Category Archives: hell4heather

Happy Birthday, Dear Spike

This morning I realised that one of my comedy heroes, Spike Milligan, would have been a hundred years old today. There was nothing else for it but to write my own tribute to the man who, from beyond the grave, gave me permission to ‘Never lose the silly side of myself’.

This is a direct quote from my second novel, I HATE THAT YOU BLOODY LEFT ME, and was written into the blurb for the book after I had been reading a lot of things about, and written by, Spike. The line was a doff of the hat to my comedy hero, whose genius helped me when I was down. The reason was that while working on this book, I was undergoing a period of doubt about my comedy writing ability – a crisis of confidence, if you will. I had previously unleashed my first novel, THE NEW MRS D, upon the world and had stumbled ill-advisedly into reading a few of my poorer reviews. One particular Goodreads reviewer, who simply wrote, ‘zzzzz’ stuck in my mind for far longer than it should have done.  I did manage to stamp out this demon once and for all in a unique and funny way, by reading it aloud in a series of videos on the Mean Reviews for the Compulsive Readers website. You can see one of them here:

While I was in the throes of the inability to let my comedy mojo loose, I was able to reason with myself that comedy is a subjective thing. Reading some of the impassive responses to Spike’s hysterical letters only served to confirm this further. What an individual finds funny can depend on a lot of things, including our background, personality and sometimes even our ability to laugh at ourselves. There are those who will nod their heads in acknowledgment while giggling hysterically at an anecdote, and those who will frown and ask, ‘What does this mean?’ My biggest critic is my beloved husband, someone with an entirely different sense of humour to mine, who has been known to tell people, ‘My wife writes comedy. Apparently, she’s very funny.’

And so it was that I turned to Spike Milligan in my hour of need, who has always been a favourite of mine. To quote Michael Palin in the Radio Times this week, ‘The Goon Show made me aware that it was all right to laugh myself silly.’ This is exactly what reading some of his work over again gave to me at the time – Spike made it okay to be silly, and right at that point in my life, I needed permission to be. I read PUCKOON, where in what I feel is a stroke of genius, he would have conversations between himself and the characters, such as:

‘Author? Author? Did you write these legs?’
‘Yes.’
‘Well I don’t like dem. I don’t like dem at all. I could ha’ writted better legs meself.’

I bought MAN OF LETTERS and howled at some of the many correspondences he was legendary for having had with famous celebrities and businesses over the years. The one here was sent to the Marketing Director of Tetley Teabags.

Whilst being one of the funniest, most original talents on earth, it is widely reported that Spike was also dogged by uncertainty. He had mental breakdowns and was in a constant battle with his inner demons. I have been lucky to have not fallen prey to the extremes of depression, but the uncertainty, I get. I really get it. To quote Laurence Marks in his 2011 article for The Telegraph on the difficulty in writing comedy:

 ‘On the very first day of our lives as professional comedy writers, my partner Maurice Gran came to work, had a cup of tea, looked at his watch, and said to me, “It’s half past nine. I suppose we’d better go upstairs and make 15 million people laugh.’

That is pressure.

For a long while I’ve had a theory that the world of publishing shies away from comedy fiction novels like mine, with no romance element, when they aren’t written by already successful comedians and actors. It’s largely unchartered territory area, as far as I can see, (and please do feel free to correct me with some examples in the comments because I’d love to find some). But I think that may have a little to do with the subjectivity of humour. Publishers already know when an actor and/or comedian has been successful in appealing to a wider audience and, as such, they can be sure of a good return on a comedy novel from them. It leaves the relatively unknown comedy writers out of the running and you can find yourself stuck in a rut of uncertainty, unless you seek out inspiration from the masters. It lets you know that staying true to yourself can get you there, as others have done. You can find the confidence to keep your originality through observing the work of those that have, or had it in spades.

‘Dare to never lose the silly side of yourself.’

Even though the book is now over six years old, I still get appreciative emails from readers about THE NEW MRS D, many of whom might be surprised to learn that I suffered from extreme bouts of self-doubt whilst working on the comedy element of my second novel. I had a majority of readers begging me for another book, and a minority of people leaving reviews that questioned my ability to write a book at all. Guess which ones shouted the loudest to me?

Spike Milligan’s brilliance genuinely drove me on. He was a genius who could make anything funny, while calling out those that ‘Didn’t get it’. The note scrawled on top of the entirely professional response letter from K Pringle at Tetley (below) sums everything up. In the pursuit of attempting to cheer the world up, you win some, you really, really lose others.20180416_115606-e1523879803656.jpg

As the dear, wonderful and sadly missed Spike advised us, ‘The best cure for sea sickness is to sit under a tree.’ With his inimitable spirit in mind, I’m off to cure my combined addiction to – and fear of – comedy writing by never attempting to work on another book or blog again, just in case one person doesn’t get the joke. Until later this afternoon.

Thank you Spike, and Happy Birthday. I’d have loved to have read your reply to that telegram from the Queen.  X

Advertisements

Exercise, Ovaries and the Meaning of Life

The late, great Victoria Wood is one of my all-time comedy heroes. With lines like, ‘Take my knickers off and my ovaries will ‘ave fell out or something,’ I challenge you to watch this genius step aerobics scene without splitting your sides. God, I miss her.

I read an article in Reuters this morning, entitled, When Heart Disease Runs in the Family, Exercise Tied to Lower Risk. I sat on this thought for a little while, wondering whether my youngest daughter would mind being buckled to me while I used the step machine. Concluding that she really, really would, I scrubbed that idea. Yet the truth hit me harder than she did when I suggested it. Heart disease does run in my family. It runs harder then we all have, judging by the look of things.

I’ve been thinking about my own morbidity a lot, which has driven me to exercise. It started, as I’ve written about previously, as I entered perimenopause and began thinking every cough or earache I have means I’m going to die. The solution to the problem has to be to take more exercise, yet I’ve had to alter my approach somewhat. All of a sudden, working out on a step machine while listening to Alicia Keys and belting out, ‘This girl is on fire!’ has become less of an empowering chant and more of a literal experience. So instead of _Totally bonkers... and totally brilliant!giving in to this overwhelming fear of death, which is definitely connected to the fact that when my dad was my age he only had seven years left to live, I’ve begun to try and turn all my new anxieties into something positive. I’ve come to realise there is (sometimes) much to learn from those we’ve lost while figuring out the way to make our own lives fuller and longer.

