Wednesday, March 30

The Blue Hawk

There’s a young male sparrowhawk sitting on a post outside the office window. He’s been there for a half-hour, undeterred by steady rainfall. Needless to say that, despite the challenging cheeps from upstairs on the thatch, and though little larger than a collared dove, nothing else dares approach the yard (...) I can recall a time when you could set your watch by the sight of Concorde climbing past the kitchen window. Nowadays constant is a grey heron’s early morning descent to the river. Almost as predictable, our first two swallows of the season, arriving just as the cattle and calves are released from the barn.

Saturday, March 26

Of bird-song at morning and star-shine at night

Environmental noise at daybreak used to irritate the crap out of me back at South London Mansions: those early morning flights descending on Heathrow; the clunking, rattling railway carriages; idling bread vans, the milkman, newspaper-distributor...the prat who warmed up his Harley outside my bedroom window (the guy with a clapped-out Saab, running down his battery). Doubtless one of the reasons so many people dream of a life in the countryside. Dream on...Picture our current doorstep, mug of tea in hand, at five this morning. It is not so much the background noise from the livestock: the horse’s whinny, bellowing cows and bleating sheep; still less the barking hounds, crowing cocks or the more strident cock pheasant; not even the raucous quacking mallards that have set up home in the pond (...the croaking forms that have deposited so much spawn these past weeks). It’s more the general cacophony of bird song, the sheer scale of the dawn chorus. And not just the obvious culprits, the massed ranks of cawing crows, shrieking jays and jackdaws: it is the number and range of instruments that takes you back – be they drumming woodpeckers, warbling blackbirds or tchweeping chaffinches, a scolding hickymouse or tinkling goldfinch...a musical robin or the wren’s rattling chit...Five more minutes and Farmer Charles will be cranking up the tractor.

Friday, March 25

Post-match comment

With the frisson of an imminent election, a year or so ago I began watching the odd BBC Question Time and Andrew Neil’s This Week. Interest since then has fallen away, however, I tuned in last night on the strength of the programme’s panel, and because London audiences are usually diverse and better informed. Midsomer it ain’t, and there’s nothing worse than listening to a series of platitudes from political lightweights and assorted donkeys that’ve been bussed up north...the applause of partisan cannon fodder. Though I’d thought Danny Alexander might be out of his depth the lad did well defending his corner. There was also a decent left-right match between Livingston and Fergusson; if the audience applause is to be believed, Boris Johnson retains the upper hand ahead of the coming mayoral contest. And despite his irritating accent, Rory Stewart only enhanced the panel’s credibility. For once I’d have been happy to listen to another half-hour’s worth. Whilst no one said anything original they reflected our confusion about what should be happening in Libya, and how things are likely to play out in the economy.

The least said about This Week the better. Neil is past his sell-by date; and until he can find someone credible to play off of, Portillo should stick to the railways. Guests such as Blears and Kennedy add nothing to debate and only make you resent staying up so late.

Wednesday, March 23

Budget Supper

I couldn’t resist any longer, certainly not with today’s blue sky – so the barbeque is burning a shoulder of well-marinated lamb for tonight’s Budget Supper. It’s not that we’re celebrating anything, more a sense of relief that things could have been worse, particularly with regards to fuel, an increasing proportion of everyone’s budget especially in rural areas. An old accomplice surfaced yesterday, showing off his new transport. I thought my current motor not particularly clever, carbon footprint wise, but the petrol consumption on his new 450 bhp pocket racer is 18 mpg! Suppose the lad’s doing his bit for growth, keeping the economy going – though I’m not sure he needs to get there at 155 mph.

Reading material

After an enjoyable couple of weeks detour that included more of Elmore Leonard, Lee Child, John Grisham and Gerald Ford, I returned for another dose of Science Fiction: this time with Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War. It’s a classic in the sense of being one of those stories you can easily transpose, its messages as valid now as the post-Vietnam era in which it was written. Ridley Scott – Alien, Blade Runner – is currently working on a film version. Whilst Haldeman may be sparing in his use of futuristic technology you have to credit the level of imagination in an era when we were still grappling with telex machines.

Tuesday, March 22

In our national interest

If you say so. I managed to catch an hour or so of the commons Libya debate yesterday evening, though when Dougie Alexander was speaking it was all I could do to stay awake. What a sanctimonious little prick the guy is. Needless to say McPlonker remains AWOL – money for old rope. I still have reservations about sticking our nose in, but then I am nothing if not a democrat – and if this is what the punters want, so be it. It must be a righteous cause as Hercule Poirot is joining the party.

