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Tuesday, 31 December 2013

TRIUMPHS and TRAGEDIES - Say goodbye to 2013...

Today I'm thinking of Ben-Brooks Dutton whose blog Life as a Widower has reached out to many thousands of bereaved people this year.
Let's hope he and his son find peace and happiness in 2014
Here is an excerpt from  a post I wrote in January 2013

'We lose ourselves in talking about happiness but we don't allow ourselves to talk about loss...'

So says  Ben-Brooks Dutton whose wife Desreen was knocked down and killed two months ago. Ben's new blog 'Life as a Widower' is  featured in Today's 'Times 2' supplement giving an insight to the  the lives of young people who have turned to blogging   to deal with their grief.

A lot has been written about blogging in the last few months : Why do we do it? Why has it become so popular? Is it a form of journalism or just a waste of time? The answer to me is simple - if it's right for you, do it.

When I was in my twenties, I saw an old friend   standing on his own on the far side of the town square.  I deliberately crossed over to speak to him, for he and his wife had just suffered a terrible loss: their full-term baby had been born dead.  After I had offered my condolences he said: 'You're the first person who has had the courage to speak to me today - everyone else has looked the other way.'

I have never forgotten that conversation.  The truth is that in Britain we've never learnt how to openly discuss our grief. The Times  quotes  yet another heartbreaking story:  Alice Olins  started a blog after her son, Bear Hamilton Pullen, died in her womb. 'My body did the cruellest thing possible - it pulled the plug on my baby's life...' she says.

When the young Princes William and Harry were taken to matins on the morning after their mother died, the pain on their faces was palpable.  They should have been allowed to stay at home and sob, but the 'stiff upper lip' attitude of our royal family denied their expression of their grief.

My own blog, named after the island where I was born ( but sadly no longer live) reflects my  crazy sense of humour, but I've charted some personal tragedies, too.

 So my message today is - keep on blogging - you never know who you might  reach.

Saturday, 28 December 2013


The Times Newspaper, December 28, 2013

The Best Story of the Year award must go to McDonald's who set up a lifestyle website for their employees - and warned them of the challenge of fast food!

The McResource website apparently warned employees that 'although not impossible, it is more of a challenge to eat healthily when going to a fast food place.'  The web page was even illustrated with what looked amazingly like a double cheeseburger with fries, labelled as an 'unhealthy choice.'

'While convenient and economical for a busy lifestyle, fast foods are typically high in calories, fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt and may put people at risk of becoming overweight,' it went on. 'In general, people with high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease must be very careful about choosing fast food.'

 According to today's Times newspaper, the website has now been dismantled after a 'McFlurry of complaints. ' A combination of factors has led us to re-evaluate, and we've directed the vendor to take down the website,' McDonald's said in a statement.

Unfortunately the same  lifestyle feature writers had seemingly no idea how much  the company's employees were actually paid (around £5.45 an hour,) judging by their advice for tipping at Christmas.  Housekeepers, they reckoned, should receive 'the equivalent of one day's pay,' whilst pool cleaners 'the cost of one cleaning.'   And as for the au pair, well  I think you're  getting the picture.

Meanwhile, I hear that McDonald's staff have been demonstrating outside their restaurants recently in the hope of  doubling their pay. Perhaps the powers-that-be will find more appropriate ways of spending their money in future?


Monday, 16 December 2013

Forty-year- old Christmas cake recipe's a real tonic!

Today I discovered a forty-year-old hand written recipe book with a wonderful Christmas cake recipe you can still make in time for the Big Day!

Labelled 'A handy book for the housewife,' it includes a cosmetics section with names like honey anti-wrinkle lotion, rosemary rinse, cucumber toner and mint and parsley tonic.

 For the mint and parsley tonic take a quarter cup of chopped parsley, one tablespoon  of dried  mint and pour over  a cup of boiling water. Cover and leave for an hour. Strain then use after cleansing face.

The Christmas cake is really simple to make and can be eaten almost straight away.
Half pound butter
Half pound soft brown sugar
6oz plain flour
2oz self-raising flour
Three quarter pound currants
Half pound sultanas
One tablespoon black treacle
One tbs lemon juice
One tbs orange juice
3oz mixed peel
4oz cherries
2oz ground almonds and 2oz chopped almonds
One teaspoon  of mixed spice and one of nutmeg
Rind of one orange and one lemon
Four eggs
Cream butter and sugar. Beat in eggs one at a time. Add juices and treacle. Mix in fruit, spice and nuts. Fold in flour. Put into 8 inch tin lined with greaseproof paper. Bind outside with newspaper or brown paper. Bake at 300 degrees for 30 mins then 275 degrees for two hours until firm.




Monday, 9 December 2013

Sex or romance? A hundred years of fiction...

 Never let sex get in the way of a good romance. That was the view of Ida Pollock, the world's oldest writer of romantic fiction,  who died  this week aged 105.  Using several pen names, including Pamela Kent, Rose Burghley and June Beaufort, Mrs Pollock wrote 125 novels which she described as 'full of hope and romance rather than sex...'

The men are normally rich, but never vulgar with their money,' she told The Times earlier this year. 'An older man is essential to provide the reassurance the heroine needs.  There's always turbulence before he sweeps in to save the day.'

Mrs Pollock's daughter, Rosemary, added: 'My mother is interested in exploring relations between a man and a woman on many levels. She would never reduce it to basic primitive sex.'

Ida admitted that many of her  heroes were based on her late husband, Colonel Hugh Pollock who, interestingly,  was once Sir Winston Churchill's  editor.

The author's strong beliefs echo those of the late Dame Barbara Cartland who wrote more than 700 books in her lifetime. Famous for her 'hearts and flowers' approach to romance, Barbara  never changed the format of her books, or her belief that this type of escapism was what women really wanted.

