Category Archives: Stories

A Month Late

Naturally, I hate e-mail. Why naturally? It’s my age, obviously. I’ve discovered a new etiquette among publishers: if you deal in e-mails (which they all do, so the “if” is unnecessary) that gives you leave to abandon the old courtesies of answering or acknowledgment. In other words, even if you’ve been encouraged to send a manuscript you can no longer expect to get the customary MS arrived safely note – sometimes even with looking forward to reading it appended – you’ll be doing well to ever even hear back. If you do manage to run them to earth (say, with a phone-call they thought was from someone else) it’s: oh, I’m sorry, I never got any e-mails from you – they can’t have reached me for some reason. So where did they go? Presumably to some irrelevant person who happened to have exactly the same e-mail address and was equally too busy to be bothered with old-fashioned courtesies. One way or the other the message is clear: load me down with a pile of paper and I’ll behave old-fashioned – just don’t go loading me down with a pile of paper, sonny.

When I do write letters – which is far less often than I used to, the first page is invariably a list of apologies for why my reply has taken so long, etc etc. Which is what is starting to happen with this blog, I’m seeing the signs. Excuses? Spring-time, mainly. Yes, I know, before that it was the damaged eye, then the gut infection, it all looks highly suspicious.

Spring-time is true though, honest. And with a spring that’s clearly a month behind the norm, the spring-time work suddenly came on us, unexpected and overwhelming, as all the growing things make up for lost time. The up-side is that there’s been longer than usual to attend to the kind of preparatory chores that always seem to get prematurely abandoned when rampant greenery chokes out all chances of progress – as witness the picture (presumably in Facebook, personally I still can’t find my way about Facebook at all, except sometimes by accident) of Ben and Mark, along with Gwyn, digging a lovely big channel to take our grey water off down to its hitherto habitually desiccated reed-bed. Which just shows that my capacity for exploiting young visitors is unimpaired by either advancing years or the rigours of winter. Anyway, the boys got a good ceilidh out of it: Ben spent the first half of this event squealing like a girl about how he couldn’t dance with his broken leg, until Alistair had plied him with enough whisky that he leaped to his feet, heuching and hollering, and danced with dangerous vigour till the end of the evening.

It hasn’t been that bad a winter really, apart from its length. I haven’t had an apocalyptic phone-call from Paul every time a blizzard or an especially bad cold snap strikes: well, Mr Ashton, what do you say now: is this the end of the world or isn’t it? To which I invariably would reply, well, it’s still within the zone of normality – now, I remember a winter back in …. bla bla. We would be talking about Global Warming of course, in which I’m a true believer as all good people should be, but Paul and I don’t always agree on its detailed effects. However this year I have to admit I’ve seen something which I’ve never seen before, not in all my – well, however many years it is…: that is, young Scots pines, junipers and other hardy evergreens like rhododendrons, so badly wind-scorched that they’re actually dying. I haven’t counted yet how many pines we’ve lost, but it’s not looking good. You could almost believe that there was some infection blown in on the wind, but I daresay the truth is less dramatic – in its way, because winter winds as devastating as this must mean some kind of major shift in things. We certainly don’t see to have a wind-direction any more where it blows mild and damp.

Another dramatic event (for me, at least – it seems to have been less than discussed in the media) was the report last Wednesday, I think, from the economic advisor to the HSBC (I hope my details are right, it takes me a couple of hours to come to in the morning, but I don’t think I was actually dreaming this), saying that it was no longer possible for us in the west to expect the continuously growing affluence of the past fifty years. At last, someone from within the Cartel admitting this very obvious fact! Not that it’ll help poorer people, the guy wasn’t suggesting this sudden dawning of Common Sense would lead to that. Sorry chaps, things are going to get a lot worse for you, because me and my chums will be struggling to maintain ourselves in the style to which we’re accustomed. But I assume the poor fellow’s lying in some cellar of the main HSBC building now, with twenty of said chums taking it in turns to sit on top of him.

But never mind about the dawning of Truth. This wind, this spring, means we haven’t even got our big guinea-pig run up yet (Maddy witnessed it, when first half-erected, floating off across the field, then crashing to the ground in ruins – this was after I’d been trying to erect it with my special new roof-on-first technique). To be honest the grass is hardly worth the effort at the moment, but it would be nice to get the happy little chappies out from their dark winter quarters and into the sun now the wind has abated for a bit. Still having problems with my Pythagoras though – I can’t believe how high I’ve got to push the roof-apex just to hit the right radius for the walls….

