Thursday 11 December 2014

Secrets of the seventies

Well, Happy Hogmanay to everyone who survived Christmas in one piece. Of course, nobody will be reading this as you will all be queuing up outside Argos waiting for post-Christmas bargains, or scouring the internet for anything denoted with twenty percent off. In fact, you no longer need to wait for January to go to the sales, as we are bombarded throughout December with special discount shopping days. I blame the Americans – for most things, actually! Seemingly Black Friday was started in USA a decade ago as a marketing ploy to spur Christmas shoppers into action a few weeks into November. But then, as with all things hyped, the whole thing snowballed into a rainbow spectrum of Green Mondays, Red Tuesdays and slightly blueish-mauve Sundays throughout December, all offering super-saver-deals on websites who already claim to be the cheapest in cyber-space - now even cheaper. I am informed that these are all deals that I cannot afford to miss, irrespective of whether I need them or not, or already have three left over from last year still in the cupboard. However, I am quite taken with Groupon, an organisation that offers companies a chance to sell small numbers of their goods or services at cost price, if only so we can get an insight into what extortionate profits they usually take. So far I have managed a round of golf on a Royal course for ten quid including breakfast, 3 nights in a honeymoon suite in a top resort, and a new bed, all at 60% off. OK, so I didn’t need all of these, with the possible exception of the golf, but I am comforted that myself and my occasionally profligate wife have saved enough money with which to irresponsibly spend on drink!
I mentioned last month that I was embarking on a mission to renovate a house in Fife and I am quite pleased with myself when I announce that phase one of the project is now completed. Inevitably I now have the sore knees and backache to prove it. It would appear that the old Victorian property last had a face-lift around 1973, with kaleidoscope carpets, wallpaper that makes your legs wobble and light-fittings made of psychedelically painted glass, all in abundance. After spending 3 days hoying all the above into a skip, I visit a well-known DIY store to find that I am now able to buy exactly the same stuff which has mysteriously hoved back into fashion at highly inflated prices. Who said nostalgia is a thing of the past? Why is it that we can’t just let the chemically induced indulgence into the hallucinogenic haze of the seventies fade away without embarrassment? Like most fifty-somethings, I not only burnt my flares and tank-tops a long time ago, but along with them all photographic evidence of their very existence. There should be laws against this revival before the country spirals back into a life of platform shoes, scampi in the basket and Simca cars and we all die of humiliation! Please mister government, outlaw everything that hails from that decade, except the music (and possibly the Ferrari 308 GTB). Thank you.
On the same subject, I am this weekend stunned to learn that with the latest reincarnation of Doctor Who, the Daleks are also back, but they can now climb stairs! Noooo! That was the whole point of the things. While your kid sister was hiding behind the sofa as the cardboard creatures wheeled down the street with their ray guns and sink-cleaners, chasing some scantily-clad maiden, us boys were standing shouting at the TV, ‘go upstairs, go upstairs! You’ll be safe there until the Brigadier arrives!’ Seemingly the 2015 versions now have some built-in hovering ability. How preposterous! It is nothing less than an outrage, I’m telling you!
While we are on the issue of reminiscence of the seventies, on my way to Fife last week I had a wry smile to myself when I spotted a large sign directing people to Scotland’s Secret Bunker – purely on the understanding that it is hardly a secret if you tell everyone where it is? That’s a bit like screwing a five quid combination-locked box to the wall outside your back-door with a big sign saying ‘KEYS – in case of burglary, insert chisel here!’ Although I have not yet visited the site, which is now a museum, it transpires that an underground fortress, complete with 3 feet thick tungsten reinforced concrete walls and a labyrinth of tunnels, had been built and concealed under a farmhouse near St Andrews in 1972 which would house some 300 personnel, protecting them from nuclear explosion, more than likely caused by the pesky Russians. Although the Cold War never really got much above freezing, the amount of money required to maintain the bunker, let alone build it, would have kept all the towns on Fife’s East Neuk coast in coal for two decades and, believe me, they needed it. And all this to preserve a few Scottish ministers, none of whom at the time had enough government authority in Britain to issue so much as a parking ticket. Rumours that the whole place had been extended last year to accommodate the comely frame of Alex Salmond have been categorically denied.
Of course, after Salmond’s laughable defeat in September’s referendum, for the first time since Mary Queen of Scots, we now have a lady in charge north of the border who, after some churlish begging, actually does have an iota of power over their self governance. So what does she do with it? Immediately p*sses off every rural community by lowering the drink driving limit to 50mg so that your working man can no longer have a pint on the way home from said work. However, this is not strictly true. The new legislation brings it into line with Europe and particularly France who, let’s face it, make all the rules anyway. The difference is, we in France drink beer in small glasses, thus affording us the liberty to have one drink and still take the car home within the bounds of the law, rather than walking or taking the bus. Just as well on the latter point, as the frequency of buses in our local village is about once every three months. Furthermore, walking home down the lane is far more dangerous, what with the crevice-like ditches that line the roads and the chance of encountering a drunken Frenchman behind the wheel with no headlights, but I digress. The point is that, despite their protestations, your average Scot could just drop in to the ‘Thistle and Sporan’ for a half-pint while he warms the underside of his kilt in front of the peat fire, and then everyone’s happy – except, perhaps, Newcastle Breweries. But don’t you Sassenachs go a-gloating too much. You are surely next on the list!
BTW, good luck to the new proprietors of the Rock Cross Inn. Please keep the home fires burning!

