Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Apple says...

Oh, my dears, what a terrible wet winter, it's not like being dry and cold it's wet and cold and that makes all the difference, being wet. Not even my cordial keeps the cold out, not unless you do a special little trick with it. When you first puts it on to boil, take a ginger root about the size of your paw and grate just a little into the mix. Then we you got it properly boiling, sling the rest in as well. That'll put hairs on your ear tufts. Her what does the stories says that where she come from you can get hot chilly stuff, well, is it hot or is it chilly, don't make no sense to me. Her favourite way of getting warm is staying in bed and not getting cold in the first place, and mind, these days on Mistmantle we can always get swans down for our nests, so I like a lie-in in the morning as much as anyone.

There's another way to keep warm and that's all getting together for a snuggle. Them otters, they spend all that time in cold water, you'd think they'd bee freezing, but there's nothing like a warm dry otter to keep you warm. Moles are a bit on the titchy side and smooth, but they need snugglin' just like any other animal. Here on the island the hedgehogs learn pretty early on how to flatten their spines down, but all the same it's best to wrap a hedgehog in a blanket before you give it a hug. Then you can all sit down around the fire and sing and tell stories and make buttered toast.

What do you think, now? Do you reckon one day they might tell stories about us? Folks might ather round a fire on a winter night and say, 'I'll tell you about Needle of the Threadings, Companion to the King', or 'Urchin of the Riding Stars?' And will they talk about Mistress Apple, who brought him up from a little scrap on the shore?

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Burns Night

Last night was the celebration of Robert Burns, Scots poet, surveyor, taxman and womaniser. That's a lot for someone who died at thirty-seven. I'm not that bothered about his poetry, to be honest, but I do like the one that he wrote about a field mouse, and don't we all sing Auld Lang Syne at New Year?

Apparently he was recently voted the Greatest Scotsman or something (by the Scots.) This puzzles my Scottish genes a bit. My list of greatest Scots would include Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin. Then there's John Logie Baird who invented television and Alexander Graham Bell the telephone man, and only a Scot would have invented the waterproof raincoat. Dunlop, as in rubber tyres. If not for him all the cars would run on tin wheels. Square ones. Then...

Andrew Carnegie, philanthropist
J M Barrie, author who gave us Peter Pan
Arthur Conan Doyle, as in Sherlock Holmes

Eric Liddell, missionary and sportsman, and have I mentioned Andy Murray and David Tennant?

I just checked some lists of Great Scots and there are thousands of them. Anybody got any favourite Scots?

Wednesday, 22 January 2014


Have you missed me? Where have I been this week?

When the Royal Shakespeare Company announce a new production of a major Shakespeare play and David Tennant's in it there's a gale force wind over Stratford on Avon as the tickets whoosh out of the box office. We didn't stand a chance of getting seats for the Stratford production. But we did manage to book for the London run, so that's where I was on Friday night - at the Barbican in London watching a charismatic actor lead a company of rare brilliance and accomplishment in Richard II. It was one of those productions that sweeps you away to a different somewhere altogether, from the first ominous gathering with the Duke of Gloucester's coffin dominating the stage to the final realisation that whatever Henry IV does now, he will be haunted by his actions.

Richard was graceful, charming, vain and self-obsessed, in need of a shake and an ear-bending. He was also the one who engaged your sympathies at the end. That's as it should be. And Oliver Ford-Davies was outstanding as the Duke of York struggling to be loyal, to be reasonable, to make the best of a bad job while feeling that really he's too old for all this and he'd much rather go home to his missus.

If you're into Shakespeare, all that made sense. If you're not, I'll just tell you that the next day we left for our favourite hiding place in Kent and I spent Sunday afternoon with my godchildren, climbing trees. Did you know a rhododendron is a den and a climbing frame all in one?

Wednesday, 15 January 2014


'Where shall we go, Dad?'

Mum and Dad were spending the day with us, and we always go out somewhere. As Fingal told you it's been soggy around here this winter, but yesterday was dry and not too cold. Dad remembered a wood where we used to go for walks, so off we went.

