Monthly Archives: October 2016

Grandparents Day

Ann Richardson pictured with her grandson

IF you haven’t heard that October 4 is Grandparents Day, you are not alone. Few people have heard of it and most don’t care. Talking to my friends and neighbours in north London, I note a common view that it is just another American import with no relevance here.

Yet having a special day offers a chance to stop and think about our grandparents and their role in our lives. Perhaps you were brought up by yours. Perhaps you learned a lot from them when your parents were too busy to sit down and talk to you. Perhaps they had little importance at all. Or maybe you are a grandparent yourself.

I never had much to do with my grandparents when I was young, so when I became one myself, I found it a big surprise. Just when small children were a thing of the past, suddenly there they were again – new bodies to cuddle and new minds to nurture.

Spending time with grandchildren changes the texture of your day-to-day life. Once again, you are reading bedtime stories, going on outings and noting the fresh way that young children look at life. You may have much more involvement with your son or daughter and develop a new role as helper and giver of advice. And you have moved up a generation, necessarily making you think.

I found this all so fascinating that I decided to write a book about it. While there are many advice books and the occasional book offering grandmothers’ wisdom or recipes, there are no books about how it feels to be a grandmother.

I interviewed 27 grandmothers about what they did, how they felt and how it changed their lives. Their responses varied – from those who were very happy and involved to those who found it hard to see their grandchildren due to distance or difficult family relationships.

The resulting book allows these very different women, ranging from their mid-40s to late 80s, and from all walks of life, to explore the many aspects of what it is like to be a grandmother.

They talk about their love, of course, and note the small pleasures, such as lying in bed with grandchildren, chatting with a teenager or talking to young adults about their lives. Being around children again made them think about their own success or failure as mothers and how they would do it differently if they had their time again.

These grandmothers also talk about how having grandchildren changes relationships within their families. Some loved having a greater closeness – others found they were very irritated by a daughter- or son-in-law or even by their own son or daughter.  There is the occasional surprise, such as the Hindu woman who viewed her granddaughter as a reincarnation of her late husband.

All grandparents – but perhaps especially grandmothers – know that when it comes to giving advice, you have to tread carefully. You may think you know best, but as one woman in the book put it: “Every grandmother should be issued with a zip”.

This article was first published by the Camden New Journal 24 September 2015


What is literary fiction anyway?

It’s always good to start the writing week with a lively discussion, and the topic of literary fiction, its definition and purpose, is guaranteed to engage the minds of indie authors everywhere. Ann Richardson, whose non-fiction books marshall opinions and research on various topics, kindly volunteered to summarise a vigorous debate between ALLi authors on our closed Facebook forum (an exclusive benefit for ALLi members).
No attribution is given to individual thoughts or even direct quotations, primarily for brevity but also to preserve anonymity. Necessary apologies to anyone who feels their contribution was ignored or misrepresented.

Who Writes Literary Fiction?

The discussion began with the seemingly innocent question from one member asking which others identified themselves as writers of literary fiction. Surprisingly few put themselves wholeheartedly in this camp.

Many members suggested that their books were difficult to classify (“I know what they’re not, but struggle to give them a label”). A considerable number claimed that their writing displayed key elements of literary fiction (“I’m a lit-ficish writer”), particularly good writing (“I like to think of my work as “literary” in the best sense”).

Some felt their writing, although potentially literary fiction, was more usefully described as historical or contemporary fiction. Others created their own dual categories: literary horror, literary fantasy. literary suspense and even “litfic with a touch of magical realism and a dusting of horror”. One offered literary fiction with a plot.

Nonetheless, a few ALLi members were mentioned by others as belonging firmly in the realm of writers of literary fiction: Jane Davis, Dan Holloway, Roz Morris, Rohan Quine, Philippa Rees and Orna Ross (alphabetising intentional).

What is Literary Fiction?

This led to the much more troubling question of what literary fiction is. There was some interest in finding an intrinsic definition, but also a focus on comparing it to more traditional genre fiction.

Some saw literary fiction as writing with great attention to language and style. Sentences would be expected to be carefully crafted, metaphors fresh and clichés avoided, striving for precision. It might also involve experimentation.

Others stressed that literary fiction is more character-driven, with an interest in character development, motivation and complex relationships: “I’m enthralled by the inner worlds and hinterlands of my character’s personalities”. Additionally, one might expect less focus on plot, and certainly less reliance on formulaic plotting.

