Monday, 23 March 2015

Travels and Travail

Newhaven Harbour, Edinburgh
So, the initial plan is that we’ll have a four night city break in Edinburgh to celebrate our sixteenth wedding anniversary, with a short pause on the return journey to visit Tom’s aunt in Harrogate. Then Tom’s PhD work creates a couple of extra stops; a meeting in Sheffield and a course at the OU in Milton Keynes. Once we take travel time and costs into consideration, we decide to book a couple of extra nights in Premier Inns along the way rather than dashing backwards and forwards then we’ll come home reasonably refreshed… won’t we?

Well, Edinburgh’s terrific and the Premier Inn’s in a great spot at Newhaven Harbour. We have sea views from our room and an excellent Loch Fyne restaurant right on the doorstep. There’s so much to see in this wonderful city and we make the most of every minute covering mile after mile until our feet can’t walk any further.

Proving we've yet to master the 'selfie'

After whistle-stop visits to Harrogate, Sheffield and Barnsley, we’re beginning to feel a little institutionalised although Premier Inns are great; they’re clean, comfortable, do exactly what they say on the tin and breakfast there sets you up for the rest of the day. But, my goodness, eating out in the evening is a different story. Perhaps we notice it more because given where we live we rarely bother to venture out to a restaurant, but we quickly discover that finding somewhere economical to eat that doesn’t involve non-stop fried food and utterly indifferent service is almost impossible. ‘My lips are very dry,’ Tom observes at one point. ‘It’s probably scurvy,’ I reply because it’s so long since I’ve seen a fresh vegetable. 

With just two nights left before we can go home, we arrive at Milton Keynes and are pleasantly surprised to be shown to a room with a balcony.

And there, sadly, the nice surprises end. Tom checks his phone and finds three missed calls. My mother-in-law, we are dismayed to hear, has had a mini-stroke…

To date, MiL’s tired, of course, but doing well. A few more test results to come, but so far, so good. It’s been a shock to all of us and a reminder, as we needed it, of the importance of showing our loved ones how much we care about them.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Llanelli Waterside Half Marathon 2015

Lining up for the Llanelli Waterside Half Marathon, I have a strong sense of déjà vu. It’s another cold, grey, murky Sunday morning - just like last year - but with added wind and rain to ring the changes. I’m drenched and freezing cold before I even cross the start line, but it really warms my heart to see Ma and Tom there cheering me on.


And we’re off! I love this course – an 'out and back' along the stunning coastline – but, my goodness, the horizontal rain, gusty winds and mixed terrain certainly make for challenging conditions. Even more so for the marshals who stand at their posts for hours and do such a magnificent job - although I can’t resist throwing a few names at the guy who cheerfully quips as we pass, ‘see, if you had run a bit faster, you could be home by now!’. Nevertheless, I dig in and feel… well, not too bad considering! Fuelled by hearing Ma and Tom cheering as I reach the home stretch, I’m delighted to cross the finish line with a course PB of 2:0:39 coming 9th in my class and 735 out of 1175 finishers overall.


A few post-race thoughts:
  • Ma tells me even alpha males were commenting on how tough the race was as they came in – glad it wasn’t just me!
  • I always feel outnumbered by blokes at this race… and  that’s because I am: 768 men (most of whom are under 40) to 442 women, of which only 18 are in my age group.
  • Being soaking-wet makes for some interesting injuries; Ma reported a few cases of severe chafing among the men, mainly thighs and armpits. I felt quite smug about this until the euphoria wore off and I discovered the band of my sports bra had given me a painful friction burn!
  • Will I do it again?  You bet!

Many thanks to everyone involved in the organisation of a wonderful race and a special thanks to Ma and Tom for their love and support.

Monday, 2 March 2015

Quick March

One of the down sides of living on the coast of west Wales – and there are plenty of up sides – is that we spend a lot of time on the road just travelling from 'A' to 'B'. This month looks especially busy but with lots to look forwards to. Still, one week at a time. 

First on the agenda, we’re collecting Ma so she’s here for her birthday on Friday and, all being well, to see me finish the Llanelli Half Marathon on Sunday. My dear friend, Ann, got me into running when she introduced me to Epsom Allsorts, an all-women’s group with formidable skills in talking and laughing whilst running. The club highlight was the dreaded Hogsmill Run and one year I enlisted my parents for a bit of additional support for the final stretch. All I could hear as I headed for the finish line was Ma bellowing, ‘COME ON CHRISTINE!!’ so I’m hoping that her presence will give my feet a little extra lift on Sunday.

Taking those first steps with a club introduced me to racing, gave me the taste for running by myself and the confidence to enter half marathons. Short of anything unforeseen happening to stop me completing the race, this Sunday will be my seventh half marathon. Seventh! I’ve been running for so long now that I’m in the oldest age group and feel like Granny Grumps lining up with a load of thirty-somethings. Still, it’s hugely enjoyable (apart from the first mile which is always hell) and means I can eat pretty much what I like so I hope to keep running for as long as I possibly can.

