March reading round up

Was it just me or did March feel like about three months long? And it was such an up and down month too, with the anniversary of lockdown casting a shadow over everything and finishing with this glorious spring weather. Still, here is what I read this month:

The Heart’s Invisible Furies – John Boyne

The month didn’t start well. This has sat on the shelf for months and I thought I should get it done with but I don’t know if it was the book or me but it didn’t work for me at all. I’ve read Boyne in the past and found him to be patchy – one book I thought was good, another I thought was poor. I know a lot of people who like this one and I still can’t put my finger on why it didn’t work for me. But it was a dnf.

What She’s Having – a Dear Damsels Anthology

A relief then, to turn to this – an anthology of women writing about food. This is lovely and I cannot tell you what a glorious change it was to read about women and food without any mention of diet or body loathing or calories or any of that shit. Every woman I know has been on a diet at one (or more likely many) point in their life and we are so tuned to worrying about what we eat that this collection genuinely feels fresh and exciting because it doesn’t talk about that. Instead we get a lot of food memories, a lot of family and a lot of love. It reminded me of the recent Daunt books anthology In the Kitchen which I equally enjoyed.

Brother of the More Famous Jack – Barbara Trapido

This was my re-read this month, which I picked up when I was feeling low. It’s one of my favourite books of all time and I feel I should soon get myself a new copy as mine is showing signs of wear (but is signed by the author who once visited the bookshop where I worked and took me out to dinner at a fancy Nottingham restaurant and shocked all the posh diners by talking loudly about Martin Amis and scenes of masturbation. I dislike Amis but love Barbara Trapido.) I had forgotten quite how un-PC it is and how much I love all the characters despite that. A comfort and a joy.

A Tomb with a View – Peter Ross

My in-laws bought me this for Christmas and it’s a fascinating read. Ross lives overlooking a graveyard and goes wandering around the country and to Ireland, to find out more about some of the best known graveyards and the stories behind them. Often the stories are of lesser known mortals, even the chapter about Highgate, and how they came to be designed, how they are used and who they contain are to be found in this book. There were only two things wrong with it: that he didn’t visit Nottingham’s Rock Cemetery, and that there weren’t more pictures.

I Belong Here – Anita Sethi

This was an advance copy via Netgalley and is published at the end of April this year. Sethi, Manchester born and bred, from immigrant parents, is racially abused on a train while on her way to a book event. It is an event that unsettles her, for obvious reasons, and partly to calm herself she goes to walk the Pennine Way, to find ‘the backbone of Britain’ and explore her feelings and those of others towards people like her, non-white British folk. She talks about the rising level of racial hate crime, micro aggressions, and even recalls an encounter with Prince Charles where he reveals himself to be less than enlightened – a timely story given this month’s news headlines. This book has less walking in it than readers of other walking memoirs might like, but it explores interesting, relevant and important issues about what it means to be British and how we might all try to see who belongs here is wider than the narrow definitions reflected in the media.

The Memory Police – Yoko Ogawa

This month’s reading group choice and I started out enjoying it very much. It told the story of the residents of an island in Japan who find that many objects in their lives ‘disappear’, and once they do so, their memories alter so that they lose any idea of what those items are or how to use them. The Memory Police are in positions of power to take away anyone who does not forget the disappeared items, including the narrator’s mother. When the narrator’s editor finds himself in danger from the memory police she hides him so he will be safe. I began thinking this was a fascinating book, with a lot to say about collective memory and curation and control, but in the last third of the book I found myself wanting to know why – and this question was never answered. There was also a ludicrous plot twist which just annoyed me. So a mixed bag, but she is a very gifted writer – I enjoyed her style.

A Half-Baked Idea – Olivia Potts

This is a memoir of Olivia Potts, a promising barrister, who undergoes a serious breakdown after her mother’s death. So she decides to enrol in the Cordon Bleu cookery school in London and become a patisserie expert. As you do. I enjoyed this though there really is a point where I no longer cared about the finer points of French baking. Given the choice between mille feuille and an apple crumble, I’d take the crumble any day. Less precise but no less joyful.

Domestic Bliss and other Disaster – Jane Ions

This is the latest title from Bluemoose Books and a fun read. It features Sally, a middle aged MP’s wife who has, as the title suggests a number of domestic issues to deal with, including a son home from college and building rent free eco friendly accommodation in the driveway, a friend’s shifting love life and the wrath of the neighbours. I was reminded strongly of Alan Bennett when I read this, it has the same sense of humour and so refreshing to read something featuring a middle aged woman who is not smug but very relatable.

Supporting Cast – Kit de Waal

These short stories feature characters from Kit’s novels and now I feel compelled to go back and re-read those so I can put the two together properly. But as a writer, I love the idea of taking a character and writing them a story away from your main plot. Some of these are very short, some give you more context for the novels but all of them are skillfully written and give you a full portrait in just a few strokes.

Dog Songs by Mary Oliver and The Hill We Climb by Amanda Gorman

Two poetry books this month. I will read anything by Mary Oliver so this new edition of poems she wrote for the dogs in her life is a joy and a testament to the fact that they are the best of animals. Plus the illustrations are gorgeous. And The Hill We Climb is the poem Gorman read at President Biden’s inauguration, that fabulous performance that she gave. I bought a copy for myself and one for E to keep and take with her through life.

