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.