Searching for Self in the Coronation Crowd

Having settled for ‘distant spectator’ to so many British royal occasions, I decided to experience the first coronation in seventy years in person. I’m finally settled back in England so won’t need to stagger around in the middle of the night watching it all happen from America. Maybe it’s spending half my life in a foreign country that leaves me searching for what puts ‘home’ in ‘homeland’. Maybe it’s the knowledge that I can’t quite identify what makes me inherently British that leads me to search for the core traditions and characteristics of my nation. I hope to discover something about myself and my ties to my birth country on a drizzly, historic day in London.

Arriving in town the day before the festivities, Sis and I stroll down The Mall, that iconic avenue leading to Buckingham Palace, in anticipation we’ll get nowhere close to it on the following day. As it turns out it was a good move. The sun shines beautifully, and Charles, William, and Catherine choose that moment to do a walkabout. We wave to them across the street. Kate is even taller and thinner than she looks on television, which is saying something. Anyway, it’s an unexpected treat, as is watching the TV cameras set up and various reporters from around the world conducting interviews with the red, white, and blue bedecked Super Fans lining The Mall, some for their third night. By now I’ve already discovered that my desire to take part in the festivities stretches only so far. Tents, sleeping on hard ground, and Porta Potties are not part of my British genetic makeup.

Coronation Day arrives, overcast and threatening rain. This is apparently traditional as both the late Queen Elizabeth II and her father were crowned in the rain. So far, so British. Security is watertight, certainly spectator-tight. Getting anywhere close to the parade route is out of the question as we chose to enjoy a leisurely hotel breakfast rather than bolt down The Strand at 5 am to join the hoards.

Huge barricades of solid metal block all streets, allowing no glimpse of what’s going on behind them. Security doesn’t seem to want huge crowds milling around. Luckily, Sis and I manage to cadge a spot in Trafalgar Square where we just glimpse the roof of the coach carrying King Charles and Queen Camilla through Admiralty Arch to Westminster Abbey. Thanks to the very tall man standing next to me, I come away with a better photo than my 5’4” stature allows. There is a distinct lack of waving flags in the crowds as compared to my TV memories of these scenes in days gone by. I realise it’s because we’re all holding our phone cameras in the air instead of flags. Times change.

One of the quintessentially British memories I’ll cherish is each time someone puts an umbrella up blocking views, the crowd chants, ‘Brolly down!’ until its owner cowers and lowers said brolly. The only holdout is a gentleman who obviously speaks no English. When his brolly remains aloft, the elderly Brolly Police behind him enact putting a brolly down. He finally complies but I’m pretty sure he has no idea why we all want to get wet. I’m not convinced he knows what’s happening anyway: an Accidental Coronation Tourist is my guess.

There are anti-royal protesters in Trafalgar Square. I think them brave, given their very small number surrounded by vast crowds of those feeling very differently about the day. When people around me mutter about them I remind them without protestors we’d still have an absolute monarchy. History tells us that was no fun at all. (There are many reasons to question the place of a monarchy in 2023 but I’m endeavouring to find my English heritage, warts and all, so we’ll stick to that.) The protestors are drowned out by the cheering crowds. ‘Not My King’ is met with ‘He’s My King’ and so the two teams merge into a cacophony of viewpoints, just as they should. We weren’t aware of any controversy with police until days later. All the officers we saw – and there were thousands – were jovial, helpful, and respectful.

Sis and I determine not to watch any TV coverage on our phones while the ceremony takes place at Westminster Abbey, enabling us to soak up the ambiance in situ. We wander the streets, enjoying the decorations and the spectators, listening to the joyous pealing of all the church bells at the moment Charles is crowned. When we guess the Golden State Coach is leaving Westminster Abbey, we try to return to Trafalgar Square but it’s a hopeless task. We end up watching the fly past from Waterloo Place, a street or so back from The Mall. It is a tearjerking moment for me; The Red Arrows a favourite with my late father and reminiscent of so many celebrations during my youth.  

With the red, white, and blue smoke trails dissipating in the sky, the rains begin in earnest. We work our way back to our hotel and collapse into a restaurant booth with a glass of wine. We wonder how the royals feel. Exhausted, I imagine. Relieved it’s all over. As are all the soldiers, planners, church leaders, security personnel and event construction crews. The logistics of a day like that must be mindbogglingly complex. Whatever your views of the monarchy, it’s impossible not to admire the Brits when they decide to throw a parade. They do it well.

So what did I discover about myself and what it is to be British? As I look back on the day, I don’t feel the intense emotion I experience when I watch footage of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. I wasn’t even born then but something about that ceremony felt otherworldly compared to this one. Maybe we just know too much about current royals. The mystique is gone and that’s no doubt a good thing. We get to see Kate wrestling to keep Prince Louis in line and Charles muttering about his kids being late to the church and all the drama of the non-working royals. It gives the whole sword and sceptre and over-the-top crowns a more theatrical feel than an ancient rite steeped in magic. But I respect Charles for what he has already endured and know he has much more criticism and negativity to face than his mother ever had. He probably just wanted to be a gardener. I don’t envy him and wish him good luck. I do think the architecture, music, and pomp of a British ceremony speaks to me still. It is something I can point to and say, ‘This is part of me, part of my story. To know me you need to see this.’ I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I can move forward, analysing my feelings towards home and all that entails with new data points.

Back on Exmoor, the annual rubber duck race down the river was held last weekend. Another fun tradition. Not so many marching bands or horses but still a good time. And a part of me. Wishing you many celebrations of importance to you and your homeland.  

Images: family photos

Travel Inspiration: Fiction or Otherwise

A few weeks ago, dreamy photos of Bora Bora floated across my social media platforms, reminding me it’s been six years since I was in that amazing part of the world. It got me thinking: how did I choose that particular speck on the globe of all the specks on the globe there are to choose from? I tapped into the collective memories of Hubby and daughter, KD, who came on the trip. What sparked our imaginations? KD remembered it went something like this:

‘Let’s go to Bora Bora,’ she says.

‘Why there?’ Well, I hadn’t seen the photos at that point so it was still a question. (Warning: once you’ve seen photos it’s all over bar the booking.)

