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.”

NaNoWriMo with Labradors: Introduction

NaNoWriMo with Labradors: Introduction

NaNoWriMo with Labradors appeared in my brain when I was trying to get back to sleep at 3.45am. I often struggle with sleep due to back problems, but I do try not to actually think when I’m awake. Thinking is fatal as I have the kind of brain which, once it’s fired up, sets off a series of ideas like a row of fireworks going off. This is really useful when creating fictional plots but a complete pain in the early hours of the morning. Let’s just say I’m going to be tired today.

Those of you who have grown old waiting for the release of An Indomitable Brigade will know that I’ve been struggling to be productive since the beginning of the pandemic. I was absolutely delighted to finally publish book seven of the Peninsular War Saga and even more pleased at how well it’s been received so far. This has given me a really good push to get on with the next book.

 

This Bloody Shore is book three in the Manxman series and is centred around the Siege of Tarragona in 1811. I started to write this book immediately after the publication of An Unmerciful Incursion in July 2020 and made a good start, but after a while I stalled and simply couldn’t get moving with it. Eventually I decided to set it aside and move back to the 110th in Spain. Hugh and Durrell have waited ever since, fairly patiently for them, until last week when I hauled them off half-pay and back aboard the Iris, setting sail for the Mediterranean.

 

I realised I’d written a lot more of this book than I thought, which was excellent news. Even better, most of it is very good with the exception of the first two chapters which were utterly superfluous to requirements and probably explain why I struggled with this book first time around. I’ve come up with some new ideas, done some more research, invented a useful new character (with major links to the other series, incidentally) and am ready to go.

That’s when I came up with this mad idea. I’ve never seriously done NaNoWriMo. Partly it’s because I write all the time anyway and have never felt the need to do a particular push like that. Partly it’s because the allocated month is November and that’s not generally the best time for me to be going all out on a novel. I’ve always quite liked the idea of a determined push like that, though, and as I’d really like to get another book out this year, it occurred to me that I could do my very own NaNoWriMo to try to get at least the first draft of this book finished.

For those of you who don’t know, NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month which usually takes place every November. Writers can register on the website and log their daily word count, as well as receiving encouragement and finding writing buddies. It’s a great resource and I suspect an amazing way to get people started. I’ve made a couple of half-hearted attempts at it, but the timing has just never been right for me.

So, my plan is, starting tomorrow, to write between four and five thousand words a day between now and the end of May. That’s probably going to be quite variable, because life will get in the way, but we’ll see how it goes. I’ll post regularly giving my word count and to let you all know how I’m getting on.

My notebook is ready, my laptop is fired up and the desk army and navy are ready to offer support. This book is happening people…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oscar and Alfie are excited about this new initiative at Writing With Labradors, as long as it doesn’t interfere with walks, playtime and mealtimes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This Bloody Shore: Book 3 of the Manxman series.

It is 1811.

A desperate struggle takes place on the Eastern coast of Spain. The French are threatening the coastal town of Tarragona and Bonaparte holds out the glittering prize of a Marshal’s baton if General Suchet can capture the town.

Far from Wellington’s theatre of war, the town is held by Spanish forces under the Marquis of Campoverde. Supporting them is a small Royal Navy squadron, including the 74-gun third rater, HMS Iris.

After the frustration and political wrangling of the Walcheren campaign, Captain Hugh Kelly is missing Roseen but is relieved to be back at sea under the command of a man he trusts even though the situation in Tarragona is more complicated than it appears. Lieutenant Alfred Durrell is keen to put his family troubles behind him, but an unexpected encounter in London has left him feeling unsettled.

On shore, two very different men face each other across the walls of Tarragona. Captain Gabriel Bonnet, a scarred cynical veteran  discovers a surprising sympathy for one particular victim of war. Captain Bruno Ángel Cortez is a former Spanish Bonapartist but the atrocities he has seen have turned him into an implacable enemy of the French.

Meanwhile in England, Faith Collingwood’s long months of banishment are ended by an event which will change her life forever.

As Suchet’s troops creep ever closer to the walls, the armies, the navy and the townspeople are swept up in a brutal conflict which ends on the bloody shores of Tarragona.

 

 

 

Here comes 2022

Here comes 2022 at Writing with Labradors, though it’s arriving a little late. Many apologies, and Happy New Year to you all. In many ways, though, the fact that I’m late with my usual New Year’s greeting is in keeping with the whole of the past year. I had such big plans for 2021 and very few of them came to fruition. Mired down in the misery of restrictions, and beset by family difficulties, it’s been a slow year here at Writing with Labradors and at times, I’ve felt like a complete disaster. Still, things are steadily improving and it’s good to look back because it reminds me there have been some highs as well as lows during this year.

#Low. Restrictions didn’t go away. Instead, we had more lockdowns and vaccine passports

#High. Vaccines mostly work.

#Low. My sister became very ill after her vaccine, and I couldn’t go to see her.

#High. She’s slowly improving, and I’ve seen her now.

#Low. Three of the five members of my family had covid at different times despite being vaccinated.

#High. None of them were really ill.

#Low. All my planned research trips were cancelled due to restrictions.

#High. Once I could travel to the UK, I organised my very own writer’s retreat which was absolutely brilliant and improved everything.

#Low. I didn’t manage to publish a book last year, for the first time since I began publishing.

 

#High. I finished book 7 of the Peninsular War Saga and it’s currently with my editor, so will be out very soon.

#Low. Writing this year has been difficult.

#High. I published my usual three free short stories this year, plus a bonus one in the spring. For Valentine’s Day, we had A Winter in Cadiz, a romance set during Lord Wellington’s brief trip to Cadiz in the winter of 1812-13. My spring story was The Pressed Man, a story of the fourteen-year-old Paul van Daan’s impressment into the Royal Navy. For Halloween, there was an Inescapable Justice, a ghostly tale of bloody mutiny set aboard a Royal Navy frigate. And for Christmas, a favourite Peninsular War Saga character discovers a new responsibility and the merest hint of a future romance, in The Gift.

#Low. I’ve been struggling with chronic pain due to arthritis, and in the current situation, there isn’t a chance of any treatment.

#High. For the first time I have published a short story in an anthology. Hauntings is a collection of ghost stories by writers from the Historical Writers Forum and came out for Halloween last year. (Yes, I did have to come up with two ghost stories in one year. Don’t judge me.) My offering, An Unquiet Dream, is a spooky tale set in an army hospital in Elvas in 1812 and features a regular minor character from the Peninsular War Saga.

 

 

 

#High. I was also asked to be part of an anthology of short stories edited by Tom Williams (author of the Burke novels and the Williamson books) which will be published this year. The story is called The Recruit and is set in Ireland during the 1798 rebellion. (I see my regulars with their ears pricking up there. “Really? Who could that be about?”)

