Monthly Archives: April 2018

An encounter in Rome – a true story

This is a true story. Improbable, but true.

It was a few years ago. My husband, Ray, and I were staying in central Rome for ten days. It wasn’t our first visit, but we did many of the usual things – going to churches and galleries, having a very memorable trip to the Vatican at night, and just walking around.

One day, we had gone out for lunch at a local restaurant – a rather old fashioned place. It had been in the same location for decades, perhaps with the same classic menu, and there were numerous waiters in black uniforms. I can’t remember now what it was called or what we ordered, but the food was reasonably good.

The tables were close together by English standards. Our two-person table was next to another, with only a small space in between, presumably so that they could be easily joined for a group of four. As a result, we became increasingly aware of a man, probably a little older than us, sitting alone at the table just to the side of ours. He was well dressed, with a confident air and an intelligent face. He seemed to be known to the restaurant staff.

We had been married for years and had a very easy way of chatting about all kinds of things, from what we had been seeing in Rome to our grandchildren, the current news and much else besides. I wondered how much this man could hear of what we said, but nothing was so confidential that it mattered much.

Sometime around the point when we had finished our second course and were ordering coffee, the man made eye contact with us. He made a comment about the food or the restaurant or something similar of no great importance. He spoke in good English, although it was clearly not his native language.

But this had broken the ice. He asked where we were from. When we said London, he told us that he loved London, especially the gentlemen’s clubs around St James. This was not part of our world, but we smiled to be agreeable. He mentioned that one of his sons worked in London and he liked to visit from time to time.

He then told us he was from a country in South America (which shall remain unnamed to preserve his anonymity) and was a former Supreme Court judge there. I wondered briefly if I should believe this, but decided why not. It seemed an unlikely detail to invent. He had apparently been forced out when the then President came to power and had moved hurriedly to Europe. Most of his time was spent in Rome, but he travelled around to England and other countries.

There was some mention of a wife and four or five grown up children, but it did not sound like he had much contact with them, even his wife. Indeed, he seemed a slightly forlorn figure, eating alone – perhaps frequently – in a foreign city.

He asked about us. How long had we been married? Did we have children? What were we doing in Rome? All reasonably innocuous. Most of this was directed to Ray, possibly because he was more comfortable talking man-to-man or perhaps simply because the configuration of our seating meant that he was more within direct eye-contact.

And then suddenly the conversation took a very different turn. He said it looked like we loved each other and stopped briefly to check for confirmation. Ray, although normally reticent like most Englishmen, said yes, we did. I think I nodded or murmured some agreement.

Would you mind my asking, said this stranger, but what do you mean by love?

The atmosphere shifted. This was not a light-hearted question, but a serious question from a serious man. We knew it, he knew it and he knew we knew it. Perhaps he was trying to work something out in his own mind.

I could see Ray beginning to reflect, to search for an answer. That’s a difficult question, he said, buying a little time. Yes, was the quiet reply.

Ray is a thoughtful man and not afraid of difficult questions. As an academic, he is used to them. But this was definitely not part of his lunch plans.

Well, he began, looking back I’m not at all sure that I was in love when we first married. Of course, I was strongly attracted for many reasons, but I didn’t understand then what love was. I was much too young and un-formed. And my mind was on other things, mostly myself and where I was going. Had I been asked what love meant, my answer would probably have focused on my wife’s special qualities.

But now, he continued, I feel that love is something that develops slowly over time. It requires a period of growing into maturity. It’s something to do with wanting what is good for my wife – to be willing, if necessary, to sacrifice my own interests in order to help her. Of course, I may also benefit from doing that, but I would do it even if I didn’t.

I want –very deeply – for her to be happy and fulfilled. It’s in this same way that I also love my children and grandchildren.

All of this was said over some time in a slow and thoughtful way.

I’m not a weepy person or a sentimental one. I don’t weep in the opera or when watching a touching movie. But here was my husband trying to explain his love for me, right in the middle of a public restaurant in Rome. My eyes definitely misted up. There was nowhere, anywhere, except these two small tables.

Ray said later that the judge’s eyes were also moist. He had looked lost in thought, perhaps seeing what might have been absent from his own marriage.

The table became rather quiet. The judge said something to the effect that he wasn’t sure he had ever experienced this. We slowly went back to more normal conversation.

At some point, the waiter came for the bills and they were paid. This has been a very interesting discussion, the judge said. We could have taken contact details and continued the conversation elsewhere – after all, he said he came to London from time to time. But I made a calculation that we were not likely to have that much in common and a future relationship was unlikely to thrive. Perhaps he thought so, too.

We shook hands and left the restaurant separately. We did not even know his name.

