Being Sixty

Being sixty is an unusual post for me, as it’s not about any of the topics I blog about. People come to Writing with Labradors for my short stories and posts about my books, my characters, history, the occasional book review and of course for stories and photographs of adorable dogs. This post might come of something as a disappointment, though I promise to throw in a few dog photos to cheer you up. But it’s been represented to me over and over this year, that being sixty is considered a milestone. People keep asking me if I’m feeling okay about it. Somebody even asked me if it’s making me feel old.

I like birthdays although I’ve never really felt particularly stressed out by them. Birthdays for me aren’t so much a marker of the passing years but an excuse for a celebration. I like getting presents and they don’t have to be expensive to please me. I love going out to dinner, which is how we usually celebrate birthdays in our family. Until a few years ago, we used to have a big barbecue on my birthday weekend, because it always falls in the middle of the Isle of Man TT races so everybody is in a holiday mood anyway. I’m quite straightforward about birthdays and in my view they are a Good Thing. Which is why I was interested in the general concern around me that this one would be different and might well make me feel a bit down.

There is certainly a difference on this birthday, but that has nothing to do with being sixty. My daughter is at home doing the very last 24 hour exam of her History degree. These things are brutal and it would be unkind and distracting if the rest of the family went out to celebrate while she is pinned to her desk. Accordingly we decided to postpone the celebrations until the exam is over and we have two things to celebrate. Other than that…do I feel different? I have to say no, although other people’s comments have made me think about this in a different way. 

Me and my Mum

Reaching 60, particularly for a woman, used to mean retirement. That seemed utterly ridiculous to me until I looked at how much life expectancy  has changed. In 1971, when I was nine years old, my life expectancy was 75.3 years. In 1991 when my Mum was sixty, it was 80 years. In 2020 it was 88 years. I’m not ready to retire and as long as I can still write, I can’t ever imagine wanting to do so, but then I’m lucky enough to be able to work at doing what I love.

I’ve also been told by some people that 60 is the new 40. That’s not really much help to me as I don’t think I felt 40 twenty years ago. Having come relatively late to motherhood I had two young children then and was on the verge of making the move to the Isle of Man so I was far too busy to pay any attention to  a milestone birthday, though I did have a good party.

I think attitudes towards age and growing older are very individual. Having three young people in their early twenties living in the same house means I have no chance to become set in my ways. I listen to their music, watch their TV shows and discuss their political views on a daily basis and it wouldn’t occur to me to see that as a bad thing. I’ve had a long and enjoyable life so far but I realise that I still look forward rather than back.  I don’t hark back to the good old days. I think change and new ideas and different attitudes are all good for me.

Not that there aren’t days when I’m aware that I’m getting older. I have arthritis in all the worst places and a weekend of extreme gardening can make me feel a hundred on Monday morning.  I try to keep fit, and my dogs are a big help with that, but I definitely don’t have the physical energy I had twenty years ago. I used to be able to stay up until the wee small hours but these days an early night is usually a good idea.

I’m used to the white hair now…

Weird things about my appearance remind me of my age sometimes, but not as much as you’d expect. I’m conscious of my hands, which are lined and have a variety of age spots. I was always vain of my hands and nails and one of my only regular beauty indulgences now is to get my nails done every few weeks, as I hate how brittle and dry they are. My hair is white. I dyed it until the first lockdown and then discovered, much to my joy, that it suits me far better like this and is a lovely colour. Now all I have to deal with is a regular trim.

Overall though, I have a feeling that I’m going to sail through my ‘milestone’ 60th birthday in very much the same way I did all my others. Perhaps some of us just aren’t particularly conscious of age and how it’s supposed to affect us. When I think about the future, I don’t worry about my health or my appearance. I worry about whether I’ll have enough time to write all the books I want to write.

I know some people who see ageing as an enemy needing to be defeated and they’re sometimes very successful at doing so. Their weapons are diet and exercise and supplements. Some use cosmetics and hair dye. These are the people I look at and marvel at how young they look. It’s an ongoing campaign and they never let up, never allow a day to go by without some small victory.

It’s impressive and probably some of them will live longer than I do, but it’s not for me, I’m far too lazy. I didn’t pay that much attention to my appearance in my younger days so I’m hardly going to manage to focus on it these days. All my concern is on my mind and making sure I make the best use of it I can. I nursed my Mum through the misery of dementia and I’m well aware that it could happen to me, but I don’t dwell on it. I try to keep fit and healthy and then I just live my life. Looking outwards rather than inwards works best for me.

