Thursday, 11 December 2014

Secrets of the seventies

Well, Happy Hogmanay to everyone who survived Christmas in one piece. Of course, nobody will be reading this as you will all be queuing up outside Argos waiting for post-Christmas bargains, or scouring the internet for anything denoted with twenty percent off. In fact, you no longer need to wait for January to go to the sales, as we are bombarded throughout December with special discount shopping days. I blame the Americans – for most things, actually! Seemingly Black Friday was started in USA a decade ago as a marketing ploy to spur Christmas shoppers into action a few weeks into November. But then, as with all things hyped, the whole thing snowballed into a rainbow spectrum of Green Mondays, Red Tuesdays and slightly blueish-mauve Sundays throughout December, all offering super-saver-deals on websites who already claim to be the cheapest in cyber-space - now even cheaper. I am informed that these are all deals that I cannot afford to miss, irrespective of whether I need them or not, or already have three left over from last year still in the cupboard. However, I am quite taken with Groupon, an organisation that offers companies a chance to sell small numbers of their goods or services at cost price, if only so we can get an insight into what extortionate profits they usually take. So far I have managed a round of golf on a Royal course for ten quid including breakfast, 3 nights in a honeymoon suite in a top resort, and a new bed, all at 60% off. OK, so I didn’t need all of these, with the possible exception of the golf, but I am comforted that myself and my occasionally profligate wife have saved enough money with which to irresponsibly spend on drink!
I mentioned last month that I was embarking on a mission to renovate a house in Fife and I am quite pleased with myself when I announce that phase one of the project is now completed. Inevitably I now have the sore knees and backache to prove it. It would appear that the old Victorian property last had a face-lift around 1973, with kaleidoscope carpets, wallpaper that makes your legs wobble and light-fittings made of psychedelically painted glass, all in abundance. After spending 3 days hoying all the above into a skip, I visit a well-known DIY store to find that I am now able to buy exactly the same stuff which has mysteriously hoved back into fashion at highly inflated prices. Who said nostalgia is a thing of the past? Why is it that we can’t just let the chemically induced indulgence into the hallucinogenic haze of the seventies fade away without embarrassment? Like most fifty-somethings, I not only burnt my flares and tank-tops a long time ago, but along with them all photographic evidence of their very existence. There should be laws against this revival before the country spirals back into a life of platform shoes, scampi in the basket and Simca cars and we all die of humiliation! Please mister government, outlaw everything that hails from that decade, except the music (and possibly the Ferrari 308 GTB). Thank you.
On the same subject, I am this weekend stunned to learn that with the latest reincarnation of Doctor Who, the Daleks are also back, but they can now climb stairs! Noooo! That was the whole point of the things. While your kid sister was hiding behind the sofa as the cardboard creatures wheeled down the street with their ray guns and sink-cleaners, chasing some scantily-clad maiden, us boys were standing shouting at the TV, ‘go upstairs, go upstairs! You’ll be safe there until the Brigadier arrives!’ Seemingly the 2015 versions now have some built-in hovering ability. How preposterous! It is nothing less than an outrage, I’m telling you!
While we are on the issue of reminiscence of the seventies, on my way to Fife last week I had a wry smile to myself when I spotted a large sign directing people to Scotland’s Secret Bunker – purely on the understanding that it is hardly a secret if you tell everyone where it is? That’s a bit like screwing a five quid combination-locked box to the wall outside your back-door with a big sign saying ‘KEYS – in case of burglary, insert chisel here!’ Although I have not yet visited the site, which is now a museum, it transpires that an underground fortress, complete with 3 feet thick tungsten reinforced concrete walls and a labyrinth of tunnels, had been built and concealed under a farmhouse near St Andrews in 1972 which would house some 300 personnel, protecting them from nuclear explosion, more than likely caused by the pesky Russians. Although the Cold War never really got much above freezing, the amount of money required to maintain the bunker, let alone build it, would have kept all the towns on Fife’s East Neuk coast in coal for two decades and, believe me, they needed it. And all this to preserve a few Scottish ministers, none of whom at the time had enough government authority in Britain to issue so much as a parking ticket. Rumours that the whole place had been extended last year to accommodate the comely frame of Alex Salmond have been categorically denied.
Of course, after Salmond’s laughable defeat in September’s referendum, for the first time since Mary Queen of Scots, we now have a lady in charge north of the border who, after some churlish begging, actually does have an iota of power over their self governance. So what does she do with it? Immediately p*sses off every rural community by lowering the drink driving limit to 50mg so that your working man can no longer have a pint on the way home from said work. However, this is not strictly true. The new legislation brings it into line with Europe and particularly France who, let’s face it, make all the rules anyway. The difference is, we in France drink beer in small glasses, thus affording us the liberty to have one drink and still take the car home within the bounds of the law, rather than walking or taking the bus. Just as well on the latter point, as the frequency of buses in our local village is about once every three months. Furthermore, walking home down the lane is far more dangerous, what with the crevice-like ditches that line the roads and the chance of encountering a drunken Frenchman behind the wheel with no headlights, but I digress. The point is that, despite their protestations, your average Scot could just drop in to the ‘Thistle and Sporan’ for a half-pint while he warms the underside of his kilt in front of the peat fire, and then everyone’s happy – except, perhaps, Newcastle Breweries. But don’t you Sassenachs go a-gloating too much. You are surely next on the list!
BTW, good luck to the new proprietors of the Rock Cross Inn. Please keep the home fires burning!


Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Pigeon post

     Once again, welcome to the life of a headless chicken, as I charge around trying to get things done and achieving very little. As I write, I am in limbo in one airport waiting for a delayed flight, en route to another one where the plane will have departed without me, leaving me somewhere in rain-washed southern England without a canoe. Like some game of giant aeronautical dominoes, my late arrival to my next destination will have such a subsequent knock on to my two week schedule that will probably delay my Christmas until sometime in February, as my deadlines shoot by in a wave of nausea. While I inwardly scream at the thought of the month to come, which involves rendezvous with builders, plumbers, sparkies and chippies, who will no doubt collectively take in such a sharp intake of breath it will cause a vacuum around the south Fife coast, I can only take solace in the fact that I actually intend to undertake most of the renovation work on my latest project myself to keep costs down. In fact, I must confess, the only chippy I intend to use will be the one on the seafront which has won numerous awards for its fish suppers! Anyone in the building trade will point out that it is a rather despicable practice that a potential client could pick the brains of half a dozen local tradesmen, gleaning knowledge of materials, suppliers and regulations while having no intention of hiring said professionals to do the work. My counter to this would be quite simple. a:) just about every jobbing builder in Scotland is booked up until autumn 2024, and b) their prices for doing the simplest of jobs are so extortionate that it would be cheaper to hire Heston Bloumenthal to make me a cup of tea than to get local hoods, McKay and McKay, to change a light bulb, let alone fit a kitchen. So, armed with nothing more that basic understanding of French plumbing, for the next couple of weeks I will be holed up in a draughty Scottish seaside house with no heating, in early winter, scratching my head as I try and fathom out imperial measurements and push-fit joints while the wind from the North Sea whips in under the door. That is if I manage to get there at all!
    Meanwhile, Wendy is left in sunny France, clearing up after the entourage of guests and friends staying over the last few weeks, until I give her a whistle to come and join me in Scotland for the winter months. After mentioning last month that at last it had started to rain, it immediately stopped again as we suffered an extended drought for another four weeks which left our sheep so thin that the Red Cross have been considering sending in food aid. In an attempt to cut down our numbers, we have given away Rambo - the nomadic ram who mysteriously appeared in our field four years ago - who has now gone to live somewhere in mid France on a smallholding where his predecessor passed away after dining on a glut of acorns! One hopes he has a strong constitution! In his place we have dusted off Pa, now in his ninth year, to take over the nuptial reins. For a few days we did also borrow Rammy from a neighbour, but he and Pa took an instant dislike to each other and resorted to fisticuffs, leaving the poor old boy with a large dent in his head that subsequently filled with maggots. Not a nice vision, I know, but, with the aid of a little Domestos, we did manage to rid him of the wrigglies so he could continue his tupping season with some dignity. Rammy, on the other hoof, was banished back from whence he came, never to darken our door again.
Besides the sun blazing its way through the autumn, the only other interesting thing I have to report from France this month was an afternoon visit, along with one of our guests, to a palombiere. For those of you ill-informed of such an event, as were we, this is a hide-out built 35 feet up in a tree.      However, be you human or pigeon, underestimate this splendid abode at your peril. As you approach it through the thick woods, you could be forgiven for not even noticing its entrance, cleverly disguised behind a curtain of camouflage netting. From there an elaborate staircase leads you upwards until you enter a room the size of a small bungalow, with fully fitted kitchen including shiny coffee machine and dishwasher, as well as an immaculately decorated bedroom with en-suite. Once inside, we were presented with a glass of something that would take the enamel off a tiger’s teeth and a welcoming from a number shabbily dressed local French farmers, all rosy-cheeked from their recent two hour lunch. Our host, who also doubles up as the local barman, had also been celebrating his birthday! Each one of them was armed… Doing my best to interpret their local dialect, my guest was quite impressed with the set up, especially when the alarm was sounded and all eyes tuned to the skies. Within seconds the hatches all around the house silently slid closed until the only light came in through a dozen slit holes, each one occupied by a twelve bore barrel. Outside, upwards of 30 tame pigeons in the surrounding trees, each tethered by one leg to a long wire, started to dance as the main man pulled on different ones in sequence like a half-drunken campanologist. The ploy worked as overhead a flock of maybe 250 wood pigeons - or they may have been racers, I am unsure - descended on our locale to visit their hopping tethered feathered friends. By then, the only sound you could hear were a dozen safety catches being quietly flicked, as each gun took a bead followed by a faint count of one, two, three… I am not sure if you have been in an enclosed space when multiple shotguns are fired simultaneously? The deafening sound can only be superseded by the triumphant cheer of a dozen overgrown kids in a tree house, when the scout returned with enough dead pigeons to keep the village in pie for another week.




