Friday, 22 December 2017


OK, 2017, thank you for giving me a new grandchild-in-waiting, a new FIFTEEN THINGS book - 15 Things Not to Do With a Puppy - delightfully illustrated by Holly Sterling, who is very good at drawing puppies. Speaking of puppies, welcome to Tide who lives with The Sunshines and is an absolute star. Thank you for all the times we've seen our little Welsh chap. Thank you for Greenbelt 2017, friends, family, learning something new, and going with The Golden Child and her mum to see The Royal Ballet dance The Nutcracker. We all came out of that feeling sparkly.

You took Mum, which was a kind and timely thing. You also took three lovely friends - Cecilia, Alan, Alistair, who all still had so much living to do. You very nearly took my sister, and left her so badly injured she was in hospital for over six weeks. In return, you gave me flu and bronchitis. I really don't know how to thank you. Oh, and a cool wet summer.

You also gave me the reliable cycle of times and seasons, the church festivals, new babies at the toddler group and older ones growing up. The reliable Tony, too, who drove thousands of miles helping my family out and kept things turning over when I've been ill.

In Scotland and Northern England we have the tradition of the Firstfoot, the first person to come into the house at New Year. It should be a dark man, and he is supposed to bring luck. In practice this usually means throwing one of the menfolk out just before midnight and letting him in again after the chimes. Last year, it was LOS. LOS, are you reading this? You're not doing it this year. I'll ask Hamilton to be first paw.

As for The Archers, they are completely out of control. Justin and Lillian's wedding is back on if he doesn't get arrested first. Freddie is permanently spaced, Pip is expecting a little accident, Emma's whingeing again, Linda insists on putting rhyming couplets into the pantomine, the vicar just exploded, Peggy's cat needs to be restrained under the Dangerous Animals Act, and Shula is going to Norway leaving Kenton to run things. Kenton can't run a bath. Never mind, he'll probably be eaten by Peggy's cat.

Happy Christmas! xxxxxxx

Sunday, 3 December 2017


The House of Stories has been the House of Plague for two weeks. Any small animals in the vicinity are wearing masks, except for the squirrels who are hiding under their beds in case Apple comes round with her cordial. One of my dad's old jokes was that flu is the result of leaving the window open, as in 'I opened the window and in flew enza', but it ain't funny when you're whimpering quietly under the duvet.

However, I'm back, thanks be to God, today I was back at church for the first time in two weeks, and it's Advent Sunday, the first Sunday of the watching, waiting and waking up time. One of my favourite Sundays, and the church's New Year. For the first time, we had a Posada.

In case you're not familiar with this, the Posada is a set of figures - Mary, Joseph, and the donkey - who need a place to stay in the nights leading up to Christmas, and families take turns to welcome them into their homes for a night. The figures have their own ministry, as they help us to think about hospitality, and homelessness, and recognising God when he turns up on our doorsteps. Our rector talked a bit about each of the characters, and we all had tea lights. We could light our tea lights for Joseph - the man who wanted to get out of this situation, but stayed - Mary, who had so many preparations to think of - or the donkey, faithfully carrying other people and their problems.

When the rector said that the donkey is the one who carries us when we need help, Tony and I decided that we are each other's donkeys, which may be one of the nicest things we've ever called each other. But the reason I lit a candle for the donkey is because the donkey plods on and does what it has to do, even though it doesn't have a clue what's going on. I totally identify with that donkey.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Fiddler's Green

I want to talk to you about this man, here -

Thank you John Wraith and Gillian Blamire for these beautiful photographs.

I grew up with the North Sea to the east of me and the River Tyne to the south. North Shields Fish Quay was where my grandfather used to go in the early decades of the twentieth century to buy fish fresh from the boats. It was also where his sister famously hit him across the face with a haddock. There were always bright little boats, and wooden crates piled with shining fish and ice. There were screaming gulls, men in oilskins, and, after the middle of the morning, the smell of disinfectant when everything had been scrubbed down.

Fishing is one of the most dangerous occupations going, and the harshest. Imagine ice in the marrow of your bones and your hands too cold to feel, sleet spray in your face with teeth that bite to your heart, and the unrelenting, muscle-wrenching graft. The ganzies (sweaters) those men were had to be knitted with the thickest wool on the thinnest needles, an almost impossible task, to make them as dense and warm as possible. The other thing about the ganzies is that the different fishing villages had their own designs. if a man was lost at sea and washed up on the coast, the locals could find out where he came from by the design on his sweater. Tough as hawsers, those men.

It happens rarely these days, but it happens, that a boat comes back without a full crew. Every fishing town and village has its stories about fishermen lost at sea.

A year or two back, some inspired people in North shields and thereabouts decided that there should be a memorial to the fishermen lost at sea, a tribute to them and a focus point for those whose men never came home. This year, Fiddler's Green was unveiled. 'Fiddlers Green', they say, is the place where fishermen go when they die, a kind of fishermen's heaven.

So here he is, sitting on the Fish Quay be the Tune with his boots, his ganzy, his cap, and a ciggie in his mouth. His face is weathered. He is part of our story.

Friday, 3 November 2017

Now the dark nights are here

You can tell the clocks have gone back. Assorted monsters, ghouls and things with white faces turned up on the doorstep on Tuesday night. Yesterday I was in Newcastle, where my friend Mary and I got together to see Northern Ballet dance their beautiful, lyrical Little Mermaid. Walking back to the bus station, we tried hard not to look at Christmas trees. Yes, it's November, Halloween is over, so the shop windows are full of Christmas trees and sparkly things. We looked ahead of us, walking briskly, talking about the ballet with its lovely underwater scenes and the little red seahorse. No, we are not looking at Christmas yet. We are sort of thinking about it, as in what our children will be doing and what presents to give, but that's the secret workings of Christmas. Not the shop window.

