Saturday, 31 December 2011

Resolving to write in 2012

I know, I know, 2012 isn't here yet but while I have a little time before I start to celebrate, I thought I'd consider how I might improve my writing in the year to come. I don't normally make personal resolutions but a new year seems like an excellent opportunity to spend time considering the creative portion of my life.

Resolution No. 1 - Finish My Novel

This one doesn't require any explanation really.

Resolution No. 2 - Read More Books

I've always found an indulgent joy in settling myself down in a silent room with a book to keep me company. 2011 has kept me so busy though that I've got out of the habit of reading for pleasure. In 2012, that is going to change.

Resolution No. 3 - Give Myself Permission To Write

As I said above, 2011 has been an incredibly busy year, ending with a house move that I'm still recovering from. Gradually, I've allowed the school run, housework and commitments to other people to eat into my writing time. In 2012, I will put the onus back on my writing.

So there you have it - my writing resolutions for 2012. I'd love to hear what yours are.

All the best for a creative and productive new year.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Window No. 24

Just a short one to wish you all the best for tomorrow.

Merry Christmas.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Window No. 23

I've spent this month talking about the kind of Christmas's that I was brought up with, the traditions and the memories that shaped the way I approach the festive season with my own children. The one thing I haven't mentioned is that this time of year always holds a gem of sadness. You might think that it's odd to team up the word 'gem' with the concept of sadness but to me it's a very fitting description.

The sadness comes from the memories that this time of year conjures up. The people I've told you about, the Brinkmans, the Halls, our neighbours and my parents, are nearly all gone now. Only two of them remain, one of the neighbours who has remained a firm friend and my godmother, both of them in their eighties.

I firmly believe that life constantly throws a hotch potch of good and bad into our paths so I welcome this sadness along with the enjoyment of Christmas. As I watch my children open their presents, I remember doing the same with my own parents. When we visit my husband's extended family this season, I'll think back to past trips to my parents' families and friends. There are so many little things that link my now to my then - my mother's method of making gravy, old films, hiding my family's presents until Christmas morning. 

If this season is about home and family, it's also about the loved ones who are no longer with us, all those faces who have shaped us into the people we are.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Window No. 22

In the northern hemisphere today is the Winter Solstice, also known as Yule or Yuletide. In the run up to Christmas with all it's nods to the Christian faith, it's easy to forget that Yule is a pagan festival.

My father came from a mixed background faith-wise. His mother was a devout episcopalian Christian, having been an instrumental part of a congregation of followers who built their own church. She held her faith dear to her heart. My grandfather had a more casual link to the church, adhering to it simply because the community he was part of required him to. He joined his wife's church to please her but he was much closer to the land, to nature and to the pagan ways.

My father had much the same attitude as his father to the church, while my mother saw attending services, having her child, me, christened, and being wed in church as the right and proper thing to do. Where my father would see Christmas Eve as a time for family to spend some quiet time together, my mother would nag him to take her to the midnight church service.

Even in the depths of winter, my father would be found in the garden, not necessarily to tend to the plants but sometimes just to spend some thoughtful time there. He found a peaceful contentment in watching the changes of the season.

At this time of year, when nature seems to recede and pause, I take the day to do the same. On the winter solstice, I put aside Christmas shopping and preparation, and take a moment to just be.

All the best for a peaceful winter solstice.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Window No. 21

My parents were frequent visitors to the theatre, taking me to our local Theatre Royal at least once a month, and each December we would see a pantomime.

As a child, the romance of the principal boy and girl was pleasant enough but I would wait excitedly for the Dame to come on. Dressed in garish colours, with a suitcase of jokes and one-liners, the Dame and her put-upon sidekick would make my night.

Window No. 20

My father and I didn't tend to like the same TV programmes when I was a child. He watched the football. I liked Blue Peter. He enjoyed Fawlty Towers. I preferred Animal Magic. One programme we did agree on was Doctor Who.  Like every child before me, I hid behind the sofa when the Daleks trundled on and peeped out between my fingers at the Cybermen, but there was something exciting and otherworldly about the Doctor and his companions travelling through time in a blue box.