Sunday, 12 October 2014

Who stabbed Richard the Third?

Today this house hold is in recovery mode after yet another successful chutney festival event which spanned most of yesterday and part of the day before. In my defence, I will hold my hand up and admit that much of the red wine that I drunk was medically required to help wash down 30+ samples of pickled fruits, spiced relishes and sickly jams which it was my honour to officiate over. Having judged many livestock shows in my past, the task of judging a few jars didn’t seem too onerous but it turned out harder that I had expected, especially when 25 other after-judges got to give their opinions too. I know I didn’t please all the entrants and even Mrs Coryton who took the overall award – for the second year running – didn’t much like her own offering, preferring some of the non prize winners. Thankfully the small print on the entry form stated quite clearly that ‘the judge is always right – even when he is wrong!’
I mentioned last month that Wendy and I were ‘getting hitched’ shortly and I can now announce that I am the proud owner/custodian of a wife, for better or worse. A small band of 40 revellers descended on Scotland’s South East coast for a few days, whose presence collectively made a couple of September days into something extra special that will always be cherished. From some beautiful weather, an exceptional lamb dinner to some rather extreme bare-footed dancing, I believe everyone to a man/woman enjoyed themselves immensely. However, post event, I do have to air this little story in case anyone was wondering why I seemed a little vacant during the proceedings. Although not one of a nervous disposition, I did stand outside after breakfast at the small abode where I spent my last night of singledom considering a few carefully selected words that I was to use at the reception, highlighting certain friends, relatives and absentees. As I stood pondering, I felt a sharp pain  on my leg which turned out to be me pinching myself in an attempt to wake me up, for an event just 10 metres away was unfolding that was so bizarre I had to be dreaming it. On the grass verge outside the old inn a small bearded man stepped out of his equally small car, opened the boot and produced first a giant sword, then a bow and arrow before finally tugging out a skeleton, all of which he laid neatly on the grass. As if oblivious to anyone witnessing this absurd event, let alone a mystified groom-to-be, he chatted away to the mass of bones as though he was at a picnic with his buddies. Eventually, realising I was actually awake I felt the need to speak to him, just to establish that I hadn’t gone barking mad with the pre-nuptial jitters. ‘Is that a skeleton?’ said I, with the only blatantly obvious words I could muster. ‘Oh aye,’ said little man, ‘and it’s got all the same stab-wounds as Richard the Third!’ As though justifying his actions, he then gathered up his bow and sword, slung the rattling boney colleague over his shoulder and sauntered off into the distance, leaving me to scratch my head as I re-ran the sentence again and again through my head. So to those of you who were there to witness the groom’s speech on Sept 27th, I apologise if it made little sense as I blabbered on about this and that. It. You now know you can blame it on Richard the Third!
Once all the guests had departed, after some well-earned sleep we set off north for a few days honeymoon. Except that, as you have come to expect from yours truly, it didn’t quite go to plan. For we were to stay a night in the romantic setting of St Andrews before heading further west to a country hotel in Perthshire. What I hadn’t reckoned with was a massive pro-am golf tournament being staged in the area, which tied up just about every hotel in a hundred mile radius to bursting point – and I hadn’t booked one. No problem, says I to my beloved, we can stay at our own house. I may have mentioned a while ago that we had purchased a little seaside home in Anstruther, East Fife. What I may have omitted to say was that the whole place is empty, save for a lot of spiders, and needs a complete refit. When I say empty, it did have some very nice 1975 carpets but absolutely no furniture or facilities. Remind me never to play poker with Wendy, or any woman for that matter, as her face when I emerged out of the local hardware store carrying a blow-up bed, a bottle of wine and a packet of Pringles was not easy to read. The words ‘I’ll be fun,’ were greeted with a similar withering look, possibly one of disbelief! Thankfully, after the wine kicked in, she did see the funny side of spending her honeymoon in a tumble-down cottage on a bed that farted every time one of us moved. At least, I think it was the bed!
Eventually, still managing to stay married, we found our way to a beautiful forested deluxe resort near Aberfeldy at which to unwind, and very nice it was too. Except that, over the doorway of the room, a green illuminated light kept me awake all night, as it informed me that the door was also the emergency exit. The fact that the only other way to leave this room, were it an inferno, was through the window next to it – or possibly digging a tunnel - I lay there for half the night wondering why the hell they felt the need to tell me this – in dayglo technicolour? I considered a wiley little health and safety executive – possibly the same man I had seen moonlighting as a grave-robber a few days earlier – demanding that clients be saved from themselves by having their only escape route pointed out to them. Eventually, as any half-sane man would do, I put a chair underneath the sign, nakedly climbed up and took the bulb out. Wendy unfortunately woke up while I clattered at this exercise – rubbed her eyes, and then gave me yet another of those looks that only a wife can use, and one where, no matter how plausible the excuse, no explanation will every hold water.
 Anyway, enough with my recent exploits, at least it is raining here at last in France and the grass has at last started to turn from brown to green, much to delight of 19 starving sheep. As our ram, Rambo, has a number of daughters in our closed flock, this year we did a swapsie with a neighbour so Rambo could be put to extended use elsewhere. In his place, we now have the equally imaginatively name Rammy ‘seeing to’ the girls around the paddock, hopefully to bring us lambs in mid March. I have to say, he is not quite the powerful specimen of the aforementioned macho Rambo, more a sort of long-tailed version of Larry-the-lamb. He may also possibly be gay, because as yet, the only sheep he has shown any interest in is a castrated male! Oh well, it takes all sorts!

