A VINTAGE SUMMER HOLIDAY

It’s a challenge to travel abroad from the UK at the moment, as I discovered when my last little holiday turned out to be a day trip to Luton airport. That’s why I thought you might enjoy reading about the leisurely holidays my family used to take long ago, when they lived in Alexandria. Way too long ago for me to remember, so it’s an extract adapted from my mother’s first book, Cocktails & Camels.

Every summer, like a swarm of locusts, Cairenes deserted the dusty, choking heat of the capital and swooped down onto Alexandria, avid for the cool city that they mocked the rest of the year. They came spilling out of trains, buses, and cars, frantic to get to the sea.

They came with their picnic baskets and their bedding—the government clerks and their portly wives, the shrill mothers-in-law covered with fat and cheap jewellery, the well-fed pashas twiddling their amber beads, the cooks, nannies, and suffragis—and they settled on the beaches until there wasn’t an inch of sand to be seen. At night, the locusts donned white sharkskin jackets and invaded the restaurants, cinemas, and casinos. The only thing for an Alexandrian to do was to pack his bags and take the first ship to Europe, usually with his car.

Back then there were no exit visas or travel restrictions of any kind. Most of these came with the Palestine War of 1948.

High up in the Dolomites, it was quiet and peaceful. There were only a few cows—and about half of Alexandria. “Chérie!” they’d cry to one another in surprise, even though they had come over on the ship together. “What brings you here?”

The answer was always, “I’m escaping from those dreadful Cairenes.”

It was an advantage to be able to speak Arabic without anyone understanding. Unfortunately, there were exceptions, like the time on a bus at Cortina d’Ampezzo when my sister Helen asked to change places because the old hag on her right smelled. The old hag turned round and told her in perfect Arabic that she was a very rude little girl.

My mother as child on a donkey in France

Some people were so excited when they found out we came from Egypt that they ran around screaming “The Egyptians are coming,” and “The Egyptians are leaving,” as though we were Pharaoh’s armies. They’d glue their noses to the license plate on the car as if studying hieroglyphics, and everyone suddenly had a passion for Egyptian stamps.

Two ladies approached us most forcefully one day. Mother was too taken aback to say a word.

“Take it easy, Ethel,” said one. “The poor thing obviously only speaks Bedouin language. Let me try to speak to her.” She bent down so that her nose almost touched Mother’s. “We’re Americans.” As though anyone within ten miles had any doubts. “America, Bay City, Michigan.”

“What’s your name, little Bedouin lady? I’m Mildred and this is Ethel. We’re travelling round the world playing the piano. At least, I’m the pianist and Ethel sings.”

When Father returned to the hotel and heard this, he refused to pretend to be a Bedouin or to live in an oasis in the middle of the Sahara, even though Mother implored him for the sake of Michigan.

He did, however, suggest that Ethel and Mildred join us for a drink and perhaps perform for us afterwards. They did. It was a riot, with half the people in the hotel running down to see who had been murdered. We learned many interesting things about the natives of Bay City, Michigan.

Europe was all right for a holiday but there was no place like Alexandria in the whole world. As we returned, we leant over the rail of the SS Ausonia and watched the pale yellow outline of Alexandria come into focus. The pilot’s launch flitted lightly across the water, the green flag with its crescent and three stars flying in the wind, and soon the pilot was climbing up the rope ladder followed by the port authorities and a few shaweesh (policemen) in white uniforms and red fezzes.

The quayside itself was a mass of galabeyyas—the long robes worn by most of the less affluent Arabs—and red fezzes. Everyone shouted and waved handkerchiefs. Sleek new cars and battered taxis inched their way through the crowd, honking their horns at length, and a group of ragged-looking men, ropes tied round their middles, chanted in refrain as they hauled an enormous crate away from the ship.

At the bottom of the gangway, one policeman, the corners of a checked handkerchief showing under his fez to keep the sweat from falling into his eyes, noisily came to blows with a man selling rugs. The man, with the unshaven look of a badly-plucked chicken, screamed at the top of his voice that the whole of the police force were sons of dogs, and that this particular policeman was something quite unprintable.