The changing of the clocks seems to have made dear old Ambridge kick off. Sit up and take notice, it's time for The Archers. Lately, I could take or leave it. Kate's daughter is turning into mini-Kate (there's a surprise) and they deserve each other. There is a battle for a place on the Council, young Emma up against Mr Boring, who is being bullied into it by his wife. Roy is pretty boring, too, as he hovers nervously round Lexie. Pip is getting back together with useless Toby. Lilian, the seventy-year old gin-soaked man eater, was happy with her new chap and they were planning their wedding when Sleazy Matt turned up again. Matt is Lilian's previous. He is also a nasty manipulative piece of work, but hey, they had some good times before he took all her money and scarpered to South America, didn't they? He has tried to win her back and came so close to succeeding that the nation held its breath.

NB Meetings and social events start at 7.30 sharp. Waiting to hear the end of The Archers is no good reason for being late, unless you tell us all what happened. Will she, won't she?

Anyway, to cut a long story short, when everybody who is anybody was at the Jolly Old Hunt Ball, Matt wandered drunkenly across the road and got knocked down by a car that didn't stop. He is recovering, Lilian is always at his bedside, and there is much speculation on who was behind the wheel. If I were a betting woman I'd put a tenner on the ghost of Grace Archer or young Freddie out of his head on magic mushrooms. But Matt should have taken more care. This is Ambridge. Soapland. It's dangerous out there.

Grace Archer died in a fire, Polly Perks in a car crash. Mark Hebden? Also a car. Both those sisters were widowed young. Pat and Tony's son John died when a tractor fell on him, Nigel famously fell off the roof (and it's never been so much fun since). Put on your high vis jackets, everyone, and your stab vests. And no climbing on roofs. This is Ambridge.

Monday, 16 October 2017


Have I ever posted about football before? Probably not, because I'm not that bothered about it unless Newcastle are playing. But The Magpies are in the news tonight, and this time it's not because we've been beaten. (Drew with Southampton away at the weekend, if you'd like to know.)

I never knew a thing about football except that you have to kick the ball into that net thing at the end. Preferably the right net thing at the right end, or they call it an own goal, which isn't fair because it's an accident, or even a gaccident. I always thought it would be more sensible to give them a ball each, then they wouldn't have to fight over the same one. But when I had two growing sons I learned very quickly. They were happy to explain things to their ignorant-but-willing-to-learn mum, and I learned phrases like 'strike partner', 'top corner' 'THAT WAS A PENALTY', and 'couldn't hit a cow's bum with a tennis racket'. I could enjoy watching football with two enthusiastic sons. Hamilton Bear got absolutely passionate about it. The boys were here this weekend and he was in seventh heaven, watching Match of The Day with them.

The news tonight is that the present owner of the club, Mike Ashley, is selling it. Mr Ashley - how can I put this? - has not been universally popular with the fans. He has not endeared himself to the crowds at St James's Park. He does not, shall we say, enhance the quality of conversation at the Leazes End. There is now much speculation about who will own Newcastle United next, and whether it'll be all sorted this year, and what effect it will have.

What is called for here is for the club to be bought by a loyal black and white syndicate. I suspect the buy out team is already gathering in a Tynemouth pub -

'Money doesn't grow on trees, so let's get fund-raising. Pass the hat around. Get some lottery tickets. We can have a quiz night, and a raffle, definitely a raffle. Who'll give a raffle prize? Bill?'

'You can raffle me Granda. He makes a grand garden gnome.'

'I'll hire out the bairn for bird scaring. And we'll have a Christmas Fair.'

'Tracey, get knitting. You can sell little cuddly black and white teddy bears for a fiver a kick. Linda! Linda! You can do the cake stall. Chocolate cupcakes, scones, brownies, lemon drizzle, never mind as long as it's all black and white. We'll have a Kevin Keegan lookalike competition and we'll get Rafa Benitez to be Father Christmas. How much do we need to make? About 200 million? Nee bother. We'll make that much just by raffling Bill's Granda.'

Wednesday, 4 October 2017


Yes, I'm still here. Sorry. Family stuff, work stuff, garden stuff, church stuff, going on holiday, going to sleep. All of that. But I'm still here, and I hope you are too. The tree in the garden keeps dropping apples on us and I caught sight of a certain squirrel with a basket on her arm.

You might remember that Mum died in May and the following day my sister was in a terrible road accident. Well, my sister's care was excellent, she is a tough lady, she was well prayed for, and she is now getting about on crutches. She, thank God, is still here. This week we met to put Mum's ashes in the soft dark earth.

There were just five of us there, her two daughters, two sons-in-law, and the vicar. We gathered in the Garden of Remembrance outside the church by the sea where she was married. From then on she attended week by week until dementia and frailty crept up on her. She ran the Mothers' Union for a while, and a playgroup, she baked, dished up and washed up as church ladies do, she befriended, encouraged, and generally did what needed doing. For a while she and her friend did the cleaning of a little upstairs chapel while listening to the organist practising. Our cat was a church cat. (A church kitten, in fact. The curate adopted a stray which promptly had babies. His landlady didn't mind the cat but she wasn't taking on the whole family, so the kittens needed homes. Ours proved to be an Alpha Female. She'd follow us to church and be carried out by a fully robed acolyte.)

I digress. This is about Mum, and she would not be pleased at being upstaged by the cat. Now that dementia Mum has died I have much clearer memories of the way she was in her best days, practical, welcoming, funny, down to earth. She loved having a houseful of friends, especially young people. There was always cake in the tins and a sewing or knitting project on the go. We argued a lot, I raged at her in my teenage years. Mums can cope with that.

We met on a bright, windy afternoon. Mum would have said it 'blew the cobwebs away'. The sky and the sea were bright blue beyond the green as we settled her into the earth and remembered her tucking us into bed. It was her day.

