Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Your Mum is the tooth fairy

     Welcome to the nursery. Yes, it’s that time again when I roll up my sleeves to bring some newborns into the world. And a cold world it is, too, here in South West France. With a sharp frost and an even sharper east wind this morning, the ewes will be glad of their new house which I laboured for a few months to build last autumn. Except that, true to form, they are all lying around outside shivering! I’m not complaining: it’s their choice. My father was always a great one for shutting animals inside during the winter months but that isn’t my way. I would much rather see them out in the fresh air, if that’s what they prefer. To be fair, we actually don’t have any lambs yet but they are due this week. Sod’s law we hot-wheeled it down from Scotland to be here for the due date when, quick as a flash, nothing happened. Of course, were we delayed, which we nearly were when the turbos exploded on the car, then they would have all lambed in a puddle and given me the blame. So it’s over to middle-night excursions around the field in dressing-gown and wellies for a few weeks, until we reach the required number of deposits, before I head back north for some more graft. Call it a ‘Shepherd’s holiday’ – a bit like a bus-man’s holiday, only without the timetable delays and disgruntled passengers!
      Did I mention turbos? Ouch, sore point. I never knew we even had 2 turbos on one car but seemingly we did until they both seized and ceased in an unassuming bang. Thankfully we now have two more and all is well, except for the bank account, as those things cost the price of a small house. That wasn’t the only trauma on our journey down here either. After we traversed the Scottish borders on well gritted roads, admiring picturesque snow covered fields, we assumed we had said goodbye to the white stuff. How wrong we were. Following a few stop-offs to see family our ferry docked in Calais and we continued on the last 10 hour leg of the journey with intentions of being home by closing time. What we hadn’t reckoned on was yet more bad weather, this time of the blizzard variety, somewhere north of Le Mans. No problem, we have a four wheel drive with two recently discovered turbos, so we should get through. However, there is one fundamental difference in winter-driving between these two countries, in that the French do not have– or cannot afford - any salt to put on the roads. Not only that but, maybe because they don’t see much of the stuff, they haven’t a clue what to do when they encounter it. Well, they have a theory and that is to drive as fast as you can and hope to stay in a straight line. Beside the change of underpants, this inevitably this leads to multiple crashes and, presumably, premature death; hence the motorway gets closed, so we get diverted through deep forests in near-blind conditions. With the aid of a sketchy satnav and some googling, thankfully we happened across a local chateau displaying a welcoming sign, where we pitched up for the night on cotton sheets. Yes, an expensive trip was had by all.
     Anyway, here we are awaiting multiple births with log-burner ablaze. The winter house-sitters will be eternally on our Christmas card list since they must have spent the whole 3 months cleaning the place while we were away. Honestly, I have never seen the house so clean - they have left it like a show-home. Not to worry, a few days with the dogs moulting everywhere and some sheep-poo on the doormat and it will soon be back to normal.  Besides filing accounts, ordering materials, arguing with utility suppliers and pestering my toiling workers by phone, this does give me a bit more time to relax and take in a little of what’s happening on TV and in the news while my blood pressure recovers to something approaching normal.  Well, you would think so, wouldn’t you? For anyone else it would – but for some reason I seem to see through the transparency of mundane, straight into the world of bizarreness. More often than not this is to do with everyone and their dog trying to save the world. To start with, where did all these bloody vegans come from? I only heard of the word about 10 years ago, and now they have taken over our government, TV, newspapers, schools and social media. It’s a common fact that you are now never more than 10 feet away from a vegan, and they’re closing in. Even the rats are running from them in case they bore them to death about health food.  Did anyone pick up on the fact that the latest Peppa Pig stage theatre production has been banned from selling sausages in its canteen in case children realise that sausages come from pigs! Yes kids, you heard it here first, Santa is your Dad, your Mum is the tooth fairy, Boris Johnson is an ambassador for Britain and, ever since time began, we humans eat other animals - because we are born carnivores! Not only that, but every third person seems to have developed an intolerance to something, be it gluten, wheat, lactose, sodium, fructose, Jeremy Vine or the Bible. It’s true – every restaurant you go into, someone is always demanding special treatment, perhaps so they can sit there being piously smug while others dine on mere ordinary meals that actually taste of something. Where did all this come from? Call me mister picky but, 40 odd years ago, if I didn’t eat my school dinners – or my mother’s ghastly cooking for that matter – I was made to stand in a corridor with a kitchen fork sticking out of my ear. My parents and grandparents would eat anything and everything, such was the hunger of their era. And I am pretty sure those meals contained enough wheat and milk to feed a sty full of sows, but we didn’t have to take 2 days off work with stomach upsets if we so much as glimpsed a carton of yogurt.  So how did we evolve into a race of finicky whiners during just one generation? Have we really been brainwashed by the trash we see on our screens and papers, or hear on BBC phone-ins? Or have a third of the nation just developed enough bravery to step out of the closet after all these years and admit that they never actually enjoyed boiled brawn and rice pudding in the first place?  

