How Does Your Garden Grow?

Are you a garden person? You see I think there are different degrees of garden people. There are those who quite like walking around public parks and gardens and appreciate a barbecue or a glass of wine in a friend’s garden, but really couldn’t care less about having one themselves. Then there are those who make do with a balcony or a small patio area, or even just window boxes. There are those who are full-out, full-on gardeners, whose patches are little pieces of heaven right here on earth. They always seem to be beavering away on some project or other and are forever spouting the Latin names of the plants they are planning to create an herbaceous border with.

There are those whose garden more resembles a football pitch, with kids toys and swing sets dominating the space, and everything reduced to practical, low-maintenance functionality. Then there are those like me. We have a garden, albeit small, and we wouldn’t want to be without a garden, but we don’t really want to have to do much with it or expend too much time, money and energy, all of which we have in short supply. Also, we’re not really a hundred percent sure we know what we’re doing most of the time.

I didn’t have a garden until I moved into my current house in 1991. Before that I lived with my parents and of course, they had a garden, quite a large one. But it wasn’t mine, it was theirs, or rather it was my mother’s, so I had zero input into its design or style. It was just there. Something I played in as a kid and we had the occasional barbecue or party in. I moved away from home when I got married in 1988 into a tiny, two-bedroomed flat. It didn’t have a garden of course, although it did have a wooden balcony leading to the front door which I filled with troughs, pots, and hanging baskets of plants.

I have very fond memories of that little flat. It was the first space that was truly mine and I loved and cherished it. We used the balcony a lot, especially in summer, when we would open the front door wide and all the windows and let the summer air flood through. Like a lot of cheap, modern builds it wasn’t terribly well insulated or ventilated so a heatwave could be brutal. Having the shaded balcony was a godsend and we used to pile cushions out there and lay on them, gasping in the heat and gulping down ice cold drinks. The balcony was also great for parties, when our friends would pile out there and annoy the neighbours with drunken laughter and chatting – although if I remember rightly it was mostly young people who lived in the flats so they tended to be invited to the parties anyway.

Back then, several of my friends still smoked so were firmly sent outside to do so. The balcony had a wooden roof above it as it led to the stairs down to the carpark so even if it was raining or snowing, they had some shelter.

Then in 1991 I moved to a three-bedroom Edwardian house in the middle of town. I remember coming to view it and the estate agent, who was a good friend of mine, saying that there was a small enclosed garden at the back of the house. Duly we trooped through the house and out the back door to take a look. Walking down the return – the narrow path that runs down the side of the house to the garden at the back – we were met with an impenetrable jungle of foliage.

Clearly, the garden hadn’t been touched in years and the hollyhocks and roses were up over ten foot, towering above us like Triffids. The photos below show the garden looking left and right from the upstairs, back bedroom window – you can see the corner of the bathroom roof below!

Looking left from the upstairs window
The old shed is under the washing line

It was ridiculously overgrown, with a tumbledown shed at the bottom full of rubbish and no less than three old metal dustbins littered about the small space. One of the bins was full of glass, unwashed milk bottles – that was a lovely discovery!

The only thing to be done was machete everything down to ground level and see what we had. Sadly, there wasn’t a lot that was worth salvaging. The only thing I still have from that original garden is a beautiful old peony bush that blooms for a few brief days of the year. Huge creamy white flowers with a splash of raspberry ripple, they smell divine and I can’t imagine how old this plant must be, at least fifty years old and still going strong.

Looking right – ten foot high hollyhocks and roses

I had so much to do within the actual house – including putting in a kitchen (there wasn’t one) and installing central heating (it only had open fires) – that I simply didn’t have the time or money to do much with the garden. My father and I cleared it and removed old stumps and plants that were so far gone there was nothing to be done but pull them out and start again.

The pictures below show Garden Mark I. Basic and functional, it had a lawn, a shed, new fencing, and a gate. It was an outdoor space and did for a few years while I focused all my efforts indoors. One rather disgusting thing happened though when I was clearing the garden and I still shudder just thinking about it, even though it was thirty years ago. Because it had been untouched for at least a decade, the garden was a paradise for snails. They were everywhere, millions of them, and I knew that they would munch their way through anything I tried to plant.

Looking left from upstairs window

They had to be got rid of. So, I trotted to the nearest garden centre and explained my predicament to a very nice man there. He sold me some extra strength slug and snail pellets, told me to wear gloves when handling them, and make sure I kept my cat indoors until it next rained, as they were so strong it could make the cat sick if he licked them.

The instructions said sprinkle liberally all over the garden. I sprinkled liberally, very liberally. By the time I’d finished it looked like it had been snowing and I went to bed hopeful that my snail problem had been solved. When I got up next morning though, I was greeted with an horrific sight. What the man had failed to mention, and it didn’t say on the bottle, was that the snails would all come to the surface to die. It was like the aftermath of the Battle of the Somme out there. Bodies piled on bodies everywhere I looked.

Feeling guilty about being the cause of such genocide, I got a metal bucket and a shovel and set about trying to clear them up. I had almost filled the bucket with snail bodies when I suddenly realised to my horror that some of them weren’t yet dead! They were writhing and moving around and crawling up the sides of the bucket towards me. I panicked. I put the hose in the bucket and filled it to the top. But of course, snails are aquatic and can swim, and that’s what they did. Now seriously freaked out by this tide of snails crawling over their dead comrades and emerging from the water to seek their revenge, I panicked some more.

Now, I am not proud of what I did next and have no defence except I was freaking out about these creatures that just wouldn’t die! I grabbed a bottle of strong bleach and poured it into the bucket. They exploded into balls of green frothy scum which floated on the top of the water and smelled like nothing I’d ever smelled before! The snails were now all dead, but I had a bucket full of slimy green bodies to dispose of. Just the thought of it still makes me feel sick and is the reason why I won’t ever try snails in a restaurant.

Looking right from upstairs garden

Gradually, over the years, I softened the outlines of the garden. I dug some side beds and planted lots of plants. I bought pots and ornaments and the garden matured and developed nicely.

Left side of garden
right side of garden
Looking down the return into the garden

Then my husband and I decided the garden wasn’t trendy enough for us, it didn’t have a wow factor. So, we both took a week off work and slaved non-stop to create something a little more exciting. The lawn went, to be replaced with pink gravel. The boring patio slabs were dug up. All the fences, the gate and the shed were painted blue.

Left hand side

We painted our table and chair set blue and relocated it further down the garden. We bought a garden fire and introduced different heights into the garden with plant obelisks and wooden shelving for my husband’s collection of bonsai trees. We built raised beds with blue painted wooden edging and painted the back wall of the house cream. We installed a mill stone water feature to get the sound of running water in the garden and bought a ton of new plants.

Right hand side – blue shed

It looked great. Everyone went wow. But it was the most impractical garden ever! Walking on gravel is not great at the best of times, and I’d been in the habit of wandering out into the garden barefoot. Not any more I didn’t. Those stones could really bruise. They also made the wearing of heels impossible, and many a female friend saw her brand-new heeled shoes ruined. Trying to sit in the chairs was also problematic as the legs would simply sink down into the gravel, and the chair would then become impossible to move. But it looked pretty.

Mill stone water feature

We still had a bit of a snail problem, and as my husband was really keen to grow hostas – which snails love – it meant a permanent war was being waged between him and the slimy terrorists, with the snails usually winning. I remember one day he went out there at dawn with a bucket and a torch. It had just been raining all night, so the snails were out in force, and he was determined to gather up as many as he could.

An hour later he triumphantly showed me a bucket full of snails. I asked him what he intended to do with them all, and before I could stop him, he had tossed the entire lot over the flint wall at the bottom of the garden. Now, there used to be a bank there and our garden backed onto their carpark. Luckily, that hour in the morning, I knew no bank employees would be parked there. But, at that time I was working for an accountant based at the bottom of our road who used to park his car early in the morning in – yep, you’ve guessed it – the bank’s carpark.

I went to work to find my boss waiting for me. We were paying a visit to one of the pubs we used to do the books for, as their records were all on their computer system and it was easier to do the monthly wages there. We walked around the corner into the carpark and there was his car. Parked exactly opposite where our house would be on the other side of the wall, completely covered with smashed snails and birds having a fabulous breakfast.

Oh no! My boss exclaimed. Look at that! Look at all those snails those birds have dropped all over my car. I kept my mouth firmly shut but told my husband that evening he would have to find some other way to dispose of the victims of the snail war!

Looking back at the house

Then I had a baby, and suddenly the mildly inconvenient garden became hugely unsuitable. It wasn’t too bad while Miss F was a baby and the only time she really went out into the garden was to nap in her pram, but as she grew older and began crawling and walking, it became obvious that the gravel would have to go.

By this point I was divorced and no longer had to take my husband’s wishes into consideration when planning my garden. So, once again my father came to help, and together we made the garden a more suitable place for a young child to play in. He built me a restraining wall to protect my plants, provide extra seating, and the restraining wall could be used as a play surface for toy cars and animals. Some of the gravel was used to create a pathway down to the new, high, sturdy, and lockable gate to keep little people contained. A lawn was put back in to provide a soft play area, and for her second birthday we all chipped in and bought Miss F a cute little wooden playhouse.

Miss F posing in front of her playhouse
and newly planted silver birch sapling 2006

And it was fine. While Miss F was growing up and using the garden as much as she was, it was fine. A little boring, not really what I wanted, but when you’re a parent it isn’t always about what you want, rather it’s what your child needs. The lawn was always scattered with toys and dolls, plastic animals lurked in the undergrowth and in the summer months a small, pink, paddling pool was a permanent fixture turning the grass underneath yellow and giving the cats a handy giant water bowl.

One drawback to the garden was how hot it got in summer. My garden faces East to West, with the sun rising on my bedroom windows at the front of the house, travelling down the fence all day and setting over the flint wall at the bottom of the garden in the evening. From midday onwards when the sun pulled itself over the top of the house, that garden cooked! I mean, seriously cooked.

I remember having friends and family around and us all trying to squeeze under the table parasol to get out of the intense sun. The metal table and chairs would merrily heat up to several thousand degrees and would then inflict third degree burns on any bare flesh that was foolish enough to touch them. Some lovely summer days I didn’t dare let Miss F play out there as it was far too hot for a little person, and I was afraid she’d get heatstroke or serious sunburn.

I needed shade of some kind. So, I bought a tree. Well, I bought two trees to be precise. A small Morello cherry tree to go in the side raised bed, and a Himalayan dwarf silver birch to be planted next to Miss F’s playhouse in the hope it would provide some much-needed shade to it. (See the photo above) The temperature inside her house reached scary levels and again there were many days when she simply couldn’t go into it.

Morello cherry tree in blossom

People said at the time – and still say it now – that I was mad to even consider planting one tree in such a small garden, let alone two. I always replied that even in the smallest garden there is no limit on up. So long as you buy a slow growing, dwarf variety, and crop it vigorously every winter, there is no reason why every garden can’t have at least one tree.

Over the years, both trees have thrived. The cherry tree provides over 50lbs of fruit each year, but we do have to give it a brutal haircut each year to prevent it taking over the garden. The tiny silver birch has also grown quite considerably and is now a beautiful young tree providing dappled shade and movement in the garden on even the hottest days.

Silver birch 2011

The garden served a purpose during the years Miss F needed it to be a safe, practical place for her to play, but it was never my dream garden. That, I had to wait for. Next week, I will take you on a tour of what my garden looks like now, and talk you through all the changes that have occurred to make it the pretty little haven it is now.

Take care everyone, wherever you are and whatever stage of isolation or emergence you are at, stay safe and stay well. Below is a poem from my book Eclairs for Tea and other stories (available from Amazon) which was written during the period of child-friendly garden, when plants were left to grow, and grass was rarely cut.

Julia Blake

~ This is Heaven ~

Where the birds sing and the bees hum,

And the afternoon sun catches and stays

Baking paths and metal chairs

Until they bite at unwary flesh.

Where I learn how to breathe again.

