Friday, April 29, 2005

My ten most annoying habits 

1) I fidget, a lot.
2) I won't let anything drop.
3) I can't follow a train of thought without veering off at wild tangents
4) I don't like failing
5) I procrastinate like mad
6) I am unpredictable
7) I tend to do things to excess- including all of the above
8) I always want to be right
9) I often don't finish projects until years after I start them

Help: I need an alexandrine! (twelve syllables)

It has to be an unbearably fay, and uttely smug little statement along the lines of the original: "c'est un soleil pour tous une femme qui aime"- "a woman in love is a ray of sunshine for all those around her".

It must contain the words "a woman in love", because of the next bit in the play.

It's only been bothering me for about two weeks.

Inspired? (please, please, please be inspired) Drop me a line in the comments, please. Ta ever so.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

This is why I eschew "faith" in all its guises:

From Penny Purple
To Beezelbub- director of Midlands Christian broadcasting network

Dear Beelzebub,
I know this is a shot in the dark, but... Do you remember Colin Williams?

I live in a tiny villlage in Devon, where Colin has been living in the
churchyard on and off for a few weeks now. I understand from him that
he went down to Plymouth to find you, but was told by your employees
about your move. I think that he has your new address from them.

Colin seems very fragile. He says he was badly mugged and attacked in
December in Edinburgh, and left in a coma for some time. He seems a
little unfocused at present, and has had very bad headaches every few
weeks since Christmas. He seems ground down by it all, and seems to
want to "go home".

I believe that he is heading up to the Midlands some time towards the
end of the week, and I think that he has in mind to settle down and
put down some roots. He seems weary and has low expectations of his
life. He has spoken fondly of you, and I am wondering if you might be
able to help him.

It seems that Colin would like to find some purpose to his life, maybe
a few odd jobs for pocket money for a little bit of tobacco and food.
We're not unfortunately in the position of being able to employ
anybody, but maybe you know of someone who might want a little work

If you think you mght be able to help in any small way, please email
me before Thursday evening, and I will be able to tell Colin that it
would be all right for him to come to see you. Otherwise, I think his
plan is to go to Birmingham and to try to get some help from the
Social Services there.

Because I don't think he really wants to have to rely on the state
when he feels able to work. I should mention that his papers were all
stolen by the thug who beat him up, and that he has been unable to get
new ones because he's not been in any one place for long enough since
then. I hope you can help him.
Penny Purple

From Beelzebub
To Penny Purple
CC SideKick

Dear Penny,

I believe this person worked for us as a leaflet distributor, if my memory serves me well.
[Update- it turns out that Colin worked reliably for him for six years, but Beelzebub is either claiming not to remember him, or he hasn 't a f***ing clue who he is]

I don't believe he has a Christian faith.

Forgive my memory, but Wifey and I have known a lot of people over the years and I do not have the best of memories, myself.

We are deeply involved with the [Christian Rehabilitation charity] and have copied this e-mail into FriendBeelz who is the Visionary behind [the charity]. If Colin wanted some help then FriendBeelz could possibly be another contact, but I can't guarantee it.

I've also copied in my SideKick who runs [Christian Place] in Plymouth who may remember Colin.

I am all over the place at the moment geographically, so would not be in a position to personally respond.

Please give Colin my regards and I'm still convinced that Jesus Christ is the only answer to our deepest needs.

Hope this helps.

God Bless


From SideKick
To Penny Purple
CC Beelzebub

Dear Penny

Colin came here a month or so ago, but we are not able to help him.

I would agree with Beelzebub that the best place that we could recommend for Colin would be [Christian Foundations] - if he truly wants help and intends to work towards change himself.

Beelzebub's memory serves him well, as Colin did indeed work part time for us a number of years ago. I remember many hours being invested into his well being by Beelzebub, his Wifey, and later myself and others - which in the end Colin seemed unable or unwilling to build upon for himself.

I think Colin really needs to desire change for himself before any of us could ever help him.

Best wishes

Side Kick

PS Nobody here would have given Beelzebub's address to Colin.

It is truly heartbreaking to think that Colin regards this man as a friend.

