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I write novels - some historical, some contemporary - plays and non fiction. I also spend a little while each week dealing in the antique textiles that often find their way into my fiction.

Saturday, April 09, 2016

The Archers: Why I've Stopped Listening.

I listened to the Archers back in the fifties, hearing the familiar signature tune as I lay in my bed as a very little girl, waiting for sleep. And then, when I was old enough to understand it all, I listened properly but intermittently. Sometimes I would absent myself for years, coming back, catching up, then leaving it again. Regretting the loss of Walter and then Nelson Gabriel. I loved Nelson. And I was very sad about Nigel but found myself giggling at the jokes too. Don't jump off the roof, Nige...

The Archers saw me through marriage, pregnancy, childbirth, various troubles with parental sickness and death - and lots and lots of my own writing. As a fairly sickly child, I had listened to plenty of radio drama and in my twenties, I began to write it professionally too. I had some thirty years of writing for BBC radio, more than one hundred hours of original plays, series, dramatisations. Oddly, I never wanted to write for the Archers. I was asked once, but I said a polite no. I knew I wouldn't enjoy having to stick to other people's constraints about overall plot and character development.

One of my early radio plays, O Flower of Scotland, was about rape - a rarely tackled theme back then. It won a major award. I think it worked because it was about the kind of assault that is not carried out by a stranger, but by somebody known to the victim and it didn't shrink from examining the horror of it, not least in the after effects.

When the radio work stopped - quite suddenly, as careers at the BBC are apt to do for no very obvious reason - I turned my attention with continuing success to novels, short stories, non fiction and some stage plays as well. I still run occasional workshops on writing drama, still know how to write - and how not to write - issue based drama in particular. My stage play Wormwood, written for Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre, was all about the Chernobyl disaster and you don't get much more issue based than that.

Which is why I've been following recent events in The Archers - and the vast numbers of passionate and occasionally heated comments about what has undoubtedly become the 'Rob and Helen Show' - with interest. Listeners are pretty much divided. Some people, especially people who are all too aware of the reality of abuse, are praising it for its authenticity. 'It really happens like that. In fact it's much worse. It goes on for years,' they say. A significant number of people on the other hand assert that they have stopped listening. I switched off a little while ago but I dipped back in again a few times out of sheer curiosity, when a denouement threatened, only to switch off again more permanently. And now, I'm examining my own motives.

The relief was immense and that surprised me. The thought of not having to listen to it brings a little extra frisson of pleasure to my day. I didn't expect that, but it's true. Nobody, incidentally, should ever assume that people switch off a particularly distressing programme because they don't want anything to disturb the even tenor of their days. Life isn't like that. Radio, as I was always told back in the olden days, when working producers had the time to teach aspiring writers their craft, is incredibly immediate and consequently can be very shocking. Much more so than television. It happens right inside your head. Everyone has his or her own stresses and struggles, worries, challenges, miseries. So although we can and do care for others, sometimes we also have to be realistic about looking after ourselves and those close to us and the need to avoid piling on extra sadness.

What else? Well, I'm sorry to say that anyone who believes that producers only plan these kind of storylines from the purest possible motives knows very little about the ways in which media corporations function. It might be true to say that those at the top live or perish by audience response and happy endings do not equate to increased listener numbers. That's why there's added jeopardy. Trams fall off viaducts, cars are driven into canals and landowners slide off roofs. They aren't doing this just to drive home a health and safety message. Listening figures matter. Coverage matters. Publicity matters. The fact that the Archers has been covered across so many different media - I'm blogging about it now and in a small way, feeding into the craze - is so much jam for those in charge.

But I still have a whole heap of reservations.

One of the first things you tell aspiring writers, as an experienced playwright is that 'It really happens like this' is no excuse for poor storytelling or cynical manipulation of a set of pre-existing characters. It seems to me that the Rob and Helen story has thrown the balance of the whole programme out of kilter. 'It really happens like this' (and of course it does! It happens like this and like that and it goes on for longer, it goes on for years and people are scarred for life and sometimes they die) is paramount when we're talking about the accuracy or otherwise of a factual documentary.

But this isn't a documentary. And it worries me that people seem to have lost the ability or even the desire to distinguish between drama and documentary. It used to be that listeners would send wreaths when a much loved character in a soap died. We snigger at them, but at least that was down to naivety. Now there's a certain indignation if a playwright or novelist doesn't always adhere to some strict representation of the truth as the listener perceives it.

