Saturday, January 29

Counting the days

With the season drawing to a close Farmer Charles has delivered a brace from the final shoot. Thankfully the weather is cold enough for them hang outside for a few days. The freezer is still full of birds from his last outing. We’ve seen plenty of venison and an occasional partridge these past weeks, but little in the way of wild duck. Our remaining Moyhill pork is being reserved for the special occasions, i.e. ones which (as with the traditionally-deferred Burns Supper) can be accompanied by a suitable (post-January) alcoholic beverage. Roll on next week.

In memoriam

Yesterday was the UK’s Holocaust Memorial Day, the day on which the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp was liberated by Soviet troops. I mention it not least because, had he lived, today would have been Mrs G’s Father’s 100th birthday. He survived Auschwitz; alas, not the march of time.

Looking on the bright side

Bitching about the weather seems a lame pursuit (winter hasn’t even begun). But then we wouldn’t be human if we failed to grumble about something or other. Whilst I’ve lived through far worse in both Wales and Scotland – and come to that, in other regions of England (and most certainly in Germany) – there are times when you wonder at the masochistic tendency of locals. The disappearance of last-week’s natural light has gifted a bleak, washed-out prospect. Black is the dominant theme, the reservoir more an oil pit than a tarn. Hedgerows and stone walls have become charcoal sketches; distant trees, inky-perches for rooks and carrion crows. Forlorn-looking Welsh Black cross-breeds and little dark ponies stand rooted in the sodden peat. It’s the half-full/half-empty thing again: a picture of misery or a Whistler Nocturne? All it takes is a sprinkling of golden-yellow gorse flowers to lift the mood.

Thursday, January 27

He’s swinging the lamp again

Some people wear their chippiness like a Burton’s suit. Andrew Neil is an exemplar, his cause célèbre the grammar school. Most probably because I’ve neglected to sire any children I tend to cock a deaf ’un when it comes to education. However, following the demise of Andy Coulson and Alan Johnson, and the perception that politicians are unable to communicate with ‘common people’, I couldn’t leave Posh and Posher: Why Public School Boys Run Britain without comment. You can make Neil’s case for most of the so-called professions these days. No one will deny that society has become increasingly stratified. At least as far as politics goes a particular education appears to be the key, along with the patronage this engenders. An Oxford PPE is the norm; if you want to appear a maverick then a Cambridge PPE will suffice, but entry to either demands exceptional schooling. Neil argues, as he has so often, that a privileged number of kids from less affluent backgrounds but fortunate enough to win the genetic lottery should be allowed to cut loose from the rank and file and be gifted a superior education. An education presumably funded by the parents of both the posh and the peasant. He refers to this as meritocracy, though what he aspires to is to be as privileged as the posh kids but at someone else’s expense and to the probable detriment of his classmates. I’d be even more ambivalent if it wasn’t for the possibility that a return of grammar schools would increase the smug-bastard quotient in the form of multiple Michael Portillos.

It’s a funny old world.

My final thought on the Gray/Keys story, coming just two weeks after Mirriam O’Reilly was feted in the media for wining her case against the BBC, is the extent to which the adjective ‘middle-aged’ (especially when used by women commentators) has become the pejorative term.

No small ask

McLeish acknowledges that success in England remains the benchmark. A thrilling fight-back and a great win; and one in the eye for Karen Brady. All you need now is to make sure the Blues stay in the Premier League (a couple more players wouldn’t go amiss – they’re running on empty) ... so chin up, and keep right on to the end of the road. Needless to say my Gooner friends are already dusting the shelf in readiness.

