A tall, skinny paperback to go

I regularly spend £2.30 on a coffee. It’s my little treat. I don’t smoke, I regularly deny myself cake, drink moderately, etc, etc. So my little frothy caffeine fix is something I don’t think twice about – even if it is a relatively expensive gift to oneself. What’s £2.30 here and there? Well, it’s actually £358.50 a year. (That’s if I’m treating myself three times a week, which I frequently do.) That’s, um, quite a lot.

Do I care that I spend over £350 a year on coffee? I should but I don’t. It’s a mini-perk, a little ray of sunshine in an average working or non-working day. And as an ex-smoker, I take pleasure in reminding myself how much I could be spending on something far more nonsensical.

On the other hand, if I want to buy a new paperback, I don’t feel as flippant about the £7.99 price tag. Often, I’ll end up buying three books just so that I can “save” money on a 3-for2 deal. I know this paperback-price tag wariness doesn’t make sense. A paperback is something you can treasure for years, whereas a coffee – as my husband delicately put it – gets pissed out in minutes. So why do I compartmentalise these costs? I can’t be the only one.

As an author, I know exactly how much hard work goes into a novel, and having self-published in paperback originally, I’m also aware of the production costs (cover design, editing, proofreading, printing, distribution, marketing – oh and um, creative writing plays quite a large part and an author has to earn a living somehow). So it’s not that a paperback doesn’t merit its price tag – £7.99 is fair enough. I don’t know what the mark-up is on a cappuccino, but I’m guessing it takes pence to make and there’s a far wider profit margin than that of a paperback.

So, what do I spend on paperbacks a year? A hell of a lot less than I spend on coffee, I should imagine. At this point, I should mention I’m not the speediest reader, generally plodding through a book every three to four weeks (the pace of the book usually dictating the speed at which I get through it, ie Gone Girl, read it in under two weeks, whereas I’m currently reading The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and making as much progress as Harold himself). But I digress.

I usually get given a few books for my birthday. I also buy a few from charity shops, and a few from Waterstones. (My nearest independent bookshop isn’t as local as I’d like, unfortunately.) I download an e-book now and again when I can wrestle the Kindle from my husband. The library is a little bit out of my way, and it’s usually closed at the time I’m most likely to visit – straight after the morning school run – so I rarely borrow books. All in all, I reckon I spend about £50 on paperback novels per year.

Wow. That’s nothing compared to my coffee habit. Hmm… This has been a revelation. I think it’s time to reduce my caffeine intake and increase my paperback consumption. If only there was an independent bookshop on my doorstep selling cappuccinos, they’d make a killing out of me one way or another. Well, potentially they could make £408.80 out of me every year…

The rain in Spain falls mainly on Bri-tain

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It’s March and winter should be over, but it isn’t. We Brits have survived what feels like nearly 12 months without sunshine, which makes us a nation of vitamin D-deprived heroes. But the eternal rain, interspersed with arctic cold snaps, has made us more desperate for sunshine than ever.

Many Brits try to migrate south once a year in search of heat. We order our annual dose of sunshine over the internet, putting down our deposits early in the year, like a pile of chips on a poker table. It’s a gamble: Spain, a no-brainer in August, right? Greece, you can’t go wrong in Greece, can you? And when we’re out there, we can’t resist checking what the weather’s doing back home. And God forbid the sun’s come out in Blighty the one bloody week of the year we’re not there, because that was a free week of extra sunshine we could’ve banked.

Still, that’s forgivable so long as the weather’s doing what it’s supposed to be doing in Spain or Greece or wherever you are, because there is NOTHING more gutting to the sun-deprived Brit than paying all that sodding money to go somewhere hot and sunny only for it to piss it down with rain. Not only do you have a crap holiday, but you come home to commiserations from smirking friends: ‘Oh no! Poor you! That’s such rotten luck!’ Oh piss off. Then, when they jet off on their holiday, it’s pissing down here and scorching over there, leaving you suffering from severe SPEW (Self-Pitying Envy of everyone else’s Weather.)

