Tuesday 31 March 2009

Mr and Mrs Collared Dove defend their nest

This morning Mr Crow, seeking fast food, approached the Collared Doves' tree on foot. It must have been about time for the end of a shift for suddenly there were two Doves facing off Mr Crow who didn't give up easily, taking flight only when he saw movement from inside the house.

I'm wondering if the eggs are close to hatching because Mr/s C-D has been close to the tree all day . . . ready for feeding duty or is it that the sitter and the waiter are keeping guard in case Mr Crow returns?

Meanwhile their cousins the Wood Pigeons are playing 'catch me if you can' around the upper branches of the oak trees and the Magpies are flying in with large twigs to reinforce their nests.

The Dunnocks have been dashing about with dizzying speed in and out of the shrubs and on and off the fences while the Green Woodpeckers laugh hysterically and the Great Spotted Woodpeckers drum loudly on the trees, breaking off occasionally to snatch a hearty meal from the fat cake feeders.

I'm quite sure eggs do not increase in size once laid but it does seem that Mr/s C-D is sitting higher on the nest with each succeeding day. I looked carefully today to see if the eggs had hatched but I think it will be quite clear when they have done so, not least because there will be trees full of Magpies and Crows waiting to take advantage. As Crows and Magpies are sworn enemies maybe their energies will be fully occupied in chasing each other away and the squabs will be safe. I fear this will not be the case, however, and that the little family will become a tasty snack.

Monday 30 March 2009

Goldfinches and Dunnocks . . . and others

Yesterday was officially the first day of British Summer Time and I was delighted to see three Goldfinches on the evergreen honeysuckle. It's been months since any of these brightly feathered little birds visited the garden, even though Niger seed is always available for them, and although they didn't stay long, it was cheering to see them. I shall be watching out to see if they return on this wonderfully fresh green and gold day. They always bring a smile to my face, with their clownish make-up and it's rare to see only one. They seem to enjoy each other's company and feed companionably together, unlike the Starlings, who arrive in noisy crowds to squabble and shriek as they jockey for position on the feeders and then, at an unseen signal, speed away kamikaze style.

Later in the day I noticed a pair of Dunnocks. The female was flirting her tail and fluttering her wings in a winsome way and every time her chosen mate turned away she shifted her position and pointed her wiggling rump at him again. Dunnocks have an interesting sex life. While some are monogamous others are clearly exponents of 'open marriage' and will take many partners. A polygynous male may mate a polyandrous female which has given rise to the mouth-filling adjective polygynandrous. It sounds exhausting but guarantees that the genes are passed on . . . and on . . . and on, though whose offspring is whose must be difficult to determine. However, for the polyandrous female it ensures that there will be plenty of adults available to feed the fledglings since each male will have a vested interest in the well-being of the brood.

A huge crow came onto the patio after feeding on the fish food. I was ready to dash out and defend the Collared Doves but Mr Crow flew straight past the holly tree without a sideways glance, apparently completely indifferent. Maybe he's waiting for the eggs to hatch. Cunning birds, Crows, but I do admire them as they strut about the garden, black intelligent eyes ever watchful. Sometimes one will sit atop one of the arches and bow to our black Labrador – she gazes back, entranced.

Sunday 29 March 2009

The Endless Saga of the Endless Pool - measuring

Before the final decision was made there were many phone calls to retailers of 'container' pools and lengthy discussions on the relative merits and demerits of different products but ultimately Endless Pools, Inc simply had the best product for our requirements. The Americans with whom we consulted were (and still are) charming, extremely helpful and ready to advise on any problems. The deposit was paid in September 2008 and the serious planning started.

We had already considered different locations; the garage (too dark and unwelcoming and where would my car go?); the conservatory (where would the cats go – it's their favourite room?); on the patio which would have to be extended (where would the pond go??); on the terrace outside the Pavilion (mockingly renamed the 'sheddio') which houses all the exercise machines; in the 'sheddio' (we could rearrange the equipment); in the garden shed (we could put the garden tools 'somewhere else;') We decided that it had to be indoors. It became clear that there was only one place the pool could go – at the end of the garden where the shed was. The shed was not an attractive building to accommodate a swimming pool; it was a safe haven for spiders, ants and other beasties and the space underneath was a shelter for itinerant rats. It would have to be demolished to be replaced by a 'POOL ROOM' which meant that the contents of the shed would have to be relocated to the garage (!)

