Actually, the week before the week before Christmas:

MONDAY 12/12/22:

It’s very cold and all the dogs round us are in dog jackets or jumpers and my, they do not look happy about it. The only one who can treat the whole thing with disdain is a greyhound who has a very stylish grey jacket and still manages to look beautiful. A pot of thyme seems to have had a near death experience while spending the night inside the kitchen so my partner revives it with sips of water and placing it under a bright light. Our conversations are all about the weather. Shall we put the heating on? When shall we turn it off? I get a complicated mathematical thing off the internet to work out how much a unit on our gas meter is actually costing us especially when we see the increase in the direct debits.

TUESDAY 13/12/22:

We try and buy a tree only to be told they are sold out. Sold out! It’s a fortnight before Christmas! How can they be sold out? I troll off to another place where I think they are being sold and am greeted with, ‘Alright, mate?’ I put it down to the hat pulled down to the level of my eyebrows. ‘How much are they?’ ‘I’ll get Tom.’ Tom emerges from a hut and doesn’t look too happy about it. ‘Can I have a look at some of them?’ I say. They tear the netting off one which I don’t like. ‘It’s all spindly and bald at the top,’ I say. ‘Oh, we’ve got bushy,’ Tom growls and rips the netting of another which I do prefer. Before I can prevent them they’ve whacked the trunk into a big wooden block. Cash changes hands. ‘Now I have to see if I can carry it,’ I say. ‘Oh, you’ll be alright,’ one of them says and lifts it into my arms. I stagger to the corner and get out of sight before dropping it. I was hoping to drag it but can’t because of the wooden block. Takes me a while to get home, forearms burning.

tabby cat on green christmas tree

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WEDNESDAY 14/12/22:

To the theater for the first time since Covid to see A Christmas Carol at the Bridge theater with Simon Russell Beale as Scrooge. It was first put together for Christmas 2020 and we all know what happened then. It’s lovely to be back in a theater and because it’s a relatively new one the place does not overheat or run out of oxygen. Very few coughs I notice. Pre-Covid it wasn’t unusual to have whole theaters hacking away. I suppose if you have a cough now you stay away from crowded spaces. I would hope so anyway.

THURSDAY 15/12/22:

A miracle occurs we have Christmas cards, we have stamps, we write out cards. I look at the list of names I sent cards to last year. A few have a series of little question marks next to them like this ????? Did I or didn’t I? Do I now? A feeling of falling into a bottomless pit overwhelms me. Time for a cup of tea.

We watch Lucy Worsley’s take on Agatha Christie. The media has this obsession with the ‘new’. Everything has to be new. Has Lucy made new discoveries about Agatha’s disappearance? Well, no she certainly hasn’t, the whole fugue state theory round Christie’s disappearance has been around forever, but it doesn’t stop the BBC doing a three hour series with Lucy as the presenter. It’s perfectly watchable but her theorizing lacks rigour. I also feel irritated by her comment on Agatha’s first husband being incredibly hot. Mean little eyes and the slab like face of a bully. And he behaved incredibly badly. Why doesn’t she comment on Agatha’s rather beautiful face. The programme is about Christie after all. Or is it really all about Lucy.

FRIDAY 16/12/22:

We watch Vienna Blood. I love the setting, the clothes, the interiors. In fact everything but the script which is appalling, incredibly wooden and clunky. Couldn’t they have spent a bit more on the script for heaven’s sake? The same could apply to Strike. I like Tom Burke and Holly Grainger but that is all. Again the script is awful and some horrible attempt at comedy using a caricature of an elderly woman with IBS is unbelievably vile. Fart jokes? Really? OK, Strike is supposed to be the strong silent type but Burke can act. Give him more and better lines. Don’t just have him stand around looking like a lugubrious Labrador in a big coat.

SATURDAY 17/12/22:

All this week we have been obsessed with condensation. As a consequence we now have the cleanest kitchen windows ever. EVER. I go to Paperchase and all their cards and a lot of their goods are 30% off and there’s a week to go before Christmas. I’ve never seen that before. We crack and get Apple TV to watch Slow Horses. This series is so very good – smart, funny and pacy. It reminds you it can be done. I’d rather watch Gary Oldman (as Jackson Lamb) eat Chinese noodles (1st episode, second series) for an hour than waste any more time on Vienna Blood or Strike.

SUNDAY 18/12/22:

I watch the world cup final. As the match progresses I realise I am very heavily invested in Messi lifting the World Cup so when everything appears to be going pear shaped with France’s two goals in 90 seconds, I decide I can’t watch the rest. I just keep an eye on my phone. Then when they win I regret not watching. I don’t know how proper football fans can stand it. I fall asleep wondering about those little??? against certain names. Did I or didn’t I? Should I or shouldn’t I?

