Monday 31 January 2011

Farmhouse outpost

'The internet and mobile communications have revolutionised our personal and business lives?' Discuss:
It has now been just over a week since my sister had a severe brain haemorrhage that was extremely close to taking her life. That week has been nothing short of sheer hell. I was warned it may be a roller-coaster ride and that we all should hang on tight as her condition buffets us forwards, backwards and sideways. It has certainly done that in spades. 2 operations, prolonged coma, high risks of strokes, and absolute uncertainly have all added their degree of stress. The counterbalance to that has been formidable doctors, surgeons, nurses and facilities. I have to admit total admiration for the new Queen Elisabeth hospital in Birmingham, not just for its amazing modern architecture but for all its staff. We are not out of the woods yet and have been warned it may be months before we see any real progress from her current state. I and just about everyone else will gladly take that as a good result.
However, for the last week I have assumed the role of go-between. The project manager if you will, liaising with doctors, nurses, children, parents, friends, pets and family in a bid to keep everyone informed of progress and on the visiting rota. Not a problem, I am quite comfortable in that role, it keeps me busy and challenges me.
The real problem I do have is that I have been staying with my parents, both in their eighties, at the old farmhouse. This house not only does not have internet access, it also has very limited mobile phone coverage. To add to the problem, most of the rooms, including the one we are sleeping in, still have round-pin plugs! There are probably only a few people who even remember these things which were phased on in the seventies to be replaced with the square ones the rest of us have now. They stopped selling adaptors from square to round about 30 years ago. This is itself is very inconvenient, especially as I am trying my best to communicate to in excess of 100 people requiring updates on Sarah’s condition. As I am first point of call in an emergency, it has also been difficult to ensure that I am contactable 24/7. Mobile phones require charging. But I have managed and, with Wendy’s support, we are still managing, albeit somewhat displaced from our own comfort zones.
 We eat out every night as the cooker only has one gas ring, which is lit from a match. Also the gas oven frequently goes out which is slightly alarming. The house does have a TV, which is unable to show anything except films pre 1950, mostly starring John Wayne. Likewise, the radio only plays classical music in between adverts for mobility scooters and Zimmer frames, very loudly. The phone line is crackly, possibly still run on copper wire.
99% of the houses in rural France are more up to date than den of antiquity. All this would be extremely quaint were it not for my immediate need for enough technology to fulfil my liaising role, but I am not complaining, just coping.
What I do find incredible is that the family farm is still run from this outpost. Without internet in this day and age? Is it any wonder that Tesco buys all their food from overseas?
Broadband has now been ordered, but that will take a month to install. A month? Good old BT? So only one thing for it, I am about to order 500 carrier pigeons and keep them in the granary. Anyone know of a good website I can buy them from?

Tuesday 25 January 2011

What does God really do?

I was baptised when I was an infant, nothing to do with religion, more to do with society. At school I went to confirmation classes, totally oblivious about what was being confirmed, by whom, to whom. All I knew was, at 13, we got free wine and skived off from prep.
I then spent 20 years married to an RE teacher, brought my children up as Christians and went to church at least monthly. During most of this time I had an element of confusion. God who? What about Darwin, Muslims, Cot Death? I never really gave it too much thought. To me, Man and Boy, God was God. He spurred jokes, caused wars and generally demanded money.
When we lost a son, still-born, a priest came and comforted us. He didn’t really take away any pain. He couldn’t, that was God’s job. God didn’t really help either.
The very same God let my fabulous brother-in-law die, he and the NHS. Aged 51. I asked him why, I reckoned I was entitled to do that? A 22 year old priest tried to help, but couldn’t.
So today, when my only sister, my strong healthy steadfast rock of a beautiful sister gets struck down, for no apparent reason, should I call God again?
As I sit on this bleak night, for hours watching her heart beat in green peaks on a screen, should I pray? Should I ask for something from this God who has given me some free wine and yet let me down so badly before? I will ask him, I have to. For the only person in the world I would exchange my life for, would die for, is my sis. If you can do it, I say, then do it now. I don’t really have a subscription, no real faith, just hope.
I know about hope and I believe in the power of belief too. “I think, therefore I am”, that is philosophy. “My god is better than your god, and if you say different I will kill you for it”, that is religion.
If she, my big lovely sister, comes though this should I thank God? Become a believer, get down on my knees? I do believe she will get through it. Medical magic and her formidable strength will underpin that. Is that down to God too?
If she dosent, which she will, but if she doesn’t, can I tell God, the Almighty, that he fucked up yet again. The priest, now 23, will tell me that God gave her a good life. Bollocks, she is fifty fucking one, that’s all. And she he already took her husband and soul-mate. He may say that God moves in mysterious ways. You can say that again, he sure got me baffled and I aint stupid. I can understand rules of most things, even back-gammon. So, this God fucker, isn’t it time he showed up now? Showed his hand? Come on Man, Ace are trumps and you hold all the cards.
I gave up on Santa and the tooth fairy a long time ago, and you I never knew. But help me now and I will find out what you really do all day. Because you or nobody else has the right to take my sister from me. Bring her back. Intact. OK? And then I will restore some faith and, when I have to, I will pay.