Yet others focused on the impact of literary fiction on the reader. Its pages may not turn quickly, but the writing makes readers look inward and recognise something in themselves:

“reflect depths beyond itself to reach echoes in the mind, reflections in the heart”.

Or it might challenge the reader in some fundamental way: “books that give me something I have never seen before…it turns the world on its head”.

A number of contributors aimed to define literary fiction in relation to well-known writers, naming too many to be repeated here, from classics to many modern writers.

In the final analysis, many argued that a clear definition was both impossible and inappropriate:

‘the taxonomy of ‘literary’ and ‘genre’ fiction is misleading”

Any definition was likely to ignore or diminish the many accomplishments of the best genre writers,. for instance, a note of the “wonderful prose, dynamic plots and superb characterisation” of some crime novels. If the aim was to tell a good story, many books were both literary and genre, and some of the latter might one day prove to be classics.

Indeed, the label was unhelpful, set up for marketing purposes, and most readers were unlikely to care.

Very little attention was given to the concept of literary non-fiction, aside from noting that some narrative non-fiction books might be included here.

Some Reflections

Overall, there was a considerable dislike for the term literary fiction.  It was seen to have pejorative overtones, too often implying a boring and/or pretentious work (“doorstep-long triumphs of the beautiful sentence and painstaking research over ideas and innovation”), with a poor or non-existent plot and little good reason to read it (“low or negative payoff”). Indeed, a few saw the broad label as a warning: “if a book is described as literary, I’m inclined to look elsewhere”. Moreover, some noted, it could prove difficult to sell.

Much of the heat in the discussion arose from the feeling that literary fiction was sometimes deemed to be more worthy than other genres: better written, more thought-provoking, altogether a higher art. It was important to recognise the many exceptions, although it was also inappropriate to compare the best of one genre with the worst of another.

With respect to their own writing, many members agreed that their main aim was to write what they chose and “not feel trammelled by genre”. This led to another discussion about the potential conflict between following one’s own muse and selling well. Any summary of this issue must await another day.

There could never be a simple conclusion to such a discussion, but in short, literary fiction means different things to different people. What does it mean to you?


On the day I began this post, my husband and I discussed it briefly. That evening, he read me a passage from the book he happened to be reading. It was a talk by William Waldegrave at a dinner to honour the novelist Patrick O’Brian. We are here, he began:

to celebrate and to honour one of the greatest storytellers in the English language. I start with that word – storyteller – designedly. There are, or used to be, some in the world of English literary studies who regard the capacity to tell a story as being a most deadly disqualification from serious consideration. Only if a book proceeded in a properly inconsequential manner, only if the naïve could be trapped into the ultimate solecism of enquiring what it might be about, only if the pages might be bound up in all manner of different orders without difference to the sense – only then could the thing be taken as high art.

Full speech published in Patrick O’Brian, The Yellow Admiral, HarperCollins, 1997

This was originally published by the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) on 17 October 2016. (

Why book talks aren’t just about selling books

Perhaps it is best to start at the bottom line. We ALLi members are (generally) not celebrities, so we can’t count on large sales. This is also the case with book talks. However good your book – or, indeed, your talk – you simply cannot count on shifting a lot of books. You might sell two, you might sell five or perhaps even ten on a good day. But don’t go into book talks with larger numbers in mind. It will only lead to disappointment.People attend book talks for a little bit of entertainment, for curiosity or simply to pass the time. Sometimes, it feels like they come to get out of the rain. Perhaps it is an occasion where they meet up with friends and the talk is just part of the gig. Few attend because they are dying to buy your book or, perhaps, any book. This might be a little different at a literary festival, but in that case there is a lot of competition.

So Why Give Talks, Anyway?

So, our one strong piece of advice is only give talks if you enjoy doing it. Some of us have a hidden performer streak and if that is you, then go for it. It can be fun to stand up in front of people and talk about your favourite subject – your book – and get treated as a bit of a VIP for an hour or so. When people buy your book, and even ask you to sign it, that is a terrific bonus. But you have to start with a sense that doing the talk is fun in itself.

What Should You Say?

There are lots of different angles you can take and a large part of the enjoyment for you and your audience will depend on getting the angle right. For example, giving a talk based on your background research with a lively Q&A session afterwards can be very enlightening, as well as entertaining. With a specialised audience, it can work really well to get them involved in answering each other’s questions – you learn from them and the discussion can reach a more interesting level than just you on your own.

