Monday, December 31

Festive knees up

I’m pleased I didn’t spring for that humongous plasma TV we’d been looking at; footy aside, the festive schedule hasn’t exactly been a riveting watch. We passed an evening speculating on how many Gordon Jackson appearances it would take before one of us cracked and head-butted the barn wall. Tonight’s hogmanay programme follows a well worn pattern involving large quantities of roast pork and a bottle of Rhineland’s best; a brief sojourn outside to hug the neighbours in the rain, before returning for an hour or two’s vigorous dancing to the sound of Jools Holland’s Hootenanny. Its worth watching if only for the embarrassing behaviour of those older guests that should know better, but who - in a vain effort to extend their sell-by date - try just a bit too hard to look cool. At least I do it in the privacy of my own home.

Sunday, December 30

Hitchhikers and galaxies

I’m sure the advertising industry has a valid term for behaviour which results from an incident or object triggering a reflex compulsion to consume a particular product. I could never watch Jack Regan in action (for instance) without licking my lips and reaching for a large one. In a similar manner, I overtook a Ford Prefect yesterday afternoon (yes, a Ford Prefect), came home, and without thinking poured myself a glass of Dufftown’s finest. I was on my second measure when it dawned…

I was once partnered with a giant of a man from the frozen north, a sergeant-major in the Scots Guards with a penchant for Glenfiddich and poker, and the individual who introduced me to the world of whisky. Had long forgotten the lad, or so I thought. We worked together for a couple of years in the Highlands, commuting via such unlikely back-doubles as Tomintoul and Rhyne. Harry’s old motor had played out and the big guy rang one night to advise he’d got wind of a replacement vehicle and that he needed a lift to go look-see. The motor in question was a late 50s Ford Prefect which was being sold by a chap living on an out of town caravan park, before it became the site of the Tullos Skean Dhu. I recall Harry paid in the region of £40-50 for what proved to be a great little runner; a vehicle which - due to our subsequent adventures, and with due deference to Douglas Adams - will forever be associated with the Highlands and Scotch whisky.

Vintage cuisine

Mrs G. cooked pepper steaks for dinner. Steak au poivre! What a treat. The last pepper steak I ate was back at Aberdeen’s Earls Court, circa 1975. In today’s Telegraph, Nigel Farndale opinions that the 70s were a time when culture was harder, more extreme: yet I would remind those selective memories the decade also included Carl Douglas and Captain & Tennille, and that pepper steak (preceded by prawn cocktails) was what constituted sophisticated cuisine. As with Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, maybe naif-nosh dishes of the past are making a comeback?

Saturday, December 29

Hanging on

It might be blowing a gale outside, but a man's gotta eat.

Friday, December 28

Change of diet

After finishing off the cauldron of goose soup I think we’re about done with Christmas. Having become sick of traditional yuletide fodder, even the sheep out back are starting to look attractive. I could murder a special from the South London Kebab Emporium.Mrs G. is boiling an ox tongue as a treat for my good behaviour over the festive period. There was a time she rated it a success if the neighbours were still speaking to me. I’ve promised to reciprocate with a Porchetta of sorts for our new year celebrations - always providing I can find some sweetbreads and a liver for the stuffing. What ever the result of my upcoming appointment with Surgeon Max, I’m committed to the usual no-booze, healthy eating January with mucho exercise.

Thursday, December 27

Darleks or dialects?

Now the foliage has gone I can gaze at our posh neighbours over the hedge.From the calibre of motor vehicles out and about, the DFL (down from London) crowd are still in situ. After a staple diet of ten year old Rovers and rusty pickups, the appearance of a 600 series CLS outside Quik-E-Mart this morning must have prompted several telephone calls to plod, reporting the sighting of a UFO. Until now, the classiest thing around here had been a neighbour’s 1965 1100 Vanden Plas Princess - a motor I’d personally select over the CLS on any given day, 12 cylinders or not. Taking into account our mud covered byways I’m trying to work out how the Merc looked so squeaky clean; there was even a Lady Penelope look-a-like draped across the passenger seat.

Casting an eye over this year’s prezzies it’s dispiriting to note they include large quantities of socks and handkerchiefs. Throw in a tin of Whiffs and I’ll be submitting my application to Grandfathers-R-Us. There’s also a rather dashing set of bicycle clips that glow in the dark; a puncture repair kit; and tubes of exotic body potions, perhaps more suited to metropolitan man than a rural refugee. Of particular interest is a book from Mrs G. entitled ‘The Devonshire Dialect’ by Clement Marten. Something I need to master in the new year if I want to extend my range of associates at The Dog & Duck. How about “Thick aul cricket baent naw gude - ’ers scat.” (That old milking stool is no good she (it) is broken.) A handy phrase to keep tucked away for that pregnant pause in your conversation.

Am pleased to see the end of the goose, enjoyable as it was. That said, I suspect today’s soup owes a lot to what’s left on the carcass. Hats off to yesterday’s vegetable dish: a combined potato, swede and carrot mash, flavoured with chopped rocket. And not forgetting a glass of cheer to young Alex McLeish - may it be the first of many.

Wednesday, December 26

The dangers of being hung over

Urgh! Although a great time was had by all, a single dry, toasted slice of Mrs G’s walnut and apricot bread was all I could manage at breakfast. If I never again see another plate of smoked salmon, goose or plum pudding it won’t be a moment too soon. Accepting the neighbours’ hospitality yesterday morning was start of a slippery slope. That I subsequently declined to accompany everyone to the Dog & Duck was my saving grace. I doubt I’d have seen the day out had I followed the morning’s bubbly with pints of Winkleigh’s finest. Food-wise, lunch looks likely to be a re-run of Tuesday; and whilst I’m counting on my statins to work their magic, I’ve decided on a lengthy constitutional across the Ponderosa. That said, given that today's the big shoot, the thought of a dozen hung-over guns re-enacting a scene from The Godfather means I'd better proceed cautiously.

Monday, December 24

Christmas Greetings

Yippee! After seven days sans heating and hot water a man in overalls turned up and fixed the boiler. I may not now be divorced, as Christmas has been reinstated. It’s back to flip-flops and short sleeve order The goose has been plucked and the pudding is marinating in a pool of brandy. All that remains is to ice the champagne and push the button. On behalf of Mrs G. and myself I trust your world is at peace and that the festive spirit dwells in the hearth of your home. Merry Christmas to one and all, especially Tiny Tim wherever he may be.

Sunday, December 23

No room at the inn

The absence of Waitrose car parking spaces this morning was a good indicator of our community’s festive spirit: Mr &/or Mrs Grumpy. There’s a perfectly good car park adjacent to the store, but as you can’t validate the 70 pence fee at the till, people chose to fritter away a quid’s worth of four-stroke circling the block. Inside it looked like a re-run of last year’s parsnip wars, with punters of every stripe brandishing offensive weapons in the form of a shopping trolley. After dutifully ticking off my list I joined one of the checkout queues, the 12th trolley in line! I was beginning to realise I should have given the mince pies a miss this year, and from the look of my fellow shoppers I wasn’t alone. The tragic part was how sad we looked: a file of greying Simon Bates facsimiles, mit Clementines and Cava. I accept it as one of the quests set by the gods to test mans' resolve, and passed time reading the back of packets in the frozen foods cabinet. Who on earth pays good money for wild rice, lentil and pumpkin seed rissoles, au gratin? And what’s with ‘organic’ chicken chunks? Chicken nuggets are eaten by people who live in council houses and watch Eastenders, they don’t buy organic.

Saturday, December 22

Wrens

There are a number of these little characters in the yard. So small, they are able to move about below grass level whilst looking for insects.

Friday, December 21

Supper

I’m still on kitchen duty, and - after a typical Friday lunchtime session at the Dog & Duck - the Memsahib has belatedly informed me she wants bouillabaisse for supper. I’ve tried to explain that fish stew of this calibre can only be prepared by your typical hairy-arsed Frenchman who hails from Marseilles and is equipped with the where-with-all to infuse said dish with a special ingredient that's derived from straining fish stock through his sweaty matelot shirt, the unwashed garment being permeated with aromatic oils and spices specific to the region. Never-the-less, having secured a bulb of fennel, two leeks and a pound or so of assorted frozen fishy bits from the freezer, I’m game. I just hope she likes Tabasco sauce and boiled potatoes. And speaking of Provence…It might be only be 1° outside, but the colours are more Côte d'Azur than Blighty in winter.

Goose or turkey?

The geese have bought it and ours is lying on a slab ready for plucking and drawing. That said, we attended the local livestock market’s turkey auction yesterday in case of a change of mind. I’d never seen so many naked birds. Going rate for a 10-12 kilo model was about £40: more expensive than I thought. In the old days I used to leave it until the last moment in order to secure 'a bargain' from one of Leadenhall market’s poultry dealers. Until that fateful year, that is, when I found myself with the last turkey in the shop. Unfortunately, it was of similar size to the one that Scrooge sent round to Bob Cratchit and proved too large to fit Mrs G’s oven. Another of those boobs of Christmas past.

