I’m fortunate to have citizenship in two countries: The United Kingdom and the United States of America. But it’s not lost on me that ‘United’ appears in both nations’ titles when ‘united’ currently seems a strained concept in either place. Pick your poison: the bedlam of Brexit or the trauma of Trump. You can be supporters or detractors of either and still wonder how we got to this place in history.
Neither issue impacts my resolve to return to the UK permanently. This was a decision made years ago, during a gallop on horseback across Porlock Hill and during a cream tea in a sleepy village. It was made beside a gurgling steam in Horner and while hanging onto my sandwich during a gale on Dunkery Beacon. Politics, current events, head-scratching choices – in the whole scheme of things, they don’t matter. England is home and that’s that.
However, current US policies have coalesced my family’s energy around leaving the US sooner rather than later. Soooo … you heard it here first folks, next year is the year! Yep, by the end of 2020, my husband and I plan to be living in England. The wheels are in motion, the list-making has begun. And, boy, is that list intimidating.
There’s all the usual rigamarole associated with any kind of move, whether it’s down the road or across continents and oceans: Prepping the house to sell, worrying how best to transport the dog (he does ‘down the road’ but may prove resistant to crossing oceans) and of course the stuff of nightmares – The Clear Out. Is it more cost-effective to leave everything and buy new in England or transport everything via container ship? Evaluating each piece of furniture, each knickknack, each cupboard full of memories, it’s daunting. What to take, what to sell, what to destroy in a fire in the back garden because that wooden crate, snatched from a party in college and still used to hold the stereo (yes, stereo. It’s that old.) is too humiliating to post on the local Buy and Sell site. Do I take the custom-made couches that, let’s face it, were designed twenty years ago for a dreamed-of cottage in England but in a size more suitable for the larger colonial house in Connecticut? Do I take all the framed posters of global vacations that hang in my current huge basement but couldn’t possibly fit in a downsized UK house? And then there’s the issue of the books. Hundreds of books. But … but my books!
And don’t get me started on the garden. My trees, shrubs and perennials are all well-loved members of my family. There’s a story behind each one. The lilac was a gift to memorialise my mother-in-law, the white rose for my father-in-law. There’s a beautiful hydrangea, a gift from a student for fixing her ‘Howwible R’, (her words – before treatment), when I was a speech-language pathologist. A large potted rosemary commemorates Basil, our dearly departed Golden Retriever. I’ve nurtured them all through transplant shock, bug infestations, puppy-chewing, polar vortexes, and scorching summers. How can I possibly explain to these plants they’re being left behind through no fault of their own but because customs won’t let them into the UK? (And because the realtor seems to think a stripped-bare patch of earth full of tell-tale holes will impact price.) Parting from human friends is hard but they can visit me in England. My maples, silver birch, ornamental plums, blue spruces, spiraea, red- and yellow twig dogwoods, clethra, peonies and hydrangeas are bound to this place. Is it so unreasonable to demand, as part of the sales contract, the new owners send yearly updates and photos of the irises and oriental lilies?
My relocation situation includes the complication of visa applications for my husband. Having just been through the citizenship grinder – and my American daughter-in-law’s UK visa application – the thought of all the months of confusing and contradictory instructions, expense, and nail-biting waits for approval is intimidating. But needs must. I need to – and must – return home. It’s time to commence countdown. But first, I must go outside and sit with my climbing roses. They’ll require careful explanation of the situation if I’m to expect them to bloom next spring during the house showings. Think I’ll avoid any conversation about current politics on either side of the Atlantic, though. No one could explain any of it to anyone.
To know me is to know I’m somewhat of a cream tea aficionado ‒ and I don’t mean just the ‘life-as-an-expat-makes-me-crave-all-things-English’ kind. No, I’ve loved scones and jam and clotted cream since I was old enough to lick the inside of a jam pot. (Which, incidentally, is frowned upon now I’m older.) Anyway, in anticipation of my move back to England, I contacted one of the most iconic tea rooms in the United Kingdom to see a) if they’d let me in, given my penchant for licking the inside of jam pots, and b) if they’d show me the inner workings of my idea of Nirvana: a tea room. Surprisingly, they said yes. Enter Paul Gibbs and David Pollard.
A chilly autumn mist
lingers over much of Porlock Vale as I negotiate the winding lane to Selworthy.
I feel I’m driving through a portal, framed by arcing gold, russet and amber
boughs. This much beauty is distracting, and I haven’t even reached the iconic
Selworthy Green yet. Changing gear is trickier than I remember and I almost
stall going around the 90-degree bend by the 15th century whitewashed
church. Thirty years in America leave my left hand unused to such driving tasks.
I pull into the car park and grab my journal, leaving my laptop under the front
seat. I’d initially thought I’d carry it in for my interview with Paul and
David, the dynamic duo behind Periwinkle Tea Rooms and Clematis Cottage Gift
Shop and Gallery. But as I stand gazing across thatched rooves, the silent
cemetery and striking views of the moors, high tech seems somewhat out of
place. Maybe I should have brought a quill and parchment paper. And worn a
bonnet. Too late now. Where does one buy a bonnet these days, anyway?
