Irene Lawford – My Mother, my Inspiration

Yes, it happened. My mother died earlier this month following a short but intense period of illness.  In late February a series of minor falls had resulted in a trip to A&E and a scan, which revealed a large and rapidly growing brain tumour.  Called a glioblastoma multiforme, this is a Grade IV malignant tumour. No treatment plan was offered, as it was deemed inappropriate for a woman in her 80’s, and in any case, the tumour was too far advanced and in too inaccessible a part of her brain. She was given steroids to bring down the swelling which had brought about the falls, and once she had temporarily recovered some of the lost capacity that had given rise to those early falls, and had a little speech and mobility therapy, she was sent home. To die.

We, my brother and I, knew this from that first day in A&E. But my mother chose not to acknowledge the fact, though we are assured she understood it. She deftly side-stepped words like growth, tumour, malignant and cancer. She didn’t ask us to Google glioblastoma. When told there was to be no surgery, she pronounced herself relieved that she didn’t have to worry about that any more. When introduced to palliative services, she would begin her sentences with ‘when I’m up-and-about again’. Her approach throughout the whole period of rapid decline was extraordinarily stoical and positive in a way that made us wonder more than once whether she truly understood her predicament. Her strategy, to continue as normal, calling her reduced mobility and changed circumstances ‘the next phase of my life’, showed a resolve and strength that amazed us. Though when you read about her life, you may see the roots from which sprung that courage and determination.

Tumours of this kind grow faster the more advanced in age the patient is. Nobody would tell my brother and I ‘how long’. But we got the picture when the hospital consultant made an outpatient appointment to see my mother, at her request.  We couldn’t understand why a hospital consultant would agree to see an untreatable, incurable former patient in an outpatient clinic. Though when we realised the appointment was for July, we understood. And we got our ‘how long’.

In actual fact, things moved rather faster. A month in hospital, and a month at home, was all she got.

As I process the feelings of shock and loss, I may write more. But for now, I wonder if you will gain inspiration, as I do, from my mother’s life. She was a wonderful and unique woman, though occasionally light on some of the qualities one traditionally associates with motherhood. But when you understand her life, you may understand why, and the energies that drove her, as I do. She determined to overcome a traumatic and lonely childhood and carve her own path in life; she strove to make her mark and ultimately, to ensure her German Jewish family’s contribution and heritage was revived and restored; she was a person who saw what she wanted, and pursued it, relentlessly, but always charmingly. She was engaged, sociable, connected around the world; an intellectual, a music-lover, a writer; a giver of talks, a traveller and a student of whatever sparked her interest.  She loved her family and her children and grandchildren, and she had a real zest for life. Right up until a month before her illness made itself known, she was travelling, learning, and meeting new people.

My wonderful, amazing mother. I give you my thoughts on a truly inspirational woman, one who knew no boundaries.

Irene Lawford was born in 1935 in Leipzig, Germany to Max and  Marie-Luise Hinrichsen.

Her father (my grandfather), was from a large family, there were seven brothers and sisters in all. The family was prominent in Leipzig society, being the owners of a music publishing business, C.F. Peters.  The young composer, Edvard Grieg, published by Peters Edition to this day, was a family friend and a frequent guest at the imposing building at Talstrasse 10, which housed both the offices of the business, and the family apartments. As well as being a successful music publisher, Henri Hinrichsen, (my great-grandfather) was also a philanthropist, whose projects included funding the purchase of the collection which became the heart of Leipzig’s Music Instrument Museum and becoming a founding benefactor of the Henriette-Goldschmidt Schule, a college for the further education of women.

But the union of a Catholic mother and Jewish father in the disturbing pre-Holocaust era made my mother a ‘mischling’ in Nazi eyes – that’s like saying ‘half-breed’ today. In 1937, at just two years of age, along with her parents, she emigrated to England to avoid the worsening Nazi persecution. Most of her family believed that ‘things couldn’t get worse’, and chose to remain in Germany, trusting that some kind of sanity would prevail. In all, 17 members of her family, including her grandfather and grandmother, would subsequently perish in Nazi concentration camps, or as a result of restrictions placed on Jews by the Nazis.

Max and Marie-Luise’s foresight led to them leaving Germany with the means to establish a life elsewhere. They set up home in Hampstead – though during the war years they were forced to move frequently, being ‘enemy aliens’ and ‘bloody foreigners’. My mother attended several boarding schools, where she would have to learn quickly how to settle in unfamiliar places, connect with strangers, and make friends.

She spent the largest period of her education at St Christopher’s School, Letchworth, a forward-thinking establishment which even today boasts that ‘We treat young people as individuals, encouraging them to develop into capable, imaginative, responsible people with a zest for life’. At the time the school was vegetarian, something which underpinned her enthusiasm for healthy eating. I well remember being dragged along to health food restaurant, Cranks, when on trips into London in the 60’s, long before clean eating was fashionable. By her own account, my mother enjoyed St Christopher’s School.