Which is more unreasonable? To assume the truth of fiction or to assume that fiction must always reflect your own personal truth?

The Archers is a drama and a well loved one. Made up truth if you like. So it must be 'true' but it must also be shaped and - you know - dramatised. To get to the truth of a situation or an issue, to involve people, to enlighten them, you have to do it sensitively and by that, I don't mean prudishly avoiding the issue. I mean that you must be aware of when you are dealing with complex and long established characters, when you are shaping reality to enlighten, inform, engage - and, by contrast, you must know when you are cynically turning the screw.

The structure of recent episodes seems all wrong to me. You involve listeners or viewers in a continuing drama by putting them on a switchback and skilfully orchestrating the issues in terms of the characters as we know them, rather than taking them on a long slow slide into hell - however 'realistic' that may be. The Archers could have done this by - for example - shifting the focus to Helen's parents, Pat and Tony, from time to time, as they gradually became aware of what was going on but were still powerless to stop it. There are plenty of people in Ambridge who, on the evidence of past storylines, are all too aware of 'what Rob is really like'. Rather than a wholesale - and faintly ridiculous, let's face it - isolation of Helen by giving everyone else a sort of collective amnesia or mass delusion (Rob's a demon, oh wait, what a nice man he is!) and rather than the introduction of Cruella in the shape of Rob's mum, the writers could have been allowed to explore those tensions. I'd lay bets some of them wanted to. Helen might have made several attempts to leave, resulting in an escalation of her husband's violence. It would have been infinitely more dramatic and credible than the current 'Free The Ambridge One' scenario. It would also have been 'true' to a great many incarnations of domestic abuse.

For every parent who has no idea what is going on with their beloved child, there will be another who knows exactly what is going on and is desperate but unable to do something about it. And if you really want to advise and instruct people as well as entertaining them, then you tackle that much more low key but equally challenging state of affairs by dramatising it and you take your listeners with you on that journey, rather than force them to shout 'you deluded moron' at the radio throughout more than one episode.

Here's a recent example, from television. A single brilliantly written and acted couple of scenes in Happy Valley told me more about the reality of coping with alcoholism in a loved one than any number of documentaries on the same topic. But don't you just get the feeling that if this had been the Archers, right now, the much loved sister who had fallen off the wagon would have been abandoned by Catherine and been found dead in a ditch the next morning instead of sitting with a sore head and a cup of tea? That too would have been 'true to life' but it would have evaded all kinds of sensitive and subtle issues that Sally Wainwright managed to explore in fairly short scenes that have - interestingly enough - stayed with me ever since.

If the BBC wanted to run a piece of continuing, issue based, real time drama about domestic abuse - and it might have been a worthy project - then that's what they should have done. They should have had the courage of their convictions. Instead, we have an impossibly long drawn out melodrama imposed on characters we have known and lived with for years, changing them beyond all recognition. My willing suspension of disbelief was challenged weeks ago and is now gone beyond recall which is another reason why I've switched off. There's a way of tackling these things, of bringing in new listeners without alienating the old, of stitching them into the ongoing fabric of the drama that would continue to move people and involve them and might stand a chance of doing some good as well.

But I don't believe this is it.

Perhaps, too, it's as simple as recognising that a scant quarter of an hour at a time is much too short for such an exploration of evil, for such grim intensity night after night, day after day. The 'lighthearted' scenes in between seem forced and stupid by comparison - which is because they are. But pity the poor writers, because they don't stand a chance. Ruth, laughing for fifteen seconds over the profoundly unfunny stock cube in the shower is just one example. For me, the programme is bursting out of its format in no good way and it will be a brave and skilful producer who manages to get it back on track. But who knows, having jettisoned a heap of listeners, perhaps the new fans will stay. Which may have been what they intended all along.

