Oh dear – it is our first New Year’s Eve in France and I feel all wrong. Isn’t Christmas peculiar? I commented on a friend’s Facebook post yesterday, one in which they asked how many others were feeling like ‘two peas in a drum’ after the visitors had left. Responses, including mine, suggested they were far from alone. The intensity and joy of a happy Christmas (and I recognise that many find it a deeply lonely and distressing day), all the preparations, the presents, the anticipation and the sparkle can leave a very hollow feeling in their wake. I know from social media that many fall ill with viruses even before the celebrations get going, so I feel especially peevish complaining after four lovely days with our grown-up children, but I feel really low now they have returned home. Suffering as I do from anxiety and depression I have to note how vulnerable I feel, and take steps to recognise the triggers. So uneaten food remains in the fridge and their beds aren’t going to be stripped for a while yet…
My husband has a very sensible view of the celebrations – he could hold them at any time of year, he says. It is just a matter of getting the right people around you and focusing your attention on them, instead of on work, phone or laptop. We played lots of board games over Christmas and talked. In fact, the kids talked so much they squabbled just like the old days and I really felt like ‘Mum’ again. In the real world, on the remaining 364 days of the year, I am whatever passes for ‘myself’ so it came as a nasty shock to feel so bereft and lacking in purpose when they went home. I have always loved the Pam Ayres poem ‘A September Song’, in which she describes the feelings of a mum watching her son packing up for University. Lines such as:
…a ghastly leaden feeling like the ending of it all
I am fearful of the emptiness when you depart the room,
And a silence settles round us like the stillness of a tomb
describe perfectly the emptiness in our house now the liveliness of our two twenty-somethings, with their endless iPhone notifications and the dust of London on their feet, are back living their own lives. They are fledged and building futures in the real world. Peter and I will continue our French escape, knowing that they both loved our new home. They’ll be back and we’ll be over, so it isn’t the end of anything. But Christmas, the party side of it anyway, does that to us every year – it expects something of us, asks us to get excited and then whips the sparkle out from under us without so much as a by your leave. It’s a wonder we fall for it – but we do (and I love it while it lasts!). It is at times like this that I envy people of faith (any faith). The Christmas Nativity offers so much to look forward to and hope for, with possibilities for happiness that most of us find hard to relate to in the 21st Century.
So it is the end of another year. We will wake up tomorrow morning and it will be 2019. I have lots to look forward to – more books to write, a first spring in Brittany, the challenges of learning French (very slowly) – and must try and relax and just let it all be. I’ve never managed to do that before, so my hopes are not high on that one, but it is worth giving it a go.
I know, as the first fireworks light up the wintry skies, that apart from good health and happiness, I am wishing for a Trump resignation, a People’s Vote on Brexit (and a change of mind), a flicker of acknowledgement that the world is heading in a direction, towards hatred and intolerance and perhaps even war, and a drawing back from that and from the push for more and more ‘stuff’ that inevitably damages our planet.
I am sure I will be called a hopeless dreamer but hey ho, I can’t be any other way.
So a very HAPPY NEW YEAR to you all, and thank you for your support in 2018. Hopefully, I will blog more regularly in the coming months so I hope you will stay with me as I try to stop wriggling out of writing…
Today I am really pleased to welcome another guest blogger to No wriggling out of writing. Phil Sutcliffe has published a wonderful memoir written by his father, Sam Sutcliffe who served in the First World War and whose words offer a genuine sense of what it was like to be a serving soldier at Gallipoli, the Somme and Arras. It resonated strongly with me as one of the most fascinating aspects of research for my book, Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s mental health, was reading the real-life stories of those who experienced the warfare. ‘Nobody of Any Importance’ is the title Sam gave his own record of his war time experience, recalled in the 1970s, and as you read his words it quickly becomes clear that as one of the brave chaps who served on all Fronts between 1914 and 1918 he is far from unimportant….
We got e-chatting because Suzie’s a Keats fan and one of her @keatsbabe tweets came up just as I was working on an FB from Sam’s early chapters about his childhood in Edmonton where he described walking past the apothecary’s shop where the poet served an apprenticeship.
