80 Years – celebrate or commemorate?

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We all delight in medieval history – it is so quaint and so distant. But there are historical events closer in space and time which must not be forgotten.

80 years since World War 2 started. Should we celebrate the 80 years of global peace, or should we commemorate the outbreak of the all-out war that cost us 80 million dead, the barbarity of the Holocaust, famine, disease, the homelessness and displacement of millions, the obliteration of cities and industries that would take decades to rebuild, and finally the crisis of civilisation as we knew it?

It’s great to celebrate – never say no to a good party. Remembering is a bit harder because it requires drawing analogies and avoiding repeating the same mistakes.

WW2 started ten years after the Great Depression of 1929 caused by corporate greed and bankers but blamed by populist politicians on Jews and the Others. Those scapegoats became the casualties, but ultimately they were not the only ones. Everyone was a casualty. One cannot control war – who lives and who dies becomes a game of Russian roulette. There are five bullets for every six slots in the magazine – you know the odds.

It is now just over ten years after the 2008 Financial Crisis. It was caused by corporate greed and bankers but is being blamed by populist politicians on foreigners, refugees and yes, you guessed it – the Others. Those who don’t speak your language, look different and aren’t related to you are being dehumanised so they become dispensable.

WW2 was cooked up by those in power who wished to change the world order in their favour – to divide and to rule it on their terms. They didn’t like the League of Nations created to guard peace after WW1 and they certainly didn’t like the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. They had better ideas of dividing the world on their own terms: The Thousand Year Third Reich or the ever-growing Union of Communist Republics – and nothing else. Nazi Germany and the USSR put their heads together and signed the Molotov-Ribbetrop Pact of Non-Aggression just seven days before the outbreak of WW2 so that each could do their own thing – their worst – and get away with it. (Luckily for us, Hitler lost his marbles and reneged on that treaty when he attacked Soviet Union in 1941. But imagine if they had both stuck to it – the rest of the world would have stood no chance. There would be no Victory Day celebrations and no Remembrance Day every year -not for us.)

Today again two powers have risen and are led by two demented dictators who seem to have found a common ground – their new common understanding of divide-and-rule. And after a few cosy tête-à-têtes they now have a friendly pact of non-aggression between them, allowing each other to do what they please in their own backyards. The rest of us are pawns. Most of us support them because we believe them. Their hatred of peace organisations, such as the UN or the EU, is well explained to us. Those institutions haven’t been elected to power based on lies and false propaganda! They are the enemy! And why would we need them if we have NATO? Except that NATO is for the times of war (which we really, really don’t want) and UN or EU are to guard peace (which they really, really don’t want). The existing peace and world order doesn’t suit Mr Trump and Mr Putin. Time to change it.

The wheel of history is turning and the same mistakes are being repeated. Democratic institutions are being compromised, prejudice is rampantly bred in the streets and people’s minds and values are being corrupted. I think this is the time to remember. There is nothing to celebrate.

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Would you rather live in Handcock’s Bottom or is Marston Bigot more up your street?

I had a whale of a time when conniving the settings for my cosy crime series The Shires Mysteries. Truth be told, I nearly wet my pants.

To find a name for the village that would host all of the crimes I had in mind, I needed something memorable but authentic – something that would sit comfortably alongside all the real-life places in my county. Something that didn’t sound out of place in the Shires.

I reside in a place called Upper Studley. Upper is a common qualifier for an English village and it sounds immensely better than Lower or Little. They are equally common but less classy than my Upper. Then you have the Bottoms. They are, well literally, at the bottom of the ladder. For how would one feel dwelling in Handcock’s Bottom, or Scratchy Bottom, or Bottom Flash? How about Crinkley Bottom or Bottom Burn? If you aren’t into Bottoms, then would you consider buying a cottage in Buttock or a small bungalow in Great Butts? They are real villages proudly inhabited by real villagers.

I decided against setting my stories in the nether regions. I set my sights high – closer to Upper than Lower. Upton struck me as a possibility. There are a lot of Uptons around here. Think Upton Cow Down – yes, it’s a real place that can be found on a map, as can Upton Snodsbury. But they seemed too pretentious to me.

Tiddley Wink tickled my fancy. It’s a not a big village. In fact, it isn’t a village but a tiny hamlet. When I drove through it for the first time, I blinked and I missed it.

