Juggling in 2023

The advantage of being a jack-of-all-trades is that life is interesting and I am never bored. The disadvantage is that I’m constantly juggling everything with either feast or famine. Things then come along unexpectedly and I very much the person who says ‘Yes! Absolutely! I’d love to’, only worrying later (if at all) how the new project will fit with everything else.

It’s a good thing I adopt this approach as, if I’d thought about it for more than half a second, I would have said ‘Oh no, I don’t think I can,’ to the suggestions that I should write books and, later, edit anthologies. I have now written twelve books, compiled twelve anthologies and, if counting the new editions and books I have contributed towards, I have had thirty-six books published. The constant throughout all this has been selling books, mostly at Hatchards bookshop in Piccadilly, mostly in the children’s department. Even that was chance; I started as a Christmas temp to fill a gap because a friend of a friend told me that someone had been offered a job there and not turned up at the last minute. To mis-quote Nigel Slater I am beginning to realise that I am a writer who sells books (in every sense) as well as a bookseller who writes. It’s a very nice feeling.

The only thing I actually trained properly in was pottery, starting at evening classes and then doing a post-graduate diploma at Goldsmiths College in London. And, for various reasons, it’s the one thing I don’t do any more. For about ten years I sold pieces and made a respectable living as a part-time potter, making everything from castles and cottages to mirror frames and candlesticks. But people inevitably wanted commissions and that took all the fun out of it – I wanted to make what I wanted, not fulfil their orders. Life moved on and I stopped potting. Making and selling patchworks, working as a gardener and writing filled the gap, and more.

I missed potting and, in recent years, making papier mâché models has taken its place. I don’t often sell these pieces, partly because the way I make them is very slow and the hourly rate would work out at about tuppence-ha’penny. But mainly because this way I have free rein to make whatever I want and if it goes wrong it doesn’t matter. In fact some of my most successful pieces went horribly wrong at some stage. If pottery pieces went wrong I often didn’t realise until they came out of the kiln and it was too late. With papier mâché I simply chop away with a Stanley knife or hacksaw and move on; it’s very liberating.

This year I intend to juggle very carefully and preserve my making time, be it patchworks or papier mâché. Which means everything else will have to fit into its allocated space.

All of which is a rather long-winded way of saying that there will be (even) fewer posts here. I love this website as a record of my books but for day-to-day news please head to my instagram @alittlecitygarden which is an almost daily record of my life, with the addition of Matilda, a small grey tabby cat. Thank you.


Books Appearing Like a Fleet of Buses

My plan was to write about a pleasure each week from March to December of 2022. I cunningly thought that resolutions not made in January might last longer. To be honest all it’s proved is that I’m a fountain pen and paper person. There have been lots of pleasures in the missing weeks, most are even written out on paper, sitting in a folder; they just never made it onto the website. I do also have an excuse; I have four books coming out this autumn and am working on another four for next year and the year after. I’m actually working on more than that but those projects are still very much in their infancy.

When I was little we lived in a house which overlooked the route of the 30 bus. In those days it was notorious for travelling in packs; you’d wait half an hour and then three or more buses would come along. Before I went to bed I was allowed to sit by the front window to wave at the buses. I can’t remember how many buses I could wave at before I was banished upstairs but I do remember trying to persuade my parents that three buses together only counted as one. As my Dad pointed out, ‘If you do that you’ll still be here long after we’ve gone to bed.’

This autumn my anthologies feel slightly like a pack of buses, each following fast on the heels of the previous one.  

A Happy Poem to End Every Day is, the first to be published and is, unsurprisingly, an anthology of happy poems. It was a joy to compile. Lodged in the airy world of the imagination, happiness is almost impossible to pin down in a hard and fast definition but I had a great time trying. While I was compiling the anthology an article appeared in a newspaper giving a complicated scientific formula for happiness. Learned neuroscientists had worked out that in order to be happy one should lower one’s expectations, to avoid disappointment, but not lower them so much that one became miserable. It is clearly a delicate balance. The other discovery they made is that happiness doesn’t last long; it seems our brains adjust to a happy situation very quickly so we are ready to make the next move in life. Perhaps the best policy is to follow Iris Murdoch’s advice and aim for a life with ‘continuous small treats’. A daily poem (with one or two pieces of prose) will, I hope, bring readers of this collection continuous small slivers of happiness.

A Bedside Companion for Book Lovers is published on 13th October. Following the format of Bedside Companion for Gardeners it is a mix of fact, fiction, prose, poetry, adults’ and children’s books. I grew up in a house full of books, have worked in bookshops for most of my adult life and now live in a house where the books regularly threaten to take over. My love of books, and stories in particular, began early; every night my parents read to me, although they chose the books with the result that by the time I went to school I had a wide but fragmented knowledge of Charles Dickens’ novels and was under the mistaken impression that P. G. Wodehouse wrote children’s books about pigs. This should have been the easiest anthology to compile but looking round my shelves when I started collecting pieces, I was slightly daunted. Three hundred and sixty-six pieces may seem a lot but I soon realised that I would have a problem when I compiled a ‘short’ list of over four hundred and eighty possibilities. I hope readers will enjoy my final selection.

