Friday 23 December 2016

The Bottom of the Swimming Pool

I had a letter in the post today from Louise Goldsmith, a 21 year old who spoke so eloquently and soulfully it pulled at my heart. I don't know Louise but I can relate to her story. She has had severe hearing loss since she was seven years old and the letter is a candid account of this 'hidden disability' as she calls it, how she'd like to say her lack of hearing hasn’t adversely affected her life in any way, but, sadly, she isn't able to do this.

It's an insight into a world I know.

I'm not sure my hearing loss is as profound as Louise's – yet – and it certainly wasn't as bad when I was in my twenties, but it is a constant stress. I'm helped by amazing technology, not least my discrete Bluetooth hearing aids (I wrote about their maiden outing, here), the crystal clear headphones for the TV and the addition of subtitles. And I thank my lucky stars that I live in an age when I can carry out my entire communication through messaging of various sorts without ever having to put any of us through the ordeal of having to speak on the phone. Cochlear implants and Bone Anchored Hearing Aids are a possibility for the future and thus I live in hope that I won't become the little old lady in the corner whom everyone ignores, because it's easier.

Nonetheless, it's isolating not being able to hear and it affects every part of life – work and play. It's exhausting when every conversation is a missing word quiz and depressing when people think you are stupid and that you don't get the joke you didn't hear.

But it isn't all bad.

I have particularly noticed recently, probably because my hearing has plummeted lately, that my family have strategies to help me join in and that these have become automatic. It means that in my home, as long as I have my hearing aids, I don't have too much difficulty communicating. Reading Louise's flier, I thought it might be useful to share some of these tips before the typical large group, multi-generational, terrifyingly full of background noise festive party season is fully upon us. I hope it might be helpful to those who hear well and those who don't.

Here goes!

Please don't SHOUT! I totally understand how frustrating it is to be with someone whose every second sentence is, 'Sorry, I missed that,' and I understand the instinct to raise our voice. However, for many of us, it isn't that a voice is quiet so much as the speech is muffled.

The Clangers Poster
To try to give a picture of what it's like, imagine yourself tucking into your Christmas dinner whilst attempting to converse with your neighbour, all at the bottom of a swimming pool. New Year's Eve party? Add the Clangers to the bottom of the pool, dispersed around you, all talking loudly in sounds you can't understand but conspiring to drown out your neighbour nonetheless. If the person with whom you were trying to communicate simply shouted, it wouldn't make any difference to your comprehension. If however, they turned to face you and really enunciated their words, using more pronounced facial gestures, then you'd have a chance of understanding.

The trouble with shouting, apart from the fact it often doesn't help, is that it's really not very nice to be shouted at - particularly when everyone else is speaking at normal pitch. Because with the shout comes the facial expression: the screwed up, pained face. I know the intention is not to make the interlocutor feel awful but it makes me want to crawl away. After all, the conversationalist is clearly intensely annoyed (people only shout when they're cross, don't they?) and you are responsible for ruining their day, you and your sub-standard hearing - so why would you choose to hang around? If somebody shouts, I bluff that I've heard and feign a sudden need for the Ladies. 

Alter rather than Repeat: Often, people who struggle with their hearing miss the first word, or a particular word, and can't get the gist of the sentence because of that. Sometimes, the conversation can be saved simply through repeating it directly to the person in question but if this doesn't work, paraphrasing might be all that's needed to get around the troublesome word.

Face your Partner: For all of us, not just the hard of hearing, understanding speech is about so much more than the actual words spoken. We glean the sense of it through context and the 'music and the dance'. I remember a first hearing consultant saying to me shortly before I wore hearing aids that when he looked at my audiogram - a graph which represents the picture of an individual's ability to hear different sounds - he couldn't understand how I could possibly function but, he was quick to add, he saw this all the time. He said that it was a reminder to us that communication is about much more than words. In fact, it's oft quoted that 93% of what we hear is communicated through everything but the words. According to a certain Professor Mehrabian in 1971, 55% of communication is in the body language, 38% is in the tone of voice with only 7% being the words spoken.  

Now, the exact figures have since been rebuked but I think there is truth in the message. Certainly, that first consultant was convinced that was how people with hearing loss could manage surprisingly well. I would also suggest that people who are hard of hearing whilst perhaps not so good at hearing changes in tone of voice, might be even better at reading body language than this stat states.

And living proof of this is that I understand so much better if I face the person with whom I'm speaking. I don't officially lip read (although I'm about to learn and am ridiculously excited about the potential for my new skill) but matching the lips to the muffled sounds is often all I need.

Don't Walk Away! For the same reason, I wouldn’t even attempt to have any meaningful conversation with your back to whom you're speaking as you walk away.

Come and Ask! Likewise, my family have largely learnt that there is little point shouting from another room when they've been doing 'boys-or-teen-looking', in the hope I'll come scurrying to find said not-really-lost item. Even if I can hear the call, I won't know who or where it's coming from nor what it's about. If I'm really needed, my family have to come to me.