How to Choose and Book a Venue

What venues should you seek? That depends highly on the audience for your book. Ann’s current book, primarily for grandmothers, suits any group involving older people and she has spoken to a wide range – from a working class community centre to the London Ladies Club in highly elegant surroundings. Stephen writes fiction designed to spark debate and has given talks, inter alia, to a festival of ideas and activism and a curated audience of futurists. General venues include libraries, local writing groups, book clubs or, indeed, any other group you can think of who might take an interest.

You will need to approach these groups yourself – it’s the rare organisation that will come to you. Many organisations have problems filling in their programme and will be delighted at your offer. Some will have no slots available and may well refuse. You need to expect that and not take it as a personal insult. And do not expect to be paid. Your recompense is the pleasure of the activity and the few book sales you manage to achieve. This may not seem ‘fair’, but it is the way things are.

It’s a good idea to keep your eyes open for opportunities – it’s surprising what comes along. If you’re involved in any interest groups related to your writing, let them know you’re keen to give talks. Although it might not create a stampede to your virtual door, let people know via your website that you’re keen, willing and able.

When you’re finalising the arrangement, whether they’re a big mainstream festival or a small local interest group, don’t forget they’ll be constrained in some way or other – their budget, how far ahead they plan, providing a balanced programme and so forth, so make it as easy for them as possible.

Prepare the Audience

And make sure that your audience knows what to expect. This should be made clear in both your advance discussions with the organisers and any formal publicity about the event. You may want to talk about why you wrote the book and then read passages that illustrate key themes. Or you might want to facilitate a discussion around themes arising in your book. Both can make for an excellent event, but it’s important for those coming to know what to expect.

Finally, remember it’s no different to your book – you want to draw people in with the blurb, please them with the content and maybe even turn them into fans!

Written jointly with Stephen Oram, this was originally published by the Alliance of Independent Authors:                                                      

How Celebrating Grandmothers came to be written


When I first became a grandmother ten years ago, I had absolutely no idea how much fun it would be, or how much it would change my life. I had had little involvement with my own grandmothers when I was a child and neither had my children when they were young (one grandmother lived too far away and one had died). There was therefore no model on which to base my expectations. I thought vaguely that most grandmothers were old, grey, dull and spent their time knitting and playing bridge. I didn’t identify with that.

It did not take me long to change my views. I was completely overtaken by the emotions engendered by that first grandchild and the second, a cousin, who followed three years later. During that period, being a writer, I decided it would be the perfect focus of a book and I set to work to write it. Celebrating Grandmothers is the result, a compendium of thoughts of a range of different women about the many aspects of being a grandmother.

In the course of researching my book, I learned that being a grandmother can be simply wonderful, but it is not always so. There are so many complexities and challenges, often arising from difficult family relationships. There are the women who simply live too far away to see their grandchildren, with all the heartache that can bring. Probably worse, there are those whose family choose to exclude them from any close involvement with their grandchildren, so they pine for the ability to participate in their lives. There are grandmothers who do not get on with their sons- or daughters-in-law and, sometimes, with their own grown-up children. There are women who are saddened by the way their grandchildren are bring brought up, and much more.

Yet despite all the problems, there are many wonderful stories out there. There is the woman who, from the beginning, called her daughter-in-law her ‘daughter-in-love’ with all the good relations that such a name implied. There are the two grandmothers (one from each ‘side’) who carefully planned to look after their joint grandchildren for a night or two, so that their own children could have time to sort out their marriage. There are the many grandmothers giving their time on a regular basis so that daughters or daughter-in-law can continue to work. There are stories, but there are also simple reflections, often the sort of thing they wouldn’t tell anyone they knew but could discuss in confidence with the certainty of anonymity.  All provide a small peek into others’ lives and relationships – and they are fascinating.

And, finally, I have learned that becoming a grandmother means looking inward at your new role and place in the world.  Sometimes, it means looking back at your own childrearing and how you would do it differently if you had your time all over again.  It means thinking about the future and worrying about how the new little lives will work out in increasingly difficult times. It is a time of new love, of new activity and a great deal of reflection.  Let me quote from one grandmother in the book:

“Being a grandmother is very maturing – and it’s also a tremendous challenge. There is this beautiful love relationship unencumbered by excessive responsibility. And you see all the family strands playing through. It’s like a form of weaving, the fabric of families coming together and you start to write another story together. Suddenly we’re making this new fabric. It is quite amazing – it’s wonderful, very enriching – this other stage of life. ”

This was originally published on the website of Wisdom and Innocence:

Women’s books and grandmothers

For many people, when they think about women’s books, their minds immediately turn to books for and about younger women – a good romance, the joys and problems of young children, the difficulties of separation or divorce, even women and their developing careers. All definitely women’s reading. But a large percentage of women are well over 60 and it is high time for more attention to be given to the stories of older women. We all like to read about ourselves and why not more fiction and non-fiction about the later years – women in retirement, women as widows, even late romance. (Yes, I know these do exist, but not in great quantity.)

