Friday, 5 September 2014

Why I'm Running for Pancreatic Cancer UK

When you’re sitting, waiting with fragile hopes, in a hospital room for relatives, it’s brutal to be told instead, ‘the operation was a complete success – but we couldn’t remove the cancer.’ On October 5th I’m taking part in the Cardiff Half Marathon for the fourth time, but on this occasion I’m also aiming to raise as much money as possible for Pancreatic Cancer UK. Pancreatic cancer is known as the ‘silent’ killer because many of its symptoms reflect less serious illnesses meaning that by the time diagnosis is confirmed it’s often too late – which is what happened to my dad. The Whipple procedure, the major surgery he withstood, which might have prolonged his life, came too late. 

I’m afraid I can’t provide photos of sad kittens or cute puppies to make my chosen cause seem more appealing. Pancreatic cancer isn’t very pretty, it’s cruel, it ravages strong beautiful bodies and is no respecter of fame, talent or fortune. Here, instead, are a few illustrations of what the disease took away from him, and ultimately, from us.

This is my dad’s last pair of glasses complete with his fingerprints. Light Titanium frames with sprung sides and high-index lenses. On a ‘cost per wear’ basis they were never going to be a good investment, but medication combined with the dying of his own light had played cruel tricks with his vision. But my dear friend, Jill, Best Optom in the World, did her best for him and this pair gave him a few more weeks of reading pleasure – not the dense, academic tomes he’d previously relished, perhaps, but at least he could read a newspaper, engage with the world a little and enjoy his stamp collection. After his death, they came to me. When I opened the case there was another slip of paper placed beneath the cleaning cloth. Phone numbers. Waypoints for the final path. Mum’s mobile, my sister, our husbands, my two grown-up daughters and me.

This a set of book cases Dad made for me. He was a carpenter and joiner, often called in by architects when they needed someone with traditional skills who could make oak staircases, roof lanterns or sash windows.

The back pain he suffered with pancreatic cancer was relieved a little when he leaned forwards. He made himself this lectern so he could read sitting at a table. It now sits on my desk.

This block also sits on a corner of my desk. It’s an intensely personal and profoundly moving object. What is it? Well, it’s one of a pair, the last things Dad made for himself which were designed to keep his bed at a more comfortable angle during his final weeks.


And this is the man we loved, lost and miss every day. One of a kind, Arthur Stovell.

Pancreatic cancer is the fifth leading cause of all UK cancer deaths, but research into the disease is extremely underfunded and survival rates have not improved in forty years. It’s too late for my dad, but someone else’s dad might live longer if those survival rates improve. Please help if you can. You can find my JustGiving page here

Thank you for taking the time to read this post.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Mists and Mellow Fruitfulness

September arrives in mist
Having won the ‘pinch, punch, first of the month’ battle for the first time in ages, I get up to make tea to find a truly autumnal start to the month with mist obscuring Cardigan Bay. Eight years of living in the Welsh countryside have made us acutely aware of the changes marking the passing seasons. Over the last week, the colours of the leaves have changed on a daily basis; the wash of green is now tinted with reds and golds and the hedgerows are jewelled with berries. Country living’s also opened our eyes to the possibilities nature’s abundance offers. After the success of our elderflower champagne – which has added a real note of celebration to summer evenings - we went out last sunny Saturday, to gather elderberries and blackberries to make red fizz to brighten up the darker nights.
We're keeping an eye on those sloes!
Taking a few elderberries from several trees
Elderberry fizz in the making!
Given I have extreme Tomato Phobia, I stayed out the way when Tom used our crop of tomatoes to make chutney...
From this...

... to this
But I'm always happy to see our sweet peas...

In other news,
 first reports from the Little Family in Canada are all good, Tom’s leg is healing and I’ve now run 164 miles in training for my Cardiff Half! On Sunday, I learned that just because a 12 mile run is training run doesn’t mean it should be treated lightly! A two hour run in the sunshine with very little water and using isotonic drink for the first time did not end well. A useful lesson before the race!

Monday, 25 August 2014

West Side Stories

When Tom returns during the interval of West Side Story and hands me a small frozen tub, I know before he says anything that we’re of the same mind; it’s ‘interesting ice cream’ time. The phrase was coined when Rose was (reluctantly) taking French horn lessons and her music teacher was in the band supporting an am dram production of Ruddigore. As Tom’s a big fan of Gilbert and Sullivan we gamely decided to go, but were advised by Rose’s teacher to ‘buy an interesting ice cream.’ Boy, did we need it! Ruddigore? It was certainly ruddy awful.