So what have I done with my 59th year? Well, it’s been an improvement on the previous one in many ways. I managed to get through the Covid lockdowns without getting arrested, which was genuinely a relief. I published three short stories and finally completed book seven of the Peninsular War Saga, which felt like a real achievement after the problems of the previous years. I’ve made a solid start on the third Manxman book and fallen in love with my naval characters all over again.

I started to take my physical health a little more seriously and I’ve rediscovered running which has given me back something I thought I’d lost many years ago. I’ve read some brilliant new books, completely out of my usual genre and discovered some new music.

I got a new puppy, a new baby brother for Oscar. No dog could ever replace Toby and Joey in my heart, but Alfie, my little Chaos Demon has found his own place there. 





I painted my study and feel that I’ve finally truly made it my own space. I’ve begun to plant my re-landscaped garden and am experiencing the joy of seeing some of my early plantings flourish and become beautiful. I’ve grown vegetables for the first time ever and found that there’s something very special about eating something you’ve planted yourself. 

I dug out an ancient recipe and made bread pudding, which made me feel as though my Mum was standing next to me in the kitchen. I also ate it. I’d forgotten how good it tasted.

I’ve made contact with one or two old friends and made a promise to do more of this in the year to come. I took myself off on my very own writer’s retreat and enjoyed it so much, I intend to do it again in the coming year.



I lost my father-in-law, whom I loved, and organised his funeral. I learned things about families and how difficult it is to get it right. I also learned that sometimes there’s nothing you can do to help and you just have to let go.

None of this adds up to one of those incredibly impressive ‘things to do before I’m 60 lists’ but I think that’s really the point of this. I’ve not been working towards my 60th birthday with any kind of plan at all, because I didn’t really think it was that much of a big deal. I still don’t.

The Battle of Navarino

Perhaps I’ll feel differently in the run up to my 70th birthday. Ten years is a long time, but it goes more quickly as you get older. I’m hoping that in ten years I’ll still be blogging here and still able to run a bit. I really hope I’ll be enthusiastically writing about the next few generations of the Van Daans in the Crimea or of the Kellys at the Battle of Navarino. 

I feel as though I should end with a quote, because these introspective posts always end with a quote. I genuinely like this one though:

It is not true that people stop pursuing dreams because they grow old, they grow old because they stop pursuing dreams. (Gabriel Garcia Marquez.)

Or, if we want a quote from somewhere closer at hand…

“I’ll see you very soon, girl of my heart.”

Unexpectedly she was smiling through her tears. “Do you think you will still call me that when I’m an old lady, General?”

Paul felt a flood of emotion just at the thought of it. “Yes,” he said. “I will be half crippled with rheumatism and hobbling about grumbling about my grandchildren. And your hair will be white and there will be wrinkles at the corners of your eyes, but they’ll all be caused by laughter. And you’ll always be the girl of my heart, Nan, because inside, we’ll always be the same, no matter what we look like.”

“You’re making me cry.”

“I’m making myself cry. I have to go.”

(Paul and Anne van Daan from an Indomitable Brigade by Lynn Bryant)

Now that I come to think of it, maybe spending my working day inside the heads of people of different ages from a different era has completely warped any sense of time that I had in the first place.

Anyway, I’ll get back to you when I reach 70…

NaNoWriMo with Labradors – the first week

NaNoWriMo with Labradors – the first week has gone better than I ever expected. There’s something very motivating about sitting down each day knowing that you’re not going to give up until you’ve at least come close to your word count.

As I’ve said before, I discovered when I came back to this book that I’d written more than I realised, although it was a bit all over the place, with a series of unconnected scenes. They weren’t all bad though. In fact I was really happy with some of them. Others were interesting but just not right for this book. I quickly realised that the first two chapters were probably the reason I found it so difficult to progress when I first started to work on this book last year. They slowed the book down unbearably from the beginning and kept impinging on the action later on as I had to justify their existence by keeping those narratives going. I’ve scrapped them completely and rewritten the following chapters to fit in and I’m now very happy with the start of this book.

