At the risk of sounding like an alcoholic, let me say it anyway – I can’t wait to get back in a pub.
Here in Scotland, the emergence from lockdown is slow and controlled (rightly), but the sight of the four walls around me drives me mad. Ever since we got married, my husband and I have made a ritual of Sundays. In the spring/summer months, we hop on his bike and drive up north, heading for the lochs, the hills and the mountains that I love for the way they sit there, unchanging, ignoring our stupid human endeavours.
We watch the scenery. We park in small towns and villages, find the local pub—preferably one that offers food—plonk our well-covered bottoms in a booth and earwig on other people’s conversations. At least I do. Is there ever anything as fascinating as hearing part of a conversation and trying to figure out the rest?
Who are you people? How did you meet? What do you do, and why are you here?
There’s a pub on the A82 that we return to time and time again. Truth be told, the food will never win awards, but we go there because the motorbike journey up the side of Loch Lomond is, and I hate this too overused word, breath-taking. God almighty, I want to be back in that pub, eating the goat’s cheese salad I always order, nicking the over-cooked broccoli off my husband’s dish of choice, the steak pie and mustard mash, squeezing into the world’s tiniest pub toilets and drinking the far too sweet/far too rubbish/way overpriced Rose.
Bliss, in these constrained times, takes diverse forms.
And yet how many of these places will survive? I’ve written a series of books set in a fictional Highland village, where the local pub/hotel doubles up as community hub. Two of the series of five I wrote in lockdown, and now wonder if they are out of date. Historical fiction, rather than contemporary romance.
Would my made-up pub/hotel, the Lochside Welcome, come through the other side of lockdowns? Doubtful.
I hate that.
In the meantime, here is a short excerpt from one of my books featuring a scene from the fictional pub… Enjoy:
The public bar was noisy. It was nowhere near as busy as the George, but its smaller space packed in people who all grinned at each other and chattered loudly. From the snatches of conversations I caught, I gathered most of them were part of a hillwalking group from Glasgow who’d looked at the weather forecast this morning, circled the loch and descended on the village. They’d booked every room and were now desperate to knock back pints, pizzas, cake and whiskies.
Jack stood at the bar, fixed smile in place as two of the walkers their status marked by lightweight cagoules and sturdy boots, exclaimed at his resemblance to Jamie Fraser.
“‘Mon, ‘mon!” they cried. “We want a selfie wi’ you!”
He pushed up the serving hatch, gamely putting an arm around each woman. I watched one of them—a woman who had to be twice Jack’s age—let her hand linger far too close to his bottom as she and her friend cuddled up either side of him. A third one took hundreds of pictures.
“Gaby!” His greeting sounded relieved. “Maureen, Louisa—this is Gaby, my wife.”
Emphasis on wife. Maureen made no move to drop her hand.
“That right, hen? You’re an awfy lucky girl,” she beamed at me. “Mind, when ma daughter was up the duff last year, by the time she got to the nine-month mark, she went right off the bed bit. Me and ma friend here would be happy to help youse out. We could take yer man up they stairs and exhaust him so much, he’ll no’ touch ye for months.”
My jaw dropped, as did Jack’s though his expression was 100 percent pure fear. Behind the bar, there were snorts of laughter. Jolene and Xavier listening in and doing nothing to help us out. As soon as I got home, I was going to design a poster for the bar. One that made it clear in gigantic capital letters that the Lochside Welcome did not tolerate abusive, sexist behaviour towards its staff.
Oh hallelujah! Praise the skies, the sun, the moon and everything else. Here in Scotland, we’ve been given a timetable for when things will open again, case numbers permitting. As you can see from my picture, I am long overdue a haircut, but with any luck will be able to get into a salon come April.
This week, I celebrated my birthday in a lockdown way – lunch in the garden with my mum, a walk, and a family Zoom quiz in the evening. One of the rounds was on the Tudors (a specialist subject of mine) and my talented nephew came up with this picture to illustrate it…
The final round was on… jobbies. Yes, a picture round where the quiz participants had to identify the animal from its poop. Believe it or not, the bulk of people taking part in the quiz were aged over 40. That happened to be my worst round. Perhaps I’ll need to get a T-shirt made up that says ‘Proud to be Sh*te at Sh*te’.
