Tuesday 28 December 2010

Hair today, gone tomorrow

For those of you who have not seen me lately, I seem to have avoided the barbers shop for some time. Born with natural curls, my ‘barnet’ currently resembles that of a woolly mammoth. I have recently been likened to Robert Plant but without the voice, or Peter Stringfellow but without the birds, or even Shirley Temple only slightly more facetious. Although I quite like my curls, they do cause me occasional ridicule.
So while in the local pub yesterday my dear other half mentioned to a few locals, whilst I was out of ear shot, that perhaps it was time for me to have a roof-chop.  Within seconds she had drummed up support for this cause to the tune of 500 quid in donations to charity. To be precise, the Air Ambulance charity. They do such a great job in rural English areas and operate completely on charity funds with no government aid whatsoever. I was soon in a position of which there was no escape.
And so it is, as over the next few days the donations are still rolling in to sponsor the event for which a target has been set to raise a grand. The date and venue is now planned for New Years Eve in the Rock Cross Inn, Rock at 8pm. A suitable volunteer has been designated and a complete head shave is now on the cards. Hopefully, a woolly hat can also be donated!
Be there early if you want a ringside seat. Bring cash.

Sunday 19 December 2010

Snow bites

Why is it that the media insist on using sensationalist clichés every time we get a smattering of snow?
The country is gripped in a big freeze, temperatures will struggle to get above freezing! It’s called frost, it happens every year because it is winter, just get on with it.
Travel plans in disarray, hundreds of travellers stranded. Yes, its winter. Runways need to be cleared of snow. Or would they rather all die in a plane crash.
Main arteries of the country ground to a standstill? Because morons run the councils perhaps, and because only morons go out driving in the snow? Shut the roads, clear the snow, open them again? Let the lorries through first. Then the 4x4’s. Too much snow, send the drivers back home. Can’t get to work? Take a day off. Or even better, use the telephone. Simples.

Friday 17 December 2010

First Class Christmas

    Yep, we have done it again. Postponed writing out Christmas cards until the very last minute, which means they will now have to be sent first class.
    This I year I got round to wondering why we bother. I don’t mean to sound a Scrooge (although that is probably what I am) but are Xmas cards really necessary? We are not even at home this year, so they will pile up in our mailbox until I get chance to pick them up some time in January. And we won’t receive any here as nobody knows where we are living at the moment.
    We bought some really nice ones this year and I am tempted to just write a few to ourselves. ‘To us from us, hope you like the card, we chose it specially. Sorry didn’t send a present, but we didn’t know what you wanted this year.’
    See, if we all did that we would get a few nice cards and look at the money we would save on buying first class stamps at three hundred pounds each. In fact the more organised ones amongst us, you know, the ones who dig the snow from their driveway with tea spoon so they can chug off to work for the government and clutter up the roads. Well they could give themselves theirs early to save money.
We also wouldn’t have to queue up at the village Post Office catching germs from all the sniffling people for 3 hours. 3 bloody hours to the only desk that is open because the Post Mistress has caught flu from the bloody organised people in the queue last week. She is probably sitting at home by the glowing fire writing bloody Christmas cards and watching Jeremy bloody sodding Kyle.
The good old smiling postie wouldn’t have to brave the bracing weather and be dug out of snowdrifts by men in fluorescent jackets, delivering illegible hand written envelopes with only half a post code because the sender couldn’t be arsed to look it up on line. As always, it makes perfect sense to me.
OK, Merry Christmas everyone!

PS anyone wishing to know our address please email me!

Monday 13 December 2010

Cow Factor

It is an ill wind that blows nobody any good. The snowy weather in Scotland has contained me indoors in this old seaside cottage for a good while now. I started by passing the time doing a jigsaw I found in the cupboard. It took me a couple of days to finish it. I am quite pleased with that as it said 3-5 years on the box!
The remainder of the time has been allocated to the completion of my second novel which has just been sent off for proofing. The book is called In the Company of Animals and picks up with Princess the young cow, the extraordinary character who was central to my first novel, The Right Colour.
The books are now building into a series about Princess and her pals, telling colourful tales of some of their exploits, aimed at a younger audience. In this second book, Princess breaks out of jail along with her two friends, Goliath, a very shy bull, and Jackson, a psychopathic sheep. Their adventures lead them over some tricky terrain when they eventually take shelter with some gypsies and are offered for sale at a large Horse Fair.
I am now well into the third book in this series, entitled Cow Factor, when the Princess and her gang get chance to feature on a TV show. There are at least two more books to come after that in this series which we hope to release for sale in Autumn 2011.
The series may not end there either. As long as I can keep making myself laugh out loud whilst I write them, I hope the end will not be in sight for some time yet.

