Thursday, 31 December 2015

Shine

I've been away from the blog having a happy time with family and friends, and I hope you have too. And a gift that somebody gave me this Christmas is the gift of flight. It was planted into my imagination when I was thinking of something else. Good gifts often start that way.

So come with me and let's fly over Mistmantle. It's night there. A few hedgehogs and moles are awake, sipping hot drinks and telling stories. Urchin is on night duty at the top of the tower stairs. (He didn't have to be on guard tonight, but he swapped to cover for another squirrel who has a new born baby and should be at home with his family.) Almondflower wriggles and talks to herself in her sleep. Mistress Tay snores. Even Fingal is asleep. Juniper wakes, goes to the window, smiles up at the moon, and listens to the shushing of the waves as we fly far overhead, too far for him to see.

But we can't hover over Mistmantle all night. The enchantments will not let us stay, and we must fly to the world we know. We will fly now over one of the most delightful places I know. It doesn't look delightful, though, not at first. It looks wet, muddy and sludgy, and piles of wet furniture, carpets and rubbish are piled up on the streets. Walls have caved in. There are whole streets with no lights on, this New Year's Eve.

Put Mytholmroyd Floods 2015 into a search engine. See for yourselves.

This is Mytholmroyd, the delightful, friendly, quirky, creative Yorkshire village that was such a big and happy part of our lives for nine years - it still is, we just don't live there any more. We've had flooding there before in 2012 in midsummer, but what happened on Boxing Day this year was far, far worse. In a very short time, the water came up to the tops of the shop doors. It poured in wherever it could. Walls caved in. Roads were closed. The children will have to be dispersed to other schools because the school won't be open for six months. Water rose up into the churches and their halls, the sheltered housing complex, whole streets of houses, and every shop and pub in the village. Gas and electricity supplies are off in a lot of places, including our old street. It is heartbreaking.

Royd, being Royd, is fighting back. Already they are cleaning, sorting stuff out, and most of all, helping each other. It is a wonderful community. God bless Mytholmroyd.

Let's hear it. Shout it. Share it. Let the stars hear it. God Bless Mytholmroyd!

Thursday, 24 December 2015

From us all

From Crispin and Cedar, Padra, Arran, Fingal, Lugg and all his family, Hope, Fir, Larch, Flame, Needle, Mistress Apple, Corr, and all their friends on Mistmantle -

From Much

From Hamilton Bear

and from all of us connected to The House of Stories,

may your Christmas be blessed, joyous, peaceful, and fill your heart with good things to share throughout the year.

Monday, 21 December 2015

Santa Claus is doing what?

Santa Claus is coming to town, says the song. If this Santa tries to come to my town, he'll be banned.

'You'd better watch out,
You'd better not cry,
You'd better not pout ... Santa Claus is coming to town'

EXCUSE ME! What is so bad about daring to cry, even to pout? What if a child is ill, or bitterly disappointed about something, or if he stubbed his toe on the skirting board? What if his whole world seems to be disintegrating around him? Are you telling me that he shouldn't cry because Santa Claus wouldn't approve? That doesn't sound like Santa Claus to me. It sounds like a villain out of a Victorian novel, Mr Gradgrind or Mr Murdstone out of Dickens, or that horrible man in charge of the orphanage in Jane Eyre. What sort of a jolly kindly Santa is this? You cry if you want to, pet. Of course you're crying if you think Mr Murdstone is flying around over your head in a sledge.

'He's making a list
He's checking it twice - '

This creep is trying to find out if you've been naughty or nice. Sounds like spying to me. Frankly, most of us have been both naughty AND nice this year, if that's all the same to you, you sanctimonious bully! Who is this weirdo, checking up on children and judging them as to what's naughty and what's nice? Heaven help him if he comes anywhere near here. The mothers in this town would be down on him like the Furies.

'He knows when you are sleeping
He knows when you're awake'

WHAT DID I TELL YOU! CALL THE POLICE IMMEDIATELY!

'He knows if you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.'

Er - yes. Be good for goodness sake. Be good because good is good. And take no notice of this Santa Claus who is coming to town. He is a nosy, pompous child-hating creep and I am waiting for him with a pile of snowballs. Any more bad Christmas songs out there?

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Silent Stars

There's a line in that lovely carol 'O Little Town of Bethlehem' - 'the silent stars go by'. This week a Christmas card arrived with 'Sh!' on the front. The message inside said that I was a 'Silent Star'. Nobody ever called me that before, and I liked it very much.

It's not just me. I'm one of the thousands of people who donate regularly to Greenbelt Festival, a wonderful gathering of faith, music, arts, creativity, social action and fun. Supporters are called Greenbelt Angels, and this card was sent out to all the Greenbelt Angels to thank them for their support and tell them that what they do is unobserved but much appreciated. But I've been meeting silent stars most of my life.

Many of them were old north-eastern women who had struggled heroically through hard times with love and humour. There were the ones who had given their lives looking after relatives, or the Wallsend lady who took refugees under her wing. There was the complete stranger who helped us when Daughter was four years old and was suddenly taken ill. There are the sponsors of children, the knitters of blankets, the hospital visitors and givers of presents to unknown children. You've met silent stars all your life, but you might not know it. Silent.

Be a silent star.


Sunday, 13 December 2015

It did! And Hope

It really did! It snowed!

It wasn't forecast. I was in our beautiful church, helping at a stall in the Christmas Fair. There were stalls in the Market Place, too, choirs singing, and people selling hot chestnuts. About midday I saw that people were coming in with white on their hats and shoulders, so I nipped to the door. Yes, soft flakes were landing on stalls and hats, on baby buggies and the Christmas tree.

There were moans and grumbles. It would keep people away from the market. They'd have to leave early. Cars would need de-icing. Steps must be gritted. The journey home would be a problem.

At 1.30 I escaped from the grumblebums and went for a quick bite of something for lunch, and one of my young friends came with me. She had been wishing for snow, she said as she looked up in excitement. We sat in the lovely old cafe, drinking hot chocolate (her) and cappucino (me) as the snow fell steadily outside the window. I didn't just have snow, I had snow in the company of somebody who knew how wonderful it was and loved it even more than I did. And if it's snowing here, I'm sure it's doing the same on Mistmantle.

HOPE

I could smell it before anybody else knew it was coming, you can always sniff snow on the air if you know what it sniffles like. I told everyone, Master Urchin, Miss Sepia, Fingal, everyone. I went up to the tower and told the king and queen once I'd worked my way up to the Throne Room. I told Mum and Dad, and I told a tree because I thought it was Mistress Tay and then I told Mistress Tay and she said she detests snow and I had to ask Captain Lugg what that meant, and he said it means Mistress Tay's an idiot, but then he said not to repeat that because it could get back to her. She's very clever so I don't think she can really be an idiot, but if she is I suppose it mustn't get back to her because she doesn't know she's an idiot, and anyway idiot isn't a very nice thing to call someone.

I asked Captain Padra if somebody could be very clever and an idiot at the same time. He laughed. "Definitely', he said.

Friday, 11 December 2015

Where?

Where have I been?

I've been in a magical city.

Many years ago, Tony and I went to Salzburg in December. We've always wanted to go back with our family, and finally, we did. For two nights previously I lay awake thinking of things that could go wrong, and deciding that they probably wouldn't. And they didn't. We all met at the airport as planned, and off we went, Cahooties, Sunshines, Hobbits and us, to the small city that holds to the rocks and dresses itself in thousands of little lights on dark winter evenings. At the storybook hotel, the staff wore traditional costume and the rooms were so cosy with the windows overlooking the city that it was almost a shame to go out. But we did go out, discovering the markets and the ice rink and sipping hot spiced drinks.

There's the Christmas museum and the beautiful display of cribs in the museum in the square, there's the cathedral and the little churches. Intricate, hand made Christmas decoration were on stall after stall. Lady Sunshine had made a point of watching The Sound of Music before we left, so we went to the Mirabell Gardens where Julie Andrews and the children do-re-mi'd their way up and down the steps. We visited the Hellbrun Palace and were there as the sun went down and the lights in the trees grew into life against the sky.

Austria isn't an easy place to be vegetarian, but when Tony and the kids discovered that bacon, ham and sausages are almost compulsory they were in seventh heaven. I compensated by eating my body weight in rye bread and butter, cheese, and apfel strudel. The night after we got back, I dreamed of drinking hot chocolate in the Mozartplatz. Since then, life has been very busy with all sorts of pre-Christmas things, but I still have a Salzburg star in my heart.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Not the red nose

There are a few Christmas songs that I find irritating, especially if I've been hearing them since the middle of November. Today I'll just rant about one of them, 'Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer'.

If I ever saw him I would NOT say that his nose 'glows'. It would be very impolite. I would ignore it, befriend him get to know him, bless him. And as for the other reindeer, what a mean horrible lot! They laughed, called him names, and wouldn't let him play. So, having befriended Rudolf, any right-thinking person would have a word with those other reindeer. That's bullying. We would have a discussion about that. Maybe do a bit of role play. And if they still didn't mend their ways I'd put them all on naughty steps and ignore them and see how they liked it.

It all changes when Santa asks him to be lead reindeer on Christmas Eve. They all want to be his friends then. But nobody asks Rudolf why he has a red nose. Does he have a cold? Then he should be wrapped up in the warm with a hot drink, not flying all the way round the world on a winter night and pulling several tons of parcels. Santa, the RSPCA know where you live and they're coming to get you.

And to all the mean two-faced reindeer out there, Rudolf is going down in history. You're just going down. There are laws against anti-social behaviour.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Much Advent

It aint Advent yet, it starts tomorrow. 'Er is most particular about not putting up the Christmas tree until about a week before Christmas, and then I have a shuffle round so me snail and I can see it. However, the Christmas tree in town 'ad its lights switched on yesterday, and all them trees in the park got shiny white lights in their branches. Wouldn't be surprised if they've all been knocked 'orizontal by the storm since then, but we live in 'ope. 'Er was on the team dishing up 'ot chocolate in church afterwards, and they didn't 'arf need it.

