Hoots mon, the scones are unbearably light!

Phil: Although I’m not Scottish, my ancestry does permit me to wear the Lamont tartan, I’m partial to a bit of Lorne sausage and even a portion of fried haggis. I also consider the Tunnocks teacake one of the finest delicacies in the shops. The caramel wafers aren’t bad either.

The Unbearable Lightness of Scones caught my eye in the book pile at work for a couple of reasons. I like scones, and it’s set in Scotland Street, Edinburgh.

I’ve been there, mainly because at one end of it was a railway yard and I spent much time helping out a friend who had built a model of it exhibits his efforts around the country. That it is written by Alexander McCall Smith was less appealing as I’ve never got into his Number One Ladies Detective Agency series, no matter how good people tell me it is.

Anyway, this is an interesting book that defies many literary conventions.

For a start, there is a huge amount of text that doesn’t move the story forward. All that stuff we are told to edit out. Well, not here. The characters head off at tangents, spend a long time thinking of random things and generally using lots and lots of words. Far from light, it’s actually quite dense and took me a couple of attempts to get going with.

The other oddity is there isn’t really a plot. Things happen, but we never get the feeling that anything significant is happening, but this isn’t a bad thing.

What we have a literary soap opera. My understanding is that the 100 (yes one hundred!) chapters are from the Scotsman newspaper and published on a daily basis. The books are collections of these for those who want their tales of Edinburgh life in a single helping. So, there are lots of characters living independent, but sometimes interconnected lives.  Along the way, several points are made by the author – for example, one of the characters is a small child whose overbearing mother could come straight out of the Guardian cliche lineup with her strident feminist ideas.

It’s a book riven with tartan too. You don’t see the pretender to the Scottish throne pop up very often not Jacobite being used as a slur. Do people still care about that stuff? Even one of the art sub-plots centres on a portrait of Robbie Burns.

If you can get past the style, then I can understand why the residents of Scotland Street become as popular as those of Glebe Street, albeit, representing a very modern take on their home city that will be a revelation to many readers from south of the border. This book could have been set in London in many respects. That it isn’t is a credit to the author, and probably a credit to his previous success allowing him to say a firm “No” to any publisher suggesting that he’s picked the wrong capital.

I got into the story after a few chapters and once in, worked my way through pleasantly quickly. I didn’t dare leave it too long between reading sessions for fear of losing the plot, but as the chapters are short, and the focus moved between different plot threads, it’s an easy book to pick up and put down for short bursts of reading between other jobs.

Now if you don’t mind, I think there is one more teacake in the fridge…

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Relaxing reads for taxing times

Phil: Here’s a handy hint. Don’t publish a blog post about how you are starting to feel more comfortable with the current situation. It’s a prelude to your metal state heading downhill fast for several days. Just shut up and read some books. To help, here are the two most recent that I’ve finished in my regular post-lunch tea and reading sessions.

Warning: Contains Spoilers. Or at least spoilers if you’ve never read any chick-lit before and can’t spot the bleedin’ obvious plot lines.

The Hidden Cottage by Erica James

Mia Channing appears to have an enviable life: a beautiful home, a happy marriage, a job she enjoys and three grown-up children to whom she’s devoted. But appearances can be deceptive…

When the family gathers for her son’s thirtieth birthday, he brings with him his latest girlfriend, who, to their surprise, has a nine-year-old daughter. Then, before the birthday cake has even been cut, Mia’s youngest daughter Daisy has seized the opportunity to drop a bombshell. It’s an evening that marks a turning point in all their lives, when old resentments and regrets surface and the carefully ordered world Mia has created begins to unravel.

You’d think from the blurb that this is all about Mia, but the main character is Owen Fletcher who buys a cottage in Little Pelham. The cottage was part of his childhood when he lived for a while in the village. He’s one of those annoying people in novels with bucket loads of cash but no obvious way of earning it, but we let that pass because he’s not a dick. I did have a “what does he DO all day?” moment, but in the current situation, adults not actually doing much to fill the hours doesn’t seem so odd.

