Roaring into the Twenties

The nicest thing happened to me on 31st December. Val Portelli emailed New Year’s wishes for me:

  1. A secret writing space
  2. Trained housework fairies
  3. Self cleaning and ironing clothes
  4. Self cooking and washing up meals
  5. Empty, peaceful train journeys
  6. Supportive work colleagues
  7. Considerate offspring
  8. Strong anti-bodies as soldiers for ailing relative
  9. No plot holes, and
  10. A successful writing year

Thankfully, I already have number 6. Numbers 2, 3 and 4 are sadly unlikely but I’m hopeful for the others.

How can it possibly be 2020?

To me the Twenties are the 1920s – an apparently golden age full of possibilities between the War to end all Wars and the Great Depression; a time when things appeared to be getting better as people entered a brave new world. 

Unfortunately, the problem was in the word ‘people’.

A hundred years later and it’s hard to see what we’ve really achieved.  The last decade seems to have unearthed political extremes, better means of communication but less listening, more openness but less courtesy, more globalisation but less tolerance, the means to see the world in virtual reality without realising if we’re not careful, that’s all we’ll be left with. 

Looking back on a decade which started with economic collapse and ended with ongoing political unrest and environmental disaster, and on a personal level has included bereavement and worry about the health of loved ones, it’s easy to feel depressed. 

But on the plus side, it’s been the decade when my children grew into delightful young people, my husband and I have been employed, our health has been good, I started writing seriously and I met loads of new people some of whom are now among my best friends.

Looking at 2019 itself, I checked my 31st December 2018 blog and found it nicely vague.

There were ‘targets’ in my head and I achieved most of them. I published Murder Durnovaria and The Seaside Dragon, I took part in organising and running the first literary festival in my town and with Liz Hedgecock, I published The Case of the Fateful Legacy and The Case of the Crystal Kisses.  I couldn’t however, finish other projects without resigning from a demanding day-job. That’s not currently feasible.

Being typically human or at any rate me, it wasn’t till I reflected that I realised I’ve been so busy feeling like a failure for the things I couldn’t finish to feel pleased with what I did achieve.

And for 2020? I could be as vague as I was for 2019 but instead I’ll be a little more specific. All things being well I hope to:

  • Publish two books
  • Learn to crochet
  • Maybe join a choir
  • Live more sustainably
  • Be more spiritually aware
  • Get on with clearing attic

But as for today, I think I’ll follow my friend’s lead and send you some wishes for 2020.

  • May you find space and time for creativity in whatever form that works for you
  • May you find space and time to connect with the world around you and maybe beyond you
  • May you feel loved and able to give love
  • May you wave goodbye to the things that dragged you down in 2019 and find things that lift you up in 2020
  • May your joys outnumber your worries and if not, may you find comfort through the worry
  • May you realise that your very existence is part of the jigsaw which makes the world tick even if that sometimes doesn’t feel blindingly obvious

With the very best wishes for the New Year and many thanks for reading!

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Words copyright 2020 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Image by Kranich17 from Pixabay

Val Portelli’s book recommendations for 2020

Liz Hedgecock’s new series ‘Maisie Frobisher Mysteries’

Glimmers

I sometime imagine myself dragging my spirit through mire in the last few weeks towards Christmas, whispering encouragingly ‘nearly there, nearly there’.

It’s not about Christmas itself, which I enjoy and try to make as laid back as possible. It’s about the increasing darkness beforehand.

I’m not entirely sure when this really kicked in. As a child, I recall not really liking winter. The highlights were Christmas plays, carol concerts and the massive family dinner put on by my great aunt. Winter as a teenager is a bit more of a blur because duh – hormones warp your priorities. I have two main midwinter memories. One is being in the school choir with the music teacher coaching us in a new arrangement of The Holly and the Ivy and trying forlornly to get us to pronounce ‘choir’ à la Queen’s English (e.g. to rhyme with ‘hire’) rather than in the local South Welsh accent (in which it rhymed – just about – with lawyer). The other is about turning up at the fifth form Christmas disco to find my best friend more or less wearing the same outfit and the boy of my dreams not noticing me yet again. 

At some point in adulthood however, I realised that going to work in the dark, coming home in the dark and – given the nature of some of the offices I’ve worked in (same career – lots of roles) – working in the dark wasn’t doing a lot for my mental health. As the days grow shorter, so does my attention span, my enthusiasm, my mood and my desire to be awake. They improve as Christmas nears and multi-coloured lights start to brighten houses that hitherto seem shuttered as firmly against winter as they would be against wolves.

At some point of course, I realised that I probably suffer from low level seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

Moving to the equator or hibernating aren’t options. Recognising how I feel, looking it in the face and knowing that around Christmas I’ll start to feel better has helped me focus on the finishing line rather than the race. However imperceptible, I know that as the last Christmas leftovers are being eaten up and I’m starting to get annoyed with the decorations, the days will be getting longer and I’ll be starting to feel better. 

It’s not been quite so bad this year because my November, which is usually when I start to feel low, was supremely busy. I was heavily involved in the first literary festival in my town. I also had Murder Durnovaria to get out. I’m not sure I had time to even notice the change in light until I was on the other side of the festival and found myself heading to my day job in the pitch dark. Then I was starting to droop, staring blankly at editing I need to do on a novel and wincing at my total lack of preparation for Christmas. 

Christmas itself isn’t an issue. I grew up in a family which enjoyed Christmas but was never excessive about it. There weren’t many presents, but we ate well and spent several days being creative or reading without anyone expecting anyone to do something else instead. I’ve tried to continue that relaxed tradition with my own children. And after the year when I had to buy the entire Christmas meal on Christmas Eve and the world didn’t end and I realised no-one would have cared if we’d had spaghetti bolognese instead, I’ve been able to go with the flow about the food too.

Not every Christmas has been happy of course. Several have been clouded with a broken heart or a death or the shadow of serious illness and the mood has been less about a dizzying blaze of multi-coloured light and more about standing fast in a darkness illuminated by one defiant lantern – which for many is the whole point of the season. This year for me, the certainty that I’d got over the worst of SAD and simply needed to order food and persuade my slightly Bah Humbug husband to put decorations up and everything would be fine was knocked sideways by news I wasn’t expecting and which is currently still hanging over everything.

