Tuesday 8 December 2015

A bridge too far

Seasons Greetings, Bon Noel, Deck your balls with prickly holly, etc...
 Currently we are still in East Fife, sheltering from yet another storm with an inexplicably stupid name that, according to the national press, is wreaking havoc across the country. Seemingly Brian or Eric, or whatever it is called has dropped 13 inches of rain in one day, although nobody could actually measure it properly as everyone’s rain gauge only goes up to one foot. It appears that the North West England flood defence was about as useful as England Rugby’s World Cup defence, but nobody really cared much because it was not in London where all the important people live. Dave ‘don’t-f**k-with-me-or-I-will-carpet-bomb-you’ Cameron did pop up to the sodden area and pull on his Hunter wellies for a few minutes where he patted a few locals patronisingly on the head, promised to send some rubber dingys, and then nipped into the Sheep and Garter for a pint of ‘craft’ beer.
Meanwhile, it is a boat that is also required here in Fife since the announcement that the Forth Road Bridge will be closed until further notice following the discovery that one of the nuts that hold it together was on cross-threaded. The government has now devised a plan which will take 150 PWC consultants two months to write down and a further year and a half to find the correct spanner to tighten the bolt. Currently those who voted YES in September, all 122 of them, will have a real taste of their Independence as their Southern relatives are unable to visit the area with Christmas gifts and they get to keep all their home-grown potatoes and oil to themselves. Unfortunately Amazon, the world’s greediest online supermarket, also has an eggy-face after it decided to locate its main distribution warehouse just north of the bridge so it can pay its s­­taff tuppence-an-hour instead of the English National wage. Obviously the book the SNP ordered online entitled ‘Bridge Repairs for Dummies’ now has to be sent by carrier pigeon, so should reach them by early February 2017. I cannot help but smile at the irony that currently the only way from Fife to Edinburgh, unless you want a sight-seeing tour of Glencoe and Ben Nevis, is across its old rail bridge, constructed out of Meccano over 100 years ago by men in flat caps. Based on this fact, while the old rail bridge made of steel is still pretty rock solid, but the road-bridge they built out of string in the fifties has now fallen apart, then I suspect the brand new one due to be completed in 2017 and made out of recycled cardboard milk-cartons will struggle to survive a decade at best!
Although we are due to head back to France in a few days I have gotten quite attached to the Firth of Forth which I can now happily gaze at while seated on the toilet. It may sound rather strange but it has always been an ambition of mine to have a sea-view from the kazi, so I can now add a tick in that box, since completing a new bathroom in the attic, which includes the original old Victorian bath in situ. I suppose I should apologise in advance to my neighbours, should they wish to spy on me with binoculars, and even more so to the one downstairs who got a warm shower when she opened her back door just as I was emptying the bath-water. Well I wasn’t to notice a cracked downspout, was I?
Anyway, I am a little hesitant about returning to the country we call home, not because of the frequent terrorists attacks on the French, but because we have a pandemic of Bird-Flu in the Dordogne, according to the Daily Mail, who are experts on such matters. As a consequence Japan, possibly the most paranoid nation on Earth, have banned imports of our local delicacy, Foie Gras, in case they contract the disease when spooning duck pate lavishly onto their morning toast. Despite being advised by Professors of Intelligence that implying they could catch anything other than gout from the product is like suggesting you could catch Mxyomatosis from Welsh Rarebitt has done nothing to quell their suspicions. So, now we will have to run the gauntlet every time we visit LeClerc supermarche of having some moustachioed fragrant peasant trying to sell us tins of the stuff at the door, before it goes out of date. Call me Mr Picky but, personally, I would rather French-kiss a skunk than eat the slimy mush that has been reared in such a barbaric fashion.
Finally I have to report that Louis the pointless-pointer – possibly France’s waggiest tailed dog – has made not one but two trips to the dreaded vet this week. Firstly we have a stomach bug, probable cause, eating too much seaweed; measurable outcome: well, let’s not go there! Then, during last weekend’s hurricane Norman, the garden-gate slammed shut, trapping and injuring his tail in the process. Poor thing has been in such pain and cannot understand why it hurts so much when he wags it. Trying to persuade an otherwise happy dog NOT to wag its tail is like attempting to explain to the gullible American electorate that Donald Trump is nothing more than a war-mongering racist megalomaniac who is out to tailor himself a pair of million-dollar trousers before you have time to say ‘oops, where’s all the cash gone!’

Wednesday 11 November 2015

Bladders, stomachs and bowels

Driving rain, gusting wind, greedy seagulls, ah yes, we must be in Scotland again. Actually, that is a bit harsh as the ‘frozen north’ have actually had quite a good autumn this year, albeit that they pretty much missed out on summer completely! It has been a few days since we left balmy France by car; the wife, I and the dogs embarking on a 1250 mile road-trip via London and the Midlands to Fife with the windscreen wipers on the whole way,  all the while getting cocky texts and emails from our house-sitter who is basking in sunrays back home. Once again we pin-pointed the beautiful town of Rouen for an overnight stop, a place I never tire of visiting for its wonderful architecture, endless restaurants and fun student vibe. Just a peek out of the hotel window at that massive cathedral, the very place that they buried Richard the First’s lion heart, is enough to give you goosebumps, although the plaque that informs you his bowels were buried in a church 200 kilometres away was a bit unnecessary! To celebrate the occasion – of our visit, not poor old Dick’s disembowelment – I planted a tree. I have to admit that I am a more than a little mystified how I did this, but that is what the poster in my hotel bathroom announced: that if we only used one towel instead of two, and avoided running the hot water for more than 30 seconds, somewhere in the world a new sapling tree would be planted on our behalf. If one has appeared on your garden this week, don’t forget to send me a thank-you-note.
After running the gauntlet of our wheels being removed by ten thousand immigrants at the French port of Calais – where, incidentally we saw none whatsoever, but perhaps they don’t migrate on rainy days – we arrive in good old blighty and needed to take on some diesel. Normally I would do this in France, as it is 30% cheaper, but all the fuel stations near the border have all been suspiciously shut down, presumably to stop militant Syrians from refilling their petrol bombs. There is always a pivotal moment when the realisation that you are back in UK hits and this time it was when I pulled onto the forecourt in Folkestone to find that the pump wouldn’t accept my credit card. Eventually, after queuing in the grubby overpriced and overcrowded shop, the ten–year-old behind the counter informs me that ‘the pump is not broken, it just doesn’t work properly when it is raining!’ Well that will be nine months of business taken out of the balance sheet then?
Next up, London. A night out with my sons involves us ‘taking the bus’, something I am ashamed to admit I do extremely infrequently these days, and out comes my ‘new’ contactless credit card once more. Except it doesn’t work here either. ‘Excuse me!’, says I to the driver, sitting behind a sheet of bullet-proof glass. ‘This doesn’t work!’ Evidently the glass is so thick he doesn’t hear me as he fails to acknowledge my plight. In the interest of not stepping back out into the rainy street, I repeat the sentence continually with increasing intensity, but still nothing. On the assumption that London Transport’s latest policy includes employing deaf people, I revert to sign language as he stares straight ahead, emotionlessly. Eventually, as a queue stacks up behind me and the timetables starts to overrun, one of the passengers shouts out that the ‘driver is not allowed to talk to the passengers, mate!’ What? Did I hear that correctly?  You are kidding, right? Seemingly he wasn’t, as I discover that Boris Johnson actually has enforced a new policy of zero interaction between seller and buyer in a city that is becoming more and more impersonal every day. Whatever next? Will ‘cashier number 2 please’ at M&S be banned from asking me if I want my y-fronts in a bag? Or will I be forced into ordering a pint of Old Peculiar from a brail menu in the pub? Apparently, according to my reasonably well informed sons, it is so that London can fairly employ people who speak no English whatsoever.  And right there, my friends, hangs a rather sorry but inherent problem. Last one out of England, please turn off the light!
Thankfully my journey reaches its destination in East Fife in one piece, a world so far different from the south that we could be in another space-time-continuum. OK, it is still raining but even the rain feels cleaner up here. Settling in for a cup of cocoa and a wee dram, I flick on the evening news and all thoughts of relaxation suddenly take flight with the sea breeze as I am informed that one of Scotland’s national exports is under threat from yet more absurdity. Yes, that local pudding dish with the ‘wee sonsie face’ has been banned in USA because it contains offal. This from a country that lives on chocolate and burgers, the latter of which, let’s face it, contain just about everything except beef, including hooves, ground bones, sawdust and bottox, plus a raft of chemicals that would melt marble. OK haggis contains sheep’s stomach and a few other internal organs that you wouldn’t perhaps eat off a gourmet menu, but it has to be healthier than the god-awful junk food of an obese nation? Apparently the two countries are now reaching a compromise where America will accept the product if Scottish producers leave out its one vital ingredient, the lung. Presumably, from now on, all spare Scottish lungs will be sent to Westminster, so they can blow out hot air on debates that don’t concern them?
While on the subject of Scottish exports, I recently acquired a bottle of whisky called Ardbeg Supernova, so named as a cask of it has been sent by the distillery into orbit around earth to assess what impact the stratosphere will have on its flavour and taste. Some of the more cynical may dismiss this as a pretty neat publicity stunt but personally I believe offering the rest of the galaxy a chance to sample something so peaty and divine is a rather nice gesture. Continuing with this theme, Nasa have now backed it up by sending a pair of bagpipes along with the latest mission to seek out extra-terrestrial life. Now that really is a step too far, as the International Space Station disturbs millennia of space silence with the tuneless drone of yet more sheep’s bladder puffing out hot air through a loudspeaker. The poor Aliens will surely be throwing themselves on their rayguns when that row reaches their misshapen ears!
Oops, might need to flee back to France sooner than I thought!

