Thursday, 29 November 2012

terribly, terribly

I am terribly, terribly ill.

My head aches. And this isn't a headache that can be chased away with a migraine pill, so I'll just have to suffer. Whatever I took first thing this morning wasn't much use. I probably have a brain tumour in there. Certainly I feel dizzy when I stand up. I might faint, fall downstairs, and sustain a critical head injury the way they do on television.

I am coughing. That's dangerous for authors, you now, especially around here. The Bronte sisters lived not far away, and what happened to them? They all coughed their way into early graves, that's what.

My throat hurts. I bravely struggled through toddler group this morning and gasped out a story for them. It may just be a sore throat but it could develop into something serious.

My mother always said that we come from a short-lived family. She's eighty-nine, and still saying it. So, just in case I am on my way out with a previously undiagnosed and untreatable disease, I love you all. Please keep buying the books so my children don't go barefoot.

Sunday, 25 November 2012


Thank you, Nels, for explaining about Thanksgiving. Clearly there's far more to it than I ever suspected.

After a long wait on a wet chilly station on Friday evening, a late train and a hundred yard sprint across Leeds station, I ended up cosy and warm at the House of the Sunshines. Biri acknowledged my existence and told me to rub her face, and by the morning she was talking to me.

I was staying with the Sunshines so that Lady Sunshine and I could go to The Knitting and Stitching Show in Harrogate on Saturday. If you think that's even less exciting than a late train to Leeds, let me explain. There were

Pictures made up with layer after layer of gauze and finished with unbelievably lifelike embroidered butterflies

Hand-knitted designer clothes

Embroidered, applique and collage pictures on a theme of coal-mining that shone with depth and mystery

the knitted village, complete with houses, church, fire station and engines, the children's playground, and gardens full of flowers and rows of vegetables, and a farm

graduates' final year display pieces

and stall after stall after stall of fleece, yarns, ribbons, felt, beads and buttons, fabrics, lace, thread, and everything you need for jewellery making, marbling, knitting, sewing, millinery, dressmaking, quilting, garlands - anything from a packet of pins to a tapestry for the wall, and I'm sure if you wanted to knit yourself a back garden and a puppy you'd find everything you needed. Lady Sunshine and I arrived about 11.15 and left at 5.30, and only then because it was kicking out time.

All day I was aware of a small figure somewhere around. No, not Biri. I had a feeling that Needle the hedgehog, Needle of the Threadings, Companion to the King, was with me, giving respect for crafstmen and women where it was due and turning up her nose at anything cheap and showy. She looked over my shoulder at the displays by the Embroiderer's Guild and the Royal Schools of Needlework. There were many times when even Needle gasped with admiration, and times when she gently steered me away from the things too difficult or too time consuming for me. I don't have neat paws, but I do like playing with fabrics.

Apart from anything else, it was a day when roly-poly Northern grannies and wild-haired art students mingled with a common purpose.

LOS came to meet us afterwards, and we went to the famous Betty's Tea Rooms. In front of us in the long queue was an American family with three lovely children of different ethnic origins, all beautifully behaved and wonderfully patient. Finally, we walked back to the car past the Christmas lights.

Absolutely lovely. Except that LOS had a few stressy moments regarding a car park, a payment machine and a time limit, but that might keep for another day.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Thanks Given!

I'm a bit puzzled today.

The daily newspaper in The House of Stories is the 'i', which is the condensed version of a broadsheet, The Independent. I read the editorial column today, and it made me stop, because it didn't make sense.

It was about Thanksgiving, and the editor said that as a celebration it was 'Christmas without the stress of presents or religion'.

There's a lot I find stressy about Christmas, especially when I get drawn into the whole commercial shopathon. I get stressed about shopping, and writing all the cards, and getting everything done in time. I get stressed about the queues in the shops and the cheesy songs. But going to a church full of people singing beautiful music? Prayers and candles? The sheer beauty and wonder of the story? Stress?

And the other thing about Thanksgiving being 'Christmas without the religion' made me think - well, who are they giving thanks to? Now, I really feel puzzled about this, and perhaps somebody out there can help me. Were the Pilgrim Fathers thanking God, or the Native Americans who helped them? Or both? Can somebody help this ignorant Brit to understand?

Whatever, every blessing to all of you celebrating Thanksgiving. It sounds such a lovely occasion. And today I give thanks for the children at toddler group, Tony coming home from a trip away, and for my attic study, and for having work that I love. Oh, and chocolate.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Albert's War

I couldn't think of what to tell you today, so I thought about for a story. This came to mind, it's a favourite one of Tony's. I don't normally write about guns, but this is an exception.

Tony's father was called Albert. When the war broke out, young Albert was keen to do his bit and reported to the recruiting office without waiting for the call-up. But Albert had a very weak right eye, and was dismissed as unfit for service. Being Albert, he tried a different recruiting office. He'd used up quite a few before he got a letter from the army telling him if he didn't stop wasting their time he'd be arrested.