How are your Christmas preparations going?


It was 1996 and a friend of mine had just died. Looking back, I now know that if he had survived a bit longer he would have benefited from the antiretrovirals and combination therapies that were to revolutionise the treatment of AIDS but he just didn’t make it. He was 42, it was awful and my sister and I were his executors. The aftermath of his death was fraught for all the usual reasons and we’d reached the point of going through everything and deciding what to throw out and what to keep and who got what etc. I was going through his papers and came across a catalogue which I can best describe as being for rugged Americans. His main interest was leather but this catalogue was filled with butch men wearing lumberjack shirts and the kind of heavy boots which would easily resist a dropped chain saw. It was all very John Wayne and also from another angle very YMCA. In this catalogue, LL Bean I think it was, there was also a two-layer, red union suit. If you don’t know what that is feast your eyes below. A bit wrinkly but you get the general idea. Incidentally my partner suggested I might like to pose in it. Think what you’ve been spared.


At the time I was living in a Housing Association house in Finsbury Park in North London. The house was wonderful but it was also bitterly cold; ice on the inside of the windows cold. So cold that the house cat (like the inhabitants, relatively feral) would crawl into bed with me at night and sleep against my kidneys. This union suit, I thought, would be the perfect item to ward off the cold. This was the very early days of the internet and so I must have filled out the sales slip and posted it off with my credit card details. And waited.

At some point in the middle of the summer, a postman turned up with my parcel demanding an eye watering amount of tax. It was about a quarter of the value of the clothes. I paid somewhat bitterly and tore open the parcel and there was my union suit. Now I just had to wait for cold weather. Eventually, a suitably cold day arrived and I put it on. Hurrah, I thought, the cold will not defeat me. Out I went in it and down into the underground, Piccadilly line as I remember it, quite a toasty line. And then on a very crowded, rush hour train I almost fainted from heat exhaustion. The trouble with a union suit I had discovered was its unity. It is impossible to get out of a union suit on a crowded tube and it is impossible to get any air into it. After that I was a bit wary. I remember once falling asleep wearing it when the electric blanket was on. The cat really approved of that episode. She became so soporific she couldn’t be bothered to swipe and bite when I scratched the top of her head. I had to drink about 2 liters of water to recover.

I still have it and feel that my union suit might be about to come into its own, what with the increase in energy prices and everything. But I now know that I can’t wear it out when I will encounter a range of warmer temperatures. Even though there are now all kinds of more sophisticated warm clothing (UNIQLO and their Heattech range for example) I still have a sneaking affection for it. I could have given it to charity or a passing cowboy but I haven’t.

Actually I blame my mother. She loved a good western and had a penchant for Zane Grey. But really what was I thinking of, these things are designed for people chopping down trees in snowy Montana or Maine (the home of LL Bean) not hopping on and off the tube in London. Who did I think I was? John Wayne’s sister?

P.S. Incidentally, if you’re interested LL Bean still sell them and I can vouch both for their warmth and their durability!


The other day I finished a book and wanted to throw it out of the window. I had largely enjoyed it up to the very end but then I felt the writer had chosen the most depressing ending possible and I wasn’t in the mood. I really did feel completely infuriated by the nihilism. It’s not that I need rainbows and tweeting birdies, but on the whole I prefer a pinch of hope, a sprinkling of the stuff, with my ending.

books in black wooden book shelf

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Oscar Wilde would have had no problem with the ending. This is what he had to say on the matter:

“I don’t like novels that end happily. They depress me so much.”

So, Oscar would have been fine. But setting his paradox to one side, the truth is, it’s extremely hard to end a book well. How often have you thought to yourself. Yup, it was fine but the ending was a bit dodgy or weird or stuck on. Or perhaps you’ve thought, ‘What happened there? Did I miss something?’ I do that all the time.

E.M. Forster had this to say on the matter in his classic book Aspects of the Novel.

“In the losing battle that the plot fights with the characters, it often takes a cowardly revenge. Nearly all novels are feeble at the end. This is because the plot requires to be wound up. Why is this necessary? Why is there not a convention which allows a novelist to stop as soon as he feels muddled or bored? Alas he has to round things off, and usually the characters go dead while he is at work, and our final impression of them is through deadness.”

Deadness? Eek!

Some writers are impressively ruthless over endings. I am absolutely not. If a reader has done me the honour of buying my book and taken the trouble to read it to the end I want them to leave with something that is not completely pessimistic. The ending doesn’t have to be redemptive as such but I do feel a responsibility. I do think about the reader. And so do publishers of course. The reason why there is not the convention that Forster argues for is that the book wouldn’t get accepted for publication. So the rounding off thing is part and parcel of being a professional writer, it’s expected with certain sorts of fiction. You can’t quit when you’re bored or muddled if you want to be published.