On Christmas Day, Doctor Who was the height of viewing for my father and me. This year, I'll be watching it with my husband, our children and my in-laws.

I've loved all the Doctors but Jon Pertwee was the one I remember most fondly. Which was your favourite?


Monday, 19 December 2011

Window No. 19

This was a typical New Year's Eve party at our house. Everyone would be dressed up (that's me in the pink dress and the bad perm). Our group would usually number around ten - my parents and me. the Griffins and their son, the Jones and their friends Madge and Jim. The evening would start with a meal out at a country pub, then it'd be back to our house for a party until midnight. At twelve o'clock, everything would stop and as the final chime rang out, we'd join hands and sing 'Auld Lang Syne'. After the resulting hugs, we'd go first footing, calling in on each other's houses. Sometimes one of us would bring along a piece of coal and a sprig of greenery, other times it would be a bottle of wine. One year, Jim even led us down the street playing his bagpipes. Unfortunately the mad gasman (one of the neighbours not at our party) called the police that year but that's another story altogether.

Christmas Day was different. The morning was for pyjamas; the afternoon was casual. We stayed indoors with our loved ones and left the outside world for Boxing Day. It might have been cold outside but we didn't care.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Window No. 18

Another item of regular Christmas holiday viewing was a James Bond film. I say 'a' but the likelihood was that several would feature over the festive period. I've already watched a couple of Sean Connery films in the run up to Christmas this year.

A particularly snow-laden James Bond outing (and hence quite a Christmas-sy one) was On Her Majesty's Secret Service, starring George Lazenby as 007, Diana Rigg as the feisty love interest and Telly Savalas as the cat-stroking villain. George Lazenby is often criticised for his version of James Bond but I have to say I loved him in this film. He was handsome, wise-cracking and he got the job done. Diana Rigg was wonderfully glamorous and the kind of witty, gun-toting heroine that the James Bond films always needed, fully capable of holding her own against the flirtacious spy.

Which Bond is your favourite?

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Window No. 17

Just a short post today. When I was a child, we rarely had snow at Christmas. We might see a bit of the white stuff in November perhaps or on my birthday in January but the 25th of December was usually just, well, wet. The reality of snow now I'm a parent isn't half as romantic and magical as it was when I was a child but I can still dream.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Window No. 16

Be it by the name of the character Scrooge, by one of the many films made of the novel, or by the image of Bill Murray being beaten up by a fairy with a toaster, all of us must have come across the story of 'A Christmas Carol' by Charles Dickens. Ebenezer Scrooge's cruel and penny-pinching life is turned around by the visit of the spirit of his dead partner, Marley and of course by the three time-led ghosts of past, present and future, all warning him to change his ways. It's a tale that touches on so many aspects of Christmas and life in general that we often forget on a day to day basis. More than anything, it tells us to reach out and connect.

Long  before I read the novel, I came across 'A Christmas Carol' in the form of a film, the 1951 retelling of the story. Scrooge was played by the irrepressible Alastair Sim, a wonderful Scottish actor whose whole being seemed to come alive on screen. Even in the act of silence, his wild eyebrows and heavy-lidded eyes could tell a million decisions. His voice carried colours of emotion and thoughts half touched on like a magnificent, melodious song, drumming on the heartstrings and pulling unexpected laughter from your lungs. He was what they called a character actor, always himself and yet constantly adding depth and understanding to the roles he played. His Scrooge turned from a mean, nasty, old man who cared nothing for humanity to a joyous, child-man who finally saw the best in everyone and everything.

Since then the story has been replayed countless times, even by the Muppets, but my favourite take on the story has to be Scrooged. Bill Murray makes me chortle at the best of times, even in the worst of films, and his take on the Scrooge character is hilarious and, eventually, endearing.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Window No. 15

Do you colour co-ordinate your Christmas home? It seems to be the fashionable thing to do. The magazines provide us with themes too - Scandinavian red and white, Jewel inspired teal and gold - and I have to say that I'm very impressed by the efforts some of my friends go to in the styling of their Christmas homes. TV presenters share their festive decorating secrets with us. Everyone seems to be in on the plan to make Christmas as stylish and colour-matched as possible. The adult in me wants to buy into the whole festive interior design experience but the child in me feels differently.

