Friday 15 September 2017

Carry-on Camping-car

Well this makes a change. Here I am writing from a small bench beside the Atlantic ocean, somewhere in Southern Brittany. The sun is shining and all is, for once, well in the world. Our small and near ancient camping car has behaved relatively well so far on our 2000 mile journey up to UK and back. A glass of Pouilly Fume has been poured and a magret de canard is awaiting its fate on the bbq, as I frantically hit these keys to appease the R&DN editor with a few words of monthly ranting, hopefully before the grape juice takes its merry toll. And thus it should be easy, with so much time on my hands. Sadly, said hands are strapped in bandages, after an altercation with a wine glass a few days ago, which I managed to crush beneath my steely grip whilst boarding the ferry in Poole, slashing holes into my palm and fingers, extracting enough blood to scare a Tarantino movie in the process. Not content with maiming my digits, yesterday I went out cycling on a wet road, only to collide with the kerb and tumble onto the tarmac in quite spectacular fashion, nearly plummeting through a bar window, much to the amusement of its revellers. Inexplicably, on both occasions I was stone cold sober – and therein stands a warrant that sobriety is excessively over rated.
Our trip to UK was expectedly frantic, which included a wedding in Alveley near Bridgnorth, at the splendidly reconstructed Mill Barns, now a purpose built wedding venue. And what a great spot it was. There is a rumour about whose matches put paid to the old place but I don’t think anybody has been fingered for the insurance crime.  I have no idea who did the carpentry for its replacement but suspect he used skills passed down all the way from Joseph of Nazareth, such was the intricate lattice in its splendid vaulted ceilings. From there, via a trip to visit my Ma in Rock, we hot-wheeled it down to Cornwall for a couple of nights in Polpero, a sleepy fishing village on the south coast near St Austell. I have to say it is a magical place, like stepping back in a time warp into the 1970s. Sadly the restaurant that we chose was also stuck in this space-time continuum, complete with swirly carpets, dreary elevator music and a menu straight out of Abigails Party, which included prawn cocktails and Blue Nun. The Madame who ran the place was a relic from 60s Polish aristocracy, who appeared to have managed to salvage all her furniture prior to the revolution. In fact the only thing that had been modernised were the prices, which would have made a Swiss banker blush. From there we headed to St Ives, one of my favourite haunts of old. A meal in the Porthminster Café, right on the beach made up for the previous night’s terror, so fabulous was its food, décor and staff. Despite gentle drizzle, a few hours meandering among the local art galleries the next day also added to the bonhomie. I even tracked down an artist from whom I purchased an original painting some 20 years ago, which hangs in pride of place in our hallway in France. One doesn’t wish to inflict mortality on anyone but I was rather hoping she may have passed on and the value of her art gone stratospheric. Needless to say this wasn’t the case but her fame has spread widely and she is now a fellow of the Royal Society so there is hope yet for this piece. I certainly couldn’t afford to buy another of hers, such was my wanton, as some of the exhibits were the price of a small family car.
And so, to Brittany, or Bretagne, once a home land of the English. To be fair, this part of France appears to be much more like Scotland, or even Wales, such is its terrain. One part called Ty Gwenn felt like we were in Clwydd, for a moment, hence we left with great haste for fear of being chased out with pitchforks for our British number-plates and sheep mentality. In fact the whole area sports such interesting place names, many beginning with the word Plough, a reference I imagine to the settlers who turned the first soil in the area. Were it not an ancient land, one could almost vision the English chuckling as they came up with names such as Brest, Quimper and Pornic, all of which wouldn’t look out of place in a 60s risqué sitcom. Yes, I could just image Sid James scripted with enough innuendo one-liners to fill 2 hours of Carry-on up your Coq-au-campervan!
Anyway, with the rain subsided, one assumed a backlash of Hurricane Irma, we have a few more days R&R before arriving back home to the chores and impending winter we left behind. By mid October it will be all hands (assuming mine have mended by then) back to the pump as we embark on yet another winter project in Scotland. I may have mentioned a few months ago that we had an eye on a couple of fishermen’s cottages in Fife, which we now own. Subsequently we will be back to battling with lawyers, bankers and planners, in an attempt to put a modern spin on a wee 19th century house overlooking the Firth of Forth, so we can one day call it home. I have to admit, I am excited with the prospect that at last, after 50+ years, the chance of owning a beach house is now a reality, albeit a shale beach, in one of UKs poorer climes. But, none the less, by this time next year, we may have seals for neighbours, as well as Glaswegian grockles gnawing on fish and chips, of course. We’ll still remain residents in France though, so I can keep fit mowing the lawn every 3 day and maintain the inhalation of garlic.
So, as the season approaches of unavoidable Strictly-Cum-Master-Factor, tonight I have the ocean as a TV and waves as the soundtrack, while I take few moments to peruse through the adverts of ‘What-beard’ magazine, (the publication of choice for the caravan community). Ahead, the distant future remains just a small dot at the far end of an ever extending tunnel – although, inevitably, it will turn out to be a rapidly approaching train before morning!