This afternoon 'er went to a fund-raising do in town. It was to get some money together to buy tents for refugees in Calais, and if you get the chance to raise a bit of money for summat like that - well, get on with it, then! Mind, 'er's too much of a wuss to walk home in weather like what we 'ad today, so 'er phoned 'im to give 'er a lift 'ome. Then 'er sat down to make the Advent Wreath, like 'er do every year on the day before Advent Sunday. We'll be seeing 'er out 'ere, then, I aid to me snail, she'll be out round the garden cutting a bit of rosemary, bit of ivy, a lot of 'olly out the 'edge.

Not a bit of it. 'Er darts out the front door, snips a teensy bit of 'olly off the nearest bush, and disappears inside like a ferret up a pipe. 'Er weren't staying out a second longer than 'er 'ad to. Next time I looked in the window, there's the Advent Wreath all ready with its red ribbons and candles and bits of 'olly sticking out like the first line of defence. Looks nice, though. 'Ave a good Advent time.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Crispin

There is an otter up a tree.

Yes, I know otters don't climb trees, but sometimes they don't have to. Every now and then there's a new craze amongst the young - sometimes it's building decorated dens, sometimes it's stone-skimming competitions, sometimes it's making seesaws and jumping on them to see how far you can catapult your best friend into the treetops. This autumn it's the carrying game, when squirrels give the non-climbing animals lifts up and down trees. Moles aren't interested. They don't like being far from the earth. Hedgehogs can be a bit like that, too, but some of them have such a spirit of adventure that they'll go for anything. Hope loves getting carried up a tree, even though he can't see much when he gets there. And otters, you know what they're like. Never miss an adventure.

Swanfeather was desperate to get as high up in the trees as she possibly could, so Urchin hoisted her over his shoulder and whizzed up with her, into that favourite tree of his on Watchtop Hill. She loved it. But then when she'd been there for a while, and Urchin was about to take her back down again, she clung on to a branch with four paws and a tail, squealed with glee and absolutely refused to move an inch. Swanfeather can be like that. Urchin had duties of his own to attend to, so when teasing and gentle persuasion failed he just told her to shout for a lift when she wanted one, shinned down the tree, and left her up there. She's quite safe, some of us are keeping an eye on her. Padra and Arran know where she is.

She hasn't shouted for help. I don't know if she's still enjoying it, or just pretending to. She might decide to try to get down by herself, which isn't a good idea for an otter, but it's all right. her friends have piled an enormous heap of leaves and moss underneath so she's got something soft to land on.

There she goes! And there's the big eyes and the whiskery face popping up out of the leaves. Oh dear, she'll want to do it again now.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Thanks!

It was only this morning that I realised it was Thanksgiving, and that was because there was something about it on the radio. All you House of Story-ites on the other side of the water, I hope you're having a a very happy day.

Thanksgiving is an excellent sort of giving, and it's good therapy too. So what am I thankful for today?

A crisp, dry morning, Tony, toast and tea, my church and so much about it, my Junior Church Group, the wee girl who kept cuddling me, coffee, the fun we all had in the kitchen washing up, a lift home, rye bread and avocado, fudge, fruit, all the lovely people I met when I was stewarding this afternoon, a home to go to, streaks of pink across the sky, lights in the trees in the park, roast potatoes, a good book, a puzzle, sorting out advent calendars, and writing to you. There's more, but that's enough to be going on with. Now I'm looking forward to a warm bath and a soft bed. I don't know what time it is over there, but it's 11.00 pm here.

What are you thankful for today?

Oh, and The Archers, of course.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Attic

Yes, it has been a long time, hasn't it? I was going to write something from The House of Stories on Friday, and then I didn't know what to say, apart from 'pray' and 'think' and 'Vive la France'.

Think. What about all the world getting together about this? What about working out what the terrorists want us to do and doing something different? What about long term thinking?


And now, here is a little bit of something to share with you. For those of you who write, it might give you ideas.

Picture a very ordinary looking house in an ordinary looking street. Go upstairs, and you will find another flight of stairs. Up you go. Open the door.

You are in a pleasant, comfortable attic. It's a loft conversion, so it has beams in the ceiling. The floor is polished wood and there are four louvred windows. There are papers on the floor and a small desk in a corner. A woman is sitting on the rug, writing. She loves this attic and is deeply, truly grateful to have it. She can hear the storm raging round the house and rain hurling against the windows, and knows that, on this November day, the light is beginning to fade.

She gets up and looks down from the window. Now that the trees are nearly bare, she can see all the way to the car lights at the other side of town as people drive home from work. There are lights in a few windows. One is an attic, like hers. She goes back to her story, writes until she's satisfied with what she's done, and goes downstairs.

Later, she comes back and again she looks down from her window. All the way up and down the hill, there are lights in attic windows.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Fingal

It's much too early to think about all the winter celebrations on the island. But winter doesn't organise itself, as Apple said to me this morning. It needs sorting, she said. And off she went to to add some cinnamon and nutmeg to the brew. (Don't try it, it won't taste any better.)

The tower kitchens smell good. Some of those winter puddings have to be made early and put away to store, so that there are warm, spicy wafts of fruit, almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, spice, sugar, honey and wine. For a fish-eating animal like myself, it's pleasant. For a fruit and nut maniac - and most squirrels are fruit and nut maniacs - it's joy beyond description, I'm surprised they haven't all fainted with delight and dropped out of their trees. Actually, Almondflower has just dropped out of a tree, but I suspect she did it on purpose. Urchin caught her and she's fine.

The musicians are up to something, too. Sepia takes her choir away to her song cave to practise some new songs for winter parties. It's all very secretive and they're not supposed to sing a note in front of the rest of us. It's very hard not to sing a song once you've got it into your head, and they're all going round biting their lips and crossing their eyes in the effort to keep quiet. Then one of them will get the giggles, and of course they all catch it, and so does everybody else. Truly, I've seen royalty rolling about on the Throne Room floor and thumping cushions.

And what do otters do, ready for the feast? We take fish to the smokery and preserve it in the oaky fumes. And to do that, you have to catch it first, so excuse me. Otter business to see to.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Where's ya bin?

I've been in Kent for a week, in a beautiful house surrounded by woodland. A bit Mistmantle-ish really. I've met delightful, inspiring, engaging people, soaked up the atmosphere of a lovely chapel, walked in wet woods, learned things, read lots, made notes until I was bog-eyed, and got a bit wet because it's gone from misty to pouring to drizzle. But I am so happy to be home. While I was there I thought of lots of things I'd like to blog about, and now I've forgotten what they were.

A few things occur to me to pass on to you. One was my young American friend asking me why we wore poppies, and I explained about Remembrance, and how all the money raised by selling poppies is used to help war veterans. Another was popping into St Martin-in-the Fields, the church in Trafalgar Square. I've told you about it before - it's a church, a music venue, a meeting place, and a drop-in and support place for the homeless and the needy. They fund their work through the shop, the cafe, and the annual Christmas appeal which raises thousands. At any one time you can find homeless and troubled people, world class musicians, clergy, tourists, Londoners, rich and poor, all having their needs met. A glimpse of God's kingdom.

Then there was the disabled lady in a wheelchair, with an assistance dog at her side. She was clothed in waterproofs as she waited for the bus in the rain, and I wondered about how much support and effort had gone into getting her ready and out that morning. I suppose she could have stayed home and warm, but she wasn't going to let her disability tie her down. The bus driver helped with her chair, and the dog, of course, behaved impeccably. There was a man who picked up my newspaper for me when it fell off the top of my case and blew along the railway platform. And fund-raising is beginning for Children In Need, a huge annual appeal that raises money all over the UK.

Good stuff is happening.

Friday, 30 October 2015

Tat

Oh dear, this might annoy some people.

I've never been much into Halloween, and when I was a kid it wasn't such a huge deal. We'd hack lanterns out of turnips (well, Mum did most of it) and put them on the doorstep. There'd be a lantern parade at school and maybe a party at Brownies/Guides. We did not dress up and knock on the doors of strangers. (The old Scots custom of 'guysing' is where this came from, but that was in the days when you lived in small communities and knew your neighbours, and which ones would have made toffee for the occasion.) All Saints Day, 1 November, was always the smell of burnt turnip, and mashed turnip for dinner. I hated mashed turnip.

I don't mind well-behaved kids coming to the door for a sweet, but what I do object to is the volume of tat, and it's not just Halloween. Let's look at it this way.

There are more and more people and the planet isn't getting any bigger. We have to think carefully before using resources to make stuff. We all know this. And yet, when I went shopping today, there was rubbish everywhere. Rubbish for sale! Hats, claws, masks, cloaks, horns, more and more of it, whole shelves and stands of it. Lorries have driven for miles pumping toxic fumes about and using petrol to get it to the shops. It will be worn for a few hours and binned next week. Landfill, here we come. Clear the space, ready for Santa Claus costumes. And if you want to be a princess/dragon/wild animal, you can buy a costume off the peg. It'll fall apart in six months but by then you'll be sick of it.

I'm not saying 'don't dress up'. I'm saying, have a great time dressing up. Buy stuff from charity shops and cut it up. Raid the cupboards for old curtains. Honestly, I'm not good at sewing but we always had costumes for Alnwick Fair when the kids were small. Worn out pillowcases make tunics. Masks are easy. Use your imagination. And take courage! Soon it will be over for another year, and we'll be celebrating All Saints.



Tuesday, 27 October 2015

from the den of stories

We spent today at Cragside - a quite amazing place in Northumberland - with the Golden Child and her brother. What a day.

Cragside now belongs to the National Trust, who have done great things with it. was built by a Victorian inventor and was known as 'the palace of a modern magician'. It was the first house in the world to have electric lighting, because miles of wooded grounds with substantial lakes meant that he could generate hydro-electric power. In the house you can discover Victorian cutting edge technology and some quite beautiful William Morris wallpapers and curtains, Edwardian toys, and kitchens the size of our house. And a lot of children, at half term. It as a murky, foggy day, so there were lots of visitors indoors.

