Monday, 31 December 2007


Listening to: Radio 4 comedy podcasts
Reading: Sharpe's Fury (is it just me or does Bernard Cornwell need to tone down the titles a bit? I look forward to Sharpe's Irritation, Sharpe's Discomfort, Sharpe Gets Caught Up In Red Tape)

It's our first Hogmanay north of the border and we're off out to the nearby hotel in a while. Mrs TPF is preparing a cocktail of smelly stuff for the bath, I'm putting my feet up for a bit as I'm dressed and ready. . .

There's going to be music and dancing and I will try not to overdo the malts at the end of the night. I'll also be trying to avoid any further unnecessary research into the relationship between kilts and underpants. This picture (from the US, I believe) tells you all you want to know and probably much more. . .

Actually, I don't know what to expect really. Regular readers will know that the locals are a bit ambivalent about their Scottishness (except when Scotland are playing England at anything, funnily enough), so I imagine the evening could end up like this. . .

I've just been trundling around, googling Hogmanay and suchlike, and was delighted to find that the Germans call New Year Silvester!

Thufferin' Thukatash! Happy New Year, everyone.

Sunday, 30 December 2007


Listening to: Bohemian Like You (The Dandy Warhols)
Cooking: roast lamb
Weather: absolutely beautiful
Birdwatch: Turnstones, Redshanks, Herons, Common Gulls, Lapwings, Black-backed Gulls, Whooper Swans, Teal, Mallard, Wigeon.

Here's good news. The farm earned its first cash yesterday when we managed to offload some hay onto unsuspecting neighbours.

It's only 20 quid so Sally and I will not be packing our skimpy swimsuits and heading for Uncle Fidel's Caribbean hideaway just yet, and we've no illusions that we will ever be able to do much more than break even here, but it's a start.

The hay was cut just as we arrived here in July and had been put aside to feed Xena (Sal's Welsh Cob mare), but the appearance of strangles on the yard in Essex where she is staying means there's no chance we can get her to Westray until Spring. And Teddy doesn't like hay, in case you were wondering.

So, while we've got enough hay to fulfil a vegan's wildest fantasies, our neighbours have a shortage and two hungry mares (the ones Teddy has been preening himself for every morning). They phoned and promised to pop round to inspect 'the goods' before agreeing a price.

Now both Sal and myself are from the Brian of Nazareth school of haggling. Sal was all for giving them the hay as a favour, but I said we should settle for a nominal amount, seeing as they'd suggested it.

So, once hay was seen to be good, I said: "How about 50p a bale, so just bung us a tenner for the 20 you want?" We then went into haggling in reverse with the neighbours deciding this wasn't nearly enough, so they would pay £1 a bale. Who were we to refuse and the £20 note offered and disappeared into Mrs TPF's back pocket at alarming speed.

What are we spending it on? 2,000 penny chews? That Undertones compilation I've had my eye on for a while? A ticket for half a Premiership football game? A new studded collar for Spike? Ideas please.

Pig farmer and neighbour debate the price of hay

Friday, 28 December 2007


Listening to: Pet Shop Boys (Mrs TPF has got Radio 2 on again)
Eating: Mrs TPF's Christmas cake
Surf: 8ft, closing out
Wildlife: Grey Seals, Great Northern Divers, Whooper Swans, Golden Plovers, Shags, Heron, Common Scoters, Eider Ducks, Tufted Ducks.

We're heading for the new year with another member of the 'family'. Teddy the Shetland pony is the new kid on the block.

Ted belongs to a friend, but he's not been especially happy mainly due to a sore foot, so we're seeing if a change of scene will help.

As you can see, he's very cute to look at, but has one or two attitude problems - biting, butting, kicking. So he's basically 50 per cent mobile hearth rug and 50 per cent Glaswegian street fighter.

This is mainly Mrs TPF's department (the pony thing, not the street fighting. . . although. . . ) and she's made a fine little stable for him in the old cattle byre. He spends his days out in the top field where the two mares in the adjoining field have been flirting shamelessly. No surprise there as he appears to be quite well off in the trouser department, although - as Sal will tell you - size doesn't matter.

Long-term we hope Teddy will settle in and be a companion for Sal's Welsh Cob mare Xena who is due to arrive here in the spring. How he will get on with a horse who can be grumpier than Whitney Houston faced with a bottle of Sainsburys Basics fizzy water remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, in the pig shed, (we should really have a whirly link thingy like on the old Batman TV show) the lads are good and boisterous and I think I may have to get padded and armoured up for the morning feed.

To say they are enthusiastic would be to understate by several hundred yards. As I clamber over the hurdle into their pen, they are there jostling and shoving, covering my boots and trousers with a pint or two of the frothiest slobber.

I can take a bit of harrassment, but there has to be a limit and we reached that point this morning when, with my legs pretty much as wide as a 46-year-old, creaking, former 3rd XV rugby player can get them, Ernie made a dive for my gentleman's zone. Thank heavens for Levis and high quality zippers.

Mrs TPF raised an eyebrow when I explained why there were teeth marks around my groin, muttering something along the lines of "as long as I don't have to join in".

So, I've spent the last hour or so on the lookout for some protective clothing.

Reckon this'll do the trick.

Wednesday, 26 December 2007

A happy Christmas

Listening to: Alison (Elvis Costello and the Attractions)
Drinking: Hair of the dog
Wearing: Derek Dougan replica Northern Ireland shirt
Nibbling at: a bit of shortbread
Weather: wet and windy

If that wasn't the best Christmas Day ever, it was certainly in the top ten and the competition is tough, believe me.

Childhood Christmases were blissfully happy and secure, then there were the wonderful times when The Boy and The Youngest were little ("wake up Dad, Santa's been!" "Ho bleeding ho!") and most recently preparing the massive annual blow-out with Sal for our gang of suprisingly grateful teens/twenties(we have six between us).

I can recall only one bad Christmas Day. I was in the middle of the break-up with the first Mrs Malc and ended up drinking my way to oblivion in the Halfway House in Wolverhampton while a certain Reg Pither tried to convince me there was a bright side to it all. Happy days.

Back to the present. This year was a Christmas of firsts. The first on Westray of course, the first Sal and I have spent without the kids and the first time dinner has been cooked by anyone other than my mum, first mother-in-law or me.

The weather obliged. It was spectacular. Hardly a cloud in the sky and a stiff southerly breeze to keep things interesting.

Having made the series of phone calls, fed animals, eaten breakfast, we went for a walk on the beach. We picked our way through the seaweed, trying to decide what the little black and white birds were because they weren't oystercatchers, but then coming to the conclusion that maybe they were, but we were never going to get near enough to tell because we had the dogs with us.

I would have taken some pics, but we had the following conversation just before setting out:

"Where are the batteries for the camera?"

"They won't charge up any more."

"Whaddya mean 'won't charge up'? We haven't had them long."

"They're knackered."

"Where did you get them?"

"The Pound Shop."

"How much did they cost?"

It's an old joke, but always goes down well in our house.

We spent the afternoon/evening being royally entertained by friends. Beer and wine flowed, the goose and turkey were delicious, the potatoes crispy on the outside and fluffy inside, the smoked salmon delicate, the pudding spot-on.

I was very good and didn't get too competitive over the quiz and played a few rounds of charades before the fact that I still haven't caught up on sleep from the other night hit me like a hammer at about 8.30 and the TPFs beat an orderly retreat.

Tuesday, 25 December 2007

Ho ho ho!

Listening to: Christmas stuff
Drinking: strong coffee with a nip
Eating: poached eggs and smoked salmon
Wearing: Christmas pully
Just about to: go for a walk on the beach

It's not Christmas without. . .

They still dress like this in Wolverhampton - honest!

Happy Christmas everyone from all of us here in the far north and I hope the fairies keep Santa sober for a day.

Monday, 24 December 2007

The train takes the strain

Listening to: Sgt Pepper
Not listening to: The Levellers (left CD in the hire car)
Weather: lots of it, how long have you got?
Eating: scrambled eggs
Back: home

. . . and then the train broke down.

Yes, I finally got my train ride through the Highlands and up the north-east coast of Scotland. Lovely it was too.

The journey back from England proved to be a bit of a trial. I decided to do the run overnight, getting to Inverness in time to drop off the hire car and catch the mid-morning train to Thurso. Heavy traffic on the last Friday before Christmas, freezing fog, black ice and temperatures as low as minus 11, tested concentration, driving ability and bladder control to the limit.

By the time I got to Inverness early on Saturday morning I was, bearing in mind I had been up since 6.45 the previous morning, away with the pixies.

Somehow I managed to sign all the forms at the car hire place, buy a train ticket and get to the tourist office to book overnight stay in Thurso, pausing briefly for a couple of espressos to keep me in full 'mad-as-a-hatter' mode.

The train arrived on time, departed on time and it was fabulous.

Sheets of ice were floating on the Moray Firth as the line followed the water's edge, heading inland towards Dingwall before cutting further into the Highlands where the heavy overnight frost had left the trees and fields icing-sugar white. Think of Narnia without the talking animals (mind you, the way my brain was whirring, nothing would have been a surprise).

All was well as the train found its way back to the coast and trundled through Golspie and Brora before stopping at Helmsdale. That was where I got the first whiff of a problem.

Things went strangely quiet. No sound from the engine, the lights dimmed and the heating went off. Blokes in luminous jackets appeared and started peering under the carriage. Shaking of heads, sucking of teeth and sharp intakes of breath ensued.

They seemed happy enough to allow us to set off north again. The sun was out by now, picking out the colours of the hills, red, brown, green, black, grey.

However, the train was clearly struggling and I couldn't help thinking of the Rev W Awdry railway tales of my childhood where the engines always seemed to break down on "the loneliest part of the line".

Sure enough, after half-an-hour or so, the guard came round to announce the oil leak had failed to mend itself and we would have to get off at Forsinard where we would get another train.

