Tuesday, 26 July 2011

If music be the food of love...

     Growing up on a farm you would expect to be a fairly rustic affair but, although my upbringing was reasonably normal in that respect, music was unusually something that was always there in our old farmhouse. My father complained when radio 2 played anything other than opera or musicals; the Beatles and the Beach Boys were long haired youths! My Mum liked John McCormack and Elvis, normal sixties and seventies parents, almost?
My school days, amongst a mixture of boys and boarding school cultures, brought exposure to all sorts of memories and melodies. I discovered a singing voice that my Mum had given me and used it in anger. I also discovered a love of music that my Mum had given me of which, I am happy to say, we now manage to share. But in those late 70’s days, my world of music was just shared between my sister and, to a lesser extent, my older brother. Those days of growing up were a moving musical feast originating from late night radio to word-of-mouth recommendations and treasure-island-like discoveries. I soon learned to see through the glitter and later the spiky-haired punk to sort the musicians from the media hype, to find the real musicians, while Sarah got hooked on smile and hairstyles. I even prided myself that I was a fairly good impresario myself, listening to bands like Queen and Be-Bop-Deluxe long before anyone else had heard of them. But then, in 1979, came along a guru, not much older than me, who opened a whole new tin of beans. My sister hooked up with a young David George and, between us, we found new music in the late 70’s to die for; the Cure, Ramones, new Bowie, things that were different were our everyday. That was what it was about, being different. I revelled in it, we all did.
Then, as life took over, business overtook daily music, kids took place of nights at gigs or screaming headphones. We parted ways, for no other reason than we were too busy getting on with life; I look back and blame myself for that. Socially we just moved on. But here’s the thing, every time we got back together, be it for an evening or week’s holiday, Dave never stopped introducing me to new music. Not just stuff that he knew I might like, but all sorts of stuff. I have never been a lover of jazz, but he nailed me down to listen to Bob James and Herbie Hancock. When I carried on listening to Genesis, it was Dave who made me sit up and see what Peter Gabriel was now doing with African rhythm. All this at a time when I had traded Pink Floyd for Puccini, discovering my own inherent underlying love for opera?
Time passes and sadly that man, my music guru, is no longer with us. The music gods taking him at the tender age of 51 years.  Fortunately, he has impressed his music love on enough people; his three daughters and most definitely myself, to name but a few. Tonight I watched a fabulous documentary on Gabriel followed by Herbie being interviewed by Elvis (the real Elvis, Dave told me when we first met) Costello.
Cheers Big Man, I drink to you tonight. The musical fires are still burning.

Saturday, 23 July 2011


It had to happen! I wasn’t the only one to predict it. We had visitors this week from Scotland and Ireland, coming to spend their week’s summer holiday in France with us at Chauffour. Ryanair had magnanimously charged them for suitcases full of unnecessary summer clothes and a set of golf clubs. What it hadn’t charged them for bringing with them was the weather. Rain, rain and more rain; starting within minutes of them stepping off that plane. The golf was interspersed with laborious showers and the evenings with brisk gusts and shivering temperatures. In mid July! I found it quite refreshing after a four month drought. My mentioning, in passing, that it wasn’t like this last week and that indeed it had been positively tropical with recent outrageous heat, did little to quell their disappointment.
At last the sheep can graze during the day without the blazing heat and actually have something to graze on. The dogs can be outside rather than hiding in the cooler bedrooms all day. In fact the cooler bedrooms are also a blessing too, nights of sleep without perspiration and blistering insomnia. Sitting out on the terrace working fully clothed allows my head to clear just a little more as well, when my imagination can create more than just desert scenes.
The guests leave later today and guess what? The forecast is for summer to return. Maybe we have learned a secret. Next time we get a four month drought, import some via Rain-air.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

