Thursday 21 December 2017

First Drafts and Happy Endings

In view of the final Christmas cards not writing themselves, the snow peaked Christmas cake still looking distinctly like a fruit cake and Father Christmas struggling to get everything wrapped without its little helper, this will be my last post of 2017.

But, after an 'eventful' year, I thought this would be a good moment to announce that by hook or by crook, I have reached my deadline and penned the final word of a very sloppy, for my eyes only, first draft of my second novel. In January that was looking as likely as crispy, frosty days lasting until Christmas. In February I had a few words behind me but when I went running in March and decided I wasn't writing the story I wanted to write, I hot-footed it home, shoved the draft in the back of the drawer and reset my word counter to nought. News of secondary cancer stole my mojo for a few weeks in the spring and in the summer, I was spending a little too much time travelling around the country talking books (and loving it) – not to mention going on holiday – and not quite enough time in my study. Thankfully, in August, the wonderful guests at a talk at the Feva Festival in Knaresborough, made me realise things had to change, and that's when I discovered Prolifiko. It helped me re-discover my Writing Habit and now I write every day because I'm too scared to lose it again. Thank you Fear, you have been, and continue to be, incredibly helpful.

I also end the year with my health in a very stable position, beaten back by the brilliance of modern medicine. And that was the stuff of dreams back in March when I received that phone call from the doctor. As Christmas presents go, and please don't misunderstand me, I appreciate them all, this one is the best.

I am so very, very grateful as I know only too well, that this is not the same for everyone. I send my love and best wishes to those who have lost loved ones, and for whom Christmas will be particularly difficult.

Thanks so much for visiting my blog posts in 2017 and for all the heart-warming and amusing messages you write in response here and over on Facebook and Twitter. They always make me smile 😊  I wish you all a wonderful Christmas and a 2018 full of love, happiness and loads of extra time for reading.

Tuesday 19 December 2017

Just Treatment

After a bit of a turnaround, I've found myself getting involved with an exciting and growing organisation, Just Treatment, who are challenging large pharmaceuticals to lower the cost of maintenance and life-saving treatments so that they are affordable to the NHS. I'm not one to rush in, keen to research whether there's another side to the story and here, I thought the flip side of lowering prices would be that there would be no innovation in the future because the big pharmaceuticals wouldn't be able to fund it. 

Phew, I was wrong, very wrong. 

Every single one of us would benefit directly, or indirectly, if the large pharmaceuticals lowered their prices. And here's the thing: they'd still stay in business, they'd still make a tidy profit, they'd still research and invest. I think that from small acorns great oaks can grow and this initiative may not only prolong and save lives on an individual level, but also save vital funds for the NHS for all of us. Intrigued? Find out more here. And here's a link to my story. 

Monday 11 December 2017

Funny Old World

It was a sunny Saturday in June and off I went to the hospital for my scan. It was my first scan post-secondary diagnosis and although this time I knew the drill, you won't need me to tell you that these things are never entirely without emotion. It's hard to have a scan and not think about what they are looking at on the other side of the window, alongside that out-of-body experience when you still can't quite believe it's you lying there under the scanner.

Once there though, we were soon talking books and quickly it was as if I'd merely popped (I say 'pop', it's a short train ride and a fast twenty minute scuttle to the hospital) in for a coffee.

Our ex-colleague has written a book, one radiographer says. And she's left us, gone to open up a book shop in Harrogate, says the other.

Not Imagined Things? Not the independent book shop I'd read about in the Bookseller and actually whooped out loud at the news on the train? Not Harrogate's first independent book shop since, I don't know, Emily Bronte signed copies of Wuthering Heights? (I made that up. But she might have done, Haworth would have only been a short horse and cart ride away). Yes, that book shop.

Next thing I know, I've exchanged my hospital gown for her contact details and I step out of my comfort zone to email the owner.  Little do I know that I will be signing copies of my books at the shop's buzzing launch during the week of Harrogate's prestigious Crime Fest in July (with star attraction, the fabulous, Tammy Cohen who was launching the breathtakingly good, They All Fall Down, which I reviewed here).