I open the gate
to Selworthy Green and cross the threshold into a different world: birdsong,
the brittle crackle of leaves chattering back to the wind, a stream gurgling
towards the sea after a stint on the moors high above the village. A step back
in time. Many a dream of moving to Exmoor begins at this gate.
Clematis Cottage greets
me on the right. A lichen-covered bench sits in welcome under the diamond-paned
cottage window. A riot of pink resurrection lilies keeps the bench company. Pyracantha
and ivy cascade over the stone walls and steps. An ilex tree of some variety
draws the eye through the bountiful berries to the fields and moors beyond. I
feel no need to take another step. Surely this bench is as good a place to
spend eternity as anywhere? But I take one more step because my nagging subconscious
reminds me I have an appointment.
I pause again on Selworthy Green. I have no choice, appointment or not. Surrounded by burnt-amber cottages topped with mossy thatched hats, its grassy welcome is set in a frame of confectionary-coloured flowers, even in November. Picture postcard perfection. I inhale the welcoming scent of a wood fire, tendrils of smoke curling from a chimney into the air. A door opens. A cheery hello, followed by ‘Want a cup of tea?’ Why, yes. Yes, I do.
Paul Gibbs waves me into Periwinkle Tea Rooms. Paul and David are entering their second year as National Trust tenant operators here, though there’s been a tea room in this location for decades. Ducking under the thatched porch, I’m reminded of a hundred other entries into this hallowed place. As a teenager, sullen (until the cakes arrive), as a newly-wed, proudly presenting Exmoor to my American husband, as a mother introducing my US-born children to an important part of their cultural heritage – clotted cream, flapjacks and ploughman’s lunches. And now, as a homesick expat and empty nester, looking for all the comforts of home I just can’t replicate in America. The tea room had been closed for several years. Seeing it open again elicits more complicated emotions than I’d imagined. I thought I’d lost this part of my history.
With a grateful sigh, I take in another of my favourite Exmoor views: A sideboard groaning with cakes, a glowing fireplace, tea pots lined up like soldiers ready for the lunch fray. Wonky beams and low ceilings; all of it familiar. Yet, there’s something new here, an energy that belies the quintessential ticking-clock-sleepy-cat-on-windowsill expectations of an English tea room. This is no museum to the lace table cloth, encased in magnolia white walls, the hush broken only by the faint clatter of a stainless-steel teapot lid.
There’s new colour
here. Plenty of it. In the seafoam walls, in the local artwork, in the cushions
scattered around the bench seating. In the light reflecting from glistening ceramic
tea pots and the quirky snail-shaped menu holders.
There’s music too,
coming from sophisticated elec-trickery
(remember the Cat Weasel TV programme?)
flashing under the cakes. It’s my first clue this is a thoroughly modern
operation wrapped in quaint trimmings. As Paul directs my tour – I’ve never
been upstairs before ‒ I realise this is not your grandparents’ tea room. There’s
a computer screen above the impressive commercial ovens in the bakery. Paul shows
me detailed statistical analysis: every scone sold in 2018 (13,628), every
cream clotted (33 kilos) every carrot grated (26 kilos), walnut halved (20 kilos),
egg cracked (3,727), Victoria sponged ‒ sorry, your majesty, but that’s 7,453 total
slices of all cake varieties for a total of 828 cakes. And finally, every dollop
of jam (410 kilos). That’s a lot of jars to lick!
Where am I? This is not what I expected. I’m somewhere between below stairs at Downton Abbey and the bridge of the USS Enterprise. (Darn it. Should have brought my old laptop in with me, just to compete.) Pulling up more screens, Paul shows me social media has replaced the lunch gong here. The business twitter account has a staggering reach of up to a million a week. There’s Instagram, Facebook, a polished website and a blog, all responsible for an impressive increase in guests taking detours to visit. The only nod to custom in the kitchen is a binder full of recipes, including all the traditional favourite cakes, biscuits and scones, along with new inspirations, like smoked salmon, leak and potato soup. Paul tells me the recipes are followed precisely, every time. Nothing is left to memory or chance. A guest can return time after time for that favourite coffee cake and never leave saying it was better last time. This is all part, Paul says, of knowing your business, knowing your market, and never compromising on standards. This may explain why they won ‘Tourism Business of The Year 2018’ at the Best New Business Awards.
It all seems so … not thatched. I’m sensing SEO manipulation and business projections Amazon would be proud to call its own. Turns out, I shouldn’t be surprised. Paul and David also run Mill Close Solutions, a management consulting business specialising in leisure, tourism and hospitality start-ups. With their Selworthy businesses open seven days a week, eleven months of the year, when do they have the time, you may ask? I almost feel guilty interrupting their day for a cup of tea. Almost.
I’m honoured to
be offered a seat in Writers Corner, designated for local writers who meet to share
all things ‘Author’. (Authors eat cake too, I’ve heard.) I start by testing the
tea. Periwinkle Tea Rooms uses Miles tea, a local supplier who blends tea and
coffee specifically to compliment the peaty Exmoor water. I don’t know what
that involves, but it tastes sublime. Of course, that could be as much a part
of context as flavour. Hard to imagine not enjoying anything in this glorious setting.
