The other evening my husband went out cycling. Yes, it’s November. Yes it was dark. But he and his friends do this weekly after work whenever they can. At nine-thirty, it started to pour with rain as forecast. At ten p.m., just as he returned, the whole town had a power cut.
I heard with relief (since he’s the only one of the cycling group who hasn’t broken a bone on one of these jaunts) the screech of our garage door and went to look out for him, shining my phone torch into the rainy darkness.
My drenched husband said it was like being guided into the house by Florence Nightingale.
My nursing skills boil down to ‘here’s a kiss and an aspirin and/or a plaster and/or a blanket and/or soup and I’m sure you’re fine really’, so this was the first time I’ve been likened to any medical professional let alone a nursing heroine, and got me thinking.
Did Florence Nightingale really did carry a lamp? Or was this a myth long since debunked along with Napoleon being short and Marie Antoinette saying ‘Let them eat cake’? (He wasn’t and she didn’t, and for other historical myths click here.)
At a talk a while ago I was asked if I was ever tempted to write a novel based on a real character. So far my answer is no.
The first reason why I haven’t is that doing so is complex and can be controversial.
With real historical people a novel can only capture the elements of their life that the author wants to focus on, and since real lives don’t follow a story arc, or narrative pattern, real events might have to be moved about or omitted. Then readers complain about inaccuracy or bias.
Going back to Florence, yes she did have a lamp, but surely the nurses working for her in that Crimean hospital carried them too? Yet the image of the Lady with the Lamp popularised by the Times, and Longfellow’s poem ‘Santa Filomena’ turned Florence Nightingale into a celebrity. In the 1970s, I was taught that she was the only pioneering nurse in the Crimean War. But in the 2010s, my children were taught about Jamaican born Mary Seacole who was also there nursing injured soldiers, but without government support or newspaper fame presumably because of views on her race (which may have been a factor in my not learning about her sooner too).
And while Florence radically transformed nursing and reformed the running of hospitals, she was also a firm believer in the right of British Empire colonisers to interfere with the culture of the native people, because Western beliefs and customs were superior and ‘correct’.
Anyone novelising her life would have to include this. Yet there would still be those readers who’d say the focus of a novel should only be on the positive, and anything negative should be brushed under the carpet on the grounds that Florence ‘was a product of her generation’. She was, of course, but there were people of her own race/nationality in the same generation who thought it was wrong, and the native peoples suffering were also of her generation. Do they not deserve a voice? Whatever interpretation you put on it, leaving negative things out surely means the fictionalisation doesn’t reflect the real person at all.
My second reason is that I like to use my imagination.
All my historical books are set in a real historical setting. The Margaret Demeray series also includes or refers to real events and people. ‘Death In The Last Reel’ includes the Siege of Sidney Street and Winston Churchill (film footage here); ‘The Treacherous Dead’ refers back to the Boer War, Emily Hobhouse and ‘Breaker’ Morant. The forthcoming ‘Dying To be Heard’ has my (fictional) characters witnessing the real actions of militant suffragette Emily Davison at the 1913 Epsom Derby (film footage here)
But I like to dig about in the British Newspaper Archives for less well-known things to provide a flavour of the times, because the third reason I prefer to create fictional characters is that I want to imagine ordinary people like my ancestors and perhaps yours, put them in extraordinary situations and see what happens next.
The rich and famous have plenty of books and films written about them. Let’s see what an ordinary person might do.
In 1913, the newspapers headlines were mostly about suffragette militancy and the Balkan crisis. But there was frivolous celebrity news including the Royal Wedding of a German princess – the last time European monarchs met in peace, and before many monarchies disappeared forever. (Not that anyone knew that then.) I also found reference to a moving picture ‘comedy’ about hot-headed suffragettes in which one (played by an actor in drag) was ‘hilariously’ force-fed champagne; a German dentist in Portsmouth who turned out to be a spy (both getting a brief mention in ‘Dying To Be Heard’into the book); and something I’m keeping back for book five.
I discovered advertisements for a folding baby car (pushchair/stroller) priced five shillings and a vacuum cleaner priced forty-two shillings. (In context, a housemaid might earn twenty shillings per week.)
This is what gets my imagination going. Were ordinary people worried about suffragette attacks? Or irritated? Did they lap up the celebrity news and discuss what the rich ladies wore to the wedding?
The German dentist spy was captured in a sting operation and sentenced to five years’ hard labour. But what happened to him when World War One broke out? And what happened to the man who informed on him (who was also German but loyal to Britain)?
What does a maid wielding a vacuum cleaner that’s worth two to four weeks of her wages think of something that might put her out of a job?
How does a woman in the medical profession who desperately wants the vote feel about a suffragette bombing campaign that might kill someone?
And finally – what happened to the person who thought a vacuum cleaner was a perfect Christmas gift in 1912? I know what would happen to anyone who gave me one now…
Words copyright (c) 2023 Paula Harmon. Not to be used without the author’s specific consent. Advert for baby car from Daily Citizen (Manchester) 26th April 1913 and advert for vacuum cleaner from Illustrated London News 30th November 1912.
When I was young, when my maternal grandmother addressed me, she would often go through my sister’s name, our cousin’s, her own sisters’, her nephew’s and my mother’s, until she got to Paula.
These days I do the same, swapping my son’s name for my husband’s (my excuse is that they start with the same letter), my daughter’s for my sister’s (my excuse is that they have similar personalities) and recently my brother-in-law’s for that of the mutual male friend’s who was hosting us all for dinner (my excuse is that they both have Scottish names… OK that’s no excuse).
Very occasionally I suffer from face-blindness. E.g. once in a blue moon, I don’t recognise someone even if I know them very well. This usually happens when I’m deep in thought and/or daydreaming.
I regularly suffer from name-blindness, which is possibly linked. This means I can look at someone I know very well, recognise them, know who they are, but absolutely blank their name. Completely. It’s just gone.
This particularly traumatic when I have to introduce people to each other and can only recall some random irrelevant fact in lieu of a name (‘This is M’s mum’ or ‘This is my friend who makes great cupcakes’ or ‘This is my friend, the wife of another friend who cycles with my husband’).
Perhaps it happens in social situations or introduction scenarios, because I find both very stressful and they take up most of my ‘pretending I’m confident and sociable’ resources. An article called Is This Normal? “I Can’t Remember Names or Faces.” | The Swaddle, give reasons for this phenomenon that make sense to me at least. But it doesn’t stop it from being mortifying.
What about my book characters’ names? After all, I invented the characters (shh – don’t tell them). I waded through lists of potential forenames for the right era, or unusual British surnames (I’ve managed to get five of these into my books so far), and even researched how common certain surnames were in certain parts of London in the 1881 census.
So are their names easier to recall? Nope. Apart from main characters, I quite often can’t remember what I’ve called some people after writing a book at all. Sometimes I can’t remember what they’re called while I’m writing it, because I’ve changed their name halfway through.
