Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Saturday 29 November 2014

So this is what the High Street of the future might look like

I got a glimpse the other day, and it’s not so very bad.

When I was a kid, my local high street never seemed to change. There was a range of shops that seemed to have been there forever. It included national chain stores, independents and one or two bigger local shops, often privately owned. Our local department store was a family run affair called Chiesmans. The company owned a total of nine stores, bought by House of Fraser in 1976. 

When I was growing up, every high street had a Woolworths and a Marks and Spencer, but every high street was also unique, because each had its array of local independent traders. When I was raising my kids, things were very different. By then, it was unusual to find family owned shops on the high street, and every high street in every town looked alike.

Next opened in 1982, The Body Shop opened its doors in the UK in 1976, Top Shop opened in 1973, the first Gap store opened in the UK in 1987, River Island opened its doors in 1993, Oasis opened in 1991. New Look has been around since 1969, but was floated on the stock exchange in 1998, and the first Primark store opened in the UK in 1973. Now they’re everywhere! Where on the high street is a girl to go if she wants something different? I took the girl-thing as an example, but this applies pretty well across the board, down every high street and in every shopping complex.

Karen Millen opened her first store in Maidstone in 1983, when it was still possible to be an independent retailer among corporate giants. I know because I shopped in that first store when Karen was designing and making everything. I still have one of her early shirts. I’m personally very happy that she was successful, but she sold to Mosaic in 2004, and the rest is history.

I talked about choice in my snark about kitchens not very long ago.

But, it seems to me that we’ve been in a transitional period.
A photo of my local High Street taken in the mid '80s by Roger Cornfoot
(his copyright) reused under Creative Commons License

The high street became very dull for a couple of decades. Everything became corporate and anonymous. The independents were pushed to the edges of our towns, away from the high street, where they were difficult to find, and where their earning potential and the opportunity for expansion was limited. It comes as no surprise that many of them went to the wall.

Then, along came the internet.

Of course, the big corporations took hold of the internet, too. Amazon, people! But we all shop on the web, we winkle out what we’re looking for, anywhere in the World. We find people making the things we want and we buy them. Some of those people are craftsmen and artisans, and some of those people are keeping their overheads low. They couldn’t afford to set up shop anywhere, let alone on their local high street. And, if they could afford to set up shop on their local high street, their wares are too specialist to attract enough custom, locally, to keep them afloat for long.

The internet is a good thing for them and the people who want to buy from them. It’s a good thing, too, for people who want to buy standard, generic items cheaply. If you want to buy from a warehouse, and cut out expensive display space, like, you know, shops, that’s great. The buyer gets a discounted price.

Our high streets are going to change; they’re already changing. We’re going to shop less and for different things on the high street, and I saw evidence of that the other day. I saw three empty shops being refitted.

Two of those shops were being fitted out as eating places, and one was being fitted out as a hairdresser’s.

There have been times over the past five years when I’ve been quietly horrified by the change in use of some of the shops on my high street. There seem to be more and more mobile phone outlets and cheap jewelry places and fewer places to actually shop. The tide now appears to be turning. Several very good delis have opened recently, selling some pretty interesting food stuffs. Our local population is changing to include a very welcome influx of Europeans, bringing with them some of their preferred eating habits. They’ve been here long enough, now, to set up shop. I like it. 

There are also a couple of new shops for pre-owned and vintage stuff. One of them is particularly good. Anyone who’s really interested in buying wants to look at and handle these things. It’s hard to buy vintage and antique furniture and ephemera on-line, and browsing is all part of the fun.

There are also a couple of very good Asian nail bars on my local high street. You can’t get your nails done remotely, and you can’t get your hair cut on-line.

The last couple of years have seen the return to the high street of grocery stores, too, thank goodness. I don’t drive, so relied on the husband for most of the shopping. Now, I can pop to any of three small, local supermarkets, assuming that any of the delis have closed for the day.

If we’re getting what we want on-line and we’re saving money in the process, then we have time and disposable income for other things. I don’t think the high street has to die. I hope we’ll continue to spend our money there. I hope that we’ll be more creative and more adventurous on our high street of the future. We'll shop there, I'm sure, for perishable things and esoteric things, but for more services, too, for more of our leisure. Who knows, perhaps among the delis and the vintage stores, the nail bars, hairdressers and restaurants, we’ll find bespoke dressmakers and tailors, craftsmen of all kinds, artists, small theatre companies, and lots of other things to engage us. It’s a nice thought, isn’t it?

Sunday 23 November 2014

Is the World really getting smaller?

I had one of those thoughts that I have that seems to fly in the face of accepted wisdom, so I thought I’d air it here and wait for comments.

The World is getting smaller all the time Or is it?

My grandparents didn’t travel. At least my Scottish grandparents travelled to England. They moved from Dundee, where generations of their families had lived, to Grimsby, a distance of 350 miles. It was far enough for them to break virtually all contact with their families and go it alone. They were strangers in a strange land. 

My English grandfather was ambitious for himself and then for his only child, and so he moved up and down the country, from Norfolk to Hampshire, to Cumbria and finally to Kent where he moved to Chartwell to take up the post of Sir Winston Churchill’s gardner in 1947. He remained there until his death in 1994.

During the first fifteen years of their marriage, my parents lived in five different towns and cities before settling down when my dad was forty.

