Billy and Sun Tzu

Round here, as you look out of the door at the pouring rain, you might say, ‘It’s not fit to put a cat out.’

In the case of our Billy, feral cat nonpareil, this isn’t really an issue as he doesn’t come into the house in the first place. Yes he has passed through, in summer as doors stood open. He walked in, looked around, sniffed various things of interest, and walked out again. So given we’ve had a couple of wet days, we’ve not seen a lot of young Billy. He has places where he snoozes, watches and waits.

One is the bit of a building we keep firewood in. From his point of view there are several advantages. It’s sheltered, but has a permanently open entrance which faces south so even in winter he can find somewhere to sit in the sun. Also it’s the first building on the route into the yard for vermin coming in from the fields in late autumn. So for Billy, it’s even got a buffet. Then there’s another spot with the straw kept ready for bedding calves. It’s snug, dry, and he can sit there and get quite a good view. Again, should lunch chance to walk by, he can move in and take it.

During the day, when he’s working, you’ll see him walking purposefully from place to place. Sometimes you’ll see him just sitting, watching something. If you’re out late checking to see if a cow has started calving, you might catch sight of him staking out a likely place for hunting.

Our contribution to his diet is to give him a little something on an evening, if he turns up looking for it. On a wet night he’ll probably not bother. Other times you’ll see him picking his way fastidiously across the collecting yard to see if his bowl has anything in it.

Milk cows are something of an issue for him. I suspect from his point of view, they’re just so insanely big. He largely ignores them unless they move towards him. At which point he’ll quietly slip under a gate to be out of their way. He was once meowing to me from the top of a wall, wanting his ears rubbed (feral but quite likes a handful of individual people) and obviously never noticed a cow wander up behind him to see what the noise was about. Dairy cows are notoriously curious. She sniffed him. Given the size of the nostrils, nose, and lungs involved, Billy’s coat was blown about. He turned round sharply to see what was going on, just as the cow put out a tongue longer than Billy is, and licked him. That was the last straw, he jumped down off the wall and stalked off looking affronted.

A week or so back I was busy with one job and noticed Billy was sitting in front of a bucket that was on its side. He kept reaching in but then brought his paw back. Anyway next time I passed he was still there, he’d cornered a rat. The rat was backed up in a corner and the only way Billy could get it was go in after it. That way he’d be nose to teeth with a cornered rat. Next time I passed, Billy wasn’t by the bucket, the rat could escape. Then I heard a squeal and he trotted past me with a dead rat clamped firmly in his jaws. Obviously Billy had read his Sun Tzu. As the Chinese strategist (lived circa 544BC to 496BC) said, “When you surround an army, leave an outlet free.”

This does not mean that the enemy is to be allowed to escape. As Tu Mu (803-852AD), poet and commentator wrote, “The object, to make him believe that there is a road to safety, and thus prevent his fighting with the courage of despair. After that, you may crush him.” As an aside, as a poet Tu Mu was apparently known for ‘sensual, lyrical quatrains featuring historical sites or romantic situations.’ As a military commentator he was obviously of the ‘Crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentation of the women’ school.

It may just be that the great Chinese strategist Sun Tzu had a cat.

Comparing Billy with Sal, their attitudes to what is going on around them are entirely different. Sal as a Border Collie has to join in and be part of it. She will rush into the thick of things to offer management oversight. Billy on the other hand will sit somewhere comfortable and watch it all from a safe distance. There again, if Sal is out and about and wants me for something, Sal will come and find me. Once she’s found me she’ll jump up or prod me with her nose to attract attention. Billy walks into the building and meow’s loudly to attract attention.

But dog and cat still seem to get on. Billy seems to regard Sal as ‘people’ in that she’ll meow at Sal. I’ve not yet seen her meow at a dairy cow. Sal seems to regard Billy as one of the fixtures. She makes no attempt to hassle him and treats him with a wary familiarly. They have the advantage that they’re not trapped together in a small space and can live their own lives.

I must admit I’ve not asked Billy’s opinion of one of the great strategist’s other sayings, “Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”

I’m not sure whether he’d reckon it would work with rats or not.


Take it to the experts

The fourth of these collections of anecdotes, rants, pious maunderings and general observations on life. Yes we have dogs, quads, sheep and cattle, but in this one we follow the ‘lambing year.’ It starts with ewes being put to the tup in late autumn and finishes in summer with the last of the laggards lambing.
But as well as this we have endless rain, as well as sleeping in a manger. Be brave and you’ll meet young ladies in high heeled cowboy boots, Sir John Moore of Corunna, brassieres for cows, and, incidentally, David Essex.

As a reviewer commented, “This book charts a year in the life of a Cumbrian sheep farmer. It’s sprinkled with anecdotes and memories of other years. Some parts (especially when featuring Sal, the Border Collie) were so funny as to cause me to have to read them out loud to my husband. It’s very interesting to read these things from the pen of the man who is actually out there doing it – usually in the rain! A very good read.”

Young women making hay when the wind blows

Many years ago a friend of mine used to regale me with stories of an old farmer he’d worked with. The old chap farmed at the top of one of the valleys that run into the Pennines. Back in the day, the farm at the foot of the valley would be a really good dairy farm with a fair bit of ploughing. The next farm up would be a mixed farm, perhaps a few dairy, even a bit of ploughing, and some sheep. At the top of the valley you’d get a tough hill farm. In this particular area all three farms were owned by the same estate, and this estate used to pay my friend to go and draw up plans for work the tenants and/or the estate wanted doing.

Nowadays the dairy farm at the bottom of the valley is massively capitalised, heavily borrowed and in good years makes a reasonable living. In other years it will just break even or make a loss. The middle farm muddles along and the rough spot at the top does OK because it runs a nominal number of sheep and farms environmentalists. (Dramatic exaggeration applied for artistic effect. I’m a writer, it’s expected of me.)
The old lad farming the top farm had been there since before the War. My friend hadn’t a clue how the old chap made a living, but he did. Just about.

My friend turned up in the yard one day to see the old lad looking miserable. So my friend asked what the matter was.

“I lost my hay crop.”

“How do you mean, lost?”
What had happened was that there was about three acres on this farm they mowed for hay. So he got a neighbour to come with a mower, and then he and his daughters went out with forks to scale it out. He was a little bit of a chap. His daughters were well built young women, tough as nails and with the sort of muscle that you get with constant exercise and outdoor work. They’d spent two or three days shaking the grass out, stirring it up and it was almost hay.

Then it rained.

So they fell back on plan B. Up there they still remembered the old techniques but rather than build special frames, they just put it on the wall tops. After all the three acres was at least two fields, both with tall dry-stone walls. So the old lad and his daughters manually put all this damp hay on the walls. That night it blew a gale out of nowhere and the whole lot just disappeared.

