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?

***

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

http://mybook.to/HF

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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? 

 

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.

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

 

#TBT Alexandria, 1956

I’ve blogged before about Suez, because it’s when my mother wrote her first book. This week, Nadia, a character from my next novel, gives her own take on 1956.

It began on July 26, when I was ten and a half years old, or, as I preferred to say, nearly eleven. The whole affair was about a canal and a dam.

Here’s the crucial thing: President Gamal Abdel Nasser was most interested in canals and dams.

Nasser was a very big man, with a strong jaw and huge teeth that he displayed whenever he smiled. That night in 1956 was the anniversary of the revolution, so the president celebrated by giving a long speech, right here in Alexandria, in Mansheya Square, where there’s a massive statue of Mohammed Ali Pasha, wearing a turban and brandishing his sword, sitting atop his horse.

As usual when anything interesting happened, I had been sent to bed instead of being allowed to stay up. My parents told me about the speech the next day, which is hardly the same thing. I relished the idea of Nasser brandishing his words like a sword, and I was especially sorry to miss the firemen dispersing the crowds. FreeImages.com/AntonioJimenezAlonsoAlthough I had no real opinions on politics, I liked listening to the president on the radio. Unlike a lot of important men who like to make themselves sound clever by speaking in a formal version of Arabic, Nasser spoke a colloquial language that every Egyptian could understand, even a child of nearly eleven. That, I thought, was much cleverer.

The day after that big speech, my sister Simone and I sat in the upstairs living room right by the air conditioning, which was on at full blast as it was sweltering. Father and Mother explained to us that the Suez Canal was now going to belong to Egypt instead of France or Britain. As a result, it would raise lots of money for Egypt, and would pay to build a High Dam at Aswan.

Mother actually put down her embroidery during this conversation, so it must have been significant. Quite how significant, I did not wholly grasp. The main thing was that the Suez Canal had been nationalized. That was a good thing, wasn’t it? Unless you happened to be British or French, like some of my friends from school.

In October, a few countries turned out not to be so happy about Egypt having the Suez Canal. Our parents did not explain that very clearly. Meanwhile, our nanny Rashida lit more candles than ever to the Virgin Mary and to St Anthony.

Even when she wasn’t praying, Rashida went about muttering to herself. I thought I heard her say that things had been much better under King Farouk, but, when I asked her to repeat herself, she flatly refused.

It got a lot clearer when France, Britain, and Israel all ganged together to declare war on Egypt. Every night there were air-raid sirens and anti-aircraft guns. Victor, my pain of a cousin, kept going on about it. With our schools shut, he was unfortunately at our house more often than ever. According to him, the guns were as close as Smouha, barely a few kilometres from us. I pretended to be unconcerned.

Every bedtime, Mother told Simone and me that things would turn out all right. We had blackout paper on all the windows now. It was all going to be fine, Mother said. 

It did however change things for many of my friends, and for my teddy bears, at least one of whom was British.

You may also like How My Mother Wrote Her First Book

RIP, Christina

It’s tough to blog this week without writing about my late colleague Christina Earle. So I won’t even try.

When emotions are less raw, it will be possible to look back through a happier lens. Right now, grief colours everything.  Needless to stress, it is so much worse for her family, including her husband Oli, than it is for colleagues and friends.

Aged 31, Christina died suddenly and unexpectedly last weekend.

There’s no point trying to make sense of that.

She was one of the best journalists I’ve worked with in over 20 years of writing for mainstream media. Don’t take my word for it. Here’s what the Press Gazette has to say

Working for a 7-day newspaper, Christina often needed copy in a hurry. Sometimes this was a challenge to provide, as on the day that, unbeknown to her, I was being wheeled away for surgery myself. But she was always considerate. Thank you, Christina, for persuading me to turn my mobile off on my wedding day.

She made a fine campaigning journalist for The Sun, and she achieved so much. Every problem had a solution. Well, it did when she was on the case. Colleague Lynsey Hope put this tribute together. 

