Modesty

I’ve been thinking about modesty lately.

Modesty is, of course, a human concept.

The sparrows nesting in our eaves have not been modestly tweeting that they’re nice bird-next-door types, while worrying in case they’re showing too much down.  No they haven’t. 

Instead, they’ve spent a warm, dry spring reproducing at least three times – usually right in front of us. They flaunt their feathers and yell how fantastic they are from dawn till dusk only stopping to mate, argue or fly into our house. 

Modesty is also cultural. What a person should do with clothing, hair, arms, legs or even faces, has rules (many contradictory) in every human group and era you can think of. 

Take a photograph of my great-grandmother aged 19, taken in the 1890’s. She shows an inch of skin below her collarbone and had to plead to show so much flesh. Roll on the 1920s, and my grandmother (her daughter) as a teenager, causes horror by cutting her hair and wearing knee-length skirts. Quite what either of them would make of my daughter’s fashions is anyone’s guess. I expect my great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather would be apoplectic, so it’s just as well they’re already well and truly dead. 

Modesty also means not demonstrating pride. 

This is also human.

A bower-bird doesn’t worry that the nest he’s created is over-the-top. He doesn’t quietly tweet that he’s rather pleased. No – he makes the nest as over-the-top as possible so a female can see that it’s the best and only one she could want and therefore he is the only possible mate worth having.

Human attitudes to blowing one’s own trumpet do vary from place to place and era to era. In Britain, verbal self-deprecation is the norm. Part of the pleasure of watching ‘The Apprentice’ is hearing the candidates’ outrageous claims about themselves because it’s just so culturally abnormal to say such things out loud here. (Just to be clear, there’s a lot of double-thinking behind this, so if one British person gloomily says ‘this could be worse’, another British person knows it means ‘I’m really really really proud of this’. I appreciate that this is very, very, very illogical.) 

Things are changing. At school, my children were encouraged to publicly talk about things they were proud of. In my day, anyone doing that would have been called uppity and told to shut up.

So why has modesty been on my mind recently?

Firstly, I’m of a culture, generation, upbringing, gender and figure that means I worry about how much flesh I show, despite believing that if someone wants to walk around naked that’s none of anyone else’s business. (Although it’s maybe not wise in the British climate.) 

But since the breast cancer diagnosis, I’ve got so used to stripping to the waist for complete strangers, that I’m now a little afraid of bumping into a friend in the supermarket in case she asks how well my scars are healing and I show her there and then without thinking. (Given that I wouldn’t have shown as much as a freckle a few months ago this shows how trauma impacts hard-wired behaviour.)

Secondly, I’m of a culture, generation, upbringing and possibly gender that finds it hard to talk about my achievements in case people think I’m full of myself. 

This makes promoting books difficult.

I planned to set up talks in 2020 for Murder Durnovaria and The Wrong Sort to Die. Covid-19 put paid to that. I’d also intended to write some press releases but what with one thing and another, so far I haven’t. I have started an online course about advertising, yet I was daunted on the first day when tasked to praise my own books. I’d feel so much more British saying ‘this is really quite nice’ and hoping people understood.

Is this cultural, human or just me? Most writer friends say the same thing.

Imagine introducing a lovely but unconventional boyfriend/girlfriend to your lovely but eccentric parents. You’re not sure what they’ll make of each other. You want them all to get along so much, but you’re afraid they won’t and that even worse, they’ll all think you’re mad. That’s how I feel about advertising my own lovely writing to lovely potential readers. 

Worrying about promoting makes it hard to actually write anything that might need promoting sometimes and I was having one of those days yesterday.

Then my daughter told me about a creative project of her own. It’s modest (in the third sense of the word) but it’s doable. ‘I’m scared,’ she said. ‘But if I don’t try, I’ll never know if I could succeed.’ 

It reminded me of when I thought exactly the same thing, which ultimately led to me publishing Kindling and The Advent Calendar. 

I remembered why I write. I’m still doing the day job, so it’s not for money. But I’ve got richer in friends, richer in satisfaction and when Val Portelli and Liz Hedgecock liked my work enough to want to collaborate, I was truly honoured. 

I’ll never be very good at boasting about my books and am not sure if this is modesty or laziness.

But I’ll keep on writing, because there are stories inside that still want to get out, even though the current one is coming out in a chaotic muddle that I’ve yet to unravel.

I’ll keep on writing because from time to time someone says how much they enjoyed a book which is, after all, what I want. I don’t expect my books to change the world, but if people find pleasure reading them and are consequently happier, then maybe the world (which is a bit of a mess at the moment) might seem – if only for a while – like a better place. 

Being part of that makes me very happy. 

And immodest or not, and even if it makes me feel a little exposed, I also feel just a little proud.

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

In Two Minds

I was one of those weirdos at school who was good at both English and maths.

I craved both pretty things and books. I liked to be girly and have adventures. I loathed wearing trousers but despite always wearing a skirt, I could climb trees, could go exploring and when necessary, could slap a trouser-wearing bully in the face.

I’m still that girl really. My mind has two distinct paths of travel.

