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. 

Monday, 10 October 2016

Corduroy campers

I am writing this one handed while the other waves goodbye to Poole Harbour, my digits having developed a habit all of their own. As we leave UK shores once more for France, thankfully the channel is calm today – I’m not great on ferries – especially compared to the couple of nights we spent rocking in a gale on the North Devon coast. We had an interesting few days in Britain, mainly because we have just joined that exclusive club of ‘campervan owners’ and now have hundreds of new friends. I say friends, in the same way that I have a thousand ‘friends’ on social media, as the driver of each and every one feels compelled to wave to each other as though we are all mates. To start with I was rather concerned and initially wondered if we had a flat tyre or some other significant problem they were alerting me too.  But no, it is just another one of those bizarre customs that people have adopted for no apparent reason. Naturally I felt obliged to wave back, in the same way that if someone puts out a hand to shake, you take it, irrespective of whether you know or like that person. And so it is that I have developed something between a nervous twitch and a mild case of St Vitus Dance whenever I so much as spot a motorised caravan from the corner of my eye! In an attempt to adopt some individual style, I have tested out a few different ‘waves’ in front of the mirror, perfecting my art. Evolving through an entire spectrum, from a smart military gesture to just some casual finger wiggling, eventually, as our vehicle is of German origin, I have settled on a sort of Bellamy salute which often incurs me bashing my fingers on the windscreen in the process. It does spark some strange reactions though, for some reason.
Anyway, prior to collecting the nearly-new vehicle I had to insure it, by means of a phone call for which I was on hold for 20 minutes. It still beggars belief that companies cannot employ enough staff to handle sales calls more efficiently, instead of p+ssing customers off with popular 70s classics played on a Hammond organ, interspersed with a cynical recorded voice telling me that they are experienced an unusually high number of calls today.  This statement in itself rings alarm bells with me. Why the extra number of calls on this particular day, I hear myself asking? Why on the day when I am calling instead of yesterday, or tomorrow? That gets my bored mind around to debating that maybe they don’t get many calls at all on other days, and thus only have one sales operative, and that perhaps their services aren’t very good. Eventually Danny answers the phone, all upbeat and chatty while I call him and his company rude names in my frustrated ferocity. Oh how he must love his job.  Yet there is worse to come. I am then bombarded with a set list of questions about my driving habits, vehicle storage, dress sense etc which all goes swimmingly well until I am asked my occupation. In the past I have often admitted to being a nun - as in occupation? None!? But this time, with a new novel of mine about to hit the shelves in Waterstones, I came clean and said I was an author. This usually evokes a comment of ‘oh, anything I would have heard of?’ To which my answer is yes, if you are an enthusiast of certain breeds of cow, or one of the twenty folks who read the Rock and District News. However, this time the reaction was totally different as Danny went so quiet that I had to check my phone reception hadn’t gone off. Did I say something wrong? Did I accidentally say I was a mass-murderer or, worse still, Jeremy Corbyn? ‘I am sorry Mr Frazier, but we cannot insure authors to drive campervans,’ says my man. WTF?  ‘Authors are on a list of exceptions with regards to occupation.’ And why would that be, Danny? Is there evidence to suggest that we purveyors of words drive around blindfolded? Danny had no answer to this, in fact he had no idea, but it was the rules. I would have hung up, were it not for the pain I had already undergone getting thus far. Oh dear. OK, let’s try another one then, ask me the question again. This time I settle on ‘property developer’, a nice sensible profession and one of my varied pastimes. ‘Sorry sir, you have already told me you are an author, and you can’t untell me something you already told me.’ Just as well I hadn’t told him I was Jeremy Corbyn then, or else I would be him forever and then where would I be with all that corduroy! Eventually we reached an agreement that I could be insured but would indignantly have to pay a 90 quid premium due to my being writer. Have you ever heard such a load of codswalloping hogswash? Remind me to ask the editor for a raise.
Right, this P&O floating toilet is coming into port, so it’s goodbye rainy Britain and hello sunny Brittany for a few more days before we wend our way back home to collect the dogs from their 5 star boarding hotel. In fact, this time, it’s not only the dogs in kennels but the kittens as well, at a combined cost of 50 euros per night. Would be cheaper to put them up at an Ibis! Oh well, at least they can travel with us on our next trip in our 4 bedder. Ideal really, one each for the animals while we sleep in the awning.  I wonder if the French camping-car drivers will wave to me as well. Je ne pense pas!