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My mother-in-law is now a resident in a residential home located in Limpley Stoke. Oh yes, she is! When we visit, we can pop over to the village pub called The Hop Pole Inn. Oh yes, we can! Here it is:

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The Hop Pole Inn in Limpley Stoke

Ultimately, I opted against naming my fictional village using an existing name, so Tiddley Wink and Limpley Stoke had to go, as well as Booby Dingle, Grope Lane, Farleigh Wallop and Clench Common.

Finally, I settled on Bishops Well. Not very imaginative, I hear you say. Life can be so much more out of this world than fiction!

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The Church of St John the Baptist in Bishops Well

The curse of genre and what’s wrong with the runt of the litter

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I won’t choose a book to read because it is of particular genre. I won’t read a book because of a label dangling from it which screams THRILLER, ROMANCE, HORROR or whatever else. The label means nothing to me. I just want to read a good book – preferably, a brilliant book. I want a book to make me think, laugh and cry, get angry, care for someone in the story and keep thumbing through the pages until the end. And after that I want to remember, reminisce and wonder: what a fantastic piece of fiction I have just devoured.

And, naturally, I want to write that book too. Many of them, to hell with genre.

But it seems people like the clarity of genre. The readers reach for their favourite genre before -if ever- they contemplate something outside their comfort zone. Publishers want that clarity, too. I’m such a lucky, bum-in-butter writer to have landed myself a publisher – the dynamic, feisty Accent Press. They gave home to my DI Marsh detective crime series and now to my new cosy crime trilogy, The Shire Mysteries. But they didn’t accept every book I shoved in front of their noses. Oh, I did have to deal with a rejection and I am still reeling from it. Remember Paula Goes to Heaven?

At first, I rejected that book myself – abandoned it like a prodigal mother leaving their new-born baby on the step of a church, hoping God takes care of it, because that baby isn’t quite perfect, not quite viable. It took me more than a year to go back to fetch my abandoned manuscript. I have been re-writing it, working hard to make it better. And I have been asking myself what is wrong with it.

It’s the genre, you see. That book does not belong to any distinct genre. It could be classified as women’s contemporary fiction but for the supernatural elements. It could be humour, but it is quite tragic in places. I could be paranormal fantasy, but it isn’t – not entirely. So, I think it’s the ambiguity of genre that renders it flawed. My heart bleeds for I love that book as I love all the others. But the others are happy and they thrive in the world. This one – this one is unwanted. I will make it better and I won’t give up on it, but sometimes you start doubting yourself and your commitment to that runt of the litter.

It is a little bit like that, isn’t it? Like with puppies. Most people want a pedigree dog with all the trademark characteristics its breed is supposed to possess. But, you know, cross-breeds can be wonderful. They ARE wonderful! They have it all: pointy ears and curly tails, shaggy coats and white socks. And they have as much bounce and give as much joy as your average Labrador, poodle or Yorkshire terrier out there. The same with books: their genre – their breed – shouldn’t matter as much as their unique bookish personalities and what they have to say.

I thought of that when reviewing Ruth Rendell’s A New Lease of Death yesterday. It is categorised as crime fiction. It may well be, but it is so much more diverse. Psychology, society, family, prejudice, vulnerability – everything is there. Narrowing it down to a sequence of steps to detect the killer wouldn’t give it justice. Summing it up as a damn-good book would.

I may be wrong. Maybe it is important for a book to belong to a particular genre? Maybe classifications in fiction are as helpful as classifications in biological sciences? Are they?

Paris in mugshots

Daughter and I embarked on a mother-child bonding adventure in Paris, France. It was a perfect setting for finding common ground for it took our joint breath away and it made us contemplate things greater in life than our daily squabbles.

Places to visit in mugshots for those wishing to soak in some culture, history and arts in one potent cocktail, shaken – and – stirred:

Basilique du Sacre Coeur

Chateau de Versailles

Jardin de Versailles

Cathedral of Notre Dame

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The Eiffel Tower

Cruising on the River Seine

The Pantheon

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Louvre

Palais du Luxembourg

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We were swept off our feet, humbled, elevated and so very proud to be European. Admiring the wonders of architecture, sculpture, paintings and arts, wondering about the great minds – philosophers, writers and thinkers who laid the foundation of the unique European culture which shapes us today, remembering the history our ancestors built together, the blood they shed and the blood we share as it curses through our veins and makes us all one and same people, we couldn’t shake the sense of loss that is Brexit.  Cutting Britain off the face of Europe is the proverbial cutting one’s nose off to spite the face, an act of self-harm.