Taking a break from his duties at Clematis Cottage ‒ the gallery side of the business featuring Exmoor artists ‒ David joins us for a chat about finding home. His journey to Selworthy started on a fruit farm in Kent before spending eighteen years on Sark, in the Channel Islands. He says he doesn’t miss Sark, mainly because it could take weeks to get off the island in bad weather. Paul, born in Devon and raised in Dorset, has a strong family tie to Selworthy. His great-great-grandparents worked on the Holnicote Estate, one as a woodsman, the other as domestic help. They even lived in one of the Selworthy ‘grace and favour’ cottages. They rest here still, with their youngest daughter, in the churchyard a few yards from where we sit. Paul recalls conversations with his great-grandmother about life in the village. Treasured memories.
ancestry full circle to now live himself in Selworthy is profoundly meaningful
for Paul. ‘Selworthy is such a special place for so many people,’ he says. But
for him it’s more than that. It’s the beating heart of his family history. I
wonder out loud if someone had to compromise to live here, the historical
connection deeper for one half of the partnership than the other. After all, I
have the same concerns about asking my husband to move to Exmoor just because
it’s home for me. But neither Paul nor David struggle with the decision. They both
cherish the opportunity to make Periwinkle Tea Rooms and Clematis Cottage ‘must
see’ destinations. They’ve succeeded already. Trust me on that.
Their love and
excitement at being here has led to phenomenal success, outperforming all
expectations in their first years. They’re certainly willing to go out on a
limb for their guests, even throwing an impromptu wedding reception for a bride
whose ancestors lived in Periwinkle Cottage. They organized a meet and greet
for me with other local authors too ‒ well above and beyond the call of scone
I wonder what Paul’s great-great-grandparents would think of a world-renowned, technologically-advanced enterprise in Selworthy. It was, after all, just low income housing in an isolated village ‘back in the day’. Who knows? But certainly, this is not your grandparents’ tea shop ‒ unless you had state-of-the-art grandparents. That said, Periwinkle Tea Rooms still uses your grandparents’ recipes. Those delights, combined with time-honoured tradition, stunning scenery, the welcoming warmth of a fire cracking in the grate, and good old-fashioned hospitality will bring me back to Selworthy over and over again. No matter how long I’ve been away, this place is part of my family tradition. It will continue to be so thanks to Paul and David.
There are pros to
life as a rolling stone: a global perspective, varied opportunities, a trail of
diverse friendships, strong adaptive skills. Cons: an outsider’s perspective, constant
regrouping, new rules. (Did you know you can display the Union Jack instead of
a licence plate on the front of your car in Connecticut, but not in Wisconsin? ‘Officer,
I didn’t know that. Thanks for informing me in front of everyone with blue
lights flashing and your hand on your gun.’ Some relocation lessons are
hard-earned, but for the most part they add zest to life.
Despite my wanderlust,
I find myself envious of those who’ve remained in an area long enough to pull
back the curtain; to know all the workings of a place. As I build momentum for
a move back to England, I thought it may be helpful to find someone who knows
Exmoor like that.
Nigel journeyed to Exmoor via Hampshire,
Nottingham, and London. He’s worked for
the National Trust for forty years ‒ mostly on Exmoor ‒ currently as the Projects
and Grants Manager for the Holnicote Estate. (From the ochre-tinted cottages of
Selworthy to the peak of Dunkery Beacon, the Holnicote Estate comprises most of
what I call home.) Nigel’s bio says
he’s ‘passionate about the countryside, wildlife, music and cooking good food!’
Sounds like someone I should meet.
We shake hands in
the car park at Horner, a tiny hamlet at the foot of Horner Wood ‒ an 800-acre
section of the Holnicote Estate. Blue skies greet us after days of rain. We
head off into what Nigel calls his ‘favourite temperate rainforest’. This is
one of my favourite spots too. Horner Water burbles through the predominantly
sessile oak woodlands. Cloutsham Ball sits at the top of the steep combe,
presiding over dramatic views of Hurlstone and beyond. Dunkery Beacon towers
over all. On horseback or on foot, I feel cosily cocooned here. It’s the
location of one of my favourite benches in the world.
I thought I knew this place quite well. Turns out I knew little but the trails. Nigel knows every turn in the river, every plant, every historical detail, including the locations of at least two Iron Age hill forts near by. He points to a raised earthen berm topped with mature trees, a testament to the Tudor Age men who rerouted the river to facilitate their iron ore industry. Yes, they moved the river. I didn’t know that. We cross it via a small bridge. Nigel explains the bridge timbers were replaced by iron railway lines, recycled from the West Somerset Railway. He shows me pollarded trees, a pruning technique used for encouraging young growth for fencing and ship-building. I’d never noticed their unusual shape. As we climb, we pass a storm-ravaged oak, its trunk fractured into a stunning natural sculpture. Nigel tells me the year it happened. He conveys an unspoken understanding it is worthy of note, as though the tree is a friend. Oaks here can be upwards of seven hundred years old. I feel a need to spend a few respectful moments with the mangled tree.