The Nearly Olympics

You must note that this month I have had to brave the picket lines in order to deliver you this column, as you will be well aware of the fact that BBC journalists have voted for strike action. And who can blame them? An expense account of conservative MP proportions, allowing them to travel the world by first class air, staying for weeks in top hotels, possibly accepting a few back-handers if they write in the odd product name (heaven forbid, no?) and only a few hours work per week? A career of making things up instead of getting a proper job? And now, the BBC wants to sack a few of them. How could this be, they are a protected species, surely? Well good old Auntie, it’s high time it cut a few costs if it is to be continually bankrolled by us, the public, despite it rarely showing anything on TV that I am remotely interested in. I can’t remember the last time I listened to the World Service, but I don’t remember that being very interesting either, maybe I was asleep at the time.
Wasn’t it great to see a new winner at Wimbledon last month, good old what’s-his-name, you know that new bloke. Yes him, oh come on, the one from some third world eastern block country? Because that is how it ended isn’t it? The two greatest players in the sport dethroned while our nation bites its finger nails and backs our very own hero for a few days and then goes to the pub before the finish. What is wrong with our sportsmen and women? Why are they so good at nearly winning? May I suggest that, after the Olympic Games next year, London hosts another event. The NEARLY Olympics.  Our teams can line up as favourites in their respective sport alongside other less equipped nations and then compete frantically until the very last second, when they can fall over and come second.  They would then be crowned Nearly World Champions! Team GB would win every event and Prince Harry and Boris Johnson wouldn’t be able to hand out the medals fast enough.
Last year we bought a few sheep and, thanks to nature, we now have a few more, nine in total. What I failed to notice, when we collected our purchases last summer was how outrageously wild two of them were. I should have spotted the tell-tale signs, them climbing the walls trying to escape for instance, a bit of bleu-du-maine ancestry (I know about that breed!) I should have been suspicious of. However, I am very glad to say that our flock has been pretty low maintenance. Lambing time came and went without a hitch, we missed worming time and dipping time due to such dry weather, even ear-tagging time managed to pass us by unnoticed and, as yet, unenforced. But now has come shearing time. Except it hasn’t, because I cannot catch the damn things! I used to consider myself an expert in such matters, so maybe I am just getting too old, but every time I go near these two particular animals they huddle menacingly in the corner, threatening to hurdle my fences and disappear off into the sunset. And that is exactly where they would go too as, if they escaped from our contained oasis, there isn’t other fence between here and Paris. So, in best Baldric fashion, I have a cunning plan! I am considering hosting a Greenham Common re-enactment day to celebrate its 30th anniversary. Friends, friends of friends, neighbours, neighbours of neighbours, young, old, lesbians, hippies, they are all invited to come and hold hands in our field on the same day, circling the perimeter. They can swap stories and sing songs by Billy Bragg about Tridents and Russians until, and here is the cunning part, one by one, some people will eventually get bored and go home. The circle will get tighter and tighter without the sheep noticing they are contained in the middle. At dusk, now in a 10 metre human paddock, I will tackle the sheep and clip off all their wool. What do you think? A plan so cunning, you could pin a tail on it and call it a weasel?!
In a world where so many species are endangered and constantly falling into extinction, I am greatly cheered this month to see the arrival of a new species onto our planet, that of the Zonkey. Although it has no stripes, this creature is, of course, the offspring of a cross between a zebra and a donkey, born in a zoo in south east China. It is also destined to become yet another designer pet. I have no doubt that a Zonkey will soon be on the wish-list of the rich and fashionable, in the same way that a Labradoodle or a Bug (a cross between a Boston terrier and a Pug) was a few years back. But what of the designer animals of yesteryear, where are they now? Where is the Shoat for instance, that highly efficient sheep-goat cross that was going to populate our farms one day? Did it ever make it out of the lab (laboratory that is, not the Labrador)? Or the Liger, a well documented cross between a lion and tiger, and its friend the Jaguar XK8. In the interest of modern science, I feel that perhaps some of these controlled crosses should be made with humans. A super-race of Boylotts (OK, I know, stop having a go at Susan Boyle and John Prescott every month) could be bred for the army, where they would sing and annoy people to death. The Beckurray could become race of Fennis stars, swerving the ball over the net and into it alternately, at the wrong time. They could even cross-breed two whole governments to make one? Oh no, that one has been tried. What is it called again, oh yes, a shambles. Zonkey? My Ass!