Thursday 17 August 2017

Assuming she was a virgin

Did I mention that we were expecting this summer to be a little quieter on the visitor front, so Wendy and I could relax for a few days by the pool? How foolish of me. This one has been madder than ever, in fact our place has been more crowded than a North Korean nuclear shelter, such are the comings and goings. On the sole weekend we had no guests, when perhaps we should have been resting, we headed off to UK to see family and surprise my son at his 30th birthday party. This entailed a night in a rather expensive country house in middle England, dressed in our best fineries. The effort was worth it just to see his reaction as we walked into the panelled library where evening drinks were being served. The poor lad’s first words were, “that fat old bloke over there looks just like my Dad!” After a solid evening of revelry, we then hot-footed it back home, after enduring a 24 airport delay, just in time to get the pan on again! Couple all the cooking, washing and cleaning with our small property business having its busiest month ever and I must say that we are both looking forward to a long awaited holiday in September. The current plan includes a further trip back to UK in the campervan for another family visit and a wedding near Bridgnorth, followed by a few days on the Cornish coast and a few more in Brittany, if the weather holds.
Today is yet another bank holiday in France, as it is in another few European countries, as they celebrate the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, although it remains unclear what she was assuming.  The fact that the 15th August falls on a Tuesday this year gives the French chance to utilise a Pont (Bridge) day, sneaking Monday off as well so they can extend their weekend, as they are prone to do. The main soiree around these parts is a large Oyster Festival in the town of Eymet, an event we rarely miss. Despite me not being overly partial to the salty little blighters, the gourmet stalls do extend to any amount of other crustaceans include moules, crevettes and bulots (the latter being a barely edible sea snail) all washed down with some rather fine Bergerac wines.  Duck, pork and a variety of other grilled meats make up the main courses, the combination of which spans about 12 hours in 2 sittings.  Then comes the issue of getting home, as of course all buses and taxis also take the day off, but the police do not! Fortunately, my long suffering wife drew the short straw this time allowing me to drink my own bodyweight while she stayed sober. Tomorrow I may pay.
On the subject of vehicles , for 5 weeks now a stationary four-wheel drive has been parked on our drive, masquerading as one of Frances largest and possibly most expensive garden ornaments. I would ask the owner to remove it but sadly I cannot, as it is my own. Yes, it was the day after the Tour de France that we realised that we had misplaced the key to the Range-rover, something which sparked a treasure hunt of military precision, but unfortunately to no avail. Needless to say, we have no spare. Since that date we have had willing detectives, bounty hunters and engineers all helping with our plight but still the thing just sits there. I have ordered a new key, at extortionate cost, but it appears they cannot provide this yet, for reasons I have yet to fathom. And even when they do, all the key will do is to unlock the door so we can check if the original may be inside. If not, which I suspect may be the case, the whole vehicle then has to be uplifted and delivered to the local dealership to be re-programmed at yet more cost. Oh well, at least our fuel bill will be a bit lower this month!
Meanwhile I am still trying to juggle tradesmen in East Scotland from afar – no easy task, as each tends to blame the other for just about everything including the weather. It appears to have been raining there for nearly a month, and the leak in our kitchen has now become a water feature, something which is about as welcome as a Belgian omelette just now. So it looks like I may have to grab a flight and don my sou’wester and gum-boots and head north again. You know what they say? If you need a job doing properly don’t just ask someone, ask soi-même.

