Saturday, 18 November 2017

The PINK SOFA meets writer Jan Ruth

The PINK SOFA is a great celebrant of Christmas, and has already laid in stocks of food and bottles of mulled wine for its Christmas guests. Here is the first of them: Jan Ruth lives in Wales and has horses, something the PINK SOFA envies to the ends of its little curved wooden legs. She also has a new book out just in time for the festive season. So, sit down, grab a mince pie, and let's find out all about it:

The Story behind the Story...

"Away for Christmas is a novella about the joy and pain of fractured relationships, the joy and pain of Christmas itself – because the festive period is not always fun for everyone – and the joy and pain of publishing books! But perhaps most of all, this is a story about staying true to oneself and looking for the real Christmas spirit beyond the baubles and the glitter.

Regular readers will know that my characters tend not to be in the first flush of youth, and that the joy and pain of relationships are often par for the course. Christmas is very much a family time and can unearth a multitude of unwelcome emotions and in the case of my character, present plenty of troublesome hurdles before the festivities can be enjoyed. His ex-wife doesn't always make life easy, but Jonathan is determined to be a better dad, against all the odds.

And finally, the joy and pain of publishing books. There are some great publishers out there, ones who achieve results, look after their authors and understand the industry from the ground up. This story isn’t based on them.

It’s no secret that I’ve been round the houses and back again with regard to writing and publishing. Thirty years ago I used to believe that a good book would always be snapped up by a publisher regardless of genre, style, and content. In the real, commercial world, this just isn’t true. After several years of agents and self-publishing, a turning point came for me when a small press offered a contract for Silver Rain. This is it, I thought. This is the change of direction I need… but be careful what you wish for! Don’t get me wrong in that I had huge delusional ideas at this stage. I was simply seeking greater visibility and some respite from the nuts and bolts of self-publishing.

And all the outward signs were good: they took five back-catalogue titles and one new title, to make six contracts. This material represented several years of my life, several thousand pounds’ worth of investment in terms of editorial advisory, editing, proofreading, designing, formatting for ebooks and paperbacks, advertising… I could go on. Producing a quality product and promoting it to its best advantage doesn’t happen by accident. If you don’t have these skills yourself, then one needs to employ freelance professionals, as I’ve reiterated many times. Of course, we know there are a lot of ‘home-made’ books out there which don’t quite cut it, but this is certainly not the case for all self-produced work. What is slightly disconcerting is that I discovered (and so does my poor character Jonathan Jones) that this isn’t necessarily the case for traditionally produced work, either!

The process of trade publishing has less to do with the quality of material than you might presume, but it has a lot to do with what is or isn’t marketable at any one time. This isn’t bad business, it’s about making money to stay afloat. Small publishers are in exactly the same boat as the independents, but with far more overheads and problems with staff. Some of these staff may be inexperienced or learning ‘on the job.’

These small companies are up against the same fast-moving on-line industry as any independent but perhaps without the resources to manage it effectively, let alone build a lively following on Twitter; a following which has the power to engage. Traditional publishing, by its very nature, is painfully slow and this produces a massive clash with the shifting sands of on-line business. We perhaps don’t realise how fine-tuned independents have become in this respect.

Worryingly, new authors are often excited by offers from vanity publishers, or those who operate under the guise of assisted publishing, not realising the implications until it’s perhaps too late. Even contracts from those real publishers with seemingly no pitfalls or upfront costs, can dissolve into a horribly disappointing experience. Of course, my poor character thinks he’s landed lucky when a small publisher offers him a three-book deal. What could go wrong? If you’ve ever dreamed of writing a book or maybe you’ve just typed THE END to your manuscript, you might think twice about your next step…

Away for Christmas is set over three Christmastimes, and because I feel sure you’ll be looking for a few hours of warm and cosy escapism at this time of the year, I can assure you that there’s a happy ending by the time Jonathan makes it to 2017."

