Claire King


Archive for the ‘Personal’ Category

An Early Present

Posted on: October 9th, 2018 by Claire - No Comments

It’s about the time of year people start worrying about Christmas.

I know! I know it’s too early to talk about Christmas but it’s not too early to *think* about Christmas, apparently. And start worrying. And panic buying sprouts. And ham.

Some people love Christmas and approach it with an enviable joy. I’m less enthusiastic, usually because I feel the weight of other people’s expectations and approach it with a mounting sense of overwhelm. When you barely have enough hours in the day as it is, and work hard to balance the family finances year round, it can be hard to embrace the requirement to lay on 18 hours of pure unadulterated joy and excitement for those you love most, including a meal that can take hours for (someone) to cook and buying and wrapping gifts on behalf of other people because they don’t know what to get for (your spouse/your kids/their mum etc).

I’m honestly not grinchy, it’s just that personally, my favourite winter celebration is the solstice. I love a decorated tree, a boozy home made cake, a festive walk in the woods, a Boxing Day spent entirely in pyjamas. Boxing day is traditionally my favourite day of all…but I recently realised that was because it’s the day that the pressure to deliver is finally off.

Brussels Sprouts

Last year, on Boxing Day, from the sofa in my pyjamas, I posted this tweet. I wanted to run a quick Christmas debrief and get hot takes that would be good to look back on as we start getting wound up again in 2018. To save you going through the thread, I have summarised the replies below. It’s like an early present from me to you, to remind us all that the most important things don’t involve much hassle at all.

1) What was the thing you worried about running up to Christmas that wasn’t worth the worry?

  • How the kids would react to a very frugal Christmas in comparison to Christmas’ past (Actually more enjoyable & heartwarming: my 16yo declared his best ever).
  • That I would feel sad on my own (I didn’t at all, it was great).
  • Family phoning me on Christmas Day. Yep, I realise that sounds strange. (Yep. Hurrah for WhatsApp cos they all messaged rather than phoning. They didn’t really understand why I wanted to be on my own.)
  • The journey to and from my parents’ house. (Drive/ferry/drive.) The journey to wasn’t worth worrying about – journey back won’t be either, and yet I am worrying.
  • Older son not being with us on Christmas Day. In the end, younger son made it such a brilliant day and older son phoned twice 🙂
  • Buying for my mother.
  • Seating everyone around a table (solved by buying some Ikea Frosta stools at £9 each)
  • Which invite to accept.
  • That the sitting room/ dining room would be too small for 10 – it flexed beautifully.
  • Getting work finished. I didn’t. Everyone went on holiday anyway.

2) What was the food you bought too much of?

  • Ham. I under-hammed last year and kept panic buying hams this year. Total: 8kg of ham for six people.
  • Stollen. But I managed to eat it all (by myself).
  • Bread. We don’t eat bread at Christmas.
  • Amaretti biscuits (for a dessert I didn’t have time to make)
  • Parsnips!
  • Sprouts. I love em, everyone else hates em.
  • Another vote for Sprouts
  • Brussels Sprouts
  • Sprouts!
  • Cheese. But I’ll happily eat it for days.
  • Whiskey.
  • Pigs in blankets. Turns out no one but me likes them.
  • Oh god. Salami and chorizo, but only because my family don’t hold truck.

3) What was the best gift you gave or received?

  • Gave: an emergency camping bag for getting stuck unexpectedly overnight. Received: Boston College tracksuit pants (though really a delayed bday gift).
  • Honestly, and cornily, it’s been the being here and being able to deal with chores for my parents that have needed doing. It’s made more of a difference for all of us than the nice wrapped things. Also a fitbit.
  • The promise of action, doing something rather than gifting items… best response that I’ve popped OH on Allotment waiting list
  • Everything I had was wonderful – unexpected, useful/fun or both. best thing I gave – a voucher for a wedding waistcoat 🙂
  • School bell to my daughter to call the next generation to meals! Received an internal handbag organiser – we shall see how that goes!!!
  • Books! And book tokens!
  • Stereo/headphones for No.1 child. Loves music.
  • Daughter 3 bought me 3 drawings lessons, to take whenever I want.
  • Surprised my husband with the wireless headphones he’s wanted for ages. Normally he doesn’t get anything exciting, & he was so chuffed. Pure deserved for his constant support.
  • Hamilton CD to my OS. He’s over the moon and has been educating me all about it.
  • V loves her camera.
  • Board games
4) What will you do differently for Xmas 2018 (if you remember)?
  • Try not to be sick for a fortnight!
  • Buy less ham.
  • Focus more on helping others. I did a bit this year but barely scratched the surface.
  • Press my mother in law to plan much earlier. Her indecision was very stressful for me.
  • Not come home. Woohoo!
  • Go for a walk on the beach, whatever the weather.
  • Bring more hair bobbles.
  • Send less cards.
  • Nothing, had a great day
  • Nurture the giving time /effort ethos… where possible handmake more presents
  • Nothing! There’s always something, and it doesn’t matter anyway! So long as family are around thats all that matters.
  • Buy the presents for children in November – otherwise all good!
  • Stop stressing about it!
5) What did you do this year that made Xmas/the holidays a good experience?
  • No turkey roast – we did a ‘Spanish’ Christmas: OH cooked a paella for 16 in a huge paella pan we bought years ago in Spain, & I cooked Nigella’s moist lemon & almond cake & flan de casa. Much less washing up.
  • Trimmed down the dinner – it’s only a roast innit? 3 veg, 2 were roasted. Bought frozen Yorkshire puddings too, & concentrated on making the most excellent gravy. Had much more time with my family & less with the kitchen.
  • Me and worked like a machine to manage 4yo excitement and expectations.
  • Brought my partner along for the week – he’s been a star.
  • Chilled out and didn’t over do it!
  • Relaxed with those I love.
  • Helped out at a homeless charity locally. Next year I will take my sons to help too.
  • Less is more… reduce expectations & itinerary, relax & just go with the flow
  • Family coming together – extending table to a near neighbour ‘home alone’ keeping turkey under 10kg – board games – warm hearth and warmed hearts
  • Put my favourite bauble on the tree. Hippo/horse/pig thing in black boots and a fluffy tutu. Everyone tries to hide it, and I always find it. 🙂
  • Spent it alone! Also changed what I was going to do today because I could, which was a bit of a revelation tbh.
  • Thanked everyone for what they did.

