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"What a story! Can't believe that I've come so late to Helen Hollick's wonderful writing."


June
 2020

We are still in partial lock-down, although restrictions are starting to ease. Thank goodness I’ll be able to visit my osteopath again very soon – my somewhat stiff back and neck are bothering me far more than any threat of Covid-19 at the moment!

Limited Showjumping with firm rules is also about to restart, so my daughter and head groom son-in-law will be off competing again soon. No away overnight shows, pre-enter only, with three minutes between competitors entering the ring. Grooms cannot assist in the warm-up area (a steward only) with again, only a limited number warming up. No cafes open, just take-away booths, and sadly for me, no spectators; rider and groom only.

Kathy has been able to keep Lexie (Shinglehall Casino) fairly fit, but jumping at home has been limited for safety reasons – not wanting to risk an accident because of the NHS and because for quite a while the Air Ambulance was inoperative until protective screening had been fitted. Teaching/coaching has also resumed, although again, only rider and groom, so I can’t go to watch any of Kathy’s training sessions. Fortunately, though, she can resume coaching her own clients again as well. Kathy had a birthday in early May, mine was mid-April, somewhat weird not going out for a special meal and relying on on-line sales for a couple of presents.

Mid-summer is almost upon us, we’ve had very little rain throughout ‘lockdown’ (since the end of March) but quite a few cold days as the wind has been strong and more than a bit chilly. We even had ground frost in mid-May. For myself, I’ve not been too well throughout May (not Covid-19 I hastily add) but an infection which left me with vertigo. It’s surprising how much the ‘wobbles’ affects everything – the feeling of about to fall over with the world spinning around you is most unpleasant (especially when the effect is not a surfeit of drink induced! Laugh!) Bending down made everything spin, so that put an end to doing any gardening. (Incredible how often you drop something when it isn’t easy to pick it up again.) Even having a shower was difficult, as the spinning sensation was worse with my eyes closed (ever tried washing your hair with your eyes open?) To counter this, I invested, via a certain online sales place named after a South American river, in a stool suitable for use in a shower, and suction ‘grab rails’. Both items are brilliant!

I’m getting slowly better, but gardening is still out of the question, despite the annoying, highly rampant ground elder that is taking over the front garden.

Alas, foxes don’t seem to have heard about ‘stay at home’ for we lost a duck and two of my hens. The vixen also made a grab for my third hen (who is now very firmly staying close to the house) and attacked BooBoo our goose. She was badly bitten but is otherwise OK. It is a quandary what to do for the best; the hens, ducks and geese love being free-range in the orchard, but that makes them vulnerable – especially when they decide to go walkabout in the lane. It is there that they got nabbed. So keep them safe and keep them penned in? Or risk their safety and let them wander? I wouldn’t mind, but there are plenty of rabbits and pheasants in the fields for Mrs Rufus.

I have managed to keep writing, as, fortunately, sitting down at my desk was okay. ‘Ripples In The Sand’ (Voyage Four of the ‘Sea Witch’ Series) has now been re-edited and proof checked, so should be re-appearing in print any time soon. Then ’On The Account’, Voyage Five will follow shortly, and so I guess I had better get on with finishing Voyage Six, ‘Gallows Wake’. I have also written a short/long story which might be appearing in an anthology of stories, written by various authors, some time later this year. It is a Jesamiah Acorne adventure, but he is a secondary character, centre stage (or should that be ‘the Quarterdeck’?) is taken by a couple of real-life pirates: Anne Bonny and Calico Jack Rackham.

Apart from my vertigo (even turning over in bed caused discomfort) we also had several nights of disturbed sleep during the second week of May. Our mare, Saffie, was due to foal on the 14th May. From the 13th she started showing signs of an immanent birth. Which meant checking her every few hours day and night. The night shifts we took in turns – until around 10pm on May the 19th when she delivered a bay filly. A little girl!

Mum and Foal are doing fine, but alas, no name for the littl’n yet. There are some photos on my Leaning On The Gate Blog though… enjoy!

Stay safe.

Lege feliciter (read happily).

helensig

 

May
 2020

Surreal isn’t it? The world, I mean - present day, Life. I asked my Alexa what ‘surreal’ meant as an adjective, she responded with: ‘Discontenting. Unreal. Having the quality of a dream.’ In other words, weird, odd and discombobulating, (which, according to Alexa means to ‘confuse or disconcert’).