In other news, I’d like to thank lovely Flowerpot for nominating me for this blog award and whose own blog about living, walking and sailing in Cornwall is always an enjoyable read.

So, three things that have recently inspired me:
  • The rooks have returned to the rookery to rebuild their nests. A welcome sign of Spring… but where do they go the rest of the time? I read Crow Country by Mark Cocker to find out more about these fascinating (to me) birds.
  • Running (again); those long, solitary miles repair, restore and inspire.
  • My family; it’s their love that makes everything else worthwhile.

If anyone would like to take up the baton, please consider yourself nominated. All you have to do is link to my blog and display the award logo then nominate other bloggers in turn with links and a comment to let them know what to do.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Ready Steady Go!

Kicking off what turns into a whistle-stop of a fortnight, Ma’s blood pressure goes through the roof due to a misunderstanding over her medication. Tom’s dad – suffering from a troublesome infection – is required to take a sample to hospital, but as he and Tom’s mum cross the road to get there my mother-in-law misses the kerb, falls flat on her face and ends up in A&E. Then Rose rings to tell me she’s tried a spot of self-trepanation by slipping against the corner of her car door and boring a hole in her forehead.

As fate would have it, we have a funeral to attend in the south east which means we can do an extended relly-check while we're there. From west Wales we drive to Surrey to see Ma, who’s back in rude health (very rude, eh Ma, with that naughty quip!) and looking very perky. We then drive to West Sussex to find DiL on the mend, but poor MiL looking very bashed about. The following morning we drive to Canterbury for the funeral, Herne Bay for the wake and then to Tooting for a curry to catch up Rose, Si, Stepson Two and Girlf before returning to MiL and DiL's. The next day we set off for lunch with dear friends in Fareham then dinner with Lily in Cardiff before finally heading home and collapsing into bed just before midnight. All in all, we’ve covered some 800 miles - no wonder our cars take a pounding!

While all this is going on – between the numerous phone calls to nearest and dearest - I’m interviewed by Bethan Marsh of the Carmarthen Journal following my chat in Tesco to the newspaper’s editor. It’s lovely to have great support from a local paper, although the words, ‘when are you in for our photographer?’ make me feel a bit wobbly. Nevertheless, we agree a time which is all fine and dandy until I come in from a vigorous run to a message that the photographer is in the area and would like to pop round earlier than arranged. As in, ‘within the next hour’. ‘No problem,’ I reply – foolish words as I spend the next forty minutes employing every weapon known to womankind trying to transform myself from sweaty-Betty Cavewoman into someone vaguely camera- ready. I might look calm in the photo – but it was utter mayhem in the minutes leading up to it!

And finally, it’s only three weeks until the Llanelli Half Marathon so my aim is to try to stay lurgy and injury-free. Tom, however, is not so lucky – an early-morning scuffle with a chest of drawers leaves him with a black, probably broken, little toe… I do hope that’s the last of the current run of accidents.

The painting is 'Coast - Winter's Day' by Tom Tomos

Monday, 2 February 2015

The Value of Nothing

A small group of women is gathered by the entrance of our branch of Tesco armed with copies of a widely read west Wales newspaper. ‘Half price Carmarthen Journal?’ they offer, ‘only 37p today?’ When we decline, one of the women introduces herself as the editor and asks why we’re not buying to which we explain that we can read most newspapers, including theirs, free online. 

As we walk away to do our shopping, it occurs to me that it’s a sign of the times when a newspaper editor is standing in the freezing doorway of a supermarket trying to drum up interest so I pop back for a quick chat. I explain that I can’t get this particular store - my local Tesco - to stock my books (central ordering), that - like her on this wintry day - I’m also constantly trying to find new and innovative ways to reach readers and finally that the main effect of giving digital content away is that consumers have come to expect it.

In the early days of Kindle, a special offer on one of my books was pretty much guaranteed to boost sales; here’s the heady moment, for example, when Turning the Tide first entered Amazon’s top 100 bestsellers.

But when Follow A Star was picked as a Black Friday deal, albeit very late in the day, it hardly flickered – why would it when there are now more daily and monthly deals and special offers than most folks have time to read? New EU rules in respect of VAT and the resulting increase in ebook prices will only make consumers baulk even more, especially when ebooks are often perceived as being cheap to produce despite the fact there’s still the author fee, editing, cover art, typesetting, marketing etc, etc which have to be covered. And of course, some people aren’t happy no matter how little they pay; ‘wish I hadn’t wasted my money’ complains one dissatisfied reader who paid 99p for Only True in Fairy Tales. Oh well, that’s what happens when you put your work out there - everyone’s entitled to their opinion.

In low moments, I wonder why I bother, all those months of work for so little return. Yes, I feel extraordinarily lucky to have been traditionally published and there are all kind of joys, like seeing physical copies of my books on my shelf, or receiving cards from people who’ve enjoyed them that I can’t put a value on. But a minimum wage would be good, let alone a living wage. What’s to be done? I wish I knew. There’s no turning back the digital tide, that’s for sure, but how about a bit of ‘paying it forward’; write reviews for little-known books, spread the word about new authors and admit that unless we want a race to the bottom some things are worth paying for.