Unless you’re French.

Then you can write tiny books of auto fiction which are completely incomprehensible and still win the Nobel Prize for Literature. A cheap shot but I’ve been struggling with Patrick Modiano for way too long and need to vent.

Google How to end a novel and you will find all kinds of advice. You will be told to build tension, evoke emotions and my favourite, make sure your ending makes sense. You will be advised to keep your end in sight the whole way. Don’t do that it’ll give you a crick in the neck. You will be told how to end a novel quickly and how to end your novel with a twist. What are we now? Gymnasts?It’s exhausting all the things you will be told. You will be told to read the successful endings of famous novels, like the Great Gatsby for example. Don’t do that either, it’ll just depress you and it won’t help. You are probably not Scott Fitzgerald and you haven’t written The Great Gatsby. The trouble is you have written your book and only you can finish it. Oh, the horror, the horror.

In his book Writing a Novel, Nigel Watts likens the finishing of a novel to tightening the laces of a tall boot.

“You start at the toe and then loosely lace up to the top. Then you return to the toe and tighten up to the top again, making minor adjustments. So, how many tightenings is enough?”


Regrettably there’s no one who can help you.

Now if I had ended this piece with the above line you would feel exactly as I felt when I finished the book I mentioned at the beginning.

But I wouldn’t do that to you, so here is Watts again.

“There is no point of arrival, no point of perfection. You just do your best with what you’ve got and send your creation out into the world.”

There, you see? A softer, kinder ending. You do the best you can. Simples.


One of the last books I bought in a bookshop before the March 2020 lock down was a book by Rolf Dobelli called Stop Reading the News. I didn’t read the book because I was so busy glued to the news. What with government announcements, infection rates, death rates and then changes in what we could or could not do, Partygate, the Ukraine war, the implosion of the Conservative party, the tanking of the economy etc…

But then the other day, when my partner was out, for reasons that escape me, I listened to all the local radio interviews that Liz Truss gave. There was about an hour of them and shortly after that I saw the book on the shelf and thought, well, he’s probably got a point. So, brainwashed by Liz I took decisive action (a phrase she used in every one of those interviews) and read it.

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First, I should confess to the extent of my news habit. Wake up in the morning to Radio 4’s Today programme. Listen to it while doom scrolling BBC news website and the Guardian on my phone. Buy the Guardian paper. Check phone repeatedly through the day. Listen to the World at One with Sarah Montague, Radio 4 and PM at 5 also Radio 4 then top it off with some Channel 4 news at 7 to see if Krishnan (currently on leave for swearing at Steve Baker) is wearing his pink tie with the cherubs – used to be Jon Snow and his socks. On Saturdays buy The Times and the Guardian. On Sunday buy the Observer and sometimes the Sunday Times. Listen to Broadcasting House with Paddy O’Connell on Sunday morning, Radio 4 again. Read The Bookseller and Private Eye weekly. That’s about the extent of it.

How did it come to this?

Back in the day I just used to buy the Times in order to read Simon Barnes, the sport’s writer much loved by Private Eye’s Pseuds Corner and then give the rest of it a cursory once over. I was also a big fan of The Independent in its broadsheet days.

Dobelli’s thesis is that with the advent of the internet in the 90s “news is every bit as dangerous as alcohol” and “it is to the mind what sugar is to the body: appetising, easily digestible and extremely damaging.” He says we should assess our news habit as follows:

  • Do you understand the world better?
  • Do you make better decisions?

His answer to those two questions was no. He went news free in 2010 and says that as a result he has:

  • improved quality of life
  • clearer thinking
  • vastly more time and more valuable insights

He advises you to go cold turkey but if that’s too extreme then buy something like the Economist or the Week and then wean yourself off more gradually.

The news he says gets risk assessment all wrong, rewires our brain so that our attention spans are shorter, makes us more passive, gives the illusion of empathy while destroying our peace of mind. If you want to be well informed news is not the place to go but long form essays or books written by experts in their field also text books.

On the subject of risk assessment, he says that our central nervous systems react disproportionately strongly to visible, rapidly changing, colourful stimuli, the shocking, the loud and the personal and disproportionately weakly to the abstract, the subtle, slow developing, and ambivalent. News editors exploit this distortion in our perspective driven by the needs for advertising.  Consuming the news day by day skews our sense of what’s important. An example he gives is that of a banking collapse being overplayed whereas government debt is underplayed. Mind you, not the case currently in the UK.

99 percent of all world events are outside our control. The daily litany of things we can’t change  wears us down and turns us into pessimists. We assume the role of victim. We become passive. We descend into learned helplessness and this doesn’t just make us passive about world events. We become passive in areas where we do have room for manoeuvre. It bleeds into every other area of our lives. It’s much more sensible to focus your energies on things you can control.

