Monday, 17 April 2017

The breaking season

    Sun shining, grass growing, a million jobs to do. I must be back in France again then? Not that I can complain about the weather in Scotland, for it was beautiful on the East Coast when I was there for 3 weeks. So maybe, for once, the sun is following me around: wouldn’t that be nice?
    I had recently announced that lambing was over, but how wrong I was when last weekend we had a surprise birth. The culprit was the only daughter of famed Daisy Deathwish and thus, true to family form, she dropped it and scarpered! After a brief ID parade, Delilah was gathered into the shed and presented with the poor orphan which she proceeded to head butt in a rather unladylike fashion. She then watched cautiously as I constructed a set of wooden stocks in which she still sits until she learns the error of her ways and accepts her responsibility. Even then I have to stand over her to let the lamb suck else she kicks it to pieces with a more accurate pair of feet than Wayne Rooney. The threat still remains that if she doesn’t conform soon, I will build a gallows next!
    With the fast growing grass, and lambs, comes the time for worming. After last year’s rainy spring, we had a particular problem with liver-fluke in the lambs, something which I haven’t seen for many a year in UK. So, after some expensive veterinary advice, we invest our month’s savings in a tiny bottle of medicine to treat all the sheep. As the leaflet within is not only written in miniscule font, but in French, I decide to Google exactly what this wonder-drug actually cures. Soon, up comes a page with a list as long as a politician’s expenses sheet, including over 100 parasites with lengthy and quite scary Latin names. I next have to get Bing Translator TM to convert French Latin into English, which is no mean task. It was then I was first introduced to a number of tiny beasts of whose existence I was previously oblivious to. Did you know that a Parafilaria bovicola is otherwise known as ‘False Bruising’? No, nor did I. My favourite was the mighty Hook-necked Cattle Bankruptworm. Who wouldn’t want to rid that one out of the field at first light, or moreover still, keep it away from the accounts department!  
   Staying on the subject of lamb, some might say rather callously, I have to mention our BBQ. We possess, and have done for exactly 10 years, a Weber top of the range gas barbeque, and for all its 10 years it has worked like a slave, faultlessly cooking not only for us but for our numerous party guests. Now some of you may be aware, Weber offer a 10 year guarantee on their products. Why? Because they pack up after that, that’s why. Yes, just 2 days after the warranty faded, it died. I have no complaints, it gave a good service till the end, I just find it unbelievably perfect timing, that’s all. Of course when we went to replace it with a shiny new one at the start of cooking season, the price had doubled to nearly a squillion euros, with no discounts available. Here’s hoping the new one can earn its keep for another decade.
    Last month appeared to be the season for things packing up, as I bought a new run-around vehicle in Scotland, which lasted approximately 3 days before a warning light flashed on the dashboard, telling me it no longer worked. Well it wasn’t so much a warning light than a blazing display of beacons all lit up like a jackpot machine on payout day. Along with it, the fuel gauge now goes up and down like a bride’s nightie, the electric speedo and handbrake no longer function and the parking sensors insist I am about to run over an old lady. My local mechanic in East Fife took one look at it and shook his head in doom, as only mechanics can. Eventually I took it to VW specialist in Edinburgh who gleefully announced that this particular model of Passat was renowned for electrical faults and should be avoided at all costs. He then proceeded to diagnose a faulty electrode somewhere in the bowels of the engine and arrived at a repair cost of £1500, a hundred quid more than I paid for the car in the first place. So, we now keep a half brick in the boot to aid parking on hills, keep a close check on the mirrors when reversing, refuel every day, and drive everywhere in second gear for fear of being caught speeding! Strangely enough, it is just over 10 years old as well.
    Finally I would like to wish you all a happy Easter or Paquee, as it is called in French. Years ago, one might proffer a card or even a chocolate egg on such occasions. But not now, since it has been hijacked by the demons of commercialism. Now we have seasonal shopping from Toys’r’us for all the spoilt kids, some of whom write their demands in a letter to the Easter Bunny, complete with death threats. Drinks companies advertise romantic nights in with hi-octane cocktails of alchopops, with Gaviscon backing up the rear (so to speak), and travel agents invite us to ‘quiet’ weekends with all the children at Centreparks, where the quietest thing in the place are the sirens on the security lorry taking our cash to their bank. However, I think the best band-waggon hijack I have seen so far was an email from EE suggesting: ‘I buy my mother a mobile top-up for Mother’s Day!’ Really? Here you go Ma, forget the flowers and choc-box this year, have a tenner on your Samsung in case you need to speed-dial the doctor! As always, je despair!

