Special Places – Part Two #inspiration #reflection #nurture

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Welcome to Part Two of my journey through a few of the places which have special meaning for me.  Here’s Part One if you missed it, in which I picked out a few places from my childhood and career. In this second geographically inclined post I’ve focussed places which have connections from a relationship or social perspective. This was meant to be just one post, but the more I thought about it, the more places I found.

Beer, Devon, UK

One place that is all about quaint streets and sumptuous scenery is the pretty village of Beer in Devon. Here I took my first grown-up holiday with a steady boyfriend (who, a few years later, was to become my husband). We paid a thrifty £10 for a week’s hire of a static caravan with no umm… facilities (for these we had to stumble down the hill to a communal toilet/shower block – not much fun in the dead of night).  So small was this caravan that we had to fold the bed away every morning (and whenever we wanted to take a photograph that our parents might see). We fed a very hungry electricity meter with absurd amounts of coin and charcoaled the rear-end of a chicken in an oven the size of a matchbox. We walked a few miles of the Jurassic coastline each day, found delightful pubs to sit outside, ate our fill of crab sandwiches and cream teas, and had the best time.

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My husband is now my ex-husband, but we are fortunate to remain good friends. The village of Beer is intimately entwined in my mind with simpler times, and an enduring connection, which is very important to me. I’ve been back once or twice – it seems hardly to have changed, and that is much to its credit.

Lycian Coast, Turkey

I started going to Turkey around the early 1990’s – mainly on singles holidays (which I’ve written about here). Are you seeing a connection already?

img_2312I’ve loved every minute I’ve spent in Turkey; I’ve never had a bad holiday there. It’s a beautiful country and a wonderful place to relax and revive. On my first trip, I spent a week in the hectic port town of Kusadasi, but thereafter I picked small towns and villages along the Lycian coast and Gulf of Fethiye, and around the Bodrum and Bozburun Peninsulas. I also took a couple of week-long gulet cruises, which cannot be beaten for away-from-it-all bliss.

When I came to fulfil a long-held ambition to write fiction, I decided to follow the ‘write what you know’ principle, and located my psychological suspense story on a singles holiday in Turkey.  I began writing in 2010 and wrote about the process and what I was learning about the art of writing fiction, in the earlier posts in this blog.

I set ‘Singled Out’ in a fictional village – it’s a fusion of several of the places in which I’ve stayed. I had this idea that I wanted the story to immerse the reader in the setting – make them feel as if they were on the holiday themselves – and to do that, I drew on all my recollections of those earlier holidays. In 2013, I made a special trip back to Turkey for research purposes, to update and refresh my memories and gather some specific sensory data to ground my story. I visited the ancient city of Ephesus, just as my characters do, and I took a day-trip on a gulet; not the same as a week drifting the sea with no shoes on and nights lying under the stars, but not bad, given the time constraints.

img_2408‘Singled Out’ was, I now realise, my practise novel.  It explores the dark side of the kind of holiday where not everyone is who they seem. I think I’ve made a decent fist of it, but now, when I dip into its pages, I can see the journey I’ve been on and the things I’ve learned in its shortcomings. A few agents expressed initial interest, but it never made the cut, so I self-published in 2015. Readers have so far been extremely kind in their feedback.  You can check it out here, if you feel so inclined.

Sanibel Island, Florida, USA

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In January 2015, after having prevaricated, pushing back on her generous invitations for three years, I went to Florida to visit my cousin Martha. The reason for my prevarication was my grossly overweight state and the simple fact that I couldn’t face the discomfort of a nine-hour transatlantic flight and all the other fun-and-games of a transit into the USA. As it turned out, and entirely to my expectation, the journey was a gruelling one. I was at my very heaviest (it would be nine months before I began to get to grips with my healthy/weight-lossy project). But I’m so very glad I bit-the-bullet and overruled my fears.

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Martha was a New Yorker, lately moved to Connecticut. On retirement, like others with sufficient funds for a holiday home, she began to fly south, to Fort Myers, Florida, for the winter. There she made a beautiful second home to which she welcomed a seemingly endless succession of guests. My visit began a day late (I wasn’t joking about the gruelling journey), but it was sunshine and smiles from the moment I arrived. Martha was the most wonderful, thoughtful and generous host.

Spot the basking alligator
Spot the basking alligator

One of her favourite places was Sanibel Island, and she treated me to a day trip. We crossed the endless road-bridge and drove on down to JN ‘Ding Darling’ Nature Reserve, where I got a little too close for comfort to a basking alligator. We dined on fresh seafood at Traders Gulf Coast Grill and Gifts (yes, and Gifts – those American’s never miss a retail opportunity).

img_3592Then we mooched around taking photographs in the botanical gardens and on the beach at Sanibel Moorings and stopped by the lighthouse before heading home. It was a special day, as everywhere we stopped was either a favourite place for Martha, or it harked back to holidays of her youth.

