Cats and Books

Sunday, 18 December 2016

An Eye For Trouble

Oatmeal, he of the peeing response to medical intervention, has eye trouble again. It seems like no time at all since he was urinating on every piece of clothing to avoid the eye-drops, and now he wants another round.
As always with cats, trouble comes when you are busy, or after office hours when the call-out charges on the vet are so much higher. This time was Friday evening – I had just got in from two days away, clutching a bag of high-calorie, low-health snacking options to wind down after a busy week. Our poorly cockerel, Wobbly, was very much on the mend, all cats present and correct... except Oatmeal. He was behaving strangely, but as always with cats, they suddenly do that just to confuse people.
I went and said hello anyway, because Oatmeal likes that. Normally, he doesn’t wait for his retarded people to initiate a greeting. He is there, in the way, around your ankles, just exuding hello. A black-hole is a gravitational well that even sucks light in; Oatmeal is a beige-hole, an attention-deficit well that sucks in every scrap of loving and fussing in the immediate vicinity.
Instead, he was huddled, with both eyes shut. In fact, tightly shut, and when we carried him into the lounge, he wailed in response to the brighter light. Cue a call to the vet. A brief debate over the after-hours costs...
So, we had a half-hour drive to the main branch of the vet, which I completed in twenty-five minutes. Not actually unsafe, but my partner who has been known to experience motion sickness, did indicate loudly, several times, that Oatmeal would be much happier if I took the corners more slowly.
Oatmeal hadn’t met this vet before, but he knew the drill. When the door of the carry-cage opens, do not, under any circumstances, step out. If someone unkindly removes the lid, brace for trouble... maybe this one is OK... hasn’t done anything bad... hey leave my tail alone... put my tail down... yikes... not that again... it can’t be sanitary... I have to lick that clean later.
Now that the full veterinary credentials were established, and Oatmeal’s temperature confirmed as normal, it was time to inspect troubled eyes, so Oatmeal tried a new tactic: reverse. Just keep going backwards and never mind the edge of the examination table. And when the ground suddenly angles up, just keep reversing.
In fact, he reversed most of the way up my front, a bit of a tail-to-beard moment. My thoughts were evenly divided: catch him if he goes sideways and that can’t be sanitary, he hasn’t licked it clean yet.
Eventually we found a combination of steadying hands that defeated the reversing strategy, stopped the slo-mo somersaults and let the vet get a good look at Oatmeal’s eyes. Fortunately, this time, there was no obvious infection but clearly something wrong. We were facing the dreaded eye-drops again. After a discussion with the vet, with perhaps excessive emphasis on my issue with wet ankles and an increased usage of the washing machine, we had a treatment strategy – a shot of long-lasting antibiotic that would be excreted through Oatmeal’s tear-ducts to bathe his eyeball in antibiotic as a precaution, and an anti-inflammatory for the pain.
We drove home more sedately, but really, it didn’t seem to make Oatmeal any happier. Although within a few hours the drugs clearly did.

Oatmeal has recovered, but he still has an eye for trouble: carry-cages, towels brandished in a menacing way, or the sort of wet-weather gear that primarily protects ankles from cat pee.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

A Blessing From The Poop

It turns out that a sick chicken employs the same sort of tactics against medical intervention as a sick cat. We have two Light Sussex cockerels who had a bad start in life when their broodyhen died just after they hatched. In spite of that, Wibbly and Wobbly have done well and fathered a few chicks of their own, but Wobbly does have an ongoing issue with balance and walking in a straight line.
Wibbly, Wobbly and a reluctant date

In the last month or so he has spent some time living in the greenhouse because he just didn’t look well. Each time, he perked up after getting out of the Autumn chill for a few days, and then went back down again once we let him out. So, at the weekend, we took him to see our neighbour, the sick chicken guru. She couldn’t spot any specific single cause, but gave us some recommendations on things to try to make him feel better.
Twenty-four hours later, and Wobbly was worse and our neighbour took another look. It was now obvious that Wobbly had a blocked crop – for the non-chicken-savvy, the crop is where the bird stores food before it goes into the gizzard to be ground down. So, Epsom Salts drenches and massaging the crop every few hours – this already has echoes of antibiotic drops in the cat’s eye four times a day.
Wobbly took it like a chicken. Or a sewer. My partner held him so that I could dribble drench into his beak from a syringe. Wobbly did a small, viscous trail of poop over my partner’s sleeve, so I reached for the toilet roll before it could drip on the bathroom floor. (The bathroom is our venue of choice for sick chickens – warm, dry, washable surfaces...)
The thing is, that was just a warning shot. Then Wobbly let rip with the real thing – hot and smelly, over my partners sleeve, down her trousers, over her socks – Oatmeal and the power of cat pee fade into insignificance.
On the positive side, it takes time for a chicken to reload, but medical treatment had to be suspended for general clean-up, and donning a rain coat. Then, back to the drench... wait, you stand there... and twist a bit... and hold the back end over the bath... is that just Epsom Salt solution running up my arm?
Wobbly resolutely refused to get better. We drenched and massaged for a couple of days, then my partner had to be away for a few days. So... one hand there to hold Wobbly... and another to steady him like so... then stand there to avoid any further poop shots... now, if I hold the syringe with my third hand...
Eventually I got some drench in his beak long enough for him to swallow, but after another day I still saw no improvement. So, back to the neighbour, a bit of reassurance that in fact his crop was emptying slowly. Now maybe it was just coincidence, but within hours of our chicken guru examining Wobbly, he was visibly improving, standing up properly for the first time in days, and hinting that it was time for food... and then more food...

