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!