My father died when he was just fifty four. The ultimate cause was the last in a series of strokes that began as early as when he was in his thirties. A late life onset diabetic, he had to have his leg amputated due to complications and spent his last years in a wheelchair. This after being a young, fit corporal in the Royal Engineers and later, a damn fine architect forced to quit very early in his career due to ill health. Because, as it turned out, my dad was not such a damn fine architect of was his own health and longevity. He smoked like a chimney, was addicted to sugar (he liked to take carnation milk and syrup in his coffee) and was morbidly obese. It still hurts my heart to recall the times I eagerly ran errands to the shop for him each day after my step-mother left for work, because I would get to keep the change. I was sent to fetch what I wasn’t to know were prohibited chocolate bars and sweets for him, things that had been banned from the house and that he was no longer able to get out to collect for himself. Not a big drinker, my dad’s drug of choice was sugar and it, along with the cigarettes, took him from my life when I was fifteen.

My mother was a chain-smoker and died more recently. She was seventy-four and suffered from, among many other things, chronic obstructive airways disease. Something that will stay with me forever is the fact that during her last days in hospital, terrified from her experience in an induced coma in ITU and unaware she was dying, she told my sister and I that she would never touch another cigarette for as long as she lived. She was quite correct. Mum was a diabetic too, and had a lifelong battle with her weight. When my sister and I went to clear out her home after she’d died, we found boxes of Slimfast shakes everywhere. I cried, remembering that mum had been ecstatic at waking from a coma to find she’d lost around forty pounds – a feat that had alluded her, despite her best efforts, for all of her adult life.

_Totally bonkers... and totally brilliant! My parents have taught me more very valuable lessons than they could ever know. It is how they lived that has influenced the way I have. It was their addictions to tobacco and sugar, the resulting chronic illnesses and the realisation that both of them would have had so much more time had they known what I know today. Both of my parents had heart disease too, hence my interest in the Reuters article. I’ve never smoked, and have read everything on insulin resistance, fasting and type 2 diabetes reversal going, my favourite books on the subject being Dr Jason Fung’s The Obesity Code and The 8 Week Blood Sugar Diet by Dr Michael Mosley.  The latter resulted in my easily losing a staggering twenty-seven pounds in two months! My eating habits are far healthier – and more informed – these days than it ever was in my twenties and thirties. I fast three times a week and feel all the better for it. I will never be a slave to sugar again, unless Gerard Butler coats himself in chocolate and gives me a call.

Yet I can’t find, nor understand, the will to engage in punishing exercise. In my younger years I did try hard to join those I considered to be the elite fitness folk, i.e. everyone with a gym membership card that gets used every week, and not just for scraping ice off car windscreens or to remind them of that loan they defaulted on after going for four months then giving up. I went to the gym once, and it resulted in a cardiovascular accident of a different kind: my public humiliation by treadmill, which I wrote about in my article, Who’s Laughing Now. Now news items like the one I read today, coupled with my advancing years, are making me worry all over again about whether I’m doing enough to avoid an early demise.

I confess, I don’t go to the gym anymore and it’s because I’m older. I’ve developed a more laid back perspective on life in general, and that includes anything connected to exercise. From years of listening to people brag about lifting fifty, I find myself pushing fifty and wondering what it was all for. Do I want to run for hours on a treadmill where the scenery never changes? Isn’t breathing in the fresh air of outdoors preferable to the CO2 and sweat of forty other people? Do my personal health objectives have to include letting a fit twenty-two year old monitor my vital statistics? Why did I even ask that last question? (Scrub that and file under life goals – Ed).

The fact is exercise, whilst important, shouldn’t feel like a chore. It’s like everything else _Totally bonkers... and totally brilliant! in life. Time is precious. I want to spend it engaging in what I love, never what I feel forced to endure.

I have two, regular workouts of choice: walking my dogs and freestyle dancing in a sporran.

The first began as something I had to do, but developed along with my deep love of the countryside. Where I live now, out in the Southern Uplands of Scotland, this exercise routine has frequently and unexpectedly launched me closer to Sportswoman of the Year than I ever thought I’d get. I’ve broken the four minute mile while been chased by Galloway cows; I’ve invented and competed in the world’s first solitary version of Tough Mudder in Socks by trudging up boggy hills without realising I’ve left my boots stuck in the mud at the bottom, and I hold the current record for most falls on my backside. I’m less of a fell runner and more of a ‘fell running’ kind of person.

dancing in a sporran
An OAP dancing in a sporran

And never let it be said that I don’t take the advice I write into my own stories. Dancing in a sporran was an activity I invented for a character in my book, I Hate That You Bloody Left Me. Elderly widow, Fleur Brookes, would put her mobile phone inside her husband’s sporran, plug in her earphones and dance away to rap music. Being married to a Scotsman myself, this has been my favoured method of keeping fit ever since. The beauty of it is being able to harp back to the days where I liked to dance about my bedroom, behind closed doors, pretending I was Suzy Quattro. I’ve been down to Devil Gate Drive a lot in secret recently, and no one knew until today. I do this mostly in the afternoons as I started walking first thing in the morning, after reading that working out early could mean you get more sunlight, a key to setting your body’s circadian rhythm. It’s been reported that people who bask in early sunlight tend to be thinner. This could be true. I live in Scotland, where basking in early sunlight results in your double chin being eaten by ten thousand midges.
Anyhow, I’m still alive and so are you as you’re here reading this. So between us we must be doing something right. My work in progress has a leading character who works out by letting a neighbour’s dog chase her up the street. There’s an idea I won’t be adopting in the near future, given that my nearest neighbour breeds and sells Boerboels, which aren’t Christmas tree decorations, as I first thought.
Have a lovely, healthful week.

_Totally bonkers... and totally brilliant!

Why Didn’t You Tell Me I was Getting Old?

I’ve started to worry about a lot of things lately. Even worse, I’m waking up in a panic at night without fully knowing why. But I found out that Google does:

“The hormones oestrogen and progesterone work together to regulate mood. The declining levels of these hormones during the menopause mean that a woman at this stage of life is more susceptible to anxiety and other menopausal symptoms.”

It’s the M word again. Everything I go to the doctor about these days seems to turn out to be because of it.

