Nicola Vincent-Abnett

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

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.

Wednesday 29 October 2014

Hallowe’en, or should I say Samhain?

The year has its punctuation points in our house, and I like them. I suppose every home and every family has its rituals and traditions. Many of them belong to society too, to our various cultures, and we share them and enjoy them together in our communities. Some of those traditions are almost universal, particularly in the western world. It’s pretty difficult to get away from Christmas wherever you may be, and New Year too.

Hallowe’en has become a little like that, certainly since I had my children a couple of decades or so ago.

It wasn’t like that when I was a child, and it isn’t like that for me. The autumn was always special for lots of reasons: the start of a new school year, when everything seemed to change; the end of the long, hot summers we somehow used to have (remember 1976?); the return to Greenwich Mean Time really signifying something when we used to play outside and had to be in before dark, which meant we stayed inside after school and our playing habits changed completely. Our playground games changed too. There were no more insects to chase, and no more sun to shine through magnifying glasses. But there were conkers to collect and prime and string, and there were leaves to kick through, and muddy puddles. The food was different from season to season: The coconut ice was changed for toffee apples and the ice lollies for fairy cakes, and hot ribena was drunk from mugs instead of lemon barley water from beakers.

But I’m digressing, and growing nostalgic into the bargain.

We do not trick or treat and we do not dress up, except that one year the dort decided to be a pumpkin, and a fabulous pumpkin she was too. We didn’t have pumpkins when I was a kid. We hollowed out swedes, nips as the Scots would have it, and put our tealights in them. I distinctly remember the smell of their charring flesh.

For us, there is something mystical and romantic about Hallowe’en, about Samhain that has nothing to do with dressing up or about gorging on chocolate treats. It has nothing to do with pretending to be Superman or Lara Croft or one of Buffy the Vampire Slayers Victims or someone from Breaking Bad or the Walking Dead. 

Hallowe’en is about time. It is about old souls and new ones. It is about trusting that the world will not end as nature declines. Customarily it was about killing and preserving livestock and storing the harvest, and traditionally, feasting was part of that.

The dort's pumpkin for this year
So, we carve our pumpkins in preparation, and every year on October 31st we turn out the electric lights in favour of myriad candles, we set a cauldron on our table in the form of a fondue, and we cook together and eat together from it. It’s a wonderful meal to share, and the single best reason to do it is because it takes time. It takes time to cook individual morsels of meat in a cauldron of oil and eat them with bread and potatoes and vegetables. We talk and we cook, and we eat from the cauldron, and when the children were small we helped them to choose and cook their food. There are apples, too, always apples in some form, a juice, a cider or a pudding, but always apples.

The autumn is a special time, Samhain is special and Hallowe’en, however you choose to celebrate it is special, too.

I shall be thinking of all of you on Friday night when I’m sitting by candlelight at my cauldron with a fire blazing in my stove, and I shall be wishing you all a wonderful evening. I hope the skies are clear and inky black and I hope the stars are bright and more then all of that I hope your buckets are brimful of treats.

Monday 27 October 2014

How to give an Interview

If you’re going to be a writer, and, more importantly, if you’re going to sell books, there’s publicity to be done. Post-internet and certainly post-social-networking, it’s possible to have some control over publicity. This is a mixed curse, because it also means that keen amateurs and wannabes get to be their own publicists, and the web is flooded with people doing publicity for work that either doesn’t exist or isn’t published, at least not in the traditional sense.

We are all competing for a slice of the pie, and the slices are getting smaller and smaller. A single voice is tough to hear in the cacophony.

On the upside, the writer does, at least, get to control his own publicity. He says what he wants when he wants to say it. That’s fine for those who are articulate and who enjoy speaking or writing outside of the discipline of fiction, who have no problem banging out a blog or communing with the world via Twitter et al. Many great writers aren’t comfortable with those things, and that’s a huge pity, because it means that the rest of us miss out, readers miss out, publishers miss out, and the world is poorer.

But I digress.

If you’re going to be a writer, and if you’re going to sell books, there’s publicity to be done. I write and I do publicity. I have this blog and I have a twitter presence, and FaceBook, too. There are other things I probably could and should be doing, and I expect that in the fullness of time I’ll be doing some of them. I have control over those things.

Once in a while, I’m invited to do a signing. That’s fine, too. Of course, it’s impossible to know who exactly I’m going to meet, but it’s a pretty good bet that they have some interest in meeting me and that their interest is probably positive. Time spent at signings is lovely and rewarding, and it’s always a pleasure to meet readers.

Then there’s the stuff that’s tougher, the stuff I feel that I’m not very good at.