As we admire the
view across to Wales, I comment on the amount of holly covering the slopes. I
don’t remember there being this much of it in the undergrowth. Nigel see it as
a rather pesky plant. Since the reduction of sheep grazing in the National Park
‒ a result of agri-environment grants to reduce the impact of trampling and
damage to heather moorland ‒ holly has taken over. During research, I discover “Holnicote”
may trace its roots to the Anglo-Saxon word for holly ‒ holegn. Therefore, its dominance here may be well established.
I remember more mistletoe. I saw so much of it from the saddle years ago. Nigel tells me there’s less now, but still some near Timberscombe. Anything I notice Nigel can explain, whether it be acidic soil, resulting in fewer native flowering plants, or policy change and its impact on vegetation. He shares more: Greater than 440 species of large fungi can be found in Horner Wood. It’s considered by some the most important woodland for fungi after Windsor Great Park and the New Forest. Horner Wood is also one of the richest bat sites in the United Kingdom, boosting fourteen of the seventeen UK breeding species, including the rare Barbastelle. This may explain how busy Liz Bradshaw is, Nigel’s wife. She’s an expert, regularly consulting on all things bat.
We come to a monitoring station on the banks of the river. I can’t imagine what it’s doing out here. Of course, Nigel knows. He’s part of a research project called the Multi-Objective Flood Management Demonstration Scheme. The equipment at the station collects water flow data every five minutes. Using this information, flooding in the Bossington area ‒ where Horner Water enters the Bristol Channel ‒ has been significantly reduced. Modern science buried deep in the ancient forest. Who knew? I wonder what Tudor Man would think of this technology and if it would have impacted decisions to move the river. Maybe Horner folk considered Bossington folk too far away to worry about.
What’s it like to
know a place so well, to be so acutely attuned to its strengths and weaknesses?
It comes at a cost, Nigel feels. Not all is smooth sailing in Camelot. His job sees
him sharing information with Exmoor residents on controversial and divisive
topics, such as Brexit and the banning of hunting. It hasn’t always made him
popular. Exmoor, as seemingly remote from Parliament and Europe and US politics
as anywhere, still exists alongside current issues. That’s a good wakeup call for
me. Escaping world complexities is not what Exmoor is all about.
We discuss the
biggest changes over the thirty years I’ve been away. Nigel feels the number of
visitors, the extension of the tourist season, and the purposes for which they
visit can be viewed as blessings and curses. They change the special qualities
of Exmoor. Landscape and wildlife pay a price for successful Exmoor businesses,
such as adventure tours, hotels and shops. “Erosion, with its inherent
soil loss and water run-off is becoming a real problem,” Nigel says. This
translates into a decline in upland wildlife. He continues, “Curlew, ring
ouzel, merlin, whinchat, stonechat, grasshopper warbler – all disappeared or
rapidly disappearing from Exmoor.” It’s a familiar dilemma in areas of
outstanding beauty: the very businesses necessary to sustain an area can damage
it. Nigel feels strongly about this. “National Parks should not put recreation
above biodiversity.” I promise to remember this.
moss-covered stone walls and the quintessential wooden pathway signs. It’s all
breathtakingly beautiful to me. I ask about other places Nigel enjoys. Apparently,
Badachro, in Wester Ross, Scotland speaks to him of home as I define it: the
place you sleep the best and breathe the deepest. “It reminds me of Exmoor thirty
years ago,” he says. “A wild, untamed, wildlife-rich landscape that excites me
every time I visit.” Recently announcing his retirement, Nigel plans to spend
more time in Scotland. As my face falls – but
we haven’t got to the ‘cooking good food’ part of your bio yet! – he
assures me Exmoor will still feature prominently in his life. Its diversity of
landscapes and wildlife, its cultural richness, including archaeological
evidence of 5000-year-old communities, its wild appeal and remoteness ‒ while
only two hours from Bristol and Exeter ‒ all keep him passionate about Exmoor.
We exit the trees just above the old watermill and head back to the cars. I cherish a whole new appreciation for Horner Wood, but Nigel makes me realize just how much I don’t know about my ‘home’. Or anywhere for that matter – the curse of the constantly rolling stone. I can tell you Bora Bora is surrounded by surreal turquoise waters, the central California coast, though ravaged by fire and landslides, is still beautiful, that the brutal winter storms of Wisconsin produce stunning natural snow sculptures. I can tell you Bahamian sea water is too warm in August, your feet will get wet in Venice, and New Zealand’s volcanic and glacial topography never fails to impress. I can tell you where they serve a great tres leches cake in Costa Rica and that the Brazilian rainforest is vast. What I can’t give you is depth. I can’t express a connection forged by time. But I want to know Exmoor; to pull back the curtain and learn to greet a tree like an old friend. It will take a while. And that’s okay.
Many thanks, Nigel, for sharing your knowledge, and for your commitment to Exmoor.
