Loving Ayrshire


It's no secret that I love Ayrshire. We moved from Leeds, years ago, when I was twelve, and my biochemist father got a job in a research institute here. I never enjoyed school much, even though I did quite well academically - but I adored the countryside and history of this lush, green and, let's face it, rainy county. If you can put up with the rain, it's considerably warmer than the rest of Scotland, and warmer than much of Northern England. Winters are much milder than in my native Leeds. 

Holidaymakers tend to pass it by in the mad rush for the Highlands, but the scenery is spectacular and the history is fascinating. Not surprisingly then, it has featured in at least some of my fiction, in novels such as The Jewel and Ice Dancing, as well as in many of the radio plays I used to write, notably a couple of series: The Peggers and the Creelers and Running Before the Wind. I'm planning a new series of novels even as I write this, and guess where they are mostly going to be set? 

I was happy to be asked to record a reading for this year's Tidelines Festival and chose a passage from the Jewel, about an early encounter between our very own Robert Burns and the woman who was destined to become his wife, and who was quite clearly the love of his life: Jean Armour. I didn't much want to record myself just sitting on a rock reading and my tech skills weren't up to recording myself walking and reading on a smartphone - so I included a sheaf of my own pictures of Ayrshire, as well as some lovely watercolour images from a Victorian artist called Janet Muir, who lived in Mauchline. Nice to see that the person putting the video together worked a bit of magic on them all. 

Anyway - here it is. Grab yourself a cup of coffee and watch the whole Love Ayrshire video. You'll find me, and a sheaf of other Ayrshire writers too. 

Superior Spoilsports and Rotten Reviews

Straight from the horse's mouth! 

Way back in the days when newspapers had reasonable circulations, and therefore paid - albeit not much - for reviews, I used to do some professional reviewing. It was never really my thing, and I mostly did it for the money. Like all writers, we do what we can to survive. Sometimes I enjoyed it, and sometimes I didn't. I always took time and trouble with my reviews. 

Once or twice, I'm sorry to say, I indulged in what I now think were fairly   mean spirited reviews of books I hadn't liked. I cringe now, when I think   of it and I'm sorry about it. My excuse is that I was young, and hadn't had   my fair share of mean spirited reviews myself!

 I still, occasionally, review a book on Amazon, but only if I've liked it or   at the very least appreciated something about it. Then, I can   honestly say nice things about it. The better the book, the more I enjoy trying to   analyse why I've liked it so much. If I've hated it, or read 50 pages on   my Kindle and asked for my money back - as I've done a few times - I   won't review it at all, even though I will be pretty certain about   why I've   disliked it. 

We all get bad reviews from time to time. Sadly, a single bad review will stick in our minds and keep us awake being indignant for far longer than ten good ones. I don't mean mixed reviews, or thoughtful reviews that analyse a piece of work on its own terms. Those can be incredibly helpful. It means somebody is taking us seriously, debating with the piece of work, if you like. But they don't have to like everything about it. 

I mean those one star, bald and bold 'I hated this' kind of reviews that you look at and wonder if they've actually read the book, or seen the play or film. 

One of the wisest things somebody wrote about these occasional terrible reviews was to try not to take them to heart, but to simply imagine yourself saying to the reviewer, preferably with a shrug, 'then it's not for you. And that's fine.' And then mentally walk away.

You have to practise doing it, but honestly, it works.

Social media, however, seems to have encouraged the phenomenon of the superior spoilsport, especially where a popular book or film or TV show is concerned.

Here's how it goes. 

A group of people will be on, say, Facebook, happily discussing something they've enjoyed. Let's avoid getting embroiled in book critiques by using an example from the world of music. I've seen it happening twice recently, once with Abba and once with the Beatles. In both cases, people were having a good time sharing what these bands and their music meant to them, debating songs and memories, disagreeing a little, but enjoying the chat no end. 

And then along comes somebody who posts 'I hate Abba.' Or 'The Beatles were rubbish.' 

I wouldn't mind if they ever gave a valid reason why they think this. But they hardly ever do. I can give you dozens of reasons why I love the Beatles, and Abba too. Some of them are extremely personal, but some of them are to do with my appreciation of the music itself. If you try to pin them down, ask them why they think this - which they're perfectly entitled to do - they just dig their heels in. 'I hate them because they're rubbish' they say. Which doesn't make a lot of sense. 

There have been a couple of widely praised TV shows that I've disliked recently, but I know why, would be happy to say so, and equally happy to acknowledge that this may be down to me, and not necessarily a fault of the programme itself, which I know other people have enjoyed. If pushed, I could analyse this further, point out faults in the writing and direction. But in my experience, you can forgive a whole lot of faults if you find something entertaining. 

I've encountered the spoilsports so often now, that I'm forced to the conclusion that there's a kind of superiority about it. They don't ever want to be seen appreciating something that lots of other people like. So they'll pretend that they, and only they can see through it. 

They are spoilsports. What I really want to say to them is just leave us to our enjoyment. It's not for you, and that's fine. But you don't have to be here right now, telling us how much you loathe the thing we love. We don't care. It's not going to change our opinion.

So just for once, go play on your own page, write an online one star review if you like -but leave us alone to wallow in our fandom.  

Agents and Publishing - Some Further Thoughts

That last post about my disappearing agents was so popular, that I thought a few more random reflections  might be helpful. 

1: I would never want to deter new writers from going down the traditional route, or trying to. Once you've got a good portfolio of work under your belt, there's no harm in sending out query letters if that's what you want to do. Just don't be persuaded that an agent is the only way to publication. I've known people with fantastic agents, who have been instrumental in their success. I've known people who have got onboard with agents in the wake of success. And I've known plenty of people who have secured the services of an agent, only to realise that they spend too much time writing to the demands of their agent, who is often looking to predicate the next big success in terms of the last big success.

2: In the interests of balance, remember that agents and publishers all get horrible submissions all the time. Not just bad writing, but badly presented bad writing. Cobwebby documents that have sat in folders for years. Manuscripts printed out on two sides of pink paper, with single line spacing and coffee rings all over them. Entitled authors who want an immediate response and don't like it when they get it. So DO have a little patience and respect and - above all things - professionalism. 

3: Back when I was starting out on this long hard road, a good agent didn't expect to edit. That was the job of the publisher. If the manuscript was good enough, then the donkey work would be done between writer and publisher's editor, with some payment changing hands in advance, facilitated by the agent. This is not the way it works now. 

4: Now, the publisher expects the agent to submit an 'oven ready product' so in general, your agent is going to keep telling you to go back to the drawing board, in an effort to second guess the publisher and the 'market'. But those requirements will change over the course of the time it takes you to do rewrites. Also, many big publishers seem to have an informal 'three strikes and you're out' policy, so if an agent has three (possibly fewer now) projects by the same author turned down, they won't look at a fourth. To prevent this, the agent may keep sending you back to the drawing board. And this may mean that you finish up with several projects that you like and can self publish. (Like the nicely reviewed Ice Dancing above!) On the other hand, it can mean that you get stuck rewriting the same book over and over again. 