For example, in one of my more recent books I realised that I had five female characters with names starting M and about four with surnames starting T. One of the female characters was called Mary (which was the number one name for girls in England and Wales for decades if not centuries). I decided to change it to Lois and did a search and replace for Mary throughout the document, happily ‘accepting all’ without thinking. This resulted in a lot of action taking place in Loislebone, and someone providing a sumlois of information etc. One of the T surnames had to change but in my head, the character still has the original name, which means nine times out of ten, I have to dig about for what I changed it to when thinking of them.
To avoid this sort of thing, also avoid duplicating names within the same series, and to keep a series bible of background info on characters whether or not it would ever be used (birthdays, details of parents and children and pets etc), I called upon my clerical career and started a card index system.
Fortunately I didn’t need to buy anything. When my daughter was studying for her GCSEs, she asked me to get her some cards to help with revision and a storage box to put them in. She obviously inherited my tendency to create revision schemes but lose interest before actually doing anything, because there were plenty of blank cards for me to use.
Then I found another set of index cards in a drawer.
Only they weren’t blank, and they didn’t have random facts about English Literature or The Cold War or Spanish verbs or whatever else my daughter had been studying on them. They were written in my father’s writing and furthermore, they were the details of characters he’d written stories about!
I still have boxes of Dad’s writing – typed, handwritten in notebooks large and small and on floppy disk. I have one ready to edit, and others I remember him reading aloud to me when I was a child (including a science fiction novel which if he’d published at the time, would now be reality). I have no idea what I’m going to do with them all. But seeing those index cards so unexpectedly brought a moment of serendipity, surprise that I could read his writing for once and of course a pang of what’s called in Welsh hiraeth and in Portuguese saudade – missingness, nostalgia, loving reminiscence.
I wish I could show Dad what I’ve written and help him do something with what he wrote. I can’t and he wouldn’t want me to fret that I can’t. But his characters’ index cards are now stored with mine as a reminder of the things he and I had in common: a love of storytelling, words, names, random facts and near illegible handwriting. And while I have no idea who Dad’s Janine Bex (below right) is, I do know that Roderick Demeray (below left) is based, with love, on Dad.
Maybe in some alternative universe, our characters hang out together and complain about us. ‘Look what she made me do!’ ‘Why would he call me that?’ ‘What’s going to happen to me next?’ ‘Why can’t she ever remember my name?’
After all, who’d blame them?
Words and pictures (c) Paula Harmon 2023, not to be used without the author’s express permission.
Am I alone in seeing stories everywhere? I can’t remember when I didn’t think ‘what’s their story?’, ‘what if X happened next?’, ‘why are they/is this/am I like this? What led them/it/me here?’
I dealt with long boring journeys by imagining the lives of the people we passed in the car, or what might be behind a high wall/hedge (lots of Cornish trips), or why a castle was in ruins. I coped with bullying by imagining situations in which I managed to express my feelings and the bullies changed their ways (biggest fiction exercise of my life). I enjoyed subjects where there was a story (English, History, RE), or patterns (Maths, Physics) or a challenge deciphering a pattern (Maths, Languages). If I’d spotted the stories in Geography and patterns in Chemistry, I might have enjoyed much them more than I did. If I’d been taught art differently, perhaps I’d have got to grips with that at school too. I stopped taking art at fourteen, in what was then called the Third Year, and is now called Year Nine, and in both eras called ‘Options Year’. This was when you study a million subjects at exactly the point of adolescence when you have become really truculent and know all adults are idiots, yet have to decide what you’re going to do for your first set of public exams (in my case, O levels). Long story short, I dropped art at fourteen.
Ever since I could create a word, I have been by nature a writer. But Liz Hedgecock has been encouraging me for some months to do art challenges with her giving me the chance to play catch-up on those art lessons I put to one side. I’ve found it really freeing, tapping into the part of me that writes short stories rather than novels. It’s a chance to try a narrative in a few lines rather than huge number of words. When she suggested we try Inktober, I was happy to give it a go. But when I looked at the prompts, I knew almost immediately that at my skill level I was definitely going to look for a ‘story’ for each one, not only to cover up my inadequate skills but to keep me motivated.
I think that largely Liz did the same, although with a different approach. You can see what Liz did here. But if you don’t follow me on Instagram – here is what I came up with and a summary of the background behind the stories that came into my head. to help me make sense of the prompts.
Dream, Spiders, Path, Dodge, Map
To start with I dug out a bottle of ink I’ve had forever and a lovely fancy glass ink dipping pen and did what I could with them.
I used the ink and pen for the first three and found myself sketching in a fluid, free-form way which tapped into my subconscious quite nicely.
As a vivid dreamer, it was hard to know where to stop for Dream. I included all my recurring dreams and nightmares but tried to make sure my bed was heading into happiness, even though I remembered too late that pictures should read left to right, not right to left. Ho hum.
I don’t like hurting Spiders, but prefer them at a distance, so looking at photos of them to draw from made me feel queasy. I decided to turn our treatment of them on its head which sort of coincided with our daughter (home for a break during peak house-spider season) talking to us through the Ring doorbell in a husky voice ‘Hello! I’m Simon the Spider. I just want to be friends. Please let me in.’
Path – the last I drew with ink and dipping pen for a bit, depicts me at some point in my life in my early twenties, deciding between the risky route of chasing my creative dreams where the dragons were (left) and the sensible career route (right). I picked the latter but am now in a position to go back to that fork in the path and change direction.
However, that’s not to say it’s all easy running and Dodge, the first one I drew with a fineliner (can’t remember why I changed, but it changed how the drawings turned out) has me trying to get to my happy place while being attacked by household duties, work/writing deadlines and to-do lists.
By the time I was drawing Map, I was away from home and had a mini art kit, so it was drawn with a fineliner and is perhaps the last one digging into my subconscious for all the things that prompt or hinder creativity. I wasn’t terribly happy with Map, but that’s how it goes. On the other hand I was an avid map drawer as a child, so it was good fun and I just wish I’d had a bigger piece of paper and fewer distractions.
Golden, Drop, Toad, Bounce, Fortune, Wander
A dragon was the first thing that sprung to mind for the prompt Golden. I went straight back to being six and the teacher reading from the Hobbit about Smaug the dragon in class, though my dragon of course is less murderous and mostly understood. I’ve always wanted to draw a dragon but thought I couldn’t, but I decided to give it a go anyway and found all those scales rather therapeutic to draw.
Drop – I regret to say that the word ‘drop’ just made me think of a running nose, so I had to do a bit of lateral thinking. I knew what I wanted to draw for Toad, so it seemed logical to draw what happened before… It nearly ended up with being a potion to turn a man back INTO a toad after a regretable spell. You’ll just have to decide whether it’s his fault for dabbling or the soup-maker has a naughty intent.
As for Bounce – I thought of the bounciest thing I could think of and tried not to remember the Spacehopper my father ran over when I was seven. I was very fond of it, and it never recovered. It gave my Dad a fright though.
