Wednesday, 16 December 2020

Monotonous days and the comfort of colours

Danger of failing!
 The flat I moved into a year ago was freshly painted for my arrival. Fashionable, uniform grey. Pale grey walls, richly textured carpeting - but grey. It all looked fine in spring and summer sunshine. I didn't care too much about the coronavirus lockdown then, because I could walk for miles outside in luminous daylight and when I came home, stretched and content, the rooms still glowed with the long days' sunlight of Scotland's northerly latitude.
South Haugh

Now we're in another near-lockdown, I've been feeling more caged. More restricted, more morose; oppressed by the monotony of grey days. I miss seeing family. I miss seeing children! Their vitality... their innocent curiosity... the full bloom of their faces. I define myself as a mother. And as a writer. So, add to this some significant writing rejections and it's no wonder I've been suffering a bit of existential angst. 

Trying to find a path

Ah, existential angst! But this isn't a post about the meaning of life. This is a post about Covid-19 and ways to make meaningful the vacuous lockdown days when you're classed as more vulnerable to infection because of age and health conditions. Pacing grey streets in grey rain hasn't quite the same appeal as in the lighter months. Even my camera doesn't like getting wet. What to do? What to do?

I sent two poems off to two really valuable university projects which are collecting creative responses to the Covid pandemic. More on this another time. But for now, here are the website addresses - Aberdeen Uni Lockdown Lore Collection Project and Universities of Plymouth and Nottingham Trent University (Thank you to Federation of Writers Scotland newsletter compiler A.C. Clarke for this information) This still left long, repetitive days.

You wouldn't think the answer for me now would lie in a crochet hook and wool. A life-time of leftover wool. But at this moment, it does. 

It started with a simple chain of six stitches and an end of wool I bought to make a cardigan for a grandchild. Going round in circles, one stitch after another like walking - this perfectly represents for me the endless circling of my thoughts and actions in this grey flat. But now, my fingers are comforted by the textures, my itchy mind is lulled by the repetitive action, and each new colour brings with it memories of baby clothes (mint green - before we knew if she'd be a boy or a girl!) primary school jumpers (strands of grey and navy!) and even the remnants of the vivid yellow wool I bought to crochet a Pokemon amigurumi!

Small beginnings

There isn't a pattern - you could say that about existence, anyway - and sometimes I've incorporated unintentional undulations because I've been over-generous when increasing stitches as the rounds get bigger. It doesn't matter. I tried crocheting with two wools at the same time - red and yellow. It didn't work out the way I hoped, but that's okay, because life's like that, isn't it? 

It's four feet in diameter now. (Mathematicians can entertain themselves in these grey days by working out how many rows that is, and how many stitches there might be in that circumference!) I'm going to keep going till it's big enough to have a one-foot overlap on each side of my double bed. 

Four feet diameter now

It's far from perfect, and it even looks a bit like an archery target, but it's the embodiment of my experience of the 2020 Covid-19 lockdown. It's kept me warm while I've been crocheting it - like a big fat cat on my lap (which makes me remember Nicola Sarah Jane, Fat Belly Jones, Raisa, Micha and Willow) and it'll keep me warm well into the years ahead. However many or few there may be. And whatever it looks like, I'll treasure it because it's imbued my monotonous days with reminiscences and the comfort of texture and colours. 

Sunday, 22 November 2020

Meet the author - Leela Soma

I recently had a great chat with author Leela Soma about her new crime novel Murder at the Mela, and I'm delighted to be able to share that here on my blog. 

Leela's novel is set in Glasgow and features the newly promoted DI, Alok Patel. He and his team are faced with solving a nasty murder when a young woman's body is found under the bushes in Kelvingrove Park. But let Leela tell us a bit more about it!

CMcK: Hi Leela. I’ve just finished reading your latest novel, Murder at the Mela, which was published by Ringwood in November 2020. I loved it and am looking forward to hearing all about it and the writing process. First of all, what’s the Mela of the title?


