Thursday, December 31

Onwards and upwards

Here we are again. I suppose New Year’s Eve can be both a time of reflection and a chance to ponder the future. I long abandoned need for resolutions having accepted I’m as close to the end product as ever likely to be (yes, I know, ‘warts and all’ is a poor procedural defence). Being human I’ve always been able to attribute my finer points to a firmness of purpose and soundness of character; weaknesses I can blame on circumstance or the failure of others. Shit, if it works for McPlonker it’ll work for me; moral hypocrisy isn’t just for the rich and powerful.

Tuesday, December 29

Curtains on the noughties

Whilst London stocks reach a pre-Leman collapse high (all that pension, Chinese and Russian money has to go somewhere), FT’s analysts are quick to remind us that McPlonker has presided over the UK’s lowest economic growth of the post-war period, witnessing the worst stock-market returns since the ’30s (as my PEPs and ISAs can testify). In the meantime the sour-faced prick continues to spend money and run up debt like some wastrel from a Dickens’ novel. If attendance at shopping-centre sales is anything to go by the lad’s not alone. I put the latter down to people’s pessimism about the future and the need for gratuitous spending – according to a Harris poll only the French appear bleaker about their prospects. In the old days people didn’t expect a lot and were rarely disappointed. Regretfully we seem to have come full-circle and a rerun of the ’70s looms into view. I suspect the current generation will find our hair shirts a hard act to follow. Not wishing to labour the point but I’ve goose stovies and oatcakes for supper.

Sunday, December 27


Following Boxing Day with a Sunday kind of throws you. Turns out to be an unscheduled free day. What to do ... adjourn to the Dog & Duck and admire the new Laura Ashley frock our stubble-chinned cross-dressing neighbour treated himself to, for Christmas, or stay slumped in front of the box with a bottle of something mind-numbingly alcoholic. As luck would have it we’re afforded a rerun of Leslie Caron in Gigi. Admitting to being a fan of Caron is probably on par with being seen drinking in a Wardour Street club. The film’s a treat, not least for Honoré Lachaille’s over-the-top apartment and those scenes at Maxim’s. Can you imagine making a feel-good family movie in the modern era where the schoolgirl heroine is being groomed for sex, and one of the principal heroes – a lecherous old man – is allowed to be so passionate about his attraction to young girls?

Saturday, December 26

Merry Christmas

Perhaps too merry on occasion. Between the stubborn ice, inebriated drivers and a hedgerow replete with shotguns, walking those three miles to the Quik-E-Mart for my newspaper this morning became a dangerous exercise. Returning home following a couple of liveners at the Dog & Duck more so. Still, great Christmas Day, full of cheer – and with enough books (gifts) to keep me occupied through to spring and beyond (Diarmaid MacCulloch’s tome just for starters). Lots of Finlandia jellies, Turkish confectionary and (an especially rare treat) a Montecristo corona. Another two days of goose (ham, cold chipolatas and wilted salmon) and I’ll have done my duty. Jars and jars of goose fat for the store cupboard. The piece de resistance most definitely the great lady’s Christmas pudding, replicas of which sit languishing in the pantry for future rainy days.

Thursday, December 24


I’m holed up in the office to a background of Cuban dance music – an antidote to the ice. We’re frozen in; vehicles are unable to gain access and if they did they wouldn’t get out again. The only last minute shopping I’ll be doing this morning will be on Shanks’.

Wednesday, December 23

As slippery as a politician on the make

I thought the rise in temperature would improve our lot but it remains a nightmare on minor roads. The vehicle’s been in more fields than a blackface sheep, pirouetting off and back onto the track, through the ice and mud. No use complaining as – unless you want to pay even more local taxes – there’s only so much the council can do; and let’s face it, who amongst us is willing to shell out for a set of tractor tyres just for the odd couple of weeks. I wouldn’t even have bothered going out except I’d been tasked with acquiring our festive vegetables (and the Quik-E-Mart had run out of brussel sprouts). Turned out to be three quid for the sprouts and two hundred for bodywork repair. Who am I kidding (body work): it runs till it drops then I push her over the cliff.

Tuesday, December 22

Spicy fare

A light dusting of snow has cast a shroud over the icy surface, making today’s trip to the market an interesting proposition. It’s a beautiful scene and one wonders why you’d want to stand in a queue at Gatwick or St Pancras. That said, I suspect we’d be less sanguine if the electricity supply failed, the water remained frozen, or we ran out of heating oil and propane. I’m currently reading A 1950s Childhood: from tin baths to bread and dripping by Paul Feeney – an evocation of childhood that featured much colder weather and harsher living conditions than today. In the end you adapt and cope, roll with the punches.

Tempted to heat up last night’s dinner for our breakfast – have been wowing the Boss with a range of Singaporean dishes, and the fridge is cluttered with cling-wrapped bowls of left-over chicken in coconut-milk gravy and spiced pork bone soup.

Update: me and my big mouth. Thanks to my low profile go-faster tyres the vehicle is unable to negotiate the ice bound slope leading out of here. Accordingly, we’ve had to hoof it six slippery miles to buy a newspaper and a ‘get well soon’ card for brother-in-law. Just about the worst time of year to be admitted to hospital with pneumonia and viral meningitis (is there a good time?).

Sunday, December 20

Warrior Johnson

In an effort to shore up the core vote – to dissuade their electorate from jumping ship and joining the BNP – Labour continues to promote class warfare as a more palatable focus for their supporters’ residual prejudice, spite and envy. It proved a decent enough strategy in the past – let’s face it, it isn’t just the Skinners and Johnsons of the world who look to Cameron and think happy the mother who bears such a child, going from deed to deed, from glory to glory, from office to office, his scribe following after, till they reach whatever seat it may be that is the height of their desire. Fortunately, too many of us recall that winter of discontent to be persuaded by the band of brothers; if you are young or are looking to your kids’ future I’d have thought voters more likely to choose hope and aspiration over previous generations’ entrenched hatreds. Still, whatever works for you.

Saturday, December 19

Manager of the year?

If the season stopped here there would - with due deference to Fulham's Roy Hodgson - be only one contender for Manager of the Year.

Polar ice cap reaches Devon

Copenhagen ends with a fragile accord as power brokers sideline the UN and cancel Christmas. McPlonker’s legacy in tatters after trying to give away yet more of the money we don’t have in a desperate attempt to save the world. Let’s face it, neither the US nor the Chinese leadership were in a position to sell anything grander to the people back home; and it puts our declining (European) influence in perspective. The Guardian has a nice line about the global community resembling an alcoholic who has decided to save up for a liver transplant rather than give up drink. Like the national debt, we all appreciate the necessity of doing something but prefer it was at someone else’s expense. I’d have signed off on the deal in return for guarantees about permanently excluding that pillock from East Hull from the Newsnight studio. Have woken to a particularly beautiful morning on the Ponderosa; unfortunately, the water mains is frozen and there’s no cup of tea.

Update: damn it, now the snow’s arrived.

Friday, December 18

Another milestone

No use moaning about the freezing temperatures as everyone elsewhere seems to be experiencing worse conditions than Devon. That said, the sheep look decidedly parky – and the cockerel’s developed a sore throat. There are nine blackbirds and a song thrush parked outside the office window, together with the largest vixen ever seen – all of which are looking for food. A buzzard and a sparrow hawk remain perched in adjacent oaks waiting their chance. The only characters I haven’t seen recently are the deer.

This week celebrates our third anniversary in the barn – our fourth Christmas. I say ‘celebrates’ in that, despite the obvious frustration behind those original intentions, it’s still been a lot of fun. Spent yesterday crawling over another dilapidated pile with a couple of builders; the afternoon deep in the woods watching forestry guys fell trees, ever ready to update my skills.

One of the principal things you miss in the country is a decent cup of coffee. We overcame this by acquiring an excellent Swiss machine which has been away with the manufacturers this last ten days for its biennial service. As they say, you never really appreciate something until ...

Wednesday, December 16


Now it’s become surreal. Sixth place, close behind the hallowed top four; a peep at Europe; Liverpool and Man. City trailing ... OK, so everyone has games in hand – and we know it won’t last. The last time the Blues won five in a row Trevor Francis was sucking on Jubblies and I was tying the knot with Mrs G.

Tuesday, December 15

Up town

The downside to Christmas is shopping for gifts. Yes – I know... but unfortunately Amazon doesn’t stock everything. You’d think she’d have enough slippers and bed socks by now. If we’re truthful, who amongst us enjoys the seasonal trudge along the city’s chilly, wet streets, through overheated stores full of the great unwashed paying ridiculous prices for glitter-encrusted friperies and demijohns of 4711. Perhaps unwashed is unkind, but if I was snottered on once I was snottered on a dozen times. That health-service message about using a handkerchief or packet of tissues is obviously falling on deaf ears. Whilst studiously avoiding the pub I was still obliged to take a leak, and on both occasions found myself the only punter who bothered to wash his hands on the way out. What is it with these guys? Frank Skinner was writing in The Times recently, bragging about how he never washed his hands after taking a piss, branding those who do a touch grand. He’s probably the same tosser who usually fetches up at the bar and helps himself from my bag of crisps. Grotty bastard. Ended up at Carluccio’s for the works Christmas lunch. Like most similar chains it’s a bit hit and miss. Today was wide of the mark, though the Valpolicella masked the worst. The Boss likes the place as it means she’s not cooking.

