Monday 23 October 2023

Lazy beasties

 What’s that noise I hear outside? Oh, yes, the unfamiliar sound of rain, at last, slow warm steady rain. Indeed, once again we have seen a drought that lasted nearly into November, which seems to have been a recursive issue these last few years here in France.

We are now back home from our extensive rugby travels and my head is down into work to get my latest writing project done by the end of the year. It was a trip to savour and I am now officially Argentinian, adopting that nation as we are heading to visit there in January to see a few cows, and possibly some wine. This time of year we welcome the beasties into the house, normally in the form of rodents who come inside for the winter, seemingly to live alongside our two cats who have about as much hunting instinct as Chris Packam! However, this year they are not the only ones seeking refuge inside as we have been subjected to a plague of stinky insects called Green Shield Bugs, known as ‘punaise’ in French. These freakish little creatures, that look not unlike a beetle, make a hell of a noise when they fly, and seem to hide in every crevice, from curtains to wardrobes to the car boot. It appears there is nowhere they won’t infiltrate and woe-betide if you so much as touch one, let alone step on it, as they give off a foul spray of scent that would turn your stomach. Hopefully now the winter is approaching they will die off and give us some peace. Apparently, they are partial to crops and vegetation although there is very little of that around just now. I just thought: if you heavily step on one, is that called a ‘Green-shield stamp?’ Ha, you have to be a certain age to understand that one!

Next month we head north, with a stopover to see my new grandson - yes I am now grandfather to little Louis, such a cute baby boy; congratulations to my son Sam and his wife Izzy. I did pop over and see him a month ago, but flights seem to be so disorganized these days, it’s just easier to drive. For example, Wendy went to Scotland for a funeral yesterday and got stuck in Dublin as the plane was delayed by an hour, then on her way home, missed the flight as it left 15 minutes early. I guess she will get home sometime, somehow. In early November I am on duty judging the Scottish National Calf show in Stirling, appointed to select the overall champions from all breeds, which is quite an honour. After that it’s a few more months writing, with two books due out next year. Although we are not showing the sheep in 2024, I guess there will be some book-signing tours to follow and marketing to do which will keep me busy.

Of course, between now and then we have to endure another bonfire night and all the disruption that causes. Well, this year I note that a certain supermarket is selling no-noise fireworks. What a great idea, says I, my dog hates fireworks - until I do a little more investigation and find that there is no such thing. In order to set off a firecracker of any sort you need a little explosion and it is pretty difficult to do that without making a noise of some sort. So, what they are (illegally) advertising is low (not no)-noise fireworks. How do companies get away with hoodwinking the public with such myth? That’s like selling sunglasses with clear lenses or, heaven-forbid, silent rice-crispies!    






Nice to be Nice

 They say life is a journey, not a destination, and wow what a journey we are on right now. And.. I have just fallen in love.  Just 2 weeks in to our Rugby World Cup tour and we already have enough memories to fill a large scrap book. After a false start we headed down to the Mediterranean coast, taking a stopover at Cap de Adge which we have since found out is Europe’s largest naturist area.  Although I am happy enough to get my kit off in the confines of our own swimming pool, I don’t really find wandering around in public in a dangling fashion as an attraction so we avoided that place and found a nice spot further up the beach to get the barbie on. Next day we headed for Marseille, the crime capital of France, only to drive around for a few hours trying to anchor up but to no avail as the security guards branded us as football fans and therefore unsavoury. Anyone in the know will confirm that the behavioural difference between the fans of those two sports is a gulf so wide you could drive a super-tanker through, but it appears that previous English round ball fans had already muddied the waters before us. Eventually we settled for a small seaside town half an hour away, surrounded by like-minded rugby fans, all sporting our respective nation’s flags, and took in a local lunch by the harbour. Journeys into the city were quite effortless by train with the fancy-dress outfits and camaraderie adding to the excitement of England’s first game. Down in Marseilles old town, we found a Scottish bar and promptly bumped into a few of my mates from the Northern livestock scene, many of whom were avid listeners to my Toplines and Tales podcast, before we made our way to the ground to witness a pretty mediocre match, narrowly sneaking a win in boring old style. The fun of seeing thousands of folks in Argentina shirts, and kilts, most of whom had never been south of Edinburgh, let alone the equator, is what makes our sport so special. A rather eccentric taxi driver fixed us up with a ride back to base at 1.30am for hefty sum as all trains had long stopped or were on strike. Similar situation the next day, this time to see Scotland sadly outclassed by South Africa who are making a habit of playing their best games every four years, as many will remember from the drubbings England have taken from them in previous events. For some reason we were adopted by a jackdaw at our camper-park, whom we named Gregory as he continually pecked at my ear. One night, after slurping half a tin of Stella and most of a glass of wine, he was too drunk to fly and spent the night on one of our foldy-chairs, quietly snoring. We offered him breakfast but the hangover was too great and he toddled off to annoy some Aussies.