Well, lockdown and Covid 19 is certainly all of those… but… it is also relaxing, interesting and self-expansive. It has initiated an awareness of appreciation, community-spiritiveness, (Ok, I made that word up), generosity, caring – and an appreciation of the health services which look after us (for the UK – the NHS), for our careworkers, fire fighters, shop assistants, ambulance drivers, paramedics, farmers, refuse collectors… well, you get the drift.

Having said that, there is also the darker, grieving flip-side of the deaths of loved ones with an inability for those left behind to say goodbye. And the rise of domestic violence and abuse from those b*strds who take their (often drunken) rage out on those who are vulnerable. I would say hit back by walking out – but that, I am well aware, is not so easy to do – especially now. For those of you who have found the courage to do so, I’m as proud of you as I am of the NHS workers. Maybe we should dedicate one of the Thursday Evening 8 p.m Applause Tributes to the victims of D.A? To cheer your courage or to boost it.

Which, actually, wasn’t what I was intending to write about! I’m lucky – and I am very well aware that I am – because I live in a farmhouse set in 13 acres of farmland in the beautiful Taw Valley of Devon, with our nearest neighbour about a quarter of a mile away (adds a whole new slant to ‘social distancing’.) Add to that, as a writer I spend most of my week isolated in my study at my desk, with the monitor, keyboard and my characters – or the article I’m writing – as company. Which is where the above, relaxing, interesting and self-expansive come in. Personally, I’ve found lockdown to be advantageous. No need to worry about my son-in-law driving an hour to/from work and possibly being involved in an accident; no need to worry about my daughter and he driving in the horsebox to compete (ditto accidents), no need to worry about daughter or horse injuring themselves while Showjumping.

Mind you, that last has been replaced with worrying about daughter gaily knocking down various sheds and relocating and rebuilding them; or the pup, Elfie, getting stuck behind one of the sheds. (Which then had to be moved again in order to free her.) Or discovering that the freezer – full of meat – had been switched off. (Fortunately all but one shoulder of lamb and a few lamb chops were still solid. Guess what we had for dinner the next couple of nights…). But for me, no more feeling guilty that I can’t do the supermarket shopping – or any shopping come to that. I don’t function in shops with bright lighting. I simply can’t see. I also can’t see well enough to ‘browse’ shelves, so have to pick things up to ascertain what they are. (Brown rolls or white?) A huge no-no at present. I can’t see details when I go out either – the landscape, yes but small detailed things which make a journey interesting? Forget it. So being at home is, to be honest, a relief.

There are other interesting aspects, especially for someone like myself who revels in the detail of history. There is one huge thing which has changed. Noise. Or lack of it. When I walk in one of our fields or sit in the garden, all I hear (apart from the very occasional tractor or Quadbike,) are natural sounds. No planes, few trains, cars or lorries. Just birds twittering, the wind in the trees, sheep bleating, cattle lowing. Maybe someone chopping wood somewhere. Bees buzzing. A dog barking, a pheasant clucking, a hen announcing that she has laid an egg. THIS is how the Valley sounded when our house was built back in 1769. It is lovely. To sit quietly and listen to Nature. Utter bliss.

I got up to visit the bathroom at about 4 a.m one morning and looked out of my bedroom window. It was really dark, no stars or moon, no security or outside lights in the couple of houses and farm on the other side of the valley - and not a sound. Absolutely zilch, nothing. Utter silence. The entire world, it seemed, was gently, quietly, asleep.

Then Mab, the cat, spoilt it all by bouncing into my bedroom with a present - which she promptly ate. Oh, the wonderful sound of a fresh-caught mouse being crunched up… not.

Stay safe.

Lege feliciter (read happily).

helensig

 

April
 2020

We, the entire world, are going through a difficult, worrying and yes, frightening time. I am not going to use the term ‘unprecedented’ – if you are like me you are getting somewhat tired of the word. A few years ago it was ‘shoulder to shoulder’; thank goodness we’ve more-or-less ditched that one. Yes, the world situation is unprecedented, but surely the government, journalists and the like have access to a thesaurus?