My day-job is project-based and I plan, process-map, analyse and present data etc etc in meticulous detail. But when it comes to writing….

I really do try. The plans for my first two novels (neither of which have seen the light of day) were intricate. But one is convoluted and illogical and the other is miles too long. The thought of all the editing required to make either of them readable is enough to make a statue weep.

I’ve since learnt a lot. I’ve accepted that creatively, I’m more of a panster than a detailed plotter. (That’s a writer flying by the seat of their pants. Perhaps I should I say I’m a skirtster.) I’ve stopped shoe-horning characters into a plot and instead let the characters decide what to do with the situation chucked at them.

So if they do something stupid, it’s not my fault, it’s because of the contradictions in their personality. Margaret while analytical and scientific, relaxes by sketching. She’s independent, capable and brave, but underneath afraid of letting people close enough to let her down. How rationally she behaves depends on which aspect of her personality is predominant at any given moment.

In the ‘novel in progress’ (set around 14 months after Murder Durnovaria), the main character Fabio (last seen in Murder Britannica) wants to be left alone to create music. To do that, he needs to tune out of what’s going on around him. But he’s also an excellent hunter for which of course, he needs to tune into what’s going on around him. At the point I’ve got to in writing, he’s got things the wrong way round and hasn’t noticed the pack of wolves watching his every move…

So depending on how they respond, Margaret might end up in even deeper trouble or equally she might gain something important. And Fabio might end up as a tasty meal  unless the wolves want something else and he needs to react emotionally rather than logically.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to balance opposing things like: writing about a bitter winter when for me, it’s midsummer, and describing busy taverns when pubs have been shut for over three months.

The bird in the picture below clearly thought being in two minds gave her options. In a pub garden last year, she risked getting close enough to snaffle a piece of ready-salted crisp to add to her nutritious beakful.

My analytical mind wonders whether crisps are a good accompaniment to earthworms.

My creative mind says ‘yuk’.

I know which I’m listening to this time.

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

Fresh Fruit and Little Monkeys

When I was nine, I worked for perhaps three weekends in a zoo. 

It was a tiny South Welsh concern called Penscynor Bird Gardens (later Wildlife Park) and originally housed birds, monkeys, an aquarium and llamas. When I was fourteen or so, our school cross-country route ran through the llamas’ field and they used to chase us. When I say ‘us’ I mean the obedient/boring (take your pick) three girls who used to run the route properly rather than hide in the woods gossiping and/or smoking until the games lesson was over.

Anyway, back to the job when I was nine. I don’t know how my father found out about it but he said I could earn 50p every Saturday. This sounded like a great plan as my usual weekly pocket money was 15p if I was lucky, and I loved animals.

Or at least, I loved the idea of them. My total zoological experience (apart from owning a cat) was the many hours I spent observing mini-beasts, reading books about realistic (rather than anthropomorphised) animals and watching wildlife programmes like The World About Us and Jacques Cousteau. If you’d asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d have said a writer-naturalist, like Gerald Durrell or Joyce Stranger. The fact that I was terrified of dogs, didn’t like strong odours or being excessively dirty, and generally left the unpleasant parts of animal care to my mother didn’t seem to factor in my thought processes.

So I took the job.

My role chiefly consisted of chopping up over-ripe fruit for small noisy, fast-moving and seemingly incontinent creatures from marmosets to toucans before helping clean out their cages. 

It was an extremely hot summer. The air in the cages was sickly with the stench of blackening, squashy bananas, oozing melons and the acrid odour of droppings. High-pitched chattering monkeys and birds snatched at food through a haze of fruit flies as fast as I could pile it in their bowls. I remember the gold of the summer light through the leaves above the cages’ roofs, the monkeys’ oh-so-innocent eyes distracting me from what their tiny pickpocket hands were doing, flashes of iridescent fur or feathers, the whisk of wings or tails overhead. I think I’d have liked it if it hadn’t been for the smell. Maybe.

The second weekend, they were photographing for the new brochure and asked me to stare into the fish-tanks like a tourist. Being self-conscious or vain (take your pick), I was torn between being thrilled, and wishing I were wearing something more glamorous than an old tee-shirt, shorts and wellies, but I duly did as asked. When the brochure came out, there I was, looking very solemn and with a slight overbite I hadn’t known I had which I’ve worried about ever since. 

My parents kept the brochure for years. Of course, it’s since fallen foul of two house moves and is nowhere to be found. Nor have I so far found anything online except for images of the cover.

I can’t remember how long I lasted, but it wasn’t long. The experience dampened my urge to be a naturalist and by the time, three years later, a huge stag beetle climbed down inside the back of my blouse causing me to scream so loudly that my father nearly crashed the car we were in, I went off zoology altogether. This was just as well given my abysmal performance in science.

I still can’t bear over-ripe fruit but I wasn’t put off cats or writing and perhaps if there’s a lesson I should have learnt then but didn’t till later, it’s to know where your strengths are, concentrate on them and not feel bad about it. 

The Bird Gardens remained part of my life till I went to university because on most days you could hear the peacocks shrieking across the valley. 

