Friday, 31 August 2007

Squirrels and magpies

This year has brought garden firsts: in spring a magpie appeared at the bird table. I have seen them at the end of the track, a mile away, reasonably often, and kept my fingers crossed that they wouldn't find their way here, but the first of them did, only to be chased away by the wood pigeons and collared doves, much to my relief. I regard our garden as a small haven for the sparrows, wrens, dunnocks and robins that nest here in some numbers - no one rare, but all more beleaguered now than in the past. I get a good deal of pleasure from watching them, and several of the robins are very tame. They are often joined by the yearly brood of greater spotted woodpeckers and their parents, who stuff peanut bits down gaping beaks with the avidity of the desperate. The magpie has gone, for the time being, but I have no doubt they will be back.

With my usual inconsistency, I was quite pleased to see a grey squirrel from my office window. They haven't been in evidence here at all, but I saw one a couple of miles away recently, and wondered whether they would now make the trek across the fields. Today's was clearly one of this year's young, with a particularly splendid tail, which required much preening, when not stuffing hips and haws in his (her?) mouth. I fully expect to wake up tomorrow morning to find the peanut feeder has gone.

Now, I know that grey squirrels are every bit as destructive as magpies, but I am afraid they definitely score on the cuteness stakes. On my regular trips to Devon I spend a good deal of time watching squirrels, often while restraining a quivering setter, who regards it as his duty to rid the garden of vermin. On the other hand, should we become overrun, they are definitely better in pies than magpies (despite the name) and I shall have no compunction about sending the sons out with an air rifle. And there are no red squirrels here, since there is no suitable habitat.

So, for the time being, the squirrel is welcome. As certainly are the Partridge Family, who womble round the garden in the early morning, crooning gently to each other. It's a delight to draw my curtains and see them in the morning sunshine.

Wednesday, 29 August 2007


Yesterday afternoon the library very obligingly rang to say that some books had arrived for me, so I picked them up this morning: the first part of The Forsyte Saga, and a collection of Fr Brown Stories, for my Outmoded Authors Challenge; there was also The Maltese Falcon for The Dormouse, which I expect I shall read when he's finished with it. It's one of those books where you've seen the film, but can't remember whether you ever actually read it or not.

I might have done: when I was young I used to go to the library for my father, who liked a regular supply of escapist reading but claimed to be too busy to go himself. Accordingly I used to set off at least once a week to replenish the pile. He liked science fiction and crime novels and, pretty soon, I was reading my way through them before I returned them. I remember being deeply shocked at the undercurrent of eroticism that ran through Robert van Gulik's The Haunted Monastery - I was probably about thirteen at the time and certainly didn't know what it was I was responding to, but when I looked to rediscover the frisson recently, was surprised to find how tame it had been.

The library quickly became a haven. I was a misfit at school, not least because of my English accent in a Highland town (I never really developed the protective colouring my sons did later when I moved back to Scotland for some years) and my passion for books marked me out even more. The library stock was small and relatively unchanging, and I discovered my own collection of outmoded authors then - Mazo de la Roche, Hugh Walpole, Howard Spring, the adult novels of Elizabeth Goudge - as well as lapping up the more popular fare, particularly the historical novels of Jean Plaidy, Margaret Irwin and Georgette Heyer. At the same time as I was still happily devouring the contents of the children's section, most notably the Chalet School stories and the pony books by the Pullein-Thompson sisters, I was discovering some of the great works of literature (my favourite was Dante's Inferno. Click here for a tour - it's good to know what to expect, I think!)

The other, summer, haven was the local theatre. I was lucky to grow up knowing all the front-of-house staff and not only warmly welcomed when I arrived, but often given a complimentary ticket, thus eking out my meagre savings for another performance. At the same time that I was reading great works, I was often able to see them, and quickly became familiar with Shaw, Ibsen, Rattigan, Pirandello, as well as many now sadly less familiar - J.B. Priestley was a firm favourite (though my father, after a season lighting it, was very damning about Mary Rose). One summer I saw Hamlet five times (I was in love with Laertes) but the play I loved most of all was T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral.

For serious library addicts, there is a very beautiful book of photographs of historic libraries by Candida Hofer. I wish I could afford it. You can see some of the photos from it here.

Sunday, 19 August 2007


There were greengages in the supermarket this week, the most exquisite shade of green, with a blue-ish-white bloom. I can't help wondering if an outcome of global warming might be that they would grow in Northumberland but, on the whole, I fear that the effect will be that very little will grow here! Where I would plant greengages and damsons, in the hope that they would bask in a southern-England climate, they would actually be standing in the cold clay.