For her and for those of us here, there is the Celtic Blessing. There are various versions of this about and I can't trace the origin, but it comes from the Celtic Christian tradition. I think I first heard of it via the Iona Community.

Deep Peace of the Running Wave to you
Deap Peace of the Flowing Air to you
Deep Peace of the Quiet Earth to you
Deep Peace of the Shining Stars to you
Deep Peace of the Son of Peace to you.

Thursday, 7 September 2017


For the first time since I can't remember when, I have a whole day at home. The end of August took us to Greenbelt Festival, which you'll find here

and it was like this -

and this


and Hamilton was such a Greenbelt Bear

It's about faith, arts, and justice. The sun poured down on us through beautiful music, incisive and inspiring talks, performances, crafts and worship. Lucy Grace gave a moving and funny one woman show about her hunt for Lucy Barfield, C S Lewis's goddaughter to whom he dedicated The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. Katherine Welby-Roberts talked with great clarity, humour and honesty about mental health problems. The Nine Beats Collective, who take the Beatitudes as their principle for life, did compelling real life stories and loud music. John Bell of the Iona Community talked about Brexit and Trump, and absolutely nailed it.

My head was still spinning when we came home and Daughter, Daughter's Chap and Frodo came to stay, then LOS and Lady Sunshine arrived. Much hugging, splashing and blowing of bubbles. Then there were some very busy days to do with church stuff. And now I'm back at the computer, with the air outside turning autumnal, the apple tree heavy, and blackberries in the garden. Time for a change of pace, and to process all that I learned and experienced at Greenbelt so that I carry it into the new season.

Thursday, 17 August 2017


On Sunday afternoon I was in puppy heaven. We visited a ruined castle on the Welsh Borders and found that it was a magnet for families with young children and dogs, all of them impressively well behaved. I met so many puppies! The kids were delightful too, but PUPPIES!!!! A teeny beagle and a teenier Yorkie running around like an animated toothbrush. A St Bernard with a coat so thick and soft you could have lost a small child in there. Some sort of poodle cross looking for things to bark at. I'm very much looking forward to meeting somebody's new spaniel puppy soon.

All these, apart from the poodle thing, were pedigrees. I'm not. I'm a mongrel. I like mongrels. They tend to be tough. I have a friend who can trace her family back to ancient Norsemen via Alfred the Great. There was some serious nobility in her family, but, as she says, the nobles didn't get there by being nice.

Various people have climbed into the branches of my family tree. They either fell out or got dive bombed by puffins. We know that the Scottish branch goes back to a place near Glasgow where there were so many McAllisters it becomes impossible to find out which one was which. Grandma's lot were Londoners/South Coast and somebody reckoned that they were descended from the Bourbon kings, but to be honest the Bourbon kings weren't that particular and I suspect a lot of us are descended from them. As for Mum's family, it seems that for generations they wandered around England to wherever the work was. However, I have reddish hair, pale skin and blue eyes, so that means I have real ancient Pictish ancestors. They're just mixed up with a lot of other things, bits of Saxon, Viking, Norman, and, for all I know, refugees from anywhere in Europe that was going into meltdown.

None of us, or very few, are pedigrees. In the UK, unless all sides of your family have occupied the same few Celtic counties for hundreds of years, you're a mongrel. In the States, unless you're pure Native American, you are descended from immigrants.

Whatever you believe your race to be, we are all mongrels.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017


Dear Sunshine

If we have said or done anything to upset you this August, we in the north of England are truly sorry. We didn't mean it. We love you very much. And we miss you. We've hardly seen you for weeks and weeks. Please come back. We promise you ice cream and sun cream, t-shirts and tea in the garden, beaches and peaches. We will wear shades and drink Pimms in your honour. If you want water fights, you can have them. Pour into our gardens shine through our windows, and stay as long as you like.

Last week Tony and I read the weather forecast and went to Harlow Carr anyway. All those gardens! As well as the walks, the borders, the ponds and the stream there are plenty of places to take shelter - little wooden sheds, the exhibition, the funny little alpine house and the summer house. It didn't matter that the rain starting pelting down soon after we got there because we were in Betty's, ho-ho, having lunch. By the time we'd finished the 'I really really shouldn't' and swigged the coffee, the sky was clear.

We'd wandered the woodland and had a pleasant chat with the moorhens when the rain began again and bucketed down for twenty minutes while we took shelter. Then the sun came out and we walked up between the flower borders. Raindrops shone on leaves, lay on petals, and hung on to the delicate grasses. Sunshine made them sparkle. We walked through fields of diamonds.

The next day brought another kind of diamond. I attended a Quiet Garden Retreat Day. A local lady, kind, wise and experienced in spirituality, opened her home and garden for retreatants. She gave us some thoughts and readings to be going on with and let us read, draw, pray, meditate, and enjoy the garden. I made friends with a cat. I thought about treasure. I came away with more diamonds.

Monday, 24 July 2017


A mess tends to get worse before it gets better. It is important to remember that. This week I tried to do some sorting out of all the knitting, sewing and crafting stuff that has gathered round me over the years. Yes, I do mean 'gathered around me'. I don't deliberately acquire it. It tangles me up. It follows me home. Beads, needles and ribbons are sociable creatures and gather together. They collect each other, as teddy bears do. That's why they don't stay in their own bundles, they cuddle each other, they twist up together and tie themselves in knots. Me too, if they get the chance. I fought off several metres of organza ribbon. half a mile of pink bias binding nearly choked me, and don't get me started on bead wire. That was an encounter I'd rather forget, but they don't call it Memory Wire for nothing.

