Monthly Archives: December 2018

And a happy new year to you all as well!

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I know people who cannot remember what they were doing last New Year’s Eve. I know people who only remember because they got a photocopy of the police charge sheet which describes their antics in inglorious detail.

For myself I confess I’m not a great celebrator of New Year’s Eve. From memory I think I’ve seen in two (or it might be three) but one of them was by accident.

Some of it is the feeling that I’ve never had a year so bad that I wanted to drown it, some of it was pragmatism. I did the morning milking for over thirty consecutive New Year’s mornings. The sure knowledge that you’re the one who is going to be standing in a milking parlour at 5:30am is the perfect answer to, “Come on Jim, just another glass.”

Not only that but early on I learned the secret of the New Year. It comes in all by itself. When you’re self-employed and working on your own, it’s a real joy to find a job you can delegate to somebody else.

But still, it does seem to be the season for good wishes and maudlin sentimentality.

Thus and so I thought I’d provide the sincere good wishes and leave the maudlin sentimentality to Tallis Steelyard (https://tallissteelyard.wordpress.com/) who does it so much better than I do. Here is a poem for the season.

 

The bottles sprawl unheeded

The discarded valiant dead

Their sacrifice accepted

Sobriety has fled

The truth it surfaced briefly

But shrugged and went to bed.

Will you walk again beside me?

Will you tread the path I tread?

The wine it made me wordy

The truth when poured was red

I didn’t mean to speak them

But I meant the words I said.

 

Still it strikes me that on a day like today, it is time to put those resolutions into practice early. You know, the one you made about reading more. So to help you, I’d recommend

 

 

In fact, if this is the season for sentimentality, surely it’d be an excellent idea of buy copies for all your friends as well

Anyway, Happy New Year

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Pontifications on a road less travelled. The cat that got all of the cream.

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There was a comment in the paper the other day. Here in the UK, clowns are starting to complain that politicians are being called clowns. The clowns point out that being a clown is damned hard work, demands considerable fitness, great timing and the ability to work closely with others as part of a well drilled team!
Another comment I saw was an MP pointing out that because he’d voted to reduce the legal aid bill, the reduction now meant that he wasn’t eligible to get legal aid. Yes, revel in the schadenfreude but stop and think about it a minute.

In this country at the moment, if your income is the same as the prime-minister, a cabinet minister or a shadow cabinet minister, then you’re in the top 1%. In simple terms, 99% of the population earn less than you do. Given that all our politicians have the ability to clock up a fair heap of expenses, get invited to travel to exotic foreign parts at somebody else’s expense (and we ask no more than they remember to declare the trip) I think we can safely assume that most MPs and similar are, if not actually in the magical 1%, at least in the top two or three percent.

So in this country legal costs have got so high, even people in the top two or three percent can no longer afford them and need legal aid, financial assistance from the taxpayer, before they can cope?
Now it’s long been a tactic by the wealthy, be they unscrupulous millionaires, or senior departmental civil servants, to use the almost infinite wealth at their command to crush those who get in their way. HM Revenue and Customs will regularly send out letters which mean (but don’t actually say,) ‘We think you own us x, but because you haven’t paid it, we want you to pay 2x. Or we can take you to court and bankrupt you whatever the court decided.’

But let’s take a look at this top two or three percent. Yes, everybody points the finger at the multi-millionaire businessman. Let’s look at Denise Coates. Her Grandfather started with a few betting shops. She’s the one who had the guts to take betting on-line, borrowed the money to do it and had she failed, she’d have been bankrupt. So now she’s making serious money and paying serious tax.

But in that 1% we have over 700 civil and public servants and those serving on quangos. Then you’ve got all those people who work for the BBC. The BBC had 214 staff earning more than the PM. That probably doesn’t include all those the BBC pushed onto into self-employment because the BBC didn’t want to have to pay their national insurance or pensions. But as a general rule, when a broadcaster interviews a politician, the broadcaster will be the one with the biggest income.

Now if you disapprove of Denise Coates, you can take immediate action. If you don’t bet with her company, you don’t contribute to her wealth. But if you feel the PM or the leader of the opposition is earning too much, tough, they’ll just siphon the money out of your pocket whatever you think. Same with the BBC, you disapprove? Tough, if you want to watch any TV at all, whether BBC or not, you’ve still got to contribute.

