Friday, December 31

Leopards and spots

The prediction that one-in-five of us will live to be centenarians must be the most depressing news of this past week. Whilst in no hurry to expire, the thought I might be given the chance to do it all again is not as comforting as you may think. I suppose it would afford me the opportunity to right past wrongs, to strive to be more polite and attentive to friends and acquaintances? Then again ... As a contrast to that of our hosts, we left Ireland in the company of a loquacious Harley-riding malcontent with a burr under his saddle. Both an American exile and Ireland émigré he was quitting Cork after many years residence. It wasn’t hard to understand why, more so how he’d lasted so long. Entertaining dinner company but definitely short-changed in the political and diplomatic skills department. Leopards and spots, both of us.

Thursday, December 30

Thanks (or is it Tanks?)

OK so it wasn’t exactly a set from Doctor Zhivago, but County Clare’s hoar frost was a spectacular sight. Despite the absence of snow and some glorious sunshine it remained a chilly -9ºC and ice crystals begat ice crystals. Unlike one or two northern counties there was water, though you had to keep a tap running or ease things along by applying a gas burner to the outside run of the pipe beneath the earth. Once inside, wood fires – along with whiskey and music – kept everything toasty. No one mentioned the ghost of the Celtic Tiger. A succession of meals was punctuated by brief walks along the beach or the Burren and excursions to west coast hostelries. As guests of both epicureans and one-time pig farmers I guess we had the best of worlds, though the early morning trip to the byre, to help smash the ice on the water troughs and feed the cattle (and the donkey and pony, the chicken and geese), didn’t sit well with my hangover or delicate stomach. It was with some reluctance we trudged back to the ferry port, fortified and exhausted by a week of champagne and Guinness, foie gras and smoked salmon, sausages and bacon, roast goose and curried duck-livers, crab cakes and fresh mussels... Thanks again, guys. Ah sure, it was grand.

Wednesday, December 22

Off for some black stuff

The harsh weather hasn’t hindered our neighbour’s muck-spreading operation. Pristine white snow is a thing of the past. For me it’s been hard work just watching Mrs G. pack. The view outside – our journey – is hardly enticing. Fog is the latest component; the overnight temperature fell as low as -10. All that’s left for me to do, after consuming large portions of porridge, is to prise the motor’s wheels from their icy grip and point us in the general direction. The Bachelors’ hits are lodged in the dash: it’s Charmaine, Ramona and Diane all the way. Of course the ice may yet have the last word.

Monday, December 20

Treacherous stretch of the leg

Walking several miles on snow can be either a pleasant excursion or painful experience, depending on the number and intensity of your falls. I didn’t disappoint, managing a couple of classics. Apart from 2-3 Land Rovers the only vehicles on the road are tractors – the livestock have to be fed. There were some abandoned vehicles in obvious places, though most people appear to have heeded advice and stayed home. That or they’re standing in a queue at one of our transport hubs. Despite the freezing fog and sub-zero temperature we remain naively optimistic about our own travel plans. As I speak the neighbour has cranked up his JCB with the intention of ploughing a communal path to the highway.

Overheard in the village this morning. Father to young son: “Don’t eat the yellow snow.”

Christmas on hold

On the plus side... It does look pretty. A touch chilly. Unfortunately inside isn’t much better. I closed the curtains early yesterday afternoon as the view only exaggerated a perception of Scott’s last days. There was another substantial fall overnight and the roads are closed. We were hoping to depart for County Clare in two days time having been invited to spend Christmas on the fringes of the Burren, an even more remote spot than the Ponderosa. Given the forecast, driving up through Wales and across Ireland presents a number of challenges (getting out of here being the biggest). Right now we’re short of basics. I have to don my snow shoes and walk to town.

Sunday, December 19

Strictly English

The correct way to write ... and why it matters. I’ve always thought Simon Heffer the sort of man who’s comfortable holding forth in club committee rooms, or flicking a cane at the front of a Giles Cartoon classroom. No doubt he’d regard me as a walking solecism, a vulgar metaphor? Whilst the lad’s a pedant prig, snobbery remains a relatively minor vice – some would say a comforting sin. Many contemporary school teachers argue grammar the province of spell-check and sub-editors; Heffer believes a man should aspire to prime and paint his own skirting board. I promise to try harder – or is it better?

Saturday, December 18

The snow arrives

O shit, we’re buried. Should have gotten in additional supplies.