#High. My immediate family are great and doing very well. My son and his girlfriend are settled in their jobs and looking to move out soon. My daughter is in her final year studying history at the University of York and is getting firsts so far.

#High. Alfie. After a long period of Oscar holding the fort alone at Writing with Labradors and doing a splendid job, we welcomed our new baby into the family in May, and despite his well-deserved nickname of the Chaos Demon, he has proved to be a valued and much adored member of staff.

#High. I had a great time with the Historical Writers Forum last year, including taking part in a panel to talk about writing battles in historical fiction.

 

#High. Oscar. Still my baby, and possibly the most well-behaved Labrador in the country.

#High. You see, this is why it’s really good to actually write out a list of highs and lows of the past year. Because I ran out of lows, which pretty much proved that despite everything, my life is good.

There’s one very big low that I’ve not included as part of the list because it would be crass to do so. In August, after several years of watching them struggle and a year of frantic anxiety during Covid restrictions, we finally managed to persuade my in-laws to move to the Isle of Man on a trial basis.

Sadly, it didn’t go as we’d hoped. They’d left it too late, and it was very quickly clear that my mother-in-law’s dementia had got significantly worse, while my father-in-law was very unwell. Malcolm died suddenly on 30th October, of a massive heart attack, and after a difficult period, Irene returned to London to go into a care home near her daughter. The funeral was held just two weeks before Christmas.

I miss Malcolm. He was only here for a few months, but I got very used to him being around. From the earliest days of my relationship with Richard, almost thirty years ago now, Malcolm and I had a special bond. He shared my enthusiasm for history, and years ago, before I’d ever published, he bought me my first biography of Wellington, the Longford one, from a second-hand book shop. He got on well with my parents, although they didn’t meet that often, and he adored his grandchildren. He loved books and music and was interested in current affairs. He also loved technology, especially cars, and when he was younger, he could fix anything. Before I was even married, he took me for a day out to Silverstone, to watch a Formula One Grand Prix, and we had a fabulous time.

Malcolm was kind and funny and was unbelievably proud to have a daughter-in-law who was an author. One of his last acts was to blag a free copy of An Unconventional Officer for a doctor at Nobles Hospital who had been good to him during a recent stay. His favourite spot, when visiting, was my reading corner in my study. He loved the armchair and would sneak in when he got the chance and take an afternoon nap or browse through one of my books while I was working.

Richard and I went to London with a van to collect some of their possessions when we still thought they might make a go of living over here. I rather fell in love with a beautiful collection of wooden boats that Malcolm had in his study and mentioned how much I liked them as we were unpacking. To my surprise and delight, he insisted on giving them to me, to go with my wooden model of the Victory in my study. They look beautiful, and I feel as though there’s a little part of him sharing my workspace still. I’m working on a proper obituary for Malcolm. He had an interesting life, and I’d love to share it with people.

The end of the year was sad, and it wasn’t helped with two family members having covid over Christmas, though neither had anything more than cold symptoms. By New Year’s Eve, both were clear, which meant we could host what is rapidly becoming our traditional young people’s New Year Party. The kids all had a great time and we drank a toast to Malcolm at midnight.

And now it’s 2022 and we’re still struggling to sort out care homes and financial matters for Richard’s mum, which is even harder long distance. I’m trying to look ahead into 2022 and be hopeful, but I think I’m a lot more cautious than I was at the beginning of 2021. I think back then, with the vaccine in the offing, I was naively hopeful that the world would begin to calm down. This year, I’m less sanguine. The wounds left by the past few years are going to take a while to heal but heal they will. History suggests they always do eventually.

I’m hopeful for myself, though. I feel as though I’ve got my enthusiasm back for my writing, and my brain is teeming with ideas. I’m looking forward to Tom’s anthology coming out, and I’m excited for the publication of An Indomitable Brigade. Currently I’m finishing the edits for the rest of the paperbacks, and then I’m returning to This Bloody Shore, which is book three in the Manxman series.

At the beginning of last year, I had a long list of things I wanted to achieve during the year. This year, I’m reluctant to come up with a list, and yet looking at this blog post, although I didn’t manage to get the book out, I was very close, and I did manage quite a lot in very difficult circumstances.

So here goes. This year, I’d like to finish the paperback edits once and for all. I’ve got An Indomitable Brigade coming out very soon, and Tom’s anthology, and I’m determined to finish This Bloody Shore by the end of the year. I’ll be writing my usual three free short stories, and I’ve been asked to write another episode from Paul van Daan’s boyhood, which I’d love to do. I also have an invitation to write a story for another anthology which is completely out of my period and out of my comfort zone. It will be a challenge, but I’d quite like to give it a go, so we’ll see if it comes off.

I’d like to travel again. I dream of going to Castro Urdiales or Tarragona or Santander or Gibraltar, but I’m not prepared to book until I’m very confident I won’t be caught up in some last-minute lockdown. This year I suspect I’ll confine my travels to the UK, and possibly Ireland. After the restrictions of the last two years, even that will seem like a blessing.

In the meantime, Happy New Year from all of us at Writing with Labradors. I know all of you will have had your highs and lows this year, and many will be a lot worse than mine. Thank you all so much for your support and enthusiasm and your sheer love of the books, the characters and the history. Let’s hope things improve steadily through 2022.

A Writer’s Retreat

A Writer’s Retreat

Trying to write in the middle of a busy household with a couple of Labradors and an over-developed sense of responsibility, I’ve often dreamed of going on a Writer’s Retreat. I’m sure many of my fellow writers feel the same way. After yet another week where writing plans have sunk without trace in a round of supermarket shopping, dealing with elderly relatives, proofreading essays and cleaning the dogs’ ears, I love the idea of a few days of peace and quiet in lovely surroundings with nothing to do but write. I’ve never done it though.

I’ve come close a few times. I used to volunteer to cat-sit for my sister, who lives in a very beautiful place, and I certainly took the opportunity to catch up on work while I was there. Somehow though, it was still never the haven I dreamed about. I’ve taken off on research trips on my own many times, but those tend to be a frantic round of getting to the places I wanted, taking photographs and making notes. It would almost have felt too self-indulgent to spend the day sitting doing nothing but writing.

Organised writers’ retreats look very appealing, but many of them seem very expensive. Besides which, they generally include other writers. I know myself too well, and the opportunity to sit and talk writing, history and general nonsense with a group of like-minded people would be irresistible. They’d be a lot of fun, but I’d get nothing done.

The second half of 2021 was hard for me. It is well recorded elsewhere on this blog that I didn’t do well with lockdown and restrictions, and although I would have loved to book a research trip somewhere in Europe, I didn’t trust that these wouldn’t be reinstated at a moment’s notice. Richard managed a couple of cycling trips to the UK, and we had some friends to stay the moment restrictions lifted enough, but I was miserable. The only trips I made to the UK were necessary family visits and none of them were particularly restful. We had been having a lot of problems with my elderly in-laws who had recently moved to the island and I felt as though my life had become one long round of hospital visits and troubleshooting phone calls.