Talking of turkeys… I see Friends’ investors have been blanked on the property front as the company is down to 5% of cash liquidity to cover nervous punters who want out. Expect a stampede of withdrawals from other property funds. The worst investments I’ve made were those associated with Friends Provident; and although I’ve retained a token number of shares to serve as a warning about imprudent speculations, I’m pleased to have bailed out of the serious stuff when the fixed term recently ended. Piss ups and breweries come to mind.

It was colder in the old days

The Greenfinches have returned in numbers, providing additional colour to the yard. Nothing compared to the Bullfinch, though I suspect his patronage may well prove short lived. Soonest the seeds on a certain bush are exhausted he’ll be offsky. Mindful of the rank & file, and full of Christmas spirit, I’ve invested in a bucket of dried worms and a large sack of deluxe feed to keep the troops happy. The thought of birds and colour was uppermost in my mind when purchasing a small painting for the office wall (Christmas being an opportune time for the arts & crafts movement to surface and market their wares). My acquisition features the sort of graffiti that adorned the back of leather jackets during our teenage biker years (biker being a pejorative term for someone who owned a BSA Bantam). Any more blue tacked effigies on the wall and I'll be opening the place as a gallery.

I’m currently reading a Bugle Annual. People frequently speak of the good old days, but in my experience - and I’ve probably said this before - nostalgia is an over-rated concept. Our heating is currently up the spout and life at the barn is decidedly chilly. It puts me in mind of Gypsy Lane where a one-bar electric fire was as close as we came to central heating. Fingers crossed, we’ll have the barn’s fixed before Christmas as I’ve become accustomed to a cushy life - one that includes an ability to eat dinner without having to wear more than three sweaters. The Boss has been to Ike Godsey’s and treated me to a heavy ‘fleece-lined’ woollen shirt in the Gordon Highlanders livery - favoured attire for shepherds hereabouts. I should have been wearing it yesterday whilst driving back across Dartmoor. We’d been to Tavistock for urgently needed supplies, affording Mrs G. an opportunity to visit her milliners. The flamboyant bonnet (Italian renaissance, heavy on exotic birds’ feathers) was payback for my being a smart arse and pinning that dumb Telegraph article to the door of the fridge after she’d declined an opportunity to save on diesel and walk to town. Will I never learn - I’m back on kitchen duties.

Thursday, December 20

Christmas is cancelled

What a prick. Two days after some plonker in the Dog & Duck insisted there was no such thing as Santa Claus, dipstick Williams pops into his pulpit to tell the Sunday School kids the whole nativity thing is a bit of a ruse, dreamt up by Selfridges toy department to boost the sale of farmyard animals and wise men on camels. Is nothing sacred, or is this and early example of Nick Clegg’s growing influence?

Tuesday, December 18

The Rifleman

With the appearance in the yard this past week of three new birds - a Bullfinch, Redwing and Song Thrush - I’m back with a vengeance, mit scope and binoculars, determined to miss nothing that flutters by. So it was with some embarrassment, yesterday afternoon, when - in broad daylight - Basil Brush waltzes past right under my nose and sets about the neighbour’s chickens. Farmer Charles had only just restocked, following last month's carnage. You have to appreciate I was in a semi-conscious state, sunning myself on the back step - entranced by the dance of a Wagtail, when Chuck Connors appears on my shoulder thumbing shells into the Remington and letting rip with 12 gauge buckshot. It doesn’t half get the old ticker going I can tell you, and did nothing to improve my hearing deficiencies. His four hounds bounded past baying like banshees, charging off into the woods in hot pursuit. It’s no wonder I resort to the occasional snifter. Especially as I then had to hang my head and admit to being somewhat remiss in my role as the Ponderosa’s first line of defence. Hope it doesn’t prejudice our Christmas goose.

Monday, December 17

What's up Doc?

We’re gradually working, or should I say ‘eating’ our way through the local countryside. And with the exception of wild boar, our journey has been a pleasurable one. I’ve long been a fan of rabbit: rabbit stew, rabbit fricassee, rabbit with peppers and tomatoes, roasted with herbs-mustard-bacon-cider… Yet whilst I’m familiar with the differences between farmed and wild bunnies, yesterday’s rabbit and forcemeat pie was something of an eye opener. Strong tasting? If I hadn’t know the butcher I’d have sworn it was road kill; dated road kill at that. The taste of well hung game is one thing, but chummy must have played wing-half alongside Stanley Matthews. A very old fashioned taste that brought back memories of my maternal Grandmother’s food; so much so, I found myself poking about for pearl barley. If I’m forced to eat the remaining half for today’s lunch it’s going to be accompanied by large portions of HP sauce.

Sunday, December 16

Blackbirds

There are now five Blackbirds that appear to have made their home at the barn; others visit and are driven off. You can’t appreciate how cold it is out there, on the yard. I’ve been reduced to lacing my coffee with brandy. That said, I love Sundays. The local wireless is playing that great old favourite ‘Out come Mother and me.’ Mrs G. is wearing her festive apron, whilst baking rabbit pies for our lunch; a vat of soup’s bubbling on top of the stove. And I’ve found a bottle of Pomerol in a tool box at the back of the shed?

Time flies

It’s been a year since we moved - and it ain't been a day too long. I suppose I should consider writing some sort of retrospective? Despite our run of sunny weather, as soon as the big round shiny thing disappears, temperatures plummet. Thankfully, Hank's lads have delivered a replacement tank of propane. You don’t know how pleased I am to have switched from British Gas. Forget mortgage rates, it’s the rising cost of utilities, food and fuel that’ll do for Joe public - and mains gas is a killer. That said, this week’s refill for the motor came in at £65. £65! Ike Godsey is charging £1.10p/litre for diesel at the country store. You can’t even blame the Arabs, it’s all about excise duty. Dare say it’ll cost even more if Plod get its way and they open the gate to a queue of public sector workers. Ah, what memories: winters of discontent. Suspect young Gordon thinks he’s chosen the target of least resistance, believing the boys in blue to have limited public support. Dock Green’s star has been on the wane ever since that chap from Manchester started selling garage doors. That said, they’d be hard pushed to lose a popularity contest with the bottler.

My limb has taken a bit of a backwards dunt and I’ve been resting up on the back step, watching the birds. Our Redwing looks to be sticking around for a while and was joined yesterday by a Bullfinch. It’s the first Pyrrhula pyrrhula I’ve seen. Not surprising, perhaps, considering they’re on the RSPB’s red list as a conservation priority (a globally threatened species).

Thursday, December 13

Falling house prices and social mobility

The UK housing market slowdown is apparently deepening and expectations for property prices are at their lowest since ’98. The reported trend is for prospective buyers to offer well below asking prices, with many vendors being forced to bite the bullet. Even sentiment at South London mansions has turned. Estate agents and surveyors keep faith with their mantra 'that prices will hold provided everyone stays in work.' It’s now beginning to sound like they’re tempting fate - a frightening thought. On the basis of that old adage ‘last in first out’ - and assuming people are correct in their assessment that 80% of new jobs have been going to migrants - what happens to Brown’s collapsing public finances when they all stop paying taxes and turn up at the brew? Worse, what if it turns out to be the natives that lose their jobs? Glad it’s not me who’ll be fighting an election in two years time

Today’s talking point is yet another report which states that bright poor kids do worse at school than dim wealthy ones. Bet the author is another of those slackers from Magdalene. The premise is that social mobility all but ended 30 years ago and that the sprogs of well-off parents are somehow unfairly advantaged by Britain’s education system. It’s tempting to assume that 30 years ago everyone that could get out did so and that there are sound reasons why some families remain trapped. Mrs G. once described me as a modest man with plenty to be modest about, but in my experience intellectual ability is an overrated trait. I’ve long suspected that innate talent is no more than 30% of the equation. Whilst another 30% can be attributed to education and training, 40% of what determines success or failure is down to ambition and effort. If a 50% median score spells success, a complete but driven numpty with modest learning can make it out. Social engineering and denigrating the middle-class isn’t the answer. Another recent report indicates that children who have ‘house fathers’ do worse. I wouldn’t argue and have long suspected that having an ambitious mother in situ is the single most dominant factor in social mobility. That, or an inspirational teacher - and that’s about as rare as a straight politician.

Tuesday, December 11

Comfort food

Three-o-clock this morning... Yours truly is far, far away in the land of nod, when one of our smoke alarms is activated. Naturally, I leap straight from the pit and into my Fireman Sam mode. I keep a hat at the side of the bed for just such an emergency. Thankfully, instead of a conflagration enveloping the barn it turned out to be faulty equipment. Unfortunately, whilst all that’s required in the kitchen is for me to hop onto a chair and to hit the offending article with an empty Mackeson bottle, this buggered one is nailed to the hall ceiling, a knee trembling 20ft above the front door mat. Call me Bernie the Bantam if you like, but given my recent history of ladders there was no-way I was going back up top. Kissing goodbye to any chance of our returning to sleep we waited for the landlady to surface and summon help. I wasn’t optimistic; coming up with a sparky at short notice can be a tall order (mains wired). Thankfully, at three this afternoon - just about the time I was contemplating a loan of the neighbour’s Remington - a wonderful chap in overalls turns up with ladder and screwdriver to hand. In addition to replacing the bleeping nightmare, he’d a well of stories about smoke alarms. As they probably relate to our neighbours hereabouts, it’s probably best I not repeat them.

