What’s another year? Shifting goalposts in 2019

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I didn’t write a round-up of 2018. Looking back, this was probably because not much went according to plan. It was a year of near misses professionally. The only big project I managed to salvage was the book that became The Naked Irish. I signed with Mentor Books / Red Stag in November 2018 and the book was published in September 2019.

Other plans that went by the wayside last year after a lot of work and anticipation included a book translation project, an application to do a Master’s, a possible job in Basel, submission of a middle grade novel and a memoir writing business. But just when I was beginning to think everything I touched turned to ashes, I got that much-needed yes from Mentor Books.

So there was a point in time when all I wanted was for a publisher to accept the book about Ireland and publish it. But as soon as that became a reality, the goalposts shifted. It wasn’t enough just for the book to be published any more, I wanted it to be a critical success. I wanted reviews to confirm that I had done a good job.

From my point of view, the book has been a critical success, with positive reviews appearing in the Irish Independent, the Business Post and The Irish Times. It is on sale all over Ireland and was hopefully under many Christmas trees this year.

Now, I notice that my greedy writer goalposts have shifted again. Suddenly, Ireland is not enough. I want the book to be a commercial success and that means looking beyond the small Irish market. After all, The Irish Times review said the book would appeal to readers outside Ireland who have reasons for peering in. People like Irish Americans. They should obviously read The Naked Irish too, ideally in great numbers. God, it’s exhausting.

No, instead of obsessing about US publishers, I would like to savour the moment. That’s what Christmas is all about, isn’t it? I want to be thankful for everything I’ve achieved so far and all the good things that have happened in 2019. I already have more than I could have hoped for a year ago. It is enough, as these photos remind me.

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In January, I went to Ireland on a short research trip for the book. I had so much work ahead of me but this was the best part, the last bit of real-life research. I had meetings set up in Belfast and Ballyjamesduff and I interviewed the veteran women’s rights campaigner, Ailbhe Smyth, in Dublin. I also recorded two radio essays for RTE’s Sunday Miscellany, and enjoyed time with family and friends.

This is a photo from the drive to Co. Cavan. I chose Ballyjamesduff as a case-study because it perfectly represents the two sides of the Irish emigration story. On the one hand, the town is associated with emigration thanks to Percy French’s 1912 song, Come Back Paddy Reilly to Ballyjamesduff. On the other hand, it has the fourth highest immigrant population of all Irish towns with 30 per cent non-national residents. I got a warm welcome at the local school, St Clare’s College. My mother came with me as co-driver and she visited the local emigration museum (coincidence!) while I was at the school. We had a lovely lunch on the way back in this village, Virginia, and plenty of time to chat on the journey.

In March, I finally got to visit James Joyce’s grave in Zurich at the instigation of my cousin Jennifer, who was visiting from Ireland. We spent a wonderful day together in the city with time to talk and had a memorable conversation about life and death at the graveyard. There were murmurings this year about moving Joyce’s body back to Dublin. Such nonsense, he’s fine where he is, really.

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Also in March, I had a writing weekend away in Wilderswil in the Berner Oberland. It’s the second time I’ve gone away with this small group of writers. The village is quiet off-season and we stay in a nice little hotel and meet for meals in between writing sessions. The perfect mix of solitude and good company. This was the view from my room.

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The big event in June was the Women’s Strike in Switzerland. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets all over Switzerland on the 14th. I went along to my local demonstration in Fribourg with two friends. We wanted to draw attention to all the unresolved equality issues in Switzerland and elsewhere. The energy and feeling of unity in the crowd was amazing. As the white sign here says: ‘If you’re here it means you get it’. I don’t always feel like I’m fully connected to Swiss society. This was one of the good days.

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In July, one day that stands out is when I took a hike with my daughter and the dog. She had a few days home alone while the other two were at camps. It was a very hot day and we took the train to the neighbouring town of Düdingen to walk back home. I know the area well but I’d never walked it so it was a journey of discovery and we had a lovely relaxing, fun time together.

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We had a family version of this adventure when we took the train to Grenchen with our bikes one day in the summer and cycled along the Aare river to Solothurn. A week spent in Portugal with the extended family was another delightful escape from normal life.