He still wasn't discouraged. The government introduced the LDV, or 'Home Guard', local units of men too old, too young or too unfit for the army. Their role was, essentially, to keep watch for an invasion and fight if such a thing actually happened. LDV, by the way, stood for Local Defence Volunteers, but Albert always said it was Look, Duck and Vanish.

All LDVs were taught to use guns, which meant a lot of drilling with no ammunition at all or with blanks, because all the ammunition was needed for the troops. Finally, Albert's Army got their live ammo and were all taken to the firing range to practice the dangerous bit.

Now Albert, as I said, had a weak right eye, and maybe they should have taken this into account before giving him a rifle. He did explain, after all, but they still told him to sight along the rifle with his right eye. Bless him, he did his best, but he couldn't see a thing, so he angled the gun sideways a bit and looked down it with his left eye instead. He would have been OK if not for an officer who noticed him and strode across the rifle range bellowing,


Albert, who had been concentrating very hard, was not expecting this. He jumped. So did his trigger finger, and the kick from the gun knocked him clean on to his back. When he looked up the officer was glaring down at him with a face like thunder, and an empty space where his hat ought to be.

They took the rifle away from Albert after that, and gave him a Sten gun, which shoots from the hip. (ou can get more of your own officers that way.) By the way, later that day they found the officer's hat. It had a bullet hole all the way through.

Saturday, 17 November 2012


Please, m'lud, I am a serial murderer of trees and I ask for mercy.

I love trees. I love spring blossom and canopies of autumn gold. I love the way sunlight dapples through the leaves, and the textures of bark, and the birds pecking for berries and insects. Since we've been at the current House of Stories we've planted a mixed hedge of whitebeam, oak, hawthorn and whatever else Stephen could lay his hands on, an apple tree, and a witch hazel.

(By 'we' I mean Stephen. Gardener, mountain biking instructor, a man who thinks climbing up frozen waterfalls is the best fun in all the world.)

Anyway, I was clearing out my study today, I mean really clearing out, not just going through the heap to see what I haven't done. Six drafts of three books are now in the recycling. I probably could have chucked out a lot more, but you know how it is, when you think something might be useful one day. I kept the short story about the man who gets poisoned by the tavern wench (serves him right) and the poem about the hiccuping vicars, and a few other things that might be useful. There are still boxes and boxes of manuscripts and ideas up there. The box of scrap paper (old drafts for writing new stories on the back, and page proofs to take to after school club for drawing on) is overflowing.

I can do a lot of work on a computer screen, but there are stages where nothing but printed pages will do. It reads differently when it's printed. Mistakes are more conspicuous. There is something about the printed page that can never be replaced and never should be.

But, as a result, I am a serial murderer of trees. In mitigation, I buy recycled products whenever possible. And, like many authors, I put all my old drafts in the recycling box. So next time you buy recycled loo rolls, just think...

Thursday, 15 November 2012


Back from a few days getting under Mum and Dad's feet again. Dad likes watching the garden birds and can't work out why they aren't coming to the feeders in their garden. I suggested that, with the weather being mild, the birds get all they need from the wild food that's around. They've got beetles, worms, and seed-heads for pudding, and it's all fresh organic stuff.

I told him that here at The House of Stories the massive holly is covered in berries, but the birds are leaving it alone. They always wait until the first hard frost, then raid it so efficiently that there's hardly a dot of red anywhere except on the very lowest branches.

This afternoon I was back to work, and today I chose to write at the dining room table. I should have known better. I had a perfect view of the garden and the holly tree and it was the constant movement that alerted me and made me look up.

The weather is still mild. No frost. And yet there was a thrush, a perfectly elegant picture book thrush perched on the holly tree with a berry in its beak. Then I saw another, and a pair of blackbirds. A couple of bluetits hopped about, and then the big gaudy wood pigeons arrived, four of them in the top branches like big kids in the little kids' playground. But the holly tree is big enough for them all, and I don't suppose the bluetits downstairs were even aware of the pigeons on the top floor.

It was a joy to see them, and I thank God for whoever planted the holly tree in the first place. But why are the birds taking the berries now? Do they know something I don't?

Saturday, 10 November 2012


Biri loves The Sunshines. She loves them so much that she brought Lady Sunshine a present. Unfortunately it wasn't dead yet. Sometimes, I'm afraid, there's nothing to do but administer the coup de grace.

However, she's a great deal more civilised than Scruff, the cat we had when I was a girl. Her mother was a stray who was adopted by the curate's landlady and thanked her by having kittens. We've no idea who their father was but we think he must have been Abyssinian, or maybe a Yeti, because Scruff always looked as if she'd been blow-dried.

Scruff, as a clergy cat, should have had some standards. She did when she was very young - she'd follow us to church and parade past the choir like the Queen inspecting a regiment. Then the other cats in the street taught her bad habits.

She became calculating, cupboard loving, a thief and a ruthless murderess. More than once, we tried a collar with a bell. She'd disappear for two days and then come home without it. When she wasn't killing things she was sitting on the garden fence winding up the dog next door just by looking at it, so that the dog barked fit to waken the dead until its owner came out and hauled it into the house. Job done, thought Scruff as she primly walked away. You could almost see her dusting off her paws.

