Seven things I learned at Winchester Writers’ Festival

Originally posted on Bloomsbury Bluestocking:

Writers relax outside Winchester Writers' Festival

Writers relax outside Winchester Writers’ Festival

This was my first writers’ festival and I came home fizzing with ideas. For anyone who didn’t manage to get there, here are my top lessons from the best brains in writing and publishing.

1: Madeleine Milburn, literary agent, on pitching: Get your pitch right, and get it in the cover letter. This is your one chance to grab the agent’s attention. Terrifyingly, Madeleine Milburn gets 80 or more submissions a day. Unless your cover letter is spot-on, your carefully crafted chapters are likely to go unread.

2: Orna Ross, author and founder of the Alliance of Independent Authors, on author publishing: Approach it as a business, with a team. You are the creative director, but a good editor is indispensable. You’ll also need a designer for the cover and must be prepared to spend a significant amount of your time on…

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Cat Wars


My remaining cat, Charlie, is about 15 years old. Since his brother went to the vet last year and didn’t come back, Charlie has undergone a personality change. I wasn’ expecting this, to be honest: I had always said that Charlie would be very happy as an only cat. In fact he’s got lonely and clingy, and has lost of lot of his confidence. Comes of not having another cat to boss around, I suppose.

The latest change is that he’s become very picky about food. When he had another cat to compete with for food, he was like a feline vacuum cleaner. I actually had to put him on a diet at one point, which was difficult because if I fed them less, it was Percy who lost weight.

First he stopped eating the jelly off tinned food in jelly so I bought him food in gravy, and lots of different flavours of food. This worked for a while, but for the past week the pickiness has become acute. I always thought people who complained their cat wouldn’t eat this and wouldn’t eat that were simply spoiling the cat. No more. Yesterday, I opened a tin of Whiskas with chicken and ducky in gravy, which used to be a favourite, and he got within a foot of it, sniffed, backed off, and crouched there, waiting for a miracle. It was clearly not a tooth problem: he didn’t actually set a tooth in it. He just smelled what was on offer and acted as though I’d put a salad in his bowl.

I let him get on with it. I spent most of the day fending off cat nags for food, and in the evening chucked out the uneaten food (I think he’d had some of it) and replaced it with fresh from the same tin.

Charlie kept nagging for more food.

I picked him up, carried him  into the kitchen and put him down next to the bowl. ‘Fish!’ I said helpfully (this is our word for wet food, his favourite. Dried food is ‘yummies’. Look, it works for us, OK?).

He looked at me with loathing, reached over and took one mouthful.

I left him to it, went back in the sitting-room, sat down on the sofa and Charlie jumped up next  to me.

I screamed faintly and chased him into the kitchen again.

That was last night.

This morning I put fresh food (same tin) in his bowl. He continued to pester to be fed. I had my bath got out, dressed and went in the sitting-room.

Someone had upchucked on the sofa. Well it wasn’t me, so guess who?


Cat’s revenge.

Went out to the kitchen and in the hallway was another pool of vomit.


Sighing I perused the cat food stock and chose a tin of lamb in jelly, which he doesn’t like much at the best of times. Put this into a second bowl and stood back. He did like the dog in the advert, sniffed the first bowl, pulled a face, moved to the second bowl and started to eat. I haven’t looked to see how much he’s eaten, but he has eaten.

If he continues not to eat his usual food, I am going to have to move upmarket to very expensive ‘gourmet’ cat foods.

I wonder who told him that?

Cats always win.

It’s another new year!

New year’s resolutions are made to be broken they say. For that reason I am not making particularly taxing ones this year. More chance of keeping to them. Though I doubt I will. Here they are, if you’re looking for inspiration:

