Archive for the category “Vague ramblings”

Want to write? Never give up

As I approached my late thirties I was pretty sure that my dreams of being in print were well and truly over.

Encouraged by my English professor at University, the poet Philip Hobsbaum, I’d had poetry and short stories published, and I tried to write a big ‘serious’ novel in my twenties. The novel I wrote was structurally a mess and didn’t fit any recognisable genre, and so unsurprisingly it did not win me an agent or a publishing deal, although I had a very kind letter from Robin Robertson at Jonathan Cape encouraging me to ‘keep going’.

What went wrong? I became unsure of myself, I lost my confidence for a while. Then stuff happened. My dad died. I had my first child. I had my second child. There was always an excuse not to put myself on the line again, not to make myself vulnerable, open to rejection.

I could never stop writing altogether. I wrote lots of short stories (which I never sent anywhere), but I pretty much gave up on every being published, which was quite heartbreaking. Wanting to write had been part of my identity since I’d been about four years old. It was how I justified to myself all my daydreaming, it was why no other career had ever completely ‘grabbed’ me. If I wasn’t ever going to be a writer, then who was I?

One day a friend said ‘You’re funny. Why don’t you write funny?’, because she knew I was a huge comedy fan and I went to a lot of stand up. You could call me a comedy nerd, following lots of comedy from here and the US, the quirkier the better (I love ‘Episodes’, ‘This is Jinsy’, ‘Black Books’, ‘Gavin and Stacey’, ‘Inside Number 9’, ‘League of Gentlemen’, ‘Nighty Night’, ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’, ‘Seinfeld’, ’30 Rock’, the list goes on and on.) It did seem odd that I’d never tried writing humour before, since I love it so much.

Although I’ve always read and loved all types of fiction from all genres, I’d always felt that I should be writing something very serious and ‘important’. Was this the curse of studying English Literature? I don’t know. But I had a word with myself and decided to loosen up and have some fun, instead of trying to write the next ‘Ulysses’.

I bought Carole Blake’s book ‘From Pitch to Publication’ which helped me to understand the nuts and bolts of writing a book for a particular market. I decided to try teenage humorous fiction. Carole Blake’s advice worked, because a few years later I had two teen novels published by Scholastic –  ‘Diary of a Parent Trainer’ and ‘My Big Fat Teen Crisis’ for girls aged 11-15, both humorous but with serious issues in there too.

Then I was lucky enough to have ‘The Abominators’ published by Little Brown Young Readers. It is a series for children aged 6-11 which I wrote for my own sons. It is about a very posh boy called Cecil Trumpington Potts who wears silk pants with the family crest embroidered on them. He has never met any other children, he wears his hair in a centre parting and he talks in baby talk. When he joins Grimely East Primary school he decides that he wants to join the most mischievous gang in Year 5, ‘The Abominators’. What could possibly go wrong…?

Today I am sitting pinching myself because not only has ‘The Abominators’ series made it into print (in 2013), but last week on World Book Day a primary school pupil dressed up as Cecil Trumpington Potts, and today his teacher sent me the photo below (with permission to use it).

This is year 4 pupil Ben, I can’t say where he lives and what school he goes to, but he has absolutely MADE MY DAY. He recreated Cecil’s bow tie and his centre parting – and the family crest on the panty wanty woos!

If someone had told me when I was on the verge on giving up on writing, that a child would be going to World Book Day dressed up as a character from my imagination, I would never have believed them. Thank you Ben, and thank you to all the children who have read and enjoyed ‘The Abominators’ and my other books (including the 6000+ children who have borrowed them from UK libraries). You have made it all worthwhile, and I’ve had SO MUCH fun along the way! I’m glad I did not give up.

The Abominators

Year 4 pupil Ben dressed as Cecil Trumpington Potts on World Book Day

Nelson Mandela and the end of apartheid in South Africa

In the months just before Nelson Mandela was released, I was working for World Vision in Lesotho and Botswana. Lesotho was in effect a ‘hostage state’ in South Africa, home to many of Mandela’s supporters who had been hounded out of South Africa because of their political views.