Funny old world.

Imagined Things, owned by Georgia Duffy, is a gorgeous bookshop at the top of the quaint, Westminster Arcade in Harrogate – yep, very close to Betty's 😊. It's packed with quirky, heavily reading and writing related gifts as well as a great mix of new titles, local authors and beloved favourites of adults and children. Lots of artistically hand-written opinions and summaries accompany books and you can always consult with Georgia - I have yet to find a book in her shop she hasn't read herself. If you can't find your chosen title in store, it can be ordered for next day delivery so you get the whole bookshop experience with the speed of online.

Although it all sounds very exciting to us die-hard traditionalists who dream of physical books shops which don't tap you on the shoulder every time you pick up a paperback to ask whether you wouldn’t prefer to read it for free on Kindle (don't get me started), I wondered what it was really like to be the owner of a bookshop in this paradoxically buoyant but difficult age of publishing. And so I spoke to Georgia about the good – and the bad – which you can read, here.

Oh, and there's a 10% discount for all my blog readers off any book in the shop before Christmas. More here.

Independence at Imagined Things

Ever wondered what it would be like to own your own bookshop? I imagine it would be like my childhood dream of owning a sweetshop where you just sit and taste all day, but that the reality is a little more like hard work. I spoke with Georgia Duffy, owner of Harrogate's new and very gorgeous independent book shop, Imagined Things, and author of Futurespan, who gives a fascinating insight into her move to 'independence'. 

Georgia's also kindly offering a 10% discount off books in her store, exclusive to readers of this blog - see the end of this post for more information.

You've taken quite an unusual route to owning a book shop in Harrogate, could you tell us about it?
Well, instead of doing an English Degree which I very nearly did, I ended up doing a degree in Diagnostic Radiography. I had always loved English and science, but after wondering what I would do with an English degree and discovering that medical careers weren't limited to doctors and nurses, I became a radiographer instead. I really enjoyed the training, and the job, for a short while, but ultimately it wasn't suited to me long-term. I considered all sorts of careers (physicist, chiropractor, NHS Manager) until I finally realised I would only be happy working for myself. I considered lots of other businesses until the idea of the bookshop just kind of metaphorically hit me on the head one day, and I couldn't believe I hadn't thought of it sooner! 
What was the push which made you leave your hospital job? 
After nearly 6 years of being a radiographer, and 5 of them knowing I didn't want to keep being one forever, I was very ready to leave. I think I just reached that point where I thought if you don't do something now there's a chance you won't. Life was only going to get more complicated, and there is never really a good time for such a huge change. It was my partner, Karl who gave me the push really, saying to do it now. I didn't agree with him at first but then I realised he was right, and we found the shop, and just went for it. 
Are you enjoying it so far? What's the best thing about owning your own book shop…? 
Yes, it's lovely working amongst all the books, and it's like Christmas every day when the new books arrive. It's great to interact with the customers and talk about books, as well as getting to know regular customers. I think the best thing is that I'm reading more than I ever have, and that reading is now part of my job! 
 …and what's the worst? 
It is scary starting your own business from scratch. It takes a long time to get established so I think the start is always going to be a bit scary, and by the nature of retail it is very up and down. On the days you barely see a customer it is especially worrying, but then on other days you see more than you were expecting, so it usually evens out. Dealing with damaged books is also a big issue. It seems to be a common problem in the book industry, but it is very frustrating when you have ordered a specific amount of books and a lot of them come damaged. I really wasn't expecting that. 
I'm sure it's difficult competing against giants in the books business such as Waterstones and Amazon - what can you offer customers that the others can't?
The shop isn't run on an algorithm or filled with the latest celebrity/mainstream titles. It is a real mixture, with lots of different books that aren't seen everywhere. As well as that, it's also evolving. If my customers ask for more of certain types of books, I'll get them. If they ask for a hard-to-find book, I'll find it. I can order anything too, usually for the next day, so if a customer is after something in particular and I don't have it, I can get it quickly. I'll be able to take Christmas orders until the 22nd of December (though preferably, order earlier as popular titles may well be out of stock by then!) and a certain well-known chain bookshop usually stops taking orders from the 12th. I can also give personalised service and recommendations and suggest new things to regular customers too. 