Feeling a weird skipping in your chest so you’ve downloaded an app to get a smartphone-captured ECG that’s definite evidence of your impending death? Calm yourself, it’s just the M word.

Waking up with both cheeks burning, finding out your face is red too, and then wondering how on earth you managed to embarrass yourself so badly while you were asleep? Hot flashes, caused by the M word.

Experiencing a sudden, unexpected sense of impending doom, even though you threw your weighing scales in the dustbin some time last year? The M word.$RQGSMYM

Forgot the name of your neighbour? Heather, you live away out in the Scottish hills and miles from anybody – it’s called a sheep. Brain fog is a common symptom of, oh, what was that thing called?

I’ve been lucky to have been quite a cheery soul for most of my life to date, yet now stress has begun to affect everything, from my ability to concentrate on my writing to how well I can (or can’t) hold in a pee. My heart’s in my mouth every time someone makes me do star jumps. Or it could be my right boob. Billy Connolly did an hilarious stand-up about incontinence knickers back in the eighties, and even though I now live this thing, it never fails to amuse me. I still laugh, but not as hard – and my reasons are two-fold.

There are things that keep me awake at night now, like worrying about whether Kenny Loggins is having any trouble getting into his computer. And, if I do the GAPS diet will my teeth fall out? How do you get hands-free earphones in your ears? Did Cameo ever find out what the word up was? But however daft, random or unreasonable the angst, my heart’s always hammering like my daughter’s due in from school and I haven’t finished my family-sized Dairy Milk chocolate bar yet. And every time I experience chest pain I start thinking about getting a funeral plan. Then, after I’ve burped, I tell myself it’s about time the kids paid for something. What is sadder still, I’m no longer empowered reading Eleanor Roosevelt quotes like, ‘Do one thing everyday that scares you’, because now I’m scared I might accidentally do two.

_Totally bonkers... and totally brilliant! (5)I have to say, because it would be depressing not too mention it, that it isn’t all doom and gloom as I reach what I can only hope will be the middle of my life. Age has brought with it some new-found joys. Like not caring what people think of me as I share the fact that I really do wet myself laughing and I no longer want or need to fight anybody who accuses me of being a less than capable mother. I’ve worked hard all my life, raised five kids on a shoestring without any of them falling off and none of them ever resorted to calling Childline; they all knew I never paid the phone bill. Now all but one have left and they haven’t raced back home because they weren’t taught to cope independently out in the real world. At least, I don’t think so. I might have to put the batteries back in the doorbell to let you know for next time.  And now I’ve blinked and I’m a grandmother of two.

Then there’s the relationship high that came with my advancing years. The fact that after a series of false starts and highly unsuitable partnerships, I’ve finally met the love of my life and we’ve been together for ten years this week. It’s Bunnahabhain scotch to be honest, but my husband Stephen is coming in a close second as well.

After being on earth for forty-seven years I’ve collected some knowledge: I now know six answers during episodes of Mastermind, and not just when the contestant’s chosen specialist subject is puddings.

I’ve become closer to my sisters than ever before, a necessary transition, as we now have a firm pact in place to race cross-country to give the other’s chin a shave if one of us ever ends up in a coma in hospital.

But it’s all part of the circle of life; a new phase to keep us all guessing. Youth is, as they say, wasted on the young. Or is it that the young are wasted and the rest of us are running around looking for our youth? Anyway, I’m off to try some of that HR tea they’re all talking about. It’s got to be better than that green stuff.

Hot Tub Springtime Machine

spring in the garden
Me as a snowdrop

The first day of Spring has sprung, and again we have the promise of new beginnings, plus a lot of dead leaves to pick up. The hardy little snowdrop has appeared again in my garden, having endured the harshest of winters in the Southern Uplands of Scotland. Which leads nicely into my telling you about the month I’ve been having.

Yes, we had some fun in the extreme winter weather. Yes, there were occasions when I was up to my thighs in snow and travelling home in the car was like flying through space on the Starship Enterprise. However, we also had a lot of fun being snowed in. I made warming bowls of soup, fresh bread and churned up some butter – aren’t I the saintly/homely one? – while Mr H went to face the extremes, digging out the car and chopping loads of fire wood. We were like the proper country folk of yore, with a Vauxhall Astra and a bread maker. Okay, so I cheated a little bit.

FATLE4XHLZRSWMK.LARGE
Me as a Weeping Angel

Yet like the snowdrop bulb waiting under the frozen ground to bloom, we did suffer real hardships. We bought tonnes of candles for the anticipated power cuts that never happened for more than a few seconds at a time. There are no street lights where we live, so walking through a very dark cottage with the lights flickering on and off did mean I could freak out my fourteen year-old daughter. All it takes, in case you want to have a go, is appearing to be approaching in a series of quick, statue-still moves like a Weeping Angel from Doctor Who.

Then, of course, the private spring supply of water we love so much froze up on a Saturday night while we had visitors round for dinner and (one or two) drinks. Being twelve miles from the nearest village, our visitors tend to stay the night and-it’s-nothing-to-do-with-alcohol. This was fun without a supply of water. I was melting snow on the wood-burning stove to fill the toilet cistern half the night, because as we know, alcohol inhibits secretion of the anti-diuretic hormone (Fancy! I learned that in nursing college). The ‘do not flush when it’s only a pee’ policy seems to stop working when you’re a little bit three sheets to the wind. It was flush and be damned! Which is exactly what having no water feels like, incidentally.

Invited by our farmer/landlord, we raced round to take twenty bottles of water from the

galloway-stand
Not me as a Galloway coo and her calfs.  And three of her babies too =)

tap in his cow shed. Being up close to his Galloway cows, who have chased me through the hills in the past, was enough to give me more chills than I already had. Stealing their water right in front of them no doubt puts my face on their ‘GET HER NEXT TIME’ list. Galloway cows don’t see a soul but the farmer for months out in these hills, so they aren’t known for being the friendliest of creatures, as I found out when two of them decided to chase me one summer. I’ve hiked all over Scotland and never been afraid of cattle until I met the Galloway coo. With apologies to vegetarians, I have enjoyed many a steak dinner, but I never thought I’d become one.