Jan's book can be bought at:
Find her on Twitter at: @JanRuthAuthor 

Monday, 13 November 2017

A Girls' Night Out (Adventures of L-Plate Gran)

Now that Little G is three and a half (or as she puts it: nearly four), our relationship has moved to a new dimension. While Small potters around finding stuff and transferring it elsewhere ~ spoons, a glove, the cat tray shovel, we get on discussing the Big Things in life, like What is Friendship? (it's being nice and sharing your toys) & what Little G would do if she met someone who wasn't friendly (I'd tell them to be exactly like me, because I am a good friend).

As a reward for being exactly like herself, Little G and I recently decided we needed a Girls Night Out, because Small was going to the football with the rest of the family and L-Plate Grandad. Little G was most excited about the concept of a 'Night Out', and in the weeks running up to the Saturday when it was going to happen, she referred to it frequently.

Saturday finally arrived, and I rocked up at You Must Be Mad's, to find Little G waiting impatiently for me on the sofa. She was wearing her best little black sparkly dress (what else?) and her boots with sparkly stars on. We spent some time perusing and selecting appropriate accessories, finally coming down on the side of a silver sparkly bag and some sparkly clips. You may detect a theme here. I cannot comment.

Sparkling and excited, we walked together into town until we reached Wagamama's  ~ a place we used to go regularly when she was tiny. We selected exactly the same meal, as a homage to those far-off days, opting for spoon and fork rather than chopsticks. We know our limits. Once again, some adult diners regarded Little G's presence with antipathy, and once again, I remarked LOUDLY on the mess they were making with their chopsticks, as opposed to the neat way Little G was eating.

After dinner, happy and replete, we strolled along the high street, just two girls on the town, footloose and fancy free, pausing at intervals for Little G to re-apply her lipstick (a scented lip balm). As you do on a night out. When we'd seen and been seen sufficiently, we went for ice cream at a local coffee-shop, then home in time for bath, story and bed.

OK, maybe it wouldn't have score highly on your scale of nights out, but as the song says: 'Girls Just Wanna Have Fun'. And we did.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Armistice Day 2017

 'No shelter from the kniving wind
                                                       No solace from the driving snow. 
                                                       No warmth, no comfort or bright cheer 
                                                       In heav'n above or earth below'
                                                               from 'Trench Winter. November 1916' by Noel Clark 

If you read my books, you'll know that lines from this poem feature in Jigsaw Pieces , my YA ebook . Noel Clark is a character from the book and his short life as a soldier poet in the first World War makes up one of the story strands. In a few days, we will mark the anniversary of the end of  that so called 'War to End all Wars', and there must be very few UK people who don't have some link back to the 1914-18 conflict. My link comes via my late father-in-law, the wonderfully named Herbert Inkerman Hedges.

My father-in-law was the youngest of twelve brothers. The eleven older ones joined the East Riding of Yorkshire Regiment and marched away to fight the Hun. They were all killed at the Battle of the Somme. He recalls his parents telling him how the telegraph lad kept cycling up to their house day after day, until the news of the last son's death was delivered.

I'm always intrigued by the way wars throw up poets. It's not just World War One, though that cohort are probably the best known. Poetry was also being written during World War Two, on both sides, in the Iraq War and is still being produced in Afghanistan today. I think the proliferation of soldier poets during times of conflict is directly related to the situation they find themselves in.

Poetry demands an inner ordering, a precise selection of vocabulary and structure - it's the verbal equivalent of piecing together a complex jigsaw - the picture only emerges when all the pieces are correctly placed. The control needed to make a poem is in direct contrast to the chaos that soldiers live in daily. Poetry is a way of containing their world and making sense of the senseless. It is therefore both therapy, and a psychological outlet for feelings and emotions too horrific to be dealt with in 'normal' prose.