5: Finally, read Stephen King's On Writing. Best 'how to' book ever, although it's more of a memoir than anything else. Briefly, his advice is to read a lot and write a lot. I couldn't agree more. 

Disappearing Agents

'Just an old man, telling his story.'

As I've posted on here before, I've given up looking for an agent. I've done better without one over the past decade or more since last I had one. Although if somebody came along asking if they might try to sell my foreign and/or translation rights for me, I'd give it a go. 

It pains me when I see writers just starting out on their careers, firmly believing that once they've secured an agent, success will be practically guaranteed. The only people I know who continue to propagate this myth are agents. And in the immortal words of Mandy Rice Davies, they would, wouldn't they? 

However, a recent online conversation with a friend prompted me to remember my 'disappearing agents'. Because I had three of them. I had more agents than that, and a couple of them were good. But I changed what and how I wrote over a long career, which meant that a change of agent wasn't entirely out of the question. 

Disappearing Agent Number One

My first disappearing agent head-hunted me from a previous agency, by promising me the earth. Actually, not quite the earth. But she did promise to kick start my career as a playwright all over again. I was doing rather well with stage plays at the time and with some television and plenty of radio thrown in for good measure. My previous agent, although very efficient in terms of increasing my rates of pay, was London based (as are most agencies). This new one had travelled from London to open an office in Glasgow, and promised to liaise with various theatres south of the border, facilitate introductions, find opportunities and so on. 

I liked my previous agent a lot, but the relationship seemed to have grown a bit stale. I think the tipping point was when I spent the best part of a year working on a proposal for and with a large Scottish media company, only to have them reject the project entirely. This wasn't an unsolicited submission. I had worked for them before, they had expressed interest in it, and had me working with a (paid) script editor for months on end. But they had paid me no development money at all, not a bean, and no kill fee either. It struck me quite forcefully that a new agent might at least widen my horizons. So I left my old agent, amicably enough, and waited.

She disappeared. So did the office. She wrote to me later to apologise. I sometimes think I have had more apologies for incompetence than rejection slips.

Disappearing Agent Number Two 

This involves a situation far too complicated and boring to go into in a blog post. In short, there was a great schism in the agenting world and a plaintive request to stick with her personally as she moved on. So I did. Unfortunately, within months, her situation changed to the extent that she inherited a number of starry (and lucrative) clients and guess who fell off the bottom of her list? My last submission to her was The Physic Garden, which an intern read and dismissed out of hand as 'just an old man, telling his story'. After that, as the saying goes here in Scotland, my bum was well and truly 'oot the windae'. 

Disappearing Agent Number Three

This one really did disappear. I signed up to a reputable small agency where he worked, only to have him leave to set up on his own account within the year. Nobody asked me if I wanted to leave with him. They just assumed I would. Eventually, he set up an office in Glasgow (Is Glasgow a sort of black hole for agencies, I wonder?) and I went along to a laughably named launch event, which involved a plastic cup of warm white wine in a chaotic little room, with one other person. Soon after that, he went completely incommunicado. There was no response to phonecalls or emails. Since the office was part of a complex of offices for rent, I eventually managed to call the main desk where somebody confirmed that nobody had been in for weeks, and the mail was piling up. I still have no idea what became of him. 

Going It Alone

After that, I decided to go it alone, and guess what? With a mixture of traditional and self publishing, I started to do rather well. The excellent Saraband published the 'old man telling his story' aka the Physic Garden, and went on to publish more of my fiction and non-fiction. 

Surprisingly enough, I have very occasionally thought it might be nice to have an agent. I even went so far as to send a couple of query letters. I got one or two nibbles, but nothing more. I'm too old for them now - they don't think they'll make enough money out of me and that's understandable. But in any case, perhaps because I am so much older and wiser, I'd want a different kind of relationship. A business partnership which doesn't cast me in the role of humble supplicant. Which is why I still think it might be good to find somebody who would undertake the specialised business of trying to sell the foreign and translation rights to the work I already have out there. I'm not holding my breath. 

Finally - why am I writing this? 

I remember chatting to another client of one of these disappearing agents, a new, young writer, whose hopes had been raised by all the promises, only to have them dashed by the grim reality. What really bugged me was that she was strung along for a couple of years. I was in touch with her and advised her to cut her losses, send a formal letter dispensing with the agent's (non existent) services,  and get on with writing something new. I don't know if she ever did it, but I do remember her disappointment. I was fine. I had a body of work, and options. But she had been counting on promises that were never going to be fulfilled. 

I only hope she picked herself up, dusted herself off, and carried on writing. 

Vegetables No More


One of my very few successes.

Anyone who has followed this blog in its various incarnations over the years will know that I'm quite a keen gardener, albeit not so keen that my garden could ever be described as 'manicured'. It's a nice old cottage garden, with lots of wildlife. I don't use sprays and pesticides, I tend to let things grow more than they should, and there's plenty of cover for the forty or so sparrows, among many other birds, beasts and insects that call this place their home.

This year, inspired partly by friends proudly displaying all their sumptuous home grown produce on Facebook, and partly by the likelihood of Brexit related food shortages (I'll say the bloody B word, even if the wretched BBC won't) we thought we would grow some veg this year. 

It hasn't been what you would call an unqualified success.

Crunch time came at the weekend, when we dug up two potato pots and harvested what looked like a pretty good crop of nice pink potatoes. Reader, I cleaned them and cooked them. What emerged was a large pan containing a small amount of wallpaper paste, in which were floating a few pieces of tough skin. I cried out of pure rage and frustration. 

There are times, plenty of them these days, when I wish I was Deborah Meaden. Quite apart from the fact that she always comes across as such a lovely lady, I remember her saying that she 'never cooks'. I too would love to be somebody who never cooks. A little light baking would be nice but that's all. 

Back to the veg. The garden is organised to make it easier to look after. We're neither of us getting any younger, or any richer, we're still working more or less full time and Alan's severe mobility problems make it all a challenge. So I thought I'd try growing vegetables, salad stuff etc in containers. We had plenty of good rich compost from the compost heap at the bottom of the garden.

It started off pretty well: tatties, spinach, chard, runner beans, courgettes, dill, salad leaves and, indoors, chilis and aubergines. The young spinach and salad leaves (especially something called senape) were very nice for about three weeks. The dill was good too and it's still growing out there. I've been using it all summer on the excellent Ayrshire tatties bought in one of our local farm shops, about a hundred yards along the road from there they grow them. We have mint and thyme and chives too. I'm actually quite good with herbs. 

I'm not so good with vegetables.

I've had three courgettes of which one was so small that it hardly counted. Lots of flowers, no courgettes. The beans got eaten, but not by me. The field mice got to a lot of the young plants in the cold frame, before ever they could be planted out. The chard bolted before it really looked like chard. The compost turned out to have a lot of weed seeds in it, so I've lost count of the number of nettle stings I've had from pulling out young nettles while trying to get at the spinach and salad. And if anyone tells you young nettle leaves don't sting, they're havering. As you can see from the picture, I have more chilis than any human being would use, or want to freeze, so I'll give many of them away. I also have two, count them, two tiny aubergines. 