Fortune was difficult for a number of reasons. I couldn’t think what to draw at all – or rather I could, but it was too complicated. It was difficult day at work and I wasn’t really in the mood that evening. I decided to go back to the ink and dipping pen and then regretted it. Everything went wrong! But what I was aiming for was the idea that there’s definitely a rich man in the seeker’s life but it’s at her expense. No idea if that comes across.
Wander was easier and is based on two photos of my daughter in different forests in different years, wondering which way to go next. (Bless her, my daughter ended up as an unwitting model and doesn’t look anything like the way I’ve portrayed her but I’m pleased that she’s braver at trying different routes than I was at the same age.)
Spicy, Rise, Castle, Dagger, Angel, Demon.
I could have drawn my husband’s numerous chilli plants for Spicy, or the contents of our spice cupboard, but of course ‘spicy’ has another meaning and I decided to have fun and go down that route as well! It took me four attempts to write ‘chipotle’. I could type it, but I couldn’t write it with a pen. This is one that I’m planning to do again and/or colour.
Likewise Rise – I suppose I could have saved this idea for Fire, but a phoenix rising with hope from disappointment and fear of failure seemed apt that particular day.
By the time I was drawing Castle, I was away from home again, and trying to deal with the intricacies of a real castle didn’t appeal. A sandcastle while more manageable felt a bit dull, so guess what – a story came to mind. My daughter loves octopuses and in a story world, one would come to her rescue if she needed it. (in reality she’d probably just biff anyone stomped on her sandcastle).
Despite writing murder mysteries which occasionally involve daggers etc, and despite thinking that daggers can be very beautiful and nearly drawing the one from Murder Dunovaria, the news being what it is, I didn’t fancy drawing a Dagger. The phrase ‘beating swords into ploughshares’ came to mind so I decided to draw (not very well as you can tell from my having to redraw the hammer) daggers being turned into doves.
The Angels in the nativity play come from the disappointment of never having been one as I described in Advent Calendar and also from remembering when my son was a shepherd in a nativity play aged five. He had his crook confiscated after rehearsals because he kept tripping up the primmest angel. When the day of the public performance came however, somehow he’d managed to get hold of a crook again and guess what he did? The primmest angel flat on her face as she walked down the aisle. He swore it was curiosity not malice but… I was the one dealing with her cross mum.
I didn’t want to draw a Demon for a number of reasons, so decided to do the sort of thing I’d have done at school and re-interpret the brief. So instead of demon, we have demonise. It was close to National Black Cat Day apparently, so that’s what I went for. Poor black cats. They don’t deserve the bad press. It’s time for them to fight back.
Away from home again with a simple art kit, I was wondering what on earth to do for Saddle, then remembered a story I had in Weird & Peculiar Tales, itself prompted by a dream, in which a hapless goblin cross breeds a werewolf with a chihuahua and went from there. (Admittedly my husband asked why I’d drawn a chicken being put on a dog, but hey.)
Plump coincided with the launch of Booker & Fitch omnibus of books 1-3 so here I am being plump (I’m plumper in real life) plumped down on plump cushions in Hazeby-on-Wyvern reading the book.
Frost was easy in theory, although I was in a very hot place at the time, so it was hard to imagine, and I found it hard to draw with black on white and wished I were home with black paper and white or silver pen, but I wasn’t. So here I am as a child, when I didn’t have a radiator in my bedroom with the view of mountains from my window obscured by frost as happened quite often.
Chains was a horse who was waiting, poor thing, to cart tourists around in a sort of cab in 30+ degrees Centigrade (86+ Fahrenheit). It didn’t seem too bothered, but it was happily chewing on the chain attaching it to a railing. I don’t think it was trying to get away, but it was hard not to imagine it (I would have been).
Scratchy – this is the cat we had when I was a little girl, scratching on a piece of wood which we’d brought back from the New Forest after a camping trip. Why? Because I’d spent several days pretending it was my motorbike (give me a break, I was about four or five years old) and I talked my dad round into bringing it home (Mum was not so keen). At home, the magic dispersed and it became the cat’s scratching post. But I like to think she was clever enough to know it was a motorbike really.
Shallow – again, I had something quite ‘deep’ in mind, but didn’t have the skills (or time) to draw it, so instead, here is a nod to all those summers when I (or later my children) thought they’d actually catch something in a rock pool but never did because the creatures were too clever to be caught.
And Celestial (by now I was back at home with black paper and silver pen) speaks for itself – or does it? All astronomists should look away, but there are the Pegasus and Draco constellations together (possibly unlikely) waiting for me to fly amongst them.
Dangerous, Remove, Beast, Sparkle, Massive, Rush, Fire
Finally we’re into the last week of October/Inktober. By now I was getting tired of working out what to draw, and was, once more, away for a couple of days (it really was that sort of month). By now, the prompts seems even harder to draw. Even though I’d taken photos to help me, it turned out they didn’t. So I had to dig down a bit.
For Dangerous, I remembered when my husband bought a Shun knife and kept telling me (the person who does most of the cooking), every time I cooked (e.g. generally) how sharp it was. One evening, while considering that he should be glad I wasn’t seeing how sharp it was on something other than onions, I rolled my eyes… and sliced into the end of my finger. Glad to say that it healed up fine. Sorry to say that onions aren’t improved by being pink. Will honestly say that my husband and I do not look this young although the expressions are broadly accurate.
Remove was tricky. I had a few ideas including someone removing hate from their heart and being ready to replace it with love, and someone pinching a piece of someone’s jigsaw just as they were about to finish it (sorry – that’s my brain – goes from sentimental to mischievous in the blink of an eye) and then remembered I was going to be drawing while on a train and I couldn’t face trying to draw a jigsaw. Something someone said made me think of masks or make-up and that’s what I decided to draw. I don’t wear much make-up and certainly haven’t worn this much for years, but am really fascinated by make-up artists’ skills and occasionally wonder if they could improve me. Sadly though, at the end of the day it would come off and the real me would be there underneath. The train-ride wasn’t exactly smooth and that’s my excuse for any errors (cough).
Beast was potentially as hard to draw as Demon, but by this point in the challenge, both Liz and I had decided that hands were ‘a beast’ to draw and so I went for the image above. In the pencil sketch I have the right number of finger joints. Somehow when drawing in fine liner, I added one in. This proves the point about drawing hands.
I knew from the outset that I wanted to draw my lovely daughter’s lovely eyes for Sparkle. I categorically didn’t do either the exercise or my daughter justice, but will definitely try it again. I was, by this point, really missing the opportunity to use watercolours or acrylics to add colour, or just use various pencils, but there you go. It’s all a learning curve and I’m glad I can do it without a teacher marking my efforts.
