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

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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!

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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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The Secrets Between Sisters Cover Reveal

I love a makeover.

I love the sense of possibility that leaps into my brain at the word. For some reason, I immediately conjure up the Disney fairy-godmother and the sweeping ease with which she transforms Cinderella.

Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo.

Lovely.

One of the best things about makeovers is the way that you can apply them to so many areas of your life.

Realise you’ve had that Rachel hair-cut for one decade too many?

Time for a Kate Middleton makeover!

Decided that the block-colour pairing of midnight blue and lime green in your son’s bedroom is hurting your eyes?

Fetch me the Dulux paint chart – we’re doing the DIY makeover challenge!

And so it is with books. Every few years, they become out-dated. They start to look as tired as a toddler after a day at the funfair. They need a re-think. They need the book equivalent of a spa day.

I am therefore absolutely delighted to announce that ‘Dear Lizzie’ is having just such a makeover.

This was my second book following hot on the heels of ‘Not Quite Perfect’. It tells the story of Lizzie, whose beloved sister Bea dies leaving her twelve letters to be read one a month over the course of the following year. Bea’s dying wish is that these letters will bring her sister the happiness she lacks. However, they also unlock the secrets that have remained hidden for so long within the sisters’ family and it is these secrets that will change Lizzie’s world forever.

In light of these themes and the darker, more intriguing side to Lizzie and Bea’s story, those clever, clever HQ editors and designers have transformed both title and cover and given the book the most stunning makeover.

And I am slightly over-excited to be able to show you the new look below.

Isn’t it a beauty?

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If you’ve already read this book, thank you – you are one of my favourite people.

If you are intrigued by Lizzie and Bea’s story and would like to read it, you can click to buy here.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Dear-Lizzie-Annie-Lyons-ebook/dp/B00IRD7FR8

Happy reading, chums.

 

My Beautiful Garden One Year On

About a year ago I wrote this post:

https://annielyons.com/2015/10/12/my-beautiful-garden/

It was an ironic post because at that stage, the garden looked a bit like this.

wasteland

It was a big bare patch of earth ripe with possibility or as the cats and foxes of the neighbourhood seemed to think, a massive toilet.

But I am not a woman who lets excrement get in the way of her dreams. I have a gigantic bottle of cat repellent and I am not afraid to use it.

So over the winter, I kept looking out of the window at that strip of earth and tried to channel my inner Capability Brown. Everyone’s got to start somewhere and I bet he had to deal with his fair share of feline faeces.

Winter gave way to spring and I watched with envy as neighbours’ gardens bloomed with crocuses, daffodils and fat-budded magnolia trees.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I was resolved. It was time to stop dreaming and start planning.

I am an eternal optimist when it comes to dreams. I approached this particular project with the starry-eyed wonder of a young puppy and the words,

‘How hard can it be to build raised beds? It’s just railway sleepers and possibly some concrete. Tis a mere weekend project.’

It took five minutes of me watching some chirpy Australians building very neat, very precise raised beds on You Tube to reach the following conclusion:

‘This is actually very hard. The ground is full of bricks and stones. You will need a pick-axe to break them and you’ve never used a pick-axe. You are also scared of spirit levels, not to mention concrete mixers. You have a dodgy back and both you and your husband have limited patience. It would take you approximately two years to complete and would probably look a bit crap. It’s time to call in a professional.’

You see, if there’s one thing I’ve learnt during forty two years of being me, it’s the ability to recognise my limitations. I am never going to win Wimbledon or become chief chocolate taster for Waitrose. Similarly, I am never going to build my own house or indeed flower border. Accept the truth and move on.

The professional was called Steve. He was friendly, efficient and had the work ethic of the chief ant in the world’s busiest ant colony. He brought three men with him. They worked solidly from seven to four every day with about four seconds off for lunch. It was astonishing. By the end of the week my dream looked a bit like this.

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I know. I did a little horticultural swoon at the sight of it too.

All it needed was the addition of some carefully-sourced plants. We spent a long time considering what plants to buy. We already had a good stock of potted herbs which would populate one tiered section and three miniature fruit trees for the large end bed. My husband was particularly excited about these trees and has since taken to caring for them with the tenderness of a father nurturing new-born triplets.

apple-tree

We decided to split the remaining beds between flowers and vegetables and set about making a wish-list.