Olympic kittens

I am happy to announce that, since we lost our ginger yearling cat on the road last month, we now have two new young tykes in the house, both of whom seem to think it fun to help me write this piece.  I suppose, in the life of a kitten, pretty much everything is fun really. As well as constantly attacking Louis’ wagging tail and chasing butterflies, getting stuck up trees and on the roof are all in a day’s work when you are that age and size. Hopefully they will soon discover rodents and earn their keep.
Over the last month we have had a number of guests staying as the usual summer shenanigans ensued. One nameless visitor might not be rushing back anytime soon after I picked up the mozzie repellent one evening and, in a friendly gesture, liberally sprayed her bare arms and legs only to later realise it was actually a tin of WD40! Oh well, I am sure she managed to slide into bed effortlessly that night!
As the summer temperatures soared (don’t you love the way weather presenters express themselves with words like soaring and plummeting. I guess they must learn excessive weather-speak in their degrees in degrees!) Anyway, during this scorching time of year, my winter fuel arrives, all ten tons of it dumped on the driveway in an awkward pile. There is an old saying that goes ‘firewood warms you twice’. Well I certainly hope I will feel as warm a glow from the log burner during the colder February nights as I did hauling it into an orderly stack by the back door in 35 centigrade. I did nick a few barrow loads to fire the pizza oven last week though, when a dozen or more random Irish strangers turned up for tea. Never being one to turn away friends of friends, it actually turned into a great night as 5 or 6 of them brought musical instruments and we all joined in some quite commendable renditions of everything from Irish folk songs to a few of my old classic Welsh rugby songs. Duw it was hard!
Anyway, the majority of the last four weeks have been taken up by listening to, watching, talking about and shouting at the Olympic Games. Like everyone else in UK I was overawed by the British efforts and their haul of neck ware. One thing that does tickle me in a global assembly of natives such as this is the way so many people are blessed with place-names as surnames. In one race, Mark English (from Ireland), David Rhodesia (from Kenya) , and Kirsty Coventry (Refugee team) all completed. OK, I jest, the latter isn’t in the refugee team although, if I lived in Coventry, I would certainly consider becoming one! And then the local town of Kidderminster made it onto the world map by producing a champion archer which, let’s face it, would come in quite handy from a self defence point of view at midnight on Comberton Hill. Rumour that contestants in ‘window breaking’, ‘drunken brawling’ and ‘dole queuing’ are being entered from the town in the next Olympics are totally unfounded!
Right, moving swiftly on with my head down, we are indecisive about to do with our winter this year. Obviously, after my previous comments, the British Midlands aren’t a safe destination, and we seem to have our holiday home in Scotland booked out for much of the time. So a recent suggestion has been to get mobile and head south. I have had a few experiences in a campervan in the past, once with a group of 6 sweaty rugby enthusiasts touring New Zealand – an odour I will ne’er forget - and again with Wendy making a trip to a rugby game. The idea of seeing the Mediterranean out of tourist season quite attracts me, with the freedom to pitch up for a day or two wherever seems idyllic, maybe cycling a few miles along the leafy canals or gathering driftwood with the dogs and cozying around a bbq on the beach in the evening sea breeze.  However, on the understanding that the success of our perpetual harmony is enhanced by us habiting in an expansive farmhouse here, with 3 or 4 terraces for us both to get some me-time, I am not totally so sure we can spend a few months couped up together, along with the dogs, (and possibly 2 kittens) within a few musty cubic metres.  Not only that, but we both have jobs to keep and work to do which relies heavily on a decent internet connection.  But the dilemma goes even deeper than that, in the fact that while on the move we may not be able to pick up a British TV signal for a couple of months, and thus my wife missing an entire season of Strictly Come Prancing!

What’s that? Ah yes, a nice little 4 berth Hymer will do nicely, thank you! See you in St Tropez for Xmas!  

Monday, 18 July 2016

Meatballs and Méchoui

Hello again, or should I say ‘Bonjour, mes amis.’ For it appears I am now a true exile. Although I, like many others, haven’t the foggiest idea how the British Government’s recent faux pas will affect us in the long term, at present the sun is at last shining, the wine is still cheap and plentiful and I have to be content with the bed we made for ourselves here in South West France. Onwards and upwards
As the dust settled after the announcement of the above referendum result, I had to admire someone making the best of the situation in the name of Frederika Roberts, who claimed to be a professional ‘happiness and resilience expert’. What a great job that would be, trying to cheer people up and wandering around telling folks to smile, ‘things could be worse, you could be American!’ I am guessing she got a job with the England football team after that. ‘Knocked out of the Euros in the first round? Don’t worry about it, you’ll still earn a million quid a year.’
But it did get me thinking, ‘what is the answer to ultimate happiness?’ Apparently it isn’t drink, so that’s my theory out the window! Money? Good health?  Retirement? Well I am reliably informed by Google that it is to ‘spend some time alone!’ That way ‘You can focus on your hobbies, or just enjoy some good music all by yourself to celebrate life.’ Thank you Doctor, I’ll just leave via the 3rd storey window, shall I?
On the subject of football, we have had rather an overdose of it here in France, as optimism for Les Bleus reigned supreme until the bitter end. Not being a huge fan of the sport, I devised a cunning plan. We used the hour and a half during the Final, to go to Ikea. Brilliant idea: all the French would be in the pub watching the game and we could breeze through and collect our Metrob, Firndhort and other unpronounceable furniture, in peace. Sadly what we hadn’t bargained for was the whole place being full of disillusioned English! Although France didn’t win, they still had a good laugh though, which can still be heard echoing around the hills, when they found that Les Rosbif have elected Boris as Foreign secretary. Ha, has he ever been out of London? I wonder how long before his bike runs out of batteries as he tours Europe looking for someone to shake hands with?
So, for the last week or two I have been on the end of an allen key once again, assembling this and that. We now have fully functioning fitted wardrobes, with all clothes filed away in colour coordination, as well as a brand new kitchen on the outside terrace. The latter has replaced the original one, now in its tenth year, which consisted of a rusty gas-ring, a cold tap and a few makeshift worktops. With a field full of decent lambs this year, I am hoping to christen it next week, to celebrate our birthdays with a Méchoui: a French meal which involves a whole lamb, a large fire and a few gallons of red wine. What could possibly go wrong?
By the time this goes to print, we will be gearing up for another Olympics, this time south of the equator in Brazil. I will admit to being a convert to the global tournament, following on from London 2012. Hopefully GB will once again find success, topping up a year of good sport from the nation, which included Wimbledon, Le Tour and others. However, a few of the disciplines bring a slight concern by the fact that the waters in and around Rio are dirtier than Trumps election campaign and anyone falling in is likely to end up in ER pretty damn quick. A couple of years ago we had considered attending the event; South America always being on my ‘bucket list.’ Thankfully we did not book up due to financial reasons, since Typhoid is something I could gladly do without!
Never being one to let the absurd slip by unnoticed, I have to highlight yet another round of lunacy from the French law office. It appears that, as of this month, Paris is now limited to under nineteens, since they have outlawed all vehicles made before 1997 in the city. Yes, if you have a handy little Renault Clio which has stood the test of time, it has suddenly become a death nail in the planet’s coffin. Obviously it is high time you sold it and bought something newer. How about a Dodge Charger, or maybe a V8 Land-Cruiser with twin tailpipes? The reasoning for this prohibition quotes a staggering statistic that car emissions are responsible for 42,000 deaths per year in France. Really? Is there any evidence behind this astounding fact? So road deaths are down to an all time low in this country but cars are still killing us.  I am no scientist but surely the way the French drive, especially the Parisians, may suggest a simpler answer to their problem would just be that everyone just slows down a little, n’est pas? If they would do that around here too it may have saved our poor kitten getting run over on the road last week..