So at the end of all this we headed down to Dawlish in Devon to visit my son, who works

violet_beauregarde_blueberry_ball_by_girard1020-db1ckkv
Me in the Hot Tub

on a holiday park down there and booked us a gorgeous, luxury cabin with a hot tub for the weekend. They had running water too, which was nice. Now, I have to confess I had never before been in a hot tub, and hadn’t intended to try it, particularly on that rainy night when my son and his girlfriend invited us in. It was raining for Pete’s sake, I could get wet! However, they coaxed me in eventually, and there I was, bringing sexy back in my purple t-shirt which kept filling with air from the bubbles, making me roll around in the water like Violet Beauregarde in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. And the truth is I haven’t enjoyed myself so much in a long time. It was a ridiculous amount of giggly fun. Everyone should try the drinking in the hot tub at night experience at least once.

That weekend I had treated myself to a little spring-is-approaching, time to get my arms

20180323_084506 (1)
Actual me with my fake tan face (Don’t look at the camera or you’ll look cross-eyed, don’t look at the camera or you’ll look cross-eyed… dammit!)

 

out fake tan. It was a new one I hadn’t tried before. First impressions? The quilt cover, my dressing gown and a couple of white towels. That holiday park won’t be having us back anytime soon. Apparently you aren’t supposed to go in with fake tab on, which I wasn’t to know. Interesting to note though, if you’ve seen the very funny film, Hot Tub Time Machine, and fancy a visit to Dawlish. This hot tub really was one. I got in then came out an hour later as me before I put my tan on. Two hours of soaking later, I was me at eighty years-old.  Three hours later, crawling out after copious glasses of gin, I was a toddler again. Amazing.

So that’s my March-going-into-spring written out for you. It’s been fun. Now I really must get back to my work in progress, a new book called ‘The Ballad of Jeanie Burrows,’ which is a comedy about a middle-aged woman who meets the ghost of Scotland’s Favourite Son. More news on that soon!

PS If you liked what you read I’m always grateful for a book download, which you can do by clicking the novel of your choice below. The proceeds go towards keeping me writing, so thank you for every, single one. Much love and gratitude, Heather xx

 

Traveling in London
BUY HERE 
Traveling in London (1)
BUY THE ADVICE BUCKET

 

instagram bite
BUY HERE

 

Menopause? Me? I Don’t Believe it!

Have you ever seen this clip from Father of the Bride?

I remember howling with laughter at Steve Martin playing the man-at-the-end-of-his-rope character raging in a supermarket when this film came out around fifteen squillion years ago, without having the slightest inkling of an idea that one day I would turn in to this person.  Because I can now stand up in a room full of strangers and declare it: I am this raging, Victor Meldrew screech queen who spends hours in supermarkets comparing brands AND ingredient lists, fuming about the cost of things like I’m a roadie for Rip Off Britain.

‘If this item is sugar free, why is it more expensive than the one with sugar?’
‘Why is every supermarket’s own brand bread cheaper than their bread flour? How are they doing this? Why are they doing this to me?!?’
‘Why is cream cheaper than butter when they’re essentially the same thing?’
And on that subject, there’s my husband’s absolute favourite (I’m lying):
‘Why does unsalted butter cost the same as salted? They took out the salt!’

I’ve been making my own butter recently in order to, ahem, ‘beat the bastards.’ In my house we call it Angry Butter. And we have Angry Yoghurt too, as well as Very Pissed Off Bread, which I bake knowing everyone else in the house hates my homemade version anyway. I get that idea from the snuck into the breadbin loaves of Warburtons I keep finding (one pound ten, I ask you!) alongside the still untouched fresh loaf I produced with my own loving hands (breadmaker) two days ago.

Oh the joys of perimenopause! Everyone in my immediate family has had to learn how to humour me carefully and with absolute military precision because my oestrogen is on the happy plane out of here, taking my patience and sanity hostage as it goes.

I used to be so cheerful strangers would come up to me as I stood waiting for a bus in the freezing rain, munching on a bit of chocolate cake and grinning like I’d won the lottery, and beg me for my weed brownie recipe. These people just couldn’t understand how much I loved chocolate back then – before my bum started storing it for the chocpocalypse.

And may I just say, I don’t want to pay £1.45 for four tiny pots of bio yoghurt! Yoghurt contains full cream milk and a few live cultures you can get from adding three tablespoons of shop bought live yoghurt to it. That is it. After that first tub, you never have to buy any again as you can use three tablespoons of your last batch and – the best news of all – you can make it in a simple thermos flask. Milk costs around 45p a pint. Yoghurt… (Does a quick calculation, remembers she’s crap at those) doesn’t.

This new, bitter, ranty and outspoken me has had to pull back from social media a little too. I happened upon a woman who had posted a photo of her backside in her Twitter feed today. She was wearing a skimpy thong and had posted it with the message, ‘Dreams don’t work unless you do.’ It took all that I had not to reply, ‘I don’t know about you, but my dreams don’t involve showing everyone my arse.’

Everybody, and I mean everybody, better keep me away from the Facebook page reviews section for Dyson. Having purchased their V6 Animal vacuum cleaner last year only to find it a) can’t clean up pet hair and b) can’t be emptied without covering yourself in everything you just hoovered up, an email war has been raging away between us. Two replaced cleaner heads, two filters and three entirely new vacuums later they are still laughing in the face of my threats to post YouTube videos of the thing being pushed fourteen times over the same bit of dog hair until I eventually give in and pick the stuff up with my hands by not giving me my effing money back. Don’t get me started on my nearest bakery who I made a twenty-six mile round trip to for a special, pre-ordered loaf only to find they had none left. Twice.

Is it me or is it them, I ask you? What have I become?

This guy:

I’m completely with you, Victor. I don’t believe it either. I actually think that the online review system might have been waiting for me to reach this stage of my life. ‘Hello, I’m Mrs Very Bloody Angry and I want to tell everyone on Facebook that your peppermint teabags have NO pepper in them, whatsoever.’

But there are advantages to being don’t-give-a-fuck years old. For the first time in a zillion years, I switched from olive oil (£3.95 a litre) to the equally healthy rapeseed oil (£2.00 a litre). I’m thinking about what’s in our food, what we are spending and how we can reduce that spend; and we’re all healthier because of it. We’re also well on the way to looking after those pennies so the pounds can look after themselves. If I see any stray pennies on the floor I’m no longer ashamed of looking like a pauper. I pick them up, thank the universe for the money and remember that Tesco charges you 5% for converting your change into vouchers you can shop with. Then I get angry again, but you see my point.