Does your experience as a radiographer help you to run your business?
I think it has helped me run the business. I laugh when other people in the industry say that me working six days a week is a lot, because it doesn't feel like a lot. I tell them that it's child's play compared to working in the NHS. I mean of course it does come with its own challenges and pressures (like the impending Christmas season!) but there are no nightshifts, or 10 hour shifts, or 15 hour night shifts. There's no getting called in at 2am, and nobody, thankfully, is dying. So as much as I care deeply about the bookshop and giving the customers the best service possible, the stakes are really not as high. I make a mistake in the bookshop it doesn't have the same kind of consequences. Also my IT skills from operating the CT scanner and hospital systems have served me well in learning my stock control system. And I have experience with many different kinds of people from radiography - but it is a different interaction in the shop so it has taken a bit of adjustment!

And does your experience as a radiographer influence your own fiction writing?
It definitely influences my fiction writing. In Futurespan there is a scene in A&E and one of the main characters is training to be a doctor. In one of my works in progress, it's a story that has, in part, been in my head for over ten years. It's about a kind of dream world that has been infected and is now more of a nightmare, and parts of it are seeping through into our world. Trouble is most people can't see that, or do anything about it - except the main character who is slowly being driven mad by her visions. I had a gap in the story which was what the main character did in her everyday life, and last year I realised it would be perfect if she was a radiographer!

Futurespan is your first novel, can you tell us about it?
Futurespan was published last year. It is a fantasy novel, but really it is very character driven and has been enjoyed by those who usually stay clear of fantasy. Several characters are trapped in the strange world of Futurespan where they find doors to their pasts and futures, which give them the opportunity to realise things about their life. It is very much about where life leads us and how seemingly small decisions can change our life irreparably. I'm working on a kind of sequel to it at the moment, but it is much more complicated than Futurespan (which took me two years), so it may be a while!

Do you get more or less time to write these days?
Less. Definitely less. I naively thought that when the shop was quiet, perhaps I could write - but there's always something to do: accounts; ordering; pricing; looking at new books to order; reading books; customer orders; planning; advertising; social media... the list goes on! Maybe in January...!

What advice would you give to someone thinking of opening up their own book shopHmm, well most advice you read nowadays basically says: don't! And some of that advice makes some very compelling points - it is not easy. There is lots of competition from big companies selling books for much less than they should be. There are supermarkets who don't even care if they make a profit on the book as long as it provides another reason for people to go there. There's more competition for people's free time generally - Netflix, games, social media etc. Even the publishers, many of them, don't do as much as they could to help independent bookshops. So it is rather an uphill struggle. But if you have the passion (I mean real, deep, the thing you love the most, the world might as well just end if we didn't have stories, kind of passion - not just the 'I like books' kind), and determination (tonnes of it) and are willing to work very, very hard (evenings, weekends, when you should be sleeping) and think that books and stories are one of the most important things about us being human, oh, and if you are willing to take a huge leap of faith, then look into it, properly. Visit other bookshops, check this is something you want to do, even something you feel you're meant to do. And if so... then go for it. The more independent bookshops we have, the better, since we've haemorrhaged over 600 in the last 11 years. The country needs more indies, as long as you go into it with your eyes open and know what you're getting yourself into, it is the most amazing job! 
Imagined Things, 4 Westminster Arcade,
Tel: 01423 391301
Do you have any events lined up over the next few months?
Yes! After Christmas we're planning to have more signings in the shop with local authors, including a book launch for the 6th book in the DCI Bennett series which is set in Harrogate. We're looking at writers' workshops and other writerly events, so watch this space! We'll have details of all our events on our Facebook page and on posters in the shop.

Thanks so much to Georgia for her brilliant answers, not forgetting for setting up Harrogate's only independent book shop in the first place!

