ACE at Worcester Lit Fest

Must not forget to remind all interested writers and readers that we Authors of a Certain Age will be running a workshop on Writing Fiction for the Over Fifties at the Worcester Literary Festival.


Left to right: Pam Nixon, author of But I’ll Remember This, Elizabeth Mapstone, author of The Amazon’s Girdle, Barbara Hudson, author of Timed Out, and Heather Rosser, author of In the Line of Duty.

Come and join us if you can.

Date: Sunday June 12 – that is NEXT SUNDAY – 2 to 4 pm.

Venue: St John’s Library, Worcester University.


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Books to Escape With

The Literary Warrior returns after bloody battles with frustration and boredom, restored to mental vigour by immersion in some delicious (if murderous) mysteries. It is a puzzle that we British should so often talk of murder mysteries as ‘escapist’. But perhaps that is because our chosen genre focusses less on the violence and gore, and more on the intricacies of detecting the wrong-doer. ‘Cosy’ is the negative judgement of those who like their murders painful, prolonged and bloody (one might wonder about the condition of their psyche). But cosy was not how I would describe the books I chose to escape with.

Many of them were on my shelves, old green Penguins that I turned to as old friends. Michael Innes, for example, erudite and witty, pitting ruthless university dons against an intelligent Inspector Appleby in The Weight of the Evidence or Death at the President’s Lodging. Or Cyril Hare, a prolific writer of clever mysteries the reader could only solve if they were familiar with the idiosyncracies of English law: in his other life, Hare was a judge. Wonderful stuff: Tragedy at Law in which the victim is a judge himself, or Tenant for Death.

It is a mistake to suppose that these early Penguins were/are written for simpletons, capable only of digesting gentle dramas akin to Midsomer Murders. On the contrary, they were written by intelligent, erudite authors and designed for readers who like their entertainment clever. Women became particularly successful in this genre.

Margery Allingham was a prolific writer of witty, clever mysteries during the interwar years, introducing the gentlemanly Albert Campion as her sleuth. I reread several for their restorative powers, including  Sweet Danger  a quirky and witty thriller which has the added bonus of introducing Amanda Fitton, aviatrix and future wife of Mr Campion; and More Work for the Undertaker, very funny and highly evocative of London just after the war. Agatha Christie called Allingham “a shining light” – and she was.

I did not re-read any Agatha Christie this time, even though we have almost every title she wrote on our guest room shelves. But I did turn again to the wonderful Ngaio Marsh. We have early editions of her work, but I could only find collections on line, for example Inspector Alleyn Collection Book 3,  which includes Singing in the Shrouds, Off with his Head, and False Scent. Marsh was familiar with the theatrical scene which informs two of these tales, and her portraits of self-styled creative artists are witty and very funny. Delicious style.

My favourite of all the mystery writers during the interwar heyday is Dorothy L. Sayers, and most especially the saga of Lord Peter Wimsey’s love for Harriet Vane, starting with Strong Poison, in which the unlucky woman is accused of murder, through Have His Carcass to the wonderful Gaudy Night (which proves that a tender, believable account of love can enhance the unravelling of a mystery) to their somewhat incredible but entertaining honeymoon in Busman’s Honeymoon: A Love Story with Detective Interruptions. As pure self-indulgence in recuperative mode, instead of reading the first three volumes, I watched not one, but three glorious box sets of BBC videos starring Edward Petherbridge and Harriet Walters, both perfectly cast for the roles.

Perhaps the funniest and wittiest of all the whodunnit writers I have come across is Sarah Caudwell, whose first book Thus was Adonis Murdered was published in 1981. Her sleuth is Prof Hilary Tamar, who avoids academic research by visiting former pupils now practising law in Lincoln’s Inn. Julia, a first-class tax lawyer whose own life and finances are in permanent chaos, is accused of murdering a tax inspector while on holiday in Venice, and her friends rally to her aid. The plot is clever, but the dialogue and narration are of a high order – witty, somewhat malicious and very, very funny. Caudwell published six mysteries, each as good as the last, but died at far too young an age. Definitely a writer who should be more widely known.

For escapism, I have been concentrating on books which leave you feeling good, so cannot include otherwise brilliant modern writers like Val McDermid, Barbara Vine or Minette Walters. To read any of them, I need to be on top form, as they tend to leave me, at least, shaken and not a little stirred.

But a new discovery for my Books to Escape With is author Marissa de Luna and her Goan Detective Arthur Chupplejeep. A delightful new setting – rural Goa, in western India – and a fine new detective who is clever, but has been banished to the sticks by superiors who found his refusal to be bribed or otherwise corrupt put them in a painful position. Very nice. So however cowardly he is in his dealings with his fiancee, Christabel – and we realize he is terrified of commitment – we also know he is fundamentally a Good Guy. And his naive but very willing side-kick, Police Officer Pankaj, is proud to work with such a man.

In Under the Coconut Tree, Chupplejeep’s investigations into a sudden death uncover village gossip and scandal, unusual relationships and criminal activity, including drug smuggling, but none of the dangling threads lead to a plausible murder. The final outcome is both surprising and absolutely fitting. All the evidence was there, but only Chupplejeep saw it.