You need to agitate cream in order to turn it into butter, and by that I don’t mean ripping its lid off, waving it at the cat’s mouth and shouting, ‘churn or you’re going in.’ And you need to agitate a woman to make her see the world for what it is, then become determined enough to try to change it. I’m intent on doing that, one batch of homemade yoghurt at a time.

To Every Woman and her Daughters.

I’ve felt so empowered after reading the experiences of sexual harassment from women all over the globe, and the exceptional tweet seen here from @annevclark since the Harvey Weinstein story broke, that I’ve finally decided to recount one of my own. It’s something I’ve never fully been able to explain or tell people about and my decision to put this here is because of the thought that it might help any woman, anywhere, as all the tales I’ve seen bravely shared online have helped me do this today. I hadn’t told a soul this until this morning. Not a soul. Today I’m ready to change that.

At forty-six years of age I’m learning to drive. Not an odd event in itself; my instructor tells me he recently taught a woman who went on to pass her test at the grand age of seventy. Yet while I don’t know this particular lady’s reason for learning so late in her life, I know that a particular incident sparked the fear and anxiety that has prevented me from fully committing myself to do this until now. Since I was first gifted a series of driving lessons from my mum and abruptly stopped them, over thirty years ago now, I’ve been terrified of the driving test itself. Nobody ever knew why, not even me. Not really. I remember my mother asking why on earth I had stopped taking the lessons and that I made some lame excuse that I can’t even recall today. For years since those early lessons my friends and family have expressed their disbelief at my never learning to drive, even though it has held me back over the years, both personally and professionally.

Only now am I ready to reveal the real reason I stopped those lessons: My driving instructor, a man I was left alone in a car with for an hour a day, once a week for around twenty or more weeks, was sexually harassing me. It began with small innuendos and probing questions. What did my boyfriend and I get up to? What made me decide to wear that V-necked top today, was it because I knew I would be seeing him? Had I missed him since last week?

I was seventeen.

There were moments when he behaved in ways I couldn’t quite understand my uncomfortableness about, like the time he asked, in what seemed to me to be with angry, almost possessive undertones, if I knew a man I’d waved to as I let him cross the road at a local pedestrian crossing. Then there were the days his lewd behaviour was more obvious, as he held his hand over mine on the gear stick, instructing me to ‘caress it as though it was a man.’ All of this was done with a smile and a wink, like it was a joke – a bit of banter between us. And I confess that I laughed along, never really being certain about my natural, internal reactions to the behaviour: the fact that I felt physically sick when he made some exaggerated, unrequired lean over me to point to something on my side of the car and that I frequently tried to stifle my recoils at his smiling pats on my knee. It was just a bit of fun, why were all of my instincts telling me he was a sick, perverted crank?

When the time to do a mock test arrived I had become so anxious by his continued inappropriateness, something I safely labelled ‘bizarre behaviour’ in my seventeen-year-old head, that I fluffed it all and I remember quite clearly the way he shouted at me during and after it. He knew I was capable of doing all of the driving manoeuvres we’d gone over in the past twenty or so weeks, why was I ‘ballsing it all up’? I never took another lesson with him afterwards and from that day to this, I’ve never sat a full, practical driving test. I’ve had lessons over the years since but always quit them quite early in, a deep terror of the driving test being the given excuse to everyone I know. It was the one I told myself too.

Until today…

Quite honestly I don’t know if this man’s behaviour has been lurking deep inside my unconscious mind when it comes to the anxiety I’ve had over taking a simple driving test ever since it all happened – nearly thirty years ago now. But it has always seemed to me (secretly) to be entirely possible. I’ve recounted the story of this man to family and friends, often with a wry smile and a comment on what a dirty bugger he was, but I’ve always felt unable to admit that it caused me so much angst. It seemed silly. In a way, I suppose I have colluded with the idea of the humour of the situation, the way society as a whole has treated the ‘pestering’ of women. Now for the first time in my life I’m ready to openly accept that this was easier than admitting that it frightened and has even continued to hurt me.

Like most women, I have many other far worse stories of times when I’ve felt or been physically threatened and abused by men in my lifetime. There are differences in the ways that I’ve shared some of these events though, and I realise now that it’s because there are those I’ve been able to speak of feeling justified in my horror and revulsion and others I’ve supressed through guilt, confusion and embarrassment. The most common questions I’ve had for myself when going over these things in my mind: Was it my fault? Am I/was I overreacting? Did I bring this behaviour upon myself? Today, after reading the countless stories from other women online I know the answer to all of the above is no, no, NO.

Just the other day I recounted a cautionary tale to my teenage daughter, who is about to take her first train journey alone. It was of a time when I was fifteen and travelling home from school on the top deck of a public service bus and a man got on and sat right beside me, even though there were countless other double empty seats. This stranger didn’t make any inappropriate comments or touch me, he just started chatting right away as though he knew me (he didn’t) and I instinctively felt uncomfortable. I couldn’t explain this to anyone, all I knew was he had invaded my personal space without the need to. After enduring a few minutes of this and even returning polite conversation, I pretended it was my stop and went downstairs to get away from him, only to be chastised by the driver for standing on the crowded lower deck while there were so many seats upstairs. He told me to go back up or get off the bus. Embarrassed at being called out in front of so many people, frightened to go back to where the man was waiting and ashamed to admit the reason I’d come downstairs when he hadn’t actually done anything that I could say was untoward, I got off and walked home. It was winter, and a thirty minute journey in the dark alone. I felt at the time that there was a good chance I’d put myself in more danger choosing to take that walk than going back upstairs on the bus, so when I got home I didn’t even tell anyone what had happened because I felt stupid. But had I been?

I used this example to show my teenage daughter that it is never okay for someone to make you feel uncomfortable and that it is ALWAYS okay to ignore, walk away and tell a nearby person you feel safer with that, even for reasons you cannot explain, you need to get away from that first person or persons. My ideal world would be a place where all women could feel safe to do this without further questioning from anybody, because the first, most important weapon we have in our self-preservation arsenal is our instincts. I often wonder how many terrible crimes against women and girls would not have happened had she felt empowered to react on those instincts, move away and tell somebody as the dangerous situation began to unfold.