Then we started endless measuring for the Endless Pool. There would be a concrete base on which a log cabin would be constructed. We calculated width, breadth, depth, height and tried to visualise the finished product. To comply with local planning regulations the structure must not exceed a designated height and must be within a determined distance from our boundaries. We measured again and again to be sure we could maximise the area which had been allocated to the pool. The pool itself would be eight and a half by fifteen and a half feet with a maximum depth of fifty-two inches. Finally satisfied that we had observed the rules it was time to empty the shed. Prior to that, however, the accumulated rubbish of years must be removed from the garage to make room for the contents of the now despised shed. It took us two days to clear the garage, making generations of mice and spiders homeless. We threw out pots full of solidified paint, broken lamp bases, miles of wire that had been hoarded 'just in case', plug adapters that used to work, bubble wrap that was home and final resting place to the remnants of a plague of moths which, curiously, seemed to have arrived in a consignment of logs.

Finally we were ready for the shed!

Friday 27 March 2009

In my dreams . . .

Mr and Mrs C-D have invaded my subconscious!

Last night I had a most realistic and upsetting dream. A Magpie had flown into the holly tree, reached into the nest and grabbed a small squab. Mr/s C-D sat on the nest, unable to move. I hurried out and flapped my hands and made 'go away' noises and the Magpie did, with the unfortunate fledgling, only to be replaced by one of his friends or relations who was reaching into the nest and eating the contents of the remaining egg. Other Magpies seemed to be gathering just out of sight and I was faced with the prospect of repeatedly beating off an endless succession of the smartly-apparelled marauders.

Desperately searching for a more efficient means of deterring them I turned away and when I looked back they had gone, to be replaced by a large beautifully marked Song Thrush helping himself to the contents of the nest. Then I woke up.

Thursday 26 March 2009

The Endless Saga of the Endless Pool - the idea takes root

It was a little over three years ago that the topic of an endless pool was first raised. It seemed a novel idea and we were mildly interested but had no burning desire to invest in one.

Then, in October of 2007, my husband, a life-long cross-country runner, was advised to stop running immediately if he didn't want to undergo reconstructive knee surgery on both legs. Seeking an alternative to running that would give him the same intensity of exercise, he went to a private spa where he was able to run in water. This was a short-lived solution as the hydrotherapy pool was intensively used by many different groups and was not often available at the times that Barry was able to go.

We had joined our local independent school's sports club in order to use their swimming pool but it wasn't really very convenient – there seemed to be additional charges for different times and we couldn't commit to swimming at the same time every day, or even every week. We felt it was an expensive way to keep fit and didn't provide the opportunity for the sort of exercise Barry needed to do.

The idea of a pool in our modest back garden seemed ludicrous, to me at least, but as we made further investigations it began to seem possible. The excellent Endless Pools site, with its seductive photographs and videos of happy swimmers in beautiful surroundings, and their free dvd, quickly turned the possibility into a probability and we began to plan.

At that time, we were thinking of moving and were reluctant to build something we might have to deconstruct a relatively short time later. However, the global banking crisis, with all its ramifications, caused us to reconsider. We didn't want to put our lives and plans on hold so we decided to go ahead.

(For any folk who may never have heard of an endless pool it is, in effect, a water treadmill. A power unit generates the current against which you swim – no tumble turns required – and the strength and speed of the current is adjustable. Michael Phelps uses one in his training . . . )

Wednesday 25 March 2009

Frodo the Faller – guard extraordinaire

Our eldest granddaughter is staying with us while she is having work experience at our veterinary surgery. Her own local vet could only accommodate her for one week and she wanted two weeks. So far, three days in, she has really enjoyed the different aspects of the job. She has sat in on operations, euthanasia, x-rays and consultations. She has walked the in-patient dogs, soothed the in-patient cats and cleaned out the kennels. She has used a stethoscope to check a recently spayed bitch and a neutered dog as they recovered.

In the morning, we have been walking Frodo the Faller and Jenna-the-Labrador to the vet and I have returned in the afternoon to meet and escort her home. This afternoon, as I waited for a few minutes in the ever-changing weather – sun, wind, showers – both dogs were alert to all passing people, whether clients or staff, and Jenna was anxious to meet and greet them all with a frantically wagging tail and licking tongue. However, Frodo was sure that his role was to guard (me, I think – he is, after all, my Velcro dog) To that end he barked furiously at the head nurse who knows him well and ignored his noise. He is far from being a stranger at the surgery and usually behaves impeccably when consulting (well, we consult and he stands quietly) so she chided him gently, made a fuss of Jenna and continued on her journey home. The next person out of the surgery was another veterinary nurse, who jumped, much to his satisfaction, no doubt, but then proceeded to take no notice. Then my granddaughter appeared and the noise was incredible . . . bark, bark, bark . . . and he's known her all his life - but she approached him with confidence and he realised she was no threat - he really is 'all mouth and no trousers'!

