The Goose is Getting Fat… Christmas Past & Present (or possibly no presents)

This week I’m going to be using the C word a lot. I apologise for using the C word and know that halfway through November it is still way too early to be using the C word, but, events have occurred that have left me with no choice but to think about and say the C word a lot. Christmas. Sorry, I know most of you don’t want to hear it yet, but there’s no escaping from it. Christmas is coming whether we like it or not.

I always think that nothing illustrates the law of diminishing returns better than Christmas. Think about it. When you’re a kid you do absolutely nothing to contribute towards Christmas – except throw a strop on Christmas Day because you got Barbie Princess, and not the Barbie Diamond Princess you actually wanted but your poor, harassed mother didn’t realise was completely different from plain, boring Barbie Princess. Or by helpfully puking your guts up with excitement on Christmas morning. Or by refusing to go to sleep until gone midnight on Christmas Eve, thus meaning your exhausted parents are falling asleep on the sofa they’re so tired, but can’t go to bed until after you’re well and truly down – well, they have to sneak into your room and quietly fill the stocking at the foot of your bed.

Tip to all new parents, start the tradition on the first Christmas of hanging up their stockings either downstairs or on the handle of their bedroom door – so much easier for sneaky Santa shenanigans. If they really insist on having the stocking in their bedroom, then buy two identical stockings. Hang one up in their room, the other one is hidden in your room already filled to the brim with their presents. Then the moment their little peepers are firmly closed, it’s a simple case of creeping in and doing a switch. You’re welcome. This has been a Public Service Announcement by Julia Blake.

Anyway, as I was saying, when you’re a kid you do NOTHING to help with Christmas, yet you get EVERYTHING. Christmas plays, parties, carol services, lunches and trips to Santa in his grotto to give him a list of your demands. Your excitement levels ratchet higher with every door you open on your chocolate stuffed advent calendar. You enjoy decorating the tree, without giving a thought to the poor parent who’s had to tramp around a muddy field picking the “perfect” tree, wrestle it into a car too small to take it, manhandle it into the house and into a suitable pot and then play the ever popular game of “will the lights work this year”? Even if your parents opted for a plastic tree, they’ve still had to climb into the loft to find it, risking life and limb crawling over a year’s worth of stuff that’s been shoved in front of the boxes of Christmas decorations.

As you get older, maybe you start to contribute a little more – you have to write the cards for your school friends, maybe mum makes you write cards to family members, perhaps you even have to help choose and wrap presents. As teenagers, yes, you do a little more, actually buying presents for your family and maybe helping a bit on Christmas day with food preparation and serving. But as kids grow, so the things on their wish list grow smaller and more expensive – iPhones, PlayStation games and money – being the most asked for teenage things.

Once you get beyond the teenage years then it’s all downhill, and as soon as you get a place of your own, Christmas begins to gobble down your money like an ever-hungry festive fledging. Suddenly, all the things that mum and dad bought and you always took for granted, you’ve got to buy for yourself – and you’re starting from scratch having to not only buy a tree, but all the ornaments, lights and other Christmassy bits and bobs to make your new nest a Noel ready retreat. Every Christmas since Miss F was born, I have bought her one beautiful tree ornament, so she now has fifteen plus a few others she’s acquired over the years. That means by the time she eventually leaves home, at least she’ll have enough to make a good show on her very first Christmas tree.

For a brief while, before kids come along, Christmas is still fun. But the moment you become a parent then that’s it, you’ve reached the bottom of the pile in that you do EVERYTHING to make Christmas happen and in return get NOTHING! Most women are sole co-ordinator and cook over the Christmas period. We’re the ones who make the present list, think of what to get for everyone, buy it, wrap it and usually arrange distribution of it. We’re the ones who plan menus and write endless shopping lists.

Going around the supermarket doing the big Christmas shop one year, I looked around at all the other women doing the same, frantically grasping their precious lists, muttering under their breath, eyes glazed with stress and exhaustion. A near fight broke out in aisle seven over the last packet of sage and onion premade stuffing balls. Husband’s – completely failing to understand the severity of not being able to find the right jar of caramelised red onion chutney to go on a cheese board everyone will be too full to eat – trailed miserably after their wives, and wondered just how much trouble they’d get into if they slipped away and went to the pub. And over it all, the strains of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” floated down from the store’s radio onto the heads of women who every year swear Christmas won’t be the stressful, exhausting, disappointing hot mess it always turns into, yet know with a sinking sense of inevitability, that it will be.

I think we’re all in love with an ideal image of Christmas that simply doesn’t exist. An image created and fed by films, TV shows and magazines, by the longing inside us all to have the perfect Christmas that sadly, most of us never have. The reality being a group of exhausted, stressed out, disappointed people being forced to sit in an overheated room together, exchanging gifts they don’t want, and having to fake gratitude at getting yet another scented candle and bath bomb set that smells like primary school toilets, and for him, deep joy, socks and a mini car maintenance kit.

Why do we do it to ourselves? Especially, why do us women do it to ourselves? I have a sneaking suspicion that if it were left to men, Christmas would comprise of a pie and a pint down the pub, then falling asleep in the armchair in front of the TV. It’s us women who make it such hard work. Before Miss F came along, I used to almost collapse from exhaustion and stress trying to make it the perfect Christmas. Hundreds of pounds spent on presents that all had to be wrapped just so, handmade Christmas crackers and individually wrapped beautiful and thoughtful little table presents for everyone to open before Christmas lunch. Handmade place settings. And enough food and drink purchased to keep a small, third world village going for a month.

Every year it was the same. Every year I’d vow not to do so much, to not spend so much, to not stress so much, but every year I’d get swept up in the Christmas tide and every year I’d run myself ragged. Every Christmas Eve, I’d finally sink into an armchair with a sigh of exhausted relief, glass of something festively alcoholic in hand, with everything done, every card written and delivered, every present perfectly wrapped, all the vegetables prepped for the next day and the house a shimmering, shining homage to Christmas, and then I’d feel it – the ominous, scratchy tickle in the back of my throat which by Christmas morning was a fully-fledged throat infection – every single year, I’d be ill for Christmas Day purely because of the amount of needless stress I’d put myself under.

Then my marriage fell apart and suddenly everything changed. I had neither the money, time, energy or inclination to make everything absolutely perfect. I had a small child, and obviously her needs came first, but children don’t care if the tag on their present is handmade and they don’t care if the paper is responsibly sourced, fully recyclable and handcrafted – all they care about is that there are presents, a big heap of plastic crap under the tree for them to rip apart in a feeding frenzy of excitement.

Gradually, over the years, I’ve looked for ways to make life just that little bit easier for myself – cut down on the amount of food bought. It’s a family of four you’re feeding, not the whole of the Welsh Rugby team – you don’t need a 20lb turkey, make do with a turkey crown, bought all ready to go in the oven pre-stuffed and wrapped in bacon and in its own handy baking tin. The busy woman’s friend, it’s considerably cheaper than buying a whole turkey, fits in the oven, cooks quicker, doesn’t tend to dry out so much and doesn’t leave you with a carcase to try and cope with on Christmas evening. Cut down on the veg. One Christmas dinner spent at my brother’s house, my then sister-in-law had prepared fifteen different vegetables! Fifteen! A truly ridiculous and unnecessary amount of extra work, fuss and worry. Buy the Christmas pudding ready-made. Trust me, no one will ever know the difference.

Don’t be a martyr. Delegate jobs. If you’re hosting Christmas dinner this year, then get all the family in the kitchen Christmas Eve on veggie prepping duty, open a bottle of wine, put on cheesy Christmas music, arrange funny guessing games to play whilst peeling the mountain of potatoes, Brussels sprouts and parsnips. If you can, lay the table days in advance. Don’t worry about a starter, trust me, the amount of food there is, no one is going to be getting a takeaway on the way home. Or if you simply must have a starter, have plates of beautiful bite size canapes to serve with Prosecco before dinner instead.

Above all, do everything you can to make life a little easier for yourself. After all, this is your Christmas as well. No one is going to be happy if you’re too ill to enjoy yourself because you insisted on being a martyr and doing it all yourself. Ask for help. Demand help if needs be. This is everyone’s Christmas, so EVERYONE should chip in. Many hands make light work is at no time as true as it is at Christmas.

This year, Miss F and I have taken the ultimate step, in that we are having a practically present free one. It has taken me almost a whole year to pay off what I spent on Christmas Day last year. Think about that. Eleven months to pay off one single day. Looked at in the cold light of day, it’s ridiculous and a bit obscene. So, we discussed it, and jointly decided no presents. After all, as Miss F rightly stated, that’s not what Christmas should be about. It should be about family and friends, being together, enjoying good food and spending a stress-free time away from work and life. For me, it’s even more important that Christmas is a relaxing time because working in retail means I only get three days off over Christmas. The 23rd, 24th and 25th.

For the past two years I’ve had to look at my watch all Christmas Day, thinking how I have to be at work by 9am the following morning – and trust me, that puts a real crimp on things. So, this year, we’re doing things a little differently. The 23rd will be our Christmas Eve, the 24th will be our Christmas Day and the 25th will be our Boxing Day. At first a bit sceptical how this would work, my family are now fully on board as things have slotted nicely into place. My brother will be spending proper Christmas Day with his girlfriend and her family but can spend the 24th with us. The village my parents live in have a beautiful “carols by candlelight” concert at the church every Christmas Eve at 6pm. Usually, we’re all too busy getting ready for Christmas Day to even think of attending, but this year we will have eaten Christmas dinner and be quite up for a stroll to the church for a bit of drunken carolling. Then on Christmas Day proper, I can relax and enjoy a completely stress-free day before plunging back into work and the madness of after Christmas sales. Oh, the joys of working in retail.

So that’s our Christmas sorted, and do you know, I have noticed immediately a difference between this year and last year. Not having to worry about what I’m buying for everyone and how I’m going to afford it has lifted an enormous weight off my shoulders.