Wish-lists are wonderful things aren’t they? They are flights of fancy that bear little or no resemblance to the wet face-flannel of reality.

This wish-list had headings such as ‘plants we love’ and ‘likes clay’ because our garden sits on heavy clay soil. London clay to be precise – it is as dense and unyielding as a crowd of London commuters, hence its name. Actually, I made that up but it sounds convincing.

The list of plants we loved featured anything that my husband or I recalled with fondness from our childhood gardens, although it has to be said that my husband can be a tad sketchy with names.

‘I like those yellow ones.’

‘Daffodils?’

‘That’s the fella.’

‘Anything else?’

‘Fuchsias,’ he said confidently. ‘Every house I’ve lived in has had a fuchsia in the garden.’ Then his face clouded with uncertainty. ‘Actually do I mean fuchsias? They’re sort of bright pink with dangly bits.’

I fetched a gardening book and flicked to the fuchsia section. ‘Do you mean these?’

He took the book and nodded happily. ‘They’re the ones.’ He leafed through a few pages. ‘These purple ones are nice too.’

So fuchsias were added to the list, along with rudbeckia because my grandad and mum always grew them and I love any plant with a silent ‘d’.

Actually, I love all plant names come to think of it. Unlike my husband, I want to learn them off by heart and recite them like a pro. I want to know the Latin names and the common names, I want to embrace words like ‘perennial’ and ‘half-hardy’ and use them correctly. I want to become a regular watcher of Gardeners’ World and understand what they’re talking about on Gardeners’ Question Time. I want to be best friends with Carol Klein and have Monty Don on speed-dial.

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Okay, I might be getting ahead of myself there but I felt that the list was a positive step towards gardening nirvana. By the time we’d finished, it ran to three pages. I went to bed that night excited at the prospect of tomorrow’s plant-buying trip.

I’m not sure if you’ve ever visited a garden centre clutching such a list with two fidgety children in tow. I’ll be honest. It’s not the most relaxing of experiences.

The two main problems were that the garden centre wasn’t set out in the exact order as my list. In fact, the garden centre actually had the audacity not to stock some of the things on said list or if they did, I couldn’t find them. The second problem was that bored children simply don’t believe that searching for a heliopsis is more fun that playing hide and seek in between the conifers. In truth, I’m not sure I do either.

As a result, my husband and I pretty much abandoned the list and set about grabbing whichever plants seemed to like sun but weren’t fussy about drainage. On the plus side, we did find a rudbeckia and a fuchsia but the heliopsis remained the plant equivalent of a unicorn. Still, we bought verbena, cirsium, crocosmia, osteospermum, hermerocallus and a lupin.

I know. Like real gardeners and everything.

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We also bought beetroot and radishes to plant and our proper gardener friend gave us an abundance of tomatoes, courgettes, cucumbers, peppers and fennel along with some unidentified plants, whose names my husband forget during the short journey from his house to ours. As I’ve said, plant names aren’t his thing.

We spent the whole of the next day planting. It was hard work and I can’t say I’ve mastered the art of garden design but we felt pretty proud once we’d finished.

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We were worried that some plants would die but over the summer we have watched them spread like a miniature invading plant army. It’s been really rather wonderful.

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We’ve eaten red and green lettuces, white cucumbers, sweet beetroot, courgettes, fat juicy tomatoes and all manner of herbs fresh from the ground.

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We’ve also grown the plant equivalent of a gigantic smile and we’re leaving it on the plant to see just how big it will become. Watch this space.

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We’ve learnt how to deal with fat slugs and fruit-tree bugs, how to dead-head flowers, feed vegetables and that courgettes have male and female flowers (who knew) and are the bullies of the vegetable patch.

We have also found that cats and foxes have no respect for a truly beautiful garden and to them it’s just a toilet with plants now.

No matter.  Our dream is taking shape and yes, we need to stock up constantly on cat repellent, slug pellets, bug spray and plant food.

But on the plus side, we can always buy new plants while we’re there and who knows, we may even find the illusive heliopsis in the process.

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