Beware: Umbrellas at Large

Has someone out there been doing a rain dance? The sun is a distant memory, the brollies are out in force, and it’s pretty clear it’s not all Mary Poppins and Singin’ in the Rain.

I know, beach parasols aren’t entirely innocent. A sudden gust can give your sunshade wings, and propel it at speed into the chest or brain

But rain umbrellas are in another class of spikiness altogether, with sharp edges and points just where you least want them. It’s hard to protect yourself on crowded pavements in the rain when’s everyone’s scurrying about brandishing their weapons as they dodge the puddles.

In Cambridge’s narrow streets, there’s the added danger of tourists stopping without warning to take selfies, and tour leaders waving extra umbrellas around to show their group where they are.

From their origins centuries ago (nobody seems sure how many) as protection for the privileged, umbrellas are now as common as muck. Hundreds of millions of brollies are sold every year, and often break just as quickly, making them even more hazardous.

My husband negotiated the last downpour uninjured, but his thumb took a hit when closing his brolly. After all, everyone knows it’s bad luck to leave it open inside the house, right?

I escaped unscathed that rainy afternoon, possibly because I kept reminding the OH not to stab me in the eye. Nearly a fifth of umbrella-related accidents affect the eye, many of these being conjunctival tears. Spokes are the main cause, but even the rubber end of a rainshade can lead to eye injuries, according to a review from Monash University in Australia.

Their review concludes that umbrellas shouldn’t be used as toys. Sound advice, especially if you’ve read about the 11-year old who impaled his little brother with a piece of wire ribbing poked through the keyhole. The 5-year old was taken to the doctor but lost his eye, shortly followed by his life. 

Swans shun brollies. Unfurl yours and you may find yourself at the wrong end of a powerful beak.

The most high profile umbrella-linked death was that of Georgi Markov, the Bulgarian writer and dissident murdered in September 1978 by a ricin pellet concealed in the tip of his assassin’s umbrella. Forty years on, the suspect is still at large. I’m told the case has links to the KGB. Obviously, I couldn’t possibly comment.

Please let me know your best umbrella stories. I’m really hoping one of you has an uplifting tale to share in this rainy season. If not, I’ll just have to stay in and listen to the Hollies’ Bus Stop one more time.

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Why Heatwaves and Novels Go Together

You don’t need to read the Lancet to know that heatwaves aren’t great for health. Even without the terror of fires, excess heat is linked with deaths, especially in the elderly.

On the bright side, however, when the thermometer soars and it’s too hot to move, few things are more delicious than settling in a shady spot to get lost in a book. Yes, I have heard of ice cream, but a novel occupies the mind for longer than a raspberry ripple, and that’s got to be a bonus in the current mess the world is in.

Writers are doubly blessed in a heatwave. For a start, they may be able to work at home with next to nothing on, which is so far removed from struggling on the Tube wearing office attire that it’s almost like not working.

As a plus, there are often cool places to sit with pencil or laptop.

I’m assuming that the nice cool place isn’t in full view of the neighbours. Then again, think of all the publicity, as a fellow writer reminds me.

Best of all, though, scorching weather presents excellent material for fiction.  Author Helena Halme mentions just this in her recent blog post Five Books for a Heatwave.

I’d like to unpick this a little more.

Summertime is in itself magical, with ice lollies, flip-flops, sandcastles, and grandparents moaning about the lack of rain. In school holidays gone by, every summer was long and hot, at least in the memory. With normal life suspended, there’s an illusion of freedom, Swallows and Amazons style.

The heat does things to people’s pheromones. Well, I’m assuming it does, though the only paper I’ve seen is based on research on insects. At any rate, the brain seems to fry at high temperatures.  Even the most impassive person can become, well, hot-headed and behave erratically, which is all good news for novelists.

The human mind isn’t the only thing to abandon normal function in a heatwave. By now, most people in the UK are familiar with buckled rails and cancelled trains. In the northeast last month, a man became trapped when tarmac melted and his leg literally sank into the road surface. This happened in Heaton (no, I’m not kidding) and firefighters were called to free him. 

But these phenomena are as nothing compared to the image of Jesus appearing on a ceramic drainpipe in Joanna Cannon’s debut novel The Trouble with Goats and Sheep. This unusual manifestation of Christ brings out the neighbours and their deck chairs, and becomes a turning point in the story.

