Tuesday, June 30

Talk to the trees

I’ve had to grudgingly concede you can’t have everything; been reminded that life remains a compromise. We had a ball over the weekend, in amongst a circle of friends that go back some thirty-odd years. It’s the one thing you can’t take with you. Like the city’s galleries and theatres, we don’t always appreciate them ’til they’re gone. But London itself! The balance of what constitutes an acceptable form of life switched around five years ago, and it’s primarily a numbers thing – too many bodies. We were out on Friday night and the police sirens only served to heighten the grim ambient traffic noise, with files of inbound aircraft grumbling their way towards Heathrow and Docklands. I know... it’s hardly Mexico City, but it isn’t exactly fun. The doors of old stomping grounds are now defended by a phalanx of dinner-suited bruisers. Young guys with too much booze roll around the floor, egged on by shrieking mini-skirted companions for whom cellulite most probably means a small mobile phone. We took refuge for a while in Greenwich Park. The place is in immaculate condition and was surprisingly empty – circling helicopters aside, pleasantly quiet. An elderly Indian gent was resting on a bench and I couldn’t fail but to recognise the face of an exile: that beseeching look of someone desperate for conversation. He’ll learn. Whilst suspecting they’re a little left-of-centre, I find our resident pigeons a good sounding board.

Monday, June 29

London

What a weekend! It was our first return to South London Mansions since leaving the Metropolis, in December ’06. Friday night over Blackheath was a real blast from the past; too much lager and the inevitable late night curry. Whilst our old life is a mere five minutes past, it feels like an age. And though I’m now grateful to have returned to the barn, a weekend in town seemed hardly sufficient. The principal reason for our visit was to attend our old friends’ golden wedding-anniversary. Four Weddings and a Funeral writ large – a packed marquee and England at play. Thankfully, the couple with the guitar were missing. Despite uncomfortably high temperatures and a thunder storm, everyone appeared to have a whale of a time – suckling pigs left, right and centre. Day three was almost a repeat session, out in West Wickham, amongst the usual suspects. With Biggin Hill’s International Air Fair at full swing we were treated to an afternoon of the Red Arrows’ aerobatics. It was our third barbeque of the weekend (if you include Saturday’s lunch at the Turkish restaurant, Levante, in Lewisham – marinated and charcoal-grilled middle neck of lamb). I spent the afternoon drinking with an old partner-in-crime from Australia, who I hadn’t seen in 20 years. Visited the guys at my old office, and was dragged around various West End stores by Mrs G. All in all, it occasioned eleven local train journeys and a considerable amount of walking.

Wednesday, June 24

Invisibility

Things have quietened down since the Hungarians departed. It was a week of excitable little blonde people (children) anxious to impress their respective papas by climbing over and across everything. Quite why the Ponderosa has become a venue for tourists from Budapest remains a mystery, but – like the German and Dutch visitors – they seem nice people. Half the world and his granny appear determined to visit the countryside – though not our ethnic minorities, apparently. Doubtless we’re at fault in some way. Perhaps it’s the language barrier or an aversion to our national flag. Work on the farm continues in earnest with tractors and the JCB droning on in the background – haymaking and ditches. Sheep come and go. Rabbits emerge from the hedge and feed in the yard seemingly unconcerned by my presence. I’ve become invisible at last. The weather is beautiful and our barbeque remains in continuous service. As this is the season, almost every dish is served with fresh broad beans dressed in exotic oils.

Monday, June 22

The vampire suite

The numbers of swifts are declining, so the story goes, because we’re tarting up our homes. They most always nest in buildings, and home-owners have been bricking, plastering or tiling over the birds’ traditional access holes. We have a number of swifts in the area, though they’re greatly outnumbered by swallows and house martins. Here at the barn there are plenty of access points, and whilst we haven’t attracted any Skeer Devils (as they’re locally known), the guest bedroom has acquired a family of bats. They are proving to be noisy critters, are somewhat messy, and should prove an interesting talking point for any future visitors. Talking of bats... I know it’s not particularly gallant, but please, guys, don’t vote for Beckett. Damn it, she’s so ugly.

