Since I started blogging back in 2011, I have written more posts about Sir Bruce Forsyth than anyone else. He’s been a constant in my life. My happiest memories are from when I was a child in Torquay, living above a sweetshop with my parents and two older brothers. It was the early 70s, a great decade to be a kid, and Brucie played a part in this. Every Saturday evening, we’d watch The Generation Game together as a family, along with over 20 million other Britons. It’s hard to explain to the next generation just how big a part he played in my generation and my parents’ generation. Seven decades of all round family entertainment, the likes of which we’ll never see again.
I was so sad to hear the news yesterday. My heart actually did stop beating for a few moments and I shed a tear or two. I thought of my lovely dad who I associate with those days, who died in 1978 when I was ten. Brucie has been a constant in my life which has known a fair bit of loss. But he lived a good life. A long life. With a close family and the love of a nation.
And I’ll always have my homage to him in the form of my first novel, The Generation Game. What else could I have called it?
Many moons ago, I was a breast pump agent for the National Childbirth Trust, which is something not many people know about me and perhaps something not many people know about.
I was heavily pregnant with son number 2 and on maternity leave. As a member of the NCT I wanted to do something worthwhile that wouldn’t be too onerous as I already had a one year old to look after. So, I volunteered. For about a year, I was on hand to hire out the industrial-sized, hospital-type breast pumps. New parents would come to my house, often stressed because of a pre-term baby or illness or somehow struggling to breastfeed, and I would show them how to work the pump. I never used one myself but was told that it was brilliant.
At this time, I had a lot of friends who I met through the NCT and other post-natal groups. One of them had so much milk she became a donor for the SCBU at Kings College Hospital, after being screened. This milk was gratefully received as its immunity-boosting components can be life-saving for prem babies.
Yesterday the media was awash with stories about breast milk – if you’ll pardon the pun. A breastfeeding mother had an operation and was unable to breastfeed her son, so she went on Facebook to see if anyone would step in. She had a huge response and several women were able to help, coming to her bedside and feeding her baby. Some people found this difficult. I had to think about it myself for a while as I confess my natural response was to find it a bit weird.
Which I now see is daft.
Wet nurses, cross-nursing, milk-sharing has gone on forever all over the world. But in the modern West, we see breastfeeding as a private thing, because breasts are associated with sex and we forget that the job of breasts is to feed babies. For me, breastfeeding was generally a good experience though there were times when I had to feed my babies in public loos. You wouldn’t choose to eat your fish and chips in a bog so goodness knows why it is acceptable for vulnerable babies.
I breastfed all three of our children on demand. I fed the oldest till he was 8 months when I had to return to work and was pregnant again. I fed number 2 and 3 until they were 14 months old. I’d like to point out that I am not a member of what some of the press call the ‘Breastapo’. I just feel that babies have a right to feed when and where they need to be fed. Who cares if you catch a glimpse of breast? Why does it put some people off their food when a baby is also just having food?
Back in the early 90s, I taught in a nursery unit attached to an infant school in Camberwell. There were many children there from Ghana and Nigeria and it was interesting watching the role play. In the ‘home corner’ they would hold the babies to their chests, as this was what they saw their mothers, aunts etc do. When I had my own children, I noticed them and their friends doing the same thing. Breastfeeding is not embarrassing for children. It’s just some adults that find it so.
WHO and UNICEF both say that milk donating and sharing is the second best alternative to breastfeeding in consultation with your health provider. Yes, there are issues over screening for infectious diseases such as HIV (which all pregnant women are screened for anyway). And I believe from reading about it that it’s better to match the age of the baby receiving the milk to the age of the supplier’s baby, as breast milk changes as the child grows. But these issues can be overcome. Fundamentally, I don’t have a problem with it. Any reservations I had yesterday were cultural.
And I must just add here that it goes without saying that breastfeeding doesn’t work out for everyone due to illness and for all manner of reasons. Giving a baby a bottle is fine and mothers should never be made to feel guilty.
Yesterday’s news item is good because it gets breastfeeding talked about. Hopefully one day boobs won’t be news. They’ll be seen as the givers of life that they are.
