Interviews

Eight months in Fiji: how Heather’s COVID year changed her life

I thought my readers would be interested in the post below. It tells the story of how Heather Anderson, whom I worked with during my ‘day job’ trip to Australia in 2019, was marooned in Fiji after the country was locked down because of COVID and had to stay there for almost nine months. I think it is an extraordinary story of resilience and creative thinking. Heather’s achievement while exiled from her family was immense – and, as she says herself, the experience will have changed her forever. I’m sure you will be as impressed as I am!

Heather Anderson, walking at sunset in Fiji

No one will forget last year, the ‘COVID year’. Most people worked – are in fact still working – from home, and many have found ingenious workarounds to enable them to carry on almost as normal. Few, however, can claim to have experienced new adventures in 2020, the year when monochrome surroundings and hugely reduced personal interaction became the norm. 

Heather Anderson, Cambridge Academic’s Sales Support Consultant in Australia and New Zealand, has an entirely different story to tell. Heather planned a five-day visit to Fiji in March… and ended up staying for more than eight months, trapped by the country’s lockdown as the pandemic reached Australia and the Pacific region.

Shortly after Heather arrived in Fiji, COVID infections in the region began to escalate, but Fiji itself was still clear of the disease. Its government therefore made a swift decision to close its borders, largely because the village lifestyle of the Fijian people would make social distancing, self-isolation and quarantining impossible. This decision was not taken lightly: inevitably there was a huge economic price to pay, as the country depends solely on tourism. However, the initiative worked: Fiji continued to be COVID-free for nearly the entire time Heather was there. Just a few cases arrived from overseas during June, an outbreak that was contained by quarantining those infected.

The Australian government organised one repatriation flight, in April, but Heather did not hear of it until it was fully booked. Every month for almost nine months, she booked herself on a scheduled flight home that eventually was cancelled. She finally reached home – she lives on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland – on 6th December 2020, following a repatriation flight to Brisbane and quarantine.

Heather continued to do her job for the whole time she was away. Because the visit she had planned was so short, initially she had not intended to take her laptop and other working tools with her, but changed her mind at 3 a.m. on the morning of the outward flight. Once she realised she would be marooned in Fiji, she managed to purchase a WiFi modem and set up her ‘office’ in a village on Viti Levu, the ‘Coral Coast’. 

She explained her situation to some of her librarian customers and some already knew, from discussions with her colleagues. She is grateful to them for the support she received: she says they were very empathetic; most of them checked on her each week, sending funny jokes, video snips or just supportive notes. 

Michael Cowley, the Sales Director of Cambridge Academic in Australia, contacted Heather regularly to check on her wellbeing and she continued to join weekly video calls with the Cambridge HE/Library team: “My direct academic team in Australia were wonderfully supportive and showed so much care and compassion, which was really great. That got me through the working weeks.”

Despite all the remote support she was able to channel, Heather found it extremely difficult to adjust to the knowledge that she would be detained in Fiji indefinitely, even though she was also very aware that others in the world were suffering more because of the pandemic. At first, time dragged when she wasn’t working, but then she realised she could be of huge practical help to the islanders, who had lost their jobs. Heather takes up the story.

“I got involved in raising funds for the youth in the area I was staying. Their parents had all lost their jobs, because they worked in tourism and they were really struggling to feed the children and get them back to school. The picture of me below, in the Fijian jumba (it is red), was taken at the main fundraising event. Altogether we raised $25,000FJD for the young people, which was an enormous help in taking pressure off their parents.”

Enforced exile and collapse of the local economy was not all Heather and the islanders had to contend with:

“During April we were hit by a Category 5 Cyclone, which wiped out all the plantations these families were relying on for food and money – they had hoped to sell their produce at the markets – so the fund-raiser really helped raise hopes and gave immediate relief.”  

