Thursday, 29 May 2014

Walnut bread and baked beans

For everybody, there is a food that hits the spot. Not so much comfort food, but the sort of food that tells you you're home even if you're not.

In Mistmantle, for Urchin and Crispin it's walnut bread. Padra's not that fussed, as long as it's fish. Hope likes berries the way his mum does them. Brother Fir's sweetest memories are linked with Kingsmantle Cake and Filbert likes the kind of cordial that brings tears to his eyes. Sepia is very quiet about what she likes, but hazelnuts are a favourite.

For most of my family, the classic Sunday roast dinner is 'home'. Pasta with some veg and cheese works for me, and is what we're probably having tonight, Tony, if you're reading this. Fish and chips, of course, but it has to taste the way it used to, eaten with the fingers on Bonfire Night. And you can't beat buttered toast, especially with a good book. (Don't eat the book.)

For Dr Who, famously, it was fish fingers and custard.

Any advance?

Tuesday, 27 May 2014


No sooner were we back from the wedding than Tony went away to a retreat and I went to London. Yet again, I managed to get my various appointments in the same week as Chelsea Flower Show.

I was only able to get a ticket for the early evening session, so I had worked out how to use the time. I had two and a half hours, and spent one and a half hours of them in the pavilion, starting round the outside and working my way in -

trailing fuschias, delphiniums pointing to the sky, thirty sorts of daffodils all prettier than the next, diascias almost jumping out of their pots for joy, strawberries that smelt too good, and gowns made of flowers. Yes, really. In the centre was the Thai display where on a carpet of orchids stood an orchid temple, orchid elephants and peacocks, orchid bridges over orchid streams. But I always leave the roses till last, and met two lovely orange ones that I think may find a place in my garden. I nearly didn't go to Chelsea this year, and I'm so glad I did. It fed me. And I even treated myself to a glass of champagne - well, we have just had a wedding in the family.

The next day I met two delightful editors I've just started working with. It's difficult to do a book with somebody you haven't met, and I think we have a little Mutual Admiration Society going already. Then lunch at the British Library with a student I'm mentoring, and a sprint over to the top end of Kensington for a coffee and catch up with my agent. in spite of the rain I decided on a potter down Kensington Church Street and bought a Terry Pratchett book in a charity shop. Result.

Pity about the train home, which was packed. Many years ago when I was a student, sitting curled up on the floor in a corner of a train with my back against my case was par for the course. These days I'm too old and too stiff. Never mind. I had an Elizabeth Goudge book and memories of Chelsea, and my own bed to look forward to.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014


Today I did complete the work I had to do, but it wasn't easy.

We don't often get sunny days like this in May, and for the rest of the week it's due to pour. I went out this morning to do the Toddler Group and was in no great hurry to get home. If writing in a cafe was good enough for J K Rowling, it's good enough for me, before the leisurely walk home through the park.

Firstly, the conservatory had been shut all morning and the tomato plants were crawling across the floor looking for an oasis, so I had to attend to them, and any other plants that needed watering, and then I needed watering, or at least, lunch. Then I settled down to work.

Then somebody phoned.

I finally did complete the project I've been working on, and used the memory stick to feed it from one computer to another. While I was doing that, I knew I should take a look and see if anybody's sent any more wedding pictures. And I needed to print them off, because I was going to a meeting tonight and everybody would want to see pictures of my son's wedding.

The next thing was to get down to some re-tellings of Bible stories that I'm preparing for a publisher. No it wasn't. Not on such a lovely day, when I'd been inside all day. I owed myself a walk round the garden. All the plants in pots were so thirsty, I couldn't leave it until tonight's rain. And they needed a little chat, to encourage the ones who were trying really hard and prod the idle peasants who think they can just trail around making leaves all summer. I cut some dodgy looking leaves of the Lichfield Angel rose. I rescued the Tequila Sunrise which was being suffocated by a lupin. I murdered some weeds, and I don't think the greenfly will be back in a hurry. I admired the lily of the valley, the azaleas, the irises - I love irises - and the purple-pink thing.

After that it was time for tea, and getting everything ready that needs to go in the post, and a lovely walk there and back past sweet-smelling gardens with rhododendrons tumbling out of them.

And somebody phoned.

Monday, 19 May 2014


What a day that was!

She of the Stories and her Tony have been away this weekend for a wedding and it weren't just any old wedding, it were their Lovely Youngest Son and The Lassie. Ooh, it were wonderful. The sun shone. Those two young'uns didn't stop smiling all day.

