Friday, 4 April 2014

My name is Jo Platt and I am, amongst other things, an author.  Welcome to my blog.

I am very aware that I have but moments to reel you in and prevent you from losing interest and moving onto a more brightly-coloured, slightly less wordy, blog about ballroom dancing or cheese carving.  So, let me begin by saying: CASH, CAKE, NUDITY, ALCOHOL and, now that I have your complete attention, we can press on.

I self-published my first novel, Reading Upside Down, in February 2013.  A few months later, I was fortunate enough to be signed by literary agents Darley Anderson.  The lovely Camilla Wray took me under her wing (she literally helps me across roads whenever I visit the capital) and, since then, the rights to Reading Upside Down have sold to publishers internationally.  It’s been a whirlwind journey and, I’m delighted to say, one which is ongoing.   My second novel, It Was You, was published in Europe in May and in the UK in October 2017. It has since gone on to become an Amazon Top 10 best selling romcom.


Pet Hates



A friend was recently bemoaning the fact that, ‘due to the situation at home’, she had been unable to accept an opportunity to extend her working hours.  She was also disappointed to have had to turn down her cousin’s kind offer of a free, long weekend in his posh holiday apartment, as ‘the associated costs’ just didn’t stack up.


Now, my friend doesn’t endure a particularly stressful domestic situation.  She doesn’t have a tyrannical partner, who insists upon the little woman waiting at the door each evening to greet him with pipe and slippers.  And she doesn’t keep such a tight hold on the purse strings as to consider the cost of the petrol to Devon too great an expense in terms of a weekend away.

But what she does have, is a pet – or ‘an enormous drain upon time and money’, as it’s known in our house.

She wasn’t asking for pity over her situation, and fully accepts that her predicament is of her own making.  The pet – a dog, in this case - was not thrust upon her.  No one turned up on her doorstep with a bag of puppies and said, ‘Take one. Feed it, groom it, walk it, wash it, vaccinate it and, above all, pick up its poo and carry it round with you in a little blue bag for several hours every day, or we will smash all your windows and key your car.’  No, in fact, what actually happened was that she drove approximately fifty miles and handed over £125, for the pleasure of possessing a fluffy little millstone to hang around her neck.

I know it may seem to you that I am painting an unfairly black picture of pet ownership.  And I will hold up my hands and admit that that there are happy times, when one is not trying to rid the house of fleas, replacing clawed curtains, mopping up wee or remortgaging in order to cover the cost of a furry friend’s holiday accommodation.  It’s just that my fellow pet-owning friends and I don’t really talk about the happy times.  We tend to focus upon the not-so-happy times.  Primarily because there seem to be an awful lot more of them.  Like the brand new puppy who swallowed a fridge magnet; an object which then had to be surgically removed at a cost of £1000 – money not recoverable through insurance, as the dog had been purchased fewer than fourteen days previously.  And as for my friend’s cat with the blocked anal glands – well, I won’t go there, just in case you’re currently eating a sandwich – as I was when told the tale.  Suffice to say that the poo did eventually come out, under pressure, in the vet’s surgery, but the associated stains never came out of my friend’s cardy, nor her psyche, and she subsequently claimed to experience something akin to post-natal depression.

We, as a family, have four pets: Barry and Squidge (rescue cats), and Freddie and Hugo (guinea pigs). Those of you who have visited my Twitter page, will know that Barry dribbles continually and is exceptionally needy and exceptionally smelly, whilst Squidge is a nervous wreck and genuinely, GENUINELY cannot, after three years, work out how to use the cat-flap.  The guinea pigs, meanwhile, were chosen by my children on the basis that they looked ‘as if no one else would ever want them’.   Hugo has - thank you, God - actually turned out to be pretty ‘normal’ but Freddie is neurotic and faints, whenever surprised – by a carrot, for example.  These faints caused us enormous distress for the first six weeks of ownership, until it was established that he was simply getting his breath back and was fine again thirty seconds later.  He is now one and a half and still faints quite happily on a monthly basis.

As to why my friends and I chose to purchase and retain all these rejects of the animal kingdom, well, there are numerous stated reasons, including: buying a dog as part of a personal fitness programme and benevolence towards a stray.  The latter is one of my excuses for Barry and Squidge.  I also publicly lay the blame squarely at the feet of my children: they were desperate for pets and, besides, animal ownership teaches them about caring and helps them to develop a sense of responsibility.

Blah, blah, blah.

However, the actual, very ugly, truth of why we have pets in this house, is, actually, nothing to do with the kids.  Because, if I’m being honest, I have to admit that there is no way that I would put up with the drool, the smell, the expense and the fainting fits associated with Barry, Freddie et al, if I didn’t actually, very secretly - and I shall whisper this - love them.

You see, I work from home. I might pop out for the odd daytime coffee with a friend who has a day off.  But, other than that, I sit in the study, with only a Mac and my fevered imagination for company.  I am all alone, pretty much all of the day.  Alone that is, apart from Barry (who is, incidentally, purring and reeking on my lap at right this very moment) and Squidge, who I know is sitting downstairs, staring at the cat-flap, awaiting the arrival of The Magic Hand which opens it for her.  And, after I have come to Squidge’s assistance, I must go and give Hugo and Freddie a carrot, in a stealthy, silent, slo-mo manner, so as to avoid prompting any Silas Marner-type catatonics from Freddie.

