Ye Tak the High Road…


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scotsmanThis Autumn – very soon now – the Scottish people will be asked to vote either to stay in the United Kingdom, or become an independent nation, thus severing a bond tied in 1707, and a history that extends much further, back to the days when the political alliances of sovereign nations in Western Europe were still being formed. 

It’s a long history.  It was a difficult and intricate alliance which was simplified by union; and now a Napoleonic Scottish politician wants to make everything difficult again.

It would be foolish to argue that 300 years have brought unity.  They have not.  The instinctive mistrust an Englishman feels when confronted by a man wearing a skirt may be part of the explanation, or it may be something rather more visceral.

We do not even wholly share a mother tongue.  Our conjoined languages have eroded national identity somewhat in the area known as the Great Glen (the wide fertile lowland area between Glasgow and Edinburgh) but as anyone who has traveled further north will testify Scottish is a very different means of communication.

If you believe that England and Scotland share a common language read any poem by Robert Burns.

The Scottish are a creative, innovative race.  Logie Baird started the idea of television,  Fleming discovered penicillin,  James Watt built all sorts of interesting things involving steam and we are deeply indebted to Thomas Telford, without whose canals we would have nowhere to deposit our used shopping carts, dead cats etc..  Anywhere in the modern world you will find accomplished Scottish engineers and artists who have wandered from their homeland, and will do almost anything to avoid going back.

Scottish food is, at best, edible.  Porridge, the national breakfast dish, a kind of lumpy wallpaper paste, must be eaten with salt, not sugar.  No-one outside Scotland has ever appreciated this apart from Goldilocks.  haggisHaggis (the less said about the ingredients the better), is mealy and chewy in a cloying sort of way, while Black Pudding is – well – Black Pudding.  Mealy and chewy…..

The truth about Scottish cuisine is that no-one eats it, least of all the Scots.  Their true national foods are Fish and Chips.  And being Scottish, their interpretations of this essentially English dish are imaginative  – hence chocolate bars and even chocolate coated ice cream fried in batter (think Baked Alaska, then try not to think too hard) – in fact anything as long as it is accompanied by chipped potatoes.  

Pizza and MacDonalds also feature heavily.

The United Kingdom (i.e. England and anyone who can get a word in edgeways) is particularly fond of Scotland for two reasons:  whisky, and oil.  These two products define the English way of life (drive to work, drive home, get drunk) and we are loath to see them as anything other than an inalienable right.  To be forced to import them, with all the attendant duties and expense, would be a travesty.  For this and other reasons in the event of a vote for independence I see the re-building of Hadrian’s Wall as becoming a necessity, otherwise cross-border smuggling will run rampant.  As a matter of personal preference I shall also press for the area between the Antonine wall and Hadrian’s Wall to be declared a bagpipe-free zone.

The truth is, I will miss the Scots if they leave the Union – not because the annual armed raids across the border to Wembley Stadium will cease – they won’t.  Football between England and Scotland will persist, and if anything, the fan activity will become even more aggressive:  (Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle on the cost of demolishing London’s old Wembley Stadium:  ‘Why didn’t they tell us they wanted it pulled down before the last international?  We’d have done it for nothing!’)frankie-boyle and not because of (speaking behind hand, sotto voce) the whisky.  Since no misguided sense of patriotism will convert me to English wine, I’ll still be drinking it; in fact, I may set up an agency for a little quiet cross-border activity, if the vote tears us apart.


No, I will miss the self-deprecating Scottish humor, the wonderfully relaxed approach to life and work, the warmth and the hospitality, almost as much as I will miss the guy always seated at the end of the bar who proves that if we are separated by our mother tongues, we yet share the language of drunkenness.  If he becomes an immigrant it won’t be the same somehow.


So come on, people of Scotland, don’t close our joint account – vote for a United Kingdom.  We still need your money.


Hey, Jimmy!   Ah bliddy luv yooo!

The Beautiful Game


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Football ( or Soccer, if you prefer) is often called ‘The Beautiful Game’.   I forget who first conjured the phrase – possibly it came to prominence around the same time somebody dreamt up that one about ‘the British Police Force is the best in the world’, or some such.   Personally, I can find nothing in football that is beautiful.  I can find very little in football that can be called a ‘game’.

All right, my antipathy for the sport is well-known.  I can be found railing haplessly at the TV on any given Sunday, searching vainly through the channels for something – anything – which does not depict professional sport.  But I do have real (and growing) cause for concern, and I will tell you why.

The backcloth, of course, is the World Cup, currently reaching a climax in torrential floods of nationalism all over Brazil.  So many of the young people I reach during my work, erudite, intelligent young people on their way to university or to apprenticeships in the next few years, are obsessed with football that any attempt at conversation on other subjects is ruled out.

 I don’t mind.  I like to acquire enough background knowledge to converse on any subject, which is why I in the course of one session I responded readily to a mention of the tackle which floored Brazil’s Neymar and broke a vertebra in his spine.  I had seen the tackle, in which a Columbian player running at full tilt had apparently rammed his knee intentionally into Neymar’s lower back.  It was clearly a foul in the worst sense, but one the referee chose to ignore:  why, I can only surmise.

But that was not the reason for the chill that ran up my spine in this discussion.  When we agreed the tackle had been designed to eliminate Neymar, Brazil’s young rising star, from the competition, and I suggested that this had little to do with sport my young companion shook his head. 

“Well of course, you do anything you can get away with.  That’s the game, isn’t it?”

Is it?

I soon established my young companion wholly condoned the practice of fouling to cause injury, ‘diving’ in the penalty area where any foul will result in a penalty kick at goal, and feigning injury to gain a time advantage, or get an opposing player sent from the pitch: all fair play in his estimation if you want to ‘win’.

This young man is on his way to university to study for a business degree.  He is one of the next generation of industry captains who will be selling to us, producing goods for us, selling and buying shares in the market on our behalf.   Personally, I will be very careful to watch his progress.

Today Neymar gave an emotional press conference in which he revealed that if the contact on his back had been a few centimeters higher he would have been paralyzed for life.   An attack such as the one he suffered, delivered with such cynicism, would be punishable by a jail sentence if it happened outside a football ground.    Yet the ‘sport’ of football seems not only to tolerate this kind of gamesmanship, it positively promotes it.  The skills involved in the sneak tackles – the exaggerated swan-dives and the agonized protestations of innocence are clearly not haphazardly attained:  they must be taught.