Well, we have to have some perks, don’t we…?

It does matter: And finally, and oh so importantly, please, please don't say, It Doesn't Matter. Because it really, really does. What might seem a seemingly inconsequential throwaway comment to you, is actually the stuff which makes the world go around. It's the context, it's the relationship, and nothing is more depressing than being told that what everybody else heard, isn't important enough to repeat to you. It's isolating and the more it happens, the more I become that little lady in the corner of the room, in the corner of life.

My hearing could be worse, I could be profoundly deaf, but it is a problem. For me, and everybody with hearing loss, please practise your very best diction this Christmas and look into our eyes when you speak.

That would be our very best Christmas present and an enormous helping hand through 2017.

PS There is good news for poor hearing. Increased deafness goes hand in hand with an ageing population and scientists and businesses have taken up the challenge. Breakthroughs are coming thick and fast and I am very hopeful for my hearing future and that of everyone currently struggling. Action on Hearing Loss (formerly the RNID) is a charity helping to find cures. If you haven't sent Christmas cards this year and keep meaning to get round to a charity donation instead, please consider supporting Action on Hearing Loss. More information here  

Tuesday 20 December 2016

A Day that Was

You know those days when you collapse into bed, pull the duvet up around your ears and, totally spent, realise that was a day that was? That day was Friday 9 December.

It started like any other day. Bags packed for Newark, boot loaded with books, back seat stashed with Christmas presents, and me, bursting with good intentions of not being late to meet my mum for lunch in our new favourite coffee house, Strays in Newark. I was thwarted, of course, by my just-one-more-email habit and thus screeched into my mum's drive a *little* later than intended. Still, we managed our sandwich, and threw in a bonus second coffee (and mince pie) at the end of the afternoon as well, so I think I'm forgiven.

Meanwhile, I had the small matter of my talk at Newark library. I was nervous. Even more nervous than usual. There's something about speaking in front of people you know which makes you feel much more self-conscious, don't you think? It's where the 'worst case scenario strategy' doesn’t work anymore: if I trip when I stand up from my seat and drag the chair leg with me to the front of the stage before propelling myself into the lap of the unfortunate person who chose a front row seat, then, scuttling back into position, forget why on earth I'm standing in front of all these people and wonder if they'd be happy to hear about the contents of my Christmas shopping list because that's all I can think about right now, - then hey! It's not so bad because I'll never see these people again.

Oh yes, I will.

And if you think that the above is a figment of my warped imagination, click here to see why my fears have valid substance.

In the audience were some school friends, including one I hadn't seen for thirty years (remembered fondly for walking me home from many a night out in Newark, we being the only two who had the misfortune to live an hour's walk from the pubs) together with the handful of others who constantly support my endeavours. While it warms my heart to know they are with me once again, I don't want to let them down. I recognised some lovely tweeps with whom I've bonded over cancer on-line (I told you cancer wasn’t all bad). One even brought me a present of gorgeous, home-made, paraben-free (oh yes) soap and lip balm. With her were a gaggle of fire safety officers, passionate about keeping phones out of cars. You would be wouldn't you, if you attended the road traffic accidents they do. And last but certainly not least was the local radio presenter, June Rowlands, with whom I'll be chatting on air on the 29th January. I was humbled that June took the time to come and listen and while it was wonderful to meet her in person, there was the niggling fear that five minutes into the talk, she would fiercely regret ever booking me in the first place. All this in addition to the many new faces who'd taken time out of a busy Friday afternoon in December to listen to me, when I suspect they had the odd other job to do.

It's fair to say, I felt the pressure.

I'm happy to report that my feet stayed firmly planted in position with no suggestion of a stumble (although I note from my friend's photograph that I was crossing my ankles and my physio - she's not strictly 'my' physio, you understand, but it feels like that sometimes -  would take a very dim view). I remembered what I wanted to say and said it in just about the allotted time frame. Although this is remarkable in itself, it isn't what will make the day memorable.

It was everybody else's input.

There were so many pertinent questions and anecdotes from people's lives relating to the themes of Glass Houses and Tea & Chemo and they kept on coming, so much so that I felt compelled to flash a glance or two at the organiser of the event to check it was ok that we were all still there. We spent a long time on the meaning of life, including near death experiences, but trust me when I say that it was a truly upbeat conversation about getting the most from life. I stood in that room in Newark library and all the rubbish, both globally and closer to home of the last few years, seemed so far away in those two hours. There was so much positivity even though people were talking about quite harrowing experiences. One lady even spoke about her mother who died as the result of a road traffic accident and how, it took a year, but eventually she felt compelled to talk to the driver of the car. She needed to let the driver know that she forgave them, that she knew it wasn't intentional. She had to express her forgiveness so that the driver could move on with their life. And thus so she could move on, too. I think there were a lot of us in the room holding it together at that point. What an incredible lady.