But the daughters were interesting ladies. (As an aside, in my culture, it is a mark of respect to refer to a woman as a lady.)
From what I was told, all had gentleman admirers and all would in due course marry, the last one to marry took over the tenancy with her husband. But what do farmers’ daughters to for a living?
I remember reading an article which looked back to the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. As a rule of thumb the article reckoned that you could work out how much the Father was worth financially by what his daughters did.

At the bottom of the heap, like the old lad with the missing hay crop, daughters tended to work at home until marriage, then they’d go and work with their husband, fitting in children as and when.

Next up, if Dad was a bit better off, the daughter would go into nursing. Don’t knock it. It means you’ve got somebody in the family who’s professionally qualified when it comes to helping with lambing.

If Dad was better off still, daughter became a teacher. Again a useful profession. Not only can she be relied upon to write suitably letters for you, she’ll be able to do the farm accounts as well. (To be fair, that came as a surprise to a number of daughters who still managed to cope with VAT etc.)
Finally at the top end where the farm is almost big enough to be an estate, daughter works at home. But this is after doing secretarial and accountancy courses and then she runs the office for her father. After marriage she then runs the estate office for her husband.

To be fair, I’ve come across ladies who have been married for thirty years and who are still doing their father’s accounts. This now includes dealing with cattle passports, sheep movements and EID and suchlike. One commented that every Saturday when she drives the twenty miles from her nice suburban home to the farm, she has a feeling that somehow the whole thing is getting out of hand. But at least it’s kept her children in touch with agriculture and she suspects that they’ll join the industry in some way.

But by the 90s the system was breaking down. It probably only lasted for a couple of generations. Some of the break down was inevitable. For a start there were so many more careers open for young women. Also I saw figures which claimed that 80% of farmers’ daughters do not marry farmers. You can understand that. They know the life from the inside.

But even when the daughter remains within agriculture, I know a number who’ve built up their own business with a bit of land of their own, some contracting, and some relief milking. Much like a lot of lads in that respect. Also on some farms you will often see two brothers in partnership. Given the importance of getting the paperwork right, dealing with Defra, the Environment Agency and other agencies, a sister who decides to be the partner who does the office work can be every bit an equal partner. Mind you, nobody in farming ever managed to stay in the office. The farm has a way of hauling you outside, normally into mud, rain, and with somebody saying, “Are you small enough to reach in and give it a pull and a twist.”


There again don’t mistake me for somebody who knows what he’s talking about.

For this collection of stories, Sal, our loyal Border Collie, is joined by Terry Wogan, Janis Joplin and numerous dairy cows. Meet pheasants, Herdwicks, Border Collies, and the occasional pink teddy bear. Welcome to the world of administrative overload and political incomprehension. All human life, (or at least all that hasn’t already fled screaming for sanctuary) is here.

We are not the men our fathers were?

Falling asleep at the wheel when mowing isn’t something you do often. I’ve never managed it. My father did. He was mowing whilst I was greasing round the forage harvester. The field he was cutting was on a slope, so I could hear the tractor get nearer and then get further way as he was mowing. Then I realised the note hadn’t changed.
So I went to investigate. Now some people reading this won’t know the details, but as you come to the end of a run when you’re mowing, you lift the mower, turn the tractor to line up for the next run and then lower the mower again. All this is with the tractor running at ‘pto rev’. So the mower, (A two drum mower with two drums spinning) was making a lot of noise, and the tractor engine was making a lot of noise.

Because my father had come downhill on one run and was going uphill on the next, he had to change gear. So he’d come downhill, got to the end of the run, picked up the mower, turned the tractor, dropped it out of one gear, and in the brief spell when the tractor was out of gear before going into the next gear, he’d fallen asleep. Given that by that point we’d had well over a week of starting at 5am and finishing at between 10pm and 11pm with some meals eaten on the move, this isn’t entirely surprising.

So I walked up to the tractor, knocked the revs off and then knocked the power take off out of gear so the mower slowed down and stopped. The ensuing quiet woke my father up. At that point I asked if he wanted me to finish off the field but he merely commented that he’d had a nice nap so felt good to go.

My Grandfather’s generation was as bad. He was once clearing a gutter out. He picked up a fence post that had fallen in and several inches of a nail stuck into his arm. Carrying the fence post with him he walked across two fields to a neighbour who got him to the doctor who got the nail out of him.
But neither generation thought this sort of thing was unusual. My father had volunteered for the RAF in 1939, but they’d discovered he was a farm worker and sent him back. I remember in the early 1980s the pair of us went to a farm sale. There my Dad met somebody he’d last seen in 1938. They’d worked together for a couple of years and the other chap had had enough of farm work and had joined the army. He’d spent the war fighting in Burma, and as the sale continued, he and Dad had forty years of catching up. Burma had been rough on him, he didn’t look well then, and he died a couple of years later.

But that brings me to the banana slide. In Barrow Park they had a banana slide. You see the picture, more than twice the height of a man, with no safety rails and just good old fashioned concrete to land on. When I was in the first year of secondary school we were still allowed in the children’s play area so could go on the slide. The basic rule was if you were still wearing shorts, you were young enough to be allowed into that area.
We had a whale of a time on it. One lad would fetch the wrapper from a block of butter or marge and he would slide down the slide first, sitting on the wrapper with the greasy side down.
Then we’d all pile down behind him, and by the time the first ten or a dozen had been through, it was polished. I’ve been down that slide and shot straight off the end, the technique was to get your feet under you so you came off the slide running rather than just hit the ground.

Of course the slide has gone now. I must admit I don’t remember any serious accidents, certainly nothing that demanded hospital. They had one of those heavy wooden playground roundabouts as well. The photo is just one I’ve found, it wasn’t ours. I remember that being just green. I also remember they were more dangerous than the slide because if you got your foot under it, it could hurt.

From memory the girls tended to monopolise the roundabout and the boys just played on the slide. It might have had something to do with the fact that the roundabout was more forgiving for somebody wearing a school skirt.

I remember talking about our time on this equipment to somebody a generation younger than me and they just looked horrified. The question was asked, “How could they install such dangerous equipment for children?”
Given that the men who had installed the equipment were men who’d jumped out of a landing craft and run up a beach under fire, how dangerous would they have regarded it?
Similarly, due to blind chance, quite a number of Barrow lads ended up in the 1st Airlanding Brigade and took part in the fighting around Arnhem, (A bridge to far.) But they went in not by parachute but in gliders. This was apparently terrifying, you hadn’t a clue what was happening, and every so often you’d be shot at and shrapnel would go through the thin plywood fuselage. Then to put not too fine a point on it, your glider crash landed and you were in the middle of a war. Of the 2,526 men of 1st Airlanding Brigade who left England for Operation Market Garden, there were 230 killed, 476 evacuated and 1,822 were missing or prisoners of war. Banana slides? Not a problem.