Do not ask about tomatoes. We used to try to grow tomatoes until a couple of years ago when a nunber of lovingly tended, fed and watered plants yielded two tiny tomatoes. 

As a consolation prize, the old apple tree at the bottom of the garden is having a very good year, so there will be lots of apples, and a few apple pies and crumbles if I can bring myself to make them. 

As for the potatoes: well  after I had drained the pan, fished out the bits of skin and added a large quantity of butter to the miniscule amount of tasteless paste that remained, Alan said it was OK. I ate a few oven chips instead. 

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Two tiny aubergines

Identity Crisis

It was the Facebook ad for the supplements company that started it.

It bugged me all the following week. Which is why I'm writing about it. I suppose that's what writers always do. Try to get some perspective on disturbing things by writing about them. 

I thought at first glance that it was a spoof. It consisted of a Union flag, accompanied by a cartoon British Bulldog.  And essentially, it was advertising 'British supplements' made without all those 'nasty' foreign additives, of which it included a full list, most of which were harmless components of various herbal supplements. It only just stopped short of telling us that foreign supplements were (as my nana used to tell me about chewing gum, in an effort to deter me from wanting it) made of monkey bones. 

It had to be a spoof, hadn't it? 

Sadly, it wasn't. It was a jingoistic little ad from a jingoistic little country, and the comments were full of jingoistic little people saying how wonderful it was to have these unpolluted British supplements. It's out there, and I'm not going to link to it. Its strapline, unpolluted by commas, is 'clean strong no nasties'. It aims to promote 'British values' but it wants to 'open up a manufacturing branch in the USA'! 

This has been fermenting away in my mind, coupled with all those headlines about the EU supposedly 'blockading' poor little Britain, when in fact it's just about to enforce rules for non EU members that we helped to formulate back in those good old days when we were still in the club. The only country that might have been blockaded was Ireland, by England, but having bought some nice new ferries from Korea and opened up new routes, Ireland is doing just fine. 

Today, I saw a bunch of older people, on a Facebook group, making nasty, mean spirited, jingoistic comments about refugees from Afghanistan. It reminded me of those people who used to tell my mum that the 'Poles should go back where they came from', right after she had married my Polish refugee dad. 

The sad fact is that I'm a mongrel, a citizen of nowhere, and since 2016, although I was born in England, I've hardly felt British at all. I've lived in Scotland on and off since I was twelve and love this country very much. It's been good to me as it was good to my dear dad. Even now, people who used to know him will be at pains to tell me how much they liked him and, in some cases, how much he changed their lives for the better. 

But from time to time, I still feel like a foreigner here. More and more often, these days. And when I do, I find myself wondering if my dad felt the same - sometimes, often, never? He never spoke about it. I wish I could ask him now, when everything I thought I knew and felt about this disunited kingdom is open to question. 

Artwork: Free to a Good Home. (Or Else ...)


My husband, Alan Lees, painted this extraordinary crucifixion scene a few years ago. It's huge and heavy and the frame is hand made of Scottish driftwood. He titled it 'the Execution' and by any standards, it is an amazing piece of work.

He is now talking about chopping it up for firewood. He means it. 

It has been in his studio for so long, and is simply taking up too much space. Dear reader, we have tried to find a good home for it, and so far, we have been unsuccessful. 

The truth is that it took some six months to paint, but now, he would either be willing to accept any reasonable offer for it, or simply to give it away to a good home, a church, a religious foundation or similar. The only proviso is that the recipient has to be able to pick it up themselves. It is large and heavy, but it would fit into the back of a biggish hatchback, the kind of vehicle where you can tip the back seats down. Or a small van. By the same token, we can't parcel it up for sending overseas. If you or your organisation wants to do that, then it's down to you to arrange it. 

But if you'd like to save the picture, it would surely be a small price to pay. 

A couple of years ago we offered it to Christian Aid. They said they would look into it - but they can't have looked very hard, since nobody got back to us. 

Now, Alan has given it till Christmas. Then he'll get the axe out. He is, I have to say, perfectly capable of destroying this. More likely (if we twist his arm because it seems such a shame) is that he may just paint over it. Either way, a somewhat stunning piece of art will be gone, through sheer lack of interest. 

Is there anyone out there who can help?

Dear Emily: A Previously Undiscovered Piece of Literary Correspondence.

Top Withens near Haworth. That isn't Cathy on the right. It's my mum. 

I'm reblogging this piece again, for various reasons. It was one of my most popular blog posts ever (this and the post on an older blog about how much I hated my memory foam mattress, which fortunately has gone the way of all useless things, the mattress, not the post.) 

I recently heard a little tale about one of Scotland's finest writers. I'd better not name him, but take it from me, he is - albeit not in an obvious blockbuster way - one of the UK's finest, most readable and thought provoking writers of fiction. He had had a submission turned down by a young intern who clearly didn't know enough to know how little they knew. I was gobsmacked. I thought 'what hope is there for the rest of us?' And then I went back to this. Hope it cheers you up too. 

My novel Bird of Passage, which was inspired by my love of Wuthering Heights, is now out in paperback, as well as being available as an eBook. 

The Humongous Book Group 
'Our mission is to be market focused above all things.'

Dear Emily,

Thank-you for letting us see the completed draft of your novel, Wuthering Heights. I must apologise for the delay in getting back to you, but as you will see, your manuscript was involved in a process which takes some considerable time.

First of all, can I say that I enjoyed your book. Unfortunately, I was not, at this stage, able to carry our sales department with me. We have therefore sent it to our in-house team of ‘beta readers’. This is a new concept even for us here at Humongous Publishing. It involves a team of interns who act as a kind of focus group. They read new fiction for us in their free time, and offer helpful suggestions. We call them ‘The Beta Bunch’ or sometimes ‘The Critters’. You don’t have to take any of these ideas on board, but if you can put your natural ego to one side for a while, and think of the good of the novel as a whole, you may start to see things our way.

Below is a list of editorial suggestions collated from the Beta Bunch, Sales & Marketing and my own feedback. As I’m sure you realise, in the current publishing climate, sales predictions must be exceedingly optimistic for Marketing to allow us to take any risk. With your lovely novel, they don’t see how they can sell it to a wider public, which was why they suggested some input from the Beta Bunch. Between us, we have come up with a few edits which may help to turn your fine novel into a more marketable proposition.

1 The title presents significant problems. Wuthering is clearly a part of your Yorkshire vernacular, but potential readers in the south have no understanding of this term. As you pointed out in an email to your agent, it is a description of a particular kind of wind. We think Windy Hilltop would be a much better title both for the house and the novel. And while I’m on the subject of dialect, we are all in agreement that Joseph is (a) incomprehensible to the average reader and (b) a boring old man. We think he could definitely go. Nobody would miss him. He just holds up the forward thrust of the plot.

2 The narrative framework of the novel is confusing. We don’t really think the dual narration involving Mr Lockwood and Nelly Dean works. One of our beta readers suggested that it may be possible to dispense with the narrator altogether and simply tell the story from a third person point of view. Perhaps an objective omniscient narrative voice or deep third person subjective point of view might suit?