My lovely, wonderful cousin was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer just six months after my visit. She died in September 2016. I can never express how glad I am that I made that trip when I did, and was able to spend such special time with my ‘sister of the heart’.

Home, Greater London, UK

Talking of hearts, home is where the heart is, so they say. Cliches notwithstanding, I love my home. It’s just an ordinary suburban house in a quiet street, with a small courtyard garden. As well as being my home, it’s my workplace – and it’s my sanctuary.

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Over the years I’ve renovated and redecorated, so now the whole place reflects my personal style.  It’s calm, neutral (too neutral for some) and uncluttered. It’s geared around my needs and activities too. I have a room set aside for my Pilates and exercise equipment, and another which is my workplace and writing space.

fullsizerenderI like things just-so (call me obsessive if you will), and nothing pleases me more than to arrive home after a busy day with a client or up in London, to leave the world on the other side of my front door, and sink into my comfy curly-uppy chair in front of the TV.

I have a personalised relaxation recording prepared by a hypnotherapist a few years ago. In it, she urges me to picture the safest, most relaxing place I’ve ever been. For ages, I would try to picture lovely beaches where I’d been on holiday – they’re relaxing, after all, aren’t they? But it was when I realised that the place where I feel safest and most relaxed was my own home, that I began to use this recording most effectively. I would lie on my sofa, or recline on a chair in my garden, and I wouldn’t have to imagine myself anywhere, because I was already in my safest, most relaxing place.

Special Places – Part One #inspiration #reflection #nurture

In the last few months I’ve reconnected with a couple of people I used to know well, but had lost touch with. As a result of this and other things, I’ve been in a reflective mood. I was talking one evening about a particular place l had visited only once, but had loved for its raw, natural beauty.  It made me think about other places which have special resonance for me – some because of the things that happened there, others because of the way they made, or still make me feel, or the associations and emotions they bring to my surface. I thought I’d share them in a post (but having got to writing, it’s turned into two posts). Maybe it can encourage you to think about your own special places too.

‘But what’s this got to do with healthy lifestyle, Jools?’ I hear you ask. For me, it’s about a healthy mind. And what could be more healthy than to feel connected to places which hold meaning for you, or put you in touch with your memories and emotions, or speak to your soul?

So to the tour of the first few of my special places – these ones from my childhood and career days:

Church Stretton, Shropshire, UK

Even in England, many people don’t quite know where the county of Shropshire lies. Well, it’s a little to the left of Birmingham but if you get to Wales, you’ve gone too far. I spent my childhood mid-term holidays in Shropshire, in the small town of Church Stretton, where lived my great-aunt. She had arrived in England a refugee from Hitler’s Holocaust, just before the outbreak of the Second World War. Arriving with nothing, my great-aunt made Church Stretton her home, providing a haven for her extended family and other refugees for many years.

Carding Mill Valley in 1975
Carding Mill Valley (1975)

By the time we visited in the 1970’s, she was widowed and lived in an apartment in an old house on the outskirts of the town, a few minutes’ walk from the beautiful Carding Mill Valley, on the edge of the Long Mynd. We would walk there whenever the rain clouds parted for long enough. In her 80’s by then, my great-aunt was nearly blind, and I remember walking with her into the town centre, stopping time after time as people greeted and conversed briefly with her, only for her to say every now and again as they walked on, in her still richly accented voice, ‘Now you must help me, Julie, who would that be?’ before demanding a detailed description of the mystery acquaintance.

… And again, little changed but for a few extra cars (2011)

Years later I returned to the area for a family reunion with several relatives of my generation now scattered across the world, all of whom had holidayed with my great-aunt at different times. We visited familiar haunts and shared memories of our childhood holidays and my wonderful great-aunt, and it was a thoroughly life-affirming weekend.

Whitstable, Kent, UK

I lived in Kent, in one of the Medway towns, as a young child. Cousins lived further along the coast in the seaside town of Whitstable. Even the name is quaint, isn’t it? We would visit several times a year and I remember the excitement on the journey as we got our first glimpse of the sea (we knew exactly the place along the route where that distant strip of blue-grey appeared), and as we traversed the landmark bridge and spotted the red post-box that stood on the corner of the road to which we were headed. I remember a cavernous outbuilding and a giant weeping willow half way up the garden; there were extraordinary ‘eggy sandwiches’ (made, apparently with salad cream – try it) on every visit, and I especially loved those days when we made it down to play on the pebble beach at Tankerton.

I’ve been back, or passed through, several times since those days. The town has swelled with the addition of several housing developments around its fringes but it remains, by the seaside at least, quintessentially and quaintly English.

