Sunday, 31 May 2015


We had company last week - Oz and his Mummy came to stay. Oz is a delightful, sociable and very well-behaved little seven year old. His mum and I are old friends. I've known Oz since he was tiny, and he seems to remember me though I haven't seen him for a while - certainly he came running to meet me and brought me his toys to play with. We explored the countryside together. He ate whatever was put in front of him. He even sang me little songs while his mum was in the bathroom.

Oz is half Yorkshire terrier, half Bichon Frisee, total sweetie and utterly devoted to his mum. He reminded me of all the reasons why I like having a dog around as well as the all the reasons why I'd never have another one. (The commitment, the 'what do we do about the dog when we're not here/going to No Dogs Allowed places', the constant disposing of plastic bags, the cost of food and vet bills.) But it was lovely having him, and his mum too. I see my garden principally through my eyes - Oz saw it through his nose and found it fascinating. (Should I be worried?) He made friends with everyone and everything, even the ones who didn't particularly want to make friends with him. He scampered joyfully along the river bank finding new sniffs and went for a paddle to cool his paws. Oz is one of the happiest and most affectionate people I know. He may be small, but he's fast and I was impressed at his ability to catch a ball in mid-air even though I'd tricked him about the direction I'd throw it in. As soon as I've knitted him a black and white sweater he's going to try out for Newcastle goalie. Given the state of the defence he'll have lots to do.

Anthony de Mello pointed out that dogs are natural contemplatives. A dog watching a bird in a tree is totally absorbed in the bird in the tree. He isn't thinking about sleep, or games, or even food. When he has his dinner he'll be totally and absolutely focused on that. When his owner comes home, nothing else matters but that moment. There's nothing new about 'mindfulness'. Dogs have been showing us how to do it for years.

Friday, 29 May 2015


A certain person just said that she hadn't heard any news from Mistmantle lately, but there isn't much to tell just now. Everything's ticking over peacefully, all the usual things are happening - Spring Festival, small animals larking about in the water, Apple brewing up cordials that would dissolve a rock if it didn't run away fast enough, all ordinary stuff. Urchin and Sepia now have rooms in one of the turrets. Squirrels like living in turrets, it's a bit like being up a tree.

Tay now walks with a stick and I keep well out of her way in case she whacks me with it. Tipp and Todd came up with something quite wonderful - a chair with wheels for Gleaner! She's still grumpy, but now, with somebody to push her, she can be grumpy all over the island. Nobody enjoys being grumpy like Gleaner.

The sea has been calm, wonderful weather for swimming, fishing, sailing, or just splashing about. Corr has stopped travelling for a while, but he's doing some improvements on his boat and before long he'll be off again. On that subject, there's - well there's a bit of a whisper going round.

Queen Larch of Whitewings has never married and it seems that she never will, and she has no close family. She's under pressure now to choose an heir and bring him or her up to rule the island next. Everyone's concerned that if she chooses a Whitewings animal there'll be some ill-feeling about who it is. But what about a Mistmantle animal? The Queen comes from Whitewings. Prince Oakleaf would make an excellent king, but it would break his heart to leave Mistmantle, and Catkin needs him. Urchin has links with the island too, but he can't leave any more. So should she adopt an heir? From Whitewings or Mistmantle? And if so, who? But don't look at me. There are no otters on Whitewings and I'm not going to be the first. I'm having too much fun here.

Oh, before I go for a swim, I hear that some of you don't have a king or a queen, you have a pressydent. Can you recommend that?

Monday, 25 May 2015


What a lovely day that was! On Friday evening The Lassie (that's LYS'S wife, half of The Cahooties) and I went to a lovely London hotel and had a relaxing girly evening. The next day, off we went to the Chelsea Flower show which was glorious. When I first went to Chelsea Show, many years ago, everything was green and white and very formal. Now it has colour, natural planting, lots of blue and yellow/gold, and gardens which are gaspingly lovely but still look as if they made themselves. The stand with twenty kinds of many-coloured irises took my breath away.

Now, I have to be careful about saying this because SOMEBODY might take offence, but gnomes are banned at Chelsea. An exception was made a few years ago, as a charity thing, but the default at Chelsea is gnomelessness. There are reports of them climbing up the walls with grappling hooks or parachuting themselves in, but a parachute is not very practical if you're made of stone.

