Thursday, 29 March 2007

Posh luggage

Up first thing in old trackie bottoms, thick socks, heavenly neoprene wellies and fleece, all covering nightie which is too cosy to take off, for early morning lamb check. Weather glorious but ominous rainbow and grey clouds with streaks joining the sky to the land on the next hill. Shove on battered leather hat that sheds rain beyond the back of my neck unless I bend forward, and feed the animal troupes. An hour later I'm done and hoik out luggage for packing my gear for London. The contrast between my smelly farming clobber and the smartness of my year-old trolley bag stops me in my tracks. The contrary lifestyles are now inches apart and clashing madly in colour and content. High heeled boots and clothes without barbed wire tears that rarely get worn here go into the bag. I'm off to my parallel existence.

Wednesday, 28 March 2007

The phenomenon of the to do list

My life is ruled by to-do lists; for work, for the domestic stuff of life, and the mother of all lists (in fact a list of lists) for the farm. I am intimately acquainted with the pleasure of crossing off an item that has been completed. I write lists for myself and eagerly (and undoubtedly irritatingly) for other people. Everyone knows my life is a list of to dos and I am content to be the butt of their jokes. So it was with real pleasure that I complied with the request to produce a list of crucial info for when I leave for London. And just in case that paper copy gets lost.....
  • Please check incubator temperature daily (37.4 - 37.6 degrees) and fill one side with water on Saturday if needed
  • If piglet with runny bum is off feed/poorly, inject with Engemycin (in vet cupboard) subcutaneously. For a piglet of 25kg it’s 2ml for a 24 hour dose or 5ml for 72 hours
  • If preggers sheep need antibiotics they want 4ml for 24 hour dose or 10ml for 72 hours. Also subcut injection.
  • If you get any bubbly/poorly lambs they have an Oxytet tablet (1 daily up to 3 days) – on shelf in lambing shed
  • Before you turn ewes out they need 12mls of wormer
  • Check/empty mouse traps in polytunnel
  • Water vegetable seeds and seedlings
  • Walk dogs
  • Count sheep
  • Eat
  • Sleep

Tuesday, 27 March 2007

Bugs and gruesome tales

Last night off to the local farmer's group held monthly at the pub. Set up during foot and mouth by the local vicar to cheer things up, there is a speaker and Q+A followed by a carb blowout of ferociously hot chips, sarnies and potato croquettes. The speaker was a hospital microbiologist, a farmer's daughter with a knowledge and love of all things bug. You want ringworm? We saw the pictures. You prefer Listeriosis or MRSA? We had the lowdown. You like swollen digits and pots of sample poo? We had those too. You want to hear that farmers only go to hospital when they are really ill? She flattered us. The beer glasses didn't move, the pool table was empty, the darts board unused. We were riveted. We went home and threw away old dishcloths, got in the antibacterial soap and stuffed grimy towels in the washing machine. It didn't stop me from having very vivid dreams of pus and worse. All this for £1. Bargain? You betcha.

Reasons to be cheerful - part 2

Saturday, 24 March 2007

Day in the life

7.15 am feed cats and dogs. Let out ducks and sort their feed and water. Pipes frozen. Feed piglets. Hear a woodpecker. Feed the geese and let them into the orchard. Feed the pregnant ewes and the llama. Carry 20kg sacks of feed up the hill to fill sheep and llama feed bins. Jack and Jill nowhere in sight. Extract nine goose eggs from their nest and set up incubator. Clean out duck house. 9am head into village for the papers with the dogs. Back for breakfast. Fill up wild bird feeders outside kitchen window. Muck out goose hut. Cut a dozen tree stakes from some rough sawn 2x2. Admire fancy new draught-proofing in lambing pen. Put bare-rooted trees (hazel and field maple) , stakes, ties, tree guards, sledgehammer, graft and stuff into back of ancient Landrover and drive round planting up some of the remaining tree gaps in the hedges. 3pm late lunch. Check temperature in incubator. Walk dogs and sort out a gate latch the sheep have worked out how to undo. 5pm notice one of the ewes has a water bag hanging out - she's two days early. Leave her to get on with it for half an hour and move feed troughs and hay rack into the orchard. Bring the ewe and her very new twin ram lambs into the lambing shed, iodine their navels and give the ewe water and sheep nuts - although she's a first-timer she seems to know what to do and the lambs look fine. Move the rest of the sheep into the orchard so they are closer to the house for lambing - they aren't keen to change fields. 6.30pm Ducks and geese to bed, check the new mother. 7pm feed cats and dogs and put supper in the oven. Shower, eat and fall in knackered heap. Lambing has started and the clocks go back tonight. Have to go to London this week - I won't be popular.

