Sunday, 18 March 2018

Early Days in the US - and the Cuban Missile Crisis

Standing at the rails of RMS Sylvania in the pink and grey dawn of Sunday, 8th October 1962, I was choked with emotion as I caught sight of the Manhattan skyline. The tall buildings reached for the sky while the more mundane waterfront buildings were lost in the murky grey and blending into the background. It was, without doubt, one of the most memorable moments of my life.
            Despite the seeming nearness of the skyline, it took hours before the ship finally docked and hours again before we were finally allowed down the gangplank, having been told to wait in the Customs shed till I was reunited with my trunk, which had been stowed in the hold. Mr Peters, a tall man with thinning hair and a wide grin, was waiting for me. Somehow he got that huge trunk in his car on his own.
            Being a Sunday, Manhattan was comparatively quiet. I say comparatively because, of course, Manhattan is never really quiet. It truly is the city that never sleeps. There is often a pre-dawn lull in the ever-present traffic when the streets are quieter. But in fact, there is a steady hum all the time from the traffic, probably because it is trapped between the tall buildings on either side of the wide streets. Driving through Manhattan on that very first day seemed like we were driving through a canyon. To me though, the most noticeable sight was the steam rising from manholes in the road. Mr Peters told me that these were the ventilation shafts of the subway. In my fanciful dream-like state, the whole seemed like a vision of hell, made even more noticeable with the speed of the cars flashing past us and weaving in and out of the traffic in a lunatic way.
            Soon we were going through the Lincoln Tunnel under the Hudson River to bring us out into New Jersey. As we came out of the tunnel and swung round 360°, Mr Peters told me to look over towards Manhattan. It was the most spectacular view of the city from the New Jersey shoreline over the Hudson River. It was a view I always looked out for, even more spectacular at night when everything was lit up and one I never tired of. Then we were on the New Jersey Turnpike.
            After about an hour’s driving, we were in the leafy suburbs of Princeton, where the
The Peters' comfortable home in Princeton
Peters lived, mainly notable for its University, one of the so-called Ivy-League universities. Soon, we were pulling up outside a typical clapboard house, built on several levels, which I learned later was a split-level house, and I was being ushered through what Mr Peters called ‘The Den’. It was a sort of family room with several easy chairs or sofas, all well-worn but comfy looking, and a TV in the corner. Up a few stairs was the kitchen which, it seemed, was full of people although there were only four of us, including me. Mr Peters introduced me to his wife, a tall angular woman, wearing a wrap-over denim skirt and a pretty flowered blouse, a typical uniform for her. The third person was a man, wearing tennis whites, perched on one of the worktops, who was introduced as a cousin. I was instantly smitten and had a crush on him for the remainder of my time in Princeton. The odd thing is that I can’t remember his name.
            I do remember that he thought it was ‘kinda cute’ that I wanted a cup of tea. Mrs Peters had to rummage in one of the cupboard that lined the wall before she was able to produce a packet of tea bags, unknown to me at that time. Back in England we were still using loose tea. Even odder was their reaction to my wanting milk and sugar in my tea instead of lemon.
            I don’t remember too much else about that first day. I must have been introduced to the children, who were called in from the yard, what we would call a garden, a large expanse of grass with a few shrubs dotted around, where they had been playing. Rick, the eldest, was about eleven, a stock lively-looking boy with very short spiky hair; Jonathan, who was seven, was a quiet-looking boy with a dreamy look about him; and David, who was three, was a typical toddler, sweet-faced and chubby.
My room was next to the den and overlooked the drive and car port. The single bed was covered in a pretty orangey cotton patterned spread that matched the curtains. There was a chest of drawers-cum-dressing table, a wardrobe and a low table on which was, joy of joys, a record player. It was a lovely restful room and I was thrilled with it.