Hope you all have a stress-free autumn. Go easy on the sprouts.

Piglet in red Boots

A Table

Posted on: September 30th, 2017 by Claire - 7 Comments

Fifteen years ago my boyfriend and I moved to France. That winter I bought a large oak kitchen table, and two years later we were married.

These facts are not necessarily linked, although the number of times we prepared and ate meals together at that table probably have something to do with it. Food is a kind of love glue in our house. It is not surprising, then, that we are a round-the-table sort of family. In the years that followed, high chairs came and went and countless breakfasts, lunches and dinners have been eaten together around this table.  IMG_1228

Badly spelled letters have been written to Father Christmas and left on this table with a slice of Christmas cake and a carrot and a sprinkle of magic every Christmas eve for twelve years.  Friends, neighbours, parents and grandparents have sat around this table with us and talked and laughed. It has been laid and cleared and wiped down thousands and thousands of times.

This table has not been treated preciously. It has been smeared with chocolate, spilled with wine, and decorated with greasy cat footprints following a roast chicken larceny.
table 2012

I have sat at this table with bankers and lawyers and bereaved friends. Tax returns have been prepared here, the children’s dictée grudgingly practiced and it has regularly been covered in the paint and glitter and glue of creativity. Short stories and novels have been written at this table, and it also has a cameo in the opening scene of TheNight Rainbow, covered in an oilcloth.

If this table could speak it would tell you that it has heard arguments ranging from who gets a chair and who sits on the bench to the kind of words that break up families. But on balance, it is mostly kind words that have been spoken in its presence. This table has fifteen years of stories in it and every time we sit at it, whispers of those stories are there.

Table 2009_2

And that is why we brought this big, wine stained, glitter encrusted lump of wood over to England with us when we moved back here last year even though we knew our new house was really too small to accommodate it. It felt at the time as though by bringing it we were holding on to something that symbolised the heart of our family life in France. A kind of anchor.

I read this article recently where Elizabeth Luard talks about bringing her table back from Spain to London – she describes it as ‘the only thing that matters to me in my new kitchen’. I understand her sentiment exactly, which is why we have spent five seasons trying to ignore the fact it doesn’t fit in our house. We have edged around it, bumped into it’s solid corners, hefted it up against walls and back out again but the fact is, it just doesn’t fit.

So next week the table will be rehomed. It’s as solid as the day we got it, and will hopefully go on for another fifteen years at least.  I’m sad to be parted with it – it’s funny how inanimate objects can come to be so invested with emotion – and I hope that it quickly becomes more than just a piece of wood to its next family.

Food_Photo_Table 2013

Smaller than I remember it.

Posted on: December 22nd, 2016 by Claire - 1 Comment

I’ve just been to France for 3 days, back to the village we left at the very start of this year after having lived there for 14 years. When we left, we had no home to go to.  But we packed up and went because unless we were in the UK we simply couldn’t organise the new house, jobs and schools that we needed to. It was a leap of faith, and indeed it took weeks and months to get everything in place here. Meanwhile, despite having leapt, I was still tied to France, with a company still registered there, my house not sold, taxes, bills etc all still needing to be dealt with. When you’re an adult, it seems, burning bridges is a long, slow, time-consuming smoulder.

This week, right before Christmas, the time came to sign the final papers for the sale of the house. I could have gone alone, but it would have felt strange and lonely, and besides, the whole family wanted to see people we left behind there, so we went as a family. Our journey over started on a foggy Sunday morning in Bristol, and ended that evening, driving in the dark up winding French lanes that echoed with years of our footsteps, and those of the dogs that the girls knew their whole lives but are no longer with us. All of it so familiar and yet stripped, somehow, of its homeliness. The girls talk fondly of France, and have had time enough here for it to have already become an idyllic place in the past, and yet the closer we got, the stranger it felt.

When we finally got to the house and unlocked the door,  the two girls ran upstairs, keen to go and see their old bedrooms, which they emptied and swept almost a year ago. When they got there they were puzzled. “That’s really weird,” they said. “It’s smaller than I remember it.” And “It doesn’t feel like my room anymore, it feels like a dream.”

I think they were learning, for the first time, that a house is not a home. Places are smaller than we remember them because we fill them with our lives, with all the memories tied up in our daily rituals and our personal affairs. If you take all of that away the walls shrink back to house-shape again, until someone new comes to make them into a new home.

But there was just one place in the house where we all felt a small pang of loss, where we had left something of ourselves that we couldn’t take with us. And so in one last little ceremony we did this, adding two last marks on the wall where we’d tracked the girls’ heights since they were old enough to stand up:


And then we locked up. Signed some papers. Handed over the keys and turned the page.

Driving back from Bristol last night, up through the fog, the turning point of the winter solstice seemed perfectly apposite.  It’s so good to come home.*


*This Christmas in Britain alone, 120,000 children will have no home to come back to. To help them, please visit the Shelter website and donate. 


Writing, not writing.

Posted on: December 1st, 2016 by Claire - 1 Comment

Many of you will know that we moved from the South of France this year, and ended up in Gloucestershire. What with moving countries, buying a house, selling a house in France, moving schools for my daughters, starting a new job, catching up with all the friends we’ve missed while we were in France and so on, it’s been really hard to fit much writing in this year.

That’s OK. I’ve a new novel on the go and it will be done when it’s done. For me these fallow writing periods are not wasted. Living is a good preparation for writing. Feeling the stresses and anxieties of change and running the gamut of emotions is all useful stuff when it comes to getting inside the heads of characters. I still take notes, catch fleeting inspirations, keep it all for later.

And the shock of the new is something I think all writers need to experience as often as possible. New environments and experiences open our eyes, shake us out of complacency and bring back our close observation of the day-to-day that brings fiction to life by making it ring true.