It was the grand switching on of the Christmas lights in Bury St Edmunds this week – and I hope you’re liking all the photos, sorry they’re a bit blurry but I have a rubbish camera – I wasn’t able to go this year as I had to go to a college thing with Miss F, but it’s always well attended whatever the weather. And then of course, next week is the actual Christmas Fayre. The third biggest in the country, it is a massive event with practically the whole town closed off and busloads of tourists coming in from all four points of the compass. I remember last year, chatting to a couple of girls I was queuing for something with, they told me they’d travelled all the way up from Devon just to come to the Fayre for the day!

As I told you last week, myself and four other local authors are having a stall on which we will be selling our personally signed books. I am excited about it and also worried, I have invested quite a lot of money into this event – not only the cost of buying a good supply of my books to sell, I’ve also had lovely little scented candles made to match my books, I’m buying lots of gift wrap supplies to offer a free gift wrapping service and I’ve had to invest in a card reader as most people don’t carry cash with them, and the ability to take card payments should hopefully mean more people will buy my books. It’s just as well I’m not buying any Christmas presents this year! Fingers crossed my gamble pays off.

If there’s anyone local reading this (or perhaps you’re bussing in from the West Country), then why not pop in and say hello. We will be in The Guildhall down Guildhall Street from 10am to 5pm Friday and Saturday, then the others will be there 10am to 4pm on Sunday – sadly I have to work, so I won’t be there on the Sunday. It would be lovely to see you. I may even be wearing a Christmas jumper and if you’re looking for some unique and personalised gifts for Christmas then there will be a wonderful collection of books on offer, all personally signed by local authors, along with bookmarks and candles. Very importantly, there is also a café and toilet facilities in the Guildhall.

What do you think about Christmas? Are you an Elf or a Grinch? Do you love all things Christmassy or do you bah humbug at the whole shenanigans? I’d love to hear your thoughts on it. As usual, you can comment here or contact me on Facebook or Instagram.

Finally, many of you have contacted me asking about Queenie Ant. Thank you, it’s so sweet of you all to be concerned. I am happy to report that we think she’s still alive as earlier in the week Miss F is convinced she saw one of her legs uncurl then curl back up again so we’re hopeful that come the Spring she will wake up and we’ll have lots of little ant babies running about all over the place. Imagine that.

Anyway, once again it has been great chatting with you and I hope you enjoy the rest of your Sunday.

Take care.

Julia Blake

Road Closures & Rats!

I don’t think it will be too long a blog this week. Life has been a needy, greedy bitch and I’m running on empty from an energy and time point of view. There’s a meme currently doing the rounds, which runs something along the lines of – Being a grown-up consists of saying “after next week things will get back to normal” every day until you die! – And although I’m not sure that’s strictly true, this week it has definitely felt like it.

To sum up all that has happened since we last chatted, well, for a start, I’ve decided to have a stall at the Bury St Edmunds Christmas Fair this year. Yes, yes, I know I said I’d never do this type of thing again after the Literature Festival fiasco – for those of you who don’t know, in a nut shell I spent hundreds of pounds buying in stock, didn’t sell a single book, had to carry them all home, cried a bit.

How this decision to do a stall at the Christmas Fair came about, was a group of us Bury St Edmunds authors have found each other and formed a little group. We meet for coffee every other Friday to just talk books and encourage and support one another. One member of the group, the young one with all the zip and enthusiasm, eagerly suggested we do a stall between us. She’d researched the venue, got a price and basically arranged everything. What could I do? I was surprised how reasonably priced the stall was, and between the five of us, it was even cheaper. I really wanted to be a part of this and couldn’t help feeling if I wasn’t, I would seriously regret the loss of the experience, if nothing else. So, I said yes.

Becoming Lili

Although the stall itself is quite cheap, as always, it’s the cost of buying in books to sell on it that is the expensive bit, and then there’s the dilemma of which books do I sell and how many do I buy? In the end, I decided to stick to just four so have ordered ten each of Becoming Lili, Chaining Daisy and Eclairs for Tea and other stories, and fifteen of my most popular book to date, The Forest ~ a tale of old magic ~ which still comes to 45 books in total and a big chunk of savings gone.

Chaining Daisy

Why did I choose these four? Well, Becoming Lili and Chaining Daisy are the perfect pair to sell at a bargain price for Christmas, Daisy is my latest release so interest is still high in it and they just look so beautiful together, and will make an impact on the stall. The Forest, of course, with its iconic cover, is an obvious choice, and then Eclairs for Tea is the smallest and cheapest of the four and is perfect for readers who might be daunted by the bulk of the others, plus it also makes for a perfect Christmas gift.

Eclairs for Tea and other stories

The idea then struck me that it would be perfect to have individually scented candles to sell alongside the books, so I am currently in negotiations with a local candle maker and will keep you posted as to progress. I will bring plenty of exclusive Julia Blake bookmarks to give away with every book purchased, plus I will be personally signing every book and offering a beautiful gift-wrapping service free of charge.

The Forest ~ a tale of old magic ~

So, if you are planning to attend the Bury St Edmunds Christmas Fair this year, then why not call round to say hello. I and four other local authors – Jackie Carreira, Amy Warren, Rachel Churcher and Pauline Manders – will be in the Guildhall down Guildhall Street between the hours of 10am-4pm on the Friday to Sunday. (I personally will only be there the Friday and the Saturday as I have to work on Sunday, but the others will be there all three days). You can’t miss me. I’ll be the red headed one desperately trying to pretend she knows what she’s doing! It would be lovely to see you, so please do come along.

Aside from trying to arrange all of the above, I’ve of course been working as usual, both at my normal job and at my part-time job of “Mum’s Taxi – evening and weekend work, very reasonable rates”. Sadly, I receive no monetary reward for providing a taxi service to Miss F and her friends but do it out of the goodness of my heart. However, this week there’s been a few too many calls upon my time and petrol and it’s been a job fitting it in.

Wednesday, I received a request from Miss F, please could I run her and her friends out to a local pet shop a couple of miles out of town to pick up the two pet rats her friend was buying. Then could we run them out to another friend’s house on the other side of town to pick up a cage that had been promised to house these said rats in, and finally could I run everyone to the proud new rat mummy’s home. She asked me in front of them all, and I don’t know about you, but if someone asks me to do a favour for someone else actually in front of them, I find it very difficult to say no. It was also requested that I first run them all to Pets at Home to pick up supplies, but here I put my foot down.

It was coming up to school rush hour, to get all the way out to the retail park that Pets at Home is located on would take thirty minutes, then another forty minutes to fight our way back through traffic to the pet store where the rats were and then another thirty to get to the third friends home and another twenty to get everyone back. That added up to two hours of my time idling in traffic just because the bedding from Pets at Home was reputedly better than that of the store where the actual rats were. So, I said no, then felt guilty, but stuck to my guns. Being the only one of the party with driving experience, knowledge of the roads and location of everything, and just how hideous school run traffic is, I felt justified in saying no this time.

Off we went, me, three girls and a carry cage all crammed in my little car. We got to the store where the rats were. Now, I don’t like wild rats of course, and never really had an opinion on tame rats, but must admit the pair Miss F’s friend bought were very pretty and very cute. Miss F looked around at all the assorted squeaky, fluffy critters and pulled a pleading face at me, but I pretended not to see it and tried to hurry things up, very aware of time ticking on.

Bury St Edmunds is a small town at its heart, the infrastructure simply isn’t there to deal with high volumes of traffic so it’s best to avoid it whenever possible. Add to that, the fact that one of the main roads through the centre of town is currently blocked, as well as a few other smaller side ones, and the chaotic hell that is school going home time becomes even worse. I belted along the road, rats squeaking at every turn, desperate to drop off friend three and pick up the cage from her house before the school bell went and gridlock ensued. I’m happy to say we made it, but Miss F has been begging ever since to have rats. I’m sticking to my guns on this one as well, I don’t really want caged animals in the house, they smell, make a lot of mess, and I think my cat would have a very hard job restraining herself from murdering them.

Speaking of pets, a lot of you have messaged me asking how Queenie Ant is, well, I have to admit, we’re not sure. As you know, at first, we thought she was dead, then we thought she was alive but hibernating because all the worker ants piled in around her and seemed to settle down for a long nap as well. But now we’re not sure. They keep moving her body around the habitat, which is very odd. It’s almost as though they don’t know if she’s alive or dead either. We’re leaving them alone to do whatever they feel they must, but it’s a bit worrying. If Queenie is dead, then all those worker ants are basically dead ants walking. Although they can live without a queen, without a purpose to their lives they will eventually die. They can’t join another colony because they would be killed and it’s no good putting another queen in there, because they will kill her. Usually, Mother Nature’s systems work very well, but I can’t understand the reasoning behind this one.

I can’t remember if I mentioned it last week, but Miss F went for a job interview for a position as front of house staff in a newly opened, trendy gastro pub about a twenty-minute drive from Bury. Well, she went for a trial session Friday evening 5-9pm so again called upon the services of Mum’s Taxi. Bearing in mind on a Friday, I already run her and her friend out to their voluntary work placement for 9am (a round journey of about 1 hour and 20 minutes), then do the repeat journey to pick them up at 2pm, it doesn’t leave much time for us to get home, eat a late lunch, and for her to shower the stable off her and get ready, before we have to leave at 4.20pm to allow time in rush hour traffic to get out of town and reach the pub before 5pm.

Normally, it would be fine, but this particular Friday I decided to take my mother out on the pick-up journey so that she can see where she has to go, because when I’m busy at the Fair on that Friday, she is going to collect the girls, so I don’t have to take two hours out of my day to do it. Anyway, normally, it’s a simple matter to cut across country and reach the village where my parents live, and I’ve done it a couple of times before. It only adds a few minutes to the journey time and is a straight-forward route that I know very well.

But we all know how things go when you’re in a hurry. Driving back from dropping the girls off in the morning, the plan came to me to ask my mother to help on the day of the fair, so I cut across country to take the normal detour to their village. All was going well, until I hit the first of the road closed signs. Now, out in the countryside we all tend to ignore these signs, usually they mean there’s two bollards around a pothole and you can still get through, or the actual road closed is miles away from where you need to go. So, I bomb merrily along the road, Radio 2 blasting out, until suddenly there’s an actual barrier across the road and it’s clear I’m going no further.

