Saturday, 29 September 2012

Brother Fir

It was time for a visit to The House of Stories. It occurred to me that She of the Stories has been overwhelmed by all her comings and goings lately, and she's been up to her ears in stories. Hm. I took a bottle of spiced elderflower and pottered along there to see what she was up to today. Her Story Chamber is right at the top of the house, you know, which rather reminds me of my turret room on the island.

I was quite taken aback, I must admit, as she appeared to be throttling a dragon. The dragon was bellowing no end, but she seemed to be getting the better of it. When she saw me, she stamped on its head and it stopped the racket at once. Apparently it wasn't a dragon at all, it was something called a Heaver - is that right? for cleaning floors. She seemed to have a most impressive mastery of it. She sprinkles lavender on the carpets before heavering to make the room smell nice.

She tells me that the House of Stories has been most neglected of late, so she has been cleaning, sweeping, washing, heavering and knocking down cobwebs all day. What with all those tables and chairs, carpets on floors, wardrobes full of clothes, her house is so confusing! And complicated! And books, of course. On the island we keep our stories and knowledge in our heads or on the Threadings.

Never mind. That's the way she lives. Hm. But I am deeply contented with my turret room, my windowboxes, my little bed and few bits of furniture, and, of course, a fire. With apple logs in the grate, a cordial, and, now and again, someone to share it with.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Oh, dear

I don't often talk about current affairs, but apparently our Prime Minister, David Cameron, was on American TV yesterday and he couldn't give the meaning of 'Magna Carta'. Oh, really, PM!

He did go to Eton, didn't he? (Eton is one of our poshest and most expensive schools - the princes went there, as do most of the aristocratic and loaded.) They do Latin at schools like that. And, presumably, history.

(Magna Carter? I was at school with her.)

Not really. I was at the local state grammar school with my friend Helen, and we knew about Magna Carta, and that it means 'Great Charter'. Come to think of it, we knew that before we even went to High School at the age of eleven. Oh, David, David!

(Magnum Carte D'Or? Don't they make ice creams?)

And David, if you just hop on the tube at Westminster and get off at Euston or St Pancras you can walk into the British Library for nothing and take a good look at Magna Carta. It's more to do with restricting the powers of the king than anything else - not the Charter for Human Rights by a long way - but it was a start.

Anybody else - what are the historical occasions that everyone should know about and nobody should forget?

As one of our long ago comedians, Tony Hancock, said - 'Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?'

Monday, 24 September 2012

Raining Cats and Dogs

It's been pouring all day in Yorkshire. Have you read 'The Tailor of Gloucester?' It's one of my favourite Beatrix Potter books. There is an exquisite illustration of Simpkin the cat coming in from the rain wearing his big coat and carrying the shopping in his arms, and Simpkin hates rain. I remembered it when I came in today, cold and wet.

That expression 'raining cats and dogs' takes me back to a holiday in the days when we and some friends used to have holidays together. That particular year we had three five year olds whose favourite joke of the fortnight was

'What do you do when it's raining cats and dogs?'

'Take care not to step in a poodle!'

To five year olds it's still funny when you say it for the hundred and tenth time. For the rest of us - well, I still laughed, too, because to me there's just something very funny about the word 'poodle'. 'Oh my dear, what a little noodle of a poodle! Excuse me, madam, but your poodle did a doodle in the caboodle.'

In one of my Poppy Harris books about Hammy the Wonder Hamster, I had Hammy hearing that it was 'raining cats and dogs' and taking it, as he takes everything, literally. So he was unsurprised, but very worried, when he met a cat in the garden shed...

On the subject of cats and dogs, the Sunshines are seriously considering getting a dog. Or possibly two. LOS was brought up by a Cavalier King Charles paniel, so they may adopt one. I'll keep you informed.

And finally -

Dogma - the puppy's mother

Dogmatic - this dog is pre-programmed

Friday, 21 September 2012

About ice cream

I think it's in the family, because my dad loves ice cream, too. I've just found a new ice cream parlour near where they live, which promises a lot of happy tastings next summer. Autumn seems to be in to stay.

There's a great ice cream place at Morwick Mill near Alnmouth. I haven't been there yet, but my sons, Lady Sunshine, and The Lassie have, and they tell me it's the best ice cream ever, in the world, end of. When I first went to Stratford on Avon as a student I was wowed by the theatre, the surrounding countryside, and everything about it, but the American Ice Cream Parlour was an experience, too. How many flavours can you get through in a week? The secret is to go in with a couple of friends, order three different flavours, and try each other's.

(It's not there now. More time for the theatre, then.)