I admit it. I’m obsessed with the weather. Tuning into the weather forecast is almost more important to me than tuning into the news headlines. I need to know what the score is. I don’t know why, I just do. In the spring I watch the temperature like a hawk, waiting for the day when it rises just high enough so that I can finally dig my strappy sandals out – ideally at least 20 degrees centigrade.

Of course there are those super-hardy Brits who refuse to wait for the barometer to reach a temperature vaguely associated with warmth. All that’s required is the merest hint of sunshine, and they’re out there in their shorts and flip-flops, baring goosepimpled flesh to the elements. Only in Great Britain. (There’s a lady round my way who was wearing sandals in the snow last month. WTF?)

So while the shops stock up on sun hats, sarongs and flip-flops and the snow continues to fall, we find ourselves praying that this summer will be a good one. But what are the odds? Red or black? We’re British. We live in hope.

PS. For an immediate hit of sunshine and heat, with some added drama, suspense and intriguing goings-on, my novel Package Deal is about a bunch of British holidaymakers whose lives become entangled on the Greek island of Kefalonia. If that doesn’t sort your sun-cravings out, Hot Property is set in sun-drenched Crete and is about a community of expats who all aspire to live the sun, sea and sand lifestyle, but discover the dream isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. As for my third novel, Pearls, forget it – it’s set in gloomy old England in the winter. What was I thinking? 

Put yourself out there

As the half-term holiday approached, I started to notice a pain in my right hand at the base of my thumb. Scrolling and clicking the trackpad seemed to be making it worse. Could it be RSI? If so, it wouldn’t be surprising. As a self-published author, I spend a lot of time on my laptop, much of it online, ‘putting myself out there’.

Aching thumb aside, I was starting to feel burnt out with writing, editing, proofreading, tweeting, blogging, monitoring sales figures, etc. My eyes needed a screen break, my fingers and thumbs needed a trackpad break, and my brain needed to stop thinking about how best to promote my books. I needed to put myself out there all right – but outside, in the elements.

Cue camping trip. Forecast: high winds and showers likely. Hmm…

As I packed and packed and packed, I thought that this wasn’t the most relaxing trip I could’ve chosen. Packing pretty much took the entire day before departure. On arrival, unpacking, putting up the tent and sorting out the bedding took time, too. It was a good while before we could sit down, relax and join our friends with a well-earned beer and admire their far simpler tents.

However, the simple activity of packing and unpacking, putting up a tent and preparing food for the BBQ in 40mph gusts of wind, all required 100% concentration. And while my focus was on these activities, it wasn’t on writing, editing and marketing – a good thing.

The rest of the time was spent having fun in the open air. The kids turned feral, building dens in the muddy woods, while the adults huddled closer to the fire and cracked open more Cava.

A highlight was taking a walk through the woods to the ‘cave of poo’. The cave of poo was not for the fainthearted – it’s dark enough to need a torch, muddy enough to need wellies, and smelly enough to hold your nose. So naturally I sent my eldest daughter in with a far braver adult.

Meanwhile, my youngest daughter had got herself stuck in a muddy bog. ‘Mummy! I can’t move!’ she screamed hysterically while I caught up with her and immediately found myself in the same predicament. We stood there, knee-deep in mud (it was only the top 5mm of our boots that were not submerged). As I debated whether it was easier to go forward or backward, we wobbled precariously from side to side, watched by the others with baited breath. Miraculously, we eventually managed to get out with our wellies still on our feet and without falling flat on our backsides. My daughter’s tears turned to giggles and she was soon racing with the other kids towards the next disaster zone: a muddy stream with a rope swing above it.

Our camping trip was over too quickly, but one weekend of being outdoors in the fresh air connecting with the elements was enough to clear my brain, restore blood flow to my thumb and replenish my creative tank. As Ernest Hemingway once said, ‘In order to write about life, first you must live it.’

Mugs and mooches

I’ve just finished reading Lionel Shriver’s novel ‘So Much For That’. It was a bit of a slow burner, but the ending was, in true Shriver style, totally rewarding.

