Wednesday, 18 January 2023

Call the Midwife Crisis


They say diversity is the salt and pepper of life. Well, I am sure someone said it, once, somewhere. So, I am not sure whether we in the pepper just now, but we arrived back last night from Spain, where it has been 23 degrees and very sunny, to Scotland where it has been minus 3 degrees and a little snowy. A few sneezes are surely acceptable? In fact, no, hold on the sneezes as I have only just shifted the cold which I caught on Hogmanay by kissing too many strangers. It seemed like a good idea at the time, especially some film actress whom I didn’t recognize until afterwards.

Anyway, the trip to Spain was fantastic and just what the doctor prescribed, a sortie to Andalusia, high up in the Alpujarra mountains staying with friends in a very nice villa. Although still a bit chilly at nights the daytime could have been June, it was so warm. Except that June in those places is like a furnace and therein hangs a problem - water. Numerous rivers empty into the sea around Malaga, or at least they should do, if there was anything in them. Bear in mind this is January, and what should be the rainy season and you may start to see my concern. To compound the issue, all the hills around there are have been planted for crops, but not olives and almonds that have been indigenous to this area for millennia, but mangos and avocados, two plants that rely heavily on moisture. Don’t get me wrong, it was nice to be able to pick a few fresh ones for our table but where is the H20 required to fuel such a crop. More to the point, where are the brain cells that allowed this to happen? It has been funded by EEC money, apparently and, believe me, it would have taken a hell of a lot of it to peck out those rocky mountains with some massive machinery to create those terraces and water reservoirs on such a scale. And we all know the EEC is mad, right, which is why you folk decided to leave it? But, and here is the very problem, the same folk that wanted to become an independent island are often the very ones that rely on your smoothies every morning, despite everything being shipped half-way across the world to quench your desires? Well, mark my warning, you are about to see a massive shortage in said fruits unless some rain happens pretty soon. And that, it seems is highly unlikely in summer if it hasn’t rained in winter for a year or two. One local farmer already confided in me that his crops would fail this year. Never fear, you can always get fruit shipped from South America, as long as you sanctimoniously recycle your Vegemite jars in a quit-pro-quo to help you sleep at night?

On that note, on the way over, we had a lovely G&T in the airport – well you do, don’t you, when you’re on holiday – in the new Fever-Tree bar. Lovely until I read the words ‘Carbon Neutral’ on the front of the menu only to be confronted on its last page with a map of the parts of the world where all its ingredients come from, which extended to every corner. But - and here is the maddest thing of all and perhaps one that not everyone is aware of – that wee company can offset its carbon damage by buying carbon credits off the good old farmers. Really? Yes, really. You see, despite contrary belief, most UK farms are actually well below carbon neutral so the country’s balance can be made up by someone else who is pumping it out. One farm I visited in Scotland recently had an audit done to find his place actually absorbs the entire carbon output of 400 family homes! Not only that but if Fever-Tree (in our example here) buys up a few hundred acres of perfectly good farmland and plants some trees on it, it too can offset its ridiculously high footprint and claim carbon neutrality, according to law. That’s like shooting someone and then giving money to an orphanage to get excused of your crime? Completely and utterly absurd! Meanwhile, the UK, and particularly Scottish, farmer has to compete with these extortionate prices for land taken out of production to continue to feed a nation at rock-bottom prices.
Anyway, as you can see, the trip made my blood boil in more ways than one. The Spanish love their fiesta and we were privileged to visit one in a tiny hilltop town up where the clouds should be, which was buzzing like a faulty lightbulb. Equally a beach restaurant full of tapas was squeezed into our long weekend, although the local nudists near the latter did put me off my patatas bravas a wee bit. Meanwhile, back in Cellardyke, it was a different kind of body on the beach when sadly a male one washed up a few weeks ago, which was rather macabre. We still haven’t heard who it was, but nobody local we hope.
On the work front, my most recent novel is starting to gain some traction and climb the Amazon charts, thanks to some promotion through a pal in the whisky industry who sent it to a few newspapers. I even had a contact from the editor of the Big Issue who was interested in doing a review, which doesn’t quite seem the right place to be advocating whisky-related crime, but I suppose there’s no such thing as bad press. BTW, the book is called The Master’s Spirit if you fancy picking up a copy?