The child in me delights in an overload of clashing, vibrant, wonderful colour. In past years, golden angels have sat beside an orange bauble which in turn hung over glittering, red tinsel on our tree. I refuse to keep back decorations made over the years by my children simply because they don't match each other (or anything else in the room).

When I was young, Christmas was a feast for all the senses - the smell of roasting turkey, the sound of Slade belting out 'So here it is, Merry Christmas' over and over again, the slippery feel of the wrapping paper as I ripped it off my presents, the taste of  Mum's stuffing, and the sight of our mismatched, colour-strewn living room. Christmas simply smacked of colour. There was the red and white of Santa's outfit. The green of the tree and the holly from our front garden that my mother would decorate the mirrors and pictures with (accompanying the decoration with 'ouch'es and 'ooh's as the holly fought back). There was the glorious orange of butter drizzled carrots, and the golden yellow of the star on the top of the tree. We had blue baubles, purple baubles, red, gold, green - a rainbow of glitter and gleam that decked our tree. Then there were the presents in whatever colour wrapping paper my mother had bought that year, the crackers, the layers of trifle sponge and jelly, and the red flowers of the poinsettia plant that my father would buy each December. It was an interior designer's worst nightmare, and I loved it.

We're on the point of moving house at the moment. In fact, we start tomorrow. We'll be in and at least partly unpacked by Christmas Eve so our decorations and tree will have to wait until then. I could get it done when the children are in bed so they'll wake up to it on Christmas Day. I could do that but I think this year, I'll let them be in charge of decorating the tree. The result may not be a picture of style or design. There'll probably be gaps without baubles and clumps of decorations on other branches. I don't really care because it'll be our tree and our Christmas with all its wonderful, clashing, imperfections.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Window No. 14

This is my mum with her great friend, Sarah Brinkman. Sarah and her husband, Billy lived in the area where my mother was raised. They'd been farmers until Billy decided that enough was enough. They bought a plot of land in Kirkstall and Billy, almost by himself, built their house. When my grandmother Maud died and my grandfather Alfred fell into a deep depression, it was the Brinkmans who helped mum and her new fiance (my father) to pick up the pieces.

Sarah and Billy were as different as a ham joint and a loaf of bread but equally they went together wonderfully. Billy was a short, quiet man who spent much of his time in the garden. That's the place I always remember him, tending to his flowerbeds while my father and he exchanged tips on growing vegetables. Sarah was the joker of the pair, an entertainer with a constant smile, a laughing light in her eyes and a well stocked larder. She always had more than sufficient supplies in to feed an army. When I picture her in my mind, she is wearing a pinny over a floral dress, a cardigan over that, thick stockings cladding her legs and her white hair is pinned into curls.

Theirs wasn't a massive house, it sat squat between the older, taller buildings. The staircase was steep, the steps so shallow that it was a tremorous mountain climb to the toilet. It was a working house with a pantry to be kept, fireplaces to be cleaned and lit, and tiled floors to wash. There was something incredibly comforting about Sarah and Billy, and the home they had created though, and as a child, teenager and young adult, I always looked forward to my visits there.

When Billy died in his seventies, Sarah stayed on in the home they had shared together. She became incredibly deaf and I would have to knock on the window of her lounge for about ten minutes before she'd look up from the television and see me. The area changed. Landlords bought a lot of the multi storey period houses and rented them to students. Only a handful of residents, most of them elderly remained. Sarah's world grew smaller as she ventured out less. It probably became more frightening too. Watching the news can make the world seem a terrible, scary place. Opening her door though, Sarah would light up my day with her smile, beckon me in and offer me whatever sustenance she had.