A few snippets of what we are -metaphorically at least – leaving behind:

 

The Prom Queen and an Ugly Duckling

I am an emotionally charged Mummy. Yesterday was Daughter’s prom. Fab day for Daughter, a rollercoaster of emotions, dramas, malfunctioning Satnavs, makeup disasters and bare-knuckle fights for me.

A whole day off work was requisitioned so that I could assist Daughter in her transformation from her customary leggings/baggy t-shirt getup and an aversity to hairbrush to… well, this amazing beauty I hardly recognised. I hasten to add that by assisting I mean chauffeuring to and from appointments, getting under her feet, stabbing her with a mascara brush in the eye and tying her shoelaces. I left the proper stuff to the professionals. And here comes my Prom Queen:

I am amazed and proud, and taken aback by her confidence and grown-up poise neither of which she got from me. And I thank her lucky star for that!

To illustrate my point, I will take you back in time to my own prom. What a tragic affair that was! For I was the ugly duckling who had never made it to the rank of swan.

First of all, it was a social event. Social events weren’t for me. They scared the living daylight out of me (still do, but pst…) as I had no idea what to say and felt deeply uncomfortable rubbing shoulders with all those people who knew exactly what they were doing. My thoughts were far away in lands fantastical and if I were to articulate them, my peers would regard me with contempt, I was sure of that. So I kept my mouth shut. I had no boyfriend. I had zero social acumen.

On the morning of the prom, while other girls were having their hair and nails done, I was away attending the final of The Young Writer 1985 competition. Instead of shoes and makeup, I was contemplating restless ghosts and the sound of a black horse’s hooves on a cobbled road in my gothic horror piece. Incidentally, I came third so that wasn’t a runaway success either.

From that event, my Dad drove me home at breakneck speed (in his car, not a black-horse-and-cart). With half-n-hour to the start of the prom, I hurriedly refreshed, washed the ink away from my fingers and wrapped myself in my new shiny dress (my Mum had chosen it for me on her own. I had been too busy doing something much more important at home).

It wasn’t only the dress that had been chosen for me behind my back and without my input. It was also my partner for the evening. Did I mention I didn’t have a boyfriend? But I did have a few good-Samaritan friends. One of them had recruited their brother’s mate to accompany me. So there I was in his arms on the dance floor, breathlessly counting the steps and never taking my eyes off my feet. Poor guy, it must have been the worst night of his young life!

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When you want to go invisible – step by step instructions

When you want to go invisible:

  1. You climb under the tiniest footstool in the house;
  2. You keep your tail tucked under your backside and avoid wagging it;
  3. You put on an innocent, but sheepish face;
  4. You pretend the legs and tail sticking out from under the stool have nothing to do with you.

Visual guidelines:

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This dog has performed the invisibility manoeuvre. The causes are still under investigation – I am checking all my slippers for bite marks and whether my bed has been slept in by uninvited guests. The local cat population is being examined for missing tails and ears. Husband will inspect his flowerbeds for signs of tunnelling. Meantime, Dog remains invisible.

Have you ever worried a sheep?

On our annual pilgrimage to the Lake District, we stopped at Lancaster. Apart from the uplifting medieval architecture, I was swept by the language of public notices: the bizarre, the quaint and the outright hilarious.

Looking for somewhere to park, we were disheartened to discover that most of parking spaces were reserved for Residents Only. And I must say, the local residents squatted on the wall resolutely, giving us an evil -beady- eye. Pesky lot!

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Going deeper into the old-town centre of Lancaster, I uncovered that another lot of ‘residents’ was having a much better time than they deserved, serving it at Her Majesty’s pleasure in one of Her castles offering no doubt five-star accommodation. Yes, I am talking about the Lancaster Prison. Imagine, putting in your CV where you have spent the last fifteen years! Nothing to be ashamed of, I hear you say?

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I elected not to enter that establishment however and headed for the lush Williamson Park. Alas, a word of warning: the place is rife with all manner of peril and countless dangers. To name one: shallow water! Beware, oh random passer-by and wear your armbands!