One of the themes that runs through this book is that of ‘mugs and mooches’, or rather, people who play by the rules (mugs) and those who don’t (mooches). For example, there are people who fill in their tax returns as honestly as they can, and those who think it’s only natural to fiddle the system. I related to the protagonist Shep Knacker: I’m a mug. I’m not very good at breaking the rules, partly because of my conscience, but mainly because whenever I do, I get caught.

When I was sixteen I was nearly expelled from school. I and a group of friends had decided to bunk off Spanish, which was a ‘general study’ and therefore a lesson we didn’t feel obliged to attend. We sneaked off after registration to a local café where we sat slurping coffee and chain-smoking cigarettes. Not daring to be late for history, I headed back to school ten minutes earlier than my friends and bided my time in the toilets until the bell rang for the next lesson.

While hiding in the toilets, I heard sobbing. It was a first year kid, distraught because she’d just been told off by the headmistress. As I tried to console her, the headmistress herself walked in, ordered the girl back to class and swiftly walked out again. I breathed a sigh of relief just a second too soon: she returned in an instant. ‘Shouldn’t you be in Spanish?’ she barked. ‘I just needed the loo,’ I mumbled. Later that day, after she’d conferred with the Spanish teacher, I was summoned to her office and threatened with expulsion if I made any more poor choices about my attendance.

How I kicked myself for being mug enough to return to school earlier than I needed to! Had I been a proper mooch, I would have hung out in the café for the full duration of my Spanish lesson, and not got caught.

Nearly 25 years later, my mug’s curse is as present as ever. When my eldest daughter started in reception a few years ago, she liked riding her scooter to school. Abiding by the rules, I would take it off her at the school gates, as you weren’t supposed to ride scooters in the playground.

My daughter would always whine, ‘But everyone else is riding their scooter, why can’t I?’ Eventually I got sick of telling her, ‘Because you’re not supposed to,’ as we were pretty much the only mugs obeying the rules. So, as I didn’t want my daughter to grow up being a total goody-two-shoes – or supergrass for that matter – one day I relented and handed it back to her. Two minutes later, she scooted straight into the headmistress, who politely, but firmly, reminded me of the school policy on playground safety.

Naturally we went back to carrying the scooter at the school gates. As for the other rule-breakers? Those kids continued to sail skillfully past the headmistress’s back while she stood there chatting and joking with their parents.

So if you’re a mug like me, I recommend ‘So Much For That’. For deep down in every mug, a mooch lurks waiting…


Do us a (party) favour!

My younger daughter’s birthday is fast approaching and once again I find myself brooding about how bonkers the concept of party favours is. Last year, instead of dishing out the usual bags of plastic tut and sweets, I did a lucky dip. Well, lucky for me at any rate: I filled a pillowcase with recycled toys and nik-naks that had been clogging up our house for the last couple of years. My daughters even helped me wrap each item up. Genius! I had de-cluttered the house and created party favours in one fell swoop, without spending a penny. Of course, after the party my daughter tore open her 12 or so presents and we were back to square one. Another tidal wave of stuff…

I asked my book group recently what their views were on party bags and presents, and there were quite a few different opinions. Some said they really enjoyed putting party bags together, others thought of them as bags of crap that ended up in landfill and should be banned. But everyone conformed to putting together some kind of party favour, even if they didn’t agree with it in principle. Why? Because none of us wanted to be judged ‘tight’! The same was true of buying birthday presents for other kids. It turns out we all had a budget that we thought was acceptable. No one spent less than £5. Some spent around £10 – which is quite a lot if you have two or more children who each get invited to lots of parties throughout the year. Of course, as young children don’t have any understanding of what things cost, the price tag is irrelevant to them. Once again it seemed none of us wanted to be deemed tight by other parents! 

However, a couple of weeks ago, a mum I know went against the grain. On the back of the party invitation my eldest daughter received, it said: ‘No presents, please, unless you wish to recycle something.’ Did I think she was tight? On the contrary, I thought she was brilliant.