I blame the daughters-in-law. (The Daughter is Innocent in this.) A few years ago we went to the Knitting and Stitching Show, and did they try to stop me? Did they drag me away from the special offers? No, they stood and smiled, that's what they did. And last Monday when we were staying with the Sunshines, I happened to say something to Lady Sunshine about knitting. She TOOK ME TO A WOOL SHOP. WHAT HAVE I EVER DONE TO HER? A real wool shop, one of those teeny weeny Tardis places down a little side street. When I walked through the door I would have fainted if there'd been anywhere to fall over, but the stands of haberdashery held me up. To get a good look at the wool meant thrashing a way through the jungle. I left without buying anything in there, but only because I was overwhelmed and you can't handle cash when you're shaking.

Recently I also acquired all of Mum's knitting and sewing stuff. The plan now is to get the daughters-in-law here, pile up all the craft stuff and let them help themselves. They can go and cram boxes of it in their own houses. Except the reindeer ribbon, of course, I really like that. And the oddment of coloured silk, I'm sure I'll use that one day. And everything in the shoebox.

Yesterday I knitted a butterfly.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Wimble Much

It's Wimbledon, and this is really not bad weather for it. It's sunny in London and cool here with a fair bit of rain, so there's an excuse for staying in and watching the tennis instead of gardening. However, Much and Oliver are both made of stone and the weather doesn't bother them a bit. In fact, Wimbers is about the only time Much can be persuaded to get off his snail.

Oliver has been into tennis all his life, but Much only learned it after he moved here. Oliver's very patient, especially as Much's first idea about tennis was to hang on to his racquet with both hands and wallop the ball into the next county. However, he's getting the idea now and it's a long time since any sheep were concussed. Dodger runs about being the Ball Dog, and doesn't necessarily bring it back.

Our garden community has been joined by the sweetest little black cat, a very smooth, small black one with bat ears. I've given him the talk about birds, and he doesn't chase anything bigger than insects and the wavy tops of grasses. I'm looking forward to seeing him watch the tennis. (No, they don't make racquets out of you know what any more.) So our garden is dripping wet but it is a glory of roses, lavender, gooseberries and stone people playing tennis.

Somebody asked me if there were fairies in my garden. Don't be so silly!

Wednesday, 28 June 2017


I've always been a fidget. A wriggler, a hair-twister. I can't sit in a meeting without a notebook in front of me. It's supposed to be for making notes, but by twenty minutes in I'm drawing flowers and little houses. I can't sit in front of the television without something to knit, sew, cut out, or puzzle at. Other people sit quietly in the garden with a drink. I have to pull out the weeds and pinch the dead heads off the pansies.

I also fidget write. I have to have some little piece of work going on, if only to play with. At present I'm in the rare position of doing one book at a time, which rarely happens. And my one book is at the stage where I have to leave it to get cold before I can go back, re-read and revise. I'm twitching for some fidget writing.

Maybe a picture book text. What hasn't been done? What would I like to do? A penguin story? A polar bear? An elephant?

A re-telling of a fairy tale? Or a legend?

Something that's never been done before? So what would that be?

Whatever I might come up with, I will never, ever, write anything so incomparably perfect and lovely as Paddington Bear. Thank you, Michael Bond, who died today at the age of 91, for giving us Paddington. The world of children's books just now looks for excitement, danger, adventure, thrills, pace. Perhaps we're all missing something. We're missing the fact that generations of readers have warmed to the stories of a gentle and sensible bear who doesn't storm about, do anything stupidly dangerous, or even fidget. He gets on with things, speaks politely, and raises his hat, and the world is better for him.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

To explain

It's been quiet at The House of Stories lately, so I thought nobody was calling any more. But a few visiting cards have dropped through the door, so perhaps I should catch up and explain what's been going on. Writery things are going on, but nothing that's at the discussable stage yet.

My sister is home! A senior nurse at the hospital said she'd never seen a recovery like it! She is still using a frame to walk and taking a lot of painkillers, but she will get there. The cat was standoffish for a few hours then said, 'oh, go on then,' and curled up on her mummy's very comfortable bed.

Over the month or so when I was in and out of care homes and hospitals, the garden thought I'd moved out. But I'm giving it all the t and c I can now, and the roses are so happy I can see them dancing about and giggling when they think I'm not looking. I've just thinned out the cornflowers because Much couldn't see a thing, and now he's chatting away to a wild rabbit who comes in now and again and eats the dandelions. We'll have gooseberries soon. The blackcurrants haven't done a thing, but fortunately next door's are growing through the fence.

And for all of you Over The Pond who are dying to know about what's really happening over here, let me explain about (1) The General Election and (2) The Archers.

The Prime Minister said she wasn't going to call a General Election, and called a General Election. Everyone said that Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, was unelectable, largely because he was an old-fashioned leftie who cares about people, grows things on an allotment, and makes jam. It turns out that people, especially young people, like old-fashioned lefties who care about them. And jam. Anyway, Jeremy Corbyn did brilliantly well, won a lot of seats, and lost, except, in another sense, he kind of won. The PM lost a lot of seats and won, but no longer has enough seats to ride roughshod over the rest of the country and is frantically swapping marbles in the playground with any party who will prop her up. She has not yet approached the Monster Raving Newport Pagnell Liberation Front, but give her time.

Proportionately, Labour won and the Liberal Democrats did really well, but we don't do proportionate. So that's all clear and simple, then. And countries all over Europe are weeping with laughter and holding each other up.

And the thing you really want to know about - Justin Elliot wants to buy some land from Tony Archer to build houses. No, Susan, not a multi-storey mega pig rearing unit, houses. Freddie Pargeter bunked off an exam to go to a music festival with Johnnie and came home with a dodgy looking tattoo and a big smile. His mum Elizabeth is livid, and will probably shove him into an ancestral cannon and fire him into the middle of next week. Toby and Pip have split up. James and Leonie, who between them are wetter than a swimming pool in the monsoon season, had a very public hissy spat and stalked off in opposite directions, so Lillian and Linda are having a mud-slinging match. All's well in dear old rural England, my merry morris dancers.

Friday, 19 May 2017


Yes, it has been a long time, hasn't it? There are very good reasons for that.