Friday, 23 March 2007

Ramblings, Mutterings and Meanderings

She takes a bow, she smacks her lips at the prospect of champagne and truffles, and then gets real as she sucks on her glass of water and looks longingly at the heap of dogs wanting to be walked and the smaller heap of second hand paperbacks bought from Oxfam this morning - they'll just have to wait. The lovely M&M has awarded her Thoggers (Thinking Blogger Awards) and I must show grace. And now my obligation is to award five Thoggers of my own. And then their obligation is to award etc etc and so on and on and on. I will try not to be too incestuous in my choices and bring a bit of fresh blood into the process, but don't count on that. So, with greatest respect, my nominations are:
  1. Peter D Cox
  2. Random Acts of Reality
  3. mamajules
  4. Grumpy Old Bookman
  5. Strife in the North ( I know, I know, but perhaps incest is allowable on occasion?)
I doubt it'll change your life or even your afternoon, but it's always nice to be appreciated. Hugs to all. Keep making us think.

Thursday, 22 March 2007

Lambing prep

So you sort through the household veterinary supplies, and look for castration rings (check), soft rope (check), iodine (check), syringes and needles (check), lube (check), armpit length gloves (nope), and make a short list of goodies to buy before the off. Only trouble is the checklist on the kitchen table looks like a shopping list for a sex-shop spree rather than the more mundane agricultural store and you wonder if you should put it somewhere a little less prominent to avoid shocking the visitors. Then you get to the farm shop and start to chortle at the drawings on the side of the insemination gloves - accompanied by wording normally restricted to other latex products, reminding you that they are for single use. And then it adds (they can't be serious) that if the product proves defective you should return it to the retailer..... do they mean the used ones or those left in the packet??

Wednesday, 21 March 2007

Blair - the art lover in hiding

I know I'm a little late on this one, but sometimes you need to let things fester a while, just like Tony Blair. Ten years and no significant speech about the arts from the Prime Minister (I think we can ignore that Cool Britannia shenanigans early on in the premiership for the self-congratulatory spin it was). Just months away from his departure he claims the past decade as a golden era for culture. Media pundits all over the place are remarking on Blair's legacy speeches. There is, it is true, something potentially rather pathetic about an ex-leader of a country and it must be all but impossible to discuss your future plans whilst still in the hot seat, with commentators ready to accuse you of taking your eye off the ball. So why has the speech at the Tate had as much impact on the arts sector as cold porridge slapped onto a cold plate? It's true that courtesy of the Lottery and increased allocations to the Arts Council, the arts has had a genuinely significant financial boost since 1997, but whether it is government prudence at work or the huge Olympics deficit, the Arts Council is having to satisfy a Treasury looking for 5% year on year cuts over the next three years. Even looking at the arts from a purely fiscal point of view, considering the huge payback it makes into the economy (£13 billion in 2004 according to Blair), the £420 million subsidy it receives would win five gold stars simply in value for money terms. Perhaps this speech might turn this unfortunate tide, but then again, Brown wasn't the speaker....

Tuesday, 20 March 2007

Scent of a pig

Okay, okay. It's not everyone's idea of a heavenly scent, but when you don't have pigs around all the time you really do miss that pungent sweet smell. Pigs are only on the farm during the spring and summer to fatten for pork and bacon, so during the winter months you miss their presence and their unique pong. Last night six beautiful 8-week old Berkshire weaners were trundled back from South Hams (yup, you couldn't make it up). When they are this small you carry them in your arms like a baby, holding one front leg and the opposite back leg. Held firmly, they lay happily and quietly. As soon as you loosen your grip or they feel less than secure, the squealing is dramatic. When I picked up the first one to move it into the trailer, the smell hit me - I had temporarily forgotten the particular perfume of a porker - it was lovely; warm, porcine, healthy. Not Apres L'Ondee perhaps, but joyous all the same. Now the six wiglets are chomping fresh grass and burying themselves in deep straw, none the worse for their journey. Undoubtedly, there will be updates on their progress.

Monday, 19 March 2007

Spring is in the air?

