Saturday, 16 May 2015

Godstow Nunnery

We recently took a trip. A long weekend away. Thanks to my work on insideKENT and insideSUSSEX Magazines, I had been offered the chance to travel to Oxford and enjoy four days and three nights on a narrowboat. We'd never done anything like this before, and although my cautious nature threw up myriad reasons with this would be a bad idea (especially with a 4 year old, especially as we had no boating experience), in the end I said yes.

Why not?

Saying yes to scary things had been an unofficial new year's resolution of mine, but until now I hadn't had much of a chance to do anything about it, yes here was the ultimate test. If I could say yes to a long weekend on a narrowboat, I could be proud of myself. Not only that, but it would be nice to get away from it all for a few days. It would make a change. And we might never get the chance to do it again.

So off we went.

The trip itself was by turns terrifying and hilarious, argument forming and bonding, and you can read all about it in June's issue of the magazines.

But there was one moment that stood out for me.

On the way from Eynsham (where we had picked up the boat from the lovely and accommodating Anglowelsh boat hire company) to Oxford (our ultimate goal), we had passed a ruin of a building that, because we had our mission in mind, we hadn't stopped at to explore. I felt this was a shame, and managed to snap a few blurred pictures as we sailed (if that is the right word when it comes to a narrowboat) past. It was interesting, and I thought I would be able to use it in a short story or novel at some point in the future.

I forgot about it after that - we had locks to contend with, and mooring to deal with, and Oxford to be tourists in, so it was the furthest thing from my mind. But of course, when our time in Oxford was up and the weekend was drawing to a close, we had to return to Eynsham. So we passed the place again. This time, we passed it as we were looking for a place to stop for the night - the last night - of our trip. It was only as we were passing the ruins that I spotted a likely looking place for mooring, but by the time I had articulated as such, as had passed it.

It's a good thing that Dean is actually quite proficient at steering a narrowboat. He had liked the look of the flattish piece of bank and the open area beyond it, as well as the pub that could just be seen on the other side of the river, so he turned the boat around. This didn't cause too many problems. Mooring up, on the other hand, did. I jumped off the boat, but took so long hammering the mooring pegs into the soft ground that the back end started drifting out again. Panic ensued, but as luck would have it a couple who had moored up (with much more luck than us) just a little further upriver came to our rescue, directing Dean and helping me to tie some pretty sturdy knots.

That boat was going nowhere without our say-so.

In fiction our rescue and the tale of what the building actually is or was would be looked at as a coincidence too far, suspension of disbelief stretched to the limit, but this was real life, and so anything was possible.

Once settled, we - Dean, Alice, and I - went to check out the building we were moored directly next to.

It was called Godstow Nunnery.

It was supposed to be haunted (so of course we tempted fate by going inside and making a bit of a racket), but we saw and heard nothing that night, nor the next morning. It's still going to be the basis of a short story though - watch this space.

What we did discover, though, was that the Reverend Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll, of course), had come here. And not just him either; he had brought Alice Liddell (THE Alice) and her sisters here for picnics, after rowing down the Thames from Oxford.

What a beautiful coincidence.

Not long before discovering this information my own Alice had been running around the ruins of Godstow Nunnery, inside and out, playing and laughing, much as I imagined Alice Liddell to have done.

No ghosts were seen that night, but my dreams were full of stories. I hope to write them soon. I wonder what stories Lewis Carroll thought of here?

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Book Review: Ladies' Night at Finbar's Hotel

Ladies' Night at Finbar's Hotel is a short story collection by seven female Irish writers that ties together to create a novel about a once time down at heel hotel that has recently been revamped and reopened and now caters to the rich and famous. 

The stories are by Maeve Binchy, Clare Boylan, Emma Donoghue, Anne Haverty, Eilis Ni Dhuibhne, Kate O'Riordan, and Deirdre Purcell, but in an interesting twist, the reader is not told who wrote which story. Each one has a slightly different style and tone, and for those who are fans of any of the above named writers it may well be an easy bit of detection to work out which story they wrote, but for the reader who has no knowledge of the women involved in editor Dermot Bolger's exciting and moving book, it is a fascinating way to be introduced to a group of new (to the reader) writers. 

Each story is focused on one woman and her night at Finbar's. All seven women in the book are staying at the hotel on the same night, and throughout the stories there are glimpses of the other characters that you will meet later on, or you have already met. For those who are yet to be found (the woman typing in the lobby, for example, whose story comes near the end of the book but who is mentioned in a number of earlier stories), the reader waits in anticipation to discover who she is and what her reasons for being at Finbar's really are. For those whom the reader knows all about, there is a certain satisfaction in knowing more than the protagonist whose story is currently being read. It's wonderful how the stories all tie together, and Finbar's deserves a second reading in order to find all the clues. 

There are tales of failed love and love rekindled, of lives lived and lives lost, of families being torn apart and others being brought back together. Finbar's has a history, and despite the new and improved look, despite the makeover and the shininess, that history can't help but show through. 

