Thursday, 30 April 2009

Garden update

"That's not going to sell the house," said my OH, after looking at my last blog post on the garden. Well, I suppose he has a point. The garden is looking a bit better now: I'd like to say this is entirely and absolutely by our own now blistered hands, but stuff just growing and hiding other stuff that shouldn't be there has had quite a bit to do with it too.

Not that the house is for sale: after the estate agent's visit (your chimneys, your pointing, your acros, your fencing..... oh yes, we know, we know), we're still here and likely to be for a bit.

Some views of the garden - alas not all - make it look quite good, and this is one.

and another:

The dog is stealing a pear which I had hoped the birds would eat. The very dead thing you can see below is our curry plant, which is alas showing no signs of life at all, which is a real shame as it was a lovely plant, with silvery-blue foliage through most of the year.

Deserted flower pot still there, you'll notice.

Reallly the bit below is not a lot better than it was before: it used to be underneath a very large wild plum we had to have cut down before it came down on its own. It was the hardest bit of garden I have ever had to plant: dry as the proverbial bone and under deep shade all day. So, what is there is all that would grow, but none of it has any height, and it's visually just a green blob.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009


I have become a bit obsessive of late. Every time I trot backwards and forwards through the garden, great fat pigeons hurtle out of the shrubbery and fly away in a panic, en route to my vegetable patch. Everytime I go up to the hens even fatter pigeons hurtle out from where they have been filching the hens' food.


Monday, 27 April 2009

Hobgoblin nor foul fiend

No this isn't (cheap shot coming) another post about teenagers. I was in church on Sunday and we sang He Who Would Valiant Be. This is a hymn I have not sung for years, but I was pretty certain I remembered it from my childhood.

Well, I sort of did: what I actually remembered, I found out in a bit of post-church research, after being thoroughly confused by the complete absence of the hobgoblins and foul fiends I was convinced should have been there, was the original by John Bunyan: Who Would True Valour See, rather a different beast to the 1906 version by Percy Dearmer which is all we're now allowed. The two different versions are given here.

This disconnect between what I think should be there and what actually is happens quite often. "Oh good," I think, as the organ starts the next hymn. And off I launch, only to find that as I am often singing from memory, I'm not singing quite what I am now supposed to. Complete Anglican Hymns Old and New, which is the hymnbook we use, is not the worst offender here by a very long way. The previous Anglican hymnbook butchered Be Thou My Vision, turning it into You Be My Vision, thereby replacing the flow of the original with the aural equivalent of being hit by a brick. Thankfully this appalling revision has been consigned to whatever circle of Hell is reserved for these foul efforts dredged from the souls of those who like to massacre perfectly decent hymns in the names of relevance and modernity.

For far, far more on this butchering of tradition, see this wonderful blog.

When I was at primary school, we used to sing hymns from huge flipover charts hung from the wall. As I think most children are if given the chance, we were hugely enthusastic singers, and at the end of every school year we would vote on our favourite hymns. Who Would True Valour See was always one of the favourites, along with When a Knight Won His Spurs and Oh Jesus I Have Promised. What appealed to me, and I suppose most of us if you go by what made the top slots, was the strength of the imagery: knights and spurs, and the hobgoblins, and the lion: all good swashbuckling stuff, combined with a thumping good tune.

The hymns I remember best from childhood are the ones where I saw the images most clearly. I could see a pilgrim fighting for his God; and the green hill without a city wall, and the buttercups which were our gold, and the daisies our silver.

The Anglican church every now and then gets an attack of relevance. We must, they think, make hymns/prayers/services relevant for today's people. To some extent I agree with that: it is a big help if you have at least a faint idea what you're singing or reciting means: but the inaccessibility of the language did not trouble me or my friends when we were young. I think children often don't have an exact understanding of everything they read, but they can still see something of the power and beauty of what is there, and respond to it.

Here is a version of Who Would True Valour See, by Maddy Prior. I hadn't heard it before I did a Youtube search to illustrate this post. I love it. It's not sung as I sing it now; all straightlaced Anglican choir, but with the passion and verve of childhood.

Friday, 24 April 2009

Revenge by teenager

I don't know what made me pick this book up, but I'm very glad I did. Mrs Fytton's Country Life, by Mavis Cheek is one of the best things I've read in ages.

