Saturday, 31 December 2011

seven ducks a-swimming

I know it's supposed to be seven swans, but bear with me.

The Lassie came over on Thursday. (In case anyone's new to the House of Stories, the Lassie came to stay with us when she was doing a placement in one of the local churches. Not only was she a joy to have around but she took Lovely Younger Son under her wing. There's a brave girl! BTW, some years earlier that placement was done by one Lady Sunshine, who is now Mrs Lovely Older Son.)

Anyway, according to the song, Thursday was the Fifth Day of Christmas, and my true love sent Five Gold Rings, but LYS told us it was Five Gold Ducks. He and the Lassie were looking at some Christmas street lights and the Lassie asked why, amongst the neon lit crackers and puddings, was there a Duck up a Tree? Apparently it was meant to be a Partridge in a Pear Tree, but the Lassie and LYS reckoned it was a duck.

When LYS gets an idea in his head, it stays there. We now have the Twelve Ducks of Christmas. A Duck in a Pear Tree, Two Turtle Ducks, Three French Ducks, all the way up to Twelve Ducks a-Piping, which is not a thing you see every day. So, to all of you little Ducks out there, remember, as you sing Auld Lang Syne and throw open the front door to let the New Year in, spare a thought for ducks guarding pear trees everywhere.

And please don't set off Chinese Lanterns. They look lovely in the sky (if they haven't set fire to a tree first) but in the end they're just bits of twisty metal that land in fields and streams and are dangerous to livestock. As we say in the UK, Lord-Love-a-Duck.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Four calling birds

This isn't really anything to do with four calling birds, but it's the fourth day of Christmas. Christmas doesn't always feel like Christmas, but this year, it does. The pieces came together. The worship on Christmas Eve was so REAL. Life was everywhere. At home, everybody helped in the kitchen, and in the afternoon we played silly games, then watched some seasonal television, and had time just to sit and read. Bliss.

Re - silly games. You are never too old for tiddlywinks. Or too sensible, and certainly not too educated.

Since then - good reads, good films, and some long walks. This morning I joined my great friend Nancy and her inexhaustible little terrier for a walk through the woods to a little National Trust tea room. Dog thought all his birthdays had come at once, and I've taught him to catch sticks. Or he's taught me to throw them. Either way, he's such a sweetie.

Over the next few days I will be gradually getting back to work, but I really like working when it's still Christmas. Working a story together surrounded by Christmas music, twinkly lights and holly, fuelled by chocolate, is a magical experience. Try it.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Nearly there!

For all of you, as you celebrate the heart this winter, Queen Cedar and I and all the creatures of Mistmantle greet you and wish you every blessing

Crispin the King


It's not bad here. The rain's been coming down all day and the valley looks like the bloomin' Lake District, but I've been 'ere a long time and it don't bother me. Got me friends, the spuggies and all them bluetits and what not, and me old snail. Daughter and LYS are 'ome for Christmas, and today Daughter and 'er went off to the Sunshines. Come back with a box full of mince pies Lady S made for us. Nice woman, that Lady S. 'Ave a good one.

There is still food to do, there are presents to wrap, a certain doll's wardrobe is still incomplete, and I have yet to work out the new coffee maker. But none of that needs to be a problem. May you know wonder and peace. A blessed and beautiful Christmas to all of you, from all at the Christmas House of Stories.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Out of the Blue

There it was, in the inbox, taking me completely by surprise. It was an email from somebody I was at school with who'd tracked me down via the internet. I haven't seen her since I was eighteen.

Of course, for the last two days we've exchanged emails about the past. Some of it would be embarrassing if it wasn't funny - how we were always writing plays and stories, and embroidering pictures, our obsession with Rudolf Nureyev, and later - sorry about this - Marc Bolan. Well, we were young and silly. There were many things at school that made me unhappy, so it was good to be reminded of the fun we had. She came with me and my family on holiday in Scotland one year, and reminded me of all the fish we caught, much to the amazement of the local big hairy-armed fishermen. She's made me think that perhaps I didn't waste quite as much time in my teens as I thought.

But what is much more exciting is catching up with where we are now. She is now doing vital work with children in need of help, and I'm doing the job I've always wanted to do. We both have families. Life has taken unexpected twists and turns for both of us, but now, we both love where we are. We're planning to meet up in the New Year. What a great feeling.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Fourth Sunday

The Fourth Sunday of Advent open to door to Christmas. As usual, we had the family service with the children's nativity in the morning, and the lessons and carols in the afternoon. Leaving home this morning I was just praying to get there without falling over and breaking something serious when wonderful Tricia drew up and offered me a lift.

The Golden Child, who starred as Baby Jesus when she was three weeks old, is now two, and very excited about being an angel. We popped a surplice over her head and couldn't find her hands. It was easier when we'd strapped on her very beautiful pink sparkly wings, because it gave us something to tuck her sleeves into. We had to pull up the length, too, so she didn't trip over it. The tinsel halo finished off the outfit, but that delighted smile was all her own. She was so gorgeous. AND I got lots of cuddles, from both the Golden Child and a very tiny shepherd. Oh, and from the Sunshines, because they came too.

This evening was THE Carol Service - the church lit with over eight hundred candles, clear and confident reading of the Great Story and stunning music. The standard of music we have in this village is astonishing. Blessed!

Friday, 16 December 2011

the best story

This week I have been re-telling the deepest, truest, loveliest story of all. The vicar and I told it to forty-seven unbelievably attentive toddlers at our toddler group Christmas Party on Thursday. Today, I told it again to the after school club. They'd just come out of the last day of school before Christmas and were hopping with excitement, but they, too, took in the story of the mother, the manger, the star, the angel. When I asked them what Jesus came to bring, there were shouts of 'love!' from a lot of loud and eager little people.

After that we all ate Very Bad For You Party Food, but they even did that nicely. Then the sugar kicked in, and we had to scrape them off the ceiling.

Meanwhile, the decorations are still on the floor, the tree is outside, less than half the presents are wrapped, and a heap of holly lies in wait for the unwary. We are helping with the annual Toy Appeal, so until yesterday the hall was full of spacehoppers.

I am supposed to be an author. Sometimes I think that's an illusion and I am really a Christmas Robot.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Deck the Halls

Christmas takes careful timing. Decorating too early is all wrong, but you don't want to be flying up stepladders at the last minute, either. Now is about the right time to start, or at least to haul the boxes out of their hiding places and sort out what we've got. Some of the garlandy stuff is a bit past it.

The holly will have to wait until Friday. Gathering holly is one of those things which is my job, not because Tony would be unwilling, but because he's extremely busy at this time of year, and besides, he wouldn't get it right. (The kids are different. I trained them in holly hunting. But none of them are at home just now.) You know how it is. It's not just a case of clipping holly, it's getting the right sort of holly, in the right quantities. It's a skill, made a lot easier because holly grows at the bottom of the garden. (Except it isn't so much a garden as a swamp today. Even the ducks wear wellies.)

Lovely Younger son was fascinated by the whole Christmas decorating thing when he was nearly two, and followed me around the house while I wobbled on ladders and whacked tacks into hidden corners of windowsills. "Mummy bang bang with a hammer!" he said. ALL DAY.

We've never let him forget it.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Sophie Jane

Even a cat has only nine lives, and my sister's cat Sophie has finally used up all of hers. According to my sister, Sophie went through most of them in the first six months, but she still survived to be nineteen.

Even at a great age she was capable of climbing on to the roof, falling off (nobody would have known if she hadn't fallen past the window), righting herself, and strolling into the house as if nothing had happened. Trying to knit anywhere near her was not on, unless you wanted chewed wool and a tangled cat. Quite recently, though she was growing thinner and her coat was beginning to look rough, she'd still go out for a spot of mousing.

For the last few weeks, she's mostly been sleeping by the fire, and her health was slowly failing. Now long winter for Sophie Jane this year. She died very peacefully and painlessly in her mummy's arms. It will be strange to go to the house and not see her there. She has been such a reliable little figure for so long.

Darling girl, there will be one corner of Northumberland that is forever Sophie's.

Friday, 9 December 2011

All Hail!

The Christmas tree in the village square is still standing. This is a minor miracle, as last night it was rocking like a ship in a gale and I expected to find it blocking the road or halfway down the river by morning. A bit of somebody's garden fence swept along on the river and landed just beyond the bottom of the garden. Sleet covered the car. Between the rain and sleet this afternoon, we had the mother and father of a hailstorm.

Mercifully there have been no fatalities, not even any serious injuries, but high winds and slippery roads have caused accidents over two counties - and that's just in the north of England. Scotland has been hammered.

(By the way, Scotland is now home to the 'MacPandas', two giant pandas given to the Scots by the Chinese in the hope that they will fall in love and have baby pandas. Um? I know Scotland is more romantic than China, but forty-eight hours of gale force winds and winter storms can't be good for anyone's love life.)

Back to the village. I was talking a few hours ago to one of our primary school teachers. This afternoon they had arranged for the children's choir to sing carols at a retirement home. It's only about ten minutes walk from school, but what a walk. I asked her if they were out during THAT hailstorm.

'We were out in EVERYTHING,' she said.

They breed 'em tough in Yorkshire.

Oh, just so you know - Helen Archer says she can't bear to meet Richard. Pat Archer (Helen's mum) can't bear not to meet Richard. Sharon (Richard's mum, the former Ambridge bad girl) isn't letting anyone meet Richard, and Elizabeth doesn't want to meet David. All systems normal, then.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Is it a bear? Is it a pony?

No, it's a dog.

The local news programme has just run one of those stories that puts a big smile on your face.

In the very beautiful Dalby Forest in North Yorkshire, Christmas trees are for sale. They are cut down, stacked, and delivered to the car park by the nicest team of lads and lasses you could hope to meet. They are Newfoundland dogs, each weighing anywhere from eight to thirteen stone, and looking, as I said, like a cross between a bear and a pony. They are powerful, pleasant chaps who make good working dogs and are quite happy to draw a cart. In this case, it is a little wicker cart with a Christmas tree in it. Honestly, they look like something out of a fairytale.