Wednesday 3 December 2014

Pigeon post

     Once again, welcome to the life of a headless chicken, as I charge around trying to get things done and achieving very little. As I write, I am in limbo in one airport waiting for a delayed flight, en route to another one where the plane will have departed without me, leaving me somewhere in rain-washed southern England without a canoe. Like some game of giant aeronautical dominoes, my late arrival to my next destination will have such a subsequent knock on to my two week schedule that will probably delay my Christmas until sometime in February, as my deadlines shoot by in a wave of nausea. While I inwardly scream at the thought of the month to come, which involves rendezvous with builders, plumbers, sparkies and chippies, who will no doubt collectively take in such a sharp intake of breath it will cause a vacuum around the south Fife coast, I can only take solace in the fact that I actually intend to undertake most of the renovation work on my latest project myself to keep costs down. In fact, I must confess, the only chippy I intend to use will be the one on the seafront which has won numerous awards for its fish suppers! Anyone in the building trade will point out that it is a rather despicable practice that a potential client could pick the brains of half a dozen local tradesmen, gleaning knowledge of materials, suppliers and regulations while having no intention of hiring said professionals to do the work. My counter to this would be quite simple. a:) just about every jobbing builder in Scotland is booked up until autumn 2024, and b) their prices for doing the simplest of jobs are so extortionate that it would be cheaper to hire Heston Bloumenthal to make me a cup of tea than to get local hoods, McKay and McKay, to change a light bulb, let alone fit a kitchen. So, armed with nothing more that basic understanding of French plumbing, for the next couple of weeks I will be holed up in a draughty Scottish seaside house with no heating, in early winter, scratching my head as I try and fathom out imperial measurements and push-fit joints while the wind from the North Sea whips in under the door. That is if I manage to get there at all!
    Meanwhile, Wendy is left in sunny France, clearing up after the entourage of guests and friends staying over the last few weeks, until I give her a whistle to come and join me in Scotland for the winter months. After mentioning last month that at last it had started to rain, it immediately stopped again as we suffered an extended drought for another four weeks which left our sheep so thin that the Red Cross have been considering sending in food aid. In an attempt to cut down our numbers, we have given away Rambo - the nomadic ram who mysteriously appeared in our field four years ago - who has now gone to live somewhere in mid France on a smallholding where his predecessor passed away after dining on a glut of acorns! One hopes he has a strong constitution! In his place we have dusted off Pa, now in his ninth year, to take over the nuptial reins. For a few days we did also borrow Rammy from a neighbour, but he and Pa took an instant dislike to each other and resorted to fisticuffs, leaving the poor old boy with a large dent in his head that subsequently filled with maggots. Not a nice vision, I know, but, with the aid of a little Domestos, we did manage to rid him of the wrigglies so he could continue his tupping season with some dignity. Rammy, on the other hoof, was banished back from whence he came, never to darken our door again.
Besides the sun blazing its way through the autumn, the only other interesting thing I have to report from France this month was an afternoon visit, along with one of our guests, to a palombiere. For those of you ill-informed of such an event, as were we, this is a hide-out built 35 feet up in a tree.      However, be you human or pigeon, underestimate this splendid abode at your peril. As you approach it through the thick woods, you could be forgiven for not even noticing its entrance, cleverly disguised behind a curtain of camouflage netting. From there an elaborate staircase leads you upwards until you enter a room the size of a small bungalow, with fully fitted kitchen including shiny coffee machine and dishwasher, as well as an immaculately decorated bedroom with en-suite. Once inside, we were presented with a glass of something that would take the enamel off a tiger’s teeth and a welcoming from a number shabbily dressed local French farmers, all rosy-cheeked from their recent two hour lunch. Our host, who also doubles up as the local barman, had also been celebrating his birthday! Each one of them was armed… Doing my best to interpret their local dialect, my guest was quite impressed with the set up, especially when the alarm was sounded and all eyes tuned to the skies. Within seconds the hatches all around the house silently slid closed until the only light came in through a dozen slit holes, each one occupied by a twelve bore barrel. Outside, upwards of 30 tame pigeons in the surrounding trees, each tethered by one leg to a long wire, started to dance as the main man pulled on different ones in sequence like a half-drunken campanologist. The ploy worked as overhead a flock of maybe 250 wood pigeons - or they may have been racers, I am unsure - descended on our locale to visit their hopping tethered feathered friends. By then, the only sound you could hear were a dozen safety catches being quietly flicked, as each gun took a bead followed by a faint count of one, two, three… I am not sure if you have been in an enclosed space when multiple shotguns are fired simultaneously? The deafening sound can only be superseded by the triumphant cheer of a dozen overgrown kids in a tree house, when the scout returned with enough dead pigeons to keep the village in pie for another week.