Including the remaining excerpts which will either be scrapped or incorporated into the book when I get to them, I’ve now got seventy-nine thousand words, which is probably more than half the book. It’s going incredibly well. I’ve sent the first four chapters to my editor, just to read through, and she loves it, so I think I’m on the right track. To complete a first draft before the end of May I need to write an average of three to four thousand words a day, and I think I can probably manage that. After that will be a major edit, but I’m hopeful this book will be out before the end of the year, which makes me very happy after the disasters of the previous two years.

I love writing about Hugh Kelly and Alfred Durrell but in order to be able to tell the full story of the siege of Tarragona I needed men on the ground. As with the storming of Castro Urdiales in An Unmerciful Incursion, the British army wasn’t involved in this campaign. In that book, I solved the problem by giving some of my regular characters a reason to be in the town at the time of the siege. At Tarragona, I found that there were several published narratives written by men on the ground. Both General Suchet and General Contreras wrote their own accounts of what happened at Tarragona giving me some excellent source material to put alongside the account of Captain Codrington of the Royal Navy. 

Accordingly, this will be the first outing for the French Captain Gabriel Bonnet of the 30th légère who later makes an appearance in An Indomitable Brigade. From the Spanish side, I’ve introduced a brand new character who is presenting me with an interesting challenge. Captain Bruno Ángel Cortez, ADC to General Contreras who commanded the Spanish garrison in Tarragona is a complex individual who is not  always likeable and not easy to write. I’ll be interested to see how this one goes.

It’s the start of a new week. I’ll keep you updated on progress on my Facebook page, so keep an eye out for posts there. I’m very excited to see where this book takes me next.

Oscar and Alfie are excited as well, as you can see…

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with an excerpt from the early part of the voyage to Tarragona. Enjoy.

Hugh turned his attention to his sextant. It was a bright clear day, making the readings easy. Beside him Manby worked out his latitude in a small notebook and there was silence over the group of observers who were suddenly intent on their work. When the master had finished, he walked aft to where Lieutenant Pryce, the officer of the watch waited. Pryce accepted his report of noon along with the degrees and minutes of the latitude observed.

Hugh watched, hiding his smile, as Pryce approached him to make the same report. Manby had needed to walk past him to reach Pryce, but it would not have occurred to the master to report directly to Hugh and Hugh would not have asked him to do so. The daily rituals of shipboard life were important, not because of routine days such as this when Hugh was present and available, but for the one day when he would not be, and a crisis might occur.

Pryce saluted, announced that it was twelve o’clock and gave the latitude which Hugh already knew. Hugh nodded.

“Make it twelve, Mr Pryce.”

“Aye, sir.” Pryce raised his voice to the mate of the watch. “Make it twelve, Sanders.”

“Aye, sir.” Petty Officer Sanders turned to the waiting quarter-master. “Sound eight bells.”

The quarter-master stepped onto the ladder and called below. “Turn the glass and strike the bell.”

As the first stroke of the bell rang out, Pryce turned to where Geordie Armstrong waited, his whistle ready. “Pipe to dinner, Bosun.”

Hugh stood watching as officers and men dispersed. The officers dined in the wardroom at one o’clock and then Hugh dined an hour later, theoretically in solitary splendour. In practice, if he had no other guests, Hugh dined with his first lieutenant. He knew that one or two of his other officers during the past few years had looked askance at his close friendship with Durrell. There had been mutterings of favouritism, particularly after Walcheren when Hugh had stood by Durrell against all attempts to put him on half-pay.

Hugh could see Durrell now, his long form leaning against a grating. He was demonstrating something in a notebook to two of the midshipmen, waving his pencil in the air as he explained. Hugh had no idea what he was teaching them, but he knew it would be accurate, very well-explained and incredibly detailed. Hugh had received many such lectures from his junior and at times they had driven him mad, but he had also learned a great deal. He stood waiting for Durrell to finish, watching the midshipmen. Mr Clarke was staring into space, looking as though he would rather be somewhere else. His companion, one of the new boys by the name of Holland, was scribbling frantically in his own notebook, looking up every now and again with something like hero-worship at Durrell’s oblivious form. Hugh made a mental note to spend some time with Mr Holland and came forward.

“Mr Durrell. As it’s our first day at sea, I’ve invited the other officers to join us for dinner.”

Durrell smiled. “We’re very grateful, sir.”

“I’m sure you’ll be willing to act as my second host. And I’d be grateful if you’d do the same tomorrow when I’m hosting the midshipmen. I may need help with that.”