And finally, a new twist on school stories and whodunnits, Robin Stevens’s  two schoolgirl detectives in Murder Most Unladylike. In a plausible scenario, our heroines Daisy and Hazel find they are the only people who know that a murder has been committed, because the body disappears before they can report it. Obviously they need to find out who dunnit, before the murderer gets them too. Very enjoyable and perfect escapism.


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A less cosy view of the NHS at work

Other people’s medical problems are intrinsically tedious and only of interest to those immediately affected, so you may well wonder why I am revisiting my recent sojourn in hospital (blog 8 April, A Personal View of the Beleaguered NHS). This is because my experiences after progressing from A&E to Short Stay Ward were distressing and potentially life-threatening, and entirely contrary to the principles behind the founding the NHS.

For the second time in less than a month, I arrived in A&E in the middle of the night with congestive heart failure. Not surprisingly, doctors decided further investigations were needed and I was transferred to a ward.

“A cardiac consultant will see you, and will probably want you to have an echocardiogram and angiogram,” I was told. “You will stay here until that is done.”

Thereafter, as my recalcitrant heart continued to give me pain and breathlessness, I was told on a regular, certainly daily basis, “A cardiologist will come and see you today.”

No cardiologist ever came to see me. Not once in the five days I was on the ward.

I was regularly seen by student doctors, visited on a couple of occasions by the Registrar, and by the excellent Head of Clinical Medicine in charge of that area of the hospital. All appeared to believe that “a cardiac consultant” was due to see me almost immediately. I heard telephone calls made, and urgent appeals, but that elusive “cardiologist” never appeared.

At lunch time on the fifth day, I was told I could go home. The young doctor who came to “explain” told me that I should consult my GP. “He’ll probably be able to get you to see a cardiologist more easily than we can.” “But – I’m here, actually in the hospital…” “Yes. Sorry, nothing more we can do.”

My GP was appalled. He knew it would take 8 months at least to get a clinic appointment.

I suggested we go private – what am I hanging on to my savings for if my heart is liable to give up any time? The heart consultant saw me promptly, gave me that elusive echocardiogram immediately, and booked me in for an urgent angiogram the following day. (It’s a day procedure, where a wire is inserted into an artery and directed into the heart itself.) The result: a view of clear coronary arteries and a very damaged heart muscle due to a clot in the lower left ventricle dating from many years ago. Nothing to be done except change of medication and de-stressed life style.

How did the cardiologist know what these results would be? No one else did. Nor was I given further medication, simply was told to double the dose of everything I am on.

And how can it be that while I am actually in a ward in the hospital no specialist was willing to come up in a lift from one floor to another, just to speak to me?  Instead I am told to go through the tedious process of referral via GP and waiting list, which everyone knows will take months. And yet, a heart specialist who works at the same hospital was able to see me privately less than a week after referral, and immediately conducted the investigative procedures so that at last it is clear what can and cannot be done.

I wish it to be clear I have no criticism of the excellent heart specialist I was able to consult. He too appeared shocked to learn of my experience, and went out of his way to make things easier for me. I am grateful to him personally. And to my GP, who has been consistently supportive.

But the behaviour of those cardiologists responsible for my neglect is surely not what we expect of those at the top in the NHS. Specialists have always demanded – and received – special treatment, right from the inception of the NHS. We know that without special treatment, certain specialists would simply have refused to cooperate in a new-fangled  service designed to be for everyone regardless of means. Perhaps without our realizing it, some of these specialists are withdrawing their cooperation now. I hope this is not yet one more way in which private medicine is encroaching on our beleaguered NHS.


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A Personal View of the Beleaguered NHS

I have not written a blog for a long time now, and that is principally because I was anxious to complete my new novel The Porcupine’s Dilemma and gave myself an arbitrary deadline of Easter. The Book is done. Unfortunately, I forgot to take into account the physical realities of an aging woman with heart problems.

Few of us, I imagine, want to test the restricted resources of the NHS by being whisked off to hospital by ambulance in the middle of the night. A week ago, to my dismay, this did happen to me: and I was in the wonderful John Radcliffe Hospital, in Oxford, for long enough to develop some very firm opinions about the state of our beleaguered health service.

Without exception, the numerous doctors and nurses I encountered were courteous, kind, gentle and considerate, and, as far as one could tell, thoroughly competent. Their endurance and forbearance were particularly tested during the eight hours I spent in A&E (under surveillance, having tests, waiting for a bed), for some of the patients brought in were not patient at all.

By the time you are wheeled into a curtained cubicle in A&E, you have received any necessary first aid, your needs have been assessed and processes put in place to make sure what needs to be done will be done. It should be clear to anyone capable of thinking beyond their own immediate needs that instant treatment is simply not possible. Yes, there are a lot of nurses and nursing assistants around, and occasionally quite a number of doctors, but they are all busy. Occupied. Dealing with other, more urgent cases. Whenever I needed immediate attention, I got it. But those who scream for treatment when left alone and then  yell abuse when someone comes should not be surprised when they have to wait.