Where she creates a fantasy land,

A world peopled with little folk.

Where flowers nod and blossom drifts

From an over-fertile cherry tree,

Thick with promise of dark, sweet fruits to come,

The delights of jam, pies, and cherry brandy.

Here, now, this is heaven.

A red tin watering can inexpertly plied

As she waters with careless abandon

Plants, lawn, paths, and feet all thoroughly soaked.

A slumbering cat, bonelessly sprawled in a plant pot,

Flecks of sun-hardened soil sprinkling its soft belly.

An indignant, shocked protest

As it too is watered in hopes it may grow.

An Englishman’s home may be his castle,

But for this Englishwoman it is her garden.

This tiny, non-descript plot of land

Bound on all sides by house and fence,

Yet, look up, look up,

Above is ten thousand acres of sky.

A bowlful of water for the making of mud pies,

Long grass for a jungle, home to so many animals,

That on the rare occasions I mow

A thorough search must be mounted

To ensure no loss of plastic life.

I am reliably informed fairies inhabit our garden.

Drawn by its disordered unruliness and wild abandon.

And sometimes, eyes half-closed against the sun,

Senses tuned into the busy thrum of nature,

I fancy I see them, quick and jewel like,

Darting and weaving,

Their wings incandescent blurs of movement.

She makes a snail farm.

Suppressing shudders, I watch as she searches

Dark secret places for livestock,

Confidently plucking each up by its shell

Displaying green frilly underskirt.

Delighting when one ventures probing horns

From its tawny home.

She finds a green beetle, carapace hexagonal.

Watching for what seems hours

Its patient scrambling over the obstacle course

She has built for its amusement,

And I sympathise with its frustration,

Its forever climbing of twigs and leaves.

Antennae vibrating in questioning bafflement

It scurries in endless circles,

Before she finally grows bored and sets it free.

I’m given cups of delicious mud tea,

My plate piled high with gourmet delights

Such as twig soup and dandelion cake,

Which I eat with appreciative relish

Until she is satisfied, and I can return with relief

To my glass of Chardonnay.

Droplets of cold condense on my palm,

The shock of icy tartness on my tongue.

I tip my head back, eyes shut,

Feel the caress of sun warm on my face.

Where time stands still

And an afternoon lasts forever,

Where a child can imagine; and an adult forget.

Where secrets are whispered; and promises made.

Here, now, this is heaven.

Where I’m a little bit cross and have a rant!

I had to block someone on Instagram this week. Well, I didn’t have to, but I wanted to. Usually when I block someone it’s a stupid man sending me inappropriate messages, or it’s someone trying to sell me something (I don’t even know what a bitcoin is, but I’m pretty sure I don’t want one). This time, however, it was someone I’ve known on there for a very long time. She’s not part of my inner circle but was close enough. This person – let’s call her Karen because everyone else will – always did have an astringent side to her. Every now and then, she’d bitch slap me on one of my own posts, take a jokey meme way too seriously and get stroppy about it, or lecture me about my life choices. I’ve always let it ride up until now. But not this time.

I don’t know what your feelings are about this Corona thing, but I think we can all agree it’s not a good situation. So, when she stated on my post that it’s a big fuss over nothing, and we shouldn’t all be under house arrest, I was annoyed. Then she went on to state that her immune system was strong and healthy, she didn’t know anyone who’d even had it, let along died from it, so it was all a load of nonsense as far as she was concerned – and she’d done her research, so she should know. It’s no worse than the flu, she claimed.

When I pointed out that over 40,000 deaths in the UK alone was a bit more than just the flu, she retorted with the remark that all those who’d died had underlying health issues so were clearly going to die anyway.

First of all, shut up. Anyone who states on social media that they know more than the world’s medical and scientific experts needs to be prepared to show qualifications in those fields before I will pay them any attention.

Secondly, could you be any more callous if you tried? Those people would have died anyway?! I beg to differ, and I expect their families and friends would be shocked to the core to be told that it didn’t matter their loved one had died of Corona, because X, Y or Z would have killed them anyway. Her statement was also inaccurate because thousands of those poor souls who have died did not have any underlying health conditions, and even if they did, that doesn’t mean they were expendable.

Thirdly, that “I’m alright Jack, sod anybody else” attitude really offends me. Okay, so maybe you are fit and strong and healthy, maybe you do think it’s wrong to be in isolation. That’s your opinion, and we are all entitled to them. Maybe you do decide to take your family down the road to see Auntie Madge. Fine, that’s your decision, and it isn’t really endangering anyone else except you, your family, and Auntie Madge. And maybe you and your friends do decide to congregate in your garden and have a barbecue, because it’s a lovely sunny day and why should you be forced to give up your social life for a bunch of weak people who are probably going to die anyway – herd immunity, that’s what it’s all about. Again, that isn’t really endangering people outside your social circle.

But when you decide to crowd into shops and outdoor spaces, refuse to stay away from others who are obeying the rules and social distancing, and think it’s fun to scare people by coughing in their faces, then that’s no longer you being a dick and making a choice to endanger just yourself and your family – that is you taking away other peoples right to make a choice to stay safe.

Sure, you may not give a hoot about your own well-being, but you should still respect that other people are very scared about the whole situation. That although people may look healthy on the outside, you have no idea what their medical condition is. Maybe, and I know this might be a strange concept for you to grasp, they don’t want to be the one to carry this virus home to a loved one who is vulnerable to it and be the reason why they die. Because whether the effects of this virus are just like a bad dose of flu to the vast majority who catch it, one thing everyone is agreed on is the sheer contagiousness of this virus. And that is why we are in isolation and social distancing. Not because we will probably die if we catch it, but because we will almost certainly become a carrier and pass it on down the line to others who are not so fit and healthy – and whatever Karen might have to say about the matter, no one deserves to die before their time simply because someone else couldn’t be bothered to keep their distance and thought it didn’t matter.

So, that’s why I blocked her. She is gone from my life forever – if only it had been that easy in school – and I don’t have to put up with her tactless comments anymore.

Anyway, rant over, but I’m sure you have come across the same and not just on social media. Here in the UK we are still in the grip of it, the daily death rate is in its hundreds, and it’s too soon to be planning big parties. That was another thing Karen lectured me on, not supporting local businesses because I happened to mention that I’m not getting takeaways whilst this virus is still so virulent. Apparently, not being willing to risk my health and that of my family, for a Starbucks coffee or a McDonald’s makes me a terrible person. I never bought those things anyway, so why I would suddenly want to now is a mystery. Again, if someone wants to get takeaways that is their choice, but I’ve had many friends who’ve worked in the catering industry over the years, and I’ve heard enough horror stories about what goes on in restaurant kitchens to put me off eating out and getting takeaways at the best of times, let alone when a virulent global pandemic is raging.

Okay, the rant really is over now.

So, what has everyone been up to in the two weeks since I last blogged – and I would like to apologise for being Missing in Action last week. The truth was I simply had nothing to say about anything – I know! Imagine that! – and furthermore was becoming very stressed about it. All last Saturday morning, I fretted and worried because time was ticking on and I still hadn’t written a word. Then it suddenly struck me that the world wouldn’t end just because I missed a week. That the six people who read my blog (hello there) would forgive me.

Again, the week has flown by and every day has been busy, although I know I go at a much more relaxed pace now, and I think it’s doing me good. I’m sleeping better and for longer. I’m calmer and happier. I don’t think I had fully appreciated how much my non-stop life was exhausting me, and that trying to cram too much into too few hours was taking its toll. This unique opportunity to slow down, relax, and even come to a complete stand-still now and then, has done me good. To be honest, I am going to find it hard to go back to how things were, and know I need to explore ways to take the stress out of my life and try to carry some of this present calmness into the future. To not allow myself simply to be sucked back into the madness so all these weeks will have been for nothing.

I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way either.

Last Sunday I did a major shop, and I mean major. Up until now, I’ve been dashing to the local shop on foot once a week and foraging for what I could get. Just before going into lockdown I had done two large shops and stocked up with food and other essential items, but those had all gone. I needed to do another big shop, so took the car to Waitrose first thing Sunday morning before it had even opened. Usually, by going to the store at this time on a Sunday, I’m practically the first one there and have the shop almost to myself. But this time the queue was already stretched around the carpark, with people clutching the handles of large trolleys with the anticipation of battle in their eyes.

When I finally got in it was the most crowded the shop has ever been, which made me a little tense. With a two-sided A4 list instead of a few items scribbled onto the back of an envelope, this shopping experience was very different from what I had become accustomed to, and it was with relief that I started loading my purchases onto the till. The lady on the till was very helpful, giving me time to pack my bags one end, before rolling more stuff towards me.

I happened to mention how busy they were, and she rolled her eyes at me. She didn’t know why, she said, but the last three days had been manic. Double the normal amounts of customers, and most seemed to be doing really big shops, like mine. Not what they had become used to over the weeks since lockdown commenced.

I wondered why this might be. It could be because everyone did a month’s shop before the commencement of lockdown and so their supplies were running low, as mine were. Or perhaps they had the same gut feeling that they needed to stock up ready. Ready for what, I’m not sure. But we are well supplied now and have no need to go shopping again for quite some time.

In other news, the weather here has been gorgeous this week, so I finally started painting the garden fences. This is a job that has been outstanding for years, but because it’s such a massive task I have done my usual procrastination and put it off. To be fair though, when I’m working it’s absolutely the last thing that I want to do on my days off. But now I have no more excuses.

Thursday dawned nice and sunny, so I put on my painting clothes and opened the paint. Now, my garden has the colour theme of blue and cream and the fences down the right-hand side have already had a coat of blue paint, as has my tiny shed, the pergola, and the gate. But the fence down the left-hand side hasn’t been painted at all. Then I have quite a few trellis panels dotted around, and they have all been painted cream, Although, my garden is only small, there are a lot of fences. From the back door down the left-hand side of the garden to the boundary at the bottom, it’s about a 30’ stretch, and the right-hand fence is about 18’. That’s a lot of fence to be painted. Much of it is difficult to get to as well, involving squeezing behind plants and a cherry tree, dismantling a water feature, and moving two coal bunkers and a log store. You can see why I’ve been putting it off.

Now, the paint I bought when I painted the shed, pergola etc was a colour called Boathouse Blue from the company Wilks. However, when I went to buy some more in early March that colour had been discontinued and replaced with a colour called Beach Hut Blue, which looked exactly the same. At least according to the little round colour spot on the tin it did.

I did a little googling, and it turned out that another company also did a fence and shed paint called Boathouse Blue, and I wondered if Wilks had been forced to change the name of theirs because the other company had it first.

I bought two large tins, after all – Boathouse/Beach Hut – how different a blue could they be? The answer, very different. I opened the tin. Far from the lovely bluebell blue I was expecting it was a sickly, creamy colour with a bluish tinge. Hmm. I thought, stirring it vigorously. Not quite what I was expecting, but I was sure it would be fine. So, I took it down to the bottom of the garden and made a start. One fence panel in and I was not sure about it AT ALL. It went on like an undercoat of paint and dried up like dirty dishwater.

By the time I stopped on Thursday I was still very unsure. But I’d started and had two large tins of the stuff, which of course I no longer had the receipt for, so I had no choice but to plough on. Never mind, I thought, I’ll do a coat and see how it dries up. If I still hate it, then I’ll simply buy a different colour and do the second coat in that.

By Friday morning however, the paint had had overnight to dry and was beginning to look better. It’s still not as vivid as the Boathouse Blue colour I was expecting, instead it’s a silvery greyish blue, but I think it might actually work better on the fence it’s going on. The left-hand side of my garden never gets any sun and after years of trying to make conventional plants grow there, I eventually had to give up and do my research about what plants thrived in shade. So, I now have a small Morello cherry tree which always provides a good 50lbs of cherries every summer. There are numerous different fuchsias and ferns, plus hellebores, Solomon Seal, and hardy geraniums. Basically, it’s a shady woodland garden and I think this lighter blue with its slightly pearlescent finish will work very well to brighten up a rather gloomy side of the garden. I have even bought a 49’ string of solar powered twinkling star-shaped lights to drape all along the fence and up into the tree. They come with eight different mood settings, including one called fireflies, which sounds very exciting.