September brought the launch of The Naked Irish in Dublin, a very happy occasion. Both my godparents were there, three generations of my family, my husband, friends from school, college, writing and work. It was a reunion really, a great reason to get together and celebrate. I had the pleasure of seeing my book on Irish shelves at last (photo by Ger Holland).

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A Swiss launch of The Naked Irish followed in November in Book Books Books in Lausanne, and, in December, I was asked to moderate a panel discussion on Brexit in the University of St. Gallen, organised by swissinfo.ch. It was my third time moderating this year – the first two were literary events: the Bibliotopia festival in May and Le Livre sur les quais in September. This is something I definitely want to do more of.

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It seems like most of my highlights this year involved spending time connecting with people and doing interesting work. There were plenty of humdrum days too but the year was also made richer by the books I read. Thanks to Goodreads, I know I read 50 books this year. You can view the list on that link, including some reviews. My favourite novels were Olive Again by Elizabeth Strout, The Narrow Land by Christine Dwyer Hickey, The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman, and Hidden Latitudes by Alison Anderson.

I really enjoyed answering questions about my favourite non-fiction books for the website Smartthinkingbooks. You can read the interview here. Actually, I think a separate blog post is needed to talk about the books of 2019.

I hope you are fortunate enough, like me, to have a few more quiet days of freedom left before returning to the normal routine. If you scroll back through your photos of the year, may you find many good times to recall with a smile. Wishing everyone good health, harmony and goodwill in 2020.

How does author platform work?

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How much do you know about your favourite authors? Do you know what they are currently working on, their likes and dislikes, how they spend their free time? If I think of my favourite living writers, I have only the vaguest idea of biographical details or personality. When did we stop thinking this was normal?

The current wisdom on author platform suggests that the author inspires people to buy the book. What this means is that authors are under pressure to hook readers using their online presence. This is supposed to be a liberating development but the danger is it can enslave authors to the idea that they should Always Be Closing.

I once heard indie publishing guru Jane Friedman give a talk about platform where she said that people need to hear about a book an estimated eight times before they buy it. Does this mean authors have to make a lot of noise for their books to get noticed? It seems the lower down you are on the success chain, the less likely it is anyone else will make the noise for you, so yes.

As a reader, I don’t feel much curiosity about the person behind the book. I don’t feel the need to get to know them. If they are good I just want to keep reading their work. But most of my favourite authors have a high profile. Would I forget about them if their names didn’t keep popping up in the media?

In fact, I do forget about them for long stretches of time until I hear a radio interview, or see a festival programme, a tweet, a review. So these reminders are important, even for established writers. The author website is important too. We need to make it easy for our work to be discovered. After that it’s a question of narrowing down the best tools from a host of possibilities, including Facebook, Twitter, blogging, interviews, Goodreads, blog tours, giveaways, Youtube videos, podcasts, not to mention giving talks in person. But it’s impossible to do everything. It’s better to focus on the activities you are most comfortable with.

To approach the idea of platform from the other direction, a few days ago, I was asked for some book recommendations by a friend who has moved to a remote location. Two of the three books I recommended – The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce and The Return by Hisham Matar were written by authors I had met at Le Livre sur les Quais festival at Morges last month. A literary festival or is a great source of inspiration but they don’t come along that often.

The other place I get ideas from is bookshops, and I am always glad to see my own book so well displayed in Swiss book shops. The other day I bought the new John le Carré at Dublin airport, which would not be a typical choice for me. And I’m enjoying it so far. Another book I’d like to recommend is Petina Gappah’s collection of short stories set in Zimbabwe, An Elegy for Easterly.

Book blogs, like A Life in Books , are also a great source of reviews and ideas. Friends also recommend books and I receive books as presents, most recently Roddy Doyle’s new novel Smile. Apart from that, media coverage plays a big role in the search for new titles, but that’s usually when it’s an author whose work I already know and like. Because I have no access to newspapers in English, the main places I come across reviews or book talk are Facebook and Twitter, so that kind of link sharing also comes into play.

It’s been one year since my book, The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths, was published, I haven’t figured out all the mysteries of the author platform yet. But thinking about it certainly helps.  What do you, as a reader or an author, find most useful or appealing in authors’ online activity? Do you have any dos and don’ts to share?