When we think of Christmas, it's natural to think of families and groups of people. We sometimes forget that there are those who will spend the day alone. Many of them will be elderly. A great deal of them are too proud to ask for help and see themselves as a nuisance. What will make their day is a phone call, a quick visit, a present (it may be the only one they get this year), or even a Christmas card. I'll be checking in on the old birds I hold dear to my heart by giving them a call. I hope that if I'm ever in their situation, there'll be someone to do the same for me.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Window No. 13

This was my daughter's school carol concert at the local Asda. We walked them down, in the rain, and stood bedraggled, shivering and dripping as our young ones began to sing. As we listened to them, thirty nine year olds belting out 'Little Donkey' to bemused shoppers, something interesting happened. We (parents and teachers) forgot that we were cold. We didn't notice the draught of air that shook us every time the entrance doors slid open. Strangers racing round the store, stopped, joined us, dropped a coin in the bucket held by one of the children. As a body, we let the festive music fill our moment.

However cynical and bah-humbuggish we may be about festive joy and yuletide spirit, not many of us can go uninfected by the music of Christmas. From 'God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen' to 'Silent Night' to 'Fairytale of New York', there's a festive song for everyone.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Window No. 12

Food, glorious food. And no, I don't mean the song. Is it any wonder that we try so hard to lose weight in the run up to Christmas when the day (ok, the week that starts around Christmas Eve) is almost as much to do with what we'll eat and drink as it is about what presents we'll give?

My father worked for Rowntrees in York. If you haven't heard of the name (in which case you probably don't eat sweets), Rowntrees was a manufacturer of chocolates and other confectioneries. It is now owned by Nestle who have usurped the name, using their own instead.

Dad  would regularly bring home boxes of seconds, chocolate bars and the suchlike that hadn't made the grade (I especially remember Cabana bars that had too much caramel in them) but at Christmas, his order would extend to include nuts, biscuits, and a powdered drink in a tin that fizzed up when you added water. There would always be a tin of Quality Street which when opened was a delight in itself with all the jewel-coloured wrappers. There would also be (mainly for my parents) a box of After Eight Mints which looked very sophisticated to me as a child in their individual black paper wrappers (which my parents always returned to the box empty, just to fool me).

My mother was an excellent cook when she put her mind to it. If she liked a recipe (like pork chops with stuffing on the top) then she would turn out a top quality dish. The result was rarely good though if you asked her to cook a food she disliked. Mushy peas had mysteriously hard lumps in them. My father rarely asked her to cook his favourite tripe and onions. In fact, he ended up cooking it himself. Maybe that was mum's plan all along.

On Christmas Day, Mum would be up long before the rest of us. Before the morning light reached through my curtains, I would hear pans clanging and the fridge door opening and closing, opening and closing, opening and slamming. My father knew better than to disturb her until she'd got into her stride.

Christmas lunch was extremely traditional. On the one occasion that my father suggested trying something a little different, my mother told him that in that case maybe he could cook Christmas lunch that year. It was a challenge that he didn't rise to and our regular Christmas lunch service was resumed - turkey (breast meat for my parents, leg meat for me), stuffing in and out of the bird, roast potatoes (I've never learnt how to make roasties as good as my mum), sprouts (from the vast batch grown in our garden), mashed potato and carrots. Gravy would be made in the pan with juices from the bird and water from the vegetables. Filled to the brim after eating this but never admitting defeat, we would be presented with a sherry trifle.

Shortly after we left the table, my mother would be happily snoring on the sofa while my father and I looked at our presents and watched TV. A little later, my father would quietly clear the table. We knew full well that come tea-time, Mum would be up and at 'em, bombarding us with sandwiches and mince pies. In the meantime though, we let her and our stomachs rest.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Window No. 11

Do you make a Christmas gift list? I haven't written one since I was a child. It always seems a presumptuous thing to do as an adult but I suppose it is helpful, especially if your other half or family are a bit clueless when it comes to present buying.

I have a bad habit of expecting my husband to know automatically what to get me for Christmas and my birthday. Surely he should know me well enough by now (we've been together for ten years). I have to admit though that I rarely know what to get him. Perhaps a Christmas list would be helpful.