I have a small water-feature in my garden which is as charming as it’s tiny. It creates a lovely sound but because it is so small the water tends to disappear quite quickly and it’s important to remember to turn it off when not in the garden. However, a couple of years ago I forgot, and when I next went out into the garden it was to find that I’d burnt the pump out. I’ve been meaning to buy a new one, so over the next week I will pull the old one out and buy a new one online.

The ivy has also been rampaging all over it completely unchecked, so I’ve pulled all the ivy off and laid it down on the ground. I need to get behind the feature to paint the fence, so I might as well tidy up all the old leaves and mulch that have accumulated, clean and repaint the piece of trellis from behind the feature which is what the ivy was supposed to be growing up. When all the painting has been done I will reattach the trellis to the fence, trail the ivy back up it, thread my twinkling firefly lights all through it and get the newly cleaned and restored water feature in working order again.

As many of you know, one of my most popular books is called The Forest ~ a tale of old magic ~ and its cover is a stunning, atmospheric picture of the Green Man of legend. Well, I have always wanted a Green Man of my own, so this morning I ordered myself a wonderful one which I will hang from the trellis above the water feature. I mean to half hide it in the ivy so he will peer out at you.

These past two months have made me appreciate my garden, and maybe fall in love with it all over again. It is small, but it’s a really sweet, peaceful and safe haven. It’s my garden, so I can do with it what I please. If I want to have blue fences, I can. Cream trellis work, why not? Twinkling star lights everywhere, bring it on. I love quirky and odd little curios in my garden. People’s gardens are so personal to the kind of person they are. If they have plants all lined up like a battalion of soldiers, each the exact same distance from the next, then that says quite a lot about what that person wants from life. Order. But if someone’s garden is a little tangled, a touch overgrown with plants rambling where they will, then that person welcomes a little chaos and natural disorder in their world.

In other news, my poor cat has a nasty place on the bottom of her back which she will not leave alone. I think she’s been in a fight or rather, judging by where the wound is, has run away from a fight. She’s licked and licked and licked herself bald in that spot, and it’s very unpleasant to look at. I left it for a bit, hoping it would heal by itself, but it doesn’t seem to be going away, so Friday morning I telephone the vet to find out what the protocol was.

I felt it couldn’t be considered an emergency, and the vet agreed. Instead we took pictures of the wound which the vet examined and agreed it was mildly infected and the important thing was to stop her licking it and give it a chance to heal. Saturday morning, I drove to the vets and parked in the carpark. I then had to telephone a special number to let them know I was there. A moment later the door opened, a hand came through the gap and a bottle was placed on the ground. The door then firmly shut, and I was able to retrieve the bottle.

Regular, long term readers of my blog will know dodgy dealings in carparks is a bit of a thing with me!

And now it’s Saturday evening, whilst writing this I’ve been cooking one of my favourite meals of chicken in a creamy tarragon sauce with crunchy roasted new potatoes and carrots. The sauce contains about 2oz of white wine, so that means a whole bottle has been opened. Hmm. Wonder what I can do with the rest. You have to look for the small pleasures in life.

Stay safe and stay healthy everyone, and hopefully, I will be back next week and maybe I’ll even remember to take some photos of the garden,

Julia Blake

The Most Boring Blog Ever!

It’s 8am on Sunday and another week has rolled by so quickly I’m not sure where it went. I’ve been busy all week editing the first three books of the Blackwood family saga ready for republication soon, and my eyes are tired of wearing glasses and looking at a screen.

All day yesterday I kept thinking – “I must write my blog” – but the sun was shining so I pootled about the garden instead, I had breakfast out there with Miss F and I made six bookstack challenge posts for Instagram next week.

In short, I did everything but write my blog.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy my blog, because I do. And I know there are people who read it religiously every Sunday and I certainly didn’t want to let them down – all six of them. It was more I was tired. Tired of looking at my glowing laptop screen and tired of words. So tired of words. In fact, after a whole week of moving words around, taking them out, putting them back in again, and looking for the bad words that I’ve used one too many times, and yes, I am looking at you – just, suddenly, really and only – there was a real reluctance to look at any more.

As any author will tell you, editing sucks. Oh, not in the beginning, it doesn’t. In the beginning when you’re still in love with your story and it’s all fresh and shiny and new, it’s great fun. Polishing and perfecting it. But. When you’ve gone through it a gazillion times and you’re still finding things to fix, then it’s not fun anymore. In fact, you are so sick of looking at your story that the temptation to just forget the whole thing is immense. And you know, no matter how many times it’s edited, no matter how many editors, beta readers and arc readers look at it, there will always be that one mistake that is missed by everyone. Like a cockroach behind the skirting board it will lurk, waiting until the book is published and you hold your beautiful paperback copy in your hands for the first time. You open it up to feast your eyes on this masterpiece you have created and wham – that’s when it hits you between the eyes – the error on page 56.

Usually it’s not a massive error, it’s a missing full stop or a too instead of a to, no one else will probably even notice it’s there. But you know it’s there, and yes, it is possible to change it and republish it, but is it worth all the hassle of having to get another pdf made simply for that?

So, that’s what I was doing all this week. And sorting out new covers with my cover designing team and trying to write blurbs – which as any author will tell you is the hardest thing about writing a book – an 80,000 word story which all ties together and has a beginning, a middle and an end – no problem. A succinct blurb of under 200 words that effectively sums up the story without giving away any spoilers, and that tempts the reader to buy the book without putting the entire plot on the back cover – impossible. I’ve seen many a writer reduced to tears by writing the blurb. And I’ve had three of them to do this week.

I was also rather stuck for what to write this week. After all, it’s not like I’ve gone anywhere or done anything exciting. I’m sure you don’t want to hear about my single trip to the post office where a man in front of me in the queue couldn’t stop coughing and everyone in the queue, as one entity, moved back to give him and his possibly germ infested breath, lots of room.

Or how I went shopping and did my usual forage of whatever I could find on the shelves before scuttling home again, so relieved to be able to close my front door on the world for another week.

Maybe you would be interested to hear that the previous week I spent a very long day deep cleaning my bathroom? I managed to remove the shower screen and propped it up into the bath and spent hours simply going at it again and again with some very powerful limescale remover I’d bought and some mould remover. ** note, do not mix these two together. Trust me on this one. Unless you want to be forced from the bathroom wheezing, with your eyes tearing and your lungs feeling like you’ve just inhaled acid, keep these two far apart! **

When I’d finally finished, Miss F came in for an inspection.

“The shower screen!”

“What about it?”

“You can see through it! I didn’t know it was supposed to do that!”

I told you it was powerful limescale remover. It took several applications and much scrubbing and even chipping at the layers, but I finally got off stuff that I think pre-dated the Jurassic period. Oh, the joys of living in a very hard water area.

On a depressing note, I think my dishwasher is finally kaput. It’s been getting more unreliable over the past few years. There are certain “dead zones” in there, that I know if I put things in that zone they won’t be cleaned, but now it’s like I forgot to switch the machine on at all. Stuff is coming out as dirty as it went in. So yesterday I once again took the filter apart and thoroughly cleaned it, I topped it up with salt and rinse aid, and I used an expensive dishwasher cleaner on it. Has it made a difference? I don’t know. We’ll find out when we next use it.

I hope it can be salvaged. Although it is seventeen years old it was a very expensive, top of the range model, and I have looked after it, to replace it is going to cost me a lot of money. As well, it’s one of those built into the cupboard ones so that limits the models I will be able to choose from. Once I’m allowed to, I will get Rob my trusty appliance man, to take a look at it. It’s possible there’s a problem that can be fixed and keep the machine going for a little while longer.

Miss F got her college results back for the year. Luckily, she and most of her class, had managed to complete the majority of their exams before lockdown. There were a couple of presentations she had to complete at home and submit via the internet, and one rather interesting practical demonstration she had to do via Skype involving our long-suffering cat and a towel which left the cat a bit traumatised. I am happy to say though, that pending additional points that will be awarded once her work placement report is finalised, she has passed this year’s exams with at least a merit and possibly a distinction.

It’s all she needs to be able to move up to the next level in September – if the colleges are all open again by then, that is. She has now completely finished with her college work for this school year, and even if schools reopen for the summer term, I don’t think she will be going back to college as there wouldn’t be much point. Although, who knows?

That seems to be the underlying theme at the moment. Nobody knows what is going to happen. We’re definitely in lockdown for another three weeks at least, which I must admit I’m relieved about. But all around me I can feel how frustrated and agitated people are becoming. On my weekly trip up town I have noticed there seem more people out each time. Most are obeying social distancing rules, but many are not.

My own neighbours in my road are all displaying signs of cabin fever and are clutching at any excuse to linger for chats in the street. They begin by religiously obeying the 2m apart rule, but as they gossip you can see them drifting closer and closer together. They are also in and out of each other’s gardens and again not adhering strictly to the rules of 2m apart and don’t share food from each other’s kitchens. I can understand it, I can, but at the same time it makes me uncomfortable.

It was VE Day on Friday and the Government sent out very mixed messages about coming together to celebrate but still obeying social distancing rules from your front garden. Well, I live in a Victorian street where the houses don’t have front gardens, not really. A short path and steps up to the front door, is all you get.

We hung out whatever flags and bunting we could get hold of, there was wartime music being played from someone’s house and people stood outside their houses with a drink of something and called out to each other, and that was nice. But then, after a while and as I expected, people began to drift up and down the street chatting to each other, and again, the 2m rule began to be bent, ever so slightly. At that point, I said goodnight and went indoors. They are lovely people, but at the end of day, I don’t know where they’ve been or who they’ve been in contact with.

The weather has been very changeable, after all those weeks of gorgeous sunny days and balmy evenings, it suddenly changed to cold, wet and windy, and the sheer weight of water knocked a piece of my guttering loose at the front of my house. This caused much consternation amongst my neighbours who all rushed to tell me that I must get it fixed or it would cause major problems. Yeah, no kidding? Easier said than done though in the middle of a lockdown. Luckily, the problem has been fixed without too much effort on my part. The neighbour opposite to me has had decorators re-painting all his exterior windows this week. They are a local firm who have carried on working but only on exterior jobs. They are a husband and wife team in isolation together and live in the town so can pop home whenever necessary for lunch and toilet breaks.

Anyway, I was in the garden on Friday collecting in the washing, when Miss F came running out to tell me that there was a man at the front door asking to speak to her mum. Curious, I went to see, and it was the painter from across the road asking if while he was there with his extra long ladder, would I like him to fix the gutter for me?

I was delighted and offered to pay him, but he refused to take anything, scuttled up his ladder and pushed the gutter back into position. But, I did ask him to give me a quote for sanding down and re-painting my fascia boards as they haven’t been done since about 1909 – certainly not in the thirty years I’ve been living her – and they look terrible and desperately need doing. So, they will be coming back next week, weather allowing, to get this job finally done.

Speaking of finally getting things done, we at last have a working doorbell. After at least twenty years of mine not working and having to stick a little note over it ordering people to KNOCK, Miss F ordered us a wireless one from Amazon. With brute force and ignorance, I managed to prise the old one off the front door – the screw had corroded into place – and screwed the new one on.

It’s really fancy – with two receivers that you can plug in anywhere in the house and about fifty different ring tones! It will be useful to be able to take one of the receivers outside and plug it into the outside socket in the garden. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been out there and heard the phone ringing indoors, so have come running in to answer it, only to find it’s someone standing on my front doorstep unable to make me hear their frantic knocking.

What will happen in three weeks-time, I don’t know. I work for a company selling beds and mattresses, which in the short term can in no way be considered essential. Indications are that lockdown will be eased gradually, with the more essential businesses opening up first. Like I said, beds aren’t immediately essential, so I don’t know if that means we’ll be left in lockdown for longer. I’ve heard nothing from my firm, other than the odd reassuring text from my manager checking that we’re all okay and still alive, so all I can do is wait to be given instructions.

