Posted in Oxford Odditites

Judging a Book By its Cover…

Friends, today’s post is short, but I need to share something with you all. Partly because I need sympathy, and partly because I have so many questions!

OK, so this is the Oxfam Bookshop in the middle of Oxford.

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It sits just across the road from my workplace. It is also one of two in Oxford, and the other one was five minutes walk from my old workplace. I have never been more than ten minutes walk from one or the other of these in my whole time in Oxford, and I’ll be honest, there’s the vaguest possibility that this may be ever so slightly connected to my massive hoard of books and my lack of money. Maybe.

It’s OK to despair of me, my family is right there with you…

Anyway!

So I was walking past the window on the way to work one morning and this piece of majestic-ness is sat in the front window!

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I mean… Just look at it!

I have so many questions! How do these creatures go together in places that aren’t this blog?

Only in Oxford, am I right?

Long-time readers of this blog will know that we of course have a tiny dragon in the office, getting into my stationary and judging me when I’m not writing and generally causing trouble. 

And if you live in Oxford then you also know that ducks get everywhere. They keep nesting in college quads and then causing chaos once the ducklings have hatched, because no mama duck ever has apparently thought to herself prior to building a nest, ‘Hmm… I managed to reach this nice quiet nesting site in this fox-free space by flying. But my ducklings, they will not be able to fly straight out of the egg. Is this site, therefore, a good idea?’Ch.9 - Duck and Cover

So Trinity (Summer) Term is one long saga of students with cardboard boxes chasing down ducks and ducklings to help them all reach a nice body of water. It’s probably character-building? At the very least, it’s a distraction from looming exams, I suppose.

Also, if you have twitter, and you don’t already follow Twitter of then please go and check them out, they are an absolute delight and treasure and I can think of nothing which so wonderfully summarises so much of what is good in Oxford. It’s ducks, it’s literary puns, it’s madcap adventures sometimes; frankly I don’t know what else you could possibly ask for, but even that is probably to be found right there on that feed.

The annual duck-related shenanigans naturally has made it into the Ghosts and Gowns series, if you fancy checking it out?

Anyway, so obviously I had to read this book and find out a few answers. Was it separated out into poems about dragons and poems about ducks? Were there poets about dragons and ducks together? Did these two groups of agents of chaos finally join forces and inspire great sagas commemorating their epic deeds? Were they eternal enemies locked forever in combat from whence there is no end or escape? What?Ch.14 Making Men of Myths - Part 2

And now, I know, I know that we shouldn’t judge a book by it’s – frankly amazing – cover, but I regret to say that we can only speculate about the hidden potential behind it. For now, alas, we come to the saddest part of this post…

You see, the bookshop does not open until 10am, which is notably after the time I need to be in work. So I waited, eagerly, patiently I waited until my lunch break. Who needed to go to eat lunch? Who needs sandwiches when there is a book to hunt down? That book must be mine!

And then… disaster!

By the time I reached the bookshop, the book had been sold already! I missed it!

In hindsight, I suppose it was inevitable; with a book so inherently amazing, someone probably pounced as soon as they could get in…

Never will I read the epic adventures of ducks and dragons… *Sniff…*

On the other hand, I now can’t stop thinking of other amazing book titles! I have several ideas already:

Knights and Kittens – in which either the knights are often rescuing kittens from high perches in castles, or possibly doing battle with terrifying and fearsome kittens? (If this sounds unlikely, please check out the British Library’s post about knights battling snails! If it sounded totally legit on first thought, check out the pictures of knights battling snails anyway – I promise you that down that path lies only magnificent and wonderful things!)