There's no denying it. The lanes are full of primroses, the goose has started laying, there is blossom on one brave plum tree, there should be six Berkshire weaners (eight week old piglets) in the pig ark by tonight, and the lambing pens are awaiting occupancy. All this fecundity calls for calm, warm days to nurture the animal and vegetable growth, but instead the blossom is about to get hail-stormed into oblivion, straw bales are insulating the lambing area, further great works need to be undertaken to improve the draught-proofing, and it's lucky that the pig ark is protected by a Devon bank.

You lie in bed at night listening to the wind and hail battering the ruined barns and hide your head under the duvet using the same trick as you did as a child - if I can't see it, it isn't really there. Only in this case it's "if I can't hear it, the roof isn't really falling in". Looking out of the window in the morning requires you to collect your courage after a windy night. If the roof and walls would only stay put until all the planning and preparation can be put in place, perhaps there may be more than just a heap of cobby rubble, rotten timbers and slate to work with.

Thursday, 15 March 2007

Masterchef final - on tenterhooks

Like most folks I have my television passions. This year the Beeb's Masterchef has had me downing work tools and heading for the box for my 6.30pm half hour fix. When the credits roll it's time to get up and feed the dogs and make supper for the humans. But for those thirty minutes I am transfixed, and as we entered the semi-finals and now the finals, I have been hiding my head inside my t-shirt. T-shirt head-hiding moments included: faffing around as if there was all the time in the world to feed hordes of over-exercised squaddies; food delivered late to Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern; hoping that Hannah could produce chocolate wonders for some of the best chefs in the world (she did - it was amazing); gasping at the pompousness of Ben (it's all me, me, me and nothing for the person doing the eating, even if they are those afore-mentioned chefs); and shouting at Steven to think about TIMING!!! If Ben-I-know-techniques-but-can't-do-flavours wins it tonight I will throw pots and pans at the telly. Go Steven, and go, go, go Hannah!

Stop Press! Brilliant, Steven - congrats. The TV is safe from flying kitchen equipment.

Monday, 12 March 2007

Persephone books - almost as good as finding a decent bookshop in Devon

'Oh, the bliss of Persephone Books!' says India Knight in her own treat of a book, The Shops. I picked up Knight's book in my local Oxfam shop and although it's not universally admired, I roared my way through it, and "pants of steel", "ooh, dirt!" and other choice phrases have stuck with me. I won't bore you with my shopping habits and peccadilloes (ones inspired by Knight or otherwise) but her recommendation of Persephone Books' collection of forgotten twentieth century classics is something I truly thank her for. Because they arrive so fast (next day), if you are up to pointing feebly at the catalogue, it's worth asking a friend to order something for you on-line if you are in bed with a dose of flu, as the books will arrive by the time you are feeling up to reading but can't yet face pottering about. And these are very much recovering-from-flu books - a certain surface sweetness containing considerable depth. But I also want to read them any evening wrapped in my fleece rug with the dogs at my feet - learning from the masters (mainly female) how to avoid cliché if nothing else (too late for that). The only problem is that you might find yourself galloping through them and they are not the cheapest of paperbacks, and there are 70 of them. That might sound like plenty, but if you get through two or three a month, it won't take more than a couple of years (and a wodge of dosh) to devour the lot. I have just finished Dorothy Whipple's They Were Sisters. Utterly compelling with more bite than Eastenders on a VERY good day, with rogues, a truly evil villain, sweet souls, despair, studies of fecklessness and empty vanities. Unfortunately, the last few pages fell out of the covers as I reached the end; I emailed Persephone and they have promised me a replacement - amazing service.
If anyone can recommend any decent bookshops in Devon that have piles of good fiction, I'd be eternally grateful. Waterstones in Exeter and elsewhere have managed to turn what were idiosyncratic spaces to spend hours choosing and discarding into antiseptic lines of bestseller fodder. I yearn for the fab but tiny bookshop in Ashbourne in Derbyshire where the owner would ask you what you had last enjoyed and then heap you up with recommendations for further delight. Having hunted for it on-line it seems to have disappeared! I only visited once a year but came away with 10 or 20 books at a time.