The temperature is due to drop next week, but still remain dry, so I’m thinking I should begin on the mammoth task of painting my garden fences. I know me. If I go back to work and I haven’t even started the job, then that paint will remain in the shed for another year or two. But, if I have at least made a good start, then the impetus will be there to finish the job. I’ve dusted off my old iPod which I can listen to the radio on, together with a pair of lightweight headphones. Painting fences is such a boring job that I’ll need something to stop me going insane. If I can do even just a couple of hours a day then perhaps over the next three weeks, I’ll make real inroads into the job, maybe even finish it. I will keep you all posted.

This is not the most exciting blog I’ve ever written, but at least I’ve written something. I was reluctant to break the habit as I’ve managed to produce a blog every single week (with the exception of Christmas) for almost a year now.

I hope you all enjoy your Sunday – as most of you know, it’s sofa Sunday for me and Miss F, when we slob on the sofa and binge watch films with snacks and drinks, and there’s pizza for dinner. We’re now watching our way through all the Marvel films in the correct viewing order. We’re up to Thor 1 and also Avengers Assemble, if there’s time. I enjoy these Sundays when we completely relax and do nothing but watch movies all afternoon, but I wouldn’t want to do it every day. That would very quickly become boring.

My tea is long gone and somehow, I’ve dredged up 2400 words. I’m now going to make coffee and breakfast and get this day started, so, stay home, safe safe, stay healthy.

Julia Blake

The Show Must Go On!

A couple of weeks ago I chatted about the inspiration behind my fantasy novel Erinsmore. How it was a trip to see The Lord of the Rings musical in the West End of London that sparked the idea that would sprout into my own epic fantasy tale. Since then, several of you have messaged me to say how much you enjoyed that memory, and did I have any more like it? Well, I do, so because I’m bored of talking about isolation and the current situation, I thought I’d take you all with me on a trip down memory lane.

Lord of the Rings

When did my love of musicals begin? Well, it must have been when I was about 14 and went on a fabulous school trip to London. This was in 1981 and we all piled onto a coach very early one morning and went to London Zoo for the day. It was a zoo so it was great, although I had stupidly decided to wear new summer sandals that day without breaking them in first and by the end of the first hour walking around looking at all the animals, I was in real trouble. What we did about food I have no recollection, probably we’d been ordered to take pack up so we would have been carrying that around with us as well.

In the evening, we went to see the brand-new Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical “Cats” which had only been open a few weeks but already had received rave reviews. How our drama teacher had managed to get us tickets, I have no idea. I do remember our seats were quite high up, but it didn’t matter, because the whole stage was spread out below us. None of us had ever been to a West End show before, so had no idea what to expect. Back in the late seventies/early eighties travelling all the way up to London to see a show was almost unheard of and was something other people did.

Anyway, there we all were, about 60 of us and several teachers, spread over several rows, fidgeting and whispering with excitement as the lights went down and it crashed into those opening bars of that now iconic music.

I didn’t know what to expect. To be honest, I’d begged to be allowed to go more for the zoo than for some strange show in the evening, and besides, by now my feet were just ten screaming blisters where my toes used to be and I had a strong suspicion when I took my socks off that night they’d be full of my own blood. But when that music started, I forgot everything and was instantly carried away to the back alleys and streets where the cats lived.

We were extremely fortunate, although we didn’t grasp it then, but the cast we saw were the original and the best, filled with stars and soon-to-be-stars, and it was extraordinary. How about this for a cast list – Elaine Paige, Brian Blessed, Wayne Sleep, Sarah Brightman, Paul Nichols and Bonnie Langford.

Cats

Totally spellbound, we all sat glued to our seats bursting into wild applause at the end and jumping to our feet with excitement when a very familiar figure walked onto the stage carrying that famous red book. Yes, it was Eamon Andrews from This is Your Life, come to take Wayne Sleep straight away to film the show. It was the cherry on the top of an amazing cake and that was it. I was bitten by the West End bug that night and it’s never really left me.

Being only 14, living in a small town and always being permanently broke, I didn’t have another chance to take in a West End show for several years. Although I did see various other productions performed locally. Shows such as Fiddler on the Roof and Oliver Twist that deepened my love of the grand musical.

It wasn’t until I had left home and was earning my own money that I entered into a “show” period in my life, when I was going up to London to see a show at least once a year and sometimes more often. A local coach company offered very good deals on theatre excursions where you’d pay one price and get designated coach seats right to the theatre and back again, plus excellent seats at a London show – they could buy in bulk in advance so the seats were generally extremely good. Not having to worry about driving to London or trying to park was also a huge advantage. It meant that I and whoever I’d gone with could find a fabulous restaurant to have an amazingly long and boozy lunch in, then fall into the show secure in the knowledge that at the end of it the bus would be waiting outside for us. We generally did the matinee as it meant not such a late homecoming, especially if it was a work night.

I remember going to see The Lion King with my favourite cousin on one of those coach trips. We fell into a Loch Finn restaurant both starving hungry and ordered smoked salmon for starters and their huge sharing seafood platter between us for the main course. This thing was astonishing. A large, three-tiered metal contraption was placed on the table between us. The bottom tier simply held an empty bowl, for the rubbish, we were informed. The middle tier was a massive platter of chipped ice containing tiger prawns, cockles, mussels, razor clams, crab, lobster, crayfish, and edible seaweed. The top tier was a bowl containing hot mussels in a white wine and garlicky creamy sauce. All served with hot, salty, thick cut chips plus tons of bread and butter to mop it all up with, it was easily the most delicious thing we’d ever had, and we ate it all.

We’d gone into the restaurant at eleven and the matinee didn’t start until three, so we had plenty of time. Unlike all the others on the bus who’d travelled up with us, we had no desire to fight our way to Oxford Street to go shopping. No, food was much more important and such food! We ordered another bottle of wine. They cleared our table and we just chatted and drank and relaxed for a good hour before deciding we didn’t want dessert, but we would have cheese. So, we split a cheeseboard.

Another hour passed, we’d had coffee, and both used their facilities a couple of times. We still had ample time bearing in mind the theatre was next door and our seats were obviously pre-booked.

I think the staff had grown quite fond of these two funny, happy people who kept ordering wine and sat there as all the other lunchtime diners came and went. We still had 30 minutes to go when we waved them over and said that yes, actually we would like dessert now and the bill please. Finally, at 2:55pm, we staggered out of there and found our seats – third row from the stage, if you please – and settled back not knowing what to expect and wondering how much like the Disney film it would be. The answer was, just like it, but a hundred times better.

Have you ever seen the show live? If you get a chance to, then I highly recommend you do. It is astonishing. As we sat in our seats, only a little bit blurry around the edges from all that lunch, the lights went out, a giant sun arose over the back of the stage, and that all too familiar African cry resounded over the theatre. Gradually the sun came up and there were animals all around us. Monkeys climbing down from the boxes, birds flying overhead, jaguars prowling onto the stage, an elephant parading down the aisle. Of course, we knew they were humans dressed up and operating puppets, but it’s so cleverly done and so beautiful that you simply forget that and believe in what you are seeing.

I have since seen The Lion King again, this was in 2007. Miss F was about three years old, certainly pre-school age. I’d always said I would take her to see it when she was old enough to appreciate it, but then a rumour went around that it was closing. I panicked, I really wanted to take her, so I booked tickets and I and my friend Becky went up on a coach trip to London.

We found a lovely friendly Italian restaurant right next to the theatre where they made such a fuss of Miss F and had a nice lunch. Pasta was and still is her favourite food. Poor Becky had a mishap though when a big dollop of red pasta sauce escaped her fork and landed straight on her chest. Unluckily she was wearing a white silk polo neck sweater and it was pretty obvious, but she just laughed and arranged her scarf to cover the stain.

The Lion King

Sadly, our seats were nowhere near as good as my original ones, and we were way up in the gods so the whole opening scenes with all the animals were almost completely lost on Miss F, in fact the whole experience is one she barely has any memory of except eating pasta in a smart restaurant and Auntie Becky spilling her lunch down her white top.

Literally a month later, I was taken to London by friends for the weekend to see Phantom of the Opera – for full details of that trip please look at my blog from three weeks ago “Should Old Acquaintance be Forgot” where Becky and I reminisce all about that trip.

I have seen Phantom of the Opera three times now. The first time was in 1997 when I was taken as a birthday treat by my then husband. Our seats weren’t great, in fact, if I’d had a tin of paint I could have painted the theatre’s ceiling for them while I was up there, and it was a little hard to follow what was going on. The second time was for my 40th birthday when I went with three friends and our seats were in the third row from the stage and that was a whole different experience. Sitting there, my heart in my mouth, as the orchestra crashed into that iconic music and that huge crystal chandelier swung up inches over our heads, we all looked at each other in thrilled awe.

A funny thing happened in the interview though. We had booked ourselves a bottle of rose wine to share between the four of us. We all liked rose wine, and it was a lot cheaper to buy a bottle than buy four individual drinks. They told us that the bottle and four glasses would be on table one ready for us in the interval. This is standard practice in pretty much every theatre in the UK. So, the interval was coming up. Our seats were right by the door that led to the bar and the toilet area. The curtain swished down, two of our party were desperate for the loo and two of us could wait. So, the cross-legged pair hurtled off to be first in the queue for the ladies and myself and another friend legged it into the bar.

We were the first people in there. We spotted our bottle of rose and four glasses on table one, plonked ourselves down and dumped coats and bags on the other two seats to hold them for our friends. The plan being when they got back, we would then visit the ladies ourselves. We were sitting there chatting, when a very annoyed looking elderly lady approached us.

“Excuse me!”

“Yes?” I said.

“I think you’ll find that’s ours!”

“I’m sorry? What?”

My friend and I looked at each other in horrified confusion. In our haste to get a drink, had we inadvertently grabbed somebody else’s? No, I pulled the slip of paper out from under the bottle.

“No, look, it definitely says Blake, this is definitely our bottle of wine.”

“Not the wine! The table!”

Now we really were confused.

“The table? What do you mean the table is yours?”

“Well, when we ordered our drinks, they told us they’d leave them on table one for us, and look…” she gestured to a collection of drinks that were also standing on the table. “There are our drinks, on our table, that you are sitting at, So, move please!”

I stared at her, unable to believe her arrogant rudeness. Normally, in a situation like this, I would have been polite. But what the hell? I smiled, patronisingly.

“Oh dear,” I purred. “First time at a theatre is it? They merely meant your drinks would be left on the table, not that the table was reserved for you. There simply aren’t enough tables for everyone in the theatre so it really is a case of first come, first served.”

I paused and took a sip of my wine.

“And in this case, we’re younger and had quicker legs, so the table is ours.”

“Yeah,” drawled my friend. “Nice try, love.”

The woman turned a very unattractive shade of puce and hastily gathered up her drinks and scuttled off back to her friends, who then proceeded to spend the rest of the interval staring daggers at us.

The Phantom of the Opera

My third visit to the show was much later in about 2013/2014 when my mother gave myself and my then sister-in-law tickets to take Miss F and my niece to see the show, plus enough lunch vouchers for a slap up meal at Bella Italia. Again, we had brilliant seats and a great time was had by everyone.

You’d think that Phantom of the Opera would be my favourite musical, you’d think wrong. My absolute favourite is Les Miserables. I don’t know why, but something about that musical reduces me to tears and stirs my heart. I first went to see it in 1996 with my new boyfriend who would later become my husband. My favourite cousin had bought tickets to see the show, together with an early bird dinner at a nearby restaurant to treat her then boyfriend for his birthday. Only, he somehow became not her boyfriend a couple of weeks before the birthday, so she was stuck with the tickets. I offered to buy them off her, not making the connection with the date. I was at college at the time taking two A’Levels and one of my exams was on the same day. The exam finished at 4:00pm in Suffolk. The table was booked for 6:00pm in the West End. Could it be done? My boyfriend was waiting outside the college with his engine running by 3:50pm. I’d explained to the examiner what was happening, and she’d said I could leave as soon as I’d completed the exam, so long as I turned my paper over on my desk and left as quietly as possible.