Bugger it. Not being able to get through meant a long backtrack and then an even further cross-country detour to reach my parents. Driving back the way I came, I see a signpost to a village I know, not far from my parent’s village, if I can get to that then I’ll know the way from there. Making a snap decision, I turn off the main road and into what I can only describe as “here be dragons” territory. The road got smaller and smaller! I was totally off the map, lost and had no idea what to do except keep going. At one point, I think I went through a farmyard, and I kept expecting to hear the sound of banjos. Finally, after about twenty straight minutes of “where the f**k am I” driving, the road spat me out on a road I knew and I was able to make it to my parents house with my car looking like I’d been rally driving!

Oh yes, I hadn’t mentioned there was also torrential rain with mud being washed off the fields onto the roads. Big fun.

When it came time to do the reverse journey it started out so well. Mum had come into Bury to do some shopping, so we were able to go straight from there out to the farm to pick up both the girls. I’d looked at the map and figured out another route to get her back to her village without having to go all the way to the ends of the world and back again. I told her the route I planned to take, she agreed – initially. We picked up the girls, we’re on our way back, when mum springs a surprise on me.

“Take this turning.”

“What?”

“Take this turning, it’s quicker.”

 “Mum,” this was Miss F in the back. “I’ve got Google maps up, there is another way if you turn left there and then right at the end of the road.”

“Ok.”

“No,” says my mother. “Don’t go that way, you can’t get through.”

“Google maps says you can, Nana.”

“Well, Google maps is wrong, because I know you can’t get through. Trust me.”

Now, you’d think I’d have learnt by now. Which option should I have gone with? Miss F and Google maps. Or, my mother with her vague recollections of a road she hasn’t been down in forty years? Yep, you’ve guessed it, stupidly I went with my mother. The road went on and on and on. It got smaller and smaller and smaller. Finally, we found a signpost telling us we’re heading in completely the wrong direction. We turn around, take another road.

This road also goes on and on and on. Time is ticking by. I’m very aware that we have to get home. Miss F is honking from shovelling horse poo all morning. She has to have a shower and wash her hair, we have to eat, she has to get ready for her all-important job trial. My eyes meet those of Miss F in the mirror and I see the panic in hers.

Then about a quarter of a mile down the road we see it. A massive hedge trimmer. It’s taking up the entire width of the road. No room even for my tiny car to squeeze through and I know from experience there’s no way this thing will back up to a passing place and let me through. There’s nothing for it, we turn back around. By now, we’re so disorientated from all the turns we’ve made we are well and truly lost. My mother, who up until this point has been very vocal with her local knowledge suggestions, has suddenly gone silent on the matter. Picking a road at random, we creep along it until suddenly I’m back on the tiny lane I’d found myself on that morning. We’re saved. I know where we are, but we’ve wasted thirty minutes of precious time and we’re still thirty minutes from home.

Finally reaching home, Operation Panic Stations swings into motion. We quickly gobble down the pasta bake I’d thankfully already made that morning ready and Miss F shoots off to have her shower. She’s upstairs getting dressed, it’s now 4.15pm so we’re up against the clock, when suddenly there’s a howl of disbelief and a pair of black jeans land at the bottom of the stairs. The pub had requested that she dress in plain black jeans and a white shirt for the job trial, and as she had neither, we’d had to go shopping for them the day before. Now I’m looking at the new jeans in horror, more specifically I’m looking at the socking great security tag still attached to their waistband! We’d paid for the jeans, of course we had, but somehow the cashier had forgotten to take the tag off and somehow we hadn’t set the alarms off when we left. What can we do? She can’t wear them with this giant metal disc attached to them. Miss F had now left the small town of panic and was heading into the suburbs of meltdown so I sent her back upstairs to finish getting ready whilst I took the jeans into the kitchen to see what could be done. Stores attach these tags to prevent shoplifting because they are impossible to remove without the correct in-store device. Wrong. A desperately determined woman armed only with a blunt pair of secateurs can get one off in under three minutes. So the tag was off, but we were now running ten minutes late!

What I know you’re all wanting to know is did Miss F make it in time for her job trial and how did she get on? Well, it was tight, she was about a minute late. I’d planned for us to leave at 4.20pm to allow for the increased leaving college traffic, but because we didn’t get away until ten minutes later it put us slap bang in the middle of it. I had to push the car to its limits where I could, and we screeched into the pub car park at 5.01pm by the car clock. She rushed in and I then had to face all that traffic again to fight my way back into town. Only now it’s worse, because now all the people leaving work have joined the fun. Back home, I had to wait and try not to fall asleep on the sofa, before having to turn out at 8.30pm to go and pick her up again. This time the journey took 17 minutes, clocking up to a massive five hours total I’d been driving around that day. The things we do for our kids!

But the important thing is she loved it and feels that she did very well. She seems pretty confident they will be offering her a job, and even despite the inconvenience and extra petrol, I hope they do. It’s a nice job, in a lovely working environment, and the pay is very good considering she’s only 16. More than enough for her to save for university, driving lessons and to compensate me for all the petrol I’m now going through.

And that’s been my week. Once again, there’s been no time to write or read or relax. I’m back to work tomorrow, so maybe I can rest then. It’s now 4pm Saturday, the fire is laid, I’ve just about done all my chores and a nice dinner with a glass or two of wine is planned. Let’s just hope I stay awake long enough to enjoy my evening off.

Thank you as usual for joining me, and I hope you all have a great week.

Julia Blake

Ghosts and Goblins and Things That Go Bump in the Night! What Scares You?

Well, we had Halloween this week and Miss F and I duly carved pumpkins, put them on our front doorstep and waited for the three trick or treaters we had. We live in the centre of a small UK town, so Halloween isn’t particularly big here, in fact, the only reason we bother at all is for the delightful American family who live at the top of our road. They have two small children so the whole street puts out pumpkins and gets in candy so they can toddle up and down the road trick or treating.

It got me to thinking what an odd custom it is. When I was a child it had only just crept across the pond from the US and my mother hated it. We put out no pumpkins or Halloween decorations of any sort, and if any trick or treater dared to ring our doorbell they’d be sent away with a flea in their ear and sternly told to stop begging on people’s doorsteps. This is an attitude she still has even to this day.

But I know a lot of people cherish it as their favourite time of the year and while it does nothing for me, I can understand its appeal. For one night, you can dress up as something wicked and evil and release the inner demon inside – a very attractive proposition. And of course, there is the fact that most people love to be scared.

It’s not something I enjoy myself and I can’t understand the appeal of horror films and books, but I think I was scared off them at a very young age when a baby sitter – who really should have known better – let me watch the film Poltergeist. It absolutely terrified me. Not just while watching it, although that was bad enough, but for weeks afterwards I was unable to sleep. Every time I closed my eyes, I would see the images from the film creeping across my bedroom floor and would jerk bolt upright in bed, sweat sticking my nightie to my back and my skin literally crawling off my body. Refusing to tell my parents what was wrong – I liked that particular babysitter and was old enough to understand if I told on her I’d in all likelihood never see her again – I suffered in silence until eventually the immediacy of my terror passed and I was able to sleep again. Yet, I still remember how it felt.

People claim kids love to be scared, and whilst that may be true, I think there are limits. I used to love Doctor Who and yes, I was scared by the monsters, but it was a different kind of scared. The action usually involved aliens on far away planets so I knew they weren’t real, also the special effects in classic Doctor Who episodes were creaky to say the least, and when you can see the zip in the back of the monster’s suit it somewhat diminishes the effect it has on you.

The only exception was the Cybermen. Now they did bother me. Completely devoid of emotion, their one aim was to make you just like them and that terrified me a lot more than the Daleks. The Daleks only wanted to kill you and back then they had a serious issue with climbing, so my childish self would imagine escaping them by means of going upstairs and again that took away their impact. Nowadays, of course, they have this whole steam elevation thing going on so stairs no longer bother them – not sure how that would have made me feel as a kid.

Lots of things scared me as a child. I remember when I was very young, I didn’t like flushing the toilet, although I’m not too sure why, perhaps I thought something was coming out to get me. I used to wash my hands, open the door and stretch back as far as I could, flush, then run like the devil himself was after me – and perhaps he was.

There’s a funny story involving toilet flushing, well, I think of it as funny now, but at the time I’d never been so scared in all my life. I must have been about ten and awoke one day a bit under the weather and managed to convince my mum a day off school was in order. She fell for it and sent me back to bed, where I dozed for a bit listening to the far-off sounds of the rest of the family departing for school and work, before getting up and wandering through to the kitchen to investigate the contents of the cake tin. Settling down with a plateful to watch the school programmes that were on daytime TV back then and believing myself to be utterly alone in the house, I was just about to take a mouthful of cake when I heard the toilet flush. Now, my parents lived (in fact, still do) in a bungalow so everything was on one floor. I got up and stared at the door that led through to the bedrooms and the bathroom. To my absolute horror, I saw the door handle begin to turn and I completely lost it. Letting out a bone chilling scream, I collapsed to the floor – scaring the shit out of my mother who’d also decided she wasn’t feeling well so had gone back to bed instead of going to work. Apparently, it took ages to calm me down and even longer for me to convince my mother that the massive plateful of cake was me self-medicating.

I was afraid of my bedroom during the day and was convinced it was haunted. At night it wasn’t much better, for a while my parents kept a tall, metal, cylindrical laundry basket in my built-in wardrobe and I was convinced it was a Dalek coming to get me. In the end, it caused so many nightmares and disturbed my sleep so much, it was disposed of.

Getting into bed itself was also terrifying, braced in the doorway I would take a running jump into the middle of my bed and quickly clamber under the covers. The mere thought of standing next to the bed and simply climbing in reduced me to a quivering wreck, because of the hand I was convinced would come out from under the bed and grab me by the ankle. Let’s be honest, I think that’s a fear most of us had as children, and let’s be brutally honest, I think it’s a lingering fear most of us subconsciously have as adults.