I have blogged before about my three lovely, wild, frustrating, up-and-down teenagers. In just a few months, the oldest will be twenty years old and hence no longer a teenager. He will still be at home briefly before travelling to Japan to learn the language and absorb the culture he has been mesmerised by throughout his teens. The next son will be off to Africa around the same time, a passion in his heart for that huge, complex continent, a worry for his parents as he makes his journey. The youngest, now sixteen, is in Year 11, GCSE madness all around, gobby, lippy, a young woman who stands up against injustice who can be a joy to have around or a minefield of emotions to pick our way through. I wouldn’t be a teenager again for all the tea in Waitrose. It’s the best of times and the worst of times and yet when they go, how I will miss the mess, the half-drunk coffee mugs, the slamming doors, the late-night taxi pick-ups, the heaps of washing, the nagging, the moaning …
Okay, so here are my five things:
1. Teenagers do need a lot of sleep, they really do. They have a different circadian rhythm to the rest of us and need those lie ins. If they need to sleep, let them. Just as it’s wrong to wake a sleeping baby, so it is wrong to wake a sleeping teen. On your head be it.
2. If they want a party at your house and they want you to go elsewhere for the evening (remember Abigail’s Party), then go. Take the dogs, the booze (they will bring their own whether you like it or not) and your iWotsits. Give the neighbours a heads-up and a curfew of eleven o’clock – which sounds fair, as long as it’s not a regular event. After all, you have to put up with the neighbourhood toddlers all summer, screaming in their paddling pools. What goes around comes around. Your teenagers were once toddlers. One day those neighbourhood toddlers will be teenagers. We all have to live together as as a community. (Our neighbours have been awesome.)
3. Praise them the same you would for any child. Show them they have talents and gifts and even when they feel crap about life, remind them of a funny incident from childhood.
4. Hug them, whether they like it or not. Even the grumpy boys.
5. Put a big map on your kitchen wall with stickers for the places you would love to visit. It gives you stuff to talk about at family meals. It shows them that their tiny, troubled life is a speck on the planet. Their worries are usually first world worries. Let them go to Japan and Africa or wherever, but yes, it will be really hard.
And I know I shouldn’t blog about my teenagers but they won’t read this. After all they haven’t read their mother’s novels. But maybe one day, when they are on their travels, they will turn to their mother’s words on the page, or remember their mother’s words to them over the years, the dos and the donts and the ILoveYous.
PS. The Generation Game is still on Kindle at 99p for the next week. I need those sales for my teenagers food and loo roll consumption.
So yes, I am v. excited to hear the news that Miranda Hart is in talks with the Beeb about hosting a new series of The Generation Game.
Why am I v. excited?
Several serendipitous reasons:
1. I loved The Generation Game as a child – so much so that my debut novel is called The Generation Game.
2. I love Sir Bruce Forsyth.
3. I love Miranda Hart.
4. Last year, Miranda interviewed Brucie, reminding us that 20 million viewers would tune into The Generation Game on a Saturday night.
4. The narrator in my novel is called Philippa (Smith). One of the best TV directors around right now is also called Philippa (Lowthorpe). She directed Call the Midwife, in which Miranda Hart played a midwife. (She also directed Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn which is being aired this week – apparently they are sorting out the sound issues for tonight’s episode.) Philippa (Lowthorpe) likes strong female characters. Philippa (Smith) has her faults, but she’s a survivor.
5. My novel is set in a sweetshop in Torquay (that part is true to life. We lived above a sweetshop from 1972-74 and our neighbour, Wink, loved Brucie and TGG). And – get this – Miranda Hart was born in Torquay.
6. I blogged ages ago about a school visit where I went to talk about being a writer (my old school). One of the questions I was asked was who would I like to play Philippa if TGG is ever made into a film/TV drama. I wasn’t sure until one of the students suggested Miranda Hart. Perfect!
So, please Miranda and Philippa … I am sending you both copies of my book which I would love you to read. Warm Sunday night viewing…?
It’s no secret that I love Sir Brucie, have done since I was four years old, living above a sweetshop in Torquay. Saturday nights. Fish and chips. The Generation Game. Happy times, sitting on my dad’s lap, watching a family programme.
I am happy that Sir Bruce has taken the decision to step down from hosting Strictly Come Dancing, pleased that he is managing his ‘retirement’ on his own terms. Just because he is in 86, doesn’t mean he should give up the love of his life: the stage. And he’ll be continuing to perform.