Chateauneuf du Pape, Provence, France

We holidayed just once as a family in Chateauneuf du Pape, deep in one of France’s premier wine-producing regions. At a guess, I’d say this may have had something to do with my parents’ enthusiasm for the area, as there was much ‘tasting’ going on throughout our stay.

© Coll. Fédération des Producteurs de Châteauneuf-du-Pape
© Coll. Fédération des Producteurs de Châteauneuf-du-Pape

We bought blocks of ice and French bread in the village every day and enjoyed picnics of luscious French cheeses, charcuterie and spit-roasted chicken. And whilst said ‘tasting’ took place in the wineries and caves nested in nearby hillsides, my brother and I spent contented hours at the village swimming pool (that would be in the days before Health & Safety would have had a fit at the idea of two pre-teens playing in water, unchaperoned).

My father, who sadly died many years ago, loved the area for its climate, its wines, and the gentle pleasure of sitting outside a bar sipping aniseed Ricard made cloudy with a jug of water, and watching old men play boules. He was an accomplished choral singer too, and participated in numerous concerts at the Roman Amphitheatre in the nearby city of Orange, all of which added to the richness of his experience of the area – and in turn to mine.

I’ve not yet revisited Chateauneuf du Pape, but it was a special place to him, and thus it became special to me too. Today, at Christmas, we always toast my father and other loved-ones no longer with us, with a bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape.

Tiffany’s, New York City, USA

I made my first and so far only visit to New York City in the mid-1990’s, staying with my cousin at her home in what is known as Peter Cooper Village. These distinctive apartment blocks were built for soldiers returning from the Second World War, of which her father had been one. Every day I would grab my roll of quarters and jump on a bus, heading south to the financial district, or north to theatreland, retail nirvana and the kind of landmarks you see every day in the movies. I went to the top of the World Trade Centre and the Empire State Building; I walked Wall Street and Times Square and I crossed Delancey Street in honour of one of my favourite films (that would be Crossing Delancey); I dodged noisy Yellow Cabs and I listened to a choir sing in St Patrick’s Cathedral; I bought lunch at a Subway (long before they appeared in the UK), so bewildered by the infinite choices that I just ordered the same as the guy in the queue in front of me; I ate it on the hallowed steps of the New York Public Library.

New York City from the top of the Empire State Building (1996)
New York City from the top of the Empire State Building (1996)

But before all that, on my very first day in the city, I had got off the bus for the first time and found myself outside Tiffany and Co’s flagship New York store. What could I do, but wander in for a green-eyed look around? At the very first counter, rings of course, I overheard a brash young man addressing his girlfriend with the words, ‘Honey, you can have whatever you want!’ and I felt the vibe of Fifth Avenue. I didn’t have an affluent city slicker waiting to spoil me, but so help me, I’m a shopper. I spotted a pretty ring – probably the lowest-value item of jewellery in the whole store – and, dressed in my tourist scruffies, I asked to try it on.  The sales assistant was curt to begin with, no doubt imagining I would waste her time; but she must have seen how my face lit up when it slid on to my finger. It was a sublime gold band with a smooth ‘infinity’ loop.

Probably the least ostentatious ring Tiffany's has ever sold
Probably the least ostentatious ring Tiffany’s has ever sold

I bought it because I could – and it is this feeling that I remember. After my divorce I’d made a significant career transition (mainly because I couldn’t bear to spend the rest of my life making coffee and running the diaries of stuffed-shirt executives) (and because I needed to earn some real money). For the first time in my life, I had a little spare cash. Not only that, but I was beginning to see myself differently. So I saw a ring, I liked it, and I bought it. At Tiffany’s. That meant I got the full Tiffany’s treatment, and I remember how it made me feel to this day; how the sales assistant first polished the ring, then inserted it into its silk and suede box, then wrapped the box in tissue paper, and slid it into the duck-egg blue Tiffany’s box, then bound it with blue ribbon, tied into a neat bow, then dressed a duck-egg blue mini Tiffany’s bag with more tissue paper, before nesting my perfectly wrapped purchase in the middle.  What a treat, that wrapping ceremony!  Though as I exited the store, I immediately realised I needed to shove my conspicuously crisp duck-egg blue bag with its white cord handles and silk ribbon deep into my rucksack, to save telling the whole world I was carrying something in a flimsy carrier, which might have value on the street!

Atlanta, Georgia, USA

Ah… Hotlanta… I made several trips to Atlanta in the 1990’s, as I worked for the UK arm of companies which were based there. Atlanta was a significant feature in my expanding career horizons. My overriding impression was how incredibly friendly and hospitable everyone was. I was invited into homes, taken out to parties and barbecues, escorted around sights and landmarks and guided to the best retail emporia. I made friends on my visits that remain friends to this day.  Being the ‘Deep South’ and at the centre of the American Civil War, Atlanta has history as well as a certain style – it’s an energetic blend of its elegant if uncomfortable past and high-tech present.