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Break a leg

Wow, what a great September, for a change. Gotta love those Indians; thanks chaps. But the extended warm weather is not without its problems here in France as the grass fields are as brown a Louis the pointer-dog and any tiny shoot of grass that does poke its way through the rock-solid soil gets snapped up by Daisy the sheep and her pals. Yes, Daisy Death-wish is still with us, albeit in her currently slimmer form, heading for a third lambing. If I were a betting man, I would have lost a bundle on her not making it to a first birthday – but some things defy the odds.
Here’s another bet that has a poor chap hoping. One irresponsibly wealthy person – in London – has bet 800k of his life-savings on Scotland’s not gaining independence. By the time this goes to print he will either be 200k better off or in the dole queue. I have to admit that from my standpoint – and being a house-owner in Scotland, we have a valid one – that the whole thing has been a complete farce and a waste of money for a country which claims to have none. As one wag put it: ‘spending all your money on a saw to hack off the hand that feeds you will not only leave you armless, but penniless too!’ One assumes, despite poor lads and lasses in the schemes in Glasgow believing that their YES vote will mean they get salmon and sturgeon on the menu in their local chippie (can I get a fried mars bar and a poke o chips wi tha’?) that enough people without saltire-coloured glasses on will turn out on the day and make sense of it all. Otherwise, we may be fleeing south like Kind Edward himself with our jimmy hats on fire!
 On the subject of Scotland, we have recently got the keys to a small terraced house in Fife which we put in an offer for back in February. As the delay suggests, it wasn’t the easiest of conveyancing process which culminated in one of the lawyers involved having to search gravestones in a local cemetery to trace a long lost owner who died in 1916!   Needless to say, the property requires some moderate renovation, once I can weed out the cowboy builders and get one to turn up on the right day and stay until the job is finished. Ah, no, hang on, I think Alex Salmond has more chance of becoming Pope than I do with that task!  Meanwhile, I have been trying to get the building insured and stooped to the bottom of the pile by using that service advertised by some prat on TV with a large moustache whom everyone hates. With my eyesight failing a wee bit these days, I left it to Wendy to read the small print, and a good job she did. You see, hidden in that very print are tiny exclusions such as, and I quote: ‘property is not insured for fire damage if it is caused by electrical or gas heating appliances and/or naked flame (eg the cooker). As if that wasn’t enough, the next line reads: ‘property is not insured for damage by storms!’ The place is by the North Sea, FFS, of course there will be storms! That’s like saying your car isn’t insured if you hit something, or you life insurance doesn’t cover accidental death! Thankfully we are covered for terrorism and rioting, obviously prominent in tiny seaside villages in East Neuk? Maybe they are covering their back when we have to barricade ourselves in once the SNP start their ethnic cleansing process!
Having mentioned annoying adverts, can I have a grouse about how TV no longer manages to offer me anything I would be remotely interested in. Years ago, I am sure at least a few adverts took my attention, targeted to the audience of the program that sandwiched them. You know, like selling us wellingtons and woollies during the breaks in a program advocating holidays in Britain. Or crisps, beer, fags and knuckle-dusters at half time in football games. Said programme I was watching was Grand Designs, whose target viewers are probably fifty-sixty-something, perhaps on the sunnier side of the poverty line and a decorum of common sense. Do I really want to buy hair extensions, microwavable chicken nuggets and cheap nappies? Wouldn’t they be far better offering me building materials, luxury cars and fine wines? That’s what they do on the internet, isn’t it? Go online to buy a book on gardening, next thing you have pop-ups everywhere offering you a lawnmower, hedgecutter, some weedkiller and a night out with Charlie Dymock after she’s had a wash. Why hasn’t the same technology reached TV yet? So when I buy a new flat-screen, I can tick the boxes of things that interest me (such as the said Charlie D) and switch off the rest, barring them from my screen altogether. If there weren’t enough adverts on my chosen subjects, it could fill the gaps with some pleasing music and a big sign saying ‘go put the kettle on, and don’t spare the hobnobs!’ Come on Murdoch, get with the programme!
Meanwhile, our own programme has again been a hectic one. In early September we were back in the Midlands for a wedding, of a local from Rock, as it happens. And from then to Scotland to a masked ball, which was somewhat fun. I must admit I hadn’t fully read the invite and got a few disturbing looks when I turned up in my Hannibal Lecter outfit and a nice bottle of Cianti! Then it’s back to France as fast as Ryan can muster, stepping off the plane straight into a dress rehearsal for a show I have been roped into singing in. It is pretty much ten years to the date since I last trod the boards in front of an audience and I have to confess it is enjoyable to be back. Over that time spent in a country with cheap gin and wine, I openly admit my voice has faded significantly and I am well out-classed amongst the talented bunch of 12 artistes, and two great directors, but I will give it my all. Then I have just a single week to remove the rotten tomato stains from my suit before heading back north again.
All things going to plan, by the time this article has hit the information highway I will now be at last living with an honest woman. Not that Wendy has ever told porkies;, just that we have been engaged to be married for over 5 years and, on 27th September we will have tied the knot in a small hotel overlooking the sea in East Lothian, Scotland, possibly with the rain lashing down and YES campaigners crying in the corner. It will be a privilege to welcome her into the Frazier family – a pretty valuable asset I am certain. The event will be slightly marred by my mother being unable to be there due to ill health, but we will raise a glass, along with a few other close friends and swing the kilts in fine style until we drop. Possibly we may find time and energy to squeeze in a few days away on the west coast before charging back to France to host the 6th Annual Chutney Festival and all that it entails. This year’s judge is being flown in specially, all the way from my home village of Rock!
Immediately after that it will be time to put the rams with the ewes and last year’s crop in the freezer, prune the garden, mend the roof and generally tidy the place away for winter. Where did that year go again?


Friday, 22 August 2014

Friends of Poo-pooh

Whoopie: at last, after only seven years, I have finally finished renovating the upstairs of the house. Well, when I say finished, I mean completed to a standard where people can live in it. OK, there may still be the odd gap in the skirting where a mouse could sneak in and obviously Spike, our highly talented cat, can still manage to nest in every room behind locked doors but, in general, we now have a succession of usable bedrooms and bathrooms. Just as well, as they are currently all occupied by a coach-load of burly young lads who are all here on holiday, oozing testosterone everywhere and burdening a constant drain on the fridge. I have to admit, it is nice to have guests and this year, due to unforeseen issues, we have had precious few. It may have been a tad easier if they had arrived in ones and twos instead of 12 all at once, but hey-ho, we can cope as long as the septic tank holds out. They are a refreshing bunch, too, many of whom are finding their way on new career paths after a lifetime in education, and relishing what challenges life holds before them. I would like to think I could offer snippets of guidance here and there, but then when I look back on my own dappled career of cattle groomer, computer programmer and then writer, I am not so sure anyone else on earth could take such a diverse route through life, blindfolded or otherwise. Possibly the only real advice I can give is that: when your years come nearer to retirement, be able to look back and say ‘if I had my time over again, I would do it all exactly the same.’  I am almost proud that I can do that.
Anyway, enough with the philosophy, let’s get down to complaining about stuff. For instance, what the heck is the British government on about now? Most of us are aware that autumn is the time of year when bored politicians, just back from their annual month in the sun, sit around creating new legislation to justify their overpaid existence. So why is it that, even though we expect the absurd, their moronity still never fails to amaze? Yes, I am talking about the latest suggestion, that of putting health warnings on alcohol. Are we really expected to save ourselves from ourselves by heeding the signs. Will a skull and crossbones deter us from pulling another cork when we really should be reaching for the Perrier? Exactly. Who is kidding who here? Of course drinking is bad for you, that’s why we do it, surely? Save your money, Mister PM, and give the nurses a well earned raise instead.
Although I am not one to intensely keep an eye on world news, this month I really must mention Captain Ian Baston who was brought to my attention by the BBC. It appears that this honourable chap lost control of a Flybe aircraft during landing when his arm accidentally fell off! Yes, I reckon that would do it? ‘Nobody was hurt,’ said a CAA spokesman, ‘and Mr Baston has sworn he will make sure his arm is well and truly screwed on in future!’  No wonder Flybe has a the nickname Fly?Maybe! Note I have avoided the temptation to make a sic joke about their second-hand planes…
Last month I mentioned that the Tour De France was coming through our local town. Well, despite my disinterest in the sport of cycling, we decided to use the occasion as an excuse for a party and, my, what a party it was. With quite surprising insight, I did a reckie of the route the night before, selected a suitable spot on a blind corner and parked my sheep trailer there. The next day, when 20 of us arrived at noon, the French bystanders were already into their picnics and lining the route when I unlocked the trailer, rolled out the gas bbq, 2 tables, 20 chairs, 20 litres of red wine, a full 5 course meal, including 2 whole legs of lamb which we proceeded to cook under their noses. I have to admit, the locals were generally impressed by the pluck of Les Anglais, and particularly when they got to sample some gigot de agneau. However, some of neighbours were not quite so hospitable, suggesting that we were parked in their own personal space. Non too perturbed, we continued preparing our feast until one quite angry little Frenchman became very irate, threatening to remove us personally and hurling a few insults. ‘You are not friends of poo-poo!’ he repeated time and again, in a mysterious fashion. To be honest, if he wasn’t so intimidating, it would have been quite comical. Still we held fast, and even checked with the local gendarmes that we were perfectly within our rights to remain there. In fact the men in uniform also partook in a few morsels of cooked lamb and a wee snifter. Eventually our friend retreated still muttering about poo-poo but, feeling slightly sad for him, one of our party delivered him a plateful of food and an aperitif, to try and console his grief. It turned out that Poo-Poo was not an insult at all, but a real person. Not just any person either, but one of France’s most famous cyclists who had lived in the town until his recent death, and these were his mates who were trying to get themselves on TV via helicopter coverage of this exact spot. Instead, what made it onto TV was a plethora of drunken English, complete with one wearing a lime green chef’s hat and brandishing a carving knife. C’est la vie, Poo-Poo. Merde Happens!