Well, Sam does offer a lot of vivid pictures from his experience of growing up poor in north London in the 1900s. Here’s the quack doctor who performed daily miracles in the market place:
“Doctor Brown was a fine figure of a man clad in proper morning dress: a cutaway black coat, striped trousers, patent leather shoes and a tall silk hat on his head his fair moustache waxed to two long points… and the tale he told about the pills he sold, that was part of the weekend entertainment… He gave value for money in pills, potions, and perorations and did very well indeed.”
Sam was born on July 6 1898 (he died at 88, I was born when he was 49) and left school at 14, worked as an office boy near Liverpool Street for a couple of years… then went to war, lying about his age so that he could stick with his brother Ted, 18. After lengthy training in Malta, his 2/1st Battalion Royal Fusiliers landed at Suvla Bay, Gallipoli, in September, 1915, the fag end of that disastrous campaign. Their first battlefield:
“[as they approached Suvla]… on land, rifles fired continuously and artillery lit up the blackness, each flash followed by a bang, a shriek or a strange whine which often increased in volume then ended up in a big explosion. Guns were being fired with intent to kill… and here was my first experience of warfare…’
“[then, on the beach under rifle and shell fire]… We hugged the ground, of course, to let the bullets pass harmlessly above us, but one of those wretched things broke that rule. When one move forward started, young Nibs, more of a boy even than I was, didn’t get up. The Captain was told, all paused again, and the shocking news came along that he was dead, shot through the head… Our first casualty, I thought, young Nibs, the cheerful Cockney…”
Talking about the Memoir, I realise, I tend to focus on the terrible events which raise fundamental moral questions. But here’s a lighter moment, the immediate aftermath of the Suvla Bay evacuation, December, 1915:
“Soon, out of sight of the explosions, some singing started up, our first for many a day. And then we really gave vent to the joy and relief we felt. A youngster who had obliged at concerts back in Malta… sang a quickly improvised parody of that popular song, Moonlight Bay: ‘We were sailing away from Suvla Bay/We can hear the Turks a-singing/’Please don’t go away/You are breaking our hearts/So please do stay’/‘Not bloody likely, boys/Goodbye to Suvla Bay’. All joined in, inventing their own versions as we sang along…”
Still, for the last few excerpts of this blog Sam’s back on the battlefield. The Somme now, Gommecourt sector. He’d transferred to the Kensingtons by then. First, … thinking of Suzie’s work – from July 1 itself, an evident observation of shell-shock:
“Nothing was gained in our sector. Many good men were lost. Many normally strong fellows were reduced to trembling, inarticulate old-looking men… I saw a Scot who, though not wounded, just sat and shook. His head nodded, his arms flailed feebly, his legs sort of throbbed, his eyes obviously saw nothing… One of our usually most happy and physically strong men was crying non-stop while violently protesting about something. He’d been buried up to his shoulders in earth and, even in that inferno, men nearby had paused in their advance to free him, yet he had this strange grievance… ”
Sam’s Battalion got two or three days semi-rest a mile or so back, before returning to the front line and spending their nights in No Man’s Land – retrieving the dead:
“While working in bright moonlight on search work, I looked down into a length of communication trench… and saw the rather large face of a very good chap I had worked with for a while in Egypt… And here he was, long dead, eyes blank, but still the features unmistakable and formerly so familiar to me…
As soon as possible, I guided two of the men doing recovery work to Charlie. I recalled then, as I do now, his special qualities. He was completely honest, stubborn about things in dispute, but usually found to be right about them in the end; Cockney in speech to an extent which, on first acquaintance led one to expect illiteracy, he soon made you realise your error…
Of the many men whose poor bodies we found and saw cared for that night, Charlie was the only one whom I had known well in life. He had been one of us, and thus special to us, during our first experience of Army life… Recollection of Charlie calls forth a mental picture of him walking away from me… large head, broad shoulders, sturdy trunk, strong, slightly bowed legs… Goodbye, Charlie.”