At least it wasn't going to be a mini-bus.

I got off and walked past a file of anxious southbound passengers who were being forced off their train onto the one we had abandoned, the logic being that if they were heading for Inverness it would be quicker and easier to send out a rescue (hmmmm!).

Anyway, we set off as they were fixing a large sail to the other train, but the last leg of the journey to Thurso was a bit of a disappointment. I've never been a big one for fir trees unless, of course, they're covered in tinsel with a large box underneath labelled "to Malc, here's that Scalextric you always wanted but NEVER GOT, love Santa".

Having been up for more than 30 hours sleep was obviously out of the question so the rest of the evening was a blur of beer, Wolves v Leicester, blokes in kilts, playing pool for money and Chinese food.

And, yes, I made it home yesterday and it's so good to be back.

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Long Way Up

Listening to: Trenchtown Rock (Bob Marley)
Up to my ears in: wrapping paper and sellotape
It's: nearly Christmas
Done: all my shopping

I was talking to an old friend yesterday, lamenting that we didn't see each other more often when she said: "Tell you what, I'm going to Glasgow early next year, why don't I pop up to see you and Sal while I'm there."

"Err. . . OK," I replied, "but have you looked a map recently. There's no popping to Orkney from anywhere. It's a two-day expedition. It'd be great to see you though and it's definitely worth the effort."

That's the thing. English people tend to think of Scotland as a small country stuck on top of the Lake District. It isn't. It's bloody enormous.

(Pause to allow American, Canadian and Australian readers to stop laughing, dry eyes and so on).

Look at a map. Not the stupid weather map the London-based "British" Broadcasting Corporation put on the telly (don't get me started)*, but a proper map like the one I'm looking at on the wall of my brother-in-law's study.

If I put my elbow on Wolverhampton, my wrist is at Carlisle. If I put my elbow on Carlisle, my wrist is at Inverness - 130 miles shy of the north coast of Scotland where you catch the ferry to Orkney. Wolverhampton to Thurso is ten-and-a-half hours driving, seven of which are spent in Scotland.

So "popping in" for a cup of tea isn't really on the agenda, although flying makes things easier, but from most places in the UK you still have to get three planes to reach us.

That's all a long-winded way of saying that home is a long way off, but I'm setting out the day after tomorrow and there'll be a little whoop as I cross the border into Scotland, a cheer as I cruise past the Central Belt, songs and general happiness through the Highlands, flags out at Thurso and when I get to Westray. . . well, that's nobody's business but mine and Sal's.

* Actually, do get me started. For those who don't know, the BBC map of Britain is seen at a slant, as if viewed from the Director General's holiday home in Brittany. Orkney is a tiny speck in the far distance, while the Isle of Wight (half the size of Orkney in reality) sits in the foreground, as large as Jonathan Ross's ego (another don't get me started).

The weather "forecast", presented either by a moderately attractive woman or a small man (why no big blokes on the BBC?) and uses the effect of a camera panning over the UK. It begins with Scotland where they wave dismissively and say "wind and rain" before trundling quite briskly over the north-east and Yorkshire, slowing as they pass East Anglia, building up to the detailed rundown for the South East (where everyone important lives).

They then stroll along the south coast before lovingly lingering over Devon and Cornwall (where everyone in the South East goes on holiday) which by now are about the size of the Soviet Union (I swear I spotted my mum's house near Dartmoor the other morning). Tearing the camera reluctantly away, the forecaster hurries past Wales before cutting out just before anyone has to admit Northern Ireland is still part of the UK.

A petty point, you may think, but it illustrates the BBC's dismissive attitude towards the regions. The cutbacks announced recently mean the quality of news coverage can only diminish. Hard-working journalists on as little as £15,000-a-year will lose their jobs while the BBC continues to pay millions for that arrogant arse Ross to interrupt his guests and laugh at his own jokes on his painful TV show.

Thank you for listening. I feel better now.

Monday, 17 December 2007


Listening to: Beautiful Day (Levellers)
Weather in Shropshire: cold and grey
Weather on Westray: cold and sunny

I'm like a caged wild animal. I feel trapped, suffocated, restricted. I'm rattling at the bars and the end of the week, in some ways, can't come soon enough.

Now don't get me wrong, it has been wonderful seeing The Boy and The Youngest, some of my old friends and tomorrow night there is a quiet drink with my brother-in-law and stepson to look forward to.

But I've been surprised at how odd I feel returning after only five months to a place which has been my home for most of my adult life. That's the point, I suppose. It isn't my home any more. I haven't got anywhere to call my own when everything else is so familiar and, as a result, I feel detached.

I'm desperately uncomfortable with all the crap and bullshit that goes with town life. The noise, the crowds, the rules, the traffic, the expense. I drove onto Sainsburys car park the other day and had something verging on a panic attack when I couldn't find a parking spot. I met my brother-in-law after he finished work on Friday evening and the pub was heaving with Christmas party-goers. I had the desperate feeling I wanted to stand on the table and scream "shut the fuck up, you ugly bastards, I can't hear myself think".

So it's fair to say I'm homesick. I miss the dogs, the pigs, the sea, the wind and I miss Sal. She warned me I'd hate it here and, as usual, she was right.

On the upside, The Youngest and I enjoyed a homecooked Christmas dinner yesterday. Large amounts of everything (we'll be eating it all week), a box of Quality Street while we watched the Monty Python DVD she bought me, followed by late evening cheese and pickles. Yes, the dreams were vivid.

I had been worried about how she would take to me moving away, but she's been remarkably level-headed about it and she's reacted to my return much in the way you greet someone who'd just popped out to the shops. Teenagers. . . they have to be so cool, don't they?

Friday, 14 December 2007

Drink, pies and a dying friend

Listening to: Brand New Bass Guitar (Jamie T)
Thinking about: leaving the house
Questioning: the advisability of late-night steak pie (homemade though)
Weather: dull and grey

We didn't go to the leaving do (long story, sorry Dave), we didn't go anywhere near a vodka bar, we didn't eat curry or anything takeawayable.

So why do I feel so dreadful?

Reg had his pinny on last night, tatting around in the kitchen like Delia with a drink problem. Steak pie was prepared with all the veggies, but first we had some drinking to do.

We ended up in Reg's local. It used to be a decent pub yonks ago, but now it's a faceless part of a corporate chain. On Thursday and Friday nights it becomes a cattle market for desperate over-40s, so we fitted in nicely.

After a couple of jars, we decided to move on - just as a heavily made-up 60-year-old in a ra-ra skirt was preparing a bungee jump at Reg. She might have been looking at me, but if she was, she'd got a squint.

Half-a-mile down the road another former decent boozer is now a cold, uncomfortable 'gastro-pub', but we made the best of things, the chat ranging from the Daily Mail and its support for the Third Reich to first loves, virginity and so on.

Just as supping up time came, we ran into a very nice couple who Reg knows from the best pub in the world. I had to have the 'Orkney conversation'. That's the trouble when you do something a little out of the ordinary, everybody wants to know about it. The attention is good, but there are times when I feel like handing out a Press release.

Back at Pither Towers we agreed we should have spent the evening at the aforementioned 'best pub in the world', then got into a plateful of pie (this being midnight). Mrs Pither poured the wine (ah! that might explain things) and we chatted 'til late.

I've only just emerged (the Pithers having gone to work at the crack of dawn) and I'm writing this with my 'nephew' Padfoot lying by my feet. Regular readers of Grantham Newtown will know Pad is not a well boy at all and there seems to be little anyone can do. He's terribly thin and there's a look of acceptance in his eyes. I'm gutted for the lad.

Pad has, in his time, been a 'bit of a character'. When he could stand on his back legs alone he was as tall as me (sort of 6ft) and liked to put his front paws on my shoulders, barking loudly.

He also liked to hold Uncle Malc's hand. Standing there with you hand being held ever so delicately in the jaws of a huge, very hairy, jumpy Alsatian is quite an experience.

Still, he's warm and very well cared for and I'll give him a hug before I go. Sad, really sad.

* Reading this back, I realise some of it may confuse American readers. Maybe I should do a US/Canada version. In the mean-time, here are a few translations.

Pinny = apron. Tatting = doing small jobs of little consequence. Delia = Delia Smith, TV cook and (strangely) chairman of Norwich City Football (soccer) Club. Drink problem = what British people have to blot out the disappointment of losing an Empire and not being terribly good at sport. Yonks = when Reg was a lad. Boozer = pub. Virginity = a rarity in Wolverhampton.

Thursday, 13 December 2007


Listening to: Rebel Rebel (David Bowie)
Sitting on: the world's biggest sofa
Sipping: PG Tips
Trying to remember: what presents I've still got to get
Weather: Bright and cold (proper winter)

I'm going to a leaving do tonight. I'm not certain it's a good idea.

The last one I went to was my own, 18 months ago. After several pints, I was enticed into Wolverhampton's premier vodka bar where myself and a certain Reg Pither played vodka snooker (red, yellow, red, green, red, brown and so on). Reg managed a 147 clearance, while I fell asleep in the curry. I was helped onto a train home and off by Mrs TPF. Oh, how she laughed.

I haven't been quite the same since.

So, the bad news is that my partner-in-crime for the evening is, once again, Mr Pither. I will be enforcing a 'no vodka' rule.

The subject of the leaving do, Dave, is a great guy and one of the last decent reporters left at my former place of work, so it's definitely worth the tram ride over to West Bromwich. Damage report tomorrow.

I got back to the West Midlands yesterday evening after a couple of days with The Boy in the south west. Christmas shopping in Exeter and surfing at Polzeath in the winter sunshine made for a pleasant trip, but it's good to have a few days off from the driving.

News from Westray is good. The cooker came to the house yesterday, but as there was only one bloke to deliver it and he couldn't manage to get it into the kitchen on his own, it went away again. It should be back today.