Friday, March 18

Disunited Nations

Tempting as it is to criticise German reticence, would that we could walk away from Libya. There was a Tornado GR4 playing overhead yesterday and I’d rather it didn’t venture further. Humanitarian/altruistic sentiment aside, I guess failure to lend a hand would only result in another half-million refugees beating a path to our door. Not that any of this guarantees they won’t. On any given day, as sure as the sun rises, somewhere in the world an ecological mishap will be wreaking havoc, and natives will be butchering their neighbours. Do we always have to put our hand up quite so smartly?

Thursday, March 17

If you build it they will come

Kevin Costner aside, that’s one of the problems with our housing conundrum... I suspect my attraction to the BBC’s economics editor has as much to do with the shortness of her skirt and the leather boots as it does her economic competence. In a recent post she reflects on the relatively favourable (for Osborne) OECD report, highlighting the shortcoming of our housing market – more specifically the regressive nature of the tax system and the excessively restrictive planning regulations. Call me a cynic but I’d guess that taxing the proceeds of property sales would be political suicide, whilst discouraging buy-to-lets – when the government’s doing little to build anything, social, affordable or otherwise – would be counter-productive. Easing the restrictions on planning, however, could dramatically transform the situation, to say nothing of boosting employment in the construction industry. Lack of housing here in the South West is top of most people’s agenda. Trouble is that voters are polarised, in opposite camps: the nimbys, and, if not the homeless, the home-lite. People want to see their children climb onto the housing ladder but not at the expense of the rural idyll.

When Mrs G. and yours truly tied the knot house building was something of a free-for-all and housing estates appeared to be sprouting up across farmland everywhere. A shiny new two bedroom semi-detached starter home from Barratts would have set you back £8-9,000. We purchased a newly built Wimpey version for £10k. I guess a modern-day comparison (given current regional wages) would be around the £90k mark. And whilst it shouldn’t be beyond the wit of man to build houses for something of that order, if the price of land was significantly discounted (compulsory purchased), you and I know that’s never going to happen. Apart from crippling developers who are sitting on expensive banks of land, the South West is one of the most attractive areas of England. Lifting planning restrictions to the extent where you could knock out houses for that sort of money would result in a stampede to the region.

Answers to our housing problems are beyond my pay grade, so I look forward to Stephanie’s promised deliberations on ‘how the government might seek to match the simple economic need for more houses and a freer planning regime with the very difficult local politics’ with a more than keen interest.

Wednesday, March 16

Jobs wanted

Unemployment soars to a 17-year high, as the local Baptist Church begins handing out food parcels. It’s not often hereabouts makes the nationals, The Times and Daily Mail also ran the story. Alice Thomson (Times) did a half-decent rant about how the rural economy was neglected under Labour, but like most mainstream commentators it’s the usual dash of simplistic analysis and assumptions (and no, Alice, Taunton is not part of Devon). Whilst it’s true that food processing industries in areas such as East Anglia and Scotland have been colonised by migrant labour, in this specific corner of Devon the migrants are more likely to be dentists and the process workers local. Although losing low-skilled jobs is a problem for rural communities I suspect it’s no different to that of Stoke and Grimsby. How you conjure opportunities for those outside the much-feted squeezed middle is a problem that bedevilled Labour. Bunging people benefit money and telling them to bugger off is presumably no longer an option.

The John Self years may be over but...

Temperatures soared to 15ºC yesterday and people sauntered around town in a state of undress. Warm enough for Farmer Charles’s bees to begin reconnoitring the yard, for butterflies and ladybirds to flit past the office window. Alas no cuckoos. In the unlikely event anyone had forgotten, a television commercial for Daniel O’Donnell’s latest offering served to remind that the Cheltenham Festival is up and running. Given the returns from my Post Office savings account I suppose it’s as good a home as any for what is left of the pocket money. Enjoy yourself while you can, I say, and whatever you do don’t listen to the news. Better here than Japan or Libya...actually better here than just about anywhere, particularly the village of Midsomer. It’s true what they say though: dusky faces in rural villages are as rare as brown pelicans.

Monday, March 14

Strawberry spring

Sky larks have returned to the moor. As with so many things taken for granted you only recognise their importance the moment they’re gone – and larks are to the moor as swallows the barn. Here in the South West it was glorious sunshine over the weekend. T-shirts and sandals in March! If this carries on – and today looks good – I’m resurrecting the barbeque. Mrs G. is working outside, pruning the yard’s flora (fauna, too, if she can lay her hands on next-door’s cat). I’m resurrecting my grass-cutting implements. Neighbours are felling trees and clearing ditches. Chain saws, JCBs, tractors and quad everyday rural soundtrack, augmented by two American F-15 strike aircraft admiring the thatch on our roof. I assume they’re on an awayday from Suffolk.

Saturday, March 12

Odds against?

