Thursday, July 31

Prevaricate

Spent yesterday afternoon taking a second look at a neighbouring property that’s up for sale. A rare event, as land around here is owned by a handful of families. Three-generation farming stock who’re not short of a shilling. Homes that do become vacant tend to follow the obituaries column in the local newspaper. But do I really want to renovate another crumbling wreck? Perceived wisdom is to wait, continue to track the market downwards. There’s a lot to be said for renting; the ability to decamp and flee the country, given 30 days notice. But I miss my books, her paraphernalia... After two years our belongings remain hidden in packing cases amongst the arachnids and bat droppings. At some stage we have to put up or shut up; and this latest prospect is about as good as it gets - heart-stopping views, and strolling distance from the middle-earth public house. The longer we stay footloose the more difficult it becomes to commit.

Tuesday, July 29

Proper job, Pygmalion

Helena Echlin wrote ‘The voice had a touch of an accent, like cinnamon, cloves, unknown spices…’, but SpinVox (‘what we say, and how we say it, is a wonderful and powerful thing’) believes 78% of Brummies and up to three quarters of the rest of us wish we spoke proper. By contrast, only 14% of Londoners feel ashamed of their accents. Speaking with a cool and edgy mill-town brogue has given way to an aspiration for the traditional ‘Queen’s English’, thanks in part, we are told, to celebrities such as Liz Hurley and Hugh Grant. I recall taking classes of kids, years ago, in a dialect that made Jasper Carrot sound posh - whilst the sprogs conversed in Doric. Not sure either party understood much of anything, but we muddled through in the time honoured fashion of loud speech and wild gesticulations. Despite a more egalitarian and multi-racial society, one suspects perceived prejudice remain nine-tenths of the law.

Monday, July 28

More hell and handcarts

Let’s be frank - Hello Frank, what I know about economics can be written on the back of a proverbial fag packet. I do my best, skimming the financial pages - but experience has taught me to view such commentators with a jaundiced eye. The Telegraph’s Liam Halligan (his Wikipedia entry has to be self-written, or at the very least, edited by his doting granny) has been pushing a positive message and talking up the economy. I just can’t buy his optimistic take. Like it or not, 70% of our economic growth has been build on consumer spending, part debt-financed, part home equity draw down. The show’s been sustained by an eye-watering level of public spending and government borrowing, non of which is sustainable. The figures he quotes are at the front end of a downturn and, I suspect, will prove far removed from those of 6-9 months hence. Whilst now accepting a slight downturn (5-10%) in housing, Halligan still believes that solid employment prospects? will underpin the market. The boy’s romancing. Punters can’t sustain current levels of taxation, debt servicing, food and fuel prices; and at some stage someone has to pull the plug on public spending. Japan’s experience belies the myth of property’s invulnerability and, in relative terms, I believe the value of our homes will continue to fall. But then - as I said - what do I know. Like everyone else I just have to pay the bills.

Painter fined for smoking in his own van

I know, I know, everyone’s already moaned about this latest example of pettifogging local bureaucracy. But perceived wisdom as regards these non-jobs for life’s unfortunates will probably remain unchanged. Whilst they’re unlikely to be the sort of characters you’d entrust to clean your paintbrushes, local government recruitment mitigates unemployment figures.

Don't tell the children

For decades, Germans holidaying on the white sandy beaches of Usedom have opted to leave their swimming trunks at home. Their penchant for naked bathing is nothing unusual in a country where naturism is popular and seen as, well, natural… Having lived alongside our Germanic neighbours for a while, following Die Schwarzgelben and sharing the odd half-litre, their predilections can be something of an acquired taste. Truth to tell, I’ve seen more of our European allies since moving here than I did in the Smoke. Last week, German families came knocking at the barn on two successive evenings, looking for a neighbourhood B&B. It's not unusual to wake up finding Panzers blocking the track. Suspect the farmer’s wife would be a touch concerned about naked cavorting in her fields, though I’ve long harboured suspicions about the likelihood of Dennis Wheatley type practises in our local hamlet.