Moments of Pleasure

Hopefully by now you have heard the joyful piece of perfect pop ‘Only for Tonight’ by Pearl Charles – it has been stuck in my head on an almost constant loop for weeks but it’s such a life-affirming piece of wonder that if you haven’t heard it yet, you must go and find it now. It combines seventies influences with a modern attitude and is altogether wonderful.

I caught up with films on iplayer this month, including Carol starring Cate Blanchett which I’d not seen before and which featured the song No Other Love by Jo Stafford which is just lovely. The film was good too.

I also watched Edie, one of those films we do where British people do eccentric things in the face of adversity. In this case, Sheila Hancock’s character decides to climb a mountain in Scotland before she dies, because she’d not been able to climb it with her father and she had spent 30 years caring for her husband instead. I liked it because it was set in Lochinver, the town where we stayed in Scotland a few years ago and I recognised the setting, including the Suilven mountain which is quite distinctive. Anyway, she gets into all kinds of pickles but I was struck by what a cow her daughter was to her and how she had to share her triumph with someone else instead. I hope my mother knows that if she wants to do something batshit insane in her dotage then I am absolutely here to help her.

Finally this month, I found joy in going for a walk. For about three hours I walked the streets of Nottingham, nosing in people’s gardens and houses and enjoying the sunshine – I haven’t been anywhere except for a run a few times a week all year and this felt very different. The changed pace made all the difference and I came home much happier and worn out than I had been for ages.

Have a good month, everyone! Stay safe, and pick up your litter.

Writing for wellbeing: Journalling

Last week I was talking about free writing and writing by hand, and I guess the most popular and useful way of putting this into practice regularly is by journalling. Journalling seems to have come into its own recently – a few years back I don’t remember seeing as much about it but I suspect the pandemic may have put everyone into a state where they want to try and nurture their mental health as best they can.

It’s good to remember that journalling is not the same as writing a diary. You don’t have to record your day. Unless you want to, of course. But the danger of that is that it quickly becomes boring, or at least it has done for the last year:

Stayed at home

Worked from home

Walked round the park

Stayed at home

And so on.

The other danger of only writing your day is that you can spend a lot of time ranting and capturing a lot of negative feelings. So it’s important to try and write the joy too.

Journalling should be about capturing how you feel about things, so if you are keen to record your day then you can add this extra dimension to it. And journalling by hand allows you to connect your mind to the page, which can take all sorts of different forms. It can be all about capturing a moment, a scene, using all your senses; it can be about how you feel; it can be recording a memory or moment from the past. Or you can use prompts and see where they take you. The great thing about journalling suddenly being ‘the thing that people do’ is that there are loads of prompts out there at the moment.

And I shall be adding some more! Every Monday over on my Instagram site I’m posting a journalling prompt for you to try. See how you get on!

Prompts are a good way to help you start writing if you’re feeling a bit stuck but want to keep at free writing. You can use these to loosen up, a warm up exercise or just as an experiment and see where they take your thoughts. I know there have been days when I’ve looked at a prompt and thought, “oh what?” but given it a go and found all sorts of random things appear on the page. It can be fun, as well as beneficial.

If you do find yourself delving deep into feelings or memories, it is important to remember that journalling is not the best place to explore everything. A lot of people use journals as a tool to deal with day to day mental health issues but you can stumble across quite serious issues, at which point please do consider getting extra help. However, as a way of getting out your daily, weekly, whatever frequency thoughts, a journal is a really useful tool.

The other great joy of journalling is that you can buy some lovely notebooks for the task. I tell myself this is part of the motivation to keep writing, but as you may know, I am a stationery addict. My preferred journals are usually A5 size, clothbound and with ribbon bookmarks. My current one also has gold sprayed edges.

You can also get some really good ones with prompts in at the moment. I really like the new Women’s Prize Journal, which celebrates 25 years of the Women’s Prize and has short pieces about each winning book as well as room for your own notes. A perfect volume for a reading journal perhaps?

London-based stationers Papier have teamed up with Gurls Talk, a mental health charity for girls of all kinds, to create a Reflections journal – I think this is aimed at young people and adults rather than children. But the great thing is that there are some good products on the market for children too. It’s one thing handing a lovely blank book to a child but they will soon lose direction. Journals for children allow them to direct their thoughts, extract positive lessons and reflect their feelings without the task being too arduous. E and I have been trying out children’s journals: we like the Happy Confident Me journal or the Happy Self journal, both of which have prompts, quotes and fun activities for children to start journalling and exploring their feelings in a safe way.

So tell me this, is there anything else out there that allows you to take a few quiet moments, make yourself feel better, get in tune with your thoughts AND allows, nay positively encourages, you to buy new notebooks? No, there isn’t. So don’t forget, drop by my Instagram on Mondays and try out the prompt I’ll put up each week, and see how you get on!

Happy journals!

Writing for Wellbeing: free writing

At work recently I’ve been running workshops about Reading and Writing for Wellbeing, an hour-long slot where we explore the concept of bibliotherapy in a basic sense to help you through your daily life. It’s been a while since I’ve done any training or development courses for anyone so it’s been a bit of a challenge for me, plus delivering them via MS Teams has been a further revelation. In short, if you’re sharing slides for people to look at, then you can’t see their faces so you have no idea how it’s going down with them. Plus, they were all very quiet. It’s a little unnerving, however they all assured me that they enjoyed the sessions.