Atlanta, from Overlook Parkway, Vinings (1990)
Atlanta, from Overlook Parkway, Vinings (1990)

Incidentally, the New York Tiffany’s story has an Atlanta connection… A few years after my ‘infinity’ impulse purchase, my beautiful, simple ring was stolen in a burglary. As I still had the receipt, the insurance company let me replace it, which I managed to do during one of my business trips to Atlanta. Shopping at the mall (even the posh one) wasn’t quite the same experience as stepping inside Tiffany’s flagship Fifth Avenue store, but that identical repurchase cemented the connection that this ring has always had for me, with my hard-won career shift.

Hong Kong

I will never forget how it felt to enter my room on the 32nd floor of the hotel and look out through floor-to-ceiling plate glass across Hong Kong Harbour.

Hong Kong - in the days before panoramic photographs (1992)
Hong Kong from Victoria Peak – in the days before panoramic photographs (1992)

An unexpected and hastily organised business trip had taken me on my one and only visit to this unique region in the years before it was handed back to China. I spent days in business meetings and evenings being treated to delicious though frequently unidentifiable food. I had enough time-out in my short trip to get a couple of made-to-measure suits and take the vertical cable car up to Victoria Peak and enjoy the magnificent views. Barring the streaming cold I got from the incessant transitions from humid outdoors to chilled, air-conditioned offices, it was a invigorating and exciting experience on many levels.

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Next time… A little more family history, a village that sounds like a drink,  and the setting for a certain psychological suspense novel… 😉

Back to the Future #eighties #boots

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I’ve never felt able to wear leggings of any kind. I haven’t had the right legs for them, not since they were invented. My calves have been far too big; my thighs elephantine; my bum… well, the less said about that, the better. I’m not perfect yet – not by a long way – but lately I’ve been converted. With my steadily diminishing frame, I’m embracing the leggings culture.

A Kind of Magic

It turns out, that with the modern-day application of hefty doses of elastane/spandex, good-quality leggings are tough, really tough.  It turns out they can constrain my wobbly bits quite adequately, with no challenge to fragile seams. Elastane is truly a miracle fibre. Careful selection of tops can minimise the look of my far-from-flat stomach, and the overall result is… not bad.

Mirror Mirror 

Do I sound vain? If I do, I make no apology. For years, I’ve stared at myself in the mirror, overwhelmed with defeat and negativity. For years, my response to my own image has been ‘that’ll have to do’. I’ve always dressed carefully, presented well… for my size. But big, is big. And in the privacy of your own bedroom mirror, you can’t escape it.  So, as my size continues to diminish, work-in-progress though I still am, allow me the thrill if you will, of looking in that mirror and… feeling good about what I see.

West End Girl(s)

Back in the day, in the eighties, when I was in my twenties and hovering around the 11-stone mark (that’s 154 pounds/70 kilos), I had a wardrobe full of what we used to call stirrup pants. The forerunners of leggings, these were stretchy, up to a point, but instead of tightly gripping the calves, they were held in place by the addition of elasticated stirrups, which hooked around your heels.  Pop these on and pull on a pair of knee-high boots, and the effect was exactly like you see today with leggings. I loved my stirrup pants – I had several pairs. I worked ‘Up West’ (London’s West End). I went out a lot in those days – and I wore them all the time.

Here Comes the Rain Again

2016-11-21-18-39-20But as my calves expanded over the ensuing 25 or so years, knee-high boots became impossible to wear. If I could get the zips up, they would cut off the blood supply to my feet, but more usually, the zips wouldn’t even meet.  I went into my new favourites – calf length ‘slouchy’ boots. These look like boots that are meant to be knee-high, but are slouched, ending just below the widest point of the calf. As the leather around the ankles is rumpled, the look, even for someone with fairly large calves, is quite nicely balanced. They’re also pull-on, no zips. I wore these for years until… yes, you guessed it, my calves expanded beyond the fit of even this style, and I could no longer pull them past my widening feet.

I’m Still Standing

I ended up in ankle boots, as I could usually get the zips up. When I could no longer achieve even this, there were stretchy pull-on ankle boots, which looked okay, so long as you covered them with boot-cut trousers, which I always did. Eventually, with ankles permanently puffy and the zips on even these short boots straining, only shoe-boots, which finish below the ankle, would achieve anything like the boot look for me.

Alive and Kicking

With the arrival of leggings in my wardrobe over the last month or so, I realised that in my transitional (and still quite cuddly state), the leggings-and-ankle-boots look preferred by the slender ones and teens, wasn’t going to work for me. They seemed to magnify the proportions of my calves and thighs – the opposite of what clever styling is supposed to achieve.

