Tuesday, 31 December 2013

thirty-nine minutes

In the UK, it is 23.21, or twenty-one minutes past eleven. In about half an hour we'll push Daughter's Chap out at the front door, so we can let him in again at midnight. The first foot over the threshhold is supposed to be a man, preferable a dark haired one. He was traditionally supposed to bring a lump of coal for the fire. It's gas, so I don't know what we're going to do about that.

There's just time to wish you a Happy New Year before I go and spend a few minutes with God, giving thanks for the good things this year and getting focused for whatever's coming next. Apart from two weddings and a book I don't know what that will be. I can tell you that the book should be out in August, and will probably be called SAVING STAR. It's about a dog, a boy, and the 1914-18 war.

I hope that you give and receive love this year. I hope that whenever the news is grim you are able to see what is beautiful and true and say 'this too is real'. I hope the books you read nourish your heart. I hope you learn something new and teach something good. I hope you have people to laugh and cry with. Be blessed.

Sunday, 29 December 2013


I asked Daughter what to put on the blog. 'We're here,' she said. So there you are. Daughter and her Chap are here. Hamilton is beside himself with joy.

Daughter's Chap's Mum and Dad invited us to their party on Friday night. They live near to where we lived when the children were small, which meant there were familiar faces to meet again. One of them was a lady who made an enormous difference to my life.

Many years ago, when LYS had just started school, I saw an advert in the local paper for a Short Story Writing course, geared particularly to the magazine market. As somebody who'd written for years on and off and never got anywhere with it, I saw this and decided to give it one last try. One of the exercises was to take a newspaper article as the starting point for a story. This was just after Christmas, and there were two pieces in the paper that looked promising. One was about a very aged couple who were drunk and disorderly at New Year and the other concerned a courting couple and a stolen bottle of whisky. But the trouble with these stories was that they were already there. They were too ready made. Instead I turned to a very simple, rather cosy account of a Boxing Night Dance. It mentioned the food and the band and the dancing and I thought of all the things that could go wrong.

By the time I'd finished, revised, and polished The Boxing Night Dance, I decided that this was my very best and if I couldn't get that published I'd never get anything published. It became my first story in print and earned me all of £40.00 from My Weekly. Then there were more stories. Then a serial. Then my first book...

...and on Friday night I chatted with my teacher from that course. I'd kept her informed when my stories and my first book came out, and we had a long catching up chat talking about all the things writers do talk about when they get together. She still does short fiction and drama. I mentioned that I'd sometimes taught Creative Writing courses, and made my confession. Here it is. I'm a trained teacher. I know how to write. But I've never trained to teach Creative Writing.

It turned out that she hadn't either. Her courses were the model for mine, and we both had happy students!

Friday, 27 December 2013


Yesterday, we were eleven at table. Both the boys and Lady Sunshine were staying with us and for Boxing Day, Daughter and her Chap came over. (They are spending Christmas with his family and New Year with us, but joined us for the big family bash). My sister and her husband were here, and my parents. We showed off the fireplace, and everyone sat round it opening their presents and toasting their toes.

With a master feat of engineering we shoe-horned eleven of us into the dining room. A tablecloth went on top of the jigsaw and we brought in the little card table where Tony and the boys used to make models together in long ago days. Sister brought puddings. (And glasses, in case we ran out. In the course of three days we only broke one, and it wasn't one of hers.) I played carols badly with various cuddly toys banging on the keys helped by the boys. (We should never have given LOS a harmonica.) Then Daughter played them beautifully, and finally we sat down together to play a duet of Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer with me doing the easy bits and I still managed to come in late.

At some point we got to talking about the Dolls' House, and LOS brought it downstairs. Dad, who made it long ago with help from Father Christmas, was delighted. The furniture was duly inspected, possible updates were discussed, and we talked about its history. There was time to do what I first did fifty-something years ago, and play with my doll's house at Christmas.