Here is an excerpt from A Nightingale in the Sycamore by June Beaufort, published 1957.

He moved to meet her as she moved to meet him and caught her in his arms, kissing her wildly, like a man who was starving. Her hair, eyes, cheeks, lips - he smothered them with so many kisses that before long he paused to draw breath himself. She was completely breathless but clung to him as if never willingly would she let him go again.

I wonder what E L James would make of that?


Sunday, 1 December 2013


 Christmas 1938

Have you ever noticed there's a story everywhere you look?

I found this wonderful  Christmas card, posted from an ocean liner in 1938, in a Yorkshire antique shop one sunny day last June. The verse inside reads:

Twish you every dear delight
That Christmastide can bring
All through the year, Good health, Good cheer
Good luck in everything

Christmas 1938

H.M.S Orion

America and West Indies Station

Included are a photo of the liner on a recent voyage and a 'calling card' in a small envelope beautifully inscribed with the initial of the sender, known only as John.


I wonder what Scrooge would make of this? 

Sunday, 24 November 2013


I had lunch with a close friend this week but I didn't ask her if she was looking forward to Christmas. The reason?  I know she isn't. Despite her forced good humour and pseudo smiles she is one of many  who regard the coming season as another cruel reminder of what they have lost. My friend is a widow with no close family and though we'd love to see her at ours on 'The Day,' she prefers to stay at home.

Wouldn't it be great sometimes if we didn't have to follow etiquette? If we could just tell each other how we feel, especially at this time of the year?  It may be very un-English but I'm sure it would do us a lot of good.

One of the most moving blogs I have ever read belongs to Ben Brooks Dutton who lost his wife in a car accident in November 2012 after less than two years of marriage ( and one adorable son.)  Ben has found empathy through 'Life as a Widower'  connecting with many thousands of bereaved families, most of whom whom he has never met.

In his usual direct  manner he says this week '....I realised that I’ve spent all year gearing up towards calendar dates that ultimately don’t matter – a series of ‘firsts’ since my wife’s death including birthdays and anniversaries – and Christmas is just another. I just don’t think that I need to be reminded every day for the next month that Christmas is coming because I already know. And I’m as excited about it as the turkeys waiting to be slaughtered. I don’t begrudge anyone else’s fun at all, I just don’t feel much like being a part of it.'

So here's a challenge. Over the next four weeks, ask someone you know how they  feel about Christmas  and give them a chance to be honest.  It might make you feel better. And it just might make them feel better, too.

You can find Ben's blog on

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Psy-chic? Me? I'M TOO BUSY WRITING...

I've always wondered if I was a little bit psychic.  So when I saw this notice whilst in Cumbria earlier this year, I couldn't help but take a photo (with apologies to the real psychic Marilyn, of course.)


It all started when I was very young and I used to sense what other people were going to say to me, or know what was going to happen next. It was quite a while before I realised that this didn't happen to everyone. Then I began to get feelings about where I was going to live or work in the future - often  it was somewhere I'd never been before.  By the time  I was in my thirties I'd developed the knack of knowing who was on the end of the phone when it rang.  This proved very useful  in business as I could  often practise the answer to the question in advance!
If all of this is true though, of course, it doesn't make me psychic. The true test came when friends and family started to ask me what was going to happen to them in the future. Quite simply, I had no idea!
Which, thankfully, is why I became a writer. The amazing thing about writing is that you can imagine
anything you like to get the words down on to the page.
It's easier than looking into the future. And so much more
productive. Now where did I put my crystal ball point pen?

Monday, 11 November 2013


 I switched on my local news  channel today to see Lytham Crematorium in Lancashire packed with strangers - all of them honouring  a man they never even knew. Harold Percival, who  died recently aged 99, had few remaining friends or family to attend his funeral. Until, that is,  the funeral director appealed for mourners to come forward. The story was soon picked up by Twitter, Facebook, Buzz Feed and finally by the national press - with amazing results. Hundreds of people from all over the country turned up to pay their respects on a cold wet and miserable day, giving the veteran the farewell he deserved. Here are just some of the headlines:

A Veteran Died With Nobody To Attend His Funeral — What Happened Next Was Incredibly Moving

RIP, Harold Jellicoe Percival. posted on

Harold Jellicoe Percival, a veteran of Bomber Command in WWII, died last month aged 99. The death notice in his local paper said that there was nobody to attend his funeral.  

Twitter picked up the story, in the hope that somebody might be able to attend.

I hope this newspaper listing means some service personnel attend this guy's funeral.

They did, of course. And the rest is now just history.

Monday, 4 November 2013


Get Involved
Image and copy courtesy of BBC Radio Four

A 12-year-old girl who wants to 'join the FBI' entertained the nation yesterday in a light-hearted chat with her mother on national radio.

Twelve-year-old Ayesha and her mother, Ghazala, took part in Radio Four's The Listening Project which has been dubbed  'capturing the nation in conversation.'  People of all ages and from many different walks of life are recording their thoughts  and uploading them on to the station, to be curated and archived by the British Library.
Ayesha, whose  abusive father left home when she was a baby, has a mature relationship with her mother, her enthusiasm for life positively bursting over the air waves, despite the hardship she has suffered. And so special is that relationship that the daughter wants to 'cut and paste herself' in the future so that her mum can have the pleasure of looking after a baby all over again!

Mum Ghazala would love to buy her daughter expensive clothes but, she says, 'we don't have that kind of money, adding 'You're a girl, we're Asian and we're Muslim.' Undeterred, Ayesha plans to buy a house, go to university, then join the FBI!