I hadn't been there since I was a child but it was a big part of my childhood. We'd often go there on weekends and I think I learned to love the autumness of autumn in that wood. When I was very small I didn't altogether appreciate it, but that was all to do with having little legs. Little legs meant that I was always way behind everybody else, and shouting to them to wait for me. It also meant that I was close to the ground and was constantly finding a leaf/clump of flowers/living thing/dead thing that required further investigation. Over the years it awakened something Narnia-ish in me. The ground was squidgy and we didn't walk far, but it was tranquil and smelt of woodland. A few other visitors were there with muddy happy dogs jumping in and out of car boots.

Then it was 'can we go to Beltingham?'. Yes, we could. I don't think I've ever been there before, and I want to go back.

Beltingham is tiny. It consists of a church and a few small and elegant stone houses built in 1903 by the local squire, The Hon Francis Bowes-Lyon. Presumably they were for people who worked on the estate or in the Hall, and if so he was a caring man. It was so pretty and unassuming, with the brook running past at the bottom of the hill. How come it's been there all the time and I never knew about it?

And the wonderful thing is that this storybook place (which I'm sure has a book in it) is not in a magic world or a fairy tale. it is real. Real, and I was there.

Sunday, 12 January 2014


You would think that otters love floods. It's just water, and what's the matter with that? They call me Fingal of the Floods. But the trouble with floods is that the water is all in the wrong places and its easy to get lost, especially if you're a smallish otter. we had keep an eye open for Ffion last time it rained, one heavy shower would be enough to wash her away.

The otters in the land where She of the Stories lives are furious. They can't find out where their homes are any more, holts get washed away and drains overflow, so the water can be pretty unpleasant. (By the way, she was trying to unblock a drain yesterday. Or she thought she did. There's only so much you can do with a bit of stick and half a bucket of caustic soda or whatever it is.) Swanfeather, do you want to go in the boat? You might need to bale it out first. Use a pudding bowl and don't tell Crackle.

Personally, I'd be quite happy to swish about in the North Tyne. You get salmon in there and it's a jolly nice river, though of course I prefer the sea. Anyway, what I was going to say - oh, hello, Hope, are you coming with us? I was going to say that today we've had frost and I LOVE frost. A thick layer of winter fur to keep the cold out and a good long frost slide and every small animal on the island is flying down the slopes. And somebody has to keep an eye on them.

It's not as if I particularly feel like going in the boat. But, you know, Swanfeather and Hope want to go for a sail, and how could I disappoint them? Any more? Room for a little one?

Thursday, 9 January 2014


I'm glad to know that those of you in Texas are still above snow level. In the north-east of England tonight we're supposed to be able to see the Northern Lights. I've been outside and can't see a glimmer, only a clear sky and stars, but that's a big improvement on blinding rain.

For today's blog I have to tell you about the Boxing Day crackers. For those of you in the US Christmas Crackers aren't biscuits, it's a sort of cardboard tube thing that you pull at both ends, it goes bang, and out come a present, a paper hat, a joke or a bit of trivia, and a whiff of gunpowder because that's what made it bang. The last time we had American visitors at Christmas they'd never come across crackers, but that was at least sixteen years ago.

This year I made the crackers (all except my own, which Tony did). That way, I could suit the gift to the guest. So I was most displeased today, while tidying the dining room, to find two cracker gifts had been left here. Yes, I'm looking sternly at you, Daughter and her Chap. Daughter, I'll pass on the little necklace at some point, but it is a matter of urgency that Daughter's Chap gets his present and sticks it firmly on the fridge where it belongs - or anywhere else he'll see it every day. It says

'Remember, as far as anyone knows, we're a nice normal family'.