They snuggle me, they nuzzle me, they know me and they need me.  And, as if that wasn’t enough, they’re really, REALLY good listeners.

Aren’t you, Barry, my love?



                    
                         Ain't no cure for the summer term blues
Passerby; narrator; small child in school uniform; small child in contemporary, casual clothing.



The above are just some of the roles which I would have been thrilled for my child to have been given in this year’s end-of-term school play.  Why?  Because firstly, I am short of time and secondly, even if I had all the time in the world, I cannot sew.  Therefore, any role which necessitates the provision of clothing, or costume, beyond that which is readily available in my daughter’s wardrobe is, in short, a nightmare.   We’ve had a run of bad luck with the annual castings to date, with parts including: tree, sheep, planet and ship.  So, this year, I had everything crossed for ‘twenty-first century blonde kid’.  Regrettably, however, she was cast as Mrs Fox and, as dressing like a fox is not one of her preferred out-of-school activities, I was forced to add ‘source fox costume’ to the growing list of end-of-term nightmares currently clogging my kitchen calendar.



It was actually a despairing glance at said calendar this morning which prompted me to write this piece, as I found myself pondering the extent to which a primary school’s determination to make the summer term “fun-packed” for the children, always seems to result in it being about as fun as a smack in the face with a bag of nails for the parents.   At afternoon pick-up, my daughter’s playground is now populated by adults who increasingly resemble crack addicts, as they stumble between school-runs, work and after-school activities, with every precious moment in between now taken up with end-of-term making, baking, watching, chaperoning and applauding.  In the past two weeks I have attended, or assisted in the running of: two concerts, one play, a sports days, two football tournaments, two award ceremonies and an event which was vaguely termed ‘a festival’.   And still to come I have a barbeque, a disco and yet another play.



Even when I’m not physically at school or participating in a school-related activity, there is currently no escape from school matters.  This morning, I received three texts before 9am, each begging ‘parental input’.  One regarded the production of a year book, another concerned a collection for teachers and the third was a request for help with clearing-up after the disco.   And now, even as I type, I have just received an appeal for multiple bags of Haribo and six sponges for the ‘Soak the Teacher’ stall at the barbeque.


I fully acknowledge that, individually, not one of these requests is at all onerous.  The problem is that when they’re fired at you in quick succession, along with work deadlines and the unrelenting demands of family and home, you can begin to feel a little like Luke Skywalker, desperately dodging incoming, as he approached the Death Star.  You have a sense that you’ll get there but it isn’t by any means a fun ride.

The only mildly reassuring aspect of all this is that I am a very long way indeed from being the most despairingly over-burdened parent.  I was reminded of this fact only last night, as I sat with twelve other mothers, drinking wine and making giant pom-poms with which to decorate a school hall.  One poor woman, cursed with a widely-known ability to sew, confided that she is currently working in a small, temporary sweatshop at the back of her kitchen, creating costumes for ‘six playing cards’.  I didn’t feel able to ask her to elucidate, as she seemed close to tears, so instead I simply accepted the claim, poured her another glass of wine and nodded in what I hoped was an understanding manner.  A second pom-pom parent empathised more effectively with sweat-shop mum by bemoaning the fact that her son’s teacher had somehow found out that she didn’t now work Wednesdays.  The upshot of this was that the teacher assumed she would be both available and delighted to assist in every school event or trip scheduled to take place on that particular day of the week.  And it seemed a rather suspicious coincidence that all summer term excursions and class treats were now midweek events.  She went on to explain that she had just spent an exhausting day helping to stop a coach-load of sugar-crazed six and seven year-olds from running off into the crowds/sea/roaring traffic of Weston-Super-Mare and, as the evening concluded, I was beginning to feel that I had got off relatively lightly with a bit of craft, a bit of cleaning and a bit of sourcing the odd animal costume.

And with regard to that fox costume, I decided last week to throw money at the problem and order ears, nose and tail online.  That wasn’t quite the complete solution I had hoped for, however, as on its arrival, I discovered that the nose concealed a small, but highly sensitive, device which, when pressed, or simply breathed upon, emitted an ear-piercing ‘fox-like shriek’.  And whilst I eventually succeeded in removing the mechanism by means of the lengthy, and somewhat ill-tempered, deconstruction of the nose, reconstruction defeated me entirely.  My daughter will now therefore be drawing a nose and whiskers on her face with a brown eyeliner.  The effect isn’t incredibly foxy, but the ears and tail are passable, and I’m pretty confident that if I shout, “Ooh!  Look everybody! It’s a lady fox!” from the back of the school hall at the appropriate moment, we’ll get away with it.

So, the good news is that I am gradually, one by one, crossing-off the calendar nightmares.  We are on the home straight and, in just ten days, the end-of-term frenzy will be over and we shall begin six glorious weeks of carefree school holidays.