From there we took a detour into St Tropez by boat to see how the other half lived and enjoyed a beer at 13 quid a pint, declining to even look at the menus, let alone order anything more than bag of crisps. Thankfully our camper is tooled up when it comes to cooking so our friends joined us for a feast of duck supper and chips, with bottles of wine we had brought from Bordeaux which cost less than a sip of the local restaurant prices. A stay up in the hills above Nice proved fruitful when we met a nice chap who gave me a phone number for the head of parking at Nice harbour. With a quick bit of negotiation in my best French I somehow secured us 2 spaces right in amongst some of the world’s most expensive super-yachts, for four nights! Not only were we parked next to the water’s edge but also 200 yards from the tram-stop that took us all over town with ease. I mentioned I have fallen in love, and that is with the town of Nice itself, such a wonderful place it is. Clean, safe, friendly, beautiful, all the things that Marseille wasn’t. A chorus for my next song: “Nice, so good they named it nice!” As well as revelling in the colourful bars and culture, our pitch in town resulted in us making many friends, mainly with folks passing by and us inviting them in for a beef and a chat; sound folk of all nationalities. As both Wales and England were playing that weekend, there was much friendly ribbing as each nation supported each other’s opposing team. I am now officially both Fijian and Portuguese as a result!

Today we have run for the hills, settling into to a quiet spot near a lake where the smothering heat of the last few weeks has been replaced by some rather welcome rain. Tomorrow we reach or the sky, as we put the camper through its paces heading for an Alpine ski resort at over 2000 metres up, just south of Grenoble. Unfortunately watching four international rugby matches in eight days, and  the travel that involves, has taken its toll on my knee which is letting me down more frequently these days, so we won’t be trekking the hard yards up there.  By the weekend we will be back in my new favourite town again, for more of the same, before heading up to Paris following our thirst for the oval ball.  Shortly both mine and Wendy’s nations will be despatched from the competition, nothing surer, and it will be time to don my beret once more and back the team of our adopted country. Allez le Bleu.

Harvey, Hoggy and Haggis

 Hot, Hot. Hot, that’s all I am saying about the weather at present.

Yes we are back in France and thankful for a handy swimming pool, as well as a bit of space after 7 weeks cooped up in the camper. The sheep show tour continued on into Wales with yet more rosettes and shenanigans, all in all a very enjoyable but tiring time. The house was in reasonable shape when we returned to Chauffour, as are the cats, all well looked after by our house sitters. Unfortunately the thistles were 5 feet high as they slowly take over our fields but after a prolonged wet spring at least we do have 15 large bales of rather spiky hay to sell, and now we can once again see the sheep through the grass. However, they too have a dilemma as we no longer have a vet, should we require one, since ours has stopped treating large animals for reasons better known to himself. We then had a visit from a rather official looking man saying it is obligatory that we are registered with a vet, by law, or else suffer a hefty fine. Since then the hunt has been on but none of the ones within a 40 mile radius want the job, so we are in a sort of catch-22. The fact that we can prove that we haven’t used the service of our vet for the sheep in the 15 years we have been here, save for buying a bit of worming drench, cuts no ice with Monsieur Government man and his bureaucratic team. What a load of nonsense.

This week we have family staying which has involved yet more late nights, as well as long stints with the stove and the corkscrew. My niece’s fiancĂ© is quite handy on the guitar so one evening we decided we should write a song about our pets, as you do after a few sherbets. Me, being the designated wordsmith, rapidly penned a few lyrics while Kris worked on the chords and next thing you know, something quite catchy appeared about Haggis, Harvey and Hoggy, (it all begins with H). We even previewed it to a selected audience at the dinner table a few nights later to rather rapturous applause! Needless to say, we are now working on an album in my new found venture, as if I don’t have enough to do already. So who knows, watch this space...but perhaps not to closely! Meanwhile the large cattle history project that I have been working on is starting to reach a conclusion, still aiming to get his 400 page tome out in time for Christmas, so plenty of overtime to get in the next few months.