He comes from a generation of grafters and has a firm place in the entertainment elite of Morecambe and Wise, Tommy Cooper and co. But he’s still here; he’s still going. And I hope to see him in his one man show. I hope to catch him at the stage door and push into his hands a copy of my novel The Generation Game, a homage to all those old telly programmes that bring together the important people in our life, even if it’s just in front of the box. (And if you’ve ever watched Gogglebox, you’ll know watching TV with loved ones can be hugely social, educational, and affirming.)
I feel a huge amount of nostalgia that Brucie won’t be there on a Saturday night in my living room. The end of an era, the last of his type. Though I am sure there will still be surprises to come. Who would’ve thought his cameo hosting of Have I Got News For You in 2003 would regenerate his career and catapult him back onto our screens for another decade?
We’re all different, us writers. So when it comes to the writing process, it’s fascinating to hear how others do it. The wonderful Elizabeth Stott kindly invited me to follow her in ‘the writing process blog tour’. I have to answer four questions, so do read my answers below. And check out Elizabeth’s blog. I have always been envious of both her distinctive voice and her glorious hair.
I’m redrafting a novel. I wrote it in the third person but now I am trying it in the first person, from my favourite character’s point of view. It feels better already. I suppose I thought it more grown up to write in the third, and a challenge, but maybe I should stick to what feels natural. Won’t say much more now. Except: ‘students’.
2. How does my work differ from others in its genre?
I don’t fit neatly into a box. My writing is about family and relationships. It is accessible and readable but I hope with some depth and with some questions about this game of life. My first novel The Generation Game explores this theme through the eyes of Philippa Smith who tells the story of her quirky family to her baby.
3. Why do I write what I do?
I don’t really know quite why I write what I do, other than I write what I am drawn to. I love reading novels that have both comedy and tragedy, a quick wit and a tear-inducing poignancy – books by writers like Sue Townsend, Kate Long, Laurie Graham, Kate Atkinson, David Lodge, Graham Swift. Books about everyday people with unique stories to tell. In This Holey Life, I wrote about a reluctant curate’s wife who has to come to terms with the loss of a child and a new way of life. This sounds very sad but my novels always have hope and try to see the best in life.
4. How does your writing process go?
Sometimes like a dog after a squirrel, sometimes slower than a Swedish art film. Both are valid. I have decided not to worry about word counts as more often than not I fail to reach them. So I am taking the pressure off myself. That’s not to say I’m running away from it or procrastinating (though if you see an earlier blog post of mine, you will see that that is exactly what I do do). But for me there are famines followed by feasts. And there is always a lot of reading, reading, reading and a lot of muscular thinking while walking the dogs or lying in the bath. When I really need to get in the work frame of mind, I hopscotch across the garden to my office, my haven and my sanctuary. My escape from my own quirky family.
Following me on the blog tour next Monday 3rd February is the marvellous writer and teacher Cathie Hartigan. Meanwhile do check out her website and blog and see what goings on happen down Exeter way.
Do you ever think about the other life you might have lived? The other job you might have had? I love being a writer but I do sometimes wonder if I would be happier as a funeral director. I know most people squirm at the thought of seeing and, worse, handling a dead body, but I think it’s one of the most underrated jobs going. What an honour to lay out the body of a loved one, to liaise with a family during the worst time of their lives, to make sure the passing of a special person is marked respectfully, appropriately and smoothly.
Maybe I can attribute my interest in the dead to an episode when I was two years old – one which I don’t remember but that my mother has often told me about. We had recently moved to Teignmouth and our next door neighbour was an elderly lady called Miss Bowles. One morning her cleaner rushed to our house, knocking frantically, ranting ‘I think Miss Bowles is dead! Can you help?’. Mum said ‘I can’t leave my toddler here. She’ll have to come with us’. So we went into Miss Bowles’ house and she was indeed dead, lying on the stairs as if she were a rock climber. Mum called the emergency services and for the rest of the day I kept repeating: ‘Poor Miss Bowles. She’s dead. Poor Miss Bowles. She’s dead’.
Two years later, we moved to Torquay when my parents bought a newsagents. It was great fun living above the shop but we only had a tiny courtyard outside. So my brothers and I would go to the ‘Boneyard’ of the local church down the road to loiter and play. I loved it there, running in and out of the gravestones, picking flowers in spring and collecting ‘helicopters’ in autumn. The shop and the Boneyard were very important to me and thirty-odd years later they became the inspiration and setting for my novel ‘The Generation Game’.
