Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Spawned by Janet Street Porter

Johnny Depp and Janet Street-Porter must have been intimate a trio of decades ago and Russell Brand is the result.
Brand's face has peered out at me from the back page of my Saturday Guardian sport section for some while, and although I normally bin the sport pages or use them for firelighting, I would rather read the back of a cereal packet than stare into space whilst visiting the bog.
Trapped with the sweaty muscular thigh pages or perforated 2-ply to choose from, Brand's column was digested. He has good style I thought - wish he was writing about something other than goals, balls and footie players.
And then last week (yes, I am dreadfully behind the times, he is probably already passée), there was Janet Street Porter's voice and character whanging out of Johnny Depp's face and body. A strange cross Atlantic fusion that had me unhover my finger from the remote.
I think I'll ask the clever chap at The Spine to do a melding of Janet and John and see if my suspicions can be validated.

(Mopsa desperately needed to think about something other than MEAT. Seven lambs and two hoggets picked up from the butcher today and distributed, alongside the offal which the butcher smilingly gave me in a huge bag with all the lights so I had to do my Hannibal Lecter bit and remove the livers and hearts from the rest of the innards. Then I plucked pheasants. Don't fancy tonight's dreams at all at all.

Saturday, 27 October 2007

The Toy-boy and the harem

A morning of crutching, worming and toe-trimming. All the ewes should be at their best as they will be checked but preferably left untouched and unstressed for the next 21 weeks. Post pedicure and coiffure they moved into Long Lands, heads straight down into the green stuff.
I stank of wet sheep. The gates were opened, a feed bucket was waved encouragingly in front of the tup. It was raining, it was grey, I could hardly see across the field but Toy-boy didn't notice. He was a ram on a mission. Head held high, nostrils flaring, ignoring the feed but momentarily interested in my Eau de Ewe trousers, he sneered and headed for the real thing. He made his entrance. The sheep raised their heads from their breakfast. The crowd swallowed the star of the show. Sniff. Paw. Mount. Sorted.

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

What are you reading? Is it good?

My birthday is in November and then it's Christmas, so it is present time (yes, presents, and plenty of fuss please). But I don't get to bookstores that often these days - fairly thin on the ground in rural Devon, and Waterstones in Exeter lacks inspiration (I think it's the layout and the too neatly proffered stock), so browsing for delights is a very rare thing indeed. Amazon is amazing but you can't pick stuff up and see if page 22 will have you giggling or groaning.
So, I am after your book recommendations - what should I be sticking on my wish list?
I don't have a love affair with short stories - all too wham bam thank you mam. I don't much care for biography or history unless wrapped in a fictional format. Sci fi and crime don't hit the spot.
I want novels: contemporary and classic; pithy and rambling; elegant and coarse; witty and woeful; poetic and prosy.
There are a heap of authors I despise, but otherwise I am open to all suggestions. Oh, and hardbacks aren't great - I like to read in bed and the corners poke uncomfortably into my chest - but I can always wait til next birthday when they are out in paperback.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

It's noisy round here

A big part of moving to Devon from urban encroached Warwickshire was getting away from the noise. Peaceful as a tomb on some mornings, a torturous switch would be flicked and road and air boomed its burden.
Here, the occasional plane comes past, the red Devon Air Ambulance hovers, and the RAF have been known to lean out of their Harriers and Chinooks and wave at the dogs (well, no, but they get so low you think they might). But these are rare intrusions. The regular noises are of the rural and agricultural kind.
There is the the regular clunk clunk of the chains hitting the sides of an empty muck spreader, accompanied by the rich whiff of future plenty. In autumn the terrifying flails are out trimming the hedgerows. The milk lorry rattles down the lane late at night taking its lactose load to be cartoned for your breakfast. Here on the farm there are angle grinders and bandsaws and chainsaws and cement mixers and diggers and all kinds of tools and machinery moaning, groaning and whirring at their task.
And then there are the animals. Each morning this week a stag has been roaring that his testosterone is high and that he's ready to party. In response, confused cows have bellowed back inviting him over to their place. Next doors' cockerels join the wild bird's dawn chorus. The Barnevelder cocks I'm rearing for meat are not yet mature so their muffled adolescent crowing isn't a cause for disturbance yet. The owls screech and call at night. The ram is bashing on the gate in his eagerness for the 1st of November when he will be allowed to visit the harem. The dogs growl and bark if something so much as deigns to pass the farm gate. The cat wheezes and squawks to be fed. The sheep munch rhythmically on haylage and the geese honk and shout. The cluster flies just buzz.
It's an old house so the sash windows rattle in their frames, the Aga snores as it gulps its oil, and with a distinct lack of carpeting the floorboards bend and creak as animal and human feet tap across the floor.
Soon, the builders should be arriving to start work on restoring the barns adding their sounds to the mix. I may invest in a packet of ear plugs.