And there in hangs yet another problem, that of the Rugby World cup, just around the corner, both metaphorically and geographically. Early September will see us once again load up the camper as we head for the French Riviera to follow the oval ball. I will admit I hold out as much hope of England winning the competition as I do of ‘Haggis, Harvey and Hoggy’ making it into the charts, based on their recent atrocious performances. Thankfully I have dual allegiance, now being the owner of a Scotland AND France shirt and flag, qualifying through marriage and residency respectively! I might even go so far as to dig up a long lost Irish ancestor too, well not literally, obviously. My mother’s maiden name was McCormack so there must be a link there somewhere, to be sure. I think it’s what you would call a spread-bet supporting this time round.  Allez les Bleu, Blanc, Bleu and Vert; has a kind of ring to it, maybe we can include it on our new album. By the way, after an interesting incident the other evening, our band is now named Don't Lick The Toad! 

See you all in Paris for an aperitif.

Harris and Lewis

 Still in Scotland, rushing around, in Edinburgh today. I think it is around 5 weeks since we left home, but I stopped counting some time ago. The weather is quite nice as we head for the beach in East Lothian today, the place where we used to live and indeed where we got married. Its Mrs F’s birthday this week so I have bought her some DIY. No, not power-tools but half an acre of brightly coloured Harris Tweed which she will make into some kind of shawl, via a pattern given to us by ‘Granny Annie,’ a little old lady in a shed in the middle of nowhere on the Isle of Harris. To be fair, just about everywhere was in the middle of nowhere on Harris, such a wonderfully quaint place mainly populated by sheep or the odd mad person. Lewis was a little more densely populated but still wonderful, especially the beaches to the west of Stornaway where the mobile phone had yet to be invented and the only means of communication, other than shouting above the wind, was the odd red phone box! I sat and read a novel for a few blissful days, a murder mystery based on the Island. Whoever wrote it certainly had met some of the colourfully eccentric locals, that’s for sure. From there we crossed by ferry to Ullapool and then up around the top corner of Scotland, now known as the North Coast 500.

Last time I was up there is was just the A9, peaceful and forgotten, but now it is polluted by foreigners in campervans cluttering up the roads with no idea how to operate reverse gear. To be fair, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it might be, and we had nice stop-overs in Tongue and Dunnet Head and even took a burl around Castle of Mey, once home to my favourite Royal, The QM herself. The gardens were fabulous and I took a wander around their Angus cow herd, as well as their prize winning flock of Cheviot sheep, nodding my head in a knowledgeable fashion with my judges cap on.

And, of course, sheep it is that are the focus of this tour. A few weeks ago we visited the Royal Highland show, only taking one sheep, Crackerjack, who came a commendable fourth in his class. I know this didn’t repeat the glory we had last year but it was good to show face. During the week I was not only assigned to my TV commentary duties but this time also had to compere something called the ‘young handlers’ competition which involved kids as young as 8 bringing out their animals and parading them in front of a judge who gave them points for tidiness, cleanliness and their ability to control the beast as well as hold a reasonably eloquent conversation. One wee girl brought out a Clydesdale horse which was at least 9 feet tall and scary as hell but she definitely had the measure of it, although it didn’t like me coming anywhere near it. Another lass had a Shetland pony which was nothing short of a savage. Poor wee thing was in floods of tears as I interviewed her, asking perhaps, “does it bite?” At that it took a chunk out of my microphone, kicking out at the judge at the same time. Bloody thing had a screw loose and I kept well away from the both of them after that, instead staying up the other end of the show field with the cattle, sheep and goats. One 12 year old lad, Finlay Barclay, was not only winning the sheep section and has his own YouTube channel, but is starring in a programme called This Farming Life due out in September, so you may even see me on BBC TV. In the end it was a pretty girl in pigtails that one the competition, parading her goat, Nellie, who liked Smarties, apparently. The show was tiring and afterwards my Fitbit assured me that I had walked 92 kms (over 50 miles) during the duration, in boots a little too tight for me. Couple that with just over 3,000 miles on the camper so far, I surely am due today’s rest on the beach.

With more sheep travel, we went to the Great Yorkshire show in Harrogate last week, another full seven days of show-time, and picked up 2 thirds and a fourth, so things are looking up. Next week, it’s down to Wales for the finale. Chances of winning anything at the world’s biggest sheep show? Dim byd o gwbl! But we can but try.