It was good to be home.

***

You may also enjoy these posts:

How my mother wrote her first book

Ten things you didn’t know about Alexandria

“ARE YOU GOING TO THE LONDON BOOK FAIR?”

If you write books, work in publishing, or find yourself anywhere near people who do, chances are you’re hearing a lot about the London Book Fair right now. This year LBF is at Olympia from April 5 to 7. It’s the first one since 2019 and, as you can imagine, it’ll be a bit different to book fairs held before the pandemic.

For one thing, there are allocated time slots for arrival, so no meeting your mates outside the station and entering en masse, unless they have the same time slot.

LBF has put together their Covid-19 guidelines on this link. I won’t repeat them except to point out that you may need to provide evidence of Covid vaccination. And that’s in the form of the NHS app, not the NHS Covid app or the tatty little card you’ve kept in your wallet for over a year. The NHS app can take a day or so to verify your identity. Best not leave it till the last minute, then.

This year, the market focus is Sharjah and the tagline for the fair is YOU ARE THE STORY. But is it your story if you’re not a publisher?

Dipping into my experience of LBFs past, I can tell you that it’s not a place for readers, though it can be useful for authors as long as they’re realistic. Here are seven mistakes to avoid. I should know. I’ve made them myself.

1 Thrust your manuscript into a publisher’s hands. Don’t even expect to speak to a publisher. The fair is still industry-led, and, unless you have an appointment, you can’t see a publisher.

In the last few years, LBF has become more aware of authors, with the belated recognition of who it is that actually writes books. There’s a small enclave called Author HQ with a range of events relevant to writers. When I say ‘small’, I mean sitting cheek by jowl (yes, this year I’ll be wearing a mask). But LBF is still a trade exhibition, so it you can’t expect it to cater wholly for authors or would-be authors.

2 Try to find an agent. 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 have one. Literary agents are usually hard at work in the International Rights Centre, for which an appointment is needed.

3 Expect to buy lots of books. Although it would be magical to shop in a massive bookstore, LBF isn’t one of them.

4 Help yourself to books from the stands. There will be freebies like keyrings, bookmarks, carrier bags, and the like, but the books on the various stands are intended to show visitors a view of a publisher’s range. Stop stuffing your tote bag with glossy new titles.

5 Ask lots 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?”

6 Wear high heels. Comfy shoes are the order of the week. Vertiginous heels will soon become unbearable, and LBF doesn’t sell foot plasters. I know. A gap in the market. Not sure they’ll sell masks either.

7 Expect to sit down. There is some seating here and there, though not much.  A lot of people end up sitting on the floor or perch precariously on an exhibit to eat their over-priced sandwich.

So why attend the fair at all if you’re an author? Mainly for the insights you’ll gain into publishing, the chance to network or make new contacts, attend a few interesting talks, and get new marketing ideas.

For me, there’s also inspiration in hearing celebrated authors like Maggie O’Farrell and Afra Atiq at Author of the Day events. This is how I met Egyptian novelist Alaa’ al-Aswany a few years ago. It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of his book The Yacoubian Building. That short conversation with him at LBF encouraged me to write my novel The Girls from Alexandria.

So, are YOU going to the London Book Fair?

LIBRARIES, I LOVE YOU

Another post about books? Sorry. I can’t help it. I love them libraries, big and small. Large ones are great because they stock every book you’re likely to want, and then some. This is Cambridge University’s Library (known as ‘the UL’).

Designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, the UL opened in 1934

You may or may not find it aesthetically pleasing but it’s a researcher’s dream and the staff are second to none. The UL holds 9 million books, and what it doesn’t keep on its shelves, it houses in 5,000 square metres of storage space near Ely that opened in 2018.

How to dress for winter, according to the bronze sculptures outside the UL

Smaller libraries may not provide as many books, but they’re gems – and they still smell of books which, as any bibliophile will tell you, is an integral part of the experience. There are two delightful community libraries near me in North London.

Keats Community Library is in Keats Grove, Hampstead, and part of Keats House, a listed building.