I am currently writing a series of short stories based on meaningful moments in my life, to be published as a book in early 2019 (or sooner). This is the first one to be published in any way. It won Stevie Turner’s Short Story contest at the end of April 2018.  For further information, see my website

Life in a Hospice: one five star review after another


Life in a Hospice was initially published in 2007 with some good reviews and an endorsement from the British Medical Association. But despite its continuing relevance to people everywhere, it fell into a fallow period, with few sales and certainly no more reviews.

Imagine my pleasure, then, when I find that the relaunched version (a year ago, spring 2017) is selling well and getting one excellent review after another.

Some of these come from people who know about hospice care already:

“As a Palliative Care physician working in the hospice setting, this book was a great help to me in many ways. It helped me really understand and relate to the many roles and perspectives within the hospice, from the chef to the nursing staff in an open honest way. It helped me see other coping mechanisms and struggles and truly re-inspires me as to the good work being done.” Matt (on

“As a hospice volunteer, I well know the beauty that can occur at the end of life. This book is a beautifully written and thoughtful explanation of much of what occurs in a hospice.”  Janice B. (on NetGalley)

Some come from people whose own personal lives are touched by its contents:

“What a beautiful but complicated book. As the child of two elderly parents, this is a subject I think of almost daily: this book is going to make it a LOT EASIER to deal with. The advice is smart and just and should be easily understood by any level of reader. A great sourcebook for people who are or may be dealing with this subject.”  Janet C. (on NetGalley)

And some could see it might be a help in the long run

“This is an absolutely wonderful book. It’s a must-read for everyone, especially those who are not yet aware of the fact that death is an inevitable part of life. The way people in hospice care are dealing with this is, as strange as it sounds, wonderful and it may come as a surprise that it is not all darkness and gloom.” An avid reader (on

It does a writer’s heart good to see such a welcome for her hard work and commitment.

Books by other authors: The Battle is O’er (Book Five of The Blue Bells Chronicles), by Laura Vosika

Shawn means self and Kleiner means centered, one of Shawn’s (many) ex-girlfriends proclaimed. So begin The Blue Bells Chronicles, a tale of time travel, mysteries and miracles, romance and redemption, in an epic adventure ranging across modern and medieval Scotland against the backdrop of Scotland’s Wars of Independence in the 1300s.

Shawn has it all—wealth, fame, women—until the night Amy, his girlfriend, has enough and abandons him in an ancient tower. He wakes up in the wrong century.

Two years in medieval times, two years of fighting beside Robert the Bruce and James Douglas, two years of living with and as his medieval twin, the devout and upright Highlander Niall Campbell, working to protect those he has come to love, and perhaps mostly, his growing friendship with Niall, whom he initially despised, all work changes in Shawn.

Throughout their adventures, he and Niall seek a way to get Shawn back across time, to fulfill his desire to ask Amy’s forgiveness and finally be the man she always saw in him—succeeding at last in the middle of a fierce battle for Niall’s home, Glenmirril, against their old enemy, the MacDougalls.

Safely back in his own time, Shawn is steadily regaining all he lost—his career as a world-traveling musician, the son he feared he would never know, and finally, maybe—even Amy’s heart.

He can’t let go of the past, however, or stop agonizing over what happened to Niall and all his beloved friends, left behind in a fight for their lives. In his search for answers, hoping to find that all ended well, he learns instead of the dangers still lurking in fourteenth century Scotland: to Niall who will pay a horrible price for Shawn’s last deed, committed in Glenmirril’s tower just moments before escaping to the safety of his own time; to his own infant son, the subject of prophecy and an ancient letter predicting a fateful battle; even danger to the whole world as Simon Beaumont, known to history as the Butcher of Berwick, seeks to use his knowledge of the future to destroy it.

In this gripping conclusion to The Blue Bells Chronicles, Shawn faces the ultimate test. His selfishness once cost him everything. His newfound selflessness may do the same.


Books by other authors: Painting of Sorrow by Virginia Winters

I began Painting of Sorrow because I was interested in lost and destroyed paintings of WWII. Searching for paintings that could have been saved but were said not to be, brought me to the Flakturm Friedrichshain in Berlin, an anti-aircraft tower used to house a bomb shelter and a hospital as well as the paintings of the Kaiser Wilhelm Museum. More than four hundred paintings and three hundred sculptures were burned, stolen, or destroyed by bombs in the waning days of WWII. Did the Soviets loot the building before it burned? Or were some of the paintings stolen when the Soviet guards were inexplicably removed?

One such painting was called variously Portrait of Fillide or Portrait of a Courtesan, a work by Caravaggio. Client Simon Wolf brings a copy of the painting to be conserved by the firm where Sarah Downing works.

Is it a copy or an original? It’s Sarah job to conserve it but she wants to know the truth about the painting.