There was a strong feeling that things had to change and possibly were about to change, but never did I feel this more than when I went on a short trip to Johannesburg. As I drove into the city, I asked my friend why – if the white South Africans were relatively wealthy – did they all have outside toilets. He looked embarrassed. ‘They’re not outside toilets,’ he said, ‘They’re the maid’s quarters. The white South Africans do not want the maids living under the same roof.’

I was appalled. There must have been barely enough room for them to lie down.

One day I went out and just walked around on my own in what the people I was staying with considered was a ‘safe’ area. There were some nice coffee shops, and I was just walking along enjoying the sights when a smartly dressed, very elderly man approached me. He asked me what I was doing in Johannesburg and we chatted for a short while, and then he said:

“Can I ask a favour of you?”

“Of course,” I said.

It turned out that he wanted to buy me a coffee. He said that times were about to change and that he wanted to make a gesture, and to take a young white woman into a coffee shop and buy her a coffee would be that gesture. He said that he was asking me respectfully, and that he was of course old enough to be my grandfather.

We went into the coffee shop and there was immediately a collective intake of breath. There was an huge atmosphere of disapproval. The waitress (who incidentally was not white) slammed our coffees down in front of us so that the coffee spilled on to the table, she was muttering angrily.

It was very clear that we had broken the rules and everybody was unhappy about it. Looking back I am now wondering if there was an unwritten (or written?) rule that this was a whites only coffee shop, certainly all the customers were white. Maybe the man knew that if he went in with me they would not want to make a scene and kick him out, who knows.

I just know that multi-racial coffee was too much at that moment in time in December 1989.

The old man grinned, enjoying every minute of it. It turned out that he was quite a well known jazz musician. I should have known because he was wearing a very cool hat. I was uncomfortable because of all the glares, but then I realised that in that moment I was part of something important.

He paid for the coffee, and outside the coffee shop we shook hands and he wished me well in my life.

I had to fly back to Lesotho, and in the airport I saw Winnie Mandela, in full military regalia. The atmosphere was charged, apparently she had met with Walter Sisulu (who had just been released from prison that October, after 26 years in prison). There was a feeling of euphoria, a tangible excitement. When I asked if they thought that Mandela would be freed, people said that it was only a matter of time.

I was only a few weeks back in the UK when I was glued to the TV screen like millions of others, watching Mandela walk out of prison as a free man. Like many others who had gone to concerts to support the campaign for his freedom, and drunk in student bars named after him, and worn the badge saying ‘FREE NELSON MANDELA’, I wept.

Everything changed in South Africa, and I am certain that if I went back to that same coffee shop and had a ‘multi racial’ coffee, nobody would blink. The slavery and prejudice is over. There are still tough times, but apartheid is, thankfully, dead.

Now Nelson Mandela is in hospital, and it is exactly how it was with my mum. The lungs, and repeated hospitalisations. So I know what is going on, and that it is realistically just a matter of time.

But what a legacy that man is leaving. To have been an agent of such an important change, to have gone from a prisoner, seen as a terrorist, to the President of South Africa. To be loved by so many people. His family, his country who see him as a father, and by strangers like me – on the other side of the world, choked up because of a news report saying that he ‘deteriorated’ this morning.

I hope that he pulls through this time, but we have to face the fact that he is very frail now. The world will be a much poorer place without Nelson Mandela in it, but there is so much to celebrate about what he achieved.


“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

– Nelson Mandela

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!

The benefits of holidaying at home

We had a £700+ car bill last month, which in the current financial climate is a big blow, especially as my freelance income is variable. So this half term we have been doing what an increasing number of families are doing, holidaying at home. This means staying at home but acting as if we are on holiday, which means avoiding being sucked into the usual jobs and projects, chilling out as much as possible, making the most of home comforts and doing some fun, local things.