‘I’m off to find
England. MY England’, I announce to my American husband. ‘Great,’ he says.
‘Bring back some Club biscuits.’ Tut. Eyeroll. Like Club biscuits epitomise my national
identity. (They’ll be in my luggage anyway.) But if not Club biscuits, what exactly
is ‘My England’? I’ve met many Brits abroad who crave the comfort of all we
left behind, without being able to pinpoint what that is. Hiraeth (or hireth,
Cornish spelling) ‒ a deep yearning for home with a sense of loss ‒ has taught
me to beware the rose-tinted dangers inherent in returning to the land of my
birth. After all, what exactly do I think I’m returning to?
Sounds like a fieldtrip’s
in order. I head across the Pond to search for …well, England. A white
handkerchief flashes in my peripheral vision. Enter the West Somerset Morris.
Morris dancing, that most quintessential of ancient English folk dances, prances proudly through my youth. May Day festivities, royal jubilees, Christmas pub crawls, the Morris dancers were always there in sashes, tabards and tatter jackets. The sounds of the concertinas and fiddles blending with the bells attached to the dancers’ shins. To the rest of the world, the scene may be evocative of cosy murder mysteries; Morris dancers used as a cinematic cue we’re in jolly, quaint, quirky, hankie-flapping England. It’s bound to be one of the dancers who trips over the dead body.
But I digress.
I’m here to discover my connection to this English tradition. The West Somerset
Morris is brave enough to let me visit a practice session.
I drive to
Sampford Brett, a village just outside Exmoor National Park. As I check
directions to the village hall, a peal of bells makes me smile. I roll down my rental
car window. The joyful tones cascade from the church belfry and wash over me;
memories of childhood Sunday evenings. Nowhere else in the world do bells sound
like this. But I mustn’t tarry. The Morris waits for no one. Gathering up my
pen and camera, I pull open the door to the village hall, and step inside the
beating heart of English tradition.
greets me ‒ Bagman an infinitely more interesting title than secretary. Ray is
also the Foreman of this Morris, aka the dance teacher. Next, I meet Squire Joe
(the leader). Other dancers arrive. In a corner, the musicians set up: fiddle,
concertina and flute.
I’m placed in a
safe position at the side of the hall – there are spinning bodies to avoid
after all. Members line up and the music starts. Foreman Ray names the dances
for me: Maid of Mill, Banbury Bill, Nuts in May (this one involves chunky sticks.
I’m here to tell you, they don’t hold back in taking swings at each other),
Border Dance, Skirmish, Jenny Lind, to name but a few. It’s a chilly night but
there’s soon a sweat on brows. This is a workout and then some.
carefully round the perimeter to take photos as Foreman Ray calls out dance
steps. Squire Joe wants more energy from the dancers. The dancers want Squire
to take smaller lateral steps so the lines remain true. This is an art steeped
in tradition, and members are sticklers for maintaining form. I try a discreet little
hop step myself. It’s harder than it looks.
During the tea
break, I ask the group about their own roots and ties, both to this dance and
this part of the country. Members recount stories of global travel,
coincidences and genealogical flukes. These stories follow tomorrow in Part II.
their tea. The fiddle, flute and concertina fire up, and they’re off again ‒
sticks clanking and whoops whooping. The steps have exotic names like
Whole-Hey, Half-Gyp, Caper, Hockle Back and Cross-Hop. Handkerchiefs must be
flicked outwards from chest level, no lower. Ray explains these little details
distinguish one Morris from another and one area of the country from another.
It’s fascinating. I’m so joining the Morris when I move back here!
Or so I think until Bagman hands me a pair of handkerchiefs and invites me onto the floor for the final dance. Let’s just say, it’s a good job I wasn’t trusted with the sticks. As I cavort gamely, trying not to trip anyone while flicking my handkerchiefs with abandon, I’m reminded of the description of Morris dancing in Cecil J. Sharp’s book, The Morris, written in 1907: ‘…the Morris dance is a bodily manifestation of vigour and rude health, and not at all of sinuous grace or dreaminess.’ I may have the rude bit down as I crash around. No one declares I dance with ‘sinuous grace’. Maybe I’m a natural after all.
All too soon, it’s 10pm and practice is over. Ray tells me I’ve only been privy to half the experience so far. It’s on to the pub for a pint, as much a part of Morris as anything, with its history steeped in ale since mediaeval times. Unfortunately, I have an early assignment tomorrow, so have to pass on the offer. Good excuse to come back for the rest of my education though.
I wind along the inky-black
lanes towards Porlock, wrapped in a sense of history, of belonging, of roots. Was
it the dance? The tea? The tradition? The comradery? Yes. Yes, it was.
I’ll never take
for granted the work and dedication of individuals preserving traditions. They
mean so much to the expatriate ‒ this one, anyway. Can I fully explain my
connection to home? Not really. It just is. But I reconnected with part of my
England in a tiny hall in a tiny village, dancing with people I’d never met. I
found kindred spirits in the jingling heart of my home, complete with church bells
and Morris bells. I can’t thank the West Somerset Morris enough for pulling me back
into the dances of England.