Erecting this beauty has proved to be the biggest hold-up of the season so far. As is all too plain, I couldn't get on top of my Pythagoras; hence the ill-fitting roof sections. So far the cats haven't discovered the gaps between the sections, but it's got to be just a matter of time.... The strange little furballs down at the bottom are guinea-pigs. See "technical" if you think we do all this for fun. The blue thing in the background is some of our hay curing on the fence, inadequately protected from these deluges we've been experiencing.

[From ‘Yearly Itch‘ July 2012] The guinea-pig run last year, before it blew away.

They (the pigs) have only one rabbit to bully them now, though she has turned into an unexpected foster-mother for some guinea-pig orphans. Her erstwhile lapine companion (Ellie’s Pumpkin) had an encounter with our biggest cat when we had them out in a smaller run during a short spell of reasonable weather. The rabbit survived the immediate effects of the mauling, but it seemed like it was the vet’s steroid shot, supposedly to counteract the Shock, that caused the fatal heart-attack. Telling our neighbours about this, Alistair shook his head and said, “Ah, that’s just livestock-keeping – heartbreak: nothing but heartbreak.”

“Heartbreaking” is a word we’ve heard a lot from the lips of farmers this winter/spring, and I thnk it raises some hard questions about what we expect of farmers. I believe the general public often underestimate the emotional strain on livestock farmers caused by their having to meet the demands of our meat-hungry culture. The commercial strain of course is obvious: I’m sure farmers have to produce about three times as much meat nowadays just to make an income equivalent to what they could expect thirty-forty years ago, and the resultant strains on the health and welfare of animals are enormous – “health” is actually a bit of a joke: the entire livestock industry is propped up by pharmaceuticals now. But the emotional strain on the farmer, which is obviously exacerbated by this situation, is itself of much longer standing. It’s not just the difficulty of dealing with dead lambs – whether just born wrong, or frozen to death, or pecked at by crows, or rejected by their dam, but it’s the ongoing yearly cycle, where farmers’ protective feelings towards their young livestock must gradually transform itself into the recognition that they’re growing strong healthy animals solely for the day when they have to be driven onto a big vehicle – much against their wills – and sent off to be slaughtered. I think it’s a misguided belief that farmers are somehow professionally equipped to deal with these matters: suppression of the natural emotion is the only strategy available to them. I’m hard put to it to think of any retired farmer who didn’t have a sense of relief at getting out of the business, and it wouldn’t surprise me if these emotional strains turned out to be the biggest, outweighing the financial and other tactical anxieties which are probably part of every occupation. At root, all of us are set to the same default in our dealings with animals: like Ellie’s reaction to the death of her rabbit – total, comfortless grief.

Anyway, this descent into the primitive strata of adult consciousness takes me seamlessly on to my next subject: “The Old Boys and the Death-Men” is the first full-length novel to appear in this blog-site, and it will be available free, gratis and for nothing for a few weeks until we get it turned into an e-book when it will only be available to the avid reader for a substantial Sum. Actually, I don’t know if “full-length” is quite right: my habitual ADHD ensures that it’s not very long – but it’s pretty long for me. It wasn’t given house-room when I tried to present it to the World of Publishing, mainly on the grounds of it not appearing to be a children’s book. Working over it ten years later I’m forced to agree that it’s not a story for children. Anna’ll get me to write something about it in due course, I suppose, or I’ll try and get her to write something – a tedious business, this writing about something you’ve written, trying to sound enthusiastic when you’re actually totally fed up with it and anxious to move on to your next project. What can I say – Read it, it’s not bad, really…. And of course, feel free to print it, as it may not be very easy to read on this screen – in fact, bear in mind that downloaded and printed versions can only accrue in value as the years pass and the book inevitably hits bestseller status.

1 Comment

Filed under Stories, Writing

next, the asses’ milk….

We were down, Annie and I, in St Andrews recently, in the rarified atmospheres of an Art Historians’ conference. As it was held in honour of Professor Peter Humfrey, Annie’s one-time supervisor, who is supposedly retiring (which means he’ll be back at work next term – don’t ask me how that is, I don’t understand such things) and Peter is an ackowledged expert on renaissance Venice, Venetian art tended to be the theme of the two-day shindig. And very fascinating it all was, with lots of speakers giving short lectures on many arcane matters all within the general theme of renaissance Venice. A bit of a challenge for me, since I can’t sit down for five minutes without starting to fall asleep, and I seemed to be the more challenged the more interesting the talk was, but I strove manfully with my lower nature; and of course in a place like St Andrews a decent cup of invigorating coffee is never far away.