‘Unusual’, ‘remarkable’, ‘unique’, ‘exceptional’… Oh okay, I suppose none of those have quite the same impact…

Coronavirus (Covid 19) is not the first pandemic to devastate human existence. ‘A pandemic - from Greek pan "all" and demos "people" - is a disease epidemic that has spread across a large region, for instance multiple continents, or worldwide,’ (Wikipedia)

The Plague of Athens, 430 to 426 BC, occurred during the Peloponnesian War. It was a typhoid fever that killed a quarter of the Athenian troops, and a quarter of the population over a period of four years. This virulence of the disease prevented a wider spread because it killed off it's human hosts faster than they could spread it. Not a good move on the part of the disease.

The Antonine Plague, virulent from 165 to 180 AD, was very possibly smallpox brought from the Near East by soldiers returning to the Italian peninsula. It killed up to five million people.

The Black Death lasted from 1331 to 1353 with a total number of deaths worldwide estimated at about 75 million people. It reached England via sailors aboard a ship entering Weymouth in Dorset. Entire villages were wiped out – in some areas you can still see the foundation remains. Only those villages that self-isolated survived. (Sound familiar?) The only good thing about the Black Death, if there can be a good thing!, is that it overturned the dominance of the Norman rule – serfdom and such, purely because there were not enough people left alive to maintain the rigid structure of Norman ‘class’ society.

Various plague pandemics came and went across Europe, recurring in England every two to five years between 1361 to 1480, with England's population reduced in 1370 by 50%.

The one we all remember was the 1665–66 Great Plague of London which was the last major outbreak of plague in England. It killed about 100,000 people, which was 20% of London's population. To stop it spreading entire families were forcibly detained in their houses by having the doors boarded up. No volunteer charity workers or community assistance back then. If the plague didn’t get these poor people they starved. The cry of ‘Bring out Your Dead’ filled the streets. Samuel Pepys in his diary noted that the younger members of the population did not seem to be taking the initial days when disease started spreading very seriously, and continued to fill the pubs. Things don’t change…

Another plague pandemic in 1855 started in China (hmm, familiar again?) and spread to India. The United States saw its first epidemic with the San Francisco plague of 1900–1904.

The famous Spanish Flu, which lasted from 1918 to 1920 after WWI, infected 500 million people worldwide. It even spread to remote Pacific islands and to the Arctic, resulting in the deaths of up to 100 million people. Influenza affects the very young and the very old, but this Spanish Flu carried a high mortality rate for young adults and took more lives than did the war. The great spread was caused by troop movements and was possibly exacerbated by stress, malnutrition and the chemical attacks.

For some of us older people - I’m 67 this month - we can remember the years when ‘austerity’ was the norm. We didn’t have all the things that are now no longer thought of as ‘luxury’ but ‘everyday’. We had TV – but it was a couple of feet tall, the screen was about the size of an A3 envelope and it took ages to warm up. The washing machine was very basic – and I used to help guide the clothes through a mangle to wring them out. No tumble driers, steam irons, computers, mobile phones. For Christmas and birthdays we had ONE major present and a few odds and ends – little bits. And toilet paper was either newspaper cut into squares or the pages of the old telephone book. Yes, you heard me – we didn’t have soft-on-your-bum toilet paper. Food was not the variety we have now – the only take-away was the fish ‘n chip shop, or in some areas the curry house. Going to MacDonalds in the late 1960s was a very rare treat.

This pandemic has taken us all by surprise. It is surreal, a sort of dystopian world, I think because we have all become complacent about life. We expect the government of whatever party, and the scientists to ‘sort it’. We expect the medicines and equipment to be there at a snap of the fingers. We don’t expect to have to stay at home and not go out for weeks on end. We don’t expect the pubs and shops to shut, to have our lives in danger because of a virus that is invisible to us.

But what I do find very thought-provoking: Nature is carrying on quite happily without us. The birds are singing and building their nests, preparing to lay their eggs. The lambs are being born, the trees are breaking into leaf, the flowers and blossoms are blooming.

It’s very sobering to realise that even were Coronavirus/Covid 19 to wipe most of us humans out, Nature wouldn’t even notice.

Stay safe.