If like me, you find the last dark days of the year hard to bear, or if for you this Christmas or Christmas in general is difficult because of other people’s expectations, or you don’t buy into the hype or you’re alone and/or grieving, I’ve put some links below which you might find useful – some for support, some for ideas.

But I’d just like to finish on a note that’s not doom and gloom. 

I finally persuaded old Bah Humbug to help put up the decorations on Saturday. Naturally, no sooner was I ready to go than he decided to put up a new curtain rail in our daughter’s room instead – a job which had been waiting since September. 

Long story short, I threw up my hands in irritation and stormed off to assemble fake Christmas trees on my own.

I got Christmas trees 1 & 2 up (different rooms) and extracted the lights for Christmas tree 2 from their box. Half way out of the box, like sneaky serpents they spiralled into a hyper-granny-knot.

Having finished fitting the new curtain rail, my husband came to see what I’d been up to while he’d been ‘slogging away’ making a boil out of a pimple.

He tutted.

‘Now you see these lights,’ he said sagely. ‘What’s gone wrong here, the reason they’re tangled, is that you, being an impatient woman, pulled them out of the box the wrong way. As a patient man, I shall untangle them and put them on the tree. Stand back and watch the master at work.’

I left him wrestling them into submission while I did an internet search to establish whether Vlad the Impaler ever deployed a fake Christmas tree and if so how.

History is mute on the subject. It may yet be rewritten.

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Words and photograph copyright 2019 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Some ideas for doing something entirely different at Christmas

Coping with Anxiety and Depression at Christmas

Depression at Christmas – a Survival Guide

The Samaritans (UK)

 

Daisy-chains and Black Holes

If making daisy-chains and acting out what might happen as you fall into a black hole or similar were Olympic events, I might have had the chance as a sportswoman.

Or maybe not. 

I used to blame my lack of confidence at sport on childhood trauma: firstly aged five, hearing two grannies laugh at me as I tried to be placed in the egg and spoon race at school and later, aged nine or so, suffering two years of bullying which included being picked last for every team.

Looking back now, I realise not all of this is reasonable. 

I was the littlest child in my school in the youngest class. I was also extremely serious. I imagine a very small girl, running along clasping her egg and spoon (and they were the real thing in my day – none of this plastic nonsense) with a look of utter determination, socks falling down little legs, scabby knees occasionally showing as the overlong skirt flapped, mousy bunches bouncing above her shoulders. I was probably rather sweet and certainly funny. My own daughter, hampered by height in a similar manner just hammed up the whole thing as she competed with her best friend (the tallest in her class) to general hilarity including her own. I took myself far too seriously and felt quite bruised afterwards.

I recovered a bit when two years later, I went to a forward thinking junior school and was encouraged, despite my lack of stature, to learn the high jump and long jump properly. I was never going to win, but I did OK and was relatively confident in my abilities.

Then we moved again and I joined a school which had barely moved into the first half of the 20th century, let alone the last quarter. If there was any spare time, the boys got to do extra sport. The girls got to do extra needlework. If it was a very hot day, the girls got to do extra needlework while watching the boys do extra sport. My mother still has the item I embroidered that summer, every cross-stitch stabbed with boredom.

This was the school where I was comprehensively bullied for two years. On the one hand it crushed any small confidence I had that I could at least run, even if I wasn’t much good at catching or hitting a ball. It also put me off team games for life to the extent that when someone at work suggested an inter-team rounders match in St James’s Park, it took me straight back to those awful days of being jeered at and made me feel slightly sick. On the other hand, the junior school bullying – once I’d decided to stop letting people see they were hurting me – probably started me on a path of being determined to do my own thing and ultimately to stop worrying about what other people thought and worry more about whether I was meeting my own standards. 

Secondary school was a little different. Our games sessions involved four forms and therefore two groups of around sixty girls or sixty boys. How the teachers didn’t go mad I have no idea. Encouragement of women in sport was dampened by a teacher declaring in tones of despair that girls were useless once they hit puberty as women’s hips made it harder to run and busts made them more self-conscious. I’d never thought about my hips before and ever afterwards I’ve wondered if I really did run differently after the age of twelve. My bust was another matter. The last thing I was even remotely good at – running – became a torment both physical and mental as I was ‘wobbly’ very early on. 

The teachers concentrated on those who were teachable. These didn’t include me. During one year, in netball season, the teachers went off to coach girls with potential while those without were left alone – pitched in a vicious match against the goddesses of the school netball team. Imagine the Roman arena where useless specimens of humanity have been thrown to the top gladiators for a bit of light-hearted weapons practice. With no teacher watching, every rule (except bizarrely, staying in the right part of the court) was broken. Elbows, knees, and feet were employed to get the ball into the right goal. Meanwhile, even more feet were being applied to ankles within the useless girls’ team as low level feuds were played out under the guise of a match. In a vicious sort of way it was quite fun really. 

The teacher gave up trying to teach me tennis the day a cry came from the field where the boys were playing cricket: ‘Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No! It’s Paula’s tennis ball.’ I thought my serves were innovative but never mind. In the sixth form I went on a course to learn squash and afterwards challenged my boyfriend – a very competent sportsman – to a match. Afterwards, this generally mild-mannered young man said if anyone tried to make him play squash with me again, he’d have to kill them and me and possibly himself. This seemed harsh. My husband (not the same man and not as mild mannered) might feel similarly about teaching me dinghy sailing or ice-skating except he’s too busy laughing. I have fortunately learnt to put my nose in the air, get a cup of tea, stalk off and read or write something which is the adult equivalent of what I did in the days when I was picked last in teams – make daisy-chains and daydream.

You see, in school, the main sport in the summer was rounders. This – for anyone who doesn’t know – is related to baseball and consists of one team taking it in turns to whack a ball and try to get round four bases without being caught out, while the other team fields and tries to catch the ball in order to get them out. I hated batting because I was genuinely rubbish at it, bullying or no bullying, but I quite liked fielding if I could be as far away as possible from any likelihood of having to try and catch a ball.