But what really hacks me off about those politicians and civil servants who are doing nicely as part of the top two or three percent is that they know the figures.

They have sat there and said, “This is exactly how much the state can screw out of our taxpayers. Obviously we need this much money set aside for us first, to reward us for being so utterly wonderful and efficient.”
Then they have to look at how to spend the rest. So when you meet the care worker on the minimum wage struggling to keep a patient with Alzheimer’s clean and dry, you know where the money has gone, you know just who to blame.

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Strangely enough I’ve never really had the urge to become obscenely rich, I just sort of rub along and get by. Also, in the interests of cheering people up I write a bit. So if you’re just hacked off with our masters and want to buy one of my books as a political gesture, or alternatively just fancy a good read, I’d encourage you to invest the magnificent sum of £0.99!

As the reviewer said, “Someone has tried to cheat Benor and his young ‘apprentice’ Mutt. They set out, with a little help, to redress the balance. Another in this series of Port Naain novellas that had me smiling. They are not belly-laugh stories but full of wry, clever and thoughtful humour. Often, it’s the way he tells them. I’m always up for more of these stories.”

Slouching Towards Bethlehem

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There are a lot of Christmas traditions about. Some are long lasting, some almost transient. A friend of mine used to be in the catering/retail trade and one year, calling in the wholesalers just before Christmas, discovered that the wholesalers already had Easter eggs. You can see their point; there is no real point in a wholesaler majoring of Christmas items on the 20th December.

So my friend bought some of the Easter eggs, and his nephews got them for Christmas as part of their Christmas present from their delightfully eccentric uncle. Easter eggs in their Christmas stocking became, for that small group of small boys, a venerable and much loved tradition which eventually faded away with the passing of the years.

But there are all sorts of Christmas traditions. Some are faith based, some are particular to a nation, a community, and the best ones, the ones that really mean something, can be particular to a family.

For us, at the moment, Midnight Communion is an important part of our Christmas. For me, it marks the real beginning of the season. But when I was milking, the idea of getting home from a church service at 1am and getting up to milk at 5:30am was unthinkable.

Certainly when I was in my teens and early twenties, Christmas started for me when, at about 3pm on Christmas Eve, my mother would make mince pies whilst listening to the nine lessons and carols from Kings College. I don’t think I ever heard the entire broadcast because I’ve always had to go out to milk, but still, for me, it was the start of the season.

Another tradition I remember from youth was the entire family gathering at my maternal grandparents for a Christmas Dinner, normally on the 27th of December. The five daughters, their husbands and children would all sort of arrive about 11am, we’d eat together, there’d be talking and the grandchildren would play together, and then by about 3pm, people were starting to leave. All the sons-in-law were farmers, all had cows to milk and all wanted to be back home by 4pm to start milking. This is another tradition which faded. My grandparents died, so we’d meet at the home of one of the daughters, but then, as the grandchildren grew up, married, had their own children and in-laws, gathering the clan for a major get-together became a logistic nightmare.

Even the pattern of Christmas Day has slowly evolved. As a child, opening presents happened twice. When we woke up there would be a stocking at the end of the bed from Father Christmas. This tended to be small stuff, fun, and gave us a chance to experience the decadence of eating chocolate before breakfast.

After breakfast, as children, we’d go out and do what jobs we could so that when my Dad came in for his coffee about 10am, he didn’t have to go out again. With coffee we had the grand opening of presents we gave each other, then my mother would put the final touches to the dinner, and we’d eat at noon as usual.

After dinner we would sit, perhaps watch telly, perhaps read, because Christmas always involved a number of new books. Then at 3pm we watched the Queen’s Speech and went out to milk. About 6pm we’d be in and ready for our tea which was always help yourself to cold turkey, pickles and whatever. Normally there would be a good film on the telly and we’d watch that as a family.

Now daughters organise the meal, and my lady wife and I arrive in the early afternoon in time to be fed. I don’t have to milk but I’ll check sheep, feed the dry cows and give the dairy herd its midday feed before I go and get my meal, which is how it should be.