Once in a while, someone sticks a camera in front of me and there’s a mic on a table or clipped to my shirt, and someone, usually someone friendly and lovely asks me questions. This happened on Saturday at the London ComicCon when I was interviewed about my latest novel 'Tomb Raider: The Ten Thousand Immortals', on which I collaborated with the husband. You can see the results on YouTube. I would have posted a link here, but it appears to have been disabled.

Interviews come in all forms. Print interviews are generally the simplest because it’s often just a case of getting a list of questions in an e-mail. They generally don’t vary a great deal, and they often don’t take a huge amount of thought to answer. The biggest problem with them is that half-a-dozen will come in at once, and it’s easy to feel as if I’m repeating myself in the answers. I suppose that’s bound to happen, but I console myself with the thought that most people aren’t going to read more than one interview, so the likelihood of anyone thinking I’m boring and repetitive is pretty small. For what it’s worth, when I get similar questions in different written interviews, I never cut and paste stock answers, I always write new ones.

Of course, from time to time, I do get questions that throw me for a loop. One very clever interviewer recently asked two stock questions at the beginning of a written interview, but the remainder of her questions were all of a type that I hadn’t seen before and wasn’t prepared for. I answered them, of course, but it took a couple of days out of my week instead of a couple of hours. And it didn’t even cross my mind to mention that time is a factor when it comes to publicity... It can take a huge chunk of time out of my working life.

Live interviews are where it all falls apart, though. I simply can’t prepare for them. I simply don’t. They don’t frighten me. I know I’m going to fall on my face, and I’ve been around for long enough to know that if I do it in a relaxed manner it’s less scary for the viewer than if I give a good interview but appear to be terrified.

I know that there’s a good chance when asked a question everything I know about the book, (and it’s worth remembering that I wrote the damned thing), will simply disappear from my consciousness: What book? What’s it about? What’s the plot? Who are the characters? What are the main themes? Was there any point I was trying to make? What about IP? are all things that run through my head as I grope for answers to perfectly reasonable questions.

So, I flounder and I bluster, and no one gets anything like a coherent answer out of me. But that’s OK, because I’m calm and I smile. It’s also OK, because the husband is very, very good at this stuff. He’s been doing it for a very long time, and he doesn’t forget things. The husband is a consummate professional, and he can talk to a row of cameras and a bank of microphones as if he’s talking to his best buddy, or, for that matter, to me.

Fortunately for me, most of the time, when I’m interviewed, I’m sitting next to the husband. You can clearly see the differences in how we tackle questions in this interview we gave about our collaboration on 'Fiefdom'.

I’m hoping that if and when the time comes for me to be interviewed solo, I’ll have had enough practice to do a much better job than I’ve been capable of so far in these situations. If I don’t get better at it? In the end, I’m not sure how much it matters... just so long as I keep calm, and keep smiling and keep blustering my way through it all. 

No one on the other side of the cameras seems to mind any of it, so why should I? 

Friday 17 October 2014

Strictly a Popularity Contest

I like to dance. The dort didn’t get it out of nowhere.

I danced in the ballroom right through my teens, and the husband and I took up dancing several years ago. It’s a lovely way to spend time together. We like it.

Strictly Come Dancing is a phenomenon. We don’t watch a lot of telly in our house, but we do watch Strictly Come Dancing. We’ve been watching it since the beginning. There’s ballroom dancing on Strictly Come Dancing, and Latin American, too, and the Argentine Tango and the Charleston and the American Smooth, and whatnot, which aren’t strictly ballroom, but which entertain and please us all.

Strictly on the internet
Strictly Come Dancing is telly, though. It’s all about entertainment. Let’s not pretend it’s actually a dancing competition. If it was a dancing competition, the public wouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the voting system, and the best dancers would win. If it was a Ballroom dancing competition Len Goodman would be the only judge the show actually  needed.

Strictly Come Dancing is telly and it’s entertainment. It’s about watching ‘Stars’ being fish out of water. It’s about finding things out about them that we didn’t know. It’s about watching them triumph, or, and we seem to like them better if they fall into this category, it’s about watching them fail. It’s about laughing at them and crying with them.

It’s also about making celebrities out of the professionals. We might all be charmed by Judy Murray this season, but we’re not all voting for her being a rubbish dancer, we’re all voting for Anton DuBeke, who’s become a stalwart of the show and a celebrity in his own right.

Regularly, on this show there is a hue and cry when two decent dancers end up in the dance-off and one of them has to go home. Regularly, on this show there is a hue and cry when none of the bottom two or three couples in the competition end up in the dance-off. It’s nonsense.

I doubt there is a single show on the TV and certainly not one of this kind that is not a construct. We are being manipulated, and we, in turn manipulate.