My grandparents’ marriage was unsettled to say the least, and the life of a music publisher’s wife proved too unexciting for the impulsive and bohemian Marie-Luise. She met a Hungarian pianist and when my mother was just 14, made the inexplicable (to me) decision to leave her husband and daughter, to live with her new love in Hungary, behind what was to become known as the Iron Curtain. My mother was to see her own mother only once more, before she died when Irene was just 22, committing suicide when it became impossible to access the drugs she needed to treat her advancing multiple sclerosis. One can only imagine the impact maternal desertion must have had on a 14-year-old girl already parcelled off to boarding schools, let alone the suicide that followed – but equally to conclude that her stoicism, impenetrable defences, inner strength and self-reliance may well have had its roots in this period.

Her Auntie Lotte, also escaped from Nazi persecution, settled in the lovely town of Church Stretton, in Shropshire, and it was here that my mother spent her school holidays. She always retained an immense affection for her aunt, for the closest she came to ‘normal’ family life as a child, and for the beautiful Shropshire countryside.  As a family, we returned often to the area, staying with Auntie Lotte and walking the Long Mynd and Carding Mill Valley.

In the intervening years, her father Max had established his music publishing business in London, originally as Hinrichsen Edition, and now Peters Edition. On leaving school, my mother was apprenticed – sent around Europe staying in different cities for a few weeks at a time, with other music publishing houses, to learn the trade. She describes being unsettled by the thought that her father, just six or seven years after the war had ended, thought fit to dispatch her back to Germany, alone. Whatever else, this time reinforced her sense of self-reliance and allowed her to hone her communication and rapport-building skills, as she sought to settle into life in different places and different countries every few weeks or months. When she returned to London, hopeful of a key role in the business, she took up the simple clerical job offered by her father in the office of Peters Edition.

Disillusioned by the mundane nature of her work responsibilities, she set about building a social life for herself in London, and it was here she met the man who was to become her husband and my father, Derek Lawford. They married in 1956. My mother would maintain that it had always seemed to disappoint her father that his daughter preferred to marry and create a family of her own, over pursuit of a career in music publishing. In fact, Max’s second marriage would lead to this opportunity being withheld indefinitely, and a distance engineered between them that would have lasting consequences for her.

With two young children, the family spent several years living in Sittingbourne, Kent, before returning to North West London, where my father established a successful business. But my mother was never destined to be just a housewife – throughout her life she always pursued a vast array of hobbies and interests:

  • Evening classes in languages, art/history, pottery and other creative skills, and carpentry (the garden shed/workshop with its workbench, heavy-duty tools and stacks of miscellaneous woods and veneers was always her domain)
  • Courses at the City Lit (City Literary Institute)
  • Over six years, she worked dilligently for, and achieved, a BA degree through the Open University
  • She drew up her own family tree with pen and paper, long before these could be done on-line – her interest in family history would be an enduring theme of her life
  • She was a passionate collector and, having inherited her father’s love of music stamps, set about amassing a comprehensive collection, from which she would regularly exhibit. She has also at times collected, amongst other things, antique visiting card cases, musical postcards, art nouveau prints and dolls in national dress from all over the world
  • She learned languages – speaking German fluently, but also French, Spanish, Italian and even a little Russian
  • She was a passionate correspondent, always writing to and receiving letters from people all over the world – all this in the days before email and social media
  • Latterly, she enjoyed many activities with the U3A, though for years she pronounced herself not old enough yet to join them. Once persuaded, she immediately felt at home in this network of active, intellectually engaged friends and acquaintances. She very much enjoyed giving talks on music history, and leading a German Conversation group which met at her house on alternate Tuesdays.

Back in the late 1960’s, her interest in stamps spawned an even greater passion – the Philatelic Music Circle. Along with a friend, she founded this organisation dedicated to the interests of people who collected stamps around the theme of music. Fuelled by their enthusiasm, ‘The PMC’ became the largest thematic stamp club in the world, with its quarterly magazine (edited by her) and annual convention. It remained active for upward of 30 years, with my mother at the helm.

She had always been an confident traveller and her PMC connections gave her a wonderful excuse to visit other countries, knowing there were people everywhere with whom she could connect. Her love of travel would underpin her later years and she toured places as far afield as Peru, China and Russia, as well as the USA and Canada, the Caribbean and just about every country in Europe.

My father died in 1988 after a long illness, through which my mother had nursed him at home. At around that time then, her life was undergoing dramatic change.  Also undergoing dramatic change was the landscape of Europe, with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the end of the Cold War and the separation of East/West. My mother was to use this opportunity to make her first ever visit to the city of her birth, Leipzig, which had up until then, as part of what was East Germany, been behind the ‘Iron Curtain’.  And it was here that she discovered what would become her mission for the next 25 years of her life.