Anyway, this is quite involved with Mia’s three children and most importantly, overly controlling husband, all walking on eggshells with each other, finding their way in the world, loving and losing etc. The actual main romance isn’t prominent in the book. It’s there, but takes up very little of the story compared to the rest of the characters, and is all the better for it.

I’d say that this is the thinking readers chick-lit with some well worked parallel storylines, especially Mia’s marriage and Owen’s childhood. There are a few shocks along the way too. Maybe the supporting characters in the village are a bit cartoonish, but the background hangs together well enough not to be obtrusive.

I read this one in small chunks, but it’s one of those books I’d make little bits of time during the day to grab another chapter of.

A Summer Scandal by Kat French

When Violet moves to Swallow Beach, she inherits a small Victorian pier with an empty arcade perched on the end of it, and falls in love immediately. She wants nothing more than to rejuvenate it and make it grand again – but how?

When she meets hunky Calvin, inspiration strikes. What if she turned the arcade into an adult-themed arcade full of artisan shops?

Not everyone in the town is happy with the idea, but Violet loves her arcade and business begins to boom. But as tensions worsen and the heat between her and Calvin begins to grow, life at Swallow Beach becomes tricky. Is it worth staying to ride out the storm? And can Violet find her own happy ending before the swallows fly south for the winter?

Violet inherits a pier and apartment in the childhood town her mother refuses to return to. There are secrets from her grandmother who died in mysterious circumstances. And her neighbour is hunky Calvin Dearheart.

Reader, she shags him.

She also turns the pier into a series of workshops for those making things for the adult entertainment industry. Maybe I’ve lived a sheltered life, but a couple of them were “That’s really a thing?” moments. You don’t want to search for them on-line either on a work computer.

I wasn’t wild about this, the idea that you’d turn the centrepiece of a pier into a series of workspaces where the most public-friendly thing on offer would be a leather whip seemed odd. Artisan workshops would work, but I suspect that the Great British Public aren’t ready for X-rated goods while strolling along the seaside.

To be honest, the characters are all ridiculous, but it’s all played straight and so the book gets away with it. There are more historical parallels, outrageous coincidences and the ending is a bit weird, but overall, it’s everything the cover suggests. Light fun with a happy ending. Just like that that the pier’s customers are expecting.

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Lockdown Buzzword Bingo

index

Candice: So we are pretty much all going through it at the moment – my feed is full of people telling me how exciting their day is, what outfit they are wearing, “look at how much fun I am having on video calls.”  Or sharing information, true or otherwise. about what is going on. There was even a programme on TV last night about 24hrs in Lockdown, um do you think we really need to know about that, I know there is the lack of stuff to show at the moment but really!

So I’ve done a ‘Buzzword Bingo’ list.  You know the ones, they get used for meetings to add humour and you tick off when a certain project-centric or verbose word is used.  It adds to the long day if you are at a particularly boring conference.

Tick if you have done the following:

  1. Worn the same clothes more than two days in a row (I don’t mean undies!)
  2. Not put your jewellery on
  3. Not worn any makeup
  4. Become so attached to your phone and checking on the outside world its become an obsession
  5. Walking twice as much as you were before this (for those of you allowed to go out for exercise)
  6. Taken part in Joe Wicks’ exercise class
  7. Discovered Zoom
  8. Spent a whole Zoom call trying to teach an elder family member how to make it work
  9. Found things in your house you thought you had lost
  10. Ordered random things online – crepe paper anyone?
  11. Felt like you are running the dishwasher/washing up twice as much as usual
  12. Constantly washing clothes
  13. Forgotten what day it is
  14. Had your child/partner walk in on a video call
  15. Let ‘things’ grow out (that’s ladies and men)

For the outfit and style things, I’ve gone through the wear the same and now trying to mix it up.  I have done my annual summer/winter swap which has added a whole new level of fun to dressing (‘I’d forgotten all about this top’).  Also re makeup, as I’m starting to look a little haggard and need that bronzer to zip me up, even if it’s only for a walk around the block.

Even the phone I’m looking at less – I check the BBC once a day for an update on numbers, Boris’s health and any sight of an end to this but Facebook has become BORING.