And Spike got out again (glad it's not just me), only to be outwitted by a very smart Mrs TPF. He went the long way round, behind the barn, while Sal jogged calmly round the short way, intercepting himself by the pig shed door, which she had shut as a precaution anyway.

I've a nasty feeling she's better at all this than I am.

Guaranteed to raise a smile

Listening to: Just The One (Levellers)
Drinking: the long-awaited return to Guinness.
It's: late, but my sleeping patterns are all shot to pieces.
Mileage: 1,440.

"You know Dad," said The Youngest, chewing thoughtfully on a piece of nan bread, "they cancelled the second half of the science lesson because the police wanted to talk to our year about drugs."

She pushed the last bit of chicken around her plate and slurped at her Coca-cola. "I think the teachers are worried. They seem to think half the school is on drugs," she continued.

"They're so wrong. . . it's way more than that," my baby added, peering hopefully into the now empty curry dish.

Err. . . right.

Although she was probably just enjoying shocking her old man, I went through the routine "are you clean?" business and she said she was and I believe her.

I'm just a little rattled at how she's grown up kind of suddenly. I haven't been away that long, but 'my little girl' is a distant memory.

Something else she said made me smile. I was doing the painful 'father asks 15-year-old daughter what music she likes, hoping for Christmas present ideas' thing when she said, to my surprise, she liked The Beatles. "I was going through some of Mum and John's records when I found something called Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," she said with an expression that asked "have you heard of it?"

So, there'll be something Beatlesish in her Christmas haul this year. The White Album?

Friday, 7 December 2007

Trains, planes and automobiles. . . well, automobiles anyway

Listening to: The whirring inside my brain
It's been: a bloody long day
Drinking: 12-year-old Highland Park

"Are you waiting for a train?" asked the large Scotsman as he loomed out of the early-morning half-light.

I examined my bags, my shoes which appeared to be attached to my feet and a railway station platform, the ticket in my hand, the locked and barred gents toilet (open from 10am-3.30pm), the two shiny strips of metal held together with large pieces of wood which will one day make a lovely raised beds in someone's garden.

"Yes I am," I replied, quickly sitting on the lid of the overloaded suitcase of sarcastic replies and snapping the clasps tight shut.

"Well it's no comin' and I'm ter tek ye tae Inverness," he said, stepping back to reveal a small red mini-bus. "Only we cannae go straight there, someone wants collecting at Forsinard."

My heart sank. I love trains. Not in a 'stand-on-the-platform with notebook, anorak and thermos' kind of a way. I have no idea what the various different-shaped trains are called (except for the Pendolino and that's only because it's silly), but I do love a train ride.

I've been on some of the best Britain has to offer, but this would have been something special. Leaving Thurso at twenty to nine, the train rattles its way through the barren wilderness of Caithness before meeting the east coast of Scotland at Helmsdale, hugging the shore through the little seaside towns of Brora and Golspie before skirting inside to dodge the Dornoch and Moray Firths.

I'd breakfasted heartily at the B&B, stocked up on chocolate, got binoculars ready. I was all set for the best part of four hours innocent pleasure.

Instead I found myself at the back of the aforementioned mini-bus, trundling and bumping our way along the north coast of Scotland (entirely the wrong way, as far as I could tell). Still, I've always wanted to see the Dounreay nuclear power station - the one which makes Scottish surfers glow in the dark.

After about 20 miles we turned sharp left onto what was billed as an 'A' road, but was, in fact, single track with passing places. It was, in all fairness, a stunning road and would have been all the more stunning had the hiker in the seat in front of me not got his face pressed up against the window, his heavy breathing adding to the condensation on the windows which I theatrically wiped away from time to time.

The morning wasn't a total loss. It was a relatively comfortable trip and we arrived in Inverness 20 minutes before the train would have. . . and they gave me my money back.

An hour later I was zipping down the A9 through the Highlands in a very neat hire car with, best of all, a cracking CD/MP3 player player (if you see what I mean). Going over the summit of Slochd the mountain tops were covered with snow like so many craggy Christmas puddings sprinkled with icing sugar.

Led Zep were on loud, the pig farmer and Robert Plant were doing it proud. . . motoring rarely gets any better.

That was hours ago, maybe days. I got to Shrewsbury about 10pm. Hauled myself out of the car and, after a bit of a palava finding the key, deposited my aching body inside my brother-in-law and sister-in-law's house. They're away so I have the place to myself, but I can't sleep.

Is there such a thing as mini-bus lag?

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

No Sleep 'til Okehampton

Listening to: Dancing Days (Led Zep)
Drinking: more of that really quite fine Brazilian lager
Wearing: dressing gown and jammies (early start tomorrow)
Weather: getting windier (sailing in the morning)

My bags are packed and I'm hitting the road. Well, I'll hit the road once I've done with the two ferries and a four-hour train ride to Inverness, where I'm due in around midday on Friday (honest!)

The downside is all the travelling - pretty much the length of the UK by the time I've got to Devon - the upside is I get to see my offspring. They are great kids, articulate, funny, clever and I couldn't be more proud (OK, I'll stop in a minute). Strangely, they don't seem to hold it against me that I've moved 800 and 600 miles away from them respectively.

The Boy (17-year-old surfer and frighteningly focussed trainee chef) was kind enough to say that if I didn't "sod off and do the pig-farming thing" he'd never forgive me. The Youngest (15 and A grades all over the place) was non-committal, but insisted she could cope, as long as she didn't have to come and live on Westray too.

So, I'm off, and The Edge of Nowhere UK Tour takes in Shrewsbury, Wolverhampton, Chester, Exeter, Okehampton, Birmingham and maybe one or two surprise gigs elsewhere, who knows.

There were a few loose ends to tie up around the farm first, like making sure Mrs Trainee Pig Farmer and the pigs were well acquainted. Sal has been in her jammies and dressing gown almost all the time since she arrived. The journey is a swine and it takes several days to get over it properly, especially if it was punctuated with staying up chatting over a G&T until 1am in the morning in Dunfermline.

So she got herself into her scruffs this morning and hauled on the extravagantly green wellies and followed me into the barn where we mixed the pencils and barley for Eric and Ernie's breakfast.

That's the easy bit. What worried me was that the pigs are very boisterous now, especially when it comes to meal-times (which to them is any time they reckon to be suitable). They clamber up the hurdle I have nailed in place to keep them in their (very roomy) shed and snuffle and snot all over the place, squeaking and grunting excitedly.

You have to be firm. That's all very well for a 14-and-a-half stone, just-about 6ft lump of former 4th XV second row forward, but not, maybe, for his 5ft 4in wife.

But I forget sometimes that Sal is from Wolverhampton (pictured left), the town (city? yeah, right! And I'm Antonio Banderas) where taking no shit has been turned into a fine art. So she lobbed a decoy handful over the wall a couple of yards from the hurdle and, while the pigs snuffled that up, she climbed over and spread the rest out unmolested.

I think I may as well retire now.

There was, of course, the customary panic over the hens before I shut them in one last time. The day wouldn't be complete if they didn't wind me up somehow.

Mrs TPF was indoors multi-tasking like a good 'un, while I gave the pigs their evening tatties, topped up the water and went to see to the feathered freaks. The hen house was freakless and I noticed the bit of baler twine I had cunningly used to hold open their hatch into the run had come adrift and they were shut out.

No problem. I opened hatch and went round to shoo them in. No hens in the hen run. Bugger!

It was dark (this being 4pm) and I was facing the prospect of spending the next couple of hours locating and chasing feathered creatures which give me the heebeegeebees at the best of times, let alone in the pitch dark with a steadily building wind.

I decided not to trouble Mrs TPF with this and slumped off to the barn where I found a torch. It proved to be one of those comedy jobs with the loose battery connection which meant I had to hold it with both hands, one hand pressing in the screw bit at the back to make sure the light stayed on.

I scanned pig shed, veg garden, the back of the house, cattle byre, derelict stone buildings at the front, I had a look in the field. No hens. Had they taken off to catch the evening ferry for a night out in Kirkwall. I've heard there's always a hen party on at Fusion nightclub on a Wednesday (sorry).

Then I started thinking like a hen. No, not "let's lay eggs only very occasionally and really piss him off", but where would I go if I was stuck outside in the dark with wind and rain coming down on me?

They were cowering behind a large flagstone propped up against the hen house. I swore at my own stupidity and shooed them out and into the relative warmth and light of the hen house before going in to tell Mrs TPF that everything had gone like clockwork.

This pig farmer (pictured, right) needs a break.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007


Listening to: Jacqueline (Franz Ferdinand)
Weather: grim
Reading: Farm and Smallholder Fencing (Michael Roberts)

There's big excitement here today. We're getting a new cooker! Not an Earth-shattering event, you may think, but (appropriately for Orkney) it's been a bit of a saga.

For the last four-and-a-half months, we have been making do with an old two-ring camp cooker that dates back to Mrs Trainee Pig Farmer's childhood holidays, backed up by a neat combi oven we were given as a wedding present.

It has been OK (just) while there's been only one or two of us in the house, but we have both admitted longing to cook a proper meal without having the desperate battle to keep things warm. A Sunday dinner is almost impossible.

We have been trying to get a proper cooker here ever since our arrival in July. We fancied one of those big range jobs and picked out a really nice-looking stainless steel job on the website of a firm based down south.

I made the call, handed over my details and sat back, waiting for the cooker to arrive shortly (the proud boast of the company being that they would dispatch 24/7). I received an e-mail a couple of days later explaining that they had none of 'our' cookers in stock, but we could keep track of our order (and I assume our money) by logging on to the website. Hmmmm.

July turned into August and the new date for the cooker to arrive in came and went, replaced by a new target date. This happened twice more before even Mrs TPF started moving into harumph territory.

As September came, I got on the phone to ask fairly firmly whether there was any chance of the cooker being delivered before Christmas. "Next week," came the answer.