Keats House and Keats Community Library

Belsize Community Library is in Antrim Road, Belsize Park. Built in 1937, it’s a beautiful and much loved space that’s vital to the local community. More about this library later.

Belsize Community Library

My affection for libraries goes back a long way. When I was living in Washington, DC, I loved our library so much that I’d often take my cat along, even though she couldn’t read. I wanted to share with her the lovely book smell, and that hushed atmosphere where nobody shouts or screams, unless a cat suddenly goes on the loose.

I have no photos of the public library at Cleveland Park, but I plan to include it in a future novel. Here’s a short scene from the height of the Cold War in the 1960s, featuring Catherine, a 10-year-old American girl.

The only possible conclusion was that our phone was bugged. I took a look under the desk where the phone cord led to a box on the wall. A bug could look like something stuck onto it like a blob of Play-Doh, couldn’t it? Uncle Hank might have bugged it, or else gotten the janitor to do it when he came to fix the blown fuse we had the other day.

After a good feel around, I didn’t find anything that looked as if it shouldn’t be there. Only dust and a dead spider all shrivelled up.

I needed some help, but who could I trust? Nobody. That was who. Then it clicked! I’d look it up at the library.

Now here I was in the children’s section flicking through New Elizabethan, waiting for Mommy to go grocery shopping with a handful of money-off coupons.

At last. The coast was clear. I went to the main information desk and cleared my throat.

‘May I help you, young lady?’ asked the librarian.

I glanced right and left then lowered my voice. ‘As long as you don’t tell anyone.’

She looked nice, so I continued. ‘Where do you keep books on spying?’

‘Well, now, the junior section is right over there.’ She pointed. ‘And it has its own librarian.’

I gave her a serious stare above my new glasses. ‘Ma’am, I am looking for adult books on spying.’

‘I see.’ She consulted a drawer of index cards before she was able to point out the shelves I needed.

‘Thank you, ma’am. One more thing. Please would you forget I mentioned spying?’

A smile played on her lips. ‘You may rely on my discretion.’

I dashed off towards the adult non-fiction as she’d directed. I’d hoped to find something like Teach Yourself Espionage, but there were only books on photography, fishing, coin collecting, and magic tricks. I checked the entire alphabet of hobbies. Nothing.

Oh no! There was Mommy coming through the door. Act normal, I told myself. I grabbed a book on stamp collecting and went to the desk to check it out.

On Thursday March 17 at 7.30pm, I’ll be talking about the importance of setting in a novel, and particularly the appeal of medical settings and exotic locations. Based on my first-hand experience, I use both of these as integral parts of my stories, as some of you already know. Whether you’re a reader or a writer, I’m sure you’ll enjoy taking part in the chat.

Organised by the Friends of Belsize Community Library, this online event is free, but donations to the library are much appreciated. I hope to see you on the night.

To join by Zoom on the day, click here (meeting ID 889 6466 1765).

To donate to Belsize Community Library, please click here.

Do you have a favourite library? Do let me know, and tell me why.

SPEAKING OF BOOKS

“What’s your favourite book?” can be a divisive question. Well, we all have different tastes. Yet, despite this, people often ask complete strangers what to read next. Admittedly, they don’t randomly accost someone in the street with their enquiry. But posting the question on a Facebook group can be much the same thing, and the ensuing discussion can light the blue touchpaper.

If you’ve been to real live book clubs, you know that conversation can get overheated there too, and the arrival of wine bottles and a cheeseboard only goes so far in calming the proceedings. That’s why one book club I know has more or less abandoned literary talk in favour of spending the evening enjoying refreshments.

The book world is rife with snobbishness. Last November, the Sunday Times published a roundup of the Best Books of 2021. It claimed to cover every genre, but romance books were conspicuously absent – this despite the fact the romantic fiction regularly features in the Sunday Times top 10 bestsellers chart. The piece was incendiary to the many people who love romantic novels, and those who write it too. The Romantic Novelists’ Association, among others, rose to defend the genre.

