Saturday, 28 February 2015

Love the NHS!

Visitors come from all over the world to The House of Stories. I have a very British story to tell you today, but wherever you come from, you will understand it.

It's the story of a country where every single new mother can be attended by a well-trained midwifery team, and it won't cost her a penny. It's a story of a baby boy in pain getting the operation to make him better, and growing up to be a normal active boy who occasionally had sports-related injuries but always got them sorted straight away. When he woke up one Christmas Eve - and it was a Sunday - with an appalling ear infection, the duty doctor came out to the local surgery, checked his ear, and personally dispensed the meds, all within a couple of hours of the phone call. And all of it was free, just as his granny's pacemaker and his Mum's migraines have been treated for free. It's the story of the NHS, the UK National Health Service, the envy of the world.

It's free at the point of need. We do pay for it, we pay through our taxes, but if you're too young, old, or disadvantaged to pay tax you get NHS care free anyway. But this Grand Old Lady, the NHS, isn't very well herself just now. NHS budgets have been cut, over and over. Smaller hospitals have closed. And increasingly, work which should be given to NHS teams is being contracted out to private concerns who care about profits, not patients. As I remember, the first thing that happened is that the standards of hospital cleaning fell. The NHS has never been about profit, but now sections of it are sold off to whoever can make as much money as possible by cutting corners. Dedicated, highly skilled staff struggle on through too many hours and not enough money. It's supposed to be about health. Increasingly, it's about money.

So today I was one of thousands of people all over the country standing near shops and meeting places with badges and petitions, asking people to help save the NHS. The '38 Degrees NHS' petition to keep the NHS out of private hands, true to its original ethos, is to be handed in to all candidates standing for election so that they know how important it is to us all. I wouldn't stand out in the cold for just anyone, but for the NHS? No question. I thanked people for signing, and they thanked me for asking them, because they understood. Life and health are precious, too precious to be bought and sold.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Sweet Terms of Endearment

Pet, hinny, petal, flower, pet lamb - here in Northumberland, the country of the House of Stories, these are all terms of endearment. I once astonished a godson by calling him 'pet'. Bless him, he comes from the Far South. I generally call children 'sweetie, 'sweetheart,' 'my darling', 'poppet' or 'sweet lamb'. 'Tuppence' is another one, or 'little tuppence'. I have no idea why. 'Sweetheart' and 'my dear' are OK for adults too, as is 'my love'. In Bristol they say 'my lover', which to me means something completely different.

In France, it is affectionate to call someone 'ma petite chou, ie, 'my little cabbage'. I could be wrong, it could be 'mon petit chou', I just can't remember whether cabbages are male or female. It's important, if you're French, or a cabbage.

Today I've been thinking about sweets, possibly because of the delightful little box of Turkish Delight sent to me by the Golden Child and her brother. Lovely, lovely children and lovely, lovely Turkish Delight! If we can say 'sweetie' or 'sweetheart', why don't we use sweets as terms of endearment? Much nicer than cabbages. We could call each other 'my little toffee', 'my sugared almond', 'you squidgy marshmallow'. Romeo could go down on one knee beneath Juliet's balcony and call her his bon-bon, his butterscotch, his Juliet Jelly-Bean.

Who are the people you love? Who is your little flying saucer? Who is the rum truffle that makes your day? Who's your mint imperial, your sherbet fountain, your caramel? Have you told them?

Goodnight, my little chocolate buttons.

Sunday, 22 February 2015


Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. We need to 'ave a word about the coffee.

I don't mind 'ow much 'er sloshes down 'er throat. If 'er wants to drink the stuff until sparks come out of 'er ears and 'er looks like a shocked owl, that's 'er problem. But 'er's started feeding it to the garden.