Monday, 20 June 2016

The weegie's shed

    A good few years ago we had a place in the North West near an airbase where they trained fast-jet pilots. As an exercise these guys used to bring a Tornado in to land just so that its wheels touched the tarmac in a puff of smoke and then pull on the burners and take off again. This more or less describes what my last month has been like.
   After some tearing around UK for business, two weeks in Glasgow saw me arrive at a derelict property, remove the entire contents of it and then systematically replace everything inside from kitchen to carpets and tiles to toilets, toiling day and night, mainly on my own. I will admit I didn’t get it completed as I was relying on some tradesmen - you know what those mythical illusive chaps are like - but I did give it a good kick at the ball. This was the first real experience I have had with Glaswegians and I have to admit the locals were a fantastic and friendly bunch of folks. One by one the neighbours would drop by for a nosey, bringing a cup of tea and a biscuit and one even offered to pop down to Tesco to get my shopping.  I couldn’t believe how far removed this was from the reputation that the 'weegies' have for nicking stuff, beating each other up - especially the English - and generally being a bunch of drunken hard-cases. To cap it all, the weather was so glorious for the whole duration, as they enjoyed the first decent summer for a couple of years. Another week is scheduled shortly and I am quite looking forward to it, not least because I am still fed up with the miserable weather here in France where it has rained constantly since Christmas.
    During that trip another thing I experienced for the first time was that of the man-shed - a residence from residence where gentlemen of a certain age while away the hours to get 'oot the hoos!' In this instance, the old guy who had lived there had since passed away but a few minutes in his 'shed' gave me a complete potted history of the chap in his prime, and what a proud guy he must have been. Wooden tools, alphabetically marked draws full of nails screws and obsolete bits of plumbing, a handy work-bench and garden equipment worn thin with age. Back then, and possibly still, a working man would pop out to the pub and have a couple of pints and then wander back home to ponder life in his own domain, safe in the knowledge that his wife knew where he was but wasn’t going to batter his ears for being a drunk and cluttering up the sitting room. In one corner, the tell-tale sign of an aerial socket would suggest that he might just have the footie on in there as well. It almost brought a tear to my eye, especially when a couple of Romanians removed the whole thing under my instruction, leaving nothing but a bare patch of earth to mark the spot.  I have no idea what they did with it after that, some things are better left unasked.
    You might question why I had to use some bogus method of disposing of unwanted stuff but the answer is quite simple - because the local council are so far up their own jacksie they can see the sunrise through their ears! These days local government is so infested by ecomentalists that we are dictated to that absolutely everything has to be recycled. Maybe not so much in the countryside but if you live in a city you will be indoctrinated to pop along in your Volvo estate to the local tip every week, sit in a queue of like-minded folks, awaiting your turn to put you old Kenwood mixer, MFI TV stand or Hostess trolley in the correct container. You even get issued with a map to help you do this which you can take home and be smug about. That is, unless you drive a white van. You see, van drivers are the anti-christ of recycling, hell bent on destroying the world faster than Dr Evil. The fact I merely darkened the door of West Glasgow's 'dump' with my Hertz vanload of nuclear waste was enough to get me a criminal record and a three month stretch in Barlinnie. Despite my protestations that I was carrying nothing more lethal than a used wooden kitchen cut no ice with 'Jock the important' who claimed it was still classed as industrial waste and I would need to pay a few hundred quid to dispose of it. After a futile argument, I succumbed and suggested I would revert back to what normal countryside folks would do - and have a bonfire instead. However, Jock didn’t appear too keen on this either, especially when I started unloading it on the side of the road and breaking out with the Swan Vestas! After yet more negotiations, a ream of paperwork and a few phone calls, I was eventually allowed to drive in and unload it, only to be bawled at by yet more dictatorial custodians of the planet for driving in the wrong lane and parking in the incorrect location. Hence, the whole recycling experience got me so irritated that I have no choice but to revert to the gypsy community with barely a pang of guilt!
    Anyway, a few days later, after another quick touchdown in the French rain, and we are in South West Spain, so far removed from the madness that we could have been on planet Sane. Conil de Fronterra is a place we have been before and one we love, purely because nobody north of the British Chanel knows of its existence. Although only a few hours from Malaga, for a whole week we never so much as heard a British voice, let alone saw a tattoo or fish and chip bar, as I mended my bones in the glorious sunshine, interspersed with gin and seafood, for a whole week.
To relay the pleasure of this experience back to our friends we made an attempt to take a 'selfie' but soon realised we are not very good at this task. No matter how hard I tried, every photo highlighted my burnt peeling nose making me look a bit like a scarlet artichoke. We tried the 'soft-focus' setting on the camera but even a blurred beetroot will never make a red rose.  Someone suggested we used that height of vanity, a selfie-stick, but it appears they don’t make them long enough for the likes of us! Oh well, we know we had a good time, and that's all that really matters.
   PS, don’t be in too much of a hurry to get rid of that hostess trolley, apparently they are right back in fashion. You heard it here first!

