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 -6ยบ 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.