In May last year, we were all waiting for a birth as my grandchild dithered as to whether he could be bothered to be born. Eventually the decision was taken out of his little hands because he was a Caesarean baby.

This year, we were waiting for a death. My ninety-three year old mother was slipping gently away, and I wanted to be there at the end. There is too much and not enough to say about a woman who as well as daughter, sister, wife, mother and great-grandmother was nursery nurse, carer, nurturer, homemaker, indefatigable cook, needlewoman, encourager, grafter, and a friend and confidant to so many. She could be funny, she could be terrifying. Above all, I think, she was a welcomer and thrived on offering hospitality.

We were prepared for that. We weren't prepared for what happened next day, when my sister was in a road accident so severe that we didn't know whether she'd see the next morning, or whether she'd ever be the same person again. A lot of prayer happened. To cut a long story short, she is now recovering from multiple injuries but they are mostly broken bones and will mend. Her brain is as sharp as ever. The care she is receiving is world class, and yet again I treasure the NHS. I will be grateful all my life to the off duty doctor and nurse who helped at the scene, the paramedics, and the air ambulance team.

At The House of Stories, we are all so thankful. The Sunshines, Hobbits and Cahooties have been so wonderful that I want to cry just thinking about it. I love this family. And I am so glad that my sister and I are daughters of a tough wee woman.

Monday, 1 May 2017

Hope the Hedgehog

Hope may be a small hedgehog, but he's a big favourite with readers of The Mistmantle Chronicles. I was telling him about my sister, who looks after five rescue hedgehogs, and he was very interested in that. He also wanted to know about May Day, and I told him it was a bit like Spring Festival but with different dances. Then I had to explain.

Morris dancing, I said, is usually done by men in white shirts, dark trousers, long socks, and big noisy clogs on their feet. They wear bells, too, so they have music wherever they go. And hats with flowers on. And they wave white hankies, or, in some cases, swords.

"Isn't that dangerous?" asked Hope.

"It depends on the Morris Men," I said. "Mostly the ones with swords are the rapper bands. The rappers are sort of bendy swords and they weave them together to make a star."

"Then do they all go to hospital?" asked Hope.

"Not usually," I said, and, seeing that Hope was getting a bit worried about this, I moved on. I told him all about Maypole dancing, which, if you've never seen it done, features a tall pole with coloured ribbons attached and the dancers weave in and out so that the ribbons wrap very prettily around the Maypole. Then I had to explain it all again, because he was very interested. Next, he asked if I could very kindly lend him a bit of bamboo cane and some ribbons, and where exactly does my sister live?

So Hope is off to my sister's garden to teach Maypole dancing. If you live in Northumberland and find a bunch of hedgehogs rolling about trying to pull the ribbons off each other's prickles, please stop and help them. Carefully. At least it's safer than clogs and rappers.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Good Things

Away from the island, good things are happening. We've just come back from a weekend with Lovely Older Son and Lady Sunshine and Lovely Younger Son and The Lassie. Sunshine, blossom on the trees, and lovely Yorkshire landscapes to explore. LOS and Lady Sunshine were dog-sitting, so we were accompanied by a dog who loved people but wasn't so keen on other dogs. There was a lot of steering him round trees and up hills to avoid him meeting anyone he might want to attack. (I wonder if it would work on some of our world leaders?)

The garden is happy. It is also a mess, because I haven't had time to attend to it lately. Yesterday I had a substantial piece of work to finish, so I decided to cut the grass afterwards. It was a mild, sunny morning, with washing blowing merrily on the line. In the afternoon, hailstones were stotting (a Northumbrian word, means exactly what it sounds like) off the pavements. Then I had a migraine so I curled up on my bed for three hours, and when I woke up, I'd missed the snow. Yes, we get weird weather in the north.

Good news - Newcastle United have won their promotion back to the Premier League. To this part of the world, that's the equivalent of winning a war, a marathon, Wimbledon and the lottery all at the same time.

My sister is now fostering five hedgehogs, which are doing extremely well.

And Why Haven't I Read It Before? I'm reading Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, one of those books I've always heard about but never read. It's one of the funniest things I have ever read and a great bit of escapism too. I find myself muttering to myself - 'I mun scranlet they turnips, I mun milk they dumb beasts, tes all accursed and flying in the face of nature...'. Just read it.

Friday, 21 April 2017


Hello! I haven't blog posted anything for a while because (a) there's been a lot going on, and (b) I wasn't sure if anyone was reading it much these days. Is there anybody out there? However, I just heard about somebody who would like to know what Sepia has been doing, so I went to the Tower, but she wasn't there. She wasn't in her Song Cave, either. Finally I found her in curled up in a tree, and she asked me to tell you -

I had a tickle in my throat yesterday, so I took some honey and thyme and rested my voice, but it didn't do any good and today I can hardly speak, let alone sing. If I take a deep breath I just cough. I'm supposed to be teaching the choir a new song today, but I asked Needle to sort it out and she's asked Juniper to teach them, so that's all right. I'd quite like to go out for some fresh air, but it might not be a good idea.

Back in the winter I had a sore throat just before the festival. I couldn't go from here to the Tower without animals stopping me and fussing and offering me all kinds of strange medicines and advice. Some of them said I should wear two scarves and a pair of slippers. Some said I needed to rest, and some said I should take a brisk run through the trees, and of course Apple sent a bottle of her cordial which made my eyes water as soon as I took the top off. (I didn't drink it. Please don't tell her.) So this time, I 'm staying in my nest, keeping quiet, and hoping nobody notices that I'm not around. Urchin promised not to tell Apple. Later, Needle and Crackle will come round with all the news of the Tower and some honey biscuits, and it'll be fine so long as I try not to cough over them. I will rest myself better. That's all I need.

I must tell Needle not to make me laugh. I'd have a coughing fit.