Saturday, 14 May 2016

A generation of useless bankers

When we first moved to France folks used to talk about ‘flaming June’. No, not a tradition of setting fire to the village bag-lady but the month, which is supposedly baking hot. Maybe I am feeling old but back then I can recall most of the spring having ‘tops off’ days here in the south west. Well this year we have had ‘freezing Feb, miserable March, atrocious April and murky May’. Apparently this has something to do with the Gulf Stream, a phenomenon which is quintessentially owned and controlled by Britain. So, basically, the blame for this dreary weather can be squarely laid at David Cameron’s door - yet another reason to tick au-revoir in the ballot booth this month!
Seriously though, the seed potatoes have only just gone in the ground – at least two months later than last year - and I have spent the last week building a fireplace on the back terrace to keep out the chill. Thankfully, during the prolonged wet period I have had an indoor project on the go which is now more or less finished: that of building a master bedroom, complete with en-suite. This entity was at the request of Mrs F who pointed out that over the last eight years I have renovated the entire house so that we can sleep a dozen or more guests in luxury but meanwhile the pair of us slum it in a make-shift bunker with the ceiling falling down and a furlong trek to the nearest loo.  She does have a point – maybe it should be called a Mistress bedroom? Hmm, that conjours up an interesting image, doesn’t it? Not only have I spoilled her with a new boudoir, but she now also has a utility and ironing room. No, not quite what you are thinking  as this isn’t a place where she can peacefully iron away the hours but a space where she can store all the ‘ironing’ in a pile out of sight to avoid the reminder that it needs doing on a twice annual basis. Oops, that might have cut my rations!
Moving swiftly on, at least this month I have been exempt from the anticipated continual travels. I was supposed to be in Glasgow for a couple of weeks but we hit a few project delays. And it is here that I feel the need to gripe, nay rant, about the irksome way in which the legal and banking system operates. Yes I know there may be bankers and lawyers reading this claiming that their industry is super-efficient but I have evidence to the contrary. To start with, you can no longer pop into a branch and open an account by filling in a quick form. Now I have been referred to the ‘account opening team’ who handle that process. Since the country got up in arms about all banking staff being based in India this new team consists of a dozen ill-educated teenagers in Sheffield with the collective IQ of my dog, who’s command of the English language is far worse than the whole of Mumbai! Four times Natalie has phoned me up, ‘clearing’ me with a dozen baffling security questions before getting to the point which is to ask me the same things she did last week because she had forgotten what I said. Six weeks on and I still have no account, nor even a piece of paper to suggest it may be imminent. Then we have the archaic paper-laden institution that represents our law; a set of egotistical brain-boxes in expensive suits who spend all day dictating letters to each other at my expense and then ignoring them. Hence simple transactions take months instead of days. In what other business could the whole process grind to a complete halt because Mr Jones is on holiday or paralegal Pam is taking a day off because her precious child has a nose bleed? It is utterly preposterous in this day and age that two or three quick emails can’t conclude a property purchase in an afternoon, let alone 2 months (or, in the case of one nameless local firm, a whole year!) If I was to be cynical I might suggest that dragging out the timeline would be so they could charge more – surely not?
On the subject of ancient things, some may recall that last we year we all trotted off to see the rock band Deep Purple, or what’s left of them. Well, despite my ears still wringing we are at it again, this time to see another depleted relic of my generation, The Who. I am not sure who’s idea it was, over a few shandies, but 12 of us have tickets at the best part of a hundred quid a pop to be shouted at for two hours by Roger Daltrey while octogenarian Pete Townsend customarily smashes up his guitar. The fact that these two of the initial four are still alive is itself a testament to modern science and one assumes their ageing fan-base have between them contributed massively to the sales of hearing aids. I have to admit I am quite excited, although I suspect these days there might be less talking about my generation and more about my operation!

Thursday, 14 April 2016

Tata folks

Well, that’s lambing more or less done and dusted. Not been the easiest this year but we have a decent crop of lambs except for maybe the final pair, born to a yearling, which are so thin my wife has quite cruelly named them the Belson twins. Coincidentally, that is not the only reference to that ghastly atrocity of World War II as there has for some strange reason been a statue constructed in the centre of the Marmande bypass depicting the event. Although the origins of this bizarre stainless steel three metre high model are unclear, it shows three hunched people trudging along, chained together, and is apparently a reference to how the town played a prominent part in providing the train service for the crimes. One assumes it was erected to exorcise their guilt.  
April has, for me, been a month on the road, mainly in a hurry. Those lovely people working in air-traffic control disrupted my first trip, causing me to have to traverse the country by train, bus, taxi and finally, air. Just how in this day and age a few dissatisfied workers can cause so much commuting chaos is beyond comprehension but they do, because they can. With a four day business trip to Scotland condensed into three by their subsequent flight cancellations, the hours were long and painful as I also slotted in a 36 hour stint tiling the bathroom in our seaside house. Just 24 hours back home and we were off again to Paris, via Bordeaux, both of which, it has to be said are beautiful cities. This time we took in a rugby match en route. From there to London, the Midlands, London again, Calais and then finally home, for a week in my own bed – bliss! That week is very short, as I try and tie up far too many loose ends – I currently have 4 writing projects on the go – and get some well deserved sleep before it’s on the move once more. Next up Nottingham, Sheffield, Glasgow, none of which lay claim to UK’s best hotspots! Never being one to wish my life away, I certainly will be glad when the month is over and May brings some harmony and sunshine.
Anyway, hours in hotels, train stations and airports do give me occasional time to observe, and then rant. To start with, we have James Martin, that TV chef and apparent sex god who has, among his portfolio, a restaurant in Stansted airport. Ideal for a spot of breakfast you might think? Wrong. Well, not entirely incorrect, just that a big sign saying ‘proper breakfast here’ is not accompanied by that basic requirement, a menu. Me: can I see a menu? Chef: What is it you are looking for, darling? Me: um, breakfast. Chef: well, you certainly are in the right place, what did you have in mind, darling? I resisted the temptation to sarcastically demand a concoction of Belgian Duroc bacon and south Rhodesian hens eggs, in case they might actually have them! Me: errr, ehm, what have you got? This absurd conversation went on so long my flight is being called. Eventually I settled on a bacon roll, with no idea of what I would cost nor what else I was missing out on.  Twelve quid later and I realise that pretty-boy James is not such a mug after all!
12 hours later I am in my hotel room, battling with technology in order to connect to the internet, whilst simultaneously running a bath. Have you ever noticed how powerful the water pressure always is in hotels? No, nor me, really – until not only is the bath full to the brim with scolding water, but the entire bathroom. Stepping through two inches of the stuff in my socks to try and switch the tap off resulted in near third degree burns and then the hour long job of mopping it up, with one towel, took me past last orders for dinner and I have to take the car to a local garage for a pack of sandwiches.
Just four days after that I get another chance for that oh-so relaxing bath but this time a knock on the door disturbed the peace. Obviously the words ‘who is it?’ translate into French as ‘enter’, and in comes a maid, her eyes like saucers as she hastily retreats with a face as red as a London 2-decker. Thankfully she later resisted to opportunity to mention that ‘she didn’t recognise me with my clothes on’ whilst serving breakfast!
Finally a stay in a rather plush hotel near Stansted airport which has an incredibly large wine tower in the centre of the bar. Holding a good few thousand bottles, the only way each one can be collected from its slot is by a ‘wine angel’ - an athletic girl who ascends the tower in mesmerising fashion supported by a couple of thin wires. En-route she incorporates a few well practiced gymnastic moves, swirling head-over-tail like a beautiful starfish until she gracefully lands back behind the bar and hands it over. I have to admit my wine was a little too shaken up when it arrived - especially the tenth bottle!

