The Grocer’s Daughter

_48153436_-24Love her or hate her, you can’t feel complacent about the force that was Margaret Thatcher. A woman in a man’s world. Maybe she didn’t encourage other women into the cabinet or see herself as a feminist, but she did show by example that there was nothing a woman couldn’t do.

She was Prime Minister throughout my teenage years, the time I was politicised. I soon realised I would never vote Tory, especially during the miners’ strike (a backdrop I use in a chapter of The Generation Game). But I never questioned that I wouldn’t go to university, even though I was the first woman in my family to do so, at a time when only 6% of the population were going to university. That’s what I wanted to do, so I worked hard and I went. With a full grant and all my fees paid. I didn’t realise then how lucky I was.

I don’t like what Mrs’s T’s reign (and Reagan’s) did, the legacy she left; the way society has fractured, and the welfare state dismantled. She couldn’t understand non-achievers because she achieved everything she wanted. Her biggest failure was her inability to understand that not everyone had her brains, courage and vision. And yes, we were coming out of the winter of discontent, rubbish on the streets, the dead waiting to be buried, the unions acting undemocratically. But she went too far, selling off council housing, British Rail, everything except the gold (another PM did that…). She began the process of shifting the emphasis away from society and onto the individual. A process that has been unstoppable.

But one thing she fought for, being a woman and a mother, was child benefit as a universal benefit. She knew the ideological and practical importance of this small but regular income that could be spent on nappies, children’s shoes and the like.

This government, run by an old Etonian who has never had to struggle against the odds, is far more destructive and divisive than she ever was. I didn’t think that was possible but sadly it is.



Sweet Memories

Christmas 1977
Christmas 1977

As a writer and a person, I draw a lot on my memories. I suffer from ‘fibro fog’ and so often I forget words or recent events but my long-term memory is sharp and vivid, sparked by smells and songs and photos.

I read an article today on how looking at Facebook photos on your timeline can lift your mood, as they remind you that you have had good times in your life.

I also read a suggestion online somewhere last week (see I’ve already forgotten where) that at the beginning of the year you should write down every good thing that happens in your life, however small or seemingly insignificant, and put them in a jar. Then at the end of the year you take them all out and read them and there is the evidence in black and white of how many good things have happened.

In January 2012 I reached an all time low. I lost a few hours of my life and, in the days after this, with help from the mental health crisis team and my  therapist, I began the road to recovery. I was advised to carry photos of my children with me at all times so if I felt low and vulnerable I would remember that there are people counting on me and who love me. Photos trigger memories. Memories shape who we are. Memories are what make us human.

I love nostalgia. I love reminiscing. My first novel, The Generation Game, is full of details from the 70s, 80s and 90s. The ‘smallness’ of domestic life and the ‘bigness’ of national events. Music, telly programmes, clothes, sweets. The Silver Jubilee, the miners’ strike, Diana’s death. There’s even a time capsule thrown in, Blue Peter style. I had great fun writing this novel as it meant I could spend time back in my childhood, which was mostly a very happy place to be.

Sadly, our memory can fail us. I don’t mean forgetfulness. I mean dementia. Alzheimer’s. Nicholas Sparks’ quote from The Notebook sums up the tragedy of this condition. ‘It is a barren disease, as empty and lifeless as a desert. It is a thief of hearts and souls and memories.’ My step-father had Alzheimer’s and it was the saddest thing watching him lose his memory over several years. But even towards the end of his life, when he was in a nursing home, he would smile with happiness when my mum walked in the room and say ‘That’s my wife!’ And if you mentioned the word ‘Canada’, the place he was born and lived for the first ten years of his life, his eyes would light up with recognition.

Words, places, photos. A first curl, tooth, shoe.  Mementoes. Memories. So precious.

Even when we are at our lowest, we must remember all the good things we have had and all the important people who have crossed our paths. I’m not an advocate of telling others to count their blessings. That doesn’t work when you are depressed. I just mean that focusing on a photo of a loved one can bring us back to a better place.