I found a pair of flat suede booties, loose fit, Ugg/Emu style, which worked ok with leggings, but only in a very casual, outdoorsy way. But earlier this week… I tracked down a pair of old-style slouchy calf-length boots at John Lewis. They fitted!  They pulled on easily; they slouched stylishly around my ankles; they even reached the right point of my calves, balancing the look just as it should be. Better even than that, I had £80 worth of John Lewis vouchers squashed into my purse, itching to be spent.

I bagged my prize boots and hauled them home.

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Forgive the vanity of this very modern in-the-mirror selfie. I may be embracing the trend, but I refuse to pout.

Walking On Sunshine

I can’t describe how comfortable I felt, trying on my leggings with these new boots; trying on a variety of tops and jackets, just to see what worked with what.  It all felt so… natural… harking back to the type of outfits I would put together in my twenties and thirties; things I would wear all the time, modified just a little for the few more pounds I still carry, and for the extra two or three decades I’m also wearing.  I felt more confident, more poised, more relaxed, more… sexy.

Never Gonna Give You Up

I spent the rest of the day breaking-in my boots at home, and they were immaculately comfortable and supportive for hours – I just didn’t want to take them off.  Every time I passed a mirror, I stopped to reassure myself I wasn’t just imagining it.

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

And with those wonderful slouchy calf-length boots, my winter wardrobe… is complete.  Now all I need is to take my worked-in-the-eighties-but-is-somehow-also-weirdly-on-trend-today look for a rocking good night-out.

Wrapping up Warm

frost-1149002_1920Last autumn I was just a couple of months into my new healthy lifestyle programme. I’d lost perhaps 20 pounds – not that much off what was, back then, a very ample frame. This autumn, with over 70 pounds having relinquished their fleshy grip, I’m feeling the cold more than I’ve done for almost two decades.

For the last several years, I’ve needed nothing more than a scarf about my neck on all but the very coldest days. For the last three years my favourite winter outerwear was in fact a sleeveless waistcoat (big buttons, asymmetrical – I love weird clothes). I never wore hats of any kind (in fact the only one I own is an aritsan bobble hat that I keep in the car in case I break down and have to sit out a frosty night at the wheel). My fingers hadn’t seen the inside of a pair of gloves since those ones you used to get sewn on to a string and threaded through your sleeves as a small child.

So it’s come as some surprise – in a good way – that this autumn on frosty mornings and blustery afternoons, I have been properly, seriously chilly, right into my bones. My built-in duvet – those flumpy folds of laid-down fat – has shrunk from a heady 13-tog to a lightweight 5 or 6.  My internal central heating appears to have shifted to an economy setting.  In short, I need winter layers like never before!

Yes, friends, that means… shopping (see – there’s an upside to everything).  I reason that in the long drawn-out autumn/winter/spring chilliness that we get here in the UK, I’ll get probably 6 months wear out of my purchases, even if I am still on the way down the size ranges. So I’ve gone to town a bit. I’ve treated myself to a faux-fur jacket (sublime and tactile to the point of naughtiness), a leather jacket (my first in thirty years, buttery soft and the colour of a Werther’s Original – sorry!) and a slate grey padded high-neck wind and shower-proof zip-up thing (stylish enough for my vanity, but practical for windy walks). Add a snug pair of woollen gloves (which wouldn’t have squeezed over my chubby digits last winter) and I’m all set.

2016-11-08-16-52-44I have the scarves already, you see, a whole drawer full…

Oh, but there’s still the question of my ears; I seem to have what I can only describe as… delicate ears; they’re temperamental, capricious… unsupportive. As a child I remember being prone to ear infections. As a grown-up I’ve had occasional problems when I went swimming or took a long flight. That was all, until I started walking more regularly.  Now I find that if the cold gets into my ears, they protest and deliver me days on end of painful gumminess; and when they’re really playing up, I get bouts of vertigo. In the summer, it’s sufficient to plug in my headphones and walk to music or an audiobook, but the colder weather demands a little extra protection. So I’ve invested in a pair of earmuffs.

2016-11-08-17-08-12Don’t laugh – they’re not the fluffy ‘Princess Leah’ kind, but far more workaday flat-to-the-head ones which hook around the back of my neck.  They do the job, even if they do look a wee bit silly. My vanity can bear it if it means my fragile ears stay toasty (but before you ask, that same vanity won’t allow me to upload a photo of me actually wearing the darned things).

Anyway, with my new outerwear, my old scarves and the pragmatic application of silly earmuffs, I’m all set for the cold months ahead and I’m looking forward to my winter walks.