            My room was to become a haven to me over the following months. It sheltered me in many moods, weepy, happy, sad, lonely. That first night, I cried myself to sleep, overcome by the awesome realisation that I was on my own in a strange land, missing Mum and Dad, even my pesky little brother, Mark. I didn’t recognise it at first as homesickness but that was what it was. It was a feeling I was to become familiar with over the next few weeks. I honestly didn’t believe I was going to be able to settle down and more than once wondered about the possibility of going home. This feeling mostly came over me on a night when the children had gone to bed, the Peters were having their own dinner and I was alone in my room listening to music, writing in my diary, or letters home. I could have watched the TV in the Den but in the early days I wasn’t familiar with the American TV schedules. I kept that diary faithfully all the time I was there and afterwards, only getting rid of it when I married. I’ve regretted that so many times.
            Fortunately, during the day, I had much to occupy my time, new things to experience, new sights to see, the children to look after. Mostly that was seeing to the two youngest, Rick, being older didn’t need much looking after, getting all their breakfasts, seeing Rick and Jonny off to school (or at least to the end of the street from where the yellow school bus collected them). The daytime consisted of keeping an eye on David while doing some light household chores, like the children’s rooms, their bathroom, my own room and bathroom, washing and ironing. For the first time, I became aware of a clothes’ dryer and how much easier it made life.
            I often had an hour or so to myself in the afternoons because David still had a nap. Soon after, the two older boys would be home from school and it was all action stations from then on till they went to bed.
A particular bonus to me was the fantastic central heating. Coming from the freezing cold house in Brunswick Avenue, central heating was a revelation. The temperature was set at a constant 75°F which meant that at most I needed to wear a cotton blouse and a denim skirt (a wrapover style like Mrs Peters, one of my first purchases) in the house. The heating didn’t go off at night either; it stayed on at a minimum of 68°F. The thermostat was located in the den, adjacent to my room, and it was one of my jobs to turn the thermostat down before I settled for the night. The constant warmth was, to me, pure bliss.
            Mrs Peters showed me everything I needed to know, that first few days, and took me around the town. It was a pretty town, still with many old buildings, some of which had been incorporated into the University, and it reminded me very much of Cambridge. As it was early October, the students hadn’t started back yet, though would do so in a week or so. She explained that the town would then become much busier. Mr Peters was an investment broker in Manhattan and commuted there daily. Not by car, though, it would have taken too long. Instead, he drove to Princeton Junction, caught the train to somewhere on the New Jersey coast, then crossed the Hudson River by ferry.
  I hadn’t been in America very long when I began to pick up, from the TV news and from the Peters’ conversation, that there was some kind of crisis facing the US over Cuba. What I did understand, when I delved a little deeper, was that Cuba had installed Russian-built missiles aimed at the US in general, and Florida in particular, only 80 or so miles away. America, feeling understandably vulnerable, made threatening noises to Cuba, who turned to Russia for back-up. They, in turn, sent some of their fastest ships heading towards Cuba. For about ten days, there was a stand-off between Russia and America, when the threat of a nuclear war was very real. There was much hysteria on American TV and I was frightened, being so far from home. If anything was to happen, I wanted to be home with my family. Impossible, of course, but this, combined with my homesickness, made it a difficult and anxious time. I would have given anything for the measured tones of a BBC news reader reading out the news. Then, just as the situation became more tense, the Russians backed off and the missiles started to be dismantled.