All the same, they need to beware of what one of my old and very talented producers used to call the 'shit click' effect. It's when your listener says 'shit' and switches off. That's what I did. It'll be a long time till I go back.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Voices and Stories


I'm reblogging this from my March post for Authors Electric, with whom I've been blogging for some years now. Sadly, it'll be my last-but-one post for them. I've loved my time blogging with the group, and will remain in touch with everyone, but pressure of work has caught up with me and one or two commitments have to be pruned so I'm taking a sabbatical from AE. I'm hoping that it'll give me a bit more time to devote to this blog which I've been neglecting lately. I'm aiming to write a few more posts each month especially since this is shaping up to be an exciting year for me, with the publication of my new novel in May, and the paperback reprint of my history of the Isle of Gigha (now titled The Way It Was) in June, so do check in here from time to time.

But this post, all about voices and stories, seems well worth reblogging since it's something so many writers find problematic. And if writers have problems, then so do readers!

Having published The Physic Garden, a first person narration historical novel (although not my first historical novel) a couple of years ago, I then found myself contemplating the challenge of writing a new historical novel, more or less set in the same period, late 18th and early 19th century Scotland, for the same publisher.

But I knew almost immediately that this wouldn’t be a first person narration – although it could have been. I’m generally comfortable with first person narration because – wearing my other hat as a playwright – I’ve written a number of dramatic monologues: vivid first person narratives, with a strong voice and a strongly visual element too. In fact I think the key to writing a successful monologue is to cast the whole audience as another character, so that the actor is telling his or her story to the audience. I don’t mean audience participation, which can be at best surprising and at worst embarrassing. But for the audience to be engaged, they have to feel that the character is engaging with them, personally. I always liken it to the role of the wedding guest in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and in a play called The Price of a Fish Supper, I made a direct reference to the poem, with my fisherman narrator ironically aware of the poem from his schooldays and of the parallels with his own situation, his own personal albatross.

Experience of writing plays is useful for writing first person narrative fiction, since you inevitably find yourself casting the reader, whoever he or she might be, in the role of audience/listener/participant in the story of the novel, and this gives the narration an immediacy and intimacy it might otherwise lack. I think it worked well enough in The Physic Garden since by the time he was narrating the story, William Lang was an educated and experienced man – one who had become scholarly, but who was able to look back on his raw, youthful self with a measure of wisdom and understanding. The whole book was ‘about’ how he got there, the story of the harrowing events, the betrayals in his life that conspired to make him the man he turned out to be.

My new novel, The Jewel, however, is about the life and times of Jean Armour, the long-suffering wife of Scottish poet Robert Burns, and I was aware even before I began researching the subject that she had been somewhat neglected by the critical establishment, especially the Victorians, but even by those commentators who ought to have known better. In her 1930 biographical novel about the poet, Catherine Carswell was content to dismiss Jean as an illiterate and unfeeling ‘young heifer.’

I briefly considered telling the tale in Jean’s voice. Although I was born in Yorkshire, I’ve lived in Ayrshire long enough to be well aware of the vibrant language of this place, although like so many people nowadays, the poet himself seemed to find it remarkably easy to switch between Scots and what reads very much like standard English – and we’ve no reason to suppose that, with a good ear and a ready wit, he wasn’t able to do the same thing in speech, if he thought the situation and company warranted it. Jean was a different matter. Her father was a prosperous stonemason in the busy town of Mauchline: busier in the 18th century than it is today. She would have spoken – especially as a young woman – an Ayrshire version of Scots, although like William Lang, time and experience would probably have changed it somewhat. But much of the ‘meat’ of the story involves the complicated courtship of the couple, with all its ups and downs. She had a level of education, was literate but not literary. She had a fund of old songs, and knew all their melodies, passed on to her from her mother and grandmother. It was one of the things that seems to have attracted the poet. She was never foolish and emerges as a kindly, sensible, down to earth woman whose sincere affection for her frequently errant lover, later husband, is never really in any doubt. She loved him although there were clearly times when she found it hard to like him much.

I could ‘hear’ her voice in my head, just as I can hear Ayrshire Scots spoken every time I go down the street or into the nearby town for my shopping. But would it be right to attempt to reproduce it on the page? I soon decided that it would be better all round if the novel was written in the third person, but very much from Jean’s perspective. We are with Jean throughout the whole novel, but the slight remove of a third person narration allows us to see through her eyes, to feel through her feelings and to hear her voice, without introducing the undeniable hurdle for many readers of fixing the whole narrative in 18th century Scots.

I wanted and needed a wider audience. I wanted and needed to convey the story in an authentic but accessible way.