Monday, December 14

Time and consciousness

The frustration I feel regarding my inability to articulate both the sense of freedom and the challenges I experience when walking alone on the hills, in attempting to portray the landscape that surrounds me (to rationalise that shock of insignificance which overwhelms on a clear night) continues to drive my appetite for an understanding of my place in the scheme of things. The current tangent revolves around the deliberations of Henri Bergson, the 19th Century philosopher. If struggling with scree slopes can be difficult, following this lad’s rationale has become a pain in the butt. I now appear to be the sole male survivor in my lit. class, and with ten women students sitting beside me have become concerned about my resemblance to Captain Brown on the set of Cranford.

Sunday, December 13

Fair division of labour

Returned home to find Mrs G. resembling a Yuletide snow globe scene, encased within a swirling cloud of duck down. Whilst I’d been out on the moor Farmer Charles had stopped by with the proceeds of the morning shoot, and unlike pheasants which are content to hang about for a few days, these guys required immediate attention. The Boss plucks, draws and cooks them; I open the wine and eat.

Update: rub the skin of the ducks with sea salt, freshly ground cloves and cinnamon, and bake on a bed of onion slices and tangerine halves for 30 mins. Serve with rice and peas. Fan-dabi-dozi.

Friday, December 11

Christmas begins

The shootists nailed another brace of pheasants to our front door this morning further enhancing the winter (freezer) supplies. Some excellent partridge have also come my way, and I’ve gone long on venison sausages and various parts of a goat for those cold winter nights. Today’s number one priority has been our acquisition of a Christmas tree. If I’d carried a saw during yesterday’s saunter amongst the forests around Lustleigh it might has served its purpose. Still, nice pint at the Cleave Inn – though the jury is out on the village itself which has the feel of a manicured retirement home for well-heeled ex-pats. After a couple of false starts I fetched up at the Forestry Commission’s place over by Exeter race course, coming away with a spectacular nine-foot specimen. Fortunately we have high ceilings. I half expected a tawny owl to emerge from its branches so dense are the needles. Needless to say the Boss is intent on frustrating those climate-change Johnnies by unleashing a string or two of seasonal illuminations. As for sparklies and baubles... it looks like Kirstie Allsopp’s thrown up all over the tree.

Wednesday, December 9

Big deal

I don’t play tombola and the boiler doesn’t need replacing, and as I’m not in line for a six-figure bonus there doesn’t appear too much on offer in today’s PBR – though if I need a change of career the government promises to equip me with the skills required to face the modern world. That slow train-crash which is the run up to next year’s election continues along its predictable track. The inference that public sector front-line services will be protected is laughable; non-emotive services (anything other than education, health and police), particularly council-delivered obligations, will be trashed; the Haringeys of the world appear doomed. How Darling intends to halve the borrowing requirement is beyond me or anyone else in the real world.

Tuesday, December 8

No scones today

I’m keeping my head down as the Boss is on the warpath. The annual Rayburn service turned out to be a major event and the barn now looks (and smells) like the engine room of a rusting, rivet-hulled side-trawler out of Lowestoft. The country might be crawling with IT consultants named Patel, but you try finding someone with a Corgi certificate or who qualifies as an AGA/Rayburn specialist. They must have been the ones that Phil Woolas’s superannuated friends managed to apprehend in order to qualify for their bonus. If we ever get out of here it’ll be back to cooking on hooks over open wood fires. Should Copenhagen have their way we can probably dispense with the fire and go straight to raw turnips – on plentiful supply at this morning’s market – a particularly cold affair, crying out for a dose of global warming.

Monday, December 7

Burning money

Billions down the plug-hole... cue Captain Bertorelli: ‘what a mistaka to maka,’ and the NHS IT strategy exits stage left. Good job we’ve money to burn, or perhaps not – depends on who you listen to. Some people obviously believe there’s still enough to spread around, it’s just a case of whose money you confiscate and which fortunate group benefits. Whichever, between Copenhagen and Darling’s scheduled address this Wednesday it doesn’t look good for many. At least Christmas is on the horizon. I enjoy the festive season, not least the food and drink. Tonight’s boiled ox-tongue is a case in point: you only appear to see them at this time of year, and they’re a welcome addition to game birds and venison; definitely preferable to celebrity rats. We remain conscientiously green, rarely eating anything that isn’t shot, clubbed or grow in the Southwest.

Friday, December 4

The draw

Can’t complain about the draw; no excuses and nowhere to hide come June. I think the bookies initially listing us as joint second favourites is pushing it, but then they’re correct in anticipating a mountain of cash will be wagered on England. Bet Capello can’t believe his luck: not only qualifying, but seeded; and now a comfortable start. Doubtless it’ll end in tears.

No more acts of faith

The ongoing climate change debate leaves little room for agnostics and seems to be moving beyond the realms of our relatively harmless yah boo sucks party politics. This afternoon’s discussion on Sky News saw a surly, shaven-headed demagogue from the LSE in competition with the Spectator’s cherub, Fraser Nelson. Whilst the latter dared to articulate the public’s scepticism, Bob Ward gave a flavour of what it must be like to be on-message with Russia’s current Stalin infatuation, following the party line with regards to ‘we’re all doomed and will destroy anyone who says otherwise.’ They still don’t get it – haranguing everyone at the top of their voices whilst reiterating the ‘trust us we’re scientists’ isn’t enough. When you’re down on one knee, having being systematically conned by politicians in general, Blair, Brown and the bankers, blind trust (and the Irish Catholic Church springs to mind) is in short supply. I’m sure we’re all of a one with regards to concerns about the planet’s future, but let’s not dash into Plan A like we did in Iraq, sans credible, ‘believable’ evidence that will lead to a correspondingly correct and achievable course of action.

Tuesday, December 1

No warning on the packet

If you’ve wondered why Scotland is prone to heath issues you need only consume one of those ‘tasty and authentic award-winning haggis’ on sale at the Quik-E-Mart. Tonight’s specimen (for a belated St Andrew’s supper where we meet to venerate Alex McLeish) consisted of lamb, beef, oatmeal and onions, plus a special blend of spices and seasoning, which – in common with most ethnic delicacies from north of the border – includes a mindboggling quantity of salt. If something could be described as a five-pint haggis then we ate it, ’cause that’s what it took to slake your thirst. I assume the salt’s there as a preservative and to enhance the savouriness of the dish, but c’mon guys... in this day and age even I balk.

Monday, November 30

Life goes on

Eleventh place! Hats off to Big Eck; Scotland’s loss, as they say... Added cheer on top of yesterday morning’s walk. It was cold and wet over the weekend, though good to be back out on the moor. Whilst the light’s not great – trees almost bog-oak black – the lemon gorse gives a lift to the whole scene. Not many bodies about, just nervous goosanders shadowing two stalwart canoeists on the reservoir. Must admit – and though our friends at Moyhill and in the Grampians may beg to differ – we appear to be located at the cutting edge of climate change in Devon. As a sceptic I have my own theories about the Bond-like villain who’s behind the global warming scam, and doubtless the 16,000 personnel attending Copenhagen at someone’s expense will be promoting their own ideas. What isn’t in doubt is the profit margin on those Wellington boots for sale at Ike Godsey’s. Whether or not climate change will be a catastrophe remains a mute point; however, you can be certain that (1) a great number of individuals will enjoy lucrative careers from exploiting the public’s concerns, and (2) politicians of every persuasion will see the debate as another excuse to milk us.

Friday, November 27


Who would have guessed it? According to JP Morgan, Royal Bank of Scotland has been the biggest loan arranger for Dubai World since January 2007. Was nothing safe from the reckless advances of this avaricious bunch from Gogarburn? You can only envisage taxpayers reaching into their pockets yet again, and more largess from Mervyn. And still Goodwin escapes the pokey. I suppose it could be worse: one of my drinking partners from the Dog & Duck owns a flat on the Persian oasis. All that the rest of us see is the same old apparition that involves our pension funds sinking deeper into the mire. And the fun hasn’t started: wait ’til those post-election taxes fall due – squeaking pips, sackcloth and ashes. On the plus side... we’ve a seemingly endless supply of potatoes, pheasants and ducks. And Benylin.

Monday, November 23

The big sneeze

Wicked overnight gales and heavy rain: so what else is new? Roads and track have significant deposits of standing water and mud; I’ve managed to slide the motor beneath a tractor, into a Devon bank, and through the paddock fence. Probably better off staying home, especially as I’m suffering from man-flu. Half-way thru my second packet of paracetamol, washed down with large portions of hot toddies. Better now than at Christmas I suppose.

Friday, November 20

Duty Cook

A veritable torrent of Christmas puddings and steak & mushroom pies are flowing from the Boss’s kitchen. Mrs G. has also acquired industrial quantities of Graisse de Canard in which to store her burgeoning duck mountain. It’s not quite Cumbria, but should Hilary Benn’s once in a thousand year storm turn up in this neck of the woods we ain’t gonna starve – there’s already enough stockpiled confit to see the Foreign Legion through the winter. Our local guns have been active and Farmer Charles has stopped by with the first of this season’s pheasants to add to the six pigeons I’m supposed to be turning into a pastilla for the great lady’s birthday party on Sunday. After a week of my Balkan-inspired suppers – heavy on the baked, stuffed courgettes – I’m now Mr North African Cuisine.

Thursday, November 19

The Phoney War

Talking of the ’30s... It’s difficult to stir myself these days but this one I couldn’t ignore. According to the latest official figures 50% of poor white boys are unable to read and write, and only 5% progress to higher education. We’ll leave to one side what constitutes poor (free school meals) and the fact that the media are suddenly and ominously referring to white English people as an ‘ethnic’ group (BBC Live at Five). A couple of things spring to mind ... Was it Labour who came to power 12 years ago boasting education-education-education? Just what-the-fuck have they been spending my money on? And who exactly are we recruiting to the teaching profession?