So what else has drawn me to the dead? When I was ten, my father died suddenly and tragically. It was 1978 and children didn’t go to funerals. Especially awkward ones where the deceased had taken their own life. I’ve often thought about it and wished I had gone. The graveyard where Dad’s ashes are buried is in Selworthy, a beautiful, remote place in Somerset. I find great comfort going there, surrounded by Stenners, going back centuries, family members I knew, and those I have just heard about, and some I can only guess at. When I had an ‘episode’ two years ago, I left home and made my way to Selworthy and lay down on my father’s grave. It was January and night time and very cold but it was the place I wanted to be, a place of comfort and safety – though I have no recollection of how I got there. Fortunately I was hunted down by my husband and a good friend who thought to bring a flask of tea and some custard doughnuts. Without them, I would perhaps have died myself of hyperthermia.
Over the years, cemeteries have been places of interest and I think that’s partly due to losing a parent as a child, and partly because I am a writer and avid reader (literature is of course scattered with death). I’ve visited Pere Lachaise in Paris to see my beloved Oscar Wilde. Much more interesting than the Louvre in my opinion. And when we lived in East Dulwich we used to go to Nunhead cemetery where once a year they had an ‘open day’. There was no exhuming but instead there were plant sales, woodturning exhibitions, and political organisations on recruitment drives. (Only in England.)
I’ve been to many country churchyards and many city ones – one of the most recent was the allegedly haunted Greyfriars cemetery in Edinburgh on a bleak, cold day. I’ve stood at the foot of many war memorials, silently contemplating the loss of so many lives and humbled at the thought that there are just a handful of ‘thankful villages’ in England whose men all returned. And I’ve visited tombs of the unknown soldier in honour of those whose bodies were never brought home.
There are many places still to visit: Highgate cemetery in North London. Sylvia Plath’s grave in Yorkshire. Keats’ final resting place in Rome (see epigraph above). Coventry cathedral. New Orleans. The pyramids. Jesus’ tomb. The battlefields of France and Belgium. Auswitz. Places where millions of people suffered and died and must never be forgotten. Not tourist destinations or places of morbid curiosity, but places of pilgrimage where we can contemplate those that went before and try to learn the lessons that their deaths can teach us about how to live our lives now.
I do think I would have made a good funeral director. I am not afraid of dead bodies or indeed of dying. But I do fear losing my loved ones as I know how hard it is to go on living when you miss a person so much. I think I would be of comfort to the bereaved.
I also think I’d have made a good Victorian when it comes to mourning.
If you feel so inclined, here is Emma Freud’s guide on How to do a Funeral. Its very good and I have cut it out to keep…
I love Christmas but I do confess to getting panicky right now. I feel the pressure building up behind my eyes and my heart beating just a little too fast.
It’s good to remember the true meaning of Christmas. As much as I love the shiny baubles and the Buble’s Christmas CD, I was reminded yesterday that Christmas is about awe and wonder. A baby in a manger. A world of possibility.
Children have it right. Anticipation and excitement. But we as adults need to play our part. We need to cut back on Argos and Tesco, even John Lewis (who do the best adverts by far). We need to focus on the way Christmas brings us together, whatever our beliefs. For me, as a Christian, there is nothing better than the carols by candlelight service at our church, which is always packed and so pretty.
What can we do?
Buy local. Buy Fair-trade. Buy from charity shops and Oxfam online. Buy homemade. Or make something yourself. Buy vintage.
Ask someone over for Christmas day.
Watch telly with your family. Watch Elf. Or Home Alone. Or Mupppet Christmas Carol. Watch It’s a Wonderful Life.
Pick up the phone and call a loved one.
Find it in your heart to let go of any hurt and bitterness that lurks there.
Give a book and make an author happy.
This Christmas I’m going to try to cut back on the stress. Which is flipping hard. So When I feel that pressure building, I will watch this scene from Elf, where Buddy shows the excitement of a child. And pop another cherry liqueur.
Here are some links to my favourite online stores right now.
OK, firstly please forgive this possibly garbled post. I have thoughts rushing at me and they are hard to catch. Bear with me…
I’ve had a weird year, not least because I turned 45. I was worried about this particular birthday because my dad was 45 when he took his own life. My birthday passed and it was OK. But it was when I was in Canada last month, on my own, that I hit his exact age, to the day. It was horrible. But I survived.
Now I feel like this age – 45 – is not a millstone but a milestone. I have survived. I don’t know what the road ahead will be like – I have more mountains to climb, that’s for sure. As we all do, in our own way. But I am still here and I have to make each day count.