I had a conversation with a young woman while we watched last week’s show on i-player the other night. We were talking about Craig Revel Horwood. She disliked that he was not constructive that he was ‘allowed’ to be rude, and that he was ruder to some contestants than he was to others. She also wondered why Mark Wright was basically wearing skinny jeans instead of proper dancing gear. And that’s where the celebrities’ agents come into play. This stuff has got to be written into their contracts, right? 

Call me cynical, but I’m guessing there are things that Mr Revel Horwood is not allowed to say to some of the celebs, depending on what their agents have specified, and there are probably wardrobe stipulations too.

Strictly Come Dancing is a ratings success. It gives the public what the public wants, it’s good television. By definition that makes it something other than a dance competition.

I know this for sure, because I’ve been to dance competitions. I’ve been to lots of dance competitions. Do you know who turns up to dance competitions? Dancers turn up to dance competitions, dancers and their entourages. Dance competitions do not, for all sensible purposes, attract audiences. Dancers do not dance one at a time. They do not receive individual criticism. Dancing competitions are bloody gruelling, they are anonymous, they last for hours and they are sweaty, highly competitive affairs. No one earns any  money, either. They are however very real, and the best dancers win.

Strictly Come Dancing is a lot of fun. Watch it for the celebrities and vote for your favourites. We watch, but we don’t vote. We like Judy Murray, and one or two of this year’s contestants can even dance a bit. Go figure. 

If you want to watch real, honest to goodness dancing watch the professionals on the show, or, better still, go to a competition; the Tower Ballroom at Blackpool holds them very regularly and it’s a wonderful building and quite an experience to visit, and you can even say that you’ve been to a Strictly Come Dancing venue.

Wednesday 15 October 2014

Being Together

The husband and I go out on Monday nights. If you follow us on Twitter, you probably know this. We go to a local bar and drink cocktails. We do it for fun, and sometimes we do it for research.

Research takes many forms, and one of the forms it takes is to meet up with people to talk about cultural phenomena, the latest books films, games and comics that are on the market, and what people think of them.

Anyway, we were out on Monday night in our usual bar. We’ve been going there for a couple of years, and it’s generally empty on Mondays, apart from our little group. This week it was heaving with people, because one of the staff was leaving. 

The barman on a Monday is always Isaac and the lead waiter is always Leeton, so we know these two wonderful gents pretty well. We know other members of staff, too, but not all of them. Staffing levels are much higher on a Friday and Saturday night than they are on our regular Mondays.

We have become immensely fond of Isaac and Lee, and now we are sorry to say goodbye to Leeton. He’s not a local, and he’s decided that it’s time to go home. The bar was full of the staff wishing him a bon voyage, and we got to meet all the ones we only see from time to time, and one or two we hadn’t met before.

I had a fascinating conversation with one of them.

I imagine that when any bar has regulars they become subjects of conversation for the staff, particularly when those regulars drink cocktails on Monday nights. I guess that isn’t very usual. I suppose not every bar has a pair of writers for regulars either. All of the staff seemed to know who we were and what we did. That isn’t very surprising when you consider that Isaac is a fan of comics and SF/F and he’s a gamer, too. His brother Max has become a regular in our discussion groups.

People who don’t know each other very well often talk about work, I suppose. I know it’s a question we all ask socially, “What do you do?” Foxy said, “You’re the writer, aren’t you?” But it wasn’t really the work that he was interested in. He was interested in the relationship the husband and I have with one another.

The husband and me, in it for the long haul
Foxy used to walk his wife to school when he was eight years old and they lived in the same village. He understands the closeness of long, enduring relationships. He has an inkling of what it might be like for two people to live and work together, and it interested him. It made me think about it too.

Many people, over the years, have stated categorically that they couldn’t do what the husband and I do, but I honestly don’t think that it’s the way people perceive it to be. Yes, the working relationship dovetails into the personal relationship sometimes, so that we talk about work ‘at home’, but doesn’t everybody? Yes, there are days when we spend a lot of time together, but I think people might be surprised by how isolating the work can be; physical proximity doesn’t actually mean that our heads are in the same place. When the husband’s in the zone, nothing penetrates, and that goes for me too. Yes we are two strong, independent people, but when it comes to the work, the husband is absolutely the boss, and yes he can be my boss ‘at work’ and still respect me ‘at home’.

Then there’s the whole question of time.

Time’s a funny thing. I’ve always been a little obsessed with time; I’ve talked about it before on the blog. Most couples spend, I don’t know, maybe four or five waking hours a day together. We spend at least sixteen waking hours a day together. Somewhat unlike other couples, we also socialise together.

I don’t know if the husband and I are bonded in a different way from other couples, but I do know that we are bonded in a way that gets us through life very much together. It is not because we are alike, because, frankly, we could not be more different. It might be because we have some kind of creative instinct in common, I suppose. It might be because we recognise or understand something in each other. Who knows, it might even be because we spend a very great deal of time together.