The grounds are better, though. And the half term activities. There was a man giving a fascinating introduction to edible insects. Yes, he did have samples. No, I didn't eat any. To my complete horror, the Golden Child and her brother did. No ill effects so far. I know, if locusts were good enough for John the Baptist they should be good enough for me - but no thank you, I'm a vegetarian.

Outside, the Trust had organised den building in a clearing among the rhododendron bushes with a lot of pruned branches and felled wood. There you are, everyone, build dens. It was perfect. Best playground ever. The Golden Child might look like Goldilocks but she has the strength of Father Bear and she and her brother carried branches about four times their own heights. Maybe that's what eating locusts does for you. We built a magnificent den and before we were finished they were putting up partition walls and making a table. But it would have been a bit uncomfortable to sleep in, so we piled everyone into the car and Tony drove us home through almost impenetrable fog. Golden Child and her brother are now in a state of total zzzzzzzzzz

... and will be until about 6.30 in the morning.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Help!

I once did a book called 'The Life Shop' which had a kind of Dr Faustus twist. Some sinister people were trying to take over the world by running a catalogue - these days it would be a website - getting people to buy more and more of their goods and services, everything from toys to life insurance to further education courses. They had a kind of hypnotic effect on people. Their aim was really to bind people's entire lives to them. Could our heroine, her friend and her disabled little brother stop them? Have you met the heroine?

Of all the e-mails that come in every day, about a third are trying to sell me something. Especially, I keep getting adverts from people trying to sell me craft/knitting sewing magazines. Why? It takes me a week to knit a sweater, and by that I mean a teeny weeny one for a very small teddy bear, and that doesn't included sewing the buttons on. And they keep sending me -

Knit Your Own Furniture! October Edition with special section on plumbing! Crochet a cute drainpipe!

Patchwork House - recycle granny's bloomers to make our fantastic bread bin!

Sew and Go - The Craft Mag for Cyclists! See our stunning new ideas for lycra! Knit our goggles! Keep your bike warm with our amazing wrap trap!

On and on, and now next month's edition is due - crochet your winter insulation! Weave your own tree! Make a fab wedding dress out of your old curtains! And I haven't finished knitting the bathroom stool, making up the pirate themed tea cosy and the macrame slippers, I need to find wartime blackout curtains to make a graduate gown for next to nothing...

I wake up screaming. But it's all right, it was only a nightmare, and I'm safe in my own bed. And I didn't make the duvet cover myself, no way. And I'm not going to make it into a cute rag doll. I'm going back to sleep. If anyone e-mails me a craft magazine, delete it.


Monday, 19 October 2015

Extravaganza

I spent Saturday at the UKMG - which is UK Middle Grade - Extravaganza. What happened was, they rounded up 34 children's authors and innumerable readers and librarians in Nottingham library. All the authors had a chance to talk about their work, there were Q and A sessions, and books were on sale. There was such a buzz, such a constant, excited, eager buzz about kids and books that we all left exhausted and high as kites. Readers asked great questions about the hows and whats of writing. It was only afterwards that I realised we should have had a panel of 8-13 year olds, so the authors could ask questions about what they read and what they love.

There is everything out there for children to read. History, adventure, sci-fi, humour, wolves and wishes, mountains and monsters. Thirty-four authors, and all completely different.

I chatted to a delightful eight-year-old who had a notebook on her knee and had been writing something during the session. Yes, she was writing a story and she kindly let me read it. THAT CHILD IS AFTER MY JOB. SERIOUSLY GOOD WRITING. One day I'll be telling everyone that I knew her before she was famous.

She'd arrived by train and saw a street name on the way to the library that set her imagination going. She became a child living in that street and I won't tell you any more because it was her story, not mine. But all you potential writers out there, that's how it's done.

Thank you to all the organisers of such a huge event, everyone who came, and Nottingham libraries. And next year, - whoopee! - it'll be in Newcastle.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Much

'I need to move the thingy,' says 'er.

'Give us a clue,' I says.

'You know, the thingy,' says 'er.

No, I didn't blooming know what 'er needed to move. The world? The dead stuff she just dug out of the garden? The 'edge'og 'ouse? The feelings of an 'eartless government?

"Not move it, dig it up," ssyd 'er. So she don't mean the world, the dead stuff, or the 'edge-'og house. Might still be the government, but I don't know.

"The, you know, the thingy," says 'er. "The doo-hickey, the how'syerfather, the whatnot. That big green thing."

Probably not the government then. If 'er's going to start digging up big green things, I'm off.

"The camellia," 'er says at last. "It never does much. We never get more than one or two flowers on it and there's a very pretty rhododendron behind it that can't see the light of day, so the camellia has to go."

Well, why couldn't 'er say that in the first place? What does 'er work with all day? Words, that's what. Communycating stuff. And 'er can't think of the word for a whacking great camellia thst looks 'er in the face every day. Dig it up if you like, missus, but try to remember what it is. And while you're at it, there's one garden word you really 'ave to remember, OK. It's this'un -

Gnome. Got it?

THE ARCHERS! I'm so sorry, I haven't told you anything for weeks if not months! How have you lived?

The Fairbrother brothers are trying to get everyone to buy their geese for Christmas. The Grundys, who have been selling turkeys for generations, are up in arms. Look out for poultry wars. Fortunately geese and turkeys are pretty stupid birds and won't work out how to blow each other up. For the first time I feel sorry for Helen, because Rob Tichener is turning into Svengali. If you want him pushed in the slurry pit, love, just let me know. Ruth's mother's funeral was yesterday, Jill Archer is living at Lower Loxley, Fallon and the policeman have moved in together, Phoebe's applying to Oxbridge and Kate's doing yoga.

Monday, 12 October 2015

To my dining room table

It's OK. I'm bringing lots of pots and pans from the kitchen and piling them on top of you, but this time it doesn't mean that we're moving. It's just because the new cooker is about to arrive, and I need to clear everything out from that corner of the kitchen so the men can install it. Then you'll be back to normal.

I really do appreciate you, you know. Don't listen to anyone who suggests we might need a new table. So you're a bit smaller than average. So am I, is it a problem? And what are a few battle scars between such old friends? In fact you're not just a friend, you're family. We've had you longer than the kids, for heaven's sake. I remember that you and the chairs cost about £30.00 second hand from lovely old Mr Lessimore's shop, and he turned up personally with the delivery men. He'd even polished you up.

How many nations have you hosted? Apart from British, I mean. American, Nigerian, Ghanaian, Swedish, Austrian, German, Dutch, Norwegian, Estonian, Japanese, New Zealanders, Indian. You remember my Uncle Ben, my godparents, Tony's folks and dear Gordon and Audrey. Remember the party after the twins' baptism, when you were covered with presents? You have hosted Christmas after Christmas, party after party. Around you we have eaten delicious meals and almost inedible ones, and survived. We have chatted, had rows, solved problems, and laughed until even you rocked.

You have born the weight of dressmaking and homework, jigsaws and modelmaking. And who supported all my earlier books? You did. I love you.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Poetry Day

Today is National Poetry Day. I have lots of favourites - Shakespeare's Sonnet 'Let Me Not To The Marriage Of True Minds' is one, and Yeats 'He Wishes For The Cloths Of Heaven'. Anything by Evangeline Paterson, who so kindly took an interest in a new and struggling writer and became my friend and mentor. T S Eliot, including all the cat poems, and I used to share A A Milne poems with my children. But for Mistmantle readers, today I'll offer you this - it's by Kenneth Steven, from the West of Scotland, and is in his collection 'Iona'

The Small Giant

The otter is ninety per cent water
Ten Per cent God.

This is a mastery
We have not fathomed in a million years.

I saw one once, off the teeth of western Scotland,
Playing games with the Atlantic -

Three feet of gymnastics
Taking on an ocean.



And perhaps you'll like this one, too, from the same collection -

After The Rain

I woke at first light,
Listened to the quiet after long rainfall.

Like a strange resurrection
The clouds were torn, blown into pale shreds,
October above them blue and beautiful.
I went out, barefoot, found the meadows lying underwater,
The oaks still above their own reflections.

I waded out through white water,
Swayed back folds of still water,
As the swallows flickered in the morning air
And the Sabbath bells flowed over the valley.

I thought of Christ in the fields of Galilee,
His feet swathing though lilies and water,
Early in the birdsong of the morning.



Let's do more poems! Tell me your favourites!

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Mistress Tay

Sometimes I don't know why I bother. I am seriously considering resignation.

There was a time on this island - not all that long ago - when one always knew where every animal was. If any creature was not doing suitable work, it had to have a good reason. Tower squirrels were busy in the tower, shore otters were busy with cargoes, moles dug tunnels where and when they were told, and hedgehogs just got on with whatever menial tasks common woodland hedgehogs are supposed to do. But that's not good enough for King - we have to call him that these days - Crispin.

I do my best to keep this island in order. At today's meeting of the Circle, I pointed out that otters were gathering on the sloping rocks over to the east side of the bay and sliding into the water. This was expressly forbidden under Rule 12 of the Reign of Queen Bangle.

"Is there such a law?" asked Docken. Really!

"Oh, yes," said Padra. "My grandfather used to tell me about that law. It was only ever meant to be temporary. There was a minor landslip a year or two into Queen Bangle's reign, which meant that the rocks around there became exceptionally slippery and the water underneath was full of fallen boulders. Anyone sliding down there at low tide would go down like a wet squirrel and hit something hard and sharp. That's why she banned it. But that was a long time ago. Erosion has done its bit, and it's all settled down now."

"That's all right, then," said Crispin. "That law can be repealed. See to it, Tay, and I'll announce it and send the messengers out with the good news."

"And,", I went on, in spite of being dismissed in such an off-hand manner, "There was a law passed by King Brushen - Rule 35 - that all animals capable of climbing trees were to spend three days in every season gathering wood for the use of the archers."