I think I should introduce ice-cream to Mistmantle. A party of moles could build an ice house, which is what big country houses had before fridges, and Crackle could make ice cream. The squirrels and hedgehogs would like it, I'm not sure if the others would.


Oh, you're back, Fingal! When you've stopped rolling over laughing about haddock ice cream, you can tell me what you've been doing.

So why am I thinking about ice cream today? Because we had some play traffic cones at after school club, and a small person (barely old enough to be there, but she was with her family) turned them upside down. As I'm sure you've worked out, an upside down traffic cone becomes either a hat (which falls off your head) or an ice cream cone (which doesn't). She generously dished up all sorts of pretend ice cream with strawberry sauce and sweets on top. I think I had four helpings.

Today, friends, I have eaten my body weight in calorie free ice cream. I may now go and help myself to the real thing.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

The card

Needle mentioned to me about the hand-made card with a cross-stitch red squirrel on the front. It helped me to find Mistmantle.

If you look in the front, or 'prelim' pages of 'Urchin of the Riding Stars', you will see a dedication to Caroline Sheldon and 'with thanks to Jo Boardman for the squirrel.'

Jo used to come to a creative writing class which met at my house many years ago and one evening, when we were clearing up and people were getting ready to go home, the conversation turned to red squirrels. A few weeks later, my thoughts turned to putting red squirrels into a book.

I had been trying for a long time to write a book about a secret island, but I couldn't make it work. It was Caroline Sheldon, my agent, who urged me to write about animals because she liked my first book, 'A Friend for Rachel', which had mice in it. I didn't think I could do it, but perhaps, if I started with my favourite animal...

So on the train home from London King Cross to York that evening, I scribbled and thought and made notes about this possible red squirrel story. But I still wasn't sure. The compass point hadn't yet settled on True North. Perhaps it wasn't something I could do but only a wild goose chase, or even wild squirrel chase, that I shouldn't pursue.

One evening I was at a meeting at Jo's house about some church children's activities. Jo put her head round the door, saw me, and said,

"Oh! I didn't know you were here! Don't run away, I've got something for you!"

Presently she returned with a small envelope in her hand. Inside was the card that still lives in my writing desk. It's a hand stitched picture of a red squirrel in a tree, and inside, she had written,

"Don't you love red squirrels?"

And, in the surprise and delight at the gift, I knew what I had to do.

Sunday, 16 September 2012


Blimey O'Riley.

'Er's just got back from a conference, and 'er's that tired 'er'll never make it up the stairs to bed. And that 'edge'og, that Needle, she's still in 'Er Ladyship's sewing box, head down, rear end up, and she ain't got to the Saxon layer yet. She says she'll tell you the rest of 'er story when er's done. Well, I think that's what 'er said, it's hard to understand an 'edge'og with 'er mouth full of knicker elastic and 'er 'ead in a bag of stuffing.

So, 'oo do you think will do the blog? Oh, that'll be me, then.

C-WIG. That's what 'er's been to. What sort of a wig is that, then, I said, something fishies wear to keep their little 'eads warm? No, she says, it's part of the Society of Authors,it's the Children's Writers and Illustrators Group. So off they went on Friday, 'er and 'er author/illustrator friend Lynn Breeze, off to this blooming conferring. 'Er was navigating, it's a bloomin' miracle they got there yet, seeing as 'er can't find her way to the back door.

They didn't half keep 'em busy at that conference. They was all running from one session to the next with barely in time for a coffee, and of course 'er ends up with a cracking migraine, so instead of listening to the debate with all the posh folks on the panel 'er was taking her meds and curling up on a sofa. Now, don't you worry, she recovered in time for 'er lunch.

'Er's come 'ome laden down with books and every now and then er'll say 'Allan Ahlberg!' 'Celia Rees!' 'Gillian Cross!' and go all of a whatnot. So I suppose she's come 'ome with a few bright ideas, a bit of a clue as to what's going on (and that's more than 'er ever 'ad before), and some new friends.

Oh, and two freebie pens with 'Society of Authors' on 'em.

One of 'em doesn't work.

Thursday, 13 September 2012


From Needle of the Threadings

Companion to King Crispin

This is not the sort of thing I normally do. I leave it to other animals to do the wordy stuff. However, Fingal keeps saying I should have a go at this 'blopping'? 'blugging'?' talking to you sort of stuff, and you know what he's like. He won't shut up until I've done it. What do I have to tell you about?

At the Tower we are working on a Threading to do with Corr and - oh dear - I'm not allowed to tell you about that unless you don't know his story yet. But the Threading has a lot of sea in it and that makes your eyes go funny after a while, so I took a couple of days off and came to see She of the Stories.