I sometimes joke that the husband and I have a weirdly dysfunctional, massively co-dependent relationship, and, who knows, there might be some truth in that, too. But, if it’s true it doesn’t alter anything, because it seems to work.

Mostly, people who find out that the husband and I are writers ask about the work, Foxy asked about the life. It revealed something very interesting about the man. I shall have to think about it for a while longer to work out whether in trying to find answers to his questions, I discover something new about me or the husband or about us. There’s plenty of time to do it; it would appear that there’s a chance we could spend four or five lifetimes together.

Monday 13 October 2014

There’s a hole in my bucket...

... OK, it’s not my bucket, exactly, because it’s my roof. OK, it’s not exactly my roof, because it’s actually my first floor parapet. Nevertheless, there’s a hole. The house is leaking. The rain is getting in. There are drips, and a strategically placed bucket, which does not in fact have a hole in it. Actually, it isn’t a bucket at all. It’s a waste paper basket, which isn’t a basket, because it’s a nice, sturdy metal affair that will hold the water that is bound to collect in it.

Norman came on Friday. He’s a dab hand is Norman, at all things fixing related. Apparently, the mend is neither difficult nor expensive. He wanted to come in on Saturday, because, you know, it’s October and it’s going to rain.

But nothing can get in the way of the Birthdays, so the job has to wait until Monday morning.

We’ve been in the house for nearly fifteen years.

I’ve never lived in one place for fifteen years, and I never thought that I would, although when we moved in here I did say that I was never moving again, that I was going to leave this house in a wooden box. I was young and foolish then, and already I fear that a four storey house will become too much for me as I get older... I’m already older and my knees already creak. Hoovering stairs, especially winding stairs is also a total embuggerance. I might not want to do it forever.

And, I get itchy feet. Every few years I start looking for a new house, and every few years it results in me redecorating. It’s probably for the best.

That time has come around again.

I actually got as far as viewing a house a couple of weeks ago. If I’d had a little more time, I might even have made an offer on it, but the vendor wanted to move fast and had an offer on the table, even if it was lower than he’d hoped for. I wouldn’t be rushed and opted out.

So, the paint charts arrived this morning, and I’m thinking of reconfiguring some of the rooms, giving them new identities and even new purposes.

I don’t know how other people approach these things. I wonder about it sometimes, because I rather think that other people’s homes are unlike ours. Certainly the homes I visit and the ones I see on the TV seem quite different from ours. This might have quite a lot to do with the fact that the husband and I both work where we live, and it might have something to do with the fact that we create things for a living... I don’t know, that might be a stretch. 

Environment matters, though, doesn’t it? Objects matter. The things we live with matter very much, the things we use every day and the way that we use them. Those things ought to be right.

I think it was William Morris who said that we should have nothing in our homes that we do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful. I might go one step further and hope that those useful things can be beautiful too.

Beauty, of course, is in the eye of the beholder.

Here's one we made earlier, and the husband relaxing in it
The husband and I are lucky. In our different ways, we are both very visual people. He likes a lot of visual stimulus and I am very easily over-stimulated visually. As a result he likes a lot of stuff and I like it all to work together as a whole. I’m very spatially aware and I’m very receptive to colour, so I know instinctively what will work for me and whether a piece of furniture will suit a room. I’m good with scale. The husband is brilliant at dressing a space.

We decorate together. We make choices together, and there is harmony in what we do. We play off each other, formulating ideas together so that it is hard to know who has come up with what, and the decision making process is organic. Decorating is something that we simply don’t argue about.

I’m also practical, and I like to work with my hands, so, unless we need specialist trades I can do everything myself, and so I do.

There’s a hole in my bucket, and it’s created an opportunity to take a new look at the bedroom, and the dressing room, and, when that’s sorted out, to think about the kitchen and the walk-in attic. There are plans afoot, and I like it.

Friday 10 October 2014

It’s Birthday Season

That might sound weird to you, but all of our birthdays are clustered together at this end of the year, so for us, it really is birthday season.

In particular it is a big birthday weekend for us Chez Abnett.

The husband and the dort who have their
birthdays tomorrow and on Sunday
Happy Birthday to them!
Tomorrow the dort has her birthday, and on Sunday the husband grows older by another year, although heaven help me, you wouldn’t know it to look at him, or if you lived with his boundless energy.

We like birthdays.

Not everybody treats birthdays the way that we do.

I wonder whether that’s my fault.