I’m not sure that either of my parents owned a passport until they were in their fifties or sixties. My mother now travels the World, although my father is no longer able to accompany her.

Most family holidays in my childhood were taken in the UK. The population was mostly stable, my school friends remained constant, and people didn’t move house often.

Travel was expensive. Europe opened up in the seventies for family holidays, but only the most well-heeled of my friends went to France or Spain with their parents. It wasn’t until I was in secondary school that I knew of anyone travelling as far afield as New York. It was expensive and glamorous, and the rest of us were envious and impressed.

That sort of travel is now commonplace. We think nothing of hopping on a plane to cross the Atlantic, and Europe is merely a train ride away. We have friends who regularly visit from Australia. As a percentage of the average income, international travel is now perfectly affordable. People regularly honeymoon and even marry in destinations in the Indian Ocean or the Pacific, taking their families with them.

When the husband started writing for American companies, phone bills were expensive, written material had to be sent by fax or mail and travel cost significantly more than it does now. E-mail was not a universal medium of communication and dial-up was slow and dropped out all too often. There was no such thing as conference calling, except in the movies, and Skype was an SF dream.

Of course times have changed. The mobile phone, e-mail, Skype, the computer age and cheap travel all appear to have made the World a much smaller place than it was, certainly in my childhood. Not only do I remember TV with three channels, I actually remember life without a television or a landline in the house. Now we have two landlines, various mobiles, tablets, laptops, desktops, a smart television (very new to us and introduced by the dort) and it’s all wi-fi-ed to the World via fibre-optic technology. 

The World is very much on our doorstep. Just so long as the technology is at the other end, we can be in touch with anyone anywhere, and we have access to a bonkers amount of stuff on the internet, of course.

Here’s the thing, though: Is the World really getting smaller? Does the evidence suggest that is our genuine perception? Is that our experience? Because, I don’t think it is.

I have a couple of theories about this.

Firstly, there’s the whole First World/ Third World divide. The chasm between the First World and Third World experiences becomes ever deeper and wider. My thinking is that while we spend our time in the First World that world seems pretty small, and perhaps it is getting smaller. It’s a damned big step to cross the divide and step into the Third World, and perhaps it’s getting increasingly difficult to do that, to find meaning there, to empathise with the people, to find any kind of connection. We condescend and we walk in and take over when it suits us or when devastation occurs, but do we ever begin to actually understand? I’m not sure we ever did, but I’m damned sure it’s getting harder to understand and not easier.

What made me begin to think about all of this, though was my recent experience with young people, the dort’s generation. Their World seems very small, and it seems to be getting smaller. I wonder whether that's all an illusion, though.

They travel, but they stay within their comfort zones. They know what they like and they like what they know, and they can get that stuff anywhere in the First World. They can drink coke and eat pizza and burgers all over the First World. They can shop in the same shops on any high street in the First World, drink the same beers, wines and cocktails, dance to the same music, watch the same movies, wear the same brand of jeans, speak the same language and hook up the same smart devices to the same old internet.
Not for nothing, when we get a couple of days to ourselves,
we travel locally in the UK to somewhere lovely.
This is the Landmark Trust's Warden Abbey, Bedfordshire

The thing is, they are in touch... They are SO in touch with each other all the time. They constantly talk on their phones, message one another and Skype. They do it when they are apart for only hours, let alone days or weeks. In theory, this level of communication should make the World seem small. We are all in touch as much as we want to be when we want to be.

My feeling is, though, watching these people, that actually, being so much in touch makes the World feel like a very big place. Being able to talk to someone they saw an hour ago makes them recognise the physical distance between them. Messaging, talking, e-mailing and skyping are constant reminders to these kids that they aren’t sitting in the same room, aren’t touching, aren’t sharing the same space, the same experiences, aren’t breathing the same atmosphere. 

When the husband and I were apart at university we wrote letters and got on with our lives. Young people don’t get that opportunity and suddenly distance, any distance seems insurmountable.

I don’t know, it’s just a thought, but I’ll leave you with this.

I know a young couple who’d been dating for several months when they decided to part because they didn’t think they could handle a long distance relationship. One of them was moving away for work. It was a good opportunity, a career move not to be missed. They parted on good terms. The move meant that they would be living seventy miles apart.

Perhaps for some of this generation the World isn’t getting smaller, perhaps for some of them it feels very big and very frightening.

Friday 21 November 2014


Every time a writer puts a story out into the world something happens.

I say often that the point of the writer is the reader, and I stand by that. I also say that once a story is bought and paid for it no longer belongs to the writer. It is bought by the publisher, and then it is bought by the reader. Ultimately, it belongs to him, and he can think of it whatever he likes. I stand by this too.

Of course, in one sense, this is a cop out. Or, at the very least, it allows me to let stuff go.

I need to care about the work that I’m doing now.

I need to be invested in the characters that I’m writing today and tomorrow and for however long it takes to finish this story, the one in the document open in front of me. I need to care about the characters I’m engaged with today, who they are and what they’re doing as I write them.

It takes a long time to get a story from pitch to publication, always weeks, often months and sometimes even years. If I was as invested in a story when it was sold to a reader as I am when I’m writing it, I’d be in trouble... in so much trouble on so many levels.