Massive was another where I didn’t quite know what to draw, then we passed a group of tourists queuing to have a birds of prey experience. The birds of prey looked as bored as the horse waiting to cart tourists around (though the temperature was more manageable where I was then). I wondered if they were thinking ‘why do the tourists get all the fun? What if we were big enough to carry them instead of the other way around?’
I had some photos of people on the underground to use as inspiration for Rush, but then thought back to when I was a child and spent time watching nature – the driven clouds, the busy insects, the running river, the the little creatures in the river marching about, oblivious (thankfully) to the adult world of being so head down rushing from A to B. Somewhen I stopped doing that, and am only just starting again.
Finally, for Fire, this is another from Weird & Peculiar Tales – or rather it’s what might happen one day. I have a sort of myth-story in there about when dragons and humans were friends – the humans providing friendship, the dragon providing warmth and protection. Then, because humans are involved, it all goes wrong. This is imagining a future which I think we’d all love – -when we stop fighting and pointing fingers and just sit down together and enjoy friendship and warmth.
So there you have it – a bit of my soul laid bare. As I said before, I’m proud of some of my drawings, not proud of others at all, may retry some, may not with others. But I had a go. It’s back to the writing now, but I’m not going to stop the art. I’m going to keep doing it. Tapping into that part of my brain that likes to tell a quick story and isn’t worrying about judgment feels like going back to a freer, less disciplined me. And that’s not a bad place to visit now and again.
Words and Images (c) Paula Harmon 2023 – not to be used without the author’s express consent.
At the moment, after finishing work (for the moment) on two books simultaneously (listed at the end), my Muse is tempting me from what I’d been planning to write next, towards writing a ‘contemporary’ novel set in an alternative world where there’s also magic and might just include A Novelty, in a slightly different format. Is this something I should do next? Tempting.
It’s also tempting to have some time off. Or at least, to ease up on the drive for creative perfection (or as close to perfection as it’s possible for me to get).
For me, this is where what I shall loosely describe as ‘art’ comes in, because with ‘art’ – I just let my imagination do whatever it fancies without worrying about the end result, even more than I do with cooking (because after all, no one is going to die if I get the art wrong).
We’re obsessed with perfection these days. People compete on television in virtually every field from sport to dressmaking to Lego modelling. Doing something just for itself without anyone getting first prize would not make good TV perhaps, but it’s good for the spirit, and something we seem to have lost the knack for as a culture. I think we should bring it back.
I stopped studying art at school aged fourteen. Years later I tried to learn water-colouring from a book and a few years after that dabbled with acrylics. I sort of stopped again until this year, when Liz Hedgecock suggested we do some art challenges, starting with ones we made up ourselves before moving to ones found online.
I’ll be honest: I’ve enjoyed some challenges/prompts more than others; I’ve been pleased with some results more than other results; I’ve sometimes been more in the mood than other times; other people have liked some things more than other things. But none of those have really been the point. Not for me anyway.
The point for me has been simply having fun in a task where I just enjoy the process, sometimes more than the end result.
There’s always a mental fork in the road as I read the prompt and decide whether I’m going to try and reproduce accurately or make something a little more of an impression; whether it’s going to be serious or quirky. This may depend on subject or time. It may also be something to do with mood as much as subject. But each technique seems to bring out something different.
The soft sounds of a pencil when I’m sketching are calming, and there’s a relief in being able to erase a line that’s gone very wrong.
Watercolours sink into the paper, they build in hue, they’re delicate, dreamlike. The very act of applying them is relaxing. If they go wrong, maybe I can add some ink or other media, or just live with it or decide to try again sometime. Or not.
Acrylics are fun, bold, risky (also hard to get out of a carpet).
Ink is a commitment. It also seems to bring out a slightly surreal side of me which reminds me of my father’s sketching and cartooning.
It’s the process that does me good. My brain switches from all the things that are bothering me, the plot ideas that are fighting for the surface, a desire for perfection. Not all the ones in the image below are that I like or that I think are the best of what I’ve done, or the best I could do.
One – the dark picture with the woman in a long dress – was created to a prompt ‘paint out of your comfort zone’. I had no preliminary sketch as I would do normally, I just painted. I wanted to conjure up some of the contrasts of Edwardian London in the Margaret Demeray books but couldn’t really get across what I was aiming for due to lack of knowledge/skill/time. Do I think it’s good? Nope. Did I find some release in being less disciplined? Yes.
Likewise, the picture of the inside of my writing shed is not even close to what it looks like or how I wanted it to turn out. Everything from perspective to accuracy is wrong, but you know… it captures a moment I guess, and it was fun to bung all those colours down.
The one with the four quadrants is supposed to be an acrylic abstract. I do like that. In my head it represents the four seasons without me really planning it at all. For a control freak, that’s not bad going.
In one stressful week in June, when it was impossible to do any of the writing work I’d planned, the best way I found to centre myself was the ten minutes I spent each day messing about with pencils and/or paints. For a while I just switched off. The street scene with the bunting is one of those paintings.
Last week was even more stressful than that with no art time at all. It was nice yesterday to dig out an ink pen, switch off, tune out of the world and start messing about for the Inktober challenge. So far, it’s tapped straight into perhaps the more surreal side of my subconscious.
If you’re feeling stressed, why not have a go at some art yourself? The back of an envelope and a ballpoint will do if you’ve nothing else to hand.
Or do it in the sand or the mud or some flour on a work top. You don’t need to show anyone. You can destroy it if you want. The important thing is not to judge yourself or let anyone judge what you’ve done.
It’ll just be for you. I promise you, if you turn off your inner critic, that it’ll do you the world of good.
If you want to know where Inktober takes me next, feel free to follow me on Instagram. Just watch out for spiders!
The two books ready for pre-order are Death On The Towpath – book 4 in the Booker & Fitch series written with Liz Hedgecock (releasing on 30/11/23) and Dying To Be Heard – book 4 in the Margaret Demeray series (releasing 14/12/23)
Words and pictures (c) Paula Harmon 2023, not to be used without the author’s express permission.
Being a bit behind, I’ve only just seen the new Barbie movie. This isn’t a review or critique as I’m still sort of processing what I think (although I found bits very funny and I bet they had a blast making it). It’s just a reflection on something raised by an article on it.
My younger sister and I never had Barbies. This may have been to do with expense, although I think my parents possibly thought Barbie a little too grown-up looking and stereotypical.
One of us possibly had a passed-down Sindy, and we definitely had Pippa and Marie (more tweenager in shape, more diverse in skin tone at the time – Pippa having fair hair and skin and Marie having brown hair and skin). At some point, our Marie even obtained a horse.
They never had many spare clothes so my main involvement with them was making things. I made Marie a wardrobe out of a shoebox for the few clothes she had (semi-success), attempted a stable for the horse with lolly sticks (epic fail) and I learned to sew clothes that fitted by designing and making some for my sister’s bigger dolls.