I was born on Christmas Eve. It isn’t the most convenient time to have a birthday for lots of reasons. Some of those reasons are obvious, some of them less so. My birthday was always celebrated in my family, but as one of five kids, and, obviously they couldn’t help it because they were children, the other four were preoccupied with thoughts of Christmas. Talk for weeks before was about Christmas, and everyone was choosing toys. It wasn’t just about me. Their birthdays were spread right through the year. I didn’t envy my closest sister so much, because her birthday was in January, but my oldest sister’s birthday was in  May, and both of my brothers celebrate their birthdays in August. I often thought how wonderful that must be. No one was thinking of anything but their day when it came around. Christmas didn’t get in the way of that.

Neither did they have to wait an entire year for something. A year is a long time when you’re ten or twelve, and it’s even longer when you’re only four or five. It wasn’t anybody’s fault, and I’m certainly not blaming anyone, but Christmas is a big deal. It should be a big deal, and my mother pulled out the stops every year. There was always a very great deal to do. My birthday was always remembered and it was always celebrated, but it isn’t terribly easy to persuade other people to bring their kids out for a birthday party on Christmas Eve, because they’ve always got other commitments. Let’s face it, my mother had other commitments organising Christmas for a family of seven. She did great things my mum, and she never wavered in her commitment to me, but still, I rather wish I’d been born on midsummer’s day.

Being born on Christmas Eve always sounded more special then than it felt.

You’d be amazed how often I still get Christmas cards with, “and by the way Happy Birthday” in them. My birthday is a ‘by the way’.

It’s fine. It’s not as if I’m not used to it, and I’m not whining. I’m too old for regrets and I’m too old to whine, and, besides, the husband always gives me a fabulous birthday. There is always a meal and he always ensures that there are no Christmas decorations on the table and that the Christmas menu is kept at arms length. There is always a little drunkenness and there is always Singing in the Rain. Every birthday is a treat and every one is exactly as it should be. Every birthday is also a wonderful way to begin Christmas.

Anyway, I wonder if it is because of my own birthdays that we make such a fuss of family birthdays now. We do BIG birthdays. We pull out the stops. We do birthday stockings and big presents, and we celebrate as if celebrating is going out of style.

This year, the dort’s birthday falls on a Saturday and the husband’s birthday falls on a Sunday, and they are both grown ups. We will begin tonight, because... well... why wouldn’t we?

I’m looking forward to this weekend, and I know that the husband is too. I hope the dort is. I know there are small disappointments for her that happen for anyone in her age group. She’s going through a time of change, disruption, finding her feet, and with that there are bound to be highs and lows. I hope that this weekend will prove a high point. We’ll see.

Right, off to work. There’s a lot to get done today, before we can all clock off for the weekend. I’m going to wish the dort and the husband a very Happy Birthday, and I’ll see all of you fine people on the other side.

Wednesday 8 October 2014

Temple of My Soul

Gothic Temple of my soul to be precise.

We were away last weekend. It was sort of work. We needed stimulus and I needed to do research for a novel I want to work on soon. I needed a building.

The Gothic Temple exterior
When we need buildings and architecture, and we want to research those things, one of the resources we turn to is the Landmark Trust. You’ve probably read stuff I’ve written before about this wonderful institution.

The Trust takes small historic buildings and conserves them for the nation. It also rents them out to the public as holiday lets. The husband and I love them. We visit them whenever we get the chance. They offer a wealth of stimulus and research for the books and stories we write, they offer wonderful spaces in which to write them, and they offer us the opportunity to leave our own four walls behind for a few days. We spend a very great deal of time within our own four walls. We love chez Abnett, but even we get cabin fever from time to time.

The Gothic Temple in the grounds of Stowe School is special. It is very, very special. Of the half-dozen or so Landmarks we’ve visited, I wonder whether it isn’t our favourite. It might be the space or the light. It might be the very gothic-ness of the exposed masonry of the interior, or the gorgeous domed, decorated ceiling. It might be the balustrade over the living space, or the echoes. It might be the access to the tower, where we sat and watched the sunset. It might be the sheep and rabbits, and the owls and bats. It might be any of those things. I think it must have been the combination of all of those things.

the domed, decorated ceiling
The Landmark Trust does things so well, I think, because it does everything so consistently. Every building is different, every one individual and special, and the character of each is allowed to shine through. The rest is about simplicity and comfort. The furniture is good, but not showy. Someone, somewhere buys old wood: tables, chairs, cupboards, towel rails, beds, bookcases, chests, just enough to supply the visitors needs, but not so much as to clutter the spaces. Sofas and armchairs are plain colours and feather filled for comfort. Kitchens are solid with shelves and wooden counters, pans are le creuset and the crockery is the same blue and white in every property. When we visit a Landmark we are surrounded by the familiar. They have become homes from home. The consistency of the styling is reassuring and never detracts from the experience of living in these glorious places.