The cheapest way to travel

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Reading is by far the cheapest way to travel. And it often beats the real thing. This summer I spent a lot of time in the United States, including an action-packed week in New York and pleasant stays in Southern California, Connecticut and Virginia. I enjoyed several days in a nineteenth century resort on the North Sea, and also travelled to a made-up Portuguese province called Barba.

I read two tragic memoirs, abandoned one novel in exasperation and finished two that I really didn’t enjoy. But overall, it’s been a happy journey with most books ending up on the ‘liked’ and ‘loved’ shelves. Maybe you’ll find something here for your autumn reading list.

Starting with the best: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara is a phenomenal piece of work. This book was apparently the sensation of 2015. Not sure how I missed that. Two central drivers make the story totally gripping – one is the resolution that the reader craves for the main character, our wish for him to find inner peace; the other is the wait for the full revelation of what terrible thing(s) happened to him to cause so much misery. The latter is dragged out to the nth degree but it didn’t matter because the writing was so good. Besides, I just wanted to stay in that world.

I don’t know how a book about a man in extreme physical pain and emotional torment is so enchanting but, trust me, it is. The novel supposedly follows the friendship between four young men who meet in university and form a bond for life, but there is only one star in this show and that’s the ever-suffering Jude. Many other intellectually and artistically brilliant characters (all of whom adore Jude) allow us to vicariously enjoy all the possible ways one can live life to the full. There is a fair amount of repetition in the book along with lavish descriptions of luxury lifestyles. But it was fine. Even the bottomless goodness of the good characters versus the bottomless evil of the bad characters was acceptable in this operatic book.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett is a good old-fashioned American family drama told over several decades. Two marriages in Southern California break up when the father of one family starts an affair with the mother of the other family at her baby’s christening party. The opening party scene is brilliant. We are left to follow the destinies of the six children of these two couples who become step siblings. The children’s anger and confusion fuels anarchic behaviour which ultimately leads to them being bound together for life by tragedy.

In I Found My Tribe by Ruth Fitzmaurice, the writer charts her family’s struggle since her husband was diagnosed with Motor Neuron Disease. A free-spirited Irish couple with young children, they were living a charmed life before the disease knocked everything down. Not quite everything. The pair went on to have twins, choosing to fight death with life. Simon Fitzmaurice wrote and directed a film relying on eye gaze technology to communicate. And Ruth has produced this brave book. There is so much to take from her in extremis perspectives on friendship, motherhood, love and marriage, pain and loss, and of course illness.

Fitzmaurice writes with eloquence and rage. The realities of caring for a loved one with a paralysing illness are familiar to me which made the memoir resonate all the more. I will remember this book for a long time. Ruth Fitzmaurice talks a lot of the joys of swimming in the cold Irish Sea, something I was happy to have the chance to do again this summer (in real life), hence the photo above.

In an effort to broaden my German literature horizons, and inspired by a chapter in Padraig Rooney’s The Gilded Chalet, I decided to take on the challenge of reading the classic doorstopper Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family by Thomas Mann.

It tells the story of four generations of the wealthy Buddenbrook family. I plodded through the 850 pages (in English, don’t worry) in increasing admiration, especially as the author was so young when he wrote it. A brilliant depiction of a family, a class and a town, written with an enjoyable helping of satire but also compassion.

Mann recreates a century in the life of a community. At times we view group scenes from a distance as a set piece, while at other times the action is painfully intimate. I’m amazed at how many moments rang true for me as a modern reader. What he does with the internal life of the main characters is astounding. Maybe unsurprisingly, the men are the more complex and interesting characters, with the women presented more as simple or enigmatic creatures. But that fits the era, sadly. How Mann so perfectly understood and was able to capture the ennui and awful weight of respectability of generations of the Buddenbrooks is simply amazing.

From 1890s Germany to 1980s Britain, and the debut novel by Kit de Waal, My Name is Leon. A lovely story about a lonely foster child, beautifully and convincingly told. De Waal knows the care system inside out and it shows. But she is also a wonderful writer who has created a sweet and true character in Leon. The sympathetic adult characters are really well observed, the women in particular. Maybe we spend a little too much time at the allotments but that’s OK. I’ll be saving this one for my children’s must-read shelf when they are a little older (thirteen plus would be fine). I’m really looking forward to seeing de Waal at Le Livre Sur Les Quais literary festival next weekend in Morges.