Some normality returned as I drove home, touching 50mph maximum because the run flat light had come on in the car. It's the second time in two long trips for me that this has happened. Me and this car do not get on. Still, at least we didn't have this little experience which is what happened last time the light came on. 

Only a few people beeped and gesticulated to make sure I was under no illusions that I am an idiot. I think I need to construct a sign saying that I am driving in the inside lane of the dual carriageway at 50mph because otherwise I will have a blow-out and that, my friend, is going to slow up your journey even more than the speed I'm currently driving which, by the way, is much more frustrating for me as I have to do it all the way home.

I didn't mind the elongated journey. I was happy to stay in the moment. There is much goodness in the world and it isn't the total bleakness we can trick ourselves into thinking. Ordinary folk, the ones having the ordinary days, are doing extraordinary things. People put up with so much in their lives and keep smiling, keep being kind to others and if we want to feel better about the world, I wonder if we should simply look to those closer to home.

There is madness. I have an enormous dollop of Weltschmerz sitting in my head at the moment, like so many of us. I really do fear that the world may not exist in any recognisable form for even my children's generation, for so many and varied reasons. But I came away thinking that people never really change. People are the constant and people are what might just make it work out in the long run.

That is why that Friday afternoon in Newark Library will be a day to remember for me.

Thank you so much to everybody who came along, to the library for their organisation, to those who spoke and those who listened and those who enthused. It was a day that was. 

Tuesday 29 November 2016

Thinly Disguised Campaign?

Glass Houses isn't a thinly disguised anti-texting while driving campaign – although if it made people think twice before lifting their phone, after doing the research I had to do for Glass Houses, nobody would be happier about that than me.

Where Glass Houses really came from is the subject of a talk I'm doing at Newark Library on Friday 9th December at 2pm and I'd love you to join me. There'll be an opportunity for chat and questions and to buy signed copies of Glass Houses and Tea & Chemo. Refreshments provided, of course!

And I promise the whole event will be a lot more jolly than my introduction might have lead you to believe.

For further information and to register (entrance is free but the library request that you sign up in advance, please) click here: contact details and map

Hope to see you there!

Tuesday 22 November 2016

Great Coffee, A Few Tears...

Thanks so much to everybody who came to Stray's book shop and fantabulous  - it truly is - café in Newark last Saturday. It was magical to see old friends, parents of friends who couldn’t make it, two of my former teachers, new readers and of course, my mum, my brilliant pseudo-agent for The Midlands :) 

Big thanks to Stu, for his photography and event management (i.e. the pub, ahem, the pubs, afterwards). Great night! We sold lots of copies of both Glass Houses and Tea & Chemo and I'm ever grateful to everyone who takes time out of their busy Saturdays to ensure us poor little writers aren't sitting alone with a pile of books as high as my To Be Read pile and a bowl of chocolates we're trying not to eat.

Thanks also to 'Louise's hubbie' who reduced everybody within earshot to tears when we heard that he had, unbeknownst to Louise, come in to buy her a signed copy of Tea & Chemo. Recently diagnosed with cancer, Louise and I have become Twitter buddies and she had wanted to come in herself. Unfortunately, her plans were thwarted by a complication following her mastectomy operation.

Louise thought hubbie was just in Newark to buy Ibuprofen but no, he procured said signed copy, earned himself humongous caring husband points from the doting crowd and probably reduced Louise to tears when he got home, too. I'd like to wish Louise and her husband, and everyone in the same loathsome boat, all the very best as they continue their journey of beating cancer to a pulp. I am with you in spirit, willing you to that finish post.

I hate cancer. I hate that it still exists but, for the moment, it does. So please, check yourselves. It won't stop you getting cancer, but early diagnosis might save your life.

Meanwhile, the lovely Katherine of Bibliomaniac has been busy again and this time she's talking about Tea & Chemo over on her blog. Katherine is masterful at thinking up original questions so I've had fun conjuring up my responses to things I haven't been asked before. You can read the post here.

Thursday 17 November 2016

Jumped Ship

Just popping in to say that I've jumped ship to a different blog today. I'm over on 'BiblioManiac', Katherine Sunderland's wonderful book review site. I'm talking about Glass Houses via some new and exceedingly clever questions such as 'the most difficult character to write' and 'what's the deal with the glass??'

And here's a link to Katherine's review of Glass Houses which brought me to real, big fat tears because this is exactly what I'd hoped people would find in the novel. Thank you so much, Katherine, the review alone must have taken hours.

Meanwhile, I'm still stuck on 6,000+ words of The Tree House (more about this here) but today is the day that I change that. So I shall leave you in the eloquent hands of Katherine and continue tapping away in the very much unfinished world of Evelyn, Joan and Bea. 

Have a wonderful week, whether you're a NaNo writer, or way too sane for that. 