When next week came and the range cooker-sized gap in the kitchen remained empty, I sighed and called again, cancelling the order.

This was the end of September, so Sal scoured the websites for an alternative and found it, of course, on the Boots site. That's right, Boots the Chemist. "I'll have 24 paracetemol, a bottle of shampoo and a dual-fuel range cooker." I was surprised too.

So, we put the order in and were told straight away that the cooker would be made for us and it would take some time for delivery. That's fine, I thought, as long as we know and it arrives before Christmas.

Boots have been on the phone to give us a progress report every week and to apologise for any delays. Last week, they called to say the cooker was finished and would be going from the manufacturers to the delivery company ready for dispatch to Orkney. Boots seem to have no part in this whole transaction, other than acting as some sort of agent.

Then yesterday afternoon I got a call from the delivery company to say the cooker would be here between 8am and noon. I'm not convinced it will arrive today. It's very hard to get it through to people exactly where we live. The 'go to the far north of Scotland, catch a ferry, drive 25 minutes, then catch another ferry and you're there' thing rarely seems to sink in.

I'd already explained twice that most goods for Westray are left at the depot in Kirkwall and brought over by the island's freight company, and I went through it again, but the very helpful woman on the end of the line seemed convinced the delivery would be to our door. I'll believe it when I see it.

Anyway, it's on the way and Mrs TPF and myself are already jostling for position for 'first go' on the six burners and two ovens - can't wait.

UPDATE: The cooker didn't arrive, of course, but Mrs TPF did the impossible and rustled up a roast chicken dinner on two burners and a small oven. Impressive stuff.

Monday, 3 December 2007

The Stuff

Listening to: Breakin' Down the Walls of Heartache (Edwin Starr)
Drinking: Brazilian lager
Weather: bright, showers, wind turning to the north
Reading: Attila (William Napier)

Mrs Trainee Pig Farmer drove off the ferry last night, exhaust on the trusty Vauxhall Astra scraping the ground, axles straining, but diesel engine purring (those things are bomb-proof and I'll fight anyone who says different).

I could just about spot her peering out through a gap in all The Stuff she had brought from the south. We said our hellos and then she set off in the direction of the farm (not hard as it's a straight road from the pier) with me following. She only just remembered where the turn into our lane was, squealing the tyres as she threw the Astra into the (very narrow) entrance.

The car was heaving with The Stuff, the Ikea logo all too frighteningly visible (don't you just love a quiet romantic evening together, just you, her and a set of Allen keys).

Happily, much of The Stuff proved to be edible, Sal obviously fearing the ferry crews' work-to-rule would leave us cut off for weeks on end.

Once unloaded, I forced the larder, fridge and freezer doors shut and we settled down to tea/dinner/supper. It was, to be honest, a bit weird. Having had nobody much to talk to for two months I was a little stuck for words. Mrs TPF was absolutely banjaxed, having risen at 4.30 to leave our friends' home in Dunfermline in time to reach the midday ferry to Orkney at Scrabster.

She was snoring as soon as her head hit the pillow and, while she has been settling back in today, she's back in bed now while I persuade pizza dough to rise and fill the house with garlicky smells.

Of course, I had done the usual flash around with the mop and hoover, got a decent tea ready, made sure the cushions were tidy, dogs combed, goldfish polished and so on. Actually, that's not true, we don't have a goldfish.

It wasn't perfect, naturally, but it was no big deal, Mrs TPF being one of life's nore laid-back characters, but I think she was a bit shocked when she remembered how cold and damp the house can be.

Sal has a knack for nest-building and already has plans that would never have occurred to me to make the place cleaner, cosier and generally more user-friendly. (My view is that only complete gutting and putting back together will do that, but that will come in time). So expect scatter cushions in the pig shed any day now.

This reunion is going to be short-lived, however, as I'm catching the morning boat on Thursday to head south for a couple of weeks, visiting The Boy in Devon and my daughter (nickname pending) in the Midlands. One of these days we must get organised.

FOOTNOTE: Good news! The biggest Ikea item proved to be something Sal had picked up for Mr D, so all we've got are handy storage jars, lampshades and so on. The Allen keys can stay where they are.

Sunday, 2 December 2007

Do the Shake 'n' Vac

Listening to: Heading for the Sunshine (Saw Doctors)
Drinking: Very big mug of tea
Weather: Still, chilly, broken cloud

The sun is breaking through the clouds, eggs are boiling (got another this morning), dogs have been walked, hens fed and watered, pigs' potatoes are on the stove, happy tunes whistled - it's a grand start to the day.

I have the polishes, sprays, dettol and suchlike out and, as soon as I've finished this, will be whizzing around the place, cleaning anything that stays still long enough.

Mrs Trainee Pig Farmer is on her way back north (she should be just north of Inverness now) and will be back home tonight.

Sal has been south for two months now, doing a few weeks of freelance work to earn enough petty cash to get us through the winter. It hasn't been a lot of fun for either of us (Mrs TPF's jaunt to southern Spain apart) and it's not something we will be repeating unless it's absolutely necessary.

I feel we're coming to the end of a first phase. . . a settling-in period, if you like. I've got used to looking after the pigs and feel ready to take on more animals and, come the spring, plans are in place for putting the land to use. I've picked out an acre for planting potatoes and other root crops, while about a third of the bottom field will be set aside for summer pig housing and fencing.

I've got a much better idea of what needs to be done to the house and buildings than I had when we arrived and we can spend Christmas getting some proper plans together ready to take to the council in the New Year.

Two months on the farm on my own have dragged. This is a smashing place and I feel very lucky (particularly on a day like today) but there's only so much time you can spend enjoying the view without having someone else to talk to about it.

I've learned a few things about myself, the biggest being that, despite being an only child and having spent a lot of my life on my own, I'm not as comfortable with my own company as I thought.

This blog has been a big comfort. I've enjoyed visiting other bloggers and receiving your comments as I blunder my way through life. I'd always been a bit sniffy about the concept of internet 'friends', but (at the risk of being horribly mushy) thanks so much to all of 'you lovely lot' (as I,LTV would put it).

Anyway, where's the dusters?

Thursday, 29 November 2007

Stay of Eggs-ecution

Listening to: The Blower's Daughter (Damien Rice)
Eating: a sneaky Hobnob before tea/dinner/supper

News from death row. . . the girls have earned a reprieve. It may be only one egg, but it's a move in the right direction and enough for the Governor (that'll be me) to hand out a stay of execution.

I've just staggered indoors after shutting the hens in for the night (not really necessary as there are no foxes and the feral cats steer clear of Spike and Owen), but I was delighted and even thrilled to find an egg lying in the straw.

I had pretty much made up my mind that the four surviving hens would have to move from hen house to stock pot before Christmas as the absence of eggs was getting a bit ridiculous.

I wanted to save the final decision for after the return on Sunday of Mrs Trainee Pig Farmer. Sal is an out-and-out townie and can be a little sentimental (can't we all?), so I reckoned it would be wrong to go ahead and wring their necks without going through the full consultation process.

As it is, their case has been put under review, pending the arrival of enough eggs to make a pig-farmer-sized omelette. Got to go, Amnesty are on the phone.

Hello, hello, hello

Listening to: an old Christy Moore tape I found at the bottom of a box in the barn.
Drinking: first coffee of the day
Weather: grey, light breeze.

Westray's morning rush hour has been past the farm. Maybe a dozen cars, a lorry, a tractor and trailer. . . and a police car.

The morning ferry from Kirkwall gets in to Rapness on the southern tip of the island at 8.45 or thereabouts and, being on the main road through the island about four miles from the pier, we're well placed to see who is coming and going.

In my days in the Midlands, the sight of a police car in Wolverhampton or even Shrewsbury was nothing unusual, but here it's a once-a-month, if that, affair.

Crime on the island is not really an issue. I haven't locked Lennox since I got here and regularly leave keys, wallet and iPod on the dashboard. Nobody's going to nick a car. . . where would you go on an island that's only 11 miles long?

Minor vandalism just doesn't seem to happen in the casual way it does in the south*. There was scandal 18 months ago when the sink in the public toilets was pulled away from the wall. The whole thing was thought to be the work of 'off-islanders' over from the mainland for a wedding. Nothing much has happened since.

So, sitting here in this crime-free paradise (?), I can't help but shift a little uneasily at the sight of Old Bill hurrying down to the Pierowall Hotel for coffee and biscuits. If nobody else is committing crime, maybe they're here for me.

Why do I always feel guilty?

* 'The South' starts at Kirkwall, which, by my reckoning, makes Manchester a suburb of north London.

I've just noticed this is the 100th post on 'The Edge'. . . kind of wish I could have marked the milestone with something more exciting that watching the traffic.

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

It's a 135 without the four cylinders

Listening to: The Private Psychedelic Reel (Chemical Brothers)
Eating: Late-night cheese and tomato sandwich
Drinking: Earl Grey in the vague hope it will soak up all those lagers
Surf today: 3ft, would have been in the green room if a certain fat bastard could have got his suit on
The flame still burns: Padfoot

It is the most terrifying thing a blogger can hear.

"Oh yes, I've been reading your blog."

It's somehow a nasty shock to find that real people (the kind you live next door to) are reading the nonsense you churn out during tea breaks, lunch intervals and odd post-pub hours.

This started out as a sort of diary to myself with a couple of jokes thrown in, maybe friends and relatives back in the Midlands would read it.

Reg started me off, Arabella said she liked pigs, then I'LTV shimmered in from another dimension and said something sweet, the Birdwatcher added a comment that made him feel like an old mate, then the Americans invaded, Fathorse made me feel so old and so on and so forth. . .

Somehow, I never expected anyone on the island itself to have time/energy/interest to look at it. What on Earth would interest them in the views of an idiot newcomer?

