Wednesday, February 27

Great spotted woodpecker

I’ve seen five in the yard this past month. A couple of peanuts and this one’s suddenly your best friend.

Wild, not farmed

I purchased a bucket of the mankiest looking mussels at Tuesday's market. You get so used to those pristine rope-grown varieties that the sight of a barnacle and muck encrusted mollusc with the whiff of marine diesel comes as something of a surprise. However, as if to prove that looks aren’t everything - and accepting the time they took to scrape and clean - these little suckers turned out a real treat. Nine times out of ten I just chuck them in the pot for two minutes with a knob of butter and half glass of wine. Next time I’m going to subject them to the Ruskoline treatment.

Taking things for granted

According to a poll released yesterday a third of us have apparently failed to visit a dentist within the last two years. I only wish… I’m a grand down after recently breaking two crowns on a pork scratching - £4-600 a pop. Because of those years in London and its non-existent NHS dental services our failure to find one in Devon comes as no surprise. You accept and get used to paying big bucks: you just don’t go on holiday. In this same surgery, I’m part financing, a sign informs me that 170 of their patients - presumably those fortunate enough to qualify for NHS treatment - failed to turn up for appointments during the month of January. That’s over seven a day! Health, education, whatever… it seems that unless people actually part with the readies from their own pocket they just don’t give a rat's.

Monday, February 25

Climbing trees

A furry little rodent is starting to piss me off and I'm thinking of ordering a catapult. I'd love to meet those people in the city that trap squirrels and release them into the so-called wild. As quickly as I deploy the birds' sunflower seed, chummy drops from the trees to retrieve it. I wouldn’t mind if it ate the stuff, but he spends each morning digging holes in the yard in which to bury his cache. As if the moles weren't bad enough. Three pheasants have taken exception and do their best to discourage the lad, chasing him back and forwards; but they can’t climb trees. Well, not tall ones. I'm not too concerned as the owls will do for him eventually.Looking outside at this morning’s heavy frost and the distant aeroplanes crisscrossing the sky I keep visualising our friends from the Smoke who are flying off to the Galápagos Islands this week. Iguanas, Blue-footed boobies, Giant tortoise, Green turtles, Flightless Cormorants, Frigatebirds and Albatross…

Sunday, February 24

Pork & beans

The results of yesterday’s bean feast isn’t helping the barn’s atmosphere and I’ve been banished to the hide. I don’t cook them too often as no one else here eats beans. When I do, it takes me 2-3 days to get through the whole pot, with obvious consequences. You need a decent ham hock, an onion studded with cloves, the odd stick of celery and a carrot, fresh parsley, dried cumin and oregano - Mexican, Greek or Italian will suffice, decent smoked paprika and cayenne, freshly ground black peppercorns, reconstituted chilli peppers according to taste, a tin of Italian tomatoes, a vegetable stock cube for luck and spoon of honey to sweeten. Soak the beans and ham overnight. I use pinto beans for old times sake. Bring to the boil and skim, before adding the other ingredients and simmering slowly until the meat falls from the bone. Serve beans in a bowl with the shredded ham, along with iced beer or Jose Cuervo Clasico and limes.

Thursday, February 21

Carduelis carduelis

The colourful Goldfinches have returned to the yard.

Wednesday, February 20

Hideaway

Getting back to work after the long layoff is proving physically demanding, so I'm easing myself in gently. Having spent this morning servicing equipment, cleaning and resetting sparkplugs and undertaking an overdue oil change, I elected to give the Honda an early season workout and to run my brush cutter over the yard. Into town for messages and post, then on to the tip to dispose of some toxic waste. Afternoon in the office taking care of outstanding paperwork, before sneaking outside to play.I’ve acquired a small hide from which to observe our feathered friends. It looks suspiciously like a military bivouac shelter, but is large enough for me to relax with a drink and a slice of yesterday’s pastilla. Actually, it’s rather comfortable and reminds me of that private drinking club in Regent Street we used to frequent in the ’80s.

