Saturday, 29 September 2007

The veg patch

click on the picture if you want a better view to guess the veg.

I'm no Monty Don but....

After my rant yesterday I am calm, and focused on the veg patch. Red cabbage casserole (buckets of it) are cooking in the Aga, anointed with red plonk, wine vinegar, demerara, Blenheim Orange apples from the orchard and sultanas, and once cooled I will bag it and freeze it for serving later with pork, goose and duck (probably not all at the same time).
I have also unearthed the first of the celeriac - not as large as I would like but an improvement on past year's golf balls - to be mashed as an accompaniment with partridge this evening, larded with streaky bacon from the pigs and roasted. Partridge sounds very posh but they were freebies from the local farmer's shoot last winter (perhaps that makes it sound even posher).
Celeriac are bonkers vegetables, I mean, just look at them - a kind of vegetable version of an octopus. But they are delicious boiled and mashed with a bit of butter and black pepper and can be used in place of spud mash if you are avoiding potatoes.
I can hear the weeds call; it's therapy for the furious.

Friday, 28 September 2007

The lunatics are taking over the asylum

Two emails in my in-box yesterday (actually there were hundreds, most of which were trying to give me loans, a bigger cock or dodgy medications) that set my brain on fire. First was the announcement by Arts Council England that Alan Davey is to be their new CEO. That's Alan Davey the Director of Culture at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport - yup, he's the man at the ministry. So, the arm's length principle has finally been tossed out of the window. The arts can relax now they know that all decisions are being handed down directly from Labour Party central. And why is that so hellishly worrying, principles of independent decision-making aside? It's partly explained by the tenor of the second email.
More than a year ago I ranted about the Olympics stealing money from more important parts of publicly funded life. And yes, I know folks dismiss petitions as pointless, but I eagerly signed the one asking the Prime Minister to stop the Chancellor (then Gordon Brown) from using lottery money to fund the Olympics in 2012. My second email announced that the petition had finally received a response: It says, feebly, that "The Government is determined to ensure that the temporary diversion of funding from the existing good causes to the Olympic good cause is done with the least possible disruption."
If I may be so blunt, this is bollocks. The source of funding for most arts organisations, Grants For the Arts, administered by the Arts Council has already been cut by over a third and try telling artists and their audiences and workshop participants that this is causing "the least possible disruption".
Mandarin Alan Davey (that's him in the photo) will be in no position whatsoever to claw back what his masters have ravaged from the arts pot. He may understand better than anyone how things work within the political machinery but he can never champion the arts sector in shaming the government to change their tune. He has been put in place to ensure the ranting stops at his door. However, being realistic, I suspect that he is simply the final nail in the Arts Council coffin and his real job is to dismantle it or at least disarm it. Not that it has shown much ability to fight in recent times, what with the outgoing CEO saying back in June that it was not an appropriate time to appear hostile to the government. At the time this comment threw me sideways - if the government is deliberately hurting the sector you represent, it is always appropriate to speak your mind, and vigorously. Perhaps he killed the concept of the Arts Council stone dead at that moment. Jennie Lee, the First Minister for Arts will be turning and twisting in her grave. And I suspect that most Arts Council staff will be feeling equally uncomfortable.

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Corn with your cob?

I do like fresh sweetcorn. All the gardening foodies will say you should strip your cobs off the plant when the silks are brown and you can feel the kernels plump under the protection of the leaves. It's then vital to run hotfoot to the stove where your pan of water is boiling in wait. The sugars turn quickly to starch and if you store the cobs, rather than a sweet fresh taste it's all a bit floury in the mouth.
And now it's well into cob eating time - they won't last much longer in this weather - but I have a heap of corn cobs that unwrapped look like dominoes, dentures with missing teeth, censored letters or perhaps pixelated images as if faces, registration plates or other identifying/rude features have been removed.
Rather than running your mouth along the cob, nibbling like a dormouse on heat in neat lines from base to tip, it's a sort of hopscotch, leap frog or tango to follow what appears to be an entirely random pattern of kernels. Some are busting out all over, about to pop in their eagerness to burst from their buttercup yellow skins whilst others sulk in pale flatness with no growth at all, cut off in their prime. And worse, their neighbour is thrusting its stuff in the most immodest of flaunts. I actually feel sorry for them.