Friday, 9 March 2007

The drive to blog

In March 2005 the BBC said there were 14.2 million blogs. By July 2005 the Blog Herald estimated 70 million blogs worldwide; that's 1% of the world population blogging away. I suspect the statistics - and why can't I find any current data? - are pretty poor; can blogs have increased by nearly 500% in just 4 months? But the message still stands - there are millions of folks blogging and I suspect far more are written than are read. Does this matter? What drives people to blog in the first place?
Do we talk less often face to face than we used to? Yes. Do we spend too much time by our computers and mobile phones (YES!) and still yearn for discussion, debate and thought even if there is no-one around or if people are there, they are also engaged with a flat screen and keyboard?
But there is also something very pleasing about the blog as a writing form. It forces you to shape your thoughts into some semblance of cogency. It makes you question your ideas before you commit them to screen. It makes you realise that some days demand whimsy and others require more serious cogitation. It has to be brief, which is a useful discipline. It also releases some of those juices for those who think they want to write but will never commit themselves to the full monty experience of a novel or other lengthy text. And its a fabulous way of sharing real stuff with friends that avoids those horrendous round robin Christmas letters.

Thursday, 8 March 2007

The elephant in the room

I loved that one - "the elephant in the room". It was so expressive, so daft, so visually pleasing as a concept, so completely full of trunks, tusks, hairy-ended tails and flapping wrinkly ears. Why do folks have to demean a perfectly good metaphor and turn it into cliché so that you then feel like a mug or a ham for using it? I can't count the number of times I have sat in a room with others and visualised the elephant rolling its eyes as everyone manages to avoid noticing its presence.

Monday, 5 March 2007

Agatha Christie needs charity?

I hugely admire the National Trust. Most of the time. The audacity of taking on properties and places in perpetuity for the benefit of us all. Who else would do it? Who could even face the budgeting for supplying dusters to a stately home for ten years let alone for ministering to its every need forever? It puts the concept of long term planning into perspective. This whole 'til the end of time thing does mean you have to make your decisions on what to take on and what to put aside very carefully indeed. As an ex National Trust regional committee member (an interesting but strange experience that made me feel very odd-one-out) I have appreciated what making these decisions mean and how rigorously endowments need to be considered before taking on new holdings of land or property.
Last month I received a letter from the Trust asking for a contribution towards the major restoration of Greenway, the only surviving home of Agatha Christie. Given to the Trust by Christie's family in 2000 its gardens have been open to the public for the last 6 years and now Christie's daughter and son-in-law have died, the house also belongs to the Trust. The repairs are estimated at £3.5million, with cataloguing and conserving adding a further £600,000.
If you were to ask me for a bit of dosh to save a piece of coast, or for an ancient forest I would cough up and be glad that the Trust can be counted on to do a job that no-one else will. But Agatha Christie's house? When Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot are household icons and murder mysteries are everyone's favourite bank holiday fare? Perhaps a commercial company such as Tussauds, owners of Warwick Castle, Alton Towers and the London Eye to name a few attractions, would be better placed to take on a project like this. But as it sits with the Trust, I would suggest that the commercial exploitation potential for the property must be huge; shouldn't the Trust be generating funding for this from the private sector and creating a surplus to contribute to other less immediately attractive projects? Humphh.

Friday, 2 March 2007

Farm subsidy - and all that jazz

From time to time Farmers Weekly has skulked on the kitchen table, with headlines like "the cloud behind the silver lining" telling you all you need to know about this pessimistic publication. To suggest it is a chronicle of whingeing, carping and hand-wringing would do most editions justice. I may, however, have gained an insight that might temper my view a little. These days, farm subsidy (now the Single Farm Payment or SFP) is no longer for production. The days of supporting, indeed encouraging, butter mountains and milk lakes are long gone, and to qualify for subsidy you need to be farming in an environmentally friendly way that conserves the countryside for all. Not popular with all farmers, it will contribute in a small way to improving the environment for flora, fauna and traditional landscape features on our farm. At least it would, if the process of communicating with the body that handles the SFP left me enough energy to get on with the farming. The Rural Payments Agency (RPA) has got to be one of the most infuriatingly bloodpressure raising organisations I have ever had the misfortune to deal with. When they get your reference number, address and all other details apart from your name wrong, you write and expect it to be sorted. When, nearly two years and countless email, telephone and snail-mail communications later you are still trying to get all of this most basic of information corrected, patience wears desperately thin. When you get letters (to your ex-address) containing profuse apologies and helpful souls on the phone saying it's all been sorted, you dance about the place like a loon thanking your lucky stars (in that cloudless sky) that you might have finally secured a few hours back in your week. When you find yourself swearing at the poor messenger on the end of the phone because you just can't believe the incompetence of the system has ballsed up yet again, you know that something has got to give - now it's your sanity versus theirs .
As contributors to Farmers Weekly are highly likely to be dealing with the RPA regularly, it's not surprising that the tone of the magazine can leave you checking every gift horses mouth and poking at the silver linings for grey, claggy misfortune.