Mince and dough-balls for supper. Then I can turn my head to our next challenge: mice that have moved indoors to escape the frost.

Monday, December 10

Festive bird watching

The tree is installed and flashing like a good'un. And with arrival of our first Christmas card, I am pleased to announce that the festive season has officially commenced.I prefer my twitching inside the barn at this time of year. That said, today we had a visit from a Redwing. Turdus iliacus is the region's smallest thrush; a shy and wary bird that only turns up when their usual grub is in short supply.

Sunday, December 9

Cooking tonight

The peanut feeder is swinging back and forth like a Mexican church bell under attack from Lee Van Cleef’s Winchester. A Goldfinch has been hanging on doggedly for the past 30 minutes. None of the other birds have managed to dislodge him; even the previous champ, the Nuthatch, was faced down and seen off. Word of my largess has got around and the yard is knee-deep in Chaffinches, the hedge chock full with Great & Blue tits. I’m trying to clean the office and dispose of this past week’s paperwork, whilst listening to a bunch of guys named Spin2 who I caught busking on the streets of Exeter last Friday. Impressed enough to give them a quid and buy their CD. They’re not bad - if you like that ‘contemporary, pseudo Irish folk’ sort of thing - though I doubt we’ll be seeing them on Ready, Steady Go. Mrs G. - not one for traditional folk music - threatened to kick my injured limb if I played the CD on our car stereo: so I’ve taken the liberty of loading it onto her iPod. Boys, eh!

I’m on nosh duty this week. Last night’s duck legs and carrots were a huge success. Brown two legs in butter and set aside. Sauté an onion, leek, four carrots, half a dozen garlic cloves, and layer in an oven dish. Top up with chicken stock; bung in sprigs of fresh parsley and thyme, and a bay leaf. Season with salt, pepper and chilli flakes. Bake for 1½ hours. Viola. Juices from the duck are absorbed by the carrots, which were unbelievably sweet. Serve with boiled potatoes and fresh peas, and a glass of something nice, of course. Tonight it’s roast pigeons and wild mushrooms on a bed of polenta. This also comes accompanied by a bottle of Chianti that I’ve been keeping up my sleeve. Dawn Primarolo eat your heart out!

Am I bovvered?

Outside is a sight! The flood warning proved a correct call and I doubt I’ll be venturing far today. The fire brigade has advised the public not to call if homes are flooded; there’s nowhere to pump the stuff, so they’d be wasting their time. We remain under a severe weather warning. South westerly gales are lashing the Ponderosa and the barn’s oak beams are creaking in protest. Am going to have to limp outside to check the damage. I believe I’ve found a suitable replacement to my orthopaedic leg brace with delivery of a new pair of walking boots that lace most of the way up my shin. They protect the damaged bit and providing some reassuring stability. If I shave my head and dig out the old Ben Shermans, I’d be back with my ’67 look. They really are something to see, though it takes a good half hour to lace the bloody things up.

Saturday, December 8

Norway Spruce

I guess we'd long ago lost the habit of erecting a Christmas tree, and this year Mrs G. decreed it a good idea we entered into the spirit of things. It seems the Yuletide Elvis CD doesn’t quite cut it anymore. Declining my offer to run down to Woolworths for a perfectly good plastic model from China, I was despatched for ‘the Real McCoy, that smells of fir.’ After seeking advice from contacts at the Dog & Duck, yours truly was pointed in the direction of a friend of a friend who was ‘in the business.’ Needless to say, this involved an excursion up country, taking left/right turns at various oak trees/derelict barns/cow sheds/tyre mountains/rusting tractor graveyards/etc., until finally coming face-to-face with the Arthur Daly of tree world. Now, call me dumb if you like - I suppose I was asking for trouble by selecting a tree from someone's field in the dead of night. But I was under pressure to deliver. This guy was trying to explain the merits of different genus that were (apparently) marshalled in front of me, and I couldn’t even see the mud which was lapping over my boots.

I haven’t examined it yet; the tree remains outside, in the car. I use the term ‘in’ somewhat figuratively, as whilst the base remains perched on top of the dashboard stereo, the pointy bit protrudes a fair length out of the boot; said boot being held down by yards of that orange nylon baling twine so beloved by farmers. If I do succeed in extracting it from the vehicle, my next quest will be to locate a barrel/tub and a trailer of sand in which to stand the damn thing.

Friday, December 7

Gales return

We’re still here, though there were moments during the night when I began to question the barn’s structural integrity. Rain water is lapping at the door step, and the absence of Wellington boots is becoming a severe handicap. Somewhere in between here and Exeter there’s a delivery van containing a pair of waterproof walking boots that I’m hoping will answer. There are a lot of dejected birds out back. The wind has moderated, but it’s still gusting to 40+ knots; all the Collared doves can do is cling to a fence post and hang on. The Marsh and Coal tits are game, but they’re fighting a losing battle. What was it Labour used to sing… ‘Things can only get better.’ What did they know. Damn bad news about the FA approaching José Mourinho instead of me.

Thursday, December 6

Gender roles

British women are working in lower paid and lower status jobs than their male counterparts because they still shoulder the responsibility for housework and childcare, a Cambridge University study reveals today. I don’t disagree with this premise. My problem is that someone from Magdalene has nothing better to do than write a report stating the blindingly obvious. He goes on to say that men are the losers, because part-time working women feel they have greater work-life balance and higher job satisfaction than full-time working men. Burchell then suggests men should consider a spell of nappy changing so their wives can ascend the labour market, into the same full-time high-status positions? Go figure?

Given my aversion to Fairy Liquid I was quick to adopt that well worn strategy of male incompetence in order to avoid my share of the housework. The secret is to break a valued piece of china when filling the dish washer; put her favourite cashmere sweater into the hot wash; then chip the Aga's enamel, trying to cook dinner. After that, the though of you drowning junior at bath time (even if you haven't got one) guarantees you’d never again be called upon to share such onerous duties. The country remains awash with social psychologists and female Labour cabinet ministers that despair at the iniquity of it all.

Your guess is as good

In today’s Telegraph, Boris Johnson expounds his belief that ‘if only people were encouraged to take an early interest in mathematics, they would be far more capable of making astute personal financial decisions, and thereby avoid the pitfalls of debt and penury.’ If only. Having listened to Grandad Stelzer, Ruth Lea, and the rest of the boys on Newsnight yesterday, then read Kaletsky’s conflicting advice this morning, a Cambridge first in arithmetic wouldn’t help. Kaletsky’s ‘we’re all doomed if the BoE doesn’t cut rates and take a more ‘hands on’ approach’ scenario fails to address the question of inflation - what we all thought to be the Bank’s raison d'être. That said, having listened to Mervyn King’s appearance in front of the select committee last week, I had the distinct impression (he thought) inflation would nose dive during 2008. On that basis, you’d bet on a ¼ point cut today - if for no other reason than he appears less ‘independent’ than young Eddy. Cutting the rate is unlikely to affect the Libor because the banks are in a hole for large portions of debt, and they don’t trust each other. It would be a sop to the City and Industry, as it’s unlikely to be deducted from your mortgage rate. There’s a lot of clever lads in the City with outsized abaci on their desks that follow markets as closely as my old colleagues followed the horses, and they still screw it up. Shit what do I know - a one legged painter & decorator who hasn’t taken a penny from PaddyPower in two months. At the end of the day, you take what the world throws in your direction and do whatever's required to survive. Looking back, my decision to fall from a ladder in order to avoid buying a house looks a smart move. But I wouldn’t recommend it.

Wednesday, December 5

Watching the pennies

If today’s headlines are to be believed, it’s ‘Goodnight Vienna’ for the economy. Whole rafts of homeowners face difficulties in replacing their fixed-rate mortgages with ‘affordable’ alternatives; and, bereft of punters, pubs are headed down the Suwannee; you can’t give away sofas and white goods; and people are starting to look nervously at their future employment prospects. Confidence plays a big factor in determining the direction of an economy, so headlines like the Inde's - speculating about a ‘perfect storm’ scenario - don’t help. Having the Bank of England lower interest rates is unlikely to alleviate the problem, as I assume that lenders will want to restore their profitability and are unlikely to pass on cuts to borrowers. Anyway, Gudgeon’s modest deposit at the Nat West earns little enough without my being penalised so that someone can max out their Visa card at Top Shop.

None of this assists me in my quest to find a suitable Christmas present for the Boss. Today’s Times lists the top 30 things every woman needs in her wardrobe. However, as past years have left her knee-deep in silk camisoles and cashmere knickers, the answer is not so obvious. I wonder what she’d say if I came up with No. 23: a packet of Kirby grips? This £50 limit we agreed (for presents) is turning into something of a challenge.

Tuesday, December 4

Retail therapy

I’m acquiring an irrational dislike of Mercedes drivers. Today’s trip to Plymouth confirmed my belief that Mercs are primarily driven by grey-haired old farts who should be travelling by bus. I haven’t yet decided whether their overcautious motoring stems from a fear of scratching the treasured vehicle’s paintwork, or because they’re returning from a golf club and have two or three large stickies on board. Most appear to feature a Hyacinth Bucket look-alike, wedged into the front passenger seat - which could, of course, explain everything.

