Thursday 15 February 2024

Tartan troos

 Spring is surely in the air, this time of year, even if it is not yet in my step. This year will be the first spring I have not been lambing for many years. Well, that isn’t strictly true as our seven Ryeland ewes will hopefully be going through it but, as yet, we don’t get involved with those as they live at a friend’s farm and hence get lumped in with another 500 or so ewes, all doing the same thing. So, as we don’t have to rush back to France to manage the wooly ones there, we have decided to take a little extra time here in Fife, enjoying the seafront house while it is empty of holiday makers. To be honest, if we weren’t here, it would probably be booked out full by now, as a lot of folks like to come out of season to maybe catch some golf or a shorter queue at the chip shop.

Anyway, I too am enjoying a bit more golf, trying out a few more of the local ‘links’ courses as well as the one in Crail that I am a member of. Generally, as a reciprocal deal with my club, I get good rates on most of them, including Lundin Links, Blairgowrie and even some overseas ones. I still mostly don’t win anything and I don’t think my golf has improved in 30 years, but I get out and enjoy the blustery wind and rain. My wife, however, is rapidly improving since I bought her a course of lessons for Christmas and she is challenging me more and more, which can’t be a bad thing. Even little Haggis has taken up the game, as we sometimes take her round, tied to the trolley. Problem is, we have always encouraged her to chase balls so now she heads off after every shot, taking the trolley with her which usually crashes to the ground spilling clubs all around and scaring her half to death.

Another thing which confuses her is the placement of the beach. I mentioned a few months ago that storm Babbet had rearranged the rocks on our beach to be elsewhere, leaving us with lovely golden sand outside our window. Well since then we have had a couple more storms with stupid names which have brought some more rocks back to the door. Honestly, it’s like a scene-change in a sci-fi movie, where nothing is as it should be. Poor Haggis heads to the sandy part for a wee, only to find she is 3 feet into water and seaweed. For a dog with a small brain, this must be hard to compute!

We also seem to get more invites to Scottish dinners these days. A few weeks ago we were at the splendid Balathie House Hotel near Perth for a Burns Supper and all the haggis that entails. Then this weekend we are at the Dunblane Hydro for a charity do in aid of the Royal Highland Education Trust which will no doubt involve us being encouraged to put our hand in our pockets. Only this one is black tie, which in Scottish is a code word for ‘wear a kilt’. Now that is something I have only done once before, some 20-plus years ago at a wedding in Jamaica, believe it or not. But being an Englishman, etiquette suggests that I shouldn’t wear the tartan skirt for fear of being an imposter, which leaves me in a dilemma. Eventually I have settled for dark suit, with a Stewart tartan bow-tie and waistcoat, and hope I don’t get the p*ss taken out of me too much! The following week, we are at the England vs Scotland rugby match in Murrayfield and I know damn well what I will be wearing to that!   

The remainder of my winter time is taken up with writing books and recording my weekly Toplines and Tales podcast. Just recently I have started a quiz too, specializing in cattle and sheep. It may even be the first of its kind although I am not yet sure how successful it will prove to be. I don’t suppose it will be of interest to anyone reading this unless, of course, you happen to know which animal won the Burke trophy at the Royal Show in 1980!

Being a writer, I am aware that I should read more books. Well thankfully I have found a supplier of antiques who keeps furnishing me with some ancient printed works. To start with it was in the name of research for the history book we are still writing but I am finding myself drawn into some of these old narratives, particularly when they involve old cattle drives and sheep husbandry. Is this a sign of getting old? Asking for a friend.

Monday 22 January 2024

Bring on the pampas


 Did you miss me? I knew one day life would go by so fast that I missed a deadline, so my apologies my post was absent last month.