Now, Wobbly is eating well, and during a momentary balance failure he apparently kept himself upright with a stream of explosive diarrhoea. Through the bars of the cage, up the wall, down into the bath... Just to recap, this is why we put sick chickens in the bathroom – washable surfaces. And an extract fan. The important point is that high-pressure power-pooping is a perfectly normal aspect of a healthy chicken’s digestive system, so we take it as a blessing in disguise. Very heavy disguise.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

The Autumn Plumage of the Greater Plummet

A mere week ago, I wrote about one of the cats (Oatmeal) picking his moment of maximum inconvenience to be ill. After a brief rally, life and complicating events have headed on a downward course – I had barely pressed the Kindle Direct button (yes, I really do want to publish this book) when I found I would have to work away from home for a week. No internet, limited phone, and certainly no way to track the progress of my book, or do any of those little promotional nudges it might need.
Still. Only a week. No too bad...
At one-thirty on the morning of departure, Thug dropped by for a bite to eat, and I spent half an hour ensuring that all he ate was cat food. He had Piper cornered in the kitchen – no way to reach the relative safety of the lounge (there is a cat-flap in the lounge door), and a torrential south-westerly storm the other side of the cat-flap out of the house.
Before I could settle into mediating between Thug and Piper, Oatmeal came out of the lounge to see what was happening. Thug does not do cat-flaps (yet), so this was not the brightest move. Having come face-to-face with the Purring Death, Oatmeal ran for the bedroom, which distracted Thug long enough for me to pick up Piper and put him in the lounge. See, things are picking up already...
Oatmeal took ‘refuge’ on the bed, right where my feet are supposed to go. Ginge was already in ‘her’ spot between the pillows (is that snoring in my ear my partner or the ginger gooseberry?). Thug did his best meerkat routine, rearing up to assess the lie of the duvet. Ginge growled; Oatmeal growled. Not an end-of the-world growl, just the initial invite and RSVP-if-you-dare. Thug went round the other side and jumped up on to my partner who woke to the Cat Growl duet.
Thug decided that two against one was too easy, so he jumped down and explored under the bed, presumably looking for a third cat to join Ginge and Oatmeal to give them a chance. Whatever he was looking for, the junk under the bed was thoroughly investigated. Finally, after half hour or so, Thug decided to go back out – at least the storm was worthy of his attention.
I’m sure I’ve heard somewhere that sleep is over-rated. I wouldn’t know.
It felt like it was all over, but really, that was the tipping point where a downward drifting week became a full-blown seven-day fall.
Breakfast was deceptively peaceful, and then I drove into town to pick up a fruit and veg order for my partner before I and the van went away for the week. I was early – no delivery yet, so I returned home and met that classic morning question – are you still wearing your grubby clothes?
This generally means the side of the barn has fallen off, or one of the rams is knee-deep in mud and needs rescuing. That sort of thing... but today it was a wounded sea gull. We tramped out across the field, caught the injured bird (amazingly easy) and took it to the vet – they know a man who tends to sick sea birds. Sadly, the gull had a badly broken wing and there was nothing to be done.
On the way home, we dropped in to pick up the fruit and veg... still not in. That south-westerly over night caused a bit of flooding, interrupting deliveries. In the end, I drove away no more than two hours late, leaving my partner to try to arrange alternative transport.
I can make up two hours. No problem. Just take a look at the job. Cold light of day and all that. OK... that looks a bit more than we thought... and this bit here might need an extra hour... or two...

So here I am, writing this at half ten at night, knowing it will have to wait for the weekend to actually go on my blog, grumbling about the day that went down hill. Or as Monty Python might put it, the one that didn’t so much fall as plummet.

Monday, 21 November 2016

A Policy Of A Pee's Meant

Bad things happen when you’re busy. I have just self-published a novel and the last few months have been dominated by editing, proofing, and yet more proofing... which is why Oatmeal (6.5kg of feline lap-hog) chose his moment to be sick. Cats are never ill when you have time to deal with it. So, in the final week of mind-numbing work, when I really needed to concentrate...
My partner noticed one of Oatmeal’s eyes was not opening properly, so we took him to the vet who diagnosed an ulcer on his eyeball. We have no idea of the underlying cause – a bit of grit, a scratch from playing with one of the other cats, or something else entirely. The cure was simple – a course of antibiotics. Not tablets, or a handy, one-off injection, but eye-drops.
Cats appreciate us and what we do for them – the food in the bowl, the comfy sofa, the warm fire in winter, the lovely absorbent pillows on the bed for drying paws in the middle of the night... Really, the only thing they actively and aggressively don’t appreciate is the health-care plan.
Amazingly, the vet got a couple of drops in Oatmeal’s eye with no trouble. OK, not so amazing really – we have seen this with most of our cats over the years. It’s scary at the vet, so the cat tones down normal responses. The trouble starts at home – one drop every two hours for the first day, then four times a day for a further four days. Welcome to cat-owner’s hell.
Oatmeal is a remarkably placid and amiable cat, until you need to give him a pill, or apply flea-treatment. The solution for the eye-drops was a towel – wrap the cat so that all paws, and their claws, are contained and controlled. So I held Oatmeal whilst my partner attempted to get the drops in his eye, and Oatmeal wriggled. Then he ducked and wriggled some more, backed up and disappeared inside the towel, shuffled around, I lost my grip, caught him again, got him re-wrapped... this may take some time... ow, shit... wait... ow... just a moment... ow... and finally the drops were in. Then all I had to do was drop my clothes in the wash, because the smell of cat pee gets everywhere.
On the second round, he only managed to pee on my trousers. On the third, he scored a hit on everything. Again. Oatmeal has a very solid policy of peeing on anyone who tries to put drops in his eyes.
We modified the approach and used the towel to pin him down on a piece of lino in the kitchen. Even with virtually zero traction, he managed to reverse up, hide inside the towel again and pee on my ankles. And the door-mat.
That’s just day one. Four more to go. Time to start the count-down – undamaged fingers... ten... nine... eight...
By the end, we had a system – change into the least offensive-smelling trousers, catch the cat, work entirely on a bigger piece of lino, wipe afterwards, wipe shoes afterwards, change socks, clean trousers back on... And under no circumstances say ‘it looks fine now, we could just stop...’ because if the antibiotics haven’t quite cured the infection we might have to start all over again from the beginning, every two hours on the first day...