An enjoyable, thought provoking book that I will certainly read more than once. 

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Trust Your Instincts - Life Is Too Short To Read Boring Books!

Once upon a time I thought that I should read pretty much everything. Anything I could get my hands on, no matter what the genre, no matter what the subject matter. So I did. But I didn’t enjoy it. In fact, after finishing some of the books, I wondered to myself what I could have done with the time that I had spent (wasted) reading a book I hadn’t enjoyed.

What other books could I have read instead?

What else could I have done?

So I stopped reading pretty much everything. I began to read only those books that intrigued me enough – through their blurb and, yes, their cover – to make me want to read them. It was that wanting that made the impact, rather than the needing. If I needed to read a book (for school, university, because others had suggested it and wanted to hear my opinion) it just wasn’t the same as wanting to because it was a subject or an author that interested me.

I realised that life is very short indeed, and that there are more books out there than I could ever possibly hope to read, which is wonderful in a way, but deeply depressing in another. And reading books that just don’t grab me, or rather continuing to read them even after I have realised that I’m not enjoying the story or the writing or whatever, takes up too much of my precious time.

I was reminded of this recently, when I read Cujo by StephenKing. Now, I’m a big King fan (I like his short stories best, but The Shining has a special place in my horrified heart), but for some reason I had always put off reading this particular book. Something about the subject matter – rabid dog terrorises small town – just didn’t interest me, so I didn’t go near it. But then, I was browsing in my local library and had a craving for King. Yes, I have plenty of his books at home, but I wanted something new. The only King book that the library had that I hadn’t read was Cujo, so I went for it.

I should have returned it the next day. I should have realised immediately that my instincts had been right all along, and that this was not the book for me. I don’t know whether it was a feeling of wanting to be loyal to Stephen King, or because I wanted to like it, but I read the whole thing. And I was disappointed.

I didn’t enjoy the book, just as I’d always suspected would be the case, but I read it anyway. Never again.

Life’s just too short for that. 

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Anthony Nield - The Kentish Artist With Heart and Talent

In my job as feature writer for insideKENT Magazine (and for the soon to be launched insideSUSSEX Magazine, coming in March 2015), I get to experience a lot of interesting things. I've enjoyed wonderful meals in fantastic restaurants in order to write a review, I've been able to go out for family day trips to get a real feel for the place I'm writing about, and I've even scored press tickets to sold out shows in London - a true treat for my daughter Alice as well.

But sometimes I forget how lucky I am to do the job I'm doing. And sometimes it's other people who remind me of that fact. Recently, it was Anthony Nield, a Kent based artist, who showed me exactly how blessed I am. In the December 2014 issue of insideKENT, I did an interview with Mr Nield, whose work I had discovered online (and you can too: I'd fallen in love with his style - he works in both pen and ink and watercolours - and loved the way he had found of expressing himself. The interview went well, and both Anthony and I were pleased with the outcome.

Wonderful - it's always good to help another artist (as a writer, I consider myself to be one) and to showcase beautiful work.

A few weeks later, I was surprised to receive an email from Anthony, thanking me for the article, and offering to draw me something - my choice. I was stunned. I was excited. I was absolutely over the moon about this! With, I'll admit, a shaking hand, I replied to the email attaching a photograph of my favourite place in the entire world which is, ironically, not in Kent (or Sussex) at all, but Hampshire. It is a place called Linford Bottom in the New Forest. This is where many of my childhood holidays were spent, and this is where, at the tender age of about 6 or so, I wrote my first play. My sister and I acted it out, and we still have it on video. It was called The Juniper Tree, and it was an odd mixture of fantasy and adventure and wearing dresses as cloaks.

Linford Bottom is the place my mind goes to when asked to think of a happy place, or a favourite memory. It is the place I return to in my dreams fairly regularly. It is the place I love above all others.

So this was the place I chose to have drawn for me. For me. What a wonderful thing!

Some weeks later, Mr Nield contacted me and told me my drawing was ready. We arranged to meet up at his house, only about 15 minutes from mine in the end, for the unveiling.

So, on a cold January evening my daughter and I visited Anthony Nield on our way home from visiting my parents. We interrupted a belated (due to illness) Christmas family gathering there, but we were welcomed so warmly, and with such genuine generosity, that I could have cried with joy, especially when handed the gorgeous drawing Anthony had done for me, not because he had to, or because I had asked him to, but because he truly wanted to.

Anthony Nield, and his lovely family, have made me so happy. Thank you to them, and especially Anthony for the stunning drawing.

By the way, the bush in the middle of the picture is the fabled Juniper Tree... much magic has come from that over the years. 

Sunday, 4 January 2015

New Year Fireworks

Every year I begin thinking of my New Year’s resolutions as soon as Boxing Day is done. Boxing Day is my favourite day of the whole year – Christmas and all its frantic panic and frivolity is over, and it’s time to kick back and relax, throw on a DVD, cuddle up in new pyjamas, and relax properly for the first time since finishing work for the holidays. Everyone tends to be busy doing their own thing with their new gifts, and it’s a great time to have a good think about what’s coming next.