A tiny, tiny bit of me wishes I’d stuck it out and been part of that mad enterprise in that most unlikely of places but I didn’t and never got to return as an adult because the Bird Gardens have long since closed.

But by one of those small-world flukes, I recently discovered I’ve ended up living 134 miles away in the same town as someone who attended the same secondary as me, albeit ten years later.

‘Do you remember the Bird Gardens?’ she asked.

‘Oh yes.’

‘Did you hear about the chimpanzees escaping and getting into the school?’ 

‘No!’ I exclaimed. ‘Why didn’t my parents tell me?’

But my mother hadn’t known and when I emailed an old schoolfriend, she hadn’t heard either.

‘Fancy missing that,’ she said, sending links to photographs of the place as it is now, an abandoned ghost-zoo. ‘Why didn’t it happen when we were there? The chimps would have been less trouble than some of the kids, not to mention brighter.’ 

She had a point. It would have been even more fun than the day our French lesson was enlivened by watching the windows of the chemistry lab being flung open to let twenty kids dangle out gasping for air while dark, presumably noxious fumes coiled round them and up into the aether.  

A couple of months ago, as lockdown was biting, my former schoolfriend sent a link to a newspaper clipping about a wallaby seen one night bouncing through the village where our school was. The photographs are blurry, unreal and mysterious as what appears to be a wallaby is hotly pursued by what’s stated to be a police officer.

In quiet understatement a witness worried ‘it’s a bit chilly to be out as a marsupial in Wales’ and RSPCA Cymru said ‘it’s certainly unusual footage’.

Was it really an escaped pet? Was the pursuer, in fact, really a policeman?

Or was it really, a ghost of a memory trying to get back to the Bird Gardens.

I like to think so. 

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Words copyright 2019 by Paula Harmon and photograph ID 58034269 © Makar | Dreamstime.com. All rights belong to the authors and material may not be copied without the authors’ express permission.

Between

I exist in the impossible land of the folksong, the acre between foam and strand.

Liminal space. Interstitial.

I’m waiting on the foggy threshold between two months ago and next week. A nowhere place.

They say one should seize each day, not worry about tomorrow or beyond tomorrow but I’m not good at these in-between times. I feel so healthy but know I’m not. The betrayal of my own body confuses me. How could I not have known there was something wrong? And now I have to wait to be put right.

Just like those days before childbirth, I pad awkwardly from project to project, unable to settle to things that normally calm me but instead doing thing I normally put off: cleaning, dusting, rearranging, hopeful, excited, fearful, disbelieving, confused and above all anxious to the point of nausea.

Fidgety, I excavate the strata of my jewellery box – the nearly oldest items are from my teens – some no longer fit, others no longer appeal. Older still are two rings that were once my grandmother’s. Each piece reminds me of moments, emotions, people. Each was once a loving gift or spontaneous purchase. Whyever do I have so many earrings? The light catches on tiny facets of colour. I shall clean these neglected sparkles and wear them again if only for the memories they recall. After this is all over, I shall give most of them away.

Cooking is the only other thing I can sometimes concentrate on.

I find a recipe for my husband’s birthday – a special dish but tricky. It has so many fiddly, unfamiliar steps but my mind stops whirring while under knife, then pestle, then spoon, rich colours merge and flavours blend.

As it slowly cooks, I put the spice jars away. Their shelf is full and chaotic, it had taken me a while to find what I’d required. I must sort that cupboard out – empty the old, out-of-date bottles then check to see what I need to replace.

A jar of paprika tumbles off the shelf as I rummage and the lid pops off. Powder red as dragon’s blood spills everywhere. How ridiculous that something so silly makes me want to cry. But I don’t. I rescue what I can and replace the lid firmly. Then I start my inventory, extracting every other bottle to check its age.

Whyever do we have so many jars of mustard seeds?

I tip the bottles and watch the seeds roll and tumble, trying to remember through the fog of anxiety what they traditionally represent. Is each orb a worry or a grain of faith?

I tip the out-of-date ones away. They trickle down a mountain of out-of-date spices. The chaos of reds and browns smell and look like expired magic. I decide that the discarded mustard represents seeds of worry.

I retain just one jar. But its contents represent tiny seeds of faith to help me cross the space between sea and shore.

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

Of Rags and Richness

I seem to have become infected with some sort of reverse-Midas touch which means pretty much everything I touch is breaking down. This includes the fridge-freezer, the oven door, the car (or at least a warning light has come on) and the laptop which has ‘lost’ its word processing system. And yesterday, when I was teaching my daughter to sew, the sewing machine stopped working.

In the early hours of this morning when I was trying to formulate a short story and realising it was rapidly turning into a novel, I returned my thoughts to sewing, which as a creative activity, helps me zone out completely. Right now, the more I can tune out the better.

I learnt to sew very young. Until I married I made a lot of my own clothes, partly because I was an odd shape: short, thin, with no hips but an ample bust. After marriage I largely stopped because we had a small house and it wasn’t as easy having bits of sewing over the place and living on toast for a couple of days while I was making something. And the way I mutter to myself when things go wrong drove my husband mad. Now that my son has pretty much moved out though, I’ve reconfigured his bedroom as a sewing room and am starting afresh.