Do Labour really believe the public is as dumb as their propaganda suggests, that we can be so readily dismissed? Young Finkelstein thinks so, and maybe he’s right. I appreciate most of the piss-taking is just McPlonker shoring up what’s left of his vote; who knows, maybe Labour’s vote consists almost entirely of poor white boys, their mothers and the women that teach them? But please, exactly where do we draw the line – have you seen those borrowing figures?

Where you food comes from

This meandering odyssey that’s supposed to assuage my misspent youth has now entered the realms of surrealist poetry and avant-garde jazz. Whatever happened to those vodka-fuelled guitar riffs at the Happy Valley? At the least by now I’d hoped to have moved on from Auden’s bunch and the Spanish Civil War, but there’s obviously some way to go before adios-ing the 1930s.Not much in the way of direct expression of the unconscious un-obscured by rational thought at this morning’s cattle market. Who’d have thought I would one day find myself content to hide out amongst flat caps and moleskin trousers. Some nice looking animals on sale, and if I’d been any less circumspect when scratching the curly locks, I could now be the proud owner of an 800kgs bull, returning home several hundred quid lighter. You only have to look at the crowd to determine farming’s not a young man’s game, at least not at this level. If the next generation had the inclination where would they start? Just can’t see there being much money in the game. Treated myself to a mug of tea and Chelsea bun along with the waiting transporter drivers. You could resurface roads with that tea.

Friday, November 13

Resting up, post Ireland

Rather inclement weather at the barn: heavy rain and gale-force winds bringing down trees. Given our flickering lights and faltering wireless reception it seems we should have stayed on Craggy Island.

Talk about a busman’s holiday. The Cliffs of Moher afforded spectacular views out towards the Arran Islands, and I would have taken photographs with which to impress, except the ice formation on my mitts made it impossible to retrieve a camera from the rucksack. It was more sheltered elsewhere on The Burren, and as we were guests of two local archaeologists, very informative – I now have GCSEs in clints and grikes, and megalithic passage tombs. That and the consumption of Guinness. Would you believe the black stuff’s close to four quid a pint! No wonder Ireland’s economy is up shit creek. Our hosts, old friends and colleagues, live on a smallholding in County Clare which is even more remote than the barn, along with a donkey, sheepdogs and assorted livestock for company. As food and cooking is a principal interest we were well served with traditional fare, including their own lamb, fried kidneys and black and mealie puddings, soda bread and boiled bacon. A still-warm liver from the most recent cull came home in Mrs G’s handbag and is to be sautéed for supper.

The trek home was a marathon 17 hour affair. We stopped off to attend a John Behan exhibition in Limerick, though stab-city isn’t necessary the place you’d choose to linger. Plenty of company in the ferry’s lounge, mostly engaged in the horse racing industry. Our fellow travellers talked non-stop throughout the four-hour passage, seemingly unable to complete a single sentence without the obligatory feck or fecking to colour their dialogue. Once again we hurtled through Wales in the dark – past Swansea, Port Talbot, Cardiff and Newport – without occasioning the sight of a single body. There must be a curfew between the hours of midnight and three? Bristol to Exeter was a breeze. Excluding the sea passage we clocked up 900.4 miles (return trip), arriving home this morning at 05.00 hrs.

Monday, November 9

On manoeuvres

The propane-fuelled fire has recently developed a tendency to explode when I light it; time for a service methinks. Thanks to unremitting greyness November is rarely an inspiring time of the year, and this one doesn’t disappoint, even the Dog & Duck has a depressing air about the place. That said we’re keeping pretty busy, and as is usual when work beckons I contrive to slope off somewhere. If posts are few and far between this next couple of days it’s because I’m adrift in the the St George’s Channel.

Friday, November 6


The reason I promised myself we’d have moved house by now arrived yesterday morning through cracks in the window frames and gaps surrounding the doors. This however proved small beer compared to the 40kts gusts on the cliff top at lunchtime. Down along the shoreline things were spectacularly worse. It wasn’t so much the rain as the sea spray, which seemed to freeze in the air above the breakers and fashion itself into waves of needle-like projectiles that were hurled onto the beach, impacting my skull with the malevolence of a 10-guage. OK I’m exaggerating but it was a tad wet and chilly. The tide clashed with the prevailing north-westerly and I was caught when it turned unexpectedly, having to wade through the surf and scramble across the rocks. Experience has taught me to carry a change of dry clothing in the vehicle. Seemingly at home within the maelstrom a kestrel hovered effortlessly, tracking its prey amongst the scrub. Appears there’s always something out there waiting to bite you.

Thursday, November 5

Vision check

Following concerns raised by the optician during a recent eye test (pressure readings of >23 rather than <21) I was referred to the glaucoma unit at our local general. Between you and me it smacked of box-ticking, however, better safe than sorry. Another excuse for well meaning individuals to poke me in the eye with a blunt stick. A one-hour examination in all. Fortunately – and after reviewing a collection of spectacular stereo-photographs of my eyeballs – the optical equipment appears to be operating within prescribed parameters. You wouldn’t want to drive afterwards – it took 5-6 hours before I could see clearly. Spent the afternoon stumbling about Exeter city centre, purchased a new pair of spectacles (eye-watering prices for the lens). At least I can now see what I’m drinking.

Monday, November 2

Rain’s back

We might not have copped for it the way the Grampians have but still ... At least the reservoir is topped off and water’s cascading down the face of the dam. Quite hypnotic. It was quiet on the moor, though Mondays usually are. Company was limited to a herd of bedraggled, sulking ponies parked arse-end to the furze for shelter. Am pleased to say that soup as a staple has returned with the weather, and as Sunday lunch was roast-chicken, today the inevitable Cock-a-Leekie.

Kai? The only Kai of my acquaintance was an old partner in crime from the steamship days. A Danish sea captain with a taste for aquavit and marinated herrings. He was a short, dumpy guy who ... OK, I get it.

Saturday, October 31

Daffy’s bought it

One of the upsides to having gun-totin’ neighbours. Presents, left on the door-step. It will definitely feature on tonight’s dinner-menu, thanks to Mrs G. having plucked and eviscerated the little sucker. Appears our man was hit by a fair broadsides. There’s not exactly a lot of meat on wild ducks (too big for one, not enough for two), but you can bulk up on parsnips and carrots. Farmer Charles is supplying us with vegetables in exchange for jars of the Boss’s green bean chutney.

Wednesday, October 28

At the Bay

This week’s beer of choice – courtesy of Mrs G’s arbitrary selection from the Quik-E-Mart – is Quercus Brewery’s Shingle Bay. Quite apt, given we found ourselves back on the north Cornish coast today. Hard to believe there are still surfers out there at this time of year, though there are. Whilst I wouldn’t live within X miles of a dual carriageway I’m content being deafened by the long rumbling roar of an incoming tide. Some Aussie Guy hereabouts recently bought a home adjacent to a busy road, dismissing concerns over traffic noise by equating it to the sound of the ocean ‘back home’. ’Fraid I haven’t that depth of imagination, but I do like the sea shore – the rock pools and the coastal paths.Over there on the weed-hung rocks that looked at low tide like shaggy beasts come down to the water to drink, the sunlight seemed to spin like a silver coin dropped into each of the small rock pools. They danced, they quivered, and minute ripples laved the porous shores. Looking down, bending over, each pool was like a lake with pink and blue houses clustered on the shores; and oh! the vast mountainous country behind those houses–the ravines, the passes, the dangerous creeks and fearful tracks that led to the water's edge. Underneath waved the sea-forest–pink thread-like trees, velvet anemones, and orange berry-spotted weeds. Now a stone on the bottom moved, rocked, and there was a glimpse of a black feeler; now a thread-like creature wavered by and was lost. Something was happening to the pink, waving trees; they were changing to a cold moonlight blue. And now there sounded the faintest "plop." Who made that sound? What was going on down there? And how strong, how damp the seaweed smelt in the hot sun. . . . (Katherine Mansfield, At the Bay.)

Tuesday, October 27

Bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula)

A juvenile Hoop/Bud Finch. Whilst we’ve a number nesting in the area, Bullfinches remain quite shy birds. A taste for the soft buds of fruit trees make them especially popular with Farmer Charles.Small flocks of Fieldfares are already populating the reservoir area, feeding on haw berries. The usual suspects are staying close to the barn, not least (with the guns out) our pheasants. Another 40lb sack of seed from this morning’s market to keep the song birds happy.

Sunday, October 25

Fresh air and much needed exercise

Can’t believe the temperature is so mild – another week and it’ll be November. Snuck off for a look-see at the more popular side of Dartmoor; sure enough, the place is teeming with visitors (half-term). Parked-up in Manaton under the lee of St Winifred’s (dodgy render job on the tower), walking out across Hayne Down, past Bowerman’s nose – a 40ft granite column, and down in a loop around the back of Hound Tor. Long may it last, eh. And how about The Blues ...

Saturday, October 24

A dodgy subject

The excellent Matthew Parris, and Bonnie Greer continue to promote debate, following Nick Griffin’s appearance on Question Time. Having spent some time in the States I can vouch for the more open attitude to racial mix that exists here in England (at least in the Capital). Our continuing to be the destination of choice for so many immigrants reflects this. Likewise, a preference for fairness and reluctance to see the underdog abused (however two-bit his rhetoric) has led to an immediate rise in support, not necessarily for the BNP, but (and freedom of speech aside) for the right to promote their electorate’s interests. The BNP will prosper for as long as our main parties refuse to address the issues related to a growing underclass and rising population at a time of economic decline.

