University as a ‘rite of passage’: On becoming an empty-nester

institution_full_545__winchester_CENTRE_hero (1)On Saturday my lovely daughter Evie is starting her first term at the University of Winchester. She only made her mind up to go to Uni at all at the beginning of August, having had a year out to focus on her athletics and train with the GB high jump coach Fuzz Ahmed in Birmingham. Her friends came home after their first years of study, extolling the virtues of the Student Union and her determination to avoid the debt of a student loan went out the window.

Evie & James in 2000

Evie & James in 2000

Both children (and won’t they always be our children?) will now be at University. James lives with his partner is London and all being well is fully fledged and on his way. Now Evie follows – promising to come back in the holidays, but only until she graduates and can find a job ‘anywhere but Taunton’. I don’t blame her, frankly. But I am sorry, and sad. I actually feel, for a little while anyway, that I will be bereft.

Don’t misunderstand me – I am full of pride, along with the usual parental fears about safety and concerns that they both have enough money (because to be honest we haven’t enough to help them much and it is SO expensive). But not only is it a real rite of passage for Evie, it is a significant one for Peter and I too. We are now on our own for the first time in more than 22 years. We can do as we please; we can swing from the chandelier (if our old bones would let us and we had one); we needn’t buy Oreos and Coco Pops any more or smell endless pepperoni pizza on the go. James isn’t here to play World of Warcraft and Evie won’t have ‘Sex and the City’ DVDs on repeat. Neither will now be here to leave towels all over the floor of the bathroom or underwear festering under their beds, at least not in our home. Oh dear….

Winchester student accommodation

Winchester student accommodation

We have never sought to influence either child in their decision, but we are really pleased Evie is following her brother to higher education. I don’t think it is for everyone and I loathe the idea that anyone would value a degree ‘for the sake of it’ over a valuable vocational course. But when you have a son for whom Philosophy is an obsession and a daughter who can jump higher than the top of her mother’s head, the life skills they will learn and opportunities they will have away from home will be invaluable. Winchester Uni has great athletics facilities and a good Law faculty (who would have thought Evie would ever follow my example in anything...)  We have visited the city with her and although I knew it of old, as one of those places forever associated with the poet John Keats and ‘Ode to Autumn’, (there is a wonderful ‘Keats Walk you can do now) I saw it through new eyes – imagining what it would be like to be a student there. Put it this way – I was green with envy and I continue to be so. How different the experience is from ‘my day’. The Polytechnic of Central London was great (it is now the University of Westminster and maybe not so great) but there was no central campus and no ‘student village’.

Lots of parents are packing their offspring off for the first time at the moment. The lists of what to take are so long we know we will forget something. At least we know Evie can cook and do her own washing and is ok-ish with money, but it must be a huge step to take for any young person. The accommodation seems to be lockable rooms in small flats with a shared kitchen – at Winchester all very new and very nice (and apparently compared to Manhattan…) – but surely a challenge if you are shy, have concerns about privacy and personal space or an aversion to washing up. Evie is very gregarious, but is already worried she won’t be ‘clever enough’. She will be, but the workload will be unlike any study she has done before and to be certain you come out with a degree worth its name you can’t just do ‘enough’ any more. You have to stand out. It truly is a stress-filled time, but hugely exciting and full of promise and opportunity. No wonder so many parents ask if they can enrol when they turn up with their offspring to Open Days.

James 2013

James 2013

Evie 2013

Evie 2013

So Saturday will be a day of mixed emotions for us, as for so many other parents this autumn. We have gone through all those ‘first days at nursery’,  ‘first days at primary school’, ‘first days at secondary school’ and would like to encourage all those parents in the blogging community to cling on to those memories and have a thought for those of us who have no more ‘back to school’ shopping trips to negotiate, or assemblies to attend. It will be graduation next – and then they really will be on their way,

Bless them.

Posted in Parenting, Random musings on family life, love the universe and everything, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Talking Books talks Broken Dreams & Bottom Lines – Darel Pace on life & writing

BD&BLMost people who know me would not expect me to read a ‘chick-lit’ novel for fun. It has been mentioned to me that if I read light-hearted books I would be less prone to depression, but quite apart from the lack of insight that statement contains I think prolonged exposure to some of the stuff out there on Kindle would have the opposite effect.

