Archive for the category “Non fiction articles”

Wonderful Wychwood

After a fairly quiet half term week, I went with the family to the Wychwood Festival on Saturday, to promote ‘The Abominators’. I was in the Waterstone’s tent at 4.30pm, the last slot of the day.

Despite the late afternoon, ‘tired children’ factor I managed to draw in enough children not to be embarrassed. (My son Ben predicted “One child will come, and they will leave half way through”). The kids were lovely, and I hope they enjoyed themselves.

It was such a different experience to a school visit. It felt much more public, and I had to use a microphone. I had a few activities to make it more interactive than just me reading the book (the children each made up funny names for themselves, using prompt cards, there was a ‘yes/no’ quiz and finally we acted out a scene from the book, with one of the children playing Cecil Trumpington Potts). I noticed that I fell back on reading a second short extract, possibly out of panic at having to keep things going… afterwards I wasn’t sure if it had worked at all, but my husband and sons loyally assured me that I’d been fine.

It’s difficult being a natural introvert who has to ‘inhabit’ acting as extravert in order to do such events (it is very common for introverts to overcome shyness and to be able to become extravert for a short time in the name of a ’cause’ they believe in – in this case encouraging children to read and enjoy stories – and I would expect that the majority of authors fall into this category). One lady I spoke to before the event could not make it, but I saw her afterwards and she said she would be buying the book for her daughter. She told me ‘You were so polite and so apologetic when you handed me the bookmark, I didn’t imagine you were actually the author and going to do the talk!’. I explained to her that it surprised me, too. When I was very small and probably until I was about seven, I was painfully shy at school (not so much at home and with people I knew well, but going to school really traumatised me). After this, I came out of my shell and became more outgoing and sociable as I got older, although I’d always prefer a dinner party for six to a cocktail party with a hundred people all mingling. Part of me has never changed from my five year old, mute, self I suppose, so every time I do a talk I think to myself afterwards how far I’ve come.

The lovely Wychwood Waterstones team, and the two students who supported me in my talk were amazing, working so hard as the production line of authors passed through, each one talking and then signing. I noticed that their resident face painter was heroically working her way through a queue of children, and was told that she’d refused a break in order to keep all of the children happy.

After the talk all I wanted was to sit down somewhere, to be brought food and drink and left alone to recover and enjoy the music. Unfortunately the chairs were still in the car, and the boys decided they wanted to go home immediately (because everything was (according to them) ‘lame’) while Russ and I wanted to stay to see The Human League. So I was sitting on a thin blanket listening to persistent whining for half an hour. At last we got the chairs, and the boys accepted their fate – and discovered that there was actually loads for them to do.  I got myself something to eat and at last began to chill out.

I must have people-watched for hours. There was this large lady in a polka dot dress whose arms were so sunburned that she looked as if she’d been dipped in a vat of boiling water, but she still sat in the sun. There were some men dressed as Elvis, hailing each other delightedly as they strutted around. There was the mum who stood perfectly still, until her favourite band started and she began to gyrate energetically, moving her hips from side to side and throwing her arms about in unusual patterns, periodically doing little skips. She motioned to her ten year old daughter to join her. Her daughter looked horrified and at one point tried to get her mother to stop. Her mother listened politely, and then continued dancing, more wildly than ever. There was a group of young lads who were promoting some go karting I think. Anyway they were off duty and getting into the beer, some of them downing it from a hose pipe and funnel contraption. One of them was particularly drunk and he was waving a large flag about dangerously. He was so unaware that he was flapping it in people’s faces. At one point he kept swiping it over the head of this man who was in a wheelchair. I walked up and told him to watch his flag and explained about the man he’d annoyed. He didn’t take it in and continued as before, even after a security guard warned him too. He could have jabbed someone through the throat. Luckily one of his friends seemed to notice the danger and kept an eye on him.

I went to the Singing Tent where there was community singing, anyone could join in. I joined in with the song ‘Something Inside So Strong’, everybody sounded so good! We were all strangers but we were smiling at each other. I’ll definitely do more of that at the next festival I go to. One woman was singing away, and wiping tears from her eyes. I wondered what her story was, what she’s had to overcome in her life.

I bumped into the lovely Philip Ardagh, with his wife and son. I am a big fan and follow him on Twitter where he sometimes (to my delight) retweets my (hopefully witty) comments. His son took a photo with us together and I hope I never see it because I just know how small and wide I will have looked beside the incredibly tall Mr Ardagh!

