Brits and Kids and Queues

In case you're wondering, that's me in the picture, back in 1986, about 6 or 7 months pregnant. We were filming my TV drama, Shadow of the Stone, on the Clyde, and you can see my 'bump'. You can still watch the serial as well, but that's a story for another day.

I was reminded of this when I recently followed a thread on Mumsnet. Some unfortunate mum had been queueing to check in for a flight, with a three month old baby, and mistakenly thought she could jump the queue. Not only did she get dog's abuse from other people, but the vast majority of mumsnetters agreed with the abusers, vociferously.

Following some of the thread (not much - I couldn't stand the holier-than-thou tone of it), I found myself thinking 'Brits and kids and queues. Nothing changes.'

When our son was born in November of that same year, my husband was still working as a yacht skipper, first on a beautiful catamaran called Simba and then on a couple of other big yachts: Clyde boats, mostly based in the Canaries. The baby, all grown up now, loves Spain, working in Barcelona for several years and revisiting it as often as he can. He speaks fairly fluent Spanish too. It's quite uncanny.

I had a harrowing time during his birth in Scotland, and felt ill for a long time afterwards. My chief memory of that time is pain and fatigue, combined with the joy of the new baby. And breastfeeding, successfully, but also being told that if I wanted to 'do that', maybe I would like to do it in the Ladies. Would you like to have your lunch in the loo? 

When our son was six weeks old, we flew south to Los Cristianos on Tenerife. We borrowed an apartment from friends, Alan was intermittently skippering charter yachts, and both my parents and Alan's mum flew down to spend time with me, and help out with the baby. All in all, it was a blissfully happy time. 

On board Simba

One of the main reasons why it was so blissfully happy was the genuine affection that the Canarians had for babies and children. On our first night, we took the baby in his pram down to a local restaurant It was a warm night - by Scottish standards, anyway - so we took an outside table and sat down. The proprietor came rushing out - 'no, no - you can't keep the bebe out here in the cold!' Inside, she rushed about moving tables so that we could enjoy our meal with the baby contentedly slumbering beside us. 

Over the months that followed, we realised just how relaxing it can be to have a child in a child-friendly country. Babies were welcome everywhere. I fed him everywhere too. You could leave the pram outside a supermercado while you did some shopping and come out to find a small group of teenage boys, intent on amusing the little nino. My parents decided that we needed a baby bath, and described how a kindly man in the hardware store had insisted on practically emptying his loft to get exactly the right bath (in his opinion) for them. Everyone from young, handsome waiters to elderly ladies in black played with the baby, distracted him if he seemed fractious, and generally made everything so much easier than it might have been. 

A few years later, back in the UK, a young Catalan friend came to stay with us to improve his English, and was incandescent with rage at a sign outside a restaurant saying 'children welcome'! 'But are children not welcome everywhere?' he demanded. 'Why not?'

I thought the UK might have changed for the better over the years. In this one respect anyway, because everything else seems to have got so much worse. And it's true that - for example - in Scotland, it is an offence to try to stop a mother from breastfeeding in public. 

But oh, those Mumsnet comments! 

God help you if you're in the UK and you try to jump the queue with a baby. 

Alan, his mum, and the baby at Candelaria

Bird of Passage: my Wuthering Heights inspired novel on special offer.


Cover art by Alan Lees

My novel Bird of Passage will be on special offer at 99p for the Kindle eBook version, for a whole week, from late on 14th October to the 21st October. If you haven't already read it, do grab a bargain. If you'd prefer the paperback, you'll find that here (at full price, I'm afraid, but it's a nicely produced book and a long one!) 

After all, what else can you do at this miserable time of year, with the country's economy crumbling around us, but bury yourself in a book? I plan to do the same thing, but I'll be writing something new as well.

Over all the years of my writing career, and even though I've been happily published by Saraband  for some time now, with my new non-fiction book, The Last Lancer, due to be published in 2023, there were two or three fairly early novels that I always thought of as the 'ones that got away'. 