"Brushen was very keen on archery, wasn't he?" said Crispin. "But we don't need all those archers now." And then he stopped being flippant and fixed me with that look - the very unsettling way he has of looking right into one's eyes - and repeated himself, rather firmly and quietly. "We don't need all those archers now, Mistress Tay. Thank you for bringing this rule to my notice. It will be repealed immediately."

When the meeting was finished I left with a firm step to make it quite clear that I did not approve. But I paused outside - sometimes one needs to collect oneself - and heard him say to that annoying little page,

"Urchin, have a word with Needle and Thripple, please, and ask them to unwrap all the Threadings pertaining to Laws and Rules. Arran, Brother Fir, we'll go through them with Mistress Thripple and see if there are any other senseless rules that need to be thrown out."

Well, really. Sometimes I think I'm the only sensible animal on the island. And for that reason, I will not resign.




Wednesday, 30 September 2015

On The Last Day of September

'The big ship sails through the alley-alley-o
The alley-alley-o
The alley-alley-o
The big ship sails through the alley-alley-o
On the last day of September


That's a children's rhyme, and I seem to remember there was a game that went with it - something to do with making an arch and children running through it. Like most of these old rhymes nobody seems to know where it comes from, whether it means anything, or how a ship came to sail through an alley in the first place. When we had flooding in Yorkshire we had dinghies and canoes in the streets, but nothing that came near big ship proportions. And why the last day of September?

There were other verses - 'the captain says it'll never, never do'. The cap'n was right, me hearties, because the ship ends up at the bottom of the sea.

But the thing about the last day of September is that it's so unpredictable. The last day of September can be bitterly cold or pouring with rain, or it can be, like today, gloriously sunny. (Hello, sun. Where do you think you were in July and August, then?) The rhyme always alerts me to the Last Day of September.

I have photographs of a Last Day Of September long ago when my children were small and we were all in summer clothes on the beach. LYS had just about sussed how to walk while holding on to something or someone, and we have pictures of him toddling through the waves while holding both my hands. The following year was another sunny Last Day of September, and I took the children to the playground. An hour later we were rushing Daughter to the doctor because she'd run headlong into a swing and been concussed.

That turned out to be a very long Last Day of September and an even longer first day of October. The nights were longer than the days. However, there were no lasting ill effects. (Note to Daughter and Daughter's Chap - any eccentricities are to do with the genes and the lousy upbringing. Or possibly the brothers. Not the swing.)

I hope you've all had a good last day of September. Have a great thirty-one days of October, and look out for small children near moving swings.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Crispin in Autumn

On the morning I was born there was the first night touch of autumn frost. The air and the fallen leaves were crisp, and that was how they chose my name. I've always loved autumn, I love the sense of everything being gathered in from this year and made ready for the next. All over the island, animals are cramming larders and storing up leaves and feather for nests. Tell you what, let's just shin up Urchin's favourite tree and see what's going on.

The otters aren't that bothered about food. They can find fish in the sea all year round. But they've organised a bucket chain to move stones and driftwood from the shore to anyone inland who needs them. The wood is mainly for firewood, but also for household repairs, and the stones are useful for holding down any bits of your home that might blow away in a high wind. Oh, and there's Fingal giving Fionn rides on his back. If he's had enough he just rolls over and she falls off. There she goes.

The squirrels have been weaving nets and baskets for storing winter nuts and are organising them into 'hazels' 'walnuts' and so on. Sepia gets the littlies to sing while they do that, otherwise they'd eat the lot. Urchin's taken about a dozen small animals to collect blackberries, and nobody minds if they eat half of those. A sword is very useful for chopping down the more vicious branches. It's a great way of keeping the youngsters happy. They spend all morning hunting, gathering and eating, all afternoon getting their fur clean, and all night sleeping like tops because they're exhausted. Hope and Scatter are - what are they doing? oh, they're planting a garden for next year. Mother Huggen and Wren are watching a lot of baby moles and hedgehogs rolling about in the leaves for the fun of it. Oh, and here's Almondflower coming to join them. Catkin and Oakleaf are gathering firewood. Smoke rises from bonfires, and from...

.. yes, from the gigantic pot where Apple is brewing up her latest batch of cordial. You can tell when it's the smoke from the cordial because it's faintly yellow and so is the grass around it. Animals give it a wide berth. Apple likes to keep it for a year before drinking. Urchin would say, a lifetime. For myself, I'd rather go back to the Tower, sit down with Cedar to some hot spiced blackberry and cinnamon, and hear about the plans for the Autumn Festival. If you see Urchin and Needle, get them to come up and join us, will you?

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Geta

I'm dead jealous of The Sunshines, who have been away red squirrel watching. Can't wait to see the pictures. Now -

I know a secret. I know where you can see a Geta Stone.

'What is a Geta Stone?' you all ask. Sit round the fire with a cup of hot chocolate and I will tell you.

In the third century there were two Roman emperors, brothers named Caracalla and Geta. The idea was that they would rule together, but they fought like Kilkenny cats until finally Caracalla had Geta murdered. But it wasn't enough for him that Geta was dead. He had to be eliminated, as if he had never been. Caracalla (which feels lovely to type) set out to eliminate his brother's name from the empire. Every stone, every tablet, every inscription with Geta's name on it was defaced. But in outlying parts of the Empire the job wasn't done quite so thoroughly. There's one in Northumberland which was later used for rebuilding, and the name 'Geta' can just be seen with a few deep gouges across it. Nobody's bothered about Caracalla now, but historians get all excited about Geta Stones.

Now, from the little I know of Geta and Caracalla they were both pretty unpleasant characters, but bear with me. There's a pattern here, a familiar pattern.

You send the beautiful stepdaughter into the forest to be killed. Oh, rats, she's back. And they don't call the story 'The Beautiful Queen', they call it 'Snow White'.

You want to take over an island and a certain squirrel gets in your way, so you get him OUT of your way, thoroughly and forever. And look what happens.

A Roman official and a few priests tried to get rid of an annoying Jewish chap. Now we've only heard of Pontius Pilate and Herod because they come into the story of Jesus of Nazareth.

You can't keep a good squirrel down.

Monday, 14 September 2015

The Box of Stories

Thank you, Sam, for those ideas - you can't go far wrong with a dog story.

I like sewing, and generally crafty stuff. My hand-eye co-ordination isn't great so I'm not that good at it, but I do love it. I have a work basket that I've had since I was a girl - it's quite small, the hinges are broken, it's overflowing and the lining is coming off. Pity, because I really like it. I also have a knitting bag and a lot of surplus wool, canvas and odds and ends in a chest in the attic. And boxes around the house for beads, ribbons, buttons, and anything else that jumped out at me from a stall. I have been thinking in terms of a new work box so I can put it all together. A BIG work box.

Well! A few weeks ago, Tony pointed out that we needed at least one more small table. I thought of the various junk/antique shops not far away and said I'd look out for one.

There's an antiques/crafts/junk shop halfway up a hill and only open on Saturdays. If you go past during the week you can't even see it's there, which makes it like a magical shop in a story book. But I went past on a Saturday and nipped in, looking for something to plant bulbs in.

I didn't find something for bulbs. I found HER.

She looks like a small table. But that isn't a table top, it's a lid. Lift the lid. Look! She is a deep and sensible workbox, with an extra drawer underneath, and she's on wheels. She looks a bit 1940s ish, and has seen some rough times because her top is scratched, but we can do something about that. Because of her worn appearance she was selling for not very much - and she is a Treasure Trove.

It wasn't just the workbox for sale, it was the contents. It must have been delivered to the shop just as it left the previous owner, presumably an elderly lady who is no longer with us but was a fine needlewoman in her time. There, inside, was the jumble of bits and pieces that accumulate in a sewing box, and this one had been accumulating for decades. Wool and knitting needles, crochet hooks in four different sizes. (I'll have to learn to crochet now.) A nearly finished tapestry and a half done tablecloth. Threads and embroidery silks, safety pins, papers and boxes of needles and pins. Stocking thread - who ever uses nylon stocking thread now? Poppers - 'snap fasteners' - with the instructions on how to use such new-fangled inventions. Three kinds of elastic. Buttons by the dozen. Mending wool. And my favourite -

It's only a paper of hooks and eyes, but it has a picture of a mother and daughter with 1920s or 1930s bobbed haircuts. And printed underneath, 'By Appointment to Her Majesty Queen Mary'. Queen Mary died in 1953.

She needs a name, an old-fashioned name. Nell, or Betsy, perhaps. Every time I lift the lid I think of her first owner, a hard-working woman, perhaps stitching by gaslight, darning socks, knitting sweaters, crocheting blanket squares.

And for every garment, every mend, there is a story. My workbox is full of stories. The red wool, maybe a sweater for a son or grandson. The pretty bobbly yarn, for a little girl's party cardigan. Every button has a story. And I will never know any of them.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Apple Tree

Hello, Rina, good to know that you're never far away from The House of Stories! Now that it's September and the publishing world is coming home from its holidays things are getting busy in the house and quiet in the garden. But not all that quiet.

The Sunshines came to stay, and how lovely that was! On Saturday Tony and LOS nipped over the border into Scotland to look at aeroplanes. (Tony and LOS are into aeroplanes.) Lady Sunshine and I pottled into town to do a bit of wandering, a bit of shopping, a bit of lunch, a lot of conversation, you know how it is. The sun shone for us. We met some amazing Puppet Factory animal puppets. It was a sunny autumn day (I always said she brings the sunshine with her), just the day for being outside.

It was still sunny, with that golden autumn warmth, when we got back to The House of Stories. The apple tree was weighed down with fruit like the tree in the fairytale and longing for somebody to harvest it, so out we went with the heavy canvas bags and a stepladder. Sometimes it was me up the tree and Lady Sunshine on a ladder and sometimes it was one of us on the ladder with the other one hanging grimly on, but between us we gathered two enormous bags full of firm green apples, some just a bit marked or misshapen but none the worse for that, and a few leaves and twigs that came down with them. One clever little apple decided to try out the law of gravity and hit Lady Sunshine between the eyes, which alarmed me no end, but she said it was only a little 'ouch', more of a surprise than an ouch really.