By 3:50pm I was in the car and we were on our way to London. Managing to struggle out of jeans and a jumper and into a smart dress, and tights, in the front of a fast moving car is no mean feat, but I managed it, and freshened up my make-up and redid my hair. We made it with two minutes to spare and had a lovely dinner before hurrying to the theatre to find our seats. Again, I had no idea what to expect. I’d bought the tickets off my cousin to help her out of a financial sticky situation, so this was very much unplanned and “off map”.

I loved the show. Anyone who’s seen it will know how breathtakingly good, it is, the scenery, the music, the singing are all stunning, and the story of course is rip your heart out and stomp on it sad from beginning to end.

Since then, I have seen it again with my then sister-in-law back in probably 2008, or something like that. She loved it as well, and I know in turn took her mother to see it at least once.

Les Miserables

Then there is Chicago. Now this I’ve seen three times in all. Once in my little local theatre, once in the much bigger Norwich Theatre Royal and once in the West End. But do you know, the version that is my favourite is believe it or not, the version I saw in my local theatre. One of my friends was a student and was registered with the student saver scheme at the theatre. This is where students can phone up the theatre literally an hour before that evening’s performance and if there are any tickets left, can buy them at half price so long as they are registered on the scheme and can produce a valid student card.

Chicago

She’d been round mine for lunch and was talking about this scheme and the things she’d seen, and how great it was that she sometimes went to see things you would never in a million years have normally watched, but had thoroughly enjoyed. Well, by this point we’d had a bottle of wine and it was decided that she’d call the theatre and see what was on that evening and if she could get a pair of tickets, Duly she called them, something called Chicago was on. She looked at me and I shrugged my shoulders. I’d never heard of it, but I was up for anything – this was obviously long before the arrival of Miss F when spontaneous evenings out were still something I could do.

She reserved the tickets and we went. It was amazing. They were a professional touring theatre company who were all incredibly talented. They could all act, sing, dance and play a multiple of instruments – all at the same time. Our seats were in a box right in front of the stage and we loved it. There was something about being right there, almost in the middle of the show, that made it intensely exciting.

Some years later I bought tickets to go and see the show in the West End as a surprise birthday present for my husband. He had no idea we were going to London that day when I handed him an envelope with his birthday breakfast, and an hour later we were on our way to the capital. The show was marvellous, of course it was, it’s a great extravaganza and the music is memorable, but… I must be honest here, it wasn’t as good as the production I’d seen at my local theatre five years earlier.

The last occasion I saw Chicago was about 2010 when I went to Norwich to see it with my sister-in-law. Again, a great performance which we both really enjoyed, but again, it still wasn’t as good as the first time I’d seen it performed.

Chess

Another musical I really enjoyed was Chess, although I never got to see that in the West End, but instead saw it in the Theatre Royal in York where I was on a weekend jolly with my favourite cousin. We hadn’t particularly wanted to see Chess, but it happened to be on the weekend we were in York, so we bought tickets and went to see it. It’s a good fun musical, if a little confusing, and I defy anyone to listen to One Night in Bangkok without wanting to sing along.

During this same period, I went to see Riverdance twice. Originally taking a friend to see it as a birthday treat, we loved it so much we then arranged for a large party of us to go back a few months later and see it. Looking back, I wonder that we all had the time not to mention the money, to take such regular trips to London for shows. Even back then you would still expect to pay £50 or even more for the coach and theatre ticket. But then, we were young so had boundless energy and could laugh at the thought of late to bed on a work night, none of us were married or had children so could go where we wanted without worrying about babysitters or getting back for school runs.

Riverdance

Also, life wasn’t so expensive back then. Utilities and food were cheaper and as these were the days before mobile phones, WiFi and things like Netflix and Amazon Prime, we did seem to have more money to spend on ourselves. We were a big group of friends who really enjoyed spending time together and having fun. Anyone who has read my novel Becoming Lili may be thinking that this sounds familiar and you’d be right. Lili and her gang of friends are very much based on the wonderful group I used to hang with back then.

As a birthday treat for me one year, my then husband bought tickets to take me to see Mamma Mia which had just opened in the West End. We went with one of his work colleagues and his wife, who was a real pain in the bum. Now, as you’ve probably gathered by now, a nice lunch or dinner somewhere is always part of a trip to London. ALWAYS. And it was my birthday, so, surely, my wishes should have been considered. Oh no, turns out his wife had this peculiar eating thing where she took dislikes to the look of a restaurant and flatly refused to even consider eating in it. Okay, fine, if she’d done it to just one or two restaurants. But she did it to every single restaurant we saw! Every. Fricking. One.

I was getting annoyed and somewhat desperate. I was starving hungry. It was my birthday and time was ticking on. We had one hour left before curtain-up, we were on the opposite side of London from the theatre so still had to get there. I’d been promised champagne with my lunch, but that was looking less and less likely to happen.

I shot my husband a look that quite plainly let him know what I thought of the situation, which I think his colleague saw, because he suddenly told his wife they were going to go to the theatre and she’d bloody well eat at the first restaurant we saw close by. But of course, it took us ages to get there leaving us no time to eat in a proper restaurant, so we ended up having a hasty meal in a McDonalds. A McDonalds? For my birthday. Took me a while to forgive my husband for that one, although to be fair to him he had no idea the wife was going to be like that.

Mamma Mia!

I don’t know whether this experience coloured my opinion of the show, after all, sitting there still hungry, no champagne, stone cold sober on my birthday, suffering from indigestion and not particularly keen on the company I was with, would have left me justifiably in a bad mood. But I really didn’t rate the stage show that much. Since then, of course, the film has been made and that I really did enjoy.

Other shows I’ve seen in London include Singing in the Rain, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and The Woman in White. All very enjoyable shows, but The Woman in White was a strange one. Now, I’ve read the classic novel by Wilkie Collins several times, and have seen various TV adaptations so I know the story really well, which is just as well. My then sister-in-law was also a big fan of the story, so when we saw our local coach company were doing an excursion to see the newly opened West End version of it, we were both very keen to go.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers

I remember it was a gorgeous sunny day, we found a beautiful Italian restaurant a short walk from the theatre that had large windows open onto the street. We were there just on midday so had the pick of the tables and chose a lovely one in the window where we could chill, drink wine, enjoy a wonderful lunch and watch London saunter by in the hot sun.

We went to see the show, our seats were two rows back in the dress circle, so not bad. An elderly couple I recognised from the coach sat beside us, and as soon as the lights went down, they proceeded to unpack an entire lunch from lots of plastic bags and Tupperware boxes. I’m not kidding, and we are not talking about a couple of sandwiches consumed stealthily here, we’re talking boiled eggs and ham, crunchy celery and egg salad, tomatoes – which spluttered onto my bare arm when she tried to slice them. Even packets of crisps which they noisily crunched their way through. All topped off with a thermos of tea.

Completely oblivious to the incredulous stares of everyone around them, they merrily chomped down their lunch, while the rest of us tried to focus on the show. Lunch finally over, she packed it all away into the bags with much clicking back on of lids, then decided that all that food had made her hot and fished one of those mini, handheld, battery operated fans out of her bag.

By now, I was engrossed in the show and only vaguely aware of the annoying old couple next to me, until she decided I looked hot and shoved the fan in my face. Shocked, I jerked back, and the bloody thing tangled in my hair.

The Woman in White

After the interval, when I’d had a stiff drink to fortify me against whatever shenanigans they’d get up to in the second half – pudding, maybe a hot and steaming apple pie and custard would come out of those bottomless bags – but I needn’t have worried. After all, they were elderly and had had a lovely big lunch so were a bit sleepy. They fell asleep as soon as the curtain went up on the second half and gently snored their way through the rest of the show until the sounds of applause awoke them from their slumber. With the coach and show tickets coming in at £50 each, that was a very expensive nap!

I’ve just noticed from the word count at the bottom of the page that I’ve been rambling on for over 4000 words. Oops, but once I get started down memory lane it’s kind of hard for me to stop. I really hope you’ve enjoyed coming with me and that you’ll join me again next week on A Little Bit of Blake. In the meantime – stay home, stay safe, stay well.

Julia Blake

How Are You?

Hi there and how are you all? It’s another Sunday, and another week has simply flown by. I thought these days in isolation would drag, but instead they are slipping by so fast it doesn’t seem possible it’s seven days since I last spoke to you. What have I been up to this week? Well, you’ll be pleased to hear I completely spring cleaned my lounge, thankfully – there were still mounds of pine needles behind the sofa and coffee table from our Christmas tree. I’d been meaning to get around to moving the furniture and clearing them up, but somehow, I never had the time. Well, now I have the time, so furniture was duly moved from one side of the room to the other, the carpet was thoroughly swept by hand and then shampooed. Once it was dry, I heaved the furniture back and did the other side.

I found a couple of old tins of Brasso at the back of the cleaning cupboard, with just enough left in them to clean the brass on my fireplace fenders – now this Miss F DID notice had been done, and that they were all “lovely and shiny” but she still refuses to see the difference in all the freshly shampooed carpets and rugs. It doesn’t matter. I saw the colour of the water that came off them, was properly ashamed of my slovenly housewife skills, and know how much cleaner and fresher they are. I also located a tube of Zeebo which still had a tiny amount left in it. For those of you who don’t know, Zeebo is a very old-fashioned product that you blacken your fire grates with. I had just enough to re-blacken the grate in the lounge fire. What with that, cleaning the brass fenders and sweeping my carpets by hand with a stiff bristled brush, I felt like a Victorian scullery maid.

I managed this week as well to get my repeat prescription of hayfever meds, which was a huge relief. I was down to my last two and trust me, you really don’t want to see me not on my meds, especially in the middle of high pollen season. Hayfever affects people in different ways. I don’t sneeze and, apart from a slight irritation, I barely feel it in my nose at all. No, it’s my eyes and to a lesser extent, my throat where I suffer the most. Without the meds (even with them on some particularly bad days) I have a dry, annoying tickle in the back of my throat that makes me cough, a lot. So, don’t want to be doing that in the middle of Waitrose on my weekly shopping trip! But worse is my eyes. This time of year, without the powerfully strong medication I’m on, my eyes are an oozy, swollen, itchy mess and I’m constantly worrying at them with my fingers. Again, not what you want to be doing at the moment.

I had picked up a month’s worth of pills just before we all went into lockdown, so I hadn’t needed to try and navigate the minefield that was getting a repeat prescription until now. Last time I was in town doing my essential shopping, I’d asked at Boots the Chemist if they could fill the prescription. No, they couldn’t, apparently my doctor had to. Try their website, they advised. I went onto my surgery website. No mention of the corona virus at all, other than to tell me to call the NHS helpline if I was concerned about anything. Okay. Thanks.

Then I found a tab labelled ordering online. Brilliant. I went to it. I needed a password and a log in name. Huh? Apparently, I had to be already registered to be able to order a repeat prescription online. Great. How do I get registered? Phone the surgery, the website helpfully informed me. I phoned the surgery. Got a very long-winded telephone message basically telling me not to waste their time but stay at home and either get better or die. And certainly, DO NOT waste valuable staff member’s time answering the phone about repeat prescriptions. They MUST be done online. I went back online, wondering if I’d missed something. Nope. I definitely had to be registered to use the online ordering service and the only way I can register is to call the surgery. I called again. Waited through the whole sermon again and then left a tentative and very apologetic message that I was very sorry I was disobeying orders, but that I really, really, needed my hayfever meds and unfortunately, wasn’t registered to order them online.

I then waited three days. Heard nothing. Had no idea what was going on. Had my desperate plea for drugs been heard by anyone? Had they all rolled their eyes in disgust at the inconsiderate sod wasting valuable staff time by phoning for a repeat prescription?

