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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How Did Father’s Day Go?

Geoff hasn’t seen much of his son for two years. The ex-wife took Davey to live on the other side of the world, and they only got back recently.

FreeImages.com/Timo Balk

In the run-up to this Father’s Day, Geoff gets out the last card he had from Davey, a crumpled affair from two years back. Clearly made at school, it says

Dear Dad, Happy Father’s Day

Or, more exactly, Hapy Fathers Day.

The colours have long faded but he can still see it’s signed Love, Davey.

“I’ve got your room ready, Davey,” Geoff says brightly on the phone during the week.

There’s a pause on the line before Davey says, “I’m Dave now.”

“Right. Dave.”

“Let’s just make it a day visit,” says the ex-wife. “Easier all round. It’s been a while, after all.”

She’s probably right, concedes Geoff. Davey – sorry, Dave – has been away a long time with his mother and a man who isn’t his father.

So Dave is deposited at Geoff’s on Father’s Day.

Holding his son close is the same as ever. The best thing in the world, bar none. Of course, Dave has grown. He’s seven years old, wears a Cricket Australia T-shirt, and needs a haircut. But he’s surely the same inside.

“What would you like to do today?” Geoff asks Dave. He asked the very same question on the phone a few days ago, and got nothing useful.

By way of response, Dave pulls something flat out of his bag. That’s when Geoff realizes he’ll be playing second fiddle to an iPad mini.

Geoff is about to lay down the law, but the kid has only just got here. Cut him some slack, he tells himself.

Sure enough, Dave puts the iPad away for lunch.

The boy is quieter than he was, and has a wariness about him. To be expected, of course. He’s older and hasn’t seen his father for months.

FreeImages.com/Filip Geleta

After a massive pizza, Dave returns to his iPad.

“What are you doing there?” Geoff hopes he’s not being groomed or downloading porn.

Killer Diller,” replies Dave.

“What’s that?”

“It’s a game?”

Geoff glances at the screen, where aliens are running about. He curses Sonya for allowing Dave to bring the damn thing, but it could be worse.

“Right. Well, don’t play Killer Diller all day. We could go to the park. I’ve got a new football.”

“I’ve got my iPad,” Dave reminds him.

“Well,” says Geoff. “Maybe a bit later we can have a kick-about.” 

“Cool?” says Dave without looking up.

“Want some juice?” Geoff has stocked his fridge with Dave’s favourite tropical juice drink, the kind that strips tooth enamel faster than battery acid.

FreeImages.com/Ricardo Migliani

“Got any Seven-Up?”

“I don’t think so.” That’s another dental disaster, but the occasional can won’t hurt. “Do you have Seven-Up every day?”

“Nah.”

Eventually Geoff prises Dave off his game with the promise that they’ll stop for some Seven-Up on the way back from the park.

It’s sunny in the park, and Dave becomes almost animated, but that, Geoff reasons, is probably because he’s letting him get all the goals. Dave is barely trying.

FreeImages.com/Klaus Post

The day passes so slowly that Geoff can hear it creaking. Dave doesn’t want to talk or play with Lego so he goes back to Killer Diller. Is this what it is to be a dad in today’s world?

At 6 p.m. Dave’s mother comes to collect him.

“Did you give Daddy his card?” she asks.

Dave gets out a mass-produced envelope and hands it over without expression.

Geoff hugs him.

***

Geoff and his son are just two of the characters from my forthcoming novel Hampstead Fever, out on June 30.

Hampstead Fever FINAL EBOOK COVER

 

Football, Superstition, and the Writing Game

Footballers (and fans) are notoriously superstitious. From wearing lucky pants to drinking frog juice, the game is riddled with irrational beliefs and habits, many of them linked with the post hoc fallacy.

FreeImages.com/Diego Sinning

A Buddhist monk and his entourage have been regulars at Leicester City’s King Power Stadium to bless the pitch and distribute lucky charms to the players. Now the monk’s amulets and talismans are credited with Leicester City’s phenomenal success in the Premier League.

Authors may like to think they’re an intellectual cut above mere footballers, but many persist in the same kind of magical thinking. Here are some common rituals and beliefs:

FreeImages.com/Marcia Rogriques

1 Keeping pencils sharpened to a perfect point. On one level this makes sense. The sharper the pencil when you first put it to paper, the longer you can write without stopping. Pencil-sharpening is also the archetypal displacement activity. But a lot of writers go much further than that, believing good karma to be inextricably linked with stationery choices.

John Steinbeck would keep exactly a dozen perfectly sharpened pencils on his writing desk. He favoured the hexagonal type which produced calluses on his fingers, so his editor sent him round pencils instead. I’m told he never used them.

Mustn’t scoff. Alongside my needle-sharp pencils, I keep a stash of special paper clips. When starting out in journalism, I became convinced that my work had a far higher chance of being accepted if I attached it to the covering letter with a brightly-coloured paper clip. These days every article I write is commissioned, and I don’t even use the post, but it’ll take more than that for me to go back to plain clips.

FreeImages.com/Danilevici Filip-E

2 Keeping quiet about your current project. There’s some logic in this too. Talking about your writing can sap creative energy. Unfortunately social media seem to demand it of authors, which can lead to much angst. And the posting of cat pictures instead.

Mishmish with Post-It notes

3 Not tempting fate. Creative visualization is all very well, but since when did imagining yourself receiving the Booker Prize actually lead to success? Exactly. Arrogance is a hideous trait that can only lead to bad karma.  

Bad karma is closely linked with the Evil Eye. I was raised in the Middle East where the Evil Eye is responsible for almost every calamity you can imagine, and then some. As my mother explained in her first book Cocktails and Camels, if someone admired your new dress and you then spilt coffee all over it, it’s not that you were clumsy fool. It was the Evil Eye. If your felucca got stuck in bulrushes which had been there, as everyone knew, since the time of Moses, it had nothing to do with poor seamanship. And, it goes without saying, if you had three daughters and no sons, that was obviously the Evil Eye too.

Cocktails & Camels, by Jacqueline Cooper

Blue beads with an eye on them can offer some protection against the Evil Eye. Also called Nazar amulets, these are common throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

FreeImages.com/Kerem Yucel

Imagine my surprise when my own mother, instead of arming me with beads for success with my fiction, actually tempted fate. This was years ago, when all I’d done was send off in the post for some guidelines on writing romantic novels. Even before I had even written a single word, my mother promptly crowed about “My daughter, the successor to Barbara Cartland.” I cringed in the certain knowledge that my writing career had been jinxed for all time.

As a scientist, I really should know better, but old beliefs die hard. Fast-forward the tape of life and my thirteenth and fourteenth books are about to come out. There’ll be no fanciful boasts from me on publication day. June 30 will find me sitting with my sharpened pencils and a rainbow of paper clips.  

A lucky amulet would be handy too.