LS: Mela is a Sanskrit word that means ‘a gathering’ ‘ a fair’ . It could be for religious, business or to meet up for cultural reasons. This year, 2020, we are celebrating 30 years of the Mela in Glasgow. What started as a tiny ‘gathering’ of the Asian community in 1990, soon became an annual ‘fair’ for all of Glasgow and Scotland. I think the Glasgow Mela is to Glasgow what The Notting Hill Carnival is to London.


CMcK: Give us a quick summary of the plot, and the main character, DI Alok Patel – the new man in town.


LS: Alok Patel is an ambitious young police officer who has just been promoted to Detective Inspector and the novel starts with his first murder case that he has to solve. Nadia Ahmad’ s body is found at Kelvingrove Park, where the Mela was held. Was it a racist murder or an honour killing? As the story unfolds, the reader gets a glimpse of not only whodunnit, but also the life of Asians in Glasgow and their interactions with the host community.


 CMcK: The book is set in Glasgow, in 2015. Was it important to you to choose these setting details?


LS: It had to be Glasgow the city I know intimately and have lived here all my adult life. Why 2015? I have been writing this book for a few years and that year was important for also plot purposes.


CMcK: This is your first crime novel and you really keep the reader guessing till the end to find out ‘whodunnit’.  Did that complex plotting come easily to you? Did you enjoy the challenge?! 


LS: It took me years to get the craft of writing a crime novel just right! My previous two books were general fiction. This had to be well planned, the red herrings plausible and the plot tight enough to make it a real whodunnit. I enjoyed the challenge but it did take me quite a few attempts and getting expert advice from real policemen, to get it right.


CMcK:  As well as being a page-turner, Murder at the Mela features strong social commentary, conveyed very naturally through the warmth of the characters. You introduce the religious divisions in the Asian community, and you also show the plight of some disadvantaged characters in Glasgow. How important was it to you for your novel to be socially aware like this?


LS:  My earlier novels have always reflected the society in which we live. The tensions between Asians in Glasgow, who are not a homogenous group, had to be addressed. Many readers are not aware of such differences. As for the disadvantaged, they are part of our society and writing about their plight was important to me. I hope it also made the plot more interesting.


CMcK: What about influences? Who are your favourite novelists and crime novelists?


LS: That is a hard question to answer. In India the popular crime writers when I was growing up were Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle. Contemporary Scottish crime writers have been Ian Rankin, Alex Gray and Val McDermid. I must read more crime fiction, but I also love world literature so I am always lacking time to indulge in both.


CMcK: Murder at the Mela introduces us to a cast of very appealing characters. Can we look forward to a sequel?

LS: I have an outline for DI PATEL 2 but the pandemic has not been very conducive to writing. At least for me. Zoom events and promoting this novel have kept me busy. Perhaps in 2021, I will sit down to write it.

CMcK: I hope so! You’re a prolific poet and have published two other novels. Tell me a bit about them.


LS: Poetry is a completely different skill. It comes from the subconscious, I am not able to pinpoint what drives me to pen them, but I get enormous satisfaction from seeing the verses on the page once it is written and rewritten.

The other two novels were almost a mission. I am a voracious reader and looking around the bookshelves of any bookstore I found it hard (even now) to see many books by Scottish Asian writers. I felt I had to try and share our experiences too and hope that younger generations will continue to fill this void.


Leela Soma

CMcK: What made you want to become a writer?


LS:  I have always loved reading. As you can see from the answer above I wanted to write down our stories. I enrolled in classes at Glasgow University Adult Continuing Education on Creative Writing classes and found that I enjoyed writing. When I took early retirement I found that I have more time both to write and to procrastinate.


CMcK: Could you give us links to your website, and other sources where we can find your work?


LS:  My website is: 

Twitter :@Glasgowlee

Facebook and Insta : Leela Soma. 

Books are all available on Amazon, Waterstones and the new one from Ringwood Publishing.