The thing that has gone down the best has been the free writing. For those if you not familiar with free writing, you write non stop for a certain period of time – I give them 5 minutes but you shouldn’t go longer than 20 minutes – and you don’t stop. If you have nothing you can think of, you write I can’t think what to write. You don’t worry about spelling, grammar or making sense. And more importantly, you write by hand. I think it’s this part that has been the most revelatory for staff at work. Having spent the best part of a year at home, most of us working on laptops for online meetings, instant messaging, emails and report writing, then writing by hand for a longer period of time than a shopping list has been quite a novelty.

I think those of us around my age have an interesting relationship with writing by hand. I wrote all my school essays by hand, spending time having to try and make my handwriting neat enough to read. Arriving at university, the requirement to type essays was a culture shock and to start with I had to write them out by hand and then go to the library and type them onto the computers there. The idea of writing my thoughts straight onto the page was a very strange one. Sometime in the second year this clicked and I just typed straight onto the page. Much of my writing these days is straight onto the laptop. I really admire writers who type their first drafts on their phones, as I’m just too Gen X to manage typing with both hands the way the kids do…

But there is a place for writing by hand. This past year, where I have felt so stuck, I did scribble a lot by hand. I bought E a pack of school exercise books with paperback covers for her home-schooling work and then ‘borrowed’ one and it really helped unlock words for me. The size of the paper, the neat margins, the lined pages, all contributed to me spilling things out on to the page. And I’ve always kept a journal going, sometimes less regularly than other times, but always there to help unlock thoughts.

There are many advocates of writing by hand, even in these digital days, and recognise the power it has in helping you express yourself. (I recently enjoyed one of the biggies, Julia Cameron, talking on Viv Groskop’s podcast.) The act of writing it all down, from the heart through to the fingers, slows you down, allows you to connect your mind with your pen. It makes writing a physical thing, a kinaesthetic process, which can allow you to explore thoughts in a different way to when all you are concerned about is how many little red lines appear under the words on your Word document.

The great thing for many of my workshop attendees was that their perception of journaling was challenged. So many people see journaling as a chance to write down what you’ve done that day, or a space to rant about how awful the news is, but in looking at this as a free writing exercise and opening up the world to them, there was a new element to it. Some wrote about memories, about places they wanted to go when the pandemic is over, others wrote more generally. Some have contacted me afterwards to tell me how they have continued the practice.

If you fancy having a go, here are the basic rules:

Set a timer. No longer than 20 minutes.

Write all that time, anything that comes into your head. If there’s nothing to start with then write that.

Do not go back and start to edit until after the time is up.

Do not worry about spelling, grammar or if it makes sense.

Enjoy the feel of the pen and how it flows across your page.

Let me know how you get on!

Books from my Mother

For Mothers’ Day I thought I’d look at reading and mothers, or to be specific, how my mum is woven into my reading history. 

To start with there are the books she read to me, especially the ones she read to us over and over again. Beaky the Greedy Duck and Rapunzel, and for my sister, One Little Bee and Tootles the Taxi. If pressed I’m sure she can still recite them.

We had a bookshelf in our dining room that was in my eyeline as I ate at the table each night. On it sat a number of hardback children’s books that I love though I have no memory of reading them or having them read to me. These included Little Grey Rabbit stories, Winnie the Pooh, Milne’s poems and a volume of Nonsense Verse. These are stories I associate with home as a child: The Owl and the Pussycat, Alexander Beetle and a bit of butter for the royal slice of bread.

Next the titles she passed onto me. Books I knew she loved, books I discovered when poking around the shelves at home. These include Nevil Shute’s A Town Like Alice and Jane Eyre. It’s funny, although we had books at home and both my parents had favourite authors, I don’t have any memories of them sitting reading, not at weekends or on holidays or anywhere. I do remember watching film and TV programmes with them both but not of us reading. 

I remember that she took me to the new village library when it opened. It was exciting, previously we had to make do with the mobile library or school library but here was a whole building full of books just down the road. I spent many an hour there after school and on Saturday mornings. She tells me now that she suspects it will not reopen after the pandemic, that the council will justify closing it. It’s tiny to me now but back then it was enormous and full of possibility. It was here that I found all sorts of companions, where my friends borrowed Judy Blume’s Forever so frequently that it was always in need of mending and the librarians never go the chance before another of us requested it. (Naively, I asked my mum what some of the expressions in Forever meant and she shrieked “What ARE you reading?” in horror. It was the last time I would talk to her about book content for a while…) 

Books I associate with my mother brings us to cookbooks. Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management and the Homepride of Home Baking are the two that I feel were used most, although does anyone still really use Mrs Beeton? I cannot recall any recipes from it. But I think as my mum is known for her cooking, especially cakes, she is associated quite widely with cookbooks. Certainly she has been given more than she can ever use. Delia’s Complete Cookery Course and of course, the Australian Woman’s Weekly book of birthday cakes. When my daughter was born, I bought a copy of this from ebay – it is a cracking example of fun things to with cakes that are impressive but in theory not difficult. For people with more skill in icing than me. 

These days, or those pre-pandemic days, we often swapped books. The occasional biography but mainly fiction. I shared Elizabeth Jane Howard, Lissa Evans and Joanna Cannon, she recommended Dawn French’s Dear Fatty and A Song for Jenny. She reads more cosy crime and chick lit than I do but there is a thread of things I can share with her. If we lived closer there would be a lot more. 

So I want to hear from you – what books do you associate with your mum? How have these woman shaped your reading and your reading experiences? 