I have some weird coping strategy that allows me to let go, to forget. Sometimes I go back to old stories and I’m surprised that I even wrote them, they are so completely gone from my mind. Characters that I loved and cherished, storylines that I invested time and mental energy in are lost to me until I read them just as any other reader would. They belong to me again in new and different ways, as if I’d paid for them. I too have the right to think what I please about that story. I’m the reader who put her hand in her pocket and pulled out the price of the story. I made the investment of time. I made the emotional commitment to the characters and I can judge the thing... and I do. 

I am lucky that I feel this disconnect, because every time a writer puts a story out into the world something happens. People begin to read it, and the first of those people are critics. Every time a writer puts a story out into the world, reviewers flock and swoop, and begin the process of assessing the qualities of that story, of judging it.

The bottom line is that all publicity is good publicity. Any review, even a consumer review on Amazon, however bad, will increase sales of a book by a decent percentage... and I do mean any review. That someone is willing to write a review signals interest in a story and in the writer of that story. Indifference is what we really dread. No one turning up is the kiss of death for anyone in the arts.

The next-to-bottom line, for which I ought to be able to come up with a much neater moniker, is that reviews are always going to be mixed. Some people will like a writer’s work, some will not. Some people will like a story and some will not. Some will love a story, others will like it, some will dislike it, and one or two crazed individuals will pour scorn on it. The more reviews a story gets the more likely it is to get an average score over all. That’s just the way it goes.

Since I’m working my way up from the bottom, let’s go to the next-to-next-to-bottom line and talk about reviewers. They are human people with varying tastes and preferences. Some are more consistent than others, some more experienced, some kinder, wiser, nicer, some more demanding, some more vitriolic, some lazier, and some simply have some sort of agenda. Some reviewers are professionals, some semi-pros, some review as a hobby and take it very seriously and are well-respected, some play at it, some give themselves an incredibly narrow purview, and some are out-and-out amateurs. That’s just the way it is.

I seldom talk about reviews: the good or the not-so-good, and I’ve had my share of both kinds. I enjoy the good reviews more than the less-good ones, and like all well-behaved authors I do what I’m supposed to do and re-tweet the good ones to try to spread the word. To spot the good ones, it’s inevitable that a writer is going to read less good reviews about the work. Once in a while, a reviewer doesn’t like something for perfectly legitimate reasons, sometimes he doesn’t get it, and sometimes he’s just plain wrong. That’s all fine, too.

Once in a while, a reviewer says something shocking.

Some of those shocks are humbling.

Today I saw a tweet pointing me in the direction of a review of a story that I wrote back in the summer.
Some awfully good short stories
Dangerous Games is available Dec 4th

Dangerous Games is an anthology of short stories edited by the brilliant, award-winning Jonathan Oliver. He invited me to write a story, and I was pleased to do it. I’m in very good and sometimes illustrious company in this collection, and I feel rather honoured to be a part of it. Being asked to contribute made me proud. The prospect of appearing among some pretty stellar talent in genre fiction excited and terrified me in more-or-less equal measures.

My story The Stranger Cards was reviewed today on The Bookbeard’s blog. Nice things were said about it. I was relieved and delighted. Then came the shock: the humbling shocking bit, and just for once, I can’t help repeating what was written.

A fantastic and atmospheric tale that reminded me of that horror writing great Stephen King, Stranger Cards manages a lot in with a little and does it brilliantly.

A reviewer compared my writing to the modern writing god of the horror genre. If I never publish another story and if I do and I never receive another good review, I can still die happy.

Today was a good day.

Thursday 20 November 2014

Keeping My Mouth Shut

I just wrote that and then had to correct it because of a rather delicious Freudian Slip. What I actually typed was Keeping My Mouth Shout.
Lips properly pursed
Photo by James K Barnett

Sometimes I want to shout, and the things I want to shout are the things I should keep my mouth shut about.

Discretion is the better part of valour.

You know it and I know it and our mothers knew it, and that’s why they drummed it into us. They might just have been wrong though. So often, there’s more than one way to skin a cat, and there’s more than one way to read Shakespeare too. Perhaps we could all understand this expression differently.

I have been reading through some blog posts that never made it onto this website. I’ve been reading through some of the posts that I wrote, but decided were probably not for public consumption.

I know that many of my readers like a good snark, and I can’t help exercising my frustrations and opinions here from time to time, and, who knows, maybe my insights, too. I’m also not completely stupid. I know that some of what I think is a little ‘out there’. I know that while I can make good and valid arguments for some of my thoughts and observations, they won’t always be popular. I also know that I risk exposing myself and those close to me with some of the stuff I could write about. I could change the way some of my readers think about who we are and what we do.

I’m on the inside. I could lift the lid on some stuff.

I don’t do it.

At least, I do it and then I hold those blogs in a file marked ‘rejected’ never to see the light of day.

There is no way for me not to be honest in this world. I am essentially congruent in my relationships, and I count my interface with the world through the blog as a kind of relationship. Had I begun the blog twenty years ago I would simply have posted everything I wrote, because I completely lacked filters. Time has taught me that I need them, mostly for my own safety and sanity.