A bridge too far

The vulnerability of my faux incisor to the pork rib stress-test – a thumbs down for our thermoplastics industry – resulted in another visit to the dentist and a classic example of rural fix or mend, courtesy of Mr Superglue. He assures me my dental work should now hold firm until after new year but didn’t dwell on how he then removes the cemented bridgework prior to installation of the real thing.

Following our first mild frost the neighbours have been stripping sloe berries from hedges and steeping ’em in jars of gin, in readiness for the festive season.

Thursday, October 22

A disappointing diet

The postie had a noticeable eau de grump about him this morning. I doubt their enthusiasm for the strike, local staff being much more a part of the (rural) community than our metropolitan awkward squad; and decent jobs hereabouts don’t grow on trees – they’re not stupid. Must admit, whilst appreciating the luxury of a door-to-door (universal) service, it does seem an archaic indulgence in the modern era.

Great to be back on the moor; seems an age since we were out in the open. Though the weather’s turned and we’ve been persuaded to resurect the heating, for colour, autumn countryside is hard to beat. Now everyone has gone home there’s little out there ’cept a few grumpy steers; and the birds of course, gorging on berries. Visitors can be frustrated by the Devon banks and hedges – we have more than any other English county – and regretfully they shield so much from view. Fortunately, this time of year, hedges are subject to their seasonal trim and you don’t need the roof of a Discovery 3 to see over the top. Just now we’re clocking up the miles in search of you-know-what. Options remain as limited as the pub food I ate – the worst fish pie of the century, a revolting suet pudding and links of slurry-like sausages.

Saturday, October 17

Comfort food

It’s so good to return to home-cooking. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve enjoyed these last couple of weeks out and about: the Pad Thai, crab and prawns; the black pudding, Brixham scallops and poached quail’s eggs; new season partridge, celeriac and parsnip purée, braised cabbage and pancetta; the truffle risotto and champagne (the beef olives!). But – and brother-in-law’s fish pie included – it’s the domestic meals which register most. Friday’s dinner of osso buco (recipe courtesy of Angela Hartnett’s Granny) has been trumped by tonight’s supper of calf’s tongue and pungent green and sour white sauces. And after the Cumbrian bitter, pints of Tennent’s, and Scotch whisky, Sam’s cider seems so ... well, comfortable.

The new term has started and I’m already behind with my studies. Our new tutor is a classic ’70s lefty with all those predictable hang-ups. A class act, as long as you’re old enough to read between the lines. Their lives must be such a disappointment but I suppose it gets them out of bed of a morning. All that curdled knowledge ... such a jaundiced experience of life.

Friday, October 16

Classy porkers

Whilst Mrs G. was swapping recipes and grazing on vino and canapés yours truly had been working his way through Bath’s budget-priced Thai-themed cafes (and trying to determine how he ended up in Avonmouth, the other side of Bristol). Finally made it home to the barn last night along with the packet of sausages I’d acquired for supper. Very nice they were, though at £12.75/kilo for the Chef’s Special not for the faint-hearted. And now I really must get back to work.

Thursday, October 15


It’s getting so you can’t spend more than one night in your own bed. We decamped to Bath yesterday: the Boss is meeting cookery writer, Mary Berry; she started out with the author’s All Colour Cook Book, back in the early ’70s. I’ve been left to my own devices, with the usual proviso about not getting into trouble. Unfortunately the accommodation I booked (in advance) seems to be in an area that specialises in students and deadbeats, though most of the lads I’ve met begging for entrance money to the overnight hostel look better dressed that I am. That’s apart from the two individuals I bumped into last night who managed a fair imitation of Alec Guinness’ Fagin, and Lt. Dan of Forrest Gump fame (complete with wheelchair and bottle).

Tuesday, October 13


1,260 miles (in total) from two tanks of diesel (and there’s still 120 miles onboard); 48.3mpg, according to the motor’s computer. Not bad for an aging crate fitted with the old GM engine; but then I eased it along at a steady 69.9mph – doing my bit for the environment. Eleven hours for the return journey, including two brief stops for coffee and a leak. The most traffic cones I’ve seen in an age but, apart from a five-minute delay on the M42, traffic was unbelievably light. Picked up a couple of hot-smoked salmon fillets at a Cumbrian farm shop for when we arrived home. Along with a large glass of whisky it was just about perfect. A day off, then back to the grindstone.

Monday, October 12

Sundays are always bleak

Yesterday required some serious chill-out time to repair the damage from Saturday’s anniversary celebrations. Too much champagne and beef olives – most definitely a surfeit of beef olives: giant torpedoes of topside filled with bowel-threatening quantities of mealie puddin’. I was still digesting them during last night’s walk along Memory Lane, amongst the glaring arc lights and roaring generators. Dockside bars are desperate places of a Sunday night. Deckhands perched on top of stools, drinking apart, lost to maudlin thought ... Now comes the long drive home.

Saturday, October 10

Austere architecture for austere times

You’d think Jonathan Meades’ recent Off Kilter glimpse at the Granite City’s architecture would encourage me to look anew on our old stomping-ground; he made it seem so attractive. Yet all I seem able to focus on – tramping the cold, wet northeast streets at this time of year – are the cracks in the pavement. Its environment encourages that hunched-back, hands-in-pocket stance. Yes, I’m back here again.

Wednesday, October 7

Now it’s an Indian summer!

The weather is unbelievably mild, caterpillars cover the ground and insects cloud the air. Neighbours have discovered a nest of newly hatched swallows. The fledglings will have a tough time making it to Africa.One of the Boss’s feathered companions, a greenfinch, beak still stained after raiding for blackberries.

Moral dilemma

Hiking along a cliff-top you come across someone lying on the ground (fallen over?). You help him to his feet, dust the lad down and return his walking stick. He’s fine, he says, doesn’t need any help. You continue on your way and, glancing back, notice said gent has moved to the edge of the precipice and is adjusting his stance. Legging it back you try to engage him in conversation, offering to accompany the old boy to the nearest bus stop. The man reiterates he’s fine, politely but firmly suggesting you bog off. Who are you to say he isn’t just taking the sea air and that you’ve misunderstood the situation. Conversely, in these days of living wills ... what right has someone to interfere? You retire to a reasonable distance and continue to watch over him. He settles down on the cliff top, presumably lost to his thoughts, and eventually you continue on your way. Returning two hours later it seemed prudent to check, just in case. And sure enough ...

Sunday, October 4

Chill wind

Evidence of seasonal change as Mrs G’s sage-flavoured potato & sunflower-seed toast makes it onto the breakfast table. The Sally Army band’s repertoire amid chill autumn drizzle during yesterday’s market almost hinted at Christmas. We were stocking up on treats: black-frilled partridges, bloody rabbits and venison sausages; butchers doing a roaring trade with their tags of beef, giant rolls of fore-rib and sirloins. Customers with large families I guess? Given Halloween lies waiting, the cynics amongst us would have noticed that pumpkin prices are in the ascendancy – eight quid for big ’uns. Still, job done: freezer topped off in readiness for the coming month.

Thursday, October 1

Smiley face

Gudgeon’s smile is restored, thanks to the dental laboratory’s Perspex representation of my maxillary canine tooth and lateral incisor. Actually it ain’t too shabby – a huge improvement over the dentist’s makeshift Airfix model. It seems I’ve to wait a couple of months for the mouth to heal before they can fit the real thing. I celebrated with lunch at the Peter Tavy Inn. The staff there always address me as Guv, and I don’t know if it’s the proximity of HM Prison or down to my fondness for Jail Ale. Whatever ... the food and beer are always good. Having subsequently run a couple of errands we ended up over on the east side of Dartmoor, and found a remote spot to park up and read the newspapers. Not a soul in sight, or so we thought. Why is it, when you park in the middle of nowhere, other people feel obliged to seek you out? Over the next hour a succession of German and American visitors (7 to a vehicle) deplaned alongside us and began feeding the horses. Needless to say, when they left and the supply of rich tea biscuits dried up, the herd descended on the car and had it away with one of my windscreen wipers and half a wing mirror. Bloody vandals – another example of our so-called broken society.

Wednesday, September 30

Grumpy old man

Old geezer warns the advent of supermarkets is killing our traditional British village. He believes the demise of village shops – where sour-faced biddies sell stale vegetables and dented tins of marrowfat peas – is a bad thing. Communities are changing for the worse, he says, too few incomers bow and scrape as they used to. It’s difficult finding suitable help, everyone commutes to the city to earn a living wage. And don’t get me started on immigration ... It wouldn’t be so bad if everyone wasn’t breeding like bunny rabbits.

Tuesday, September 29

Nice try, but no fluffy toy

Phew, for a moment I thought he would produce something clever. Instead it was more of the same old waffle – familiar themes and u-turns, sleights of hand. That’s not to ignore the increased benefit payments, higher minimum wage, free child care for the poor, free personal care for dotty grannies, restoring the pensions/earnings link, blah-blah-blah. You can accept it at face value as aspirational bullshit, or go with tax and spend writ large. Mind you, I thought his reintroduction of workhouses for pregnant teenagers was a corker; he’ll presumably staff them with psychopathic nuns. Abolish hereditary peers by all means, but heaven forbid we include hereditary Labour parliamentarians or nice little earners for the spouse. McPlonker’s principal theme seems to be ‘our product’s crap but you’ll hate the alternative.’ Not sure that’s going to work. The election looks to be successive appeals to that mythical hardworking majority; the many, not the few; to the people of all the talents; about fairness and justice, getting on with the job, dreaming big dreams, the moral dimension ... Mandelson’s right: the election’s gone, but we can screw the Tories with a hung parliament, and really fuck the country.

Pain in the ...

