Monday, 29 September 2014

Taking Stock

'Sunset Bardsey' by Tom Tomos
We’ve spent two days this week cataloguing Tom’s paintings which were rather haphazardly stored when we moved here three years ago. It’s been a joy to see old favourites, discover forgotten gems and to change the mood of our living rooms with different works. Not everyone has the chance to get a private viewing of a major retrospective of an artist’s work – nearly a hundred paintings - but my pride in Tom’s achievement has been tinged with frustration that he isn’t receiving wider recognition. He’s not alone, of course, Andrew Graham-Dixon’s BBC programme about David Bomberg, whose critical stock rose only after his death from malnutrition, was a powerful reminder of how cruel the creative Fates can be. 

Drinking my tea this morning, I ruefully listened to Radio Four’s Today programme giving author David Nicholls over four minutes of airtime to promote his new book, Us, and to tell listeners how pleased he was that his comedy about marriage and family had been long-listed for the Booker prize. I subsequently tweeted Today telling them I’d be happy to do a soft interview talking about my novels which are also about relationships and marriage, but they have yet to take me up on my offer, so I can only assume that when male authors tackle these subjects they automatically become newsworthy. I’m sure David Nicholls is a good author - don’t all those sales prove it? - yet I can’t help but think that given the same amount of promotion, I could be a 'good' author too. As things stand, my ‘discoverability’ as an author, is mainly due to whatever I can do on social media – short of being really annoying – and on special deals on Amazon (or, last weekend, Kobo). The lower the price, the more willing readers are to take a punt, but it really did make me wonder, standing in the queue for a coffee in the Turner Contemporary cafĂ© last week about what’s really of value to people when I noticed that the price of a single cupcake there, was higher than any of my ebooks.

Grumbles about relative values apart, driving to the supermarket a couple of nights ago, Tom and I were reflecting on what we’ve achieved between us since moving to Wales nearly nine years ago; paintings sold, novels published, academic achievements etc. Our quiet self-congratulations nearly became our last words as, suddenly, as an impatient van-driver, fed up with waiting behind a bus, sped head-on towards leaving us, so I thought, with nowhere to go but A&E. I still don’t know how we escaped, although Tom’s excellent driving skills had a lot to do with it, but, gosh, I’m grateful to be here. Being alive seemed a good reason to crack open our latest foraging recipe; Hedgerow Fizz made with elderberries, blackberries and a few rosehips. Sometimes you have to take stock and realise how lucky you are. Cheers!


Monday, 22 September 2014

Making Memories

Coffee time in Whistable
‘Keep Making Memories’ reads the slogan on the Shearings coach we’re following on the motorway. An auspicious sign for our holiday break with Ma, perhaps. It also, along with treating people how you would wish to be treated, resonates with my personal philosophy of trying to make the most of every day. As a line from a particularly moving scene in one of my favourite films, Blade Runner, goes; ‘all these moments will be lost in time, like tears in the rain’ - which is why every minute is precious.

Alas, our first holiday meal proves memorable for all the wrong reason. We’ve booked in to a Premier Inn at Herne Bay to explore the Kent coast. The Premier Inn itself is clean and efficient with polite, helpful staff; so helpful, in fact, that when our online reservation at the next door 'Table Table' appears to have failed, the receptionist remakes the booking and even comes to our room to assure us we have a table for three at 6.30pm.

Beach huts at Herne Bay
‘Sorry guys, nothing under that name,’ says the restaurant manager when we present ourselves. ‘Grab yourselves a drink while you wait and I’ll try to slot you in as soon as possible.’ Because it’s the first night of our holiday and we don’t want to kick off with a row we try to ‘grab ourselves’ a drink. Unfortunately this entails a fifteen minute wait at the understaffed bar. Grabbing ourselves somewhere pleasant to sit is even more of a challenge since almost every table is covered with a detritus of dirty glasses and crisp crumbs.

Needless to say that when we finally get to eat, my meal is the worst I have had in a very long time with flaccid greasy potato wedges and disagreeable greens that smell and look as if they’ve visited several other plates before mine. What really makes my blood boil though is seeing a steady stream of customers, many of whom are elderly and some of whom are infirm, all dressed up for their big night out and watching their faces fall as it dawns on them that the whole pack of cards has come tumbling down and they won’t be eating any time soon. It’s a shameful way to treat people.

I could go on… but all that needs to be said is that our polite complaints were answered with a polite apology, but nothing else (hey, at least we weren’t offered a free meal!) and the next day, after searching Trip Advisor, we found an absolutely delightful Thai restaurant, 'The Coconut Tree' where the three of us enjoyed a fabulous evening for less than the price of a meal at Table Table.

Our ghastly first evening aside, the memories we made this holiday were of sun, laughter and the joy of English seaside resorts.

Whistable Harbour
All set for a picnic on the beach at Sandgate
Prospect Cottage and garden, former home to Derek Jarman (taken from a distance)
View from within the Turner Contemporary at Margate
A hot day in Ramsgate
And finally, a visit to Ramsgate Harbour evokes memories of being gale-bound there on our sailing trip which inspired both Turning the Tide and Follow A Star, but it also reminds us of how much time has passed and of people who are no longer with us. Keep making memories, indeed.

And then!

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...