By this time, I’m completely out of meds so things are a bit desperate. I telephone again. This time I’m almost in tears when I leave my message. I’ve also spotted a couple of email addresses in the small print at the bottom of their website. One to general enquiries and one to the practice manager. Sod it, they both get an impassioned plea.

Finally, after about the sixth time of calling, someone in the dispensary answered the phone. Yes, they’d got my message. Yes, my meds were there waiting for me. And yes, I am now registered to order online. I jump in my car and drive around to the surgery. The carpark is deserted except for a large marquee thing that has been erected, with a rather terse notice on the side telling me NOT to park inside the tent unless I have an urgent, pre-arranged appointment with a doctor. I don’t park inside the tent.

I wander over to the surgery building. It’s all locked up but there’s a window open into the pharmacy with a very homemade barrier erected a good 2m between me and the open window through which, by standing on tiptoe, I can see the dark head of one of the dispensing clerks.

“Hello?”

The head turned and peered out at me suspiciously.

“Yes?”

“Umm, I’ve come to pick up my hayfever meds?”

“Name?”

“Julia Blake.”

“One moment.”

The head disappeared. A long few minutes later it was back.

“Address?”

I gave my address.

“Date of birth?”

I gave my date of birth.

“Very good. Now, catch!”

And she threw the packet of pills out of the window. Luckily, I caught them, but was relieved it wasn’t a bottle of cough syrup or something like that, because I know I would have butterfingered that onto the tarmac! But I have another’s months supply, thank heavens, and who knows what the situation will be like in a month’s time. Will we be out? Or will we be even tighter into lockdown due to all those idiots who refuse to take it seriously and keep insisting on having picnics on Brighton Beach? Either way, at least now I am registered and know the system for ordering a repeat prescription.

After last week’s blog where I mentioned the difficulties of finding flour, any flour, I had a fantastic isolation emergency rations pack left on our doorstep by the fabulous Nicky. She is my daughter’s godmother and an old friend of many years standing. This amazing human being had not only managed to find flour from somewhere – I suspect the Black Market, but maybe she has contacts in the mafia – but also a salted caramel and chocolate cake mix, a net of fresh lemons, bags for making ice cubes in and a beautiful bottle of strawberry and lime gin, which is hands down the nicest gin I’ve ever tried. Now, I know Nicky reads “A Little Bit of Blake” every week so I want to say a massive “thank you” to her. You are a star my love, and there will be a signed set of the first three books in the Blackwood Family Saga that are being released next month, ready for you when we meet up after this weird situation is over.

Along with the carpet shampooer, I’ve also had the loan of my dad’s stepladder for the past three weeks so have been doing all those “up high” jobs whilst I had it. The pergola roof has been patched up where the cat fell through it. My light fittings have been cleaned and bulbs replaced where necessary – we have thirteen-foot-high ceilings in our bedrooms, and it makes it a little hazardous doing anything ceiling connected. I’ve cobwebbed all the high up places, washed all the windows inside and taken down the curtains and washed them. We only have muslin hanging in the windows on the street side of the house, so I took those down, washed them and then re-hung them. Even Miss F noticed that they were now white and not the rather sickly yellow they’d been before. Luckily, it’s been a week of absolutely gorgeous weather here in the UK, so perfect for drying heavy things such as curtains and sofa covers.

I’m almost finished with the spring cleaning. One more push next week and it’ll be done. Monday I will make a start on the bathroom, and then it’s the turn of Miss F’s room. Initially very unenthusiastic about the whole notion, she’s now a bit more interested after we cleared a really high shelf in her room – the stepladder went back Saturday afternoon so all “high up” jobs had to be done by then – and she unearthed a lot of things she’d forgotten she had. She had several of those creepy ornamental dolls that her father had given her up on this shelf, and not only were they draped in thick cobwebs, but she’d decided she really didn’t want them looking at her anymore – which I completely understood. So down they came, had a good clean, and went into a spare suitcase under her bed. Her old childhood books all then moved up a couple of shelves, which left her with a spare shelf.

She was been buying a few bits and pieces for her accommodation at university before lockdown, so decided to keep them on this now empty shelf. There was also room for the pet carrier that Napoleon Tortoise goes into when his little house is being cleaned out, instead of it being on the floor. Miss F’s room isn’t the largest in the world, so any floor space we can clear for her is handy. Just these few little improvements to her room have made her keener to do the rest, so that’s what next week will be dedicated to – the bathroom and Miss F’s room. And then indoors will be done and the week after, weather allowing and if we’re still in lockdown, I will start painting the garden fences.

This will be a mammoth task and is not one I am looking forward to. Although I have quite a small garden, there is a lot of fence – a 20’ length at least down one side, a 15’ length down the other, plus several bits of trellis – all needing at least two coats of paint. The job is made harder by the fact the man who owns the house next door to me is a very unpleasant and unfriendly man. He has warned me that if any of my paint drips through to his side – ANY – I can expect a solicitor’s letter suing me for damages to his property. So that means I have to be really, really, careful and not overload my brush but have to paint practically dry, which takes twice the time. And I certainly can’t use a paint spray gun which would get the job done in hours, rather than the weeks it is going to take. Oh well, it needs to be done, so I might as well do it now when I have the time.

I am pleased at the amount I am getting done during this enforced time of being at home. I know a lot of people are complaining about being bored and stressed, and I would imagine it really depends on what kind of conditions you are isolated in and the company you are forced to keep. Cramped in a small flat with no outdoor space and small children that need to be either home-schooled or kept entertained 24/7, I can only imagine how difficult that must be. I am so aware and thankful how lucky I am that I am living in a lovely home, that is large enough for Miss F and I to lose each other in throughout the day. That we have a pretty and safe garden to get fresh air and exercise in, and that I’ve found enough projects in my home and garden to keep me occupied and happy. I’m also lucky that my daughter is 16, for the most part is self-sufficient and wants to be left alone to talk to her friends and play virtual games online with them during the day, but is still good company in the evening, when every night we sit down at 6pm to have dinner together then an evening of Netflix, films and chat – in front of a fire if the evening turns chilly. I know many are not so fortunate and my heart goes out to those trapped in frustrating, lonely or maybe even dangerous situations.

I know everyone is different and everyone reacts to stressful situations differently. But, and this is just me personally, I know if I simply sat on my backside all day, comfort eating and obsessively watching the news and worrying about what is happening in the world outside and the worst case scenarios of what might happen, then I would go a little bit crazy and I’d be depressed and probably piling on the pounds. I have accepted that there is absolutely nothing I can do about what is happening on the other side of my own front door, but, and it’s a very big but, I do have total control about what is happening on this side of it. So, I choose not to constantly be listening to the news and worrying. Instead, I have made a list of all those jobs I have been wanting to get done for years and I’m doing them! Okay, maybe it won’t make a blind bit of difference in the long run, but at the end of it all, I will have a totally ticked off to-do list and a sparkling clean house. Furthermore, will look back on isolation as a busy and productive time. Whereas all those stressy, sat on their arses doing nothing people, will look back on isolation as merely empty days full of wasted time and will have nothing to show for it. Again, this is only my personal belief, but I think my way is the healthier and saner option.

These are very strange times we are living in, and it seems odd to think that we are part of history in the making. That future generations will look back at this time and maybe even study it in school. I wonder what they will say about our behaviour. Did the human race react to the threat in a sane and sensible manner, doing the right thing not only for ourselves and our families, but also considering the needs of others and restricting our trips outside our homes? And yes, I am looking at you, all those people who crowd onto the beaches and into the parks.

As you know, by the time you read this it will be Sofa Sunday, the one day of the week I allow myself some time off to veg out. I go shopping first thing in the morning as I’ve found there are less people out at that time. I do a few essential chores. Then at midday we both stop whatever we’re doing, meet in the lounge and relax on the sofa with snacks and binge watch films. I chose first and over the past few weeks we’ve watched all of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings films, then Miss F chose and we’re now working our way through all of the Harry Potter films. Nothing else happens that Sunday except films and relaxing and pizza for tea. We both look forward to it all week and it’s fun, because it is a once a week treat, but if I did it all day and every day then it wouldn’t be fun, it would be boring.

Finally, the book fairs I had planned for later in the year have been cancelled so I have a few copies of some of my books left over. I’ve been selling them on social media so have less now than shown in the picture, but if anyone would like a paperback copy of either Chaining Daisy, The Forest or Eclairs for Tea then please let me know. I will of course sign them and include a bookmark with each purchase. The books are available at cost price plus postage and packaging. The price for Chaining Daisy and The Forest is £10 each and Eclairs for Tea are £6 each. Second class UK postage will be £3.50. Although I am prepared to post abroad, be aware that overseas postage is a lot higher. Payment is by PayPal, it’s on a first come, first served basis, and once they are gone, they are gone.

Right, it’s getting late on Saturday evening and there is laundry to bring in off the line and dinner to sort, I’m also out of things to tell you so will wrap it up for the week. Hope you will all join me again next week for “A Little Bit of Blake” but in the meantime,

Stay safe and stay well.

Julia Blake

Launch Week!

Another week has flown by in isolation. Is it just me? Or is anyone else finding that the days are flashing by and you’re beginning to wonder how you ever managed to fit in going to work, what with all the other things you have to do about the house and garden?

What have you all been up to this week? On the home front, I took my dining room apart and gave it a thorough spring clean, including shampooing the carpet and the large rug I have in there. Now, I’ve had this rug for over twenty years, and I don’t think it’s ever been properly shampooed. Needless to say, what came off it was disgusting, and I am properly ashamed of myself.

When I put the room all back together and re-laid the rug, I called Miss F in to take a look. Smugly proud of how bright and clean and sparkling everything was, I waited for the gasps and wows. They didn’t come. Instead she just looked around, grunted, and left. Bit crushed, must admit, that she couldn’t see the difference. But I can see how much better everything looks, even if she can’t, and at least I know how much cleaner it is, so I suppose that’s all that matters.

We continue to stay very close to home. My routine now is to go out just once a week on a Saturday morning, when I scuttle up town avoiding contact with anyone I see, wait to get into my local Tesco Express or Marks & Spencer – I haven’t dared go near one of the bigger stores – and then forage for whatever is available. This week Miss F requested I try and get flour so she can make some cakes. I came back empty handed though because the home baking section had been picked clean – no flour to be had for love nor money.

It makes me a big cross though, when I’m on these brief, necessary excursions, to see elderly and frail looking people tottering about the shops. I even spoke to one lady whilst waiting in the queue for Marks & Spencer – at a safe 2m distance of course – and asked her why she was out. She confirmed what I already knew that there are no delivery slots to be had. Now, I know of several perfectly able people who are still getting their food delivered when they really could go to the shop and leave their slot for someone who really needs it, but I guess their argument would be that even if they did give up their slot there’s no guarantee it would go to the needy. No, some other perfectly able person would probably grab it. It seems a shame that the supermarkets who are delivering still aren’t giving priority to the most vulnerable people, those who really should be at home, not risking their lives tottering up to the shops every day because they can’t carry very much back in one trip.

This crisis has certainly brought out the best and the worst in people.

Although I have been busy all week and have had happy and productive days, Miss F hasn’t. She’s basically completed all the college work she’d been given and is now wallowing about in her PJ’s and watching mindless videos on YouTube. All my suggestions for things she could do are met with eyerolls, so I now leave her alone to get on with it. Although, I have put my foot down and insisted she must go into the garden for at least twenty minutes a day. It’s been almost three weeks since she has set foot outside the house and she’s beginning to look like Wednesday Adams.

One other thing that happened this week was of course the re-launch of my fantasy novel Erinsmore. This happened Thursday and I was initially unsure how it would go. These are strange and difficult times and most authors I know are complaining that book sales are down, not up, which on reflection is not what you would have expected. Forced to stay home with no work or social events to go to, it would seem logical that people would be reading more, not less, yet many of my author friends are finding the opposite to be true.