Thursday 10 November 2016

Eating My Words

I'll be honest, I've always scoffed a little about NaNoWriMo, or NaNo.  It isn't the concept, I think that's wonderful, but, well: November. November is my problem with it. November is the month this marathon of daily writing of a mere 1,660 words towards the first 50,000 word draft of your next novel, takes place. November. You mean the November which is the eleventh month of the year, the one before the twelfth, when the clocks have gone back and the fire is crackling, Apprentice is hotting up and the hot pot has left a satisfying lump in your stomach, making it pretty impossible to trudge back up the stairs to the pc on your desk where you've been all day?
Not to work, obviously, for this is November, but to online shop.
I've joked - half joked - forgive me, that the month of November for NaNo was ordained by a bloke or rather, the person who doesn't play Father Christmas and all his little helpers rolled into one and doesn’t organise the turkey and the trimmings, the one who does know where to find the decorations and is prepared to seek out the missing box of favourites, insisting on repairing the children's hand-made primary school baubles from the previous decade so they'll live to fight another year because, well, it's tradition isn't it? Nor is this the one who buys the cards. The cards! Write every day in November, you say? My NaNo might be better spent writing a few cards every night. That way, for the first time in my history, I might finish the whole damn lot before the eve of Christmas Eve.  
But that isn't going to happen this year because this year, when I was diligently researching NaNo for a class, something clicked.
I have spent a glorious few months immersed in everything – almost everything – writing. I've been meeting readers, signing books, doing talks and answering questions. I've been clicking my hourly updated Amazon rating more than once an hour, preparing my classes, teaching my classes, editing and mentoring.
And each time I'm asked about my fiction writing routine, I talk of the routine I used to have.
Because this year, well, I haven't really had a writing routine. I've written blog posts and book reviews and articles. I've even written the odd scene of my new novel: The Tree House, but only that. I certainly haven't had anything remotely resembling a regular commitment. And it hurts. It pains me that I'm living and breathing this novel in my head and yet my word count is so low, even if I can easily justify why. It makes me cringe when I hear myself spout to my classes: Prioritise your writing! You won't remember the bathrooms you've cleaned in a year's time, but you will remember the stories. Now we're being absolutely honest, I'll admit that the bathrooms aren't at their most sparkly either, but you get my point. And it make me sad because like running and singing and having a good laugh, nothing quite releases my endorphins like writing a thousand words.
NaNo's global word count, 9 days in
So, as the scoffing subsided, as I looked more deeply into why NaNo is so successful for so many people and as I heard myself say to somebody else, What's the worst that can happen? You don’t write 50,000 words but you write 30,000 or 20,000, it's still a whole heap more than you might have written - I found myself directing the question at me.
What's the worst that could happen? 
You know, 5,000 words would be an achievement for me at the moment.
So I did it. I registered. I have a password. I can log my word count and watch the global NaNo total word count increase, as well as the millions of words clocking up in Yorkshire alone. It is, even from this reformed cynic, quite impressive and hugely compulsive.
I won't It's unlikely I'll reach 50,000 words, not now that sleep has prioritised its time-consuming self in my life, darn it, just when I needed a few of those early hours in my pocket. I didn’t even write any words on the 1st November, nor the four days thereafter. Not until Saturday night did I tap a single key of fiction. We were home from the fireworks. Hubbie was filling pieces of rotten greenhouse with wood hardener and I was catching up on emails (Saturday night? I'm wild, I know). The daughters were somewhere more exciting and I thought: This is NaNo. This is what it's all about. This is why we need NaNo in November. If we can write 50,000 words in this month, how easy will it be to continue the habit in December, complete with its extra little holiday? And how about January with its lack of distractions when people are staying in to tighten their belts or abstain from alcohol? If we have half, or even a quarter, of a first draft of a novel written before the first door of the Advent calendar is opened, just where will that novel be by Easter?
I didn't walk up the stairs, I ran. Two at a time.
They weren't all new words. Some I'd scribbled in a notebook months ago and they needed typing and prettying up. But all in all, by midnight, I had 6,740 words on screen which hadn't been there before.
6,740! NaNo, I take it all back. November is a glorious month to put writing your own material back up your priority list. Because the only way to write a novel is to squeeze it in, however hard that can sometimes be. I know that, I just forgot for a while.
So, please forgive me the lack of sparkling taps or Christmas cards any time before New Year's Eve. Let's have a toast in December instead to the maddest of ideas, sometimes turning out to be the best.

Stray's Book Shop, Newark
Meanwhile, back to Glass Houses and Tea & Chemo and I will be signing both in Stray's fabulous Book Shop and Coffee Bar in Newark this Saturday, 12 November, from 10.30am. Please come and say hello if you're remotely close. I hear there's live jazz to follow and can vouch for marvellous cakes and scrummy scones. More information here.

