Expat blues

Even though I’ve been very happy living in New Zealand for the past twenty years, I expect England will always feel like home. I’ve been fortunate to be able to return for a short visit every summer – until now. I had booked to fly to London next week but my trip has been cancelled due to Covid-related restrictions.

Earlier visits involved a joyful, if exhausting, whirlwind of activity – travelling round the British Isles by train and plane, staying a night or two in several different places, often having lunch, tea and dinner engagements with different people on the same day. The itinerary has gradually become less demanding, as I realise I can’t see everyone every time, so recently I’ve just stayed in London and done day trips. I always try to see my closest friends and relatives, and visit some favourite places – Oxford, Malvern, the countryside of Kent and Sussex – which hold special memories or are featured in my novels. I also like to visit one or two tourist attractions such as Blenheim Palace or the Tower of London. And I always buy something from Marks and Spencer.

The change to a less hectic pace is partly my own choice, as I don’t have so much energy as I used to, but partly because my circle of friends – mostly in their 70s and 80s – is shrinking. Six of those I knew and loved have died in recent years. I was able to visit all of them in the last months of their lives, but because of being back in New Zealand was unable to attend any of their funerals. Several of my surviving friends are unwell at present, and one of the hardest things about being unable to travel this year is not knowing when and if I will see them again.

Apart from that, I don’t mind staying home. I have my memories and photos of England, and the internet has made it easy to keep in contact with people at the other side of the world, even if not all of them can accesss Zoom. I’m glad not to be parted from Brian, the cats and the dog. And Auckland is a lovely place to be, even in winter, with the weather reasonably warm and many flowers in bloom.

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Jennifer Barraclough’s latest novel You Yet Shall Die, set in Kent and Sussex, is available from Amazon.

Memories of a childhood in Kent

Apple blossom in Kent: photo courtesy of Bruce Williamson on Unsplash

Until the age of nine I lived with my family in Gravesend, Kent. I was happy there and did not want to leave, but life took me in other directions and it was about sixty years before I went back. I found many changes, but still felt an attachment to the town and the surrounding countryside, and had intended to return this summer from my present home in New Zealand. That trip is no longer possible because of coronavirus travel restrictions. Instead I joined several Facebook groups devoted to the area, and seeing all the old photos posted there has triggered a few memories of my own.

Our address was 22 The Overcliff, a Victorian house which is now a children’s day care centre. I believe there had been an orchard on that site, and the back garden contained many fruit trees, mainly apples and pears. The Bramley apples, individually wrapped, were stored in the basement over the winter. The front bedroom looked out over the Thames, with the port of Tilbury on the other side, always busy with ships sailing in and out. Between the street and the river was a disused chalk quarry where I used to play, for children were left to their own devices in those days. It was a short walk down to the river itself, and it was there that I learned to swim; no doubt the waters were polluted but I came to no harm.

I attended Milton Road Primary School but remember very little about that, and it’s not there any more. My best friend was called Jennifer Clements; we lost touch years ago.

Much clearer memories relate to outings with my grandfather, Ernest Guy. He was head of the Technical School in the 1940s till the early 50s. He had a great love and knowledge of the English countryside and, especially after he retired, took every opportunity to drive his old black car (an Austin 7?) to different parts of Kent. Summer holidays were spent camping in the Isle of Sheppey, or visiting resorts on the south coast.

Short local visits involved identifying wild flowers and birds, exploring local churches, collecting nuts or blackberries or mushrooms to cook for tea. I remember the orchards and hop fields and oast houses, and walks near Meopham, Shorne, Cobham Woods, Holly Hill … and wonder how many of the old footpaths and woodlands have now been built over, and how many “areas of natural beauty” developed into tourist sites. With no prospect of international travel in the near future perhaps it is best to remember these places as they used to be.

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Jennifer Barraclough is a retired doctor, originally from England but now living in New Zealand, who writes medical and fiction books. Her latest novel You Yet Shall Die, a family mystery set on the North Kent marshes, is available from Amazon.com.

A writing retreat

Writers who work from home, especially if they live with a family or flatmates, often find it hard to focus due to a continual stream of demands and distractions. As advised in my short e-book Wellbeing for Writers, interruptions can be minimised by strict time management, setting of boundaries, and self discipline. I know this in theory but still often find myself breaking off to unload the washing machine or dishwasher, check on the cooking, feed a hungry cat or remove it from the computer, or make another cup of coffee. Although standing up and walking about at frequent intervals is better for the health than sitting down for long periods, it does interfere with concentration.

It can be easiest to complete a writing project in a new environment, and thanks to the generosity of a kind friend I recently spent two days in her holiday house on Waiheke Island, revising the draft of my latest novel. All my regular engagements for those days – choir practice, Zumba class, and walking my dogshare Labrador – had been cancelled. Maybe the universe arranged all these synchronicities to support my desire for an undisturbed retreat. But if so, it went too far by causing my precious iPhone to fail beyond repair on the first day. The enforced digital detox threw me into a panic, and I remembered the maxim “Be careful what you wish for”.

Waiheke, with its sandy beaches and vineyards, is just a 40-minute boat ride from downtown Auckland but seems like a world apart. In the summer there are hordes of visitors but now in the middle of the New Zealand winter it is almost deserted, with few sounds except the chirping of birds and the waves breaking on the shore. Here is the view from the deck of my friend’s house.

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It felt strange at first, being on my own in this peaceful place, unable to communicate with the outside world, and having nothing to do except check through the final draft of my novel for errors and inconsistencies. Working on a printed manuscript with a red pencil, after years of only using a computer, also felt unfamiliar. But I soon came to appreciate the quiet solitude, adapted to the absence of my iPhone, and worked both days on my book with just short breaks for lunches at the beachside cafe and walks on the sand. It was the perfect setting for a writing retreat.

It is easy to miss your own typos, so for the the next step I will take another piece of my own advice from Wellbeing for Writers and obtain an independent check from a copy-editor before publishing the novel.

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