Today the weather has been so ghastly that I feel as forlorn as the rotting courgettes and the tomatoes which are sinking in a green gloom.

I hope that tomorrow there might be a brief ray of sunshine that I can share with a small brown dog, while we eat honey-scented greengages.

Wednesday, 15 August 2007


My son pointed me to a blog containing the most wonderful photos of Alaska. They were taken by a young man called Sean Lunt, who spent three months there, flying over mountains and glaciers, lakes and islands. Some of his landings (in a supercub) must have been breathtaking, if not terrifying, but the results are beautiful and inspiring.

My stepfather flew (illicitly, I think) over the glaciers of British Columbia when he was sent to train pilots in Canada during the war; he talks wistfully of the landscapes he saw. My own experience is puny compared to these daring aviators, cocooned in the comfort of a ViaRail coach, as we snaked through the Rockies. We were served canapes while the conducter congratulated us on our good fortune; this was one of the very few days every year when the summit of Mount R
obson was not shrouded by cloud. The snow cap of Canada's tallest mountain was flushed a delicate rose pink in the early November sunset, and I could not take my eyes from it.

The journey from Toronto to Vancouver took three days and one of the most magical moments was sitting curled up in my couchette the first night, curtains drawn to hide me from the others in the carriage, nose pressed to the window watching our engine up ahead forging its way through the falling snow, its lights illuminating a narrow path ahead of us. The next day, in what seemed like the middle of nowhere, we made a request stop, and two people climbed down from the train to stand in the snow. I watched as they dwindled into the distance, two tiny figures in a snowfield, with no sign of civilisation.

Because it was some time ago, and I was - as ever - travelling alone, I spent my days in the observation car writing a diary to send home, around the long gaps while I watched the world pass. Nowadays, I would have had my laptop with me, and a digital camera. My photos of the mountains are mostly a blur, since we crossed the highest part of the Rockies in the late evening. But I did have my portable CD player and, as we crossed the Prairies one night, I watched the vast expanse of sky and stars unfold overhead to the sound of Tallis and Purcell.

Monday, 13 August 2007

A country tale

I wondered if A Country Wife by Lucy Pinney would be too redolent of its origins in the pages of The Times for me, but it made quite a satisfying, if fast, read. Her writing romps along in ebullient fashion, once past the first chapter, which sounded much too like a Katie Fforde novel for comfort and made me wonder if I'd made a mistake. Would this true story of a young women who leaves a job in the city to marry a farmer be a catalogue of complaint about the isolation, the unbearable eccentricities of the locals, the mud, the closeknit nature of farming families, the demands of livestock? All are indeed there, but complaint is absent. The author is not smugly heroic in her reaction to these various vicissitudes, and it would be a stony reader who failed to empathise with her pain when they discover that their tenancy of the farm they have struggled to run is illegal, and that both farm and stock must be relinquished. Elements of the novel remain, in the feckless in laws responsible for the fiasco which leaves the young couple homeless, the hauntings, even perhaps the ultimate bathos of the unfaithful husband and broken marriage, but I am too painfully aware that families are like that.

The animals, of course, are endlessly engaging; Samb, the handreared sheep, with whom Lucy is happy to curl up in the sun "in a tangle of arms (and legs, and hooves)", the sow brought in to dig the garden, who stops when she has dug herself a bed, the various (inevitable) dogs, and horses. The children, too, come across as people in their own right. Perhaps the most amorphous picture is of the husband, Charlie, whose abstractions, motives and eventual absence are simply too alien to comprehend. Battling with grief at her abandonment, Lucy must also keep livestock fed and cared for until they can be sold.

The final section of the book deals with Lucy's picking up of the pieces against a background of the last foot-and-mouth epidemic in 2001. As a columnist for The Times she was aware of the already calamitous state of farming in Britain, and she writes sensitively of the agonies that farmers went through with the destruction of their animals and the loss of their livelihoods. I found this part of the book particularly painful, remembering too well the anxiety of that time. Nonetheless, the book ends on an upbeat note (and a small victory for morris dancers!)

It will be interesting to compare this book with my other "farming" read, I Bought a Mountain. That is also - though not overtly - a book about a farmer leaving his wife, though in Firbank's case his wife not only became famous for her prowess as a sheepfarmer, but also for her defence of the local landscape. Even with my re-reading of Firbank incomplete, I can see parallels - particularly in the depiction of the other inhabitants: it's hard not to paint the locals as "characters", even if it's done with understanding and affection. This will be the subject of further posts.