As I was thinking about this at six a.m., I considered my characters and their relationship with clothes.

Aunt Alice in the Caster & Fleet books is partly drawn from my paternal grandmother only with added primness and shockability (my grandmother wasn’t prim and not especially shockable although that might have been because she didn’t really realise what was going on). My grandmother had been brought up to be a housewife. It would be her husband’s job to  support her, while she played her part by being thrifty and skilled in cooking, sewing and parenting. Which she was. She adored pretty, bright, well-fitting clothes, took a lively interest in prevailing fashion and delighted in discussing dress-making ideas and helping develop my skills. This filtered into Aunt Alice.

Katherine in the same books is even shorter than I am, but doesn’t have a bust worth talking about. While that would have been an advantage to me, it wasn’t to her in the late 19th Century.  She’s also in a situation where the rug has been pulled out from under her financially. She can no longer afford a dressmaker but must rely on Aunt Alice’s skills. She herself can sew of course, but she’s not really patient enough to put as much effort in as she would need to, not to mention the fact that she has a job keeping her occupied every day. She’s very conscious in the early books that what she’s wearing is very slightly out of style, or has been re-modelled. While she’s grateful to Aunt Alice, she’s also a little envious of her better off friends, particularly Connie. Katherine also struggles with fashions which don’t really suit small, flat-chested women. This is pretty much a reflection of how I felt in my younger years when fashions didn’t really suit small, busty women and I didn’t have any money for new clothes.

Her younger sister Margaret, who appears from time to time in the Caster & Fleet books and now has a book all of her own set in 1910 is positively clothes obsessed. She remembers her teenage years when she was always a little out of style, and now she’s fully grown up and has a professional career, she will splash out on the latest hats and a few evening dresses that she perhaps can’t quite afford, simply because they’re beautiful. She has the advantage over Katherine of being taller and busty. She may find the bust a nuisance in the 1920s, but right now, she’s quite happy in clothes that are elegant and perfectly skim her figure. (Yes, I’m jealous of Margaret. She reflects how I wish I was and has a confidence in her appearance I won’t have if I live till I’m 100.)

Moving back several hundred years Lucretia, is also obsessed with the latest fashion (as soon as it arrives from Rome to West Britain). Her mental self image is fixed around eighteen. Then she was small and curvaceous with long dark, wavy hair and while probably not exactly pretty, she was certainly striking. Nowadays – the wrong side of fifty – she’s very curvaceous and says the appearance of the odd silver strand of hair is a trick of the light. Just in case though, she has a collection of wigs sourced from all over the empire: one with black Indian hair, one with blonde German hair, one with red hair (the source of which may be a henna plant) and one which mixes them up a bit. She also wears as much make-up as she can without falling forwards under the weight of it. Most of the cosmetics are lead based and therefore toxic, but even if she realised, she’d probably say beauty has its price. It’s perhaps as well she doesn’t have access to a full-length mirror and can keep in her head the image of herself as young and beautiful and not have it dashed by reality – though of course, she’d say that was a trick of the light too.

Nowadays of course, I’m probably closer to Lucretia than Katherine in looks, though I couldn’t bear all that make-up. I’d say I couldn’t bear the thought of a wig either but not having seen a hairdresser since January, my silver strands are rather taking over.

I am still short, with no hips and an ample bust. Sadly I am no longer thin. And equally sadly, unlike Lucretia I do have a full-length mirror and am not deluded enough to think I still look eighteen. Oh well – I’m ready for a different dress-making challenge. Bobbins at the ready sewing machine – I’m coming to fix you.

Welsh costume

(This is from a rather blurry polaroid of me and my sister in a Welsh costume made by my mother for St David’s Day when we lived in Wales. All the other little girls wore short skirts but my father was determined we should be ‘authentic’. As we were English this seemed a bit pointless but that was Dad for you. My sister is now taller than me.)

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

 

Lost Sometimes

I remember when the sky was always an impossible blue.

The days when I left home after breakfast not to return till evening.

When with a friend, I’d lie in fields of barley or under larches or hide from little sisters among the bracken or in hawthorn trees or walk among plants taller than our heads …

or more often than not… 

I’d sit alone in the quiet copse or by the whispering river, deep in my own thoughts and worries and dreams and ideas: lost.

Lost in the waiting room between worlds: the one which was and the one which might be, the one which I feared and the one which I hoped for.

There was sometimes a joy in feeling lost, caught between a range of possibles none of them yet real.

Sometimes of course, lostness meant fear. 

Turning the wrong way on an unfamiliar road, walking further and further hoping for something I recognised. Too terrified to turn around. Fearing I’d never see anything I knew again. Feeling guilt in trusting a stranger’s hand …

Or falling into the fast-flowing river all alone, tumbling toward the not-so-distant waterfall, catching at last on branches till I could drag myself out and dry in the sun so that no-one would ever know…

Or older now, driving in fog or heavy snow, too fearful to stop. Has my turning been missed? Am I too close to the edge? Will I drive like this forever?