Mile-high mumblings

Here we go again, writing this column at 30 thousand feet, I seem to be making a habit of it lately. This time I am leaving behind the blazing sunshine in France, heading north for a few weeks work on my latest building project in East Neuk of Fife. Having battled with the local council we at last have the plans and permissions approved in triplicate to take it to the next phase, that of knocking through a few walls and windows in my hard hat. Leaving Wendy at home tending the flock - which I am happy to announce has expanded by a dozen lambs over the last 3 weeks - I am travelling with a pal who is lending me a hand in Scotland. Together with a couple of tradesmen, we are hoping to have a good kick of the ball and get the new house into something livable by Easter, including 3 bathrooms and a kitchen fitted and tiled. Of course this will marginally rely on the appearance of our ever elusive plumber, but I suspect he will turn up at some point to complete the job, if only so he can collect his paycheque.
   Don’t tell my shepherdess but hopefully it won’t be all work, as we intend to get a visit to Edinburgh to take in a Six Nations rugby match and show my Aussie pal a few sights. He is also a keen golfer so it would be rude of me not to get a cheeky wee round on St Andrews Old Course, wouldn’t it?
Anyway, I do feel that I have earned some rest since I have been up with the larks every morning checking sheep, and then toiling by day in the fields since I last wrote. After nearly 10 years at Chauffour I have finally gotten around to erecting some proper fencing instead of the few dilapidated strands of electric wire we have around the perimeter of the farm. This, along with the odd piece of corrugated tin blocking up a sheep-sized hole in the hedge, has now all been replaced with shiny new netting and 2 metre wooden posts, topped off with deadly high-tensiled barbed wire. I could forgive my neighbours for suspecting we may be loosing a herd of giraffes out on to our grassy plains, such is the height of the wire, but in reality the extent of this precautionary security is to keep out stray dogs on their nocturnal visits. Although we have not lost any ewes to these predators recently, one of our best ones is empty this term, having slipped her lambs early on after being chased around by an Alsatian. The new fence is also handy for cordoning off Skippy, Wendy’s past pet lamb who is now 4 years old and as fat as a whale, while he gorges all the food from the needy ewes and lambs, shoulder barging his way to the trough like an English rugby forward in a Calcutta cup match (oops, sorry, could resist that analogy!). Now the redundant critter has to watching in foaming salivation from behind his Colditz-like prison wire, saving me a few quid in the process. As well as two weeks fencing, bramble-clearing and tree felling, there have also been all the other springtime chores to tick off before I depart, such as mowing, pruning and weed irradiation to tire my aching bones.
   On the subject of the latter, I popped into the local agricultural store to pick up a litre of Round up yesterday, only to find it is now securely locked up behind a bullet-proof glass door. On questioning this I find that this is the latest round of bureaucracy to be conjured up out of Brussels with zero regard for common sense: that crop-chemicals can no longer be left on open display. I can only assume that this is an attempt to hinder Darwin’s theory that stupid people be left to their own self destruction, by drinking the stuff? But how, I have to ask, will this do anything other than instigate a price increase? Surely if folks want to have a weed-killer aperitif or a binge drinking weekend of insecticide, locking it behind glass at its point of sale will not deter them, will it? But then it got me round to wondering if this madness had yet permeated into UK, the country who has a track-record of adhering more strictly to the EU rules more than any other? Because, since Brexit, it no longer has a Lord and Master to administer such ridiculous laws on its inhabitants. Does this mean that, over time, the death-rate by stupidity will rise in Britain? Will Mister thicko from Wickham soon be allowed to accidentally cut his own head-off with a Stanley knife because the blade didn’t have a warning sticker? Or, heaven forbid, alcohol and cigarettes no longer have lurid photos of half-dead people on the front, and bacon rolls carrying the ‘lardy-bloater’ logo, leaving me in peace? If so, you Brexiteers, I salute you – even if your moronic vote does mean my euro is now worth little more than a chocolate button.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Raging frogs