Now, She of the Stories loves doing all sorts of sewing, but to be honest, she - let me put it like this. She's best with words, not craft. When I saw that work basket - more the size of a picnic hamper - I couldn't help staring. I dared to mention that it could do with a sorting out.

'Oh, please do!' she said. 'And help yourself if you want any wool. I've got lots of odds and ends that need a home. And ribbons, too.'

It was very exciting. There is fleece in there waiting to be spun, and all colours and textures of wool, some so thick you should knit it on tree trunks. Gold thread - to be honest, she's a bit of a magpie for anything shiny. The beads are all mixed up in their little boxes and there's some lovely ribbony stuff made from recycled sari fabric. I might use that for the new Threading, because it looks like the sea. It even sparkles! There are half-finished cushion covers and a pattern for a felt animal. (I think it's a rabbit, but I'm not at all sure. They're very rare where I come from.)

And on her desk is a rather pretty little card with a cross-stitch Threading of a squirrel. I asked her about it, and she told me that the words inside were 'don't you love red squirrels?'.

"Did somebody send you that when you wrote our stories?" I asked her.

"Oh no," she said. "This card helped me to find you all."

WIll she tell us more?

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Save the day

To all of you for whom this day is one of sorrow and terrible memories, my prayers and my thoughts are for you today.

It's hard to have good and bad memories on the same day. Tony and I have a nephew whose birthday is 11 September - he was born long before 2001, but now everybody thinks of that day as a day of mourning.

There is a day of mourning in Scottish history, too. On 13 March 1996, in the small Scottish town of Dunblane, a man who was clearly unbalanced burst into the hall of the little primary school armed with four guns. By the time he turned the gun on himself, sixteen children - all around six years old - and their teacher lay dead. For days, all of us in the UK went through the motions of normal life while shocked and horrified that such a thing could happen. And no compassion, no anger, could bring those little children and the teacher who died trying to save them back to their families.

For years, the mention of Dunblane was associated with 'massacre'.

In the school that day - one of the children who was in school, but not in the hall - was wee Jamie Murray, who grew up to be a tennis player. So did his little brother, Andy. And today I woke up to the news that Andy Murray has won the US Open Tennis Championship, the first British man to win a Grand Slam in over seventy years.

What a joy, what a celebration! Our brave lad, for some of us at leastyou have given this date a new resonance. It wil always have its sorrow, but it's your day today and a proud day for Scotland.

And now, when we hear of Dunblane, we don't just think of the massacre. We think, 'Andy Murray'.

Bring it home to Dunblane, bonny lad.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

ice lollies and storage bags

It has been gloriously sunny today, so I took my Sunday children to sit on the grass, where we ate ice lollies and had a story. It was the one about Jesus being in a foreign country when a local woman asks him to heal her daughter. His first response is to say he's only been sent to his own people, but she gives him a clever answer and her daughter is healed. He was exhausted and on holiday at this point, so no wonder he was a bit phased at first by the request.

We talked about what it's like to be excluded, and whether there are any people we exclude. Somehing we agreed on was that people with speech defects often don't have many friends, because it's hard to understand what they're saying. We decided that there's always room for a few more in God's kingdom. So having talked our way round all this and challenged each other to talk this week to somebody we wouldn't normally talk to, we played a game of 'how many cpeople can we get into a storage bag?' (Don't panic, we only put our feet in.)

At the end of the service, the children are always invited to the front to talk about what we've been doing. We explained, we demonstrated the storage bag game (yes, we did take our shoes off), and challenged them to talk to somebody new this week.

There's always a bit more room. There's a delightful poem about that called 'Mrs Malone', and I think it's by Elinor Farjeon, but I'd have to look it up.

Meeting new people can be challenging. But life gets boring if we don't.

PS Slappable characters -

I wouldn't slap Uncle Pumblechook in Great Expectations, I'd push him down the stairs.

Amelia in Vanity Fair. What a wet haddock.

Friday, 7 September 2012


Yesterday we hugged Daughter goodbye, as she returned to Cardiff. Pleased to say she got there in one piece, in spite of somebody driving into the side of her sweet little car while she and Chap were visiting relatives.

Tony and I were off in the other direction, and arrived at my parents' home in time to take them to lunch at a delightful little pub near Seaton Delaval called the Beehive. We had heard good things about it and weren't disappointed, and it's such a very English little stone built building, too. On the subject of bees, it's been a dismally poor year for them, and the health of all species depends on bees. If you're thinking about planting a bee-friendly garden, do it. We put in a buddleia last year, and they love it.