We were in Plymouth for Christmas shopping (because I couldn’t be arsed to drive all the way to Bristol). What a place! No one can drive here, either; and there are speed cameras every 50m. This is one of the few places in the south west to elect Labour MPs? Göring’s lads trashed the city in ’41 and the place was rebuilt during the 50s and 60s. There are some great buildings; English Heritage must be all over their case. However, as a shopping venue - and in spite of the Drake Circus Centre - there’s little to write home about. The Pannier market and surrounding environs has something of the flavour of 1970s Eastern Europe. Historically, Plymouth competes with Exeter and Bristol - and looks to be loosing the battle. Having failed to persuade Mrs G. to sample Spudulike’s nutritious fare, I discovered an Italian-themed restaurant and treated her to the world’s worst pizza. Worth returning for a second look, if only to catch a game at Home Park. Looks like I’m headed to Bristol after all.

Sanctuary, from the darkening skies

Our guests have departed. People must have a bleak view of the Ponderosa, as gale force winds and driving rain seems to accompany visitors at whatever time of year they choose to appear. Living as a semi-recluse, I’m accustomed to solitude; and whilst not wishing to make light of his experiences, the competitive nature of this past weekend’s conversation has left me reminiscing about my grandfather, and his life in the trenches, under bombardment from the Boche. Sharing a barn with three women is fraught with difficulties, not least my tripping over those ranks of Ugg boots that line the hall. Banished from the bathroom, I had to make do with a quick hose down in the yard, before hiding out in my shed. Today's activities includes an adjournment to the Dog & Duck for a little male bonding.

Monday, December 3

Wagtail identification

Can’t decide whether he’s a white in his winter coat, or a pied; alba or yarrellii?

Sunday, December 2

Scotland’s loss could be Blues gain

There’s no substitute for a little luck. After years of listening to Bruce bemoaning his (lack off), maybe McLeish could be one of those rare, gifted individuals that has it in spades. Listening to the wireless commentary you’d have thought Berbatov could have won the game for Spurs single-handedly. But there you go; pints of mild and bags of pork scratching all round.

Friday, November 30

O for a Crow

This is definitely my last Robin pic. I’ve now spent six months sitting on the back door step, courtesy of my mangled limb. And whilst it’s been great, following the lives of our resident Robins and Tits, I long to see something new. This week, crutch in hand, I managed several hundred yards along the track, spotting Jays, Magpies, Crows and Jackdaws, two Buzzards, a Thrush, 2-300 Starlings, a Goldfinch, Wagtails and Wrens galore. If only it would stop raining.

St Andrews day

I bet young Gordon’s more than a little hacked-off that Gillian Gibbons isn’t being stripped to the waist and subjected to a public flogging - preferably in front of Sky TV’s cameras. It’s not exactly the Falklands conflict, but could have done the trick and diverted attention away from the Westminster circus. As bad as Khartoum women’s prison probably is, 15 days at Omdurman ain’t the end of the world. It’s rumoured to be a squalid, overcrowded establishment that’s infested with mosquitoes, and sounds pretty similar to a Torremolinos hotel of my acquaintance. She’ll be able to dine out on the story for years; the kids in her class will lap it up. Tabloid journalists are doubtless camped outside her cell, cheque books at the ready.

Back in the real world, near-hurricane gales are forecast for the homestead this weekend. I suspect it’s a combination of North Atlantic weather fronts meeting Rednapp’s wrath, after being forced to let go his dream of succeeding McClaren. Bumps me up another place on the list. Would you Adam & Eve it, the rozzers actually turned up at six in the morning, not realising he was off watching a match in Germany. With the unbelievable news that property prices in Sandbanks are heading south, it’s not really been ’Arry’s week. Who caught the Tottenham match last night? These Aalborg guys are a bit tasty. I’ve actually visited the place; they drink this head-banging form of fire water that helps kill the taste of the raw herring you’re obliged to eat. Which reminds me… as this is St Andrews day, it probably means there's haggis on tonight’s menu.

Thursday, November 29

Punk sheep

Rain, rain, rain; we seem to have been here before. The barn sits on gently sloping ground, through which the higher land drains. There’s not enough to justify running surface water; but of an evening, in the near silence, you can hear it all around you bubbling to the surface. And at this time of year, through to May, you’re more comfortable in Wellington boots than trainers. The sheep are looking decidedly muddy, so it was with much interest that I read of Madonna’s ruse: dyeing the fleeces of a flock of sheep from her estate blue, pink, yellow and green for a Vogue photoshoot! Wonderful. Naturally, those tossers at the RSPCA are outraged, questioning the need to use sheep in this way, as it would probably cause the animals considerable stress. I guess if Mrs G. dyed my hair pink prior to a visit to the Dog & Duck, then stress would be the least of it. That said, I can’t see our lads out back getting too het up about a chance to appear on the cover of Vogue. Sounds preferable to a staring role in the Lewisham kebab emporium.

Wednesday, November 28

Moldywarp

Never mind the Wagtail, it’s what he’s standing on that worries me. The yard has been invaded by moles.

Same old, same old...

I take no pleasure in Bottler’s embarrassment. Yes, politics can be a fun, spectator sport; but all we really want is a bunch of competent administrators who’ll shut the fuck up and go about the business of making our trains run on time. We accept these guys line their pockets, and - up to a point - are willing to turn a blind eye; however… We don’t like to be preached too; or lied too; or have our hard-earned money expropriated and pissed away unnecessarily. Brown has always appeared a sour-faced ogre whose demeanour does little to improve the quality of life. His principal attribute was our perception of a competence for the task at hand: a competence we suspect is lacking from this Labour administration. I thought we’d reached rock bottom when that girl with the caravan was appointed foreign secretary, but it seems the barrel scraping has still some way to go. Labour inherited an economy to die for and have more or less coasted for ten years. Now, at a time when America faces recession and the UK’s prospects look decidedly shaky, at a time our enemies are in the ascendancy, I find we’ve Steve McClaren’s Celtic cousin at the helm.

Monday, November 26

Faggot suppers

We still undervalue the benefits of omega-3 oil, but it plays a vital role in keeping us healthy and mentally agile. Just don’t let Mrs G. read the article. I’ve had just about all the tinned sardines I can take; and if this results in my turning gaga, then so be it. Not that food is top of the menu this morning. After last night’s gumbo, all I could manage for breakfast was dried toast. I love gumbo, although - if the great lady’s on one of her health kicks - it rarely comes around. Finding decent sausage is a problem. Despite a growing enlightenment at the local charcuterie, andouille or boudin remains something of a rarity. In an absence of the real stuff, I find those Polish jobbies a satisfactory alternative. Gumbo tends to set us off on a specific train of thought, so expect this week to feature fried chicken and dishes of okra.

I still read London restaurant reviews to see what, if anything, I’m missing; and in the case of AA Gill’s (a first class tosspot, but an entertaining scribe), for their sarcasm and wit. His review of Notting Hill’s Hereford Road establishment is typical. Why he should expect anyone working in W2 to be proficient at Cullen Skink is beyond me, and he deserved to be disappointed. However, his description of what constitutes upmarket faggots was a corker… ‘raucous, gay offal bollocks wrapped in fatty caul and doused in a gravy made out of mink thong.’ I recently acquired some faggots from a stall at a local farmers market. Their appearance recalled memories from childhood: despatched to the local off-licence with the old girl's basin to purchase portions of said delicacy, (that came) floating in stagnant pools of mushy peas. At that time, along with the chipper, this constituted the limits to take away food. Such recollections come tinged with a warm glow for the sanctity of yesteryear, so it was major disappointments all round on discovering the recent version tasted of sick-inducing cack.

Saturday, November 24

Keeping my eyes peeled for Dick Cheeney

With last night’s clear sky and full moon the ground frost provided a spooky, floodlit picture. Not that I was minded to hang about admiring the view when taking a leak at three this morning, the bracing -6º had yours truly leaping straight back under my straw. I’m reasonably sanguine about most things in life, but cold is a pain best avoided. Here in the sticks, sans gas, you’re dependant for heating on $100/bbl oil, or chopping down trees. The neighbour’s log pile could be used to construct a small housing estate. I’m sure it wasn’t that long ago I managed to fill the motor with £27 worth of four-stroke. This week it was £57, so when the man from Texaco delivered his usual 900 ltrs of heating oil, you could see the old eyes watering. Have taken to wearing 3-4 layers of woollen garments to mitigate consumption.
Yesterday was so beautiful I did a runner. Escaping from Mrs G’s apron strings, I climbed the rear gate and ventured off across the Ponderosa. Well, limped off, more like. There’s acres of impenetrable wilderness out there, housing massed ranks of insects, plants and wildlife. One of the downsides to slinking about in these hedges is avoiding our neighbours’ shells. And yesterday's shotgun barrels must have been glowing white hot. I’m never sure if I should be wearing camouflaged gear, affording access to the birds and deer, or a bright orange vest that incorporates a 'don’t shoot' sign.

