Tuesday, May 29, 2007

One-Eyed Riley

The bantam cockerel is a little better, thank you. I wouldn't describe him as 100% fit but he's eating, drinking and clucking a bit - all signs of 'the will to live'. He definitely has a 'good side' from which all photographs will be taken in the future.

I've consulted both my brother ('poultry keeper extraordinaire') and the local vet. Both advise keeping an eye on him. (An unfortunate choice of words given the circumstances.) I would have liked some Treatment; to be doing or applying something - cream, ointment, eye-patch, anything, but apparently Nothing is the best course of action.

Anyway, as I was leaning over the pen, studying his plight I found myself humming 'To-ri-ooly to-ri-iley, what's the matter with One-Eyed Riley?' There must be some rubbish sloshing around in the deepest recesses of my brain for that combination of words to surface apropos of very little. It's a song.....a folk song??

Gradually over the last couple of days more words have surfaced and I can now sing a whole verse - which I won't bore you with - they are pretty dull. I have vague memories of learning this ditty at school. It niggled. I Googled. The words which swam before my eyes were not the words I hummed. They are not words for polite society or schoolgirls. Burly rugby players in baths and bars more like.

A little more research revealed that the song I learned figures in the first act of T.S. Eliot's The Cocktail Party. The play was an 'A' Level set text in 1970 and a book I slammed shut in June of that year vowing never to re-open it. I remembered sufficient to scrape through the 'modern' part of the English exam and then consigned it along with logarithms, algebra and 'Major Barbara' to some cerebral wasteland. Has it come back to haunt me? Will Bernard Shaw and EM Forster be along to rattle my cage next?

Suffice to say the cockerel now has a name: One-Eyed Riley. Bless.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

As predicted the weather is awful; steady rain and a bitter wind from the east. That's cold, cold, cold.

Nonetheless there is a strange beauty in this landscape of a million greys and greens. Thin veils of cloud hang over Badnage Wood - which roars and sucks with the pressing wind. I am watching swallows sweeping low through the dingle, skimming the hedge, the little trees of the orchard and weaving through wind and rain. Light as air.

O to have wings and fly.......

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Trouble int' coop

Poultry......Hmm, I didn't think keeping a few hens was going to be quite as complicated as this. After all, no third world documentary is complete without a flock of fulfilled fowl pecking contentedly in the most primitive conditions, living cheek by jowl with its hosts and seemingly as happy as the proverbial pig in s**t which also shares the lodging. Healthy too. Chez nous, they are accommodated in state-of-the-art housing with nest boxes of soft meadow hay. They're fed and watered regularly and thanked for every egg laid - their every need is catered for in fact.

My expectation is that they'll happily cluck and scratch the day away, laying the prescribed egg every 26 hours (or whatever) and generally be part of the picture of the perfect rural idyll.

But all is not well in paradise. In the Henhouse on Wheels - the 3 Mrs Browns have fallen victim to the Evil Mrs Black who rules with a beak of steel. The Eyechild's descrition of this despot is spot on:
...'Top Dog' of this cell block when the lights go out is the slightly sinister Mrs Black, a terrifying matronly bird with dark plumage, who metes out her own violent form of authority as savagely as the bosun of a 17th century naval frigate might, if they were a hen.

As the other hens sport ever more painful looking beak marks and diminish in stature, the maniacal Mrs Black prospers inversely, and walks with an ever more pronounced swagger. In ten years she'll probably be ripping up flagstones and holding tanks at bay in Parliament Square. You watch and see.'

Her regime is brutal and bloody and her more easily led 'sisters' follow suit in pecking the weakest of their number. Their victim, who these days looks not unlike a vulture, has also survived the brown dog's mouth. She's a real survivor and deserves to live. She's a good layer too.

Another house was bought and run constructed. The victim - sometimes known as 'the scraggy hen' - had a new home, a place of safety and respite. It was into this safe haven that I introduced the trio of Silver Laced Wyandot bantams bought at Builth Wells last weekend.

The three little birds had little option but to make it their home and all seems to have been reasonably harmonious. The cockerel - all mouth and trousers - strutted his stuff and asserted his authority. However this afternoon he was decidedly off-colour; hunched with feathers staring. His right eye was closed and very swollen. On closer inspection the eye has gone - I was looking at an empty socket. I think he's probably has a peck from the brown scraggy hen.