So, I was listening for cadences of speech, for the shape of conversations, and for expressions that are – to a great extent – almost as commonplace now as they were then. People still call their children ‘weans’ here rather than ‘bairns.’ Still say that they are ‘black affronted’ by something. Still tell people that their coats are hanging on a ‘shoogly peg’ when they are overstepping the mark in some way. I have heard a woman call her husband a ‘knotless threid’ – a knotless thread who might slip away at time of need. It seemed to me enough to introduce words and phrases and the shape of certain conversations to fix the novel in the particular time, but just as vitally in the place of its setting. And to attempt to avoid anachronisms as far as I could, of course. But all while making the story as comprehensible as possible to the casual, non Scottish reader. And yes, there is a small glossary, even though I’d hope everything makes sense from its context!

Incidentally, anachronisms are not always what we think them. I remember an editor questioning the phrase 'ghostly gear' in The Curiosity Cabinet. She thought it was modern. But it isn't. It's a very old word for your 'stuff'.

The other vital element in all this, though, seems to me to be story. However authentic a voice, however firmly embedded in a time and place, if that voice does not have an absorbing story to tell, then the novel – or play, or short story – will fail. It doesn’t have to have a complex plot. There doesn’t have to be a twist in the tail. But there has to be a story for those voices, for those people to tell, something that carries us forward, that makes us want to find out what happens next, that satisfies the reader’s desire for illumination, for the perception that the book is perhaps about more than the sum of its parts – but that each of those parts really matters. The love of story is one of the things that makes us human. This is true for the writer, quite as much as for the reader. Whether successfully or not, we write to find out. Or at least I know I do.

What do you think?






Saturday, February 20, 2016

Write about something you DON'T know about. Go on. I dare you!

This post was so popular on Authors Electric earlier this week that I thought it would be worthwhile reblogging here, on my own blog, for anyone who might have missed it.

Many years ago, I was asked to judge a writing competition for local schools. I was never very sure – and neither were the schools apparently – whether the competition in question involved creative writing or factual non-fiction, but most years the subjects, set by a committee rather than by me, allowed the primary schools to be creative while demanding that the older kids were restricted to factual essays. Let’s leave aside for a moment the iniquities of restricting to non fiction those secondary pupils who might have wanted to write stories. But the younger children were at least allowed to indulge their imaginations. Supposedly.

The first year was a pleasure, albeit rather a mixed one. It was clear that either some kids were prodigies – which was possible, I suppose, but so many in such a small area? – or they had had considerable parental help. As a general rule, though, most of these beautifully constructed, highly polished efforts were lacking in imagination. Long before that person in the US banned the use of excellent words like ‘said’ these kids had got the message. People exclaimed or interjected. They bellowed and screeched. Nothing was ever simple and clear. But so much of it was as dull as the proverbial ditchwater. Duller, really. Ditchwater is generally teeming with life.

There were, however, one or two misshapen but beautiful pearls among the pebbles: little stories full of energy and imagination, stories about space-men and monsters, about dragons and unicorns, about witches and warlocks when Harry Potter was perhaps only a glimmer in J K Rowling’s fertile imagination. The handwriting may have been as erratic as the spelling but there was a vigour about these that it was impossible to fake or fault and one eight year old’s effort stood out above all the rest: imaginative, enthusiastic, engaging. I can’t now remember whether it was about monsters or pirates. Perhaps it was about monster pirates from space. All I know is, it was wonderful.

But at the prize giving, I became aware that I had chosen the wrong child. Oh, I didn’t regret it for an instant, and it was a popular choice with the audience. His mum and dad and granny and grandad and various aunties and uncles were there and it became clear that he wasn’t a child who normally won things. But the teachers didn’t look very happy and nor did the parents of the kids whose perfectly crafted efforts hadn’t reaped the expected rewards.

The following year, I was asked to judge the competition again. But this time, instead of all the entries, warts and scribbles and all, I was presented with a ‘final selection’ presumably made by the teachers: a dozen essays with very little imagination between them. I courteously declined to judge under those circumstances, and asked them to find somebody else to do it.

I’ve been thinking about all this recently, and wishing that whoever first told writers to ‘write about what they know about’ had been throttled with typewriter ribbon or possibly – since it must have been a long time ago - choked with a piece of parchment and buried at a crossroads with a quill pen through his heart.