So there I was, alone in the bar with 'D' (not his real name, by the way) and he uttered those fatal words. If you want to try the accent, think Auf Wiedersehen, Pet meets Rab C Nesbitt, with a bit of No Surrender thrown in. American readers should maybe at this point go out and pour themselves a large glass of something interesting.

Anyhoo. . . I'm in the bar. . . an hour ago maybe. And I'm burbling.

"Errrrrr. . . yep, blog. . . how did you know?", while mentally backflipping through previous posts to make sure I hadn't slagged off his entire family at some stage.

"Och, I had a look after the postman told me about it."

Oh holy f**knuts! That means maybe more than one or two of the island population of 600 are tuned into The Edge of Nowhere - CRAP! the title itself is a bit insulting. The Hub of the Universe - how's that for a new title? Edge of Nowhere? It's not even bloody original. Aw Jeez!

As it happened 'D' (one of the island's bigger farmers) seemed to reckon it was quite amusing and we settled down for a lengthy chat about townies moving to small islands, pigs, sheep and cattle.

The appearance of 'B' - my nearest neighbour - brought another round of drinks (whisky and water for myself), but some serious confusion for the trainee pig farmer. Conversation moved on to tractors and, frankly, they might as well have been speaking Bulgarian. I tried hard to look as if I understood, but nobody seemed to mind when I drifted back to the Independent sports pages.

I will pass this item on to you, however: always avoid the four cylinder Massey 135, the chrome plates are too thin. Go for the three-cylinder version instead. So now you know.

Monday, 26 November 2007

Silver lining

Listening to: New Rose (The Damned)
Recharging: my batteries

Sometimes a cock-up turns into an inspired move. I was a bit deflated when I had to call off the trip to Kirkwall, but instead I got some of this. . .

. . . the view from the front of the house about an hour before sunset.

It has turned into a great day. The weather has been breathtaking (that's no exaggeration). Early morning colours developed into a bright morning, moving on to a couple of hours of cold sunshine.

Mr D came to help me get Lennox's battery charged (our battery charger is under a pile of other stuff somewhere in the barn). We dawdled around outside for a good while, nattering about nothing very much.

Then I took the dogs on a tour of the estate, they chased a couple of rabbits while I drank in the view across to Papa Westray to the north east and then Rousay to the south.

During my afternoon spell in the pig shed the phone went. It was the pig breeder from Thurso. He's trimming the size of his herd and did I want two sows, both of which would come 'in-pig' (i.e. pregnant). One is a Saddleback, the other a Gloucester Old Spot. Resisting the temptation to say: "Yes yes, oh yes please", I said I was definitely interested, but thought it best to speak to Mrs Trainee Pig Farmer first.

That's the other thing, Sal's back on Sunday, ending my two months in solitary. It was nice to have the place to myself for a while, but the novelty has well-and-truly worn off.

* GOOD DAY UPDATE: Got Lennox fired up again and took battery charger and cable back to Mr D's place, only to be hauled inside for vegetable lasagne (oooooh aubergines) and lots of red wine. Result!

D'oh! It's a no-go

Listening to: Film Star (Suede)
Weather: cloudy, but lovely (explain later)
Feeling: a little foolish

I was up bright and early this morning, whistling a happy tune, getting myself cleaned and polished for the trip into town.

The lousy weather of the weekend had given way to much-improved conditions. The wind had dropped off to a quiet breeze and, as I walked the dogs, the sun came up and I admired the greys, blues and even lavender in the sky.

The sea had stopped raging, a couple of fishing boats were making their way out into Westray Sound, and I could hear the birds properly for the first time in days.

I fed the pigs and the hens, nipped back into the house to put some more civilised clothes on and get everything ready. Wallet - yep. Cheque book - yep. Binoculars (birdwatching on the way) - yep. Ferry ticket - yep. Hat and gloves - yep, yep. OK, let's go.

I clambered into Lennox, turned the ignition and was rewarded with a sort of clicky-rattly-notstartingtheengine sort of a noise. A quick check revealed I had somehow knocked the inside light on yesterday. With only 20 minutes before the ferry was due there was no chance of charging the battery and no other vehicle to jump-start it off.

Oh bugger.

Still, I've rallied impressively, thanks in no small way to a plate of scrambled eggs on toast and a fresh pot of coffee. It really is a lovely day - time to get outside.

. . . and I'll get to Kirkwall tomorrow. Or maybe Wednesday.

Sunday, 25 November 2007

No way out

Listening to: All My Life (Foo Fighters)
Instant legend: Wayne Hennessey (Wolverhampton Wanderers custodian) for penalty save against West Brom. Thankyouthankyouthankyou.
Weather: Freezing rain, gusty north wind
Surf: are you kidding?

I had planned to go to Kirkwall yesterday to get a taste of civilisation, decent beer, Orkney v Stirling rugby, the surprisingly good Grooves music shop (I know, bless!), the excellent library and maybe a trip to the museum for a bit of culture.

I didn't go. I woke up at 6.30 and, by the time I was dressed, hosed down and coffeed up, it had got light. Pretty spectacular it was too. The wind was whipping in from the north east (Norway direction) and the sea was working itself up into a right old state.

All very nice to look at over the rim of a coffee mug with the smell of toast coming from the kitchen, but not so hot for making a hour-and-a-quarter trip to a small and, let's be honest here, not especially exciting town, Grooves notwithstanding.

It turned out to be a well-judged move. The morning boat sailed as normal, but the afternoon sailing back was cancelled which would have left me stuck in Kirkwall for the night with pigs unfed, dog unwalked and cat stuck outside in the freezing cold.

So I felt pretty relieved as I discussed the matter with Mr Hotel Proprietor in the bar of the Cleaton House, but it did bring home to me just how isolated this place can be. The ferries have been cancelled three times this last week and the plane (which is usually booked up anyway) didn't fly the other day. There's been no way out of Westray.

I haven't just woken up and said "Chuffin' 'eck, I'm on an island, how did I get here?", but I am suddenly very conscious of how far away I am from things that I used to take for granted. . . like hospitals.

If you fall ill here, the theory is that one of the island's two doctors will call up the air ambulance and, depending on how serious your condition, you go to Kirkwall or, as is more often the case, Aberdeen (a real treat for relatives wanting to visit).

In practice, the system seems to be creaking. The local airline Loganair lost the contract last year and the firm who took over base their helicopter in Aberdeen, as opposed to Kirkwall. So it was that, two weeks ago, a 90-year-old Westray woman found herself sitting on the airfield on the northern tip of the island for four hours while worried relatives were reassured time and again that the helicopter was on its way. Who's running the service? Wednesfield Taxis?*

Still, it's all right as long as market forces have been allowed to decide the outcome. That's what's important after all.

Anyway, I'm going to Kirkwall tomorrow, the forecast is good, but there's no rugby, so that'a an extra 80 minutes in Grooves.

*Wednesfield Taxis of Wolverhampton are the easily the worst cab firm in Britain, if not Europe (although there's a company in Rome, but that's another story).

Friday, 23 November 2007

Eric and Ernie

Listening to: Christine (Siouxsie and the Banshees)
Drinking: very cold Heineken
What's for tea?: Lamb and chickpea curry
Weather: quiet and bright today, wind getting up tonight

I've just stumbled back indoors after spending the best part of an hour with the pigs. It's become a small ritual to end the "working" day and it has become one of my favourite times.

The lads get their tea around 4pm and I check they have clean water and enough straw. I tidy up any droppings and dirty straw adding it to the pile in the corner which I clear out every week (leaving it all in one place encourages them to keep everywhere else clean).

Then I lean back against the wall and watch them. I don't do a lot apart from give them a scratch behind the ear or a back rub. Eric likes that kind of attention better than Ernie and leans against my legs snuffling happily. Ernie has always been the more skittish of the two and is especially so since being mugged by Spike last week. Nevertheless he was happy enough to let me have a look at and clean his injured leg today.

They're nice animals and Eric, especially, is turning into a terrific pig. He has deep red hair and is a good six inches to a foot longer than his brother. His hams and shoulders are developing well and he is growing impressively.

There's nothing much wrong with Ernie who is much the leaner of the two, but he is still a good size for his 13 weeks.

Of course, this all brings us to the prickly subject of attachment. It has been suggested that I'm getting a little too close to the lads (see?) and that, being generally "softer than a soft thing" (R. Pither Feb 2007) I'm going to struggle when "the time" comes.

It's something I've been aware of from the moment I decided this pig farming thing might be a good idea. I know a dairy farmer in Devon who has a herd of 200-plus cattle and is generally as tough as old boots, but he was devastated when he sent the two pigs they kept in the back garden to slaughter and has vowed never to keep them again. Pigs can get youn like that.

I was told umpteen times not to name them, but I did. The truth is that I would have named them in my head anyway. So, I reasoned, I may as well go public. It's more fun and, I hope, if I'm having fun the pigs may be that little bit better cared for.

But I have always tried hard not to lose sight of what they are for. They are farm animals who exist only to be converted into meat. When I'm giving them a fuss and a back rub, I'm also checking out the state of their shoulders, backs and hams. Sure, it's going to be hard when they go to be killed, but I'm determined to see it through.

I love looking after the pigs and I was on the phone this afternoon planning to bring in another half-dozen early next year with a view to starting a breeding programme by the end of 2008. They will all get the same treatment and care. A porker's life may be brutally short (Eric and Ernie will go to slaughter some time in March), but their existence doesn't need to be brutal. That's the whole point.

Thursday, 22 November 2007

Mauve Stinger

Listening to: Walk Don't Run (The Ventures)
Watching: Harvey (James Stewart)
Trying: to stay warm
Because: the wind is hammering down from the north, we've had snow and hail.
Surf: 12ft and full of jellyfish

Heck! It seems the bloom/smack/fluther or jellyfish I saw on Taft End beach were the same variety that attacked a salmon farm off the Antrim coast in Northern Ireland, killing the entire stock.