And in the end the heart-calming, velvet warmth of being no longer lost but safely home.

Yesterday I felt lost and I feel lost today and tomorrow I will doubtless feel lost as well. It’s the way things are right now.

I’ll be feeling lost for a while, caught in the space between what is and what might be, between knowledge and doubt and possibility, on the edge of the cliff contemplating tumbling down or the possibility of flight.

Yes, there is a little fear, but just now…

the sky is that impossible childhood blue again.

I accept the lostness. Not abandoned, not angry nor terrified but in a waiting room between worlds: the one which was, the one which is, the one which might be, the one which I fear and the one which I hope for.

I hesitate under tall trees on a path which forks into side-trails and copses, hesitate on the edge of a river which twists out of sight and dithers towards side-brooks and weirs.

I feel lost but I’m all right. I will own the lostness and I’ll wait until the unknown is known and the possibles become probables.

And today I am content under this impossibly clear sky, closing my eyes and imagining all those unknown worlds around me as blue – from opal to indigo – each as beautiful and embraceable in its own way. 

Sometimes it’s all right to feel lost. 

I don’t know quite where I am today, but I am all right.

Lost Sometimes – music by Dissimulated

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

 

 

 

Broadening the Mind

I love research. It provides the best excuse to get side-tracked I can think of.

At the moment, because I’ve been writing or plotting two historical mysteries set over 1,700 years apart, I’m surrounded by books about Roman-Britain, Roman cookery and Celtic traditions as well as ones on Victorian/Edwardian slang and dialect, maps of late 19th Century London, pre-WWI politics and (much as it would amaze any of my poor suffering science teachers) forensics and biology. I confess that I find dabbling in the dialect, slang and cook-books the most fascinating. 

Waiting their turn in terms of having the accompanying novels written, I also have books about the home-front in WWII and everyday Tudor life. One of the latter is called ‘Delightes for Ladies – to adorn their Perſons, Tables, Cloſets, and Diſtillories: with Beauties, Banquets, Perfumes and Waters’ by Sir Hugh Plat. It includes fascinating recipes for everything from marchpane (marzipan) to hair dye. 

If you’re in the same boat as me after several weeks of lockdown and missing the hairdresser, you might be interested in the hair dye recipes but I’m not going to quote them for fear someone will try them. In brief, the one for blonde dye includes honey, turmeric, rhubarb and alum among other things. The one for brunette dye includes sulphur as one of its less toxic ingredients. Apparently it wouldn’t stain the skin but I’m not convinced. Maybe it doesn’t stain it, but I’d have thought at least one of the other components might dissolve it.

Of all the research books I have, there’s one which would have been really useful for my new release if I’d remembered I had it.

“The Queen” Newspaper Book of Travel – A guide to Home and Foreign Resorts 1912’ is one of the books I’d snaffled from Dad at some point but forgotten I owned until I was featured on the Jaffareadstoo Sunday Brunch Blogspot.

It originally cost 2/6 (e.g. two shillings and sixpence). In post decimalisation terms that’s 12.5p which doesn’t sound like a lot, but putting it into context, inside the book itself are how much it cost to sail anywhere in the world (£55 first class to Bombay) and advertisements for a nice watch or a nice vanity case (£25 each). 

The book tells you what to pack in terms of clothes for a round the world trip, what to anticipate in terms of local hotels, the speed limit for your motor car, how much it cost to send a letter etc.

In India for example, regardless of climate, ‘one should wear flannel or wool next the skin’ and preferably have a flannel waistband otherwise known as a cholera belt. (Apparently it was called this as well after the cause for cholera was discovered, it was thought that stopping your waist from becoming cold would prevent cholera. I wouldn’t have thought the average Briton of Celtic/Anglo-Saxon descent in 1912 would have found their midriff cold in India but there you go.)

Other advice includes: ‘don’t take alcohol merely as a beverage’ and ‘don’t treat constipation lightly, it is as dangerous as relaxation in a tropical climate’. 

I’m sort of assuming ‘relaxation’ isn’t a reference to slobbing about in your cholera belt drinking nothing but alcohol as a beverage.

The most startling piece of advice is what to do about undies when on a long voyage (in context, I presume the underwear referred to was knickers/panties). 

It boils down to ‘I found four or five of everything quite enough for use on shore, and for the voyage I always take old things, and give them to the stewardess or throw them overboard, so that I had no need for my soiled linen bag on board ship, never having anything to put in it. I am sure this is the best way. It is often exceedingly troublesome to get washing done at the port of debarkation, and it is always expensive, and on every account it is better to keep one’s cabin fresh and empty. Even if the things are rather good to throw away, it makes little difference in the cost of a long trip, and they aren’t wasted, for the stewardess gets them.’

I’m not entirely sure which is the odder image – a stream of substantial early 20th century knickers floating down the Suez Canal behind a steamer or the stewardess’s face as she’s handed armfuls of grubby undies at the end of the trip.