‘I saw it on the Kardashian show. Looks great.’ KD nods her head, thoughtfully.

‘Then no. In fact, hell no!’ I’ll do nothing inspired by the Kardashians otherwise it makes them influencers and God knows I tried hard enough to stop them influencing my daughter in any way. (Still hadn’t seen the photos at this point.)

KD shares a link to a Bora Bora website. My jaw drops and the old travel addict drool starts. Splutter…splutter… Search for reasons to say no. ‘One question: Kardashians aren’t still there, are they?’


I study the website more. The pounding of my heart and rapid breathing denote an adventure is afoot, as Sherlock Holmes would say. I scroll through arial shots of Mount Otemanu, the dormant volcano, presiding over the lagoons, the atoll, the tropical fish, and the stunning flora. Luxury villas beckon, floating over crystal-clear waters, with glass panels set into the floors allowing views from the living room, deck, and even the shower room, of fish swimming underneath. My eyebrows hitch higher at the little boats delivering breakfast to your villa, bedecked with flowers. That’s it. I can now truthfully say I’ve been influenced by KD and this web search. I will say no more about the initial influence. ‘Let’s go.’

We were living in Wisconsin at the time so all it took was a hop from Chicago to Los Angeles, followed by a further eight-hour stumble to Tahiti, chased up with a ferry ride to Mo’orea and a final flight to Bora Bora. Nothing to it.

I typically struggle with jetlag. Not this time. The brain is too busy processing the arial view of the island as it comes into focus. Initially a dark splodge in an ocean of aquamarine, it clarifies into a volcanic cone, ringed by the lagoon in a million shades of blue. Little lines jut from the atoll; the overwater villas of the resorts. The small rotary prop plane lands and the trip through the airport takes about ninety seconds, luggage wheeled to a waiting boat. The backdrop as the suitcases are stowed is Mount Otemanu, and the entire boat ride is one long gasp of disbelief at the beauty of it all. 

‘See, KD says. ‘Told you we should come.’

‘About time you made yourself useful,’ Hubby replies, then mutters something about KD’s college bills.

‘From the mouth of babes,’ I whisper, glued to the scenes splashing by, the hotel pier coming into view, already sure we haven’t booked a long enough trip. The logistical questions follow of how to sell up everything in Wisconsin to move here without ever setting foot back in the US.

Our butler appears. Well, of course we have a butler, darlings.

(Whispers to Hubby, ‘Did you know we had a butler?’ He shushes me, busy acting nonchalant about the whole thing. We’ve spent a lot more time in Motel 6’s than with butlers.)

The tour of the St Regis Resort is another lesson in trying to keep our mouths closed and the gasps to a minimum at the risk of coming across as a little … out of our league. The bicycles are a surprise too. You have the use of them to get from villa to pool to restaurant to boats. No cars anywhere.

I won’t regale you with more details to avoid spoilers for those thinking maybe a Bora Bora trip would be nice. This blog is supposed to be about what influences our choices in destinations but mental images of the spectacular South Pacific refuse to free up bandwidth set aside for blog writing. Focus, Tracey!

Bora Bora in the rear-view mirror, I get back to the question of what influences me to travel to the places I travel. It’s not typically the Kardashians. Thank goodness. Some places are on the beaten track and some are not. Crossing from Belize into Guatemala, being handed from one taxi driver to another on each side of a concrete hut, wondering if we’d just been trafficked, was a unique experience. The ancient ruins of Tikal certainly made the apprehension worth it. I honestly don’t know how we chose that location but chances are good it was mentioned in a book I read.

I travelled to Carcassonne in France after reading The Labyrinth by Kate Mosse. Anne Morrow Lindburgh introduced me to the Connecticut coastline in Gift From The Sea long before I found myself living there. Deborah Lawrenson’s The Sea Garden puts Porquerolles off the coast of France on my TBE (To Be Experienced) list, along with the Oxfordshire countryside recalled in Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson. Sadly, some of my favourite more recent reads see me yearning to experience places it’s unlikely I will ever see, such as Syria, based on City of Jasmine by Olga Grjasnowa, or Iran, based on the exquisite Maman’s Homesick Pie by Donia Bijan. I may have to settle for the images conjured in the extraordinary writing of setting in these tales.

Setting is key in my choices of books to read. I also write about locations and how they make us feel and how they change our lives or influence our decisions. To think that my words could possibly influence another to make travel plans is exhilarating and a little intimidating, to be honest. What if you hate it and mention me in your TripAdvisor review? (Please don’t.) But I thank those of you who have shared with me your own vows to visit places I’ve mentioned in my novels, such as Exmoor National Park or Costa Rica. I have another place for you to add to your TBE list, coming up in my third novel, Life Like Lavender. (No spoilers but have a look at Les Baux-de-Provence. You won’t regret it.)

I’m off to London next week for the coronation of King Charles. I’ll wave to you from the sea of faces on The Mall. I’ll sure there’ll be books written about it.

I wish you happy reading, happy traveling, and happy daydreaming about the next adventure.

Images: author’s own

Is Coincidence a Literary Sin?

I’ve been promising to publish my third novel, working title ‘Life Like Lavender’, for a couple of years now. My transatlantic relocation and that small matter of a global pandemic got in the way of my timetable. (Hopefully I can use those excuses for a while longer.) The positive side of the delay is my creative juices have enjoyed a nice rest and I’m excited to get back to editing the manuscript. My travel fiction seems relevant once again after lockdown had me wondering if any tale about jumping on trains, planes, and automobiles would henceforth be categorized as sci-fi. Thankfully not, it seems.

Back to the manuscript. I’ve received a developmental edit on ‘Life Like Lavender’. Set in London and Provence, I succeeded in making my editor crave a life as a lavender farmer, if not the domestic drama that accompanies that move. Score one for me. The brilliance of, and problem with, editors is that along with the praise and wonderful suggestions for even better plot lines comes the ‘you-have-got-to-fix-this-bit-or-everything-falls-apart’ admonishment. Ugh. And you thought you were so close to publishing. Once again, the manuscript goes back in the drawer so that all those ideas and admonishments can percolate and mature. Like wine, or cheese, or a good garden design, stories need to put down roots and get comfy before springing fully to life. Most of the changes I need to make will improve the flow and credibility of the tale. However, there is one event in the list of things to rewrite that I’ve been struggling to get my head around. It involves coincidence.