BBC radio producers have been gathering conversations from across the UK, covering everything from living with Alzheimer’s to falling in love in the front seat of a Reliant Robin.
The Listening Project covers all age groups in every part of the country.  If you would like to record your own conversation go to:

'We are asking people up and down the country to share their thoughts and feelings in a recorded conversation with a loved one or relative. What you talk about is up to you.' 


Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Hello Evie Mae...

All my life I've loved words but sometimes - just sometimes - no words are necessary.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013


  It's official! Former artist and ballet dance Pamela Synge is the first of the famous 'Aero Girls' to be found, and she still has the earrings to prove it..

Pamela Synge featured in The Times

Pictured in The Times today, 93-year-old Mrs Synge looked just a glamorous as she did more than fifty years ago, wearing the same hooped earrings as she did in the original sitting. Hers was one of  a series of  portraits commissioned by Rowntrees, now Nestle, as part of a post-war advertising campaign to encourage more  women to eat chocolate. Back then she was a 'young artist, fresh from a painting trip to Venice,' completely unphased by her fame.  And, it seems, nothing has changed.

 In the living room of her home in Belgravia, London, where the sister painting to the original still hangs, Mrs Synge  appears immune to all the fuss.

Not so Kerstin Doble who, along with Francesca Taylor is leading the research project into the portraits at the Borthwick Institute for archives in York. 'The fact that she is also an artist and owns the sister painting a great twist in our quest to unravel the Aero Girls' mystery,'  says Kerstin.

Though these wonderful portraits lined the walls of the company's offices for many years, no records were kept of the women. I wonder who will be next to come forward?

Meanwhile, ageless octogenarian Yoko Ono  was also featured  in times2 yesterday, admitting to being a 'control freak.' This didn't capture my attention so much as the heartache  John Lennon's widow suffered before she married one of the most famous singer/songwriters in the world. Yoko has a daughter, Kyoko, from her marriage in the early sixties to American art promoter Tony Cox.  The couple split when Yoko met John and so Tony vanished, taking the eight-year-old Kyoko with him. It was twenty years before they  would see each other again.

Mother and Daughterwere finally reunited  in 1994 when Kyoko, who is now 31 and has two children of her own, finally got in touch. That, surely, is the real story?


Wednesday, 16 October 2013


Were you an Aero girl? This is the tantalising question being posed by one of the world's most famous confectioners and yes - they could be looking for you!

Who were the Aero Girls?
Photograph courtesy of Visit York

According to archives of Rowntrees, who were taken over by Nestle in 1988, several  sitters were commissioned for oil paintings featured in the company's advertisements for Aero between 1951 and 1957. Chocolate, it seems, was still a luxury at that time and the manufacturers wanted to appeal to a broader range of customers.

These wonderful portraits lined the walls of the Rowntrees offices for many years though,  amazingly,  no records were kept of these women. Now  Alex Hutchinson, archive curator at Nestle, is trying to discover who they were.  As most of them will now be in their eighties he's understandably eager to make contact now before it is too late. Think what a wonderful story these women would have to tell, particularly about the social etiquette of a time that is already firmly sealed in history.

Aero first went on sale in 1935, ceasing production during the war, becoming extremely popular again when sweet rationing ceased.  And I was one of its biggest fans!As a child in the sixties I remember thinking someone must have spent a great deal of time adding all those bubbles...

This week, until October 20 York is staging The Chocolate Girls - an exhibition of original art work and advertising material used in Terry's and Rowntrees campaigns between 1950 and 1980.

Apparently the display focuses on the link between women and chocolate....Now that's something that really hasn't changed at all.

If you want to know more go to and find out about the many chocolate events going on in the city right now.


Thursday, 10 October 2013


Journalists around the country smiled a few years ago when Prince Charles asked them why they didn't print good news. One enterprising national newspaper printed a whole front page of  riveting reports including how many millions of people got to work on time, how many trains weren't delayed and  the flu epidemic that wasn't expected that winter.

Everyone - including Prince Charles apparently - admitted it didn't make very good reading.  Now comes the revelation that  the Government's  attempts to regulate Britain's much lauded free press have failed . The sad  fact is that the newspaper industry's own proposals for a system of self-regulation have been rejected.

Under the proposed plan the independent regulator would have had a right to impose heavy fines on newspapers, as well as insisting on the correction of mistakes and inaccuracies.  Instead, our three political parties are going to make a final decision about the Royal Charter which will be imposed on the industry, with or without their agreement.

Even Lord Justice Leveson himself has admitted that Parliamentary involvement might be perceived as Government interference.

Every one of us in business, as employees or employers, has been guilty of making a mistake. But we don't let it stop us doing what we think is right. We live in a free country where, thankfully, we can choose whatever we want to read. So please, please,  don't take away the freedom of the press.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013


I met Jilly Cooper when I was 18. I had just started as a trainee reporter on my local weekly newspaper and she was a highly successful columnist on the Sunday Times.
      'Where do you work?' she enquired politely, before the talk she gave to a roomful of captivated women.
      'The Express' I mumbled.
      'The Daily Express?' she asked.
      'The Lytham St Annes Express,' I managed with as much confidence as I could muster.
       It's a moment I've never forgotten.
       During that speech Jilly made a confession that has also stayed in my mind: she always looked through people’s airing cupboards when she visited the bathroom, to see what the family were really like. Excellent research for a writer, of course, but I've often wondered how she got away with it!
        Jilly has written so many best selling novels - with titles like Riders, Rivals and Polo - that even she must have trouble remembering them all. Now in her seventies the author has announced  she plans to keep on writing blockbusters for as long as she can. The reason? To pay for round-the-clock care for her publisher husband, Leo, who has Parkinson's Disease. Jilly herself has had a minor stroke, but nothing it seems, can stop her writing. And all I can say is – good for her. She’s been through some difficult times, not least when Leo had a much publicised affair with another woman, but she has always held her head up high and got on with life.
        Her only concession to her age is that her latest novel is ‘not as racy as the others.’  It does, she says, get harder to write erotic scenes in old age!
I don't believe it for a minute. As far as I'm concerned Jilly Cooper will never grow old..