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Knight v Snail III: Extreme Jousting (from Brunetto Latini’s Li Livres dou Tresor, France (Picardy), c. 1315-1325, Yates Thompson MS 19, f. 65r)

Mice and Magicians – In which a band of brave mice help and advise an apprentice magician as they journey through a series of challenges to reach the great magic tournament. Think the Knights of the Round Table (Round Cheese? Keep work-shopping that…) assisting Merlin, with side quests including the Green Squirrel, the Lapwing of the Lake, narrated throughout (naturally) by Gerbil of Monmouth…

Seagulls and Sphinxes – Neither side of this title will make much sense, but only one will eat you while you’re alive? But no seriously, this is really the perfect pair-up, since I don’t think that sphinxes can fly, but obviously seagulls have that down, and if you’ve ever been mobbed for your food by seagulls then you will know that seagulls would absolutely ask you impossible riddles if it got them more food somehow! I don’t know what their adventure would actually look like yet, but I’m working on it…

Anyone else have any suggestions? It has to be a team-up between a fantasy character/creature and a non-obvious tiny mundane animal… And if possible, do chip in with what the adventure story would look like!

New to this blog? Check out some of my other series down here:

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Posted in Ivan's Adventures

In Which Tiny Dragons Are Surprisingly Bad Muses…

So, I’ve never actually owned a cat – because allergies and broken lungs are a bad combination and all – but as those of you who have been keeping up with The Many Adventures of Ivan the Wyvern already know, I do have a tiny dragon running around the place, and I feel that his general causing of chaos may be a little similar.

Also similar to being owned by a cat, from what I understand, is the expression of Judgement that you will receive. I’m sat there, struggling for words and generally not getting any writing done, and then I look up and…

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I can practically hear him muttering, “Why aren’t you writing? If you’re not writing, can you play with me? No? Then do something productive! Write something!”

It’s like the angel of creativity coming down from on high to ask me what I think I’m doing! (I don’t know, Ivan, I don’t know what I’m doing, OK?)

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I think he’s trying to figure out how to type properly with his tiny paws and little T-Rex arms? Either that or he’s examining the keyboard for signs of what could make it so interesting.

If Ivan the Wyvern had spectacles, you just know that this is the time when he’d be looking at me over the top of them! Look at his little, judgemental face… Mind you, looking at this photo again, that might be caused by the state of my desk…

Note to self: office cleaning needs to happen more often!

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“Are you… Are you going to write anything with that? I think that’s what you’re supposed to do with those things, right? You write, yeah? Why aren’t you writing anything?”

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“Look, you’ve got your ink-stick thing and your rustle-sheets! You can totally do the Writing Thing! What’s the hold up? We both know perfectly well that you can do this! Chop chop! Then it’s play time, and the sun’s even out!”

Thank you, Ivan, you’re not at all distracting, I swear. Although it is nice to know that you have someone in your corner when the words just won’t come no matter what you try.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about dragons since Ivan came into my life, it’s that they are very single-minded and will have no patience whatsoever for your excuses.

Behold, My Stationary Wealth!They mean well, but the very idea that you might be struggling because of your own self-doubts and the inadequacies of your own creativity? Nope, they have no patience at all for that.

“You are wonderful,” they glare at you, “You should know this, because I know this, and I am always right! Silly human!”

That and they’re sometimes able to be distracted by stationary, but that may not work every time! Go on, Ivan, I laid it all out for you, it’s totally not a trap, I promise! (Do you think it’s working?)

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In the end, of course, what else is a tiny dragon to do than to pick up the pen himself and starting writing this novel on his own?

If you wanted a job done properly, do it yourself, right Ivan?

I swear, if my dragon finishes his first novel before I do, I shall… I shall probably not be all that surprised, actually!

Sigh…

If you haven’t met Ivan before, please do check out some of his other dragonic capers over at The Many Adventures of Ivan the Wyvern. And thank you for reading!

New to this blog? Check out some of my other series down here:

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Posted in Ivan's Adventures

Festive Felicitations From a Fire-breathing Flyer!

I knew having a dragon co-host was going to pay off in a good title one day…

So, one thing you all need to know about Ivan, our favourite tiny dragon, is that he loves Christmas. Loves it! I, personally, suspect that this is because it’s the one time of the year that the house is a sparkly as he is.

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Any more sparkly, Ivan, and we can just use you as the tinsel!
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Look at him! How can anything wrapped in tinsel look this pathetic?

