Monthly Archives: December 2016

Can I mourn other peoples’ idols?




To misquote Kipling, “If you can keep your head when all around you are losing theirs, do you really understand the situation?” I don’t know about anybody else but there are times when I end up feeling somewhat semi-detached from the rest of humanity.

Take the sad death of Princess Diana. You know how people will say that certain events effected them so much they remember what they were doing when it happened? Well I remember what I was doing. I’d just got up and was getting myself a drink prior to going out to milk, so it was probably about 5:30am. I switched the kettle on and then put the radio on as well. I was expecting the Radio 4 news, instead I got solemn music. In my still somewhat sleep fuddled state my first thought was ‘We’ve had a coup.” The announcement of the death of the Princess, whilst sad, was almost a relief.

And then the whole country went mad. A local radio announcer I know was sent home to collect a black tie that he had to wear to read the news that morning. It’s radio, nobody would know whether he was wearing trousers never mind a tie!

And then there were the flowers, the endless flowers. We must have been importing from all round the world at that point. In my role as ‘rent a quote’ I was phoned by the local radio asking if I had any comments to make about the huge mounds of flowers and the outpouring of grief. I was probably not the right person to ask. I pointed out that piling that much greenery in one heap and not keeping the air out merely meant that you were making silage very badly, and within a day or two it would start going butyric and would start to stink. Strangely my comment was never broadcast.

Now all this was brought to mind by the various media stories about all the celebrities who are dying in 2016. I started wondering about grief and how we express it. I ended up comparing two funerals, both of which I saw on television. Obviously on one hand we have Princess Di in 1997, on the other the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill in 1965.

Now I lived among people who mourned the death of Churchill. He was mourned by men and women who’d buried sons, by women who had lost a husband, fiancé, or lover who they could never replace; by people who’d seen their entire family destroyed by the random chance of an enemy bomb which destroyed that house and not this one. He was mourned by people who had experienced a depth of grief that most of us struggle to empathise with.

And now we’ve got a lot of celebrities dying. I had a look at the BBC website.


Pre-prepared BBC obituaries that ran on television, radio and online

  • 2013     16
  • 2014     24
  • 2015     29
  • 2016     32
  • 2017     42


The advantage of using pre-prepared obituaries is that they’re people accepted as celebrities ‘before the event.’

Interestingly 2013 saw a 50% increase over 2012 and nobody appears to have noticed. 2016 sees a 30% increase over 2015 and the media is full of it.

Way back I remember reading the memoirs of a US newspaper reporter. When he’d been younger, he and a friend working for another paper in the same city had ended up in competition to see who could find the most crime stories. Between them they created a crime wave, and there was a lot of public protest that the streets were no longer safe and ‘something must be done!

Finally the city police chief called them into his office and carpeted them, pointing out that however you measured it, crime was actually falling, and all that was increasing was the reporting and perception of crime.

Now I don’t think that we have celebrities who’re falsely reporting their deaths so that they get remembered as part of the great 2016 rush, but I think that what we may be seeing is an element of ‘redefining’ of celebrities. After all if a surfeit of dying celebrities is the story, the media will bring you dying celebrities.

Is this linked somehow to the fact that as a population we seem to like a gratuitous outpouring of emotion? I suppose if it’s over a celebrity you never met and your only connection was you bought a couple of albums when you were sixteen then it’s hardly going to be too devastating unless you want it to be?
Is it an inevitable side effect of two generations without a major war to give people a real sense of proportion? Are Syrians clinging to each other desperately weeping because of the passing of George Michael?

Or perhaps we somehow missed the point worrying about a few celebrities given that we lost 456 dead in Afghanistan? Given that each one of those comes with grieving family, and given that there are over 2,000 wounded in action, many of them very seriously indeed, perhaps we ought to pull ourselves together.

And then there are the lads and lasses who made it home with no physical scars but with PTSD, what about grieving a bit for them. I’ve a friend for whom Bonfire night is hell.

Perhaps if all we have to worry about is a few dead celebrities, we’ve got nothing to worry about?



Read about a real celebrity!

Do they know it’s Christmas?

A man walks his sheep in a water-logged paddy field after recent
You have to admit that Sheep are not perhaps the brightest of God’s creatures. Now this isn’t blind prejudice, this is bitter experience talking. I willingly admit that by preference I’m a cattle man. Indeed in my world the term ‘cowboy’ is a professional designation, not a term of abuse hurled at a builder.

But still even sheep have their moments. Somewhere in that complex morass of instincts, pre-programmed subroutines and overriding urges to die, there appear to be occasional flashes of thought.