Monday, 24 September 2007

The right to take a break

When you are at school and reach the time when you just can't stand the itchy uniform and the dull homework any longer, it's half term. Or end of term. Or even better, summer holidays. Wired into your very being is the regularity of taking a break. And then, keen to leave your juvenile pleasures behind you, you start work and realise with mounting horror that the statutory holiday allowance is a measly 20 days a year, and school and college suddenly doesn't seem such hard graft after all.
You work for a few years and if you are lucky, your annual leave entitlement grows a bit. Perhaps you get five weeks off a year. There are of course far too many dippy workaholics who take their laptops, mobiles, blackberries and assorted wifi goodies on their holidays, irritating their spouse, lover, children and the folks in the next hotel room; that's their call.
And now, we have John Gieve being criticised for being on holiday when he should have been at work, managing the financial crisis of the moment. Firstly, it appears he was actually attending his mother's funeral for part of his leave, and secondly, what's the problem with taking a break? His boss was at work sorting things out, as no doubt were most of his staff. I presume, just as the royals don't fly together in case the lot get mashed in a single aircrash, that the Gov and his deputy don't holiday at the same time - very wise. If either man was the sole person able to control the situation I would be very worried; what if one of them became ill, or died, or just needed a day off to see to the boiler repair man?
Sorry folks, I just don't buy it - everyone is entitled to take a break and if you do a very important job, then someone else will have been briefed to cover it for the short period of your no-doubt much needed absence and rest period. Should nurses or surgeons never take a break because there is always someone in need of an operation?
And then there are farmers. Not sure how it can be organised that farmers can have their statutory entitlement - but then they are self-employed, and the law doesn't count. Here, neighbours cover for the odd day, weekend or slightly longer absence, but it is a big responsibility and you can only do this with other farmers, folk comfortable with animal feeding regimes, milking and knowing whether that sheep should really be upsidedown. Farmers usually have big hearts and are generous in giving of their time and advice; in time of crisis or busyness it's all hands to the hayfork, but they don't often have deputies to cover for them.
Perhaps we could develop a scheme like the one in Finland, and I could have my very own Deputy Dawg.

April fool

And then I checked. It's September. So I looked again at the Guardian weekend colour supplement, and yes, there really was a two page article (sadly no links to the actual thing) complete with photograph, encouraging you to run backwards with your neck twisted askew in a feeble attempt to stop you from running under a bus, into a grimacing parent with a pushchair and ten carrier bags (sensibly not plastic, must be hessian or linen) or into a lamppost. Apart from the assured bad neck, plentiful bruises and worse, I couldn't get my head round the benefits because I just couldn't take it seriously. I look forward to the letters page next Saturday.
So I hunt down the latest on Foot and Mouth on the Defra website and bang, there is a warning about some disease I've never heard of with a name that sadly yanks the bells on the April Fool's hat; Bluetongue. This is the first time this disease has ever been recorded in the UK. On top of Foot and Mouth it seems rather careless of some straying biting virus-riddled midge that some new notifiable disease has appeared at this time; you might be forgiven for imagining that we are tumbling into a Hieronymus Bosch nightmare.
Foot and Mouth scares are starting to emerge outside of Surrey. Those in Norfolk and Solihull have thankfully come to nothing, but now there is another in Hampshire and you can't blame farmers if they start to feel distinctly nervous that the Surrey boundary will not contain the disease for much longer. Rather than limbo, perhaps we are perched in purgatory.