The performance from Caravan Palace was an absolute joy to watch. I only knew their most famous hit, but every song was just as good. The band were young and cool and good looking and talented. The lead singer reminded me of the lead singer of Texas to look at, she was cheeky and confident and attractive – it was so good to see such a confident, beautiful woman on stage. She was dancing and jumping around all over the place and yet found the breath to do these incredible vocals. I think every man there was a little in love with her by the end of the set.

The finale of the evening on the main stage was The Human League. I couldn’t believe it, to my delight it was the very same female vocalists who joined the band in 1980. They are both now around 50 years old, and what attitude and chutzpa and glamour they brought to the stage. I enjoyed it so much more and felt a hundred times more warmly towards the band than I would have if they’d been shunted out (like Carol Vorderman in Countdown) in favour of younger women. Hearing the band reminded me how many hits they had, and what a part of my growing up their music was. I also loved Heaven 17, and of course one of the original members of The Human League founded Heaven 17.

I love the (true) story that Phil Oakey had to find backing singers fast when the band line up changed, and he and his then girlfriend found the girls in a disco when the girls (who were best friends) were still school age. They had both been hoping to go to university, but that chance encounter in a Sheffield nightclub literally changed their lives. Now it’s over 30 years later, they are business partners in the band, they are still performing and looking amazing and although there must have been hard times when record companies were fickle along the way and times were tough, what adventures they’ve had.

The videos on the giant screen behind the band as they performed were very creative. One showed politician’s faces morphing into each other. Others were stunning graphics, another was scenes from the film ‘Metropolis’.

When they sang their last song of the encore, ‘Together in Electric Dreams’ (which I know was not strictly originally a Human League song but a Phil Oakey collaboration) I looked around at all the other people there of our generation, there with their children, reliving their youth. As I looked at the families around me, with the words ‘We’ll always be together’ ringing out into the night, I felt a wave of joy mixed with a sadness. I’m afraid that I’m now at the age where lyrics like that are incredibly poignant.

Wychwood was wonderful and I’d recommend it for families who want a relaxed festival which is not scarily huge in scale yet offers a lot. A big thank you to Waterstones Cirencester for inviting me.

Tomorrow… Chatterbooks in Aylesbury!


Shared Lives

My first impression when I enter Angela’s house is of how wonderfully welcoming it is. I soon feel at home, thanks to her warm smile, and the offer of a cup of tea.

Angela is an Ategi Shared Lives Carer. She and her partner Tina share their home with Debbie and Linda, two ladies with learning difficulties who, until they moved in with Angela two years ago lived most of their lives in care homes.

Settled in the living room, I chat with Angela, Debbie and Linda about their life together.

First, we talk about the cats – Leo and Slinky. Linda tells me shyly that Slinky regularly sits on the warm bonnet of the car, and sleeps on top of the kitchen cabinet.

When I ask Angela how she came to be an Ategi Shared Lives Carer, she explains that she has a background in care work, having worked in residential homes.

“Several years ago,” she explains, “I was working as a cleaner at Aylesbury’s Young Offender’s Institute, but I wasn’t happy. I missed working as a carer. It was around then that I came across the ‘Ategi Shared Lives’ advert. It said something along the lines of: ‘Can you give a loving, caring home to someone?’”

It seemed to make perfect sense. With her three children having left home, Angela and Tina were living in a four bedroom house.

“We had the empty bedrooms,” continues Angela, “So I thought that maybe this was a chance for me to go back to doing what I have always enjoyed most. Caring for people.”

Encouraged by Tina, and by her friend Jen, Angela made contact with Ategi. She spoke to them on the phone, and they visited her home and had long conversations with her and Tina. There were various important processes to go through before Angela could be accepted as a potential Shared Lives carer – to make sure that everybody’s wellbeing was taken into consideration and that their home was suitable. Years ago, when she was working in a residential home, there was a sad incident which has haunted Angela ever since.

“Two elderly ladies, who were devoted and very close friends, had to be separated,” she explains, “It was heartbreaking. One was sent to another care home, and died just a week or so later.”

Remembering this, Angela told Ategi that she would be happy to accept two people who would be unhappy to be placed in separate homes from each other.

Vicki, from Ategi said: “I think I have just the people for you – they were made for you.”

