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From Tin Baths to Tinfoil Skies: The Story of a Second Chance.


Hello, I’m Judy. I love to write books that focus on the lives of older characters. In my stories, many of my protagonists change direction and find that life offers them a second chance. Most of my central characters are aged between sixty-five and ninety, although of course, the world is an inclusive place and the characters who share their journeys are people of all ages.

I’ve always wanted to be a writer, so I’m very lucky now to have the opportunity to live that dream. One great thing people can discover about ageing, whatever our number of years, is that we have developed resilience and experience. We have written the pages of our past and we have hope for the future. We can take steps towards new achievements. We can have dreams that change our destinies and we look to write new chapters.

My life has changed incredibly from page one. As a child, my parents moved us into a two-room house, one multi-purpose room downstairs with a sink, and one bedroom for all of us upstairs. We were, as the locals said, ‘piss-pot-poor.’ There was no bathroom – we had to heat up water on the stove to fill a tin bath – and the outside toilet was communal between five families. So were the path and the gate, which one particular neighbour used to leave wide open in the hope that I’d wander into the road. She hated children.

My mum was of Irish descent, from a large family, some of whom didn’t make it past the first birthday. My dad was the youngest of many from a fairground family; he was born in a wagon while his father played music for coins outside. My mum loved books, but my dad never read one. My upbringing was unusual, one parent insisting that education was the answer to everything, the other believing that the earth silently shared its secrets and that science and learning would ruin the world. I’m grateful to both of them now for their wisdom.

I was lucky enough to access a good grammar-school education, but the holes in my blazer set me apart from almost all of the other girls. Later, when I was twenty-two, I taught English, then theatre. It was the best move I could have made. I sought to work in comprehensive schools where equally boys and girls from all backgrounds would benefit from the power of performance and words. In my teaching career, my experiences ranged from directing Hamlet in China with a class of sixty fifteen-year-olds to choreographing a dance to The Hall of the Mountain King with twenty-five strapping sixteen-year-old boys in Liverpool and leading a performance seminar of Woyzeck at Corpus Christi, Oxford. To enable kids to fall in love with performing, I wrote scripts, monologues, songs, poems, pantomimes. It was a privilege.

But when my own children left school, I saw the chance to leap towards something I’ve always wanted to do. This was an opportunity to write a new chapter differently. My head has always been full of stories – my mouth too. I respect and love the oral tradition of storytelling and passing down legends. But I wanted to write. A master’s set me on the path: I met so many lovely people, learned about the industry, very quickly realised what was wrong with trying to write verbosely – and started my first novel, A Grand Old Time, about Evie, a lady in her seventies who escapes a humdrum life and buys a camper van in order to travel through France.

Travelling makes me happy. Going to new places, meeting new people, having new experiences is so enriching, and so a lot of my writing now is about journeys, both physical and emotional. When Evie Gallagher’s exploits in France became a real novel, and as I found myself with a real agent and a real publisher, I knew I had been blessed again. It occurred to me that often older people, older women, have secondary or background roles in literature. They are, traditionally, there to serve a younger protagonist as grandparents or the voices of wisdom. At worst they are curmudgeons, witches, crones, caricatures. Sadly, sometimes they are scarcely relevant, hardly seen. I’m very keen to make up for this by representing older people, in all of their own diversity, as truly central characters.

I gave the idea some thought for a while and made older friends and relatives my constant reference points. There are so many inspirational people who, despite being older, still energetically pull up weeds in their gardens, go for hikes, fall in love, travel, learn, and change the world. In many ways, good health being an important factor, we are all similar, whatever our age, although older people have more experience but are sometimes less visible.

So, I moved to a rambling house in the countryside, took long walks under tinfoil skies and thought about what I might write, who I might bring to life. From this came Nanny Basham, The Five Hens, Barbara, Pauline and Bisto, Billy and Dawnie. From walking and thinking came their stories, their challenges, their changes. I realised I’d come a long way since the days of the tin bath, but here I was, and I had the good fortune to bring some new characters with me.

I love writing. Even more, I love writing with readers in mind. My background in theatre means I want to entertain, to make a reader smile, sometimes laugh, sometimes feel sad, but mostly I want my novels to be uplifting. It is a privilege to go for walks in woods, on beaches, under grey skies, and to come back with a character, a setting, the beginnings of a plot, the ingredients for a story.

Life and experience teach us that, although we have managed to move forwards towards second chances, towards achieving hopes and dreams, we don’t ever do it alone. Others are integral to our work: parents, family, friends, so many teachers, an agent, editors, publishers, readers. As writers, we depend on these important people for inspiration and impetus and we owe them so much gratitude.

I’m writing a novel set in Scotland at the moment, because I was fortunate enough to visit the Highlands last year. So many positive things come from our life experiences, so much richness, stimulation and so many ideas. As I sit typing at my laptop with Colin, my sweet cat who loves to edit my work by loafing across the keyboard, I never stop thinking about how lucky I am to be on a writing journey. It’s the most fun to be able to create new characters and adventures and to entertain. Writing novels enables me to embrace what I’ve always wanted to do.

The journey we make in life is, in a way, like a good novel: we think we may know where the next page or the next chapter will take us, but we are never completely sure. What we do know is that the journey is to be enjoyed at each turn. It’s not a rush for the final page. Each day brings new characters, new fun, new learning, some conflict but a lot of second chances. The past is behind us. It’s a chapter we’ve read and enjoyed, but the rest of the book is all about the new pages to be written, to be read. So, by the end of the book, we’ll have completed the great story of our lives, set in print. It’s a novel to be enjoyed.

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