He's a very intelligent dog, our Frodo, but he errs on the side of caution. My husband says he would protect me against any danger . . . I'm not so sure! Should anyone want to ignore the warning growls and aggressive attitude I don't think they'd discover further weapons – however, I trust I'll never need to put his chutzpah to the test.

Tuesday 24 March 2009

Mr and Mrs Collared Dove

Yesterday I was wondering if the brooding of the eggs was entirely the responsibility of Mrs Collared Dove. I looked in several of my bird books but couldn't find the information. Today the answer was revealed by the doves themselves. As I watched, one dove flew into the tree and shortly afterwards the other one left the nest and flew away. I'm ridiculously pleased to discover that the raising of their family is a joint effort. Unfortunately, I cannot tell which is male and which female since they dress alike. There has been loud calling coming from the nest. Is it to signal that it's time to change shifts?

There has been more Magpie activity, though not around the C-Ds' home. The Magpies are busily searching for their perfect mates prior to pairing off, and there seems to be some rivalry among the prospective suitors – it was ever thus.

The Great Spotted Woodpeckers are about as well – drumming on the trees, feeding on the fat cakes. Watch out, Mr and Mrs C-D – GSWs are just as much of a threat to your little family as Magpies!

I love Springtime – so much activity, life, freshness. What shall I see tomorrow? Rain and lower temperatures are forecast and wind too, so the butterflies and bees will not be much in evidence but the busy, busy birds will be taking every chance to feed while avoiding the Sparrowhawk.

Nature red in tooth and claw, indeed!

Monday 23 March 2009

Thieving Magpies

Mrs Collared Dove is still perched on her rather ramshackle nest in the holly tree. Every time I look in her direction her dark eyes are fixed on me. Even at night, when I switch on the outside light to go into the garden, there she sits, still watchful. I had never seen her off her nest until today when she and her mate were chasing off two Magpies. Doubtless they were hoping to go to work on an egg (though not one with a little lion on it!) Mrs C-D settled back quickly but I fear there will be other attempts on her brood.

I love Magpies in their smart attire, so confident and intelligent, the showmen of the crow family. They come to the pond to drink, to feed on fish food and, later on, newly emerged tadpoles. They teeter like tightrope walkers on the hanging bird feeders, their long tails balancing them. They chatter and creak in the sun-dappled trees and gather in noisy convocation. They never fail to make me smile as they swagger about importantly looking for all the world as if they're 'walking the estate.' They are elegant, eye-catching clowns with bright alert dark eyes but when one of their young is kidnapped by a passing crow all the Magpies around – parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends and relations - create a deafening cacophony that continues for hours.

Saturday 21 March 2009

Six Nations

So, the final Saturday has arrived and we wait with bated breath for the outcome of the 2009 Six Nations Rugby. As ever, when I hear the National anthems of countries other than my own I think how musical and attractive they are. The Italian anthem could have – may have – come from an opera though the players' rendition is less than lyrical. Scotland's anthem is haunting, Ireland's is rousing, France's defiant, the anthem of Wales is evocative – and then we hear the English anthem, a dirge if ever there was one and a tune shared with the USA. Nonetheless, when coupled with the Union flag and a loyal crowd singing their hearts out it has the power to move.

Italy and France are the first protagonists on this glorious March afternoon and I would love to see Italy win. From their first stumble into what had hitherto been the Five Nations the Italians have grown in strength and skill and by the time the next Six Nations is staged they will be an even greater threat to all their opponents.

From the colour of this font you can guess which side I think will be the ultimate winners of the 2009 Six Nations.

Tuesday 17 March 2009

Old dogs

I've just got back from a walk with three of the dogs. I was going to take only the younger two but Buddy Liver Spots was insistent that he was coming with us today and I couldn't refuse him. Actually, I couldn't get out of the house as he was blocking my way. It's not his fault that he can't see or hear very well these days – the after-effects, I'm sure, of the meningitis that so nearly killed him eighteen months ago.

