A walk in the Lickey Hills

Firstly, an admission.  The photographs in this post are my husbands. No effort was made on my part.  This is not due not to laziness but to the fact that his photos are a million times better than anything I have ever taken! Slight exaggeration, perhaps.

Lickey Hill walk 1

Give or take a few million, the rock which forms Worcestershire’s Lickey Ridge is 580 million years old and there is evidence that settlers lived in the area during Neolithic times.  It is thought that the forest may have provided the inspiration for Tolkien’s mythical Shire (the home of the hobbits) in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings for he lived, for some time, in nearby Rednal.

Lickey Hills 1

The Lickey Hills Park is situated about fifteen minutes drive from my home. Covering a 524 acre site, this is a place that I visited with my parents as a child. Later my own children were regularly taken there. The ancient woodland boast almost 400 species of flowering plants and 350 species of fungi too. The forest is mainly populated by spruce and pine trees.  The hills look especially lovely at this time of year.

Lickey Hills 2

Animal life also thrives with several  types of deer recorded, though I’ve never seen one here. More than 90 bird species have been recorded.

Lickey Hills 4

From Beacon Hill (on which stood one of the country’s beacons which were used to warn of invasion), it is possible to see landmarks in no less than thirteen counties, weather permitting of course. During WWII the army built a series of buildings on the hill which were used by the Royal Observer Corps aircraft spotters and air-raid wardens who watched for fires in the south Birmingham area.

This castellated structure is a recent addition, built in 1988 to replace the original which housed a toposcope which was gifted to the City of Birmingham in 1907 by the Cadbury family.

Lickeys - Fort

A toposcope is usually situated on hilltops or other high up geographical features and is used to indicate direction and the distance from the point to notable landmarks.

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An obelisk folly sits high on one of the hills and Was built to commemorate the 6th Earl of Plymouth, Other Archer, who owned much of the land hereabouts.

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And finally … The Spirit of the Woods , carved from a single trunk of sweet chestnut by sculptor Graham Jones, just one of a number of sculptures commissioned by Birmingham City Council.

Wood carving Lickey Hills

 

 

 

 

 

My book ~ the deadline is set

I’ve spent most of the weekend working on my book but it’s getting harder and harder to write. I am my own harshest critic which leads me to regularly delete great swathes of text, but at least I am not one of those writers who think that anybody can write a book. To date 86% of my intended 80,000 words are written and edited. Some writers write the whole thing and edit afterwards. Others, like me edit and re-edit over and over as they progress. Neither is right or wrong. Just as the style of our writing varies, so does our method of completion. But this has gone on for long enough. I’ve set myself a deadline – the book has to be written, final edit completed and ready for submission by 30th April.

That’s when the really hard work begins. First off is finding out which agents or publishers to target. There’s no point in sending it to someone whose bread & butter is dystopian fantasy.  I am looking for an agent who deals in Women’s fiction/Irish fiction/Wartime romance and doesn’t have an aversion to graphic(ish) war scenes. It narrows it down.  My starting point will be the latest edition of the Writers and Artists Yearbook – an invaluable tome full of advice, contact names and numbers for editors, agents and publishers and, importantly, submission criteria. It is also a great help to look inside novels of a similar genre to see who the author is thanking – what publishers, which agents, who is their editor?

The statistics are, to say the least, discouraging. The fact is that the odds on getting published are a bit like winning the lottery jackpot – very slim indeed. But hey, someone’s got to get lucky. And it really does come down, in no small part, to luck. The big publishers each receive around 4-5,000 unsolicited manuscripts each year. Many don’t even accept unsolicited ones so they go straight in the shredder. Those that do will add them to the slush pile where they can sit unread for months as those which have come via agents take precedence. So sending the manuscript to an agent is the thing to do then?

Not necessarily…many agents don’t accept unsolicited work either.  The first thing to do is contact them with a letter introducing yourself and a synopsis of your book’s plot (some will accept the first three chapters at this stage but with others you are relying on that synopsis to get them to request more – which at least then becomes a solicited, rather than unsolicited manuscript. Even then your book may not get read. Why would you, as an agent, spend your time reading new writers when you already represent several successful authors guaranteed to earn you money.  Around 90% of those that are picked up will fail by the end of the first page, 98% by the end of the first chapter. It’s not looking good, is it? Read on, it gets worse.