Following Sam’s story, you can see how military training worked all the way through to terrible reality – for example, from rifle training in Malta to three years later, 1918, at the Front near Arras. His Battalion (Essex Regiment by then) had been ordered to fight to the last bullet to cover a strategic retreat. Lines of German soldiers are crossing No Man’s Land in front of his trench:
“… intensive training… had achieved its purpose; when the situation required it, I became a rifle-firing automaton… One target I dealt with was a man running not towards me but across my line of fire, about 50 yards distant. ‘Snap-shooting at a moving target’ on the firing range; back come the instructions, ‘Maintain normal aim, moving with the target, then increase movement of rifle till daylight appears between target and rifle then “Fire”’. The soldier fell… a comrade ran several yards to help him, appeared at the tip of my rifle fore-sight after I had rapidly reloaded, and I squeezed the trigger. As he too fell, the utter automatic callousness of my action registered somewhere in my brain and doubt nagged then and forever after about there being any plausible excuse for such murderous conduct.”
And yet, an hour or so later, this was how his “active service” came to an end and a grinding eight-months as a POW began. His Battalion had run out of ammunition. For no reason he could put into words, exhausted by the toil and the terror of it all, he climbs out on top of the trench and stands there:
“Looking forward, I saw Germans, hundreds of them. A glance to the right made me abandon all hope of surviving. A line of Germans was charging in my direction, bayonets fixed on rifles, the job assigned to them, obviously, the destruction of any remaining opposition… As the galloping line came closer I could see their faces, their features. Most of them boys like me… I just stood there and waited for it to happen – the hoped-for clean bayonet thrust and goodbye… At about two yards, I stared at two boys, one of whom would have to do the dirty work. Fresh, healthy faces which made veteran me feel quite old. Now. It must happen now. I concentrated on the nearest boy. All in a split second, he smiled, swung a little aside, his comrade did likewise, and they were all gone, bless the lovely lads.”
All the best
My sincere thanks to Phil Sutcliffe, writing on behalf of Sam, for these fascinating insights into his father’s life. For full details of how you can find out more, and buy the book (remembering that the proceeds go to the marvellous Red Cross), see below.
Nobody Of Any Importance: A Foot Soldier’s Memoir Of World War I, by Sam Sutcliffe, edited by Phil Sutcliffe – paperback and e-book available thru blog here (including audio excerpts and reader reviews) or direct from firstname.lastname@example.org, or thru Amazon here. Buy £1 e-book episodes from the full Memoir – Gallipoli: A Foot Soldier’s First Battle and The Somme: Through The Eyes Of A Foot Soldier Who Survived The Battlefield – direct as above or through Amazon here and here respectively. Twitter @FootSoldierSam Follow FootSoldierSam on Facebook here (all author/editor proceeds to the British Red Cross)
My mum isn’t well. She is unwell in that way we refer to those who are, officially, really old; ‘well she is 86 dear’; ‘things are just wearing out’; ‘well none of us go on forever’. Diagnosis? Why bother with one? It is ‘old age’ and if we are lucky, perhaps, it comes to us all. So let’s just watch her legs swell up, sense she can’t quite catch her breath, and listen whilst she tells us of something that worries her – over and over again so that very worry is reinforced, and dwelt upon until conspiracy theories take over from reality and there is the inexorable descent into an anxiety state that takes more of her breath, more of herself.
Perhaps she will rally, again. But she has started those sad little conversations that begin ‘don’t be upset when I go dear, I’ve had enough’, and at some point, in the natural order of things, we will lose her, my sister, brother and I.
But I have to admit I am struggling, desperately hoping she will once more be her ‘old self’, flashes of whom we still glimpse as we watch her wolf down dark chocolate, then complain of indigestion, or hear as she describes the behaviour of a friend who is ‘lovely, but…’
My mum dedicated her life to bringing up her family and caring for her husband, our dad, who was diagnosed with early onset Parkinsons before any of us,his children, had left primary school. She has been a widow almost as long as she was a wife and has had to deal with what she would describe as a ‘basin full’. She has a strength of character that can be both tender and downright scary, and of her three children I am the one whose ‘buttons’ have been pressed for maximum effect, with emotional consequences for us both. But recently, as her short term memory has deteriorated and her longer term recall become more selective, we have enjoyed some great laughs, and hours of simple fun playing games on the iPad, discussing who are our favourites on Strictly Come Dancing (‘I can’t bear that Katie Derham, with that smile…’) and talking about her family history. No competition, no manipulation, just love.