It all makes sense. In fact it’s horrifying. I did cut back a bit during the summer when Sunak and Truss were fighting it out because I just couldn’t stand it but when I think of really cutting back on my news intake I worry about the lettuce. If I had been news free, I would have missed the Daily Star’s live lettuce cam. I would have missed what Larry the cat had to say about things. I loved the lettuce and I loved all those puns: How long will she romaine etc. It really cheered me up but clearly I can’t pretend that it will lead to me making better decisions not even in my lettuce purchasing. Does it help me understand the world better? Perhaps how far a good joke will travel. But surely I knew that anyway? Incidentally, the idea of the lettuce came about because one of the Daily Star’s journalists was reading the Economist and a writer had pondered whether Liz Truss’s premiership would outlast the life of a lettuce. I think Dobelli would appreciate that.

I do wonder if since the pandemic he might alter his thesis a bit. Yes, news is bad for us but what about public health messages which are a form of news and aimed to keep us safe. Maybe he would place that type of information in a different category altogether. There is also the question of culture/arts coverage – film reviews, book reviews, exhibitions, sport and then the sudoku, code word, crossword etc. All of which I enjoy.

However, the book has really made me think, especially about how I take in news on my phone. The automaticity with which I reach for it, the automaticity with which I turn on the radio. I am going to try and cut down. And following his advice on reading in depth about questions that concern you, I am going to take decisive action (sorry, but I did listen to her for an hour) and get hold of a book by Isabel Hardiman titled Why We Get the Wrong Politicians. If the last six weeks or so of UK politics has made me want to read about any one issue in depth, it’s probably that one.

What is your news habit? Have you ever thought of cutting down or even stopping completely?


Have you ever wondered about the name Brontë? Apologies for the lack of umlaut in the title but I wasn’t sure how to produce one up there. Down here I can scatter them around like confetti.

The Brontës’ father, Patrick, was born in 1777 in County Down Northern Ireland of mixed Protestant/Catholic parents. His surname is thought to have been either Prunty or Brunty. He was one of ten, very clever and came to Cambridge to study for his degree with the aim of going into the Church of England. Presumably Patrick did not want an Irish name impeding his career in England and so he changed it.

But why did he chose Brontë?

(The above is a painting of Emily by her brother Patrick Branwell Brontë.)

The word is an anglicisation of the Greek word for thunder. Maybe he liked the idea of delivering thunderous sermons to his startled congregations. And putting the umlaut on the e gave the name a faintly Germanic ring, distancing him even further from his Irish roots.

Or maybe there was another reason. Here Horatio Nelson enters the picture. Well, why wouldn’t he? He had been made the Duke of Bronte (no umlaut) in 1799 by Ferdinand, the King of the Two Sicilies and the Infante of Spain, in thanks for his success against Napoleon. Bronte was a 3000 acre estate in Sicily near Mount Etna, a thunderous place one might say. Emma Hamilton referenced the classical allusion in the name Bronte by calling her lover, Nelson, My Lord Thunder. So maybe Patrick was showing his patriotism by adopting a name associated with a British naval hero.


                     The view of Mount Etna from Taormina in Sicily

It’s interesting to imagine Wuthering Heights written by Emily Prunty/Brunty and Jane Eyre written by Charlotte Prunty/Brunty.

But then Animal Farm could have been written by Eric Blair not George Orwell, Heart of Darkness by Teodor Nalecz Korzeniowski not Joseph Conrad and I, Claudius by Robert von Ranke rather than Robert Graves.

Publishers and agents are sensitive about names. I was told it would be better to be published under the name Victoria Blake not Vicky Blake. I had never been called Victoria in my life unless my mother was angry with me. Victoria was apparently more authoritative. Rather unlike me, then. After all,  Val McDermid didn’t have to publish as Valarie McDermid, did she? Maybe because she had already established her writing name as a journalist. Maybe because she just said no.

If you were a writer what name would you publish under?

If you are a writer do you publish under your own name or another?


There are five points of view in writing each with its own disadvantages and advantages:

  • first person
  • second person narrative (tricky and rarely used, don’t go there)
  • third person single point of view
  • third person multiple points of view
  • God’s eye view

This post is about God’s eye view. This is what Evelyn Waugh had to say about the beginning of Graham Greene’s novel The Heart of the Matter.

“The affinity to film is everywhere apparent in Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter. It is the camera’s eye which moves from the hotel balcony to the street below, picks out the policeman, follows him to the office, moves about the room from the handcuffs on the wall to the broken rosary in the drawer, recording significant detail. It is the modern way of telling a story … Perhaps it is the only contribution the cinema is destined to make to the arts.”

The Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh, ed. Donat Gallagher, 1983

The last line is a bit snooty but then Waugh was. 

So, with a camera’s eye you can swing that lens where ever takes your fancy. As a writer I have used God’s eye view relatively little, torn between enjoying the exhilaration of being able to whizz about anywhere I want and the fear that it is self indulgent and that the result is well, a little bit ripe. 

But what the hell, let’s give it a go:

The pilot in the four engine A380 descending towards Heathrow was thinking about what he was going to eat for lunch when he landed. Nothing as decent as he could get in Dubai that was for sure. Down below him on the South West London streets an  Openreach worker dressed in orange neon clothes had just pulled up a heavy stone paving slab with a tool akin to an enormous yellow spanner and was staring morosely down onto  balls of tangled, multi-coloured spaghetti wiring. The shutters of the ground floor flat next to where he stood were pulled back and the window yanked up and a young woman began speaking, extending her arms and  gesticulating wildly. The movement of her arms was like an upset E.T. She made a rocking motion with her hands as if to indicate that whatever he was doing in the street, the moving of the slab maybe, was creating a reverberation in her room that she could not tolerate. He said something to her and then seemed relieved to be joined by a colleague. The two men became lost in conversation, ignoring her as she continued to complain until she slammed shut the window and pulled the shutters to. A harassed looking man was being walked by his Scottish Terrier, a little general of a dog who threw himself to the ground (admittedly not far to go on those legs) when he had had enough and demanded to be walked home. Across the road from the Openreach workers, a woman sat in the window of a mansion block looking at the ragged, red geraniums on her windowsill which she’d been meaning to deadhead for about ten days.  A bee nosed the red petals and then flew away. A sudden gust of wind blew a combination of crisp packets, plastic bags and dead leaves into the air. They spun around the Openreach workers and the little dog, making the terrier sneeze into his beard and the men squint and choke. The woman in the mansion block got wearily to her feet to go and get a pair of scissors but standing on the threshold of the kitchen forgot what she’d got up to do. She walked over to the fridge, wondering if she’d manage to get another day out of the hummus or if a thin covering of green mold would greet her, meaning a trip to the Co Op, could no longer be delayed. She opened the pot and shook it a little; two days past its sell by date and a little watery but it would do.

Victoria Blake 4/10/22

Hmm, needs pepping up would be my verdict and it goes a bit third person at the end but you get the general idea!

An author I’ve been reading recently who enjoys using God’s eye view and does it well is crime writer Mick Herron in his Slough House series. Have you read him? At the beginning and end of each book he does a bravura God’s eye piece on Slough House which contains the repulsive offices of his group of no-hoper, failed spies. Publishers and reviewers are always keen to compare writers to other writers and I’ve seen Herron compared to Graham Greene and, Len Deighton. He’s not really like either of them but seems to me to be originally and gloriously himself. He’s very funny and darkly satirical and he has a splendid anti-hero in Jackson Lamb. Lamb is the boss of the no hopers. He’s repulsive, flatulent, overweight and scathing but it turns out he’s rather a good spy. At the heart of him is someone who does care about his job and is not simply motivated by vanity and ambition.

The first of Herron’s books, Slow Horses, has recently been turned into a series on Apple TV with Gary Oldman playing Lamb. Before I saw it I wondered if they’d cut out the farting but it is there and Oldman does an excellent job of bringing Lamb to life. How Herron gets the reader to care about his band of failures and misfits is perhaps worthy of another post. Failure, of course, is a much more fertile ground for a writer than success.

Finally, what’s the down side of God’s eye view? Perhaps that the reader is held at arm’s length and is therefore less engaged. So best to use sparingly I think.

As a reader or a writer what do you think of God’s eye view writing? Do you have any favourite pieces to share?


Amidst the family papers I was writing about last time were letters and stamps and after the death of the Queen I found myself looking at the stamps in a slightly different way. Noticing things I hadn’t before. Some of these I removed from family letters, thinking I should send them off to charities that can sell them. Some I found loose among the family effects.


From the top, two penny reds, Queen Victoria, George VI, Edward VIII (who abdicated), George V and then George V and his wife (the late Queen Mother). This one celebrated the coronation in May 1937. The stamp of Edward VIII is actually dated 1937 but he abdicated in December 1936.  I suppose there will also be a delay before the head of Charles III appears on our stamps.


What I found interesting in the above photo was that the first stamps of the Queen in the 1950s have her looking out at us; they are not a profile view. Now why was that done, I wonder? Was it because she was young and pretty? Will we get Charles looking out at us or in profile? Psychologically, I think the positioning of the head is interesting. After all if someone is looking at us, it is more intimate, warmer. She even seems to be smiling slightly. She becomes less symbolic and more human – a young woman, not just a queen. There was also clearly a certain point where the image of the Queen on the stamps stopped ageing. The ones bottom left being relatively recent. Incidentally none of Edward VII, King from 1901-1910. Maybe my family just stopped letter writing then!