I’m old school... most of the time. I’ve written blogs about all sorts of things, things that I believe. I’ve written about situations and people, about work and life, about sex and politics and religion. I’ve written about all the things we’re told we shouldn’t talk about in polite company. I’ve written about those things, and because I’m old school, I’ve kept those blogs to myself.

I wonder whether Shakespeare wasn’t making a point, though.

The quote I mentioned above comes from Henry IV part i. Prince Hal assumes that Falstaff has been killed on the battlefield. He has not. Falstaff played dead, and when the battle is over, he is alive. Left alone, it is Falstaff who says the line, or something approximating it. But there’s another way to interpret this line. What if it’s a joke. Falstaff is a coward. He is useless to his King and country. He is not brave. Caution does not support courage if caution requires a man to play dead. It’s an excuse. The quote has come to suggest that it’s better to live to fight another day. That’s one interpretation, but it’s not the only one. 

The truly valiant take risks, stand true, throw caution to the wind.

It’s not what our mothers taught us, or their mothers, but for every maxim, aphorism, proverb, phrase or saying there is generally an equally valid opposite. Besides, I think Shakespeare was probably cleverer than that.

Falstaff was a buffoon, a loveable buffoon, perhaps, but a buffoon nevertheless. Sometimes what we need is a hero. Sometimes, fortune favours the brave.

Honestly, I don’t know how brave I am, or when or if I’ll choose to be brave. But you never know, anything’s possible. 

I was surprised by some of the blogs I wrote but didn’t post. Some of them are strong, some of the arguments stand scrutiny and, like it or not, the represent my opinions and my truth. Who knows, maybe some of them will one come dancing into the light. For what it's worth some of them are vulgar, irreverent, and, I think, rather funny. Who knew?

Sometimes the passing of a little time is all that’s required. We’ll see.

Wednesday 19 November 2014

A Trend in Advertising

I don’t watch a lot of television, so I’m not usually exposed to a lot of advertising.

I also don’t sleep a lot.

When I don’t sleep, I turn to my i-pad mini and indulge in tv, generally not terribly good tv, to help me drift off. I usually watch stuff on Netflix. Recently, I’ve been planning quite a lot of decorating in the house. The thing has been escalating, and it now looks like I’ll be tackling several rooms over the next couple of years. It’s all a bit of a project. All I originally planned to do was paint our bedroom, but then the dort decided she’d like to move rooms and some sort of weird domino effect kicked in.

Anyhow, as a result of the decorating bug taking hold, my night watching has switched to 4OD and a whole slew of building, renovating and restoration shows. With 4OD comes adverts, because I’m too cheap to pay to get rid of them, and because they don’t stop me nodding off if nodding off is ever going to happen.

There have always been good adverts and less good adverts, and while I’ve always prided myself that I’m not terribly influenced by ads, that I’m not an easy sell, I’ve certainly been influenced by some of the advertising that I’ve seen on the television in the last few weeks... and not for the good. Nobody has managed to sell me anything and I’ve actually decided to boycott three companies entirely.

Where advertising used to be either a straight sales job, or funny or even clever, there seem to be two new trends. Most advertising seems to be either daft or cynical. Daft is just daft. It irritates, and it’s hard to see how those ads get made. The cynical is unpleasant, thoughtless and potentially distressing.

The new Android ad falls into the first category. I think it’s daft. The advert relies on the premise that the product name Android can be split down the middle, so that And becomes the riff on which the ad hangs, setting up a rhythm: And this... And that... And the other... Android.

My problem with this is that by dividing the product name in half we’re left with ROID for heaven’s sake. Now, I don’t know what roid means to you, but it means one of two things to me, and I think to most people: 

Roid is short for Steroid as in Roid Rage.


Roid is short for Haemorrhoid, as in piles.

What advertising creative team really thought that was anything other than a throwaway idea on the way to the real stuff? And then who at Android thought it was a good idea to sign off on it?

An awful lot of people are involved in the creating and making of an advert, and a great deal of money is spent on buying ad space, and this is how Android decided to present and sell itself, and no one along the way to getting the ads on the telly questioned any of it.

I’m sorry, but that’s really daft. It just makes me think everyone at Android is stupid, and that the people they employ to represent them to the public are stupid too. I never wanted an Android device, but if it had ever crossed my mind to consider buying one, I’d certainly be put off by their advert.

The O2 advert isn’t so much stupid as just very, very sad. O2 has got a whole tech support thing going on in its ads at the moment. Various onlookers witness people having tech problems and report them back to O2, where solutions are found. The ad viewer puts himself in the position of the poor sap having the problem and is sold the solution. It’s a simple advertising strategy. In the Twinkle ad a young man struggles to soothe his crying child. The cat who witnesses this reports back to O2 where a concerned young woman suggests the problem be solved by synching devices so that the father can find the lullaby Twinkle Twinkle to play to his distressed baby.

Oh Good Grief!

There might be a great many good reasons to synch devices, and O2 might have as many solutions as the next service provider, but the idea that a father is panicked and a child in distress because he can’t find a tune to play that he could in fact sing to his baby is too sad for me to contemplate. Who writes these ads? Who signs off on them? Did nobody in that decision-making process have a child? Have we really come to this?

I would go on, but I daren’t, because if I do, I shall start ranting about modern parenting, and I’m almost sure that parents are still singing to their young children... almost.

So I won’t be buying an Android and I won’t be switching to O2, but tea is only tea, right? Wrong!