This surprises me, because I'm not usually much of a Luddite*, but I'm really nervous of silicone cookware. What do you think about it? Do you reckon any silicone ends up in your food? I think some must, and that thought bothers me.

*If, like me, you've ever wondered where the term "Luddite" comes from, here's a page all about it. It's interesting if only because it illustrates how little things have changed in the last two hundred years where our government is concerned- repressive imposition of the rule of business against the wishes of the majority.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

"I kept wandering around Devon", he said, "but I just kept going around in circles. I've been spending a night here, and a night there, trying to get down to Plymouth, but I can't seem to make any progress. So I've decided to go back to Birmingham."

Like a wounded animal. He's come back to the place where he got food and a shelter from which he will not be evicted. His "long-term" plan, to get even closer to what used to be home, the Midlands.

He has a plan, he has a lift lined up.

He rants, on and on. He is disappointed, you can tell. He feels let down: by people, by his notions of society, by systems that ought to be able to offer support. He is in pain, but still so proud. He wants to cope alone. I remind him not to take too many painkillers in any twenty-four hour period.

"To be honest," he reassures me, if I go because of these, that would be quite a nice way to go. I've got to go somehow."

I think guiltily about the thirty-two ibuprofen I gave him earlier, and hope against all hopes he doesn't have a plan for those.

Then I realise that my concern is not for him, but for me. I just don't want him to die unloved, with no nearest and dearest around him, in a church porch in the damp countryside. I don't want him to die of something treatable.

Worse still, I don't want to be his nearest and dearest, I who am a mere acquaintances. I don't want to be confronted yet again with the thought that 'no nearest and dearest' still exists, exists more than ever.

I suggest the drop-in clinic in Exeter. I gain the distinct impression that his plan includes staying one only one small step ahead of the Grim Reaper, but without medical help. He seems tired and alone for the first time in the four weeks since we met. It's clear he's been alone for longer and in more ways than he cares to admit.

Do I step in? Do I insist on driving him to the clinic? Do I take over some part of a life which is almost animal in its independence? What keeps bringing him back here?

He must sense my turmoil. "I'm not like some", he says. "I wouldn't put my head on a railway track like my uncle did." He mentions the large number of manic depressives in his lineage- the reason he walks and walks and walks and walks, the reason he has never settled or had children.

"But if I go like this, I really wouldn't mind. It wouldn't be the same if I had anything to live for, like watching kids or grandkids grow up. But I don't. I've seen everything I wanted to see." Which leaves me feeling sad.

Monday, April 25, 2005

How wise do you reckon it is to supply your domesticated vagrant with 32 ibuprofen and 8 aspirin? Just wonderin', no reason.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

I've just been watching a revealing documentary about economic migration into Britain, and I think I've just changed my mind about universal suffrage.

I think that the vote should only be given to people able to construct a rational argument without borrowing lines from Daily Mail editorials. That should sort the sheep out from the goats.

We have the same weather again, Montréal and we. *wave of nostalgia washes over, carried by about 30cm of rain and mud*

MA stress 

Halfway through revising -ie drafting for the first time because I couldn't face finishing it first time but hey I've no choice now- my most reviled translation of the year so far, and my god, I could write this crud* for England. Just smile and look at the ceiling...

*By which I mean, of course, academic flimflam rather than this, which is always a delight.

Did you know... 

...that we should be spelling these words like this: coöperate and preëminent? Naively, I'd always assumed that peöple would just know how to reäd them, but although the diäeresis is losing ground, it's still banging on the cellar door.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Colin- part deux 

I'm ""working"", so...

Colin arrived at 3pm. By 11pm, when he brought back the dinner plate, we had between us talked for approximately 4 hours. We'd compared lifestyles, aspirations, philosophy on life. He'd managed to make me feel very over-indulged, I'd offered him cooked breakfast the following morning- it was Good Friday, we had four whole days off. Hey! It was Easter, and it was sunny and warm. We were feeling optimistic and altruistic. We had chocolate eggs lined up on the dresser.

The most remarkable thing about Colin is how he manages to rationalise his decision- for it was a decision rather than an unhappy set of circumstances- to go on the road. He was proud, yet humble; dignified, Idealistic, yet realistic.