She found a city that had largely lost a sense of its Jewish cultural heritage, with what knowledge there was, buried, quite literally, in basements.  She realised her own grandfather’s family, his achievements both commercial and philanthropic, had been erased from history during the Nazi era, and not in any meaningful way rediscovered throughout the Cold War years. She found a depleted Leipzig C.F. Peters office unsure of its heritage.  She set about reviving the history, re-establishing the heritage and ensuring that her grandfather, Henri Hinrichsen, and his family, received due recognition for their contribution to Leipzig society.

My mother visited Leipzig several times a year thereafter, researching, canvassing for support, assisting anyone and everyone who showed an interest in reviving the city’s Jewish cultural heritage. At the Music Instrument Museum, she discovered the plaque naming a room in the museum after her grandfather, in a basement – it was soon to be reinstated. She spearheaded the setting up of a memorial stone to the family in the Südfriedhof cemetery – and many, many more notable achievements. And on every visit, she would give interviews to whoever requested, and talks to the students at the Henriette-Goldschmidt Schule, on the history of their city and the Holocaust, as it impacted the Hinrichsen family.

As a result of her visits to Leipzig and her growing involvement with her family heritage, she began researching and subsequently wrote two books; the first a detailed history of C.F. Peters over 200 years, and the second, tracing her Jewish heritage back a full 500 years, an account of the family’s migration from Spain and Portugal in the days of the Spanish Inquisition, through Germany and onward across the world.

 

She was a keen speaker, giving her talks to whoever would invite her – Jewish societies, clubs, music societies including the Grieg Society, the U3A and more – on her books and their topics, and on many aspects of music appreciation and music history. Writing, recording history accurately, documenting and educating remained her collective mission right to the end of her life.

My mother always enjoyed travelling. She had a passion for new places and experiences. Her trips always involved expanding her mind; exploring history, architecture, art or music, learning Pilates, cookery, yoga, writing, and more and her year would always be one filled to the brim with adventures, education and experiences.

Apparently undaunted by the trauma of cancer, when it impacted, she began planning her autobiography and set about instructing my brother and I on the changes she wanted to make to her garden, ideas she had for home reorganisation, redecoration and future travel plans.

She celebrated her 82nd birthday in early April and was thrilled that we had managed to organise a small party for her in secret. Though bed-bound by then, she enjoyed the sociable afternoon chatting with her guests. We were blessed with a beautiful day, sunny and warm, and her new downstairs bedroom overlooked the garden, where guests could come and go from her bedside. After they left, she pronounced it her ‘best birthday ever’.

My independent, strong, kind, generous mother, passionate about music and her heritage, and with a deep enduring love for her family, died peacefully, just three weeks later.

Note: Anyone interested in my mother’s books can find them on the website of Peters Edition, here. Both books can be obtained from the USA and UK Peters Edition companies. If you have a passion for classical music or an interest in Jewish or European history, I commend them to you.

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Mea Culpa

I fell off the wagon today, and this blog post is my attempt to climb back on it as fast as possible.

I’ve had a bit of a discouraging week from a weight-loss point of view.  After the magnificent indulgences of Ragdale Hall (healthy indeed, but indulgences nonetheless), I decided to do the Easy Squeezy Three Day Detox which my vitality coach recommended when I was working with her late last year.  Check out the blog post on this detox if you’re interested. It’s quite simple, and the first time I did it, I lost four pounds in three days.  I’ve done it a couple more times since then, with less dramatic impact, but it’s still a good thing to do to bring your system back into line.

All was going well, until the evening of Day Three, when I accidentally made myself a lovely tomato, basil and mozzarella salad – gah!  Cheese!  I wasn’t supposed to be eating cheese! I just didn’t think. Still, as you can see, even with the dairy fail, the effects of the detox (Monday through Wednesday) were… pleasing.

2016-04-24 17.41.59

Sadly however, the feelgood didn’t last, and my morning weigh-ins have been up and down like the proverbial yo-yo all week. Even though I’m used to the way my weight fluctuates on daily weigh-ins, it was more than a little frustrating to reach a historic 14-year low – and then bounce right back up again.

Whilst I end the week just one-fifth of a pound below where I started, my weekly average tells me I’m just over a pound down on last week, which is exactly what I’ve been losing, on average, each week for the last several months. But the detox should have nudged that figure down a little, and it didn’t.

Maybe it was that moreish, melt-in-the-mouth mozzarella.