Friday 14 July 2017

Daisy La Tour

   Today is July 14th, a not insignificant date in the French calendar as it marks the anniversary of the Storming of the Bastille, an event that did as much for Gillette Razors as Easter did for 4 inch nails. As you can imagine, the local peasants still enjoy celebrating their ancestors ‘revolting’ act by barbequing some wildlife and swilling down the local hooch. But this year our nearby neighbours have had 2 days to get swallied within one week, as we also had the bonus of La Tour de France passing right by our door a couple of days ago. Now I have to say I am not big on cycling but, as you may well be aware, I am big on partying. So an occasion like this was not one to be missed as we once more dusted off the sheep trailer and invited all our friends along to a street party – in the middle of the road. Not one but four shoulders of lamb found their way into the oven for 18 hours and then subsequently onto the bbq prior to our sit down, once the main roads had been closed to allow 200 cyclists to pass. In all, said lamb fed 29 guests as well as one fat policeman, as we revelled for a good few hours of flag waving on the side of the highway, buoyed on by copious amounts of red wine. However, forget Chris Frome or Mark Cav, the star of this year’s show was very much the one-and-only Daisy Death-wish who made a guest appearance, complete with polka dot jersey. Installed in a 6 foot square pen on the grass verge, the bemused creature stamped her foot at passers by, most of whom stopped to take her photograph, including the official La Tour journalist. Thankfully there was plenty of bread and water melon on offer so she didn’t do too badly out of the deal although, when the sun came out, she did look rather embarrassed in her yellow hat with holes cut out for her ears!
   On the subject of sheep, this year we have had almost a perfect summer for them, as we seem to get heavy rain storms every few days and the grass is growing so fast they can barely keep up. Sadly so are the thistles which are bidding for a takeover since the wheel broke on the topper. I think I mentioned we had a new addition of a ram last month? He has now been named Rafa – after the 10 times French Open tennis champion - and is settling in nicely in his own field awaiting his ‘induction’ with the females in September. I am not quite sure what he will make of one wearing a red polka dot dress, but I doubt Daisy will be slow in chatting him up when the big day comes!
   Other news this month is that we have now completed the project in Fife, or thought we had. Unfortunately, a few minutes before the valuer arrived to inform us of what little profit my hard work had earned, a torrent of water started pouring in through the kitchen ceiling! Eventually the leak was pinpointed to a rotten section in the dormer window, so we now have scaffolding up, awaiting a joiner to take out the window and replace the offending piece of wood, and praying for no more rain. Oh well, back to the drawing board. We still managed a small celebration of our efforts, as we at last breathed some life back into a building that had sat empty for 15 years, with some loud music and singing. Think we might need to sell-up and move on now, though, as the neighbours were none too impressed with our shenanigans at 2am!
   Every time I consider I am getting too old for this hard work, another un-missable opportunity presents itself. This time a pair of derelict fishermen’s cottages on the edge of the Firth have caught my eye, so watch this space. Not sure where I will find the time, money or energy to restore them back their former glory; I may have to dig very deep on this one.
Usually mid-summer, and July in particular, is reserved for some down time to spend with visitors so it has been nice to have both my sons here in France over the past few weeks, along with their mates. The pool and pizza oven have been put through their paces, as has the beer fridge. In a clever piece of marketing, one brand of beer is celebrating its 70th birthday by printing a different year of its existence on the cap of each bottle. To start with this just whiled away a few seconds of attention to the lads but, as the collection grew, it rapidly developed into an obsession. Soon they were back at the store, buying more pallets of the stuff so they could complete the entire set – exactly the course of action that the manufacturers would be looking to incite. Sadly the collection is still 3 numbers short, and the guests have all left now. So, it is up to me to keep the search going until we find 1970, 1984 and 2001. It’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it!
If I wasn’t such a cynical old bugger, I might suggest that Kronenbourg never actually printed those ones at all.  I can but check, though! 