Every heatwave seems to leave its own particular memories. The legendary summer of 1976 featured beaches covered in ladybirds, exhortations to share a bath with a friend, and other references that can date-stamp a novel, as both Joanna Cannon and Maggie O’Farrell demonstrate.

While there’s no exact definition of a heatwave, meteorologists often consider it to be an increase of 5⁰C above the average maximum temperature for five days or more – with the average maximum temperature being between 1961 and 1990.

The great heatwave years of the UK include 1911, 1955, 1976, and 1983. Speaking for myself, I have a soft spot for 2013 which broke few records but did produce the hottest July for many years. This is the year in which I set my novel Hampstead Fever, and it also happens to be when I got married.

wedding

Whether you’re reading or writing, I hope you enjoy the rest of this scorching season. How will you most remember the heatwave of 2018 when it gives way to wind and rain?

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PS You can find Hampstead Fever in all the usual places.

http://mybook.to/HF

Last Minute Reminders for the Romantic Novelists’ Conference #RNA18

Some of us authors have already packed our bags for the Romantic Novelists’ Association conference, and booked train tickets weeks in advance too. With any luck, we even chose the right rail station in Leeds (it’s Horsforth).

It’s so hot that you’ll be in shorts?  Well, I’ve studied the photos of the venue and can tell you the chairs look scratchy. A summer dress might be comfier.

And take one of these.

Remember to pack your phone charger (and bring it home again afterwards).

This year, you need to provide your own clothes-hangers.

The most up-to-date info from the conference venue is that there’s an excellent range of gins on site. This is welcome news, as drinks with the most colour, like brandy and dark rum, are more often linked with hangovers. It’s the congeners they contain – the chemical impurities that are a by-product of the fermentation process.

You might still want to take these, just in case.

Here’s to a great conference. Now, have I forgotten anything vital? Do let me know. Otherwise I will just find out when I get there, as usual.

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You might also enjoy: What Do You Need for a Writers’ Conference? 

 

#TBT Coping with Summer Heat in the 1960s

If you consider summer a tad too warm in the UK, spare a thought for those who spend this time of year in Washington, DC.  The suburbs are tolerable but the city is hot and humid, as I well know from the years my mother and I lived there in a cramped apartment in Foggy Bottom.

Nobody much considered the environment in the Sixties, and most buildings were fiercely air conditioned at the time. The outside, of course, is not, until evening sets in and the scent of honeysuckle fills the air.

It was just as the Lovin’ Spoonful described in their 1966 hit Summer in the City.

The mercury regularly hit the mid to high 90s, or about 34⁰-37⁰ C. I took my driving test one August around midday in a VW Bug aka Beetle (no air con). The Dept of Motor Vehicles takes your photo for the licence just after you pass, and for the next five years my sweaty physiog was a glamorous reminder of the occasion.

FreeImages.com/Jeramey Jannene

The Potomac may look inviting, but it’s polluted. If you wanted to cool down, you had to head to a pool. One of our favourites was the public pool on Volta Place, Georgetown, which is still open. The queues were often long, but entry was free though I think the rudimentary lockers required a dime. There wasn’t much there about from the pool and concrete all around. I remember a couple of Egyptians who loudly admired my 14-year old derrière, until my mother yelled at them in fluent Arabic.

Rock Creek Park runs across the NW segment of DC. It now has a lot more organized leisure facilities than it did back then, when it was little more than a haven of shade. My best memory of the park was a summer day camp run by the recreation department. It was free for city kids and my mother wangled three consecutive placements for me, so I spent six happy weeks identifying leaves, creating shoe racks out of fallen branches, and singing the campfire classic We Ain’t Got the Money for the Mortgage on the Farm.  Inexplicably, we also put on a nativity play. Yes, in August. It was as hot as hell wearing the Virgin Mary’s cloak.

I don’t plan to go back to DC just yet, but I will be visiting my US family as usual later this summer.

Meanwhile I’d love to hear your summer memories and great suggestions for keeping cool.

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You may also enjoy The March on Washington.

 

How to Win the World Cup? Bingo!

The World Cup is approaching faster than an Arjen Robben sprint. As you stock your fridge with lager and prepare for weeks in front of the TV, spare a thought for reporters and commentators who don’t write about football but must stock up on the jargon nonetheless.