    I believe the word 'Rage' comes from the French word 'Orage' - meaning storm - and boy have we ever just had one of those. For 2 days, 80 kph winds raged through the district, fetching down trees, cutting off our power and generally causing havoc. So, perhaps this was not the best day to start lambing, but you can't hold back nature, as 3 little creatures dropped to the deck, only to be half blown away into the neighbour's field. We would have housed them in our polytunnel only it too has headed off towards the Atlantic, never to be seen again.
    Anyway, for now, the sun is shining this week here at Chauffour and yesterday we ate both lunch and dinner al-fresco, the latter in front of the flickering chiminia in the Valentine's moonlight. Being ever the romantic, I prepared a delightful meal using local French ingredients such as snails, tripe and other delicacies. However, to my dismay, after 1000 years of dining on anything they fancy, it appears that the French are no longer allowed to eat frogs' legs. This is not strictly true as you can buy 'farmed' ones in the supermarket, but you are no longer permitted to pop out with your torch and catch your own and then chuck them in the pan with a bulb of garlic and a knob of butter, should you so wish. So let me get this straight, you are allowed to send you rabid dogs into our local wood and flush out the wild boar, let the hounds rip it to pieces, and then sit around and get drunk while your dog goes off to hunt my sheep? But crawling around in the undergrowth to collect a few of those noisy blighters that keep us awake all night with their croaking? Non, monsieur, c'est interdit.  Usual madness prevails.
    You may recall earlier this month we were away skiing in the Alps. As suspected, for the first couple of days my knees were to up to the job but it was also nice to have some down time, catching up with friends over a few gluhweins. We even managed to hold a Burns Supper up the mountain, courtesy of Scottish friends staying with us and a haggis I shot earlier this winter.  However, later in the week I succumbed to yet another cold, my 4th in as many months, and it sure did pee me off. Until last autumn I hadn’t had a cold for 2 years, so am unsure why 'le gripe' seems to be digging its claws into me this year. Are colds like buses, all coming along at once? Will this be my last one for another 2 years? Or should I just hit the drink harder, doctor? Anyway, my absence from the ski slopes was no real issue as something else was also absent for the duration, that of snow itself. It did arrive eventually though on the morning we were due to leave, making our descent back down the mountain something of an arduous task. Having omitted to purchase the obligatory tyre-chains, thankfully we have just replaced our 4x4 and the new one has some very smart gadgetry called hill-descent mode, which basically appoints a robot to take the controls and drive us down the impossibly icy road. Sadly they haven’t invented 'pub-return' mode so it could do the same on a frosty Friday night whilst I have a kip in the back seat! Land-Rover, I hope you are working on it!
    On the subject of drink, my wife and I are quite proud to announce that we achieved a sustained measure of sobriety for the last few weeks, by laying off the sauce completely. It did get punctuated once though on the day that England beat Wales at rugby. Excuses such as that are surely forgiven? Yes, thought so.
    Right, as spring is starting to rear is furrowed brow, it's time to get the clean-up operation underway and at least retrieve some of our furniture from the swimming pool, along with enough leaves to build a giant compost heap ready to underpin the seed potatoes.  Then there are pruning, digging, fencing and other back-breaking jobs to hopefully avoid. The rest of this month is to be spent catching up with writing, as I have 3 projects on the go and another in the pipeline. Hopefully, after nearly a year with the publishers, my last book, 'Calling Papa Charlie' should be on the shelves in the next week or two. Also my TV drama screenplay, entitled 'The Hole', is currently under review by someone at the good old BBC. Based around the Foot and Mouth crisis in 2001, it tells a pretty emotional tale from personal experience, although it may be a little too politically sensitive to be aired on mainstream channel.  Fingers, toes and eyes crossed that they like it!

Wednesday, 15 February 2017


Continuing on from my book ‘In Bed With Cows’, I am considering collating stories from all cattle stockmen and women, young and old - near and far, into a journal we can all share, to preserve them for eternity. After the recent death of cattleman Bob Powel, it occurred to me that many of these tales are now being lost without trace. I am therefore on the lookout for funny tales and anecdotes from all of you, please. I am not expecting this to be a commercially viable project, so no payment rewards but for those that get included, a free copy of the book and an inclusion in the credits. Anything marginally linked to cattle will be considered but it needs to, at the very least, bring a smile. Please email to – if you know of anyone, especially of the old guard, who you think may be able to contribute material, please sit down with them and canvass their stories. Or pass me a phone number so I can interview them. This may all come to nothing but let’s give it a go and see what happens. We owe it to our grandkids! 