The good old BMA are at it again: families are subsidising problem drinkers. I think the argument goes that, because supermarkets only make pennies on booze, they are obliged to increase the cost of groceries to compensate. Conversely, if stores then fail to attract sufficient punters (having removed their loss-leader), less food would be sold, and the cost to said families will increase. Previous studies seemed to indicate that hiking the price of alcohol doesn’t necessarily lead to a fall in the consumption of heavy drinkers; they simply spend less on food, and the kids go hungry. We all appreciate the problems associated with alcohol, and it would be nice to walk down a city-centre street of an evening without being assaulted, but these spurious arguments from the BMA do little to further the cause.

Pushing the envelope

My moorland excursions are hardly feats of Olympian legend – Ranulph Fiennes I’m not. However, given the dodgy knees, I don’t do too badly. And anyway, who wants to queue to visit Everest when it resembles little more than the rubbish strewn excuse for a popular bank-holiday destination. The whole point is to get away from people, and I can easily achieve that in this part of the world. Yesterday I limped through the mist to the top of Yes Tor and set out across the murk towards Great Kneeset.Visibility can be a problem these mornings, but the lack of rain has made walking on Dartmoor a more pleasant experience. I enjoy these trips to the top of the valley beyond Lints Tor. You’d imagine it would be a popular route, but if you crave solitude, a sense of loneliness, it serves. I’m now up to completing a six-hour stretch before the legs give way. The trick is to be within crawling distance of a car park when they go.

Sunday, September 27

Brighton should be fun

‘World Statesman of the Year’ targets Abigail’s party guests. Like that’s going to work. This is not exactly the Bob Crow fan club he’s appealing to, not at a time Labour is depending on union money to help squeeze the vice tighter. What part of white van man has gone over to UKIP and the Tories don’t they understand? If we are to believe the polls, even public-service employees think they’re better off voting Conservative. Grief, even Mandelson says he’ll work for Cameron. Rats and sinking ships don’t come much bigger. Then there’s the SNP and BNP to consider – one of the more interesting asides this week came from Mrs G’s pinup boy at the Spectator. I suppose we shouldn’t forget the Lib Dems: though after their dismal conference perhaps we can, even Vince has tarnished his appeal. There are some interesting spread betting wagers to be placed these coming months.

BBC to hire old biddy to read news? Make your minds up. Only last week it was suggested schools dismiss their senior teachers, who were past it, and replace them with twenty-somethings, to better connect with and inspire media/computer savvy children. I’d love to meet whichever woman has the brass-neck to apply for the proposed post of token wrinkly at the Beeb. According to Jeremy Hunt, the shadow culture secretary, she must also be a Tory, to counter the corporation’s innate liberal bias. Ann Widdecombe, come on down.

Wednesday, September 23

Looking forward to the travel stories

Nearly 100 establishments have been shortlisted for the Sea Fish Industry Authority (Seafish) National Fish & Chip Shop of the Year award. Never one to miss an opportunity – and as I was on driving duty with the Boss and in the area – we called in at the Peck family’s Camelford chipper, one of the Southwest’s five regional finalists. Rick Stein, eat your heart out: while the chips need a little work, it’s the best fried fish I’ve eaten in a while. The whitest of white stuff, top-notch batter and service with a smile. Spent the afternoon walking it off, barefoot, along the sparsely populated beaches of Cornwall’s north coast (and wondering how the family members currently visiting Sydney are faring?).

Serving it large

The trip to Northcott didn’t quite go according to plan as I was running late, and rather than risk the venue’s pickled tofu and chickpea salad, we adjourned to the nearest hostelry. Needless to say, a pre-theatre dinner of scampi in the basket at the local Weatherspoon’s went down like a hole in the head with Mrs G. It’s been some time since I’ve frequented one of the Spoon establishments, and this one, The Imperial, is a belter. A veritable booze cathedral. The succession of bars and spacious drinking areas leads one to another, being populated by a wide assortment of revellers – conspiratorial hen parties, garrulous students, muted couples sharing steak dinners, construction workers clad in orange protective clothing, and travelling businessmen toasting the downfall of rivals. You can’t argue with the prices, but visitors from the BMA would doubtless self-destruct. Punters can buy bottles of wine for as little as £4.99 (meals for £2.99). Seemingly popular with younger hyper-active inebriates are tins of something called Monster Energy, served with two shots of vodka. They enable you to remain awake when falling down.

Sunday, September 20

Mary Travers pops her clogs

Memories ... I could institute an ‘obituary of the week’ at the rate they’re falling. I started to write a post on the reissued Beatles albums last week but couldn’t work up the enthusiasm. Yes, I know: they transformed the world of popular music. But that’s not how I saw it at the time. Music was rarely something you sat down and listened to as a teenager: you were always on the move. Music was more about flavour, and for effect; something that played in the background – a soundtrack. And whatever motivated disaffected teenagers, it wasn’t necessarily the Fab Four. There was such variety in contemporary 60s music you could always find something different to suit the particular phase you were going through. And let’s face it, every kid had their ‘folk’ period – all that Baez, Seeger, Dylan stuff; when you discovered Robert Tressell and began dabbling in socialism. As with most things we eventually grew out of it. The 70s cured everyone of those sorts of fantasies.

The good life

Good news on yesterday’s footy. Big Eck might be short of fit players but it looks like he’s the makings of a defence?

I’m going to miss this summer. Three years of life in the sticks and we finally got a taste of what we came here for. It’s a little misty this morning but the high pressure system still seems to be with us. You can tell things are drawing to a close with the passing swallows and the rusting oak. The robins are also returning – at least they’ve begun singing again and are more noticeable. Viewed through my jury-rigged bifocals it seems the fence is sprinkled with the contents of a Bryant and May box. I’ve certainly eaten well enough, though just now things are pretty lean. That temporary bridge the dentist fashioned failed to pass muster, and a soggy gum isn’t best suited to barbecue. Busy day, today; busy week in fact. Between now and the end of the year the calendar looks increasingly congested. You only get to do this once.

Friday, September 18

Sights you don’t want to wake up to

No - not this latest attempt at deterring magpies, it’s the Boss’s current batch of damson and crab-apple jelly that disturbs me. The kitchen looks like traitors gate – there are muslin sacks of damson and crab-apple pulp hanging from the ceiling, dripping their crimson juices into buckets (big crop this year). She’s out to trump Gudgeon’s barbeque sauce, the one I’ve been perfecting for my charred-ducks recipe.

Our lad from DHL has just delivered the upcoming term’s Eng. Lit. tracts on aestheticism and modernism, the popular and canonical. All good stuff, I guess. Am (hopefully) ahead of the game, having already read most of the prescribed books, plays and poetry; but in order to garner Brownie points, have also booked seats at the local production of Ibsen’s A Dolls House. Part of me thinks this is above and beyond the call of duty... Nora Ephron was in today’s Guardian, wittering on to Jason Solomons about men’s reluctance to direct films that aren’t about them – and I thought, no shit. Suffering Chekhov and Ibsen, and having to read Woolf, Mansfield and Du Maurier is already a bridge too far as far as I’m concerned. Damn it, I chose 20th C. Lit. as a means of avoiding the Jane Austens of the world.

Ephron, of course, wrote Julie & Julia – a current release depicting the early life of Julia Childs, the American cook. It’s billed as ‘the ultimate chic-flick,’ which means most men are unlikely to go within a million miles of the movie. Unfortunately, I’ve always had the hots for Meryl Streep; and many years ago when I was posted to Texas and switched on the TV, first thing I saw was Julia Childs. The lady’s up there with young Floyd, a real eccentric, hugely entertaining, and the reason why most of my TexMex recipes have something of a French flavour. Her series was apparently turned down by the BBC because they thought she was a drunk (you need to see her). Guess I’ll have to sneak into the cinema with my collar up.

The start of Stage 7

I walked down to watch the start –VE Day all over again. Returned a couple of hours late and it’s back to the Mary Celeste.

Thursday, September 17

On yer bike

I’m hot-footing it along the lane for a six-pack and pint of milk before the world and its granny arrives. If you’ve been following The Tour of Britain (our biggest professional bike race) you’ll be aware that Stage 7 starts from outside the Quik-E-Mart tomorrow morning, effectively closing the village. Edvald Boasson Hagen seems to be man-of-the-match so far, as today they wend their way towards Bideford. You can catch highlights on ITV4.You’ve no idea of the number of spares that follow on behind.

Wednesday, September 16

Abusing the system

Back home minus a tooth, or what remained of one. My first extraction since the ’80s – I’d forgotten what it’s like to have something torn from my jaw. The little sucker had hung on in there all these years, overcoming a filling, root canal treatment and an apicectomy, before going on to support no less than three crowns (never learnt to keep my guard up). Now faced with the choice between an implant or yet another crown (cantilever), I’ve predictably chosen the latter. Better the devil... I could have purchased a small car with what this single tooth has cost. Travel and London residency always excluded me from access to NHS dentists (closed lists), so it’s kind of irritating to note the mixed practice I’m now using has clocked 150 no-shows from its NHS clients during the last month.

Who gives a shit

Last night’s sterling effort by BBC’s Newsnight to debate the aftershock of Lehman was, as is usual when something seems worthwhile, all too short. Would that our political masters could openly discuss these issues and engage with the public. That said, I wonder what percentage of the population actually watched the programme, ever raises its head from the pavement. The only thing you can determine from what brief conclusions were arrived at is that there are going to be a lot of unhappy people walking the streets of Britain during the next decade. I hope to hell there’s half a brain somewhere in amongst the Tory tribe when they come to power, that they can glimpse the bigger picture instead of just fighting fires and continuing to drift; maybe rise above sectarian interests? Anyway, why should I give a gnat’s turd, I’m off to meet the dentist and not looking forward to the encounter.