'I want one!' I shouted, before the lady on TV said that as well as having lovely natures, they dribble all the time, moult everywhere, and smell terrible when wet. And if you have a Newfoundland on the end of a lead, believe me, you're not the one who decides whether to go left, right, or into the river. As they love water, guess which it's likely to be. But you'd never be lonely with a Newfoundland. (You'd never be dry with a Newfoundland.) Ooh. Where have they been all my life?

The ducks are back, and hungry. The bird feeders go up tomorrow. Tony thinks I'm running a canteen.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Sheep and Sweater

Sheep in a Sweater! Sheep in a Sweater!

That's what was in my Advent Calendar today, so thank you, LOS and Lady Sunshine. (By the way, I realise that in my previous Advent Calendar post I put LYS instead of LOS. As faithful readers know, it's Lovely Older Son who is married to Lady Sunshine, and Lovely Younger Son who is with The Lassie. Woohoo, the Lassie's coming over tomorrow. WE MUST HAVE CAKE!)

To get back to the point - Tony and I were playing a game recently making up pub names. The Sheep and Sweater sounds pretty good to me.

For those across the Pond, British pubs are often called after royalty or local dignitaries - The Devonshire Arms, the Queen's Arms, The King's Head, etc. Then there are the traditional names, The Dog and Duck, The Pig and Whistle, The White Swan, the Black Bull. Occasionally you get something more original like The Dog and Ferret, or the Goat and Nightgown.

So there we were, making up silly but plausible pub names. The Pint and Poodle, the Ferret and Catapult, The Elephant and Mango. The Wilted Spinach. The Duke of Oxford's Elbow. The Weasel and Trombone. The Fallen Arches.

My favourite up to now? The Ruptured Hernia.

Your turn.

Friday, 2 December 2011

clockwork mouse! clockwork mouse!

Clockwork mouse! is what I put in a text to LYS yesterday. He texted me back,


so I explained.

As you may know, I love Advent Calendars, the old-fashioned kind with truly beautiful designs and a picture, not a toy, not a chocolate, just a picture behind every window. No garish Santas, no supersized grinning snowmen, but detailed scenes of villages, churches, children around trees, and, best of all, magic forests.

I give lots of people advent calendars, and on Monday I took one to LYS and Lady Sunshine. Much to my delight, they'd bought one for me. Now, I always treat myself to a calendar, or re-use a favourite one from another year, but there was something so exciting about being given one. It's a very simple and pretty house decorated for Christmas with a little dog outside pulling a sledge, and a snowman, and a decorated kennel. When I opened the first window yesterday and saw the clockwork mouse I was five years old again.

He texted me back - 'Christmas tree.' Today I have to tell him 'stocking'. I'm so enjoying this.

As I type this, The Archers is on the radio in the background. Clarrie is selling holly and mistletoe in the market, David Archer is disappointed because his prize Herefordshire didn't win the Fatstock Show, and Pat Archer is all of a doodah because she's just discovered there's a grandchild she didn't know about. (But is it really John's son?) I have to say I have been waiting for this storyline since John Archer died young after an unfortunate argument with a tractor.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Caw, Krrk, WOLF!

What a great day yesterday! With The Lion Classic Aesop's Fables under my arm, in my suitcase and in my head, I spent the morning at Keighley Library. I was working with children from Harden and Eastwood Primary Schools, and the afternoon was spent in Burley-in-Wharfedale Library with another two classes, this time from Burley Woodhead and Burley Oaks.

As I walked into Keighley Library, the first thing I saw was five or six children in blue school sweaters, all lying on their tummies on the floor, reading books. From then on, I knew we were in for a good day.

All the children - and their teachers - were great audiences, attentive, full of good ideas, and happy to join in with the cawing crow, the croaking frogs, and the boy crying WOLF! We made up fables, we pinged with ideas, and the children talked to me about their favourite books. Everyone was well-behaved, pleasant, polite, and a credit to their schools and families, and it was good to see how much they loved books.

So congratulations to all of you, and the teachers, and a round of applause to Christinea, who accompanied me, made sure I was never far from a coffee, and helped me lug the very heavy case up and down steps at various stations. Christinea's job is working throughout a vast area of Yorkshire enthusing children and teachers about reading, and if yesterday is anything to go by she's doing it brilliantly.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Reasons for no blog all week

Arrived in London late Monday afternoon

Comfortable room and very good fairtrade coffee at MIC Euston

Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park (garish fairground and not a gingerbread house in site, but some nice craft stalls)

Beautiful, contemplative nativity screened in a log cabin in Covent Garden (look at Martha Fiennes, Covent Garden, Nativity)

Getting lost in Piccadilly

The real point of the trip, which was to attend the opening of THE ILLUSTRATORS exhibition at Chris Beetles Gallery, including the stunning artwork by Amanda Hall from our Aesop's Fables - yippee!

walking three times round the gallery looking at delightful illustrations by Jane Pinkney and Emma Chichester Clark, and some vintage EH Shepherd

Fun meeting over coffee at the Science Museum with Chris, who was the first ever editor to take one of my stories from the slush pile at a magazine. My first ever story in print, and he went on to publish many more. Just got in touch with him again recently by accident, and he still makes me laugh

Christmas shopping, also at the science museum, and I'm not telling you anything about that in case certain people read the blog

Tea and cake at Apostrophe cafe with wonderful Alison Sage, who masterminded my Treetops books

Meeting with my brilliant agent, encouraging as ever

More secret shopping

Train home Wednesday night, home at midnight

Message on phone from vicar, to say he couldn't do playgroup the following morning, so

As above

catch up with home, correspondence, washing,


after school club, then finally,



hello! Here's the blog! How are you?

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Today, I...

turned out a bedroom

sorted out a problem with a story, I'm not sure how I did it, but I think it works

took a sideways look at another story which might get itself in order if it thinks I'm not watching it

played the piano very badly

and started on the Advent Calendars. Real, old-fashioned Advent Calendars, with beauty, wonder, sparkle and no chocolates. A week tomorrow is Advent Sunday.

And tomorrow is Stir-up Sunday, the last Sunday of the church's year. It's the day when we are called to stir up our hearts, our minds and our Christmas puddings. We're a practical lot in the Church of England. (Well, most of us are...)

I don't like to start preparing for Christmas too early, but I like even less to be flying about like a pinball in the last week, so some presents are bought while others are being seriously thought about. This leads me to my next question - a certain young lady I know has asked Father Christmas for 'a wooden doll, one that you can dress and undress'. I've seen little doll's house wooden dolls, but I think she means a proper doll sized one. I've searched the net. Even the doll museum shops have nothing of the kind. There's a great guy in Derbyshire called Rob Roy who does wooden toys, but not even he seems to sell quite what is called for.

And, yes, at four years old she does know what she means by wood. She plays a lot with wooden toys, and loves them. I admire her taste, but I think Father Christmas might be stumped by this one - unless anyone knows of a Christmas elf somewhere making wooden dolls that you can dress and undress? Any website addresses would be much appreciated.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Golden Child

The Golden Child will be two at the end of this month, and I am sewing doll's clothes. When Golden Child gets dressed in the morning, the doll has to get dressed too, and a girl can soon run out of clothes at that rate. Sewing is one of those things that I like to do in spite of not being much good at it, and the sewing machine and I don't necessarily get on, but the Golden Child isn't that fussy. It also gives me the chance to go into a delightful little shop that sells all things needlework and buy ribbons, braid, buttons - if you're a bloke reading this it will make no sense at all. Sorry about that. For the dressmakers, all this dolly's garments are hand-hemmed.

She may just be little now, but playing with dolls fired my young imagination, and she may be a story teller in the making. My dolls didn't just change their clothes and have tea parties. They rode horses, fought off witches, rescued each other, and got so dirty they could only be cleaned with scouring powder.

The hole in the garden remains more or less as it was. I may have to consult an expert about how it got there and whether the house will fall into it. Up to now nobody has fallen in or out, which is a good thing.

And as you must be dying to know - Tony Archer is miserable and has fallen out with Jenny, Brian has fallen out with Adam, and nobody likes Clive Horrobin.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011


There's a bloomin' great 'ole in the garden. 'Er went down there this morning and found it, 'alfway down the slope and next to a buddlieairer or whatever they call it. Sometimes they call it the butterfly bush and I call it the thing with purple spiky bits. Smells nice.

Now, what we want to know is, 'oo put the 'ole there? 'Oles don't dig themselves. Now, Stephen were 'ere yesterday and 'e might have dug it for planting summat, but it's too near the budlly thing to plant anything sizeable, and by gum, it's a sizeable 'ole. Mr Tony and 'er were out all day, so they don't know 'ow it got there, and I... well I might have just nodded off for a minute or two, I'm not as young as I were. Woke up, and there's this 'ole. Great big 'ole, a chap could fall down there. Deep, too, and dry underneath. 'Ave we got a badger?

Sunday, 13 November 2011

it's a bit diggidult

it's a bit diggidult to type today bedause I just daught the tip og my legt index ginger on a hot iron. It doesn't hurt very mudh but it makes typing awkward and slow so I dan't do mudh with the blog or I'll be here until next Dhristmas. It was a dery silly thing to do, I should know by now to keep gingertips away grom irons that have just been turned ogg.

I have proved myselg to be thoroughly indompetent. As a punishment, I will not be allowed to iron anything gor a week. We will wear donsipduously dreased and drumpled dlothing and the grills and glounces will go all gloppy.

Friday, 11 November 2011

11 11 11

I was at home when the clock struck eleven this morning, but I stood up as the Radio clanged out the chimes of Big Ben into my achey head. It made me think of those young men in the trenches, with the constant sound of gunfire following them into their sleep.

Somebody who was outside later told me that the whole village stopped. Traffic slowed, cars pulled in to the side of the road. People in the street stood still. Even the birds stopped singing. On Sunday, there will be wreath-laying at the foot of the War Memorial where a lone soldier stands holding a rifle. He looks so young, about eighteen. He s heart-breaking.

