on the gossip of my mates in publishing, as I missed the business badly when I was at home with small children (truth be told, though I LOVE writing, I still miss it.). And it was also an opportunity to make new contacts, and get work. Nowadays, I have less need for that, and usually pop in for lunch with my agent (and this year my editor), who tends to apologise for dragging me up there. Apologise? I say, WHAT ON EARTH FOR?

The truth is, that for people who are actually there on proper business, LBF is bloody hard work, but for hangers on like I am now, it's a jolly day out (I don't get many of those), an opportunity to get the feel of how the business is at the moment (thriving I'd say, despite the perennial gloom and doom about technology bringing about the death of books - which has been predicted pretty much constantly in the 24years I've been knocking around this business), and a chance to meet up with friends old and new. Because despite the fact that it is shinier and busier then it used to be, it's also still small enough to bump into people. So within minutes of being there, I'd run into my old sales director, and when going to meet my lovely author friends Kate Harrison and Jill Mansell, I bumped into an ex colleague and good friend whom I haven't seen forever. I had a great and informative lunch with my agent and editor, and was disappointed to have to tear myself away at 2.15 because I had to do the school run.

I had originally intended to go for two days this year, as I wanted to meet another friend who was around on the Wednesday. I'd also planned to stay longer on at least one evening, so I could meet up with more people I knew (disappointingly I missed a tweet up on Tuesday, and despite waving at lovely Danuta Kean across a coffee table, had no time to chat.) Memo to self, don't leave it till the last moment next year...

However, as I said, I've been having a very literary time of it of late, sooo, I had to hoof it from the book fair, to not only go home and do my mother thing, and cook tea for everyone, but hare off to the girls' school with eldest to see Carol Ann Duffy who some genius teacher had persuaded to come and do a talk. It's not every day you get to meet a Poet Laureate. And in fact, Carol Ann Duffy was my first (and probably last). I LOVE her poems, particularly the ones in The World's Wife, and although initially I thought she might not be that great at reading them aloud (not all poets are), once she was in her stride, she was absolutely mesmerising. I was particularly entranced by some of the poems from her recent collection, The Bees. The funniest one was a poem entitled Mrs Schofield's GSCE written in response to the preposterous banning of one of Carol Ann Duffy's poems as being an incitement to kids to take up knife crime, instead of understanding the true meaning of the poem, namely to bring kids out of poverty via education, so they WON'T get involved in knife crime. As she said to the Guardian, the best response for a poet, is to write a poem.

But the two poems that stood out for both no 1 and I were two of the most personal: about the death of Carol Ann Duffy's mother, Water and the very touching and beautiful Premonitions. Water begins with her talking about filling up a glass of water in a hospice cup and giving it to her mother, linking it with the times her mother gave her water as a child, and now she does the same for her own daughter. Given what we have recently experienced a family, it couldn't fail to strike a chord. But Premonitions, just blew me away. In it, the poet imagines getting to know her mother backwards, so at her death she is a total stranger. Oh dear god, how that poem could have been written for mil. She talks about the birds singing (we drove over to the hospice at midnight the day Rosemarie died, and I have never heard such a loud dawn chorus); imagines the wheelchair and commode disappearing, talks of her "unenglish" accent, and towards the end of the poem remembers her mother in front of the magnolia tree. In their house in Wallington, my in laws had a magnificent magnolia tree, and every year in spring, I think of it. I suppose, that's the universality of poetry, but it was comforting none the less.

Not only were the poems and the reading wonderful, I was really impressed with Carol Ann Duffy's good humour and interest in us when we came to get our books signed. She chatted for longer then she needed to, and seemed genuinely interested in no 1's choice of career. It was a fabulous experience, and not one you get very often on a rainy evening in a school hall.

Last Wednesday dawned, and with it my first proper foray into creative writing teaching, which was my other excuse for not getting to LBF that day. I've just volunteered to take part in enrichment activities at youngest's school, so now find myself teaching seven 7-10 year olds about writing for the next six weeks. My idea is simply to try and get them to express themselves. Oh, the incredible DULLNESS of writing in the National Curriculum, the most prescriptive way of teaching writing I have ever come  across. Not the teachers' fault, but dear god, these poor kids have every scrap of creativity drummed out of them, as they are obliged to write stories following the same plan. So when I suggested they just write what they like, they were a) enthusiastic and b) baffled. I kick started them  off by reading them some poems (Daffodils/Tiger Tiger/Father William), to see where that took their imaginations.  A lot of them chose to use pictures to tell their stories, but one bright spark produced a wonderful concrete poem inspired by Tiger Tiger. The boys then moved onto the computer games that inspired them, so there were a lot of things being blown up/goblins/zombies in their stories, but hey, at least they were creating stuff... This week I'm planning to play them some music, so it will be interesting to see where that takes us...