It is about Angela Fytton, who married young, and dedicated her life to raising her family, and working with her husband to develop his business, waiting only for the point when the children left and they could enjoy being with each other. However, Ian Fytton had other ideas, and left her for Binnie, a dentist who provided him with a baby. The book opens with Angela's negotiations as she moves out of London and into the country. She has a misty, romantic vision of country life and the Dignity of Honest Toil, but beneath all that is a cast iron determination to get her husband back. Her teenagers are 17 and 18, and she knows perfectly well the last thing they will want to do is move out of London to live with her, stuck out in the middle of nowhere. So where will her little darlings go? To live with her husband, his new wife, and their baby.

Those of us who live with the especial joy that is the teenager will know just what a brilliant revenge this is. My friend Charlotte described the experience of having teenagers as the best contraception you could wish for. No romantic dream that is a second marriage with a new baby could possibly survive the galloping self-obsession, the utter conviction that you, the parent, know nothing, and the swirling storms of emotion the teenager drags with them through life, could it?

And there Angela sits, in the country, watching it all as she blunders through country life, and Ian and Binnie live through the full joy of having teenagers. "Good," she says. "Good."

I did, I have to admit it, love watching the uninitiated suffer. A few weeks ago I was standing talking to a friend who has 4 teenagers, when we were joined by another mother, who was complaining about her eleven year old. How old were our boys? she asked. "Seventeen," I said. "Nineteen," said my friend. "Gosh," said the joining mother. "Aren't boys the ages ours are awful?" My friend and I looked at each other, and had one of those moments when you know, absolutely know, what someone else is thinking. "Eleven is nothing," we were thinking. "The true, majestic horror that is a stroppy male teenager makes eleven look like a walk in the park." But we said nothing. We didn't disillusion her. She has it all to come.

So although I wouldn't wish it in real life, seeing Ian and Binnie reel under the onslaught brought with it a certain cruel enjoyment. Binnie, the husband-stealer, was so utterly unprepared.
Perhaps that's why the book's sold so well. Most parents suffer teenagerdom without having done (much) to deserve the sturm und drang, so seeing a couple who perhaps deserve a bit of punishment for the havoc they have wrought does have an attraction. I did like, though, the way Angela is ambivalent about what she's doing. Ian and Binnie's baby son does not deserve to have done to him what was done to her children.

And Angela is not without her troubles. Mavis Cheek writes it all so beautifully: the enthusiastic rushing into a rosy-hued vision of what country life is, and the gradual realisation (aided by a very nasty experience with mutton fat and rushlights) that country life is pretty much like any other except muddier. And smellier. She's funny, is Mavis Cheek. And sharp. I liked this book a lot. It's good. Very good.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Alison Hart's Shadow Horse - the Sequel!

You might remember I waffled on about how much I enjoyed this book, but what a pity it was there was no sequel. Well, Alison Hart has emailed me, and there will be one in 2010. It will be called Whirlwind, and will be published by Random House. Can't wait! I think pony and horse book fans are very lucky: unlike the fan of the school story, which is pretty much moribund in its traditional format, horse books keep being published.

Foggy morning walk

This actually happened on Tuesday. I haven't been on this walk for a week, and the crop (whatever it is) has shot up. It's well past my waist now.

I love this time of year with all the different wild flowers. Jack-in-the-hedge is below (which I know has lots of other names but I can't remember even one other at the moment)

Daisies not yet awake:

I was born in Bedfordshire, where we called this Cow parsley. In Northants, it's Kek. I do know it's also called Queen Anne's Lace, but I've never actually heard anyone call it that.

Elderflower just starting to sprout. Elder is supposed to be such a wonderful tree you are not supposed to cut it down. When we moved here, the garden was full of self-set elder, and we cut it all down. Er hum. Perhaps that might explain the dicey state of our chimneys; the parlous condition of our pointing, or the acros which have been faithfully propping up the cow byre for the last 10 years. Or perhaps not.
Anyway, I am not normally prone to house-wifely snippets, but here is one. If you heat up rhubarb slowly with a head of elderflower (when it's actually flowering, rather than as I've pictured it), it is delicious.

and nettle. I'm pretty certain this is White Dead Nettle, but I'm not about to go grabbing it to make sure.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

New hens

A couple of weeks ago I went out to buy feed at Dodson and Horrell. When I drove up, what should they have but a poultry event. I couldn't of course, walk by the hens and ducks on display without having a jolly good look, but I was strong. I didn't buy anything. Then. But I went back the next day and bought myself an early birthday present: two point of lay Black Rocks. They are hardy hybrids who are supposed to be able to cope with cold, and bearing in mind our field is always windy, and in winter is positively Arctic, they seemed a sensible choice.

