Thursday, 29 March 2012


What a beautiful day yesterday. I spent it in Hexham with my parents and an old friend, a rare and glorious day out. We sat in the sunshine, drank elderflower fizz, and enjoyed just being there, in the Abbey Grounds, among the swathes of spring flowers and trees with shy white buds emerging. Processions of children were arriving at the Abbey for their end of term services.

Now that Mum and Dad are old and getting frail, days like these are so precious. It's one to keep for ever.

Lovely Younger Son comes home today. If I'm a Very Good Mum he might take me to sit in a sunny park when I'm an old lady. (And if I'm a Very Bad Mum he might just leave me there.)

And we ain't gettin' no swathes of flowers 'ere if you don't get off that comper-hooter and pull them weeds out - MUCH

Monday, 26 March 2012


We're getting baking 'ot sun these days. Them little birds is all twit-twittering on, in and out the 'edges, looking for nest stuff. Bless 'em. No doubt we'll 'ave a cold spell and they'll all get per-noo-monia.

'Owever, as I may 'ave mentioned, we got sunshine now. 'Er was out yesterday, pulling them weeds out, admiring all them plants she and our Stephen put in last year. 'Er reckons something's eating 'er forget-me-nots. Forget-me-nots? What forget-me-nots? It aint a case of forgottings or nots, I never knew we 'ad em in first place.

'Keep any eye on them for me, Much,', she says. I were about to tell 'er that I couldn't keep an eye on nowt if I couldn't see it, then without a word of warning she's picked me up and turned me round. Blimey, there it was, smashing little forget-me-not. Shouldn't be out for about another three weeks, but there you go. Nice change of view. They've made a nice job of that border.

Tell you what, though, every time we get picked up, there's a load of little wriggly woodlice and whatnots running around underneath us, and they get very lively. It don't bother me, but me snail reckons they tickle 'im. Not that he minds. He likes it. He don't get much enterainment, that snail, and getting tickled by a woodlouse is the most exciting thing that's happened to 'im since the Teddy Bear's Picnic.

Saturday, 24 March 2012


One of those moments today that you pretend hasn't happened. A man arrived giving out fliers for a local garage. Nothing the matter with that, except that I was in the front garden at the time, talking to the gooseberries. I was just telling them how well they were doing and what a lovely lot of beautiful green leaves they had when Bob from the garage turns up offering a good deal on the MOT.

Readers over the Pond may not be familiar with MOT. It's an annual car test, which has to be done by an accredited garage. If the car fails on anything - say, worn brake pads, cracked windscreen, bald tyres, strange noises, bits dropping off, one wheel missing - the work has to be done before the vehicle can pass its MOT and be roadworthy.

So, if I were a car, would I pass?

Poor ignition. Slow to start in the mornings.

Brakes poor and noisy, sometimes fails to stop at all unless meeting brick wall.

Fuel consumption good. Runs on tea/coffee, toast, marmalade. Three chapters to a full tank.

Body work deteriorating.

Battery needs recharge.

Manual missing.

Very cracked.

Action to be taken - Immerse in hot bath. Apply good book. Hug. Place beside gooseberry bushes as garden ornament.

- 'Garden ornament! I 'ate garden ornaments! It'll be fairies next' - MUCH

Thursday, 22 March 2012


It's not exactly 'harrumph, but it's a noise something like that, the noise horses make when they blow down through their noses. It's endearing. I was harrumphed at yesterday when, with the help of my friend Julia, I visited a stables. The purpose was a research trip, and will be followed by a few more. Yesterday I was just asking a lot of questions, making notes, and being harrumphed at by a big black beastie with a carrot fixation, but one of these days I'll find out if I can still sit on a horse without falling off.

While we're harrumphing, put crafty ponies into a search engine. Sew your own pony. Brilliant!

Julia is a woman who gets results. The vicar had asked her if she knew anyone with a donkey, because wouldn't it be great to have a real donkey for the Palm Sunday procession? By the time we left the stables, Julia had a good lead. This was something like 'there's a woman called ........... ........... who lives down there somewhere and has a donkey, you'll see it in the field'. Picture us bucketing over the moors in Julia's car, looking for a donkey in a field while I tried and failed to contact the vicar on my mobile phone.