So, would you like a 10% discount off any
book in the shop on or before the Christmas closure? Just tell Georgia I sent you πŸ˜‰

Sunday 5 November 2017

Store Dedicated to Cancer

Talk about London buses… I'm back again.  

Well, talk about London buses because I'm going to be down south next week at the launch of the UK's first retail store dedicated to people living with cancer, and their loved ones. It's the brainchild of Live Better With in collaboration with Browns and is based at Guy's Hospital Cancer Centre, London Bridge.

Honoured, is the only way I can describe being asked to attend the launch where I'll be reading from Tea & Chemo (any help choosing which chapter, gratefully received), participating in a Q&A together with Lucy O'Donnell, author of Cancer is My teacher, and signing copies of Tea &Chemo which will be available in store as well as from Live Better With online. 

And you're all invited! Please come and say hello, and bring some pennies because the shop looks gorgeous and there's nothing those clever people at Live Better With haven't thought of 😊

The store is now open Monday to Friday between 9 and 4pm and the official launch takes place between 11.30 and 1.30pm on Wednesday 8 November. Click here for more info. 

Tuesday 31 October 2017

The Madness of Twins

I have two little sisters. They're not 'little' as such. They're 40-something and not even shorter than me – only my mum is shorter than me – but they are younger, so they shall be forever little to me. Anyway, they are also twins which makes them slightly bonkers. It always has done, and I've always found it fascinating. Even though they're grown and have families of their own now, the 'twinniness', as our older sister first coined it, hasn't let up.

They have this psychic thing. Granted, they shared a womb and a bedroom their entire childhood, some of the same teachers and of course, many of the same friends, so they're bound to be in tune.  And they look the same. Exactly the same. Having someone who shares every one of your features has got to bond you to them, right there, hasn't it?

But it's more than that.

They have had those weird unexplainable shared moments and shared pain, such as when one had a medical emergency in Italy and the other felt it in Wales, pre- mobiles, pre- even entertaining the idea of calling from abroad because it was way too expensive. They've bought the same clothes without realising and yet, somewhat surprisingly, they don't have the same taste.

The previous episode to make me gasp before this morning's, just-too-weird moment, was on the day of the launch party for Glass Houses. One was coming up to Yorkshire from the South of England and the other from South Wales. Both aimed to arrive 'around mid-afternoon'. Neither of them has tendencies to lateness – ahem, that's just me – but one is much more punctual than the other. The less punctual one rang the second, hands-free, to ask how she was getting on. Struggling! She was going to stop at the next services. How funny, says the first. It was exactly what she was thinking and she was only two miles away from being able to stop. Me, too! says the second. And they laughed at sharing yet another nugget of 'twinniness'.

Now, bear in mind that both sisters would join the M1 eventually but neither until the second part of their journeys and they hadn't discussed what time they'd leave their respective homes nor their ETA at my house. So when one says, Hang on a minute, isn't your registration '*$!"?~%'?, she wasn't expecting to see her (identical looking) sister at the wheel of the car immediately in front, now glancing in her rear view mirror as both stop talking and gasp because they are one behind the other, at the exact same time, on the exact same section of motorway, both craving a drink (and they're not like me, the kettle back on, the moment the previous cup of tea is gone) having set off from homes over 100 miles from each other. Well, that blew my mind.

But this, this is even better than that.

Today I get two pieces of post. One from each sister. They are lovely and I can happily report that all four of us sisters are very close, but we don’t send each other post every week. It's high days and holidays at most, so that in itself made me smile.

On closer examination, I see that one sister was rushing or multi-tasking when she addressed the envelope because it contained only my house number, street and the name of our tiny village. No town or postcode, let alone county. Consequently, the letter, a thank you for a present given in September, had taken a while to get to us. Although I must say, well done to the super sleuths of the Post Office and thank them for their determination as the letter had been to two other counties first.

Next comes the other sister's mail which is a Christmas card. This wasn't just any old Christmas card however, this had flashing lights and a picture frame type stand, because we both LOVE a bit of Christmas bling. We all send each other Christmas cards, and granted, of our entire family, barring perhaps one auntie, my Christmas cards are always the last to arrive, but still, I have never, ever in my 49 years on this wonderful planet, known any member of my super-sized family to send a Christmas card in October.