Some of the reasons that a new writer fails to attract an agent are simple: poor story, poor writing. Other reasons are less tangible –  perhaps the agent is just too busy – inundated with manuscripts, maybe the timing is wrong – they’ve taken on their quota for the year, or perhaps your kind of story is not the kind of thing the agent likes or isn’t in fashion at the moment. The only thing you can do is to keep trying. Remember that JK Rowling’s rejections ran well into double figures. Which only goes to prove that great stories by good writers which will overwhelmingly capture the public’s imagination, don’t necessarily mean a contract. Further demonstrating how hard it is for a new writer – when Rowling submitted a story to her publisher under a pseudonym it was instantly rejected.

So how about if you ARE that lucky lottery winner? Well, one thing is for sure – you’re not going to make your fortune yet! The average annual income earned by published writers is a little short of £12,000. No  I didn’t miss a zero off.  I’ll say it again …£12,000.  Of course the Joanna Trollopes and James Pattersons earn far in excess of that. Lots of writers do but that’s the thing about averages – they take account of everyone and there are an awful lot of struggling writers out there.

If that contract does get signed, bear in mind that no risky, untested writer is going to  pick up a publisher’s advance of more than a a few thousand and a large proportion of that will have to be used on self promotion.  Marketing and advertising cost a great deal and a new writer will have to do lots of the groundwork themselves to get their book into the shops. Even publishers get it wrong for there are books which don’t even sell enough copies to cover the advance and every year the major publishing houses write off large amounts of money.  They’re bound to be cautious when it comes to investing in new writers.

Even with that all important contract and the advance in your pocket there are no guarantees that your book will get published. The editing process can take months …6, 9, 12. Who knows? Then there’s the typesetting and printing and the timing for release: the publisher’s launch schedule may not have a slot for six months and if that takes you to December, January or February , hard luck. New books are rarely published in those months. It’s easy to see that your ‘bestseller’ could take two years to hit the shops.   And if, whilst all this is going on, another writer with a very similar storyline is just ahead of you in the game, your publisher might pull the plug and yours will end up being shelved (and unfortunately not in Waterstones)! You get to keep the advance but at what cost? What other publisher is going to risk an author who has already taken an advance but not delivered? You won’t get the chance to explain.

Of course, we’ve all heard of the massive earnings that the Fifty Shades writer earned, but remember she began by -publishing online in a genre that was pretty much untapped before her high sales came to the notice of a publisher. Subsequent copy-cat authors earned very much less.  So will I consider self publishing? No.  I think it’s a great platform for niche books, for the kind of books where mainstream publishers are few, and often small with scant resources for promotion. But professional editors, jacket designers, type setters and printers don’t come cheap. They don’t even come fairly inexpensive; they cost A LOT.

E-publishing is very much more cost effective but it’s not the way I want to go. Writing my book has been for my own satisfaction. Getting it published would be wonderful, a dream come true but it’s not the be all and end all. For me, the writing, the achievement of having accomplished it, is the prize. It tells (loosely, and with considerable embellishment) the story of my parents meeting during the Korean War. It began three years ago as a research project at university and continued because I developed an abiding interest in the memoirs I read.

It all Sounds rather depressing but just like that lottery – you have to be in it to win it.

 

The Bacchus Bar

Bacchus – Roman god of agriculture, wine and fertility.

Bacchus 99

Before the show yesterday we treated ourselves to lunch in our favourite, and one of what must surely be the most interesting, bar in Birmingham. The Bacchus bar is literally one of Birmingham’s hidden treasures because if you didn’t know it was there (or someone like me hadn’t told you), you’d be highly unlikely to find it. Located beneath the Burlington Hotel, opposite New Street Train Station, on one of Birmingham’s oldest streets (dating from the late 1300s), it’s just not somewhere that you’d happen upon unexpectedly.

Bacchus 4

The fact that whoever designed the interior had a somewhat confused understanding of historical style might lead you to wonder if you had stepped into a film set or a series of alternative worlds: Roman, Greek and Ancient Egyptian, a touch of Harry Potter with ecclesiastical overtones, grand stone archways and heavy wooden castle-like doors. But it really doesn’t matter because this comfortable, slightly decadent hotch-potch, with a large main area and several smaller rooms, private alcoves and, for those who prefer them -dark corners, is nothing less than a delight. It shouldn’t work but it does, fabulously so.