Every building also has a housekeeper, and every Landmark we have visited has been wonderfully clean and beautifully presented for our arrival. Beds are properly made with blankets and counterpanes. Towels are laundered and folded. Surfaces are pristine, rugs are hoovered. All is as it should be. And there’s the tea tray, complete with teabags, sugar and a pint of milk in the fridge, and as often as not a posy of flowers, too, and a welcome card from the housekeeper.

the balustrade
Once in a while, a sofa or armchair might feel lumpy or uncomfortable, but there’s an old trick to feather filled furniture that not everyone in the modern age has the feel for. If you drop the cushions on their edges on the floor, the feathers re-distribute and plump up, and comfort is restored. I’ve done this once or twice on arriving at Landmarks, but it’s the work of a few minutes, and no harm done.

I cannot recommend the Landmark Trust highly enough. We use the buildings for research, but you should holiday in them, use them for weekend parties, take your families away for Christmas or Easter. Go! You’ll love them.

If you go, and I hope you will, there’s a trick to getting the very best out of your Landmark. I’ve developed a kit for our trips. Everything you need is provided by the Landmark Trust in their buildings, but I’m a belt and braces sort of person, and I like to cover my bases, so there are a few things I like to do before I visit a Landmark and a few things I like to keep in the car.

My kit includes: 

The setting for the Gothic Temple at Stowe
Walking boots: some of the Landmarks are located in fields, up tracks and generally in the country, and I like my shoes, so boots come in handy. 

A big maglite torch: the countryside can be pretty dark.

A big fur blanket: The Landmarks are generally well-heated and we take advantage of the stoves and fireplaces that many of them also have, but having a big, snug blanket to throw over my knees when I’m sitting on the couch in the evenings is just sort of nice.

The mini-cine: We have a tiny cine projector and a tiny speaker that we hook up to a computer that plays dvds. We project it onto a wall or a sheet pegged up over curtains. The Landmarks have no TV, no landlines and often no mobile signals, which, frankly, is heaven. We often work at Landmarks, so we take the mini-cine for research purposes. 

BT wifi: Because mobile signals and wifi are often erratic or non-existent at Landmarks I also have BT wifi and can usually hook up to a BT hotspot while I’m at a Landmark, again for the purposes of work. Frankly, it’s bliss to be without it if I don’t absolutely have to have it.

The setting for our meals
I also like to find local shops for food, because one of our great pleasures when we visit a Landmark is sharing meals. The kitchens are well-equipped, so we like to cook in them. Good food with great company in a wonderful setting is a great pleasure. It makes sense that the raw ingredients should be good. We don’t pack food to take to Landmarks, we find local farm shops. Boycott Farmshop was brilliant for just about everything when we stayed at the Gothic Temple, and we ate extremely well while we were there.

We’ve already decided that we’ll be returning to the Gothic Temple, and when we got home we took up the Landmark Trust book and turned down the pages on another half-a-dozen properties, including Rudyard Kipling’s house in Vermont. It sleeps eight, so if any of our TransAtlantic buddies fancy staying with us, just let me know and we’ll see what we can organise.

So much to look forward to, I can hardly wait.

Tuesday 7 October 2014

With thanks to the NHS A&E department Milton Keynes and A&E department Maidstone

A great deal is said about the National Health Service, and let’s face it, not all of that talk is good. 

Under stress, people are inclined to complain. When they are distressed and in pain they want help and they want it fast. I suppose that’s natural enough.

In the UK we have a system that treats patients at the point of need without asking for proof of valid insurance. We are all insured, automatically. There are no upfront costs. We are not charged at the point of need, or invoiced afterwards. If we get sick or injured we are treated.

I had an accident on Sunday night. I was away from home, and the husband drove me to the nearest Accident and Emergency department, which happened to be at Milton Keynes, forty minutes from where we were staying.

I gave my name and address and the nature of my injury. The triage nurse took more details and gave me painkillers. I was supplied with icepacks at intervals during my wait. Yes I had to wait. That’s what triage is about. There were people with a greater need than mine so of course they needed to be seen ahead of me.

One of the patients waiting to be seen had mental health issues that he was clearly aware of, but which made him somewhat disruptive. The staff did what they could to keep the waiting area as calm and quiet as possible for the rest of us. The bathrooms were clean, there was a water fountain, and there were vending machines for snacks and beverages. There was sufficient seating for everyone. The staff were endlessly pleasant and efficient. 

I waited two and a half hours and was seen by a junior doctor. Hannah was lovely. She did what she thought she should do and then had her work checked. Her senior, Edozie advised further checks, which were then completed under his supervision. I was sent home with everything I needed, including extra dressings for my injury, painkillers, antibiotics and the protocols for booking a consultation with an opthalmologist at my local hospital through my GP.