I find being an older woman to be fascinating in numerous ways. It is a time of taking stock, of stretching new parts of myself and developing new relationships with my own children. I found the role of grandmother to be captivating – so much so that I decided to write a book about it. I have written books all my life, mostly for social care and health service professionals. But my real love is writing narrative non-fiction for the general public – books derived from interviews that use people’s own voices to express their experiences. These are a form of non-fiction that feel like fiction because they explore people’s inner lives. The latest is about being a grandmother. Based on interviews with 27 women of very different ages, backgrounds and social circumstances, Celebrating Grandmothers tells what it is like to be a grandmother in the words of grandmothers themselves.

There are reams to be written about being a grandmother. There are the very happy grandmothers, full of joy at the new children in their lives and the new sense of love and excitement watching them progress. They may be eager to spend time playing on the floor with toddlers, going to the park with children or talking to teenagers about thoughts of concern to them. There are the less happy ones, separated from their grandchildren by sheer distance or difficult family relationships. Some love visiting their children and taking part in their lives – and those of their grandchildren, of course – for a week here or there. Some do not cherish the prospect because the marriage of their son or daughter is unsettled and they do not want to spend time in the middle of quarrels.

cover GrandmotherBeing a grandmother means entering into uncharted territory on a number of fronts. There are new relationships to be negotiated, not simply with the grandchildren (generally easy) but also with their parents who have their own long-standing issues. A new daughter- or son-in-law can be an enormous pleasure or the source of great difficulty. When children arrive, all these relationships become much more entangled in both joys and misunderstandings. It can be difficult to tiptoe through the minefield of offering what feels like much needed advice without causing inevitable problems.

Being a grandmother can often mean a major change in how a woman spends her time. She may be delighted to babysit as often as possible, but she may also be thrust into a heavy involvement due to the cost of alternative childcare and find it difficult to say no. Separated parents, an ill parent or even a deceased parent can bring even greater responsibilities. There can be a fine line between what a grandmother feels she has to do and what she wants to do.

And, finally, being a grandmother means coming to terms with a new status and a new sense of one’s role in life as one of the elder statesmen of the family. It brings an inevitable look into the future and all that that entails.

All of which is to say that there is no shortage of things to write about when addressing how it feels to be a grandmother. New people to love and worry about, new relationships to be coped with and a new sense of self add up to major changes in a woman’s life. Yet most of us simply love it. Ask a new grandmother about how her grandchildren are and watch her face light up. It happens over and over again.

This was originally published on the website of Women Writers/Women’s Books:

Taking qualitative research to its logical conclusion

I have been doing qualitative research most of my working life and I enjoy it immensely. There is something very satisfying about capturing people’s views about a topic – often an issue of some importance to them – in their own words. Most of my paid work has focused on experiences of the health service, such as patients’ views about their treatment and care for coronary heart disease, cancer, diabetes and so forth. Some has concerned experiences of social care, such as parents’ views about the appropriate future care of their adult sons or daughters with learning disabilities. Such research may not answer statistical questions, but it gets to the heart of how people feel.

The writing-up of qualitative research traditionally involves some explication of the issues by the researcher and some quotations from those interviewed, to show how they expressed themselves in their own words. Over the years, I became interested in exploring whether one could omit the researcher almost entirely and allow those interviewed to tell their stories – and explain the issues – themselves. Much too often, it was their words which were most alive or moving and the researcher simply paraphrased them for explanation, but without a great gain in understanding. My reports became increasingly quotation-based, with some tentative analysis offered by myself. Whether this was a style that was seen to be better or worse than a more traditional one I never knew.

Over twenty years ago, I took this position to its logical conclusion. Having interviewed 21 men and women with HIV and AIDS, I wrote a book, Wise Before their Time: People with HIV and AIDS Talk about their Lives, which set out their views with only minor interjections from myself. This was a time when there was little treatment for AIDS and most were dying, so their experiences were very moving. Sir Ian McKellan wrote a short Foreword in which he said ‘This collection of true stories is as powerful as any classic of fiction.’ It was published by Harper Collins (1992), aimed at a popular audience, and sold quite well, around 7,000 copies.