The Children by Ann Leary was a quick, satisfying read, recommended by one of my favourite book blogs, A Life in Books. It provided entertaining family dynamics with a little mystery and menace thrown in. Despite some of the heavy themes, the book manages to remain light and pacy. I would definitely like to read more of Ann Leary.

The other memoir I read was When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, in which the author describes his career as a surgeon, up to and including his terminal cancer diagnosis. An extremely interesting examination of medical matters and ethics, Kalanithi held back so much emotionally that I almost forgot to be moved. The chapter written by his widow at the end made up for that.

If you’re curious, the book I gave up on was The New Republic by Lionel Shriver, the one partly set in a fictional province. I enjoyed the opening in New York but the plot became increasing silly and the writing too forced when we landed in Barba. The satire on terrorism with lots of echoes of the IRA was too clever for its own good. As a die-hard Shriver fan, I was quite taken aback.

Finally, a reminder that I will be appearing at Le Livre Sur Les Quais literary festival in Morges (near Lausanne) on Sunday September 3rd at 4.30 pm. I will be participating in a panel discussion with fellow Swiss-based authors Diccon Bewes and Padraig Rooney on the subject of Switzerland, Brexit and the new European reality. For some of the weekend I’ll be sitting at my table in the writers’ tent signing books and meeting people. The festival runs from Friday to Sunday and features Ireland as guest country of honour this year. There are many fantastic talks, readings and workshops for fans of Irish literature plus a hugely impressive roll call of Irish and international writers to meet (full programme). Hope to see you there!

Writing lessons from Charles Dickens

Oliver amazed at Dodger’s mode of ‘going to work’ – George Cruickshank
Oliver amazed at Dodger’s mode of ‘going to work’ – George Cruickshank

The first draft of a story is just the raw material, right? It will need to be revised, reworked, perhaps even radically overhauled, word by word, plot hole by plot hole. This is the fall back that makes writing a slightly less daunting endeavour. Thankfully everything you put down can later be improved, reordered or deleted.

That is the stage I am at now, trying to enhance my novel to the best of my abilities – and there’s a lot more work to do. But once in a while, a writer of genius come along who breaks all the rules, someone like the giant of 19th century English fiction Charles Dickens.

Last year being the bicentenary of Dickens’ birth there was a lot of Dickens talk and I happened to hear a radio discussion about the great writer in which one of the experts named Our Mutual Friend as the author’s best book. It had been years since I’d picked up a Dickens novel but he’s always been close to my heart. My grandmother, who shared my childhood home, was a lifelong Dickens fan and was always willing to read to us.

So I got my hands on a copy and tackled the near 800-page opus. At the back I was delighted to discover Dickens’ plot plans and notes included. It’s a fascinating insight into his working method and brain. He had worked out (monthly) number by number how the action would unfold, weaving all the storylines together and leading his characters on a merry dance through to conclusion.

Courtesy of Claire Tomalin’s suberb biography – Charles Dickens A Life – which I’m currently reading, I have discovered a lot more about Dickens. From the very beginning Dickens did not have the luxury of letting his stories evolve organically as they were serialised in monthly or weekly issues. Tomlin quotes Dickens as saying: “My friends told me it was a low cheap form of publication, by which I should ruin all my rising hopes”. He triumphantly proved them wrong.

For ten months in 1837 two of his serial stories, The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist, ran simultaneously. Dickens was producing the chapters for two different publishers and coordinating with two illustrators – an incredible juggling act, on top of which he was also editing and contributing to a monthly magazine Bentley’s Miscellany.

“Managing this double feat was an unprecedented and amazing achievement. Everything had to be planned in his head in advance. Pickwick had started as a series of loosely rambling episodes, but he was now introducing plot … and Oliver was tightly plotted and shaped from the start. There was no going back to change or adjust once a number was printed; everything had to be right the first time. … Each number of Pickwick and Oliver consisted of about 7,500 words, and in theory he simply divided every month, allotting a fortnight to each new section of each book. In practice this did not always work out as well as he hoped, and although he sometimes got ahead, there were many months when he only just managed to get his copy to the printer in time.”