My sons are loving it, playing lots of X-box when not glued to the computer, or (to balance this, and it must be balanced) out doing sport. They had two football tournaments at the weekend, and tomorrow we are hoping to go up to the Snozone in Milton Keynes (with some gift vouchers left over from Christmas). They’ve also, before it started raining, been playing badminton in the garden. This morning one of them is going to play squash with a friend, and the other is planning tennis later if the weather improves. My husband has been doing stuff in the garden (which he enjoys), has done a bit of sport too and has read a couple of books.

I have read a few books too, which I’ll talk about in my next post, and I’ve taken the meerkat (Angus) for some very long walks.

When the sun was shining at the weekend we went punting up in Oxford with my brother and sister in law. I also spent time lying and dreaming in the hammock in the garden in the sunshine.

Now that the rain has set in, as well the reading I’ve been watching some catch up TV (specifically some old Seinfeld, The Fall and Arne Dahl), having long baths and early nights and just enjoying that we are all together but not rushing about as much as usual.

The last couple of nights, we’ve been watching family films together. We watched the Jack Black and Ben Stiller film ‘Envy’ the other night. Very funny. And tonight, me and the boys are going to have pizza at a friends house and then we’re going with her and her family to see the new Star Trek movie.

Yesterday I wrote my first ever blog for ‘Girls Heart Books’ which is up today. It’s all about first kisses, and my sons are absolutely Disgusted, Horrified, Appalled and Aghast. Really, not very keen at all. Can’t think why….

A funny old week

It’s been a funny old week. Great birthday weekend, but then a lot of worry when my son suddenly had this scary allergic rash. The good news is that it has stabilised, not getting worse any more at least. He’s back at school today where apparently there’s another boy in another year with a similar thing. It could come and go for up to six weeks probably.

The birthday weekend felt very indulgent and made me realise that I’m just not used to doing very little at all/kicking back and enjoying myself. It felt odd, and I hardly knew what to do with myself. It’s as if I’m so used to rushing around and doing jobs now and finding and doing freelance and then writing and all the house, shopping, cooking, everything, the balance has tipped. When I do have time to just do what I fancy, not a duty or a ‘should’ sort of a thing, then I am not sure that I’m very good at it. I need chilling out lessons.

On Friday night I popped to the Cherry Tree in Kingston Blount and joined Fiona, Debbie N and Debbie H for a drink. Then I picked up Russ from his lad’s wine tasting (yes, sounds improbable but it’s true) and back home. On Saturday morning I woke up and had a birthday breakfast in bed. The boys made it, so it was a slice of dry toast and a jar of marmite with a knife sticking out of it. Still, they made a gesture. I got loads of birthday cards, a handbag, a cookery book and a bike. I went round the block twice on the bike and realised that I have developed very rubbish weak legs, but the bike is lovely.

Then I went to lunch at Lottes Kitchen in Chinnor with Debbie N, Tracey and Debbie C. It’s true, I know quite a few people called Debbie. There is also a Debbie P, who I’m seeing next week and a Debbie M who I’ll be seeing tomorrow. And Debbie W was my best friend at Glasgow University, but she now lives in New Zealand (appropriate as her maiden name was Shearer). So that’s Debbie N, Debbie C, Debbie W, Debbie H, Debbie P and Debbie M. In fact if you are called Debbie, you probably qualify to fast track into my circle of friends. This also applies to people called Susan, because I know loads of them too including of course my sister.

After the very lovely lunch (and presents), I went home and lazed about before some friends came round for a barbecue. Russ did all the tidying up and most of the preparation, I only had to do a tiny bit of salad making at the end. Fiona made me a birthday cake which had 72 MALTESERS ON IT. Sam made an Aero cheesecake. One of the presents they gave me was anti ageing hand cream, so from now on I’ll be typing my blog with less wrinkly, crone-like fingers. Unfortunately they won’t then match my face. It was a good night, there was much laughter and wine, and I’m pleased to report that the kids didn’t trash the house when left to their own devices (which happened last time we had friends round with kids, when they spilled coke and trampled crisps all over the den in the garden). So it was a good evening.

