Friday, 28 February 2014


I was sitting outside int' sunshine t'other day with me mates. Int' sunshine, like I said. Call that a winter? That were a rubbish winter, that. Not enough snow for snowball, let alone a fight. All we've 'ad is wet, them ducks think it's 'eaven. Still, a couple of year ago we 'ad a mild winter and a right good snowfall come Easter time, so we ain't out of t'woods yet.

Like I said, I were sitting with me mates, because we've got a right good gathering of old timers getting together ont rockery these days, and along comes Mavis the Tooth Fairy (Retired) for a chat. 'Er's coming down to the village next week, she says. 'Er's coming to see some of 'er old mates. Bout time too, I said. And will 'Er Ladyship spare a little of 'er precious time to come over 'ere?

I think she might, says Mavis. She would like to see the garden again.

Oh, would 'er, I says? Wouldn't like to see me again, would 'er?

Oh, yes, Mr Much, she says, and of course she would like to see you. She was asking after you and your snail.

Well, 'er may as well come. There still ain't nobody living int 'ouse. Somebody comes to check things over and Stephen still turns up for a chat and a bit of gardening, but we got nobody int' ouse, and such a grand 'ouse, too. Anybody want it?

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Omnibus edition

We were about to go out when the postman arrived with an envelope for me. It was the rough art work for a book about the saints which is coming out early next year. It's so exciting doing an illustrated book because of the element of surprise - I don't know what it's going to look like until the roughs arrive. But I knew that Alida Massari is a safe pair of hands, and her drawings with their long, swooping curves never disappoint.

I've had the art work for another picture book, too, my first ever pre-school book - more later! I think you'll like it.

I was able to take the roughs with me and show them to Mum and Dad - we all went out to lunch today. The Beehive does possibly the best fish and chips I've ever tasted. Honestly, and I'm an expert.

Now, sit up straight and pay attention. It's a long time since I updated you about that best loved British radio soap, The Archers, which I believe is the longest running soap in the world. So, here we go.

Jack died, at a great age. He has left a lot of his estate to his stepdaughter Hazel the Horrible. This makes Hazel the Grundy's landlord,, and Clarrie is afraid that they'll all be put out on the road with their possessions in a bundle on a stick. Jack's widow Peggy has told the family about the terms of her will and managed to upset her son Tony (which isn't difficult). As a result Tony has fallen out with his surviving son Tom, and bought cows. Tom and Kirsty are getting married. Tony's daughter Helen has moved in with slimy Rob and that's going to end in tears, but we don't like Helen anyway.

Jill's cottage was broken into and now she feels a bit insecure and will probably move back into Brookfield with David and Ruth and family to be a live-in Granny. The pub got flooded, leading to a matrimonial set-to between Kenton and Jolene. Kenton is sleeping on the settee.

And little George Grundy got a puppy. She's called Holly, but Fang the Destroyer would be about right.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Ice and Snow

The Winter Olympics are over for another four years. There was a little sigh from the New House of Stories and a great big cheer from Hamilton and his friends when a bear blew out the Olympic flame. I think Hamilton had something to do with that. I know somebody out there in Blogland, a great friend of Mistmantle, who must have loved all that flying snow.

I am, as I may have said before, a wuss. I've never been good at sports, and when it comes to ice I can do the falling over bit but I'd rather not have to. My idea of winter sports is to build a snowman, maybe have a bit of a snowball fight, then sit beside the fire drinking hot chocolate. Walking snow is fun, for a while. So is sliding downhill on a sledge. But did you watch Sochi?

Those bobsleighs were coming down the ice at speeds that are illegal on UK motorways. At least one snowboarder is in orbit and being tracked on radar. If the ski jumpers stayed up there any longer they'd evolve and come down with feathers. And I am left with goggle-eyed admiration and wonder. At one level I am struck by the amount of sacrifice, training and sheer years of their lives that the competitors put into something that might well land them in hospital. But I am even more astonished at the sheer breathtaking, heart-stopping courage it takes to do that.

Just don't ask about Mistmantle. I happened to say something about bobsleighs and poor Crackle hasn't a tea tray left in the kitchen.

But normal life must go on. Next blog, if I remember, I'll update you about The Archers. It's getting a bit fierce out there.