And as they are taught, so they teach.  The next generation will believe that anything is alright, as long as they can get away with it – anything goes.   If too many are in front of them in the queue it is alright to trip up, back elbow, bludgeon and maim, either literally or figuratively, those who separate them from their goal. MH900439553

So where do we draw the line – at the devious, the underhand?  And who will be there to draw that line, to kerb the outrageous, defend the victims of this kind of injustice?  If ever an indictment of our TV-focussed, parentally deficient society existed, it was on that football pitch last week.  The ‘beautiful game’- a picture in our attic, perhaps?

The Perfect Bear

“M’Lord when you look so disdainfully upon this tree you see only the ravages of age.  I?  I see magnificence – a monument to the centuries.  Allow me the privilege M’Lord and I shall create for you a thing of such beauty from this tree!” Anton Beneskja said grandly. “It shall be my greatest work:  it shall be transcendent!”

Lord Percival Fortesque regarded The Briarley Oak, forest giant and pride of his country estate, with some doubt.  “Ravaged, m’dear?  Immensely grizzled, I would say.  Hideous, certainly: its nine hundred years have not treated it kindly.”

Anton smiled.  “Yet it still grows.  Had I that gift in so many years unsightliness is a price I would gladly pay.”

The gnarled tree loomed before them, inscrutable; its elephantine boughs extending over their heads like a coming storm, its mighty trunk twisted as if to some summoning voice that called from amongst the mountains of the east.  “Indeed, Master; if you can improve upon nature…”

“If I can?  If I can?  M’Lord Percival, have I ever failed?”

M’Lord Percival bit a nervous lip.  There was no doubting the genius that burned within his friend.  In his life Anton Beneskja, sculptor in wood, had created many estimable works – his ‘Adoration of the Lamb’ Triptych (Commissioned by Pius XI himself) was a venerated exhibit in the Basilica of St. Boniface; and his quite graphic series of carvings ‘Beyond Innocence’ held pride of place in the Alpington Gallery.  A frieze the great man had hewn to adorn the banqueting hall of Malton House had been lauded as ‘inspired’ by all who saw it.

 “It would seem…”  Knowing those extraordinary talents, Percival hesitated in his criticism…”exceptionally ambitious.”

“Indeed so!  Indeed so!  A great enterprise, my Lord!  I shall call it;”  Anton proclaimed;  “The Perfect Bear.”

“All the same;”  Percival reasoned;  “to carve from a living tree?  This is the Briarley Oak, man, and I’m not sure, y’see, that either my ancestors or my heirs would ever forgive me.  If I were to agree, then why not take the tree down first?”

“Wood, Lord Fortesque, is a paradox.  We speak of it as a ‘living’ material, but of course it is not.  Wood dies when the tree falls.”

Fortesque was not of a mood to be lectured.  “Deuced cold.”  He murmured.  A brisk north easterly breeze was threatening rain.  “A bear, y’say?”

“And an affirmation of life: carved so the tree’s vital energies will be preserved. It will grow; it will develop the sculpture!  Perceive how those two mighty roots are spread like hinder legs with feet planted firmly upon the earth, and how they unify with the great barrel of that trunk, then how the neck supporting the thinner upper boughs – such useless things – forms a bole?  Hewn with my genius that bole shall become a head with mouth agape and rows of, oh, such fearsome teeth!  And now!  Now!”  The old man thrust himself forward, jabbing a finger towards the forest canopy:  “See how that one lofty bough, strongest and most ancient of them all, reaches for heaven?  It will be a mighty paw, reaching as though the creature were seeking to pluck the very moon from the sky!”

 Percival tried to recount the times he had listened to his artist’s impassioned exposition of his work, how often he had doubted.  As Beneskja’s patron he had been taken upon many such visionary tours of lifeless chunks of timber, and placed his faith, oh, so many times, in the maestro’s all-encompassing imagination.  Each time he laid his money down he did so out of friendship, or a gambler’s arrogance, or maybe for the love of fine art at its finest; to be rewarded, many-fold, for almost every adventure.  But this…..this would become a permanent feature of his jealously defended parkland.

Lord Percival Fortesque jabbed his cane into the turf.  He had been chilled for long enough and had no wish for a fever.  “Beneskja m’dear: you must kill the tree in such an enterprise, surely?”

“Again no!  I can work with the form of the tree, leave such bark as it needs to protect the passage of life-giving sap, keep the strength to support those limbs.  My bear will live in your forest, it will grow and alter with the years – my art will live, My Lord; long after you and I are gone.”

Fortesque tried, using all the resources of his imagination, to gain a picture of Anton’s intentions in his mind.  He could not.  “I shiver intolerably!”  His Lordship finally said; and he walked away, shouting over his shoulder:  “Very well.  Do it!”

So a spark that had smoldered so long in Beneskja’s mind became flame.  Thereafter he could think of nothing else:  commissions were left uncompleted, meals left uneaten.  He took to wandering the passages of his extensive home through the early hours, frightening servants as he often forgot to clothe himself on these expeditions.  He drew plans on walls, talked unceasingly of the tree until his mistress Gisette, incensed, began to throw things at him, and eventually left the house altogether.

Gisette came back, of course, she always did.  But when she did, the maestro was not at home.  Her maidservant was pale with worry.  Anton Beneskja had disappeared.

Gisette found him beneath a little roof he had made of wood for himself, nestled at the foot of the Briarley Oak.

“I shall sleep here.  I shall eat here.  I shall work here.”

“It will be too cold!  When the wild east wind brings snow from the mountains you will surely freeze!”

“I can build a fire!  I shall have wood, after all!  And perhaps, my love, you will join me on the coldest nights?”

“On such hard ground?  Am I so foolish?  When you turn to ice, be sure you pose nicely.  You can be your own last statue.” Gisette snapped back.  “I shall pay the household bills by exhibiting you here until you melt in the Spring!”  Gisette stormed off, telling Anton she would be in his house if he wanted to come to her.  One of Lord Fortesque’s servants would bring him food.

In fact Anton had no intention of remaining in his little hut more than a few days, while he studied the tree’s form and discovered the living veins that sustained it year by year.  There was little to detain him, as he saw it, once the essential sinew of the old beast was discovered and mapped; for he knew this must be protected.  Although much of the wood was dead and therefore of no use in his eyes his chisels and rasps would work close to living arteries.  It was essential he knew where to make each cut.

A week would pass before Anton began.  His gouge found an open end of grain which invited him to follow it, using the guile and sensitivity his years of dedication to art had taught him.  A sliver of the great oak yielded, prised away from a bed wherein it had slumbered for an age, exposing the lighter grey of long deceased sapwood beneath.

“Ah,” said the oak.  “That was a blow struck with wisdom.  You have no idea how irritating is the burden of atrophy.  You have relieved me of an itch that has troubled me for three centuries.  I thank you for that.”