Heather is an inveterate animal lover – she particularly likes penguins! – and spent the rest of her spare time on animal welfare:

“I fed all the dogs in the village every day for over eight months. In partnership with Animals Fiji, I also ran an

Some of the dogs Heather fed and cared for

animal de-sexing clinic to help the many stray and starving dogs on the island. I also ran mini-education sessions for the kids and adults in the village, to give them basic tips on how to care for their animals and how to carry on feeding them after I left. I am now sending monthly payments to those families to purchase extra food for the animals they own and pay for basic medicine to cope with fleas, ticks and worms.”

Dog walking in the dunes

Heather says that one of her main ‘positives’ was that she lost weight rapidly while she was in Fiji – almost sixteen kilos altogether. She thinks it was mainly the result of eating ‘clean’, simple foods and walking on rough terrain, especially sand dunes. Taking up fishing also entailed a lot of walking. 

“The Government imposed military curfews for the entire time I was there, which was unnerving at first but seemed to work well. Most people obeyed them. For several months, the curfew lasted from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. every night, then the restrictions were gradually eased, so it was running from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m. by the time I left. 

“I really tried to keep positive and busy, but deep down I was struggling every day. I knew my husband, at home in Australia, was unwell. Each month my hopes were raised that I would be able to fly home and every time the flight was cancelled. I felt very fragile when I was told that I might not be able to leave Fiji until mid-March 2021.

“Just after I received this shattering news, my cousin sent me a list of repatriation flights which I hadn’t been told about, even though I had registered for absolutely every aid I possibly could. I shall be forever grateful to my cousin for giving me the heads up! I phoned immediately, to learn that there were only twenty seats available on a flight arranged for November 22nd and all had been taken. I explained how long I had been away and begged to be allowed on the flight. I boarded it as passenger twenty-one! I had two days to put everything straight and get to the airport.  

“When I was finally on the plane, mask on and no one either side of me, I cried and cried: more tears than I thought possible. Finally, after months of trying and failing to go home, I was on my way. 

“As soon as I the plane landed in Australia everyone on the flight was sent to a quarantine centre, so I had made it home only to find myself in ‘prison’ for fourteen long days. It wasn’t a major setback in the scheme of things, but I found those fourteen days the hardest of all. “2020 has taught me so much. I am stronger than I ever gave myself credit for and I appreciate all the little things in life. I know now that kindness and open hearts will get you through almost anything. Material things truly are overrated. I was in a place where people barely had enough to eat, but the love and support of the families I knew and the smiles on the beautiful kids’ faces were riches of a much more worthwhile kind.”

Heather, 2021

[I wrote this post for the Cambridge University Press blog and it is with permission from CUP that I am also publishing it here.]

One writer looking back… lots of writers looking forwards!

Spalding High School

Spalding High School

At first light yesterday, I travelled to Spalding High School, my own former school, to which I had returned only once previously since leaving the sixth form.  I received a wonderful welcome from Adrian Isted, the newly-appointed Head of English, who began the day’s activities by showing me round the school.

With Adrian Isted, Head of English

With Adrian Isted, Head of English


First stop was the office of the headteacher, Mrs. Michele Anderson, who is also fairly new to the school.  She was fascinated to hear a little more from me about Mrs. Jeanne Driver, the first married headteacher at the school, who was its leader throughout my school career.  Born Jeanne Ouseley, she lived at 10, High Street, a large house of several storeys situated near the River Welland in Spalding.  Part of this house was divided into flats and there were usually several other teachers living there, as well as two of my fellow sixth formers, Cheryl Ouseley and Elizabeth Davies, both of whom were her nieces.  They called her ‘Auntie Jeanne’, a name that the rest of the sixth form also used affectionately, if unofficially.  Mrs. Driver was one of several strong women who influenced me as a girl.  She had a strong sense of duty and an even stronger work ethic.  We found some of the things she said highly amusing (for example, ‘I stand up whenever I hear the national anthem, even if I’m in the bath.’).  Sometimes she took the notion of duty to an extreme.  I remember she told us that when her husband, who had been in ill health for some time, finally died, she finished marking a set of books before setting in train the preparations for his funeral.  But her influence has lasted all my life.