Friday, 21 February 2014


I spent this half-term afternoon with a lovely bunch of children at Cogito Books. I believe heaven has a bookshop like Cogito. I did readings from URCHIN OF THE RIDING STARS, FAWN, and TEASEL, and we talked about animals in general and wildlife in particular. I like readers to have things to do at signings,, so I brought along some puzzles and pictures, and Claire of Cogito provided biscuits. I think they liked the books, because we sold a lot. Claire and I had to help them eat the biscuits.

One child told me that she'd been given four books for Christmas and read them in two days. Her mum said 'books are supposed to last you a long time!' Don't worry, mum, they will. For ever, if they're good books.

After all our cat conversations this week - and there are some great cat stories out there - they don't have resident cats at Cogito. In days gone by they had a dog which used to move in behind the desk at four o'clock every afternoon by way of reminding the staff that it was time to start thinking about tea. And there is a very pleasant teddy bear, who will be pleased to welcome you if you ever find yourself down that little cobbled street in Hexham. And so will Claire.

One of her recommendations was THE LAST WILD by Piers Torday. I haven't read it myself, but Claire's very keen on it and readers seem to think the same. Worth looking for if you want a book for the half-term holiday. Or when it's not half-term holiday.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014


If you can't think what to write, write about a cat.

Cats have personality. Cats are cool. Cats are annoying. These are things that all cats have in common, just as they've all got four legs (unless they've lost one in an accident,) a tail (unless they're Manx cats,) and two ears (unless they grew up in Shields.) But cats can be eccentric, too, and each cat's eccentricity is his or her own.

Scruff's eccentricity was the ping-pong ball. She had plenty of things to play with but her favourite thing was the ping-pong ball, which was dented and didn't roll properly, it just bounded across the floor with Scruff bounding after it. When she was old she still loved that ping-pong ball, though I can remember one day when Tony was trying to get her to play with it and she wouldn't, so he patted it across the floor a few times in front of her. In ten minutes Tony was running around playing with the ping-pong ball and Scruff had settled down to watch the entertainment.

Somebody I knew had two cats, each with its own food dish. Halfway through eating they'd swap over, as if they wanted to check that they were both getting the same thing. Sophie would climb on to the roof, fall off, and walk away with her tail up pretending she'd done it on purpose. One of the Friary cats at Alnmouth escorted me round the grounds. Maybe that's because she was a Franciscan cat and knew that hospitality was important, or perhaps she just didn't trust me. I think my favourite eccentric cat story was of one that belonged to my dad when he was a boy. I forget the cat's name, but it used to walk along the windowsill and was clever enough to slink behind the ornaments without knocking them over, EXCEPT

the blue policeman. It was a wooden pencil case, I think, that looked like a policeman and the cat had a grudge against it. Needless to say, the boys used to put it on the windowsill or anywhere else the cat was likely to find it so they could watch him hurl it the floor with a single paw swipe. In those days you had to make your own entertainment.

Any more cats, anyone?

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Garden Path

I found a garden path today. It was so covered in earth and leaves I hadn't known it was there. At the end of it, by the fence, I planted my new rose, a white rambler called, appropriately, Rambling Rector. We got there eventually.

First I had to get the shed door open, and it was so swollen from the rain that it took trickery, threat and violence to get it to move. It was no good asking Tony, he'd rambled off to take a service at a little hilltop village somewhere. Dodger did his best to be unhelpful. Dodger thinks I can't see him romping about, but it's difficult to ignore him when he's sniffing at the door frame while I try to wrench it open. Then when I'd worked out where the path ended and the soil began I dug a hole. Dodger dug another one, which accounts for the heaps of soil everywhere. (Oliver makes no attempt to control him and Oliver being made of stone is no excuse. So is Dodger.)

To help this rose to settle in and thrive I dragged out the box of fertiliser pellets. Goodness only knows how they make them but they smell of the stuff we used to feed to the goldfish when we were kids, only worse. The best thing to put on roses is something that's been processed through a horse and left around for a while, but all I had was this well-rotted goldfish food or whatever it is. Knowing that it's highly concentrated and you mustn't use too much, I tipped the bag very carefully over the hole. And dropped it.

And spilt most of it trying to get it out.

And dropped it again. Dodger turned tail and hid behind the shed.

