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Previous editions of the journal pages

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

"Happy New Year To All."
 

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

"Helen Hollick is a great storyteller, weaving a compelling and exciting story full of twists and surprises, around complex and engaging characters."
 

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

"What an absolute joy to read. I am so entranced with the style."
 

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

"Stories create community, they can bring the isolated together."
 

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

"Loved it. Entertaining and thought provoking."
 

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

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

July
  2020

It’s been a strange year so far. March, April, May and June have gone by almost unnoticed, save for the confine of home - for me, the farm here in North Devon, but for many, just the back garden, or merely a balcony. Conversation has been within the household, maybe shouted across a garden fence or from one balcony to another. Online chats, of course, or the good old-fashioned landline telephone.

Work, for me, has been difficult. Distractions are to blame: nice weather meant gardening; the foal - it’s amazing how much time can disappear by simply leaning on a gate watching a young filly sleep in the sun. Listening to the latest news about Covid-19 took up several hours as did contacting friends to check they were still ‘safe’.

Now, though, we are ‘getting back to normal’. Except normal is abnormal. We are in a country - world even - that has fragmented into an almost dystopian-type existence. The way we do things has changed, in some cases beyond recognition. Will we ever return to ‘how it was’? In a month or two or by this time next year, will we be hugging, even kissing our friends and family when we meet up? Will the one/two metre social distancing still apply? Will we ever shake hands again, or will we adopt the ‘friendly nod’ as a usual form of sociable greeting? That one poses a bit of a problem because a handshake has many different uses besides the basic ‘hello’ gesture. A handshake can be offered freely and in a friendly, genuine way, or it can be a reluctant ‘well I guess I’d better be polite’. It can be a snub - friendship, sociability, withheld. It can convey a lot: a weak, limp or sweaty hand - is the person nervous, over-cautious, reluctant, lying? Whereas a firm, confident grip reveals the opposite. How do you assess any of this via a brief nod of the head?

And now we are entering the ‘blame’ era. The arguing, the grumbling, the ‘should have done xxx’ wrangling. And it is annoying me intensely. Anything and everything is easy in hindsight! Predicting the future, especially when unknown territory is about to open up before us like a monster with a gaping, cavernous mouth, is another matter entirely.

The sneering, the finger pointing, the name calling; the, ‘it’s not fair’ whinging and whining. I very rarely talk about politics - what party or person you or I support, is your or my business. But certain situations should rise above personal preference. Was there a correct/incorrect way for each country to have handled (and continue to handle) Covid 19? In hindsight, probably, yes. Perhaps the UK should have gone into lockdown a week earlier - but back in March, if you recall, most of us were still saying ‘but it’s only a flu-like virus. It’s nothing too serious. Hundreds are infected, but millions aren’t…’ Then the truth hit home to us. (Apart from to the morons who still believe that Corona Virus is fake news, and in countries where the governing leader is even more of a moron than the average moron. I’ll mention no names …) Think on this next time you are tempted to grumble: no one country or government ‘got it right’.

Covid-19 hit hard, but could have been as devastating as the Black Death pandemic of 1347, or the plague that swept through London in 1665… or the Influenza outbreak of 1918/19 which caused the deaths of more people than the number killed in the entirety of the Great War. (And it has been suggested that, actually, it wasn’t ‘flu but an early variant of the present pandemic.) But back then there were not the medical advances that we have now. No antibiotics, no intensive care - not even hospitals, come to that, although ‘Lockdown’ was recognised, but without the massive support structure of 2020. Okay, you may disagree with what was done, when it was done and how it was done, but in 1665 Londoners were - literally - boarded into their houses with no food deliveries, no social or health care whatsoever. They were shut in and left to die.