There are some who speak of their “guilty pleasures” in enjoying particular books, usually titles not considered highbrow. But shouldn’t we all read what we like, and not bother with what isn’t to our tastes? When your time is, like mine, more than halfway up on the great big parking meter of life, you realise there’s little point in sticking with a book just so you can brag that you’ve read it.

For the record, I haven’t finished A la recherche du temps perdu. Proust can seem rather a lot of temps perdu to me.

Book talk tends to happen most among bookworms, authors, librarians, and publishing folk. However, there was a time when it was a mainstream conversation topic. According to my mother, ‘nice girls’ were encouraged to use books as an ice-breaker at parties.

Sparkling conversation usually begins with “Have you read any good books lately?”

Just then, a US Marine with a baby face and tight trousers came over and said, “Dance?” and instead of running away, I said, “Why yeees … I’d love to.”

I needn’t have worried about not knowing the right steps. There weren’t any. We could have been dancing on a three-cent stamp. The only thing that moved were his jaws and his hips. I wondered what Father would say if he saw me now. I really must try to make conversation.

“Have you read any good books lately?” I asked. “Really good books, I mean?”

This was the magic phrase. With an Englishman, it would have worked like a charm and we would have stood in the middle of the floor, not dancing but discussing books, and then we would have been exchanging books for years. But the Marine answered something which sounded suspiciously like, “Naw, I can’t read.”

This passage comes from the first book my mother wrote. Called Cocktails and Camels, it was published in 1960 and it’s a fictionalised memoir. It’s often regarded as the first of a genre referred to as “literature of nostalgia” that became particularly Alexandrian. I adore Cocktails and Camels and still find it funny, no matter how many times I reread it. But it’s out of print, just like another book I love, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies by Jean Kerr.

Very soon, I’ll be talking about some of my favourite books, fiction and non-fiction, choosing only those still in print. On Monday January 31, Tim Lewis (of Stoneham Press) and I will be talking on Book Chat Live. Even if you disagree with some of my choices, I hope you’ll be inspired to dip into some books outside your usual reading genres. You can catch the show on Amazon Live at 11am Eastern time, or 4pm UK time on this link: Amazon Book Chat Live.

In addition to chatting about favourite books, I’ll be revealing what I’d buy if money were no object. Think you know me? You might guess some of the books on my list, but my choice of luxury may be more surprising.

I’d love to hear about you and your favourite books, so do let me know.

THE BEST LAID PLANS

Did you start the New Year full of plans and resolutions? I know many did. Yet, nearly halfway through January, they find themselves unable to progress with new activities. It’s not necessarily lack of drive. Author Ann Richardson shares her thoughts on lack of energy.

All my life, I have felt out of sync with many assumptions of popular culture. One of these concerns leisure, such as finishing work for the day and going to a wine bar. The high point of the year is the summer holiday when you can finally lie down at the beach and avoid anything like ‘work’.

But a lot of people – like me – are more driven by the desire to do something, preferably something of value. To someone with this mind-set, the main use of doing nothing is to rest the brain and body, so as to fire on all cylinders for purposeful activities. Lazing around is not an end in itself.

There are many ways to be ‘useful’ – caring for others, building things from scratch, getting things done around the house, or doing something more creative.

We may not do these things well or be happy with the result. The key point is that the activity is important to us and helps us feel that time was well spent.

What makes us so clearly one way or the other?  It could be nature, nurture, or a combination of the two. My mother had a professional job while she raised three children, and I also attended a school whose motto was In truth and toil.

Whatever the cause, one sad discovery about growing older is that we get tired more easily. We lose our youthful resilience and our batteries run down faster. This starts at different ages for different people. It seems to creep up when we’re not looking and, as far as I can see, it worsens each year and saps our energy for getting things done.

For those eager to be active, lack of energy is incredibly annoying. It means we can’t work for long periods without becoming tired. And the definition of that long period slowly shortens from a day to half a day to even an hour. 

The body becomes a battleground – our head wants to get something done, but our body rebels. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, as the saying goes. At the end of a day, we find ourselves disappointed with the paltry amount accomplished.  And we had such great plans.