I know in my heart that I am hoping she stays with us not for her sake, but for mine. I am scared – of being ‘top of the tree’, of no longer being, physically, someone’s daughter, of being cast adrift from that last link with all those memories, of feeling alone (despite having my own lovely family).
We are a lucky human being if we get to our eighties as fit as a flea. Our society desperately denies death whilst worshipping youth, and the elderly are seen as a demographic time bomb, a problem to be solved, a drain on our national finances. Why are we so keen to stay alive, when at the same time we are casting age and experience aside?
Perhaps I am affected by national as well as personal events. The world seems a scary place at the moment. Am I alone in thinking someone has taken the brakes off and our lives and events are spinning out of our control? Mum has been ever present, a safety blanket, the tap root from which much of my life has taken strength. Too much? Possibly. Perhaps I am just afraid to acknowledge myself as an adult…
At some point I have to acknowledge myself as a root from which my own children have branched out and become the lovely folk they are.
I am no longer a child, but I will always be the child of my mother.
Today I am thrilled to host a guest post by Susan Burnett, who has worked with her grandfather’s memoirs to publish a moving description of what happened to Norman Woodcock and the men who served alongside him in the First World War. The book, titled On That Day I Left My Boyhood Behind is published by Acorn Independent Press and available from Amazon here. In this post she offers snippets of the fascinating discoveries she made, many of which resonated with me as I recalled the research undertaken for Shell Shocked Britain.
My grandfather, Norman Woodcock, left me three large files of handwritten memoirs including many stories about his time in the Signals in the First World War. He took part in the landings on Gallipoli, served in the desert with Lawrence of Arabia and was there at the capture of Jerusalem. As I researched and wrote the history to accompany my grandfather’s memoirs, I soon realised how different life was for the soldiers in the Middle East compared to the trenches on the Western Front. In the desert they had to deal with extremes of heat and cold, snakes and scorpions were common, sand got into everything including the food, skin became so dry that it cracked and caused terrible sores, and at certain times of the year sand flies bit and caused fever. On one occasion, as they dug a trench in Palestine, some Australian troops came across a Roman mosaic. The mosaic was carefully removed and packed off to be displayed in a museum in Australia. The biggest difference though, was the shortage of water.
In his memoirs Norman describes the horrors of the battles he took part in, for example during one battle he describes how ‘some men were afraid, others excited, some were quite mad’. His stories also cover everyday life and in particular the thirst they constantly suffered: ‘our tongues cleaved to the roofs of our mouths’ and on another occasion ‘death by thirst must be terrible’. He describes the problems of not being able to clean anything, including mess tins, so bully beef blended with the taste of tea and jam, and everything had the added flavour of chloride of lime, used for purification. He jokes about how he didn’t wash his shirt for three months but everyone smelled so they got used to it!
Amongst the horror and history of the war there are some great stories in the book, one of the amusing ones is of an intruder to the dugout where three of them slept near the banks of the Suez Canal:
One night we were woken up by noises outside and the sound of someone coming down the dugout steps. Wilkie called out, ‘Who is there?’ There was a sound of footsteps running up the steps. Then they came back again. As we all had our rifles ready, I said I would fire one round at the doorway – so I sighted my rifle and pulled the trigger. There was a sound of feet rushing up the steps and a gurgle of liquid. Wilkie lit a candle. The gurgling continued and I thought the visitor must be bleeding to death. The light of the candle revealed that I had pierced our tank of water, our four days supply. I jumped out of my blankets and tilted it to stop the flow. Next day, we found our visitor, it was a mongoose, an animal that can kill a snake; we had some big snakes about and could have used him if we had captured him. We were short of water until the next delivery arrived, but we were always short of water and became used to the thirst.
Once, in the heat of the desert sun, my grandfather downed tools, refusing to work until the water supply arrived. His comrades joined him and he was arrested and put on a charge. The allowance at that time was 4 pints of water a day, current water rations in the desert are 3 pints an hour! Fortunately Norman was needed for signals work. He could have been shot for disobeying an order but his charge was reduced and he was banished on a one man patrol in the desert for 3 weeks.
Once Jerusalem was captured, troops were despatched to France. Norman set sail in September 1918, arriving in Marseilles:
We had heard some stories of the misery in the trenches from lads who had joined us in Egypt, and so it was with some trepidation that, after two or three days, we boarded the train for the north.