Shhh…just let me enjoy the moment whilst the denial holds.





Hear! Hear!

The audio book and audio download editions of Reading Upside Down are now available from Amazon.


                                           



Fit to Drop


During a recent weekend away with a group of female friends, the subject of keeping fit was raised.  Discussion revealed that we all took part in some form of regular exercise, whether it was jogging, tennis, cycling or attending a class.  We also discovered that, for most of us, the desire to improve our fitness was a relatively new one, taking hold as we approached, or as we passed, forty.  The most extreme example of this was Rachel, who had changed career, from lawyer to fitness instructor, as she celebrated the big four-O.



As my friends outlined their various mid-life reasons for getting fit, I noticed that health and well-being were barely mentioned.  Instead, the focus was primarily upon muffin tops, bingo wings and an unhappy reliance upon increasingly concrete undergarments, in order to redress the effects of gravitational pull upon boobs and rear ends.



However, in my case, the primary impetus for change was none of the above.  In my case, it was public humiliation at a school sports day.



For four years, I had participated in the infant school’s mums’ race, at the insistence first of one daughter, then the other. I was far from athletic and had tried to demur when my eldest daughter had first asked me to run.  But her lower lip had wobbled and her eyes had brimmed with tears, as she protested that ‘all the other mummies’ would be running.  I would have stood firm, had her assertion not proved to be disappointingly accurate. The number of participants was so great that the runners had to be divided up by age.  Each age group then raced over four or five heats, with eight women running in each race.  The level of enthusiasm displayed by the other mothers was astonishing.  I witnessed one woman remove her stilettos and participate in her office garb, whilst another, martyr-ish sort, completed the race on crutches – to the cheers of many and bitter grumblings from me.  In the circumstances, I had no alternative but to join in.



However, despite my initial horror at the prospect of running, for four years the mums’ race was ‘ok’, because, for four years, it was an obstacle race.  And, during that time, the format remained comfortingly unvaried: you had to go through three hoops; shuffle a short distance with a football between your legs; pop a balloon by stamping on it (or by puncturing it with your stiletto/crutch) and then stroll the final 30m, balancing a beanbag on your head.  If you dropped the beanbag, you had to go back to the popped balloon.


I always strolled, I never dropped the beanbag, and I never came last.  It was ‘ok’.

And then came the year when I lined up for the first heat of the mums’ race, looked down the track and asked the mother next to me where all the obstacles were.  ‘It’s a straight race this year,’ she explained.  ‘I think they thought the obstacles were too much fuss because there are so many of us.’  I remember looking over my shoulder at the rows of mothers waiting their turn and noting that none of their faces betrayed the level of stomach-churning fear I was experiencing.  I immediately considered running, very slowly, away from the start line and back towards the safety of my tartan picnic blanket.  And I would have done just that, had I not spotted my youngest daughter giving me the thumbs-up from where she sat, trackside, with her classmates.  I smiled weakly and waved.  I couldn’t let her down.  ‘I can’t run, you know,’ I said quietly to my neighbour.  She laughed.  ‘I bet you can,’ she said.

I came last, by a very long way indeed, beaten into eighth place by Linda, who had an ingrowing toenail and therefore ran the race in orthopedic flip-flops.  As I fell, exhausted, over the line, my chest on fire and some blood vessel or other trying to break free from my forehead, my neighbour in the race patted me on the back and said, ‘God, you really can’t run, can you?’  She said it light-heartedly, and with a smile, and I might have been all right, I might have been able to see the funny side of things and mentally park the fitness issue, were it not for what happened next.  For, at that moment, I looked up to see my six year-old daughter in floods of tears.  I hobbled over to her as quickly as I could, crouched down and asked her what the matter was.  To her credit, she initially refused to tell me, and it took significant coaxing for her to reveal that her classmate, Joseph, who was not an unkind boy, had declared me to be the ‘worst runner ever’.  I looked at Joseph, who sat next to her, head bowed, biting his lower lip.  Next to him sat Bea, another very lovely child, who immediately sprang to his defence.  ‘It wasn’t just Joe.  Mr Lewis laughed first,’ she said helpfully.  Her fellow pupils nodded in solemn agreement and gestured towards their teacher, Mr Lewis, who was sitting just a few feet away, feigning deafness and a fascination with his shoes.

So, I have class 1L and a school sports day to thank for the fact that I am fitter in my forties than I was in my thirties.  I can’t, of course, pretend that I went from couch potato to Paula Radcliffe overnight.  I refused very kind invitations to join in spin, aerobics and kick-boxing classes.  And I said thanks, but no thanks, to the lovely group of mums who jog round the Bristol Downs every Friday morning.  For someone who was genuinely unable to make it round the block, the idea of attempting to circuit one of the largest inner city green spaces in Europe, seemed a particularly terrifying prospect.  But then a physio friend came to the rescue and suggested Pilates.   She explained that Pilates involved small, intensive, core-strengthening movements, which would help me to tone-up but would not leave me puffing and panting and bringing up the rear.  Pilates, combined with a little home exercise and walking more and driving less would, she said, be an excellent start. 