Thursday, 7 August 2014

Ralph

The following short story made it into the list of 6 finalists for the Scottish Arts Club competition in Edinburgh, judged by Alexander McCall-Smith. August 2014.

RALPH

Tony watched the fat grey bird with mild disdain as it hopped from yellow foot to yellow foot, inching its way across the damp grass. What was it with seagulls that made them so undesirable? Rats with wings, someone had once described them. A slither of paper, possibly a sweet wrapper was the object of this one’s attention, lying on a patch of damp sandy dirt under the wooden bench. With little consideration, Tony put his foot over it, the worn tread of his walking boot obscuring it from view, and then glanced out over the estuary.
Faint lines of distant white waves rose and fell from the dappled surface, as though raising their heads and then lowering them again like meerkats peeking out to see if the coast is clear.
Across the bay, two identical hills loomed from the otherwise darkening skies over Fife. It must be nearly two years that he had been coming here to this bench, and yet still he hadn’t gotten around to finding out what they were called. The Queen’s nipples, he always referred to them as, due to their shape with a pimple on top, like a woman lying topless on a chilly beach. The Royal reference was to Fife itself, known quite boastfully as the Kingdom of Fife as though a powerful King owned it personally. Well a king had a queen, didn’t it? And its queen was right there, lying on her back. Tony had never really discussed this with anyone; people didn’t like that sort of thing when it came to nudity and royalty. And anyway, since Laura had gone, he didn’t much talk to anybody else. At first he had tried to be brave, and even ventured down the Bissets pub on the main street and chatted with John behind the bar; but it wasn’t really conversation, just talk, pretend to listen, and then wait for your turn to talk again. He had an idea the few locals laughed about him when he left. After a couple of visits, he got bored with it - and them -and got a dog instead.
By his foot, the grey bird had got nearer and was now inspecting the area where his boot was. He glanced down at it, staring into its shiny eye. For a second, it reminded him of Ralph, and the way that he had always looked at him with that expectant expression when he wanted something.
‘Oh Ralph,’ he sighed. ‘Why did you leave too?’
‘Ralph!’ squawked the feathered creature, its beak open at right-angles.
Tony let out an involuntary laugh. Ralph had been called Ralph as a joke, because when he barked it sounded just like that very word. The dog was a walking onomatopoeic creature that would be a sketch-writers dream.
‘Ralph! Ralph!’ he said it out loud, to no one in particular.
The bird glanced down at his foot, repeated his words in its birdlike tone, and then pecked at his boot.
‘Are you mocking me, you scavenging creature?’ Tony raised his foot to push it away but the bird ducked its head underneath it and snatched the sweet wrapper like a well-practiced pickpocket. He watched it back away, hanging on to the white paper so that it didn’t take off on the breeze, and then turned his eyes back out over the dunes to the sea once more. Out in the bay a giant oil tanker sat empty and motionless, its red whale-like body sitting high up out of the water and exposing its lower waistline a like an old man’s sock at half mast. As usual, it wasn’t the boat or the water that interested Tony, but the thicket of gorse and buckthorn that smothered the rolling hills of sand for the quarter of a mile or so between him and Gullane beach. To the right it extended back towards Edinburgh, culminating with the massive old house that towered over the golf course, backlit against the afternoon sky. He had searched there, so many times. Out to his right, sprawling eastwards towards the North Sea and past Muirfield course, the dense buckthorn gave way to spindly pine trees that flailed and thrashed in the wind on blowy days.
It was there, within a stone’s throw of the second green, that he had last seen poor Ralph.
That had been over a month ago.
Each morning, at first light, Tony had checked outside the door of his tiny house in Broadgait, in case he had come home during the night, returning after a frantic scurry around in the undergrowth, momentarily forgetting the time or day. Each morning, the heartache wrenched at Tony’s soul, like a sucker punch to the stomach. With every morning, the hope grew thinner until now it was barely more than a distant wish. Time was healing, just like they said it would, but as the optimism faded so it gave way to an emptiness that was filled with scolding pain.
‘Are you still out there, Ralph?’ His eyes scanned back and forth, pulling a pair of field-glasses tight into his sockets like his old tank commander done in the dusty desert.
Since Laura had left him over a year ago, that scruffy dog had been his only friend and, in a short time, they had been through immeasurable emotional turmoil together. Late into the night, he would sit and hold perfectly acceptable conversations with him, while the dog sat and listened patiently about life with all its horrors, prospects and values. Occasionally, when he understood words like birdies or sausages, he would chip in with a few of his own. Ralph, Ralph.
Tony considered that it was everyone’s wish that their dog could talk? Or their cat, or hamster? On patrol, one scary night, he had even talked to a lizard while, somewhere inside him, willing it to talk back to him in words he could understand. Just a few words of encouragement - that was all he needed? Well, that’s what made Ralph so special. He did that.
Tony surveyed the land again, casting his eyes across the thorny bushes, their once bright orange berries fading like forgotten Christmas decorations, as winter turned its head towards springtime. A  young couple on the distant beach were throwing a ball for their own dog on the beach, adding pain and guilt to the thoughts he already harboured, about what he once had, now all gone.
‘But gone, it is!’ he sighed, addressing the obese bird as it watched him, now perched on a gnarled wooden fence.
‘Ralph!’ squawked the bird again, but this time, to Tony’s surprise, opening its wings and swooping the 10 feet or so towards him. As he flinched, it stuck out its claws, heavily thudding onto the back-rest of the bench and balancing there, the green wooden rail bending fractionally under its weight. Still in slight shock, he watched it fold its wings up like a child’s transformer toy, tucking them away until it resumed its rotund shape once more.  Resisting the urge to chase the seagull away, Tony turned towards it, admiring the intricate array of dark and light feathers that together made up its grey appearance.  Still wary it may attack him, he spoke to it again.
‘Have you seen Ralph, my friend?’ he asked, quietly. ‘Is he out there, chasing birdies like you, and causing menace?’  As he stared at it, tears uncontrollably welling up in his eyes, the bird fixed his gaze once more. ‘Is he out there now, running free?’ Tony swallowed hard. ‘Or maybe up there?’ He broke the animal’s stare and looked up to the grey skies overhead, where a few clouds were assembling like a gathering army of grey wool-sacks. ‘Do you think he will come back, some day?’ When he glanced back down, the bird was looking up too, following his gaze.
‘Ralph,’ it said, much quieter this time. Then there was nothing, except the silence of nature’s own background.
For the first time in weeks, Tony felt his pain drain away as his lips slowly widened to a smile. Their eyes locked again as its pupils, jet black against pools of vibrant yellow, seemed to peer into his soul. His heart quickened, and the young man felt his voice drop to a whisper:
‘You can understand me, can’t you? You know, don’t you? You know all about Ralph?’
Using slow movements, he delved his cold hand into the depths of his coat pocket, burrowing beneath a mass of tissues before bringing out a small plastic bag. He tore open the top and offered a brown object in the palm of his outstretched hand.
‘Are you a smart birdie?’ His voice raised in encouragement. ‘Do you like sausages?’
‘Ralph! Ralph!’ came an eager reply.