You see, we have been on our holidays. Now some might say our life is a complete holiday but I would dispute that as holidays should be restful and my life is not. Nor was our trip to Argentina, as it happens. It was magnificent, entertaining, enthralling, sometimes breathtaking – but never restful! That’s what happens when you tour with 20 other folks in a group, a few of whom require constant entertainment, and are guided by local folks who love their country so much they want to tell you about every square inch of it, in intimate detail. No, I am not complaining, it is what we signed up for, and our group was made up of some wonderful folks, many of them cattle breeders from Scotland and even one eccentric pair who were wine growers from Kent. It made for an eclectic team where there was rarely a dull moment and very few that didn’t include a laugh, drink in hand. From the get go, after a tour of the beautiful and vibrant city of Buenos Aires, we were soon out on farms looking at cows. The first one didn’t disappoint, apart from being eaten by mozzies, which had 3000 pure bred Angus cattle, all herded through the pampas by gauchos on horseback like something out of the wild west. We thought this was just a show put on for us, until we arrived at the Estanza to be met by more locals, and a flaming asado. For asado, read a big F-off fire with dead cows and sheep crucified next to it, sizzling away for hours until tender. And we were hungry. In fact, I think that is the last time I actually felt hungry on the whole trip as this process was repeated day after day. Not only that but when we got back to the hotel, our local guide had suggested we ate the local delicacies nearby, which also consisted of more beef, preceded with empanadas (think Cornish pasty, only with more meat). Also think Gaviscon. Never mind pampas, I think one or two of us required Pampers!

Now the other reason we went to Argentina was to taste wine, which also started pretty much as soon as we arrived, (before, for some of us) and the taste was good. This vast country has many things, but rural roads are not one of them as our bus journeyed us for hours down dirt tracks to find each venue, with yet more cows. We did drop into an agricultural contractor who had complicated machines the size of tower-blocks that munched up square miles of maize per day, for a glimpse of how the arable farms worked, but it was mainly beef cattle we were here to see. In fact that is the one thing I will take away from the country, just how vast it really is – eg, you could fit Europe into Argentina and still have change.

Then, for some the highlight, a flight to Mendoza in the west and literally a change of scenery from the huge vast pampas plains to the backdrop of the Andes mountains. Some of the peaks still had snow on top, despite this being summer although, as the climate had no winter, it was technically summer all year round. The issue with all-round sunshine is that it tends to leave no rain, and so this area was a desert, or at least it had been until 25 years ago. We were in the Uco valley where some smart guys with brains and vision had recently realized that when the snow melted on the mountains, they could possibly harness the water and use it to grow stuff. And the stuff they grew were grapes. Millions of them. I never quite found out the size of the whole valley but the vineyard we stayed on, called Salentein, grew 2,500 acres of them to start with, producing 20 million bottles of wine per year. Yes, twenty million. And they were one of many producers. Now in France, where I partially live, our local biggest vineyards might knock out 100-200,000 bottles in a good year. By the way, in France, you are not allowed to irrigate vines, it’s the law.  Most people would consider when you mass-produce anything on that scale, the quality would have to suffer, right? Not so, here. We tasted premium wines after premium wines, each magnificent. Anyone with a half interest in the vino will tell you Argentina is famous for its Malbec grape. Correct. That is the product they export world-wide and it is damn fine. But what they also have is a huge array of other grape varieties, and a massive amount of knowledge as to what to plant, where. And in this and their recent adaptation of new technologies, for example how to fend off hailstorms at 4000 feet above sea-level, and this new-world really does have a penchant for top quality. And this also showed in the showpiece wineries we stopped at, all opulently and outrageously designed but a woman who had clearly been on the acid pills. Admittedly, the best wine doesn’t leave the country, not without a hefty price tag anyway, but boy are their whites out of this world. And this, from an author who chooses to live in France and swears by his white burgundy.

We are back in Scotland now, drying out inside, although not outside, and readjusting to a 25 degree drop in temperature. This has left me with the flu, for the second time this winter – hence my not penning this column last month – and I am pretty fed up with it. The problem is quite simply, I believe, that for the last 3 winters we have been so jabbed up with vaccine, letting our immunity guard drop below the knee, until the cowardly little viruses have sneaked their way back in. Give me the needle, any time. Hasta la vista, mis amigos.

