Between Christmas and New Year

It’s a funny time of year, isn’t it? Christmas Day is over, but the New Year hasn’t started yet. We’re in a period of limbo, with time to look over the past year and prepare ourselves for the next. And, in my case, read. I had several books saved up for Christmas and realised that three of them had a Jane Austen theme, so if that’s the kind of thing you’d like, read on. ‘Murder and Matchmaking’ by Debbie Cowens brings together Elizabeth and Mr Sherlock Darcy as they investigate the deaths of four young, attractive girls. Here’s a hint – who do you think would benefit from the removal of so many marriageable young ladies? In Cora Seaton’s ‘A Seal’s Oath’ four girls have decided to live for six months as the young ladies from Austen’s time might have done – but their plans don’t fit in with the new owner of the property. And Abigail Reynolds’ variation on ‘Pride and Prejudice’, ‘Conceit and Concealment’, images a counter-factual history of England where Napoleon has succeeded in his invasion plans and French officers dominate in Meryton. Each very different, but all recommended.

I’ve also finished the last of my charity knitting for 2017. Actually I finished it a while ago as it had to go into a Christmas box sent via Vision Romania. They deliver shoe boxes covered in Christmas paper to children each year, which are filled with useful things like toothbrushes and pencils, as well as toy and sweets. I made a bright pink scarf, teamed with a lime green hat. Colourful, if not always tasteful.

I’ve worked out that since I started this project in January, I’ve knitted over 100,000 stitches using one and a quarter pound weight of yarn (over a mile!). I’ve read about so many good causes and been impressed by how many people give up their time and money to make something with love, for someone whom they will probably never meet. Next year I’ll carry on knitting but without tying myself to the commitment of a new project each month, as I’m aware I haven’t been writing as much as I hoped. Roll on 2018, and best wishes for a happy and healthy year.


The King in the Car Park

I spent a weekend this month in Leicester, a city I haven’t visited for about 15 years – which meant I hadn’t seen it since the body of Richard III had been removed for reburial. I had seen on television the progress of the archaeological dig to rediscover his body, and later the procession which took the body around significant sites near the town before bringing it home for reburial in the Cathedral there.

The church of St Martin was only created a cathedral in 1927 and the building itself is mostly Victorian, but there has been a church on the site for around a thousand years. Richard was re-buried there in March 2015. The body is in a wooden coffin lined with lead and placed inside a stone coffin resting on a plinth of Kilkenny limestone. Around it are boars, Richard’s personal insignia. His motto of ‘loyalty binds me’ is inscribed at the end of the plinth. The coat of arms you can see is not, as I had though, enamel. The bright colours are actually small pieces of stone, cut and shaped to form the royal arms from 1485. This technique is known as ‘pietra dura’ – hard or strong stone – and uses lapis lazuli from Afghanistan for the bright blue; the same stone medieval artists would grind up to make the blue robe of Mary, Christ’s mother.

Outside the cathedral is a statute of Richard, who is presented a slight young man holding a crown. When I visited, someone had placed a rose at his feet. It wasn’t the white rose of York though – it seemed to be the pink-tipped peach rose named ‘Peace’.

In other news I’m getting ready for Christmas and finishing off my charity knitting for 2017. This month I sent a hat and booties to Landour Community Hospital in Mussoorie, north of Delhi in India. Weirdly, it’s named after a Welsh village. The hospital is seeking clothes for babies and young children, all yarns and designs welcome, so I used some jade cotton 4-ply yarn and finished the items with a white trim.

A Spooky Month?

The most spooky thing about October is how fast it seems to have passed by. I spend it working on another MOOC, on Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites –  I hadn’t realised so many objects (or items of material culture, as they are now called!) had survived, and it was fascinating to see pieces made for the two different sides, many of them very high quality. I particularly liked a silver canteen of cutlery, which had been made for Prince Charles. A targe or shield, heavily embellished with silver, was another gift to the Prince which was abandoned after the battle of Culloden. A lot of the interest in the history of this period is driven by the popularity of ‘Outlander’, based on the novels by Diana Gabaldon, and the comments under the posts showed how many people had become fascinated with the story of the Jacobites through the novels. That, of course, is not a new phenomenon; part of the course looked at Sir Walter Scott and the way he made Scottish history or ‘Antiquarianism’ popular through his novels.

Now the weather has become a little colder I’m enjoying knitting hats. They’re a bit like chocolates, really; you finish one them immediately start another. I haven’t had much luck so far looking for a UK< charity to knit them for, so I’ve sent four children’s hat in bright shades to children in the Chippewa Valley in Wisconsin.

However you spend Halloween, I hope you have a good time. I still haven’t started on the turnip I bought to make a lantern, but I’m well stocked with sweets for anyone who calls by!

What I Did On My Summer Holidays

Does anyone remember being given this essay topic when you went back to school? It gave the teacher some peace to get on with things while we all laboured to describe what we had got up to in the last two months. Well, this year, I went to Paris, and had a fabulous time. I’d visited Versailles many years ago, but just (just!) the palace, so the gardens were a revelation to me. I thought they were all beautiful, but I much preferred the simplicity of Marie Antoinette’s hamlet to the gilded interiors of the great palace. The Petit Trianon was delightful, and actually seemed a possible residence – no-one could possibly have endured life at the court without an escape like this.

