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?

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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.

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.

 

What Your Doctor is Really Saying

Confused when you see the doctor? It’s no great surprise. Medics are famed for their jargon. But, even when they remember to use simple English instead of medicalese, they come out with euphemisms and other phrases that conceal what they really have in mind.

FreeImages.com/Carlos Paes

I know, because I do it too. Now, with the benefit of years of experience, I can help you decode what your doctor really means.

What the doctor says

What the doctor really means

I see you’ve brought a list. Splendid! Now we’ll be here all day.
Any thoughts yourself as to what it might be? OK, what did you find on Google?
As it happens, my colleague has a special interest in your problem. I’m all out of ideas.
It’s a classic example of Tsutsugamushi Fever. Never seen a case of it, but doesn’t it sound grand?
You’ve got a case of pendulum plumbi. You’re swinging the lead.
I think I should examine those feet of yours. Hope you’ve had a bath recently.
Or perhaps I’ll get Nurse to send toenail clippings to the lab. Actually, I’m bloody sure you haven’t.
I’m not in the slightest bit worried, but I think you should go to A&E just to get it checked out. I’m shitting myself.
This won’t hurt a bit. It’ll hurt a lot.
Now just a little prick with a needle. Now just a little prick with a needle.

 

So, with the benefit of this little chart, you can make the most of your next appointment. If you can get one, that is.

National Health Service logo

 

Psst! Want to Hear about my Secret Project?

If you’ve been anywhere near social media in the last year or so, you must have noticed many writers announcing their secret projects.

Or maybe it’s a tweet like

“Forthcoming news about the Secret Project – watch this space!”

“Celebratory champagne is on its way for my secret book news….”

Such mentions are most often found on Facebook and Twitter, but these days even LinkedIn profiles boast of secret projects.

While the words may differ, the meaning is the same, whether it’s a secret collaboration or a new project the person can’t possibly tell you about just yet. Of course, you’ll get further instalments designed to generate excitement.

“I can tell you very soon – you won’t need to be patient much longer.”

Unfortunately, by the time the word is out, the excitement may have gone, washed away by further waves of secret projects from dozens of other authors.  

It is a kind of fakery no better than those TV shows where there’s an overly long pause to heighten the drama before one of the contestants is thrown off the dancefloor or chucked out of the kitchen.

Does it even work? I have my doubts.

But writing is a strange profession. It can be lonely and isolating. The internet is the obvious place to go when you need to communicate with someone other than your overburdened family, or the characters in your book.

To tell or not to tell? It’s obviously different for every writer.

Sometimes spilling the beans is forbidden, as when something is not yet signed and sealed. And, even when the ink on an agreement is dry, there may be contractual reasons for keeping it all under wraps. But, in that case, why not just treat it like an embargoed story and say nothing?

Keeping shtum about one’s writing is a time-honoured tradition. Even when there aren’t commercial pressures to keep quiet, there’s the widespread feeling that talking about a work in progress can bring all manner of disasters. It’s best to keep the authorial powder dry and save energy for writing rather than risk sabotaging the whole thing.

Hemingway famously maintained it was bad luck to talk about writing. He didn’t just shy away from discussing his WIP. It extended to saying anything about writing because, as he put it, that takes off “whatever butterflies have on their wings and the arrangement of hawk’s feathers if you show it or talk about it.” Eventually, though, he gave in and wrote a whole book about it, though I’m not convinced he talked about his books before he wrote them.

The rise of social media brings constant pressure to share things. I get that. But there are other things to post. The mere existence of a secret project whets my appetite a lot less than a photo of a sandwich, and is far less engaging than a kitten video.

You’re working on a secret project? Shut up already.

***

You may like:  How to Stop Watching Kitten Videos

How to Tell if You’re Old

Every time I go away, it takes me longer to recover. If you too find that jet lag lasts longer than the holiday, or that hangovers are more vicious these days, there may be a simple explanation: no matter how young you look, you could be deep in the clutches of anno domini.

Here are six more signs of age.

1 You enjoy sex. But a cup of tea and a nice sit-down are far more appealing, especially with a slice of Battenberg cake.

Royal Doulton teacup

2 Your kitchen cupboards are full of empty jars, take-away containers, and margarine tubs. Then you graduate to saving bits of aluminium foil, smoothing the creases out carefully to make it easier to reuse.

storing empty jars

3 You have to sit down to put your socks on. And you can’t put underpants on without holding onto something for balance.

pair of men's socks

4 You understand the meaning of “How are you?”, and know perfectly well that people don’t want to hear all about your gall stones or your hip replacement. But you tell them anyway.

5 Your mobile phone is powered up only when you’re expecting a call. After which you may turn it off. Or else forget all about it, until it plays Sgt. Pepper in the middle of a funeral.

Nokia mobile phone

6 It’s a mystery why people offer you a seat on the bus. After all, you still feel as young as ever. You even look it, as your mirror will tell you.

That’ll be the cataracts, then.

Apologies for not posting last week. I had some jottings for this post, somewhere. Spent days looking for the piece of paper, only to discover it right where I had left it. It was so unfair that I then had the worst gall bladder attack ever. A shocker, it was, I don’t mind telling you.

Ooh, before it slips my mind, you can now get my novel Hampstead Fever in many WH Smith travel bookstores, where it’s on a buy-one, get-one-half-price offer. Which is handy if you’re heading for a dose of jet lag.

Hampstead Fever, as seen in WH Smith