Tuesday 12 December 2023

Must get taller

 Its that time of year again, when the goose is getting fat. Oh no, that’s just me getting fat, according to my medical check-up this morning! “I’m not obese,” I proclaimed to the young nurse, “it’s just for my weight I should be 7 foot two tall!”

 I mentioned last month that we were heading to Scotland, where I now sit, looking out to the waves in the Firth of Forth. There is an added bonus that I can also see the beach today, as the weather clears for an hour or two. Moreover, we now actually have a beach, right outside our window, thanks to Storm Beret, or whatever the last one was called. For the last few years we have had a lot of heavy rocks between us and the water and the beach was 200 yards to the East. Well not any more. Somehow that vast force of nature has shifted said stones, possibly 5,000 tons of them and deposited them - yes, you guessed it – on the old beach. Instead, it has left us with a vast stretch of soft sand for Haggis and I to run on without twisting an ankle. They say its an ill wind that blows nobody any good, so better say thanks to the big man upstairs for this natural rearrangement.

One of our reasons for arriving here in mid-November is that I was judging a cattle show in Stirling last weekend, which went off without a hitch. I appointed a few very happy exhibitors with their championship shields, whilst avoiding the dagger-looks from those left without the prize. One of the winners was a rather fine specimen of a young Highland bull, complete with shaggy coat and jagged horns, which may have raised an eyebrow or two. It was great to see such a fabulous beast - that breed don’t often get their turn in the multi-breed spotlight. When furnished with such an honour of judging such prestige event – the National Calf show for Scotland – one is at least expected to dress the part. And so it was that I went through my entire collection of (3) best suits before we left home, only to find that they had shrunk in the wardrobe, as clothes tend to do? Thankfully my sons live in quite an affluent part of middle England, where folks tend to discard their old rags to the charity stores. To be fair, it wasn’t quite a charity shop, but a purveyor of ‘pre-loved’ garments where I spotted a rather smart Harris Tweed 3-piece, complete with crimson lining and moleskin collar. And, for once in my whole life, it had been made to fit someone of my proportions! It still cost me an arm and a leg, but at least said arm and leg fit me like a glove. According to the compere at the cattle event, I was the best dressed judge on the day, were it that there was an award for such. Not sure I have ever been that before. Somewhere online there is a TV playback of the whole event, should I wish to admire myself.

I have also been notified by one or two friends that I was seen on National TV this week, although not quite so well dressed, in my rain mac. I’m not sure how many of you have watched the excellent BBC series called ‘This Farming Life’ but in its last episode I can be seen and heard interviewing one of its protagonists at the Royal Highland Show in July. The royalty cheque hasn’t arrived yet, though.

Whilst in Stirling, I took the opportunity to check out our growing pedigree Ryeland sheep flock, which are based at Dunblane. This year we have a total of seven ewes running with the ram and they did look rather impressive, if not also a little overweight. We will have to wait until March to see what they produce this time around, but hopefully a few female lambs at last, so my cunning breeding plans can progress.

The other thing that the recent storm did was take down our internet connection here at Sharps Close, which is really rather crucial to my day-job as a writer with deadlines. Obviously ‘all our engineers are busy’ was the reply we got when reporting it to whatever quango supplies the service to us these days. We could, they added, apply for a fibre-optic line, should we so wish, installation in four-weeks time? So, that’s us pretty much out of action until Christmas unless I go out onto the ‘new’ beach and stand on one leg with my mobile phone in hand, trying to connect to a signal from 8 miles across the bay in East Lothian. I will admit doing this, trousers rolled up to my knees, has solicited a few giggles from behind the twitching net curtains of one or two of our more hostile neighbours. Ed, I will mail this article to you by pigeon post, and hopefully you get it in time before ‘speckled Jim’ gets shot down by the Rock Cross 12-bore brigade!  

     

Green-shield bugs

What’s that noise I hear outside? Oh, yes, the unfamiliar sound of rain, at last, slow warm steady rain. Indeed, once again we have seen a drought that lasted nearly into November, which seems to have been a recursive issue these last few years here in France.