Fortunately the war ended soon after he arrived on the Western Front. He wasn’t demobbed until July 1919 and the book ends with him describing the sadness he felt leaving the comrades he had been with every day for five years, and the even greater sadness he felt having to leave his horse called Timbuc: ‘the black beauty that saved my life on so many occasions’.
On the 28th February I was very lucky to have as my guest on Talking Books Angie Sage, an author who has received global success with her series of fantasy novels, featuring Septimus Heap, seventh son of a seventh son with magical powers. Starting with Magyk and ending with the seventh book, Fyre, we gallop through the adventures of Septimus and his friends. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is another Harry Potter wizard-alike however. Septimus is funnier, more intelligent and supported by a cast of characters that can keep anyone aged seven to seventy plus interested and amused.
Angie is also a really inspirational and creative writer, and illustrator, who lives in a fifteenth century house in Somerset that exudes its own mystery and magic, including as it does an old mural that purports to be of Henry VIII, but turns out to have something of the devil in it…
So after rather too many ‘umms’ at the beginning (on my part) we had a wonderful chat; the thirty minutes flew by and I wished I had read more of her work before we met. However, Angie agreed to read a passage from one of the books in the series, which as you can hear on the link below, had us all chuckling. There are ghosts, witches, dragons and human interest aplenty. Yes – even wizards can fall in love and as J.K. Rowling discovered, young readers growing up with their characters long to know who has paired up with whom. We talk about this, along with the joys of writing and developing characters and stories over a long series of books, the ‘Harry Potter’ effect and the pitfalls associated with selling film rights to Warner Brothers. Angie is a hugely successful writer, selling in numbers beyond the hopes of most writing fiction today, but that doesn’t mean a writing life is without complications.
Good news for Septimus lovers is the planned trilogy, TodHunter Moon, which takes up the story seven years on. Readers just can’t get enough of the stories and Angie just doesn’t want to leave the world of Magyk….
But back to Septimus. I was given a wonderful copy of the last in the series, Fyre, by Angie after the show and I will treasure it. I just wish my children were still of an age to enjoy them. They will have to come back to them with their own children, should they change their minds and have them….
What are seasons but children’s soft dreams, and
Sunrise, their opening eyes?
Seeing at a glance
The days and years open…waiting,
Fringed with softness, or
Laced with abandon…
(From Children’s Eyes and Children’s Toys by Elysabeth Faslund)
This is SO late going up but I thought it important to make sure you got the opportunity to listen to my Talking Books show on 10Radio.org from February 14th. It wasn’t a ‘Valentine’s Day’ themed show – I have featured poetry and prose that expresses our romantic yearnings on past shows – but it was one that should be of interest to anyone with children, or who is involved with children’s education. I started this post with an excerpt from a poem that sums up for me how important it is to see the world through a child’s eyes and to give them the tools to make the most of a time when their imagination should be allowed to fly.
Tonya Meers kindly came in to the studio to talk about the business she has established with her sister, Natasha Dennis. Little Creative Days started with the provision of craft kits for children, but when Tonya decided she would like to write children’s stories the sisters decided to combine the two. Between them I think they have come up with something that can really bring out the creative side of all children and perhaps inspire them to be the writers, dramatists, artists and even theatre impresarios (well let’s think big!) of the future. Working with and in schools they have developed kits that work across the curriculum; Pojo and the Chest of Dreams for example can support work in geography and Pojo Saves the Rainforest uses puppets to tell children about the impact of deforestation.
This isn’t a sponsored post, or a review of the products Tonya and Natasha offer but it is something of a plug for anything that fires a child’s imagination and after this show you will be in little doubt that Tonya’s stories, and the opportunities the kits offer to children as part of their primary school education, are exactly the sort of thing to engage children across ages and abilities.
When my children were much younger they both had issues with certain aspects of their school day. My son would daydream and lose concentration; my daughter is dyslexic and found phonics a real challenge. They both found an outlet in performance – my son in drama and my daughter in sport – and finding a way to express their true selves, away from the challenge of tests and league tables proved invaluable.