So when Somerset author Darel Pace agreed to come on my 10Radio show Talking Books to discuss her book Broken Dreams and Bottom Lines, I was a bit worried that I might not be able to talk to her about her book honestly, in case it was one of those frothy stories where the last chapter is predictable having read the first and the author might as well not have bothered with the intervening 50,000 words. Thankfully, Broken Dreams is not like that at all. In fact it is a joyously sweary, genre-subverting and funny book that Darel has made sure gets as much exposure as possible on Kindle – to the point where it has spent some time in international best-seller lists.

The lead character, Liss Birling, is someone who wants to believe that a woman can have it all, but her life isn’t really turning out that way and circumstances constantly remind her that she is more or less muddling through. Single parenthood; the ‘modern woman’; the test of career, children and happy marriage as all that matters; it is a book that Darel makes sure really doesn’t fit the usual chick-lit template. She wanted to be more ‘real’, more like the truth of life for many young women in modern Britain. A storyteller at heart, it is clear that Darel has fun with her writing, although as you will hear in the interview below – it has been really hard work to get the book ‘out there’. She combines her writing with her job as a teacher and has found her students, their parents and her colleagues supportive (despite the rude words!).

There really isn’t any way I am going to be reading chick-lit by the bookcase load. It really isn’t me. My ‘light’ reading is generally a crime novel – a cosy whodunnit. But if it is something you enjoy, especially if you are a fan of Sex and the City for example, take a look at Broken Dreams and Bottom Lines. Darel was a great guest and I wish her luck should someone buy the film rights. Melissa McCarthy should be waiting for the script….

Broken Dreams and Bottom Lines is available on Amazon Kindle for the special price of 99p for September. Darel also has a successful blog at http://darels-world.blogspot.co.uk/

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Votes for Women! The Bristol Suffragettes on Talking Books

BristolsuffragettesOn last Friday’s Talking Books – my radio show on 10Radio.org -I interviewed writer Lucienne Boyce, who has recently published a wonderful book called The Bristol Suffragettes, the story of the women who took the fight for ‘votes for all ‘ to the streets of Bristol in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Many of us (myself included) have a narrow view of who the suffragettes were, what they stood for and how they took militant and direct action to the top of government. On Friday I learned how women in the South West of England made a real difference to the overall battle and how their determination took them to rallies and marches; how they felt forced to break windows and start fires; of their confidence to heckle politicians and, ultimately, their ability to endure prison (and force feeding) to keep the fight for votes for women at the forefront of the public mind.

Having read Lucienne’s book I am impressed most particularly by three things:

1. The amount of research that has gone into a book that is both comprehensive and immensely readable. It would be a terrific resource for anyone studying the subject at any level. The general reader – especially if they know the Bristol area or are planning a visit – will enjoy the storytelling, the photographs (so well presented on top quality paper) and the guided walk included in the back, offering the opportunity to follow the suffragettes on a walk around the city.

2. The production values. As I say the photos are presented well and the text is clear and easy to read. So many history books don’t get that balance right, having all the photos in one place surrounded by pages of dense text.

3. How grateful we should be to those women prepared to stand up and fight for us all to have a say in how our country is run.  Lucienne has balanced what was, sometimes, criminal activity, with the necessary fight that women had to take to the male establishment. They were also faced with hostility from women who felt that the responsibility was too much to deal with on top of their child rearing and housekeeping responsibilities.

I heartily recommend this book, and when you listen to the broadcast below you will hear how passionate Lucienne is about the topic. I have had some great feedback about the programme: ‘fascinating’ ‘we must have more history programmes on Talking Books‘ ‘I never knew that!’ and most importantly, ‘how can I buy the book?’.

As mentioned on the programme I always suggest ordering it through your local bookshop and even though it is not yet listed you can get it through www.localbookshops.co.uk. If you absolutely must you can get it through Amazon too!

Lucienne Boyce also has her own website which offers more details about the book and her research and also tells you about her fiction writing.  Set in the 18th century, To the Fair Land was published in 2012 to great reviews. Described as a ‘gripping, thrilling’ mystery, Lucienne also talks about the inspiration for the book at the end of Talking Books.

So do take a listen to the show, it was one that I particularly enjoyed. It is a fascinating half hour and ends with a very stirring song….