Coming next is, of course, New Year’s Eve. Just under a week since my favourite day of the year comes this, my least favourite of all. I’ve always felt somewhat low on New Year’s Eve, there’s just something in the air that grabs at me and pulls me down, reminding me of all the things that didn’t get done in the year almost gone, and the things that should be done in the one coming up.

It also reminds me of how fast time is flying.

Which is why my first resolution this year is to strike a better work/life balance. Easier – far, far easier – said than done; as a freelancer the less I work the less money I earn. But it needs to be done. My daughter is 4 now, and those four years have shot past with indecent haste. I imagine the next four, and the next, and the next will go just as fast, if not faster. And then she will be gone, and I’ll have all the time in the world to do whatever it is I need to get done. But in the meantime, I will have missed her growing up because my back was always turned to her, my eyes more interested in what I was typing than what she was doing.

No more.

I have 9 months before she starts full time school. I intend to make the most of those 9 months, and the most of her.

My other resolutions are the same as ever – lose weight, exercise more, read more books (and review them here), do housework on a more regular basis… Maybe I’ll stick to those ones, maybe I won’t (I probably won’t).

As long as I can look back in a years’ time and say I did my best in 2015, that we had good times, that it wasn’t all about chasing the next few pounds, I’ll be happy. 

Monday, 20 October 2014

Echoes of the Past

What are the chances of someone you know having the same birthday as you do? My basic maths skills aren't bad, but when it comes to probability and equations, I tend to find safety in words rather than numbers.

The birthday paradox is a neat way to work out how many people in a room might have the same birthday as each other. I say neat... what I mean is, to anyone who isn't a mathematician, it's a bit of a complicated maths problem that I find somewhat difficult to process. However, there is a formula, and it does make sense. Honestly. Check it out and you'll see.

Now, what are the odds of two family members having the same birthday? In this article, four siblings were born on the same day (although, granted, two of them are twins), at odds of over 133,000 to one.

That's pretty impressive. And, as most families know, it's not something that usually happens.

But recently, my family discovered that, despite all the jokes and the ideas about joint parties, it does happen. Because why not?

My sister and I have very close birthdays; I'm 3rd July, and she's 7th July (with two years separating us). We've always thought that was pretty impressive of our parents (although our parents would probably have preferred a little breathing space between celebrations, thinking about it). But now, the next generation has gone one better.

My daughter, Alice, was born on 10th October 2010 (yes, a 10/10/10 baby). It's a nice, round date, and although she was over two weeks late, it all worked out pretty well. When my sister announced she was expecting, and her due date was the same as Alice's had been, we laughed about it. What a coincidence! How strange!

And then her pregnancy went on. And on. And it suddenly dawned on us all that actually, the coincidence might go even further. What if... Only my sister was taken into hospital on 8th October to be induced, and everything started kicking off pretty quickly. Okay, we thought, those girls are going to have very close birthdays, just like their mummies - how strange!

Then the labour slowed down. It slowed riiiiight dooooown.

8th October came and went. 9th October came and went. 10th October came... and right in the middle of Alice's birthday celebration, we heard the news - Tabitha Violet had been born!

Now, what are the chances of that?

Happy birthday 10/10 girls!

Saturday, 27 September 2014

New House, New Tree

On 27th August 2014, we finally moved house. After being on the market for nine months and missing out on a number of gorgeous houses because we couldn't find a buyer, we came to a momentous (and life changing, as it turns out) decision: we wouldn't sell at all. Instead, we would become both landlord and tenant, by renting out our mortgaged house, and renting a different house in the area we had been trying to get back to for three quarters of a year.

And it worked out pretty well. Within three days of being on the rental market, we had signed up a new family to live in our home. I hope they have more luck in it than we did. For us, the place represents mistakes and follies that made us miserable and angry. But we can't blame anyone for that; they are our mistakes, our follies, and I just hope that we can make them good now.

Which is where the new house comes in. Located on a country lane just a few miles from where we used to live (and from where we should not, in hindsight, have moved), we found a little cottage that was up for rent. Far older than it appears, with opens fires, a Rayburn in the dining room, and beams galore, this crooked house immediately had us hooked. Stepping through the front door for the first time felt like home, and just an hour later we made an offer. We were accepted. We were moving.

Moving house is not a fun experience, no matter how much one might wish to leave the place they are living, no matter how much one might want to live in the place they are going to, and this move was no different. Done over two days with two crews (thanks to the narrow lane and steep drive), discovering that our furniture wouldn't fit up the stairs (again, so very narrow, and curved), and that we had no fridge, we were a ruined mess of a family by the end of it.

But then we started to live here. And it didn't matter about the mess or the boxes. It hardly mattered about the heating that didn't quite work, and the hot water that did, but took its time to get there. We loved it. We love it. It's like we've always been here.

To celebrate the move, we planted a tree in the (large - we've never had so much lawn) garden. We'd love to stay here to watch it grow.