We now live very close to a canal, and one of the delights of this year has been my daily walks along the towpath. I have loved seeing how it burst into life as spring approached, and meeting the neighbours:


There are a resident pair of swans who began building their nest, eventually laid eggs and then hatched a brood of cygnets. Watching how their behaviour changed, with each other, with the nearby humans and with their cygnets was a daily surprise.


One day as I had turned and was walking home, a kingfisher flew across the towpath in front of me and turned west, up the canal, pausing on every other tree, taking my breath away completely.

In summer the canal was buzzing with life, both animal, human and plant. It was the place the surrounding communities converged on in the evenings to get together and relax.
We had a gentle autumn, with a proliferation of perfect garden spiders’ webs and plume moths .

And as the sun has got lower in the skies, the light has begun to hit the water differently, and the water itself has regular phases during the day – in the morning the canal is still and glassy, but later in the day it shifts, and the reflections become rippled and distorted.


Today is the first of December. It was a frosty morning, but I am noticing too that there are parts of the landscape where the frost doesn’t melt all day.stroud-england-frome-gardens-28-april-2016-1-of-10-3

And today the big surprise was to find  one of the shadier stretches of the canal iced over, the frozen reeds in the water fanned out under the surface.


There was a crow, which I’ve not seen here before, perched in the low, bare branches of tree with a flock of black-headed gulls swooping around it, complaining at its presence. The crow was holding her ground and every now and then shouted ‘bugger off’. At least that’s what I imagined she was saying.

And over in the fields across the river, the cows’ breath condensed in the chilly air.


After 14 years in the same place, all of this is new, all of this is different. Noticing these small delights is the food for thought that will bring my next novel to life. So although I barely made a dent in an ambitious target word count for November, I am writing, just not writing.

You, me and Jilly C.

Posted on: October 20th, 2016 by Claire - 10 Comments

Would you like to join me in Stroud for drinks and nibbles, followed by literary chat with Jilly Cooper? Read on!

On Thursday 17th November Jilly Cooper will be taking part in the Stroud Book Festival. I will have been on a panel with Katie Fforde earlier that afternoon, talking about what constitutes romantic fiction, and will of course be staying on for the evening to hear from Jilly Cooper, who has been a literary hero of mine for over 30 years.

Meanwhile, my daughter Amélie is busy (along with the rest of her Y7 schoolmates) raising funds for Lepra, a charity I have been familiar with for a long time – in 1991 I spent a month over Christmas in India, where I volunteered on a Lepra awareness and treatment programme in Secunderabad.

Amélie has asked for my help with fundraising activities, so here’s the plan:

I have two extra tickets to hear Jilly Cooper speak on 17th November at 7pm, and I’m offering drinks, nibbles and bookish chat with me on the comfy sofas of the nearby Curio Lounge prior to the event. I’ll also throw in a signed copy of my latest novel, Everything Love Is. 

Leprosy is a disease that is easily identified and treated, and a big part of the work charities like Lepra do is education, working to stop the disease in its tracks and end the stigma that sees people turned out of their families and communities. Fundraising for Lepra is as much about tackling issues of poverty and prejudice as it is fighting disease.

So, this is your the chance to have a great night out for two people AND make a real difference to people’s lives.


Roll up, roll up and please post your bids in the comments section below, before November 2nd please. I will let the winner of the auction know that afternoon.

The entirety of the winning bid will go to Lepra, and will make a big difference:

  • £3 can buy a self-care kit, allowing someone with leprosy to look after the parts of their body that have been affected by the disease and prevent further infections
  • £4.50 buys a pair of special shoes so someone with foot deformities can walk again, transforming their life
  • £25 can give health education to a school of up to 100 children, allowing children to recognise symptoms of illness and raising awareness of leprosy
  • £75 can pay for a Paramedic for a month

Looking forward to a great evening…

Thanks to Stroud Book Festival for their kind donation of the event tickets, and to Bloomsbury Books for their kind donation of the books.


One Way Ticket

Posted on: February 14th, 2016 by Claire - 16 Comments

If you read my last post, Ring Out the Old, you’ll know I have been planning a move to the UK. Well, it’s happened, mostly, in that we are here, even though we still don’t actually have a new place to live…

Yes, I know, but it’s a long story and there wasn’t any choice.

You could say this hasn’t been the easiest of times for us.* As any of you who have moved house will know, the process can be so frustrating. It all takes so much time to arrange, and the bureaucracy can leave you feeling powerless, as the costs and the stress mount up. The children, too, are feeling it. They have now left their French school but without a permanent address in the UK can’t yet get places at a new school here. They have no room of their own to put their suitcase in. Their books and toys are all in storage. No routine, and all their friends left behind in France. Walking out into the unknown for the first time in their lives.

Then there was the journey itself. The four of us, one dog, one cat and a couple of suitcases, squashed into a car for an 835 mile drive, on a one way ticket to uncertainty:

We emptied our house and left it behind, setting off towards a new life, but without actually having a new home to go to. We didn’t even have time to say goodbye to our friends and neighbours properly (although we do plan, once settled and organised, to go back and do that).

Five minutes into our journey a nasty smell filled the car. The (long-haired) cat had weed in his travel cage. And pooed.  An ominous start to the two-day drive. We found somewhere to stop the car. We cleaned the cage. We cleaned the cat. We had ten hours drive ahead of us that day, as long as we didn’t have to stop every ten minutes to clean up poo.


Fortunately we didn’t. The first day’s drive went pretty smoothly, even through the heavy snow coming down over the Massif Central and eventually we got to the hotel near Paris that we had booked for the night and found something to eat. That night my younger daughter, who is eight, dreamt that when we got to England our new house was in a war zone, bombed to dust, but that our old one in France had already been sold to strangers. We had nowhere to go. We couldn’t go back. I felt bad that we were putting her through this. “It will all be fine,” I said. “Great, even. You’ll see.”

My older daughter, who is ten, woke up the next morning with a crippling stomach ache. She was nauseous. She didn’t want to start the journey again. She didn’t want to leave the bed or the hotel room, even though it was pretty crumby. I gave her water and a plastic bag for the car. “We have to keep going,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

Five minutes into the journey a nasty smell filled the car…We found somewhere to stop. Cleaned the cage. Cleaned the cat.