3 You have clearly ‘written yourself into’ the story. You need to delete the first few chapters. Instead, we might begin with Mr Earnshaw bringing the young Heathcliff to Windy Hilltop. But we need far more back story for Heathcliff. Perhaps he was Mr Earnshaw’s ‘natural’ child. Perhaps we might see Mr Earnshaw bidding a sad farewell to his dying mistress in Liverpool, realising that he must take the child home with him and wondering how his family will react?

4 There are some problems with characterisation. Heathcliff and Cathy in particular seemed inconsistent and irrational to our editorial team. Ems, darling, nobody can fall in love with characters like this, and we have to love these people! And while we’re on this topic, one of our readers suggested another name change, this time for Heathcliff. Perhaps Cliff Heath or something similar: rugged but somehow more of a real name.

5 We think you might usefully reconsider your heroine’s character. Readers find it hard to engage fully with a thoroughly unlikeable person and Cathy is – forgive me – in danger of coming across as a bit of a bully – all that pinching and slapping. She is very pretty - but perhaps a tad too pretty? She needs some faults: a big mouth, a snub nose, unruly hair. Perhaps she gazes into her mirror in dissatisfaction at herself. It’s fine that she’s feisty and spirited. But there are times when her character verges on the psychotic and her tears and tantrums may provoke the wrong response. Nobody likes a watering pot, do they? And a watering pot with serious food and anger issues is quite hard to love. The reader must be able to sympathise with her predicament in choosing between poor but handsome Cliff and rich but wet Edgar. They must be able to put themselves in her shoes. At the moment, who would?

6 You may also need to reconsider Cliff. He does seem to have seriously sadistic tendencies. BDSM is fine, (in fact we could do with a little more of it here in view of other publishing successes) but cruelty to animals on the part of the hero is a definite no-no and the scene where we learn that he has hanged his wife’s dog MUST GO. Actually, we all reckon his wife should go too. Cliff HAS to marry Cathy. You can’t cheat reader expectations like this and besides, Isabella is SUCH a wuss. You should be aiming for a powerful hero with whom the reader can sympathise, even when he’s behaving badly: sexy and brave but with a certain underlying vulnerability and a hidden sorrow. Likewise, we really think you must reconsider the scenes where Cliff indulges in what can only be described as necrophilia. We feel quite strongly that horror is not your genre.

7 We would like to suggest that you ‘big up’ the supernatural elements. Several of our ’critters’ suggested that you should begin the tale in the present day, with a young couple – Londoners who have moved to Yorkshire perhaps - buying Windy Hilltop with a view to renovating it. Inexplicable things start to happen to them. The house is haunted! The husband refuses to believe in the supernatural but the wife starts to research the story and unearths the whole sorry tale: Mr Earnshaw and his tragic mistress, Cliff and Cath growing up, followed by Cliff’s desertion. Cath’s unwise marriage, Cliff’s return and most important of all, the resumption of the love affair. 

8 Forgive me, Emily, but you do tend to cop out of the erotic scenes. None of our beta readers could believe that – when Cliff finally comes back – he and Cathy wouldn’t be making mad, passionate love all the time, out on those windy moors. We have to be there and feel it with them. Where is her inner goddess? Wouldn’t he want to punish her for making him suffer all these years? The only time they seem to get it on is when she is dying and even then it’s only a few kisses and Cliff gnashing his teeth a lot. (More borderline necrophilia.) We need more sensuous wuthering in the heather!

9 Overall, the consensus was that you should definitely consider deleting the last third of the novel. Remember the old adage, kill your darlings? Well, we all agree that a bit of a massacre is in order. At present, the passages with young Cathy and Hareton read like an extended coda to the main event which is clearly the wild and wonderful relationship between the principle protagonists. You pointed out in your last (somewhat forthright) email, that you visualise this as a necessary resolution to the disorder of the first two thirds of the novel, without which the whole thing makes no sense. We take your point, but none of the beta readers cared for your ending, with the exception of one who thought Hareton was ‘quite fit’.

10 The whole of the Beta Bunch felt very strongly that you needed to come up with a happy ending for the hero and heroine. One suggestion was that Edgar Linton might fall down a pothole. You have a lot of potholes in Yorkshire, don't you? Cliff finds his conscience at last and tries to rescue him. Edgar dies, Cliff survives. He’s wounded (we all love wounded heroes) but at least he has done the brave thing. He marries a pregnant Cathy and they move to Windy Hilltop. Although they live happily every after, they have to spend their whole lives pretending that the baby isn’t Cliff’s, just to keep Cathy’s reputation intact. Which is the reason for the haunting. The truth must be told!

So there it is. We feel that with a little more work you could really turn this into a stonking great story. You never know, it may even be a ‘breakthrough’ book for you. We look forward to hearing from you with your rewritten manuscript just as soon as you can manage it. I’m sure you can do it. After all, time is on your side.

Very best wishes

Verucca Havering-Gently

For Humongous Publishing, London and New York.

Scotland or What?


That's the question.

Somewhere among my many books there's an old - a very old - Beano Annual. I was a big fan of the Beano when I was a child. My beloved grandad bought me a copy every week. There was usually a mild tussle with my dad over each new issue, because he loved it too. Mostly we would read it together. Come Christmas, there would usually be a Beano Annual in my stocking. In one of the cartoons, I forget which, but it may have been Lord Snooty, now only remembered every time Jacob Rees Mogg rears his head, there's an image of the Scottish border. Not that Lord Snooty was Scottish, but since the Beano and Dandy were published in Dundee by the redoubtable D C Thomson, the cartoons would, every so often, contain a small and faintly satirical reference to English perceptions of Scotland. 

The border was, as far as I remember, a very definite line, on the northern side of which were instant mountains, (lochs and bens) and men in kilts, leaping about, tossing cabers, and saying things like 'hoots mon'. It was, of course, a joke. A joke, moreover, at the expense of our English neighbours. A bit like that episode of Hancock's Half Hour, where Tony discovers that he has Scottish blood and becomes the laird of Glen Sporran. Or tries to. The one in which James Robertson Justice calls Hattie a 'fine wee woman'. 

I found myself thinking about all these things last weekend when I watched the first episode of a new TV crime drama 'set in Scotland' (sic). It was a television version of a well reviewed radio drama which, surprisingly enough, I hadn't heard. To say that I didn't enjoy this incarnation would probably be to underestimate the strength of my feelings about it, and it's safe to say that I won't be watching it again. But I'll leave the reviewing of it to more dedicated TV critics than I am. 

Besides, that's not really what this post is about. You see, for me, it demonstrated a very real and all too common disrespect shown to Scotland, far more often than is excusable. As though we live in some kind of cartoon country, where once you step over the border from England, you will find yourself in a vague, undifferentiated place where signs saying 'Benview' indicate that this is a land of bens and lochs. Watching an hour of this drama, from Scotland, was deeply frustrating, mostly because it was nothing at all like Scotland. 