I stood back and wondered what would happen if I just dropped the rose in there, shovelled in the soil and walked away. Perhaps I'd look out in the morning and see it spiralling into the sky like the Beanstalk. More likely it would die of shock and overdose. It would be like me taking all my migraine tablets in one go and washing them down with a double espresso. But there was no way that I was exhuming all that stuff and putting it back in the packet. So I dug out most of it and planted the rose, then the rest of the soil got a share out of goldfish pellets. By then it was getting dark so I coaxed Dodger out from behind the shed and tidied up.

Hopefully the pongy pellets will made my garden grow like Chelsea Flower Show. Then again, the earthworms might eat them and grow to the size of draught excluders.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Good hair day

One of the things about moving to a new place is finding a hairdresser. Today I went to one I hadn't visited before, and it turned out that the salon was celebrating its twentieth birthday and they were giving out free fizzy wine to all the customers. What a day! So I sat with my little glass of Prosecco while such a nice lass chopped about at my hair and blew it round in circles and did something with my fringe. It's a great relief to be able to see where I'm going again. The only thing is, I frequently find myself in the company of a lot of Mistmantle animals with plenty to say.

Sepia was very complimentary about it. Fingal started to say something but Padra stepped on his foot. Apple was admiring - 'Ooh, it looks very nice on you, my dear, I might 'ave it done meself but I don't know that me fur is long enough, still might have me tail curled up a bit, and it ain't no good the 'edge'ogs trying it'. And then all those little girl squirrels from Sepia's choir got terribly excited and squeaky and went off to play hairdressers. It reminded me of that moment in Raven War when they all get washed then run around in the sunshine and their fur foofs up.

That actually happened to a friend of LYS. I mean, she didn't get foofed, the squirrels did. She worked in wildlife rescue one summer and had to wash a family of four squirrels who had set up home under an old car. Now, you and I know that the place for a squirrel is up a tree, not under a car, and certainly not under one that leaks oil all the time. So she had to de-oil these squirrels, wash them, dry them as best she could, and put each squirrel in a box wrapped in a towel. She came back to find four damp squirrels and four shredded towels.

Apparently it is possibly to dry a squirrel with a hairdryer if you use a quiet gentle setting. So she did. And they came out looking like surprised pom-poms.

Monday, 10 February 2014

I don't know

I don't know what to say this time.

I thought I knew a bit about flooding. When we lived in our little Yorkshire village I stood on a midsummer night and watched the water reach further and further up our garden - and it didn't matter, because the house was high up. I was more concerned about what was happening on the other bank of the river, where it had overtopped the wall. The next mornin, everywhere we went there were carpets, heavy with mud, draped over fences.

Twice that summer the waters rose and fell again. Water doesn't have to be in your house for long to wreck everything it meets and short out the electricity. It takes months for the damp to be fully cleared up. Some small businesses never reopened. A friend gave up trying to sell her house - a sweet little house in a pleasant wee square, but who would want it when it had flooded twice? And what would the insurance be?

Now think of all you've ever heard or read about the West Country in the UK and the Thames Valley. The typical English countryside settings. Think Midsomer Murders, Miss Marple, Inspector Morse. Think Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Elgar, Daphne du Maurier. Think 'Three Men in a Boat'. Miles and miles of those beautiful areas have been underwater for days, even weeks. The water is standing, and must be foul by now. The drainage systems can't cope. The trains into Cornwall aren't running. Villages are cut off. Farmers are fighting to get to their livestock, because this flooded countryside is - or was - good farmland. It's orchard country, too.

Here in the north, which so often gets the rough weather, we're relatively untouched - except York, which is prone to flooding, and hasn't had it so badly. But say a prayer for the people of the South-West tonight.

Saturday, 8 February 2014


This is a day we have talked about since we moved in, but only organised lately. You know how it is. It was very important to us to have a House Blessing for our new home. The last time we had a house blessing, when we moved into The Village, our great friend James the vicar took us all on a pilgrimage round the house while he sloshed water around, which was very jolly, so we didn't know what to expect this time.

It was much more low key, but still truly a blessing. We had invited a few friends who were delighted to be asked, and we stood in a circle as Graham the Rector prayed a blessing on our home, then marked the front door with a cross. Then we all sat down for a soup and bread and cheese sort of lunch - there's something about eating together that sets the seal on things, if you know what I mean. Our lovely across the road neighbour, a small and gentle heroine of a woman who spent many years running a church based clinic in Ethiopia, brought freshly baked scones and helped me get lunch sorted. There was cheese from a local dairy, soup straight out of packets (who cares) and good conversation.