Tuesday 6 October 2015

Roger the rabbit

  Well the good news is I have lasted a whole year and still have a lovely wife, mostly by my side. Yes, believe it or not, it is now twelve months since Wendy and I got 'hitched'. To commemorate such a monumental achievement, we decided to take a week's holiday for some downtime in North Africa, where we could relax by the pool, sample local food and sup a few celebratory shandies. Hmmm. What we hadn't banked on was a drought. No, not through lack of rain, just the total absence of anything remotely alcoholic. In hindsight, on the day of our arrival in Marrakech, when we were met by hundreds of sheep riding around on motorcycles, we perhaps should have twigged that something was afoot? Was the circus in town? Had the Welsh taken a victory lap of the Mediterranean after beating England? Were they taking the Mickey out of my open admissions that 'I prefer the company of sheep to most humans?' No! It transpired that this was the eve of Eid, a national Muslim festival which is celebrated by firstly executing your favourite ram in public, and then taking a few weeks on 'the waggon.' To prove your worth to your neighbours, said ram gets to be paraded around the town the night before in a swanky fashion and what better way to display such booty than strap him on to the back of your Honda 50 and tear through the streets! The bigger horns he has, the better, as well as the more dangerous. I know this now but, had I gained this information a few hours earlier, we would have taken headlong into the nearest supermarket to load up our trolley with local wine and beer and thus quenched our raging thirsts before the alcohol section was barricaded up, for 3 bloody days! We did eventually manage to secure a couple of bottles of local plonk at twenty quid a pop by back-handing the hotel barman for some of his under the counter contraband stash. Apart from that we quite enjoyed the place with its crazy street traders all purveying knock-off designer clothes and sunglasses, as well as urns, potions, sandals, authentic jewellery, spices, wood-carvings and, for some strange reason, Nazi memorabilia, all at grossly over-inflated prices and mostly manufactured in China. I wasn't quite so enamoured with the hoards of tuneless musicians all blending in to one hullabaloo of white noise, nor the acrobats and snake charmers who collectively earn more per day from aggressively scrounging from tourists than the rest of Africa earns in a month.  A trip into the Atlas mountains was maybe worth it for the scenery as long as you were prepared to pay a small fortune to a licensed bandit to escort you up a perilously steep life-threatening rocky path to photograph a feeble waterfall full of litter, and then risk your wallet as you weaved through yet more traders peddling authentic tat on your way back down. Couple that with a 2 hour ride home in a taxi driven by Morocco's equivalent of Tommi Mäkinen along roads only suited for surefooted camels while trying to hold down a meal of rabbit tagine, complete with carrots, and we were quite glad to reach the sanctuary of a dry hotel!
    Anyway, our stint back home in France was short and busy, as we were met by guests arriving for our annual chutney festival.  The event was once again a roaring success only marred by the fact that Adele, my talented niece, rather than  pay Ryanair's extortionate baggage charges, had put her entries for the competition in the hands of the French postal system. Needless to say they never showed up on time, in fact, to date, they haven't showed up at all and are currently possibly festering in the corner of a warehouse near Brussels while the posties all sit around on strike. Oh well, at least it gave the other competitors a chance and I got two first prizes!
    As soon as the guests departed again, so did we, back to the land of the loch and the glen once more, as I try to cram in some work around our otherwise disturbed schedule. I will, of course be taking in some World Cup rugby, albeit without a red rose emblazoned on my chest. In fact I am a loss on who to support since that fateful day of demise of Les Anglais at the hands of the Wallabies. History would endorse the chances of the French in this contest and I may have to dust off my beret once more, but not before wearing a saltire flag and a flower of Scotland while their chances are still alive.   
Along with autumn, this month also sees the beginning of 'tupping' season, as we try and time our lambing to begin in early March next year. This week I am proud to announce the introduction of a new member to the fold, 'Roger the ram'. Except that we seem to have a minor problem in that Roger isn't, erhem, rogering at all.  You see I visited our neighbouring farmer and sheep-breeder in August and selected a new ram for our purpose, assumedly purchasing it on a handshake on the understanding I wouldn't require it until October. However, when I returned this week to collect the thing, he had chivalrously sold it to a higher bidder. Of course, as I took him to task on the issue, us being gentlemen and all that, he just offered me an indignant shrug and a undersized ram-lamb as a replacement. When I say lamb, poor Roger is barely out of short trousers as he bewilderedly wonders towards the ewes to say hello, totally sexually unaware, and they run away laughing.  Even the Daisy-the-harlot isn't interested in what he has to offer and she isn't usually backwards in coming forwards on such matters. So all we can do now is play a waiting game and hope that Roger-the-younger grows up into Roger-the Rogerer sometime soon or it will 'rien à manger' for us on the bbq next spring. Maybe I should take him to a rugby match, as a mascot, to witness some real testosterone being flaunted? On the back of my motorbike, obviously!

Sunday 13 September 2015

Flip-flopping hell!