Last night it was pretty grim, storm Barbara came through with constant strong winds and occasional rain. Admittedly the rain wasn’t constant, but at one point it was a wall of water blasting across the yard. Still we’ve got small fields and pretty well anybody left outside can get decent shelter.
But this morning when I went to check sheep the last bunch I looked at was a bunch of old ewes down on our bottom ground. It doesn’t flood, but it can stand water, and it can be pretty squelchy under foot.

So as I squelched my way across it, accompanied by Sal who is a Border Collie bitch who doesn’t particularly like walking through water. Anyway we finally found the ewes, they’d obviously taken one look at the weather, decided that the other four horsemen of the Apocalypse would be along any minute and had headed for higher ground. Now to be fair it wasn’t all that much higher, but it is sandy and is firmer under foot. So it’s probably more comfortable for them.

So there they stood, glaring at Sal. She wandered closer to them, following one scent or another and one ewe had the temerity to stamp a front foot at her. Now you do have to worry about the survival abilities of a species where the first line of defence is to emulate the toddler tantrum and stamp your foot at somebody. Mind you their second line of defence is to lower their head and charge things.

A neighbour had a couple of Shetland ponies, and in winter we’d let them into a field of ours. It gave his paddock a rest and it wasn’t as if two Shetlands are going to do any damage to seven acres of grass.

But this particular winter we had a cow who’d fallen and done the splits. She was now out on grass recovering, with a couple of calves on her to drink the milk. Each day I’d walk across the field to give her some feed. Each day, old Boz, our dog at the time would accompany me, and each day one of the ponies would attack Boz.

Now the pony was a little thug (Shetlands suffer from this) and would just put his head down and charge the dog. Unfortunately from the pony’s point of view, a charging Shetland appears to have the turning circle of an oil tanker. Boz didn’t actually condescend to notice his attack. The old dog would just speed up very slightly, or slow down very slightly, and the pony would miss and would go thundering past and would take fifty yards to slow down, turn round, and aim for the next attack.

Mind you it isn’t just the lesser breeds without the law who use this form of attack; I’ve had cattle charge me. On one occasion we were getting twenty-two dairy heifers out of a field. Lassie, my dog at the time, fetched them down the field to the gate, and twenty-one went through the gate and one turned in the gateway and ran back up the hill. This heifer was, to use a technical term, ‘radged’. It was a certifiable nutcase, and its bad attitude ensured that it was destined for burgers not breeding. Lassie ran across the front of it to turn it. It ran over her. Lassie ran back across the front of it and grabbed its nose. Heifer shook its head and Lassie flew across the field, back feet first.

The dog had had enough. She hurled herself at the heifer’s back feet and dogged it all the way up the field, turned it against a big hedge, and dogged it all the way back down the hill to the gate. In the gateway the heifer turned on her heels and charged over the dog and back up the hill. Lassie set off after her again.

In this process I’d been running up and down the hill, trying to keep up with the action and if possible help the dog. Finally I caught up with them and it was like the start of the Shootout at the OK Corral. The dog and the heifer were staring each other out, neither wanting to make the first move, but both determined they weren’t going to back down. Then when I appeared the heifer saw me and decided I was the easier target. So she put her head down and charged me. As she came at me I could see she was so tired she was swaying so I just sidestepped and pushed her over. She went down in a snotty heap and I knelt on her head to hold her down until somebody fetched a rope and we led her out of the field on the rope.


Anyway, I hope you all have a good Christmas and hope that any problems that crop up are soluble in sherry and good company.

Rather than a card I thought I’d send you a Christmas Present. If you click on the link below you should download one of my shorter short stories as a free pdf



All the best.



Simple Economics

Holstein friesian cows walking to milking shed, Biddulph Hall farm, Biddulph, Staffordshire, England, United Kingdom


The price of food is inelastic. This means that if the output of food increases, you won’t eat more. Even if the price drops you’re not going to eat an extra meal a day.

If the output falls, then you’re not going to say, ‘fair enough, food’s too dear, I’ll only eat every other day, not a problem.

In times for famine people sell their children.


The problem is that over long experience (about four thousand years) it’s been discovered that round about a 5% shortfall in production produces major food price rises as people scrabble to buy it and a 5% over production produces major food price crashes.

It’s always been true, (get hold of the book ‘The Grain Market in the Roman Empire’ for example)


Because of this, the basic rule in agriculture has been that farmers go bust in years of plenty and make money in famines.