Anton took a backward step.  He looked, but the carafe of wine Fortesque’s servant had brought him was still full.  Then he looked at the tree, which had not moved, or made any other sign of life.  Great artist that he was, he had often claimed that wood could ‘speak’ – until now he had never really been given cause to believe it.

“You spoke to me?”  He questioned the tree, incredulously.

“Is that so surprising?  I have existed in this glade nigh a thousand years while mortals have clustered about me, why should I not have learned your language of words?”

“But you have no…..”

“What?  Mouth parts?  Tongue, vocal cords?  Of course I can speak, though you may not hear my words, but rather feel their presence inside your head.  Not every mortal can sense them; but then, not every mortal knows wood as you know it.”

Anton found himself unable to reply!  He paced back and forth for several minutes, allowing his freed mind to marvel at this phenomenon.  At last he began to speak in mono-syllables; pouring out random questions:  “Why?  How long?  Which?  Can you?  Have I?”

The tree smiled.  Anton could persuade himself he actually felt it smile!

“Be still!”  The old oak said kindly.  “This way of sharing knowledge is new to you.  You must organize your thoughts, discipline your mind.  Let your questions form.  Take some time.  We are trees – we have nothing but time.”

Anton did not return to his house as he had anticipated, in a few days.  Nor did he return in a few weeks, or a few months.  He built a fire against the winter, a screen against the east wind, and despite Gisette’s dire prediction he did not freeze to death.  For much of the time work was impossible – his tools too cold and brittle, his hands too bitten by the frost to hold them, but he stayed.  And in that time the old oak shared many secrets, and he gained more knowledge of wood than had ever been given to any mortal man.

One day in early March, as the first lances of sun sliced through the snow clouds and the ancient tree was busy nurturing buds he made a pact.

The tree had long known Anton’s intention to transform it.  “I am old and though you have given me new life I know one day I must die.  I will be food for beetles, a rotting carcass on the forest floor.  I do not want that to be my fate.  If I am to be a bear,” the tree spoke in his mind, “I will help you with your quest for perfection.  But you must use your genius to help me.  I would like to die as a bear.”

Anton needed no more than a moment.  He placed both his hands upon the tree’s wide trunk, saying:  “My lord of the forest, I will do all I can.”

Thus dawned a last, brilliant phase in the creative fortunes of Anton Beneskja, wood carver and sculptor.  His renewed genius was entirely centered upon the Briarley Oak which, as he had promised, was step by laborious step transformed into the fearsome image of a giant bear reared upon its hinder legs, stretching for the moon through the canopy of the forest.  No-one knew how deeply intimate was his relationship with that great tree, or how each cut he made, each refinement of form was inch by inch advised by his subject:  he kept that secret to the end.  Knowing him as she did, Gisette might have been best placed to discover the truth, that ‘The Perfect Bear’ was not, after all, entirely his work.  Yet she was accustomed to his conversations with himself when he was working, and so thought little of discovering him apparently talking to the tree when she came upon him unannounced.

“Ah, my Anton!  My shining star!  It is as if the wood could talk to you, my darling, is it not?”

“Yes.”  Anton agreed.  “And imagine what it would say….”

The months passed, became years.  Out of the deformity of the Briarley Oak inch by inch, cut by cut, a miracle took shape.  One morning in the third spring, at quite an early hour, the largest root became a paw, its claws clutching into forest loam with crippling force.  In that same year the union of root and trunk was transformed to become a broad and powerful haunch, and the excess wood that spoiled the angle Anton wanted for the bear’s back began to fall away.  So dramatic were these changes those who witnessed them swore the tree itself was changing shape, its boughs creating new angles, the bole at its summit leaning upwards more than before.  Everyone who visited the glade remarked upon the vitality of the sculpture – how very like a mighty bear it was become.

As for Anton himself, he became as much a part of the forest as the tree.  Working increasingly from ladders and burned walnut brown by constant exposure to the elements, he was barely distinguishable as he clung, ape-like, to a high limb.  He grew apart from his human associations.  Lord Percival, amazed at the sculpture’s brilliance, was inclined to visit often.  When he did he enthused, but Anton answered only with non-committal words and grunts.  When would the work be finished?  Not yet.  Did he need more money or supplies?  No, none.

Eventually Fortesque stopped approaching Beneskja altogether, preferring to view his remarkable carving from a distance.  Soon even Gisette was rejected.  The master lived by his work, and he lived only for his work.  It was his alone.

The years slipped by.  Tired of waiting, Gisette married Lord Percival Fortesque.  Now Anton was seen only rarely. Glimpsed at times amid the foliage of his tree he became the subject of superstitious rumor.  Some claimed Beneskja had become a sprite, that he would hide within the disguise of his tree ready to leap upon the unwary.  Others even suggested they had seen leaves growing from his body.  He could no longer speak in human tongue, they said.  Children were warned with dark tales.

At last in the summer of the seventh year ‘The Perfect Bear’ was finished.  Its presence in the wood had been so remarkable for so long it was impossible to be certain when Beneskja’s chisel made its final pass.  But the completed sculpture was a thing of power and beauty which fulfilled Anton’s promise.  And true to his promise it grew in glory with the years.

Beneskja?  Perhaps he left to travel in foreign lands, or to seek new avenues for his colossal talents; maybe he simply dropped into obscurity, his life’s work done.  No-one could say what had become of him and strangely for one who was a legend in himself, few took the trouble even to ask.

Then one bright morning the elderly Lord Percival and Lady Gisette, walking in the woods, came upon their glade to find ‘The Perfect Bear’ had gone!  There was nothing, no trace beneath the wide acre of clear sky the tree had left behind to show it had ever grown there.  They sought for signs of churned earth where its roots had been, called in experts to look for other clues, but all in vain.  The Briarley Oak, ‘The Perfect Bear’, had vanished.

A satisfactory answer was never found.  In future years a man from the village who was grown to become a poet recalled a childhood dream in which he stood at the door of his parents’ cottage and saw a bear rushing across the fields towards the dawn with an old man clinging to its back.  Still more time would pass before a group of mountaineers in the nearby peaks came across a cave well above the tree line which was, inexplicably, filled with huge baulks of timber – oak from an ancient tree.  But there were no signs the wood had been cut, or evidence of any human activity.

“It is as if” one of the mountaineers explained; “the tree just crawled into the cave and died.”


©  Frederick Anderson, June 2014.


The Liebster Award


Many thanks to Benjamin Brede (follow this link to his brilliant blog) who has been kind enough to nominate this place for a Liebster Award.

The Liebster welcomes “new” bloggers that have less than 1,000 followers, not merely by showcasing us struggling hacks but by opening windows to our souls (mind you, you might think some windows are better left shut!). Here are the rules:

1.) Link back to the person who nominated you. (very gladly Benjamin – nice blog!)