As I say, I didn’t realise I had A guide to Home and Foreign Resorts 1912 till well after I’d finished writing ‘The Wrong Sort To Die’.

In case you’re wondering what this new novel is about, it’s a spin-off from the Caster and Fleet series which I wrote with Liz Hedgecock. 

Written by me alone, it’s set in 1910. The main character is Margaret Demeray (the younger sister of Katherine of the Caster and Fleet books). Margaret is thirty-six and a pathologist at a London hospital for the poor. She has a thirst for justice and equality. She’s very independent, has a short fuse, is irritated by having to fight her corner in a man’s world, but perhaps just a little vulnerable too.

Here’s a brief blurb:

Dr Margaret Demeray is approached by a stranger called Fox to help find out what’s killed two impoverished men. How can a memory she’d buried possibly be linked to the deaths? And how come the closer she gets to Fox the more danger she faces herself? 

I’m looking forward to swotting up on ‘A guide to Home and Foreign Resorts’ for the sequel, when Margaret will definitely leave the British Isles, although not on a long enough voyage to be tempted to throw her underwear overboard. 

Or maybe she will. I’ll have to see.

The Wrong Sort To Die’ is available for pre-order with a publication date of 30th June 2020.

Words copyright 2020 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Photographs from “The Queen” Newspaper Book of Travel 1912

 

Make Do and Bend

Thanks to my father’s eccentric views on store cupboard necessities and general tidiness, I can make a meal out of pretty much anything using a workspace barely big enough for a dinner plate.

He taught me to experiment with recipes and cuisines, while my mother taught me to cook from scratch. So all in all, I’m well set for making edible, if sometimes odd, meals out of whatever I’ve got to hand.

But – that’s not to say I always want to. 

Last Thursday was one of those days. In fact last Thursday was one of those days when I didn’t want to do anything at all. 

Feeling positive and upbeat in the coronavirus world seemed as impossible a task as putting ten people in a lift and telling them to socially distance themselves.

Things that pushed me over the edge:

  • Waiting for ages in the pharmacy
  • An irritating working day when the work laptop kept crashing
  • Knowing it would be the weekend before I could get on with editing my novel which had been in the process thereof forever
  • Missing my son who’s fifty miles away
  • Worrying about my sister and niece who are both in the nursing profession.

On Thursday, I just had enough of feeling positive. What I wanted to do was throw the work laptop out of the window and delete my novel. What I most didn’t want to do was make another wretched meal. What I really wanted to do was stomp to the hotel and order one instead. 

Only of course, the hotel and every other eating establishment in the country is shut for the duration. 

Perhaps I’d burnt out my cooking mojo over the previous seven days. I’d made some very inauthentic but tasty ‘pakoras’. I’d made some even less authentic but tasty ‘samosas’ (they were more sort of curried vegetable pasties really). I’d made some successful flatbreads despite having only half the right ingredients. I could argue that I’d had no imagination left to put into anything, but actually I’d just had enough.

I suggested we ordered an Indian take-away. My husband pulled a face. ‘What were we going to have if we don’t get a take-away?’ he said. 

‘Stir-fried pork and stir-fried whatever veg is in the bottom of the fridge and egg-fried rice,’ I said.

‘Yum,’ he said. ‘That sounds much nicer than take-away. We’ll have that.’

‘But it takes longer to prepare than it takes to cook and eat,’ I argued. ‘And there are always so many cooking utensils involved in stir-fries.’

I’ll cook it then,’ he said. 

The thought of that was even worse. Where I can use three utensils, he can use ten. Plus he puts enough extra chilli and soy-sauce in his stir-fries to fill the kitchen with high-blood-pressure-inducing toxic fumes.

In the end, I said I’d cook it after all and sent him off on his daily walk while I sliced the living daylights out of some rather limp vegetables until I felt marginally better.

These are peculiar times when the whole structure of the normal lives of most of the world’s population utterly changed more or less simultaneously (give or take some governments’ prompt responses to the situation or lack thereof). 

The skies are now clearer than they’ve been for decades, maybe in some parts of the world, for over a century. And yet none of us knows if at any time, we might catch somehow the virus, whether or not we’ll be badly affected and either way, whether we’ll unwittingly pass it on to someone else who might subsequently die. 

Not being able to eat out, not being able to buy a specific ingredient aren’t really very important in themselves, many people can’t usually – but they’re reminders that life is not normal, that hospital staff like my sister and niece have to dress up like spacemen to work, that there’s nowhere anyone can go to ‘get away from it all’, that no-one has the least idea when we’ll be back to normal or even what normal will look like when it’s all over.

Sometimes, all that is overwhelming. 

On Thursday, I felt overwhelmed and in the end I told myself that that was ok. I decided to give myself space to feel overwhelmed and then start afresh the next day. Which I did. Then, I spent the weekend getting to grips with my novel. 

I’m glad I didn’t delete it. I’m not quite so sure whether I’m glad I didn’t throw the work laptop out of the window.

Somewhat less overwhelmed today, I’m feeling more cheerful about making tonight’s dinner out of what’s available. It’s not as if we can’t get nice food, and enough of it. We just can’t get it as often or as easily as we could a month or so ago. 