And breathe! At last I can hear the sound of silence as the final few guests departed this morning – not before helping me stack 5 tons of winter logs, I grant you – and we get a moment or two of peace and quiet for a few days. When I say a few days, it is actually barely that, as we head south to visit a few friends this weekend, inhabitants of Rock village, as it happens, and then I have to zoom off to Scotland to sort out some issues. But during those couple of days at least we get chance to listen to music we like, eat whatever and whenever we fancy – or nothing at all - and know which bed the dog is sleeping on! I have to admit I do like having guests here and this year has seen a wide variety, from youngsters just climbing onto the hamster wheel of life while others, such as Scott and Sally, who have recently had a eureka moment and exchanged the rat-race of international commerce for a trip around France in a sports car with the intention of finding themselves a new vocation. Together, the whole ensemble represents the rich tapestry that carpets the hallways of human kind – and sure breaks up the boredom.
Obviously, I use the latter word in jest, as being fed up with doing nothing has never yet made it on to my radar. Just when I think I have the decks cleared enough to tie up the loose ends of our existence, along comes yet another opportunity as a leafy avenue opens up, tempting us back down the rabbit hole. This time, a chance meeting with a Kiwi has somehow advanced me to a new role of advisor to one of the world’s richest men. No, I am not educating Mister Well-known Un-named Russian Billionaire on how to make more money but on a subject I have a little more knowledge about – sheep! Having bought a most idyllic chateau near here a few years ago, this chap now produces one of the finest and most expensive wines in the region. It transpires that one of his close friends and business partners own a vast estate in Perthshire, Scotland, and for my client’s 45th birthday he sent him a ‘wee pressie’, a flock of Scottish Blackfaced ewes. Now I have seen a few blackies in my time, mainly through binoculars, as they tends to live at 2-3000 feet up on a mountain, contentedly munching on heather in a climate that ranges from driech drizzle to out-and-out hurricane. So you can imagine how these 40-odd gimmers may have felt when they are unloaded in the middle of a birthday party in full swing, to 40 degree heat, little or no shade and not so much as a peat bog in sight!  However, hardy and adaptable as these creatures are, they have settled in over the last few years and my client is now looking to produce some premium quality lamb to sell alongside his grand-cru-classe wine. Enter yours truly, via a recommendation from a friend, as we try and put together a project plan to turn sow-ears into silk-purses via introduction of new bloodlines, a truck load of stock from Scotland and some quite intricate data recording. Shh, don’t tell the tax-office but payment for such professional guidance has been agreed in liquid format! Eureka indeed!
A few years ago I mentioned a bad experience I had with Ryanair about being forced to put my sandals on for landing and take-off, something which still mystifies me to this day. Well it seems the French government is now endorsing yet another absurdity, that of not being allowed to wear flip-flops whilst driving a car; this outlawing just about every single person behind the wheel, including myself. However, after doing some basic research, it appears that this idiotic ruling is not legally enforceable as long as, if pulled over, you can prove that you are able to be in perfect control of your vehicle, able to use your mirrors and indicators, drive at a sensible speed and be courteous to other road users – which, let’s face it, rules out all French drivers anyway!
Some may recall that, as a day job, I write books for a living and that I am midway through penning the history of the Aberdeen Angus cattle breed; a project that has taken over 2 years thus far. The creation of such a tome was the brainchild of the breed’s chief executive who had the realisation that some of the older guard were starting to disappear from this earth, taking their memories with them. For over a year I toured the country, tackling  some of the older members with a tape recorder to capture snippets of information for eternity. I am therefore extremely saddened that the very man who gave me this opportunity passed away himself this week, aged just 64, and that I never took the initiative to actually hear his own story and, moreover,  that he didn’t get chance to see the fruits of my labour.  History is a strange thing, isn’t it? One thing is for sure, we might be able to document it, but we sure can’t change it.
On a lighter note, I have a couple of appointments with large stadia in the headlights over the coming months. The first is that spectacle of sport, the Rugby World Cup, an event which Wendy and I have engaged in every 4 years over the last decade and more. This time, the hosts, England, have managed to price us out of the ticket market for their home games, with basic tickets costing upwards of three hundred quid a throw, but we will be making the trip to Newcastle to see Scotland playing those rather animalistic Polynesians, Samoa. For the trip I will dust off my saltire woolly bonnet and show allegiance to my wife’s country of origin, although I am not sure I will be putting a bet on their survival. Allez les Blanc!

Then, just a few days later, it is a short trip to Bordeaux to see one of Britain’s finest exports, that aged rock band, Deep Purple. Yes, against all odds, a few members of the original line-up have remained pickled enough to still perform such gems as ‘Sweet Child in Time,’ ‘Speed King’ and ‘Smoke on the Water.’ The excitement of it all has even provoked me to un-mothball my own guitar, plug it in to the mains and give it some welly – if only to an audience full of bewildered sheep. I can even remember the words to the latter – “dan dan dan, dan dan de dan...” Come on, you Rockers, sing along now!

Sunday 9 August 2015

Dyslexia rules, KO

Oh what a summer? Too hot, too dry, too long – I could complain, or even gloat, compared to the rubbish one that Britain has endured, especially my poor holiday-makers in our Scottish cottage. As usual, this year ours has been spiced up by a large number of guests sharing our house/pool/fridge/dinner table for a month or two. Also we have a new addition to keep us entertained: a ginger-ninja with the body of a small stripy kitten and the mind of a criminal genius. We have named him Outspan – a joke which is lost on anyone under 45 – and I have to say he is quite a character, as he torments anything and everything, much to the discomfort of the dogs. Right now he is even helping me type this page, which is enormously unhelpful! However, he is not the only orange striped menace around this year, as we seem to be plagued with aggressive wasps, each and every one of them hell-bent on attacking me at every opportunity. It was just a year ago that I discovered that I was actually allergic to wasp stings, after an encounter with a nest of them inside the bars of our gate. Since that rather uncomfortable time where my arm swelled up, went black, and itched for a fortnight, I have made strides to avoid a repeat incident. Except this year, it seems I can run but not hide as I have had no less than six stings which has sent me queuing for the doctors surgery so many times I am pretty sure I am now on her Christmas card list! In an attempt to rid us of the pests, I have sought out their ghettos and blasted them with high-octane fuel, something which not only renders them homeless but aggravates them a tad. Maybe the survivors of these haulocausts have good memories as their scouts track me down in revenge for such genocide. With a change of tack, I seek out advice from google on how else to deal with the problem which brings me neatly round to another pet hate of mine – that of people posting videos on Youtube about how to do DIY, when they are about as qualified to lecture on the subject as Bin Laden chairing a meeting on world peace. ‘Hello, my name is John, welcome to my workshop --!moves camera around a tiny basement full of shiny unused cheap tools--! Today I am going to show you how to make a wasp trap out of a plastic milk carton and some string...’ He then proceeds to waffle on in a monotone for about twenty minutes as I glaze over with ennui. In the end I just played the video near to the wasps nest and I am sure 3000 of them all died of boredom!        
And here’s a very tenuous link: Cricket = Boredom. Well maybe sometimes it does, but we have to hail the prowess of the England team and their instant dismissal of Michael Clarke’s Ozzys. Did you see the 4th test at Trent Bridge? No, nor did I as I blinked and it was gone. In fact it went by so fast I thought I was watching the highlights – with more ducks on display than fairground shooting gallery. What an anti climax if you had bought tickets to occasionally snooze through four days of the sound leather on willow, only to be in the pub by lunchtime on day 2. Honesty, I have seen longer darts matches! And then, just a few weeks previous, we got the opposite, as we rented out our cottage near St Andrews for The Open, only for it to rain so hard for 2 days that even the seagulls were wearing souwesters. I really felt for the 7 guys who had paid over the odds for tickets and accommodation only to have the final day of play run into a working Monday. Ever the entrepreneur, I did offer them the house for an extra day at a reasonable rate, were they able to throw a sickie, but they declined and went home to dry their underwear in the warm south. As it happens, a couple of mates of mine, encouraged by the fact that final day tickets, normally a couple of hundred quid a go, were on sale for just a tenner, got a free bed for the night thrown in. Bargain. 
Anyway, that rain would certainly be welcome here in France just now to green up this dustbowl and give the sheep something to eat other than my neighbours maize. It’s been like Escape from Colidtz here as they continually find ways to get through the electrified fence to quell their hunger. Having said that, we did put a couple ‘away’ last week and I was surprised how well they had done this year considering how dry it has been. It proves a fact that, not many animals enjoy rainy days – with the possible exception of the Australian cricket team!
As with anywhere else in the world, the hot weather does tempt out the human flesh but this year has been particularly disturbing in France, whose latest fashion craze is to wear tight t-shirts with incomprehensible English slogans on them. I swear, everywhere you look there are girls wondering around sporting baffling things like ‘shopping is my hamster’ or ‘life, spaghetti, elephant!’ How on earth did that become cool? It’s like listening Boris Johnson with dyslexia! My only guess is the manufacturers of such garments must have used google-translate – that incompetent software application that makes up more rubbish than the Daily Mail. Well, in the interests of appearing youthful and hip, I have decided to get the felt-marker out and run up a few of my own. On a farming note I quite like, ‘Eat sheep and be merry!’ I also came up with ‘Keep calm, unless you are actually a certified f**king psychopathic killer!’ which appeared to upset a few people, especially when I was down the cutlery aisle in Intermarche. ‘If you can’t stand the heat – move to Scotland’ is not so much of a slogan as a statement.  As is ‘Football is a load of balls!’ But my favourite has to be: ‘Donald Trump – you are joking, right?’

