Thursday, 30 October 2014

Red-headed Roman

This is half term week, and there were Small People in The House of Stories. The Golden Child, now aged four, was here with her mum and her big brother, the Red-headed Laddie. They are both as bright as buttons and twice as alive as any normal human. The Golden Child throws herself into every new thing like a puppy off the lead, and the Red-Headed Laddie soaks up knowledge as if he would starve for the lack off it.

The RHL is learning about the Romans at school. The New House of Stories is very close to Hadrian's Wall country, in fact we're quite blase about Romans here. You can soon get Romanned-out. As a culture I don't care for them much, and every Northumbrian school child, sooner or later, will get sick to death of them because they're always being dragged off to educational projects on the Wall, usually when it's freezing cold and the wind is blowing a hooley. In order to get a good view of the surrounding countryside, the Romans built that wall on the highest and most exposed site in the north of England.

In spite of the risk of hypothermia, the Roman sites do their best to attract visitors and Chesters Roman Fort had a programme of events for children this week. We stitched ourselves into our thermal everythings and off we went. Those guys doing the presentation were on form. The kids all got to handle replica objects - dolls, manicure tools, wax writing tablets, purses, and sponges on sticks. I won't tell you what they used the sponges on sticks for, but the children found it hilarious. This was followed by half an hour of Roman drill with shields, spears, swords, helmets, and worried parents. There was one very small legionary in the ranks who hadn't quite sorted out her sinister from her dexter, so the orders, shouted in Latin, were generally followed by 'Other way, sweetie'. The glee on the face of the Golden Child as she charged forward with her stabbing sword makes me feel I've failed as a godmother.

Finally we drove home, seeing all the way what the legions would have seen - the rise and fall of the landscape under the misting light and the dazzle of winter sunlight in the west. Sometimes, perhaps the legionaries forgot the cold, the wind, the drill and the Picts, and just stared.

Monday, 27 October 2014


I was thinking about that word game I told you of last week. Perhaps, I thought, I should demonstrate it. So I took a glance at what's come in on e-mail today and chose the following three words.




Every morning the elephant went down to the library, trumpetty-trumping with happiness because she loved books so much. Each day she would take out three books, and because she was a very quick reader she'd finished them all by bedtime. That meant that in the morning she'd go and change them for another three.

One Tuesday in spring, the elephant packed her books in her trunk and skipped all the way to the library. There was a big sign on the door.


Poor elephant! Her ears drooped. A big tear rolled down her face and dropped from the end of her trunk. She sat down on the library steps and cried.

Along came a kind orang-utan. "Hello, little elephant!" he said. "What's the matter?"

"They've closed the library for decorating," sobbed little elephant. "And I don't know why, because it looks very nice the way it is."

"I suppose they mean they're painting it," said the orang-utan. "They'll open it again when it's ready."

The little elephant's ears twitched up. "Why didn't they say they meant painting!" she said. "I know about painting! I read about it in a library book!"

Off went little elephant and orang utan to find some beautiful purple paint. Orang-utan was very good at climbing, so...

OK, I'm a bit stuck now. It's something to do with the orang-utan climbing on to the roof and sliding down the chimney to sweep it and the elephant filling her trunk with paint and blowing it down after him, but I haven't figured out how to get the elephant on to the roof. And there you have one of the problems of plotting a book. Just when you think you've cracked it, you haven't.

Thursday, 23 October 2014


We have just had a few amazing days, shuttling back and forwards between here and West Yorkshire to help the Sunshines move house. After years of renting they now have a place of their own, and it's delightful.

On Monday I sang happily round their old house as I packed boxes. There's a lovely spiritual called 'Down to the River' that I couldn't get out of my head, so I sang it on and off all day. And there is another reason for singing in that house.

There's no lock on the bathroom door, which makes it what I call a 'singing loo'. It reminds me of Girl Guide camps when the height of sophistication was a chemical toilet in a tent. So as not to be interrupted you sing while you're in there, and the default song was always 'Lloyd George Knew My Father' to the tune of 'Onward, Christian Soldiers'. (It works to Land of Hope and Glory, too.) For the benefit of any of you who haven't known this song from the cradle, the words are

Lloyd George knew my father
Father knew Lloyd George
Lloyd George knew my father
Father knew Lloyd George.
Lloyd George knew my father... etc, etc

So my Girl Guide training came into good use whenever I answered the call. Before long, singing becomes second nature. I'd sing in the loo even if there was nobody else in the house.

After we got home that night, there was a text from LOS. 'Our neighbour said he enjoyed your singing. He said it made him feel very peaceful.'