Poor Sepia! I'm sure she'll be well soon. In the meantime, I feel so sorry for those of you in far flung places who can't hear The Archers, so here's your update. Tom isn't speaking to David and Ruth isn't speaking to Pip.
Justin and Lilian are getting married. Emma's working three nights a week in a chicken factory to pay for the kids' birthday presents and Ed is a Grumpy Grundy. Elizabeth is planning a party for her fiftieth, which should be fun with all the family falling out.

People are still speaking to Josh. I can't think why.

Friday, 24 March 2017

A Lot Of It About

A lot of the visitors to The House of Stories are American. If you're from the US, you may have heard that the British are always talking about the weather. It's true, we do that. We have to. There's a lot of it about.

Tony and I had two wonderful days on Holy Island at the weekend. If you don't know about it, it's a tidal island off the coast of Northumberland, cut off by the tide twice in every twenty-four hours. It's also wild and windswept, a haven of wildlife, and the cradle of British Christianity, and none of this begins to describe it. It's often called a 'thin' place, where there's little to separate earth and heaven. The wind sweeps across the North Sea, and the North Sea changes colour constantly. We walked for miles, with the wind or against it.

We came home on the first official day of spring, which coincided with a cold snap. On Wednesday morning, we woke up to three inches of snow which had flattened the daffodils. By the time I went out it was slithery slush, and today was warm enough for Tony to sit outside with a book. Now do you understand why we go on about the weather?

And isn't it a long time since I told you about The Archers? I know some of you are dying to know what Pip did next. She's still with Useless Toby. If you want to slap the pair of them, you'll have to join the queue. Eddie and Clarrie are doing B and B, Linda declared war, Justin proposed to Lillian and Lillian had a fit of the vapours. David and Ruth's cows caught Wobbly Hereford Disease or something and have been given the vaccine. If they've got any left they could give Toby a shot.

Thursday, 16 March 2017


Today I've been thinking about seals. The breeding season hasn't started yet, but soon they will be rolling about on the shores of remote islands, and not so remote ones too. There will be boat trips to the Farne Islands to watch for them. You might like this -

You know how you feel when you've overeaten? (Serves you right.) That's what seals look like on land. Stuffed. Unable to do anything but flop solidly on to the nearest horizontal space while gazing out from those big brown eyes. But in water they are fast, they are graceful, they are sure.

In parts of Scotland there are all sorts of stories about the Selkies, or Silkies. They are seals who arrive on land and take human form, usually the form of a beautiful woman. in some cases they have to fold up their sealskins and keep them safe so that they can return to the water. The usual tale is that a man falls in love with a selkie woman and marries her, but in time she yearns for the sea and nothing he can say or do will make her stay. She takes her sealskin, runs to the shore, and returns to her life in the sea. If you're a seal, you're a seal, and it's no good trying to be anything else.

Thursday, 9 March 2017


We haven't heard from the island for a while, so I thought I'd have a little potter about and see what's happening. There was Fingal, and I wondered what had happened to his tail.

Oh, don't worry, that'll grow out. I was doing a bit of maintenance work on the boat, some paint and a new sail. Ffion came along and watched for a bit and of course she wanted to help. Oh yes, she had a frog with her. They seem to follow her around. I'm surprised she hasn't eaten one yet. Anyway, the big paintbrush was too heavy for her, so she tried dipping my tail in the paint, but a full grown otter's tail is not a good paintbrush and it didn't go well. So then she tried using her own tail, which is smaller and neater but not quite within her line of sight unless she rolled over on her back. That worked reasonably well, and there wasn't much paint left in the pot when she knocked it over.

Of course it doesn't wash off, it's boat paint, it's not supposed to! It doesn't look too conspicuous, though, because she got so much sand stuck to it. And she doesn't mind. It'll grow out, as I explained to Padra and Arran. Padra fell off his rock laughing and Arran rolled her eyes up but she didn't really mind.

Did I say Ffion had sand stuck to her tail? Yes, and some few very pretty shells. And seaweed. And a surprised frog, but we set that free by trimming her fur a bit. It's the only frog on the island with otter fur slippers.

Friday, 3 March 2017

Puss In Books

This week I've been thinking about books and cats, or Puss in Books as Tony brilliantly put it. What do cats read?

Of course all good Cattolic kitties read their Catechism, but apart from that, they enjoy the classics. Did you think your cat didn't appreciate Shakespeare? They love Romew and Juliet, Antony and Clawpatra, and of course The Winter's Tail. They're partial to curling up in the fire with a Charles Kittens book - A Tail of Two Kitties is a favourite, and Bleak Mouse. They like Martin Nuzzlecat, too. Like me, they enjoy anything by Kat Atkinson, like Behind the Scenes at the Mewseum. And cats who like an old-fashioned story of North-East working class life go for anything by Catterine Cookson.

Please tell us - what does your cat read?

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

St David's Day

1 March, St David's Day, so here are my favourite Welsh things - as opposed to my favourite Welsh person. If I start writing about him we'll be here till Easter.

MUSIC - the Welsh know how to do that. The harp sounds so lovely. And in days gone by you could whistle down a mine shaft and up would come a male voice choir. In Welsh culture they know the value of music, and do a lot of it. You could go to a rugby match with your eyes shut and just listen to the singing. (They sing a lot about a saucepan, I don't know why.)

THE LANGUAGE - I don't speak it, but it sounds good and looks amazing. (One of my favourite Welsh words is popty-ping. It's the word for a microwave oven. It sounds so absolutely right.) The Welsh language inspired Tolkien.

Speaking of ovens - FOOD. Leeks, cheese, bara brith ( a kind of fruit loaf) Welsh cakes.

SNOWDONIA - you have to see it.

DRAGONS - Wales values its folklore, dragons and all.