Let me set the stage: the protagonist has been in Provence for a few months but returns to England to support her adult children during a crisis. She bumps into her ex-husband in a London park. My editor, and one beta reader, didn’t like this. ‘Coincidence!’, they yelled. ‘You can’t do that.’ It’s not authentic, is the rationale. It’s the author needing to have them both in the park rather than the story leading them both there. But … but, I say, the park is close to where they once lived together and somewhere they had both visited many times over the years. Why wouldn’t they bump into each other there? Does my whole lavender-filled world collapse because of this meeting? This got me thinking. Isn’t life and literature full of coincidences? Why is this meeting by chance in a park an unforgivable literary sin?

I’ve just finished reading Iris Murdoch’s The Sea The Sea. In my humble opinion, this tale doesn’t age well. The protagonist’s preoccupation with a woman he hasn’t seen in forty years, resulting in, by today’s standards, kidnapping, imprisonment, and harassment, leaves the reader wondering how Iris could do this to another woman. But that’s a different blog. My point is, after forty years of not knowing where the young love of his life disappeared to, he just happens to retire to a small seaside village and low and behold, his former love lives there too. He bumps into her in the street. Coincidence. In a more recent novel, limited funds are a factor throughout the entire tale. However, when needed, a whole load of cash drops from heaven somehow, with no mention of where it came from or how the protagonist couldn’t have known it was there. Coincidence. (Or more like a huge deus ex machina.) In my current read, a cosy murder mystery, the protagonist just happens to drive down a track in a forest she’s never been in before and there are the crooks she’s after. A few chapters later, she’s sitting in a coffee shop, miles from her home. In walks the other villain she’s after. I could go on with examples galore, but you get the point.

Maybe my life has been so full of coincidences, I don’t find them shocking. Once, lost somewhere in Virginia a few months after first arriving in the USA, I stopped at a bar to ask directions and pick up lunch. Over the door was a sign that said, ‘Where you will always meet someone you know’. I turned to the Finnish lady who was with me and muttered something like, ‘If that happens, I’ll eat my hat’. As we were waiting for our sandwiches, I heard a British accent behind me at another table. I turned and, low and behold, there was someone who lived in Somerset, my home county. I helped sell her horse several years before. We marvelled at how this could possibly happen in a tiny town in a rural area of Virginia – or anywhere? But it happened. Coincidence. Hubby and I bought each other the same Valentine’s Day cards a few years ago. Coincidence. I bumped into a cousin I hadn’t seen in years on a hike far from her home once. The list goes on and on and I’m sure it does in your lives too. Coincidences happen all the time in life and in the stories I read.

My question is, in your literary travels, what constitutes crossing the line with regards to coincidence? What moves the event from perfectly feasible to so outlandish the reader yells, ‘Yeah, right! Like that would ever happen!’ I feel so many outcomes in life depend on coincidence, I’m reticent to remove the scene. I need the shock of the two characters seeing each other. I need the tension of the, ‘Oh, crap! Not him. Not now. Not here.’ Is it really so fantastical that an ex-husband and wife would choose to go separately to a place they’d been many times before?

Writing is a constant battle between writing the story you see in your head and writing the story others will accept. The goal posts move every time you read a book or try to write or have someone else critique your writing. What do you change and what do you fight to keep?

I’m not sure I can answer the question as to how much coincidence is too much coincidence. Can you? I’d love to hear your real-life and literary coincidence stories. Now, back to my manuscript. Today, that scene stays in. Tomorrow? Who knows?

Image: Pixaby

Pride Comes Before a Hole. Or a Virus

Warning: the following blog contains scenes that some people eating dinner may find disturbing. Finish your pudding first.

I admit it. I got complacent. Conceited almost. I’m at the age where I watch my peers trudge off to hospitals to get hips and knees replaced, appear at lunches with various body parts encased in medical grade supports and everyone’s smelling of icy hot liniment. When the joints aren’t acting up, there’s always a new virus in town that takes them down. Ha! How I chuckle! (Internally of course. It would be rude otherwise.) ‘Look at me!’, I titter behind the get well soon card I’m writing. I’m still striding confidently up steep Exmoor combes, planning long-distance flights, and taking on the rejuvenation of a large garden. You don’t scare me, ivy-covered wall. I laugh at you, wicked brambles. No old root is too deep or too big for me. Gardening prowess aside, I’ve spent the last several years sighing sympathetically as another neighbour/friend/family member succumbs to a week in bed with COVID or flu or a nasty cold. Not me. I’m the only family member who hasn’t had COVID (that I know of) and I can’t remember the last time I even had a cold. Yes, I’ve had all my vaccines, but I’m naturally supercharged, I tell you! Invincible! Just like I used to be when flying off horses over fences on a regular basis as a twenty-year -old.

Anyway, you know what’s coming. Two weeks ago I’m standing knee deep in a hole I’m digging so I can transplant a large climbing rose. I’ve dug a million holes before. I know about bending knees, and not lifting and turning at the same time. I’m a pro. And invincible. Until there’s a twinge. Followed by an electrical charge running down both legs. And suddenly all my toes are on fire. Then begins the radiating pain into both hips. But do I stop digging? No. Of course not. Because the friends helping dig the rose up while I prepare the new hole can never, I repeat never, know I’m not invincible. As they appear round the corner, wrestling the thorny tangle of a ten-foot-tall rose between them, I’m sitting on the edge of the hole, a very Wallace-type fixed grin on my face. Teeth clenched, I’m using the shovel to try to lift myself out of the hole.

‘Anyone for tea?’ I totter to the kitchen while the friends plonk the rose in its new home and backfill the soil. In the kitchen, the kettle feels incredibly heavy and I ponder calling the fire department to get the teabags out of the cupboard. But bravely, invincibly, I manage to make three cups of tea and deliver them to the garden crew. We part company and I spend the next couple of days flat on the floor with ice packs and paracetamol as my new best friends and pillows wedged in various places, hopefully holding my skeleton in place. The thought of a car ride to Tesco is unimaginable, forget that trip to Japan we’re thinking about. Hubby, who has lived with backpain almost our entire marriage, looks like he may expect more sympathy next time.