Thank you, all those future past generations. For the sake of the future generations, lets all work to find ways of sorting out aggression without sending our children to war.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011


When I was still having a lot of back pain, I signed up for a day at one of my favourite places, St Bede's Pastoral Centre in York. Somebody was coming to run a 'training' day (for want of a better word) about living with chronic pain.

By the time came - which was yesterday - I'd been mostly pain-free for nearly a month, but by then I was committed, and besides, a friend was going too, and she'd never been to St Bede's before. I felt a bit apologetic, really, because everybody else was in a far worse state than I was.

Not that you'd know it. A few people walked with sticks and one very pretty and delightful woman was in a wheelchair, but mostly you wouldn't know what battles they were all fighting. It was only as the day went on, and as we sat having lunch together, that we got insights into each other's lives. And there they all were, these men and women coping with mental or physical pain, just keeping going. Going to work, working from home, picking up grandchildren from school, doing work in their churches and communities.

Respect. Admire. Think. And please don't judge. Everyone has their own battles to fight.

Friday, 4 November 2011


I've been quiet lately because Tony and I have had a few days staying with my sister, brother-in-law, and the cats in Northumberland. This year has been a truly golden autumn and walking or driving under arches of trees is magical. Coming home in the evenings, the misty light turned the Cheviot Hills blue and grey and and blended them in and out of the sky.

I was reminded of a favourite poem, 'Northumberland', by Wilfred Wilson Gibson, who lived in Hexham.

Heatherland and bent-land
Black land and white,
God bring me to Northumberland,
the land of my delight.

Land of singing waters
And winds from off the sea,
God bring me to Northumberland,
The land where I would be.

Heatherland and bent-land,
And valleys rich with corn,
God bring me to Northumberland,
The land where I was born.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Take a left, I said

Thinking about London theatres reminded me of this, when Tony and I visited New York for the launch of Mistmantle over there. We'd travelled to London the day before, stayed the night in a Heathrow hotel, got on the flight to NY, and were collected at Kennedy Airport. The publishers were fantastic, and put us up in a fantastic hotel in Central Manhattan with the friendliest staff ever.

Having arrived at about three o'clock NY time (eight o'clock in England) we decided to have a little wander and explore, and discovered to our delight that we were ten minutes walk from the internationally famous Carnegie Hall. (I noticed that there was a subway station just beside it, and thought how sensible that was, putting a station right beside the venue.) There was a choir festival concert on that night, and we saw that they were doing Faure's requiem, which we love.

Well, it will be very expensive, we said. We looked at the prices. It wasn't.

There won't be any seats left, we said. There were, lots.

So a few hours later we found ourselves in the amazing Carnegie Hall, listening to some stunningly beautiful music sung by world class choirs and occasionally pinching ourselves to make sure that this was really happening. Us, here, now. Never in our wildest dreams.

We were walking on air back to the hotel when an American lady stopped us to ask if we knew where the nearest subway was. Tony hesitated, but I - and by the way, I usually have to think twice about giving directions to my own home - said, 'straight along here, take a left at that light, and it's right beside Carnegie Hall.'

I'd been in NY for all of seven hours. How cool is that?

Friday, 28 October 2011

too much choice

I have a London trip coming up at the end of November and am already looking at websites regarding what to do with my spare evening. In London you're alway spoiled for choice regarding musicals, but I don't know if I want to go to a musical this time.

There's a much talked about play about the Duchess of Windsor (the one King Edward VIII abdicated for.) There are some top notch actresses in that. Or there's the Pitmen Painters, a play about a group of miners from North-East England who started going to an art class and became highly accomplished artists, depicting life in the coal mines and the mining community. But it seems a bit silly for me, a lass who grew up in the North-East, to go all the way to London to watch a play about it.

If there's any Shakespeare on anywhere, I'd give that serious consideration. I'm a moth to a candle with Shakespeare.

And the Royal Ballet are doing Sleeping Beauty at the Opera House. They've still got plenty of cheap seats!

Or it might seem cosier to go back to my comfy hotel room and sit in bed watching TV or reading.

What would you do?

Wednesday, 26 October 2011


A new duck, all alone, appeared in the river today. He (I think it was he, it wasn't one of our usual mallards) was having a wonderful time. He was enjoying a bath. Sometimes I could see his head, sometimes I could see his feet, and sometimes there was nothing to see at all but a splash and ripples. I snatched up a packet of out-of-date oatcakes and ran down to the bottom of the garden. By this time he'd sailed under the trees and I couldn't see him at all, but they usually respond to the sight of food flying through the air.

This was when I realised how dry it's been for the last few days, because the river was a long way down. From the fence, there was a lot of riverbank between me and the water. I threw as hard as I could - twice - and bits of oatcake dropped on the grass far out of eyeline of the duck (wherever he was by then. Probably underwater.)

I even tried bowling overarm. (By the way, do you know that bowling overarm in cricket was first done by a girl?) Closer, but it still landed with a flop, not a splash. Still, I hope his duckship comes back. He was fun.

I'm so worried about what's going on in The Archers. It's not that bad brother Clive has struck fear into everyone, or that there's a row about the Cider Club. No, it's because , at one time, families regularly happened by each other at the duckpond while the children were feeding the Ambridge ducks. Those kids never spoke, but they were always out there feeding those ducks. It's a long time since there was a good gossip around the duckpond.

What do I deduce? Does this mean those apple-cheeked country children are all stuck in front of TVs and computers, and the ducks are so hungry, they're reduced to raiding the pub?

Monday, 24 October 2011

cake and things

Last week I was at the most amazing poetry event for children. There's been a poetry festival nearby, and they'd invited a children's poet, Paul Cookson, who entertains, reads from his books, gets the kids joining in, and is simply a five star act. The children, who practically ate out of his hand, were from the local schools and had been invited to present some of their own poetry, too. And if that weren't enough, there was cake, too.

On Saturday morning I did some storytelling and told, among other things, The Lambton Worm. It's a well known story in the North East, where I come from, but most people at the south end of Yorkshire don't know it.

Then, this afternoon, Tony went out to visit a couple from one of our churches, and it just so happened that their little grand-daughter was visiting and was Baking Cakes with Granny. They gave Tony two buns fresh from the oven for tea time, one in a pink case, one in a blue one!

When my lot were small, it was bread, more than cakes, that we used to make together. Bread dough is a great thing to do with children, because it doesn't mind being squidged and it's very flexible. They'd make bread rolls shaped like the initials of whoever was coming to tea, and there was always a bit left over to make lardy cake, which is a kind of poor man's Chelsea Bun. It's light and sweet and utterly gorgeous and so bad for you that if you made it these days it would be impounded by the Health Police. But it's good. And the kids spent far more time running about than they did eating lardy cakes.

A theme is developing. Cake. There is a Scottish story about The Woman Who Baked for the Fairies, but I can't remember it quite well enough to tell it. Does anyone know it? I could do Storytelling and Cake sessions. That would go down a treat.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Us dooks

Listen oop.

You may call us ducks, and posh folk and southerners say it like 'dacks', but we're Yorkshire dooks. (It's not so much an 'oo' sound as somewhere between 'oo' and 'u'. You 'ave to 'ear it.) Trouble is, ever since missus at T' 'ouse of Stories got all particular about what to feed us dooks, the foowd's not so goowd as it were. We were 'appy with t'bread.

So lately us 'ave been 'anging around t'bridges and we eat what we're given. Still, we might give T 'ouse of Stories another visit. See what we get. Much the Gnome might be up for a chat, too. 'E's a grand chap, is Much. And seeing missus tramp down t'garden in t'rain in 'er coat and wellies always gives us something to laugh at.

NB from Margi - if you didn't understand a word of what those ducks were saying, never mind. Neither did I.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011


Following Dad's birthday, here's a picture of Dad, Mum, Tony and me outside Wallington Hall on a glorious October afternoon, and a picture of his favourite thing inside the stately home - a limewood carving by Thomas Kendall of Warwick, dated about 1870 ish. If you see the thing close to, you can even see the whiskers on the water rat.

Sunday, 16 October 2011



That's how old my dad is, as of yesterday. Tony and I drove north and met up with Mum, Dad, and my sister and brother-in-law to Wallington Hall in Northumberland. It belongs to the National Trust and has been a favourite family place since my sister and I were kids. You can find it on the National Trust site.

The day excelled itself. It was a perfect sunny autumn day, and they were having a Food and Craft Fair, which meant that Dad could watch a wood carver at work. We walked through the shady wood, past the lakes and the fallen tree where my children used to play, and through the walled garden which is a bit like walking into something from Alice in Wonderland. Father inspected all the gardens and greenhouses, got annoyed with himself because he couldn't remember the name of a particular flower (which I didn't know in the first place) and walked right to the end of the grounds. Walking all the way back might have been hard work, so my brother-in-law brought the car round. We rounded off with ice cream and birthday cake in the car park.

Mum and Dad had a wonderful day. Chatting to guides and the craft fair people, they let it drop that it was Dad's 92nd birthday, and people really cared about it. They were impressed, they were interested, they struck up a conversation. As the familiar accents made me feel at home, so did the warmth, that Northumbrian attitude of warmth, friendliness and welcome. I'd forgotten how good it is. Holy ground.

Friday, 14 October 2011


To all of you helped with my duck dilemma, thank you. They will now be the happiest and healthiest mallards in the county.

Unless you're an expert (or a duck) one duck looks much like another, so I only give names to the very conspicuous ones with unusual markings. We had Archie, Becky, Clive, Dora, Edwin, Florrie... then I got confused, and gave up at Kevin. But I do like naming things. As you may know, the laptop is Cottontail.

I meet lots of children, what with church things, school things, and friends. At present I keep meeting Marcuses, Ethans, Thomases, and Noahs. Among the girls, Eve, Ruby, and Lily are among the old-fashioned names making a comeback. Daisy, too, so we may be seeing a return to those lovely old flower names. My grandma was just plain Ethel, but her sisters were Rose, May, Lily, Ivy, Iris, Pansy, and Olive.