Dylan Thomas, Aneurin Bevan, Bryn Terfel, Anthony Hopkins, Tanni-Grey Thompson, David Lloyd George. And the Welsh people who simply love being Welsh. Hapus dydd dewi sant!

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

The Maid of Norway

A rather sad little story with big consequences, but a story worth telling. For a writer, it's a story worth playing with.

In Scotland in the thirteenth century, there was a king called Alexander III. He had been king since childhood, had kept the country stable, and was generally regarded as a good leader. There was a queen, and they had two sons and a daughter. In those days it was important for a king to have a son who would learn about monarchy as he grew up and be ready to take over when the time came.

One of the princes died in childhood. The daughter was married to a Norwegian prince and died in Norway, giving birth to a daughter they called Margaret. Then the queen and the only remaining prince died, and suddenly Alexander III was childless. The heir to the throne was the tiny little Norwegian Princess Margaret. Alexander quickly married again.

One night after a gathering of the Scottish lords, he rode home to his new queen through along the coastal path, in foul weather. He lost his way, his horse stumbled and panicked, and he was found dead the next morning at the bottom of a cliff with his neck broken. Overnight, the nation was leaderless, and that was dangerous.

A group of the Scottish lords, The Guardians of Scotland, kept everything together. They crossed the sea to Norway and proclaimed three year old Margaret Queen of Scots, but she stayed in Norway with her father, who was now king, while the Guardians ruled on her behalf. This state of affairs went on for four years and seems to have worked well enough. Various claimants to the throne rattled their swords, and King Edward I of England, in my opinion one of the nastiest monarchs in our history, offered to help but was politely refused. However, when he suggested marrying off his young son to the little queen, the Guardians agreed to discuss it and the Maid of Norway was sent for. At seven years old she set sail for Scotland. But on the way, she became so ill that she didn't survive the journey. Her body was put in a coffin and returned to her father, who insisted on opening it to identify her.

With the Maid of Norway dead, the dynasty died out. Claimants jostled for the throne. The result was war, and more war, with bitterness and hatred that would last for generations. You can read those stories elsewhere.


this is where we ask that question beloved by writers - what if? What if the King of Norway didn't want to risk his little daughter going to a strange land and being a pawn in the hands of lords and kings, but he couldn't risk annoying the King of England? What if he faked the death of his daughter so he could keep her safe somewhere, maybe foster her out to a Norwegian family where she could be free and live like a normal child? What would you have done? What do you think?

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Wet Mistmantle

It's sad and soggy here in this Valley in the North. Rain drips from dead trees and empty washing lines. Soggy leaves squelch underfoot. Much, Oliver and Dodger don't feel the wet because they're made of stone, but they look pretty fed up to me.

It's the same on Mistmantle. The moles are staying underground, building tunnels through soggy earth. Hedgehogs make hot drinks and hang up their cloaks by the fire to dry. Squirrels run for cover, dodging through the wet leaves, running up trees and darting into the first hollow they can find. In the Tower, Juniper and Brother Fir make medicines for coughs and colds and the animals in the workrooms stop trying to do any close work on the Threadings because the light is so poor. The kitchen fire is the best place in the whole Tower. But the young animals, including the Tower family, pull up their hoods and run outside to float their bark boats downstream.

And the otters? They are loving it. Fingal lopes out from the sea, shakes himself, rolls over, and runs back in again. Tide and Swanfeather tumble through the waves.

King Crispin watches them from the tower. He's glad that somebody's enjoying the wet, and gives Arran and Padra the rest of the day off.

Monday, 6 February 2017


The Lassie and I accidentally found a fabric shop a few weeks ago, and had a little peek inside. The Lassie is a patchworking star, as I told the shop man. We got on to chatting about patchwork, and he said it makes him laugh that customers are very particular about the fabrics they use for their patchworks. Cottons or nothing. In the past, when making new out of old was necessary, everything went into the patchwork, all weights and colours of scrap fabric, shirts and dungarees, summer dresses and party frocks, curtains, anything. To see a modern equivalent, look at

Snippets of fabrics made me think of snippets of stories. I have often thought of writing down the memories my parents have come up with over the years - they are both on the far side of ninety years old. But the important thing about writing down these stories is not so much what happened and who said what, but the background against which they happened. The story about Auntie Annie hitting my grandfather across the face with a haddock has to seen in its context - the quayside, crates of fish, and the woollen shawl that Auntie Annie pulled around her as she took to her heels and ran up the stone stairs. ('I grabbed me shaal, and I ran up that bank...'). Shirts had separate collars. Dark red or green bobbly tablecloths, heavy and often trimmed with tassels, covered dining room tables.

Boys wore grey shorts until they were coming up fourteen. Wearing your first suit was a rite of passage. But those shorts came down to the knee, and socks (if they stayed up) almost came down to meet them. And children's clothes were invariably scratchy and uncomfortable. My Aunt Jenn's coat must have smelt of nutmegs, because she always had one in her pocket to keep the moths away.

A patchwork of my life would start with bits of candlewick bedspread, yellow plastic sou-wester, crinkle swimsuit, horrid school uniform, then 1970s cheesecloth and Laura Ashley. Now, for those of you who like to write and need a springboard -

Choose some of the past fabrics from your life. What stories do they have to tell you? Are these stories for somebody else to read, or just for you?

Monday, 30 January 2017

The Man With Two Shirts

I know that some of you over the pond like a bit of British history now and again, and to be honest, I'm ready for a few minutes of distraction from other events. So here it is. And it's to do with 30 January.

Some years ago I was at a publisher's party at The Banqueting House in London, not far from Trafalgar Square. It's a very beautiful building with baroque painted ceilings, and is all that is left of Whitehall Palace, but we all knew that on 30 January 1649, a scaffold was erected outside it.