Bakewell Book Shop, Matlock
I'm also taking part in an Author's Evening from 7pm on Monday 14th November at the Bakewell Book Shop which, you may recall, I fell in love with a couple of months ago. I'll be joining fellow writers, Charles Heathcote, Rod Shiers and Gareth Ashton for short talks and general book chat and signing. I hear there are hot drinks, wine and cakes, of course. Tickets are £3.50, more information here.  

Saturday 29 October 2016

Home is Where the Pin is

When I was posting an event on Facebook earlier for my latest Glass Houses signing in Newark, and when I was so excited to see lots of familiar faces from my past and present showing their interest, I remembered a story-cum-memoir about my move to Newark in the late 70s. 

Much-loved Newark Market Place
I remembered the account as being quite an amusing tale. However, re-reading it now, I found it quite emotional. This wasn't just about the plunge back into those first few terrifying weeks of life for a ten year old in a new town, although the memories did make me gulp a little, nor was it much to do with the throwback to the 'sandshoes' incident which will always make me cringe. It was the reminder of the friends I'd made and how much had happened before I left Newark eight years later, which made me sniff a little.   

Suffice it to say, I am ridiculously excited about going back to Newark for a book signing at Stray's Bookshop and Coffee Bar on Saturday 12 November. Local folk, or if you just fancy a day out in Newark ("Yes, it's on the train line to London."), I would love you to come and say hello. As you may have noticed, wherever I sign a book, I'm never far from a quality, often quirky, bookshop café and Stray's is no exception. More details here

I hope you enjoy the beginning of Home is Where the Pin is. Click on the link to my website at the end of the extract if you'd like to know what happened to Poe (name changed to protect his identity :)

“Sandshoes,” I said. That was all it took. Would we need our sandshoes for the PE lesson in the hall with the piano, stage and non-sport related paraphernalia pushed to the side? I’d come from a middle school, you see. We had timetables and different teachers. And French. And we certainly didn’t have a hall-cum-theatre. Oh no! We had a gym. In our gym we wore sandshoes, unless we were doing gymnastics and then we had bare feet.
It seemed a safe question to me in this terrifying place that was Farndon Primary School, where, if people did understand what I was saying, they certainly weren’t letting on.
“Say it again without the ‘man’ in it,” one eleven year old ordered.
“It’s not ‘why aye’,” said another with more of a snarl, “it’s ‘yes’, just ‘yes’, you ‘dimler’.” This was Poe. He had white hair and tight blue eyes, thin lips which never really moved, even when he spoke, just rested on the slim gap between them. From that moment on, Poe ruled that I would be known as ‘Y Eye’.
Did we need to wear our sandshoes in the hall? Get it wrong and the laughter would start all over again. Had I realised that my question would be the cause of such mirth, pre-pubescent children writhing around in hysterics like the Martians in the Smash advert, I would have simply waited until the last minute, risked a telling off from Miss - considerably preferable to the ridicule of my peers - and taken my lead from others in the group.
I was only a day into my eight weeks with a class of children a year older than me; the only room in June to be found at the inn at this late stage in the season. My antenna for derision-inducing-dialect was becoming more proficient but it was still an imperfect model: more of an Apple 1 computer than a MacBook Pro.
“Ignore them,” Sarah said, a lone voice in the cacophony of references to deserts, sweaty feet, beach towels and deck chairs. She was my buddy, assigned to look after me, and she rose to the challenge as best her eleven year old self could.
“Enough!” Miss said, “Goodness, not everybody’s from Farndon!” No, they weren’t but I wasn’t sure my classmates needed any reminding.
I don’t remember whether we did or didn’t need sandshoes that day but I can vouch for a ‘sandshoe’ being a ‘plimsoll’ ever since.../cont'd here 

Wednesday 12 October 2016

Onward Travel

This Saturday I'll be in Cardiff, a city very close to my heart for many and varied reasons.

Half my family are from South Wales and annual trips for the two week summer holiday from Wylam, our bijoux village in Northumberland, to Bridgend to stay with my tiny, pepper pie making, story-telling grandma and our slightly terrifying but softly spoken, one sweet-a-day-from-the-tin giving grandpa, are a staple memory of my youth.

I remember weather watching after the 6 o'clock news – no Apps back then - to find the best day for our visit to Swansea beach or our essential trip to the local cinema on inclement days. From Wylam, you had to travel to Newcastle to see a film and so we never did, which meant our holiday visits were a Big Deal. Then there were the trips to Auntie E and Uncle E who doted and fussed and plied our enormous family with the best-ever filled sandwiches and if we were lucky, let us print photos in the dark room. If we were really lucky, we were allowed to stay the night and marvel at our equally doting and very grown up twin cousins who got up at 6am to set their hair in rollers before going to work.

I'm sure they were delighted to have the very young me around at that time as they made their preparations to leave.