The only thing is, Hamilton didn't feel he was given due respect. I told him, not everybody understands about bears, even Senior Bears. But I hope to start work very soon on his new outfit for the wedding of LYS and The Lassie, so that should keep him happy. And blessed.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Back to the Village

Today started early, and I don't usually do early. I had a phone interview with a radio programme for their Inspirational Breakfast slot. To me an inspirational breakfast is warm croissants or fruit bread and those lovely crisp orange slice things that we had in New York, but to the radio station it's some nice music and me talking about Why You Should Read Stories To Your Children. I hope I made sense.

Then it was a two and a half hour drive back to the village where we used to live to bid farewell to Donald - Yorkshireman, Christian ,family man, artist, musician, mountain climber and thoroughly good and remarkable man. We arrived in time for lunch at the little cafe with a few friends, as we always used to do after toddler group on Thursdays. The church was packed for Donald. His daughter read Psalm 121 and every word rang. He loved his music, and wouldn't have been disappointed today. 'Lord, lettest now thy servant depart in peace...'. It was also a time of getting together with so many friends from the village and feeling as if we'd never been away. What a community.

And to crown the day we had an hour with The Golden Child and her family. The Golden Child is now four, and as delightful as ever. She offered the biscuits round and when I chose a plain one she came around for a second pass and pressed an Oreo into my palm. We left in darkness and in sluicing rain but still made it back in two and a half hours, fuelled by love and Oreos.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Back to books

Let's think.

Recently on an author forum, somebody asked a question about bookshops. A friend of hers is considering opening one, and wanted to know exactly what will bring customers in to a bookshop. The first one to shout 'books' gets a razzberry from Hamilton for being a Smart Alec.

I don't know what the US is like, but in the UK independent bookshops can't compete on price. The chains and supermarkets have money, so they can afford to make big orders and keep prices down. And they have lots of space, so they can stock whole boatloads of books. A little bookshop has to be a wonderful place to go. The one nearest to me is tucked away in a little alley and painted green, and it's a bit like going into a magic shop in a story, especially on a cold afternoon. A lot of bookshops do coffee and cake too. A great idea, but unless you hang a table and chairs from the ceiling like a Mary Poppins tea party you might not be able to fit that in.

I think a bookshop needs

Keen, friendly staff who know and love the books

Events, whether it's author visits, a book group, quizzes, whatever, so long as it brings together a bookshop community. Things for adults and for children

Great window displays that change frequently

Somewhere to curl up and read

Two or three shelves for the books of whatserface that writes about squirrels and stuff.

A coffee machine, a plate of shortbread and a log fire would be good, but that might be pushing my luck. Any more thoughts, anyone?

And please, please, do a little search and find . Another good reason for living in Northumberland.

Saturday, 1 February 2014


Thank goodness it's February. Glad to see the back of January, blooming awful month this year, may as well sit in the river with them ducks. We've 'ad a bit of snow 'ere, so that were a change. 'Er 'asn't had none and 'er's further north than I am.

You might want to know 'ow I know that. Well, you know what they say, there's a 'grapevine'. Grapevine? Who thought of that one? The nearest thing yer get round 'ere is brambles. So I 'ear a few things on the brambles as it were. That tooth fairy, 'er and 'er mates keep me informed. That Dodger the Dog, e's chasing his tail and getting all over-excited because it's February, but blimey, that dog would get excited because it were three o-clock on a Sunday afternoon or anything, don't know what they feed 'im but it must be high-powered.

Anyway, 'er were all excited yesterday because 'er went to the bookshop. (I reckon 'er doesn't get out much.) 'Er does get into a state about small bookshops. 'Er was choosing presents for the Golden Child and 'er brother at Cogito Books in Hexham. Er doesn't 'alf like that shop. They've got cosy settees and teddy bears in the children's section, so it's a blooming miracle 'er ever got out.

Then 'er were talking on the phone yesterday to one of 'er old friends from the village and saying 'ow much 'er misses them village kids. Well, you know what 'er 'as to do. Get them all up to stay at the New House of Stories. You could fit loads of kids into the attic, specially if you put some in the cupboards. Take 'em to Cogito Books and let 'em fight over who gets on the comfy chairs. Then bring 'em 'ome, give 'em power drinks and let 'em loose in the garden with that Dodger. And while they're all running around and climbing over the fences 'er can sneak away and write a book about it. I'd buy it.