Tuesday, January 25

Science for imbeciles

For want of something better to do, last night I watched BBC2’s Horizon: Science under attack. Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society used climate-change as a means of berating the great unwashed about our seemingly unhealthy scepticism with regards to science in general and scientists’ motives in particular. I have to admit to being less than impressed by his argument, which consisted of Nurse standing in front of a giant plasma screen waving both hands theatrically. He followed this up by peering meaningfully into a microscope and gazing studiously at two or three pages in a very old book. Having affirmed his credentials, Nurse then utilised a handy rope barrier to effect a demonstration that, in line with most of his reasoning, would have done credit to a ten-year-old child. If science has accepted it needs to engage with ‘the public’ I would humbly suggest such infantile presentations are unlikely to advance the cause.

Where high art and common life converge

The Keys/Gray kerfuffle is yet another warning about the necessity of keeping your thoughts to yourself. Those old throwaway lines can prove incendiary. Perish the thought that it’s one-way traffic. Listening to the congratulations rain down on Derek Walcott (for winning the TS Elliot prize) I can’t help but be reminded of how maligned he was during the race for the position of Oxford Professor of Poetry.

Monday, January 24

Phone-hacking

It’s not that I can’t appreciate the reasoning behind the reptiles’ ongoing interest in the phone-hacking story: it shines a spotlight on their sometimes laudable sometimes grubby world, and there’s political and commercial capital to be made from embarrassing your competitors. But let’s face it, who outside the business cares? There’s so much intrusion into the lives of Joe Public – the scale of surveillance operations, collating of records; trespass by petty and not so petty bureaucrats, the monitoring of internet traffic (...) – in what way is this different? I expect everything I send or receive to be surreptitiously read by some prick or other and act accordingly. When McPlonker wonders if his phone was hacked, everyone thinks to themselves, as Chancellor and Prime Minister he must surely have been a target for every foreign intelligence agency from here to Wagga Wagga land? Of course his calls were intercepted. And if all the lad had to worry about was ‘The News of the Screws’ he got off lightly. It’s not as if the police haven’t better things to do.

Sunday, January 23

Worth watching

Mrs G. is cock-a-hoop after yesterday’s result; our respective clubs are heading in opposite directions. I missed the highlights on the box as we were watching The Killing. Seems the two of us have an insatiable appetite for Scandinavian Crime Thrillers that aren’t written by Stieg Larsson. This time it’s Danish – more Tuborg than (Wallander’s) Saab. The Killing was a big hit on the continent, attracting an Emmy nomination for best drama series; Sophie Gråbøl who plays detective Sarah Lund was nominated for best actress. It is not so much ‘they’ do it better than us; it’s just the fact of a welcome change from our usual Anglo-American fare. And let’s face it, how many half-decent women leads are there – ones that are less the shrewish Helen Mirren (yes, I’m just itching to see the Brighton Rock remake) and more the Frances McDormand? Fox, as you would expect, have chosen to remake the series in their own inimitable style. Like many literary translations it so often misses the point.

Thursday, January 20

More Vitamin D

After weeks of festive sloth getting back on the trail is proving painful. We were out walking on Cornwall’s north coast this morning, taking advantage of the sunshine and absence of people. The sea was flat calm and beautiful. Air temperature 6ºC/sea temp 10ºC. Back here at the barn, out of sight of the sea, it’s a grim -3ºC. The yard remains an ice rink. Despite a lack of exercise it has taken just two weeks to return to my pre-December weight. However, whilst reducing my waistline some two inches this past year, I am still 14lbs heavier than prior to breaking my leg. In the past I addressed this sort of thing in the gym, but these days can’t be arsed. Besides, what would I do with all of those outsize sweaters Mrs G. has knitted for me?

At least in the eyes of my doctor, I probably consume too much meat – six days out of seven. Should I one day decide to become a vegetarian, it will be due in no small part to Albion Cooks.

Wednesday, January 19

Not noticed?