This was two years prior to the driving instructor incident. Both were moments when I felt uncomfortable, yet the second – the one I removed myself from – was one where nobody was touching or inappropriately commenting to me while making light of it. It is interesting to me that I reacted to the first far quicker than the second. I took over twenty weeks of driving lessons. All I can surmise is that there was nothing confusing thrown in to cast doubt in my mind that something bad was unfolding the first time. The driving instructor, whilst being more direct in his advances, cleverly acted in a ‘this is acceptable’ way with his jokes, double-entendres and feigned-affectionate touches which made me question my own first instincts. In other words, I was successfully manipulated the second time. I won’t let that happen to my daughters today.

I once walked through a lonely alley, both arms laden with shopping, feeling certain I was being pursued by the man walking behind me. I stopped, put down my bags and turned around to look him in the eye as he approached me. He seemed to visually pause and shrink away, looking uncertain. Then he asked me the time. I told him I didn’t know, holding him in a steely stare. He looked at the ground and scurried away. This is the way we ALL need to deal with the predatory harassment of women – accept that it is happening and finally begin to face this monstrous thing head on. Stop pretending we don’t know it’s there.

Over the years I’ve recounted my tale on the bus to those I hoped might learn something from it, remarking almost apologetically that my reaction may be perceived as an overreaction but stressing that, for reasons I could not explain, I had felt unsafe and that was key. I remember that feeling well, have felt it many times since and am aware that ‘gut feeling’ was all that was needed to take myself out of a potentially dangerous situation. Only now as an adult, mother and grandmother can I say with confidence that it was the RIGHT thing for me to do. That day I was wearing a school uniform. There could be no mistaking the fact that I was a child travelling alone, and a grown, strange man made an uninvited approach and invaded my space for dubious reasons. This is often the first, subtle step on the road to grooming a child. Let’s tell all of our children that it’s okay to move away. It may save their lives.

I want to say thank you to all the women who have shared similar experiences online, which is where many of us get most of our information in this modern age. You have reached us. You have been heard. It directly led me to share mine here and I sincerely hope my story helps someone. We have to keep talking and sharing.

A few months ago I passed my driver theory test and my second driving lesson, with a wonderful, patient and kind instructor, is next Monday. Wish me luck!

A final thought for you – if you have Twitter, this really should be shared. #time4change

 

The Day I Tried to Murder a Spider With My Boobs

Mercifully, this post will have no photographs. And now the highest bounce rate of any blog I’ve ever posted before – perhaps for two reasons. 😉

Firstly, I’d like to assure all the animal loving people, of which I would include myself, that no actual spiders were harmed in the story you are about to read. Said spider went on to live a glorious life, probably under my sofa, where it will be allowed to live out the rest of its days undisturbed – such is my commitment to houseworky-type tasks. There was a moment where I may have unthinkingly caused death by squashing, but all I can say in my defense is that I panicked.

That said, I’ll move on.

This morning, having just returned from a two week holiday in Fuerteventura, Linda decided to call her kid sister, a skint writer-type who hasn’t had a holiday abroad in five years, to tell her all about what a great time she’d had. The conversation went something like this:

Me: ‘Hello, this will need to be quick because you’ve caught me when I’m dying to go to the loo.’
Linda: ‘Helloooo! How’s you?’
Me: ‘All good here thanks. How was your… wait… ARGHHHHHHH!’
Linda: ‘Hello? Heather? Are you alright?’

Okay, I’m guessing she asked after my welfare at this point. What followed, I suspect, were some strangled wails and furtive rustling sounds on the line – if that’s the noise a person makes while doing the David Brent Dance in the conservatory with your top over your head.

In a flash (literally), I was back on the phone, having probably just given my next door neighbour a bigger heart attack than I was having.

Me: ‘Oh my God, a spider just crawled across my chest! I’ve flicked it away but I’m not sure if it went down my top!’

And that’s when my big sister delivered the strangest, I-never-want-to-hear-this-again advice ever:

Linda: ‘Quick, squash your boobs together!’

So begins the tale of the day I tried to murder a spider with my breasts. It is also the day when somebody, who shall remain nameless, attempted the German Clap Dance with her boobs. Round of applause please? No, not with those…

We never properly finished the call, namely due to the fact that we were both in a tearful state of hysterics. Neither of us could speak, but this isn’t such an unusual event when it comes to telephone conversations with my sister. O2 must love us, given all the money they have pocketed for what must equate to around three hours of hysterical, we-can’t-speak laughter during our phone conversations over the period of a year. But let me tell you, today was one of the scariest of my life and I am now left wondering if I have any special, spidey powers. If my boobs start climbing any walls, you can be confident I’ll run back here to let you all know.

To think I  nearly missed all this fitful laughter by going to the loo and sending her a text instead of answering. Which leads me to the real killer  – that moment when your sister reminds you she has known you better and for longer than anyone else.

Linda: ‘Your standing with your legs crossed so you don’t pee yourself now, aren’t you?’

A Comedy Writer’s Trip to St Kilda

I was found remaking a movie last month, on the top of the highest sea cliffs in the UK. Well, a book and a film if I’m honest. One minute I was Cathy, hand dramatically against forehead, searching for Heathcliffe through the romantic mists and only finding – and narrowly missing toppling off – real cliff-cliffs.

“Be with me always – take any form – drive me mad! Only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you!”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The astonishing view of St Kilda from Seamus Morrison’s boat

I could tell Mr wasn’t impressed with my literary show as we floundered about lost for a hairy quarter of an hour in the misty bog. Well, he couldn’t see me to be fair. And I couldn’t see him, which was why I panicked a bit when a giant sea bird chose that moment to dive bomb me from out of nowhere.

‘Woah! Not that form, Heathcliffe.’

We were extreme islanding; hiking to the top of ‘the island at the end of the world’, which we all knew was in Scotland of course. St Kilda in the Outer Hebrides to be exact. And even on that boiling hot, Scottish summer’s day – known locally as freak weather conditions – Hirta had its very own cloud which I’m convinced just sits there on guard all the time, like a giant, fluffy, white lizard from a 1950’s B movie.

Now, I know you’re not going to believe I did this, so here’s the photographic evidence of me doing ‘a Cathy’ just prior to ‘the Tippi’ which I’m going to tell you about next: 

If you haven’t heard of St Kilda until now, it’s an amazing place with a fascinating history which you must look up when you’ve had enough of reading this brief spin on my day here.

