Thursday, 30 July 2015

Otters on Lindisfarne

I may have told this story before, but there you go - we're keen on recycling at The House of Stories, and a good story can always bear a re-telling. I was telling this one to some children yesterday, and it went down rather well with them.

The Isle of Lindisfarne lies just of the Northumberland coast within sight of Bamburgh, which was the seat of the kings fourteen hundred years ago. It's a tidal island, which means that when the tide is out you can walk or drive to it. There's a causeway, and also the Pilgrim's Way across the sands. When Oswald became King of Northumbria in the seventh century he invited Aidan and a party of monks from Iona to share the Christian faith, and they began a monastery on Lindisfarne. Sometime after the death of Aidan, Cuthbert became the abbot of Lindisfarne.

Why Cuthbert is not the patron saint of the UK, I have no idea. Home grown and a thoroughly good guy, humble and spiritual with a respectable tally of miracles. I like him because he was animal friendly, too. On this coast there are eider ducks, which are not a bit like your average ducks. They are black and white (Newcastle United ducks) and they don't quack, they hoot. They are also the source of eiderdown, but Cuthbert wouldn't have had an eiderdown. Sacking and straw were more his sort of thing. And if anyone thought that eider duck would be nice for dinner - no chance. Not with Cuthbert around. They were under his protection. When he sat by the shore teaching, it's said that the eider ducks would gather round him. He was a man who respected all living creatures, and they accepted him.

'Tell us about the otters!' you cry. Here they come! One of the novice monks noticed that Cuthbert would leave his cell at night, and was curious to know where he went. One night, he followed him. Cuthbert walked down to the sea. (This was the North Sea at night, and believe me, it's freezing.) To the astonishment of the novice, Cuthbert waded up to his neck in the sea and stood there saying and singing his prayers as the waves washed around him. At last he came back to the shore and stood on the sand, dripping wet in the cold air.

Two otters ran along the shore to greet him. They rolled over his feet. They rubbed up against his legs and put up their paws for a cuddle. When they'd got him thoroughly dried off and warmed up, he blessed them and they ran away across the shore.

nd remind me to tell you, one day, about the time when I found that I needed otters on Mistmantle.

Friday, 24 July 2015


A little game, or writing exercise, to be going on with. A certain inspiring teacher out there might like to keep it in mind for when school re-opens. Apologies if I've told you before.

Many years ago when the children were all teenagers or nearly teenagers, LYS was watching a football match on television. He had decided to marry off his sister to a wealthy international footballer - I don't mean any wealthy international footballer in particular, any of them would do. I insisted on checking out this potential son-in-law first.

"He'll do," he said. I can't remember who the footballer was, and I wouldn't tell you if I did, but I think he was South American. "She could marry him."

"No she can't," I said. "I know about him. He doesn't speak any English and she only does French, they won't understand each other."

"That's fine, if they don't speak the same language it won't matter what she says to him. She can say anything, she can say elephant banana follicle."

Elephant, banana, follicle? He had no idea why he said that. Still hasn't. From that day on, I have been trying to get 'elephant banana follicle' into a book. I have failed beautifully, but that doesn't stop you trying. There you are, a game for long car journeys or a writing game to wake up the creativity fairy. Make up a sentence/short story including the words 'elephant, banana, follicle'. You could do a poem, but maybe you shouldn't try to make it rhyme.

Have fun!

Friday, 17 July 2015


Good morning. My name is Brother Flame, I am the priest on Whitewings, and I believe somebody has been asking for me.

This does surprise me. She of the Stories told me about some Franciscan brothers who say that they 'do good and disappear'. In the years when King Silverbirch was in charge, that was all I could ever do. I suppose I got used to it, because that's what I suppose I'm here for. Prayer and love are all that is required of me.

Prayer and love. This sounds lovely, doesn't it? Sometimes it isn't. Not during an epidemic of Vomit Fever, as often happens late in the winter, or the time when a lot of little hedgehogs ate some very dead fish on a summer's day. At times like that, a priest can go through a lot of clean tunics. But it so lovely to see the little things getting well again, and running about the beach. As for the young squirrels, their favourite thing just now is rubbing fine sand into their fur and pretending to be Urchin of the Riding Stars. One of the brightest moments in my life is sitting on a rock by the sea in the evening and watching small animals splash about in the water, chase each other up and down the shore, build castles and skim stones. It is a vital part of a young animal's growing up.