Sunday, July 27

Memories - Streisand's version was best

Whilst investigating the decline in his cognitive abilities, Phil Hogan discovers his brain is more a clapped-out Ford Fiesta than super computer, and that those Nintendo gizmos so beloved by Kylie and Nicole offer limited comfort against our fears for the early onset of Alzheimer’s. Loosing the old grey matter must be up there in the top three for us all. It’s those noticeable signs, like forgetting the name of that lad two desks down that you’ve worked with for the last 20 years. Sending the crew out on a job, then forgetting where you sent them, or what for. Shouting out the name of a film I’d been trying to recall for the last two days in the middle of the Boss’s discourse on the incomprehensibility of my semantics. It’s why some of these posts lose the plot half way through…

Saturday, July 26

There’s always a chance

I’m starting to feel sorry for McPlonker again, and it has to stop. After yesterday’s banal performance in front of the policy review wonks it’s becoming as bad as poking cripples with a pointy stick. Labour admits that Glasgow East’s ‘aspirational’ working-class and middle-classes switched to the SNP, and that the poor and downtrodden gave up in despair - didn’t turn out. Because he was habitually hamstrung by Brown - and lacking the courage to sack him, and partly because of the lamentable dearth of talent at cabinet level, Blair’s new labour project is now dead. Finito. People were prepared to have their hard earned money expropriated but the government had to deliver something in return. Like it or not, education and health are just two of their failures. There’s nothing left and people feel betrayed. Likewise, labour’s so-called core vote (presumably the non-aspirational working class and people who derive their income from them) feel they’ve been short-changed, that the government ultimately failed because they were too right wing. Their supporters, including the unions, will now demand left wing retrenchment. And in truth this is probably the best that Labour can hope for: the position of advocate for life’s least successful. An ‘unelectable’ pressure group. That said, you can never be sure what's around the corner… I recall many years ago when Fergie was thought to be only 24hrs from the sack. His employers ignored the detractors and stuck with him (like Labour, replacements were few and far between), and eventually, despite his glaring tactical ineptitude, Sir Alex became one of the world’s most successful football managers.

Peace and quiet

I never detected any reduction in grey noise during weekends at South London Mansions. The drone of Saturday morning traffic seemed just as intrusive. Sunday was arguably the busiest day of the week; trips out of town, shopping, visiting relatives. And although the nearest road of consequence hereabouts is three miles distant, during weekdays I can still catch the rumble of heavy vehicles en route from somewhere to nowhere in particular. At weekends however, silenzio. Not a dicky-bird. Well, perhaps one or two of our feathered friends, but I swear they’re more discreet on a Saturday - dawn chorus is over by five. Sit on the back step with a coffee and - aside from the beat of a wood pigeon’s wings, the swoosh of a low-flying swallow - all you can hear is the sound of a mole tearing through the roots as he moves beneath the surface, watch as the fleeing worms erupt from the earth.

Friday, July 25

Wildlife

Another batch of juvenile nuthatches have appeared in the yard. Stroppy types, with beaks to back it up.Spent part of yesterday evening following the badgers - there’s a set two hundred yards or so from the barn. I managed to sit about 15 yards away and watch three youngsters rooting about. Unfortunately the light’s not good enough to photograph, but I'm working on it.

Intransigent

After being whipped in the local government elections, London, Crewe & Nantwich - and now Glasgow East, you’d think our political masters would be too shame-faced to continue in office. Truth is, they’ve nowhere to go but an employment exchange. Might as well hang on in there for another year or so and pocket the expenses, top up the pension fund. Do someone a small service in exchange for the promise of future employment. Suppose we should count ourselves lucky the dour man’s eventual successor isn’t that vacuous Harry Belafonte look-a-like in Berlin. Guido’s right: it’s like listening to Kinnock.

Thursday, July 24

Haymaking

They’ve been cutting hay. Are now packaging the stuff using a rather nifty piece of kit that turns out circular bales encased in plastic fishnet bindings. Last year was a disaster because of the rain. When they did finally manage to cut it, the hay had to be endlessly turned before it could dry. This time around the fields look like being cleared in just a week. The most impressive thing, for me, is the absence of sneezing. I’ve spent most of my adult life swallowing packets of antihistamines and decongestants, but my hay fever seems immune to hay? Out early this morning in time for the vixen and her cub. Two buzzards were also hunting the bare field, so much has been exposed.

Am back in the saddle again: first time up top at roof level on a ladder since last year’s dive. Not as squeaky bum as I’d thought, though the muscles in my gimpy leg are questionable when balancing toe-like on rungs for any period.

