Saturday 30 May 2015

Victorian Values: Alive and Well

Victorian slum
Stopped in my tracks the other day by a clip on the radio about a phenomenon in London called ''beds in sheds''. For those who haven't heard of it, such is the unaffordable price of housing, thanks to rich foreign investors buying up property, and rich developers refusing to build affordable housing, and councils of all hues selling off council housing to buy-to-let individuals, that unscrupulous house owners are throwing up primitive breezeblock structures at the back of their properties and letting them out to poor or immigrant families. No sanitary provision, no proper building regs. And local councils seem unwilling or unable to stop it happening.

Presumably these house owners must've been listening to Kevin McLeod (Grand Design bloke) who says if we want to meet the growing need for cheap 'affordable housing', we should model ourselves on the Victorian builders, who leased land and threw up street after street of houses at lightening speed. News for you, Kev mate: we're already there.

All my four Victorian Detective Series books are set during the great Victorian house building boom, when speculative London developers maximised their profits by using cheap cement, known as Billysweet, which never dried out, so these houses actually had their own internal weather system.

They also had no proper foundations, and floorboards laid on bare earth. As a direct result, by 1865 London had some of the poorest people living in some of the worst slums in the kingdom. (In those days, the immigrants were Huguenot silk weavers escaping from France, Irish escaping from famine and Jews escaping from Christians.) Some streets, especially around Kilburn, in North London, acquired 'slum status' from the moment they were built.

At the same time, Parliament passed the Poor Law Act in an attempt to stop anyone who could work from receiving parish relief - it was thought that poverty was caused by 'moral failure', and paying such people only encouraged them to be idle and overpopulate. Is this resonating?

Dickens described these MPs and their property-owning chums as 'Experimental Philosophers ...whose blood is ice,whose heart is iron.'  I guess now we'd call them: 'Rich arrogant posh Tories who don't know the price of a pint of milk.'

Nothing much changes ....

Monday 25 May 2015

The tooth, the whole tooth (Adventures of L-Plate Gran)

And so Little G's teething marathon continues. I do not know what lap we are in, but I'm hoping we are about to complete it. Such is my current dental fixation that the first question I ask parents of any babies I encounter is not the name/age/sex of their child but how many teeth they have.

All, without exception, have more than Little G. Mind, she manages pretty well with two bottom and one top one. I am observing her crust technique for future reference. Meanwhile You must be mad and I try to focus on Little G's undoubted intelligence, and the fact that she can already hum a Watford supporters' song (no words thankfully and we blame Grandad for singing it to her).

Teeth are a mere by-product, we tell ourselves. She is clearly developing her brain first. But oh my - she is suffering. Of course You must be mad has been offered loads of advice, but all of it involves putting a fingerful of various gels into Little G's firmly clamped mouth, so it is not a viable option.

Last week Little G had a total meltdown on the 321 bus going back to St Albans. Never done this before as we like our bus trips. Screaming, arching her back, red-cheeked and inconsolable. Having tried every technique known to womankind to calm her down, finally I got up, turned round, and apologised to the rest of the bus for the noise.

I explained that the baby was teething, and however much it was annoying them, she was hurting far more. Luckily the bus was full of pensioners, so instead of pursed lips, tutting and disapproving stares, Little G and I were bathed in a warm wave of sympathy.

I think we will all be very glad when this particular phase of her development ends, though. To paraphrase King Lear (rather badly): ''How sharper than a serpent's thanks to have a toothless child.'' 

To be continued ... ...

Saturday 23 May 2015

Darkness & Decadence: A Book & a Friendship

I joined Twitter in July 2012 and shortly after that I met Lynn, or as she is known on Twitter @LynnGerrard The Grumbling Gargoyle. Unbelievably, we didn't hit it off immediately and it took a few months for us to find each others' feet .... and begin falling over them.

Lynn doesn't know I've written this blog, so it could mark the end of a wonderful friendship ...for that is what we have. Over the years, we have become best mates. Firstly on Twitter, where we hold court in our imaginary bath, contesting duck rights and slagging each other off - I'm sure there are people out there who think we really do share a both and duck (BTW - it's MY duck, just to make that absolutely clear).

