Ten Reasons Why I Love My Choir

A couple of years ago my sister-in-law came to me with a proposal, which she said would be ‘fun’. Alarm bells began to ring at this point. During our
child-free years our definitions of ‘fun’ led to some pretty evil hangovers and one particularly lengthy wait in A&E.

Still, we are older and wiser now or maybe just perpetually tired, so these days the proposals tend to be a bit more low-key.

‘My friend’s starting a community choir. She’s lovely. It will be fun. Do you fancy it?’

And actually I realised that I did. I’m not sure if it’s my age or possibly the age of my children, but I was suddenly aware that I no longer had any hobbies aside from ‘reading whilst my eyes slowly close at bedtime’ and ‘going to the cinema to see films provided they are rated 12A or below’.

I had officially become middle-aged and boring. It was time to get a hobby and have another go at this thing called fun.

So off to choir I went. From the first second I stepped into the room and we belted out ‘California Dreamin’’ I have loved it.

Here are the reasons why.

  1. Singing is good for you

Due a combination of a wonky spine, two children and writing, I have a bad back but I never notice it while I’m singing. After a session of belting out everything from Stevie Wonder to Snow Patrol, my back often feels less tense too. It might be the posture, the breathing or my pretty awesome moves but there’s something about it that is positively healing.

 

  1. Life has a soundtrack

In the film of my life, I make an entrance every morning to ‘Feeling Good’ by Nina Simone. Sadly, a combination of factors including my inability to make coherent conversation before the first coffee of the day and the withering response I would receive from my children, makes this impractical. However, I always have a song buzzing in my head. Sometimes it’s an ear-worm, often it’s something fantastic. Being part of a choir means I can now belt these out in the car, shower and supermarket with the legitimate excuse that I’m rehearsing. It’s brilliant.

 

  1. You are never alone in a choir

I can carry a tune and I learn a harmony but I am not a soloist. Despite my best efforts in front of the mirror giving a heartfelt rendition of ‘Someone Like You’, I am not Adele. I’m not even Adele’s backing singer but I would give it a go if the call came. I can sing fine on my own but I sing better with my choir buddies. There’s something about catching someone’s eye mid-song and sharing a smile because you’ve got this. You are nailing ‘Uptown Girl’.
Billy Joel would be proud.

  1. You are learning new stuff and it’s challenging

In week three we started to learn ‘Africa’ by Toto. If you don’t know this song, add it to your playlist immediately. There’s a reason why NME ranked it 32 on a list of 50 ‘most explosive choruses’ – it’s choral catnip. It also has a three-part harmony (four if you’re ambitious). I was in group three. We ran through each part and then tried them all together. It didn’t go well for me. I kept getting distracted by the tune, groups one and two and Jeff Porcaro’s impeccable drumming. It was frustrating and difficult.  Our MD directed us to an enthusiastic and charming Italian musician’s You Tube channel. He had helpfully recorded each harmony part. I pored over this video and decided that I loved this man. I made my husband (a talented musician himself) practice with me. I played it over and over in the car. And then it went in. Just like that. Like all those lyrics to 80s pop songs that are actually turning out to be quite handy now, the ‘Africa’ chorus harmony, part 3 is indelibly printed on my brain. And it feels good (cue Nina Simone moment).

 

  1. Performing in public is a blast

When I was a kid, I used to get nervous to the point of nausea about doing anything in public. Now, I get excited. Again, it wouldn’t be great for anyone if it was me singing on my own but in the spirit of ‘we’re all in this together’, it’s pure fun. Even when it goes wrong. And of course, when it goes right and people clap (an unexpected and welcome pleasure) or indeed cheer, it’s nothing short of intoxicating.

 

  1. We get to do some amazing stuff

Last year, we took part in an event to mark the opening of the new Tate Modern building in London. Our choir formed part of a 500-voice London community choir performing a specially composed piece called ‘The Bridge’ by installation artist Peter Liversidge. We rehearsed and performed in the Tate’s awe-inspiring turbine hall with the brilliant conductor, Esmeralda Conde-Ruiz. The piece was weird, wonderful and completely original. It felt incredible to be part of this and even my nine-year-old son (habitually underwhelmed by anything that isn’t linked to football or wrestling) declared it to be, ‘really cool, Mum.’ And it was.