My literary day finished with book club at my house, which was fun, but sadly true to form I hadn't finished the books we'd chosen. Normally, I am too busy, but this time it was because my kindle had died. I am now in possession of a a new Kindle (thank you Amazon), and am playing catch up...

This week of course, we've had the Bard's birthday, which was the nominated day for the second World Book Night. I have to fess up to saying that last year I was a tad cynical about WBN, but when it actually happened it looked such a hoot, I was kicking myself for not getting involved. So this year, I was delighted to get the opportunity to take part, in a wonderful event organised by Surrey Libraries at Guildford Library, in which 30 local authors chatted to any person enthusiastic enough about books to want to come in and talk about them. And enthusiastic they certainly were. I shared a table with two other authors, Adrienne Dines a fantastic Irish author I know) and Zara Davies, who was new to me, but was equally interesting and fun. The evening was billed from 7.30-midnight, and thanks to a combination of  motherly duties (I hadn't quite finished cooking tea, oops), bad weather and Guildford's thoroughly confusing one way system, I arrived a couple of minutes before the event kicked off (sorry about that chaps), and was fairly sure that everyone would have gone home by 11pm. But amazingly, not only did all these wonderful people trek out on a rainy Monday night, but they all STAYED. So we left at midnight after all.

It was a really fun event, I met lots of aspiring authors, several published authors, and most importantly, READERS, people from all walks of life who are so interested and keen on books, they are prepared to give up a whole evening to talk about them. It was a very sound reminder of why us creative types do what we do, and how important our audiences actually are. I basked in reflected glory when one lady mentioned she liked historical writer Elizabeth Chadwick, and I mentioned she's a writing buddy, and Adrienne and I did our best to push Marian Keyes as being not the light fluffy read people seem to erroneously think. Highlight of the evening for me (but probably not her) was meeting Richard Hammond's mum, as his dad was there promoting a book of his own - well I have to do something to impress the kids these days...

All in all it was a great evening, and reminded me of why I got involved in this business in the first place. I don't get to do enough things like that in my daily life anymore, but boy when I get the opportunity to, is it fodder for my soul.

But now, sadly, it's back to reality. I have a book to rewrite (of which more in a later post) & a creative writing class to plan. So Adios Amigos, and Happy Birthday to Bill. He's half the reason I do this, you know...

Sunday, March 18, 2012

A blog for mother's day

First an apology. I think this is the longest I've ever gone without blogging. Partly because I have been caught up trying to finish my latest wip, This Christmas (a follow up to Last Christmas if you're interested), which I delivered hideously late at the start of last week, and also partly because I've found writing intensely difficult over the last few months. I really wanted to write a piece celebrating my mother in law's life, but I've found it impossible to get my thoughts together in any kind of coherent manner. For someone who always wants to write down every single experience I have, it's been a weird feeling, but in the early days after Rosemarie's death I was so wrung out and exhausted, the effort of writing was completely beyond me. However, Spring is sprung, I've finally hit my deadline, and today seems a good day to marshall my thoughts together.

So here goes...

Rosemarie was quite unlike anyone I have ever met. She was without doubt one of the kindest, most considerate people I have known in my life, but with a steely determination which meant that she could be quietly manipulative at times about getting her own way. When I first met her, I found this aspect of her personality somewhat overwhelming. Whereas my parents were relatively laid back about what we were up to at any given time (frankly with eight children I think that was the only sane choice), my parents in law seemed to want to know every intimate detail of our lives in a way I found hideously intrusive. It's a question of style and what you're used to (I know my other half finds my family equally baffling at times), but the one thing that was always clear was from the moment we got engaged, Rosemarie welcomed me into her family and treated me like the daughter she'd never had. Sometimes this could have unintentionally hilarious consequences: for the first few Christmases of my married life I was indundated with clothes which I'd politely accept and hide away in the cupboard. (I still have a set of lacy knickers which I can't quite bring myself to wear, nor to throw away). My mother in law had many virtues but a high sense of fashion wasn't among them. She always bought quality, but her idea of what would suit a young woman of 24 and mine were shall we say, at variance. On our first trip to Germany, her sister Gisi who lives in a home out there, was clearing away a load of clothes, which we duly took back home. I and my then sister in law spent a wretched afternoon politely refusing item of clothing after item of clothing as being not quite what we'd wear (though Gisi, it has to be said was stylish in her time, but the clothes we were choosing were already about 30 years out of date). "Oh what a shame!" Rosemarie said after each item of clothing had been dismissed, "And it's such good quality!"