However, our weird and rather esoteric internet relationship has also spilled out into that strange place called ''the real world''. We email, chat on the phone and when Watford plays any team in Lynn's area, I am dumped on her doorstep demanding food, wine and entertainment.

Lynn has supported me through breast cancer, life traumas and publishing highs and lows. She has shared the joy of my new granddaughter and reads my books, comments on my blogs and promotes my stuff on her Twitter page regularly. She is not one of those fairweather friends who vanishes when the focus is no longer on her. If you are lucky to be counted one of her internet mates, then you are lucky indeed. Loyal, honest and caring, she is someone to be treasured.

Doing Stand Up for Stigma
For those who are unaware, Lynn is married to Michael Lindley @Fruitbatwalton, who designed the book cover of her new anthology of poems (read on..), and they have a Jack Russell terrier called Ralph. Michael promotes bands, does an incredible amount of unpaid work for local mental health charities and is one of the best cooks outside of the profession. He is one of the most witty, gifted and generous people I know.

If you have ever attended one of my two Facebook launches, you'll have experienced Michael and Lynn in action. People still talk about them. I have found myself face down on the desk helpless with laughter at some of the stuff they've posted.

This weekend just gone, Lynn's first book of poetry is launched. Called Darkness & Decadence, it is a collection of some of her amazing longer poems, shorter poems, and micro poems. I cannot say how proud I am of my friend and how chuffed to bits I am that finally someone has realised how fine a poet she is and has offered to publish her. (No, unlike the rest of is, Lynn didn't go to the publisher, they came to her).

Everybody will find a poem in the book that takes their breath away. Lynn is that sort of poet. My favourite is Melancholy Gargoyle. Look out for it .....

Check out Darkness & Decadence and read a sample here                    

Monday 18 May 2015

Teething Troubles (Adventures of L-Plate Gran)

It is amazing how one forgets so many things about bringing up a small child. I know You must be mad produced teeth at some time. She seems to have a full set now, as far as I am aware. I am sure it was horrendous for all concerned, but somehow I forgot HOW horrendous. Until now.

Little G is teething. She is utterly distraught and angry and I am utterly unable to get through to her. Toys are offered and pushed away. Songs are sung but drowned out by the sound of her wailing. Snacks are refused with a brusque headshake and a ''. Cuddles are rejected out of hand.

It is like Baby Jekyll has morphed into Baby Hyde. She glares at me, red cheeked, her eyes streaming and roars her pain into the air. There is nothing I can do. Teething gels are spat out, teething rings are thrown from the buggy in disgust.

Her eyes say: 'make it go away' . Her voice cries: 'I HURT.' This is where reason and logic break down. Her little world has imploded in pain and none of the people she loves seem to know how to make it better.

I can't explain to her that it is only temporary. That ginger biscuits and roast potatoes await. That soon, tomorrow, in a couple of days, she will be over it. That when she is sixteen and going out with her mates, this will not even be a faint memory.

All I can do is lie on the carpet next to her and listen to her rage. And tell her it will get better. Even if she clearly doesn't believe a single word I am saying.

To be continued ...    ....

Saturday 16 May 2015

The PINK SOFA meets Beryl Kingston

There are some people in life to whom the term 'grande dame' seems applicable. Beryl is one of those people. She is a novelist, a great grandmother, and at 84 has just written her 25th book. The PINK SOFA is so excited to welcome her that is has been polishing its legs and hoovering its crevices for days. Beryl's life story is not an easy one (see below) so it is all credit to her that she has emerged as the talented, supportive wonderful person that she has. Over to you, Beryl:

''Well here I am prepped, pampered, pink sofa’d and feeling very spoilt. I only wish I could tell you the sort of story I’m fairly sure you’ll be expecting, but I’m afraid I can’t because my writing career has been decidedly a-typical.

This is a quite a long story and very unlikely so I hope you’re sitting comfortably. When it’s done you’re at perfect liberty to yell ‘Liar, liar, pants on fire!’ Even I find it hard to believe and I know it’s true.

I’ve been writing since 1938 when I was seven – and no, that’s not the pants-on-fire moment – I know that’s how young I was because I was writing ‘poetry’, which I dated, and keeping a secret diary. It had to be secret so that my mother didn’t see it and it was very necessary to me, like a comfort blanket.