I felt quite honoured. So my rendering of that beautiful spiritual had touched somebody's heart. Then it turned out that he heard me through the bathroom window.

Oh, and he's deaf. Now, there's a voice that sounds really great when heard by a deaf man through a plate glass window.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Wibbly-wobbly wordy-gurdies

It was most satisfying to write my letter sending Noxious Fogg off the premises. A number of people have shared it on their facebook accounts and I hope that it has helped other people to kick him off the premises. Result!

Today has been an exceptionally warm autumn day. Tony took the camera for a walk down to the river, where the salmon are leaping upstream over the weir. Sometimes you just have to swim against the current, don't you? I went outside and dug over one of the borders while Much looked on and told me how to do it, though I doubt he's ever handled a spade in his life. And I read something about advice for writers in getting the creativity going, which included some word games.

I don't use them much myself these days, but perhaps it's time I went back to them, if only for fun. When I was doing short stories and teaching creative writing I always had three envelopes on the go, each full of little cards. One envelope was characters, one was places, one was situations. Something like -

Science teacher, wizard, inventor, doctor, spoilt child, great-grandmother, footballer, ballet dancer, office cleaner, pony

Castle, park, ship, hospital, hovel, railway station, university, Houses of Parliament, mountain

birthday party, exam, trial, battle, wedding, Christmas shopping trip, losing your keys, training a puppy

except that I'd have at least twenty in each envelope. You shut your eyes and take a card from each (or place them face down and shuffle them about). Then for five minutes you write furiously about a footballer training a puppy in the Houses of Parliament, or whatever you've picked up. You can have an envelope for objects, too, if you like. Or do the same thing with pictures. The important thing is to KEEP WRITING, not thinking too much about it, for five minutes. Then sit back and see what you've got. It may go somewhere. It may not, but it will have woken your brain up.

A new one to me is writing a simple sentence and changing a word or two. Then do it again, as in

The sheep are in the field
The sheep are on the bus
The sheep are driving the bus
The alligators are driving the bus
The alligators have crashed the bus.
The alligators have crashed the speed record.

You won't get a novel, but it'll tickle your creative cells.

have fun!

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Away You Go!

A few weeks ago I was visited by somebody I don't like. I know very well that I don't like him because I've met him before - in fact, sometimes he's hung around for quite a while. But every time he comes calling I get better at seeing him off, and this time I thought I'd write him a letter. I decided to share the letter with you, in case he makes a nuisance of himself to you too.

Dear Mr Depression

When I call you 'dear' I don't mean that you're dear to me at all. You are only dear as in 'expensive', which you certainly are. You soak up energy like blotting paper. That's only one of the reasons why I'm not at home to you, Mr D, or, to use another of your names, Noxious Fogg.

I know you're there, I can smell your breath half a mile away. The doors are locked and barred against you, so you've ben lurking around looking for any open window or a a gap where a cold draught can creep in. You wait until I open the door to a friend so you can slip in with them and bring a foul damp draught, Noxious Fogg. But you've overplayed your scrubby grubby hand. We've had a few bouts, and I know your tactics.

You tell me lies about myself, about life, and about the world. You're clever enough to take a pinch of truth and stir it into your lie to make it convincing, and you lay a trail to send me down narrow alleys until I smack into a moudly grey wall. But not any more, because I can smell you coming and see the traps you set for me.

You wag your fingers at me and nag me for every decision I ever took and every mistake I ever made. Excuse me, but what is the point of that when all those decisions are in the past and we can't do a thing about them? And what a surprise! It's turned out pretty OK so far. So you listen to me for a change.

You want to move in with me again? Oh, but you wouldn't like it here. Don't you know that Somebody Good lives here? Lots of good people are in my life, they fill me up with love, and it grows like bindweed. This place is full of good stuff. You have no idea how much love there is here, and every time you go for me they gather round me and love comes rushing in. This too is real.

So let's say that you could be right, Mr Slimy Grimy Noxious Fogg. I may be a catastrophe who should never have been born. I may have messed up the lives of the people I love. But the funny thing is that they still love me, they make me laugh and bring out the best in me. Do what you like, there are roses in my garden, the sun rises, music sounds sweet and oranges taste of sunshine. Cats chase their tails. All this is real, and a sight more real than you, Mr Slimy Grimy Scrubby Grubby for-somebody-so-unimportant-you-don't-half-smell-bad Noxious Depression.

Oh, have you gone?

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Much and the Cat

There's one less visitor to The House of Stories. We won't be seeing my mate Jack no more.

