Sunday, August 30

Too much of a good thing? Nah.

If you’re into ice cream there’s no shortage of outlets here in the Southwest. I guess there aren’t many real Italian families left in the business, though it seems to have bounced back from the sad days of Mr Whippy and Walls. I’ve an old actor buddy who worked the vans when things were quiet; his stories aren’t particularly edifying. Buried as we are in soft fruit from the hedgerows, the Boss’s machine is currently running full tilt. She’s working her way through Pamela Sheldon John’s book, Gelato. I’m close to OD’ing on blackberry sorbetti & granite, having already consumed my own body weight of blackberry yogurt ice cream.

An almost impressionist landscape

This morning doesn’t look too promising either. You can always count on Bank Holidays! I’m assuming Friday’s weather was the tail-end of Hurricane Bill; wet hardly covered it. At the time the front hit, yours truly was stranded – lost, in fact – somewhere in the middle of a Forestry Commission conifer plantation. The weather already feels like autumn, any time now the nights will be drawing in. Yesterday, mindful of the need to make the most of remaining daylight hours, I thought, why not take a quick jaunt around the reservoir. Exercise out of the way, I could then spend a guilt-free afternoon in a comfortable chair, watching Jeff Stelling and the boys.

The light there has changed and the water’s a sinister inky black. Much better up in the hills where it’s easy to lose yourself wandering amongst the dying fern and bracken. I woke an hour or two later to find myself sitting on top of West Mill Tor. Oft described as a solid piece of Cyclopean masonry, it affords a decent enough view if you can’t be arsed climbing the neighbouring Yes Tor. A mixed herd of Welsh Blacks, Belted Galloways and what I believe to be South Devons were grazing below. Skylarks have conceded ground to the House Martins who appear to be congregating for the off. Two Sparrow Hawks were shadowing the little guys, along with a pair of Buzzards doing their Steve McQueen & Faye Dunaway act. As I've said before, providing you can find shelter in amongst the granite blocks, there are worse places to wile away a morning reading the sports pages.

Friday, August 28

The baby boom

I suspect yesterday’s figures from the ONS will have people suitably engaged, though I’ve little enthusiasm for the predicted response. No doubt the fear of altering our population’s ethnic balance figures prominently. If you encourage people to breed and pay them to have children what did you think would happen? Everyone was bleating about the future: not having enough young people earning and paying taxes, to fund pensions. Over the space of several years South London Mansions had switched from being a virtual child-free zone to becoming chock full with young (middle-class) mothers armed with Maclaren buggies. Having children, it seems, was something they wanted to ‘get out of the way’ while still in their 20s/early 30s. And who could blame them? As to the seemingly prolific way people are procreating in this neck of the woods, what else do you do on those long winter nights? I’ve no doubt the recession’s changing economic fortunes and the probable curtailment of benefits will reverse the trend. Grief, there’s hardly enough maternity hospitals, schools, college places and prisons to accommodate the current batch, let alone allow for further expansion. As regards the implications for their subsequent gainful employment, climate change, food security... You could envisage a time that baby buggies will come equipped with similar Government health warnings to those adorning cigarette packets and bottles of alcohol.

Wednesday, August 26

Market day

Market day at the Dog & Duck is always more lively than normal; the number of small, vicious dogs increases exponentially. It isn’t long before my fellow drinkers’ arthritic feet start tapping and grey heads begin nodding to the accompaniment of Jeff Beck’s Stratocaster. And £50 from Ernie to boot – another round of drinks. If only I’d had a tenner on Villa winning up at Anfield.

Home is where the heart is...

Anywhere but the Midlands, according to Orange. I’ve no doubt their survey is a result of outrageous extrapolation. Yet, whilst viewing the Black Country from a position of comfortable nostalgia, I can still recall the overriding, burning, almost desperate desire of my teenage years – the one that envisaged me leaving town at the first available opportunity. Looking back, almost everyone from my peer group that could walk, walked. I’ve no idea who remained behind. And yes, our destinations did include London, Scotland and the Southwest.

