Breaking Up with a Little Help from Oasis

Journalist Harriet and charity worker Sanjay are two characters from my novel Hampstead Fever. Here’s what happened one afternoon.

“I’ve been thinking,” said Sanjay.

Another bad sign. Harriet already knew something was wrong before he came up to the flat. He normally looked full-on at the camera in the entryphone and gave a cheery wave or said, ‘I’m here with a friend. Can we interest you in a copy of The Watchtower?’ 

Today he’d ducked. He never ducked.

She buzzed him in. Then he sat next to her on the sofa, had the cup of tea she’d made him, and told her he’d been thinking. All the while, Be Here Now was playing. It had been one of her favourite albums for over fifteen years, but from now on she would always hate the Gallagher brothers and their grating Mancunian accents.

“Why, Sanjay?” It was the only thing she could think of. FreeImages.com/Thiago Felipe Festa

At first he stared at his feet. “Look. When we met, I thought I was a goner. Now I’ve got my life back, and… Well, I guess I want to be single for a bit.”

“I knew it!”  She’d even told him so about two years ago, as she reminded him. “We should have talked.”

He had the decency to look upset. “Yes, we should have. But we can’t seem to talk the way we used to.”

“Have we even tried?”

“I don’t know.”

Until October 25, you can get the kindle version of Hampstead Fever for just 99p/$1.30 right here. Or even right now.

Did a break-up ever put you up a particular piece of music? I’d love to hear from you.

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5 British Things You Can Always Count on

I’m aware that Britain is rather special, if not downright peculiar. Coupled with a weak pound, that’s an asset that may well contribute to its perennial attraction as a holiday destination. In 2016, over 37 million tourists visited Britain, some 4% more than in 2015.

Over the years, I’ve shown visiting friends from abroad some wonderful sights, and I’ve shared some enduring national traditions. These, in my view, are the top five things you can properly count on.

1 There’s always a downpour on a Bank Holiday weekend. If for some strange reason it turns out sunny, as it did last August, you can be sure we’ll talk about it for the next twenty years.

Aldeburgh just before the rains

2 There’s always a queue at a National Trust tea-shop. The National Trust is the custodian of over 350 historic buildings, along with acres of land and miles of coastline. The menu in their tea-rooms is rarely complex, and some delightful people work behind the counter. Why then is the self-service line so long that toddlers wet themselves and the elderly give up altogether long before they reach the till?

To a magnificent 17th C mansion and a working farm

3 English pubs are dying. Every year, about 900 more pubs close, though many find a new lease of life as an Indian or Chinese restaurant.

The Mill, Cambridge. Still a traditional pub, for now.

4 Snow makes everything grind to a halt. British trains and roads aren’t built to cope with anything more than three flakes of snow.

FreeImages.com/Margot H

Thanks to Margot H for the photo

5 The England football team consistently fails to impress. Yes, next year we might very well ‘go all the way’ and carry off the World Cup, but we’ve said that every four years since 1966. It would be lovely to think that Gareth Southgate is a national treasure, and that every England player is proud to step on the turf for his country. As I write, I’m watching England play Lithuania. It is apparently an artificial pitch, and the players are wooden.

FreeImages.com/Christopher Bruno

Photo courtesy of Christopher Bruno

Can you think of anything else that so reliably evokes Britain?

Are Other People’s Kids Your Problem?

Near me in the café, a little boy of about three sits in a push-chair while his mother fiddles with her iPhone. He’s wide awake, he’s quiet, yet there’s a dummy parked in his mouth. The boy asks for something, removing the plastic thing from his mouth to speak. When the brief conversation is over, Mother puts the dummy back.

FreeImages.com/T. Rolf

I feel like telling her that a dummy is a pacifier, and, as such, is only for pacifying babies.  This boy isn’t a baby, nor does he need pacifying. But I’m not sure she’d appreciate a lecture on dummies and speech development, especially now that she’s returned to her phone.

Besides, it’s not my child. It’s not my business.

In the supermarket a little later, I’m distracted by yelling from the next aisle. A woman is dragging her child by the arm, calling him, among other colourful things, a proper little stinker. I hadn’t actually noticed a pong from the child (but then we are at the cheese counter). Several shoppers stop, visibly shocked. Whether it’s the woman’s rough handling, or the fact that she’s hurling abuse at her child in Waitrose, of all places, I’m not sure. But neither I nor anyone else has words with her.

After all, not our child. Not our business.