I’ve just returned to the United States from a promotional book tour in England for Dunster’s Calling. Let me repeat that. I’ve just returned from a promotional book tour in England. I know, I know. You heard me the first time. But I needed to hear it again myself. You see, I can’t quite believe it happened. I’m not very good at self-promotion. I’m better at sitting alone and writing. I knew I had to ‘do’ social media to build my brand, but I questioned its efficacy. In all that noise, no one hears you, right?
It’s still hard to believe that a Facebook post led to a live presentation. Oh, and did I mention the BBC called? (I’d repeat that but I’m afraid I’d lose you, so I won’t repeat that the BBC called.) I write fiction so you’re right to check my credibility and/or mental state. That’s why I took photos to verify the account that follows …
After writing my debut novel, Dunster’s Calling, I thought the hard part of being an author was over. Ha! Marketing a novel, as it turns out, is much harder than writing it. But I got stuck in on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. My social media strategy was 1) to establish why I was the person to write this story of an expat’s search for home, while exuding humour (well, my mum thinks I’m funny), and 2) to connect potential readers with the setting for my novel: Exmoor, a National Park in England’s southwestern peninsular. I felt as soon as potential readers saw Exmoor’s beauty, they’d want to read a book in which that glorious setting becomes a central character. My job would be done and sales would roll in. So I posted photos of thatched cottages and moorland views over the Bristol Channel. Based on follower reactions to the photos, the beauty of Exmoor struck a chord. However, the translation into book sales was less … struck chord-y.
As time passed, I grew weary of battling to promote through social media, of limited traction, of endlessly attempting to drown out the ‘you-just-can’t-do-marketing’ voices. I almost gave up, deciding social media was a time suck and no one was listening anyway.
But someone was listening. Someone I’d never met. Someone who saw my photos while setting up her new store that sells all things Exmoor. Enter Elke.
Elke is also an expat, moving from Germany to England nearly twenty years ago. Maybe my tale of life in a foreign country, of homesickness and of the pull of Exmoor spoke to her. Anyway, she asked me to write a guest blog for her website and to provide some signed copies of my book for her store in Minehead, Somerset. I did so, gratefully. I figured that was the job finished ‒ until Elke asked if I’d be interested in giving a talk at the store.
Why, yes. Yes, I am interested.
I book my flight.
I arrive in England to discover Elke has sent press releases far and wide. There’s a writeup in the paper and an invite to record an interview for West Somerset Radio, to be played on air the next day. Before I know it, I’m sitting in a sound studio, headphones on, mic check done, Bryan Leaker counting me in: three, two, one … ‘Tell us about Dunster’s Calling’. Bryan makes me laugh, despite my nerves, and offers to give away a copy of the book in a competition on the show. I sign a copy like it’s no big deal.
It’s a very big deal, to me.
I leave the studio after my first radio interview. It’s more than I ever dreamed possible and I return to the place I’m staying for celebratory tea and biscuits. The interview plays the next morning and I listen in, disbelieving it’s my own voice on the radio. There’s more disbelief to come.
The phone rings. It’s Broadcast Assistant Luke, for the Simon Parkin Breakfast Show on BBC Somerset. They’d like me to come into the studio for a live radio segment early Saturday morning. I believe Luke said he was pitching me the idea of possibly appearing on the show. I believe I said he didn’t need to pitch very hard. We record some promotional soundbites while talking. Long after Luke hangs up, I’m still staring at the phone in my hand.
It’s an early start Saturday morning to drive to Taunton in heavy rain. I’m not exactly displaying nerves of steel. More like nerves of wet noodles. Impostor syndrome goads from the passenger seat. But I needn’t have worried. I’m greeted with a cup of tea, a welcome tour of the impressive new BBC studios, and a friendly chat with another guest waiting to go on air; a veteran commemorating one hundred years since the end of WWI. Simon Parkin comes out of his studio to introduce himself before showing me to my seat.
No headphones this time, a glowing red light says we’re on air and Simon leads me expertly and kindly through my first live interview. At the end, he asks me to come back soon. Maybe he says that to everyone, being such a gracious host, but at this point I don’t care. I’ll come back soon.
Floating on air, I return to Minehead to prepare for an afternoon author event in the gallery section of The Exmoor Store. Elke has filled the space with homey furnishings and artwork, all produced locally. The kettle’s on. Guests arrive, and I’m engaged in a wonderful hour of sharing stories of travel and the meaning of home with delightful people. It’s all surreal. Because I’m enjoying it! Me! Enjoying promoting! Words I never thought you’d hear coming from my lips.
There’s security for introverts (as most writers tend to be) in posting to an audience you can’t see. Hiding behind your keyboard, it’s easy to get comfortable there, to not push yourself out into the world, to blame all the other voices for drowning you out. Connection to readers and listeners can feel tenuous in our lonely writing spaces. The last few days have reminded me being a writer is only half the equation; readers/listeners/followers complete the whole. They aren’t as scary as you may think when you first begin the process of building your brand.
I’ve asked myself many times if social media is a productive use of my time as an author. I now have the answer. Yes. It. Is.