Above: these two frescoes each took up the entire wall in the side room where we chose to sit.

Below: the bar where we ordered

Bacchus 98

And finally: one of the other seating areas

Bacchus 97

 

Beautiful in Birmingham

What a fabulous time we’ve had this afternoon. Although I usually avoid big, busy cities, we took the 40 minute train ride to Birmingham. We had an excellent reason for going: some months ago I bought my husband a birthday gift of tickets for the musical Beautiful – the story of American singer-songwriter, Carole King. With more than 150 hits (including 61 UK chart hits) either written solo or co-written with husband Gerry Goffin, she is undoubtedly one of the most successful pop songwriters ever. It was a truly excellent show, at least partly because we knew every song. The audience were ‘of a certain age’ as you might expect, and although they would recognise many of the songs, I doubt many people under forty have much idea who wrote them.

Only in later years, after her split from Goffin,  did she begin to sing her own songs and by far the most popular of her twenty five solo albums is the 1971 Tapestry (one of the first I ever bought). It’s oft been said that the best songwriting is born of pain and this album proved that.  In those days we called them LPs (long players).

Tapestry

The show charts her rise from talented songwriting schoolgirl to her outstanding one woman show at the prestigious Carnegie Hall. It gave us highs and it gave us lows; it made us laugh and, in places, its poignancy almost made us cry.

Writing for The Drifters, Neil Sedaka, The Righteous Brothers, The Everley Brothers, Bobby Vee, The Monkees and many more, King’s own and co-written songs have been recorded by several artists. Listed below are some of the best known;

Will you still love me tomorrow?

Crying in the rain

It might as well rain until September

Up on the Roof

You’ve got a friend

Take good care of my baby

Locomotion

Halfway to Paradise

Pleasant Valley Sunday

Me and my blog

Back in May, not long after I’d begun writing my blog, I wrote how pleased I was that  I was attracting an average of 26 visitors a day. Six months on, I am amazed and delighted to report that the visitor count is usually reaching 100 (and occasionally 200) per day, a few of them reading five or six individual posts.  Isn’t that brilliant?

I find the WordPress stats page very interesting. One thing which continues to intrigue me is why some of my posts attract a far greater number of readers than others.  Is it down to the title perhaps? And why is it that on a particular day a post which I wrote months ago suddenly receive more hits than one I wrote just a week before? I’ve been monitoring what seems to work best and although the overall best read piece was the childhood memoir of time I spent at my grandparents:  https://thisissixty.blog/2017/05/11/fruitcake-for-the-rabbit/  Other than this, and somewhat surprisingly, it seems that writing about the minutiae of my unremarkable day to day life is most popular. I’m always touched when people I know say ‘I really enjoyed your post about…..’

It’s an odd feeling to think that all those people are reading what I’ve written but I have no idea who they are or what they think. A few people ‘follow’ me i.e. elect to be notified each time I post, but curiously they are not the ones most likely to make a comment. Another thing –  are the 8 or 9 Australian readers the same people each day or do some drop out whilst others drop in?  I love it when people leave comments and always try to reply as acknowledgement that they have taken the time to do so. I understand why, though, that authors of the most popular blogs can’t do this. It would be a full time job!

When I began writing my blog I wondered whether I’d be able to think of enough material. It hasn’t been a problem. I guess if you are someone who enjoys talking to people, it just flows. I can strike up a conversation with anyone and I’m never afraid of asking questions. Husband is always amazed at how much I find out about people whom we’ve only just met! I like finding out what makes other people tick. I’ve made it easier on myself by not making thisissixty.blog a single subject blog. My strap line is ‘All kinds of everything’ and that’s what it is. However, I made the decision to avoid religion or politics since I have no wish to offend or enter into what may become heated discussion (as these subject areas can tend towards).

You may have noticed that on the right hand side of this post there is a short list called Blogs I enjoy reading. Have you ever clicked on the any of the links? That’s how, when I read other blogs, I discover new ones to enjoy and I’ve learned all kinds of things since I’ve joined the blogging community. I’ve also made a smashing friend. We even met up for coffee (and cake, of course) when I visited her home county of Devon recently and got along famously.  We agreed that writers have a NEED to write; they want an outlet and they want to be read.