As a child I'm sure that my Christmas list each year made my parents despair. With the exception of toys that were new on the market, my list would usually look like this:
  • pony (I started horse riding at a local stables when I was five years old),
  • ticket to go see whatever pop band was my favourite at the time - Bay City Rollers, Sweet, Donny Osmond,
  • a cart to go with the pony,
  • a fairy (yes, really),
  • acting lessons,
  • a bookshop,
  • books, books, books.
I never got the pony and cart, or the concert ticket, or the acting lessons (although my father did thrust me into an am dram group when I was in my early twenties), or the fairy (you'll be surprised to hear) or my very own bookshop (still want that one). The last request on the list, however, was always successful. Every year there would be several books wrapped up neatly for me under the tree.

Maybe next year I'll save my husband's nerves and put together a Christmas list. Or I could just keep him guessing.

If you're trying to work out what to buy for a writer friend this year (or if you're a writer and want to let your loved ones know what to get you), have a look at my post 7 ways to give to your writer friends this Christmas.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Window No. 10

The first part of most people's Christmas day (not all, I admit) is the ritual of opening presents - checking the tags, handing them out to the right people, then ripping off the paper with cheerful abandon. Gift giving has become one of the main elements of the festive season - writing a list of what you'd like, planning what you'll get everyone and how much you can spend, looking out for bargains in the shops, buying the gifts themselves, wrapping them, arranging them around the tree (after first hiding them in a cupboard or wardrobe for a couple of weeks), handing them out and opening them. As parents, we can feel especially pressured into following this routine. We want our children to adore their presents so we spend more and more on them.

My parents were just the same. I'd get the "We can't afford as much this year" speech at the beginning of every December and yet I'd still have a pile of presents on the day. Of course, we'd spend January eating cabbage soup and baked beans on toast to make up for the luxury of Christmas. My father wouldn't let us put the fire on as much ("You've plenty of jumpers") and trips to the sweetie shop would be cancelled.

My favourite Christmas present ever was my first bicycle. It was red and white with a bell and a little basket at the back. I was probably four years old. Once opened, it sat in pride of place by the Christmas tree. I nagged my parents to take me out on it but it wasn't until the new year that my bicycle was christened. The reason that this was my favourite present isn't because of the item itself. It's my favourite because of the memories it provided of my father running a small child on a bicycle along a country lane, almost bent double as he tried to stop me wobbling. My mother called out things that I'm sure she thought were encouraging. I didn't hear them. I was concentrating on the pedals and the bell.

Another present I adored was my first camera. A warning to parents: beware giving your children cameras for Christmas unless you can get dressed and made-up before they open their gifts.

This is my mum. I don't think she was expecting the photography to start so early in the day.

You have  been warned.

Sometimes the best presents are the free ones - the time spent together, the laughter shared and the memories created. Those are the gifts that stay with us.

Some online free Christmas fun

Send a video from Santa to your child from the Portable North Pole. I do this for both my children each year, while they still believe in Father Christmas.

Track Santa's progress with NORAD. They also have some brilliant countdown online games.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Window No. 9

Today's window is a little different. I've taken this slot to provide you with your monthly photo inspiration for December. I hope you like these images as much as I do.

Some are of Christmas. Some just suggest the festive spirit to me. All of them are treasured memories of mine. If you look very carefully, you might even see me in a couple of them.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Window No. 8

 When I was little, we used to visit Santa's Grotto at the local Co-op in York. The Co-op was spread out over the ground floor but the grotto was upstairs. I remember the colour blue predominantly in the decorations. After queueing for a while, you'd take your seat on Santa's sleigh which was actually a painted hardboard frame surrounding a number of benches. I remember there being reindeers at the head of the sleigh but I can't recall if these were actual reindeer figures or just painted images. The walls in front, at the sides and behind the sleigh were on some kind of roller system. As the sleigh 'set off', the rollers began to move. The reindeers galloped. Magical, snowy scenes reeled past the sleigh and then we took off into a glittery, night sky, my heart 'taking off' too with the excitement of it all. There was tinkling, festive music and for what seemed like a perfect moment, we flew in our sleigh, breath held tightly, eyes wide.