Saturday, 28 September 2013


Literature throws us many great heroes.  Real life invariably outdoes them.

So said veteran author Wilbur Smith who has come up with a real-life story of his own.  The eighty-year-old, whose 34th book Vicious Circle is out next month is looking for someone to write his books! At first, when we heard he was providing six new storylines for Harper Collins, most people assumed he would co-write them.  Instead, he is looking for a younger version of himself to do the work.
As you form an orderly queue remember that this is a man with very strong views on artistic talent who is used to getting what he wants. You should be in your early thirties with one or two novels to your credit but yet to achieve the heights of success. As Wilbur Smith has sold 122 million novels worldwide,  he could be quite a hard act to follow...
The much-travelled author of  River God, The Song Bird, Birds of Prey and the Sound of Thunder  has tongue in cheek memories of his early days as a writer. My first novel was rejected by some of the most eminent publishers.  Starting again was a real wrench.
Wilbur Smith will be speaking at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival on October 10 at 2pm.
I'm sure there won't be an empty seat in the house.

Saturday, 21 September 2013


I was born twice. So begins Jamrach's Menagerie written by Lancaster author Carol Birch - an exceptional novel which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2011.  It's a brilliant beginning to a beautifully written book that had me turning the pages almost faster than I could read.


Described by the Mail on Sunday as 'Moby Dick, Treasure Island and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner...with a pinch of Dickens all in one pot,' this is an epic story full of beautiful if graphic imagery.

Carol, author of eleven novels, was guest speaker at  a highly successful Writers' Day organised by   the Lancashire Word at Astley Hall Chorley this weekend. She gave an amazingly honest and entertaining account of her somewhat tortuous rise to fame. 'There were times when I wanted to give up writing,' she said, 'to earn what people call a proper living, but something made me carry on.'

The book's hero, Jaffy Brown, is eight years old when the book opens and destined to live his life in the slums of Victorian London.  A chance encounter with 'the magnetic Mr Jamrach'  sends him off on a ship bound for the Indian Ocean and more adventure than anyone could possibly expect in an entire lifetime.  Some of the writing is fantasy, some of it is gruesome, but every word has been carefully chosen to heighten all the senses.
Today's event, described as  'One Day in Lancashire to celebrate good writing' included talks by fiction and non-fiction writers Zoe Lambert and Peter Moore,  as well as book designers Ned Hoste and Ed  Christiano.

It was a brilliant chance to mix with fellow writers, meet old friends and, of course, make some new ones. Special thanks go to Alan Whelan, Tim Gavell, AJ Noon, John Rutter, Jon Poutney, Heather Carey and Jane Brunnin for organising the event.You can find out more about The Lancashire Word on


Friday, 13 September 2013


A 101-year-old author  flew from New York to Northampton this week for the stage premier of his 1959 novel To Sir With Love.  The indomitable E R Braithwaite received a standing ovation at the Royal and Derngate Theatre when the audience realised he had been sitting amongst them throughout the performance.

Set in post-war Stepney, this semi-autobiographical novel  follows  a black schoolmaster's attempt to tame a class of unruly  kids who do everything in their power to make his life a misery. Despite his lack of experience the teacher stays strong in the face of extreme provocation and gradually gains the respect of his pupils. Clearly a tale of its time, the play points the finger at upper class racism as didthe hugely successful  nineteen sixties film Guess Who's Coming to Dinner just a decade later.

Contrast this with Channel Four's Educating Yorkshire  which was heavily criticised in the  Mail's TV review column today.  According to Christopher Stevens 'Cliques of arrogant, swaggering pupils had the staff dancing to their every command... The savvier youngsters took all the advantage they could. It was sickening to watch.'

Educating Yorkshire takes the cameras inside Thornhill Community Academy in Dewsbury, Yorkshire, where head teacher Jonny Mitchell prefers be on equal terms with his charges, greeting them with a cheery 'Hello Mate' at the start of a new term.

We've all come across a teacher who battles to control their class at some time or other. But a head teacher who doesn't command respect?  Now that's  a different story altogether. What do you think?

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Spread the word....

And now for some good news. My new novel Baggy Pants and Bootees is to be published under the Safkhet Soul imprint as an e-book and paperback in 2014,  and celebrations are already underway in the Chapman household!

A romantic mystery, Baggy Pants and Bootees was shortlisted for the Festival Of Romance New Talent award 2012 under the working title Sophie's Secret.

Based in London and Germany, Safkhet Publishing was founded in 2010 by Dr.jur. William Banks Sutton and Kim Maya Sutton. Interestingly, Safkhet is the Egyptian goddess of wisdom, books and libraries as well as the consort of Thoth, the Egyptian god of writing.  It seems she was accredited with the invention of writing, being  both a scribe and record keeper. Which makes the publisher's name especially appropriate, don't you think?

One of the company's recently signed authors, Suzie Tullett, has been shortlisted for the Guardian's Not the Booker Prize and will be appearing on a panel at the Wood Green Literary Festival  in London when the judging takes place.

So that's the end of the good news.  Now I'd better get back to my writing - the next novel is just taking shape...


Monday, 2 September 2013

The Big Friendly Letter!