Thursday 13 July 2017

A visit to Dr PooPoo

  It looks as if we are destined for the record books here in France, with the hottest June ever recorded and temperatures soaring into the high thirties. Well, at least that is what the forecast says, whereas in reality we are currently getting daily thunderstorms, clattering away the dry air, scaring the hell out of the dogs and filling the pool with debris. I will admit, to help with the latter, this year we have employed Dexter, who scrubs away tirelessly underwater, cleaning up the algae, dead leaves and insects. No, he is not a local serf, but a labour-saving robot, as neither my wife nor I manage to find enough time to take on the maintenance task. I love work, I could watch it all day!
  We also have another new man in the fold, this time of the woolly variety, as we have just purchased a new stock ram, having sold Roger on to another flock earlier in the year. I have to say this new chap, as yet un-named, is quite a fine specimen whom we picked out from a nearby flock of Charollais. I don’t always admit to being wily, but when it comes to choosing stock I learned well from my father. The farmer showed us the 3 ram lambs he had for sale and I looked them over, nodding appreciatively when, from the corner of my eye, I spotted another lamb, out in the yard with the rest of the flock. ‘What about that one?’ I suggested. ‘Not for sale, I am keeping him as a ram for my own flock, monsieur.’ Aha. Then that’s the very one we want to buy! And we did.
  You may recall that last month, in fact for the last six, I have been working on a renovation project in Scotland, which is now more or less complete. However, a few days into my last trip I had a run-in with an electric power-tool, it winning the day and ripping a hole in my leg in the process. Too wide to sew up with conventional stitches, the nice nurse pulled the wound together with some paper strips which lasted all of about 3 hours before they fell off under the strain. That was over 4 weeks ago and still the weeping open wound is enough to put you off your breakfast, preventing me going in the swimming pool - a minor set-back that the rest of my work-force were very unsympathetic with! Not that I am whinging, but this is the second June in a row I have had this issue, as last year it was a case of shingles that prevented my aqua-activity. Coupled with this trauma I now have acute back-pain, possibly brought on by walking around on one leg for weeks. A visit to Doctor Poopoo – yes, that is his real name – to get some painkillers resulted in him throwing a wobbly when he saw the state of my leg. Whereas in Scotland, I had been advised to keep the wound open to let the air heal it, here in France they are still quite Dickensian in such matters, wrapping everything in mummy-like bandaging until gangrene sets in. Seriously, I could see him setting up the saw-bench and providing a leather strap for me to bite on if I had stayed around much longer! Anyway, the upshot of all this is that, for once, I am confined to life in the slow lane for a while, something which has been frequently suggested for some time by those around me.  
  Despite the endless list of jobs which keep amassing in front of me, apart from shearing the sheep - a task for which I canvassed the help of a fit young chap half my age - I am doing my best to ignore them all. This affords me some time to sit in front of the TV, catching up with the tennis, rugby and golf, as well as the aftermath of yet another farcical electoral result which leaves nobody in charge of Britain’s dinner money. It appears that the only way to govern from on-high in such situations is to invite the loonies to help run the asylum, and then pat them on the head and offer them a wooden chair in the corner in the hope they don’t try and enforce their own outrageous homophobic racist policies in the process. Shame we couldn’t revert back to Cromwell’s day where a hung parliament meant exactly that, as they swung by the neck quietly in the breeze, amid a swarm of blow-flies!         Wouldn’t that make a pleasant sight for London’s cyclists?
On the subject of bikes, I note that the city of Dublin is considering banning the bicycles from their streets as the Road Safety Organisation admits they are unsafe. Really? Whatever gave you the idea that 2 wheelers ducking and weaving in and out of fast moving trucks and cars, and jumping red traffic lights was a health hazard? In an article in the Dublin Times, a particularly articulate spokesman for Cycle Weekly says, and I quote, “If there was proper cycle lanes, people would use them. Ours are just painted white lines on the side of the road!” As opposed to what, I ask myself? Raised gantries, people-free pavements or traffic-less roads perhaps?  He further added that “sometimes there is so much congestion that it is quicker to walk..” Hoorah for common sense, enforce the ban right now and get Europe back on its feet. Except, of course, this wouldn’t include England, would it? They are far too clever. C’est la vie, Patrick, we stand together on this one.


Dusting off the Claymores again

  People often refer to budget flight as travelling ‘cattle class’. I can assure you, having escorted a number of cattle on planes around the world in my younger days, that cattle are treated far better than us mere humans when it comes to aviation. Yes, once again I am traversing the channel with Ryanair and boy, is it tedious.  Bovine beasts are also nicer to each other, don’t push and shove half as much and, in general, smell better too. Honestly, it is easier to load a 100 head of inbred Limousin stirks on to a cardboard barge than fill a 737 full of numpties with the combined IQ of an egg sandwich.    Ordinarily, I try and avoid travelling in the busy season but this trip North is to conclude the remaining outstanding jobs on our project in Fife, cracking the whip loudly because nobody seems to do any work as soon as I am off site. In fact, perhaps I should bring a cattle prod with me to liven up the workforce, then at least I could to get my cramped airline seat ahead of the stampede.
  The France I leave behind has had a few weeks of political turmoil, resulting in yet another smooth respectable president in charge, although his spouse is already in the headlines and I suspect it will only be a few months before he gets photographed with his mistress. The country I am currently passing over at a mile high, England, also has a similar upheaval in the corridors of power, keeping the pundits in overtime pay and the TV channels cluttered with wannabe cabineteers. However, it is the country for which I bound that gives me more of a headache, for yet again a minority is attempting to stir up the past, Claymore in hand, to fight the auld foe, only this time the troops are headed up by one of the Krankies! With shameless self-interest, I was more than glad that the last referendum finished with its NO vote, as I had just invested some hard earned cash in a few properties in a run-down part of Glasgow. Over the next year or so, in a settling economy, the housing market steadily picked up and, for once, my gamble was on the right horse. But now everything Scottish is balancing on such a realm of uncertainty that even Mystic MacMeg would struggle to predict the outcome, and with my wallet caught firmly in the crossfire. Are we heading for a Franco-Scot alliance perhaps, with Macaroons and Sturgeons jointly headlining on the same menu? Or will a Scoxit mean everything north of Carlisle deteriorates into a country more third-world than a Syrian allotment by the end of the decade? If Nicola has her way, by the time Danny Boyle gets to making Trainspotting 3, will there actually be any trains to spot in Scotland’s capital?  Or will the wheels of industry have long since headed southwards from the platform? It is all as alarming as it is confusing for an old sheep farmer such as myself. Unfortunately I cannot spell Armageddon, but that’s not the end of the world!
  I think I need a stiff drink! ‘That will be ten euros, please,’ says our yellow-attired in-flight cabin-attendant, service with a scowl.
  So, it’s back to the Kingdom of Fife once again for a few week’s graft. I do love the fact that Fife has retained that title through all the country’s ups and downs. A long while ago the wild and rebellious race of Picts ran around the place causing mayhem until a self appointed King took charge and ruled them from Dunfermline palace with a red-hot poker. Although his seat got lost to the SNP sometime in the Middle Ages, the county’s handle still remains. Britain doesn’t have many Kingdoms, in fact this may even be its only one. That makes me quite proud to live there, albeit part-time, until, of course, it is taken away and thrown to the wolves of independence, complete with baby and bathwater. Just saying.
  While in Ecosse we will also get chance to take in the European rugby cup final in Edinburgh and, when I get back, my ever-thoughtful wife has treated us to a couple of tickets at the French Open Tennis in Paris. I am not quite sure when it was that I turned into a Live Sports junkie but I have to admit, watching professionals at the top of their game, up close and personal, gives me a huge buzz. Over the last decade we have visited Rugby World Cups, British Lions Tours, Golf Ryder Cups and the World snooker championships, all of which are played out in electrifying atmospheres. And so it is that we have started saving our pennies, or Yens, to visit the next major event on the horizon, the RWC in that little-known rugby-playing nation, Japan. It feels like only a few years back when I went on a school trip to witness a Japanese touring side playing against Wales in Cardiff and getting 100-0 tanning. And back then at 5 foot nine in heels, I was probably a good few inches taller than most of their team. Well not any more. Over the last decade or so the land of the rising sun now sports a squad full of players of monster proportions, each and every one carrying twenty stones of muscle that would come in right handy carrying plasterboards up three flights of stairs. An outside tenner could do worse that pick them to lift the Webb Ellis trophy. You heard it here first.
  Right, I am off to eat some sushi. Sayonara!