Until next time, hwyl fawr, or, as they say in English, see you next Tuesday!

A sheep on holiday

 ‘One sheep Willie’, that’s me this week, as we just arrived at the Royal Highland show to find one of our two entries is poorly and unable to be exhibited. I have to admit that it does seem like a lot of effort, to trawl round three major shows with just one beast, but I do have to be at the Highland as I am once again due in the commentary box for a couple of days TV work. This year I have been moved mainly to the cattle section since the last guy got sacked for saying inappropriate things to a lady whilst live on air, so I will need to brush up on recent bovine knowledge as well as my pees and queues! I also have a few hours to chat about the Beltex sheep, my father’s breed. Now the biggest section in the livestock lines, I will be quite proud to drop into commentary that my old man was the first person to bring this breed into UK from Belgium, 25 years ago, and was at the top of the tree for many years. I actually now use his old show box (known as a Kist in Scotland) which still bears the name of HS Frazier and Son on the front.

We have had a good trip so far, completing week one of our six week tour of UK. Our first stop was at a lovely farm in Wiltshire where the millionaire owners had a very nice herd of Red Devon cows, although why they needed four Range-Rovers is beyond me. Then a couple of days with my sons in Bedfordshire, one of whom shamelessly put me to work on arrival, DIYing his house together in time for a new baby due in October. Yes, this author is to become a granddad which I am delighted about, as I will have so much to teach the young one, particularly about sheep!

Then a trip to Carlisle when I spent an hour trying to persuade a well known Ryeland breeder to part with one of his best ewes. He said he would think about it, but then this morning has declined my best offer. Oh well. Our little flock seems to be decreasing rather than increasing in size and quality. Hopefully things will turn around next year.

A quick visit to another farm, the one where our Scottish flock is kept, and then we hotfooted it down to Edinburgh where we will be all week. Unfortunately our allocated parking space is right next to the airport runway, so it is a tad noisy after 6.30am, as hoards of pasty tourists head off to sunnier climes for lager and sunburn via Ryanair. Still, it saves me setting the alarm I suppose.

This year we have taken Haggis (the wee hag) on the road with us and she is coping quite well so far. Now 14 months old she still has the attraction of cuteness, especially to a Fox Terrier from Liverpool called Jinxy, complete with one ear up, the other down. Well that wasn’t the only thing that was up as, unknown to us, Haggis was on heat and things happened that shouldn’t have. Thankfully the vet administered a ‘morning after’ injection, so everything is still in-tact, except her virginity. She really is a tart though, throwing herself to the mercy of anything canine with testicles. Not sure what a Fox/Border would look like but, knowing the father, it would probably be out stealing things after the hours of darkness!

By the time this goes to print we hope to be on the western isles of Scotland, particularly the isle of Harris, where I might perhaps buy myself a winter tweed suit. Ah, if I only I had four Range-Rovers!


A sock or a hat?

 And the whirlwind continues, not least through our front door, coupled with hailstones. Although we  didn’t bear the main brunt of these, my friend a few miles away had some the size of cricket balls which smashed up his 3 cars, his pool liner and a good part of the roof of his house. Not a good day to be outside!  And we also now have an abundance of grass as, since I sold all the sheep, it has rained continuously, so much in fact that is hard to spot the creatures hiding beneath it. Hopefully the price of hay is good this year. And the lawnmower holds out.

Last weekend I completed my very first after-dinner speaking engagement in Carlisle, something which I have been wanting to do for some time. I think it went well, and there was much laughter, but maybe not from the suspected hecklers whom I nipped in the bud with a few cutting remarks from the get-go. Not sure I need to appoint an agent just yet but it cant have done me any harm, unless I get a visit from the heavies at the Flat-earth society from whom I did get a few cheap gags at their expense.

I am writing this from a mile high,  or whatever elevation Ryanair fly above the clouds these days.  We are heading for a four day break in Dublin as it is once again time for the European rugby finals, and some Guinness obviously.  We are surrounded by burly rugby fans but,  strangely, the woman sitting behind me is knitting what looks like a sock. Since when was it permissible to take a pair of razor sharp needles on to an aircraft, but not a corkscrew? And should I have worn my stab vest?  This weekend is an annual excursion for us as the finals move around Europe every year, next year being announced at Arsenal’s football ground in London, where-ever that is. With the world cup in France this year and British Lions next year in Oz, the old ‘oval’ ball is never too far from the agenda in our lives at present. The problem with all this is I am struggling to fit in my day job of being an author with a huge backlog and looming deadlines. Couple all this with a few months on the road with the sheep for half the summer and something will have to give.