I have been attending Pilates classes for several years now.  And, in that time, I have learned that, in addition to being a pitiful runner, I was fast-tracking towards becoming a hunchback, had the muscle-tone of a jelly fish and wasn’t even very good at breathing – forever inhaling when I should have been exhaling and vice versa.  Nevertheless, I have persevered.  And with guidance from an encouraging, no-pressure instructor, who regularly says such well-intentioned things as, ‘You are increasingly less crooked’ and ‘You mustn’t feel under any obligation to come back next term’, I think I’m improving.

My one huge disappointment is that I never did get an opportunity to display my improved levels of fitness at another school sports day.  The year following my humiliation, the entire event was rained off and the year after that, my youngest daughter moved to the junior school.   And they don’t run a mums’ race at the junior school sports day.

Shame.


                        

                    
Breakdown in communication



I am not a car expert.



I know how to make my car go forwards, backwards and around corners.  I know how to switch the headlights on when it’s dark and off when it’s not.  And I am similarly au fait with the windscreen wipers.  Beyond that, I have zero interest in, or understanding of, my vehicle.



This state of affairs has never bothered me – until now.  For I have been left feeling thoroughly ashamed, as a result of the following telephone conversation with the nice man at the breakdown retrieval call-centre.



Nice Man: Mrs Platt, I just have to check a few more details with you. What colour is the car?

Me: Blue. Well, blue-ish. A kind of grey-black, murky blue. Like an angry sky.

Nice Man: Just 'blue' is fine. What year is the car?

Me: Ooh...now... Can you work that out from the registration?

Nice Man: Not to worry. Does the car have alloy wheels?

Me: I'm not sure. I’ve never looked.

Nice Man: Where is the car now?

Me: In front of my house.

Nice Man: And where are you?

Me: Standing next to the car.
Nice Man: So can you look down at the wheels now and tell me if they're alloy?
Me: How would I be able to tell that?
Nice Man: Most people just know if their wheels are alloy.
Me: Well, mine are silver in the middle, with a black bit round the edge.
Nice Man: Black bit? Do you mean the tyre?
Me: Yes.
Nice Man: I think I’m just going to put 'yes' for alloy. And I assume you have the key for the wheel nuts?
Me: What does that look like?
Nice Man: You know, I’m just going to put ‘yes’ re the key too. I'm sure it will be there.
Me: Where?
Nice Man:  Never mind.  The mechanic will find it.
Me: Great.
Nice Man: Now…is your car a four-wheel drive?
Me: I’ve never asked. How could I check that?
Nice Man: Has anyone ever told you that your car is a 4x4?
Me: Well, no one's ever said that to me but I don't really talk about cars.  I don’t think it’s one you could take off-road.  It’s the kind of car you use mainly for shopping.
Nice Man: Actually, I'm just going to put 'no' for that one because your kind of car doesn't usually have four-wheel drive.
Me: Doesn't it?
Nice Man: No. And I’m going to let you sort out everything else with the garage when they arrive to fit the spare.
Me: Oh, OK.
Nice Man: You do have a spare tyre there, don't you?
Me: I haven't actually looked for one but -
Nice Man: Don’t worry, there’s a free tow included in your cover if you don't know where the spare wheel is.

Click.  Dialling tone.

Not my finest hour…




                         In urgent need of Tweetment 


“You’re tweeting.”

“I’m not.  I'm actually sending a really important text.”
“I know you’re tweeting and it’s rude whilst Gran is here.”

The above exchange, or a variation thereof, will be familiar to parents up and down the country who happen to have a teenager in the house.  However, in this particular instance, it was the teenager who was requesting her mother, yours truly, to stop tweeting.


In my immediate defence, my Twitter addiction is comparatively mild.  I am not, for example, one of the 6% of the population who, in a recent survey, admitted to checking social media sites whilst engaging in sexual activity with their partner.  I am guilty, however, of dropping in on Twitter instead of preventing the potatoes from boiling over, or as an alternative to fully focusing on a telephonic update from Aunty Val, regarding her battle with the council over her drains.

My relationship with Twitter began just over a year ago and was one into which I was initially pushed against preference.  Having decided to self-publish a novel, I was advised by my commercially-minded friend, John, that if I wanted to sell a copy to anyone beyond my immediate family, I had to open, at the very least, a Twitter and a Facebook account.  I immediately balked at the idea.  Everything I knew about Facebook I had gleaned from a terrifying parental guide, which cautioned against expressing even the mildest opinion online, lest this result in abuse or imprisonment.  However, assured by several mothers at the school gate that Facebook need not necessarily lead to victimisation or incarceration, I signed up.