Monday 17 April 2017

The breaking season

    Sun shining, grass growing, a million jobs to do. I must be back in France again then? Not that I can complain about the weather in Scotland, for it was beautiful on the East Coast when I was there for 3 weeks. So maybe, for once, the sun is following me around: wouldn’t that be nice?
    I had recently announced that lambing was over, but how wrong I was when last weekend we had a surprise birth. The culprit was the only daughter of famed Daisy Deathwish and thus, true to family form, she dropped it and scarpered! After a brief ID parade, Delilah was gathered into the shed and presented with the poor orphan which she proceeded to head butt in a rather unladylike fashion. She then watched cautiously as I constructed a set of wooden stocks in which she still sits until she learns the error of her ways and accepts her responsibility. Even then I have to stand over her to let the lamb suck else she kicks it to pieces with a more accurate pair of feet than Wayne Rooney. The threat still remains that if she doesn’t conform soon, I will build a gallows next!
    With the fast growing grass, and lambs, comes the time for worming. After last year’s rainy spring, we had a particular problem with liver-fluke in the lambs, something which I haven’t seen for many a year in UK. So, after some expensive veterinary advice, we invest our month’s savings in a tiny bottle of medicine to treat all the sheep. As the leaflet within is not only written in miniscule font, but in French, I decide to Google exactly what this wonder-drug actually cures. Soon, up comes a page with a list as long as a politician’s expenses sheet, including over 100 parasites with lengthy and quite scary Latin names. I next have to get Bing Translator TM to convert French Latin into English, which is no mean task. It was then I was first introduced to a number of tiny beasts of whose existence I was previously oblivious to. Did you know that a Parafilaria bovicola is otherwise known as ‘False Bruising’? No, nor did I. My favourite was the mighty Hook-necked Cattle Bankruptworm. Who wouldn’t want to rid that one out of the field at first light, or moreover still, keep it away from the accounts department!  
   Staying on the subject of lamb, some might say rather callously, I have to mention our BBQ. We possess, and have done for exactly 10 years, a Weber top of the range gas barbeque, and for all its 10 years it has worked like a slave, faultlessly cooking not only for us but for our numerous party guests. Now some of you may be aware, Weber offer a 10 year guarantee on their products. Why? Because they pack up after that, that’s why. Yes, just 2 days after the warranty faded, it died. I have no complaints, it gave a good service till the end, I just find it unbelievably perfect timing, that’s all. Of course when we went to replace it with a shiny new one at the start of cooking season, the price had doubled to nearly a squillion euros, with no discounts available. Here’s hoping the new one can earn its keep for another decade.
    Last month appeared to be the season for things packing up, as I bought a new run-around vehicle in Scotland, which lasted approximately 3 days before a warning light flashed on the dashboard, telling me it no longer worked. Well it wasn’t so much a warning light than a blazing display of beacons all lit up like a jackpot machine on payout day. Along with it, the fuel gauge now goes up and down like a bride’s nightie, the electric speedo and handbrake no longer function and the parking sensors insist I am about to run over an old lady. My local mechanic in East Fife took one look at it and shook his head in doom, as only mechanics can. Eventually I took it to VW specialist in Edinburgh who gleefully announced that this particular model of Passat was renowned for electrical faults and should be avoided at all costs. He then proceeded to diagnose a faulty electrode somewhere in the bowels of the engine and arrived at a repair cost of £1500, a hundred quid more than I paid for the car in the first place. So, we now keep a half brick in the boot to aid parking on hills, keep a close check on the mirrors when reversing, refuel every day, and drive everywhere in second gear for fear of being caught speeding! Strangely enough, it is just over 10 years old as well.
    Finally I would like to wish you all a happy Easter or Paquee, as it is called in French. Years ago, one might proffer a card or even a chocolate egg on such occasions. But not now, since it has been hijacked by the demons of commercialism. Now we have seasonal shopping from Toys’r’us for all the spoilt kids, some of whom write their demands in a letter to the Easter Bunny, complete with death threats. Drinks companies advertise romantic nights in with hi-octane cocktails of alchopops, with Gaviscon backing up the rear (so to speak), and travel agents invite us to ‘quiet’ weekends with all the children at Centreparks, where the quietest thing in the place are the sirens on the security lorry taking our cash to their bank. However, I think the best band-waggon hijack I have seen so far was an email from EE suggesting: ‘I buy my mother a mobile top-up for Mother’s Day!’ Really? Here you go Ma, forget the flowers and choc-box this year, have a tenner on your Samsung in case you need to speed-dial the doctor! As always, je despair!

