Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Wet Mistmantle

It's sad and soggy here in this Valley in the North. Rain drips from dead trees and empty washing lines. Soggy leaves squelch underfoot. Much, Oliver and Dodger don't feel the wet because they're made of stone, but they look pretty fed up to me.

It's the same on Mistmantle. The moles are staying underground, building tunnels through soggy earth. Hedgehogs make hot drinks and hang up their cloaks by the fire to dry. Squirrels run for cover, dodging through the wet leaves, running up trees and darting into the first hollow they can find. In the Tower, Juniper and Brother Fir make medicines for coughs and colds and the animals in the workrooms stop trying to do any close work on the Threadings because the light is so poor. The kitchen fire is the best place in the whole Tower. But the young animals, including the Tower family, pull up their hoods and run outside to float their bark boats downstream.

And the otters? They are loving it. Fingal lopes out from the sea, shakes himself, rolls over, and runs back in again. Tide and Swanfeather tumble through the waves.

King Crispin watches them from the tower. He's glad that somebody's enjoying the wet, and gives Arran and Padra the rest of the day off.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Patchworking

The Lassie and I accidentally found a fabric shop a few weeks ago, and had a little peek inside. The Lassie is a patchworking star, as I told the shop man. We got on to chatting about patchwork, and he said it makes him laugh that customers are very particular about the fabrics they use for their patchworks. Cottons or nothing. In the past, when making new out of old was necessary, everything went into the patchwork, all weights and colours of scrap fabric, shirts and dungarees, summer dresses and party frocks, curtains, anything. To see a modern equivalent, look at woollypedlar.co.uk.

Snippets of fabrics made me think of snippets of stories. I have often thought of writing down the memories my parents have come up with over the years - they are both on the far side of ninety years old. But the important thing about writing down these stories is not so much what happened and who said what, but the background against which they happened. The story about Auntie Annie hitting my grandfather across the face with a haddock has to seen in its context - the quayside, crates of fish, and the woollen shawl that Auntie Annie pulled around her as she took to her heels and ran up the stone stairs. ('I grabbed me shaal, and I ran up that bank...'). Shirts had separate collars. Dark red or green bobbly tablecloths, heavy and often trimmed with tassels, covered dining room tables.

Boys wore grey shorts until they were coming up fourteen. Wearing your first suit was a rite of passage. But those shorts came down to the knee, and socks (if they stayed up) almost came down to meet them. And children's clothes were invariably scratchy and uncomfortable. My Aunt Jenn's coat must have smelt of nutmegs, because she always had one in her pocket to keep the moths away.

A patchwork of my life would start with bits of candlewick bedspread, yellow plastic sou-wester, crinkle swimsuit, horrid school uniform, then 1970s cheesecloth and Laura Ashley. Now, for those of you who like to write and need a springboard -

Choose some of the past fabrics from your life. What stories do they have to tell you? Are these stories for somebody else to read, or just for you?

Monday, 30 January 2017

The Man With Two Shirts

I know that some of you over the pond like a bit of British history now and again, and to be honest, I'm ready for a few minutes of distraction from other events. So here it is. And it's to do with 30 January.

Some years ago I was at a publisher's party at The Banqueting House in London, not far from Trafalgar Square. It's a very beautiful building with baroque painted ceilings, and is all that is left of Whitehall Palace, but we all knew that on 30 January 1649, a scaffold was erected outside it.

Charles I was always on a hiding to nothing. He wasn't supposed to be king. He had an older brother, Prince Henry, who was clever, athletic, gifted and popular until his death at the age of eighteen after swimming in the Thames. (David Walliams got off lightly, then.) Suddenly twelve year old Charles Stuart was the heir to the thrones of England and Scotland. He was a little chap who looked as if he'd blow away in a high wind, stammered, and may have had rickets at some point. At the age of 25, his embarrassing father died and Charles Stuart had to start kinging. He'd become good at all the royalty stuff like riding horses and fencing, and he seems to have been an elegant man and very devoted to his wife, Henrietta Maria, but it wasn't enough.

Unfortunately, Charles had a high view of kingship. He believed in the Divine Right of Kings, ie, God had made him king, which meant that he was a kind of proxy for God and couldn't be argued with. When his Divine Right extended to the Divine Right to raise taxes and adjourn Parliament, the House of Commons got thoroughly upset, and Mr Oliver Cromwell wasn't a bit pleased.

Another mistake Charles made was to try to impose the English Prayer Book on the Scottish Church (the Kirk.) An Englishman giving orders to a Scot is never going to go down well (if he'd been to Glasgow he would have got that in five minutes), and this was the Kirk, for heaven's sake! Before long he'd alienated the Scots and had a Civil War on his hands. He sent for his dashing young cousin Prince Rupert, who was a very good soldier and did lots of dashing around battlefields with his poodle. Yes, really, he had a little white poodle called Boy. Anyway, in spite of Rupert and his poodle, Charles 1 lost the war and was imprisoned.