About seven years ago, I repeated the exercise with people who worked in hospice care. I was interested in understanding how it felt to go to work every day to work with dying people ­– and interviewed 31 staff in two hospices, including health care assistants, doctors, nurses, managers and even one chef. Again, I pared down my contribution to a minimum, so that the reader essentially ‘heard from’ the people involved. The book, Life in a Hospice: Reflections on Caring for the Dying, was published by Radcliffe (2007), had a Foreword by Tony Benn and was ‘highly commended’ by the British Medical Association. Again, it was aimed at a popular audience, but it was read primarily by a professional one. Commercially, it did not do well at all. I found that most people do not share my fascination with dying.

And now, I have tried again but on a subject of even less social policy interest (albeit growing), namely grandmothers. Called CelebratingGrandmothers: Grandmothers Talk about their Lives, it is in its very early days. It explores a wide range of issues of concern to grandmothers, such as the pleasures of revisiting childcare, how they cope with offering advice to their children, how it affects their feelings about themselves and the considerable pain experienced when they are unable to see their grandchildren due to distance or strained family relationships. Again, the voices in this book are very much those of the grandmothers themselves, with my interjections kept at a minimum.

What does one gain by omitting the researcher? One answer is that one gains time and space, allowing the people interviewed to be quoted at greater length (although there is much to be said for being as spare as possible). It enables them to tell a story or develop the complexities of an argument for which there is less space in a more conventional report. Perhaps it will help to provide some examples. All of these are taken from my recent book on grandmothers.

Here is one grandmother explaining how she saw the role of grandmother at the outset:

I was 50 and kind of astonished to find myself being a grandmother. One doesn’t see oneself in that role, really. I went out and bought myself a suit and when I got home, I realised in the back of my mind that it was a suit that grandmothers would wear. I was never able to wear it. It was a kind of heather-coloured tweed. And it immediately ‘grandmothered’ me.

Then I thought, no, no, I don’t have to do this! I hung on to the suit for quite a time, because it was quite nice, but every time I put it on, it felt completely wrong – I didn’t feel I was that person. Of course, I hadn’t changed, I was still the person I was, so there was no need to change the way I thought about clothes. I expect it went to Oxfam eventually and some other grandmother picked it up.

And here is another describing the sheer joy of being with her grandchildren:

They stay with me a lot and like to sleep with me. I love it. When they are lying in bed with me in the morning – that’s the happiest time. We’ll talk about anything, what should we do, what we are having for breakfast. But what makes me so happy is that they are sharing their time with me. One is lying on my leg, one is lying on my hair, one is putting the fingers on my head – it’s like a joyful current going all around my body. You can’t buy that happiness anywhere.

The book is riddled with the complexities of family relationships. Here is one grandmother explaining how her status created problems with her son:

My relationship with my son has become more distant since his second child was born. It feels sad. This could be that in order to be close to his wife, he has to be distant from me, because she seems to feel there’s some rivalry between us, which I think creates rivalry between us. I think he found it very stressful doing his job and becoming a father. His wife had enormous expectations of sharing the children with him, she felt he wasn’t doing enough.

I detected some bitterness towards me. I don’t know whether that was, ‘You didn’t mother me like this’ or ‘I’m finding this role really difficult, trying to be a good father and my partner’s expecting far too much of me and I can’t do it.’ If he hadn’t had children, I think I would be closer to him. I’m valued as a grandmother, but I think the mother-son relationship has suffered.

And finally, here is one thinking about her own life:

Both becoming a grandmother and retiring – the two things at different times – each time you question the fragility of your life. You feel you are moving up, passing on. It makes you question things about life and how long you have to live. There’s another generation that has come up – and you belong to the one who would have to leave to make room. And you think, am I going to see them as adults? I’m not eternal. I’d just like to see what’s going to happen.

