Six months!

Saturday marked the six-month birthday of The Spellbinding Secret of Avery Buckle hitting bookshop shelves so I couldn’t resist celebrating with a cat cake! Publication had already been delayed by a year due to Covid, and even then, released just after the third lockdown here in Devon, Avery Buckle emerged into a retail market that is, quite frankly, still very wobbly. But readers, librarians, book sellers, book reviewers, and teachers have been so kind over the last six months, so to all those who have supported the book – Thank you!

Book club at Owl and Pyramid indie bookshop, Seaton, by Hannah Foley. All rights reserved (www.hannah-foley.co.uk)

Once my tea and cake had gone down, I hot-footed it over to Seaton’s bookshop, Owl and Pyramid, to chat all things Avery Buckle, with the little book group that meets there. Chatting with young readers has been one of my favourite things about having a book published, and I haven’t been able to do nearly enough of it due to the pandemic, so this was a real treat. Nevertheless, it can be hard to shake off the feeling of being an ‘author’ imposter, never helped by questions about the next book. I can only be philosophical about that at the moment – publishing is a competitive game even when we’re not crawling through a global slowdown, caused by a worldwide pandemic. I’m just one small person in that context, with minimal power to do much about anything, except to keep writing. Which is what I have been doing. The next book and the next book and the next book have all been written. One has gone out to submission and another will soon… so, who knows? It’s not the rock ’n’ roll answer they’re looking for, and I‘d love to tell them about a bidding war, a three-book deal, and multiple sequels in the pipeline, but never mind. Life’s not a fairy tale for most people and easy rides make rubbish stories! 🙂

So, after an evening of feeling a bit ‘funny’ about things, I was all to glad when one of my favourite days of the year dawned cool and misty, giving way to glorious blue skies by the afternoon – the local, annual ploughing match. We can’t have been the only ones who were sad to miss it last year, cancelled due to Covid restrictions, because there was a bumper turn-out this year. It was such a treat, watching the tractors, picking our favourites, stroking the horses, inspecting the produce, and chomping on more cake and tea! I dug the toes of my shoes into the deep, red, Devon earth, savoured the Devon colloquialisms amongst the chatter, and took in a big ol’ lungful of Autumn air – glad to be rooted to this place, come what may. We returned home for roast dinner in the garden and raised a toast to the Harvest.

Vintage tractor at a Devon Ploughing Match by Hannah Foley. All rights reserved (www.hannah-foley.co.uk)
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Summer Memories

The Spellbinding Secret of Avery Buckle in Aberfeldy bookshop by Hannah Foley. All rights reserved (www.hannah-foley.co.uk)

Here’s a few memories from the summer to share… 

I met up with a couple of friends at the book festival in Edinburgh. It was lovely to get together and chat books, art and writing to our hearts’ content. The festival was a quieter affair this year though, located at the Art College rather than it’s usual home at Charlotte Square, due to the pandemic. Though I missed the bustle there was a lot to be said for the peaceful atmosphere. In the quad a big screen broadcast some of the events. Sitting around the Art College Green on benches and seats, was like sitting in a collective ‘front room’, and there was something very companionable about it. I liked it a lot. I caught most of Salmon Rushdie’s event and found it fascinating. He’s such an interesting man. I especially enjoyed his perspective on ‘Western’ literature, and the way his Indian story-telling heritage has influenced his work. Recently, I have felt constrained in my own writing, restricted to what people are going to be able to understand, which can feel a very narrow frame of reference in these risk averse times. He heartened me considerably, especially by pointing out that, though it’s not very fashionable in the West, fiction is supposed to be fiction, and the current mode of writing observationally is relatively new.

There was sadness about attending the festival too though. In other circumstances I might have been running an event there, promoting The Spellbinding Secret of Avery Buckle. Who knows? It’s best to be philosophical about it. But there has been a sense for me, without the feedback from events and school visits, of my book disappearing into a black hole. Is anyone actually reading it? So it was lovely to see a copy on display at the Aberfeldy Watermill Bookshop. The booksellers were lovely to chat with. If you happen to be up that way I’d recommend a visit – such a well-stocked and pleasant bookshop – little nooks and crannies brim-full of book-sized treats. Plus, there is a rather wonderful café, which does delicious scones… and coming from a Devonshire dumpling, that’s a serious recommendation!