It’s not that this performance of Bernstein’s classic musical at the Millennium Centre is awful, in fact it’s had great reviews, but it feels rather lacklustre, especially after our last trip here which was to see the truly extraordinary Matthew Bourne production of Sleeping Beauty. Tonight, though, there are some dodgy accents in both gangs; the Jets have lots of trouble in ‘the pork’ and some of the Sharks sound more valleys than Puerto Rican. There are pregnant pauses which make me squirm, the choreography is flat –all the focus is on the leads with everyone else standing around watching – and most of all there’s a distinct lack of menace from the two gangs.

The last time I saw West Side Story was in Wandsworth Prison with my dear friend, Jill. Not at Her Majesty’s pleasure, of course, but because Jill’s sister, was involved at that time with the Pimlico Opera, the touring company working with the prisoners to stage the production. I can tell you that the smell of prison and all the security measures certainly creates a sense of anticipation, apprehension even, but the performance itself – imagine, if you will, how the Officer Krupke number played out in that setting – was unforgettable. Whilst I’m on the subject, I can also claim to have been in prison with Penelope Keith when she was High Sheriff of Surrey and I was trying to Make A Difference. Isn’t it strange where life sometimes takes you?

Meanwhile, back at the Millennium Centre, the band, at least, is in great form and there are plenty of good tunes. We have a thoroughly enjoyable evening, all thanks to a very generous gift from Lily, Rose and our sons-in-law.  To round it off, we finish with a short stay with Lily and Russ. All in all, it feels like a proper break.

And finally…
After writing about exam results last week, my niece did brilliantly in her GCSEs - huge congratulations to her. As for me, I’m really enjoying my ‘Understanding Numbers’ MOOC – what’s more, those numbers are even beginning to make sense!

Monday, 18 August 2014

In Search of Lost Knowledge

It’s that time of year again when exam results bring stories of triumph and tragedy up and down the country. Seeing those TV images of students scrutinizing their result slips still brings back memories of my own school days and the intense pressure of cramming for one three hour essay-based question paper in the morning then trying to disregard all that knowledge in order to tackle another three hour paper in a different subject in the afternoon. My collection of O Levels (those were the days!) include French, Latin and Maths (big celebrations about that one), I have A Levels in English, History and Zoology, a degree in European Studies with German (I spent a memorable summer studying at Heidelberg University) and I’ve picked up a few other bits and bobs along the way (Institute of Personnel Management Part One, anyone?). 

But somewhere along the line, I seemed to have forgotten a lot of what I’ve learned. Probably through sheer neglect. ‘University Challenge’ is a big favourite in our house; Tom and I love shouting the answers at the telly, but these days although I can make a stab in the right direction, say the circulatory system of plants, I struggle with the specifics. Is it xylem or phloem? I just can’t remember. Unfortunately every song I’ve ever heard seems to stick like glue; A Tribe Called Red, Rudimental, Little Dragon, Alt J, yep, they’re all there in a couple of beats.

Despite claims to the contrary, it’s my opinion that completing a 90,000 novel requires more than the ability to put words on paper. Obviously, it requires verbal intelligence (or not, she says, still smarting from the ‘shockingly bad drivel’ remark), but it also demands a degree of psychological insight in order to create convincing characters, some understanding of logistics to get them on their journey and some spatial awareness to decide where they all are – in every sense of the word. However, whilst I love creating my fictional worlds, I’ve decided to revisit the real world to try to rediscover some of the knowledge I’ve forgotten. I’m very much enjoying re-reading Ralph Buchsbaum’s Animals without Backbones (although I was a bit traumatised by the description of an experiment where a poor bit of amoeba left without a nucleus valiantly tries to live normally) and I’ve just started a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) in Understanding Numbers which is probably a bit more up-to-date than poor old Ralph. I’m looking forwards to giving my brain cells a rinse and doing something different – and if I can beat Tom to a few answers on 'University Challenge' which are not to do with rubbish pop songs, so much the better!