He'd been thuggishly beaten into a coma by some young Edinburgh wag just before Christmas, and spent the time since he'd been released making his way back to Plymouth. The two cities he felt most at home in the world, Plymouth and Edinburgh. He'd been bitten by one, and was making his way to the other.

He knows many people on his route to Plymouth, people whom he visits every few months for warmth, smokes, coffee, food and solace. He always stays in the church porch of whichever village he's in. He prefers the rural life- fewer cigarette stubs but more coffees. Swings and roundabouts. It is an advantage, being able to stride twenty miles in a day.

At first, we were glad of Colin's sudden irruption into our lives. He was exotic. He was new. He was cultured. He talked philosophy, mostly his own. He used to be a hippy. He is a genuinely nice bloke, despite his own admission of spells in prison for petty property crimes.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Ah yes, Colin .

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Frozen fish last night, teak garden furniture today... Who would think so many people would be selling so many things from the back of so many vans out in the sticks?

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Pope Benedict XVI. Good name.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

"Now for the last time", said the Greengrocer, baring his teeth in an attempt at a smile, and speaking as slowly as one might to a retarded person, "do you want apples, or do you want oranges?".

I gulped, nervously. This was not going as I'd expected, at all.

"All I'm saying", I stammered, "is that I can't see why I can't have anything other than apples or oranges when you quite clearly sell many other types of fruit."

Ah no, said the Greengrocer, slightly malevolently. "That's where you're wrong, my son. We have all these other fruits in for decoration, to give this an illusion of being a greengrocer's shop. It's for bringing in the punters, you see. This is really an apple and orange shop"

"Ah, right. So you're saying that under no circumstances may I purchase any of these fine plums, or those exotic figs over there? Not even a pineapple or a melon?"

He appeared to pale, and shrank back a little, and maybe become flustered.

"Ah now, I didn't say that, did I? I didn't say I wouldn't sell them, if the price was right." Again, the teeth-baring, and just possibly, the hint of a nervous gulp." I'm only saying I'd much rather you chose apples or oranges. It makes my life a lot easier you see- I get a discount for bulk buying, and it makes stock-taking a breeze. Obviously, if you see plums here, you are welcome to buy them."

"There! There they are! I'll have some of your lovely plums, please." I pointed triumphantly. I was confident again. Not for long.

"You mean these? Well that explains it! We were talking at cross purposes, Sir. They're not plums, they're just small apples! And these "tangerines""- he made heavily laboured inverted commas in the air with his fingers- "these tangerines here- why, they are just small oranges. One pound or two?"

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Honestly, the youth of today...

Sim has been lugging compost around for me today, and I pointed out to him quite firmly that he was short-changing me by bringing really small barrow-loads. And this is the cheek I get for it:

You missed out a 'T' in "contents", kid.

Troublesome ancestresses 

My great great grandparents, Thomas and Louisa, were married in haste in Central London in 1883. You might think that the haste was due to a little embarassment being on the way, but the truth is that they already had three little embarassments at home in Croydon.

A cloak of secrecy surrounds every one of their moves between the 1871 Census and 1899, when Thomas, doubtless exhausted by struggling to feed their 11 children -as well as worry about the older five that his widow Mary had left him in 1883- died at the untimely age of 54 of heart disease.

The only certainty of their movements is in the regular registering of their children. Hardly two were born in same place. His job with the railways ensured that they moved frequently, but they kept servants, so their household cannot have been some fly-by-night affair.

Thomas, you see, had married young, but didn't get along with Mary. It was love at first sight when he met Louisa, ten years his junior, and, according to their marriage certificate, also widowed by 1883.

Unfortunately, this is where the questions start, questions that all my research has not yet managed to answer. From their marriage certificate, I can see her father's surname, "Smith" (Nice one, Louisa!). I can see his supposed job. I can see that he also was deceased by 1883.

I can see that Thomas' sisters hotfooted down from Manchester the moment Mary died, to ensure that their brother did the right thing by Louisa- they are right there on the marriage certificate as witnesses. I can only imagine what machinations and plans must have been elaborated to evade questions about their marital status, to avoid anybody knowing about the three little boys waiting for them at home in Croydon.