The school has been added to, but otherwise is little changed.  I suppose the thing that struck me most yesterday is how it seems to have shrunk.  The corridors seemed longer, the stairways steeper, the ceilings higher when I first attended it as an eleven-year-old, then for only a part of the school week – pupils belonging to the first two school years still spent most of their time at the old school building in London Road, the first home of Spalding High School when it was established in 1920 on the site of its predecessor, the privately-owned ‘Welland Academy for Young Ladies’.   (The present school building was completed in 1959, but the London Road property continued to be used by younger pupils for more than twenty years afterwards.)  The assembly hall still boasts its luxurious but absurdly impractical parquet floor. 
The hall, unchanged
In my day it doubled up as a gym (there is now a separate sports hall) and we were obliged to do PE barefoot, which we all hated, so that the floor wouldn’t become scuffed by gym shoes.  The same grand piano stands in the corner, to the left of the stage.  In the corridor outside the headteacher’s office are several group photographs taken of all the teachers and pupils at intervals during the school’s history.  After some searching, I was able to discover myself on one of these – and I could also name all the other girls in my form and most of the teachers.

Guess which is the young Christina James!

Guess which is the young Christina James!

After the tour, I was interviewed by Eleanor Toal and Holly Hetherington for High Quarterly, the school’s completely online magazine (which is streets ahead of the drab, dark-red-covered printed production of my youth).  Eleanor, the e-zine’s editor, also writes articles for the Spalding Guardian, carrying on the long-standing relationship between the school and the local newspaper.  Eleanor and Holly (who edits Gardening and Food in the mag) knew they were going to be asked to interview me only very shortly before we met, because the intended interviewer was ill, but I wouldn’t have known if they hadn’t told me.  I was much struck by the sensitivity and perspicacity of their questions and enjoyed answering them.

Holly, left, and Eleanor interview me for High Quarterly

Holly, left, and Eleanor interview me for High Quarterly

After lunch, I talked to sixth form English students about how to get published.  Jean Hodge, who reports on cultural affairs for the Spalding Guardian, also attended and joined in.  It was quite an exciting occasion, because it also took the first steps towards setting up a short-story competition that the Great British Bookshop has agreed to sponsor at the High School.  Adrian and his colleagues and I will choose the best ten or twelve stories submitted to be published in a single volume at The Great British Bookshop’s expense.  Winners will each receive a free copy of the book, which will then go on sale in TGBB’s extensive distribution network.  I’ll be writing more about the competition in this blog very shortly.

Sixth Form writers

Sixth Form writers

I completed my day at the school with a writers’ workshop for Years 7, 8 and 9 students.  The participants explored some of the key elements of crime fiction (they proved to be very well read) and collaborated to put some of those into practice.  Their discussion illustrated their excellent grasp of linguistic and literary effects and the results were amazing!  Nearly all of these students bought one of my books at the end of the session; some bought all three.  Thank you!
Workshop 1
Workshop 2_edited-1
Workshop 3
Workshop 4
Workshop 6
Workshop 7
Workshop 8

I can’t conclude this post without saying that a remarkable library now exists at Spalding High School.  The library is housed in the same room that I knew, but what a difference in the stock!  The emphasis is on supplying students with books to read for pleasure.  It’s a place of relaxation and also a place where students can go to work in groups.  There’s none of the shushing and grim looks that any talking in the library produced when I was a schoolgirl and all the dusty old Latin grammars and ancient editions of Gray’s Anatomy have been disappeared.  Hats off in particular to Kirsty Lees, the School Librarian and Learning Resources Manager, and to her team.  The school knows how lucky it is to have them and to be able to enjoy the warm and inviting place (complete with crime scene rug featuring a splayed body) that they have turned it into.