So now its back to short days and evening telly until the Scottish weather picks up and we head home for lambing. Things I try to avoid, The Apprentice, Unhappy Valley and anything to do with baby’s being born! Bloody hell, the latter seems to have gripped the entire nation for its weekly doling out of solutions to all middle-aged female problems?  Call the Midwife Crisis, I call it!

Thursday, 12 January 2023

Gone but not forgotten

And here we are, into another year again. Happy festivities everyone and here’s to a cheery, if not prosperous, annee. If the media is anything to go by then it may be a troublesome time with much doom and despondency but we don’t really believe their rubbish anymore, do we? We may or may not even concur with all those global eco-mentalists either when, here in Scotland anyway, its cold enough to freeze a monkey’s bum right now. In our 8 years in East Fife, today is only the second time I have seen snow on the beach and the sea giving off steam, with the distant Isle of May white-over also. The last time some beast from the east had brought it. This time we still blame Greta Thunburg, or the train drivers strike? Gotta be someone’s fault, surely? In France too, some 1000+ miles away, the ground is frozen and poses a threat to the pipes of our swimming pool although thankfully we have a handy young chap living in and monitoring things for us with his gloves on. December was a manic month for me, with 3 new books out in time for Christmas and podcasts being recorded left right and centre before we closed down for a few days’ hibernation. It was a tough time this year since we lost the last of our original animal family together, namely Pooper, who had been a fantastic companion for the last fifteen years. Her time had come but it was still hard to say goodbye. 

Now we just have the Haggis or, to quote Terry Pratchett, ‘the big wee Hag!’ who keeps us entertained but is a big scaredy cat when it comes to some cold weather. Considering she is a Border Terrier from the actual Scottish Borders, you really would expect something a bit more hardy. Our few winter months here in Fife go by all too quick but it is good to catch up with old friendships and getting folks round while I ‘get-the-pan-on.’ The crowd of Scotts that came in to watch England bow out of the football world cup were particularly enjoyable although their berets and French outfits were a little unnecessary! It is absurd to realise we have been in this house by the sea for four years already and that the high-speed train of life has passed through so rapidly. I have recently been helping my son move house and the realization that a sixty-something overweight man can no longer lift the heavy goods with ease, let alone keep up with the younger bodies on the job, has caught up with me quite suddenly. My super-recall of names and places is certainly slowing down too. Thankfully I can still out-drink most of them although I am not sure that is a real blessing. In January we are heading to Spain for a few days to stay with friends and get a break from the weather and maybe get some more writing done, as per last year. Downtime is getting more and more necessary but also well enough deserved. Today I am quite pleased as we have had in a craftsman joiner to build us a trophy cabinet. Well, an oak cupboard and shelves where we can display the two silver cups we won last year in pride of place. The jury is still out whether we revisit the battlefield’s next year for another go at the prizes. My heart says no but my wife says yes. We will wait for the sheep to have the final vote on that score. We also have a rugby World Cup to consider, in our back yard in France later in the year. How much more disappointment could we take!

Thursday, 17 November 2022

Padstow and potholes

 At last, in one place again, after three hard weeks on the road, most of which was enjoyable if not a tad tiring, with close to a couple of thousand miles of driving behind us. And tiring was certainly the order of the day at AgriExpo livestock show in Carlisle when myself and a colleague were set the task to speak about cows continually on TV for over 8 hours. Yes, that is a big challenge even for me. I think we coped OK and have already been asked back for next year’s event. Our few quiet days in the Lake District were cosy and mainly confined to indoors due to the weather, but one doesn’t go there for that really. We were highly fortunate to have a great pub, the Tower Arms in Sawrey, only 100 yards away, during which time we definitely became their ‘customer of the week’. We never did get to see Beatrix Potter’s house, although I was made to sit through the film, which was a little too Disney for my tastes.

What followed was the highlight of our time here, a couple of nights in the Feathers Hotel at Ludlow followed by a magnificent wedding of Sam (my eldest son) and Izzy at the ancient and luxurious Brynsop Court near Hereford. This place really did pull out all the stops, from its 13th century banquet rooms to a purpose built barn which its owners had purchased from the BBC and then re-erected it in all its glory in the grounds. Much drinking and dancing was to be had until the early hours when most of the guests were shipped back to Hereford on a bus. I say most, as somehow two of my nieces managed to miss their lift, but got there eventually. With games rooms, music rooms and lit fireplaces everywhere back in the grand building it would have been rude not to sample yet more hospitality as waiters appeared from the shadows with yet more grog until our palatial bedroom eventually called us in around 3am.  It was great to catch up with some of the boys’ old mates, all of whom I remember as bairns; so nice to see them all doing so well and many with bairns of their own.