The crime solvers were housed in what looked like an empty modern building in the middle of nowhere. So empty that I swear it echoed. There was a Norwegian detective and a Scotsman who thought she had taken his job. I mean I know this happened in reverse in the stunningly good Broadchurch but that was explicable in all kinds of ways. A (Clyde Coast?) marina seemed to have only one boat in it. My ex-professional sailor husband muttered mutinously over this one. Sometimes a vague city skyline or a few buildings hove into view. More often, there was a whole lot of sea, and a character who inexplicably goes to school in a small boat. There are lots of shadowy mountains, sorry, bens, in the distance, interspersed with sudden shots from the obligatory helicopter, of a single track road winding through dense forests. This place simply slides away from you all the time, like Brigadoon. It has no existence at all beyond this moment. 

Where the hell were we? This was Scotland for Dummies, produced by people who seemed to have no knowledge of the reality of this place that I love, in all its wonder and variety and complexity. 

And yes, I know it was a crime drama, not a travelogue, but it didn't need to be like this. I kept thinking about the always excellent Shetland. It doesn't matter that in real life there are (thankfully) few murders there and Shetlanders may be able to find fault. But most of us can willingly suspend our disbelief, because everything else is so lovingly scripted and filmed and acted. 

Instead, in the immortal (real) words of Mr Spock, this was 'no Scotland as we know it!' 

Ice Dancing - My Scottish Village Novel (with a bit of Ice Hockey thrown in for good measure!)


Cover image by Alan Lees

This week, my slightly quirky love story, Ice Dancing, is being serialised in the Dundee Courier. It seems appropriate for that newspaper, since not only is Ice Dancing set in and around a small rural Scottish village - and Dundee has a rural hinterland - but a theme of Ice Hockey, players and fans, runs through the novel and Dundee is a good hockey town. 

All the same, you don't have to know anything about the sport to enjoy it, because the novel's narrator, farmer's wife, Helen, knows nothing at all about it either, till she meets Joe, a visiting Canadian Ice Hockey player. Then she finds out all about it.

The book was a labour of love for me. I never expected it to be particularly successful. I just wanted to write it (probably the best of all reasons for writing anything) but to my surprise, I find that people who find it and read it seem to love it too. I suspect it doesn't have much to do with the hockey. It has more to do with what turned out to be a fairly sharp-eyed but loving observation of the realities of village life. After all, and with occasional spells elsewhere, I've lived in a rural Scottish village for some 40 years. And, as one lovely reviewer pointed out, it's about the realities of love and desire at first sight as well. 

The reason for the title, which gives me no end of trouble when people think it's a how-to manual, will become very clear if you read the novel! 

You can download it as an eBook here and as a paperback here. If you're reading this in the USA you should be able to find it on Amazon there as well.

Vincent D'Onofrio, Character Inspiration and Click Bait Headlines

A slightly prickly post illustrated by very prickly thistles! 

Many writers, me included, will often find themselves imagining actors playing certain parts in the fiction we're creating. Mostly, this is without any expectation or even remote hope that it will actually happen - especially since we often look at previous performances of people who, however talented, would be far too old for the role. Although if you tell me that the author of the Bridges of Madison County didn't imagine Eastwood in the role, I won't believe you! 

It's a more nebulous idea than that. Sometimes a character arrives whole, and you, the writer, can see them and know exactly what they say and how they say it. William, the narrator in my novel The Physic Garden, was exactly like this. He was who he was, he spoke to me and there was nothing I could do about it. But sometimes, it can be difficult to 'see' them, as you're embarking on a project. And sometimes we watch an actor in performance and think - there's something about the performance that I can use.  

It's no secret among my close friends that I'm pretty obsessed with Law and Order Criminal Intent, but only those episodes with Goren and Eames. I'm intrigued by the character of Bobby Goren, and yes, I know he's written that way, but a fine actor can bring so much to a role. As a playwright, I know that an actor and director can show you elements of your writing that you hardly even knew were there. Between writer and actor, this is one intriguing character.

I'm in the middle of a huge and complicated piece of non-fiction about my Polish family background, but - as so often happens - there's a new novel simmering away at the back of my mind, and in that novel is a character who is walking around saying 'here I am, look at me' relentlessly. There are certainly elements of this character that owe something to D'Onofrio's fine realisation of Goren in Criminal Intent, his vast intelligence, his solitary nature, his vulnerability  - albeit in a completely different way, in a completely different setting, in a completely different country. 

This isn't 'copying' or fan fiction. It's using a past performance of someone you admire as a springboard into creating another character, teasing out their unique story, using those insights in the creation of something new and different. 

I think a lot of us do this. We'll see what emerges.

Finally, somewhere online is an idiotic video titled the Life and Sad Ending of Vincent D'Onofrio. And no, I won't be linking to it, because it's clickbait, pure and simple. He's not dead. He's still a very fine actor indeed. He's just - you know - older. Which is no sin. I find these celebrity posts and videos so strange. As though growing older and wiser is somehow optional. 

I've news for you. We're all heading that way. You may be a few years behind - but it's coming. Nothing surer. 

An Unforgettable Novel

Often, when I'm working on a new book, I actively avoid reading fiction set in the same period, although I always read plenty of non-fiction books around the subject, especially if I'm writing historical fiction and non fiction. Sometimes the 'voice' of a particular piece of fiction is too strong and gets in the way of the made-up voices in my head - and this is even true of non-fiction in which I tend to write narrative rather than academic non-fiction.

But this wonderful novel, Neal Ascherson's, the Death of the Fronsac, is the exception. 

I don't know why I didn't know about it earlier. I should have, given the subject matter and the narration, and also given that I admire the writer both as a journalist and a historian. Set in 1940, it is mainly, but not wholly, told through the experiences of a Polish soldier who has found himself in Scotland when his own country has been divided between Hitler and Stalin. It is, as one reviewer describes, an extended and 'marvellous meditation on what it means to have lost a country and a past.' It is a book about the meaning of the word 'home' in Polish more than in English. What it means to lose it, where it resides and whether, once lost, you can ever find it again. 

I finished it at 3 o'clock one morning, found myself dreaming about it for the rest of the night, wept over it, and wrote an online review which I knew wouldn't do it justice. My late father could have been the main narrator of this book - he too lost everything in the war and had, if anything, an even more traumatic time. He too arrived in Britain and elected to stay here, in the face of suggestions that the Poles 'go back home' to a home that no longer existed. I think nobody in his new country, even his much loved wife, my mother, really understood how it no longer existed and what his experiences had been. Not back then, anyway, although my mum certainly came to an understanding later. They simply didn't understand the trauma of it. 

During the course of my life, so many people here in Scotland have rushed to tell me how much they loved the Poles who stayed at the end of the war. 'Oh, they fitted in,' they'll say. 'Fine people.' I always suspected that it wasn't quite the whole truth at the time. It certainly wasn't my mother's experience in post-war Leeds. This book serves to confirm that it wasn't the whole experience of Poles in post-war Scotland either. 