As Roald Dahl Day fast approaches, a  letter the author sent to a lifelong fan almost thirty years ago has come into my possession. And what an amusing missive it is!
The letter belonged to a former Essex hotelier who wrote to the 'Tales of the Unexpected' author at the ITV Press Office in London's Tottenham Court Road in 1986.  Rose-Marie Scheel had devised a plot for one of the famous half-hour dramas and asked permission send it, such were the manners of those days...
'No, please don't send me any more stories, but thank you so much for asking before sending,' replied Mr Dahl. 'Most people simly push them at me and I don't know what to do with them all..'
Mrs Sheel had told the author  her son was 'reared with James and the Giant Peach' and thanked him for all the pleasure he had given to the family. So what was the plot she had in mind?
'My father had a wine cellar,' she told me this weekend at an antiques fair in Lytham, Lancashire, 'and I thought it would be a wonderful setting for a myster. Although Roald Dahl declined the offer, I was thrilled to get his autograph and have treasured it ever since. Now I want someone else to enjoy it.'
Her plot may remain a secret, but I reckon the  Big Friendly Giant knows something about it. Don't you?

Roald Dahl Day is on September 13, 2013. Tickets available at the Roal Dahl Museum and Story Centre, Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Not the Booker Prize - now who's telling Little White Lies?

I always tell the truth, even when I lie,  Al Pacino once quipped in one of my favourite quotes of all time. Now scriptwriter and novelist Suzie Tullet admits that stretching the truth has helped her to hit the headlines.

Suzie's latest novel, Little White Lies and Butterflies has been shortlisted for the Guardian newspaper's Not the Booker Prize 2013.

Protagonist Lydia Livingstone is approaching her 30th birthday without the elusive man of her dreams. Unconventional she may be, but she longs for a career-free life with a brood of children swarming at her feet.

With her family pressing her to celebrate in style, she runs away to Greece where things gets even more complicated. Pretending to be a chef to avoid the local Romeo, she finds herself cooking up quite a storm...

Little White Lies and Butterflies

This hilarious book grabs your attention from the start with its quirky sense of humour and brilliantly researched settings. Released only three weeks ago by Safkhet Publishing, in paperback and digital format, it soon attracted the interest of Guardian readers.

 Says Suzie 'Although it came as something of a surprise, I'm both excited and honoured to have made The Guardian's Not the Booker Prize short list.'  There are some great books on there, written by equally great authors - to have made it this far feels like an achievement in itself."

Not the Booker Prize was created by the Guardian's book blog in 2009 in  'a pioneering attempt to create a truly democratic reader-judged book prize.'

The final judging takes place on October 14 and the results will be announced at a live online event.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Barbara Cartland rises again... (Maybe Millie's next??)

Oh how easy it must have been to mock Dame Barbara Cartland with her ageing Barbie-doll looks and positively panting prose... And yet, what an amazing woman she was with no less than than 700 novels to her name by the time she died in 2000 aged 98.  I, for one,  welcome the news that 160 of her unseen manuscripts are soon to be published  in both print and digital editions, giving a new generation the chance to discover what old fashioned love was all about.

Dame Barbara, also well-known as Princess Diana's step grandmother, had no problem with making fun of  herself.  She once joked that  Diana only ever  read Cartland romances - leaving her with an unrealistic view of modern men! With the now-unheard of luxury of dictating  her novels, the author produced most of her work at her sumptuous ten-bedroomed mansion in Hertfordshire, once the home of Beatrix Potter.

Scouring the internet for some of  Dame Barbara's more famous quotes, I found one that really summed up her attitude to writing romance: If you read newspapers today you will find things that our mothers and grandmothers would have been shocked to read. It's sex, sex, sex...all the time and it's not what we want.  I wonder what she'd have made of Fifty Shades of Grey?

The 'new' work, entitled The Pink Collection, comes to us courtesy of the author's son Ian McCorquodale in association with M-I Books. The family even run their own website

Meanwhile, I've discovered  that my three-year-old granddaughter has learnt how to write her name, with quite a flourish if the photo, above, is anything to go by. Perhaps one day she'll be writing for 'Millie's and Boon?'


Friday, 9 August 2013

Do you know how to say No?

Pride and Prejudice (1995) Poster

I've never been very good at saying No.  The little Yes word slides out of my mouth before my brain assesses the implications. Yes, I'll work on my day off, yes I'll come to your grandmother's ninetieth birthday party, yes I'll attend one of those jewellery parties where they sell cheap looking pieces at exorbitant prices. So I was fascinated to read this week of a survey of 350,000 books published in Britain between 1800 and the year 2000 which shows a huge decline in the words 'duty' and 'obligation' in the body of the text. No-one told me that these had gone out of fashion...

The survey, carried out at the University of California in Los Angeles, quotes the inimitable Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice fending off an unwelcome invitation from  Lady Catherine de Bourgh. 'I am much obliged to your ladyship for your kind invitation, but it is not in my power to accept it. I must be in town next Saturday.'  Now why didn't I think of that?

Not surprisingly  it seems the words  'choose' and 'get' have increased  in latter years as well as, more significantly, the word 'feel,' a reflection perhaps, of our so-called touchy feely society. Professor Patricia Greenfield, who led the research, believes that this shows 'a shift in society away from living in small communities in a rural environment towards materialistic urban living.'  In other words we've all become more self-centred and prefer to look after Number One.  Now why am  not surprised?

This investigation, published in  Psychological Science journal, also involved more than one million books published in the US during the same  200 year period, including popular fiction and text books. Interestingly, Professor Greenfield used  a very modern approach - Google's word count tool, the Ngram Viewer, which can count word frequencies in millions of books in less than a second.
I wonder what Elizabeth Bennet would make of that?

Friday, 2 August 2013

Val-Ediction? That was the Week that Was...