Oatmeal didn’t win, as such, and his eye is now fine, but whichever way you look at it, he had a policy to deal with unwanted medical attention. A policy with a capital P.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Schrödinger's Other Cat

The saga of Thug continues – the trip to the vet for attitude adjustment went well, but in the aftermath he started visiting even more frequently. Our main concern was to convince him that when he stopped for a bite to eat the only thing on the menu was cat-food, not cat. Thug very much lives by the old motto – a cat is not just for Christmas. The bits caught between his teeth will be a snack for later.
Attitude adjustment seems to taken well – he comes face to face with Oatmeal, who growls, and Thug stops. Turns away. Backs off. That is a huge improvement. Piper on the other hand takes one look and goes into hiding.
I am no expert on cat eye-sight, but Piper can definitely spot a ginger cat. I have seen Piper duck and cover when Ginge turns up, and then check carefully to confirm that it isn’t the other ginger cat. He has just been hurt by Thug too many times.
Still, all going well. Until now.
Thug worked out how to get into the house. He hasn’t got the hang of cat-flaps (yet) but has obviously seen Ginge or Piper using their favourite route in through the fanlight window. It turns out that my eye-sight is on a par with Piper – I see a ginger cat in the house and it takes me a while to work out that this is Thug, the big ginger.
This is Schrödinger's Other Cat – none of that nonsense about not knowing whether the cat in the box is dead until you open the lid, instead just not knowing which cat it is. Or whether there is any cat at all.
Thug has not only found the way in, but uses it like it’s old news. Up until now, Thug has been hanging around at the back door for food. Now, he has discovered the self-service window and he likes it.
This is not good news, but so far, Thug and Piper are keeping very different schedules, and Piper hasn’t really noticed. If that changes we might have to find Thug a new home. Piper gets priority – he has been here longer, and is currently lazying on the sofa beside me, claws against my leg to make sure I emphasise his side of the story.

At least Thug hasn’t worked out how to get into the lounge yet... The trouble is, with Schrödinger's Other Cat, you never know exactly when and where he will be next.

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Another Round On the Furrway

Autumn is setting in, the days are getting cooler and so the time has come to switch to winter sports. Whilst old favourites are still well supported, this year we have both new games and new players. The current state of the contest is as follows:
Oatmeal at his secret training camp
Oatmeal is still the unchallenged lap-sleeping champion, a fine figure of a sumo-feline who has trimmed his weight back to a mere 6.5kg after a year or more of serious dieting. Even so, he still has the stretch and spread to fully occupy a lap and can keep the effort down for hours if left undisturbed by his people making pots of tea or urgently needing to restore blood circulation below the knee. Winter lap-sleeping is very similar to summer lap-sitting, except the heating is more likely to be on and has the benefit of permanent facilities which means that nobody has to put the garden chairs away in the shed at the end of the day.
For now, the great Teddy-Tubby sleeps supreme.
Piper working on advanced skills
Piper has taken up golf. Another 6.5kg of furry contender, his leaner looks and longer legs mean that he can chase the golf ball further and faster than anyone else, whilst his natural agility means that he can spin on the spot, dive behind the curtains and be ready to tackle Oatmeal for the ball. This is a new sport for the season and the golf ball itself has largely appeared out of nowhere. New toys simply arriving is not an uncommon occurrence, and the golf ball has a significant advantage over freshly killed rodents – it doesn't start to smell bad after three days lost under a bookshelf.

When not refining his golfing skills, Piper has taken to chasing Ginge who, at a mere 2.5kg, is still mistress of the nose-swipe. For her chosen sport, Ginge has gone back to the below-the-ribs trampoline, testing my reflexes and abdominal muscles in the middle of the night. As in previous years, the scoring system is based on how many expletives I still have the breath for after impact. There are bonus points for the direct-injection purring, her nose right in my ear.
For leisurely evenings, Piper now holds his masterclass in sofa-hogging.
Squeak retains her title as the burrowing champion – why sleep on the furniture when you can be inside? Winter burrowing is naturally quite distinct from summer burrowing in that... OK. I'm sure there is a difference...
Thug waiting for the next contestant
The new player for this season is Thug (weight unknown) who likes to drop by once a week and play with everyone. Thug is a lean and fast young ginger and white tom who has proven himself the absolute champion of relentless violence and is clearly a Sean Connery fan. Unfortunately, the Thug take on the Untouchables is I'll put one of yours in the hospital, and then I'll put one of yours in the morgue. To people, Thug is actually a very loving and adoring cat who likes nothing more than a good stroking behind the head whilst he menaces one of the other players. Of course, for those of the feline persuasion, Thug is a blood-thirsty psychopath utterly focussed on victory. Unlike most sports, there is no actual disqualification for trying to bite your opponent's ear off. In fact, biting, gouging and clawing are integral to the game.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Head Elsewhere