FreeImages.com/Gokhan Okur

It must have looked pretty bad on the day, many years ago, that I smacked my twins outside the school gates. I say ‘gates’, but that school had no gates, simply a path that led to a busy street. I didn’t just tap each of my sons on the bottom – I actually slipped one of my shoes off to do it. The reason? Aged four, they’d run out into the road in front of a passing taxi which, fortunately, screeched to a halt. I figured a sharp shock would be a better deterrent than the standard telling off.

But the shoe and I didn’t look good, I admit, especially as none of the other parents had seen the incident. The mothers glared. Some tutted or shook their heads, probably wondering how a family doctor (who also writes extensively on child-rearing) could possibly behave in this way. Yet not one of them opened their mouths. Perhaps they feared that, for two pins, I’d have smacked them with my shoe too. Or maybe they just reasoned those weren’t their children, and it wasn’t their business.

Just the other day on London transport, a woman with long flowing locks boarded the train, two schoolboys in tow. It was about 4 pm and, after a day at school, the boys still looked clean and tidy in their uniforms. Yet the mother, when she wasn’t preening and flicking her hair, was shouting at one of the boys. “You’re disgusting,” she howled as he flinched. “Really disgusting.”

Whatever it was that he had done, it was surely his behaviour that was despicable, not the boy himself.  But I said nothing. Eventually it was their stop, and the woman, still tossing her hair about dramatically, dragged them off as she continued to berate the one who was allegedly so disgusting.

What would you have done?

***

For those of you outside the UK, Waitrose is the most genteel of supermarkets. There are things you can expect to hear there, and things you really don’t.

Surviving a Social Media Detox

Something strange has happened to me lately. Even as a young child, I could concentrate for hours. But, as an adult, which I should be quite good at being, what with the length of time I’ve had to get it right, I can’t focus on any one thing for more than a few minutes. And then I promptly forget it. In short, I have the attention span of a gnat. A rather undisciplined gnat, at that.

Would a social media detox help my powers of concentration?

FreeImages.com/CanBerkol

I’ve talked to a lot of people who’ve taken a break from social media, like fellow author Helena Halme who had a two-week holiday from her online world last year. My conclusion is that, freed from the constant babble of digital life, most people seem to feel a lot sharper and more refreshed afterwards.

So I’m planning to detox too. A short period of time without constantly checking social media, or dropping everything when I get a notification, will, I hope, help me focus on the things that really matter.

I won’t miss Facebook. Yes, it’s nice to post my photos, keep up other people’s news, and be part of some groups. But, while I enjoy the occasional dictation of pictures of babies or kittens, I don’t need time-sapping quizzes like Who is Your BBC Husband?

Besides, Grantchester is an ITV programme.

And I can do without exhaustive posts about strange symptoms which doctors haven’t been able to cure in a decade or more. Yes, there may be a need to share the frustration of having unexplained problems, but (call me biased) I can’t see how asking a bunch of non-medical people for their opinions will help, especially when most of them have never even met you.

Living without Facebook Messenger may prove tricky for me, though.  It’s my main means of communicating with one of my sons. Remember when mobile phones only did phone calls? Well, that’s what my son still has. His beloved mobile is so retro that it doesn’t do texts, photos, or even voicemail. Which would be fine, if he actually answered my calls. Hence Messenger.

A detox will also mean dispensing with WhatsApp, which is the principal way my two other sons and I keep in touch. Here’s the kind of vital communication they will be missing.

I may yearn for Instagram too. What will my day be like if I can’t post photos from my iPhone, or share my progress in Jenn Ashworth’s challenge of #100daysofwriting?   I won’t be able to see the Colour File’s fabulous daily posts, or pictures of eye-popping holiday destinations (talking about you, Deborah Cicurel). On the plus side, I may actually do some writing.

My blood pressure would probably improve without Twitter. It’s not just the constant unspoken drive for likes, retweets, comments, and follows, or the fact that it’s tough to be nuanced in 140 characters. It’s drivel like this.

Without social media, there’ll be more chance to live in the moment, as per Marcus Aurelius’s dicta. I will be able to dwell on the beauty of life without the immediate need to post a photo of it.

You never know, I may even reconnect with simple pleasures: smelling roses, pressing flowers, that kind of thing. My husband and I might even have an actual conversation. Once free of the pressure to share every moment, however insignificant, I hope that my brain will recover, and that I will become more productive.

That’s the idea, anyway. But I’m not looking forward to those three hours without my mobile.

Have you taken a deliberate break from social media? And what did you miss most? I’d love to hear.