Or maybe it was the fact that I haven’t been walking much this week. I’ve been super-busy with work; starting early, finishing late and working through the day without so much as a loo-break for hours on end. I did my early morning walk only two days this week. I haven’t walked at all this weekend, and I usually do a decent 50-60 minutes on both Saturday and Sunday. Instead apart from the odd couple of hours, I’ve been sat at my desk, bum glued to chair, for days. No surprise, I’m feeling sluggish.

A couple of other things have knocked me off kilter too.  I went for a haircut on Thursday and when I said I wanted it ‘shorter and choppier’ than usual, I didn’t think I’d end up looking like… this.

I may be smiling but I'm crying inside. I'm also hiding the worst of it
I may be smiling but I’m crying inside. I’m also hiding the worst of it
One friend generously proclaimed it was a ‘Dame Judi Dench cut’. But with all due respect to this esteemed thespian, I’m not ready to be compared to any 81-year old.  Anyway, the haircut – my own misjudgement as much as my stylist’s over-enthusiasm with the scissors – has got me down.

So too the fact that I enjoyed a few so-called healthy snacks at a friend’s house yesterday evening. I liked them so much I went looking for them on Ocado this morning and found to my horror (well, dismay…), that they both contained significant quantities of… sugar. Quite how peanut and almond flavoured so-called ‘healthy’ popcorn can contain enough sugar to make it the third most significant ingredient in weight terms after popcorn and oil, is beyond me.  But it took the wind out of my sails, as I’ve been very, very good at avoiding sugary food, and I should have checked before eating these tasty treats.

So that’s two careless, accidental diet fails, a lapse of walking willpower, wobbly weigh-ins and a dodgy haircut. That all left me feeling deflated and unattractive for the first time in weeks.  And that was all it took. This afternoon, whilst busily engaged in summoning up excuses not to go for a walk in the park, I tumbled off the wagon.

Instead of taking time to plan and prepare a nice healthy meal for myself, I cracked open a 230g tub of houmous and consumed the whole thing (that’s over 350 calories, friends) with around two thirds of a packet of Luke’s Organic Gluten Free Chia & Seed Corn Chips (that’s around 100g, a whopping 486 calories and a stomach-churning 66g of carbohydrate).  Even organic, gluten free and sprinkled with chia seeds, corn chips are … corn chips. They weren’t even that nice. I am undone.

My humous/not-so-healthy corn chips binge ended at 5pm today.  Even though I don’t count calories, I know that cruising through nearly 900 of them for a ‘snack’ is heavy-duty. Add that to my breakfast (muesli with home-made almond milk, Greek yoghurt, mixed nuts and fruit, plus a few little slices of cheese and chorizo on-the-side) (well, it is Sunday…), and I’m done for the day.  I won’t eat again until tomorrow.

In fact, if I can do it… I won’t eat again in any meaningful way until Tuesday.

I’m thinking this might be a suitable time to try a one-day fast, to tell my body I’m sorry for this afternoon’s deluge of carbohydrate and bad fat.  My intention is to stick to plain water, my detox lemon drink (warm water, squeeze of lemon, ginger) and coffee (black, no sugar) for the day.  That’s for 24 hours, until at least 5pm on Monday, or longer if I can keep it up.  I will also walk tomorrow morning, whatever the weather (apparently it’s going to be cold and a bit drizzly, so cross your fingers for me, that I can dodge the worst of it).

Given that the whole point of this post is accountability (and always assuming there’s anyone out there who cares how I get on with my penance), I will report back.

Incidentally, I’m well aware that for many people, a tub of humous and a bowl of corn chips does not a binge/diet fail make. For many people, binges and diet fails are about sugar. The positive I draw from this is that mine… wasn’t about sugar.  My accidental consumption yesterday evening aside, I am very, very serious about staying away from sugar. I’ve just finished reading Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss. Reading books like this fuels my resolve – and makes it all the more annoying when my fails are accidental. But I remain quite pathetically grateful that my body does appear to be learning to live without this deadly, addictive additive.

I know I have to be able to cope with wobbles and disappointments. Part of falling down is getting up quickly and dusting yourself off.  So I put on some chillout tunes, lit an incense stick and fired up my laptop in pursuit of absolution and accountability.

Tomorrow is another day.

Recharge | Refocus | Renew

2016-04-13 08.41.17I’ve just returned from a blissful 4-day break at Ragdale Hall Health Spa in Leicestershire (that’s right in the middle of England for my non-UK friends – around 2.5 hours’ drive from my home, west of London).  I went with my Mother – it’s something we’ve been doing for a few years, to celebrate our birthdays and have a little mother-and-daughter time.  It’s her treat to me – and quite a treat it is!

Birthday flowers came to Ragdale too
Birthday flowers came to Ragdale too
When it comes to health spas, Ragdale Hall is in a league of its own. They have an elegant estate in a beautiful rural setting, a wonderful attitude to customer care, a stupendous array of treatments, a creative and imaginative way with food, and fabulous facilities.  Hard to beat, on every level.