One fo the fun things about being an author is finding the right names for characters. It's a good sign when they turn up having chosen their names already. In The Octave of Angels, I had a little girl from the past called Myrrh, and a contemporary one called Berry. I thought that was ridiculous. You don't give children names like that. But they sort of swam out from somewhere at the back of my mind with their names already chosen. They knew who they were. And when I'd thought about them, and worked out their back stories, so did I.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Duck's DInner

As the rain pours down and the river fills up, the ducks are gathering just on the other side of the fence. A couple of blackcaps dart in and out of the hedge. The holly berries are turning red, and the mist in the valley makes me think of Mistmantle.

The ducks, however, are presenting me with a problem. I was firmly told by a child at the after school club that you shouldn't feed them bread, it's not good for them and it swells up in their stomachs. I've checked out the subject, and she's right, which means the kids and I must have done for a few of them over the years. To atone for this - and avoid sinking any more of them - I need to feed them the stuff they feed to chickens. So where do I find that? I have a couple of chicken keeping friends, but I always thought they fed the chickens on scraps. What do chickens like?

Besides, ducks are supposed to like fruit, which is good for them. Not these ducks. I threw them some left over pears once and they turned up their offended little beaks in disgust. I'd like to bet I could give them Best Hen Feed by Royal Appointment to Prince Charles's Chickens and they'd want Co-op white sliced instead.

And for all those of you longing to hear about the Archers - Susan's Bad Brother Clive is out of prison and living nearby. As Clive previously raided the village shop, gave Jack Woolley a heart attack, and one way or another managed to attack or terrorise the entire Archer clan, David is not pleased. Showdown time!

Monday, 10 October 2011

Margi with a g

After another weekend of people calling me Marji, please, let me explain. I'm not being growly or gruffy about this, I just want to make it clear as glass.

It's Margi with a hard 'g', as in grey, or gray, Margot, cargo, embargo, egg, beg, or peg leg Meg. It's Margi like Maggie or Scraggie old Aggie.

My name is NOT NOT NOT Marji, which makes me sound like a cheap alternative to butter. If I were Marji, then a zigzag would be zijzaj and a rag bag would be a rajbaj. You'd play jolf on a jolf course or jo to see a jame of rujby. Jorillas would live in the gunjle, horses would jallop along the jround and gump over jates, and all would be hijjledy pijjledy. So if you call me Marji I will be very anjry. Jot it?

Golly jood!

Saturday, 8 October 2011


I spent this afternoon signing, and reading from, 'Aesop's Fables' at my favourite kind of bookshop, an independent one in a small town. It was a lovely way to spend a Saturday afternoon, with bright young listening faces and a few puppets to help things along. The Crow, which belongs to LOS and is old enough to have lost a wing, was a big hit with everyone.

At one point, during a lull about an hour before closing time, I looked up and, I mean, just looked. A shop full of beautifully displayed books. A lady browsing the shelves. At the other end, the counter with the bookshop man standing behind it and, beyond him, customers looking in through the big display window, pointing out the titles to each other. It could have been a scene from any century since bookshops began. Long may it continue!

On the shelves was a volume which the bookshop man and I thought was very funny, a sort of '1001 Tips for Perfect Housekeeping' book. I probably should have looked at it, though, as the Sunshines are having problem with mould in a few corners of their little house and LOS has been cleaning mildew off his shoes. Any reliable old remedies, anyone? It would be much appreciated. Thank you!

Thursday, 6 October 2011


Yesterday I had a great afternoon, meeting Claire and going to the theatre to see Othello - and a very good production it was. We parted on a pleasant autumn afternoon. Two hours later I got off the train to a dark evening with rain pounding down the valley. And, as I'd missed the local train by two minutes, I'd had to get the express, which stops about a mile from home and walk back. As there was a music practice this evening, it was a case of changing into dry clothes and going straight out again. By the way, I went out wearing a light raincoat. By the time I got into our street I knew from the damp feeling across the shoulders that it wasn't a raincoat at all, it was a shower coat. It is still drying as I speak. I went out to Music Group wearing the winter coat which has been hanging up since March.

This morning was Toddler Group, and a pleasant morning. Winter coat? Ridiculous. Light jacket. But coming home... oh, you guessed.

Somewhere in my life I must have really offended a Weather Pixie. It wasn't just valley rain sweeping down the road to meet me, it was hailstones, and a raging wind that nearly knocked me over as I turned through the gate. For the second time in less than 24 hours I was soaked to the skin. Never mind, dry clothes again, hot drink, lunch, back to work...

to write a scene about a boy who just had to swim across a lake fully dressed and then walk home dripping wet. Couldn't even write myself warm and dry.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Story Day

Today is St Francis Day, when we remember a man with a great love of nature and care for animals. Appropriately, I spent all day on animal stories.

Last night I packed my bag (mostly with puppets) and went to stay overnight at LOS and Lady Sunshine's little house. Sadly, Lady S was on night duty, but I'll see them both at the weekend. I was there because I had an Author in School day today at a primary school not far from them. (It's Book Week. Authors get busy this week.)

We started of with an Aesop story for the whole school (The Fox and the Crow), then I worked my way through the school for the rest of the day. We went from stories of a little bear on an adventure for the four year olds to flying horses for the nearly elevens. Lovely, helpful kids who escorted me around the school when I looked lost and carried armfuls of puppets and cuddly toys round for me. It is so rewarding to flick the switch on a child's imagination.

Someone should explain gently to Northern Rail that A Lot Of People Get On The 5.15 Train. They should know by now that they need extra carriages. However, I got back still breathing with my toes unsquashed. I haven't unpacked yet. I think if a small child had smuggled itself into my suitcase I would have heard it by now. But you never know...

Saturday, 1 October 2011


Bit of a sad day, but a good one too, in the Sunny House of Stories.

The July weather continues. Today I needed the summer clothes and sun block that barely saw daylight in August. I'm not complaining, but it is strange.

Today was the day our Lovely Younger Son went back to university. He graduated in Law four years ago, spent those years at the Civil Service, and wasn't satisfied. So today he returned to spend a year doing an MA in Human Rights. Pardon me, but I'm a bit proud of him, really. He wants to make a difference. He's made one to me, just being around for the last few years.

But what a difference from the days when he started uni for the first time, when I trailed round the shops with a reluctant son in tow, buying mugs and plates and cutlery, trying to instill first principles of laundry. Four years later, he's so sorted. All this week, I've found his washing on the line, his crockery packed, and bales of new bed linen. Today, he and Tony loaded up the car with several tons of law books (have you seen the size of those books?), his fencing kit, and his sword.

Just before leaving, he came to me with three Terry Pratchett books in his hand. These, he said, were the ones I had to read next, and he told me the right order.

So they crammed everything into the car, fitted themselves into the only remaining spaces, and set off. I went to join my friends from the vicarage to decorate the church for harvest - a lovely, traditional thing to do. When the altar and the chancel had enough fruit and flowers to look like an Gold Medal Winner at the Chelsea Flower Show, we put some greenery on the window sills.

Now, in order to reach one of the windowsills I had to wriggle past a music stand. It just had to be THAT music stand, the one with a row of gleaming metal chime bars on it. The chime bars made it badly balanced, and the tinkle-jingle-wallop as it hit the stone floor brought everyone to a standstill. The vicar's son beamed.

"That sounded like a crash-landing fairy!" he said.

Must tell that to LYS - oh, I can't. But he's only a phone call away. Anyway, even at the far end of the next county, he could have heard the crash landing fairy.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

angel day

Today is the Feat of St Michael and All Angels, and I've always loved it. Autumn, hawthorn berries, late sunshine, and angels all around.

Some years, it's been frosty on Michaelmas Day. Today it's scorching, everybody's wearing t-shirts and shades and slapping on the sun block, and summer flowers don't know if they're coming or going. The tomatoes, which had almost given up, are now blushing like schoolboys. It makes me wonder if this is to be the pattern for years to come - a fine spring, a wet summer, and a late September summer.

I want a Campaign for Real Weather. Light spring breezes, beautiful summer days, misty autumns and snow in winter. But then what would the English find to talk about?

Monday, 26 September 2011


At last, a bit of decent weather. 'Er come down the rockery t'other day, gave it a bit of a sorting, and pulled out a few things that didn't oughter be there. For the first time in 'er life, 'er's successfully grown Michaelmas daisies. Blimey, 'er's ecstatic, anyone would think she's grown Kew Gardens in a pot from an orange pip.

Anyway, 'er asks me whether I fancy a turn round. Not bothered, really. Anyway, she 'as a go and nearly put her bloomin' back out again. I got swizzled round a quarter turn and that's it. Must 'ave forgotten 'ow solid we are, me and the old snail. Nice view, though, and I don't have that fern tickling me ear no more.

'Er's planning a bit of a shopping trip tomorrow. I'd like to bet 'er comes 'ome with a load of bulbs to put in, ready for spring. Watch it, missus, I said. Don't do yer back in putting 'em in. Honestly, what are we to do with 'er?

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Dreaming, not Gleaming

Last time, I referred to Oxford as the City of Gleaming Spires. As you all know, I got that wrong. It's 'Dreaming Spires', and I don't know who said it first.

It looked very pleasantly dreamy on Thursday, a fine autumn day. I was in Oxford for a publishers do - Lion, a Christian publisher I work for, had been in business for forty years and celebrations were in order. We gathered in the Cathedral, Christ Church, which in itself is a bit over-awing. We heard about how Pat and the late David Alexander started the business from their back bedroom forty years ago and travelled to book fairs with a sleeping bag in the back of the car because money was too tight for a hotel. Now they are selling all over the world in over two hundred languages, and have bridged the gap between sacred and secular publishing.

This was followed by afternoon tea (or as they call it where I come from, a bun fight). Tea, cake and champagne. Now, that's my kind of celebration. And it was held in the Great Hall of the college. Think of the dining room at Hogwarts (in fact, I think some of the HP films were made there.) We were surrounded by portraits of world changing scholars and statesmen who had studied there, and I gazed around like a country bumpkin.