Wherever I am, my head is often elsewhere – a book I'm reading, a film I've just watched, and most often completely else and a story I might try to write. This particular train of thought started when I was digging a hole – not metaphorically, but literally, with a spade, moving dirt from A to B, flat ground transformed to lump and matching dip. The aim of the hole digging was planting a tree, but for most of the time my head was elsewhere – not entirely healthy with a sharp-edged tool so close to my toes, and at some point it occurred to me that not only was my attention elsewhere but that this is almost my default state. Doing the laundry, loading the dishwasher, brushing my teeth, or planting a a few hundred meters of hedgerow – it doesn't matter where I am, it's where my head is that matters.

You are never really alone when your head is elsewhere. Whole worlds open up, wondrous characters drop by for a chat or, on a bad day, the most fantastical bore leans on the door frame to talk you into hell. This does beg the chicken-and-egg question – which came first, a solitary nature leading to a wandering head or a tendency for my head to be elsewhere because I'm on my own and bored? I have no answer, but this elsewhere business has been going on since at least my early teens, so I feel sure there is a cause and effect.

However, I am not alone in being not alone when I'm on my own... Let me rephrase: I am convinced that I have worked with similar people over the years. There is a certain look and feel to them – the lights are on, someone is in, but you don't knock on the door because you just know they are in conference with the aliens, or translating Mum's recipes from the original goblin, or so strung out on differential calculus that anything could happen. This is only speculation, mind you, because I've never dared approach one of these potentially kindred voyagers and pop the question: excuse me, but is that your head, or is it elsewhere?

Why not? The thing about my head being elsewhere is that it's my fake reality. I like it there and I don't take guests. The whole aspiring author thing means I might write about the places my head has been, either carefully sanitised (cleaned for general consumption, or with the really nutty bits removed) or in toe-curling detail, but no-one ever sees the full scope of my journey.

A few years back, on a drive home from Plymouth, in the dark (my wife was driving) I had an idea. It wasn't much, but night driving needs concentration and with no conversation, my head went elsewhere. I kicked the idea around, decided that it was growing on me, and wrote a story, told it to myself while I was elsewhere, edited it in my head, told it again, ran it by a receptive sitka spruce... The trouble with having your head elsewhere is that even the worst drivel can sound good, but the next day I wrote it down as well as I could recall, toned down the crazy and won first place in a writing competition. Yay for me, but don't think for one moment that the published story is really what happened when my head went wandering.

It's a private business being elsewhere, full of technicolour wonder and companionship, so absorbing you can get lost for hours, only summoned back by those unstoppable forces of nature such as the cry in the distance the cat is eating your lunch, or the old-fashioned dial-up line back to reality that sends the occasional alert such as move your foot now.

Elsewhere. You can't beat it, and there is so much to tell...

Sorry. Have to go. Reality calling. It's time to put the chickens away.

My head will probably be in some other elsewhere by the time I get back.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Does My Bum Look Big In This Bucket?

Geese make noise – it's what they do. The trick is to know what the noises mean in the short lexicon of goose communications – hello, put the food down and step away, take another step towards me and I'll have you, touch my goslings and die, hey babe that was the best shag ever. When the geese come up with a new noise, you have to go see, just because...
A very muted hey babe with a hint of put the food down... got my attention. On the far side of the field I could see Chocky and Idris, hunkered down behind an old telegraph pole. As I got closer they were obviously having a cuddle, necks entwined, so I walked away having completely missed the point.
There were other jobs to do so I got on with that – another of those busy days where I was on my own. The sort of day where I don't want geese making funny noises, especially the sort that start to sound like trouble. Hey babe with a hint of put the food down gained a plaintive edge, so I looked again, up close this time because Chocky was clearly not happy about something, and Idris was acting a bit strange...
So, really up close, and Chocky was wearing a bucket. She had stuck her head under the handle on a standard black bucket and, instead of backing out, she had kept going, getting one wing hooked through. I just had to stare for a while, having a serious WTF moment.
Yes, Idris was acting strange – trying to work out how to get his woman out of her new kinky black underwear. I stared at them both, wondering the same thing.
Geese are not cute and fluffy, they are eight or more kilos of feathered psycho and capable of at least a meter of vertical flight if they really mean it. You don't just sidle up to them, say there, there, who's a nice goose, and slip a bucket off. Not without paramedics and an ambulance on standby. And I wasn't just dealing with one goose, there was also a hair-trigger irate gander to handle. Catching Chocky and getting the bucket off with two of us would be a dicey business, but all on my own...
There are times in life when you just have to roll your sleeves up and get stuck in. Then there are goose moments when it's best to go make a pot of tea and think about the problem very carefully. Maybe get your will up to date. Geese have significant non-verbal communication skills to express displeasure. They hit you with their wings, scratch with their claws, bite with a serrated beak that will cut through electrical cable given enough time and concentrated fury.
Think of a goose as being like a wasp. You swat at it, flap your hands, spin in little panicked circles – all that achieves is making the wasp angry and then it just keeps coming back. Now scale that up to a goose. And frankly, a rolled up newspaper is not going to cut it.
I defined my objectives – remove bucket with zero blood-loss and minimal bruising. The first thing to do was separate Idris and Chocky – an angry goose on her own was going to be dangerous enough without her hyper-aggressive boyfriend asserting his right to be the one removing the kinky black underwear.
I set up a basic corral with a narrow gap. The plan was to chase the geese in, close the gate down, watch Idris back out through the gap, and catch Chocky because the bucket made her too wide. Instead, the bucket wedged and Chocky just kept going, all the way through the bucket. I would have been too worried about injuring her to try that.
I had spent a lot of time planning how to catch Chocky, control her wings, stop her using her feet to claw me, and remove the bucket without hurting her. Sometimes good old fashion brute force really is the answer. Job done – and amazingly, zero blood-loss and minimal bruising.