Now, PSSRU – where I am a Visiting Fellow – is an academic institution and you might be wondering whether such books come under the heading of ‘academic research’. I tend to argue that they don’t, because I don’t want to be criticised for pretending to do something I am not. On the one hand, they are all presented in a logical, analytical fashion – they are not simply a set of stories in no particular order. The research has been undertaken as rigorously as any academic study. But, on the other, I do not try to fit the findings into the existing literature in their respective fields. Nor do I offer a clear analysis of what kind of people have what kind of view, i.e. are people’s views different if they are a young grandmother or an impoverished grandmother or a Jewish grandmother, although all are represented among those interviewed. What a reader comes away with, I hope, is a strong sense of what it feels like to be a grandmother (or, in the other books, what it feels like to have HIV or to work in a hospice). It puts the reader into the texture of their lives – what the issues are for them, the considerations they take into account when addressing such issues and some of the different ways they respond. In sum, all such studies should progress understanding. They are clearly a kind of research, but is it academic? I do not know, but it is a lot of fun to do.

This was originally posted in a blog of the Personal Social Services Research Unit at the London School of Economics, where I was a Visiting Fellow

Why becoming a grandmother is the best feeling in the world


Ask almost any woman about her new grandchild and she will light up all over, like a young woman in love.

Grandmothers are invariably thrilled to bits. Perhaps that is all we need to know. We have become grandmothers and we love it.

But for those with a naturally inquiring mind, an interesting question is – why? What is it about this new-found role that is so fulfilling? There are many answers.

Enjoying the Grandchildren                                                                                                                 
Let us start with the grandchildren. Of course, we adore them in all their different shapes and sizes. Some remind us of our own children – their parents – and feel we are living an earlier life all over again. Some are completely different and we cherish the novelty of their interests and personalities.

And it is fun to do things with them. To dandle a new baby on our knee, to get down on the floor and do puzzles with a toddler or take children to the park. Loads of activities which we did a myriad of times and thought we might never do again. Indeed, perhaps we got fed up then. Oh, dear, do I really need to read this story again? But now, we have time and we see the intrinsic pleasures much more readily.

And if you are an instinctive teacher, it is wonderful to teach them about the world.  They have so much to learn and you have so much to give. This could be a matter of explaining facts, like the earth is round, or offering some form of spiritual guidance about how to live. There is and deep enormous satisfaction in the process. It is extraordinarily fulfilling to be able to offer new little beings your hard-won wisdom.

Being Pleased for the Parents

But having grandchildren is much more than that. It means that your children will have all the joys of parenthood. You have always wanted the best for them and, perhaps, spent hours talking about what they might want to do with their lives. But you also know that having children helps people to learn and grow into themselves. It is something you will probably have wanted for your own son or daughter, whether you thought about it or not.

What Being a Grandmother Does for You?

The part of being a grandmother that is possibly the most surprising is what it does for you. Yes, it is fun to play with the children. Yes, you want your children to be fulfilled. But there is something more than that. Having grandchildren does a number of much deeper things for a woman.

Many women feel that they were not the best of parents – perhaps they were just too young and inexperienced.  Or maybe they were too involved with their work or other issues. Having grandchildren provides an opportunity to do it again, to do it better and, in some small way, to make amends. It is that rare thing in life – a second chance.

As you grow older, you begin to think a little more often about what happens in the end. Has your life been worthwhile? Have you left something good behind?  Grandchildren necessarily represent the future. It may be that they will remember you over time. You may like to think that perhaps there will be a conversation, twenty or thirty years hence, that begins “I remember my grannie telling me…”

A corollary of this thought is the passing on of your genes. Perhaps you don’t think this is very important, but often people realise it has a meaning for them when they learn that it will never happen.

And finally, most surprising of all, is that the fact that you like yourself so much better when you are with your grandchildren. It is such a wonderfully innocent relationship, not so full of the guilt and anxieties of parenthood or the complex feelings arising from a marriage. You can relax and just be you. It’s not something we think about a lot, but if you do, you might realise that it is very self-affirming.

This was originally published on the website of SixtyandMe: and should not be re-blogged

The joy of watching our grandchildren’s personalities emerge


One of the real pleasures of having grandchildren is watching them grow into very distinctive individuals.

One minute, there is a little new born baby, looking sweet and untouched. Then, in what feels like no time at all, you suddenly have a child with a strong personality. It is quite breath-taking.

I don’t know much about the nature-nurture debate, but it seems to me that babies come out of the womb with many pre-set qualities. We see these emerge over time. Perhaps we affect them somewhat in our upbringing, but essentially the person was there from the very beginning.

Watching Our Children Grow Up

We all notice this sort of thing with our own children. One is quieter or noisier than other kids. Another loves sports or hates them. One is constantly drawing, while a sibling will never touch a crayon. Some listen to what you say – and some never do. The many variations in qualities can go on and on.

