Saturday, February 28

The high life

If you’re not careful, in the same manner people blank the theatres and galleries of London when living above the store, you can too easily forget to venture out across the moor on days like this. Whilst still February, providing you’re willing to traverse a bog or two, disregard the stench of an occasional dead sheep - and climb high enough, you can lie back on the springy upland turf and watch as the clouds infect a dazzling blue sky. There are worse places to take your hangover and the newspaper’s sports section on a sunny Saturday morning. With just the odd red cagoule in the valley below to catch your eye and no other soul in sight, you can look out across the county for as far as it takes the horizon to mist over.

Friday, February 27

Widecombe Fair

Tom Pearce, Tom Pearce, lend me your grey mare,
All along, down along, out along, lee,
For I want for to go to Widecombe Fair,
With Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney,
Peter Davy, Dan'l Whiddon, Harry Hawke,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all.


Tom Cobley hails from nearby Spreyton, the odd hill and a couple of villages away; home of my favourite garage, and Camra’s 2009 runner up for national Pub of the Year – The Tom Cobley Tavern. Having already won the title in 2006, this 16th century hostelry attracts visitors from all over the country and boasts of serving 22 ales at any one time. It really is a paradise for beer drinkers, thanks in part to its management and staff. The landlord, Roger, seemingly knows all of my neighbours – more than enough reason for me to keep it buttoned when drinking here. Today’s clientele included yet more Brummies (everyone I met in Torquay seemed to be a Villa or Wolves supporter). Spoiled for choice I settled for Wizard, and very good it was. The steak and kidney pie turned out to be a blast from the past and could have inflicted serious injury if I’d have dropped it on my foot.

Thursday, February 26

Brùra

Am still working my way through the tuck box our recent guests were kind enough to leave behind. Having consumed the bottle of Reims’s finest with my smoked salmon bagels, I’ve moved on to the Single Malt Clynelish. I have a soft spot for this particular whisky as it invokes memories of past golfing expeditions to Brora and those sessions at The Royal Marine Hotel. Clynelish is not quite as in-your-face as some of the coastal whiskies, and more interesting than my old favourites from Speyside. Dry, fruity and light on the peat, with a touch of seaweed and candle wax. A long way from that stuff the distillery boys used to siphon off for us in the old days. And a perfect accompaniment to Capaldi’s ice cream.

Pigs and troughs

Sitting on a harbour wall reading the match reports, it would have been difficult not to overhear the bunch of grannies that were standing by, exchanging pleasantries and catching up on the news. One of them was ruminating as to whether she could afford something nice for the old man’s tea, and speculating how easy it would be to spend Fred Goodwin’s pension. Like most of the population I fail to understand why the lad’s not languishing in Barlinnie.

Fresh fish

Roll on the summer. I’ve been sorely tempted to break out the barbeque and grill myself a kebab. Our trend towards dining out more infrequently received further encouragement this week after some dire bream in a Torquay fish restaurant. Like as not, for every Rick Stein there are forty nine losers in dirty overalls frying last week’s produce. Mrs G. acquired a couple of whole haddock in Brixham yesterday and made free with her filleting knife: no contest. I’m always suspicious of ‘fresh fish’ and, despite the bright eyes and glossy coat, reserve my judgement for the plate. These guys provenance was the Bristol Channel. Instead of waiting for the boats to circumvent the peninsula, the fish is landed on the north coast in Newquay and driven post-haste to Brixham. At least that’s the fishmonger’s story, and they did taste good.

Wednesday, February 25

Geno

Great value show at Torquay’s Princess Theatre. Geno Washington might not be the man he was in ’67 (who of us is?), but the lad’s still a Hand Clappin' Foot Stompin' Funky-Butt kind of a guy. And the two-guitar, keyboard, drums and twin-sax Ram Jam Band ain’t too shabby either.PP Arnold keeps belting them out; she finished, inevitably, with ‘First Cut is the Deepest’. Jimmy James (he of the Vagabonds) was a revelation. The end set which included all five vocalists was a perfect finale.