2.) Share 11 facts about yourself. (Oh, no! surely….)

3.) Answer 11 questions that were asked by the person who nominated you.

4.) Nominate 11 people who you think deserve the Liebster Award.

5.) Ask 11 questions to your nominees to answer.

6.) Ask your nominees to add that big green Leibster Award shield to their blogs (easily done – just link back tot he embedded image above or go to the original Liebster site. Wear it with pride, guys.

So, here we go:

11 facts about myself:

I am imperfect.

Above all else, I dislike pretentious people.

No matter how hard I try, I make mistakes.

I am not a tidy person.

Food is more important to me than it should be, but that isn’t about to change.

If I could I would live the rest of my life on a boat.

Childhood poverty is the ankus that prods.

I am slow to trust.

I am probably a solitary person, and only confident in my own company.

I am a writer. I have opinions. Lots of opinions.

I love my environment, but it holds me prisoner.

Now I’ll have a shot at answering Benjamin’s questions:

1 – What is your favorite memory?

When I was 17 I drove my first car to a trig point high in the hills. I sat watching a procession of thunderstorms crossing the valley. It was a new kind of freedom, just sitting alone amongst those furious clouds with nature on fire all around me.

2 – What is your favourite thing to talk about?

Oh, anything! Give me a subject and then just try and stop me!

3 – What is your favourite thing to write about (this is very different than the previous question)?

Maybe Sci-Fi? I guess that must be it. Mostly, whatever the backcloth, my work is about people. What makes us tick, what spurs the horses of the inner mind.

4 – What is your favourite thing about yourself?

I’d have to dig deep. It’s sort of negative, this, but I don’t think I’m mean. Will that do?

5 – If you could live anywhere for three months, where would it be?

On a boat! But OK, on a realistic level, if I had to choose a City it would be Amsterdam. Less realistically, Agios Stephanos, Meteora Monastery – perfect peace, perfect prospect, perfectly devoid of debt collection agencies (unless they’re sufficiently zealous to be raised five hundred feet in a bucket)!

6 – Why do you write?

I don’t think I can give a reason for this. I always have. I could no more cease writing voluntarily than cease eating (BTW, I love food!).

7 – What keeps you motivated?


8 – What type of books do you read?

Mostly classic novels: I’m just finishing Lawrence’s ‘The White Peacock’ at the moment. Before that, ‘Dombey and Son’. More modern favourites? Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Philip Pullman. Honestly, I’m not a great reader.

9 – What’s your second favourite hobby?

I don’t really have one at the moment, unless you count the family dog. In the past I’ve done scratch modelling, some DIY….

10 – Do you believe in aliens?

Yes, of course. There are millions of worlds out there, and some at least must be populated. Aliens on our world are rather doubtful, I think; though to this day I cannot understand how the crews of Apollos 11 and 12 failed to make contact with the Clangers.

11 – Tell me a story.

This needed time, but I have it for you. It is rather large, so I will post it separately. It is called ‘The Perfect Bear’.

These are my nominees for the Liebster Award. All are blogs I am privileged to follow:

And here are the questions I would like to ask them:

My Questions:

1. If you could meet a famous person from history who would it be and what one question would you like to ask them?

2. Which of the world’s wrongs do you most want to put right?

3. What is your favourite film of all time?

4. Do you believe in the supernatural?

5. What is your favourite book?

6. What is the one embarrassing moment you always remember? (It’s alright, you can lie!)

7. Describe your perfect weekend.

8. What would you like people to say about you after you’ve left the room?

9. What really, really irritates you?

10. If the entire world had to be just one colour, what would you like that colour to be?

11. What do you think your afterlife will be like?

Best wishes, fellow bloggers, and may the force be with you! My story for Benjamin, ‘The Perfect Bear’ follows.

White Goods Counselling


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This was a few years ago.  Tony was a generous man of nearly my own age, not in the bloom of health perhaps, but still walking in the sun when he found a partner younger than he, slim and apparently self-confident with a willing smile; a paragon of something not quite within the powers of description but mother to two adolescent children, a girl and a boy.

Within three months they found a house – a modest semi-detached with a garden – and moved in together; a course of action which might have seemed sudden, but the days grow short as you reach November, and it would be hard to criticize them for reaching out to grasp at happiness.  To all appearances, this was the sort of consolation prize relationship many dream about but few attain, and all seemed well with Tony and Marian, his new-found friend.

Barely six months had passed before the first cracks showed.  According to Tony, Marian’s expensive tastes did not match his modest income:  she kept two horses, insisted upon her own car, and had a penchant for retail therapy.  Two months later, again according to Tony, Marian drank heavily; Marian was bi-polar, Marian was ‘troubled by her nerves’.   Marian suffered those slings and arrows stoically and made no accusations in return, but the outcome was inevitable.

Friends gathered around the two camps; battle lines were drawn.  It was noticeable that of the two armies, Tony’s was much the smaller.  They entered into skirmishes on his behalf with less enthusiasm and were conspicuously absent at key points in the fight.  Like Custer at Little Bighorn, Tony stood tall; like Custer, Tony was too stubborn to realize he was hopelessly outnumbered.

No-one mentioned counseling.

Then, one Saturday morning as she hung out washing on their garden line, Marian announced calmly that she and Tony were not ‘getting on together very well’ and she was moving out.  She had procured a new house locally, she told me, and would be gone ‘within the week’.

True to her word, as day seven dawned she and her children were to be seen loading boxes of possessions into her little car.  They drove off and peace descended over the little house.  A disconsolate Tony watched the remnants of his defeated army disappearing over the horizon.  He stood alone.

For one day.

On the Monday morning at nine o’clock Tony went off to work.  At nine-thirty Marian’s car drew up outside his house, where she stayed for the rest of the morning because her new accommodation had no washing machine and no garden.  By midday she could be seen pegging out her washing on what now had to be regarded as Tony’s washing line.  It was a temporary arrangement, she explained.  It would be rectified as soon as she could procure the necessary equipment.

By Tony’s return in the evening Marian and her washing had vanished and the matter should have rested there – would have done, if Marian had fulfilled her intention to purchase her own washing machine and drier.  Perhaps the temptation was too great, the answer too simple; or maybe with all her other commitments now she was single again new white goods were beyond her financial reach: whatever the reason, Marian kept coming back.  Three times a week, her washing adorned Tony’s washing line, even to a point on one occasion when Tony’s own washing had to be deposed to make room.Image

Now Tony’s ear for bush telegraph was less than acute, but eventually this state of affairs had to come to light.  You do not need to catch a rabbit red-handed to know it has trespassed in your cabbage patch.  The evidence is provided by the cabbages.  My choice of metaphor, by the way, is not accidental. 