I used to - mea culpa - give this advice myself. Then I varied it by saying ‘write what you know about but you know more than you think,’ which was better. Now, I think I’d say write what you don’t know about, but write with avid curiosity. Write to find out.  Research if you need to and then climb inside somebody else’s mind, visit other times, other places, other worlds, other lives.

Historical novelists do it all the time. I’ve never lived in 18th century Scotland unless it was in a previous life, but I’ve certainly been there. In fact I've spent years there. Those who write fantasy do it too. Has China Mieville ever 'known'  Railsea in the conventional sense – a world where water has been replaced by earth, where shipping routes have become a network of railway lines, and where strange and far from friendly creatures lurk beneath the surface? Biding their time? Well, perhaps in dreams but he sure knows how to tell us all about it. And once we've been there too, we'll never forget it.

Then there’s crime. Do all crime writers have to commit murder in order to write about what they know about? And science fiction. And adventure. All we need to know is what it is to be human. Or even, come to think of it, what it is to be not quite human, or even downright alien. We need imagination and bravery and empathy and the ability to visualise, to take the leap and lose ourselves in a world of our own creating. All you have to remember is that if you are going to build a new world, it has to work on its own terms; it has to be consistent, stick to its own rules, however strange those rules may seem. It's inconsistency not oddity that pulls readers out of their willing suspension of disbelief. Mieville's overlapping and mutually invisible cities in The City & The City may tie the reader's head in knots - but for me, every last word of the novel is enthralling and believable because it is entirely, mind-blowingly consistent, so even while you're enjoying the story, some part of you is admiring the brilliance of the concept as well.

Some years ago, I was attending a Scottish writers' conference where I was giving a workshop, when a novelist who was later to become a good friend, but whom I then didn’t know at all, walked off with pretty much all the prizes for fiction. I was sitting behind her and I remember in particular her winning YA novel, which, the judge told us, was about fairies. I wasn't the adjudicator, but as soon as the novel was described, as soon as some of it was read out, I could see why she had won. These were not fairies as Blyton would know them but the ancient Sithe – the ‘rebel angels’ of myth who inhabit a world parallel to ours but who can also move between the two. The books - a whole series - are imaginative, savage, sexy, exciting, and original, an evocation of worlds that seem at once familiar and surprising, often moving, always believable. The writer in question, Gillian Philip, went on to forge a very successful career. Among her many novels, the Rebel Angels series is published by Strident. If you haven’t read these, then I can recommend them, whether you’re a young adult or any kind of adult at all.  Begin with the extraordinary Firebrand, Book 1 in the series.

But whatever genre you want to write in, be bold and inventive. Write, in order to find out. Write about what obsesses you, even if you don't know much about it ... yet. Or about something you're immersed in, but want to look at from a completely different perspective.
In short, write what you want rather than what you know.
Go on. I dare you.

Sunday, February 14, 2016



Happy Valentine's Day to Robert Burns and his wife, 
Jean Armour! 

Read more about my new novel here.


My Love Affair With Wuthering Heights - (Happy Valentine's Day!)

Top Withens, mum just visible on the right.
Valentine's Day seems appropriate for this post about Wuthering Heights, my favourite novel of all time. But is it really a love story? Or an exploration of a fierce, ultimately destructive obsession?

I'm well aware that it is the Marmite of novels. Not everyone loves it and those who don't love it tend to hate it just as passionately. Me - I love Wuthering Heights and Marmite too, but I love the novel more.

It's one of those books, one of those stories, that seems to have been in my consciousness for ever and certainly long before I was old enough to understand what it was all about. It was my mum's favourite book and the old movie, with Olivier as Heathcliff and Merle Oberon as Cathy, was a firm favourite with her too but it was many years before I saw it.

I was born in Leeds and lived there until I was twelve. We would take the bus to Haworth occasionally and walk across the moors to Top Withens, the ruined farmhouse which was said to be the situation, albeit probably not the building, of the Heights. Ponden Hall - now a B & B with enticingly brilliant reviews - is roughly situated where you might expect to find Thrushcross Grange in the novel, although it is said to be much more 'like' the old farmhouse of the Heights. And one of these days, I will go and stay there and will sleep in the wooden cabinet bed and think about Cathy and Heathcliff, and poor, silly, haunted Mr Lockwood. It's on my bucket list.