Thanks to the support of neighbours’ shoulders, two shovels and a sack of rock salt, I’ve managed to move the motor 50yds onto higher ground – which gives us a fighting chance of getting out of here sometime next week. Last night left us with eight or so inches of snow. Today’s sun is melting a certain amount, which, given the evening’s sub-zero temperature, will result in a sizeable ice field tomorrow, effectively marooning us. On the plus side most other people appear to be facing worse conditions.

Friday, December 17

Dining out

I’m currently working my way through Exeter’s greasy spoons, with good and bad in equal measure. Today’s clientele was predominately slapheads and tattoos, a smattering of silent disparate couples who wish they were elsewhere and with someone else. Clad in traditional brightly coloured Formica, the establishment promised a whole lot more than it delivered. Egg and bacon baps are my standard – the further down the food chain the higher the bacon’s salt content and the more processed the bread. This latest floury specimen may have once contained evidence of organic material, but I wouldn’t bet any of Mrs G’s Hermes scarves on the result of a forensic examination. Nice mug of tea however. Three kids at the next table were tucking into bowls of chips and quarts of tomato ketchup. I guess for them the pupil premium remains little more than a political ruse.

Thursday, December 16

Stones and glass houses

I need another haircut. When treating Mrs G. to lunch last week the maitre d’ addressed us as ladies. Then today, in the Dog and Duck, a passing stranger mistook my burgeoning silver mane and faded denims as evidence of a like-minded soul with traditional left-leaning sympathies – holding forth on ‘our’ support for such things as Hamas and Bob Ainsworth. Not that I’ve anything against dope-smoking Palestinians, it’s just that I prefer to keep my nose out of other people’s business. Then again, properly cared-for hair could well win me approval of the Swiss banking fraternity: surely reason enough for avoiding the barbers.

Much has been made this week about the perils of obesity, and far be it for me to comment (albeit I’m approaching this holiday a stone lighter than last year), but I’ve just sat and watched the two little girls from behind the bar take their deferred lunch break . Neither is much above five-two, yet each has eaten a plate of food that would take a six-foot agricultural labourer the best part of an eight-hour shift to work off. Does my bum look big in this? You bet your sweet...

Change

As Scotland braces itself for three feet of snow I’m pleased to report that Royal Mail has delivered Christmas. Looking out of the office window I suspect we too have seen the end of blue skies and benign conditions. Grey is the order of today, and très windy – the harbinger of our own taste of the Arctic due this weekend. Yesterday we managed what will probably be our last decent walk of the year. The livestock were hunkering down, high-sided paths littered with fresh scrapes fashioned by the ponies as shelter from the coming storm. Kestrels much in evidence, stocking up on careless larks.

Wednesday, December 15

Yuletide audit

The office’s Christmas card display is looking a little healthier following this morning’s post. Was concerned I might have to resurrect a number of retreads – cards I’ve kept from previous years, or even worse: mail myself a dozen or so extra in order to impress the postman. Whilst appreciating many people now forward their festive greetings over the internet, often piously donating to charity, Christmas cards, for better or for worse, remain a salutary audit of friends and acquaintances.

Monday, December 13

Christmas on hold

If you wear a postman’s uniform and support a Scottish accent steer well clear of Mrs G. Our Christmas appears marooned at Royal Mail’s Scottish Distribution Centre in Wishaw. Everything arrived there last Wednesday and – like the Bates Motel – appears unlikely to check out anytime soon.

Where now for the big lad?

Any Human Heart, the only programme worth watching on recent Sunday nights (excepting the footy highlights), has regretfully finished. You couldn’t help but chuckle along to Broadbent and Macfadyen’s portrayals of the antihero Mountstuart. It’s a comforting thought – that life is essentially an aggregate of the good and bad luck that befalls us and is perhaps beyond our control – however, that would be to ignore the way most individuals acquiesce and, as with Mountstuart, remain content to just stumble along. Yes luck plays its part but mostly we end up with our just deserts. Doubtless Sam Allardyce would beg to differ.

The new Thatcherism

Surprise, surprise: as Britons age they move to the right. Whilst seemingly bad news for Red Ed and the boys, if I was he I wouldn’t worry too much. People are fickle. They’ll likely change their minds in ten years time – and Miliband’s a young lad. Free healthcare and education appear to be the key ... ‘I’m doing OK as long as you don’t make me pay for my kids’ education or my ageing parents’ healthcare (if needs must, raid the benefits of the undeserving poor).’  A predictable 78% believe there’s too wide a disparity between rich and poor, rich being anyone with more money than you have. Unfortunately I can’t see Carlos Tevez splitting his reputed £250k/week tax-free salary with the boys from Forres Mechanics. As far as equal opportunities go, 80% are of the opinion that such as the Blair offspring – from a privileged background – will fare better than an average kid from his old Sedgefield constituency, and that the chances of young Alfie making it from Crap Street Comprehensive into Oxbridge and thereby a job in the media is just about zilch. Current social attitudes are hardly a revelation but the survey is bound to be of interest to policy wonks. ‘Tax the rich’ retains its populist attraction, as does incarcerating the bankers, along with the presumption that all politicians are lying, cheating bastards.