We are now back home from our extensive rugby travels and my head is down into work to get my latest writing project done by the end of the year. It was a trip to savour and I am now officially Argentinian, adopting that nation as we are heading to visit there in January to see a few cows, and possibly some wine. This time of year we welcome the beasties into the house, normally in the form of rodents who come inside for the winter, seemingly to live alongside our two cats who have about as much hunting instinct as Chris Packam! However, this year they are not the only ones seeking refuge inside as we have been subjected to a plague of stinky insects called Green Shield Bugs, known as ‘punaise’ in French. These freakish little creatures, that look not unlike a beetle, make a hell of a noise when they fly, and seem to hide in every crevice, from curtains to wardrobes to the car boot. It appears there is nowhere they won’t infiltrate and woe-betide if you so much as touch one, let alone step on it, as they give off a foul spray of scent that would turn your stomach. Hopefully now the winter is approaching they will die off and give us some peace. Apparently, they are partial to crops and vegetation although there is very little of that around just now. I just thought: if you heavily step on one, is that called a ‘Green-shield stamp?’ Ha, you have to be a certain age to understand that one!

Next month we head north, with a stopover to see my new grandson - yes I am now grandfather to little Louis, such a cute baby boy; congratulations to my son Sam and his wife Izzy. I did pop over and see him a month ago, but flights seem to be so disorganized these days, it’s just easier to drive. For example, Wendy went to Scotland for a funeral yesterday and got stuck in Dublin as the plane was delayed by an hour, then on her way home, missed the flight as it left 15 minutes early. I guess she will get home sometime, somehow. In early November I am on duty judging the Scottish National Calf show in Stirling, appointed to select the overall champions from all breeds, which is quite an honour. After that it’s a few more months writing, with two books due out next year. Although we are not showing the sheep in 2024, I guess there will be some book-signing tours to follow and marketing to do which will keep me busy.

Of course, between now and then we have to endure another bonfire night and all the disruption that causes. Well, this year I note that a certain supermarket is selling no-noise fireworks. What a great idea, says I, my dog hates fireworks - until I do a little more investigation and find that there is no such thing. In order to set off a firecracker of any sort you need a little explosion and it is pretty difficult to do that without making a noise of some sort. So, what they are (illegally) advertising is low (not no)-noise fireworks. How do companies get away with hoodwinking the public with such myth? That’s like selling sunglasses with clear lenses or, heaven-forbid, silent rice-crispies!

Monday 23 October 2023

Lazy beasties

 What’s that noise I hear outside? Oh, yes, the unfamiliar sound of rain, at last, slow warm steady rain. Indeed, once again we have seen a drought that lasted nearly into November, which seems to have been a recursive issue these last few years here in France.

We are now back home from our extensive rugby travels and my head is down into work to get my latest writing project done by the end of the year. It was a trip to savour and I am now officially Argentinian, adopting that nation as we are heading to visit there in January to see a few cows, and possibly some wine. This time of year we welcome the beasties into the house, normally in the form of rodents who come inside for the winter, seemingly to live alongside our two cats who have about as much hunting instinct as Chris Packam! However, this year they are not the only ones seeking refuge inside as we have been subjected to a plague of stinky insects called Green Shield Bugs, known as ‘punaise’ in French. These freakish little creatures, that look not unlike a beetle, make a hell of a noise when they fly, and seem to hide in every crevice, from curtains to wardrobes to the car boot. It appears there is nowhere they won’t infiltrate and woe-betide if you so much as touch one, let alone step on it, as they give off a foul spray of scent that would turn your stomach. Hopefully now the winter is approaching they will die off and give us some peace. Apparently, they are partial to crops and vegetation although there is very little of that around just now. I just thought: if you heavily step on one, is that called a ‘Green-shield stamp?’ Ha, you have to be a certain age to understand that one!