So when I'm not making apple crumble, stewing apples, or giving apples away I'm thinking about new stories. Animal stories, mainly. What animals would you like to see in a story?

No Sunshines were harmed in the making of this blog.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Secret

Alnmouth. One of the best kept secrets in the north of England. I was telling you about it a week or so ago, and it's unfair not to let you see it. If you like Mistmantle you might recognise parts of it.



The Society of St Francis have this house. Many years ago, when we lived a few miles from Alnmouth, I used to go there a lot. From here you can see the windows of the Gathering Chamber.



And if you were a small animal, wouldn't you want to play here?

Now you know why I love it so much. But in case you're getting carried away, the pictures tell you nothing about the wind off the North Sea, only it isn't north, it's east. Just take my word for it, OK?

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Much, Margi and More

They two of 'em went out for an evening lately, getting together with some of their mates. 'Er what was the 'ostess sent a message saying 'is there anything you don't eat'?

Blooming stupid question, I said, there's loads of things they don't eat. Buckets, bricks, buttons, boots, plates, their mates and garden gates. Shut up, Much, says 'er, you know perfectly well what it means. What it comes down to is that 'er's vegetarian, 'er eats fish but not shellfish. Tony's no problem, eats what you put in front of 'im.

Much is trying to wind me up. I've never taken solemn vows about being veggie, but I feel it's they way I have to be. I don't think it's necessarily wrong to eat meat, but I do think t's wrong to eat it without taking into account

(a) the standards of animal welfare involved, and

(b) the amount of land, food, medicines, etc, used to rear an animal for food instead of feeding them for people.

Most of us in the developed world could eat a lot less meat and pay more for it. It's hard for small farmers to keep up high standards of production and still make a decent living. I feel a 'hug a farmer day' coming on.

On a completely different subject - I was telling you a little while ago about the church Jane Austen went to when she was a child. Here it is -

Can you picture her chasing her brothers round the churchyard? Sitting in the front pew swinging her feet?

Friday, 28 August 2015

Alnmouth

The Cahooties were here a few days ago, and the sun was so happy that it shone beautifully for them. We pointed the car north-east and the first stop was Morwick Mill. When I was a very new Girl Guide, Morwick Mill was a cold soggy campsite. Now it's home to Daisy the Cow and her friends who make the yummiest of ice creams at royaldouble.com/. First time I've ever had amaretto ice cream. Next time Turkish Delight. Sadly the wasps like ice cream too, so we ate in the cafe instead of sitting in the sun.

Then Alnmouth beach. Oh! I carry Alnmouth beach around in my heart, but after a while the colours fade, and when I go back it takes my breath away all over again. The great wide spaciness of it, the changing blue and white of the summer sky, the dazzle over the vast water, the drifting patterns on the sand. Above it stands St Francis House, where the Franciscan brothers live. Their chapel looks over the sea and is the original of the Gathering Chamber on Mistmantle. From there Urchin, Needle and their friends would run down to the shore and splash about. Between that edge-of-the-land stretch of Alnmouth and Mistmantle shore there is no clear dividing line. It's a breathy, unspoilt place. You can breathe the sky.

Finally we went on to Alnwick Garden at www.alnwickgarden.com, where small people in fairytale costumes went on magical treasure hunts, the fountains sprayed sparkly cold water on to hot arms and faces, the flowers were spectacular, and yes, I did do the wobbly bridges in the tree house. I have very special and happy memories of going round there with The Mistmantle Pilgrims from Virginia some years ago. We even saw Lady Aspen's garden.

Finally to Barter Books, one of the best second hand bookshops in the world, and over to my sister's to flop down at the tea table. A long drive home at night, and a face to face encounter with a barn owl. What a spectacular day. Alnmouth beach stays with me.

Monday, 24 August 2015

Otterly Fingal

We're pretty unique, us Mistmantle otters. Rivers, sea, it's all the same to us. So long as you can swim in it, it's good. But She of the Stories was telling me about these sea otters in some place with a funny name - what was it, Swanfeather? - thank you, Monterey Bay. They're very particular and only like the sea. Call themselves otters? She'd seen some on that magic box that she looks at.

These sea otters are stocky little chaps, and don't use any more energy than they absolutely have to. Something to do with keeping warm. They have very thick coats and carry a pet stone round with them for breaking into shellfish. (They also eat sea urchins. Can't wait to tell you-know-who about that!) When they're not hunting they just wallow about on their backs with their cubs sitting on their chests. (You can see them on the BBC website, whatever that is. Some kind of Threading, she tells me. A mostly blue one, called Big Blue Live.)

But those sea otters do have the energy to groom themselves. Just because you never do much, there's no need to let yourself go. So they scrub up. All the time, honestly! They wash their faces, their ears, and their babies. They must have itchy noses, because they rub them a lot. I'm impressed, we still can't get Tide to do more than lick his whiskers, and he only does that because they taste of whatever he last ate. Fish usually.

However, She of the Stories thinks these sea otters are a bit sweet and funny. They sound pretty boring to me. And eating sea urchins? What does that do to your insides?

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

House for Hobbits

The Hobbits - Daughter and Daughter's chap - moved house on Friday. The one they've just left was a delightful little place, but a tight squeeze even for two small people who enjoy being together. The new one is a lot more spacious, with plenty of garden.

It has been much neglected over the years and needs love - and love is what it will have. In fact, it already has love. Within three days they had all the carpets up and were stripping the wallpaper. Apparently nobody in that house ever stripped wallpaper before, they just put another lot on top. The hobbits are chiselling their way through and are almost down to the Iron Age layer. By the time they've got it all off they'll find the hall is six inches bigger in every direction.

The garden is so overgrown that Daughter can only go in there with a compass and a whistle or we'd have to send police dogs in after her. I'm thinking of sending Much to check it out, because there could be feral gnomes in there who need seeing off. Come to that there could be anything, tigers, dinosaur skeletons, yeti, a neighbour who came to borrow some sugar in 1998. The important thing about both house and garden is to take photographs. 'Before' photographs, so that when they've got it all sorted and beautiful we can look back and admire how much they've done. And I feel that the house is deeply grateful for all of it. As are the neighbours, I should think.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Happy Hampshire

Well, that was lovely. We've just come back from a few days in Hampshire, staying in a lovely house beside the River Test. Trout wove their way in and out of reeds in the clear waters, mallards, coots, and moorhens pittered and pottered about, there were woods and gardens to wander in, and we visited Steventon Church.

If you like Jane Austen you've already said 'ooh!'. Steventon is where she grew up. Her father was the rector there, and apart from a bit of Victorian painting it can't have changed much since the days when the Austen family occupied the first couple of pews. Or more. There were a lot of Austens. Stories must have been setting seed in young Jane's mind as she tried to sit still in the sermons. The village is a bit of a trek from the church and paths were rougher than they are now, so she must have sat with a damp hem on wet days. I hope her feet were dry. And on a sunny day, the Austen children might have run off their after church energy chasing each other round the grounds. There is a massive yew tree in the grounds, a great place for hiding.

The story about the yew tree is that the church key, which was nine inches long and weighed 4 pounds, used to be kept in the hollow trunk until it was stolen. Tony reckoned that they keep the curate in there now. He also suggested that there might be a community of animals in the yew tree and gave me that sort of look as if I should write about it. Oh, no. Partly because I was on holiday. But also because this was Jane Austen's territory. I am not worthy.

Saturday, 8 August 2015

Much

For any newcomers to The House of Stories, Much is a plain grey stone gnome riding on a snail. I met him when we moved to the previous House of Stories. He had been there considerably longer than we had, so when we moved we left him there, but we sort of felt he missed us, with nobody to talk to except an occasional passing tooth fairy. (There were a couple of other gnomes there and they were nice enough chaps, but they didn't make conversation.) Much is old and so weather-beaten that some of his features are blurred, but that doesn't stop him having his say. He is a Yorkshire gnome after all. We named his Much as in 'Much of a muchness', and Robin Hood's friend Much, and the well known expression 'you can always tell a Yorkshireman, but you can't tell him much'. Or maybe he chose his own name and told it to us, the way Padra did.

Sun's come out. 'Bout blooming time. Any minute now I'll see 'er prancing down the garden with a watering can like Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary. 'Er were a bit puzzled when 'er went to pick them gooseberries. Them gooseberry bushes is only young ones and she didn't expect much of 'em yet, but all the same, 'er thought she'd get more berries than that. I said nothing. My snail likes gooseberries too. 'E may be slow, but in the course of a night 'e can get to the gooseberry bushes and back, and what's more 'e don't mind them prickles. He leaves some for 'er, too, and most of the Alpine strawberries, cos 'e aint too fussed about them.

The apples are starting to fall, but they're cookers, so 'e don't bother with those. And there's mint around us, too, so we smell good. Hey, missus, get off that computer and get gardening, the weeds won't pull themselves up.

Just let me update them on The Archers first. Also for newcomers, The Archers is a radio soap that has been running in the UK for over sixty years. It's lovable, frequently implausible and predictable, heart-tugging, makes you shout at the radio, and it's totally addictive. It's set in a fictional farming community somewhere round about Oxfordshire/Gloucestershire.

OK, now concentrate. Ready? Rob Tichener (boo!)and Helen Archer just got back from a holiday and announced that they've got married. Rob has been cooking the books and Charlie is on to it. Helen doesn't know this (she's a complete muppet where Rob is concerned). It will all end in tears. Tony Archer has retired, Brian Aldridge refuses to, and Ruth's mother is in a care home. Susan wants to update the shop so Lynda is horrified. Pip got a 2.1 in her degree and has been herding sheep. Kenton is still cross.

Understood?

Monday, 3 August 2015

The first otter

Whatever is happening? I must have left the front door open at The House of Stories and it's full of visitors. Find a seat and I'll tell you about the first Mistmantle otter.

It was, I think, thirteen years ago and I'd begun to think about Mistmantle. I knew squirrels lived there, and I wanted a few other animals too. Hedgehogs I was sure about, and I'd pretty well made up my mind about the moles, but I wasn't sure about otters. They're bigger than the others.