PS.All stories will get re-written and, don’t worry, names will be changed to negate incrimination and liability!!

Monday, 16 January 2017

Pimpernel's guild

    It is hard to believe we are once again heading back in to France to spring daffodils, having been here in Scotland nearly three months. If last year was hectic, then this one has started at warp supersonic, as we embark on yet another renovation project. Plasterboard, cables, pipes and insulation: these are all the things currently occupying our front room. Unfortunately the missing link to join this lot together is tradesmen. OK, we do have a sparky working long hours on the re-wire and myself and one other guy putting the walls and ceilings back in but, as ever, it is the illusive pipe fitters that cannot seem to hold down an appointment. I have come to the conclusion that I have employed the Fife branch of the ‘Scarlet Pimpernel guild of plumbers’, such is the sporadic appearance of them on the job. I swear that sightings of Bigfoot are more frequent than seeing an overall-wearing man with blowtorch in our attic. So now, as we pack up the car and dogs this week and head south, we leave behind a half completed job, suffering at the mercy of hand-written timesheets submitted on trust.
     We have a few reasons for going ‘home’, not least that the ewes are due to start lambing in a few weeks and need their midwife on hand for the event. We also have a few days booked on the ski slopes although, having made a million trips up 3 flights of stairs carrying plasterboard, I am not sure my ever-weakening knees are up to anything more that some high-level après ski this year. But our main reason for leaving an unfinished job is that the house we have bought, just around the corner from our Victorian terrace in East Neuk of Fife is of identical age and size, but has somehow managed to get itself onto the Listed Building Register. As anyone who has ever attempted to get planning on a Grade 2 listed dwelling will tell you, by making the slightest change to its layout or, god help us, its façade, you might as well apply for a permit to go Polar Bear hunting, such is the audaciousness of the request. Knock a wall through from sitting room to kitchen? Well, only is accompanied by 47 architect’s drawings, a surveyor’s report, advice from a plumber, electrician, Feng shui expert and priest, and, of course the obligatory visit from some certifiably bonkers historian in sandals who is so hell bent in preserving the past that he still eats gruel for breakfast. Fancy changing a window looking out to the back yard into a pair of patio-doors? Be prepared to hear patronising laughter echoing around the Ochills for at least 3 months, before a septuagenarian civil servant gets around to rejecting your application in red pen. After some research I eventually discover that the reason our entire street has been ‘Listed’ is that it has behind it a row of shacks, known locally as Net-lofts, which are quite unusual. Well, ours is certainly unusual as it is half fallen down, with a big hole in the roof, but woe-betide me if I attempt to modernise it in any way, using materials other than mud and straw. The outside privy must also remain in situ, as does the coal-shed and apparently even the nails from which once a fisherman hung his nets have some archaeological merit. I am all for preserving the past but even Bruce Forsyth has to go at some point, surely?
   Anyway, enough of these sleepless nights of stressful worry; time to put it behind me for a few months, as we embark on a 1500 mile trip by road and sea. But, as we bid fair-the-well to the glens, soon we are faced with yet more bureaucratic absurdity as we head to cross the channel, as we are now no longer allowed to leave our dogs in the comfort of the 4x4 while we get our head down in the small confines of our overnight cabin. Seemingly, on most routes, the pooches now either have to go into a rather unsavoury kennels on board or be shoehorned into the tiny cabin with us, presumably for elf & safety reasons. They also have to wear a muzzle, costing a few hundred quid, in case they decide to lick the P&O staff to death!  Just as well as we don’t have a cat as I don’t believe there would be room to swing it in room 337 on B deck.