I listened to a lot of radio when I was young - mostly because I was a very sickly child - and would spend hours, days and weeks 'dramatising' Wuthering Heights just for fun. Ironically, although I subsequently had a long and successful career as a radio playwright, and dramatised all kinds of classics including Ben Hur and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the novel they would never seem to let me 'do' was Wuthering Heights. It still saddens me and even now I'd leap at the chance.

Me in my teens, in full Bronte mode! The dog's name was Andy.
Later, as a young woman, I did a lot of wandering across the hills, although we were living in Scotland by that time so these were the Galloway hills rather than my beloved Yorkshire moors. And later still, I realised what a savage, sadistic, raw and elemental novel Wuthering Heights is. Not a love story at all, in the romantic sense. Or not any kind of love you might want to experience in real life.

Even later, when I moved on from radio and theatre plays to novels, I wrote a sort of 'homage' to Wuthering Heights in the form of a novel called Bird of Passage.  It's currently available on Kindle with a lovely cover by artist Alison Bell, but there will be a paperback edition, later this year. Of course, it isn't a retelling of the tale. How would I dare? But it is a re-imagining, and a homage to the original, in a remote, rural Scottish setting, an exploration of obsessive love and those who fall victim to it. 'A dialogue with the older book' as Susan Price said, reviewing it for the Awfully Big Blog Adventure site.


Meanwhile, in honour of Valentine's Day, I'm rereading the original, the greatest and best, Wuthering Heights. On my Kindle Paperwhite. There is nothing quite like the peculiar intimacy of reading a well loved text on a Kindle, in the dark. It's as if there's almost nothing between you and the author's mind. Far from the conventional wisdom on this, I prefer it to paper, find myself noticing things in the text that I never saw before. Even with a novel that I thought I knew as well as anything I have ever read.

Finally, if you love Wuthering Heights as much as I do, and you haven't read Emily Bronte's poems, you should try them.

Still, as I mused, the naked room,
The alien firelight died away;
And from the midst of cheerless gloom,
I passed to bright, unclouded day.

A little and a lone green lane
That opened on a common wide;
A distant, dreamy, dim blue chain
Of mountains circling every side.

The heaven so clear, an earth so calm,
So sweet, so soft, so hushed an air;
And, deepening still the dream-like charm,
Wild moor-sheep feeding everywhere.

That was the scene, I knew it well;
I knew the turfy pathway's sweep,
That, winding o'er each billowy swell,
Marked out the tracks of wandering sheep.

From A Little While 1838



















Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Jean Armour's Cookery Book: Robert Burns's Plain Tastes and a Hair Thickener to Remember.


Among Jean Armour's possessions, was a cookery book: the Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, by Hannah Glasse, first published in London in 1747. We don't know how much Jean used this book, although I think we might safely assume that it was a gift from her husband, who was in the habit of buying books, especially second hand books, and might have picked this one up for her alongside his own treasured volumes.

We do know that Robert Burns had plain tastes. He preferred simple meals, simply cooked, and wasn't even very keen on puddings and pies. This could be deduced from his poem in praise of the haggis, in which he scorns complicated French cooking, but his wife herself tells us that he didn't like fancy stuff. Not for him the eighteenth century equivalent of the Burns Supper trifle in the shape of custards and syllabubs. Nevertheless, Jean - who had learned how to make sweet milk cheese, and who was a well brought up lass - may have been more interested in the art of cookery than her husband. I find myself wondering if she thumbed through her copy and occasionally experimented.

When I was researching The Jewel, my new novel about Jean, I bought a facsimile copy of Hannah Glasse. I've always been fascinated by old cookery books, ever since I came across an antiquarian book of recipes lurking somewhere on the stacks in Edinburgh University Library, back when I was a Mediaeval Studies student there. It struck me even then that it would be possible to try out some of the recipes, that the history of cooking might be an interesting field of study, more interesting than the Middle English with which I was wrestling.  But this was the 1970s, and I was way ahead of my time. I filed it away in my head, intending to come back and look at it later. Of course I never did, but it's something I've always regretted.