To celebrate the occasion, we ordered a meal from Andi Oliver’s Caribbean restaurant, Wadadli in Stoke Newington. Andi is on the Great British Menu and Radio 4’s The Kitchen Cabinet, so I was intrigued as to what the menu might offer… Chicken wings, goat curry, fried plantains, pickled vegetables, sweet potato roti, macaroni and fries. All delicious.
Given that I aspire to full-time writing, one of the ironic things that has happened to me over the last year is how I have struggled to read books. All my life, I have been an avid novel reader, and could easily get through three, four or more books a week.
A global pandemic hits and I find myself doom-scrolling through the news or Twitter. My attention span seems to have shrunk to a tiny limit, and it doesn’t feel healthy. Books are about escapism, but research has also shown that book reading makes you more empathetic. When I read all the angry, polarised opinions on Twitter, I worry that my own opinions are becoming entrenched. Not a good thing!
If you have any recommendations for anything page-turning, please let me know in the comments below!
And finally, In the interests of lining my own pockets, rather than contributing to Mr Bezos’ billions, I have set up my own wee bookshop… all the money on each book goes to me and I get it straight away. Happy days! If you are so inclined, you can buy directly from me by clicking on the button below.
Merry (almost) Christmas! Here in the UK, our celebrations will be far more muted this year as most of us are living under tight restrictions. Most households around where we live put their Christmas lights up a few weeks ago, as did we, breaking the habit of a lifetime. All of us are in need of cheer, aren’t we?
Anyway, talking of Celebrations (ooh, seamless segue!) the featured image at the start of this blog is what I consider the correct order of preference for Celebrations chocolates. The number one choice on the left—the Bounty—is controversial. Three members of my family agree—two don’t, one vociferously.
It seems people in the UK aren’t too happy with the Bounty Celebration either. (Bounty for those of you who don’t know is a chocolate covered coconutty sweet.) This year’s Celebrations advent calendar contained Bounties for three days in a row on 1, 2 and 3 December.
They complained on Twitter, with one person saying: “I’m on day 4 of my celebrations advent calendar and someone tell me why i’ve gotten 3 bounties in a row??????? is this a sick joke or something @UKCelebrations. [sic]”
Other Tweets talked of Celebrations, owned by the Mars company, ruining Christmas after an already awful year.
Yes, of course there are much worse things going on in the world but sometimes I love it when people get worked up about silliness. And if they collectively want to gather up all those unwanted Bounties and send them to me, I’ll be delighted.
In another celebratory moment, one of my other books got picked as a Wattys2020 winner, which obviously I’m pleased about. The Wattys are Wattpad’s annual writing prize. Wattpad is the largest online storytelling platform in the world and this year’s competition had more than 40,000 entries from 177 countries.
The prize was awarded for my vampire story Beautiful Biters. Project Over-Optimism, a trait I’m too often guilty of, started whispering in my ear straight away… This is it, Emma B! Netflix is coming for ya! I’ve calmed down considerably since then.
Anyway, this is the cover for the story, along with that nice winner badge on it…
And here is the blurb…
The first vampire attack happened on the way back from the hospital. My sister Rosie was four at the time. Miraculous it had taken that long…
Nineteen-year-old Maya has too much on her plate. Trying to protect her younger sister. Struggling with crushes on unsuitable guys.
Justin is a newly converted vampire, battling to resist the urge to kill and desperately worried about his brother, converted at the same time but AWOL ever since. If the authorities find him first, he’s toast.
When the two of them meet through the vampire Maya earmarks to help her with an exciting project aimed at making money, both are taken aback by the mutual attraction. First rule of vampire-human integration though…? You don’t go that far.
And while living in this bleak world poses its own hazards-not least because those in charge are too ready to ride rough shod over vampires and happy to accept backhanders, Maya and Justin still need to cope with the day to day stuff. Going to college, fighting with your mum, obsessing over the food you can’t eat, dealing with unpopularity and online trolls.
<p value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80">This week, we’ve been thinking about bubbles…This week, we’ve been thinking about bubbles…
The fizzy ones you find in champagne came into use today* when I finished this year’s #NaNoWriMo. Cheers to me and all that, having completed the 50,000 words in one month challenge. But before I get too self-congratulatory, there is a lot of revising and editing to be done. As someone once said, the first draft of a book is a ‘word vomit’, a hot mess of ill-conceived ideas, open loops and plot holes a plenty.
