Friday, 30 October 2015


Oh dear, this might annoy some people.

I've never been much into Halloween, and when I was a kid it wasn't such a huge deal. We'd hack lanterns out of turnips (well, Mum did most of it) and put them on the doorstep. There'd be a lantern parade at school and maybe a party at Brownies/Guides. We did not dress up and knock on the doors of strangers. (The old Scots custom of 'guysing' is where this came from, but that was in the days when you lived in small communities and knew your neighbours, and which ones would have made toffee for the occasion.) All Saints Day, 1 November, was always the smell of burnt turnip, and mashed turnip for dinner. I hated mashed turnip.

I don't mind well-behaved kids coming to the door for a sweet, but what I do object to is the volume of tat, and it's not just Halloween. Let's look at it this way.

There are more and more people and the planet isn't getting any bigger. We have to think carefully before using resources to make stuff. We all know this. And yet, when I went shopping today, there was rubbish everywhere. Rubbish for sale! Hats, claws, masks, cloaks, horns, more and more of it, whole shelves and stands of it. Lorries have driven for miles pumping toxic fumes about and using petrol to get it to the shops. It will be worn for a few hours and binned next week. Landfill, here we come. Clear the space, ready for Santa Claus costumes. And if you want to be a princess/dragon/wild animal, you can buy a costume off the peg. It'll fall apart in six months but by then you'll be sick of it.

I'm not saying 'don't dress up'. I'm saying, have a great time dressing up. Buy stuff from charity shops and cut it up. Raid the cupboards for old curtains. Honestly, I'm not good at sewing but we always had costumes for Alnwick Fair when the kids were small. Worn out pillowcases make tunics. Masks are easy. Use your imagination. And take courage! Soon it will be over for another year, and we'll be celebrating All Saints.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

from the den of stories

We spent today at Cragside - a quite amazing place in Northumberland - with the Golden Child and her brother. What a day.

Cragside now belongs to the National Trust, who have done great things with it. was built by a Victorian inventor and was known as 'the palace of a modern magician'. It was the first house in the world to have electric lighting, because miles of wooded grounds with substantial lakes meant that he could generate hydro-electric power. In the house you can discover Victorian cutting edge technology and some quite beautiful William Morris wallpapers and curtains, Edwardian toys, and kitchens the size of our house. And a lot of children, at half term. It as a murky, foggy day, so there were lots of visitors indoors.

The grounds are better, though. And the half term activities. There was a man giving a fascinating introduction to edible insects. Yes, he did have samples. No, I didn't eat any. To my complete horror, the Golden Child and her brother did. No ill effects so far. I know, if locusts were good enough for John the Baptist they should be good enough for me - but no thank you, I'm a vegetarian.

Outside, the Trust had organised den building in a clearing among the rhododendron bushes with a lot of pruned branches and felled wood. There you are, everyone, build dens. It was perfect. Best playground ever. The Golden Child might look like Goldilocks but she has the strength of Father Bear and she and her brother carried branches about four times their own heights. Maybe that's what eating locusts does for you. We built a magnificent den and before we were finished they were putting up partition walls and making a table. But it would have been a bit uncomfortable to sleep in, so we piled everyone into the car and Tony drove us home through almost impenetrable fog. Golden Child and her brother are now in a state of total zzzzzzzzzz

... and will be until about 6.30 in the morning.

Thursday, 22 October 2015


I once did a book called 'The Life Shop' which had a kind of Dr Faustus twist. Some sinister people were trying to take over the world by running a catalogue - these days it would be a website - getting people to buy more and more of their goods and services, everything from toys to life insurance to further education courses. They had a kind of hypnotic effect on people. Their aim was really to bind people's entire lives to them. Could our heroine, her friend and her disabled little brother stop them? Have you met the heroine?

Of all the e-mails that come in every day, about a third are trying to sell me something. Especially, I keep getting adverts from people trying to sell me craft/knitting sewing magazines. Why? It takes me a week to knit a sweater, and by that I mean a teeny weeny one for a very small teddy bear, and that doesn't included sewing the buttons on. And they keep sending me -

Knit Your Own Furniture! October Edition with special section on plumbing! Crochet a cute drainpipe!

Patchwork House - recycle granny's bloomers to make our fantastic bread bin!

Sew and Go - The Craft Mag for Cyclists! See our stunning new ideas for lycra! Knit our goggles! Keep your bike warm with our amazing wrap trap!

