Talk at St Johns English Library, Menton
Posted on: 23 January 2023
Click on the link below to view the video of the beginning of the talk.
Thank you for coming.
I would like to describe my journey to becoming a writer.
I could read before I talked. Apparently I hardly spoke any words until I was four but I remember books and pointing out words as mum or dad read to me.
Nowadays I would have been paraded before doctors and therapists, assessed, labelled, worried over —although perhaps not, with my wonderfully sensible parents. No one worried.
“Why should she talk, she has an older brother and sister to talk for her?” I think that they just thought I was lazy.
As a child I was plagued by crippling shyness, so I frequently escaped into the safety of a book. I love books.
I remember trips to the library as a very young child, Friday evenings, we’d all go. I was allowed two story books and one non fiction book. I had no idea what the words ‘non fiction’ meant but I knew where to find the books. I very often chose travel books, mainly books with mountains in them, my favourites were books about Switzerland —I was a great fan of Heidi— but I also chose books of bible stories. I couldn’t understand why they weren’t with the other story books. It didn’t matter, a good story is a good story.
I remember one evening, going to find mum and dad among the high shelves of the grown up library. Endless books. I took a book off a low shelf and peeked in
“How do you know what’s going on without pictures,” I whispered to my dad. “The pictures are in your head,” he replied. Several shushes sent dad back to his perusal of the shelves and me scurrying back to the children’s section. I hope that my books put pictures into the heads of the reader.
I wrote journals as a child and ridiculously dramatic diaries, as a teenager. Only travel journals remain, the others had served their purpose. Writing is a wonderful way to put your thoughts in order but keeping those jottings is not always a good idea.
I wanted to be a doctor from the age of six. I had wanted to be a nurse, after joining the Red Cross when I was five and learning to bandage—in our house, if you sat still long enough, I’d have your head, arm or leg bandaged in no time at all, I’d use a ruler as a splint if I thought you had a fracture. I think, that it was with the idea of reading round the subject, that my parents bought me the new Ladybird book, part of the People at Work Series, called ‘The Nurse’. She looked very smart on the cover in her uniform with her starched cap and apron. I started to read it straight away and on the second page it says (and I know this because I still have the book) ’and the doctor tells the nurse what to do’ That was it, I wanted to be a doctor. Even at 6 years old, I didn’t like being told what to do. I worked towards and achieved my aim. I loved being a doctor, loved caring for people, loved medicine. I am still fascinated by how amazing the human body is, how it works and how it can heal itself. But, I hated the bureaucracy, infighting, hierarchy.
Towards the end of my medical career, which spanned 36 years, I became increasingly disillusioned with the NHS, when I couldn’t just be a doctor. I am embarrassed to say that I allowed myself to be bullied at work and all this coincided with my parents, my mother in particular, needing more care. Gradually their care became more important than my patients and I reduced my hours.
At first though, when my parents needed care, I was still working as a full-time GP and travelling the 160 kilometres, between Cambridge (where I was working) and Solihull (where my parens lived). I made the journey, alone, at least once a week, sometimes 2 and 3 times. The journey was made more irksome by the fact that they were reconfiguring the M1/M6/A14 junction, a massive junction south of Birmingham. Every time I went, it was different. Hills would appear where they had never been before, woods disappeared. One day you’d be going up a carriageway one way, the next day the opposite. It was most disconcerting and led to massive traffic queues.
In those queues, my characters came to me. Like a child’s imaginary friends, they kept me company.
As many of you will know, caring for someone is 2% activity, 20% aggravation and frustration and and the rest of the time you just have to be there. Our mother was bedridden for four years before she died, she remained at home and my siblings and I shared the responsibility for her care with the most amazing professional carers.
In the acres of time when there was nothing to do, I would write. I wrote a detailed journal at that time and then, I allowed my characters to have their say, initially in short stories and later what became my novels.
I was still working as a GP but my heart wasn’t in it. I was getting very tired.
I allowed myself a rest at a tutored writing retreat, in North Yorkshire—Lumb Bank which once belonged to Ted Hughes. I was amazed at the skill of the other participants. I learnt a lot from them and from the tutors, and received some wonderful feedback about my own small offerings.
I wrote more. I had discovered an escape from the difficult situation that I found myself in. Gradually writing became more important to me than medicine. I gave up one to concentrate on the other. I allowed my characters free rein and they wrote my first novel Rude Awakening.
How to deal with chaos is highlighted in the description of this talk. My novels won’t tell you how to declutter your home or tidy a cupboard, although I am very good at both, so if you want advice, please ask. I don’t write about the chaos created by terrifying world events or climate catastrophes, there are plenty of very skilled people who do that. I write about ordinary people and the everyday events that we have to deal with. It doesn’t have to be a sad or tragic event—look at the chaos pregnancy can bring.