The people to whom she was referring were Linda and Debbie. At this point in the visit, Tina arrives home from her shift as a prison warden at Aylesbury Young Offender’s Institute. She has twinkling eyes, grey spiky hair and a great big smile. She sits down beside Linda.

“She’s trouble! She’s always messing around!” Linda tells me, but with a smile.

I ask Tina how she finds family life with Debbie and Linda.

“It’s very rewarding,” she says, “Especially with a job like mine. I have a hard day at work but when I get home that all goes. We’ll have a laugh together. They’re quiet today because they are meeting somebody new, but normally they don’t stop talking!”

Before coming to live with Angela and Tina, Linda and Debbie were in residential care for almost all of their lives. Neither has many happy memories, or ever completely settled in any of the care homes they were in. Two years ago, Debbie and Linda did not talk much. Both women found it difficult to make eye contact and would prefer to hide away. They had met before in other care homes, and had been reunited at the latest one.

“They did not feel loved,” says Angela, “they did not feel part of something.”

Angela finds it easy to empathise with Linda and Debbie, as she herself was painfully shy as a child.

“I understood how they were feeling. But they’ve changed since they came to live with us. They dress differently, they act differently, it’s a joy to see.”

Angela, Tina, Debbie and Linda now live together like any other family. Cooking in the household is a joint effort. Linda is an excellent cook, and washes up as she goes along. Debbie is best at pastries, whereas Linda has a gift for making the lightest Yorkshire puddings. As Angela explains, Linda and Debbie nod in confirmation. They enjoy watching TV together in the evenings, Linda and Debbie love programmes with animals in them. They all enjoy Eastenders, Coronation Street and Emmerdale. They’ll have meals out and day trips. They’ll argue about football. Linda supports Tottenham Hotspur. Like any family, they all have different timetables. Angela looks after her baby granddaughter Ellie on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Linda and Debbie go to their day centres a couple of days a week and Tina does her shifts at the prison. There are plenty of visitors, including Angela’s children and grandchildren. Angela’s daughter Becky brings Ellie to visit regularly, and Debbie and Linda love having a baby in the house. Linda’s family visit too – her twin sister Susan and sometimes her Auntie Mollie. Relatives and friends often join them for Sunday tea or a Sunday roast.

We talk about ‘respite’ care, when Angela has some time off from being a carer. This happens several times a year. Next week, Tina and Angela are going to visit Angela’s mum in Warrington for nine nights, and Linda and Debbie will stay with a short-term Ategi carer, who they know and trust. As the visit goes on, and after a second cup of tea and some cake, Linda and Debbie lose their initial shyness. We talk about the family sing-alongs, and Debbie gives me a rendition of ‘Doh a Deer’ from ‘The Sound of Music’.

“I love Drama,” she says, “I love to sing and act.”

Debbie goes to church every Sunday and has good friends there. She finds it uplifting, the singing and clapping. She loves the day centre she goes to as well. “I can reach out to people there,” she says, “I can have conversations.” Linda enjoys arts and crafts and shows me a scrapbook she made for Angela, which is filled with Christmas recipes she has carefully cut out and stuck in. She also shows me a special shoebox, which she has covered in beautiful patterned paper. Linda has been to Menorca with Angela and Tina twice, and judging from the photographs they all had a fantastic time. Debbie only went the first time, and decided that she did not enjoy the sun, or the water, so the second time she chose to have a short break with a carer instead. They will go away this year, but not to Menorca as – like most families these days – they can’t afford to go abroad every year.

“Debbie does a brilliant Frank Spencer impersonation,” says Angela. I look at Tina and she nods. Debbie smiles when they ask her if she’ll do one for me. “Go on,” coaxes Tina. Then she does it. The absolute best Frank Spencer impersonation I have ever heard in my entire life.

“Betty!” she says, “The cat’s done a whoopsie on the table!”

It is perfect. It is spot on. We are all helpless with laughter.

I ask Debbie how she feels about living with Angela and Tina, in a proper home.

“I am much happier living here,” she says, “in the other homes I did not feel loved, and people were mean to me. Now I have a family who love me, and I love them.”

As I prepare to leave, I think about something that was said at the beginning of the visit, when we were talking about the cats Leo and Slinky. Leo came from a family around the corner, but he decided that he was happier with Angela, Tina, Linda and Debbie. It turned out that this suited everybody concerned, so he was allowed to stay.

“He chose us,” said Angela, smiling, “just like we chose each other.”

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