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molluscs and me

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Molluscs and me at Folkestone Book Festival

http://www.folkestonebookfest.com/whats-on/quarters-session-3 Get your tickets here!

Here's something to look forward to. I've been invited to talk about my book at the Folkestone Book Festival 20 -29 November. The early bird booking period will finish on Sunday 27 September and tickets are selling fast. Please follow the festival on Facebook and Twitter:

Facebook: /FolkestoneBookFestival

Twitter: @FstoneBookFest

Look forward to seeing you there. The molluscs love a festival.

 

 

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Baby snails venturing outdoors #nationalescargotday

Sunday 24th May is National Escargot Day and the weather is good enough for the babies to go outside at last. Just keep your fingers crossed we don't get a late frost. The plants in the pens have grown really well just in the last week or two. I've got a mix of self-seeded perpetual spinach like last year but also broccoli and oil seed rape. I tried planting the rape last year so I would have good sized vegetation earlier but it didn't germinate. #Note to self: plant oil seed rape earlier this year!

venturing out May 2015 If you've never tried eating snails then Cafe Rouge have a special offer on Sunday. Just go in and ask and they'll give you a sample pot of their delicious escargots to taste #rougesnails. Now there's an opportunity you can't refuse!

But there's a lot more to snails than garlic butter. I'm sure I've already given you my recipe for snail pizza in Molluscs and Me but if you haven't seen it just improvise. We matched the soft cooked snails with purple sprouting broccoli. But it could be asparagus as that's in season now and then we added blue cheese. I'm a goat's cheese fan and I really like to support UK food producers so instead of gorgonzola, I've got some Ribblesdale blue in my fridge which is just as creamy smooth and delicious. It's a wonderful combination.

Happy National Escargot Day to you all!

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Learning about living things #crowdfunding

On Thursday we were invited in to Wickhambreaux primary school to the after school young gardeners club for a Meet the Snails event.

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We took a mini farm with some baby snails and some big ones too so the children could see how they grew. One of the girls ran her finger round the spiral shell and told me how the shell grows as the snail gets bigger.

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The excitement of the children is always infectious on these occasions and this was no exception. They were amazed at how hard the shell was when the babies first hatch and how fast they move when they can smell food. The children were mostly six or seven and they were very knowledgeable about snails already but did enjoy feeling the radula in the snail's mouth gently rasp their fingers. It is difficult to explain in words how the snail eats but when you can feel it with your fingers it all makes sense. We sprinkled some dry snail food onto the inside of the mini farm bell too so they could see the snail opening its mouth to show the black radula inside and scrape the food off the surface.

The children already knew that snails laid eggs but they didn't know how many one snail could lay so it was good to be able to show them a clutch that were laid the previous week.

It's their long antennae that always fascinate me - they way they wave about in all directions. Because our eyes both normally point the same way so we can focus on an object, it is difficult to imagine what it's like to have eyes that just rove about randomly!

All too soon it was time to go for the molluscs and me so we said goodbye and left them to tend their gardens.

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Taste of Britain

Watch out for the new series of Taste of Britain on BBC 1 in the autumn because we'll be in the Taste of Kent programme. Last week we were filming and fortunately the weather was kind. It was very good to meet Janet Street Porter and Brian Turner.  When Janet is not on Loose Women she's writing columns for the Independent and the Daily Mail. I introduced Janet and Brian to the molluscs and then Brian did some cooking. You'll have to wait for the recipe but I can tell you it was delicious. We caused a bit of a stir at Littlebourne Allotments but peace was restored by the end of the afternoon. Then we had a tremendous thounderstorm that triggered  some vigorous digging activity in the Roman snail pen.

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This one has just started making a pit but this one has almost buried himself completely:

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I'm keeping all my fingers and toes crossed that they were laying eggs! Now I'm just waiting to see if they hatch.

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Flirting the Roman way

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Aongside the serious business of farming, I'm keeping a small pen of Roman snails. These six beauties spent the winter in my fridge and now the mating and laying season for Roman snails has started, things are seriously hotting up. You may not share my fascination with snails but you have to admit this is some interesting behaviour I've captured in this shot. I'm pretty sure there's some serious flirting going on here, not a boxing match. All I need now is some eggs please.

I will just reiterate for the benefit of those who don't know, that Roman snails: Helix pomatia, are protected in Britain under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and must not be disturbed. My lovely specimens were imported from a reputable source in Italy and not collected from the wild. If you see Helix pomatia offered for sale you need to satisfy yourself that they are from a reputable source. In many other European countries where they occur they are semi-protected so that, for example, you can't collect during the laying season and mustn't take snails of a certain size so that the population is sustained.