Such good quality... was something of a catchphrase. When we cleared out her flat just after Christmas, we found clothes she clearly hadn't worn since the 70s, but the quality was exceptionally good. Having understood her a bit better by then, I now realise that growing up as she did on a farming estate, where her clothes were made for her by the local dressmaker, and a girl would still store up good quality tableclothes and linen for her trousseau, Rosemarie must have been in a permanent state of bafflement of as to why such things aren't valued now. Sadly most of what we found that was left from those days is no use to anyone today, although we couldn't bear to throw out some linen napkins with her intials embroidered onto them; a link to a far off, nearly forgotten time, when things were made to last.

Over the early years of my marriage, I often felt frustration mixed with affection for Rosemarie. She always tried too hard it seemed to me; she was always affectionate, but for a buttoned up Brit, a little too touchy feely. There were times when I felt she thought I could be looking after her precious son more often. And moments of high tension, like the time she decided to wash our bedclothes when we were away on holiday. Anyone else would have known that was a no no, but Rosemarie was genuinely trying to help, and would have been hurt to know how intrusive I found it. So of course, I couldn't tell her. I often wished she would just step back a little so we could get on better.

Once the children came along that tension increased. If I heard it once, I heard it a thousand times, that her sons never had a dirty nappy. By dint of holding them over a potty when they'd been fed, these perfect babies made her life spectacularly easy. It is hard to accept that you're not being subliminally criticised, when you get told this constantly. Except, I'm not sure that she was. Her memory was no doubt slightly skewed and she had rose tinted coloured memories of her sons' infanthoods, but I also think now she was genuinely trying to help. Me being a new, slightly over sensitive mother took exception to this. Probably rightly. No one likes being told how to do it by their mother in law, especially when you know she means so well. I'm sure at times Rosemarie was as baffled by me, as I was by her, but even so there was affection on both sides, as much as bewilderment about the stance the other had taken. And of course, a shared love for her son, which makes for a bond in itself.

Our relationship changed forever in February 1997. Up until this point, my inlaws had been living in the family home in Wallington. Rosemarie had cared for her own mother in law till her death in 1991, and had by then been suffering from the benign essential tremor which blighted her later years, for a decade or more. She had given up driving, and relied on Roger to do all the shopping, being unable to make the walk into Wallington on her own. In their mid seventies, we always imagined that Roger would have to care for her. But then, Roger had a massive stroke, and was rushed to St Helier hospital, where we were all summoned to what we thought at the time was going to be his death bed. As it happened, despite being given a very poor chance of survival, Roger proved made of sterner stuff, and after two weeks in a coma came round, and slowly fought his way back to reasonable (if never again good) health. Poor Rosemarie was all at sea. For starters, as was the way in marriages for her generation, Roger did all the paperwork, and she had no idea how to run the finances. And then, there was the day to day management of the house, which was now to big and impractical for two old people of increasing infirmity. It became clear that they were going to have to sell the house, which is how we found ourselves several months later having both of them to stay while the flat we had found for them up the road was being decorated.

Rosemarie cared for Roger for the next six years. Being Rosemarie she did it with a cheerfulness and determination, which belied the difficulties involved. Roger could have had carers four times a day, but she wouldn't have that, so she would still help him get up in the morning, never went to bed till he was settled for the evening (dearly as I loved Fil, he could be terribly selfish, and was never comfortable in bed, so slept in a chair all night. Part of Rosemarie's daily routine involved putting his feet up for the night - before which point she couldn't sleep). I really don't know how she did it without killing him, quite frankly. The demands of caring for him, when her own condition was worsening would have sent anyone else demented, and yet the only time I ever saw her lose it was just before the end, when we managed to get her some respite care. The night before he died, remarkably she managed to get him to and from the loo on her own, not once, but several times. Spouse and I could never work out how she did it, but somehow she did.