Something, some external force, and what I can only label as extreme 'twinniness' decided that this year, on that day, my sister was going to send me a Christmas card before Halloween and that card would arrive on the same day as a letter which had taken a very circuitous route to get to me.

This is the madness of twins.

And I think this is why a twin has crept into the first draft of my latest novel. This twin arrived unannounced and bears no resemblance to either twin in looks or temperament. And (s)he – no clues – may not survive the first edit cull, but for now, (s)he's amusing me. 

So, are you a twin? Do you have twins in your lives? Please do share your stories - I do love a good 'twin' story😊

Thursday 26 October 2017

Spotlight Award for Tea & Chemo

If you held my hand when I had cancer, showed me it wasn't all bad -
If you sent me a message because you'd read a blog post and it had helped -
If you shared my posts, commented on Facebook, retweeted or liked -
If you told me I should have my blog posts published in a book…
… and said it again when I laughed.
If you are reading this now - 

Thank you!

Because of you I put on my big girl pants, thrust back my shoulders and submitted the idea for a book: It's Not All Bad, to Urbane Publications. And there we were, two days later, the husband and I, a year after my diagnosis and travelling to a cottage in North Yorkshire for a cheeky weekend away, when an email arrived from Matthew Smith, Publishing Director.  

He liked the idea, actually, he said, 'love'. He 'loved the idea'; I nearly smashed the windscreen with my squeal. 

And so it was that Tea & Chemo was born.

Without you all, the book would still be a figment of my imagination. And yet, here I am, very chuffed and rather stunned to learn that Tea & Chemo is the winner of the Live Better With's inaugural Spotlight Award for Best Cancer Book.

Please join me - the cyber bubbles are most definitely on me!

Monday 23 October 2017

Don't tell me…

There's something you'd be wise not to say to me. I can bite my tongue if necessary, but would struggle to find an empathetic response.

It starts in September and is at fever pitch around now. It's the one about Christmas being over-commercialised.  

Of course it is. Of course it's sad that some people spend too much money and spend the next year paying it back. Of course it's obscene that we live in a world where some children's presents would fill a small garage and the next child is praying for a home. Of course we don't need the adverts which cost millions and oh, for the stores to give that money to charity instead. We don't need the shops to be selling stocking fillers before the clocks go back and to be buying each other duplicates of things we don’t need.

But we don’t have to subscribe to it.

We can just be together. That's still Christmas. In fact, go to church, have a special meal together because we all have the day off, raise a glass to absent friends (and to the wonderful people who do have to work on Christmas Day - the mid-wife, nurse and GP in my family to name but a few) and hug and laugh and play games and maybe give the odd well-chosen present and you know, all of a sudden, Christmas isn't so very different to how it used to be.

But if we choose not to spend Christmas with family and friends because it's over-commercialised, not to give even the smallest gift because it's got out of hand, and if we choose not to link arms around the piano, crooning alongside as a talented person bashes out Silent Night, simply because Christmas isn't what it used to be, then we should be dragged forthwith onto the set of A Christmas Carol.

Whilst I absolutely understand that for those who have lost people, Christmas can be so terribly difficult and my heart goes out to them, as far as abstaining because it's not what it used to be, I've always thought like this and the past few years have hammered it home.

Christmas 2013 and the hubby and I were waiting for the results which were to come on 27 December following my earlier tests for breast cancer. Apart from the two sets of parents, no one else knew we were waiting. It just felt the right thing to do. A couple of things had been said during the tests and in hindsight, it was blooming obvious the experts were worried but I think I probably didn't want to hear it at that time, that time being five days before Christmas.