I didn’t like dolls themselves much as you can read here, but I coveted pretty clothes in which I planned to sit around looking elegant. My sister loved dolls, but didn’t particularly care about clothes, since she thoroughly liked getting grubby while making dens. Yet she got the pretty clothes made for her, and I got the sensible ones. The memory is so firmly wedged, that her frilly Alice in Wonderland dress even got into a story ‘Ice Cream On Monday’ which is in Kindling, about an incident in a South Welsh chapel when we were eight and five, in which it played a key part.
Don’t be fooled into thinking I knew about fashion. I didn’t. I just knew I wanted to be elegant. Spoiler Alert: I’ve never succeeded.
When I had my own children, a boy and a girl, I bought them some second-hand Barbies at a toy sale. I possibly felt the same as my parents had about her general shape but the kids were oblivious. The Barbies hung out with a slightly scary edition of GI Joe (who had a rather lethal grappling hook that ‘accidentally’ disappeared before it took someone’s eye out) which my son had been given, and all three drove about in a jeep, occasionally taking death-defying leaps off the landing and down the stairs. My daughter was just as lacking in doll nurturing urges as I was and less interested in doll clothes. So the poor Barbies were generally nude, or had their clothes on their heads as hats, and my daughter gave them rather uneven haircuts. (If you’ve seen the movie, then you’ll know what this means.)
Anyway, going back to the article mentioned above. It had been prompted by the film, and talked about how girls are expected to leave behind their toys as they move into the adult world. It’s assumed that boys, however, will continue playing with them forever, no matter how old they are.
I thought about it and remembered that when I was a child, there was definitely a point, between ages ten and twelve, when girls just stopped cycling, running about, playing chase, making dens, etc etc. Being a bit behind the loop on the maturity front, I dropped out of Girl Guides early on, because while I wanted to talk about woodcraft, when the other girls seemed to be more interested in pop stars. However, by the age of twelve, without gaining much interest in pop stars (except for David Soul who wrote ‘Don’t Give Up On Us’ just for me), I stopped playing in the same way as I had as a child. I learned how to cook and sew – sensible pursuits, even if pastimes. I stopped making plasticine and papier-mâché models of characters from the stories in my head. I stopped climbing trees and making dens. I didn’t ride a bicycle again until I was nearly twenty. But the boys never seemed to stop.
One morning at a toddlers’ group many many years ago, some of the mums (including me) had sat down with our children and tried to engage them in colouring-in, partly because we were all shattered and wanted them to calm down a bit. The children weren’t remotely interested. There were toys to play with, they didn’t want to sit still. We gave up on them, but decided just to sit there, colouring in some Princesses and animals with stubby crayons. We chewed the fat and had an immensely chill time, before it was time for tea/coffee and homemade cake (which was usually the best bit of toddlers’ group). That was perhaps the first time for many years that I’d done something ‘pointless’ (unless you count unrequited love).
Going back to Barbie (again), I shared the article about the film among my friends, and the responses, all from women, mostly professional, were very interesting. Whether they’d loved dolls or not, there was an outpouring of nostalgia and affection not only for long lost toys, but for the freedom to play make-believe. Or is it that we all longed for permission to do it again?
I think that part of the reason why I’ve started dabbling with art this year, is to give myself permission to just do something with no particular purpose. No one is going to give me space in the National Gallery. I doubt they’ll be heirlooms. Some of the paintings/drawings are quite good, others are awful. But no one, including me, is marking them out of ten, so it doesn’t matter. I’m just having fun.
This morning, while trying to make some space on top of a wardrobe, I came across the kids’ box of Lego. Should it go into the attic? Maybe not. Wouldn’t I love to spend some time working out how to create a fantastic model? You bet ya. Will it matter if it’s rubbish? Nope.
Now I wonder if there’s enough to make a dragon.
Words and photo (c) Paula Harmon 2023, not to be used without the author’s express permission.
According to an article, Dorset farm workers had eight meals a day: dewbit, breakfast, nuncheon, cruncheon, lunch, nammet, crammet and supper.
Admittedly, a Dorset farm worker probably needs more calories than a Dorset writer/office worker, and I’m generally happy with a mere three meals a day, but even so, I really want to know what they all consisted of and give them a go, possibly because I’m on a diet at the moment.
Dieting isn’t remotely new, as you can read in this article (hey – I have one vital statistic in common with the Venus de Milo! No, I’m not telling you which). It’s worth a read, if only to confirm that there’s nothing new under the sun, why William the Conqueror fell off his horse, and why you should never tighten a 16th century corset too much (assuming you have one on).
My Victorian and Edwardian characters don’t seem to eat as well as my second century ones somehow. I suspect they’re too busy.
Margaret frequents suffragette tea-rooms one of which serves vegetarian food. Many suffragettes were keen vegetarians and some were teetotal. Margaret is neither but likes vegetarian food, only she’d never get it past Fox at home, so has to eat it while out. While Margaret is fictional (don’t tell her) suffragette tea-rooms weren’t.
Poor woman, I’m editing the fourth book at the moment and realise she only has one large meal and a sandwich over the space of about three months. I’m going to have to add at least an afternoon tea somewhere.
Afternoon tea as a tradition is not as old as you might think and nowadays it’s a treat rather than normal event for most of us. The closest we get at home is periodically having scones with cream and jam instead of a pudding on Sunday. (With reference to the jam first/cream first debate, living in Dorset and unsure if Dorset has ‘rules’, I do one half with jam first and the other with cream first, but my Welsh husband goes Devonian all the way.)
Which brings me onto scones versus biscuits. I read all the Laura Ingalls books as a child and while a little baffled by references to biscuits and gravy, had in my head a sort of oat biscuit smothered in the sort of rich, brown, meat/chicken gravy the British have with roast dinners.
Years later I mentioned it to a Texan friend who said ‘Oh no. A biscuit is a bit like a scone without sugar, and the gravy is milk gravy.’
I decided that the biscuits must be a bit like ‘cobblers’ (savoury scones cooked on top of stews) and have since worked out that the milk gravy is similar to what my mother would call white sauce. One day I hope to try them in the States, and in the meantime, when back eating carbs I might try and make some. If you have favourite recipes, I’d be delighted to see them.
British scones can be savoury too. My normal recipe for cheese scones is here.
British people can argue for hours about how to pronounce ‘scone’ (does it rhyme with ‘gone’ or ‘phone’?). This is not a regional argument and I don’t think it’s a class one either. I think it’s just from family to family.
There is more than one biscuit in the UK (and they’re not all sweet) and we can debate/argue about the best type for even longer than how to pronounce ‘scone’. Scientists have even worked out which is best for dunking (I favour a ginger biscuit myself).
We can argue even longer about dinner and tea. Is dinner a lunchtime or evening meal? If you call the evening meal ‘dinner’, is ‘dinner’ exceptionally a lunchtime meal on Sundays and at Christmas? Is tea a mid-afternoon snack or an evening meal/either/both? It was raised within my team at work one day and continued, after work, in our WhatsApp group. Despite at least four of us coming from broadly the same part of the country, two born in roughly the same place and most of us coming from similar backgrounds, we still couldn’t agree.