The problem is that if you plant the same crop in the same field with the same fertiliser in two consecutive years, then the yield can differ by 10% just due to ordinary weather conditions. That’s without extremes


So the EU set up the CAP. The idea was that they’d aim to produce a built-in surplus. Only a couple of percent and in good years they’ll stockpile a bit and in the bad years they’ll draw from out of the stockpiles (hardly rocket science, see Genesis 41)

The problem is that because this always ensures a surplus, then the prices will stay low and agriculture will collapse after a few years of it.

So to guarantee production AND keep prices at a sensible average, they paid farmers to survive.


There is a second reason for this as well. When the EU was formed, there was a fear that the post war rural population in France and Italy were largely Communist, because the Communists had been the pillars of the resistance and almost by definition their strongholds were in rural areas. Their grip on the rural population was strengthened by the fact that agriculture was in total collapse due to the war and the peasantry had nothing to lose by supporting the Communists. The CAP was thus supposed to guarantee the rural population had a decent level of income and encourage them to ‘buy into’ the new post-war liberal consensus.

Article 39b of the treaty of Rome specifically states “thus to ensure a fair standard of living for the agricultural community, in particular by increasing the individual earnings of persons engaged in agriculture”

At the moment we’re at a tricky stage in the evolution of agricultural policy. If you go to you’ll see the following statement;-

“The average farmer made £28,300 in subsidies last year and £2,100 from agriculture. The average cereal farmer lost £9,500 on agriculture.”


Because governments have been so keen to keep food prices and inflation as low as possible, (in general but especially since 2008 and the financial crisis followed by very slow wage rises) they’ve encouraged the sale of food at below the cost of production. Now we could reduce the cost of production, but here we have another problem, virtually all agriculture in Europe, done to EU standards of animal health and welfare, is economically nonviable without support.

The two largest unsupported sectors are pigs and poultry, and they survive by working on an industrial scale and using practices that consumers largely dislike. But this dislike translates into perhaps 10% of the population doing something about it as in spending more money. (Occasionally it hits 15% in prosperous times, perhaps even 20% briefly, but it always falls back.)


So the EU (and UK) have a choice. They either provide support to the industry, (but they cannot do it through price support because that’s banned under WTO and so support is paid for environmental and animal health and welfare reasons) and keep the sort of agriculture they’re happy with.

Or they cut support and have economic agriculture. This will either mean, for example, 5,000 cow dairy herds, housed indoors all year round, and with matching beef finishing units, because that’s the scale needed, or it will mean not actually producing food at all. (The biggest US unit is apparently 30,000 cows; the Chinese are building one for 40,000)


The irony of it is that, as the horsemeat fiasco showed, the UK population hedges its own agricultural industry around with expensive regulation and then imports any cheap crap it can find ‘because food’s too dear.’


Another route we could go down is cheap labour. Actually it is the other route we go down. Some of it is migrant labour.

The number of people working on United Kingdom farms is about 481,000

Apparently the number of non-UK born workers employed on UK farms is 34,513.

So the number of migrant workers in the industry is about 7%, but the vast majority of those working in the industry are self–employed and for many of them, even with subsidy, they’re earning less than the minimum wage for the hours they work. Remember as a dairy farmer I was habitually working a twelve hour day, milking at 6am in the morning and finishing milking at 6pm in the evening, and Sunday was my day off, but obviously I still have to milk twice a day and feed everybody as well.  These hours are not uncommon, month in and month out. But there again I suspect they’re the sort of hours many small shopkeepers will recognise, and I admit their row is harder to hoe than mine was. I didn’t have to be polite to people all day.

Summat fer Nowt?




If you can live without caffeine,


If you can be cheerful, ignoring aches and pains,


If you can resist complaining,


If you can understand when your loved ones are too busy to give you any time,


If you can take criticism and blame without resentment,


If you can ignore a friend’s limited education and never correct him or her,


If you can resist treating a rich friend better than a poor friend,


If you can face the world without lies and deceit,


If you can conquer tension without medical help,


If you can relax without liquor,


If you can sleep without the aid of drugs,


If you can honestly say that deep in your heart you have no prejudice against creed, colour, religion, gender preference, or politics,


–Then you have almost reached the same level of spiritual development as your dog!


Now they say, you never get summat fer nowt? (Well happen they don’t speak English proper where you’re from but I reckon you’ll get the gist, you don’t get something for nothing.)
Well at least you don’t with Amazon.