On and on, and now next month's edition is due - crochet your winter insulation! Weave your own tree! Make a fab wedding dress out of your old curtains! And I haven't finished knitting the bathroom stool, making up the pirate themed tea cosy and the macrame slippers, I need to find wartime blackout curtains to make a graduate gown for next to nothing...

I wake up screaming. But it's all right, it was only a nightmare, and I'm safe in my own bed. And I didn't make the duvet cover myself, no way. And I'm not going to make it into a cute rag doll. I'm going back to sleep. If anyone e-mails me a craft magazine, delete it.

Monday, 19 October 2015


I spent Saturday at the UKMG - which is UK Middle Grade - Extravaganza. What happened was, they rounded up 34 children's authors and innumerable readers and librarians in Nottingham library. All the authors had a chance to talk about their work, there were Q and A sessions, and books were on sale. There was such a buzz, such a constant, excited, eager buzz about kids and books that we all left exhausted and high as kites. Readers asked great questions about the hows and whats of writing. It was only afterwards that I realised we should have had a panel of 8-13 year olds, so the authors could ask questions about what they read and what they love.

There is everything out there for children to read. History, adventure, sci-fi, humour, wolves and wishes, mountains and monsters. Thirty-four authors, and all completely different.

I chatted to a delightful eight-year-old who had a notebook on her knee and had been writing something during the session. Yes, she was writing a story and she kindly let me read it. THAT CHILD IS AFTER MY JOB. SERIOUSLY GOOD WRITING. One day I'll be telling everyone that I knew her before she was famous.

She'd arrived by train and saw a street name on the way to the library that set her imagination going. She became a child living in that street and I won't tell you any more because it was her story, not mine. But all you potential writers out there, that's how it's done.

Thank you to all the organisers of such a huge event, everyone who came, and Nottingham libraries. And next year, - whoopee! - it'll be in Newcastle.

Thursday, 15 October 2015


'I need to move the thingy,' says 'er.

'Give us a clue,' I says.

'You know, the thingy,' says 'er.

No, I didn't blooming know what 'er needed to move. The world? The dead stuff she just dug out of the garden? The 'edge'og 'ouse? The feelings of an 'eartless government?

"Not move it, dig it up," ssyd 'er. So she don't mean the world, the dead stuff, or the 'edge-'og house. Might still be the government, but I don't know.

"The, you know, the thingy," says 'er. "The doo-hickey, the how'syerfather, the whatnot. That big green thing."

Probably not the government then. If 'er's going to start digging up big green things, I'm off.

"The camellia," 'er says at last. "It never does much. We never get more than one or two flowers on it and there's a very pretty rhododendron behind it that can't see the light of day, so the camellia has to go."

Well, why couldn't 'er say that in the first place? What does 'er work with all day? Words, that's what. Communycating stuff. And 'er can't think of the word for a whacking great camellia thst looks 'er in the face every day. Dig it up if you like, missus, but try to remember what it is. And while you're at it, there's one garden word you really 'ave to remember, OK. It's this'un -

Gnome. Got it?

THE ARCHERS! I'm so sorry, I haven't told you anything for weeks if not months! How have you lived?

The Fairbrother brothers are trying to get everyone to buy their geese for Christmas. The Grundys, who have been selling turkeys for generations, are up in arms. Look out for poultry wars. Fortunately geese and turkeys are pretty stupid birds and won't work out how to blow each other up. For the first time I feel sorry for Helen, because Rob Tichener is turning into Svengali. If you want him pushed in the slurry pit, love, just let me know. Ruth's mother's funeral was yesterday, Jill Archer is living at Lower Loxley, Fallon and the policeman have moved in together, Phoebe's applying to Oxbridge and Kate's doing yoga.

Monday, 12 October 2015

To my dining room table

It's OK. I'm bringing lots of pots and pans from the kitchen and piling them on top of you, but this time it doesn't mean that we're moving. It's just because the new cooker is about to arrive, and I need to clear everything out from that corner of the kitchen so the men can install it. Then you'll be back to normal.

I really do appreciate you, you know. Don't listen to anyone who suggests we might need a new table. So you're a bit smaller than average. So am I, is it a problem? And what are a few battle scars between such old friends? In fact you're not just a friend, you're family. We've had you longer than the kids, for heaven's sake. I remember that you and the chairs cost about £30.00 second hand from lovely old Mr Lessimore's shop, and he turned up personally with the delivery men. He'd even polished you up.