I wonder how long stamps will last for. I love Christmas stamps and still send Christmas cards but I know lots of people don’t and I don’t blame them. A first class stamp now costs 95 pence, quite a cost when we are in a cost of living crisis.  Why do that when you can send an e-card with fireworks and dancing squirrels and tweeting birds? I love them by the way but they don’t hold history like a stamp, do they? It’s going to be a lot harder for social historians of the future with all those e-mails locked away behind password protected accounts.

When was the last time you put a stamp on an envelope?


I made the mistake of looking in some boxes. The idea was to throw things out. Why? I hear you cry. Space, fool. Anyway, I thought I’d start with a box which had OH GOD written on the side. I could have started with ODDS AND SODS or MISC (miscellaneous) but for some reason I dreaded MISC and ODDS AND SODS sounded boring, so it was OH GOD that got my attention.

person in white shirt lying on brown wooden bed

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

I opened  the box and filled with good intentions took out the following:

  • the love letters my grandmother wrote to my grandfather during the months they were engaged
  • old passports showing my mother in her early twenties and a photo of her whizzing down snowy slopes in the 1940s
  • receipts from the 1890’s including one for a fancy lorgnette
  • a copy of the Sunday Mirror 1918 splashed across the front cover of which is the announcement that my great great grandmother’s marriage was legitimized by a Scottish court thus legitimizing her 14 children, one of whom was my great grandmother
  • a book into which is pasted from the Eastern Daily Press all the golf triumphs of my grandmother in Norfolk between 1907-1911. A grandmother I never met
  • a diary my mother kept of a trip to Italy with the Byron Society at some point in the 1990s when she comments on the extremely handsome Italian sailors in the hotel she was staying in. Excuse me, Dad, where were you?
  • a poem my great Uncle Norman wrote to his sister (my grandmother) giving moral guidance.
  • the photos that same uncle took when he went up to Oxford round about 1905
  • research my grandfather ( a history teacher who taught my father who became a historian) did into Tudor Cornwall
  • an undated card sent to my mother from a doctor training in south London asking her if she was married yet? Well, were you mother? After all she kept the card
  • a newspaper article about the battle of El Alamein in the Second World War, a battle my grandfather fought in with his tiny, indecipherable handwritten annotations on it

I’m a writer. Am I really going to throw out all these tiny fragments of family stories? Well, I’m not, am I? Although I did manage to throw out a thank you card to my great Uncle Norman from one of my cousins saying, ‘Thank you for the shoe horn.’ So I sat back put my head in my hands and groaned OH GOD!

And then I picked out an article by Anne Enright from the Guardian 5/7/08. Hurrah, I thought, this is why I have opened OH GOD. It is to find this article. And here at last we get to the title of the blog. This is what she has to say:

“Writing is mostly a case of mood management. The emotion you have is not absolute, it is temporary. It may be useful but it is not the truth. It is not you. Get over it…. You have no confidence? No one who is any good has any confidence. So, tell me what makes your particular lack of confidence so special.”

Interesting and here’s rather a good bit on ‘butch Americans’.

“Two years in (to a long project) you think of all the great books written in 6 weeks (why is it always six?) – Falconer’s As I Lay Dying, Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, Hemingway’s The Sun Always Rises – and why is it always these butch Americans? Did they all drink?”

Then I come across some reviews of my old crime books. One of JUMPING THE CRACKS in the TLS 4/1/2008. I’d completely forgotten about it but it ends with this paragraph.

“There is nothing wrong with any of this, and the writing is relaxed and literate, with some nice humour, all of which makes reading Jumping the Cracks perfectly pleasant, but in the twenty-first century shouldn’t crime fiction do more than simply please?”

Now then, you’re supposed to be grateful for any review and gracious about it but I have to say this posed an instant test of my mood management skills and it brought vividly to mind a letter which Judi Dench sent to the theater critic Charles Spencer, when he’d given her a bad review for Madame de Sade in 2009. She wrote:

“I’d always rather admired you but now realise you’re an absolute shit.” Referencing a stage accident which had meant she missed a few performances she continued. “I’m only sorry I didn’t get a chance to kick you when I fell over. Maybe next time …”

Amidst all this I also found at the bottom of the box a note on a bright pink piece of paper which states FREE YOURSELF FROM DEFENSIVE PERFECTIONISM! I wrote it but I’ve no recollection of doing so.

I now know exactly why I wrote Oh God on the side of the box.