You really didn't want to see a picture of my eye…
On Monday morning, the husband phoned our GP surgery. within an hour our GP had phoned back and set the wheels in motion for my consultation. By the time we’d driven home my GP had also organised a prescription for stronger painkillers, which we were able to pick up by lunchtime. At 5-30 the eye clinic at Maidstone hospital asked me to attend A&E to see the on-call opthalmologist, because they considered my case to be urgent and didn’t want me to wait for the eye clinic to re-open the following day.

I arrived in Maidstone’s A&E department at 6 o’clock. When I arrived the wipe board said that waiting times were an hour. Very quickly, that changed to two and a half hours.

Every A&E department that I have ever been in has been divided into two sections: Major and Minor. It makes sense, doesn’t it? I was a walk-in at Milton Keynes and I’d been invited by Maidstone eye clinic. My injury wasn’t life-threatening. I hadn’t had a stroke or a heart attack and I hadn’t been run over by a bus or stabbed. I hadn’t suffered an overdose or been beaten to a pulp. I wasn’t having a seizure and I hadn’t lost my arm in a chainsaw-related incident.

I had lowered a steak into hot oil and it had spat into my eye. Was it painful? Hell yes. Was my eye and nose secreting a discharge? Absolutely. Was my vision impaired? I couldn’t see a bloody thing. Was any of that going to change if I sat in a chair to wait while someone’s life was actually saved? Of course it bloody wasn’t.

Nothing was going to change for the bloke with the twisted ankle or the woman who’d sliced her thumb on a kitchen knife, or the woman who was ‘achey’ (who knows what that was about) or the bloke with the infected tattoo, or the woman coming down off whatever it was she’d taken, or the homeless man who was clearly a regular. Nothing was going to change for the six year old who whimpered endlessly, but I’m glad they see children quickly. Nothing was going to change for the old bloke I told off either.

It became clear to all of us in Minor that something had happened. Something Major had come into A&E. There wasn’t any fuss, everything remained very calm and professional, but things on our side of the divide slowed down dramatically. We were all fine. We were sitting talking and watching the television. Some of us were reading. The woman who was ‘achey’ talked on her phone and went out for a fag.

We all knew who the opthalmologist was because she’d wheeled a piece of equipment across the waiting area. Anyone who’s ever had a comprehensive eye exam knows what that thing’s for.

I also knew that the eye clinic had called in two patients to be seen by the on-call opthalmologist after clinic hours, because the receptionist had mentioned it to me in case I had to wait. I couldn’t be seen by anyone else. That was fine with me. I’d been given a time of 6-30, but, going through Accident and Emergency, I had no expectation that I would be seen at a specified time.

By about 8-30 my painkillers were wearing off, and I was in some discomfort. My eye and nose were discharging badly, and the dressing over my eye felt as if it needed changing. The opthalmologist walked back across the waiting room. An older man sitting a couple of rows in front of me stopped her and started talking to her. After a couple of minutes he took a letter out of his pocket.

I got up and walked over to him. I put a hand on his shoulder and said, “I’m sorry, but you can’t expect her to consult in the waiting room. She needs to work. We’re all waiting.”

The doctor took the opportunity to walk away. I was calm and polite, and the man said nothing. I guess there wasn’t very much he could say. Half an hour later, the doctor walked across the waiting room again, and the man accosted her again. 

He was a man on a mission, but, and forgive me for saying so, he wasn’t in any obvious pain. He didn’t have pus discharging from his eye or a dribbling nose. He didn’t have a dressing or an eye patch, and he certainly wasn’t alone in waiting for three hours. Some poor sod, in a much worse state than either him or me clearly had come into Major needing an eye specialist, and she was standing in the waiting area having her time wasted by this guy.

I didn’t need to resist the urge to talk to him again, because the lovely doctor simply told him very firmly and very calmly to report to the eye clinic in the morning, and he left.

I was seen at 10 o’clock.

I commiserated with the doctor who admitted that it had been a very tough, very busy shift. She also apologised for my long wait.

She had no need to apologise to me.

A steak spat fat at me, for heavens sake. Within roughly twenty-four hours two hospital doctors, one consultant opthalmologist, one GP, two A&E departments, four receptionists, a triage nurse, a pharmacist and any number of clerical staff had been involved in my care. I had been given dressings, three different painkillers and an antibiotic, supplied with a prescription, and been given numerous different eyedrops to numb my eye and dye it. My vision had been examined twice and I’d undergone a battery of other eye tests. Phone calls had been made, faxes had been sent, forms had been filled in, and the NHS central computer had recognised me at three separate locations.