A Nature Poem for Every Winter Evening is published on 13th October and A Nature Poem for Every Spring Evening will follow later. There will eventually be a series of four with delightful seasonal jackets. The poems are taken from A Nature Poem for Every Night of the Year and whilst that is a substantial book these are handy little seasonal collections.

As always I would love you to buy my books, ideally from your local bookshop, you might miss it if it went.  


Pleasure of the Week 14: Receiving a Finished Copy

This anthology is not published until the autumn but I have just received the first finished copy. I am in the midst of researching food-related extracts for Bedside Companion for Food Lovers and writing pieces on nature for Urban Nature Every Day but looking through this anthology I am reminded how much I enjoyed compiling it.

Happiness is fleeting – the moment should be seized and this extract from W. E. Henley’s poem Praeludium XXII is one of my favourites:

Between the dusk of a summer night
     And the dawn of a summer day,
We caught at a mood as it passed in flight,
     And we bade it stoop and stay.



Pleasure of the Week 13: Rereading

I love rereading books, particularly novels. If I didn’t work in a bookshop I would probably do it much more but almost every week in the shop I am seduced by a pretty jacket, an interesting blurb or a children’s book I need to read for recommendations. The result is fairly predictable; I have piles of unread books at home along with lists of books I want to go back to and read again. Rereading is mostly pure pleasure; occasionally a book doesn’t live up to my memories but usually I simply enjoy it, discovering details I had forgotten or missed the first time.

Compiling the prose anthologies adds even more books to the piles and lists. I unearth old favourites and make new discoveries. Nature Writing, Bedside Book for Gardeners, Bedside Book for Book Lovers and now Bedside Book for Food Lovers all create a reading backlog quite apart from the direct research for extracts. At least I’ll never run out of books I want to read.

Research for Bedside Companion for Food Lovers has created a slightly more serious (but pleasurable) quandary as it has reminded me of series rather than individual books. First Douglas Adams’ The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. This is a trilogy but Douglas Adams got carried away and it is actually a trilogy of five books.

E. F. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia series consists of six books. Like so many books in this house, I have more than one edition. The hardbacks belonged to a friend, although the first and last are missing. The paperbacks were reissues I bought in the eighties as I wanted my own copies. The friend has long-since died and now I realise I’d like to reread his copies – so I shall need to source the missing hardbacks to complete the set.

More serious is my wish to reread the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian. They were recommended by the same friend, who used to ring me at work in Hatchards to read me extracts. I finally read the first one to prove to him that I wasn’t interested in naval fiction set during the Napoleonic Wars. So wrong. I was immediately hooked and read the seventeen that were in print at the time and then waited impatiently for the following volumes. In the end Patrick O’Brian completed twenty in the series before he died, leaving one story unfinished. I remember each book being full of wonderful details so they would not be ones to skip or skim through. I did skip the battles but when I met Patrick O’Brian and confessed this to him, he didn’t seem to mind. He explained that this was why I preferred his writing to C. S. Forrester’s Hornblower series; Forrester is better at battles. I think he was pleased. Reading the seventeen novels took just over three months in the winter of 1995-6, when I think I had more reading time than I do now.  

For those who remember, the friend was John.


Pleasure of the Week 12: Being a Jack-of-all-Trades

As you can probably see from the photo above everything has got slightly out of hand. My dining room table has disappeared beneath teetering piles of books and I am juggling too many projects. This isn’t normally a problem; I like having lots of different things on the go and I tend to work (and play) best when juggling but earlier this year I spent far too long on a book project which has come to nothing. To be honest I suspected as much when I started it but it was fun and will, one day I hope, have its moment. I have learnt not to worry too much about books or book proposals that fizzle, I only take on things I think will be interesting or fun (ideally both) and, on the whole, nothing with writing is wasted, writing anything is always good practice. A couple of unexpected pieces of work appeared but they fitted in with everything else.

Then the commission for Urban Nature Every Day arrived, which was a total but very welcome surprise. However busy I was I would never have turned this down; it is interesting and working on it with Sally (my co-author for Berries, Nuts and Cherries & Mulberries all published by Prospect Books) will be fun. But the research and accompanying outings and business lunches have pushed everything else to one side. I need to get the balance back so I can juggle it with Bedside Companion for Food Lovers, writing for Hatchards’ website and, of course, selling books. I need to find space for patchwork, papier mâché and boats. The garden looks wonderful at the moment but it is coasting and I know that if it doesn’t receive a little more care and attention it will slip from organised chaos into disorganised mess.

Everything is getting sorted and I am confident that, in a few weeks, an ordered balance will be re-established. Until then I’ll just have to manage without my dining room table.