Wednesday, July 23

More fish & chips

Another glorious day. Encouragement enough to jump ship, sneak off on a skive. Given the Boss had let me off the leash in Torquay last week, the least I could do was return the favour - albeit somewhere more suited to the good lady’s sensibilities (less of the jellied eels). That said, two weeks on the trot I’ve headed off into the wild blue yonder and been greeted both times by a tribe of Baggies. Thought they all went to Rhyl? This time we ended up in Dartmouth for a session at Burton Race’s restaurant, The New Angel. Lobsters and puddings all round, and some classy tasting vino. Once upon a time you were served man-sized ‘whole’ lobsters rather than half a giant prawn, but what the hell. Excellent service. Dartmouth appears a resort for well healed oldies. I even bought a white cap to fit in. Lots of sailing vessels and art galleries (art, in the loosest sense of the word - tourist kitsch at eye-watering prices). Some very attractive pubs that are mostly empty during the day but presumably come alive of an evening. Everyone’s so polite and well behaved, particularly the children - not the sort who’re likely to grow into Neets. Nice place and certainly worth a second look, though you need reserves of stamina for that return trek across the moor.

Monday, July 21

More on Abba

Today’s Times (Libby Purves) informs us the seventies are back, but with less good cheer. I suspect we were more resilient in the 70s because we were young, didn’t expect a lot from life and had little to loose. Screw global warming, the USSR and Armageddon were only 20 minutes away. You could argue there was more of a ‘community’ in those days, though-chip-on-the-shoulder class resentment proliferated. Subsequently, when Thatcher implied ‘there is no such thing as society’ it resonated with many. Nowadays we’re a federation of disparate tribes armed with ‘special case’ exemptions and claims. If the economy really does go to hell in a handcart it’ll be cats in a sack. People will muddle through, as we do, but events will further polarise rather than unite.

I see McPlonker’s in Israel for a day or two of flag waving, promising $60m in budgetary support for the Palestinian authorities, in furtherance of the peace process. As Obama is due tomorrow, Brown's doubtless being seen locally as a non-event. Guess the lad is hoping his visit will encourage Levy and the boys to turn Labour’s funding taps back on, so they don’t have to take union gelt, allowing the government to crush public sector insurrection.

Sunday, July 20

Natural Attrition

I warned our sunbathing lizard his days were numbered, basking on the tarmac. The track’s a Chagall canvas. Elsewhere, it’s eight down; though the one remaining rodent is proving an elusive bugger. Faster than a speeding bullet, fleeter than kung fu panda. The pheasants have fared little better, last of the eleven chicks falling prey to Ponderosa’s natural predators. The hen had battled gamely (tore an ear from a squirrel during an argument over peanuts), but against insurmountable odds. Poor sport for the guns come October.

Saturday, July 19

Bonus cuts

Thankfully, I bailed out of Friends Provident last year. My ‘financial advisor’ introduced me to this bunch of tossers more than 15 years ago as a rock solid investment. It’s probably the sort of organisation that would be run by McPlonker if he was in private practise. Given their latest plan to reduce bonuses you’d be forgiven for thinking he was actually at the helm. FP are blaming turbulent markets this time; can’t remember what excuse they were using when the FTSE was buoyant. Meantime, Darling’s mortgaging us up to the hilt - borrowing surges to post war levels. Marshall aid beckons, though this time not from America. Beggars belief. I remember how chuffed Ken Clarke was when he paid off our IOUs years ago and we had a chance to start over. Now shit-for-brains is close to consigning another generation to the poor house. Porridge and soup bones, again.

Whilst Waitrose has seen an increase in the purchase of chilled meals and new world wines, as more people eat in, the Stonehage Affluent Luxury Living Index has dropped to 3.8%, indicating deflation in items such as cars and watches. A Panerai Luminor Submersible watch is now almost 17% cheaper than last year at £4,500, and an Aston Martin DBS is down 15% to a mere £160k. Booze however, is still attracting premium prices, with Lafite Rothschild 2000 wine up 45% to £13,000 a case. I’ll believe it’s tough at the top when we start to see BOGOF incentives.

Fawlty’s playground

Back from the English Riviera. Given we’re all going to hell in a handcart I’m making the most of my time. That said, in another week the schools are off and life as we know it will be suspended. Excepting the odd trip as a kid, this was my first look at Torquay - and I must admit a good time was had by all. Worth the run (little more than an hour) for the pint of lager and dish of jellied eels on the sea front, not to mention those Adrian Chiles accents. Despite a reputation for retirement homes the population appears overwhelmingly young (foreign exchange students?) and includes a surprising number of well-healed overseas visitors amidst the more traditional family groups. No shortage of watering holes and places to eat, and a lot more fun than Padstow.