Monday, 14 July 2014

The wind in your face

I don’t visit London very much, if I can help it. Who would, really, except tourists, politicians or those seeking their fortune? My reason for being there this week is that my children chose to live in the metropolis, for reasons I am sure make sense to someone in the twenties, but defy my desires. At least they don’t go running everywhere like most folk seem to. What is it that persuades normal folk to go jogging round London? Folks jog to work, jog back again, to the shops, the garage, church and the bakers, all timing themselves and treading air on the spot at traffic lights. Honestly, it’s like a scene from Chariots of Fire, everywhere you look. And try and take a walk along the banks of the Thames at your peril. What with dazzling Nike shoes stepping on your toes and eco-warriors on push-bikes, the capital’s footpaths are now a highly dangerous place for those who actually WALK anywhere. After a few attempts, I settled for sitting in a pub and yelling at anyone who passed by at more than 1mph to pay proper road tax – what with them wearing out the tarmac with all that lycra. It’s not right is it? But, as I found, it is no use trying to tell them as they are all listening to radio 4 podcasts on their headphones, in case they have – god forbid – to speak to anyone? Come on London council; Never mind your Boris-Bike, put a tax on Green Flash Pumps - or whatever their modern day designer equivalents are – so I can walk my dogs in safety.
Speaking of the dogs, ours have once again circumnavigated Europe this month, getting to stay in constantly new surroundings and a few swish hotels. Not that we always own up to having a dog in the room because they charge for that – fifty quid in places. So my wife-2-b and I have been known to smuggle them up the back stairs and hope they remain quiet through the night and don’t disturb too many other guests. Mind you – what with London traffic, the viagratic couple in the room above and Madam’s snoring – I think it is me who should be looking for a refund! Oooh, to be back home in my own comfy peaceful bed.
I’m not the only one, when it comes to that desire, as my hardy old Mum is still in hospital, battling for full recovery and giving the nurses hell. On that front, I would like it known that my last month’s rant about the NHS didn’t apply to the fab nurses on the Cookely Ward in what was formerly Kidderminster hospital who have, and continue to be, excellent in their quest to get her sound once more, and send her home. I am pretty sure the ‘physioterrorists’, as she calls them, will be as glad to see the back of her as she will be of them!
I know its old hat now, but I am too late to mention the football? Ha, what a laugh. Well it would be if it wasn’t such a waste of money. I am not sure anyone has tallied up the cost of dispatching team England to the southern hemisphere only to have them re-dispatched just as quickly, without even getting their shorts dirty. I tell a lie, they probably will have a few grass-stains on their white clothing, what with them spending most of the time writhing around on the ground as though they have been shot. They should be – in my humble opinion! And all those nerve wracking penalty shoot-outs? What I can’t understand is why they don’t have bigger goalies? If I was a team coach, I would go to America and pick somebody from the queue at MacDonalds for the job. Let’s face it, a six foot wide goalie would surely narrow the odds.
While on the subject of sport, does anybody actually understand cycling? By the time this goes to print, a hundred or so brightly clad men will have hurtled past our door in France at a helluva speed as ‘Le Tour’ comes through town. One will be wearing yellow, I get that bit. But what about all the other guys wearing more coloured shirts than Frankie Dettori. In a bid not to look too much of a novice, I Googled some cycling terms to broaden my knowledge and found the following statement on good old reliable Wikipedia (and I quote)  ‘paceline: a group formation in which each rider takes a turn breaking wind at the front before dropping to the rear position, and riding in the others' draft until at the front once again’. That’s not very nice is it, following that? I can’t say I have watched much of the tour on TV though, as the commentary is so boring. On the first day while the guys were in Yorkshire one said, ‘here we are in Skipton, home of the Skipton Building Society! Really? How fascinating – not. Well we will be watching in a place called Tombeboeuf which directly translates as ‘fallen beef’. Maybe one of the riders will crash on that corner, giving Mr Phil Liggett a story that he could regale time and again to yawning dinner guests for the next ten years. Oh how the winter evenings must fly by in his house!
Having been home to France, done a week’s work and then flown back to UK again, today I find myself in Birmingham and I have to say I am highly impressed. Most of the new developments are refreshingly well designed and affordable, the streets clean and the nightlife exhilarating but safe.  How is it that Britain’s number two city is so far removed from its first? My pal has city centre apartment overlooking the canal, where I am watching holiday makers leisurely cruising by in long barges with all the time in the world. Strange really, how some people seem to have so much more time than others. When I moved to France 8 years ago this month, I always envisaged that my pace of life would slow down a wee bit too, and yet, as each month passes, I get later and later finding time to write this column! Sorry Ed.


Monday, 16 June 2014

We didn't start the fire

Someone clever once said, you never stand still, you are either going forwards or backwards. Well that is certainly the situation this month, as we cross the channel twice in as many weeks. Firstly, I would like to say congratulations to the National Health service for their intelligence and  care, but sadly I can’t. Instead, I find myself flabbergasted about the fact that they only work 5 days per week, and that their food isn’t fit for a hungry pig to roll in, let alone eat, and that they are so obsessed by health and safety rather than health CARE that the whole organisation is rotten to its shoelaces. Isnt it time someone with a little more business nous took over the reins? Stick Richard Branson in there, he knows how to make things work. Start by firing everyone and then only re-employing those with a smile and a decorum of common sense. Yes nursing and hospital work is not nice and I wouldn't do it for all the noodles in China, so I dont. Those who do find themselves in that profession, I would sympathise with you, except that it is your chosen career. If you don’t want to look after sick people with all your heart, then please do something else instead of hiding behind the smokescreen of self-preservation and health and safety gone mental. While my Mum has been in hospital, she developed a blister on her foot, so now they wont allow her to attempt to walk in case it bursts and they have an ‘incident. How outrageous. You are nurses, bandage it! Doctors and staff are continually late as they are no longer allowed to wear wrist-watches at work. What the…? TV costs £10 per day, so patients cant afford to watch it to break up the boredom of four walls. Not that they would hear it above the sound of never-answered phones and fellow patients buzzers being ignored. Flowers not allowed on the ward? Grapes not allowed. Visitors not allowed to sit with patients while they eat - for hygiene reasons. The list of ridicule is endless – and it stinks. Ah yes. Didn’t someone mention that we should bring back good old cottage hospitals? Now that is a great idea. Except we can’t, can we, because they have all been sold to greedy property developers and bulldozed to the ground?
Having recently ranted with rage about the security checks at Bristol airport, I have to report today that something radical has happened. They now have erected a little stand once you have passed all your checks to ask if  your trip through security was a pleasant experience, with a selection of buttons to press to endorse the fact. Much though I wanted to scream at it and press the ‘disgraceful’ button, I have to admit that on my most recent trip it was a lot less intimidating than usual. Why is this? What has happened? Is it because they are being monitored that they feel obliged to be nice to passengers? Or did they read my rant from last year? Or just maybe, passengers are getting fed up with the place and using different airports instead. Either way I am annoyed now, as there wasn’t one there when I wanted to scream at it last year. My prediction is that the machine will break down within the month so the staff can return to their old ways. Or maybe someone will break a fingernail while pressing a button so that Health and Safety can close it down and cordon it off with Danger Keep Out tape like they have with the kid’s playground at Worcester Royal Infirmary.
Anyway, my writings this month are rather novel in that they come to you from 20 miles under the sea. No, I have not joined the submariners service, just that I am sitting on the rather pleasant and painless train journey that connects the motherland with my chosen habitat. I have to admit, I am not looking forward to being in UK again, and instantly ready to complain about the gross overcrowding problems of the south east, particularly highlighted by the World biggest car-park which calls itself the M25. Somewhere in the middle of these feelings, I have to confess to a pang of guilt. Let’s face it, England is my country of birth. 100 years ago and again 30 years later, brave and patriotic men fought to defend its shores from invasion, so that they and their children could live out their lives in peace and harmony. Even this week, that patriotism still remains as the nation awaits the greatness of our group of eleven heroes, suffering the heat of south America, diving for their country in the name of football.
So when was it that the slogan of ‘what makes this country great’ got replaced with ‘how the bejeezus did we come to accept so much crap in our daily lives?’ As Billy Joel once stated, ‘we didn’t start the fire..’ but does it really take a stint of living outside the tent to actually see the problems without wearing good old St George’s rose-tinted specs? Well, here is another verse to add to Billy’s classic song, which includes a few unacceptable things that we thankfully don’t put up with in France, and highlights the reason I and many others chose to leave.
Potholes, Microwaves, Ready meals, Road-rage
Rude staff, Car-flags, Road-works, Plastic bags
Service-stations, gutter press, track-suits, Political correctness
Car tax, Celeb TV, ludicrous Health and Safety!
We didn’t start the fire, but it’s about time we dialled 999 to put it out!