It’s almost impossible for me to thank all the people who made this day so special.  I’m deeply grateful to Michele Anderson for making it possible; to Adrian Isted and Kirsty, for making it happen; to Eleanor and Holly, for giving me such a delightful interview; to Jean Hodge, for all her support for Sausage Hall both at this event and elsewhere and, especially, to all the students whom I met yesterday, who were such a joy to work with and who were so keen to develop their own writing.  Thank you all!

Strong links in the chain to ‘Sausage Hall’, to be published Nov. 17th 2014

Sausage Hall
I am extremely grateful to you, the readers of this blog, both those of you whom I’ve met in person and those from countries around the world whom I’ve met ‘virtually’, for the huge welcome that you have given Sausage Hall.  Thank you very much indeed.

As many of you know, Sausage Hall will be published next Monday, November 17th.  My wonderful publishers, Chris and Jen Hamilton-Emery at Salt Publishing,
Salttheir equally stellar PR consultant, Tabitha Pelly, Faber (which now represents Salt titles) and my bookselling and librarian friends have combined to make happen a series of celebration events.

The first of these is today, Thursday November 13th, when Nicola Gilroy will be interviewing me live on Radio Lincolnshire at 14.05. I hope that you will be able to listen; if not, I think the interview will be on iPlayer for twenty-four hours after broadcast.

Monday November 17th is a very special day indeed. I’m spending much of it at Spalding High School,
Spalding High
where I was once a student (Facebook doesn’t know this, having inexplicably assigned me to Wycliffe Senior School and Sixth Form College!  I don’t intend to disabuse it!).  I’m giving a young writers’ workshop and talking about how I came to write Sausage Hall, but first of all I’m being taken on a tour of the school by Adrian Isted, the present Head of English.  I’m really looking forward to this, and especially to meeting the students.

Also on November 17th, in the evening, Bookmark, Spalding’s very distinguished bookshop,
BM3
is hosting the official launch event. This will begin at 19.00.  I’m delighted to be able to announce that it is being sponsored by Adams and Harlow, the pork butchers, who will supply sausage-themed canapés.  Wine will also be served. As well as signing copies of Sausage Hall, I’ll be giving some readings and talking about all the DI Yates novels.  I’d like to offer my thanks in advance to Christine Hanson and Sam Buckley, who have supported all the novels as they’ve been published.  In conjunction with Spalding Guardian, they’ve also arranged a DI Yates competition, the prizes for which will be four sets of the DI Yates titles.

On November 18th, I’m travelling to Walkers Books in Stamford,
Walkers
where I’ll be signing copies of Sausage Hall and talking about it informally between 11.00 and 13.00. I’d like to thank Tim Walker and Jenny Pugh for all their support.  More about this may be found here.

Wednesday November 19th finds me back at wonderful Wakefield One, where Alison Cassels has organised Tea at Sausage Hall, an informal talk-and-signing session, with refreshments, that will start at 14.30.  Regular readers will know that Wakefield One has been a particularly magnificent supporter of mine.  Books will be supplied by Richard Knowles of Rickaro Books, another staunch supporter.

Rickaro Books, Horbury

Rickaro Books, Horbury

There is more about Tea at Sausage Hall here.  If you live in the Wakefield area or are visiting, it would be great to see you at this event.

On Thursday November 20th the Waterstones bookshop in Covent Garden is giving a London launch event.  As Adams and Harlow are sponsoring this, too, there will be sausages as well as wine!  This reading and signing session will begin at 19.00 and continue until the shop closes.  It has already attracted a large audience, so it should be quite a party!  The store’s brilliant manager, Jen Shenton, and I would be delighted to see you there.  More information can be found here.

And Friday 21st November?  At present, nothing is planned, so this will be a rest day…  but I’m open to offers!