In the evening when the others had gone, LYS, The Sunshines and I sat down to play LYS's new Terry Pratchett game. A great time was had by all even though we only understood half of the rules and LOS couldn't read them without laughing. A couple of hours ago they all left, and I feel a bit bereft now.

Time for a hot bath and a book. Not at the same time. The pages get soggy.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Big Hearts

Now. We have a fireplace! Christmas can come!

Then again, that's the point about Christmas. It comes whether we're ready or not, just as a baby comes when it comes, ready or not. Christmas and babies don't wait for everything to be perfect. Here comes Christmas, which in this family usually brings joy, love and a mess, and some precious times of quiet and nurturing. Just like a baby.

It's never like it is in the adverts. It's not meant to be. Sadly, the grim stuff still goes on. I know of a particular story happening just now - I can't discuss it, because it's somebody else's story - where a family Christmas will be sadly disrupted. For those of us who pray,there is a lot of praying to be done for families this Christmas.

Now, I don't get along terribly well with St Paul. When I get to heaven (and I have it on good authority that they'll let me in, in spite of...) I mean to drop-kick him into the duckpond. John Wesley's going in next, and his mother. But Paul did write something that struck home with me when I was having a very rough time. He said something on the lines of 'rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep'.

There's always somebody rejoicing. There's always somebody weeping. Christmas, which is a time of so much celebration, is doubly hard for those who are grieving. What it comes to, then, is that we have to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep, both at the same time.

To do that, you need a big heart. May you feed your hearts this Christmas.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

And now...

Finally, I pinged off the new book to the editor yesterday. I am de-mob happy. There is still work on the go, but nothing I need to get into a whatnot about. I have started putting lights on windowsills and tinsel round the banister. The tree is in the conservatory. But we're not decorating the sitting room yet because in the morning the men are coming to knock a wall down.

Exciting! Ideally it would have been done long ago, but there seems to be a run on fireplaces. Instead of a grim grey modern fire set into the wall we are going to have a proper fireplace, the sort of thing this house would have had when it was built in the 1930s. The old fireplace will need to be opened up again, the chimney swept, and new pipes put under the floor. Hamilton thinks it's really funny, one lot of occupants ripping fireplaces out and another putting them in again. I think it's a nuisance. I confess that our fire will be gas, but it will look like the real thing. The real thing, but without the coal dust and graft.

If all goes well and smoothly we will have a lovely fireplace by the weekend, and a hearth and a mantelpiece and everything! If not, we will spend Christmas in a building site. I will keep you informed. The bears have been evacuated to our bedroom and it sounds like a good idea for me too.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Now light one thousand Christmas lights

The line at the heading of this post is from a lovely song the children used to sing at First School. The animals on Mistmantle love their winter festival with their lanterns and candles, and lights are one of the most beautiful images of Christmas. They redeem the grimness of 'darkness by four'.

When I first saw the lights in the West End of London one Christmas I was most disappointed. They were just garish. They said, 'we're Oxford Street, we've got a lot of money, look how much bling we can do'. All to do with spending and nothing to do with beauty. York lights are prettier, cleverer, and a lot more artistic.

In the little coastal town where we lived when the children were small the council didn't pay for the Christmas lights. The community did, with fund-raising all year round. Every shop and every pub had a collecting box. The result was two rows of coloured bulbs zig-zagging merrily across the main street and it was the prettiest thing. Just right. In the village where we lived until recently the local schoolchildren designed the Christmas lights. I am personally acquainted with the designer of the angel, and every year I looked forward to the reindeer with the lopsided nose.

Alnwick's not a very big town, but it punches above its weight. It has one of the most wonderful gardens in Europe complete with treehouses and a breathtaking castle associated with Harry Hotspur* and Harry Potter. The Christmas lights are dramatic, too. The council provides some and the local businesses do the rest. I suspect it's quite competitive.