Just as it people were drifting away and it looked as if it was all over too soon, lovely Su Box, who was my first editor at Lion and is now freelance, scooped a few of us up and took us to a nearby cafe. Think of it, eleven over-excited Lions round a table. I sat next to one of my heroes, Bob Hartman. As an author and live storyteller, he is the past master as to bringing a new view point and a breath of life into old stories, and is always generous in his help and attention. His new project is - take a look. All round the world, said Bob, storytelling is taking off. It's being rediscovered.

Oh, that reminds me. The Lion Classic Aesop, by Margaret McAllister, Illustrated by Amanda Hall, is out now! Just saying!

Tuesday, 20 September 2011


Stephen came to do the garden today. His injured hand is in a thick glove, but he still mows, prunes, and does whatever else needs attending to. We had a grumble about the rotten weather - apparently there hasn't been a completely dry day since 20 August. I just need a few good autumn days to settle the garden down, cut and dry some sage and lavender, and put in bulbs for the spring. (And trash the tomato plants. I've never known such a rubbish season.)

This evening I went out to do the Compost Heap Pilgrimage and found the air was warm and still. Came back in here, worked at the computer, and happened to glance over my shoulder.

I squeaked. Really. The sky had changed colour, the clouds glowed deep pink and swirling. I shouted to LYS to look, and ran outside.

Looking north and east down the valley, all was still a uniform grey blue. But the western sky was on fire. Red sky at night, shepherd's delight. A promise of a fine day. A garden day.

And I'll be in Oxford. Never mind, the garden can wait. I am greatly looking forward to Oxford and will tell you all about it when I get home. And if the weather holds, perhaps I will be treated to another beautiful sunset tomorrow, over the City of Gleaming Spires.

In case you're wondering - Peggy Woolley is worried about Jack, Jenny, Peggy's daughter, is worried about Peggy, Brian (Jenny's husband) is worried about Alice, the Grundy family are all worried about Clarrie, and Joe just had his ninetieth birthday. KEEP UP!

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Apple Tree

There isn't an apple tree in this garden, but perhaps, one day, we'll move to somewhere with a well established one, hopefully a Grenadier or an Egremont Russet. There is a lot to love about apple trees.

My friend Claire may be falling out of love with hers. Her apple tree is going into overdrive. (She lives too far away to unload them on to me, unfortunately.) At present she seems to be giving away apple pie, apple crumble and apple sauce to everyone she ever met in her adult life. 'Here, you won't remember me but we sat next to each other on the train one day in January 2008, would like an apple crumble?'

As she's a GP I don't know how she finds the time for all this, but from apples she has turned her attention to quinces and rose hips. It's years since I got tired of making jam and jelly, but Claire is looking forward to it. Anything to use up the surplus. I suggested that she could always poach the surplus fruit with a little water and sugar and freeze it.

'I can't, she said. 'The freezer's full on the crumble.'

Friday, 16 September 2011

The Bank of the Fairies

Money, printer cartridges, and vegetables. All these things were in short supply in The House of Stories by the middle of the week, so after Toddler Group I went to the small town about a mile along the road.

I don't do online banking and am deeply suspicious of hole in the wall money machines. Also, I'd received an advance payment for a book coming out in 2013, and I so love paying those in. I feel a sense of achievement about it. And apart from anything else, we have very pleasant people working in our local branch and I want to keep them in a job.

So there I was, sitting down with my handbag and cheque book on my knee, sorting out which money was going where, when a mother came in with two little girls in a pushchair. The older one was dressed as a fairy, all in bright pink with a tiara and a magic wand (and I suppose wings, but I couldn't see.) The toddler sister made a dash for freedom as soon as she was out of that buggy. The automatic doors obligingly parted for her and she was only a few steps from a busy road when her mum caught her.

Mum duly finished what she had to do, and left. When I stepped up to the cashier's desk I saw the magic wand abandoned and alone. Another lady in the queue (who was also in bright pink and silver) ran outside with it and looked up and down the street, but the Fairy Queen appeared to have flown away.

'Never mind', said the kind cashier. (She's lovely. I've been going in that bank for years now, and she's always been around.) 'I know the family, I can get it back to them.' But five minutes after leaving the bank, I met the Fairy Queen, her mum and the absconding sister in the street. 'Have we left our wand in the bank?' asked Mum, and went back for it. The afternoon was still young, and already I was part of a fairy story.

You don't get that with online banking.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

oops - wrong Nick

Apologies -I wrote 'Nick Park' in the previous post. It should have been Nick Page. Sorry for any confusion.

McGonagall, anyone?

Firstly, Mum and Dad love the book. So I've made somebody happy.

Now, the thing I meant to discuss. Our Writers Weekend was largely, and inspiringly, led by Nick Park. Just pop his name into Google and see what comes up. He's the author of The Tabloid Bible and The Wrong Messiah, amongst others. He's also something of an authority on the Worlds Worst Writers.

Top of his list is Amanda McKittrick Ross, who never used one word when ten would do, and on seeing Westminster Abbey was moved to write,

'Holy Moses! Take a look!
Flesh decayed in every nook!'

And then there's the wonderfully bad Wm McGonagall, as prolific as he was awful. Take his lines on the Death of Lord and Lady Dalhousie -

'Alas! Lord and Lady Dalhousie are dead, and buried at last.
Which causes many people to feel a little downcast.'

And it gets worse. Yes, it really does. But the best writers can have bad days. Wordsworth lived to regret writing these lines in The Thorn', about a pond -

'I've measured it from side to side,
Tis three feet long and two feet wide.'

This is a very good reason for putting your writing to one side, and then re-reading it two weeks later, slowly. I've done more re-writing than writing today. There were one or two phrases in my latest first draft that I can't possibly have written. Maybe one of Hamilton's friends did it when I wasn't looking.

What about you - any favourite bad quotes, bad authors, or just goofs?

Oh, by the way, I know you're all passionate to know about The Archers. Pat and Tony Archer and their son Tom, the sausage entrepreneur, have had a massive row. Clarrie is very upset, Eddie is worried and nobody's speaking to Vicky. And it wasn't even her fault.

BTW, Tom's older brother John died after a nasty accident with a tractor. Told you it's dangerous in Ambridge. : )

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Gasps and Gales

The gasp is because the advance copies of my new book, The Lion Classic Aesop's Fables, arrived yesterday. Amanda Hall (illustrator) and those great people at Lion have made such a beautiful book. Find Lion Hudson Children's Books to have a peek at it. I've already put one in the post to Mum and Dad. I hope they like it.

The gale is the gale in the tail of Hurricane Katia. Mercifully it hasn't been too bad here, but the trains were cancelled yesterday because of branches on the line and some of the hill top villages lost electricity. Various bits of the garden are where they shouldn't be, but our young trees are safe and as far as I can tell the roof is intact.

But - at 8.00 pm last night, LYS and I were all ready to watch University Challenge (which is just what it sounds like, a quiz show between high powered university teams) when we found that the TV signal was off. The local transmitter had gone down. We were both most put out, as that programme comes as a welcome punctuation mark in the day, and saddos that we are, we were looking forward to it. (Tony was up on a hilltop chairing a meeting by candlelight).

LYS and I agreed that we were suffering from First World Deprivation. We are fully aware that for many people life is a struggle for survival. We know that we are blessed in having home, food, security, freedom, etc, etc, and one night without TV is neither here nor there. But we couldn't help feeling disappointed. Monday night is University Challenge! Stop the hurricane at once!

Monday, 12 September 2011

A Different Sunday

Yesterday was out of the usual Sunday pattern. I was away at the very beautiful Scargill House, high up in the Yorkshire Dales at a gathering of the Association of Christian Writers. You can see Scargill at

And, of course it was the anniversary of that day when LOS came to tell me about what was happening on the news. British Summer Time is five hours ahead of the US, so it was nearly two o'clock here, we'd had lunch and I was hanging out the washing. Everybody remembers what they were doing that day.

But I want to tell you now about 9.11 the following year, 2002. I may have told you this story before but it doesn't hurt to tell it again. Daughter and I went into York for a mother and daughter day and saw that something was happening in St Helen's Square. The street entertainers had organised their own way of marking the day.

They'd set out candles to light, a book of condolence to sign, and a box for donations towards the families and survivors fund, and they had a list of names of everyone who died in the Twin Towers attack. They were to read out all those names alphabetically, taking turns. They gathered respectfully round a makeshift podium, musicians, mimes, circus performers. Shortly before two, one of the entertainers stepped up and began to read from the list.

Daughter and I stayed for little while, paid our respects, and left. That afternoon we did all the usual things - shopped, window-shopped, went somewhere nice to eat, and we may have gone to Evensong at the Minster, but I can't remember. It must have been at least four hours later when we walked back to the station through St Helen's Square.

There weren't many bystanders by that time. The entertainers were still there, still reading from that unbearably long list. I think they were up to the letter 'S'.

Every year at this time I think of 11 September 2012, when the mimes and music-makers solemnly took the city by the hand and led us to Ground Zero. From Old York to New York, we watched with you on that long day.

Thursday, 8 September 2011


I think I am becoming decrepit. I was thrilled to bits yesterday because the doctor had suggested stronger painkillers (I still get bad sciatic pain from my back injury). I woke up this morning thinking - 'ooh! I can get my painkillers today!' Then I had the Toddler Group to do (we had thirty-five children today, and some very rounded mummies, so it will be forty before long.) After Toddler group the vicar and I met up with Daughter, LYS and The Lassie for lunch at our delightful village cafe -

and then the pharmacy was closed for lunch -

and I had to go into town to get to the bank, and do some shopping, and all the time my leg hurt -

and it rained -

and finally, I got back to the pharmacy and found the prescription had gone through, and almost ran back home clutching my little pack of tablets like a prize.

I now contain enough analgesic to numb an elephant. I love it! So I have to do the blog NOW, in case it sends me to sleep. BTW, I'm hiccuping like a frog. Whether this is anything to do with the elephant anaesthetics is more than I know.

And if you're already hooked on The Archers, as I'm sure you are, Jack Woolley has collapsed, so Peggy is being worried-but-wonderful and Tony Archer is doing his trembly emotional voice. Phoebe is off to South Africa. Here comes the theme music - tum ti tum ti tum ti tum, tum ti tum ti tum tum...