I was also afraid of the dark. Now, I know most children are and I know most of them grow out of it. I must confess, I never have. I’m a light sleeper and tend to partially wake many times in the night. If it’s pitch dark and I can’t see where I am, then I get disorientated and confused and I wake up fully, groping for the lamp and then lying awake for hours trying to go back to sleep. However, if there’s even just the smallest glimmer of light, enough for my semi-asleep self to recognise my surroundings, then I instantly fall asleep again. So, I’ve always slept with a dim night light. Judge me all you like, it doesn’t make me a coward, it just helps me to sleep.

It’s hard to tell though, what will scare a child. Some things leave the callous little devils untouched and unmoved, but then something inconsequential will bother them. I remember when Miss F was a little one, we settled down one Christmas to watch Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, that much loved and popular kid’s film. All was well, she was loving it… Until… the child catcher appeared and that was it.

Turned. Her. Mind. As in, totally freaked her out. The film had to be abandoned for the fluffiness of a Care Bear video, with many cuddles, before she calmed down enough to go to bed. For weeks afterwards she would suddenly think of him and the whole cycle would repeat itself. I’m not sure she ever really got over it and it put her off anything even vaguely spooky.

As a big brave adult, not much scares me anymore. My fears now tend to be of a more practical nature, such as money and health issues, and my days of worrying about things that go bump in the night are pretty much over – I appreciate now that things that go bump in the night are usually other people enjoying themselves! But there is one thing that still has the power to freeze me to the spot with terror and turn my insides to water… Snakes.

I hate them, as in really, really, hate them. I can’t even look at a picture of one without experiencing a knee-jerk, primitive, instinctive recoil of terror and disgust. I also don’t like eels – I mean, all that thrashing about, what the hell is that all in aid of? And I’m not even that keen on worms – although I think that’s more to do with Sharon Kirk dropping one down my dress and then slapping me on the back when I was five, than anything else.

Now, I don’t mind lizards, in fact I quite like geckos, so it’s not a reptilian thing, and I’m not afraid of mice, rats or insects, any of the things that usually freak people. It’s just snakes, and they absolutely make me lose all control.

The closest I’ve ever really got to one was way back when Miss F was four or five. We’d gone to one of those farm/zoo places where they have a petting session when the kids can play with bunnies and goats and guinea pigs etc. I was having a bonding session with an enormous fluffy bunny and thoroughly enjoying myself when Miss F called to me to look at her. I looked at her. My child was completely draped with the biggest custard yellow python I’d ever seen.

I was practically torn in half by two equally strong urges. That of – run away, it’s a f*****g big snake – and – save my child from the f*****g big snake. A zookeeper was standing beside her with a big grin on his face and I had to fight hard not to slap him into next Tuesday for putting my child (and me) in this situation. Edging slightly closer and trying hard not to vomit on the bunny I was still clutching, I casually enquired.

“What are you doing, sweetheart? Why don’t you come and cuddle this lovely bunny?”

“Don’t want to, bunnies are boring. I’ve got a snake. I love snakes.”

“Oh, that’s nice, but why don’t you give him back to the nice man and let’s go and get some cake.”

“Come and stroke him, mummy.”

“No, that’s alright love, mummy has this bunny.”

“Put the bunny down, bunnies are boring. Come and stroke my snake.”

By now the bunny was struggling due to me squeezing him so hard, so I gently put him down and watched him hop away, wishing I could go with him. The zookeeper, sensing my reluctance, tried to be helpful.

“Perhaps mummy is too afraid to stroke the snake.”

By now, we’ve attracted quite a crowd of other parents and their offspring, and I can feel the sympathy oozing off the other mums who are also staring at this huge snake in horror.

“My mummy isn’t afraid of anything!” declared Miss F loudly, and that was it, wasn’t it, I had to touch the bloody thing now. No choice in the matter. Forcing my legs to move, I sidled closer. The snake lifted a head the size of a dinner plate and looked at me. There was a nasty look in its eye that suggested it knew precisely how scared I was. Perhaps it could smell the fear rolling off me in waves of perspiration, or perhaps it could hear the terrified pounding of my heart, or perhaps it just saw me as prey. Whatever it was thinking, I didn’t want to stick around any longer than necessary and tapped it lightly on its head and backed away.

“Right, I touched the snake, now come on honey, give the man back his snake and let’s go and get some lunch.”

I think by now the zookeeper had picked up that I was genuinely petrified and close to either puking on his shoes, breaking down into wild sobs, passing out, or possibly all three, because he took the damn thing off my baby and we were able to leave. Years later when I talked about it to Miss F, she remembered me touching the snake, but thankfully had no realisation of just what it had taken me to do so. Us mums are unsung superheroes sometimes.

One other thing that bothers me, and it’s such a ridiculously stupid thing that I feel an idiot even confessing to it, is I don’t like maps. Specifically, when a TV programme or something zooms down from a great height onto the landscape and you can see geographical features getting bigger and bigger. It makes me uncomfortable. Don’t ask me why, I can’t explain it. And it’s not exactly that I’m scared of it, it just bothers me a bit.

Weird, I know, but then people’s fears are sometimes totally irrational but still completely to be respected because they are their fears. I’ve known people be scared of birds, cats, dogs, hedgehogs, grasshoppers and dragonflies. Ferris wheels, roundabouts, buttons and elevators. Some of these fears make sense, others don’t, but hey, it’s a big old world and we’re all different.

What’s your fear?

So, what scares you? Is it something common like snakes or spiders, or is it something more bizarre like paperclips or doorknobs? I’d love to hear what it is and if you know why you’re afraid of that particular thing.

I think that’s about it for this week, and to those of you who noticed I got ahead of myself last week and posted Saturday morning instead of Sunday I apologise, but sometimes life… you know.

Take care and have a great week.

Julia Blake

Beautiful Bury St Edmunds! My week in a Nutshell

It’s been a busy but fun week because I have been entertaining company from the other side of the world. Australia, to be precise. A fellow author with whom I’ve been friends with on Instagram for the past three years messaged me a few weeks ago that she was coming to the UK. How exciting, I answered. Was she coming to my neck of the woods at all? She was, she replied. Could I recommend a decent hotel or B&B. A hotel or B&B? Absolutely not! She’d come and stay at Blake Manor for the four days she planned to stay in Bury St Edmunds – so long as she didn’t mind bunking down in a single bed in quite a small spare room. She didn’t mind. In fact, claimed she’d rather be in a single bed in a friend’s home than in an impersonal hotel or B&B.

So, our plans were laid, and I duly spruced up our tiny spare room and made it as comfortable as possible with my best bedding, flowers and new towels. But as the hour of her arrival ticked ever closer, the nerves began to bite. What would she be like? Would she be happy with our tiny house or would she wish she’d picked classier accommodation after all? Would she be easy to feed, or turn out to be fussier than my daughter? Would I like her? More importantly, would she like me?

The beautiful Angel Hotel where Charles Dickens stayed and wrote The Pickwick Papers

Tuesday morning rolled around and I went to collect her from the train station. My carefully laid plans to be waiting on the platform for her with a big welcoming smile were instantly scuppered by the fact there wasn’t a single parking space to be had. Desperately circling the station over and over again, I anxiously scanned the tiny full car park on each circuit, but it was no good. Eventually, I hitched up onto the pavement and sent a desperate text informing her of the situation, then went for another couple of goes around the one-way system until finally I saw someone come out of the station dragging a case bigger than herself and looking around helplessly.

It could only be her! Once again breaking the law with carefree abandon, I parked in a no stopping area and jumped out, waving frantically and calling her name. Her face breaking into a relieved smile, she rushed over and there was only time for a quick hug before I threw her case in the boot and we hurried back to Blake Manor as quickly as lunchtime traffic would allow.

The Atheneum – where many a 17th century ball took place

After settling in, a restorative cup of tea and a quick “getting to know each other chat” we went for a tour of the sights in Bury St Edmunds. Now, although I love the little market town I live in and am fully aware of how lucky I am to reside in place that is so rich in history, it’s not until I’m showing someone else around that I really appreciate what a very special place it is. To tourists, especially those from younger countries such as Australia and the US, it is an architectural marvel, with houses from all periods rubbing shoulders.

We paid a visit to one of the oldest buildings in town – Moyses Hall. Originally, a 12th century town house belonging to a wealthy merchant, it is now a small museum stuffed full of local memorabilia. Pride of place among the exhibits is the rather macabre death mask of convicted villain, William Corder, and a book which was made from his skin!

Accused of murdering his lover and the mother of his illegitimate children, Maria Marten, in the infamous Red Barn Murder. Corder was executed in Bury St Edmunds in 1828 and the grisly souvenirs as mentioned above were made.

It is quite an incredible building and it’s possible to see the original brickwork, fireplaces and doorways. Wandering about and looking at the exhibits, my friend kept exclaiming over the age of it and it made me realise that yes, a building dating back to the mid-12th century that is still intact and still being used for something is actually quite incredible.

Then we wandered around the town itself. Bury is a charming and eclectic mix of old and new, with roads such as St. John’s Street winding away from the town centre chock full of individual artisan shops all housed in ancient buildings.

There is a new part of the town as well, a large shopping complex called the Arc with its brand-new buildings and rather space age looking Debenhams department store. I don’t hate the new part, it’s not as offensive as some I’ve seen, and I guess it serves a purpose.

Bury is also home to the country’s smallest pub, the rather aptly named Nutshell, and my friend was very keen to pay a visit and have a drink in it. We squeezed inside and ordered a G&T each. It is really tiny. Seven people constitutes a crowd, anymore and it’s a crush, yet every square inch of its walls and even the ceiling are filled with quirky and funny knickknacks and memorabilia.

Inside the Nutshell Pub

We went to the Abbey Gardens, the beautiful and well laid out park surrounding the ruins of the medieval monastery. Once one of the largest and most important monasteries in Britain, it was a complete world unto itself. The monks grew all their own food and provided for themselves with livestock, fisheries, beehives and an orchard. They also had a hospital and were the only form of healthcare most people had access to.