Lege feliciter (read happily).

helensig

 

March
 2020

For the last week of February I have found myself distracted from the usual form of ‘busy’. I’ve been incensed by an unprovoked attack on a fellow history writer. A ‘review’ was left for a new book which is due to come out soon. I use the term ‘review’ sarcastically, as it was anything but.

The obnoxious ‘reviewer’ proceeded to rip the book apart, except there was never any real reason given such as the facts were wrong, the writing was poor etc. The entire thing was riddled with vitriol of a very personal nature.

I did initially laugh because the entire thing was so ridiculously and obviously false: a ‘troll’ setting out to inflict deliberate damage. I could see the funny side, but others will not, so it isn’t funny. A brilliant book has been ‘rubbished’ totally unnecessarily by the claws of an unknown spiteful person.

The recent tragic suicide of UK TV celebrity Caroline Flack has had a series of repercussions, many of which, sadly, will probably be forgotten about and will fade away within a week or two. Media harassment mostly comes from the newspapers - I use the term 'news' somewhat sparingly - and 'celeb' magazines in particular. Many hairdresser salons, GP waiting rooms etc are now removing these type of magazines that proclaim things like 'we reveal the truth about XXX of Eastenders'. I'll not miss them, I never read them anyway.

You could argue that these high-status celebs know what they are letting themselves in for, should learn to take the rough with the smooth or turn a blind eye. But the nastiness, the trolls, the plain vindictiveness that abounds on sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and other such platforms is not ignorable. The spite that can be generated is unbelievable.

The #BeKind initiative which came in the wake of Ms Flack's tragic death has not lasted long. Nor, alas, will it be noticed by the dedicated troll or the narcissist. Whatever happened to 'If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all'?

There is another element to this nastiness, and it is aimed not at high-profile, high-paid celebrities but at ordinary people who have the only intention of entertaining or informing. Most of this group are not widely known outside of their own field. Some earn a moderate income, if they are lucky. The majority don't; some earn not even enough to be in profit. I'm talking about authors.

To sell books, be they fiction, nonfiction or poetry, we rely on word of mouth and reviews. Okay, not everyone will like our books - it would be a very dull world if we all liked/disliked the same things. Some books, let's be frank, are not very good, and I don't just mean self-published/indie. There are more than a few really bad traditional/mainstream books published.

I've been in this writing business for well over twenty-five years now. Reviews used to be confined to the specific 'book' magazines or the designated slots in newspapers or magazines. I was on the USA Today best seller list for The Forever Queen, for example. But now we have Amazon and Goodreads, plus a few others, where anyone can leave a comment. Any comment. Good or bad. Or nasty.

Many negative comments are just plain silly. "The book is about battles. I don't like battles." So why on earth read a novel that has for it's tagline 'The story of events that led to the Battle of Hastings?' The danger comes when a troll deliberately sets out to shred an author's reputation and confidence, especially if the book in question is a new release. It isn't necessarily the wording of these 'reviews' but the motive behind them that I question. What drives these people to totally trash someone's hard work? Revenge? Jealousy? Simply doing so because they can?

The difficulty is, what can we as authors do about these sordid attacks on us? The answer is… not much. We receive platitudes of 'Take no notice', 'laugh it off' or 'ignore it', but these vindictive comments linger like giggling malevolents in the background; in many cases they erode an author's already fragile confidence. They stand out in bold upper-case in the mind and gnaw away, leading to depression, an inability to write anything else and maybe, even, to suicide.

Constructive criticism is acceptable, but it doesn't have to be put in a sneering, snide way. There is a huge difference between constructive and destructive. Blatant public character assassination is the latter. Destructive nastiness is unwarranted, and often baffling. Of what help to a writer or reader is outright vindictiveness? Why do it?

So, think about the #BeKind campaign. Of course, be honest. If you don't like a book feel free to say so - but do it courteously and truthfully. You don't have to trash a book or an author in the process. Well, not unless you're a narcissistic troll.

Those who can, write. Those who can't, leave derogatory reviews about those who can.

Support an author: write a complimentary review.

Lege feliciter (read happily).

helensig

 

February
 2020

The snowdrops are out in the lane and there are a few primroses braving the mist and occasional sharp frost - although primroses tend to carefully peep over their little earth-bound horizons from late-autumn onward if the weather is mild. The snowdrops are wonderful to see, a long bank full of little white heads bordering the lane, and I noticed last year, that they had spread through the hedge into the front garden. These have not quite budded yet because it is more shaded in the garden than it is in the lane.