Saturday, June 20

Art Trek

A week of lunches – sushi and Cornish ice cream at the seaside, sitting sheltered from the rain whilst gorging on Moroccan chicken, and barbeque shrimp – before dashing back to the office each day to follow the action from Royal Ascot, and Confederations Cup football. The annual Art Trek Open Studios, a feature of the North Devon Festival, began yesterday. Have so far managed to visit five venues, showcasing a variety of artists that range from high end professionals through to groups of enthusiastic late developers/hobbyists. A number of interesting furniture makers, assuming you can afford £5k for a chest of drawers. Nicely-framed water colours from as little as £30 – to stunning glass vases at £1,500 a time. Half the fun is tracking down individual venues; some are in fairly remote locations, though surprisingly well signposted. And talking of art... John Mayall appears locally next week. A would-be artist friend who painted/lacquered the petrol tank on my bike was a big enthusiast, and persuaded me to buy Blues from Laurel Canyon when it was originally released. The album is under my desk somewhere, waiting to be made into a flower pot.

Tuesday, June 16

Out on the hills

Having had to abandon Monday’s expedition because of the thunder storm, today’s ramble didn’t go according to plan either. I forgot to check the military firing schedule and the area was closed for manoeuvres. Undeterred, we managed to skirt the range and – one unfortunate blanket bog aside – to amuse ourselves along Red-a-ven Brook. A decent enough day with no other souls about. As you would expect around fast flowing water, exposed rocks and stubby hawthorn trees, there were plenty of grey wagtails – yellow dishwashers or barley birds, as they’re sometimes known. A number of small frogs and larger common lizards were also in situ. For whatever reason the cattle were particularly belligerent, and mindful of Blunkett’s recent run-in with a charging cow, I was reluctant to turn my back on them. That said, if I’d been accosted by a stick-waving politician and a large dog I might also be minded to get my retaliation in first.

Two mean-spirited £25 Premium Bonds prizes in the post, together with demands for £142.50 to cover those freeloading bastards at the BBC, and another £215 for the privilege of sticking a tax disc on my vehicle’s windscreen.

Need to work harder

Along with my two pints of milk I picked up a Eurythmics’ CD at the Quik-E-Mart yesterday (the motor finally had enough of The very best of The Bachelors). I blanked the Eurythmics during the 80s – was never into the disco-synthesiser business. However, as Lennox has been putting herself about a bit – and proving to be a none too shabby diva – thought I’d check out the girl’s earlier incarnation. On reflection, I’m not sure that particular period improves with age, though a couple of the tracks stirred an odd memory or two.

As it happens, Giles Coren and his side-kick, Sue Perkins, did a 1980s number on their Supersize TV series last night. Although it wasn’t a patch on most of their previous ventures, the wonderful vulgarity of the period came across quite well. Having spent a decade working, eating and drinking to excess, we (well you, presumably) voted to pursue a more egalitarian lifestyle, and ushered in the Blair years. I suspect one of the side effects of that new touchy-feely era was a growth in women returning to the nest/part time working, and a jump in the birth rate. It’s taken a while but it looks like this has now started to impact on higher education. I’m told there are more 18 year olds than at any time during the last 20 years, and that – thanks to Government cuts – there’s about to be a corresponding shortage of university places. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all in favour of cuts to everything they’re spending my money on, and was always dubious about the 50% graduate target, but it does seem a bit hard on the also-rans who’ve been beavering away in the sixth form. Ucas is suggesting that failed applicants should try again next year. Rather spurious advice, given the likely 2010 post-election budget.

Sunday, June 14

Wood Pie

One of the yard’s current batch of great spotted woodpeckers.

Thursday, June 11

Mapping the county

I’ve spent most of the week exploring back doubles. A fair part of my reconnaissance has been on single track byways, where the motor simultaneously brushes both banks. Passing places can be up to 200 yards apart on many of these farm roads, and some proficiency with reverse gear is called for. This morning, in amongst the Massey Fergusons and Land Rovers, I actually came face to face with the Google camera car. Have managed to cover an unbelievable 540 miles in three days.

Today’s lunch, north of Tiverton, ranks the poorest meal of the week. They served a selection of Otter Ales (not always to my taste), but more so because of a crappy (£5.50) ham baguette (bread roll to you and me). Memo to catering staff: Defrost the rolls before you bake them! All became clear on leaving, when I stumbled over Father Jack Hackett in his white chef’s coat. Yesterday in Honiton was a far more civilised affair – amongst the ladies who lunch and the antique shops.

Imperturbable

Microsoft slunk into my computer this morning with a series of updates, and without prompting, rebooted the damn thing. I lost the two days of work I’d been foolish enough not to have saved, and surprised myself by responding with a tired smile that said ‘serves you right, dumb schmuck,’ before starting over again. In years gone by I would have lost it, opened the office window and – McPlonker-like – hurled the machine into the street. It brought to mind an ex-colleague with sibling rivalry issues... who used to express his frustration by throwing telex machines across the room. I’m talking about those heavy floor-standing jobs which normally took two men to lift. A dangerous lad to have working behind you.