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Molluscs and me - a review of the book

Carole Youngs is editor of the Smallholder Series so I am delighted to be able to post here her review of my book:

As a keen vegetable gardener, my relationship with members of the gastropod family has been one of continuous conflict: the snails mounting incessant attack on any tender green shoots that dare show themselves in my garden, and me trying to devise ever-more devious ways to rid them from my plot. 

Then through this fact-packed book, I discovered Helix aspersa maxima, the edible snail - quite a different kettle of mollusc from those seeking to wreak havoc in my garden, though closely related. For a start Helix aspersa maxima is considerably bigger than the common-or-garden snail, with a shell diameter of 45 - 47 mm, and is highly prized by Chefs wishing to add Escargot a la Bourguignon to their menus.

This book is immensely readable, describing the author's entrepreneurial journey from a varied career in the public sector to becoming a fully fledged farmer, albeit on a small scale. Between chapters recounting her sometimes slippery path into snail farming, she provides the reader with fascinating snippets of information about the culinary and cultural history of edible snails, including lots of very tempting recipes from around the world.

As an entrepreneurial smallholder aiming to make a living in a niche market, Helen quickly realised that she needed to capture the interest of her potential customers in a wide variety of ways, from cold-calling up-market restaurants in smart seaside resorts, exhibiting at food fairs to an often bemused audience, to supplying molluscs for photographic shoots! All this promotional activity led to a 'farm visit' from a BBC crew - squeezing into the spare room where the snails then lived! Within a short space of time, Helen had become an expert in edible snail farming, and the first port of call for radio and TV producers looking for an authoritative voice on this definitely niche subject!

Seven years after becoming a snail farmer, Helen describes herself as having achieved some of the'famous' bit of 'rich and famous', and you cannot miss the real affection in which she holds her 'livestock'. I think she makes a great farmer, and this book reveals her as a highly engaging writer too.

Postscript 

Snail farming also has an important conservation role as, despite being a protected species under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, 'Roman' snails (Helix pomatia) continue to be plundered from the wild by those looking for a quick profit from selling them to restaurants and gastro-pubs.

Thank you Carole

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This year's books about snails

2013 has been a momentous year for me as the publication of Molluscs and Me was a long time coming. Gestation was slow and the birth painful but, for me, it was as worth the wait as any new baby:

ImageThe ebook and paperback are both selling well and feedback has been very good.

A Slow Passion is the delightful book by Ruth Brooks who won the amateur scientist of the year competition on Radio 4 with her work on snail homing instinct. I would highly recommend this as a good read for anyone interested in the behaviour of very small animals. Snails are proving to be a popular creature for university students to study at both under and post-graduate level. As Ruth showed us, their behaviour is fascinating and they've also been adopted by forward looking primary schools where science is an integral part of the curriculum rather than something the children 'do' once a year in science week.

Then I found Elisabeth Tova Bailey's 'The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating' - such an engrossing study of snail behaviour carried out from the confines of a sick bed, which has some similarities with Ruth's book in its detailed observations but of a single captive mollusc rather than a wild population.

Altogether it's been a very good year for snail books.

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Unwinding ... just a little!

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Every now and again I find an unwound snail. This one is only slightly unwound but definitely not as tightly spiralled as his siblings - I use the word 'his' loosely you understand! I think his shape describes perfectly the process of preparing for the approaching festive season. We don't really 'do Christmas' - the molluscs and me. It is quite nice not to have to spend every spare moment packing orders. As the courier stopped being able to guarantee next day delivery it seemed possible to take a well-earned rest from the tyranny of the online shop. I won't be able to stop 'feeding the five thousand' of course - those hungry mollusc mouths will still want filling. But at least they don't demand turkey and all the trimmings.

It has been very pleasing to see 'Molluscs and Me' going out to enthusiasts all over the world as the ultimate Christmas present. I've got an Australian teacher and his family coming to visit the snails on New Year's Eve. Charles is an Agricultural Science teacher looking for new ideas and wondering if snail farming could be added to their fish tanks and hydroponics activities. Given the link with the cultivation of cannabis I was intrigued to hear that these Australian boys are being instructed in how to set up and manage a hydroponics system. I wonder if that could catch on here?

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@ScoffQuaff radio with Jules and Chives and Steve

What a morning! Sun shining down on the marsh and there we were at Haguelands with Channel Radio.

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Jules Serkin was our hostess creating that party atmosphere in the studio and here she is in the picture looking serious beside Paul Andrews @vanillawebb a former Kent entrepreneur of the year who owns the station. This Tuesday 11 - 12 programme is all about food and if you missed it you can catch it again on Saturday.