They are called Mauve Stingers (a pretty funky name in my view) and, while they will give an adult human only a nasty sting, they are deadly to fish like salmon and cod.

Apart from Taft End, I've seen them at the next beach along on the south west of the island at Rapness Cemetery, while I spotted some at Swartmill on the other side of Westray today. That's more worrying because it's only a mile or so from the salmon and cod farms near Pierowall harbour.

For the full Antrim story check this link (sorry, it will have to be cut and paste, you know what I'm like with technology):

Jellyfish update: An expert has been on Radio 5 to say the bloom or whatever you want to call it is at least 200km long!

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Grim Reaper

Listening to: Constellations (Jack Johnson)
Reading: Shadow of the Wind (Carlos Ruiz Zafon)
Weather: Rain, wind turning to the north
Watching: Spain v Northern Ireland

Bad news from the hen house; Godber is dead. I'm baffled by this one, there seems to be no reason.

Regular readers may remember that Godber was the regular escaper from the fenced-off run and she escaped once too often, being mugged by Spike and being lucky to get away alive.

Her wing was damaged and she was pretty sorry for herself for a time, but that was a few weeks ago and she seemed to have recovered. Sure, she needed a little encouragement and sometimes help to get outside, but she was eating and drinking normally and there was no obvious reason why she shouldn't carry on for a while.

She was fine this morning when I put the layer pellets and a few cabbage leaves in the shed, but when I went to check them half-an-hour ago, she was deader than the Kennedys.

I'm disappointed because I feel that, once again, I've let down an animal in my care. I can't stand hens, they give me the creeps, but that doesn't mean I don't take their welfare very seriously. (said he, sounding desperately pious).

I take some comfort from the words of a friend who runs a six-acre smallholding in Devon. She has sheep and hens and says of both: "They die, it's what they're good at."

Tuesday, 20 November 2007


Listening to: Crying Shame (Jack Johnson)
Reading: Scottish Farmer small ads (Marcus says I need a tractor and who am I to argue?)
The house smells of: coffee and fresh bread (no, I'm not selling)
Going: out tonight

This may be just me, but do you remember Sunday dinner/lunch when you were a child? Remember how, when you were very young, you ate all the stuff you really liked first before getting onto the cabbage, cauliflower and suchlike.

Then, when you were a little older and smarter, you realised the pleasure could be prolonged if you kicked off in broccoli country, moved up carrot avenue before getting to meat and spud heaven. I still do it to a tiny degree, making sure the last mouthful is meat, roast potato or (if applicable) Yorkshire.

I'm not sure if it applies to pigs, but I've just spent a happy 20 minutes watching Eric and a much-improved Ernie plough their way through their tea. For a change, I added to their pan of potatoes a scoop of barley, a scoop of pig 'pencils' and a couple of apples that had been hanging around the fruit bowl for a couple of weeks (I don't know why I bought them, I only like cox or russets, these tasted like cotton wool).

Eric and Ernie took little notice of the extra effort I had gone to on their behalf and got stuck in at once. However, I noticed they snuffled up the pencils first, then the potatoes before moving on to the barley. The apples were left on one side, perhaps they are still pushing them around now. Next time maybe they'll eat them first.

On reflection, it wasn't that sensitive to give apples to pigs.

Next week: Malc feeds cranberries to turkeys.

Sunday, 18 November 2007


Listening to: Bristol v Stade Francais
What's for tea: Shepherd's pie
Weather: steady rain
Drinking: Argentinian Chardonnay

A wet blanket of a day on Westray, but we finally ventured outside at around 3pm as the light started to dim rapidly.

As a rabbit-control measure, I try to take the dogs for a tour around the edge of the two fields to sniff down burrows, snap and snarl a bit and leave their 'scent' all over the place.

We were in the top field, near the house, when. . . well, I was going to say Owen - our lovely, but intellectually challenged collie/spaniel cross - caught a rabbit, but accidentally bumped into one would be more accurate. The rabbit was toast, he had no chance as Owen was right on top of him. Bugs squeaked pathetically and waited for the worst.

Only the worst never happened. Owen wasn't sure exactly what he should be doing and once our long-eared friend cottoned on, he was off, through the fence and heading for the front door of the house.

Owen set off in pursuit, leaping the fence and following the rabbit which had darted into one of the two derelict stone buildings in front of the barn. I and a frantic Spike (on a lead because of his colourful 'previous') took the long way round, going to the gate and making our way to the outbuildings where a chase worthy of a cartoon was in full swing.

Rabbit and dog flew through the bottom half of the pig shed, both dived out of a window, an impressive splash indicating that Owen had fallen straight into the soakaway/pool at the back of the barn.

He emerged soaked through, shook himself and looked around before the rabbit popped up again and the chase was on again. Owen caught him a second time. Spike was yapping desperately (the canine equivalent of "bite and shake, you moron" I assume), but again the rabbit got away. Owen, with a fair share of sheepdog in his bloodline, had no intention of killing and was trying to round him up.

By now we had done a full circuit of the house and buildings and I was the only one who knew where the rabbit was (cowering near the septic tank). As I'm not quite ready to join my friend Nick as a bare-hands rabbit killer, I called it a day and literally called the dogs off.

Owen, bless him, hasn't stopped wagging his tail since, while Spike looks at him the way a team-mate looks at the footballer who has missed a vital penalty.

Saturday, 17 November 2007


Listening to: Baseball Bill (Echo and the Bunnymen)
Drinking: cocoa on a Saturday night
Weather: steady rain starting to ease off

I was forced to take it easy today, partly because of the steady rain that started to fall at around 8.30 and has continued most of the day and well into the evening.

A stronger influence on my relative lack of activity was the fact that I woke to find my right arm pretty much seized up (pause for predictable jokes). It was at right angles and wouldn't straighten any more.

I first strained the ligament that runs past the inner side of the elbow a few weeks ago smashing an old concrete water tank with a sledgehammer - great fun, but there's always a price. I had some stretching exercises to do and thought all was well, but a day pulling nettle roots out of the ground has obviously aggravated it.

A soak in a hot bath and a handful of painkillers eased things and I set about light, indoor duties - washing, floor mopping, hoovering and so on. By 3pm I was pretty fed up and Radio Scotland was flirting with spontaneous combustion so hysterical was its big match preview (if only they'd known).

Rain or no rain, crocked arm or no crocked arm, I had to get out. I bundled the dogs into Lennox and we set off back to Taft End beach to have another look at the jellyfish.

I was a bit surprised to find them still there as the tides have been high over the last 48 hours, but they were lying around in their thousands. The light was better today so I had a chance to have a close look.

This was a larger one, maybe three inches across. I was stung by a jellyfish swimming off the mid Wales coast once, but that's where my knowledge begins and ends. I don't even know if these jellyfish are alive or not. Are they the stinging kind? What's a lot of jellyfish called? How come there are so many here (I'd always thought of them as a warm water creature)?

Still, it was an impressive sight. . .

. . . multiply that by a couple of thousand and you have some idea. In places it was impossible not to tread on them.

And, on the way back to the car, Owen tried to eat one. Idiot.

Incidentally, please excuse the quality of the pics. The light in the afternoons starts to go around two o'clock and Mrs Trainee Pig Farmer has the camera in Wolverhampton.

Good morning

Sunrise over the croft this morning.

Just this once pt3

Listening to: Skye (Runrig)
Eating: Porridge
Reading: The Scotsman
Weather: windy, a bit wet
Going: native

They're working themselves into a frenzy on the radio, BBC Scotland's news was awash with tartan, the papers are full of it - it's the biggest game ever ever ever. Apparently.

There's even a little ripple of excitement here on Orkney, where folk are nominally Scottish, racially Norwegian, but Orcadian by preference. So, never one to miss out on a good party, I'm shamelessly jumping on the Tartan Army bandwagon for the evening.

For those who have little or no interest in the 'beautiful' game, Scotland need to win this evening to qualify for next year's European Championships. All they have to do is beat the reigning world champions Italy. . . how hard can it be?

Big snag for me is that the game is on Sky, everyone's favourite London-based Broadcasting Corporation having decided to bid only for England's games. My local is closed until Monday when Mr and Mrs Hotel Proprietor return from holiday and the hotel in the village doesn't have satellite.

I think I may have to resort to getting out my old Subbuteo set and plotting the course of the game, while listening to Radio Scotland.

Wild times in the UK's outer reaches.

Friday, 16 November 2007

Balance restored

Listening to: Four Winds (Levellers)
Weather: Broken cloud, fresh breeze
Drinking: Holsten Pils

For every bad day, there are several good ones. I got myself into quite a tizz about Spike's attack on Ernie, but we're all moving on and there are real signs of progress.

Most important, Ernie appears to be recovering well. The swelling is going down and, while he still can't walk on it, he's clearly feeling better. There's not a lot wrong with anyone who can eat as many spuds as he does. Reminds me of my grandad.

Then there's the veg garden. Phase one is nearing completion. I've dug out three decent-sized beds and have made a start on tackling the nettles that are threatening to swamp the ancient fruit bushes. That involves carefully digging around each bush and pulling out the thick yellow nettle roots. I imagine I will have to do it more than once. As with most weeds it's a case of hanging in there and hoping they give up before you do.

The bottom half of the pig shed is just about clear of the 20-year-old chicken manure which is partly bagged up and partly on the afore-mentioned veg beds.

Two pallets of concrete blocks were delivered this afternoon along with a dozen bags of cement, a load of concrete chips (gravel), and the sand will arrive tomorrow. That means I can get on with converting one of the cattle byres into a stable for Mrs Trainee Pig Farmer's horse Xena and then building two more pig pens in the shed.

It feels like things are happening again, which is great for morale.