Age 14 with sisters
My mother, you see, was a difficult woman, so full of jealousy, anger and hatred that she had to off-load it whenever she could. She beat the dog, belittled my father until he lost his temper and hit her, drowned the kittens and caned me. The caning would have been bad enough but she also forbade me to cry or to tell anyone. So I went somewhere quiet and wrote about it instead. It gave me a bit of instant comfort and a gradual taste for shaping sentences and finding the accurate word. Soon I was addicted to the happy art of writing and story-telling. By the time I was nine I was hooked, writing a more elaborate diary and spooking my cousin with ghost stories.

I grew up, went to college, got married to my darling whom I met by accident when I was just sixteen, had children, embarked on a teaching career, which I enjoyed a lot, and went on writing and telling stories. But I didn’t offer anything for publication, naturally, because I could still hear my mother’s voice telling me I wasn’t any good and wouldn’t amount to a row of beans. So I destroyed everything I wrote, poems, plays, stories, the lot. Seems like a terrible waste to me now but that’s what I did.

Beryl's books
 Then in 1956 I joined the National Childbirth Trust and, although I didn’t know it at the time, that was a turning point. I became one of its gurus, teaching more and more women how to cope with period pain and going to local groups giving lectures about it, demonstrating relaxation, dry land swimming and the pelvic rock, which is belly dancing by another name. After one hilarious meeting with a large group in Leeds, the secretary phoned to ask whether I could write them a leaflet detailing all the things I’d been talking about. ‘We know it was good,’ she said, ‘but you went at a hundred miles an hour and it was so funny and now we can’t remember half of it.’ I said I would but then discovered I had so much information that what I wrote turned out to be a book. At which point, greatly daring and urged on by friends in the Trust, I sent it to Good Housekeeping Magazine as they were running a series of articles on the subject, asking whether it would be any use to them. They passed it on to their publishing arm, which was Ebury Press and, to my considerable surprise, Ebury published it.

At this point in the story things get incredible. Because it had been so easy to write a book, I thought I’d try a novel, just for the hell of it and to see if I could do it. Three years later it was written. (I was slow in those days because I was still teaching)  By then ‘Lifting the Curse’ was out in hardback and Ebury took it to the Frankfurt Book Fair and displayed it there. By amazing luck, the next stall along was run by a man called Darley Anderson, who published self-help books but really wanted to be an agent. He said he would like to take ‘The Curse’ as a paperback and asked my editor if I’d written anything else. When he heard about the novel he asked for my phone number.

Beryl's new book
 He rang me the next day and asked if he could have the paperback rights to ‘Lifting the Curse’. I said ‘Yes, of course’ feeling rather chuffed. Then he asked if he could see the novel. You won’t believe this but I said no. I was still living the dream and to send him the manuscript left me open to being told it wasn’t any good and being brought down to earth. He didn’t push me but said he would phone again and see if he could change my mind. He’s a Yorkshireman and determined. He phoned at regular intervals for three months and in the end I gave in and took it up to his club, with a covering note to ask him to ring and tell me that he’d got it safely because it was my only copy. Imagine the sauce of that!

He phoned the same evening and what he said blew my mind. He’d read the first three chapters. It was going to be a best seller and could he be my agent. He was and it was. It was the making of us both.  All together now. ‘Liar, liar, pants on fire!’

After a start like that I left teaching and wrote a novel a year. My paperback sales passed the million mark with my twelfth book. Now I’m finishing book 25, which follows the life and times of a girl who was born in 1897 and sent out to work a skivvy in a big house miles away from her parents, when she was 12 as so many country girls were.

Book 24, on the other hand, came out on March 31st this year and is a very different kind of story. I have to turn in a different direction with each new book, because I’ve got a low boredom threshold. This one is a modern story about a young woman called Francesca who has lived very unsatisfactorily and uncomfortably with a loud mouthed bully. Until one clear-sighted day when she sees a mermaid, swimming freely in the North Sea. The sight inspires her to leave her lover and start a life of her own. It turns out to be more difficult and complicated than she’d imagined. You can hear the first chapter on my website if you would like a taste of it.  and find it on Amazon and Kindle

What else?