Looking at the family photo at the top of this post is tinged with some sadness as four of the people sharing that Christmas dinner are no longer here. However, it was a happy day in our huge house with lots of family members staying. It reminds me of good times. And although sad things lay ahead, I don’t have to let those wipe away what went before.

So long as the memory of certain beloved friends lives in my heart, I shall say that life is good. Helen Keller.


One for the Dads…

I felt sad to hear of the premature death of Louise Clarke, one of the founding members of Pan’s People, the dance troupe that sashayed across our telly screens every Thursday Night during Top of the Pops.

Like most kids of the 70s, I watched TOTP religiously along with my brothers. Now I am sure that they watched Pan’s People for a different reason to me as they were boys and Pan’s People were  always glamourous, usually very sexy, and often brilliantly kitsch.  I watched Pan’s People because I was a dancer, doing ballet three times a week and hoping to go the Royal Ballet School (which is quite a different blog post). I thought they were amazing, the way they floated whimsically across the stage in high heels and sparkly dresses or spandex leotards. I wanted to be in Pan’s People but alas I was from Devon and a child so I could only dream. (Philippa, my narrator from ‘The Generation Game’, harbours similar feelings…)

Now, anyone that knows me, or has flicked through my blog posts, might be surprised to see me in awe of Pan’s People. I am a feminist and dancing girls are not something I approve of as a rule. But seeing this old video has brought up memories of sitting with my family watching telly, of having aspirations of stardom as a child, of flares and big hair, of a time when women were exploring the limits of what it meant to be the female of the species.

Ok, yes, looking back, the concept of Pan’s People is outdated. But actually they were of a more innocent time when, although a little sexy, they were not overtly sexual like women in the music business are expected to be now. They didn’t have to worry about shaking their booty or having Brazilians or surgically enhanced breasts. They still had a hint of that film star glamour that was passed down from Ginger Rogers with a bit of the girl-next-door Doris Day thrown in for good measure. And they were somehow quintessentially British.

Times have changed. Top of the Pops is no more. Families rarely sit down together and watch the same programme. We are living in a post-feminist society when anything goes. When young girls have the world at their feet but have somehow lost the aspirations of my generation, when anything was possible.

And then there’s the golden platforms. You’ve just got to admire a woman who can dance in golden platforms. I want some.


Had a lovely trip to Agatha Christie’s magnificent holiday home last Friday. Greenway, now owned by the National Trust, is set in stunning Devon countryside overlooking the River Dart with views down to Dartmouth and up to Dittisham. The house is elegant and huge but still feels like a family home as it is so cluttered with collections of all sorts of things. Agatha was married to archeologist Sir Max Mallowan and accompanied him on several digs in Syria and Iraq which explains the collections. (I thought I was a hoarder…)

The extensive gardens include a walled garden, a peach house, a pet cemetery and the famous boathouse with plunge pool that appears in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.
Although Agatha lived in other parts of England, we Devonians like to claim her as ours. She was born in Torquay and spent her childhood there. She was actually baptised in a church in Belgrave Road just across the street from the sweet shop where I lived as a child which inspired the setting for The Generation Game. 
If you are down this way, Greenway is well worth a visit but getting there needs some planning. If you decide to drive you have to pre-book a car park space. Or you can arrive in style by vintage bus, boat, or steam train.

The Birth of a Book

It’s been said before: publishing a book is like giving birth. Well, I’ve given birth to three babies and they might be teenagers now, but I still remember the pregnancies, the overdue dates, the labours, the births, the pain … and the end results.

So… I spent a long time writing the books, waking in the night, unable to sleep, plodding along, struggling uphill, and then the persistence of finding a publisher, someone to take care of you when the time came, knowing it would be worth the waiting and the pain to finally have that book in my hand. In my arms. Etcetera.

This time last year I was a first time novelist and the overwhelming emotion when I held The Generation Game for the first time was relief: I’d finally done it, helped along the way by professionals and friends and family. And there was much celebration.