Posted in Author interviews, Book, Books, History, Radio Show, Talking Books, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

On books, writing, and reading with my eyes shut

books1I was up late last night. Exhausted, I had to put all my books back into my bookcases. They had been taken out because, for the first time (drum roll and complete lack of excitement for anyone other than myself) we have a carpet down in the dining room instead of bare floorboards. Lovely – the smell of new carpet is second only to the ‘new car’ smell, but taking everything out of three tall bookcases and then having to put it all back  - dusting those unread for a while and then flicking through to try and find out why they have been so neglected – takes AN AGE. I have three full shelves of Keats books; two more of other poetry. I know these books so well, have them bookmarked, can open them at the right place almost with my eyes closed. I found three biographies I haven’t even started yet, simply because they are such monumental tomes I just can’t find the time to do them justice (and they aren’t about Keats.)

Anyway, the exercise (and I definitely burned off a few calories) got me thinking this morning about why I have these books all around me. No-one else in my family is so obsessed by the printed page, unless it has a crossword on it. My husband occasionally mutters the words ‘charity shop’ under his breath, but he now knows that I am likely to come out with more books than I have given away.

Mercifully, now that I am officially a ‘writer’, I find it easier to justify the need to take up whole walls with shelves full of books only I am interested in. He literally has one, small, shelf. It has two books about swimming, three on Audrey Hepburn, a ’100 things you never knew about Irish Rugby’ and two ‘Walking with Dinosaurs’ coffee table books that are really only weighing down the bottom of the shelves to ensure they don’t fall on top of us. I have read since I was small and have always wanted everyone I love to love books, to understand what I find in them. But often, people just aren’t interested. Fine. But they don’t know what they are missing.

Soon, we will be decorating upstairs, where I have all my books about World War One, and last night’s exercise will be repeated. I am writing a book called Shell Shocked Britain for Pen & Sword History for next year, with another to follow, so they aren’t going anywhere. Some of them are library books that I have renewed over and over again so they almost feel like mine. I have developed a real relationship with them, know them intimately (the index of two or three of these books are ingrained on my optic nerve in some cases) and feel quite put out if someone else reserves them.

I know I am not the only person who feels like this. There are Pinterest boards full of pictures of libraries, book cases, books, inspirational quotes about books, fun quotes about readers and reading. Never has the printed word been more popular, despite (or perhaps because of) the availability of ebooks. There is nothing quite like the smell of a new book; that ‘crack’ as you open one for the first time. Library books rarely smell as good, and occasionally someone else’s fossilised breakfast cereal or an unidentifiable hair drops on to your lap, but really that just shows they have been loved and gobbled up and now it is my turn to enjoy them. 

I have just had a fabulous ten-day holiday, housesitting in Suffolk and got lots more of Shell Shocked on the page instead of in my head or scribbled in notebooks. It was the best holiday we have had in ages, despite the fact that my husband and I had our noses on the keyboard some nights – me tapping away at a chapter and he analysing suicide statistics for 1910 to 1930 for me to add at a later date. All my aches and pains seemed to disappear as I gradually relaxed and I felt so much better. We were in a house full of books, which helped, and I am out writing this afternoon, a coffee shop trip to the one where they have lots of books on shelves and quotes on the walls. It is all I need to be inspired and WRITE.

Books offer me an inner (and now outer) life that I just couldn’t function properly without. I feel grateful that I have the opportunity to take myself to places I may never see, hear people I don’t know speak to me and understand the lives of others in a way that can only enhance my own. 

So, however late I have to stay up, however much dust gets up my nose, however much others mutter and chuckle at my absorption in pages old and new, books are my ‘forever friends’. Always there for me, never letting me down. Truly medicine for the soul.

As I like to do at these moments, I include here a poem. This one isn’t by a ‘high brow’ poet but it speaks such truths about what it means to read, to let yourself love books and to open your eyes to the possibilities they hold, that it seemed an apt way to end. It is by the magnificent Dr Seuss…

I Can Read With My Eyes Shut! – Dr. Seuss

I can read in red. I can read in blue.
I can read in pickle color too.
I can read in bed, and in purple, and in brown.
I can read in a circle and upside down.

I can read with my left eye.
I can read with my right.
I can read Mississippi with my eyes shut tight.