Friday, August 21

Gurnard

It seems this is the week for obscure fish. Not what you’d call an attractive species, and once thought only fit for baiting lobster pots, the gurnard (sea-robin) has been described by restaurant correspondent AA Gill as the Amy Winehouse of battered fish. It’s viewed as a traditional fisherman’s dish around Brixham, where the little suckers are wrapped in bacon and roasted. The Boss has skinned a giant specimen for tonight’s dinner.

Thursday, August 20

Tonight's supper

I thought megrim soles peculiar to the Southwest, but it seems they’re just as plentiful in Scottish waters. Despite an attempt to rebrand the fish as Cornish Sole – although reputed to be the most economically important species landed hereabouts, one survey found 70% of Cornish residents had never heard of megrims – 90% of the catch is still exported to the Continent, primarily Spain. They’re from the same family as turbot and brill; on the culinary stakes, ranking somewhere between lemon sole and plaice. Megrims benefit from not being overfished and are lot cheaper than Dover sole. I paid £6.50 for a decent-sized pair from the lad at S&P fishmongers on Barnstaple’s Butchers Row.

Wednesday, August 19

Dimethyl sulphide

At long last – despite our being marooned at the centre of the county, far from the sea, a credible reason why my door step continues to smell like a cross between the beach and a sushi bar, and why birds are so attracted to the barn. The tangy fragrance stayed with me all morning, and must have behind our reason to swing by Salcombe for lunch. On a sunny’ish day like today it’s easy to see why the town’s so popular. Despite a dubious reputation for having the UK’s most expensive property prices outside of London and Sandbanks, Salcombe remains a major draw for those second-home owners and tourists who’ve outgrown Jaywick Sands. You can tell the guys on holiday by their inappropriate dress; unfortunately, they’ve not been around long enough to lose the haunted look from their eyes. It was shoulder to shoulder, with a ratio of four children/teenagers per adult. Savouring my second pint of IPA in a bar half-full with little people, I couldn’t help reminiscing rather fondly of our past excursions to seemingly child-free Kinsale.

I opted for fried fish and mushy peas. The latter aren’t exactly rocket science, yet people insist on screwing with a classic and try to ponce them up. All you’re supposed to do is cover the dried marrowfats and a teaspoon of bicarbonate with water, and soak overnight. Rinse in fresh water, bring to the boil then simmer for a couple of hours (until mushy). Flavouring tends to be a personal thing (sugar, salt, chicken stock, mint...whatever), just don’t mess too much if it’s for general consumption. These lads must have been expecting Mandelson to decamp from Corfu.

Monday, August 17

Off at a tangent with a bottle of mescal

I managed to consume Pat Barker’s Ghost Road between 10:00 – 21:00 on a buckshee weekday. Roberto Bolaño’s Savage Detectives however seems to have been with me for half of the summer (the small print didn’t help). That said, it’s the best novel I’ve read in a while. He’s not to everyone’s taste; as with Cormac McCarthy, Bolaño probably writes for a predominantly male audience. The story was of my era; fácil de identificar con. Our visceral realists also benefitted from following on behind that disappointing Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I’ll certainly read more of the lad’s work, though for now I need to make headway on my obligatory texts. I also need to acquire one of those Impalas with the six tail lights.

Sunday, August 16

Anyone who had a heart

There’s a song there somewhere. Exhausted after this morning’s trek I’ve retired to my office and am listening to the match on Radio 5... already thinking about dinner. Totally underwhelmed by my choice of ham, eggs and chips for the birthday feast, Mrs G. is roasting a calf’s heart. I’ve never been completely sold on the middle-eastern trend to fruity meat-dishes but on this occasion it works. She dissects the heart and stuffs the cavity with a mixture of breadcrumbs, apple, prunes, blackberries from the yard and pine nuts, before sewing it back together and dispatching the little sucker to the oven. It arrives on the table two hours later, along with a bucket of greens and a large jug of gravy made from the remnants of the pan. The meal is to be accompanied by a bottle of Pinot Noir, courtesy of young nephew, following his recent adventures in Monterey County.