Friday, 10 August 2007

Bliss upon bliss!

This morning's post brought the new Victoria Clayton book, A Girl's Guide to Kissing Frogs. I can't wait to read it, though I know, of course, that I shall compulsively save it up for a special occasion. (This is A Family Issue: much to the despair of everyone else, I'd happily save the Christmas presents until Boxing Day, or maybe even Easter, to savour the pleasure of anticipation. I don't know anyone else who does this.)

Anyway, back to the book: not only is it by an author I particularly enjoy, but the heroine is a ballet dancer and it's set in Northumberland. What could be more blissful? It will be like reading Ballet Shoes all over again - actually, I could read that too, come to think of it.

In contrast, Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential also arrived. He's such a huge influence on both sons that I decided I had to read it, but it should be amusing too. Saw some of the series adapted from it a while ago. My favourite moments came from the episode in which an entire kitchen brigade attempt (and fail) to despatch a delivery of rabbits. Unfortunately, the satellite box died before we finished watching. At the end of the book I shall probably know far more about nefarious kitchen practices than I really want to, and will never eat in a restaurant again.

Thursday, 9 August 2007


This post is about Phaea, though it won't be one of those "taken from us on this day" dirges, which I can't bear. Though she has long been buried under the bird table (it's where she'd want to be), I still miss her, so I celebrate her relatively short life by giving her star position at the head of this page.

We brought two cats to Northumberland, a blond bombshell called Humphrey (if he'd been born more recently he would have been christened Boris), and the much younger Phaea, officially my younger son's cat. On arrival at the farm where we'd bought a cottage we discovered a large colony of feral cats in residence. Humphrey hated them and, though he tried to stay out of their way, there were scuffles and spats; Phaea, on the other hand, was more successful at staying away from them (no masculine ego? though both were neutered Humph did rather retain his tomcat pride).

When Humphrey first looked frail we weren't too concerned - he had a pin in his hip after a road accident and we'd been told it would probably lead to arthritis. And although he lost weight, he continued to eat well, hunt with enthusiasm and duff Fifi up when she crossed the line (what line? who knew? Humph had an emphatic personality, as I was reminded whenever I tried to tackle the knots in his fur).
But within a year our neighbour's elderly cat had died and an unconfirmed (post mortems are expensive) diagnosis of FIV was suggested. And then one morning we found Humphrey in a state of collapse and rushed off to the vet's. Since he was suffering from acute kidney failure the kindest thing was to put him to sleep; I held his paw until he died and it was very peaceful. We buried him in the garden: I always think a house isn't really a home until you've buried a much-loved pet in the garden. Anyway, it was pretty apparent that his decline was very much the same as the neighbour's cat and that it was probably the result of FIV. After that we dropped some pretty broad hints about the farm cats - who disappeared at an alarming rate, to be replaced by skinny and unhealthy kittens - but to no avail.

It was probably too by then anyway. When a couple of years later Phaea started to ail we had the test done and she was confirmed FIV+. We kept her going pretty well despite and, for several years, I was much more concerned that she would get stuck down a rabbit hole than about her being sick. I used to watch her from the kitchen window, battling down the path carrying a rabbit as big as herself, and retiring under the car to devour it. An hour or so later, Madam Fifi would re-emerge, just ever-so-slightly rounder and immensely sleepy, and a quick under-the-car investigation would show that no more than the scut remained. Phaea, meantime, would retire to her snug place upstairs until bedtime, when she would go out again to wreak havoc among the rats in the grainstore.

She was the sweetest-natured cat I have ever encountered unless, of course, you were a small furry animal, in which case I guess she looked a bit like the avenging angel. Her outdoor pursuits were the essence of her existence -
I don't think she spent more than a handful of nights indoors in her entire life. We've never had a catflap, but she quickly learnt to let us know that she wanted to come in, by tapping imperiously on the window with a single claw. She drove our dog to distraction chasing his paws, but they adored each other and slept in a heap. Once ill she developed breath odour that emanated from the deepest pits of hell and her sore mouth meant that she drooled constantly, but her hunting continued unabated - perhaps she drowned the mice? She died during the last foot-and-mouth epidemic, when I couldn't get back to the farm and both sons had left home, which upset my poor husband dreadfully. It saddens me that I wasn't there to hold her paw.