I remember Christmas day vividly, our family all around, everyone happy, just doing their thing. It wasn't any different to any other year really: the hubby and the daughters begging me to exchange the traditional carols for some 'proper' music, secretly wondering if we might manage Christmas lunch before 5pm, some openly wondering if we might forego the walk, but all keen to play games and there were no phones in sight.  And I remember thinking, I'm so grateful for the 45 years I've had because I've had adventures and work I've always enjoyed, some achievements and enduring friendships and loads and loads of laughter but most of all, I love and am loved and that's all we need, and all we can ask, really. I decided this is what I would focus on if the news was bad - which it was.

I have a smile to myself every Christmas now about that, think yep, still here, still fortunate, still loving life. And you know, getting the diagnosis over Christmas time means I love Christmas even more than I did before :)

Today? Well, it's October half term in our house and for the first time EVER, not only am I saying I'm going to bake my Christmas cake tomorrow, it's been given its own special time slot, which means it might just happen. Wish me luck…

* Update *

*Update: I'd hate you to think I don't keep my word - and no, I never do the baking paper correctly but it hasn't proved a problem yet... Oh, and the baby one? Well, that's for deliciously cold November nights 😏* 

Tuesday 3 October 2017

Misplaced Orcas and Worrying Bears

I was back with the so very lovely three presenters, Sue, Tina and June on their Girls Around Town show on Radio Newark last Sunday. We were talking Glass Houses - in theory - but we managed to start with silky soft voices which can't be raised, close encounters with stray orcas in Canada, aka killer whales, and beautiful bears foraging in barren undergrowth with their families which, although incredibly fascinating and the babies so gorgeously cute, were quite heart-breaking in their efforts to find an alternative to the salmon stock depleted by the 'wrong' type of farming. 

And then we went for coffee and cakes, OK, scones. But scones from Strays Coffee Shop in Newark which are very good indeed.

No, it is work, honestly...

With grateful thanks to Raymond Ip
for the photographs.
If you'd like to know what we did when the orcas got a little close, you can listen to the podcast here

And I do talk about Glass Houses and my Work In Progress: In The Taxi, or rather, what happened that windy night in Birmingham in November 2013...

If you'd like to find out more about the threats to survival of ocean salmon and the knock-on effect for the environment, it's explained well here.

Sunday 24 September 2017

Watch My Lips!

Hearing is not one of my strengths. I may have mentioned it before and it was certainly the subject of this post, when I spoke about the best Christmas present for people hard of hearing, and this one, written that glorious day when I became the relieved owner of my state of the art, blue tooth hearing aids. It was the day I realised that the seatbelt makes a noise when you pull it across your chest, that footsteps are audible and that when a car sounds terrifyingly close, it's probably happily zooming down an adjacent street, you've just got used to the level of engine sound which sends the message to your brain not to attempt to cross that road if you want to reach the other side.

I've also spoken about the glorious age of hearing technology in which we live and how I should be reprimanded when I moan about the negative impact of phones on our lives because, for me, the good side to the little beauties: messaging, emailing, social media and not least, bitmojis, as recently introduced to me by my eldest, far outweighs the negative effect they have on sociability and community. 
Who needs to hear when
you've got this up your sleeve?

Nonetheless, I can't pretend I am always upbeat about my lack of hearing. Being unable to participate in conversations when the environment is too much even for my amazing aids, or when, horror of horrors, they break (they are very tiny and packed with very clever technology so alas, they do need a little tlc fairly regularly) or somebody goes from whisper to full-on shout, accompanied by pained expression, with no warning of the escalation to come, so I just want to slink away, and when I'm struggling to work - then it gets me down.

Enter: a lipreading course.

Finally, after nine months on the waiting list, my first class was today. I was ridiculously excited about the life-changing, or at least, life-improving, potential for this. But I was also nervous. The stakes were high. I'd been told the art of lipreading is tricky and at the very least, I'd need to dedicate a year to this new skill, probably more. I was, and am, prepared for that. If it works it will be hours enormously well spent. But with such high hopes, I knew I'd be disappointed crushed if ten minutes in I had that sinking feeling that this might not be the miracle I'd hoped it could be. I'd also missed the first week of the course due to holiday and if I've got to be a newbie, I'd rather be a newbie amongst newbies.