I am lucky enough to have worked with men of that generation. I remember working at hay time, one of them men helping was a police sergeant who’d already put in a full shift but was up for three or four hours of hauling bales by hand to keep his hand in. Others were fitters in the shipyard, or worked for the council on the roads or the bins. But looking round there’s a lot of good people of a younger generation working in agriculture now. Running their own businesses and doing a good job. I suppose you’d expect it, they’ve been properly brought up. But I’ve come across others, out of town, who aren’t afraid to put in a long day in the rain. Talking to them, next summer they might go to university, hopefully they’ll do well there, they’ve got the work ethic.  


To be fair, most of my co-workers over the years have been Border Collies, and they do have a work ethic.


More tales from a lifetime’s experience of peasant agriculture in the North of England, with sheep, Border Collies, cattle, and many other interesting individuals. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is just one of those things.

As a reviewer commented, “This is the third collection of farmer Jim Webster’s anecdotes about his sheep, cattle and dogs. This one had added information on the Lake District’s World Heritage status. This largely depends upon the work of around 200 small family farms. Small may not always be beautiful but it can be jolly important. If you want to know the different skills needed by a sheep dog and a cow dog, or to hear tales of some of the old time travelling sales persons – read on! This is real life, Jim, but not as I know it.”

So what’s it worth?

Pony paddock for sale? Well somebody round here is asking £150,000 for slightly over four acres. Now to be fair, it’s good land. In spite of talk about fencing and stables, I suspect that with a bit of care and a loader tractor with a decent set of pallet forks, you could clear in for ploughing in a morning. And that assumes you try to move stuff away in a useable manner.

But the sale value as agricultural land is perhaps £30,000. But even that figure assumes you’re spreading the cost of this land over a lot more which cost you far less. If you actually had to farm it so it could pay for itself, the price would probably be less than a quarter of that.

But how did we end up here? A friend of mine works in the Shipyard. The chap at the next desk put down his phone and looked a bit pale and shaken. My mate asked if he’d had bad news. He replied that his wife had decided she was going to buy a field at auction to keep her horse on. She was sick of having to have it on other peoples’ plots. She’d talked to the building society and they were willing to add 50% to the mortgage on the house. Given she was also working he thought it was fair enough. But still it came as something of a shock.

Now a lot of farms have disappeared into ‘horsiculture.’ The trouble with them was, they weren’t economically viable as farms any more. Now I sometimes get into trouble when I look back too far, but even in the 1960s there were a lot of small farms along the flanks of the Pennines which had a few dairy cows and a milk round.

Now in the 1930s my father had helped on a milk round. He would milk a cow, by hand, in a field, and carry the milk in the pail to the yard where it would be tipped into a churn. Then with a horse and cart, they’d go round the small mining village. The lady of the house would come to the door with a jug and the boy on the cart would pour a dipper full of milk into the jug. Apparently smart lads could get nine pints to the gallon thanks to conveniently placed water butts. One old lady came to the door, looked at the chap driving the cart and said, “Tell him I’ll just have the milk. I can put my own water in.”

But by the 50s and 60s things were far more professional. It might not be pasteurised but it was at least bottled. So a lot of the small farms on the edges of the Northern Cities would have perhaps a dozen cows. They’d cool the milk as they were milking, pour the milk into their bottles and then deliver it. As the regulations tightened, a lot of them were faced with having to pasteurise their milk. The cost of installing their own machine was prohibitive. So they’d sell their milk to the dairy and then buy it back, pasteurised and bottled. One problem was that it wasn’t their farm’s milk. All that happened is that they’d put 100 gallons into the system, and the system had handed them a hundred gallons back. So their customers were no longer getting ridiculously fresh milk. And frankly pasteurised milk doesn’t taste anywhere near as nice as raw milk.

When I came across these farmers, they were normally elderly single men who’d never married. Had they married they’d have had to look for a bigger farm, or sell up. There was no way they could raise a family on the income the farm made.

I just missed meeting one old chap. He’d retired and from memory was aged about ninety. He had his state pension, and still hand milked three elderly cows and sold the milk to a handful of loyal customers who still came to his door for it. He, his cows and his customers all died off at about the same time.

Then you had some slightly bigger farms. There used to be a number around Kendal. They would perhaps have thirty or forty cows, but they would bull everything with a good dairy bull. This meant they had far more replacement dairy heifers than they needed. But this meant that they regularly had heifers to sell. Given that some of these farms had been doing this for at least a couple of generations, they had a good reputation. Everybody knew their business model, they weren’t just selling cattle that wasn’t good enough for them.

The problem with these small farms was that they weren’t family farms. A family farm has to support two generations, not just one. So the younger generation is reared on the farm, works on the farm, and takes over from Dad. Ideally Dad manages to draw his pension by the time his grandson is married and needs a proper wage. The problem comes if the farm won’t support grandson when he gets married. So he goes out and gets a proper job. Then when he should be taking over, he and his spouse sit down and work out that actually, they cannot cope with the drop of income that they’d face going into farming. So Dad sells the farm.

At this point, if it’s handy for town, the farm house and buildings get snapped up separately. You sell them separately, perhaps with a paddock attached, because that way the house and one field will fetch more than the entire farm if sold as one lot. (And even if you did sell it as one lot, the buyer won’t want the farmland so will just sell it off and get back the value of their new house.)

Then the land will be sold in separate lots. Neighbours will pick up bits and of course the pony paddock people will move in as well. They’ll take the small fields with road access. Round here, the farm can be auctioned twice. First it will be sold off in lots. Then before the sale is considered over, all the lots will be added back together and the farm will be offered as an entity. If somebody bids more for the farm as an entity than it would have made if you totted up the prices offered for all the lots, then the farm is sold as an entity. I’m not sure how often that happens.

One interesting thing is the way the pony paddock people bid as opposed to how farmers bid.

If I go to a sale, I will have a budget. But I also have a price per acre as well. So if I reckon that land should go to £7,000 an acre, I’m unlikely to go much past this. Why should I, a couple of months or a couple of years down the line some more land might come up and I can try for that? Also, I’ve got to make the land pay.

On the other hand a lot of people looking for a pony paddock have a budget. They can spend £30,000 (to pull a figure out of the air.) So in very simple terms, it doesn’t matter if the lot is two acres or twenty acres. They will only bid up to £30,000. The price per acre doesn’t figure so highly in the calculation. The earning value of the land isn’t really a consideration because they’re not entering into an economic transaction.
So in crude terms, the pony paddock person would out-bid me on a four acre field (because 4 acres at £7k an acre is £28K, but they’ll spend £30K) but I’ll outbid them on a five acre field, because I’ll bid £35k and they’re still only going to bid £30k.