It was autumn, and the evenings were growing long and dark. In North Yorkshire there is a very beautiful ruined abbey called Fountains. It started off with a few monks huddling against the cold all winter, but then they got an injection of money from somewhere, did some serious building, and found out about sheep farming. It became one of the biggest and most prosperous abbeys in the country until Henry VIII got in the way. Now, it's a vast and impressive ruin run by the National Trust. On weekend evenings in autumn they floodlight it and play monastic plainchant as visitors stroll about. It's magical.

I was in that 'otter or not-an-otter' stage one Saturday evening in autumn when Tony and I were wandering about Fountains. There's an old mill house and a stone bridge, and we walked away from the monastic buildings to stand on the bridge and look down at the river as it wiggled away over the stones.

Something was moving in the water, something long and big, just under the surface. I wanted it to be an otter, but it couldn't be, couldn't possibly be, because in those days otters were rarely seen in Yorkshire rivers. I could tell from the way he watched that Tony wanted it to be an otter, too.

"It can't be," I said. "It's a pike."

Tony wasn't sure, and as the creature slid under the bridge we dashed to the other side to watch like a couple of kids playing Pooh Sticks. The thing that couldn't possibly be an otter swam to the bank, scrambled out, shook itself dry and lolloped away. OK, I thought. I get it. Within a week Padra had made up his own name and walked into the book, wearing his sword, circlet, and captaincy lightly, and giving that reassuring feeling that as long as he's there, it'll be all right.

The next year we saw another otter, or possibly the same one, in the same place. By then, Mistmantle was on its way to publication. And though I've seen many otters since in animal sanctuaries and such, I've never again seen one in the wild.

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Otters on Lindisfarne

I may have told this story before, but there you go - we're keen on recycling at The House of Stories, and a good story can always bear a re-telling. I was telling this one to some children yesterday, and it went down rather well with them.

The Isle of Lindisfarne lies just of the Northumberland coast within sight of Bamburgh, which was the seat of the kings fourteen hundred years ago. It's a tidal island, which means that when the tide is out you can walk or drive to it. There's a causeway, and also the Pilgrim's Way across the sands. When Oswald became King of Northumbria in the seventh century he invited Aidan and a party of monks from Iona to share the Christian faith, and they began a monastery on Lindisfarne. Sometime after the death of Aidan, Cuthbert became the abbot of Lindisfarne.

Why Cuthbert is not the patron saint of the UK, I have no idea. Home grown and a thoroughly good guy, humble and spiritual with a respectable tally of miracles. I like him because he was animal friendly, too. On this coast there are eider ducks, which are not a bit like your average ducks. They are black and white (Newcastle United ducks) and they don't quack, they hoot. They are also the source of eiderdown, but Cuthbert wouldn't have had an eiderdown. Sacking and straw were more his sort of thing. And if anyone thought that eider duck would be nice for dinner - no chance. Not with Cuthbert around. They were under his protection. When he sat by the shore teaching, it's said that the eider ducks would gather round him. He was a man who respected all living creatures, and they accepted him.

'Tell us about the otters!' you cry. Here they come! One of the novice monks noticed that Cuthbert would leave his cell at night, and was curious to know where he went. One night, he followed him. Cuthbert walked down to the sea. (This was the North Sea at night, and believe me, it's freezing.) To the astonishment of the novice, Cuthbert waded up to his neck in the sea and stood there saying and singing his prayers as the waves washed around him. At last he came back to the shore and stood on the sand, dripping wet in the cold air.

Two otters ran along the shore to greet him. They rolled over his feet. They rubbed up against his legs and put up their paws for a cuddle. When they'd got him thoroughly dried off and warmed up, he blessed them and they ran away across the shore.

nd remind me to tell you, one day, about the time when I found that I needed otters on Mistmantle.

Friday, 24 July 2015

elephant...

A little game, or writing exercise, to be going on with. A certain inspiring teacher out there might like to keep it in mind for when school re-opens. Apologies if I've told you before.

Many years ago when the children were all teenagers or nearly teenagers, LYS was watching a football match on television. He had decided to marry off his sister to a wealthy international footballer - I don't mean any wealthy international footballer in particular, any of them would do. I insisted on checking out this potential son-in-law first.

"He'll do," he said. I can't remember who the footballer was, and I wouldn't tell you if I did, but I think he was South American. "She could marry him."

"No she can't," I said. "I know about him. He doesn't speak any English and she only does French, they won't understand each other."

"That's fine, if they don't speak the same language it won't matter what she says to him. She can say anything, she can say elephant banana follicle."

Elephant, banana, follicle? He had no idea why he said that. Still hasn't. From that day on, I have been trying to get 'elephant banana follicle' into a book. I have failed beautifully, but that doesn't stop you trying. There you are, a game for long car journeys or a writing game to wake up the creativity fairy. Make up a sentence/short story including the words 'elephant, banana, follicle'. You could do a poem, but maybe you shouldn't try to make it rhyme.

Have fun!











Friday, 17 July 2015

Flame

Good morning. My name is Brother Flame, I am the priest on Whitewings, and I believe somebody has been asking for me.

This does surprise me. She of the Stories told me about some Franciscan brothers who say that they 'do good and disappear'. In the years when King Silverbirch was in charge, that was all I could ever do. I suppose I got used to it, because that's what I suppose I'm here for. Prayer and love are all that is required of me.

Prayer and love. This sounds lovely, doesn't it? Sometimes it isn't. Not during an epidemic of Vomit Fever, as often happens late in the winter, or the time when a lot of little hedgehogs ate some very dead fish on a summer's day. At times like that, a priest can go through a lot of clean tunics. But it so lovely to see the little things getting well again, and running about the beach. As for the young squirrels, their favourite thing just now is rubbing fine sand into their fur and pretending to be Urchin of the Riding Stars. One of the brightest moments in my life is sitting on a rock by the sea in the evening and watching small animals splash about in the water, chase each other up and down the shore, build castles and skim stones. It is a vital part of a young animal's growing up.

One needs to grow one's heart, that's the thing. She of the Stories and I often talk about how good things and bad things, joyful things and tragic things, are always happening at the same time, and it takes a big heart to manage them both. A heart fed on good things. What grows our hearts? What is good for our hearts?

Now excuse me, for I believe a young lady from your side of the water wishes to speak to me. Why me, I wonder? I must disappear again.

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Mr Holmes

Wimbledon is drawing to a close. Andy Murray went down with honour in the semis, but his brother Jamie is in the men's doubles final. The garden flourishes, Much and his snail are happy.

Last week Tony and I went to see Mr Holmes, the new movie about Sherlock Holmes in retirement. It stars Ian McKellen and picks up Conan Doyle's idea of Sherlock Holmes retiring to the south coast and keeping bees. We meet Holmes, mellowed by time but still razor-sharp, living quietly in the country and desperately trying to keep his memory from fading. There is a puzzle from his past that he needs to remember, and a touching grandfatherly relationship with the son of his war widow housekeeper.

McKellen, as usual, puts in a nuanced, moving, utterly convincing performance. The supporting cast is pitch perfect, too. There is tension, joy, and a satisfying resolution and I reckon you could take pretty well anyone to see it. And something that enchanted me all the way through was the sets. The scenery of the Sussex coast and the beautiful attention to detail. Tony, who is an expert on WW2 aircraft, said the pictures in the boy's bedroom were spot on. The furniture, the books and pens, the glimpse of a chamberpot under the bed, made the whole thing real.

Look out for Mr Holmes. I thoroughly recommend it.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Ooh!

Ooh, I am so excited. FIFTEEN THINGS NOT TO DO WITH A BABY is on the Book Trust list of the Best Books of 2015. Woo-hoo!

I feel so important. I think I shall employ a minder, a PR consultant, and a maiden to scatter flowers at my feet whenever I go to the paper shop.

I feel I have contributed something to society now. If it weren't for me, families all over the country would be pegging out their babies on the washing lines, sending them away in hot air balloons, and and swapping them for the school guinea pig.

I think I should now write one about FIFTEEN WAYS NOT TO RUN A COUNTRY. Don't put money before people. Don't make farmers sell milk for less than it cost to produce. Don't give all the top jobs to rich men from posh schools and then say we're all in this together, because we're not. Don't make people apply for jobs that they don't have a chance of getting because they're not qualified. Don't take money away from disabled people...

DO listen.

Saturday, 4 July 2015

Sunshine and thwack

It's been quiet at the House of Stories, don't you think? Well, of course it has, because

it's suddenly so sunny and summery and the garden is happy, so I have to be out there keeping it that way, and

it's Wimbledon. WIMBLEDON! And you know what that means. Nothing, or should I say Love, gets done until they've played this point. And the next. Until this game is over. Oh it's getting exciting, he's serving for the set. Better see the match through, then. Gie it laldy, Andy Murray. (Let me know if you want that translated.)

So what follows is a little summary of the little summery so far.

We've been to see the Cahooties new house and it's just fantastic, with plenty of room in it for me when I want to go and stay.

I have been silk painting. I got most of the pink stains out of the attic floor.

Much is surrounded by cornflowers. The roses are just beautiful, and the foxgloves are pinging up everywhere. I especially love the white ones. Angelique clematis has big mauve flowers, and pink valerian grows out of any bit of wall it can find.

The Archers - yes, I knew you'd want to know - is a hoot. Kate is determined to be a Good Mother to Phoebe by embarrassing her in front of her boyfriend and hijacking her birthday party. When she's not doing that she's trying to persuade her father to give her yet more money so that she can start a Tai-Chi school in the back garden. The Fairbrother brothers have bought 250 goslings and Kenton still hates everybody. Mike and Vicky are moving to Birmingham, so if anybody wants to be the Surly Village Peasant, there is a vacancy. Linda Snell is finding Eccles irritating. (Eccles is the feral peacock.)

AND SOMETHING BIG!