Now, I fully appreciate that many people adore Facebook.  They find it invaluable in terms of keeping up with friends, family, work colleagues and business associates.  However, for whatever reason, my Facebook newsfeed seemed to consist primarily of lengthy postings detailing troublesome menstrual cycles, and the colour and viscosity of the liquid being produced by the office tea machine.  And I’m afraid that the odd picture of somebody’s pet rabbit wearing a bobble hat, was simply not enough to counterbalance all the hormonal gloom and mundane workplace detail.  Thus it was that after just a few weeks, I realised I would rather eat my phone and take a hammer to the laptop, than continue to feign a deep interest in all the PMT and hot beverage chat.



Of Twitter, I knew nothing - except that I now had no option but to give it a whirl, or face the wrath of John.  As neither of my offspring had yet shown any interest in tweeting, I had undertaken no parental research, and so my only guide was Ian: friend, local lawyer and my first Twitter follower.  For a good while, the only responses I received to my tweets were from him.  He was very supportive, as well as firm, stepping in and advising the deletion of any and all tweets which made me appear ‘overly desperate’, or which left me ‘vulnerable to litigation’.   And, apparently, rather a lot of them did both.



But even in those early table-for-one days, Twitter held an immediate fascination for me.  It differed from Facebook in two fundamental, and enticing, respects.  Firstly, there were no tricky, ever-mutating privacy options, because, with the exception of the rarely used Direct Message, there is no privacy on Twitter.  It is a truly public forum.  You tweet it - anyone can read it.  This makes Twitter both extremely inclusive and, more importantly, a nosey parker’s dream. So, during those long weeks of fearing that my tweets were forever destined to disappear, unnoticed, into the ether, I had the significant consolation of being able to press my ear up against the virtual Twitter wall and eavesdrop on the conversations of butchers, bakers, crafters, campaigners, dancers, doctors, coffee obsessives, chicken fanatics and a lovely lady with a goat in her kitchen.  The variety of people and topics under discussion was endless.  And, alongside this goldmine of free-for-all chatter, sat what I deemed to be Twitter’s primary appeal: its 140 character policy.  Brevity is mandatory on Twitter.  Rambling is just not on.  Thus, whatever you have to say, to bore anyone with it is a significant challenge.  Needless to say, the concept of using Twitter as a marketing tool quickly became secondary for me; I was at an online house party and there were a million other guests to get to know.  From the outset, it was clear that Twitter was definitely and deliciously my kind of thing.



Since first logging-on just over a year ago, friendships formed online have progressed from tweets, to texts, to coffee shops. I’ve scoffed breakfast with a student, laughed over lunch with a photographer and enjoyed tea and cake with two experts in Bristol café culture; all introductions courtesy of Twitter.   In addition, over time I have discovered, rather reassuringly, that I am far from being the only mother whose family harbours concerns regarding their online activity.   This point was recently re-emphasised to me when a Twitter friend came to visit for the day.  She is an extremely bright, highly responsible business woman and yet, on arrival, she had to field several texts, and one anxious phone call, from her twenty-something son, requesting urgent confirmation that I was indeed a Bristol author and not a Broadmoor escapee.



Thankfully, I am able to counter my own family’s occasionally dim view of my Twitter habit, with the fact that the site, as well as providing me with much laughter and entertainment, has also proved invaluable in terms of bringing my book to a wider audience.  Through Twitter, I have met hundreds of kind, enthusiastic people, who were not only prepared to buy a book by an independent author, but who then offered the support and advice which led me to my agent and, subsequently, to publishers internationally.  



And that kind of commercial benefit is, of course, a wonderful cloak beneath which to conceal an entirely personal, non-commercial affection.