Next month we head north, with a stopover to see my new grandson - yes I am now grandfather to little Louis, such a cute baby boy; congratulations to my son Sam and his wife Izzy. I did pop over and see him a month ago, but flights seem to be so disorganized these days, it’s just easier to drive. For example, Wendy went to Scotland for a funeral yesterday and got stuck in Dublin as the plane was delayed by an hour, then on her way home, missed the flight as it left 15 minutes early. I guess she will get home sometime, somehow. In early November I am on duty judging the Scottish National Calf show in Stirling, appointed to select the overall champions from all breeds, which is quite an honour. After that it’s a few more months writing, with two books due out next year. Although we are not showing the sheep in 2024, I guess there will be some book-signing tours to follow and marketing to do which will keep me busy.

Of course, between now and then we have to endure another bonfire night and all the disruption that causes. Well, this year I note that a certain supermarket is selling no-noise fireworks. What a great idea, says I, my dog hates fireworks - until I do a little more investigation and find that there is no such thing. In order to set off a firecracker of any sort you need a little explosion and it is pretty difficult to do that without making a noise of some sort. So, what they are (illegally) advertising is low (not no)-noise fireworks. How do companies get away with hoodwinking the public with such myth? That’s like selling sunglasses with clear lenses or, heaven-forbid, silent rice-crispies!    

 

 

  

 

 

Nice to be Nice

 They say life is a journey, not a destination, and wow what a journey we are on right now. And.. I have just fallen in love.  Just 2 weeks in to our Rugby World Cup tour and we already have enough memories to fill a large scrap book. After a false start we headed down to the Mediterranean coast, taking a stopover at Cap de Adge which we have since found out is Europe’s largest naturist area.  Although I am happy enough to get my kit off in the confines of our own swimming pool, I don’t really find wandering around in public in a dangling fashion as an attraction so we avoided that place and found a nice spot further up the beach to get the barbie on. Next day we headed for Marseille, the crime capital of France, only to drive around for a few hours trying to anchor up but to no avail as the security guards branded us as football fans and therefore unsavoury. Anyone in the know will confirm that the behavioural difference between the fans of those two sports is a gulf so wide you could drive a super-tanker through, but it appears that previous English round ball fans had already muddied the waters before us. Eventually we settled for a small seaside town half an hour away, surrounded by like-minded rugby fans, all sporting our respective nation’s flags, and took in a local lunch by the harbour. Journeys into the city were quite effortless by train with the fancy-dress outfits and camaraderie adding to the excitement of England’s first game. Down in Marseilles old town, we found a Scottish bar and promptly bumped into a few of my mates from the Northern livestock scene, many of whom were avid listeners to my Toplines and Tales podcast, before we made our way to the ground to witness a pretty mediocre match, narrowly sneaking a win in boring old style. The fun of seeing thousands of folks in Argentina shirts, and kilts, most of whom had never been south of Edinburgh, let alone the equator, is what makes our sport so special. A rather eccentric taxi driver fixed us up with a ride back to base at 1.30am for hefty sum as all trains had long stopped or were on strike. Similar situation the next day, this time to see Scotland sadly outclassed by South Africa who are making a habit of playing their best games every four years, as many will remember from the drubbings England have taken from them in previous events. For some reason we were adopted by a jackdaw at our camper-park, whom we named Gregory as he continually pecked at my ear. One night, after slurping half a tin of Stella and most of a glass of wine, he was too drunk to fly and spent the night on one of our foldy-chairs, quietly snoring. We offered him breakfast but the hangover was too great and he toddled off to annoy some Aussies.


From there we took a detour into St Tropez by boat to see how the other half lived and enjoyed a beer at 13 quid a pint, declining to even look at the menus, let alone order anything more than bag of crisps. Thankfully our camper is tooled up when it comes to cooking so our friends joined us for a feast of duck supper and chips, with bottles of wine we had brought from Bordeaux which cost less than a sip of the local restaurant prices. A stay up in the hills above Nice proved fruitful when we met a nice chap who gave me a phone number for the head of parking at Nice harbour. With a quick bit of negotiation in my best French I somehow secured us 2 spaces right in amongst some of the world’s most expensive super-yachts, for four nights! Not only were we parked next to the water’s edge but also 200 yards from the tram-stop that took us all over town with ease. I mentioned I have fallen in love, and that is with the town of Nice itself, such a wonderful place it is. Clean, safe, friendly, beautiful, all the things that Marseille wasn’t. A chorus for my next song: “Nice, so good they named it nice!” As well as revelling in the colourful bars and culture, our pitch in town resulted in us making many friends, mainly with folks passing by and us inviting them in for a beef and a chat; sound folk of all nationalities. As both Wales and England were playing that weekend, there was much friendly ribbing as each nation supported each other’s opposing team. I am now officially both Fijian and Portuguese as a result!