The writer and her blog: Dr Lucy Robinson

Dr Lucy Robinson, from the University of Sussex website

Dr Lucy Robinson, from the University of Sussex website

I’ve been in Brighton for most of this week, attending the academic bookselling and publishing conference for which I’ve been organising the speaker programme for the past fourteen years. I shall eventually write about the whole of this conference, but in a different forum and for a different audience: I don’t think that a detailed account of the present hot topics in academic publishing would greatly appeal to most of the readers of this blog! However, I do think – and hope – that you’ll be interested in the following account of the comments made by Dr Lucy Robinson, lecturer in Modern History at the University of Sussex and published historian, during a fascinating panel session for authors that took place on the first day of the conference.
Lucy said that there was sometimes a tension between writing her blog and writing her book (she has already published a book with Manchester University Press and is currently working on another). Sometimes, she almost feels that there is a competition going on between them and wonders which is the right way to go: should she focus more on the book or concentrate on the blog? But she also said that a smart author could create a ‘virtuous circle’ in which the blog could feed creatively into the book.
She said that she disseminates her research via a number of social networks, but at the same time wants to publish her history of the 1980s in a conventional publishing format. She explained that the challenges facing a contemporary historian are different from those that a historian of, say, the early modern period has to address. For the latter, the main difficulty lies in getting his or her hands on the small amount of material that now survives. Lucy’s challenge is that her material is ‘everywhere’ and that it is important to tell a version of everyone’s story, down to, for example, the cakes that people in the ’80s made or ate. The format that she uses is therefore to a large extent the product of the particular time that she writes about. To organise the material in a conventional book with the same effectiveness that the digital format allows is difficult. Nevertheless, she wants to see her work in both formats.
One of her reasons for this is that, although she values the internet as a medium, she also loves books. Another is that, for an academic, getting a book published by a recognised publisher is an ‘esteem marker’. Academic careers depend upon producing ‘globally significant research in academic form.’ The object is to influence others – fellow academics, researchers, students – to do or think something differently as a result of the research. This goal of impact cannot be achieved unless the research has been published in a traditional, authenticated format. This does not mean that she does not value the blog, however. She said that “the blog helps you to keep up-to-date. It allows you to change your mind. It is little. It is safe. I can best describe it as a way of being ecological with your work: then you can write it up in your book afterwards to give the work authority.”
She added that writers are now on a journey and it is a tricky one. Social networking enables a sort of autobiographical build-up of identity. Parallel to this is the other persona of the academic writing the book, ‘saying clever stuff and selling it to people.’ She repeated that there is a tension there. One of the audience asked her why the print output of her work was so important to her. She replied that she simply wanted to write a book called ‘The History of the 1980s’.
I found this really interesting, because I think that fiction writers often experience the same kind of dichotomy. We, too, value both formats; most of us also seek validation via the printed word. We understand the value of reaching our readers online, via social networking and blogs, and we don’t begrudge the time and effort spent producing work for them to consume free of charge, work that we hope that they will enjoy. There can be few greater rewards for a writer than to gain a following of loyal online readers who are under no compulsion to read our work but nevertheless return to it time and again because they appreciate it. At the same time, most of us also want to write more formally and there can be few writers who don’t mind whether or not they are paid for their formal creative output. Payment is itself a kind of validation. I said this to Lucy over a cup of tea after her presentation and also mentioned that, for me, there was the further dilemma of not having the energy – or, sometimes, merely the ‘bandwidth’ – to write both blog and book and do the day job as well. She agreed, and said that, although for the conference she had distilled her experiences as an academic writer, many of the things of which she spoke had come from the world of fiction writing originally. Academic writers had picked up on some of the digital initiatives that fiction writers had developed and adapted them to their own writing.
Food for thought, and fascinating, I hope you’ll agree. Lucy’s blog may be found here. I hope that perhaps she will become an occasional visitor to this blog now. I’d also welcome comments from other writers who would like to join this debate.