Now that’s a very simplified version. It ignores individual circumstances, it ignores the fact that a lot of potential pony paddock owners are pretty shrewd people (which is how they’ve got that sort of money to splash about in the first place) and also ignores location. A field in the middle of my land is worth more to me than the basic £7k an acre.

Once you start getting pony paddocks things can go two ways. I remember driving out of one of the northern cities along one of the lesser A roads, and there were miles of ‘rural slum’. Paddocks with boundaries made of second hand corrugated iron sheets and rusty barbed wire. ‘Stables’ which were old wagon bodies. Grassland that was overgrazed and largely mud.

Alternatively you can get what we saw at Duntisbourne Abbots. My lady wife and I stayed there twice, about ten years apart. The first time, walking round the village in the evening, I chatted to a farmer and his son putting some stirks into a field. Ten years later everything was horse paddocks, white rail fencing and gentrification.

These are perhaps the two extremes. But some years ago I had to go to a meeting between Hatfield and Harlow, north of London. On a free morning I went for a walk. I wasn’t going anywhere, I just worked out a circular route. The problem is when I’m out, I see things through a farmer’s eyes. Every farm I passed had the house and buildings developed as desirable properties. There were some large fields left, they were arable. I even saw some farm equipment tucked away out of sight on a piece of hard standing in a bit of woodland. The land was probably contract farmed and there wasn’t a steading handy to leave machinery.

But there were a lot of rather elegant pony paddocks that had been carved out of the smaller fields. In one place there was a block of them, each with an almost identical stable and fencing. But I saw only one horse. One paddock had a particularly scruffy bullock scratching himself on a stable. The block of paddocks had had their fences unobtrusively gapped and the grass was being eaten down by sheep. It was after the last financial crash and I remember reading that a lot of people had been getting rid of horses they could no longer afford.

I wonder what’s coming? People moving out of London because they can work from home might want a pony paddock, or incomes might fall as well and how many can still afford to keep a horse?


Don’t ask me, speak to the experts.

A collection of anecdotes, it’s the distillation of a lifetime’s experience of peasant agriculture in the North of England. I’d like to say ‘All human life is here,’ but frankly there’s more about Border Collies, Cattle and Sheep.

As a reviewer commented, “

This is in the same league as Herrick, absorbing you into a different world, with its trials and tribulations making a background for the occasional moment of hilarity or joy. Hats off to Jim and his ilk, putting food on our tables despite our unwillingness to pay a decent price for it. I am frequently outraged that I live in a society which is prepared to pay more for bottled water than milk, and drowns the country in plastic in the process.

Jim manages to get this across without ranting and then uses his wry sense of humour to leave you howling with laughter at a series of events that a mere townie could never have imagined. Thanks for letting me into your world Jim – I am now committed to changing my behaviour and paying the extra for local, seasonal produce.”

The world of oily mill boards and cattle housing.

A timber rail finally gave way. I’d nailed it elegantly in place in 1981. I know this because we were erecting the building during the wedding of Charles and Di. The rail acts as a barrier between some cubicles and some calving boxes. Actually there’s a steel pipe acting as a rail as well. The pipe stops anybody in the calving box getting into the cubicles. But because the cubicles are higher up, the timber was put in to discourage the occupants of the cubicles trying to jump down.
Anyway one of the occupants did. I looked at the timber when I came to do a running repair and decided she’d sneezed violently and it had broken. But look on the bright side, it’s been there nearly forty years. During that time it’s been chewed by generations of bored heifers and they’ve scratched their heads on it on a regular basis. In some places it’s worn smooth. Not only that but this piece of wood wasn’t new when I acquired it.

Back then the Farmers’ Guardian newspaper had a classified ads section that was sometimes thicker than the rest of the paper. One section was firms, mainly in Lancashire, selling reclaimed and second hand timber. At lot of the old industrial buildings were coming down and these firms went in to salvage the good stuff. This is before that sort of thing was fashionable or especially ‘green.’ People just did it because you could turn a pound. I know farmers who did out farm buildings with ‘oily mill boards’ at the time. This is long before they became the ‘must have’ floor covering for your fashionable loft conversion.

There was one company I dealt with quite a lot. They were good to deal with and as well as second hand and new timber, he carried a fair stock of chipboard and plywood as well. Also because they sold a lot of stuff into this area, provided you didn’t need something on a particular day, they didn’t charge haulage. They just shoved what you wanted on the next wagon coming our way.

Mind you, sometimes we managed to find things much closer to hand. I don’t know how we found out that the timbers were about to be available, but Father and I went down to where the old railway engine sheds were. A small demolition/salvage business was taking them down. We had a building job in mind at home. So we had a look at the roof timbers that were coming out of those old railway buildings. They were beautiful pieces of timber. Properly seasoned and everything. You cannot get new timber that good.

Anyway we asked how much, and the boss came up with a somewhat complicated scheme which meant that the good ones were going to be a bit expensive. But they were just what we were looking for.

Anyway we said that I’d be back after the weekend with a tractor, trailer and chequebook and he’d have the timbers down by then. So it was the following Monday when I turned up with the requisite equipment. In the meanwhile, the boss had apparently fallen through the roof and broken his leg. His foreman was expecting me. He had an envelope with prices written on in pencil.

The problem was that I don’t think he was a great reader, and his boss hadn’t been entirely clear what he wanted paying for what. The foreman stared at the envelope trying to make sense of it. The only figure that made sense was £2. So he gestured to the stack of 8 inch by 4 inch roof timbers and said, “How about two pound apiece.”

I just nodded. So he asked, “How many do you want?”

“All of them.”

So the pair of us loaded these sixteen feet long timbers onto the trailer, by hand. Back then you just did that sort of thing. Now I’d be looking round for the fork lift.

I then did the calculation for him and produced the chequebook. He looked a bit disappointed at that and asked, “What about cash?”

I just looked at him and asked, “Am I dressed like the sort of person who carries that sort of money about with him?”

So I gave him the cheque. As he turned to take it to the caravan he tripped over a long length of timber lying there. He stood up, picked it up, and put it on my trailer on top of the other wood I’d just bought. “Take the damned thing away, I’m fed up of falling over it.”
And thirty nine years later, that piece of timber has finally broken and will have to be fixed up again.

As it is the 8”x4” roof timbers are still going strong, doing a great job. My guess is that when somebody comes to take these buildings down, they’ll put those timbers quietly to one side, because good wood is hard to come by.