There are so many things you can learn about, but
You’ll miss the best things if you keep your eyes shut.
The more that you read, the more things you will know.
The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.

If you read with your eyes shut, you’re likely to find
That the place where you’re going is far, far behind.
So that’s why I tell you to keep your eyes wide,
Keep them wide open … at least on one side!

Posted in Book, Books, Keats, Random musings on family life, love the universe and everything, Reading, Talking Books, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Meaningless, meaningless, all is meaningless

keatsbabe:

I am not someone who can engage easily with the established church, whilst at the same time I long for the kind of faith that can support me at times when I am down, anxious or depressed. This post, from the Kung Fu Preacher Man (who I was lucky enough to meet in person on Friday) is so refreshing I felt I had to share it. I am not saying it will suddenly convert people to reading the bible (goodness knows I am not a person you should allow to convert you to anything, nor would I try) but for many of us the Church seems out of touch and lacking in empathy. Perhaps, after all, the bible doesn’t think it has all the answers. Perhaps after all it does have, in its list of characters, people with whom we can relate. Feel free to argue with me, disagree vehemently, worry about me, whatever. I just liked this post…

Originally posted on KungFuPreacherMan:

Cheerful book Ecclesiates: ‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless’ (Ecclesiastes 1.2). I don’t know about you but I normally turn to the Bible for encouragement, or wisdom or perhaps guidance. I don’t tend to look for a big slice of depression; with cream and a cherry on top, but that’s just what I find in Ecclesiastes.

The writer is rich and successful but is bored with life. He has children but he obviously doesn’t think much of them because he resents leaving his wealth for them to enjoy. He is bitter and twisted, which begs the question, “why have this in the Bible”? Why indeed?

Well for a start, it chimes with how most people feel about life, at least at some point. No matter how positive I want to be, at times life will get me down. Then these passages are strangely comforting…

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A heartfelt plea for independent bookshops

booksThere are so many ways to buy a book now. Online via Amazon perhaps, in a chain of bookshops such as Waterstones, in your local W H Smiths and even in your local out-of-town supermarket. You buy paperbacks, hardbacks and a variety of eformats. There are books published by the well known companies – Penguin, Simon & Schuster etc etc – and buy smaller, niche publishers. And of course there are the thousands of self-published books now available to download for Kindle, Kobo and the like.

In the midst of all these retail opportunities, where stands the independent bookshop? Remember -that lovely little place tucked off the high street where you might spend a few minutes browsing during an unexpected downpour, or perhaps check out a book you have seen advertised and then go away to order on Amazon?

I love little bookshops and head straight to any I might find when out for the day in a new town, or when on holiday. Second hand bookshops have abebooks -a great way to link up with shops that may have that elusive rare copy you have been looking for for years. But did you know that many small indie bookshops can offer a similar service? They can do an out of print book search for you with genuinely personal service.

Last week on my radio show, Talking Books, I had a great discussion about this very subject with Julie Munckton, who used to work in the wonderful Brendon Books in Taunton, where I launched Dandelions and Bad Hair Days almost a year ago. Julie now works for localbookshops.co.uk, the online home for independent bookshops in the UK and Ireland. If anyone can save indie bookshops from extinction it is Julie. She speaks for them with such passion and with the expertise of a brilliant bookseller that it now seems natural to me to go to the localbookshops website before I check a book on Amazon. Listen to us chat here – it was, I think, one of the best shows yet. Julie is a radio natural.

The principle behind the www.localbookshops.co.uk  site is that indie bookshops join up and then instead of buying from one of the retail giants you buy via your local book shop. Or if you have a favourite shop in another part of the country you can order from there. The book then be sent out to you neatly packaged at reasonable cost. I ordered a philosophy textbook for my son via Brendon Books, giving his address and he received it faster than if we had gone via Amazon. There are hundreds of shops already signed up so you are bound to find someone to help. Better still, you can, if you wish, be in direct contact with a REAL BOOKSELLER!!