Of course, when you are as tiny as our Ivan, actually decorating for Christmas is a little tricky. He tries hard, of course, but even the simplest things can be fraught with potential disaster.

I mean, look at the mess he managed to himself into here! It’s very hard to untangle a tiny forlorn-looking dragon when you’re laughing yourself sick at the same time! And of course he never stays still either, he’s like a cat that way.

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It’s no good you looking at me like that, young dragon! You got yourself into this mess!

No scratching of fire though, which is a relief! The whole house would have looked like a badly-judged lighting of the Blue Peter Advent Wreath otherwise!

Well, having rescued the dragon from an excess of sparkle, something which I did not expect to ever write, we turned (which some trepidation on my end) to the matter of the Christmas tree, and the real topic of this post.

Much like we discovered at Easter, there is a sad lack of Christmas dragons, despite the clear and obvious link of the abundance of treasure available, and the many things that are set on fire around the place at this festive season: puddings, candles, log fires all being on the approved list.

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Yes, Ivan you are absolutely enough of a star to sit on the tree!

Now, Ivan had been looking forward to doing the tree, as he had been hoping to light all the candles himself. Naturally, I explained that we did away with candles on the Christmas tree years ago, what with the significant risk of setting the room on fire. I happen to be very fond of this house, it would be a shame if it went up in smoke!

Thus, we now use fairy lights, like sane people.

Ivan briefly cheered up at the notion that I had somehow contracted a fleet of fairies to sit on my tree for the duration of Christmas, but then out came the electrics!

Still I looked into the invention of the humble fairy light, and I am happy to say that fairies do actually play and important part!

Now, in 1882 on 22nd December, a chap called Edward H. Johnson – a chum of Thomas Edison – stuck a whole load of tiny red, white and blue light bulbs “the size of walnuts” on a Christmas tree as an advertisement of the Edison Electric Light Company. Hilariously, this was so weird and innovative, the newspapers refused to report on it locally! Fortunately, it was published by a Detroit newspaper reporter, and Johnson went on to become widely regarded as the Father of Electric Christmas Tree Lights.

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She doesn’t entirely fit into the frame, but I think the fairy on the top of the tree is actually bigger than the dragon…

However, this is not actually the beginning of the fairy light at all! Over the pond in the UK, a year earlier in November 1881 the British inventor of the electric light bulb, Sir Joseph Swan, was commissioned by the Savoy Theatre to help them make little lights for the fairies to wear in their production of  the Gilbert and Sullivan opera Iolanthe.

According to a review written of the performance, the girls wore the lights in their hair and powered them by battery packs which they carried on their belts so they were all mobile and sparkly. This is why the strings of tiny lights were called fairy lights, as they were always associated with the little magical critters.

Fun Christmas Fact: The Savoy Theatre was the first public building in the world to be lit entirely by electricity, fitted out with 1,200 incandescent light bulbs, instead of gas or candles! Yes, you can pull that one out in a lull in conversation over Christmas dinner!

Right, I’m off to dissuade a tiny dragon from lying in wait for Santa. I think he’s hoping to make a friend out of Rudolf, and I’d hate for him to cause a delay in a busy man’s schedule! Either that or he’ll be filching the mince pies again…

Merry Christmas to you all! See you in the New Year!

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New to this blog? Check out some of my other series down here:

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Posted in Uncategorized

RIP Peter Firmin…

As I get older, this keeps happening to me more often; I look up the news of the day and someone I know has passed away. Then I feel sad for a bit and get on with things.

Peter Firmin Guardian)
Peter Firmin with a Clanger and the Soup Dragon. Photograph: Toby Melville/PA, via The Guardian

But this morning, when I got the news that we have lost Peter Firmin, aged 89, I was struck by how much Peter and his colleague Oliver Postgate (whom we lost in 2008) had influenced me and the stories I grew to love. When I think of the series I would regularly watch as a child, Ivor the Engine, Noggin the Nog and the Clangers stick out to me alongside Michael Bond’s creations; The Herbs and Parsley, and of course Paddington Bear.