Singing at the Tate Modern.

 

  1. There’s always cake

As everyone knows (ask Gareth Malone if you don’t believe me), the secret to a really good choir is excellent cake. We have a brilliant resident baker called Lucy (you can check out her rather super cake, book and film blog here – https://keeps-me-busy.com/ ). If Lucy ever left the choir, I think we would be in trouble. It’s simply not possible to channel your inner Dolly or indeed Kenny during ‘Islands in the Stream’ unless you have either eaten or are about to eat cake. The raspberry and Prosecco cupcakes were a particular high-point.

 

  1. Every community needs a choir

Yes, we kick up our heels at the Tate Modern and of course, when Kirstie Allsop invited us to her Handmade Fair, we said ‘will there be cake?’ and then agreed when we found out there would. But actually, our wonderful founder, Kari set up the choir for the local community. So we sing in our pub, at fundraising events, local fairs and basically anywhere we can if we’re asked. And when something awful happens as it did last year when a local boy and his aunt were killed when a car came off the road during a police pursuit, we come together to try to offer support by singing to raise money for the people who need it. It won’t take away the sadness but music has a way of offering comfort when you need it most.

 

  1. Every choir needs a brilliant Musical Director

Our founding MD, Kari is a passionate, enthusiastic fizzing ball of energy. Whilst she was running our choir, she inspired, cheered and booted us up the backside when we’re off key. She’s a great dancer and did her best to stop the mum-dancing and get us grooving. She taught us new stuff, she encouraged others to lead songs and she challenged us. Most of all, she made it fun. Very selfishly, she moved to Nottingham in the summer and we miss her dreadfully. Luckily for us, we have not one but two new amazing MDs, who have stepped up and are keeping her passion, enthusiasm and groovy dance moves very much alive. We are one lucky choir.

 

  1. Choir people are good people

I have met some lovely people since joining the choir. We sing, we chat, we sing some more, we eat cake, chat some more, possibly have another slice of cake and do a bit more singing. It’s the perfect evening really. Add in the occasional Prosecco-fuelled gig and I’m a happy camper. I have found my people and singing with them is the best.

 

Hanging with Kirsty – the cake was excellent.

 

It’s no great surprise therefore that my choir served as inspiration for the The Choir on Hope Street, although I have to add a disclaimer that no choir members were harmed in the writing of this book.

The two main characters, Natalie and Caroline form a community choir in a bid to save their beloved Hope Street Community hall. Or rather, perfect PTA mother Caroline forms the choir and drags a reluctant Natalie along with her. And of course, there is a resident choir baker in the form of Pamela and lots of cake because all good choirs need music, friendship and a decent slice of Lemon Drizzle.

I wanted to capture the spirit of what it’s like to be part of a choir and the way that music can unite and help people in the most unexpected of ways.

I think this photograph, taken at my book signing at Waterstone’s in Orpington earlier this year, when my lovely choir turned out to support me, just about sums it up.

Such a wonderful thing indeed.

 

http://amzn.to/2jLxPbD

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The Choir on Hope Street gets a gorgeous new look!

It is a truth universally acknowledged that there is nothing more joyously rewarding than singing in a choir.

I have been the proud member of my beloved Churchfields Community Choir for nearly three years and can honestly say that singing with them has brought me levels of happiness that I hadn’t experienced since I wore out the cassette reel on my treasured Adam and the Ants Prince Charming album in the early eighties.

When I wrote The Choir on Hope Street, I wanted to convey this happiness – this love for music and singing. I wanted to show the sheer joy you can feel as you channel your inner Carole King or Rihanna – as the real world melts away and for a blissful moment, hearts rule heads and music does its awesome thing.

Of course it’s tricky to convey all this in a book cover but I am delighted to reveal today that those clever people at HQ have done just that with this brand new beauty of an eBook cover.

So, stick on your favourite tune (I recommend Crazy in Love by Beyoncé for this particular moment) and feast your peepers on this!

Gorgeous or what?

If you’ve already enjoyed The Choir on Hope Street, you’re also already one of my favourites.

If not, you can find out more about the story by following this handy link:

The Choir on Hope Street eBook

You’re welcome.