The next time I write this column it may be as an outcast citizen as the nation goes to the polls. The subject of politics is something I tend to stay well clear of, despite the temptation to ridicule the phoneys who haplessly head up the common government. However, these last couple of weeks listening to their childish bickering on every media has made up my mind – which is basically to bid Britain Cheerio faster the country has said Tata to its steel industry!

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Dirty Roger's pencils

    This month I write to you from a land far-far away across the sea called France. Remember it? It is a place that the Brits spent 500 years trying to invade, mostly unsuccessfully, and are now equally trying to break away from. Quizzically the locals in these parts enquire: 'What is this Brexit of which you speak?' The standard reply is that it is 'Les Rosbif waving the forks at you guys across the channel, again,' which tends to get the conditioned response of a Gallic shrug. And quite right too? If Britain wants to revert back to being a standalone entity, with its meat and two veg, let zem get on with eet, we never liked each other anyway. Of course, to us ex-pats, the issue appears a little more serious. While Britain aspires to cleanse itself of an unsalvageable immigrant problem, the migrants who left its shores may be cut off without so much as a return ferry ticket. This will inevitably inspire each and every one of them to flock to the postal polls out of shameless self interest. Of course, we won't have the slightest idea about what a non-Exit vote will mean to the country of our birth, nor even a pang of sympathy. Let's face it, in times of threat, it is every beard for himself, right? What may surprise you to know is that, for once, I don’t really have an opinion on the issue, for the simple reason is that I, nor anyone else as far as I can tell, can really get any clarity on the subject through the smoke and mirror deception of EU politics. However, my 'ce que sera sera' cavalier attitude seems to spark outrage from everyone around me, insisting that I register my vote right this very minute and that, in a democratic society, 'sitting on the fence will only get a spike up my bottom!' My actual opinion is that we ex-pats chose to leave the mothership for personal reasons, and thus possibly don’t even warrant a vote on the matter at all. And that one got me into hot water faster that a Parisian lobster, again.  
    Moving swiftly on, but not very far, I would like once again to quote from that Sunday Times best-seller: '1000 Years of annoying the French,' by Stephen Clarke. This time it is to underpin the notion that, along with their other conquests, America really should have belonged to the French. It tells a tale of a defrocked priest, Rene La Salle, who in 1682, having set up home in new-found Canada near Montreal, decided to embark on a search for a river that would lead him to China. Yes, obviously this was before the Tom-Tom was invented and was, of course, a notion that would undeniably declare him barking mad. No matter, along with the son of an Italian banker and a couple of dozen French soldiers, he wrapped up warm and trudged off through the snow until he found the Mississippi. There he built a couple of rafts and jumped on board in the hope of turning up in Bejing in time for spring. En route he passed through some rather nice fertile land until he arrived, some 1000 miles later, in the Gulf of Mexico! Eventually realising, due to the lack of Buddhists temples and noodles, that this was not his preferred destination, he decided to claim the lands anyway in the name of King Louis, famously naming its southern state, Louisiana. Due to the lack of phones at the time, La Salle then travelled back up the river to coldest Canada, to send a message back home to Louis Quatorze that he had claimed pretty much most of America as a French colony. Somehow though, and there are various conspiracy theories here, due to a religious cock-up involving some Canadian Jesuit priests, the King considered the message as a prank and replied that La Salle was to stop this pointless exploration of anything south of Lake Ontario if he wished to retain his head. Unlucky? Even our Louis (the pointless pointer) isn’t that stupid!
    Bringing the subject of exploitation of China a little more up to date, I recently read an article about a British entrepreneur who surely has to be knighted for his ingenuity. Discovering that some of China's biggest cities are grossly polluted, he decided to send them some air, in a bottle. Yes, for no less than £80 a time, he is selling jars of fresh air from the English South West and Home Counties and people are actually buying it. When interviewed - and this is the best bit - he said: 'Why not? A few years ago, people thought buying bottled water was madness, and now look at the size of that industry.' You have to admit, there is some logic in there somewhere. And so, here it is, my latest brain-child. Instead of all those town-folk cluttering up the local lanes in a bid to get near some greenery every weekend, they will soon be able to buy some countryside smells online to save them the trip. My catalogue of fresh aromas will start with a basic wild flora and fauna, made from a couple of crushed daffs and a few stale mushrooms, stepping up to 'inspiration of spring' - lamb droppings & grass cuttings - to the top-of-the-range: 'that full farm feeling.' The latter will include a mélange of 'cleaning out the cow shed', 'flooded crop-store' and 'bag of deceased lambs',  and will be accompanied by an 'Archers-like' farmer's soundtrack, complete with swearing!
    Meanwhile, back on the homestead, lambing is now underway here at Chauffour, something that we are quite pleased about if only to prove the fertility of Dirty Roger. Some of you may recall that back in October the immaturity of our new young ram was of a slight concern. Well, to open the batting, Lilly had a triplet which she seems to be managing to rear well enough herself without the intervention of Wendy as a wet nurse. Next up, Edith has, er, another set of triplets and my worry now is that a trend is appearing. So, it turns out, not only did Roger have lead in his pencil after all, but seemingly a whole box of crayons in his satchel as well! Careful what you wish for!

