My blog

Sunday 4 April 2021

Happy Easter! Among the chocolate, spring sunshine and boat race, it's a weekend to consider belief, faith and trust. But it's followed hard on the heels of April Fool's Day this year.

The news is regularly challenging our perception of what is true and false at the moment so it was interesting to see how media outlets, entertainment programmes and big brands approached the annual custom of practical jokes and hoaxes, particularly in these difficult and precarious times.

As my mind has been on dogs - with my reading of Simon Garfield's new book (details below) - there was a cute and heartwarming tale of the police engaging the help of our four-legged friends. The South Australian force has launched the Small Area Urban Search And Guided Evacuation dogs here.

We may have been buying more new books in this past year, so a product has been released to remind us of well loved and familiar volumes. Called Papier, the new scent is 'sweet with just a hint of the musty smell of aged paper,' and 'conjures memories of old-school reading with a sprinkling of violets and a dash of tasteful potpourri'. Find out more here.

But I did my first double-take while reading news from the publishing sector. An imprint of HarperCollins announced that it is no longer using punctuation in any of its books or communications, quoting the respected novelist Cormac McCarthy as saying "If you write properly, you shouldn't have to punctuate". The publishing team was led in their decision by researcher Dr Lucas Matthews, whom you can see explaining more here.  

Among all these wry tales, though, was a wonderfully amusing and rather lovely enterprise which isn't a one day wonder. Micky the rescue pony has been delivering books to readers in Wiltshire, inspired by the story from Jojo Moyes, 'The Giver of Stars' which featured as my BBC Radio Suffolk read last month. You can find out more about Micky's story here.

Thank you for reading. Happy Easter!

Sunday 28 March 2021

These days small tasks or niggles can seem mighty challenges or major setbacks. Many things are no longer familiar or everyday, and we have to assess and reassess chores and activities to ensure they adhere to restrictions keeping us all safe.

Lockdown may begin to ease tomorrow, but we are aware that this is slow and cautious progress. And for some people, who have been more isolated, it may be more difficult to make the transition than others.

I've been inspired in recent weeks, though, to learn about people who've wanted to discover the true extent of their potential, mentally, emotionally and physically.

You can read about how Vanessa O'Brien decided to climb mountains in my recommended book this month. Scroll down for more information.

But I was asked to interview four Shropshire men about their plans to row the Atlantic later this year. You can read about them here.

They are all over 50, one is partially sighted and their predominant experience of rowing is in the gym. And they signed up for the challenge in the midst of a global pandemic. It's meant that the delivery of their boat was delayed, courses for the qualifications required by the race organisers have been repeatedly postponed and they have had only rare occasions in between lockdowns to meet and train together. But their indomitable spirit, positive attitude and commitment to each other is truly uplifting and inspiring.

“I think we’ve all got the attitude that nothing’s unachievable,” says Martin Skeehan, one of the crew. "We will make it happen. It may seem impossible, but break it down and take the first step, and then the next one.”

So whether we're planning to climb a mountain, row the ocean, or get through the week, that's a simple message we can all remember!

And for this week, things look cheering with some sunshine and warmth forecast, and the hope of Easter to celebrate.

Thank you for reading.

Sunday 21 March 2021

This week I've been thinking about appointments and queuing...!

I'm pleased to report that I've had my first vaccination and had only to walk down the road to receive it at my local centre.

There was a queue of quite a few minutes to wait outside - apparently there were a few problems with the check in desk. But everyone was content to stand patiently, enjoying the spring sunshine and exchanging a few words of friendly conversation with the steward before stepping inside the hall for the deed itself.

Everything was run very calmly, confidently and efficiently and there was a warm, friendly, collaborative atmosphere. I'm sure we were all very grateful to everyone who is playing their part in making this particular service possible. A short delay was no hardship.

Of course, our daily schedules are different these days and we are making more allowances for things taking a little bit longer than usual. But will we be willing to stand quietly and patiently in line when things get back to normal? Perhaps we shouldn't expect everything to happen to our own personal timetable. And perhaps there are benefits of things taking a little longer.

I've had cause to use other medical practices in recent months and I've noticed that the staff, who in other times might have seemed rather tense and hurried, now appeared happy, attentive and relaxed.