Peter Firmin and Oliver Postgate
Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin filming The Clangers, 1968. Photograph: Smallfilms/Victoria and Albert Museum

Of course I wasn’t alive for these tiny masterpieces to be around the first time, but my parents had loved them so much that they would seek them out in reruns and on VHS tapes to share them with my sister and I. Because of this I learned that stories, good stories, are meant to be shared with the people we love, passed down and remembered fondly, not to mention that strange moment as a child when you realise that your own very-grown-up parents were children too once upon a time! Madness!

In honour of the joy that Peter brought to me and many others as children, I thought I’d list a few of the things I took away from his programs and have applied to my won writing over the years.

1. Keep it short

The herbs
Lady Rosemary, Sir Basil, Parsley the Lion, Sage the Owl, and Dill the Dog, The Herbs

The episodes for shows like The Herbs, Noggin the Nog and Ivor the Engine were only about 10 minutes long. That’s not a lot of time, especially when you have to factor in the introductions and the credits at the beginning and end. But like a lot of children’s shows, the stories didn’t really need more time. They were well-told shorts, any more time and they’d have felt bloated and over-stuffed with padding.

I bring this up particularly in a age of big-budget remakes, especially for the big screen of cinema, in which plot-lines are stretched out and over-complicated far beyond what relatively simple concepts can support. Sometimes your story isn’t a nine-hour epic. Sometimes shorter is better.

When I sit down to write, I always find that I start out planning something the length of The Order of the Phoenix and it’s only thanks to kind writing-buddies with sensible questions that I come to realise that my plot will only really stretch to a novella.

And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Bigger isn’t always better, we need smaller stories too.

2. Inspiration can come from Anywhere

Neasden_station_roundel2In an interview, Peter Firmin is said to have come up with the name of Noggin after travelling on the London Underground and seeing Neasden Station, which made him think ‘Noggin’. I’m not entirely sure I follow this, but it obviously made sense to him, and he’s the only one who needed to follow that anyway.

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Visually the show was inspired by a trip Peter and Oliver took to the British Museum, the look of the characters drawing heavily from the Lewis Chessmen.

In 1969 (the year of NASA’s first landing on the Moon), the BBC asked Smallfilms to produce a new series, but crucially they neglected to specify a storyline. Oliver Postgate adapted an idea from one of the Noggin the Nog stories ‘The Moonmouse’ in which a spaceship crash lands in the new horse trough and its waistcoat-wearing mouse pilot needs fuel to get home, and behold! A series about knitted pink mice-like creatures living inside the moon was born. And naturally they would speak only in whistles. The connections are so obvious!

The-Clangers-010.jpgI do remain sad that Star Trek never visited the Clanger’s moon… I always wanted to see Bones interact with the Soup Dragon, but that may just be me and my weird brain…

I suppose where I’m going with this is that, as any child knows, anything can be the basis of a new story. Anything can spark an idea for a good plot. Be always on your guard and alert to new possibilities, for plot-bunnies lurk around all corners, for those swift enough and watchful enough to catch them!

3. Don’t take yourself too seriously

Noggin the Nog was one of the biggest early influences on my writing and the stories I wanted to tell, because it was a very skilful blend spine-tingling atmosphere and folkloric gravitas while being utterly aware of its own absurdities too.

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I know that in the years since Nogging the Nog made his way onto the television screens, there have been a lot of humorous takes of the myth and fantasy landscapes – Dealing with Dragons being a personal favourite – but often such works are all comedy and they never feel quite like a tale told for centuries, like Oliver Postgate’s opening narrative makes me feel:

“In the Lands of the North, where the black rocks stand guard against the cold sea, in the dark night that is very long, the men of the Northlands sit by their great log fires and they tell a tale…”

It sounds so epic, and yet this is a show in which the titular character is called Noggin the Nog, King of the Nogs, husband to Nooka of the Nooks. You can’t even read that with a straight face, can you?

Fantasy is inherently a little silly; there are dragons and goblins and the logic behind the magic and world-views are pretty strange and arbitrary. You could treat it all as a super-serious subject, but you’re going to lose something in the process. I have a Green Man who is literally all green, and another character with horns sticking out of his head in my stories, and no matter how epic the plots end up becoming, I will always be happy to embrace the ridiculous image that conjures up for me!