Do you understand? It hasn't been easy for us to look normal all these years. We are a family who talk to inanimate objects and imaginary ones, too. We used to ride home from school on a dragon and had a camel called Abdul-ben-Plod who accompanied us in traffic jams. LYS had his own camel, Abdul-ben-Gallop, but he never stayed around for long. Other people left carrots out for the reindeer on Christmas Eve, we left chocolate fingers. Tony keeps a plastic skull in the study. LOS, who liked to throw himself into team sports and everything else, spent much of his teenage years in the fracture clinic, LYS is a swordsman and lives with a lot of lizards, and Daughter is permanently attached to a flute. Or a cat.

Perhaps it goes back to my Grandmother McAllister, who kept a disused washing machine in the garden because it was a useful place to house her frogs. She had retired as a biology teacher but still did private tuition, and was sometimes in the kitchen dissecting things when visitors came to call. She would sit them down, offer a cup of tea, and continue what she was doing. I don't think they drank the tea.

But still, in spite of all, as far as anyone knows we're a nice normal family. Tea, dear?

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Are you OK?

In the UK - Somerset, Dorset, Oxfordshire, Wiltshire, Aberystwyth

In the US - Chicago, New York, Washington, Indiana

These are the places mentioned on the ten o'clock news tonight, but I know there are many more. Parts of the UK are suffering from unprecedented storms and flooding. Coastal defences aren't up to the level of high tides, storm winds and bucketing rain that we've had since the turning of the year. There are reports of Somerset villages cut off, and I've no idea how farmers are able to get to their animals. Heaven help the under-insured.

Northumberland hasn't been hit too badly this time, but that rain has been raging down. The coat I wore for a fifteen minute walk home on Sunday still hasn't completely dried.

In the US, where I know many of you are, it's freezing temperatures, snow and ice. Roads are impassable. Not everyone can get to school or to work. What about the poor, who can't afford to turn the heating on?

So wherever you are, what I want to know is - are you OK?

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Twelve Days

It's that time at last. The cycle is always the same. At the beginning of advent, Christmas is still weeks away. Then there's the nearly-nearly time when Christmas is coming, but not quite here, and then it whirls in, swirls about, changes pace, and proceeds firmly and irrevocably to Twelfth Night. The decorations must be wrapped up. No more carols. Never mind, we still have the gifts. And the memories. Here are some of mine, the gifts given to me this year.

The delightful crib service. I came home feeling some sort of excitement about Christmas that I can't explain and haven't felt for years. I started on a casserole with dumplings, because LYS loves them. Then he arrived, then the Sunshines, and we were all together for Midnight Mass.

The tree with its lovely soft lights, even though it's the kind that keeps its needles for a long time and so doesn't smell quite right. The ongoing jigsaw. Re-reading The Dean's Watch. Daughter playing her flute. Tea with Silke, who had made the bread buns specially. Last night's concert, with Messiaen's music lifting us up and carrying us away. And today smelled nice. Three Kings Day, so we had frankincense in church and I took a few good deep lungfuls of that. And I inhaled the church Christmas tree, too. There are needles all over the floor, but it smelt perfect. What the rector thought of the woman sniffing the tree, I have no idea.

Back to work tomorrow. I'm looking forward to it. A new book to start.

Thursday, 2 January 2014


Happy New Year! Yesterday I had a long phone conversation with my five and a half year old godson. What he said so delighted me that I asked him if I might put it on the blog. He said yes.

He was telling me about his favourite film, Gnomeo and Juliet. I haven't seen it yet, but have recorded it so that next time he tells me about it I won't be so clueless. Then he said,

'When I go to heaven we can have a party and all the gnomes will come out from the screen and all come to the party.'

'What a great party!' I said. I remember having similar thoughts about Narnia when I was older than he is. 'Can we have a little white pony, too?'

'Yes, and there'll be a library! A great big library with hundreds and hundreds of books everywhere and you can go in and you don't need a library card and you can read all the books you like, and when you go out you can just run in again whenever you want to!'

You little sweetie, so you think a library is heaven! And maybe the library in heaven is where you really can walk through the door of the wardrobe or the stable, or sail through the mists, and the yearning that a book can give us will be satisfied.