It’s not always about… me #self-esteem

Thought Verbs Show Not TellI’ve spent far too many years interpreting certain events and experiences in my past in a way which allows me to heap blame, reproach and criticism (and a whole lot more besides) on to my own shoulders. But as I lose weight, I’m gaining back my self-respect, and with it, a little perspective.

I’m a work-in-progress as much with this as with the weight-loss, but with my diminishing physical burden has come the ability to see emotional things differently; to acknowledge that certain situations and the outcomes that wounded me, were not my fault, or my doing; they were not about me being weak or careless, stupid or naive; they did not come about because of some failing in me, something I did, or didn’t do, some expectation I failed to meet. Those situations were not, in fact, about me at all.

I make no excuse for speaking in general terms. Blogging is a very public thing, and the events and experiences to which I allude are intensely personal in nature. They involve a thankfully small number of people who have passed through my life and who have, in one way or another, wreaked some degree of havoc for me – physically, psychologically, emotionally.

On those occasions, my default position has been this: That I had somehow brought this problem, situation or person’s behaviour on myself; that it was something about me that caused this or that reaction or behaviour.

On one level, when you think like this it makes you feel weak and pitiful. It’s like in a violent relationship where the victim accepts the rationale of the bullying partner when they say, ‘you made me angry’ or ‘you made me do this to you’.  Within the diminished self-esteem that characterises such situations, you let yourself believe that your weakness, contemptibility, failing or fallibility, your unique propensity to irritate or anger, somehow brought about whatever happened.

On another level it makes your own indignation and anger rise up, sometimes in quite uncontrollable ways. Here’s the thinking that has sent me into palpable (but so far private) rages; has seen me ranting at the four walls of my house, bashing out blistering pages of irrational fury on my keyboard (well, I am a writer, it’s the natural place):

“What is it about me, that makes you think it’s ok to do this to me?”

“What is it about me, that makes you behave in this way?”

“What is it about me, that makes you take advantage of my kindness/generosity/… etc.”

“What is it about me, that makes you have so little thought for my feelings?”

Thankfully those perverse pages, filled with purple prose, pouting and profanity, rarely see the light of day – though it has happened once or twice. When I calm down, perspective rebalanced, I see them for what they are, and delete them. Maybe the process of writing is the exorcism of emotion that I need.

The thing is, when people hurt you, behave badly towards you, steal from you, take advantage of you, manipulate you, treat you dismissively, patronise you, bully you, lie to you, cheat you, let you down – it’s not about you. It’s about who they are or the situation they’re responding to. It’s about them.

Bad people do bad things to others; the narcissists, the sociopaths, the liars, the feckless, the cheats, the lazy, the ruthlessly ambitious, the dishonest, the selfish. That’s easy enough to understand, once you realise what you’ve been dealing with.

But good people do bad things too, and that’s a little tougher to handle. Good people can be thoughtless, come under pressure, get stressed, make poor decisions, judge situations wrongly, let stuff overwhelm them, prioritise other people and things over you. When these situations arise, normally good people can inflict hurt, damage those they would normally treat with far more care. But even then it’s still not about you – it’s about them.

So this is my thought for the weekend; a healing and calming mantra, for when you’re tempted to feel indignant, hurt or angry when someone’s actions wound you, or their behaviour falls short of what you hoped it would be – it’s not about me.

Regaining Perspective #walking

2016-06-22 06.29.23Disturbed by the Referendum outcome unfolding overnight and now confirmed (that’s as political as I’m going to get, folks), I took myself out for a very early morning walk, to clear my head. I was out of the door at a few minutes past 6:00am.  I thought I’d share my walk – sights, sounds and smells – in case anyone else needs a shot of perspective. It’s just an ordinary walk, a circuit of 2.4 miles (so my Fitbit tells me) around my local streets and park, but this morning, it was a particular tonic:

Out of the house and everything looks and smells fresh. Torrential rain yesterday evening has brought all the gummy grittiness out of the air and the sun is celebrating. Everywhere pavements and roadways bear evidence of mini-floods – rivulets of dirt, gravel and leaf mould have settled into crevices and gutters. I dance over puddles (new trainers, don’t want to spoil them) and walk down the road instead of the pavement in places to avoid splashback. It’s quiet at 6:00am down the back-streets.

This road feels as if it’s out in the country, perhaps because for a stretch, it lacks a pavement, bearing just a painted line to separate vehicle from human traffic. A tall hedge leans, loaded with leftover raindrops; an old wall exudes rich, mulchy odour.  Climbing roses droop across the path and I have to duck to clear them.

A car whooshes by, and another.  Whooshes is naughty, as this particular stretch of road has a 20mph limit.