But wait. There’s more. All that sighing sympathetically about friends with viruses that will never touch my Teflon system? Saturday morning, I limp gingerly to the kitchen to make breakfast feeling things are maybe getting better in the twinged back department. Which is good because that darn transplanted rose needs watering, seeing as there hasn’t been a drop of rain since we moved it. But no. Things are indeed not getting better. An hour after breakfast, I’m flat on the floor in the bathroom, back spasming, toes curling, as a vomiting flu bug hits. You know how your skin and hair hurts and the chills, fever and vomiting mean every muscle is fighting to make your insides your outsides? Yes, that kind of flu bug. It’s hard to know what to protect first, the bathroom floors or the spine. Hubby brings more blankets and the dog pants in my ear something about did I know he hasn’t been for a walk yet and is said walk not happening.

The vomiting part only lasts a few hours. It could have lasted days in which case I’d have needed a complete spine transplant. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful about the short duration but that few hours of pain will go down in history on a par with childbirth and pulling the packing (read large couch) out of my nostril after sinus surgery. Don’t talk to me about pain scales only going up to ten. Anyway, just moments after I thank the Vomit Gods for getting bored and moving on to someone else, the coughing starts. Is it possible to cough without using your back? Apparently not. Any progress made during the last couple of days of icing and lying flat disappears in an instant. The back screams ‘Lie flat!’ The lungs scream, ‘Sit upright. And we mean all night!’ It’s a battle royal for control of the pain scale and everyone’s losing.

So, dear reader, if you’ve made it this far, what is the moral of the story? Well, obviously, you should never smugly write get well cards. Assume every word will boomerang back to you at some point. Stop buying the cheap cards, okay? Also, take a good, long, hard look in the mirror. Are you as young as your invincible self thinks you are? Just because you did that thing twenty or even ten years ago doesn’t mean you should do it again without a great deal of prior planning. While searching the David Austin rose catalogue, search your medicine cabinet for gel ice packs.

Week two, and here I am. Unable to sit at a computer for long. Unable to lie down for long. Unable to stand for long. Coughing up a storm and reaching out to social media for suggestions for daytime TV viewing because reading makes my head hurt. Most importantly, I’m wondering. I’m wondering how I’ll respond the next time a friend says they’ve injured themselves completing some mundane task. Or how I’ll respond to the next cancelled get-together because of a virus making the rounds. Differently. That’s how I’ll respond. Differently. There’ll be a lot less invincibility and a lot more empathy in that ‘Take care’ signoff in a get-well card. There’ll be no more pride before a hole. Or a virus.

Stay healthy out there!

(No roses were hurt during the writing of this blog.)


Wikimedia Commons: Sciatica nerve

Rawpixel: Flu virus, Public Health Image Library, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Finding Myself Online. Or Not.

Mission: Identify twelve search keywords that would lead others to find you online. Go.

It’s okay, I’ll wait. Am waiting… Okay, two keywords. Can you come up with two?

I know, right? It’s really hard. But that’s what I have to do as part of a website redesign project I’m currently undertaking. If I want to be found online by those who don’t know my name (and there are a few of you), I must condense my online ramblings, posts, writing topics, and areas of specialized interest or expertise into a dozen keywords. These words can’t be too general like ‘traveller’ or ‘expat’ because I’ll never compete with Condé Nast Traveller Magazine or the billion other hits you’ll get under those search terms. They can’t include the vague term ‘writer’ because Poe, Rowling, Hemingway, and King seem to pip me to the post. I can’t be too specific either, like using the word ‘hiraeth’, because although hiraeth – meaning ‘intense longing for home with a sense of loss’- is ingrained in my very soul after so many years of geographical searching, it’s not a word many others know. Or can spell. Searches may be limited, therefore, to the one person on the planet who wakes up and says, ‘Today I’ll search the word “hiraeth” to see if anyone out there has written a novel about it. Oh, and let’s hope said novel also includes Exmoor ponies.’ A bit too niche, don’t you think? Another favourite word of mine is coddiwomple – ‘to travel in a purposeful manner towards a vague destination’. It defines both my own life’s journey and the novels I write. But is it a good keyword? Hands up if you’ve ever searched coddiwomple. Anyone? I thought not.

What to do. What to do. I blog, pay dues for a website, and scroll endlessly through millions of other people’s social media posts, (forgetting to mention my books on my own accounts), but marketing guru, I am not. By the way, if you search ‘marketing guru’, Seth Godin pops up. He’s everywhere. Well done, Seth. Admittedly, I’m not on every social media platform. I stick to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram mainly because I’m not expected to dance on those. Or at least I don’t think I am. And I’m not expected to use a filter that turns my face into a rabbit or gives me horns or transforms my voice into that of a robot on helium. I mean, who the heck would look for me, humorous fiction writer of a ‘certain age’, on TikTok and what would I be doing there if they did? Jamming to Uptown Funk while making my morning porridge or filming myself typing ‘The End’ on my latest novel in slow motion while my dog plays the accordion in the background? I have a feeling that last bit just shows I have no idea what TikTok does or even is. Which would be true. I bet Seth’s on TikTok. But I digress…

I should have a better handle by now on Who I Am. Professionally that is. I’ve given up trying to answer that question on a personal level, much to my family’s relief. So let’s get back to who’s looking for me online. And why. (Between you and me, I’m a bit afraid to ask, because what if the only one looking for me is that guy serving two years for pirating copies of independent novels? Or that kid I rolled down a steep hill on a dustbin lid when I was eight? Oh, come on! He wasn’t even hurt and Mum made me apologize and that’s all in the past and can we just move on now, please? This approach works in politics. Until it doesn’t.)