Time for another pot of tea.

Sunday, 31 July 2016

The Moron Exchange

The evening's chores can be a time of amused observation or, in this case, an irritated rant running in my head as I shovel goose poo. My thoughts were circling the EU Referendum and the regular festival which I both dislike and cherish, and I call it the Moron Exchange.
So, confession up-front, I am a reluctant brexit supporter. According to all the analysis I have come across in the media, I ought to be a remainer, other than the fact that I live in Cornwall which overall voted for out.
As a brexiter I am apparently worried about immigration and deeply opposed to freedom of movement. Send all those immigrants home... Err... no. So my great-great-grand parents don't count as immigrants, do they – Britain ruled all of Ireland back then.
Freedom of movement within the EU strikes me as no worse than the natural freedom of movement within the UK – giving us cities in the north with empty houses, and over-crowding in the south-east. You can't blame people for heading to the places where they think the money and the jobs are.
Personally, I blame successive governments for not addressing the economic imbalance, but the freedom of movement is something I support. Otherwise we are back to medieval serfdom - you want to go to the next county? Put your hand up and say 'please, sir' and I'll consider it.
As a brexiter I am sure that the UK will be able to make much better use of all the money we have been sending to the EU. Err... no. I won't be holding my breath on that one.
Of course, I naturally believe that we will be freed from the burden of excessive regulation... or not. Take cover, winged pigs incoming. Bureaucrats and their love of regulation is not a special, EU phenomenon. And relax about the pigs, because I am sure there are regulations on their minimum altitude and safe-flying.
Getting desperate here, but surely I am going to be so much better off outside the EU? At the time of the referendum, my suspicion was that I would be worse off with brexit, and the post-referendum fall-out just reinforces that view, but I am still a brexiter.
Starting to run out of big issues now... so why not vote remain? My problem with the EU, one of the issues barely touched on from what I saw, was the relationship between the European Parliament and the European Commission. It feels to me like the tail wagging the dog. The Eurocrats, as they've been dubbed, determine policy, the MEPs apply the rubber stamp, and that troubles me.
Over a serious number of centuries in the UK, we have gone from absolute monarchs to a parliamentary democracy (please pardon the up-coming fast-and-loose analysis of history – I'm a physicist). Go back a handful of centuries and Parliament was still just there to do the Monarch's bidding (according to several monarchs of the period) and if they chose not to then Parliament was invited to think again. Or a few members were imprisoned and asked to think again. Or accused of treason and asked to think again. Or executed as an example to the others who could then think again. Or, if all else failed, Parliament got dissolved and the Monarch went it alone. Now, the Eurocrats don't do the imprisoning, false trials and such like, but if the EU Parliament doesn't apply the rubber stamp, they get invited to think again.
So which is better, a trained, professional, expert Eurocrat, or an MEP whose only qualification is they got enough votes? I've been a technical expert myself, and I wouldn't trust me as the final arbiter of how things should be done, other than the seriously technical and unequivocal ones such as which way round the batteries go. Equally, you can find examples of elected officials who shouldn't be allowed out without parental supervision. Frankly, you can get a dangerous moron either way around, but my personal preference is for the elected official.
All of this brings me round to my Moron Exchange – or the election in more formal parlance. With elected officials determining, debating and deciding you can still get the most awful outcomes, but if it is that bad, and enough people agree how bad it is, then in a few years time you can fire those elected officials and pick a new moron to screw up your life. The Eurocrats come up with the best policies, the expert policies, and they take away the fundamental, unwritten right in a democracy – the right to vote for a less perfect solution because you feel like it. After all, if the bureaucrats were fully in charge I probably wouldn't be allowed to chose something detrimental to myself even if I signed waivers agreeing that I knew I was doing something against the expert advice.
I like the whole concept of the EU, but until it is governed via the Moron Exchange, I will be a brexiter. Anything else is just tyranny in disguise.