Today we buzzed off to the beautiful village of Corbridge on the North Tyne, where we lived for six years. Something about the Tyne rippling over stones under that bridge makes me ache and sigh for joy at the same time. One of the joys of going back to Corbridge is that we're always sure to bump into somebody we know, and today it was the redoubtable, funny, lovely, Audrey, who is also a writer, a village stalwart, and a Scotswoman. What more could you want?

I came home to a lovely e-mail from Helen, and a couple of candidates for 'literary characters who need a slap'. Anne from 'The Famous Five' - yes, I too ploughed my way through that series hoping that sooner or later the only girl who acknowledged being a girl would do something to justify her existence. The other was Dora in David Copperfield - but personally I wanted to slap David. He fell soppily in love with the airhead when there was a proper heroine just waiting to be asked.

Speaking of characters I want to slap, what is happening in Ambridge these days? I miss a few episodes of the Archers and come back to find the village needs sorting, good and proper. Adam Macy needs a slap, Matt needs a slap, and Pawel needs the next flight back to Poland before he can cause any more trouble.


Wednesday, 5 September 2012


I am not a violent person. But all the same...

I mentioned a post or two ago that Meg Harper and I were chatting at Greenbelt, festival of faith, arts, justice, ecology, and - this year - enough mud for a Worldwide Fellowship of Hippopotami. And their grannies. As we drank tea, ate yummy cake, and felt our wellies squelch further into the depths we talked about books. I don't know why Tess of the D'Urbervilles came up, but it did, and I remarked that I could merrily slap Angel Clare.

(If you haven't read it, I won't tell you why I want to slap him, because I don't want to give any spoilers. But I defy you to read it without wanting to turn the idiot upside down and shake him. Yes - Angel is a man. You don't often find anything angelic in Thomas Hardy.)

Meg agreed instantly and vehemently, and the conversation turned to 'Slappable Characters in Books'. Was it Meg, or somebody else since, who nominated Mr Rochester? Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park, anybody? In children's books, Eustace Scrubb (Narnia) is eminently slappable until he has a life-changing experience. More recently, the father - I forget the spineless toad's name - in 'The Memory Keeper's Daughter'.

Any ideas?

Monday, 3 September 2012

small people

I met two delightful small people last week. Tony and colleagues had a staff social do on Saturday, the kind which involves families and food. Daughter and Daughter's Chap came with us. The hosts at this do have a big garden with a croquet lawn, and the croquet set lay on the grass waiting for someone to play.

Daughter's Chap is the Real Thing where croquet is concerned. Lucky me, I was on his team, and we won, which is pretty good considering that I didn't even know how to play when I picked up the mallet. Also at the party was a six-ish year old who flitted about so happily that I think she was at least half-fairy.

For the next game, Daughter's Chap recruited the Fairy on to his team. At about the same time Mine Host asked her if she'd like to go and feed the fish in the pond. She multi-tasked. She'd take her turn (with a lot of guidance from The Chap), then sing 'fishies!' and dance away to the pool to see how they were getting on. She flitted and flew between croquet and fishies, then danced around the lawn blowing bubbles. You could see the wings.

And I met a delightful, bright-eyed young lady when visiting new friends. Bright Eyes greeted me, and her other new friends, with smiling warmth. Soon, she was demonstrating how to use the wonderful musical machines in front of her. She was curly-haired, beautiful, full of curiosity and laughter. She was delightful company, and it was hard to leave her.

She has cerebral palsy. She is blind.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

All together now...

Last night we managed to get all the family - that's Tony me, the Sunshines, LYS and the Lassie, Daughter and Daughter's Chap, all around the table together. This is a minor miracle, as it's hard to get everyone in one place and besides, that table's a tight squeeze for eight. If we'd opened the window, the Lassie would have fallen out backwards. There was a lot of laughter, and I wish I'd remembered to propose a toast. The Scottish toast 'Here's tae us! Whae's like us?' would have been good.

Daughter and her Chap have been doing a round of family and friends in the north, and I joined them for a couple of days, staying with my sister. In a summer of devastating rain and wind, her garden looks amazing. Mine doesn't and I should probably be seething with jealousy, but it was such a joy to see all that abundant colour and life.

And her cats approve of me. I know this because Holly Cat brought me a present. I'm glad to say it was dead, poor little shrew, and I hope it died quickly.

Finally - after ten days of family stuff, Greenbelt, and more family stuff - I slept in my own bed last night. Oooooh. Honestly, when I cuddled down under the duvet with a book in my hand I squeaked with happiness. And I'm not telling you what time I got up this morning.