Wednesday, June 10

Taboo

Foolish man that he is, Irwin Stelzer ventures onto the subject of immigration. It’s a lose-lose game for politicians (and in general, for the media). Any kudos you gain from furthering the debate will almost certainly be countered by accusations of racism (hence the knee-jerk comment that follows Stelzer’s article). I’m sure the same sort of conversations that take place in the Dog & Duck are prevalent in cafés and bars throughout Europe, in the USA, Australia, and most elsewhere on our planet. And like as not, one of the consequences of globalisation has been an acceleration of cultural polarisation within multi-cultural societies; it will almost certainly lead to a weakening of the national consensus on provision of healthcare and education. That said, I guess we’ll continue to rub along and adapt; it’s what we do. Dare I suggest the BNP (and UKIP) are necessary safety valves – though the latter has an opportunity to build on Farage’s charismatic leadership and mature into something more.

Tuesday, June 9

Eau de Westminster

The fly season will soon be upon us, and Ike Godsey is promoting a selection of remedies to protect the livestock. Before moving here I thought blue tongue was someone with a propensity for coarse language, but with up to 15 generations of flies produced each year I now know to steer clear of Farmer Charles’ stockpile of manure and slurry. Given the fragrant outside atmosphere, I suspect large portions are currently being spread across the fields.

Monday, June 8

Where to now?

Monday morning and back to work. Must admit to sleeping in; stayed up partying until the early hours, watching the train crash. At a time when Europe looks to be moving centre right, Labour’s rank and file will probably urge the party to turn left. I imagine Mandelson is currently stalking the corridors of power advising MPs that, if they continue to rock the boat, Harriet Harperson will become Supreme Leader. Not sure that’s such a bad move (her elevation). Like as not, Labour is destined to revert to its original role of union/public service pressure group, turning the clock back to pre-Blair times. I can’t stand the woman but – despite what Prescott says – she’s presented a much better front than the eunuchs who surround her. Unfortunately, the lady’s pro-feminist slant alienates not just 90% of men; because they have brothers, fathers, husbands and sons who they fear will be disadvantaged, Harman also antagonizes a significant percentage of the female vote.

Sunday, June 7

The Apprentice Politician

Alan Sugar tells McPlonker there's no chance he will quit his day job for a peerage.

The greenfinches are back

A striking rust-coloured vixen is sitting outside the office window, a sizeable critter in its mouth. I’ve watched it stalk a second prey, but she is inhibited by refusing to leave the original catch to the side whilst working (our buzzards and crows are pretty nifty when it comes to filching others meals). The fence is lined with greenfinches, egging her on; their colour a garish mismatch to Mrs G’s favourite weeds – the sinisterly pink witches’ gloves – which have recently appeared in the hedge rows. Foxgloves are toxic to animals, including livestock and dogs and cats (they probably wouldn’t do me much good either).

Saturday, June 6

Epsom

The first two races have been a disaster. Still, onwards and upwards.

I watch too many American TV shows

Have they no idea what they’ve let themselves in for – Alan Johnson, the Milibands, Darling, that new defence secretary who looks like Blakey from On the Buses – this isn’t the sort of story that ends with a pearl handled revolver. Everyone refers to McPlonker’s bunker mentality, but it’s not a so much a Rob Green film as an isolated compound in Texas. You can picture the scene – Adam Bolton on a seemingly quiet night outside of Number 10, chatting away live on Sky News. Smoke begins to leak from the windows, and in the ensuing panic cameras rush inside. The bodies lay strewn across the cabinet office floor, bulging eyes frozen in terror, victims’ petrified hands clamped to their throats. Crouched in a far corner alongside the discarded bottle, convulsed by manic giggling, clutching at his pump-action Remington...

Friday, June 5

Conservatives capture Devon

The Conservatives take Devon (and Somerset), as the southwest turns blue. My neighbours have junked the LibDems and voted for duck ponds and moats for all.

Enjoy the sunshine whilst it lasts

Life goes on; the sun still rises, we continue to be governed by an unelected prime minister and a growing band of unelected, ennobled placemen. It has the air of something you’d normally associate with suspect third world countries. Let’s face it, if McPlonker appeared on TV wearing a military uniform, telling us to stay off the streets, would we really be surprised? A win-win situation for Cameron’s lot, you’d think? Brown’s strategy seems to be to hang on long enough to come up with some dirt on the Tories, and to bring down a plague on everyone’s house. Exciting stuff if you’re into politics; it keeps the lads at the Dog & Duck bubbling over with rage. I tell them it’s only a game – that politicians exist for our entertainment – but their anger fails to dissipate. O for the good old days, when the monarch sent round a couple of trusty knights with sharp knives.