1. I will shut the bathroom door in the morning so that the cat cannot come in and rub his cold wet sticky nose on my bare leg while I’m having a pee. This happens EVERY morning.
2. I will remember to water my plants before the hibiscus goes floppy.
3. I will not indulge in a toastfest more than once a week.
4. I will buy enough bras of light colours to ensure I do not have to spend the whole day wearing a jumper so that you can’t see I’m wearing a black bra under a pastel shirt.
5. I will not leave the ironing pile for more than two weeks at a time and when I do the ironing pile I will not decide that I don’t need to iron things because once I’ve been wearing them for ten minutes it won’t show. It will show.
6. I will not leave the washing up for more than 48 hours or until it starts to look like primordial soup.
7. I will not get into a rage as a result of comments made to me on internet forums and go off and eat chocolate or drink gin.
8. I will not call toast and a glass of wine supper on days when I don’t feel like cooking or can’t be arsed to wash up (see no. 6 for details).
9. I will get up early enough on Thursdays to put out the recycling even if the Thursday is a day when I’m not at work (for example New Year’s Day 2014 but that doesn’t count because I was asleep and anyway I’ve only just thought of it as a resolution).
10. I will not post snarky comments about other people’s spelling or grammar on Twitter unless I’m in a really bad mood.

Good luck with that, huh?

Happy New Year!

The absent blogger

People keep following my blog, I get a dinky little email when they do. It makes me feel so guilty, because I haven’t blogged for months.

This is in part because I’ve been Out of Sorts. You don’t want to hear about that, really couple of colds and an operation about which I could write tomes. I have got unfit. I cannot walk far at all at the moment.

But wait! Despair not. I have ordered a new pair of VERY snazzy hiking boots online. I needed UK size 8.5 in this particular boots, the sizing of which is rather small, and this is a half size bigger than they come in the UK, so I’ve had to order them online from the States. I always thought the legend of Bigfoot was a spoof, but now I see it’s a lady hiker. They’re being delivered to me at work for complicated reasons that I suspect are connected with the privatisation of the Royal Mail, and I expect them to arrive some time next week. They’d better arrive before my trip to Cornwall in early December, as I plan to do a fair amount of walking then.

So, new boots. I’ve also bought a new waterproof that I can do up, just, but not if I put a jumper under it so I need to lose some weight.

Oh yes, that. Don’t ask. Please, just don’t. If you’re not well for four months, things can get complicated.

I’m giving thanks we don’t do Thanksgiving here. There’s only Christmas to contend with.


Forager 1

bramblesCouple of years ago, when people started to feel hard up, journalists (I blame journalists for many of the world’s evils including Marmite and homeless kittens) started writing about food for free, or foraging. ‘Go out into the country,’ they told us, ‘and you can pick yourself a dinner of herbs.’

Top of the list are things like dandelions, bitter but ok if you like bitter salad, and nettle soup, which is fine if you don’t mind the fact that they smell like cat pee. As to the rest, it was mostly mushrooms which a. might poison you b. only grow in the autumn, for the most part, and c. tend to grow in places like Epping Forest, where you are not allowed to pick them.

The exception, of course, is brambles. ‘Blackberries’ if you must be posh. The things on the left.

They grow on waste ground all over northern Europe. If you live in the UK, chances are you’ve eaten one. Quite possibly, one was enough. They don’t taste of that much when raw, and there’s always a danger of Maggots.

Yes, precisely.

Cooked, however is differentnot least because any maggots have merely become extra protein. Cooked, they have a fruity woody taste that is like the essence of autumn. Made into jelly to spread on bread, they become a fond reminder of the day you picked them.

Off I go today, to pick brambles. I’m not saying where, but I live in central London, not the sort of place you’d expect to forage for food unless you were a fox in a dustbin, so it’s safe to say anyone can go brambling. First off, I get on a bus and it’s diverted because of Notting Hill Carnival. Ah, Carnival. I’ve lived near it for more than 25 years and every year when it comes round, I plan my weekend’s activities around avoiding it.

Bah humbug!

So, I’m on the bus and it starts a detour that eventually deposits me about 50 metres from my bramble patch of choice. This is not the buses usual route, but I’m going to make a note of brambling on this day again next year, because it is much more convenient than the usual two buses and a 15-minute walk.

I head for the thickets. The first thicket has no brambles, which is a bit odd and I am momentarily worried. The next one though, is very brambly. Set out brambling equipment:

  • Suede gardening glove for left hand
  • Plastic container for fruit
  • Bottle of water which I always need but have never brought before

Am already wearing thick cotton drill gardening trousers, and hiking boots. Normally I cover up to pick brambles but it’s a very hot humid day so I’ll just have to make do.