Pastilla

Having picked up supplies at Hatherleigh market, driven post haste to Puddington, taken on bunkers at Tiverton, swung by the Boss’s butcher in Crediton and diverted via Okehampton for half a case of life’s necessities, I was more than ready for the final run home. And I still forgot the pigeons. I’d promised Memsahib a pastilla for dinner, though by the time I pot roasted various feathered bits; blanched, fried and ground the almonds; boiled and chopped eggs; there wasn’t exactly much time for a beer before the action from Anfield kicked off. I know she’s fond of these North African pasties, but by the time you factor in the cost of diesel, cooking oil and labour they work out about £27.50p a slice. Pigeon is traditional, although these days punters substitute a range of fillings, not least, chicken, pheasant, offal…, even fish. You can also vary the spices. On this occasion I used the leftover icing sugar from my Christmas box of Turkish delight, along with cinnamon, turmeric, nutmeg, saffron, rose water, parsley and coriander leaves. I’ve long been a rose water fan, to the extent that my Tex-Mex chili has a definite air of the souk about it.

Monday, February 18

It’s your money they’re using to bet with

Whilst Anatole Kaletsky has proved himself to be as fallibly human as the rest of us, he’s still the dab hand with a pencil: Absolutely, incredibly, utterly wrong. Yep, just about says it, for Northern Rock - a financial and political disaster of almost unimaginable proportions. I could understand (though disagree) with Rail Track. But bailing out cowboy bankers and paying good money for their dubious loan book? My God, have you not followed the football team. Whilst Rightmove’s latest take on the property market actually puts ‘asking prices’ up, the reality of the Land Registry will likely prove very different. I’m waiting for this early season optimism to crash and burn and am reckoning on decent stuff falling 10% and crap properties by 30%. I’ve watched as one unfortunately situated house in the neighbourhood has fallen from £600k to little more than £450k. How solid Northern Rock’s vaunted mortgage book three years from now? This is money that could have been spent on decent equipment and accommodation for the guys who’re getting their arse shot off in places like Hellmann and Kosova. As Kaletsky concludes… the fiasco has only just started, with the Government now officially in charge .

Swinging the leg

Yesterday’s jaunt has done for me. The leg is refusing to bear my weight, so it's back to the walking stick. As monday is big on chores, and if I'm canny, I'll drag my sloth-like form around the barn in the manner of a wounded Sméagol until the sympathetic gang-boss excuses me from duties and allows me out to play.

After casting aspersions on the sartorial habits of Totnes male inhabitants I’ve been taken to task by Mrs G. regarding my form of dress, a style I have increasingly heard her refer to as Gudgeon’s Fagin look.

Sunday, February 17

Fantasy Island

My Grandpa-Simpson-like trek to the Quik-E-Mart for Sunday newspapers isn’t getting any easier, even on mornings as beautiful as this. Whilst there’s a chill on the air and ice sits stubbornly in the shade of the blackthorn, today’s clear blue skies, the pure air, birds and insects - a butterfly even, in February? - more than compensate. If you’re into cutesy things, lambs are frolicking across the meadow out back; afraid I can’t watch them without visualising a döner. Though little more that 14 months since migrating from South London mansions I’m in danger of taking our new life for granted and forgetting the immense release I felt when originally heading off along the M4. After 25 years in London am gratified how easy it has been to switch off and to ignore the outside world. Don’t get me wrong, I still tune into Sky News and follow current events. But such is the feeling of separation I could be watching National Geographic, or - in the case of our current administration - the Marx Brothers. If life has taught me one thing it’s that shit usually lies hovering just around the corner, reinforcing my determination to make the most of this spell on Fantasy Island.

Saturday, February 16

Yawn

Come on, Darling, keep up. City bonuses were last year's gripe. Even to schmucks like me, slagging off the super-rich smacks of band-wagons leaving town. As for his ‘next-door neighbour test…’ Politicians/snouts/troughs/pots & kettles/black? It’s a given that bonus payments and operating budgets will become more targeted. Whether we like it or not there’s only so many half-bright individuals out there and organisations will pay whatever’s necessary to keep their stars onboard. Public sector excepting, in contracting markets it’s those nice-to-haves, slackers and back office staff that are cut to balance budgets, not bonuses. Top of the canning list: any individual rash enough to openly fantasize about improving their work/life balance. Talking of talent… Nice to see Stephanie Flanders being elevated to the post of BBC’s economics editor. I’m all for short skirts, thighs and leather boots. Her ability to disseminate complex financial stories in a manner I can understand is pure gravy.