Youth is wasted on the young

     Smokies for lunch and dinner? Ah yes, we are in Arbroath, their ancestral home, and very nice they are too. It seems quite strange that this small unassuming coastal town could produce such a world famous delicious product, hailed globally by chefs as one of life’s real treats. Apart from fish merchants on every corner around the harbour area, Arbroth doesn’t really have a lot going for it, but we happened upon a charming cosy little pub which serves excellent meals – and is dog friendly. Travelling with two pooches sometimes poses its problems, especially as Louis is prone to rolling in rancid dead animals on the beach, surrounding himself in an unbearable odour – well unbearable to everyone else but him, that is. This weekend is a special treat for me, after 7 weeks of heavy graft, which have included demolition, erecting walls, stairs, kitchens and bathrooms, and then days on my knees putting up tiles. All that while enduring a vicious bout of the Aussie flu, which has certainly taken the stuffing out of me. However, the project in Cellardyke is still on track and will be more or less finished by the time we head home for France in a few weeks, to coincide with the beginning of lambing. After 4 weeks of that, I will travel back over again, to start on project number 2, the beach-side end of the cottages. I must say I am relishing the idea of opening up the whole gable-end of the house, replacing it with curtain-glass and a sheltered balcony where we can sit and breathe in the stunning view out to the Isle of May from a first floor elevation, should the planners and local objecters allow. It will be a huge job, but one that hopefully will be fruitful in the long run, as we intend to spend much more time in this cosy friendly village, despite the close proximity of those who publicly label me as a money grabbing, unsympathetic amateur. 
    Anyway, enough of work, this is my weekend off. Soon we will be heading into the restaurant. Except we won’t for a while, as it has just been taken over by no less than 60 young farmers. Yes, the Angus chapter of the YFC have invaded the town to hold their annual Cabaret competition, and need a pre-match drink or two to warm the vocal chords. Just how they all intend to fit into a small public house is as yet unknown but this is an organisation not without skills when it comes to drinking in confined spaces. I should know, as I was once in the Cleobury Mortimer club and boy did we do some crazy things back then. Things, I hasten to add, not to be tried by kids at home, which included regularly getting nine of us (3 in the front, 4 in the back, 2 in the boot) in my Mums mini, and then donutting it around the Clee Hill car park. As well as stock judging and building carnival floats, we also used to make annual excursions to Blackpool and other exotic places, to mingle with other like-minded idiots in the name of junior agricultural solidarity. I recall one time, myself, Bernie Birch and a few Notts and Whitemans spending a barmy weekend on the Isle of Man, when the 3,000 strong cargo on the old ‘Steam Packet’ managed to drink the boat dry, before it even left the docks. I also think our same crew may still hold the record, of getting 22 lads into the back of a Blackpool taxi, much to the cabby’s distain. Of course, the straining machine was forced to stop at every pub on the ‘strip’, just to top-up the thirst en-route to the Winter Garden dance! Sadly now, when I do step into the bar to join these youngsters, I will probably know all their fathers – or even grandparents! Meanwhile, I will just let them think they invented ‘blind-man’s spoof’ or ‘sell-the-donkey-a-snotball’! Head-ache tablets, anyone?

