Friday, 24 March 2017

A Lot Of It About

A lot of the visitors to The House of Stories are American. If you're from the US, you may have heard that the British are always talking about the weather. It's true, we do that. We have to. There's a lot of it about.

Tony and I had two wonderful days on Holy Island at the weekend. If you don't know about it, it's a tidal island off the coast of Northumberland, cut off by the tide twice in every twenty-four hours. It's also wild and windswept, a haven of wildlife, and the cradle of British Christianity, and none of this begins to describe it. It's often called a 'thin' place, where there's little to separate earth and heaven. The wind sweeps across the North Sea, and the North Sea changes colour constantly. We walked for miles, with the wind or against it.

We came home on the first official day of spring, which coincided with a cold snap. On Wednesday morning, we woke up to three inches of snow which had flattened the daffodils. By the time I went out it was slithery slush, and today was warm enough for Tony to sit outside with a book. Now do you understand why we go on about the weather?

And isn't it a long time since I told you about The Archers? I know some of you are dying to know what Pip did next. She's still with Useless Toby. If you want to slap the pair of them, you'll have to join the queue. Eddie and Clarrie are doing B and B, Linda declared war, Justin proposed to Lillian and Lillian had a fit of the vapours. David and Ruth's cows caught Wobbly Hereford Disease or something and have been given the vaccine. If they've got any left they could give Toby a shot.

Thursday, 16 March 2017


Today I've been thinking about seals. The breeding season hasn't started yet, but soon they will be rolling about on the shores of remote islands, and not so remote ones too. There will be boat trips to the Farne Islands to watch for them. You might like this -

You know how you feel when you've overeaten? (Serves you right.) That's what seals look like on land. Stuffed. Unable to do anything but flop solidly on to the nearest horizontal space while gazing out from those big brown eyes. But in water they are fast, they are graceful, they are sure.

In parts of Scotland there are all sorts of stories about the Selkies, or Silkies. They are seals who arrive on land and take human form, usually the form of a beautiful woman. in some cases they have to fold up their sealskins and keep them safe so that they can return to the water. The usual tale is that a man falls in love with a selkie woman and marries her, but in time she yearns for the sea and nothing he can say or do will make her stay. She takes her sealskin, runs to the shore, and returns to her life in the sea. If you're a seal, you're a seal, and it's no good trying to be anything else.

Thursday, 9 March 2017


We haven't heard from the island for a while, so I thought I'd have a little potter about and see what's happening. There was Fingal, and I wondered what had happened to his tail.

Oh, don't worry, that'll grow out. I was doing a bit of maintenance work on the boat, some paint and a new sail. Ffion came along and watched for a bit and of course she wanted to help. Oh yes, she had a frog with her. They seem to follow her around. I'm surprised she hasn't eaten one yet. Anyway, the big paintbrush was too heavy for her, so she tried dipping my tail in the paint, but a full grown otter's tail is not a good paintbrush and it didn't go well. So then she tried using her own tail, which is smaller and neater but not quite within her line of sight unless she rolled over on her back. That worked reasonably well, and there wasn't much paint left in the pot when she knocked it over.

Of course it doesn't wash off, it's boat paint, it's not supposed to! It doesn't look too conspicuous, though, because she got so much sand stuck to it. And she doesn't mind. It'll grow out, as I explained to Padra and Arran. Padra fell off his rock laughing and Arran rolled her eyes up but she didn't really mind.

Did I say Ffion had sand stuck to her tail? Yes, and some few very pretty shells. And seaweed. And a surprised frog, but we set that free by trimming her fur a bit. It's the only frog on the island with otter fur slippers.

Friday, 3 March 2017

Puss In Books

This week I've been thinking about books and cats, or Puss in Books as Tony brilliantly put it. What do cats read?