Those who have read Jigsaw Pieces know the story of Noel Clark an imaginary World War One poet who died tragically at the age of nineteen, is closely linked to another soldier from that time: Billy Donne. What you do not know is that Billy was an actual person. I came across him quite by accident in a small article in the Times in 1997. It was headlined 'A happy 100th for man with mysterious past'. I used his story almost to the letter: Billy Dunne (the correct spelling of his surname) couldn't speak, and drew pictures of battlefields, just like his fictional counterpart. He was placed in a mental hospital in 1923 for unknown reasons, and no family had ever claimed him. His story touched me so much that I felt I had to write about him. The link with Noel Clark is where fact and fiction elide.

During the upcoming commemorations for the anniversary of World War One, we shall no doubt re-read many times the 'big' soldier poets: Owen, Sassoon and Brooke. But actually I find just as much pity and pathos in the work of the women poets of that time, who did not share in the fighting at the Front, but shared in the suffering, and the changed lives.

It is their sense of loss, their attempt to learn to survive survival, that makes their verse so poignant. One of the best is Margaret Postgate Cole.
This is her poem:


When men are old, and their friends die 
They are not sad,
Because their love is running slow, 
And cannot spring from the wound with so sharp a pain;
And they are happy with many memories,
And only a little while to be alone.
But we are young, and our friends are dead
Suddenly, and our quick love is torn in two;
So our memories are only hopes that came to nothing.
We are left alone like old men; we should be dead
- But there are years and years in which we shall still be young. 

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Just Plane Crazy (Adventures of L-Plate Gran)

If we wanted to, L-Plate Grandad and I could spend all day ferrying Small and Little G from one organised activity to another, such is the wide and varied choice available locally. Playgroup might morph into Baby Sensory Club, then on to Music Time, Baby Yoga, Rhythm Time, Mini Mindfulness and so on. However, as these all cost money, and we are on a pension and mean, we refuse to pay out for stuff when we can amuse us and them for free.

One of our favourite free haunts is the local playground, recently refurbished. Little G is an experienced playgrounder, and can be safely left to work her way round the various things on offer, with only the occasional encouraging remark. Small, however, needs constant supervision as he has no fear, less sense and is reluctant to do any serious risk analysis before launching himself off the end of things he has clambered up.

Once we are all playgrounded out, we often drive to another favourite location: the end of the runway at Luton Airport. There, ensconced behind a mesh fence, we can watch the planes arriving and taking off. Little G and Small bring their two toy planes, and wave them in the air enthusiastically, making plane noises. Little G is now quite expert with the vocab, and can talk about 'control towers' and 'wheels down'. She can identify a Whizz plane from an EasyJet one, and a few weeks ago, we managed to see the last few scheduled Monarch flights going out.

Watching the planes is not just popular with us. Whatever time of day we turn up, and whatever the weather, there is always a line of cars parked by the fence, with men (mainly) with binoculars, flasks and sandwiches sitting in folding chairs along the perimeter. Some even have step-ladders and perch on the top step, like umpires at Wimbledon. It is clear that when it comes to watching planes take off and land, we are all just small kids at heart. Though two of us actually are.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

EU too? Reflections from EU Citizens in the UK.

I have written several blog posts about the ongoing difficulties experienced by EU Citizens trying to live ordinary lives post-Brexit. You can read one of them here. 

The following are all snippets from an EU Forum to which I belong. This is what life has become like for these families, ALL of whom are here ''legally'' (we still belong to the EU.) I have interspersed the comments with some montages of what these 'hard working families' read every day in the popular press.

'I went to a medical appointment yesterday and was asked a wide range of questions about my family, my marital status, nationality including my husband's and children, the date I came to the UK and if I naturalised. Strangely enough I have the impression that I will have to give further justifications in accessing any services. This is worrying and I just would like to know if there is an appetite in this group to campaign with all non EU migrants to combat against this disgusting immigration check policy within the NHS that has come into effect in October 23rd, yes...only 3 days ago.' 

'Its not NHS staff that are often bad, but stupid govt forcing them to be immigration authority. NHS organised quite few protests against that too.'