But my strongest memory of them all is spending most of our days on the glorious foot high wall which edged our grandparents' front garden. It seemed enormous at the time and it was only in later years that I realised the garden, although pristinely kept, was little bigger than the footprint of the house. The wall, with its slightly curved hard stone top, provided the perfect beam for my three gymnastics-mad sisters and me to choreograph and 'perfect' our routines, ready for the shows for interested adults at the end of the day.  

But Cardiff? Well, my older sister went to university in Cardiff and thus I was afforded my first real taste of freedom at sweet sixteen. Mind you, as well as the 'hanging out' with incredibly cool students (they were three years older and, at 16, you don't get much cooler than that, do you?) etched in my brain are also the memories of Birmingham Bus Station.

Oh my!

I had to travel from Newark via Nottingham and change at Birmingham for onward travel to the final change in Bristol before reaching my destination, surprisingly only five hours later.

How I ever managed the logistical feat of boarding a bus in Birmingham remains a mystery.

There was a 'unique' system where people were ejected from their first coach into an area the size of a school playground which was already screaming at the edges before the coach crawled in. The flock of onward travelling passengers were then left to fend for themselves. No chance of a cup of tea in a white plastic cup, even if I could have afforded it, picture being centre of the Mosh Pit when Wham! were playing and you'll know why keeping a firm footing was my first concern.  

My second concern was 'The Announcement'. Would I hear it? Even back then my hearing wasn't my best asset and add to the mob of people the crackling loud speaker, and deciphering the instruction, 'Bristol bound, Zone E' was every bit as stressful as the anticipation of O-levels. Even back then, deep in the middle of the Eighties, five foot one and three quarters was pretty tiny and never did I feel smaller: invisible. And younger. My memory of the view of the others in the crush to catch the coach was grey with a purple tinge - and just because these people were four times my age, doesn’t mean they couldn't bustle and jostle with the rest of them.

Birmingham Coach Station, 2009,
after its £15m refurbishment
Once the coach had pulled into its allotted zone, and the hopeful passengers had lolloped and sprinted and hurdled their way to the awaiting coach, there was one more obstacle to onward travel. The seats were a free-for-all and I'd miss an average of three coaches before finally snagging a place on each journey. In addition to my size and youth, I blame my Mum for teaching me to queue. I do remember feeling very Mary Whitehouse about the rudeness of it all.

Still, my ticket cost about 3p so mustn't grumble.

Once there of course, hanging out with my very mature and all-knowing big sis who just wanted me to have 'the best time', I fell in love with Cardiff: the city nightlife, the university union, the castle, the sport, the shops. All this so close to your student digs? Life couldn’t get better than this. In fact, I'd have considered it as a university option if it hadn't been 'my sister's city'. No matter, she lived there for many years after and I've been visiting the city ever since.

And why am I travelling to Cardiff this time? I'm privileged to have been appointed Writer in Residence at Octavo's in West Bute Street where you will find me between 11 and 4pm on Saturday 15th October. I'll be signing books, hosting a Q & A at 1pm and basically being in a gorgeous book shop in Cardiff, so, please do come visit if you're remotely local. You'll receive a warm welcome from me and the super friendly staff, the beautiful book shop is bursting with new reads, advice and well, cakes... 

...and lunch!
The idea is that if you don’t turn up, I sit, surrounded by books and a stone's throw from their pretty gorgeous looking café, and write. I admit that on a normal day this would be absolutely no hardship to me, however, this Saturday is different. I love, love, love to meet readers (and potential readers) of Glass Houses and Tea & Chemo – actually, it's just nice to chat with any fellow readers, in fact, just chatting generally is right up there with cafes and Prosecco and a run in the hills for me. 

Oh, and as well as a Book Café, Octavo's is also a wine bar.

See you in Cardiff, I hope!
Apologies - too busy
  to take photos, really!

Thanks so much to everyone who came to Waterstones in Harrogate last Saturday. There was a wonderful buzzy atmosphere, lovely to see happy faces old and new and… we sold every last copy of Glass Houses :)

Saturday 1 October 2016

Glass Houses: Harrogate Waterstones

On Saturday 8th October, 1-3pm, I'll be signing copies of Glass Houses at Waterstones in Harrogate and it would be lovely to see you there.

The event is part of the nationwide Waterstones Bookshop Day with quizzes and prize draws taking place around the store, not to mention the opportunity to try out the new Harrogate Waterstones café. Being somewhat of an Aficionado of Harrogate coffee shops, and purely for research purposes obviously, I have had a couple trips to the extensive café on the first floor where I secured one of the window seats over-looking the high street and the special offer cappuccino with toasted teacake. I can vouch for it being a quality experience, suitable for chatting or writing, and you know, surprisingly reasonable.

Apart from the relief of seeing friendly faces so that I don’t look like the girl who wandered into the store and fancied a sit down, it would be wonderful if we could fill the shop and really celebrate the traditional bookshop. It isn't that I'm averse to on-line sales or eBook reading. It's simply that I'd like both formats to travel hand in hand into the next few years so that those who want to browse in book shops, seek recommendations, read the blurb, flick to the middle pages and carry the book home in a cute little (environmentally friendly) paper bag, will still have the opportunity to do so. 