This year, as we were doing our Christmas cards, we had the usual discussion about who had died since last time we sent them a card. The list of people I’m sending cards to is shrinking as a generation slowly fades away. Soon it’ll be my generation that starts slowly fading away, as that rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.

So our ancient traditions gradually evolve and continue to remind us of the important of the things that matter, family and those we love.

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Anyway I hope you all have a really good Christmas, the ‘language’ on the card is a Cumbrian dialect. It’s not one I speak although I can understand it and do use a lot of the words.

In the bleak midwinter

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From memory it was 2005. It started when I had to take a dead bullock up to a veterinary investigation centre north of Penrith. At the time I was driving a Ford Granada I’d inherited from my late father. A nice car, not a lot of acceleration but it was lovely to drive and once it got up to speed it would cruise without any apparent effort.

I was towing a cattle trailer with the dead bullock in it, and we went up the M6. This is where I started having problems. There was a gale blowing out of the south west and it was pushing me north. Unfortunately there wasn’t a lot of weight in the trailer and if I went much over 50mph the damn thing started to fishtail! So I was driving uphill with my foot more on the brake than the accelerator.

Anyway I dumped the carcass for inspection and drove back. It got worse. Now, with pedal to the metal, I struggled to reach 50mph. Not only that but the gale was bringing in driving rain as well. Water was flowing up out of the drains at the side of the motorway and was flowing over the surface of the road.

I did, briefly, contemplate leaving the motorway for a more sheltered route but that would probably be flooded so I stuck with the M6 for as long as I could. Eventually I got home, parked the trailer by an old lean-to building, put the car away and got on with getting livestock fed. OK so it was blowing a gale, but this is Cumbria, we’re on the Atlantic coast, we’re used to gales.

In the middle of the night things got really wild out there, so wild I went downstairs and looked out of the back kitchen door. It was as black as the ace of spades but there were a lot of things creaking and groaning in the wind. I shrugged; there wasn’t anything I could do so I shut the door again. At this point there was a lot of tearing and clanging and the lights went off. So I went back to bed.

Next morning I could see that the clanging had been the roof of the lean-to blowing off and landing on the roof of a building behind it. Well these things happen, but it had also landed on our electricity supply. It had pulled the cable out of its connection on the ‘live’ side. Now there was no way we could do anything with this stuff, it’s strictly a job for the utility company. So we phoned them.

Except that at the time, Carlisle was flooded and the RNLI and police were cruising the streets in inflatable dinghies rescuing people! Everybody was being rushed north to get them fixed. It seemed fair enough to be honest. So I kept working, stepping over this cable that was strung across our yard at knee height and twice a day I’d phone the utility people just to remind them we were still without electric.

We had a tractor generator but that powered the buildings (important for a dairy farm) and one socket in the house. From this socket extension leads snaked round the house to feed the freezers. At one end of the house we had an oil fired rayburn cooker and an open fire, so we could cook and had two warm rooms. Also because the rayburn heats our hot water; as it had to be kept turned up most of the time, you could have as many hot baths as you wanted, provided you had them in the dark.
Also the tractor was parked under our bedroom window, so if we wanted to sleep we had to switch the tractor off. But then I’m a big boy, I can sleep in the dark. Also once a day we unplugged a freezer and I switched the computer on for an hour and went on line. Back then we had dial-up but it gave us a chance to try and find out what was going on!

Like everybody else in Cumbria, when there’s an emergency, we listened to Radio Cumbria. To be fair to them, they rise to the occasion. Slowly it looked like order was being restored, and the Utility assured everybody they had installed special emergency helpdesks for those still without electricity. So I phoned the number given.

I was assured by the emergency call centre that actually I had electricity and did not have a problem. I explained I was stepping across the downed cable at regular intervals and we didn’t have electricity. So the person guaranteed us that this would be brought to the attention of the powers that be and we’d soon be sorted. This process continued for four days! Apparently the super help lines had a lot of people with school desks, telephones and note pads. They’d take a call, make a note, and walk to the front of the class where they’d hand their note to somebody in charge who would do something with it.