Mile-high mumblings

Here we go again, writing this column at 30 thousand feet, I seem to be making a habit of it lately. This time I am leaving behind the blazing sunshine in France, heading north for a few weeks work on my latest building project in East Neuk of Fife. Having battled with the local council we at last have the plans and permissions approved in triplicate to take it to the next phase, that of knocking through a few walls and windows in my hard hat. Leaving Wendy at home tending the flock - which I am happy to announce has expanded by a dozen lambs over the last 3 weeks - I am travelling with a pal who is lending me a hand in Scotland. Together with a couple of tradesmen, we are hoping to have a good kick of the ball and get the new house into something livable by Easter, including 3 bathrooms and a kitchen fitted and tiled. Of course this will marginally rely on the appearance of our ever elusive plumber, but I suspect he will turn up at some point to complete the job, if only so he can collect his paycheque.
   Don’t tell my shepherdess but hopefully it won’t be all work, as we intend to get a visit to Edinburgh to take in a Six Nations rugby match and show my Aussie pal a few sights. He is also a keen golfer so it would be rude of me not to get a cheeky wee round on St Andrews Old Course, wouldn’t it?
Anyway, I do feel that I have earned some rest since I have been up with the larks every morning checking sheep, and then toiling by day in the fields since I last wrote. After nearly 10 years at Chauffour I have finally gotten around to erecting some proper fencing instead of the few dilapidated strands of electric wire we have around the perimeter of the farm. This, along with the odd piece of corrugated tin blocking up a sheep-sized hole in the hedge, has now all been replaced with shiny new netting and 2 metre wooden posts, topped off with deadly high-tensiled barbed wire. I could forgive my neighbours for suspecting we may be loosing a herd of giraffes out on to our grassy plains, such is the height of the wire, but in reality the extent of this precautionary security is to keep out stray dogs on their nocturnal visits. Although we have not lost any ewes to these predators recently, one of our best ones is empty this term, having slipped her lambs early on after being chased around by an Alsatian. The new fence is also handy for cordoning off Skippy, Wendy’s past pet lamb who is now 4 years old and as fat as a whale, while he gorges all the food from the needy ewes and lambs, shoulder barging his way to the trough like an English rugby forward in a Calcutta cup match (oops, sorry, could resist that analogy!). Now the redundant critter has to watching in foaming salivation from behind his Colditz-like prison wire, saving me a few quid in the process. As well as two weeks fencing, bramble-clearing and tree felling, there have also been all the other springtime chores to tick off before I depart, such as mowing, pruning and weed irradiation to tire my aching bones.
   On the subject of the latter, I popped into the local agricultural store to pick up a litre of Round up yesterday, only to find it is now securely locked up behind a bullet-proof glass door. On questioning this I find that this is the latest round of bureaucracy to be conjured up out of Brussels with zero regard for common sense: that crop-chemicals can no longer be left on open display. I can only assume that this is an attempt to hinder Darwin’s theory that stupid people be left to their own self destruction, by drinking the stuff? But how, I have to ask, will this do anything other than instigate a price increase? Surely if folks want to have a weed-killer aperitif or a binge drinking weekend of insecticide, locking it behind glass at its point of sale will not deter them, will it? But then it got me round to wondering if this madness had yet permeated into UK, the country who has a track-record of adhering more strictly to the EU rules more than any other? Because, since Brexit, it no longer has a Lord and Master to administer such ridiculous laws on its inhabitants. Does this mean that, over time, the death-rate by stupidity will rise in Britain? Will Mister thicko from Wickham soon be allowed to accidentally cut his own head-off with a Stanley knife because the blade didn’t have a warning sticker? Or, heaven forbid, alcohol and cigarettes no longer have lurid photos of half-dead people on the front, and bacon rolls carrying the ‘lardy-bloater’ logo, leaving me in peace? If so, you Brexiteers, I salute you – even if your moronic vote does mean my euro is now worth little more than a chocolate button.

