Friday, 29 June 2007

Smells like Teen Spirit

Yesterday we went to the local theatre to see a school production of West Side Story, which eldest's oldest friend was in. It's a very brave choice of thing to do for a school as much of the music is difficult, and it was, on the whole, pretty good. The orchestra were valiant and mostly accurate; Maria was gorgeous with a lovely soprano voice, Anita was a star, A-rab was brilliant in Officer Krupke, and Glad Hand more than made the most of her tiny part.

But the smell. As most of the audience were teenagers, the theatre reeked of scent; body spray; aftershave... it was like walking into a vandalised chemist's shop. The scent virtually stood in the air. When I was getting ready I did briefly contemplate putting on a bit of scent (which is the difference between middle-aged me and a teenager; I think about whether to put the stuff on or not; they turn the nozzle to full and keep going) but it was just as well I didn't. When we got out of the theatre into the clean, fresh Wellingborough air, I could smell someone's scent, and soon realised it was me. Someone had put so much on it had obviously migrated onto me. And the thing is, I rather liked it....

Thursday, 28 June 2007

The Girls

Here, especially for my nephews Ben and Sam, are the girls:

Left to right, they are Matilda, Mary, Mother Hen (what you can see of her) and Rose. Mary is the wariest of the bantams, and most prone to panic, but Rose is not far behind her. Despite their nerves, both bantams are quite oofy, and are further up the pecking order than either Matilda or Mother Hen. If it is cold when they are roosting at night, Rose feels her place is under Matilda's wing, whether Matilda likes it or not.

Mother Hen is the friendliest, and can be picked up with ease. If you sit down in their field, she will flap on to your shoulder. The bantams would sooner die than try this. Matilda is at the bottom of the pecking order, despite being the biggest, and is a hen of changeable mood. Sometimes she is friendly, and other times definitely not.

The hens are excellent layers; the bantams lay when they feel like it, which lately is not often. Rose went broody last week, but must have realised the terrible fate that lay ahead for her (incarceration in a metal cage I found ages ago in the barn and have had hanging round for years, waiting for a use) as she rapidly became unbroody. Just as well then that I did not follow my first enthusiastic plan, which was to hatch out some fertile eggs.

Monday, 25 June 2007

Very, very proud...

Our village fete happened yesterday, together with a fun dog show run by Wellingborough Dog Welfare, and you see to the left of you Holly, owner of the fourth most appealing eyes, and a magnificent second in the Fastest Chocolate Drop Eater competition. We really weren't sure whether we'd be able to enter anything - Holly is a rescue dog, and when we first got her was so nervous we couldn't get her beyond the front gate. The first time I took her to the school gates she had complete hysterics, and she does still tend to panic when faced with things that worry her. So, we thought the fete, with the Pipe band, Majorettes, Morris Dancers and teeming people and dogs might be a bit much, but she was an absolute star.

It did take her a little while to come round to the Pipe Band, but after we stuffed her face with food she agreed with us that Pipe Bands (the Bedford Pipe Band - excellent. I love bagpipes when they are played well, and these were) were OK.

Dog used to be appalling on the lead, and so we were a bit worried that she would Forget It All and tank around the ring, but in the first class she went in with her mate Truffle, a Flatcoat Retriever and they were too interested in talking to each other to tank. Truffle won the class (Prettiest Bitch) so we were proud of her too.

Daughter was doing a solo with the school choir, which I could dimly hear from our side of the field. I was praying that Holly and I would get out of our last class in time to see as well as hear, but of course as we tore out, the last notes sounded..... The last time I missed one of daughter's solos stuck in her mind, and it has become one of those things that is flourished up whenever she is more than usually hacked off with me... "YOU didn't hear me sing my solo at Rushden...." but fortunately she saw the greater glory of the dog as being far more important, and the fact we turned up bearing rosettes made her day. Thank goodness for that. I'm told daughter did well, though wasn't helped by the fact the never reliable village sound system died the moment she took the mike. So more pride. For daughter I mean, not the village sound system.

Wednesday, 20 June 2007

It's that time again.... the catalogue

Each and every time I do a catalogue (the new one's out tomorrow, on my website) a bit of technology gathers itself up and does battle. There was the time the entire website was corrupt (a time so dreadful, and producing such a state of frantic flurry in their mother that the whole family remembers it with awe); the printer has thrown numerous hissy fits; my aged version of Microsoft Word decided that there had been one Windows XP update too many and it would never load again..... but this time I thought I might just make it. I wasn't confident enough to think there wouldn't be any problems, but I did have just the faintest of hopes.