Marian had retained possession of a key.  Her daughter knew its whereabouts.  It was so available that one afternoon, in the grip of coital fever and desperately in need of privacy, she and her boyfriend let themselves into Tony’s house and thence into Tony’s spare bedroom.   They were still there, deep in satisfied sleep, when Tony returned that evening.

I am unsure exactly what agreements the ensuing row produced, though a whiff of blackmail hangs in the air to this day.  Suffice to say both Marian’s children spent the following weekend grudgingly treating Tony’s garden to a rather inexpert but well-intended makeover, and Marian’s washing forays no longer retained their clandestine nature.  In fact, she often arrived with the basket before Tony had left, and on increasingly frequent occasions did not leave on the same day, or the next.

These events took place, as I have said, a few years ago.   Tony is older now by double those years, and poorer by several more:  but Marian, though she has still a house of her own, spends little time in it, and a lot of time in Tony’s, if only because of the volume of her washing.  As far as I know, she has never bought her own machine, and if she has, she never uses it.

The moral of this story?  If there is one, it might point out there are many versions of ‘happily ever after’ which even within one partnership may not coincide.  And a further point: as a bachelor in need of a life partner, your first consideration should probably be the purchase of a good washing machine.

Funny old thing, life, innit?



Hansel and Gretel


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 “Bettina has farrowed.”  The letter said in my Uncle Owen’s stilted terminology.  “Ten perfect little piglings, four boys and six girls.”   I was shown the picture.  A cluster of grinning faces sniggered back at me.

“Ten!”  I was impressed.  Lots of things impress you when you are six.

“Poor Bettina!”   My mother sympathized. “Perhaps Emil will take you to see them when we visit next month.”

Emil and Mitzy, his wife, were the bailiffs at Uncle Owen’s farm in the New Forest.  The German couple were nice people, and the congenial Emil, particularly, always had time for me. 

Owen’s ‘farm’ had few agricultural references, which set it as much apart from the farms surrounding my home in the West Country as a monastery from a hermit’s cell.  Yes, there was a herd of cattle, and there were tumultuous chickens, irascible geese and implacable ducks.  And there were pigs, of course.   But all these were a backcloth:  the star performer was the farmhouse.   The farmhouse was Uncle Owen’s showcase. 

Uncle Owen was ‘something in the City’.   He had bought the farm for weekend entertainments to enhance his business, so the house reflected this.  A long, thatched building with exposed timbers, it gazed serenely out over an acre of manicured lawn towards two sagacious chestnut trees. To the east the driveway lined by firs and rhododendrons, to the west a tennis court – my uncle’s preferred sport was tennis.

On hot days we would lunch beneath the panoply of the chestnuts, on wet days in the brown heat of the farm kitchen.  I would eat frugally and say nothing.  And on this particular afternoon Emil took me to see Bettina’s litter.Image

“You see they are not little piglets anymore.”  He said, lifting me so I could see over the wall into their yard.  They weren’t.

Twenty little eyes looked up at me, assessing me instantly.  Ten healthy mouths muttered conspiratorially.

“We are weaning them.  Really they are already weaned, I think, but for a few days more they stay with Bettina.”  Emil informed me. 
“We have to get them back to her now.  Would you like to help me do this?”

I needed no second bidding.  Inside the yard, with its gate closed behind us, I watched as Emil opened a loose box to reveal a recumbent Bettina, still massive with milk, resting within.  She did not bother to rise.  Ten healthy pig-children regarded me with renewed interest.

“We go each side, I think.”

The pig-children would not give up their freedom easily.  I remember my enjoyment of the chase, and I am sure the pigs were having just as much fun.   Furthermore, they taught me respect.  They showed me their skill in evasion, their fleetness of foot, their wicked sense of humor.  As Emil and I cornered one group they split into two, then into pairs.  They teamed up, then divided again.  They twisted, they turned.  They made dummy runs to wrong-foot us, and one even became cheeky enough to push my legs from under me so I fell flat on my back.  After a few seconds uninterrupted view of an azure blue sky, the face of a triumphant piglet appeared, grinning down at me.   Several minutes of pure entertainment later, during which Emil and I were comprehensively out-maneuvered, Bettina’s delinquent children finally consented to be herded to her bosoms.  It was their decision, not ours.

I needed washing.  So did my clothes.  How somehow I avoided censure I can’t recall, but probably it was because Emil came to my defense.  Anyway, upon learning of my adventure my mother laughed for at least five minutes, and that evening when I wafted in to dinner everyone very pointedly sniffed.    In that and other ways I think the memories of my chase stayed with me for a week, not least because next day I was made to ride home in our car beside an open window.  It was a cold journey.

Family crises arose even more frequently than usual that year, so we were back at the farm no more than a month later, recuperating from the wolf-pack which frequently set up camp outside our home.

I asked to see the pigs.  Emil and Mitzy exchanged glances.  Eventually, Emil gestured to me.  “Come.”  He said.

The yard, scene of our epic chase, was deserted.  A farm was a business Emil explained: selling young pigs was one of the ways it made money, and I think I understood his euphemistic use of the word ‘selling’ sufficiently and was as yet young enough to need to choke back my regret.

“But these two we keep!”  Emil said grandly.

The little building, with its open space at the front surrounded by a low wall, was designed for pigs and, to my joy, two young pigs occupied it.  Two young pigs who seemed as happy to see me as I was to see them, full of squeaky eagerness as they shoulder-barged each other to the wall to greet us.  A boy and girl both well on their way to adolescence now, I swear they remembered me, just as I swear the boar was the one who looked down upon me from the sky on the day of the chase.

Emil and I leaned upon the wall, communing with them for a while.  Then he said:  “You know we have no names for them.  You can name them if you like.”

I must have spent most of that day there, just talking to those pigs; and they, in their turn, talked of their view of the world, one strangely reminiscent of my own:  they expressed sadness and understanding for the loss of their brothers and sisters, and lamented that Bettina, now returned to the field with the other pigs, seemed to have no time for them.  They accepted my gifts of apples with magnanimity.  I became their friend.

You do not – and this is important to all those of you who do not know – make a pet of a pig.  You befriend him.  If he does not like you he can be quite fearsome, and he is never yours to do with as you will.  He has a mind of his own, and he meets you on your own intellectual level.  He will happily discuss matters of import with you but he will have opinions of his own, and though he may be far too courteous to freely express them, you will know by the little give-aways in his attitude when he disagrees with yours.

“Did you think of their names?”  Emil asked me as we prepared to leave.

“Hansel and Gretel” I said.  “We’ll call them Hansel and Gretel.”