Gruesome and gory don't bother me too much but I am quite affected by the fact that I don't know what to do next. This isn't a 'Kiss it Better' situation. I bathed him with cool boiled water and put him back to see what tomorrow brings.

Please don't anyone say 'It's only a hen.'

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet?

As an image, in isolation, this does nothing for me. In the instant it takes to say 'Barbara Cartland' it scores nul points. It is Rosa Zéphirine Drouhin, a Bourbon rose, a gardener's favourite since 1868.

In context, in my garden, emerging from behind the vast and arching silver cardoon and framed between two dark yews I think it will earn its keep. Get up close - and this a rose, which being virtually thornless, lets you do just that - and breathe in its intense perfume. Pink is a smell, soft, sweet and powdery. It hits the spot. It is a reason for living.

In this essentially visual medium I am at a loss to describe this flower's smell. To say that it is err, 'rose scented' is stating the bleedin' obvious. Of course it is. Were I a parfumier or wine taster I might pick up other references in its bouquet; subtle and complex associations, high, middle and base notes.

Instead I think less sophisticated thoughts. I think 'Turkish Delight' and 'Jelly Babies' - but they have taken their flavour from the rose and not the other way round of course. I have to agree with Edward Lear:
And if you voz to see my roziz
As is a boon to all men's noziz, -
You'd fall upon your back and scream -
'O Lawk! O criky! it's a dream!'

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Finding my father

From a stack of dusty books in a secondhand dealer's in Shrewsbury today I picked up a copy of 'The Lure of the Land' - a book commemorating the centenary of Harper Adams Agricultural College. It's probably one of the least known books in the universe and it's only because it celebrates the alma mater of my father, mother and brother that I gave it a second look.

I flicked through the pages and found myself staring at a picture of my father as a young man, racily dressed in a wildly striped blazer and sporting an equally wild tie. He looked back at me from behind owlish round glasses. A young man on the cusp of adulthood, aged 17 or 18. There was also an excerpt from his farm diary kept in the years preceding the Second World War and a number of his memories of life as a student at the time. Both agriculture and student life have changed, almost beyond recognition.

He died some years ago now, having lived a long and happy life, teaching his beloved agriculture until retirement offered other opportunities.

Peeling those pages apart today was like meeting him again after too long. Such a joyous suprise. I'm glad it was me who chanced upon 'The Lure of the Land' and not some stranger who'd just turn the page. So glad that his words live on - even in this obscure literary corner.

I felt I'd let his spirit out.

'I've found you.' I said ' Come home with me.'

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Smallholders' Show

In our part of Wales some people have sheep the way that others have dogs....

And what a variety we've seen today - all buffed, brushed, shorn, shampooed and titivated for the show ring at the Smallholders' Show held this weekend at Builth Wells. For the most part these are not the sheep we see in quantity on our hills, those commercial cross-breds which convert food to flesh quickly and efficiently and go on to fill our supermarket shelves and freezers, but breeds whose existence is reliant on the enthusiasm of small farmers and hobbyists. They're doing a great thing - keeping alive this element of local identity.
The Suffolks and the Charolais - part of the commercial mix - were there today but so were, amongst other less common breeds, the Devon Long Wool, the Kerry Hill, the Welsh Badger Face and the Welsh Mountain Sheep. Such diversity shouldn't be lost.
And look at this lot. Aren't they gorgeous?

Cattle were less well represented than sheep, goats and poultry - they're the stalwarts of small holding life I guess. There were a handful llamas and alpacas - a tad incongruous I think and somehow lacking in purpose. There were some miniature horses too. A bit weird.

There was machinery as well, mostly small scale or vintage models. Not the mighty prairie busters loved by the agro-baron but tough multi-taskers
for the small scale farmer. There was, as there is usually is, a line of stationary engines. I know what they do. (They go 'phut.....pop.....phut.....pop.....phut.....pop.....phu..phut' ad infinitum. Sometimes the engine lights up a light bulb for added value.) But I don't know why. There is always a man with an oily rag, a folding chair, a camper van and a resigned woman.