Thursday, July 17

Stately pad

Needing a breath of fresh air we spent this morning at Castle Drogo, a local Lutyens designed pile that was built for an early day Richard DeVere type, in the grocery trade. Take the term ‘castle’ with a pinch of salt, as Kirk Douglas and the boys would have made pretty short work of entering the premises. An impressive country pile to be sure, but parts of it look like a promo for a breeze block manufacturer. As it’s National Trust I couldn’t gain entry without the hard sell for a lifetime's membership on direct debit; had to fight my way out by explaining I was living in the area on a police witness protection programme and reluctant to reveal my identity. Drewe's Drogo is a Jeeves and Wooster fantasy, and well worth the entrance money.

More grief

The Fabian Society has decided we should stop using the word chav, a sneering and patronising, deeply offensive term used to describe a section of society that middle-class people view with a deep and revealing class ‘hatred’. Jees, get over yourselves. Lefties are so up their own backsides. Why can’t people express themselves without resorting to extremes. Hatred? A chauvinist always has to become the misogynist; act tribal and you’re a racist. It’s true that chav is a word that stings, and its use has increased in part because of the barb. A snide term; hardly one of hate. There’s a world of difference between being allowed to call a spade a spade and using overtly offensive language. In much the same way that nigger was used when refering to black people, paki has become a generic term to describe individuals from the south Asian subcontinent. In that context, paki is 'deeply offensive'. Chav is supposed to denote a lack of class, of culture - people who wear white socks with formal clothing. But how on earth can you hate the Beckhams? Cherie Blair? It’s a form of Hyacinth Bucket snobbery, not hate. At worst, a cheap shot.

Tuesday, July 15

Mamma Mia

This week’s visit to the local fleapit (think The Last Picture Show), and inevitably - given the reviews - Mamma Mia. I know they were catchy tunes but, let’s be truthful, our enthusiasm for Abba was all to do with fanaticising about getting inside Agnetha and Anni-Frid’s knickers. Still, you can’t ignore the pull of nostalgia, 70s kitsch. Taking my seat amongst the fifty or so women of questionable age and our two village queens, and praying the guys from the Dog & Duck hadn’t seen me queuing, I was not optimistic. Yet it’s a scream. Despite the drag queen allusions, Meryl Streep is marvellous. Julie Walters excelled as the risqué Shirley Valentine type character the audience most identified with, and bears a frightening resemblance to Mrs G’s mother after a couple of Bacardis. Baranski is excellent, as always. And don’t believe what they say about Pierce Brosnan, he’s a more than passable Joe Cocker tribute act; none of the lads embarrass themselves. Stick around at the end for an encore from the three girls and to see the guys’ Waterloo suits. You’ve no idea the number of fifty-somethings that will be heading for the Greek islands.

Monday, July 14

Monday morning

There’ve been times these last few weeks when I’ve questioned our rural idyll. Then, after drying off for the umpteenth time, just when you’re losing faith, a morning like Sunday’s comes along. You can sit on the back step and, excepting the distant grumble of early traffic, kid yourself that the world and its problems don’t exist. You wake up and smell the trees. OK, so it’s a fleeting sensation: tomorrow’s Monday and we don’t like Mondays. But you recognise the need to mark such moments and rush to embrace it…

Damn. Fall for it every time. Hangovers serve to remind us that euphoria comes at a price. And it’s raining, again.

Saturday, July 12

Worthwhile expense? - it's your choice

The cost of sending junior to private school has risen by more than 40% in five years, a survey by Halifax Financial Services has found, with average annual fees in excess of ten large smackeroos. Cue further rending of garments, as outraged punters proffer disbelief that parents are allowed to skint themselves out by going private when there’s such excellent (sic) state schooling available. I suspect the choice has less to do with academic standards and is more a realisation that the principal influence on a child’s development is that of their peer group. It’s about aspirations, self-fulfilling expectations.

Credit crisis and the bear market

Millions of families saw a significant fall in the value of their savings, pensions and other investments yesterday after the stock market suffered a torrid day and finished more than 20 per cent down on its peak last year. Economists warned it was a highly significant moment, which signalled further falls in the value of families' investments and a worsening of the wider economic crisis. Makes one wonder why we bother. Guess you just have to keep plugging away and pray that when it becomes your time to hang up the spurs the markets are ascending rather than descending.