If I toss them all up in the air, maybe they’ll fall onto the ground and make sense… Said no editor in the world ever. But hey ho, that’s next year’s job. The book is available to read on Wattpad.
The other bubbles involve family and friends. For those of you out with the UK, we are back in lockdown and have been for a while as wave two (or is it still one, seeing as the respite lasted about two weeks?) sweeps its way over our shores. But the UK government and the devolved administrations put their heads together and came up with… bubbles for Christmas.
You can travel. You can see people not in your household. In their or your house too. Only, don’t mix too many households. Three only, so bubble one, bubble two and bubble three can mix but not with anyone else. So if bubble three had a bubble one and two of their own (say, people unrelated to those in bubble one and two), then they are not supposed to mix them up.
Impossible to enforce and relying once again on common sense and decency. Some of us will be more cautious/law-abiding than others. No judgement, except on those who flagrantly break the rules. Anyway, we’re aiming for a mix of dinner with one household/outdoor walks with another one if the winter weather permits.
Finally, not bubble related unless you put it in a bubble called ‘complete escapism from what is happening all around us’, Highland Christmas is now available for pre-order! I have a small but devoted Highland Books fan club on Wattpad, and they made lots of lovely comments about this book, which was gratifying.
As new parents and the co-owners of a village hotel, Gaby and Jack are looking forward to some time out come the end of December… Sure, being in the hospitality industry means working when everyone else is off, but once they’ve waved goodbye to the hotel’s Christmas guests, it’s all hands on deck for family festivities.
But Gaby’s mum has other plans in mind—ones that set Gaby and brother Dylan on a collision course with her. Nanna Cooper’s not in the best of health and Katya is coping with heartbreak once more. Just who is her baby’s daddy? Dexter demands to know…
Meanwhile, Lachlan seems to be up to no good, meeting strangers late at night and handing over brown envelopes while Mhari, as ever, is poking her nose in everywhere. Caroline, the once super enthusiastic grandmother, seems to have lost her appetite for babysitting Evie.
Featuring misbehaving grandmothers, secretive brothers and a whole lot of laughs, Highland Christmas is a heart-warming tale of rural life in Scotland.
ARGHHHHHH. I swore I wouldn’t do it, even tweeted saying ‘good luck, everyone but it’s not for me this year’… In the end, the lure of #NaNoWriMo proved too much to resist. Fifty thousand words here I come (hopefully).
For those unfamiliar with the term, NaNoWriMo is short for National Novel Writing Month. The aim is to write 1,667 words a day every day in November, which gives you 50,000 words by the end, providing you stick to it.
I first took up the challenge in November 2018 and LOVED the whole process. There’s a website where you upload your progress and watching those words mount up provided extremely satisfying. I published that book in June 2019 and have since written and published three more in that series. Book five is due out this Christmas.
If nothing else, Coronavirus’s second wave here in the UK has awarded me time-a-plenty this month as we’re more or less back in strict lockdown. No visits to family or friends, no restaurants, pubs, cinemas, festivals, outings, fun whatsoever.
Anyway, for this year’s challenge, I intend to write the second in a planned three-parter about vampires. In the world I’ve created, humans and vampires live alongside each other because there’s a vaccine that makes human blood poisonous to vampires. Unfortunately, the right-wing government privatised healthcare some years ago, so not all humans have been immunised and the vaccination is now incredibly expensive.
A state licensing programme for vampires exists, one that oppresses them, and the government is far too fond of handing out the contracts for all vampire-related programmes to its incompetent mates.
Any of this sounding familiar…?
Anyway, my main characters are Maya (human) and Justin (vampire), both trying to work out how to flourish in this challenging world.
Here’s a short extract:
The vampire advancing on me, teeth bared and arms spread wide, stopped—his eyes rolling back, head tipping behind him as he tumbled to the ground.
“Are you okay?” I shrieked, darting over so I could thrust out a hand to help him up. We had been working on mind control techniques for an hour and this was the first time I’d disabled him. The kitchen floor was cheap laminate but solid underneath. The drop must have hurt.
Justin gripped my hand, grimace turning to grin.