Good crowd of aging soul enthusiasts from the 60s who, unfortunately for me, included a couple of bag-ladies in adjacent seats. They turned up totally wasted but still insisted on finishing their bottle of Bailey’s and smoking a pack of Capstan Full Strength on the steps of the theatre. Smelling worse than two wet Labradors who'd been dancing in a field of cowpats, they endeavoured to fart, burp and scream their way through the entire evening.

Sunday, February 22

Jesuits know their stuff

Lust, gluttony and sloth... Sounds about right.

Another one bites the dust

Driving home from the city yesterday I noticed another of our idyllic local hostelries has replaced its ‘Under new management’ sign (been there for nearly two years) with a ‘Lease for sale’ promotion. Unless they catered to a young crowd with lots of disposable income, publican friends in London were already struggling, back in the good years. Old East Anglia haunts have long expired, as have the more traditional bars in numerous familiar locations around the country. Health issues, excessive working hours, drink driving and the cost of a pint has long been strangling the trade; and whilst an overall reduction of alcohol may be a good thing, you miss them when they’ve gone. These days two-thirds of booze is reputed to be dispensed by supermarkets (and politicians of every stripe are lobbying for a rate adjustment in the hope of raising more tax). Unfortunately, a blanket increase would only wipe out yet more of the remaining pubs. Latest research indicates that, as an English male, my prospects are significantly better than those two ladies who were making free with my supplies last weekend.

Friday, February 20

The good old days

Blighton clock tower circa 1909 (photo from the Library of Congress). Have supped a few, in Brighton's bars. Aunt Gudgeon (Father’s sister) celebrates her 100th birthday this weekend, in Sidcup. Born into Edwardian London, a world of H.G. Wells, Arnold Bennett, Joseph Conrad, E.M. Forster and P.G. Wodehouse, she’s one of the few remaining family members of her generation. In 1909, when Aunt was born, a manual worker earned 23 shillings a week, with a pint of beer costing two shillings. If you look at that pint of Stella in the context its percentage of Granddad’s wages, it’s no wonder the old boy didn’t drink – particularly with a wife and ten kids to support. A school-frock for one or other of his eight daughters cost 2s 8d – which, if you’ve been to Primark recently, isn’t too far off the mark. As long as people gave the Titanic a wide berth, life must have seemed much of the same as now: Manchester United won the FA Cup, beating Bristol City; London had just hosted the Olympics; unemployment stood at 7.7% of the working population; anarchists/terrorists ran riot, reinforcing the populace's immigrant orientated xenophobia, especially as regards anti-Semitism. Think of all those things Aunt had to look forward to: two world wars, and more boom and busts than McPlonker could have dreamt of. Yet life went on regardless.

Wednesday, February 18

A truculent haggis

I know the lad’s an old duffer but I kind of like him (Irwin Stelzer), have met countless aging American ‘gentlemen’ who are not dissimilar in upbringing or outlook. Previously pilloried as Murdoch’s mouthpiece, I think the guy has a valid take on many things and is reasonably sound on the economy. His article about Brown in today’s Telegraph is worth reading if only for how he alludes to the way they see McPlonker across the pond. One line (amongst some beauts) stands out: we Americans learnt that the Britain of Gordon Brown is not the ally we would want at our backs in a bar-room brawl. A tad cruel, perhaps - particularly as the Yanks tend to turn up well after the game's kicked off - but (for me) it remains the ultimate putdown.

A day in the life of...

Some mornings you experience a compelling need to expunge that cow-pat-like taste which lingers in the air and at the back of your tongue; take off to the coast and purge yourself amongst the salty savouriness of the ocean. There are worse things in life than sitting on a rock for a couple of hours, pasty in hand - watching as surfers ply their trade and cormorants dive for sardines, before ambling along the rugged Cornish cliff-tops in search of a suitable hostelry and ruining yet another tooth with a bag of pork scratchings.