Located on the banks of the river, boats would sail up from the North Sea and sell their wares from Europe, Scandinavia and even further afield. Sadly, the river silted up over time and it became too shallow for boats to traverse. Add to this the devastating effects of Henry VIII and his dissolution of religious institutions across the British Isles, and it spelled the end of Bury St Edmunds being one of the most important towns in the country.

There are quite a few ruins to explore, as well as the magnificent cathedral and the lovely St Mary’s Church which was commissioned by Henry himself as a fitting final resting place for his favourite sister, Mary, who had married the local lord Charles Brandon.

Coming home after a few hours being seeped in history, there was just time for a nice relaxed dinner and chat, before quite understandable exhaustion after travelling over 24 hours from the other side of the world caught up with my poor friend and she toddled off to bed.

Wednesday, day two of her visit, and we went to visit another local author who has also been friends with my Oz visitor for several years. We had a wonderful lunch and a lovely long chat about all things bookish. The really great thing about spending time with other writers is that you can talk until you’re blue in the face about books and their eyes don’t glaze over. Try doing that with non-writing friends and it soon becomes apparent that they really want you to shut up.

Despite the weather forecast being for solid rain all week it only spotted in places and so on Thursday we drove the 30 minutes or so to a nearby stately home and garden, Anglesey Abbey. Totally beautiful, we toured the very well-preserved house in the morning and then treated ourselves to a cream tea. Curious to resolve an age-old question, I conducted an experiment and put the clotted cream first on one half of my scone and then the jam and vice versa on the other half.

My verdict? Well, obviously, both were delicious, but I found spreading the clotted cream on the scone first literally ripped the scone to pieces and it was also very hard to then spread the jam on top. The half I spread the jam on first worked better as the jam seemed to cement the scone together so I could then smear the cream on top.

Enjoying the beautiful Autumn sunshine, we ambled about the grounds and woodlands looking at the plants and giggling at the fact that every statue was male, naked and sporting very unimpressive “parts” – those that hadn’t snapped off, that was. It did rain a little, okay quite a bit, but the downpour was short-lived, and we had hoods on our jackets, so it was all fine.

Driving home, we just missed the rush hour traffic and rounded off a perfect day with traditional fish and chips and a film – “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” – very appropriate for a pair of authors – in front of the fire.

Friday, the last day of my friends stay, and I’d arranged for us to meet four fellow indie authors who all live in and around Bury St Edmunds for brunch. First thing in the morning I had to run Miss F out to her work placement while my friend packed her bags and prepared for her departure later that day, then we wandered to a nearby restaurant that does an excellent brunch menu including veggie, vegan and foods for people with special dietary requirements.

We all took our books for a group photo and a fine time was had by all. I couldn’t help reflecting how much talent was seated around that table, drinking coffee and discussing all things bookish. Very diverse, practically every genre was represented, and it was fascinating to hear each other’s stories of how they came to be published and what their plans were for the future.

Brunch over, there was just time to bid my friend a fond farewell with promises to stay in touch, then it was back out to collect Miss F from her work placement in the middle of nowhere, followed by a hectic afternoon of arranging the printing of flyers, housework, laundry, shopping and preparing for a long weekend of work.

And now it’s Saturday morning and I’m trying to finish writing this blog before heading off to work for a full-on day of people and attempting to stay perky and awake! It doesn’t help that my body likes to play mean little tricks on me and the nasty cold I thought I’d managed to get rid of a fortnight ago is back with a vengeance. So, I’m sipping black tea with honey to soothe my poor throat and hoping this cold isn’t here to stay.

I wish I could say my life is going to get less mad next week, but it isn’t. Due to the long term sickness of a colleague I will be pulling a lot of overtime and on Monday – my one day off next week – I have to drive Miss F all the way to Ipswich to meet some dodgy sounding person at the train station in order to buy some ants off him. Yes, you did read that right, but more on that next week.

Time is ticking by and I really do need to go, once again, thank you for joining me this Sunday morning for a coffee and a chat, and I wish you a more peaceful and relaxing week than the one I am facing.

Take care of yourselves.

Julia Blake

Just James! Fascinating in-depth interview with the bestselling author – James Fahy

My Meet the Author spot this month is focused on bestselling traditionally published author, James Fahy. Creator of the The Changeling fantasy trilogy and the Urban Gothic vampire series Phoebe Harkness. James is also a major influencer on Instagram, where he shares snapshots of his life and family shenanigans, as well as featuring amazing recipes and cooking tips. Although an extremely busy man, James is a keen advocate of authors from all walks of life supporting each other – be they newbies or seasoned writers, traditionally published or indies.

First of all, thank you so much James, for taking the time to come onto A Little Bit of Blake this week, and I’d like to start by congratulating you on the launch of the latest book in the Phoebe Harkness series, “Paper Children”.

Thanks, Julia. It’s been a while coming since Phoebe 2, for enough reasons to fill a whole interview all on its own.  I wrote Changeling 3 after the second Phoebe book, then, due to my own clumsiness, got into a bit of a traffic accident which led to a fun year of operations and physio. Once everything was back off hold though, I wanted to get Phoebe 3 out there asap. Excited that it’s finally here!

As an author myself, I know what a crazy head-rush launching a book is, so, how do you feel it went? And do you have any traditions or routines you like to follow when publishing a new book?

Book Launch time is one of my favourite times. All the solitary slogging away behind the scenes, where it’s just you and the screen finally come to fruition. I spend most of my time in the run up weeks to launch in a whirlwind of emails and phone conversations with the Publishers, my Agent, the art dept who are dealing with the cover, the marketing guys who are telling me where and how they’ll be pushing the book… it’s an odd sensation really, as writing itself is so solitary, but then at the ‘birth’ there are suddenly so many people involved and it turns into a bit of a circus. I also have great fun running teaser campaigns on Social Media, promos, booktrailers and giveways. I think any author would agree it’s a little bit like a personal Christmas when you have a new book out. Great fun but a bit exhausting.

You’ve probably been asked this before, but can you pinpoint what or even who inspired the character of Phoebe Harkness within your imagination, and was the fact that Oxford appears to be one of your favourite places a contributing factor to basing Phoebe’s world in a dystopian version of this city?

My decision to write Phoebe largely stemmed from my frustration at how a lot of male writers seemed to handle female characters. I read a lot of Urban Gothic and paranormal, and while there are some great ones out there, there are also so many books where it seems the only way a woman can be portrayed in a book as ‘strong’ is either to make her a completely stone-cold b***h, or have her be this perfect and unrealistic goddess. In my life, I’m surrounded by strong women, in my family and friends, and I wanted to write a female lead hero who was badass AND human. Phoebe is sarcastic, resilient and tough. She’s also socially awkward, clumsy and makes mistakes. I didn’t want to shy away from presenting a fully rounded person, and that’s where Phoebe came from. It seems to have worked well, I get so much feedback, especially from female readers, either telling me they ARE Phoebe, or they want to be her best friend. That’s pretty gratifying to me as a writer. One of the oddest questions I get asked is ‘as a man, how do you write women so well?’. Which I think is odd, because I’m fairly sure no one ever asked JK Rowling ‘as a woman, how do you write teenage boys so well?’.

As for choosing Oxford, well it’s my hometown, so it’s where my heart lives, and I know it inside out.

 It’s such an amazing city, and there’s so much history and architecture to mine there as a writer. Phoebe’s world is a closed in walled city, so I had to choose one that was interesting enough and had enough substance for me to play in for more than one book. I can’t imagine Phoebe being set anywhere else now.

Phoebe Harkness is now a trilogy, do you intend for it to remain so? Or can fans expect more from her? If you’ve truly written the end on that story, which direction will your writing take you in now and can you give any hints as to what your readers can look forward to?

Will there be more Phoebe after Paper Children? Hmm… readers will have to read the last page if they want to know. (evil cackle).

The next book I will be releasing will be book four of the Changeling series, which my Erlking readers have actually started baying for blood for now. I think if I moved to anything else before putting that one out there in the world, they would actually come for me with torches. It will be hot on the heels of Paper children though, promise!

After that, I have more than one project I’m working on. Two standalone novels, both of which hopefully will surprise readers familiar with my work, as neither of them are quite like what I’ve written before. My Changeling series is radically different in tone and voice to the Harkness books, and I really enjoy singing in different notes that way, so you can expect something a little chilling, and something a little historical. I’m keeping details under my hat for now though.

I know as writers we’re not allowed to pick a favourite book – as parents are not allowed to have a favourite child – but is there one of yours that holds a special place within your heart?

Book? Or child?

There’s more than one book that’s special to me, for different reasons. The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner contains the spark that lit a fire in my younger mind that would one day spread into the Changeling series. I’m not sure I would ever have come to Erlking or the Netherworlde without Garner. Likewise, there’s a little-known book by Thomas Burnett Swan called Day of the Minotaur. I read it when I was around thirteen, and it started my obsession with mythology and faerie tales. It’s probably the reason I studied classics at college and later at Uni, and these themes still flavour a lot of my writing, so I owe a lot to that book.

Are you one of those authors who wrote as a child? Or is it something that came later in life?

Oh, I’ve always written. I think it was a bit of an outlet for me when I was a child. I was very solitary. I wasn’t one of the popular kids and I think I had a bit of a reputation of being a weirdo. My childhood was a strange and quite lonely one. Most friends I had were adults. I could hold better conversations with them and none of them ever tried to push me down the stairs at school. I was bullied at both primary and High school and hated both. I didn’t really start making friends or become comfortable in my own skin until I left high school and went to college. I met good people there and started to realise that the world was bigger than school, and I could carve a place in it, even if only through sheer bloody-minded determination. So, writing as a child was escapism for me. I could be anyone, I could go anyway. I could get away from my own life. I think you need that spark, that need to explore other places than your own life, in order to start to be a writer. Everything that comes after that is just practise, trial and error as you hone your skills and find your voice.

I’ve seen it stated many times that unless you write every day you cannot consider yourself a proper writer. Now, I have my own views about that statement, but was wondering what your take on it is?