Durrell laughed aloud. “I’d be delighted, sir. I’m sure the young gentlemen will be on their best behaviour.”

“They’d better be.” Hugh surveyed Durrell’s two pupils. “Mr Clarke, I hope you’re studying hard. Mr Holland, you’re new to us. How are you enjoying your lessons?”

“Very much, Captain.”

“Excellent. You were taking notes there.”

“Yes, sir. Mr Durrell was explaining the difference between various instruments when making calculations and how they…” Holland stopped suddenly and blushed scarlet. “It was very interesting,” he said lamely.

“It’s fascinating,” Hugh said, amused. “I applaud your ability to rein in your enthusiasm but don’t do it with me, you’re exactly the kind of young officer I’m looking for. I’d like to get to know you better, you’ll sit beside me tomorrow at dinner. Now go and get your own dinner before your messmates eat it all.”

He watched as the younger men raced away to their meal then turned to Durrell. “Are you sure you’re ready to help me at this dinner tomorrow?”

“Of course I am, sir. There are one or two very promising men among the new midshipmen, but Mr Holland is my favourite so far.”

“I can see why. If he’s as good as he seems, why don’t you find him some extra duties that will give you a chance to work with him?”

Hugh saw his first lieutenant’s eyes light up. “Thank you, sir. I’d like that.”

“Excellent. I’ll see you at dinner. As my clerk is struck down with sea-sickness, I intend to spend the next hour setting out my accounts book.”

Hugh heard the gloom in his own voice. Durrell laughed. “Would you like me to do it, sir?”

“Yes, but you’re not going to, you take on far too many duties that are not yours, including schooling the midshipmen. I…”

Hugh broke off at the sound of raised voices from the gangway. Before he could move, Durrell was ahead of him. Hugh watched as his first lieutenant crossed the deck and barked an order. Three boys scrambled up onto the deck and lined up before him and Durrell looked them over unsmiling.

“Mr Oakley, Mr Bristow. Can you explain to me why you’re brawling with Lewis when you should be on your way to dinner?”

“Not a brawl, sir. Just joking around.”

Durrell said nothing. He let the silence lengthen until the boys were shuffling their feet. Hugh could feel their discomfort and he did not blame them. Durrell’s withering expression was enough to discompose even the liveliest midshipman.

Eventually, Durrell moved his gaze to the third boy. Teddy Lewis was a wiry ex-pickpocket from Southwark who had been pressed as a landsman and had chosen to remain as a volunteer, acting as Durrell’s servant. He was sixteen and smaller than most of the boys but made up for it with a belligerent willingness to fight even the biggest of them. Durrell glared at Lewis for a full minute then looked back at the other two boys.

“Aboard a Royal Navy vessel, a midshipman is considered a young gentleman. I happen to know that you both qualify by birth if not behaviour. Repeatedly picking on one who is both smaller and below you in rank because you think he cannot fight back is not the act of a gentleman or a future officer, it is the act of a snivelling coward. Please do not be under the misapprehension that because you joined this ship as midshipman, you will necessarily remain so. If you persist in bullying the other boys I will have you broken to common seaman, and you’ll find that below decks the men will be unimpressed with your status. Now get to your dinner. I will see you at four o’clock after the watch is called and we will spend some time improving your mathematics.”

“But sir, study time is over then,” Bristow said in appalled tones.

“Not for you, Mr Bristow, since it appears that you struggle to find constructive ways to spend your leisure. Dismissed. Not you, Lewis.”

When the other boys had gone, Durrell regarded his servant thoughtfully. “Are you hurt?”

“No, sir.”

“Did they take anything?”

Lewis hesitated and Hugh could see him considering whether he could get away with a lie.

“I will find out, Lewis, and you will regret it.”

“My lesson book, sir.”

“Did you get it back?”

“It’s spoiled, sir. In the animal pen, it’s covered in shit…I mean dung, sir.”

Durrell did not speak for a moment. When he did, his voice was pleasant and even. Hugh could tell that he was furious.

“Go to the purser after dinner and get another one, with my authorisation. When you’re not using it, you have my permission to keep it in my cabin. The money will be deducted from their pay. In the meantime, Lewis, in addition to practicing your reading and penmanship, I would like you to practice walking away. If you spend your time defending every inch of your dignity you’ll never rise above able seaman and that would be a shame, because you are more intelligent than either of them. Now go and get your dinner.”