I'm in the middle of researching the history of the Polish side of my family for a new book called The Last Lancer, and I've found more than one Scottish person asking me 'why didn't your dad go back to Poland'? Among much else, this fine book also explains some of those reasons why, in sensitive, detailed and horrifying terms. 

The novel also clarifies for me the reasons why my father's attitude to Churchill was equivocal at best. It was an attitude he shared with many Poles. But above all, it explains something central to the Polish perception of 'home', an inadequate word in English, and of the way in which Poles never confuse the piece of land labelled state - and nation. 

But what is that nation? What does it mean to be Polish? What, and where, is home, when home has been all but obliterated.

I think about it a lot these days, having recovered my own precious Polish citizenship a year ago. I think about it when, as happened to me recently, a new social media 'friend' posts something astoundingly insensitive, inaccurate and angry about 'illegal immigrants' (And is promptly unfriended - something I very rarely do!) 

There are no easy answers, and this is by no means an easy book - but it is still the finest and most illuminating piece of writing on these subjects - and on my own heritage - that I have ever come across.

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Roses and Writing: Perseverance Pays


I seem to be writing a lot of posts about roses just now, but they really have been spectacular this year here in Scotland! 

About twenty five years ago - perhaps a little more - we had an expedition to beautiful Holker Hall with good friends. That's a picture of our respective kids, before they became all grown up - Charlie and Lucy. 

They had got candy canes from the gift shop and were busy sucking away at them to turn them into sharp points, so that they could duel with them, as far as I remember! 

It was at Holker that I first saw how rambling roses could be grown into trees and how beautiful they looked. So the following year, I managed to buy a couple of suitably tall ramblers from David Austin Roses: Paul's Himalayan Musk, and another called Rosa Felipes Kiftsgate. 

It was ambitious, but we do have a handful of quite tall trees in our cottage garden.

Paul's Himalayan Musk took off right away. It was a few years before it was properly established, but look at it now. 

Kiftsgate was different though. It grew a bit, and then seemed to get some kind of fungus. I cut it back and left it alone. It grew again, but not much. And to be honest, I kind of forgot about it. It had been planted in a little shrubbery, with a gorgeous holly tree that grew taller every year. Sometimes I would see a few flowers, and sometimes I would trim back a bit of the resulting growth. Often I would think I should get rid of it, but then I would forget and just leave it to its own devices. The slightly chaotic shrubbery with holly, honeysuckle, spiraea and philadelphus, provides great cover for the smaller birds in summer and winter alike, so we trim it back a little, but otherwise leave it alone.  

Cue forward to this year, which has been a bumper year for roses of all kinds. The Himalayan Musk had flowered and mostly died back by last week, when I was standing beside the holly tree and suddenly noticed that here and there were clutches of rosebuds. Lots and lots and lots of them. 

Quietly and without fuss, Kiftsgate has clambered up and through the bigger branches of the holly tree - and here it is, twenty five years later, flowering beautifully and almost reaching the top of the holly. When I walk down the garden at night, I can smell the gorgeous scent of it. I can see it from my window as I type this.

As with writing, sometimes gardening just takes a little time and patience! 

Swedish Cinnamon Buns, Seeing Family, and More Bureaucratic Fudging


Yesterday, in spite of the heat - it's still warm and sunny in south west Scotland - I baked some Swedish cinnamon buns. They're delicious, and I had to freeze some, otherwise we'd have eaten far too many of them. I'll put the recipe at the end of this post so if you want to, you can skip the small rant that follows and go straight to the recipe! 

I first came across these gorgeous Scandinavian pastries when I worked in Finland for a couple of years, back in the 1970s. Then, I forgot all about them until I started reading crime fiction from Sweden, in which everyone seemed to eat them, which made me want some too, so I had to seek out a recipe from a friend. 

A few months ago, mid pandemic, our son moved to Sweden. Before that, he had been working in Barcelona for a couple of years. We were meant to visit him there, but Covid put a stop to all that. And then, at the request of his company, he moved to Stockholm. He loves the city and he loves his job, so there are no complaints on that score. In fact I'm delighted for him, because if he was unhappy, we'd be doubly unhappy too.

It would be true to say that Brexit has done him no favours, making everything infinitely more complicated than it need be. But at least, working in video game design, he has skills that are very much in demand. 

In the same boat.

However, we haven't seen him for some 18 months now. We are not alone. I could name at least a dozen friends in the same boat. There are people who haven't seen longed-for grandchildren, there are people who have missed weddings and funerals, there are chronically ill people who are desperate for a (vaccinated and tested) visit from a much loved family member living abroad. There are probably millions of us, although nobody knows, because nobody in government, not in Westminster and not in Scotland, seems to care. Nobody seems aware that vast numbers of families have members living elsewhere. In fact it feels like a concept with which most politicians are totally unfamiliar.

We are at the back of a long queue, while the government and the media focus almost exclusively on holidays. 

Earlier this year our son booked - and then cancelled - a trip home on 17th July. He had holidays and was planning to spend a week with us, but it wasn't to be. Partly it was that the flights kept being changed. Mostly it was that he had had only one vaccination by then, he would have had to isolate at home with us, which he would have willingly done for the days of his visit. But nobody, not even our - otherwise extremely helpful and obliging MP - could tell us what the protocol was for getting tested. As a UK citizen coming back here, he would have to register and pay a rather extortionate amount up front for two tests, only one of which he would use, since he would be returning to Sweden within 7 days. Nobody could give us any information about how he would obtain the other test necessary for travelling back to Sweden. (Test centres are only for residents, not UK passport holders.) Or what would happen about the expensive but wasted test, meant to be submitted by post on day eight. 

The Same Vaccinations

Now, he's hoping to come back for a few days in late September, or early October. Taking the bull by the horns, I wrote to the Scottish health secretary, pointing out that even though rules had been relaxed for double vaccinated people returning to the UK, neither Scotland not anywhere else in the UK was prepared to recognise the very same vaccinations, given in the EU. Even though proof of said vaccination would be available. 

What I got from the 'operational management team' was disappointing. It was a standard, vague and faintly admonitory email as though I had asked an unreasonable question, and not one that is exercising many thousands of people in the whole of the UK right now. In fact it didn't really answer my detailed question at all. Basically, it said, we know best, best get back in your box till we tell you what you can do.

It surely shouldn't be beyond the bounds of possibility to respond to a concerned citizen by saying that EU and indeed worldwide vaccinations and tests will be recognised as soon as possible and that tests will also be made available while people are visiting family in Scotland. Most people would be happy to pay for them. We don't expect miracles. We don't expect it to happen tomorrow. Just a response that refrains from sending out a bureaucratic finger-wagging one-size-fits-all exercise, recognises the pressing problem and promises a solution some time soon. 

If, like me, you need something to sweeten your temper, here's the recipe for cinnamon buns

I mix it in my bread-maker and bake it in the oven. I use the measuring cups that came with the bread-maker, which I think are very similar to US cups. but this is a very forgiving recipe so as long as you get the relative proportions right, it should be OK. 


1 cup milk

4 tablespoons melted butter

half a cup of caster sugar

1 tsp salt

2 tsp ground cardamom (I had run out so I pounded a few seeds and used them instead but you can leave this out altogether if you're not keen on cardamom.)