I like tea. I drink decaff earl grey and I drink the occasional cup of something herbal. The husband drinks builders’ tea and rather more herbal than I do, and he has various favourites. 

I very nearly emptied the tea cupboard when I first saw this particular advert.

The advert is intended to be funny, but it’s cynical and grubby, and the strap-line is deeply unpleasant.

The suggestion is that we have a love affair with our tea, and I have no problem with that. At least, I’d have no problem with that if we were at liberty to indulge. Sex has been selling things for ever, even on the television. We all remember the pretty girl with the crumbly chocolate. I don’t have a huge problem with that. Ok, I sort of do, but not really the way you think. That’s for another blog.

Clipper promotes its tea in a telly ad. There are various tableaux of couples drinking tea together, apparently in domestic bliss. Then lines scroll across the screen stating that one or other of the couple is having an affair. It goes on from one partner to both, to groups of people, outing infidelities. I began to wonder what was going on. The first time I saw the advert, I wondered if it was for some sort of drama that I wouldn’t be watching, but it wasn’t, it was an advert for teabags. 

The punchline to the advert is that these people are being unfaithful to their regular tea. Then came the strapline. I winced. Seriously, someone, somewhere thought that this was clever or funny... or... what did they think? And how many people went along with it?

Infidelity might be commonplace, it might be a regular feature of some people’s lives. Some people don’t even consider it very serious any more. I’m aware that I’m pretty old-fashioned, but I also know that adultery is grounds for divorce. People take vows about this stuff.

The strapline for the new Clipper advert is Ditch The Old Bag. It’s nasty. While as many women as men are cited in the ad as unfaithful, nevertheless ‘old bag’ is an insult that’s always been applied to women. Yes, I know Clipper is ostensibly talking about the old brand of teabag, but actually it isn’t, is it?

This advert is cynical and misogynistic. It must, surely cause discomfort and possibly even distress to many who have been let down by those who should have loved them. I know I wouldn’t want to sit down to watch my favourite decorating program only to be reminded of pain and misery by a sodding tea advert. Not funny. Not clever. There must be hundreds of ways to sell a teabag, and I can see how good sex sells, but bad sex? 

There was a time when we celebrated advertising, when some adverts were mini-triumphs of film-making, with themes and ideas, with beautiful, tightly written scripts and great jingles and straplines.
I couldn't stand the thought of giving space to any of the
companies I've mentioned, so here's the husband
sitting in one of the rooms I don't plan to decorate

I’m not sure when last I saw a really great ad. Yes, I've seen both of the big Christmas adverts for this year. They're fine: longwinded and sentimental, but fine. I thought the singing in the Sainsbury's ad was rather good, but I'm not sure I'm entirely comfortable with the meeting of commerce and charity or with a supermarket logo being attached to WWI. Again, this is probably material for another blog.

We avoid adverts now. We subscribe to channels and providers that don’t carry advertising or we find ways to hack them out of our existence. But, and it’s a big but, competition for our disposable cash is never going to go away, so companies are going to keep trying to get our attention and they’re going to keep trying to sell to us. I wish they’d just learn to do it a whole lot better than they appear to be doing it at the moment. I wish they’d bring back the warm fuzzy feeling at the very least, and not just for Christmas. I wish they’d make us laugh or even cry. Daft, miserable, cynical and nasty aren’t going to sell me anything, and, right now, they’re the ads I’m noticing. 

It looks like my disposable income is going to stay in my pocket... No, wait, there’s paint to buy... and no I’m not a sucker for Old English Sheepdogs.

Wednesday 12 November 2014

Black Library Weekender 2014: So... How do I live this down?

I attended the Black Library Weekender this past weekend. It’s a splendid event at which writers and readers gather for three days in a hotel to talk and to share the books produced by the publisher to tie-in with the Warhammer, Warhammer 40K and Horus Heresy games and the Forge World models that go with them.

Yes, it’s a hobby thing, and yes, the vast majority of the players, collectors and readers are men in their teens and twenties, and yes, I’m a middle-aged woman.

The husband is well-known to this crowd. His work for the Black Library is popular. He’s won accolades for his novels stories and comics, including New York Times bestseller listings. I began writing for the Black Library fifteen years ago. I’ve co-written a couple of novels with the husband, and I’ve contributed some short stories, including two that appear in the latest anthology launched at the weekender. That’s why I was present.

I’ve attended every GamesDay UK since 1999 and many of the other big events since the inception of the Black Library. When I’m not promoting my own work I attend events with the husband. I’ve had relationships with some of the people in the office for fifteen years, and with some of the fans for just as long. We’re all one big, happy family. I’m referred to, affectionately I hope, as Mrs Dan or Ma’am.

A Jackanory moment as a contestant pitched his story.
I couldn't possibly sit cross-legged in that frock!
OK, on reflection those stripy tights are a touch terrifying.
(Stephen Mark Taylor took today's pics, so thanks Stephen)
I was kept pretty busy over the weekend, sitting on panels, signing books, taking part in entertainments, eating smart dinners with the premium ticket holders and drinking in the bar. It was all rather splendid.