 A warrant has been issued this week for the arrest of a pensioner who threw ink over a best-selling author. No, I'm not making it up. According to The Times yesterday, Sandra Botham of Sunderland failed to turn up to be sentenced for her attack on Val McDermid, author of The Wire in the Blood,  at a book signing last year.  You may remember that The Wire in the Blood was a successful British crime detection series starring Robson Green that ran from 2002 to 2009.

The defendant apparently held a 28 year long grudge against the author who once wrote of  a woman called Sandra 'shaped like a Michelin Man.'

Meanwhile, the legal firm that leaked J K Rowling as the true author of 'Robert Galbraith's' crime novel The Cuckoo's Calling has had to pay out 'a considerable sum' to charity at her request after one of its partners passed on the gossip. According to today's Daily Mail the author was entitled to the expectation that her secret  would be safe.'

Looking more closely at the  cover of JKR's latest offering I found  this quote 'The Cuckoo's Calling reminds me why I fell in love with crime fiction in the first place...'  The author?  None other than Val McDermid.

Just a coincidence?  Or could it be that truth really is stranger than fiction after all?


Wednesday, 24 July 2013

My brief encounter with a famous love story...even better than Booker?

Here comes the  Man Booker longlist again.  With an eclectic list of  authors  from around the world, it's refreshing to see that  three out of the thirteen on the list are debut novelists, and more than half of them are women. All these novelists have the freedom to write about what's closest to their hearts - something that would not have been possible in pre-war Britain.

This week I visited Carnforth Railway Station in Lancashire where Noel Coward's legendary Brief Encounter was filmed in 1945. This  film was based on a one-act play entitled Still Life, written in 1936, which tells us more about forbidden love than anything else produced at the time.

The  story follows a brief illicit affair between two married people, an affair that is doomed from the beginning. Particularly poignant is the widely-held belief that Coward was writing about his own homosexuality in a world where he, too, was unable to love freely.The choice of Rachmaninoff's  Piano Concerto No 2 to evoke these sentiments was, to my mind, an act of genius.

In an article on the Noel Coward Foundation website it says, 'Can many of us go through a lifetime without meeting someone and feeling a spark of recognition that we shouldn't, an attraction that goes beyond the physical? What a terrible world it would be if our emotions and psyches were amputated at the altar (of marriage.) Heavy stuff. 

The screenplay itself covers less than seventy pages. Which proves, as always that  content (quality)is far more important than quantity.  In the current Booker shortlist Colm Toibin's The Testament of Mary is a mere 112 pages, as opposed to Richard House's 912-page tome The Kills.  I wonder if that's an omen? We shall have to wait and see.

The shortlist will be announced by September 10 and the winner declared on October 15.

From the refreshment room at Carnforth Station - the fictional Milford Junction with
Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson


   The pre-war luggage still sits on the station platform




Monday, 15 July 2013

One flew over the Cuckoo's nest - or did it?

The Cuckoo's Calling received unprecedented praise from readers and other crime novelists
The Cuckoo's Calling by - er - JK Rowling?
Congratulations to Orion's fiction editor Kate Mills  for admitting she turned down 'Robert Galbraith's' debut novel The Cuckoo's Calling. So she rejected the world's best selling author?  Well, good for her, I say, for having the  courage to admit it.
In a world of 'it wasn't me, Sir honest' when no-one seems to take responsibility for their actions, I found her confession quite refreshing.

One of my favourite examples of 'missing the genius' has to be the publisher whose rejection of George Orwell's Animal Farm  stated 'Animal stories don't sell in the USA.'

And then there's William Golding's original manuscript for Lord of the Flies.  An editor had attached a note to the top of the work stating  'This man will never make a writer.'

But back to the present. In the current 'Bookseller', a reviewer rates Julie Cohen's Dear Thing  'a cut above The Cuckoo's Calling.'  I've met Julie several times and she's one of those successful novelists who, as a tutor of creative writing, always encourages writers to follow their dream.

'It's a story that's close to my heart for so many reasons' she says on her website. 'I hope it touches you, too.'


Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Summer has arrived (so have the silly headlines!)

'Smirking Svengali who'll make Murray a mint,' says a headline in today's Daily Mail doing its best to make us all groan. It refers, of course, to Murray's manager Simon Fuller whose aim is  to fill the star's coffers along with his own. But then there's something about Wimbledon that always seems to bring out the silliest headlines.

My favourite of all time dates back to 1987 when Pat Cash played Czechoslovakian Ivan Lendl in the men's singles' final. Czech v Cash wrote one clever sub who must have been waiting for that opportunity for years...  Incidentally Lendl, the former world No 1, joined Team Murray 18 months ago to 'head  the coaching operation,'  so he should be smiling all the way to the bank, too.

Football is another sport that has gained its share of clever headlines. Super Caley Go Ballistic, Celtic Are Atrocious - is probably the Sun's most famous one from the year 2000.  Reporter Rodger Baillee wrote the story about Celtic's unfortunate defeat but we never got to know who penned those immortal words.

As for cricket - to my mind the best headline came from Mile Selvey in  the Guardian back in 2006 - True love comes from bowling a maiden over. How right he was.

And finally we come to rugby - Mike Tindall seems capable of making his own headlines without help from anyone.  But today he gave us the news we've all been waiting for; he and Zara Phillips are expecting a 'sub heading' of their own.  Congratulations to them both.  I bet the Sun's writers are having a (rugby) ball... 


Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Anyone for tennis? (Or a haircut?)

  Once again Wimbledon has burst into our lives with tumultuous  tennis, the odd tantrum and, er, one or two very important haircuts.  If you are a Times reader, then haircuts are just as important as who's beating whom on the centre court, or so it would seem....