From the moment you pull up at the door and a young man emerges to take your case whilst another valet parks your car, to the moment you leave, there is no detail left unattended. It’s one of those places that looks perfectly sublime on the surface, but you can only imagine what goes on backstage to deliver that calm, professional and infinitely relaxed ambience.

Behind Ragdale in the early morning mist, the fields stretch for miles
Behind Ragdale in the early morning mist, the fields stretch for miles
This year, visiting Ragdale Hall with over 50 fewer fatty pounds on my bones was a truly invigorating experience in a host of new ways. With more energy to spare, I enjoyed a brisk walk and a swim every morning, before blissing-out in the thermal spa. I found the gym! I walked around all day – like everyone else does – in a towelling robe (not previously possible, as the only robe which fitted me last year weighed a ton and left me sweating and uncomfortable). I enjoyed a wonderful dry flotation experience (again, not possible last year, as I exceeded their weight limit for this facility).  I made healthy choices at the generous lunchtime buffets and turned my back on all the yummy desserts – awarding myself many smug-points as I watched others heap their plates.  I was exfoliated, scrubbed, buffed, massaged and aromatherapised until my skin was velvet-smooth and my muscles stretched.  At the gift shop, I bought a bracelet with a magnetic clasp – something I could not have done last year as even my wrists were too big. I slept well.  Yes!  I slept wonderfully well.

Homework - but in a good way
Homework – but in a good way
I took some homework with me, as it seemed an appropriate place to re-focus and plan the next few months and years: The Life Plan by Australian Life Coach, Shannah Kennedy. I read cover-to-cover and begin some of the many exercises designed to help me figure out what I want from my future.  I know… some people think that’s all a bit cranky, but not me. I was a Life Coach for a while, so you shouldn’t be surprised – I do actually practice what I preached! I’ve done this kind of life audit in one form or another three or four times over the years, and it’s always proved worthwhile.  This time, healthy lifestyle is front-and-centre of my priorities.  I boosted my resolve still further by ploughing into Sugar Salt Fat – How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss.

Do I sound a little evangelical about my Ragdale experience and the opportunity it gave me to celebrate my dietary and lifestyle success to date, whilst looking forward to a healthier and more energetic future?  Guilty as charged, m’lud.

I came home relaxed and refreshed (not even the long crawl down the M1 could have disrupted my blissful state), ready for the second half of my healthy weight-loss journey – the next 50 pounds (and more…).

My Singing Ringing Tree in its full glory
My Singing Ringing Tree in its full glory
Back home in the garden, my amelanchier – my beautiful Singing Ringing Tree – had burst into blossom.  It looks perfect in its shower of white flowers, for just a few days, and I’ve occasionally missed it – but not this year.

You can see why I love it and why it feeds my soul, can’t you?

Mists and Mellow Fruitfulness

Autumn is already turning into a fruitful time for me.

2015-10-02 17.13.07Autumn is my favourite time of year. I love the turn of the season, the explosion of colours and smells; I love that transitional blend of chill mornings and still warm, sunny afternoons. I love to see banks of blackberries ripening in the park. I love it when #Strictly starts up again on the telly.

One month into a(nother) healthy eating/exercise campaign and already a notable few pounds less lumbersome, a simple commitment to an early morning walk (weather permitting – I’m not yet a friend of Parkas and Pakamacs) has begun to embed itself into my routine, sending oxygen to all the parts that need waking up as the day begins.

In the park this morning
In the park on Sunday morning

So it is that for the last few weeks I’ve been feeling increasingly fruitful where I have for months been feeling, well, a bit… stale.

2015-09-10 21.24.42My fruitful phase got off to a good start in early September when I retreated with the folks of Circle of Missé in France, spending six intensive days working on the structure for Novel Number Two. It took me a little over 4 days to nail it – that’s what happens when you push everything else aside and make the story your priority. Wayne and Aaron at Circle of Missé know just how to create the perfect environment for writerly focus. In a sublime setting, and with the opportunity to socialise with other writers and enjoy amazing meals every evening, it’s somehow easier to dedicate yourself to the writing – or the thinking and planning of the writing – throughout the day.

I came home with a roadmap and some very positive feedback on my ideas. Now I’m back on my horse, and back to that bare-minimum 500-words-a-week commitment – the one that should see me in perpetual motion (ideally a great deal faster than 500 words a week) through my first draft.

