Wednesday, December 31

Forgotten frosty mornings of the past

You have no idea of how cold it feels outside, the wind chill factor at dawn this morning brought frozen tears to my eyes.

Looking back on 2008, an ever-present chill seems to have been abroad in the world. I’ll refrain from shouting ‘good riddance and bring on the New Year’, as 2009 is likely to be even worse for many. But then isn’t that the way, and still the world goes on. In ten years time we’ll doubtless be crying about something else. As with Sunny Jim, McPlonker will be just a distant memory that causes us to shake our head and stifle a wry chuckle. It must be part of the human condition, our programming, that thing which seemingly allows us to wipe all the negative recollections from our hard drive, to only recall the positive and fun parts, to always see the past in good light.

An annual treat at this time of year remains a bottle of Springbank single malt, something that’s become progressively harder to locate. Not being chill-filtered, the whisky develops a slight haze when exposed to low temperatures, and – from the state of the cloudy bottle now sitting on the shelf in my office – allows me to deduce that I’m little warmer inside or outside of the barn.

Monday, December 29

PP Arnold

Initial booking for the new year... Geno Washington and PP Arnold, in concert locally. The last time I saw Washington was in Bloxwich, in ’67. PP Arnold I haven’t previously seen live, but, as the girl responsible for that definitive recording of Cat Steven’s ‘First Cut Is The Deepest’ (Alexandra Burke - and Duffy - eat your heart out), and for her iconic roll in the surf with The Small Faces, she has to be worth a look.

Sales

That’s definitely the last of our goose broth. Like it or not - and as it’s my turn to cook - we’ll be dining on sweet & sour pork tonight (rare breed, naturally). I’m spicing it up with some leftover chipolatas (it is still Christmas). Don’t go near town: I’ve just returned from a little business I had to take care of in Exeter: it took forty minutes just to reach the car park, and that was full – I was reduced to feeding meters. The high street is bedlam. I don’t want to hear one more word from our retailers about how tough it is out there. If you can’t sell to shoulder to shoulder punters, seemingly weighed down by the money in their pockets, you don’t deserve to be in business. And yes I accept that Exeter is almost exclusively employed at the taxpayers’ expense, but at least the money is circulating.

-isms and boredom

Because most people are bored senseless from being cooped up over Christmas, yet still feel the need to say something as a means of fulfilling an obligation, newspapers and the blogosphere are stuffed with regurgitated articles about very little – Toby Harnden’s response to a Michelle Obama’s email being a case in point. The sad thing is that I’m reading these articles instead of venturing outside. A fieldfare and other assorted thrushes have returned to the yard, and I should be out with the camera instead of parking my bum on a radiator and reaching for the binoculars. Those Americanisms that appear to irritate Harnden seem harmless enough to me, and appear more an illustration of the tendency to politeness that’s so prevalent across the pond. Along with the mini-library of books that Mrs G. gave to me this Christmas, there’s a real anorak of a publication entitled ‘Damp Squid’, by Jeremy Butterfield. It pretends to a wealth of fascinating facts and figures across the whole spectrum of English – from vocabulary size and word origins to spelling and meaning, from word groupings and idiomatic phrases to grammar and usage. If Americanisms are not your sort of thing you should be warned that the Oxford Corpus of global texts, on which such publications as the Oxford Dictionary of English are based, is constructed from roughly 1% each of Caribbean and South African patter, 2% each New Zealand and Indian, 3% East Asian, 4% Canadian, 5% Australian, 6% Irish, 26% British, and 50% from the US. ‘Have a nice day’, it seems, is here to stay.

Redundant pen knife... as I usually write with pencils, she's treated me to a new ‘electric’ sharpener. In a five minute fit of boredom I reduced a whole box of Staedtlers to lead coated wood shavings.

Saturday, December 27

A return to porridge

I have to admit to becoming bored by goose, and there’s only so much piccalilli and pickled red cabbage you can eat. Those two emergency rump steaks hidden away at the back of the fridge are starting to look very tempting. With a virtual absence of news these last few days have felt like a holiday. As with cold goose, regurgitated end-of-the-world stories weigh heavily on a body. At least the Blues are back to winning ways. I was toying with the idea of putting on my walking boots and tramping across the moor, but the wind-chill factor serves as a cruel reminder the sunshine’s just another sneaky ruse adopted by winter to disguise itself. It’s nearly half past eleven and the vehicle’s still encrusted with frost.

Friday, December 26

Feet up

Boxing Day, and everyone’s out blowing the cobwebs away. Didn’t see the hunt, despite an estimated 250k people out there defying the ban; however, it does sounds like a bad day in southern Afghanistan: guns to the right, left and centre. Most of the rest of the country seems to be queuing at the sales... sad people.