''I have not experienced any issues or discrimination personally up until today. I wanted to buy a bottle of cider in Morrisons in Bristol and was refused. I was asked for ID to verify my age (which is fine, and in fact even a bit flattering at 36  ). When I presented my Estonian ID card, the staff member first said that she's not sure they can accept it. She then said that she'll go and check with her superior. I was happy with that, as I expected her to return and say that it's fine. Instead, she returned and said that "Unfortunately, they don't take these." She wasn't rude and apologised for the inconvenience but it was still really annoying. She asked if I had anything else with me, such as a driving license, and when she heard I don't, she said that she cannot sell the cider to me. I was too upset and embarrassed to want to go and talk to a manager. ''

'As someone who's half Asian, half European, speaks five languages, went to bilingual schools and has had friends from all across the globe, I just never got the concept of 'foreign'.
I guess what I am trying to say is that I view this whole situation as ... disappointing, more than anything. It's also made me less intent on wanting to make plans for a future here, and I have been painting a vision of my future as dependent on where I want to go and where I feel welcome, because if the past few months have taught me anything it's to appreciate the power of just packing my bags and leaving.
I know that's an extreme view, and the optimist/realist in me pretty much doubts that I would have to leave, but I think ... that somewhere, somehow the UK has just let me down 

And I think that's the saddest part about this whole current ordeal -- it's making people like me who used to admire the UK just want to leave, because the rest of the world just seems like a more welcoming place.'

' The choice of language is used to reinforce their (Government) narrative- such as before the referendum, using the terms EU citizens vs British ( therefore stripping UK citizens of their EU citizenship, then applying together EU with immigrants ( when EU citizens were not considered immigrants per se, but merely using their freedom of movement, now regularise. these words are chosen carefully, to create an effect.'

'What's with the “those who are unemployed” may be rejected from settled status? That’s all students/carers/out of work spouses Pandora box re-opened, no? Does that mean CSI will be dropped but not being in employment could get you rejected? On what basis? Age? Gender?'
'Remainiac tripe claiming to be "art" spotted in Bolton, which voted for Brexit.'
This was posted today (20.10.2017) on Twitter from a Conservative Councillor.

'I read a report on the BBC this evening that Theresa May will say that the cost of applying for settled status will be "as low as possible". My partner is Spanish and I see no reason why he should pay a penny for his new status.Theresa May should guarantee now that no EU citizen should have this burden, no matter how small, just as benefit claimants should never have had to pay those outrageous costs for calling the Universal Credit helpline.' 

'It is becoming more and more apparent that the uk and the home office in particular are meaning to create a hostile environment for all non British. I think it’s high time we drop the hierarchy of immigration and fight in solidarity for all our rights as human beings no matter where we come from.'

'People are leaving because they see the writing on the wall.

The UK is going to be poorer, and the immigration situation will not get better. Even if they grant us the same rights, you will still need settled status, and you can rest assured that the
y will check this everywhere (job, bank, GP etc..) you go. A lot of people came here under FOM which allowed them to live here with far less restrictions and beauracracy. With settled status they will now have to jump through hoops to work and live here. Why do that when you can go to the continent and live in another EU country without jumping through so many hoops.

Also (and this one I feel is important), the Brexit vote has shown a side to the UK that a lot of people have found very distasteful, and they do not feel comfortable living here anymore. The anti-immigration fervor is most definitely a turn off for a lot of people.'

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Christmas Capers (Adventures of L-Plate Gran)

Although Christmas is officially still two months away, it has already unofficially arrived at our local garden centre. The garden centre is on our list of  'free activities' because we recently signed up for a loyalty card, which means we get 2 free coffees and cakes every month.

The garden centre also has a pets section with rabbits, guineas and hamsters. Small loves pointing at the pets and shouting 'DOGGIE' at the top of his voice, and Little G is allowed to buy the cat (rarely seen since Small's arrival) some biscuits, which we assure her are gratefully received.

We hadn't been to the garden centre for a couple of weeks, but Little G and I needed some spring bulbs to plant, and we still had this month's free coffee & cake vouchers, so last week we decided to mosey along, only to discover that in our absence, the garden centre had morphed into full Christmas mode.