Reader, we had a sighting. We knocked on two wrong doors before we got the right one, and met a delightful woman who lives surrounded by animals and was more than happy to bring her donkey to church. The donkey is a seasoned processioner, and was already visiting two other local parishes that day, but there was nice time to fit us in between them. Donkey can have a nice rest and a feed when the children have stopped feeding him apples, carrots, and probably a few Polo mints. He's such a pro he probably knows all the hymns by heart. He dosen't harrumph, but he may hee-haw.

By the way, I haven't mentioned anything about The Archers for a while, but it's not nearly so exciting as donkey hunting. There are protestors demonstrating against Brian's proposed indoor dairy unit. Jim, by a huge effort, has given up making scathing remarks for Lent and is trying to offer a compliment every day. Shula bought the late Nigel's horse. (Harrumph.) And Tony Archer had a heart attack. It hasn't been much fun since Nigel fell off the roof.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

The Wise Woman

When you give your age in halves, you're either very young or very old - I mean, four and a half or ninety-four and a half. I can't remember if she is ninety-five and a half or ninety-six and a half, but I was staying near her last week and rang up, asking if I could call. She first became a helper and mentor to me over twenty years ago, and has been a supportive friend ever since.

She was delighted at the prospect of getting together. 'I can't do hospitality the way I used to, it'll just be a cup of tea'. I said that I'd make the tea.

I knew she moves slowly now, and doesn't get out very much. I decided I wouldn't stay long, and would watch for any signs of tiring on her part. No longer than an hour, I thought.

She may move more slowly, but her eyes are as bright as ever, and her reception as warm. Her voice and her spirit are strong. The trolley was already set with oatcakes and cheese, cake made by a friend, her own home-made shortbread, and the pretty china, and she wouldn't let me make the tea - she did it herself as usual, China tea in the silver teapot. She asked after my family, and in no time we were talking about what we'd been reading - mostly what she'd been reading, because she still has little heaps around the house of books which are 'on the go'. She's reading Teilhard de Chardin, various other books of theology, and all sorts of things about educational theory and practice. She's delighted at the way children now are taught to use sign language before they can speak. We discussed developments within the church, and I struggled to keep up as her brilliant mind leapt from one topic to another. Mostly, I think, we discussed the education of heart and mind, and how perilously it has been neglected.

I watched for signs of flagging, and there weren't any. She looked with great attention at the pictures of the wedding last June, reading the faces as she always does. I'd forgotten just how perceptive she is. She looked at the artwork for my next book, absorbing all the detail, not just of how it looked, but why it was done that way. We were discussing old friends when a neighbour arrived to fix her computer. I hadn't realised that she's on e-mail, so we exchanged addresses.

I could have happily stayed all afternoon, but, as I told you, I didn't want to tire her, and I needed to call at an office before it closed at five. When I made moves to go, she offered to drive me to the town centre. This I firmly refused. It was, after all, a lovely afternoon for walking down the hill.

I was there for two and a half hours, and she shone with life and joy for every witty, wise, funny, learned moment of it. Leaving her, I felt I was taking her with me. I think that's what happens when you've been in the presence of a Great Soul.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

From here

From here, I can smell the hyacinths. It's Mothering Sunday and the house is full of flowers. The sun shone on the Sunshines, who were here spending the day with us, and in the afternoon I pottered about the garden, which has suddenly woken up. A wren hopped about in a tree, which made the tree wriggle a bit and think about some buds. There were warm happy phone calls from Daughter and LYS, which helped to make the day.

And it's not only Mothering Sunday, it's Refreshment Sunday. The middle of Lent and an official day off, which means that whatever you've given up for Lent is allowed for one day. I imagine wild-eyed lady vicars cramming chocolate into their mouths and slurping down Chardonnay, but I am a simple soul.


Today I had four cups of coffee. I can face another three weeks on tea.

Of course, we always need to be reminded that Lent isn't about giving things up. It's more about sorting things out. Like what's important and what isn't. Love matters. Justice matters. A sense of proportion matters. Communication matters.

Communication. Storytelling. I'm looking forward to getting to work tomorrow.