Four hours later we reached the Channel Tunnel. Our pets were checked, their pet passports and chips verified. Our passports were checked too. Everything was in order. We were so nearly there.

On the other side of the tunnel, as we headed up the motorway towards London –  my husband, my kids, our aging pets and a few clothes and personal belongings – a car overtook us. It had got a few yards past us, doing about 80mph when one of its tyres blew. I watched in slow motion as it snaked out of control, crossed the carriageway, hit another car, spun away with bits of bodywork flying off it and hit the central reservation. Then it spun back into our lane. Right in front of us. My husband was driving. I couldn’t see if we had a clear lane to move into (we didn’t). I couldn’t see if the people behind us had managed to keep their distance or were going to hit us from behind (they had, they didn’t). I was sure we were going to be in the middle of a pile up. But it didn’t happen. My husband slowed the car and got us over to the hard shoulder where we called the police, checked that the people in the other cars were OK (they were) and trembled for a little while before pulling ourselves together and resuming our journey .

Two hours later, we were sitting on a sofa with cups of tea, telling this story.

*You could say that. But then when you think about it, it hasn’t been as bad as all that. We left one peacetime country behind and travelled to another. In our car. Men came and packed up our things into boxes and put them into safe storage. My daughter dreamt our house had been bombed, but it’s just anxiety and it will pass. My other daughter was ill en route, but she didn’t have to walk for miles in the cold, on an empty stomach. She curled up in a warm car under a blanket and slept as we drove. At the border people were polite and cheerful. We had family and friends waiting for us. It’s true we have no home to go to yet, but it should only be a matter of weeks and until then we have an abundance of offers of beds and meals and wine. Somewhere to stay as long as we need it. Because we are the kind of migrants that are welcome here. We have the right passports. The right faces.

Here’s how you can help migrants that do not. 




Postscript: Please read this Amnesty blog post.

Photo: Gémes Sándor/SzomSzed –

Ring Out the Old.

Posted on: December 30th, 2015 by Claire - 46 Comments

For me 2015 started with the itch of change: certain elements coming together at a certain time that made the status quo begin to seem unstable. It can be easy to brush this kind of itch off, I know, and get on with life as usual. But if you listen to it, if you try and understand what it’s telling you, if you face the fear and the risk that it implies, eventually you will reach a tipping point where change is inevitable.

Without going into the detail of what is behind all of this, suffice to say we reached that tipping point in the early summer. This was encouraging, because if you can seriously consider leaving a life in the south of France when the weather is perfect, the sky is blue and the first ripe delicious tomatoes are on the table, then you know your decision is made.

And so we started taking steps. One after another, at first slowly but taking us further and further from safety. From this life that to many people seems idyllic. From this house that has been home for 14 years, longer than any house I’ve ever lived in. The house our daughters were born to and grew up in. The mountain at our feet. The kitchen table a storybook we wrote.

Feeling full of energy

The house is up for sale now. We’re leaving. It’s scary and exciting and happy and sad. The last days of 2015 mark not only a year coming to an end but a chapter closing.

The Last Times have already started: Seeing people for the last time that we will likely never see again. The last time at a favourite place. The last time we will cook a certain meal, or walk a certain path. Some are clear cut, with tears and goodbyes. Others are vague, we know it may be the last time and we sense it all a little more keenly, just in case it is.

As we unpick this life we have inhabited, a light is cast upon it. A reflection of how we have lived. What we want to keep and what we don’t, what we want to guard as precious and what we want to change.

Some of this is physical – in preparing for the move we are having to be selective about what we take with us. It’s expensive to move – they charge you by the cubic metre – and we have accumulated, shamefully, so many things, so much stuff. We have an enormous cellar and we filled it over more than a decade with books we had no shelves for, building materials we had bought too much of, baby clothes I couldn’t bear to part with, clothes that used to fit me and never will again, scuba equipment from a life before children, VHS cassettes and LPs from the 80’s. The clear-out has started. We are now forced to discard, recycle and donate. It’s difficult but the release feels good.

Some of what we don’t want to keep is not physical. We don’t want to accumulate things anymore. My husband and I didn’t exchange Christmas gifts this year. Likewise, much of what we do want to hold on to is a way of life – the family values we have created together, the time we have made for ourselves.

Perhaps this time of introspection and reflection is why I’m feeling hesitant about social media at the moment. There’s a lot of noise out there. Some days a lot of anger. Others a lot of spite. Sometimes just noise for noise’s sake. And so many people trying to give the public impression that everything is perfect for them. It often feels to me like the extremes of emotions are posted online but that the reality of life rarely shows through. Rather than take a break from it all, I’m trying to filter out the noise now, down to the genuine exchanges, to the authentic, to what social media can be at its best.

Meanwhile I’m drafting out my third novel, a book which which reaches into the dark places inside myself where I keep the questions that I have never found answers to. I’m excited about this book, it’s going to be a cracker, but I’m also intrigued by the way it has decided to be written just at the time when I am turning a new page .

Finally, I’m ending this year in anguish. How can I not be preoccupied by the people flooded from their homes (and why this has happened), by the people who have fled for their lives and have no homes (and why we are not helping them more), by the disenfranchised and the poor and – on the other end of the spectrum – the self-serving powerful who do not use their status and their wealth for good, but to further bolster their own positions? Instead of just being a spectator, what can I do about all this?

I’m looking forward now. 2016 is ripe with promise.

Work-wise I will continue to split my time between writing and what I refer to as my day job, but after 14 years working for myself, in 2016 I am tying myself to a company which is determined to make real and sustainable change for the better. Maybe together we can make a real difference. Maybe – I hope – I can use my powers for good.

If everything goes well with our move we will be in a new home in the UK before winter is out. My daughters will be starting new schools (in English not French – they can’t wait!). We will reconnect with old friends and make new ones. My second novel will be out in the summer, which is a nerve wracking thing in itself. 2016 is already being fêted as an amazing year for fiction. Will my book find its place in amongst all those great contemporaries, or will it drown in the flood? Not much to do but wait and see.