Here in the UK - England - we all have our own thoughts on what, or how, this pandemic should have been handled. If you voted Conservative, then things were done right - unless you happen to not like Mr Johnson. (As it happens, and for the record, I think he has done his best through very difficult times. That is all we can ask of any politician. It’s those who don’t do their best, or do things for their own power-building who should be booted out of office.) If you are Labour or Liberal, then everything has been a mess. But think on this: how would YOU have handled the crisis? Is it just your personal prejudice that is causing you to naysay everything? A few weeks back everyone was shouting for schools to re-open because children were not getting an education - the schools were opened, and everyone screamed ‘too early, too dangerous!’ Now it is gyms and theatres: ‘open them! We are losing business’. Open them up and… ‘Close them, it’s too early.’

The ability to listen to others, to weigh decisions rationally, sensibly, to not jeer and sneer in prejudiced tribe mentality is a gift that few of us have or use. No one person - be he (or she) a Prime Minister, Chancellor, President (with the exception of a couple I’ll not bother to name) will ever get everything right every time, even with knowledgeable advice from experts.

In decision making, you can only do what you think is the best thing to do. And the best thing isn’t always clear - or right - until you look back in hindsight. I’m just thankful that my family have got through this (so far) and survived.

Stay safe.

Lege feliciter (read happily).

helensig

"A character is an imaginary friend who has become real."
 

August
  2020

To Mask or Not To Mask, that is the general discussion. No, they are not always comfortable. It is difficult talking to people when you can't see their full faces. Remember all the hoo-ha about women wearing full-face burkas in public a couple of years ago? Well, that discussion has gone away hasn't it? (Thank goodness - in my opinion a woman wearing a burka is causing no harm or offence. The right to wear one is an individual's decision.)

What I do find unsettling about wearing a mask is that we can no longer see expressions - a smile, a downturned sadness. I've started using the thumbs-up sign when I greet people; "Hello!" (said brightly) along with a conspicuous raising of my thumb. It seems to work.

I've also got a selection of pretty masks, made by my sister. A couple of floral ones, a red one with white spots… I did decline the one with elephants as a pattern as I feel elephantine enough as it is with the weight I've put on recently. (Note to self: Cut out the biscuits!) I also declined the one with penguins as my knees are really stiff from the arthritis and I do tend to waddle rather than walk. (Yes I know, not helped by the too many biscuits.)

What I do find obnoxious about masks is the cost of some of them. Outrageous! Should the government be providing them? That's a matter of debate, but I do think more charities should be shouting from the rooftops about the various volunteers making masks at home with their trusty old Singer Sewing Machines churning masks out by the dozen and selling them for charity.

Handy with sewing? Not sure how to make a mask? Click here and author Alison Morton will show you how.

I have been talking about supporting a charity elsewhere lately when Pauline Barclay, another friend and author, started a series about what charities some authors supported.

She said "For many it is a very tough time. For charities it is also a very scary time, for some their income has dried up. Over the coming weeks I will be sharing stories that will warm your heart, make you smile and maybe have you reaching for the tissues."

I donated an article for one of my two chosen charities. One is the Devon Air Ambulance, the other is the Moorland Mousie Exmoor Pony Centre. Read all about it here.

I'm not asking my readers to pay out or donate to any of the above - or indeed, any charity, but if you want to, please don't forget to support the charity/charities you have a particular care for. They are all in desperate need of help.

The main reason for this month's journal, though, is those masks. Usually, wearing a mask refers to the goodies or baddies of TV and the Silver Screen. Virtually every superhero wears a mask: Batman, the Lone Ranger, Spiderman, Batgirl, the Ninja Turtles ... then we have masked balls, masked festivals and masked parades. Although it still baffles me how a mere mask covering the eyes can totally hide the wearer's identity! Equally, it baffles me that Prince Charming had to identify the love of his life by her shoes, not her eyes, or mouth, or body shape... but there you go, that's fiction for you.

And yes, you are free to argue that these are all masks covering the eyes, not the mouth. That's a mere picky point.