Twitter is a wonderful thing. It’s the most immediate of the social networking tools and it can be a lot of fun. Like other social networks and like the internet in general, it also offers people an opportunity to say things to the World that they might not say in a room full of people. Sometimes that means that an individual gets to read something about herself that comes as a surprise, that shows her how she projects herself into the World in a way that is totally at odds with how she feels about herself. Sometimes that person is me.

Of course I know that I can be opinionated; I don’t just read my blog I write it, after all. I know that I can be firm in my views and that I’m pretty smart. I think of myself as inclusive, though, as kind, accepting and approachable. I know I’m a serious person, and honest to goodness I don’t have a whole lot of smalltalk, but I like people and I’m honest.

Some of the readers at the Black Library Weekender live-tweeted during the event. How cool is that? I dipped in and out of Twitter to see what was being said. Some of it was serious, reporting panels and conversations. Some of it was funny, reporting the jokes and laughs we were all having. And some of it was this:

Of all the authors present, @N_VincentAbnett is probably the most terrifying to approach. In a good way...please don't hunt me down.

First of all, let me just say that I’m not remotely offended by this. I’m totally aware that this comment was meant to be lighthearted, and I take it in the spirit it was intended. I’m not sure how I could possibly be terrifying in a good way.

I wonder what this is about.
And they think I'm terrifying!
Have they met the husband?

I suppose in this particular mostly young and definitely malecentric environment it could simply be that I’m both older than most of the gamers and a woman. It could be that these guys who love to play with toy soldiers don’t want to be reminded of their mums or big sisters while they’re doing it or talking about it. I don’t blame them for that... I don’t blame them for anything.

Here’s the thing, though. I can’t change how I look (not much anyway, not any more), I can’t change my gender (OK, technically I could, but I’m all girl), and it’d be a bit of struggle to change who I am. The best I can manage is to simply reassure you all that I don’t feel terrifying. I feel like you. I feel enthusiastic. I want to meet and talk to the people who read the stories and engage with the mythos of the universes that I have the pleasure of writing in. It is my pleasure. You guys are my lifeblood when it comes to having ideas and finding the enthusiasm to put my arse in my chair and write them down.

I’ll say again what I’ve said before, The point of the writer is the reader. Without you, I wouldn’t get to do what I love to do. You guys mean the World to me. You never have to think twice about approaching me. You employ me, and you should always remember that.

Now I’m going to go away and practise not being terrifying. I wonder what that looks like.

Wednesday 5 November 2014

Choice... What Choice?

I’m nesting. 

This is a good thing.

I’ve had a very wonky four years, and the last one has been as tough a year as I can remember, but it would appear that the clouds are finally parting. How do I know this? I refer you back to that first sentence. I am nesting.

The husband, the dort, and I have been spending quite a bit of our spare time the past week or two having a thorough spring clean. It’s tough work, but our local charity shops have seen a nice surge in donations. They are most welcome. I hope it helps.

We have chosen and bought the paint for the bedroom, and Norm has been in and out effecting some repairs. Things are looking up.

The bug appears to have bitten pretty deeply, though, and I now have plans for a new bathroom and a new kitchen.

I have been angling for a new kitchen since we moved into Chez Abnett almost fifteen years ago. I’ve settled for moving cabinets around, and replacing worktops and painting cupboard doors a couple of times, but the job is well past due.

I built a kitchen with my own two hands once, back in 1993, driven by need, but this will be my first properly planned kitchen fitted by proper people who know what they’re doing.

I have been talking to kitchen people on and off for years... Years, I tell you.

The airwaves are awash with programs about house building, renovating and decorating, and one of the recurring themes is that kitchens sell houses. They are often described as the heart of the home, and ‘top spec’ kitchens can add thousands, even tens of thousands to the asking price of a property.

I’ve been to places that offer bespoke kitchen building services, and I’ve looked at product, spoken to designers and costed kitchens. And, frankly, I’m baffled.

Our kitchen takes a hammering. We work at home, both of us, seven days a week, 365 days a year. OK, not quite, but we’re here a lot. We’re never away from home for more than a few days at a time, and when we’re not away we cook. When I say we cook, I’m not talking about chucking something in the microwave or emptying a jar of sauce over some pasta. 

We cook. We buy produce. We make pastry and bread. We prepare soups. We chop and slice and dice. We sauté and fry and braise, and bake and roast, and poach and steam and simmer and broil. 

We spend time working in our kitchen, and when we have guests, they stand in the kitchen with us while we work. I began cooking last night for tonight’s supper, for goodness sake.

Kitchens used to be about food preparation. Fifty years ago, and for most of my childhood, quite a lot of food preparation was done by women in their homes. Around the mid-seventies, it seems to me, that began to change. By the time my children were starting school, food preparation in the home on a daily basis appeared to have ground to a halt. I became aware of this when my younger daughter would ask if she was likely to be served “real food” when invited to other children’s homes for tea. She invariably wasn’t.

She was served preprepared frozen food that was shoved in the oven or microwave, or she was served something out of a jar that was heated and tossed over pasta or rice.

Kitchens are a thing now, they are grand and glossy, and they sell houses.

I am in the market for a kitchen and I have been for some time. I prepare food in my kitchen. 