Friday, November 23

Life moves on

Another milestone in the leg saga, though yesterday’s visit with the consultant seemed routine enough. All of the packaging has now been removed, leaving several miniscule scars. Nothing to write home about, provided you ignore the kink. I’m told part of my bone tissue remains a little like chewing gum and will take a while longer to harden (it's been six months?). So the boot stays. Seems I’ve lost a significant amount of mobility in the ankle, but that was to be expected. If I get the job, Venables will have to stay on to take care of the training field stuff.

My months of seclusion have taken a toll. Mrs G. tells me I’ve developed an uncanny resemblance to Ted Crilly and that I need to update my image. I tried not shaving for a couple of days to effect a stubble-encrusted, masculine appearance - but it just makes me look like a dosser. As the casualty staff destroyed my best jeans and the remainder were altered to accommodate the Ilazarov, I limped around Exeter yesterday, stocking up on new apparel. The place was empty - you’d think the rise in interest rates was already hitting home. Chocolates and bubbly for the Boss’s birthday, then off home via the Dog & Duck for a celebratory pint.

Am pleased to have finished with Rebus (Exit Music). I’ve been disappointed with the last couple in the series. Suppose it’s a guy thing - like collecting stamps. Once you’re settled on a character you have to see it through to the bitter end, even if it fails to justify the effort. You can’t knock Rankin, he’s been tremendously successful. But I wish he’d have moved his writing up a peg. I know a bunch of lads who identify with the Rebus persona, including one from Leith - but non of them are that two dimensional.

Thursday, November 22

Goodnight Vienna

One of the benefits of having been around for a while is my lack of surprise at England’s pathetic performance. I’ve had more opportunities to be disappointed by our national team; have become resigned to their habitual failure. And whilst bemoaning the players' lack of technical competence; the absence of first choice selections, through injury; the intelectual limitations of McLaren and his crooner sidekick, my finger has no hesitation in pointing at Soho Square. Talk all you like about the Premier League and its influx of foreigners, my sainted granny could have won a Jules Rimet with the pool of players at England’s disposal. No wonder so many punters drink to excess. I haven’t quite worked it out yet (how he managed it), but suspect the hand of the clunking fist in this somewhere.

Wednesday, November 21

It's wet, but the food's good

OK, so the weather’s not exactly wonderful this time of year, but it ain’t too shabby out there - always providing you’re keen on rain and not adverse to a little mud. Thanks to the neighbours, I’ve come close to OD’ing on pheasant - tonight’s risotto should just about finish things off. If something’s been killed to feed you, you’re reluctant to waste anything. I know, I know, it’s the same for supermarket food, but if you’ve been feeding and photographing said bird for the last six months… Farmer Charles has earmarked one of his geese for our Christmas dinner. Last year’s search for a Yuletide goose turned into a right palaver - its acquisition more akin to dealing in bootlegged hooch than a giant budgie. Actually, I’ve watched the current flock grow from chicks, always wondering if my name was on one of them. The downside is yet more plucking (new pillow anyone?), and the possibility that I might actually have to kill it myself.

Tuesday, November 20

This unstoppable collision

Our country is slowly but inexorably being flushed down the drains, yet the great clunking fist believes Britain’s salvation lies in eradicating plastic bags! Rather that, I suppose, than the McCartney nut’s suggestion we dose our cornflakes with rats’ milk. As HM celebrates her diamond wedding anniversary, the world we took for granted disappears over the horizon - along with those comforting customs that helped ease the pain. It seems that sales of beer have dropped to their lowest level since the 1930s (down 49% on ’79). Whatever happened to binge drinking? Not content with pricing this cornerstone of British social life out of reach of the so-called working class - now forced to settle for a tin of something from the supermarket - a stern faced Primalaro has decided to focus her gamma rays on that odd glass of claret, so beloved by our middle-classes. I don’t think the opposition need do anything between now and the next election: it’s just a case of keeping out of the way, as Labour’s slow motion catastrophe completes its course.

Sunday, November 18

Party time

Well, having recovered from our wedding anniversary party, it’s time to warm up for Mrs G’s birthday bash. You need large reserves of stamina this time of year, in the run up to Christmas. All that boozing and gratuitous spending. And the headaches that follow. It’s been decided we’re acquiring a tree this year - a cue for rummaging about the attic in search of those tired and broken decorations. Our dishevelled fairy resembles an accident of birth - a Gothic Queen Victoria meets the blutered Amy Winehouse. Not to forget my annual excuse to resurrect the seasonal CDs I acquired from motorway service stations: Elvis at Christmas; Yuletide Slade; Jimmy Buffet sings Bing Crosby…

Having spent the morning taking down Israeli flags from the barn walls, I’d promised myself a treat - a long walk across country, around the Ponderosa. What I hadn’t bargained for was a left foot which remains at least two sizes larger than it’s opposite number. Despite a great scene re-enactment from Cinderella, there was no way it was ever going to fit inside my dust covered Wellington boot. And as the farm is already a sea of winter mud, no boots = no walk. I’m desperate to get outside in the fresh air and do something about the Homer Simpson physique, as the food is continuing to flow thick and fast. Last night’s supper included the heads of baby lambs, baked in the style of Rick Stein a la Puglia. This evening it’s wild ducks; tomorrow morning I start plucking pheasants.

Friday, November 16

Autumn watch

Given the demise of our neighbour’s chickens, today’s visitor is pushing her luck.

Thursday, November 15

New specs

Minus 2° this morning, but the sun is worth the chill. Market day in Exeter, along with a visit to the opticians for an eye test. The good news is that I can spot a golf ball at 250 paces. Unfortunately, I can’t read my score card. It was a pleasure to limp around the city streets. Feeling nostalgic for a room full of suits, I blew the week’s beer money on lunch at Michael Caines restaurant. A worthwhile exercise and a nice meal. Pity about their lavatory - reminds you of the sort of thing more commonly found to the rear of football terraces some 30 years ago. And despite the fact that everyone was eating lunch, hand washing remains an alien activity. Returned home with difficulty as three local roads are closed for repair. Our little jaunt to town panned out as an 80 mile return run - no casual journey with derv at £1+/ltr and an £8.50 car park. Still, help stood waiting outside the barn: the neighbour, delivering a welcome brace of pheasants. I just knew my fussing over his dogs would pay dividends.

Tuesday, November 13

Cold mornings

The birds are struggling with November’s frosty mornings. Have upped the availability of feeders - downside of which being an increase in the amount of crap on the motor. Young Dunnock here is becoming a real suck-up.Quick trip to our local surgery for a status report. As this was the first time I’d seen subject limb in the flesh since the frame’s removal and an application of post-operative bandages, I was surprised to see how wizened it looks. That said, the holes are healing nicely and I’m confident of being given an all clear next week - albeit, my knackered tendons and muscles are going to take time to recover, and I dare say I'll be limping House-style for a while longer. Thought I’d celebrate with a pint or two at the Dog & Duck, in spite of the pub’s sub-zero temperatures. It’s a given that no one’s drinks lager at this time of year, hot coffee mit brandy seemed the day’s best option. And talking of brandy… Today sees the last Eurostar train leaving Waterloo station, prior to the service’s transfer to St Pancras. Another era closes: site of departure for our numerous Paris expeditions - still my favourite city outside London; and - not necessarily inspired by the Kinks - the starting point for many of our parties during the Sheena Easton & Billy Joel years of the early ’80s.

Sunday, November 11

Red rags and bulls

I’d forgotten yesterday was the start of our hunting season until half way along the lane, en route to the Kwik-E-Mart. Participants and their supporters had lined the moor with Land Rovers, pick up trucks and horse boxes. A fire sale of wax jackets and small vicious dogs. Unfortunately, due to a pressing engagement, my view of the action was limited to a stray hound that had taken a wrong turn and was waiting outside the front door when I returned home. A large, panting creature that most definitely belonged outside of the barn - billeted in a kennel. Hunting’s current rise in popularity appears in part to be a reaction against the ban. This most unlikely icon of public rebellion was confirmed last week at the Sex Pistol’s gig, when Johnny Rotten appeared on stage wearing tweeds. Will governments never learn. I'm afraid their current efforts to demonise booze will most likely be seen by large sections of the community as a valid reason to redouble their efforts in the Dog & Duck.

