For the last two years, before and after lockdown, I have been working full out with very little breaks between books. In February this year, Sarah Ferguson and I handed over our second book together (A Most Intriguing Lady, more on this soon), and I then jumped straight in to writing a Christmas novella which will be published at the end of this year in an anthology with Bronwyn Scott, Under the Mistletoe (more on this soon too). Then there were the copy edits of both books to be done, and a host of other admin that had gone by the wayside, and the release of Lady Armstrong’s Scandalous Awakening – so by the time April came along, I was knackered and in dire need of some serious R&R. And much as I love where I live, I was also keen for a change of scene. Luckily, I had promised to cat-sit for Simba while my sister and her family headed off to Jamaica on holiday.
My sister Catriona lives in Surrey, about ten minutes walk from the River Thames, half an hour from Hampton Court, so it’s a perfect location for walks steeped in history, which is my favourite kind of walking, especially if I can combine it with a picnic. Travelling south at a point where face masks were no longer required in England, but were still mandatory for a few days more in Scotland, was weird. A little bit scary, though not nearly as much as I thought, but odd. I decided to keep my mask on public transport in both countries, and I stuck to that, though I was mostly in a minority, but I must admit in all other places, including museums, shops and restaurants, I abandoned it. It felt good to see people’s faces again. It wasn’t as if the pandemic had never happened, most people were still cautious about contact, but it really did feel as if we were coming out the other side of it. Hopeful.
For the first few days of my visit it was just me and Simba. He’s a one woman cat, not the friendliest, but once he’d got over my sister leaving him, he deigned to hang out with me a bit – mostly, it has to be said, around meal times. He’s a big orange tom, but he’s got the most pathetic, girly little mew that is ridiculously endearing, so I quickly dropped my stern auntie persona, and handed out the cat treats way too regularly. I did a lot of walking, along the river to Hampton Court which is an old favourite, though I was disappointed and like the locals, a bit outraged to discover that the grounds were no longer open to the public unless you paid. I walked in the other direction to Ham House and almost as far as Richmond, taking a picnic and enjoying the fresh air and the sunshine!
Back home it was cold and wet and windy. In Surrey, I could go out in a short-sleeved t-shirt, which is unusual even at the height of our Scottish summer. It got me thinking about how good for the soul the sunshine is, being able to sit out in the morning with coffee, not constantly having to wrap up in layers and keep the heating on. I had a chat about this with one of my sister’s friends, about the perception that we northerners are more dour in nature, and how much the weather has to do with it. I concluded that the weather is a major factor. When it’s cold and wet you don’t want to go outside, while there’s a ton of recent research that proves what we sort of knew instinctively, that being outside in the garden or in a green space is good for us – what is now known as Vitamin G(reen). Green spaces encourage contemplation and relaxation, they restore our soul – and when we don’t get enough, I think we get dour! And sluggish. And a big negative too.
Being outside, making the conscious decision to detach from work – because for the first time since I can remember I didn’t have a book deadline – made me realise just how stressed I had been. Decompressing took me a lot longer than I thought I would need. My plans to do lots of research, to head into London to sight-see, were put on hold. I wallowed in my solitude (luckily, Simba is a very laconic cat, with few conversational skills), so by the time my friend Peter arrived, I was ready for company.
We went to the theatre to see Cabaret, the musical that has been top of my ‘must see’ list for years, and Peter had treated us to the most amazing stage-side seats. What an experience! Sadly there was a ban on any photos, but from the moment you get to the entrance of the theatre, basically you are immersed in the show. It’s an intimate, decadent and mind-blowing performance, in many ways like the film, but in many not. Amy Lennox as Sally Bowles managed to pull off a highly individual performance that wasn’t a Liza Minelli tribute act, which is no mean feat.
Peter is one of my oldest friends, and in the past two years he’s ‘revamped’ himself completely, body and soul! Black and red was our co-ordinated dress them, with me in a poppy dress – one of my own of course – and both of us in leather jackets! Peter being Peter took it a step further with black and red nails, and Peter being Peter, continues to remind me long after the event, that he garnered more complements than me from the theatre staff. I tell him he’s suffering from late-onset vanity, but I reckon he deserves it, he’s worked hard enough for it!
We went to Brighton the next day, and visited the Pavilion, another of my long-held ambitions which I’ll cover on this blog separately, but wow, was that a visit worth waiting for. Alone again with Simba, I did some more walking and ruminating. How to find a better work-life balance – isn’t that the question we’re all asking ourselves these days? The last two years have changed us, whether we realise it or not. Speaking personally, it seems to me that life is even more precious, and though it’s scary, I was enjoying being back out in the world, mixing with people, catching up with friends. My love of travel was starting to re-awaken, and my thirst for history, not just reading about it but experiencing it. I’d missed visiting historic places. I’d also missed indulging a bit of my inner culture vulture. What I also realised from all my navel-gazing was that I’d missed simply being me, not Marguerite, that any time I’d snatched to sew or garden or do anything not associated with work had been far too short. More was required, and in bigger doses. I still want to write, I love to write and can’t imagine not writing, but I don’t want to write all the time, and I want to have the time to enjoy it more.
I would come back to thinking about what to do about those various eureka moments when I got home, but for the moment, I was finally ready for a trip into London. Millbank Prison was a panopticon penitentiary, the vision of the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham (who left his body to University College London, where it is, as per his wishes, preserved clothed and seated, in a specially built display case). The prison was opened in 1816 and closed in 1890, but you can still find traced of the walls in the area being used as gardens or drying greens. The prison was later used as a holding prison for convicts who had been sentenced to deportation to Australia, and there is a memorial to them on the banks of the Thames opposite the Tate. Which got me thinking about a heroine who had been convicted of a crime that she didn’t commit – you see, the writing part of my brain never completely switches off.
The nearby Tate Britain museum was quiet. To my utter delight, I had the room full of Henry Moore sculptures to myself, and how I resisted touching them (they are so incredibly tactile, just calling out to be stroked) I’m still not sure.
On with my walk, I headed to Whitehall, which was as bustling with tourists as ever I remember, and where the climate change protesters gave a rousing rendition of the Bay City Rollers’ classic Bye Bye Baby, reworded to be Bye Bye Boris. I wandered around the Jewel Tower, refused to empty my bank account to pay the entry fee to Westminster Abbey and contented myself with the view of the exterior. Crossing the river, I decided to treat myself to a very late lunch, but being bookless, had to visit Foyles first! (Still Life by Sarah Winman was my impulse purchase – wow!)
My sister and her family returned tanned and relaxed. Simba immediately dumped me. Peter arrived to take me for a long overdue visit to his (revamped) home and garden in Hythe. More on that soon too. An idea for my next Mills & Boon romance popped into my head unbidden. I loved it, but I parked it. I was looking forward to being Marguerite again, but not yet.