 

 

A letter to my eighteen-year-old self

About a week ago, I had the great pleasure of attending my former secondary school’s prize-giving as guest of honour. All I had to do was wear something other than jeans (oh all right, just this once), shake lots of hands as I dished out the book prizes (what’s not to like?) and give a ten minute speech.

As I considered what I could possibly say to this group of bright young things, I cast my mind back twenty five years to when I was eighteen, fresh of face, obsessed with comedy and tragically fond of my huge mustard-coloured duffel coat.

What would I say to that eighteen-year-old girl now? What advice would I give her based on what I know?

I posted this question on my Facebook author page and received dozens of brilliant suggestions from, ‘wear less black’, to, ‘making mistakes is key to learning’. You can read the rest of them here.

In the end, I decided to write a letter to my eighteen-year-old self and it goes something like this:

Dear Ann,

Firstly, don’t worry – you’re not always going to be called ‘Ann’. I know you hate it. I know you think it makes you sound like an austere maiden aunt. It’s all right. You’ll find the courage to say, ‘hi, my name is Annie,’ some time during your third year at Bristol uni. Fear not.

You won’t like university at first. You’ll feel homesick. You’ll miss your mum and you’ll spend whole evenings queuing to use the payphone (yes, children of the digital age – a phone on the wall into which you had to feed coins – the mind boggles, right?). You’ll think that everyone is having the best time ever and that you’re a sad loser who no-one likes. This isn’t true and this feeling won’t last forever because you will find your people.

You’ll know these people because they will be the ones who sit up with you all night talking and listening. It’s important to find people who talk and listen – shun the ones who just talk – they’re only interested in themselves and aren’t to be trusted. You will laugh harder with your people than with anyone else you’ve ever met in your life. They will be your friends for life. They will end up being godparents to your children and you to theirs. You won’t end up living close by but they’ll be there whenever you need them. You will continue to meet up as much as possible but you will find that you can’t party quite as hard as you did as the years go by and there will be more chats about mortgages and loft extensions. You will love them like family.

You will have your heart broken. Quite a few times and you will break a heart or two as well. This is part of the process on the road to finding the keeper. You won’t find him until you’re twenty four but he’ll be worth the wait and you’ll realise that you can’t even remember the name of that boy who first broke your heart by snogging your best friend at Emma Jackson’s New Year’s Eve party in 1991.

Your university years will be the best of your life. Your third year in Germany will be a particular highlight because you will be absolutely terrified when you arrive and having such a great time that you stay for another month when you’re due to leave. You will be pretty fluent in German too and your self-confidence will be at its peak. You will feel invincible.

You will be unsure of which career path to follow. Inexplicably you will apply to be an accountant, a management consultant and a diplomat. You won’t get any of these jobs because your heart lies with books. You will work in a bookshop, then for a publisher and then you’ll become a writer. You’ll write a best-seller but it won’t get published for a few years, during which time you wonder if you should give up but because you are tenacious to the point of stubbornness and married the right man, you keep going until your first book is published in 2013. You’ll carry on writing novels, trying to write the best book you can each time and happily, each book will be better than the last. You won’t be sure if this is your career for life but then who has one of those these days? You will keep exploring, keep learning and keep trying to make readers laugh and cry.

You will have children and come to realise that there is nothing that frustrates and rewards more than motherhood. You would cut off your right arm for them. And your left arm too. But you also sometimes long to lock yourself in the bathroom for a bit of peace and quiet.

In your twenties you will fret for hours about what people think of you, in your thirties less so and in your forties you will realise that no-one is paying you much attention anyway. In fact they never were. Be the kindest person you can be and you’ll be fine.

The media both social and otherwise will horrify and scare you at times but the kindness and wisdom of the people you meet and spend time with will reassure and console you that there is more good than bad in the world. Always.

As you grow older, you will look to your own children and the young people growing up and you will be inspired by them. They’re savvier than you were at this age – yes, they spend too much time staring at screens and yes, they use the word, ‘like’, with frightening regularity but they’re bright, they’re funny and if we join forces, we can probably sort out the world together.

So be positive, worry less, laugh more and maybe, just maybe, ditch the mustard duffel coat? Or keep it in the cupboard for twenty years when alarmingly it will come back into fashion.

Love and hugs,

Annie

A very special book event…

There are many wonderful things about being an author.