So, to those of you who read my blog regularly and enjoy it, thank you. To those who drop in occasionally, again thank you. And if you’re a new reader who is thinking (as one anonymous person commented) … ‘[what] boring drivel’, no problem, just ‘switch off’. No offence taken!

 

 

Cooking this week

There are times when, having taken time to prepare a dish, I can’t help but feel slightly annoyed by the fact that it took longer to prepare than to eat. I thought I would share with you a super-simple, super-tasty recipe that I made this week and which takes less than one minute to make…..mackerel pate. It requires just three ingredients.  Remove the skin from three medium sized smoked mackerel fillets and flake them.  I use the ones that are covered in peppercorns. Mix with two heaped tablespoons of Total 0% fat free Greek yogurt and a tablespoon of lemon juice. Blitz in the blender. Done.

 

The soup maker needed another airing so I made pea and mint soup. The instructions say that frozen vegetables cannot be used so I cooked the potato and onion with stock in the soup maker, added a packet of defrosted petit pois and two teaspoons of mint sauce concentrate as per my blogging friend Margaret Powling’s recipe and blended it.  Quick, simple and very tasty.

 

I made another loaf of Rosemary and Seed Oat bread, the recipe for which is from an old Sunday supplement. It has a dense texture, quite heavy and scone-like than bread but goes perfectly with the pea soup. This is a photograph from a previously made loaf. Husband is not at all keen so I freeze it in individual slices.

This pear and almond cake was really moist and very tasty. Based on my oft-used apple cake recipe, I substituted pears for apples (I know … you guessed that bit!) and ground almonds replaced a quarter of the flour. It also contains sultanas. With a sprinkling of almonds on the top, it really was a hit.

Cooking 5

A vegetarian lunch was required today and I decided on Chilli potatoes, quinoa & feta salad, cauliflower cheese, beetroot, apple and onion salad and a ricotta and spinach pizza. The later was bought rather than home made. We rarely eat pizza but when we do I always wonder why we don’t do so more often. It was delicious.

 

Otherwise meals have been mainly chicken or fish dishes. As much as I enjoy creating meals as I go along, there are times when nothing tastes quite as good as a plump piece of M&S breaded plaice. I like this better than any plaice I have ever cooked from fresh.

Today’s cooking playlist included (as most batch cooking sessions do) the marvellous Juan Caldera, Spanish guitarist (actually he is Italian but spends most of his time in Madeira). We have come across this hugely talented man every time we’ve been in Madeira and always stop to watch his street performances. He also plays in the local hotels and is a very popular attraction. We have just one cd but at about an hour and a half long, its excellent music for the kitchen!

 

Best ever ironing session!

Truly, I have just completed my best ever ironing session. I’ve been putting it off since returning from Ireland and it’s built up so this afternoon, after a 9am start getting my hair done, half an hour’s exercise at the gym followed by an hour and a half’s coffee and chat, and a shopping session I returned home with the sort of heavy heart that the only the prospect of ironing can induce.

Ironing is done in my home office and is generally accompanied by music. Today, instead of a cd, I put on You tube and, one after another, I selected live recordings of several old favorites – many taking me back to my teenage years:

  • Barry Ryan – Eloise (of course)
  • Rolling Stones – The last time
  • Jefferson Airplave – Somebody to love
  • Jefferson Airplane – White Rabbit
  • Python Lee Jackson (Rod Stewart) – In a broken dream
  • The Monkees – Steppin’ stone
  • Led Zeppelin – Battle of Evermore
  • Barrie McGuire – Eve of Destruction
  • Jennifer Warnes – First we take Manhattan
  • Pink Floyd – Interstellar overdrive
  • Lou Reed – Perfect day
  • Joan Armatrading – The weakness in me
  • Guns n Roses – November rain
  • Mason Williams – Classical Gas
  • The New Seekers – Pinball Wizard (Is that a surprise? It’s a brilliant version, honestly. I thought so at the time and have never wavered)   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5M6DrEAL1_k

And then I played them all over again. Ironing – after more than forty years  I’ve cracked it!