Pleasure of the Week 11 Her Majesty the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee

The Chelsea Flower Show has been pushed back again as this week’s pleasure was the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. There was a  four-day weekend, with the Trooping of the Colour, a service at St Paul’s Cathedral, a concert outside Buckingham Palace and a parade celebrating the seventy years of her reign. This was an excuse for bunting, cake and an outing to Putney Bridge to see the flypast when I should have been working at home.

I remember the Silver Jubilee when my parents hung swags of red, white and silver bunting from the roof of our house (long and low, it had a lot of roof). Or rather they stood on the ground and issued instructions to their daughter who was the only one small enough to easily crawl out of the attic window onto the parapet. It presumably broke every rule of health and safety and child-care but I remember rather enjoying it and I certainly came to no harm. My bunting this time is lower-key. I ordered ‘vintage’ as I thought it would look better against the pink roses but the bunting which arrived looked as if it had sat in someone’s attic for seventy years. Although once it was strung along the fence I warmed to it.

Watching the flypast from Putney Bridge meant I saw the 70 formation from a slightly skewed angle and the Red Arrows were no longer trailing smoke but it was still impressive. But this what we are good at: pomp, circumstance and brilliant commemorative spectacles combining grandeur and humour that I don’t think any other country can match (but I suppose I am biased). I didn’t read much about it in the newspapers but someone said elsewhere in the world there are the queens or kings of this or that country, we have The Queen. It’s so true.

For the best and most charming humour, watch Her Majesty having tea with Paddington Bear; it’s easy to find on the Internet but make sure you see the full version starting with a view of the Royal Tea Cosy, not just the clipped one as otherwise you’ll miss an excellent tea pot moment. Best of all was Paddington’s heartfelt thanks to the Queen at the end. ‘For everything.’


Pleasure of the Week 10: My Garden

I went to the Chelsea Flower Show this week so, in a way, that was my pleasure but it will have to wait till next week because this week my garden is my principle pleasure. It’s very small, and scruffy and has too many plants and far too many mis-matched pots but there are moments when it looks perfect. In fact there are nearly always parts of it that look perfect, even in the depths of winter, but you sometimes have to hunt for them. At this time of year all of it suddenly looks lovely.

Perhaps most importantly the roses have started. I have an elderly pink rose in the front garden which looks its best in May. I have no idea what it is but it smells lovely and flowers on and off from now until Christmas. One of my regular pleasures when I am working / looking out of the window is to see passers-by stop, smell it and sometimes even take photos. It flowers for over half the year but now is its moment of glory. I also have several David Austen roses, some of which haven’t quite got going yet but I have high hopes for future years. ‘Tess of the d’Urbevilles’ climbs up the side of the front door and is a wonderful rich crimson. ‘Claire Austen’ lives in an unprepossessing shady corner in a shallow bed but copes brilliantly. Her flowers are exactly the same creamy colour as the variegated ivy which forms a hedge behind her. ‘Ferdinand Picard’ is one of my favourites. At the moment it is still small but the plan is that it will soon be the star of the front garden. ‘Tottering by Gently’ is a beautiful pale yellow and has a delicate dog rose quality which I love. Finally, over the summerhouse I have a rose whose name I have long forgotten. It has no scent and the flowers are various mixes of pink and yellow but it is perfect draped over the roof. I would need to be eight ft tall to reach the flowers anyway. It looks spectacular now and then flowers intermittently throughout the summer.


Pleasure of the Week 9: The Contract for a New Book

For the last few years I have, by chance rather than design, edited more books than I have written. My plan was always to keep the two level. Earlier in the year I began compiling Bedside Companion for Food Lovers (my thirteenth anthology) and I have now been commissioned to write Urban Nature Every Day (my thirteenth full book). I am writing it with Sally Hughes and could not be more excited. I have already written three books with her (Berries, Nuts and Cherries & Mulberries, all published by Prospect Books) so we know we work well together. Luckily for this project she knows more about birds, animals and creepy-crawlies than I do, whilst I know more about flowers, trees, weeds and weather. It will involve lots of jolly days out, business meetings in cafes, pubs and restaurants and interesting discoveries.

I have lived in London on and off pretty well all my life (apart for a brief time in Edinburgh) and love it. Some time ago I wrote for a delightful magazine called Lost in London. It celebrated the ‘green within the grey’ and was a beautiful publication which came out about three times a year and culminated in a book in 2013. I loved writing for it and discovered a great many wonderful green places within the city. I can’t wait to visit them again.


Pleasure of the Week 8: Hatchards Authors of the Year Reception

I don’t normally like parties but this one is different. Hatchards is the oldest and, biased I may be, best bookshop in London, opened by John Hatchard two hundred and twenty-five years ago. Every year, since the mid-twentieth century, they have held a party for all the authors who have supported the shop during the previous twelve months. It is a delightful affair with champagne and all the very best authors gathered together to enjoy themselves. There are no publishers, no signings and no customers. I am in the uniquely privileged position of being both staff and author. This year the party was particularly timely as the previous day Sally (with whom I wrote Berries, Nuts and Cherries & Mulberries) and I had signed a contract for a new book. But that will be next week’s pleasure.