Firstly, you get to write books and as we all know, everyone loves books. In the same way that everyone loves Cornwall and Mary Berry. It’s just a fact of life. If you ever meet someone who tells you that they don’t like books, take this as a distress call. They just haven’t met the right book yet. Simply lead them gently to the nearest friendly librarian or bookseller and they will do the rest.

I love writing books – it’s the best kind of challenge. I love developing characters, weaving their stories, undertaking research (yes I really do need to watch that You Tube video of Bruno Mars again – my main character is a huge fan, honest) whilst doing my best to create something original and authentic, which readers will enjoy.

I have even learnt to accept the bad writing days, when pulling just one word from your brain feels like delving into treacle, when you’re convinced that you’re rubbish at this and should be doing a proper job, like tidying the hell-hole of the cupboard under the stairs. I believe that this is part of the process (albeit a very tedious part). Any writer who claims not to have days like these is a big hairy liar. That’s another fact of life. You’re welcome.

Last weekend I discovered the absolute cherry-on-the-cream-on-the-icing-on-the-cake (what? I like big cakes) moment of being an author.

A book event. And not just any book event, my friends. Oh no. This was quite literally an all-singing, cake-eating book event.

As many of you know, my most recent book is called The Choir on Hope Street. It tells the story of two very different women – Nat and Caroline, who come together to form a community choir when their beloved Hope Street hall is threatened with closure.

I have made no secret of the fact that I love my own community choir and they were a huge inspiration when I wrote the book. I wanted to write about how joyful I feel when I sing with them. If you’ve ever been part of a choir, you too will know how wonderful it is to share in that moment when the harmony sounds so sweet or indeed when you fluff it up and fall about laughing. Bloody marvellous, isn’t it?

The event took place in the Orpington branch of Waterstone’s. It’s a small branch and the manager told me (with no hint of malice or irony), ‘we just don’t get the big names – David Walliams and Lee Child won’t come to Orpington.’

But I went. And I took my choir and I can honestly say it was the best day of my writing career so far. As we walked in and spotted my books on the table, a man approached me and offered his hand. I didn’t know him but he told me that he was a writer too.

‘Well done,’ he said, wiping away a tear. ‘I’m proud of you. You’ve done it.’

I’m not great at taking compliments so I smiled and muttered something self-deprecating but I was very touched.

When the choir began to sing, it felt like the perfect summary of everything I was trying to get across in the book. I left my signing table and went to join them. I think this photograph sums up precisely how I felt.

While I signed books for people during the break, I experienced a tiny glimpse into what it might be like to be famous in a low-key, writerly way. I can report that it is utterly lovely. Talking to all kinds of different people about books and singing? And there was cake too? What’s not to like?

I was overwhelmed by the different people who turned up to support me – a school friend who I hadn’t seen for over twenty five years, two of my lovely author friends – one lady even asked me for a selfie. I was surrounded by my choir, my friends and my family – it was a bit like my wedding, just without the drunken dad-dancing.

As the choir finished their last song, I wiped away a tear because I didn’t want it to end. I was having a moment – a very, very happy moment.

Needless to say, the bookshop were amazing and very pleased because I finished the event as their number one bestseller.

Move over, Lee Child – see what happens if you don’t make time for Orpington?

For the rest of the day, I was buzzing as I shared pictures on social media and people responded with lovely comments. My favourite message was from a choir friend who told her six-year-old daughter about the event and my book.

‘That’s amazing,’ she said. ‘I want to be an author just like her.’

I’m already looking forward to her book-signing.

My work is done and I couldn’t be happier.

 

 

The Choir on Hope Street

Lovely reader friends,

it’s been over a year since I’ve had a new book to share with you. So I am as excited as a Labrador who’s been left in the kitchen and just spotted a roast chicken on the counter, to tell you that The Choir on Hope Street will be published in paperback and as an eBook on the 6th of April!

This book has been a real labour of love for three main reasons:

Firstly, I sing in a community choir and I love it. I am a passionate advocate of the power of music, singing and what it does for your soul. I believe that Ella Fitzgerald should be available on the NHS and they should begin an immediate cloning programme for Gareth Malone. In short, I think that singing in a choir is the most uplifting and wonderful legal high you’ll ever find.  I shall be writing more posts about my choir when the book is published but needless to say, this awesome group was a great source of inspiration for me when I wrote the book.