You see I had a cunning plan; I’ve got a series of six rather good short stories, a mixture of detective, mystery, and fantasy. People who read them have been very glowing in their comments, so in an attempt to help more people find them, I produced a shorter version of the story, written purely to give away. Normally these tales are 20,000 words; this one is a bijou 8,000. It may be small but it’s perfectly formed.


Anyway I’d stick it on Amazon and get them to drop the price to zero because it was written to be given away. (Because I’m just nice like that, and not at all because I’m trying the crack dealers gambit of getting you hooked on the first free sample.)

Unfortunately whatever I did Amazon insisted in charging for the damned thing. I tried all the usual things and whatever I did, Amazon refused to drop the price. So finally I’ve taken it off Amazon.


You now have two choices. You can grab it from here as a pdf. No messing about, hopefully just click on the link and go on your way rejoicing.


so click on this bit here ——- a-nice-devotion

Or you can go to

Or just click on this link to download the pdf





A Nice Devotion

A tale of murder, theft, adultery and animal husbandry in which our hero is forced to bring a guilty man to justice or face the threat of matrimony.


Oh and the six rather nice stories you’re supposed to be lured into buying?



No smoke without fire


A friend of mine sent me an article about a farm fire and asked if such experiences are common. This set me to thinking about such things. I remember a fire at a neighbour’s when I was still at school, but in the livestock areas now, with more silage than hay being made, fires are far less common. Across in the arable areas they’re both more professional with their grain storage, and keep straw outside, so there’s less fires there as well. Indeed I did wonder what proportion of farm fires are arson?

I remember reading of one farmer on the urban fringe. They had one big field next to a housing estate. Basically they went in with a combine fitted with a metal detector in the morning and followed it with the baler, aiming to clear the field by dark. Anything left in the field overnight, be it grain, straw or even machinery, was just burned by the locals. One day as they were working they discovered a child sitting surrounded by straw and boxes of matches trying to set fire to it. After long experience they just hand them over to the police, if you give them to their parents they’ve just back twenty minutes later with more matches.

A few years ago there was another article in the farming press. A chap had won a scholarship to study urban fringe vandalism and its effects on agriculture. He discovered to his shock that it was an entirely UK phenomena. On the continent they didn’t even have the concept.

Since then I’ve talked to people who’ve worked in the urban fringe. One rep from a agricultural supply company had taken a demotion to move to Cumbria and he talked of his time in his previous patch. To survive farms had virtually become fortresses. You phoned ahead to tell the farmer you were coming. The farmer would phone your boss to make sure you were a legitimate rep sent by the company. He parked his car at one farm (outside the yard, in a lay by.) The yard gate was locked but there was a narrow gate for pedestrian access. You walked through the gate and walked along the white dotted line. If you stuck to the line the chained guard dogs couldn’t get you.

As far as he could tell the problem really arises where sink estates have been built on the edge of cities and have then been used as dumping grounds by the local authorities. It’s very localised, but where it happens it’s a nightmare for anybody trying to make a living.

I was talking to somebody who worked for the environment agency on river work. He had worked in these areas. He told me about one farmer who had been working in his yard and had looked across a field to see his cattle running in panic. A group of youths in a boat on the canal were shooting at them with air rifles.

He drove his vehicle, similar to the one in the picture, down to the canal, extended the boom and dropped the entire load of thick shit onto the boat, sinking it.

Obviously there were inevitable repercussions. The environment agency turned up. As it was the farmer had managed to pull the boat out of the water without causing any real pollution, so they sympathised with him and suggested that next time he just use a big concrete block or a couple of anvils welded together, so they’d sink the boat but not cause problems to the river.


For more on the pleasures of the rural life you could always treat yourself to

So what are we going to do about it?


There’s a campaign in Barrow, we had two ‘rough sleepers’ die overnight and people felt that enough was enough. Given our facilities, we’ve got to the stage that if the council decide you’re not a priority they’ll give you a tent to sleep in. Funnily enough people are still moaning that the council hasn’t spent a fortune on Christmas lights this year.
We have a problem, what are we going to do about it? Well there’s no point in saying ‘they’ should do something. We’ve had the issue for a lot of years and seen all three major parties in power and we’ve still got the issue. Any solution they put forward might increase taxes but it would inevitably create jobs in the public sector and ten years down the line the problem would still be here.

So as far as I can see, if the problem is to be fixed, it’ll have to be fixed by the people of Barrow. As a friend of mine said, “We’re a damned long way from Carlisle, so they won’t be interested.” We’re a damned long way from Westminster as well, and even if they’re interested, they’ve got a lot of other troubles to deal with.