The people that had lived on the only occupied island, Hirta, since the Bronze Age were evacuated; forced to leave behind everything they knew, in 1930. Currently, the only year-round residents are military personnel, conservation workers, volunteers, scientists, wild Soay sheep and more birds than you can shake a mobile phone at. Which I absolutely did not do, after innocently and accidentally stumbling across a Skua’s nest while wandering about lost in the fog, just in case any member of the trust is reading this.

Which brings me to that Tippi Hedren in The Birds thing.

A trip to St Kilda was on my bucket list. I got off the boat and strode up that cliff side like the intrepid adventurer I was in my head, proud as punch to look back and find not another soul had been brave enough to follow us. Weren’t we fit and daring?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The mostly abandoned houses on High Street

No, actually. We were knackered, a little bit lost and slapped on the head a couple of times by the mahoosive webbed feet of an angry Skua that didn’t take kindly to my wandering too near their nest. You can’t blame them really. But it was an accident and I did back away without having disturbed anything but my husband, who thought I was having an altitude meltdown and was laughing until I opened my back pack and started pelting him with sandwiches in the greatest, most quick-thinking display of self preservation I’ve ever achieved.

Me and birds.

I wasn’t stood behind some bird watchers, with their cameras trained on 40,000 barnacle geese that had settled in a field on Gruinart, before shouting, ‘Luci, come look at this!’ to my daughter on a day in 2013 that this entry happened on the Islay blog either…

barnace

Many, many thanks to Seumas and our brilliant guide John of www.seaharris.com, for what was one of the most spectacular and amazing days ever, made only better by the three home-made portions of ginger cake we ate. Magic.

A Folder Called ‘Bollocks’ – Why Authors Should NEVER Respond to Reviews

Regular readers of my blog may recall I celebrated the much anticipated landing of my first one star review as an author, with a light-hearted blog post and a nod to fellow authors to try not to take them too seriously.

In the last month I have seen a few knee-jerk reactions to scathing reviews and am almost always saddened, especially when I find one very talented author I greatly respect saying, ‘I just feel like giving up’. But today I began to read this response to a book review from an author on Goodreads, and found I couldn’t read on. To say it felt like watching car crash TV was an understatement.

The first and most obvious thing that occurs to me here is how the author has succeeded in spending what must have been hours alienating a community of book lovers he will have spent hundreds more writer hours trying to reach – 131 of whom ended up liking the bad review even though I suspect many hadn’t read the book. But also, I mourn for the time lost when this author should have been doing what he clearly feels he was put on this earth to do – some actual novel writing.

I am now indoctrinated in to the world of book publication with a few bad reviews of my own. I say a few, because I haven’t counted and have stopped reading them, particularly on Goodreads, where I find they can be at their most brutal for almost all authors I have read and loved. I made a conscious decisions to quit doubting my ability to write when it became clear that the good reviews far outweighed the bad for my debut novel; only if the opposite had been true was I going to allow doubt to sink in. Only then would I question whether I was in the right vocation, which is just as well because I cannot imagine ever doing anything else. I don’t dwell on bad reviews because that would stop me from working and almost certainly stifle me creatively. I only recall my first on Amazon, for the fact that it was the first, and the last one I was gifted with on Amazon UK, because it stayed at the top of my reviews list for what felt like an age after being posted on the very day of the release of my paperback from my new publisher:

one star reviews

I don’t mind sharing it and have spared outing the writer by blanking out her name. It’s not important; nobody died and everyone is entitled to not like my book. I have very good friends and relatives who I know would not like, ‘The New Mrs D’, yet they remain good friends and the rest can’t do anything about being related to me. The review here only became a momentary annoyance for me because this was the day of my traditional publication. Would this person’s thoughts affect my sales? My livelihood? With hindsight though, I think not.

There is always going to be the understandable worry that in trashing your work the reviewer has affected your business and, more annoyingly, without a second thought. It can also be painful to know someone hated your book – not you, remember, your book – enough to feel the need to try and put everyone off buying it. Okay, it hurts. So if you need to, take a few seconds to acknowledge that then move on. But don’t respond. Don’t, don’t… just don’t.

Writing is a business and vendors on sites like Amazon, Google+ and Trip Advisor are always answering bad reviews, because it is considered good for business for them to state their side of the story. If an author does so, it is up for sharing across social media and blogs as a lesson to us all. So think of this from the point of view as a consumer.

As an occasional frequenter of hotels, I would worry about bad reviews but feel heartened to see the hotelier acknowledge the complaint, accept its relevance or explain how it may have been inaccurate and suggest ways forward for change and improvement. As a reader, I have pretty much decided on whether or not I’m going to buy a book after a recommendation, reading the blurb and briefly glancing at the ratio of good reviews to bad. One ‘this is tripe’ among sixty ‘I loved it’ comments isn’t going to stop me visiting Paypal for another ‘buy it now’ trip. (Nobody tell my husband, okay?)

I have thought this way about reviews since day one of my decision to publish, but I understand more than ever why no author should go down the road of responding to reviews after reading the Goodreads thread above today, which is why I have brought the incident to my blog, not as a seasoned pro with twenty published novels, but as a new writer looking in, sucking in my cheeks like a plumber about to give you a very large quote for your leaky boiler and saying, ‘ooh no, don’t go there. Please.’.

Read it and weep. Answering bad reviews is a waste of your valuable, creative time and readers are always telling us they are rarely swayed from buying a book by the appearance of a couple of stinking reviews.

Yes, it is early days for me and no, I haven’t suffered the joys of a scathing public review yet. But I know this much: if and when that day arrives it will be because I made it to a place that was beyond my wildest imagination when I first set out to write a book. Maybe I might need to come back to this post to remind myself where my head was today when dealing with this. I think we all need a nudge from time to time because writing is hard and putting your work out publically feels beyond scary. But I want to write and if you’re still here this far down, I suspect you do too. Enjoy it as much as you can. Hell, why can’t we have some fun with our poor reviews? I even stuck one of my most cutting ones in the middle of a marketing video for a Kindle promotion I ran last year:

Think on, writer pals, think on. If I’ve learned anything in the five short years since I set out to chase my ambitions it’s this: With inordinate passion for writing comes inordinate rejection and criticism. If this succeeds in making you quit, then perhaps you’re not supposed to be a writer. And if you are supposed to be a writer, focus on the parts you love; all the things that bring you to your writing desk each day. And file every ill-thought out, scathing review you happen upon in a mental folder called, ‘bollocks’.