With our children, we have had the joy of watching them grow up. They often develop the traits they showed as small children. Perhaps as a five-year-old, a little girl tended to sing at every opportunity. It is not surprising that she later became a singer of some kind, whether in church or in a rock band. Or another child might have a clear tendency to be nurturing. We watch as that child chooses to become a nurse, a doctor or a stay-at-home mother.

Of course, sometimes children change and you can never be certain how they will develop. But it certainly works with hindsight. How often have you looked at your adult son or daughter and realised how their qualities were there from the very beginning?

Watching Grandchildren Develop Their Personality Traits

It starts all over again with grandchildren. Given your experience, you are probably quicker at spotting their notable characteristics. You notice if they love to dance, erect complex towers with Lego or kick a football. They may argue back a lot or go sullen. Perhaps they are deeply sensitive. Or musical. You notice.

Many of these qualities come out in what children say. We noticed that one grandson was very sensitive to the needs of other people from a very early age. He watched people carefully and seemed to think about their point of view.

It came out most clearly when he was only five. A friend of the family had given him a Christmas present before going away for some weeks. On her return, she asked casually which present he had liked most. Without blinking an eye, he said ‘Your chocolates’. His mother was astonished. They had been put in a cupboard and not even opened. With such diplomacy, one has to think that this child will do well in life.

Another grandson is very concerned about precision. He wants to make things very clear and works out all the boundaries of any statement you make. This showed itself very early on. We were teaching him at age three, about how to cross a very quiet road, lined with parked cars.

Now, we said, you must look to the left and right and then left again. If there are no cars that is good. Now we can cross. Quick as a flash, he said “no moving cars”. He was absolutely right. The street was full of cars.

The unique personality is a wonderful thing however it is expressed. You learn to look at the world differently with children around. First your own, then theirs. What a pleasure it is.

This was originally published on the website of SixtyandMe: and should not be re-blogged

Are you happy with how your grandchildren are being raised?


As your children take that giant step of becoming parents themselves, what do you feel about how they are doing? Some grandmothers are highly impressed with the way their grandchildren are being brought up. Others are disappointed or even distressed.

Making Comparisons Is Natural

It is very difficult to avoid thinking about your children’s parenting skills in the light of your own – whether the comparison is favourable or otherwise.

Were you one of those parents like me, who felt inept and clueless when your children were born? Did you make it up as best you could as you went along? If so, you may now feel real pleasure and pride in seeing how competent they are in the same role. They have so many more parenting books than we had. They have websites where they can learn the latest ideas and social media platforms where they can exchange notes with each other.

Or you may have felt you were a good parent and are somewhat concerned about your children or their spouses or partners, as parents. Times have changed, they may tell you, but you may not be happy with what you see.

Do they give their children too many things and not enough time? Are they too strict or, perhaps, not strict enough? Do they intervene too much in their children’s lives, or not often enough? Are they loving and calm or always tense? There are so many aspects of good or bad parenting that there can be no single point of comparison.

Children Go Through Different Stages

Because you have been through it all before as a parent, you know bringing up children entails a lot of different stages. You may think your son or daughter was great with a new born baby, for instance, but not so confident when it comes to a teenager.

It is when babies are first born that many patterns are set. You may find it particularly difficult to watch your children make what you see as mistakes in those early days. They may be too anxious about feeding their baby or establishing good sleeping behaviour. Perhaps they are not able to cope with the antics of toddlers or sometimes, not watchful enough.

It doesn’t really get any easier as children age. Are they relaxed about their children’s school reports or constantly pressing for better results? How much effort do they make to interest their children in new activities or to win new friends? The vexed issue of screen time causes many a family argument, what with electronic games, computers and the inevitable mobile phone.

Then there are so many decisions about what children are allowed to do and when, such being allowed to cross a road, go into town or, later, drive the family car.

I am not for a moment suggesting here what should be seen as good parenting, but raising issues on which you may have strong views.

And you may think they are brilliant at navigating all these difficult waters – better than you and better than ever expected. Some grandmothers feel there is a much more enlightened approach nowadays. My book “Celebrating Grandmothers” explores what it feels like to be a grandmother at this new time in history.

Ways to Offer Constructive Advice

However happy or unhappy you are, you will know there is always room for improvement. Offering advice is, to say the least, a difficult task to manoeuvre. Its success will depend on your tact, their receptivity and nature of your on-going relationship.