Saturday, December 11

Weekend treats

I don’t eat as much smoked fish as in the days it came free, and truth to tell, much of what’s commercially available nowadays isn’t too clever. Today’s lunch, however, from Hollies Trout Farm is an exception. Not what you’d call a budget product, their cold smoked wild salmon is worth the pain. The salmon came out of the Teign by way of one of the three fishermen left on the river. Fair restores your faith in fine food. Tonight’s supper, from another local producer at this week’s market, is Paris bistro favourite Bavette de Veau.

Jury’s out

Whatever righteous justification we ascribe to rioting students I suspect that for many participants it’s a combination of a noble cause and something as base as for-the-craic. Politicians in turn probably view the disturbances as both a necessary safety valve and a convenient distraction. Despite the media doing their best to fan the flames, the violence and vandalism has certainly swung the argument the goverment’s way. With the festive season upon us policemen have doubtless welcomed the overtime. I suppose it is right the general public (at least the taxpaying part of it) should invest in our future – we need medics after all. But then most GPs I know are as rich as Croesus, and it seems inequitable that bus drivers should fund medical training in order the doctors can then spend their more generous publicly funded income on privately educating their own children and reinforcing the class divide.

Thursday, December 9

Festive songs

If the electricity company deciding to turn off the juice between 09:30 and 17:00 today wasn’t enough to get me out of the barn and up town, Mrs G's rendition of Santa’s a Scotsman will do it.

Wednesday, December 8

Necessary walks

I daresay snow has become more of an acquired taste following this past week’s exploits. Given my early days on the Lecht you would mistakenly think me comfortable in the medium. Whilst it’s true that experience afforded me a level of proficiency when driving on the white stuff (it helped having four-wheel drive and specialist tyres), black ice is of a different order. And that, despite the sunshine, is what we’ve got. It makes trips to the Quik-E-Mart a little more interesting. Despite what the police say you can’t remain incarcerated at home: places to go, things to do; and someone will always find work for idle hands – usually involving my outstretched arms and skeins of wool ... Sneaking away this afternoon, and fortified by a magic aspirin and stick of liquorice, I managed to leg it all the way up Yes Tor, the second highest point on Dartmoor. Its west slope is not quite a glacier, although parts – at least the route I took – do a fair imitation. The view from the top was just about worth the effort, not so the stinging breeze and sunburnt face. I walked back via High Willhays, the highest point on the moor, its outcrop bedecked with college ramblers (doubtless getting in shape for their next protest). Let’s hope tomorrow’s vote is less exciting than this evening’s match from The Emirates.

Monday, December 6

Brrr

Despite the bleak outlook elsewhere in the country we managed to make it up on to the moor this afternoon (I need the exercise and it got me out of signing Christmas cards). Aside from an occasional semi-pirouette the motor performed well. Though there wasn’t a cloud in the sky – blazing sunshine in fact, the temperature failed to get above -2 deg. Great walk, however; you can go a long way on Marmite sandwiches and a packet of Sports Mixture. Lots of petrified waterfalls and frozen pools, that golden light you get this time of year. If I was Ansel Adams I’d have taken a photograph. In the distance, down on the low ground, banks of rolling fog. Needless to say no one else was around. Half-a-dozen crows and two hedge sparrows made up the bird life; the migratory birds have migrated. And when the sun went down, the mercury really nosedived.

Sunday, December 5

Warm feet

Despite everyone and his granny venturing out on the roads yesterday, thanks to a fluke of timing we always seemed to be heading in the opposite direction – more specifically to/from Crediton market (monthly freezer replenishment, boiling fowls, etc.). One of the resident producers breeds South Devons (Orange Elephants) and the beef never disappoints. In an effort to supplement our diet of pheasant we came away laden with packs of skirt, onglet (a rarity) and shin. Mrs G. had been working outside plucking yet more birds; as they’d been hanging in the shed for five days they were virtual blocks of ice. Fortunately one managed to defrost in time for supper. I should probably be concerned about the amount of lead shot we may or may not be consuming.