It’s not so different from the Covid-related lockdowns people have suffered in the UK and elsewhere. They are a kind of imprisonment that stops us doing what we want. One of my grandsons called it ‘being under house arrest’.

Lack of energy is close to house arrest too.

Ann Richardson

There are many causes of energy loss so I won’t offer any advice on what to do about it. But, if you enjoyed this post, I can recommend Ann Richardson’s latest book The Granny who Stands on Her Head.

TAKING PHOTOS THAT CAPTURE THE HOLIDAY MOOD

Chances are you’ve already seen the photo of an alleged party that took place last Christmas.

I can’t reproduce the photo here but, if you take a moment to check out this date online, you’ll find a jolly image of 24 people and a tempting buffet. Many of the group are wearing paper hats, and one even has on a House of Commons Christmas jumper (allegedly). Given Covid restrictions, such an event shouldn’t have taken place at the time, but I can only admire the photographic skills involved. Everyone is smiling at the camera, the food is still appetizing, and it’s all in focus. That’s a full house in my book.

I usually get pictures exhibiting canapé debris or dismembered turkey because I didn’t think to take a snapshot until late on. And someone is always blinking or playing the fool.

In the harsh light of experience, I offer you a selection of images that perfectly capture the holiday spirit and say a lot about how to take pictures. Or not. Let’s kick off with Thanksgiving when I met my brother’s adorable new puppy.

But which end of Althea is which? With the benefit of hindsight and a full SD card, I can tell you that it’s almost impossible to do justice to such a furry dog.

A professional photographer once told me that one important thing to ask yourself about a picture is “What does it say?”

This one says that my stepdaughter is stunning, even with a light fitting sticking out of her head.

And this snapshot from Arlington Cemetery says that it’s best if your other half isn’t waving his umbrella or making hand signals.

It’s also good advice to get as close as you can to your subject. Abraham Lincoln was obliging. It helps that he’s been sitting still for over 100 years.

I was so pleased this juvenile swan let me approach that I forgot to take my thumb off the lens.

What does this next effort say? It says wait till the swan finishes toileting. 

As Christmas trees go up, so do energy prices. Now this photo is in focus, perfectly lit, and taken at a jaunty angle. I’m rather proud of it. Shame it’s only a gas meter.

Nowadays, seasonal photos tend to include lots of Covid tests. For a festive effect, you could place your test cartridge on champagne boxes (see left). It may be the closest you get to a party this Christmas.

I don’t normally take many pictures of liquor stores unless they’re rather special. Whether open or closed, this one in Washington, DC is redolent of atmosphere. It’s also right next to where I lived nearly 60 years ago and it remains practically unchanged, making it a period piece. Historical and in focus. What a result.

Cheers! Have a wonderful Christmas, one and all, and do take lots of photos.

WHERE ARE YOU, KING TUT?

It’s nearly 100 years since the tomb of Tutankhamun was discovered in the Valley of the Kings, and the boy Pharaoh continues to fascinate.

Tutankhamun made his mark on me at an early age. When we were living in Egypt, my own Egyptian mummy took me to see the exhibit at the Cairo Museum in Tahrir Square. At the age of four, I wasn’t as tall as the wooden cabinets, so, while my mum marvelled at the treasures, I had a superb view of the brass screws holding the cabinets together.

My mother’s history with King Tut goes back to her own childhood, as she wrote in her book Cocktails & Camels.

One of the most interesting people we met on our pre-war holidays was Howard Carter who discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings at Luxor. I was only twelve at the time, but, as it so often is with childhood memories, it seems like yesterday. Every evening on their way to the hotel dining room, guests were drawn as though by a magnet to the slot machine where, with one franc and a good deal more luck, a crane would reach down amongst a multitude of bonbons and come up not with bubble gum but with silver cigarette boxes and Swiss watches.

Howard Carter would be there with a bagful of one-franc pieces, much determination, and a rare stock of fabulous magic phrases which no doubt had lain dormant for four thousand years. “Abracadabra,” he’d chant soothingly at first. “Abracadabra, hashamatasha, wooloo, wooloo, wooloooo.”