I wrote the catalogue on my trusty copy of OpenOffice (advert coming: this is a mostly excellent FREE alternative to Microsoft); managed, oh joy, to work out how to produce a brochure, found a printer to produce the things, loaded everything onto the web ready.... the camera threw a few fits, but I was ready for it and coped, but the labels. The address labels. I could only produce one page of the darn things at a time. I wrestled for hours, and quite frankly could have done the whole thing infinitely quicker by hand. When will I learn that sometimes, you just have to give in? Sometimes the technology has got your number, and there is no point fighting.

Monday, 18 June 2007

Illusions shattered

I don't have a lot of illusions about myself, or at least I don't think I do, but I've always had a mental picture of myself as I'd like to be, drifting about my immaculate garden, dead heading my roses into one of those rather swish trugs. My garden, most of the time is nowhere near immaculate, but it did recently reach a stage when it wasn't that bad at all, and so I got with the illusion, and drifted about, dead heading. I then wandered in and mentioned to my husband that I had been pottering about in what I thought was quite a lady of the manor way, dead heading my roses.

He looked up from the cricket and remarked that ladies of the manor generally did not do their dead heading into the same scabrous, muck-encrusted skip they used to use for pooh-picking but never got round to cleaning out. I also gathered, as he looked me up and down, that ladies of the manor did not do their drifting in pilates trousers that have seen better days and t shirt ditto, but darn it, I'm right out of Laura Ashley flowery skirts.

Saturday, 16 June 2007

Harold the Cross Country Pony

I've just finished reading Patricia Leitch's Cross Country Pony. It's one of those books I've read before, known I've liked, but forgotten why. In many ways I like this book more than the Jinny series: it's written with a lighter heart and humour, and without the angst that sometimes makes the Jinny books a bit of a tortuous read. Some pony books succeed because the ponies in them are so wonderfully recognisable, and I think Harold (the cross country pony himself) is one of these. Jinty, who rides him, says:

Cynically Harold regarded me, a gleam in his wicked little eyes. I was
absolutely at his mercy. It was merely a question of what he decided to do
with me.

I used to ride a pony called Bear who was much like Harold: he summed you up in an instant and would then mercilessly exploit any weakness. He obviously found life at the riding stables a little dull, as he was constantly thinking up new and exciting ways to misbehave. When the stables built a new indoor school, further away from the stables than the existing outdoor schools, Bear soon discovered that most people leading him towards the school would lose concentration at some point, so he could whisk his reins out of their hands and be off. To get round this, you had to get on Bear in his stable. And be prepared to battle hard to prevent him detouring into the Feed Room on the way, had the door been left open. The lovely sand in the new school also provided an excellent rolling surface - far better than the bark in the outdoor school, but this did prove his undoing as rolling with the clients wasn't exactly Health and Safety.

Bear and I got on fine as long as I was on his back - he loved jumping and so did I, so that was ok, but Bear had me beat in the stable and he knew it. After my last attempt at bridling him had led to me being whirled round the stable being gawped at by the students I gave up attempting doing anything with him in the stable.

Fortunately Harold, the cross country pony, didn't have all the devilish aspects of Bear. I can't, at the moment, think of any pony or horse who had quite his demonic attributes. Black Boy he certainly wasn't.

Tuesday, 12 June 2007

Ooh Ooh Ooh

Which makes me sound as if I am a refugee from that strange shampoo ad, but no. I'm deep in happy fanland, as I've been in touch with the great Caroline Akrill recently to ask her to contribute something about herself for the site, and she's just sent an excellent reply to the vast list of questions I asked. Now just have to get it onto the site....

Monday, 11 June 2007

The modern pony book

I try, but I just can't do it. Heartland, and its new sister Chestnut Hill, leave me cold. I can see that they're written well enough, I can see why they appeal to their market - presumably the horsey girl, and I suppose I should be grateful that the pony book genre is continuing, but what I can't get to grips with is the feeling that I'm being manipulated. It's as if the publishers sat down at a meeting, and thought "What do horsey girls like?" And then they've given it to them. Horses which only respond to the heroine (and in Heartland, they have that in bucketfuls); alternative therapies, with again the undertow of only-the-heroine-can-get-this-right against a sceptical world; a relationship with the opposite sex, but not enough to be frightening or to detract from the horses, and a family background with tragedy, but yet still enough stable figures in it to have an element of comfort. Ta da! All the boxes ticked, and masses of sales.

And does Lauren Brooke, the supposed author, even exist? She has a page on the Scholastic website which implies that she does, but the author page for Gill Harvey on the Bloomsbury website states she has written 8 of the books (which does imply that Someone Else, or maybe several Someones) have written the rest.

It's the feeling of Opium for the Masses I find so uncomfortable. It's done competently and efficiently, but it isn't done out of passion for writing something with characters who sing off the page or which has the ring of truth that really good writing has.