LYS started it, bringing 'er some used coffee grounds from one of them coffee shops. 'Er looked it up on the compertooter and found out that you put 'em on yer azaleas and roses and whatnots. Fair enough. But 'er is now on the coffee rota on Sunday mornings, and this ain't no instant, oh, no, not where 'er goes to church. They get their coffee fresh, fairtrade and fancy. Once a month, when 'er's on coffee duty, 'ome she comes with a wet soggy bag of used up coffee grounds and chucks 'em around the garden like Lady Blooming Bountiful.

Let me tell you, it ain't just the flowers that like 'em. Everything likes 'em. The blooming sparrers never go to sleep. Them blackbirds and thrushes are up all night chatting on about how to save the world. The earthworms are 'aving parties. And there's me snail. Snail and I 'ave been living a quiet life for more years than I care to remember, patrolling our garden steadily, an inch or two at a time, and an inch or two is enough for me, thank you. He's got reins, but I ain't never had to pull on 'em. Not until he got hold of the coffee, and 'e was off like the Grand Prix and 'alfway up the apple tree before I remembered the word to make him stop.

'Er's always saying 'er drinks 'er coffee strong enough to 'yperactivate a sloth. Well, it's all very well for 'er, but if you see 'er, tell 'er it ain't good for the rest of us. And for the sake of keeping order in the garden, tell 'er before the 'edge'ogs wake up.

Me snail 'asn't topped twitching.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Today's Story

There were once two girls who met on a holiday in Scotland. One was Margaret from the north and the other was Claire from the south and they were both ten years old. They started talking during a long walk to the loch with a retired gamekeeper and his Labradors and for the rest of the two week holiday, where you found one, you found the other. They cried their young hearts out when parting, and as soon as they'd stopped crying they were working on their parents to get together again. Not easy, with the length of England between them. This was long before mobile phones, and long distance phone calls were a rare treat, but they wrote enough letters to account for a small rain forest in Brazil. They plotted, they worked on their families, they got together at every opportunity. You might as well have tried to keep north and south magnets apart. It got a lot easier once they were old enough to shoot around the country in trains.

In due course they vetted each other's boyfriends and gave permission to marry accordingly. They godmothered each other's children. And today Claire and I met up for a day out in Durham - a walk along the river, lunch in the Cathedral refectory, a bit of shopping and a return to the Cathedral just to be there and also to say hello to our local saint, Cuthbert, who is buried there.

Claire and I have always developed the same interests at about the same time. Today I recommended a series of books I've just discovered, the Flavia de Luce novels by Alan Bradley. She's reading them too. I passed on a Marika Cobbold novel. She's read it, but will happily read it again. Claire has read everything. Twice. And she recommended the Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovitch, so that will go on my list. And following our conversation today, and just in case a certain somebody reads this -


You know who you are.

Monday, 16 February 2015

What A Mess

I know a very good prayer. I learned it from my friend James when he was vicar of Mytholmroyd and he learned it from a nun. It goes like this -

Here I am, Lord. What a mess!

It's a good one for the beginning of Lent. In my case, it's a good one for any time. I was thinking about that prayer today and because I have a puppy dog mind that runs after everything it sees, I started thinking about the What-A-Mess books by Frank Muir. Puppy...

Frank Muir was a witty and well read writer and presenter who could spin witty stories at a moment's notice. He and his wife kept cats and Afghan hounds, and that's why he wrote the What-a-Mess books. What-a-Mess is an Afghan puppy and I think his real name was Prince Amir of Something or Other, but he thought he was called What-a-Mess because that's what people said whenever they saw him. His mother was smooth, elegant, kind and wise. What-a-Mess was an explosion, always hurtling about falling over his own paws, digging furiously in mud and tumbling into things. There were always twigs in his ears and leaves in his coat and he looked completely wild. The cat used to wind him up something rotten.

The texts were fun and the illustrations just brilliant. The backgrounds were very detailed and a bit surreal - gnomes stumped about the garden, usually looking grumpy, fairies chatted from windows in trees. Now and again a small alien spaceship would turn up. Our favourite was the Christmas one where the cat persuades What-a-Mess that the family will be really pleased if he gets that great big tree out of the living room...