Finding focus

How are you doing? It’s March already and I don’t know about you but this year feels utterly odd. Not wasted exactly, but time has a very different meaning these days.

My daughter has gone back to school today. She had that one day in January in school, but otherwise has been at home with me since 18 December. I’m sure many of you are in the same situation. It hasn’t been easy, in fact this lockdown has felt much harder for reasons I’ve not entirely been able to put my finger on. I remember in lockdown 1 getting up earlier to do yoga before the day began. This time round I’ve stayed in bed. I’ve not left the house as much. I’ve yelled at people and freaked out more.

Somewhere in there I’ve clearly considered that enough is enough. I bought a book, Growing Gills by Jessica Abel, in December. It’s for people who want to be creative but feel they are drowning in their day to day life. It was simultaneously perfect to look at during lockdown and also dreadful to consider during lockdown. Abel starts by getting you to make a time tracker so you can see how you use your time. And then use it better. Of course, I began the time tracker and a day later had to include home schooling in the tasks I tried to do daily. It was atypical of my usual day, but was also a clue to why I felt like I was drowning in everyday life.

I have been very lucky in having an only child in the house and one who has been diligent in schoolwork, and who also enjoys drawing and reading. She has allowed me to work with some degree of normality. But it has still been very difficult and I feel I’ve gained years of experience as a child psychologist as a result of these last few months.

And I’ve been lucky in that my day job allows me to work from home and my team and bosses have an understanding of working and home schooling. It’s good to remind yourself that you are privileged in many ways, but that mindset doesn’t always help you feel better. It’s ok to admit you’re struggling. Just because others might have it worse doesn’t invalidate your experience. But we make ourselves feel that way anyway.

Creatively, I have struggled. I have written things, mainly journal notes, stream of consciousness type dialogue pieces, or a children’s story we started together at Christmas. Nothing sustained, everything in bits. I have completed craft projects, following other people’s instructions so I don’t have to think too much but keep my hands busy. I have made good items. And I’ve managed to read a lot. I’ve not managed to sit through many TV programmes but books have worked for me, I think because I’ve needed to have quiet backgrounds when I’ve read which has helped my general wellbeing. In general though, I felt I was floundering.

So I decided to follow Abel’s advice. I worked through the book. It comes with a workbook to help support the process. And mostly the advice is sensible stuff. Do one thing at a time. Write down all your projects and ideas and prioritise them. Tidy up and sort stuff out.

I know, I know. It doesn’t sound revolutionary, does it? But sometimes you need reminding of things. You need a structure. And as it’s likely that I will be working at home for some time to come, I need to feel like I have control. So I’ve cleared things out. I have begun to finish online courses I’d signed up for. I’ve sorted my notebooks and desk. I’ve dusted things. Today I will have a sustained period of time alone to actually focus on my day job. Which is good and terrifying all at the same time. Good, because I can make a better concentrated fist of it and complete things better – meaning I don’t have to worry about them so much the rest of the time. And terrifying because I can’t remember now how I do focus on things. Why do you think I took on all those projects in the first place? To have something else to flit between.

This week is my transition and adjustment week. I’m hoping once I’ve got back into the swing of concentration and focus, of interrupted time, that I can start to plan. Set myself proper targets, word counts or chapters or a sustained project. I have a fresh planner waiting and piles of washi tape to help make it something I want to look at and work to.

Today though, I shall just be starting out. I have confidence in my daughter’s school, that they can help provide her with the atmosphere and support she has needed, that they have her best interests at heart. It doesn’t mean I can stop worrying altogether, just that I can share the burden wider and with professionals. And I have a to do list for work, to help me focus and cross off tasks at my day job.

If you, like me, are alone today and have sent your child to school then I wish you well. They will be ok, with time and love. They will catch up. They will adjust. You will have to remember who you are now you are you again and not teacher, parent, counsellor, entertainer and playmate. It’s ok to enjoy the silence. And it’s ok to learn how to focus again, slowly.

February: a short month with many books

Somehow I’ve read 11 books this month. And while one of them was a re-read, the others were new. Three of them I read on the Kindle app which means I didn’t read them as thoroughly as I would have done on the page. Still quite pleased with it though.

Home Cooking – Laurie Colvin

A friend recommended this as their comfort read and I love cookery books you can read so I got hold of a copy. It is indeed a delight, being a cook book written by a frank talking New York woman, who comments on lifestyle as much as food and recipes. If you like Nora Ephron movies, you’ll like this.

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte

My re-read for the month and my favourite book. It will always be a comfort and a joy to read.

The Spare Room – Helen Garner

Lord. This is an unflinching book, a stark exploration of how a friendship can be tested through the worst of life. Helen’s friend Nicola comes to stay – Nicola has very serious cancer and is seeking treatment at an alternative therapist near Helen’s home. Helen is completely unprepared for the impact this event will have on her and how hard it is to deal with. You like to think you will support your friends in anything they need but we all know there are sometimes limits – and Nicola refusing to countenance any criticism of the quacks who are ‘treating; her s incredibly difficult for Helen and for us, the reader, to manage. A stark, portrait but a very successful treatment of a difficult subject.

The Family Tree – Sairish Hussain

I really enjoyed this. It’s a big absorbing family saga, in the style of Tim Pears or Elizabeth Jane Howard but centred around a British Pakistani family of a dad, two children and their grandmother. Having had their mother die when the girl Zahra was born, the book explores Zahra and her big brother Saahil, and what happens to them – in the form of racism, family ties and drugs. I loved the characters and how they forced themselves through the worst of events to come back together. A big hearted, absorbing novel.