Cold Comfort

According to my online dictionary, a holiday is “an extended period of leisure and recreation”.  Synonyms include: ‘break’ and ‘rest’.
So, why then, you may wonder, when my sister proposed a joint family holiday, did I experience a level of stomach-churning anxiety, not felt since going painfully, and prolongedly, off-key during an Eisteddfod solo singing performance in 1981?
Well, it was because the holiday in question was a skiing one.  Now, let me say immediately that I recognise what a privilege it is to have the opportunity to go skiing.  As a child, it was something I longed to do but, in those days, our annual holidays took us no further than the, albeit very beautiful, Lake District, just a couple of hours’ drive from our Liverpool home.  However, by the time my husband first suggested we give skiing a whirl, three years ago, I was no longer an adventurous teen, but instead a woman in her forties, who had just managed to break her arm, slipping on ice, during a 100m walk to her car.  However, not wishing to pour cold water on a plan which left our children delirious with excitement, I agreed to the trip, taking some small and, as it turned out, misplaced comfort from the fact that we would be sharing a chalet with friends who were also novice skiers.  I say ‘misplaced’ because, although our chalet companions were not proficient skiers, they were not absolutely, hopelessly, irredeemably awful.  And I was. 
Rather than give you a tortuous, moment-by-moment account of the misery, humiliation, terror and physical pain I endured during that one-week skiing ‘holiday’, I shall simply tell you that I developed a ring of blisters around each shin, my toenails went black and fell out, and I went down so many green runs on my backside that I shredded, and I mean shredded, my salopettes.  Oh and following the one and only blue run I was encouraged to attempt, I got a severe telling-off for grabbing at the legs of two small children, in an instinctive, self-preservatory attempt to slow my rapid, head-first descent down the slope.
On return to the UK, assisted by a sense of euphoria at still being alive, and a desire not to spoil anyone’s happy memories, I put on an extremely brave face amongst family and friends.  In particular, I assured my children, and my husband, that I had actually very much enjoyed the holiday, despite all the falling over.  And I explained that my watery eyes and bodily tremors on the slopes had been due to the low temperatures and nothing at all to do with fear, pain or exhaustion.  What I did not confess was that I had ceremonially cut up and binned what was left of the salopettes, and had changed my ringtone from that used to wake me for my 9am ski lessons, because I found myself suffering traumatic flashbacks whenever anyone called me.
As it turned out, my well-intentioned lack of openness was a huge mistake because, just a year later, to cheers from the children, my husband announced that he had managed to source a bargain, last-minute ski break for us all to Luchon, in the Pyrenees. 
Unlikely as it might seem, the second trip was even worse than the first, primarily because my brave face crumbled within twenty-four hours and my family realised, because I told them, exactly how much I hated skiing.  I told them that I was sick of the snow, the slopes, the button lifts and the bruises and that, although I laughed along about my inability to turn left, what I actually wanted to do was cry.  A lot.   All the time.  I also told them that I wanted a taxi to Toulouse airport.
My husband calmed matters by bringing me a glass of wine and explaining things quietly to the children, using such carefully chosen phrases as: ‘a little bit tired’, ‘not quite herself’ and ‘really very bad at skiing’.  He used a similar tone and turn of phrase to my instructor, Yves, the next morning, following which the latter took to shouting ‘Formidable!’ at me, whenever I was upright long enough for him to enunciate the word.  He also awarded me a ‘Pipi’ badge for bravery; an honour usually reserved exclusively for members of the Kindergarten ski school.  And so, one way or another, I just about made it through the rest of our stay, without suffering a full mental or emotional collapse.
So, with this history in mind, it is not hugely surprising that when my sister innocently suggested yet another ski trip, I broke into a cold sweat and the rest of my family, despite my protestations, quietly, and selflessly, shook their heads.
However, I am delighted to say that the story does actually have a happy ending.  A plan has been hatched and it is simply that, for me, this holiday will in fact be a non-ski trip.  Instead, I shall be working.  I do realise that the idea of sitting at a laptop, whilst everyone else is having fun in the great outdoors, might seem a little sad.  Nevertheless, it is, on this occasion, a prospect of enormous appeal to me.  For rather than dreading spending six days careering down a variety of steep inclines on my bum, I am now looking forward to being safely ensconced in a café, drinking gallons of hot chocolate and devouring my own bodyweight in mille-feuilles - oh and working, of course.  I shall then, each evening, welcome the athletes home and enjoy hearing all about their adventures over dinner.  All the fun of the après, without the terror of the ski.
And as for the nature of my work?  Well, I’m trying not to dwell too much on that just yet, as I shall be attempting to crack on with writing my second novel, for which a publisher’s deadline now looms terrifyingly large.
But that’s another cold-sweat story entirely. 