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

This and that

The season of holidays and family birthdays is over. The trees are already looking autumnal and the stormy rain and wind are flinging the leaves down the street. Much is grinning because a fern has grown over him, so he is pleasantly sheltered. I write this huddled up in a winter sweater. Later today Daughter will drive to Northumberland to visit family and I suspect it'll be even more wintery up there. Hopefully her aunt and uncle will have the wood-burning stove blazing away.

It's not long now before Aesop's Fables comes out. The illustrations make it such a beautiful book, I can't wait for it to get into the hands of readers.

Now, for all those of you across the Pond, I recently have been thinking about The Archers. HOW CAN YOU LIVE WITHOUT THE ARCHERS? The Archers is a British institution. It is a radio soap 'an everyday story of country folk', and was started in wartime as a way of passing on useful advice to British farmers. I supppose patriarch Dan Archer passed on wise advice ON how to grow turnips in a gas mark case or something, honestly, I've no idea. But it has become an indispensable part of British life. The dialogue is a law unto itself, nobody speaks the way they speak on The Archers, but it's irresistible, on the lines of, 'Pip's done well in her A levels, hasn't she?' 'She has, Vicky, especially when you think of all the trouble she had last year, with that awful boyfriend...'

Let me warn you, there is something uncanny about the death rate in Ambridge, the Archer village. The chances of an early bucket-kicking are pretty good, especially if you're married to an Archer woman who can then be the romantic interest again. (I went right off The Archers after Nigel fell off the roof.) But I can't help it. I can't stay away. Not now, not when the wetter than wet James and Leonie are flitting around the village... and Emma and Nic are due for a major handbag fight... and Bridge Farm Dairy is going down the tubes... and Ruari is starting school so Jenny is going into a flat spin... oh, how I love it!

What's your guilty soap secret?

Friday, 2 September 2011

on the day

Sometimes, you just happen to be there.

Daughter is having a few days holiday here. Daughter, our friend Daphne and I went for a jaunt today to Nostell Priory in Yorkshire. It's not a priory at all, hasn't been since Henry VIII got his hands on it, it's an eighteenth century manor house. One of its more famous exhibits is the John Harrison clock.

John Harrison was probably the most expert clockmaker of his day and the man who worked out how to calculate longitude. We were admiring a rather stylish eighteenth century drawing room when one of the room guides hurried along the corridor saying in an awed whisper 'they've found the signature on the John Harrison clock!'

This, of all days, was the day when the clock man paid his annual visit to Nostell to check on the well-being of the clock. He had carefully dismantled it - yes, dismantled it - and laid out the pieces on a cloth to be photographed. And there, on the calendar dial, was a signature.

There was a signature on the face, too, for all to see, but that would have been copied by an engraver. This was John Harrison's signature in his own hand, on the calendar dial of the clock, where it's normally concealed by another dial. Nobody knew about it until the clock man uncovered it. Everyone was scurrying along to see it.

D, D and I stood shyly at the back. Then the clockmaker came over, carrying this beautiful piece of eighteenth century mechanism in his hand and turned it, shining a light on it, for us to see. Believe me, lovers of clocks the world over would have killed to see what we just saw today. And by now it will be back in its place, ready to tick slowly round for another century or so.

Sometimes, you just happen to be there.

Wednesday, 31 August 2011


This has been a woohoo! weekend. We've been to Greenbelt!

For those who don't know, Greenbelt is a mahoosive Christian Art Festival held every year at Cheltenham Racecourse over the August Bank Holiday weekend. Put 'Greenbelt Festival' into a search engine and you'll find it. One o the great things about GB is that it has room for everyone and everything, a hugely diverse range of people, lots of different ways of thinking, worshipping, and being. The music is everything from plainchant to Very Loud Rock, there is theatre, dance,circus stuff, comedy, challenging and thought provoking speakers, all sorts of alternative styles of worship, lots of creative stuff, family stuff, workshops, art exhibitions, a full programme for children and young people, and fun. The emphasis is on social responsibility, justice, and environment, so your lifestyle gets challenged, too.

There's no pressure to go to anything. In fact, the pressure is on choosing what to go to out of all the choices on offer at any time. And then there's the campsite (no, I didn't camp. I'm a wuss. I like hot and cold running water and a warm bed.) The stalls, the various food places. The Soul Space right t the top of a high building with fantastic views over the countryside. And the constant buzz as people of all ages, shapes and sizes, able bodied and not, some strangely dressed, weave their way from one venue to another among the stiltwalkers, jugglers, and people dressed up as bananas, monkeys, fairies... you have to be there.

These names may mean something to you - Milton Jones, Kate Rusby, the Unthanks, Rob Bell, John Bell, Oliver James, Jon Blake, Jo Enright, Adrian Plass, Paul Kerensa, Billy Bragg. They were all there. And so was I! Woohoo!

Oh, and I learned to play a hand drum.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011


I came down this morning to find a working party in my garden.

About a month ago, I heard the news that Stephen, our amazing gardener, had cut his hand badly while using a chain saw. It was only a few days later that I realised what a bad injury it was - lots of stitching, lifelong scarring, and physio to come. Within days of the accident, when he was still in hospital, his wife told me that he was arranging to contract work out, and I told her that the last thing they needed to think about was the House of Stories grass. In spite of this, one of our friends from church turned up a few days later and tackled the 'meadow'.

This morning, I heard the sound of a mower. Said friend and his son were there, trimming and tidying - and so was Stephen! With his hand still bandaged, he was doing as much as he could one-handed and as cheerful as a boy with a football.

I admire his courage, his spirit, and his delightful wife, who has taken all this calmly in her stride - but I don't think I'll ever be able to watch him with a saw again. They can't turn back the clock and stop the accident from happening, but they have a fantastic attitude to the present and the future.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

The Trout

Trout is good, in my experience. There's trout cooked fresh from one of Dad's fishing expeditions, Schubert's 'Trout', and The Trout Trio, a celebrated group of flautists - Daughter used to play for them as First Reserve, so to speak, when she was in the sixth form. Padra and Arran absolutely love trout. (Urchin doesn't, but you know what he's like about fish. It's a squirrel thing.) And there's a thoroughly good Trout experience to be had at Wolvercote.

If you find yourself near Oxford, be sure to look for the Trout at Wolvercote. It looks like something out of a story, and that's just from the outside. It is a blend of old-fashioned country pub, restaurant, and riverside. To sit outside on a summer evening by the river, eating stone-baked pizza and drinking something chilled, is one of those joys that perfectly rounds off a holiday. Or starts it. Or happens in the middle of it. If you're into Inspector Morse, it turns up in the TV series.

I've just been talking to Daughter on the phone. She lives with a cat called Bu (short for Debussy) who thinks Daughter's bedroom is the nicest room in the house, which, of course, is true. She spent more time than usual in there lately. She's OK with the house dogs, but when a friend's puppy came to visit, poor Bu was most disconcerted and ran up to D's room to hide.

Poor Bu. I'm sure she'd feel better for a bit of poached trout.

Sunday, 21 August 2011


With a lot of the animals at Tiggywinkle's, you wouldn't know there was anything wrong. Then a hedgehog uncurls and waddles away and you see that one foot is damaged, or a duck tries to fly and remembers that it's only got one wing, or a deer turns round and you see it's only got three legs instead of the usual four. The point is, they may be imperfect but they are still - well - perfect, I suppose, in their own way. A different sort of perfect. Apart from a bit of a mishap in the past, there's nothing wrong with them. They just can't live in the wild, that's all, but they're OK at Tiggywinkle's. And none of is perfectly perfect. We are all different kinds of imperfect. So why do so many of us pretend to be perfect?

Just for the record, I don't drive, I'm rubbish at sports, and I haven't a clue about mathematics. But I still get places, beat Tony at Scrabble, and do basic arithmetic in my head before you can reach for the calculator. There you are. A different kind of perfect.

Friday, 19 August 2011

fables, frogs and foxes

Here at the House of Stories we are getting a bit excited. The next book is coming out in September, though it isn't strictly my book, as it's a retelling of some old stories. Those lovely people at Lion Hudson Publishing asked me to do some retellings of Aesop's Fables.

At first, I had my doubts. Aesop's stories always seemed a bit stern and preachy to me. And then I realised that this was exactly why I should retell them, because I don't do stern and preachy. The stories themselves would be strong enough to hold their ground while I danced around with them. So I wrote the collection, and Lion commissioned Amanda Hall to do the illustrations. They are breathtaking. She's especially good at animals. The frogs make me laugh, and the foxes have a real glint in their eyes. This is the most beautiful book I have ever been part of, and I'm greatly looking forward to you seeing it.

And I said I'd tell you more about the holiday. The new theatre at Stratford-on-Avon is a great achievement, and if you get the chance, go. (And if you have to cross the river to get there, go on the foot ferry, which is basically a platform with a chain underneath it and a chap turning a handle.) We saw a very original and funny production of Midsummer Night's Dream which never flagged, had some memorable performances, and still had us laughing as we left the theatre.

I won't tell you the name of the little Methodist chapel we attended the next morning. Bless! I think it was put under a spell fifty years ago and stayed there. I sat in the pew and thought - why do I have a handbag like a grown up lady? And grown up clothes? How come my feet touch the floor?

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Much the Gnome

We 'ad a garden full of kids today. Them two have got dozens of godchildren, we 'ad five of 'em 'ere today, and their mum and dad, and the dog. I ask you, a blooming god-dog! Mind, it were good to see the garden getting well used, that great stupid mutt bounding all over the place with them lads hurtling around after it.

Not the little ones, though. They were playing with the dolls' house, and when I say dolls' house, it aint no ordinary dolls' house. I can see it through the window from 'ere, nice bit of work is that, especially when you know how old it is. Father Christmas, with a great deal of help from 'er dad, made it when 'er was a little tot, and believe me, there's a lot of river gone under bridge since then. 'Er dad still give it a touch of paint now and again.

Then 'er come out with the littlies to cut some flowers for their mum. The little lad, 'e's only three year old, he stood with his hand out for the flowers, then when e'd got 'em all in a nice bunch 'e ran in to the house to give 'em to 'is mummy. Bless 'er, she thought he'd gone out there and helped himself, she nearly had a heart attack. Even me snail laughed.