Thursday, 30 June 2016

Small Memories

It's British Summer Time, the sun is shining... that can't be right. Where's my rain-coat? I do have an umbrella up to protect me from the heat... floral pattern, frilly edges, probably chosen by my grandmother. I've had this umbrella ever since Granddad died, and I have it for several reasons: my grandmother didn't want it any more, it keeps the sun off, and it reminds me of my grandparents.
I don't have any photos of them – not due to some sad mishap, but because I don't really do photos. I have no pictures of my family around the house, never had any on the desk at work, sometimes added one to the screensaver on the computer, but really, I don't do photos. My partner is the one for photos – we have a camera which I use very occasionally, and she takes everywhere – even just feeding the sheep, because one might do something fun, or tonight's sunset could turn out to be particularly splendid, or just... because.
We do have photos that I rather like. There's the late Bitsy somehow curling his fluffy bulk into the lid of an A4 copier paper box, or my partner holding up two amazing onions from our first veg crop at the last house. Somewhere, there is a picture of a grumpy little tortoiseshell cat, one of the first rescue cats we took on. My partner caught her in mid-air, catching a ping-pong ball – not bad for a cat who could barely walk when we first got her. The thing is, I don't often see the actual photos, but something else around the house will remind me of them, like the distinctive t-shirt my partner was wearing as she held up those onions.
Instead of photos, I have family heirlooms, miscellaneous junk, and an old sun umbrella with some scrap 22mm copper pipe on the bottom half meter of the spike – Grandad put that there to protect the paint when it is pushed into the ground. Sitting here, under the umbrella, I see my grandmother on the beach at Eastbourne, or on the lawn at home, shaded from the sun, sitting in a cushioned folding chair (floral pattern again, currently in the shed.)
In the cupboard, in the kitchen, there are two elderly half-pint glasses, two different styles, both cracked and chipped, both still in use... and they belonged to my grandparents. Just getting them out to use is a small reminder of their kitchen and summer visits.
We have a pair of old duvet covers – so thin and threadbare that they are generally only used to act as a liner for the main cover. Green-and-white stripes, pink-and-white stripes, both made for me by my mother when I went to university. We keep using them because we both hate to throw something out until it is completely beyond repair, and for me it is a reminder of my parents - driving to Reading, navigating from the motorway to the University, not even knowing at the time that my father spent time at Brock Barracks on the other side of town when he did his National Service.
Dotted around the house, particularly in the kitchen, is a rag-tag of old bits and pieces from my family. Years back there were more, but wear-and-tear means some are no longer usable, because these are not trinkets to keep on the mantelpiece or in the back of a drawer, but everyday things, and everyday reminders, a sampling of my past.

Small memories, but so much brighter than a photograph.

Friday, 24 June 2016

Twitter In The Pit

I'm on my second Twitter account – I deleted the first one out of sheer frustration, but this time it is going to be different. I was persuaded to take part in a Twitter pitch party (Dan Koboldt - #SFFPit), and so returned to Twitter. I was a software engineer, so I'm sure that if I put some time into it, this Twitter thing can work for me. I could even tweet my blog posts...

So a Twitter pitch party... wow. After the challenge of packing a pitch for a book into less than 140 characters, there is the eager waiting to be noticed... and more waiting... and more waiting... and lets go and read a few more of other people's pitches and...

How do the agents and publishers do this? After reading a page or so my head hurt, and that was a tiny fraction of the total. I would be begging for a different job – but then perhaps they have the necessary skill and experience to cope.

So the #SFFpit was a bit of a bust in terms of responses, but still an interesting experience. Followed a day later by #PitchCB...

So, here I am, Twittering again, and I think it sort of works, except when I follow someone trying to sell stuff. It's like a salesman, not just with his foot in the door, but nailed to the doorstep, a constant flood of... No. Let's not go there. I will master Twitter. It will work for me...

And there's another pitch party coming up. Time to start thinking in less than 140 characters.

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Baby Be Mine

It's lambing time again – cue lack of sleep, the amazing range of birthing and mothering problems and, of course, cute lambs.  Although, to put it into context, we are only lambing four ewes, so far less chance of things going wrong.  Surely no chance of something new and wacky...

Ewe number five... Cilla is not pregnant, she is just old.  In reality, Cilla was born old, but now she definitely has a lot of years under her fleece.  She's an amiable old baggage with a history of being lamb-tolerant, whereas most nursing ewes will vigorously discourage other lambs.  In previous years we have had the Mama flock, off grazing and getting some peace from the lambs, with Cilla minding the lamb flock, following on behind at a leisurely pace until the moment of frantic baaing for the milk bar.  So we put her in with the pregnant ewes because as her year count has gone up, her tooth-count has hit zero and she needs feed supplements over winter and spring – so much easier to include her with the ones already getting extra.

The real complication this year is that when the first lamb was born, my other half was away, so it was just me dealing with Treacle Pie, one of our first-time mothers. The actual birth was perfectly smooth, lamb cleaned up and suckling, and Aunty Cilla watching over everything, even making the little coughing, whickering noise that ewes use to say hello to the new-born.

Then it all went a bit pear-shaped.  Treacle Pie was having twins and once number two was out, it was obvious that Cilla was doing more than just keeping a watchful eye on the beginner.  She had decided that it was her lamb and Treacle Pie was so busy fending off the cradle-snatcher that she was abandoning the second lamb.  This is a very important time for the lambs – bonding with mum, learning to stand, learning to suckle, and getting that vital first belly-full of milk (technically colostrum) loaded with antibodies from mum to help kick-start the immune system, and growth factors to promote gut development.  This is the lamb's Olympic hurdle race final – one chance for a medal, no prizes for missing a hurdle, no re-run.

Treacle Pie and Cilla - I'm sure this one is mine.

Our Soay ewes generally take themselves away from the rest of the flock to give birth, and keep their distance for the first couple of days – the essential bonding period where lamb learns who mum is and vice-versa.  Treacle Pie didn't.
We have seen something similar with pregnant ewes close to giving birth – someone else's lamb arrives and all the cues of sound and scent gets them confused enough that they think it must be theirs.  A few years ago we had three lamb on the same day and number one set off the other two – spinning on the spot to find their lamb, and we finally had three ewes chasing the very confused lamb around the field to claim it.  In the end, we managed to get mother and lamb penned inside a ring of hurdles and blankets draped over to break the line of sight – that took two of us and a lot of time.