But back to Hannah Glasse. Among the many and varied recipes showing the housewife how to boil tongues and pigeons, how to roast tripe and how to make Scotch Barley Broth (I assume Rab wasn't averse to that one!) there are a great many enticing recipes for sweet puddings, including 'cherrie pies', custards, 'mackaroons' and little plum cakes and fine cheese cakes all of which sound delicious.
There are specimen menus, recipes for cider and other alcoholic beverages, but also for stewed calves' feet and eel soup for Lenten fare. (Not quite so delicious.)

One interesting recipe caught my eye:
 'An approved method, practised by Mrs Dukely, the Queen's Tyre-Woman (I assume this refers to the queen's attire) to preserve Hair and make it grow thick.
Take one quart of white wine, put in one handful of rosemary flowers, half a pound of honey. Distill them together, then add a quarter of a pint of oil of sweet almonds, shake it very well together, put a little of it into a cup, warm it blood warm, rub it well on your head and comb it dry.'

All of which sounds pretty good to me, apart from a certain stickiness in the application. But there is no mention at all of washing it out. I suppose the hair would be nice and shiny and pretty thick, but the risk of attracting bees and wasps in season would probably outweigh the benefits of all that rosemary and sweet almond oil ...

Who among my readers is going to give it a try? I must admit, it does remind me, faintly, of those noxious mixtures I used to make when I was a child and try out on my patiently loving grandad. Just don't blame me if it takes you hours to get the oily stickiness out of your hair! It'll be all Hannah Glasse's fault. Or Mrs Dukely's.

Meanwhile, watch this space for more news of the Jewel, which is due to be published on 1st May this year.


Friday, January 01, 2016

Vodafone Mega Fail

Wot, no Vodafone?

I've been thinking about nominations for the company offering us the very worst customer service of 2015, but it's no contest, really.  Saga were in the running when they tried to double the cost of our house insurance. When I phoned to query this, the pleasant woman at the other end took off a few benefits only to find, somewhat to her surprise as well as mine, that it had actually gone up in price. But when I found a much better deal from LV, they suddenly became penitent and asked plaintively if there was anything they could do to retain my custom. (No.)

BT almost got a nomination when our landline went on the blink, because they make it so damn difficult to contact them on the phone. But then they redeemed themselves by sending out an experienced engineer who fixed the problem with cheerful efficiency.

So there's only one serious contender. I've been pondering designs for the trophy: perhaps a broken mobile phone mast with a customer impaled on top of it.

Vodafone. You take the biscuit.

Here in this picturesque village where I live and write, we have been without a Vodafone signal since 6th December. Nothing, zero, zilch, nada. And no help whatsoever from the 'customer service' department.

Most of us here are with Vodafone because they promised the only real coverage, and for some years, that is exactly what they delivered. To be clear about this, we don't live amid remote highland hills. We don't live on an island.  In fact one inhabitant has just reported that she can get a good signal on holiday in Orkney, but not here. We live in a village some eight miles south of the county town, and with a great many towns and villages round about: in other words, this is a populous place.

On 6th December, our signal disappeared. The weather hadn't been any worse than average: a bit wet, a bit windy, but hardly hurricane level. One by one, we called the company, went through the usual hellish rigmarole of trying to speak to a human being (the human beings when we did speak to them were generally pleasant, so for most of us that isn't the issue) - and then the weeks of sheer flannel began.

We were told, variously, that there was scheduled mast maintenance/there was nothing obviously wrong/there was an unknown issue/there was an unexplained fault and it would be fixed in three days/six days/sometime/never.

We were directed to the website to check the signal. We were told there were no issues. We were told they had no updates. We were told not to worry. We were told maybe there were issues. Again they were investigating. We were told they were sorry. (But obviously not very and not half as sorry as their customers.) We were told to go to websites and go through procedures designed for individuals rather than whole communities. We were told to waste time on forums when we had already phoned them six, seven, eight times and more.

Now we're not unreasonable. If Vodafone had got their act together, told us that there would be a delay and it would be fixed by a particular date, we wouldn't have been quite so furious. Instead everyone has been told something different. This is a village. We speak to each other. We know that we are being fobbed off endlessly, lied to and generally treated like mushrooms rather than valued customers.

Kept in the dark and fed a whole heap of shit.

It is now 1st January 2016 and we still have no signal. Some people here only have a mobile with no landline, so they really are in the shit. There are people on call who can't stray more than a few feet from their houses.