And don’t get us started on what to call a simple bread roll (I call it a bread roll or bap for the record).
Since being told to lose weight, I risked my English and Scottish baking ancestors haunting me by doing some experimenting into low carb recipes for scones made with almond flour and coconut flour. Were they nice? They weren’t bad. Were they the same as the real thing? Not at all. Will I bake the real thing when I’ve lost some weight? You bet I will. Partly because I recently missed out on afternoon tea inadvertently.
In June, Liz Hedgecock and I met up for a couple of days in Bristol and Bath, as we celebrated Murder For Beginners being highly recommended in The Write Blend Awards and she gave me the trophy for the time-being. Despite my diet, we’d intended to go for afternoon tea, but in the end we were frankly too hot after clambering up and down hills being cultural in 30°C/86°F heat.
We even forgot to have the sparkling wine we’d planned, which shows how bad we are at celebrating.
Guess what’s on the agenda for the next time we meet apart from me giving the trophy back to Liz? Just see the left hand photo below for a clue in case you hadn’t guessed and in case you’re wondering, the silver-plate tea-pot next to the award was a wedding present of one of my Scottish great-grandmothers.
I gather she was a little terrifying, so she’s the one I fear may yet haunt me for making carb-free scones…
You may have realised that I’m a bit of a hoarder. Whether this is by nature or nurture I don’t know. My husband is not much better, although in his case, he may have caught it from me.
In the last few years, we have become a good deal better at decluttering. In 2019, both children having gone to university, we thought we’d finally get round to decluttering completely, and even tackling the attic with its decades of ‘stuff’. Then of course, 2020 hit and one child, and then the other and then my son’s partner, all came home to live, each complete with a flat’s worth of belongings. Now they’ve all gone again (albeit leaving us with some of their belongings) and since we’ve both semi-retired, we’re back to plan A.
This month we have been tackling the kitchen which, after many years of being on its last legs is being replaced, and excavating the bureau (not as fancy as it sounds) to make space for some of the surplus stuff from the kitchen drawers, as the new configuration is slightly different. The whole process (not yet complete) has been like a combination of archaeological dig and detoxification as we decide what to ditch, donate or cherish (can’t think of a third D).
When I say my hoarding might be nature or nurture, it’s because of my dad. I think he was part (friendly) dragon who hoarded almost everything except gold. He’d have been rubbish at hoarding any gold other than his heart, because he’d have used it to buy things he found more interesting.
Knowing him, I can imagine him thinking that each item he owned (four million more items than I own) from battered novelty mug to box of beads to books (especially books) to old toys, all had stories to tell, and if they didn’t, he’d make up stories about them.
He’s sadly no longer here to think anything up about what I was unearthing today, but maybe you want some story prompts. So ignoring the various plastic spoons, swimming badges, hair clips and the (so far) twenty-four pens, eighteen of which actually work, these are things with stories to tell:
A forgotten Schaeffer pen given to me for some important birthday or other (presumably not my sixteenth, or I’d have used it in my O levels and not had a pen explode on my half-way through a Latin exam). And some masking fluid which would have come in handy this week while I did a sketching/watercolouring challenge.
An early personal radio complete with headphones, some unreadable floppy disks. If I ever manage to access the files will they be unreadable too?
A correction fluid pen for all those typed mistakes…
Our wedding invitation which I designed and had printed, in the days before many people had home PCs or a usable graphic design programme. We were paying for most of the wedding ourselves and were short of money and besides, didn’t think spending a lot on the wedding was as important as not being in debt afterwards, so this was one of our little economies.
Lots and lots of photographs and some photographic slides. The oldest photo in this excavation was of my grandparents in the 1930s, possibly fairly newly married and on a beach somewhere.
Two old school reports, including one that said I (aged eight) was very very serious but finally starting to settle into my second school and they’d like to see me less serious. (Shortly afterwards we moved to a new town and I moved to a third school and I don’t think I stopped being serious for the best part of another fifteen years.)
A lot of old cards, including the ones wishing me well when I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2020. I read them through fondly but in the end, decided to let them go and let the misery and anxiety of that time go with them, and keep the love they represented deep inside, where it has been since I received them and will always be.
And then there are the things that need stories to be created for them. What would you do with these?
Two ghost doors. Yes, you read that right. Stripping out the old kitchen revealed not only the ‘ghost’ of what had been once the front door (which had been down the side of the house for reasons we’ve yet to discover), but also the ‘ghost’ of another door we hadn’t known had been there at all or why it was six inches from the other door. They’d been blocked in very shoddily. Perhaps this explains the freezing cold draught that came through my baking tin/saucepan cupboard in winter. Unless it was a ghost or two using the ghost doors of course…
Next, the treasure. This consists, sadly, of just a twenty euro-cent piece, five pfennigs and a zloty. (But why do we have a zloty? None of us have ever been to Poland.)
Finally, there were the marbles. Whenever I say I’m losing my marbles, it’s partly literal. This bag of marbles, turn up every few years when I do a major declutter and then I put them away and they disappear again. I swear they’ve never appeared in the same place twice. I don’t even know why we have them or when we got them or where we got them from. And this time, there’s even a marble that isn’t a marble.
So what’s the answer to my opening question? When is a missing marble not a marble? When it’s a mysterious squarish piece of crystal which I don’t recall buying either. Am I being visited by aliens or fairies?
Go on – as I shove these treasures back in the bureau – what could they all be?
Words and Photograph (c) 2023 Paula Harmon. Not to be used without prior permission.
It may be no surprise to some, that at school I was considered a bit of a weirdo. This was partly because I was good at the ‘wrong’ things.
If I’d been good at sport, I might have been OK.
I tried, I really did. But my first memory of doing anything competitive was the school sports day when I was five and the littlest child in the school. (So little that the smallest school uniform skirt came half way down my shins making me look like an Edwardian.) As I scurried along in last place in the egg and spoon race, I overheard a couple of old people (probably in their forties or possibly even thirties) laughing at my earnestness and tiny legs. I carried on trying in the next school where I became briefly proficient (to my own surprise as anyone else’s) at high jump and long jump. But then I moved schools again (to Wales, where I wasn’t the shortest, or at least, I was on a par with many), and became the target of a bully.
She applied one of the classic bullying techniques to isolate me: no matter how good I was, she made sure I was picked last for a team. Even if I was actually helping beat the other team, I was still shouted at for being not good enough. I sort of lost interest then. Rounders matches were going to be hell no matter what I did, so I’d wait until our team was fielding and I could slope off as far away from the action as possible, lie down in the grass and daydream. (When someone at work once suggested a massive interteam rounders match in St James’s Park a few years ago, my whole being reverted to a miserable nine year old. I have never been so glad to see rain in summertime as I was that week so I didn’t have to make an excuse not to take part.)