At home I kept their picture on my wall.  Each night in the instructed ritual of prayer I mentioned the two pigs.  I talked to them from the threshold of sleep, vividly dreamt of them, drew them in my exercise book.

It was Christmas before I would return to the farm – a family Christmas with a small host of guests, most of whom I have forgotten now, and several of whom I never really knew.  Through the beery greetings and the waves of conversation I sought the only two friends who were special to me.

The little pig-pen was empty.

Panic-stricken, I plunged into the forest of humanity in search of Emil.  I found him busy with Mitzy in the kitchen, operating the machinery of food. 

“Where are they?” I demanded, tearful by this time.  “What’s happened to Hansel and Gretel?”

Once again, I could not miss that quick exchange of glances.  “Ah, little man!”  Emil said. “They grow too big to be together in the pen now, you see?  Your Gretel, she is with the other pigs but you may not recognize her.  Pigs, they grow up fast, you know?”  He smiled indulgently. 

I swallowed hard.  “And Hansel?”


“Hansel.  Where’s Hansel?”

Emil sighed, and a wisp of cloud dimmed the bright blue of his eyes.   “Hansel is gone.”  He said.

Gone?  The kitchen table was prepared for dinner, a bright red and white gingham cloth laid crisply across its knurled wood top.  The brasses which lined the kitchen walls flickered in red sympathy with the fire burning in the open hearth, a fire before which a spit was slowly turning.   Busy elsewhere, Mitzy spoke sharply to Emil in German.  With a pat on my shoulder the big man got to his feet, and with a cup of its collected juices basted the meat that was turning on the spit.  And I knew.  By the rich smell of meat in that big room and by the expressions the bailiff and his wife could not conceal, I knew.

So I saw Hansel just one more time.   I saw him in the humiliation of death, those philosopher’s eyes sightless, disported on a bright red and white gingham cloth before a raucous, baying audience of salivating revelers who laughed at my distress, rebuking me when I ran from the sight.

There would be other visits to the farm, visits which, as a child, I was forced to make, but they were not made willingly.  I never got over a feeling of revulsion whenever I entered the farm kitchen, or the spark of disgust which grew in me with the years for Uncle Owen‘s over-indulgent friends.  The memory of a brief acquaintance is evergreen, and though they are long departed, I keep Hansel and Gretel alive in my heart.








A Desultory Conversation


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Every morning when I come into my office to work the first thing I do (after booting up the infernal machine) is draw back the window curtains. He (quite a familiar figure in my life – I might even call him a friend) has more often than not already arrived, comfortably perched atop the streetlamp in front of my house with the dawn, as yet still a bushfire line of muted orange behind the eastern hill, at his back.

“Morning.”  He eyes me through my window – warily at first; trying to judge my mood, I suppose.

“Good morning!  How are you?”

“Alright.  Mustn’t grumble.”

“Can’t be easy for you, this cold weather.”Image

He resents being patronized.  “What, being a corvid, you mean?”     

“I didn’t say that!  I just meant….”

“I know what you meant!  Racist, that is!  I’m a crow, mate, gettit?  Don’t judge me by the color of my feathers!”

“I didn’t – I mean I don’t.  Don’t be so sensitive.”

He bends his head, nibbling at breast feathers with a powerful black beak.  “We’re not all lamb’s eye pluckers, you know.  Some of us have taste.”  A big, lazy wing stretches.  “Well, mustn’t hang around:  places to be.”

He leaves his perch in an effortless movement, something between a fall and a glide, floating away on a dawn breeze as supportive to him as an ocean swell.


It is later and I am working, I am lost in thought.  My monitor stares back at me, contemplating as deeply as I, though we neither of us seem to be able to come up with anything.

“See this?”

I look up.  Outside, that red strip of expectation has grown into the bright sun of morning.  A blackbird is announcing his presence, loudly, to anyone who cares to listen. My friend is back on his lamp.

“See what?”  I ask.

“You blind or something?  This!”  He points with his beak to a sheet of bread beneath his feet.  “Breakfast, this is.”

I hadn’t noticed.  “Do you always stand on your breakfast?”

“Funny!  We’re not going to get into another argument, are we?”

“Of course not!”  I say. “Look I’m sorry I called you a….  That looks like a great start to the day.” What is the matter with me?  “I’m trying to work;” I tell him, “but the inspiration’s lacking.”

He nods sagely.  “It’ll be last night’s dinner sitting on your stomach.”

“Oh, really?  I think souvlaki’s a decent, light meal.  Brain food!”

“Greasy.  Foreign muck.  You can’t beat a good shepherd’s pie.”

“That ‘grease’ was the best quality olive oil.  Anyway, how do you know what I ate last night?”

I get an old-fashioned look.  “What, you think if you wrap your left-overs in newspaper when you throw them away I can’t get to them?”

“You’ve been through my bins!”

“Well, sort of.  It’s the fox goes through the bins.  I just follow him around.  He leaves more than he eats.”  He points at the sheet of bread with his beak.  “Where’d’you think this came from?”

I sigh my resignation, ready to consign my morning’s efforts to the recycle bin.  “I think I’ll switch off for now;”  I tell him.  “The old muse isn’t working at all well today.”

“Technology!” His sniff of disgust is almost – almost – audible.  “Flickering images jumping around.  No wonder you can’t work!”

I give him an indulgent smile.  “You wouldn’t have much of a grasp of electronics, would you?”

“Me?  No, no use for it.  Watch this!”  My friend shuffles his morning feast, repositioning it on the long- extinguished street light.  There is a pause.  The light comes on.

Honestly, I’m amazed.  “That’s brilliant.  How did you do that?”

“Simple.  There’s this little button thing on the top of the support.  Cover it over and it thinks it’s night-time.  There’s a special one down the end.  Cover that and every light in the road comes on.  Technology, see?”

The blackbird’s set is drawing to its climactic finale, its ample throat somehow managing harmony and a sort of descant screech at the same time.

“That blackbird!”  I lament.  “Surely he doesn’t have to be that loud?”

“Who, Des?  Dunno.  You better ask him.  Not this morning though; he’s in a right tiz.  Someone’s only been and cut his bush down!”

My thoughts flit guiltily back to yesterday’s gardening. “What, the laurel?  I pruned it.   There wasn’t a nest or anything in there.”  What had I done?

“Ah, you, was it?  Might have known.”  The crow shakes his head, makes a stab at his breakfast.

“It needed cutting back!”  I protest.

“Yeah.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining.  There’s less cover over the garden now, so I can sit and watch the whole place.  Des, he doesn’t see it the way we do, though.  That top branch!  I was up there myself early on.  You might as well hang a sign on it:  ‘Sparrow hawks perch here’.  Poor old Des, he’s spitting feathers!”