The Louvre, also, was a revisit, but in the intervening 30 years a lot of excavations have been carried out on the site, which revealed the 12th century moat and some fragments (see picture) of the original castle. This was thrilling for me, as I had studied early French architecture many years ago. The queues to see the Mona Lisa were ridiculous but I was fascinated to learn more about the Louvre building itself, and to find out that many artists were given quarters there after the French Revolution, as part of the Academies the French set up. The most famous one is that set up to guard the French language from words like ‘le weekend’.

I didn’t forget to keep up with charity knitting, despite the heat, and have made a couple of squares for a South African charity called ‘Knit a Square’. It may sound silly but I didn’t know how to knit a square diagonally and was very proud of myself when I worked it out!


Have you tried MOOCing?

I just completed a MOOC – a Massive Open Online Course. I first heard about them last year but couldn’t find one I wanted to try. Then the University of Edinburgh announced they were offering one through FutureLearn on ‘How to Read a Novel’. I know how to read a novel (open cover, start at page 1!) but I thought it might give me a new way to look at writing a novel, so I signed up.

The course lasted for four weeks, with an expected two hours of work per week. It course was an interesting mix of videos, articles, discussion and, at the end, a piece of written work. I had wondered how, with many thousands undertaking a course, the instructors could possibly assess written work, but now I know – that task is assigned to participants, and after submitting my own I was given others’ work to comment on. One of the strands of the course was an assessment of examples from the short-listed finalists for the James Tait Black prize for fiction, to be awarded at the International Edinburgh Book Festival. This was awarded near to the end of the four weeks and it was interesting to see how the course participants championed the different titles. Most left me cold but I was intrigued by Jo Baker’s ‘A Country Road, a Tree’, a fictionalised account of Samuel Beckett’s wartime experiences; her ‘Longbourn’, a servants’ eye view of ‘Pride and Prejudice’, created quite a stir a few years ago.

In case it isn’t clear from the name, MOOCs are free. Successful participants on my course are invited to upgrade their qualification by getting a certificate and permanent access to the course materials for £49, but I don’t think I could justify that cost. It was an interesting experience though and I’m already looking over the options to select my second MOOC.

My charity knit in August was a hat for ‘Knit for Peace’, to be sent to a Syrian refuge camp. The pattern is ‘Two by Two Basic Beanie’ from Ravelry, knitted in some oddments of pure new wool I was given by a friend. None of the scraps looked very much in the ball, but they were enough to make sure someone is warm this winter.

July’s charity knit

A quick post to show what I knitted in July for charity. This baby hat and jacket were knitted in 4ply cotton bought from Flying Tiger. The jacket is a lovely little one that knits up very quickly; I’ve made lots from the pattern, which you can find at The hat is a Ravelry pattern which I adapted by knitting a shorter stem at the top; I thought tying a knot would make it harder to post.

These have been sent off to an organisation which provides clothing for new babies in Guatemala. Maya Midwifery helps mothers who have very little to dress their new arrivals, and also supports indigenous midwives with training and equipment. The website has some pictures of the babies in their new outfits and explains more about what the charity does and why.

RNA Conference 2017

Last weekend I attended the Romantic Novelists’ Association Annual Conferenced at Harper Adams University in Shropshire. This time I was there for the full two days, so I was able to hear from lots of well-informed and interesting speakers. But first of all, a word about the food! Harper Adams is a former agricultural college, and to help in training the students they raise crops and animals in the surrounding area. Much of the produce is then used in the university catering; the bacon at breakfast was made from their own pigs and cured locally, for example. The Gala Dinner on Saturday night was amazing; normally at an event like that, catering for over 200 people, the main course is something like chicken or stew, which is easier to keep warm and serve at the right temperature. But we were given individual Beef Wellingtons! – and the vegetables were hot, another thing almost impossible to achieve. I highly recommend a visit.

Back to the conference itself. All attendants received a goody bag with books (donated by various publishers) and promotional items from authors. People were queuing up to but raffle tickets for the most beautiful quilted wall-hanging, made in memory of agent Carole Blake by Anne Styles. It was so colourful and flamboyant  kept going back to look at it – but alas I didn’t win the draw. I had been looking forward to a talk on ‘Plotter vs Pantser’ by Alison May and Bella Osborne, as plotting is something I really struggle with. After some exercises with them, I discovered that although I am in general really very well-organised, like some others in the audience I could not translate that across to plotting. The suggestion was that plotting was an area where my creativity needed to be able to play. Kate Johnson interviewed Jill Mansell on her writing methods, and Jill produced from her handbag a huge concertina of paper covered in different shades of sticky notes; now there’s a woman who knows how to plot. Jill writes in longhand, with the television on, and manages about a thousand words a day. She said writers have to like their characters, so that they want to find out what happens to them. Fiona Harper gave a brilliant talk on how to develop your characters from the outside in, asking and answering questions about what they want, fear and believe. Once you know their motivations thoroughly, you can see how and why they behave the way they do.

All in all, it was a great conference and I have lots to think over. I have lots of notes to reread, business cards to file and things to send to people, as well as wait for copies of handouts etc to arrive. Busy times ahead!