Thursday 16 February 2017

Raging frogs

    I believe the word 'Rage' comes from the French word 'Orage' - meaning storm - and boy have we ever just had one of those. For 2 days, 80 kph winds raged through the district, fetching down trees, cutting off our power and generally causing havoc. So, perhaps this was not the best day to start lambing, but you can't hold back nature, as 3 little creatures dropped to the deck, only to be half blown away into the neighbour's field. We would have housed them in our polytunnel only it too has headed off towards the Atlantic, never to be seen again.
    Anyway, for now, the sun is shining this week here at Chauffour and yesterday we ate both lunch and dinner al-fresco, the latter in front of the flickering chiminia in the Valentine's moonlight. Being ever the romantic, I prepared a delightful meal using local French ingredients such as snails, tripe and other delicacies. However, to my dismay, after 1000 years of dining on anything they fancy, it appears that the French are no longer allowed to eat frogs' legs. This is not strictly true as you can buy 'farmed' ones in the supermarket, but you are no longer permitted to pop out with your torch and catch your own and then chuck them in the pan with a bulb of garlic and a knob of butter, should you so wish. So let me get this straight, you are allowed to send you rabid dogs into our local wood and flush out the wild boar, let the hounds rip it to pieces, and then sit around and get drunk while your dog goes off to hunt my sheep? But crawling around in the undergrowth to collect a few of those noisy blighters that keep us awake all night with their croaking? Non, monsieur, c'est interdit.  Usual madness prevails.
    You may recall earlier this month we were away skiing in the Alps. As suspected, for the first couple of days my knees were to up to the job but it was also nice to have some down time, catching up with friends over a few gluhweins. We even managed to hold a Burns Supper up the mountain, courtesy of Scottish friends staying with us and a haggis I shot earlier this winter.  However, later in the week I succumbed to yet another cold, my 4th in as many months, and it sure did pee me off. Until last autumn I hadn’t had a cold for 2 years, so am unsure why 'le gripe' seems to be digging its claws into me this year. Are colds like buses, all coming along at once? Will this be my last one for another 2 years? Or should I just hit the drink harder, doctor? Anyway, my absence from the ski slopes was no real issue as something else was also absent for the duration, that of snow itself. It did arrive eventually though on the morning we were due to leave, making our descent back down the mountain something of an arduous task. Having omitted to purchase the obligatory tyre-chains, thankfully we have just replaced our 4x4 and the new one has some very smart gadgetry called hill-descent mode, which basically appoints a robot to take the controls and drive us down the impossibly icy road. Sadly they haven’t invented 'pub-return' mode so it could do the same on a frosty Friday night whilst I have a kip in the back seat! Land-Rover, I hope you are working on it!
    On the subject of drink, my wife and I are quite proud to announce that we achieved a sustained measure of sobriety for the last few weeks, by laying off the sauce completely. It did get punctuated once though on the day that England beat Wales at rugby. Excuses such as that are surely forgiven? Yes, thought so.
    Right, as spring is starting to rear is furrowed brow, it's time to get the clean-up operation underway and at least retrieve some of our furniture from the swimming pool, along with enough leaves to build a giant compost heap ready to underpin the seed potatoes.  Then there are pruning, digging, fencing and other back-breaking jobs to hopefully avoid. The rest of this month is to be spent catching up with writing, as I have 3 projects on the go and another in the pipeline. Hopefully, after nearly a year with the publishers, my last book, 'Calling Papa Charlie' should be on the shelves in the next week or two. Also my TV drama screenplay, entitled 'The Hole', is currently under review by someone at the good old BBC. Based around the Foot and Mouth crisis in 2001, it tells a pretty emotional tale from personal experience, although it may be a little too politically sensitive to be aired on mainstream channel.  Fingers, toes and eyes crossed that they like it!