Monday, 15 August 2011


Within a couple of minutes walk from our bedroom in Kent was the lily pond, all fringed and sheltered by the long grasses. When you get down to the edge you see the lily pads as big as dinner plates, and the floating water lilies. Late at night these fold their petals in and go to sleep, but during the broad daylight they open and spread their white petals to drink down the sunlight. In the middle of the pond, nobody can reach to pick them or prune them. All they have to do is to be water lilies.

They have company from the moorhens, which dash across the water from one lily pad to another as if they were running for a bus. We didn't see so many of those this year (maybe the bus had gone.) The frogs were keeping out of the way, too.

Today - hooray! the plumber comes to replace the hot tap on the bath and I will be able to have hot baths again! I know that showers are more economical and better for the environment, but I so love a hot bath. The Lassie just gave me some lovely bath stuff, too, and I'm looking forward to using it. All I need is a waterlily. And a moorhen. I'll pass on the frogs, thanks.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Book time

Sometimes on holiday you don't have to keep going places, especially if you're already staying in one of the loveliest places you know. Sometimes it's OK just to read. One of my holiday reading books was The Morville Hours by Katherine Swift, which is the most lyrical book ever. She weaves together the making of a garden, the medieval Books of Hours, the pattern of the year, the stories of her village, her family stories, and so much more, and it's seamless.

On a very hot day when we needed shade we found it in a little second hand bookshop in Kent. Then we somehow found ourselves in a charity shop in Abingdon (check out Helen and Douglas House, a children's hospice). We came out with so many books the bag was splitting by the time we got back to the car.

I also have a lot of recommendations (thank you!) from blog readers, which I want to follow up. I now need another holiday to read them all. Then anything I don't want to keep can go to another charity shop. And who knows what I might find there?

Friday, 12 August 2011

I'm back

Hi! As you may have guessed, I am now back from a holiday in sunny corners of Kent, Gloucestershire, and Oxfordshire. Tell you all about it - the water lilies, the theatre at Stratford, Tiggywinkles, the Trout at Wolvercote - as soon as I've wrestled the washing to the ground.

Yes, a new book idea did turn up, but it's very new and I can't tell you about it yet.

And today is our anniversary. What is there left to say? Thirty-three years married to a madman.

Friday, 29 July 2011

two days in London

Two days in London started with meeting god-daughter from her train, and taking cards and flowers to the Norwegian Embassy. In th evening, we went to Les Miserables at the Queen's Theatre.

Years ago, I heard an excellent radio adaptation of the book. Later, I read it. It clearly comes from the days when people had time to read and write pages and pages and even more pages of description and lengthy back stories, but there is an immensely powerful story in there. The musical had to bring this all down to a three hour show with lots of pace.

I can see why it's still going after 25 years. It concentrates on the core of the story, it's powerful, and though other musicals have catchier songs, these are so listenable to. Every performance was powerful. The energy and strength had us spellbound. The only thing I didn't like was making Thenardier, who is a ruthless, evil crook, into a kind of pantomime figure - but then, you need light relief in a musical and the book doesn't do funny.

It was the most exciting night I'd had in the theatre for years. It's a long time since I've stood up at the end of a performance, but I was on my feet for this one, and I wasn't the first. Soon, the whole house was on its feet. God-daughter said 'Wow!' all the way back to the hotel.

Monday, 25 July 2011


Yesterday the children in my Sunday class made cards with white roses on them to send to the Norwegian Embassy. The way they carefully wrote their messages was deeply touching. Adults signed cards, too, but adults are funny things and don't sit round a table making their own pictures with tissue paper and felt pen. Wherever you are, find out the address of your country's Norwegian Embassy, and send them a card.

Yesterday, very small god-daughter came for a cuddle.

Yesterday was an Open Gardens event in the village. Tony put up warnings about the steep steps and the dragon hiding in the ferns (he's a very sweet cuddly Welsh Dragon), and I set out a teddy bears picnic. We had lots of visitors, including very young ones who found the dragon and played with the bears. Much peered out suspiciously from behind a fern and scowled a lot.

Yesterday I thought 'I love this village'.

Friday, 22 July 2011


I've been to Norway twice, and have friends there - family friends, who go back a long long way. I was sixteen when I first went there and was permanently tongue-tied, partly with teenage shyness but also because the beauty of the place is so inexpressible.

After I met Tony I wanted to share Norway with him, and when we were married we decided we'd ave a holiday in Norway before we had children because we wouldn't be able to afford it afterwards. We squandered the savings accordingly. Here are some of the things we learned -

- friends of friends will invite you over at a moment's notice and provide a smorgasbord and cake fit for the Queen

- you don't know anything about fresh fish until you go there

- the air is so clean and fresh it's exhausting

- the fjords look even better from a boat

- every moment on the fjord is more spectacular than the last

- Norwegians know how to have fun

- they are fond of their monarchy as well as being completely relaxed about it

- people living on the outskirts of Oslo left their cars unlocked

- visitors with UK numberplates didn't get parking tickets

- there may be some ugly buildings somewhere, but we didn't see any

- Norwegian people are not only lovely, they are also very 'sorted' and generally seem to have the balance of life right

- it is a place of peace

- I want to go back. Nothing will ever be quite like that first magical, fairyland cruise through the fjords when I was sixteen, but I still want more.

But Norway is not fairyland, and Oslo is in mourning tonight. Oslo, Norway, thank you for your welcoming spirit and the values of justice and freedom that you uphold. Thank you for your stories, and most of all for your people. Prayers for the grieving people of Norway are offered tonight.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

little friend

My little friend has not been at all well, and there was nothing more that could be done. Before you start to cry, let me explain. The little friend in question is/was my phone. I'd had it for six years and was quite fond of it, and they don't make those cosy wee clamshell designs any more. (WHY NOT?) So new little phone is accustoming itself to its new home and having a comforting charge up.

As I said before, I am a techinept. I chose my previous phone because it was the same as Daughter's, and she could show me how it worked without my having to read the instructions. This time, I'm on my own. I chose a very simple phone, but I fear I out-simple it. The man in the shop summed me up with a glance, put the SIM card in for me, and set the clock. In the next 24 hours I have to get on to speaking terms with it.

Up to now I haven't done voicemail, but perhaps I should.

'Hello, this is Margi's phone speaking. Shall I take a message for her? Please speak politely after the ding-dong'.

''ey-up. 'Er's not in. Much speaking. What you after? 'Urry up, I ain't got all day.'

'Good morning, afternoon or evening. Margi is not available. This is Hamilton falling off the settee'.

or the push button options -

For family and friends, press 1

For editors, agent, and all other work queries, press 2

For the phone company calling to tell me I've just topped up, I know that, thank you, so there's no need to press anything.

If you want to sell me anything, I don't care what you press SO LONG AS IT'S ON THE PHONE OF SOMEBODY WHO MIGHT ACTUALLY WANT IT

If you want to ask me a difficult question, press 39572947592795461197835683927593875, multiplied by 6.32% of Pi, add a lemon, and take away the number you first thought of.

Speak soon!

Sunday, 17 July 2011

good pud

Summer Pudding? First you butter a pudding basin and line it with slices of white bread, leaving no gaps. Take some summer fruits, the more different kinds, the better. Strawberries, raspberries, blackcurrants, redcurrants, and pitted cherries are all good, but put in whatever you've got. (Go easy on the blackcurrants, or they dominate.)

Put the berries in a saucepan and cook them very gently in just a little sugar, barely a dessertspoon, until the juices start to run. Taste to see if the sweetness is right. Taste again to make sure. STOP TASTING. Pour the berries into the bread, keeping back a little juice. Seal it in with a bread lid, put a weight on it to press it down, and leave it in the fridge overnight.

When you want to serve it, run a warm knife around the basin to loosen the bread, then turn it out on to a plate, using the reserved juice to pour on any patches of bread that have stayed white. It should retain its shape. It's just as likely to disintegrate, but who cares. It still tastes just as good. Serve with single cream.

In the unlikely event of there being any left over, it tastes even better next day.

With thanks to Crackle the pastrycook.

Friday, 15 July 2011



I am puzzled. I often get puzzled, so I don't mind. I drew something that I don't know what it was. Do you know?

I drew some animals. They weren't animals that are on our island. I think it's something to do with She of the Stories. There was a squirrel coloured thing with a big tail, but it wasn't a squirrel because it walked on all fours and had a pointy face and I didn't like it. There was a crawly thing, a jumpy thing, and a bird with a very long beak. And frogs, I knew about the frogs. Do you know anything about them?

I've been asking about the trumpet, too. Mistress Cott says she'll come to look at it. I think she knows something about it.

We bought strawberries, raspberries and cherries today, and picked gooseberries from the garden. I like it in the House of Stories. She says she should make a Summer Pudding one day, and then she said she had an American family to dinner once and they'd never heard of Summer Pudding before. Have you?

Tuesday, 12 July 2011


Just nipped out for a swim past the House of Stories. It's getting noisy around the tower.

Young Catkin found a chest of old odds and ends in a turret room. It was mostly music stuff, broken and damaged instruments, stuff that needed mending, that sort of thing. And in there was a silver trumpet, one of those long stylish ones that the royal heralds used to play, in perfect condition.

You can guess. You know what she's like. Fortunately, Crispin said that if she was going to play the trumpet she'd need a good teacher, so they brought Master Trumpen the hedgehog to teach her. Unfortunately, she has to practise. A lot. Far too much.

Tay says it's an unsuitable instrument for a princess and she should learn the harp. For once, I agree with her. You couldn't possibly get that racket out of a harp. Even Crispin and Cedar are looking strained. The queen looks as if she has a permanent headache, and Crispin occasionally puts his head round Catkin's door and says, 'it's a bit loud, sweetheart'. I think 'a bit loud' means 'I can still hear you'.