Now, Cilla hasn't had a lamb for a few years – she is just too old and another pregnancy would put too much strain on both her, and us, to maintain the right levels of feed and general support.  Even so, she decided that the miracle had happened.  A lamb, all hers, and without all that aggro of pregnancy and giving birth...

With two people, it would have been easy to separate lamb and wannabe-mother.  On my own... Cilla is old, but seriously determined.  I needed two hands to grab her and haul her off, at least another hand to pick up the abandoned lamb, and a further hand with a very long arm to shut gates...

I caught Cilla – imagine the equivalent of water-skiing on grass as she dragged me along in spite of digging my heels in.  Cilla is knee-high and that gives her serious advantage in a tugging match.

The other side of the solution was to coax Treacle Pie into an enclosure of hurdles.  The trouble is, she knows what that means – worming, vaccinations, all manner of unpleasant or undignified treatment that no self-respecting ewe will tolerate.

It took a program of deception, sheep psychology and serious shoving.  I opened a gate to an empty field, and then Treacle Pie was prepared to go into the hurdle enclosure, because there was a clear exit on the far side.  Cilla was moved to the far side of  the gate with the rest of the pregnant ewes – cue more turf-skiing – and then the balancing act, holding Cilla with one hand, standing on one leg, teasing at the gate with my fingers...

Once that was done I had time to do the other essential – take photos of the new lambs.  And a short video of Cilla, the other side of the gate, shouting for her lamb.

It all settled down within a day or so.  Cilla is still convinced that one or both of the twins is hers.  For their part, the twins are perfectly content with two mothers, and are very clear which one is the pillow and which is the milk-bar.
Opal has now given birth to a ewe lamb, Mouse and Fuzzy are still pending, but soon enough we fully expect to see the split flock again – mothers off for a graze, Aunty Cilla minding the lambs, everybody very clear who supplies the milk.

There are lots of golden rules for keeping sheep.  The first and most important one we were told was that a lamb is a suicide trying to happen.  No one mentioned the other important, top golden rule – whatever crazy stunts the sheep have pulled in the past, there is always a new surprise coming.

After the storm... Do I have to choose one?  I like it here in the middle.

Saturday, 30 April 2016

Greener Grass

The grass is greener. Forget the other side of the fence thing, my grass is greener. Or greener than it was last week, and showing hints of growing.
Before we moved to Cornwall, I wouldn't have cared, if I had even noticed, but the state of the grass matters here. I know us Brits are supposed to always talk about the weather, but around here, at this time of year, it goes something like:
Nice bit of sun today. So far, so normal. The grass isn't growing yet. And that really is normal here, and probably any other rural area.
We moved here from Berkshire, a rural(ish) location only a five minute drive from the motorway. We had a large(ish) garden, large enough that we confused estate agents when we were house hunting. In estate agent speak, large garden meant move more than three paces before walking into a fence. Apparently what we were looking for was acreage. We ended up with less than a fifth of an acre, so really just the large garden we told them we wanted – but it still counted as acreage.
Now we really do have acreage. Double-digits worth of acreage, with grass growing on it, sheep eating the grass, and our own involvement in the seasonal conversation. The grass is greener now the weather is picking up...
Grass is important here. Grass is a major part of the livelihood for a lot of people in a rural, farming area. At the end of a slow, lingering winter, with spring yet to get really serious and hay supplies dwindling (or completely gone in our case) the livestock need something to eat. Whether the grass is growing, whether the colour is green or yellow, whether it might pick up this week, or whether there's enough there to turn livestock out... its all part of the routine of conversation because it matters.
Later in the year it will still about about grass and weather. Yes, there will be debates on how well this years lambs came out or how the price of calves is doing, but the big one will be grass and weather. Is is too wet so the grass is struggling, or too dry so the grass won't grow? Will there be a long enough break in the rain to cut for hay, or will the sun bake the grass so dry before cutting that the hay is barely worth having.
Even after that, the grass/weather combo goes on. Given a perfect and hot haymaking, those of us who still use square bales will be rejoicing at how light they are. If you are stacking hundreds of bales, by hand, heavy ones versus light ones make a huge difference to how long you can keep going. Or if the weather has been wet, then people are talking about how they had to do haylage this year – those huge, cylindrical, plastic-wrapped jobs – because there was no way to get the grass to dry properly.
Grass and weather, two of the biggest topics of conversation. You won't believe it, probably won't understand it, unless you have lived in a farming community. Grass and weather, good or bad, the difference between eating or not, making a living or not, keeping going or going under.
So, the good news is that my grass is greener, but it would have been better if it had been greener a few weeks back. But the weather's just not been up to it...
There I go again, and I'm only a hobby farmer...

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Why Me?

Why Me?

I mean that in a good way. Mostly.

I was feeding the sheep, as you do, and watching all the eager noses pushing through the fence... me, me, ME... and I had one of those random, sideways thoughts: when I applied to be a PhD student, why did they pick me? The question never occurred to me at the time, but now it did – with so many able applicants chasing the available places, why did they pick me?

I'm sure the question harks back to that stereotypical childhood experience – being picked last to be on the team. I wasn't that kid, because there were three of us, which makes for an interesting social dynamic. Out of the three, who gets picked first?

With the benefit of many years distance, my next thought was the balanced inequity – the guys picking the team had no choice, because everyone had to be on a team, so they had to pick out the least worst...

But really, how did I feel at the time? Was I blighted by being in the last three? Did I care whether or not I was the worst of the worst? I don't really recall, other than not wanting to be picked at all – the unavailable option.

