Season’s Greetings

A rather belated wish of Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all. I shall see you again in the New Year – with luck. Until then I wish the world and everyone and everything in it peace, happiness and love.

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I was going to post a photograph of our decorated Christmas tree, but I can’t get a good photograph of it. Instead, I offer this. On a walk this week I paused to trace the intricate intertwined twigs overhead and became lost in the endless paths and patterns they made.

Stark. Bare. Beautiful.

I shall take more photographs in the same spot as they shimmer with the first green of spring, as they shade me in high summer, and as they turn to gold and begin to fall as the year turns again. Here’s to 2017.

A distraction of thrushes

Anyone wondering how NaNoWriMo has gone may have noticed that my last months tweets have been mostly about injuries and birds (and the on-going horror of world events). I have actually written a reasonable amount (by my standards) but have also been regularly distracted by the views outside my windows. It’s my bad luck that the accepted month for cracking on with writing coincides with the one time of year I can guarantee that thrushes will visit the garden.

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A darkling thrush at dusk

Only by taking these pictures of the top of our rowan tree with its unusual white berries do we see the beauty of the scarlet berry stalks.

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I was reminded recently that the collective name for goldfinches is a “charm” which is so perfect. We know of parliament of owls and murder of crows and on this beautifully informative site  I’ve just been reminded of: a piteousness of doves, a congress – or convocation – of eagles, a trembling of finches, an exaltation of larks, a scold of jays, and of course a gaggle – or skein – of geese.

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Quite charming

What about the everyday birds though? Give the sound in the garden at dawn and dusk I would have suggested a squabble of sparrows – although the list above suggested a ubiquity – which is rather sad as their numbers are now declining so much – or a quarrel of them. I fear it would have to be a bully of blue tits, and a brightness of great tits and a loneliness of coal tits as I only ever see one in the garden.

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The list I found says that there is not an official collective name for Robins but that a Facebook page had among its favourites: a blush, a bobbin, a breast, a carol, a gift, a reliant, a riot, a rouge, a round and a ruby. I tend to think of a friendship, or perhaps a constancy of robins as there is almost always one in the garden, they stay close when you sit out there and they are the first to call a warning when danger approaches.

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A delight of nine

My favourite distraction however is the long-tailed tit. I wasn’t that aware of them until I moved to Worcestershire and saw tiny bobbing families of birds busy in the hedges and high trees with their distinctive piping call. No matter how often I see them I still think someone has glued a lollipop stick onto a table tennis ball; how can any bird be that round and have such a fine, straight tail? They are infrequent visitors to the garden – or else their visits are so brief I miss them most days – so whenever I see them my day is invariably brightened and I always think, “Oh look, a delight of long-tailed tits.”

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It’s been rather lovely to base a post around photographs after two blogs with no pictures at all (although finding the best pictures from the hundreds I have taken took a whole afternoon.) I should add that all of these were taken of visitors to our garden, which may explain any blurring – I don’t clean the windows as often as I should. The robin was just outside the back door and could have been seen from an upstairs window but I was out enjoying the snow that day. It follows that these are not all pictures taken in November.

Do you have a favourite bird? One that lifts your spirit when you see or hear it? Or a favourite collective name – either real or one of your own?

Don’t write about sex, politics or religion?

What gives a Brit the right to have an opinion on the US presidential election? I’ve seen such sentiments expressed a few times lately and the most common answer – apart from opinions are free and everyone is entitled to them – is that the election result does indeed affect the whole world, not just the US. Global warming. Nato. There are many effects, both big and small.

But the main reason I have an opinion is because the result affects people I care about. They are afraid of getting hurt. They are being hurt.

People I care about but who don’t even know me. People who, mostly, I haven’t met. People who have educated me. People who have made me laugh, and cry, often at the same time.

I’m talking about the romance community, mostly about authors but also editors, agents and readers. Over the years I’ve watched people argue, inform and campaign about; plagiarism, shady publishing practices, racism, diversity, authors bullying readers and reviewers attacking authors.