Never date a vampire. They operate on crude levels. Sleep, blood lust and… plain ol’ lust. A sudden yank and I found myself on top of him.
“Now that you’re here,” he murmured in my ear, warm breath tickly. “Shall we forget this stupid lesson and do something else instead…?”
No mistaking the intent. That told me loud and clear. I hovered above him, propped up on my hands, hair falling forward. He blew out air, sending strands flying. I dipped my elbows to kiss him. Justin liked to work out. He approved of press-ups, particularly ones that brought two bodies closer together.
“Well, sir, if you insist,” I said, “though I should try it a few more times? Otherwise, how else am I going to fight off the baddies that want to suck the life out of my as yet unvaccinated sister?”
I write because I find bending words into shape hugely satisfying. The plot problem-solving element appeals too—so if a character does this, which results in that, how does the action move the plot on—kind of thing.
Inspiration comes from many things. During lockdown, I wrote a book based on a feature I heard on Radio 1*. When the UK’s shut-up-shop was announced at the end of March, Matt Hancock, the UK’s superb health secretary [inserts sarcasm font] was asked if people who had just started dating could still see each other.
Answer—no. But he did suggest if folks had recently hooked up, now was the ideal opportunity to find out if that relationship might work. The ultimate test. Locked up in one location 24/7, your only escape that one hour of allowed outdoor exercise every day.
Some days later, Radio 1 spoke to couples who’d done this. Met on Tinder, Bumble, Hinge, etc., and realised the new precautions against the spread of Covid-19 meant they wouldn’t see each other for weeks.
Right at the time when people had just hooked up for those heady first few dates. Hormones at the explosive stage, libidos fired up, every waking thought filled with the person they’d just met and what they wanted to do with them…
The people phoning into Radio 1 made that leap of faith and moved in with each other. My mind boggled. Fancy that! You’ve had three, four dates with someone and suddenly you’re in close proximity. Sharing a bed, bathroom, TV viewing habits, meals. Idiosyncrasies. Weirdness around food. Differing attitudes towards cleanliness in the home, etc. What an irresistible idea to explore.
And so A Leap of Faith was born—a couple who’ve only known each other three weeks and who make the decision to bunk up together. Even better, if the protagonist comes with too many pesky secrets and a long time aversion to talking about her past.
Last week, Radio 1 got in touch with one of the couples they’d spoken to at the start. Like a lot of people listening, I was on tenterhooks. In a world of relentless bad news—the Covid-19 cases are climbing steeply in the UK once more—please, please let Nigel and thingie (I can’t remember her name) still be together.
They were! They’d exchanged the l-word! They were dead happy! The nation, much in need to stories to cheer us up, rejoiced.
But I’m grateful for the exposure of Wattpad and the hundreds of nice comments I’ve had there about my books. I’ve got a few ones on the platform I’ve never published but one of them started getting lots of love recently, which encourages me to get down to its long over-due revision so that I can finally publish it.
Here’s the story hook for my contribution to the book…
You can read the book (it’s a paid story) on Wattpad here: https://my.w.tt/starsaligned and if you would like to read one of my complete novels on the platform, I’ve just finished A Leap of Faith, a COVID-19 lockdown love story. Find it here:
Chips eaten outside, dodging the jellyfish on the beach and long queues for ice-creams—welcome to the new look of holidays in the UK.
Our first Covid-19-tinged holiday took place this week when we went to St Andrews for a couple of nights. When I say, ‘new look’, our trip harked back to the 1950s and the days before mass market excursions abroad—the kind of holiday you see in black and white photos. Men in slacks, women in dresses, small children holding buckets and fishing nets.
Here in Scotland, the lockdown has eased more gradually than in England, but overnight trips were allowed on 15 July and we pre-empted it by booking two nights at the Premier Inn some weeks before.
The joy of difference
Just as well. Bookings shot up that week as people anticipated the joy of leaving your house and hometown. My sister tried numerous campsites in the south west of Scotland before managing to find a holiday home in Gatehouse for her family’s annual summer holiday. Their destination of choice is usually France.
Thanks to lockdown, collective expectations are much lower these days. I found myself genuinely thrilled to walk the streets of somewhere that was not Dumbarton. As for eating food I hadn’t made myself… my cup it runneth over.