Blogger Tommy Ton is quoted as saying that, unlike younger gents, men over 50 aren’t dressing to be noticed. It is because they like dressing up ... an Italian man only approaches his full power and confidence in dressing in his fifties. At 60-plus, he may qualify as a sartorial genius whose idiosyncratic taste and ineffable confidence in mixing old and new clothes, and mismatching patterns and colours, completely outclasses younger men's gauche attempts at “fashion”. Pardon? Whilst this may well be true in Italy, I suspect my appearance at the Dog & Duck dressed, sans Wellington boots, in a checked suit, paisley waistcoat, striped shirt, spotted tie, pink pocket handkerchief, herringbone overcoat, an old fedora and aviators, would almost certainly get me noticed.

Idle hands syndrome

Just in case you thought the nanny state was dead...

Cage the minute

Hold the Press, as sunlight pays an all too rare visit. Tiny patches of blue sky are illuminating the homestead. Must admit, the frogs and I have been less than impressed by our sodden yard this last two weeks and had begun gazing wistfully at the high-flying aircraft. However, yesterday morning I was able to take my first meaningful non-city skive stroll of the year – an opportunity to give the new hazel thumb-stick (souvenir of our Irish trip) a run. Whilst I’m hardly in danger of Vitamin D deficiency (given the butter, eggs and oily fish we consume) fresh air remains my preferred route. Now back inside the office, slumped across my desk – listening to Getz & Gilberto, I’m not so sure Ipanema beach isn’t a better idea. That’s assuming it has stopped raining in Brazil.

I see the BMA and the unions have stepped up their rhetoric regarding the proposed changes to the structure of the NHS. Its instigators claim this will generate competition in provision, leading to better healthcare – better services, better value. Putting GPs in the driving seat has me wishing we had more competition in the ‘provision of GPs’. Hobson’s choice is one of the perils of living in a rural community. When in Ireland last month I had occasion to drop in on a similarly situated practise. There was no appointment regime, you simply walk in and wait your turn – usually, it appeared, for an hour or more. The other difference was that you paid (there was a price-list on the wall). On the plus side, said medic afforded his customers 20-30 minutes to shoot the breeze, providing an exceptional customer-orientated service.

Monday, January 17

It’s whatever you want it to be

Some apparently dubious maths has determined that, statistically, today is the most depressing day of the year. By dubious maths I mean the type of sorcery more typically used to adumbrate the conclusions to so many of those otherwise meticulous technical and commercial evaluations I have written over so many years. I find people rarely appreciate specific judgments, preferring a certain degree of wiggle room. Equivocal drafts containing a minimum of four summaries and a selection of recommendations are especially welcomed. In this case the day of gloom has been seemingly adjusted to cover a desperately slow news day. I’m sure ‘Blue Monday’ will continue to be reconfigured as required, figures can be as malleable as words.

Saturday, January 15

More than chicken soup

Christmas present and Booker winner, The Finkler Question is – at least in the view of Amazon critics – very much an acquired taste. Dismissed by some for its metropolitan Jewish flavour and unsympathetic characters, for me – following on from Bellow and Amis – it seems all too familiar: middle-aged male angst, rivalry and obsession – a profusion of themes, not least loss, grief, love ... and identity. The Jewish Question is incidental, in that this happens to be Jacobsen’s preferred vehicle; it could be any popular burden of choice. The BBC’s female employees are wonderfully satirised, as are his intellectual inferiors – ‘the sort of people you’d meet in adult education’ (ouch). People expect too much of Man Booker novels, when they are merely the publishing industry’s stab at the Cowell phenomenon. Think Susan Boyle with a beard and Panama hat.

Wednesday, January 12

Even wetter than Devon

Shock, horror ... Germans are human, they have just as many plonkers as we do – albeit we’ve got Ben Foster. Sorry, shouldn’t kick a man when he’s down. On the plus side, the Blues could well have been three down in the first half; that they weren’t was in part due to Foster. Things could be worse than facing a second leg, single goal deficit: young nephew and partner have just moved into a new riverside home in Brisbane. Never rains but it pours, they say; first the cricket, now this.