WE should be wearing masks when in an enclosed (indoor) public place to be our own, individual super heroes. Heroes wear masks. In the present Covid-19 case, this is to save lives and to set standards. No, a mask will not stop you getting this deadly virus (and yes, it is deadly!) but wearing a mask will help stop the spread of the droplets that carry the virus. Wearing a mask might be a little uncomfortable. But it's not as uncomfortable as a ventilator. Nor as permanent as a coffin.

If a nurse or care worker can wear a mask for many hours every day, is it really too much to ask for us to wear one for half-an-hour while in a supermarket?

Stay safe. Wear your mask with pride.

Lege feliciter (read happily).

helensig

"The Pendragon trilogy is wholly absorbing."
 

September
  2020

Lockdown and its aftermath has had some positive points. A couple of negatives as well, alas.

I am not the only author to have found it hard to concentrate during this most 'un-normal' year, which, is a relief because I was thinking this phenomenon of not having the impetus to write was just me. I've been able to chunter out articles by the dozen, write chatty newsletters and a couple of short stories - but the big stuff? The next full-length novel?

Nope.

I have tried. I've written a paragraph, deleted it, re-read through what I have written, forced myself to write the next chapter, "I WILL sit and write..."

Zilch happened. (What I did write wasn't very good.)

To hear the same thing from several other authors was comforting… not just me then. Phew! I don't know why this is. Writers, after all, are more often than not used to being solitary creatures. We spend much of our life tucked in a study (or similar) tapping away at our keyboards with only our characters (fictional ones) for company. Lockdown, you would have thought, would be no big deal for us. (Aside from the lack of toilet paper, pasta and being unable to go out to get a refill of ink for the printer.)

I've come to the conclusion that the reason was the underlying uncertainty. Not helped by the knowledge that books were not being printed, bookstores and libraries were closed and the deep gloom prediction of ‘no one wants to buy books’ was overhanging us all. It's hard enough selling books as it is, especially when you are an indie or self-published author. I have the good fortune of being a ‘hybrid’ (hate that term!) which means I am ‘indie’ and mainstream traditionally published. But the cost of being indie is becoming harder to earn back the initial outlay.

I'm not having a whinge or moan - honest. I'm about to tell you of a momentous decision!

The ideas for the next plot were not coming, so I decided to set the next Sea Witch Voyage (Gallows Wake) aside for a little while, and try something fresh and new in the hope of kick-starting my mojo.

Well, it worked! I've written what is to be my first 'cosy mystery murder'. A cosy mystery sort of does what it says on the label… it's a murder mystery, usually with a touch of romance with the lead character being an amateur sleuth, usually female. A light-hearted, easy, often ‘quick’ read - a forty- to fifty-thousand word or so novella.

(From Wikipedia) "Cozy mysteries, also referred to as ‘cozies’, are a subgenre of crime fiction in which sex and violence occur off stage, the detective is an amateur sleuth, and the crime and detection take place in a small, socially intimate community." (Except I prefer the UK spelling - cosy not cozy).

Set in 1971, the title is A Mirror Murder, and my lead character is Jan Christopher, a library assistant. She isn't the ‘amateur sleuth’ but her guardian and uncle is DCI Christopher and her boyfriend is DC Laurie Walker. I've used several anecdotes from my days of working in a library - although the murder in this story is purely fictional!

But, I have gone one step further with this one - I've decided to go DIY… Yes I am going to publish this one myself, under my OWN little publishing company. Exciting eh?

The book will not be out until January 2021 as I still have to edit, have a cover designed (by my usual Avalon Graphics) and I want to get a second book in the series under way so I can get off to a good start with a couple of these cosy mysteries under my belt. I also have to sort out formatting, and how to actually go about doing my own publishing, but I'm looking forward to the challenge.

So, please wish me luck with Taw River Press and my new venture - you can find out a lot more here: www.tawriverpress.co.uk)

(Don't worry, Jesamiah fans - I'll be getting back to writing more of his adventures very soon. The break has done the trick!)

Stay safe.

Lege feliciter (read happily).

helensig

"...a mixture of history, folklore and legend (suitably debunked)."
 