Thinking about it, if anybody asks, tell them that just growing trees doesn’t sequestrate carbon. Or at least not for long. Because trees are living organisms, they are born, grow, die and decay. Carbon is locked up and then carbon is released.

Felling the tree, cutting it up into timber, and then seasoning it, that’s proper sequestration of carbon. The timber I purchased had most likely been water seasoned, and then left to dry naturally. Given the age of the buildings that the wood had come out of, it was from trees that had been planted before the Napoleonic wars. It had probably been felled in the 1870s, and for the next century had been holding the roof up. Since then it’s had another forty years working for me and I have no doubt it could see out a second century.

When you think about it, ‘planned obsolescence’ isn’t an agricultural term.


And if you’re looking for something new to read, I’ve got a new collection of stuff out.

For this collection of stories, Sal is joined by Terry Wogan, Janis Joplin and numerous dairy cows. Meet pheasants, Herdwicks, Border Collies, and the occasional pink teddy bear. Welcome to the world of administrative overload and political incomprehension. All human life, (or at least all that hasn’t already fled screaming for sanctuary) is here.

Food prices and bumps in the road

From talking to farmers and others over the last few months, there has been ‘considerable dislocation’ in the market. The nearer you are to ‘commodity’ food production the more stable things have been. Whereas if you’ve specialised to produce for niche markets or even sell direct to the catering trade or at farmers markets, everything went very messy very quickly.

We had the same number of consumers, who largely wanted to eat pretty much the same things, but some of the routes from farm to plate were blocked by lockdown. But there have been some good things to come from it. At least for certain sections of the industry.

As somebody who is instinctively a dairy farmer, it cheers me immensely to discover that one of the big successes has been cheese. Apparently average cheese consumption increased by 44% during the lockdown. I don’t find this too difficult to believe. Cheese is easy, flexible, and is an integral part of so many comfort foods. I mean, I know people so adventurous that they even grate cheese over beans on toast and give it a quick twirl in the microwave to melt the cheese.

But there’s other openings as well. Cathedral City cheddar (which is, by sales volume, probably the UK’s favourite cheddar) has potentially made a breakthrough. It will be available across 2,000 plus retail outlets in the USA during November. This happened a month after Saputo, the company that produces this cheese, announced that 500 Canadian stores would be selling the cheese. To be fair, Saputo is a Canadian company so it’s probably easier for them to get a toe in that door. But still, to put all this in perspective, Tesco has under 2,700 stores in the UK. This means that the combined Canadian and US outlets stocking the UK’s favourite cheddar will be about the same as the number of UK Tesco Stores. But of course the average US store will be bigger!”

This is nothing to do with Brexit or trade deals. It’s just good companies looking for markets for good products. Still we’ve got the usual hullaballoo going on about trade deals at the moment. I saw somebody comment (when ‘discussing’ chlorine washed chicken) that the UK government imports this rubbish. This is nonsense. The UK government imports very little food. (I suppose it might bring in some for the armed forces.) Food imports are largely by private companies who know what their consumers demand.

So what do consumers demand? Well as a rule of thumb, in times of prosperity, 20% will look at artisan or quality foods. In times of recession this can drop to 10%. And we’re heading into a recession. The private companies who import food know what their customers want, they are going to want ‘Cheap.’

There’s also a move to ban imports of food from countries that do not meet UK standards. The problem is that this includes the EU. For example the UK banned sow stalls in 1999. But the EU kept using them and because of EU single market regulations we had to keep importing meat from pigs that had been kept in sow stalls. The EU eventually banned them in 2013 but still, Compassion in World Farming regard it as a partial ban, saying, “The partial sow stall ban makes it illegal to confine sows for their entire pregnancy, and requires sows to be group housed from 4 weeks after mating or earlier.”

Admittedly once we’ve fully left the EU we can ban EU pork products on the grounds of animal welfare if people want. Just as we can ban US chlorine washed chicken and, one assumes, EU chlorine washed salad vegetables.

But seriously, given we have a lot of people who are going to struggle to be able to afford food to put on the table, how much will they care? The 80:20 is going to move more to 90:10.
So what do we do? Passing laws banning imports from countries that do not meet UK food standards could lead to food rationing, and a winter vegetarian diet consisting of a lot of turnip and sprouts. Can we use some sort of guidance to nudge our consumers?

Well that brings us to the photo at the top of our page. At the side of our drive is a piece of lawn. My late father, twenty or more years ago, laid down an old limestone gate stoop. As he said at the time, “It’ll stop people just driving on the lawn.”
Now the drive is wide enough to get a twenty ton tipper lorry down. In the yard itself you can turn one with ease. We know this. We’ve done it. So there is no need whatsoever to drive on the lawn. But at regular intervals some muppet hits the gate stoop. By this I’m not meaning a glancing blow with the wheel, I’m talking about hitting it with wheels on both sides, which produces an interesting grating noise from the underside of your vehicle.

I once had to tow a taxi off it. He was a bit stroppy until I asked why he wanted to drive on the lawn in the first place, wasn’t the drive wide enough?
Today a delivery van, rather than putting in an extra tack, would save a tenth of a second by cutting across the lawn. Well that produced three minutes backing off and anxiously examining the underside of his vehicle that he’s never going to get back.

So we could put things in place which made some things harder to import, not by banning them but by making sure they’re properly labelled. But then, if the people read the label, shrug and buy it anyway, what then?


There again, what do I know? There’s times when it’s better to just sit with a good book and give the world time to come to its senses.


Instead of his usual collection of anecdotes, this time Tallis presents us with a gripping adventure. Why is Tallis ‘run out of town’ by hired ruffians? Why does a very sensible young woman want his company when plunging into unknown danger? Who or what was buried in the catacombs? And why has there been so much interest in making sure they stay dead? Also featuring flower arranging, life on the river, and a mule of notable erudition.

As a reviewer commented, “

Tallis Steelyard is a poet with champagne tastes on a beer budget. Chased out of town, and into the bay, by irate creditors, he’s rescued by a passing boat and given the opportunity to become a part of the crew. Thereafter follow a series of adventures, many funny, before Tallis can finally return home again.

I thoroughly enjoyed the story and recommend it highly!”

Further adventures in broadband

I think I’ve discovered the person who did the Openreach quote for our broadband. A chap I know is the manager of a local coffee shop. To help them survive they’re working with one of the delivery companies. Some of the orders are quite big, they had one that totted up to £50, which helps. But he had one person who just ordered a cup of tea, which with delivery, cost £5. All my life I’ve been selling to the wrong customers.

Anyway, people may remember I explored getting better broadband. This involved me applying to Openreach under the Universal Service Obligation. Given we are barely three miles from the exchange I didn’t expect anything outrageous, and there’s a £3,500 grant to help pay for any work. (We’re a business, it’s £1,500 for a private household.)