Barry Forshaw, @CrimeTimeUK, interviews Christina James

CrimeTime
9781907773464frcvr.indd
Today, I’m honoured to be given space on Barry Forshaw’s CrimeTime site.  He has interviewed me about myself and Almost Love.  Very many thanks, Barry!  🙂
Follow CrimeTime on Twitter

Visit the CrimeTime site!

An interview with Jen Emery, Director at Salt Publishing

Jen Hamilton-Emery

I recently visited ‘Salty Towers’ (headquarters of Salt Publishing), which, as usual, was an inspiring and energising experience.  It was made even more exciting than usual by the fact that Jen Emery, Director, has recently been accepted as the Labour candidate for the forthcoming council elections.  As this is her ‘Next Big Thing’, I asked her if she would give me a short interview for this blog.

What made you decide to stand for election as a local councillor?

There has not been a Labour seat on the North Norfolk District Council for ever and there’s a lot that can be improved in Cromer.  I’ve been involved in several local campaigns.  As a relative newcomer to Norfolk, and a woman, I hope to be able to attract some people to the polling station who didn’t come last time.

What do you want to change in Cromer?

I want there to be decent recreational facilities in the town for everyone, especially children.  What we have now for young people or teenagers is pathetic – almost non-existent.  People retire to Cromer and when they are visited by grandchildren there is nothing for them to do if they can’t go to the beach.  We also need to reduce the car parking charges, in order to attract more visitors and support the town’s retailers.

You’ve been celebrated as the first Labour woman candidate to stand.  Do you think that there is a ‘glass ceiling’ in local councils generally?

I don’t know whether it’s a glass ceiling or whether women just don’t get involved.  I think that the problem really lies with women feeling that they can’t (or don’t want to) get involved in the first place, which is a real pity.  Women make up over 50% of the population and have a valuable perspective to offer, particularly on policies that impact on family and working life.

When do the elections take place?

On the 21st February.

You have been described by the local media as a businesswoman and publisher; you are also a mother.  If you’re elected to the council, how will you juggle all of these activities?

Salt Publishing is bigger than I am and, since the Man Booker success of The Lighthouse, we’ve been able to involve more people.  If I were elected, I’d split my time between the community and Salt.

What is your greatest achievement as a publisher?

Having a business and making it work for thirteen years is quite an achievement, especially as in that time we’ve consistently grown and have become better-known, whilst surviving the impact of the recession.  Getting The Lighthouse shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize is an achievement that is hard to beat.

If you’re elected, do you think that your experiences as a publisher will help you with your work as a councillor?

Yes, because publishing is all about working with people; it is a very people-orientated business and means dealing with everyone in the book supply chain, particularly authors and customers.  This, as well as my background in the NHS, will help me to represent the diverse communities of Cromer.

What are the personal strengths that you feel you can bring as a Cromer councillor?

I’m resilient; I have a sense of humour; I can see controversies from lots of different perspectives; I’m broad-minded, with a strong sense of fair play.

Do you think that you might ever be interested in a role in national politics, if the opportunity arose?

I would be interested in one if it directly benefited the public.  As long as I could have a positive impact on people’s lives, I would not say no.

Within the context of what’s going on in the world today, both socially and economically, and especially what’s happening in the UK, what’s your top message for 2013 to the readers of this blog?

Make it your mission to be aware of what’s happening – there is a lot going on, politically speaking, right under people’s noses (for example, in the areas of health and benefits), that will have drastic long-term effects on people’s lives.  Become super-aware politically and watch what the government is doing (for example, it’s setting one generation against another to detract from the fact that the richest have been given a tax cut).  Make it your mission to find out what’s happening and do something about it: there is no room for apathy these days.

Many thanks to Jen for providing this insight into her exciting venture into local politics.  I should like to wish her every success in the election, as it’s very clear indeed that she has in mind particular practical improvements for the benefit of everyone in Cromer.

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