Incidentally, if dyslexia is a condition for people who have trouble reading – why is it so difficult to spell?

Tuesday 7 July 2015

Wont get fooled again!

I make no apologies that I rarely seem to be at home these days as I say a completely unashamed hello from a sunny beach. Today the temperature is somewhere into record-breaking territory, although thankfully the sea breeze is lending a helping hand to cool the sausages. Maybe I should explain that last remark.  Just when all the heavy work was swinging along nicely and the new Scottish house completed in the nic of time last month, muggins here gets home and then manages to fall off a chair while changing the battery on the kitchen clock. Well, I didn’t so much fall off it, as it collapsed, concertinaing inwards and trapping both my feet. The end result was no less than 3 broken toes, two on my right foot and the big useful one on my left, leaving me pretty much crippled for a couple of weeks. Fortunately the time coincided with our hols, so it was not a complete disaster, as I sit with my feet in the Atlantic, avoiding the posing surfers and sun-tanned beauties who frequent these shores. Unfortunately, as soon as said pedes leave the comforts of the cool waters, everything below the ankle swells up like a boiled haggis and it is all quite painful.  Thankfully my wife is doing all the driving and, with the aid of her grandmother’s old walking stick, I can shuffle in and out of some of France’s finest eateries, unaided. Despite our apartment being right on a gorgeous golf course, there will be no chasing after a small bouncing ball for me for a month or two which is a bit of a blow.
No, sport of all kinds will be confined to viewing on TV this summer, which includes golf, cricket and, of course Wimbers. On that note, is it just me or are tennis players getting taller? I have met a number of people from the Eastern Block and they are all a similar height to myself. So where did all these giants come from? One bloke is so tall they can barely close the roof on Centre Court! Does anyone else consider this endless stream of 6 foot blonde leggy Russian girls as slightly suspicious, and that maybe that nice Mister Putin has been running his own ‘Lebensborn’ experiment to create a modern-day Aryan master race, just so he can keep the silver salver on his mantelpiece. You read it here first…
Anyway, it all spices up the day for a temporary cripple like myself, although perhaps I should double up the dose of blood pressure tablets! C’est la vie. One thing I can verify, the older we get, the harder we fall – a fact that my knees constantly remind me of.
With too much time on my hands, I start to question when did this young mind find its way into such an aged body? This must be a question that many a philosopher has asked over the last million years or so, only to find that the longer you take to consider the answer, the faster the whole process accelerates. To quote the dearly departed Terry Pratchett (whose final book I have been imbibing during this trip) ‘Inside every old person is a young person wondering what happened!’
Anyway, in this instance, the reference to ageing is all about music. This week, on an evening in my favourite bar in the world, a group of youngsters are having a party. I can tell it is a party because they are all badly dressed, the music is turned up, the walls are vibrating and people are drinking stuff that looks like something my chemistry teacher would have dreamt up after a night on the sauce. Wendy and I are possibly a combined age of all of the other collective ‘in da house’. Yet within minutes my feet start tapping and I would happily get up and dance to this incomprehensible sound, were it that I had some unbroken feet to use for such a purpose. Mercifully, to my wife anyway, I save us the embarrassment, on medical grounds.
You see, dance parties, and particularly festivals, are for young people and generally, that is how it should stay. From the time I was ten, I really didn’t feel comfortable about strutting my stuff when older folks were around. So why now do rock festivals still insist on headlining bands from five decades ago? At Glastonbury, The Who still bang on about ‘my generation’ as though they were all 19 year olds with attitude, when they are so geriatric that none of the surviving members of the band would even be permitted to ride a bus unaccompanied, let alone a Lambretta. ‘My operation’ would be perhaps more appropriate! Fifty years have gone by since they made that rebellious and oh-so ironic statement of ‘I hope I die before I get old’, flicking the v’s of disrespect to the septuagenarians of the war years. 1979 was the last time I went to Glasto in the farm Landrover, sleeping in the back in a field, and venturing out at midday to see a few good bands of the time, such as Genesis and Hawkwind. I very much doubt I would have made the trip, if my Dad had come along to wave his flag and jive to Irvine Berlin and Jimmy Shand, while David Jacobs did the intros! Then, in between the old has-beens are slotted some bemused talentless pubescent boy-bands who believe they invented sex and flared trousers or, even worse, some half-dressed teenage harlots whose acts do more to encourage under-age sex than a prison full of BBC presenters! But the one that really got me at this year’s event was a hybrid between a reasonably well known recent band and those two very strange brothers from 1975 called Sparks (yes, him with the Hitler moustache!). Aptly named FFS, this car-crash of a band must have been the biggest mismatch since Michael Jackson married his pet monkey. ‘Won’t get fooled again?’ You bet I won’t FFS!