Having travelled on the motorbike, we arrived in St Andrews on Thursday afternoon. The atmosphere in the town was 100 percent giddy ‘first day after the end of the school year’. I hadn’t seen so many people in the flesh in one place since March. It felt odd, liberating and foolish all at once.
We’d arranged to meet my mum and her partner, and my sisters and their families outside the Tail End chippie—its queue snaking down the street. My oldest nephew elbow bumped us seeing as hugs are still suspect.
Fish and chips bought and the weather obliging (never a guarantee in Scotland), we found a spot to sit in the grounds of Madras College all of us revelling in the novelty of in-person rather than Zoom chats.
If there is a finer meal than fish and chips when super-fresh fish has been cooked with skill, I’ve yet to find it. If there’s a better way to enjoy a meal than with those you love when you haven’t seen them for months, I’m not sure what that is either.
Later, my mum, sisters and their kids joined the queue for the ice-cream shop. Half of them gave up ten minutes later. My youngest sister and her son persisted, returning 45 minutes later ice-cream dripping down hands.
Later that day, Sandy and I ventured out for dinner. Not everywhere was open. Were some of the shuttered businesses casualties of Covid-19 themselves, unable to survive without the customers denied to them by lockdown? Those that had opened put arrangements in place—operating at a smaller capacity, hand sanitisers prominent, cutlery wrapped in plastic and no condiments on the tables. Staff all masked. Signs on the walls with QR codes you scanned in, so that you can be traced should the horrid virus resurface.
Sandy lifted his beer glass to clink against my wine. Throughout the day, I’d saved up snippets of conversation I thought might interest him, worried that we might have lost the art of talking to each other. When you’re stuck in the house for meal after meal, who bothers with conversation when you can switch on the TV instead?
The thrill of being out
An indifferent meal—I opted for the trendy vegan option of deep-fried cauliflower with vegan mayonnaise, the batter and sauce on it far too salty and chilli-hot—but the thrill of being out! Asking other people to bring you things! Dirty plates that you don’t need to wash whisked away!
We managed the chat.
On the Friday, we bought food for a picnic and decamped to the beach. Around us, groups set themselves up. Kites decorated the skies. Small children dashed into the waves, their parents calling out warnings about jellyfish. I fell asleep, cocooned in super-soft sand. We walked along the shoreline, water deliciously warm at foot paddling level, and eyes glued to where our feet landed to dodge the blue-y blobs.
Another pub—this one lined with photos of the owner with famous golfers. Even on the ceiling she smiled down on us. They’d erected Perspex screens around all the booths. Your eyes adjusted quickly, and the screens sort of disappeared. Next to us, a couple (regulars I gathered from the conversation they had with one of the members of the staff) tucked into a huge burger and chips, and nachos while we looked on tongues hanging out.
Restaurant food once more
In the evening, I requested an Indian. Takeaways are all well and good, but it’s the kind of food that tastes best straight from the kitchen. This one, the blackboard said outside, was run by a graduate of St Andrews. All well and good, but could whoever produce sublime food..?
Answer—yes. The aubergine and saag paneer I ate was fresh, expertly spiced and served in elegant sufficiency portions.
A change is as good as a rest, so the saying goes. I can vouch for it—two days of difference in weeks where Monday looks like Tuesday, which is the same as Wednesday and so on. The news yesterday that Scotland has seen the biggest daily rise in new confirmed cases of Covid-19 in almost a month—21 cases in the last 24 hours, the biggest daily increase since 21 June. What can you do though? Stay confined to your home and its immediate surroundings (and there are plenty of people who will choose to and who should do that) or muddle your way through in what you hope is as risk-free a way as possible?
Now I’ve tasted freedom, I want more… another two nights somewhere sleeping on an unfamiliar bed, trying out unknown restaurants (the good and the bad), walks on the beach, a view that isn’t the Crags and the Kilpatrick hills, magnificent as they are.
Here’s to more of them.
Quick writing update…
I’m working on what I hope is the fifth and final of my Highland Books. Highland Fling was going to be a one-off that changed to a trilogy. Then book four wriggled its way to the top of my conscious, so that demanded a fifth… In the meantime, I wrote a lot of short stories featuring the minor characters that I plan to incorporate into a companion book for the series.