4. Roll with your weirdness

Something which really stuck with me about a lot of the shows I watched as a child was how they had such utterly bizarre premises, but never felt the need to overthink any of them.

The Herbs has a premise of ‘Herbs are all alive and they have personalities and adventures’ and just throws that at you without explanation. These aren’t magic herbs, they are merely herbs in a herb garden, which must be opened with the magic word: Herbidacious. What?

The Clangers are these weird little pink knitted aliens that live in the craters of the moon, and heck yes there’s a Soup Dragon! What? How else will the Clangers get the green pea soup they live off without him? Huh?

Clangers

It’s a similar feeling to the opening of The Hobbit for me. The books begins with this:

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

And goes on for several paragraphs before we get this:

What is a hobbit? I suppose hobbits need some description nowadays, since they have become rare and shy of the Big People, as they call us. They are (or were) a little people, about half our height, and smaller than the bearded Dwarves. Hobbits have no beards. There is little or no magic about them, except the ordinary everyday sort which helps them to disappear quietly and quickly when large stupid folk like you and me come blundering along, making a noise like elephants which they can hear a mile off. They are inclined to be fat in the stomach; they dress in bright colours (chiefly green and yellow); wear no…

It’s terribly easy, especially when you’ve put a lot of thought into your world-building to over-explain everything. You want to make sure that you don’t lose people, and so you carefully hold their hands and take them in tiny steps through the premise until you’re absolutely sure that they must have got it.

Ivor the engineThese shows, and indeed many good shows made for children, don’t not explain everything in great detail because it’s being saved up for a mystery later. They just dispense with it all as unnecessary. Explaining why Ivor the Engine has a personality would be redundant, all we need to know is that he does have a personality, and free will, and that everyone around him knows that, and off we go. There are stories to be telling here, who cares why the train engine has a soul?

Have a bit of confidence in your weird premise, chuck it with confidence at your readers and trust them to catch up. So long as you’re consistent in your weirdness, so long as everything has some form of weird logic, it just doesn’t matter how everything works.

I like to call it the ‘Just Roll With It’ principle. As in, whenever I throw a new strange thing into my stories, I write “[Just roll with it]” in the body of the text to save myself from wanting to throw a paragraph of exposition after the strange concept. Then I give the story to my beta readers and see if any of them really can’t keep up without some form of explanation. If no one questions the thing, I take out the little note to myself and move on.

5. Dragons Make Everything Better

Everything.

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The original puppets from The Herbs. Discovered and photographed by the wonderful people over at The World of Ivor Wood

 

Everything!

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Idris, Ivor the Engine

EVERYTHING!

Noggin the Nog Ice Dragon
Grolliffe, The Ice Dragon, Noggin the Nog, The Dragon’s Friendly Society

What TV shows do you remember as a child? How did they influence you? Please say I’m not the only one who remembers these little treasures?

Catch you next time on Chronicles in Creation!

Posted in Ivan's Adventures, Short Stories

A Cup of Dragon

Greetings all! I interrupt your week to show you this: Ivan has found himself a teacup to sleep in and it’s adorable!

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Who’s the cutest dragon? Yep, you are!

Behold the Cuteness!

Sorry, I probably should have warned you. Too much sweetness can be fatal, I hear.

Anyway, I was trying to find a tea-related dragon story to share with you all and have yet to be successful, which is a shame.

But all is not lost!

Indeed I do have a drink-related tale to tell, and I hope that you will find it to be a suitable substitute?

We are returning to Ireland, a place we haven’t visited since St Patrick’s day. Back then we remembered the fearsome Lig-na-Baste, but today’s story is a little funnier, despite the dragon being even bigger!

The Ollipeist’s Very Difficult Nap

The Ollipeist was a big dragon – no, not big, the Ollipeist was a huge dragon.

