Sunshine

If there was one television programme that had a cult following in Saskatchewan during the winter it was the weather forecast. Putting to one side a host of cultural differences, the difference that needed to be taken very seriously – especially in winter, was the weather. An outdoor temperature of minus 40 Fahrenheit plus a wind chill factor of another 30 degrees meant exposure for many minutes meant death.

These days the weather forecast is a ‘must watch’ item, not because our lives are in danger, but because growth on our pastures and the health of our animals is so dependent on rain or at the present, lack of it. Imagining that the actual weather will bear much relation to the forecast is of course wishful thinking. Weather forecasting on the prairies is a doddle in comparison.

Depending on your viewpoint, the warmth and sunshine of recent days has been a very welcome thing. It has certainly allowed a great deal of progress on the refencing of the farm. I recall at a fairly young age helping my father replace a fence in our suburban garden. Digging post holes, attaching feather boarding and then liberally applying that awful substance with an unforgettable smell, creosote.

On the farm. It is a rather less simple matter. Often the fence has become semi-buried in outgrowth from a hedge, is bound to be entwined with brambles and barbed wire can inflict even nastier wounds than bramble thorns. So, for fences in this state the answer is to bring in heavy machinery to rip it all out. The mass of tangled wire, rotten wood and vegetation then has to be collected and burnt with the wire being left for sale to the scrap merchant.

Putting in new fencing on this scale – the target is some ten miles – unless done with specialised machinery invariably leads to wonky fences with variable wire tensions. It can be done in-house for short lengths, and our post banger has seen much use over fifteen years, but to do what we have to have done, in the short time frame set by the government demands a mechanised approach. 

One of the less obvious of the problems post fencing results from the rather casual approach to dropped staples. Punctures on farm machinery are very tedious to fix. A more obvious problem, as fields that were previously only divided one from another by hurdles, is the need to put water troughs in where they were not necessary before. The great positive is, of course, the greater ease is in controlling the use of grass.

Walking round a field denuded of its fencing exposes other work to be done – especially where the new fencing is being pushed back to where it might have been originally. This is very much the case where there is a ditch between fence and hedge. Ditching is now, and perhaps always has been a controversial issue. Are we concerned to get the water off the land as fast as possible, or do we want to slow this process down by allowing the growth of vegetation which also will clean the water?

The weather has also made working with the animals easier, though in order to both protect the grass and meet the requirement of the government stewardship scheme, animals have had to be moved around. The main flock has moved onto a field adjacent to the barn while the suckler herd have moved to the top of field 3 – the field with the big scrape in it.

On top of that, this week the lambs had to be given their clostridial vaccination. Persuading bouncy young animals to conform to demands to go through the race in an orderly fashion is not easy.

This week the farm team is no longer Chris and children alone since Monday saw the return of Tim. His two weeks away have hopefully recharged his batteries since he also had a break from looking after his mother who spent the time in hospital and is now home again in a much better state of health. Women are so much tougher than men.

Typically, not all lambs could be vaccinated because we have had a number of late arrivals not yet old enough for the experience. The vaccination should not be given until lambs are three weeks old. Before that they should have some natural protection from their mothers.

The house has felt a little emptier these past days. Elements of the family are anxious to have puppies from Milly. To date all attempts have failed largely because of Milly’s attitude to sexual approaches. She is now away for a longer stretch of time in the hope there might be success. Her absence certainly does not seem to bother Flash. Indeed, she seems to relish being the only dog in the house. Incidentally if Milly does produce puppies it will not be in this house – ‘been there done that’ and have no wish to repeat the experience!

The horns were dug up at the beginning of the week. It became apparent that the delay meant we had less preparation than we hoped for, and it may be the window for spraying 500 this month has now closed.

A little while ago I wrote that there were still three calves due to appear. Well the number is now reduced by one. Our oldest cow has given us a good-looking heifer and all without making any demands on the team. 

A new and much welcomed fixture by the cows is a rubbing brush kept supplied by neem oil, both to comfort the animals and hopefully reduce the lice problem.

The rubbing brush is seen back right

This has been mounted on one of our cattle feed trailers since nothing else would have been strong enough for the pressure of the animals. It is easy enough to forget exactly how strong and heavy a full-grown cow is. All equipment used with cattle must be of heavy gauge steel.

Much progress has been made in finishing off the work on the new sewage system. While it has been fully operational for some time, final manhole covers had to go in place so that the fencing in field 7 could be completed by a little dog leg around the system. With that done, the need now is to tidy and clear the large back car park. Shameful though it may be to admit it but the fact that so many tenants are currently working from home has meant far fewer people have been inconvenienced!