Friday, 21 September 2007

Layers of detritus

The farmyard tells an ever changing story. It has a daily tale. Today, soft white down dances across it, caught by puffs of wind. Spots of blood speckle some of the feathers. I have been dispatching and plucking the two surplus Aylesbury drakes and my hands smell of burnt feather and my hair is full of fluff. This evening I will be clean, but the farmyard will bear witness for a week or three yet.
A couple of days ago the muck heap in the little yard was savaged and its goodness spread about various fields. A few tractor bucket loads was snatched for the vegetable garden, and en route a small trail of the precious stuff was dropped in the farmyard to tantalise the dogs who brunch on it eagerly. I must pick up the remnants before they bust their guts.
The goose hut is in the orchard, some way from the compost heap, so when their dirty bedding is barrowed away down the track, through the farmyard and to its designated rotting place, wisps of straw drop to reinforce any interested watcher that I have, yes, mucked out again this week.
And then there are the dried onion stalks. I plaited up the onions and removed any excessive stalk length, binning most but again dropping some, and they mix with the rest of the detritus in the yard.
Not all the farmyard droppings are organic; small bits from the tractor, nails, washers, dull coloured bits of metal and offcuts of wood tell you that a repair job took place in recent days or that something fell out of a barrow or a toolbox. I pick these things up and put them where they belong, but tomorrow there will be something else, evidence of other comings, goings and doings.

Thursday, 20 September 2007

A seaside special

Today was an impromptu holiday. The plan - to take the dogs to the beach now that the summer season is over and only the unemployed, the retired and the child-free are tackling the Cornish coast. The National Trust's Northcott Mouth may not be found on their website, but it is a wee treasure all the same. Smooth sea shaped boulders and pebbles far too big to put in your pocket litter the edge of the beach, making a satisfying crunch sound as you make your way seawards. From a distance you see the purplish black-capped jagged rocks peppering the beach and as you get closer, you can see that the rocks are in fact a mussel-lovers paradise.
The dogs pick their way carefully over the rocks and through the pools, allowed off their leads here all year round. They are mildly nervous of the sea and jump back from the lacy white froth, barking as I move away from them to get my knees splashed by the last licks of a once vigorous wave. Once I'm back out of the scary sea the dogs are playful but keep close, and watch as I twist some of the larger mussels off their salty barnacled bed and into a fresh as a daisy pooh bag.
The surf is up, a perfect Beach Boys day, only this beach is too rocky for safe surfing (is there such a thing?), and the noise of the waves is pounding and fierce and sucks away all other thoughts.
For now, the rock pools are ankle deep, clear and still. In a few hours they and the rocks that surround them will be feet deep in water, there will be no visible beach, and the woman who runs the tea caravan with its neat benches on well-clipped lawn, will be at home making her own tea, whilst I pick the beards from the mussels and serve free food.

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

An itchy critter

First we had mozzies, but I didn't even think "malaria", just itchy irritating bites. Now we have a small tick, removed and shoved into a clean sample bottle for posterity and I am thinking, hypochondriacally, Lyme disease (also meningitis, arthritis, heart and neurological disorders).
I hoik sheep ticks off the dogs from time to time, being careful to do the twizzling thing with the tick stick to avoid leaving the head buried in their flesh. Even so, the welts part the fur and mini bald patches result for a few days. But never before have I had the dubious pleasure of removing one from my own groin. Immediate thoughts - crabs - how did I get that? Bed bugs - yuck! But a trawl through the terrifying medical websites and a look at the mite in the bottle says no, it's just a tick.
I walk through long grasses on the farm in shorts and sandals. The advice is to always wear long trousers tucked into your socks and boots - what in 70 degree sun? So now I suffer with minor groin itch (yes, far too much information) and a constant shivery wonderment that is my body asking itself whether there are any more of the critters lurking in the warmth of my skin. Tickle tickle tickle.

Monday, 17 September 2007

The sounds of the night

Owls have been on my mind recently and last night an owl was practically perched on my nose. At least, it sounded like it. Lights off at about 11.30, the hooting through the bedroom window was loud and clear. It drowned out the hum of mosquitoes most effectively. The Tawny owl must have been lonely. It called, every few seconds, and there was no reply. So it kept on, hopeful that a kindred spirit would lift its feathered ears and join it for a night's hunting or other pleasures. At 3am it was still going strong, its eagerness for company neither impaired nor dashed. At 5.30 it finally stopped when the cockerels took over.
But a hooting owl is somehow not an irritation. Their extraordinary beauty means that instead of twitching the duvet about in restlessness, I lay in bed and grinned to think that there was an owl so close. And they do get close. Two weeks ago picking blackberries with a friend, reaching into a deep hedge to collect the juiciest samples, a Barn Owl flew out between our heads and off along the hedge line to find somewhere more private for its lurkings. We had been nose to beak, yet hadn't seen this large white and gold owl until it launched itself. Its feathers were scrupulously groomed; as it flew away you could see the perfection of its plumage, the attention to cleanliness and order ensuring a silent flight and good hunting. Later that evening it was seen again travelling up and down the lines of rowed up hay in search of displaced rodents.
Boxes for Tawny Owls and Little Owls have been built and put along the woodland edges on the farm; I haven't yet seen anything enter or leave the boxes, but then I walk during the day and these are nocturnal creatures. Barn Owl boxes will be made and placed in the roofspace of the barns, once there are roofs and rafters to protect and sit them on. It is on the to do list.