Friday, 18 November 2016

Let there be light

Being lucky is not something I ever admit to; in fact I am always under the belief that you make your own luck in this world. And so it was that our winter trip to South Spain was cut rather drastically short while we were travelling along on the motorway minding our own, when the driver of a new BMW crashed rather dramatically into the rear of our camper, at approximately 150kph. Some would say that was a rather unlucky experience but, as we careered sideways down the A72 in a 20 foot vehicle made of paper-thin aluminium, me fighting at the wheel like Captain Jack in a force 10, with my life flashing before me like a rather confusing Asian cartoon, I am quite thankful that the toast landed butter-side up, for once. Eventually, after what seemed like the length of an NHS waiting list, I managed to bring the machine to a halt, still on all four wheels, leaving us just bruised rather than battered like a fish supper. Which is more than can be said for the poor camper, which is now in dry-dock somewhere in mid France and will remain so until insurance companies and parts-suppliers can get themselves organised to repair it. As for the driver of afore-mentioned BMW, when he immerged also unscarred from the wreckage of his car, his first words were, ‘desole, Monsieur, I was NOT on the phone! I just didn’t see you!’ Hmm, if that wasn’t an admission of guilt, what is? He did, however, accept the blame and it is to his insurance company that we are looking for recompense. As a writer, the irony of us spending our last night in the vehicle in a breakers yard behind a funeral parlour was not lost on me – considering that the alternative could have been us within its walls! Of course, it wasn’t long before the phone started ringing from the ghastly business of vulture-like ambulance chasers looking to gets us additional claims of compensation out of this and that, each of whom got short shift. I am sure we could have squeezed a few grand out of the deal to cover our inconvenience but I am, if nothing, a man of chivalrous principles when it comes to such matters.
    Anyway, the upshot of the incident – the silver lining as it were - is that we have now exchanged our winter by the Med for that of the North Sea, as we spend 8 weeks in our wee holiday cottage in Fife instead. I mustn’t complain as so far the weather is reasonable considering the latitude and, with the addition of a new waterproof overcoat, we have spent a few lovely days running the dogs on the beach in St Andrews and its surrounding area. Louis, the pointless pointer, has been suitably fitted with a tracking device so he can be monitored by satellite while he wonders off amongst the grey mist, especially in the evenings as darkness falls around mid afternoon in these parts during December. One exception to this was a night in mid November when the moon shone so large in the sky you could read a book by it. Dubbed a ‘super-moon’ by those in the know, we barred our doors for the night as it was rumoured locally that dozens of ‘lunatics’ were seduced by its rays and were out on the rampage, bringing their madness to the fore in nearby streets and dark alleys. Just a regular Saturday night out in East Fife, then?
    On the subject of light, I have just purchased what I considered at first to be a hoax piece of equipment, or even a contradiction in terms: a solar powered light. How bizarre is that? That’s like having a wind-powered vacuum-cleaner, or a water-powered fountain? Well, in fact, I believe the latter of these does exist, as proved by the Perseus and Andromeda fountain at Witley Court, but I digress. Anyway, despite it being mid winter and the sun being as rare as a Mexican’s US visa, I have to announce that each time we head to our back gate after 3pm, this tiny little gadget bathes the yard in blinding white light without so much as a quarter turn of the electric meter. Whatever will they come up with next? Cold-powered central-heating would be kinda handy. Come on James Dyson, set to the task!
     And so we have it, eventually I had to get around to mentioning Trumpton. A few times in the past I have joked about old ‘hairpiece’ getting into the Whitehouse but, now it has happened, I don’t actually know what to say. On the up-side, the fact that Mister President owns some facilities in Scotland may add an attractive touristic draw to the country for the few American’s who actually have passports and any money left. And that it could have been worse: Ahmed-the-dangerous, or Hitler could have won the vote. And that now at least Nigel Farage has a friend. Let’s at least look on the bright side. Here’s a thought, as Trumpy is so in love with Scotland, maybe, after he has finished pointing his Great Wall of Mexico, he might get his construction company to rebuild the one that Hadrian started all those years ago, the same one which Alex Salmond failed to finish. Let’s face it, Stickleback Sturgeon is already inciting the next round of negligent fund-wasting on yet another referendum, so he could do the job for her. And instead of deporting immigrants, they could all be issued with trowels on an apprentice bricklaying scheme. Once they had finished that, they could just divvy up Korea, Syria, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall and the Middle East along with all those other countries that don’t have a channel of water to Brexiteer across. That way the whole world could get on with their lives together without being shot at and the newspapers could stick to what they are best at, making personal attacks on the lives of the Royal and famous. Good on you Rednecks, it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good!