Thermal lobster

     A very happy New Year everyone, which it should be by the time this gets to print. Currently I am still in the old one, chasing my tail to clear up stuff before taking a winter break. It certainly has been a hectic year, from what I can remember of it. After just over a month of heavy work, the new house is taking shape, with walls, ceilings and floors reinstalled above a few thousand pounds worth of insulation.  Although most of the innards of the house was carted away on half a dozen skips, we did hang on to some of the dry timber, having a bonfire on the beach on a couple of colder mornings to warm the hands. However, every small community has its busy-bodies - I know Rock hosts its share – and one particular lady decided that burning wood in a secluded spot was not eco-friendly enough, and hence reported us to the authorities. Regular readers of this column will know my views on eco-mentalism, and I have already had a heated argument with the man at our local tip this month, who is convinced I am dealing in nuclear waste every time we rock-up with a few rubbish bags. But does having a bonfire on the beach really contravene any eco-laws? Will some light wood-smoke poison local wildlife? Or maybe a small fish might burn its nose? The upshot of this is that we were sternly requested to down-tools until the problem had been investigated by some very important men from the council in hi-viz clothing. Thankfully I talked the way clear so we could resume construction but I am now convinced we are constantly being watched through field-glasses in case we pollute the entire North Sea fish stocks.
     Meanwhile, it is also the council that we are battling against to gain simple planning permission to replace a couple of doors with windows. Firstly, we find that as the some of the house has ancient sash and case windows which we need to replace like for like, getting them hand-made to Victorian spec at a squillion quid each. But for the new door-replacement ones, we can get away with sash and case lookalikes, saving a fair sum, and getting better heat-retention in the process. Except we can’t, because we have to have fire exit windows. Okay, no problem? Yes, problem. Because a fire exit window has to open outwards, and these are on the ground floor, and a footpath to the beach goes right by the door. Can’t open a window outwards in case a blind person walks past and – well, car-crash, basically.  OK, we’ll just brick up the window. Can’t do that, as there is a bedroom on the ground floor, so has to have an emergency exit. Um, are we heading up a blind alley here – pardon the pun – just to appease some lunatic rule-maker? Here’s a compromise, says I. We put up a sign saying – and here’s the simple bit – ‘In case of fire, leave by the kitchen door, its five blo0dy yards away, dipsh1t!’..  ‘and then walk calmly to the beach and get a bucket of sea water to put the fire out?’ And don’t worry, that nosey bitch neighbour will have already reported it to the council!
     One thing about living near the sea is that we get plenty of fresh fish. No less than 80 vans leave the neighbouring village of Pittenweem’s famous fish market every morning, delivering freshly caught sea life all the way to the west coast, over a hundred miles away. Funny though, watching out of the window, I don’t see many fishing vessels. Well, as I have just discovered, Fife used to have a vibrant fishing industry but now it all arrives from Aberdeenshire, 80 miles away, by truck! But, what we do have here in East Fife is that king of beasts, the Lobster – they love it here. In fact, one young lad I have on our team used to put his creel (a small netted box, to those uninitiated in the ways of the crustacean catchment) just outside our back door and catch a couple per week. Bingo. So, Christmas dinner this year will begin, and maybe end, with home caught lobo! As a backstop, as apparently they aren’t too keen at getting snared during the festive season, I asked my fish-guy to drop me one in next week. But, sadly, he cannot as he had his stolen.  Yes, stolen. Apparently he keeps a ‘pen’ of them under lock and key somewhere out past the harbour and some local yardies broke the lock and had them away in the dead of night, scooping a fair haul. So, if anyone offers you a hot lobster in the next few weeks, call Mev-the-axe, he would be highly interested in the lobster source.
Ah yes, Lobster sauce. Must get back in the kitchen to get the lunch on. Toodle pip.

Smuggling up

     And we’re off. A quick 3 day transition and it’s goodbye sunshine hello – err – snow? Who ordered that in November? Well it’s not exactly snow here on the East Fife coast but it is a bit white up on the nearby mountains. Anyway, the last few weeks have been no less eventful, as we tidied up and packed away our stuff for winter in France, rugging up the vehicles and putting the final touches to my last building project. A last minute trip to the local tip was once again steeped in ridicule as we discover we now have to apply to the council before we can be admitted through their sacred gates. Yes, in the space of a decade the French government has evolved its encouragement from stockpiling rubbish until bonfire night to become card-carrying recyclists. Although not quite yet on an equal with UK on the environmentalist stakes, the smug grin of self importance is certainly starting to show beneath the whiskers of the French bearded classes as they deliver a couple of empty jam jars or a bag of leylandi cuttings to its eco resting place, in an effort to grant them a good night’s sleep. Of course, as with most other countries, as soon as their backs are turned, all the rubbish gets lumped back together again and hoyed into a massive hole in the ground, but they aren’t to know that, are they, bless them. I suppose it is what you believe that makes you a model citizen, not what you achieve?
    Anyway, after our exit, the responsibility of our sheep and cats is now charged to the capable hands of a hairdresser and her husband from Yorkshire, who fancied a winter in the cold climate of South West France. This is something we take an annual chance on, trusting our house to strangers. My wife takes great pride in making sure the place is spick and span before their arrival. They even receive preferential treatment, with her purchasing items of bedroom furniture especially for them, despite the fact I have hung my clothes up on the floor for the last 10 years. They both seem fun and vibrant but for all I know they could already have Skippy the sheep in a pot ready for Christmas!
     So, after a brief stopover in Rock to see my mother and a few other familiar faces, we have now settled into our newly refurbished house in Cellardyke, which we have recently put on the market. Living in a house that is for sale actually makes for quite good discipline, as one is obliged to keep it tidy at all times in case a prospector knocks on the door for a look-see. As we also have the dogs with us, keeping it perennially clean is something of a challenge but, to pre-empt this, I have shaven the dog’s legs and undercarriages to prevent them dragging half of the beach with them back on to the carpets. I have to admit they do look a bit silly so it’s no wonder Pooper takes to snarling at any dog that so much as gives her sideways glance.
      This morning we have all the tools and labour lined up ready for our next adventure. Soon hammers and crowbars will be whirring as we set about gutting two cottages, fetching it all back to the original stonework. Demolition can be quite a therapeutic exercise, despite its messiness. However, as so often with these old houses, it is the excitement of what you might discover that gives me the thrill. Will there be hidden Roman coins, Victorian trinkets or bars of gold stuffed behind the chimney breast? Who knows? But I highly doubt it. This place was an old fishing town, and these two cottages were actually four, so it’s highly unlikely they had anything more than a pot to p*ss in, let alone a Ming vase for orchids. But then again, it is right on the beach so maybe the odd smuggler might have hauled some booty up through a trapdoor into the kitchen many years ago. A glass of 200 year old rum, anyone?