Charles I was always on a hiding to nothing. He wasn't supposed to be king. He had an older brother, Prince Henry, who was clever, athletic, gifted and popular until his death at the age of eighteen after swimming in the Thames. (David Walliams got off lightly, then.) Suddenly twelve year old Charles Stuart was the heir to the thrones of England and Scotland. He was a little chap who looked as if he'd blow away in a high wind, stammered, and may have had rickets at some point. At the age of 25, his embarrassing father died and Charles Stuart had to start kinging. He'd become good at all the royalty stuff like riding horses and fencing, and he seems to have been an elegant man and very devoted to his wife, Henrietta Maria, but it wasn't enough.

Unfortunately, Charles had a high view of kingship. He believed in the Divine Right of Kings, ie, God had made him king, which meant that he was a kind of proxy for God and couldn't be argued with. When his Divine Right extended to the Divine Right to raise taxes and adjourn Parliament, the House of Commons got thoroughly upset, and Mr Oliver Cromwell wasn't a bit pleased.

Another mistake Charles made was to try to impose the English Prayer Book on the Scottish Church (the Kirk.) An Englishman giving orders to a Scot is never going to go down well (if he'd been to Glasgow he would have got that in five minutes), and this was the Kirk, for heaven's sake! Before long he'd alienated the Scots and had a Civil War on his hands. He sent for his dashing young cousin Prince Rupert, who was a very good soldier and did lots of dashing around battlefields with his poodle. Yes, really, he had a little white poodle called Boy. Anyway, in spite of Rupert and his poodle, Charles 1 lost the war and was imprisoned.

Finally, Parliament decided that they couldn't let the king live. There would always be conspiracies to put him back on the throne. So on 30 January King Charles walked out from the Banqueting House to the scaffold where the axeman waited. He asked for two shirts to wear that morning because it was bitterly cold and he didn't want to shiver and make people think he was afraid. He died bravely, and with dignity.

The Stuarts didn't often do well as monarchs. But they make great stories.

Monday, 23 January 2017


There's always one. After the Christmas decorations are tidied up and put away, there's always one that manages to stay up late. Usually it's one of the crepe paper imps. Cheeky little beggars, those imps. But this year it was an angel, a quite modern little enamel angel who flies rather stiffly and has unfeasibly long legs, who fell off the Christmas tree when it was taken out and is still hanging around between the sewing box and the CDs. I've deliberately kept out a few things that need a bit of mending, and a little wooden decoration made by my father and intended for Frodo to put on his Christmas tree when he's older.

Then there are stars. I have a liberal hand with confetti stars at Christmas time and they're still all over the floors. No amount of cleaning will ever scoop up the last one. There are some in the garden, and every now and then a tiny star twinkles up at me from the floorboards. That's fine. The stars can stay. (I said more about this on Girls Heart Books, if you'd like to give it a look.)

What is this telling me? It's telling me that stars and angels - even strange-looking angels - are for life, not just for Christmas. We need them. More than ever, we need them. Whenever Frodo comes into this house, stars and angels will not be far away.

Friday, 13 January 2017


What do you think?

I'm always getting lovely e-mails from readers, usually but not always in the US, who want to read Urchin and the Rage Tide but can't get a copy unless they pay far too much on the second-hand market. I usually suggest that they contact Hyperion, the US publisher, because if enough people do that they might just bring out another print run. Perhaps Mistmantle is due for a revival. Any thoughts? Ask your friends. Ask your teachers.

Meanwhile, we finally have snow! Not a lot, but a covering, so the Mistmantle animals are all playing snowballs in the garden. Hope is rather at a disadvantage because he can't see the snowballs coming at him, so Myrtle suggested that the rest of them should be blindfolded to make it fair. All my scarves are in use. The trouble with blindfold snowball fights - I mean, one of the troubles with blindfold snowball fights - is that not only you can't see the snowballs, you can't see anything else either. Hedgehogs have landed in the mint, the mud, the rockery, and if we had a pond they'd have fallen into that, too. I am standing in front of the holly, just in case. How a blindfolded otter gets up a tree is beyond me but Fingal is up there in the branches hurling down snowballs while shouting 'For the honour of the Circle!'. Don't try this at home. They don't mind getting wet and cold, but I suspect they'll be glad to be back in the tower with hot cordials. Even Much is grinning.

Ouch! Fingal, I'll get you back.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Is anybody there?

Good heavens, Mrs Margi, are you still alive? Yes I am, and I'm here to tell you that for the last month I have been far from The House of Stories, flying on swans to and from Mistmantle and brushing through fur coats into Narnia before dashing through the December skies on the sleigh with the flying reindeer. I'd be lying, though. What with work, family stuff and church and community stuff I have been just about keeping the ducks in a row since before Christmas.

To answer the usual questions - yes, it was lovely. Yes, we got to see most of the family and had a lot of cuddles with a happy little Frodo. Shakespeare DVDs, squirrel sweater (oh, YES!) scented stuff and choccies. The party, with the house full off neighbours and children. The crib service on Christmas Eve. Mulled wine. Sprouts and chestnuts. Springs Dance Company doing Journey of the Magi. The Hely-Hutchinson Carol Symphony and 'Jesus Christ the Apple Tree'. The biggest and beautifullest Christmas tree we've had in years, and the smell of it. Carols. Finally watching 'Frozen' for the first time and completely understanding why everybody's raving about it. Even better, I watched it with the Sunshines, all of us squished up on the settee beside the Christmas tree, and we watched it in the MORNING! It feels like Christmas when you can watch a DVD in the morning.

There are things I've neglected, though, and I'm a bit sad about that. I wish I'd spent more time singing, and listening to Christmas music. I wish I'd done more watching movies, reading, and eating chocolate. I wish I'd got out for some wintery walks. I wish I'd read more seasonal poetry. However, tomorrow is the Epiphany and you can still celebrate Christmas at Epiphany. So that's all right then. Happy New Year!

In the time it has taken to write this, the ducks are out of their row again.