2016-06-22 06.32.14A house ripe for renovation, and the garden is overgrown. I can’t help but admire the architectural beauty of a clump of thistles. Onwards, and I pass the school, where a food truck is waiting to be let through the barrier. The driver, a Sikh, smiles and waves. I’m getting more of that sort of thing these days and I can’t deny, I appreciate it.  I smile back.

Down a smarter road now, bigger houses set back off the road. I pass a runner and a ‘serious’ cyclist (lycra, helmet, head down). The pavement is uneven, dipping and rising, and as the sun shines in my eyes, I have to watch my feet. I reach my decision corner – go left for a longer walk, right for shorter.  I go left.

A house on the corner which has had the builders in for months – I watched them arrive every day in the dark, back in the winter months – is complete, with a new contemporary façade.  It’s looking good.

2016-06-22 07.08.12The next road is busier – it’s a bus route and a cut-through. It too has been freshened by last night’s rain, which is a good thing.  Yesterday was Bin Day and I had to walk past piles of refuse sacks which ponged mightily. Some always get ripped open by foxes and magpies, and it’s never pretty. Shielding my eyes against the sun, now directly in my face.

I’m by the shops now, an arcade of perhaps two hundred yards, running round a corner. The first of two cafes is just opening up.  Already there are builders’ vans in the lay-by, workers waiting to begin their day with a fry-up.  Round the corner, the baker is open already, more workers coming and going with sandwich bags. The open door oozes the sickly-sweet odour of iced buns and pastries – it never used to tempt me, and it certainly doesn’t now.

The second café is in full operation, the scent of breakfast fry-up just a little more tempting than sugar icing, but stale fat… no. A man stands outside smoking, fiddling with his phone. More white vans and their branded brothers come and go – this is quite the place for building and renovation trades to congregate.

The all-you-can-eat Chinese restaurant, even closed, is cloaked in the stale, sticky odour of sweet-and-sour and stir-fry.  Tatty paper notices advising prices and new opening hours cling to the insides of its windows.  I hold my breath for a few moments.

2016-06-22 06.38.22Traffic queues beside me now, for the next few hundred yards.  I pass my favourite honeysuckle bush, a heady counterpoint to the sweet-and-sour. Cut down a side street where the paving slabs are inexplicably… pink.

My ‘long’ route takes me through a corner of the park; the grass is in need of cutting and that’s unusual, as our local parks are impeccably maintained. The chicken-wire gate to the tennis courts hangs open. I pass through a dank tunnel of foliage and head towards the children’s play area, empty of course, at this hour. I’m even too early for the dog walkers.

As I emerge from the park, I almost bump into a man walking along the pavement. The last part of my walk is uphill, and it takes all my energy. I’ve been keeping up a pace with a fast playlist, and I’m struggling now, but just a few hundred yards to go. The pavement runs alongside the park, but it’s uneven, with big grass-filled cracks between the slabs, so once again, I have to watch my feet. I reach another favourite tree, which I’ve enjoyed watching flourish, from its barren winter state, through the first glimpse of leaves, then blossom, and now full summer greenery. Just a hundred yards to go. The fence beside me reeks of wet wood and creosote – I like it.

Back home, and the first thing I do is check how long my walk took. When I started this healthy lifestyle thing last September, this particular walk (which I took only rarely) would take me 60 minutes, and I’d arrive home with aching hips, pouring with sweat, good for nothing. Today it’s taken me 45 minutes.  I’m glowing yes, but it’s a healthy, exercised glow, not a sickly, unfit one. I’m bursting with endorphins, and even the Referendum and its unsettling implications won’t shift my feel-good.

What, No Photo? #BloggersBash 2016

Bloggers Bash 16Call yourself a blogger, Jools?  

I’m a rubbish blogger.  A properly rubbish blogger.

I mean, what was I thinking of, going to the 2016 Bloggers Bash yesterday in London, and not even once, not one single time, getting out my phone and snapping a photo or two of the assembled gathering. Other bloggers – the proper bloggers, the real ones, the ones with their readership’s interests and thirst for information on this unique event in the blogging calendar at heart – other bloggers managed it, but not me. What in the world was I thinking of, showing up to a Bloggers Bash and not taking any photos?

Face it, Jools, you’re not a real blogger at all, are you? You’re a fraud.

In my defence, I’m a fraud with just two hands. And on a sticky day, moisture clinging to the warm air, those hands of mine were preoccupied in the critical task of keeping my core temperature under control.

Ha! I bet you thought you were over all that menopausal flushy business, didn’t you?  

I thought, with dropping almost 60 pounds in the last 9 months, that rushes of steaming hot blood to the head would be history. Not so much, so it seems.  So… one hand gripping my life-saving pound-shop battery-operated fan, and the other hand clutching a glass filled to the brim with crushed ice and a drop or two of neat… water… and that was it. No spare hand for that phone.  And being an oldie, I haven’t quite grasped the techniques required to both hold a phone and take a picture simultaneously with one hand only – I’d have needed both hands anyway. And abandoning both cool-aids at once, I simply could not do.