From there we headed south again although soon realised that the roads in UK are so atrocious, what should have been a four hour trip to Cornwall quite a while longer as I zigzagged around endless potholes that would rattle the fillings out of your teeth, let alone plates out of our cupboards. Having done little or no work in the previous two weeks I had to sacrifice some of my downtime in our next wee cottage to the dreaded computer and microphone. However, we did get to see most of the hostelries in Padstow including a meal in Rick Stein’s seafood restaurant which was splendid. We also took the foot ferry to Rock (the other one) and sampled some of Paul Ainsworth’s food which, I have to say, was a tad ordinary and over-priced, particularly when the waiter persuaded me to have some ‘new Cornish’ potatoes as a side dish – In November? Three tiny ones duly arrived at the cost of seven quid! Even Shell would blush at making that much profit!

Next up was a trip back to Herefordshire, this time to an old school reunion at Lucton. I was hoping to see a classroom full of my old mates that joined me there 50 years ago but sadly only a handful turned up. We were treated to a roast beef dinner not dissimilar to the ones we endured half a century ago and then a speech from an ‘Old Boy’ which purveyed his life in minute detail from his post-war school days to date. I definitely heard snoring from the back benches, particularly during the bit about varying sizes of rivets in 1961. Afterwards I couldn’t resist having a smoke on the prefect’s lawn despite that fact that I am neither a prefect nor a smoker. Some things just have to be done!

Now, as I sit looking out at the North sea, wind and rain are still very much on the agenda, lashing against my window and throwing the waves up with it. Poor Haggis has been nearly swept away a few times although she did manage to catch a rather poorly pigeon which was as much a surprise to her as it was to it.  I believe it may even by raining back home in France this week – sacré bleu!

Tomorrow I have to interview the Minister of Agriculture for Scotland, in Edinburgh, who hasn’t been in the job very long. As my initial list of questions has since been sent back with a red line through most of them, particularly the ones about exports to France, maybe the weather is all we will have to talk about! I doubt she will accept the blame for all of it, though.

 

One hundred, not out!

 OK, so it’s off down the rabbit hole we go, as winter beckons with twisted claw and the media preaches more doom. I will admit that I do see a recession heading our way with its headlights on and have acted accordingly by down-sizing our property business. The irony of just how the UK managed to replace ‘Boris the Party-Animal’ with someone called Miss Trus(t) appears to have been lost on most people until next thing they know mortgage rates are in double figure and the banks are repossessing their new conservatories.  Just how Kwasi (wouldn’t ‘Spitting Image’ have had so much fun with these names?) thinks he can cut everyone’s taxes, give them money for winter fuel and still have some coffers in his already depleted piggy bank is way beyond my comprehension, let alone that of the world ‘s financial business. But, hey, I am not in power so I’ll just take the hand-outs alongside my fellow man and be grateful, my lord.

Strangely, the word Lord is very much on my agenda this month, as I once again trawl through the Scottish record books researching some of the Lairds of yesteryear. Recently I have agreed to collaborate on yet another giant tome of a history book about yet more cows and this time, to quote my American co-author, ‘we really are getting down into the weeds!’ I have no idea how many pages we will end up with but it certainly won’t fit in a Christmas stocking, that’s for darn sure! To be fair, there will be a lot of pictures, thousands in fact. Every time I so much as mention someone regal in my text, my pal provides us with at least a dozen ancient photos to back it up, many of them borrowed from national galleries around the world. For example, I am just discussing James Carnegie, the 9th Earl of Southesk from Kinnaird Castle who, as well as being a top cattle breeder happened to have spent some years tracking big cats in the Rocky Mountains and next thing, here is a photo of him looking like Wild Bill Hickok, draped in furs. I really have no idea where he gets this stuff from as when I Google the words ‘Hunting Cougars’ my inbox soon fills up with requests that would make a beetroot blush! Incidentally, I note you can actually stay at the beautiful Kinnaird Castle, so Mrs F and I have booked in for a couple of nights in spring. You can even, says their website, book out the entire place, all 20 bedrooms, if you so wish, complete with hot and cold running servants. Now there’s an idea for a non-party birthday party, Boris?