Friday, 14 September 2007

Disgusted of Devon

Words fail me.

Photograph: John Stillwell/PA from Guardian website

Thursday, 13 September 2007


Driving back from Exeter yesterday lunchtime in good mood I tuned to Radio 4 and the mood melted away as I realised that the news was all Foot and Mouth related. These days that sort of report has a physical effect on me; I'm sure a heart can truly sink. I get home to messages from farming neighbours and friends, all wondering what will happen next. Plans are swiftly changed - trips to sheep sales are cancelled, preparations for moving livestock are abandoned - and we all hold our breath.
The BBC ten o'clock news doesn't cover as much information as the Defra website which is not reassuring; whatever else you want it is consistency of message.
This morning it seems as if the new outbreak is of the same particular strain as leaked from Pirbright. This gives transitory relief; if it was a different strain the whole farming community would be in an even greater panic of contemplation of unknown quantities. As it is, the ethereal nature of the transfer of the disease will come under greater scrutiny, but how one traps an airborne virus is beyond my imagination. I look at the disinfectant mats laid at the gateways of farms and wonder if they are simply band-aids over mortal wounds.
Looking at the morning papers, I am dismayed that politicians of any colour only think of their own political capital at times of disaster; why this situation should be seen primarily as haunting the government rather than the farmers it actually affects is beyond me and the comments that the Chief Veterinary Officer was pushed by economic reasons to prematurely declare that Foot and Mouth had been eradicated are surely utter foolishness.
The Defra website will be a continually open window on my computer today. If the concern over a pig on the farm in Norfolk is substantiated, farming hell is at hand.

Saturday, 8 September 2007


I can't sleep. My skin is all reflexive shudders. The night world thrums and hums and buzzes. The whole house has tinnitus. Upstairs the mosquitoes thrive and feed on my blood, raising small welts of absurd and long lasting itchiness. Tubes of sting relief are scattered within easy reach. I clap my hands and in minutes squash a dozen of the flimsy insects; speed is not one of the tricks in their armoury. Under the inadequate protection of the duvet I dream of being swathed in muslin and the mosquito net turns into a shroud.
I come downstairs in the middle of the night to seek some quiet and then depress myself by looking at what can be done to diminish their numbers. On a farm not much, unless you want to deprive the livestock of water and create massive feeding grounds for blowflies and worse on their resulting rotting carcases. Perhaps it is simpler to get the river re-routed.
Last autumn it was the cluster flies and perhaps that is yet to come, although some in the north are already infested. These beasties behave very oddly, congregating in huge, unbelievable numbers at the windows and cling there buzzing whilst you swat the lot to death with the tried, tested and effective fly swat, purchased two for a pound at the local market. That's one for each hand. Outside their feet stick to the peeling whitewashed walls, perhaps providing food for any non-migrating birds and bats; their sole redeeming feature.
Enough already. My sleep has been disturbed by the mozzies for several nights and I am tired and irritable. The dogs sleep through, their thick fur a solid protection. If I am to function during the day I must drown their night noise with interesting thoughts that bring buzz-free dreams.