So was the walk I and the dogs took on Taft End beach. Owen dived in and out of the water, chasing stones I threw in for him. He never catches one, but that doesn't dim his enthusiasm in the slightest. Spike - on two long leads for obvious reasons - strained to chase rabbits and birds, while I marvelled at the amount of seaweed washed onto the shore by last week's gales and at the thousands of tiny orange jellyfish scattered all over the sand.

I've never seen so many and, being neither marine expert nor photographer (it was getting dark anyway) I can't give an exact idea of what they were like, although they ranged in size from a 50p piece to a cricket ball, quite unlike the larger, clear, pink creatures you see in Wales and the South West.

So we're back on course, sort of. . . until the next time.

Thursday, 15 November 2007

Man's best friend? or Idiot pt 2

Listening to: Lonely As You (Foo Fighters)
Weather: cloudy, but wonderfully clear
Birdwatch: Sanderling, knot, curlew, snipe, common gull, black-backed gull, hooded crow.

I had half a mind to keep this quiet as it proves beyond doubt that I am a know-nothing idiot who should be barred from caring for animals immediately. But this is an attempt at an honest(ish) account, so here goes. Please don't judge me too harshly.

I was attending to all the usual morning tasks, having first taken the precaution of shutting the freshly-walked dogs in the kitchen.

I fed the pigs and the hens, cleaned both sheds out and continued the task of shifting the ancient chicken manure onto the newly-dug vegetable beds.

Knocking off around 11.30, I went round to the front of the house and into the kitchen, letting the dogs out. I had originally gone out through the back door of the barn.

I had forgotten I had left that door open and suddenly realised ten minutes later, but not soon enough to stop Spike diving out and into the pig shed where he got hold of Ernie by the knee/knuckle of his back leg, having first given him a few cuts around one ear.

I leapt into the pen and managed to get Spike off by kicking him hard with my steel-toe-capped boot. I slapped him hard in the hope he would get the message, dragged him into the barn and left him in the back byre to cool off.

Ernie was clearly in pain and there was blood on his face. I got the warm water and Dettol, caught hold of the still-vociferous pig and cleaned him up. The cuts on his ear were not serious, but he had a couple of nasty gashes on his leg, a flap of skin having come off his kneecap (for want of a better word).

He went into a sulk, buried himself under the straw and didn't come out until tea-time when I was glad to see he tucked away his usual ration. However, the leg was obviously swollen and very painful. Not so serious that he didn't put some weight on it when standing still, but he couldn't walk on it.

Marcus promised to come up in the morning to have a look. By the time he arrived, Ernie had had a good breakfast and was very much perkier. Marcus said to leave him alone, but if the swelling doesn't go down in a couple of days he's give him an anti-biotic jab.

He was kind enough not to criticise my animal husbandry or lack of it, leaving me to beat myself up over it. I mean, to get from the kitchen to the barn back door, Spike had to go through four doors - all of which I'd left wide open.

I can't blame Spike. He's a Jack Russell, bred to terrorise and destroy other animals. You can hardly encourage him to chase and kill rabbits and then expect him to differentiate between wild and farm animals.

I'm gutted. . . so, so annoyed with myself because part of the point of all this was to raise and care for animals, giving them a decent life before sending them to slaughter and I'm falling down on the job.

The other question it raises is over Spike's future. Being a Jack Russell, he has bounced back quickly and is the same cocky little bastard he ever was. There's no question that he will do it again and again, as often as he is given the chance. It's bad enough that he should attack our stock, but what if he got out and went for a neighbour's animals. Chances are he'd be shot.

I've seriously thought about finding him a new home, but can't bring myself to do it. For all his faults, he's one of my best mates. We're a package. After all, what would I do for paw marks on the dashboard of my Land Rover if it wasn't for Spike.

I'm going to have to be very much more careful about closing doors and, when anyone else is around, he will have to be tied up. I'm also ordering timber and wire for a post and rail fence with fine mesh, which I'll use to make a properly fenced off, dog-proof garden at the front of the house.

Then I'll keep my fingers crossed.

On the bonus side, brother-in-law Martin sent me a disk to get the laptop fired up again. It brought up a browser window, but offered no connection. I pressed the "Connect" thingy on the desktop and was presented with a number of possibilities. I clicked a couple - a little like laptop Russian roulette - and blow me down if it didn't do the trick.

Piece of cake this technology stuff.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007


Listening to: Sunshine Star (Chemical Brothers)
Shifting: a couple of tons of 20-year-old chicken manure
Just had: a very deep, very hot and very necessary bath
What's for tea?: Aloo Gobi
Weather: winter sunshine
Surf: 3ft, onshore breeze, a little messed up

We stared at each other, waiting for one of us to blink. His beady little eyes flickered slightly as he searched for an escape route.

Then he made his move, throwing himself off the worksurface and onto the leg of the two-ring camping stove that I'm using until Boots get around to delivering the new cooker. He scampered down the leg in the manner of Tom Cruise in the Mission Impossible films and disappeared behind the skirting board. . . all in the time it took me to say "bloody hell" or something.

We've got mice. Well of course we've got mice. We live in the country in a near-derelict house, so mice go with the deal.

When we arrived in July the "kitchen" (an old-fashioned cupboard-sized scullery} was littered with mouse droppings. We cleaned up, plugged any gaps we could find, kitted the place out as best we could and we hadn't seen one since.

Since Mrs Trainee Pig Farmer left to spend a couple of months in the fleshpots of Wolverhampton (and one week in southern Spain) I've been careful not to fall into bachelor habits, tidying food away, brushing up crumbs and so on.

But I suppose it is hardly surprising they're back, especially now it's bloody freezing outside.

The latest sighting prompted me into extreme action. I grabbed Trevor (the cat, put him in the middle of the kitchen and shut the door. I opened the door expecting to see a fine selection of slaughtered mice, only to be bitterly disappointed. Trev was sat exactly where I'd left him with a 'what the hell do you expect me to do about it and, by the way, isn't it time you got that can opener working?' expression on his face.

I put a parental arm around Trev's shoulder, had a long chat about the role of cats and mice in society, we watched a few Tom and Jerry episodes (maybe not a good idea), but he seemed unimpressed.

I phoned Mrs TPF and explained the situation, telling her I would have to buy some traps. I could hear the ice cubes chink in her G&T on the sun terrace in the mountains above Granada. "You're going to get humane ones," she said, "aren't you?"

That sparked a conversation about sentimental townies and suchlike and in the end I caved in. So I'm off out tomorrow to get half-a-dozen Snap-U-Like Neckbreakers and a big lump of Cheddar. You won't tell, will you?

Monday, 12 November 2007

On tour

Listening to: There Is A Light (The Smiths)
Looking forward to: Pint of Dragonhead stout on draught
But I've got to: get a haircut first
And: get some pig wormer thingy from the vets
Birdwatch: Shags, eider ducks, goldeneye (?), little auk, greylag geese, whooper swans, black-backed gulls.

Sometimes I forget to look at the view.

Days when the sheer weight of tasks that need doing close in and the solitude gets a little bit too much. I walk out of the front door - which overlooks the sea and the island of Rousay and Orkney mainland beyond - and some days completely fail to notice it.

That has a lot to do with being here on my own. It's hard to say "oooh, look at the way the sun is shining off the sea" or words to that effect if there is nobody to listen. Pigs, I have found, have no interest in scenery.

So, after seven days that have not been the best in my life, I dragged myself out of bed at 6.30, walked the dogs, fed hens and pigs, evicted the cat and got down to the ferry terminal for the 9am boat to Kirkwall. The weather forecast was for cold sunshine and I figured a sea voyage and day in town would perk me up no end.

Got to the pier to be greeted by the harbourmaster who said that, because of a long-running work-to-rule by the ferry crews, the boat would be calling at Sanday on its way to Kirkwall, so would take two hours or more instead of the usual hour-and-a-quarter.

I looked on the bright side. I've never been to Sanday and even if I wasn't going to get off, it would be good to have a look.

And it proved to be a smashing trip. The sunshine was bright and I spent the whole time out on deck with my binoculars. The ferry rounded the north coast of Eday, then squeezed between that island and it's 'mini-me' The Calf of Eday, going to within 100 metres of the shore where the crofts run down to the sea.

At one stage I could, if I turned 360 degrees, see seven islands. The eider ducks are gathering in large numbers, the males in their distinctive black and white plumage, while huge numbers of ducks, geese and swans were flocking on the north shores of Shapinsay.

I had a terrific time. It was a reminder just when I needed it that this is a quite astonishing place and I'd be a fool to take it for granted.

Friday, 9 November 2007

Chillin' out

Listening to: Candy Skin (Fire Engines)
Reading: A Clockwork Orange
Weather: Breezy, dry, very cold
Surf: About a quarter of what it was yesterday

Well, we got through the first of Mother Nature's big tests pretty much unscathed and today has been almost pleasant by comparison, although three hours in the veg garden and pig shed left me cold all the way through.

A few bits of rusty guttering were finally dislodged by the gusts which during the middle of the day were hitting 90mph, but that just saves me the bother of getting them down myself. Pigs, hens, dogs, cat, trainee pig farmer, house and outbuildings are all intact, although the sign at the end of the drive is now at a jaunty angle. I'll get down there with my big hammer tomorrow.

The only real casualty was the ageing laptop. The power went off at 5.30 yesterday while I was in the middle of trying to order some bits for the electric fence (irony). By the time the power had returned three hours later, then gone off and come on a couple of times more, it seemed too much for the poor old thing to bear and it came up with ERROR 24 on the screen and refused to budge, even when I used my full technical knowledge and unplugged everything and plugged it back in again.

A call to Martin this morning confirmed my fears, so I'm going to get my finger out, spend some money on a nice new PC. As a result I'm writing this at Mr and Mrs D's house, eating Mrs D's fabulous, very gooey flapjacks (a recipe will be forthcoming as soon as our top team of interrogators have finished with her).