2015-10-04 14.13.45

On Saturday night, autumn brought yet more writerly stimulus – courtesy of my local library service, who have organised a month long festival of literature, arts and music in my borough, called Culture Bite. That’s already amazing, when so many other library services are in decline. Even more amazing, no less than three exceptional new authors came to talk about their debut psychological novels. Clare Mackintosh, with her Sunday Times/Richard & Judy triumph, I Let You Go, which begins with a tragic accident; Rebecca Whitney with The Liar’s Chair, a dark tale of a toxic marriage; and Renee Knight with Disclaimer, about a woman who finds her own darkest secret within the pages of of a novel. These are the kind of books I love to read, and the kind of books I aspire to write. All three writers were so generous of their time, their enthusiasm and – when they learned I had written and self-published my first – their warm encouragement and support. Thank you – all of you – for a fabulous evening, and for sharing your insights and experiences so openly.

Did you realise, you’re living my dream?

Namedrop Central: Me and Mickey Spillane

imageSeeing his famous quote on Chris #TSRA’s blog, brought to mind the time I went to tea with Mickey Spillane.

Many writers will be familiar with the quote, attributed to prolific author of bestselling gritty detective stories, Mickey Spillane:

The first chapter sells the book. The last chapter sells the next book.

Thanks to Chris The Story Reading Ape’s blog for sharing this pertinent quote yesterday.

It reminded me of something else too – that I once met Mickey Spillane. It was back in May 1992, and not just in a book-signing queue either.  I was invited to tea at his home in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina.

I was holidaying in the USA with an American friend. We were visiting with her parents, who lived at Pawleys Island, just a few miles up the coast from Murrels Inlet. It’s a small and close-knit community and they knew Mickey Spillane socially. Keen for their British guest to experience something beyond the undeniable beauty of the South Carolina coastline, they wondered if I’d be interested in meeting their local celebrity author, as he had extended an invitation for us to join him for afternoon tea.

Now, I wasn’t a writer at the time. I’ve always loved books and reading, but if I’d had the slightest inkling of where my passion would lie some 20 years later, it’s fair to say I would have made a great deal more of the encounter than I did.

My hosts had been kind enough to source a couple of his books for our visit, but there wasn’t time for me to read them. Nevertheless, whilst I betrayed a staggering ignorance of his considerable body of work, Mickey Spillane graciously signed them for me. I recall him writing something like, “To a real doll…” although I’m ashamed to admit both paperbacks have since vanished from my bookshelves, probably during one home move or another.   I expect he wrote that kind of thing on the inside covers of a lot of books, but it made me blush nonetheless.

Mickey Spillane, author of stories featuring more violence and sex and a higher body count than was typical of novels of the time (he wrote from 1947 until his death in 2006) could not have been more kind and generous towards us, his guests. We enjoyed tea on the lawn at his beautiful home and he showed us around his gardens. We talked of the impact that Hurricane Hugo had had on the region just two or three years earlier. He posed with us for photographs, but these too have dissolved away.

Looking him up on Google this afternoon, I particularly liked another of his quotes, answering those who criticised the high sex/violence content in his stories:

Those big-shot writers could never dig the fact that there are more salted peanuts consumed than caviar… If the public likes you, you’re good.

In these modern, changed times, when most of us can only dream of making a living from our stories, we should celebrate authors like Mickey Spillane, who lived our dream, and lived it well.

Epistolary Novels – Letters Enjoy These

fountain-pen-447575_1280Having just dumped a prize-winning literary novel I’d been meaning to read for years out of sheer boredom (no, I’m not going to tell you which one it was), I downloaded Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday from Audible. I was immediately caught up in the flow of communications – emails, notes and diary entries – that sculpt this touching story. Despite its lukewarm reviews, I’d enjoyed the film of the book, which starred Euan McGregor and Emily Blunt. The audiobook, with a different narrator for each character, put a smile on my face within the first couple of minutes. I can’t tell you more, I’m afraid, as it’s only had 20 minutes of my time so far.

But it made me think of the other epistolary novels I’ve enjoyed over the years.

I can’t speak for them all but the ones I’ve read are not, by and large, towering literary achievements. Mostly they’re played for humour or gentle sentimentality. But reading isn’t just about literary or intellectual genius, is it? It’s about entertainment and feel-good. It’s about curling up on the sofa or spreading out on a beach towel, and being lifted out of your life and deposited somewhere else for a few hours. Everyone loves to receive a letter; we all jump to the ‘ping’ of a newly arrived email; and as for encountering someone’s secret diary – well, it would be irresistible, wouldn’t it? I think that’s partly why epistolary novels are such fun.

Strictly speaking – and the clue is in the word – epistolary novels tell their story through written communications, letters, notes and more recently, emails. But many lists also include books based around diary entries.  So here, I offer you a glimpse of five of my favourites across both categories, in case you feel like packing them in your holiday suitcases.

  1. 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

Strictly speaking, not a novel, but a memoir, as the story is true and the characters are real. In 1949 in search of obscure classics and other books she has been unable to find in New York, the author contacts a second-hand bookshop in London. The book chronicles the correspondence between the author and the bookshop’s manager over decades as their friendship blossoms. You probably know that already, but if haven’t come across 84 Charing Cross Road in either its literary, film, or stage play version before, you’re missing a gem.