Our country school had a massive daisy-covered field. Near one edge was a sort of copse. In break-times, the copse was crucial to me and the one person who’d play with me. It formed part of the world in which we acted out a very complicated story in which we’d gone through some sort of portal made of a translucent but tangible wall (a bit like clear jelly) to another world. We spent a great deal of time acting out the sheer terror of going through this invisible wall in which were trapped various enormous insects and managing the challenges on the other side as we tried to get back. It really doesn’t bear thinking about what we must have looked like and maybe it’s no wonder we were both considered odd. 

During a game of rounders, it was too risky to sneak off into the copse as the teacher wasn’t that daft. It was however possible to lay down in the grass as far away from any action as possible and make daisy-chains. Which is pretty much what I did, while imagining myself in the middle of one of my own stories having an adventure. On the very rare occasion a ball did come my way and an exasperated roar of ‘Paula!’ was bellowed by my team, it was really annoying. The one time I managed to scramble to my feet and catch the ball I was as surprised as anyone.

My own children turned out to be both creative and good at sports. My daughter did well and was quite focussed, particularly on gymnastics. But watching my son, who had a lot of potential, struggle with the team element of sport was baffling. No-one was picking on him (or at least not until his team lost because he wasn’t concentrating), he was capable and confident, he was being given lots of encouragement. So I asked him whether, apart from his struggles with concentration there was another problem. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I want there to be a story and no-one else does.’ He wasn’t really interested in playing football or swimming or learning judo for itself or for the sake of winning. He wanted it to be part of a story – a quest, a challenge, an adventure and none of the other children or the trainers understood. 

But I did. Because looking back, bullying aside, that’s exactly how I felt about sport and fundamentally still do. I want there to be a story, otherwise I’d rather be reading or writing one.

I like to think that if I ever was silly enough to agree to be on an office team playing rounders in St James’s Park, you’d be able to find me as a fielder, a long way from the action, making daisy-chains. I can still do it you know. 

As for acting out finding myself in another world, I lost touch with that friend for a long time until a few years ago. But as we caught up with each other over a series of emails, one of her first questions was ‘do you remember the jelly wall with the fly in it?’ Perhaps this is because, though we’re both now grown up and she’s not odd at all and maybe neither am I, we’re both writers and still looking for the story in every situation and wondering how best to describe what might happen if we step through a jelly wall or a black hole into another world. 

It’s a hard job, but someone has to do it. Beats whacking a ball in my view anyway.

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Words and photographs (c) Copyright 2019 Paula Harmon. Not to be reproduced without author’s express permission.

A Letter to My Bully

Accurate Records?

bring your blue shield to get a husband out of bed rather a lot of effort and he didn’t want it to have a cup of tea wrinkly…

No, I haven’t finally lost the plot (well ok maybe I’ve lost a plot but not The Plot). If you can stick with me long enough, I’ll explain that phrase later.

Is it really six weeks since I last posted anything? I just hope your autumn hasn’t been as exhausting as mine. 

As mentioned previously, my youngest child has gone to university, rendering the house empty of children (and depriving the washing machine of fodder). I remember leaving home and thinking ‘hooray – free at last’ because my parents – while being neither over-protective or over-restrictive were – let’s face it, parents. Knowing my daughter thinks the same is a little unnerving but I guess it’s my turn. 

I’ve also been privileged to be involved in organising the inaugural Blandford Literary Festival which takes place 18th-24th November 2019. If you live anywhere near North Dorset, check it out. There really is something for everyone.

Then there’s been work which has been rolling out/not rolling out/gearing up/gearing down/gearing up again/gantt charting/deadline meeting/deadline delaying/impacted by whether/when/how Brexit happens etc etc. Less said the better frankly.

Finally there’s been WORDS. I wanted the sequel to Murder Britannica to come out this July. But I ended up editing for what feels like a hundred years because of all the various distractions and pressures. Since Murder Durnovaria is set in a real place, I had a lot of background stuff to get right and it took me ages to realised a sub-plot needed to go. Meanwhile, a spin-off featuring Margaret Demeray from the Caster & Fleet series is still in edits. There’s only so much one can do when working, wrangling offspring and trying to keep on top of life in general. Sometimes it’s just the wrong time for stuff. 

But Murder Durnovaria is now on pre-order!  And children’s book The Seaside Dragon (formerly The Treasure Seekers) is finally out. 

So anyway, I promised to explain about the opening to this post. Well, my occasional co-authors have been busy too. Val Portelli is releasing the revised version of her Mediterranean romantic novel ‘Summer Changes, Winter Tears‘ on 22nd November and Liz Hedgecock has not only just released a children’s book called A Christmas Carrot (which is illustrated by my daughter) but has also been writing a spin-off from Caster and Fleet. To draft this she dictated into an app while walking – you can read all about her experiences here. She suggested I might like to do the same.

One of my excuses for not doing so is that I usually walk with my husband and he might disown me. My real argument is that I don’t always draft in a flow. Sometimes I spend more time ‘crossing out’ and rephrasing than writing. But given that I always tell my children not to be afraid of new experiences, I decided to try. I downloaded the app and being away for a short-break in Carbis Bay, Cornwall, I looked out of the window and started dictating my thoughts. These were recorded as:

Later in the morning the train still haven’t arrived wondered why she got a self talking to these things and with and people but she was really feel too thick to be doing something would be just cooking school is awesome bring your blue shield to get a husband out of bed rather a lot of effort and he didn’t want it to have a cup of tea wrinkly.. “Get out of bed you lazy AF she said and quotations probably she thought I would have worked out well.

I’d like it on record that I actually referred to my husband as a lazy oaf and have no idea what words the app transliterated as ‘cooking school’, ‘blue shield’ and ‘wrinkly’.