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Don't try this at home

Listening to: Party Fears Two (Associates - it hasn't dated well)
Drinking: A reviving Bovril

If you caught the weather forecast this morning you will already know that we are in the middle of the first serious storm of the autumn/winter (hard to tell the difference here).

Last night's round-up by the lovely Gail (really) on the North of Scotland weather bulletin consisted of a map with some very, very big arrows on it, the largest sitting right on top of Orkney.

Westray being on the north west fringe of the islands, the weather tends to arrive off the Atlantic here first. So I woke this morning to the sound of 80-90mph gusts hammering the front of the house.

Work outside is obviously impossible, but pigs and hens still have to be tended to so I filled the buckets and forced my way out of the barn.

Eric and Ernie seemed completely unperturbed by the fact there was a howling gale coming through every crack in the ageing and long-neglected shed they call home. While they dived onto the potatoes, barley and weaner pencils, I had a quick look around and noticed that several of the bolts holding the roof panels in place weren't there. The wind hadn't removed them, they just weren't there any more and I hadn't noticed.

So it was that about 20 minutes ago I was up a ladder in a gale with baler twine and heavy duty wire, lashing the panels to the joists underneath. For good measure I lifted a couple of large flagstones onto the loosest panels to hold them in place.

It was, as Clement Atlee said of Gallipoli, an interesting experience, but definitely one to be performed only by complete buffoons with pig farming ambitions.

Got to go, just seen a section of guttering fly past the window.


Listening to: LA Woman (The Doors)
Drinking: PG Tips
Reading: Last Post (Max Arthur and First World War veterans)

All right then, it's time to confess. I thought I'd broken the ageing laptop I use to send you these bulletins from a rock in the North Atlantic/North Sea. With my recent track record, it would have been no surprise.

I called by brother-in-law Martin (a computer expert who brews a top-notch stout) this morning just to check that it was terminal and the conversation went like this:

"Hi Mart, how's yourself?"

"Fine Malc, what's up?"

"The laptop seems to have expired, shuffled off this mortal coil, gone to meet it's maker, bereft of life and so on."

*Sigh* "What is it with you and technology Malc?"

"What are you implying? Anyway, is there any chance for it or shall I put it on the pile with the kettle, washing machine, two TVs, microwave oven."

"Does it say anything on the screen?"

"Disk error."

"Look at the front of the machine. Is something sticking out?"

"Err. . . yup."

"Push it in and try again."


"Have you done that? Is it working?"

*embarrassed pause* *mumbling* "Yes Mart."

"That's the disk, you clown. It won't work if it's not pushed in all the way."

"Yes Mart. Thanks Mart."

Some of you may identify with this exchange. Everyone else feel free to point and laugh.

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Pigs might fly

Listening to: Be-bop-a-lu-la (Gene Vincent)
Eating: Mrs D's rice pudding
Tying: Everything down

Brief break from the blog as I managed to bust the venerable laptop my brother-in-law had rescued from a computer graveyard. I was sitting there trying to find out whether the cooker I ordered three weeks ago was ever going to be delivered when something went ping, phut, phmmmmmmm.

Nothing happenened after that, so I have been deprived of access to pig websites, Reg's rantings and have had to do some work instead.

I'm writing this on Mr D's PC after a lovely dinner (tea? supper?} at their house on the waterfront opposite Pierowall village. We're waiting for the first real storm of the autumn/winter.

It's quiet outside, more still than it has been for three or four days, but it is no time to be lulled into a similar state of calm. All schools on Orkney have already been closed tomorrow and by the time I wake in the morning we should have winds of up to 80mph.

Nobody here seems particularly bothered - harsh weather being part of everyday life - but this is the only place I've lived where the weather is a genuinely interesting topic of conversation.

Anyway, the pigs have been tied down (Eric's foot is healing nicely, by the way), the hens shut in, the dogs glared at, cakes baked, milk ordered and collected, so we should be all right. . . as long as the ageing corrugated cement/asbestos roof doesn't blow off.

Friday, 2 November 2007


Listening to: Just Fascination (Cabaret Voltaire)
Drinking: a well deserved coffee
Planning to drink: my own bodyweight in Dark Island

Oh, for crying out loud!

Mr D popped round for a cup of tea and a chat just before lunch and I was explaining the full Eric drama when Spike and Owen stirred from in front of the fire and started making a hell of a row.

Next thing I knew, a dozen scared-looking cows were peering in at the kitchen window.

"My goodness," I exclaimed (or words to that effect), hauling on my boots and hurrying outside where a red-faced neighbour was wheezing up the lane.

I went around the back, but got there too late to stop the cows wrecking hen run (the girls were inside fortunately). I shooed them back down the lane before going back to examine the damage.

The fence is going to take some fixing - the posts need to be hammered back in for a start and the netting is mangled. The weather is so foul today (it's not raining but you get soaked as soon as go outside the door) that the hens don't want to go out so I've shut them in, put the light on and given them an extra ration of pellets. I'll put the fence back up tomorrow.

Soon after the departure of the cows, I went to the shop to pick up the milk, The Orcadian and a couple of sausage rolls (it being Friday). I got back into Lennox and somehow managed to sit on the carton of milk. I got most of the milk out, but I have a feeling Lennox will be smelling of cheese for some time to come.

I wish I was making all this up.

On the up side, Eric continues to recover. I caught him sitting in his straw bed, looking a little sorry for himself. I dug up a couple of good sized bits of turf with nice, long grass and lobbed them into the shed and he was up and at them like a greyhound out of a trap, jostling Ernie out of the way in the process.
As you can see, he's doing OK. . .

News from the treatment room

Listening to: Hope Street (The Levellers)
Weather: Dreech
Birdwatch: Five Whooper Swans heading south
Surf: 3ft messy

Good news this morning. It appears Eric's injury is not career-threatening, just a bit bloody painful.

Marcus arrived to help me take a first proper look at the trotter and one part of the hoof was hanging off. Think of losing a big toenail and you get the picture. I held a struggling pig, while Marcus clipped off the hoof and checked for infection. There was none.

A gentle wipe and a few squirts of antiseptic spray and the lad was allowed to scurry back into his corner where he eyed us both warily. He is now to be left alone and quiet for a few days to get back to match fitness. To say I'm relieved would be an understatement.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Bubble bursts

That'll teach me. Having sounded off about how great everything is. . . we had a drama.

Spike got out again and made a B-line (bee-line?) for the pig shed where he got in and spent a couple of minutes chasing Eric and Ernie around.

Dave the cycle repair man, who was doing some plumbing work for me, got him out and nobody seemed any the worse.

But when I gave the boys their tea a little later Eric was unable to put his back foot down. I tried not to panic and had a look. He was eating fine and the only damage appears to be to his trotter. Marcus is coming to have a look in the morning and I hope between us we can get the wound cleaned and treated.

Happiness. . .

Listening to: Just Like Honey (Jesus and Mary Chain)
Weather: dry, cloudy, still. . . brief respite.
Reading: Aberdeen Press and Journal

I read an NME interview with Ian Dury many years ago and he said a cheese sandwich was as important to him as sex. As a 19/20-year-old, healthy, heterosexual male, I was horrified. What on Earth could be more important than sex?

Before you plump up the cushions and pour yourselves an extra large glass of something interesting, let me warn you that this is not going to be a stroll down the murkier byways of a pig farmer's private life.

No, the point Ian was making was that a cheese sandwich is as important as anything. . . it depends how hungry you are.

So it is that I'm sitting here with a freshly brewed pot of coffee and a slice of Orkney gingerbread (from the terrific Baking for Britain blog). The pigs are fed and cleaned, the hot water is back and I know how to fix it if it goes again, the hens have been cleaned out, many many bags of 10-year-old chicken manure have been set aside for the veg garden. Just for this particular moment, it could hardly be any better.

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

The root of the problem

Listening to: Villiers Terrace (Echo and the Bunnymen)
In the oven: Orkney Broonies
Watching: The Simpsons (the one where Bart gets a credit card)

I like veg gardening. Actually, that's a downright lie. I bloody love it. It makes me happy. It takes me away from my everyday worries and into what, even after all this time, still seems a magical world where a tiny speck of seed can grow into something good to eat.

I had an allotment in Shrewsbury for a while and it was a wonderful oasis of calm and an escape route from what was, at times, a fraught existence.

I have cleared and planted two allotments before now, so I wasn't perturbed when I arrived on the croft in mid-July to find the "veg garden" totally overgrown. It has been at least 10 years since anyone did any gardening here.

We hacked away at the nettles and various other weeds to get everything to ground level, leaving only my gardening nemesis - couch (pronounced cooch) grass. For those fortunate never to have come across is couch is a total bastard. It looks like ordinary rough grass, but puts out a long network of roots that will eventually choke anything you actually want to grow in the soil.

The root system looks like so much filthy spaghetti, or the back of my brother-in-law's "home entertainment" system.

It took me two days to dig out the first 8ftx8ft bed, lifting each turf, shaking the soil off and picking the roots out before carting it off to the No. 2 compost heap where all the nasties that will take a couple of years to kill off go. Then it was a case of going over the bed with a fine tooth comb or, in this case, my fingers to get any stray bits out as I've known a half-inch piece of root spread over a lettuce patch in a matter of days.

I hate it, so I have felt forced to 'go nuclear' and call in some chemical help. I sprayed the rest of the patch with Round-up, which the manufacturers insist only kills the plant, does not stay in the soil and presents no hazard to pets or children. Didn't mention anything about pig farmers.

I felt guilty, of course. I'd love to be organic and maybe I gave up too easily. A friend had Japanese knotweed in his garden in Ironbridge and was perfectly entitled to call in the B52s (bombers, not quirky 80s/90s band), making my efforts seem a bit lame.

But the grass died down and digging the second 8x8 bed today took about three hours with 10-year-old chicken manure dug in. I was a happy boy. I just wish it was spring.