It was on the sixth day (days when round here it barely got light, and we lived in permanent gloom) that Radio Cumbria announced they were going to have a phone-in with the boss of the Utility. I phoned immediately was told I’d be second on the list to speak to him.

I sat in a room illuminated only by the glow from the fire and listened to the show start. Then the first lady came on. She was magnificent. She utterly flayed the Utility boss. She dissected him. She had passed through despair, anger and rage; she was firmly entrenched on that cold icy wasteland of utter contempt. Without raising her voice and without resorting to bad language, she filleted him. I was holding the telephone at the time waiting for my turn so I had to stop myself cheering her on.

Then it was my turn. I think the Utility boss was hoping for something less painful, but when I pointed out that we’d been off since it started and had talked to his help-line twice a day every day, he could hardly say we’d not told him our problems. Compared to the previous caller I was almost jovial, when she went for icy disdain, I went for self-deprecation and a bitter irony.

Next day, not one, but two teams arrived in our yard, and six and a half days after the lights went off, we had power again.

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The perfect book for the person who wants to stay warm!

 

As one reviewer said, “Another great Tallis Steelyard tale. 

I find there’s nothing better on a cold wet day, than to sit indoors, near a warm fire/radiator, with a hot coffee, some biscuits/cake and one of Jim Webster’s books. So that’s what I’ve done today, with this particular book.
I find the plots intriguing, the characters endearing (even the ‘bad/evil’ ones) and the storytelling style relaxing.
The various threads in the stories are always neatly tied up and the endings invariably satisfactory.”

Multicultural dog in a manger

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Sal is a Border Collie, a working dog. Thus she does seem to get a bit tetchy about other dogs. It’s as if she cannot really see the point of them. But then she’s perfectly happy playing with the older lambs if the spirit moves them, and she and the cows have an interesting relationship. She has never had to do much with cattle. So she can meander among them and they don’t take offence, merely sniffing her as she wanders past.

The other thing that fascinates her is what the cattle and sheep eat. She quite likes sheep nuts, and when anybody feeds calves she always tags along in case there is some milk spare. (By spare she really means ‘left unattended’.)
But still when I was tidying up the silage at the feed barrier, I wasn’t surprised that she joined me.

As well as silage, the cows are also getting some fodder beet and they love it Sal had been watching them eat it and may have noticed their obvious enjoyment. I’ll not attempt to analyse the thought processes but they seem to be along the lines of, “Cows like dairy cake and I like dairy cake, therefore if cows like fodder beet, I might like fodder beet.

So she wandered across to try some. The cows largely ignored her presence. It certainly wasn’t something they were willing to delay lunch for. She found a piece and chewed it, somewhat meditatively. It rather reminded me of a diner sampling an unknown curry in a new restaurant. Still Sal seemed to find this new ethnic cuisine she was sampling a little bland. Given that the average Border Collie seems to delight in such delicacies as a piece of stinking afterbirth, I can understand her finding fodder beet less toothsome.

At this point a cow noticed a piece of the beet with a small dog attached. A head two to three times the weight of Sal swung across and nudged her away from it. I don’t think Sal thought the vegetarian option was worth making a fuss about.

But anyway, not long after this, a wagon load of cake arrived. When I started in farming unloading a feed wagon involved carrying half hundredweight bags by hand and stacking them in a store, now the cake is just blown in.

The day was cold. Further inland it had been freezing and the weather forecast was for freezing rain and black ice. But whilst it was cold it hadn’t started raining. It was pretty obvious that we couldn’t get black ice, the ground was too warm, but you only need to go a couple of miles from the coast for all that to change.

Anyway with the wagon unloaded, the driver explained that she wasn’t allowed to drive for another four minutes, because of rest periods and drivers hours.

So we watched the rain roll in. The longer she sat about in our yard, the worse the weather was going to get. All she wanted was to get on, get the job done, and get home before it started snowing.

But no, she had four minutes more to wait. I’m not sure what she was expected to do in that four minutes. To put it bluntly, with wind chill it’s been so cold that you’d need more than four minutes to get enough layers off to allow you to go to the toilet!
But never mind, somebody in an office somewhere wrote down the regulations and it isn’t the role of the little people to question the pontifications of the wise. Our place is merely to hear and obey.