In the shelter

    Ah, the pleasures of Bristol airport. Now newly rebuilt, with even more glitzy shops and possibly the ghastliest restaurant in England – it still amazes me how companies stay afloat when they employ such dreadful staff.  Named ‘Brunel’s Bar and Grill’, I would imagine old Isambard would turn in his grave if he knew what slops were being served in his honour. Thankfully this is not an airport I use frequently and the only reason we are here is that dodgy Ryanair cancelled our forty quid flight earlier this week, offering a refund but with the only other flight option being the next day for a chivalrous £240. So we had to opt for Sleazy-jet instead, which includes a 3 hour stop in this hell-hole and the probability of a week of diarrhoea ahead.
    The trip to Scotland was most enjoyable, passing a few days watching professionals and celebrities ply their trade on the golf course in St Andrews. We even got to speak to a few, including Rory McIlroy and that legend of a rugby player, Paul O’Connell, from whose handshake my knuckles are still recovering. On the subject of broken bones, I carelessly managed to slip in the brand-new shiny-floored bathroom that I recently built and crack a rib, a pain many folks will know nags away for up to six weeks, particularly during bouts of laughter. So once again, I am off games with a note from matron, as we return to a million chores back home in France. Earlier in the month I started building a new house for the sheep, laying 500 concrete blocks in the week before we left. Unfortunately there are still a few hundred more to put down before the roof can go on, so I may now need to canvass a little help on that front. To be honest, I find it hard to justify the expense and effort just to keep the sun and a few showers off the creatures, when there are perfectly good trees to shelter under, but my wife has other ideas. In fact she recently threatened that if they didn’t get a roof over their head this winter, Skippy and Daisy would be moved into my bed and it would be I sitting out under that tree waiting for windfalls!
    Anyway, the next few weeks will give me a bit of time to relax in France before we head back to Fife for the winter to start on my next project. It will probably take me that long to read the Saturday newspaper I just picked up, which is about 3000 pages thick. As well as the daily gossip about world politics and prospective nuclear war, I can learn all about ‘My Money’ (or lack of it), holidays I can’t afford, properties I can’t afford, football players who can afford all of it and a crossword so huge and difficult it would  keep a team of eggheads awake for a year. Do people really get time to churn through all this rubbish in just one lazy weekend? I certainly don’t, what with all the household and outside chores, I rarely even get chance to watch the TV. Maybe I am doing something wrong in my life?
    I will admit that even to someone as blasé about world news as me, that bad hairdo in the Whitehouse does scare the carp out of me, as he systematically picks fights with every nation in the world. How long before France gets in the firing line, I wonder? Will he soon take umbrage with Monsieur Macaroon about the price of wine and garlic and aim his nukes at chez nous? Or maybe he might wipe out all 50 golf courses in Fife, just so he brings more trade into his Aberdeenshire enterprises? Is anywhere safe? It’s not just him either, as the whole of Europe seems to be giving more and more support to the loonies on the far right, with the uprising Nazis showing the way. I find it rather disturbing how short the human memory is on such matters. I don’t believe I am paranoid but if I was I would be wondering if, before we have chance to say Lee Harvey Oswald, the sky overhead could be criss-crossed with atomic vapour trails as 100 million of us scramble desperately to squeeze into one fallout shelter. I wonder if my wine cave is atom-proof?

Arrgh, I just went get a coffee to calm my troubled mind and find my money is no longer valid. Firstly the dim-waiter refuses to accept a Scottish tenner, fobbing me off that it is not legal tender in England – which is it, and will be until Nicola says otherwise. Unperturbed, I go to pay him with a pocket full of change I found in a jar in the house in Fife, only to have all my pound coins rejected also. Then he wouldn’t accept euros because of bloody Brexit! It’s blatant discrimination, if you ask me! Not only racist, but ageist as well. Does that mean all those pound notes stuffed under my mattress are out of date too? Next thing they’ll be telling me we are in the 21st century. Or maybe I have just been in East Fife too long?