Send help. Or advice even. Or Marie Kondo. Doesn’t she say you should only keep things that spark joy? Clearly the review doesn’t but it’s a minor miracle to get a book reviewed these days and it was the TLS. What would the butch Americans have done I wonder? Might it have involved drink?

All this and I’ve still got MISC and ODDS AND SODS to go. I think I’ll need a year of reciting the mantra The emotion I have is not absolute before I dare venture into them. Or perhaps I might try It’s perfectly all right to be perfectly pleasant. It has a rather nice Noel Coward/Cole Porter ring to it, don’t you think? And perhaps I should dance around throwing flowers in the air while reciting.

Have you got an OH GOD box? What did you find the last time you looked in it? And if you’ve got anything to offer on the vexed subject of mood management and writing I’m all ears. A perfectly pleasant response is guaranteed.


The first novel Miss Marple appeared in was Murder in the Vicarage published in 1930. However the first description of her is in a short story published in 1927 titled the Tuesday Night Club later published in a book called The Thirteen Problems in 1932. She was to appear in 12 novels and 20 short stories (Poirot was 33 novels and 50 short stories). Here is Agatha Christie’s  first ever description of her.

“Miss Marple wore a black brocade dress, very much pinched in about the waist. Mechlin lace (excuse me, what?) was arranged in a cascade down the front of the bodice. She had on black lace mittens, (mittens?)and a black lace cap surmounted the piled-up masses of her snowy hair. She was knitting (knitting with mittens? Now there’s a thing.)- something white and soft and fleecy (her own hair perhaps?).”

In Murder in the Vicarage the vicar’s wife is not at all taken with Miss Marple describing her as ‘the worst cat in the village’ which makes her sound weirdly funky. The vicar himself, as he should be, is somewhat more charitable describing her as,  ‘A white haired old lady with a gentle and appealing manner.’ This last description is the one Christie seems to have settled on for the future books although the cat description is not ditched entirely. Sergeant Hay describes her as ‘an old tabby,’ in A Pocket Full of Rye (1953).

Here’s Miss Marple arriving at Yewtree Lodge in A Pocket Full of Rye.

“So charming, so innocent, such a fluffy and pink and white old lady was Miss Marple that she gained admittance to what was now practically a fortress … far more easily than can have been thought possible.”

And here she is on the same page.

“Crump saw a tall, elderly lady wearing a old fashioned tweed coat, a couple of scarves and a small felt hat with a bird’s wing. The old lady carried a capacious handbag and an aged but good quality suitcase reposed at her feet.”

This is the way she is portrayed in the many TV and film versions. If Christie’s physical descriptions of her vary the knitting remains constant.

Here she is waking up in At Bertram’s Hotel (1965).

“Miss Marple got back into bed, plumped her pillows up, glanced at her clock, half past seven … Then she picked up her knitting and began to knit, slowly at first, since her fingers were stiff and rheumatic when she first awoke, but very soon her pace grew faster, and her fingers lost their painful stiffness.”

And here she is in A Mirror Cracked from Side to Side (1962).

“Miss Marple uttered a sharp exclamation of annoyance. She’d dropped a stitch again. Not only that, she must have dropped it some time ago. Not until now, when she had to decrease for the neck and count the stitches had she realised the fact. She took up a spare pin, held the knitting sideways to the light and peered anxiously.”


Throughout all the books she appears in she is depicted knitting, dropping her knitting, dropping and counting stitches, pushing her knitting away from her, sending people knitted items:  Thank you so much for the pullover, it’s just what I wanted etc. There is even in 4.50 from Paddington a description of her being ‘particularly woolly and fluffy  – a picture of a sweet old lady.’  It could make you long for Madame Defarge.

I like this exchange between Pat and Miss Marple in A Pocket Full of Rye:

“What are you knitting?”

“Oh, just a little matinée coat, dear. For a baby you know. I always say young mothers can’t have too many matinée coats for their babies. It’s the second size. I always knit the second size. Babies so soon grow out of the first size.”

Pat stretched out long legs towards the fire.

“It’s nice in here today,” she said. ‘With the fire and the lamps and you knitting things for babies. It all seems cosy and homely and like England ought to be.”

“It’s like England is,” said Miss Marple…

Although, as we know, Miss Marple’s England is far from cosy and homely. It is a place riddled with appalling people committing terrible crimes and no amount of stuffing wool in the ears or pulling woolly hats over the eyes can hide that. However by the end of each book Miss Marple has solved the crime and returned us temporarily to that cosy and homely place where we can draw breath and doze by the fire to the comforting clacking of her knitting needles before the next shocking eruption of violence occurs.