Maybe I’m asking the wrong question. Maybe the question isn’t, ‘Who’s looking for me?’. The question is, ‘Who’s NOT looking for me but will learn to love me if I can only identify the right keywords to get myself on their radar?’. Fear of discovery shouldn’t play a part in this. I love writing and I’m so grateful for the positive feedback I receive from readers. I need to put myself out there more and I’ve found a great professional design team to help with that.

I must march onwards in my search for search terms that improve my searchability in search engines. It’s like my perpetual search for home only without frequent flyer points or jetlag. I vow to spend the rest of the week soul-searching in order to produce my twelve terms that depict my core essence. This task will provide the perfect excuse for not getting back to editing my current work-in-progress. Procrastinator! That could be one of my search terms! I just know I’ll come up as number one in that. I’ll check it out. Later.

Happy googling to all of you reading this. Delighted you found me.

(PS Tim Urban’s funny TED Talk about procrastination comes up if you search that word. I’m not mentioned. At all. Which is good news. I think.)

Images: Alpha Stock Images

Sorry, Not Sorry. Escaping 2022.

I’m gazing out over Carbis Bay in Cornwall. It’s New Year’s Eve and I haven’t given a thought to my December blog. I haven’t missed a month in the five years I’ve been writing. I’m thinking this may be the first month I miss. I’m tired.

I’m in Carbis Bay on a whim. I needed to get out of the house, away from the garden and house tasks, away from the accusatory laptop waiting for writing projects that aren’t going anywhere because my mind is everywhere else but on the page. Away from the refugee families that need me and the politics and the drama. I’m tired.

Like everyone else, 2022 has got to me. Never-ending pandemics, cost of living crisis, war, so many in need. It’s exhausting to live during this period of our collective history, isn’t it? So back to that whim. A quick google search of any rental anywhere not fully booked for New Year. ‘I’m going somewhere,’ I say to Hubby, ‘you coming?’ ‘I’m going anywhere,’ I say to my sister and her partner, ‘you coming?’ ‘I’m going,’ I say to the dog, ‘you coming? I’ll bring cheese.’ Surprisingly, (except for the dog who’ll follow a block of cheese anywhere) they all say ‘yes’ to this last-minute getaway. They are all familiar with 2022 and not surprisingly, they’re tired too.

We drive through rain squalls and flooded roads, Satnav taking us down every farm cart track between Exmoor and the tip of Cornwall. We haven’t planned meals but we have a car full of mince pies, Christmas cake scraps, boxes of chocolates and the occasional piece of bruised fruit. Oh, and several wonderful cheeses from gift hampers. We don’t need no Tescos. Along with Christmas gift champagne, Baileys and a suitcase full of books, we’re well stocked enough never to leave our little bungalow with a view of the churning sea and the protective twinkle of Godrevy Lighthouse for the next three days.

For a brief spell on arrival, the rain stops. We feel we should at least set foot once on the white beach. But my dog is getting old. He struggles with the steep road down to the coast, manages a gentrified romp at the water’s edge, chews a few strands of seaweed then struggles back up the hill. He’s done for the rest of the holiday and will lie at my feet as I read, happy with his lot in life, even as I’m less and less happy with the tell-tale signs of his aging. He’s tired.

This may sound a somewhat depressing end to my 2022 blogs. Maybe it is. Sorry, not sorry. New Year’s Eve is the perfect time to be honest with oneself. We can’t be ‘up’ all the time. We can’t be ‘on our game’ all the time. It’s okay to reflect on all the reasons we’re tired – I’ve taken on a new house, I’m hosting a refugee family, I’ve helped family where I can and neighbours where I can, held hands with yet another friend diagnosed with cancer, and donated where I can and been kind and generous and humorous and supportive where I can. I’ve earned the right to be tired.

Next year. Next year is the year peace will return, I’ll get my house back from sheltering strangers, and someone in high places will realise you can’t starve and freeze populations for your own political agenda forever. The two books hiding in various files on my laptop will get finished and published to great acclaim and … Well, that’s enough, surely, for 2023.

This New Year’s Eve it’s chocolates and Baileys while collapsed on a rental couch and I say, collapse if you need to. Rest up. For next year we rise again.

Image: Scott Gemmell

USA Football Fans on Exmoor? Well, I Never.

Breaking News: my loved ones are American!

It’s been brought to my attention that my husband of thirty-three years and my adult children may in fact be … American. I suppose I should thank the World Cup for opening my eyes to this but at the moment I’m still in shock about the whole thing. Who knew a simple dinner reservation could shine a spotlight on such a troublesome issue?

When I made a Friday night dinner reservation at the Top Ship in Porlock, an olde worlde thatched pub that predates football itself by, oh, several hundred years, I had no idea England was playing the USA in the World Cup that night. Full disclosure: I haven’t watched a football match since Bobby Charlton, George Best and Gordon Banks played, which means my spectator days peaked in the 1970s and faded rapidly. But I’m a huge fan of Marcus Rashford, awarded an MBE for his push to get free lunches for low-income children during the COVID outbreak. That man’s a hero. Anyway, apparently, he plays football too. But I digress…

The Top Ship calls the morning of our dinner reservation to advise us the game will be shown while we’re eating and would we like to move from the pub to the restaurant so as not to see the television. Why would we do that? It’s not like watching the game will cause any kind of discord. We’re all on the same team in my family. My American hubby agreed to move to England. My daughter, born and raised in the USA but now living in England, made a choice to focus on her UK heritage a few years ago. Her US friend, also now living in London, prefers the British lifestyle. We’ll be cheering for England then. No need to move us out of TV range, thanks. Game on.

My first inkling of discord comes as I prepare to head out for dinner. A Stars and Stripes flag, previously hidden in a rarely used drawer, mysteriously appears on the kitchen counter. Why is this here? Where is it going? Surely not with us to the pub? I ask my fellow family members/dinner guests about it: Hubby shrugs, daughter checks her phone, her friend freezes, seemingly wishing to goodness she’d turned down the invitation to spend Thanksgiving in Porlock. The dog, sensing tension, parks himself in front of the door so no one can escape. (He’s half French/half German if the DNA panel is accurate so maybe we should leave him out of this.) No one confesses to planning to take the US flag to dinner but there’s muttering in the hallway as people pull coats on. An uneasy feeling seeps into my gut as it’s suggested the flag remain on the counter, ‘available for after dinner’.