Girl Reading- Katie Ward

A series of short stories, very loosely linked, based around paintings. This would have worked much better had the paintings been reproduced in the book so you could have seen them while you read (I imagine copyright issues are a factor and they are available on the website) It was alright.

Such a Fun Age – Kiley Reid

This was one of those books where you could see what the author was trying to do quite early on and once you got the point then she didn’t stop hammering it home. I couldn’t warm to it, though I tried. I did get the point though.

The Lamplighters – Emma Stonex

This is published next month and there is a lot of buzz about it. I enjoyed it. It’s based (loosely) on a true story of how three lighthousemen went missing from their very isolated lighthouse in the middle of the sea one day at the turn of the twentieth century, with the doors locked from the inside. They were never heard from again. This takes that basic premise and imagines their fate, shifting the story forward to the 1970s and flitting further forward to the wives and girlfriends still looking for the truth thirty years later. It is a strong debut novel, exploring themes of male isolation and mental ill health and deserves to do well.

Father of Lions – Caroline Wallace

Well this looked interesting from the front cover, and parts of it were interesting but they weren’t what was promised on the front so I spent much of the book being very cross. If you expect this to be, as billed, ‘How one man defied Isis and saved Mosul zoo’ you will be disappointed. If you want to read what life was like in occupied Mosul by a bunch of people who lived near a park where some animals were dumped and how many of the animals (spoiler alert) don’t make it, then you will find that here. To be honest, there was a lot of detail that wasn’t needed and the book could easily have been a magazine article – it may have been better if it was.

Bill Bailey’s Remarkable Guide to Happiness

I love Bill. This is a series of chapters about things he has done that inspire happiness, and he hopes might make you think or want to try some out or consider what makes you happy and do more of it. And it’s worth reading for the chapter about the dog alone.

The Lip – Charlie Connelly

This is published in March and is the author’s debut novel, though he has previously written non-fiction. It took me a while to get into it as the narrator and protagonist Melody Janie, is a prickly and odd soul who doesn’t invite you to get close to her. And you do get to find out why. This is an antidote to all those people who bang on about how beautiful Cornwall is (it is) and close their eyes to the huge social and economic problems of the area. Melody’s difficult life, the sudden loss of love and security that she has suffered and the trauma of her later experiences make you love her. This is not the Cornwall the tourist brochures want you to know, it’s the one that gets mentioned in passing : the lack of secure employment, the unaffordable housing for local people, the seasonal poverty and isolation. It’s an unsparing portrait but a skilful one and should serve to make people think.

Together – Julie Cohen

A few months back, I took an online writing workshop with Julie Cohen and enjoyed it so thought I would try her books. This was well written and intriguingly structured but sadly I was so bothered by the denouement that it spoiled the whole thing.

Moments of Pleasure

This month, my moments of pleasure have mainly been food related: Bovril on crumpets late one evening when I’d skipped having dinner; making lime curd and spreading it in between a lime and courgette cake, teamed with thick double cream. Clemency Burton Hill introduced us to the lovely piece ‘Handel on the Strand’ by Percy Grainger and I spent an enjoyable evening indulging in the Hitchcockian glamour of post-war Nice with Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, in To Catch a Thief.

Bedtime reading

E and I finished reading the third in Katherine Woodfine’s Sinclair Mysteries (only one more to go) and have started reading The Dark is Rising, book two of the series of the same name. She likes it but finds it a bit spooky. This month she also (of her own accord) picked Anne Frank’s diary off the shelf and raced through it, finding she had a lot in common with Anne; I think we may have a new role model.

The Duchess of E 95th Street

Over on Twitter, I seem to have spent quite a bit of time recently discussing Helene Hanff with fellow book lovers. I guess it shouldn’t feel strange that book Twitter talks about famous book lovers but Hanff isn’t so well known that she would be mentioned as much as I’ve seen her name pop up on my feed recently, so I thought I’d devote a blog to her.

Helene Hanff is one of the main reasons that I wanted to become a writer, and while ideally I’d like to be a writer in 1950s New York, a part time writer in 2020s Nottingham will have to do. Famous for writing 84 Charing Cross Road, the bookshop lovers book, Hanff churned out a range of writing across her career and I’m pretty certain most of it is now out of print. She has the happy knack of making you feel as if you’ve known her for years when you read her, as if you would bump into her in the street and could carry on a conversation with her without having ever met her before. As such, she also puts me in mind of Nora Ephron, another New Yorker writer I admire hugely.

15-year old me wanted to go to New York so very much. I taught myself to drink coffee because I knew that’s what New Yorkers drank. Much as Helene Hanff used to go to English movies to watch the London streets, I love a good NY film – When Harry Met Sally and Crossing Delancey being two of my favourites. And so I also collected writings by my favourite NY authors. Here’s my Hanff collection.

Aren’t they lovely looking? Kudos to Futura editions who published them all so lovingly. Looking at the prices on the back, the most expensive cost £4.50 and the cheapest £1.95.