On the threshold of moving up to the junior school I was excited, because they played the magical and enticing football. And then, the day came, when I experienced football... seriously? Is that it? I doubt that I was familiar with the expression WTF at the time, but I think that sums up my feeling. Me and sports did not mix. Oil and water, with someone tossing matches at the stuff floating on top.

The unexpected, instinctive antipathy created a negative feedback loop – I didn't want to play, I was no good because I didn't want to be, and the unlucky captain who had to pick me would put me somewhere well away from anything interesting to minimise the damage. And then roll on a few years: rugby, ditto; hocky ditto; field athletics was the lesser evil when faced with the prospect of cricket...

In spite of that, I came out unscathed, didn't I... except... I left school with A-levels and an offer of a place from five universities. I got a degree and was offered a place to study for a doctorate. I got that, and then a job, and a promotion, and another job, and... A solid history of the 'team leader' picking me, of 'team leaders' squabbling over who got me on their team. Forget why me, say hello to make me a better offer...

A solid history of success, of being picked first... and then seeing all those eager sheep noses and suddenly wondering why me? Perhaps not so unscathed after all.

Saturday, 27 February 2016

Chickens In The Dark

I watch the news and just at the moment there is nothing but shouting – the UK is better off in Europe, Donald Trump is the scariest Republican Presidential candidate, global warming is going to get you, unless the obesity pandemic does it first. It's enough to make me go out and feed the chickens for some peace and quiet...

Like that's going to work.

Chickens are just the same as politicians, forever arguing, shouting, pooping indiscriminately and maintaining their pecking order. The only real difference is that when a chicken lays something it becomes breakfast, not the morning headlines. The only time the chickens are quiet is in the shed, at night, after dark, and even then there's the occasional cockerel rehearsing for first light.
I dare say it would be more interesting if our politicians established their hierarchies the way chickens do – a solid smack of beak between the shoulders, feathers ripped out, or bloodshed if it gets serious. Just imagine Prime Minister's Questions starting with a coin-toss to choose between Queensberry Rules or something more Mixed Martial Arts and primal. Bring back John Prescott, round one, seconds out...

And then turn the lights off.

If I have to turn the lights on in the shed after dark, a senior hen might discover that she is accidentally perched next to a very junior chicken. That requires instant correction, and a savage pecking until the junior jumps down and finds somewhere else, or I turn the lights out again when it goes quiet.

There's the thing – they're all just chickens in the dark. Superiority has to be seen to be maintained. After all, if the junior hen can't see, and doesn't know that she's been pecked by a senior, she might peck back, she might prove to have the harder peck...

All chickens are chicken in the dark.

If only I could test it on politicians. Turn the lights off for a few hours. Find out if it all goes quiet.

Turn them back on and see who is sitting next to the man with killer right hook.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Another Slice Of Fruitcake?

We just watched a repeat of a Horizon meta-documentary – probably the right term for a documentary of documentaries – pulling together excerpts from Horizon documentaries over the last forty years on ageing and immortality. Why watch it again? Two reasons – firstly, we didn't realise we had seen it before until at least five minutes in; secondly, by five minutes in it was really rather interesting.

And then there were the fruitcakes and nut-jobs. People stuffing themselves with random spoonfuls of chemicals that had some association with longer life-spans, or diets with links to reduced ageing, or even the pure(?) charlatanry of injecting 'beef broth' into the buttocks to be younger. Now, I'm pretty sure the arse full of beef broth brigade definitely falls into the fruitcake and nut-job category, but what about the others?

Calorie restriction seems to be well documented to in some way retard ageing. I've tried it, briefly, in the form of the 5:2 diet, in the interests of weight-loss, not living forever. However, it seems there are people out there who are really using it to try to live longer. Does that make them fruitcakes or nut-jobs?

From a practical point of view, even if calorie restriction really did guarantee a longer life, it makes you feel like crap. That has an uncomfortable association with those who campaign for the right to die, because their lives are so painful or degrading. Who in their right mind wants to live so much longer, whilst experiencing the perpetual hunger of calorie restriction? It does not seem like a viable prospect for most people, but does that make the practitioners fruitcakes and nut-jobs?

One side-effect of the interest in calorie restriction, presumably driven in part by the efforts of the alleged fruitcakes and nut-jobs, was a genuine scientific study to identify the mechanism underlying the apparent effect. Not only did they find a mechanism, they found Resveratrol, which had the potential to trigger it without the calorie restriction. Resveratrol (you can buy the stuff from all sorts of places now) was so promising that in 2008 GlaxoSmithKline paid $720 million for the company controlling the rights... and the hunt for immortality goes on.

So it seems to me that alleged fruitcakes and nut-jobs serve an important purpose. They are the crazies who don't just dream of doing the impossible, but inject beef broth into their arses or try to live forever on lettuce, and deranged as they seem, at the very least they lure saner, more methodical heads into the same pursuit. Our society is replete with medical and technological advances, but how many of those owe something of their existence to the goading effect of fruitcakes and nut-jobs?

So finally, the fruitcakes and nut-jobs... how do we define them? We can't call them crazy, or deluded or anything else, because they might be right. And if it does turn out that they were right, they become visionaries and pioneers. Nobody wants to be the fool calling them names.

You are all welcome to your fad diets and miracle-cures, but please, have a little respect for the fruitcakes and nut-jobs – some of them might be responsible for you living longer. The ultimate vindication, if it comes... I told you so.