October
  2020

October, and the nights are drawing in here in England, with autumn colours becoming noticeable. The vibrant greens of summer are mellowing into golds, yellows, browns and reds. The hedgerows have been laden with blackberries, and the orchard is abundant with apples - my freezer is quite bursting with containers ready for use as apple and blackberry crumble.

October is also the anniversary of the 1066 Battle Of Hastings, always a time for me, personally, to reflect on the past: What If King Harold II had lost at Stamford Bridge in the September. What If William had been drowned when crossing the English Channel, or had lost the battle that day, 14th October, on Senlac Hill? There are some super 'What If' stories, written by a collection of accomplished authors in '1066 Turned Upside Down'. It is an e-book only but it costs less than a cup of coffee, so why not treat yourself?

My novel, 'Harold The King' (titled 'I Am The Chosen King' in the US) remains the one I am most proud of. It was first published in 2000, so is now twenty years old - and I still think it is one of the best novels that depict the events that led to the day that changed the face of England… forever.

I am also undertaking an ambitious On Line Tour with dear friend and author Annie Whitehead during the first two weeks of October - keep an eye on my www.helenhollick.net website for an update of the tour stops and Step Back Into Saxon England with Annie and me… and a Saxon or two…

But back to my home in Devon: The roses and geraniums didn't do too well in the garden this year - too dry and hot earlier on, then far too wet. We're going to move one particular rambling rose from the front of our veranda as it is somewhat straggly and vicious, and while the roses are lovely when in bloom, they turn an unsightly brown when finished. So it has been trimmed down and will be relocated to further down the orchard along the fence so it can spread out into the hedge. What is doing well, however is my rudbeckia - over the years, one small bush has increased into a glorious spread of yellow which brightens up even the greyest of autumn days. Just a pity that the brambles, nettles and bindweed grow even more vigorously!

My vegetable-growing didn't do too well either. One crop of peas and that was it. Between the weather, slugs and mice, the carrots, spring onions, runner beans and lettuces were a disaster. Never mind, I'll try again next year.

Home-produce wise the year hasn't been good at all - even the hens have not been laying. Mind you, my own hen (renamed 'Lucky White Tail') has a good reason to not want to lay. She was caught by a fox back in the summer. Fortunately the dogs sorted the situation out and chased Foxy off, dropping the hen in the process. She had rather a nasty bite, which subsequently healed, and learnt her lesson to stay in the safety of the orchard - not the dangerous lane! Hence her new name. She has her own house (an old rabbit hutch) in which she puts herself to bed each evening; I go out to check she has food and water and shut her in for the night. No eggs for a while now, but I do get crooned at as I close her door, very much a 'night-night' sound, bless her.

The orchard is also inundated with sparrows. I heard somewhere that sparrows are in decline in some places … well that's obviously because they've all moved into my place! They might be plain, brown, not as attractive as the colourful tits and finches, but they are delightful little birds to watch. 'Cheeky chappies' (chapesses?) There were about thirty on the bird table this afternoon, all squabbling like mad - the bird version of Eastenders, the UK TV soap.

It is also starting to get cold. Time to get out the fluffy socks and warm jumpers, to put away the flip-flop sandals and T-shirts. So far I've resisted putting the central heating on: I'm not sure how long I'll last out.

The hedgerows along the lane have had their annual 'haircut' (short back and sides) the hay has (finally!) been cut, baled and stacked in the barn. The horses are wearing rugs at night, apart from the Exmoors, but their coats are fluffing out and getting shaggier. The virus hasn't gone away and new restrictions have been brought in, but I guess it will be a lot easier to stay indoors, especially once we start lighting the wood burner, sitting on the sofa, feet stretched out towards the warmth, glass of home-made Damson Gin in hand…

Ah, now, those things I do look forward to come autumn!

Lege feliciter (read happily).

helensig

"Right up my street. A wonderful foray into Anglo Saxon England."
 