Friday, 7 September 2007

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Creeping slithering things

I knew that there were grass snakes in Warwickshire but I have been in Devon for more than two years and had spotted no evidence of a slithering thing until now. My composure is therefore ruffled. I know they are harmless. I know they are one of the many wondrous species of wildlife that have unwittingly chosen me as their landlord. But now that I have seen a sloughed snakeskin a few yards from the house, I also know that the freshly clad previous inhabitant of said skin cannot be far away.
I have checked my trusty Readers Digest field guide to animals and it tells me they are common in lowland areas and found mainly in damp heaths, woods, lush pastures, damp grass and ditches where frogs kick about. The farm offers all of this, so just how many are out there, minding their own business but potentially causing me to lose mine?
A compost or dung heap is their favourite place for laying eggs and I cannot now visit the compost heap without an involuntary spine-shiver of fearful anticipation. And you should see the polytunnel - there is practically no visible ground, covered as it is with rampant cucumber, courgette, tomato and bean plants. Talk about the perfect amphibian hiding place. What do I do when I have to ferret amongst the cucumber plants to pick a beauty or two and mistake the soaker hose for something more animated?
There are nice damp jungly bits all over the farm where a snake could comfortably snooze and forage, conveniently hidden by the brambles that I am busy picking, no longer in pastoral crumble induced calm but in nervous hope that Hissing Sid will keep himself to himself.
Hundreds of eggs from multiple females may be laid in one place and the young are hatching right now. I have visions of plagues or at the very least, hysterics (my own) on a par with the commotion created by my coming face to face with rats en masse.

Saturday, 1 September 2007

The joke shop

Back in June I oh so casually mentioned that in the dim and distant past and throughout my childhood, my parents ran a joke shop in Soho. In the non virtual world, on the few occasions that this information has slipped out, it is received with wide eyed surprise and a desire to know more, but there was nary a blog comment on this topic.
I have been thinking about the shop recently. Physically its exact location is difficult to find now, having been sold twenty-five years ago and subsumed into the Trocadero, but it was a few steps from Piccadilly Circus, on Shaftesbury Avenue opposite the Globe Theatre (since renamed the Gielgud Theatre), and had been a photography studio when my parents first took it on not long after the second world war. They photographed many of the film and theatre stars of the day, including Mae West, and I wish I still had the proofs, but they disappeared many years ago.
It was tiny. A long thin galley of a shop, dark and old fashioned, shoehorned between a Chinese restaurant and latterly a pizzeria. In time the shop morphed into a souvenir and joke emporium. It was lined with deal shelves, some of which hold my books today, but then arrayed with London souvenirs (Beefeater dolls, Tower of London ashtrays, mini statues of Eros), squashy full head rubber masks (Miss Piggy, Frankenstein, Elvis) and every kind of joke product. Bizarrely, when the enormous Hamleys toy store just around the corner in Regent Street couldn't provide the exact joke that some discerning young punter desired, they would send them to my parent's place.
The basement was not open to the public; you reached it by a narrow curving stairwell, not unlike those on the Routemaster double decker bus. It was storeroom and receptacle for unwanted stuff. A complete jumble, and never ever cleaned, I was terrified to go down the stairs to use the toilet. There were several small rooms, some of which I never entered, stacked as they were from front to back and floor to roof with boxes. I had no idea if the boxes were full or empty, if they were from the photographic history of the shop or the more recent souvenir and joke existence. A large photographers light box was often left switched on casting light and shadow among the gloom; there were no windows and just one or two low wattage light bulbs hanging from the ceiling. Rats scuttled through the debris, grown huge from Chinese and Italian leftovers stolen from the neighbouring restaurant bins. One large rodent fried to death, trapped in the light box, creating the most horrendous stink.
Some school holidays I would help out, taking the cash to the bank or capering about outside the shop wearing a Miss Piggy mask with full blonde wig to encourage folks to enter which oddly seemed to work. I would stare at the dipping glass birds in the window, their faded yellow feathers dusty and the rim of the tumbler they bowed to, rimed with ancient water marks. Doling out whoopee cushions and stink bombs to more adults than children was an offbeat way to spend one's time perhaps, but it only feels so in retrospect.
My favourite thing was to be allowed to roam Berwick Street market, officially buying some fruit, but in reality gawking at the passing actors, the prostitutes, the film runners and blacked-out windows of the sex shops.
As I got older, and just before the shop was sold, I would from time to time drive my Mother in the early hours into the centre of a quietish London to await the glazier or window boarding guys if some junkie had mashed the glass in an effort to find some cash for their next fix. The last time we arrived to find a huge jagged piece of glass still in the door, covered in thick arterial blood. A red trail led to the till, and the tray pockets for the coins were filled with blood that had to be scooped out in readiness for the next day of trading.