When I started on Twitter I followed comedians, actors and authors that I liked, and editors that I thought might offer valuable information (they do). I followed the bloggers who had previously impressed and informed me and I followed authors I hadn’t read but whose work I had seen praised on those websites, or whose names kept cropping up in interesting discussions. Thus I found out that as well as writing brilliant books and blogs, a lot of the romance community were bloody funny, witty, compassionate and passionate – about so many things. I could list my entire Twitter feed but the ones I look forward to hearing from every day include; Bree Bridges, Julie Cohen, Alyssa Cole, Victoria Dahl, N K Jemisin, Susanna Kearsley, Colleen Lindsay, Courtney Milan, Alisha Rai and Carly Silver. Their willingness to educate others about writing and publishing romance is amazing (I often wonder how the heck they find time for their other jobs).

This year these ladies have written tirelessly, fearlessly (although I know many are deeply deeply fearful) and honestly about the election. They have been tweeting or retweeting for years about race, religion, LGBQT and neurodiversity issues whether or not those are subjects that impact them personally. (Edited to add that they have also written about disability issues – it might just have been simpler to list things they don’t discuss – because I can’t think of any. I suppose what I was trying to illustrate is that with many of these women I have no idea of their race, religion, sexuality or any disabilities that might affect them, but they still speak up on behalf of others who are being marginalised or targeted.) They write about them because they are important, because there is so much injustice out there (in the romance world and of course elsewhere). They have made me realise so much about my own deep-seated unconscious prejudices and how much I take for granted, I have started challenging lazy perceptions in others in a way I didn’t before because every small step is important in challenging bias and privilege.

And because of their bravery in speaking up for their community, their families and friends, these women are attacked on line regularly and many fear attacks in the street any day soon. The election result has made life unsafe for people because of how they look, live, love and believe. It has made me afraid and angry on their behalf and that is why I will feel free to have an opinion on American politics and why I am retweeting so much that makes me so angry and so afraid. Not just because of the effect globally or in Europe. But because of the women to whom I owe so much.

I should add that I started thinking about this post as soon as the election result was known; I wanted to howl my horror and disgust at the moon, but feared I had no right. Over the next days as I read the gut wrenching despair of these women my own revulsion seemed pitiful in comparison with those who are going to live with this open hatred and prejudice and fear every day for the next four years. I wanted to offer support but it seemed puny in comparison with the phone calls and demonstrations being organised on line. Then someone in the UK posted one of those “10 things writers mustn’t do on line” lists and on it was “Don’t talk about politics, sex or religion (unless you write about those things in your books)” and I was incensed. How can it not be in our books when it’s everywhere in the world being shoved in our faces whether we like it or not? How can a rise in hate crimes not affect everyone who hears about them?

I’ll admit I’d already unfollowed an author or two in the last weeks. Such bad luck if you had a book release scheduled and need to try and do promo while people’s worlds are crumbling around them. Many have managed it tactfully and respectfully while acknowledging how the world has changed, and is still changing. But if you tweeted eight links to your book or glowing reviews with not one tweet about current affairs? I’m not really sure there’s going to be anything in your book to interest me. Yes, authors are not their books, you can have wildly different politics to mine and I may still enjoy your writing – especially if I have no idea what your politics are, so yeah, keep quiet about it. But I notice your silence, and my admiration for you has diminished and I will remember it next time I see one of your books. No, I am not trying to shame anyone into sharing what they don’t wish to, I have never told anyone how I have voted in any general or local election and nor will I; but I will speak up on horrors like a President elect with no respect for women or people of colour, the ongoing crisis at Standing Rock and anyone who claims all romance books show that women secretly long to be grabbed by a masterful man.

Every one of the women I have mentioned above has voiced their anxiety (to put it mildly) in the last two weeks, but they have also continued (with a lot of effort) to write, edit and publish books that give pleasure to millions. They have helped me to remember that when hatred and fascism are on the increase, the love and hope in art is needed more than ever for the promise it gives us all.