We're not smallholders but it was a good day out in the sunshine with a good natured crowd. We came home with an odd assortment of things - 3 Laced Wyandot Bantams, a Choizo sausage and a geranium - and the inevitable fistful of leaflets full of 'useful' information.

I've a feeling that tonight my dreams will be loud with the sound of sheep song. Baa!

Mini-Marathon Dan

Well done Dan on your 10k run round Manchester. I feel exhausted just thinking about it.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Language of Flowers.....

Click the picture to read the words
'There's Rosemary, that's for remembrance; pray, love, remember: and there is pansies, that's for thoughts.'
(Shakespeare: Hamlet Act 4 Scene 5)

This little arrangement came about purely by accident (honest). I found it too tempting to pass by. A handful of scented flowers and cluster of badges. The badges' messages and observations are blatant whilst the fragrant posy speaks with subtleness and mystery.

We have largely lost the secret code that is the language of flowers. It's quicker to tap out some emoticons than scratch one's head for the hidden meaning in some petrol station forecourt bunch. The carnation or rose in the buttonhole of one's lapel has gone the way of, well, buttonholes in lapels. We might wear a brooch or charity sticker or we may sport one of these little badges which sport messages of their own. When giving flowers it's easiest to grab 'the white ones', 'the Spring bouquet' or pragmatically, the chrysanthemums because they last a long time. The last few vestiges of this floral code linger on; we still present red roses on St Valentine's Day, vaguely remember that lilies represent purity and for a Christmas kiss pucker-up under the Mistletoe. I'm sure I read somewhere the other day that to bring lilacs into the house is to court misfortune. I wonder why.*

The Greeks wore Rosemary on their heads to improve both brain and memory. The Roman crown of Laurel signified nobility. Bouquets and posies carried silent scented messages of love, hate, devotion and distrust. I wonder did you hand your lover a Lupin to indicate your voraciousness? Or thrust a yellow carnation at that wimp to express complete and utter disappointment in their wussiness?

The small arrangement above is somewhat wistful: Rosemary for remembrance, Sage for wisdom and long life, cat mint - warmth of feeling, maybe virtue and Pinks - Pinks for boldness. It took a bit of research to fathom that out. The badges below convey something more subversive even if they are only half-serious. They're more immediate too. And maybe when trying to get your message across it's best to use a language that both parties understand.

*n.b. a quick Google offered this: 'Cut branches of lilac can be brought indoors where their wonderful scent will fill the house, but some people believe that carrying lilac into the house brings misfortune. This somewhat archaic superstition was spread by Victorian gardeners in order to disparage their staff from taking the expensive blossoms. They also realized that cutting this year’s flowers with a long stem also removes the buds that should provide next year’s flowers.'

Monday, May 14, 2007

Remember those puzzles which were like little screens with tiles inside? They fell out of Christmas crackers and to pieces soon afterwards? Plastic, clattery-noised? What were they called? I can't for the life of me remember. The point was to shunt the tiles around to make a picture - left, right, up, down, click-clack, shift-shuffle; what a waste of time and space they were. Ditto the Rubik's Cube, only that had another dimension the better to confuse.

Well, the greenhouse is a bit like that at present; to put down a tomato one must first move a courgette - which necessitates shifting an aubergine. Then, for heaven's sake a tray, of lettuce is in the way.........Sigh. Everything circulates and at the end of the process you end up exactly where you started but slightly more disheveled and wild eyed.

Two weeks ago everything was neatly contained in seed trays on the bench - then the process of moving those babes up the housing ladder began. Having got a bit more space they grew into it and it's time to move on and up again. Tiny pots, medium pots and finally great big 'uns. (Just like raising a family - thank goodness they don't have their friends round.) We're bursting at the seams and anticipating that magic moment 'when the possibility of frost is past' and anything tender can go outdoors. Realistically the possibility of frost is remote but our local prophets of doom warn, with shake of head and sharp intake of breath, that 8 inches of snow in May is not unknown 'up 'ere', adding 'never have a runner bean above ground before June....' So I take heed and practise patience.

I love this nurturing process; the tending, the pricking out and potting on. I like the neat rows of pots with plants reaching maturity and fulfilling their destiny. I've done my best for them. But right now it's a muddle - it's a jungle in there and I've have reached the stage - like all mothers I guess - when I wish they'd all just leave home a give me a bit of space!