Thursday, 15 March 2012


The chimes of midnight have passed, and I should fall into bed. But I've been away for a few days in God's lovely Northumberland and and so the blog has been silent since Monday. What have I got to tell ou?

I'll tell you that I've just finished reading CHIME, by Franny Billingsley, so huge thanks to - was it you, Debbie? Rina? Caitlin? who recommended it. This is a great story. Excellent characters, atmospheric, beautifully paced and developed, scary, funny, dramatic. It will keep you guessing. And her style is unlike anything else. The phrases zing and thrive. LOVED IT.

Monday, 12 March 2012


I mentioned Eyam a few days ago, and it's time I told the story for those of you who don't know.

In 1666, Plague was sweeping through London but the rest of the country steadily ticked over. In the Derbyshire village of Eyam, people continued to work and plan and go to church, and take their produce to Bakewell market every week. The tailor still had plenty of work to do, and ordered some cloth from London.

Soon afterwards, the first symptoms of plague appeared. It seems that the cloth was infested with plague carrying fleas. In the first days of panic people fled the village, or sent their children away, hoping that the disease would be over soon. But the plague was virulent. The vicar, William Mompesson, and other community leaders held a meeting for all the villagers in the church. William Mompesson and his wife Catherine had already sent their two children to safety, but perhaps now they had mixed feelings about that. They had realised the danger of undiagnosed plague carriers leaving the village and spreading the virus through the Midlands and the North.

The people of Eyam made a pact. They would seal off the village. Nobody would come in, nobody would leave. They sent word to surrounding village, and arranged that any buying and selling would be done through messages, and money would be left at fixed points in water. Vinegar was left at collection points for disinfection.

It's many years since I wrote 'Black Death' for OUP, and I'm not as sharp on the facts as I was then. The church was closed, because they understood that assembling a lot of people indoors would spread the virus, so church services were held in the open. Whole families died. William Mompesson and his wife Catherine visited, nursed, and cared for the sick, and came to the conclusion that they must be immune to the plague. Eyam stood fast. Nobody left, nobody came in.

After about year, the plague had run its course. In August, William and Catherine Mompesson agreed that the worst was over and the village could soon be declared clean. The last plague victim was buried at the end of August.

If you go to Eyam now you can still see the Plague Cottages, the church where William Mompesson recorded the numbers of the dead, and the places where money was left to be collected. And in the churchyard you can see the tomb of the last person in Eyam to die of the plague. It is the grave of Catherine Mompesson. If you're there at the end of August, you will see that they still bring her flowers.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Box of Delights

I love ballet. I love it moe than I did when I was a kid, because in those days I'd be watching a soloist and thinking, 'I want to be her'. Now that I know I never will be her, and I'm happy not to be, I can just delight in the dance.

Something that Northern Ballet do brilliantly is taking well known stories from other sources and making a ballet from them. The last thing I saw them do was Wuthering Heights, and they regularly do Christmas Carol. Yesterday, Lady Sunshine and I went to see Madam Butterfly.

I had a surprise for Lady Sunshine.

When I looked at the theatre seating plan there was the usual range of prices - at the high end there's Dress Circle and Front Stalls for which you pay the equivalent of a tank of petrol and month's mortgage, down to a few quid if you don't mind curling up on a shelf. But it's surprising how reasonably priced a box is. This is because the boxes may have a 'restricted view' - but compared with what else was available and affordable, and bearing mind that I have always, always, always wanted to sit in a box at the theatre, ever since I was a little girl and we called them the ashtrays, I bought two seats in a box.

It turned out that Lady Sunshine had never been in a box, either, and she was very excited about it. Well, I can recommend it. There was just a tiny space to one side of the stage that we couldn't easily see, and the beauty of a box is that you can move your chair if you want a better view. You're not behind anyone tall, or beside anyone who whispers through the performance or smells of garlic. The ballet was just beautiful. Truly a box of delights. We'll do that again.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

And then she said...

Inspire - in a church tower. Only she didn't say it, she texted it. Daughter has suddenly risen to the New Definitions game, and texted that one to me. I had to respond, so I came up with

Retire - change the wheel, and she said

Condescending - conservatives going down, followed by

Internet - when the fishes are caught in Yorkshire. (If you don't get that one, you haven't read previous blogs about t'Yorkshire dialect.) I had to think for a bit, then I found my best one yet -

Ecology - the study of squeaks. She said

Building - William the percussionist, and at that point we both went back to work.