Or is it? I heard a story this year about Jekka McVicar, who for decades has been the queen of herb gardening and always had a garden at Chelsea. Apparently she has a favourite gnome who always comes with her to Chelsea and she hides him so cleverly in her garden that nobody sees him. If ever he wants a year off, I know somebody who might be willing to stand in. Well, sit in.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015


This is not an enlightening story, and not a very pretty one. And it disproves the theory that coffee keeps you awake.

Sunday was a long day. Tony was out all day, so the Sunday lunch was the Sunday evening meal, and afterwards I curled up in a corner of the settee with a good book and a cup of black coffee. Hamilton Bear, in his yellow sweater and white trousers, nestled in beside me and The Archers drifted past. (For those who want to know, Ed and Emma are getting married, Will still isn't speaking to Ed and Kenton still isn't speaking to David. Robert Snell and Jim, two of the most boring men in Middle England, are into competitive bird watching.) I was not aware of drifting into sleep - I suppose sleep and competitive bird watching are indistinguishable. Then past my ear stole the sound of tum-ti-tum-ti-tum-ti-tum, and I realised I had dozed off. And my mug of coffee was still in my hand. Well, some of it was. A little coffee can go a long way when no longer under the control of a responsible adult.

The settee is dark colours and doesn't show a thing, so that was all right, but Hamilton, dearly loved and respected bear, is a white bear in white trousers. I debagged him at once and found that the trousers had taken the worst of it. Hamilton was soon cleaned up and was really very nice about it, but so far I haven't been able to get the coffee stain out of his trousers. Anybody know? I may just knit him some more, maybe in a different colour.

Which leads me to wonder - could it be that Hamilton didn't really like his white trousers? Is he trying to tell me...? Could he possibly have...?

Sunday, 17 May 2015

What am I?

This morning I was on coffee duty at church. At various times during dishing up/washing up/escaping, my partner-in-coffee and I were referred to as 'the ladies' and 'the girls'. I'm used to neither of these titles, and pathetically grateful for both.

We all have so many names, pet names, job titles. We're defined by whose child/partner/parent/sibling/friend we are. Margaret, Margi, Mum, Thingy, the Woman that Writes the Books. (The Mistmantle animals call me 'She of the Stories'. Much calls me 'er.) I did my first teaching practice in a junior school which was one of the toughest schools in the area and occasionally I've worked with some very angry children. I've been compared to a lot of things, most of which have four legs and a tail. A nicer animal epithet was from the lovely auntie who used to call me 'pet lamb', which is an endearment I use to my godchildren.

I have been the typist (but secretary sounds better) and in all sorts of contexts I'v been 'the assistant', which sounds better than 'dogsbody'. 'My friend' is one of the nicest things in the world to be called, as is 'My teacher'. So here's something for you to think about. Of all the things that people call you, which means the most to you, and why?

For those of you who like to write, this may trigger something.

Thursday, 14 May 2015


They say that the British talk about the weather because we have so much of it. Oh, and plenty to spare. 'Nithered' is a good northern word for cold, chilly, freezing, a bit on the Arctic side. 'Margi, you look nithered!' as a colleague of Tony's once bellowed across a room to me. I was blue and shivering and his breath froze in the air as he spoke.

Yesterday was a full day. In the morning I went out dressed for the weather, which was about right for the time of year. A tad cool, but OK for the north of England. By three o'clock in the afternoon I needed to lose a layer. The woman at the greengrocer's stall in the market was turning pink, and the town filled with children eating ice cream. Blossom drifted from the trees.

Four hours later it was a case of head down, shoulders up, and battle the way through the north wind. It was nithering, nitherous, nitherish, it nithereth, I, you he/she/it am/is benithered. The Geordie word is 'caad'. Today, it nithers on. Ah, the ancient kingdom of Northumbria! Much has been said and written about the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, and how peaceful and remote it is, a 'thin' place between earth and heaven. All this is true, but it can also be the most nithering place on earth. It's in the north sea, for goodness sake! It was on Lindisfarne that I heard the expression 'that wind would blow the hair off a nanny goat'. Hadrian's wall is pretty nithering too.

But I hope I haven't put you off coming to our lovely remote county. Even when it's nithering it's beautiful, and welcoming too. And it isn't always nithering.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Cordial Greetings

We are in a state of chaos.