1 beaten egg plus extra for glazing

4 - 5 cups plain flour

1 packet dried yeast


2 tablespoons melted butter

three quarters cup of soft brown sugar

1 tablespoon ground cinnamon (more if you like) 


I chuck all the pastry ingredients into the bread-maker on the 'dough' setting. This is usually about an hour and a half, but I sometimes give it another half hour or so on the same setting. If you don't have a bread-maker, you can just put the dry ingredients together, add the wet and mix it all in a bowl, kneading it very well in the usual way, and then leaving it in a warm place to rise for an hour or so. It should be very soft, but not sticky. The spices can be variable - you can add more or less according to your taste.

Divide your yeast pastry in half, and roll out one half into a rectangle, brush with plenty of melted butter, and sprinkle with mixed sugar and cinnamon. Then, roll it up, starting on the long side, cut your roll into about seven triangles, pinch each into an ear shape (I'm not very good at this, but they still turn out OK) and put on a well greased baking tray. Do the same thing with the other half. You finish up with about 14 buns and you can put them reasonably close together on the tray. The filling will leak out a bit but this doesn't matter. Leave in a warm place till they start to rise again and then brush with beaten egg.

Bake in a hot oven: 400F or 200C for about 15 minutes, perhaps a little more. My oven is over hot, so I find 175C works better and doesn't over crisp them. Leave them to cool on the tray for a little while before lifting so that any leaked sugar has time to set. Best eaten warm. They don't need butter. Lovely just as they are - especially with a large mug of coffee. 

My Husband's Extraordinary Hand Carved Chess Set - and the insect bite that nearly cost him his life.


My husband, artist Alan Lees, used to be one of Scotland's foremost woodcarvers, making everything from huge outdoor carvings to gorgeous sculptural rocking horses. Then along came serious arthritis, and even more serious mobility problems. He turned his hand to painting in acrylics, which he could do while he was sitting down, and he has had some success with his work in his unique 'outsider art' style. In fact his work has been described as a cross between Lowry and Bruegel.

But that wasn't the only problem. 

Somewhere in the middle of his arthritis treatment, he was in the garden, when he was bitten on the finger by a horsefly, or cleg as they are called in Scotland. At first we thought it was just an insect bite, but within an hour or two, his finger had swollen and he was in excruciating pain. Not only that, but by bed-time he was running a temperature, shivering and shaking. An on-call doctor came out, looked scathingly at his finger and said 'I don't think you're going to die from an insect bite.'

He almost did. 

By the following morning, it was clear that he was very ill indeed. Another doctor arrived and - fortunately - called for an ambulance immediately. That small bite had turned into full blown sepsis. The speed with which all this happened was horrific. 

There followed a nightmare few months. First of all the wound was drained and he was pumped full of antibiotics. By Friday of that week, though, a consultant breezed into the ward and told him he could go home, before breezing out again. I glanced at the finger and thought that it certainly didn't look too good to me. Alan was still in a lot of pain. The junior doctor who came along to do the discharge paperwork also looked at the finger, pursed his lips, looked embarrassed but was clearly much too scared of summoning the consultant from whatever he was doing on a Friday evening. With hindsight, of course, I should have insisted. 

There followed another horrible night of pain and fever. In the morning, I contacted a friend along the road who had trained as a midwife. She came in, took one look at finger and patient and said 'A & E, right now.' You could actually see the infection tracking through his system from the finger. 

Back at the hospital, he was triaged by a hugely competent and sympathetic senior nurse, whisked through almost immediately and again attached to mega antibiotics. 

Mid chess project 

There followed six operations on the offending finger. A very fine surgeon, a specialist in hand surgery, was determined to save it, although even she almost gave up and suggested amputation. The problem was that the cleg had injected something particularly nasty into him. The hospital had to do some kind of culture to find out which antibiotics might work. Eventually, there had to be skin grafts to try to restore the finger that had been practically eaten away by the bug and really didn't want to heal. For a time, there were daily visits to the surgeon's clinic so that the special dressing could be changed and eventually, weeks and weeks later, it began to heal.

The finger is intact, and still works, albeit it's thinner than it was, and less capable. And it responds painfully to anything but the hottest temperatures, so he has to wear a modified glove, covering it most of the time. For a while, he thought he would never carve again. 

But over lockdown, he set up a small workbench at a slight angle, so that he could sit down to carve and work for a few hours each day at smaller, and less stressful items. He mostly worked indoors, until with the warmer weather he could take it outside for a little while. First of all he completed a spectacular high relief carving of the Last Supper. It took many months, but he finished it.

Last Supper, in lime.

Then he designed and made this chess set: the Hapsburgs and the Ottomans, focusing on the battle at the gates of Vienna, in which the Polish Winged Hussars played a key role in the defeat of the Ottoman army. 

Six months later, you can see the finished item. 

It is stunningly beautiful, intricate, detailed - amazing. The Ottoman side is carved in American black walnut - a lovely hardwood. Alan  found a piece in his workshop that he had been hoarding for almost 30 years! The Hapsburg side is in lime. 

The board is hand painted, and the reverse of the board is also decorated. 

It's a wonderful piece (or many pieces) of highly original work and although we're a bit reluctant to let it go, if you have a passion for chess and deep pockets, do contact us. One or two people have questioned whether you could play with such intricate pieces - but because it's made of wood, it is actually pretty robust. Nevertheless - I reckon it's as much a precious, one off artwork as an everyday set. 

Inspired by this chess set, and how much he loved making it, I think Alan is going to carve more chess sets in the future but realistically, he can only make one or two in a year, these will be very rare items, and will be priced accordingly. 

If you'd like to see more pictures, and discover more of Alan's work for sale, including the Last Supper carving, you can go to our Etsy store, the 200 Year Old House. 

The Death of Scotland's Greatest Poet, Robert Burns: 21st July 1796


225 years ago, on this day, 21st July, in 1796, Robert Burns died at his home in Dumfries. He had been growing increasingly ill for months. On the advice of his doctors he had spent his last weeks wading out into the chilly waters of the Solway in hopes of a cure. In all likelihood, he was suffering from acute endocarditis. This was a condition which may have been chronic for many years, but which had possibly been triggered into an acute and deadly phase by a severe tooth infection. The sea bathing only hastened the inevitable end. He was terminally ill, desperately worried about his wife and children, and about small debts that any one of his friends would have paid, but that were obviously looming large for him in his weakened state. He was thirty seven years old. 

When I was writing my novel about his wife, Jean Armour: the Jewel, this was one of the hardest passages to tackle. By that time, I felt I knew the poet and his wife very well, and loved them both. I frequently found myself in tears as I tried to describe his final illness. If you would like to read more, you'll find the novel available as an eBook on all platforms, and in paperback, online and in various bookshops. There's lots of useful information on my publisher's website, here

Meanwhile, it seems a good time to post my description of the last days and minutes of the life of Scotland's greatest poet. 