The girls were all beautiful and the boys, ooh, if I were younger and they were squirrels I would have gone after one myself. Somebody's mum made a cake with a Lego bride and groom on the top, and Margi's sister did the prettiest ever flowers in spite of 'er getting in the way and trying to help. Nice witty speeches and not too long, and ooh, there was a fair few tissues needed when the bride's father said his bit. That food were delicious and plenty of it and there was a lot of turquoise and white about.

What a lovely job they did with them tables. It was all about... oh, you tell 'em, Padra.

- Certainly. Each table was something to do with a favourite book, so there was a quote and a symbol of the book on each one. All quotes about love. The Pride and Prejudice table was Mr Darcy talking about not knowing exactly when he first fell in love with Elizabeth, and Margi made a little Elizabeth Bennet doll. For the Discworld table it was 'what is written in the heart cannot be changed', and they put a little turtle beside it.

- Go on, tell them about Table One

- Oh - well, it was very sweet of them and rather funny. Table One was about the book she wrote about us and the battle for Mistmantle when Crispin became king. The quote was my proposal to Arran, which wasn't romantic at all. (She hit me. I always said she would.) And there was a little wooden squirrel, quite a pale one, so I suppose that would be Urchin.

- and there were a lot of dancing, too. I had to hold me hat on. Speaking of hats, you should have seen the mother of the groom. A dress like a flower meadow and a hat like a poppy. It's a wonder she didn't get stuck in a vase and sprayed with water.

I love weddings, me. And what a lovely couple. She of the Stories is delighted. Off you go, my dears, and change the world.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

What do you call it?

We were leaving Mum and Dad's house recently when he pulled a plant out of the garden and said I could have it if I liked, but I should put it in a pot, not in the open ground, because it takes over. It's called Herb Robert, or otherwise creeping geranium, or cranesbill. Around Britain it seems to have a million names including Candlesticks, Death Come Quickly, and Stinking Bob.

Shortly before that we had been discussing flower arrangements and my sister mentioned cow parsley. There are various kinds of cow parsley, some of them known as meadowsweet or Queen Anne's Lace. I think I know which one she meant. I hope so. Did anyone ask the cow?

Pansies are Heartsease, Love-in-Idleness, or Cat's Face. The Harebell, or Scottish Bluebell, is also Fairy Thimble, With's Thimble, or Ding-Dongs.

When I got home today I reached for Geoffrey Grigson's The Englishman's Flora, which contains detailed listings of British Wildflowers including all their local names and folklore. It's one of those books that I open to look something up and three hours later I'm still there finding bits of fascinating information that could form the basis of a book if I manage to remember them. A lovely book.

You'd think you'd be safe with the common dandelion. But no, they are said to have a certain effect. That's why kids still sometimes call them 'wettybeds'.

Of course the Mistmantle animals know all about plant properties. But does anybody ever ask them?

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Mistress Tay

That's Spring Festival over for another year. Thank goodness for that.

Wouldn't it be so much better if every part of the island had its own little Spring Festival? Frankly, most of those little woodlanders would be happy with a few bottles of elderflower and some good old folk songs and party games. There are otter communities who spend all their lives smoking fish, what on earth do they want with a day at the Tower? I suggested such an idea to Lady Aspen and she thought it such a good idea! I know what you're thinking, and I am forced to agree that Lady Aspen was sometimes misguided. She did not always make the best decisions. But she knew how to do elegant occasions, and they did not involve every short-sighted worm-eating mole from the bowels of the earth turning up at the Tower.

Crispin - I suppose I should call him King Crispin - has no idea. That's what you get when the king insists on knowing every animal on the island by name. They may as well all be Tower animals as far as he's concerned and the queen encourages him. The Festivals these days end up with a lot of over-excited little creatures hopping about, and claw marks all over the grass. And of course they go down to the shore with Padra and his family and come back with sand in their fur and it gets everywhere. Cake crumbs, too. Moles popping up under your feet. Hedgehogs getting sticky around the spines and squirrels running round pelting each other with twigs. And if Sepia can get all those wretched infants to sing, why can't she make them STOP!

I am going to my room and do not wish to be disturbed.

Friday, 9 May 2014

Padra of Mistmantle

That was one of the best Spring Festivals ever.

The entertainment just gets better and better. Of course the singing was wonderful, it always is now that Sepia's in charge, but I'm impressed by the instruments our animals can make. They had all manner of flutes and fiddles, and moles are extremely good at percussion, pounding away on log drums and whatnot. Squirrels are fantastic acrobats. Hedgehogs aren't, but it doesn't stop them trying. Have you ever stood under a hedgehog tower? You'll only do it once. Otters are pretty good at anything that involves somersaulting over the sand.