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September wobbles

Allotment produce by Hannah Foley. All rights reserved (www.hannah-foley.co.uk)

The start of the new school term now, usually finds me down at the allotment, lighting a fire for the weed pile. I always feel a bit wobbly at this time of year, my children making their way out into the world under their own steam, as if they aren’t always growing! I suppose the start of the school year is imbued with the memory of that first day off to school, and September often feels a time for fresh starts in my own life too, New Year’s resolutions made much more at this time than in January. I’ve learned to acknowledge these feelings, and give them a nod, so they can pass on. A fire and a good dose of digging is just the thing: manure spread over bare soil, green manures sown, and this year, I am making a big effort to collect seeds, slowly accumulating little packets made from brown paper, rattling with hopes for next year’s spring.

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Departures

Scottish Highlands by Hannah Foley. All rights reserved (www.hannah-foley.co.uk).

I hope you had a lovely Summer. We returned from Scotland with our hearts full of memories of mountaintop views and the evening light glittering the surface of the river. It was just wonderful and exactly what we needed. Back at home the swifts have gone and I’m sad I missed their departure. There are still plenty of holidaymakers around down here but our minds have turned to the new school term (already in full swing in Scotland). No matter how well I prepare there’s always a last minute scramble for some item we have forgotten to get or a replacement needed for something that I’m certain, fitted perfectly well before the holidays. There are nametags to stitch in, lunch boxes and kit bags to find at the back of the cupboard, new shoes need marking. As I write the children’s names on their insoles, it’s hard not to feel I’m marking time too – another school year, my little people growing, just as they should.

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Visitors

Look at some of the beautiful visitors we’ve had to our garden recently. The black and white striped insect is a day-flying moth called the Jersey Tiger Moth – very striking. And don’t you think the underside of the Red Admiral’s wings are just as beautiful as the top? We are soon to be doing some visiting of our own. We are returning to Scotland for a holiday, and are very excited. All the more because we’d been holding our breath to know if we would actually be able to go amidst reports of rising Covid numbers. So, I’ll be taking a break from the blog for the next few weeks, and will be returning at the beginning of September. Happy holidays one and all. See you soon!

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Pants

Morning coffee spot by Hannah Foley. All rights reserved (www.hannah-foley.co.uk)

Last Thursday, the most amazing sound filled the evening air. Bells! I don’t think I’d realised how much I’d missed hearing them until they were ringing again. Thursday night is bell-ringing night at the parish church behind our house. Or, at least, it was before the pandemic. It made me realise how much of our community fabric I thought had unraveled without the evidence of fetes, allotment produce shows, and the bustle of people at the community café (now sadly closed down). But the bells made me hopeful. Perhaps it is there, the thread a little looser, but still a carpet after all. 

It is the beginning of the school holidays, here in Devon. Swifts screech overhead, and the hedgerows are full of tansy and meadowsweet on my rounds. Here is the view from my morning coffee stop on Saturday. Those grey clouds brought rain later, for which the ground was very glad. I asked Wren what her plans were for the holidays. “Wear pants,” was her reply. Fair enough. But I did insist she wore more than that to sign up for the summer reading challenge at the library.

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Potatoes

New potatoes in a colander by Hannah Foley. All rights reserved (www.hannah-foley.co.uk)

Every window and door in the house is open as I type this. Is it hot with you? I got very red in the face digging up the last of my new potatoes at the allotment. There were rumours of blight circulating the site – it spreads so easily amongst the tightly packed plots – but I seem to have got away with it, and I have no main crop to worry about.

My little car is like a sitting in a roasting tin as I do my rounds at work. Alongside the ‘Heat Wave Contingency Plan’, a chart was circulated Trust-wide so that staff could monitor the temperature of wards and offices. Funnily enough, there was no mention in the plan of monitoring District Nurses car temperatures. The one bit of silver lining was that I didn’t have to hunt for a loo at all over the weekend. 

Term is drawing to an end here in Devon. There were plans for a Summer Fayre, which were postponed, and then eventually scrapped. The year 6’s residential took place in tents on the playing field. Sports Days were scheduled, then re-scheduled, then re-scheduled again when children in bubbles had to isolate. I was put in charge of the teacher’s end-of-year collection for Finch’s class, dropping off the present this morning. Mr. B. probably shouldn’t drink it all at once, though he may be tempted after the disrupted year we’ve had. Hats off to you teachers. I don’t know how you do it. 