Secondly, a lot of people say that community spirit is dead, particularly in London. I disagree. This book is a love letter to the south-east London community that I have called home for many years and to all those quiet, remarkable people who pull together when they’re truly needed. Hope Street is their street and their story is about a community, which forms a choir to try to save their beloved local hall.

Thirdly, this is a book about hope and my heart tells me (my brain agrees too – they try to avoid falling out if possible) that the world needs a little bit of hope at the moment.

The two main characters, Natalie and Caroline are in desperate need of hope.

Nat’s husband has just said the six words no-one wants to hear – ‘I don’t love you any more’, while Caroline’s estranged mother has to move into her house turning her perfectly ordered world upside down. As they come together to form the choir to try and save Hope Street hall, they discover that you often find hope where you least expect it.

So please take a moment to choose a fabulous song to play in your mind (for me it’s always ‘Feeling Good’ by Nina Simone) as I present the absolutely stunning cover and the link for pre-orders.

Ta da!

lcohs-final-cover

Gorgeous or what?

I really hope that you enjoy reading this book as much as I enjoyed writing it for you, my bookish chums. May it make you laugh, cry and channel your inner Adele!

Click here to pre-order

 

Sisters

‘So how old is your sister?’

I am momentarily confused by the question. ‘I don’t have a sister.’

‘You don’t have a sister? But two of your books have sisters as the main characters.’

‘Ye-es.’

‘And yet you don’t have one?’

‘Er no.’

O-oh. Rumbled. Authors are supposed to write about what they know and I clearly do not know what it’s like to have a sister. ‘I have a brother though,’ I plead feebly but as I consider my six-foot-two sibling with his size fourteen feet, I realise that this will not cut the mustard.

My questioner fixes me with a suspicious frown.  I’m for it now. I close my eyes ready to be lambasted. ‘You write as if you do have a sister,’ she says almost accusingly.

I exhale. ‘Okay. Er, thank you?’

I am relieved but it does make me wonder. Almost unwittingly, I have put sister relationships at the very centre of both my novels. Why would I do this? Why didn’t I write about a small girl with a brother, older by nine years who protected, annoyed and entertained her in equal measure during their late seventies-early eighties childhood (actually, hand me my notebook. I might use that one day).

I think there are several reasons for my choice of subject. Firstly, as we have ascertained I don’t have a sister and therefore would really rather like one because you always want what you can’t have, don’t you? A lot of my friends who actually have sisters would say exactly the opposite and happily trade their sibling for a plate of chips. The truth is that it’s fun for a writer to imagine what they don’t have, to stretch their mind a little and pose that salient question, ‘what if?’

The four sisters that I created for my first two novels are all very different but they’re all the kind of women I would happily spend an evening in the pub with (my litmus test for any lasting friendship).

The Darcy sisters from Not Quite Perfect would be a hoot. In fact, they do spend the evening in a version of my local pub with spectacularly messy results. There is a clear dynamic in Emma and Rachel’s relationship and this is never more apparent than during the scenes where their parents are present. It is a truth universally acknowledged that as soon as you are back with your family, often in the place where you grew up, you resort to type and not always in a good way. When they’re with their parents, Rachel and Emma forget that they are a mother of three and a successful editor respectively. They bicker, tease and ridicule one another like a couple of seven-year-olds. I can’t tell you how much fun it was to write.

However, when their respective worlds collapse, they offer each other support but not in a sentimental, gushing way. It is the straight-talking, uncomplicated language of siblings. The truth will be aired in all its gory glory. Deal with it. But at the root of all this truth-telling is love. It’s the sentiment that, ‘you need to hear this because no-one else is going to tell it to you straight. I’m doing it for your own good.’

So it is with Bea and Lizzie Harris in my second novel, The Secrets Between Sisters. Bea has that similar vein of wit and character as Rachel but her straight-talking has a more defined purpose. Her sister, Lizzie has been estranged from her family and normal life for a long time. Bea is her only real friend and lifeline and when she dies, Lizzie is devastated and unsure how she will cope. Bea leaves her twelve letters to be read one a month over the following year. They contain her final wishes for her sister which she hopes will bring her lasting happiness. They also take Lizzie on a journey revealing long-concealed secrets that will change her life forever.