The Cuban Missile Crisis appeared to be over.

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Wine and Chocolates with Sally Jenkins

It’s Wine and Chocolate time again! This time I’m talking to my long-time writing friend, Sally Jenkins, about her new book. Welcome Sally and do help yourself to some wine. And a chocolate or two, of course. First of all, tell me,

How did you first come to write?
 I feel I should say that I’ve always wanted to write but in fact I didn’t catch the bug until I was in my mid-thirties. At that point I realised magazines paid for readers’ letters and I thought, I can do that! And so I did.

From there I took a correspondence course with The Writers’ Bureau and started having articles published. Then I tried my hand at short stories for women’s magazines and competitions, with some success. In the background I had a few novel writing attempts that dried up after three to four chapters. Eventually, I managed to complete a whole novel and sent it off the Romantic Novelists’ Association New Writers’ Scheme (NWS) – and got a big thumbs down! I realised romance wasn’t my ‘thing’ and switched genres to grip-lit (psychological thriller meets commercial women’s fiction). It was the right thing to do because my next novel won the Ian Govan Award and was published on Kindle and in paperback. At that point I felt like a real novelist!

What genre do you write in?
 I am intrigued about how our past impacts our present and future lives. In my fiction I like to make this impact chilling. In my first novel, Bedsit Three, the upbringing of one of the characters drives his destructive behaviour and in The Promise there are serious repercussions for something the heroine did three decades earlier. I also write straight commercial women’s fiction.

What are you currently working on?
 I’m juggling a couple of strands of my writing life at the moment. The Promise has just been published and I’m deep into online and real life promotion. It’s been described as a ‘web of intrigue’ and a ‘fast-paced psychological thriller’ and I’m devising an author talk that, among other things, teaches the audience how to make money out of murder! (That sounds a fascinating talk, Sally! Would love to be in your audience when you do it.)

I’m also working on the first draft of my third grip-lit novel and I have a commercial women’s fiction novel on submission to agents.

Do you have a dedicated working space?
Yes and no. I have taken over our smallest bedroom, so I can leave papers, notebooks, boxes of books etc. strewn everywhere but it is not a dedicated writing space. Three days a week I work from home for a multinational IT consultancy and so I have to have my work-supplied laptop on my desk alongside my own PC. But once my IT working day is done I close the laptop and jump back into my preferred role of writer! The room and desk are usually a mess and I did consider tidying up before I took the photo – but then decided that would be dishonest and time-wasting, so you see it warts and all!

What sort of books do you read for pleasure? Do you have favourite author?
 I read lots of different things. I coordinate a library book group once a month and that often pushes me out of my comfort zone. There are thirteen of us and the library struggles to find books which have sufficient copies, so we don’t choose our books – they are thrust upon us! (When I was a member of a book club, finding the right quantity of books was always a problem for our library too .) This year we have struggled through The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists which was written a hundred years ago and focusses on the life of the poor before socialism, the NHS and the welfare state. We have grazed on Agatha Christie and also tried the more literary Anne Enright with The Green Road. Outside of the group I read a lot of psychological thrillers. I still meet up with the romance authors I met during my time with the RNA NWS and I enjoy reading their work too.

Favourite author? That’s a tough question but if pushed I would name two – P.D. James and Mo Hayder.

Besides writing, what is your other passion?
 I have three other passions – public speaking, bell ringing and walking. I joined a Speakers’ Club around four years ago to give me the skills to promote myself as a writer. I’m still not a great orator but have bags more confidence and no longer run a mile at the thought of addressing an audience. And I’m vice president of the Speakers’ Club now!

I started ringing church bells at the age of 14 and have continued ever since. It’s a great hobby involving physical and mental effort as well as team work. Bell ringers are generally a friendly bunch and always make newcomers welcome.

I find walking (especially long walks in the countryside) relaxing. My mind wanders and sometimes great plot ideas pop into my head. Then I have to make my husband stop walking for a minute so I can make a note – many of my best ideas have been lost in the ether because I didn’t write them down!

Find out more about Sally and follow her blog at or follow her on Facebook ,Twitter @sallyjenkinsuk or on Amazon
A man has been stabbed. A woman is bloodstained. The nightmares from her teenage years have begun again for Olivia Field just as she is preparing to marry. Ex-convict, Tina is terminally ill. Before she dies, the care of her younger, psychologically unwell brother, Wayne must be ensured. So Tina calls in a promise made to her thirty years ago in a prison cell. A promise that was written down and placed with crucial evidence illustrating a miscarriage of justice in a murder case. Tina believes Olivia is perfectly placed to provide the care Wayne needs, but to do so, Olivia must be forced to cancel her own wedding and wreck the lives of those close to her. Tina's terrible blackmail demands put Olivia's entire future and, ultimately, her freedom under threat. The Promise is a fast-paced psychological thriller told from several third person viewpoints. The novel explores the lengths to which people are prepared go in order to protect those they love and the impossibility of ever fully escaping our past actions.

It sounds fascinating, Sally, and I’m sure it will do well as this kind of thriller is enormously popular. Thanks for your time and do have another chocolate before you go!