Monday, 11 August 2014

Running, Climbing and Tumbling

Waiting at the top of the road for a GPS signal
Come on, let’s go for a run. I need to blow the tiredness away, that big ol’ August moon last night kept me awake, walking the garden and lighting up the house the way it did. Four miles, okay? We’ll talk along the way.

First, get a signal then it's uphill all the way...

Well, that's the first hill.
And talking of climbing, Follow A Star received a lovely boost yesterday when it was picked for the Kindle Daily Deal. I’m very grateful to anyone who buys my work. No ‘buts’. In a busy world where mobile devices provide instant access to cheap or free content, it’s a privilege when anyone bothers to make the time to read one of my novels. My supportive friends are often amongst the first to set the review ball going which is always heartening, but I’ve also started to receive some lovely reviews for both Follow A Star and Only True in Fairy Tales from the band of dedicated book bloggers who wade through mountains of books and help spread the word. Huge thanks to them. Of course some readers think my books are pants, but hey, you can’t please everyone.
This pair's been here for months...

The half way mark. Our nearest shop. 
I seem to have recovered from my pulled calf muscle, but Tom and I came home from a day out to discover the glass door on our wood burning stove had cracked in two. It hasn’t even been lit for months! Then on Saturday I was at my desk while Tom replaced some guttering when I heard the kind of crash that you instantly know isn’t a good noise. Tom had overbalanced on the stepladder. Apart from being thoroughly shaken, the worst damage seems to be this scrape – in the great scheme of things he got off lightly, but I think I might just make sure I’m footing the next time he climbs a ladder.

And after that, let's look at something more pleasant. The view across to the Preseli Hills.

And finally, down hill towards the sea and home...

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Stop Press! Kindle Daily Deal

FOLLOW A STAR is available for 99p here ($1.67 here) for today only as a Kindle Daily Deal.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Pulling and Pushing

I’m out on a run doing speed work. It’s tough, but I feel good and strong so I’m pretty happy until a mile before home when something goes ‘ping’ in my left calf. I pull up to investigate and apart from a little tenderness, I think I’m okay. When a van driver stops to offer me a lift, I decline because I’m sure that I’ll be able to walk… but soon, with no one in sight, I realise that getting home might be a slow process because my leg keeps collapsing under me. 
By the time I reach the top of our lane, I’m ready to crawl, but fortunately some neighbours (and there are very few of them!) spot me, bundle me in their car and deliver me to the doorstep. Phew! I’m not known for my patience but with only two months to go until the Cardiff half marathon, I’ve rested, iced, compressed and elevated the injury and generally been sensible – I’m just hoping I’ve got away with it!

Work wise, I’m trying to pull myself together for the next writing marathon. I love the satisfaction of having created a fictional world but dislike having to shout about it afterwards! Promoting Follow A Star and Only True in Fairy Tales has been draining – I’m immensely grateful to everyone for the support and especially to those who’ve been kind enough to leave reviews - a glittering collection of gold stars really wins prizes in Amazon world - but, heck, to use Lily’s phrase, a lot of the time I really do feel like an ant trying to push a boulder up a mountain against so much competition.

Putting Amazon rankings and the tyranny of the computer to one side, Tom and I decide to blow some cobwebs away and test my calf muscle with a trip to Fishguard - where we used to keep our wooden boat, Veryan - followed by an ice cream and short walk at Goodwick. It’s a glorious day, my leg seems fine – and there is nothing like a Belgian chocolate ice cream for making everything feel better!


Tom marks the spot where we used to keep Veryan!

We head back home across the beautiful Preseli Hills stopping occasionally to enjoy the view and take a few snaps, like this one of a shepherd’s hut I’ve always admired.

Lovely, isn’t it? Alas, as we try to set off again, we discover that the car has mysteriously impaled itself on a small boulder, the front wheels are spinning impotently and The Biscuit Tin is going nowhere! I get out and try to push - which achieves nothing. Just as we are beginning to think we might have to live in the shepherd’s hut, an estate car zooms up beside us, a Welsh couple jump out, spring to our rescue– to the delight of their children beaming at us from the back seats – and zoom off again. Whoever they are, we’re very grateful to them!

And finally…
First reports, a couple of Face Time calls and lots of photographs suggest that the little family are enjoying Canada, which is great news.

And congratulations and good luck to Rose who starts a new job with HarperCollins today – don’t worry, baba, you’ll be fine!

Painting is 'Pink Plank' by Tom Tomos