A couple of days later, I tried the app again and did actually try to ‘write’ something. This produced something marginally more coherent:

Open quotes I’ve got happy doing that the poultices and dealing with the herbs but I’m not so sure about is the transfusions and infusions I’m always worried that the lady to come to me will you Sumrell and I’ll get blamed for it there forever after me women you know what they’re like monthlies and headaches and stomachaches there was fussing about medicine men they just leave it to last minute and I nearly dead anyway if you can help me with that I’ll be really grateful”

It’s not exactly Ulysses is it? (And I’ve no idea who Sumrell is but I might use the name sometime.) I hope all the comma haters are happy since clearly I don’t use commas (or indeed full-stops) in my head!

I’ve yet to be convinced I can dictate streamlined thoughts, partly because I’m not sure my thoughts are terribly streamlined. All the same, I might try again sometime, maybe lounging like Barbara Cartland on a chaise-longue rather than walking through town and down by the river-bank. 

After all – it might frighten the otters. They’re a protected species aren’t they?

 

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Words Copyright (c) Paula Harmon 2019 not to be reproduced without the author’s express permission. Image by Klaus Hausmann from Pixabay

 

Nest Emptying

My girl has gone.

Well, ok, my daughter – my younger child – has gone to university and will no doubt be back before we know it, but at the moment, it feels very strange.

For the first time in twenty years, my husband and I are on our own in the house with the prospect of it being this way for several weeks rather than a few days.

I know I’m not the only one right now, wondering where all those years went (apart from into grey hair). It’s odd isn’t it? I’m proud my daughter is able to go, able to stretch her wings, proud of the young woman she has grown into, excited for her to be meeting new people and hearing new ideas – to be living in a completely different environment to the one she’s grown up in. But it’s weird.

Admittedly, before she left, we hadn’t seen a lot of her since she passed her driving test. Either at school or working or socialising, our daughter was generally somewhere less dull than at home with her parents. All the same, she was around some of the time and we knew roughly what was going on.

Now, if she stays out till 4am, we won’t know. So we won’t be worrying, we will be assuming she’s been tucked up with cocoa and an improving book since 8pm. That’s the theory anyway. Of course in reality, we’re still wondering if she’s all right – happy, eating properly, safe – in just the same way as we do about our son.

As my daughter and I were going round a hypermarket buying her last groceries before she left, she was quite excited until for the first time she had to pay attention in the detergent aisle. She said ‘I’m dreading doing my own washing’. ‘Dreading’ seems like a heavy word. I’m now afraid I may have passed my laundry obsession on to her. (But I admit to breathing a sigh of relief that I won’t have mountains of the stuff till they come home.)

My lovely girl has always been the independent sort. She fooled us for a total of twenty-three months by being the perfect baby. This was quite a relief given that her brother, less than two years older, is hyperactive. She slept… well pretty much all she did was sleep and smile. She would sit and ‘read’ to her toys before she could form proper words, showing them the pictures and pointing at the writing but using a language all of her own. She looked no more than slightly surprised the time I wheeled her about in the pushchair in the snow without strapping her in and hitting a hidden kerb sent her flying in her snowsuit face down into a snowdrift like a padded starfish. We probably should have taken note when her wicked sense of humour started to emerge at 14 months when she sniggered after shutting her big brother’s fingers in the door of the cupboard where she was ‘hiding’. 

At just under two, she shoved aside all the perfect baby nonsense and she emerged as funny, bright, independent, fiery, creative and lovely. She hasn’t looked back since. If she doesn’t fancy what’s planned for dinner, she’ll cook her own – much preferring vegetarian food to any other. Like me, her grandmothers and her great grandmothers, she makes recipes up to see what happens. Arguing with her is reasonably pointless but as she gets the belligerence from me naturally I do it anyway. 

She could draw recognisable characters with unique expressions before she could write properly. I still treasure the sketch she drew aged 4 on my Christmas wish list. I had put on it jewellery and art but she drew a picture of me grinning and loading a tumble dryer – something I didn’t possess but could have done with. I’ve also kept a copy of a diptych of a sad little girl faced with carrots and peas and a happy little girl faced with a Christmas present. This pretty much summed up her view of the injustices she faced at the time.

Just like my son with music, there was little doubt when she was small that art was where her heart lay.

Well now she’s flown the nest. She may be back (as will our son be) but she’s started adult life with a ton of grown up household setting up stuff (photo is a fraction of it) and sooner or later, they’ll both be gone for good.

How do my husband and I feel? I’m not sure it’s quite sunk in yet. I think yesterday we started to realise those two unnaturally tidy bedrooms were going to be tidy for some time and it felt very strange. I missed being able to just go and chat to her without having to go through some IT channel. Not because I was chasing up on her, just because I suddenly missed her very much.

I think of how it was when I went to university and communicating with my parents involved letters and a weekly phone call if I could face standing in the freezing campus phone box. It’s never occurred to me until now to ask my mother how she felt when I went to university. She says ‘it was so quiet. I missed you so much.’ Which is nice to know. My sister left home some years later and I remember Dad saying that he was still defaulting to cooking for four for some time afterwards. 

Although admittedly, knowing Dad, that was just because he liked food.

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Words and picture copyright (c) Paula Harmon 2019. Please do not use without the author’s express permission.

Writing Between the Fine Lines

Books for Older Readers?

How is an older reader any different from a younger one? We aren’t of course – except for the level of irritation we may feel when reading how we’re portrayed.

A great many industries have fallen foul of this (retailers – you know who you are) and the writing industry is one of them. 

Things some authors forget about people over fifty and indeed over seventy:

  • We don’t usually wear clothes from before WWII unless we’re going to a fancy dress party. 
  • In our teens we danced to anything from rock ’n’ roll to hip-hop – therefore it’s unlikely our favourite tunes are from the 1930s or before.
  • We grew up in a society which was described as ‘permissive’ and some of us were hippies. Whether we are/were permissive or not, whether we want to read about it or not, few of us find sex shocking or dirty. 
  • Apart from in a professional context, we prefer (or at least I prefer) not to be addressed formally. I find the words ‘Mrs Harmon…’ tend to precede bad news.
  • The menopause is not the morphopause. A woman on the far side of it is no different from the woman on the near side only except that she has one less thing on her shopping list every month.
  • Regardless of gender, we’re probably still working or have worked most of our adult lives.
  • We understand more of what teenagers and twenty-somethings say than we let on.