A year on and I have just held my second novel, This Holey Life, in my hand – born a little early, a few weeks before the due date of August 1st.

(OK, so how much longer can I keep this analogy going?)

Having a book published is not as eye-poppingly, skin-splittingly painful as actually pushing out a seven pound something baby but, yes, there is pain. But there is also joy.

And now the long hard slog of nurturing this book has to begin, along with working on that next baby…

The New Elizabethans

It’s been a funny old sort of long weekend. You can’t go anywhere without being accosted by Union Jack bunting – whether it’s cheap plastic or posh Cath Kidston, bunting is being hung out as never before.  I’m a fan of bunting, don’t get me wrong. I love all things retro and vintage and bunting has nostalgia threaded through it. (Though we haven’t had any up at home as the Union Flag is banned. Another story.)

The telly  and newspapers have been full of stats about Queen Elizabeth II who has been on the throne for sixty years, the second longest-serving monarch (only Queen Victoria to beat at 63 years). She has seen 12 British Prime Ministers (Tony Blair was the first PM to be born during her reign in 1953), 14 New Zealand  Prime Ministers, 12 Australian Prime Ministers and 11 Canadian Prime Ministers. 12 US Presidents, 6 Popes and 6 Archbishops of Canterbury. She has been on 261 overseas visits including visiting Australia 18 times, Canada 22 times, Jamaica 6 times and NZ 10 times. She was the first British monarch to visit the Republic of Ireland (last year) and the first  to visit China (in 1986).

On a personal note, I have grown in admiration for her over the years since I first saw her in Bristol in 1977 during the Silver Jubilee celebrations. During the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant on Sunday, Sea Containers House unveiled a giant photo of the Silver Jubilee balcony appearance which brought the memories to the surface: A hot day. Waiting on the Downs above the River Avon, the Suspension Bridge in the background. Waiting and waiting for a glimpse of her Majesty to drive past in an open car. My lovely grandparents looking after my brother and I, excited as we were. Her dark hair, her wave, her smile. A picnic with tomato sandwiches and hard-boiled eggs. An ice lolly. Tired legs…

Back in Teignmouth, we went to a street party. Despite the heat, I was dressed in a red, white and blue tank top knitted by my mum from a Woman’s Realm pattern. The highlight for me was winning the bonnet competition (see The Generation Game for a fictionalised version of events). And looking at that photograph now, of the pre-Diana Royal family back in the day, you can only wonder at how that family has changed over the years. As every family has changed. As mine has changed. The  jubilee offers a chance to wonder at the journey we have been on as a nation over the last 60 years. And the journey each of us has been on with our own families, through the ups and the downs and the highs and lows. The break-ups, the make-ups. The successes, the failures. The passing of the old and the arrivals of the new. The sun and the rain.

We don’t know the obstacles ahead of us but, when we come up against them, we keep going. We keep going because of the love we have for those around us that we call our family. Whether we see them everyday, every month, every year. Or whether we just carry them in our hearts.

Festival virgin makes it through the night

I was very nervous on Thursday as I was speaking at my first festival, about my journey as a writer since winning the Yeovil Literary Prize in 2006. I was privileged to be asked along to the inaugural Brympton Festival at the stunning Brympton House in Somerset. I had a lovely receptive audience and it was informal and relaxed. They were very gentle with me. And it was a cathartic experience, talking about my ups and downs until finally having The Generation Game published last summer, five years after the opening chapters won the Yeovil. It was particularly touching to have Margaret Graham there, as she organised the Prize the year I won and has been an encouragement ever since. 

In fact, I met lots of  great people, including author Katharine McMahon who writes novels about strong women in historical settings such as the Crimean War and the French Revolution. She was the speaker at the literary supper. Very glamourous evening. Too much champagne (if there is such a thing) in a gorgeous setting.

I wish the festival well for next year and the years to come. And I’ve got the festival bug. So I hope there are more to come…