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Worth staying in for.

I think I've largely given up on television recently. C-List celebs, tat from the attic, long evenings of snooker and darts, steely cops and lawyers, weird wired world oddballs.......and that's before we get to the fantastic and resistible über world of drama and soap. Same old, same old. Yawn.

So tonight's channel 4 documentary 'Making Space' - which followed sculptor Antony Gormley preparing work for a major exhibition- 'Blind Light' - at The Hayward Gallery was a great treat. We saw not only the making of the sculptures but also heard Gormley's reflections on the creative journey. It centres, as his work has done since the 1980s, on the human form and its relationship to the space around it, and in these new pieces, to appearance and disappearance - the 'fog' filled room where bodies drift in an out of view, the shape within preceived or glimpsed from without, the unexpected. Good stuff.

As Gormley prepared these works - casts of his own body to be encased in webs of steel - Sefton Council on Merseyside were preparing to remove his 'Another Place' installation from Crosby beach. Fortunately the planners granted permission for them to stay and they will remain locked 'twixt land and sea looking silently out towards the horizon. 100 identical cast iron figures provoking a multitude of questions, explanations and emotions. Powerful perhaps. Mysterious certainly.

I could have found them a home here had Sefton Council evicted them - our rolling field, sweeping down to the stream and the whispering conifers of Badnage Wood would be an excellent place for them to stand in enigmatic silence. But this is a landscape that answers back - ask 'Why?' or 'What does it mean' too loudly and the hills and trees will throw your question back to you. So we'll never know.........Echooooooooo.

Friday, May 11, 2007

'The soft refreshing rain....'

By lunchtime we had fine drizzle, a thin all-embracing haze. This was good, peaceful and cool. Then gradually, by degrees, rain fell properly. Stair rods, cats and dogs, call it what you will. Great wet.

We took to the Great Indoors; Alan to that man-sanctuary - The Shed, to do things inexplicable with what modern educationalists call 'resistant materials'. Chester whinged at the door; his great Pointer nose (pressed to the jamb) sensing, no doubt a myriad of opportunities on the other side. Wilson, finding the larder open seized the opportunity to gnaw a hole through a bag of dog food and gorge on its nutritious innards.

Me? Aware that stuff's on the cusp of being, I'm pacing expectantly, camera in hand. I'm rewarded at every turn:

Look! - fresh salad, coriander and foetal beetroot. The big stuff - trees and the like - they're easy to see - but these little things, so fragile they hardly have a place on this earth could go unnoticed and unannounced. What strength they must have to force their way through soil and stone. It's that ' The force that through the green fuse drives the flower......' thing again.

Elsewhere peas, beans and potatoes nudge their way up towards the light - if this seems a little late to you lowlanders, remember we're on the top of a (low) mountain here. It seems pretty good to me.

Spring's shaping up well: 4 orchids on the lane, roadsides and hedgerows milky with cow parsley and hawthorn. Chunky independent lambs, cows and calves now out grazing on the hill, birdies nesting. Tra la! ......Would that I were religious. I might then say 'Praise Be!'

I might anyway.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Today we have had rain. Good Rain.

Wisps of cloud wind across Badnage Wood. A wonderful brightness grows in the land and from the fresh green. Parched soil sucks in the wet and I inhale something so fresh (yet so familiar) that my excited heart gives the smallest leap. As moisture seeps ever downward, I feel - if I tried very hard and with nose and ear to earth - I could detect the worm's passage, the stirring legless bug, the plod of beetle and crack as cased seeds break. I would whisper 'Come out now all you shoots and green things, it's Spring. Come out to play!'

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Busy doing nothing....

Hmm. Quite nice to be sitting here in a wearied and trance-like state. pleix is playing (I clicked on 'netlag') which reinforces the other worldliness of now. I suspect my mouth is open gormlessly and were I 100% awake I'd be on the q.v. for flies. Just in case.

There have been Things To Do over the last few days - non were important with the exception of having our small neighbour to sleepover on Saturday, and making sure there was enough food, beer and money in the fridge for Monday's welcome visitors. Just time-consuming, tiring stuff.