  1. Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster

I first read Daddy Long Legs as a child and re-read it last year in just a couple of hours. Brought up in an orphanage, Jerusha ‘Judy’ Abbot is fortunate to gain an anonymous benefactor who pays for her education. The condition attached is that she write regularly to the benefactor, whose identity she does not know, and whom she has seen only through his distorted shadow – hence the nickname she gives him. The letters unfold into the story of how an independent girl begins to question what she has previously accepted and challenge the status quo, as she blossoms into a young woman. It’s a one-sitting book for an adult, but a gentle and touching read nonetheless.

  1. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

A heart-warming story, dark in places, telling of the inventive and eccentric inhabitants of Guernsey during World War II, when the Channel Islands became the only part of the British Isles to fall under German occupation. The letters to and from the various members of the eponymous society tell of quirky characters, friendship, resilience and triumph of the human spirit. Whimsical, but never trite; pretty much perfect, this one.

  1. e: A Novel by Matt Beaumont

The strapline brands it ‘the novel of liars, lunch and lost knickers’ and that about sums it up. Not letters this time, but emails, and definitely told for laughs. This is a wickedly funny book, awash with backstabbing and bitchiness but above all, wit.  Expertly plotted, it’s set amongst the corporate climbers and back-stabbers of a London advertising agency. You’ll probably devour it in one sitting, but it’ll leave you with a smile on your face – especially if you work in marketing.

  1. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ by Sue Townsend

Yes, and all the Adrian Mole adventures that followed too. Adrian Mole, stuffier and more pretentious than the average child, diligently records his thoughts and experiences as he progresses through self-conscious adolescence. The seven books which follow chart Adrian’s progress through life. They’ve been around for a while, but are pure gold nonetheless. Every Brit will know of these, but if you’re reading this elsewhere, I urge you to make the acquaintance of Adrian Mole.

There are others… Bridget Jones’ Diary of course; perhaps also We Need to Talk About Kevin, The Screwtape Letters, The Perks of Being a Wallflower – all gems in their genres. The Martian is a newer one which has made its way on to my ‘to read’ list. Goodreads provides an excellent list of epistolary novels too.  But if you have a particular favourite, will you share it with us?

Turkey: Setting matters, right?

Are you off to Turkey for your summer holiday this year? Then you’re in for a treat.  With the holiday season fast upon us, I thought I’d explain why I set my novel in Turkey, and share a few of my impressions of this amazing, exotic country.

The iconic Celcus Library at Ephesus
The iconic Celcus Library at Ephesus

Regular readers of this blog will know that Singled Out is set on a singles holiday on Turkey’s Lycian coastline. It’s a place to which I’ve returned many times over the years for my summer holidays. Having decided to set the tale on a singles holiday, the location options for which I could capitalise on my own experiences narrowed: The Greek islands Crete or Kalymnos, or the Turkish coastline. All have the climate, the heritage and the beaches. But Turkey had the edge for me, with its exotic blend of east and west, mystical and commercial. Turkey has an elemental essence that’s hard to describe. It won my heart the very first time I visited.

A haunting sunrise at Kekova - recognise the pic from anywhere?
A haunting sunrise at Kekova – recognise the pic from anywhere?

I remember a friend first going to Turkey for a summer holiday in the mid 1980’s and commenting that it was beautiful but raw; that the power went off all the time and you couldn’t get hot water for more than an hour or so a day. As for air conditioning – no hotel possessed such a luxury! In those days, Turkey was still experimenting with the holiday tourist trade and to be fair, the holiday companies were treading carefully too.

But with enterprise and commercial endeavour in their DNA, the Turkish people recognised and grasped an opportunity and set about developing their spectacular Mediterranean and Aegean coastlines into holiday destinations with added natural and historic value. Late to the party, they noted the mistakes that had been made along the Spanish coastline, today overwhelmed with tower block hotels and stripped of much of its original beauty. Laws were passed limiting hotels to four storeys high – a masterful decision which doubtless had as much to do with the fact the holiday coastline is a region accustomed to mild earthquakes, as it had with aesthetics. Good governance ensured growth was gradual and not at the expense of natural beauty and heritage, and infrastructure kept pace.