I thought of those memes that refer to WWII rationing and remind us that things could be worse. Out of curiosity, I extracted my research copy of ‘The Victory Cookbook’ . Flicking through to see what sort of things were suggested to British housewives during the war, I found a recipe for Pilchard Layer Loaf which was apparently ‘new and very exciting’. It involves, basically, layers of bread and tinned pilchards with a sort of mustardy béchamel poured over and then baked in the oven. Well, I have bread, I have tinned mackerel, I have the makings of a mustardy béchamel…. Could I? Should I?

I also have some poultry, some rather wizened tomatoes, some garlic, some grapes and some olives. A sort of cacciatore I think, only perhaps with a little chilli to keep my husband happy.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by all this, that’s ok. None of us have to feel upbeat all the time, including you dear reader. But this will be over one day and we have to hold on to that even if we can’t hold on to each other.

In the meantime though, I’m sort of hoping things’ll never be so bad that I try making Pilchard Layer Loaf. 

It sounds utterly disgusting.

 

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

10 Tips to help if you’re worried about coronavirus

 

Personal Grooming

‘Listen,’ says the Grooming Fairy. ‘She’s a lost cause.’

‘I know but…’ says Aelfnod, ‘Look at her, all proud of her nails – painting them with cheap nail-polish and all. She’s had that bottle for five years at least.’

‘Five years? I bet there’s dinosaur claws with that stuff on waiting to be dug up.’

‘Go on.’

The Grooming Fairy rolls her eyes. ‘Look – she’s – I dunno how old and she’s been biting her nails from the age of ten to the Dawn of Coronavirus and now she’s proud of herself cos she’s stopped cos Boris Johnson’s told her to stop.’

‘I don’t think she’s ever listened to Boris Johnson.’

The Grooming Fairy shrugs and makes a W sign on her forehead. ‘Whateverrrr. How come it’s taken a pandemic to stop her biting her nails? What sort of self-discipline is that?’

‘This isn’t about her nails, it’s about her general self-esteem.’

‘Huh!’ says the Grooming Fairy. ‘She should have learnt to do her hair and make-up and all that when she was a teenager.’

Aelfnod coughed. ‘I live in the attic remember. She has a whole box of scrapbooks full of Jackie Magazine cuttings telling her how to do her hair and make-up. AND I’ve seen the photo-albums with all that mad hair she had in her twenties.’

‘Ah -the 1980s.’ The Grooming Fairy’s face softens into nostalgia. ‘It must be time for it to come back into style. I can’t wait for a new batch of teenagers to fill my nostrils with the sweet scents of home-perming solution.’

‘I don’t think she’ll be doing that again.’

‘It could hardly make her hair any worse. She should been to the hair-dresser before the lock-down.’

‘Half the country is thinking that.’

‘Yeah but look at her. The grey’s coming through and her fringe is getting long enough to braid. She’s like a hippy badger.’

‘Shhh – she’ll hear you. Anyway, she’s bought two home-dyeing kits just in case lock-down’s extended. She just can’t decide between sensible brown and insane blue. She’s trying to talk her daughter into helping. But … her daughter’s a bit dippy at the moment herself. I thought maybe you could help instead.’

‘Look Aelfnod – what do you expect me to do? The woman’s been rubbish at what she calls the “girly stuff” since the beginning of time. She starts off ok, but then she rubs her face or runs her hands through her hair in exasperation when she’s annoyed or thinking or both and before you know it she looks like a miniature Giant Panda with a wig made out of rat’s nests. And that’s in normal circumstances. She’s not even good at clothes – did you see she went through her underwear drawer in a fit of boredom the other day and discovered she’s kept nine bras that don’t fit. I mean they’re pretty and all but what did she keep them for? I suppose right now she could offer them as face-masks – but whose face is THAT shape. Although, I suppose right now, I’m impressed she’s brushing her hair and getting out of her nightclothes every day – you should hear the tales I’ve heard from some of the household elves round here.’

‘I know.’ Aelfnod heaves a sigh. ‘These are strange times. But she’s doing her best. And she may not feel very confident about the “girly stuff” but she is trying her best to feel normal. She’s even on top of the laundry. (The cobwebs not so much.) And she’s being traumatised by having to go round a supermarket via a one way system rather than like a random particle. And doing it when she’s allowed to rather than when she feels like it. And she’s missing staring out of the window of a train pretending she’s thinking intellectual thoughts when really she’s just wondering whether to cook tea or get a ready-meal or takeaway instead of staring out of the windows at home wondering when she can go somewhere else (and what to cook for tea out of what’s in the house). I just think she – like everyone really – could do with a boost. I don’t think she’d realised how much all those little things like having her hair and nails and eyebrows done could make her feel like she had an element of control on a mad situation. Isn’t there anyway you can do her hair magically?’

The Grooming Fairy ponders. ‘I likes a challenge, I does. Now where’’s that list of questions I’ve got to ask, like where she’s going for her next holiday?’

‘You can’t ask that! No-one’s allowed to go anywhere at the moment.’

