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….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.