Just four years earlier, aged 21, his first piece of non-journalistic writing was published – a ‘sketch’ or short story, published anonymously and for no fee in a very small circulation magazine called the Monthly. He remembered dropped in his offering “stealthily one evening at twilight” after the place had closed. The sketch was followed by many more and led to fame within months and a 30-year stellar career.

We cannot watch fly-on-the-wall documentaries about life in Victorian England but we do have Dickens, who transposed so many of the characters and everyday scenes around him into his work. The people loved him for his crusade against the appalling social injustice of the day and we still have the privilege of learning from the great master of storytelling.

By the Old Gods and the New

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It is one hundred years since French mathematician Émile Borel first coined the metaphor of the typing monkeys. Finally, a mathematical theorem everyone could remember and broadly understand, even without a proper grasp of the concepts of infinity, probability and time.

(Quick reminder – an infinite number of monkeys typing on an infinite number of typewriters given an infinite amount of time will eventually produce the works of Shakespeare.)

Here’s another one to ponder, more historical pattern than a theorem. Isolate a group of people for long enough and they will make up their own religion. In Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin has done a masterful job of illustrating this human phenomenon.

From the Old Gods of the Forest to the Faith of the Seven, the Drowned God to the Lord of Light, there’s something for everyone in Martin’s brilliant array of belief systems. Fire, water, sand, horse blood, ancient trees – anything can be ascribed sacred properties in his fantasy kingdoms, as in the real world.

Of course not all religions evolve over countless generations, some enterprising folk fast forward the whole process by putting together their own faith package either from scratch or rehashing a new version of what’s gone before. If Martin has the imagination to create a dozen religions, clearly there are enough creative individuals out there with the ability to produce one.

Once the basic stuff is established – the back story of the religion, who or what to worship and a description of the afterlife – there is the option to make up a set of rules for everyday life. It doesn’t matter how silly these rules are, people will lap it up.

Baseball caps must be worn at all times by anyone over the age of ten, breakfast must be eaten within four minutes of waking up, no drinks may be consumed cold, brush you hair only with your left hand, no sex on Mondays, no work on Tuesdays, hop on one leg on Wednesdays. Throw in something about women being simple minded, dangerous, or in some way tainted with evil and you are onto a winner.

My own religion Clarism involves a lot of tea lights and a special devotion to butterflies and tomato plants. I’ll spare you the complicated story linking these elements. Followers are marked with chalk on their foreheads and always carry pepper on their person. Each new convert is allowed to add one line to our holy book in the quest for the one true story. And we’ll all live forever in the eternal lake of dreams.

The Woman Who Went to Bed For a Year

No it’s not me. The most I have managed is half a day. Great title though. When I saw that this novel was written by the British icon of young adult comic fiction in the 1980s, Sue Townsend, I was intrigued. I hadn’t read anything of hers since the early titles of the Adrian Mole series.

The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year is a cautionary tale for wives and mothers everywhere. When your identity – and all your time – is subsumed by what you do for other people, you may suddenly find yourself a lost cause.

On the day her twins leave home for university, Eva climbs into bed and stays there. She doesn’t have a plan or a manifesto, just a conviction which evolves into a phobia that she cannot leave that bed.

Against this backdrop Townsend introduces a host of characters, some loveable, some dreadful but all very human and highly amusing. The best laughs of the book come from the antics of Eva’s appalling husband Brian, closely followed by his long-suffering mother.

What I like about the book is that it’s entertaining first and thought provoking second. It will be enjoyed by young women – should even be handed out in maternity wards as a guide to the pitfalls of mothering (and marriage!) – but perhaps most appreciated by older women.

On a practical level what I took away from Townsend’s story was a decision to step back ever so slightly last Christmas. Eva’s long description of the exhausting self-imposed burden that the family’s Christmas celebrations had become rang warning bells for me. This time round I shared the festive secrets and the to-do list, and will do my best to resist the temptation from now on to scale up the traditions and obligations from year to year.