I suppose what really prompts me to write about this is that it is only now, 13 years after we came to live here, that the farm has been sold and the new owners have rounded up the feral cats (or as many as could be caught so far) and had them neutered. In the meantime any number of them have died, since FIV+ cats are susceptible to infection. And there wouldn't be as many as there are now if the tom from the farm up the road hadn't come and impregnated successive generations. The cats were constantly complained of, blamed for ailments amongst the sheep and cursed for being ineffectual in dealing with vermin, but nothing was ever done, ensuring that FIV has remained endemic in this population, as it is in the wider area. Yet if all domestic cats were neutered (which would also decrease their wandering) and feral cats routinely dealt with, it would largely die out in an area as rural as this. I find it immensely difficult to be judgmental about others (except in the privacy of my family where we compete for the hat-and-cloak of bad taste and cynicism) but I like to think that, had the farm been my responsibility, I would have assumed that that included the cats and their welfare and Done Something.

I don't keep cats any more.

How wonderful to be alone in the country

Huh! Last night, when OH and I settled down to watch an old Midsomer Murders which he had thoughtfully taped, we had to contend with: neighbour mowing grass (ride-on-type mower), late low-flying jets, someone cutting a field of barley and the usual chorus of collared doves and wood pigeons. This morning it's more jets, more harvesting, more mowing and the farm buildings next door being demolished. The latter is going to continue for months, of course, since when those buildings are down, the rebuilding of the stone barns will start.

Working at home isn't always idyllic.

An auspicious moment

The paddock has been cut and baled. We seem to have been waiting for ever for it to be done, it's been so wet that it had been quite impossible - in early July you could paddle in places!

It's very satisfying to look at now, especially since I'd been losing the dogs in the long grass for weeks (this is serious as The Bolter can disappear the minute your back is turned, and be miles away; I wonder if she has learnt to apparate?) Now both dogs (collectively The Outlaws) are blissful, noses down vole holes from dawn 'til dusk. The Bolter came in smelling very bad yesterday evening, and had to be taken to the beach this morning for a bit of splishing about.

The paddock now has to be rolled to get rid of all the hummocks and ruts left from the orginal ploughing and a subsequent landscaping attempt, also undertaken when everything was a soggy mess. Then the interesting part begins, extending the vegetable garden, planting some trees and some stretches of hedge. The plans aren't ambitious, it has to be low maintenance, and much of it will be semi-wild, but there's still room for heated disagreement (for instance, where we extend the kitchen garden to), and much changing of minds.

Last evening The Dormouse (younger son) took both dogs into the paddock to play, and was surprised to see 3 dogs coming out from behind the bales - the third was a deer. Earlier I had gone out and seen the tiniest black kitten ever hunting with immense concentration. Very sweet, but it swore frightfully and scarpered when it saw me. Arguments, at any rate, for keeping some relative wilderness there, those two acres have been supporting a community of voles, mice, owls, kestrels, sparrowhawks and farm cats for years, and I don't want to lose any of them (except the farm cats, but that's another story).
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Tuesday, 7 August 2007

First post

Early August and I have finally decided to take the plunge and start a blog, mainly for my own purposes. In fact, I rather hope that no one else will ever read it, as I don't expect it to be very interesting to others. At the moment I am waiting to be able to take some holiday, so am trying to save up the best in the "to be read" pile for when I can celebrate having got through the most urgent stuff at work.

In the blog I intend to comment on what I'm reading (novel thought!). Not lit crit, these will be comments on content as well as style, and probably no use at all for someone who wants to know whether they might want to read something.

I'm getting towards the end of A Dance to the Music of Time. It's been a long time since I read it first, and has been a real pleasure to rediscover. I read a criticism of it somewhere (Amazon?) which said that it compared very badly to Brideshead Revisited, and that the characters were cardboard cutouts. This suggests that the reader didn't get beyond the first books - one of the things I like best is that the story unfolds in such a leisurely fashion. In Book 11 I have just read more details of the protagonist's childhood that complete earlier information. In this sense it's reminiscent of The Alexandria Quartet, where you're not even sure what is going on until late in the third book. These were authors who expected a bit of work on the part of their readers.

Myrren's Gift is a library book - I've looked at it in bookshops for some time and decided I'm not sure I'll enjoy it. On the showing of the first few pages, I may be right, but I'll give it a bit longer.

I Bought a Mountain is the first of a number of Firbank's books in my "to be read" pile, and is one of the re-readings (the other being Log Hut). It was published in 1940 and the occasional "unreconstructed" comment jars a little these days (on the contrariness of the Welsh, he says all women are like that). I'm struck already by how restless Firbank was when he was young. There's something of the remittance man mentality about him, though I suppose that once he got to Japan he may have settled down a bit. The extent of restlessness will become more evident in the second book, I think. Anyway, I'm reading with interest.