2021 was also the first year since I began publishing that I didn’t manage to get a book out. Back in October, it seemed as though I wasn’t even going to get close to it. I knew what I needed to do, and the book was going well, but I couldn’t get enough time to work on it. I was frazzled and seriously burned out and I needed a break, but I had no idea where I wanted to go or what was practical in the post-Covid world.

Burnout is one thing, but the annual Halloween short story was due, and I had an idea for a story set during Captain Hugh Kelly’s younger days, when he was newly promoted to captain of a frigate. My research so far has all been based around the 74-gun Iris, but I wanted information about one of the smaller, faster ships which made stars of the navy captains. A quick spell of internet research introduced me to HMS Trincomalee, the oldest warship still afloat in Europe.

The Trincomalee looked gorgeous and was located in the Museum of the Royal Navy in Hartlepool, something I didn’t even know existed. I did a bit of research and decided that I absolutely wanted to go there, and sooner rather than later. I was actually very excited. It’s been two years since there was a very real prospect of me travelling anywhere to do something just for myself, and the sheer joy I felt, made me realise how badly I needed a break. I checked dates with Richard then went searching for accommodation.

I was determined not to stay with family or friends. This time I wanted to be completely on my own agenda. I didn’t want to stay in Hartlepool, but somewhere pretty, within easy driving distance. North Yorkshire looked good, and I love that area. No self-catering. I do enough cooking at home. I typed in my requirements, to be listed by cost for a week, lowest first.

The first thing that popped up was a room at the Duke of Wellington Inn, in Danby. I swear to God, people, I’d booked it within ten minutes. Sometimes it’s obviously a sign.

The Duke of Wellington Inn is an ivy-clad traditional eighteenth century inn located in the tiny village of Danby in the North York Moors, about fifteen miles inland from Whitby. Until I found the place, I hadn’t decided that my trip was going to be my very own personalised writer’s retreat, but a bit of research made me realise it was perfect. Danby really is small, although very pretty. The Moors National Park Centre is just at the edge of the village, and there’s a tiny bakery with a café just behind the Duke of Wellington. Other than that, there’s not even a shop in the village. For somebody wanting uninterrupted writing time, it couldn’t have been better.

I checked with the owner whether there was a suitable table in my room for working. The single rooms were fairly small, but he assured me there was a guests’ sitting room with a desk in it and I’d be very welcome to work there as it was seldom used. When I arrived and saw it, I couldn’t quite believe my luck. For a week, I effectively had my own personal study. It was completely lovely.

The Duke of Wellington Inn was built in 1732 and was originally known as the Red Briar. It was used as a recruiting post during the Napoleonic Wars and was apparently known as either the Wellington Arms or the Lord Wellington during this period. I haven’t yet been able to find out when the name was changed to the Duke of Wellington – my first thought was that it must have been after 1815 to commemorate the victory at Waterloo, but I discovered that when Canon Atkinson arrived in 1847 to take up his post as Vicar of Danby, the inn was still called the Wellington Arms so the transition must have come later. At that point, the inn was kept by two sisters known as Martha and Mary.

A cast iron plaque of the Duke was unearthed during restoration work and can be seen on the wall as you go up the stairs. The inn is not large and is very obviously old – floors are uneven and the furniture is very traditional. Impressively, though, all the essential things for a comfortable stay work really well – the bed was comfortable, the bathroom modern and heating and hot water were spot on. I’d booked bed and breakfast, but after a look at the dinner menu, decided I’d eat there in the evening as well. It was standard pub food, but well-cooked and sensibly priced, and I never object to sitting by an open fire in a traditional country pub to eat. In addition, the staff were absolutely amazing. Nothing was too much trouble and they treated my invasion of the guest sitting room as though it was the most normal thing in the world. Thank you so much guys.

I’m pleased to say I stood by my resolution to treat this week as a writer’s retreat. Apart from my one excursion to Hartlepool, I remained in and around the village. The weather was beautiful, crisp and cold but with only one rainy day. I ordered breakfast early then went for a walk every morning before sitting down to work. Lunch was soup and sandwiches from the Stonehouse Bakery, with some excellent cake for afternoon tea, and then I’d go for another walk before dinner. It was often almost dark by the time I got back, and the sunsets were gorgeous.

During the day I took over the desk and worked solidly on book seven, An Indomitable Brigade. I found, to my joy, that I’d been right about the book. There was nothing wrong with either plotting or the research I’d done. I just needed time, and peace and quiet to get on with it. I kept in touch with my family during the evening, but firmly refused to take calls during the day. I was helped by the fact that the wi-fi was variable. It worked very well in my room, and down in the bar areas but in the study it was patchy, which removed the temptation to chat on Twitter or Facebook. After the first day, I was completely absorbed in the world of the 110th and the battle of Vitoria.

I enjoyed my day out at the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Hartlepool, and the Trincomalee was everything I hoped for and more. The museum is set up around a historic quayside restored to look like an eighteenth century seaport and its beautiful waterside setting. The various buildings are set up to show tradesmen like tailors, printers and instrument makers with stories about the Royal Navy and the men and women associated with it. It’s a great place for kids, with an adventure play ship and loads of activities, and because I was there during half term, there were demonstrations of gunnery and swordsmanship and various talks scheduled through the day. I went to everything, even though most of this wasn’t new to me. It was a great atmosphere, and I thoroughly enjoyed the interactive Fighting Sail exhibition, though the kids commentary around me probably entertained me as much as the displays.

The Trincomalee was perfect, one of two surviving British frigates of her era. The other, HMS Unicorn is a museum ship in Dundee and I’m going to get there when I can. The Trincomalee was commissioned in 1812 to be built in India using teak, due to the shortage of oak in Britain after the intensive shipbuilding of the Napoleonic wars. Work did not begin until 1816 so by the time the ship was finished the following year, the wars were over and Trincomalee was put to other uses.

On the advice of one of the guides, I waited until the kids were completely absorbed in learning how to form a boarding party on the quayside using foam swords and cutlasses before boarding the ship. It was completely empty and I was able to take photographs, absorb the atmosphere and write stories in my head to my hearts content. The Trincomalee quickly morphed into the fictional Herne in my imagination, Hugh Kelly’s first post-command, and the story was finished. I’ll definitely come back to it though, I’d like to write a lot more of Hugh’s earlier adventures in the navy.