She of the Stories says it'll get better, and she should know. Apparently she used to have Daughter in one room learning the clarinet and LYS in another on the trombone, and it sounded like Vet's Visit at Jollity Farm. Then Daughter exchanged the clarinet for the flute and LYS gave up the trombone altogether.

So I float down the river listening to She of the Stories learning to play Scarborough Fair on the piano. Admittedly it's one of those pieces she has difficulty with. If she'd just relax she could play the tricky bit seamlessly, but she doesn't, she squares her shoulders, steps back, and takes a run at it. Never mind, try again. The left hand doesn't know what the right hand's doing.

Fur Elise is a bit dodgy, too. She gets to that twiddly bit, loses count, and doesn't know when to stop. I'll just swim on a bit. Let me know when she gets on to Greensleeves, she's all right with that one.

I wonder what the silver trumpet was doing there? Who might know?

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Much Ado


Blooming 'eck,she'll meet herself coming back one day. Just listen to 'er. 'I've just been off to the wedding, then I'm 'aving two days in London, I'm off to that Wales place to see the girl get a funny 'at.' All that moving about ain't natural. Why go anywhere? 'Er's got a nice 'ouse, a garden, even got a blooming great river, to say nothing of a wise old gnome with a snail. Well, we got loads o' them snails, but mine's the only stone one.

What it is, y'see, is that 'er knows 'er can rely on me. She might go running about the country, but me and my snail, we stay put and watch the garden for 'er. This rockery don't look after itself, y'know, and Stephen only come once a fortnight. And then 'e wants to fill up the spaces with greeny-yeller things and 'er wants white and mauve and pink. 'Er's always sneaking in another geranium and 'e keeps moving the ferns about.

'Er was in a grump today. Last thing at night, she said, she 'ad an idea for somebody to put in a book. But as it were a long way yon side of midnight she didn't write it down, and she's forgotten it already. So that's one less for the House of Stories, then.

Pity about that. 'Er memory must be rubbish. I can remember everything that's happened 'ere in this garden for decades, but nobody seems to want a book about watching a fern grow.

'Ere? 'Oo put that fern there?

Friday, 8 July 2011

Bright Day

On the face of it, it wasn't such a bright day in Cardiff. It rained on and off all morning, but most of that time we were in the very grand St David's Hall. Even when we were scurrying through the showers to get there, with one hat and one mortar board between the three of us, nothing dampened our spirits. As far as we were concerned, the young lady above made it a very bright day indeed.

I've been to graduations before, but never in Wales, and never at a specialist music and drama college. Quite a number of graduating musicians were in the brass band, and the actors all played to the gallery and threw their mortar boards in the air.

Wales is the Land of Song, and we finished with both the English and the Welsh National Anthems. The programme was bilingual and the Welsh anthem was, of course, sung in Welsh. Combine Welsh passionate patriotism with a room full of music students and natural performers, and you find that your heart takes flight and soars over a misty mountain somewhere in Snowdonia.

Daughter and I know we both have Scottish ancestry. I believe there's a strain of Welsh in us to. Oh, I hope so. And she is becoming naturalised. She is developing a lilt, and when we raised a glass and wished 'good health' we did it in Scots Gaelic (Slante) and she did it in Welsh (can't spell it.)

Another aspect of the Welsh is their tradition of poetry and storytelling. They can lay a powerful claim to King Arthur. I need to go there more often, for the sake of the country iteself as well as the young lady above. Isn't she happy? As the Welsh say, there's lovely.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011


It's been a bit busy for the last couple of days and Much was too busy giving orders to Stephen the gardener to write the blog for me. So a little treat for you today - go to, or if you can't get that link to work put Tess Cooling Calligraphy into a search engine. Then just enjoy. Some of her lovely work is here in The House of Stories

I can't remember if I've put in a link to Tess before. But if I have, some of you might not have been friends of the House of Stories at the time, and I wouldn't want you to miss out. Those who have seen Tess's work before will know that you can't get too much of it.

Monday, 4 July 2011

look at us!

I'm not very technically ept, in fact my ineptitude is impressive. But with a lot of patient help (thank you, Tony) I think I now know how to put photos on the blog. Above should be a picture of all of us at the wedding, including the Lassie on the end, but not including my sister. That's why we're all waving, to get her to come up. Now let's see if it worked.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

On the River

This blog may be subject to interruption. It's men's finals at Wimbledon and I will be popping in and out of the sitting room to check progress and roar encouragement to Rafa Nadal.

Coming home from church this morning I saw people standing on the bridge, looking over with great interest. "Oh look!" said a woman, "baby otters!"

I hadn't the heart to tell her COME ON, RAFA!! that they weren't baby otters, they were full grown mink. They're not supposed to be here, and they are vicious predators working their way through all the native wildlife. They can't help it. They are here due to human interference, as so often happens.

About a week ago I looked out from my favourite window in the House of Stories - the landing window beside my sky-high study - and saw something that made me dash down two flights of stairs and run to the garden. On the far side of the river a mallard duck, quacking loudly, was swimming upstream. Running parallel to her, on the bank, was a mink. Sometimes it slipped into the water and swam, then ran along the bank again. Soon, they were out of sight.

When the duck and the mink had disappeared upstream, there was a flicker of movement at the water's edge. Two, then three very tiny ducklings emerged and bobbed about, staying close to the edge. Presently mother duck swam back to them - I don't know what had happened to the mink, but there was no more sign of it. She gathered all her ducklings together, and shepherded them away.

Well done, you brave mum. If she could have dusted her hands down and put them on her hips, she would have done.

GO RAFA! I bet he owes a lot to his mum, too.

Friday, 1 July 2011


She always loved the magic of music. I knew that almost as soon as I became her mama, seeing the way she marked time to music with her little foot. I always managed to settle her down with Mozart. She was mad keen to sing, and her main ambition was to play the flute.

Masses of hard work over the years. Sometimes I worried that maybe she was making too much of it, but she's a determined little madam and I'd met my match. With a shake of that red-gold mane, she'd pick up her flute and march, or waltz, or gavotte on her way.

She phoned yesterday. She's made it. The way has been hard, sometimes the struggles have left her maimed and mangled, but she's mastered it. Really mastered it, as in Master of Arts in Flute Performance. MA as in Marvellous, Magnificent, Flute Queen, Daughter of a very admiring Margi.

Well done, dove.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Big City

On Monday, off I went to London for a publisher's party. They know how to party at Puffin, and if you google 'The Banqueting House, London', you'll see where we were. A very grand venue with a ceiling painted by Rubens. When Charles I was led out to the scaffold, did he glance up and think, 'Rubens did a good job with that'?

I met Julia Donaldson, the new Children's Laureate, who writes everything in the most natural and entertaining rhymes. She is charming and friendly, and so easy to get on with. I was able to thank Jeremy Strong for making children laugh, Andy Stanton for getting my godson reading, and the lovely Julia Golding for endorsing HIGH CRAG LINN. I grovelled before Shirley Hughes, who took a kind interest in how LYS was doing - I told her how much he loved DOGGER. If you haven't read it, you've missed it.

The next morning was coffee and macaroons at a publisher's office (it's tough in the big city) and a free afternoon to enjoy the museums. When the rain was, as they say in Northumberland 'stotting' down at Wimbledon I was in the underground and didn't know a thing about it. The rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous, but it missed me, so what am I?

Saturday, 25 June 2011


Stand well back, I am spitting tacks.

It's all to do with an item on the radio news this morning. Apparently some bright little sparks with nothing better to do have worked out a way of knowing whether you're successful or not. Apparently if you're a success, you -

are married,
have children,
earn at least £50,000 a year, (which is about twice the average wage in the UK), and
own a house worth at least £250,000

I was speechless. Who works these things out? More to the point, how?

So, you can be a ruthless money-grabber on to your third marriage with an alcohol problem and a criminal record, but that's OK, you're a success. You can alienate everyone around you, cheat, lie, and manipulate, but if you do it with a house and money in the bank, well done you.

On the other hand, for all the single people who have dedicated their lives to caring - sorry. If you have no children of your own but are a warm-hearted aunt/uncle to other people's, you're not there. All those of you who've worked hard and served your communities all your lives, if you live in sheltered accommodation you're not on the success list. If you've chosen to live with little money but great job satisfaction, you don't make the grade. Sister Frances Dominica, founder of the first children's hospice in the UK, sorry to tell you this, but... and that goes for you too, John Bell of the Iona Community, Anne Widdecombe, and all the other people the blog readers can add to this list. In fact, byt his standard some of my favourite people are failures.

Either this survey has failed, or I have. I think if you live with a generous heart and make the world better for being in it, that's success. But maybe I never understood the word.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

what's that?

I'm still finding strange things in my handbag. Nothing crawling, I hasten to add, or trying to get out. Nothing with legs. But there's still confetti everywhere, I just found a pair of scissors, and the packet of safety pins has been opened. There, you see, I said we'd need those. On the other hand, the various pills for sore throats, aches, pains, and funny tummies weren't needed - but they would have been if I hadn't popped them in with the phone, camera, keys, hand gel, tissues (those were needed), pen, little notebook, diary, hairbrush, and comb. And the hangy up things.

I think they're some sort of hangy up things. They were still in an unopened cellophane packet, and looked like plastic hooks. I wonder if they were something to do with the sparkly lights we hung up. If so, we managed without them.

What's the strangest thing you ever found in your handbag or pocket?

Tuesday, 21 June 2011


The Sunshines chose 'Gabriel's Oboe' from 'The Mission' for the entrance, and and left to 'Accidentally in Love', from 'Shrek'. No, they're not ogres, they just love that song, and everyone began to clap - though I couldn't, because I was sailing out of church on the arm of Lady S's brother. We had some great hymns and worship songs, including my favourite 'Be Thou My Vision', which is in the opening pages of Urchin and the Heartstone. During the signing of the register, Daughter played the flute, beautifully, as ever.

At the reception various people sang, played, and recited, but the one that thrilled us all was when Lady S's brother, his wife, and their two small children (flower girl and ringbearer) stood up and sang. It was all completely simple and unaffected and the children hadn't sung in public before, but they looked confident and sang tunefully and clearly. The memory of that happy little family will stay with me for a long time.