Saturday, August 15

Teenagers descend on OU?

Anticipating the demise of the clearing system, the Telegraph reckons – and you shouldn’t believe half of what you read in the newspapers (blogs are an even less-reliable source of information) – the number of university places that would normally be available to applicants is being reduced by up to two-thirds. As a consequence, they say, record numbers of teenagers are applying to The Open University. It seems many of our top establishments are already stuffed with straight-A applicants, so there’s likely to be much gnashing of teeth at results time. I can’t see teenagers queuing for the OU myself as the whole point of going to university is to hang out with kids your own age, take drugs, get laid, and consume prodigious quantities of alcohol. Having already received last season’s flattering end-of-term scores (evidence of dumbing down?), I’ve re-signed for the coming year (need something to keep me occupied during those dark winter nights). Kimani Nganga Maruge disproves the adage ‘you’re never too old to learn,’ and that it’s unwise to let the gap year run for too long.

Friday, August 14

Plymouth Gin

It’s wonderful stuff! Despite the dreich weather Plymouth Hoe was chock full with people. The Fastnet Race is all but over, though little more than a third are rumoured to have made the finish line. The neighbour came down on his own vessel; with no wind it took the poor lad 14 hours (shamefaced, I didn’t volunteer). We watched a few stragglers berthing but were really in town for the Flavour Fest. Like Plymouth, the festival could use some fresh blood to reinvigorate itself. I suspect two thirds of those cruising the stalls would be more comfortable with a McDonald’s. Having paid four quid for a wonderful burger made from salt-marsh lamb, and which was served on a quality multigrain roll with a fresh tzatziki sauce and rocket leaves, all the guy behind me could do was moan about the price. We loaded our supplies and left them to it. As I’ve been a good boy, Mrs G. bought me a calf’s heart and tongue. Bumped into Debby Mason, the girl who did the illustrations for Norman Tebbit’s new book, The Game Cook. Couldn’t pass up a copy, which was autographed both by Debby and the Chingford Strangler himself.

Thursday, August 13

Wus

Fighting to retain his sinecure Trevor Phillips capitulates and resorts to morality, always a bad sign. He determines that for markets to function and businesses to deliver, reward needs to be ‘fairly’ distributed? What planet...

Wednesday, August 12

Argh, he’s back

Birmingham City have confirmed that Carson Yeung, the Hong Kong-based businessman who tried to buy out chairmen David Sullivan and the Gold brothers, David and Ralph, in 2007, has revived his interest in assuming a controlling stake in the football club.

Wrong skills, or wrong attitude?

A final couple of words on today’s unemployment stats... It seems organisations are still hiring older folks with experience and/or decent EI (soft skills), along with migrants who are either skilled, willing to undertake so-called menial tasks, or just because migrants turn up on time. Our young graduates, however, are struggling. Today’s Independent cites a 22-year-old molecular geneticist with a first from King’s who finds herself competing for vacancies against 48 similar applicants. Yet only last week I was sharing a pint or two with a welder. He told me that, at 59, he was the youngest on his team. It seems the lad’s a bit special when it comes to welding and flies around the globe – Mexico and elsewhere – welding pipes. We were speculating about what happens in several years time when they’ve all retired. Am not sure either of us came up with an answer (by then we’d moved on to Scotch), but it does make you wonder where we went wrong.