84 Charing Cross Road

I have two copies of 84, the hardback was a gift from Mr Barsby for my birthday last year. It’s got a picture of the original shop on the back, and is published by Andre Deutsch, Hanff’s first British publisher.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with this classic, it is a collection of letters exchanged between Helene Hanff and Frank Doel, a bookseller working at an antiquarian (second hand) bookshop on the Charing Cross Road. The letters begin in the immediate post-war period when Hanff is trying to find a range of books to suit her antiquarian taste in English literature. She writes to the shop, they dispatch books and she gets increasingly familiar in her tone so that she and Frank develop a friendship, despite never meeting. Hanff yearns to visit London and makes a huge impact on the lives of the English bookshop by sending food parcels and crazy letters. The book has built a cult following over here and in the US, and its charm comes from Hanff’s bold manner and Frank’s polite but humorous replies.

The paperback also contains The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, which is the story of Hanff finally making it to London for the first time when 84 was published over here. After Hanff died, there were a few mean spirited articles criticising her, especially in this book, for making caricatures of the people she met over here but she was always clear that these books were her impressions of people and I guess once you’ve spent your whole life imagining a place, you might fancy more than you really see when you finally get there. (Conversely, I was never more delighted than when the NY cab driver called me “Lady” in an exasperated voice as I wrestled with my rucksack in his back seat. Just like in the movies…)

Q’s Legacy

This book tells a similar story to 84 but with a wider context. Hanff explains where she began to read English literature, being too poor to attend college. She checked books out of the library instead, including a series of books by Cambridge professor Arthur Quiller-Couch, better known as Q. It was through his written lectures that she read a huge amount of books and developed her taste. This book also tells the story of the impact that 84 has on her life, taking her to London, watching plays and TV adaptations, and the letters and contacts that she had from fans who wrote or called her. Like 84, it sounds like a thin premise for a book but as I said, Hanff is one of those gossipy charming writers where as a reader, you feel like you’ve known her for years when you read her and it all works. Plus some of her fans do amazing things for her.

Underfoot in Show Business

Hanff did well writing quirky autobiographical volumes and this is the story of her early writing career in the theatre in New York. Full of anecdotes, famous faces and silliness. What makes this work is that she is underfoot, poor, striving about for any income in a business she loves but that doesn’t want her and this is so relatable to almost anyone who started out working a rubbish paid job with a bunch of misfits. It’s a popular formula, replicated many times in TV and film scripts.

Apple of My Eye

In the mid-1970s Helene won an assignment to write copy on a tourist book of photographs of New York. In her mind, it was the dream assignment, right up until she realised that she’d never really been to any of the tourist landmarks and knew nothing about them. So she enlisted the help of her friend Patsy and together they investigate New York. In the 1970s NY’s reputation wasn’t great, and it was before the big clean up and regeneration projects that leave the city looking so shiny these days. (One of the reasons I love the film Crossing Delancey is that you see New York looking a bit run down and rubbish, but people live there happily. Modern film and TV representations of rundown areas in cities are so often filled with stories of drugs, gangs, crime and trafficking, that you forget that most of the time, urban dwellers are just normal people are just going about their daily lives.) Helene and Patsy dash about the city, passing on tips and unearthing all kinds of facts that I doubt ever made it into the photo book but make for a great read about a great city in this book.

Letter From New York

In the last Seventies, Helene was asked to write her version of Alistair Cooke’s Letter From America for BBC Woman’s Hour and this book is her collected letters. She thought it would run for about six months and instead it ran for six years. The scripts then sat forgotten for many years in Helene’s filing cabinet until she mentioned to someone that she had written them and in the early Nineties this book was published. I spotted it in a remaindered bookshop one week and didn’t have the cash to buy it and when I went back the following week it had disappeared so I hassled the shop assistant to go and root through the back until she came across a copy. It’s the kind of dogged persistence that I like to think HH would have appreciated, even though her words were in a remaindered bookshop. It was during my ‘I hate book jackets’ period and I threw the jacket away, which I regret now as I’m certain it would have matched the others in red, white and blue US magnificence.

If you have the chance to read more Hanff, in battered second hand editions, then please do. It’s a good friendship to have.

A postscript. As a 21-year old who had finally made it to New York after what felt like years of waiting, I sat in a coffee shop overlooking Fifth Avenue and sipped at my huge vat of black coffee and watched the cars and the people, and thought to myself, “This is exactly how I thought it would be.” It isn’t often that our dreams come true in real life. I put this success down to having a dose of heavy reality and humour in the dreams in the first place. Thanks Helene, for that.

January: a round up of books and assorted nonsense

Is this it now? The passing of each month no longer feels like a mere date change but some kind of endurance test where we stand, licking our wounds and looking uncertainly at the future. How have you got on through this, the longest month? Well, I hope.

What has got me through January? What’s been on the reading pile? I started the month badly with books, had to put a couple down that weren’t working for me and immediately felt bad about it. Here’s what did work:

Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May

I reviewed this as part of the reading for wellbeing series and you can read the review here.

Agent Running in the Field – John Le Carre

Le Carre’s death last month (last month? recently) made me wish to read one of his, and he was a reliable writer, which is what I needed after the bad start to the reading year. I needed someone I knew would give me a good story. This is a modern tale, post-Brexit and the usual slightly confusing spy story where the writer is always one step beyond. A solid assured novel.

The Blue Castle – LM Montgomery

I reviewed this earlier this month too and I’m still marvelling at the memory of reading it. It’s really delightful. I may press it on everyone I know.