“Des doesn’t like sparrow hawks.”  I deduce absently.  My head is still getting around calling a blackbird by a familiar name.

“Not when they’ve got a penthouse view of his family billet in the blackthorn bush he doesn’t.  Five little chirpies squeaking away in there, beaks up like tiny trumpets.”  My friend lapses into what I can best describe as a hungry silence.  A faraway look has come into his eye.

In the pause thus provided I reflect upon the ancient enmity between sparrow hawks and blackbirds and realize at once the true consequences of my rashness with the secateurs!  But what can I do?  The prunings are in the garden refuse, and what is done cannot be undone.

My friend is dexterously folding his sheet of bread with his beak while pinning it beneath one foot – first into half, then into quarters.  “Easier to fly, see – when it’s small like this?  Anyway, can’t sit here talking all day.  There’s a field being ploughed up Wolsingham way, and time and tractors don’t wait.  I’ll just flap this back to my place for the memsahib (she gets really feisty when she’s on the eggs) then – dunno  - think I might drop back to Des’s.”


He stretches for the sky.  “I fancy something hot.”



A Moral Tale


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ImageIn all her life Janice had never been known to speak in less than a shrill falsetto, and at 48 years old it was unlikely that she could ever be silenced.  There were neighbours who fervently wished she might, a husband whose wishes were seldom heard, two sons who bought their own houses a mile away so as to be out of earshot:  but she would not – some said could not -change.

 “Mind you, the whole family were loud.”  (This was Mrs. Proudfoot, a long-time friend).  “The old man were a blaster down the mine and he were deaf as a post, so ever’one shouted at ‘im  an’ ‘e shouted back.  ‘Twas ‘im put the ‘Dog and Gun’ pub out of business.  He were its only customer.”

Some believed Janice shouted because, like a small dog left alone in a big house, she was frightened.  This would have gained greater credence if she were quieter in the evenings when her husband came home, or on the days when she cared for her grandchildren, but no.  Teachers expressed concern that Janice’s grandchildren showed signs of premature deafness.  Neighbours overheard each and every remark from Janice’s side of conversations, like:   “You can’t have rice pudding”, “They’re in the top drawer”, or, more mysteriously:  “It’s stuck!”  These same neighbours were prone to changing TV channels involuntarily at Janice’s instruction, and to bury their heads beneath several pillows at Friday bedtime.

“Half-past eleven, without fail.  It’s like the ‘Ride of ‘t Valkyries’.  You never heard the like!”

Freda Warbleton, next door at no. 58, was less charitable:   “She shouts to get her way.  Every time she shouts at me I do what she wants.  She never asks:  she just shouts.  From the moment she moved in, I got no peace – none at all.  ‘Are you going down the town,  Freda?  Get me some sugar, will you?’; ‘can you pick up the children Freda?’   Freda this, Freda that, Freda the other.  Life’s not worth living.”

“Why don’t you move?”  I felt I had to ask.

“She KNOWS!”  Said Freda.  “We tried lots of times, Albert and me.  We showed people round and there she’d be, leaning over the fence.  She’d scream out helpful remarks, like:  ‘Dustmen come on Thursday’, or ‘School’s a mile away:  there’s no bus.’  No-one came up with an offer for the house – no-one.”

Janice’s sons generously clubbed together to pay for her house to be double glazed – to keep the sound in, rather than the weather out, said the neighbors – a failed attempt if that were its purpose because winter or summer, Janice’s windows were always open. 

Transportation was to prove her final undoing.  After receiving bans from the ‘bus companies (she alarmed the drivers, resulting in a number of minor accidents) she fell back upon taxi’s for her social and shopping needs.   

The taxi-driver was Romanian.  He had few words of English and a fairly loose appreciation of that strange British habit of driving on the left.   Given these pre-conditions it is easy to imagine how, with Janice’s stentorian bellow an inch from his left ear uttering some jewel such as:  “Yer going straight on, Yer should be turnin’ LEFT!” the poor man managed to somehow do neither.   And how he ended up where he did.

Which was Doncaster. 

On the northbound carriageway.

In the southbound lane.

Where the police managed to head off her taxi and guide it into a slip road.  Doncaster police station was as good a place as any to incarcerate the taxi’s driver, who had no idea that he had committed any offence.    Primed by the freehand traffic rules of Bucharest he was stimulated rather than alarmed by the aggressive behaviour of approaching drivers on the Motorway, and found the experience of driving up the wrong carriageway for 22 miles a bit of a blast.

Janice?  The pale, quaking wreck ambulance men extricated from the foot well of the taxi’s rear compartment took twenty-four hours to stop shaking.    She gave written evidence to the trial which followed, but it made little sense because the woman who had stared death in the face several hundred times within the space of thirty minutes was no longer capable of speech, or even logical thought.  

And Janice, sadly, has never been heard from again.


A Taste of Honey


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Inspired by a chance visit to  which cast some very interesting light upon the political philosophy of Dachshunds.





Anyway, there’s this dog.

Let me state clearly at the start I did not want another dog.  I was dead-set against pet ownership.  I wanted a peaceful, tranquil old age.

I blame my son.

Of all people, he should know I am a soft target where animals in distress are concerned. So if he knew of a young Golden Labrador that was being neglected, kept in an open concrete yard and irregularly fed, he should have kept the tale to himself.  He should not have told me.  Above all, he should not have asked my wife and I if we could take the dog.

Enter Honey.

Well, perhaps ‘enter’ is the wrong word.  I tend to prefer alternatives, like ‘invade’ or ‘irrupt’.  Rather less of an êpêe, much more like a broadsword. 

We have always had rescue dogs, so problems, usually baggage from cruel memories, are not new to us.  When Honey leapt from the back of my son’s car that morning our arms and our hearts were open.  By sunset we had begun to wonder whether it was Honey we were rescuing, or her former owners.

I don’t even like the name.  I told her that – just after she ate a hole in the full-length curtains and before, if I recall correctly, she destroyed my first pair of slippers.  But when a dog has issues, you shouldn’t change her given name because it may upset her.  And you wouldn’t like Honey when she gets upset.

I believed myself to be an experienced dog owner (I will avoid the term dog lover because it raises certain unsavory connotations) so in my first encounter with Honey a short, awkward period of familiarization between canine and master, then some moderate training to produce a devoted servant, was what I had come to expect. This did not entirely match Honey’s expectations of our relationship. 

Alpha male?  You? 