In Nemesis (1971) the final novel that Miss Marple appears in, Jason Rafiel writes to her (from beyond the grave) in the following terms inviting her to solve an unspecified crime:

“I envisage you knitting more jackets, head scarves and a good many other things of which I do not know the name. If you prefer to continue knitting, that is your decision. If you prefer to serve the cause of justice, I hope you may at least find it interesting.”

As any knitter will tell you, Jason has got it all wrong. Although he’s dead so we can’t tell him. Miss Marple serves the cause of justice by knitting. It helps her think. It helps her unravel what is going on. It helps her solve the crimes. She follows the patterns of human behaviour just as she follows a pattern for a baby’s jacket. She serves the cause of justice by knitting not by setting it to one side.  I suppose in that respect she could be seen as being similar to Madame Defarge whose death register of a scarf she also sees as serving the cause of justice.

Finally, a very important question. Have you ever tried knitting in mittens and how did it go? Oh dear, I fear that won’t get the comments flowing so how about another one. Who would you prefer to knit you a scarf Miss Marple or Madame Defarge? That should get the little grey cells hopping about.


Evil knitter Number One is definitely Madame Defarge. Here is how Charles Dickens introduces her in A Tale of Two Cities, a book set during the French Revolution.

brown and black tiger lying on ground

Photo by Julissa Helmuth on Pexels.com

“Madame Defarge was a stout woman … with a watchful eye that seldom seemed to look at anything, a large hand heavily ringed, a steady face, strong features, and great composure of manner. There was a character about Madame Defarge  from which one might have predicated that she did not often make mistakes against herself in any of the reckonings over which she presided.”

I’m guessing no dropped stitches then. And you see where all that knitting leads to? GREAT COMPOSURE OF MANNER. That’s my aim. Madame Defarge embodies vengeance and the need for revenge. Not qualities you’d necessarily associate with an avid knitter but the cause of her blood thirstiness is that her family has been destroyed by the aristocratic Evrémondes.

“Madame Defarge being sensitive to cold was wrapped in fur, and had a quantity of bright shawl twined about her head, though not to the concealment of her large earrings. Her knitting was before her but she had laid it down to pick her teeth with a toothpick.”

Bloody hell. I can’t say I’ve ever lain down my knitting for a toothpick, a sip from a glass of white wine, would be more like it. But what exactly is Madame Defarge doing as she sits in her husband’s wine shop watching the comings and goings? This is what a spy wonders and is brave enough to ask her. Here is their exchange.

‘You knit with great skill, madame.’

‘I am accustomed to it.’

‘A pretty pattern too.’

”You think so?’ said madame, looking at him with a smile.

‘Decidedly. May one ask what it is for?’*

‘Pastime,’ said madame, still looking at him with a smile while her fingers moved nimbly.

‘Not for use?’

‘That depends. I may find a use for it one day…’

Pastime? What she is actually doing is knitting the names of those she thinks should meet their end under the guillotine’s blade. Knitting as code then. Knitting as a sentence of death. A bit chilling, isn’t it? And the exact opposite of something cosy and domestic. Later on we get this rather nice scene.

“Take you my knitting,” said Madame Defarge, placing it in her lieutenants hands, “and have it ready for me in my usual seat.”

Her usual seat incidentally being near the guillotine where she can watch the heads roll. I don’t know what’s happened to the world but there’s a severe shortage of lieutenants for carrying one’s knitting around at the moment. Can’t find one anywhere. I blame Brexit. Might just have to carry it myself then.

There are three chapters which mention knitting in the book. Chapter 15 KNITTING, Chapter 16 STILL KNITTING, and then the penultimate chapter, KNITTING DONE. The last one, you won’t be surprised to hear, is the one in which Madame Defarge meets her end at the hands of Miss Pross. She does call Miss Pross, ‘Woman imbecile and pig-like’ which is pretty rude all things considered.

Miss Pross on the left, Madame Defarge on the right.

Finally, here is a fine description of Madame Defarge striding through the streets of Paris. Dickens, it seems to me, is half in love with her, half horrified by her.

“There were many women at that time, upon whom time laid a dreadfully disfiguring hand; but there was not one among them more to be dreaded than this ruthless woman, now taking her way along the streets. Of a strong and fearless character, of shrewd sense and readiness, of great determination, of that kind of beauty which not only seems to impart to its possessor firmness and animosity, but to strike into others an instinctive recognition of those qualities; the troubled times would have heaved her up, under any circumstances. But imbued from her childhood with a brooding sense of wrong, and an inveterate hatred of a class, opportunity had developed her into a tigress. She was absolutely without pity. If she had ever had the virtue in her, it had quite gone out of her.”

So there we have her the pitiless knitter, the tigress, the embodiment of revenge, Madame Defarge. I aspire to all of her skill but none of her vengeance!

* Please note that ‘No you may not’ is a perfectly appropriate reply from any beginner knitter to this footling question.