Beautiful new cover

Bizarrely my sales don’t seem too affected, not yet anyway, so despite being told it might not be a good idea to relaunch now, I went ahead and published the new edition of Erinsmore.

I had prepared as much as I could with some lovely promo posts and ten second teasers. I’d enlisted help from all my friends and followers on social media, and I even had a minute-long amazing video trailer that I hoped would pique people’s interest.

I’m happy to report that launch day went with a bang. I had far more support than I ever expected to get, and even people I’d never really had any interaction with before stepped up to the mark and shared my posts and even bought the book. On the flip side though, there were a few people whom I’ve been close to on social media for many years who sat back and did absolutely nothing to support me, not a like, not a share and not even so much as a congratulation. That did surprise me, but those people will be remembered when they are launching a new book and look to me for support. It may sound harsh, but I’m afraid mutual reciprocal support is really what it’s all about.

It was a long and exhausting day, monitoring posts and shares, trying to respond to each and any gesture of support. As I hopped from Facebook to Instagram and back again, I thought how impossible this would have been ten or even five years ago. I know social media has its faults, but it also has its perks, and it does make it possible for me to be a published author.

I finally stepped back from my tablet at about 6pm, drained and exhausted. Miss F had cooked dinner and I took a five-minute breather to go and sit in the garden – my eyes tend to go a bit buggy if I’ve been looking at a screen for a long time. It’s traditional to have a bottle of something sparkly to celebrate the successful launch of another book, but in the circumstances I didn’t have any, so instead I made myself a gin and tonic and put some frozen berries in it to make up for not having any fresh lemon or ice. I also didn’t have a perfect copy of Erinsmore, only the proof copy, but it didn’t matter. The book was launched and it had been an amazing day.

I’m hopeful that Erinsmore will do well. It’s a fun and engrossing fantasy read which seems to be the most popular genre in these trying times, when people want to lose themselves in a book, but don’t want to read anything too ‘real’.

Since it’s relaunch on Thursday, I’ve had a couple of followers ask me for some background on the story. Where did the idea first come from? What was the inspiration behind the characters?

Well, I guess you could say that Erinsmore has its roots way back in my childhood, when I first discovered the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis. To say I was blown away by them is an understatement. I was a lonely child. I didn’t really have any friends and wasn’t one of those children who wanted to wander around outside by myself. Books were my only refuge – don’t forget this is long before the internet was a thing and also way before all day kid’s TV – so books really were the only way to escape life in a small and confining village.

I think I must have read “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe” first. I’m pretty sure it was, because I remember being so excited when I discovered that there was a book that came before it, explaining the origins of Narnia, and that there were more books that came after it. I must have read those books a dozen times each over the years of my childhood. Each time completely losing myself in the fantastical world within its pages. I dreamed of Narnia, and although I knew it would never happen, couldn’t help wishing that I could find a way to get into it.

As the years passed, I explored other children’s fantasy, especially the books of Alan Garner – “The Owl Service” and “The Weirdstone of Brislingham” – in particular, stick in my mind. I also loved the “Dark is Rising” series by Susan Cooper, and from this gained a love of old British myth and folklore which I’ve never lost and which can be seen in “Erinsmore” and more particularly in “The Forest ~ a tale of old magic ~ also available from Amazon.

In my teens I discovered sci-fi and for a while strayed away from pure fantasy, but then in my twenties I drifted back. Discovering the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit series, then later the “Shannara Chronicles” by Terry Brooks and then the superb epic fantasy series by Robin Hobb, truly the queen of high fantasy. All these books were busy laying the foundations for what was to come in later life.

In about 2007 I went up to London for the day with my favourite cousin. We both had a deep and abiding love for West End Musicals and once or twice a year would save up our money and buy tickets to travel to London with a local coach excursion company to have a meal and see a show.

This time we’d got tickets to go and see “The Lord of the Rings”. An epic blockbuster show, with a reputed huge budget, it flopped mere months after we’d been to see it, but I honestly don’t know why, we absolutely loved it and thought it was amazing. Anyway, we travelled up early in the morning very excited to be having a day away from our usual humdrum lives.

There was some kind of parade happening in London that day and the whole of the city centre was closed to traffic, so instead of dropping us off outside the theatre as was normal with these coach trips, we were dropped off on the embankment and had to walk to the West End.

It was very strange, walking down the middle of London streets with no traffic, and after getting lost a few times we finally found the theatre, orientated ourselves as to where it was and then went to have a good lunch.

Now, as I said, normally we’d be dropped off right outside the theatre and would always find a wonderful restaurant mere minutes away to have a long and wine-soaked lunch in. Knowing our seats were pre-booked and the theatre was only a couple of minutes away, we would stay in the restaurant for as long as possible, then use their facilities (queues for the ladies in West End theatres being almost as long as a performance of The Lord of the Rings) before rocking up at the theatre with just enough time to place our interval drinks order and fall into our seats.

This was what we were used to doing, but neither of us had a watch on so we hadn’t appreciated just how long we’d taken to walk to the restaurant. Seeing a wonderful three-course lunch option on the menu, we both chose that and settled back with a bottle of wine to have a lovely chat and generally relax and enjoy ourselves.

Our starters were brought to us, and, as we started to eat, I happened to notice the time on the clock on the restaurant wall. There was 25 minutes to curtain up. We had 25 minutes to eat a three-course meal, pay, use the facilities, get out of the restaurant, place our interval drinks order and find our seats.

We looked at each other. Mild hysteria ensued. We calmed down. When the waitress came to collect our starter plates, we explained our dilemma. She promised to get our mains out to us as soon as possible, along with our desserts at the same time. In the meantime, she’d bring us the bill and while my cousin sorted out paying it and leaving a tip, I slipped out of the restaurant and ran to the theatre next door.

Hurtling up the stairs, I think I barged through a few people who’d been more organised than us and allowed plenty of time to get there, I then pushed my way to the front of the queue in the bar – I’m sorry, but this was an emergency – placed our interval drinks orders and paid for them, then charged back out, making a mental note of where we had to go to reach our seats. Downstairs, third row from the stage – result!

Getting back, our mains of steak, fries and all the trimmings had just been delivered, alone with two large bowls of raspberry cheesecake. Normally, over the course of a couple of hours, this would not have been a problem. But, stuffing our faces with three courses in less than thirty minutes, well, I really don’t recommend it. We made it to our seats with seconds to spare, still taking our jackets off as the lights were dimmed and it began.

And it was wonderful. Like I said, this show was critically slated and closed after just one year, I don’t know why. Maybe we weren’t as clever as professional critics, but we loved it. It was wild and extravagant, and the orcs were truly terrifying. They wore those curved stilt things on their feet and jumped onto the arms of of seats and ran along the whole row right over the top of the mesmerised and slightly terrified, audience.

Despite having chronic indigestion caused by eating too much, too fast, we had a wonderful time, and rolled out of the theatre at the end in a blissed-out state of good food, good wine and good entertainment. Luckily by now traffic was once again allowed into the city centre and so our coach was waiting for us right outside. Falling into our seats, we exchanged greetings with the guys sitting in the seats behind us who were so cliché nerdy it was funny.

Heading home, they were chatting to each other and to us about the show, Tolkien and fantasy in general, and my cousin happened to comment what a shame it was that fantasy was so male centric. That it was always the guys who got to go on quests and fulfil prophecies and fight in epic battles, never the girls. Don’t forget, this was long before The Hunger Games, Divergent and all the other books and films with kick ass heroines saving the day.

An idea stirred. A story niggled at my mind in which it was a girl who got to do all the things that the guys usually did. No, make that two girls. A pair of sisters. Both very different, but both normal London teenagers who were completely unprepared for suddenly finding themselves in a strange, fantasy medieval type world. I started to get excited. I imagined their dismay at no indoor sanitation, no internet, no coffee! Yes! And they’d be at the heart of a prophecy and go on a quest or two, oh and there had to be dragons. By the time we got home, I’d borrowed some paper and a pen from the obliging nerds behind us and had written the prophecy, drafted up some character notes, and even thought of the name of both this fantasy world and the novel – Erinsmore.

I then spent the next three months writing it, falling in love with this fantastical world and in my head plotting out the next two books in the series. Yes, it is going to be a series when I eventually get round to it. Then I sat on it for eleven years, occasionally digging it out and reading it. It was read by a few family and friends, who all loved it. I even read it to Miss F when she was ten and she has since read it to herself several times. It’s funny though, I’d always envisaged her as Ruby the younger sister, but in Miss F’s view she was definitely Cassie – the feisty, warrior older sister.

In 2018 I finally published it as an independent author and it was very well received, but I always felt it could be so much more. Over the next two years I developed as an author. I grew and learnt and became more skilled at my craft. I found out what could be done with a book and discovered how to use illustrations and graphics to really make a novel stand out in the readers mind. Finally, I put all my ideas together and went to see one of my best friends, Becky Wright.

An author herself, she had recently started a formatting and promotional company for writers, Platform House Publishing, and I knew I would need her help to make Erinsmore the book I was sure it could be. It took many months. For good measure, I had it professionally edited and changed the book size from 5×8 to 6×9. I was planning on adding a lot of pages of illustrations and I also wanted to enlarge the font to make it more striking and reader friendly. Trying to cram all that into a 5×8 just wouldn’t work. Besides, I wanted the book to have heft. I wanted it to feel special in the readers hands. Once the font was enlarged and all the illustrations were entered, it actually came out to be the same size as “The Forest ~ a tale of old magic ~” so it sits nicely beside it on the shelf now.

Becky and her husband James worked tirelessly to make an amazing new cover for the book, a whole range of promotional pictures, three ten second video teasers and a magnificent, minute long video trailer which has stunned all who have seen it, and has been likened to Game of Thrones – but the PG version. She also took all the wonderful drawings I’d found for the book and inserted them in their correct places. I have tried to put the link to the video on YouTube below. I’m not very technically minded, so apologies if it hasn’t worked.

Like I said, a lot of hard work and expense, but it was totally worth it. The book is a thing of beauty and if fantasy is your thing, and even if it’s not, why not give it a try? Suitable for ages 12 and upwards, it is in no way a childish book and many adults have already read and loved it. I think it is what we all need right now, pure escapism. If like me you loved Narnia when you were a child, then this book will call to you in exactly the same way.

Link to book on Amazon UK (I hope)

Then link to Amazon US

And now it’s another Sunday morning and again “A Little Bit of Blake” is late coming your way. Isn’t it funny how now I have so much time in the week to get this written and saved, I’m tending to leave it later and later until it’s too late on a Saturday evening? My gran always used to say, “you fill the time you have” and I think that’s very true.

So, what’s next? Well, book wise I will start working on my romantic suspense short novel “Lost & Found” ready for its re-release. It’s currently with my editor but will be back next week so I can make all her amendments. I will also be busy with Becky Wright working on a new cover and the interior formatting. After that, I will need to do the same with the next book in the series “Fixtures & Fittings” and then the new, as yet unpublished, third book in the series will have to be prepared for publication. I’m planning a big, extravagant publication of all three titles at the same time so a lot of work to do.

Home wise, on Monday morning I’m going to tackle the lounge. It needs a thorough spring clean and the carpet shampooing, so I’m hoping the nice warm weather comes back so I can get sofa covers and curtains dry outside – I daren’t risk them in the tumble drier, I know they’d shrink! The lounge should only take a couple of days and then I’m going to start on the bathroom – and that really does need a deep clean!

As you can see, plenty to keep me occupied next week but I will try to write the blog a little earlier so you’re not waiting for it again.

Hope you have a great Sunday. If anyone is interested, I’ve put the Amazon listing links to Erinsmore below.

Stay safe.

Julia Blake

Happy Easter from Julia Blake

I know it’s late for my blog to be going out, for which I’m sorry. But this week has been so full on busy that by the time I stopped to even consider what I could write about, it was gone 6pm last night and I was tired, so I’m afraid I shrugged my shoulders, said “meh” and made myself a gin and tonic.