It will soon be time for the Summer Reading Challenge, when children sign up to read lots of books during the school holidays, and parents/other adults pledge to support and encourage them. Next weekend, Northumberland County Libraries are attempting to make the Guinness Book of Records for the number of reading pledges made. I have been invited - and it's a great honour - to be present and oversee the proceedings on 10 July at Hexham Library as children, families and teachers sign up for the pledge! I so hope we get into the record books. If you're in Hexham, come to the library!

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

And We Shall Eat The Bread Of Crumbliness

Earlier this year a very nice doctor stuck lots of needles into me for blood tests. She had to work through the following questions -

Does this patient have hobbit DNA? Yes

Is she anaemic? No more than usual

What is her platelet count? Patient is rubbish at maths. Her platelets can't count.

Is she an orang-utan? Probably

Is she in early stage of coeliac disease? Might be

They still don't know if I'm in the early stages of coeliac or not, because, if I am, it's early stages, so they still don't know... coeliac isn't a problem, it just means that you can't eat wheat or anything else with gluten in it. At present I'm halfway through six weeks of being gluten-free to see if anything happens. Up to now I haven't exploded or grown wings, but I have learned a few things about a gluten free diet. (If you're already coeliac you know this stuff better than I do.)

The pasta tastes just the same as ordinary pasta. This saves a lot of problems.

There are coeliacs out there who would kill for a gluten-free Yorkshire pudding.

There are some amazingly yummy gluten free cakes. Six weeks is too short.

You start reading labels on everything.


And then there's the bread. Oh, what a joy. Gluten free bread is shockingly expensive and I could save money by eating polystyrene, which has the same consistency. GF bread is also sweetish, which is no good in a cheese sandwich. When I come off this I am going to eat my body weight in toasties. I couldn't do toast this morning because the bread fell apart in my hands, so whatever we eat this evening, it'll have a breadcrumb topping. I could feed it to the birds, but I imagine their little beaks drooping in disappointment at the first peck, and I can't bear to do that to them. Oh well. At least I have bread.





Thursday, 25 June 2015

Steps

Did you know that we're ideally supposed to walk ten thousand steps a day? Six thousand is OK, but we're really supposed to do ten thousand. Having looked up some stuff on-line I find that, as a woman with little short legs I do about 2,500 steps to the mile. Home to the town centre/church is about a mile, so there and back I've done half my quota. Most of us do a surprising number of steps just pottering about the house, school or office, before we even start on the garden. I do twice as many as anyone else because I go into a room, forget what I went for, come out empty-handed, remember something different... you get the picture.

Our church being a bit historic and amazing, we get a lot of visitors, including school parties, and we do our best for them. On Monday I walked down to church ready to meet, greet and guide. We had a school party arriving at one o'clock, and divided them into five small groups so that they could move around five activities. (Did I mention the flagstone floors?) Five times I did the walk and talk and dressing up stuff. I pottered, pattered, pittered, and I was puttering out by the time they got back on the bus. Quick coffee. Home. Good day.

Later that evening I wondered why my legs hurt. I had been on my feet for four hours. That must be ten thousand steps and a head start on Tuesday.

Much says it's ridiculous. He says he never walks anywhere if he can go by snail, and his muscles are rock hard. Even his bulging stomach is solid, as are his idle little legs in their pixie boots. Yes, Much, but I'm not a gnome. Not even my legs are that short.

Monday, 22 June 2015

Apple

It were such a shock. I thought me time had come.

It were round about the time of evening when any sensible animal is eating its dinner or putting its little ones to sleep in their nests, bless 'em, and I'd taken a little walk to the shore. It had been a sunny day, and I wanted something new for me 'at, and I reckoned shells might be a nice change. There's some little curly wurly ones just now, ever so pretty, so off I went to the shore by way of Watchtop Hill, as I were dropping off some scones and cordial with my old hedgehog friend Winniple as she aint been very well. Winniple is very fond of my cordial, she says it's as good as her mother used to make, and I feel sorry for her, because, bless her, she's never 'ad no sense of smell since she fell down a mole tunnel and had a nasty landing. So we shared a glass or two and off I went through the wood, and as you know if you've been there, you get a good view of the bay from Watchtop Hill.

Well, my dears, I had the palpitations. Out there in the middle of water was Princess Almondflower, and she weren't swimming, she were standing up. True as I'm standing - sitting down - here, there she were, riding on the water like a ship in full sail, her arms out and a big smile on her face, and even as I watched she turned around, face towards the mists, and stood on one leg like a ballet dancer. Let me tell you, I ain't run that fast since our Urchin fell out of a tree when he was little, I didn't get there in time, but never mind, 'e landed right way up. I didn't stop till I got to the sand and she's still there, on the water, drifting in to the shore, on tiptoe on the waves. Oh my whiskers, I thought, there's magic happening or it's a wonder or I'm going peculiar, and I wondered if I'd put anything in that cordial that I shouldn't have.

And then there's some bubbles and a head pops up in front of her, and it's that Fingal, he's giving 'er rides on his back. Ooh, I come over all of a whatnot! When they got into the shallows she jumped off and paddled to the sand, and Fingal rolled over and over.

"Did you see me, Mistress Apple?" says Princess Almondflower, and she's beaming all over her face.

"I certainly did, and you had me worried," I says. I think Fingal were laughing, but you can't tell, can you, with Fingal.

"Don't tell!" she says. "I'm practising for the Summer Festival. Tide and Swanfeather are going to help, and there's me, and my friend Scrapple, and Pitter says she'll..."

There's going to be whole flotilla of 'em apparently. Squirrels riding on otters and dancing about and everything. If I were the young squirrel I used to was, I'd have a go myself. I couldn't do it now, no, not me. Fingal's a nice chap, it were 'im what rescued my hat in all that wild weather, and I wouldn't want to sink 'im.



Friday, 19 June 2015

Much and the Standing Stones

This coming weekend is Solstice. Midsummer. You could have fooled me. We got grey skies, north wind and intermittent rain. 'Er's just put 'er winter sweaters away, and had to go and get 'em all out again. We ain't seen any 'edge'ogs this year, and I reckon they've all gone back for another week or two of 'ibernating. And if the weather's in a foul mood, 'er's no better. Going about with a face like Grumpy Cat. 'Er wants to get away to somewhere down south where it's warm.

Stone'enge is down south, a long blooming way down south, and this weekend it'll be full of 'appy 'ippies celebrating the solstice. It were built about 4,500 year ago, and the mystery is that some of them stones don't come from round about there at all, they come from Wales. Archyolologists have been scratching their 'eads for centuries trying to work out how you get a five ton lump of stone from Wales to Wiltshire when you ain't got all your modern technerlogies. They're asking the wrong questions. They ask 'ow, when the question is 'oo?

Gnomes may be small but we're tougher than we look and we know about stone, seeing as it's what we're made of. Gnomes in the old days 'ad muscles like boat ropes. There's gnome lore from way back in time, but 'umans fon;t know it. You may hear stories of King Arthur and the Round Table, but nobody ever told you about King Arthur and the Fishing Rod Gnomes of 'is Garden Pond, did they? Merlin the Magician, where did 'e get the idea for 'is pointy 'at?

It were gnomes that got the contract for building Stone'enge, and they 'appened to know where to lay their 'ands on a nice bit of blue stone. It were epic, that were, two thousand gnomes moving them stones, log-rolling 'em, snail-dragging 'em, picking 'em up and carrying 'em, all that way. They say you couldn't see the gnomes, just a stone with 'undreds of little legs marching across the landscape. And when they got there, what did the Druids say? Oh, they said, we don't want them stones. We've already started building with the local sarsen, we don't want your blue ones, they won't match.

Well, we aint taking 'em all the way back, said the gnomes. They dumped them stones, got on their snails and rode off with trails of smoke be'ind them, because snails could set a cracking pace in them days, especially with an angry Druid be'ind them. And them stones is still there where they left 'em.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Repeat

There's still quite a bit of interest in the First World War - and so there should be. It's no longer the centenary of the outbreak of war, but a hundred years ago those poor young chaps were dying in the trenches.

Recently we watched a very good subtitled series called 1864, about a war between Denmark and Prussia that we'd never heard of before. It was excellent. The battle scenes were unsettling, but battle scenes should be. I had a bad dream after the last one.

And last Friday, my friend Claire and I met for a sunny day in beautiful York, had lunch in a secluded convent garden, wandered through the medieval streets, drank Pimms, and walked around the city walls. In one of the towers on York city walls is an exhibition about King Richard III (remember him? Wars of the Roses, curvature of the spine, car park in Leicester?). York has always been loyal to KR3. Claire is definitely a Ricardian, I give him the benefit of the doubt, and we both love history, so we were up for a KR3 exhibition. Part of it was about the Battle of Towton.

Towton was one of the bloodiest, bitterest battles ever fought in Britain, and the one that brought Richard's older brother Edward to the throne. A rout turned to a massacre.

ssentially, all of these - WW1, 1864, The Wars of the Roses - were the same. One or two people got a big idea. They were people of power and influence, so they were able to promote this idea and raise armies.

A lot of young men were killed. Farm boys, many of them. Children lost fathers, money was squandered, land was wasted, people got poorer, maimed soldiers lived out their days. There was a mess.

Most wars are the same. it's a repeating pattern and societies should have learned to recognise it by now, and do something different. Aren't we clever enough? We can invent ever-new ways of killing each other, can't we find a way of not wanting to?

AND YET -

AND YET - last Friday, Claire and I met for a sunny day in York... lunch... garden... Pimms...

so despite all the conflicts of the twentieth century and before, and despite that fact that, come to think of it, our ancestors might have tried to kill each other at the Battle of Culloden, Claire and I have grown up in a free world and so have our children, and there is joy. Lots of it, popping up like daisies. War bellows and screams, but at the end it does not have the last word.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Colmcille

I've just remembered that today is St Columba's Day - also known as Colmcille, 'dove of the church'.