Monday, 12 May 2014

Men in tights

This month I have to report yet another absurdity in French law; that of my French driving licence. Last week I went to collect a mini-digger from the hire-shop to find that I didn’t need a licence to drive it, but I did to tow the thing home. Unknown to me, my ‘permis-de-conduire’ does include the permission to tow a trailer but that part of it expires every two years and I now need to take a medical - cost 43 euros - for the privilege of renewal. The daft part about this is I can still ride a powerful motorbike, drive a high speed car and even a 32-tonne truck with my failing eyesight and dicky-heart with sky-rocket blood pressure, but a 1 tonne trailer? Non monsieur! However, the same week, I drove onto the autoroute and found it chocka with dangerously weaving caravans, all on British plates, and re-considered. Perhaps Mr & Mrs Bearded-bank-holiday-maker really should also have a medical health check every time they pull their 14 foot Sprite out of storage, possibly with a mental health inspection and an annual driving test to boot!
Incidentally, a new law over here has just been passed stating that drivers on UK plates caught on speed-camera in France after November this year will get their subsequent fine through their British post-box, enforced by the local police. Is this a step towards a bit more unity between our two loggerheaded nations? Well no, actually, because Britain has not opted to adopt the same EU law in reverse because they consider it racist. This means while Mrs Davies is being hauled into court in Manchester for doing 51kph in a Parisian suburb, M. Yves St-Maniac can rip through the Yorkshire Dales at breakneck speeds, texting on his phone, drunk, with no seatbelt or insurance - without recompense. Suits me chaps, let’s see how fast I can get our French registered Audi up the Bewdley by-pass! Allez-zi!
It appears we have our very own version of that flagship TV show, Rabbit Watch now running into its fourth week here at Chauffour. Starring Louis (the pointless pointer) as Bill Oddie and Pooper (scruff-bag terrier) as Kate Humble, the day-long episodes involve 2 dogs sitting at the patio window, waiting for a solitary half-grown rabbit to periodically venture out from its new home in the polytunnel for a bite of grass. When the poor thing appears, what follows is like a scene from Charge of the Light Brigade, as the two of them go ballistic, clawing the door open and giving tongue. With well-formed ears like that, evidently the rabbit isn’t deaf and hotfoots it back indoors to the safety of the wood pile as soon as it hears the door click open. Louis then spends an entire hour barking loudly at the giant pile of firewood in a vain hope to talk it out of there until they both get bored and retire back to their vantage point on the sofa to repeat the whole process. To begin with, this was mildly amusing but now, as Louis, the stupidest dog in canine evolution, has magically learned to open locked doors it is becoming a tad tedious! Seriously, when he is not barking at said rabbit, he goes looking for it inside the house, systematically opening all the bedroom doors upstairs until he manages to get locked inside one of the rooms.  Thankfully he isn’t gold-medal material at canine hide-and-seek, giving his whereabouts away by the telltale trail of muddy footprints that follow him onto the duvets!
While on the subject of footprints, what is it with animals and wet concrete? Over the last month I have extended some of our terracing around the house, only to have my painstakingly smooth efforts pitted with paw-marks as the dogs, cats, squirrels, birds, even the bloody rabbit, all decide that they simply HAVE to walk over that bit of ground within the hour, despite never having travelled on that path before. Honestly, it’s like a geography field-trip in the Wyre Forest out there!
As spring rapidly advances into summer here in our rural little French spot, my time seems to evaporate with the sun. Mowing, pruning, sheep-shearing, fencing and building all seem to take the place of the few excess hours I thought I had left during which to write. Subsequently, I am months behind with my latest project. What was it that Douglas Adams once said: ‘I love deadlines, especially the whooshing sound they make as the fly by!’
But to add to my workload, this year I have been persuaded back onto stage, after a ten year absence. Yes, I will be partaking in a three night show in September called ‘Musical Box’, singing along with 30+ classics from old musical shows such as Kiss Me Kate and West Side Story. Although only doing three solos, as part of the 14-strong chorus I have to learn every word of every song, all 32 pages of them, so I can harmonise in the right places. This in itself is never an easy task but coupled with a forty minute each way drive to rehearsals, twice per week, it’s a miracle I get any sleep at all as the tedious tunes revolve around in my head like a badly tuned merry-go-round. Anyway, nearer the date, I may be forced to mention this once again, in a hope that someone might turn up to watch it. Oh, and to make matters worse, I might have to suffer the indignity of wearing tights during a Shakespearean number!
Anyway, as the ever-PC Clarkson would say, ‘On that Bombshell.....’

Monday, 14 April 2014

That's easy for you to say?


I know nothing about whisky, other than I enjoy one dram as much as the next one, and I wouldn’t have known a Glenglassaugh from Glenn Miller. But since I inherited my father’s collection of miniature single malts I have started to take more than a passing interest in the amber nectar, while I catalogue hundreds of obscure bottles from distilleries with impossible names like A’Bainne or Pityvaich.  As I pour (no pun intended) over names, dates and intriguing locations, I have started to identify a few that are missing and tried to pick up the mantle of completing the collection via the internet – a tool that father never had at his disposal. Just as well in some cases, when I do a Google search for ‘Ladyburn 15 year-old’ and it comes back with a list of illegal brothels in Thailand!    Eventually I track down a Macallans 1961, the holy grail of rare bottles of which only 369 were ever made, missing from my collection and coming up for impending auction. Excitedly I register on their website. Sadly last Wednesday my courage , besides my soon to be wife, would not allow me to hit the button enough times to reach the three hundred quid it made, let alone £5000 that its full-bottle brother achieved. I am consoled with the fact that it was probably fake anyway, because who is ever going to check? The mischievous streak in me considers running up a 1961 label on photo-shop and gluing it on to a tiny bottle of petrol. Or better still, making up some names of distilleries that sound like someone trying to speak with a clothes peg on their tongue and selling them on ebay!
Strangely enough, it is unpronounceable Scottish names that are occupying most of my waking hours as it is, while I cement together the tome that will be the History of Aberdeen Angus cattle which, after 18 months work, is nearing a first draft. What in heaven’s name was it that drove breeders to call their animals things like ‘Proud Gairloch Ericina of Murdochcairnie?’ Didn’t they know that somewhere, some poor clerk would have to write them down in a book one day? Even now I have had to check the spelling 4 times in case Mrs McDreary from Lochnagoldfinch finds a spelling mistake and condemns my work with accusations of illiteracy.
They do that, though, those purists. That is something I have found out first hand with my travel-guides, when sad vindictive retired school-teachers are allowed to write reviews of my work on Amazon and hide behind cowardly nicknames such as Biblioprefect or LiteraryMother, condemning my book on Bordeaux to a one star rating because I had missed an accent off the name of her local restaurant.  There are probably similar ones who scrutinise this column with literary tooth-combs. To you I say, stick to reading the Observer!
Apologies for having a go at you, dear reader, but I am a little grumpy today having sat up half of last night to watching the golf on TV. On that subject, I have one observation to make. ‘Dear Mrs Watson, no matter what you were smoking, drinking or injecting at the time, naming a child Bubba is seriously, seriously wrong!’
I will admit that since finding a bit more time to play in the winter in East Lothian, I have got right into golf again; so much so that Wendy has got me tickets to the Ryder Cup this year in Gleneagles. This in itself was a complete mission because, although it is held in tranquil Scotland, the event is run by paranoid Americans. To get anywhere near the place, we have to fill out ten page immigration forms, submit passport details and solemnly declare, so help me god, that we are not terrorists. And it gets even worse for the locals. Poor Mrs McDreary will be ring-fenced into her home in Auchterarder village for a whole week in September. She will only be allowed in and out of her front door via a retina-scan and strip-search to fetch a loaf of bread, in case she takes it upon herself to murder anyone in obscenely loud check trousers and an idiotic name!
I am quite looking forward to it though, since Wendy and I have extended our love of live sporting events from rugby to other disciplines. As well as Wimbledon, this year we are also hoping to go to the snooker world championship, possibly the last year it will be in the quaint Crucible theatre in Sheffield before that vile promoter, Barry Hearn, gets it moved to Las Vagas or somewhere equally squalid. Mark my words, it won’t be long before he reduces snooker into a vulgar circus like everything else he promotes in a bid to attract the lowlife who currently frequent darts championships.  As we speak, John Parrot and Steve Davies are being measured up for over-sized baseball caps and the lovely Hazel Irvine fitted with Double D-cup silicone, while the lady referees will be clad in leopard-skin lycra hot-pants and stilettos. Commentary will be provided by Ant and Dec or Will.i.am and the scoreboard will be replaced by bimbos on roller-skates to an audience full of Bill Werbeniuk lookalikes! Incidentally, when that pillock John Virgo starts squealing ‘where’s the white ball going...!!!’ am I the only one who wishes it was ‘down his throat?!’
Finally, I cannot resist once again having a go at the BBC’s woeful Sunday night farcical look at the countryside who have descended to a new low in giving away ‘wild flower seeds!’ Any farmer, gardener and even city pedestrian will recognise that, in general, wild flowers are weeds. How can distributing 200,000 packets of weeds possibly be a benefit to anybody other that the makers of Round-Up? Thanks Ellie, I’ll look forward to planting my ragwort, sow-thistles, creeping buttercup and stinking mayweed – in your vegetable patch!
Meanwhile, our very own vegetable garden is now well populated with onions, potatoes, courgettes and beans, desperately awaiting some rain. Yes, after half a metre of rain in three months in France, we are once again as dry as our empty swimming pool. Never happy, are we?