What I can't find is any trace of her parents, her first marriage, her birth in the place and rough year she states it to be. I can't see why she would have made any of these things up- how would anybody easily track down one young lady many miles away from her home town, in the days before the telephone and electronic databases?

They would probably have had to employ a detective, and frankly, who would have wanted to do that to find one insignificant woman? Unless... unless there is more, a lot more, of the type that goes unsaid on certificates and registration documents. I'm almost afraid to look now.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005


"I hope you don't mind," he said, appearing in the sunny garden on the Thursday before Easter, "only I borrowed your yard brush to sweep the porch."

Even before he continued, it was clear he was going to be a talker. No sullen, surly traveller he, but a garrulous and sociable man with lttle outlet in his day-to-day life.

"I don't usually, he went on. "Normally I don't care enough about a place, I just put down my sleeping bag, but there was all leaves and things, so I swept it out."

He asked for his flask to be filled with coffee, "milk, two sugars, please". He was going to stay overnight, if that was all right. He enquired about the services in the church in the run-up to Easter, because he didn't mind the coming and going, he didn't want to bother anybody at this busy time of year. He preferred the solitude of the country, the friendliness of Devonians, talking to "normal" people, rather than be forced into awkward and inappropriate companionships with fellow travellers.

We assured him that the church was disused, and that he would certainly be undisturbed over Easter. As he disappeard back through the lych gate into the churchyard, long straggly beard, grey curly hair and fleece hat, we realised that we'd acquired a new neighbour.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Final solution: to transfer the computer and all my files to the study, where at least I stand an outside chance of a few minutes' work uninterrupted by children clambering onto my lap to knock my papers to the floor.

I really think that consistency is over-rated sometimes. What the hell is the matter with essay crises and making it all come together at the last minute, anyway? As long as I beat the deadlines, does it matter how much of a roller-coaster ride it was to get here? Really?

Bloody hell, I'm not sure I can do this.

On the other hand, it is comforting to know that in a crisis, I'm exactly the person you want around, though I say it myself- I find that adrelanine concentrates the mind most wonderfully.

Why the f&&k can't I force myself to work more regularly? My life would be so much easier if I were more sensible.

Aaaaaaaargh!!!!! Help Paddles, I need paddles. I've just realised how many pieces of work I have still unfinished.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

And sadly, I'm back at work in the morning, a full week and a day before my children. I have a portfolio to complete, an extended translation to finish, and a long dissertation subject to choose, all by the 25th of April. I'm yet again in the liquid doo-doo, with nary a paddle to propel me through it.

I'll get to the end of it, I'll get to the end of it, I'll get...

As time has worn on, we've grown on each other, me and this place. It was hard to readjust at first to the multiple aspects of Britain, but as spring springs, the sun warming the ground and forcing everything into bloom, I can feel myself warming as well.

I find that, like a reptile, like the poor slow-worm we uncovered hibernating in the compost heap yesterday, and who, now named Frankie, sleepily stretches out in a tank in Hen's room (it's only temporary, until summer starts!), I cannot work or think straight when I'm cold.

I welcome the daffodils in the hedgerows, the exquisitely thorny haw blossoming -wedding white in the spring, dark red and groaning with berries by October- the cow parsley, even the hogweed and cuckoo spit.

It is still cold, but optimism has crept silently in. I can bring myself to tackle the garden, and to stop cowering indoors struggling with my temperature controls.

The hardest thing still is the darkness. If you try to explain to English people who've not recently been abroad how darned dark it is here, they stare at you blankly, like people who've have a lobotomy. And yet how can I protest at an accident of latitude? I may as well decide to move the sun.

Roll on summer. When the blue flowers come, we'll nearly be there.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

The one for so-called "non-voters" 

I am sometimes really shocked by people. Until recently, I'd fondly imagined that most of the non-voters in this country and in other countries with low turnouts at elections were disenfranchised, urban, quasi-dropouts.

I'm beginning to realise that this may not be the case. It seems that there are people out there, with degrees, good jobs, a settled positionin life, who simply cannot be arsed to turn up to the ballot box for ten minutes on voting day, and have their say in how their taxes get spent by our representatives.

And that makes me spittingly furious. By what right do people simply remove themselves from their civic duty to tell our leaders what they want? Is it simply the behaviour of spoiled brats at a party, refusing to take part in the games, and hiding out near the tea table instead, because they've taken part in several games, and not won the prize?

