As winter sets in firmly in our district in France, this year Wendy and I have decided to spend some of it in Scotland. My reasoning is, if we are going to have some winter, let’s have some real winter. Logical? Well possibly not. After a very long drive we are now ensconced in a small cottage by the sea near Edinburgh, one that is well insulated with instant heating. In short, one that is warm. Outside there is currently a foot of snow and I am maybe considering this decision to be a wee bit rash. But then taking the dogs for a run on the beach, stopping for a pint of real ale in a cosy pub with an open fire on the way back, having a chat to a neighbour; these are a few things that have been denied to us of late so it all makes a refreshing change. I am also using the time to write another novel.
A long drive through France will inevitably find you taking a quick stop at one of its motorway service stations. A service station that does what it is designed to do. A pleasantly attractive cashier, well dressed, with bright eyes and a gleaming smile welcomes you in. Inside you can sort through an array of snacks at reasonable prices, get a hot beverage and use the toilet facilities. You can sift through a small selection of magazines about general subjects such as motoring, gardening and fishing. One magazine entitled “Tampons, made easy” did make me raise an eyebrow, but seemingly it was just something to do with crochet. I will admit, that while drinking our coffee I noticed that the lady next to me sported a nice Louis Vuiton bag out of which was poking the head of a small bug eyed dog. But the French can surely be excused that little vice, the one that allows them to wear pets as a fashion accessory? All in all, I have to say that a motorway service station in France is a reasonably pleasant and quite painless experience.
However….having made it on to UK soil, the time came once more to stop into a service station, to let out our dogs to stretch their legs etc. So I thought I would make a few observations for a comparison.
The first thing you notice is the lack of pleasant staff, it appears that these places only offer employment to the under-educated rotund creatures who would be a shoe-in for a part in Stephen Spielberg’s next horror movie. The ill-fitting cheap uniforms and baseball caps add a certain status to these people, relieving them of any sense of dignity they may once have had, along with any sense of humour and manners. I am drawn into the grossly over priced WH Smith store where I am confronted with racks full of so many magazines it would take me a week just to read all the titles. Someone should publish a magazine for magazine buyers, one that might guide me towards a suitable selection from the thousands on offer. I am baffled as to who buys all this stuff, glossy publications with titles such as ‘Airfix for amateurs’ and “Britain’s next tin-opener”. To pass the time, I consider what may interest me and decide perhaps something about tractors might suffice, me being the owner of a vintage model Ford. After some desperate searching I glance up to that forbidden top shelf, you know the one where all the illicit ladies dare to bare flesh on the front cover? Low and behold, I see it, ‘Classic Tractor’ nestled between ‘Big Boobs’ and ‘Tickle fetish’. Since when has a tractor magazine contained adult content? Why oh why did they have to place it up there? I dare not reach up for it in case of being spotted. I am so shocked, my embarrassment colours my face red as I sidle away empty handed avoiding glares from old ladies branding me as a pervert.
I am amazed at the size of the huge shopping mall and attempt to head in the direction of something to eat. I negotiate my way through women leaping out at me proffering leaflets on subjects such as ‘socialising with god’ or ‘saving a small Ugandan child from starvation’. I reply in French and they let me pass. I reach the drinks outlet aptly named Costa. Costa-packet by the looks of it. I am completely baffled by the endless list of variations on a simple cup of coffee. Latte and Cappuccino with added spices such as vanilla, basil and chilli. They come in different sizes, small, medium or 3 gallon bucket size that would keep me awake for about 4 years. In France, un café is a sufficient order, here the choice is so vast that I consider heading back to the magazine racks to buy a copy of ‘Ordering coffee for beginners’ to help me with my choice. “YES?” barks the immigrant waitress, “Umm, I am still making up my mind” I mumble, embarrassed once again. She ignores me and moves on to the more savvy customer behind me who smugly orders a cocktail of various coffee beans and sophisticated additives. Totally confused, my appetite for coffee dissapears and I move on in search of food.
A neon sign for Burgerland draws me into a booth where once again I am faced with a choice of a million variations on a standard beef-burger. I choose an Angus burger which arrives instantly. It is the size of a small family car. Once more a barrage of questions which defy logic come hurtling in my direction. ‘Would I like a meal?’ I am asked. ‘Uhh, OK’ I reply, wondering what the other options might be. ‘Would I like to GO LARGE?’ What? What could be larger than this? Cathedral size perhaps? With extra lard and a 4 acre field of potato chips? I decline and my server looks quite disappointed. Judging by his physique he has ‘gone large’ a few too many times himself as his sausage-like fingers count out my miniscule change.
I sit on the spindly chair trying to negotiate my feast, spurts of sauce flying out in all directions as I attempt to bite into it, grease dripping down my shirt. The bread has a similar consistency to the box it comes in. One bite is enough for me. If it was Angus, then I suspect it was from an Angus cow that had probably died of old age or possibly anorexia. I eat the chips and head back for the car. As I pass the nice coloured lady I offer the remnants of my burger for her to give to this poor starving child she is campaigning about. In fact I go one step further and suggest to her that if she gathers up all the left over angus-burgers from the nearby stall, in no time at all her poor starving child would soon be as fat as Idi Amin or whichever terrorist was running that country these days.
After a 17 hour journey, we arrived in Rock to stay for a few days. Any of you who frequent the Rock Cross Inn will have noted it now has new proprietors who have settled in quickly and are doing a roaring meal trade. I wish them all the very best. You may also have noticed that the pub has lost one of its loyal customers too, that of a canine variety. Sadly Honey, Val Frazier’s friendly dachshund passed away earlier this month aged 13.
Before heading to Scotland, we visited the Royal Welsh winter fair in Builth Wells. It had been 10 years since I was last there and my mission was to do a bit of promotion for my new book amongst a few of my old cattle showing mates. We certainly picked an interesting day to go, our picturesque drive through the snowy Welsh mountains was stunning. However, I considered the car’s thermometer to be malfunctioning when it decreased down to eleven degrees below freezing. Until we stepped outside that is. Apparently earlier that morning it had been minus 17! The rows of cattle and sheep were quite well prepared for this weather in their winter jackets. Two people just arriving from South France were definitely not. Fortunately there was an enterprising stall selling thermal socks and hats to help us through and we had a nice day. What I did find different after a ten year absence is the amount of people who now speak Welsh. It seems that it has been a compulsory subject in schools for a while which in its self is possibly a good thing, upholding tradition and all that. But why speak it constantly in public, is this strictly necessary? Come to think of it, what use is speaking Welsh anyway? Would it not be more productive for a small country, one that has little to offer other than sheep, to speak a more universally accepted language if it is to succeed in the modern world? Am I the only one who believes that this blinkered approach is very much a retrograde step for a country campaigning for its independence? The European banks are already bailing out Ireland, will it be Wales next?
Whilst there I picked up on an article relaying a speech from Wales’s newly appointed Rural Affairs Minister, Elin Jones, which I read in disbelief. I will quote it directly.
“I want Welsh agriculture to be a modern industry. I want Welsh farmers on their tractors listening to Lady GaGa on their ipods and comparing beef cost-to-price ratios on their ipads in the local mart,” she told NFU Cymru’s annual conference.
Excuse me? Has she ever met a Welsh farmer? All the ones I know wouldn’t know an i-pod from a pea pod! And the only GaGa Lady they will ever listen to is you madam. And not for very long either!