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Sunday, 30 November 2014

Boarding School Survivors

Occasionally I wake in the deep of the night from a recurring dream. I've been having this dream for over forty years but, when I first wake, the feelings of despair, of fear and of my world closing in are as strong as they ever were. In this dream it is the night before I am to return to boarding school. I have to leave the safety of my cosy bedroom with its sloping walls, uneven floor and diamond-paned windows overlooking the garden and the village green, and take my place in a dormitory full of twenty or so other girls. If I am lucky I will occupy a cubicle with a barely adequate curtain to give me a little privacy. If not, my iron bedstead, with its lumpy mattress, will be at the bottom of the dormitory in an open area with five others for company. Only beneath the sheets, which, to begin with, still smell of home, can I hide my tears.

This week I took my daughter for a spa day, as part of her twenty-first birthday present. We went to Ragdale Hall in Leicestershire and each of us selected a special treatment. I chose an angel card reading combined with chakra silks and my daughter had a crystal treatment with chakra balancing. As part of this she was taken into a guided meditation and during the treatment she was visited by my mother who died nine years ago.

"Grandma has a message for you," she said, gently, as we sat at the table, waiting for our lunch. "She wants you to let go of the hurt you still feel about being sent to boarding school. She had no idea how it would affect you long term. She has mellowed. She is sorry."

This came completely out of the blue. We had not been talking about boarding school and although my mother is mentioned often, her name didn't come up on our journey to Ragdale. I felt overwhelmingly emotional.

"Grandma wants you to know that she is incredibly proud of you and all that you have achieved," my daughter continued softly, as my tears spilled over.

My boarding school experience was not a happy one. Those seven years altered me and I spent many subsequent years chasing after the person I was before being sent away. I thought I had put all of that behind me. But the fact that my mother in particular had refused to believe me when I said how unhappy I was still hurt. So, with this out of the blue message, can I totally put it behind me now? To be honest I'm not sure. The message and the unexpectedness of it is still sinking in. It was the last thing I thought would happen on a relaxing, pampering day out. Maybe the ultimate test will be whether that dream recurs again.

Whilst I don't like labels, I do consider myself to be a boarding school survivor and there are many of us. In the intervening years I have negotiated my own way through the fall-out but if you need to talk to someone The Boarding School Survivors Association can offer help. To those of you who have not boarded, the term 'survivor' and talk of healing 'wounds' may sound over-dramatic. It is not. The wrong school for a child can strip them of their essence; being a boarder magnifies that. There is no-one to turn to, no place of safety, sometimes the only way out can lead to drastic and tragic consequences.

I want to end on a positive note. Experiences such as mine, whilst influencing your life do not have to prevent future happiness. From hard times come valuable lessons, ones which I am grateful for. One of the main things I learned was the importance of listening to my children and what they are trying to say, not just when they were small but now they are older too. I hope that I shall never stop listening. As parents we are bound to get some things wrong. When we do it is important to say sorry. That is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of strength. Saying 'sorry, I got it wrong', can help to heal.

Thank-you for reading. As we move into Advent, I hope you have an uplifting week.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Christmas Pudding Memories

Quite some time ago I read an article by Helen Dunmore where she said how important it was, when writing, not to forget about taste, texture and smell. I've always tried to remember this when attempting to describe something in my own writing because the smell of something can evoke so many memories and give rise to such strong emotions.

Today is stir-up Sunday and I have made my Christmas pudding or as an American friend described it to me 'that cake you Brits set fire to'! Stir-up Sunday is always the last Sunday before Advent and the tradition was supposedly introduced by Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert. In the past, families came together to mix the ingredients of dried fruit, spices, eggs, butter, etc. Everyone takes a turn to stir the pudding which is meant to bring good luck. In my family it has always been traditional to make a wish.

Sometimes people place a silver coin in the pudding and the person who receives this is meant to receive health, wealth and happiness in the coming year.

Anyway, measuring out my pudding ingredients, I spooned three tablespoons of black treacle into the fruit and brandy mixture. The rich, heady, aroma of the treacle instantly brought a picture of my grandfather into my head. One of his favourite things was treacle toffee from a shop called Thorntons. It came in irregular shaped pieces and was weighed into small waxed paper bags. I often bought it for him as a treat and of course he shared it with me. Just being with him made me feel safe, made me smile. He died nearly thirty years ago now but today, thanks to a few spoonfuls of delicious, dark, sticky syrup, his presence was there in my kitchen.

You can buy some great Christmas puddings these days, including gluten free ones but there really is nothing like a home-made one. I got this recipe from a magazine years ago and it's hard to beat.

Christmas Pudding

800g (1lb 12oz) luxury mixed dried fruit

Finely grated zest and juice of 1 large orange

150ml (half a pint) brandy, Cointreau or Grand Marnier

3 tbsp black treacle

1 large cooking apple, grated

50g (2 oz) each breadcrumbs and plain flour
(For gluten free replace breadcrumbs and flour with gluten-free breadcrumbs and 75g (3 oz) ground almonds)

1 tbsp ground mixed spice

100g (3 and a half oz) blanched almonds, chopped

2 large free-range eggs, beaten

125g (4oz) unsalted butter, well chilled.