We arrive at the Top Ship just as the British national anthem is playing. ‘Isn’t this nice?’ I smile at my party while admiring the roaring fire, light bouncing off the horse brasses and the beer glasses. I join in the last line of the anthem, focusing so hard on singing ‘King’ rather than the lifelong ‘Queen’ I’m used to I almost don’t catch Hubby’s, ‘Did we miss the US anthem?’.

Kick off complete, drinks ordered, menu perused, we settle in to watch a game we didn’t know was happening just hours ago. Now it seems to mean something to us all. The other tables are definitely invested in the outcome and it’s pretty obvious that on Exmoor England is favoured to win. Except at our table. I seem to be in the minority when it comes to England fans. It starts with rumblings, a daughter’s flinch when England shoots at goal, a husband’s clenched fist when the Americans run the ball down the field. What’s this? Mutiny? An American on Exmoor? Where’s the cheer when the cameras show the England fans? Where’s the boo when the USA player trips an English player?

Oh. My. Good. God. I’m at a table full of USA fans!!

How could this be? My husband? Didn’t he swear allegiance to the flag during our marriage vows? (Remind me to check the videotape.) My children? Surely, having a British mother ensures loyalty to the English team? (Remind me to check the small print on their birth certificates.) Seriously, a life lived in the USA has to get overruled by that half of your DNA that is English once you hit English soil, doesn’t it? Though now I think of it, I never felt American after decades on American soil. Is it even possible my family doesn’t feel fully English on English soil? Apparently, it is. Halfway through the fish and chips and Exmoor Ale pie, things are getting more heated. No not on the football field, as even to my inexperienced eye, this is a tedious game at best. No, it’s become clear as day this game is pulling my family back to their roots in the USA, just as I spent thirty-odd years in America being pulled back to mine in England.

Okay. This is getting ridiculous. There are open whoops when the Americans have the ball. Obvious sighs when the English goalkeeper stops an attack on goal. Over pudding and custard, the truth comes out. The three other guests at my table openly admit they’re pulling for the USA. I shush them and glance uneasily around the pub at all the England supporters. ‘We live here,’ I hiss. ‘Keep your voices down.’ But it’s too late. The owners and managers and wait staff know us. They know our background. They smile just as usual, but I have to wonder if the chef spat in our gravy tonight of all nights.

The game ends and, thank goodness, it’s a zero-zero draw. Our family lives to watch another game. I can only hope it’s not an England versus USA World Cup final. If it is, we may have to stay home to watch. I couldn’t take the humiliation of a USA victory in the pub or the gloating of my traitorous family. But I’ve learned something: A simple game of football can provide an eye-opening view of international family dynamics.

Image: Flickr

Remember to Smell the Exmoor Roses

October 2022 may have been the most ‘normal’ month I’ve had in a long time. All that happened was the shortest UK prime ministership in history, a family run-in with COVID, and the arrival of our first guests from American since we moved back to England over two years ago. Bit of a snorer of a month really. Except I haven’t received the gift of a good snore in a long time. Hello Sleeplessness, my now constant companion. Sleepless on Exmoor; there’s a book title. When one of the better-known lines from my novel, Dunster’s Calling, states Exmoor is the place I ‘sleep the best and breathe the deepest’, this insomnia is, frankly, embarrassing. It’s also a nightmare (I remember those from back when I used to sleep) for productivity.

Why am I struggling like this? I suppose when I look back there are clues. Things were just settling down enough in our newly blended UK-US-Ukrainian-Exmoor household for me to open my laptop to write when BAM! – Hubby comes down with a nasty case of COVID. I locked the house down; no one in, no one out. I gloved and masked, disinfected everything without a pulse on the hour every hour, and climbed thousands of stairs delivering tea and steaming inhaler mugs to the patient. Fortunately, a brilliant idea penetrated the exhaustion: buy a second kettle and leave it in Hubby’s isolation chamber for him to use at will. Tracey:1 Covid: 0. Well, based on the acute pain Hubby was in and the 24/7 coughing for two weeks, maybe COVID scored slightly higher than that.

For all my efforts, Verdigris streaks now mar the paint work under the tarnished handles of every door from the constant spraying, my hands are raw from scrubbing, the dishwasher’s exhausted, as is the washing machine. But, by golly, no one else in the household caught this awful virus and for that I will claim the glory. I earned it. But… but sleep! When? Dear God, when?!

I’ve been thinking about stress and the impact it has on a body; well, my body anyway. The sleepless nights lead to non-productive days lead to sleepless nights worrying about how non-productive the days were. I have three writing projects whirling around in my mushy brain: a finished novel in need of post-edit editing, a half-complete cosy murder mystery I’m desperate to finish writing so I can find out who the darn murderer is, and a barely-formed idea on a scrap of paper that feels really quite promising as a novel. I just can’t get myself revved up enough to start the writer’s gruelling routine.

I’m not alone. So many of us are experiencing depleted energy levels from the last couple of years, even those who haven’t relocated 4000 miles or taken in a refugee family. We’ve all fought our own battles to make it this far through the 2020s. So many distractions. I try blocking all news of the energy crisis, while digging out ever thicker sweaters. I try to block images of all those families missing meals due to the food price crisis. I try not to think about whether the same Prime Minister will be in office at the end of dinner as at the beginning. War footage is no-go after breakfast. But it’s all still churning inside my head.

I’m not getting out in nature nearly as much as I need to for a good old recharge. This time of year is when I’m most grateful to be back in England. Perennials are just as perky as in late summer, roses bloom, grass seed germinates in the warm soil, and bulb planting and shrub acquisition is still in full swing. Back in the snowbelt of the USA, at this time of year the ground is frozen and temps are chilly enough to freeze solid the Halloween candy. I don’t miss that. At all. But I’m missing too much of autumn glories on Exmoor galloping around stamping out viruses and worrying about dirty bombs.