The start of the affair

Three weeks ago I fell in love. It’s been a long time since that happened and I was unprepared for the rush of excitement and passion, the overwhelming sense of “Yes!” of recognition along with the thrill of so many new discoveries to be made. Two weeks later, weeks in which my mind had constantly been drawn to my new object of affection, my partner asked what I would like to do for my birthday and I unhesitatingly said I wanted to return to the spot where I had fallen in love (I didn’t quite phrase it that way) and he kindly agreed. After a two hour drive, mostly through rain, the sky lightened and patches of blue welcomed us back to Dunraven Bay and this:

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A walled garden. By the sea. All that is left of a country house built on a cliff and once known as Dunraven Castle. With the ramparts of an Iron Age Hillfort towering over the garden walls. If I had to create the most perfect place for a story, for inspiration, or to encompass the maximum number of items that I love to explore and write and read about – well I think I would have dismissed all this as just too much.

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And did I mention the beach? Sand for building castles and dams, rock pools in which to hunt for scuttling wildlife and amazing rock strata in the cliffs to explore for fossils. The sunset picture at the top of my last blog post was taken as I tore myself away from the beach three weeks ago; it had been a perfect day and people were heading onto the beach with barbeques and drinks to watch the setting sun, still more had climbed to the banks and ditches of the hillfort to see the sun reflected on the sea and the gleaming sand.

That first visit had been primarily to look for fossils with my dinosaur-obsessed seven year old, we were going to try to find the steps down to the supposedly more secluded beach but I dived straight through the gothic doorway into the gardens – so often on days out we have said “we’ll explore it later” only for darkness to fall or for gates to be locked. That first glimpse of the gardens was more of a forced march but it left me longing for more, as did the view once we had left the garden and climbed through the woods to the other side of the peninsula.

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No steps were obvious so we walked back through the few remains of the castle and on over the hillfort earthworks and back to the beach where a delightful afternoon of swimming, splashing, sandcastle and damn building was enjoyed by all, plus a picnic on the rocks broken up by catching shrimps and my toes being nibbled by a one-clawed crab.

Two weeks and one day later we returned. The school holidays were over and even though the sky became almost as cloudlessly blue, the heat had gone; autumn was in the air – although it didn’t stop us all from paddling in the sea. I’ve never swum on my birthday before. There were more surfers than swimmers this time due to the impressive waves and you could feel the force of the water tugging us towards the Devon coast across the hazy water. (I’ve forgotten to mention where Dunraven is, haven’t I? South Glamorgan, the wonderful Heritage Coast in south Wales. The beach is also known as Southerndown.)

In the weeks since our first visit I searched on line for pictures of the missing castle/house to find out why it had been demolished in the 1960s. There are many beautiful black and white photographs of it but I have no wish to steal someone else’s images.  Here are some, along with the history of the area and in someone else’s fascination with the castle here  However, on this visit we went to the Heritage Centre behind the beach (it had been closed two weeks earlier) and while reading the many panels about the house and grounds and the history, what struck me most was an aerial view showing the circle of the hillfort as it would have been before the cliffs crumbled away and suddenly the effrontery of building a country house inside a two thousand year old hill fort hit me. I don’t know why. I don’t find the village built within the earthworks at Avebury – and using some of its ancient standing stones for building material – shocking. “Baffled and amused at the very British practical vandalism” was how I described it elsewhere on this blog but somehow, a house built for one family’s grandeur seemed wrong as I read about the history of the 500BC hillfort, possible Roman occupation, Saxon raids, its gifting to a Norman Lord after 1066, rumours of Wreckers and the original Tudor Mansion. I’m not saying I’m glad the house has gone, I would have love to have seen it high on that cliff, although given the coastal erosion I wonder how much longer it would have safely lasted? I don’t know why the aerial shots had this effect on me, there are many here on the wonderful website Coflein, an online catalogue of archaeology, buildings, industrial and maritime heritage in Wales with a whole page devoted to Dunraven hillfort. The ones in thick frost make me long to visit in winter and this one with the deep shadows of early morning show the ramparts at their best, you can see how at least a third of the hillfort has been swallowed by the sea. You can also see the long point of the peninsula, called Trwyn-y-Witch or Witches Point, because obviously the place just wasn’t magical enough.