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Reddybrek's it

   To Brexit or not to Brexit, that is the question - and quite a silly one it is? I don’t know who first came up with the word but it could just as easily apply to us ex-pats who Brexited UK some while ago. Or did we Frexit? And what about those voting for Scottish independence, did they want to Scexit?  Now the UK government has given its citizens chance to vote on whether to stay or go, my mailbox and social media page is immediately filling up with propaganda about what it would mean for us ex-pats if we suddenly discovered we were foreigners in our own land. Will all our houses be given to the French state when we die, or maybe our habitation tax will double on our 'second' home, once we have no mother country's laws to fall back on? Well, despite the scaremongering, the bottom line is that we have no idea. And that, I am afraid to add, is something that is far more scary than the question of EU membership itself. 175,000 ex-pats live in France and, despite us all choosing to inhabit a country where the weather is better and the cheese nicer, we all have a vote on the situation in UK, in the same way that I was allowed to put my cross in a box in 2014 that decided whether Scotland stayed with the status quo or became a third world non-entity. In that particular instance, I did exercise my vote as I believed the 'locals' were being hoodwinked into a historic hatred campaign with no clear understanding of the consequences. In June this year, the same arguments will be put in front of us again? Will Britain get out of Europe because what happened at Agincourt, or Hastings, or the 1958 football world cup?
   Having made my home in France for the last ten years, I have to admit that British politics don’t really interest me but they will to the many who live overseas, to the tune where 2 or 3 million ex-pats around the globe who will have a postal vote. Personally I am not sure that is fair. As overseas citizens do we want Britain to cut us off? Of course not. Would Britain leaving the EU or even re-negotiating its stance be good for us who ran away from its shores? Doubtful. Would it be a good thing for the Brits who still live there though? Possibly so. Democracy is a strange thing when you look closely at it. Letting passionate people with their own agenda and yet very little subject knowledge vote on a matter so important? That can never really make sense, surely. Didn't UK actually vote a government in to make those decisions on our behalf? Despite still holding a British passport, maybe I am one of the few who believes that in this case it is none of my business.  

Monday, 15 February 2016

Mr Spanky stays indoors

I think I invented a new sport last week called gyro-skiing, where you career down the side of a snowy mountain in a gyroscopic fashion! I am not certain it will take off - not like I did anyway! Bruises were incurred. And, to quote Forest Gump, 'that's all I have to say about that.'
Wendy and I did have a great trip in the Alps though, punctuated by an overnight stop in Clermont-Ferrand, an industrial conurbation set in a valley in the Massif Central surrounded by volcanic mountains. Once home to the French Grand Prix, as you enter the sprawling city it is hard to ignore the fact that this is the birthplace of, and home to, Michelin Tyres whose factories dominate the suburbs. However, rubber is not the only black thing in this city as, nestled in its quaint ancient centre, with its cobbled streets and vibrant bars, stands a huge gothic cathedral built out of volcanic rock making the vast black structure appear rather macabre as its two spires extend over 100 metres into the sky. As for their rugby team, well this year's efforts would have been greatly aided if the goal posts had been of similar height, as the fabled yellow and blue jerseys bowed out of the Heineken cup in such embarrassing style that the whole town population were also wearing black to mark the occasion. We were allowed a moment of gloating as it was our minnows from Bordeaux who administered their dismissal.
Yes, of course, it is that time of year when large burly gentlemen pull on bright lycra and knock lumps out of each other in an organised fashion every weekend for a few months. Considering myself a multinational, I will inevitably be wearing my collection of white, blue and red hats throughout the Six Nations although so far it has started well when the Jocks have waved us Sassenachs off home, once again carrying the silverware with us. This annual bloodied encounter between England and Scotland always reminds me of an occasion some twenty years ago when a Scottish rugby playing friend of mine, known affectionately to one and all as the White Shark, was out celebrating a Scotland victory on Edinburgh's Princess Street only to demonstrate how best to take a drop goal. The solid silver Pilkington Cup still has the dent in it to this day as proof. And still he missed the target, although he was quite severely told off for the faux-pas!
We appear to have arrived back to monsoon season here at Chauffour, when 400mm of rain, nearly two thirds of our annual expectancy, has fallen since Christmas, much of it through a leaking skylight window into an array of buckets which require emptying every three hours. Thankfully lambing is not yet underway but it is imminent and we are considering relocating to higher grounds. There are even small trout in the puddles by the back door, not that Mr Spanky would notice as he hasn’t been outside for six weeks. Our lake that was bone dry up until New Year is now a sea and the polytunnel has concertinaed in under the weight and has become a 10000 litre reservoir, should we require it during the dry summer. Let's hope so.
In a recent interview I was asked where I grew up, to which the statutory reply is always the same, I haven’t grown up and have little intention of doing so! However, I did spend my childhood and teenage years in Rock village, when a gang of Fraziers, Notts, Neaths and Whitemans would tear around the lanes from pub to pub in our Minis, taking in discos on Clee Hill, games of spoof in the Alma and the odd fence post on the way home. Next day we would all be back at work, driving tractors or feeding yards of livestock, no harm done. Back then I can vividly recall Bernard Birch senior saying to my Dad, when they heard about the death of their pal John Whiteman senior: 'Jack, they are pulling them out of our pen now.' Well, with the passing of one of our crowd, Fooey Neath, I guess the cycle has just gone around again. A sorry thought, I suppose. RIP big fella, we had some good times.  
Anyway, enough of that; this column wouldn’t be complete if I wasn’t complaining about something and this time it is a simple gripe about the price of Muesli. Up until recently, this isn’t something that would cross my breakfast radar, but of late I have been making a gallant attempt to be healthy. Three euros fifty - that's over three quid - that's what it costs for a box of rolled oats and barley with a few raisins thrown in. I know I am no longer in the farming business but I still have friends in that game, each of whom assures me that a ton of grain sells for just over one hundred pounds. So how on earth does one company manage to pimp the price up to £6000 per ton and get away with it? On every news bulletin we hear that the world population is growing sideways and there is Jeremy Hunt talking about taxing sugar to keep us all healthy, and making sure we get our five a day. Is he missing something here, or am I? Well, yes I am actually, my bacon butties - but not for much longer.