Thursday, June 4

Pensions

I remember reading, many years ago, of how well placed the UK was in terms of private occupational pension schemes, and how state-funded pension commitments would eventually bankrupt most other western European countries. It now seems our final salary pensions are entering their death throes (another thing Brown has presided over). Fortunate, perhaps, for the so-called baby boomers who manage(d) to get out in time; not so clever for the forty-somethings who are being switched to individual pensions, or worse – our offspring, still in education. One of the benefits of final salary pensions was that they encouraged the concept of early retirement (assuming you consider 55-60 as early retirement). Having spent a fair part of my working life on the continent, I can assure you that one of the reasons there are so many young, educated and talented individuals from the European Community living and working in London is that – without the incentive of an acceptable retirement plan – people stay in post for as long as they draw breath. Accordingly, I’ve German friends whose kids are well into their mid-30s before finding a decent job – there being so many silverbacks in situ. If everyone is going to have to stick around until well into their 70s in order to pay the rent, there ain’t going to be much room for fresh talent. And don’t think the oldies are incapable of political organisation in order to protect their position.

Perils and pleasures of isolation

Best laid plans, eh? If I’m making a risotto I like to have everything laid out, just so: butter/oil, diced shallots, glass of wine, chopped parsley steeping saffron stamens, hot (real) chicken stock, seasoned scallops dredged from the Bristol Channel, washed and sliced organic shitake mushrooms, blah, blah – and just when the pan (an eye-wateringly expensive one, purchased for the sole purpose of making risotto {birthday present from The Boss}) has been heated to the correct temperature and I reach for the rice...Eighteen bloody miles I’ve had to drive to find someone selling something other than that boil-in-the-bag shite. Not a happy chappy. That said, I’m writing this outside, in a corner of the yard – sitting under a giant oak, watching the sun go down with a charm of goldfinches for company and a large cold one at my elbow. We might not have high speed broadband but we do have wifi.

Relegation material

Just as The Blues put their hands in their pocket for Christian Benitez, and Manchester City consider forking out for Samuel Eto’o and Carlos Tévez; at the same time our banking and commercial institutions look to weed out the dross and to strengthen their management structures with the best they can buy; the public are encouraged to go to the polls and elect the same self-serving bunch of talentless wannabes. Let’s face it, if the current Labour Government was a premiership club, do we really think we would make it against our overseas competitors from Germany, France and Spain. McPlonker’s right up there with Paul Jewell and Sammy Lee – and just about as pretty as the latter. If changes aren’t made fairly soon we’ll be heading south even faster than my old mates at The Valley.

Interesting debate on Radio 5 about the merits of the Premiership, typified by online Man City and Ipswich (arbitrary choice) supporters who believe we should ban foreign players; that it was more fun in the old days when everyone was mediocre and we didn’t have the insurmountable obstacle of the top four. Bloody crap.

Tuesday, June 2

Mullet the impaler

Purchased a decent sized grey mullet for dinner. Considered by some to be a poor man’s sea bass, it at least looks the part when cooked whole on the grill and stuffed with rosemary and garlic. A flavour of the Mediterranean, immediately recognisable from trips to sunnier climes. The fish monger advised me it was caught well out in the estuary so it wouldn’t taste of diesel or mud, and it was true to his word. Not too far from the taste of sardine. Also picked up a bucket of squid. I’m told if the weather holds the squid will continue to come inshore, and that a hard-working fisherman can make a whole year’s wages in just one month – assuming he’s willing to operate non-stop. Needless to say it all gets trucked down to Spain where they appreciate such things.

Enjoy it while you can, the future doesn't look too good.

Guinea fowl and tapioca

If you want to achieve top marks on your creative writing course avoid McCarthy and Conrad, and read PD James’s The Private Patient – a master class on how to manufacture tapioca pudding. The story is written like one of those spinky-spanky executive homes that comes equipped with guarantees and certificates for all manner of services and appliances, but which leaves little room for the imagination. There must surely be one woman writer out there who can construct a story that isn’t predicated on some form of abuse?

Mrs G. discovered a great new marinade, courtesy of Sophie Grigson. Pound two cloves of garlic with a large sprig of tarragon, one red chilli and a touch of salt; work in a teaspoon of smoked (hot) paprika, some tomato purée, two tablespoons of balsamic vinegar and a little more seasoning. Coat the chicken (or whatever) and leave in the fridge for 24 hours before cooking. I used it on a guinea fowl (the Kwik-E-Mart was giving them away) and barbequed the result. One of our best to date.