And so to ring out the old and ring in the new* we’ve decided to reinvent our New Year’s Eve. We’re not going to stay up until twelve, filling the hours until the clock ticks over. It doesn’t work for us, I’m not sure it ever has. It puts too much emphasis on that moment at midnight as though it’s that which changes everything (even though in the UK there’s still an hour to go before the kisses and the fizz). We will say goodbye to this year, and this chapter of our lives, in our own way, in our own time, the four of us together, and then we will climb into our safe, warm beds and be glad of them.

And when we wake up in 2016, everything will change.


* Tennyson of course:

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.
Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.
Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more,
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.
Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.
Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out thy mournful rhymes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.
Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.
Ring out old shapes of foul disease,
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.
Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.


The Proximity by Proxy of Writing Letters

Posted on: August 2nd, 2015 by Claire - 2 Comments

My 9 year old daughter has joined the Scouts. One minute she was in the car and the next we had pulled over half way up a mountain and she was stomping off to join her troop with 40kg of orange T-shirts and mess kit strapped to her back, calling back over her shoulder, “I love you. But you can go now.”

The camp is 10 days long, and there is no contact. No Skype, no time-limited calls from pay-phones, and no emails or texts obviously. But we are allowed to write to her, and she is allowed to write to us too, should she have the time and inclination. She has been equipped with SAEs (remember those?) and pencils. And a sharpener.

I have no idea if she will miss us – I suspect she will a little, 10 days is a long time when you’re that age – but I’m already missing her. I’m used to us being apart when I have to leave home for a few days to go to work, but I do get to speak to her every day, and anyway it’s somehow different when I am still here and she is gone. The mess she has left randomly around the house – drawing books on the kitchen table, sandals in the courtyard, discarded pyjamas on the bathroom floor – is much less annoying than if she were here for me to ask her to pick it up. Her absence has given it a sentimental value. And so I have already written my first letter to her (see below). Actually, I confess that I did also write one the day we packed her rucksack. While she hopped about fizzing with excitement, I was writing to tell her how I hoped she would have a brilliant time, and posting it so it would arrive after her first couple of nights away.

When I was younger I wrote letters all the time. To absent parents, to penpals, to friends I missed in the holidays, to people I saw every day. They provided a moment of concentration, of catharsis, of closeness in absence, of amusement and crafting. I loved writing letters in a way I don’t love writing emails. And in putting pen to paper today I realised that I still love the way that you have to let the writing flow. There’s no going back to delete bits, and there’s no spell check, but you can express yourself in handwriting in a way that type doesn’t permit. You can sidle off up the side of the page or add in drawings or flourishes. You can be more authentically yourself than in a well-crafted email. It’s closer to speaking than typing, except you can hold it and re-read it, if you were that way inclined.

My challenge to anyone reading this post is to get out a piece of paper right now and a pen of your choice and in one sitting write a letter to someone you miss. Maybe you’ll enjoy it too…


So, then, that’s the first day without her over with. Just nine more to go.

It’s OK, I have PLENTY of pens.



Party Lifesaver: Top 10 Responses to *that* Question

Posted on: December 16th, 2014 by Claire - 16 Comments

It’s the party season. The time when authors can look forward to experiencing the excruciating blurring of social boundaries when discussing one’s work.

Most authors I know have told me that they have experienced this, in particular the one, very un-British, question at its zenith. There you are at a perfectly lovely party, chatting to perfectly lovely people, who (when they discover you’re an author) ask, “So what kind of books do you write?” So far so good. But hot on it’s heels, more often than you would imagine, comes, “So how much money do you make?”

I’ve done various jobs in my life (and still do) and no one has ever asked me about my salary or earnings in them. I mean not ever. Yet there I was again at a really lovely little party this weekend, mingling away, and before long there it was. “But really, do you sell many? I mean, how much money do you actually make from writing?”

Even though I’ve been asked this before, and usually by complete strangers, it still took me aback. I found myself standing with my mouth agape, wondering what the most socially acceptable way was to extricate myself from this line of enquiry. Fortunately someone in our group changed the subject on my behalf, but it got me to thinking I really should have a ready answer to deal with this more seamlessly.

Here are ten I’ve thought of so far. Do you have any to add? I’d love to hear them.

“How much money do you make?”

1) Oh millions. I honestly can’t keep up. And you?

2) Oh, no one makes any money out of books these days. Well, not many people. Well, I don’t. *Short melancholy pause* How do you think I could sell more books?

3) My therapist says that I shouldn’t answer that question at any cost. It always sets me back months.

4) I’m so glad you asked that. Would you excuse me? *Leave to mingle/get a drink/etc*

5) Have you tried the mini-kievs?

Party Nibbles

6) Is money important to you?

7) Have a guess! *Produce a small notepad* I’m running a sweepstake.  Go on, guess! What’s your name again?

8) Well we only have a couple of hives, so really only enough for our own consumption, maybe a few pots for gifts, but with the bees’ habitat being destroyed I do think anyone who has room could think about keeping just a few, don’t you?

9) *Roll eyes and laugh maniacally*

10) Percy asked me that at a party last Christmas. You know Percy, of course? Wasn’t it terrible what happened to him?


The Fallacy of a Ukrainian Language Divide and more…

Posted on: March 13th, 2014 by Claire - 25 Comments

As someone with a strong attachment to Ukraine and its people, I have been aching for weeks to speak out. I am not Ukrainian, but I know a lot of Ukrainians, and – in the mass of media opinion and some very half-hearted reporting – I wanted their voices to be heard. A writing blog didn’t seem like the ideal place, but the papers already have a lot of column inches filled by others, so I’ve decided to talk about it here. I trust you’ll understand this diversion from the usual topics.

About me and Ukraine

Twenty years ago I worked for a big consumer goods company. I went out to the newly independent Ukraine to recruit and train a national salesforce. People thought it was a little crazy at the time, but I received the warmest welcome you can imagine. Here we are in 1997, that’s me in the middle.