How many nations have you hosted? Apart from British, I mean. American, Nigerian, Ghanaian, Swedish, Austrian, German, Dutch, Norwegian, Estonian, Japanese, New Zealanders, Indian. You remember my Uncle Ben, my godparents, Tony's folks and dear Gordon and Audrey. Remember the party after the twins' baptism, when you were covered with presents? You have hosted Christmas after Christmas, party after party. Around you we have eaten delicious meals and almost inedible ones, and survived. We have chatted, had rows, solved problems, and laughed until even you rocked.

You have born the weight of dressmaking and homework, jigsaws and modelmaking. And who supported all my earlier books? You did. I love you.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Poetry Day

Today is National Poetry Day. I have lots of favourites - Shakespeare's Sonnet 'Let Me Not To The Marriage Of True Minds' is one, and Yeats 'He Wishes For The Cloths Of Heaven'. Anything by Evangeline Paterson, who so kindly took an interest in a new and struggling writer and became my friend and mentor. T S Eliot, including all the cat poems, and I used to share A A Milne poems with my children. But for Mistmantle readers, today I'll offer you this - it's by Kenneth Steven, from the West of Scotland, and is in his collection 'Iona'

The Small Giant

The otter is ninety per cent water
Ten Per cent God.

This is a mastery
We have not fathomed in a million years.

I saw one once, off the teeth of western Scotland,
Playing games with the Atlantic -

Three feet of gymnastics
Taking on an ocean.

And perhaps you'll like this one, too, from the same collection -

After The Rain

I woke at first light,
Listened to the quiet after long rainfall.

Like a strange resurrection
The clouds were torn, blown into pale shreds,
October above them blue and beautiful.
I went out, barefoot, found the meadows lying underwater,
The oaks still above their own reflections.

I waded out through white water,
Swayed back folds of still water,
As the swallows flickered in the morning air
And the Sabbath bells flowed over the valley.

I thought of Christ in the fields of Galilee,
His feet swathing though lilies and water,
Early in the birdsong of the morning.

Let's do more poems! Tell me your favourites!

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Mistress Tay

Sometimes I don't know why I bother. I am seriously considering resignation.

There was a time on this island - not all that long ago - when one always knew where every animal was. If any creature was not doing suitable work, it had to have a good reason. Tower squirrels were busy in the tower, shore otters were busy with cargoes, moles dug tunnels where and when they were told, and hedgehogs just got on with whatever menial tasks common woodland hedgehogs are supposed to do. But that's not good enough for King - we have to call him that these days - Crispin.

I do my best to keep this island in order. At today's meeting of the Circle, I pointed out that otters were gathering on the sloping rocks over to the east side of the bay and sliding into the water. This was expressly forbidden under Rule 12 of the Reign of Queen Bangle.

"Is there such a law?" asked Docken. Really!

"Oh, yes," said Padra. "My grandfather used to tell me about that law. It was only ever meant to be temporary. There was a minor landslip a year or two into Queen Bangle's reign, which meant that the rocks around there became exceptionally slippery and the water underneath was full of fallen boulders. Anyone sliding down there at low tide would go down like a wet squirrel and hit something hard and sharp. That's why she banned it. But that was a long time ago. Erosion has done its bit, and it's all settled down now."

"That's all right, then," said Crispin. "That law can be repealed. See to it, Tay, and I'll announce it and send the messengers out with the good news."

"And,", I went on, in spite of being dismissed in such an off-hand manner, "There was a law passed by King Brushen - Rule 35 - that all animals capable of climbing trees were to spend three days in every season gathering wood for the use of the archers."

"Brushen was very keen on archery, wasn't he?" said Crispin. "But we don't need all those archers now." And then he stopped being flippant and fixed me with that look - the very unsettling way he has of looking right into one's eyes - and repeated himself, rather firmly and quietly. "We don't need all those archers now, Mistress Tay. Thank you for bringing this rule to my notice. It will be repealed immediately."

When the meeting was finished I left with a firm step to make it quite clear that I did not approve. But I paused outside - sometimes one needs to collect oneself - and heard him say to that annoying little page,

"Urchin, have a word with Needle and Thripple, please, and ask them to unwrap all the Threadings pertaining to Laws and Rules. Arran, Brother Fir, we'll go through them with Mistress Thripple and see if there are any other senseless rules that need to be thrown out."

Well, really. Sometimes I think I'm the only sensible animal on the island. And for that reason, I will not resign.