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After lunch I finally made it back to the gardens. I’m sure I can write a whole ‘nother post about the allure of walled gardens, but to have four rising up the gentle valley, to feel the temperature rise by several degrees the minute you step inside the sheltering embrace of the walls, to hear the waves if you listen hard enough, and to have the two and a half thousand year old battlements of a hillfort rising over you makes this place very special. The gardens are being restored, very carefully and unobtrusively, and you are free to roam all over them. That first hot sunny day we arrived at high tide and there was no sandy beach to play on, the families simply decamped to the gardens to picnic under apple trees or on the many benches along the walkways, or to play ball games. The freedom to explore, the higgledy-piggledy growth of the plants, trees and shrubs, the formal lines of the paths and the walls that break the gardens up enticed and enchanted me the first time and did not disappoint on a more leisurely visit. I saw my first quince tree, alongside several figs. There weren’t that many flowering plants but colour was everywhere in countless shades of green, in the stark grey crenelated walls and in the blisteringly blue sky overhead.

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The first garden has a greenhouse, I imagine it once had many, there are the remains of seed beds and the interior walls are almost obscured by climbing plants. A secretive set of mildly treacherous steps led up into the woods and the recent rain cast a fresh scent throughout.

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The second garden had rows of fruit trees, although they seemed as if planted by chance with their low spreading friendly shade.

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The third was wilder, shrubs I didn’t recognise and a wild overgrown hedge. Oh, and some ruins against the wall, because a lost house/castle and the possibility of a separate lost Tudor mansion simply wasn’t charm enough.

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I think it was this garden more than any that made me long to stop and sit. For two weeks I had been spinning tales in my head based on this impossible mix of histories and archaeology and nature; all I longed for was a few hours with a laptop or pen and paper to sit and scribble as fast as I could, to soak up the atmosphere, to capture it’s beauty and mystery in words rather than simply with my camera. I began to fantasise about coming here for a break, staying anywhere nearby and spending entire days writing and plotting and dreaming. I could feel my muse both thirsting and being quenched at the same moment as I explored that tangled paradise.

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And the fourth garden is a mostly level expanse of grass, maybe for tennis? Bowls? It brought to mind a place for jousting, but that may have been the wooden barriers as if to keep back crowds and the pavilion for courtly ladies to sit and watch. Oh, and of course the tower that was built over the ice house. Part folly? Part showing off? Pure plot inspiration.

Then on, through the darkly dappled woods via a squelchy path with the smell of rain on ancient trees refreshing us after the heat trapped within the walled garden. This is where people think the Tudor house could have been – how do you lose a Tudor Mansion? Up to the breath-taking view of the coast towards Cardiff and then doubling back to where Dunraven Castle stood, where its formal gardens and terraces gazed towards England, where the even more impressive and far older bulwarks of the hillfort bar your way. I haven’t explored those ramparts yet, or the Witches peninsula, neither seem too safe with two children under eight who run off the moment you glance away. Sitting on the beach later you could see people enjoying the view, they were probably well back from the cliff edge but from below they seemed in imminent danger of tumbling over.

I know I will go back, I don’t know how soon or if I can sneak some writing time there alone. As it’s our nearest beach I’m hoping for a few trips next summer, although I also long to see the gardens in their winter colours. I’m not sure when a place has grabbed me so totally and refused to let go. There are others that have inspired me and made me long to return and that have rewarded repeat visits – Castel-y-Bere, Longtown, Symi, Dolgoch Falls, Cregennan Lakes, Kingley Vale yew forest – but none that mixed so many elements of history, nature, ruin, loss, myth, archaeology – oh, and outstanding beauty. And fossils. And crabs. And there’s a small shop selling ice cream and tea. Didn’t I say it was perfect? Now to finish the book I am writing and start just one of the many plots this place has inspired.

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This is the look of a woman who does not want to leave. Have any places captured you so totally?

5 reasons not to blog – and 1 reason to do it

I considered calling this post “To blog or not to blog” but it seemed so obvious I thought it must have been done before – and a quick internet search confirmed that. I have very few regular followers of this blog, but far more than I expected it when I started it at the beginning of May. So I shall apologise to anyone who wondered where my weekly posts had gone over the summer. It surprised me as much as you. I had written posts ready on books, writing, reading and ripped-off toe nails – something to look forward to there – but it felt odd to post them when I wasn’t active with other aspects of my writing.