On the subject of books, I am about to unleash my first crime novel to the market. Based around a distillery on Scotland’s west coast, ‘The Master’s Spirit’ tells a tale of murder and mystery and unveils a trail of corruption within the whisky industry which may possibly get me into hot water with its authorities. With a couple of pals in that business, I am hoping that I can utilise their contacts to promote it through the amber nectar channels and, who knows, a few samples may even come my way. The novel will be available on Amazon soon (plug, plug!). With that and the above mentioned history book, coupled with another novel, a sheep history book and my biannual nonsense publication, that makes five books I have my hands into at this moment in time. I would also like to mention that this week see my 100th podcast hit the airwaves. Who could believe one tiny idea would have gathered such momentum, as well as a happy band of followers that keep it motivated and me busy a couple of days per week.

So, it is just as well I cannot walk at present. Yes, once again I am incapacitated, this time with my right foot swollen up like a boxer’s jockstrap, while I hobble about the house on a pair of crutches painfully muttering to myself and avoiding the puppy who has become number one trip hazard. The doctor says I should not spend my time sitting on my arse, a view reflected by Mrs F, as I will succumb to blood clots which may cause said leg to fall off. I’ll take my chance on that one, while I fill the void with yet more words and edits rather than working in the garden or fixing the roof.

In a couple of weeks we will once again be crossing the channel for our winter in the North, potentially with Mrs F at the wheel. En route I have picked up another commentators job, this time at a large Ag show in Carlisle where I will be discussing the rear ends of cattle in intimate detail on live TV broadcast across the world.  I even had to do a video-trailer for this one, saying how exited I am to be involved in such a monumental bovine occasion! While we are in that neck of the woods, my wife has booked us in to a quaint little cottage for a week in the village where Beatrix Potter was lived, perhaps to inspire me to write yet more novels.

 From there it is back to Herefordshire for my eldest son’s wedding at a rather lavish rural venue where I will be squeezed back into a morning suit which I may well have outgrown during my time of seatedness. Hopefully I will have discarded the crutches by that point, so I can hit the dance floor running, or wobbling at the very least. Finally, a trip to my old school for a celebration of 50 years since I first set foot in its draughty dormitory. Fifty bloody years?  Oh my, where on earth did that go? I wonder if my old English teacher will still be there with his red marker pen, shaking his head in horror at my appalling grammar? I bet he never knew there was such a word as seatedness!

Tuesday, 4 October 2022

Whistlebiscuit

Were I a dog I am not sure what form I may take. There are times when I act like a Rottweiler, attacking and biting just about everyone in range, usually out of temper rather than malice to be fair. Other times I am just one of those shaggy Retriever things, soft as a ripe fig and about as intelligent, only with better hair. Then I have my Pointer moments when I want to run away, free as the wind with nothing more on my mind other than the maximum distance from everything around me.  Pointers do this, trust me, we had one for 14 years. Some days I can be cynical, like a Dachshund, sitting around summing everybody up, applying my own snippets of wisdom about them and generally taking the piss. Then there is the mongrel in me; unkempt, haphazard, lazy in a really busy kind of way, so much to do there's no time to fit it all in, so I chase my tail in hope I catch up with it all. Sometimes I do.

I proffer these scenarios as I am at present in the process of training Haggis, our wee Border Terrier pup. I have to say she is a sweetie, calm as a moonlit lake, both loving and kind, a model dog almost. I am not one who believes in re-incarnation or any other sort of supernatural mumbo-jumbo but if I were, I would find it incredibly hard to digest the fact that when I looked for a dog to replace Louis, our pointless pointer, I wished for one that would be all of the above, as he was, only with a little more obedience. And that pretty much, sums up wee Haggis. She is happy off her lead, unlike Louis was admittedly, and will generally follow to heel. She doesn’t want to attack every other dog she meets, unlike Pooper who has just about grown out of that phase at 15 years old. To the contrary, when she meets another dog she wants to play and kiss it, something that may backfire one day perhaps.

As has been mentioned many times before, neither of our last two dogs were well behaved, not when it came to being in public anyway. Much of this was down to the fact that we never made the effort to discipline them when they were young.  