Oh, btw, Mr Spanky is our cat, in case you were wondering!

Thursday, 21 January 2016

A word with myself, by Andy Frazier

I had always wanted to write, that's probably an opening line that every writer, successful or otherwise, uses in interviews. Well, I was already a writer when I started to write, if that makes sense. Having somehow found myself in the computer industry, I firstly taught myself to write Visual Basic, a mathematical coded language telling computers to do real things. It was fun, challenging and, for some reason, I was quite good at it. Oh, and it paid well. After evolving in a business analyst, whatever one of those is, and commuting in and out of big cities in a suit, I got board of writing dull documents and yearned for the outdoor life I once had. Unlike many others in my plight, I took the plunge. That was 2006 and I was 45.
My first novel was the one we all have in us, based on life's experience, in my case about cows, or one cow in particular. Told through her eyes it was fast paced, humorous, heart warming and, as it happens, a rip roaring success. That is not to say it went global, but achievement is all relative and, after arrogantly punting my brilliant novel to a hundred agents, with no rewrites or editing, the constant rejection led me to go down the self publishing route. Pah, what did they know? There is a simple reason why this book sold a hundred copies in its first month, and a thousand in a year, 3000 in the next, and that was because I wrote it specifically for a targeted audience.  
Buoyed with the fact that writing novels was piss-easy, I had been told that this kind of work, talking animals etc, was more suited to a children's style. So, over the next year I wrote not one, but 4 more novels about the same animal, taking the dialogue down to the level a nine to eleven year old could read. I tested the books on a few classes of school children who all said it made them laugh and cry, the two essentials of any story. So back to the critics I went, sending samples and synopsis to every children's literary agent in the country, expecting to be hailed as the next Mike Morpurgo. The rejections were hard to take, some of which gave me faith in my skills, all of whom said the children's book market is flooded with great writers and new ones are hard to sell into that age bracket, especially about talking animals. They were bang-on, of course, but it still hurt.
No yet completely deflated, I had written a biography of my father, then in his late eighties, and given it him as a present. As a spin off from this I extended a story about him growing up during the war in our local town into another children's book and this one had a better reception. Getting great reviews from a dozen or so who trialled it, after just a couple of 'no-thank-yous' from the agency world, I again self published, and soon the copies started flying off the shelves in the local tourists centres. It even got a write up in the local paper and I did my first reading at a book festival. In my mind, it may be the best book I ever wrote. The interest waned after a year, probably due to my inactiveness to do any more promotion whatsoever.
Now back on the horse, I picked back up on my favourite subject, humour and animals, with a long and hilarious tale about a pig that kept getting into trouble. Hearing folks guffaw with laughter when reading you own words is a great tonic for any writer but, sadly, it was a difficult one to sell as it fell between two stools, they say, being neither quite children or adult genre. It still remains my favourite.
Another children's book was already underway, when I had tried to get some history on an ancient windmill which sits across the field from our house in France. When nothing was forthcoming, I made up a rip-roaring adventure about two boys on holiday there, complete with time travel, templar nights and, of course, cows. It took a while to write and I think that shows in the book's lack of enthusiasm, compared to my earlier work. To be honest, I didn’t even try to find a publisher and probably only 100 people have ever read it. They all liked it though, so they said.
In a bid not to confuse the boundaries of my children's writing, I then penned a couple of quite funny stories under a pseudo name about a poor confused man called Trevor Hard. I will admit reading a couple of Tom Sharp novels whilst on holiday blatantly influenced these two books and, although never doing justice to the master, they came out quite well. I picked up one of the very few printed copies the other day and re-read it in a day, laughing my socks off the whole way through. That is when writing is at its most fulfilling - a career that the great Terry Pratchett described 'the most fun a person can ever have on their own'. Anyone who ever reaches that goal of making themselves laugh time and again has made it as a writer, regardless of whether they have sold one or a million copies.
Along the way, the initial lesson of 'know your audience' kept haunting me and, after a time of procrastination based on failure, I picked up the keys again, penning something some of my old pals had been baying for: my own life story. Writing an autobiog can be as humbling as it can be smug but I was only picking out a certain era, that time that I spent in the cattle years, two of the best, friendliest, most rewarding and hilarious decades of my time on earth. The book, entitled In Bed With Cows, really hit the spot with a close nit crowd of cattle enthusiasts, many of them concerned that their own antics may have been spilled onto paper. It got dozens of reviews, made it into hundreds of Christmas stockings, and had lot of people laughing. Still does. Using a formula I had stolen from Nick Spalding, I wrote to the reader on a one-to-one. The book was swiftly followed by the more risky In Bed with Sheep but inevitably it was difficult to get sales outwith the close farming community and, let's face it, not many of them read anything other than the farming press. These books still haul in good sales around the end of each year but it was never any use trying to put them out to a 'real' publisher when my own life history needed to sit alongside the literary genius of supermodel Kate Moss or Tony Blair on the shelves!
After that I sort of gave up for a while. A friend persuaded me to write a novel for Nation Novel Writing Month (nanowrimo) in 2012 which I knocked out in 28 days. It was one of those that are great fun to write, where you have no idea where it is going and the characters develop themselves, some jumping out off the page screaming to take the lead role. Loosely pointing the finger at Scotland's bid for independence, I subtitled it a 'political satire, with some sheep in it, obviously!'. It is doubtful I will ever have as much fun writing again and equally doubtful that a half-man half-sheep riding a Harley through the hills of Scoutland will ever see the literacy light of day.
Deep Breath! Having written a column for a local magazine in UK about my life in France for the previous five years, something which I actually got paid for, some small publisher picked up on my blog and asked me if I fancied writing some travel guides about our area. In a simple formula, I sent them one 10,000 word ebook but then soon found their antics less than professional and that some of their other writers were being prosecuted for plagiarism. Just before I signed a contract with them, I decided to instead put the book out under my own banner, etravellers guides. Here was a chance to build a small brand and it got me to travel to nice places, eat loads of food and then write about it. The real win-win was that people actually bought my books, in their thousands.  OK, I only made a quid a copy but this was proper writing and great repeat business. In all I wrote ten and wish it had been a hundred. I vow one day I will complete some more, travelling around the world in a camper like John Carrowack.