I got them home and fetched daughter to name one (had already decided on the drive back that one would be Black Bess - she's below).

The hens erupted out of the carrier into the stable, and Miranda promptly named the other one Tiger.

And what a prophetic name that was. Poor Scrabbles, my head hen, has been demoted. Tiger is now top of the pecking order. She's more likely to jump on the others that stop fights, but Scrabbles does still weigh in and stop scraps among the lower orders. Hey ho. They have settled down now, but there have been moments when I have looked beadily at Tiger and contemplated her suitability for the pot.

They are beautiful hens though, particularly Bess, who has marvellous greeny-black colouration down her back, and they are laying well. I do like watching the way the flock dynamics change - at least when it's not accompanied by violence - but I think that's it. Nine hens are enough.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

The Garden...

This is the hell hole that is our garden (actually it would be more accurate to say was, as we've pulled our socks up a bit and Tackled the Horror). Still, you might as well see what happens to a garden when you don't do anything to it for months other than race through it at a rate of knots Not Looking.

You can just see, on the right hand border below, a small blob of white, which is a carrier bag that has been there since before Christmas.

The back garden. This photo is just dull, and I have still managed to avoid showing you a close up of the beds.

But not here. Not good, is it?

I do think a toppled over watering can does ornament a garden so.

This next bit is particularly awful. I do usually make an attempt at getting in amongst this lot as because the church doesn't have a kitchen, ours is handy (being next door) so we use the front for tables and chairs during church events. There wasn't one last year, so I had a cast iron excuse for doing nothing, and nothing was what I did. The devastation wasn't helped by the fact that bed is at the foot of the wind tunnel that runs down the side of the house, so it got the full force of the sub zero blasts during the snows, and much of it is alas, dead. We did get in there last week and sort it out, and if I have time, more pics will follow.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Morning walk - bit of a catch up

This is actually a walk I did a few weeks ago. I've developed tinnitus, which is a tad annoying. I've been trying to cut down on overworking to see if it makes any difference, so haven't done much with the blog. Did rather fancy the idea of reclining on the sofa, hand to my pale brow, saying "No, I must not work. My health will not stand it," in a fading, Dame aux Camellias way, but it's not to be. Working, or not, seems to make not one jot of difference, though the tinnitus is a lot worse if I am tired.

Still, back to the walk. There was a sort of blue light about that morning:

A huge treat to see these violets, which are all along the path. I love violets, though curse the bright idea I had a few years ago to plant them next to our gravel path, as I've spent every spring since then picking hundreds of seedlings out of the gravel.

I love the leaves of the Lords and Ladies once they've gone spotty.

I have a feeling this is sloe blossom, but I'm not sure.

I can't think how many times I've walked past the tree below and not actually noticed it. It looks as if it is about to leer down from the bank and grab you, although as it lives next to the railway line, maybe it's waiting for a nice, overcrowded commuter train.

Our local allotments. All the allotments I've ever seen look from a distance as if the last thing they'd ever do is produce food. I wonder if there is somewhere the taste police rule and only the most chi-chi of garden sheds, tastefully painted in Farrow & Ball colours, are allowed. I like these ones, with everyone resolutely doing their own thing.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Pippa Funnell: Tilly's Pony Tails

Pippa Funnell: Magic Spirit (Tilly's Pony Tails 1)
Orion, £4.99

Publication date: May 2009

I have huge admiration for Pippa Funnell as a rider, and whenever I’ve seen her interviewed, or read anything about her, she always comes across as a the sort of person that if you lent a book to, she’d give it back (could there be higher praise?)

The children’s book market has its fair share of celebrity writers: Madonna, Geri Haliwell, and of course when it comes to pony books, Katie Price. Publishers like to publish what sells: it does, after all, keep them in business, and in our celeb –obsessed culture, a famous name on a book will often guarantee sales, whatever the quality.

So, I approached the first in Pippa Funnell’s Tilly’s Pony Tails series – Magic Spirit - with a bit of trepidation. I liked it. It does, thank the Lord, steer clear of the magical, which is something most pony book authors can’t cope with, and sticks with a thoroughly likeable heroine and good, solid, fact. The book is aimed at the primary school age reader: I’d say 8 and above. There is very little straight down the line pony literature for children that age, so this book does fill a much needed gap.