Insert myself with care into bush, lift up bramble branch, and start picking. It’s wise to respect bramble bushes. They have thorns like nobody’s business and additionally I seem to be slightly allergic to the leaves. Not, I’m pleased to say, to the fruit.

People who are given to saying ‘nom’ should say ‘nom’ at this point.

Remember how my bestie told me her dad offered her 5p a pound (which was serious money) for brambles when she was in her teens and she picked several stones of them so he had to pay for them all. Reflect on last time I picked brambles when I tripped over a tussock and sprained my ankle and resolve not to do this again. Pick pick pick. My technique is to pick seven brambles at a go then drop them into the container. Pick for about 40 minutes. Drink water. Pick for another 10 minutes. Decide if I am out much longer, I will burn. Also feeling knackered. It’s like a pilates class, this bramble business.

Pack up and head back to bus stop. Bus nearly doesn’t stop for me as this is not its usual route, and they are creatures of habit, buses. However it does and I hop in. Bus deposits me, 20 minutes later, outside my flat, with brambles.

Take them in, wash them, take photo, cook them, put in sieve to drain overnight for jelly. Do not talk to me of Muslin. There’s no need. I am not competing with the WI. I am making something to eat. I don’t care how clear the jelly I get is. I’m not bothered about depth of colour etc. I want something to last me through the grey days of winter.

And dinner tonight. I saved enough for a crumble, natch.

Woolly animals


it was the rabbit that brought it home to me. It was sitting in a cage reciting that poem by Pam Ayres, and when I saw it, I thought ‘Funny. Bunny at a wool festival. Definitely not a sheep. It’s a bunny.’ Then I realised it was a very fluffy bunny and attached to a stand selling angora yarn.

I was in a tent full of people selling woolly things, in fact. Yarn, patterns, blankets, amusing stuffed toys that were mainly sheep, knitting needles. . . Of course you can get a lot of this sort of stuff in John Lewis’s but what’s different at an event like this one, Fibre East, is that the yarn on sale is being sold by people who know what breed of sheep it came from to say nothing of the name of the bunny. The yarns are as far from the acrylic stuff Woolworths (remember them?) used to sell as an actual banana is from a foam banana chew. They come in myriad colours (though there seems to be a tendency towards blue/turquoise/purple) and every texture and weight you could imagine. You can even watch people spinning them. This looks remarkably easy though I bet it’s not.

What was I doing there? Well I CAN knit you know, though the thought of attempting some of the things on display would have made me take a deep breath and start finding excuses. It was very clear that the hundreds of knitters milling around were Keen. Very Keen. Experts. Which I aint. No, I was volunteering for p/hop. If you haven’t heard of p/hop, don’t worry I will explain. Or you can follow the link if you’d rather not get involved in my explanations. It’s a fundraiser, p/hop and the name is short for pennies per hours of pleasure. It raises money for Medecins Sans Frontieres. MSF then spend the money on health care in countries where health care is thin on the ground. Or non-existent.

How p/hop gets people to donate is very simple. Clever people who can design knitting patterns design and donate them to p/hop which then puts them online or, for wool fairs, prints them out. People who knit (and that’s everybody who matters of course. In the world) come along, pick a pattern they like the look of, make a donation and carry the pattern off to knit it.

So what I was doing Sunday afternoon was explaining this to people, showing them the samples, explaining that the samples were not for sale, encouraging them to start knitting Rudolf the Reindeers NOW since Christmas is round the corner (I should have been a used car salesman) and letting them try on the mitts. As Clare (my boss for the day, that’s her in the photo with Rachel, the other deputy) explained, people go to a fair like this, fall for a skein of yarn, buy it, and then want to make it into something. That’s where p/hop’s patterns come in. Of course, it works the other way on too. They fall for one of the gorgeous patterns and then go looking for something to make it with.

The most popular patterns at the moment are these ones, the Trinity shawlette and the Cranford mitts. Not for beginners, but if you are a beginner or a bit rusty you could do one of these and work your way up to a shawl.

Yes, this blog is a blatant attempt to get you to donate money to p/hop. So off you go via this link here and choose yourself a pattern and put some money in the cyber piggybank. If you don’t know how to knit, have a look at this, and get started. Or join Ravelry. Or both. Everyone starts somewhere.

Go on then!