Turkish Gulet - 1995
Gulet holiday, 1995 (me, third from left – won’t see 35 again)

My first visit to Turkey was in 1994, on a two-centre singles holiday. I spent a week in what was then the small town of Kuşadasi, and a week in a more rural area. Two hotels; the first, Villa Konak – still operating in a Kuşadasi backstreet (bigger than it was) – originally a coaching inn; the other a more traditional villa style hotel bedecked with purple bougainvillea set around a welcoming swimming pool. Today Kuşadasi is a sizable and thriving town. It boasts a walled Byzantine castle and its port is large enough to cope with frequent visits from cruise ships. Just a few miles from Ephesus, it’s the perfect place for the day visitors to dock, nip on a coach to one of the most spectacular ancient sites in the world, pick up a leather jacket in the market, sample some apple tea and be back on-board in time for dinner. That’s one way to do it, I guess.

Like other larger towns – Bodrum and Marmaris for example – Kuşadasi has warmly embraced the youth holiday culture based around all-night clubs and bars. That’s ok if you like that sort of thing, but it’s turned Kusadasi into the sort of place I personally, as a moochy 50-something looking for peace and tranquillity, wouldn’t look to stay in today. But that’s not to decry the town, which, like the other bigger destinations, has carved its own profitable path with its eyes wide open.

How could you not love this?
How could you not love a place like this?

After that, I stuck to smaller towns and villages, of which there are still very many lovely ones, along the craggy Lycian coastline. I remember places, but not years: Torba and Türkbükü on the Bodrum Peninsula; the exquisite Bordubet – technically by Marmaris but in truth, in the blissful middle of nowhere at all; Hisarönü above Ölüdeniz (when it was still a quirky hillside village); and a favourite, to which I returned more than once – the pretty town of Turunç, close (but not too close) by Marmaris. In 2013 after a break of several years, I went again to Turkey to gather photos and sensory impressions for Singled Out, and I stayed in a hotel on Şövalye, a tiny harbour island with no cars, a few hundred yards off Fethiye by ferry boat.

Turkish Gulet, on its way out for the day
Turkish Gulet chugging off for a day at sea

But if you really want to get away from everything, you need to clamber aboard a gulet. Just as I described them in my story, these are twin or three-masted wooden sailing boats which serve anything from a half-dozen to 20 or so guests on day trips or, as I preferred, week-long get-away-from-it-all journeys around the craggy coastline. In truth, they run on engines for much of the time, but will put up the sails when the wind justifies it. In a week’s trip, there’s a single overnight stay in port somewhere, so the gulet can re-stock. Otherwise fresh food is prepared on-board or on the beach, or occasionally in hideaway locantas. You won’t need shoes or anything very much, except an appreciation of the beauty of an ancient coastline, a sky full of stars, the gentle slapping of water against hull and the bliss of having nothing to do and nowhere to go. Occasionally during the day, there will be other gulets around, but the week-long cruise affords the crew enough time to get away from the day boats, and when they do, it is paradise.

Pine forested peninsulas, shady inlets, peaceful coves, rocky outcrops, hidden beaches – this is the stuff of the Turkey I love. I know, I haven’t even scratched the surface – I’m ashamed to admit I’ve not yet visited Istanbul or travelled further east than Fethiye. Mea culpa. I’m a boutique hotel girl, not a backpacker.

The Great Theatre, Ephesus
The Great Theatre, Ephesus

But I can’t end this post without reference to the country’s ancient history. The coastline is crammed with evidence of Turkey’s commercial and religious heritage and the ebb and flow of empires, but I want specifically to raise a flag for Ephesus. I know it’s a tourist money-spinner. In the twenty years between my first and second visits, I noticed the explosion of ‘retail opportunities’ around the entrances. But even that’s not a criticism. The little avenue of shops is hardly overwhelming – and useful if you’ve forgotten your water, sunglasses or sunhat, all essentials when rambling about the ruins. I walked Ephesus and took hundreds of photos to jog my memory for writing the chapter in Singled Out where my characters visit this remarkable site. It’s sensitively preserved – there is much to see, most of it right up-close-and-personal. In its Roman heyday, Ephesus was a thriving port, though the landscape has since shifted, putting some 5 miles between the ruins and the sea. There are amphitheatres (yes, two), avenues to wander, carvings and mosaics to admire and the magnificent Celsus Library. If you can bear a few hours away from the beach, this, of all of Turkey’s magnificent man-made and natural sights, is right at the top of the list of places you need to see.

The Ephesus retail experience
The Ephesus retail experience

A word now, on something that makes any visit to Turkey particularly special; it’s the hospitality. Whether hotelier, restaurateur, bar owner, shopkeeper, carpet-seller, or gulet captain – you will enjoy warmth, friendly hospitality and service of the highest order. The Turks who work the tourist coastline understand the business they’re in. Make no mistake, there’ll be hard-selling and up-selling aplenty, but it will be executed in such a cordial and charming manner, you’ll hardly realise it’s happening! It’s all part of the experience and the pleasure.

And one last thing… of course I would say this, wouldn’t I? If you should happen to be visiting Turkey this year for your holidays, why not take a copy of Singled Out to the beach with you.  😉