I get that some people say that, and I can see the sense in it, in that, like exercise, if you fall out of the habit, you can get flabby and it can be difficult to get back into your stride. But I also think that, like exercise, sometimes you just need a rest day. Everyone is different. Some people have to write every day, others won’t stop until they’ve written a self-appointed ‘words per day’ target.

That doesn’t work for me. I can go a couple of days without writing. Sometimes I just need to switch off. I do get antsy though if I go longer than a week, as I write full time, so I really have no excuse not to. Although I give myself a mental break, as I have other things in my life too. I’m father and main carer to my family, two of which have special needs, so I have a lot of adult responsibilities, a house to run like clockwork, and everything else to manage too. A burned-out writer is a bad writer, that’s what I think anyway.

I know from your Instagram page that your hobbies and interests are broad and far ranging, but when you’re not writing, what is your favourite thing to do?

I can’t ever really sit still. I’m a very fidgety person, so I get very antsy (and no doubt irritating to everyone around me) if I have nothing to do. Even if I’m reading, it’s usually in a multitasking way, book propped up in the kitchen while I’m cooking, or balanced on the bike at the gym.

I love cooking and baking and am a self-confessed foodie, as anyone who follows me online already knows. I’m the only one who cooks in my house. My other half isn’t allowed in the kitchen, it’s my realm. There’s something very relaxing to me about cooking, all the stages of preparation, method and ingredients. It’s almost meditative. And the fact that it all comes together in the end into something delicious is like alchemy. Plus, I get huge satisfaction from seeing people enjoying things I create. Whether that’s my books or the food I put in front of my family. Maybe I still get a dopamine hit from pleasing people and feeling appreciated, blame my childhood!

Other than cooking, I’ve gotten back into exercise and being healthy in a big way. (yes, I’ve become one of those horrible people who actually enjoys going to the gym). It’s so good for clearing the mind, releasing stress and tension, and just making you feel better about yourself. I treat it like therapy, it gets me out of my own head for a while. After my stupid accident where I nearly died, I think I’ve scared myself a bit, and realised how fragile we are. Bodies are not disposable; I feel the urge to look after it now. I’d like to be around for a while longer!

When I do make myself relax, I adore horror movies. I will watch anything as long as its not torture-porn, (boring). Very few movies actually scare me. The ones that do impress me are those that don’t rely on lazy jump-scares, but the ones that unsettle and get under your skin. The ones you find yourself thinking about days later.

Like me, you are very careful to maintain your family’s privacy online, but how do you feel about those authors who share every tiny detail of their lives on social media?

It’s not for me to tell other people how to police their own social media. Some people are clearly happy enough to have their whole lives on show, but for me personally, it’s an area I’m very wary of.

The nature of my job means that I consider myself (to some degree) to be available and approachable. I’m happy splashing my own face everywhere and being public property, but when it comes to my family, they didn’t sign up for this. I don’t mind being in the public eye, but my OH is a very private person, and my kids are kids. They have a right not to be constantly exposed to however many followers I have. I’m fair game, I’m happy with that, but they all know and live with ‘dad’ and ‘husband’ me, not ‘jamesfahyauthor’ me. There’s so much danger online with security these days, if you’re in any even semi-public profession. You might see the odd, very occasional family photo on my feed, if it’s a special occasion and I have everyone’s agreement, but otherwise I don’t even give my other half or children’s names out, simply because out of the people who follow me on social media, a heck of a lot of them are people I don’t know. You never know if there are stalkers or oddballs out there. (judging from some of the more random Direct Messages I get on Insta from total strangers, quite a few, it seems.)

You seem to have struck a happy balance on Instagram, posting a lot of non-book related posts and stories, and of course as a traditionally published author with the backing and promoting of a publishing house there is less need for you to promote your own books. But I was wondering how you felt the unsupported indie author should best try to promote themselves and their books on social media? And is there anything you feel they really should avoid doing? (Sorry, that’s a lot of questions within a question)

That is a many levelled question! Okay, I’ll try to answer each bit of it.

Firstly, yes, I’m pretty happy with what I call the ‘casserole of nonsense’ that makes up my little insta-world. I see some accounts where it’s a writer and EVERY single post is about either their books or writing, and I fully understand why they might do that, and if it works for them, then great. But nobody is just one two-dimensional thing. I think it’s far more interesting and varied to your followers for them to actually get to know you, through sharing your other interests, your sense of humour or oddities. Open up a little to people instead of just being a rolling infomercial, that’s what I say. My feed is a blend of writing and promo pieces, whatever I’m reading, lots of landscape and nature photography, food, and many a silly selfie when I have some random topic on my mind I want to chat to people about. It works well for me, it might not for others.

You’re right in saying it’s a benefit to have a publisher when traditional to help with marketing, promoting etc. (and I should hope so too, they do, after all, take a cut of what you’re books make, so any writer would expect them to work as hard as they do themselves to make the book a success) – in my case they do. My publishers are wonderful and always enthusiastic.

I’m not sure I self-promote any less than an ‘indie’ writer though. I do all the same things on Social Media, teasers, giveaways and competitions, book trailers etc. mainly because I genuinely enjoy that side of things, its just another way to be creative and play with the world you’ve created in your books, but in a different format. I love image and video editing, so it never feels a chore to me.

As for what people should avoid doing? Well, I don’t think it makes a difference if you’re traditionally published or indie, or self-published, (I actually don’t like people hanging on the distinction as though it has any real bearing on the writing. A book is a book.) I have a lot of writer friends, both traditionally published and self-published, and the ONLY advice I would ever feel qualified to give if they asked, would be to be genuine. If you follow or interact with other people online, do it because you want to, and you find them interesting, not for the fact that they might be ‘useful’ to you further down the line, or that you think they might buy or review your book if you’re nice to them.

People are very, very, good at sniffing out insincerity that way I think. I chat on a regular basis to a lot of my followers, and for most of them I have no idea at all if they’ve read my books, or if they just like talking to me and following my posts. And I don’t ask. I don’t push my books onto people. If you make a genuine connection with someone, it’s been my experience that at some point you get a message saying, ‘oh btw I just bought your book and I’m loving it’. That’s far more satisfying to me.

My only other never-do rule (that I stick to myself as well) is never plug your own book uninvited in someone else’s comments section. I just think that’s such terrible manners, and always so awkward. Online friends are not each-others free advertising space. If that person wants to shout your book out, they will, (and if you’ve made a genuine connection, they really will). Shoehorning a ‘great pic of your pet budgie, Laura. It reminds me of a scene in my bestselling new novel soon available at amazon and other outlets’ just makes me absolutely cringe! I’d never do it, and when I have it done to me it makes my cynical mind wonder if that person is only my ‘friend’ online because I’m a handy soapbox.

I’m always more than happy to support and shout out other writers, (and I do all the time, we’re all in the same business after all, and attention is not cake. Someone else getting a shout out does not mean less love for me) but I know a couple of traditionally published writers who would never shout out an indie writer, and equally, I know indie writers who only shout out indie books, or create closed (to me) posts asking indie discussion questions I cant contribute to. It’s a bit sad that the division even exists. I think it’s self-defeating and I tend to ignore it and just do my own thing.

I know you avoid Facebook and have been quite vocal about your dislike of it, can you tell us why you think Facebook and Instagram are such different beasties when they are owned by the same company and are basically the same concept?

They operate very differently, (for me) Facebook works like a town hall noticeboard, where I can hang a post with some info about my writing, or what’s going on, and maybe people will see it, maybe they won’t, but it feels much less immediate and less like a conversation than Insta does. What I like about Insta is that there is this sense of a cohesive Bookstagram community, and it’s a bit of a false picture. Everybody doesn’t know everyone else, and we’re not all standing in a big circle holding hands. It’s more like countless smaller circles that are always moving and interlocking, little sub-pockets of people, and each of us is in (and moves in and out of) several of these shoals at any given time. That’s fun for me to explore.

I like that I can fill my grid with my posts, (which I think of almost as a blog) whereas on IG stories, I probably do most of my interaction with people, as it’s silly, disposable and very light. You can put whatever you like on there. I follow certain peoples IG stories much more than I follow their grid, because their stories are so entertaining. Largely on Insta, I live in DM’s, where I normally have a ton of conversations going at any given time. Its like texting a ton of friends at once, and some of these conversations you could scroll up a year. Its wonderful for me, as a writer, to make that connection and to build that kind of long-term relationship with a reader.

Autumn is here and the endless posts of falling leaves and pumpkin spice with everything are once more upon us. Do you have a favourite season? Or do you find something different to enjoy in each one, and can you sum up in a few words what each season means to you?

I don’t have a favourite. I love them all for different reasons. (I know a lot of people hate winter for the horrible weather if they have to commute, but I work from home so I get to escape that – but I did it for years before I was able to write full time, and the horror is still in my memory)

Okay, in a few words then:

Spring always feels hopeful to me. Winters are long and dark here, and there’s something about seeing that first fuzz of green on the bare trees and the days starting to get lighter that makes me feel I can breathe again. I love blossom, spring always feels like a celebration.

Summer: this is when I escape to my cottage on the island off Wales, so it’s my super happy family time, always full of busy adventure, exploring and outdoor fun. Summer is beaches and cliff walks, my kids covered in ice-cream, and sand all over the car. G & T in the garden in the evenings, and big family BBQ and parties.

Autumn: for some reason I always seem to be releasing a book in autumn, so its always busy! I love the light in this season, and the crisper air. Deer parks and woodland walks, with lots of hot and filling autumn food.

Winter: I do love all the festivities, Christmas, new year, fireworks and bonfires, and of course Halloween is my favourite time of year full stop. Mulled wine and cosy nights snuggled on the sofa reading. Bliss.

As I’ve mentioned before, you feature a lot of recipes and share with us the wonderful looking meals you create on Instagram. You seem to have a strong preference for Asian cooking, and I wondered what your favourite meal is?