At the time of Fil's death, our children were still very young, and I am sure they were the main thing that kept Rosemarie going during that difficult period. It was the only time I ever saw her downhearted. I saw her cry often; she was an emotional person, who cried when anything upset her, but always had the ability to snap herself out of it. But after Fil died, she sat at our dining room table weeping, unable to see a cheerful future for herself. Our wise GP prescribed antidepressants, which saw her through until a point when her innate happiness returned.

Because, at heart, Rosemarie was a very happy person. She took pleasure in the simple things in life: playing ball with her grandchildren - even if she couldn't run round the garden with them, but would have to play catch from a sitting position; being thrilled with their achievements large and small; struggling for years to come to their shows, their Christmas fairs, and carol concerts - and even when she could attend no longer, loving to see the programmes of the shows they'd been in; and being thrilled to become a great granny aged 81.

Rosemarie was widowed at 78, and already used a pusher to walk with. Plus she was living several miles away from all her friends. Unlike my mother who was widowed much younger, and was therefore fit enough to make a single life for herself, Rosemarie's options as a widow were much more limited. And yet, being her, she as ever made the best of it.

For years she would go into town in a taxi, getting out at the Nat West where the staff all knew her, drawing her money out, then tottering around our local shopping centre with her walker (which she referred to as her steel horse), before returning to the bank, where the bank staff who all loved her (like anyone who had anything to do with her - all the carers, the nurses and doctors fell in love with Rosemarie), would order a taxi to take her home.

She used to take herself off into the park, making sure she got her daily walk in, to keep herself fit. Even though it took her an age to get in and out of her flat (which had an inconvenient step, which wasn't easy to negotiate with a walker), she would make herself go out. As time went on and she became more infirm, this became harder for her to manage, and for the last two years, she was obliged to stay inside, unless we were able to take her out ourselves. For someone as at home with nature as she was, this must have been a huge trial. And yet again, she never complained. But relished the opportunities to spend sunny afternoons in our garden, when we'd come and pick her up in her wheelchair, and take her down the road. Again, Rosemarie took pleasure in the little things, like watching her son plant potatoes, or her granddaughter aloft on the roof of the shed Spouse built a couple of years ago, or being given the guinea pig to hold by no 4. (I think she was nearly as distraught as the children were when we had to have the rabbit put down last year.)

And so Rosemarie's life continued, becoming incremently more and more difficult. Where she had managed completely alone, three years ago it became clear she couldn't cope without help, so to begin with she had a carer once a day. Cooking was becoming a liability, so I used to cook double quantities of everything and furnish her with pies and stews, which she was still able to heat up herself. Then that September, she had a fall. Ironically, the only time she ever pushed her community alarm the damned thing didn't work, and to our horror, she spent the whole night on the floor. When she was found the next day by the carer, the ambulance men had to break in and turn her oven off. "Do you know, Jules," she said to me when we were sitting in casualty, "it must have been misty last night, as there was a fog in the hall." She still hadn't realised her quiche had nearly burnt the flat down.

We thought then, that we were going to lose her. She spent the best part of four months in and out of hospital, at one time, so confused we wondered if she'd ever become coherent again. But remarkably, she pulled herself together, and got home where she now had carers four times a day, and meals on wheels delivered daily. For the next year, before she was diagnosed with leukaemia last May, she and we had a special and blessed time, when we could enjoy each other's company and be grateful she was still with us.

I've talked alot about how things were when I first knew Rosemarie. But the last few years of her life obliterated any tension an irritation that may have been between us. I looked after her a great deal. Filling in when carers weren't able to get in, or were late turning up in the mornings, taking her to all her appointments, writing all her Christmas cards for her (an annual ritual which involved me consuming ALOT of red wine), sitting in the last year watching ITV3 with her in the afternoons; holding her hand in reassurance during yet another hospital visit. I'm sorry she had to suffer with all the indignities of old age, and the pain she had to endure, but I'm not sorry we became close because of it. It has been one of the greatest privileges of my life to be so close to her at the end, and to have helped, her I hope, in some small part cope with her suffering.