Tuesday, January 11

No bed of roses, for either gender

Cameron has a lot to answer for, not least in encouraging a raft of happiness indices and gratuitous reports. At exactly what point does the traditional struggle of confronting life’s challenges become an epidemic of mental-health problems? I believe, ‘Life is hard and then you die,’ is the time-honoured adage. Whilst my particular generation’s burden can hardly be compared to that of our parents and grandparents, no one can avoid the specific challenges of their time. That’s part of the deal. If women are thought twice as likely as men to be depressed, etc., it’s probably because men are less inclined to talk or seek help. I haven’t any figures to hand but suspect young men are still far more likely to top themselves than their sisters. Glugging bottles of Chardonnay and indulging in inappropriate behaviour merely acknowledges that equality affords women an equal right to self-medicate.

Monday, January 10

The stand-off continues

If the outlook wasn’t bad enough, economists (large pinch of salt) predict the ‘typical house’ price will lose a quarter of its value by the end of 2011 – that’s against the value they peaked at in 2007, not year-on-year. This would still be a significant drop in anyone’s money, though I can’t see it myself. Despite worries over inflation and my frantic missives to young Mervyn about a decent return on my savings, the monetary policy boys will continue to sit on their hands. Raising interest rates would be political suicide for the government, not to mention seriously pissing off the IOD/CBI et al. Short of alternatives people will carry on investing in property (sales were up last year). No one is building and the population grows apace. From what I can determine, most of the country is holed up in rented accommodation, looking for something to spend their money on. Unfortunately buyers won’t pay the asking prices and vendors refuse to budge, leaving divorce and death as the two seasonal drivers: disillusioned downshifters and the consequence of a cold winter.

Happy in your work

Happiness is having a job, and the salary doesn’t matter. That’s according to the result of a survey by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). A job, it seems, provides both the motivation to get up in the morning and a measure of self-esteem. I’ve oft listened to this debate amongst friends and colleagues, and they usually split in equal numbers. Half can’t imagine an existence outside of the workplace. That’s where all their relationships reside, it defines what and who they are in society, and having to face the spouse on a daily basis doesn’t bear thinking about. Of course the other bunch can’t wait to see the end of their incarceration, wave goodbye to the people they’re obliged to work alongside, to have a shot at pursuing those hundred and one projects secreted in the bottom drawer. I suspect either route is valid and that the overriding determinant with regards to happiness – whatever that may be – is choice, whether you elect to take the path you’re on or have it chosen for you.

Saturday, January 8

Market day

The grim reality of the new year is staring in at me and it’s not grey but black. Today being Saturday I’m tempted to close my curtains and adjust the office soundtrack. Needs must however: you can only eat so much venison, so many pheasants. I require more adventurous fare, ideally something reminiscent of the Yangtze (I always thought it a great little restaurant). When in doubt there is always the ubiquitous Chinese? Alas not here, not anywhere in the county. Better to visit the market, then cook it yourself. On the plus side we do have football: a third-round FA Cup match, live on television. Tuesday’s the big one.

Friday, January 7

Evaluating worth: mostly a retrospective thing

This evening I lay toasting my feet on the fire, listening to the wireless: The Genius of Mozart – his ‘Turkish’ opera, Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail (Mrs G. commands the controls). Who or what qualifies someone a genius? I’m sure Socrates must have been one? Educated people have told me Galileo likely was – Michelangelo for sure. Was Shakespeare a genius or just a highly regarded playwright? Muhammad Ali merely a boxer with the gift of the gab? Maybe death is the qualifier and genius is a synonym of obituary?