The restrictions ensuring distance and cleanliness are not ideal but they have set clear parameters, recognised and, generally, accepted by all. Perhaps those boundaries have allowed staff a new freedom to give more time to their patients and we are all valuing personal interactions more deeply.

We never doubt the dedication of medical staff, of course, and there's a profound reminder of their care and compassion in my recommended reading this week.

Michael Rosen's new book relates his experience of suffering from Covid. His memories and observations are presented in verse, but he also includes a number of letters written to him by members of the medical teams caring for him during his time in intensive care.

These messages are incredibly moving, willing him to recovery with great warmth and affection, written at the end of emotionally and physically demanding shifts. It is clear they never once forgot the person in their care.

While Michael's gratitude to them is present in his writing, it is also evident how great a toll the illness has played on his life. It was interesting, then, to hear the novelist Maggie O'Farrell on Desert Island Discs this week.

She had a serious illness as a child and talks about how she feels she wasn't the same person after the event as she had been before. She also says she is forever grateful for the life that she has been able to lead subsequently. It's a fascinating interview. If you remember, Maggie joined us in Woodbridge three years ago to talk about her memoir 'I Am, I Am, I Am'. Take a look here.

Sunday 14 March 2021

What if... Two short words which may invoke all sorts of emotions and strong feelings. What if things had been different? What if that could happen?

Both these perspectives dominated in conversations I had recently when I was talking to authors about inspiration for their recent work.

Esther Freud is well known for remembering her unusual and exotic childhood in her novel 'Hideous Kinky' but her latest book imagines what if her mother had made different decisions.

The new book, called 'I Couldn't Love You More', is published in May and Esther will be speaking to me about it at the Felixstowe Book Festival in June - the programme, which hopes to combine 'real life' and online events, is being launched tomorrow here.

Danny Wallace is known for his 'big concept' ideas for events, books, films, tv programmes, where he explores 'what if...' to an extraordinary degree, and often with stunning results. 

What if you said yes to everything? What if people stopped being rude? What if thousands of people performed a random act of kindness every week?

For his latest book, for children, Danny imagines what if all the technology failed. How would we cope? This could have turned into a horror story, but it is a children's madcap adventure so it's rather lovely, and, for Danny, it turned out to be an excuse to revisit life as it was in his childhood! My interview with Danny will appear in 'Suffolk' magazine soon.

While undoubtedly 'what if' sparks all sorts of ideas creatively, we might find speculating about the future to be more helpful than looking at past decisions or events. After all, this might be something we can influence. So as we consider the end of our current circumstances, what if... we shopped locally? we spoke to our neighbours more often? we didn't use aeroplanes so often? we lived more simply? What if we could make a difference?

I was interested to hear Dame Louise Casey on Desert Island Discs this week talking about her work with the homeless. When she chose Louis Armstrong's 'What a Wonderful World', she wondered why it wasn't selected by castaways every week. Even though she sees terrible things through her work, she said that she was always reminded that no matter how dark things can get, this is still a wonderful world.

You may need to recall this message as you take a look at my recommended non-fiction title this week. It's a very troubling read but it's so beautifully written and it's important not to shut our hearts and minds to what other people are experiencing. At the very least it can remind us of how much we should be grateful for in our own situations. 

Sunday 7 March 2021

Tomorrow we take the first step towards the end of restrictions, we hope, as the children go back to school.

I'm sure there is some trepidation or at least mixed feelings among the young people, so I was encouraged to hear how, once again, the teachers were throughtfully and creatively seeking to reassure their pupils.

In Bexleyheath, London, the PTA purchased 380 teddy bears, one for each child, and sat them in the hall as if they were attending assembly. The headteacher recorded a message instructing the bears to prepare for the children's return and sent it to all the parents. You can take a look here.

And in Telford, the pupils were each sent the piece of a jigsaw puzzle to decorate. When they return to school, they will be invited to link the pieces in the understanding that 'we're all in this together'.

These are lovely ideas. And I think we may all find aspects of community difficult when we are finally able to meet again fully both in socialising and working together.

Thank you to everyone who got in touch about this month's read on BBC Radio Suffolk. It was great to receive so many comments about Jojo Moyes' novel 'The Giver of Stars'. This story about the Kentucky horseback librarians certainly seems to have captured our imagination. I hope you'll consider taking a look at next month's book 'The Authenticity Project'. It's an interesting idea, and a real page-turner, so scroll down for more details about getting involved.