Wednesday 19 January 2011

A brief glimpse of home

I have made a quick trip back to France this week, for a few reasons. A combo of Ryan and EJ got me here, screaming as ever. It seems they have moved the usual flight gate in Stanstead from 40 to 39. They are at least a mile apart. In different counties. I just make my flight and get seated next to the mad woman who endows me with her life story whilst I frantically try to read the Metro for comfort. I make it to our home, flick on the electric heater and kettle. Then fumble for the trip switch, which throws a tantrum, on my way to a welcome but cold bed.
Next morning, a meeting with a man who needs to provide us with a survey of our soil so I can install a new Fosse Septique (septic tank). He needs to provide some extra thickness to the already massive pile of paperwork that has evolved since our original application 2 years ago.  Well soil is a loose term for the ground our house sits on. In fact it is not just built on it but OF it, as is possibly some of our crockery. This is the same stuff on that potters wheel scene in Ghost. Only stickier.
A smiley young man arrives in a statutory white van, spends 2 hours digging holes. I suggest that he may want to dig the vegetable patch and plant my earlies while he is at it. But low and behold, he has a sense of humour and a good understanding of English. I speak to him only in French. I have come all this way to see him, the least he can do is honour me by using the native language! As it happens, he turns out to be the Messiah; our ‘terre’ has a reasonable level of permeability and it will be possible for me to use a lateral draining system without the need to build a pit full of a thousand tons of sand. All this discussed in French. Impressed? Well I was as it has probably just saved us a couple of grand.
The second reason for the visit was to check over the place. It was cold, damp and full of wildlife. And that’s just inside the house. I lit the fire and kept it in for two days. As luck would have it, the ceilings have caved in due to excessive damp. Waste not want not, the pile of wood and mouse droppings lying on and around the bed in the back bedroom helped with the heating. A good policy. If your house falls down in winter, put it on the fire.
Reason three was to check out our new arrivals in the shape of four lambs. All seem OK, but I’m not sure that one of the ewes will manage to milk enough to rear her two offspring. I let them out into the garden and my golf course! Plenty of grass there. An electric fence will contain them in that section. I erect it in beautiful sunshine that fries the early frost from the ground. Winter is short here and the already lengthening days remind me of a Scottish May day.
I also popped into to see my neighbouring farmer to ask him for another bale of hay for the hungry beasts. He made me a coffee, using instant coco and tap water! Then that was washed down with something from a bottle on which the only thing I could decipher was 45% proof. From Spain. It tasted like cough medicine. Except it worked on the legs not the chest. Mine felt as light as air when I left!
Now a seat by the fire is my evening position. The house is as draught-free as an international draughts convention, but there is something satisfying about burning parts of your house to warm your knees. The insurance company may not agree. The wood spits and crackles like a winter Bastille day display. The fire proof rug no longer has any pile left to burn. The same can be said for my slippers.
But a trip down to the cave provides me with a rather nice Bordenave Madiran, 2005. It is gorgeous and a refreshing change after 6 weeks of enduring Aussie end-of-bin or Chilean mountain-goats-piss in UK. Some Toulouse sausages in the pan, cooked in Dijonaise sauce add to the bliss. That and no TV.
Yes I am enjoying the two month time in our Scottish centrally heated cottage by the sea, but there is still only one Chez Nous and its is 2000 miles south of there.
I leave tomorrow. Just as well, I am running out of firewood. The Ikea chairs would be next and I am not sure they are insured.

Monday 10 January 2011

Selective breeding

Having bred pedigree stock for much of my life, I am an advocate of selective breeding for improvement. Breeding the right males with the right females has been backbone of ecology for a millennia. It has even helped to carve out a Royal Family based on Germans!  So when we collected our two dogs from the rescue home a few years ago, I was quite particular in checking their parentage.  
Our two mongrel dogs are made up from working breeds. One is Fox Terrier cross border collie, the other a Pointer cross Spaniel. They should be the perfect working dog combination really. A pointer to point to the prey, terrier to dig it out, collie to round it up and a spaniel to retrieve it. 
However, somewhere there seems to be a configuration problem. Instead we get a pointer who can just about point at biscuits in a cupboard, a spaniel head with a dried pea in it, a terrier with attitude towards all other dogs with the body of a small collie and the mind of a criminal genius!
C’est la vie