Friday 19 June 2015

Scottish assembly

Well, yet again I pen this short column from 35,000 feet as we head back to Scotland once more via the splendour that is Ryanair, sandwiched between sweaty Frenchmen in suspicious overcoats and small sunburned children with earache and attitude! Oh how I miss travelling business class… It has been quite a difficult trip to judge, as we leave 37 degree heat in France for something that may hopefully be above double figures in Fife. After continually grumbling about the weather this year, I can report we have had a nice month, weather-wise, much to the delights of both my sons who have visited and had their feet in the pool. Possibly the daftest thing I have done in a while, along with my eldest son, Sam, was to build a 4 foot pizza oven on the back terrace, over a three day period when the sun was so hot we could have quite successfully cooked pizza and chips on the slabs around the swimming pool, which were certainly uncomfortable to walk on. But on we toiled, first building a concrete platform, then a giant sand-castle which we covered in ceramic bricks and cement, before finally removing the sand and crossing our fingers that it didn’t collapse faster than a house of cheap playing cards. This morning, before we left, we ceremoniously lit a fire in it and ran up a full English, albeit a little on the smoky sausage side. The whole idea was inspired by a TV programme I watched about Argentina where it appears that it is near illegal to eat anything other than beef scorched over flaming coals.  I have to say, as a self confessed bodger builder, I am quite proud of my effort, despite me not even liking pizza!
On a tenuously linked foody subject, often in this column I bring attention to the ridicules of French governmental decisions which are so far beyond comprehension that they are just tail lights through the fog. So, keeping with tradition, let me highlight yet another. France has just made it illegal to throw away edible food. No, hang on a minute, on the face of it, that doesn’t sound like a bad idea. So let’s take a little look at this new ruling and its purpose.  Seemingly there are a lot of starving poor people in the nation, and not all the rich folk can manage to eat everything on the shelf in LeClerc before it goes out of date, to the tune of 7.4 million tons of it. ‘So,’ says an unusually unanimous government,’ let’s do the sensible thing and give all the out of date food to the poor. I am sure they love 3 week old chicken. What could possibly go wrong?’ Is it me, or does this sound about as risky as poking your index finger into a socket to see if it is live? If I was to detect something fishy here I might suggest that perhaps some pharmaceutical giant might be working on a cure for salmonella, back handed by the same government? Either that, or they will have to build more hospitals!
Earlier in the month, between the two visitors, Wendy and I managed to shoe-horn in a weekend in the Bay of Biscay in our favourite little spot just south of Biarritz. A couple of days dining on fish so fresh it was still smiling, and a quick round of golf, has whet both our appetites enough to return again, once I get this latest purgatoric trip out of the way. Hopefully, after two weeks of tiling, painting and furnishing, this should be the concluding part of my little house renovation project, and one that will bear fruit in the near foreseeable as we catch the summer holiday rental season in East Fife. It is my intention to spend the surplus ill-gotten gains on some Atlantic oysters and a bottle of the finest wine known to humanity!  To those unaware of this extreme corner of France, Biarritz is one of the most magnificent cities in Europe, underpinned by being favoured as a regular holiday destination of Queen Victoria herself, who, along with her husband, seems to have named every park, street and even car-park after herself. No seventies flat roofed low rise here, with every building resembling a French chateau, if not a palace. Unlike the Med, the rougher seas of the Atlantic coast boasts some fairly hefty waves that are non-friendly to young families, making the inhabitants a mixture of wealthy middle aged French ladies with too much money and beatnik surfer dudes with none at all. Yet somehow, the place just works and I have to say, despite me being neither, I can feel myself drawn in by its charm.
Finally, as I sit crammed into a seat made for slim people I get chatting to the girl next to me, as she is clutching a rugby ball, and a silver trophy. On further investigation there are a number of other young ladies also clad in tracksuits and around me it transpires that this is none other than the Caithness girls rugby team, on tour. Having spent some time in Caithness in my younger days and, more recently, being married to a girl with family from that area, I have to say I am somewhat terrified. Whilst catching a mountain sheep with one hand, diving for lobster in the icy waters in a bikini or throwing large rocks over goalposts may seem a pastime for the mentally insane, it is this very grounding that gives these lassies the genetic make-up that would send the fear of god into an All Blacks national side, let alone some poor slight French schoolgirls in chic shorts and a selfless love of ponies. However, despite winning the tournament by a fair margin, these hardy land-girls complained that the weather was far too hot and they couldn’t wait to get home to some familiar squally showers and a plate of mince and tatties!  
An addendum: with permission from the recently sun-tanned editor, this column is actually finished off  a few weeks later, while resting my weary knees on the Ektorb, sitting on the Wrorstob with my feet up on the Elkatort, all of which ache like a miner’s elbow! Yes, against all my wishes, I have made that intrepid pilgrimage to Ikea, without which no holiday home would be complete. I will admit I am still twitching after 4 hours in the godforsaken giant Swedish shed but, with helpful assembling skills from an unsuspecting visiting friend, the house looks almost habitable. The final 2 weeks of painting,  polishing and positioning have pushed me a long way outwith my comfort zones, as I do my best to provide relaxing surroundings for guests who may shortly be queuing up to rent this - though I say it myself - rather swish home-by-the-sea in East Neuk. It has been an interesting journey over the past 6 months, in a village that has only just discovered round tea-bags, let alone the internet, but one where the pace of life still lives in an age when people are polite, shops close at 5pm and nobody is in a desperate hurry to be in front of anyone else.  In other words, the ideal destination for a UK holiday!  This weekend, I will return to a similar environment, with identical values, only a few thousand miles south with a bit more sunshine, for a well earned rest.

Thursday 14 May 2015

Royal Baby Potato

As the swingometer is wiped down and put back in its box for another 5 years and the country resigns itself to lengthy spell of blue rule, green is definitely the colour of the day here in Chauffour. This month nature has taken a very firm grip of everything that grows, propelling it toward the sky with haste until the garden resembles a Borneo rain forest. After a three week absence, my return to France this week has been one of even more physical work than I left behind in Scotland. I have to say it was pleasant to see my wife again, complete with a pair of great tits, in the nesting box by the front door!
For all it totally disinterests me, I suppose I should give the election a mention, if only to congratulate Mark Garner on his Westminster seat. But what the heck were the opinion polls all doing? I mean, had they asked all the wrong people, to get their predictions so far out? Or maybe everyone they asked had been lying, or changed their mind last minute? All smells a bit fishy, if you ask me, especially in Scotland where the Sturgeon pulled down the red flag. I think I could have successfully predicted that one, but seemingly all the super intelligence of the media had no idea Labour would be toast North of the Border. Anyway, enough of politics, of which I think we are probably all bored now.  However, I do have to question the absurdity of some of the rules that the government puts in place to save ourselves from ourselves. The other day I walked into a shop to purchase a pack of cigarettes for a friend, only to be treated like a 10 year old. It appears that I am no longer able to view the packets on the shelf in case I instantly contract a lethal lung disease. ‘What sort do you want?’ asked the bored Cyclops behind the counter. ‘Urrh, not sure. Can I have a quick look, and then I will recognise which ones they are by the colour of the packet.’ This draws a venomous response. ‘NO. You are not allowed to SEE the cigarettes.’  ‘But you will have to open the cupboard to get them out, so when you open the door I can make a decision?’ I might as well have asked to see her underwear, such was the preposterousness of my request. Whoever came up with such ludicrous nanny-state nonsense?
A day later I am grabbing some quick shopping from the Co-op and chuck a cheeky bottle of Chardonnay in my basket only to be confronted at the till by the error of my unhealthy ways. ‘Not allowed to sell alcohol before 10am, sir.’ WTF? I am not going to drink it till this evening. ‘Sorry sir, it’s the rules.’ Despite it being nearly 9.45am, I had to leave the shop dry handed, to save me from my alcoholism! Is stopping people buying booze before breakfast really going to help Scotland over its drinking issues? Lifemeddlers, please stop.
By the way, ‘lifemeddler’ isn’t a real word yet, but I am running it in for the NEW Oxford Dictionary who update their good book a few times per year.  Sad though I may be, I do like to peruse their lists to see what’s new in the world of words, if only to confuse my spell-checker. This spring I particularly like Floordrobe, a form of hanging up your clothes by throwing them to the carpet! Others include Unrecyclable, something so dangerous that it will bring the world to an end, Unriveted and Unpunched! One assumes the latter may have something to do with not yet having met Jeremy Clarkson!
When we returned to France in March, I couldn’t help noticing that our friendly local speed camera had been removed. Oh joy, one less hazard to encounter when I pop out for a loaf of bread. Well, I am pained to announce that a new one has been erected in its place, possibly one which works. Except, it no longer does as, within 2 days of its installation, someone has already defaced it by spraying the lens blue! See, this is what the French think of laws that they don’t agree with. The latest news is that they are now going to install a camera to watch the camera and maybe catch the culprit and his aerosol can in action. Mind you, if he any common sense he will manage to overcome that little obstacle with yet more paint, in his vendetta against the ruling classes.
Nearer home, since the aforementioned lengthy wet spell, I can openly admit that this year I have an excellent, if not prize-winning crop of potatoes. Although I am not an aficionado on the pomme de terre, I am aware of a number of varieties which do well in our soil, among them the Balmoral, Queen Royal and the King Edward.  Yes, it is a pure coincidence that these all have Royal connections but it is commonly known, to most farmers anyway, that The Royal Family has often shared naming conventions with tubers, as it does with roses. What is perhaps the biggest coincidence, to me anyway, is that by far the best suited tatty to my garden is named Charlotte. I wonder if the right royal couple considered that one while picking names out of the upturned crown?

Sunday 19 April 2015

Flye Maybe?