Of course all good Cattolic kitties read their Catechism, but apart from that, they enjoy the classics. Did you think your cat didn't appreciate Shakespeare? They love Romew and Juliet, Antony and Clawpatra, and of course The Winter's Tail. They're partial to curling up in the fire with a Charles Kittens book - A Tail of Two Kitties is a favourite, and Bleak Mouse. They like Martin Nuzzlecat, too. Like me, they enjoy anything by Kat Atkinson, like Behind the Scenes at the Mewseum. And cats who like an old-fashioned story of North-East working class life go for anything by Catterine Cookson.

Please tell us - what does your cat read?

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

St David's Day

1 March, St David's Day, so here are my favourite Welsh things - as opposed to my favourite Welsh person. If I start writing about him we'll be here till Easter.

MUSIC - the Welsh know how to do that. The harp sounds so lovely. And in days gone by you could whistle down a mine shaft and up would come a male voice choir. In Welsh culture they know the value of music, and do a lot of it. You could go to a rugby match with your eyes shut and just listen to the singing. (They sing a lot about a saucepan, I don't know why.)

THE LANGUAGE - I don't speak it, but it sounds good and looks amazing. (One of my favourite Welsh words is popty-ping. It's the word for a microwave oven. It sounds so absolutely right.) The Welsh language inspired Tolkien.

Speaking of ovens - FOOD. Leeks, cheese, bara brith ( a kind of fruit loaf) Welsh cakes.

SNOWDONIA - you have to see it.

DRAGONS - Wales values its folklore, dragons and all.



Dylan Thomas, Aneurin Bevan, Bryn Terfel, Anthony Hopkins, Tanni-Grey Thompson, David Lloyd George. And the Welsh people who simply love being Welsh. Hapus dydd dewi sant!

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

The Maid of Norway

A rather sad little story with big consequences, but a story worth telling. For a writer, it's a story worth playing with.

In Scotland in the thirteenth century, there was a king called Alexander III. He had been king since childhood, had kept the country stable, and was generally regarded as a good leader. There was a queen, and they had two sons and a daughter. In those days it was important for a king to have a son who would learn about monarchy as he grew up and be ready to take over when the time came.

One of the princes died in childhood. The daughter was married to a Norwegian prince and died in Norway, giving birth to a daughter they called Margaret. Then the queen and the only remaining prince died, and suddenly Alexander III was childless. The heir to the throne was the tiny little Norwegian Princess Margaret. Alexander quickly married again.

One night after a gathering of the Scottish lords, he rode home to his new queen through along the coastal path, in foul weather. He lost his way, his horse stumbled and panicked, and he was found dead the next morning at the bottom of a cliff with his neck broken. Overnight, the nation was leaderless, and that was dangerous.

A group of the Scottish lords, The Guardians of Scotland, kept everything together. They crossed the sea to Norway and proclaimed three year old Margaret Queen of Scots, but she stayed in Norway with her father, who was now king, while the Guardians ruled on her behalf. This state of affairs went on for four years and seems to have worked well enough. Various claimants to the throne rattled their swords, and King Edward I of England, in my opinion one of the nastiest monarchs in our history, offered to help but was politely refused. However, when he suggested marrying off his young son to the little queen, the Guardians agreed to discuss it and the Maid of Norway was sent for. At seven years old she set sail for Scotland. But on the way, she became so ill that she didn't survive the journey. Her body was put in a coffin and returned to her father, who insisted on opening it to identify her.

With the Maid of Norway dead, the dynasty died out. Claimants jostled for the throne. The result was war, and more war, with bitterness and hatred that would last for generations. You can read those stories elsewhere.


this is where we ask that question beloved by writers - what if? What if the King of Norway didn't want to risk his little daughter going to a strange land and being a pawn in the hands of lords and kings, but he couldn't risk annoying the King of England? What if he faked the death of his daughter so he could keep her safe somewhere, maybe foster her out to a Norwegian family where she could be free and live like a normal child? What would you have done? What do you think?

Tuesday, 14 February 2017