The Snow and the Works on the Northern Line – Ruth Thomas

I think this has been on Radio 4 recently. I read this in one afternoon, it’s a nice light hearted tale of head injuries, museum workers and love rivalry. Yes really. Deftly written with light characterisation and a sense of fun, while the story is perhaps predictable, it was nevertheless a good way to spend an afternoon.

There There – Tommy Orange

A strange one this. I read the first half on one chunk and enjoyed it, and then put it down for a few days so that when I came to finish reading, I had forgotten who everyone was. And then it ended. So there were some problems but on the other hand, I don’t think I know of many other books written by or about Native Americans in a modern context,and the anger in the book is palpable, and with good reason. It is a very bleak book but I think I wanted a little more detail about fewer characters.

The Littlest Library – Poppy Alexander

After a very bleak book I downloaded this off Netgalley which is the very opposite. A highly improbable ‘chick lit’ style story about a recently unemployed woman who ups sticks and moves following her grandmother’s death, and finds herself in a village in the West Country. As soon as her male neighbour stormed in complaining about her parking i knew he would be the love interest and the rest of the book was as easily predictable, and full of fun eccentric country dwellers that bear no resemblance to anyone I’ve ever met in the countryside. Books like this are dangerous myth making nonsense, they really are. As an urban dweller I find the fetishisation of the countryside to be absolute bollocks. Anyway, she builds a library in the phone box and changes everyone’s life. If you like this kind of thing, it’s alright.

A Wood of One’s Own – Ruth Pavey

A real life version of the above (kind of, not really). Ruth Pavey decides to buy a wood, as you do, and this is her story of how she developed it and planted more trees and encouraged wildlife and chatted to local farmers and so on. I started off liking it very much but Pavey is an odd person and occasionally make casual remarks or observations that do strain your liking of her. And it could have perhaps been a little more focused or structured. But despite hating the countryside, I like the idea of a wood of my own and will give this book a cautious thumbs up.

Mrs Death Misses Death – Salena Godden

A poetic jam-packed book about Death, a black woman, who visits the narrator Wolf after his mother dies in Grenfell Tower. There is a lot to take in here, observations about modern society and our casual relationship with the deaths of other people which is terrifyingly accurate in these pandemic-ridden times. It is written in a poetic, grand sweeping style, as fitting Godden’s day job as a poet, and can be hard to get into, but it’s an original and striking book, and a fascinating look at death.

The Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot – Marianne Cronin

This is published next month and there is a LOT of buzz on book Twitter about it. I was lucky to get a review copy via Netgalley and it really is a lovely book. Lenni is a 17-year old who has an unnamed fatal condition and is living out the last of her time in hospital. She is bolshy and sparky and, as one character says, “so alive”. She makes demands on the hospital chaplain, and on the nurses, and then chances on an art project set up by an intern. Here she meets Margot, an 83-year old woman who is being treated for another unknown condition. The two of them make friends, both of them being inclined to rebel, and embark on an art project to tell their stories to each other. We learn about their lives, their loves and their losses. This debut novel is absolutely right for our dark times, being full of honesty and pain and laughter and questions. I loved it.

Moments of pleasure

What else has got us through this month of home schooling and bad weather? Tapas delivery from a local restaurant made my husband’s birthday special; and I spent an enjoyable Sunday filling the house with orangey smells as I made marmalade and orange curd from a bag of Seville oranges. Sharp, tangy, lovely. A snow afternoon rolling snowmen in the park and enjoying the curious effect a heavy snowfall has on the sounds and light of the city.

Spiral. The final series, series 8, of Engrenages just aired on BBC4. Always a brilliant hour of TV, I’m really going to miss it. Fortunately BBC have all series on iplayer so I may have to re-indulge.

Clemency Burton-Hill’s book Year of Wonders, taking the layperson through a piece of classical music each day. I started playing pieces to my daughter for her Brownie’s New Year Resolution and we’ve stuck with it so far. The book is good but this month I am particularly glad for its introduction to Hildegard von Bingen and Morten Lauristen’s Dirait-On. Both beautiful.

Bedtime reading

We have alternative nights reading to E at bedtime, each reading different books. This month we’ve read Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper (the first of the brilliant Dark is Rising series), and are now halfway through the third in Katherine Woodfine’s crime series set in Sinclair’s department store: The Painted Dragon. E and S are reading a book by a local children’s author, The Ship of Shadows by Maria Kuzniar. A special mention this month also for Lindsay Galvin’s beautiful new book Darwin’s Dragons which E whizzed through in about two days after delivery.

Reading for Wellbeing: Comfort reads

I don’t know about you but this seems the perfect time for some comfort reads. I have a stack of old favourites that I re-read every so often for comfort and companionship but once in a while, it can be good to seek out new comforts too. Today I’m going to discuss two that you might consider.

Leonard and Hungry Paul – Ronan Hession

A quiet sleeper hit, this, and one that a lot of people found a comfort in the last year. Hardly anything happens in this book, it is not a book for plot lovers. What it does do is provide the reader with a gentle portrait of two ordinary, forgotten men who teach us to treasure the everyday. Leonard writes for encyclopedias, and Paul, who lives with his parents, is a part time postman. They like board games, and drinking tea, and quiet assumptions. They are unsung introverts.

You can imagine how much this introvert likes this. In a world where we are all encouraged to do more, be more, and how all our writing scenes must move the plot on, can there be anything more subversive that doing just the opposite?