Monday, February 16

On the up

What a turnaround over the weekend. Up to and including Saturday it was the usual drizzle in the mud; since then we’ve been overdosing on vitamin D. The lambs have hatched and are bouncing around outside the office window; you’d think it was spring. Unfortunately, our guests from the Smoke had the best of the drizzle and less of the sun. Given the nature of the company, this led to the usual bouts of excessive drinking, bracing walks, and mountains of anchovy-flavoured beef and curried sheep. I’m now putting my feet up for a day or two. Haven’t posted much recently as I’ve also fallen behind with my poetry studies and have to make up lost ground before Saturday’s class and next week’s submissions. Must admit to becoming a little bogged down with those pesky iambic pentameters and whether or not I should be writing in trochee, dactyl or anapaest. Felt more at home when I was penning Lurcio-like odes for the lavatory walls. Still, onwards and upwards...

Monday nights, and the second semi-finals of University Challenge - Corpus Christi College Oxford do battle against St John's. It’s become personal following the trashing of Exeter; and after beating Trimble to the buzzer on no less than six occasions during the quarter finals, Mrs G. and I fancy our chances. Since the acquisition of a flat screen I’ve watched more programmes than usual (footy in high-def is brilliant), and – having spent a fair amount of time south of the river amongst our African cousins - was looking forward to Moses Jones: a rare opportunity for the BBC to open a window into the world of the tens of thousands of immigrants who live amongst us (recognised the minicab office straight off). Unfortunately, the BBC have managed to spin an unbelievably stereotypical piece of crap, even losing that half-decent sound track from the first episode.

Friday, February 13

A declining institution

The number of couples getting married has fallen to the level of Victorian times, when marriage tended to be favoured by wealthier people, and the poor lived in sin. Likewise today: seems the increased cost of a marriage ceremony (circa £20k) puts many off; though general opinion down at the Dog & Duck appears to be men’s fear of being fleeced. Am surprised, what with the more conservative attitudes of most immigrant communities, that tying the knot hasn’t returned to fashion. There’s no secret to a successful long term relationship: you do as she tells you - preferably, in double quick time.

Monday, February 9

The good news

Evans-Pilchard’s article in yesterday’s Telegraph provides more cheer. Whilst the popular assumption seems to be that everyone’s monthly tracker mortgage is now running at little more than thrupence ha’penny, and that we’ve seen off the credit crisis (for no other reason than Sky News presenters have stopped jumping out of windows), the real cost of finance continues to climb. And I’m sorry, but I just can’t see the yellow hordes queuing to buy our bonds. Japanese exports fell 35% during December, German orders are down 25% year on year, and Eastern Europe is a nightmare. Haven’t a clue what our figures are running at (it’s ominous quiet), however, given that UK exports next to nothing these days we’re unlikely to be generating truck-loads of foreign currency to add to our negligible reserves. I suppose the good news is that most of our personal loans are in Sterling rather than Swiss Francs, and that – unlike the poor German taxpayers – we don’t have to pick up the tab for the rest of Europe. Those complaining about poor interest rates on their savings only have a short time to wait, because when the tide turns and it switches to raging inflation, interest rates (and mortgages) will probably be running at 15%.

Saturday, February 7

Breaking out

Took me a while, but I managed to dig us out and drive to town for supplies. The snow wasn’t really a problem - it’s the inch of ice which lies underneath. After attempting four runs at the slope that runs from the barn to the farm track, I had to fashion a couple of parallel fifty yard ruts in the ice with my trusty spade before the vehicle could make it up and over the top. Exhausted, was all I could do to make for the Dog & Duck for a livener. The good news is I can now have milk in my tea, and there’ll be dinner this evening; the bad news is my having to cook. Duck and carrots again.

