What makes you feel Christmassy? One of the things I love about this season is the moving sound of the Salvation Army brass bands, playing on snowy streets in the winter. It never fails to make me teary-eyed.
My new book, Strictly Christmas Spirit, was based on some of my own real-life experiences when I worked for the Salvation Army in London.
I’m not a dancer, nor have I ever met with a Hollywood superstar, like the main character Emily. But, like Emily, I was a community centre manager, running a drop-in service for those who were homeless, lonely, and marginalised.
I based a lot of the novel on my experiences of running the centre and working with some of the most vulnerable people in the community. The characters in the book are all fictional, but some of the stories in the book reflect the ones I heard in real life – stories of people fleeing domestic abuse, of fighting against addictions, of struggles with mental health, and of ex-servicemen struggling with PTSD.
Working for the Salvation Army was one of the most challenging experiences I have ever had. There was a huge amount of need, and never enough time or money to meet it. I worked with some wonderful people, and I learned a lot from the experience. Most of all I was left with a huge sense of respect for those doing front-line work to help the most marginalised people in society, and in particular Salvation Army Officers, whose work is incredibly hard, self-sacrificial, and often goes unseen.
The story of Blake and Emily in Strictly Christmas Spirit is a romance, but I hope it is also a story that makes people think about those less fortunate this time of year, and how even the most unlikely or unwilling people can make a huge difference to those in need.
So if you see those Sally Army brass bands playing this winter, do remember the hard graft that goes on behind the shining instruments and Christmas carols. Give them a nod, and maybe pop a pound or two in the bucket if you have any to spare. It’ll go to a very worthy cause!