Christmas is coming

I know this because yesterday, outside the junior school gate, the Chair of the PTA, Frankie McGirr, approached me, lulled me into a false sense of security with a broad grin, and asked me if I would run the tombola stall at the school Christmas bazaar.  I can only assume that my head nervously convulsed in a nod-like fashion, because Frankie then said, ‘Thank you, Jo.  You’re a treasure’ and, quite literally, ran off, before I even had time to take a breath, let alone realise it was a trap.
She said ‘treasure’ but, of course, what she actually meant was ‘kindly fool who dislikes confrontation.’  I have run the tombola stall for the past three years, and I therefore speak with some authority when I say that there is absolutely no enjoyable element to the task.  First of all, you have to make yourself very unpopular, school-wide, by sending out multiple emails, begging people to donate items and instructing them to leave said items with Mrs Tepper, the school secretary.  Unsurprisingly, Mrs Tepper isn’t a huge fan of this arrangement, as her office is very small and it requires only half a day of donations for her to be barricaded in, behind a wall of bath salts, jigsaw puzzles and disturbingly ugly glassware.  The only way to keep Mrs Tepper at all onside, therefore, is to transport all tombola donations, on a daily basis, from her office to the PTA room.  This involves multiple treks across an inevitably rainy, windswept playground, followed by a climb up a fire escape and two further flights of stairs.  And the horror does not stop there.  Once in the PTA room, the booty must be sifted and sorted.  Every year, I emphasise the ‘unopened, unused, unworn’ requirement with regard to donations and yet, every year, I get a fair quantity of what can best be described as ‘old rubbish’.  My most memorable items of ‘old rubbish’ last year were a definitely-squeezed tube of organic toothpaste for dogs, a packet of use-by 2009 Super Noodles and a broken lamp in the shape of a giant conch shell.  The latter was fashioned from a material slightly heavier than lead and its pointless transportation up the fire escape resulted in a pulled muscle which left me popping ibuprofen well into 2013.
However, as I sit here, contemplating the prospect of Sellotaping cloakroom tickets onto approximately two hundred items, over a fourteen-day period, I have actually managed to find several thoughts with which to console myself. 
Firstly, I am well aware that I am far from being the only adult in the country currently grinding their teeth over a school-based Christmas event.  My friend, Suzanne, sits on her school’s Christmas Fayre committee and has been tasked with carrying out risk assessments of the home-baked goods stall and the temporary café - with nuts, apparently, being the primary focus of concern. Suzanne’s putting on a brave public face but I know she’s stressed because, according to her husband, she’s suffering a recurring dream, in which faceless strangers pelt her with cashew nuts.  
Meanwhile, my neighbour, a primary school teacher, is this week spending many of his working hours managing the expectations and anxieties of pupils and parents alike, as he prepares for his class Christmas production of ‘The Little Fir Tree’.  He has already, he tells me, been approached by a father, requesting that his five-year-old be given a bigger part ‘to boost his confidence’.  And a second parent has made a rather impressive fir tree costume, for her daughter to wear in the production, despite the fact that her child has been allocated the role of Hospital Patient #3.
Whilst very grateful to be involved in neither school plays nor potentially litigious risk assessments, I might still be feeling rather hard done by over my tombola lot, were it not for my main, and by far my most uplifting, point of consolation; namely the fact that my youngest daughter is currently in Year 6.  This, as parents of primary school children will immediately recognise, means that this year’s tombola will be my last.  My last year of cowering behind a table in the main school hall, whilst a frenzied crowd of children grab excitedly at novelty eggcups and vintage personal hygiene products.  My last year of attempting to convince a sobbing six-year old to go and find his mum, or swap the bottle of whisky he’s just won for something else, whilst simultaneously trying to explain the concept of ‘not winning every time’ to another, equally-hysterical, child.  And finally, and most appealingly, my last year of enduring castigating looks from long-suffering parents, as they hand over pound after pound for three goes, only for their child to win nothing.  Or, worse still, to win something.
I have, in the past, always been absolutely adamant about the fact that, once my children had completed their primary education, and I had transported, ticketed and handed over my last tombola item, I would never, EVER, attend another school Christmas bazaar.  However, as that day looms, and I realise that an end is in sight, I am seriously reconsidering my stance.  I think I may well attend next year’s event, to browse the craft stalls, partake of the mulled wine and purchase some, hopefully nut-free, cakes.  And, of course, I have no doubt that I shall linger longest, and smile most broadly, at the quirky prizes and excited hubbub of the little tombola stall. 
Nothing to do with nostalgia, you understand.  I just want to gloat.



The Short Book Group

As I type, I am ten hours away from the September meeting of The Short Book Group, of which I am a member.  We are a sizeable group – sixteen in total – and we meet monthly to apologise for not reading the (short) book, which we had all agreed we would read at the last meeting.  The evening typically consists of a brief introductory five minutes, during which we all explain why we haven’t managed to finish, or even start, the book this time.  We then move onto a more general discussion, usually encompassing kids, clothes, sponge cake, beefcake and other such topics likely to make poor Mary Wollstonecraft turn in her grave.

Interested to discover whether this format was typical of other book groups, I decided to ask a few friends what went on at their respective meetings.  It turned out that, in most groups, there was usually at least one earnest intellectual who always read the book and showed extreme disappointment in anyone who hadn’t.  And this, it seemed, helped to keep the general read-rate up at around 70-80%.

An exception to this, and at one extreme of the book group experience, is my friend Antonia’s group, in which the read-rate is consistently 100%.  This is thanks to the presence of not one, but three earnest intellectuals, who apparently insist upon asking tricky questions like, “What do you think?”  And, Antonia tells me, it’s a case of woe betide anyone who hasn’t read the book and is, consequently, unable to think anything at all.

During our conversation, I couldn’t help noticing that Antonia seemed strangely unperturbed by the requirement to read the book in order to attend her book group.  She even cheerily confided that, at their last meeting, a member had apologised regarding a failure to remember to bring her notes on ‘Human Traces’ by Sebastian Faulks, and had asked the hostess if she could pop upstairs and print them out.  I was fascinated by this for a number of reasons: firstly, that the group had elected to read a book of over 700 pages; secondly that they had then all actually read the book of over 700 pages; thirdly that the poor woman had made notes upon it, and finally, and most significantly, that no one thought her in any way pitiful, or unwittingly comedic, for having done so.  

My book group is, of course, currently at the other end of the spectrum.  When someone announces that they have read the book, other members tend to respond with comments such as: “Gosh!” and “Have you really?  Oh, you’re so good.”  I say ‘currently’ however, because I suspect things may well be about to change. 

I have, just this morning, received an email from Linda advising that she has purchased a little book group gong for members to bang when they wish to make a comment about the book.  She goes on to say that she had actually read the book for the August meeting, had wanted to say something about it, but hadn’t been able to make herself heard.  To add insult to injury, at that particular meeting, no one had even bothered to ask whether anyone had read the book.  Linda’s email prompted Ginette to send a ‘Reply All’ to the effect that, at our June meeting, she had been a bit disappointed to find herself the only person to have read ‘Sand in My Shoes’ by Joan Rice.  Ginette wrote that, whilst she knew that we had all been very interested on that occasion to hear what she had had to say, she would have preferred to have joined in a discussion about the book, rather than deliver a lecture on it. 