Life does deal its blows though, some shocking and sudden, others prolonged and agonising. We find ourselves trapped in situations created by our response to these life events. There are times when it is as if everything that we hold dear has been thrown into the air and then when it lands it is all in a different place. We have to adjust, relearn how to live. In this relearning, it is our own self reliance, our inner strength, that helps us to create a new order out of the chaos. However strong we are though, at challenging times we need people around us —family, friends, strangers. My books are about a group of friends who experience happy and difficult times together, helping each other when needed and celebrating the positives together.
I have often been asked if the novels are autobiographical and the simple answer is no, but I have realised that each of the characters represents a facet of my personality. There is the worrier, the shy one, the calm, capable one, the over exuberant clown and the who one who puts everyone else’s wishes before her own.
At first, Hilary, the central character, is on the edge of the group—her circumstances being so different from the others— it is her acceptance of her friends’ support later, that strengthens the bonds between them.
At the beginning of Rude Awakening, Hilary is fifty-four. She has never left home and lives with her now widowed mother. She works, she has friends and is not dissatisfied with her life. She accepts it.
We meet her when she is getting ready for a New Year party at her friend Suzanne’s who lives in the house opposite.
Reading: Rude Awakening Page 10-11
Across the road, in her sprawling bungalow, Hilary was getting ready. “Does this look all right, Mum?”
Phyllis looked up from her crossword, her feet raised on her velveteen recliner, the soles of her red plush slippers at attention, repelling all boarders. She put her pen down, removed her reading glasses from her nose and studied Hilary, who stood apprehensively in the doorway.
“Very nice dear. I’ve always liked that frock. Black is so forgiving. Your hair looks nice and neat – you’ve got a lovely shine on it. But can I see a few grey hairs?” She chuckled. “My little girl with grey hair. Whatever next? Will those shoes be comfortable? It’ll be a late night.”
Hilary looked down at the black patent kitten-heel shoes she kept for special occasions. They weren’t especially comfortable, but she liked the look of them and she’d be sitting down for most of the evening anyway.
“If I were you, I’d put on those flat velvet pumps with the bow that you got last year. You’d feel much better in them.”
Hilary returned to her bedroom and did as she was bidden without a second thought. She returned her best shoes to their tissue-lined box and looked in the mirror on her dark wood wardrobe. Her mousy reflection stared back at her, face matt with pale powder, lips slightly pinker than normal, a suggestion of mascara on her lashes.
She returned to the living room for her mother’s approval and was reassured by the positive response.
“I wish you were coming too. I hate leaving you on New Year’s Eve.”
“You know I never do anything for New Year – can’t see the attraction. Your father and I never did anything, did we? Christmas was our thing, wasn’t it? It’s so nice of Suzanne and David to invite you to their posh do, though.”
“It’s not posh and you know all the people who are going. You’d enjoy it if you came, but I know you prefer to get to bed early. I’ll come and say happy New Year if you are still awake when I get in. I shouldn’t be late. It’ll finish after the fireworks at the golf club… They have a great view of the display from their conservatory. I expect the noise will keep you awake anyway. Do you need anything before I go?”
“No. Stop fussing. I can get what I need and you’re only across the road. There’s a James Bond film on that I don’t think I’ve seen. I’ll watch that if I get this crossword finished in time. So, you get off. Have a nice time. Give my love to them if they remember me.”
Of course, they’ll remember you, what a silly thing to say, thought Hilary as she kissed her mum on the cheek.
She checked the kitchen to make sure that everything her mother might need was to hand. She half-filled the kettle in case Phyllis wanted a cup of coffee, and put the chocolate biscuits and bottle of Baileys within easy reach. Then, collecting her coat from the cloakroom by the front door, she stepped out, calling “Bye” over her shoulder.
The cold hit her as she hurried across the road and up the drive to Suzanne’s imposing house. She could see through the brightly lit windows that everyone else was already there. She rang the bell, feeling a little nervous. The door was immediately opened by David and her muttered apology was swamped in a bear-like hug. Releasing her, he boomed, “Nearest one always last to arrive.” He took her coat, put a glass of Prosecco in her hand in one smooth movement and half pushed her into the middle of the living room, abandoning her to a chorus of “Hello” and “How are you?”, and air kisses from all directions. Then, just as suddenly, they went back to their conversations, leaving her marooned.
Suzanne rescued her, saying, “You’ve arrived just in time to give me a hand, if you don’t mind.”
Gratefully, she followed Suzanne into the immaculate kitchen, putting her glass on a sparkly counter already laden with all manner of dishes in various stages of readiness.
Life is carrying on in its usual humdrum way when, Hilary’s mother, Phyllis, dies suddenly—in the frozen food aisle in Tesco— sudden death is rarely dignified. The shock sends Hilary into a downward spiral. In the ensuing weeks her friends rally round and keep an eye on her as she comes to terms with her loss. Finally, when she feels able to clear her mothers’ things, she receives a second shock.