Monday, 22 October 2007

Yesterday was Apple Day

I didn't celebrate it other than reading my Apple Source book and patting my fabulous home-made tree labels, but just knowing it was a festival in honour of the glorious fruit gave a glow to the day. This year the orchard is justifiably in hibernation mode. It is taking care of itself, regenerating after a year of goodly pruning and planting and identifying and cidermaking and apple juicing and crab apple jelly making. It was introduced to sheep and geese, had guards stamped around each tree and was generally poked about and played with. It deserves its time of rest after all this intrusion and the amazing fruit glut of 2006.
There is just one thing I want to do with the few fruit that have doggedly grown and ripened. I want to experiment with dried apple rings, dehydrated in the bottom oven of the Aga. I promise not to bother the trees too much. I'll remove a few samples, walk quietly away, and they won't be the wiser.
The hedgebanks round the orchard will be laid and restored this winter and so let more light in which will benefit the young plantings. By the time blossom arrives, the hedgelaying will be complete, and the banks will be fenced. Yes, the sheep love lying on top of the banks but their sharp feet erodes them terribly and this in turn kills off the plant life. Instead, they will have to lie under the trees and scratch their arses against the guards.

PS: the apple is an unknown dessert/culinary type; the pomologist was unable to identify it.

Friday, 19 October 2007

Friday fungus

An hour's walk in Moor Wood with Fenn on a hunt for the mass of fly agarics that appeared last year was unsuccessful; perhaps they'll emerge later in the season. But there was no shortage of life among the mould and the damp.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Guinea Foul

Spent lunchtime at a dispersal sale of a herd of organic pedigree Red Ruby Devons. They were being sold from the Fishleigh Estate where the much debated Springwatch is held. It's all part of my bovine acclimatisation process - cow speak being so very different from the more familiar pig and sheep lingo. I now know that a heifer becomes a cow on the birth of her second calf, that a steer is a castrated male, and a bullock still has his bits. I think.
I was supremely impressed by the auctioneer. Extremely knowledgeable about cattle, the breed, and the provenance of the specific animals and most of the purchasers, he positively hummed with the required wisdom. His introduction showed that he had been preparing for this event, and there were all his peers watching him perform, determining whether they would sell their stock through him at some future point.
The estate stockman brought each lot into the ring, some individually, others with a calf at foot, adding a few words of insider wisdom for the occasional animal. It must be heartbreaking for him to bring to sale a herd he has cared for and developed.
We stood on trailers, six deep, hopping from one foot to t'other to glimpse between bunched shoulders the particulars of each animal - its confirmation, the clearness of its eye, it's breeding potential. I couldn't see why one cow went for over £1600 when another the same age went under the hammer for less than £500. Perhaps her teats were compromised - I couldn't tell from where I stood.
The auctioneer was miked and clear-voiced, the bidders discreetly nodding their catalogues or touching the brims of their caps. I didn't take a photo - I was worried it would be mistaken for a bid. I couldn't stay long, but I swallowed the essence.
Events like this are supremely English. There is a shorthand, a modus operandi, a complete sense of familiarity for those in the club, and an utter confusion for those unacquainted. And a key part of this mystique is that of course the lots were sold in guineas.
What's that all about? You bid, say, a thousand of these babies and have to part with £1050 (and possibly a buyers premium depending on the auction). Where else outside the auction house does a non existent coin of the realm become the accepted currency? Why not shekels or zlotys, or to keep with the English theme, groats?
I like the idea of paying with gold ingots, topped up from leather bagged gold dust to reach the required weight. It goes with my idea of Wild West ranchers, and that's not too far a leap from West Country farmers; one of the chaps there WAS wearing a leather cowboy hat.

My old cat

I'm not one for cutesifying cats, like some, but I have two tabbies to keep the dogs in their place. The eldest is over 16 and not in good health. Eighteen months ago he was diagnosed with a hyperactive thyroid and once he made it clear that his life would be unbearable on a regime of permanent tableting or invasive treatments, was sent for an eyewateringly expensive stay at the Bristol University Veterinary Hospital to be made radioactive. Some huge percentage of cats (and people) are cured with this treatment - not so Smudge.
He is, by now, a pretty ill cat. He is skinny, demands food and is fed constantly, and can wheeze abominably. But he also enjoys most minutes of his day; he still hunts, he sleeps, he seeks out company and warm laps. He is clearly not in distress, and in most ways he is unchanged and relaxed. Best of all, he doesn't engage in avoidance tactics for fear of a pill.
This is the fourth house Smudge has shared with me. He was a brightly blue-eyed terror of a kitten, much taken to sleeping curled up in man-size tissue boxes after exhausting frequent dare-devil antics had him hanging by needle-like claws from the dining room ceiling (ghastly walls covered in hessian eased his vertical travels). He has taken to Devon and its many trees with gusto.
There is a dent in the cushion on the floor of my office where he usually sleeps. I can see him crossing the frosty garden in search of choice vole.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Raspberry Fool