Friday, February 15

TGIF

From the crush at the bar of the Dog & Duck I must assume our DFL crowd are back. That said, I seemed to be the only guy there sans Wellington boots and sheepdog. Trumpers finest stood no chance. One thing that always concerns me about these Friday lunchtime sessions is the amount of hooch our butcher puts away: his afternoon shift with the boning knife must be a real game of chance. Having spent my morning on the phone with old faces from South London I was already close to maudlin reminiscing without having to listen to Chris Farlowe banging on from the juke box. Thankfully a beer and plate of fishcakes can be a marvellous regenerative.

I’m fast coming to the conclusion the current generation are a bunch of nancy boys. Everyone was bleating about interest rates, global warming and po-faced Putin. But in the old days we lived on bread and dripping, thought sunburn the bee’s knees, and Russia was a real world power that brandished zillion megaton warheads rather than glow in the dark cappuccinos. As someone who was around before the old T-64s hit the street, a gauche poseur who styles himself on Sonny Corleone seems a bit too much the pantomime villain to take seriously. I just wish we had a grown up Foreign Secretary instead of that Polish lad who looks like a school prefect.

Thursday, February 14

Romance, from Lafayette

Though I baulked at purchasing one of those gaudy Valentine’s Day cards from the Quik-E-Mart, a bottle of her favourite fizz and my cooking dinner should get me off the hook. Anything with shrimp usually works. That said, it’s taken half the day to locate my sauce stained copy of Myrtle (Landry) Simmses Fun Cooking Guide (cooking for two). I can just about manage stuffed eggplants and Creole rice, followed by large portions of ice cream with (fresh?) berries from Mexico and Chile. Guess that's my carbon footprint buggered again.

Don't go there

The lad from the Bank of England did his best to gild the lily yesterday, but he warned Britain’s families they should expect a real decline in their standard of living as rising food and fuel prices place household finances under severe strain. This from the team that’s spent months telling us how good the fundamentals were and not to worry. If you thought Mervyn’s take on the subject was depressing, Barclay’s 2008 Equity Gilt Study read like a Stephen King novel. Should the economy actually tip into a recession (nap bet), Bottler Brown will be obliged to carry the can. Let’s face it, he's an easy target for people’s ire; and it is his watch. Wherever you stand on the social ladder things are begining to hurt, causing voters to gravitate to the right. They’ll become less enthusiastic about spending their hard earned cash on other people, especially those outside traditional tribal affiliations. Become far more vociferous when questioning taxes and public spending. Saloon bars and school gates will resound to the grumble of angry voters. Sales of the Sun and Daily Mail will soar.

It’s interesting when you recall the end of the ’80s and how people drifted left. In much the same way that Margaret Thatcher was a panacea for ’70s Britain, Blair provided ’90s voters with the pretty boy social conscience they craved. Now the pendulum's on its way back and I haven’t yet worked out who’s going to be the man (or woman) of the early 21st century. Cameron sticks in my throat. If you’re left of centre, maybe someone like Frank Field with tits? Something with a bit of backbone that’s nice to look at: Natasha Kaplinski meets David Davis? Arghh… Kenny Everett-like drag queen images have started to flash before my eyes. Maybe Boris Johnson should work on developing his moobies.

Wednesday, February 13

Under siege

Despite the chicken massacres of last year leading to enhanced coup security, the enemy are proving difficult to defeat. Though the fox has made himself scarce, his place has been taken by a rogue badger. The brock gained entry last week, returning two days ago to finish the job. Using skills I acquired as a teenager addicted to Louis L’Amour novels, I’ve tracked him as far as the bottom pasture - adjacent to the military training ground. European badgers are more foragers than hunters, subsisting on a diet of earthworms, arthropods, small mammals, nuts and fruit. And whilst badgers are also opportunist scavengers, feeding off the odd deer carcase, I’d discounted a full frontal assault on the homestead. However, having further speculated on the problem, I now recall certain rumours that were circulating abroad last summer which relate to British Forces releasing man-eating badgers in Iraq. Trained in counter insurgency, they were believed to be stalking the streets of Basra each night, attacking rival militia factions. I kid you not - it was widely reported at the time. What chance this problem of ours could be a rogue Chuck Norris type that escapes from Cramber Tor or Ringmoor each evening in an effort to supplement his diet of corned beef and chips? Shit, what the hell am I talking about? Have got to get out more.