Under the spare bed I’ve stored various story segments written between the ages of sixteen and thirty. Whether I’ll ever do anything with them I don’t know. 

In my teenage jottings, all the main characters are under eighteen. Anyone over twenty is of doubtful interest since their sole function is to do what the adults around me seemed to be doing: boss people about and mess things up for the next generation. 

Back then, older people said if we worried about the future we were naïve and if we didn’t we were frivolous. ‘All you care about,’ they said, ‘is sex, awful so-called music, ridiculous fashions and avoiding settling down.’ (From what I recall we were interested in all those things – as are young people in every generation – but also the fairly major risk of being blown up in a nuclear war because of sabre-shaking adults.)

At twenty-one, I graduated and started working. The characters in my stories then were also in their twenties, torn between having to earn a living, wanting to do something interesting instead, wondering if they would ever find The One and fundamentally feeling that adult life was frankly not worth the bother.

After I hit thirty, there was a long gap when I didn’t write much at all, because earning a living turned into a career, The One finally turned up (albeit not to the timetable I had in mind as a teenager) and consequently I had two children. Adult life, whether worth the bother or not, got in the way.

By the time I got round to writing properly again I was, of course, older. 

Things that I’d discovered in the meantime included:

  • Some people have lots of energy and want to change the world for the better.
  • Some people have lots of energy and want to change it for the worse.
  • Some people are tired, busy, ill, disillusioned.
  • Some people just want to have some fun. 
  • Some people just don’t care.
  • People can be insecure, worried, want to love and be loved, want sex or not want sex, be angry, happy, spiritual, a-spiritual, confused, hopeful, dangerous. 
  • They can be all these things at the same time or at different times.
  • Crucially, they can be all these things whatever age they are.

The only difference between a younger person and an older one is that the younger one looks at the older and thinks it’ll never happen to me and the older looks at the younger and thinks when did I stop being you?

By the time I started writing again, I realised that whatever age my characters were they had to be as multi-faceted as real people. 

How have I tried to reflect that in my own stories? 

Murder Britannica is a humorous murder-mystery set in 2nd Century south-east Wales. Its main characters Lucretia and Tryssa are two British women in their fifties who have loathed and subsequently avoided each other since since their teens. While the self-absorbed Lucretia is the richest woman in the area, suddenly she has to rely on Tryssa, the wisest woman in the area, to stop a string of mysterious deaths from really getting out of hand. I had great fun writing about them. Lucretia doesn’t think she’s too old for anything, whether it’s getting even richer or flirting with eligible (e.g. rich) men and thinks Tryssa is dull and possibly sneaky. Tryssa feels maturity should equal wisdom and equanimity and thinks Lucretia is ridiculous. A second book about them will hopefully be out in Spring 2020. It’s set in Durnovaria (modern day Dorchester) and while Lucretia’s visit to an old flame uncovers more than a plot to defraud her of money, Tryssa finds not just answers to a buried secret but also unexpected love.

The Cluttering Discombobulator is a fictionalised memoir about my father. It flips between memories of being a child in the 1970s and being the forty-something daughter of an elderly man who runs amok with a mobility scooter. The book started when my father challenged me to write an interesting short story about a retired couple, one of whom is in a wheelchair. Over time and circumstance, it morphed into something else entirely. 

Kindling and The Advent Calendar (collections of short stories, many of which are based on real events and/or places) have plenty of young people on the edge of adulthood or adolescence but also several older people revisiting their youth to close a circle.

Weird and Peculiar Tales (co-written with Val Portelli) features several older people either on the wrong side of things that go bump in the night or being the thing that goes bump in the night.

Starting with The Case of the Black Tulips, the Caster & Fleet series (co-written with Liz Hedgecock) is set in 1890s London. Katherine (25) and Connie (22) team up to solve one mystery and end up solving several. There’s romance, humour, dark deeds and plenty of tea. Where are the older characters? Well in an era when a nice girl (even aged 25) was still largely under someone’s supervision a lot of the time, Katherine has Aunt Alice and Aunt Alice’s friend Mina to chaperone her (assuming she doesn’t climb out of a window or something). Aunt Alice has been trying to bring up Katherine and Katherine’s sister Margaret since their mother’s death. She’s loving, shy, unworldly and doesn’t really feel equal to her nieces’ fire. She’s quietly horrified that Katherine’s working – even in a job suitable for a nice middle-class girl – and would rather live in genteel poverty. Her quiet and somewhat secretive friend Mina is more inclined to turn a blind eye to Katherine’s activities. Alice and Mina are both in their late forties, perhaps considered old maids. Has life passed them by? Perhaps it hasn’t. There are also two much less retiring women. One is Connie’s mother who could turn a disappointing jelly to stone with one glare and whose efforts to marry her daughter off to any suitable young man are the main reason Connie escapes to a side-street restaurant one rainy lunch-time and meets Katherine. The other is Penelope, the aunt of the young man who may or may not be on Katherine’s side. If anyone would swing from Tower Bridge the minute it’s built, it would be Penelope. As the bridge isn’t quite finished when we meet her, she settles for a different adventure altogether. There are older men too – enigmatic Mr Maynard, the senior civil servant and entrepreneurial Mr Templeton, the manager of a music-hall.

As a reader, I’ll read anything. I like old classics, I like new finds. I like mainstream fiction, genre fiction, young adult fiction and children’s fiction. I don’t care if the main characters are six or a hundred. The key thing is they need to be interesting and roundly authentic. 

As a writer, I find my characters tell me how old they are and I go from there. I myself haven’t got to sixty yet, let alone eighty or a hundred. Will that stop me writing about someone who tells me that’s how old they are? No. But I’ll do my best to make them real.

Before you make assumptions, have a look at the Books for Older Readers website and see what’s there. You’ll find quite a range. 