Enter the visitors from America. The delight of having dear friends staying at this time stems not only from their comforting presence but that they force me to get back out there. Sometimes you have to have your nose shoved into a bloom to smell the roses. Did I mention they’re still flowering here and will be until Christmas? Got to love that. And visitors mean you stroll around your beautiful garden for fun, without weeds in one hand and pruning tools in another. Friends mean in the last few days I’ve walked yellowy-orange wooded trails, eaten cream teas in Selworthy, smiled at Exmoor ponies backdropped by the Bristol Channel, visited Dunster Castle, swooned over the amazing truffle and parmesan chips at The Luttrell Arms, ridden the cliff railway at Lynton, and consumed Prosecco at lunchtime – that’s right, LUNCHTIME! – at the lovely Ship Inn at Porlock Weir. Sometimes you need much missed friends to remind you of the wonders in your own back garden and the joys beyond the news. Friends and Exmoor restore and rejuvenate. I just need to keep that momentum going long enough to write again.

Maybe I should make a habit of reading the David Austin Rose catalogue before bed. Fill my head with scents and petals and dream of arching boughs of colour to come in my Exmoor garden. Yes. That’s what I’ll do. And sleep will surely follow.

Images: author’s own and Rick Anderson

Our Very Tuscan British Exmoor Funeral

It’s been two and a half years since I’ve been on a plane. That’s the longest I’ve spent with both feet on the ground since I was a teenager. Just when I’m wondering if I’ll ever again experience the joy of a good ol’ kneecapping from someone else’s wheeled suitcase on a jetway, my sister calls with a plan. (She’s been known to suggest things like tying a childhood friend to a dustbin lid and sending him down a steep hill. The trouble that caused. One shouldn’t agree to her plans willy nilly.) But this plan includes Tuscan pasta dishes with porcini mushrooms. It involves a swimming pool with views over a beautiful valley framed by towering mountains. It’s a chance to see Cinque Terre, a bucket list destination for me. I wait for the other shoe to drop, like Sis saying, ‘Oh, before we go, we need to dig up my entire back garden using a spoon. Then returf it.’ That shoe doesn’t drop. I’m going on holiday!

Just a couple of flies in the ointment: Two weeks before we’re due to fly out, a Ukrainian refugee family arrives at our house on Exmoor. No one had invaded anyone back when we booked the holiday. No one had suggested Hubby and I empty out all the closets in our three-bedroom house and stack our clothes into dangerously high piles on the floor in one bedroom. No one mentioned anything about completing more dangerous piles of paperwork regarding refugee visas and school applications and insurance and new bank accounts and downloading translation apps. No one suggested I wouldn’t have time to pack or time to plan holiday excursions or …

I know, I know. Even I realise that comes across a little, well, selfish. Lives are at stake here. Civilization itself is at stake here based on current events, and I’m focused on pasta. Of course, Hubby and I will make this work. Of course, we’ll get everything set up before we leave. We’ll give this family of three some breathing room to regroup from their ordeal and relax into Exmoor life. It will all be fine. Our new family members are delightful and certainly worth any extra effort on our part.

Then the second fly crash lands in the Commonwealth ointment, splattering chaos and grief everywhere. The day before we leave for Heathrow, worrying news seeps out of Buckingham Palace: Queen Elizabeth’s health is ’cause for concern’. Before we’ve had time to wish her well, she’s gone. And I’m bereft.

‘Why,’ you ask? ‘Did you meet her?’ No, but I saw her up close during a tour of Windsor Castle once. I looked out of one of the stateroom windows to see the entire Royal Family getting into cars heading to Royal Ascot. It was a thrill, seeing an icon in the flesh. She’d been part of my British collective consciousness my entire life. She provided a rallying cry during my decades in America, that call to defend your country, not from war in this case but from any mention of ‘also ran’. Nobody does pomp or puts on a parade like the United Kingdom. London’s buildings and vistas always impress and the Queen’s appearance on the balcony of Buckingham Palace stirs something inside me. So much history – some of it questionable looking back with today’s perspective, I get that – condensed into one lady under a pastel-coloured hat. All I can say is for me, personally, Queen Elizabeth provided the thread that tethered me ‘home’ during my hiraeth years.

I’d worried about not being resident back in England for her funeral during my years abroad. I thought I’d made it in time. I intended to go to London and pay my respects when the time came. But no. I’m booked on a flight to Tuscany within a day of her passing. I can barely pack, and I’m still trying to complete paperwork for my new Ukrainian family as the bells toll in the village church and the television pounds the sad news, over and over again, into my heart. The Queen is dead. Long live the King. The Jubilee bed in my garden tells the story; a sad transition from June to September.

I frantically hurl hand lotion bottles out of bathroom drawers trying to find a little plastic bag to fit my toiletries in because I’d forgotten you still have to do that on a plane. My eyes well up at the billboards along the motorway: a black background with The Queen’s portrait in the middle. Heathrow is full of shop windows expressing condolences to the Royal Family. Sis and I start planning our day of Tuscan mourning on the plane. We’ll be watching the entire funeral, though our partners plan to hike that day. They don’t get it. Well, one of them is American, after all.

Tuscan villages are decked out in Ukrainian flags, reminding us we’ve left our house in the hands of complete strangers. We WhatsApp several times a day to smooth any bumpy issues and our village does a wonderful job of wrapping our guests in warmth and kindness. This gives Sis and me time to buy family-sized bags of Italian chocolate, M&M’s and liquorice because this is how you deal with death in our family.

We sit down in our Tuscan villa at 10am GMT on Monday September 19th and don’t move again for eight hours. We feel sick from all the chocolate but, oh, what a wonderful send off. I take comfort in the fact I made it home for The Queen’s 70th anniversary, just three short months ago. I threw a party and shared Pimms and planted my garden in red, white, and blue, and somehow felt closer to my heritage. But today, scenes appear on the little Italian television that bring me back to the heart wrenching gut check of Emma, the Queen’s pony, standing silently as her owner’s casket passes. The Royal Corgis sit desolately at the feet of carers as those amazing pall bearers make everyone proud. The crown is removed from the top of the casket and my heart bleeds for the next-in-line, Charles III. He has a tough road ahead and big shoes to fill. He will be criticized daily for doing his job and the only thing he’ll be more criticized for is not doing his job. Poor fella.