And to end on a more cheerful note, I’m delighted to see Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, a book that I’ve been banging on about for ages, winning the 2014 Costa book prize in addition to the Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction that it won last November. In a month where the film of Fifty Shade of Grey will see EL James novels dominating the charts again, it makes me very happy that a beautiful, haunting, lyrical tale of grief, loss and training a goshawk can still shine.

The painting is Rain Setting In, Pembrokeshire Coast by Tom Tomos

Monday, 26 January 2015

Points of View

Sacha Ferrier's Transcience exhibition
‘I know you’ve worked really hard on this,’ Tom begins cautiously, ‘but I prefer the first version…’. Tom’s always the first person to read my work, usually when it’s finished, so it’s rare to run anything past him at this early stage. The thing is, having finished my first chapter of the new novel, I keep having a mental ‘tickle’ that has to be scratched; what if I write this in the first person? 

We’re inclined to trust first person narratives and are often seduced by their immediacy, that sense of having direct access to a character’s thoughts, but I also liked the idea that first-person narrators are unreliable; memories change every time we retrieve them, or we may gloss over events and deceive ourselves about what really happened.

The re-write proves to be an interesting experiment; I learn a great deal more about my protagonist, but I can’t quite tell why the story isn’t quite working until Tom gives me his reasons for preferring my initial draft, saying that the second makes him feel boxed-in and he misses seeing the broader picture. I’ve mentioned before that my stories, long or short, always begin with something like a ‘still’ from a film, then, very slowly, the frame unfreezes. As it starts to roll I learn who the characters are and what problems they’re trying to solve, consequently there’s a strong visual element to the way I work. As for viewpoint, I like to use ‘deep’ third, trying to accomplish what first-person narration does with ‘I’ using ‘he’ or ‘she’. I write each scene from one character’s point of view, showing it through his or her eyes and filtering it through his or her emotions. (Note: one scene, one character, and despite one claim to the contrary – grrr! - no ‘head-hopping’ ever!). So it’s back to what I think I do best and even though a small part of me mourns for the chapter I’m now discarding, I’m back on secure foundations and will hopefully build from here.

It’s been a busy time here with lots of visitors, so we decide a change of scene is in order with restorative trip to Aberystwyth. After lunch at the Arts Centre we wander round an exhibition there, a fascinating, beautiful and profoundly moving series of photographs by Sacha Ferrier, then round the day off for quick look at a different beach and more lovely views…

Looking down across Aberystwyth Arts Centre

Looking towards the Creative Studios with their distinctive 'puffer' jackets!

At the beach.

Monday, 12 January 2015

When Words Fail Me

‘But, Chris,’ Si, my son-in-law, tells me gently, ‘it’s only you who thinks that way.’ We’re sitting at the kitchen table where I’ve been moaning away about my professional disappointments in 2014 and awarding myself a Could Do Better grade for my efforts. ‘Anyone else would be pleased to have just one novel published - ever – you’re just comparing yourself to others in a very small circle.’

I’ve thought about our ‘turning of the year’ conversation a lot since then because it helped me to see that the only person giving me a hard time, is me. Some of it’s due to panic; I’ve had several writing projects in mind and started them only for my Inner Critic to rise up and savage them. Some of it’s due to a sudden urge to put everything in order, a frenzied outbreak of cupboard tidying as if I’m trying to create a sense of calm so I can concentrate in peace. And a lot of it’s because I’ve been ill, in pain, busy with other commitments, worried about other people, irritable and feeling generally burn-out.

What to do? I hate anything I perceive as wasting time, but even I’ve had to admit that sometimes you just have to stop and refill the well. Firstly I’ve tried not to think about writing, but to do lots of reading. And while I’m on the subject of books, two I particularly enjoyed at the tail end of last year, were Helen Macdonald’s beautiful, obsessive H is for Hawk and Henry Marsh’s troubling and unflinching Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery. I’ve listened to new (to me) music including Ben Howard and Grey Reverend. I’ve been able to go out running again (hurray) and we’ve also taken time simply soaking up the views along this quiet, unique coastal strip.

The first sign that I might not entirely have forgotten how to write came when my publishers asked for volunteers to contribute to a series of very short stories, based on the theme of the Twelve Days of Christmas, to be given away as post-Christmas treats. After several days of wringing my hands over ‘Four Calling Birds’, the alchemy suddenly happened and my characters came to me as if I was watching a film. And then one of the projects I’ve had in mind started interrupting my sleep and demanding attention. In some ways I dread the hard work, the long hours, the madness of characters taking over my head, but the compensation is a visceral thrill, which I can’t compare with anything else, when the first stirrings of a novel feel right. So now to the long road ahead and brave new words!

Many thanks, Amey, for the inspirational glass pictured above.  I look forwards to reaching The End!