There may even be a few that older readers are apparently too old to understand. 

Who’d have thought it? 

Shocking.

The Books for Older Readers Facebook group and website was established in October 2017 to promote books (mainly fiction) with older protagonists or themes such as ‘second chances’, which tend to appeal to readers in mid-life or beyond.

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Words copyright 2019 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

My Glass is…

They say there are three types of people: one who thinks their glass is half-full, one who thinks it’s half-empty and one who says ‘beer? I never ordered beer!’

There’s actually a fourth type. 

Dad would say: ‘despite all evidence to the contrary, my glass is not simply full, it’s overflowing and while you’re asking silly questions can you buy me a doughnut to eat with my drink?’

Dad’s enthusiastic plans and reality were not so much loosely connected as operating on parallel lines that would never actually meet.

He had many schemes: 

  1. we’d move to a fancy house by the sea; 
  2. I’d have lots of fashionable clothes; 
  3. I’d go to a posh school (akin to the ‘Chalet School’ where everyone was extremely nice to each other and they had lots of adventures); 
  4. we’d go on holiday to a French gîte (a new trend at the time); 
  5. he’d buy a brand new fancy car like one on ‘Top Gear’. (At the time, I should point out, ’Top Gear’ featured cars affordable by ordinary people.)

What I actually got was: 

  1. the dark house we already had, which was possibly haunted (or at least the cat and I thought a corner of my bedroom was); 
  2. hand-me-downs from various richer cousins; 
  3. the school I was already at where I was bullied and the main adventure was hiding from them; 
  4. Maybe a crumbling holiday let in Britain, one of which had a hole in the ceiling from which I was fairly sure a massive spider peeked when I was in bed 
  5. a car which was pretty much a tin-can held together with duct tape. And I really mean mostly held together provided you factored in several pit-stops on a long journey to patch it up again.

Sometimes Dad did get frustrated when life didn’t go to plan but generally he simply ignored things going awry and everyone else got frustrated instead (mainly with Dad).

I’m not even going to pretend I’m like him in this respect. While my glass is probably half-full in general, I find plans going to pieces overwhelmingly stressful until I get to the point when I give myself a shake, which is sort of where I am at the moment.

One of my friends posted an image today – many are available – which is about what is or out of your control. In brief:

  • In my control are my thoughts, my words, my deeds, my reactions. 
  • Out of my control is pretty much everything else. 

It made me feel a bit better because it made me reflect on what I can and can’t do and what I should or shouldn’t let get to me.

When asking me about writing on top of working full-time and having a family and all the other stuff, people often ask ‘how do you manage?’ and usually I just answer ‘it’s difficult but I fit it all in somehow’. The second half of this year, I have to be honest, the answer is more realistically ‘I’m not managing’. 

Don’t read this as a complaint. I’m overjoyed with all that I have, including good health, an interesting (if sometime exasperating) job, a lovely family and all the other stuff even though this year has been stressful on most of those fronts for one reason or another. 

Creativity whether cooking, photography, painting, sewing or more usually writing generally keeps me sane and lets me channel something else for a bit to reboot my energy. 

In the second half of this year however, work plans haven’t gone to plan and since this impacts on my time and energy for creativity, I’m in a bit of a vortex of frustration.

With work, obviously one of the things that keeps me going is that it pays the bills but I’m also fortunate to be working towards a worthwhile goal in a great team with people I consider to be good friends.

Writing of course, I could stop at any time. Only I don’t want to largely because I know I’d be utterly miserable without it – even the difficult aspects of it (e.g. when something won’t come out right, or editing chapters is like wrangling thirty cats into a cat-carrier built for one). 

I can’t do anything about some of the things that have gone awry with work – they are well and truly out of my control. I can’t therefore do much about the lack of time I have at the moment. I can simply make the best use of the time I do have and focussing on what I can do, rather than fretting about what I can’t is a great release. 

Something that keeps me going rather than giving up is knowing I’m not alone. 

I have a number of writer friends. Some I’ve known for years, some for a short while. Some I’ve never even met in person and will probably never meet. But at one point or another, each of them has found their writing targets going to pot. Illness has meant one took longer than she’d have liked to finish her project. Another is struggling with ‘blocks’ of various kinds – perhaps caused by doubts in their (considerable abilities) put in their minds by other people. Another, like me, thought they’d have ‘finished’ something by now but reviewing and revising has taken much longer than they thought. Another finds they can’t find an audience for a book which is just as good if not better than many that sell in the thousands. 

It’s hard not to get discouraged and feel out of control but I’ve been encouraged by others who understood when things are a struggle. Just a few words here and there have helped immensely. 

So just in case you need it too, whatever the thing is that you’re facing at the moment – try to focus on what you can do and how you react and have a virtual hug from me.

 

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Words and photograph copyright 2019 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Wild Life

People often look to nature for calm, balance or for lessons in life. Unfortunately no-one seems to have told wildlife it’s their job to provide this. 

The ones round my way have no desire to be cosy and inspirational. In fact I suspect them guilty of pre-meditated mischief.

For a start, there are the otters. My son saw one on the January day when I took a photo of a man staring down the river, camera at the ready, waiting for an otter to appear. I took a photograph of the photographer at exactly the moment that my son yelled ‘beaver!’ Somewhat startled (since they haven’t reintroduced beavers in Dorset yet as far as I’m aware) I asked my son what he meant and established that he – clearly zoologically challenged –  had just seen an otter pop up from the river a few yards behind the photographer, smirk and then dive back under the surface.

There are the sparrows. We started with two pairs who made nests under the eaves of our house a few years ago. They raised a sweet little brood and we took great delight watching them sit in a row on the edge of the guttering waiting for their parents to feed them in the early evening until it was apparently bedtime and they were ushered back under the tiles. We saw them take their first flights across the garden. It was lovely. The following year, we realised the babies had grown up and were setting up home in our eaves too. Several years later it seems at least one of the families is trying to peck its way into the attic from outside. They seem determined to do it. One day I heard something drop on the decking. I couldn’t see anything, but then after watching for a while, I saw something that looked like a nail land in front of me to join several others, looked up and realised the little so-and-sos were pulling tile nails out of the roof. We’ve lost count of how many sparrows there are now, but I can tell you that they bicker from first light to night-fall. They’re worse than children.