Columba was a sixth century Irish nobleman. Christianity had been established in Ireland by St Patrick, and Columba became a monk, a scholar, and a thoroughly resourceful chap - but we are all flawed and damaged creatures, and Columba had an unfortunate tendency to get seriously annoyed if anyone crossed him. He borrowed a book from the abbot of another monastery. In those days books were rare and precious things. Now, they're only precious. Columba made a copy of the book before returning it. The other abbot wasn't pleased. He was so not pleased that he went to court over it, claiming that Columba had no right to reproduce the work and should hand over his copy. The court found against Columba and laid the foundation of international rules on copyright.

Columba protested. He protested so much that there was a pitched battle, with severe loss of life, not at all the sort of thing monks should be into. He had a falling out with a local ruler about sanctuary, too. Finally, repentant and acknowledging that he had been responsible for a lot of bloodshed, he went into exile with a few companions. Loving his homeland as he did, he committed himself to settling in a place where he could no longer see the coast of Ireland. It's said that he first arrived at a place called Southend, but went on to a tiny island. Iona.

Iona became one of the holiest sites in Christendom. From the tiny island with its clear green waters, white sand and rough weather, the Christian faith spread throughout Scotland. Young noblemen were nurtured there, and after Oswald Whiteblade of Northumbria regained his kingdom, he sent for monks from Iona to spread the faith. They, too, settled on an island, Lindisfarne. To this day, Iona and Lindisfarne are holy islands, the ongoing harvest of a transformed life.

Apparently, in Southend it has always been said that Thursday is an auspicious day because the major events in Columba's life happened on Thursdays. It's supposed to be a great blessing to be a Thursday's Child. This is probably the stuff of legend, but as a Thursday's Child I happily go along with it.

Friday, 5 June 2015

Fingal and Padra

This conversation between Padra and Fingal is not recorded in The Chronicles of Mistmantle. It took place before the first book starts and I'm glad to say it was not overheard.

Fingal, exactly what did you say to Mistress Tay?

Er - good morning, Mistress Tay?

Fingal...

I said it was a lovely day for laying down the law. Which it is. And I asked her to let me know if she wanted anyone arrested.

She's very angry.

I only...

Yes, I know what you only said. I know you only love get an only rise out of her, but you have to stop it.

But it's such fun! Anyway, you do it.

A lot more subtly, and with the authority of a captain. What I'm trying to tell you is, this island has changed lately. I don't like everything the king's doing, but in time he'll see sense. In the meantime, it doesn't do for a young otter to annoy animals like Tay.

There aren't any... all right, sorry.

This is what I suggest. There are colonies in the north west of the island where the young otters frankly don't have enough fun. They need someone who'll lead them, inspire them, befriend them, splash about in the water with them. I'd like you to go there for a while.

But my friends are here!

You'll make friends anywhere. Anyway, I'm not sending you into exile, I just think it's time you saw a bit more of the island, not just around the Tower and Anemone Wood. I patrol that way myself a lot, I'll still be around.

What about Crispin?

So will he.

Fine, when shall I go?

By the way, if Tay did ask you to arrest anyone, what would you do?

Tell them to scarper.

I thought so.



Sunday, 31 May 2015

Oz

We had company last week - Oz and his Mummy came to stay. Oz is a delightful, sociable and very well-behaved little seven year old. His mum and I are old friends. I've known Oz since he was tiny, and he seems to remember me though I haven't seen him for a while - certainly he came running to meet me and brought me his toys to play with. We explored the countryside together. He ate whatever was put in front of him. He even sang me little songs while his mum was in the bathroom.

Oz is half Yorkshire terrier, half Bichon Frisee, total sweetie and utterly devoted to his mum. He reminded me of all the reasons why I like having a dog around as well as the all the reasons why I'd never have another one. (The commitment, the 'what do we do about the dog when we're not here/going to No Dogs Allowed places', the constant disposing of plastic bags, the cost of food and vet bills.) But it was lovely having him, and his mum too. I see my garden principally through my eyes - Oz saw it through his nose and found it fascinating. (Should I be worried?) He made friends with everyone and everything, even the ones who didn't particularly want to make friends with him. He scampered joyfully along the river bank finding new sniffs and went for a paddle to cool his paws. Oz is one of the happiest and most affectionate people I know. He may be small, but he's fast and I was impressed at his ability to catch a ball in mid-air even though I'd tricked him about the direction I'd throw it in. As soon as I've knitted him a black and white sweater he's going to try out for Newcastle goalie. Given the state of the defence he'll have lots to do.

Anthony de Mello pointed out that dogs are natural contemplatives. A dog watching a bird in a tree is totally absorbed in the bird in the tree. He isn't thinking about sleep, or games, or even food. When he has his dinner he'll be totally and absolutely focused on that. When his owner comes home, nothing else matters but that moment. There's nothing new about 'mindfulness'. Dogs have been showing us how to do it for years.

Friday, 29 May 2015

Fingal

A certain person just said that she hadn't heard any news from Mistmantle lately, but there isn't much to tell just now. Everything's ticking over peacefully, all the usual things are happening - Spring Festival, small animals larking about in the water, Apple brewing up cordials that would dissolve a rock if it didn't run away fast enough, all ordinary stuff. Urchin and Sepia now have rooms in one of the turrets. Squirrels like living in turrets, it's a bit like being up a tree.

Tay now walks with a stick and I keep well out of her way in case she whacks me with it. Tipp and Todd came up with something quite wonderful - a chair with wheels for Gleaner! She's still grumpy, but now, with somebody to push her, she can be grumpy all over the island. Nobody enjoys being grumpy like Gleaner.

The sea has been calm, wonderful weather for swimming, fishing, sailing, or just splashing about. Corr has stopped travelling for a while, but he's doing some improvements on his boat and before long he'll be off again. On that subject, there's - well there's a bit of a whisper going round.

Queen Larch of Whitewings has never married and it seems that she never will, and she has no close family. She's under pressure now to choose an heir and bring him or her up to rule the island next. Everyone's concerned that if she chooses a Whitewings animal there'll be some ill-feeling about who it is. But what about a Mistmantle animal? The Queen comes from Whitewings. Prince Oakleaf would make an excellent king, but it would break his heart to leave Mistmantle, and Catkin needs him. Urchin has links with the island too, but he can't leave any more. So should she adopt an heir? From Whitewings or Mistmantle? And if so, who? But don't look at me. There are no otters on Whitewings and I'm not going to be the first. I'm having too much fun here.

Oh, before I go for a swim, I hear that some of you don't have a king or a queen, you have a pressydent. Can you recommend that?

Monday, 25 May 2015

Chelsea

What a lovely day that was! On Friday evening The Lassie (that's LYS'S wife, half of The Cahooties) and I went to a lovely London hotel and had a relaxing girly evening. The next day, off we went to the Chelsea Flower show which was glorious. When I first went to Chelsea Show, many years ago, everything was green and white and very formal. Now it has colour, natural planting, lots of blue and yellow/gold, and gardens which are gaspingly lovely but still look as if they made themselves. The stand with twenty kinds of many-coloured irises took my breath away.

Now, I have to be careful about saying this because SOMEBODY might take offence, but gnomes are banned at Chelsea. An exception was made a few years ago, as a charity thing, but the default at Chelsea is gnomelessness. There are reports of them climbing up the walls with grappling hooks or parachuting themselves in, but a parachute is not very practical if you're made of stone.

Or is it? I heard a story this year about Jekka McVicar, who for decades has been the queen of herb gardening and always had a garden at Chelsea. Apparently she has a favourite gnome who always comes with her to Chelsea and she hides him so cleverly in her garden that nobody sees him. If ever he wants a year off, I know somebody who might be willing to stand in. Well, sit in.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Coffee

This is not an enlightening story, and not a very pretty one. And it disproves the theory that coffee keeps you awake.

Sunday was a long day. Tony was out all day, so the Sunday lunch was the Sunday evening meal, and afterwards I curled up in a corner of the settee with a good book and a cup of black coffee. Hamilton Bear, in his yellow sweater and white trousers, nestled in beside me and The Archers drifted past. (For those who want to know, Ed and Emma are getting married, Will still isn't speaking to Ed and Kenton still isn't speaking to David. Robert Snell and Jim, two of the most boring men in Middle England, are into competitive bird watching.) I was not aware of drifting into sleep - I suppose sleep and competitive bird watching are indistinguishable. Then past my ear stole the sound of tum-ti-tum-ti-tum-ti-tum, and I realised I had dozed off. And my mug of coffee was still in my hand. Well, some of it was. A little coffee can go a long way when no longer under the control of a responsible adult.

The settee is dark colours and doesn't show a thing, so that was all right, but Hamilton, dearly loved and respected bear, is a white bear in white trousers. I debagged him at once and found that the trousers had taken the worst of it. Hamilton was soon cleaned up and was really very nice about it, but so far I haven't been able to get the coffee stain out of his trousers. Anybody know? I may just knit him some more, maybe in a different colour.

Which leads me to wonder - could it be that Hamilton didn't really like his white trousers? Is he trying to tell me...? Could he possibly have...?

Sunday, 17 May 2015

What am I?

This morning I was on coffee duty at church. At various times during dishing up/washing up/escaping, my partner-in-coffee and I were referred to as 'the ladies' and 'the girls'. I'm used to neither of these titles, and pathetically grateful for both.

We all have so many names, pet names, job titles. We're defined by whose child/partner/parent/sibling/friend we are. Margaret, Margi, Mum, Thingy, the Woman that Writes the Books. (The Mistmantle animals call me 'She of the Stories'. Much calls me 'er.) I did my first teaching practice in a junior school which was one of the toughest schools in the area and occasionally I've worked with some very angry children. I've been compared to a lot of things, most of which have four legs and a tail. A nicer animal epithet was from the lovely auntie who used to call me 'pet lamb', which is an endearment I use to my godchildren.

I have been the typist (but secretary sounds better) and in all sorts of contexts I'v been 'the assistant', which sounds better than 'dogsbody'. 'My friend' is one of the nicest things in the world to be called, as is 'My teacher'. So here's something for you to think about. Of all the things that people call you, which means the most to you, and why?

For those of you who like to write, this may trigger something.