The sage advice from Anthony Bolton is that sometimes, doing nothing is best. Opinion from financial circles arrives thick and fast these days, but advice from an old sweat is always valuable in times of crisis. A stake of £1,000 invested in the UK stock market 15 years ago and left untouched would today be worth £3,261, he says, assuming you reinvested the dividends. However, research shows that if you had missed the ten best days in the market since June 1993, then the stake would be worth a great deal less - £2,147. Strip out the best 40 days and that portfolio would have a value of only £885. Like most things in life, it's a question of timing.

The North Sea, on its last legs

They inferred as much back in the 80s but the black stuff's still with us. Whilst north sea infrastructure rusts and decays, granite city accents fill desks from Rio to Moscow, Houston to Luanda, the ubiquitous Robert Gordon’s diploma long supplanting Tony Lama boots. People contend we've pissed it away, though few would welcome a return to the 70s. Maybe just a quick visit, a sole waleska and a lunchtime session at the Earl’s Court?

Friday, July 11

Overgrown yard

My once upon a time pitch and putt green has diappeared beneath the rain forest, rain being the operative word.

Collecting cow farts

So what do you do for a living?

Nice weather we’re having

If I thought my O level in woodwork sufficient, building an ark might be the most profitable use of my time. A seemingly inexhaustible Atlantic torrent continues to assail our sodden countryside. The sky an obese, bloated cadaver with horribly disfiguring birthmarks (Similes and Metaphors R Us). Perhaps it’s just as well as I’m out of four-stroke to fuel the mower. Walked to the village and back for a newspaper and a pint. Families that had chosen domestic holidays over Tuscany were packing their tents, whilst exhausted youngsters in Wellington boots and yellow plastic hats exacted revenge, bleating, targeting any and all with their angry Midwich eyes.

Return of the prodigal

Well done Davis. Welcome back. We've all made similar ill-advised stands and woken up next morning muttering dumb, dumb, dumb… If you’re half-bright and good at your job - as old Bruiser is - you get away with it; albeit count yourself lucky and learn a valuable lesson. Not least the old politician’s maxim about never trusting the public, or assuming they trust you.

Wednesday, July 9

The market

As good as it gets? Hard to believe our rural souk was cited by rival-town commentators as evidence of the more vibrant economies that flourish about them.

“Distant rheumy eyes swept the crowd for regulars. Tight purses. Business was slack, though the beets and the red-currant cuttings were selling. You could smell the rain in the air, along with the fish stall and unwashed bodies, as the incoming tide of grey eddied amongst the trestle tables and travellers’ vans. Bored lurchers and small spiteful dogs lay tethered in a tangle of leads. Men in soiled boiler-suits and frayed caps stood talking in threes. Women resigned to cheap coloured fleeces and rubber boots poked about amongst the hooks & eyes and hemming tape, whilst auctioneers competed for buyers of surplus poultry and discarded tat, bruised zinc buckets and a stained divan bed smelling faintly of urine.” (GD)

Raining on my paella

I'm back in the good books after yesterday's Bideford squid surprise, though I can’t get the damn smell off my hands. She’s fussy on the subject of cephalopods but, providing it’s straight from the boat and is accompanied by a bottle of muscadet, it tends to pass muster. I’ve packed the waste including the uncooked ink sacs and sent it special delivery to number ten. He can stick that up his 'waste not - want not' initiative. I see the lad's now banging on about our driving milk floats. Full marks to the woman from Pontefract & Castleford for dancing around Paxman again last night. An aggravating shrew she may be but the girl can weave and jab with the best of them.

The newspapers were correct and summer is no more. Whilst our saturated pheasant pecks at the mud, chaffinches chirp despairingly from their sheltered perch. I’ve taken to wearing a waxed cape and brimmed hat in the style of the man with no name. Persimmon’s news that they were cutting 2000 jobs was trumped today by Bovis and Redrow axing 40% of their workforce. It’ll be like the old days with everyone off to Germany looking for work. A week after their ‘everything’s sweetness and light’ guff, Savills finally come clean and admit the property market isn’t worth a candle as buyers and sellers continue their Mexican standoff. Suspect we’re all bored with the subject by now.