Seven Deadly Sins of Newbie Writers

When I first blogged about the eight mistakes of newbie writers, I knew I couldn’t cover the whole subject in a few hundred words. Since then, fellow author Keith Dixon and other colleagues have pointed out several more pitfalls that would-be novelists really should avoid. That made it high time for this follow-up.

1 Beginning before the beginning

Many novice writers launch their story with a wordy description of the main character, or a biography beginning with that person’s existence long before the action in the book – sometimes even back to their birth.  The danger is that, unless you’re Dostoevsky, readers will ditch your prose in favour of a novel where something is actually happening.

bookshop

2 Using complicated variations of ‘he said’/’she said’

You might think ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ are too dull to bear repetition, but the truth is that these basic dialogue tags tend to melt into the background, and readers barely notice them. On the other hand, they’ll certainly notice (and not in a good way) a regurgitated thesaurus such as this.

OK,” he agreed.

“That’s settled then,” she responded. “We’ll hit the road first thing.”

“Not first thing,” he protested.

“And what’s wrong with an early start?” she remonstrated.

“I wanted a lie-in,” he whined.

“Lazy sod!” she admonished.

“Not as lazy as you,” he muttered.

“I bloody heard that!” she expostulated.

3 Using too many adverbs

How many is too many? It’s a matter of opinion, but I’d say most adverbs are unnecessary, as here.

Shan’t!” the toddler said petulantly.

If you find you use a lot of adverbs, work on livelier and more concise ways to convey what you mean.

4 Letting characters prattle on

Once you’ve got an ear for dialogue, it’s tempting to fill acres of space with it, to the detriment of action, pace, conflict, and plot. Remember that every scene has to move the story on, so don’t get side-tracked.

notebooks and pen

5 Giving overly precise accounts of what characters are doing

Moving people in and out of rooms is a real problem for some would-be authors, as one of my fictional characters, a journalist called Harriet, discovers when she sets out to write a novel.

Suzi pulled the dress down over her distended belly and they all went into the living room.

Whether they walked or sashayed, they surely couldn’t all go through the door at the same time. The setting was only a 1930s semi, not a stately home.  And what were they going to do once they got to the living room?

Suzi sat herself by the window where she could enjoy the last rays of the sun and spy on her mysterious neighbour at the same time.

That was all very well, but if Harriet didn’t mention Theo, Martha, and Greg, wouldn’t the reader wonder whether they were all still standing around like lemons, while Suzi was the only one sitting down?

Theo and Martha shared the sofa, while Greg leant against the wall and puffed on his cigarette as if there was no such thing as a smoking ban.

The guy was a dick to smoke when there was a pregnant woman in the room. Harriet scratched her head. Fiction was ridiculously involved.

6 Using the passive voice

When the children had been tucked up in bed, the laundry done, and the dustbins put out, Trevor stretched out on the sofa and allowed himself to be lulled to sleep.

Yep, the reader might doze off too. Active verbs are far more compelling, and often shorter and more precise to boot. The passive voice has its uses, as in scientific papers (This formula is considered an acceptable way of estimating a child’s weight). It’s a turnoff in fiction, though, as with everything, there are exceptions.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

7 Overusing semicolons

By this I mean using lots of them; you know, just because you can.

I believe there is a special place in hell for this sin. Semicolons are for connecting two independent clauses, each of which could stand grammatically on its own. It follows that you could, of course, use a full stop instead. Like this one.

Do let me know if you have any other Don’ts for new writers. Meanwhile, happy writing.

pencils in sixties mug

***

You may also like:

How to Write a Book Review

What You Can Learn on a Creative Writing Course

 

CPR: Why You Should Jump on a Stranger’s Chest

We’ve all seen spectacular examples of CPR (cardio-pulmonary resuscitation), especially on TV, where it leads to equally spectacular results: the previously pulseless patient sits up and tucks into pizza while vowing undying love for his family.

CPR ventilating with bag

In real life, the story is different. Outside Casualty, Grey’s Anatomy, and other small screen dramas, CPR is far less successful. Cardiac arrest in hospital has a survival rate of around 35%. Out in the big wide world, survival is more like 8%. This UK figure is especially dismal when compared with other western countries.

I learned all this and more at a CPR refresher course this week, courtesy of the Hospital of St John and St Elizabeth in North London. Tutor Philip Howarth is a brilliant mimic as well as a gifted teacher, and he was assisted by his fellow resuscitation officer Christilene Kiewiets. I can’t actually think of a more worthwhile way to spend a rainy Wednesday afternoon.

CPR manequin

We went through various scenarios of increasing complexity, but the principles are simple and they’re things everyone should know.