So, after following Maps on foot to a street I already know but 'just to be sure' (I never learn), I made only two wrong turns and was still outside the classroom ten minutes early. Ten minutes early for me, is half an hour in punctual people's worlds. I was quite proud of myself; the extra ten minutes would allow time for me to meet the teacher, make payment and apologise in person for missing the first week. Not so, my class is full of punctual people. Only two students arrived after me and one of those had been stuck on a five mile stretch of the A1 for two hours. No matter, everybody smiled kindly, the teacher welcomed me several times and I settled myself in, making my first mistake before the lesson had officially started, by answering the teacher whilst rummaging in my bag. You'd think I'd know better. She asked the question again, and I realised the teacher's hearing was even worse than mine.

Quickly, I began to realise that I'd entered a meeting room unlike any other I'd ever been in. Everybody waits to speak; no two people speak at one time. If somebody doesn't hear, their neighbour softly taps them on the arm and repeats it to them, and everybody is quiet while they do. Nobody worries about saying 'pardon' – none of the 'two pardon lives' here, where instead of the third 'pardon' it's preferable to simply nod or shake the head (a scrutiny of the speaker's facial expression is a fairly reliable guide to which way to go), allowing the two or more of you to move smoothly away from the troublesomely awkward conversation – no, here, you can pardon all you like. No background radio, no noisy fans and the blinds, crucially, were drawn. I joke that if I could carry out my life in the soundproofed booth of the audiologist's testing centre, I wouldn't need hearing aids, and this room came a very close second to that. I should add that once comfortable, I found myself discretely checking out everybody's hearing aids – which is tricky as they're so tiny these days – so, let it never be said that I don't know how to party.

On with the lesson and we talked about barriers to effective lipreading and how to get around them, practised comprehension of a passage about the history of London's coffee houses with the teacher soundlessly mouthing each short sentence – I understood enough to know that it wasn't Starbucks who started it all - and practised the number six (it's the hardest to spot) as well as the 'ff' sound.

In short, in no particular order, this is what I learnt:
  • If I really concentrate, focus, clear my mind of the other rubbish, I can already understand a fair bit.
  • Ask your friends if they'll kindly let you sit with your back to the window in a restaurant so that you don’t have to wrestle with the light casting shadows over their faces.
  • 'Coffee' is easily mixed up with toffee, fluffy, muffly, wavy, banoffee, lovely and jiffy – but surprisingly not so much in context – which is comforting to know.
  • 'Coffee' looks very different to 'tea' and so you won't end up with the wrong drink, even if you can't catch who's paying.
  • Our teacher developed almost total deafness over the course of twenty years and communicated well through lipreading, until she had a cochlear implant a few years ago. It's wonderful to know she could manage but lipreading doesn't help you hear the birds or music, does it? This is one of those occasions where you have to love technology.
  • The first coffee houses grew up in London in the 1600s and by the 18th century, there were over 3,000 of them.
  • If you feel able, ask the person with whom you're speaking to remove sunglasses, a hat, hair over the eyes, perhaps their hand in front of their face, as these all affect your ability to lip read.
  • Charles 2nd didn’t like coffee houses because politicians gave away all their secrets chatting in them.
  • The art of understanding the spoken word through reading lips is written, 'lipreading' as opposed to, 'lip reading'.
  • Artificial light is better for lipreading than natural light.
  • Women didn't like coffee houses because the, 'new-fangled, abominable, heathenish liquor called "coffee" had transformed their industrious, virile men into unfruitful, babbling layabouts who idled away their time in coffee houses', or so said the Women's Petition in 1674. It made no difference and yes, that section was written down for us. Try me again in a couple of years on that one.
  • Certain people are easier to lipread than others.
  • I am by far the worst in the class. This is good because the others have been coming for months if not years and thus proof that it is possible to learn this stuff.
  • If you've been all-consumed with getting out of the door on time for your class and have thus forgotten about breakfast, none of the other students, nor the teacher, will hear your stomach rumbling and crashing around. 