My childhood is vivid and present with me as I grow older. Last week, I was in my shed/office (shoffice?) sorting through old postcards and I found this kitsch one of two kittens. I had a shock when I saw who’d sent it to me, back in the long hot summer of 1976. It was from a lady I knew as Auntie Wink. She lived over the road from our sweet shop in Torquay. We hung out. It was fun. Though her house smelt of cat pee.
Wink was the starting point for my first novel The Generation Game. I had no idea I’d kept the postcard. I was really moved to have it in my hand. I was back in her front room watching Bruce and Anthea, eating fish and chips. And I said a big thank you to her for making my book what it is.
And something more. This novel was published as a result of the Luke Bitmead Writers Award, a bursary for new novelists set up in memory of a very special young writer who sadly took his own life. His mother, Elaine Hanson, who set up the award, is a wonderful woman. And a survivor.
So I suppose what I am saying is two things:
1. We can never leave our childhood, however old we get. It shapes who we are, for better, for worse. And sometimes it comes back at us, in unexpected ways.
2. We are all connected.
And finally. Today I am giving a special thought to my dad. I wish you’d got some help, Daddy. Then you might still be here, with us, approaching your 80th birthday. That’s a lot of lost years.
And finally finally. Here’s my plea. If you are feeling suicidal or if you are worried about someone who might be suicidal, then please know there is help. Please call the Samaritans. Please talk.
Because they are a little oasis in the overwhelmingly vast world of publishing.
They are scouted by agents and publishers.
They have given me focus as a writer, assurance that my manuscript will be read and considered, and they have given me my breakthroughs.
So now I am trying to give a little back and am involved and connected with exciting and worthwhile competitions. If you are want to enter some writing competitions that could help you on your way then read this post.
I am concentrating on novel competitions as there are still comparatively few. In 2006 I won the novel section of the Yeovil Literary Prize with the opening chapters of The Generation Game judged by Katie Fforde. Now in its tenth year the closing date is May 31st so this one you have to be quick for. The novel prize is judged by Tracey Chevalier. There is also a short story and a poetry competition. I will always remain indebted to this prize and am so glad it is growing in status and reputation with an impressive alumni.
Next up, the Harry Bowling Prize. This competition is for novels by unpublished writers and this year there is a new flash competition. The closing date is September 30th 2013. I was runner-up with This Holey Life in 2008 and had a great time at the awards ceremony at MBA. This was affirming and gave me encouragement that I was on the right track.
So now a very special award, the Luke Bitmead Bursary for Writers. This is an annual award for unpublished writers in memory of Luke Bitmead who was Legend Press’s first novelist back in 2005. The first prize is a generous bursary and a publishing contract. I won the award in 2010 with The Generation Game which was published in August 2011 by Legend. A year later Legend published This Holey Life. Entries opened on the 1st May and the closing date is 2nd August 2013. Unlike the other novel competitions I am flagging up, the manuscript must be finished and the work of an unpublished author. The age limit is 16 and over so this allows a chance for a young person to enter. There is always a shortlist and some of these have also gone on to achieve publication.
And now some very exciting news: the inaugural Exeter Novel Prize run by CreativeWritingMatters and sponsored by Exeter Writers is now open for entries. The closing date is October 31st 2013. Cathie Hartigan, Margaret James and myself will be administering the prize which is for both unpublished and published writers for a novel not currently under contract with a commercial publisher. The shortlist will be judged by London agent Broo Doherty of Wade and Doherty and the winner will receive £500. There is a launch at Exeter Central Library on 27th June at 7.00pm, free entry plus cake, and a fabulous chance to meet other writers and find out more about the prize.
And one last competition but this time for a short story. I am honoured to be one of the judges for this year’s Hysterectomy Association’s short story competition. The closing date is 31st August 2013. Stories of up to 2000 word on ‘almost any theme related to women’. There are cash prizes but probably more importantly the first, second and third prize winners plus ten other writers will be published in an anthology.
And I must mention Words for the Wounded, a charity of which I am delighted to be a patron. The competition is closed now and the results will be announced on June 6th.
So I hope this has inspired lots of you to enter these competitions, all worthy and worth it. They really do help writers on the road to publication for which I am evidence…
But I want to finish with one of the best competitions ever. Crackerjack’s Double or Drop.