Walking, bike riding – I used to do a lot but in these few weeks my daughter has gone from a reluctant rider to a proficient one so we go for a bike ride every day.  The bonus of car free roads means she can get used to it without us worrying too much about her wobbling.  We’ve found we can get quite far in our allocated slot.  And yes we’ve done Joe but more for me than her.

Ah Zoom, yes fun to start but I spend most of the day on the phone so the last thing I want to do is speak to people at night too.  I did get the parent’s version to work, FINALLY.

Our house has become craft central as my little maker loves craft.  Paint is probably the thing in short supply now.  We’ve found some of her toys we lost by spending time sorting out stuff to make things with, and also made a lot of things with crepe paper!

It’s all blurring into one, and I do struggle each day to actually remember who I am and what I am supposed to be doing.  There is a pad next to my desk that I have to write it all down else, with the constant distraction of childcare, I forget what I was saying and doing.  Only my watch really helps me remember what day it is.  What I can’t believe is we are on week three.  When this started it felt like someone had chopped my legs off, but now it almost feels normal.  I know I am not going to enjoy getting back into the ‘chuck child at school and drive to work’ routine.  And I’m also going to remember that you don’t have to throw money at things to have fun, there are boxes in our house yet to be opened and games we still haven’t played, thank god for the sunshine and a back garden to play in.

Reading and Writing – well this hasn’t turned into the supper productive period because I’m still working but I’m definitely using books to help distance myself from what’s going on and writing, well that will come when it does.

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Finding my funny bone

Phil: It’s very strange at the moment isn’t it?

Like most people, my mood has been very up and down recently. Every so often a wave of “the fear” comes over me and I’m pretty much useless.

(I will be ignoring any comments Nolan)

I’m worried about people I know becoming ill, or even worse. I worry that I might get ill. I worry about my job. I worry about the future – will there be any sort of economy left after all this? I worry how long it will be before things get back to something approaching normality. I worry that they might not.

Add into this worries about the day to day essentials of life such as buying milk and teabags and it’s not surprising that I’ve been struggling to find the enthusiasm to write anything.

Humans are adaptable though. The longer a situation persists, the more we find ways to work with it and make the best of things.

Panic buying in shops for example. The supermarkets have started to adapt. Shorter hours, desperately recruiting more staff to stack the shelves and deliver goods have removed the “all the shops are empty” story that most of the media have been running with. Heck, I even bought a pack of the rare toilet roll a couple of days ago, and I could have done the same yesterday.

(Yes, I know this makes me an ace hunter-gatherer and all the women looking at this are wondering if they should ignore my gormless photo at the top of this blog, instead forming an orderly queue…)

All being well, we’ll one day look back on these times with nostalgia and remember what we were doing during the great bog roll drought of 2020. I’m sure some rose-tinted spectacles will be donned by some.

However, I’m now finding it easier to write. I still worry, but perhaps not in such a paralysing way. Not so often anyway. The optimist in me looks for the promising news stories the media do their level best to hide in the scaremongering. I’m starting to see some chance to get back to writing stuff in the book, and that stuff being funny.

Fingers are crossed, but legs don’t need to be anymore.

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Science fiction?

Candice: ‘The camera pans an empty street, the roads are clear, a piece of litter rolls in the wind.  From a distance, the noise of an Ambulance siren can be heard.  A lone runner crosses the screen, bright in a day-glow orange top.  She pounds the streets, head phones on, fiercely concentrating on putting one foot in front of another. Suddenly a dog walker appears in her path, they look at each other as the pavement is only wide enough for them in usual circumstances.  She veers to the right, crossing the grass and on to the road to get away from her foe.  The walker is it out of her way and now it is back to car-free silence.’

For the last week I have been watching our world change in a way that none of us would have ever have thought of, even in the last month.

I was due to be going away in the first week of Easter.  I keep having flashing backs of a conversation with friends in January about booking a trip to the south coast, and then next thing I knew they were coming on our trip too.  Yet four weeks ago I was telling my daughter how much I was looking forward to a week away, she would get to play with her friends, us ladies had booked a spa treatment day.