Saturday, 15 March 2014

Coq-au-vin

At last it is spring, when the days should be getting longer. So why do mine seem to get shorter? Maybe it’s my age. No sooner am I out of bed at daybreak, running around like a headless chicken, gardening, lambing, building, pruning, tidying and scheming, than the sun is going down and the gin beckoning. As I flop down to watch the golden glow disappearing on the horizon, my mind is a whirl with all the things I haven’t achieved that day, while tomorrow’s list spills on to extra pages. I am sure it never used to be like this – this hectic life of mine. I know, I shouldn’t complain, especially as it is 22 degrees here in France today, with the grass growing and the colourful blossom out.
While on the subject of headless chickens, why is it that while we are away in Scotland for the winter months, a whole zoo full of animals immediately move in? For the last three years, we have come back home to more cats than we left behind, and this time two toms have moved in, spraying their nasty smells around the garage and howling all night. That wouldn’t be so bad but we also have another unwelcomed resident, one red-crested cockerel which has taken to living with the sheep and waking up at 5am. In fact, I think it has palled up with the ram and the toms in some sort of male orientated sit-in, each one trying to outdo the other with its nocturnal din. Well be warned, incomers, amongst tomorrow’s list of jobs is to search out a couple of bricks with which to dull the tom’s enthusiasm, and then dig out the large pan from under the stairs ready for some coq-au-vin.
As it happens, pots and pans are one thing we are no longer short of, having cleared out Wendy’s mother’s house into my mother’s back bedroom a few years ago, and then eventually cleared that out and delivered it all the way to France. Not that it was an uneventful journey, towing a sheep trailer from which the newness had worn off long ago. By Oxford, we lost a wheel, and limped along on for a hundred more miles until I could collect a replacement. Then, just outside Rouen, the entire suspension collapsed, hanging on by one thin rusty bolt and threatening to upturn the whole thing every time it passed a pothole, despatching my whole cargo of junk all over the autoroute. Thankfully, with the aid of some rope, it did manage to stay together for the 1200 mile journey, at 40mph, which took two whole days.
After a glass of wine and well earned sleep, I take to unpacking the splitting cardboard boxes for which I had risked life and limb, to find them all full of completely useless stuff left over from 1973. We now have a very fine collection of pyrex dishes in avocado green, assortments of mis-matched tablecloths and a full set of cookery books by Fanny Craddock.  To compliment these, 300 vinyl albums weighing approximately seven tonnes also made the journey, which include such masterpieces as Edgar Broughton’s greatest hits (did he actually have a hit?) and the somewhat ironic Aerosmith’s Toys in the Attic, all from much the same era. Even that would have been an almost acceptable risk to take with my antique trailer, were it that we had a record player to air them on. I have to admit, albeit secretly, that I do get a feeling of ecstatic wistfulness  when I run my hand over the well worn cover of Led Zepplin’s Houses of the Holy, or a mint copy of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, that makes me want to root through the cupboard for my flares and headband. Who said nostalgia is a thing of the past?
Anyway, with that lot all safely tucked up in the loft for another decade, it’s onwards towards my next project, the extension of the house into our barn. Were I to stop and consider this for too long, it too might prove to be a rather futile exercise, as this house is surely big enough for two of us already. In fact, I am struggling to justify the mammoth task to myself, with the only really valid reason to convert the barn to living space I can come up with is that I am doing it ‘because it is there!’
However, straining at the leash as I am to get my teeth into it, there is one more pressing job to be undertaken, that of a seat with a view for the missus. Not just any seat, but one under water. You may recall that for most of last year our swimming pool was leaking water faster than the Titanic and a decision was made to invest in a replacement liner for it. So while the water is out, I have been instructed to build a metre wide platform in the shallow end where Wendy and her pals can sit in six inches of water and partake in their early evening G&T with their feet dangling in the depths. Having taken specific measurements for depth, and width, I now have to consider of what material to construct it and my choice of steel re-enforced concrete has been met with some rather stern retorts! If you don’t hear from me again, try looking for me in the deep end wearing wellies filled with the same material!