CMcK: Thanks so much for giving us these insights into Murder at the Mela!


LS: Thank you for having me on your blog. It’s been a pleasure. And your book Incunabulum is a superb read.

CMcK: Awww, thanks!

Saturday, 7 November 2020

Incunabulum reviewed in Northwords Now


One of the things that has frustrated me most in my writing career over the last thirty years is that I can't persuade publishers to take my novels. Doesn't that just mean you're no good as a writer? I hear you say. Well, maybe. Yet I've won accolades and prizes for my short stories, the memoir I co-wrote was a best-seller, and I've been given writers' bursaries and fellowships. It's bizarre! Rejections are always along the lines of 'You write beautifully, but...' e.g. 'not what we're looking for at the moment' / 'not right for our list at the moment'. 

In 2007, The Daily Telegraph newspaper ran their 'Novel in a Year Competition', judged by author Louise Doughty. I submitted the opening chapters of a post-pandemic novel I was working on, and was thrilled when it reached the longlist and had an extract actually published on their website. (You can still read it there today, though it's behind a paywall now.) I acquired an agent, and he tried his hardest to sell it to publishers on my behalf, but it got nowhere. At that time, I was told my writing 'fell between two stools'. In other words, it was judged to be neither sufficiently literary nor sufficiently commercial. The agent recommended I cut the beginning, starting, instead, with the 'shoot-em-up' scene. Hmm.

Maybe I'm too thrawn to have my novels published in the mainstream. Too stubborn. The thing is, Incunabulum is the opposite of a 'shoot-em-up' kind of novel. While there are action scenes - fight scenes, violence - this is at heart a novel about a woman who yearns to belong: to be loved and to love in return. It's about an older woman who has been emotionally isolated for most of her life, yet when the world around her is devastated by a pandemic, she ultimately finds herself surrounded by familial love and everything that 'home' represents.  

But how to get that published? The agent and I gave up and moved on. Incunabulum lay dormant in my computer files. Until early 2020, when I decided (now aged 64) that I'd nothing to lost and might as well revive it and publish it myself. So I did, with the help of Keith at PotHole Press. We published it a week into the UK Covid-19 lockdown. Did it sell? Hardly at all. Friends and acquaintances bought it and I was overjoyed at their feedback (and reviews on Amazon!), but the literary establishment is closed to self-published or 'indie' authors. It's close to impossible to get the book stocked by the distributors from whom libraries and bookshops obtain their stock. And the newspapers and literary journalists don't take it seriously. After all, if a publisher can't see its merits, why should they?

That's why I am so thrilled today to see that the Scottish literary magazine Northwords Now has reviewed it. Most important of all, Valerie Beattie's review treated my work seriously, discussing the themes that underpin my writing with academic insight and precision. It's impossible for me to describe how valued that makes me feel. So, sales or no sales, indie publishing Incunabulum has been worth it. 

Monday, 19 October 2020


Ten years. Two little pills.

Ten years ago today, I died.

That’s not quite true.

Ten years ago today, I was scheduled to die. Working secretly, my immune system targeted and destroyed the outer layers of my adrenal glands, almost wiping me out by friendly fire. Luckily, I live in the 21st century. The Emergency doctor at Hairmyres Hospital recognised the rare endocrine condition that was killing me.

Until the middle of the 20th century, a diagnosis of Primary Adrenal Insufficiency (Addison’s Disease) was a death sentence. President J F Kennedy was one of the first to survive it. He was one of the first to take daily pills that replicate the actions of those adrenal gland outer layers, controlling blood pressure and blood sugar, balancing minerals like potassium and sodium, and helping the body respond to stressors. If ever I feel a bit low, physically, I tell myself JFK could run a country, so I can get out of bed.

Two little pills.