Rush hour in Danby

Back at my borrowed desk, I had a blissful few days of writing, walking on the moors and falling in love both with Yorkshire and with my fictional world all over again. By the time I set off for the ferry at the end of the week, the book was back on track, and I was fairly sure I’d have it written, even if not edited and published, before the end of the year. I had also forgiven myself for my inability to work as well as usual during the past two years. There are probably writers out there who made the most of the restrictions of lockdown and emerged ahead of the game. I suffered, and emotionally it was hard to put myself into the heads of my characters when my own head was so full of confusion. I think on those long, winter walks over the moors I’ve worked out how to be kinder to myself and how to keep a distance when the world feels an alien and unfamiliar place.

I’ve concluded that a writer’s retreat means different things to different people. For some, it’s about learning, and they’re looking for lectures and workshops and the ability to try something new. For others, it’s about connecting with other writers to share ideas and stories and to feel part of a community for a while, in this very solitary job that we do. For me, it’s definitely a retreat, a place of quiet and solitude and some beauty, where I can throw myself back into what I do best without any nagging sense of all the other things on my to do list.

Of course, it also helps to have an eighteenth century Napoleonic recruiting inn and an early nineteenth century frigate thrown in for good measure.

 

Hauntings: an interview with D Apple

Hauntings: an interview with D Apple

The run-up to Halloween 2021 marks a new venture here at Writing with Labradors as for the first time I have published a short story in an anthology. Hauntings is an anthology of ghost stories, with ten supernatural historical tales which range from Roman and Viking times all the way up to the 1960s. Which brings us to my guest today on Blogging with Labradors, the talented Danielle Apple who writes as D Apple.

Danielle’s contribution to Hauntings is a story called Hotel Vanity which brings a light-hearted tone to the collection. It is set in a decaying hotel, where the owner’s efforts to sell-out are hampered by some mischievous ghosts.

Danielle, welcome to Blogging with Labradors and thanks very much for joining me to tell us a bit more about Hotel Vanity and the story behind it.

To begin with, Hotel Vanity is an unusual ghost story. What was your inspiration for it?

 Well, I really wanted to write a gothic mystery, but every time I put pen to paper, some sassy ghost muse would whisper in my ear. Try as I might to shut her up, Nancy became my ghost, and Humphrey, the beleaguered hotel owner, became me. I thought…what if ghosts aren’t really how we typically think of them? What if the things that go bump in the night are really an old ghost dropping books on the floor as he falls asleep reading, or perhaps an ethereal being trying to taste whiskey again for the hundredth time?

I think that’s a fantastic idea and raises all sorts of interesting possibilities for future stories. There’s an interesting mix of humour and drama in your story and in the lives (and deaths) of the characters. Did you plan it that way or did that develop as you wrote?

I was supposed to be writing a story for a Valentine’s Day competition, and while the muse managed to steer me away from Gothic Mystery, I apparently don’t do romance without making it an annoying ghost mystery. This insertion of humor is a write-by-the-seat-of-my-pants experience that happens with nearly every short story, but I had to daydream about the drama for a while before it made sense.

I should think with a character like Nancy yammering in your ear it would be impossible NOT to include humour. I must say that for me, it wasn’t just the humans, alive or dead, who brought the story to life. You give a very good descriptive sense of this decaying old building – it’s almost like one of the characters. Can you tell us a bit more about that? Is there a real building somewhere that inspired it?

At the time I was going through some difficult personal changes, and the building became an embodiment of my comfort zone, limitations, and the things I still valued. The vines are beautiful and once served to avoid soil erosion, but they also choke the life out of a building. Humphrey tries to get a vine by the window to grow a different way by twisting it around itself, but the problem has gotten so massive that this simple act is futile.

Poor Humphrey. You can really sense his struggle. You’re not specific about dates in the story, either for the present day or for the flashbacks to Tom’s younger days. What period did you have in mind and what made you choose it?

While my primary work usually ends up in the early 1800s, for some reason these ghosts decided they were in the 1960s. Tom’s dated letters have seen a lot of wear and tear, and at the time of this story, the characters briefly discuss a United States presidential candidate. They are in their own bubble of sorts, stuck in the past away from the outside world but not totally unaware. It was easier for me to imagine ghosts from a couple of my favorite time periods and place them in a more familiar setting to me. Not to mention the buildings from my favorite times would have been slowly falling apart, but still viable. I think this is why the 1960s felt right.

Yes, that makes perfect sense, given how important the building is to your storyline. I think I can guess the answer to this one, but I have to ask. Who is your favourite character in the story and why?

 Gosh, I love all of them for different reasons, but Nancy was the most fun to write. There’s just something about the juxtaposition of her outrageous behavior with her wise advice. In fact, every beta reader who has encountered Nancy wants to know more about her. So…maybe she gets her own story next.

I genuinely hope so. I’d love to know who she was when she lived and how she died. But on to the storyline. The idea of a lost soul trapped in a mirror is very evocative. Can you tell us a bit more about how you came up with the idea and the meaning behind it?

I had a thought to examine the human experience in the realm of society’s expectations. I think there is a soul in many of us that we keep trapped. Do we shove it away, direct what it should do and where it should go, all the while giving us the illusion that it is free to move about? When we look in the mirror at our soul…what do we see exactly? Is it us, a totally different person, or is it a part of ourselves that we ignored for too long? Of course this soul in the mirror can be a representation of many scenarios in peoples’ lives, so it can easily slip into whatever form the reader needs.

It’s very effective in this story. I’m hoping that people are going to read this and want more of your work. What’s your current writing project and how is it going? Any publication dates in the pipeline?

I’m working on a historical mystery saga in Northern Alabama, spanning 1834-1850. The first book is about a boy and his new, standoffish friends who come of age during a decade-long blood feud that leaves him digging graves – perhaps even his own. This is the project I’ve been working on for ages, but each setback has taught me valuable lessons and brought new, amazing people into my life. I’m grateful for the experience! In the next few months it will be ready for final beta readers and cultural accuracy readers, then I revise and it’s off to copy edits. That will probably land the publication date in mid-2022. If anyone is interested in being a beta, accuracy, or arc reader, go ahead and contact me for a more detailed description.

That sounds like a fascinating project, and probably takes an enormous amount of research, but it looks as though the end is in sight.

 Danielle, it’s great that you’ve been able to take the time to contribute to Hauntings. I know that all the other authors have thoroughly enjoyed working with you and I personally enjoyed meeting Nancy, Humphrey, and the others. Thanks for joining me on Blogging with Labradors and good luck with your current project.

 If you’d like to find out more about Danielle and her work, you’ll find all her social media links and contact details here. Don’t forget that she’s looking for beta readers for her current project, so do make contact if you can help.