Welcome to Flye Maybe, the world’s most inefficient airline. Please stand in a queue for an hour while we totally ignore you, before looking vacantly at your checkin details for 10 minutes, while holding a conversation with our colleagues in the next booth, by telephone.   Eventually we will press a few random buttons on the PC keyboard and hope to get a boarding pass printed out that will take you somewhere.  This may take some time.
You will now need to run like the wind to gate 472 to ensure you make your flight. Once you get to the departure lounge, you can stand up for a further 30 minutes while we work out firstly how to open the doors and then which aircraft you might be on.
Once on board, we will walk importantly up and down the aisle killing time while the pilot finds out what all the controls do, checking the manual, and Google. We might then glance at a few random boarding passes to make sure you are on the correct flight – don’t build up your hopes. Warsaw is lovely this time of year, stop complaining.
We would consider apologising for the hour and a half delay for this departure but, to be honest couldn’t give a monkey’s testicle, as we still get paid whether you get there on time or not. Statistically you are more likely to perish in an air crash than to land on time with Flye Maybe.
If you require anything other than a venomous glare whilst on board, please press the buzzer above your head, so that we can ignore it. About three minutes before we land, we will pass through the cabin with a trolley full of grossly overpriced snacks, none of which are in the slightest bit edible. Warm beer and gin will also be available but please don’t ask for ice, this is an aircraft, not a night club.  Scolding hot drinks can be ordered, so you can burn your hands and lips to blisters. Incidentally, nothing that we sell bears the remotest resemblance to the pictures in the menu which can be found in the seat pocket in front of you. If you do require something from the menu, we will have run out of it weeks ago. Should you wish to pay in euros, our appalling exchange rate would bring the World Bank to its knees. We can also offer you a range of knocked-off perfumes at highly inflated prices, should you have been imbecilic enough to have yours confiscated at airport security.
For your inconvenience, we will be flying through turbulence for the entire journey. Take a look at those wings shaking outside the window. Crazy, isn’t it? You will find a sick-bag under your seat, possibly still full from the last passenger who sat in your place. You may also find other interesting things under your seat, for which we take no responsibility whatsoever. The cleaners only come round every second Tuesday.
Please use the minuscule toilets during your flight as they are fitted with cameras so we can have a laugh at you pissing all down your trouser leg, or attempting to sit on the wet seat as the captain weaves between the clouds pretending to be Hans Solo in Star Wars II.
Also for you maximum discomfort, above your head you will feel a constant blast of warm air that will eventually dry your eyes to dust and give you excruciating earache. These devices cannot be switched off. To take your mind off the worrying noise coming from under the aircraft, why not have a look through out dog-eared magazine which contains endless drivel about destinations you are highly unlikely to visit, as well as a list of randomly useless gifts to commemorate your journey. By the way, the pilot is pretty certain the rattling sound is coming from a loose bearing that may get tightened up in a few weeks when we next get an overnight stop in Romania, as they are the only mechanics who will work at our patronising hourly rate.
If you have younger members with you on your flight why not play a game taking a look out of the window to try and work out where we are. We sure as hell haven’t a clue.
Finally, we would ask you to sit back, grip the armrests until your knuckles go blue and pray silently. If we do happen to crash, Flye Maybe takes zero responsibly for your welfare, as we are the ones sitting nearest the door. Please check our website for a list of legal disclaimers so long you would die of old age before your read it all.
In the event that you do arrive at the correct destination, Flye Maybe hopes that you had nothing too precious in your luggage which is now dumped on a runway in East Africa. Your best hope of seeing your belongings again is to keep an eye on ebay. You never know, you might be able to buy them back for a very reasonable price! Keep a look out for your confiscated perfume too - selling your toiletries contributes enormously to our pension scheme.

Tuesday 14 April 2015

The Master Race

How come when you buy an electrical appliance in UK you get instructions in German, Russian, Mandarin and 3 dialects of Arabic, yet trying buying a new phone in France and you get, er French. That’s it, nothing more, unless, of course you phone a premium helpline, which is also in French. I will admit, after 8 years living in France my language skills should be better than they are but generally I can get by ordering plasterboard, concrete and food – but the Livret Utilisateur (instruction manual) may as well be in Gaelic. For all I know, it possibly is! To be fair, it is not just a new phone but a complete internet system with satellite dishes, routers and modems all making baffling beeping sounds, and doing bugger-all. Anyone within 2 miles of Chauffour may have heard a few more beeping sounds, coming from me, as I tried to configure the whole charade – all in a effort to get a usable connection to the cyberworld, rather than the lamentable service we have at present, which is little faster than the old dial-up.
Anyway, this month in France is always an endless chore of battling with the overgrown garden, roof repairs and academic workload, prior to summer. A new swimming pool pump has also added another 500 euros to the cost, something else which had me scratching my head as I converted 3 phase to mono and 60mm fittings to 45mm. Why aren’t things standard anymore. I blame, er, the French…
Today is my first, and possibly last, day off this year, while I sit in the sunshine, trying to relax with a spot of Marler and a Pimms, as summer has well and truly arrived a few weeks early. Forecasters tell me to expect some soaring temperatures and inferno-esque days for the next week or two. Typical, as we are just heading back to UK. This latest trip is for more renovation work on the cottage in East Fife, taking in a couple of days at the World Snooker championships en-route. Keep an eye out for me during the semi final at the Crucible – I will be the one asleep in the third row!
When I get back, tired and thirsty, in mid May, the house will be full of guests and doubtfully dry, as they all huddle by the log burner with their mouths open waiting to be fed. And so it continues, this merry-go-round that appears to go faster each year. No, of course I am not complaining, how could I? I am aware some folks would give the eye teeth for our lifestyle, especially with emerald-tinted glasses on. What are eye-teeth, anyway? Or is it i-Teeth? Ha, sounds like Apple getting into the denture market!  Thankfully, one thing I will manage to escape is the battle of the idiots known as a general election, as I stuff cotton wool in my ears to blank out the lies. That is, of course, if there is any cotton-wool left over since the whole House of Commons has their heads full of it! I would like to think, as a resident of France and Scotland, I am exempt from the perils of a British government enough not to care a hoot who gets their feet under the cabinet table but, in our latest business ventures, a wrong-un could still push a stick in the spokes of my front wheel, so I suppose I will have to put my cross somewhere. But therein hangs another tale; as an overseas resident I am reliant on the French postal service to send in my vote, who will obviously be on strike that day. The reason for their militant action will be in sympathy for the poor hard-done-by air-traffic controllers who are about to wreak havoc on my travel plans, as I spend three nights in a sleeping bag at Bordeaux Airport. No doubt the bin-bags at home will be piling up at our gate as well, while we all contract dysentery from the expanding rat population who dine on rancid poulet-pot, but we are unable to get into hospital because all the junior doctors also realise that they earn less that the bloody air-traffic wardens in the first place. In truth, I have no political preference, but one thing I do note, sheep-mentality Socialism is extremely disruptive to the honest man.
On the subject of sheep, after last year’s barrier breakdown, I have taken evasive action on the fencing front. As I write, potatoes, onions, courgettes and tomatoes are all growing nicely, within a few feet of the sheep field, since I moved my entire vegetable patch nearer the house this year. At present there is plenty of grass growing in the field and the sheep generally seem content – well, as content as one can be with a few dysfunctional brain cells. Each evening, as the lambs gamble and skip in the sunshine, all the ewes make a daily pilgrimage up towards the fence and then stand in a line staring longingly at my tomatoes. Honestly, it’s like a soap-opera to them, only mildly more inventive. If I could credit them with any intelligence at all, I am sure they are trying to hatch a plan to break through and cause carnage, like they did last year. Occasionally I catch a glint in the eye of the ringleader, one Skippy, that gives me a hint that he may have the body of a mere sheep but perhaps underneath it, there is the mind of a criminal genius? So, for once, I am one step ahead of them, as I have wired it up to the mains! OK, that might sound a little drastic but needs must when Aries is at the gate! Let’s just hope we don’t get barbequed lamb before the summer begins.
Which brings me neatly round to something else that has been bugging me. Mastermind. Can someone please explain the criteria that constitutes a special subject? Name? Barry. Occupation? Bricklayer. Specialist subject? The life and works of someone so obscure, nobody has even heard of them! I swear, in this year’s final, one bloke answered questions on one 200 page novel and another one on his granddad! How difficult is that? That’s like me answering questions about my next door neighbour? Or about myself? Name? Andy Frazier. Specialist subject? Andy Frazier? Having said that, there are probably some things about me I don’t even know myself…. Anyway, I have decided to enter next year, answering questions about the ‘thoughts of my sheep.’ If they are still alive by then.