It’s weird, being a few pills away from lying in your coffin. It takes a bit of adjustment, not just physically, but psychologically. In the beginning, experimentation to find the right daily dose had me mood-swinging from manic to suicidal. I had an image of myself as Frankenstein’s monster, the hydrocortisone pills like the electricity bolt surging through my corpse and re-animating it. It doesn’t help that a side-effect of taking steroids means I suffer chronic fungal infections on my thinning facial skin. Most of the time, though, my life is good. And well worth living.

Ten years. I’ve filled that ten years with a lifetime of experiences. I haven’t climbed Everest or bungee jumped; I’ve not yet taken gliding lessons or trekked the Gobi Desert. But I’ve had ten beautiful years to see my family mature into adulthood. I’ve welcomed grandchildren. I’ve enjoyed the closest bond ever with the man I love. And I have managed to fit in a few adventures. Exploring Mexico City and New York. A road trip from Austria across Europe following the route home taken by my uncle and fellow soldiers after the Second World War. At age sixty, I even walked the sixty-two miles of the St Cuthbert’s Way from Melrose in the Scottish Borders to Lindisfarne off England’s N.E. coast, revelling in being able to do it; revelling in being out there in good company, in all weathers, in nature.      

When I was diagnosed, there were no books I could read to sate my hunger for information about the condition. Thankfully, there was the Addison’s Disease Self-Help Group – a small charity run by dedicated volunteers, many of them ‘sufferers’. I’m a writer, though, and a reader, and I needed more. I contacted fellow Addisonians through social media and went on to collate and publish an ebook of personal accounts, subsequently being interviewed on BBC World Service about it. Second Chances, I called it. Far from original, but second chances it was, for all of us.

In the ten years since my diagnosis, life / fate / God / the universe has dealt out unexpected lethal blows to several friends and companions, long before their time. Breast cancer, brain tumours – these give little time to take stock and savour the life we’re living. Heart attack and brain clots robbed three friends with no warning, their loved one inexplicably in their arms one day and a cold void there the next. There’s no logic to it. No fairness. No resolution. It could have been me, that morning, ten years ago, and yet two little pills a day mean I’m still here, still welcoming each new day, still passionate to meet each season.

No one can predict the future. In my mid-thirties, when I was worn out from looking after unplanned twins (and two older children) after a very difficult pregnancy, I plea-bargained with the universe, swearing I’d do my utmost to love and nurture these children, but please could it release me from living once they reached independence. Is that when my auto-immune system turned against me? They were eighteen and living away from home at university when I ‘died’.

I plea-bargained again, then, newly diagnosed with Addison’s Disease. Please give me ten years. Ten more years! And it did, with two little daily pills.

A couple of months ago, I had an adrenal crisis. A gluten free brownie I thoroughly enjoyed turned out not to be gluten free after all, and within hours I was dying (again!) on the bathroom floor. My husband paced the flat in his panic, reading and re-reading my emergency injection’s instructions, while I wailed feebly, repeatedly, ‘Just give me my jag!’ Once he’d taken a deep breath and it was done, I lay there, gradually feeling the energy returning to me, and brooded on that ‘just another ten years’ I’d wished for, and whether my time might really be up. Did I escape, once again, the day of reckoning?

Now the robust, orderly social system we have around us is staggering under the strain of the covid-19 pandemic, bringing home to all of us how insecure life really is, in a way we have been inconscient of for decades. Do we all plead for another ten years? Or twenty? Or leave it in the lap of the gods?

Outside my house, the gardens are clad in the colours of autumn. Last week, I walked through woodlands with my oldest daughter and grandkids and talked on Skype with my other children. This morning, a buzzard, high in the sky, appeared serene despite being dive-bombed by crows, and a squirrel ran along my window-ledge. My cupboards are full, there’s chocolate in the fridge, and there’s even an unopened bottle of single malt to savour, now the nights are drawing in. This very moment, the pavements are coppery with leaves and the rain has stopped.

Carpe diem, I say. Carpe diem. I’ve taken my lunchtime medicine dose. I’ve a stout pair of shoes and a warm jacket. Time to seize the day.