Friday, 8 June 2007

The Joy of Socks

Most people have socks intent on escaping through the the washing machine plumbing, or which crawl off into corners, and fester, unnoticed, gathering piles of dust as camouflage. But not in my house. We have a One Labrador Sock Retrieval Machine. When we first got her (she is a rescue dog so her former life is murkily unknown) we soon realised that she had a bit of a thing about shoes, which she liked to collect about her, and snick her long labrador nose deep into. However, the shoes are as nothing compared with the socks. Over the months we have had her dog has worked out that the best socks are to be found in my son's room, though only an early morning raid before he is up will capture these as he tends to wear the same pair for day on revolting day. Occasionally if we have aimed our socks unsuccessfully at the laundry basket and not noticed, a late night raid can yield spectacular results. But we know this, and as she likes to puncture socks: not destroy, just puncture, our sock capture avoidance strategies have become much more efficient.

So what is a poor Labrador to do? Find the clean laundry basket and sort through it for the clean ones. They are, it seems, better than nothing. I give up.

Wednesday, 6 June 2007


This I suppose is about the results of some of the compost making. I have always loved roses, but they do have to be the old-fashioned variety with a wonderful scent (below is Fantin Latour - a relatively late rose for us, this is from 1900). I was lucky enough to be brought up somewhere with a garden stuffed with old roses - they were there when we moved in, and as my parents were never, happily, of the slash and burn school of gardening, there they stayed. We all had a favourite rose, though we hadn't a clue what it was called, and when my parents finally sold the house and moved, we all took bits of this rose. Fortunately it is quite easy to propagate by digging it up and splitting it. I have now found out, thanks to the excellent Peter Beales, that the mysterious rose is Cuisse de Nymphe or Maiden's Blush. It has the most heavenly scent, and the whole family used to look forward to its blossoming. It isn't yet quite out here, but when it is I will put up a photo of it. This rose dates from 1400: as our house had its origins in a medieaval nunnery, I like to think that that rose, or its ancestors, had been in the garden for hundreds of years, looked forward to by all the people who lived there before us.

Alas our old original garden is no more: the new occupants were of the slash and burn school of gardening, and it's bleak and designed to within an inch of its life now. None of the beautiful, straggling untidy things were allowed to stay: all gone now in the name of neatness.

Still, as I am incredibly wet about getting rid of things in the garden, even if I don't like them, I have quite a bit of straggling untidiness in my own garden, and absolutely no design, though I must admit a bit of design would probably be a good thing! However, we have worked hard at shoehorning in roses wherever we can, and they are coming into their best now. To the left is Comte de Chambord, whose only fault is that he is rather reminiscent of an HT when coming out, but we forgive him that as the scent is sublime and the flowers magical once they're fully out. He is a Portland Rose from 1860.

The last rose is Félicité Parmentier, who is a little inclined to flop (which may be due to my duff pruning: I'm not sure) but again has a wonderful scent. She is from 1834.

I'm not hugely keen on most of the modern
shrub roses, though it is certainly about time rose breeders got back to producing something that smells like a rose, rather than those dreadful, stiff, unscented and over-bright efforts that still infest many gardens (and yes, my own - I still have a few HTs we inherited with the garden, that I can't quite bring myself to uproot). We went to Alnwick Castle gardens and found their rose garden, which was, when we visited, confined to modern shrub roses, rather one-dimensional; I longed for a wicked wild rose to sprout in the middle of it all.

Our favourite rose grower is Peter Beales, whose marvellous book Classic Roses is utter heaven: goodness how I love that book.

Tuesday, 5 June 2007

The Compost Heap

I thought it was about time I introduced the compost heap to the fray. The dog (Holly, a yellow labrador) loves the compost heap - the current one that is, and until recently spent many a happy hour excavating for things that still tasted good to a labrador, and which also fulfilled her need to decorate the garden. If you have a labrador you will already know they are keen on decorating gardens. Ours prefers the wreckage of decayed sticks, but flowerpots, if I am rash enough to leave them about are excellent too.

The compost heap provides a whole range of treasure. Licked-out eggshells, and, oh bliss of bliss, avocado skins add a final delicate touch to a labrador's idea of garden heaven. Alas for the dog, I uncovered a handy bit of metal framework in the barn. We have had it for years, not quite sure what to use it for, even though it's one of those things that was obviously created to do something. It now sits neatly on top of the compost heap, ready to deter the dog. Her scavenging habits, and cast-iron stomach, hadn't lead to any disasters, but I felt it was only a matter of time.

Monday, 4 June 2007

Jill and those hens

I've now found the bit in which Jill does her anti-hen rant, and it's quoted below.