Until, that is, I was pointed in the direction of Geoff Le Pard’s spectacular sugar-free Banana and Almond cakes.

Yes, cake.  Sugar free.

Oh my goodness, they were tasty! Having gone added-sugar-free several months ago, my taste-buds have acclimatised to less ‘sweet’ in everything, but to taste a snack that has every characteristic of a real, actual… cake… but has absolutely no sugar, is, quite frankly, a moment of bliss.  I confess, I dropped the fan in my bag, abandoned my crushed ice, and fell upon said delicacies.  [With Geoff’s permission, I will shortly – as soon as he provides it – reproduce the recipe here for all interested parties.  Trust me, it’s a good one.]

Calm down, Jools, enough with the cake. What about the bloggy part of all this, Jools. What about the actual Bash itself?

You know what, it was great. It was an absolute joy to take a small corner of the blogosphere and make it ‘real life’.  A room full of people who normally communicate from behind their PC screens, but managed to get on trains, boats and even planes, to show up in London for the day, turned out to be a room full of friendships waiting to happen. Yes, bloggers do actually talk, and listen, and laugh, and share face-to-face like real people. We do!

There was the joy of putting new faces to names and URL’s, and the pleasure of reconnecting with bloggers who’d come to the inaugural event last year [ahem…]. There was recognition (Awards!) for some really great bloggers, and a provocative presentation from Luca Sartoni (Growthketeer at Automattic/Wordpress). There was access to alcohol, food, cake, chocolate and for some reason I didn’t fully appreciate, a mountain of Maltesers (one of my favourite impossible-to-stop-munching sweet-treats until I gave up on chocolate). There was above all a joyous sense, simultaneously, of diversity and commonality – all sorts of bloggers, from all sorts of backgrounds, blogging all sorts of stuff, united for the afternoon in their enthusiasm for the strange world of blogging about whatever pops into your head.

So… just in case you’re a blogger thinking you missed something good (you did), and just in case you’re thinking you might attend next year (10th June, get it in your diary), here are my top take-aways from the 2016 Bloggers Bash:

  • The simple, delightful pleasure of a sociable afternoon with blogging at its heart
  • Lovely, lovely people – new friendships, hopefully not just in the Facebook kind of way
  • Pointers to great blogs I haven’t come across before
  • A recipe (don’t let me down, Geoff) for a truly delicious sugar-free naughty
  • A valuable lesson on what’s really important about blogging (see below…)

Am I a little bit jealous of those bloggers with tens of thousands of followers? Every now and again, yes, I am. But am I blogging for any goal which is met through acquiring followers in vast volume.  Actually no, I’m not. At the moment (until I get back into writing my second novel at least) the purpose of my blog is to make myself accountable for my newly adopted healthy, weight-lossy lifestyle. If in the course of that, I can spread some inspiration, positivity and general feelgood, that makes me very happy indeed.  But none of that has a great deal to do with numbers.

So that last take-away from this year’s fabulous Bloggers Bash comes courtesy of Luca Sartoni – and it lets me off the hook, big time: If your goals for blogging do not depend on acquisition of a huge readership, stop chasing volume. It’s okay not to get hung up on the numbers.  It’s ok to just have fun blogging. 

And it’s definitely okay to have fun at the Bloggers Bash.  It’s even, possibly, I venture to suggest, just about okay… to not take pictures.

Five Things to do with Today’s Extra Hour

2015-10-25 15.54.40

The clocks went back last night in the UK, treating us to an extra hour. But what to do? What to do with it? Here are a few ideas – not including having a lie-in – based on what this procrastinating writer has been getting up to today.

  1. Go for an early walk round the park, kick through the damp leaves and smell the morning dew. (I’m feeling virtuous, can’t you tell?). Say ‘hello’ to everyone you pass and draw no confidence-sapping conclusions from the fact that the only person to totally ignore you is the 30-something, tight-t-shirted hottie, preoccupied by his smartphone.
  2. Read a big chunk of book (radical for a writer, eh?). Finish one book, begin another. Chain-reading, with but the briefest interval to top up the coffee pot.
  3. Catch up with last night’s #Strictly and waste no energy feeling guilty that at the age of, oh, 50-mumble, the one you’ve got your eye on is the ex-boy-band member.
  4. Write a really, really serious blog post about a seriously personal subject and then realise you can’t possibly post it. Gah!
  5. Cook-up a big, blippy pot of autumn yumminess with mince and mushrooms and tomatoes and sweetcorn and a garlic-laden, gloopy gravy (countdown to consumption – 30 mins).

So what did you do with your extra hour?

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.