I am conscious that I have had little to say on the current discussions on the Pasture -Fed Site. Recently there has been an energetic discussion on the value of dandelions, butter cups and creeping thistles. Unanimity only was with the value of the dandelion. Most were very hostile to creeping thistle, there was a split of view over buttercups, with some feeling that meadow buttercups were less to worry about than creeping buttercups. Certainly, this year has seen a real proliferation in the number of dandelions – whose value is both in bringing up trace elements and providing nectar for the insect world.

An unusual sight was to see a fox trailing a family of geese – two adults and ten goslings. I think the fox determined discretion was the better part of valour. An angry goose is quite a frightening sight let alone two. Moreover, a goose probably weighs slightly more than a fox. Less interesting is to see quite how many rabbits are now on the farm. One recent delight was to see goldfinches well away from the house garden. They really are very attractive small birds.

At the moment the natural world seems full of fledglings, which means our garden apart from the scent and multi colours of the flowers is full of birdsong. At this time of year, the blackbirds in the early evening are glorious to listen to. Almost as interesting is to see what a marvellous range of colours aquilegia, stocks and foxgloves can present. I knew they hybridise easily but this year the range of colours is wider than ever – all self-seeded of course. If only we could drive the crows away.

Aquilegia, stocks and foxgloves

Watching the detectives

For a change, this week Anne and I watched a Maigret drama. Very different from Lewis, Vera or Midsummer Murders, but mesmerising in a way those dramas are not. A discussion as to whether Simenon was French, or Belgium led to a visit to the internet. Of particular interest was the record of an interview David Hare had with Simenon in, I think 2016, and published in the Guardian newspaper. It was useful to be reminded of what a complex character the author was, and that of the nearly 500 books he wrote, only some seventy featured Maigret. For Simenon his novels were the most important part of his output. They never ‘took’ in this country and I do not think any are currently available in translation.  I confess I only read one and that was when I was probably too young to get anything out of it, but I lapped up the crime novels and very much enjoyed the series on black and white television which set a very high bar for any remaking. Rupert Davies was Maigret.

My questioning mind

Leaving all that to one side, in the article was a quote from WH Auden which I think was absolutely on the ball and coincides of course with my own prejudiced view that the best novels are now to be found way outside the so-called highbrow books which win the Booker prize. The quote: was “When, at university, I came across WH Auden’s suggestion that Raymond Chandler’s books “should be read and judged, not as escape literature, but as works of art”.

One of my perceived weaknesses is to almost invariably respond to a question with my own. Depending on the circumstances, the individual and no doubt my mood, there is truth in the suggestion. When I read a novel, I almost invariably wonder both what happens next and what might have been in an Authors mind. When I read ‘history’ I am usually also asking the question ‘so what?’

So, I have been slow to comment on the recent history of the Cromwellian Republic that I referred to some time ago because I wondered how it affected our lives today, if at all. On balance I think it probably was an enormously significant experience for us and our constitution. Paul Lay, in his recent book lays bare features of both Cromwell, the milieu of the time and perhaps rather more importantly what he ensured did not happen as well as certain very negative things we suffer from today.

What follows is of course an entirely personal view and certainly should not be taken otherwise.  At a time of great turmoil, he imposed stability. He demonstrated the dangers of a too powerful individual and of a standing army. He could be said to have ensured the path was smoothed in its progression towards a constitutional monarchy. Despite his naval failings in the Caribbean, Jamaica was captured. He exposed for others the dangers of believing in exceptionalism even if that remains a trap for individuals and nations today. He, I think, did much to re-in-force certain basic characteristics of the English while at the same time ensuring that relations between the English, the Irish and the Scottish would, among many, cause tensions unresolved to this day.

In passing, I learnt that Prince Rupert of the Rhine, that famous cavalier and key player in the development of British Canada, played an important role in capturing elements of the African slave trade for his own profit. I suppose it is impossible for us to realise how wide the gap is between how we see slavery today and how far it was a commonplace at that time, and that slavery was commonplace across the world and that colour was not its origin. An understanding made perhaps all the harder by the ongoing cultural war in the States and which is so powerful, we miss the racism and ongoing slavery practiced by nations such as China.

In the 18th century, the French term used to describe the English was “Les rosbifs”. Perhaps amusingly, in 1828, there were complaints that the English had moved away from what was seen to be traditional fare, presumably for the better off, from the 12th century. The reason I write about this is because it has become distressingly clear that the meat packing industry has similar power politically to the National Rifle Association.

American beef and government

An article in the Atlantic magazine opened my eyes to a particularly noxious situation apparently still prevailing, if not getting worse in America, despite reforms brought in after Upton Sinclair’s novel ‘The Jungle’, which was published in 1906, exposed dreadful practice in the meat packing industry. 

[By the way I did not read it then! As David Hare the playwright said of himself, I was bookish from an early age and had the benefit of living in a household where reading was the norm, and at a time when Penguin paperbacks made available to all, every author of significance in all genres. Fortunately, I was as committed, when asthma allowed, to physical activity, so suffered no problems with fellow pupils.]