Put the dried fruit, orange zest, orange juice, brandy (or other liqueur), and treacle into a large mixing bowl. Mix well, then cover and leave to stand for 1-2 hrs or overnight.

Pre-heat the oven to 180C (160 fan) or gas mark 4. Grease a 1.8 litre (3 and a half pint) pudding basin and line the base with a circle of greaseproof paper. Add the apple to the soaked fruit, along with breadcrumbs, flour, spice, almonds and eggs. Grate the butter over the mixture and stir with a wooden spoon until mixed.

Spoon mixture into bowl and level surface. Cut out two squares of greaseproof paper measuring 30.5cm (12in), put one on top of the other and fold a pleat down the middle. Place over the basin and tie under the rim with string. Then cover with a circle of foil, pressing it down around the rim.

Stand the basin in a deep-sided roasting tin (I place mine in a cast iron casserole dish) and pour in 1.7 litres (3 pints) of boiling water. Cover your tin with a large piece of foil and secure edges or place the lid on your casserole dish. Transfer to the oven and cook for 6 hours. You may need to top up the water.

When it's ready remove basin from the tin and leave to cool. Remove wrappings, re-cover pudding in fresh, dry greaseproof and foil and store in a cool, dry place until Christmas.

On the day, cook the pudding in the oven, as before for one and a half hours or steam gently on the top of the oven for 2 hrs. Serve with brandy sauce and brandy butter.

This makes a large pudding which serves 16 people. I often divide the mixture and make two smaller ones or you can just halve it and make one pudding.


Thank-you for reading. Have a lovely week.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Never Grow Up

Last week it was my son's birthday. He was 26 and his girlfriend bought him some boy toys, a remote controlled car and a small model helicopter. As I stood at the cooker making scotch pancakes for breakfast, the toy car whizzed around my feet and immediately I was transported back twenty years to when both of my boys used to play on the kitchen floor and I had to be careful where I was treading.

"You should never grow up," my son's girlfriend said to him and I was reminded of this later in the week when I went to visit an old friend. This lady was a friend of my parents and has known me since before I was born. There are some people who always make you feel better, who always leave you with a spring in your step and she is one of them.

Despite any troubles she may have, she always looks beautiful, has a ready smile and a great sense of fun. In many ways, inside her head, she has not grown up and her home reflects this lightness of spirit. In her hall are photographs of her family and flowers arranged in a crystal vase, this week an airy bunch of pale pink carnations. We had tea in her elegant sitting room with it's aqua walls and cream carpet. She pushed a chair nearer to the fire to ensure I was warm enough and took a small walnut table from the nest of tables and placed it next to me. The tea tray was set with bone china cups and silver tea spoons. I felt absolutely cosseted but I know this treatment was not just reserved for me. She is like this with all of her friends which is why she has so many of them. She is interesting and interested. She is a role model for many and we all need those.

My china cups and saucers have stayed in the cupboard recently but I shall be getting them out and using them. But more importantly than that, as the years pass, I shall try to emulate my friend and grow older gracefully and with good humour.

Thank-you so much for reading. Have a lovely week.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Just Do It

'Sometimes you just have to get on and do it,' my daughter said last week. And she's right of course. Sometimes you do have to fight the lethargy and get on with whatever it is that you are putting off. But it's not always as easy as that, is it? Normally, I love my writing life. Where had that love gone? Not wanting to write is discombobulating. I don't feel like myself. I did sit down and do a little writing but it didn't spark a real desire to plunge in, so I found plenty of displacement activities, hoping that an absence from the page would be the solution. It wasn't.  My characters didn't follow me and occupy my thoughts while I drove to the garden centre or cleared away leaves in the garden. They didn't even fill my head while I did the ironing and, in the past, I've found the gentle repetitive action of ironing to be great for cultivating ideas. Maybe the passion has gone away for ever I thought. Maybe I only had so many books in me and that was it. Then immediately I tried to be more rational. I can easily let my imagination run away with me, (but not frustratingly in this case in the form of a story for my next novel) and I had been here before. Once I had a whole year when my enthusiasm waned. I got through that and I'd get through this period too.

Sometimes you don't quite know what you need until it happens. I know that meeting with other writers always gives me a boost so I was looking forward to our monthly meeting of the Romantic Novelists' Association. Everyone is so supportive of each other. We commiserate, we share, we celebrate. Would that renew my absent enthusiasm? I wasn't sure. I didn't want to pin too many hopes on it.

This month the delightful Carole Matthews came to visit and talk to us about her career so far and her hugely successful books. Carole is engaging, funny, ready to share her knowledge and inspiring. She loves what she does and is extremely appreciative of her readers. Her enthusiasm is infectious and you can check out her website and her books with their beautiful covers by Alice Tait, here.

A couple of hours later I came away with a real spring in my step. I'm itching to get on with my next book. My characters are clamouring to make themselves heard. So, a huge thank-you to Carole and over the weekend I'm also looking forward to settling down with one of her books, Wrapped Up In You. What a treat!

Thank-you for reading and I hope that something puts a spring in your step this week.