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This time it's Graham Green with Debbie from Chives at Broome Park with John in the background. Grahma talked about how he came over from Australia for a couple of weeks and stayed. Steve from award winning @Elmcourtfmmrket was also talking about all the stalls he's got coming to sell their local produce this week.

The snails performed beautifully while we talked but of course their charm was wasted as the listeners couldn't see them unless they followed us on twitter. Performing snails are not very good radio but I did get a chance to promote Molluscs and Me the book..

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Write your book!

It's November and it's Nanowrimo again and I feel I should have signed up but there aren't enough hours in the day just now. So I'm resting on my laurels:

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Is it really three years ago that I managed to complete the challenge of writing 50,000 words in a month? I wrote my 50,000 the year before I seem to remember but didn't manage to get my completed word length onto the counter before the deadline - honestly! I can't remember what my excuse was in 2011 and 12 but I do know one thing: - focusing on writing to the exclusion of everything else does work. A big part of the secret is the support you get from all the other people going through the same thing - it's definitely a collective experience. There were hundreds ... no thousands of us just in Kent.  But it's happening all over the world and in some places groups of writers are getting together for 24 hour write-ins and weekends away. Lasdt year we spent a weekend at West Dean which was wonderful. I suppose it works like Weight Watchers. If you've got to meet up with a crowd and explain why you haven't achieved what you set out to do, it galvanises you into action. Nanowrimo certainly played a vital part in the long hard struggle of writing Molluscs and Me. Some years I wrote other stuff and sometimes I just produced pages and pages of the stream of consciousness that comes from a relaxed brain. But that in itself was very cathartic and eventually what I was writing started to make sense and form itself into a book.

So am I Nano-ing this year? Well strictly speaking I'm not, but I have got something I want to write and it needs doing now.  So I shall be on the margins, picking up the vibes from friends who are more involved and using that as a way of getting it done.

Nanowrimo forever!

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With snails and I

One the first day of the Apple Festival at Brogdale - the day 'Molluscs and Me' the paperback got launched, a friend suggested I should have called it 'With Snails and I' - rather witty I thought! Here's me launching it:

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It doesn't look as though it was actually raining at that particular moment but, as it usual on Festival Days, the rest of the time it was.Indoors it was apples as far as the eye could see and a long line of people with strange apples in their hands waiting to get them identified.

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I managed to get away from the stall long enough to get some photos of some fellow stallholders but i was kept pretty busy on Saturday with visitors wanting to know more about snails.

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It was good to see Bessie's caravan there so I was guaranteed my fix of green tea and a slice of some wonderful apple, blackberry and almind cake. She was undercover too so need to get wet while feasting.

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Corinne was there as usual with her Creative Kitchen curries. One thing I value when I've been out all day talking about snails is the chance to take home a delicious curry so I can put my feet up instead of cooking. Putting up and taking down a market stall, getting everything in and out of the car, and standing up all day in between is quite exhausting. After a while in the onslaught of the relentless rain, the stall cover started to leak and drip on me and the books. It sagged as it filled with water and then when the wind got underneath it suddenly emptied itself down the necks of the passers - by. Not very good for customer relations! Perhaps next time it won't rain.

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Party packs and restaurant packs

This weekend I've been revamping the online shop. It all came about through spending three days talking to other entrepreneurs about business. Doug Richards of Dragons' Den fame runs the course S4CS and he and his team are very good value for money! As a result I've taken a fresh look at who my customers are and what they want. Now I've got party packs for enthusiastic cooks, who will buy on those occasions when they have invited a few friends round for dinner or running a supper club.

It's that time of year when I'm keeping a close eye on the weather in case it suddenly gets cold. A lot of the snails are still outside and happily munching their way through spinach and apples. I've managed to get a few lovely big marrows which cheered them up - they can polish of one of those in no time. When it gets too cold they will 'shut up shop' - stop eating and start going into hibernation then they have to come indoors. Their winter quarters are not quite ready yet but I think I've got another week at least to finish that off. This is what they look like tucked up in their shells:-

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Andy Hunting has posted a piece about me and the book and a recipe onto his food blog - http://andyskitchen.co.uk/blogs////blog1.php/recipes/molluscs-and-me. I'm now starting to prepare for the paperback launch next Saturday at Brogdale so if you are in the area do come along and join me between 3 and 5 in the afternoon. I'll be in the Marketplace so you can go into the Apple Festival if you want to but you don't have to.