So, I bought a whistle. Not just any whistle but one so high pitched it would fetch the tiles off the roof, let alone shatter your molars. Never being one to read a 'how-to' manual in my life, I reckoned that if the dog heard the sound and then received a biscuit, it would surely eventually work out a sense of recall, whistle=come here? Placebo at its best. Hmm. What I hadn’t also banked on was that this wee dog really is in the image of her predecessor Louis in the fact that she is a total foodie. Yes, the whistle/biscuit thing does work ok, but generally for the wrong reason. This is because she has worked out that during this training exercise, which carries on every day, I have pockets full of these munchy morsels. Hence, what is the point in being far away from me, when they are literally on tap. So now, instead of a wee dog, I just have a shadow following me round 24/7.

Well. At least it's better than running across ploughed fields chasing the damn thing, that's for sure. One thing I was advised before getting a Border was that they have a stubborn streak and that I can testify to. At present the stubbornness is to not bugger off from under my feet when she is told to, especially when I am carrying a tray of drinks, near the swimming pool. What could possibly go wrong?

    

Thursday, 15 September 2022

Scratched bottoms

   Sadly my announcement of a successful rain dance last month came to nothing more than a passing shower. As we pass mid September here in Aquitaine we have still had no more than a few mills of rain since May and the place really is a dessert now. With 23 sheep in the field, they have now reverted to eating the thistles such is their hunger. This morning we pulled them into the yard to hopefully select few lambs for the abattoir but still they remain as skinny as a cheesy-thin, and still with zero chance of rain on the 10 day radar. At this rate they will be heading for Christmas dinner rather than summer BBQ. On the subject of sheep I can gladly report that Daisy Death-Wish is still with us, if only in a tripod fashion. Yes, the seeming indefatigable creature is now wobbling about the field and being fed on biscuits while the others live on very warm fresh air. Who would have thought it?

   At last we have some piece here at the French house after 6 weeks solid with guests. It was lovely to see everyone, particularly individually this year, but the sigh of relief we let out when the last ones left could have swept up the leaves! One thing I do miss though; when we have guests they act as a human shield for the mozzies, who love the sight and smell of pale English flesh. Since folks left the buggeratic little beasts only have us to chew on now and, even if we don’t taste very nice, everyone has to eat. Of course we have now run out of repellent, all used up by the twenty or so folks sleeping in our spare rooms, so are sitting ducks to their preying fangs. Meanwhile I have now got my own teeth back into some proper work, with an inexhaustible ToDo list that both tires me at the thought and keeps me awake at night. I think it was Gerry Adams who said 'I love deadlines, I quite like the whooshing sound as they going flying past!' Na, can't have been Gerry Adams, can it? That would read 'I love the sound of bullets flying past?' Somebody Adams anyway.

   As this column is entitled 'rantings' I do feel the need to vent some venomous words to the company, Microsoft. Having used their email software for a few decades I now get a message saying 'we no longer support your application..' I didn’t ask them for support, it works fine, thank you. Or it did do, until they have cut off my connection in an effort to force me to buy new stuff. I don’t want your new stuff, I shouldn’t need your new stuff. If I drive around in an old Mercedes with 4 million miles on the clock, that is my choice. The Germans won't come round and slash my tyres and force me to buy an electric go-kart? So how dare Bill Gates tell me how to run my life in cyberworld? Well Mr Gates, I no longer support your football team, so there. Bring back pigeon post, I say!

   A few weekends ago, Sam and I took the camper down to the coast for a boys weekend, which was great fun, if not a little hot. Thankfully not as hot as it had been a few weeks earlier when much of the Lande forest went up in smoke. The devastation around Cazaux, our favoured spot, was heart-wrenching with thousands of acres of tress charred to death. I had wondered why we got no answer when trying to book my favourite beach restaurant, only to arrive and find it raised to the ground, its scorched innards exposed to all and sundry. Oh well, life goes on and at least there will be a plentiful supply of charcoal for Barbie this autumn. If only we dared light it!