When the sleigh ride jerked to a halt, doors would open to one side and our parents would guide us into a dimly lit corridor of glass fronted scenes of Santa's workshop. The figures moved, hammers raising and lowering in the hands of the elves as they made our toys. There were reindeers nodding to us and woodland animals peeping in through the workshop windows.

When finally we found Santa in his grotto, the reality of this human figure was actually a little disappointing. Maybe I was the only child that felt that way but as my parents pushed me towards Santa (who was probably the store manager in a costume), I would much rather have been on the sleigh ride or with the elves.

The Co-op isn't there anymore. It's since been replaced by a smart boutique hotel and a Budgens supermarket. It doesn't matter. My memories of the grotto are still clear, as crisp and bright as the snow that filled the sleigh ride sky.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Window No. 7

One Christmas, my parents gave me an old hardback copy of Peter Pan. There was no name written on the inside cover so I don't know whether it had belonged to either of them. I remember looking for the date of publication and finding a year that seemed very long ago and old to me. The story of the boy who wouldn't grow up was fantastical and enchanting. I preferred Tinkerbell to Wendy who seemed too motherly and proper to me. I devoured the book in a few nights' reading and then placed it on my treasured bookcase with my other darling books.

Peter Pan is a story that has lived on and been revisited so many times that I doubt there are many people who haven't heard of it . It has been drawn by Disney, peopled by Robin Williams and Maggie Smith, and has forever made famous the name Captain Hook.

What appealed to me most, at that age, was the idea that a child could choose not to grow up. A life of childhood on an island with other children and adventure and magical friends appeared to be a perfect scenario. Being a grown-up seemed boring at the best of times, scary at the worst, and incredibly alien. How much better it would be to be able to fly.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Window No. 6

My father was a serious man. He wasn't cold or unfeeling. He loved my mother and me deeply but living through hard times had created a quiet reticence in him. A teenage injury at the start of the second world war had left him in almost constant pain, not that he asked for or expected pity, quite the opposite. His normal expression was a frown. He had what you would call a furrowed brow. Amid his serious mood though, certain things would bring an understated smile to his lips - his family, jazz music, the sight of a Scottish landscape. What was rarer was to hear him chuckle. Rarer still was the sight of my father laughing so much that tears washed down his face.

The comedy duo, Morecambe and Wise were one of the few things that reduced him to this state. They were a straight man (Ernie Wise) and a funny man (Eric Morecambe). Both worked incredibly hard to acquire not only fame but a place in the hearts of the British public. Ernie was constantly at the mercy of his taller companion's quips but then so were their guests. The child that I was took delight in seeing two grown men doing a silly dance (as they exited at the end of each show after singing themselves out with 'Bring me sunshine' ), Eric slapping Ernie's face (not as violent as it sounds) and the way they could persuade even the most serious of actors to do silly things.
Their Christmas shows were the best. In fact it wasn't Christmas without a visit from Morecambe and Wise.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Window No. 5

One of the benefits of having older parents - mine were born in the 1920s - was their taste in films. We watched old black and white cowboy films where the good guys always wore a white hat and the bad guys needed a bath. We watched comedies dominated by Tony Curtis, and thrillers starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. My favourites films though were the musicals. I loved 'Singing in the Rain' for Gene Kelly's dancing, Debbie Reynolds gutsiness and Donald O'Connor's funny moves. 'Sweet Charity' made me cry and I secretly used to sing 'There's gotta be something better than this' when my parents were out of earshot. My top musical of all time though was 'Kismet'.

I saw it for the first time in the lead up to Christmas one year and was enchanted by it's Arabian Nights like storyline - a prince and a poet's daughter fall in love while the poet himself (played with fine gusto by Howard Keel) gets into all kinds of trouble. Where my friends lusted after pop stars, Howard Keel was my first real crush.

The song that I always recall from the musical is Baubles, Bangles and Beads.