Meritocracy can seem unfair

Yvette Cooper launches an enquiry into reticent dole-claimers, and The Audit Commission warns local authorities they face the second wave of the downturn, as the effects of rising business failures, bankruptcies and unemployment bite. We’re all about to be murdered in our beds, apparently. As far as the absence of claimants is concerned I suspect there’s a large number of unemployed – not all white-collar – for whom claiming benefit remains a challenge; they would rather pick fruit, visit the pawn shop or swing by Graff jewellers, before accepting government handouts. And unfortunately for many young people who’ve been failed by the education system, or sidelined during the economic boom – and for whom Mandelson’s fantasy of Oxbridge-for-oiks remains just that, a fantasy – it doesn’t look a particularly exciting future. But then life tends to be what you make it; and with unfortunate exceptions, people tend to get what they deserve.

Monday, August 10

Silence has returned

Our visitors have departed. No more three-hour breakfast lectures on normative jurisprudence from little sister, or those insights into the Baggies defensive inadequacies from brother-in-law. Can’t believe I’ve actually managed to bump into five of my seven brother-in-laws during the last couple of weeks, then to hear from number six today who emailed from remotest Kazakhstan. Our guests were lucky this time around: the sun made a rare appearance. It was pleasant enough to drag everyone across Dartmoor for a hike, then to bask in the heat outside of the Dog & Duck, sampling glasses of Sam’s cider. Would you believe the UK has the highest per capita consumption of cider in the world.

Saturday, August 8

You think it’s bad now but...

Another birthday looms – my annual excuse to swing the lamp and blather about being born into Austerity Britain. ‘Dreariness is everywhere,’ wrote one schoolteacher at the time. ‘Streets are deserted, lighting is dim, people’s clothes are shabby and their tables bare.’ It was five years after the war and everyone was exhausted, undernourished, dirty and class-ridden. A third of dwellings were without hot water, let alone a bathroom. The Labour government was busy nationalising the Bank of England, coal mines, gas and electricity, railways, British Airways... and on the seventh day Bevan created the NHS. People were so overjoyed they went out and re-elected a 76 year old Winston Churchill. The Bank of England cut interest rates to 2%, the lowest for 57 years and the joint lowest in history at that time. As further proof that little changes over the years, Britain began an economic boycott of Iran, and President Truman appointed a commission to study U.S. health care need and to recommend solutions. Tony Bennett found himself mobbed by autograph hunters, whilst Brando cried beseechingly for Stella Kowalski.

Also born that same year were three of my favourite boxers: John Conteh, world light-heavy; Alan Minter, world middleweight – who had the misfortune to bump into Marvin Hagler; and Roberto Durán, one of the all-time greats. Other contemporaries include footballers Kevin Keegan and Kenny Dalglish; and musicians Bob Geldof, Sting, Chrissie Hynde, Joey Ramone and Phil Collins. McPlonker is also a member of the ’51 intake, as is Mary McAleese.

Friday, August 7

Fun weekend, I hope

Most women feel guilty after a shopping spree. It’s just an observation, but women seem to get the hump about most everything these days. And during breaks from self-reproach they usually choose to repair to the hustings and complain about the general unfairness of life - a la Ms Harperson. Recent research, highlighted by Mankiw, purports to show that whilst the lives of women has improved during the past 35 years, their happiness has declined both absolutely and relative to men. In the 1970s it was women who were the happy bunnies. Now a new gender gap has emerged, one which gives men the edge in well-being. Did I mention I’m sharing the barn with three women this weekend. Need to put more bottles in the fridge.

Apple cake and blackberry crumble

The sun has returned and it seems like an age. Given we’ve visitors for the weekend I have been out tidying the yard while Mrs G. bakes. It remains as much a mud bath as a grassy enclosure, with frogs, pheasants and rabbits in amongst the rough stuff. At least the blackberries are out. A new batch of roses is also about to bloom.

I’m becoming as fixated with obituaries as my mother used to be. I still think the whole life/death thing’s a lottery – that you’re born with either a 50-something body or an 80-something body, and no matter what lifestyle you choose to adopt, when the time comes, matey, it’s Goodnight Vienna. Who knows what gave Harry Patch his longevity? It could be said that Bobby Robson had a good innings, though I doubt Bobby himself would subscibe to so familiar a platitude. The lad would likely have been more than happy to sit out another season’s footy.