Saturday, November 10

Getting off on a sneeze

Some years ago, at the age of 20, I alighted a train at Aberdeen station and began to sneeze. Some weeks later I stopped, but only briefly. Seasonal allergic rhinitis has been the bane of my life. I know, I know, if that’s all I have to worry about then Gudgeon should be a grateful little bunny and shut the fuck up. But I find it’s good to whinge. A little of the martyr complex does no one real harm: unless, of course, you’re carrying a rucksack full of explosives. Moving away from city pollution has been one of the more obvious benefits to health from our new life in the country; living in a building with wooden floors is also a boon to combating allergies; as are two showers each day, fresh bed linen and a weekly bedroom curtain change. I thought I’d hit the jackpot this year in that I’ve led a relatively sneeze-free existence on the Ponderosa. Had consumed a total of six Sudafed tablets, instead of the usual 3-4 packets a month. Until this week, that is. Autumn tree spores are my downfall. As soon as the northerlies start I know it’s goodnight Vienna. My skin begins to burn; and my throat feels like I’ve been swallowing battery acid, swelling up until I fear it’s going to close; eyes leak fluids like an England supporter after a European Cup qualifier; ears become blocked, and I lose both senses of hearing and smell; someone inserts smouldering pokers up both of my nostrils - and I start to sneeze like a good un. As a single sneeze can produce more than 40,000 droplets of moisture and millions of germs that are propelled over a distance of 32ft, Mrs G. has taken to wearing a cagoule and face mask. Five minutes later the headaches begin, and I commence to coughing my lungs up. As I said, far be if for me to complain... Pope Urban VIII tried to ban sneezing in the 17th century because he considered it too close to sexual ecstasy. A right weird bugger if you ask me.

Wednesday, November 7

Building debt

I can be slow on the uptake so you’ll have to help me out here. During the next 12 years we’re going to build another three million homes in Britain, a fair percentage presumably designated as social/affordable. Now, I accept the government doesn’t build public housing anymore - they put the squeeze on private developers. Developers are in the business of building homes to sell to the public, and part of the modern equation is to link planning permission to a quota of affordable units - the assumption being that the poor schmucks who buy 'unaffordable' properties will pay over the odds to fund the construction of homes for their less affluent neighbours. Or have I got this wrong? Now, whilst everyone’s talking up the perception there’ll be no property crash, that life is hunky dory, the City believes it’s goodnight Vienna and has discounted the share value of Britain’s top seven house-builders by £8.7b - a drop of 42% since April. Bovis admits that consumers fear taking a bath on new-build properties and are staying away. Consumer belief that new homes have been retailing at a +25% premium and are likely to suffer proportionate readjustment don’t help.

KPMG and the like believe that full time job vacancies are falling and that financial services and construction will bear the brunt of job losses ahead. The feeling amongst many out there is that it won’t take much more, post-Northern Rock, to kill consumer confidence stone dead and precipitate a major adjustment to the property market, i.e. a US style drop in prices. Whichever way the economy jumps, there's a growing acknowledgement that property will stay weak for years to come. Given this sort of scenario, exactly how many out there will be willing to take a punt on housing? The demand from China and elsewhere for construction related materials and equipment means homes are hardly going to be built any cheaper. Which of the developers are going to stick their necks out and build these three million homes? Who’s going to buy them, unless they’re sold at bargain prices? The answer, I suspect, is that taxpayers at both a local and national level will somehow be expected to help fund this mammoth programme - at just about the same time that their own home values start leaking equity big time.

Shit, what do I know. This feardie talk I hear could all be bullshit; uninformed here say. No such scenario could ever come to pass? We laugh in the face of $100/bbl oil. People have to live somewhere, don't they? Everyone's bound to stay in high-paid employment and continue to run up debt, secure in the knowledge the rise in their home’s equity will eventually bail them out? I'd like to believe it. However, just in case, I’m staying put in rented accommodation. Let’s face it, who’d be in the buy-to-let game these days.

What no one seems willing to address is the ecological impact of this sorry tale. If we’d have diverted half the money the government’s pissed away on the NHS into educating our NEETs and reforming the benefits system, we could have avoided the population expansion that’s precipitated this housing crisis. Climate change - don’t make me laugh. What’s the use of encouraging people to insulate their loft and recycle garbage if you then have to build millions more homes.

Brown baiting

Prime Minister’s question time is becoming a toe curling and bloody spectacle, not unlike (I imagine) that of bear baiting in days of yore. Yesterday's Queen's speech debate was just as good. If, as has been speculated, Cameron’s goal is to get Brown to take a swing at him then the lad appears well on course. Given they take so much of our money, an entertaining weekly afternoon TV show seems little enough in return. Like everyone, I’d waited expectantly for this vision thing we’ve heard so much about. Seems it boils down to giving people the right to turn up late for work, and to allow Britain’s developers to concrete over whichever green-field site takes their fancy. Brown finally lost it for me when he resorted to stealing BNP slogans (British jobs for British people) to win back Beechdale voters. I said we’d miss Prescott when he was gone and I was right. Who’d have thought Bottler’s reputation could be flushed down the toilet so quickly. That boast about ending the boom and bust cycle will probably be his epitaph. Voted out by a disillusioned electorate, one half of whom having had their homes repossessed, the other half bitter about having to fund the construction of new council estates to re-house them in.

Tuesday, November 6

Restaurant critic

I am sure there’s somewhere in Exeter you can buy a half-decent lunch, but I’m still looking (usual standbys were closed, or too crowded). Today’s pot luck goes by the name of Hansons, a licensed restaurant located in a 16th Century building opposite the cathedral. It advertises itself as serving home-cooked food in warm and welcoming surroundings (picture 1970s saloon bar). The place was packed, although we seemed to be the only two customers under 70 - a sign I took to indicate the food could be eaten by people who’d been reduced to chewing with their gums. I plumbed for the pasta in mushroom sauce, a dish that’s unlikely to threaten Pizza Express let alone your average Italian. The Boss chose grilled Dover Sole! Wish I’d a camera for when it was served, her face was a picture. I’ve won bigger goldfish at Pat Collins in Bloxwich. Unfortunately, smaller doesn’t necessarily mean better. My glass of locally produced wine (£5.50) induced memories from our younger days, drinking half gallon jars of Riunite lambrusco.

Monday, November 5

Birdwatch update

This morning's yard provided a great autumnal backdrop for the female Pheasant. The ground is teeming with male Blackbirds that also come to feed. They were joined today by a lone Song Thrush (Turdus philatelist) that I’d not seen before. Another red list bird, deemed to be in decline due to the contraction of UK breeding range. A real beauty; feeds on the crab apples. The young Great spotted woodpecker is appearing more regularly, and as many as three pairs of Collared doves. Chaffinches aside however, it’s the Carrion crows that predominate - the surrounding trees boast large numbers.

Sunday, November 4

Sunday picnic

OK, so the barn looks grim in today's grey-blue light - it isn’t the tropics; but Devon in November ain’t the end of the world. Have been holed up in far worse places (good manners prevent me from naming them). Spent this afternoon limping about the farm with my leg wrapped in plastic (the place is knee-deep in mud and sheep shit). The secret is to find a suitable perch, on a bank with a view. You can easily wile away the hours with the Sunday sports section, a half bottle of plonk and a couple of cheese rolls (these stalking jackets have big pockets). Took me an age to work out whether the afternoon’s companions were Marsh or Willow tits. That said, a year ago I wouldn’t have known the difference between budgerigars and canaries. The Robins lend a seasonal air. Returned to cheer on Justin Rose. Good lad, not just the Volvo Masters but the Order of Merit. One in the eye for the three whining witches.

Saturday, November 3

Blackbird

Another of the Boss’s followers. A young’ish Blackbird (Turdus merula) facing his first winter. Beak beginning to change colour, wings tinged with brown. They feed on worms in the yard - never seen on the stump.

Drilling for food

Current temperatures are seven degrees above the November average? You could have fooled me; the chill wind, grey skies and autumnal colours are more reminiscent of the frozen north than the rural south west. Need to stock up on calories. That said, I’m still trying to digest the steak & kidney pie from yesterday’s lunch at The Kings Arms in Winkleigh (excellent Butcombe bitter). Nice food, I just over-ate - almost a hanging offence these days. You can’t win can you? Sick of sanctimonious health department pronouncements and confronted with the choice of an early death or heart transplant due to my consumption of bacon sandwiches (a lose-lose scenario if you end up in Papworth), I’ve examined the contents of our larder - and having emptied the fridge of noxious substances, find myself upbraided for colossal food waste and for stoking climate change. Never mind, today is footy day. And if I’m a good boy, curried goat and a cold one for dinner. Am in the dog-house after suggesting Mrs G’s soda bread resembled an oil industry drill bit.

Friday, November 2

Cash crop

Snowy the white deer has bought it. An albino red deer living in the area is believed to have been shot by hunters after it’s headless torso was seen hanging in a game dealer's larder. Bit of a giveaway really. Believed by some to have mythical qualities, the mounted head and antlers would have guaranteed large wads of folding from a collector. Needless to say, a number of punters were somewhat upset at Snow’s demise, but police (presumably) confirmed that - assuming the hunters had a valid licence and necessary permission from the landowner - everything was ticketyboo.

Whilst the price of venison has gone through the floor, a plate of tagliatelle al tartufo bianco in Crediton restaurants is reckoned to be retailing at something like £138 a throw. Because of the long, dry summer, prized white truffles - when you can get them - are being knocked out at £500/100g. I’ve been poking around the yard’s oak stumps, though I’m told you really need a trained truffle hound to locate the little suckers. Imagine finding a local cache… You could forget about tin mines and pork belly futures. The boys from Alba would be here tout de suite, cocked Berettas at the ready.