Clint Eastwood was on the box in an Arena special, celebrating Dave Brubeck’s 90th birthday. We were fortunate to catch the lad years ago when he still had his own teeth. You rarely hear Brubeck’s name without the mega-hit Take Five being lauded. Time Out, the album on which the track features, and which is sitting in front of me, is also notable for its modernist-inspired abstract cover – the work of Neil Fujita, a Hawaiian-born graphics designer who coincidently died earlier this year. Fujita was also responsible for the cover of Mario Puzo’s book The Godfather. Not a lot of people know that (said in a Michael Caine sort of accent).

I might have been a little off with the sizing on my new work boots, having to line them with several pages from Ferreters Weekly. Memo to self: Must buy new insoles.

Friday, December 3

Festive lights

Worried about a convoy of white vans colliding with my desk (there’s an underground spring which surfaces five paces from the front door, turning the yard into an ice rink) I called in at Ike Godsey’s for several sacks of rock salt. The store is a bit like those old western films: once inside you’re in danger of ordering vast quantities of flour, ten gross of nails, etc. I treated myself to a new pair of work boots, and a horse blanket for the motor – in case of a breakdown during inclement weather. For obvious reasons there weren’t too many people about. Conversation in the Dog & Duck was predictable: Sepp Blatter, blah, blah, blah. Saloon bar debate hasn’t been the same since McPlonker got shafted. Returned home to 9ft of flashing lights and sparkly baubles.

Enough

Enough already: we lost, get over it. The only intelligent comment I’ve heard was from Mihir Bose. If you aren’t prepared to play by an autonomous organization’s rules (written or otherwise) then don’t enter its competitions; if you want to stand a chance of succeeding, become part of the system (the same hold true for the European Union). You can’t blame it on our self-righteous, self-indulgent media; and yes, the FA really is run by tossers. Let’s not be bad losers or act like a flock of priggish girls.

Common Snipe

A new (especially long) beak skulking around the yard this morning.What Mrs G. would call a Mire Snipe, the Irish a Bog Bleater – what Burns referred to as ‘the Blitter frae the boggie’. Perhaps an indication to how wet the surrounding ground is ... so wet you could shoot snipe off him (Anthony Powell).

Andy Warhol knitwear

I suppose it’s no use moaning about the continued freeze as just about everyone seems to have it worse that we do. During the day the roads switch between slush and black ice, which makes driving kind of interesting. Embarrassed by its appearance I paid for a valet service on the motor during the week, though 24 hrs later it was back to normal, inside and out. Stuffing a 9ft Christmas tree in the boot didn’t help. I’m waiting for the inevitable bug infestation – last year we were overrun by ladybirds. Have dug out our festive CDs and bunting in readiness for the seasonal makeover. My latest sweater – courtesy of Mrs Needles – is riot of orange, red, Majorelle blue and turquoise, adding to the general air of anarchic jollity. At least I hope that’s what it is: I could be going mad. Can’t believe I’m still wearing the same socks Aunt P. knitted for me 25 years ago – not one to give up on a faded garment.

Thursday, December 2

An island nation

I wouldn’t be human if I wasn’t disappointed, but congrats to the Ruskies. The disbelief of media commentators, bitterness even, betrays their naivety. The reality of realpolitik wins out every time, suckers. A kick in the nuts maybe, truth is you win a few (The Olympics) you lose a few. Blatter – smiling his reptilian smile – has said swivel on your two votes, and like as not he’s the man in the driving seat. There’ll be an argument about whether we should continue to play his game or not bother, but you can't give up on the fight. Unfortunately for the FA, many fans (especially after recent inept World Cup performance) will just say screw England and those foreign johnnies, allegiances will be restricted to our league club. Fraternal message to Australia: nobody likes us and we don’t care.

Still all to play for

It’s all about politics, alliances and the perception of favours to come. I’m talking about the World Cup vote of course. If, against the odds (at least the odds of a couple of months ago) we do win, it should be cause for much celebration – and another feather in the cap for the glitter dust that is Beckham, Cameron and the Royal Family. There’ll be no shortage of recriminations if it goes against us: ‘it was the BBC wot done it; those buggers at St Andrews; our inept FA; Putin made FIFA an offer they couldn’t refuse; it’s warmer in Spain and Portugal... Doubtless much will be made of the continued global decline of meat pies and Bovril. Fingers crossed eh.

Wednesday, December 1

Plan B

Is there anything more depressing than Christmas shopping? Of course there is, but still ... when it’s brass-monkey weather and people are hacking all over the place the high street is the last place you want to be. Out of frustration I usually end up buying token crap. Today I gave in after barely three hours; didn’t buy any presents, instead bought a new overcoat for myself. Came home and opened a beer – an hour or so later I’d ordered everything online.