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The reason was simple, school holidays and 2 young children underfoot all the time. This meant lots of day trips – I’ve taken over 1300 photos in 7 weeks so be very afraid of future blogs – and very little time for writing or editing. I’m not a (total) fool and had hardly expected to get much done over these weeks, hence having blog posts ready in advance, but I wasn’t reading other blogs that I follow, or keeping up with twitter. I wasn’t even reading. And that is something new. I usually manage a few chapters in the bath at the very least but I think this summer, I wanted so very badly to be writing that when that proved impossible I switched off from all things that reminded me of what I was missing. Deep down I’m grateful for this; that my writing habits have become so ingrained that their thwarting also stifled other creative outlets and made me focus on this blessed day when school restarted and I could properly get at my laptop again.

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The perfect picnic spot at Grosmont Castle

So again; I am sorry if anyone missed this blog, and I hope no one is sorry to see it return to its usual levels of activity. It has also reminded me of why I started being more interactive with readers, writers and bloggers. Mostly it was selfish reasons, wanting to start building a platform or identity for when I’m trying to catch an editor or agent’s eye, and then for future readers. But it was also to share knowledge and information – not just my own – but all the helpful, wonderful and funny things that have been shared with me over the years and that are still being put out there for free every day. If I’m not commenting on other blogs, heck, if I’m not reading them and thinking and being inspired – or enraged – then why would I even want to put out thoughts of my own? So many writers say they started writing because of wanting to emulate a book that moved them, others were horrified by a book and thought “I can do better than this.” With blogging it was more that I wanted to add my own voice to the mix after whiling away so many tedious hours at work with illicit internet sessions, and also to try and collate some of the valuable writing tips I’ve absorbed over the years.

It’s the same with twitter. I signed up when Harlequin’s So You Think You Can Write competition started having twitter chats, I had no idea what I was doing and before I knew it I had a follower and so I tweeted randomly and followed actors, writers, editors and comedians and retweeted things and drifted away for a bit when I found it sucking up too much of my time. When I started taking my writing seriously and setting up this blog I decided I wouldn’t tweet as well. Sure I’d keep my account and follow all the useful industry people and bloggers, but I wouldn’t communicate back, I’d be an anonymous lurker. And then in one week I retweeted (to my handful of followers) 2 really good articles and it hit me how selfish I would be if I kept taking advice from twitter and never really sharing it.

I know there’s no rule that you have to participate or share or comment. But isn’t it nice when people do read and respond? It was partly feeling hurt very early on on twitter when people didn’t react to a tweet or notice if I replied that I backed away from it, I know it’s a lottery of time and luck if people see some tweets, it’s not personal (I am the sort of person who can obsess very easily over such things.) Oddly enough, once I stopped caring and just retweeted more often with my own comments, I had far more interactions and far more fun. Twitter actually is fun, as long as you don’t follow to many people doing the hard sell or meet too many trolls (which is true for all social media, and indeed the real world.)

All of which is a rambling (I’m out of practice) way of saying why I didn’t blog when I wasn’t fully immersed in the writing word this summer and how happy I am to be back. And why I think sharing, even random pieces of advice or inspiration, can be so important; you can never know what small piece of information, or anecdote, or stunning picture, might be just what someone else needed to see today. You can just be sure that if I find it, I will share it, and will thank you.

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I enjoyed building dams on the beach, even when the children lost interest

And now, according to Dr J with whom I live, I have to write something about wanting to be in a spooky tower, eating cake, waiting for a spy. That, apparently, is what he has gleaned about me from reading this blog. Which is obviously rubbish. Drinking gin in a ruined tower waiting for a spy yes. Not eating cake. Unless it was gin flavoured.

(But seriously, if that’s all he’s taken from previous posts I need to crack on with more posts about writing and books and fewer mentions of alcohol. I’m not cutting back on castle pictures though.)

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Longtown Castle

Oh yes, I promised 5 reasons not to blog – holidays, children, not writing, too busy enjoying a sunset, not wanting to lose the pleasure of blogging. And too much gin some nights, always gin. 6 reasons….

And 1 big reason to blog –it feels like belonging.