Creative storytelling uses ‘creative group activities to bring stories alive’ and in our interview Tonya describes how puppet making for example can enable all children to explore a story and become engaged with the story and its message. The drama activities can build confidence and offer children a way to express themselves in their own stories. Do take a listen; I am sure you will be as inspired as I was by Tonya’s enthusiasm and by the Little Creative Days ethos.
First things first – apologies for the pun, but when I made the joke (paraphrasing the Tony Orlando & Dawn song circa 1973) to the nurse at our Vets she thought it was rather good. In fact we discussed how our lovely black lab/collie cross Barnaby (AKA Barney, AKA Mr B) could be a promotional tool for the Yellow Dog UK scheme.
Yellow Dog UK is part of an international scheme to ensure that the public become aware that ‘some dogs need space’. How many times do we hear that someone has been injured by a dog that is ‘usually very friendly’, ‘a poppet at home’ or who has ‘never bitten anyone before’? I think we forget that dogs are pack animals, with some instincts that are still wild and who can, if circumstances allow, cause serious injury to others. We may love them, but not everyone does. Some dogs have been rescued, with backgrounds unknown. Others have had a lifetime of abuse until someone intervened to give them a better life. Some are still in training, or in season (it isn’t only humans who have hormones) which can affect their behaviour or make it unpredictable. Some are old and arthritic and have become the proverbial ‘grumpy old’ dog.
Barnaby was diagnosed with arthritis and a bad back at the age of just three. He is a wonderful dog and great company for me as someone who works from home. He is gentle and loving, if a teeny bit chaotic – but as I have been told many a time, the same can be said of the home he lives in. On his home patch he is wonderful. Once you have been welcomed into Chez Grogan you will be overcome with love, licks and numerous toys and chewy things. However, the pain he has suffered with his back and the arthritis kept at bay with supplements has resulted in a suspicion of strangers – human and canine – that sometimes (and it is seemingly random) results in a display of aggression quite unlike his ‘real’ self. He barks and bares his teeth, his hackles rise and as a large black dog, looks like the Hound of the Baskervilles. Scary, but there is something in him that wants to protect himself, and us as his family (or pack).
Some might say such a dog should be put down. But that isn’t necessary if the owner of such a dog is responsible and takes proper precautions. If Barnaby hurt a child I would never forgive myself and we would have to take expert advice on whether he could be kept safely. But if I ensure he is walked where it is safe and other walkers, dog owners and the public know that he ‘needs his space’ all is well. That is where the Yellow Dog Project comes in. Their website explains that the project means that:
when you see a dog with a YELLOW ribbon, bandanna or similar on the leash or on the dog, this is a dog which needs some space. Please, do not approach this dog or its people with your dog. They are indicating that their dog cannot be close to other dogs. How close is too close? Only the dog or his people know, so maintain distance and give them time to move out of your way.
Barnaby will be wearing his bandanna with pride. He is a good dog who is trained, performs lovely tricks and looks after the Grogan clan to the best of his ability. Life has given him a bit of a battle to fight – he is young to have such pain and it isn’t fair. With caution, and the help of schemes such as the Yellow Ribbon, we can make sure he has a happy life without intimidating other dogs, or their human companions, needlessly.
Take a look at the website for the Yellow Ribbon. It is a great scheme and more people need to know about it to make sure everyone recognises that a dog in yellow is a dog who wants to be left alone. Remember – it is not often the dog’s fault. We have a responsibility too.
Well we are nearly there – just a week left to do your Christmas shopping and find the gift that will really mean something to the recipient, offering pleasure that will last well after the 25th December. Okay – there may be a few electrical devices that will offer a similar sensation but in truth – what is better than a book?
On Talking Books, my show on 10Radio,last week I discussed books as gifts for Christmas with my resident book expert, Julie Munckton. Julie works tirelessly to support local bookshops through the website localbookshops.co.uk, which offers an alternative to the faceless Amazon via your own local high street bookshop (or your favourite bookshop in any part of the country) and she really knows her stuff. Twenty five minutes sped past as we offered hints and tips for presents across many subjects – from fiction to gardening and from history to biography. Whether you have a loved one fascinated by football or a fan of Dr Who, into soap stars or the natural world, Victorian gothic fiction or a cosy mystery – there was something for everyone. We even looked at incredible jolting chairs and cures for dimples via the Quackdoctor.
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.
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….
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.
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,
Most 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….