“I pay your salary,” shouted one angry elderly man with a painful leg, in the cubicle on my right. “I shouldn’t be left here like this.” His wife agreed: “It’s a disgrace. We employ you. You should be looking after us.” To my surprise, the doctor on the receiving end of this attack tried, quietly and gently, to explain what had been done for him and what he could expect. To little effect. This soft answer did not turn away this wrath.

Meanwhile, on my left, another unhappy woman whimpered for attention like a spoiled child for hours. Mental illness was clearly the main issue here. I got the impression that psychiatric help was not available in the small hours of the morning, despite the obvious probability that this might be exactly the time when such help would be most needed.

Conclusion? Surprise, surprise – A&E is functioning on a shoestring. Functioning well, as far as I could tell, but I was there on a Thursday night, not on a Friday or Saturday when drunkenness disrupts everything (yes, I’ve experienced that too!). Everyone I saw appeared to be working flat out, so there was little if any leeway for an emergency, like a motor-way pile-up, for instance. And provision for mental health emergencies appeared problematic.

Up in the Short Stay wards, the situation appears much the same. Doctors, nurses, nursing assistants all quiet, kind, helpful, all busy all the time. We patients wondered what would happen if the computer system in the hospital broke down. Nothing existed if it was not ‘on the record’. A doctor changes your prescription, tells you (the patient), but if the junior doctor taking notes fails to enter that change quickly enough in the official record, it didn’t happen. (Well, actually, it did happen to me – but was promptly sorted out by a very competent nurse who made a phone call.) I have no doubt that computerising records is sensible, but total reliance on a technological device can be dangerous. This change of drug was important for me – what if that doctor had NOT treated me like an intelligent human being, and not told me of the change?

There is a sense in which computerisation is being treated as yet another cost-cutting exercise. And we did experience a lot of that, most especially in the quality of the food and drink. As an experienced cook, I would say that all the ingredients, from teabags to carrots to bread, were the cheapest possible. Sometimes cheapest is a false economy: some of the food we were given was uneatable. I particularly remember a ‘quiche’ I tried – the ‘chopped onion’ appeared to be bits of chopped plastic, if there was any egg, it was overwhelmed by flour as thickener, and there was little sign of cheese. (I didn’t touch the pastry.) On the other hand, a plate of salad – chopped iceberg lettuce and a tomato – was unexciting but good. I was not alone in wishing Jamie Oliver could come and give a hand.

Just in case anyone out there has the ear of our Chancellor, he does need to register that the NHS appears to have cut costs to the bone. It functions, thank heaven, but there is clearly no more room to cut more. Any emergency will take resources needed elsewhere. And meantime, we all get older, there are more of us. It makes no sense to cut back any further. On the contrary, more funding is clearly needed just to keep it from collapse. And if we care about keeping our NHS as a National Health for all Service, then it needs a great deal more money immediately.

Of course, he knows this. But he undoubtedly has private health insurance himself, so ideologically speaking, why would he worry?


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Famous Well-Chosen Words

I simply wish to share this post, which I discovered on A Not So Jaded Life blog. Good stuff for aspiring writers, so read on if you are one of us. All has been said before, of course, but here we have the added spice of well-chosen words by famous authors

1. Cut the boring parts I try to leave out the parts that people skip. ~Elmore Leonard Unless you’re writing for personal reasons alone, you need to consider the attention of your readers. There’s …

Source: Some advice,perhaps. Be ruthless.

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China through fiction

I have long been intrigued by the China I have met through fiction, from Nobel Prize Winning Novelist Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth, to John Hersey’s A Single Pebble and Jung Chang’s Wild Swans, as distinguished examples. And now I have discovered a new book to add to my growing list of favourites: Sylvia Vetta’s Brushstrokes in Time, recently published by Claret Press.

This is the story of  Little Winter, a fictional member of what was the Star Arts Movement, a real and important part of the short-lived experiment in China between 1976 and 79 in freedom of expression in the arts. Vetta gives us an engaging heroine, who rises above oppression and loss of children and husband, to discover in the end both love and artistic success. We see her endure forced labour, imprisoned as a dissident, undergo ‘re-education’ and finally rescued by an American foundation. Her sufferings genuinely reflect those of many of the real members of the Stars, such as Wei Wei, listed in her book.

How realistic can Chinese experience be when reflected through the lens of a Westerner? That must depend on how familiar said Westerner is with Chinese culture. Hersey, for example, was born and brought up in China; and Vetta knows present-day China well, has many Chinese friends. This book is endorsed by specialists, with a foreword by Professor Maria Jaschok of Oxford University, testifying to its authenticity. So as a picture of life in China in mid to late twentieth century this may be trusted.

I really enjoyed reading this book, not least because the structure allows the reader to know that the miseries our heroine must suffer through will eventually come to an end. Harrowing, yes, but also uplifting. Definitely recommended.

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We are ACE !

Source: We are ACE !

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