The Newspaper Hour

Beginning with the front page, Marta read out the headlines and waited for the nod. If there was a medical or health connection, Dr Cleary would definitely want the full article. The economy was also a must, although he tended to shout “mumbo-jumbo” angrily before she got the end. Politics brought on more heckling. He seemed to know all these people with their unpronounceable names intimately and he didn’t like any of them. The old man remained silent, his head bowed, during accounts of natural disasters or other senseless tragedies.

What made it tiring at first was that she had to pronounce everything right. He would interrupt her five times in a sentence. Inside she would be railing against him but she remained outwardly docile. On the Tuesday of her second week she deliberately forgot the paper but his disappointment was too much for her. She didn’t come empty handed again.

After reading through the first story, she would offer to do some housework but he always refused. Although the house was tidy, it needed a good clean. Marta considered switching with someone else. She was afraid someone might inspect the place and she would get into trouble. But all he wanted with his hour was the newspaper.

Three weeks into the job Marta made a stand. She struck a deal with him that the final fifteen minutes would be given up to cleaning. In this time she raced around with a cloth and disinfectant spray wiping down surfaces, speed vacuumed the hall, stairs and landing or swept and mopped the kitchen floor.

By the New Year the reading time had become less fraught and more interesting. Marta was getting to know the themes and the players. When she tut-tutted over the latest revelations about the minister for transport Dr Cleary chuckled. From then on they read and listened as a team. She would pour a cup of tea for herself and pause to take sips, enjoying his rapt attention.

On a mid-March morning Graham was passing the graveyard on his jogging route and stopped at the entrance. He pushed open the gate and walked down the hill towards the newer graves. It was a heart-soaring day, the first spring warmth in the air, the sky boldly blue. Could it only have been a week before that they had buried his father seemingly in the depths of winter?

All the what-to-do-about-Dad conversations were over. There would be no more late night skype calls from his brother in Australia. For over a year Conor had pestered Graham relentlessly, his anxiety multiplied by distance. A blind 79 year old man cannot live alone, he insisted, as if it were a known natural law. But Graham saw his father once a week and thought he was doing OK. He’s partially sighted, he would remind Conor. I organise the internet shopping. He doesn’t complain.

Graham turned into his father’s row, his sneakers compressing the soft grass. There was a child’s grave on the left complete with paper windmills and toy trucks. He hadn’t noticed it at the funeral but he hadn’t noticed much that day. The wooden crosses on the new graves were all the same. He assumed the last in the row would bear his father’s name but there was a new grave there and Dr John Cleary was now second from the end.

The funeral wreaths that still covered the mound of earth looked surprisingly fresh. Leaning against the thin wooden cross was something new. Graham leaned over to pick it up. In a plastic folder someone had placed that day’s Independent on the grave. Odd, Graham thought, Dad hasn’t read the paper in years.

Growing up with books

Every writer starts out as a reader. If I cast my mind back to my childhood, books were a central feature of our lives. The greatest influence came from my paternal grandmother who lived with us growing up. She was a remarkable woman. Born in her father’s brewery in Kilkenny, Ireland in 1911, she had a small but fantastic library of books. Nanny, as we called her, trained as a Montessori teacher in London in the 1930s and later worked as a governess. She had a wonderful way with children. She introduced us to her favourite authors over the years and one of my sweetest memories is of sitting wedged into the armchair beside her as she read aloud.

There was the Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome about a family of kids living in the English Lake District and My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell describing his years living on the island of Corfu. Nanny was crazy about Dickens and read through Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Dombey & Son, Nicholas Nickleby and  A Christmas Carol for us. She had a beautifully illustrated edition of the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen.

The more girl-oriented stories included The Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild, A Little Princess and The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Little Women and Anne of Green Gables were in there too as was the fantasy novel The Midnight Folk by John Masefield.

Stories featuring animals began with the Beatrix Potter series, moving on to Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne and The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame.

My own favourite children’s book of all time is The Animals of Farthing Wood by Colin Dann, the story of a group of animals forced to flee when their forest is destroyed. Tom McCaughren’s Run Swift, Run Free series also featured foxes’ adventures. The list goes on and the great thing is I now have the pleasure of starting all over again with my own children.