Tuesday, September 15

Keith Floyd

Yesterday’s Channel 4 documentary on Keith Floyd turned out to be close to the mark. We sat there thinking the lad ain’t long for this world, and sure enough, today brings news that he’s finally hung up his apron. Floyd’s in-your-face enthusiasm inspired a generation of lads, at just about the time most women decided food was the enemy. I’ve all of his books, which I still refer to, including the edition on hangover cures. Having watched one of the old soak’s programmes recently you realise how much the world has moved on, but only, in part, thanks to Floyd. I met him just the once, down in Kinsale, where he was living at the time. Even then he looked a haunted guy. We all have – or perhaps had – mates like Floyd. Most have expired. I would never dream of judging them, you do what you have to do to get by. Rather the boorish and embarrassing than the alternative. Day one, join AA; day two, discover God and impress everyone with your piety.

Sunday, September 13

Alienating and criminalizing the public

Made an early start (for a Sunday morning), up on the hills back of eight-o-clock. Came across a contingent of Afro-Caribbean lads in the company of their minders. A taste of Outward Bound activity, for what I took to be city kids. I say ‘kids’, they were all a foot taller than yours truly. Whilst young people aren’t exactly a rarity on Dartmoor, you’re about as likely to see ethnic minorities carrying rucksacks as you were to see a black face on Saturday evening’s Last night of the proms. Nothing wrong with that, you say, each to their own. Fair enough, but then you’d probably have no idea how motivating it can be for a young lad from an urban environment to get out into the countryside. The youth-club leaders who transported me from Gypsy Lane to the Peak District’s gritstone crags, the mountains of North Wales and the West Coast of Scotland were arguably my most important source of inspiration during early teenage years. And I guess it’s just these sorts of guys – from youth clubs, scouting organisations, the YMCA, etc. – who are becoming seriously pissed off at having to pay £64 to acquire a certificate confirming they’re not child molesters. As if that would work! Just to rub salt into the wounds, I read in the Telegraph that Chris Keates, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, is indulging in what I presume to be the crudest form of blackmail – inferring that schools might be ‘quite suspicious’ if volunteers dropped out because of the new vetting procedures. ‘I just think people would express suspicion if parents had been working with children for quite a while, then said “well I'm not going to do it because I’m going to be checked” because people who do volunteer understand the need for safeguarding.’ If only she was as quick to endorse the GTC’s new code governing teachers’ standards of behavior.

Friday, September 11

End of a dream?

Space can inspire and deflate at the same time. That sense of wonder you experience when looking at the latest pictures from Hubble is immediately dissipated by news that we're spending too much on wars to fund a manned voyage to Mars. Unlike Japan’s first lady I’ll never get to meet a Klingon.

Normal service is resumed

Melanie Reid painted a grim picture of Scotland in yesterday’s Times. All I can say is, ‘so what’s new?’ I suspect 50% of the golf I’ve played in Scotland over the years took place while wearing waterproof clothing. Lost count of the overseas visitors seen trudging from the course after nine dispiriting holes, their having spent thousands visiting the home of golf. No wonder so many private clubs are struggling: who wants to pay a year’s subscription for three months golf. Then again, ditto Wales, Ireland, the north of England... and we in the Southwest have little to shout about. It was ever thus, the last two decade’s sunnier, dryer climate has been an aberration. Or maybe my perception was skewed by the Iberian Peninsula’s protective arm. South London Mansions had developed a Mediterranean climate – damn it, I was growing olive trees in the yard. No complaints about this week’s weather; another day or two of sunshine and they’ll be asking where my burro is. Am already receiving second glances from the Quik-E-Mart staff.

Whilst the erratic state of the weather’s enough to drive a man to drink, I’ll resist commenting on the latest BMA call-to-arms. There’s been more than enough spilt ink on the subject. What I would draw your attention to is one of our economy’s growing success stories: figures show the UK now has more breweries than at any time since the Second World War. CAMRA found that 71 new breweries started production in the past year, taking the nationwide total to 711. Stick that up your stethoscope.

Wednesday, September 9

Cornish sunshine

And not before time.There was only one place you could go to on a day like today.

Alternative transport

I’ll miss living off the neighbour’s vegetable surplus when it’s gone, though my interest in stuffed courgettes and pickled cucumber has started to wane. I won’t be sad to see the back of the wasps; they’ve proved more irritating than flies this year. September is one of those annual expenditure spikes when the vehicle service/tax/mot and insurance falls due. The latter seems to be drifting upwards again, thanks partly to an increase in fraud. It doesn’t help that my mileage has increased more than 50% to over 12k/year. Replacement tyres and brake pads tell all you need to know about my driving. I parked outside the garage between an early-model T120 Bonneville and an old Bedford delivery van carrying loaded milk urns (Tesco Local Choice?). In this day and age the bike looks an improbable means of achieving the once-famed 115 mph, and is certainly no match for the machines that are down here touring. I’ve been tempted to return to two wheels – our eleven-year-old neighbour tears about the countryside on one – but know it would be the end of me. Maybe a pony and trap would work?

Discretion as a virtue

If you’re involved with writing groups you’ll have discovered that not only do the fair sex outnumber us lads by a ratio of 3-1, but that many of the girls come armed with what are euphemistically described as ‘issues’. Writing, it seems, is cathartic – a means of addressing the past... of settling scores and waging war. My throwaway lines about whack-jobs do not go down well. When visiting a local artist yesterday I couldn’t help noticing the walls of her home were decorated with a series of psychogenic nightmares in mixed-media. It was less the garish dream sequences that caught my attention, more the profusion of giant Viz-like testicles enhancing the figures in her paintings. There are rams out back in the field with smaller knackers than these suckers. If you’ve seen the Lynx deodorant advert that features a boy playing with his maracas then you get the idea. I began to sense one of those Kathy Bates moments in the offing, suddenly wishing I’d brought along company for support, and suggesting, rather too quickly perhaps, that we adjourn to the Dog & Duck where there were witnesses and multiple opportunities for an exit. I’ve always felt you can never be too careful where guns, large dogs or women are concerned.

Monday, September 7

Monday skive

As I was on duty over the weekend I elected to give work a miss this morning, swanning off up the hills. Mondays are quiet, or so I thought. Young shepherd had been tasked to bring the flock down and, high-revving quad bike aside, summoned sufficient whooping and hollering to accommodate the soundtrack of a John Ford western. Having climbed to the common and worked my way around West Mill Tor, across Yes Tor and High Willhays, I set out towards Dinger Tor and the Dartmoor hinterland. You often wonder – and I’ve said this before – about what would happen if the old ticka-ticka Timex gave up the ghost whilst you were walking off-piste, and fell face-down in the blanket bog. They’d probably dig you up in a millennium or two and put your perfectly preserved body on view in some museum. Anyway, no chance of that today... Out of nowhere our boys in blue appeared, courtesy of a long wheelbase Land Rover AND a brightly coloured helicopter.It seems someone had interpreted the shepherd’s calls of encouragement as a cry for assistance, and, as yours truly appeared to be the only guy on this stretch of the moor, I was going to be rescued. Rescued or shot – you never know these days when the lads turn up mob-handed, wearing stab vests and all that assorted ironmongery. Still, fair doos, it’s nice to know the constabulary are on the job and I won’t end up as a scientific curio. After exchanging pleasantries and assuring them everything was hunky-dory I continued on my way, eventually cutting down to the valley and following the West Okement back in. The walk along the river’s a favourite, but because it involves a fair amount of rock scrambling you do need good ankles and knees – which I haven’t. Doubtless I’ll be limping all day tomorrow. A five hour slog, it was all I could do to crawl across the portals of the Dog & Duck on the way home.

Sunday, September 6

Tough ways to earn a living

There’s a series of photographs doing the rounds, on loan from the National Portrait Gallery. The exhibition is titled ‘Comedians: from the 1940s to now.’ Fantastic images, not least Bill Brandt’s take on Peter Sellers, and the whimsical study of Meera Syal. My favourite is Lichfield’s shot of Tommy Cooper. What strikes you most – the frightening thing about comedians – is their shortened life span. I’d forgotten how many of the featured performers turned their toes up at a relatively early age. Pressures of the calling, perhaps, or life style? Thanks partly to my predilection for pasties and pints of Tribute, I too seem to be morphing into Johnny Vegas’s dad, and am trying to compensate by walking the local hills. Just now with the kids back in school Dartmoor is particularly busy. The adults are out at play, and if the cattle fail to trample or gore you, you can be sure to be mowed down by a succession of mountain bikes, horses, or be savaged by rogue German shepherds. Down around the Torpoint area this morning; lots of peripheral Navy Days activity in the sky – boy’s toys, formation flying and aerobatics.

Thursday, September 3

Open studios

Had promised El Supremo a run around the Drawn to the Valley Open Studios, and was successful in tracking down several of the venues. The individual work can be somewhat hit and miss, depending on your taste. Purchased a couple of prelim drawings for subsequent paintings commemorating the anniversary of Brunel’s Royal Albert Bridge.

Whilst the Southwest has its fair share of arty communities it was difficult to be impressed during my recent visit to the Plymouth Museum & Art Gallery. A poor effort in relation to the size of the City’s history and population. Don’t get me wrong: they recently ran a Lenkiewicz exhibition, and there’s the odd Alan Cotton and Clifford Fishwick I wouldn’t say no to, but – compared to Aberdeen, for instance – it sells the populace short. A selection of fat-women caricatures doesn’t quite cut it. Suppose it’s back to the age-old argument about what a community spends ratepayers’ money on: a much needed roof over someone’s head, or something less tangible which may or may not advance the cause of social mobility.