Thursday 6 January 2011

Turkey shoot

            Who was it that said ‘retrospect’ is a thing of the past? Well it was me actually. By the time this goes to print all my memories of Christmas and New Year will be long forgotten. In fact we may even be back in France once more and enjoying an early summer, with lambs frolicking in the meadows. But as we spent the majority of our festive season in Rock this year, I would beg some forgiveness from you if some of it gets a short review in this column this month.
            I am sure others will have already mentioned the exceptionally bad weather that the UK experienced in December, with our little cottage in East Scotland catching the brunt of the snow. The vision of the sand dunes a foot deep in snow and even snow on the beach with the waves lapping against it were somewhat bizarre to say the very least. But life goes on, snow melts, hangovers fade, VAT rates increase and the grass grows again as we enter a new year. Not that it’s over yet, that is very doubtful. Grandfather always said “never come March, never come winter” which I think loosely translates into “Local councils, don’t use up all your road salt until at least April if you want to get voted in again next year!”
            While in the pub over Christmas, which seemed to be all too frequent, Wendy, my better half conspired with the locals that I warranted a haircut. I have to agree that I did, not having had one for well over a year. I had considered that March may be a good time, when the weather picked up and the French sun was shining. But I was overruled. Pockets, wallets, piggy banks and even whole bank accounts were proffered in the direction of charity, were I to have my head shaved, on New Years Eve, in a public Inn. And so it was, December 31st in the Rock Cross, that my ears were once more exposed to the cold. I would like to thank all those who donated money to Midlands Air Ambulance for this cause, particularly those instigators, Tony and Hayden who donated in excess of £100 each. Also a big thanks to Dave and Emma, the pubs new proprietors, for being such a sport. The final total raised was £825 for the charity and a woolly hat for me! I now have a chest infection verging on pneumonia which was possibly brought on as a direct result of this rush of cold air. I am currently bed-ridden as I write. Wouldn’t it be ironic if I had to call out the Air Ambulance to lift me to hospital!
            I was not the only one to feel a sudden rush of cold air over that period. Whilst in UK we left our few sheep at home in France, to be overlooked occasionally by our good friends and neighbours. What I hadn’t reckoned on was lambs being born in our absence. Our ram had lazed about all summer, not showing any interest in sex during the hot days and as a result we were not expecting lambs until March. Well all I can think is that he must have perked up under the hours of darkness during July as two lambs were born to the world on Christmas day. To make matters somewhat worse, their birth coincided with an uncharacteristic bout of bad weather. A gambling man may have placed a bet on a white Xmas in Aberdeen at 3-1, Edinburgh at 4-1 or possibly the Midlands at 6-1. What he may have shied away from was South-West France at 400-1. But yep, that’s where it fell, 6 inches on Christmas morning. In hindsight, I should have bet our house on it, but then in hindsight I wouldn’t have entrusted this years lambing to two kind-hearted folk with no more experience in that subject than I have in brain surgery. I heartily thank Josie and Stu for their help in my irresponsible absence. Mary and Joseph are doing fine!
            The other day I had a play on a Wii games console with an excellent new game where you got chance to shoot at flying turkeys on your TV with a special toy gun that was provided. Although the game was great fun I got round to considering that wouldn’t it be even better if the inventors added a few enhancements for this model which would allow you to shoot at actual TV programmes! For starters every time the adverts came on I would fell those two moustachioed 118 idiots and follow up by taking out that annoying singer on the Go-Compare advert. Now we’re talking turkey! And what about that stupid woman on ‘I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here’? The one who had a phobia about insects? Bang bang, you’re out of here now! And Ant and Dec as well come to think of it. I could flick through the channels and pick-off Anne Robinson, Jeremy Kyle, then that dreadful man on Strictly Come Dancing with the fake Italian accent. I could even put old Brucie out of his misery too. They would need to adapt a rapid-fire version so I could wipe out the whole cast of Eastenders in 20 seconds and I would finish with a highly satisfying shot into Jonathan Ross, just below the waist! Hours of fun from my own armchair. Some come-on Nintendo, invent the Wii ‘TV Assassin’ in time for my Xmas next year. I am saving up for it already.
      Whilst on the subject of flying turkeys I would like to question the accuracy of public surveys. Sorry to pick on the Welsh yet again this month but a snippet from a survey was sent to me as follows:
‘ONE in five Welsh people believe that turkeys can fly while just over one in 10 are convinced the bird originates from Turkey, according to the findings of a new survey.’
Now the contents of this survey may be quite startling and slightly embarrassing to the Welsh nation were it not for the inclusion of the next line which says:
‘..the poll quizzed over 150 people about their festive eating….’
            So that’s 151 people out of an entire population, hardly a cross section one must admit. But what it doesn’t say is who these people are or where they were? Nursery children maybe? Outside a psychiatric hospital per chance? Incidentally, I believe turkeys can fly too. Some can, cant they? They certainly used to in olden days before the got so fat.

During my spare time in the Autumn I penned a biography about my father, John Frazier, which I then gave him as a Xmas present. I was a little apprehensive about how it would be received as not all the facts were one hundred percent accurate. I need not have worried as he was very appreciative and even a little touched that someone had taken time to recognise some of his life achievements and present them in a readable way. However he was a little bit bemused when I said I might offer a few copies for sale. “Who would want to buy stories about me?” he said. Well it seems that quite a few people do actually and copies are going fast. All profits of the sale of this will go to Midlands Air Ambulance. Called “I use my thumbs as a yardstick”, the book is available online at or behind the bar in his local pub, the Rock Cross.
Incidentally I just discovered that “dammit I’m mad” spelled backwards is “dammit I’m mad”. Does this mean that even dyslexic mad people have no excuse?