And now I feel like I am living in a science fiction novel, or its a dream and someone is going to wake me up tomorrow.  What I have written above is not fiction, its fact.  We no longer have to imagine the life portrayed in these sci-fi pieces, it’s happening to us all.  And that is another thing I can not comprehend, it’s not just the UK it’s the world.  We are all in lockdown and we are all experiencing this.

There will be many novels, plays, films and history books written about this event.  And at some point in the future we will all say “Do you remember when it hit, what we did” but for now I think we are shell shocked.

I for one, am trying to record it all, because, like the birth of a child or your wedding day, you think you will remember it but you won’t.  Having my daughter at home means we are creating a daily diary of events so that I and she can look back and remember what it was like.  She doesn’t really understand what is happening.  Tonight she wanted to know if we can go to the shops tomorrow and I had to say no.  I’ve promised new toys instead as I don’t see them as an indulgence but a necessity.  She asked when we could go to the shops and I said hopefully four weeks but to her, that is ages (and to me too, to be honest).

With my writing hat on I’m already wondering if this will ever become part of one of our books.  The BBC are looking for scripts about it, perhaps Phil and I can come up with one?

For those who are locked in, now is the time to write about your fears and also your plans.  Keep positive and we’ll all have a big party when this is over.

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13 home working tips for newbies

Phil: It seems that thanks to a virus named after a fizzy drink from my childhood, everyone who can is being advised to work from home. As someone who has been doing this for several years, perhaps I can offer some advice.

Everyone at home thinks you aren’t working.

If you share your home with other people, they will be utterly incapable of understanding that you are working, not just messing around on the computer. Requests to help, chats, suggestions of nipping out to a pub/garden centre/shop will be pretty much continuous and when turned down, resulting in a bit of a huff. After all, you’re at home, not work aren’t you?

Set up an office.

Pick a space and mark it out like a tomcat peeing on its territory. I know the adverts show people casually using a laptop while sitting on some stone steps in the middle of a busy city but that’s basically b****ks. Those steps are hard and cold. Get a proper chair or a sore backside and piles.

You’re going to generate paperwork and stuff. The same stuff that appears on your desk at work. The paperless office is a myth. Anyway, we all need our favourite pen pot handy. At least you don’t need to write your name on your stapler to stop it being nicked by a colleague.

Become task focussed, not time focussed.

The only way to work is to have a list of jobs. Write a to-do list. I have 3 – long-term, medium-term and short-term. I like crossing things out. I also like keeping them handy for non-work time so I can add stuff and then forget about it until work time.

When do you work best?

I used to think I was a morning person. I’m not. It takes me ages to get going, but after lunch and into the evening, I’m at most productive. If you are task-based, you can work when work works best for you. If that’s 3 o’clock in the morning, go for it. You are weird, but go for it anyway.

Take some breaks

One of the great benefits of home working, you can do other things at the same time. Want to put some washing on? No problem, it only takes a few minutes and provides a handy screen break.

Talking of breaks, all the trades, and most of the home workers top for Radio 2’s Popmaster quiz at 10:30. We all need a bit of a mental workout and what better than trying to name 3 Lloyd Cole hits in 10 seconds while making a cup of tea? Colleagues will probably try to organise conference calls at this time. Refuse those invites, they can take place anytime. It’s only work.

Turn the radio on. Turn the telly off.

I can’t work in silence, I need the radio. Generally Radio 2 (Candice prefers something rockier) but never at lunchtime when radio clickbait host Jeremy Vine fills the air with a phone in full of people that make you despise your fellow humans.

iPods for real concentration.

There is science to say that if you really need to concentrate, listen to music that you’ve heard many times before. It allows your brain to keep focus but lubricates your mental processes. Both members of team NolanParker find iPods ideal if we really need to get things done.

Avoid the news.

At the moment, the media are competing to be more apocalyptic than each other. Forget it. The temptation to dwell for hours on the BBC News website is strong, but it will only make you miserable. If you must look, try to keep it to once an hour.

Social media can be work.