For further details, click here.

Hope to see you on Saturday – please come and say hello!

Monday 26 September 2016

The Perfect Storm

It was rare to hear of anybody doing it back then. A good eight years ago, when I first had the idea for Glass Houses, texting at the wheel was not a big issue. We were only just starting to believe that holding the phone to our ear was a bad idea. The law against that came about in December 2003 but, according to The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), it wasn't until an increase in the fine from £30 to £100, as well as a fixed 3 point penalty, was made law in 2007 that the punishment was viewed as any sort of deterrent.

I had already stopped at that point but only because I'd had a chastening experience at a roundabout on my way to work. There I was, posh dress on, mother of two young children, in her battered-but-reliable 'R reg' VW Polo, looking every bit the driver the old insurance schemes were allowed to back as a safe bet. I'm ashamed to think that I was probably sorting out some tea date for my little ones, booking a hair appointment, talking to my mum… anyway, the bit I do remember is that the phone was in my hand when a man cloaked in black leather on an over-revving motorbike passed me in the outside lane, his finger tapping the side of his head as if to say: Think about it. Oh the glorious juxtaposition of the stereotype.

It worked though. I realised that I hadn't known the motorbike rider was there until he started gesticulating and that was the last time I held the phone to my ear. Having gone on to consider and research the awful consequences of similar anti-social behaviour whilst driving for Glass Houses,  it haunts me to think that it could have been me who'd changed everybody's life, including my own, for the sake of a conversation I can't even remember today.

When those first words of Glass Houses went down on paper however, the sending of the text which causes the accident and Tori Williams' overnight transformation into Public Enemy Number One, was what I would call a 'plot tool'. I needed to find an action which most readers would find abhorrent, only to reflect and concede that they had done similar thoughtless things themselves. I wanted to explore the, 'perfect storm', that instant when a moment of recklessness takes on a much more sinister turn. I wanted to ask the question that if we're lucky enough to avoid the perfect storm, are we any less guilty?
What I didn’t envisage when I was writing that first draft was that texting and other messaging at the wheel would become so wide-spread.

It took me eighteen months to write the first draft of Glass Houses and years and years of re-writing and editing to get it into book form. During this time texting at the wheel has become much more common.  And the terrible consequences have, inevitably, increased in number. What I hadn't expected was that around the time of the launch of Glass Houses there would be a surge of public feeling against messaging whilst driving, so much so that the Daily Mail, citing the RAC's talk of an 'epidemic'' of drivers messaging and checking social media at the wheel, pushed for parliament to change the laws. They listened, last week announcing plans for the doubling of points to six and the fine to £200 for use of a hand-held phone in the car. More about this, here. 

Of course, those are the punishments for committing the offence. Cause an accident whilst messaging and the penalties become irrelevant, as told so poignantly and eloquently, here in the Summer Break Campaign. 

So why am I writing this? Glass Houses never set out as an instrument to deter people from texting at the wheel, but if one of the knock-on effects of reading the book achieves that, then nobody would be happier about that than me. Readers are constantly sending me clips of campaigning stories and videos, all hard-hitting, difficult to watch and with powerful messages. Thanks to Chris Swiffen for this one, particularly devastating when you see the picture the messenger had posted on Facebook, moments before she killed herself at the wheel. 

I hope my children are watching these clips and will take it seriously when I say they have to put their phone in the back of the car when they drive.  I hope their friends are, and their friends of friends. But, although I agree that targeting teens before they start driving has to be an effective start point, it isn't just teens. Our generation and beyond, well, we get complacent behind the wheel, don't we? Teens aren't the only ones who think that there can ever be a phone call which is important enough to make whilst driving.

We need to have a change of culture in much the same way as the Clunk Click campaign of the Seventies made it normal to fasten our seatbelts. I think it's started already and I want to help spread the message. I always think in life that there are some people who'd never do something, others who will do it whatever you tell them and then there's a whole malleable group in the middle who could be persuaded either way. I think this current swell against hand-held phones whilst driving has the power to positively influence a significant amount of people in the malleable middle.

I've read enough to support the message that there is never a reason important enough to text from the wheel. If I can help promote this via my blog and through supporting campaigns such as Summer Break's, not to mention, through the reading of Glass Houses, well, I'd feel a little better about when the man on the motorbike caught me offending. 

Thursday 22 September 2016

Whoops. My bad...

The moral of this sorry tale comes at the end. But feel free to skim read until you get there: you simply need to know that I was ranting about big brother on my back and the injustice of rejected reviews...

'I'm writing to you as the author of two books listed on Amazon: Tea & Chemo and Glass Houses. Both are published by a small but increasingly successful, and certainly ethical, independent publisher, Urbane Publications. I'm happy to say that both books seem to be well-received and are gaining good reviews.