Finally, Parliament decided that they couldn't let the king live. There would always be conspiracies to put him back on the throne. So on 30 January King Charles walked out from the Banqueting House to the scaffold where the axeman waited. He asked for two shirts to wear that morning because it was bitterly cold and he didn't want to shiver and make people think he was afraid. He died bravely, and with dignity.

The Stuarts didn't often do well as monarchs. But they make great stories.

Monday, 23 January 2017

Angel

There's always one. After the Christmas decorations are tidied up and put away, there's always one that manages to stay up late. Usually it's one of the crepe paper imps. Cheeky little beggars, those imps. But this year it was an angel, a quite modern little enamel angel who flies rather stiffly and has unfeasibly long legs, who fell off the Christmas tree when it was taken out and is still hanging around between the sewing box and the CDs. I've deliberately kept out a few things that need a bit of mending, and a little wooden decoration made by my father and intended for Frodo to put on his Christmas tree when he's older.

Then there are stars. I have a liberal hand with confetti stars at Christmas time and they're still all over the floors. No amount of cleaning will ever scoop up the last one. There are some in the garden, and every now and then a tiny star twinkles up at me from the floorboards. That's fine. The stars can stay. (I said more about this on Girls Heart Books, if you'd like to give it a look.)

What is this telling me? It's telling me that stars and angels - even strange-looking angels - are for life, not just for Christmas. We need them. More than ever, we need them. Whenever Frodo comes into this house, stars and angels will not be far away.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Mistmantle

What do you think?

I'm always getting lovely e-mails from readers, usually but not always in the US, who want to read Urchin and the Rage Tide but can't get a copy unless they pay far too much on the second-hand market. I usually suggest that they contact Hyperion, the US publisher, because if enough people do that they might just bring out another print run. Perhaps Mistmantle is due for a revival. Any thoughts? Ask your friends. Ask your teachers.

Meanwhile, we finally have snow! Not a lot, but a covering, so the Mistmantle animals are all playing snowballs in the garden. Hope is rather at a disadvantage because he can't see the snowballs coming at him, so Myrtle suggested that the rest of them should be blindfolded to make it fair. All my scarves are in use. The trouble with blindfold snowball fights - I mean, one of the troubles with blindfold snowball fights - is that not only you can't see the snowballs, you can't see anything else either. Hedgehogs have landed in the mint, the mud, the rockery, and if we had a pond they'd have fallen into that, too. I am standing in front of the holly, just in case. How a blindfolded otter gets up a tree is beyond me but Fingal is up there in the branches hurling down snowballs while shouting 'For the honour of the Circle!'. Don't try this at home. They don't mind getting wet and cold, but I suspect they'll be glad to be back in the tower with hot cordials. Even Much is grinning.

Ouch! Fingal, I'll get you back.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Is anybody there?

Good heavens, Mrs Margi, are you still alive? Yes I am, and I'm here to tell you that for the last month I have been far from The House of Stories, flying on swans to and from Mistmantle and brushing through fur coats into Narnia before dashing through the December skies on the sleigh with the flying reindeer. I'd be lying, though. What with work, family stuff and church and community stuff I have been just about keeping the ducks in a row since before Christmas.

To answer the usual questions - yes, it was lovely. Yes, we got to see most of the family and had a lot of cuddles with a happy little Frodo. Shakespeare DVDs, squirrel sweater (oh, YES!) scented stuff and choccies. The party, with the house full off neighbours and children. The crib service on Christmas Eve. Mulled wine. Sprouts and chestnuts. Springs Dance Company doing Journey of the Magi. The Hely-Hutchinson Carol Symphony and 'Jesus Christ the Apple Tree'. The biggest and beautifullest Christmas tree we've had in years, and the smell of it. Carols. Finally watching 'Frozen' for the first time and completely understanding why everybody's raving about it. Even better, I watched it with the Sunshines, all of us squished up on the settee beside the Christmas tree, and we watched it in the MORNING! It feels like Christmas when you can watch a DVD in the morning.

There are things I've neglected, though, and I'm a bit sad about that. I wish I'd spent more time singing, and listening to Christmas music. I wish I'd done more watching movies, reading, and eating chocolate. I wish I'd got out for some wintery walks. I wish I'd read more seasonal poetry. However, tomorrow is the Epiphany and you can still celebrate Christmas at Epiphany. So that's all right then. Happy New Year!

In the time it has taken to write this, the ducks are out of their row again.