Thus the quote of £104,311.20 rather took me by surprise. But am I daunted? No, I decided I would approach Openreach, but this time under the auspices of the Openreach Community Fibre Partnership. There are seven households in this ‘community.’ So I talked to them all, and they all felt that they were happy to have their names go forward on the grounds that each extra household would allow the scheme to pull down an extra grant. I did ask about putting in extra money. Here I met ‘consumer resistance.’ After all we have neighbours even further from the exchange than us who’ve been given 50mbps fibre broadband at no capital cost. They just have to pay a bit more to use it. As it was, people generally felt that they’d put in, a grudging ‘couple of hundred quid just to make the scheme a goer if need be.’

And now I’ve got a quote back from Openreach. Well actually I’ve got two.

The first quote is for twenty-six premises which included some they felt I’d obviously overlooked. Actually these premises aren’t part of ‘my community.’ They’re just houses or buildings alongside the main road between two BT Openreach cabinets. Basically they’re the ones BT never bothered connecting when it had the chance.

I had overlooked them for two reasons. One was I hadn’t a clue what their broadband was like and whether they could even be served from our scheme. The second reason is that a global pandemic is not a good time to knock on the doors of total strangers asking about their broadband and wondering if they were interested in joining a scheme put together by somebody they didn’t know from Adam.

But still I looked at the suggested twenty-six. Four of the addresses are of houses that are empty because they’re in the blast radius of a gas terminal. Two of the addresses are the North and South gas terminals. The south terminal is currently being demolished so is unlikely to be interested in broadband. The North terminal will long ago have got itself sorted. One of the addresses, ‘The site office’ may be the demolition contractor who’s taking apart the South Terminal. I suppose his lads might fancy watching Netflix on a wet afternoon but I suspect I’d struggle to interest him. Still this scheme for the twenty-six will cost £128,755.

But assuming that of the twenty-six there are eighteen left to be interested, the grant we’ll get from the Government’s gigabit voucher scheme will be £31,000 on top of which we may get £7000 from the Borderlands Inclusive growth deal.  (This assumes two businesses, and also that the Borderlands deal is capped at £7,000 a scheme.) Which means I’ve got to convince these people to stump up £5000 each for something their neighbours got given free.

The second quote is just for the seven households that actually make up the ‘community’. The quote for this was £81,352.00. Now these seven people I have talked to. We should get £19.500 in grant funding (assuming 1 business and the Borderlands Inclusive growth deal.) This leaves each household having to find £8,836. Again, when I talked to them, they were happy enough to put their names down so I could create a ‘scheme’ and they could pull down the £1,500 grant. But remember it’s going to be a cold day in hell before they cough up that sort of money. These are not the sort of people who will cheerfully pay £5 for a cup of takeaway tea delivered to their door.

What did intrigue me was that to connect us here (we’re perhaps the central point in the group of seven households) would cost £104,311,20 under the Universal Service Obligation. But you could connect us and six extra households for a mere £81,352.00.

I have said to Openreach I would like to talk to somebody about the way they do their estimates. I may have intimated that licking a finger, sticking it in the air, and pulling down a figure at random is not entirely consistent with best business practice.

But I’ve talked to all sorts of interesting people. I discussed the possibility of 4G mobile with one of them. Their comment was that this is very much an interim solution until gigabit capable connectivity can be provided. The person went on to say that BT, under their USO obligations should be able to offer a solution that uses an external antenna (the receiver) that connects to an internal router. If the antenna is located in the right place outside of the property (accepting not everyone will want an antenna on their house) then that can significantly improve the 4G signal. BT seem a bit reluctant to provide (and pay for) this solution, but it should be the first thing that they check if the price of full fibre is more than the £3,400 per premise cap. Now obviously I want to check this out further, but it look as if BT Openreach and I could be having a frank and open exchange of views!


Who knows, is this the real life, is it just fantasy?
Fantasy I can do

Hired to do a comparatively simple piece of mapping work Benor should perhaps have been suspicious when the pay seemed generous.
Will he ever get to the bottom of what is going on?
How rough is the rough justice of rural Partann?
How to clean out a privy with a crossbow. Welcome to the pastoral idyll.

Benor the cartographer is offered a job away from home with unusually generous pay. It all has to be done on the quiet, too. Something’s up. Benor has a murder to solve. I thought he had, but there’s more to come. This story is a murder mystery and a comedy of manners, set in a world of fantasy. If you like a genre mashup, this is brilliant. The characters and their relationships and banter would make it worth reading even if it didn’t have a plot – but it does. Another winner for me.

Somebody has to hold the cow’s tail

I saw an interesting comment somewhere in the farming press. Apparently in agriculture we’re going to have to get with the programme and adopt more cutting edge technology. The ‘smart home’ is here, we’re now going to have the ‘smart farm’.

Certainly moving to robot milking is now an option for dairy farmers. Economics and other factors might mean it’s not for your farm, but it’s an option on the table. There again, the modern tractor comes with more electronics than you’d need to oversee a moon launch. And of course, HMRC now want us to do our income tax on line because ‘everybody is on line anyway.’

I suspect we have problems with the limited life experience of our ruling class. They’re hooked into a connected world and see progress as happening via that world. At the moment, in the UK, people are slagging off the covid tracking app. It only works on some phones, it apparently drains your battery and also it may have glitches that the developer forgot to label as features. By definition I haven’t got a phone modern enough to download the app, and even if I did, the phone lives switched off.

But let’s have a comparison. The German app has been launched for more than 100 days. Because they’re efficient and in control, right? Apparently it’s been downloaded 18 million times, for a population of 83 million. In Australia apparently they too are at the cutting edge, with a government that is in control of the virus. Their app, COVIDSafe has been available for months. Ask people and 70% said they’d use it, 40% really downloaded it, and nobody is quite sure how many of them are in point of fact using it.

Yet talk to an MP, a senior civil servant, somebody in the upper echelons of the charity world or the quangocracy, they control their life through their phones. Most MPs are on several WhatsApp groups, some official, some private, some downright conspiratorial.  I’ve talked to people who have been in Zoom meetings where there were at least two WhatsApp meetings happening in parallel. In these meetings the participants on the various WhatsApp groups critiqued the Zoom meeting as they participated in it and tried to arrange who said what, next.

Fortunately, thanks to our rubbish broadband speed, I appear at Zoom meetings without video (but can see everybody else.) This means that in the boring bits I can do my emails, tidy the office, or during one not especially memorable meeting, fall asleep.

The problem is that a digitally connected ruling class has lost track of the real world. When some big churches were organising Zoom church services, here we made sure that we phoned (on the landline phone) members of our congregation on a reasonably regular basis. This is because 90% of them are not on line. One or two have smart phones, normally at their daughter’s insistence, but they only ever use them to make phone calls.