Then, as the crane came up with only a handful of sweets, he’d use some rather un-Pharaonic words and put in another franc. With the crane half an inch away from a silver cigarette case, Carter, who was a strong man, would shake the slot machine unhinging it from the wall. The crane swerved, landed on its object, and with some more magic words, the cigarette case would drop into the waiting receptacle. “Here you are,” he’d say to anyone who happened to be standing by. “You take it. Now let’s have a crack at that lighter there.”

Though we did not like to press him on his discovery of the Tutankhamun tomb, the subject naturally arose. I vividly remember his telling us of the awe he felt when, after having fruitlessly excavated for months, he looked through a hole into the antechamber of the tomb, by the light of a candle flickering in the warm air that was escaping, and saw, as though through a mist, statues, alabaster, and gold everywhere. Some four thousand years had passed since human feet had stood on that same spot where he and his friend the Earl of Carnarvon made their dramatic discovery. Then, as his eyes grew accustomed to darkness, he could pick out beautiful individual objects. It must have been an amazing and magnificent sight to look into that tomb which, unlike the others in the Valley of the Kings, was almost intact.

In fact, Tutankhamun’s tomb had been entered at least twice not long after his mummy was buried. The outermost doors leading into the shrines enclosing the king’s nested coffins were unsealed. However, the inner two shrines remained intact until Carter’s exploration.

I have yet to see any of Tutankhamun’s relics myself. As I was studying hard, Tut Mania passed me by in the early 70s when the British Museum had the golden treasures on show. But I do remember a teacher of the time who quickly acquired the nickname King Tut, purely because he was Egyptian.

Where is Tutankhamun now?

Well, his tomb in the Valley of the Kings is open to visitors. And, as far as I know, the famous gold death mask is still at the Egyptian Museum. It’s probably the best-known object from ancient Egypt and the Egyptian government won’t let it travel again.

However, after many delays, the Grand Egyptian Museum of Giza is due to open in summer 2022. About a mile from the Pyramids and the Sphinx, it will be the largest archaeological museum in the world, and will display the largest collection of Tutankhamun relics ever displayed.

Last April, the ancient royal mummies of 18 kings and 4 queens were transported through Cairo to their new home, in a multimillion-dollar spectacle called “Pharoah’s Golden Parade” which you can see here.

Some of King Tut’s artifacts, like his chariot, are already in the new museum, as this video shows. FYI before you open it, this video is funded wholly or partly by the Chinese government.

While seeing the treasures in real life remains difficult, you can enjoy the blog Egyptian Chronicles and its stunning photography.

And, should you find yourself in Dorset, there’s a recreation of the Tutankhamun exhibition to visit.

FIRST TERM AT UNIVERSITY

Only the crème de la crème go to Cambridge, my parents always said. Now I had to survive three years without anyone discovering my secret: the university must have let me in by mistake.

To help cover up my imposter syndrome, I also spent Freshers’ Week smiling at all the other undergraduates. Perhaps one of them would later become my best friend.

My room bore little resemblance to the glorious quarters I had imagined when filling in my application form. By the bare 40-watt bulb dangling from the ceiling, I found crumbs in the cupboard, silverfish in the drawers, and a mattress so lumpy that it would rule out most activities, especially sleep.

In the college library, where even new books smelled ancient, I waited to see my Director of Studies. Would she be as intimidating as the Tutor who’d served me a small, sweet sherry? I’d barely uttered a few innocuous words before she pierced me with her gaze and said, “What exactly do you mean?”

On the first day of lectures, I crept reverentially around the physics department. Here, James Clerk Maxwell had been professor, JJ Thomson had discovered the electron, and Rutherford had split the atom. It was a lot to live up to.

In addition to lectures and practicals in each science subject, there were weekly supervisions in small groups. These hour-long sessions had the ability to inspire, terrify, or amuse me – sometimes all three in turn.

By the way, supervisions are what Oxford types call ‘tutorials’. Pah! That word is way too obvious and hardly the way to train spies.