Today we have run for the hills, settling into to a quiet spot near a lake where the smothering heat of the last few weeks has been replaced by some rather welcome rain. Tomorrow we reach or the sky, as we put the camper through its paces heading for an Alpine ski resort at over 2000 metres up, just south of Grenoble. Unfortunately watching four international rugby matches in eight days, and  the travel that involves, has taken its toll on my knee which is letting me down more frequently these days, so we won’t be trekking the hard yards up there.  By the weekend we will be back in my new favourite town again, for more of the same, before heading up to Paris following our thirst for the oval ball.  Shortly both mine and Wendy’s nations will be despatched from the competition, nothing surer, and it will be time to don my beret once more and back the team of our adopted country. Allez le Bleu.

Harvey, Hoggy and Haggis

 Hot, Hot. Hot, that’s all I am saying about the weather at present.

Yes we are back in France and thankful for a handy swimming pool, as well as a bit of space after 7 weeks cooped up in the camper. The sheep show tour continued on into Wales with yet more rosettes and shenanigans, all in all a very enjoyable but tiring time. The house was in reasonable shape when we returned to Chauffour, as are the cats, all well looked after by our house sitters. Unfortunately the thistles were 5 feet high as they slowly take over our fields but after a prolonged wet spring at least we do have 15 large bales of rather spiky hay to sell, and now we can once again see the sheep through the grass. However, they too have a dilemma as we no longer have a vet, should we require one, since ours has stopped treating large animals for reasons better known to himself. We then had a visit from a rather official looking man saying it is obligatory that we are registered with a vet, by law, or else suffer a hefty fine. Since then the hunt has been on but none of the ones within a 40 mile radius want the job, so we are in a sort of catch-22. The fact that we can prove that we haven’t used the service of our vet for the sheep in the 15 years we have been here, save for buying a bit of worming drench, cuts no ice with Monsieur Government man and his bureaucratic team. What a load of nonsense.

This week we have family staying which has involved yet more late nights, as well as long stints with the stove and the corkscrew. My niece’s fiancĂ© is quite handy on the guitar so one evening we decided we should write a song about our pets, as you do after a few sherbets. Me, being the designated wordsmith, rapidly penned a few lyrics while Kris worked on the chords and next thing you know, something quite catchy appeared about Haggis, Harvey and Hoggy, (it all begins with H). We even previewed it to a selected audience at the dinner table a few nights later to rather rapturous applause! Needless to say, we are now working on an album in my new found venture, as if I don’t have enough to do already. So who knows, watch this space...but perhaps not to closely! Meanwhile the large cattle history project that I have been working on is starting to reach a conclusion, still aiming to get his 400 page tome out in time for Christmas, so plenty of overtime to get in the next few months.

And there in hangs yet another problem, that of the Rugby World cup, just around the corner, both metaphorically and geographically. Early September will see us once again load up the camper as we head for the French Riviera to follow the oval ball. I will admit I hold out as much hope of England winning the competition as I do of ‘Haggis, Harvey and Hoggy’ making it into the charts, based on their recent atrocious performances. Thankfully I have dual allegiance, now being the owner of a Scotland AND France shirt and flag, qualifying through marriage and residency respectively! I might even go so far as to dig up a long lost Irish ancestor too, well not literally, obviously. My mother’s maiden name was McCormack so there must be a link there somewhere, to be sure. I think it’s what you would call a spread-bet supporting this time round.  Allez les Bleu, Blanc, Bleu and Vert; has a kind of ring to it, maybe we can include it on our new album. By the way, after an interesting incident the other evening, our band is now named Don't Lick The Toad! 

See you all in Paris for an aperitif.