I have been in smart kitchen design places with smart kitchen designers who have been utterly unable to satisfy any of my requirements for what I consider to be a ‘proper’  kitchen. I'm not blaming them, but for reasons beyond my comprehension, they are unable to satisfy my requirements. There are plenty of choices if you want to choose from, say, a chrome mixer tap or steel, polished or matt finish; or brass or even gold, and you can have a head that swivels or not, or has a shower spray attachment or not, and you can have it in any number of styles from modern to classic to traditional. You can have this tap in hundreds of subtly different combinations. You can have two levers: hot and cold or you can have one sliding scale lever. You can have it wall mounted or single tap hole or two tap holes in the sink, or you can have it counter mounted for a Belfast sink. How many choices does a person need?

Here’s what you can’t choose. You can’t choose two pillar taps: One hot, one cold. Well you can, if you want what the trade fits in council houses, and there’s a choice of, I believe, three designs. I have a kitchen, a working kitchen, and I want a sink with two separate pillar taps, because that’s what works for me. If that's what I want, I can't help thinking that other people must want it too. Other people must simply end up compromising. I don’t want to compromise.

I went into a smart kitchen design place and was told that I would need to spend upwards of thirty thousand pounds on my kitchen. I was told about soft-close drawers and high gloss door finishes and kickboard lighting and recessed ventilation, and they couldn’t give me a hot tap and a cold tap.

I don’t want soft close drawers. When I want to slam a drawer, I want the satisfaction of hearing it slam. If I cook in a kitchen, with all that steam and grease floating about how much time am I going to spend unnecessarily polishing those glossy cupboards? No thanks! What use are lights that show me how grubby the floor is because I’ve been cooking? And if you put a ventilator into a cupboard, don’t I lose valuable cupboard space? Well, of course I do! 

Besides, I want pillar taps two of them!

I also want a lay-on sink. Drop in sinks, under-mounted sinks and apron sinks create dirt traps. I know this because I’ve put up with them before. Under-mounted sinks and apron sinks also don’t generally have integral draining boards, so they have to be added, creating more dirt traps. Sinks should be clean places. How many lay-on sinks do you suppose there are on the market right now? Yes, you’ve got it. I found a couple of cheap ‘trade’ versions and two, count them, two that I would actually fit in a kitchen... In my working kitchen. Trust me when I tell you that there isn't an industrial kitchen in the country that has anything other than a lay-on or one-piece sink. There's a reason for that.

See how much ranting I’ve done, and I’ve only touched on the bloody sink! There’s a long way to go with this kitchen, but I’m boring you, so I'll stop.

I’ve looked at dozens of brochures and I don’t know how many online sites, and there are thousands and thousands of kitchens to choose from; there are thousands of fittings and appliances, too, but as far as, actual, honest to goodness choice goes, you couldn’t slide a fag paper between them. 

As with all things, will someone please give me some real choice? Will they? I suspect not.

A fabulous kitchen by one of our best known companies
Visit the website here
I’m determined to get my kitchen, and you can bet your life that I won’t be paying thirty grand for it, or anything like that amount. This is going to take a little time and research, and a good deal of imagination. It’s fine, I’ll get there.

In the meantime, thanks very much to all you lovely people designing fancy kitchens, but they’re not for me, even though they look beautiful and they clearly satisfy the marketplace. That’s just it, though; I wonder what the marketplace is. I wonder whether people are buying kitchens to cook in at all or whether they’re buying them to sell houses.

If you’re buying a fancy kitchen to cook in, I wish you joy of it, and if you’re buying a house with a fancy kitchen in it, I wish you joy of that, too.

I’m going to do this my way. I don’t plan to move, so I guess I have nothing to lose, and besides, I have no one to please but myself and the husband.

Wish me luck.

Monday 3 November 2014

Altered States and the Menopause

I know that lots of you will never be where I've been for the past five years, and most of the remainder of you won’t be here for a good while yet, but that isn’t going to stop me talking about my subject for the day... In fact, it’s one of the best reasons to do it.

Have a care and spare a thought. You’re not going to understand it, and that’s OK, but you have the power to go along with it, to be kind and forbearing, and to love and respect the woman in your life, and any woman who happens to be at the sharp end.
My dark days face -
the stranger in the mirror

Fifty isn’t the new anything.

Apparently, forty is the new thirty. I don’t know, perhaps it is. I know a lot of forty year olds who look fabulous, who clearly feel fabulous, and who are at the top of their games professionally. It doesn’t matter who they are or what gender they happen to be, I know a great many people in their forties who have taken the World on and appear to be winning. Bravo! and Brava! to all of them.

For women, like it or not, fifty is still fifty, and the menopause is still a very real part of that.

Yes, we can all do things to help ourselves. Yes, we can eat well and exercise. Yes, we can, up to a point, medicate. Yes, if we were sensible in our post-adolescent, pre-menopausal years and if genetics were in our favour, we might even put off the menopause into our fifties. But, and it’s a big BUT, live long enough, and the menopause is real for ALL of us.

I’m not going to run a long list of symptoms, and I’m not complaining. 

I first learned that my hormone levels were changing in 2009, and they’re still changing. I was youngish, but not outside the normal age-range for the start of the menopause. The decline has been slow, but not outside the normal duration for the menopause.

The process is normal and natural, and it is utterly life-changing. 

Thought processes are shot. Emotional responses are off-the-scale. Physical functions are haywire. And the combination of those three things is confusing, distressing and sometimes devastating. 