The fun didn’t end there. On the Sunday, after a truly lazy day and more bike riding, we went out in the evening to the Aylesbury Grammar School dinner and Cabaret night at the Waterside Theatre. Unfortunately I hadn’t read the tickets properly, they said ‘Lounge Suits and Dresses’ and I was in jeans and a nice top but seriously underdressed as I could see when we arrived and parked. Luckily Russ was in a jacket so looked OK and the boys were smart too as one of them performing. I started to walk to the theatre and fell into step with a couple I vaguely recognised and whose son my son seemed to know, and told them I’d seriously messed up, and they were being nice about it when, and this is unbelievable, the husband’s shoe fell apart. The heel just came off. So he said he had to dash back to change his shoes and – guess what – he lived right round the corner from us.

I got a lift from him, got changed in five minutes flat and was back in time for the start of the show without having had to make Russ and the boys go all the way home with me. I never thought I’d be so pleased that a man’s shoe fell apart. And I never expected to ever write that last sentence.

Because it was a school show I was not expecting much. How wrong could I have been. From start to finish the acts were all polished and – frankly – some of them were positively brilliant – in particular the Lee House band’s ‘Sing, Sang, Sung’ which was so good and note perfect it made the hairs go up on the back of my neck. The standard was unbelievable, frankly. Full marks to the music director at the school, Mr Nathan. Our table was right at the front so we had the best seats in the house. The highlight was seeing my younger son singing in the front row of the choir to a fantastic rendition of Elbow’s ‘One Day Like This’. A real ‘tears in the eyes’ moment.

It didn’t stop there. On Sunday we had our friends Dave and Julie round, and also my brother and sister in law for a day in the garden and in my case a stint in the hammock. But then my son’s rash got really bad and the worry began as it got worse and worse.

So it’s been a mixed few days – great fun, seeing fantastic and lovely friends, some unfamiliarly extensive lazing around, an incredible school show, then a bit of a scare – but hopefully all back to normal now. Which means stopping this and getting on with jobs. But watch out, I’m going to develop my chilling out skills, especially with that hammock now in the garden.

Normal service will resume shortly

Had a very good birthday weekend and will write about what made it fun in next post.

In the meantime have to keep it short. One of my sons has had an allergic skin reaction (most likely due to us changing our washing powder). He has horrible great itchy weals from head to toe, feel so sorry for him. Been to the doctors and he’s on anti-histamines every four to six hours, but still waiting for a marked improvement. Am too busy re-washing all his clothes, sheets, towels etc (and doing freelance work, and of course worrying, that goes without saying as all parents will know) to write a proper blog post. Hopefully normal service will resume shortly.

The sad side of birthdays

No matter how old you are, having a birthday regresses you to childhood. To the shiny new bike, or whatever it was you wanted. The cake with candles, being made a fuss of. And of course when you were a child, your parents were usually the ones masterminding the fuss which was made.

Which is why, when you have lost both of your parents, birthdays are forever after tinged with a tiny pang of regret.

On my birthday I will be thinking about Mum and Dad. James Russell (1922-1997) and Maureen Russell (1931-2010). Thank you for giving me a birthday in the first place. I think of you both every day. You helped me to love stories, books and writing and made so many big and small sacrifices. Miss you always. xxxx


Update on putting off my tax return

Using the cold, white heat of logic, and directing it through the penetrating prism of focus… I FINALLY SORTED IT. Now that the evil number goblins have been dealt with, I am free to be creative. Off to make celebratory cup of coffee!


Recognition at last

Got my first birthday card this morning, have not opened it yet, as it’s not my birthday till the weekend. But the sender is obviously somebody with great taste, understanding and intelligence. An excellent judge of character. A SUPREMELY intuitive and discerning human being. They will get an extra big slice of cake, if anybody makes me one.


I’m in a Poetry Slam final!

It’s being held on 14th May in Oxford at the Old Fire Station. Competing under my maiden name, Jen Russell. Have to memorise three of my poems. Terrified, but looking forward to it as the Slam in Chipping Norton was so adrenalin-fuelled and exciting. Come along! The link is here:


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