You can buy and read the Highland Books via these links:
Anyway, Highland Christmas is about… well, no prizes for working that one out, Sherlock. Here’s a tiny extract (with apologies to Jane Austen for pinching part of one of her best-known lines):
“Happy birthday to you, Happy birthday to you!”
Evie, my daughter, was used to attention. As Lochalshie’s youngest villager, she spent most of her time being passed from person to person all of them cooing at her and exclaiming at her likeness to Jack. Whenever she found herself back in his arms, the cooing intensified.
It’s a truth universally known to mothers. All a dad needs to do is hold his baby, jiggle her up and down a bit and he qualifies as the father of the year. Meanwhile, we women stir ourselves from sleep three hours earlier than we would have liked, spend our days running around after our tiny tyrants juggling a job at the same time and dealing with our extended family before finally flopping into bed at 10pm, exhausted.
Only to shudder into consciousness an hour later when Baba decides she is bored of sleeping. She scrambles out of my arms, delighted at the escape from the cot. Planted on the floor, she makes a beeline for Thomas the Tank Engine and his friends, yanks them from the railway and smashes them together—one cheeky glimpse upward at me. I try bargaining. Evie, beautiful girl! Your cot is so cosy! And warm! Why don’t I pick you up, put you back in there and…
Cue wailing. That’ll be a ‘no’ then. We’re back to Smashing Thomas into the fat controller (who came up with these names?) and me bargaining with various deities, the universe, the moon and the stars that the first one of them who persuades Evie to sleep wins my undying loyalty.
But I digress. Today was Evie’s first birthday and we were celebrating it in where else but the Lochside Welcome. Parenting gurus look away now. Yes, it is the public bar of a hotel. But Jack and I are part of the consortium that owns it. Our daughter belongs here. When almost the entire village thought they’d received an invite to her birthday and told me how much they were looking forward to it, we decided it would be far easier to host her party there anyway. Our home was nowhere near big enough.
The party attendees were gathered here now. Jack had strewn the bar with the pink, silver and white bunting I had designed and helium balloons. You’d think he’d never had a kid before. He hadn’t.
Greetings from the north, where the summer weather has returned to normal (cold and wet) and lockdown continues. Unlike our compatriots in England, we won’t be flocking to the pubs this weekend as licensed establishments in Scotland are not yet allowed to open.
(And I’m perfectly okay with that. Heck, what’s a Sunday Times wine club subscription for if not to power us through?!)
Anyway, I continue to get my kicks from the small things… Last Sunday, for instance, I visited Marks and Spencer’s food hall for the first time since March. Reader, I went DAFT. Marinated anchovies! Port Salud cheese! Artichokes in dressing! The best burgers ever. (It’s a bold claim but Marks and Spencer’s often justify their adverts for amazing food).
Marks and Spencer has always been a food shop you linger in, jumping from aisle to aisle and back again as you work out what to spend those precious pennies on. The pandemic has robbed us of that joy… but maybe it’s a good thing. I emerged with one paltry bag of shopping and £59 down. What might have happened if I’d spent longer in there?!
There is always the joy of cats too… We started this ‘thing’ where we feed them a chewy stick as a late night snack. I don’t know who enjoys it the more—me or the cats. As you can see from the picture, the treat isn’t doing little Lucy’s tummy any favours. And I’m rocking the granny slippers, right? Ahem.
Book sale royalties for my books on Amazon hit an all-time high in April. There’s a two-month delay getting the royalties, so the money went into my account at the end of June. Pleasing. I say that; there’s a caveat. A friend and I (Caron Allan) had a conversation recently where we discussed what number of book sales might send our hearts soaring. And agreed that we are impossible to please.
Is it that the curse of the writer? One day, you hit your personal best—and yet, the inner critic starts up straight away. Very good, Emma, but why isn’t it XX-amount? And what happens tomorrow when it drops back to the dismal normal? The mass buying of e-books does seem to have slowed, however, as countries begin the gradual (or rushed in places… England and the US, I’m looking at you) process of emerging from lockdown, and I noted fewer sales in May and June.
As summer as at its peak, my thoughts have turned to Christmas. I’ve embarked on the fifth and final (for now—who know how I might feel a year from now) Highland Book—Highland Christmas. I know, ten out of ten for originality. But it seems lot of people out there love Christmas-themed books.