There were strings of flashing lights. There were glittering baubles. There was more tinsel than you could shake a stick at, and a very large animated snowman, that sent Small into such conniptions that we had to wheel him hastily away. There was also a table of battery operated rather naff 'antique' lanterns with Christmas snow scenes, that whirled fake snow when you turned them on.

While Small was being calmed down and debriefed by L-Plate Grandad, Little G and I drifted towards the table of lanterns. We stood in companionable silence, watching the snow whirling around the little plastic snowman and his friends. Little G's face was wide-eyed in radiant wonder.

Did we end up buying one? Of course we did. Even though I was pretty sure You must be mad, who is very artistic, unlike me, and always produces a wonderfully decorated tree every year, would lament my lack of tasteBut nearer December 24th, when we are on our own, Little G and I will turn it on, and sit together watching the little snowman in the snow, and it will be tasteless and fun and wonderful. Because that's what Christmas is like. Here, at any rate.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Hit Me With Your Techie Stick ... Hit Me!

It would be fair to say that we, the Two Grumpy Old Sods have embraced modern technology, albeit at arms length. We have computers. We have a twitter account (GOS1) and an iPhone (GOS2). It would also be fair to say that when things go pear-shaped, our technical ability to sort them is so low you couldn't limbo under it.

As those of you who have nothing better to do than follow this blog know, I have now got a new state of the art small purple laptop, as my beloved e-Mac died on me five months ago, taking 13K words of the sixth Victorian Detectives book with it. The new laptop is supposed to be just for writing, and is not connected to the internet, but recently, it has started behaving oddly.

Out of the blue, it 'locked' my manuscript, offering me an alternative version to merge. Then various apps mysteriously appeared. I hadn't downloaded them (no internet connection). GOS2 accused me of various underhand dealings. I denied them. We worked out finally that my laptop must be connecting to the office desktop. Through the floorboards. A kind of internet computer dating ... only with real computers.

Weird stuff continued to dog the new laptop. I kept getting requests to update stuff. Or install stuff. Finally, the whole thing threw a mega cyber-sulk, closed down and refused to let me write altogether. After a brief altercation on the lines of 'Well you must have done something to it.'/ 'No of course I didn't,' we took it back to CurrysPCWorld, where a very nice techie person showed me exactly what I needed to do to stop it playing with the downstairs desktop:

Press the key with the little plane on it. Who knew? Not us; reading manuals is for wimps.

The very nice techie-man came from Poland. I asked him. Which means that in 12 months time, which is when I can down-grade to a non-internet package, I guess he won't be there any more. Another thing to lay at the door of this ghastly Brexit.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

'Babies that Lunch' (Adventures of L-Plate Gran)

It is often said that 'there is no such thing as a free lunch', though in the case of Little G and Small, this is not the case. Every week, two free lunches are set before them. One lunch is eaten, one is frequently not.

We have been informed by You must be mad that Small eats a wide (though currently vegetable-free) variety of foods at home; this is good to hear. Unfortunately, in the physical transference between his home and ours, something seems to have gone awry. Small regards all food placed on his tray as highly suspicious. Bits of egg sandwich ('He loves egg sandwiches') are handled cautiously, then deposited on the kitchen floor, which, by the end of lunchtime, resembles a war zone.

If L-Plate Grandad (in charge of Small's diet) actually manages to persuade him to try something, it is often spat out, or solemnly handed back. I gather that the current trendy idea is to place a wide variety of foods on the tray and let the baby 'choose' for him/herself, but we are pre-trend and were brought up in the era of eating what was put before you, so we are disinclined to go down this route.

The nursery suggests giving him his food, waiting 20 minutes, then removing him and trying again later, but we are not trained professionals and frankly, my dear, we don't have the patience. Small's eating habits are regarded with some satisfaction by Little G. 'I'm eating everything on my plate,' she observes smugly as the bits of food pile up around his highchair.