Probably – Bolton at 7/5. Given the pre-match report I’m surprised Blues can even field eleven players this afternoon let alone give Bolton a run for their money. McLeish has two 17-year-olds on the bench. After the Baggies debacle I was amazed to see Birmingham pick up a point against what I presumed to be an in form Everton. Hats off to Plat-du-jour – journeyman he may be, however, the Chilean’s an industrious type who continues to impress. Whilst conventional wisdom dictates an exit from the FA Cup today would concentrate minds on Premier League survival I think that a poor rationale. The game probably has a less riding on it than the later kick-off in Manchester. Both of those teams need to bounce back from recent embarrassing defeats, the winner not just progressing to the cup semi-finals but scoring a major psychological blow over their principal opponents for the Championship. Needless to say Mrs G. has already positioned a crate of brown ale alongside her favourite chair in front of the box.

Friday, March 11

Fuel price

£1.42/litre is the highest price for diesel I’ve come across hereabouts, at our local garage it retails for £1.37. I mention this because I’ve already filled the tank twice this week. With everyone hard at work and the kids banged up in school it’s the perfect time of year to be out exploring. Apart from tractors hauling trailers of steaming shit smelly organic material, and the ubiquitous convoy of artics – bulk transports, there’s little on the road. That’s always providing you discount the stray sheep, errant ponies, and riders in red jackets with attendant hounds. The biggest hazard comes in the guise of horse boxes; usually cannibalized, clapped-out former removal vans, driven by women who, dare I say, would struggle at the wheel of a Nissan Micra. Wishing on cheaper oil will get us nowhere: if producers cut prices then I’m sure taxation would increase to make up the difference...just means there’s less money to spread around elsewhere.

Monday, March 7

Time marches on

It is still early days, seasonally speaking, uncertain. Whilst the river banks remain littered with snow drops the yard’s daffs are already past their prime. Owls are back upstairs, a pair of seemingly rare greenfinches in the hedge. Two mallards have taken up residence on the neighbour’s pond; at dawn they compete with a cockerel and the dogs to see who can wake most people. Another foretaste of spring can be seen in the number of motor cycles on weekend roads and the procession of heavily burdened walkers across the moor...lambs in the fields. I scrape frost from the motor each morning only to have my face burn in the sun. One day it’s salted porridge for breakfast, the next fruit and muesli. Busy time for Farmer Charles and the boys, everyone is felling trees, installing new livestock fences and shooting things. The air is thick with manure. Perhaps it’s why we’re so well-thought-of?

Friday, March 4

Runners and Riders

Nigel Farage must be chuffed about the Barnsley result. OK so by-elections aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on, but still...UKIP appear to be taking a fair number of voters from Labour as well as the Tories – which taps in to the idea that almost half of the electorate could be persuaded to vote for a party of the right. Labour appreciate they have a problem with large sections of what they used to consider their natural supporters; Cameron, too, has failed to connect with Thatcher’s working class conservatives. Interestingly, if a recent mayoral poll is to be believed, Boris Johnson has the potential to attract a higher proportion of London’s working class vote than Ken Livingston. Whilst the Liberals have plenty of time before the next election to make peace with the electorate, you wouldn’t bet against UKIP supplanting them as Cameron’s next coalition partners. On that basis UKIP are the Libdem’s natural enemies, and Clegg’s challenge is to persuade democratic left-leaning voters they have more of a future continuing to influence Tory policies than they do by voting for a statist Labour Party.

Wednesday, March 2

Old dog, old tricks

Though he was more about self-discovery than self-promotion I suspect Montaigne would have been quite at home in the 21st Century, both as a blogger and a Twitter merchant. Plagues aside, not much appears to have changed. We continue to pursue what he would have termed our humble and inglorious lives, seeking refuge in the little room behind the shop. Half of the populace remains self-absorbed, fixated by their ranking on the happiness index; the remainder still run around killing each other. There was a time, during my twenties and thirties, when I devoured these biographical ditties. The enthusiasm was, in part, about looking for direction, for answers. It’s what people By our mid-fifties, however, purely by the act of living, we’ve mostly arrived – delivered on a magic carpet of practical experience and clichéd aphorisms. Reading Montaigne’s essays at this stage is to experience the all too familiar, when we’ve been there, blundered about and worked it out for ourselves. At least it comforts us to think so. It used to be a popular convention – so the story goes – that, at the start of each season, Jack Nicklaus would visit his swing coach and instruct him to begin all over again, as though Nicklaus had never played before. And on this basis, though no Golden Bear, and in Montaigne’s spirit of Pyrrhonist scepticism, I guess I’m happy to keep plugging away. There could yet be a key I’ve misplaced or overlooked.