You will not need me to tell you that we live in a world where reviews are vital if we want to sell books. All writers these days, whether published by one of the traditional presses, an independent publisher or are self-published, have to promote their books. They have to find innovative ways of getting their writing into the public eye, need to work with the media, social media, blog, have a web site, do talks, signings, appear at book group meetings and generally make as much noise as possible about their book. I am no different. What I don't do however, is coerce people into reviewing. I don’t find a way of putting up bogus reviews or, god forbid, pay for reviews. I've never understood cheating – not because I'm a saint, but because I can't see where the glory is in gaining top place when it's not deserved.

As with many authors. I have no expectation of making huge amounts of money through book sales. I'm in the wrong career if money is my driver. But I want to tell stories. I want to entertain. I want people who read my books to think that their £8.99 is money well-spent. I want somebody to read my book and recommend it to others because it's had a great effect on their day/ week/ life… But I can't make that up. I have to write, get my book out there and hope that it's well received.

With that background, I hope you will understand why I was particularly upset to hear from somebody I've known for years as we live in the same village, even though our paths don't cross frequently. She wrote to say that a review she'd written, as well as one her equally enthusiastic son had written, had been rejected by Amazon. She was disappointed because she'd devoured Glass Houses, wanted to spread the word and had spent time writing a positive review. When the original review never appeared, she tried to re-post it but received an automated reply to explain that the original, 'did not comply with our customer service guidelines. Amazon does not permit reviews from customers whose relationship to the product or seller may be perceived as biased.'

I'm upset on many counts. And what I find particularly galling is the injustice. I have never asked a friend/ acquaintance/ family member/ neighbour… to put up a bogus review to increase numbers. I bring you back to the above – if it isn't genuine, I'm not interested.

I'm also baffled by the 'connection' that has flagged up a problem with this particular review. Is it because the reviewer also reviewed Tea & Chemo? Readers of Tea & Chemo have gone on to read Glass Houses. Personally, I've posted reviews on several books from authors I like – that's normal, isn't it?

Yes, I know this lady, yes I think she's great, but there are other people who've reviewed my book, whose reviews have been posted, whom I know better. Is it because the first part of our postcode is the same (everyone in our village shares the first portion of the postcode) and if so, does that mean that my neighbours aren't allowed to review? I bring you back to my point about the necessary promotion for all writers, as well as the desire for happy readers. My publisher and I held a launch at my local pub for Glass Houses in which we sold over eighty books. Of course, the idea is that those eighty books will be well-read and enthusiastically recommended to another eighty readers and so on. But it's totally normally that those first sales start close to home. These people should still be allowed to review. And trust me, I am not feeding them the lines if they do.

Furthermore, I'm troubled that there may be other instances of genuine reviews of the book in question, Glass Houses, and also my first book, Tea & Chemo, being automatically rejected without my knowing.

In summary, I'm upset that this review hasn't been posted because it was genuine. I don't like the implication of involvement in bogus reviews. And, with reviewing being such a big part of the promotion business, I hope my books won't slip into reviewer-oblivion on Amazon because the machine has decided that reviews on my novel aren't 'kosher'.
I'd therefore like to ask for:
1. The original review to be reinstated
2. A check for any other rejected reviews on either Tea & Chemo or Glass Houses, allowing me to respond
3. An assurance that this won't be allowed to have any negative effect on my author account regarding future reviews and my Amazon ranking
4. Some explanation as to why this happened.'

OK, still here? Thank you.

Here's an abbreviated version of what happened next: a reply from Amazon said that they couldn't liaise directly with me on the nature of the rejection of the review but they included a handy link  with detail on reasons for rejection. Huffing and puffing, I clicked the link. Pah! Yet more of my precious time spent - do they know how busy I am??


Amazon, it writes, first on the list and bold for all to see, does not allow multiple reviews for one product from the same household. And you know what, much as I wish the reviewer was allowed the opportunity to delete one of the reviews and thus one review from her household would survive, I do concur. It could get out of hand, couldn't it? In our house alone we must have ten email addresses between us; reviews could soon become meaningless.

And so, the moral of this tale is as follows:
1. Do not jump to conclusions and spend your Sunday morning writing a cross response before you have appraised yourself of the facts
2. Big Brother is not yet as powerful as we might fear in our paranoid dreams: Amazon is not yet able to name your friends simply from their ip address (but it's coming, I'm sure…)
3. However much your partner, your six children, dog, cat and two guinea pigs are impressed by the packaging of the second hand copy of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the smelly poop bags, or the self-cleaning toilet (I made that one up, nice idea though, eh?) don't, I repeat, don't be tempted to leave more than one review of its brilliance.

PS Next event for your diary: Waterstones Book Shop Party from 1pm on Saturday 8th October, Harrogate. Very excited about this! More details to come.