In an article by Lucy Bannerman  in today's edition we  learn that Suzanne Strong, the championship's official hairdresser for the last 30 years, has her money on Novak Djokovic. The World No 1, says Suzanne, has booked in for his second haircut in as many days, 'which may prompt anyone to read requests for a trim, like leaves in a teacup, to conclude that the Serbian star is preparing for a long week of photo opportunities.' Oh yes, obviously.

I would tell you a bit more of what Ms Bannerman has to say but she seems to be doing a very good job of padding out the story, in a desperate attempt to fill the page, without any help from me.

Ok - so here's a snippet: Women don't come in as regularly as the men - and female players stick to either very long or very short hair. Ah, that makes a lot of sense.  You would have your hair long or short wouldn't you?  Sorry, now where was I? Oh yes, the tennis.

Sorry, did you hear me yawn?  I forgot to add that Suzanne has cut Laura Robson's hair but never Serena or Venus Williams'...

Oh, I do miss being a journalist. I'd forgotten how much fun it was.


Saturday, 29 June 2013

How blogging helped one man face his paralysing grief...

What is it really like to be a widower and lone father to a two-year-old son?  Earlier this year I mentioned  a  new blog set up by Ben Brooks-Dutton after the tragic death of his young wife Desreen. The phenomenal interest that followed  took everyone by surprise generating 300,000 blog views in five weeks and five days.   Ben had decided to talk about his grief in a way that most British men would find extremely difficult; day by day he analysed his  feelings with an honesty that resulted in a huge following.  So this week, as Ben received a blog award from mumsnet, I decided to go back and find out how Ben was coping just seven months after his life changed forever.

Desreen, a fashion agent, died in November last year only 14 months after the couple were married. She was killed when a car mounted the pavement in West Hampstead near their home.

What really comes over from reading Ben's blog is the innate sense of humour that has prevented him from drowning in his sorrow. And, of course, the  wonderful healing power that emanates from his young son, Jackson Bo Brooks-Dutton. In a recent post he explains how empty life would have been without him.

I’d have missed him squeal with joy when he saw a field of cows through the window.
And I’d have missed him reaching for my phone to show the table of chatty women sitting next to us a picture that he loves.
“That’s my mummy!” he shrieked adoringly at them out of nowhere.
‘And that’s my boy!’ I thought, my breath taken away by the pride he confidently showed in the parent he’s not seen for seven and a half months. The parent he’s starting to understand that he’ll never see again.

"That's my mummy!" The picture that Jackson loves on my phone.
“That’s my mummy!” As proud of his mummy as she was of her son.

'There's nothing wrong with being positive while grieving, says Ben, as if speaking out to an unseen and largely misunderstood audience.

Now comes news that  that Hodder and Stoughton will be publishing Ben's story in 2014 as lifeasawidower wins the Fresh New Blog award from mumsnet.
I love you, Dessie. You still give me my drive and you still make me laugh x

Screen shot 2013-06-22 at 09.36.42

 Photographs and quotes with kind permission of Ben Brooks-Dutton

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

A real-life 'Peep behind the Scenes...'

Zoah Hedges-Stocks pictured in the Daily Telegraph

A Peep Behind the Scenes

 One of my favourite childhood books
 'A Peep Behind the Scenes,'  is an unforgettable tale of hardship and heartbreak  set in a travelling theatre before the turn of the century.  Published in 1878 it went on to sell 2.5 million copies. So I was thrilled today to read that the wonderfully-named Zoah Hedges-Stocks,  the first traveller to study  at Cambridge University,  graduates this weekend with a first-class honours degree in history.

The twenty-three year old was born into a family of travelling showmen in East Anglia and attended school in Suffolk.  But every summer term she would leave her studies and work on her mother's food van, selling candyfloss to fairgoers. She excelled in her studies and in 2009  was offered a place at the all-female Murray Edwards College, fulfilling a long held dream.

In today's press Zoah says she has never experienced any snobbery about her background, having found everyone really welcoming. 'It has been a lot of hours and a lot of essays,' she adds with modest understatement.

A former editor of the Cambridge Student newspaper, Miss Hedges-Stocks can obviously spot a good story when she sees one.  Which is just as well as I hear she's already begun a career in journalism and been interviewed on Anglia Television.

Meanwhile, browsing their website, I see that famous alumnae from Murray Edwards College include actress Tilda Swinton, TV presenter Claudia Winkleman and writer/comedian Sue Perkins. Interestingly the list also includes Gina Barreca, women's writer, speaker and Professor of Feminist Theory.

Congratulations, Zoah.  Quite an act to follow.

You can find out more about her future plans on

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Long Lost Family - heartwarming or horrendous ?

Last week I saw a greetings card with the words 'To My Girlfriend on the Birth of our Baby' on the front. Last night I watched a programme about a woman who had an illegitimate child in the 1950s, was thrown out by her parents, forced into a mother and baby home and had her daughter taken from her when she was barely six weeks old.

Long Lost Family on ITV peered into the past of a 68-year-old woman and the daughter she'd yearned for all her adult life.  The mother was heartbroken, but the daughter just seemed to take the whole thing in her stride. Moving as it was - I confess I shed a tear - it showcased the vast change in social attitudes between the fifties and the present day.  Of course women should not have been treated like pariahs, or had their children snatched from them. In some extreme cases 'fallen' women were consigned to mental homes and never seen again.   But are our attitudes today any better? Aren't we just guilty of yet more double standards?

I would never criticise a woman who had a baby outside marriage.  No-one can account for individual circumstances, and it's a choice deliberately made by many co-habiting couples.  But whilst it may be perfectly acceptable these days, I wonder if there might be a backlash in the future?