I’m not even sure, before I got the assignment, that I could have placed Ukraine on the map. Geography had never been my strong point. In the 1980s what we needed to know was that the sharp edge of the Cold War ran through Germany. In 1990 I visited Poland which by then had become a kind of buffer zone between Europe and the Soviet Union. Now of course it’s all different. Ukraine is now what stands between Europe and Russia. The word Ukraine  – Україна in Ukrainian – means the Borderlands, as appropriate now as it ever was.  

So, back in 1996 I recruited a team from around Kiev, Dnepropetrovsk, Lviv to the West, Odessa and Crimea to the South, Kharviv and Donetsk to the East and for the next two or three years my days were largely spent travelling to their cities and regions, to understand the market there and to train them on the job. These were young professionals who had been born into the Soviet Union, and as young adults found themselves citizens of a free Ukraine. Only five years after independence there was no doubt that they considered themselves Ukrainian. In the light of the ongoing crisis, I asked them what they really want now.

 Let’s talk about language first.

I’m a writer. Language is important to me and I’m particularly sensitive to how it is used. I’m also an expat, currently in France, and I’m aware on a daily basis how foreign languages can include or place barriers between people. There has been a lot of talk in the media about a “language divide” in Ukraine. Ukrainian speakers versus the Russian speakers. Can we stop that right now?

When I moved to Ukraine I learned Russian, not Ukrainian. Why? Because the majority of people (the notable exception being the far western region) in Ukraine in 1996 spoke Russian. Russian was the language on all the road signs, shop fronts and packaging. It was the language that everybody understood, whether they wanted it or not. Why? Since the 17th century the use of the Ukrainian language has been regularly proscribed or limited by the policies of those in power. Ukraine has a long and complicated history, click on the link if you want a flavour of that.

It had already begun to change while I was there, and over the last two decades use of Ukrainian has spread. Not extensively, as you will have read, to the ‘eastern’ and southern parts of Ukraine, but then imagine how long changing the language of a nation takes? Fortunately the two languages are relatively close, and use similar alphabets. But still, unsurprisingly, some people will never want to make the switch. (In fact, one big mistake that the interim government made earlier this year was to push through a law making Ukrainian the only official language. It was perhaps meant to be symbolic, but it was ill-considered and focusing absolutely on the wrong thing at the wrong time. There was an outcry from Russian speakers, which subsequently formed the basis of much propaganda about their ‘persecution’.) But being able to correlate the uptake of Ukrainian to either side of a physical map does not make it a political map. Language does not divide Ukraine.

What about an ethnic divide?

Have you wondered what the difference is between “Russian speakers” and “Ethnic Russians” and “Pro-Russians”? I’ve seen the terms used often in newspaper reports, and slipped in by Putin as a proxy for the “Russian citizens” he allegedly wishes to protect.

It’s quite simple. For “Russian speakers” read “Ukrainians”. For “Ethnic Russians” read “Ukrainians”: All those with Russian roots that I spoke to do not “fear for their safety” under the new interim government. They are shocked to hear how the reporting in Russia is shaping the perceptions of their relatives in Russia on the situation in Crimea. If they fear at all, it is fear of the advances of Putin on the territory of their country, and uncertainty as to when and how the international community will step up to help.

And for “Pro-Russians”? Take care. Are they ‘pro’ the language, or ‘pro’ the country? If the language, see above. If the country then ask first, are they Ukrainian citizens? Many “Pro-Russians” demonstrating in the East and South of the country are actually “Russian citizens”. Of course others are not, but the waters have been muddied so much it’s hard to judge where the balance lies.

Now there’s a way to divide people with language.

So, do Ukrainians really want to join the EU?

Some do and some don’t. But that’s not what the revolution was about. It’s true that the first protesters we saw on our screens were students protesting about Yanukovych backing out of closer ties with the EU, but that was just the spark in the powder keg. 

So where did the revolution come from?

It’s been coming for a long time. A great deal of hope arose with Ukrainian independence in 1991, even when the harsh reality of economic disparity between Ukraine and her neighbours to the west had become clear. But in the years that followed it has not been growth and a better quality of life that has emerged in Ukraine, but corruption, lawlessness and stagnation. Just like the occupying countries who came before them, those who have won political power in an independent Ukraine have creamed as much money from the people as possible and pocketed it themselves. In the last three years billions of dollars have disappeared from the state budget under Yanukovych. Ukrainians were still getting beaten down, just with a different stick.

For a long time, people didn’t speak out and that’s not surprising. For generations Ukrainians have been afraid to open their mouths. Even if the knock on the door in the middle of the night has fallen out of fashion, there are plenty of ways of dealing with people who refuse to fall in line. Crippling pressure can come from any corner: in the form of new ‘tax’ demands, from employers, from the police…anywhere.

But this time last year, small cracks started to appear. The often bitter Ukrainian winter was gripping the country but people were not receiving help from the authorities. A public solidarity rose up where people helped others in the community. They used social media to ask for and offer help. Warm food and clothes, shelter, transport assistance etc. By the way, this is the kind of people that Ukrainians are. When I lived there I never saw one person pass a beggar on the street without giving something. Not one.

Then at the end of 2013, the promised trade agreement with the EU was not signed. Yanukovych seemed to be turning away from Europe and deepening financial links with Russia. It was the students who raised their voices first – peacefully – on the Maidan. Students who saw their only hope of a prosperous future coming from the West, as part of Europe. 

It would probably have burned itself out if left to itself. But the response from Yanukovych was brutal. Students were beaten by the police. And that is when things turned.

Many more people came out to the Maidan, not to protest about the EU but to say that a regime that beats their children, their brothers, their friends, is one they could no longer accept. There was no left or right split in those protests. On the contrary they united diverse and sometimes radically opposed forces in a common aim: to end a regime – now an effective dictatorship – drenched in corruption, where people lived in fear. They came to protest peacefully, but I’m sure you have seen the outcome.

The cost of what happened next has been too high in lives and serious injuries, but there is a newfound pride in their ability to come together and take control of their own country where normal democratic means have failed them. The Maidan has brought the people closer together because they now feel stronger together. They are rising up with dignity in the face of years of corruption and abuse of power.