I will own up to being nothing if not tenacious and here's the thing about tenacity. Once I found a little writing success, purely by chance as it happens, I got a phone call out of the blue to write something else. This time it wasn’t just a few words on the local restaurant and how clean the toilets were, but an entire history book, thick as a seam of coal, on my own chosen subject, cows. Even more importantly, I wouldn't have to market it, I would just get paid to write the tome, and then sit and sign copies at National events. Admittedly, in my excitement to agree the contract, I slightly underestimated the time that conducting 100 interviews, sourcing 1200 photos and writing 200,000 words into coherent factually correct chapters would take me, eg: nearly three years, but I did it. I fucking did it. And you know what? I don’t think it is over yet, because from that little job arose another one, this time a true story so far-fetched, it even makes sheep on motorbikes seem day-to-day. And, just for once, this one may have a commercial value.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

New knees please

Well that soon went by. Not just the month, but the last ten years, which is how long it is since I left Britain’s shores to seek my fortune. I’m still looking! Yes, this time a decade ago I was heading to Amsterdam to live and work, something I did for 8 months before retreating to France for a bit more peace. I can’t say I really miss the place, Holland nor England, for that matter. OK, the beer and the rolling hills around my ancestral home do get me a little nostalgic from time to time but generally I am happy with my lot, and that’s all that matters. Each year sees a few more funerals but I suppose that is inevitable once you pass 50 and start spiralling towards the prospect of Saga holidays and incontinence. 60 is the new 40, they tell me, which I assume means 80 is the new 60 and I won’t see a penny of my government pay-off until I am four score years and five. Does this also imply that the Queen will no longer send out telegrams, or emails, or whatever medium they now use, until we reach 120? Oh well, it will save on the ink, I suppose.
Anyway, after three weeks of constant rain, the sun is shining here before breakfast at Chauffour, backlighting the sheep in a golden glow amidst a covering of white frost. On mornings like these it is hard to imagine anything wrong with the world. Long ago I stopped taking a daily newspaper and now I even refrain from seeking the news on TV or the Interweb, else it might spoil the illusion of tranquillity and satisfaction. Occasional news does filter to me eventually, via post, text or social media, the former about the financial problems, mine in particular, and the latter either about more funerals or what one of my cyberfriends is having for lunch. I will admit that Facebook and Twitter are an unwelcomed distraction from my busy schedule, which currently includes getting a 60,000 word novel out of my head and on to paper, after two years of cluttering up my mind. However, at present I am writing a true story about an American, which involves me looking up jargon online, only to be presented with adverts for things I bought for Christmas. Yes, the online marketing people are now so smart that they now know what I have been recently buying. Here’s a tip, Amazon. If I have just purchased some bath taps, a new pair of shoes, and some loft insulation, why the hell would I want to buy more of the same? Surely you would be better offering me some cheap paint and socks? Or better still, the services of a reliable plumber. Oh no, I forget, they are as mythical as unicorns and Boris Johnson’s hairdresser.
The reason for the urgency in my latest literary panic is that at the end of this month we are heading off to the slopes for a week and, following that, I have another stint in Scotland sorting out some business. Then comes lambing, a few month’s building work, the summer visitors, and all of a sudden it is next Christmas and the page is empty. As the confines of my desk allow me no more exercise than the shake of a wrist, and my ski suit doesn’t fit, I try and find time to get half an hour each day with the cross trainer. No I don’t mean Reme Garde – sorry, had to get an Aston Villa joke in somewhere – but a piece of apparatus that allows me to run like hell, without getting anywhere – a bit like Villa, actually (ha, that’s 2, Ed!). Only problem is, in an attempt to build up a few extra leg muscles that will carry my weight on the snow, I find that my knees are not getting stronger, but weaker. And they hurt like hell. After a word with a friendly doctor, I ascertain that the joints in my knees are, to use a technical term, buggered, and grinding them away with physical movement isn’t helping. A wee touch of arthritis comes to us all eventually, for one reason or another, and mine can be wholly attributed to years of kneeling down in cold damp sheds, lambing sheep. Damn things should carry a health warning!
Going back to my earlier point about online shopping, here’s one for you marketers: when I bought a new pair of ski goggles from, you could have checked my age and then offered me some new knee joints as well? Because that it is what it is coming down to, since all the doctors have gone on strike because they have been asked to work weekends, that we can buy pretty much anything prosthetic online these days and jump the 15 year NHS queue. I kid you not, there are dozens of websites out there pedalling everything from a plastic toe to a whole new abdomen. From a link alongside that, you can make an online booking into a clinic in Korea that, for the price of a London suburb, will fit the bits while you wait, a bit like that twelve year old apprentice outside Halfords who will attach your new windscreen wiper-blade for you.  Not only that, but with some pre-ordering, you can go green too when your new carbon foot print will actually be made out of recycled bits of Natalie Bennett, or Bono. It’s a win-win for everyone.  I’ve already got my name down for a new liver made out of Janet Street-Porter’s teeth!