E-book and paperback both available from Amazon: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Molluscs-and-Me-ebook/dp/B00FBFQHYC

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Molluscs and Me the online e-book launch

Yesterday was quite a strange day. When I first heard about online e-book launches I wondered how they worked and at first I couldn't think what to do. But eventually I made a list of the sort of things that might work and devoted a whole day to doing just that. Apart from the usual round of feeding the snails etc, I spent the day chained to the PC posting pictures and interesting snippets of information about every half hour onto my Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/HRH-Escargots/173946612624979. Then I emailed as many contacts as I could which was three groups and almost 60 customers. I also kept posting to Twitter - again about every half hour or so. I started at 9 by changing the headline picture on Facebook to a party theme and inviting people to join me for a glass of something - in my case local apple juice - what else!

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A few people dropped by to offer congratulations and apologise for not being able to come - a few didn't 'do' Facebook - but I'm not sure I do really. There was a compeition for the best snail photo which was won by the only entry of course. The problem I now have to solve is that he's already got the e-book and that was going to be the prize, so I'll have to think of something else. I posted lots of snail pictures.

Overall the process was quite satisfying for me as I really felt I was celebrating and doing something positive to promote the book. It was made extra special by the arrival of the proof copy of the paperback so now I'm off to read that thoroughly and get the printed version onto the shelves as soon as I can. On the basis of a completely unscientific survey,  I think the majority of people I know really prefer the feel of paper.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Molluscs-and-Me-ebook/dp/B00FBFQHYC/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1380903290&sr=1-2&keywords=molluscs

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Molluscs and Me - the book launches

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At last we are published! It's been quite a long and painful process to arrive at this point and I am just pleased to have survived this far. The online book launch will be on Friday 4 October when I will be offering free gifts and inviting you to post your favourite snail pictures. So join me then please at H&RH Escargots on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/HRH-Escargots/173946612624979 for a virtual glass of something good - you can choose you favourite virtual tipple. 

The e-book is on Amazon (and other online book selling platforms): http://www.amazon.co.uk/Molluscs-and-Me-ebook/dp/B00FBFQHYC . It will shortly be available in paperback too.

The launch for the paperback will be at Brogdale, Faversham to coincide with the Apple Festival on 19/20 October. But more on that event later. I have a Meet the Snails Day for children between 11 and 3 on the Sunday so I will probably be focussing more on the book and enjoying adult company on Saturday 19th. I also need to arrange for you all to come and get together for a proper celebration without having to go into the Apple Festival ... unless you want to of course.

See you soon!

 

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The book cover design revealed

I’m very pleased to be able to reveal the book cover designed by Jane Dixon Smith at JD Smith Design.(www.facebook.com/janedixonsmith; www.facebook.com/jdsmithdesign; www.jdsmith-design.com.) Molluscs and Me Cover small

I’m not very good at making decisions and it was really hard to make my mind about the cover. We started with a collection of very different images from cartoon snails to accurate pen and ink drawings. In the end, every time I had a choice to make between a number of options I asked my writer colleagues in the Kent Nanowrimo group. They were so helpful because they didn’t have the same emotional attachment to the design and could tell me which images best conveyed the content of the book. I was quite taken with some of the cartoon snails but they told me they conveyed the idea that the book was aimed at children. When Jane added a food image they immediately told me it was the one that would attract them to pick it up and look inside. As one person put it: ‘It’s very clear from this image that the book is about a woman with an unhealthy obsession with snails.’!

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Starting to write

My granddaughter gave me a picture of a snail she had coloured in – I rather like the eyelashes!Chili's pic small I wonder when she will start to write stories. I’ve never forgotten winning half a dozen eggs when I was nine years old. Bizarre prize perhaps but we thought we lived in the country and free range eggs were a novelty then. The competition was for writing a story and mine was about two girls who ran away from home. The original has disappeared over the years of moving from place to place and getting involved in the ordinary business of life but I still remember something of the plot.  I had thought through the details of how I could get out of the house without being heard – avoiding the stairs that creaked and holding my breath as the front door lock clicked into place behind me. I wasn’t planning to go alone because I’d arranged to meet my friend. So I had company and we’d planned in great detail what we were going to eat. That seemed to be a quite central concern. We went to hide out in the woods which I obviously thought was an exciting and wonderful place to be. The pages were illustrated with a drawing of a picnic spread out on the ground under the trees on a sunny day and we slept under piles of leaves like babes in the wood. There was no fear in the story – no fear of the dark or the woods or the unknown. It all ended happily ever after with our parents sending out a search party to find us and take us back home before the food ran out. They weren’t angry – just pleased to find us.  I can’t remember how I felt at the time but I do wonder if the process of writing helped to stop me from actually running away as a child. I used the creation of the story thirty years later when I had children myself and was feeling trapped. I rewrote it with myself as the child’s mother helping her to write the story while planning my own escape. The second version ended the same way with everything returning to normal and no one actually running away.