Tuesday 10 March 2015

Cracking cheese

Oh what a multicultural life we seem to lead. Although I still consider my roots to be quintessentially English, I have been known to wear a number of different hats during the rugby season , including Scottish, French and - dare I admit it - Welsh, over the years. However, in general, I would like my nationality to be classed as 'rational'. i.e. someone who lives, works and plays amidst an ethos where normality retains a stronghold. But herein lies a problem.  Try though I might to live in a bubble which excludes day-to-day global lunacy, each year I find it increasingly harder to escape the idiosyncrasies of life that make me want to scream from the upstairs window. And guess what? It very often involves Americans. Let's take a website someone highlighted to me recently called something like ‘healthy living dotcom’. The page I was concerned with was one advocating the benefits of eating cheese. Paragraph 1, and I quote, says 'cheddar, an American cheese, will improve my bone health and lower my blood pressure!' while cream cheese, rich in saturated fat, is healthy as it will 'help fill me up!' I admit I enjoy my cheese, but come on, even I know it is bad for me! Is it any wonder USA has health issues, with everyone 6 stone overweight and dying of obesity aged 45? And yet, when I watch those oh-so glamorous TV series, everyone, even the ‘janitor’ – whatever one of those is – has the toned body of an Olympian gymnast. Maybe it's all a ploy on behalf of the cheese industry?
I have also to comment on another USA invention, that of the Taser gun. On this subject, I have no experience, apart from it making the headlines recently, for all the wrong reasons. Government research announced that this rather painful weapon had been used on at least 400 children in the last year. At first, I found this alarming enough to make me turn up the radio for a second with the consideration that, perhaps, parents were deploying drastic tactics to get their 5 year olds upstairs to bed. However, it turned out that for 'children', read 'feral teenagers' who were nicking cars, looting shops and other unruly behaviour that the police are unable to counter with a kick up the arse.   One 'child' was only 14, says the Daily Mail. Well, if he was 14 years old, he should know better than to break the law? And why wasn't he at school, anyway? Come to think, perhaps they should arm the headmaster with such weapons, like they did in my day! Except, back then, these things were known simply as cattle-prods!
After adding some substantial miles on the clock, we are now back in situ at Chauffour, where new born lambs and grass are now in abundance. With the daffs out and shrubs budding, one could be forgiven for believing all was right with the world - were it not for the constant reminders for this-and-that that keep pinging at me from my new phone. I admit I am a bit of a list person and, during those rare moments I find myself with nothing to do, I often check that ever-expanding list to see where to best apply myself next. Stupidly, in a peak of madness, I downloaded an 'app' and now there is nowhere to hide as it constant nags me to cut the lawn, mend the roof and pay the milkman. There was me thinking I had a wife to do that sort of thing! It is quite amusing though because as well as politely offering me reminders, it also begs to be told what to do (the phone, not the wife). Every time I so much as pick the thing up, a polite lady asks me: 'what would I like to do? Just say the word?' Well firstly I told it to shut up, and it did, for a few minutes. Then it started to learn all the swear words I shouted at it, mostly ending in off! But, when I actually tested it, it does have its uses. 'What time is the next train to somewhere?' gets a response of 'just checking Google,' - silence - then 'half past four, from platform 3 at so-and-so, if you hurry you'll just make it.' It even tells me the cost and offers to order me a ticket. You have to admit, that's pretty smart. And it doesn't stop there either: I can ask it all sorts of stuff like how far is it to the moon, who is Jihadi John and why is Scotland so useless at rugby? All questions are answered in a positively polite way, except it is unable to shake it head in despair at the last one!
On the subject of Jihadi-John, don't you think that MI6 could be a little more imaginative with their nicknames? Are Terry-the-terrorist and Bertie-the-bomber on their wanted list too?
For the last few months, we have been consolidating our possessions and 'clearing out the trash' as my American buddies would say. Box after box of old letters, accounts, manuals and photos have found their way on to the bonfire, along with redundant Ikea furniture.  This is what people do in France, unlike in the UK where everybody and their dog wants to hoard all their unused crap for a rainy day by stacking it in stupidly named 'Self Storage' warehouses. What on earth possesses people to think, 'oh yes, that bright pink Formica coffee table, with matching foot-spa will come in handy when I reach fifty?'  and 'we couldn't possibly throw out grandma's pair of painted donkeys she brought back from Torremolinos in 1974 - she would never forgive us, despite the fact that she's been dead for 11 years.' So, in it all goes, at a cost of a grand a year, cluttering up the world as it bulges at the seams. In fact I have a theory that there is probably more Ikea furniture in storage warehouses that there is in its massive stores.  Where will it end? Will our kids be storing great-great-grandad's garden gnomes for eternity? Time to have an amnesty, I say. Rid yourselves! November 5th would be a good day?
I will admit that this is a year I have been looking forward to as we start to hatch a few plans towards a distant 'putting up of the feet'. It was some time ago that I made a vague plan to retire in the 'year of the sheep' to keep, er, sheep. And here it is, all of a sudden, and I am about as ready as Oscar Pretorious on a rusty day. Amongst the pyre of burning documents, I find a pension statement which is worth about as much as a Greek taverna in February, that will provide me with a salary of sixpence a year if I am lucky.  That is assuming I don't live past the age of 67 when it will run out completely. However, driven by the fear of shoeless poverty, in the words of Baldrick 'I have a cunning plan...' It may take some hard work and a little risk but nobody helps those who don't help themselves. Bring on the next challenge.