In a cardiac arrest, the heart stops pumping. This deprives the body of vital oxygen.

After five minutes without treatment, this damages the most important organ in the body (that’s the brain, in case you wondered).

CPR buys time. After a cardiac arrest, it can keep life going for up to 20 minutes (possibly even longer). That means time for paramedics to get there.

But CPR needs to start as soon as possible, ideally within two minutes.

Classic CPR uses chest compression and rescue breaths (in a ratio of 30:2 for adults). But hands-only CPR is a useful alternative. (Chest compressions make the lungs move, so they deliver some ‘breaths’. And people are more likely to give CPR to strangers if they can avoid mouth-to-mouth.)

Chest compressions should be fast and deep. A rate of 100-120 compressions a minute (two per second) is better than the old advice to keep time with the BeeGees’ Stayin’ Alive. ‘Deep’ usually means to a third of the depth of the chest. It’s tiring, and it can be noisy. The sound of ribs cracking is par for the course.

AED

Defibrillators can make all the difference to the outcome. In the UK there’s an increasing number of public-access defibrillators in airports, stations, and the like. The best bit is that these automated defibrillators are very easy to use, with voice prompts that are simpler and far more reliable than sat nav.

The most important thing of all?

Have a go. If someone has a cardiac arrest and you stand idly by, that person is dead. So there’s nothing to lose.

If you’re wondering about the best place to cash in your chips, a Las Vegas casino is probably the safest location of all in which to suffer an out-of-hospital cardiac arrest. Security guards trained in CPR and the prompt use of defibrillators can achieve impressive results.

FreeImages.com/Bob Townsend

Photo credit Bob Townsend

***

The free app Lifesaver is a live-action movie you play like a game. It’s a great way to learn how to save someone’s life.

The British Heart Foundation runs HeartStart training courses around the UK.

First aid courses for the public offered by other charities such as the British Red Cross also include CPR.

Some ambulance instructors also teach the public. Get in touch with the Community Defibrillator Officer or the ambulance training school nearest you for more details.

The latest Resuscitation Council UK guidelines can be found here.

Here’s an easy tweet:

CPR: Why You Should Jump on a Stranger’s Chest http://wp.me/p3uiuG-1qC via @DrCarolCooper #CPR #cardiacarrest 

What Do You Need for a Writers’ Conference?

Fresh from another Romantic Novelists’ Association conference, I’m not sure I remember every single thing I gleaned from three hugely busy days. However, I’m perfectly placed for sharing my definitive list of all the things no conference-goer should be without.  It goes without saying you’ll need phone-charging equipment, and something to take photos. Here are a few items that you may have overlooked.

Hairdryer

Many conferences are in colleges and universities. Nowadays student accommodation often has en suite facilities (what a pampered lot today’s student body is) but hairdryers are rarely part of the deal, so bring your own if you want freshly coiffed hair day after day.

Comfortable shoes

By all means dress up to the nines with eight-inch heels for the gala dinner, but by day your toes may appreciate some wiggle-room. You may even want to venture out of the conference building for occasional fresh air.

Converse trainers

Yes, I’ve mentioned ‘fresh’ three times. Last weekend’s RNA conference was at Harper Adams University. There’s something very special about rural Shropshire, especially when they’re spreading pig manure. For those of you that think this smells like horse or cow manure, let me assure you it doesn’t. It’s roughly the difference between the nappy contents of a milk-fed baby and those of a baby who’s weaned onto solid foods.

Shorthand pad and pencils

Make sure you can jot down the pearls of wisdom gleaned from speakers, from colleagues, or just from propping up the bar. There may be a notebook in your conference pack. On the other hand, it may only contain books and chocolate hearts. 

Business cards

A must for everyone who’s got them, whether you’re a speaker or just attending the conference.

Cushioning for the bed

The condition of the mattress may leave something to be desired. Like sleep. I never regret bringing along an old duvet to use as a mattress pad.

Corkscrew

 Essential kit for the nightly kitchen parties, unless you stick to Prosecco. Consider supplies of tea and coffee too. Then again, I suppose there’s always Prosecco.

ibuprofen

Disposable glasses

All veteran attendees bring these – see above. Why is it ‘attendee’, anyway? Logic suggests it should be ‘attender’.

Earplugs

For when you’re a party-pooper and absolutely have to get in some zeds before dawn.

earplugs

A smile

A great conference always sends attendees home with a smile, but why not bring one on arrival? It makes all the difference when meeting people.

Over to you. What’s on your conference list? I’d love to hear.