FreeImages.com/Kia Abell

Whatever the outcome of the World Cup, all the usual clichés will appear off the pitch as well as on it. Even if the article is about mortgages or gardening, I predict a journalistic glut of footballing terms.

This little chart is just right if you fancy a round of World Cup 2018 bingo.

 

KICKOFF

 

 

TAKE HOME THE THREE POINTS

 

OFFSIDE

 

MATCH-FIT

 

ADDED TIME

 

GOING ALL THE WAY

 

INJURY TIME

 

FRESH LEGS

 

BOUNCE OFF THE WOODWORK

 

RUSKIES

 

BRING BACK THE TROPHY

 

SIDELINES

 

FREE BONUS

 

EXTRA TIME

 

MASSIVE OWN GOAL

 

HANDBALL

 

GOLDEN BOOT

 

EARLY BATH

 

 

BACK OF THE NET

 

SUB

 

NYET!

 

FOUL

 

YELLOW CARD

 

FREE KICK

 

FASTER THAN YOU CAN SAY GARETH BALE

 

FreeImages.com/Diego Sinning

Are any important phrases and terms missing? Please let me know.

A Family Doctor’s Casebook (part 1)

General practice partnerships are like marriage without the sex, muses Geoff as he installs himself at his consulting room desk.  He knows that kind of marriage. Shoving aside the piles of letters that need answering, he begins tending to the sick of North London.

Geoff is a GP from my novels One Night at the Jacaranda and Hampstead Fever.  Despite his problems and hang-ups, he’s everyone’s favourite. Geoff is a firm believer in the NHS, but the changes he’s seen in the 15 years since he qualified frustrate him immensely.

1 The first patient is a three-month old baby with the Lexus of pushchairs and a Yummy Mummy who reminds Geoff of his ex-wife.  She begins by complaining about the 20-minute wait, and the perennial parking problems within a mile of the health centre. All this is extremely inconvenient as she’ll now be late for her Pilates.

Geoff asks what he can do for her.

“It’s Alistair’s head,” she throws down like a gauntlet.

She’s right in thinking her baby’s skull is a tad asymmetrical. Plagiocephaly is common now that babies all sleep on their backs.  Geoff reassures her that it’ll right itself in time, once Alistair lifts his head and becomes more mobile.

FreeImages.com/Johan Graterol POSED BY MODEL

Yummy Mummy is sceptical. “Doesn’t he need one of those special helmets?”

Geoff explains that there’s no evidence they help.

The mother seems unconvinced. She’ll probably go and splash out thousands of pounds on a contraption that will only cause discomfort and inconvenient. Still, she’s now ready to move on to the next symptom. The practice has a new policy of one symptom per consultation, which Geoff routinely ignores. It’s demeaning to patients and wastes everyone’s time in the end.

The rash on Alistair’s buttocks looks like a common yeast infection which should soon respond to the cream Geoff recommends. This pleases the mother, until Geoff asks her not to leave Alistair’s dirty nappy in his consulting room bin.

“I don’t want to stink out the car,” says Yummy Mummy.

Geoff eventually persuades her to take the offending object away, even though he thinks she’s likely to dump it in the waiting room on her way out.

2 Next it’s Mr Legg in his nineties, with an aching left knee. Sometimes it’s his right knee, and sometimes it’s both, which is no wonder since both legs are badly deformed by arthritis. He attends the health centre every couple of weeks, yet refuses hospital treatment. As he puts it, “I don’t want to be a bother. There’s plenty of younger folks who need it more.” Mr Legg adds that he doubts it’s arthritis anyway.  “It’s probably just down to the shrapnel what got me during the war.”

Geoff asks where the shrapnel got him.

“In a little village near Germany, Doctor.”

doctor's bag

3 It’s a relief to see that young Mohammed’s eczema is improving. For a long while, his mother believed that a mild steroid was totally unsuitable for a three-year old, but the cream, along with emollients, has made a huge difference. Mohammed sleeps well now that he doesn’t scratch himself to ribbons. All in all, he’s a happy chappy, apart from a streaming cold that’s not a problem until he flings himself at Geoff and plonks a kiss on his cheek.

Geoff usually washes his hands between consultations. Today he washes his face as well.