I've news for you: the prize, people, is the voting itself. In a world in which elections have to be organised by force in order that the will of the people should be heard, you should all know what a privilege it is to be able to turn up to a polling station on voting day unassaulted, unthreatened, and unafraid, and to be able to cast a vote for the party you want in calm, polite surroundings.

We didn't even have universal suffrage in this country until 1918, and women died for it, so for women not to turn up to vote is the ultimate in ungratefulness, not to mention the most stupid way imaginable of wasting your say.

I would like to think that well-educated, liberal people would be the first to present themselves at the booths in a month's time, and that they would see it as their duty to so, but I'm beginning to think that 40% of the people in this country are too slug-like and idle to bother. In this climate, extremist parties will flourish, you mark my words. By not voting, you will be giving them the boost they need.

There is nothing, I repeat, NOTHING so important that you cannot vote on the 5th of May. Mark it out in your diaries now, ye slugs.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Just wondering 

As a kid, were you:
a) A worm saver
b) A worm squasher
c) Worm indifferent?

Thursday, April 07, 2005

The long and boring one about the phones 

It was on the Monday after Z and Z's visit that we lost all touch with the modern world. My friend phoned me from France -try saying that with a mouthful of cream cracker- which that was to be our last phone call for two weeks. When I tried to ring her back the following morning, I felt as if I were trapped in a 1930s film, lifting the receiver to hear more crackle than dialing tone.

A few days before, we had become annoyed beyond measure with the way the broadband modem dropped the connection continually, and needed rebooting several hundred times a day (why did we put up with for several weeks before that? No idea). Bulldog had determined at the end of the previous week that the problem lay with the modem rather than their connection, and urged us to send it back. I had just sent it back, so was reliant on ghastly dial-up alone.

Now, with the new and unimproved line quality, we weren't even getting enough dial tone for the internal modem to use. The internet was officially buggered, at least as far as we were concerned.

We contacted BT, at vast financial cost, due to not being able to use anything but our mobile phones, and even then only half-way down the garden (the walls of our house are THICK). On that first day, as I stood on a garden bench, preoccupied and desperate to get enough signal to converse with Mr BT, the dog vamoosed again.

They diverted all our calls to my mobile, which resulted in the interesting situation of only being able to receive home phone calls while we out and about, since we don't have any reception at home, etc... This was the 23rd of March.

Later in the week, calling from a phone box, we managed to establish that the problem would be sorted. "By the 6th of April", remarked the BT person cheerfully. It was only after I came off the phone that I screamed. Wrong way round, I know.

After eight days of farcical communications, two of the children developping 'flu, consecutively so that we were stuck at home the whole time, the dog disappearing three times daily, I was at breaking point. One warm sunny day, I left the children watching a film, made myself a hot drink, and sauntered in the mercifully glorious weather down to the phone box, all ready for a long and, if necessary, nasty, sit-in.

At first, I reached the call centre in India. When "Richard" realised that I was going to be an awkward bitch, he decided to pass me up the chain of command. I then got "Gloria" a lady who might have been in Britain, but had the most lovely Trinidadian accent I've heard in a long time.

When she too decided that I was an awkward bitch who would not be fobbed off with her repeatedly reading the computer screen at me, she passed me to "Colin", in the service centre in Croydon. I think that after I'd finished (constructively) whingeing at Colin, he would have done anything to get rid of me. Including phoning the engineering crew supposed to be dealing with our "underground fault" at some time convenient to them.

He texted me later that day to tell me they would be mending it within 48 hours. And so it was that we recovered the use of our telephone on Saturday morning, the 2nd of April. We had received the modem back the previous morning.

On Saturday evening, after hosting a very weird tea party for half-sister-in-law's 50th (different story entirely), we finally re-entered the 21st century.

Why do you have to jump and down and scream like a complete brat in order to get decent service in this country? I would much rather have been nice about it, but I don't think it unreasonable that they mend a completely dead line within five working days.

In my quest to reduce our annual spending on non-renewable energy- ie LPG in our case, I rang the Energy Efficiency Helpline to find out where we were going wrong.