Friday, February 6

Feeding the birds

It’s not that cold but we are well and truly snowbound. At the minimum you need a 4-wheel-drive vehicle; there’s no way my motor could take the hills, let alone make the end of our track. Shank’s pony or nothing, I guess; though following yesterday afternoon's six-mile trek across the moor for one of Pete's pasties and a newspaper, there's an understandable reluctance to venture outside again. The barn appears connected to the encircling woods by arteries of paw trails from assorted nocturnal critters. Needless to say there are also flocks of the usual feathered suspects, and it’s just as well I bought another 20kg bag of budgie seed. One of the collared doves has just been totalled by a supercharged sparrow hawk; whilst a buzzard sits watching me from top of a mole hill, daring the mouldywarps to appear. Two-hundred-odd schmucks had to be rescued from the A380 last night after becoming trapped in their vehicles for several hours; even our usual A386 was closed. Still, from a purely aesthetic point of view, it beats the pants off those Atlantic gales and horizontal rain storms.

Wednesday, February 4

Rich, dark and complex

I’m referring of course to my lunchtime bottle of Fuller’s London Porter, and most definitely not Ms Thatcher’s much maligned rag doll. Who’d have thought an aside to your colleagues about Andy Murray’s hairstyle would cause such a rumpus. If it was Joe Brand that stirred the shit, then shame on you. For no other reason than I would have to listen to the gruesome Christine Bleakley, I’m as likely to watch the One show as I would be to drive a Rover 75, wear pyjamas, or share a Sweetheart Stout with Gordon McPlonker.

Tuesday, February 3

Lots of white stuff

As you can see from back of the Ponderosa, it isn’t too bad out there - although you’d think this was the first time some of us had actually seen snow: schools closed, military helicopters subbing for ambulances, hospitals closed... That said, it’s been some time since we saw quite so much of the white stuff, and a tornado did appear off the coast this morning. In the old days punters had winter tyres; now they’re an unreasonable expense. And gritters tend to concentrate on the main carriageways; we get the odd bag of salt left at the side of the road, on the top of steep inclines. Our local NHS say they’ve been treating a number of ‘grown’ men who were injured tobogganing; dwarfs, presumably, have to treat themselves.

Monday, February 2

Pittsburgh again

Pittsburgh lifting Super Bowl XLIII with seconds to spare sounds a little like the old days. I followed the Oilers during their Bum Phillips years, when Houston’s NFL first pick of the draft was a guy named Earl Campbell, the Tyler Rose; Dan Pastorini – he with the body armour - was our quarterback. Steelers were always the bogey team, and I suspect the two back-to-back AFC championship losses to Pittsburgh cost Phillips his job.

Sunday, February 1

Sundays

Boy, it’s cold out there. This morning’s trek within the confines of local Forestry Commission land (my attempt to work up a pre-lunch thirst) was an ideal foil for the wind chill factor; the skin from my hand is still grafted to Ike Godsey’s diesel pump. The authorities had nailed a couple of gruesome photograph to the forest entrance as a reminder of the damage done by visiting townies (moi, criticizing townies - you have to chuckle); more specifically, their dogs: carnage amongst the roe deer and sheep.Nice walk though. Now the shotguns have been retired the pheasants are back in numbers. Rather fortuitously, I’ve saved a bottle of our recession-proof premier cru burgundy for today’s game casserole (pheasant, mallard, pigeon and venison). The pheasant must have been despatched at point blank range, Mrs G. having extracted nine shot from its larboard side.

The fragrant gale

To the rear of the yard stands a line of oak, ash and elm that reach up to sixty feet in height and which this morning are dancing around like a troupe of George Mitchell’s wide-eyed hand-waving minstrels. Double glazing does little to deflect to breeze; and the Siberian chill sneaking under that half-inch gap at the bottom of the door comes scented with eau de Red Ruby. Yet despite an inch or two of standing water and the Hammer Film Productions lighting, life on the Ponderosa ain’t too shabby. I’m somewhat sanguine about our immediate prospects, knowing it gets a lot worse before spring. I think the third week in March is about the time it reaches the height of my “quick, give me a drink before I cut my throat” period. Providing we go long on heating oil and crates of Mackeson I can usually tough it out; even if, as has been suggested, this will be our worst winter for 15 years.