"I have said little or nothing about our hens, as they are Mummy's concern and not mine, though actually I could write a book about the way they play Mummy up. I consider them the most soul-less of animals that will not respond to overtures of friendship, and for that reason I will not have anything to do with them in life. They are at their best when dead. Also I think there is something rather repulsive about them." (Jill's Gymkhana, 1st edn, 1949, pg 87)

I did blink a little when I read it: it's quite amazingly strident. It doesn't to me read like something that Jill would say, and it's one of the more understandable abridgements. The piece does however, seem to have the ring of bitter personal experience, so I wonder if Ruby Ferguson had hideous hen experiences of her own? I doubt we'll ever know. I can't see "The Use of Hens as Plot Devices in Children's Literature" having a future as a PhD subject, but you never know.

Friday, 1 June 2007

Hen stuff

Having said I'd write mostly about books, this is actually going to be about hens. In an effort to get it partly on topic, I could tell you about the hens in the Jill books, which are the most obvious hens I can think about in any pony book. Incidentally, Jill has an anti-hen rant in "Jill's Gymkhana" - a rant which never saw the light of day in the later Knight paperbacks. Maybe the publishers thought it was just too much. I will try and dig it out and quote it, but maybe not today.

Still: my hens. We have four, well, to be accurate 2 hens and 2 bantams. The hens are standard brown hybrids, called Mother Hen and Matilda, and the banties are Pekin cross (we think) and called Rose and Mary. We had them as a friend of mine who is emigrating to Canada needed to reclaim her garden, which the hens had destroyed. I must say, before having the hens, I had misty-eyed romantic dreams about having an eglu and the hens scratching around in the garden, with me drifting round scattering corn and collecting the eggs. If I had, for even an hour, let them loose in my garden, I would have turned into a ranting and gibbering wreck. Our hens march regardless through everything, and what they don't eat, they uproot. So, the hens were duly installed in the overgrown wreck that was once our sand school (a total lack of any horses now meaning there's not a lot of incentive to weed it. And we haven't. For years.)

I may not have been naive enough to put the hens, unfenced, into the garden, but I was naive enough to believe what I was told, which was that the hens would stay thereabouts in bounds. I suppose I ought to mention here that they weren't wing clipped either. It didn't take the girls long before they worked out that I had only managed to find enough wire to make half the sand school secure (one of the few times I have been grateful that we never, ever throw anything out, though I can't say I enjoyed clambering over heaps of unstable junk in a barn propped up with acros to find the chicken wire, which was of course right at the back). Them wandering into the field wasn't too bad, though of course it did increase the possibility of the girls meeting The Fox, but I managed to stay reasonably calm about these excursions. What did for them though, was escaping into the graveyard (which borders our field) and meeting the church ladies coming out of their Lent Course.

Fortunately some of the church ladies are used to hens, and shoved them into my front garden, apart from one of the banties, who flew back of her own accord. "I didn't know they could do that," said one of my neighbours, who was helping with the hen drive. "Not for long," I thought, "not for long." All the girls were duly wing clipped by a noble friend: we did them at 10.00pm after we'd been to the Church's "Desert Island Discs", as one does. All, that is, apart from Rose Bantam who had re-escaped, but this time ended up in another neighbour's garden. Fortunately I get on well with my neighbours, as I spent much of the next day in their garden trying to entice Rose back. I retired at last, defeated, to pack the day's orders and while I was away Rose managed to find her way back to the stable where I had shut the others until the vast amounts of chicken wire I'd ordered to secure the rest of the school turned up.

So, the hens were in hen purdah in the stable for a couple of days until I and my very long-suffering husband, on one of the coldest and most revolting days of the year (it was snowing, as well as blowing a gale) tacked up the new wire. We then had a couple of weeks of grace until the girls discovered that there were still a few vulnerabilities in our defences. Our neighbours became expert at putting the hens back, and I became used to handing out eggs as thank-yous, which is I suppose one advantage of hens. My daughter and I spent a lot of time crawling round the perimiter fences, rattling corn, to entice the hens so that we could see where they were getting out, and eventually we managed to block off all gaps, though I must say our once lovely field gate does not look its best with a variety of bits of marine ply blocking up the gaps. And did I mention the noble sacrifice of all my fruit cage netting? This blocks the gaps between the gate planks, as by this point we had run out of even the mammoth amount of chicken wire I had bought.

Still, for the last few months, the hens have stayed put, and I can't agree with Jill in thinking that the hens are soul-less creatures who only love food. They are undoubtedly very keen on food, but they have endearing characters too and I can waste hours simply watching them. (So, if you order a book from me and I happen to be a bit slow, you'll know who to blame!)