So. Washing weeding watering waiting. Digging, delving, shoppin', hoppin' and skipping! A day in Shrewsbury with a neighbour's newly arrived Chinese wife - who is otherwise in isolation here at the end of our lane with only the t'internet for company.... And Marton Treasure Hunt which somehow took up 4 afternoons, 1 evening, 80 miles, 68 questions, some dreadful doggerel and a post with a ribbon on it. Between times I've got out my pens and scale ruler and designed a small parterre garden - and in doing so rediscovered some rusty skills. I've another plot to see next weekend. This begins to look dangerously like an occupation.

Now? The air's cool. There's been a little rain and quite a lot of wind. The bean 'frame' has fallen down and some more asparagus has come up. The new week stretches out ahead like a clean sheet onto which small chores are already encroaching like weeds.

Tomorrow: pick up trousers, wash car.

Tonight. Now. Bed.

PS - And this is one of the best bits: there are now 4 orchids flowering in the lane.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Blind May

There is a room at The Old Bell Museum in Montgomery which tells the story of the Workhouse at Forden - sometimes called the 'House of Industry'. Built in the late 18th century to deal with the poor of neighbouring border parishes it could accommodate roughly 1,000 inmates. This was where no one wished to be. It was the last resort - no holiday. If my researches are correct, Richard Cross (brother to my ggg grandfather) was there in 1901. In that census, still clinging to his individuality - his identity - he described himself as a 'Lead Miner'. He was aged 79 and the lead mines closed in 1895. The enumerator described him as a 'Pauper'.

Richard died in 1907. I've not found out if he was still an 'inmate', or if by then his family had offered him a home. (I doubt it.) There is a bleakness to the situation.

The Old Bell's Workhouse exhibits do nothing to dispel that bleakness. We read of rules and regulations, discipline and privations. We see a lash and a scold's bridle. As if poverty were not enough, the poor must suffer physically too.

The story of 'Blind May' coincides with the ending of the workhouse era but sits uncomfortably close to our own day and age. Her story really speaks for itself:

'Hannah Phoebe May Thomas was born in Newtown on 13th May 1897.
At 4 years of age she was placed in the Poor Law Institution at Caersws because she was regarded as being 'Mentally Defective'.

She was transferred to Forden on 23rd August 1921, where she remained until her death on 17th November 1986 aged 89 years.

She was blind, deaf and dumb, and thus, regarded as being 'Feebleminded', however, she could sew well, thread a needle and cotton with her tongue and recognise her own linen by smell. She would immediately know if anyone had interfered with her own cupboard, here displayed, containing her total worldly possessions.

She was lovingly cared for by the staff at Brynhyfryn Hospital and was greatly missed after she died.'

I don't know whether May's story is a sad one or not. I'm in two minds. This is the life she lived. By today's standards it could be better and more fulfilling. We perhaps shouldn't be too judgemental about what went on in so-called 'less enlightened' times. We'll be there one day. It's certainly a poignant tale though. 65 years in Forden - a needle and cotton, dolls and toffee for company - hopefully some affection. I suspect her artefacts (which of course she will never have seen) will speak more loudly (which of course she was never able to do) of her situation than any number of well meaning historical reports.

'Please leave May's cupboard as it was when she was alive, undisturbed.'

Friday, May 04, 2007

Nanny state...

What a sensible place Shrewsbury is. So full of good advice:

Why do notices like this always make me want to give it a go?

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Full moon

There's a big old amber moon lumbering up in the southern sky.

I drive home slowly from the village with my eyes cast over to the left to check it's still there. Stupid. I know it's still there. I must concentrate on the ribbon of road. I pause in gateways to spy more easily at its greatness and then drive on.

But then I turn towards the north and my heart skips a beat when a single orange eye meets mine in the mirror. An glare that is not from the eye of man nor beast, but is the sharp and singular gaze of the moon.

I am suddenly very alone and very small at the top of this low mountain, on my drive home. I feel this planet has somehow got the better of me. Are we playing cat and mouse?

Tuesday, May 01, 2007


Wouldn't these flowers and leaves makes the most delectable, diaphanous and fragile garments?

Petals and the scents of springtime are from Venus. Spuds, marrows and giant leeks are from Mars. Discuss.