101 Whiskies ... before you die

My sort of book: pretty pictures and simple, all you need to know descriptive passages. Despite my exposure to them good old boys drinkin’ whiskey and rye, the extent of my knowledge of whisky could be written on the back of a Glenfiddich label. I suppose I’ve visited twenty or so distilleries over the years, mostly back when floor malting was more common. I drank with guys that worked in the industry and who would top up their glasses from concealed flasks of clearic, white whisky they’d filched from the still. Most everyone I knew in the early days drank Glenlivet or Glenmorangie; twenty-five years ago the fashion was for Macallan. In recent years I seem to have settled on Balvenie, the little brother to Glenfiddich. When the sweetness becomes too much there’s always something peaty to hand. Ian Buxton’s book also came to me as a Christmas present, along with a bottle of cask-strength Aberlour a’bunadh to start me off. It appears I’ve a long way to go.

Thursday, January 6

Fishing for Poetry

Among the books that came my way at Christmas was Andrew Greig’s At the Loch of the Green Corrie, the inspiration behind the BBC’s Fishing for Poetry which featured Billy Connolly and Aly Bain. Whilst the author is new to me I find he’s lauded in the Scotsman and New Statesman as one of Scotland’s major writers, though that’s a bit like saying Caley Thistle is one of the country’s major football clubs. If you enjoy Norman MacCaig poetry the book is worth a punt: Greig is a groupie of the first rank. Unfortunately, though well into his 50s, the lad has an adolescent tendency to dwell too much on personal guff, relating embarrassing details about his past we’d rather not be party to. I’m firmly behind MacCaig on keeping things under your hat and restricting one’s ambition to your poetry. It doesn’t go unnoticed that, under the book’s Acknowledgements, the author recognises the McCaig family streak of reticence by confirming the poet’s son and daughter kept it firmly buttoned. Greig seems to justify his cathartic approach by pointing to the poet’s Late Style which was seemingly stripped of hubris and pomposity and unashamed of its fallibility. I’d give him the benefit of the doubt if only the Copyright page didn’t say ‘This book is a work of fiction ...’. What exactly is that about? Greig blethers on too much at times, but then look at who’s talking. Thanks in part to the BBC he should at least be able to replace that ageing Audi.

Wednesday, January 5

Heads or tails

Most recordings have a personal resonance. For me the Stealers Wheel hit has an obvious ’73 connection. With Baker Street read an Edinburgh watering hole, back when Rebus was but a gleam in someone’s eye, in the company of a one-time adversary and sometime friend who, unlike Rafferty, gave up the booze and the one-night stands. Who spent the next two decades on a seemingly fruitless search to fill the void. It’s that Beckett shit again.

Monday, January 3

It was probably grey back then

As today is a Public Holiday the New Year remains on hold. I continue to subsist on soda bread, fruitcake and whisky. Outside is cold, damp and very grey. My initial instinct, on opening the curtains, was to close them again. It could be Aberdeen in disguise. ‘When philosophy paints its grey on grey ...’ And definitely not the time of year for Hegel or Scandinavian Crime Thrillers. Ha, wait ’til the depths of March, you say.

Last night a phantom dropped from a cranny in the lintel over the window and landed with a dry whisper and dull plop at my elbow. Jump: how high? Seeming to stare – making sure it had my attention – the bat flexed its leathery wings, circled my head several times and flew out the door. A more pointed allusion I couldn’t wish. So given the breakfast butter also tastes unusually salty, a visit to the coast seems in order. I will stand under the grey sky and watch as grey rollers pulverise the rocks ... search amongst the exposed lias for fossilised evidence of our phantom’s primacy.

Saturday, January 1

Have a happy 2011

I’m with Ian Holloway and was sad to see an end to 2010. It was an OK year. I enjoyed myself. All the next twelve months promise is a whiners’ free-for-all. Don’t get me wrong, an occasional gripe is good for morale. But when it becomes a career choice...? Last night – having completing my New Year Eve chores (it’s customary to clean the house from top to bottom) – I settled down with a bottle and listened to Tony Blackburn’s radio show. The lad played three hours of classic Motown, Atlantic and Stax soul tracks, demonstrating once again that whilst good things endure little really changes. People still kill each other; governments continue to extort taxes and duties; managers of football clubs are sacked; ...