Until I took the decision to publish it myself, it had always been my orphan child, the book that a few people read and enjoyed, but that nobody in the industry wanted. Unlike The Amber Heart, that kept being turned down with fulsome praise, because 'nobody is interested in Poland', which seemed in theory at least to be a credible marketing decision back in the 1980s, no agent or publisher would even read Bird of Passage, in spite of its Scottish setting and Irish background, and in spite of the fact that it tackles some harrowing issues that are still very much current. In short, it was turned down unseen. I should add that I can't blame my current publisher for this. There is only so much work that an individual independent publisher can deal with and had Saraband seen it earlier, they might well have taken it. But by the time they became 'my' publisher, there was more work ready to go, more work I wanted to write specifically for them. Writing careers are tricky like that. 

In the case of Bird of Passage, back when I was still sending out submissions, I suspect the kiss of death as far as agents and publishers alike were concerned, was the Wuthering Heights connection. Later, I wondered if I should have been so up-front about it. Perhaps I should never have mentioned it. But surely they would have noticed the faint parallels? Or maybe not. 

Anyway, in all my innocence, I gave the game away. And that was the rock I perished on. No matter how much I was at pains to say that this wasn't a rewriting of the incomparable original, (how would I dare?) but was a kind of homage to it, nobody in my industry believed me enough to read it and see for themselves. 

Wuthering Heights was my late mother’s favourite novel. I was a Yorkshire lass, although one with a rich Polish and (like Emily) a rich Irish heritage as well. We lived in Leeds until I was twelve years old. You can read more about my family background in a book called A Proper Person to be Detained (Saraband 2019), part personal memoir, part family history. I was named for the heroine of Wuthering Heights, a doubtful compliment some might say, and I was trundled over the moors in my push-chair to Top Withens, the setting for the Heights in the novel, if not for the house itself. As soon as I was old enough to read and begin to understand the novel, I fell in love with it, although I soon realised that it was a powerful and absorbing evocation of a cruelly obsessive love, with very little of romance about it. Since then, I have reread it almost every year, and have found more to marvel at with every reading. 

I'm not alone. I know plenty of people who are similarly obsessed with Wuthering Heights. And here we are again, with a new film, Emily, in cinemas from tomorrow ... 
But to return to Bird of Passage. Cue forward some years, and after a spell of writing for the stage, I began to focus almost wholly on fiction, with occasional ventures into non-fiction. Although most of my work since then has been beautifully published by Saraband, I still kept going back to Bird of Passage. Most writers have ‘bottom drawer’ novels: the books that you write before you are published. I have several, and most of them should never see the light of day. 

Like the Amber Heart, Bird of Passage always felt different. Felt like irritatingly unfinished business. I kept going back to it. Tinkering. Leaving it alone. Thinking about it. It haunted my dreams. It was as though these characters wanted desperately to tell their story. Back then, I still had an agent, but I had other work waiting for submission, and Bird of Passage languished on the far recesses of my PC. Nobody wanted to know. Nobody had the time to read it. Nobody cared except me. 

All the same, I couldn't get Finn and Kirsty out of my mind, so when I took the decision to combine some self publishing with my traditional publishing, this was one of three novels that I felt deserved another life beyond the confines of my computer and my own imagination. That was when I tackled it in a big way, with all the benefit that so much experience of writing and editing can bring. Suddenly, I knew exactly how I wanted it to be, exactly how the story should be told. When it was finally published, one of my reviewers wrote that it is a 'reimagining' of Wuthering Heights at a different time and in a different place. It is a good way of describing it, and that is perhaps as close as it gets to Emily's masterpiece.

The cover, designed by my artist husband, is exactly what I wanted, and seems to reflect the story as accurately as possible. It's a grown up story set mostly in the Scottish countryside, exploring the kind of mutual passion that is attractive in theory but ultimately destructive. It's a novel about the nature of obsessive love and the terrible, irreparable damage of childhood trauma.

If you love Wuthering Heights (or even if you don't) and if this sounds like your kind of novel, why not give it a try? 

Why Are So Many British Christian Churches So Embarrassed by the Reality of the Crucifixion?

The Execution by Alan Lees
My husband, artist Alan Lees, painted the above picture several years ago. Not because he is especially religious, and not because anyone had commissioned it. But just because he wanted to do it. He titled it The Execution. It is a striking and disturbing image of Christ on the Cross, a sacrificial victim amid a sea of less-than-kindly human faces. It is painted in acrylics on canvas board, it has a hand-made driftwood frame, and it is a very large and dramatic piece of work. It is also, in the opinion of many people who have seen it, strikingly beautiful as well as disturbing. 