It’s the same with our farm accounts. My lady wife prefers to do them on paper so she can see everything at once, without having to scroll backwards and forwards and flick between screens. But even if we did do it on the computer, she’d still have to print them out to send to our accountant because there’s no way we can email them. Then when the accountants have ‘done them’ they have to print them out to send back to us for her to check. Then when we’re happy, they can send them electronically to the HMRC. The cost of doing this monthly rather than annually is going to be horrendous.

But anyway, back to the smart farm and robotic milking. I always remember my father commenting that when he went into farming, you joined a community. There could be ten or a dozen people living and/or working on a farm. And at various times of year you’d work alongside people from half a dozen neighbouring farms. Me? I’ve spent most of my life ‘lone working.’ My work colleagues tend to be Border Collies. Look on the bright side, I’ve never had to be nice to people and if I’d wanted a proper job I would have worked harder at school.

Now with arable farming, increase the tractor size, improve the electronics, and you can have one man farming an even larger acreage. But with livestock, you really need more people. With robots you can reduce the number of cowmen, but you’ll still need 24/7 coverage in case of breakdown or a cow taking a dislike to the machine. (Which is a pretty reliable way of getting a breakdown.)

The problem with a robot is that I have no doubt it will milk cows perfectly well. They’ll have the ability to produce a lot of data (oh whoopee-doo, even more data to analyse) and they’ll help make you more efficient in a lot of ways. But it’s all they’ll do. They’ll not help you get a heifer in for AI. They’ll not give you a hand by holding a cow whilst you check to see if she’s got a twisted calf-bed.

Indeed I’ve lost track of the number of times my lady wife has been asked to give me a hand calving the cow. If she stands just there and holds the cow’s tail, it has four advantages. The first is that the cow feels a bit outnumbered and is more likely to behave. The second is that because she’s standing just there, the cow isn’t going to move in that direction. So everything becomes so much less exciting. The third is that she can pass me calving ropes and similar without me having to move and take my hand out because I’ve finally found the calf’s front feet. And the fourth advantage? Have you ever been slapped across the face with a cow’s tail that’s loaded with muck, blood and miscellaneous other substances?
Try and find a robot who can do that job.


Or you could relax with a good book

In this volume we stand shoulder to shoulder with Maljie as she explores the intricacies of philosophy, marvel at her mastery of pre-paid indemnification plans, and assist her in the design of foundation garments. When you read this, not only will you discover just who wears the trousers, but you can indulge in a spot of fishing and enjoy the quaint fertility rites of our great city. This book contains fashion, honey, orphans and the importance of dipping your money in vinegar to ensure it is safe. Indeed you may even learn how to teach a cat to dance.

As a reviewer commented, “I must confess that I love Port Naain and it’s characters, especially Maljie, Laxey and the Mendicants.
Their latest (mis)adventures have not disappointed me.
Each and every short story is a gem of plot, description and full of entertainment value.”

Blowing away the cobwebs

I was walking round checking heifers the other morning and my route takes me across a field where there were potatoes. As I walked along the headland I did a double take. I could have sworn there was ice in the tread marks left by the tractors.

It was only as I looked closely that I realised that it was dew on cobwebs.

But since then autumn has tilted more towards winter, I suspect the next time I see the phenomenon it will be ice, or at least rag. On the other hand, stock still outside are looking well. Today the dry cows looked relaxed and happy in the chilly early morning sun.

Mind you, that’s more that can be said for a lot of people. After six months people are starting to get a bit stowed of it all.
I was reading the paper the other day and a lass who works in a lot of ‘interesting’ places was writing about this. Apparently if you’re trapped in a stressful situation for six months you ‘hit a wall.’ You’ve had enough and need a break.

It appears that the army discovered long ago that troops who served six month tours in a war zone were more likely to re-enlist than troops who served twelve or eighteen month tours. Even if the lads who’d done the six month tours had actually done more tours and put in more time in combat than the others.

Her advice was to ‘get away.’ But she admitted that it isn’t always possible. Indeed travelling anywhere at the moment can be more stressful than staying at home. When she couldn’t travel, what she did was to ‘escape into a good book.’ In her case, she loved Lord of the Rings’ and would just have a long weekend off at wherever she was living at the time. There, she would just shut out the world, sit and read. It felt like having a few days holiday and she emerged from it feeling better.

Funnily enough I can empathise with this. For me, the Foot and Mouth outbreak was far more stressful than the current medical unpleasantness. The fact that my lady wife and I have almost certainly had coronavirus before it was fashionable means this particular madness is a lot less stressful.

But during FMD I got to a point where I couldn’t even settle to read. So I sat down and read my way through the Asterix books.

After them, I was up to methodically working my way through the Terry Pratchett Discworld series. These carried me through.

So really, that’s my advice to people. If you can take a break, do. I drove across the country last weekend to see my daughter who we’ve not been able to see. She’s been stuck on her own in a flat. It did us both good to meet up. But thanks to the regulations, what is possible one weekend might not be possible the next. But you can always get a good book. Even if you don’t feel up to venturing into a bookshop, there’s plenty on line. But actually now might be the time to re-read the books you love. My late mother was very fond of the Miss Read books, and would re-read them. I’ve always felt that a good book ought to be a holiday you can take without the hassle of travelling.

But if you fancy something new, I could recommend some of my own stuff. After all, Port Naain is a city where you can still walk the streets without worrying about social distancing or wearing a mask.



Hired to do a comparatively simple piece of mapping work Benor should perhaps have been suspicious when the pay seemed generous.
Will he ever get to the bottom of what is going on?
How rough is the rough justice of rural Partann?
How to clean out a privy with a crossbow. Welcome to the pastoral idyll.

As a reviewer commented, “Benor the cartographer is offered a job away from home with unusually generous pay. It all has to be done on the quiet, too. Something’s up. Benor has a murder to solve. I thought he had, but there’s more to come. This story is a murder mystery and a comedy of manners, set in a world of fantasy. If you like a genre mashup, this is brilliant. The characters and their relationships and banter would make it worth reading even if it didn’t have a plot – but it does. Another winner for me.”

Losing your bottle. How is farming going to cope with the public?