The Union Inn, Saltash

Today’s lunchtime outing. Times columnist Santhnam Sanghera recently told us he remains somewhat chary about entering a pub flying the Union Jack. This one would freak him out.

Wednesday, September 2

The Ark beckons

New Orleans comes to Cornwall. Trust me: apart from a brief visit by the Jackson family, two years ago, little around here resembles The Big Easy. Aside from my collection of early Armstrong recordings and a souvenir glass from Pat O’Brien’s, I’m not what you’d call a trad jazz fan – at least not in the sense of bowler hats or striped blazers. Still, anything that gets the foot tapping... My mistake was arriving in Bude before opening time and deciding to go paddling in the sea. They’re reluctant to admit people dripping wet. On the plus side, I did eat a decent pasty for lunch. And despite the subsequent rain showers we spent an enjoyable hour or two negotiating the foreshore. Mrs G. is a big enthusiast of intertidal ecology. Returned home with a couple of additional specimens for what the Boss refers to as my growing collection of meaningless tat. I prefer to regard it as a fine example of the natural history ‘art installation’ medium.

Tuesday, September 1

Little Doggies

It was wild on Okehampton common this afternoon, and in more ways than the obvious – soaked to the skin being accepted as a given this week. I found myself witness to a round-up. The first time I’ve seen guys on horseback (rather than on foot or riding a quad bike) driving the cattle down off the moor. Real trail boss stuff, sans Stetson and chaps. There are still plenty of visitors about to enjoy the excitement, and no shortage of families spending their holiday under canvas. It’s heartening to see the tiny mites roughing it, sitting out in the open around a pan of sausages. Damn it, we had to: no reason why the latest generation shouldn’t suffer in kind.

Sunday, August 30

Too much of a good thing? Nah.

If you’re into ice cream there’s no shortage of outlets here in the Southwest. I guess there aren’t many real Italian families left in the business, though it seems to have bounced back from the sad days of Mr Whippy and Walls. I’ve an old actor buddy who worked the vans when things were quiet; his stories aren’t particularly edifying. Buried as we are in soft fruit from the hedgerows, the Boss’s machine is currently running full tilt. She’s working her way through Pamela Sheldon John’s book, Gelato. I’m close to OD’ing on blackberry sorbetti & granite, having already consumed my own body weight of blackberry yogurt ice cream.

An almost impressionist landscape

This morning doesn’t look too promising either. You can always count on Bank Holidays! I’m assuming Friday’s weather was the tail-end of Hurricane Bill; wet hardly covered it. At the time the front hit, yours truly was stranded – lost, in fact – somewhere in the middle of a Forestry Commission conifer plantation. The weather already feels like autumn, any time now the nights will be drawing in. Yesterday, mindful of the need to make the most of remaining daylight hours, I thought, why not take a quick jaunt around the reservoir. Exercise out of the way, I could then spend a guilt-free afternoon in a comfortable chair, watching Jeff Stelling and the boys.

The light there has changed and the water’s a sinister inky black. Much better up in the hills where it’s easy to lose yourself wandering amongst the dying fern and bracken. I woke an hour or two later to find myself sitting on top of West Mill Tor. Oft described as a solid piece of Cyclopean masonry, it affords a decent enough view if you can’t be arsed climbing the neighbouring Yes Tor. A mixed herd of Welsh Blacks, Belted Galloways and what I believe to be South Devons were grazing below. Skylarks have conceded ground to the House Martins who appear to be congregating for the off. Two Sparrow Hawks were shadowing the little guys, along with a pair of Buzzards doing their Steve McQueen & Faye Dunaway act. As I've said before, providing you can find shelter in amongst the granite blocks, there are worse places to wile away a morning reading the sports pages.

Friday, August 28

The baby boom

I suspect yesterday’s figures from the ONS will have people suitably engaged, though I’ve little enthusiasm for the predicted response. No doubt the fear of altering our population’s ethnic balance figures prominently. If you encourage people to breed and pay them to have children what did you think would happen? Everyone was bleating about the future: not having enough young people earning and paying taxes, to fund pensions. Over the space of several years South London Mansions had switched from being a virtual child-free zone to becoming chock full with young (middle-class) mothers armed with Maclaren buggies. Having children, it seems, was something they wanted to ‘get out of the way’ while still in their 20s/early 30s. And who could blame them? As to the seemingly prolific way people are procreating in this neck of the woods, what else do you do on those long winter nights? I’ve no doubt the recession’s changing economic fortunes and the probable curtailment of benefits will reverse the trend. Grief, there’s hardly enough maternity hospitals, schools, college places and prisons to accommodate the current batch, let alone allow for further expansion. As regards the implications for their subsequent gainful employment, climate change, food security... You could envisage a time that baby buggies will come equipped with similar Government health warnings to those adorning cigarette packets and bottles of alcohol.

Wednesday, August 26

Market day

Market day at the Dog & Duck is always more lively than normal; the number of small, vicious dogs increases exponentially. It isn’t long before my fellow drinkers’ arthritic feet start tapping and grey heads begin nodding to the accompaniment of Jeff Beck’s Stratocaster. And £50 from Ernie to boot – another round of drinks. If only I’d had a tenner on Villa winning up at Anfield.

Home is where the heart is...

Anywhere but the Midlands, according to Orange. I’ve no doubt their survey is a result of outrageous extrapolation. Yet, whilst viewing the Black Country from a position of comfortable nostalgia, I can still recall the overriding, burning, almost desperate desire of my teenage years – the one that envisaged me leaving town at the first available opportunity. Looking back, almost everyone from my peer group that could walk, walked. I’ve no idea who remained behind. And yes, our destinations did include London, Scotland and the Southwest.

Friday, August 21


It seems this is the week for obscure fish. Not what you’d call an attractive species, and once thought only fit for baiting lobster pots, the gurnard (sea-robin) has been described by restaurant correspondent AA Gill as the Amy Winehouse of battered fish. It’s viewed as a traditional fisherman’s dish around Brixham, where the little suckers are wrapped in bacon and roasted. The Boss has skinned a giant specimen for tonight’s dinner.

Thursday, August 20

Tonight's supper

I thought megrim soles peculiar to the Southwest, but it seems they’re just as plentiful in Scottish waters. Despite an attempt to rebrand the fish as Cornish Sole – although reputed to be the most economically important species landed hereabouts, one survey found 70% of Cornish residents had never heard of megrims – 90% of the catch is still exported to the Continent, primarily Spain. They’re from the same family as turbot and brill; on the culinary stakes, ranking somewhere between lemon sole and plaice. Megrims benefit from not being overfished and are lot cheaper than Dover sole. I paid £6.50 for a decent-sized pair from the lad at S&P fishmongers on Barnstaple’s Butchers Row.

Wednesday, August 19

Dimethyl sulphide

At long last – despite our being marooned at the centre of the county, far from the sea, a credible reason why my door step continues to smell like a cross between the beach and a sushi bar, and why birds are so attracted to the barn. The tangy fragrance stayed with me all morning, and must have behind our reason to swing by Salcombe for lunch. On a sunny’ish day like today it’s easy to see why the town’s so popular. Despite a dubious reputation for having the UK’s most expensive property prices outside of London and Sandbanks, Salcombe remains a major draw for those second-home owners and tourists who’ve outgrown Jaywick Sands. You can tell the guys on holiday by their inappropriate dress; unfortunately, they’ve not been around long enough to lose the haunted look from their eyes. It was shoulder to shoulder, with a ratio of four children/teenagers per adult. Savouring my second pint of IPA in a bar half-full with little people, I couldn’t help reminiscing rather fondly of our past excursions to seemingly child-free Kinsale.

I opted for fried fish and mushy peas. The latter aren’t exactly rocket science, yet people insist on screwing with a classic and try to ponce them up. All you’re supposed to do is cover the dried marrowfats and a teaspoon of bicarbonate with water, and soak overnight. Rinse in fresh water, bring to the boil then simmer for a couple of hours (until mushy). Flavouring tends to be a personal thing (sugar, salt, chicken stock, mint...whatever), just don’t mess too much if it’s for general consumption. These lads must have been expecting Mandelson to decamp from Corfu.

Monday, August 17

Off at a tangent with a bottle of mescal

I managed to consume Pat Barker’s Ghost Road between 10:00 – 21:00 on a buckshee weekday. Roberto Bolaño’s Savage Detectives however seems to have been with me for half of the summer (the small print didn’t help). That said, it’s the best novel I’ve read in a while. He’s not to everyone’s taste; as with Cormac McCarthy, Bolaño probably writes for a predominantly male audience. The story was of my era; fácil de identificar con. Our visceral realists also benefitted from following on behind that disappointing Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I’ll certainly read more of the lad’s work, though for now I need to make headway on my obligatory texts. I also need to acquire one of those Impalas with the six tail lights.

Sunday, August 16

Anyone who had a heart

There’s a song there somewhere. Exhausted after this morning’s trek I’ve retired to my office and am listening to the match on Radio 5... already thinking about dinner. Totally underwhelmed by my choice of ham, eggs and chips for the birthday feast, Mrs G. is roasting a calf’s heart. I’ve never been completely sold on the middle-eastern trend to fruity meat-dishes but on this occasion it works. She dissects the heart and stuffs the cavity with a mixture of breadcrumbs, apple, prunes, blackberries from the yard and pine nuts, before sewing it back together and dispatching the little sucker to the oven. It arrives on the table two hours later, along with a bucket of greens and a large jug of gravy made from the remnants of the pan. The meal is to be accompanied by a bottle of Pinot Noir, courtesy of young nephew, following his recent adventures in Monterey County.