Yes, I sense that this morning’s emails hint at a collective will to up our read-rate.  Linda has raised the issue very nicely with her gong and Ginette now looks all set to assume the mantle of earnest intellectual.  So, with that in mind, I suppose I really should now turn my attention to tonight’s book: ‘Ethan Frome’ by Edith Wharton.  It’s very short and book group doesn’t start until 8.30pm.

I’m almost certain I shall be able to find an online summary by then.



“You should try writing something longer, Jo.  

A novel.  I’d buy it.” 

The comment was made by my friend, Laura, as we sat in her kitchen discussing a book which she had recently read.  I laughed off the idea but, in bed that night, after an afternoon spent being a less-than-efficient medical secretary to my husband, and an evening spent ferrying short people to tap lessons and tennis, I recalled her suggestion and gave it some thought.  I loved writing but had confined myself to a few articles for a local newspaper, the odd piece for the entertainment of family and friends, and one 75-word saga, for which I had won a bottle of fizz - a literary award of which I was very proud.  But perhaps Laura had a point; perhaps a novel was a possibility.  On impulse, I opened my laptop and started to write ‘something longer’. 


Over the months which followed, I spent every spare moment writing; packing the book with details and characters based upon personal experience and close friends.  I switched off the phone, my family gave up expecting to be fed; it all felt exceptionally self-indulgent.  Finally, after approximately twelve months of endless revisions and familial weight-loss, ‘Reading Upside Down’, a comic novel recounting the trials and tribulations of 30 year-old Rosalind Shaw, was complete. 

However, once the happy process of writing the novel was over, I was confronted by the dilemma of what to do next.  I’d be lying if I said that the dream of sipping coffee with an agent, while he or she laughed uproariously over the comic genius of Chapter 7, had never crossed my mind.  But my eyes were wide open to the difficulties of getting any book published, especially a debut novel. And, on a more personal level, I was extremely nervous about the prospect of making ‘Reading Upside Down’ public.  A select few friends had read it, and had declared it to be ‘very funny’ and ‘a page-turner’; however, someone very wise once told me that you should always discount personal praise from anyone you would invite for Christmas dinner, so I felt clueless as to whether the book might have broad appeal.

Nevertheless, after much hand-wringing on my part, and eye-rolling on the part of my long-suffering husband, I decided that I would like to see if I could take ‘Reading Upside Down’ further.  And, once I had made that decision, I was impatient to get on with it before I changed my mind.  It was then that I looked into the option of self-publishing and judged that there didn’t really seem to be much of a downside to it.  Of course, I would have no marketing machine behind me, but it was free to publish with Amazon and at least my work would be ‘out there’, rather than languishing in a Sponge Bob folder at the back of my undies drawer.  My friend, Jon Ogborne, of Eat Cake Design in Bristol, stepped up and said he would create a cover for me, and then, when I told him that my target sales were ‘40 or so’, he shouted at me a little bit about ‘showing some bottle’ and ‘getting with the online revolution’, by joining Twitter and Facebook.  I have a lot to thank him for.

Finally, in February of this year, with cover and courage in place, and my husband sitting next to me, tutting at my lingering nervous indecision, I pressed the button and published ‘Reading Upside Down’ as an ebook on Amazon.  I then held my breath, anxious to see if anyone I didn’t actually know would give my novel a whirl.  And, of course, I had to act on Jon’s advice and try to publicise it.  For me, marketing the novel was a challenge which far exceeded writing it.  At the outset, I wasn’t sure who to call, which icons to click on Facebook and I had just three ‘followers’ on Twitter: my sister-in-law, a school friend and a bearded bloke in a pink bikini.  But, you know, everyone was very supportive.  Local magazine editors and newspaper journalists kindly returned my calls and bikini bloke bought the book without a second thought.  Gradually, word spread and some very positive, extremely welcome, online reviews started to appear. 

And then, in May, Steve Yabsley, of BBC Radio Bristol, called to invite me onto his lunchtime show for a chat, having been alerted to ‘Reading Upside Down’ by a local magazine editor.   I was as nervous as I was grateful but, thankfully, my pelvic floor held out and, at the end of the interview, Steve suggested that I submit my book to a literary agent.  I took his advice and wrote to Camilla Wray, of literary, television and film agency Darley Anderson.   To my delight, Camilla replied saying she loved ‘Reading Upside Down’ and was eager to start the process of bringing the novel to the attention of a wider audience, and also to support me as I wrote my second novel. 

And the rest, as they almost say, is shortly to be history.  To say I’m excited about working with Darley Anderson, and about what the future holds for ‘Reading Upside Down’, would be an understatement.  My first crack at a novel has so far proved to be a joyously creative, emotional and nerve-wracking journey and, it seems, the journey is far from over.  Watch this space.