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Proclaiming Independence

Rain instead of snow this winter? I know which I would prefer: at least you can move snow with a shovel and stay in your sitting room without wellies on. For those poor folks in the south, my heart goes out to you. But can we really blame global warming for all this watery mess? So-called experts say we can, and they should know, shouldn’t they? Although, apparently, the Ozone is only one theory among many, with others putting the blame on local planners, builders, government, otters or the Russians. One rather twisted MP for the UK Independence Party even blamed the flooding on gay marriages! But in Scotland, of course, there is only ever one direction to point the finger of fault – directly at the English. Today I got a whole newspaper through our Scottish letterbox telling me to vote ‘Yes’. In it Mr Salmon and Mrs Sturgeon (Scotland’s fishy ministers) promise me the earth in return for a cross in their box, come September. According to this rag, I will get tax bonuses, better schooling & housing and infinitely better weather without the Sassenachs in charge of Scotland’s well-being. All of this I dismiss as blatant lies until, on page ten I note that The Proclaimers are inviting me to share their ‘yes vote’. Well, that instantly swung it for me. If an Independent Scotland means I will have to listen to those two monotone morons droning on, I am off down the A1 faster than Richard Hammond on-fire!
Actually, we will be off down the A1 again quite soon, back to the land of milk and honey that is South West France.  Except, even that haven hasn’t managed to escape the rain this time, with local towns flooded and our sheep paddling about up to their bellies. Hopefully it will have dried up a bit by the time the lambs start dropping and the grass will be up to our knees once more.
Talking of Hammond, it was quite nice to see BBC Top Gear’s Three Stooges in Worcestershire last month, tearing up Shelsley Walsh, even if it was in a shamelessly irresponsible way. Preceding that we got the weekly drivel that is Countryfile in the home district too, depicting the ‘northern blonde-bird’ irritatingly twittering away in Wyre Forest! The things you see without a gun! I did enjoy seeing Witley Court on our national screens though and am sure the publicity will do it no harm. It reminded me of a tale that my grand-father once told me. Seemingly Herbert (Piggy) Smith had a number of outstanding invoices for chickens he had been purchasing from HS Frazier. By this time, Smith was short of money and instead of paying up, invited Grandpa to dinner. In his best tweeds, he was met at the door by a butler and shown into a massive dining room with a table as large as a football pitch. Old Harry was seated at one end while Piggy Smith was at the other, so far away he was even out of shouting range. While he ate his bangers and mash in silence (served on a silver salver), he was convinced that at the far end of the table, Smith was eating something far more sumptuous.  He left that evening, still with his debt unpaid, and a few days later, the whole place mysteriously burned to the ground, leaving Smith a rather handsome insurance payout. Father remembers, as a child, being bundled into the back of the car that night and driven to Great Witley so they could watch the flames. The things they did before television!
This month has been one of travelling for us, firstly to the snowy alps for some apr├Ęs-ski, then Stirling for the annual bull sales for some beefy business. Following that, I found myself in Makem Country and I was pleasantly surprised what lovely beaches Sunderland has - well, apart from the evening storm throwing waves at me over the seawall. On a sunny morning, I took the dogs for a long walk along Whitburn cliffs which, incidentally, the sea seems to be eroding at an alarming rate. If I possessed one of those spectacular sea-facing houses (which I suspect are all owned by football players), I think I would have it on the market before it slips silently down into the depths by the end of the decade. Anyway, I am used to walking the dogs along the coastal path in Scotland and generally I say hello, and even pass away a few minutes of idle conversation, with total strangers that I meet on the way. So I was quite surprised, and even upset, that whenever I so much as nodded to people along the Wear coast, not even one returned my acknowledgement, let alone a greeting or a smile. Is this typical of folks from the North East, or was I not addressing them correctly? All I said was ‘Howay, man, marra, let's gan doon the pub for some beltas scran?’
Then, just last weekend, we found ourselves invited to a weekend at that home of decadent opulence, Gleneagles Hotel. Oh my, how the other half live. The bedroom was bigger than our own apartment, and the bathroom could have housed and hosed the entire Scottish rugby team (except we are not mentioning that sore point, bless them). Also included in our overnight stay was full use of the spectacular spa facilities. Having glimpsed at the brochure, I determined that they were situated not too far from our room so instead of heading there fully clothed, I donned the fluffy white dressing gown provided, and padded down in my bare feet.  What I had failed to ascertain was that, in order to reach said pool complex, the route went directly through a dining room and then a shopping arcade! With every barefoot step, while wealthy visitors giggled at me from behind their hands, my face grew redder and near exploded when I bumped into one of my customers. Not just any customer either, by Lady Double-Barrelled Title from one of Scotland’s largest stately castles, whom I had recently interviewed for my latest book. Despite my best attempts at hiding my face, I am pretty sure she recognised me, even without my clothes on! On the way back, in a desperate effort not to meet more rich and famous clients, I took a detour through the kitchens and back corridors, now dripping with saline, and got hopelessly lost. After twenty minutes, I eventually found a lift which took me from the basement back to my room, only to find that my key-card no longer worked and I was locked out. Honestly, you couldn’t make this stuff up. So here I now was, sitting outside my room, wearing just a dressing gown, for twenty minutes until a smug porter arrived with a new key and frown as wide as the Forth Estuary. To cap it off, I inevitably bumped into Lady DBT at breakfast who raised her eyebrow at me before admitting, ‘I thought that was you in bare feet outside Prada!’ If you listen carefully, I am sure you can still hear them laughing! Oh, the shame. Thankfully I can never afford to go back again.
Finally, I would like to wish you a belated welcome to the Chinese Year of the Horse! How ironic that Tesco had one of those just last year?


Wednesday, 8 January 2014

No shit, Sherlock?

Unfortunately I never got chance to study literature at school. For some bizarre reason I had to make a choice between that subject and geography and, not keen on getting lost in the world, coupled with the offer of rainy day field trips to the Brecon Beacons, Geography narrowly won the day. Ironic really - when I consider my current profession.  Stupid too, having to make such sacrifice – but then my school did things like that. Art was another thing I am sorry I missed, in favour of history or rugby or some other essential. As a result I wouldn’t know a Goya from a Gammon-steak and for years I thought that Hertz Van-Rental was a Dutch painter! Anyway, my reason for broaching this subject is that, although I never analyzed works by Arthur Conan Doyle, I am pretty sure his words were highly intellectual and contained meaningful stories about good and evil, right and wrong and possibly large dogs in deerstalkers. So how did the BBC end up with such a load of bastardized piffle as the current Sherlock Homes series, which bears about as much relevance to the traditional stories and characters as my cat does to a dancing walrus!  In it we see Benedictine Cucumber-patch generally making a complete arse of himself in something that would more befit a comic Carry-On caper rather than a detective story. I half expected Sid James to make an appearance, or Norman Wisdom to come on and fall over. Maybe I have been misled, but isn’t Sherlock supposed to solve crimes? Perhaps he could start with the biggest crime so far this year – that of the BBC allowing this twaddle onto our screens.
I don’t want to speak too soon but, for once, this winter has been a bit kinder when it comes to the ‘big freeze’ issues, possibly making some newspaper sensational headline-writers redundant in the process. Not that nature has been completely nice, with its blowing down of age old trees and a gallant attempt to drown us all.  On this latter issue, I would like to make an observation regarding Britain’s coastline, with particular reference to sea-walls, and it is this. ‘If the wind is blowing up 20 feet high waves and you have a notion to walk on the harbour wall to take photos, don’t expect to live long.’ And furthermore, please do NOT expect to be rescued from the bottom of the ocean by the coastguard with your Nikon round your neck. Remember, stupidity is still the number killer in the world.
Well, by the time this gets to print, we will be hopefully high up on a mountain where no floods can reach us, possibly in a cabin buried under snow. It has been a few years since I had skis on, a fact that was quite telling when I found that my ski-suit appeared to have shrunk since its last use. In a vain attempt to get it back on again, I have now joined the local gym, something I haven’t done in years either.  In fact it is so long since I have been in one of those mirrored environments, that I now have no idea what half the machines do, nor how to work them. Gone are the days when you could just hope on a cycle-machine and pedal away a few pounds. No, now it has gone all hi-tech. Apparently I can simulate going uphill, downhill, forest-track, velodrome, even Boris-bike death-wish rides. In front of me, gadgets, TV screens and gobbledegook words tell me how many calories I am using, how close my heart is to exploding while my pulse defies medical science, how hot I am and what a fat-boy I have become.  Meanwhile, my own personal wafer-thin health-and-safety executive hangs around in her lycra, making sure I don’t die on the premises. I was quite surprised she didn’t make me wear a cycle helmet! Gleefully she informs me that, if I am going skiing, I should do some ball exercises! I’ve no idea what they are and I’ve been too scared to go back again to find out!
As we are heading to colder climes, the subject of winter-wear raises its ears above the parapet once more. Last summer, on possibly the hottest day of the year, I purchased an excellent winter coat, at a discount from a down-on-his-luck trader at an agricultural show. Wendy was with me at the time and I tried to persuade her to do the same. But no, she didn’t need a new coat – then. Strangely though, now it is minus 5 outside, she does. So off we go to the January sales, northwards into deepest Scotland to a shop called the House of Bruar. Those of a country pursuit persuasion may have heard of this place which is like the clothing equivalent of Fortnam and Masons.   Prince Charles shops there, apparently.  And Donald Trump. Not unlike F&M, they don’t lower themselves to such vulgarities as winter sales. I should have been put off by their slogan on the door which said, ‘.. if you have to ask the price, then b*gger-off to Primark!’  We now have a ‘his and hers’ country look. His: cheap and practical – hers: looks good with heels! Sadly, the winnings from our subsequent day at the races didn’t even manage to pay for the fuel to get there, let alone the jacket.