It seems self-indulgent to mope when Christina was such a sunny and capable person with an infectious smile. 

But how is it possible to do anything else? Columnist Virginia Ironside pointed out that you don’t ‘work through’ grief. It works its way through you.

Grief is the occasion for acknowledging the great value of what you’ve experienced. In his book The Middle Passage, psychotherapist James Hollis explains that, because it has been experienced, it cannot be wholly lost. The experience is still there, says Hollis. It is retained in the bones and the memory, to serve and guide the life to come.

I’m hoping so, anyway.

Four Hours in the Eye Surgery Day Unit

On looking back, the signs had been there for years. First, Nadia had trouble at night from the glare. Then reading got harder, especially the day she picked up an Egyptian newspaper in Paddington. Arabic, with its tiny script and its proliferation of vital dots above and below the letters, is the least appropriate language for someone with poor vision.

She wonders why she’d got cataracts by the age of 55. Probably to do with a stupid game they used to play at the beach in Alexandria.  She, Zeinab, Chou-Chou, and of course her sister Simone all dared one another to look straight into the sun for as long as they could. Nadia still has the memory of the after-burn. How was she to know, until Simone told her, that her school friends all cheated by shutting their eyes when she wasn’t looking at them?

“The Nile has cataracts too,” says Chou-Chou. She is still stupid despite being middle-aged now.

“They’re not the same thing,” Nadia replies loftily, even though she is unsure of the difference.

Nobody gets a bed on this day surgery unit. They get an armchair, but only if there’s one free at the appointed time. There isn’t. Along with three other patients, Nadia sits in the corridor. Waiting in corridors is normal in the NHS. It was never like this in Egypt, if you could afford bakshish.

An Iranian nurse and two Irish nurses seem to run the place. Each of them asks Nadia if she is diabetic.

“I’m not diabetic.”

In a nearby office, a doctor sits with the door open. Nadia can hear her complain about the computer system. Doctors always do this.

Once Nadia is installed in her allocated chair, an Irish nurse comes in to put drops into her left eye. “Are you diabetic?”

“No.”

After two lots of eye drops, her vision is so blurred that she can no longer decipher the stream of bile about immigrants, shameless young people, and disgraced celebrities in the newspaper someone discarded.

A young doctor comes to explain the op, reeling off a long list of potential complications. “There’s a one in 1,000 chance of losing all the sight in that eye.”

Nadia recalls a handsome man at Montazah who wore tiny briefs and an eyepatch. He liked to say he’d lost an eye in a duel, though, as her sister told her later, it was really a cataract operation gone wrong. She signs the consent form, sure that things have moved on and that it won’t happen to her.

The surgery is under local while her surgeon hums snatches of an aria and asks about her family.

“There’s nobody left.” Still, Nadia cradles the hope that improved vision will help her find her lost sister.

Everything is bright with a watery blue light. A machine buzzes, and the lens fragments are washed out before a new lens is put into place. She feels nothing.

Soon he says, “All done,” and peels the plastic drape off.

“You can sit up now,” says someone else.

So many voices she doesn’t know, and her head swims when she sits up.

Once back on the ward, a nurse offers her tea and asks again if she is diabetic.

Nadia checks in the mirror that she always keeps in her handbag. There she is, a plastic shield over one eye, with two long strips of tape holding it down.

The nurse returns with tea and instructions: eye drops for the next four weeks, eye shield on at night for a week, sunglasses for a few days, and no hair-washing for five days.

Of course Nadia will wear sunglasses! If her hair is going to be filthy, she doesn’t want anyone recognizing her.

The next day, she removes the eye shield for the first time. Everything is so bright. She can see every leaf on the trees, every speck of dust on the windowsill, every wrinkle on her face. They don’t make mirrors like they used to, that’s for sure.

***

Nadia is a character from my next novel, which is set in Alexandria and London.

If you’d like to know more about cataracts, try this link from Moorfields Eye Hospital.

You may also enjoy Six Lessons from the Eye Clinic.