We never did see 'im all that often because he were a well-mannered gentleman what didn't impose 'is company on anyone, but he'd pop in now and again just to say 'ello and see 'ow I were settling in. 'E introduced me to any 'edgehogs what were about, and the birds, too, 'cause 'e didn't go chasing after 'em like most cats would. Jet black with a shiny coat, was old Jack. Missus were always saying what a nice cat he were. Didn't make a fuss, but didn't run off either if you stopped to say 'ello. 'E used to like a bit of a sprawl in the sunshine, and don't we all.

Poor old Jack went out on the prowl on Saturday night and they found 'im on the road, Sunday morning. Bloomin' cars! If we all rode around on snails we wouldn't 'ave this problem. Never 'eard of no-one getting run over by a gnome on a snail, do you? But poor old Jack. 'Er doesn't 'alf miss 'im.

'Er even said something about getting a rescue cat. Dunno what 'er's thinking, 'er can't get 'er act together as it is, without some blooming moggy waiting round the corner to trip 'er up and doing its business on 'er garden. I says to 'er, not all cats are as nice as old Jack, and what would you do when you and Tony are away from 'ome? Can't expect me to feed it, I says. Jack was all very well but he belonged to the folks across the road, they were the ones what were always 'aving to feed him and wash 'is dishes and let him out and in again. And what about the birds? And what, I asked her, what do you think Hamilton would have to say about it?

So, if you're visiting The House of Stories, keep shtum. Don't mention cats, and with any luck she'll forget all about it.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014


Books come all at one, like buses. (Have we had this conversation before?) At the beginning of next year, out will come

The Summer Lion (it's not quite like Mistmantle but I suspect that if you like Mistmantle you'll like this book)

Stories of the Saints


Fifteen Things Not to Do With a Baby,

my first pre-school book, with illustrations by Holly Sterling who is young, talented, and a delightful person to have lunch with. We met today at a farm shop near Corbridge and talked about the new book, and launching it, and what we want to do next. You will see more of Holly's work in years to come, so remember, you heard it first from the House of Stories.

We're still having warm autumn days, so after Holly and I had sorted out the future of children's publishing I walked into Corbridge to catch a bus home, along a verge of sandy gold seed heads and brambles turning fiery. A tractor was ploughing steadily up a down a field, turning it over, putting the stubble back into the soil and preparing, I suppose, for the winter wheat. A rabbit said 'can't stop!' and ran across in front of me and into a hedge. Coming into Corbridge I caught a whiff of bonfire smoke, and then, and then, I remembered.

Long ago, we used to live in Corbridge. The house on the front of the blog was the manse in those days, and the little dog wagging his tail is Daniel. And this afternoon I found myself walking along the lane where I walked Daniel, or he walked me. First thing very morning when I opened our bedroom door, Daniel would scamper out and go to each of the children in turn to wake them up, then he'd take me for a walk up that lane. It was a sweet memory, but it hurt a bit too.

At this point, I should mention that Tony, the team at Wordpool and I are considering a revamp of the website. At the minute I don't quite know what will appear on it, but I'd like to keep Daniel. If you have any suggestions I will be happy to consider them, but I will have to run them by Much. And probably the Circle, too.

Meantime, look out for Holly.

Friday, 3 October 2014


Squash. I don't mean the kind of squash that you drink, or squash as in standing on a rotten apple, I don't mean squash as in thirty people in a normal sitting room. I mean, the squash that you eat.

Years ago when I was nine or ten and read LITTLE WOMEN I realised that a squash was something you ate, but I had no idea what sort of something, or whether I'd like it. We didn't have them in the UK then. We had marrows, which are a bit similar but by no means the same. As for pumpkins, they were only in storybooks. We made lanterns by chiselling the inside out of a swede (that's swede with a small 's', you notice) and believe me, it was like hacking through marble.

It's only in the last, say, ten or fifteen years that squashes have become popular here, and what a range of them! They come in colour from yellow to orange to deep green and I wouldn't be surprised to meet a purple one, and in size from a cricket ball to a hot air balloon. I know people who do wonderful things with squashes. Lady Sunshine is a complete genius of the squash. I bought one today - I forgot what kind it is, but it's dark green and about the size of a mango. I think I'm supposed to cook it whole, scoop its insides out and serve it with butter. If in doubt, I can paint it orange and tell it it's a mango. Or plant it and see what happens. Or hollow it out and make a lantern. Or ask Lady Sunshine. Come to think of it, I should do that first. And do it quickly, before Apple puts in in her revolting cordial. She's got that focused look about her.