Amongst her mother’s effects, she finds the manuscript of an erotic novel, written in her mother’s handwriting, and with it, pictures of Phyllis as a dancer at the Windmill Theatre. The mother who had always been so strict, warned about men, sex, dangers had written this book, had been an exotic dancer on the stage. Hilary has difficulty reconciling this with the woman that she had known. All her life, she had been confined by her mother’s restrictions, She had lived by her mother’s rules.
As she comes to terms with the discovery that her mother was not the woman she thought she was, Hilary relies heavily on her friends and it is with their help that she starts to free herself from her mother’s grip.
Let’s Escape finds the real Hilary starting to emerge, her life becoming more fulfilled. At the start of the novel, she is renovating the bungalow she had shared with her mother. In trying to escape the chaos that the builders have caused, she goes away on a break, to the Lake District. She is accompanied by Dan, the brother of one of her friends (who himself is coming out of a difficult divorce). Her life opens up further and during this trip she meets someone who will become very important to her.
Reading: Let’s Escape Page 49-50
After the comfortable confines of the car, Hilary and Dan found themselves feeling slightly awkward at dinner in the hotel. They were neither old friends, nor new lovers. Conversation was stilted, even after beer and wine, and they went to their rooms earlier than either wanted to.
Later, when Hilary had exhausted the possibilities of television and her book, she found that she couldn’t sleep. She convinced Hector that he needed to go out and clipped on his lead. Once out of the room and fully awake, Hector scurried enthusiastically down the thickly carpeted stairs, dragging Hilary behind him. The noise of his claws on the parquet floor in the reception sounded unnaturally loud. They came to a halt at the locked front door.
“You wish to go out?” asked the serious-looking, grey-haired man behind the desk. He held his finger on his book. She nodded as he carefully marked his page with a bookmark. Standing up, he took the keys from a drawer under the desk and said, “You have a key on your room keys. You are not a prisoner.” He smiled gently.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Hilary, flustered and embarrassed, realising that she had left her keys in her room. “Oh, I am silly. I’ve forgotten my keys. I couldn’t sleep. Hector and I often go out at night when we can’t sleep.” The man smiled at the ‘we’. “Probably not very sensible, but at home I always leave the door on the latch. I’m hopeless with keys. Sorry to put you to all this trouble.”
By now he was holding the glass door open. The chilly night air crept in.
“We won’t be long. Shall I knock?”
“There’s a night bell. You are not the only person to forget their keys.” He showed her. The door clicked shut, and she and Hector headed down the steps through the gardens towards the edge of the lake.
The full moon was reflected in the surface of the still, dark water. All was calm. Hilary sighed peacefully as she sat down on a strategically placed bench and let Hector off his lead. He scampered off but kept coming back to her to check that she was still there, nudging her hand to get her to join him.
Mum would have loved this trip, she thought. The old-world charm of the hotel, the timeless beauty of the surroundings. They had often talked about visiting the Lake District together. Her mother had talked as though she had visited many times.
Sitting surrounded by the dark shapes of the mountains, the water gently lapping on the stones, she realised that this place, or somewhere very like it, appeared in chapter seven of her mother’s book. The descriptive words came to her; she could almost hear her mum reading it out. She felt hot and no longer comfortable. She grabbed Hector’s collar when he came back to her and, clipping on his lead, led him back to the hotel, the glow from reception guiding her.
She pressed the bell. Hearing nothing, she briefly panicked that they would be stuck outside all night, but the night porter, Tobiasz (according to the gold lettering on his name badge), appeared and let them in.
Hilary and Hector waited at the bottom of the stairs while he went to the reception desk to get the key for her room. Feeling brave, Hilary asked him about the unusual spelling of his name and, as they climbed the two flights of stairs, he told her how he had come to be in the Lake District, so far from his original home.
When they reached her room, he unlocked the door and held it open as she and Hector went in.
“Thank you so much. I’m so sorry.” Hilary stumbled over her words.
“My pleasure,” he said, as he turned and went back down the stairs.
Hilary finds romance following her trip to the Lake District and gradually allows herself to live life for herself.
Of course, Hilary’s friends lives don’t stand still while Hilary’s life is evolving. Their lives change, they struggle with their own problems, celebrate births, marriages, life. Hilary has become more central to the group, her friends include her more readily. They are getting to know, understand and like the Hilary who has emerged from behind her mother.
Through my characters, I hope that I demonstrate that in dealing with the chaos created by life events we change and grow but also that those changes can only happen when we recognise the need for change and give ourselves permission to be free from the invisible (often self imposed) ties that hold us back.
The book I have just completed Journeys End, completes the Barwell Trilogy. Hilary is finally free of her mother’s influence.
I was hoping to have my manuscript back from the editor, so that I could offer you a taster of the third book but it was not to be.
I am happy to answer any questions that you may have.