As yesterday was start of the Christmas shopping season we'll soon be unable to enter a bar for a game of skittles without being plied by mulled wine and mince pies. The local newspapers are full of advertisements for traditional seasonal lunches. We’ve a long way to go to compete with Israel, where your average Tel Aviv resident consumes something like 35lbs of turkey a year! Let’s hope the diet reflects well on their football team, for England’s sake.

Wednesday, October 31

Success

My outing to the big city proved most satisfactory. Whilst the leg now resembles an old bicycle tube covered in puncture patches, the Ilazarov is history. Instead of a plaster cast, I’ve been issued with what looks like a cross between one of Mad Max’s biker boots and something Neil Armstrong used to shuffle around the moon. We’re not quite there yet, but I’m hoping another 3-4 weeks will suffice. The guy who was next to me in recovery nearly didn’t make it and was detained overnight. To be honest I thought he was just being friendly, pulling a funny face and waving: it was the nurse that noticed his oxygen line had become disconnected.

Tuesday, October 30

Light at the end of...

The big day is almost upon me. After nearly five months performing my limp along Leslie routine it is (hopefully) coming off. I mean the ironmongery of course, not the leg. The fact they’re replacing it with a cast somewhat takes the shine off of things, but the successful outcome of my impending op remains cause for major celebrations. A large brown ale sits chilling in the fridge, waiting on my return. Mrs G. insists I drink two quarts of ‘friendly bacteria’ prior to admission in order to limit the risk of hospital acquired infections. You can actually purchase short-stay patient packs that claim to contain so-called MRSA killing materials, although for some reason this consists of a disposable tooth brush, lip balm and breath freshener? Paying through the nose for a re-branded coach class airline goody bag seems a bit foolish when Mrs G. has already equipped me with a perfectly good aerosol bottle filled with Domestos. I’m supposed to spray any of the hospital staff that exhibit a tendency to scratch. She’s also written ‘Please wash your hands’ in large letters on both of my legs with a felt tipped pen. I’m hoping the surgeon accepts this advice in the spirit intended.

Weekend guests

Sorry guys, but five minutes after you left the gale blew itself out, rain stopped, skies cleared and the sun came out.

Sunday, October 28

Sunday lunch

I’ve been banished to the office with instructions to stay put. Mrs G. is busy scattering fresh straw about the barn in readiness for arrival of our lunch party, and my Sunday go to meeting clothes already boasts large blobs of marmalade and coffee. The kitchen is knee-deep in pastries, pies and newly baked bread; freshly butchered game sits waiting the scorched earth treatment. I doubt my three cans of Heineken and bottle of South Africa’s finest will suffice, so the motor looks set for a blistering run to the Quik-E-Mart. Needless to say, it’s lashing down. And the sheep... Well, what can you say about sheep?

Saturday, October 27

Fungi

A sample of the fungi that’s appeared throughout the yard. These particular mushrooms are growing on a dead oak stump. I believe it's a form of sulphur tuft, but what do I know. I’m still not eating them. The National Trust is currently running ‘Waxcap Watch’ - I’ve tried to show willing, but watching mushrooms grow is kind of boring. To study them properly you need to get down on your hands and knees, and that’s not as easy as it sounds.

Friday, October 26

Tribal affiliations

You tend to read a lot when incapacitated (and sans satellite television). In between McCarthy, McEwan and Elmore Leonard I’ve been working my way through Simon Schama’s 'History of Britain'. Part of my motivation in reading the book was a response to England’s changing demographics - and what it means to be English in the 21st century. Thanks in part to multi-culturalism, I wasn’t sure I knew anymore; wasn't sure there was even a specific single template. Once upon a time I thought I’d a pretty good handle on my tribal affiliations, but it’s easy to overlook the dynamics of shared experiences and how they influence allegiances, how alliances develop and change over the years. Two things I’ve taken on board… Change is inevitable, you just adapt and assimilate. And more cynically, an element of the old biblical/Chinese proverb: The enemy of my enemy is my friend. I’d be less than honest if I didn’t hold my hands up and admit that one of the reasons I quit south London mansions was the increasingly disparate nature of the local populace. Yet the paradox is, I felt far more comfortable shopping at Tesco’s in Lewisham than either of the sister stores in Sidcup or Barnstaple.

Whilst Schama’s three book series isn’t exactly highbrow, they’re a good primer - reminds you about some of the things you’d forgotten from school days. At the Edge of the World (3000 BC-AD 1603) is a good enough read. Volume Two - The British Wars (1603-1776) was like pulling teeth. If I never hear of Charles I or Oliver Cromwell again it won’t be a moment too soon. I appreciate they’re big on the subject along the street, in Torrington (1646 - The Cavalier Town), but it’s lost on me, however worthy the Putney debates. Am hoping Volume Three, The Fate of Empire (1776-2001) picks it up a little.

You don’t have to be too smart to work out who’s been behind all of the trouble over the years. But I guess we never learn - each generation thinks they can pull it off where others failed. Those who ignore the mistakes of history are condemned to repeat them. I was thinking of Satayana, but have probably misquoted him.

Thursday, October 25

Shell Wildlife Competition

Deep in the countryside we may be, but I’m unlikely to be afforded the opportunity of copying Sergey Groshkov’s fantastic close-up of a brown bear. That said... at night, when I'm listening to the owls hunting, there are times I think I catch a blood-curdling growl from across the Okement,

Wednesday, October 24

Time for a salad

Being a little jealous of Mrs G’s ability to hike into town, I’ve taken to wandering the farm. I use the word ‘wander’ as a somewhat expansive term in that a three field expedition is just about my limit. Think wimp if you like, but negotiating this place on crutches is a major elf’n safety violation; tripping over logs, falling into ditches, skidding on cow pats, being trampled underfoot by rabid sheep. That’s before you stumble on Farmer Charles, busy cutting trees, prior to fencing addition acreage for the livestock. Chain saws, tractors and JCB are at full stretch. It’s all hands to the pump, in that half-term means the grandkids are also out there doing their bit. It’s great to see so many young lads of primary school age working alongside their fathers and grandfather - doing manly things. You’re unlikely to find many obese children in this part of the world. Boys here are knee-deep in role models: every guy I meet seems comfortable wrestling steers, is ex-military, drives a fire truck or lifeboat, can leap tall buildings… You know what I mean: men. What humans were called before we entered the service industry age and became glorified clerks. Mind you, women hereabouts don’t exactly idle their days away: too busy skinning critters to replenish the freezer, or strangling chickens for dinner.

I’m fed up reading about obesity - primarily because the subject is too close to home. When the sky fell in five months ago I was wearing 34” waist jeans. Last week I found myself scouring the sale rack for 38” replacements. Porkers R us! Given today’s (typical) lunch was a plate of spicy ostrich sausages on a bed of parmesan-flavoured polenta, the occasional salad wouldn’t go amiss. Shit, it’s nothing I can’t rectify in a couple of months - even if the party season’s about to start. Guess I’ll just have to mobilise the (as yet unused) cycle - tie a dead sheep to the back for ballast.

Tuesday, October 23

The fly

We have biblical plagues at the barn. Today sees the return of chummy here - our Jeff Goldblum look-a-like - along with several zillion of his relatives.

Wishful thinking

There’s a good piece in today’s Inde about an engineer from Rotherham who was mistaken for a rock god in Russia after telling someone he once played in a band which toured the South Yorkshire working men’s club circuit. As it happens, we’ve visitors from the big city this weekend - an old buddy who makes his living as a Pierce Brosnan celebrity look-alike. Maybe I should line something up at the Dog & Duck - it took them a month before they sussed I wasn’t Steven Segal.

Libertarian paternalism

A radical plan to persuade people to stop smoking, take more exercise and change their diets was proposed last night by Julian Le Grand, a leading Government adviser and Professor of Social Policy at the LSE. His ‘fresh approach’ is to suggest the Government should legislate us into healthy lives by compelling individuals to apply for a chitty when and if we want something deemed detrimental to our health. This would include (for instance) people having to submit an annual application for a smoking permit before they could purchase cigarettes. Naturally, the application would have to be countersigned by a doctor. No nanny state here, says Julian, we’re not banning anything, just requiring you to seek permission before you do anything we consider naughty. ‘It’s a softer form of paternalism.’ Companies would have to provide an daily ‘exercise hour’ (think Japan), and to issue employees with an apple a day to encourage a healthy workforce. Seriously now, what planet do these guys live on? I’ve got to stop reading the newspapers before I turn into a grumpy old man.

Stovies

I need to visit the market this morning. There’s a limit to how many dishes of venison stovies a body can eat. I’ve tried them accompanied by a tin of Guinness, various exotic lagers, the odd small whisky, a glass of claret, a mug of tea; with plates of beetroot, piccalilli, chilli and HP sauces, oatcakes and crackers… Enough is enough, I need a fish supper.