So, what has filled this third week of isolation, I hear all six of you who regularly read my blog, cry. Well, Monday I began on my mucky kitchen. Like most busy, working mothers I cruise by with a lick and a promise. I clean the bits that show and promise myself that one day I’ll have a real thorough deep clean. Now, I used to religiously do this either once a year or between lodgers, whichever came first, but, the last three years have been ones of ill health, hospital stays and upheavals in my working life, and I’m afraid spring cleaning got pushed further and further down the list.

I now had no excuse. No work to go to, no social gatherings or events to keep me occupied, this was really it. I had to prove that all those times I’d claimed not to have the time to clean were justified, because now I had the time, lots of it, so if I didn’t clean then it would show I’d simply been lazy, not busy.

So, Monday, everything removable came out of my kitchen and was piled up in the dining room. Then it began. Now, as every women (and the odd man, maybe) knows, in order to clean properly first you have to make a big mess, as I tried to explain to Miss F when she wandered downstairs later and stared in disbelief at a stripped bare kitchen and a trashed dining room.

“Thought you were tidying?” she muttered.

“I am,” I replied through clenched teeth. “But to do it properly you first have to make it worse.”

It took me two and a half days to deep clean my kitchen, and it’s not even a particularly big one, but taking every single thing out of a cupboard, scrubbing inside the cupboard, and then cleaning and putting everything back before moving onto the next one, takes time. I also didn’t push myself. There was no need, after all, I had no deadline other than wanting it all done before the weekend, so there was no urgency to start at daybreak and keep going until I dropped. I started at a sensible time and had lots of breaks.

I finished midday on Wednesday. Took a deep breath, then started on the painting. Now, I can tell you exactly when my kitchen was last painted – June 2010. I know this, because Miss F had gone away with her grandparents to Disneyland Paris for five days. I had taken the week off and everyone assumed I’d go away myself, or at the very least enjoy a much-needed rest. Don’t be silly, that’s not how we roll in my shire.

Monday morning, I did the weekly shop as usual, then went to visit my parents and then went to my goddaughter’s birthday party. Tuesday the new bed and mattress I’d ordered for Miss F arrived and my dad came in and helped me relocate her old bed into the spare room and assemble the new bed, all ready for when she came home. Wednesday, I cleaned the house from top to bottom, all except the kitchen. Thursday, everything came out of the kitchen into the dining room and I deep cleaned the whole kitchen as I’ve been doing this week. It took a single day back then. Well, it was ten years ago, I was ten years less tired, it was pre-surgery and illness days and I started at 7am and didn’t stop for anything until it was done.

I went out with a friend for dinner in the evening, enjoying a rare opportunity of not being stuck at home with a young child every night. Whilst at dinner, Miss F phoned me in a state of sugar induced excitement – yeah, thanks grandma – to happily inform me she was having a great time, and no, she didn’t think at 9pm she should be in bed yet, oh, and she now loved French food, Really? I asked. What sort of French food? French fries and chicken nuggets, she shrieked. Ah yes, those well-known French culinary delights.

Friday, I made a ridiculously early start and gave the kitchen two coats of paint and got every back in place before a sleepy, sweaty and distinctly smelly Miss F was delivered back to me at 11pm. Barely noticing her new bed, she was tumbled into it as she was and slept until almost midday on Saturday. When she woke, she scrambled into my bed and that’s where we spent most of the day and I read practically the whole of “The Wolves of Willoughby Chase” to her.

So, it’s been ten years since the kitchen was last painted and although it didn’t look too bad, the opportunity was there, the kitchen was clean to its bones and all possessions were piled up in the dining room, so I decided to go for it. I got the first coat done on Wednesday and the second on Thursday. Giving it a day to dry before piling everything back in. Miss F walked in to inspect and pass judgement.

“Well, it certainly looks a lot cleaner and fresher, but the colour…” she wrinkled her nose in thought. “Isn’t it exactly…”

“The same colour as it was before? Yep.”

Somehow, even though ten years separated the purchases, I’d managed to buy exactly the same colour. Well, what can I say? I’m obviously someone who sticks to what she likes. I liked Happy Sunshine yellow back then and I still like it today.

I’ve also, between working on the kitchen, been busy with last minute preparations for the re-launch of Erinsmore next week. I am beyond thrilled with how it’s turned out, the book looks amazing and the wonderful Becky and James Wright over at Platform House Publishing have made a simply awesome video trailer to help launch day go with a bang. If anyone is reading this who follows me on social media, I would be extremely grateful for any help with the release of the book. Any shares of the video or other promo posts would be amazing. I spent all my spare pennies on the actual book and the video so there’s not really any money for advertising, so anything anyone can do to help will be very much appreciated.

I’ve been out of the house precisely twice in the whole week. Both times to top up with essential items. Being very reluctant to drive to one of the bigger supermarkets, I’ve confined myself to a quick scuttle up town and foraging for what I could carry home. Shopping now really has turned into a game of PacMan. Avoid all contact, grab the food, take any route to avoid touching others. Sometimes, in the stores though, it’s so hard to stay 2m away from people in the aisles. They are not designed for social distancing and some people don’t seem to care that they’ve crowded into you. All you can do is wear the horrible latex gloves, hold your breath, make yourself as small as possible and scurry past.

On the whole I think I am handling isolation incredibly well. In fact, I’ve been so busy I seriously don’t know how I ever managed to find time to go to work, or how I’m going to be able to go back. The key for me is having a routine and structure to my days. I get up at a sensible time, before 8am every day. I face each day washed, dressed, teeth cleaned, and hair brushed – I simply couldn’t be one of those people who slob about unwashed in their PJs for days on end. To me, PJs = sleepy time.

Over my morning cup of tea, I plan my day. For years, I’ve had a to-do list as long as my arm of things I meant to do when I had the time. Well, I have that time now, so I’m working my way through that list. When and if I reach the end of that list, if we are still in lockdown, then will be the time to relax, kick back and tackle my to be read pile and catch up on all those Netflix shows I never have time to watch. Until then, I will and must work.

We are all handling this in our own way, but for me, personally, I simply don’t see the point of sitting at home whimpering about how stressed and bored I am. Whatever awfulness is going on outside my own front door, other than obeying isolation and social distancing rules, there is nothing I can do about it. And sure, maybe spring cleaning and painting my kitchen won’t do anything to change the global situation, but it will keep me busy and active and at the end of it all, I’ll have a clean and freshly painted kitchen. What will all those coach potatoes in their PJs have? Apart from extra weight to lose and a feeling that they wasted the precious gift of time they were given.

Miss F isn’t faring so well. Like most teenagers, her life revolves around education and her friends, and although she was given a couple of projects to complete, she is more or less done with college for the year so has nothing academic wise to occupy her days. Sure, she can and does interact with her friends virtually, but as she constantly informs me, it’s not the same. She also has a real reluctance to leave the house, so doesn’t even accompany me on my once a week shopping trips. She’s even loath to venture out into our private garden unless I actively force or bribe her to go out there – and yes, I do bribe my child, frequently and without compunction.

I’m a little bit at a loss as to how to help her. All my suggestions such as read a book, tidy her room, start a project of her own based on her studies, are met with derision and scorn, so I’m afraid I’ve given up and am letting her stew in her own juices. I had thought my example of keeping busy and improving our environment would encourage her, but no, so what can I do. Hopefully, she’ll get bored of endless Minecraft sessions and will do something a little more productive with her days, but, she’s a teenager, so maybe channelling her inner sloth is her way of coping. Hey, to quote Miss F herself, you do you babe.

And so here we are on another Sunday. It’s now 9:30am, I am sitting at my little desk in my very pleasant lounge where the morning sun is streaming through dirty windows – yes, spring cleaning the lounge is on my list for the coming week. I have coffee and I’m talking to you, and it’s also sofa and snack Sunday. Every Sunday, I do essential chores until midday, then stop and put a part-baked baguette in the oven and grill lots of bacon. I then rendezvous with Miss F on the sofa in the lounge and we binge watch films all afternoon, interspersed with frequent snacking. This week I managed to source some Pringles and sweet’n’salty popcorn. And as the afternoon turns into evening, I open a bottle of wine and we have pizza, wedges and dip for dinner.

I look forward to Sunday all week, but know, if this was something we did every single day it would quickly grow monotonous and boring, but because it is a once a week treat, it’s become something special for us. We’ve been working our way through all the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings and have the big finale film today. After that, it will be Miss F’s turn to choose the films we’ll binge, she was talking about doing all the Marvel movies in order and I’m up for that.

And it’s not just any old Sunday, it’s Easter. I know a lot of people are upset that the churches won’t be open, and although I’m not religious myself, I can understand why they are upset. But it is to protect the weak and vulnerable and I’m sure Jesus would be up for that, after all, isn’t that what he and Easter are all about? Whilst working in my kitchen I had the radio on all day so listened to a lot of news, and discussions were plentiful about whether churches should be open today for private reflection or not. It was decided to keep them closed, and personally I think that’s a good call. After all, if people can’t be trusted not to keep congregating in large groups all over the place, I think if people knew the churches were open, even those who never normally set foot in them would suddenly come over all pious and crowd into them.

One minister in an interview on the radio, said this might be a pivotal moment for Christianity. Attendances at church have been steadily dropping, yet now, during these difficult times, many are turning to religion for comfort and companionship and are finding new ways to congregate and worship. There is a world of connectivity out there now, and this seems to have forced the church to catch up with all the possibilities available. Who knows, maybe virtual worship is now here to stay.

For non-Christians and those who are not religious, Easter can still be celebrated for its more pagan, ancient meaning. It is believed that the early church did its usual trick of poaching existing pagan celebrations to make this new religion more palatable to the masses. Easter probably derives from the worship of the pagan goddess Eostre. This lady was all about Spring, rebirth, renewal and fertility – where did you think all the bunnies and eggs came from – so that’s why she is venerated at this time of year.

It’s a neat theory, and one that makes sense and that I like. In the Western hemisphere this time of year is all about survival and rebuilding. In ancient times Winter was a very dangerous affair, it was cold, and the nights were long and dark, food was scarce and the sheer act of staying warm took incredible amounts of energy and time. To have emerged alive on the other side into Spring would have been a massive accomplishment, one worthy of giving thanks for.

Anyone else see the parallels with today’s situation? We are going through a long, tough and dark time, hopefully, the first small shoots of recovery are there though. We just need to hang on a little longer, stay strong and give thanks that it wasn’t worse than it was. Yes, the death rates are scary and heart-breaking, but, compared to previous pandemics (anyone doesn’t believe me, look up the numbers for the 1919 Spanish Flu outbreak) we got off lightly.

Also, there are some silver linings. People are learning a new appreciation of the small things in life, and perhaps are realising that at the end of the day what matters are your family and having shelter, food and drink, and that’s basically it. We have also gained a massive appreciation for all those amazing people working in the medical field and all other essential areas. The NHS, in particular, heard the call and answered wholeheartedly. When this is all over, they should and must receive pay rises to reflect their status in our society. After all, during the crisis, who you gonna call? Your accountant? Your banker? No, a doctor or a nurse. So, let’s stop paying them pittances and afford them the respect they truly deserve.

Also, nature is taking a long, deep breath and is attempting to renew itself without the ever-constant presence of us polluting the air, land and sea. Anyone else feel it’s almost as if the Earth threw its hands up in despair and said – “right, I will bloody make you all stop for a while”. Small things maybe, but hopefully enough to make us take a long hard look at our lives, the way we live them and the impact we are having on the planet.

Anyway, that all went a little preachy there didn’t it, the Gospel according to Julia, sorry, totally didn’t mean to go down that avenue, but then this blog is simply an outpouring of me onto the page. No filter, no editing, no read through and no pre-planning or thinking. It’s just me, now, talking to you all on a beautiful Easter Sunday morning.

It’s now 10am and my blog is really, really late being posted, but I trust you will all understand and forgive me – all six of my regular readers.

Take care of yourself and your family.

Stay safe.

Julia Blake