Monday, 4 July 2011

Green is the new black

    When I was a youngster on the farm back home, my father never gave the time of day to anyone who wasn’t a farmer or at least in some way involved in agriculture. Also, in those days, farmers were viewed as mysterious creatures, to be at least despised and preferably avoided altogether. I am talking about the days when the “Farming Programme” was on Sunday mornings at about 6am, before the real world had got out of bed. Farming magazines were hidden away in corner shelves in newsagents if they were on sale at all.
    I am not sure when things changed, but change they did. In my years of going to and exhibiting at livestock shows throughout the country, the interest of the general public swung from horses and tacky stalls to the cattle and sheep section. In those days it was just the oohs and ahhs of children and mums looking at the pretty ones, especially the calves. In those days, the public never really had much idea of the breeds nor their assets. In those days, beef came from a butcher and so did lamb, probably New Zealand. I remember doing a TV programme with John Craven back in the late eighties where we were grooming some herd or other for sale. I wanted to explain about the reasons why this breed, (Charolais, I think they were) provided the best rump steaks and to go so far as to point out which part of the animal the beef cuts came from. He wasn’t into that. The less the public know about those things the better, was his attitude.
    My how things have changed. Now most of the sheds at the home farm are full of someones storage, old cars, furniture and small businesses. Farmers now have their uses again. But more to the point, there are queues of people wanting to come around and look at the stock, especially lambing time. They know the breeds, the sexes and often the ages of the animals they see. They also want to roam the footpaths, no longer to trample the crops but to admire them, to see where their food comes from. For much of this, we can thank BBC pundits such as Adam Henson and (to a degree) Kate Humble and her crew.
    What amazes me though, is that kids programmes and stories seem to ignore all this information. Where some adults now will know the difference between a pretty 4 horned Jacob ram and a productive mule ewe, kids are still being fed stories about all sheep having horns and drawings of black and white bulls. When did you last see a Friesian bull in real life? They don’t exist outside specialist insemination centres these days.
    So when I write children’s stories about actual farm animals, doing what animals do but in a humorous way, this is deemed (by publishers) to be boring and not-of-the-right-time. They all want to brain-wash children with paranormal romance and football stories. Somewhere, in between the child and adult, there is a gap growing. The general public (the adult portion of anyway) are looking more and more to greener issues. Isn’t it time we approached some of these at a younger level? Not just, go green, drive a hybrid, but the ins and outs of farming and food production. When will a field trip consist of something a bit more educational that a petting zoo of city farm with rare breeds and goats? Why don’t kids get taken to a large dairy or beef farm, or, heaven forbid, a slaughterhouse? When I was at school, we had a bearded little professor who taught “agricultural science” from a big grey book. Even then, I knew he was teaching rubbish. The very sad thing is, while grown-ups are at last taking a keen interest in what they eat and how it is treated, that same old professor, or his ill-advised successors are still droning on about the same rubbish. When at the Highland Show last week, I spoke to some kids who were charging around the “rare breeds” sheep lines filling in a questionnaire about Soay sheep. I have to say, they had no idea about real agriculture what-so-ever and nor did their teacher. Why not?
    Come on, if the world wants to go environmentally mad, then at least let the kids get a bit greener too. Let’s start by putting some animal books back on their shelves with a touch of reality about them.

Friday, 1 July 2011

The child within the animal

    It’s a funny direction that children’s writers arrive from. I encounter writers, often female, who quote “I have been writing since I was 8 years old…!” I have no doubt they have. Then there are the boys who played video games and progressed into the extra world of fantasy writing. Why not? It sells and sells well. I met an old guy who wrote 50 history text books before deciding to pen that one book for his grand-daughter that made him a millionaire. So an ex-farmer writing books? Well nothing new there really. In fact one or two current fashionable authors claim to be farmers, well they have some animals at least. Morpurgo for example.
    Try though I might though, I struggle to pigeonhole myself into any of these categories. You see mine was a love of animals first, then a love of words second. Yes, for years the words came from my mouth rather than from my pages but that is a fairly easy bridge to cross. Or is it? That, at least, is another topic. But back to the animals, my job, my task which I set myself as a young man, was that of some kind of animal psychologist. On leaving school I found fascination with the pedigree animal kingdom and the art of displaying live animals to win prizes. I am not talking about pets, but farm animals, cows, sheep, big f*ck-off bulls sometimes. To put an animal in front of a judge and win prizes takes two skills. Firstly, the animal needs to look right, have its best clothes on and shine. My one skill lay in that area, the ability to brush, groom, clip hair with the finest attention to detail. In fact I became such a guru at that, my videos and grooming products still live on to this day.
    The other was down to how an animal behaves itself in a show ring, and that didn’t happen by accident. I prided myself, still do in fact, to have the ability to encourage an animal to behave itself to order. I wish I could do that to humans, toddlers especially! Don’t get me wrong, I am no horse whisperer, but I learned that the secret of getting an animal to behave was to understand them, to see inside their head. To me, it seemed to come easy, I don’t know why. I am not the only one, all good stockmen have this sense, many are better at it than I. But it is a gift, something that one is born with as well a skill that develops with practice.
    So, many years later I am reusing that gift. Great children’s writers speak of using their childhood and their memories as their writing material, of course they do. But I use something else as well. You see, the mind of a young animal is just that, YOUNG. When I look back, nearly all the animals that I have worked with, lived closed to, persuaded and coaxed, they were all youngsters, children. They were my kids, with their strange persuasions, habits, tempers and tantrums. It took me years to work that out but one day it happened, and on that day, I gained my most valuable asset.
    Most of the animal characters I write about now are children wrapped up in some kind of animal skin. In every one, I see three things: an animal I once knew; a child bouncing around, sometimes trying to escape or grow; and a little bit of myself trying to control it. I have received numerous emails from grown-ups telling me that, after reading one of my books, they will never look at their animals in the same light again. That pleases me no end. They hear what I see.
    However, the skill of getting these stories into the correct form, of making the words and smells that I feel in my head, in their head, dance on the page? That is my biggest quest. But I am so so glad it is that way around and, after a year of trying, I would like to think I am mastering it now.  I get so disillusioned with so many literary critics and writers, with so much literary skill and grammar, yet with nothing exciting to say. I am sure they consider someone like myself, with so many stories to tell, as a tedious intrusion into their grammatically classic dimension. But let them keep listening, for already some people are starting to hear the child within the animal.