Sarah is a painter as well as an art conservator. Her mind reacts to situations, landscapes, and people by seeing paintings in her memory that describe them. Throughout the book, images of paintings also reflect her emotional state and her fears.

Early in the book, the director of the Art Gallery that is housed in the building where she works, frightens Sarah. Her mind brings up a picture of St. Jerome, an almost cadaveric man pictured in a desert, by Da Vinci. The taut skin of his face reveals the skull beneath.

Sarah escapes a killer with her friend Peg. On the way, they stop at a lookout over Mazinaw Lake. Casson painted the iconic Bon Echo Rock there.

Later, approaching the security of a remote cabin in rural Ontario, she sees the building as a painting by A. Y. Jackson, Settler’s Home and somehow felt safer, for the moment.

Her visions become darker and when she finds her new love Simon, beaten by her ex-husband, The Death of Marat by David, a nightmare of a painting intrudes on her thoughts. At the hospital, the controlled chaos of Emergency Room, by Fiona Rae reflects the roiling state of her emotions.

Much later, arriving to Simon’s home, afraid that all chance of a relationship with him has gone, she sees not his house, but Carl Schaefer’s Ontario Farmhouse, dark clouds looming over it, perhaps an omen for her future

I hope interested readers will search out the paintings mentioned in the book to gain a fuller understanding of Sarah and the events that changed her life.

You can find out more about Virginia here:

Find the Painting of Sorrow here:

Becoming a grandparent


New parents often exclaim that no one told them about the strong and complex emotions that come with parenthood. Yes, they were told about coping with labour and perhaps something about baby feeding and equipment. But it is the emotional side that is so important.

Well, the same can be said for becoming a grandparent. Of course, we all know that when a son or daughter is expecting a baby, the birth of that child will make us a grandparent. But how many of us have any idea what this will mean for us, both immediately and over time?

Certainly, I was bowled over!

I am the grandmother of two boys, now aged eight and twelve. This began twelve years ago, when my daughter went into a difficult labour and ended up needing an emergency caesarean.

At the last minute, my son-in-law had very understandable qualms and asked me to be there during the birth. So, it was into my arms that this little life was placed, my daughter feeling too weak to manage. What an amazing and wonderful moment, when all the pain and fears of labour are over and a new person has come into the world.

But just as being a mother is more than giving birth, so being a grandmother is much more than being there for the new-born baby. Quite beyond any expectation, my life has changed completely as the result of these two boys. There are new people to love, new bodies to cuddle and comfort, new minds to nourish and a whole new role to play within the family. And much else besides.

I found being a grandmother so fascinating that I decided to write a book about it, Celebrating Grandmothers. Here, nearly thirty women reflect on the joys and challenges of being a grandmother in their own words. I hope to explore these in the months to come.

This post was originally published on the website of The Grandparent Hub (


Remembering the AIDS Crisis

“I don’t have the words to explain how important this is.”

This sentence was taken from a review of my book about people with HIV and AIDS in the 1990s, Wise Before their Time.

Suddenly, the disease no one has talked about for years is everywhere. No, not as a new epidemic, but as the focus of popular culture.

In London, the French film BPM (original title: 120 Beats Per Minute) has opened and can be seen in fifteen different cinemas. It was premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2017 and has been showing in numerous other countries for some time. It tells the stories of a set of young men involved with the French version of Act Up in the early 1990s.

It was very highly reviewed and won many awards, including the Grand Prix at Cannes. I saw it yesterday and it was very powerful.

Meanwhile, a week ago, a two-part play called The Inheritance opened at the Young Vic Theatre in London. Directed by Stephen Daldry, it depicts the lives of a set of young American gay men over a period of time, including the AIDS crisis. The Telegraph newspaper gave it 5* and said it was ‘perhaps the most important American play this century’. I have yet to see it.

It happens that I recently read How to Survive a Plague, by David France, although it is not just released. It is, again, about AIDS activists but this time in the United States, and was issued first as a movie (in 2012), and subsequently as a book (2016). It is well worth reading as it chronicles the drama of the period.

And this brings me to my own book, Wise Before their Time, in which over forty people with HIV and AIDS talk about their lives in their own words. First published in 1992, based on interviews at an international conference of people with HIV and AIDS in 1991, it was re-launched last year to great acclaim. Have a look on Amazon, it has received nothing but 5 star reviews.

Ian McKellen wrote a Foreword in which he said “These stories are as powerful as any great classic of fiction”. That’s a good start.

And what do the reviews say? Many stress its importance, as in the title to this post. One reviewer wrote “This book’s intrinsic historical and cultural value is invaluable.”

Many explain the nature of the stories “often moving, even tear-inducing, and also occasionally funny” and “an honest, moving picture which touches a reader’s heart”.

And one urges “Do read this book. If not for anything else then just to understand and appreciate the beauty of being healthy and being alive!”