Chick Lit Books – An Open Letter To Real Book Lovers

george wade

Lucy Kelson: George, I think you are the most selfish human being on the planet.
George Wade: Well that’s just silly. Have you met everybody on the planet?
– ‘Two Weeks Notice’.

This weekend I had my very first book signing event at the Waterstones store in East Kilbride, Scotland. It was a great and pime at my first signing... for a chick lit book?votal day for me, being a newly published author in the shop nearest my home, where I’ve spent many happy hours getting high on new book smell and about three purchases low on cash. And all with my big sister and various other members of my family watching and cheering me on.

The Waterstones staff were fantastic; so supportive and encouraging as well as taking care of my needs and sharing stories of other authors’ come-from-nothing successes to bolster my confidence. All in all, it was a fabulous day – a huge thanks to them for inviting me along.

But there was one moment that threatened to spoil it all at the very beginning. As I sat watching shoppers stroll by, all avoiding eye contact with me as though I had a clipboard and a ‘Market Researchers do it in the Street’ t-shirt on, the very first stranger to approach me smiled, picked up a copy of ‘The New Mrs D’ and glanced at the back cover for all of one second before placing it quickly back down with a scowl and taking off as fast as her legs could carry her.

Being perpetual jovial sorts, my sister and I looked at each other and burst out laughing.

‘This is going well, don’t you think?’ I said, showcasing the books in front of me with a sweep of my arm like a model displaying prizes on ‘The Price is Right’ …and knocking my glass of water over them. (Oh yes I did).

Three down, twenty to go…

Don’t get me wrong, I do judge a book by its cover, but never without having read the entire blurb first. So what was it that made a person run away after having a glance at my cover and a read of the first two lines on the back?

I don’t know and I never will. But here’s my best guess. Dare I say, that brightly coloured, cartoon cover and the promise of a light-hearted, comedy novel that screams, ‘chick lit’?

The week before my first signing, I had responded to a comment left on a Facebook book club wall that asked something like, ‘does anyone else here hate chick lit?’ So I bit my lip and wrote what may have been a contender for longest Facebook comment in a thread ever. It went something like this:

‘As a writer of what has been called chick lit, I’d like to defend it if only because it depresses me that it gets such a bad rap, like it doesn’t deserve its place in literature. I read all kinds of genres and regularly have two or three very different books on the go at the same time but I never rule an entire genre out. I love to try something new, dipping in to different writer styles often. Chick lit has its place for light reading, for laughs, for comic escapism. I have had several men who professed to hating the chick lit genre read my book then come back and tell me they really enjoyed it. I was thrilled when science fiction writer Dylan Hearn, who took the plunge into something new for him, read my book then wrote a rave review and blog about it, admitting he had never picked up a chick lit book before.

I want to defend the genre because it is reading all of the dismissals of it that stops many women from writing what it is in their heart to write, for fear of being rejected by the ‘literary police’. Anything new, bold and original is exciting to find and nothing would ever be created if writers didn’t take the difficult step of bringing their stories out into the world. The fact is, we all have different tastes and to me, writing is not just a craft but an art. It should be a joy to bring that which you were meant to do out in to the world and, after all, art is about freedom of expression. It’s about capturing the imagination and taking it anywhere you wish it to go. An individual may hate the work of Van Gogh, but that doesn’t make him any less of the incredible & innovative artist that he was. It’s all a matter of personal taste. What sings to one person can screech like nails on a blackboard to another. And what’s wrong with that?

Perhaps you read one or two bad chick lit books. Perhaps, like me, you’re of an age where you’ve read countless books with will-they-won’t-they, she-hates-him-then-she-loves-him plot lines and think you can’t stand to read another. But then, if you are like me, you’ll remember that you loved these once and now you’re older, you’re perhaps looking for something different. It doesn’t make those kinds of stories any less relevant, they’re just not relevant to you.

I would ask anyone not to discount an entire genre based on some they’ve read or seen, as not all books in any genre are the same. The majority of chick lit writers are women and we should be encouraging more female writers to find their voice. The only thing I have to say that I don’t like about chick lit as a genre is the name. I’m 44 years old, I’m not now nor have I ever been a ‘chick’. I hope it changes to ‘contemporary fiction’ or something equally suitable. I’d like something that says I write commercial, comedy fiction for all genders.

And for the reader, let’s not be afraid that no one will ever take us seriously if we admit to liking a bit of easier reading and laughter – the best medicine there is. There is a lot to be said for so called ‘easy reads’ too. They encourage more people to read and that, we should all be able to agree if we’re true book lovers, is a fundamental and beautiful thing.’

Others have written on this very subject of course. In his article for Huffington Post, entitled, ‘Stop Being Literary Snobs and Embrace Chick-Lit’, Ben Mirza writes, ‘There’s a reason why these people hate chick-lit, and it’s nothing to do with declining standards. It is simply that these people hate escapism and frankly, hate a genre that focuses on the general lives of women.’

The hatred of escapist comedy reading is something I know many readers have and there is absolutely no wrong in this. To each his (or her) own. For me, one of the most interesting things about comedy is the fact that everyone loves to laugh, yet comedy books seem to be the target of the harshest critics, often accused of appealing to a readership of the lowest, common denominator.  I don’t know about you, but I’m a little bit tired of being told what I should and shouldn’t be reading. Overall, I want books that test my intelligence, scare me a little bit, make me think, make me question things, freak me out, make me cry and make me laugh – and I can get all of these things in a year filled with reading a little bit of something from every genre. There’s a special place for all of it in my brain.

Lucy-Anne Holmes sums it up nicely in her 2014 article for The Guardian:

‘I’m not going to apologise for enjoying books that focus on women’s careers, families and love lives, as romantic comedy often does. As a woman – as a person – discovering what I love to do, feeling empowered to do it and falling in love have been pretty seismic events in my life, ones I can identify with far more than discovering a murdered body in a disused car park.’

So let’s not profess to be specific genre haters; let’s continue to be book lovers with open, hungry minds requiring nourishment from a wide variety of sources . And to those who still say they hate chick lit, I say, ‘that’s just silly. Have you read every chick lit book on the planet?’

eb4b1ac0f35d787f936bb2342a160cf5