So Biri killed something. She's a cat. Compared to Scruff she has wings, a halo, and a little harp to play with her paws, if she hasn't chewed the strings off it yet.

Thursday, 8 November 2012


She was not a happy cat.

She hadn't had the chance to be a happy kitten for long. She was still quite young when she ended up in a rescue centre, where she waited patiently, washing her pretty white socks, hoping for a forever home.

She was adopted by a young woman who loved her and looked after her. But humans don't always have forever homes either, and Cat's new mummy had to move to somewhere else where she couldn't take Cat. She didn't want to put her in another rescue centre, so she asked her Mum to look after her instead.

Mum was fond of cats, and that was the problem. She already had two. They were rough tough cats, and they didn't like the new girl. They bullied her, and she had to hide. When a new young couple moved into the street, and were kind to her, Cat became very fond of them, but she was still shy.

Is there a happy ending? Oh, yes. Cat's Mum was very happy for Cat to go to a home where she'd be loved and safe, and the young couple were happy to have her. So Lovely Older Son and Lady Sunshine now have Biri, who is still shy, but settling in. There are no other cats to keep her away from the food or beat her up. She can find a warm place to lie down without anyone chasing her away, and she lies there washing her pretty white socks and looking adorable in her forever home.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012


Today I am utterly flabbergasted.

An envelope dropped through the letterbox today with a New York postmark. It was forwarding some readers' letters to me, but I think they must have been misplaced somewhere along the way because some of them were written quite a while ago. If any of you are waiting for a letter from me, I'm so sorry, but I only received yours today. I am typing like mad to catch up. If you know anybody who's complaining about That Nasty Englishwoman Who Never Answers Letters, please pass this on to them.

The most efficient way to contact me is through the e-mail address on the website. I do like e-mail. It's one of those wonderful inventions, like self-seal envelopes and microchips for dogs.

I write this at nearly 11.00 pm British time, very mindful of the great events in the US. Anybody staying up all night to watch the results?

Daughter, by the way, has lived in Wales so long now that she gets to vote in their elections too. This reminds me of the general election the summer after she and her twin brother were born, when I wheeled the double pram along to the polling station with my poll card tucked into the side of the mattress. By the time we got there, she'd eaten most of it.

It wasn't catastrophic, because you don't actually need your poll card to vote. Which is just as well, as what was left of it wasn't too pretty.

Sunday, 4 November 2012


It should be enough to have a house full of bears, but lately we seem to have adopted two large monkeys, I don't know how. One sits quietly at the table eating a banana and the other is swinging from a trapeze by the back door.

My friend Claire was here today and commented on the swinging monkey, and it put me in mind of a story about Hartlepool, on the north east coast, south of where I used to live. (Sad bit coming up...)

In the Napoleonic Wars, a French ship was wrecked off Hartlepool and the only survivor was the ship's monkey, which was dressed in a scaled down version of a uniform. The people of Hartlepool, it is said, didn't know what a Frenchman looked like, so they decided that this small creature chattering in a language they didn't understand must be one. Accordingly, they hanged it.

Now, before you protest in outrage, there is no historical proof of this story, and it was probably just invented as a joke about Hartlepool people by their near neighbours. (Did they really think a Frenchman had a tail?) But to this day, if you go to Hartlepool, don't ask,

'Who hung the monkey?' They still don't think it's funny.

All of you in the US, we'll be thinking and praying about the forthcoming election.

AND I only realised this today - it must be weeks since I told you about The Archers! I do apologise, I don't know how you can bear it.

Lilian is angry with Matt for his unscrupulous business practices, and she has got back in touch with a former flame, Paul. (Lilian must be pushing seventy, by the way.) Her useless son, James, has just broken his leg and is lying on her settee expecting to be waited on.

Josh has offered to help with Hayley's hens, probably because he fancies her step-daughter Phoebe, Kate's daughter. Eddie and Emma are desperately hard up, and Will (Ed's brother whom she was married to first), thinks that they must be neglecting George (her son with him). So that's all crystal clear.

Friday, 2 November 2012

The Master

It just keeps coming. Lovely Younger Son has just got his exam results and is now a Master of Law (LLM) with Merit. He specialised in stuff that I don't understand a bit but it's to do with Human Rights. Well done him. As his girlfriend, The Lassie, pointed out, he will now be insufferable.

The Daughter, who has been a responsible law-abiding good citizen all her life, now says she wants to do something bad because her little brother has mastered the law so she can't be prosecuted. (Note to her new fiance - you may be marrying a hooligan. Don't say I didn't warn you.)

But is he Master of All the Laws? What about the Law of Toast - if you drop the toast it will always land butter side down? Or the Law of Relaxation - the moment you sit down, the doorbell will ring? Or the Ancient Law of Cat - every door has a wrong side. To find out which it is, ask the cat.

The there's Author's Law. Whatever idea you think of, somebody else has already written it.