There are certain things that Small will always eat: yoghurt, fruit, and Weetabix ~ a current favourite, but we have been asked not to use this as a fallback solution, as the last time Small lunched and dined on Weetabix there were, not to put too fine a point on it, problems further down the line.

One day, when Small is older, and a rugby prop forward, I shall regale him with stories about the time he refused to eat his lunches. Oh, the fun we will have! Meanwhile, we struggle on, feeling inadequate and crossing our fingers that one day, Small will actually consume everything we give him and the cat won't stuff herself on his rejects.

At least one of them gets to enjoy a free lunch.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Growing Old, Fairly Disgracefully!

Several months have drifted by since the other Grumpy Old Sod stopped full time employment, and now that we are home together every day, we are slipping into a retirement routine which is developing its own rhythms and pinch points. One of them is the Denial of Responsibility conversation, which runs on similar lines every time it is had, and could easily have been scripted by Samuel Beckett:

GOS1: Did you remember to bring the newspaper voucher/shopping list/bag?
GOS2: No, I thought you were bringing it.
GOS1: I thought you were.
GOS1: I brought it last time.
GOS2: So you haven't got it?
GOS1: You didn't remind me.
GOS2: I can't remind you of everything.
GOS1: You could have brought it.
GOS2: I was relying on you.
GOS1: Well I haven't got it. I thought you were bringing it.
GOS2: I thought you were   .....   (and so on.)

Then there is the I put it down there a minute ago and now it's gone observation. This can apply to a biscuit, reading glasses, a mobile, a pile of clean socks, or the sports section of the newspaper. Nobody knows, or will admit to knowing, where the item has vanished to, so in the absence of any firm and tangible evidence to the contrary, the cat usually gets blamed.

It is hard work not working. It is even harder work trying to justify it. Much time is spent looking busy, whether it be 'paperwork' (GOS2) or 'writing my novel' (GOS1). It is vital to appear to be preoccupied by something, or busy doing anything, which justifies not actually being engaged in official paid employment. Guilt? Don't tell us about it ~ we are working flat out on it here.

There are, however, plenty of up-sides: I couldn't look after Little G and Small on my own ~ I don't have eyes in the back of my head, and I'm not nearly fast enough to be in two places at the same time. And it is good to have someone to sound off to about the mindlessly stupid and endlessly frustrating complexities of everyday life. Even if, between us, we are responsible for most of them.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Tiara-boom-de-ay (Adventures of L-Plate Gran)

Now that she has reached the ripe old age of three and a half,  Little G has become a huge fan of dressing up. Her favourite costume at present is a bright pink and green sparkly fairy dress with pink stick-on wings (think: Flower Fairies on acid) that I found in a charity shop. The moment she gets into the house, she is off to the playroom to change into it.

'Look, grandma, I'm a fairy princess. I'm so pretty,' she announces, twirling in front of the mirror while presenting me with a moral dilemma of epic proportions, because You Must Be Mad has dinned it into me that one must not encourage her to focus on her physical appearance alone. 'Umm ... but you're also a kind fairy princess who helps people, aren't you?' I parrot obediently.

Little G treats this intervention with suitable indifference. 'Of course,' she says, twirling a bit more. 'Look, my dress goes out when I turn round.' There then follows the discussion about whether the silver tiara is better than the pink tiara. It is hard work being three and a half: so many important decisions have to be considered.

Spending a day with a small child dressed as a cast member from Midsummer Night's Dream presents its own very weird moments. I find myself uttering stuff that no sane person would be caught saying, such as: 'Sorry, you'll have to take your wings off, I can't get the seat belt over them.'

Then there is the accessorising. Little G has a box full of what you could call cheap plastic tat, but to her represents riches untold. Much time is spent picking over her loot, selecting what to wear. Look, you might be a shrinking violet, but trailing round Sainsburys in a shocking pink fairy dress, pink wings, tiara AND a selection of Frozen necklaces and bracelets is the way to go. When you are three and a half, it's all about fading into the foreground.