It appears that where we are going wrong is in using LPG in the first place. We spent nearly 500 pounds every three months on fuel from October to March, which is really no joke. If we ran our house on oil, we could probably cut that figure by half in the first year.

Furthermore, it seems that if we installed a new condensing oil boiler, we could even get a grant, the only problem being that we'd also need a new oil tank. Since the LPG tank we have belongs to Calor Gas anyway -May their souls rot in hell!- and that we have to pay a quarterly charge for the privilege of buying their overpriced product, I really don't perceive that as a disadvantage.

I just want to know where the catch is.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Technical help needed 

An engineer at Worcester-Bosch has just assured me that our combination boiler consumes 4.62 cubic metres of propane per hour of operation. Surely he can't mean that? I did double-ckeck that that is what he meant, and he confirmed it, but surely a cubic metre is a hell of a lot of gas?

He didn't actually appear to know the relationship between a litre of gas and a cubic metre, and my knowledge of the properties of gas do not stretch that far. I would think for instance that gas would expand before it reaches the boiler, thereby rendering the use of volume as a measurement useless, since different temperatures would mean different volumes, but I'm probably just being thick. Anybody out there have any ideas? I don't understaaaaand...

It was the evening of the dead calf that the dog discovered calf formula.

Having followed the cowman up the slope to the farm, licking it all the way, and watched as he left the body near the calves' pens for disposal in the morning -it's just as well calves are too stupid to realise what it was- Goofy remembered where the body was, long after we'd called him off to go a walk.

The dog, unable as he is to remember new commands for many weeks, has a photographic memory when it comes to food. He is quite capable of waiting for three hours, coralled inside the house, all the while brooding about the food he's seen us put out for the hens. He is on a diet, but disapproves of it, and spends most his waking hopurs trying to break it.

On the way back from the forest that evening, he disappeared for the first time. He'd been running up ahead with the two littlest children, and had simply vanished as they came through the farmyard. It was now nearly dark, and it was the first time he'd been missing for so long.

I had an inkling that since he'd not yet eaten, I'd find him where food was. He'd taken an unhealthy interest in the dead calf, so after calling and whistling fruitlessly for about twenty minutes, I walked up to the famr on the off-chance of finding him with the corpse.

And indeed he was, except he,d found something far, far, yummier to indulge in than a cold dead calf. He's discovered calf milk. The calves are fed formula, although to me it would more sense simply to feed them ordinary milk- it is after all made for them. They drink out of a bucket from around a week of age.

Goofy had chanced upon them at feeding time, and now, as dark fell across the farm, and I pounded angrily up the hill to find him, he was trapped inside the calves' barn by a distended milk-filled stomach which left him unable to jump. He was in the wrong and he knew it. He looked sheepish. I had to let him out through the gate. He was promptly sick- not a lot, more of a warning, in retrospect.

That night, he puked on practically every carpet we own. It appeared, after a few patches, that he'd also been eating cowpats, a fact confirmed by the large and unpleasant patches we came down to in the morning. It appears that calves formula and dung upset a dog's stomach rather.

Since that evening, the damned dog has disappeared up to the calf barn at every opportunity, including late at night on his last pee trip of the evening, returning only an hour later with the farm dog. I found myself waiting up well past my bedtime, seething with a mixture of worry and annoyance, and wondering whether this was like bringing up teenagers.

We now watch the dog like hawks. Every time he's out in the garden, he makes a run for it, except that in the daytime, it's more like a sneak for it- he watches us to check how closely we're monitoring him, and slowly, slowly, he sashays off towards the gate. If I don't growl at him before he reaches the gate, he saunters up the farm drive, casually, hoping that he can laugh it off as a mistake if he's caught.

He has more guile than my eleven-year old son, I swear, and he also thinks I'm a soft touch. He rushes to the door whenever I stand up, pretending that he needs a wee. I've stopped being fooled now, so he's taken to just lying in his basket, glaring at me. It's a battle of wills between (wo)man and beast, and I'm not sure I'm winning.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Today is the tenth birthday of little Hen- short of stature, big of personality. Happy Birthday, Henlet!

Sunday, April 03, 2005

I suppose it all started on the day of the dead calf. (Did I just borrow that line? it looks vaguely familiar...)