Thursday, December 25

Merry Christmas

It’s a pleasant day outside; the yard a noisy mix of blackbirds, wrens, marsh tits, and woodpeckers chiselling away at the limbs of an oak. There’s a mixed flock of redwings and strikingly colourful blue-grey headed fieldfares (the birds of winter) feeding off hawthorn berries.

...flocking fieldfares, speckled like the thrush,
Picking the red haw from the sweeing bush
That come and go on winters chilling wing
And seem to share no sympathy with Spring.
(John Clare: Shepherd’s Calendar)


Our neighbour’s wood-burning stove reminds us we’re not alone and that the track will soon be a procession of pickups and four wheel drive vehicles. I must try harder to limit my intake at this morning’s get together, though you’re reluctant to offend by not drinking your fair share of good cheer.

Wednesday, December 24

Another pub bites the dust

Well, that’s my last pint in The George. It was the first place I went for a drink after moving here. Just as everyone was settling in at the bar last night the place caught fire and burned down around their ears. Drove across to have a look this morning. An historic inn which had been on the go since 1450; hundreds of years of history reduced to a pile of rubble. Must have been quite a party as there were 100 firemen and 20 appliances (a fair number of the buildings in the village are also thatched).

Update: All that's left...

Tuesday, December 23

Last orders at the Café

Another sad day, in that after 143 years, the Café Royal - a London institution frequented by Winston Churchill and Oscar Wilde - has closed its doors. Must admit, we’ve had one or two enjoyable sessions there over the years.

Meanwhile, the carnage on our high street continues – with most stores offering a mandatory 50%-off to entice shoppers inside. Some are now advertising another 15% reduction from the remaining 50%! Even middle-class icon Boden is discounting 60%. Canny shoppers appreciate this is pure horse shit however, as discounted items are more than likely just left-over crap, or bought in junk; the good stuff is probably still at its original price. I wonder if Harrods have a problem selling their popular £15 loaf? Unfortunately, some stores are said to be running so short of cash they will have difficulty paying staff this month’s wages (not to mention the rent or ordering new stock). The Japanese are confronting their difficulties by smashing crockery against the nearest wall. And who saw last night’s Panorama? Drive by shooting - it would be letting Goodwin off lightly.

As if things weren’t grim enough, I heard from the good lady of an old drinking buddy in Baton Rouge yesterday: the lad’s been diagnosed with prostate cancer and goes under the knife in a couple of weeks time. It never rains, eh?

Monday, December 22

It’s contagious

Yours truly is in the crap again, having transferred my cold to Mrs G. Screwing with her Christmas could mean that (a) I won’t get fed, and (b) it’ll be weeks before hearing an end to it. As it was, I’d only just managed to get my hands on a goose, securing the last in the butcher’s window. The fact that it’s the size of an ostrich should prove interesting - we’ll probably be eating goose pie/cassoulet/curry/hash through January. Still, with all this talk of recession I should probably get used to eating leftovers. As our neighbour’s also stopped by with more pheasants from his weekend shoot we’re unlikely to be short on protein. And just to prove you can’t keep a good woman down, Mrs G. is out back baking a fresh batch of cantucci.

Nagging wife required for RBS?

Several women who have made it to the top in City law and accountancy firms are being considered by the Government as possible additions to the boards of nationalised banks such as RBS, Lloyds and HBOS. The principal requirement appears to be that they display a similar disposition to the late Les Dawson’s fictitional mother-in-law.

Saturday, December 20

Another pit stop

If it's true what they said in this week’s newspapers – that sneezing is a reaction to thinking about sex – then I must be a horny little bugger. All I wanted to do this morning was curl up on the sofa with my packet of Lemsip and to listen to the footy. Unfortunately, needs must: too many errands to run. And would you believe it, a piece of discarded metal punctured both front and rear nearside tyres - that’s seven I’ve replaced in 14 months. I’ve started buying Korean jobs as they’re 30-40 quid cheaper than the usual premium brands. Crawling about in the mud under the motor, trying to manoeuvre a jack into position, was not the sort of tonic I was looking for.

Thursday, December 18

New box

Given the limited amount of telly we watch, our trusty 20” Sony has proved more than adequate, and for more years than I care to remember. Imagine the shock, therefore, of my installing a 37” widescreen high-definition job alongside the fireplace (joint family Christmas present). I know, I know: 37” is nothing these days; but it’s still something of a culture shock - the room looks like a sports bar. I’ve had to fork out for a HD satellite box and employ someone to nail a dish onto the side of the barn. But what pictures... I can see why our more mature presenters are concerned.