What do Ukrainians really want?


  • For us to hear their voices, to know that Ukrainians have solidarity and hope.
  • For people, both in Russia and the west, to understand that the propaganda they are hearing is far, far from reality.
  • An end to fear. People are afraid a war is coming. A war they want no part of. Some I spoke to are already prepared to leave their homes with their families at a moments notice.
  • Support from the International Community: A clear message that the interim government of Ukraine is legitimate, and that the occupation of Ukrainian territory and the upcoming referendum on Crimea joining Russia is not. Insistence that Russia to conforms to International laws and removes its troops from their territory. Support for Eastern and Southern Ukraine – the most vulnerable areas to further encroachment. Yesterday’s statement of the G7 leaders is a fine start, but will it be enough?
  • Whatever support can be given at all levels. Whether it’s diplomacy, sanctions, UN peacekeepers, boycotts, even just spreading information and giving moral support. Show that there is power behind the Ukrainian people.

And in the future:

  • Change in their country by legal means. Full and fair re-elections in May.
  • To stay in Ukraine and to speak whichever language they choose. Russian, Ukrainian, or both, free from bribery, injustice and corruption.
  • Help in establishing an effective, democratic government and a stronger economy. Ukraine is weak, but the people are strong and determined to build the country they want.


Let’s stop talking about what divides Ukrainians and talk about what unites them.

The people I spoke to speak Russian, Ukrainian and English. They are of all ethnic backgrounds. They are entrepreneurs, historians, directors, architects, translators, CEOs, engineers and parents. They want a free and modern Ukraine. They are asking for your help.

We need to stand by Ukraine, not just stand by. 


Further Reading:

Please do read Timothy Snyder’s truly excellent articles in the NY Review of Books. Amongst others:

Putin vs. Reality

Ukraine: The Haze of Propaganda

Fascism, Russia and Ukraine

And look here for a timeline and photographs of what is happening.

What is really happening in Ukraine

On the Maidan now – is this what fascists look like? (This is a blog written in Russian, I have linked to a Google-translated version but to be honest the pictures speak for themselves.)


Posted on: August 12th, 2013 by admin - 6 Comments

Summer Food

Food has been on my mind lately. (This is not unusual).

I love food. I love the colour and smell and taste of it. I love how tactile its preparation is and I like eating with my hands too. Food is one of the simplest human necessities that is also one of the finest pleasures, and you can do it three times a day. Sitting around a table to a meal can bring us together and it can nourish us. Of course food can also divide us, make us miserable and destroy us.

There’s little wonder, then, that food slips into fiction a lot. It certainly features heavily in my own writing

In The Night Rainbow, food is central to Pea because she’s having to source a lot of it for herself. She picks ripe peaches straight off the trees, waits for the morning baguettes to be delivered by the breadlady, and is very happy to take the biscuits that Claude offers. Her mouth waters at the pans of paella at the market and she tries to improve her mother’s mood by preparing food for her.

Food is also prominent in my next novel, although in a very different way, and I often use food as a metaphor in my flash fiction. Here are a couple of examples up at Fictionaut:

Anything Again

Flesh & Blood

Here is tonight’s supper, cooked and photographed by Mr King:

Since we moved here to France, our relationship with food has changed, and I was recently asked to write a magazine feature about our experience – the way we shop, prepare and eat French food. This week a photographer was sent over to shoot pictures of me with the family, as we took our weekly trip to the market, made meals and ate together. It’s was quite a surreal experience, and a very tiring day, but at the end of it, seeing how we eat through the eyes of someone else made me appreciate more than ever just how fortunate we are.

Here is a picture my husband snapped of me in the kitchen between shoots, wondering what to make for lunch:

Claire in the kitchen

And here is the photographer, Tom Parker, in our very shabby kitchen, taking photos of our pickles and preserves! You can bet when his photos turn up in the magazine feature it will all look very French and glamorous. (UPDATE: And here they are!)


But food isn’t really glamorous at all, is it? Certainly around here, the people who produce it work extremely hard for very little pay. If anything, the attitude we tend to have in our family towards food is one of gratitude and respect. Gratitude because we have such good and plentiful food, and respect in terms of our understanding of how it is produced and limiting waste.

This summer we crossed the Pyrenees over into Spanish Catalunya. We stayed at a lovely gîte there, owned by a family who have a few arable fields nearby, plus a farm with fruit, vegetables, chickens and pigs. They also have a Michelin starred restaurant. The farm is called Tancant cercles, which means closing circles, and their philosophy is that they produce the food they serve in their restaurant from start to finish, including growing the grain for their livestock. The owners were happy for us to take our children to have a look around the farm. There they showed us the harvested grain in the hoppers, which they feed to their pigs, they showed us the vegetables they grow and the free range chickens, and let the children go in and collect eggs. They showed us the pigs out and about, and the pregnant sows and those suckling the new litters. Then the owner took us and showed us the fridges, where they hang the pigs which have come back from the abattoir, the sausage and ham making processes and the cuts of meat, ready to be sold, or to be used in their restaurant. Later, we ate in the restaurant, and our children could point out pretty much everything on their plates and how they had seen it at the farm.

I know that this may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I do feel strongly that when many children and adults don’t have a clear understanding of how the food gets to their plates, seeing the end to end process is an important part of having respect for the food you eat. My children are still young, but they can now make the link between the piglets they petted and the ham they ate. As they grow up, I hope that they can keep that in mind, and never justify eating food produced in a way that they would not be happy to witness for themselves.

If you are ever in the area, the hotel/restaurant is Els Casals and the gîte (which sleeps 14) is La Rovira. They are all within a few minutes of each other, not far from Berga in Northern Spain (Catalunya, about an hour North of Barcelona).

Also, I’m thinking that maybe next year I might run a little writers retreat there, so let me know if you’re interested.

Old farmhouse in Spain

A canicular, French, late summer morning.

Posted on: August 22nd, 2012 by Claire - 10 Comments

There is a canicule in France at the moment – a heatwave. Municipal Lidos are full of people trying to cool off. Only the bravest, or the most determined holidaymakers take to the shadeless beaches between 11am and 4pm. Meanwhile the countryside is parched and forest fires are regularly taking hold, even in the higher mountain areas.