More about Danielle Apple…

When she’s not pursuing research bunny trails, Danielle is reading. Her happy place is cozying up on the couch with her dog and a 19th century gothic mystery novel, but you’ll also find her hiking and exploring ghost towns and forgotten graveyards. An avid photographer and language learner, Danielle finds it difficult not to see the story potential in every place or turn of phrase. Sometimes the muses are humorous, and sometimes they are dark, but they always come from an integral place. Her upcoming novel takes place in Northern Alabama, 1834. It’s about a boy and his new, standoffish friends who come of age during a decade long blood feud that leaves him digging graves – perhaps even his own. You can follow the progress here https://linktr.ee/Dapplewrites

Keep an eye out for more blog posts in the Historical Writers Forum Hauntings blog hop as more of our authors get the chance to talk about their ghost stories in the run-up to Halloween.

 

 THE HISTORICAL WRITERS FORUM: who we are

 The Historical Writers Forum (HWF), started out as a social media group where writers of historical non-fiction, historical fiction, and historical fantasy could come together to share their knowledge and skills to help improve standards amongst this genre of writers, whether they be new or well-practiced. The aim is to encourage peer support for authors in a field where sometimes writing can be a very lonely business. We currently number over 800 members and are growing. We have recently been busy organising online talks via Zoom and now have our own YouTube channel where you can find our discussions on a variety of topics. Our membership includes several well-known authors who regularly engage to share their experiences and strengths to help other members build their own skillset.

We can be found on:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/writersofhistoryforum/

Twitter:  https://twitter.com/HistWriters

YouTube:  https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCSsS5dFPp4xz5zxJUsjytoQ

Angry White Popham Duck II

It’s been very quiet here at Writing With Labradors, but I’m delighted to tell you that I’m kicking off a new season of blog posts with Angry White Popham Duck II.

I know that since I wrote the original post which conclusively identified Angry White Duck from our local duck pond as a quackers reincarnation of our hero Sir Home Riggs Popham, many of you will have wondered how Popham Duck has been getting on.

Popham Duck has been absent from time to time as we wandered through the winter months and into spring. For a while, he moved into the second pond, and seemed to have decided to live a quieter lifestyle with his new friends. Oscar and I quite enjoyed the break, without him yelling his litany of complaints as we passed.

Both lockdowns brought Popham back into the main pond, though. The kids were off school ( again) and that meant an endless supply of loot (bread) from bored children and desperate parents. Popham loved it, and was to be heard vocally demanding more than his fair share, protesting about the injustice of other ducks taking what was rightfully his and yelling in sheer rage any time a dog was seen in the vicinity. Even Oscar, who saved him from being eaten by a runaway dog called Nero, was not exempt from his relentless, aggressive quacking.

Since the arrival of Alfie, we’ve not spent much time up by the pond. Occasionally I’ll take Oscar up there for his solo walk, but as Alfie gets bigger we like to include him as much as possible, and I’ve been a bit wary of how he’ll be if a large white duck starts calling him rude names. Not all dogs are as placid as Oscar, and as Alfie is still very much a novice in terms of lead walking, I didn’t want to find myself jumping in the pond after him.

Today we set off for a short walk as it was a warm afternoon. I didn’t consciously think about heading for the ponds but Oscar paused by the path leading up that way, looking at me hopefully. Alfie was being particularly good on the lead today, so I decided to be brave and go for it.

The walk up to the ponds was fairly uneventful, apart from a delightful moment when three small children playing in a front garden managed to kick their football into the road. Mum must have been in the house and the kids were very well trained and knew they shouldn’t go after it. They stood staring at it, trying to work out what to do as we came past. There were no cars passing, so I crossed the road towards them, and allowed Oscar to push the ball back to them with his nose. I could hear one of them running shrieking with excitement into the house, shouting that a lovely dog had brought their ball back for them. Oscar strutted away, looking proud.

As we arrived at the pond, it was very quiet. There weren’t even any kids in the play park, I’ve no idea where everybody was this afternoon. I approached the edge of the main pond very carefully, and there he was. Initially, he was sitting on Duck Island dozing with his friends, but Popham Duck has a special dog warning sensor (probably invented by him, and better than all other dog warning sensors, because he’s a genius) and was very quickly in the water and swimming towards us to check us out.

Oscar stopped to watch the ducks. Alfie was initially fascinated by the smells on the grass beside the pond, probably because it smelt mostly of duck droppings. Eventually though, he realised that something interesting was afoot and went to join Oscar in observing the approach of Angry White Popham Duck. I took a very firm hold of both leads and waited.

Popham came on. It was very clear that he had seen the lurking dogs. Alfie’s tail was wagging furiously, but he said nothing. I was holding my breath. Most puppies will bark when they see a new creature, out of sheer excitement. Alfie couldn’t take his eyes from Popham but he still made no sound. He glanced sideways at Oscar a few times, maybe for reassurance. Oscar was his usual calm self and it worked. Alfie watched Popham for a bit longer then settled down for a rest.

Popham swam up and down for a bit, but strangely, he didn’t say a word. I was baffled. It’s so unlike our belligerent hero not to make his views known that I was beginning to wonder if one of the residents of the nearby houses had buckled under the strain and had his quack surgically removed.

It wasn’t until we walked further round the pond, that Popham gave a few quacks. They were nothing like his usual aggressive yelling. It was more like a friendly warning not to get too close. And I could suddenly see why. There were ducklings, swimming frantically around their mother.

We stood and watched them for a while, since I am a sucker for ducklings. Popham swam backwards and forwards, clearly on sentry patrol. After a bit, Alfie started to get restless so we set off on the last part of our walk. He didn’t bark once. I’m very proud of my little boy.

I’ve no idea why Angry White Popham Duck was so unusually mellow today. Maybe it’s the warm weather or perhaps he had an enormous shipment of bread today and is too stuffed to quack. Perhaps those ducklings are related to him, and he’s looking out for their welfare. I did wonder about that, as there were an awful lot of them and we know the Pophams ran to big families…

Alternatively of course, it might be that there is a worn out and angry mother duck on that pond, who has been up every night for two weeks, guarding her babies from passing seagulls and visiting Assassin Cats. Many of us would understand her feelings when her brood finally settles down for a nap and are immediately woken up by Angry White Popham Duck giving his all on the subject of a passing poodle.

“Popham, is it you making that racket?”

“It is indeed, Madam. I was made aware of an approaching threat in the form of two spaniels from the east and a white poodle from the south, and I felt it was my duty to warn you all, before seeing them off in fine style. No need to thank me…”

“Thank you? Listen to me you noisy, overbearing, meddlesome duck, if you do that once more when my ducklings are trying to sleep and I’m just catching a nap myself, you are going to find yourself locked inside the rusty shopping trolley in the second pond with half a ton of duckweed tied around your enormous webbed feet! Have I made myself clear?

“Admirably so, ma’am. Although I was only trying to help…”

“Don’t.”