Monday, July 7

Childhood perils

I can just about recall snippets of life at St Andrew’s infants school at the age of five. It centres around a papier-mâché fort with lead soldiers, and pop-guns. Kids today are obviously much more advanced: not content with compulsory hanky-panky for five year olds, Jim Knight, the schools minister, wants to feature Othello and Desdemona having rough sex in order to ram home the message. Please... Shakespeare for infants? I was still trying to get the hang of shoe laces. There’s worse to come, the National Children’s Bureau has told nursery teachers and childminders that if they feed their toddlers a chicken biryani and one of the kids throws up, they’re to report junior to the relevant council authorities for racism. Yep, saying ‘Yuk’ because you don’t like strange food is an indictable offence. You couldn’t make it up.

Brian Sewell: wind-up merchant

Citing price differences between Lucian Freud and Louise Bourgeois, art dealer Iwan Wirth claims that women artists face prejudice and discrimination because their works sell for a fraction of male counterparts’. Prejudice? or simple truth laid bare by the realities of the market?The art market is not sexist, responds art critic Brian Sewell. The likes of Bridget Riley and Louise Bourgeois are of the second and third rank. There has never been a first-rank woman artist. Only men are capable of aesthetic greatness. Women make up 50 per cent or more of classes at art school, yet they fade away in their late 20s or 30s. Maybe it's something to do with bearing children, he ponders. Cue the rending of frocks and sharpening of claws.

Break out the ration cards

Plan meals in advance, avoid unnecessary purchases, don’t buy 2 for 1, store food properly… All sensible housekeeping tips of course, but appeals from the prat in the pantry who picks his nose and chews his finger nails are unlikely to be well received. Five minutes ago we were the fourth richest nation in the world, then suddenly - on his watch - it’s back to 50s austerity and dried eggs. His entourage are less than impressed with the PM’s style: en route to Japan’s G8 Nick Robinson complains about their detour in the Dallas bus; a couple of weeks ago it was Sky’s Boulton, uncomfortable with flying second class - in the sort of machine more suited to rock stars than a head of state. Damn it, McPlonker’s supposed to be fighting our corner, as well as being a cheerleader for the world’s oppressed. He hopes the opportunity to meet face to face with Putin's lad Medvedev will help ease current tensions, though I doubt an avaricious Russia - considered Britain’s third greatest threat - is a country that responds positively to wounded animals wearing a shabby suit.

Sunday, July 6

Men, lists and books

Being a creature of habit, of male compulsions, the most natural reaction to reading Rod Liddle’s burning is too good for them was to compile my own inventory of books I deem responsible for squandering valuable drinking time. As a literary student of pulp fiction who’ll consume most any tosh in preference to vegetating in front of Gary Lineker, this list has been greatly enhanced by a quest to ‘bag’ such titles our intellectual betters deem worthy. In much the same way that food from motorway service stations teaches us to recognise decent grub when we taste it, novels that ultimately prove more useful for wedging open windows or stabilising desks on uneven floors are never completely wasted. That said, life’s too short to afford second chances to Paulo Coelho and Ian McEwan. Similarly, I’d rather eat sautéed goat turds than read another McCall Smith; and in spite of the brilliance of Dubliners, am close to jumping ship on Ulysses and returning to Mike Hammer. Have given up on only two occasions: despite an attachment to Graham Greene's tales, the whiskey priest proved too much a pathetic bastard for me to stomach; and if I ever come across Faulkner’s Comson family again it’ll be with a Remington in my hands. Pulling teeth ain’t in it.

Saturday, July 5

Book for a rainy day

What determines an individual’s potential, the person or the environment in which they are raised? Is it the housing that makes the people, or visa versa. And, as WC Fields would have said, do chavs really deserve a break? Lynsey Hanley’s book, Estates, an intimate history, is a part-biographical look at the social mobility of council house residents. You’ve heard it all before, but because she features an estate of Blues supporters - the Wood Estate in Solihull, not a million miles from Gypsy Lane (adjacent to the M6), and as it has spookily similar chronology to mine, I was suckered into including it in this month’s parcel of reading material from Amazon. Anything I say is liable to portray me in bad light, so out of respect to the friends who’re still there I’ll restrict my comments for the author to (a) becoming pregnant (in order to?) and qualifying for a council house probably put paid to your mother’s future - but then you'd have never existed, and (b) all that effort, and you’ve made it as far as Tower Hamlets? Do yourself a favour, lose the chip - you still need to make the jump and move on. Estates gives a potted history of social housing in Britain but as a book it doesn’t really work. Good ‘wall’ metaphor though.