In my first week, I found out that lectures took place on six days a week, Fitzbillies was the place for Chelsea buns, and a bitter wind often blew in straight from the Urals. As a result, my nose was usually cold and wet. It’s a sign of health in dogs. Not so much in students.

Male students were more numerous, but many of them hid away in libraries. Even tough subjects are easier than finding the courage to speak to a woman.

Before mobile phones and internet, the main method of communication was face to face. Obviously, there’d be times when you weren’t in your room, in which case a visitor might scrawl a message on the notepad hung on the outside of the door. I’d get back from lectures to thrilling notes such as the one from the student next door asking if she could cadge some Persil to wash her undies.

By the end of October, I had few illusions left. What exactly do I mean? Only that they must have let in all the other students by mistake too.

***

That was a long time ago and many things have changed, though I reckon a lot of students (and some staff) still struggle with imposter syndrome. But Cambridge isn’t nearly as scary or as elitist as some people think.

The University and its Colleges are committed to widening participation to higher education. Hundreds of outreach initiatives and events are run each year both in Cambridge and in schools and colleges across the UK. See this about widening participation.

Target Oxbridge is a free programme that aims to help black African and Caribbean students and students of mixed race with black African and Caribbean heritage increase their chances of getting into the Universities of Oxford or Cambridge. The programme is open to UK-based students in Year 12 (also Year 13, in some circumstances).

There’s also the brand-new Cambridge Foundation Year, a free and fully-funded one year pre-degree course designed as a stepping stone to Cambridge for those who have experienced educational disadvantage.

What’s your take on our two most ancient universities – or any other university you’ve been to? Drop me a comment below.

WHY WORRY ABOUT SEPSIS?

If you know much about sepsis, chances are the condition has affected your family.

I’ve blogged about sepsis before, but the condition is still with us and has a high mortality. It kills about 48,000 people a year in the UK. Worldwide, someone dies of sepsis every 3 seconds. Survivors have a high chance of serious long-term effects.

Today being World Sepsis Day, I’m parking the levity once again and using this post to sum up – or update – what you need to know about sepsis. 

Understand what it is.

Sepsis is when the body responds to severe infection in such a way that it attacks its own organs and tissues. Without treatment, this quickly leads to organ failure and death.

Most people have heard of blood poisoning (septicaemia) which is much the same thing. But doctors now prefer the term sepsis because there isn’t always blood poisoning in this condition.  

Sepsis isn’t exactly a household name – yet. Personally I still think ‘sepsis’ sounds weaker than either septicaemia or blood poisoning, but we’re stuck with the term that scientists agree on.

Know the warning signs.

The symptoms depend on age, but the main point is that there isn’t any one specific sign like, say a swollen jaw with mumps. A child with sepsis can have a high fever, or an abnormally low one. The younger the child, the vaguer the symptoms.

Here are some signs to look out for in children (from the UK Sepsis Trust website):

In under-fives the symptoms can be particularly vague:

And here are some signs to watch out for in adults (again from the excellent UK Sepsis Trust):

If you just remember two things about sepsis, remember this:

You or your youngster will be more unwell than expected.

Things get rapidly worse, especially in children.

Understand who gets it.

Anyone can develop sepsis from a bacterial infection (or sometimes a virus or fungus). But some are more at risk, like the very young, very old, pregnant women, diabetics, and people on long-term steroids.

The initial infection can be a serious one like meningitis, or seemingly trivial, like a horse-fly bite.

scalpel

Surgery can be linked with sepsis, especially emergency operations on those in poor health, or with peritonitis or bladder infections.

And yes, Covid-19 can sometimes lead to sepsis too.

Know what to do.

Sepsis is a medical emergency and needs urgent hospital care. Don’t waste a single moment.

Sepsis isn’t one disease, but rather a syndrome that cuts across almost every medical speciality. The first doctor you see could be a paediatrician, a gynaecologist, an orthopaedic surgeon, or your GP, and sepsis may not feature at the top of their list. That’s why it’s so important for you to mention it. When you see the doctor or nurse, or speak to 111, make sure you say, “I’m worried about sepsis.”

Thanks for bearing with me. Hope you stay healthy.

