Monday, 31 December 2007

Hog-manay

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

Kerrrr-ching!


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

Teddy


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

Restless

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

Farewell

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

Cooker

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?