Tuesday 7 December 2010

Grand Ideas?

What is it with that programme Grand Designs? I used to enjoy people's quirky ideas of a building a fabulous new house with loads of natural light and stunning views. I was even inspired by it when I designed our own barn conversion, a 10 metre high wooden structure with a glass front and balcony.
So just when did Kevin McLeod turn into an eco-tit and the program spiral out of control towards the green party? When was it that suddenly the only way to get on the show was to be a complete and utter fruitcake?
 On one recent programme, an imbecile decided to build a house he had seen on the back of a yoghurt pot! To make things worse he had absolutely no building experience whatsoever. A water mill, on stilts on the side of a 30 degree slope in the hills with no natural water within 5 miles. What a feckin eejut!?
 The show before that a man built one out of straw bales. Great. I used to do that too. When I was 8 years old. I hope he has plenty of eco-friendly rat poison!
People drive 100 miles in a lorry to get three pieces of recycled cardboard to build an internal wall because it is more ‘eco-friendly’ than plaster board. Never mind the fact that the lorry has just gassed half of the country and used 40 gallons of fuel to fetch it.
And let’s put some turf on the roof. What’s that about? Who is going up there to mow the lawn?
I know, here’s a good idea, lets build a house under ground. What!? Have you seen a mole close too? It can’t see because it has had to squint in the dark all its life.
Please get this rubbish off our screens before this man is certified and committed!

Monday 6 December 2010

où est le pain ?

Living in France for 5 years now, bread is one thing that is taken for granted. We pop to the Boulanger every morning and pick up a crusty French loaf that has been baked on the premises that day and still warm. We generally don’t eat the whole loaf fresh and the remainder of it is either blended up for bread-crumbs or fed to the animals. We have a couple of bird tables, 3 sheep and a pond full of hungry fish so it always gets used. Everybody in France does the same.
In contrast, the UK has one of the lowest bread consumptions in Europe. By comparison the bread here is awful at the very best of times, all pre-packed, already a few days old and tasteless. It goes stale after about 10 minutes if not kept in a plastic bag and turns to mush if frozen and defrosted. Yes, it makes good toast and is it ‘easy’ to construct a sandwich from it, in the same way that it is ‘easy’ to make gravy from granules or bolognaise from a jar. British people rarely eat bread with their meals and in my experience most keep commit the unforgivable sin of keeping it in the fridge so a whole loaf can last a week. By this definition, the British nation does not love bread.
So why, oh why, oh why is it that as soon as a little bit of snow comes around, every British person rushes to the shop and buys 5 loaves and a dozen bread rolls? It amazes me.
Do they suddenly get the urge to eat toast? Or make a bread and butter pudding and a dozen rounds of sandwiches? Are they perplexed at the thought of not being able to make a sandwich for at least a day until the next delivery gets through the snow, despite having a cupboard full of pot-noodles as backup.
What is wrong with people? It’s not just bread either, they rush out and buy milk by the tanker load and enough fresh vegetables to accompany 20 Sunday roasts. Didn’t they go shopping last week? Why cant people organise themselves to shop for groceries once a week? At the very worst, in the most rural of areas, villages may be cut off for up to 3 days. In towns, more realistically it could be one day at the absolute most. Thirty years ago, before we all had freezers then shopping only once a week may have been a little harder. But nowadays, surely we can survive for a day.
As the snow falls in this remote village for the second time in a week, I was the fool who didn’t buy 10 loaves last week and now I have to visit an empty shop in despair. The lady apologises and says that they still haven’t managed to catch up with supplies after last week’s panic buying. Maybe I can buy some on ebay? Otherwise, I will just have to eat cake!

Wednesday 1 December 2010

Heading North for winter.

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