Then there are the wood pigeons. They’re the last birds to wake up and somehow sound as if they’re trying to say something that we can’t quite make out, but we suspect might be very insulting. They have a tendency to sit directly outside our bedroom and coo at high volume through the open window. Coo-COO-coo, Coo-COO-coo sounds You’re-UG-ly You’re-UG-ly (or worse). At 5am one recent morning one of the pigeons was so loud I was afraid to open my eyes in case it was actually sitting on the end of the bed. 

I’m sure they all do this sort of thing on purpose just to annoy.

The other evening, we went for a walk and as usual crossed a bridge and looked down on the river. You can’t tell in the photograph below, because I was afraid if I leaned over the bridge I’d drop my phone in the river, but just below us is the weir and below that, the swans were showing off their large brood of cygnets. 

At the top of the weir, two mother ducks were shrieking at three ducklings messing about on the weir itself. Occasionally the ducklings would fall to the next level. They seemed to be enjoying winding their mothers up.

You could imagine one mother duck yelling ‘Kevin! Stop right there! Don’t get any closer to the edge— Kevin! Why won’t you listen? Nigel – now you’re at the bottom, you’ll never get back up – wait till I tell your dad.’ 

And the other mother duck yelling ‘Muriel – I’m just so ashamed. Look at the cygnets – why can’t you behave like that, all serene, instead of jumping about like a hooligan?’ 

While of course Kevin, Nigel and Muriel were shrieking ‘wheee! Here we go again! See you at the bottom! Sucks boo to you cygnets – you don’t know how to have fun!’ 

Ignoring all this, a little egret was walking very slowly and deliberately just inside the top of the weir, wiggling a yellow foot in the water from time to time as it waded, before stabbing down into the weed and coming up with a minnow in triumph.

Slightly to the side, apparently oblivious, a solitary black-headed gull sat in the water doing nothing and minding its own business.

It was all quite delightful. And then everything kicked off. A littler little egret appeared. It landed a few feet away from the first one who took great dudgeon and rushed to chase it off, booting the mother ducks off the edge of the weir in the process. The two egrets then chased each other up and down trying to get control of the feeding ground.

Back on top of the weir, one of the mother ducks spotted the black-headed gull and took out her indignation on it. Gulls of course, snack on ducklings although I’m not sure if black-headed gulls do and certainly the Kevin, Nigel and Muriel are too big to be picked off now, but mother duck didn’t care. She jumped on top of the gull and started beating it up. No – she wasn’t doing anything else, she was whacking it with her wings, smacking it round the head with her bill and kicking it with her feet.

Spotting that the ducklings had made their way back to the top of the weir ready to start ‘falling’ down again, she gave the gull one last biff and went back to her normal motherly duties. The gull moved sideways one step and settled back into melancholy.

Then the larger little egret, having banished the potential usurper down river, spotted the gull too. His approach was less gentle. He went up to the gull and stabbed its head repeatedly with his beak. 

The gull moved sideways again. 

It was clear now that it was injured in some way and could barely walk. It made no effort to fly either. Its whole body language suggested it just wanted to be left alone. 

The little egret didn’t care what the gull wanted. He just went in for another attack. After watching this for a couple of minutes, we couldn’t bear it any longer and went home. 

‘This is precisely the reason I’ve gone off wildlife shows,’ said my husband. ‘It’s like watching the horrible things humans do to each other on the news only with more arty photography.’

I have to admit I sort of understand.

The following day we went for the same walk. The river was peaceful, all visible creatures co-existing in apparent friendly calm.

But a tiny bit of my brain wondered if tucked under the reeds wasn’t the body of a small black-headed gull done to death by the other birds. 

Murder, in fact, most fowl.

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Words and photograph copyright 2019 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Wheels on Fire

I’d prefer my husband to kill me with kindness, but no, he decided to drag me on a 22 mile cycle in temperatures hot enough to melt iron instead. 

OK so it was probably only 25°C, but I’m British of mostly North European descent. Allow me some pity. There was housework to do but there’ll always be housework to do  and the day I choose it over anything else is the day you ask ‘who is this woman masquerading as Paula?’ 

So in the absence of a proper excuse not to go, I went. 

Hard as it is for my husband to believe, I did a lot of cycling once. 

The Christmas before I was five and before anyone decided such traditions were a choking hazard, I found a sixpence in my Christmas pudding. This was very auspicious and with eyes tight shut and hand clasping the tiny coin, I wished and wished I’d get a bicycle. A few weeks later when we went to my grandparents’ for my birthday tea, there was a bicycle and it was all mine. 

That’s pretty much the only time I’ve had a wish come true but it was worth it. 

I can still recall learning to ride it without stabilisers. Dad raced behind holding onto my saddle and an excited dog ran alongside me barking its head off. And then Dad let go and I was flying along under my own steam! Me – a person who could (can) trip over her own shadow! (I think the fact I was terrified of dogs and worried about what would happen if I fell off helped a little.)

Almost all the kids in the various places I grew up had bicycles. By the time I was eight, my family had settled on the side of a small south Welsh mountain. The road which started as a 1:4 gradient with two hairpins became straight and flat after a while and beyond our house there were, in those days, very few cars. I and the girl on whom Ffion in The Cluttering Discombobulator, The Advent Calendar and Kindling is based, cycled up and down acting out one of our narrative fantasies which involved super-hero cows and a rallying cry of ‘Geronimooooo!’ If the other kids thought we were very weird already (which they did), this just confirmed it. 

Cycling sort of petered out for us girls when we reached eleven/twelve but when I went to college at eighteen, I bought an old wreck of a bike and did it up – wire wool and everything. (My husband refuses to believe I could be this practical despite photographic evidence but I was.)