The Estate Agents lights are Santa Claus with an igloo and a 'for sale' sign

The building contractor has a JCB

The newspaper office has Santa Claus reading the paper, turning his head from one side to the other

A pub called The Fleece has a sheep

There's a rather cute house with sparkly trees and reindeer

And my favourite is Air-Sea Rescue, who have Santa Claus arriving at the White Swan Hotel by helicopter. And the Three Kings ride their camels across the ancient stone Hotspur Tower.

But I think my favourites are the ones in the town where I live. They are so simple. White lights in the trees and on the Christmas tree in the square. that's all. It makes me look forward to the dark. And tomorrow - hopefully, and if I get the act together - there will be white lights in my windows, too. First Christmas in this house.

* I'll tell you about him another time

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

The thingy

We had such a lovely day yesterday. My parents, my sister and her husband and an old family friend came to lunch and we had one of those warm, happy times that occurs when friends who go back a long way get together round a table. When pudding was cleared I went to make the coffee - and here I have to confess that it was instant. Very nice fair trade instant. I put the kettle on.

Then the thingy dropped off. You know, the thingy. With an electric kettle there's a switch to put down to make it boil, and it switches itself off when it's hot enough, yes? That thingy. It just fell off completely. Normally when something like that happens - 'when the doings drops oot' as we say in our family - we give to my Dad to fix. But this looked beyond hope. We heated the water in a saucepan and the kettle is awaiting its final journey. I bought a new one with a different sort of - you know - thingy.

This got me thinking. For somebody who works with words I talk a lot about the thingy, the doings, the whatnot, the thingummywhats, the doodah. (The remote control by the way, is the fedoofer). it's a lazy habit, I suppose, but some things don't seem to have a name. What's the word for the cover that goes over a keyhole? Or the fitting thing that holds a light to the wall? Or the bit on the top of a pen that you click up and down? Or that prickly feeling in your nose when you're about to sneeze? Do these things have names? Or do we have to make them up?

I think I'll call the thing on top of a pen 'the clicket'. Any more suggestions for names for unnamed objects are welcome. By the way, I love the Welsh word for a microwave. It's 'the poppety-ping'.

Excuse me. I need to write some thingies and put stamps on them so they can go in the doings tomorrow morning.

Monday, 9 December 2013


Being Senior Bear in this house gets quite demanding. On Friday we went all the way to Cardiff to see Daughter and Daughter's Chap and we all think it was worth every second of the six hour drive. (Even Tony thought so and he was the one who did all the driving.) If you're anywhere near Cardiff, go and see Nativity - The Story. Real live donkeys and everything.

Daughter was the first person to discover that I can fly. I don't normally do it when people are about but she came down one night and found me going for a zoom around the room. Quite a lot of bears can, you know. And when you spend a long time in a hotel room there's a lot of flying to be done and a lot of exploring, too. My Margi thinks she's the only one who plays with the complimentary soap and shampoo in the bathroom. It takes an effort to stay as snowy white as this.

What was most upsetting was that when the housemaid came to make up the bed she put me on the settee and LEFT ME THERE with nothing to read. Did she think I was a toy? And my Margi had left me sitting on a pillow with a good book, too. When we went to Kingussie the lady there used to talk to me when she came to do the room. At the hotel in Thornbury the girlie came to do the turndown and popped me into bed, which was just the nicest thing ever. Bears have feelings.

And I'm most excited about next year, when there will be two weddings in the family and two new waistcoats. We were discussing my page bear's outfit this weekend. And special occasion waistcoat that I wear for Christmas - is it time yet - when will it be time?

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Today's News

Today storms and rage tides hit the east coast of England and Scotland. The chancellor announced that the UK economy is improving, but he didn't tell us why more people than ever are going to food banks or having to choose between heating and eating, or why hard-working young professionals can't afford to buy their own homes. And later, as we talked about these troubles - one natural, one man-made - we learned that a great soul had gone to heaven.