The bottle lies discarded at the side of our lane, tossed out of a car window. You have to admit it makes a change from crisp packets, Kentucky Fried Chicken buckets and McDonald’s wrappers and drinks cartons. But then there’s a lot of it about. I went up to Scotland to see my daughter. Junction 36 of the M6 was ‘experiencing difficulties’ so, forewarned, I decided I’d cut through the Lake District and join the M6 at Penrith. After all I left home at 9am, so traffic shouldn’t be so bad. It might not be bad but I got stuck behind a Porsche. It was one of the ones that looks a bit like a Range Rover from behind, and it did thirty miles an hour from Newby Bridge to beyond Bowness. The driver just dawdled. Finally when we got to the roundabout with the A591 and he turned north towards Ambleside (the way I had intended to go) I just went straight ahead and over Kirkstone Pass. Anything had to be faster than following him.

But there, at the top of Kirkstone Pass, a mile past the Inn, in the middle of wild and desolate beauty, a discarded face mask lay in the middle of the road.

People fascinate me. It’s as if they cannot cope with more than one big idea at a time. David Attenborough produces a TV programme about plastic in the sea and suddenly everybody is demanding we ban single-use plastics because they’re destroying the environment. Government puts a tax on plastic bags, there’s a stream of documentaries about recycling and the dangers of this plastic or that plastic, and everybody promises faithfully that they’re going to eliminate single-use plastics. Coffee shops stop using plastic straws or start encouraging customers to use metal, or even pasta straws.

Then we have a ‘pandemic’, government is attacked from all sides because it wasn’t producing and stockpiling massive amounts of single-issue plastic (but now it’s ‘good’ single-use plastic, it’s PPE and it’s going to save the universe and rescue us all from imminent death.) and people are cheerfully discarding facemasks all over the place. We’re going to have oceans full of them.

One problem is people seem to focus on one issue at a time. Farmers and landowners see it regularly as governments are swayed by yet another single-issue pressure group. We stand well back from the riverbank as the canoeists and the fishermen fight over access. It’s going to get even more interesting when the ones who want to release beavers get caught up in that fight.

Then we have those who want a pleasant countryside where they can take a short walk. At the same time they’d like to look at the ancient parish church, browse a few local handicrafts and have a brew in an agreeable local tea room. Try doing that if the enthusiasts for rewilding the Lake District get their way.

It’s much the same way with food production. Farmers are blamed for selling food that makes people unhealthy. (I mean, the way farmers stand over their customers with a whip making them drink another quart of raw milk is frankly shocking.)
Then we’re told people want cheap food, (and plenty of it with infinite choice) and at the same time other groups will encourage us to go Organic.

Now we have other pressures creeping up on us. With the current medical unpleasantness still raging in its full administrative glory, it’s pretty well guaranteed that a lot of people are going to end up unemployed. I don’t know whether we’ll get a second wave of virus, but we are going to see a lot of people kicked onto the scrapheap because their jobs no longer exist. For example, at what point are people going to stop pretending that the airlines and travel industries are just going to be like they were? Indeed in some cases the companies that employed people dumped on the dole may no longer exist either. At this point in the blog I’d like to ask you to remember to support your local foodbank. For an increasing number of people, it could well be ‘the shopping destination of choice’ this winter.
I suspect this will change the pressures on agriculture. When things are tight, people forget about luxuries such as organic or artisan produce and want something cheap and ideally wholesome. But with the emphasis on cheap.

The graph below shows the Organic food and drink sales revenue in the United Kingdom 1999-2018

As you can see, the crash of 2008 lead to a decline in organic sales. (I can remember organic milk producers abandoning organic production because they couldn’t get the premium they needed for it to be economically viable.) It took almost a decade for sales to get back to where they had been. My gut feeling is this time is going to be worse, and a lot of people are going to be far too stretched to fritter money away on luxuries when they have necessities to buy.

So what does the food producer do? Over the years I’ve sold beef, lamb and pork direct to the consumer and have undercut the supermarkets but still had a better margin than just selling it to the slaughter trade. Yes, my customers needed freezer space and had to be able to fit in a whole lamb, half a pig, or an eighth of a bullock (they weigh about the same). They also needed to be able to afford to pay over a lump sum, but they showed the savings over the next three months. It’s not a mass market, but it’s surprising who can be part of it. One of my customers asked me to deliver on the day she and her friends all got their benefit cheques. I delivered it to her and she paid me on the nail.

Somebody then phoned me to say my customer was making money by selling some of it to her friends, who were also on benefits but who didn’t have freezers. That’s why she’d chosen the day she had, everybody was briefly flush with cash. Much to the chagrin of my informant I refused to be shocked, pointing out that I’d got the price I asked, and if she had the initiative and drive to organise something like this, I’d happily sell her another one next month. Just because somebody is an unmarried mother with a fine selection of studs and tattoos doesn’t mean they lack acumen.

Over the last few years a lot of farmers have moved into more ‘artisan’ food, producing some really nice stuff. When the first lockdown was imposed, a lot of them were badly hit because their customers couldn’t drive out to visit their shop, and of course really good quality goods often end up in the restaurant sector because good chefs appreciate good food. Some of them saw their sales drop to pretty much nothing. There are a lot of stories emerging of how they frantically set up websites, facebook pages, home delivery boxes and similar.

Looking over the next few years, I do wonder if there might be more options for farmers to do this sort of thing. Not for a ‘premium’ market, but just dealing with people who in happier times would try to buy premium produce but now are willing to settle for decent stuff that is about the same price as the supermarket. I think if people can keep their nerve, who knows what we could see.


There again, what do I know. I diversified into writing, fleeing one loss making industry for another.

In his own well chosen words, Tallis Steelyard reveals to us the life of Maljie, a lady of his acquaintance. In no particular order we hear about her bathing with clog dancers, her time as a usurer, pirate, and the difficulties encountered when one tries to sell on a kidnapped orchestra. We enter a world of fish, pet pigs, steam launches, theological disputation, and the use of water under pressure to dispose of foul smelling birds. Oh yes, and we learn how the donkey ended up on the roof.

As a reviewer commented, “

Where to start with this review? First of all a health warning. Do not read this book when drinking coffee/beer/WHY. Neither is it a great notion to read somewhere sudden bursts of laughter could be seen as inappropriate.
I must confess upfront to being a fan of Jim Webster’s writing as he has a talent for making the most wildly inconsequential of observations seem matter of fact and perfectly believable. Any of the tales he weaves around the imaginary but utterly believable city of a port Nain are going to be chuckle worthy at the very least.
Therefore I approached the chronicles of Maljie’s varied and exotic life with great expectation.
I wasn’t disappointed.
In fact there were places where I actually howled with laughter.
Our heroine veers from situation to situation – rarely finishing without a profit. And some of her jobs are so silly and improbable. But you still keep reading and chuckling.
The ease with which Jim, in the guise of Tallis Steelyard (poet, visionary and unreliable witness) pilots this rickety craft through the shoals of Maljie’s life is exemplary.
But don’t just take my word for it. Read for yourself. But don’t forget the health warning.

Five big shiny stars.”