Rosemarie taught me what it was to love and be loved; to hope when hope seems fruitless, to keep going when there seems little point. She was the kindest of people, the happiest of people. I was so lucky she was my second Mum. My life was the richer for having her in it, and so much the poorer now.

RIP Mil, I'll never forget youxxx

Friday, January 06, 2012

In praise of a beautiful lady

When I first joined the Romantic Novelist's Association umpteen years ago, I was at home with two very small children, working as a freelance editor and attempting to write in my pitifully meagre spare time. For the first year I was a member, I don't think I had email, and I certainly didn't have any contact with any other members of the RNA. But that all changed when I was invited to join what was then known as the RNA cyber chapter, an email group open to all members of the RNA. There I found a whole host of welcoming, lovely writers, who were happy to give advice, help and support to a newbie like me.

Among those writers, one was to turn into a very good friend. Not being a Mills and Boon reader (that is not to knock the genre, romantic fiction is a very broad church and M&B just isn't my particular cup of tea), it took me an embarrassingly long time to realise that the lovely Penny Halsall who took time out to give me advice and offered to critique my work, was in fact none other then Penny Jordan a best selling Harlequin author of quite staggering proportions. Her output, dedication and commitment to her trade was second to none, and her well deserved success in her chosen field could have meant she was snooty and overbearing with wannabes like me. But Penny wasn't like that. She was modest and self effacing and loved to help fellow writers on the path to publication. And she certainly helped me.

Some time later, I was invited to join another email group of which Penny was a member, consisting of writers at different stage of publication, who all support one another in our daily lives. There Penny was a great support to us all, always quick with sympathy if anyone had a problem, ever ready to give advice one asked. She was also uproariously funny, and many of her posts made me laugh out loud.

During this period, I was struggling to keep on top of being a mum, still editing, trying to be a writer and coping with my elderly inlaws. There were many points at which I despaired and nearly gave up. Penny was one among several people who persuaded me to keep going. Her thoughtful and honest appraisals of my writing helped me to hone and perfect my skills. And when the new Avon list started, it was Penny who suggested to me that I try there. Without that nudge, I might not be where I am today, and I will always be grateful to her for that.

As is often the case with email friends, I didn't actually get to meet Penny until a couple of years ago, when I encountered an incredibly glamorous woman at the Harper Collins party, surrounded by friends, who greeted me like a long lost friend. Although it was the only time we met, I felt like I had known her forever.

Like a lot of us, I was aware that Penny had some health problems, but she always played them down, so until last week I had no idea she was seriously ill. Typically generous to the last, she sent me messages of support through my own travails with Rosemarie, without once dropping a hint of her own condition.

It was a huge body blow to hear how ill she was, and then to discover she had passed away so quickly after that, but knowing I am not alone in grieving her loss, is helping. And knowing that I was privileged enough to have had her support and love all these years is a huge boost at a difficult time.

RIP Lovely lady, you will be sadly missed, and not just by me.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Happy New Year!

Thanks to life spiralling quite spectacularly out of control in the months leading up to Christmas, I have I know, been a very poor blogger in the last little while. I'm crap at keeping New Year's Resolutions, but I hope to keep the one about blogging more often. Well I can hardly blog, less then I did last year...

Anyway, if anyone is still out there, a Happy New Year to you all, and I hope you had a lovely Christmas.

This year, ours was a time of mixed blessings, as my lovely mother in law finally passed away in the early hours of December 23. Being Rosemarie, she took care to leave us just before the festive season so our plans weren't spoiled, and even giving the boys time to get to the funeral director's on the Friday. She departed with the minimum of fuss, so though we were called to her bedside, she'd gone before we got there, and we entered her room to the sounds of Radio 3 which had been playing all that week in the background. I would have liked to have been there, but one of the many wise and wonderful nurses at the hospice told me that she thinks these things are meant to be, and as Rosemarie knew we were coming, I can only assume she wanted to go in her own good time.

I have spent the last week or so planning to write a piece about her, but then I heard last Friday, that a very dear writing friend, Penny Jordan was ill with cancer. Sadly she too passed away on New Year's Eve, and I am not alone in mourning her loss. So if you'll bear with me, my next two posts are going to be tributes to two women I loved dearly, remarkable in their own different ways.

I am hoping for better things from 2012...

In the meantime a Happy New Year to you all, and may it bring you all the joys and good things you desire and deserve.