These letters represent the ultimate gesture of sisterly love. They are Bea’s way of caring for Lizzie after her death and contain insights that only a sister would know. Bea understands Lizzie completely and also knows that her sister will do whatever she asks of her. She also knows that her words will be even more compelling once she is gone. Lizzie is not only forced to face her beloved sister’s death but also deal with the wishes and the conflicts they bring without Bea’s guidance.  It is tough love delivered as only a sister can.

I didn’t want the letters to be depressing though. As with Rachel and Emma, there is wit and warmth at the core of the sisters’ relationship. Although the loss of Bea is devastating, the humour contained in some of her letters and the way she recounts their memories and gently teases her sister, offer a nudging comfort and prevent Lizzie from getting stuck in a grief-flooded rut.

So as you can see, sisters have proved a great source of inspiration to me and I hope I have done them justice. I loved writing these characters. I am fascinated by families and their messy, funny, infuriating dynamics and I think sisters encapsulate the very essence of these dynamics. No-one tells you the truth more candidly, more accurately and more bluntly than a sister but then no-one loves you more than a sister either. You can point out their faults but will not tolerate it if someone criticises them in return. It is a unique relationship and endlessly fascinating.

As to whether I would like a sister? Possibly, but right now I’ll settle for my big brother and his size fourteen feet. At least I don’t have to worry about him borrowing my shoes.

 

I’m starting a revolution…

When was the last time you wrote a letter? I would like to say that I just have but I’m not sure if the hastily scribbled note enclosed alongside a claim for osteopath treatment actually counts.

I’m talking about the kind of letter your parents or grandparents would have written long before the digital age engulfed us; words carefully constructed on sheets of Basildon Bond neatly held over a lined ‘underpage’ enabling you to write in a straight line.

My mother still has a letter drawer in a dresser in the dining room. It contains old letters, writing paper, envelopes, a fat green address book with gold gilt writing nestled in its original cardboard box and a letter opener.  My father uses the letter opener every day. It’s shaped like a dagger and my six-year-old son is fascinated by it. When he opens the drawer to retrieve it, there’s a smell of sweet wood mingled with the scent of treasured old letters; words of love, care and sadness from the past. It’s heady.

This isn’t to say that I dislike other forms of communication. E-mails are fantastic but wildly overused. Social media is amazing but it has its time and place. Texting is brilliantly convenient but it’s not exactly the place for Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18.  I’m not averse to a smiley face or a Megalol and I don’t think every communication should be a work of poetry either.  The digital age has a lot to offer but my goodness it’s an exhausting place. I can’t help feeling that we need to take a break from the chit-chat world we live in and allow our brains to rest and settle a little.

Typing at a computer or jabbing at your phone is a fundamentally different exercise to sitting at beautiful huge walnut writing desk overlooking a delightfully blooming garden as you lay down your worldly thoughts for another person.  What? I dream for a living, okay? Kitchen tables are also fine.

I think it’s partly the physical act of letter-writing that makes it so special. Consider for a moment; here I sit, typing my ideas for you to read and every word is delivered by me effectively stabbing at the keyboard, punching out my thoughts. This works beautifully when you need to get your words down quickly. Plus I can delete, re-jig and re-form with ease, which is a blessing. You wouldn’t want to read my first drafts. Not even I want to read my first drafts. Writing on the computer is contained and focussed; it’s efficient, enabling me to box my ideas and assemble them into some sort of order.

Putting pen to paper is entirely different.  As a writer, there are times when I need to let my brain spill over like an over-risen soufflé. I want to set it free from contained thought and explore its deepest recesses.  That’s when I retrieve my latest notebook and my favourite pen. I often go and sit in a coffee shop to remind myself what real people look like. I watch and listen and sometimes write nothing at all. But often I will find myself noticing a couple of people and I will try to invent a story about them.  And when I put pen to paper, the sheer act of writing on a page allows my brain to open up in a way that my keyboard often does not.

It’s the same process with letter-writing. The conscious act of opening a pad of note-paper, writing the date and address, and beginning, ‘Dear,’ is very intimate. It takes care and attention because you are writing to one person. Every word counts. You need to linger as you write. There is little room for deleting or editing. You are holding a one-way conversation with the recipient but because it is one-way, you will can share your innermost thoughts without fear of contradiction or interruption.