If mornings have a mood, and I am sure they do, this one is feeling most chipper; the semi-torrential rain of yesterday has come to an abrupt halt and left a wet gloss on everything, the sun is doing its best, and the fruit bed is yielding its autumn raspberries. How glorious are they? Truly massive, sweetly sharp and the most luscious of breakfast treats.
These beauties grew from suckers taken last winter from our neighbour's canes and have grown from a few inches to towering plants of five foot. The book says I have to cut them down to ground level in February, and having proof that they really do grow like topsy in one year, I will not be too nervous of wielding the secateurs.
I appreciate that having berries posed on the ends of my pale fingers, assuming the likeness of fly agaric toadstools may put some off the fruit, but it minimises the need for spoons, and I'm not fussy.

Saturday, 13 October 2007

Farm craft

I never realised that there were so many art/farm projects 'til moving to Devon. I thought my two worlds were at a permanent distance one from the other, until landing in this agricultural and cultural stronghold showed me otherwise. If it hasn't yet been done, someone should produce an art farm map of the county, making sure to include: The Art Farm Project, Occombe Farm, Aune Head Arts, Organic Arts, and all the rest of them.
There isn't much art at home base though. Just some hamfisted craft. Nothing like the amazing quality of the stuff you might find here, more of the kind on display in the home-craft tent at the village fete.
Just the thought of pyrography makes me chortle; it's tattooing for the sensible, or the naff hobby you can do hunched over the kitchen table when there is nothing good on the telly and you don't fancy reading. I don't think I have ever seen an example that suggested this was a means to achieving good or interesting art. Perhaps it will be the medium for a future Turner prizewinner.
But I was desperate to label the trees in the orchard. After going to all the trouble of asking a pomologist to identify the existing varieties, and carefully doubling the number with new plantings of old Devon fruit trees, I didn't want to scratch my head in a couple of years time wondering what on earth was what. The posh version as used by the National Trust, arboreta and probably her Maj's gardeners were much too expensive and anyway entirely daft for a farm orchard. I improvised temporarily with stapled dymo tape, but the sheep rubbed them off quick smart, and with more than sixty of them I wanted a fairly permanent solution.
Pokerwork was the only cheap idea I came up with, and after a swift ebay purchase and a bandsawing of ply offcuts, there I sat, hunched over the kitchen table, being naff.
It worked though.

Thursday, 11 October 2007


Radio 4 is my thing. In the car. After two years in Devon the tuner is still not attached to the radio aerial on the house roof - no aerial, no signal, no usable radio inside the house. Some would have murdered a cat by now. So every car ride ends with me reluctant to get out because something is on the radio and I need my fix.
My patience in not murdering a cat can be rewarded by a choice gem, a nifty morsel, a radio gaga. This week we had Sue McGregor holding hands with Jeremy Paxman and Bettany Hughes around the library table sharing some fave reads. It's not particulary relevant that Paxo chose The Secret Agent, the point is that he described it as "terrific" more times than I could count. And then it became catching and "terrific" was thrown about the programme as if it was an alternative for "and" or "the". The show was punctuated by terrific and I found myself gulping for breath so that I could continue to drive safely without tears of laughter blurring my vision.
And then I started to gasp in wonder. You'll remember Paxo's utterly brilliant interview of Michael Howard where he repeated his question a dozen times and didn't get an answer. On the basis of the "terrific" revelations I'm now wondering whether Paxo is THE interviewer of our times or someone who gets stuck in a salient groove. He sure loves repetition.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007


Not a word many people are familiar with, lookering is the art (or is it a science?) of keeping a look out for other people's livestock; checking for ailments, lack of water or grazing, and knowing when to alert the owner. If a farmer keeps their cattle on someone else's land and has agreed that the landowner will peer at the animals daily, they know their beasts are getting a regular once-over from someone with a bit of nous, so don't need to visit the site so often, particularly if it is some distance away from their own land.
So today a drive through some unknown local lanes to a course on conservation grazing run by the Devon Wildlife Trust. It wasn't the lookering I was specifically interested in, but the chance to find out something, in knowledgeable company, about caring for cattle. A gentle way in to test my interest and potential commitment to keeping a few of my own and to keep the culm in good order. When the cob barn is restored it could house a number of cattle over winter, and if that is just a year or so away, planning and thinking is needed.
After a morning of discussion and learning on topics as beautifully named as zoonoses, cudding, bulling and locomotion (nought to do with Kylie and everything to do with movement) we went to see some real Devon Ruby cattle. They were on a very steep pasture and came to their owner in response to a waving of hay. One was put into the cattle crush for a few minutes so we could take a look at handling techniques and get a close-up of the signs of good health.
Glorious animals, the most rich of chestnuts - permanently autumnal - with a thick furry coat which makes them very hardy. They are not a large breed but are still enormous to someone only familiar with sheep. I was most enamoured. I need to find out more.

