Saturday 24 March 2012

It's only words

Ever since I was a child I have loved the Spring. Maybe it was seeing the first snowdrops or the primroses that my grandmother so tenderly planted in the hedgerows and dingles around the farm. My sister and I would often clamber through the brambles to pick a posy for mother, like a page from a sickly Thomas Hardy novel, which were displayed in pride of place in a silver jug in the hallway to denote the new season.
Then, as I got older and developed a healthy interest in sheep breeding, it was all about lambs: seeing them play and grow, hoping that a year’s planning and hard work had produced the type of beasts I had intended to breed from the blue-print in my mind. I never tire of watching lambs racing around the hedgerows at dusk like competitors in a cross-country rally.
But, to me, Springtime is mainly all about mornings. The perilous early frosts of late-winter giving way to eerie misty dawns, until the orange glow of the sun yawns its way through in a bid to give warmth to the new growth stirring under ground.
In this part of France, things happen a month or so earlier than they do in UK and today, being near the end of March, is unveiling one of those exquisite scenes. It’s just before 6.
Outside, a lone bird awakes a while after I have, and calls out its tuneful song to us insomniacs who have already arisen.
For once, instead of frantically pouring out words from a night full of creative dreams into my current novel, I take the time to listen. Although to human ears the song sounds like a random selection of notes thrown together in no particular order – in my mind, not unlike modern jazz – I am sure to the its perpetrator, it is perfectly coherent prose: a wordsmith busy at its job. We are similar, bird and I. A few times I have heard him, or indeed her, singing away and am pretty sure it is the same creature each time. I have named him Chaucer.
Up the road, my neighbours cock crows. I can’t say I like cockerels – or my neighbour as it happens – they appear to me to be belligerent creatures, too ready to give out orders like a sergeant major, summoning the troops and teasing the sleeping. “It’s morning,” he cries. “I know it’s morning, you know it’s morning, so get your lazy backside out of that bed!”
As the light settles into its new day, in our field two lambs are calling through the fence. “Come on, Mister!” they shout, “feeding time already.” These two had the misfortune to be disowned by their mother and have been reliant on Wendy and I to provide them with bottled milk, 4 times per day, since the day they were born. At 4 weeks old now, the pair of them have become bold and a tad greedy, bunting the bottle with the impatience of youth, often dislodging the rubber teat with catastrophic consequence.  What might sound to many like an idyllic and romantic task has of late turned the chore into an awkward human struggle, especially in a dressing-gown and wellington boots.
Before I get around to giving in to their demands, the cat throws his two-penneth into the fray, yowling for reasons only he can justify. I am none too fond of felines either, particularly this one, whose disapproving tones are unequivocal. I guess he wants food as well.
Then the dogs pipe up, awoken by the cat and optimistically awaiting their breakfast, calling out in dog-speak that is none too hard to translate. It’s 6.45am as I trudge to the kitchen, their distractions pulling on the handbrake of my creative writing for the day.
Words! Every creature has them at their disposal. Only a foolish author would write them down.
Today, once I have replenished all these beasts, I have a thankful task on my own agenda. This foolish author is off to meet a fan. I don’t get much fan-mail, I guess that shows! Ironically, this is a lady who won one of my books in a raffle and enjoyed it so much she took the time to write and tell me. After a few conversations, she has today invited us for dinner, albeit that I have offered to help her castrate her goat kids in the bargain.
Words. Funny things, really.