I feel in control of precisely nothing.

Modern womanhood teaches us nothing so well as it teaches us control. It teaches us what we should show to the world, how and when. Feminism has been chipping away at that, but all social and political movements have their rules, too. Women have busy complex lives, often with conflicting needs: work, home, partners, children. Without control, without organisation and routine, those lives quickly devolve into chaos. 

At the very point in our lives when we have mastered control, when we really are organised, when our routines are set in stone, the menopause descends upon us, and we look in the mirror only to see a stranger staring back at us. We cease to have control of our minds, emotions and bodies, and the chaos begins.

It is terrifying.

Lots of you will never be where I am now, and most of the rest of you have got a long time to wait before you find yourselves in my shoes.

I’m not looking for any sympathy. I’m getting a grip, and I’m close to the end.

If you could find some kindness for the women in your lives who are in the midst of this chaos, I promise you it will have an impact. You won’t see that impact, because, if they are anything like I have been, menopausal women aren’t reliable. If they are anything like me, they will still be inappropriate and emotional. They will still be chaotic and frustrated and forgetful. They will still rant and rage. If you care for them, if you love them, if you respect them, you will make it all a little easier for them. If their experience is anything like mine, they do not know who they are and it is horrible for them. It is more horrible for them than it is for you dealing with them.

You won’t ever understand it, and you don’t have to. If you could just try to suck it up... If you could just let it be so much water off a duck’s back when you stumble into the firing line... If you could forgive easily and forget quickly, that’d be lovely.

I know I didn't want to be this way, and I know that when it’s over I will be somehow other. I’ll be me again, to some degree, and I’ll be someone new, too. I’m sure there’ll be painful memories of some of my behaviour. I know there’ll be pain attached to some of my emotional states. I hope I haven’t made painful memories for those I love.

Thursday 30 October 2014


I wish I had a better grasp of Twitter hashtags. I know what they are and how to use them, but I feel as if there should be a definitive list somewhere so that I can find the ones that I want, that are relevant to me and the uses I want to put them to. I feel they should be used correctly. I am, of course, a control freak.
My grasp of the hashtag is sketchy
Thankfully, the dort's grasp of the avatar
is quite brilliant!

There is a hashtag I use regularly. I use it on Wednesdays. It is #WWWBlogs and I like it. It’s a community thing. I believe that WWW stands for Women Writers Wednesdays and Blogs stands for you... yes, you guessed it... Blogs. The hashtag is for women who write to share their blogs with each other and the world on Wednesdays, so that’s what I do. I have a column on Tweetdeck devoted to the hashtag, and, throughout the day, I refer to it, clicking on links to blogs that I read, or not, and then retweet... or not.

It’s a sort of guilty pleasure, and it’s nice, too. I’ve met people, women I like, who are creative and clever, and sometimes funny or sad, or insecure, or all of those things. They are from all over the world and from all social groups, from all ages and sexual orientations. They have different political and religious leanings, and I respond to them in different ways. They all write and blog, and some of them are published. They are not all successful, but that doesn’t mean they don’t all have value. I don’t read all the blogs and of the ones I read I don’t retweet all of them, but I do dip in and out, and I have my favourites.

It’s a community of women that is diverse and that I have come to like and trust... And there’s the rub, because this is the internet.

The internet is a wonderful place, but wherever something positive, wonderful, life-affirming grows there is always something cynical, negative or destructive growing alongside it or, more insidiously entwined with it. 

In every carefully tended garden there are weeds. Some of those weeds are simply plants that are growing where nobody planted them. Some of them are beautiful too, and just so long as they don’t strangle out any of the other plants I see no reason to uproot them. Then there’s the other thing.

I don’t know whether I use the WWWBlogs hashtag correctly, but I console myself that I am at worst a benign weed, a plant that drifted in, uninvited, but that isn’t ugly, isn’t about to take over or drive anything else out, and won’t strangle any of the lovely plants that already inhabit the garden.

I know that I’ve seen other benign weeds in the garden.

But it’s a garden. There is framework, trees and well-established hardy plants that form the basis of everything else, that are strong and true and structural. There are perennials and hardy annuals that return over and over again, injecting the garden with colour and interest. There’s ground cover too, plants that spread and fill the gaps, popping up here and there in unexpected places. Then there are exotics that bring bright flashes of brilliance, but are gone almost as quickly as they arrived.

Once in a while, I happen upon something that looks suspiciously like a pernicious weed. I happen upon something dressed up as an opportunity, a lure to us women who write and blog, an invitation perhaps to do more or better, to succeed where we have previously failed. Don’t we want to know how to be published? Don’t we want to know how to blog successfully? Don’t we want a bigger following? Well, yes, we probably do. But at what cost?

I think of #WWWBlogs as a community, and members of communities help one another. I want to see other women writers succeed. I want to read the best of their work. I want it to be published, and I want the best of their blogs to be read widely. I don’t know how to do those things for myself and I certainly don’t know how to tell other women how to do any of it. What’s more, I’m suspicious of people who think they do know how to succeed at writing or blogging. If there was a recipe for success wouldn’t we all be successful?

On the other hand, if there are writers out there who can weave that kind of magic, and they are willing to share their knowledge with the rest of us, what a boon that would be! I can only applaud them.