Throughout an intense series of back garden sessions Honey instructed me in her own higher values.   Commands were not unwelcome, but neither were they for slavish obedience.  They were open to question, subject to negotiation.  For instance, she would not come to me just because I called her.  There had to be a reason, and if she had a better one she would pursue that and come later, when she had finished.   Food tips, clickers, tins with pebbles were to no avail.  She was always ready to accept food, but only on her terms.  Any sharp rattling noise was sort of scary, but also kind of amusing.  She would be happy to play with such devices, of course, but not reward them with a conditioned response.  I came to understand quite quickly that she had never heard of Pavlov.

Now, some four years later Honey has a brilliant understanding of the English language.  Her vocabulary of at least two hundred words includes such direct terms as ‘walk’, the more subtle W-A-L-K, or the downright obscure ‘perambulate’.  She knows words such as ‘post’ or its derivative ‘postman’, ‘letter’, ‘dinner’, ‘dish’, ‘liver’, ‘biscuit’ – the list is endless.  Notable exclusions are: ‘sit’, ‘wait’, ‘come’, and that keystone of the dog training world ‘heel’.

There are people, most of whom are our relatives, Honey does not like; and although more an expression of reserve than overtly aggressive, her continuous low growling can disrupt the natural flow of conversation.  She harbors a special loathing for my sons, whom she probably blames for bringing her here. Total strangers she takes to her heart readily.  She has never actually offered violence to anyone, notwithstanding the list of dogs she would cheerfully disembowel: even the elderly lady she knocked over recognized her innocence, once the blood had been mopped up, on the basis of a rather over-enthusiastic attempt to be friends.

After four years we have learned, my wife and I.  We are really quite obedient, all things considered.   As long as the food rules are observed, the walk routines kept, all is well.   Honey is fiercely protective of us, would never willingly leave our side no matter what the provocation (In making this statement I except cats, which she hates).  She will guard our house, bring us the post in the morning (and sometimes the postman if we leave the door open) whilst looking after us in a hundred other ways as our kind, understanding friend.  In exchange, we accept her occupation of the most comfortable chairs in the house, as well as her comprehensive facial washes every time we stoop low enough for our reward. 

She understands everything.  Everything.

She is watching me now.  Just sitting, watching. 

All things considered, I’m glad we offered Honey a home:  thankful, too, she allows us to stay here with her.    I will be sure to get this post up this evening, but I know she will insist upon reading it first.  And even as I close, she is reaching for the blue pencil…….




Upon Meeting a New Neighbour – Reflections


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Summertime in the country:  a soft gauze of morning mist on dew, the chirp of crickets in the grass, a summer melody of bees amongst white seas of clover, a carking parliament of rooks around the beech stand on the hill.  Long, hot days spent behind the bailer, helping load a wain of rich-smelling hay and riding with it on its journey to the barn.Image

Or in winter, waking to a window with as much ice upon the inside of it as out; the sparkling frost, the rushing dance of snowflakes, the savagery of the gale; or with friends, stomping a deep white carpet on frozen feet waiting for a school bus that might just not make it today, and the cheerful snowball fight when it didn’t.    Friends I grew up with; names forgotten now.

In all the travelling and city living I’ve done I remain a countryman at heart.  Country lore is something I understand, and at the same time something not easily understood.  Which is why I regard city dwellers that migrate from town to country with bemusement.

Why?  Why move from an environment you understand to one you do not?  If you have succeeded financially to an extent where you can afford the move, you must have intelligence enough to realize the idyll you chase is a fiction.  Surely?  No?   Then at least beware of the more obvious mistakes.

First mistake:   bringing the town with you.   Sometimes it seems most city ex-pats would be happiest if they could put their existing house on a low-loader and drop it off in a field somewhere.  They want a cottage, of course, plenty of oak beams, a ‘feature fireplace’ and a wood burning stove; but those requirements must also include a kitchen ‘large enough for entertaining’, several bathrooms and a studio.  Land-wise, their intention to raise alpaca will require at least seven acres, in addition to a garden with extensive lawns – enough to ride around on a mower.

Second mistake:  ‘the kids will love it’.  Oh no they won’t!  That Thomasina will love her horse is a dangerous assumption, and little Thomas’s cultured tones will endear him to the local children.  Then expect teenage tantrums centered around the general theme of there being nothing to do, nowhere to go, etc.  (An argument not without substance – there is nowhere to go, unless you drive them).

Third mistake:  assuming the rules that governed your urban existence still apply.

In rural England, anyway, the farmer is law.  Most farmers, indeed, have a very broad appreciation of the law, and obey it when it does not inconvenience them too much.  They flout it outrageously the rest of the time, generally with the tacit understanding of the local constabulary.  In town, the four-wheel drive takes precedence on the basis that might is right; but on a country lane a Range Rover is no match for a pick-up driven by a farmer’s lad who sees his future in Formula One, a tractor and trailer, or a combine harvester. 

Seeing two foxhound puppies snuggled up together in your flowerbed is charming.  Seeing two cows grazing in your flowerbed may stir other emotions.   A couple of free-roaming sheepdogs engaged in a lengthy mating ritual outside your gate might be thought quaint, a liberally-minded sheepdog welded to the rump of your pedigree Weimaraner less so.  

The timeless peace of country living is illusory.  Bear in mind that land where no buildings exist is liable to be built upon.  When planning permission is walked through the intensive rearing sheds proposed by your immediate neighbor can be erected in six weeks, tenanted by bawling cattle in eight.  The quality of your country air may also bring things with it that are as unwelcome as they were unexpected.  Muck spreading is a fast-evolving science these days:  the constituents of the newer, more potent mixes will be amply explained by their odor.   

Certain things do take longer.  An internet connection weakened by nature’s thoughtless positioning of a hill, the bus which only runs four times a day, and the ambulance which comes to rescue you from the heart attack brought on by chopping wood for that log-burning stove.

My countryside no longer exists:  how much of its demise is due to the communications invasion, and how much to burgeoning population and the new religion of the plc and ‘growth’ I do not know.  I only know the reader of ‘Cider with Rosie’ would not recognize the environment Laurie Lee’s book describes.  Farming now is as much an industry as any other, and health and safety decrees exclude children from much of the good stuff the country has to offer.  Do I regret this?   As a life it was always hard, and I do not miss the poverty, although being ‘poor’ had less significance then.  But there was a fast, rapacious undercurrent beneath the superficial gloss of paradise, and the sun on the surf did not always conceal the dangers beneath.  I remember Billy, whose arm was torn from him by a grain elevator.  He was just sixteen.  And old Jack, whose tractor somersaulted and crushed him to death.  

So maybe no, I don’t regret change.  However I do wonder, when the idyll collapses and the current generation of new countrymen’s children filter back to the city what will be left; how much precious heritage will have been squandered and how many gilded cages will remain as ‘investment properties’ – empty shells slowly returning to dust. 




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