We never owned any What-a-Messes, we used to get them from the library. They've been out of print for a long time, and seem to be rarer than hen's teeth, which is sad, because I would love to share them with the godchildren.
Altogether now - BRING BACK WHAT-A-MESS!

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

The House of Stories

The House of Stories needs a bit of TLC, or at least parts of it do. The man is coming soon to put a cable through to the conservatory and replace the light fitting in the hall. We'll be able to keep warm at one end of the house and see where we're going at the other. If he brings a ladder he might have a look at the roof, because we lost a bit of tile in the last storms.

Then the other man is coming to see if the cooker is repairable. I hope it isn't. It is clever than I am, and knows it, and I'd be very, very glad to see it off to the tip. And he can tell me whether the washing machine is leaking. The washing machine leaking would also be a good thing. It would mean we've got a leaky old washing machine and not a subterranean lake rising under the utility room floor. The decorator is coming to look at the dining room.

In the middle of all this I will make the coffee, direct the traffic and write a story. It'll be easier than it was in one of our former Houses of Stories, the one on the front of the website. The gas pipes turned out to be Ancient and Lethal and had to be stripped out and replaced, which meant floorboards up, holes in the walls, and a lot of gas men and electricians running around underground like badgers. And me, sitting in a corner writing Hold My Hand And Run. The book survived, and last I knew the house was still standing.

Saturday, 7 February 2015


Tony decided we needed a day off. I had intended sorting out the front bedroom. I didn't take much persuading.

It was an hour and a half's drive to Ullswater, and took us through this

- the white isn't snow, it's the mist collecting in the valley -

to this, at Ullswater we stopped for lunch

We walked to the waterfall at Aira Force, through the kind of woods and ancientness that takes you to a whole new place in yourself as well as in the world, and reminds you that we don't need magic when the world we know is as magical as this. There must have been meltwater coming down for a week or so, because the waters were frothing white-maned horses leaping down the rocks, and yet just a little way further on there were tranquil grey green cliffs and green grey waters, perfectly still. On the other side of the lake, the mountains reared up.

After that we could have driven on to Glenridding but with all the snow and reflection, moss, snowdrops, light, waters, mist and sheer astonishing beauty we couldn't take in any more, and soon it would be dark. So we turned for home, and on the way this happened

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Look Wide

When I get together with my dad, we often talk about camping. Not that I am into camping. Oh, no. It was a part of being a Girl Guide that I could really have done without. Is it supposed to be fun, or is it just meant to toughen you up? And why, if you have a home with a warm bed, running water and a kitchen, would you want to sleep in a tent on bumpy ground, half a mile from a tap and half a hoof from a cow? Don't get it. LOS loves tents. He and Lady Sunshine have camping holidays. When he was a kid he used to have a great time at the January Scout camp. I need a hot bath just thinking about that. My mum, bless her, used to knit him sweaters that could insulate a roof.

Dad was a Scout back in the day, then ran the local troop, and he, too, loved camping. A lot of the sites they used to go to are close to where Tony and I live now, and one of them is a historical site for the Scouting movement. The books tell you that the first scout camp was on Brownsea Island. Well, it sort of was, but at that time they weren't scouts, they weren't anything really. At that stage it wasn't an organisation, more of an idea, a project. By the following year they were the Scout Movement and held their first ever camp near a little place in Northumberland called Dilston. Near the site they raised a cairn which is still there, and called it Look Wide.

If you ever come to this part of the world and you're at all Scoutery Guidery, you might like to look out for Look Wide. Most people come here to look at the Roman Wall and the various medieval odds and ends, but Look Wide is another little bit of our history.

By the way, I was a rubbish Girl Guide. Tomorrow I'm going to talk to the local Brownies about Being a Writer. They will suss me out. They'll take one look at me and think 'camping wuss' and my authority will be lost.