I spent time in Japan, which is where my love of all things Japanese comes from. I speak well enough Japanese to get by, and I love the elegant simplicity and artistry of Japanese cooking. For a long time, my favourite dish was Nabeyaki Udon, which is a comforting noodle and egg broth full of smoky dark flavours. More recently, in the last few years, I discovered a love for Korea, and I’m an absolute addict for K-drama. I’ve watched so many, and I love everything about the culture, from the music, the fashion, the food and the cultural atmosphere and social rules. I plan to head to Seoul once I can speak the language well enough (I’m learning Korean at the moment – I love languages) and see it for myself. Korean food is robust and punchy and full of bold flavours and smells. My new favourite thing is Bibimbap, which I have gotten pretty good at making. So tasty!

Did you watch a lot of TV chefs as a child? Growing up, I have vivid memories of a mumsy Delia Smith and a permanently drunk Keith Floyd whom my family watched more for entertainment value than to learn to actually cook from.

No, not really, but everyone in my family cooked growing up. My family is Irish on my fathers’ side, and Italian on my mothers, and both clans are huge, and all foodies. I started cooking when I was very young, and I cook with my own little ones now. I think it’s important you learn young to be self-sufficient. I still remember being shocked when I first went to Uni and one of my flatmates in halls couldn’t iron a shirt or boil an egg. TV Chef wise, I love Mary Berry, as she’s always up for a laugh, and I have the biggest crush on Nigella Lawson. Everything she makes always looks so decadent

What do your family think of your books? I appreciate your daughters are probably too young for Phoebe Harkness, but have they read The Changeling series? Or perhaps you’ve read it to them?

My eldest, who is ten, has read the Changeling Series and loves it. With a writer in the family she’s been reading since she was born, so her reading age, (according to her school anyway) is around fifteen now. She writes as much as I do and told me she wants to be an author like Dad when she grows up. I told her not to wait until she grows up, write now, and she does. Our house is fully of stories. I haven’t read my books aloud to them, (they both like to squirrel themselves away in reading nooks in the playroom and read in peace) but I’ve done readings and talks at quite a few schools, including my daughters, which I think she was equal parts proud and mortified about. Any book talk I’ve done is always fun when it’s with kids. They ask the best questions.

Can you remember a book or series that had the biggest impact on you as child, and maybe were the influence behind your own writing career?

As I’ve said earlier, Garner’s Brisingamen is my mental bedrock, for reasons I can’t really articulate. I think it was my first encounter with the idea of a magical world intersecting with the real world, something I’ve gotten my teeth into with my own writing. I was (and still am) a huge Tolkien nerd, long before there was any whisper of movie versions. I must have read Lord of the Rings countless times. It’s the scope and depth of the world building that gets me, and I think Tolkien laid out the unspoken guide for pretty much every fantasy writer who followed him. Ironically, the vampire nightclub, Sanctum, which lies below the streets of Oxford in my Phoebe Harkness books, is entered by the Eagle and Child pub, where Tolkien used to meet and chat with CS Lewis and the other inklings. It’s a regular haunt of mine, and one of my favourite pubs to sit and write in in Oxford. It’s hard not to feel inspired when you’re sitting with your notebook in the same spot he used to sit and write in.

Do you have any favourite authors now? And what is it about them that appeals to you?

I’ve always adored Clive Barker. It’s been a thirty-year love affair since I first picked up one of his books, and I think I own everything he’s written. He’s known for horror due to classics like the Hellbound Heart (and the Hellraiser movies that it inspired) but he writes the most original and weird fantasy, he’s just a master storyteller. His writing is always lyrical, almost poetic. I think what I love about Barker is that he never pigeonholed himself or limited himself to one thing. He’s written horror, fantasy, children’s books, he’s a filmmaker, a director, an artist with great work in paint and sculpture. It’s something I aspire to do too.

Neil Gaiman is another, for similar reasons. His seminal Sandman series opened my eyes to graphic novels, and how you can hide stories within other stories. He doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable or controversial subjects, and his writing is always filled with a kind of quiet, unobtrusive hope.

Of the classic authors, which ones have you read and is there a piece of classic literature you think should be compulsory reading in every school?

I did a BA and MA in English and American Literature, so I’ve probably read most of the classics. Uni was useful for turning me onto them, and writers I might not have explored, and the poets. It really forces you to widen your reading and to read outside of your comfort bubble. There are some amazing minds in the classics, and its rewarding to spend time with them. It would be hard to choose a favourite, but I love Hemmingway and Henry James, Tennyson and Coleridge, and Mrs Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf, is a book that is so beautifully written, I read it once a year.

I’m not sure about compulsory reading in school. My school read ‘A Kestrel for a Knave’ and ‘Hobson’s Choice’, both of which I found drab, grim and depressing. But we also, if I remember right, read Roald Dahl’s autobiography, which was absolutely fascinating.

I think I would suggest that every schoolchild reads Charlottes Web, because there a lot of depth in that book, about friendship, about growing up and rites of passage, and about sacrifice, death and dignity. People pretend to kids that these things don’t exist, but death and struggle are all around us in the real world, and you can arm a child against them if they’re taught to understand things like grief and love, and how to have a conversation about them, and to learn to be brave.

And some quick-fire questions for you:

Favourite ice cream?

I’m not an ice-cream fan. You can have mine.

Marmite, yes or no?

Absolutely yes. On crumpets please.

If you weren’t a writer, what other career would you like?

I’d love to expand into screenwriting and directing, maybe acting, who knows where the path leads in the future.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

More popular, hah! I always wanted to be a writer. I’ve very single-minded

Favourite TV programme as a child?

There was a kid’s show called Knightmare, where kids had to run around CGI dungeons solving riddles and puzzles. I used to run home from school in time to tape it on the VCR. That and the Crystal Maze.

Favourite TV programme as an adult?

I’m a huge American Horror Story nut. Been here since season one. I’m a loyal veteran.

What do you put on your fish and chips?

It used to be cheese on chips when I was down south, but I’m a northerner these days, so salt and vinegar for me, and lots of it. (still not friends with chip-shop gravy though)

Sweet or salty popcorn?

Salty everything. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, but I could drink soy sauce from the bottle. (don’t do this though, too much can kill you)

Tea or Coffee?

Both. I don’t get people who feel the need to take sides in the tea/coffee war. It’s like the Austen/Bronte divide. I like both. Maybe I’m just greedy.

Should the death penalty apply to people who constantly talk in cinemas?

Maybe not the death penalty, but I do think cinema ushers should be able to take them out with a blow-dart and a horse tranquiliser.

If you could invite one famous person round for dinner, who would it be?

Just one? That’s tough. Maybe Tilda Swinton. I’d love to cook for her and just have her talk at me while I’m cooking.

After your family and pets, the next thing you’d rescue if your house was on fire?

I have a box in a cupboard under the stairs full of old photos, from my grandparent’s generation. I haven’t had any of them digitised yet, so I’d grab that because they’re irreplaceable. Everything else is insured.

And finally, the biggie – Pineapple on pizza, yes or no?

Sure, why not? In a world where people are smearing mushed avocado on bagels and roasting Kale, we need a little anarchy.

And on the subject of anarchy, I’d like to again wish you every success with the latest Phoebe Harkness book – and I’m sure that Paper Children will be a worthy successor to books one and two in the series – Hell’s Teeth and Crescent Moon

I’d like to say a big thank you to James Fahy for giving up his time to come and talk to us. He’s a very talented writer and all-round nice guy and if you’d like to follow his Instagram page yourself or find out where to buy his books, then all his links are below.

Wheels on Fire!

This week I want to talk about the cars I’ve owned over the years. Now, don’t get me wrong, I can look at a nice car and go “mmm” just as much as the next person, but pay out three years wages to buy a status symbol car? Nope. Never. Even if I had that kind of cash lying around, I doubt very much, I’d ever waste it on what is basically just a mode of transport, one step up the evolutionary ladder from a pony and cart. And I don’t understand those who do. It’s a car, get over yourself, and telling me straight away what type of car you drive and what horsepower it is, well, to quote Shania Twain – “That Don’t Impress Me Much”.

Of course, cars need to be a comfortable ride, reliable, safe and economical, but you can get all of those things without paying out a small fortune, and as for those people who get caught in the sticky web of finance deals and pay hundreds of pounds every month just to have the latest version – well, a fool and his money are soon parted.

Over the years I have owned precisely six cars, which considering I’ve been driving since I was 19 is not bad. It took me a while to pass my driving test, four attempts to be honest, and that wasn’t because I found it hard to learn, but because I fell apart in the test. Quaking with nerves, I’d do stupid things that would have my lovely driving instructor shaking his head with disbelief when I got back clutching yet another fail notification. Finally, on the fourth attempt, I took the test with a raging temperature, a throat that felt like sandpaper and a head that was threatening to explode. I didn’t care if I passed or failed, I just wanted to get it over and done with so I could go back to bed. Of course, taking the pressure of myself meant I passed with flying colours.

My first ever car was a Ford Escort Mk1 1300 four door saloon in metallic bronze. Built like a tank, it was in immaculate condition and had hardly any mileage on the clock despite being reasonably old. The engine was as clean as a whistle, as was the paintwork, and I cut my teeth in that car. It cost £600 which back in the 1980’s was a lot of money for such an old car. My dad bought it because of its pristine condition, low mileage and because he knew its provenance. The deal was, my parents would have use of it while I was learning to drive. During that time, I would make monthly payments to pay off £300 of its cost. Once I’d passed my test, the car would become mine completely. As it took me almost two years to pass my test, my parents had a second car for that long for only £300, so a pretty good deal for everyone.

It was a clunky though sturdy car, with a face only a mother could love. There was no power assisted steering, if you took it over sixty miles per hour the force threatened to shake your arms from your sockets, and there were no rear seat belts. But I loved that car. It didn’t matter that I felt like I’d done an aerobic workout on my arms every time I drove it, it offered me freedom and independence. Living out in a small village with an irregular bus service, having my own transport was gold.

The Shed – Much loved

That car went everywhere, I drove it to Kent on holiday and up to Hull to visit my boyfriend’s family, and it took it all in its stride. Maybe it wasn’t the quickest mode of transport in the world, but it was certainly the most reliable and the most economic.