Seriously, some of us have to use social media in our jobs. It’s not ideal as distractions are always present, but it’s part of the job. Maybe do friends stuff on your phone and work stuff on the computer. Or just get some willpower, something harder to find than hand sanitiser at the moment.

Get on the phone.

Working from home can be terribly isolating. Try to arrange phone calls with colleagues. This isn’t wasted time, you’d chat in the office, let yourself spend time doing the same remotely. We have the technology for video conferences and all sorts of ways to stay in touch too. Use it.

Mind you, most people e-mail each other in the office, so things aren’t that different…

Use local shops.

Getting out and about is important. Get to know your local shops so you have a purpose going for a stroll. Since you can’t carry a ton of stuff, there is an excuse to get out several days a week. Who knows, you might even get to meet the rest of the local community!

Set solitaire to easy.

The most popular computer game in the world is Microsoft Solitaire. It’s on your computer and perfect for procrastination or messing around with while on a less than a riveting phone call. Hard-core workers will delete it. The rest of us will play until we win a game – so set the level to “Idiot” so you win nearly every time. Try a harder level and hours will be lost as you decide “One more until I win”.

Bargain Hunt will become a fixture in your day.

Daytime telly. Just don’t. No-one needs the sort of show where Caprice is wheeled out as an expert on the spread of a virus. However, Bargain Hunt is perfectly situated at 12:15, about a quarter of an hour past the point you’ll decide it’s acceptable to eat your lunch.

The trick is to remember that the good stuff happens in the last 20 minutes. You can make something to eat while the contestants are arguing over ugly bits of china and then nosh while they discover how worthless the stuff is at auction.

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Middle England – These aren’t my people

A comedy for our times – The Guardian

Phil: I’m middle-class. I work in magazine publishing. The only manual labour I do involves making model trains. I have been down coal mines, but only at museums. Years ago, I could even follow the plot of The Archers.

It seems I’m not the right sort of middle class though.

Proper middle-class people earn mahoosive amounts of money doing jobs even more pointless than mine. They then spend their lives spending money without any visible means of financial support. Ideally, they will have made a killing in the London property market, sold up and bought a rather nice converted mill to live in somewhere less fashionable. They drink posh wine and eat the sort of nibbles that I’ve read about but would probably ignore in preference to sausage on a stick.

I really wanted to like Middle England. It’s set in the Midlands for a start. There are mentions of places I know like central Birmingham (the library is being built) and Solihull.

Sadly, the characters might occupy the same geography as me, but they live in another world.

Look, our book is set partly in central Solihull. All the characters have jobs. Jobs they do to earn money. We set it there because we didn’t want to set it in London and Solihull is a nice place. Nice enough for Kate anyway. She doesn’t want to jump into the pool that is London. Better be a big fish in a smaller pond than just another in the capital’s shoal. Besides, when she needs to go to the big city, there’s a perfectly good train service with at-seat coffee and WiFi, so she can have the best of both worlds.

Maybe the author lives in a rarified world of London journalists and politicians and so struggles to connect with the rest of us plebs. I’ve long been a fan of the idea that our capital needs to be hived off as a city-state, leaving the rest of us to do things our own way. It’s not that I don’t like London, far from it. It’s just that I know it’s very different from elsewhere, something the inhabitants don’t grasp much of the time.

Anyway, Middle England is supposed to be a satire on the newly formed coalition government (something we also satirise) but it’s not very subtle. A government adviser pops up every so often as a caricature who keeps changing his story without bothering about facts or the truth. I should be right in tune with all of this, yet I didn’t get it.

Talking of story – I couldn’t actually find a plot. There are lots of words, the pages seem slightly more densely printed than normal, but nothing actually happens. I didn’t get the feeling that we were on a journey anywhere. Mind you, I gave up 1/3rd of the way through. Even reading on a train, normally something that gets me into any book didn’t help. All I was left with were characters I didn’t care about.

A pertinent, entertaining study of a nation in crisis – Financial Times

Middle England is the novel about Brexit we need – Daily Telegraph

Insufferably smug – Phil Parker

 

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