The clue is in his name: in Irish Gaelic ‘Oll’ means ‘great’ and ‘Peist’ means ‘fabulous beast’. I like to imagine him being all decked out in gems and shiny things, like Smaug but there’s no evidence that this was so. It would have been pretty fabulous though.

What we do know is that it took a whole lake for the Ollipeist to sleep in. Now most dragons used to sleep in the bends of rivers and little underground pools deep in the mountains, but that would not have fitted the Ollipeist. He was far too big to have fitted in such a tight spot.

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You’re very fabulous too, Ivan. I promise, no other dragon can out-fabulous you, stop looking like that!

Sidenote: Dragons like to sleep in water to help support their huge forms while they are unable to keep shifting their weight. Failure to solve such a problem can lead to a dragon effectively suffocating under its own body-weight, despite the strength of its ribs. Ivan’s a little too small for this to be a problem, but the tea cup seems to give him a better night’s sleep regardless.

Anyway.

The Ollipeist was a gentle giant, despite his huge size, he spent his time quietly swimming in his lake and talking to people who came to visit him. The Ollipeist liked people, and people liked him. On sunny afternoons he would come out of the lake and bask in the sunshine and the braver people might come close enough to tickle his belly and see if they could make him laugh.

Sadly, Saint Patrick had undertaken to drive all the dragons out of Ireland along with their snake and serpent cousins, and it is entirely understandable that the Ollipeist was upset when he heard this. A generally peaceful and benign dragon, rather than roaring and destroying whole villages, the Ollipeist instead went to go and sulk in his lake.

Dragons are very serious and dignified.

Sadly, just as the Ollipeist was about to fall into a grumpy nap, along the road comes a piper – a local lad called O’Rourke. O’Rourke had been celebrating a friend’s birthday, drinking after playing his pipes for the dancing, and as such was utterly sloshed.

Now, there are doubtless many people who can be completely drunk and still play beautifully, but O’Rourke was not such a man. He played with much enthusiasm, but with a skill completely unworthy of his more sober talents.

The Ollipeist grumbled to himself even more and tried to sink under the surface of the water to block out the noise.

It wasn’t working.

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Yes, Ivan, even you can be dignified sometimes. Sometimes.

He tried blowing bubbles at the piper, and making the ground shake to show that he was in no mood to be disturbed, but O’Rourke remained cheerfully oblivious.

Finally the Ollipeist had had enough. With a great wave of water, the dragon rose out of his lake, reached out with his long neck and swallowed O’Rourke in one gulp!

Swallowing him down, the Ollipeist sank back into his lake. Maybe he felt a little bit bad about eating the piper, but at least the noise had stopped.

Right?

Luckily for O’Rourke, Ollipeist was so big that he made it past the dragon’s teeth, down his throat and into his huge stomach entirely unharmed.

Not that it made much difference to him at the time, for he was still far too drunk to have realised his predicament. With the grace of the truly inebriated, he hadn’t even dropped his pipes in the excitement, and he continued to march up and down the, to him, strange squishy cave, playing away just as he had before.

The Ollipeist groaned to himself. Was there no end to his terrible day? And now the noise was coming from his own body, so there was no escaping the awful racket the piper was putting out.

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No Ivan, you don’t need to flee your tea cup, I promise no one’s coming to get you!

Some days it’s hard to be a dragon.

He tried to see if he could sleep through the noise, in case his mass had muffled the sound or the piper would stop soon?

No such luck. If anything the music was even louder now, and the piper’s marching back and forth was giving him a tummy ache.

Finally the Ollipeist could take it no longer and with a bit of wiggling and heaving all round, he was able to spit O’Rourke out again. He gave the man a bit of a push in the direction of the party he had left, and sank back below the water again.

Maybe the water would soothe the aches in his head and his stomach? Maybe when O’Rourke has staggered far enough away the Ollipeist could get some sleep and it would all be better in the morning?

Happily, in the end the Ollipeist was never killed.

Unfortunately Saint Patrick did eventually come after him, and the Ollipeist had to run away from him, fleeing to the ocean. As he fled, his tail carved the great Shannon Valley.

For more dragon stories, check out Ivan’s many adventures here.

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