Sparrowhawk

Pesticides nearly did for them, but sparrowhawks - so named for their avian prey - now breed regularly around the Dartmoor area. One hunted here yesterday, eventually taking a great tit just feet away, outside the kitchen window. Fixing us with a suspicious eye, she pinned the prey to the deck and - wielding a beak as subtle as an old army jack knife, plucked at the colourful plumage before eviscerating her squirming victim’s breast. A sparrowhawk is surprisingly small, maybe the size of a blackbird/collared dove; and though we’d previously caught flashes of its attractive barred tail crashing at speed through the hedge, this was our first close-up. Little wonder the pheasant chicks failed to win through.

Friday, July 4

Two for a farthing

Stone Age man had sparrows for companions. Although fitted up for the murder of Cock Robin, the house sparrow - or spurgie as Mrs G. calls them, was also feted as a wanton bird, its eggs popular as an aphrodisiac.This custard-beaked juvenile is part of a troupe that feeds in the yard. Quite bashful, but more than capable of holding their own against rival tits and finches.

The wretched weather front arrived as though a slap to the weekend leaving the yard smelling of damp earth and rotting vegetation like a recently exhumed grave in an abandoned corner of the cemetery. (I’m reading Chandler again.) As it’s the fourth of July, and in the absence of a turkey, tonight’s dinner features a gumbo gallimaufry of land, sea and sky: a smoking roux. And I’m not on duty! All I have to do is to pour drinks and maintain some semblance of conversation.

Value judgement

Martin Johnson on the merits of equal pay for women when set against the reality of their market value.

Stuffing mouths with gold

Tax payers think public services throw good money after bad, says Anna Bawden, in today’s Guardian. Polls confirm, she says, that 82% of punters think our NHS largess has been wasted; still more think the service hasn’t actually improved, despite the additional £40bn investment; that the bulk of ‘their’ money has gone into doctors and nurses pockets, rather than patient care. Far be it for me to risk the enmity of GP golfing-buddies by commenting, but I would dare to repeat a truism I first heard from an old boy named Doc Laborde, he of Ocean Driller fame, in a letter he wrote to Odeco employees at the time of his retirement many years ago. Looking back, Laborde reiterated his belief that most of the company’s best decisions were made during the ‘wrong’ times, while those taken when things were comfortable, business good, interest rates low, credit easy and technology safe, proved less rewarding.

Thursday, July 3

The Black Craw

As black and shiny as an oleaginous sweep, the craw cuts a solitary figure - his dark, brooding presence gliding furtively amongst the limbs of the oak, before settling, hump-backed, atop a post in the yard.Whilst the name Black Crow infers more than colour, being ‘in the black’ during our current economic climate would, according to the Bank of England, be an enviable and increasing rare situation for both businesses and consumers alike. Not to worry, Darling insists we’re well place to ride it out; he does not expect us to go into a recession but, admits the rate of growth will be slower. What have they got him on?

Tuesday, July 1

Sweet tomatoes at the philanthropic café

Encouraged by the sun and on the Boss’s insistence we took what she refers to as a swick’s day out and drove across Dartmoor to that gypsy encampment on the banks of the Dart. There are worse places to find a drink, having something of the flavour of Brighton sans shops, or Kinsale without the restaurants. An alternative environment, a fleeting escape - one that reminds me of a 60s Bloxwich clothed in artsy tourist tat and buskers. I’ve learnt not to hope for too much on the grub stakes so tend to visit Tuesdays, planning lunch around a pint in whichever pub takes our fancy, followed by something to eat at the Catholic Church soup kitchen. Today’s venue was the Bull Inn on the High Street - possibly the shabbiest joint I’ve frequented since my last trip to the East Anglian herring capital. Nice enough guy behind the bar with a dubious taste in music, and - after that dodgy moment with an 18 wheel obstruction on the route in - a more than welcome pint. Unfortunately, it’s only when you stand up to leave and find your shirt stays glued to the back of the chair that you realise how grotty the place is. Thankfully, there's no place like a soup kitchen for assuaging an appetite: all home-made: by a coterie of Joan Hicksons with the complexion of uncooked pastry, who cook and bake so they can send lepers to Lourdes. Tables serviced by agreeable stewards dispensing meatloaf and crab tarts, pasties of solid disposition, and first class salad which had to come from someone’s allotment. Best tomatoes I’ve tasted this year. Finished with gooseberry meringue, washed down by elderberry cordial.