I have lost count of the number of times I have now phoned, tweeted and messaged Vodafone - all with no satisfaction at all. I can't even access my account online. I need to set up a new password, but whenever I try to do this, they have to send a code number to my mobile phone. You know. The one that doesn't work, here in the village.

I have now resorted to contacting my MP, who says she is investigating, because this affects so many of her constituents. It has also been reported to Ofcom. Next, it will be local and regional press, local and regional radio. And Trading Standards. And Watchdog. And anyone else we can think of.

The really ironic thing about all this is that Vodafone laughingly claims to be a telecommunications company. They must be breaking some advertising standard, since nothing we have experienced since 6th December could ever be described as 'communication' by any normal definition of that term. Miscommunication perhaps. And certainly not any kind of customer service. Customer irritation, yes. Customer trust abuse. Customer deception.

A couple of days ago, I gave them another call. Same old rigmarole, but this time, because their lines were busy (When did you ever phone any telephone company and not be told that all their lines are busy?) they put me through another piece of idiocy and told me that if I recited my landline number and my name they would call me back within six minutes. So I did. And sure enough, an automated voice called me up and said that I was in a 'top priority' queue. And then, my friends, the line went as dead as bloody Marley's ghost.

Vodafone - you are behaving like a bunch of shysters. And if you treat your private customers like this, God help your business customers. Tim Peake can phone his family from space. I can't even phone my family from this village.

So what about accolades for good customer service? Well, there have been a few.  A company called Caledonia Water was contracted to undertake a massive and potentially disruptive piece of work in this village early last year: the installation of a new water main. My husband has mobility problems and an advisory parking space outside the house. The guys worked cheerfully through hideous weather, coped with all the serious problems inherent in dealing with old systems in a very old conservation village - and throughout the weeks of work obligingly made sure that Alan never needed to have to walk very far to get to the house. They all deserve medals for genuine, all round, excellent customer service.

Also Amazon. Bezos could teach Vodafone a thing or two about customer service. Not least the way, when you have a problem, you can click on a little button online and somebody will call you back immediately. But of course I don't suppose a telecommunications company like Vodafone is capable of anything so customer friendly or - you know - communicative.

Here's hoping for a mobile signal from Vodafone in 2016. Here's hoping for some compensation. Looking at their past incompetent form, I'm not holding my breath.


Friday, December 18, 2015

Make a Writer Happy At Christmas!

There's a meme doing the rounds on Facebook at the moment about making a writer happy by writing a review. Actually, that should read a 'good review', shouldn't it? I think most of us would rather those people who really don't like our books (and there will always be a significant number, because nobody can write for everybody) would decide not to review it at all.

I know if I come across a book I thoroughly dislike I don't review it. There are a number of reasons why. I seldom finish a book I dislike and I won't review a book I haven't read. The older I've grown, the more I've come to realise that I'm not in the business of making people unhappy - and I know how even a single mean-spirited review, in the middle of quite a lot of praise, can stick with you to a disproportionate degree. It's one of the reasons why I don't check the reviews on my books obsessively, even though I have some lovely reviews for which I'm very grateful.

Personally speaking, when I do find a book I don't like, I find it easier, more generous and less stressful all round to say 'this isn't for me' and move on to something that is.

Incidentally, this doesn't mean those occasional thoughtful and thought provoking reviews you get that do you the favour of taking you seriously. You don't have to love everything about a book to give it a balanced review and I've sometimes had reviews with caveats or observations that have given me pause for thought and even made me a better writer.

Anyway, I didn't share that 'write a review' post for the simple reason that although I appreciate reviews very much - if you really want to do something for writers at this busy time of year and a review feels like a chore, I've an even better suggestion: tell your friends about the books you've loved.

The best marketing tool of all is enthusiastic word of mouth.

I was thinking about this last night, at a pre Christmas get-together with a group of friends. Three of us were chatting and two of us were Phil Rickman devotees. (See post below this for my appreciation of this fine writer!) We were so enthusiastic, so animated, that the third friend made a note of the writer and a couple of titles, while my fellow enthusiast - who recommended Rickman to me in the first place - made a note of another title she had missed. This kind of thing happens to me all the time: friends on and offline recommending books and writers they have read and appreciated, people who know me well, and therefore know the kind of thing I might enjoy.

So go on, spread a little love.

You can even drink wine and eat mince pies while you're doing it!