So, did I enjoy my first class? Certainly. Will I be going back? Absolutely. Will I develop the skill to read what people are saying on the other side of the room?

Well, that would be telling, wouldn't it…??

Monday 7 August 2017

It's the Timing

When I see that someone has a bucket list, my heart sinks.

It isn't that I don’t think a bucket list is a great idea, a positive goal, a healthy outlook, a wholesome, exciting way to spend time, and money, even. No, it's because nine times out of ten, the person who's written the bucket list has been given a horrendous medical diagnosis and my heart goes out to them.

The bucket list is great, it's the diagnosis I have a problem with.

So I say, go ahead, absolutely, have a bucket list! Fill it with things you'd like to do ranging from reading a book a week, to crossing Niagara Falls on a zip wire, if that's an ambition. No combinations of zip wires and waterfalls for me, by the way, I like to keep a foot or a wheel in contact with the ground at all times, don't care for pursuits which are too heavily dependent on the peaks and troughs of the environment. This might sound a little narrow minded but it is based on the experience of too many hospitals in too many countries, not to mention a few, but memorable, excursions over tiny ridges in howling gales when, I'm pleased to say, we've survived, only for my husband to say, 'When you look back though, it was a great buzz wasn't it?' And for me to smile sweetly and say, 'No, it wasn't.' Anyway, that's me, I digress. Bucket lists are about our own personal dreams and goals and my only problem with them is this.

It's the timing.

It's human nature. I get it. But all these things people say are true - we really don’t know what's around the corner. Disease is mostly indiscriminate. We've seen it in the news. From the most celebrated celebrities to our mum or our neighbour or our best friend, people get poorly. We could all get poorly at any time. One day you're at work, next day your meeting with your GP or the consultant to be told the results. And then it starts: the rest of your life. A different life. It doesn't have to be any less rich, truly. But it may be shorter than you had dared to hope it might be.

So why, at this point, do we strangely complicated species we call human beings, why only now do we first write the bucket list of things we need to do before we die? When time is shortened, when ill health may cut our income, when our weeks are punctuated with hospital visits and, let's be honest, the side effects of the treatments might not always make us inclined to climb Kilimanjaro, rather watch a day of films instead – which, by the way, if I had a bucket list, would be right up the top. I've never done it. I'd like to do it once.

I think we wait because we're generally selfless beings. We grow up with this admirable notion that we shouldn't put ourselves first. Everyone and everything (including cleaning the bathroom, paying the bills, watering the garden and that pesky thing called work… and that's before we even begin to consider our commitments to our loved ones) should be prioritised above our own wishes. We hope that one day we'll have more time, and then we'll have the luxury of putting ourselves first.

Being selfless is a wonderful trait. I'll go further and say that I'm not drawn to selfish people. Even a hefty dose of hedonism I struggle with a little, when family and friends are left at home, missing out to provide for the hedonist among them.

But since when is doing something you enjoy actually selfish? So long as it doesn't negatively impact on anyone else, I say it's nothing more than living a fulfilling life and rejoicing that you have life. I'd even go so far as to say that far from being selfish, living our lives to the full is being grateful for the gift of life and not taking it for granted. It would be rude not to…

So have a bucket list! Keep it with you, prioritise it, tick things off and add new items to it. Make it personal. Make it full of the things you want to do, not the things you feel you should do. But do it now!

Because none of us know what's around the corner.

I'm Going to be Here

I'm looking forward to being involved in Feva, the Knaresborough Arts Festival 2017, in its 21st year, on Tuesday 15th August at 7pm. Please join us for a Q&A and book signing, or rather, a big chat with a spot of wine. 
I sincerely love meeting and chatting with readers so do please come and say hello if you live anywhere in or close to these northern climes. 

And I had a great time here...
Many thanks to the multi-talented computer fixer, dad extraordinaire, all round funny guy, chef and photographer, Stuart Lawrence, for the photos from Newark Lit Fest in July. I had a giggle chatting with Cathy Bramley and Eve Makis to the lovely Tina Bettison and a lively, engaged and very knowledgeable audience. Thanks so much to all who attended.