The heroine, Tilly, doesn’t have a pony, but longs for one. Her nose is stuck permanently in Pony Magazine (which is mentioned so often in the first part of the book I began to suspect product placement), but she has nothing to do with real horses until she calms an abused horse loose in her local town. The horse is taken on by Angela of Silver Shoe Farm, a livery yard, and Tilly is invited along to help. There she learns how to take care of Magic.

All the equine detail is, as you would expect, spot on, and there is a small section of tips at the end of the book. There’s not a vast amount of plot: the main point is that Tilly gets to realise her dream of being with horses, but I think the book is better for not cramming in unbelievable incident: this is the sort of story a child could imagine happening to them.

Pippa Funnell avoids following pony book convention by making her heroine have a pony by the end of the book. Tilly goes and helps at Silver Shoe Farm, but she’s still pony-less by the end of the book, in which she will be just like the vast majority of girls who will read about her. There is one other convention that is followed in spades: the relationship with the horse that no one else has. Tilly has a relationship of quite spectacular specialness with the abused horse Magic Spirit. The book doesn’t though, become a poster ad for Horse Whispering as such; just sensible communication with horses. I’m not sure whether in real life everyone at the yard would treat this ability with the reverence they all seem to: surely, someone, somewhere would be just a tad jealous, but maybe that’s to come in a future story (four titles will be published simultaneously in May.)

As to whether Pippa wrote the books herself: well, not entirely. She used a ghostwriter, though the concept, characters, plot and equine detail are all Pippa. Pippa and her ghost writer have done a good job: I would certainly buy this book for my daughter were she still at that age, and I’d buy it in preference to a lot of what is on the market.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

The very hens in your flock are all numbered

Well, they're not at the moment, but if Defra has its clunking way they soon will be. I was reading The Times last night and lurking in the news found the nugget that Defra are proposing "that anyone owning a cow, pig, sheep or chicken will... have to pay compulsory insurance to cover costs in case of an outbreak of disease, and be forced to pay a separate levy to cover the costs of disease research and surveillance."

My heart beyond sank when I read this. I already have huge wodges of forms to wade through each year to claim our payment for our land, and I simply cannot believe that this new effort will not cost more to collect than it will raise. It will of course need a new computer system (and we all know how wonderfully well the government does with those - the new health service system, anyone? Has there actually been even one computer system the Government's commissioned that has not cost at least double what it was originally supposed to?)

One of the beliefs behind this document seems to be that those who generate the diseases (ie the animal owners) should "share responsibility" - in other words pay - for disease management.

The document mentions, as an argument for passing the cost of managing disease outbreaks on to producers, that controlling the 2001 outbreak of Foot and Mouth cost £3 billion. The fact that controlling the 2007 outbreak, caused by the Government's very own laboratories, cost £47 million, is buried deep in an appendix and not brought out as evidence. In the same year, Blue Tongue cost £2 million, and Avian flu £3 million. So, the Government was responsible for causing 90% of the cost of managing disease outbreak in 2007. If the Government actually causes disease, do we get a rebate? Will it take the responsibility it wants animal keepers to?

What I wanted to know when I heard about all this was if it was going to affect me; a very small animal keeper with a flock of 7 hens. That is a very moot point. There are costs attached to collecting payment: each payment will cost £15.88, says the document – “therefore there are thresholds below which it is not worth collecting a payment”. Well, quite. However, once the Government worked out the numbers of animals you needed to have to make payment worthwhile, it was immediately apparent that large numbers of animals were going to be missed: 59% of sheep, for a start.

Therefore, they suggest "All animal keepers, regardless of whether they keep animals commercially, for hobby or leisure reasons or for research would, in principle, be subject to the requirement to register under the scheme." In other words, everyone would have to pay a minimum of £15.88 a year to register their animals, plus the insurance levy. I don't have the accountancy brains in me to know if that makes any economic sense, or whether it will simply generate a lot of pointless paper. I don't know whether the insurance paid will be so minute that it will actually be counter-productive to collect it, or whether it will be a nice little earner for the insurance companies.

One thing I can make a pretty good guess at is that this proposed bill will also, of course, allow the Government to further its aim of knowing absolutely everything about everyone (and then leaving it around on memory sticks for someone to find).

And all this might well include horses too. I'm still trying to find the mysterious Annex 12, which specifically mentions horses. This is buried somewhere deep in the labyrinthine documentation galloping around this issue. I'll keep looking.