We can't even give it away. 

For a while, we tried to sell it online from our Etsy store or from Alan's studio. He doesn't make a fortune (few artists do) but the images trickle out - sometimes wonderful originals and sometimes good quality giclee prints.

Lots of people admired it and one or two very much wanted to own it, but decided regretfully that it was just too large for their small houses. We had always thought that it would be more suitable for a church or some kind of religious foundation. I listed and promoted it online, here, there and everywhere, but nothing happened. 

Years passed. Alan has quite a large studio, but nevertheless, this picture dominates it and we knew that sooner or later, it was going to have to go. 

Eventually he decided that, given the subject matter, he would give it away, preferably to a church or religious foundation. Free to a good home. All they would need to do would be to arrange transport or some kind of courier. It's large and heavy, but it would fit into the back of a big hatchback or small van. 

I publicised this offer. Nothing happened. From time to time, I would try yet another church or religious foundation, including one for which Alan had carved a couple of beautiful statues to commission. Thanks, but no thanks, they said. 

Every year, I donate one or two of my signed books to the big Christian Aid sale in Edinburgh. I asked the organiser if she might know of anyone who might like to have it. She kindly said that she would consult 'the bishop'. The bishop seems to have been noncommital. How would they transport it the 70 odd miles between here and Edinburgh? Far too difficult. 

We tried churches, monasteries, salerooms. Nobody showed even the faintest interest. Rather, they seemed embarrassed by the suggestion that they might want to own this image. We even offered it as a fundraiser, but that was met with blank incomprehension.


A disturbing image with a beautiful frame.

Given this utter indifference, Alan's first thought was that he would make a bonfire of it, but it seems a shame and besides, the frame is lovely.

With the bonfire idea abandoned, Alan eventually decided that he couldn't waste the canvas and frame, and so he decided that he was going to have to paint over it. The picture would still be there. But there would be something else on top of it.

He hasn't done it yet, but the deadline is getting closer - two or three weeks away. He's already working on sketches for the new picture.

Two things have happened in the meantime. 

Somebody has confirmed our original thought that the picture would perhaps find a better home somewhere like Spain or Italy or Poland - in fact any country, worldwide, with a strong Roman Catholic or other Christian tradition. But there is a huge gap between acknowledging this truth and placing the image before anyone who might wish to acquire it for their church or monastery. Anyone with the authority to make the arrangements. And the problem of transport becomes a bit more difficult (and expensive) than a journey of 70 miles in the back of a car. That would be the responsibility of anyone who wants the gift of the picture, but it seems to be an expense too far.

The second thing that happened was that a friend who had admired the picture pointed out a truth that had occurred to both of us, without being fully acknowledged, because it is uncomfortable. The response to this image from so many allegedly Christian organisations has involved a weird mixture of revulsion and embarrassment at this depiction of the grim reality of crucifixion. And yet, without that sacrifice, what's the point? What is the point of positive images of redemption without some perception of the events, the sacrifice, the dreadful reality of the execution leading up to it? 

Why have so many wishy washy British churches - not to put too fine a point on it - so comprehensively lost the plot? 

If you are genuinely interested in finding a home for this picture somewhere in Europe or elsewhere, don't hesitate to contact us via this blog or through Alan's website.  But the window of time available is small now. And we've had time wasters before. It's still free to a good home, but you will have to arrange packaging, uplift and transport from south west Scotland at a definite time - and have a setting worthy of it. That's all we ask. 

Can you help? 

The Amber Heart eBook - Special Offer


The Amber Heart, my big Polish love story/saga/historical romance, however you like to label it, is free as an eBook on Kindle, just for a few days - 2nd, 3rd, 4th October. There's a nice fat paperback too, but I'm afraid you'll have to pay for that! 

Interestingly enough, my new non-fiction book, the Last Lancer, due to be published by Saraband in spring 2023, is the true story of my Polish grandfather, his family, his milieu and his forebears in Poland and Ukraine. Parts of it are even stranger and sadder than fiction.