I could solve the shading by cutting down our enormous (at least thirty-feet high) Bay tree and the mature Field Maple. Which is not going to happen! Both trees have been there for a good few years and until Nature decides otherwise that's where they'll be staying for a few more years to come!

I've also noticed that the violets have upped and moved. When we came to Windfall Farm there was a cascade of violets overhanging the bank and dry-stone wall right next to the front garden gate. Not a single one there now, but a huge spread of them about four feet away further along the bank. The rain didn't wash them there as their new abode is up hill to the original bed. Birds moved them perhaps? Personally I think they upped-roots and trundled there, to this potentially sunnier spot, during the darkness of night. Or the fairies shifted them. Tolkien-esque, except with violets not Ents. (Trees, for those who are not familiar with The Lord Of The Rings).

Personally, I don't mind where they grow as long as they flower prolifically and the donkeys don't eat them.

Fat balls are another mystery. We have a hanging wire container which can house five fat balls which the wild bird usually flock to like opening hours at the local chippy or football-on-the-telly afternoon at the pub. For some reason, two of the present fat balls are being ignored. The birds don't want them, but the squirrel does.

Now, squirrels are a bit of a bone of contention. Grey squirrels that is; if they were red squirrels there would be no problem, but alas the reds are few and far between, and are not found in this part of the West Country. Because of the greys.

Technically, grey squirrels are rats with bushy tails and fur coats. They are classed as vermin. They also love our eggs and have been responsible for devouring an entire nest of potential ducklings and chicks. But I do admit our furry chap (chapess?) does look cute squatting on the bird table nibbling all the best seeds, or hanging upside-down to chew at these fat balls. I also have to say the dogs absolutely love chasing it away. It's just not good form when the squirrel doesn't play fair, shoots up a tree and sits there poking fun at the bewildered pooches.

We didn't have a squirrel problem when we had our old gander - inappropriately named 'Goosey'. He hated squirrels and woe betide any grey fur-ball which dared to set foot on the ground in the orchard. It's surprising how quickly an adult male goose can move when he wants to.

We lost Goosey a while back. He fell ill and it was kinder to put him down as even the vet didn't know what was wrong. We have still got Boo-Boo, his mate, and we acquired a new gander soon after losing Goosey. Colin (don't ask. No idea why we called him Colin, except it suits him) is not as ferocious as his predecessor. Nor as fast. Which, of course, Mr (or Mrs) Nutkin soon cottoned on to.

Last summer, I think I mentioned the Pipistrelle bats which have a maternity wing under the eaves of our roof - and the tiny babies which somehow managed to fall down inside the chimney breast to end up on our sitting room floor? This resulted in daughter Kathy having to climb up a ladder to just below the roof to usher them back into the nursery. As far as we're aware we only had two fatal casualties. The mum's keep looking for their wayward pups (yes, that's the right term for a baby bat) for several days, so hopefully they were reunited.

By early August the maternity wing was empty, and the bats had moved on. We were delighted, in early November, to discover that they had adopted new winter quarters beneath the roof of The Lodge, our free-standing wooden stable to the side of the stable yard. The roof is sloping but has a flat 'ceiling' beneath it, so an ideal wind and weather-proof space for the bats which come and go through a couple of openings beneath the sloping roof. We think that there are a good few hundred of them living there.

One of the stables last spring also housed a colony of nesting bumble bees. They came and went quite benignly, apparently, so we were told, raising a brood of youngsters until the Queen decided she wanted a new palace. No idea where they went, but obviously they enjoyed the gaps between the wooden stable walls, and were no problem to us at all. They minded their business, we minded ours.

The swallows nest in the stable eaves, alas only three nests this year. There were about sixteen being inhabited when we moved here. The sparrows have multiplied, though, and the blue tits came back to their nest box again. I hope they return this year.

Now all we need is for a barn owl to realise that we have a super barn owl-suitable nest box wanting a regular tenant.

All this combines to make life in the countryside so fascinating. On the surface, everything stays the same - the fields, the trees, nature turning through the seasons - but look closely and the violets have moved house, the bats have found new winter quarters, and that blooming squirrel has discovered where he/she can get a tasty free meal of fat balls which, for some unknown reason, the birds just do not want!