An issue which has brought down dictators and governments has always been the availability of the people’s staple diet. In some strange way, beef, it’s availability and its price, now have that significance in the American notion of masculinity and patriotism. This, at least, is what I read and not just in the Atlantic, a blind eye is turned both to human and animal welfare in this industry. Leave to one side the use of antibiotics to increase and speed up the growth of animals, be aware instead of the use of cheap immigrant labour and an absence of health and safely, and the way In which the animals are handled in the slaughter houses. Practices exist which are simply awful. 

No wonder beef is so cheap, no wonder amounts are eaten that help ensure obesity. ‘Be a man my son and eat your T-bone-steak’ to misquote Rudyard Kipling. Yet we have a government determined it seems, to strike a deal which opens our market to cheap beef imports from the U.S.A. Frankly I find that repugnant and not because it might damage sales of our beef which it will not. 

I am not and never have been tribal in my view of politics. In fact, at most elections I have felt disenfranchised since I was required to choose between packages which always contained elements that repelled me. A helpful position in my working life where being apolitical was essential. So it is with regret that I comment on the way today’s politicians in the governing party appear to have totally adopted Donald Trump’s approach to reality – if I say it has happened, it has and anyone arguing with me is trading ‘fake news’.

In recent days we have ministers including the Health Minister in particular talking about the ‘protective ring’ the government had put round the care sector. This, despite all voices working in that field demonstrating the falseness of that claim. To quote one of the leaders in that sector – “Between the ongoing governments rhetoric on support for care homes and the lived reality on the ground there is a stark difference”. No wonder politicians are trusted as little as they are.

What a pity more people do not listen to a programme called “More or less” which goes out on Radio 4 every Wednesday morning at 9.30. In this week’s programme the Health Minister’s claims on the number of daily tests was to use an ‘in’ word forensically demolished.

I can’t resist admitting to you I now find it hard to treat the daily government press statement as anything other than a comedy show and I have never hesitated to conceal my dislike for what passes today as comedy. I love the thought of staying alert and perhaps collecting the odd virus in my shrimping net – quite who I then pass it too will no doubt become clear in due course as part of the government’s plan.

Interestingly, on the same day, views were being expressed on the other side of the Atlantic that Donald Trump was not actually a liar but just totally clueless. It is very hard to know which is the more frightening thought, especially if that is true of politicians here as well. That seems evidenced particularly over the response to the Prime Minister’s chief advisor twice breaking government policy on lockdown.

Expressionism

A ‘do you know of’ question led me to explore wider issues and demonstrate how ignorant I was about expressionism.  In my mind It arose primarily in France and was a form of painting, and then became a feature of life in Germany after the First World War as evidenced by the writings of Christopher Isherwod, and realised in the musical, Cabaret.

How wrong I seem to have been. While there appears to be some dispute as to whether expressionism was a product of the French or German civilisation, it seems clear that in its most extreme manifestations we have to look to Germany and that its heyday was in the years leading up to the First World War. It also seems clear that it was the writings of Nietzsche which formed the starting point for what emerged in Germany. Dresden was the first centre followed some years later by Munich. What followed in Berlin in the 1930’s was something rather different.

Weighed down by all this partially digested information  I was left with a number of questions of which the first was ‘to what extent was French or German society actually affected by these movements and secondly did it by pass the British completely. I suspect the answers are little and almost entirely but since, as I have said before, I remain unclear what expressionism was, I am likely completely wrong.

Poetry

Having referred to Robert Southey in such a negative fashion last week I felt I should make amends. After all he was Poet Laureate from 1813 until his death in the early 1840’s. Finding his work in anthologies however is not that easy. and it would appear that aside from some of his ballads such as ‘The Inchcape rock‘, he is all but forgotten.

One of his poems has however been ‘borrowed’ and recast and in that form is better known – the author of that work was Lewis Carroll and the poem appears in “Alice in Wonderland” The poem below is the original.

The Old Man’s Comforts and How He Gained Them

“You are old, father William,” the young man cried,
“The few locks which are left you are grey;
You are hale, father William, a hearty old man;
Now tell me the reason, I pray.”
“In the days of my youth,” father William replied,
“I remember’d that youth would fly fast,
And abus’d not my health and my vigour at first,
That I never might need them at last.”
“You are old, father William,” the young man cried,
“And pleasures with youth pass away.
And yet you lament not the days that are gone;
Now tell me the reason, I pray.”
“In the days of my youth,” father William replied,
“I rememberd that youth could not last;
I thought of the future, whatever I did,
That I never might grieve for the past.”
“You are old, father William,” the young man cried,
“And life must be hast’ning away;
You are cheerful and love to converse upon death;
Now tell me the reason, I pray.”
“I am cheerful, young man,” father William replied,
“Let the cause thy attention engage;
In the days of my youth I remember’d my God!
And He hath not forgotten my age.

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