There are two weeks left of the summer holidays, and just as with the end of season peaches and nectarines – although we have already had our fill – we are gorging on the remainder, while it is still good, before the time has passed.

Even as dawn broke this morning the air was hot and by mid-morning it was pushing 35°.

I made pancakes (crêpes) for breakfast, to cheers of delight. We ate them with fresh lemons, syrups and jams and cold watermelon from the fridge. It’s amazing how pancakes for breakfast can make an ordinary day seem like a holiday.

Then the neighbour came round, as he does most years at this time and brought us tomatoes. They have stewed and frozen as many as they can, and still his plants keep on giving. He tours the neighbours with baskets and boxes and bags of the ripe-to bursting fruit.

My 6 year old and I took our dogs out for a walk, to let them cool off in the irrigation canal that keeps the fruit trees and fields watered on our side of the valley. We also took a bag in the hope of hunting down some blackberries. My daughter, who is enthralled by insects, spiders, lizards and in fact any kind of local flora and fauna, found this little creature on one of the bramble bushes. We think it might be a crab spider.


As we walked home the farmer was turning hay in the fields. The air was heavy with its sweetness and the warm scent of figs from the trees nearby. We dillied and dallied until we were parched with thirst, then ran home fast for cold water.

This is late summer, in the canicule, in southern France. This place is inspirational.



Death and Life

Posted on: January 2nd, 2012 by Claire - 15 Comments

A dear friend of mine died suddenly on New Years Eve and since then I’ve been grieving, in its various guises.

Whilst most have my thoughts have been about the loss of Annie in our lives, and the pain of those left behind, other strange thoughts have crept in.

Here is one that I’m not proud of. Annie was always very encouraging about my writing and so delighted when I told her my first book was going to be published. We talked about the novel and she was really looking forward to reading it. Of course now she never will.

It’s an odd thought, and not relevant at all to what has happened. Why would I even think about that?

I suppose that we all project how things will turn out in the future – times we are looking forward to, who will be there and what will happen. This story evolves, of course, but when we are forced to re-write that story abruptly it knocks us off balance.

In amongst all of the sadness, there is something healthy about this rupture, because it reminds us that the future is not certain. That there are no guarantees which of our loved ones we will get to keep, or for how long.

It should tell us how we ought to be living.




Posted on: November 25th, 2011 by Claire - 17 Comments

I’m one of those human beings who needs the symbols and ceremonies that mark our little lives.

The beginnings, endings and milestones along the way. I believe that they are important, psychologically.

I like birthdays, weddings and although I don’t enjoy them, I very much appreciate funerals. I always loved the first day back to school, and last day of school before the summer holidays. I love launch parties and recognitions of success. So what am I trying to tell you? OK, I’ll spit it out. I have a birthday with a zero at the end coming soon.

In forty days and forty nights, I’m going to be… (can you guess?)

Forty gets used a lot in religious texts. They seem to use it to mean ‘a big number’.

I remember my mum turning forty. I was sixteen. And forty did seem like a big number to me then. It was the age of mums and dads. An age to joke about, to celebrate, but in a mocking sort of way. In an ‘Over the hill and off the pill, get your slippers out’ sort of way.

For my mum, forty came in the heart of a storm. She was too busy surviving to worry about celebrating, reflecting or looking forward. It was all she could do to keep the boat afloat with her kids in it. My mum, by the way, is amazing. And her life since forty has just got better and better.

For me, forty comes in fine weather. I loved my twenties, although I was rather volatile for much of the time. I loved my thirties too, although I was in rather a hurry and sometimes a bit overwhelmed. I’m thinking that my forties are going to be brilliant, and for now I’m just thankful.

I’m thankful for my family. I’m thankful for our good health. And I’m thankful that we are bouncing along the regular ups and downs of the day-to-day, living the little trials and joys of our lives, with clean drinking water, untouched by earthquake, famine or flood. I’m thankful for the opportunities I’ve had so far, and the opportunities I have now.

And there’s no big wish list from this blogger. Everything I want from my forties has to come from me. I want to be a good mother to my girls, a good wife to my husband, a good daughter to my mum. I want spend as much time with my family and friends as I can, while I can. I want to seize the opportunity I have to write novels and have them published well. I want to be true to myself, and try and make myself a better person at fifty than I am today.

Hello, 40, you’ll be welcome.


Posted on: June 23rd, 2011 by Claire - 13 Comments

Today, the 23rd June, is the Fête de la Saint-Jean. Every year a fire is lit at the top of Mount Canigou, and tonight the fire is brought down to all the villages around the mountain, ours included, and villagers celebrate, and leap over the flames to celebrate the summer solstice, and the spirit of our community. The Mount Canigou is a mountain sacred to the Catalan people. There is something magical about it.

I had a friend who loved this mountain. This week he died on it.

This friend, this man, he loved the mountain. He knew the mountain and spent a lot of time there. It was his passion. Two days ago a storm fell as he was climbing to the peak. He was struck by lightning and died instantly.

Today I find myself immobilised by this news. Today I should have been writing. But I cannot even find the right words to express my condolences, never mind a scene in a novel. People say that you can write through grief. That you can turn the emotion into something positive. That writing can be therapeutic, or a tribute to someone we loved.

But this is not my grief. The last time I properly chatted with this person was last year at his 50th birthday party, although I see his wife most weeks.

Andrew’s death makes me feel mortal. It makes me terribly sad. It reminds me that I am profoundly grateful for my own family. It makes me want to reach out to his wife and help her in any possible way I can, and I feel helpless, because I know that there is no real way I can comfort her. But I feel, rightly or wrongly, that writing about the tragedy that has left a friend devastated, would be disrespectful in the extreme.

I don’t feel bad creating fictional grief from my darkest fears and imaginings.

I don’t feel bad creating fictional grief by drawing on feelings of grief that I have experienced personally.

But I find someone else’s grief impossible to approach through writing. It’s personal. I don’t want to write about it.

Although maybe I  just did.