It is generally easier when your grandchildren’s mother is your daughter. You have watched her grow up and you know each other well. You have commented over the years on her decisions. Perhaps you are best pals. In this case, it is so much easier to suggest ideas to her, even if it has to be done diplomatically.

But when the mother is your daughter-in-law (or partner equivalent), you will undoubtedly need to tread carefully. You may get on well, but you will always have that lurking spectre of the dreaded mother-in-law. It is no accident that this role is the butt of many an awful joke.

Just to complicate matters, with fathers taking an increasingly involved role with child-rearing, you may have equivalent issues with your son or son-in-law.

In any case, you know you don’t want to be annoying. Indeed, it is often counter-productive. It is, after all, the grandchildren’s interest which is at stake.

Be Sensitive and Diplomatic

You will undoubtedly try to find ways of offering advice in a sensitive manner. We all feel our way and hope to get the right formula early on. You can say the issues are difficult for everyone and give examples of your friend down the road. You can put your ideas as questions like “Have you thought of…?” You can note that if you were in this situation, you would tend to try a particular solution.

At all times, it helps to add something to the effect that, of course, it is up to them. If your relationship is good in the first place, such suggestions should be received with ease. If it is not, you may decide not to say anything at all.

And if they are not keen on your advice, stop for a moment and think how keen you were for parenting advice from your mother or mother-in-law.

There may also be times when you are genuinely worried about your child’s parenting, fearing that it might be close to neglect. This is another story and you may wish to call on professional advice regarding what you should do.

It has been said that every grandmother, to ensure that she keeps her mouth shut, should be issued with a zip! I’m not so sure, as I think your experience and wisdom may often be welcomed. Sometimes, a grandmotherly intervention can diffuse an awkward confrontation between parent and child. But family relationships are notoriously tricky and only you will know how to proceed.

This was originally published on the website of Sixty and Me: and should not be re-blogged


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Interview with Book Goodies

I am semi-retired, having worked as a researcher concerned with health issues during my working life. I wrote many books for health and social care professionals, but my real passion is writing narrative non-fiction, books using direct quotations from interviews to bring people’s views and experiences ‘alive’ on the page. My most recent book is about what it is like being a grandmother (Celebrating Grandmothers), but I have also written books on people with HIV/AIDS (Wise before their Time: Foreword by Sir Ian McKellen) and on people working with the dying (Life in a Hospice: Foreword by Tony Benn, MP). The latter was Highly Commended by the British Medical Association.

I am American born, but have lived in London for nearly fifty years with my English husband. We have two grown up children and two grandsons.

What inspires you to write?
I have always loved to write, from when I was a young girl, and am very interested in what makes people ‘tick’. At one point, I thought I would be a novelist, but I felt I lacked the necessary imagination. In my work, I used a lot of quotations from interviews and I learned that a good interview, undertaken confidentially, elicits the same kind of ‘inner view’ than one gets from a novel. I therefore love writing narrative fiction, as the resulting book reads like a novel, although based on actual people. I love the creative process of bringing the interviews together into a coherent whole.

Tell us about your writing process.
I start with an outline of my book (just a page, in Word) and some of the subheadings of chapters. I then do my interviews, based on these ideas, but always allow for new ideas to emerge. The interviews are transcribed verbatim (word for word) and I go through them to pick up all key points made and edit, for instance, incomplete sentences. After that, it is a matter of finding a logical sequence and choosing which quotations to use.

What advice would you give other writers?
Follow your instincts when writing. Check with others before publishing, to ensure that the book flows smoothly and, of course, is properly copy-edited.

How did you decide how to publish your books?
All my books were published traditionally with well-known publishers, but for my last book (Celebrating Grandmothers), it was a very simple decision: I couldn’t find an interested publisher, much to the surprise of my agent.

I would advise writers to look to traditional publishing to see how they respond, but not to be upset if they get refusals. There are many benefits in self-publishing, as you have control over the contents, the cover and the later marketing. You also get higher royalties. The main downside is the prejudice that still exists in getting your book reviewed and into bookstores, although it is possible.

What do you think about the future of book publishing?
I think traditional publishing is digging itself into a hole, as self-publishers invent all kinds of ways to attract readers, such as amending the price or selling one book free in a series. Traditional publishers may eventually learn such new tricks, but otherwise they will retreat into publishing fewer and fewer books that feel like a ‘safe’ bet.

What do you use?: Professional Cover Designer, Beta Readers

What genres do you write?: Narrative non-fiction

What formats are your books in?: Both eBook and Print