Thereafter, I once cycled from Chichester to Southampton along the (terrifyingly busy) A27 to see my then boyfriend (I suspect I got the train back). I would regularly cycle from my village 11 miles down the valley to Swansea or 11 miles up the valley to visit said boyfriend and barely got out of breath. On a better bike a bit later, I undertook a cycling/camping holiday from Fishguard to Aberystwyth. 

I lost what little wild abandon I had when I flew over the handle-bars on a hill and skidded along a gravel road using my left cheek as a brake. My hideous face frightened small children for a week afterwards and a bit of gravel got permanently embedded in my shoulder. I still have the scars from that and also from several years later when my daughter, sitting in a kid’s seat on the back of a much later bicycle, tipped herself sideways pulling it over resulting in the pedal digging a trench down my heel.

Suffice to say I’m neither as keen nor as proficient a cyclist nowadays. Nor as fit. But I did manage 22 miles today and am not yet dead.

Where’s all this going you might say? Well, one of the good things about this sort of exercise from my point of view is that there was a lot of thinking time, especially when my husband shot off ahead and left me ambling along looking at the scenery.

One of my thoughts was ‘how hard would it be to learn how to cycle as an adult?’

I can’t imagine it at all. Most of what people perceive in me as confidence is actually a belligerent refusal to be told what I can or can’t do – but I have learned my limits. If someone were to have asked me as a child to unicycle or tightrope walk, I’d probably have tried it out. Nowadays I’d automatically think of the potential injuries/humilation and feel life is too short. I can’t imagine having the courage to get on a bicycle and trust myself to be able to balance enough to ride it if I didn’t already know how.

In the Caster & Fleet series, Katherine and Connie learn to ride bicycles a great deal clunkier than anything I’ve ever had, while wearing much less accommodating clothes and at a time when the whole idea of women doing such a thing was a more than a little suspect. When Liz and I wrote them, we thought about the objections they might face as two nice middle-class girls doing something quite shocking and worse – becoming so independent. What I hadn’t really thought was how hard it must have been to do something so physically difficult at the age of 25 and 23. (Book six – The Case of the Crystal Kisses comes out soon – bikes included.)

Obviously Katherine and Connie are fictional (although it doesn’t quite seem so to me and Liz) but plenty of women in their day did learn to ride bicycles as adults. It can’t have been easy, it must have caused arguments in any number of homes but how much freedom they had as a result! The bicycle, along with railways and higher education for women must have expanded worlds that were so desperately and mind-numbingly narrow.

So, on a Sunday afternoon when I’ve probably had too much sun, is there a moral to all this? 

I often meet people who are worried about doing something new – for example, sharing something they’ve created or sharing something about themselves which no-one else has realised. Often they feel too young to feel they have gravitas or they feel so old they’ve missed the boat. They’re afraid of falling or of looking stupid.

If you’re one of them – try not to feel that way. I felt exactly the same until the day I just thought – I’ll risk sharing this story and a bit later, I’ll risk reading aloud this other story.

It was infinitely more terrifying than learning to ride a bicycle but it didn’t kill me and moreover I found a whole community of people ready to hold on to the saddle and not let go until they knew I could fly. I can’t say how glad I am to have taken that risk. It may not sound big to some people, but it was big to me.

Give it a go. Whatever it is (morality, legality assumed here) give it a go.
Whether it’s showing someone something you’ve created or whether it’s doing something difficult when there’s a risk of failure or doing something you once did often but have lost confidence to do again – try it anyway.

Mostly people are much more supportive than you fear. If they aren’t – try someone else.

Meanwhile – I’m telling my aching muscles they’ll be fine tomorrow and more importantly replacing some of the 1221 calories my fitness app says I’ve used. 

After all, one doesn’t want to get scrawny, does one?

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Words and photograph copyright 2019 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Pruning

In my head, I could design a garden to make Capability Brown swoon. 

In reality, my gardening skills are worse than my housework skills. Nature fights back more than dust does, seeding things in the wrong places to thrive while I plant them in the right places to die. 

I reckon ivy, brambles and briar rose feature so much in song and story because they get everywhere. And as far as my garden is concerned, buddleia sprouts all over the place, regenerating like a Hydra the moment you cut a bit down.

Tidying up what we like to think of it as a wildlife haven isn’t my favourite activity. But my husband and I, having been busy for several weeks, realised we had to tackle some of it before the house disappeared behind greenery like Sleeping Beauty’s castle behind thorns. Brambles have assaulted my husband and briar rose has attacked me. Shame our tetanus jabs aren’t up to date.

In the wrong place, I found a purple flower which had somehow managed to grow on a plank of wood, a carpet of forget-me-nots and a mass of wild strawberries. Prettiness notwithstanding, I’ve pulled out and cut down everything bar the latter. If we don’t eat them, the birds will.

If I weren’t gardening I’d be editing, even though I feel like I’ve been doing nothing else for months. With three creative projects to complete this year (one now with beta readers so at least that one will get there), I feel rather weary. I miss writing anything original that isn’t work related. 

During editing, nothing has been salvaged like the strawberries. I’ve been pulling out the ‘forget-me-nots’ and pruning the ‘buddleia’. Do I need this character? No. Is this scene working? No. Slash. Chop.

I was fond of the things I’ve cut out and feel an odd sense of guilt telling them they don’t fit. Some will perhaps turn up in something else another time, some may never reappear anywhere. It’s rather depressing. 

At least it’s possible to prune fiction. Real life, no matter how much I’d like it to be, can’t be pruned. Things happen that no-one would believe in a novel and you can’t alter events to make a coherent narrative. That’s probably why paintings, music and stories are important – in them worlds have a pattern on a small, manageable scale, when any pattern in real life is on too large a scale for anyone to see. 

Anyway, pruning, tidying, editing – I’m always pleased at the end but the process itself is hard work and often painful. 

But the hope is that I may find unexpected strawberries in the garden, a lost ‘treasure’ doing housework and in my books create something people will enjoy. 

At least I needn’t put my edited characters through a shredder or on a compost heap. So at least none of them can attack me to get their own back. Because they’re not real. Are they? 

Are they? 

Gulp.

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Words and photograph copyright 2019 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.