Saturday, August 15

Teenagers descend on OU?

Anticipating the demise of the clearing system, the Telegraph reckons – and you shouldn’t believe half of what you read in the newspapers (blogs are an even less-reliable source of information) – the number of university places that would normally be available to applicants is being reduced by up to two-thirds. As a consequence, they say, record numbers of teenagers are applying to The Open University. It seems many of our top establishments are already stuffed with straight-A applicants, so there’s likely to be much gnashing of teeth at results time. I can’t see teenagers queuing for the OU myself as the whole point of going to university is to hang out with kids your own age, take drugs, get laid, and consume prodigious quantities of alcohol. Having already received last season’s flattering end-of-term scores (evidence of dumbing down?), I’ve re-signed for the coming year (need something to keep me occupied during those dark winter nights). Kimani Nganga Maruge disproves the adage ‘you’re never too old to learn,’ and that it’s unwise to let the gap year run for too long.

Friday, August 14

Plymouth Gin

It’s wonderful stuff! Despite the dreich weather Plymouth Hoe was chock full with people. The Fastnet Race is all but over, though little more than a third are rumoured to have made the finish line. The neighbour came down on his own vessel; with no wind it took the poor lad 14 hours (shamefaced, I didn’t volunteer). We watched a few stragglers berthing but were really in town for the Flavour Fest. Like Plymouth, the festival could use some fresh blood to reinvigorate itself. I suspect two thirds of those cruising the stalls would be more comfortable with a McDonald’s. Having paid four quid for a wonderful burger made from salt-marsh lamb, and which was served on a quality multigrain roll with a fresh tzatziki sauce and rocket leaves, all the guy behind me could do was moan about the price. We loaded our supplies and left them to it. As I’ve been a good boy, Mrs G. bought me a calf’s heart and tongue. Bumped into Debby Mason, the girl who did the illustrations for Norman Tebbit’s new book, The Game Cook. Couldn’t pass up a copy, which was autographed both by Debby and the Chingford Strangler himself.

Thursday, August 13


Fighting to retain his sinecure Trevor Phillips capitulates and resorts to morality, always a bad sign. He determines that for markets to function and businesses to deliver, reward needs to be ‘fairly’ distributed? What planet...

Wednesday, August 12

Argh, he’s back

Birmingham City have confirmed that Carson Yeung, the Hong Kong-based businessman who tried to buy out chairmen David Sullivan and the Gold brothers, David and Ralph, in 2007, has revived his interest in assuming a controlling stake in the football club.

Wrong skills, or wrong attitude?

A final couple of words on today’s unemployment stats... It seems organisations are still hiring older folks with experience and/or decent EI (soft skills), along with migrants who are either skilled, willing to undertake so-called menial tasks, or just because migrants turn up on time. Our young graduates, however, are struggling. Today’s Independent cites a 22-year-old molecular geneticist with a first from King’s who finds herself competing for vacancies against 48 similar applicants. Yet only last week I was sharing a pint or two with a welder. He told me that, at 59, he was the youngest on his team. It seems the lad’s a bit special when it comes to welding and flies around the globe – Mexico and elsewhere – welding pipes. We were speculating about what happens in several years time when they’ve all retired. Am not sure either of us came up with an answer (by then we’d moved on to Scotch), but it does make you wonder where we went wrong.

Meritocracy can seem unfair

Yvette Cooper launches an enquiry into reticent dole-claimers, and The Audit Commission warns local authorities they face the second wave of the downturn, as the effects of rising business failures, bankruptcies and unemployment bite. We’re all about to be murdered in our beds, apparently. As far as the absence of claimants is concerned I suspect there’s a large number of unemployed – not all white-collar – for whom claiming benefit remains a challenge; they would rather pick fruit, visit the pawn shop or swing by Graff jewellers, before accepting government handouts. And unfortunately for many young people who’ve been failed by the education system, or sidelined during the economic boom – and for whom Mandelson’s fantasy of Oxbridge-for-oiks remains just that, a fantasy – it doesn’t look a particularly exciting future. But then life tends to be what you make it; and with unfortunate exceptions, people tend to get what they deserve.

Monday, August 10

Silence has returned

Our visitors have departed. No more three-hour breakfast lectures on normative jurisprudence from little sister, or those insights into the Baggies defensive inadequacies from brother-in-law. Can’t believe I’ve actually managed to bump into five of my seven brother-in-laws during the last couple of weeks, then to hear from number six today who emailed from remotest Kazakhstan. Our guests were lucky this time around: the sun made a rare appearance. It was pleasant enough to drag everyone across Dartmoor for a hike, then to bask in the heat outside of the Dog & Duck, sampling glasses of Sam’s cider. Would you believe the UK has the highest per capita consumption of cider in the world.

Saturday, August 8

You think it’s bad now but...

Another birthday looms – my annual excuse to swing the lamp and blather about being born into Austerity Britain. ‘Dreariness is everywhere,’ wrote one schoolteacher at the time. ‘Streets are deserted, lighting is dim, people’s clothes are shabby and their tables bare.’ It was five years after the war and everyone was exhausted, undernourished, dirty and class-ridden. A third of dwellings were without hot water, let alone a bathroom. The Labour government was busy nationalising the Bank of England, coal mines, gas and electricity, railways, British Airways... and on the seventh day Bevan created the NHS. People were so overjoyed they went out and re-elected a 76 year old Winston Churchill. The Bank of England cut interest rates to 2%, the lowest for 57 years and the joint lowest in history at that time. As further proof that little changes over the years, Britain began an economic boycott of Iran, and President Truman appointed a commission to study U.S. health care need and to recommend solutions. Tony Bennett found himself mobbed by autograph hunters, whilst Brando cried beseechingly for Stella Kowalski.

Also born that same year were three of my favourite boxers: John Conteh, world light-heavy; Alan Minter, world middleweight – who had the misfortune to bump into Marvin Hagler; and Roberto Durán, one of the all-time greats. Other contemporaries include footballers Kevin Keegan and Kenny Dalglish; and musicians Bob Geldof, Sting, Chrissie Hynde, Joey Ramone and Phil Collins. McPlonker is also a member of the ’51 intake, as is Mary McAleese.

Friday, August 7

Fun weekend, I hope

Most women feel guilty after a shopping spree. It’s just an observation, but women seem to get the hump about most everything these days. And during breaks from self-reproach they usually choose to repair to the hustings and complain about the general unfairness of life - a la Ms Harperson. Recent research, highlighted by Mankiw, purports to show that whilst the lives of women has improved during the past 35 years, their happiness has declined both absolutely and relative to men. In the 1970s it was women who were the happy bunnies. Now a new gender gap has emerged, one which gives men the edge in well-being. Did I mention I’m sharing the barn with three women this weekend. Need to put more bottles in the fridge.

Apple cake and blackberry crumble

The sun has returned and it seems like an age. Given we’ve visitors for the weekend I have been out tidying the yard while Mrs G. bakes. It remains as much a mud bath as a grassy enclosure, with frogs, pheasants and rabbits in amongst the rough stuff. At least the blackberries are out. A new batch of roses is also about to bloom.

I’m becoming as fixated with obituaries as my mother used to be. I still think the whole life/death thing’s a lottery – that you’re born with either a 50-something body or an 80-something body, and no matter what lifestyle you choose to adopt, when the time comes, matey, it’s Goodnight Vienna. Who knows what gave Harry Patch his longevity? It could be said that Bobby Robson had a good innings, though I doubt Bobby himself would subscibe to so familiar a platitude. The lad would likely have been more than happy to sit out another season’s footy.

Wednesday, August 5


I’ve never thought of myself as a ‘music’ person. There are periods when it seems I can take or leave it, when the melodies fail to register. Don’t get me wrong, what with the wireless and all music is an omnipresent feature of the barn, a continuous loop playing in the background. What I don’t have is that compulsion (common to certain friends) to drive the length and breadth of the country listening to live performances, to follow the scene by inhabiting the popular-music press. Yet whilst (as with most things) I’ve settled to a comfortable stable of preferred genres/artists, I continue to search for something different, for that magic ingredient which bites.

Last month was an Annie Lennox retrospective; for August it is Madeleine Peyroux. I hadn’t heard of the girl until BBC Four’s recent coverage, and was engaged enough to acquire four of her five albums. Unfortunately – although playing in the motor and on the office system for the last week – she’s failing to make the grade. I find it difficult to take a Billy Holiday impersonator seriously, even if Peyroux seems to have found more of her own voice with the latest effort, Bare Bones. Given she’s in her mid-30s the girl should be well into her stride by now, so I can hardly afford her the benefit of doubt – especially as the bar for the jazz-blues genre is set so high. I have a fair collection of Ella Fitzgerald recordings, including the popular ‘songbooks’ – George & Ira Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Cole Porter, Duke Ellington... but – and it’s probably sacrilege to say this – I find the delivery of her performances somewhat soulless. Am also embarrassed to say Fitzg’s contemporary, Holiday, suffers from a tendecy for inverse snobbery – she’s always been too cool for me to profess an interest; and let’s face it, it’s not as if we’re swamped with quality recordings from the lady (I have her original Decca recordings and a number of Verve productions). The office boasts some curve balls, so to speak, with regular outings from belters such as Simone, Betty Carter, Abbey Lincoln, along with the more obvious Clooney, Merrill and Vaughan, etc., yet I always seem to return to Dinah Washington. In the liner note of one of her albums it states that ‘Washington can act out a song, and in the acting, infuse in it a quality no other singer ever quite supplies. She literally adds another dimension.’ And that’s the special something you’re looking for, especially with singers interpreting great standards. Peyroux comes up short.