November
  2020

2020 has been a bit of a write-off for many people, lockdowns, furlough schemes, and, unfortunately, redundancies. Not to mention the devastation of the virus itself causing illness from mild to severe, and tragically, deaths. Now we have Long Covid, where this wretched Pandemic is leaving many people with long-term symptoms of chronic fatigue, breathing problems etc. Worryingly, too many are now playing party politics, putting their selfishness - some of it political, some of it idiotic stupidity - as a priority over the lives of others.

Covid-19 has not gone away, it is spreading again and here we are going into November with people desperately ill in hospitals and lockdown situations having to be re-visited. And not just in England, Much of Europe is affected (infected!), as is the United States… But don't get me started on the USA. I rarely mention politics and religion in public, but the utter ignorance of the many, many Americans who are saying that Corona-Virus is a hoax, a conspiracy theory - for goodness sake you people, wake up to reality!

Also worrying is the rising level of complaining, moaning and increasing anger. A natural progression, so the psychologists are saying, akin to the stages of grief: Denial. Anger. Depression. Acceptance.

Sound familiar?

I did hear someone say, 'A pity we can't shut the year down and re-boot it'. If only we could!

Here in Devon, we haven't been doing too badly. North Devon is fairly low on the Covid-19 scale because we are primarily a rural community. For my family, though, our worries started during the almost two months of dry, very hot weather of May and June.

Our Top Field is our hay meadow. Grass was sparse in the spring because winter had been wet. We'd grazed the horses up there for too long after Christmas because we had to keep another field suitable for when the foal was due in May. Consequently, not much grass came through. When it did, the sun burnt it up to dry stalks. Then there was too much rain again, and high winds which flattened it all. July came and went. No hay to cut. August... September. We really thought that this year we were not going to be able to cut and bale. Then - almost before it was too late - a short window of opportunity and we made hay, although abandoning the field edges, particularly at the lower end where it remained wet. We were expecting only about 100 meagre bales, but ended up with 270 which is enough to see us through the winter and next spring. And, it is lovely hay, possibly our best crop ever (although we usually get about 400 bales). The saving grace…

The bees.

In early summer the local Honey Farm 'rented' our field for the accommodation of forty-eight hives. That is a lot of bees. By this time there were fragile-looking clover, meadow flowers and grass struggling to grow to something resembling a decent height above a couple of inches - and it would not have sprung into life if it hadn't been for the bees, busy about their pollinating and honey-gathering across the field.

Those bees saved our hay.

I've always liked bees. They are highly intelligent creatures - which really do react to humans. That first time I sat outdoors at my new home, enjoying a morning cup of coffee on the first warm day, back in the spring of 2013, I was intrigued by the number of bees buzzing amongst the thyme and sage along the top of one of the garden walls. The bees were agitated, making quite a noise and being very fidgety. I peered closer, they grew even more alarmed.

'It's all right,' I said aloud, 'I'm Helen, I live here now, and you are all more than welcome in my garden.'

You might not believe me, but (honest, it is true) they immediately settled down, and calmly went about their business.

I made a point of going up to the Top Field when our 'guest bees' arrived in their hives to say hello and to tell them how welcome they were.

The Honey Farm removed the hives in August in order to take them to Scotland for a 'working holiday' in the heather, but they will be back again with us soon (lockdown permitting). When they do return, I will make a point of paying a visit to them to thank them for saving our hay.

Stay safe.

Lege feliciter (read happily).

helensig

"Betrayals fester and poison the soul."
 

December
  2020

Great Expectations. Great Disappointments. Both can, I think, sum 2020 up quite well. We started out, back in January, full of hope and - yes, expectation - looking forward to a year of possible prosperity, exciting sport (2020 was supposed to have been the Olympic Games, remember?) and I guess, depending on what side of the fence you preferred to sit on, the hopeful or horrendous Matter of Brexit. That will (maybe?) still be happening, but goodness, how everything else changed for the World!

I don't think I need to explain why?