“And I thought that if your ducklings were in danger…”

“They’re not. You will be, if you do that again.”

“Well. Very well. If that is your idea of gratitude, I shall keep perfectly silent from now on.”

Whatever the story, it was certainly a pleasant introduction to the duck pond for Alfie. It was quite a long walk for him at this stage, and on a warm afternoon as well.

“Did you enjoy meeting the ducks, Alfie?”

“I did, Mum. And seeing all those people, and the cars and the trees and the flowers…zzzzzzzzzz”

“Did you enjoy it, Oscar?”

“I loved it, Mum. Reminds me of when I used to go out with Joey. He’s pretty good on the lead now, isn’t he? Alfie, I mean.”

“He is. I’m looking forward to many more walks with you both, baby boy.”

“Looks as though Alfie is taking a nap before dinner. I might just join him…”

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading Angry White Popham Duck II. Check in again with Writing With Labradors for further adventures of Oscar and Alfie, history posts both silly and sensible, travel posts, free short stories and plenty of news about my books. You can follow me on social media for more updates.

 

Twitter:           https://twitter.com/LynnBry29527024

Facebook:        https://www.facebook.com/historyfiction1803/

Instagram        https://www.instagram.com/lynnbryant1803/

 

 

 

 

Welcome to Alfie

“Today I am giving command of Writing with Labradors to our newly promoted officer, Captain Oscar so that he can post his very own Welcome to Alfie. Oscar, are you ready?”

“Ready? Ready? Are you kidding me, I have never been more ready in my life! I’m so excited! I’m so happy! I’m so proud! I’m so…sorry, Mum, I just have to go and run around the garden a few times more!”

“Carry on, Oscar. Let me know when you’re done.”

“Right. Okay. Yes, I think I’m done.”

Well then, this is my first official post as Captain Oscar, senior officer at Writing with Labradors. I can remember being with Toby and Joey when they wrote their blog posts a few years ago. I was very young then, just a puppy, and it seemed very exciting but a big responsibility. I used to dream of the day when I’d be able to do a blog post of my very own.

I’ve done a few posts now, as part of our very popular #OscarWalks series which has taken us out and about around the Isle of Man, where I live. Toby and Joey are no longer with us, although I still talk to them sometimes, when I need advice or help with something. It’s not that far over the rainbow bridge and they can still hear me.

I’ve been excited all week because Mum told me that Anya-human was FINALLY coming home. She’s been gone for far too long this time and I’ve missed her dreadfully. I’ve been looking forward to long evenings on the sofa with her, reading or watching TV or helping her study. And if the weather is good, I love sitting in the garden with her, especially on the hammock. Mum says I’m too big to share the hammock now, but that’s nonsense. Anya always lets me.

Nobody told me just how exciting this homecoming was going to be. Rachael-human went off to pick Anya up in her car, which meant it was very quiet for a few days. But when they arrived…OMG WHAT A SURPRISE!!!

Meet Ensign Alfie, the newest recruit to the staff of Writing With Labradors. Alfie is my new little brother, and I love him already. He’s a fox red Labrador, just like my Mum, Poppy and he came from York.

I can’t believe Mum managed to keep this a secret. Alfie is still very little, so I can’t take him out to show him all the fantastic places on the island yet, but I can play in the garden with him as much as I like. I’ve always wanted another brother or sister, ever since Joey died. I love meeting other dogs and playing with them, and I love it when my friend Roy comes to stay. I can’t believe that I’ve now got a friend with me ALL THE TIME!

Of course, being a big brother brings new responsibilities. I can remember Joey telling me how important it was to carry on the traditions and I’ll try to do my best. I have so much to show Alfie and so much to teach him. At the moment Alfie is a bit nervous about playing with me because I’m so much bigger, but he’s getting more confident all the time, and this morning he came close to playing tug of war with me in the garden.

“OMG, Mum, I can’t do anymore, I need to go and run around in the garden for a while again, I’m so excited. Is Alfie awake yet? That’s great! Come on, Alfie, I want to show you how to dig a hole. Though obviously not in Mum’s vegetable garden. We’d never do that…”

I don’t think we’ll get much sense out of Oscar for a bit. He and Alfie seem to be getting on very well, and I have a feeling that Writing With Labradors is in good hands for the future. Or rather, good paws. We’ve all settled down for a rest now, although it isn’t clear how much of her essay Anya is going to get done today.

Readers may have guessed that I chose the name Alfie after one of my favourite characters from the Manxman series. I would have liked to have called him Wellington, but my family were very firmly against that idea. I can’t imagine why they didn’t want to run along the beach yelling “Wellington, here boy!”

I’ve had a few tears here and there since Alfie arrived. The first was when he came to sit on my feet while I was cooking dinner, which was exactly what Joey used to do with me. The second was watching Oscar with him in the garden, very excited but also very much on his dignity, very much the senior dog. My baby puppy has grown up and he reminded me so much of Toby, when first Joey and then Oscar first arrived.

We’re fully staffed again here at Writing With Labradors and while we have a bit of work to do training the new recruit, having two dogs in my study with me while I’m working feels very right. Expect many more photos and videos as the boys settle down together and really bond as brothers.

 

 

Angry White Duck: the Popham Connection


Angry White Duck: the Popham Connection

The adventures of Angry White Duck have been a regular feature on my Twitter feed for quite some time. During the working week, I tend to take Oscar out on a local walk every day and we often walk past the local duck ponds. There is a collection of ducks who inhabit these two small areas of water, and most of them are peaceful creatures who spend their time swimming about, gobbling up bread from the local kids and cleaning their feathers.

Then there is Angry White Duck. A photograph of Angry White Duck doesn’t really do this chap justice and I’ve never managed a successful video of him in action. This is because it’s hard to take a video with a lively Labrador on a lead, and Angry White Duck only kicks off when he sees a dog. He hates dogs. This must be exhausting for him, because the pond is in the middle of a busy estate where dogs go past all the time.

I’m assuming that at some point in his life, Angry White Duck had a bad experience with a dog. That dog was not my dog. Oscar is angelic around ducks and I can walk him right past them on the lead and he doesn’t even bark. By now all the other ducks on the pond are used to him and don’t even bother to jump back in the water as we pass. This is Oscar, they seem to say, and Oscar is all right. Oscar likes to watch the ducks and if it’s not too cold we sit on our favourite bench for a bit to observe that all is well in duck world. But the moment Angry White Duck sees Oscar, all hell breaks loose. That duck has the loudest quack I have ever heard, and it’s incredibly aggressive. The minute he sees a dog he will swim backwards and forwards or sometimes perch on Duck Island, quacking furiously until somebody takes the four-legged fiend away. Often, we can still hear him yelling after us into the distance.

Can we see a resemblance?

During a recent discussion on Twitter, my friends came up with a number of theories about why Angry White Duck is so furious. Given that this is Napoleonic Twitter, where literally anything can happen, it quickly became established that Angry White Duck was probably a duck reincarnation of Sir Home Riggs Popham who wants to vent about the unfair treatment he gets from the other ducks and how they don’t appreciate his genius. Since then, Angry White Duck has been formally renamed Popham.

A few weeks ago, Oscar and I went out later than usual It was dusk when we reached the pond. Popham was sitting on one of the two little islands in the middle of the main pond, looking important. It was too cold to sit, so we made our way past, grateful that in the fading light, Popham did not seem to be able to see us. For once he was quiet, cleaning his feathers and preening himself. There was nobody about and it was a pretty evening.

Suddenly, without warning, there was an almighty noise of barking, followed by a great deal of ineffectual screeching. Something very fast went past us, and then there was an enormous splash. A woman ran past shrieking:

“Nero! Nero!”

Nero appeared to be a fairly young and very large dog who had pulled away from his owner and dived into the pond. Dogs aren’t allowed in the duck pond, but Nero didn’t care about that. Nero had seen the ducks and he had a plan. Clearly he was a naval chap, and he was swimming strongly towards the ducks. In the background, his owner screeched a lot and waved her arms in the air.

The ducks weren’t happy. They all kicked off. For once, it wasn’t just Popham expressing his views. There was a lot of quacking. Popham the Angry but Aggressively Handsome and Resourceful Duck stood atop Duck Island, louder than any of the other ducks in his squadron. But the other ducks quickly realised it was time to retreat. They left the islands and began to swim towards the opposite shore. Pretty damned fast.

Popham Duck was horrified. The cowards! It was just like the Red Sea all over again. Only, you know, different obviously. By now, it was clear that Nero the Dog was in the employ of Lord St Vincent, Popham’s arch enemy. Popham Duck stood his ground, quacking even louder. He was not going to retreat.

At this point, I was beginning to think that Popham Duck might be about to join his long-departed namesake in the history hall of fame. But there was a new hero.

Oscar had been staring at the chaos in stunned silence up to this point, but he suddenly discovered his inner policeman. Oscar knows that there are places you swim and there are places you don’t. And the duck pond is one of the latter. Oscar began to bark furiously, something he very seldom does, and it was clear that in dog language, he was yelling:

“Get out of that pond, you numpty.”

Nero took no notice at all. His eyes were on the prize and he was getting closer to Popham Duck. At this point, Oscar realised he needed to intervene personally. After all, Popham Duck might be annoying, but a trusty Labrador can’t stand by and see him murdered. He took off at speed. Oscar has never done this before, and it turns out he’s a lot stronger than I am. I let go. It was better than being dragged into the pond.

Oscar ran into the pond and then stopped and barked at Nero. Nero turned in some surprise. Oscar barked again. To my amazement, Nero abandoned his assault on Duck Island, changed direction and swam back to join Oscar. Both dogs trotted out onto the bank and had a good sniff at each other. I retrieved Oscar and Nero’s sobbing owner retrieved him with heaps of thanks. I don’t know why, I didn’t do a thing. I just smiled.

Popham Duck stood alone on his island glaring at the other ducks. You could see that he was thinking that they weren’t getting a share of the prize money (bread) as they’d done nothing to earn it. As Nero left, he quacked a few more times then settled down for a snooze. Oscar and I walked home, and I gave him a treat for saving Popham Duck even if he didn’t deserve it.

Continuing with the Popham theme, and in conversation with our Popham expert, Dr Jacqueline Reiter, we have come up with the theory that if Angry White Duck is Popham in this scenario, and Nero was clearly hired by Lord St Vincent to make this cowardly attack on our hero, then is it possible that Popham Duck sees Oscar as Lord Melville, his long-time patron. This would make perfect sense, if all that aggressive quacking were not Popham complaining about Oscar, but Popham complaining TO Oscar, giving him a long list of problems that need solving.

Presumably, after this traumatic event, Popham Duck went off to compose a lengthy explanatory memorandum about the incident which he recited to Oscar next time we’re passing. To me, this sounded like a highly aggressive version of:

“Quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack…”

But according to Dr Reiter, who knows about this stuff, it really means:

“When I was totally minding my own business doing something great and secret (see attached letter from Lord Grenville, which is totally unrelated but shows how much trusted I have been by high-ranking people who can crush my enemies like a gnat, especially savage dogs with no manners), an agent of Lord St Vincent came charging at me and it was only by the skin of my beak that I survived at all. Now, sirs, let me continue at great length about how persecuted I have been by…etc, etc, etc.”

We didn’t see Popham Duck for about a week after that and I was a bit worried, although reassured by the expert that he’d probably just popped off to mount an illegal invasion of South America and would be back on Thursday. This proved to be the case. Popham Duck shows no gratitude to his brave rescuer and still recites a long list of complaints every time we walk past.

I’m in two minds as to the motives behind Oscar’s rescue mission. It’s possible that he just snapped because Popham was getting on his nerves and he wanted him to shut up, or maybe he really did feel obliged to help. Myself, I think there was a policeman element to it.

“Now then, my lad, you can’t go around scaring the ducks in this pond, it’s just not on. I know that one’s irritating, but you just have to learn to ignore him.” Probably the real Lord Melville felt the same way about the real Popham.

With Popham Duck back in his rightful place, things have continued as usual on our walks and up on the duck pond until today. With this blog post in mind, I wanted to try to get a couple of photos of Popham Duck, so I stopped off on the way back from the post office and Oscar wasn’t with me. Just as well, as it turns out, because the policeman in him would certainly have objected to THIS.

Clearly, after the failure of Nero to deal with the most irritating duck in the world, Lord St Vincent found a new and far more subtle agent. Assassin Cat strolled out of the bushes just as I was snapping a few sneaky photos of Popham, gave me a swish of the tail, then sauntered down to the water’s edge.

Astonishingly, Assassin Cat seemed to have no fear of the water. He paddled daintily in the shallows and had a drink. I could tell that this was a ploy to throw our hero off his guard and I’m sorry to say that it worked a treat. Popham Duck clearly thought that compared to Nero, this was a negligible threat, and made straight for the intruder, quacking furiously. He wasn’t the only one. Once again, all the other ducks (the ones with brains) swam AWAY from Assassin Cat, quacking loudly. I don’t speak duck, but even I could translate this.

“What are you doing? Popham, you bleeding idiot, come away from there! He’s a cat, he’s not going to jump in and swim, but DON’T GET OUT OF THE WATER!!!”

Popham ignored them. He always does. He swam closer and closer, and Assassin Cat pretended not to look. I wasn’t fooled. That cat had his orders, and he was prepared to carry them out. I wasn’t sure who I was worried about. Popham is a good sized duck, and that cat wasn’t very big. One thing was certain though. Somebody was going to get hurt unless I intervened.

Before Popham got to the edge, I went to stroke Assassin Cat. Being a typical feline, it wasn’t hard to distract him. A few compliments and a tickle under the chin, and he was following me back up the bank. Behind me, I could hear Popham’s enraged quacking.

“Come back here, you furry coward! I’m not afraid of you. You’re looking at the duck who once guided the entire navy through treacherous waters into the safety of a place that they weren’t supposed to be. You don’t scare me.”

I am hoping that with Assassin Cat out of the way, the ducks of Popham’s squadron will manage to explain to him that when you’ve got an advantage, you don’t squander it by making an unnecessary attack. If they don’t, sooner or later, that duck is going to get himself into a situation he can’t get out of. Who knows what will happen then, possibly an unwelcome posting to India or the West Indies.

In the meantime, I think Oscar has become so used to Angry White Popham Duck, that he quite enjoys his regular rants. He looks over at the pond as we go past, knowing that at any moment, the litany of complaints are going to begin.

“Quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack quack…”

“He’s in good voice today, Mum.”

“He is, Oscar.”

“Maybe we should bring him some bread tomorrow, see if it will cheer him up. And a treat for me, of course.”

“Why not. You’re a very good boy, Oscar.”

“Thanks, Mum. You’re a good girl, too.”

My thanks to John Haines who came up with the original identification of Angry White Duck as Popham and Jacqui Reiter who contributed to the rest of the story. Maybe we’ve all been in lockdown for too long…

Also to Oscar, for being wonderful.

 

 

Lockdown with Oscar: the End

Lockdown with Oscar: the End

When I began these posts I wasn’t sure if I was going to continue them all the way through lockdown. I didn’t really have a plan when I started, I was just trying to cheer myself – and any readers – up a bit. It did work to begin with, but after a few days I experienced a bit of a lockdown slump, and that is definitely not something I wanted to share with my poor readers.

I wanted to come back to this though, now that it’s over. We’re back to where we were before as from today, with life returning to normal in our lovely little bubble, apart from closed borders and even more stringent quarantine restrictions for anybody who leaves and wants to return. And the vaccine of course, which is being rolled out gradually, and which we hope one day will allow us to make choices about our own lives again.

At least daily walks with Oscar should get easier. After a few days of experimenting with the best way of walking Oscar in lockdown, I decided that driving to somewhere a bit less busy is a good idea. Usually in the week I just walk him from our front door, but the streets have been much more crowded through lockdown with people getting their daily exercise. Some of the pavements and footpaths are very narrow, and some people are more nervous than others. Add dogs into that mix and it’s just good to find some space. Accordingly my daughter and I have been taking him to the beach or down to St Michael’s Isle where it’s relatively empty and he can run around, swim and jump in puddles without upsetting anybody.

It’s been a joy to have my daughter on our daily walks and I’m going to miss her dreadfully when she goes back to University, which she’s decided to do this weekend. There will be on online teaching of course, and the library is still closed, but now that she can travel, she wants to be back in her student house with her friends, even if they can’t see anybody else. She’s already left home in her head and these weeks of uncertainty and not knowing when she can go back have been miserable. I’ll miss her, but I understand.

Covid rules do odd things to people. I heard a story from somebody I know  about being yelled at for not wearing a mask in the street. From the other side of the road. Needless to say there were no rules about wearing masks out on a walk, and there is no way to know if somebody has a good reason for not doing so anyway. It’s extraordinary how this crisis brings out the best in so many people and the worst in others.

I’ve set myself some difficult writing goals for this year, but since I’m unlikely to be interrupted very much by inconvenient holidays or family visits, I’ve decided to go for it. I’m currently four chapters in to book three of the Manxman series, which is called This Bloody Shore and it’s going very well. I struggled this time to decide which book to write next. Technically, it should be the Manxman, as I tend to alternate the two series, but when I finished An Unmerciful Incursion I was so immersed in the world of the 110th that I began book seven straight away.  For a few weeks I worked on both, then Hugh and Durrell began to demand my attention and point out that it was their turn.

For the first time in a few years, I’m aiming to get two books out this year. Both of these are already well planned out, and as the subject of book seven is relatively easy to research (although the plotline is difficult) I think I might well manage it. Certainly it will keep me very busy and that’s a good thing. I’m incredibly lucky to have a job that I love so much that I can completely immerse myself in it. I am not convinced that life in 1811 would have been much fun, but writing about it is a wonderful way of removing myself from the current situation.

It’s good to know that we have a measure of freedom again, although I think I’m very aware of how fragile that can be. I really hope that my friends elsewhere in the world can achieve the same thing soon. I miss you all very much.

I miss travel and libraries and seeing my sister. I miss planning research trips and going to conferences. I miss big things like my holidays and I miss silly things like watching football on the TV and seeing real fans at Old Trafford. I miss my daughter being able to come and go from Uni freely, without worrying. I miss new films at the cinema, and shows coming over from the UK at the theatre and being able to look ahead and plan. I think we all miss different things, and I don’t think we should feel guilty about it. Whatever the awfulness in the world, it’s natural and normal to miss things that have been taken away from us. The key is to try to find other things to make us happy.

In the meantime, some lessons from Lockdown with Oscar: the End.

  1. I really hate lockdown
  2. Oscar really loves lockdown. “All my people are here!!!”
  3. Reading the news in lockdown is a form of self-harm
  4. So is talking to people about lockdown, Covid or Brexit
  5. Talking to people about history is great
  6. Also dogs
  7. I’m not good at rules
  8. Or being locked up
  9. Given 7 and 8, probably best not to take to a life of crime
  10. Dogs don’t understand social distancing
  11. Sensible creatures
  12. I love my study and my own desk with a deep and abiding passion
  13. I’m incredibly lucky
  14. The Isle of Man is pretty good at working together when it has a common aim
  15. Even if the aim is to go out and get blind drunk in the pubs on Saturday night
  16. I’m sort of proud of us
  17. Did I mention I hate lockdown?
  18. The phrases “covidiot” “stay safe” and “new normal” cause actual psychic trauma by now every time I read or hear them
  19. I’m pretty odd though
  20. My family are great and I adore them
  21. My friends, both local and online are also great and keep me sane
  22. So I need them all to stay safe. 
  23. Can’t believe I just said that.
  24. I want this to be over for everybody.

“Mum. Mum. What are you going on about, you said this would be a short post and then we’d go out.”

“Just coming, Oscar.”

“Is it true I can play with all my friends again?”

“Yep.”

“And their humans won’t be wearing muzzles?”

“That’s right, Oscar.”

“That sounds great to me. Let’s go to Derbyhaven Beach.”

“Come on then, I’ll get your lead.”