Monday 5 March 2012

Engelbert is back

    I spend so much time rambling on about the weather  that I sometimes think I should be publishing this monthly column in the Gardeners’ Gazette. Well not so much the weather this month, as nature in general, which has just performed the most spiteful deed I think I have ever witnessed. You may recall how I have mentioned that all our plants are so far forward this year. In January, just about everything had been led to believe it was May already, after months and months of dry warm weather through what should have been the winter. It was like watching a child being lured with sweeties, as buds and then flowers started appearing on roses, jasmine and even lilies. And then, like Noah and the great flood, we get the coldest weather for 50 years. Not just one night either, but three weeks with constant days and nights of first snow and then temperatures down as low as -17. As with Noah and his safety-ARC, we at least had a log-burner to keep us warm as long as we could find enough firewood to put on it but, unlike the great flood, no pairs of plants were romantically saved from the tempest, 2-by2. It is still difficult to establish the total extent of the damage but I know we have lost entire climbing rose bushes, wisteria, a whole section of climbing jasmine (which it had taken me 4 years to train around our terrace) and 2 massive oleander trees as well as dozens of younger ones which I had lovingly grown from seed. It wouldn’t be so bad if mother nature had then offered a little Spring weather as a compensation, but instead, as I write, we are now back into a new summer, where the ground is still as dry as it was last autumn and the grass refuses to green-up in case Jack Frost might still be hiding round the corner ready to pounce again. I suppose I shouldn’t complain, at least I have my shorts back on again, but it will take a few years to re-establish much of our garden.
    A couple of years ago the French government introduced a ridiculous ruling that every car must carry at least one high-visibility vest for each person within the car at all times. Being caught without one, or even if yours was in the boot instead of inside the vehicle with you, incurred the death-penalty or a 3 week jail stint while being forced to listen to Johnny Hallyday records. Well, this year, yet another equally stupid law is coming into play in August; that of carrying a breathalyser test in every vehicle. What on earth is that about? Have you been drinking? Yes. Well don’t drive. If you do insist on driving while drunk, will carrying a breathalyser with you deter you? No. And anyway, these things are one-use only. So when you climb into your car after one half-shandy and are unsure whether you are fit to drive, blowing into the kit might give you the green-light, but you would then no longer be carrying a working kit on your journey, for which you will incur a penalty twice that of the drink-driving charge. Surely, it is the job of the police to carry such kits, so why should we be expected to do their job for them? Whatever next? Should we carry full medical kits in case we have a road accident to save the ambulance a trip? Or maybe have snow ploughs fitted to all cars because, as we found out last month, this country doesn’t have any.
    Living in an out-post such as this, we tend to rely on the internet for pretty much everything: from shopping to marketing and social activities to social services. Registering on multiple websites is itself quite tedious and I have to admit, like many others, I tend to stick to one password for all except the most security conscious ones. What really annoys me though, is that irritating little box you have to complete at the end of every registration known as a ‘captcha! For the uninitiated, this is picture of some jumbled up letters and numbers that you have to decipher and then type into the box, in the name of spam security. (If you think spam security is something to do with those little keys fastened to the top of tinned meat, then ignore this paragraph!) The reason that CAPTCHA’s annoy me it that I can never actually read what the damn things say, possibly because it is usually in French and, more recently, Arabic. You see, the internet has now got so clever that it knows exactly where you are. Not just the country either, but the village and house number. As I write, someone out there is going, ‘aha, this person is based in South West France’ and, having mentioned tinned meats a few lines earlier, they will be emailing me about buying some Foie Gras by the end of the afternoon! So when these stupid little pictures present themselves, in French, they expect me to have a French keyboard in order to include the accents and circumflex (eg: cafĂ© dans la forĂȘt) that are required in this complex language, and I don’t. Thus I am unable to register with many of them without having to go through a proxy-server (it’s complicated) to pretend that I am in UK. Basically, nearly 30 years on from 1984, despite all the denial, Big Brother not only watching us but ensuring that if we are in Rome, we damn well do as the Romans do.
    French news this coming month will be dominated by the forthcoming Presidential elections. Already, Nicolas Zarkozy, our current and flamboyant Premier has had to protect himself from angry voters by hiding in a bar, something that French leaders have possibly done for centuries. But, although much of the French electorate have had enough of his radical policies and tough stance on immigration and are swinging dramatically back towards socialism, there is still substantial support from those who want him back in for another term, just to see what floozy he will have an affair with this time. Ostensibly the French prefer to trust a man who does that sort of thing, which is considered perfectly acceptable behaviour amongst the middle classes, over someone who shares his surname with a neighbouring country. Word on the street is that our Nico will leak the news of an extra-marital affair any day now to help his ailing campaign!
    On the subject of elections, recent news has come to light about the overwhelming re-election of Russia’s president Vladimir (put-the-boot-in) Putin. Allegedly, in many polling stations Mr Putin’s name was on both side of the voting paper making him a sort of Hobson’s choice. The new Premier denies the allegations of course, stating that people were perfectly entitled to vote for the opposition candidate, known simply as AK47, who was more than willing to discuss policies with them at a prearranged time in the Moscovian forests after the hours of darkness.
    Finally, we have to question the validity of that institution that is the Eurovision Song Contest. For England, having won the competition with classics such as Boom-bang-a-bang by the screeching Lulu in 1969 and the unbelievably awful Save all your Kisses from Brotherhood of Man a few years later, it appears that our selection committee have decided to once again delve back to those halcyon days and wheel out Engelbert Humperdink for the job. At the tender age of 104, Bertie will be singing some modern numbers such as Greensleeves, My Old Man’s a Dustman and Roll Out the Barrel in order to woo some of the younger judges. However, he need not bother because Azerbaijan is to be the host nation this year so there will be only one judge, democratically selected by the Russian government.