I can't remember a time when I didn't know the name of Nelson Mandela. It seems astonishing to think that when I was a girl, there were loud voices shouting for him to be hanged. I remember very clearly watching him leave prison, all of us watching it on television. Sunday lunch happened very late that day. Now that he's passed everybody will tell you Mandela quotes and stories, so I'll tell you something else.

About ten years ago I was talking to a group of children at a church club and asked them who they thought should be in charge of the world. Who would make the best job of it? Several - probably the majority - said 'my mum' or 'my gran'. Very good answer. A few said 'Mother Theresa'. And quite a number, to my delight and surprise, said 'Nelson Mandela'.

How did they know about him? Because they'd been taught about him at school. God bless those teachers, who knew that the children needed food for their hearts as well as their brains. And that's another reason why we need to keep telling stories - because children need heroes of real stature, who persist for justice even though it takes decades, who work their way through natural and man-made suffering, through personal and public buffetings, and continue to walk that Long Road to Freedom, beating down the thorns so that the rest may follow.

Go with God, Madiba.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013


Our ancient church was full on Sunday night for an Advent service that hovered between earth and heaven. Everything was candlelit, the choir carried us along, and the season of hope and expectation opened before us. I walked home past winter trees shining with white lights, lit the fire, and kindled the Advent candle. Let's not rush too fast to Christmas. Let's enjoy this short and precious season.

In Advent I am re-reading 'Learning to Dance', an inspiring book by Michael Mayne about the patterns and seasons of life and of nature. He quotes widely, which makes it a good dip-into book if I'm too busy or too tired to work my way through the layers. And I have some other reading planned, too.

LYS lent me the latest Adrian Plass, which meant that I kept laughing out loud unexpectedly and alarming Tony. I have a little light book about motherhood on the waiting list, and then I intend to apply myself to seasonal reading and My Great Adventure.

Somebody commenting on the blog a while ago recommended The Legend of Holly Claus, so I bought it and kept it until now to read. I'm looking forward to that. And then, I have a plan. My Great Adventure. All writers have half an eye on the next book and the one after that, even when they don't have a clue what it will be. I have the feeling - and maybe this applies to all writers too - that there is a book inside me that I still don't know about, and it has to be written. Something that nobody else could write. So I'm going to re-read all my favourite books, children's and adults'. Perhaps, by re-reading my favourites, I will hear the call to whatever story in me is crying out to be told.

The interesting thing is that many of my favourite books are Christmas books - The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy Boston, The Thirteen Days of Christmas by Jenny Overton, The Tailor of Gloucester by Beatrix Potter, and oh - perhaps my very favourite book in the world - The Dean's Watch by Elizabeth Goudge. So that will be my reading over Advent and well into the Christmas season too.

Oh, and Narnia. But you guessed that.

Sunday, 1 December 2013


t the end of the week it's going to be wintery, I don't care, I'm a stone dog, I don't feel the cold. The leaves will blow about the garden, I can chase them. I hope it snows, I can jump up and bite snowflakes. You've no idea what I get up to when missus isn't looking. Mind, she knows more about stone animals than she should. She talks to me. That's how I know. Excuse me while I have a good scratch...

There was that day with the wren. Missus came into the sitting room and thought 'that little wren looks as if it's in the conservatory'. Then she realised that the wren really was in the conservatory, so she and the chap with the beard went round opening doors and windows to let little Jenny out. Then afterwards they went round trying to work out how Jenny Wren got in there the first place.

Later, she came to me and Oliver and said, 'Oliver, Dodger, do you know anything about the wren getting into the conservatory?' Course we didn't? How could we? We're made of stone, so how could Oliver be giggling fit to burst the buttons off his jacket? And as for me, I always look innocent. That's my trouble, I look so innocent they wonder what I've been up to. Then she saw a weed that needed pulling up and forgot about it.

And she never did find out.