I feel sure that writing has always served the useful function of helping me to think through problems that were on my mind. That was certainly true with Molluscs and Me. I used to sit down every morning and write about the things that had happened the day before. Turning that stream of consciousness into a coherent book was the work that took seven years.

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Roman snails: escargots de Bourgogne

In my fridge I have some beautiful Roman snails, brought here all the way from Italy for me to sell Image

The Romans brought two kinds of edible snails here 2,000 years ago along with most of the vegetables and fruits that we eat today. So they had a profound effect on our diet. They brought the common garden snail Helix aspersa which is a relative of the kind of snails I farm today. They also brought the one we call the Roman snail: Helix pomatia. It is found in the wild in chalky locations like the Kent Downs, Chilterns and Cotswolds and is protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act. It’s also often associated with sites of Roman occupation like the towns and villages along Watling Street here in Kent. Whenever local people tell me they’ve got Roman snails in their garden I feel very jealous. I think I’m going to find it difficult to sell them because I just want to keep them.

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Why don't you write a snail recipe book?

When I started writing ‘Molluscs and Me’, I began with the story of how it all came about. Then people said to me: ‘Why don’t you write a recipe book? Well recipe books only sell if the writer is a famous TV chef. I may have been on TV a few times but I quickly realised that doesn’t make me famous. I knew that recipes had to be there somehow and that gave me a problem to solve. It’s all about structure. When I read a book I’m always intrigued by the way the writer puts the story together. Toni Morrison’s book ‘Paradise’ (http://womenshistory.about.com/od/tonimorrison/p/toni_morrison.htm) made an impression on me years ago because of the way each chapter is told from the point of view of a different character. I rushed through each chapter to reach that ‘Oh I see!’ moment when I saw how this new piece linked together with all the others at the end.

Elizabeth Haynes latest thriller ‘Human Remains’ (http://www.elizabeth-haynes.com/) has mini chapters between the main storyline where she introduces each new victim. Elizabeth lent me Gowing’s ‘Travels in Blood and Honey’ (www.elizabethgowing.com/) when she knew I was struggling with how to incorporate recipes. The sub-title ‘becoming a beekeeper in Kosovo’ gives you a clue what it’s about. Each chapter has new items of Albanian vocabulary at the beginning and a local honey recipe at the end.

Phillippa Moore (http://www.skinnylattestrikesback.com/) gave me lots of help with structure and suggested that I read a number of books to give me ideas. Kay Sexton’s ‘The Allotment Diaries’ (http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Allotment-Diaries-Plotting-Feasting/dp/1849533555) was a very good example of how to weave practical information in-between the elements of a story. It follows the seasons of the year and explains what you should be doing on the allotment each month. At the same time it creates a sense of the community of people who dig and sow alongside her.

So I had lots of ideas to draw on … and you’ll have to read the book to find out what I did!

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Seeing the world from someone else's point of view

‘It’s fascinating to see things from your point of view.’ In preparing 'Molluscs and Me' for publication I’ve asked some of the people who appear on its pages to read it. I felt I needed their permission to include them and it’s been a really useful source of feedback.

The other thing I’ve got to do this weekend is make sure I’ve changed all the names that need changing to disguise real people. It’s one of the things that stopped me writing for a while. Mine is a real story but how could I include real people? The answer is wrapped up in the definition of memoir. For a long time I resisted the label ‘memoir’ because to me it had pejorative connotations. I saw it, one the one hand as a way that powerful people re-wrote history to suit themselves, and on the other hand as nostalgic ramblings. But then I found Diana Athill’s books and I developed a strong admiration for her and began to see memoir in a more favourable light. She is amazing. Born in 1917 Diana has lived and still lives a life that is worth reading about. The first of her books I read is: ‘Somewhere Towards the End’ which is reflections on what it is like to be old (won the Costa biography award). I was hooked and then went on to read ‘Stet’ about her central role in setting up Andre Deutsch and her experiences in the publishing business. She is still giving talks and writing books – what a role model for the rest of us. On 29 April this year, at 96, Diana contributed to a radio 4 discussion on her passion for the letters of Lord Byron (https://twitter.com/BBCRadio4/status/328873742702874624‎).  At the beginning of ‘Somewhere Towards the End’, Diana, always looking forward to the future, buys a tiny tree fern. At the end is a postscript describing how well it is growing. She says: ‘I was right in thinking that I will never see it being a tree, but I underestimated the pleasure of watching it being a fern.’ 

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