Lege feliciter (read happily).

helensig

 

January
 2020

In fact, that quote should be ‘Happy New Decade To All’, although there is some controversy over whether a decade starts at the zero or the one. Well, we started the new Millennium in the year 2000 – ergo the decade of the forthcoming 20s has begun. That’s my opinion anyway, and I’m sticking to it.

So what comes to my mind for the past decade? The years 2010 through to 2019?

2010 started badly from the events of December 2009, with us devastatingly, and unexpectedly, losing one of our horses (Izzy) and my elderly Mum passing away on Christmas morning. I’d also had an extremely painful torn ligament in my thigh (it still bothers me sometimes,) so the start of 2010 was somewhat gloomy, but we struggled through and things took an upturn when Sourcebooks Inc of North America took on my historical novels, The Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy, Harold the King and A Hollow Crown. I still wish they hadn’t changed the titles of the latter two (to I Am The Chosen King and The Forever Queen) but ‘Queen became a USA Today bestseller, and all five books are still selling, earning me modest royalties.

July that year saw me working alongside, and developing a super best-friendship, with Cathy Helms of www.avalongraphics.org. Ten years ago? Never!

2011 started with our horse, Lexie, seriously lame with a damaged tendon – ten years later my daughter Kathy is competing her successfully over show jumps that are taller than I am! 2019 saw them both competing at the All England Showjumping Arena, Hickstead, Sussex, in the main International arena – for Kathy, an ambition achieved.

We also had a scare in 2011 when our kitten, Mab, turned out to be pregnant. The kittens had to go, she was too young and too small. She is now a healthy adult cat who prefers to come and go through the bathroom window and spends most of her days asleep on my bed. (What a life.)

2012 had a rather Bad thing and a very Good thing. The bad was that I was diagnosed with Glaucoma. Now, in 2020, it has stabilised, but has made my vision very ‘wonky’ – it’s like looking at one of those wibbly-wobbly fairground mirrors. But the Good Thing came with the London 2012 Olympics. Oh, how well I remember watching that Friday opening night on TV, and seeing some of the fireworks ‘live’ from our Walthamstow front garden! Little did we, as a family, know that the next day would change our lives forever.

Saturday afternoon. My husband Ron was checking his lottery numbers and the special Lottery Olympics Opening Night raffle ticket he’d purchased. I didn’t believe he had a winning number at first, then it took me ages to get through to an actual person to ‘stake our claim’. What a rigamarole! After about half an hour, I’d established that we’d won something. Before she rung off, after making arrangements regarding our win, I was asked if I had any further questions. "Yes." I said, "What exactly have we won?"

Just as well I was sitting down. I heard the lady chuckle: "£1,000,000" she said. Oh blimey!

It’s nearly all gone now, but in January 2013 we moved to Devon having bought outright a late eighteenth-century farmhouse with thirteen acres of farmland, treated ourselves to a few things and invested a sizeable chunk. Oh, and I paid for a rather grand, and thoroughly enjoyable, wedding in May 2014 when Kathy married Adam. One of the best memories for me, buying her wedding dress and not having to worry about how much it cost. (I didn’t even ask!)

Following that, another chunk of the win went on building them their own self-contained flat adjoining the main house. Well, it was nice being a millionaire for a little while!

2015 saw me meeting up with Cathy Helms and her husband again for a trip to the USA, and another momentous date was January 2017 when I launched Discovering Diamonds, a review blog for historical fiction. Since then, we are not far off 350,000 visitors, and my enormous thanks to the super team of reviewers who continue to help me run the site.

We’ve had a variety of pets and companions come and go – we lost our dog, Rum, soon after we moved in and last year my Donkey, Wonky Donk. I have two new donkeys now, whilst Baz and Eddie the dogs came into our home and hearts, along with newcomer thirteen-week-old Elfie a PatterJack Terrier (Patterdale Jack Russell terrier). Saffie had a colt foal in 2017 and is due another in May this year - we’re hoping for a filly this time - but whatever she produces, whatever happens in this coming New Year and New Decade the Good Things tend to, in the end, outweigh the Sad or Bad Bits.

And, you never know, I might actually get the next book written…

Lege feliciter (read happily).

helensig