In turn, to receive a hand-written letter is uniquely special. These days, the letters I receive are usually from older friends or relatives and the letter is often a card but still, the physical act of opening and reading a note from someone who has taken the time to write to you is a treasured moment. Sometimes, the letters will make you laugh, other times they will make you cry but they will always make you stop for a moment longer than usual and think about the writer and what they mean to you.

When I was a student, I lived in Munich for a year. For the first few months I was desperately homesick, living in another family’s house, trying to come to terms with the language and culture. One of my university friends used to write to me. She would recount tales of the house she was now sharing with fellow-students; of their various exploits and catastrophes. These were delivered with such humour that if I received one in the morning, I would save it for the evening when I could lie on my bed propped up by the flattest pillow known to man and laugh until the tears rolled down my cheeks and my stomach ached. For me they were a godsend and even twenty years on, I can remember the comfort I felt at the sight of her hand-writing.  Someone was thinking about me and cared enough to let me know.

This is an inferior example when you compare it to the impact letters have had during wars over the centuries. The letters sent between soldiers at the front and people back home during the two World Wars were quite literally matters of life and death. When you read the well-documented array of letters between sweethearts, from mothers to sons, from fathers to their children, you understand what it is to be human. The mundane details of people’s lives are there offering a distraction to the sheer awfulness of the situation, but most of the letters begin and end with love. They are declarations of the heart, pure and true because when you are facing the very real possibility of death, what else remains but love?

Letter-writing has always been inextricably linked to love. True, there are such things as poison-pen letters but these days the internet seems to be the place where people choose to spew their hate-filled bile. Maybe this means that the hand-written letter can be reserved for love and care. I hope so.

When my father in law died, his wife received over a hundred letters and cards; handwritten notes filled with kindness and love. Not e-mails or texts but words on a page doing their best to convey sympathy and offer comfort. She reads them from time to time even now because they remind her of the person she loves and misses still.

When I was a child, my mother encouraged me to write thank you letters after every birthday and Christmas.  I didn’t need much encouragement. I loved using my Paddington Bear stationery set (who wouldn’t?) and I followed her guidance carefully. Address on the right, date on the left. Dear whoever, thank you very much for the (detail gift here).  Now write a sentence about why you like the gift and tell the recipient about what you did to celebrate. Finally, thank them again and wish them well. I still write letters of thanks and encourage my children to do the same. It feels like an important ritual; part of my family heritage and something that is worth preserving.

Writers love letters almost as much as they love books. They are laced with possibility. They can hide secrets or reveal truths, they can upset, thrill and gladden. They are a window to the soul.

Letters were uppermost in my mind when I came up with the idea for The Secrets Between Sisters. I wanted to write about two very different but completely devoted sisters. Bea Harris is the strong one, the one who always knows what to do. Her sister, Lizzie is the polar opposite, estranged from her family, lonely and alone. Bea has been her only support through life and when she dies, Lizzie wonders how she will cope.  Her sister leaves her a package of letters containing her final wishes; wishes that she hopes will help Lizzie find happiness but wishes that will also reveal some difficult truths.

When Lizzie reads Bea’s letters month by month, she discovers comfort in her sister’s written words. The sight of her handwriting and the fact that she is holding a letter that her sister once held makes her feel as if Bea is still with her in a way, guiding and counselling her through life. They also take her on a journey, revealing secrets and truths, which will change her life forever.

Of course, you don’t have to be life-changing when you write a letter. It can just remind people that you love them or are thinking about them. In the ubiquitous world of e-mail, it is special and rare; a treasure to be preserved.

I hope we can hold on to the art of letter writing. In this busy, immediate world they offer respite. They enable us to pause, reflect and record important things that need to be said; thoughts and fears and hopes. They offer comfort and love and show us the essence of the person who wrote them.

So I am proposing a mini-revolution right now. Why don’t you dig out that old note-pad or treat yourself to a new one and put pen to paper?  Let’s all write a letter to someone we love. Let’s take a moment to reflect about them and what they mean to us and let’s tell them. Let’s take a break from the chaos and feed the soul. Who knows where that revolution might take us?

 

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