Monday, 17 October 2016

The Queen's Marmite

   And so it arrives, all too soon, those longer nights of wood smoke, indoor cooking and crap-all on TV. As ever, we get drawn into the Great Ridiculous Menu in yet another campaign to annoy the hell out of everyone who has so much as overly hard boiled an egg or burnt some toast. This time they are cooking for the Queen's 90th birthday. Now I have met a few Royals over my time and one thing that struck me about most of them is that they appear to enjoy proper food, served on a bl**dy plate! So why does Donny, head chef at the Hedgehog and Ferret in Hartlepool insist on cooking beetroot, marmite and micro-tarragon in a water-bath, then setting fire to it with a welding torch and serving in an up-turned children's cycle helmet full of liquid nitrogen and decorated with deli-boppers? Does he wholeheartedly believe that his efforts would impress anyone other than a few smug TV chefs? Would Elizabeth R really enjoy a new take on Coronation chicken after all these years, now reduced to a hen's feet and beak, topped with a pile of feathers and a toy crown? I think not. One only hopes she watches the programme so she can phone up the beeb and wield her verbal mace, demanding meat and two veg served on Royal Worcester at her party, as well she deserves. And while she is at it, maybe she can ask them politely to return Countryfile to a programme that represents ordinary rural folk, rather than lefty-hippy-suburban-vegan-lesbians  - or better still, get all its presenters beheaded!
    While on that subject of food, when I was young Marmite was known as the 'Growing up spread'. So why is it now that a bunch of over-grown children are squabbling over it? Well it appears that the 'Brexiteers' (noun: person or persons eligible to vote on serious issues while blindfolded) have now been rewarded for their electoral efforts by the price of food in their shops being hiked up in an almost-convincing piece of manipulation by executives who are much cleverer than they are.  Hence a product made from yeast extract and manufactured somewhere in Derbyshire that, in my opinion, tasting like seagull droppings, is central to a huge week-long media splash, as its cost goes up by 2p? Answer: because between its supplier and some major retailers, they have managed to carve out some excellent free advertising over what is a normal annual price negotiation. Let's face it, it is a perfectly feasible price rise in foodstuffs, as has happened every year since eternity. But it wouldn’t be half as much fun if we couldn’t blame half the UK's population though, would it? Anyway, as far as I am concerned, they could give Marmite away and I still wouldn’t go within a 2 quid bus-ride of it.
    Anyway, in an effort to escape early evening TV, last week we took our new 'camping-car' - which is what the French call it, the word 'van' being far too vulgar - down to the South West coast. Arriving on a sunny Friday afternoon right next to our favourite beach near Biarritz, we had a couple of chardonnay's under clear blue skies and enjoyed the setting sun from the terrace of a very nice fish restaurant (on a plate), followed by a run on the sand with the dogs. This time of year, apart from a few die-hard surfers, this beach is normally deserted, as we lay our heads for the night. Next morning I was quite surprised to open the curtains to more blue sky and sea, only to find a hairy biker looking back at me. Within minutes he was joined by another and more, until, within half an hour, upwards of 200 bikes arrived on the shore car-park ranging from everything from a Honda SS 50 (remember those?) through Ducati F1 bikes to 10 decades of Harley Davidson. I have to admit, once I got over the shock and covered my manhood, I found the spectacle most interesting and was soon taking photos. It transpired that they were just a bunch of local bike enthusiasts off for a 200kms jaunt around the Pyrenees before returning for a late-night beach party. By the looks of the age of some of them, a comfy seat by the fire might have also been welcome. We didn’t stay for the festivity, instead heading to Bayonne, a town we had never visited and one we were suitably impressed by, with its 5 story riverside Basque houses and wide variety of local food. Our trip here was to take in a rugby match against those wiry old Midlanders, Gloucester. It was quite amusing sitting in the local market watching portly men in cherry and white shirts wandering around like proverbial fish out of water and shaking their heads at Les Escargot. The game was a bit lack-lustre but Glos did manage a narrow win and a few celebratory pints of Heineken were had.  

   Our plan had been to continue on to Bordeaux for another match the next day but unfortunately I succumbed to a dose of the flu, something I had contracted in Scotland which I believed I had shaken off the week before. Oh well, a sign of winter setting in, I suppose. Wrap up warm, folks.