'He sent a flurry of terrible, panic stricken letters: to James, (his father in law) to an unresponsive Frances Dunlop, to Gilbert, to his cousin in Montrose, James Burness, asking for money to pay the haberdasher. He wrote to Mr Thomson in Edinburgh, with the same plea. Both Thomson and Burness readily arranged for money to be forwarded, said later that they had had no idea how ill he really was, but it all came much too late. Although he had been ailing for some time, the slide into acute illness happened so quickly that it seemed to take all of them except those closest to him by surprise. He wrote to Jean, in Dumfries. He said that the sea bathing had eased his pains but he could eat nothing. He told her he was glad that Jessie was beside her, helping her.

He called her his dearest love.
He had to borrow a gig to bring him home ... There was a farmer in Locharwoods, John Clark, who lent him his gig, with a fine gentry horse to pull it, and a man to drive it. He could not have ridden by himself. His landlady ...  had persuaded the farmer that it would be a good thing to do and that he would be remembered afterwards for his kindness to the great poet in his last days.
    Rab could barely step down from the gig when he arrived home. He was all wrapped up in his plaid, although it was high summer. They had to stop at the bottom of the Mill Vennel that was much too steep for the horse. There had been a shower of rain, and the cobbles were slippery. His face was grey from the pain of the journey. He couldn’t stand upright and Jessie, the lass who was helping Jean in the house, had to go out and oxter him in. He was muttering that he was worried about his papers, his poems. He still fretted that he had left indifferent pieces behind and they would be thrust upon the world when he was gone, with all their imperfections still upon them.
    They were shocked by the deterioration in him, but Jean most of all. She gazed at him and thought that her heart would break. He looked skeletal, shook and shivered, and seemed in even more pain than when he had left. They put him to bed, and there he stayed, slipping in and out of sleep, or delirium, or both, it was hard to tell, and whenever he slept, they feared that he would never wake again.
    Once, he came to himself abruptly and said, ‘Don’t let the Awkward Squad fire over me!’ to Jessie’s brother, John Lewars, who was watching at his bedside.
    He meant the Dumfries volunteers, of course, few of them very efficient or soldierly. And John reassured him that they would not, but of course, they did.
    Jean nursed him as best she could, determined to see her man out of the world, if it was God’s will that he should go. But she would not have been able to do it without Jessie’s help. Jean could and did sing to him, quietly, as she had sung to all their children, and her voice seemed to soothe him.
    Very early on the morning of 21st July, she had been dozing in a chair, so far advanced in her pregnancy that she could not comfortably fall asleep. The child was kicking and tumbling inside her, as it did whenever she rested. Jessie had come in with his medicine, and tried to hold the cup to his chapped lips, tried to rouse him a little, but he pushed it away. His face was so thin now that he looked all unlike himself. Even his nose seemed to have become finer, sharper.
    Jean got up, steadying herself on the arm of the chair, and took the cup from Jessie. 
    ‘Rab, my dear, you need to take your medicine. It’ll do you some good, ease the pain, if you can only try to swallow it.’
    She sat on the edge of the bed, stroked his forehead gently, stroked the dark hair, shot through with grey. Suddenly, she had the strangest feeling, as though this was all unreal, as though there might be some magical place where she could turn back time, make it all different, if only she could get to it, if only she could reach it. There, he would be as she had known him at first: her strong, young lover, her husband, her man.
    He woke at the sound of her voice, or perhaps her familiar touch, gazed at her, raised his head and drank a mouthful of the cordial, coughing at the bitter taste of it. He tried to say her name, recognition in his eyes for an instant, reached out his arms to her and then fell back on the bed.
   ‘Oh Jeany,’ said Jessie Lewars. ‘Oh dear Jeany, I think he’s gone.’ 
     She was right.'

Is this the most seductive movie scene of all time?

I've watched a lot of movies over these two wretched pandemic years. In fact I find it extraordinary that I have so many friends who don't watch films. I first noticed it when we were doing mid lockdown quizzes and realised that so many people, when confronted by quotes like 'nobody puts Baby in a corner' and 'Shoot the hostage!' couldn't begin to name the film.

How do you survive without watching Dirty Dancing and Speed at least once a year? 

I love films. Although I'm not keen on graphic gratuitous violence or women in peril or Westerns or old war movies or those films where the director seems intent on making real live actors look like animated characters in a video game. Which narrows my choice a bit. 

So what does this have to do with writing? 

The nicest thing anyone ever said to me about my own writing came from another woman, a bookshop owner. 'Catherine,' she said, 'You write female desire so well!' 

It was a remark to treasure, and I have. She didn't mean 'sex scenes'. She meant something else entirely. Hard to define but you know it when you see and feel it, and you know it when you're writing it. Male writers very seldom do it well. Instead, female characters gaze at themselves in the mirror and fondle bits of themselves as they never ever do in real life. But all too often female writers don't even try to investigate this nebulous idea of desire. They find it embarrassing, or are afraid of crossing the line into prurience, so they avoid it altogether. Dot dot dot, as the girls in Mamma Mia said. Or our hero and heroine go to ever more ridiculous and frankly unbelievable lengths to avoid the overwhelming sexual attraction that is staring every reader in the face.  

At the other end of the scale, women and men write erotica which isn't, as it turns out, very erotic at all. Mind you, it sells extremely well, so who am I to argue? But it never quite feels real does it? 

Anyway, to go back to the movies and what we, as writers, may be able to learn from them. (And I'll bet you really want to know about that seductive scene now, don't you?) So many depictions of passion on film make the whole thing look, from a female point of view anyway, profoundly unsexy. A visiting Martian would assume the couple were involved in some unpleasant and painful interaction that had to be got through as quickly as possible. You've only to watch the wonderful, intense, passionate love scene in Desperado between Banderas and Cruz to then notice how dreadful some supposedly sexy movie scenes are by comparison. And I know I said I didn't like violence, but there are exceptions and this film, violent as it is, is one of them, mostly because the sexual chemistry between the two beautiful leads is so enticing. 

Writers, we can learn from movies, how to do it, and how not to do it. Write about it, I mean. What you do in your own time is entirely up to you. 

So here's what is probably, from a female point of view, the most seductive movie scene of all time. I love this film. It's gentle and funny, it's about female friendship and small town life and aspirations and real things. And the guy, this big, good looking guy, loses patience, tells it like it is, climbs aboard his boat and just motors off into the sunset. 

Why is that seductive?

Partly it's that it probably wouldn't have worked with any other actor. It has to be somebody who can play tough and caring and attractive and a wee bit vulnerable, all at the same time. Somebody who looks as though they could be a fisherman, could have that gentle side, could get really fed up of being used. One who is not afraid of the direct, honest, but oddly unthreatening gaze. Watch how he does it. It's truly and very deeply desirable. See for yourself.  

'I don't want to,' he says. Fine bit of acting too. Don't you just love it? Not the endless postponement of fulfilment to be followed by the final unsatisfactory clinch, but the realisation that love and - yes - desire has to mean more than that on both sides. You can take it or leave it, but you have to at least try to engage with that notion. 

Now when you can write that, you'll be onto a winner.