I suppose the problem is that the homeless are unfashionable. Often dirty and unwashed (hardly a surprise, tricky getting the laundry done when you’re homeless), often suffering from mental illness, they’re never going to come into the cute and huggable category. The difficulty is that homelessness is a dangerously easy condition to get into. Marital breakdown or mental illness can be a fast track on the way to homelessness. The two can even be combined; mental illness can make somebody impossible to live with.

One bitter fact is that it may well be easier to get somebody a home than get their mental illness treated. So perhaps that’s something else that needs looking at? But again, mental illness lacks the kudos of attempting to cure cancer, and again, lacks the cute and cuddly side when it comes to the various specialists shroud waving and trying to attract funding to their area.


So what are we going to do? Well St Mark’s Church has started their ‘Buried in Barrow’ Campaign.


The hope is that next winter we’ll have a night shelter any homeless person can go to, seven nights a week, at least through winter.


This strikes me as a good a place to start as any.

The wisdom of crowds


In 1906 Francis Galton visited a livestock fair. The organisers had an ox on display, and the peasantry attending were invited to guess what the animal would weigh after it had been slaughtered and dressed out. Apparently nearly 800 participated, and Galton as a statistician was allowed after the event to study the entry forms. Whilst nobody got the weight right, the average of all 800 guesses was within 0.8% of the weight measured by the judges. It’s funny the things you come across at cattle marts isn’t it.

But anyway, earlier today I was checking sheep and in the distance noticed what appeared to be a balloon tangled up in the hedge. I didn’t have time to do anything about it then, but this afternoon I went and collected it. I wouldn’t claim discarded balloons are a major problem but I’ll notice a couple a year and I quietly collect them and pop them in the bin just to keep things tidy.

As I pulled this one out of the hawthorn I noticed it had a note attached. I assumed it might be a balloon race and looked more closely just to see where it had come from. It was as I read the card that I discovered the concept of the ‘angelversary’. It’s not the sort of discovery you expect to make in a cold field in the middle of a December afternoon. In case you’ve not come across them, it’s a commemoration of the death or stillbirth of a child. By definition the whole thing is heart-achingly sad.

And for any family in this situation the whole thing can be overwhelming. Somehow people have to cope and if sending a balloon with a kiss on it so that they can somehow kiss the little star they’ve lost helps, then frankly I don’t mind quietly pulling the spent balloons out of hedges and dropping them sadly into the bin on a daily basis.

But in spite of the scepticism of the educated and the sneers of the wise, I don’t think hoi polloi have adjusted to the fact that apparently now all we are is DNA frantically attempting to replicate, and that any sense we have of free will is merely a delusion built into the system.

Because in spite of the lecturing, it seems that the ignorant still have a feeling that there is something out there which isn’t us but is somehow greater than us, and it’s when the pain is strongest that you come closest to it.

It’s still better to light a candle than curse the darkness.



And smile while you’ve still got your teeth

As one reviewer said “This is a delightful collection of gentle rants and witty reminiscences about life in a quiet corner of South Cumbria. Lots of sheep, cattle and collie dogs, but also wisdom, poetic insight, and humour. It was James Herriot who told us that ‘It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet’ but Jim Webster beautifully demonstrates that it usually happened to the farmer too, but far less money changed hands.

I, for one, am hoping that this short collection of blogs finds a wide and generous audience – not least because I’m sure there’s more where this came from. And at 99p you can’t go wrong!”

Poets, beauty and truth



It has to be said that poets seem to regard spending time in the company of an editor with the same enthusiasm as a tom cat looks forward to a trip to the vets. Listen to the fuss they make about it and you’d begin to suspect it was for the same reason.

Still at last I have done it. The first short collection of Tallis Steelyard prose is now available for purchase by a discerning public. Given that they have, so I am assured, been clamouring for the opportunity for some time, I am not so much promoting this august work as merely broadcasting a public service announcement.

So what do you get if you purchase a copy of ‘Tallis Steelyard, shower me with gold and other stories?’ Well the obvious answer is that this slim volume presents the wit, wisdom and jumbled musings of Tallis Steelyard.

For those who wish to know more, then this slim novella contains over twenty chapters of varying lengths. They cover topics ranging from ‘One Truly Exceptional Bowel Movement’ through to the rather more erudite ‘The Ballard of Stagbold Keep.’  Then again which budding poetaster could turn down an opportunity to have the advice of the master permanently on hand? Thus and so ‘How to make a living as a Poet’ will be essential reading for many.


Available for purchase from Amazon around the world.