Tuesday, February 12

Hunters and hippies

The glorious weather continues and I couldn’t pass up a trip across Dartmoor to watch the hunt set off. Their mounts were very much at odds with the moor’s wild ponies. One horse was tall enough to give the poor girl riding it a nose bleed; I’d have needed a three-section ladder to get aboard. Those not hunting were clad in cagoules and Foster Grants, intent on scaling the Tors. I decided to do a little exploring myself and ended up at Buckfast Abbey, home of Buckie - aka the commotion lotion: beverage of choice for discerning Lanarkshire teenagers intent on a spot of anti-social behaviour. Was a Sanatogen lad myself. Being an infrequent visitor to South Hams I took the opportunity to lunch at Totnes. It’s billed as something of a hip town where those of a more bohemian disposition reside. I assume from the local uniform that this ‘new age’ persona takes the form of middle-aged guys wearing gypo-chic. Imagine Dexys Midnight Runners (c. 1980) meets Lovejoy. The place seems a bit too precious and reeks of Guardian reading therapists and environmental hippies. Five out of five to the talented busker on the high street who performed a credible Perry Como routine. Desmond Bagley was once a resident, though the only face I recognised today was that of an old bird from the BBC who used to interview the Windsors but has since taken to impersonating Brummies. She dined at an adjacent table, clad in a dead yak that was similar to the coat Mrs G. threw out in ’78 - and from the look of it, probably the last time this one had seen the inside of Sketchleys.

Saturday, February 9

Goodbye to winter

This is about as close as we get to airport traffic.What a difference from three days ago. Look at the sky: it’s February and I’m sunburnt. Not a ski slope in sight and we're slopping on Amber Solaire. Knee-deep in snowdrops, yet awash with frog spawn? Climate change, I guess.

Friday, February 8

Size 10s

Rowan Williams: prize plonker. You have to chuckle at poor Hassan from the Quik-E-Mart. Like most Muslim lads, all he wants to do is keep his head down, get on with life and make a few bob. Some chance. If it’s not some nonce at the council winding everyone up by banning Three little pigs from the library, it’s your favourite Welsh slap-head weighing in with a classic off-the-cuff rejoinder that's guaranteed to turn the entire Daily Mail readership an arresting shade of puce. I thought this sort of rubbish was covered by Matthew 22:15-21. The thinking man's thinking man? Yeh, right.

Sleep

It might be the sleep of the righteous, but I’m certainly clocking up time in bed. Must be something to do with country life and hibernation? If there was any truth in this beauty-sleep business, Brad Pitt wouldn’t get a look in. The semi-conscious state with which I hit the pillow has all but ended nocturnal reading activity. And early morning starts are not so early. An acceleration in my recuperation would be a bonus, though that’s progressing slowly. Knees are shot. My walk resembles an adolescent Forest Gump with a haemorrhoid problem. It’s the pace of life that worries me. I wake up, pour myself a cup of tea - and the sun’s going down. Five minutes later I’m thinking of an early night. Am putting it down to the fresh air. If it’s not that, I’m in trouble. They’re opening a 50-bed home in neighbouring Hatherleigh for senior citizens who’re already gaga. Doubtless one of the reasons why everyone in the village is selling up?

Fetched up in a place called Sheepwash yesterday, though there was a distinct lack of Texels or Suffolks making free with the Imperial Leather. You could tell it was really cattle country by our watering eyes. If what they say is true - that a principal cause of global warming is farting cows - then this place is a bigger threat than your average metropolitan city. I still need to buy myself one of those blue boiler suits so beloved by working farmers.

Wednesday, February 6

Welcome company

If you’re banged up in the countryside, this is not necessarily your favourite time of year. Gales, frost, floods… Grey skies. Thank goodness for the wildlife; for birds. Mrs G. is ensconced on the back step, plucking casualties from January’s final shoot. She’s surrounded by her flock of attendant blackbirds. A pair of Bullfinches work the hedge, stripping its buds. Magpies are busy building a nest. Robins and Dunnocks have paired; others also renew acquaintances. Passing Siskins stop to feed.