I was all right at cycling and quite fearless (my husband refuses to believe this now), I did a lot of hiking, I even went climbing once, up an actual rock face in Three Cliffs Bay. But none of these counted. Those things were weird too. The things I liked doing were almost entirely uncool.
I could draw, just about, and that was grudgingly approved of, but that was it. Otherwise, I was unnatural in that I was all right at Maths and positively liked things like History, learning languages and, of course English.
The thing I loved most was creative writing. I think I was doing this at its heyday in British education. No one cared about dangling adjectives and co-ordinating subjunctives and for all I know, auto-exploding participles etc which must take all the fun out of the process nowadays. In my day (when I shared a desk with a dinosaur obviously), when the exercise was Creative Writing, even spelling and punctuation took a back seat while we were encouraged to express our imagination on paper. I do realise that for some children, this would have been as daunting to them as rounders was to me, but this was my turn to shine (even if I veered towards hyperbole) and I lapped it up. It’s just a shame that hardly anyone appreciated it.
I had one good friend at primary school who was from my village, and on the same wavelength creatively as me. The character of Ffion in ‘The Cluttering Discombobulator‘, ‘Kindling‘ and ‘The Advent Calendar‘ is based on her. Neither of us knew a thing about pop groups or fashion. Instead, whenever we could, we acted out stories or plays we improvised as we went along. This was often re-enacting Planet of the Apes, or Star Trek (with a greater emphasis on girls actually doing something) but sometimes it was completely made up.
We lost touch with each other for over twenty years. But one of the first things she asked in an email after we reconnected was ‘Do you remember the jelly wall?’ This was one of the science fiction ‘plays’ we improvised in the school playing fields in which our characters were desperately trying to get through a sort of force-field and kept rebounding. Of course, all this was in our heads, so what we looked like to everyone else is anyone’s guess – well OK I can imagine it quite well. We realise now, why we were both considered a right pair of weirdos and were bullied accordingly, even if that doesn’t make it all right. But at least we can’t be accused of following the herd.
When I was about fifteen, my father, who was always a keen writer, joined Swansea and District Writers’ Group and asked me to go to. I daresay, that much like when I joined the SF group with him, I vaguely hoped there might be an interesting, intelligent and attractive boy of my age there, and perhaps you won’t be surprised to hear that I was disappointed. The next youngest person was probably ten years older than I was and female and even shyer than I was.
There was an established novelist, several poets (one very angry and sweary), a man who wrote steamy fiction for women’s magazines under a female pseudonym (excerpts of this sort of thing is NOT what you want to hear being read aloud when you’re sitting next to your father) and lots of short-story writers. I decided within a few weeks, that a few of them were even weirder than me and Dad, and even I knew that that really took some doing. (NB – if you were then or are now in Swansea and District Writers’ Group – I apologise, this was just my perception at the time as an out-of-the-loop adolescent and with no right to judge anything!)
Perhaps this explains why I didn’t join anything similar at university. (But it didn’t stop me from writing a good deal of angst-ridden poetry and sitting up late with fellow students talking pretentious nonsense about literature, because young adult students of a certain type can do that sort of thing naturally.)
After graduating, I started working, then married, then had children. I didn’t try to find a writers’ group, partly because of lack of time, and partly because other people had put me off using my wild imagination in what was meant to be kindness, but wasn’t.
Then, we moved to Dorset, and I reconnected with ‘Ffion’ who encouraged me to enter a local writing competition and from that, I joined the local writers’ group. By this time I was in my forties and had stopped caring what anyone thought. The other writers’ turned out to be lovely – all quite unique, full of imagination, with differing ideas of why and for whom they write. Some, like me, want to publish books, some just want to read things for others to enjoy. Are we weird? Absolutely not! Would someone of fifteen think we are? Meh.
Rather late in life, but not too late, my love of creative writing led me to my tribe – wonderful, valuable, treasured writers and readers, including you who are reading this now. Encouraging, supportive, kind.
I have made so many friends, including really close ones who have become co-authors. Is it weird for me and one of them to be recording ourselves barking so we could spell the sound of a woof? Or for me and the other one to compare the relative merits of unicorns and dragons over a curry? (You know who you are, you two.) Maybe it sounds a bit weird, but we look on it as research, honest.
And if not, then while I can’t speak for the others, personally, after all this time I’m happy to be myself, and if someone thinks that makes me weird, then weirdness is something I happily own nowadays. I never really wanted to be in the loop anyway!
What follows is a tale of woe with a hint of mystery.
To begin with, the woe. Current affairs being what they are, this is very small beer, but all the same, I’m sure at least one of you will sympathise.
One day in February, I charged up my MacBook, then went to make it cup of tea to brace myself for the process of ensuring that all the latest versions of my manuscripts had been saved and backed up securely.
When I came back, the MacBook was an ex-MacBook. (If you don’t get that reference, perhaps I’m too old and too British.) Was every file and photograph I wanted on i-cloud? No. (I appreciate this is down to operator error, but it was frustrating all the same.)
Lots of wailing and gnashing of teeth followed. Making a long story relatively short, the computer chap in town couldn’t help, a young man with his baseball cap on backwards in the Apple Store couldn’t help and I was left with the option to send it off to an organisation in the States who can sometimes retrieve data when this sort of thing happens. (Apparently, the motherboard had gone peculiar – I know that feeling.)
I held out the hope that somehow the tech equivalent of a poke around with a screwdriver and blowing the fluff out would do the trick, but deep down I knew it wouldn’t. After a few days someone rang me from California to explain at length what they’d need to do. I work with enough tech teams for my heart to sink as he spoke. They quoted $3000, so I declined and they sent it back.
By now, I had Miss Lucy Had A Baby going round in my head. In the version I learned, the key verse (which seems to have been softened up since) went: ‘“Dead,” said the doctor. “Dead,” said the nurse. “Dead,” said the lady with the alligator purse.’
In my head, it was replaced less elegantly with ‘“Dead,” said the local chap. “Dead,” said the Apple guy. “Dead,” said the techie under Californian skies.
The only upside was that I’d bought a Windows laptop shortly before as a sort of extra backup, although I hadn’t got around to copying documents across (it was to have been another task for the day the MacBook died). It took me about a month to retrieve crucial documents, convert them to the right format, update them, then save them securely in various places. It felt a lot longer than a month and I think I went through all seven stages of grief. I’ve been playing writing catch-up ever since.
One thing impacted of course, was passwords, which moves us onto the mystery.
Perhaps due to temporary insanity, realising that on top of the thirteen plus passwords I have for my office job, I had even more for the rest of my life, made me think of trying to get into a locked filing cabinet in a locked room behind a series of locked doors in a locked castle. And that reminded me of many years ago when I was deputy office manager, and the day when the office manager and I had to do a key audit and found something curious.