Julie chose a poem to be read out on the show; a wonderful poem by Czeslaw Milosz about, of course, books…

And Yet the Books

And yet the books will be there on the shelves, separate beings,
That appeared once, still wet
As shining chestnuts under a tree in autumn,
And, touched, coddled, began to live
In spite of fires on the horizon, castles blown up,
Tribes on the march, planets in motion.
“We are,” they said, even as their pages
Were being torn out, or a buzzing flame
Licked away their letters. So much more durable
Than we are, whose frail warmth
Cools down with memory, disperses, perishes.
I imagine the earth when I am no more:
Nothing happens, no loss, it’s still a strange pageant,
Women’s dresses, dewy lilacs, a song in the valley.
Yet the books will be there on the shelves, well born,
Derived from people, but also from radiance, heights.

Czeslaw Milosz

It is wonderful and really expresses our passion for the printed word.

I worked in Waterstones for a while and although I do like the atmosphere in their shops, it was really a book supermarket with a head office directing campaigns and making decisions about what should happen at a local level. As Julie explained, local bookshops are much better for local authors using small publishers and are now finding ways to diversify in order to stay afloat. They are becoming real community hubs, hosting readings, festivals, supper club. art and poetry groups, performance space, birthday parties, story time and my favourite -cafes (although I agree with Julie that a cafe with a few books is not a bookshop. I would recommend the Wordsworth Cafe and Bookshop in Penrith, Cumbria. where my husband and I sat quietly with the Guardian crossword (provided by the shop) for an hour before checking out the books upstairs. Lovely, knowledgeable staff and great cakes. What more can you ask for?

It is difficult for bookshops to survive in these difficult times for retailers of all kinds. There are more battles to fight than those against Amazon – business rates and parking costs for example. But the big shops make it doubly difficult. Why can’t they stick to selling food etc rather than pinching all the little shops’ trade?

So next time why not give Julie and your local bookshop the chance to prove to you that they really can compete with the big guns? And if you pop in to browse, why not pick the book up, take it to the counter and pay for it, there and then, instead of going away to order it from Amazon? Those extra few minutes you save away from your PC are precious and may just keep our high street indies alive…

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Publishing books as fundraisers – the pros and cons on ‘Talking Books’

Last week I blew my own trumpet on Talking Books. I chose the theme ‘writing books for charity’ and, of course, Dandelions and Bad Hair Days  (now available on Kindle) comes firmly within that category, raising funds for SANE. However, lots of other people have produced some wonderful work to support particular causes and charities and I thought it would be a good topic to discuss – what was the experience of those who had gone through the process and frankly, was it worth it?

alzheimersMy main guest was Jackie Burgoyne from the ‘All Write Then’ collective, a group that came together after meeting online via the Open University Creative Writing course. Jackie contacted me via the DABHD Facebook page to see if I had any advice to offer. I hope sharing my experience with her was useful and the group have certainly produced a great book – Still Me – which has been written to raise awareness of and funds for The Alzheimer’s Society. I have a copy – it is lovely, with some really heartfelt writing within its pages and I would heartily recommend buying a copy. It was lovely to find out that, quite by chance, the group also chose the dandelion as an image for the front cover.

I also shared the experiences of Esther Clark, whose OU Creative Writing group also pulled together an anthology called At Home With Words (which you can still purchase by clicking on the link and contacting Esther) for Cancer Research UK and mentioned the work of  Lois Chaber, who wrote The Thing Inside My Head for OCD Action and Jackie Tanner, a poet who wrote The Cupcake Queen Bites Back for SWEDA (Somerset and Wessex Eating Disorders Association) a local Eating Disorders Charity.

Although those I spoke to acknowledged frustrations, anxiety and a lot of hard work, everyone found publishing their books very rewarding and worthwhile.

I played a couple of interviews with contributors to DABHD on the show, let the lovely voice of poet David J Beauman work his magic on listeners by reading my own poem Life Force (in DABHD) and then donned the headphones for the first time ever and spoke to Jackie live on the telephone. Hopefully she didn’t find it too scary and we rounded off the show with her request Swing on a Star by Bing Crosby, a great favourite of her mother’s, who remembered the words even in the late stages of her dementia. Very moving.

I do hope you can listen to the show via the link above. There is a lot of my voice (as my sister kindly pointed out), for which apologies but I hope I am getting a little better at this presenting lark. Still a little hesitant and definitely not slick, but it is still early days. Thanks for listening!

Posted in Author interviews, Book, Charities, Dandelions and Bad Hair Days, Mental health, Radio Show, Reading, Talking Books, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment