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.

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.

 

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