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Super powers

Hay meadow in Devon by Hannah Foley. All rights reserved (www.hannah-foley.co.uk)

It has been very wet down our way. At the weekend we disturbed Meadow Browns from un-cut fields of hay, the butterflies still flying despite the showers. I suspect the farmers will be glad of the hot weather forecast to get it safely stowed in their barns.

The big news of the weekend was that Finch finally lost his first milk tooth. He has been waiting so long, his friends have been gappy for ages. The significance of the moment was not lost on him, and, as we lay on our backs on his bed, looking up through the skylights after bedtime story, his thoughts turned to the future. He had been considering what he would like to do for a job when he grows up. He reckoned these were his options:

A tennis/football player – inspired, unsurprisingly, by recent sporting events.

A computer programmer – they’ve been doing coding at school.

A tractor mechanic – he loves Reuben from Our Yorkshire Farm.

A super hero. Obvious really.

“What super powers do you have?” I asked.

“You don’t need super powers, Mum,” he scoffed. “Iron Man’s just a guy in a suit.”

I didn’t like to mention that Iron Man happens to be a billionaire in a suit. But Little Owl foresaw other obstacles.

“You don’t have the abs,” she told him.

But he wasn’t put off. “Give me chance – I’ve just lost my first tooth!”

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Good Farmers

Early morning on a Devon farm by Hannah Foley. All rights reserved (www.hannah-foley.co.uk

Here’s the view from our camping pod, early on Sunday morning, nipping out to the loo. It was wonderful to be somewhere different and look out on rolling hills. It’s a fabulous farm, not far from us, where the sense of how much John, the farmer, and his family, care for their land, is tangible. There’s something very special about showing my children just where their food comes from, and the amount of work that goes into making quality produce.

I happened to be reading Chris Stringer’s Homo Britannicus while we were away, and a section in chapter 3 made me savour the hard work of good farmers all the more. During one of the warm interglacial periods in Britain’s history, archaeologists were perplexed to understand why evidence for human occupation came to an abrupt halt. There’s still a lot of mystery around this, but researchers found evidence of burning, deforestation and soil erosion. Such environmental degradation would have made life untenable and it may well have been caused by humans, employing a slash and burn economy approach to forests, which ultimately back-fired. It’s easy for us humans, with our relatively short lifespans, to miss the damage we do to the planet – we don’t see the impact of successive generations employing exploitative land practices, but archaeologists are looking at time spans of thousands of years.

The warning of history is clear, exploitative land practices such as the intensive cattle feedlots you see in America, or large-scale crop monocultures supported by heavy pesticide use, do degrade soils, often irreparably. Here in Devon, we are lucky to retain a patchwork of small, family run farms, where even bad farmers understand that if they want their families to remain farming on the land for successive generations, they have to care for the soil now, mindful of its long-term health. For those of us lucky enough to live nearby, but unlucky enough not to have land of our own, we can be beneficiaries of that local economy… but, we need to be prepared to pay for it, and that means valuing more than just profit margins and getting a ‘good deal’ (monetarily but in no other way) on our weekly shop.

Back at home, the kitchen saga rumbled on. Little Owl was sent home to isolate after a close contact at school tested positive for Covid. Thankfully the latest lot of fitters were happy for her to stay isolated in the attic, using a different loo, and on we went. While it’s still not quite finished, we now have a working hob and oven, and a delicious looking joint of beef from John to cook in it!

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Bouquet

Photograph of flowers picked from allotment by Hannah Foley. All rights reserved (www.hannah-foley.co.uk)

To cut a very long story short, we are on day eight of cooking on a camping stove and washing up at the outside tap. The kitchen fitters who were supposed to be installing our new kitchen had to isolate after working in a house where there was a case of Covid, and the ones who were supposed to replace them, caught Covid somewhere else, and are in hospital. Goodness only knows when we’ll get our kitchen fitted, but in the mean time, I do wish them all a speedy recovery. The absolute irony is that we are booked to stay in a camping pod at the weekend… where we will be paying good money to cook on a camping stove, and wash up at an outside tap!

And that’s not all. Year 4 were turned away at the school gates this morning, the Headteacher only just having learned that a student in the bubble had tested positive for Covid. There hasn’t been a class off in Finch and Wren’s school since September, so this was a real shock. Just when everything seemed to be going so well, and so many plans made for July 19th.

I hope there is better news your end. Here is a cheering bouquet from the allotment. I think I’ve finally cracked cornflowers now I’ve given up direct sowing – isn’t that a bit of news to hearten us all 😉 

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