I have more stories to share from my recent trip and will be blogging about them in the weeks ahead. Until then, I can only say how grateful I am to all out there in Social Media World and to offer this advice: If you’re an author struggling to be heard, don’t give up. You never know who’s listening. Sometimes it’s no one. And sometimes it’s just the person you need. Thanks, Elke.
Here’s the link to the BBC Somerset interview. (If link won’t play in your location, try logging into BBC Sounds and searching Simon Parkin 11/10/18.) My segment begins at about 1:53.00: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p06pswh8
I’ve wanted to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa since childhood. Its scary, yet giggle-inducing, tilt just seemed like something I should witness before its inevitable collapse ‒ not so inevitable, as it turns out. Much more inevitable was getting trampled by the crowds. And being bonked on the head by a selfie stick. Or poked in the eye as hundreds of tourists threw their hands out in a hilarious (sigh) attempt to capture the moment they held the tower up. Or knocked it down. Or got squashed under it. Seriously, the overwhelming memory of my recent visit to Pisa will be of an off-kilter tower surrounded by floating hands.
Yet, steps away from the errant tower, sights existed of which I was previously completely unaware. Miraculous sights, hence the name: ‘The Field of Miracles’. This ‘field’ contained structures of such stunning architecture, I was struck dumb. Those who know me realise this is a big deal. I’m never speechless. But the Duomo, the Baptistry, the Monumental Cemetery, even the ancient entry gate and the surrounding walls, were all breath-takingly beautiful. And … no one trying to hold them up!
(Full disclaimer: these other buildings are not perfectly straight either due to the uneven ground in the area. But compared to the tower, the lean’s not nearly so obvious. But I digress …)
How had I gone through life unaware of these other spectacular structures? I must have seen at least part of them in photos of the tower, right? Apparently not. Which begs the question: why had I ‒ and the rest of the world seemingly, based on crowd patterns ‒ focused all attention on the glaring ‘mistake’? The structure most likely to fail?
As I beat off another selfie stick assault to move away from the tower towards the Duomo, I wondered: was this unhealthy preoccupation with failure whilst filtering out success a metaphor for my life? The answer may be, yes. I can write 100,000 words and wake in a sweat over one typo. I can remember a mistaken action from decades ago yet struggle to recall the good deed of yesterday. I can still cringe at the heartless comment I made in high school and forget the kind word shared today. I know I’m not alone in that. We seem to hold onto failure more tightly than success.
Maybe the roiling crowds around the Leaning Tower of Pisa are a tilted reminder: success is not synonymous with perfection or lack of error. Fail. Get up. Try again. And sometimes let your imperfection show. It may be your imperfection that leads to your greatest success. Just ask Mr. Pisano, credited with designing the tower.
I’m off to Tuscany in a few weeks. Haven’t been to Italy since a school ski trip saw me in the Italian Alps and Venice—so long ago the Alps were shorter and Venice wasn’t sinking yet. Loved Italy back then and sense I’ll love it even more now. But when I venture into unchartered territory, I always find myself wrestling with the same quandary: gallop like a mad woman all over the place to take in as much as possible as quickly as possible, or chill the heck out? It’s a holiday, for crying out loud! A chance to relax, stroll, sip, live in the moment, save something of myself for later. It’s a retreat from the craziness of life. From minutia and housework and diet plans. From deadlines. A chance to stop and smell the Chianti. Why do I find that so hard?
I sometimes wonder if my fear of missing out is something to do with being an expat. As you know, I tend towards the “grass is greener” philosophy of life, always worrying I’m missing out on something somewhere else. This results in hurtles through foreign cities, blurred sightings of famous artifacts—Louvre Lite, anyone? —scarcely slowing down long enough to smile at the Mona Lisa. It leads to studying maps on the sightseeing boat ride, planning the next venture before this one’s absorbed and filed for posterity in the memory banks of life. Why would I add more craziness, more wake-up calls, more deadlines? Even if the deadlines signify more enjoyable reasons to be on time, like closing hours at the winery, restaurant reservations, sunsets from castle battlements?
My get up and go has its advantages. I’ve lived several lives, several careers, several manifestations of myself; all driven by hard work and a sense of ‘better get it now while the getting’s good’. But I’m starting to think trying to take in everything means I’m missing out on something vital to existence: peace. Serenity.
Tuscany, if everything I’ve heard about you is true, I’m going to be relying on you to show me the way. Don’t let me down.
The best piece of author branding advice I’ve received to date was to be myself in my social media interactions. So that’s what I am; an oddball mix of England, America, dogs, horses, gardens, world travels, cream teas, books, epic fails and homesickness all bundled up in self-deprecating humour. And, it seems, I’m slowly finding my tribe online.
But one day I missed the mark. I shared me on a bad day.
The US administration began separating children from their families at the border. That should have been a bad day for all of us. But I took it very hard. After all, I write about finding home, about separation from home, about missing home. I’m also an immigrant and a mother. I couldn’t imagine losing my children in exchange for a shot at a safe home. I. Just. Couldn’t.