In the days after the funeral, we eat pasta and stroll cobbled streets and travel to the coast. We decide Cinque Terre isn’t what we thought it would be, though it could be just our attitudes aren’t what they should be. That said, the photos on all the jigsaw puzzles I’ve completed over the years of these coastal villages are much cleaner, brighter and less crowded than the reality. Portofino proves impressive though.

Before we know it, we’re on the way home, thinking September was a bit of a washout. Until … we walk through our Exmoor door and there waiting for us is an amazing gingerbread replica of our home, made with love and incredible skill by our Ukrainian guests. We are speechless. Such talent and generosity shared in a time of great stress for them. Later, I post a photo of the house on Twitter, which the BBC picks up and before we know it, we’re interviewed on BBC Radio Somerset and there’s an article on the BBC website and another journalist calls for an interview and suddenly we’re all connected in this big old crazy world by cake. That sweet, comforting token denotes grief and celebration and peace and family. We’re all looking for a good news story; something to remind us that everything will be alright if we’re just kind to each other. Baking binds us together.

If Queen Elizabeth II did one thing right, it was instilling in so many a sense of duty, compassion and a work ethic of ‘just get on with it’. I’ll stop wallowing in pity and get on with providing a home for those who sorely need it. And I’ll eat gingerbread until I feel better.

Images: author’s own

Writing Home Takes on New Meaning Every Day

I’ve experienced the concept of ‘home’ in so many varied ways recently I’m starting to think my ‘Write Home’ brand may be taking over my life. Not in the ‘writing a new novel every six months’ kind of way; more in the ‘Will I ever finish a novel again because, well, life’ kind of way. I blame three major August events…

Domestic home front: My mother turned ninety at the beginning of the month. This deserved a family holiday in Cornwall so Mum, three of her daughters and two long-suffering partners set off for a week under one roof. This has never happened before. Someone was always in a different country, on a different shift, unavailable. Out of sync. To have us all together, with nothing to do but chat and reacquaint ourselves with who took which kind of milk in tea, who remembered that time our childhood pony bolted down the high street, or who got the most ‘O’ Levels (ahem… not me), felt strange yet comforting. This family time was, after all, much of the reason I returned to England after so long away. How many major events have I missed over the expat decades? Too many to count, so being able to participate in this milestone will remain a treasured memory. It will also serve as a reminder not to book trips during the school summer holidays. Cornwall is jamming y’all!

International home front: ‘Home’ hit me again as I waved goodbye to my son and daughter-in-law. They’re returning to the USA for a couple of years to pursue graduate degrees. (I’m fine. No, really, I’m fine. Well, not fine but I’m told at the age of thirty our kids get to make their own decisions. Mothers be damned.) My son grew up in the US and his wife is American but when they moved over to the UK a year before I came back, I thought I had them locked in here. Because … well, because I’m gratefully locked in here. During the countdown to them returning to Seattle, I kept thinking England is home to me so surely it’s home to my children too. Why on earth would they choose to go anywhere else? They say they’ll be back, but will they? I only left England for a six-month trip. It turned into thirty-six years. Will the same happen to the next generation? Where is home for them? Do they know yet? Will they spend as much time searching as I did or will it fall into place quicker for them? Their leaving was more of a wrench than I even imagined it would be – and I imagined a lot. But really, I’m fine, though my chocolate consumption may have increased. Unrelated, I’m sure.

Refugee home front: Our Ukrainian refugee family arrived on Exmoor a few days ago. After driving for five days and crossing territory they never dreamed they’d see, heading to a place they never imagined they’d have to consider ‘home’, here they are. Exhausted, stressed, emotional yet so kind and funny and giving. Every inch of their car needed to carry as much of their lives as it possibly could. As they unpacked baking tins, a sewing machine, a skateboard, a ukulele, and a large stack of books, all indicating the life they hoped to rekindle here, I was so touched when they handed me four bars of Ukrainian chocolate. They made room for kindness and they have already turned my orchard apples into apple cake, warming my kitchen and my heart. How do you translate all these emotions? I don’t care how good your language app is, there are words not yet invented and sentence structures not yet complex enough, to convey what it is to lose a home, offer a home, reinvent a home. We will muddle through with hugs and smiles and hope that this new ‘home’ keeps us safe and strong. Together.

Constantly experiencing my ‘Write Home’ brand up close and personal hasn’t quite translated into written pages yet. Once again, the writing has been relegated to the back burner, or more like, a tiny camping stove spluttering out the last drop of gas on a windy mountain top. It’s been so long since my third novel returned from the editor, that drawer writers are supposed to hide the manuscript in for a few months to ‘marinate’ may now be rusted shut. However, the other day, while thinking about how tough it must be to leave everything you know behind, pack only the essentials in your car, and drive off into an uncertain future, that manuscript began whispering to me again. It was fully formed before COVID and before war, but its universal themes of hiraeth and starting over when life feels completely at the whim of others still feels timely. The half-written fourth novel also tiptoed out of the past to tap me on the shoulder with a ‘Hey! Remember me?’. And I did remember it. I mentally fixed a plot hole and experienced the flicker in the belly that signals the writing game is afoot, as Sherlock Holmes would say. Maybe it’s time to break the lock on the manuscript drawer.

I’m not going to lie, experiencing once-in-a-lifetime events almost daily is tiring. The thought of writing again is tiring. The adrenaline keeps me upright but maybe I should be switching to an alternative source of power. That said, adrenaline may be the cheapest energy in England during this fuel crisis – and crisis it is – so I should probably stick with it. I don’t have an adrenaline metre but I’m pretty sure the tank needs topping up. As luck would have it, a trip to Tuscany is just around the corner, planned long before war sent a new family our way. We’ll go anyway. Can’t let the Powers that Be mess up every single part of our lives. As fun as the trip will be, I know returning home will be the icing on the cake.

I hope the birthday celebrations, the family partings, and the arrival of new friends see you all through the tough months ahead. As Sam in ‘Dunster’s Calling’ says, may we all find the place we sleep the best and breathe the deepest’; whether it’s Cornwall, Seattle, Exmoor or anywhere free of bombs and bullets.