Apple, bless her, realised that all was not well at The House of Stories. We are still shocked and horrified at the state of the House of Commons, following the General Election. Apple thought she'd fortify us by bringing over a large bottle of her best cordial and, not wishing to trouble us, she left it at the bottom of the garden. (Apple's cordial is not alcoholic, I must make that clear. Any alcohol that comes near it wraps itself up in its own fumes and runs for the nearest distillery.) It may have been uncorked by an inquisitive sparrow, but it's more likely that it just blew its own stopper into orbit. Anyway, the garden creatures found it before I did.

I first knew something was wrong when I saw the scorched patch on the grass. All the dandelions are dead. Little stone Oliver was horizontal but his dog, Dodger, had the sense to leave the stuff alone and was cowering behind the shed barking a warning. Much had rolled off his snail and was face down in a cowslip. Mildred the Tooth Fairy, innocently on her way home from a local call, had stopped for a chat and some light refreshment. Poor Mildred. No fairy likes hanging upside down in a hedge while caught by her petticoat, and she has no idea how she got there. I think she'll be OK after a hot bath and an Ovaltine.

A cat and sparrow dispute had broken out. I supposed the cat would come down from the apple tree as soon as the sparrow stopped marching round what was left of the lawn chirping 'come and have a go if you think you're hard enough'. The magnolia was muttering something about a headache and crawling to the willow tree in the hope of extracting aspirin. Before anything else could happen, I poured the rest of the stuff down the drains.

Along came Apple. "That poor old cat don't look well," she said. "I know just the thing for 'im."

Haven't seen the cat since.

Friday, 8 May 2015

Oh dearie, dearie me

Oh dearie, dearie me, as Granny Weatherwax would say. We have a Conservative majority. That's absolutely fine if

you don't need health care

you don't go to school

you're not poor

you're employed on a decent wage

you have a house

you don't need benefits

you have a disposal income and a private pension

you'd like to make money from the NHS, education, or anything else that's supposed to belong to all of us.

I think that's enough to be going on with.

I think I'd like to go and live in Scotland. Or on Mistmantle. But no, we have to stay here. The local food banks need all the help they can get.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Conversation with Cat

Me - Hello, Harvey, what a handsome cat you are!

Harvey - I know.

Me - Let me give you a scratch under the chin.

Harvey - You may.

Me - You have such a lovely place to sit in the sunshine.

Harvey - It is my throne. I can observe the birds, none of whom are worth catching at present.

Me - While I'm here, I could start washing up the dinner plates.

Harvey - I love you. Let me rub against your legs. You are adorable.

Me - I think there's a little bit of ham left on the plates.

Harvey - How very surprising.

Me - There you are, Harvey.

Harvey - You are a good kitchen wench. More.

Me - All gone now.

Harvey - Plunge your arms back in the sink, woman. I am going for a sleep. Wake me when you have more ham.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Bank Holiday

You can tell it's May Bank Holiday because (a) there are Morris dancers walking around and (b) it's tipping down with rain. However, tomorrow the sun is supposed to come out and there will still be Morris dancers.

Now, for the benefit of any of you over The Pond - Morris dancing is Very English, like Shakespeare, tea with scones, and late running trains. Traditionally they are all male, but there are some rebellious women's Morris sides around now, I'm pleased to say. The traditional garb is

White shirt

black trousers, sometimes with socks over

coloured sash

hobnail boots

flowery hat

and - this is the important thing - bells. Bells on his boots, on his trousers, on his shirt, you can hear a Morris man three miles away. If you're a pub landlord it gives you warning to pull a few pints, because good traditional Morris requires good traditional quaffing. They dance waving handkerchiefs or banging sticks together. (Honestly, I'm not making this up.) And they tend to be accompanied by a man dressed up as a woman, or a guy with a hobbyhorse. It's all, as you have no doubt worked out, as mad as a brush and why anybody wants to do it is beyond me. But Morris dancers take it very seriously - it's tradition, after all - and take pride in putting on a good show. I reckon a Morris dance with nice colourful umbrellas would be a good call.

Another May Day custom here is a lot of choirboys singing on a tower in Oxford at sunrise. Whether they are volunteers or not I have no idea, but they're probably a lot easier on the ear than the Morris Men. But I like to see a Morris side. Keep dancing, chaps.

And this particular May Day - weekend - welcome to the world, little princess whatever your name is. Look out for Morris dancers.