It might be a hat.

Meanwhile,  in a bid to promote my most recent work I foolishly signed up to TicToc and immediately wished I hadn't; but now I can't run from it as it bombards my phone with videos of drunk people dancing or cats falling out of trees.  I swear I have uninstalled the app three times,  only to find it reinstalls itself overnight.  So what a breath of fresh air it must be to live in Montana where it has been banned completely so people can once again talk to each other using their mouths. If Only they were able to delete it? Which brings me round to the machine I am writing on,  something called a Yoga, which is equally as complicated as all my wife's other gadgets. But sadly,  unlike most folks that do yoga,  this thing has a mind of its own and only works properly if you shout at it.  And that,  so I'm told,  is unacceptable behavior on a Boeing to get 737. So that's all folks,  frustration ends here with screaming.

No, definitely a sock… .       

Heebie-geebie pigeons

 Pigeons have never really caused us a problem here in France but, evidently, they are doing their stuff nearby as our neighbouring farmers on both sides and trying to put the heebie-geebies on them to protect their emerging sunflowers. Each has his different approach to this, the one to the South reverting to the old proven method of a gas-powered cannon which starts at daylight and continues all day. Thankfully, unlike our last 2 dogs, Haggis is undisturbed by this, although my sleep certainly is. However, another neighbour’s dogs kick up a din every time they hear it, barking and howling their frenzied little heads off. The other guy has gone more hi-tec, with some kind of gadget that makes noises that sound like a cross between R2D2 and those sliding doors on Star Trek. Just why any bird would take flight at such sound I am not sure but it really is off-putting when I am at my desk, expecting Captain Kirk to walk in at any moment!

Meanwhile my own robot has taken to periods of indecision as it sometimes cleans and hoovers the pool while at other times it sits there, possibly pondering the universe. Science is never a subject I fully understood but it does seem to respond to some percussion maintenance when I wallop it with a broom. I did try and dismantle it but the sight of its innards looked gorier that an X-rated episode of Casualty. Next, I reverted to YouTube, listening to sad men droning on in their garden shed, explaining about AI and how all robots eventually take on their own feelings. Well, this one will soon find out about my feelings if it doesn’t buck its ideas up, as I march it to the nearest rubbish tip. Except we not allowed to call then rubbish tips anymore, having to use its new fancy name ‘the recycling centre’? Perhaps Dexter, (short for Dextron Robotic) might come back as a dishwasher? I suspect a garden ornament is more likely.     

I am cleaning the pool early this year as we are shortly due a visit from my number two son and his wife who are anticipating some decent weather and may fancy a dip. To aid the improvement in water temperature I have inherited a new pool cover which supposedly retains the heat through the colder nights. Except that the cold spring nights seem to be regularly accompanied by a hoolie from the South West which has a habit of lifting the 50 square metre piece of bubble-wrap and depositing in my vegetable patch. It too may find itself recycled into carrier bags if this keeps on.

Meanwhile, my own workload continues to undermine my free-time at an alarming rate as I plough through writing two history books simultaneously, both with looming deadlines. As a support to my research, I managed to buy half-a-dozen early copies of the Scottish Farmer’s yearbook, dating back to 1951, which are absolutely fascinating. So much so that I now lose even more work time, scrolling through articles about ‘Transformation in the Poultry Industry’ and photos of old machinery that I vaguely recall rusty away in the nettles when I was a child.  This got me round to thinking about my grandfather and how he was so super-successful in the chicken business in the 1930s. I now have set on a new mission to see if anyone remembers his extensive dominance in the White Wyandottes breed, where he won dozens of cups and medals at the UK’s major fairs. So far, I am still striking a blank apart from finding out that the breed originated in USA and therefore nowhere else exists. Some rather extensive digging awaits, I fear.

Having been fearful of another drought this year, I mentioned last month that I had sold the majority of the sheep. So now, of course, it is peeing down and ‘le gazon’ is a foot high, growing daily. Rather than mow it, I have now got to consider whether we have to buy some more sheep. A pedigree or two, perhaps. I hope they would do better than our Scottish Ryeland flock which has produced all boys again this time when we were trying to expand it with females. For some reason, nature seems to be kicking my backside at present. As always in these matters,  I blame the Americans!