Monday, February 4

The Isles

Having romped through another 1,000 pages of British history I’m still no closer to taking sides. Norman Davieses book, The Isles, takes a different approach to the more conventional Anglo-centric position of Simon Schama’s A History of Britain. Davies is an Englishman who would really like to be Welsh but suspects he might be Polish. He comes with the usual irritating chip-on-the-shoulder so beloved of our ethnic cousins. Apart from a crummy cover and atrocious editing, the book's not a bad read; though I doubt Al Murray would like it: Davies seems to think we’re French. It helped fill a number of gaps in my woeful education, and could be a reasonable primer to those state school teachers hung up on history’s moral ambiguity. Sold in the right way, this is an inclusive story of fusion-England; a country that will continue to evolve and prosper, in spite of ourselves.

Sunday, February 3

Still game

It’s Aunt Gudgeon’s birthday in two weeks time. Born 1909 (c. Jessica Tandy, Jimmy Jewel, James Mason and Matt Busby), she’s one of my few remaining links with the past. I suspect back then Tottenham was a very different place. Or was it? Immigrants and gun crime were still front page news. An attempted wage snatch by two Russian Bolsheviks ended with one dead police constable and 17 wounded colleagues. Guns on Tottenham streets were common enough to enable the pursuing constabulary to borrow firearms from passers by. Could you imagine similar public support in modern day N15?

N.B. The last Spurs home game I went to was with our kid. It was a mid-week league match against Blackpool. I think Bobby Smith scored a hat-trick.

Saturday, February 2

Movers and shakers

I’ve been advised that my preferred route to infiltrating the local power brokers is by joining a shadowy group called Anglicans. They’re new to me, but appear similar to those lads in the Masons in that they practise strange rituals. A dab of Cherry Blossom and I’m in. Forgoing my kebab and the accompanying cold one during Lent seems somewhat extreme, but when it Rome… What I really need is for Mrs G. to be elected as the local MP so she can put me on her payroll.

Friday, February 1

Still looking

To show willing and keep my hand in I toddled off yesterday to inspect a local property recently placed on the market. Another of those charming bijou country homes which look great on paper, but whose glossy brochure always manages to exclude that one glaring deficiency which becomes immediately obvious the minute you step from the motor. This particular abode (ideal size, price and location) turned out to be tainted somewhat by the adjacent pig farm. I know, I know, this is the countryside and I’m already living on a farm. However, whilst as keen as the next man on the odd slice of belly draft, I draw the line at sharing space with a herd of snorting omnivores that are probably maintained by a prominent London gangster as his means of recycling errant miscreants. In saying that - as with a number of properties we’ve previously looked at - an animal or two can often become part of a country property transaction. You buy someone’s home, you inherit their knackered steed. And mucking out geriatric donkeys is not exactly high on my wish list. Although this latest possibility had only one animal in residence, the house came with a staff of three. Picture Ned and Brabinger from Grantleigh Manor. I’m sorry - and nothing against greengrocers - but Richard DeVere’s not really my style (I’ve shaved the ’tache and lost the tie).

Is the hole in my pocket or tooth?

I can’t believe I’m being hit with another apicectomy. This will be my fourth series of slash and stitch procedures. I guess, in the scheme of things (think Beadle), a little local anaesthetic and six inches of catgut doesn’t amount to much of a hardship. More nuisance value; not to mention expense. I love how they now issue written estimates prior to treatment: dentists must be the new plumbers? Wait until GPs decide to follow their brothers in arms, and surgeries decline to accept new NHS patients and begin charging for treatment. Even ostrich-like Gudgeon appreciates it’s not a bottomless pit. If we redirect increasingly finite resources to midwifery, geriatrics and smarter drugs, not to mention cleaner hospitals and eye watering salaries, general practitioners will eventually be forced to identify additional sources of revenue. As with state pensions and social housing, Beveridge’s cradle to grave idealism must be close to running its course. He wouldn't have realised how much the nationalism of his time would continue to be required to maintain social cohesion. The danger in this disparate community of ours is that people become increasing adverse to supporting costly welfare schemes that include all and sundry.