'Great Expectations' was Charles Dickens' thirteenth novel. It is about the life of Pip, an orphan. First published as a serial in Dickens' weekly periodical 'All the Year Round', from 1 December 1860 to August 1861, then published in three volumes. Set in the mid-1800s among the Kent marshes and the streets of London, it contains some of Dickens' most memorable scenes and characters. It opens in a graveyard, where young Pip is accosted by a convict, Abel Magwitch, who has escaped from one of the moored prison hulk ships - awful places of squalor where more men and women died than survived.

Throughout the novel we see the two different sides of Victorian times, the hardship, the poverty, the despair and the injustice, all polarised by the contrast of those who had wealth, and therefore health. The story is brought to life by distinctive and colourful characters such as eccentric Miss Havisham jilted at the altar, the cold and beautiful Estella, and Joe, the kind and generous blacksmith. Wealth and poverty, love and rejection is eventually overcome by good over evil.

I confess, however, that I've never got on very well with Dickens. (Do I hear gasps of astonishment?) Dickens is one of those author chaps that readers keep in the closet, as it were, pretending to go along with the popular view, not liking to admit publicly that The Great Man is not for them. I have, in the past, when saying that Dickens isn't my cup of tea, been admonished with, 'But you are a writer! How can you say such a thing?'

Well, I'm sorry, but there it is, I'm not keen on Dickens. Especially, 'Great Expectations'. Yes there are some wonderful scenes, some superbly memorable characters, but I find Dickens to be so depressing… Probably because (another confession - don't gasp…) I loathe the Victorian era. All the dirt of the slums, the depravity, the uncaring of those who were poor or ill, or disabled. The hypocrisy. Ugh. I reckon I must have had an ancestor or two who really suffered during the Victorian period, their suffering leaving an indelible stain on my DNA psyche. (If it helps balance things, I feel exactly the same about the Tudors.)

Why am I nattering on about Great Expectations then? Mainly because I got to thinking about the hardship that many, many people are going through this Unexpected Year, where far too many have died, far too many are or will be out of work, have lost their businesses, their hope, their loved ones. But at least we here in the UK do have a welfare system and a free NHS. The Government has tried its best to muddle through these months of unprecedented unexpectation. I'm not being political, maybe Mr Johnson and co have made a mess of things, but I don't think the 'Other Side' would have done any better, and I do wish people would realise that this is not just us here in the UK. The whole world is in a chaos of mess. Many countries are far worse off than we are - even worse off than the poor and the ill who lived through the Victorian era.

And now I'll make you laugh, I hope.

I was struggling to decide what to write about to close my journal for 2020. I happened to glance at a vase of artificial silk flowers that are on my bedroom windowsill. I haven't done much (well, hardly any) 'cosmetic' housework this year. No one's coming to visit, or at least, to come indoors and stay, so why bother dusting? I very well remember a scene from a TV adaptation of Great Expectations: Miss Havisham, an old lady, is wearing the same, now ragged, filthy wedding gown that she had worn on her abandoned wedding day. She sat at a table lavishly bedecked for the celebration of the wedding feast, only the table was strewn with thick swathes of dust-riddled cobwebs, covering everything.

I looked at my vase of artificial silk flowers, to see, to my horror (but then laughter) a hammock-like, thick cobweb stretching from the vase to the windowpane. "Miss Havisham would be proud of you!" I laughed.

I'm also going to admit that I've left the cobweb there. No way am I going to confront the spider that built it.

Dickens felt that 'Great Expectations' was his best, most popular work, calling it "A very fine, new and grotesque idea."

I can't help thinking that Covid-19 is a very un-fine, new, grotesque idea, along with, some will say, Brexit and the troublesome Goings On at the White House…

Perhaps Expectation will be better in 2021?

Enjoy Christmas, if you celebrate it, but do so sensibly and safely.

Lege feliciter (read happily).

helensig

"We're all stories, in the end. Just make yours a good one..."