Two weeks ago, our good friends Z and Z, with their children Z, Z and Z were visiting. (Actually, I just lied about the children's initials, for effect. I'm sorry)

They arrived on the Saturday evening, having spent a genteel day in the company of another relocated Camberley-ite in the South West. We had not yet walked the dog, so suggested a quick march up to the forest to clear the head and to investigate the really hairy rope swing the children have discovered over a ten-foot gorge- really scary, but they all manage it. (GET TO THE POINT!!! Ed.)

OK, OK. Anyway, as we ambled past the cowshed of our neighbours, it became quickly obvious that a cow within was in advanced stage of parturition, ably assisted by her cow-man midcow. She'd reached the stage where the calf's head, front hooves and chest were out, but not the rest. The cowman, whom I know to chat to over the fence but not by name, was attempting to extract the poor feebly moving creature from its mother with the use of a very large and alarming instrument- a sort of horizontal pulley, which uses a ratchet that in turn uses the cow's rear quarters to oppose the pull.

Our friends wanted to stop to see the calf, at this point still lifting its head perdiocally, being born, since none of their children had ever seen a calf born. I'm not sure ours had either, although they did once see a ewe lambing in the back of a van outside the vet's office in Cullompton.

Messengers were dispatched to the house to fetch those few who had not wanted to go on the walk, and the Boff also arrived armed with a camera to take a picture of the new arrival.

It was not to be a happy delivery, calf teetering endearingly to its feet and tottering off to find the udder. The cowman struggled and struggled, and decided that in the end he had to turn the cow around (for those of you of a town bent, let me just point out that a cow is several times heavier than a man, particularly when gravid) so that her rear end pointed into the barn rather than towards the wall. He politely declined our offers of assistance and bade us instead summon his boss, Farmer Ed.

"Well", said Farmer Ed as he pulled on his wellies, "if he can't do it, no-one can." He came anyway, helped the cowman turn the cow over, and together they extracted the calf, to applause and cheers from we onlookers.

"Dead", remarked Ed, in a matter-of-fact way.

They busied themselves seeing that the cow was bearing up, amid gentle cries from the onlookers of "Poor calf!", mostly from the children and "Poor cow!", mostly from we mothers.

The cowman dragged the little, warm, bedraggled corpse outside, to avoid upsetting the mother, while Ed remarked that cows have very high pain thresholds, and that she would probably be all right.

"Is it a bull or a heifer?", I asked- it makes a difference to the value of the loss. A bull goes off to market at a few weeks of age, a heifer becomes a milk cow in more ways than one. It was a heifer. They hadn't even checked until then, and it suddenly struck me how very sensible not to. A dead calf is a dead calf; both sexes are valueless when dead.

The cowman took the stillborn calf up the the barn, ready to dispose of it in the morning, followed by our ghoulish dog, who was taking an unhealthy interest in the animal's afterbirth.*


A couple of days later, passing the barn, I saw that the cow was still lying down, looking very depressed. She was either damaged in some way, or was suffering badly from the absence of her baby. I worried about her chances of recovery, after so many days down.


Still more days later, I noticed a cow out in the "nursery field" in front of Ed's house. This is where they put the cows that are sick, or that have recently delivered, so they can keep an eye on them. This cow was limping around the field, pursued by a demanding little calf attempting to get milk from her. I thought she might be sick or injured, but I chanced to meet the cowman; when I asked about the cow that'd calved, he pointed to the field and told me they'd had to give her a calf to help her recover, but that she was definitely on the mend.

Most of the calves are separated from their mothers at a few days of age, and go on to milk from a bucket, so that the mothers can get back to work in the dairy. This little calf, with her surrogate mother, and the unfortunate cow, grieving her dead baby, are the lucky ones in a story with typically few winners. They are still, two weeks later, ambling around the lush field together, refugees in a green idyll.

*I promise that this will be relevant in future posts from my internet black hole.

Friday, April 01, 2005

It comes to a pretty pass when you decide that your son needs a haircut, just so you can avail yourself of the internetwebby thingy in the waiting room...

Weird couple of weeks, characterised by weirdness beyond the normal level. Shall blog soon.

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