Monday, 8 October 2007

From whimsical to strident in one easy step

Cosy in my chair, empty supper plate being licked by one of the cats, dogs snoozing at my feet. Turn on the telly for some Sunday evening soft soap - nothing too enervating or illuminating required.
And then the ads come on and I find myself moving from calm to crazy in seconds. Is it just me or will Boots have to withdraw their new ad within the week? A breathily voiced woman (surely no-one speaks like this for real?) pants over some pseudo scientific face product. We see and hear how this stuff has resulted in women queuing like desperadoes in a state of heightened agitation, giving high-pitched screams, elbowing their fellow women painfully aside, and praised for their innovative use of handbags to bash each other on the head.
What is all this ridiculous stereotyping of women as violent idiots? Considering women must make up the massive majority of Boots customers you think they would avoid wholesale sneering at their lifeblood. We've moved on guys. Get a grip.

Sunday, 7 October 2007

Autumn hedgerow dalliance

Hard not to feel whimsical and chilled this weekend. Duck, goose and hen huts all mucked out and stuffed with fresh straw, I headed out across the farm, ancient stained trug picturesquely in hand, to snatch probably the last makings for a blackberry crumble to feed friends due to arrive for lunch. And no, there was neither skipping nor gingham apron. I left the dogs behind as there are now hundreds of sheep in lamb scattered about and when I forage I tend to forget to keep the necessary beady eye on the hounds. But I did take the camera to capture this autumn moment when everything puts its last effort into looking gorgeous before wilting.

Thursday, 4 October 2007

The fount of all knowledge

How many oracles have you come across? And I don't mean the Delphic sort.
Have you found a personal fount of all knowledge - someone who is not just happy to converse on a multitude of subjects but has true intelligence, has taken time for consideration and exhibits clear evidence of thought? An individual as relaxed in debating scientific issues as they are with the arts? (I apologise for sounding like some naff ad for acquiring false wisdom).
If you are lucky you might have come across one or two of these souls. My limited experience is that they tend to be quiet individuals secure about their thinking processes, perpetually on a mission to increase their understanding and eager to chew on opposing ideas in order to come to their own conclusions, which are frequently non-dogmatic and allowing of further clarification.

I worry often that my thinking is both too strident and too woolly and there is probably little that is more dangerous than an opinionated fool. In the same way that I struggle for words, I also tussle with thoughts, permanently conscious that others are more knowledgeable than I can hope to be. I put this down to a very average schooling, a sense that instinct is a strong and sensible animal, and an innate laziness. If you are perceptually bright and can dole out the required responses to fairly undemanding questions, then unless you have a teacher of extraordinary persuasive and insightful demeanour, you will get by satisfactorily without having to strain your brain. This is not a good thing. This has resulted in a deeply ingrained lack of respect for my own schooling and an inner fury at myself for not having done something about it both then and now.
The question is whether inertia can be overcome by anger, whether I can think of something to keep my brain delightfully occupied in mental gymnastics, and whether this is possible without completely ruining a sometimes precarious ability to sleep. How outrageously egotistical is that?

Picture - Consulting the Oracle by John William Waterhouse

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

It's those owls again

There are odd moments that you just know will become part of your life's lexicon to be shared, told and retold to friends and others til the end of your storytelling time. Small moments can be as precious as the big occasions.
The other night, after dinner, sitting quietly with a book by the fireplace, a whistling, vibrating, not entirely musical Schoenbergesque trilling echoed precisely down the chimney, landing directly in my ear.
The fireplace is big - years ago it housed the farmhouse range - and because there is no central heating and the need is great, contains a sizeable woodburner, the flue concentrating what was a vast open chimney into a more smokeless and comfortable arrangement. I quietly opened the doors of the stove to let the sound through even more keenly. Although it had never happened before I knew at once that there was a barn owl hooting straight down the chimney. The sound bounced around the room, truly eery and utterly unlike the infuriating but friendly tapping on the window of the blue tits munching by day on the linseed oil putty.
Opening the front door slowly, with lights kept off and dogs kept in, softly stepping across the cobbles to get a view, there in the moonlight, perched on the chimney pot was the owl.
I think it was enjoying the echo, like a child clapping from inside a huge concrete pipe in a playground. To me, it was a direct communication from the owl asking that the barn restorations be swiftly started to ensure it had a new home.
Two nights later it was back, and standing in the farmyard in the pitch black dark I listened to three owls communicating across the farm from different vantage points. I daren't mention that it will be at least a year before the barns are completed.