Wednesday, December 17

The lurgy

It’s the same most every year: I enter Christmas season full of good cheer, only to be frustrated by some scabby-faced individual coughing their germs over me, and with inevitable results. I suppose it gives me an excuse to drink hot toddies. I’ve pinned the blame on that bank clerk who served me last Friday - she with the dyed blonde hair and Magnum P.I. moustache; the one who’d dribbled breakfast down the lapels of her uniform.

Tuesday, December 16

Passing the buck

Gossip amongst some media hacks seems to be that the government may go for an early election - perhaps as soon as February. It sounds unlikely: can you imagine disillusioned Labour supporters queuing mid-winter for the chance to (re)elect McPlonker. However, anything he currently does has to factor in an election (keep the punters sweet), and when the shit really does his the fan in the new year, the government is going to have to make serious choices - maybe pursue a slightly different economic strategy that involves a lot more people (including Labour supporters) losing their jobs, homes and savings. Brown appreciates there is something to what Peer Steinbrück said recently, and in the Tory approach to limiting public sector debt. He knows there could be difficulties selling gilts to finance this debt, and interest rates may well end up being reversed in order to rescue the pound. If he’s had the election Brown can quite rightly say (a) you put me here, don’t knock it, or (b) you dumped me, when I could have saved you. Either way he’ll see an election as a ‘get out of jail’ card.

Monday, December 15

Time flies

It’s two years today since we emigrated from South London Mansions and moved into the barn. At the time the FTSE 100 was around 6,200, £1=$1.96, and we won’t mention house prices. Life here seems to consist of rain, floods and storms - and there are times when you wonder why we left the smoke. Let’s see, could it have been anything to do with the hassle of living alongside those eight million other residents in the city; perhaps it was the choking, polluted air; or our being woken by drunks exiting neighbourhood pubs at 24:00 each evening, the neighbours that insisted on arriving home and slamming their cab doors at 01:30, our being reawakened at 04:30 by incoming aircraft en route to Heathrow, the first of the trains at 05:30, or maybe it was the guy next door who ran his motor cycle outside my bedroom window for ten minutes every morning at 06:30 in order to warm up the engine? And we lived on a quiet street. Once the commuters got started and the school run began, it really livened up. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of things I miss - not least the 25 years worth of friends, however – broken legs aside – there are significant health benefits to living amongst the countryside.

Saturday, December 13

Low expectations

It’s not quite Christmas but Nat King Cole carols are already being broadcast throughout the barn. The Boss has completed our greetings cards and finished ordering the last of her gifts over the internet. I was worried the white-van-man wouldn’t make it here, such was the level of subsidence to the track. However, dutiful landlord dusted off his JCB and I was able to make for the Dog & Duck where, thankfully, the beer is still priced in Sterling. As it is we’re hardly into winter and they’ve turned up the faucets. Punters have had to be rescued from their vehicles, with areas of Devon once again flooded. ‘Never rains but it pours’ as they say. Andy Bond, the Asda boss, believes this recession will breed a new brand of UK consumer focused on thrift and a return to ‘traditional values’ and which will survive for half a century. We’ll apparently develop a World War II rationing mentality, with a shift from frivolous to frugal, where ‘frugal’ is cool. Guess it means we should expect jumpers, socks and handkerchiefs for Christmas presents.

Tuesday, December 9

Christmas tree inflation

You and me both, Boris... Mrs G. insisted on one of those blue Scandinavian trees whose needles stay put until January (grown in a field not more than a mile away), and refused to settle for anything less than eight foot in height. Accordingly, and despite my haggling, I’m now out of pocket some £40. Forty quid! Would you Adam and Eve it? It’s already been clad in 100m of John Lewis’s flashy lights and enough candy hooks to keep an average NHS dentist in new-year bonus cheques. Twelve months ago the same tree cost £25: so much for this stagflation crap.

Leeching off the public purse

I don’t usually comment on this sort of thing, but it’s hard for me to ignore today’s Times column by Rachel Sylvester. Having declined to sire children myself, I can understand why people become upset at having to meet exorbitant tax demands in order to maintain and educate other people’s fancies. That said, there’s an army of poor kids out there who are dealt the short straw – not least those of the Karen Matthews of the world - and I’ve no objection to lending a helping hand. What bugs me is having to bankroll initiatives like Sure Start, and watching well-heeled establishment types such as Sylvester take the piss by using Hackney social services as her childminder when she should be putting a hand in her pocket and paying for a nanny.