What story there is, is based around the impending marriage of Paul’s sister, the recent death of Leonard’s mother, and a gentle romance for Leonard with someone from the office. But it is an engaging, kind book, and very much recommended. You can buy it directly from the independent publishers, Bluemoose Books.

The Blue Castle by LM Montgomery

Yes, it’s that LM Montgomery, the author most famous for Anne of Green Gables. Anne is, of course, on my re-reads for comfort reads, and has been a staunch friend since i was a child but The Blue Castle is one of Montgomery’s only books for adults. Anne fans might recall that throughout the series, there are a few sharp (some might say bitchy) comments about others, and though Montgomery keeps this appropriate throughout the Anne series, in a novel for grown ups she has indulged her wicked gossipy side a lot more. What a treat this book is.

Valancy Stirling is unmarried and nearly thirty, and the victim of a simply awful family who have never valued her, undermined and dismissed her from an early age. What a line up of grotesques they are, from her perpetually disappointed and offended mother, to her Uncle Benjamin who makes a constant series of jokes and who she is instructed to be nice to in case he leaves her some money, a whole load of ghastly cousins who nickname her, tell her she is nothing to look at and that she is going to die an old maid.

Valancy takes comfort in reading books by nature writer John Foster, and in dreaming that she lived in the blue castle, a perfect place where she is allowed to do what she wants. But Valancy also experiences heart pains and in secret one day she seeks out a doctor who tells her she has only a short time to live. Far from worrying her, this news enables Valancy to finally break out and live. Realising she is no longer scared of her relatives, she leaves home to work as a carer for an old friend and in doing so, discovers she is more and can do more than she was ever given credit for.

This is a delightful book. Valancy is sharp witted and funny, and her liberation is an inspiration to read. The supporting characters are all fun, from Roaring Abel, the drunken old sot father of Valancy’s friend Cecily to Barney Snaith, the local ne’er do well (or so it is rumoured). Despite all the wit, the essential heart that so enthralled Anne fans is still very much in evidence.

Reading for Wellbeing: Wintering by Katherine May

This year I’m going to spend some time looking at bibliotherapy: the practice of reading and writing for wellbeing. So once in a while I’ll be reviewing and discussing books that can help your sense of wellbeing. Today, I’m looking at Wintering by Katherine May.

Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times explores how people have prepared for winter, physically and mentally, and used it as a cycle to help deal with the challenges of life. The book argues that we go through cycles of feeling good and feeling low, and that this is natural, that retreating to nurture ourselves needs to happen on a cyclical basis like the seasons. For some this could be mental ill health, for others it could be life events. May talks to people who have endured hard times and recognises that people often retreat after a distressing life incident, such as a bereavement or loss, an illness or a change to their settled routine. She links this back to nature, discussing how plants and animals also prepare for winter, laying on fat reserves, finding cosy places to sleep, losing leaves etc.

Wintering – this beautiful cover

I enjoyed the book very much, partly because I found much in common with the author, and partly because the ideas within make sense. I remember periods following my father’s death, my miscarriage and even the birth of my child, where I wanted to retreat in order to make sense of changes and feelings. I am and have been lucky enough to have been able to do this, economically maternity leave and compassionate leave are not available to everyone which I imagine can impede a retreat process.

Winter in this country can often be disappointing, with little snow and more grey dreary days of rain and dullness which often leaves us feeling grey and wrung out. Think of those bright fresh winter mornings with a frost on the air and a bright sun. Once in a while those days can make you feel cheerful, eager to get out and enjoy the light, but on the whole a British winter is a dispiriting grey stretch that often feels never ending. It is this that we need to manage.

Katherine May in the snow

I liked the simple things that May suggests to help you cope, and find resilience. Near the end of the book, she loses her voice and is advised to take singing lessons to restore it. She is about to protest that singing is not integral to her when she realises that she does, in fact, sing every day – to herself, along with the radio or music. Me too. These small acts that we put in place for ourselves that help us manage the day to day anxieties – these things are important. I go for a run regularly, I sing, I bake, I knit and I spend time making home a comfortable and attractive place to be. This last year, the year of Covid, these things have all seemed very important as we have undertaken a kind of wintering process ourselves, retreating from our usual lives to try to keep ourselves and others safe.

The test for us comes next, as we try to emerge from this wintering and work out where to go next. May’s book offers us a path, to share our experiences and realise that wintering will come again, and again, and that we can make it through.

“We must test the air and be ready to shrink back into safety when blasted by unseasonal winds; we must gradually unfurl our new leaves. There will still often be the debris to shift of a long, disordered season. These are the moments when we have to find the most grace: when we come to atone for the worst ravages of our conduct in darker times; when we have to tell truths that we’d rather ignore. Sometimes we will have to name our personal winters, and the words will feel barbed in our throats: grief, rejection, depression, illness. Shame, failure,despair.

“It often seems easier to stay in winter, burrowed down into our hibernation nests, away from the glare of the sun. But we are brave,and the new world awaits us, gleaming and green, alive with the beat of wings. And besides, we have a kind of gospel to tell now, and a duty to share it. We who have wintered have learned some things. We sing it out like birds. We let our voices fill the air.”

Wintering by Katherine May is published by Penguin and priced at £9.99.

You may also enjoy:

Making Winter: A Creative Guide for Surviving the Winter Months by Emma Mitchell This lovely book contains a range of projects such as silver jewellery, paper-craft decorations and crocheted mittens, to foraged infusions, delicious recipes and nature diaries, that allow you to enjoy and get through the winter months.