There was another wee text that I sent today. I texted SWIM to 70005. This might not mean anything in the US, but UK readers might know that it's about David Walliams.

David Walliams didn't become famous as a swimmer, he's a comedian. He must also be a man with a big heart, because he has visited street children in Kenya and cares passionately about what becomes of them. That's why he did a sponsored Channel Swim. Then, last year, he swam 140 miles down the Thames to London in eight days, fighting exhaustion, cold, cramp, pain, appalling weather, and illness - there are some unspeakable bacteria lurking in Thames water. There was a lot of publicity about it at the time, and he raised one million pounds. Now that Sport Relief is beginning in earnest, there's just been a documentary on TV about it which makes you want to carry the man shoulder high to a knighthood. It also makes you want to text SWIM to 70005. That's another fiver going to where it's needed.

Monday, 5 March 2012


I'm still getting over my voice crash virus, which has been raging round the valley for at least three weeks. In the far south of England, eldest god-daughter has tonsilitis, and in the far north, Dad has a bad cold. So has my editor in London. I'm afraid that I might have given it to the children at Thornton Cleveleys last week, so that's the Lancashire coast done for. I don't know about the rest of the British Isles, but I suspect England is becoming a Plague Village.

That reminds me of the story of Eyam Village? Do you know it? I might tell that on the blog later this week.

This has been one of those days when constant interruptions have come between me and work. However, one of those interruptions was Stephen the gardener turning up, so that got me out of the study and into the garden on a cold bright morning. Spring is definitely on the way, and before we know it the swallow will be coughing over the river.

Following the definitions game, I've been thinking -

Delightful - removing all the light bulbs

Co-operative - let's all sing together

Deliberate - to return someone to prison. (THINK!)

Any more?

Saturday, 3 March 2012

The Impeccable Simon Brett

What is the collective noun for authors? A scribble of authors? A narrative of authors? A folio of authors?

Whatever it is, there was one today in Leeds for the meeting of the northern section of the Society of Authors. The morning session was led by Simon Brett, and in the afternoon we had an insight into the world of audio books.

Simon Brett, who is an author, radio producer, and TV producer, talked in the most informal, chatty, entertaining way and at the same time told us a lot about his approach to writing. One of the things he said in passing, which was picked up all round the room, was 'always read your work out loud'. I knew that I always do, especially at the end of a second draft, but I was surprised at how many other people do, too.

Amongst all the anecdotes was one about an inspiring English teacher who used to encourage children to play with words. He'd give them a word and ask them to make up a definition, and one notable example was

Impeccable - immune to all birds

We could go a long way with this.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Dewi Sant

Dewi Sant is St David, Patron Saint of Wales, so a Happy Saint David's Day to you all. I don't know how to say it in Welsh, but if I keep pinging back and forward to Snowdonia (north) and Cardiff (south), I should pick it up eventually.

It's been such a springlike beginning to March. If you live in the north of England (this isn't really north, but it counts) you make the most of every breath of good weather because it might be wind, rain and sub-zero temperatures for the next two weeks. Just walking home today was a treat. An old man (or 'gadgie' as they say where I come from) was digging over his flowerbeds. The hens which live at the bottom of the row of gardens had come to inspect, and were strutting about his feet. With their full plump shape and their fine layers of feathers, they looked like well-heeled middle aged ladies who'd just been to the hairdressers.

A marmalade cat sat on a doorstep, fastidiously washing her paws. She could have popped out of a picture book. Crocuses are flourishing, white, yellow and bright orange, deep purple and mauve, all along the street. There are buds on the gooseberry bushes. Daffodils are in bud. Daffodil is the flower of Wales, so it's to be hoped that they're flowering in Cardiff.

And, wonder of wonders, a pheasant strutted across our garden this morning. I've never seen one around here before and have no idea what he was doing her, but he's welcome. To say that Much and I were rendered speechless isn't saying a lot, as he's made of stone and I've got laryngitis, but we were astonished. And thrilled.