As it was brown and usually full of crap, my friends christened my car the Shed and teased me about its old-fashioned appearance, and the fact it was so noisy when travelling at speed the radio had to be cranked up to full blast to hear it. It became habit that the passenger would automatically turn the volume down as we slowed down, in order to save our eardrums from being shattered when the engine noise suddenly dropped, and the full force of the music would hit us. Once, the rear door locks broke and the doors wouldn’t open, so my friends had to climb over the front seats to get in, clutching mini skirts to thighs and shrieking with laughter – much to the interest of my elderly neighbour who I suspect had to have a little lie down afterwards to recover from the sight.

But all good things come to an end, that little car last me from 1985 to 1997. When I got married my husband used it to get to and from work, and although I could never prove it, I think he thrashed it a little too hard and the engine blew. And that was the end of the Shed.

After the Shed, my husband decided he wanted a status symbol car, something more in keeping with the ace guy he thought he was, and he bought himself some kind of Ford turbo thing – please don’t expect any more details from me, other than it was silver and low and sleek and growled like a bear on heat when you stepped on the accelerator. Totally impractical for town – we have a lot of speed bumps around here and having to baby your car over them in case you rip your undercarriage off is a complete pain – and no good for country lanes, I hated this car with a passion.

Technically, it was supposed to be my car as well. I had paid for half of it after all, but my husband snipped and criticised me the whole time I was driving it and, in the end, made me so nervous about it that I flatly refused to drive it anymore. We had the beast for about nine months and then my husband’s parents offered us a lovely Ford Mondeo as my father-in-law was getting something smaller and easier for him to handle.

Reluctantly, my husband agreed it was too good an offer to turn down, especially as we were thinking of starting a family and the beast was a complete no-no as far as car seats and fitting a buggy in the boot were concerned. So, the beast was sold, and the nice sensible Ford Mondeo joined the family.

I didn’t mind the Mondeo. It was comfortable and practical, a nice smooth ride which behaved itself very well over the next couple of years, including managing two holidays in Cornwall with lots of driving about on very twisty steep roads. However, I always felt it was a little too big for the road we live on. There’s residential parking up our street and spaces are extremely limited and purely on a “first come, first served” basis. On numerous occasions we’d try our hardest to get into the last space available, before having to give up and watch in seething frustration as our neighbour’s mini side stepped into it.

Time ticked by, I had Miss F in 2003 and the Mondeo was the perfect family car, roomy enough to fit all the paraphernalia one small baby seems to need just to be taken seven miles down the road to visit her grandparents. Then my marriage fell apart and I was left with a one-year old baby and a mountain of debts.

My ex-husband was struggling to pay any child maintenance and I accepted the Mondeo in lieu of two months maintenance, despite the fact it had been a gift to us both, was now in dire need of repairs and that he’d also left with me a pile of other debts. This was in September 2004. The following January I was driving Miss F home from a birthday party in a nearby town when the car suddenly slowed to ten miles an hour on the motorway. Nothing I did would convince it to go any faster, so I limped home with my foot flat on the floor and other cars speeding past me on the motorway honking their annoyance. I got home and phoned my mechanic, who told me it sounded like the clutch, and that once the clutch goes in an automatic that was it, the car was done for.

So, I went to bed that night feeling a bit grim. I couldn’t afford a new car, and as it was natural wear and tear, I wouldn’t be able to claim on the insurance. In the middle of the night, I was awoken by the sound of a car roaring at speed down our road and then a very loud crunch, like metal on metal, before the car revved up and roared off into the night. Next morning, when I went to get my daughter’s pushchair from the boot of the car, I discovered the whole driver’s side had been removed from boot to bonnet – that must have been the sound I heard in the night. I telephoned the insurance company, who sent an inspector and wrote the car off on the spot. I didn’t get much in the way of insurance – it was an old car after all – but anything was better than the nothing I was expecting.

My next car was a dear little Vauxhall Astra hatchback in a sort of metallic peachy pink bronze colour. I bought that early in 2004 and it was a good and faithful workhorse for us. It was reliable, sturdy, nippy and very cost effective. Requiring hardly any repairs, it sailed from MOT to MOT costing me very little in between. I have very fond memories of that car, although its demise has gone down in family history as being the most spectacular car exit ever.

It was early one Monday morning in 2012. I was rudely awoken at 5am by the sound of someone pounding frantically on my front door. Pulling on my dressing gown, I stomped irritably downstairs and threw open the front door to find my neighbour from across the street standing there clad only in a flimsy nightie. I blinked at her in surprise. Not what I’d been expecting, I must say, and she grabbed my arm yelling at me to look at my car!

I looked at my car. My car was on fire! Yellow flames were licking at its insides and fire was oozing out of the bonnet. For a moment, my neighbour and I had a completely girlie moment on the step, where we just shrieked and did a little panicky dance. Then I pulled myself together and rushed to phone the fire brigade. Now, I’ve never had to call an emergency service before and must admit, despite the severity of the circumstances, it was very exciting but a bit daunting and the conversation with the operator went a bit like this.

“What is the nature of the emergency?”

“Fire! There’s a fire!”

“Where is the fire please?”

“In my car.”

Sigh. “Where is your car please?”

“Outside my house!”

Eventually, I calmed down enough to give them my address which is literally five minutes around the corner from the fire station. By this point, fireballs were ballooning inside the car and we could feel the heat from it. My neighbour ran to get something more covering on as lights began to snap on up and down the street and people were coming out to see what was happening.

My lodger sleeps in the basement and his window looks out onto the street, so I was concerned about smoke and fumes going into his room and ran to bang on his door. Very excited, he of course grabbed his phone and started posting updates to his Facebook page. By now the fire engine had arrived and lots of chunky men in fire breathing apparatus were tackling the blaze which was pretty impressive and very scary.

I ran to get Miss F up and we all huddled on the front step to watch, united with the rest of the street in excitement. Finally, it was over, and the fire was out. My poor car was a smoldering blackened wreck and the smell of acrid smoke and burning plastic was horrendous, making the whole house reek for days afterwards.

Wheels on Fire!

Of course, it was a write off, there was nothing left to salvage from the car and the insurance company paid me a few pennies. Again, it was an old car and unfortunately the way insurance works is they pay you what the car is worth, not what it will cost to replace it.

So, there I was, car less again. I managed a few weeks without one and wondered if we could get by permanently relying on walking and public transport. After all, we lived in the middle of town, and both Miss F’s school and my work were within walking distance. But I quickly discovered it’s just too inconvenient not having a car. The whole having to have my shopping delivered or pay out for a taxi, not being able to visit family and friends when we wanted to and never being able to go anywhere on the spur of the moment. Nope, we needed a car, but I hadn’t got much money – the insurance pay-out had only been a few hundred and was not enough to buy anything reliable.

Then my parents stepped in with a small cash gift to my brother and I, and I used mine to buy a new car. I bought it off eBay, and it seemed like a good deal, but I really wouldn’t recommend you do it that way unless you are a trained mechanic or have access to one. The car was a bright red Citroen C3 which looked beautiful but was an absolute bitch to drive. It rattled alarmingly and every time we hit a bump in the road, things would shake and move around us. It felt like I was driving a tin can and if I went at any speed, I imagined the car was running away with me. It cornered like a cow, was a pig to park and was so delicate that if the temperature overnight dropped to the point where a light cardigan was needed, the car would refuse to start in the morning.

It was considered a higher performance car, so my insurance premiums doubled, it ate petrol like it was going out of fashion, and there was a funny smell in it that no amount of air fresh seemed able to get rid of. I stuck it for six months before deciding enough was enough, it had to go.

I traded it in through a local second-hand car company who I must admit were brilliant and very fair with me. Given all its faults I didn’t think I’d get much for it and was thrilled and delighted when I saw what they offered me. A 1996 Nissan Micra automatic in British racing green. Absolutely immaculate inside and out, and with only 26,000 miles on the clock, it had had only one owner, the anecdotal little old lady, and it had been kept in a garage all its life and serviced every two thousand miles. It was a gem. Lovely upholstery, it smelt nice and handled beautifully. A comfortable, sturdy and reliable little car that we took to right from day one. My daughter christened it Basil because of its colour, and for the past seven years it has served us faithfully.

Most years it sails through the MOT with minimal repair work necessary, but last time I was advised it needed about £150 worth of welding underneath to ensure it would pass the following year. I really did mean to get it done, I honestly did, but the year has flown by and I somehow never got round to it, and suddenly it was the beginning of October and my MOT was due at the end of the month and I still hadn’t got it done. Deciding I really needed to get it booked in, I found the folder where I keep all the car details and pulled out last year’s MOT paperwork, only to find my memory had let me down as usual. Far from being due the end of October, it had been due the day before! Panicked, I called my garage to see what they could do.

They could fit the car in for a MOT that afternoon, but there certainly wasn’t time to carry out any welding. But what about if it failed, which it probably would do, given their insistence last year it would without the welding. Well, then I would have ten days to affect the necessary work and submit it again for the MOT. Oh, right, well can I still drive the car in those ten days. No, it would have to be off the road. Now I was really panicking. Not only do I now need my car to get to work, I also had to get Miss F to her work placement nearly a 40-minute drive away. But there was no time to do anything else, so I took Basil to the garage and left him there, convinced when they called it would be to tell me the patient was terminal.

It was a long hour before they called with amazing news. Basil, bless his little spark plugs, had pulled through for us and sailed through the MOT needing nothing more than a new bulb. But what about the welding I asked? Well, they replied, he still needs it but because you haven’t done many miles it hasn’t deteriorated to the point where it has to be done. Maybe by next year though… yeah, well, next year is a long way away, a lot can happen between now and then.

You can imagine how relieved I was that instead of £150+ bill, it ended up only costing me £58 for another year’s worth of motoring. Thank you, Basil, I may even give you a wash to say thank you.

Thank you for joining me again this week, and I hope you’ve enjoyed my trip down automobile memory lane.

All the best.

Julia Blake