FreeImages.com/Toni Mihailov

 

4 Now a young man sits before him. Unemployed, with a squat nose and tats up one arm. “Pain in me bollocks,” he says.

Might be a torsion. Uncommon in adults, Geoff knows, but, unless treated promptly, it can lead to gangrene of the testicle.

“Right. I need to take a look,” Geoff says, pulling the paper curtains across.

As he waits for the fellow to undress, he wipes the photo on his desk with a tissue. It’s Davey, aged four, at the beach in Norfolk. Happy days before the divorce.

“Ready yet?” Geoff calls out, increasingly aware of how late his clinic is running.

“Yeah. Course.”

Turns out the man is sitting fully clothed the other side of the drapes.

Patiently, Geoff explains what he needs to examine. Another three minutes pass while the man undresses.

On examination there’s nothing abnormal about the patient’s tackle, apart from the stink. Geoff peels off his gloves and flings them in the bin. “Hmm. All’s well there. When did you first get the pain?”

The man shrugs. “Maybe a week ago. But I ain’t got it no more, like. Not since I pulled that bird the other day.”

“Fair enough,” says Geoff, even though there’s nothing fair about it. The ugly, unemployed fucker gets laid just like that, while he, Geoff, has been celibate for ten months and counting.

***

Coming up soon, Geoff deals with a very personal problem. Meanwhile you may enjoy one of these posts:

How to Alienate Your Doctor in Ten Easy Steps

What Your Doctor is Really Saying

or, on a more serious note, an overview of sepsis in The Disease Nobody Knows About Until It’s Too Late.

Mistakes to Avoid at the London Book Fair

The London Book Fair is now just days away. This year’s LBF takes place April 10-12. That’s three hectic days at Olympia, Kensington, with over 25,000 people attending.

This time around, the market focus is the Baltic Countries, but it’s an international fair bringing in exhibitors from over fifty countries, and some truisms apply every year. I’ve been going to the London Book Fair for a while now, so I’m confident in saying there are some things not to do (especially as some of them are mistakes I’ve made myself).

1 Thrust your manuscript into the hands of a publisher. Don’t even expect to speak to a publisher. The fair is still very much industry-led, and, if you don’t have an appointment, you won’t be able to see a publisher.

The last seven or eight years have seen the fair become more aware of authors, with the belated recognition of who it is that actually writes books. There’s a small area called Author HQ with a range of events relevant to writers, but LBF is still a trade exhibition, so it you can’t expect it to revolve around authors or would-be authors.

LBF 2016

2 Try to find an agent. I reckon you’re more likely to win the lottery, even if you didn’t buy a ticket. You’ll even be pushed to chat with your own agent, if you’re lucky enough to have one. Literary agents are usually holed up for days at a time in the International Rights Centre, for which an appointment is needed.

3 Try to sell books. It’s a non-starter unless you booked a stand, which, as you might guess, is an expensive option.

4 Expect to buy lots of books. Although it would be mind-blowingly wonderful to visit such a massive bookstore, LBF isn’t one of them.

LBF 2016

However, you may be able to buy one or two newly released paperbacks at one of the book launches at the fair. I’m looking forward to the latest novel from author Jane Davis.

5 Help yourself to books from the stands. There will be freebies like mints, keyrings, bookmarks, carrier bags, and the like, but the books on the various stands are there for show, to give visitors a view of a publisher’s range. So put that glossy tome back!

6 Ask a lot of stupid questions. Nobody expects you to know everything, but naivety has limits, and not every speaker is as patient or as courteous as romantic novelist Katie Fforde who, at one of her talks, was asked “How does one start to write a book?”

7 Wear high heels. Comfy shoes are the order of the week. Vertiginous heels may enable you to see over people’s heads, but they’ll soon become unbearable and LBF doesn’t sell foot plasters (is that a gap in the market?). 

8 Expect to sit down. There is some seating here and there, though not much. 

So why attend the fair at all if you’re an author?

Because of the insights you’ll gain into publishing, the chance to network or make new contacts, attending a few interesting talks, getting new marketing ideas, and the inspiration of hearing celebrated authors speak at Author of the Day events.

Julian Fellowes at LBF

Will I see you there?

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You may also enjoy

My London Book Fair 2017

London Book Fair aka #LBF14