More mirage than miracle

Brighter lads than I most probably have the answers, but even a schmuck like me can see the beginning of the end. In a damning new report ‘More Mirage than Miracle’ published by the free-market think tank Policy Exchange, the analysts said Britain was relapsing into high-tax and high-regulation sclerosis just as the rest of Europe begins to shake itself out of statist lethargy. They’re a great bunch, the Germans, just a bit slow on the uptake. This latest report confirms what everyone knows - that Brown’s Britain is going down the toilet. If, as some believe, the City is about to catch a cold, then as far as I’m concerned it’s Goodnight Vienna. When the crap hits the fan, significant numbers of public service workers can start looking for alternative employment - at just about the same time their homes are being repossessed and the local hospital closed (to fund a factory sized maternity unit). Even Kaletsky has changed his tune, and he’s been the economy’s chief cheerleader. HSBC warns that Britain faces a stark de-rating by investors in coming months as growth slows and funds begin to lose confidence in the country's economic management, triggering a mass exodus of hot money from the City. It expects the pound to fall from around $2.04 to $1.76 against the dollar over the next eighteen months - and that’s with an over valued dollar in freefall. Ah the good old days… I’m starting to feel nostalgic. And don’t forget, someone has still to pick up the tab for the Olympics.

Monday, October 22

Rabbits

Immigration set to increase Britain's population by a third. Thankfully, I’m not going to be around to see Britain’s population increase by another 21 million come 2074. Can you imagine trying to get on the housing ladder? This is why I can’t take climate change seriously. If, as has been suggested, the most environmentally damaging thing you can do is to reproduce (additional bodies = increased consumption of scarce resources/rocketing pollution), then exactly what sort of incentives are being considered to discourage so many punters from putting it about? I’m not unsympathetic to an element of green taxation, but let’s be fair about it - I’ll agree to pay a little more on the cost of my 4-stroke, but only provided these lads' bunny rabbit tendencies are curtailed. If half of what Rowthorn says is true, you can kiss goodbye to the NHS.

England bites the dust

It certainly wasn’t disappointing, the rugby; great entertainment - though perhaps not as gripping as the French game. And whilst the best team won, wasn’t it a shame the Argentine lads weren’t our opponents. If my dalliance with the rugby world cup has taught me one thing, it’s that the ‘passion’ element of we non-core supporters is largely down to the nature of our opposition. Nothing quite stirs the blood as a footy match against Germany, Italy, Argentina, France… OK, OK, so you’d also pay big money to watch Spain, Brazil and Holland; but South Africa? Australia and New Zealand? I mean, what’s the point?

Saturday, October 20

Game, for tonight's big game

Brrr it’s cold. Stuck my head in at the local ploughing competition this morning. After five months of being sock-less you forget yourself at times, nothing quite prepares one for wandering across frosty ground in bare feet or flip-flops. Neither is it very flattering, being mistaken for a hobbit. The next smart Alec who asks me where I’ve left Frodo gets a slap round the ear.

Am starting to max out on game. Must have eaten an entire flock of pigeons last night. Today’s lunch was fresh ostrich from a local supplier - highly recommended! And I assume from the lump of deer that’s hanging from her kitchen table that this evening features another Sherwood Forest roast. The TV is at the ready and beer’s on ice for tonight's big game. My little nylon flags are hanging from the ceiling. Whilst rugby is still seen as an elitist sport by many, everyone and his granny are expected to be tuning in. Well, maybe not everybody…

Riven by class and no social mobility - Britain in 2007. Ten years of Labour rule have failed to create a classless society, according to a Guardian/ICM poll published today. It shows that Britain remains a nation dominated by class division, with a huge majority certain that their social standing determines the way they are judged. Of those questioned, 89% said they think people are still judged by their class - with almost half saying that it still counts for ‘a lot’. Only 8% think that class does not matter at all in shaping the way people are seen. I guess what they're saying is if you're a black, working class Muslim with a Walsall accent, you are basically fucked.

Friday, October 19

Top cat

I see the National Lottery have commissioned a study that included their 62 lottery millionaires to determine what actually makes people happy. Seems the answer boils down to a long soak in the bath, an afternoon nap or a leisurely stroll in the park. Dr Richard Tunney, the University of Nottingham’s psychology professor who ran the study, says that loafing is the secret to a happy life. Gorblimey, I could have told him that.

Today I witnessed the igmony of the farmer’s wife having to buy her eggs from a neighbour. I was just thinking the fox had a lot to answer for, when the lad himself came scorching through the yard. A chancy manoeuvre, given Farmer Charles has his Remington primed for such appearances. I'm sitting out back, soaking up the sunshine. Watching the farm cat in action beats the pants off Attenborough’s efforts for an in-your-face display of a real killing machine in action. He disappears into the first cut of rough and always returns with a flailing victim. Eats everything, never leaves a trace; sure glad his litter tray isn’t in my kitchen.

Young Pheasant

His progress to date, over the course of my broken leg.
He’s the only remaining bird out of those eight chicks from the original brood in the yard. None of the second brood made it. And having escaped the buzzards, owl and the fox, he now has to face the guns.

Thursday, October 18

Bloody racket

They’re at it again: the Ponderosa chain saw massacre. Sounds like a motor cycle Grand Prix out there. Don’t let them tell you the countryside is a perfect antidote to city life; ignore those bullshit lines about oases of tranquillity. Young Wogan on my wireless has to compete with packs of baying hounds, quad bikes and the Rowdy Yates sized herds of cattle stampeding past the office. I fell asleep last night watching 633 Squadron bomb the crap out of Norway and woke to find a formation of HM’s finest strafing the barn.

Mornings are heavy on the frost, birds pecking at bedroom windows; they’ve gotten used to Mrs G. appearing with packets of Trill come sun up. The deer were also back in force, including a big lad with antlers - it's something to do with rutting? I promise a picture once I’m mobile.
With autumn comes robust supper dishes. Tonight’s Tripe Español is a particular favourite - always providing it’s accompanied with a glass or two of Rioja to help the slippery stuff on its way.

Wednesday, October 17

Still looking

Whilst it’s not been the best of weeks for fat, middle-class punters who enjoy a glass or two of Rioja, the IMF seem determined to put the boot in…

Britain risks the prospect of a US-style crash in its house prices as the credit crunch in the financial markets takes its toll of a heavily over-valued property market. US real house prices had risen by about one-third more than explained by fundamentals, and the over-valuation in Britain is even more pronounced. Tightening credit conditions could curtail demand for housing and house prices could decline more sharply than currently expected.

Perhaps it’s not the time to invest in bricks & mortar? I was already going cool on the house we’d been looking at... The survey reveals a disturbing catalogue of questionable traits, not least - and this is not a wind up - Asbestos Tiles on the roof; enough Radon Gas to take care of Saddam’s old Kurdish problem; a questionable private water supply of dubious quality; a septic tank that’s not been emptied since installation in 1968; and a Tarka Trail right of way, through the kitchen. The property’s original construction is dated somewhere around 1460, with a state-of-the-art 18C addition. As I told Mrs G., I’m up for a challenge, but this guy’s done his own electrical wiring and plumbing; he made all of the windows in the shed out back with what looks like a ‘little Jimmy’s joiner kit’ before installing them himself; and the two acre garden hasn’t seen a scythe since the Ministry of Agriculture’s 1939 ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign.

Devon women are shrinking

Together with global warming, Labour’s obsession with telling us how to live our lives ranks right up there - alongside tooth extraction and TV’s Loose Women. King’s report on obesity is a god-send for pointless legislation and more government targets. This latest study into obesity, backed by government and compiled by 250 experts, said excess weight was now the norm in our obesogenic society (I had to look this one up), and 'individuals can no longer be held responsible.’ The ‘illness’ is a consequence of our environment. But not to worry, it can be solved through large portions of nanny-state dictat. Top of the report’s list is ‘early life interventions’ (standing fat kids in front of the class and taking the piss?). Although the obesity epidemic affects the whole country, a clear north-south divide is emerging. By 2050, as many as 70 per cent of men aged 20 to 60 living in Yorkshire and Humberside, the West Midlands and the North East are likely to be obese, according to the report. About 65 per cent of women in Yorkshire and Humberside could be obese by then. In contrast, obesity is declining among women here in the South West, with just seven per cent expected to be obese by 2050 – far below the present level of 17 per cent. Why?

Tuesday, October 16

Expensive pub food

According to the latest Pub Guide (today's Times), ordinary pubs are cashing in on the success of gastro-pubs and overcharging by almost 70 per cent for standard meals such as steak pie or fish and chips. An average two course lunch with glass of wine comes in at £20; a steak & kidney pie £10.50. The Guide contrasts this with the average Brittany restaurant where £6.60 buys a litre of wine, mineral water and coffee - and as much as you can eat from the buffet. As a frequent visitor to Brittany restaurants I’d advise you take this claim with a large pinch of Saxo; and lets face it, we don’t always relish dining out on stewed horse meat and garlic flavoured crawly things. That said, 9 out of 10 English pubs do serve a vastly inferior product and bill you in gold pressed latinum for the privilege. Too many kitchens are staffed by the landlord’s wife (think Stan Ogden with tits); ex-local authority dinner ladies mit frying pan; or spotty-faced graduates from catering college that believe they’re the next Jamie Oliver, yet can barely microwave pizza. I know from past experience that finding competent chefs/cooks for run-of-the-mill restaurants is a near impossibility; finding bodies to cook decent pub food is a virtual non-starter. Ergo, pub food is crap and its price should reflect this. Pound to a penny someone will determine it’s all Thatcher’s fault.