Due to the nature of our work, the rule was that no one person should be able to get to anything important alone. This meant for example, that one person would have a key to the safe where the cash tin was, but a different person would have a key to the tin itself, and someone with a key to get into the building (and thus likely to be in early and potentially on their own for a while) didn’t have a key to the safe etc. Other keys were kept in what we called a ‘key press’ and checked out and in during the day as necessary. As a small team, this was logistically complex.
Our office dated from the 1880s, but by the time I was working there, its lovely Victorian rooms had long since been Frankensteined. Late twentieth century utility office furniture pressed like unsavoury strangers up against elegant Edwardian index-card drawers and counters with Art Nouveau carvings.
Anyway, on this particular day, the office manager and I took everyone’s set of keys to check off against a massive list and then cross-referenced them to make sure that no one could commit fraud if they were inclined to. All the keys were less than twenty years old. Most were relatively small.
But my manager being nothing less than thorough, decided to go through cupboards, old and new, to check there weren’t any keys lurking anywhere, potentially hidden away for questionable purposes. The only set she found however, was old, clearly Victorian and massive. It was the sort of set that if you put it on a chatelaine, the lady who wore it would probably fall onto her face and not be able to get up again. No one had ever seen them before.
One of the keys looked large enough to knock an elephant out if necessary. It could have secured a dungeon. But while we had a storeroom in the basement which we called a dungeon, that was just because it was dark, damp and allegedly haunted, not because it had ever housed prisoners.
Fast forwarding three decades, my brain addled by trauma as I changed what felt like the millionth password, I remembered those Victorian keys and thought how much harder it would be to lose them than a modern set of keys or the same number of passwords. Also how much easier it would be to recognise a key with the twiddly bits in the middle as being for the cupboard under the stairs, than to recall the name of Great Aunt Ermintrude’s pet dragon to get into a website.
I wonder what happened to those keys. The manager locked them away because they were effectively government assets, because that’s how her mind works. I wanted to take them home and write stories about each one, because that’s how my mind works. But I didn’t because she was right and besides, it would have taken a handful of applications in triplicate before anyone let me have them, even if no one knew what they were for.
A few years later, the office shut, its work merged with another office’s and the building was sold off and turned into a restaurant.
And as I’ve written before, when the new owners took the building back to its former glory, a blocked up staircase leading down to the basement was discovered. I’d forgotten about the mysterious keys until recently but briefly wondered if they’d belonged to that, only there were far too many for one staircase, and actually, now I think about it – my manager swore she’d never come across them before the day of the key audit. So where had they been before that? And I never thought to ask what happened to those keys when the office closed.
Maybe they disappeared again for someone else to find one day.
After all, the new occupants think the basement’s haunted too.
Some truths are probably universal. Keys big or small or passwords: they’re all much the same. Perhaps in that building the ghost is eternally looking for their keys. And the keys are eternally playing hide and seek. It’s possible. It really was that sort of building.
Now – never mind all that. Just what was the name of Great Aunt Ermintrude’s dragon.
I’ve just undertaken the annual calendar ritual. The old calendars are in the recycling and the new ones are ready for action. Though the concept of new year (and its date) is a human/cultural construct, there’s always the hope that like shedding a skin, as we say goodbye to the old and hello to the new, things might change.
Even if just now, the shadows of war, unrest, financial crises and political shenanigans persist, any reasonable person must hope that something lovely will be in the offing for everyone in 2023, or at the very least, something better.
As I’ve said before, I’m not terribly keen on looking back and beating myself up about things I haven’t achieved, or patting myself on the back about things I have. Nor am I keen on making pledges or resolutions. After thirty odd years of working in a target-driven environment – with aims, objectives, service level agreements, milestones and so on – I’m not desperately keen to tie myself down too much in the rest of my existence too.
But all the same, here are some of things that went as planned plus an unexpected bonus:
I went on a short break with my adult daughter to Barcelona, which was just lovely. We spent a few days walking miles, visiting Gaudi sites, eating lots of lovely food and otherwise just relaxing.
Two of my books became available as audiobooks and over the next year or so, I intend that others will be too.
And the bonus? Liz Hedgecock and I decided to start writing a new series – contemporary cosy/cozy murder mysteries set in the sort of English town where nothing ever happens (or does it?) The first is out later in January, and if you want to know more about the series look no further than The Booker & Fitch Series.
Things that were mixed blessings (and out of my control):
My team returned to working in the office in Croydon two days a week. In some ways was hard to adjust to after two years of home-working. After the quiet of my own space, it was odd to be in a noisy office again, especially as most of our meetings are still online (even with each other), so it’s often very noisy. But it’s great to see my colleagues in person again and go out with them after work. And the other plus side of commuting to and staying in the outskirts of London is that I’m able to visit Val Portelli, after a few years when it hasn’t been possible.
Later in the year, my team moved from the Croydon office back to the central London one, which was another shift again. This coincided with the death of the Queen, so I was able to go and see the floral tributes in Green Park, though I didn’t queue to view the coffin. We’re not a monarchist family, but even the children were moved that someone who has been there in the background all our lives has gone.
Both my children have now ‘moved out’ (though they do keep coming back). It’s lovely to see them be independent and start carving their own creative furrows, and it’s great to have a tidy(ish) house, but… yup I admit it, I miss them. Thank goodness for modern communication methods – family group chats and video calls.
My writing shed came into its own, even if I do have a tendency to want to fall asleep rather than write when I go in there as I’m so relaxed!
And then, here are my ‘failures’:
I planned to read a lot of specific books in 2022. I didn’t even get close. I read a lot of books. They just turned out to be different ones. Some were serious, some silly, mostly novels, a few non fiction. So I’m just moving that particular goalpost.
I planned to publish two books. As above, I published one, but due to some of the international politics of 2022, I decided to change some of the themes relating to a specific country, and also contracted a relatively mild bout of covid, so this took longer than expected. The other book is part written and I hope to get back to it in 2023.
I planned to take early retirement in September so I could concentrate on writing. The current cost-of-living situation meant this was adjusted to partial-retirement, so I’m still working part-time and yet to get into the routine I need. But I’m getting there.
I went to buy a calendar on the internet for the kitchen, large enough to write on and didn’t check the dimensions. Shame I don’t have a dolls house handy and some dolls who have pressing appointments to record….
Are these failures? I refuse to think so. (Except maybe the calendar.)
For me, family life, mental health, my friendships and marriage will always be more important than anything else.
The day-job even (or perhaps especially) now being part-time remains pressurised, and added into that are now the challenges of the commute.
(Of course, there’s the fact that I am very easily distracted and side-tracked, but we won’t talk about that.)
I’ve spend the last ten years in project work, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned is how to accept ‘slippage’: shifting goalposts and milestones with the mile number crossed out. Targets and milestones can be inspiring and motivating. They can be stressful, depressing. There’s nothing wrong with them in themselves. The important thing is to know when to move them.
So Happy New Year. And may 2023 for all of us involve more joy, more calm, more knowing when to move a target and more time to sit down and enjoy a treat or two.
Words copyright 2023 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.