   On a more joyous trip we joined some friends and took half a dozen canoes down the river Dordogne last week, accompanied by 6 dogs including wee Haggis, who was none too keen staying onboard to start with. While I sat in the front nursing her and my poorly shoulder Mrs F sat in the back seat and rowed. Only she, by her own admission, hadn’t a faintest clue what she was doing and hence we went sideways or backwards down most of the rapids in a screaming frenzy. Eventually we swapped places and all was well in the water, particularly as we stopped at 4 different bars en-route for rehydration and pain killers! At present I think Haggis is coming into heat so we spent much of the time trying fend off a randy Fox Terrier from Liverpool called Jinxy, who was hell bent on jumping into our boat for some extracurricular sport. At least the oars came in handy! At 5 hours for a 12kms downstream trip, I'm sure the boat owners thought we had all perished, especially after they had seen us set off sideways. Fortunately, the water was only a few feet deep for most of the way, such is the drought in these parts, so we eventually arrived with nothing worse than a few scratched bottoms!       

   Finally I should mention the loss of our dear Queen Elisabeth. What a magnificent servant she has been to the country and I have seen her on numerous occasions when she visited and supported the agricultural shows over the years. It is a huge loss to our nation and I for one doff my cap to you, Ma'am. Having met Prince Charles a couple of times, I was never convinced he was up to the job of monarch but who am I to judge. I am sure he will make a good fist of it.

Long live the King!

Tuesday, 30 August 2022

Sunshine Hotel

 Well, that was an exceptional spell. With nearly 12 weeks without rain, the whole place was a tinderbox where we were feared to even light the bbq. Thankfully myself and my numerous house guests Googled how to do a rain-dance, which involved much hilarity and alcohol, but guess what, it seems to have worked, as the skies opened for the first time yesterday! Having put our own personal spin on it, the ‘toe-heel-stomp boogie’ will shortly be for sale, should anyone wish to purchase such a technically successful product! As some will have seen, fires have been raging across France with our valley filled with smoke, despite the fact the flames are 50 miles away. Hopefully these recent showers will quell their anger for a while anyway but a lot of the Lande forest has been destroyed.

Our long and arduous road trip finally came to an end, when got back home safely some weeks ago now, to find the grass 3 feet high and the whole place overgrown. Unfortunately we just missed winning the Triple Crown with our Ryeland sheep, narrowly missing out at the Royal Welsh Show, ending with just Reserve Female Champion which, on any other year, I would have been quite pleased with. On reflection, we didn’t do too badly, coming home with 2 cups and 17 rosettes in total. By time this goes to print, our prized ram should have been sold at Worcester, hopefully for a reasonable price to a good home. Fingers crossed. We also managed to purchase a new ram as well as another female, taking our flock numbers up to a manageable four ewes.

I mentioned our house-guests, whom we have today dispatched back to Bewdley/Kidderminster, probably for a quiet rest. Meanwhile the next ones arrive tomorrow and so it continues as we restock the fridges once more. It has been a hard two weeks trying to stay hydrated in 40 degree heat but potentially my two sons and partners may have a cooler time here. I know one thing, by time we empty the house in mid September, I think we will be due a holiday ourselves. On that note, I had arranged to take a bunch of farmers on tour to Montana in mid Sept but a few technical difficulties have forced us to cancel that one. I’m not too sad, to be honest, as it may give me time to catch up with some work/sleep.

A character often mentioned in this column is our sheep Daisy Death-wish, now in her 11th year. Sadly a few days ago she jumped the fence to get at the neighbours crops and got her leg caught in the wire, where she then spent the night. We are doing our best to save her and bring her back to health but unfortunately with age against her the prospect doesn’t look great. Again, fingers crossed.

Meanwhile, Haggis, the new terrier puppy in the house is settling in, being spoiled by all the guests and perhaps not getting the discipline she requires. I have to say, so far, she is far more placid than one would expect of a Border Terrier although she has taken command of most of the cats. She does have a stubborn streak in her though, choosing to ignore most of my instructions, but then, just about everyone in this house does that already. She is a bit of a foodie too, although attempting to steal Pooper’s food comes with it perils. The cats are none too keen sharing theirs either and the poor wee sole has had her ears boxed more than once.

In other news my weekly podcast Toplines and Tales is still going strong heading for our 100th episode. We were entered in the British Farming Awards but didn’t quite make it on to the shortlist this year. With at least four books in the ‘work in progress’ drawer, life doesn’t seem to have slowed down after 60 like they told me it would!  Anyway, onwards and upwards.