Divination

A crash as historic as the end of communism, presaging a fairer, less divisive economic model? Peston is arguably our (the BBC's) most prominent economic commentator, and – if I might be so bold - a prick of the first order. He’d be dangerous if he wasn’t so full of crap. This is just the sort of rubbish that filled the newspapers back in ’89, towards the end of MT’s reign. Yes, we all share the blame, some more so than others; and bankers have done little to enhance their reputations; but it was an accident waiting happen, one that was constructed and supported by its principal architect and cheerleader, Gordon McPlonker. Whatever the merits of current public spending plans, we still have to make something that somebody else wants to buy. Grief, you’d think we’d never seen a recession before. Thank your lucky stars you’re not at university just now and expecting to have a career when you graduate. You could be repeating the experiences of those poor schmucks who were born between 1961-64 - the ones that left school around 1980, that struggled through the two recessions of the early 80s and 90s. Any of the 19% that never managed to find employment (the first generation to be hit by the growth of flexible labour markets and the decline in manufacturing); the ones who had to settle for part time work; whose periods of employment were more likely to be measured in months, rather than years. Fairer, less divisive? Dream on.

Grumpy detectives

Like most, I’ve been taken up this last couple of weeks with Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallender – something of a cross between Morse and Rebus, but more melancholy (if that’s possible). Is this the lot of men of a certain age? Mrs G. says we all become boring when we reach 40, turning into miserable bastards at 50. It has been fascinating, albeit confusing at times, to be running the two adaptations alongside each other. I was initially drawn to Branagh’s character, but that ugly sort, Krister Henriksson, is proving a winner. A couple of comments on the series: the adaptations try too hard, in packing a single TV episode with enough material to fill an Alex Cross film; I’d forgotten how boring G-Plan furniture was; the Swedes seem even more indifferent to their police that we do; you wouldn’t go within a hundred miles of a Swedish woman – what aggravating pains-in-the-butt they’re made to appear.

Monday, December 8

Crisp mornings

The early morning walk for a newspaper can be a chilly affair. Sometimes it doesn’t seem worth the effort, given the depressing stuff they print. Then again, there are worse places to wake up.

Ponies seem to be most everywhere on the moor, but whereas, years ago, there were reputed to be tens of thousands, numbers are now down to +/- 3,000. Grazing restrictions limit the size of the herds, and farmers probably find it makes more sense to use the land for sheep. Regretfully, the economic downturn means fewer ponies are being purchased, and last week’s Tavistock sales saw them knocked down to as low as ten guineas, the minimum permissible price. A significant percentage didn’t sell and will presumably be heading to the abattoir. I assume the horse meat trade is now defunct, given the restrictions on live animal transport; and that - unlike our continental cousins – a local market has yet to be cultivated. My Veronese dentist tells me you can substitute beef for horse meat when cooking a classic Pastissada, but that it’s a poor substitute.

Thursday, December 4

Shock windfall

What a nice chap the tax man is. Just as the cupboard was looking a tad bare, in rides HM Revenue & Customs with a Yuletide bonus. It’s pathetic how grateful you become when someone returns a fraction of the cash they’d already lifted from your pocket. One of these days I’m going to meet this mythical ‘hard-working family’ that McPlonker insists on giving my beer money to. Little Jimmy can go whistle for his new Christmas Nintendo as far as I’m concerned. Having legged it into town to spend my rebate before someone asks for it back, I made the mistake of visiting M&S, to stock up on woollen underwear. Unfortunately, today was one of the store’s bonanza 20%-off sales and the queue at the till was about 60 deep. Needless to say the socks were made to wait for another day. It is obvious there’s still a lot of money out there and that people are keen enough to spend it: always providing, that is, punters believe they are getting a bargain. People might not be buying cars or flat-screen TVs, but they can’t seem to get enough cardigans or slippers. M&S couldn’t restock the shelves fast enough.

Still alive

I’ve been remiss in posting but have been kind of busy. Active in the sense of being just about everywhere but near a keyboard – dashing around the streets of Totnes, Crediton, Exeter, Barnstaple... Have covered more miles than a rural bus driver this past week. It’s grim out there, in every sense of the word; Dartmoor a perpetually changing scene of freezing fog and waves of stinging icy rain. The cattle seem to take it in their stride, but trigger and the rest of the nags look totally disenchanted. Our first Christmas staff lunch - at a cafe, in Totnes: turkey, sage & onion stuffing and chipolata Panini. Don’t knock it, when you’re wet and cold you’ll eat most anything. At least I don’t have to worry about paying the mortgage any more: the good old taxpayer will foot the bill. Makes you wonder why everyone spent these past ten years paying for unemployment protection, and saving their pennies for a rainy day. Damn it, if only I wasn’t renting. There’s not a lot I can say about our ongoing slow motion train-wreck of an economy that isn’t already being articulated in the Dog & Duck, with a visceral hatred of everything one-eyed.