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To escape the clear and imminent dangers of Lancaster, we drove all the way to Grasmere in the Lake District – only to find out that the roads there were NOT FOR CARS! And I have the proof:

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So, one has to walk, hike, trundle, trudge, trot and climb – anything but drive a car! But, while you’re on-foot travelling, mind the SPEEDING RED SQUIRELS! They are quite some devils on wheels, and they totally and utterly disregard all the signs telling them to SLOW the hell DOWN! Look out:

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But never you mind the squirrels. Worrying sheep is a criminal offence in the Lakes, and quite rightly so! Sheep are genteel and anxiety-ridden creatures – you would be too if your future as a piece of lamb or, if you were lucky to live longer, as a piece of mutton, was mapped out for you at birth! So do not worry them! Tread carefully and sing lullabies when you pass them by on your hikes. Shhhh…

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But then again, do these faces look worried? Do they? Do they?

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Then again, appearances can be deceiving, I am afraid… Very, very afraid.

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Marching for people’s vote

It was one of those London outings that I won’t forget in a hurry. It didn’t involve the West End theatre production or shopping, but it was 100% pure London: people’s power in action. We were marching with the estimated 1 Million ordinary people for peace, friendship and unity of our small continent, sending a clear message to Mr Putin and Mr Trump who are so keen to divide and conquer us.

It was crowded, it was hot, it was slow-going as the mass of people filled every nook and cranny of the main streets and every side alley. There were youngsters hanging from scaffolding and statutes, waving EU and British flags. There was a great sense of comaraderie and good humour all round. Husband brandished Danny Dyer’s famous quote about Cameron and his trotters up in Nice. I grabbed a photo with none other but the now iconic STOP-Brexit Man who camps on the doorstep of the House of Parliament day and night, rain or shine, to deliver his message.

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Sharp and swift – the language of the masses

Yesterday’s People’s Vote march in London was brimming with sharp, swift and deadly language of political rallying. It was the language of the masses and for the masses. I was fascinated with the crispness of wit, the depth, the satirical edge, the hilarity.

It takes a master wordsmith to deliver a powerful message in a few words that can be squeezed into the tiny space offered by an old cornflakes cardboard box. I came across many of those homemade, juicy bits yesterday, and I devoured them.

The phrase food for thought could not be more appropriate: it was a feast!

As a writer eternally struggling for that perfect turn of phrase, I received  a free lesson in what it is to be succinct, funny and genuinely passionate all in one.

I managed to smuggle something out in a doggy-bag:

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My one and only wish for 2019

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If I had that one wish for New Year that could come true… What would it be?

I would have to use it wisely, make sure that I covered all bases, that I didn’t waste it on something short-lived and narrow. And the only thing I could think of was that somehow this New Year could bring us all together from wherever we are, whoever we are and whatever we believe in.

I am acutely conscious of the fact that the sort of world unity I wish for lost its allure a long time ago when recession hit us all hard and made us look for someone to blame. And the preachers of hate swooped in to point fingers at strangers and stranded travellers. They made us build walls and regroup to the higher ground of a crystal mountain where they told us to hide from the hordes: the dispossessed, the alien, the others.

This Christmas my suspicions were confirmed that there are no others. We are one and the same people. Every Christmas the four households within our tiny Church enclave come together for a chat and a mince pie. This Christmas, it was my turn to host the party. At first sight, you’d think that there couldn’t be a more homogeneous group of people: all white, middle age, well-educated and fairly comfortable, quite creative and bohemian, a couple of youngsters between us to pass onto the baton of the bright future. And yet.

As we shared our past experiences, it transpired that we had lived all around the globe: Cyprus, Germany, Lebanon, Poland, Malta, Bermuda, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa. Each of those places had once been a home to some of us, but it did not detract in the least from us sharing our tiny Church enclave and living here in perfect harmony. Some of us had once upon a time experienced the fate of a refugees: from the clutches of communism during the Cold War, from the mayhem of Beirut, from Eastern Berlin before the Wall fell, from Cyprus during the Turkish invasion. Some of us had to run, leave everything behind and rebuild our lives from scratch.

We are all white, middle-age and comfortable, but we have had our share of realism and we hold a stake in our global common humanity. We are no different from today’s Syrians. We are no better – we are just at a different point in life and in history. We have no guarantees that one day we may not be forced to seek refuge in, say, Iran. It happened in the past – why couldn’t it happen again? We’ll never finish that wall between them and us – it’ a mad man’s delusion. It’s like building a wall between your heart’s left and right atrium and allowing no flow of blood – no flow of life – between them.

So yes, my wish for this New Year of 2019 is that we stop fanning divisions and we start building bridges and hold hands with those who need their hands held.

Happy New Year to you all, my fellow citizens of the world!