One needs to grow one's heart, that's the thing. She of the Stories and I often talk about how good things and bad things, joyful things and tragic things, are always happening at the same time, and it takes a big heart to manage them both. A heart fed on good things. What grows our hearts? What is good for our hearts?

Now excuse me, for I believe a young lady from your side of the water wishes to speak to me. Why me, I wonder? I must disappear again.

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Mr Holmes

Wimbledon is drawing to a close. Andy Murray went down with honour in the semis, but his brother Jamie is in the men's doubles final. The garden flourishes, Much and his snail are happy.

Last week Tony and I went to see Mr Holmes, the new movie about Sherlock Holmes in retirement. It stars Ian McKellen and picks up Conan Doyle's idea of Sherlock Holmes retiring to the south coast and keeping bees. We meet Holmes, mellowed by time but still razor-sharp, living quietly in the country and desperately trying to keep his memory from fading. There is a puzzle from his past that he needs to remember, and a touching grandfatherly relationship with the son of his war widow housekeeper.

McKellen, as usual, puts in a nuanced, moving, utterly convincing performance. The supporting cast is pitch perfect, too. There is tension, joy, and a satisfying resolution and I reckon you could take pretty well anyone to see it. And something that enchanted me all the way through was the sets. The scenery of the Sussex coast and the beautiful attention to detail. Tony, who is an expert on WW2 aircraft, said the pictures in the boy's bedroom were spot on. The furniture, the books and pens, the glimpse of a chamberpot under the bed, made the whole thing real.

Look out for Mr Holmes. I thoroughly recommend it.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015


Ooh, I am so excited. FIFTEEN THINGS NOT TO DO WITH A BABY is on the Book Trust list of the Best Books of 2015. Woo-hoo!

I feel so important. I think I shall employ a minder, a PR consultant, and a maiden to scatter flowers at my feet whenever I go to the paper shop.

I feel I have contributed something to society now. If it weren't for me, families all over the country would be pegging out their babies on the washing lines, sending them away in hot air balloons, and and swapping them for the school guinea pig.

I think I should now write one about FIFTEEN WAYS NOT TO RUN A COUNTRY. Don't put money before people. Don't make farmers sell milk for less than it cost to produce. Don't give all the top jobs to rich men from posh schools and then say we're all in this together, because we're not. Don't make people apply for jobs that they don't have a chance of getting because they're not qualified. Don't take money away from disabled people...

DO listen.

Saturday, 4 July 2015

Sunshine and thwack

It's been quiet at the House of Stories, don't you think? Well, of course it has, because

it's suddenly so sunny and summery and the garden is happy, so I have to be out there keeping it that way, and

it's Wimbledon. WIMBLEDON! And you know what that means. Nothing, or should I say Love, gets done until they've played this point. And the next. Until this game is over. Oh it's getting exciting, he's serving for the set. Better see the match through, then. Gie it laldy, Andy Murray. (Let me know if you want that translated.)

So what follows is a little summary of the little summery so far.

We've been to see the Cahooties new house and it's just fantastic, with plenty of room in it for me when I want to go and stay.

I have been silk painting. I got most of the pink stains out of the attic floor.

Much is surrounded by cornflowers. The roses are just beautiful, and the foxgloves are pinging up everywhere. I especially love the white ones. Angelique clematis has big mauve flowers, and pink valerian grows out of any bit of wall it can find.

The Archers - yes, I knew you'd want to know - is a hoot. Kate is determined to be a Good Mother to Phoebe by embarrassing her in front of her boyfriend and hijacking her birthday party. When she's not doing that she's trying to persuade her father to give her yet more money so that she can start a Tai-Chi school in the back garden. The Fairbrother brothers have bought 250 goslings and Kenton still hates everybody. Mike and Vicky are moving to Birmingham, so if anybody wants to be the Surly Village Peasant, there is a vacancy. Linda Snell is finding Eccles irritating. (Eccles is the feral peacock.)


It will soon be time for the Summer Reading Challenge, when children sign up to read lots of books during the school holidays, and parents/other adults pledge to support and encourage them. Next weekend, Northumberland County Libraries are attempting to make the Guinness Book of Records for the number of reading pledges made. I have been invited - and it's a great honour - to be present and oversee the proceedings on 10 July at Hexham Library as children, families and teachers sign up for the pledge! I so hope we get into the record books. If you're in Hexham, come to the library!