Wednesday 15 February 2017


Continuing on from my book ‘In Bed With Cows’, I am considering collating stories from all cattle stockmen and women, young and old - near and far, into a journal we can all share, to preserve them for eternity. After the recent death of cattleman Bob Powel, it occurred to me that many of these tales are now being lost without trace. I am therefore on the lookout for funny tales and anecdotes from all of you, please. I am not expecting this to be a commercially viable project, so no payment rewards but for those that get included, a free copy of the book and an inclusion in the credits. Anything marginally linked to cattle will be considered but it needs to, at the very least, bring a smile. Please email to – if you know of anyone, especially of the old guard, who you think may be able to contribute material, please sit down with them and canvass their stories. Or pass me a phone number so I can interview them. This may all come to nothing but let’s give it a go and see what happens. We owe it to our grandkids! 

PS.All stories will get re-written and, don’t worry, names will be changed to negate incrimination and liability!!

Monday 16 January 2017

Pimpernel's guild

    It is hard to believe we are once again heading back in to France to spring daffodils, having been here in Scotland nearly three months. If last year was hectic, then this one has started at warp supersonic, as we embark on yet another renovation project. Plasterboard, cables, pipes and insulation: these are all the things currently occupying our front room. Unfortunately the missing link to join this lot together is tradesmen. OK, we do have a sparky working long hours on the re-wire and myself and one other guy putting the walls and ceilings back in but, as ever, it is the illusive pipe fitters that cannot seem to hold down an appointment. I have come to the conclusion that I have employed the Fife branch of the ‘Scarlet Pimpernel guild of plumbers’, such is the sporadic appearance of them on the job. I swear that sightings of Bigfoot are more frequent than seeing an overall-wearing man with blowtorch in our attic. So now, as we pack up the car and dogs this week and head south, we leave behind a half completed job, suffering at the mercy of hand-written timesheets submitted on trust.
     We have a few reasons for going ‘home’, not least that the ewes are due to start lambing in a few weeks and need their midwife on hand for the event. We also have a few days booked on the ski slopes although, having made a million trips up 3 flights of stairs carrying plasterboard, I am not sure my ever-weakening knees are up to anything more that some high-level après ski this year. But our main reason for leaving an unfinished job is that the house we have bought, just around the corner from our Victorian terrace in East Neuk of Fife is of identical age and size, but has somehow managed to get itself onto the Listed Building Register. As anyone who has ever attempted to get planning on a Grade 2 listed dwelling will tell you, by making the slightest change to its layout or, god help us, its façade, you might as well apply for a permit to go Polar Bear hunting, such is the audaciousness of the request. Knock a wall through from sitting room to kitchen? Well, only is accompanied by 47 architect’s drawings, a surveyor’s report, advice from a plumber, electrician, Feng shui expert and priest, and, of course the obligatory visit from some certifiably bonkers historian in sandals who is so hell bent in preserving the past that he still eats gruel for breakfast. Fancy changing a window looking out to the back yard into a pair of patio-doors? Be prepared to hear patronising laughter echoing around the Ochills for at least 3 months, before a septuagenarian civil servant gets around to rejecting your application in red pen. After some research I eventually discover that the reason our entire street has been ‘Listed’ is that it has behind it a row of shacks, known locally as Net-lofts, which are quite unusual. Well, ours is certainly unusual as it is half fallen down, with a big hole in the roof, but woe-betide me if I attempt to modernise it in any way, using materials other than mud and straw. The outside privy must also remain in situ, as does the coal-shed and apparently even the nails from which once a fisherman hung his nets have some archaeological merit. I am all for preserving the past but even Bruce Forsyth has to go at some point, surely?
   Anyway, enough of these sleepless nights of stressful worry; time to put it behind me for a few months, as we embark on a 1500 mile trip by road and sea. But, as we bid fair-the-well to the glens, soon we are faced with yet more bureaucratic absurdity as we head to cross the channel, as we are now no longer allowed to leave our dogs in the comfort of the 4x4 while we get our head down in the small confines of our overnight cabin. Seemingly, on most routes, the pooches now either have to go into a rather unsavoury kennels on board or be shoehorned into the tiny cabin with us, presumably for elf & safety reasons. They also have to wear a muzzle, costing a few hundred quid, in case they decide to lick the P&O staff to death!  Just as well as we don’t have a cat as I don’t believe there would be room to swing it in room 337 on B deck.