Litmann type stethoscope

The UK Sepsis Trust is a wonderful charity founded to save lives and improve outcomes for survivors of sepsis – by instigating political change, educating healthcare professionals, raising public awareness and providing support for those affected. For their general info on sepsis, click here.

WHOSE STORY IS IT ANYWAY?

Most of the time, this blog has a jovial slant. This week, I asked my friend and thriller writer JJ Marsh for a more reflective piece on aspects of control. Here’s what she has to say.

Arguments often explode on Twitter (#notnews) and some issues surface again and again. In the book world, the question of cultural appropriation sets author against author, publisher against reviewer, and generates hours of heated discussion. As I write, a debate rages about a writer’s use of clichéd terminology to refer to people of colour.

The problem comes down to an old adage: Write what you know.

The writer did indeed write what she knew, about real children, but applied her own cultural lens. This upset many people devoted to shining a light on intrinsic racism.

Write what you know.

That advice carries a whole host of issues. Do we police our imaginations and stick to our own lived experience? Or are we able to step into other worlds with ethics and empathy?

It’s a topic I brood over often.

Not ‘just’ the race or gender discussion, but the topic of mental health. I’ve written characters of various nationalities, ethnicities and sexuality, but the area I feared to broach was the characters’ inner world.

When choosing to create a protagonist with bipolar disorder, I knew I was on shaky ground. I researched, learnt about how the condition can vary and/or develop, checked chapters with psychologists and those with experience to ensure my representation was authentic. The greatest feedback was from readers who recognised and appreciated a sympathetic approach to a condition that touched their lives.

Then I embarked on Wolf Tones, a novel about coercive control from the perspective of a vulnerable male. Abusive relationships take many forms, as I know from my sister’s role as a support worker. Most victims are women, but some are men. So how to tackle such an issue without diminishing the female experience, acknowledging how it affects men and shining a light on how coercion works?

After two years of research, I came to a conclusion.

It’s all about the narrative.

Every relationship is a story, told by the players themselves. To outsiders, the reality of fraying tempers or bad behaviour might be polished, even exaggerated, for comic effect. Within the relationship, people make up their own journey as they go along – negotiating problems, harmonising habits, confronting obstacles and adjusting their own happy ending.

What about coercion? That’s when one party wrests control and becomes the director, casting a partner or family member in a role they may not want to play.

The first element of redefining roles is by eroding their confidence. Psychologists and therapists point to several techniques by which the director destabilises the victim and convinces them to give up independence. These include criticism, gas-lighting (making one believe something has/hasn’t happened) and micro-managing everything that person does.

Doubt and dependence are harder to introduce when a person has a network of friends, fulfilling job ,and supportive family. That’s why a coercive abuser begins to isolate the victim from any means of emotional outlet. Friends pushed away, families distanced or even rejected outright – the abuser paints them all as the bad guys.

This last is a common occurrence – the abuser claims the status of victim, reversing the roles in order to destabilise and gain sympathy from the person or persons they attempt to control.

Once the manipulator has command of the console, the victim is reduced to no more than an avatar; allowed no choice over money, clothes, activity, or behaviour.

This pattern of behaviour is at the heart of my psychological thriller Wolf Tones. It’s not a puppet show portraying the above because each character has a history (good and bad), ambitions, connections, a sense of loyalty and the issue of class to navigate in a professional environment.

The setting is a classical European orchestra, but the story could happen to any of us. It all depends on the narrator.

If any of the themes in this piece affects you, here are two places where you can find out more: Women’s Aid and ManKind.

Wolf Tones is a work of fiction. This story belongs to Rolf.

Fifteen years ago, Rolf was destined for the gutter.

His luck changed. Now a cellist with the Salzburg City Orchestra, he has his dream job and dizzying prospects. All because of her.

Smart, sexy, well-connected, and crazy about him, Leonor is his fantasy woman. She made him and he’ll never forget it.

Neither will she. 

Read the first chapter here.

A big thank you to JJ Marsh for her thought-provoking post. If you have any comments, I’d love to hear them.

Wolf Tones is out on August 19. You can pre-order it here.