Age 17
I am proud of the fact that I was in Tooting for the first four months of the blitz, and only left it to be evacuated for the second time when our road was bombed and our house was uninhabitable. I spent the middle part of the war in Harpenden. (hence my friendship with Carol) and returned to live in London again at the end of the war at the time of the V2’s, this time without my family. It was a formative experience. As was meeting my darling. Ah the stories we gather in our lives!

Because of being evacuated twice, I went to 10 different schools. I ended up at Streatham Secondary School, an LCC grammar run on the Dalton system, which offered a few lessons as sparking points and then required pupils to be responsible for their own learning, either in study rooms with their teachers on hand to help and advise, or on their own in the library or the school hall. It suited me to a T and was another formative experience. Then to King’s College London, where I read English and enjoyed myself a lot, but wasn’t particularly distinguished, having other things on my mind by then.

 I taught in a variety of school between 1952 and 1985 and in the two schools where I was head of the English department, I deliberately covered the full range of age and ability, believing that as I was paid the largest salary I should carry the heaviest responsibility. My work was filmed by KCL Education Department for use in their PGCE course and I have given talks at various colleges and schools on a variety of educational subjects, from teaching poetry to ‘tackling’ sex education. I have never subscribed to the Gradgrind theory of education which is current now, but always believed that the job of a teacher is to enable her students to learn.

 How do I do publicity? Feeling embarrassed and groaning. I was lucky that I didn’t have to do any for my first 14 books because the big companies I wrote for took care of all of that. But I do now and it makes me cringe. I’m not cut out to blow my own trumpet.''

 Find Beryl here:

Twitter Link:

Facebook Link:

Links to Beryl's book

Monday 11 May 2015

Armed & Dangerous (The Adventures of L-Plate Gran)

It is becoming clearer by the week that it's impossible to navigate modern city streets with a baby in a buggy and the current meagre allocation of upper limbs. Take the other day. It was very windy with a side order of drizzle. Little G was kicking off because she was overtired and I'd hustled her into the buggy to walk her to sleep without the requisite yellow spoon and small plastic biscuit (don't ask).

I'd mislaid the buggy bag strap, so I had to hold my bag on one arm, which meant negotiating passersby with a one-handed manoeuvre that would have caused me to fail my driving test. And then the badly packed and poorly zipped baby bag decided to shed its contents all over the pavement.

So here's the dilemma. Do I abandon the buggy and rush around collecting stuff - risking someone walking off with Little G, (currently at WW2 siren level) or do I sacrifice all her snacks, spare nappies and favourite toys for the sake of preserving her for posterity?

Had I two pairs of hands, I could have held the buggy with one pair and picked up the stuff with the other. A prehensile tail might been an acceptable alternative. Evolution isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Luckily, a nice elderly gentleman took pity on my predicament, and helped collect my stuff for me, and a couple of mums with buggies formed a human shield round Little G. But it did make me wonder. If plastic surgery can augment other parts of the body, why not arms? Temporary ones, maybe. At least for those of us elderly inadequates left in charge of very small children.

To be continued ...   ...

Saturday 9 May 2015

Buy a 5 Star Amazon Review? No Problem!

On Tuesday this week I was contacted by a friend on Twitter who told me that one of these 'fake' review sites had actually had the gall to copy and paste his review of my book Diamonds & Dust. I decided to re-post this, just in case some of you aren't aware that this scam goes on:

I am posting the above picture as it is evidence of a growing trend on social media. I'd noticed that my book promos were being retweeted by a Kindle tweeter I'd never heard of, so decided to investigate further. This is what I discovered (and yes, I have blocked them).

Before you go all shocked and horrified, bear in mind that like prostitutes, these people wouldn't be in business unless there was a demand for their services. Considerable numbers of writers must be using what they offer - and they are not the only company online - to boost their rankings and give the impression that their books are better written and more popular than they are.

It makes a mockery of Amazon's review feature, where any lay person can leave a review of something they have read. Enough has been written on many blogs, including mine, about the importance of reviews, especially to new or Indie writers who do not have the benefit of a marketing department behind them. To buy fake reviews not only undermines the writing process, but the reviewing one also.