Crispin threatened to run down the walls on to the dais, but the queen persuaded him to walk down the steps instead. Half an hour after he finished his speech he was playing chasey up and down the trees with the the young squirrels. Todd and Tipp made a mole maze. Come to think of it there's a few moles I haven't seen since, I'll have to send the lads down there to round them up. Fingal took littlies round the bay in his boat, but I can't see the point as most of them just wanted to jump out.

And the food! The fish! Frothy gooseberry fools and such a lot of tarts and pastries that the little animals were sticking to each other which of course meant that we had to chuck them in the sea and give them a good wash. They enjoyed it so much they all went back to the tables and got sticky again, so Fingal lined them all up outside the kitchen window then went inside and threw buckets of soapy water over them. Mostly they just ended up a bit fluffed up, but it made the hedgehogs' spines soft. To be honest, that was a great relief to everyone.

Apple looked splendid in her best hat. Hope and his mum taught the smaller animals to make bark boats and sail them at the Spring Gate. Tide waited at the other end so they wouldn't get swept out to sea. Now that the sun is going down, most of the animals are in the tower sipping hot drinks and looking out at the sea, where Fingal and Swanfeather are floating candle boats. Baby hedgehogs are lying on their backs snoring. Somebody's running up the wall - oh, it's Urchin. He and Juniper are going to watch the candle boats from the top turret. I think I'll join them. Good night.

Monday, 5 May 2014


Home again! We've been in Hampshire for the wedding of our beautiful eldest god-daughter, and how lovely to see two people thriving on each other's love and determined to stand together, whatever the world throws at them. God bless you, my darlings.

Now, weddings are a big thing in this house. LOS and Lady Sunshine have been married for nearly three years now, LYS and The Lassie are being launched very soon, and then there's a summer wedding for Daughter and Her Chap. We now know a lot about weddings and are learning more all the time, so, just in case you need to know -

If you are a mum, aunt, or godmother of bride or groom, carry safety pins, spare tights, tissues, blister plasters and something for a headache. It's amazing what you can get into a smallish handbag.

Don't panic. Other people will be doing that. Your job is to be unflappable.

And something I just learned - bubbles. The bride is very fond of bubbles, so instead of throwing confetti, which can make a mess, we were all given little pots of bubbles to blow over the couple as they left church. (Don't do it if she's wearing satin, it might leave marks on her dress. But otherwise, bubble all you like).

Where I come from, the world 'bubble' also means 'to cry'. Some people did a bit of that, too, that's why you have to take tissues. But the bride was, of course, radiant and only bubbling over with happiness.

Thursday, 1 May 2014


Firstly, we haven't done any new words for a while, so -

Volunteer - to offer to cry

Helpful - I've got all the help I need, thank you

Now to today's topic, and listen up, it's important.

Several years and four houses ago there was something on television about the danger of carbon monoxide emissions. They can come through faulty gas appliances and they don't smell of anything. They make you headachey and nauseous, and are fatal if you don't take action. I'm a scaredy-cat, so as soon as I heard about it I bought a carbon monoxide detector. It didn't cost much, you put batteries in and it beeps if there's carbon monoxide about. If it wants new batteries it does a different beep.

On Friday at about five o'clock, I was in the dining room writing and Tony had just gone into the sitting room to put the fire on. In ten minutes, the carbon monoxide detector was beeping away furiously.

I'd had the thing for years and now realised that I didn't know what to do if it sounded. I rang the gas fitter who had put the fire in, got his voicemail, and looked for somebody else to phone. Typical, I thought. Friday afternoon after five, when can we get anybody to come out? And LYS and The Lassie, who are getting married soon, were coming for the weekend. It would be bad enough gassing ourselves without gassing the kids as well. I supposed we'd just have to leave the fire off and wait till Monday - then the gas fitter arrived on the doorstep. t was about ten minutes since I'd phoned him.

He checked the fire and found it was belting out carbon monoxide because there was a blockage in the chimney. He immediately called the guy who put the fire in, and he also came straight out. There and then they put down dustsheets, got out the brushes and swept a jackdaw's nest out of the chimney. (A jackdaw, too, and didn't she look cross.) When I say 'jackdaw's nest' I reckon it was a multi-storey one. This jackdaw had spotted an opportunity and was renting out flats to other jackdaws. We half-filled the wheelie bin with the debris.

Everything was made safe within two hours of my call. By lunchtime next day they'd put covers on the chimney pots, put the fire together, reconnected the gas and tested the fire again, just to be sure. And for this work, carried out at the weekend in an emergency when they could have charged what they liked? I had made a guess at what was reasonable. They charged about a quarter of it.

So - we are safe. We have the best guys in the world at the end of a telephone.

Now get out of the House of Stories and order a carbon monoxide detector.