Friday 13 February 2015

Taff's daffs

I write today from the train to Perth – but sadly not the one in Australia! The small commission I undertook a couple of years ago to write a history book seems to have spiralled into a Herculean effort, as it takes  me to Perth and – to quote an old poem – many other parts of Earth. I still find it quite a novelty travelling by rail and actually getting a seat, compare to the overcrowded carriages that I used to commute on. That is not to say East Scotland isn’t crowded, as proved by the snail-paced queues on the Edinburgh by-pass twice per day which are now reaching M25 proportions. A few weeks ago I caught a glimpse of that highly colourful chap, Michael Portillo, doing this very same rail trip, out from the capital over the 100 year old steel bridge, up through Perthshire’s rolling acres , to interview some folks about life during the Victorian times. What I was amazed – and somewhat disappointed by – is that he failed to mention one of the greatest spectacles in the agricultural world, the annual Perth Bulls sales. Back then, upwards of 100 bulls would arrive by train from various parts of the country to join over 1000 other hopefuls of their own breed to be offered for sale each February. From there, many would again be despatched by rail to the docks from where they would sail the high seas to the Americas and beyond.  I know this as, for the last two years, my research tells me so. Currently my job is to document each of these animals, discussing their pedigrees and early show career, as well as that of their owners and keepers.  During this time I have uncovered men of immense skills and talent, bulls taken into ballrooms, animals won on the toss of a coin and tales of amazement and hilarity you could never have made up. I have to say, the job has been as interesting as it has been exhausting and I hope the legacy it transpires into will emphasise this fact. Actually I find it quite worrying that what I am writing will be compelled to reality once it gets filed as the written word. You see, it’s not like a monthly magazine, or a daily newspaper that will tomorrow be lighting the winter log-burner.  Let’s face it, who would question what they found in a large expensive history book? What if I made a mistake? What if I mishear what one of the old guard has told me and document a McDermot as a McDonald or, worse still, an Eric as an Erica? (The latter being common names of cows and bulls from that era, apparently). The more I lie awake over such issues, the more of a cold sweat appears at my brow. Am I the new Wikipedia – just making things up for my own amusement? Does the bored man wearing cheap pin-stripes on the seat next to me with not a care in the world, while he squanders his life playing Tetris on his phone, have any idea of my plight? Will a drove of cattle-head anoraks arrive at my door with blazing pitchforks, demanding the ‘truth’ in the name of bovine honour? In my defence, I can only do my best to relate the stories and facts that have been passed on to me, and then deftly usher the buck to someone else to verify. Which is why I am headed to Perth, to see a man who knows more than I – and offer him a job!
I know I often bang on about how fast the weeks go by but I cannot believe that our winter stint in Scotland will shortly be at a close. By the end of the month, we will once again be back in France, grabbing a few days skiing before going home to lamb the ewes and mow the lawn. Sadly, we will be a few sheep short this year since the antics of a hunting dog brutally stole a couple of the flock. This isn’t the first time it has happened either, as the local chasse (hunt) head out on a Sunday morning to shoot a few wild boar and then sit around getting drunk for the rest of the day as their blood-thirsty canines roam free to further vent their carnal urges. It is as maddening as it is saddening to think that I am powerless to protect my own stock from such atrocity, such is the rural law in our parts. At least in UK the hounds are within control of the crimsonly clad huntsman as they clear up the country’s predatory foxes – but, of course, we are not permitted to discuss that elephant in the room!
Anyway, moving swiftly on, the carriage is now passing the stunning empty beaches of Fife, an area I have come to know intimately since my activities in East Neuk renovating a house. Next week, my last on UK soil for a few months, I am back there to tile a new bathroom during the next phase of the project. I quite like tiling; it is sort of therapeutic – a bit like playing Tetris, only with real things. I feel like writing to Mr Portillo and mentioning that it is a shame all those Victorian builders never had spirit-levels in their day, which would have saved me considerable effort as I  do my best to redress the verticals. If I have learned one thing as a DIY builder, nothing shows up the poor geometry more than square tiles. Hopefully I am still on track to get the top two floors knocked into something habitable before the American tourists arrive in nearby St Andrews for the British Open golf tournament July, although organising my diary to achieve that also seems like a game of Tetris just now.  
I will admit, I am secretly looking forward to getting back to our house, for a little more space and a garden where the dogs can take themselves for a walk. Springtime is my favourite time of year and the one in France starts quite a bit earlier than its Scottish counterpart, where the daffs will already be in bloom and the early blossom considering its advance. On the subject of daffodils, I have a couple of observations. One - I note through the press that supermarkets have recently been advised not to display their daffodil buds within a 100 feet of the vegetable aisle as shoppers have been mistaking them for food. This I find highly amusing, as the bulbs in question are quite poisonous, thus deeming it a mistake they would hardly make twice. How many times should we have to save the idiots from themselves? Let them out of the asylum, I say, so natural selection can have its way.
On another daft-daff note, we spent an enjoyable evening in a restaurant a few weeks ago watching that grand old derby, England versus Wales rugby. In Scotland, it is nothing new to hear the majority of the assembled viewers cheering on the allied Welsh against us Anglos, but did the place really have to put a vase of daffodils on every table in a show of solidarity? I have to admit that, after the splendidly crushing result, I ate mine in a show of defiant belligerence! It was quite nice too and has almost inspired me to write a cookbook on edible flowers. Obviously sautéed daff bulbs will only be on the menu in Cardiff!

Thursday 15 January 2015

Why, why why?

Optimists tell me that spring is just around the corner which I find pretty hard to comprehend, especially as I struggle to even trudge around that corner to the shop, at a 45 degree angle, defying the laws of physics as wind, rain and (today) snow hamper my progress. It only seems a few weeks ago since Christmas, when I made the same journey, stopping at the post office to be greeted by the latest ridiculous round of legislation:- that I am no longer allowed to buy stamps over the counter. Apparently, licking the gum myself is now against the law in case I get addicted. To me, this conjured up images of incredible desperation, with spotty youths gathering behind the tennis courts to lick a book of first class, at a couple of quid a go. A few years ago I would have been stunned by such nonsensical administration but perhaps in my older age I am beyond caring. I must admit that, before I could stop myself, I did mention rather venomously to the post master that ‘no wonder the village post office will soon be closed and replaced by a curry house, putting you out on the street in the snow, you pompous old fart!’ If nothing, I still have a way with words!
And it is words that bring me round to my next tranche of rantings. It appears that my auld allies, the Welsh, have something composite to moan about for once, in that their sturdy, if elderly, patriarch, Tom Jones is under threat. For the last 40 years, the terraces of Cardiff have rung out with a hearty rendition of ‘Why, why, Delilah’, of which, to a man, every home rugby supporter knows the words to all four verses. Well, it seems they will no longer be allowed such liberty. Someone, somewhere, somehow, has decided that good old Tom is actually encouraging domestic violence with his passionate hymn. Apparently, ‘when she sees the knife his hand’ he hasn’t come to carve the Sunday roast at all, so she really had better stop laughing, right this minute! Whilst down that neck of the woods, I listened to a bearded twit on the radio advocating that old riotous songs such as these should all be banned, in a bid to save the human race from self destruction. Other considerations were that in England’s counter tune to this about driving their Chariots around, ‘a band of angels coming after me’ could be seen to depict Hells Angels on their Harleys. And as for the Scots sending Proud Edward home again, well, what a despicable act of racism? Meanwhile New Zealand’s own blood thirsty song about slicing their opponents into tiny pieces with a machete is, of course acceptable, as the Maori tribes are in the ethnic minority, so that’s alright!
Oops, better be careful what I say there. Meanwhile, back in the land of my chosen habitat, the locals are beating ploughshares into swords after a violent attack on their own freedom of speech. Once again we see the sectarian element of a religion grossly over-reacting to a little light hearted dig at their prophet. It was, of course, an abominable and barbaric act, which should be condemned from all sides but – and it is a personal but here – was the correct action from the French to then print yet more propaganda against Allah in the subsequent publication of Charlie Hebdo? France may believe in Freedom of Speech, and quite rightly so, but this is surely the equivalent of Salman Rushdie (remember him) selling copies of the Satanic Verse on street corners in Baghdad.  Monsieurs: petrol does not put out flames – not even at 99 cents per litre!
While on the subject of Muslim attacks, I did have a wry smile to myself, concerning the people near the Severn Estuary. It seems that some student terrorists had managed to hack through the internet into TravelWest, believing they were disrupting the entire travel plans of the Western World. However, when it transpired that the website was actually a local bus timetable, the fiends were left with less credibility than Tony Blair in a confession box.  Although very little disruption was reported, a third of the population of Bristol were a day late collecting their giros!
Meanwhile in the East, it was Putin’s turn to yet again put the boot in (oh the irony of how that rhymes) by coming up with a list of people who were no longer allowed to drive cars. The register included all transsexuals, cross-dressers, fetishists and exhibitionists as well as, of course, paedophiles.  Exactly what these genres contribution to the 30,000 road deaths per year in Russia was unclear, unless perhaps, they were partaking in one or some of these acts whilst at the wheel. A rumour that the entire senior membership of the Catholic church was also included are unfounded.
On a subject more close to home, I am delighted to note that GM crops will now be allowed to be grown on UK soil after a lengthy ban. After years of instilling lies through the media of how giant sweetcorns are going to creep out from the fields under cover of darkness and strangle us in our beds, it turns out that they are actually no more harmful than a tub of yoghurt. Wheat that has been bred to give higher yields and be resistant to disease will not actually make us choke on our morning toast, nor poison the entire dormouse population. To the contrary, what it may do is afford the farmer a slightly better livelihood, and subsequently bring down the cost of food. For those of you who head straight to the organic aisle in Waitrose, wearing the smug self-satisfied grin normally reserved for politicians, please carry on saving the planet with your bug infested vegetables. Having worked in the agrochem industry, I assure you that not all is as clean as it seems. I, for one, will opt for a cheaper loaf and some well-fed pork. Still, you are what you eat, so they say. Not sure what that makes me!
Now that genetically modifying crops has at last become acceptable, one hopes it wont be too long before they start on humans. With some research, in a generation they could breed out all those morons who drive too close behind other cars causing everyone but themselves to have accidents. Scientists could also create some honest taxi drivers, pension salespeople and news reporters. Oh, and terminate anyone who laughs at ‘you’ve been framed!’