So, I posted the following on Instagram and Twitter on June 20th, along with a photo of one of my dogs staring up into the camera: ‘Not feeling very funny today. I’ll be making a long journey with this face soon. If he’s taken away at immigration, I’ll die. And he’s just a dog!’ I hash tagged ‘children first’, ‘immigration’, ‘keep families together’ and ‘no separation’.
Within a few hours, I lost five percent of my Instagram followers.
Now, I’m no JK Rowling with millions hanging on my every word. Five percent can hardly be defined as a mass exodus in my case. But to me it was significant. We indie authors compete for attention against millions of other voices and I treasure each follower on my social media platforms. I’m honoured you’d want to spend a few seconds of your day with me. Losing you hurts.
I asked myself why I lost followers. Was the subject matter unexpected, coming from goofy old me? Was it taken as politically biased? I didn’t mean it to be. I figured every affiliation would be struck dumb by the cruelty. Were followers just jaded by the barrage of negativity? Possibly. I know I was exhausted by it. Maybe you were all bots and got booted at that particular moment. Truth is, I don’t know what happened. But, slowly, over the next few days, I came to this conclusion: I don’t care what happened. If you look back at the list of criteria for being me, you won’t find ‘cruel’. And I won’t let ‘cruel’ be added to that list by default because I didn’t speak up.
As I write this, an effort is underway to reunite families. That’s good. It’s a better day. But what about the next bad day? Will my followers tolerate me sharing my bad days? Guess what? That’s the last time I’ll ask that question. Because if you want me to be myself ‒ and I hope you do ‒ you’ll need to add ‘not cruel’ to the list of fun facts about me.
Note to self: being you is not going to please everyone. Be you anyway.
Birthdays are funny little things. We look forward to them yet dread them, celebrate them yet lament them, plan them yet attempt to ignore the fact they’re happening at all. That single twenty-four-hour period makes us crazy, doesn’t it?
This year, I’m attempting to make my upcoming birthday more like New Year’s Day: an opportunity to clarify, reassess, make course corrections ‒ only with cake and an earlier bedtime. This year I’m asking for two gifts. Firstly, a wheelbarrow, owing to a perpetually flat tire and a rusty, crooked frame on my current twenty-five-year-old model. Secondly, I’m asking for the ability to live in the here and now. You see, I’m horrible at it. Not gardening – I have a green thumb that practically glows in the dark. I mean, I’m horrible at living in the present. If you’ve followed my trials and tribulations with hireth and making plans to return to England, you’ll know this already. I spend way too much time wishing I were somewhere else. And that has to stop.
Or does it? Is the drive to be somewhere else at the centre of all human progress? If we were completely happy where we were, we’d never have left the ocean floor, or climbed down from the trees, or left the African continent or the tiny village of Flamstead where I grew up. Following that logic, predisposition to NOT live in the here and now, to NOT accept the status quo, could actually be the cure rather than the ailment. Now I’m really confused. Is my hireth an ailment or the cure for an ailment? Should I live in the present or not? Constantly think about going home or not?
Well, that puts a spanner in my birthday plan works. Maybe I should just settle for the wheelbarrow and call it good.
Today I watch the royal wedding with billions of others around the world. The joyous scenes of castles and bunting and English flowers and beautiful veils and adorable bridesmaids never gets old for me. But I can usually watch these occasions with a sense of separation; that this vision of life is not part of my world. Today is different.
Today I watch the lovely Meghan become an expat and I understand the consequences of that decision. For all she gains, she will have time over the years to reflect on the joys and anguishes of exchanging a birthplace for a different culture.
Meghan and I reverse roles. I ‒ a Brit through and through, never dreaming I would ever give up my life in England ‒ married an American. The 1989 ceremony was held in an ancient church on Exmoor. English tradition and bridesmaids in Wedgwood blue dresses all spoke to me of my homeland. The heavy wedding fruitcake, standard fare in the UK, was a novel experience for my husband. He tapped his slice of cake on the side of his plate to see if he could chip the china with the icing. He assumed there’d be something vanilla sponge-like under a thick layer of buttercream, apparently. (He should have married Meghan. She’s having that kind of cake.) Turned out our cake was only the first of many surprises as my husband learned about British culture through my eyes ‒ and stomach. It’s been a fascinating journey for us both and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. That said, it’s not always easy to live as an expat and days like today are the hardest.
I enjoy every moment of the wedding and marvel at the sunshine and the glory of Windsor Castle. I hold my homesickness at bay. Until the bells.
It’s the church bells that break the teary flood gates. That quintessential English peal of wedding bells from an ancient tower moves me like nothing else. I can’t pretend I listen to them from inside a church very often, but they stir memories of Sunday evenings, birdsong, cobbled lanes, hedgerow flowers, teaspoons tapping gently on china tea cups, cottages and … home.
I wish Harry and Meghan all the best. I hope they find home together, wherever that is. I hope they discover the best in every culture, as I’ve tried to do. But those church bells – they call me back to England. It’s time. Luckily my husband understands and is ready for our own role reversal. We’ll make the journey together, as he becomes the expat.