Marriage used to be regarded as the next step to starting a family.  It prepared you for the earth-shattering changes that a baby can make to a loving relationship.

I don't want to go back to the fifties.  But I'm not sure this apparent casual attitude to the future generation is right either.  Can you picture the scene in a few years' time: This is my daughter, the one I had with my ex-girlfriend...'

What do you think?

Thursday, 13 June 2013

An alternative guide to the Lake District - ancient tomes and Marilyn Monroe...

'Imperfection is beauty, madness is genius and it's better to be absolutely ridiculous than absolutely boring.'
Marilyn Monroe
A sixteenth century bookshop, Marilyn Monroe in the loo, letter boxes amongst the hedgerows -
 after spending some time in the heart of Cumbria, I thought I'd compile a tongue-in-cheek visitors' guide to the 'other side' of the Lake District... 
If, like me, you enjoy browsing in antique bookshops, Henry Roberts Books in Kendal dates back to the sixteenth century,  boasting close connections to Captain Cook.
You can  have coffee in the courtyard behind - but watch out for this very large tome (above) falling on your head...
The Civic Society plaque at Henry Roberts Books
While on the subject of writing, why not sit on one of the wooden benches dotted along the empty country lanes and use 'snail mail' to keep in touch with home.
'Fern Britain?'
 An empty country lane
Or stop for a drink at this unique cafĂ© in Windermere ...

and spot the writing on the wall.
Or check out the local library...


 the grounds are too good to miss...

 And finally - don't forget the flora and fauna to be found on the village streets - before you make
your way down to the water's edge.


Lake Windermere

Saturday, 8 June 2013

The twentieth child...a Short story with a happy ending.

The Shorts with baby Emily-Kate
as pictured in today's Daily Mail


Last week I wrote about women who wanted to choose the sex of their babies. Today comes the story of a very brave couple who simply wanted a baby.   Despite nineteen miscarriages they never gave up.

Their story is a long one, endless IVF, heartache and disappointment   'one minute it was elation - the next desolation ' and finally pioneering surgery  from Canada that fulfilled their dream in the shape of six-month-old


'Our life had a baby-shaped hole in it - and now it doesn't,' says Steve.


Everyone likes a story with a happy ending

Congratulations Joanne and Steve Short - you surely deserve it.




Saturday, 1 June 2013

Boy or girl? When the pot boils the plot thickens...

I once wrote a feature for a glossy women's magazine entitled 'Why Some women can't bear the thought of having a son.'  Ok, so it was a long winded title for the subject but the story was close to my heart. I'd recently met up with a distant friend who'd just given birth to her third son. He was perfect and I said so. But she didn't see it that way.

'I couldn't bear to look at him in the beginning,' she told me. 'I so much wanted a daughter.'

The child was beautifully  cared for along with his two adorable brothers, but the mother was inconsolable. So, six months and a great deal of research later, my feature was accepted for publication. The sub editor stuck to my original copy almost word for word but there was just one significant change: the headline ran - Why some women don't want daughters...

It sounded better, didn't it?  It was pithy and to the point. There was just one problem: I had two much-loved and much wanted daughters of my own.

'I read your article at the weekend,' my younger girl's teacher said with a knowing look as I picked her up from school. 'I had no idea you felt that way.'

I opened my mouth to explain but there seemed little point. She'd already made up her mind. On the plus side, my two girls were too young to understand the significance of my words or to take offence. But the guilt stayed with me for a very long time.

Today parents-to-be are privileged to know the sex of their child before the birth, though I can't help wondering if this takes some of the magic away. And what if the information is wrong?

'How's your new sister?' a teacher friend asked one of her pupils the other day, the oldest of three brothers.

'She's a boy,' he replied matter-of-factly, 'and me mum's not 'appy.'

No-one can yet choose the sex of their baby (with the exception, perhaps, of Posh and Becks) and I really believe things should stay that way.

'Is it a girl or a boy?' I asked the midwife as my first child entered the world. 'I don't know - it hasn't told us yet,' came the quick reply.

It's a bit like writing a novel really, or making a gourmet meal. Whatever the outcome you know it will be worth it in the end.


Sunday, 26 May 2013

Antique books in old Bridlington - the very best of medicine!

An antique bookshop in an original Victorian Chemist, a 1920s typewriter and a tearoom groaning with antiques. Sounds like the centre of Chester or Bath? No, this is Bridlington! 

Burlington Books in Old Bridlington
situated in an original Victorian chemist shop

In the 1960's an original Georgian street in the old quarter of Bridlington on the East Yorkshire coast was earmarked for demolition by the local authority. The new town was at the height of its popularity as a holiday resort whilst the old high street no longer seemed to have a purpose. But the council reckoned without the tenacityof the local businesses who were determined to keep the history of the town alive. Last week I discovered the restored High Street for myself and it is far, far better than any museum,  crammed with antique shops, arts and crafts shops and, most of all, with people who are proud of their heritage. Old photographs from the 1950s show this wonderful street with its Georgian bow windows and adverts for Capstans cigarettes and 'Players Please' with a solitary  Morris  Oxford wending its way past the shops. It could almost be the same place today

The bookshop's owners, Mr and Mrs Stephen Reynolds, gave me a particularly old fashioned  welcome, finding me books from World War Two, an era that has always fascinated me, and even producing a paperback about Guernsey as soon as I mentioned where I was born.

We spent most of  the week in York, taking in many historic sites including the Castle Museum with its 'real life' Victorian Street, and the splendid York Minster, both of which attract visitors from all over the world.  Yet it was old Bridlington, once almost lost forever, that really transported me to the past.

A 1920s Underwood typewriter at the
Georgian Rooms, Old Bridlington
Say 'No' to white lines