I am becoming more and more convinced that the best and most effective way of selling your book comes from people interacting with you and posting stuff about you on Twitter. Here are a few examples so you can see what I mean:

       Donella @DonellaMcNulty
       @whatmeworry @carolJhedges ......Starting Carol's books soon......and just so you know I met her for real.....gorgeous lady x

Deborah Swift @swiftstory  
Nice Interview with @carolJhedges about her great novel Diamonds & Dust - Dickensian, great atmosphere #recommend …

Derek Goldsmith @londondel  ·  May 2
Just read Diamonds and Dust by Carol Hedges.Excellent read,loved it. On to Honour and Obey next. Recommend highly. Try it.

and my all time favourite:

Husband massaging my feet while I finish reading Honour & Obey by Carol Hedges. - I didn't see that coming!

See what I mean? On Amazon, you may come across a writer with loads of 5 star reviews. But can you believe what you read? If you haven't heard of them, and on the evidence of what I have discovered, I'm not sure you always can. Is that 5 star review genuine, or bought?

On Twitter, one tweet can reach thousand of people very fast. And it is clearly genuine. I have seen people downloading my books on the basis of a chat or a tweet from an enthusiastic reader. If unscrupulous authors are going to buy fake reviews, I wonder whether this is the new way to go?

Love to have your view... ....

Monday 4 May 2015

Square Eyes (Adventures of L-Plate Gran)

I didn't grow up with TV. When I was Little G's age and older, we got our juvenile entertainment from the radio. Listen with Mother was followed by Children's Hour with Uncle Mac, Toytown, Jennings and Norman & Henry Bones, boy detectives.

Forward 65 years and you come to CBeebies. Although You must be mad has indicated that Little G enjoys various programmes, I've tried to keep the TV off as much as possible. There are so many other things to do and share. And I see TV fulfilling the same function as Daffy's Cordial in Victorian times: a drug to keep a child quiescent.

However, when You must be mad's train from London gets delayed, I have given in and Little G, cosily wrapped in one of her mum's jumpers, sits on my lap and we watch In The Night Garden together on CBeebies.

In The Night Garden is like Breugel the Elder meets Spike Milligan. With voiceover. It is possibly best appreciated slightly drunk, but I can't set Little G a bad example, so I watch it stone cold sober and utterly baffled. She, on the other hand, loves it - pointing at the screen and chuckling when a good bit comes on.

What amazes me is that someone writes stuff that has characters called Iggle Piggle, Makka Pakka and Upsy Daisy in it. And gets paid! Probably quite a lot, as the programme has a huge following. Gentle reader of this blog, I seriously think I am in the wrong business.

Saturday 2 May 2015

An Attack of the Freebie Jeebies

As some of you know, I have views on the ''Free / 99p book and Ebook!'' promotion thing. My views are that it creates the expectation in readers that something you sweated blood over for years is worth less than a small cappuccino. Happy to retweet your promo if you insist on doing it because you are a friend, but Hell will freeze over before I voluntarily choose to join you. And from what I gather, some of the nastiest reviews on Amazon come from people who acquired your book for nothing. Go figure.

Interestingly, in one of those plot lulls that occur at about 13 thousand words, I sat down last week and actually worked out my hourly rate if I were to regard writing as a business, and pay myself a wage from what I bring in via book sales. Let us just say that there is no way I shall be awarding myself a £3 million bonus at the end of this financial year.

What I think some of the freebie purchasers fail to realise (if they are not writers themselves) is that the cover price for a book falls far short of what the writer of the book actually receives. I did a useful equation where C (cover price) is divided by T (time taken to write/edit the book) and then subtracted D (discounts applied by Amazon/monies owed to publisher etc). On this basis, I am working for peanuts. If I could afford to buy peanuts.

There seems to be this myth abroad that writers write for the sheer love of writing (we do) and that somehow, that should be sufficient reward in itself. Sadly gentle blog reader, it is not so. Food, heating, petrol and life generally impinges upon the creative impulse, bringing with it terrible thoughts of maybe throwing in the literary towel and getting a job in Asda to make ends meet

I don't ask or expect my plumber/electrician nor the lovely consultant who performed my 2 cancer operations to work for free. Nor should you, dear readers, expect writers to do so either. And I wish writers wouldn't feed your expectations. I have this dream where every writer on the planet decides they have a moral obligation to their craft NOT to run cheap-as-chips or free promos. Then and only then would our status have a bit more quo. And I'd be able to buy shares in a peanut farm.