Welcoming and pleasant as everyone was, it was hard not to feel a bit of a fish out of water. I was just there as a tag-along with Annie, as we don’t really get out much. My badge (apparently an essential adjunct to every Conference of any merit) read Charlie Ashton, Independent, which I realised after a bit people found rather alarming. “So what do you actually do?” was fired at me more times than I found strictly comfortable. I – em – I (what do I do? well, I have to finish planting the potatoes; and the peas; have to put up the guinea-pig runs; running out of chopped firewood; the junipers and some oaks and hollies and fruit bushes to transplant still; identify another clay-pit for our next cob-job; turves on the caravan roof – oh God, there’s so much to do – and what was that other thing? oh yes – writing…..) “I’m a writer actually – nothing to do with Art History, I just came along with Annie….” – Oh, I see! Have I heard of you?….

Ah, that’s what they mean with that “what do you do?” thing. What are your credentials? What research have you been engaged in? What exhibitions have you organised? Where are you a professor of Something?

Alas, mumble mumble... (No, I’m not really modest, it’s just….)

Actually the main reason why Annie and I go anywhere like conferences is to stay in a B & B and get some (a)240 volt electric lighting and (b)television (yes, since we had a TV, quality has definitely finally slid over the edge into the abyss but who cares? TV is tops). And (c)a bath. Oh yes. – Unlimited hot water, stretching out, wallowing, and it stays warm and you feel so soaked and soft and well-wallowed. That’s what we call a holiday.

However, that’s all to change. For behold –

(picture the mexican tiles, the limewashed walls, the asses’ milk – and you can get a small taste of our Joy….)

– our own bath at Coldhome is ready to use, a little ahead of the little bathroom it’s situated in and where once the cattle mooed. The bath has officially been used: Will was the first guinea-pig, when he was staying with us the night before his interview; then Maddy, then Ellie before their recentest visit to their granny. I wanted to record the actual event on camera, but Annie says such pictures on this blog wouldn’t be Nice.

Don’t get me wrong, we were always fairly clean. But our old bath was a one-butt-and-two-feet affair, and strictly functional, apart from you could contemplate your knees close-up. Being more hard-core than Annie and I, Rachel and Charlie R are to get our butt-and-two-feet bath now and that’s an upgrade for them.

And so I suppose there’ll be no more conferences.

I found a poem about Venice I’d written a few years back. Now it has a dedicatee, as every poem should have, and is on a Venetian-themed card painted by Annie, celebrating Prof Humfrey’s “retirement”. It begins the second deciad on the “poems” page.

Annie was in a great rush to get us down to our (last?) conference in time (in time to have a hot bath first, that is), so she picked up a speeding ticket round about Dundee. When I posted off the form to the police this morning (that’s the one that said it warn’t me guv, it was my wicked Partner wot dunnit), I also posted a CD (yes, in an envelope, into the letterbox) which hopefully will mean Anna can get “The Eagle and the Egg” up and running.

Upcoming: the second Baddo and Nazir story “An Experiment with Vampires”. I have to set these things down in black and white or I’ll never get round to doing them.

The Eagle and the Egg

Leave a comment

Filed under Poems, Stories, Writing

March 21

It feels like spring. Which is odd, inasfar as March is normally the month when we expect the last big dump of snow. In fact there have been no big dumps of snow this winter, and it’s all a bit unnerving, especially since there hasn’t been very much rain either. Our water-collecting equipment, which to begin with was fairly Heath Robinson-ish, is starting to get a little more sophisticated, but that doesn’t make a lot of difference when there’s no water to be had. So in effect we’re languishing under the Coldhome equivalent of a Hosepipe Ban: plenty of cooking and drinking water, adequate amounts for washing-up, though it’s better if you just lick your plate; but as for washing, of self or clothes, forget it mate, you’re living in the Post-Apocalypse now….

But hell, who needs to be clean? We had some pretty perfect days before the drought kicked in, though as it got really dry the winds got more biting, especially south winds for some reason (the Cairngorms, maybe). What’s more, the hens, undeterred, have started laying again (considering their advanced age, we get a fair amount of eggs, though Maddy is determined we are going to have chicks this year, even if it means nailing the selected mothers down to their nests). Also, I have sold our first trees from our mini-nursery, which has put a proper spring into my step, though it does mean that, apart from a handful of rowans, hawthorns, junipers, and a few scots pines, our selling stock is now at seedling rather than sapling stage: too tiny to be allowed to leave home.

I did mean to get working in my little Study earlier than this, but the spring in my blood has only this week finally led to my broaching this particular barrel, opening this particular can of worms….