All of this in clean, calm environments, surrounded by friendly professionals, and all I had to do was supply my name and address and tell someone what was wrong with me. No one asked me for insurance details, and no one asked me how I was going to pay for my treatment.

The National Health Service is bloody wonderful!

I have some damage to my cornea and my vision is impaired, but these things are temporary. I need to keep using the antibiotics for a week to guard against infection, but my eye should mend itself, and my vision should return to normal.

And it’s all my fault, because if I’d been wearing my glasses, or if I’d realised that the oil was a little on the hot side that steak probably wouldn’t have taken offence and that oil probably wouldn’t have jumped out of the pan.

So thank you Milton Keynes A&E department and thank you Maidstone A&E department. You all do fabulous work, and I hope that the NHS gets better funding to do great work in the future.

Can I also say that on a personal note, I hope I won’t be doing too many stupid things that take up valuable NHS resources. I probably did need to go to A&E this time, but I can’t help thinking that with a little good judgement some of us could avoid some of these accidents, and when we have small accidents, some of us might think twice before going to A&E; in some cases, we might do just as well to look after ourselves and each other.

Wednesday 1 October 2014

It’s like the New Year all over again

Every year seems to get shorter.

It’s because I’m getting older. Every year represents a smaller and smaller percentage of my lifespan. I’m down to 2%. It isn’t much is it? Of course 2014 seems to have passed in a flash... It just got shorter by three months.

I’ve written about New Year’s resolutions. We’ve all fallen into that trap, and I don’t plan to do it too often. If I have the intention to change my life and the impetus to implement the intention, the when shouldn’t matter very much. I suppose the New Year is as good a time as any to make changes, and lots of people use it as a catalyst for that. In recent years January seems to have become a month of abstinence. Lots of people I know stop drinking in January. Well, OK then. If you like.

But this is October. I count three months until January 1st, and yet there are rumblings. I’m hearing ‘Sober October’ and I’m seeing posters for ‘Stoptober’ all over the place, encouraging smokers to quit the habit.

We are being urged to abstain. Of course we shouldn’t smoke and of course we shouldn’t drink to excess. I imagine that if tobacco and alcohol were newly discovered, right now, they would both go straight on the illegal substances list.

I’m a control freak, a person of moderation, and I tend to the extremes and easily become addicted to things. I’m also a mass of contradictions.

I’m a great believer in helping those that need, want and seek help for their excesses and their addictions. Addiction is destructive and causes untold hurt for the addicted and those they love.

General abstinence for the general population seems to me to be a bit of a scourge, though. We’re all becoming such bores about it. We’re in danger of turning ourselves and each other into unnecessarily prim, judgemental prigs. If that wasn’t bad enough, we’re in danger of pushing normal habits of celebration and indulgence into hiding, of subverting our occasional excesses and driving our revelry underground. So, I have one too many drinks once in a blue moon, by which I mean two or three times a year. I do it with good cheer in good company to general merriment. I don’t operate heavy machinery, mess with productivity because of hangovers, or spend public money by requiring any emergency services. 

Sober October or Abstinent January might actually make someone as normal as me think more about alcohol rather than less. Deprivation does weird things to the brain. Think of it this way: You can walk in a straight line, right? Of course you can. Now imagine trying to walk in a straight line on a six inch ledge with a three hundred foot precipice on either side. I can walk in a straight line, but nothing would induce me to do that. The ledge could be six feet wide and I still wouldn’t do it.

I have one too many drinks two or three times a year. I might go a week without having so much as a glass of wine. I might not have a drink for a month, but tell me I can’t have a drink for a month and suddenly that glass of wine will be on my mind every hour of every day. The same would probably be true if you denied me a chocolate biscuit, and I don’t even like chocolate biscuits.

Perhaps it’s just me. Perhaps I’m just contrary. I won’t be taking up the Sober October challenge and I won’t be making any New Year’s resolutions. I won’t be giving up anything for Lent, either. I won’t be writing a novel in November, or growing a moustache... Gosh! There are a lot of things I won’t be doing.

That’s a good thing, though, because it frees me up to do all the things I want to do, and all the things I need to do, and some of the time I’ll be doing those things with a glass of wine in my hand, and, who knows, I might even cause a little merriment by having that one glass too many. 
Join Stoptober

For those of you who do choose to do some of the things on the list I’ve just trashed, I wish you love and luck and strength and perseverance, and I’ll be thinking of you. Just because abstinence might not be my life choice doesn't mean it's a bad thing, and doesn't mean it isn't a good choice for you. October seems like as good a month as any to clean up your act. Go you!


I have since learned that some people are embarking on Sober October as a way of earning cash for charities. How bloody marvellous is that? Someone hit me up for a donation. I believe I'm looking at you Sarah Pinborough - Smiles. Good luck and happy collecting to all of you.