Wednesday, August 5

Peyroux

I’ve never thought of myself as a ‘music’ person. There are periods when it seems I can take or leave it, when the melodies fail to register. Don’t get me wrong, what with the wireless and all music is an omnipresent feature of the barn, a continuous loop playing in the background. What I don’t have is that compulsion (common to certain friends) to drive the length and breadth of the country listening to live performances, to follow the scene by inhabiting the popular-music press. Yet whilst (as with most things) I’ve settled to a comfortable stable of preferred genres/artists, I continue to search for something different, for that magic ingredient which bites.

Last month was an Annie Lennox retrospective; for August it is Madeleine Peyroux. I hadn’t heard of the girl until BBC Four’s recent coverage, and was engaged enough to acquire four of her five albums. Unfortunately – although playing in the motor and on the office system for the last week – she’s failing to make the grade. I find it difficult to take a Billy Holiday impersonator seriously, even if Peyroux seems to have found more of her own voice with the latest effort, Bare Bones. Given she’s in her mid-30s the girl should be well into her stride by now, so I can hardly afford her the benefit of doubt – especially as the bar for the jazz-blues genre is set so high. I have a fair collection of Ella Fitzgerald recordings, including the popular ‘songbooks’ – George & Ira Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Cole Porter, Duke Ellington... but – and it’s probably sacrilege to say this – I find the delivery of her performances somewhat soulless. Am also embarrassed to say Fitzg’s contemporary, Holiday, suffers from a tendecy for inverse snobbery – she’s always been too cool for me to profess an interest; and let’s face it, it’s not as if we’re swamped with quality recordings from the lady (I have her original Decca recordings and a number of Verve productions). The office boasts some curve balls, so to speak, with regular outings from belters such as Simone, Betty Carter, Abbey Lincoln, along with the more obvious Clooney, Merrill and Vaughan, etc., yet I always seem to return to Dinah Washington. In the liner note of one of her albums it states that ‘Washington can act out a song, and in the acting, infuse in it a quality no other singer ever quite supplies. She literally adds another dimension.’ And that’s the special something you’re looking for, especially with singers interpreting great standards. Peyroux comes up short.

Tuesday, August 4

They think it’s all over, but...

Having returned from Grand Fenwick I find something of an unreal air surrounding current events. The rallying FTSE and Pound, Barclays and HSBC coining it, Labour ministers’ political positioning instead of ‘getting on with the job’... The feeling seems to be that there may well be a bogey man waiting in the wings, post election, but it would be wrong to wish our lives away and speed McPlonker’s demise. Everything arrives in its own good time, as granny used to say. Why do today what can put it off until tomorrow, or next week/year. The grass outside in the yard is knee-deep and still the rain falls.

Monday, August 3

Home

I remain bleary-eyed from the journey south. Eleven hours on a straight run of 625 miles (toll road/M42 this time), with only two pit-stops for coffee. It wasn’t bad – traffic could have been a lot worse, what with the holiday season. Returning to a rain-drenched barn was something of an anti-climax, given the weekend’s parties. Not that I could have maintained that pace for long, but it was good to see the old faces – greyer and heavier, albeit little changed. Neither my dancing or singing seems to improve with age.

Saturday, August 1

Feet up

I am stretched out on the floor (which is exactly where I finished yesterday evening) watching Rangers stick it to PSG. We are billeted alongside a colourful group of residents from South America, Asian and Africa. Am assuming this to be a reflection of Aberdeen’s status as a key oil-industry hub rather than the result of inducements being offered to attract migrants north of the border. Aside from an excellent evening in the Bistro Verde (large portions of wolffish), my principal source of protein seems to have been butteries, coffee and Tennent’s Lager. Limped around the city’s art gallery for a breath of fresh air. They’ve a very good collection, including (surprisingly) a number of Francesca Woodman prints. As you would expect, it’s piddling down outside. Somewhere out there is a take-away meal with my name writ large.