‘Meh,’ said the Grooming Fairy. ‘Then she’ll have to make it up. Just like I’ll be doing. This is going to cheer us both up no end.’ She cracks her knuckles and grins. 

 Aeflnod has a sudden thought. ‘Oh bother. I forgot about social distancing? You can’t do hair from two metres away. Forget I mentioned it.’

The Grooming Fairy ponders again. ‘Meh. You says she needs cheering up. I could do it while she’s asleep. Like I said. I likes a challenge. Now. Where are those long-handled hedge-trimmers and the ceiling painting brush with the extendable handle?’

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

 

In Sync

On day three of having to work from home, my team gave up video-Skyping in favour of audio-Skyping. The argument was that everyone’s broadband was struggling but I suspect most of us preferred to talk from behind our smart profile pictures rather than reveal what we really look like in our spare rooms or at our kitchen tables. This is fine by me as I’m approximately six years younger and half a stone lighter in my profile picture than in real life, and in real life, my hair is about to go out of control so I’m on the verge of looking like Captain Caveman or Cousin Itt. 

The risk of being seen less than groomed is only one problem for current video-Skyping. The other is when the team-member has young offspring, since all the schools are shut. A child suddenly appears with something which to them is far more important than any coronavirus-related crisis which their parent is trying to deal with and then, faced with the horror of complete strangers cooing at them from their parent’s laptop screen, go very shy and lip-wobbly. 

Life is very peculiar just now isn’t it?

I’m lucky that I can work from home and maintain some sort of structure to my week. 

I’m sort of glad I’m not also home-schooling my children as I’m sure that I’d be going quietly bonkers by now, but all the same I’m sad that mine aren’t still small enough for me to be doing keep-fit or making dens or playing games or doing craft everyday as some of my colleagues are. 

When my own children were little, although I did those sorts of thing, it didn’t always work out the way I intended of course. Once, my three-year-old son and I copied art from TV using paint and old toothbrushes. We were disappointed at the result until we looked up and realised that while the paper was nearly blank, we’d made a lovely spatter pattern on the wall and … also on my baby daughter who was asleep nearby.

They’re now no longer small enough to want or need me to entertain them and I’m not sure either would want to make a big creative mess like we did when they were small even if I asked them.

But there are advantages to them being older now.

Last weekend, when the impact of coronavirus was making me feel disinclined to try anything new, or indeed, do anything at all, I was invited to join an online group in which members were encouraged to live-stream themselves reading a story.

 I thought ‘Blimey.’

Now: I’m capable of talking (as many will testify) and I’m more than skilled at making a fool of myself, but I don’t usually record myself doing either.

I thought about it for a bit and asked my son for advice. Most of what he said went over my head but having got the general drift, I chose a story and practised videoing myself.

I observed a number of things:

  • Everyone is right about me talking too fast and too quietly.
  • My face is even more asymmetrical than I’d realised.
  • I need to do my hair.

The following day, I decided to be brave.

I did my hair to the best of my somewhat inadequate abilities and I read ‘Dust’ from ‘Weird and Peculiar Tales’ as a live-stream, even remembering to have a piece of vacuum cleaner as a prop. Immediately after, while I was in the ‘zone’ I live-streamed it on my author Facebook page too (although I forgot the piece of vacuum cleaner). My face didn’t really stop burning for an hour afterwards.

I definitely got a real buzz from doing it even though I found my lips weren’t quite in synch with my speech. (I sort of assume that was my technical incompetence rather than that’s what I’m like anyway.) And so naturally, going off at a tangent, I then pondered about whether I should start a YouTube channel (with videos rather than my face) or do pod-casting (which wouldn’t require anything to replace my face). 

All of this of course, took my mind off the fact what I’m supposed to be doing in my free time, which is edit a book. What with one thing and another, most of it out of my control, I’m a long way behind and having decided I needed to re-write some of it hasn’t helped. 

But this weekend, my daughter came into her own. In a general chat about creativity and the psychological impact of the current situation, I told her I was finding it hard to get on with the edit and she said she’d been blogging about PROCRASTINATION and shared her conclusions to me. They made a lot of sense. 

She put up with me making one more excuse, then repeated the key bit of advice and sent me went off to get on with the editing. I’m still not there, but I’m near enough to feel like I’m getting somewhere at last.

And going off at a tangent again – I intending to write this blog about something else entirely but writing about doing the live-stream made more sense somehow.  And while my consciousness was streaming as I wrote, I thought – why do you need a small child to do messy craft with? If the weather’s good enough and you can find some paper and some paints – go in the garden and make a fool of yourself. No-one need ever see the result but you’ll feel a lot better and maybe your daughter will come and join you.  

So do you know what, I think I shall.

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Words copyright 2020 by Paula Harmon. Image copyright 2020 Zoe Harmon. All rights belong to the authors and material may not be copied without the authors’ express permission.

If you’re looking for things to do while socially distancing, here are some links:

Closed Visitor Gardens Virtual Tours

The Guardian – Best Virtual Tours of Worlds Natural Wonders

Paint with Alice May