The Mulhollands bequeathed us their old touring caravan, seeing how they don’t tour so much en famille any more, and after Dru had had it for a couple of winters (when we get on top of the technology I’ll put in a picture of Dru’s Caravan in Winter), I got the use of it for my own nefarious. Finally – a study of my own! No-one comes nigh and lives. All Mine.

It leaks. So – this was last summer – I slung a wooden frame over the top of it, got some straw and thick rubber onto the frame, battened down the hatches for winter, and then whenever possible started barrowing earth and grass up and plonking it on whatever rubber the gales had left intact. The rotting walls of the interior I shored up with our favourite building material, cobb (Coldhome’s stony clay mixed to mud with straw and water), and put in plenteous shelves. A table installed, I was then supposed to get on with the business of writing – there and only there.

First problem: cobb walls make for a very damp atmosphere till they’ve dried. I would nibble at the little kale seedlings that sprouted out of the walls to greet me. Second problem: I decided I ought to line the little cupboard with wool, for insulation, and store our seed potatoes there, a job which took up a lot of early December (last winter, half the seed potatoes got killed by frost, but we had no frost this year, apart from one night, and on that sole night I somehow left the door wide open – but the seeds still suffered no harm). Then Santa Claus got the lease of the caravan to store his stuff in. Then, after Christmas, the sub-arctic darkness had really got into my soul and it seemed much nicer to snuggle up in bed to write rather than having to trail outside into the cold dark and the empty desolation of the caravan. Then in the Christmas holidays Annie and Rachel decided it was finally time to clear out the himalayan pile of “stuff” stored in the top end of the big shed, and guess who most of it belonged to – and guess where it had to be taken off to?

So, finally, in this spring-like March, I’m getting round to organising my caravan, which still leaks a bit, seeing the rubber on the roof is a bit skimpy, and whose mounds of “stuff” are so, well, sub-himalayan in proportion that I don’t envisage much more than a paragraph being produced in here before the autumn.

But it has to be done. On day one, I attacked the various folders of stuff I’m supposed to use in my part of our home-educating deal with the kids. Many folders, many loose sheets, many poly-pockets, all bursting with fine educational fillings. What great ambitions I had – and how paltry what we actually get done, and with how much effort and slithering-out-of-the-inevitable on the part of the young ‘uns…. Here’s a volume of – no, I’ll write about that in my next blog, when I finally (I hope) get round to including a Story. If I go off on that particular tangent this time I really shall be in trouble with the ever-watchful Anna.

Here, more to the point, a list of words I’ve been looking for for Ellie.

Ellie, at six, still shows every sign of being the real academic type. Very articulate, very sharp, picks up and remembers everything she’s told. But reading and writing and numbers….. Well, Annie says she’s still very young. Boring, that’s what it is: getting into the nitty gritty of learning how to put a word together, why should she bother, when she’s surrounded by a constant stream of interesting information, always someone on hand to tell her stuff or read her a story, or DVDs for the odd hour when she finally acknowledges that her tongue needs a rest.

This word-list means that phonics (they sounded like the latest educational flavour-of-the-month anyway) have been firmly chucked out of the window (Ellie still doesn’t acknowledge any difference between a letter and a number), and out have come the old vowel-stories I did six or seven years ago for Maddy. They were designed to help guide her through the vagaries of vowels in the English language. They might have been successful in that, who knows? Maddy has never answered a teacher-style question in her life, or made any comment, critical or otherwise, about anything like a story, but as she’s one of those who read to Ellie nowadays, I suppose she must have picked something up from somewhere….

The vowel stories essentially mean, from Ellie’s point of view, a whole load of story that imparts a very small chunk of serious information, which is right up Ellie’s street of course. And in fact right up mine too, because the words of the titles have actually become the basis for her to learn to read some words. She’s even analysing them herself now, breaking them down into phonic components.

So, like everything else in home education, doting parent can claim no credit. If Ellie is idiosyncratic, then you should see Gwyn, whose self-taught reading skills date from when he decided he was going to read the Bible from cover to cover – an edition with the tiniest possible lettering on its close-packed pages. We finally realised it had to be the Bible because no other work of literature could possibly have scandalised his mother quite so deeply.

But back to the vowel stories – which, because they’ve never been properly written up, we’re going to try and present in audio form. Rather low production values, I fear, but, well, this is the Internet – and it’s free. There are five stories in the initial flight, The Ape and the Apple, The Eagle and the Egg, The Island of the Imp, The Old Man and the Ostrich, and the Unicorn and the Ugly. They got longer as I warmed to my task, all those years ago, so the first, The Ape and the Apple, is quite short.

The Ape and the Apple – audio


Filed under Stories