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Still if you want to know more about what Sal gets up to, try

 

 

 

Just messing about

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When he started farming on his own account my father kept a diary. He thought it would be useful and so he jotted down in it what he’d done that day, anything bought or sold, prices and similar.

Then one day my mother seems to have ‘encouraged’ him to go to town with her to do some shopping. To this day I have no idea where they went or why, but his diary entry is clear. There written in his beautiful copperplate (somebody once commented my father’s handwriting had never been spoiled by over-use) were the words;-
’Went shopping with Dorothy. Wasted Day.’

 

I don’t think my mother was entirely impressed, but my father learned his lesson. He never wrote another diary entry as long as he lived.
To an extent I’m nearly as bad as my Dad in this regard. With the arrival of dairy cows my days are fuller than they were, which does mean I get less time for writing. So after one particularly busy afternoon I commented that, “At some point in the future, the presenter of some Radio 4 literary programme is going to interview you and ask how it was that the world came to be denied so much of my literary output.”

The person I was talking to just shrugged and commented, “I’ll just tell them that you preferred messing about with dairy cows to sitting down to do some work.”
Which is probably the truth.

 

But I’ve often wondered what it would be like to have my books set for ‘A’ level. I suppose that for a start I’d get decent sales but then people would hate them. Not only that but I’d have all sorts of people deconstructing them and explaining the subtleties of the message hidden in the work.

There again, I heard somebody tell of how their (American obviously) high school English teacher made them read Hemmingway’s novel “The Old Man and the Sea”. She picked apart literally everything in the book and said it was all symbolism. The sea, the shark, the colour of the shark, the fish, the shoreline, the boat… According to her, this was a literary masterpiece of Christian symbolism.

According to Hemmingway himself, however when approached by the pupil in question: “There isn’t any symbolism. The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish. The sharks are sharks, no better and no worse. All the symbolism that people see is shit.”

Apparently the teacher refused to believe the author.

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Still until my books are accepted for the literature syllabus you do at least have one advantage over future generations. Buy the book now and you can boast to your children and grandchildren that you’d read my work before I was famous!

A dog’s life?

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Farm dogs are a peculiar mix. Most of them are Border Collies, most of them are working dogs, and they’re trained rather than domesticated. Hence if you’re used to Labradors or similar, farm dogs can be a bit forbidding.

Some of it is they’re not used to new people and treat them with justifiable suspicion.

I remember talking to a vet many years ago and he commented about one farm dog he’d had to deal with. The farm was a small Lake District hill farm. As well as the obligatory sheep, the owners had a small herd of pedigree Hereford cattle and every year they’d raise a proportion of their bull calves to sell on as breeding bulls.

So every year the vet would turn up to castrate those that weren’t going to be kept for breeding. And on this particular day the vet arrived in the yard, gathered his enamelled bowl, his scalpel, his burdizzos and made his way to the shippon where the young bulls were tied up. The farmer went into the house to get the list of the bulls who were to be cut.

As the vet walked across the yard the farm dog sneaked up behind him and bit him on the back of the leg. This was no way to treat somebody who’d spent the war in the Seventh Armoured Division and he hurled the bowl at the dog, just missed, so he hurled the burdizzos. Finally as the dog fled through the fell gate up onto the fell, he hurled the scalpel. Memory insists that it stuck quivering in the wooden gate as the dog disappeared.

Anyway with the dog gone the vet picked up his bowl, his burdizzos and collected his scalpel from the gate, brushed them down and went into the shippon to wait for the farmer. When the farmer arrived nothing was said of the incident.

A year or so later the vet was on the farm and he and the farmer were chatting as they did the TB testing. The farmer commented, “Dogs can be bluidy strange creatures.”
The vet commented, “Well I’d have to agree with you on that one.”

The farmer continued, “Take that nasty sod of ours. Dammed good working dog but if anybody strange comes into the yard he bites them; all except for you. The minute he hears your car he’s through the fell gate and up onto the fell as fast as he can go.”

The vet just shrugged, “As you said, bluidy strange creatures.”

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If, in the interest of personal self-improvement, or you’re conducting a programme of serious academic research, or you are merely intent on increasing the gaiety of nations, you may want to read more.

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.