I don't know how much he can see – I suspect it's just vague shapes and movement – so if he becomes very involved in something completely fascinating he's not aware of the path we're taking and is likely to trot in the opposite direction to us once whatever it is has been thoroughly investigated. Sometimes he attaches himself to strangers who usually find this quite charming and are most sympathetic when we explain the reason. If there aren't any people about Buddy will set off purposefully and at speed on the route he thinks we've taken. I managed not to lose him today though he did start wandering the wrong way - I sent Jenna-the-Labrador after him and he turned round and followed her back to me.

He really enjoyed his outing and is slumbering peacefully.

Now, Buddy is thirteen and Dominie is fifteen. Dominie is very alert and sees and hears better than Buddy but her hind legs are weak after a nasty attack of discospondylitis last October. Although she is always very keen to come out with all the dogs her body lets her down. She wears a special harness with a handle on the top so that we can lift her when she falls or support her when she's stumbling. Taking Dominie out means that we have a gentle amble. Jenna-the-Labrador gets plenty of exercise chasing the ball – and the occasional deer – but it's not really sufficient for Frodo the Faller who's only seven and could pace along all day so that's why I opt to take just the two and occasionally the three on an extended brisk outing. And if you're wondering, yes, I do feel really mean when I leave any of them behind, for whatever reason.

However – and they don't know this – after they've had their supper of raw liver and chicken we're going to take them all out for a little stroll and we'll all feel better for it.


It's now 8:30 p.m. and all the dogs are sound asleep and dreaming.

Sunday 15 March 2009

March butterflies

The only butterflies I can identify with confidence are the Cabbage White and the Holly Blue. I have some classification books but am never sure if I'm making the correct identification.

Hanging out the washing this morning I saw a beautiful butterfly and rushed indoors to fetch my camera. The butterfly waited obligingly while I found the right setting then flew away just as I was focusing on it. Later I saw an orange-brown butterfly on the woodpile and then one that was lemon yellow. I had ideas of posting photographs on the blog but alas, it was not to be – not today, anyway.

So, there you have it, a pretty butterfly with red, black, white and blue, an orange-brown one and a lemon yellow. If my butterfly identification proceeds at the same breakneck speed as my ability to name wild flowers I shall need another lifetime!

Saturday 14 March 2009

Thought for the day

Shopping on an empty stomach leads to a trolley full of forbidden delights.

Do cats sigh?

Awake this morning in the wee small hours I fell to thinking. Next to me lay two dogs, two cats and my husband. On the floor in their own baskets lay two more dogs. All, apart from me, were sleeping peacefully and dreaming, twitching and occasionally whimpering (non-humans) or muttering (human).

I sighed gustily. One of the dogs sighed. My husband sighed. I sighed several more times. I would have tossed and turned had I not been pinned down by mammals small and large (though not my husband). I sighed once more and then wondered, 'Have I ever heard a cat sigh?' I suppose I must have done, if cats do sigh and there seems no reason that they shouldn't. It's just that I can't recall ever hearing a cat sigh.

I fell asleep while thinking about this, so, useless pondering though it may have been, it was soporific, just like lettuce.

Friday 13 March 2009

Tony Blair – Peace envoy?

It beggars belief that the man who followed George Dubyah's dubious but enthusiastic lead into war in Iraq should now be promoting peace anywhere on the planet. Was he gullible or duplicitous when he signed up British forces for deployment in Iraq?

In February the Middle East peace envoy was awarded $1 million by the Dan David Foundation in Tel Aviv for his work in furthering world peace. One can only wonder what the inhabitants of Gaza make of that. Will they match it with an award of their own? Probably not, as presumably Mr Blair would have to go to Gaza to accept it and he's not keen on going there. It took eighteen months after his appointment as Peace envoy for him to make his first brief visit. Busy man, Mr Blair, but busy doing what?

The money will be donated to the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, his charity to promote religious understanding.

Winston blogging again

Winston here . . ..p'rrrrr, p'rrrrr ...

I just had to shut down the computer for a bit as I needed some affection from the humans. I sat on the keyboard – that always gets their attention.

Anyway, I needed the cuddles because one of the humans shut me in the bedroom and I had to scratch loudly on the door before anyone came to let me out. I'd been there for HOURS and they hadn't even noticed I was missing. It was lucky I'd had breakfast (turkey neck and chicken livers – YUM) or I might not have had the strength to keep up the scratching.

Of course, they said it was accidental but I'm not so sure. Yesterday they shut me and Monty in the kitchen all day while they went to visit one of the other humans. I suppose we had it better than the dogs, though; at least we had the conservatory as well so we could indulge our hobby. What's that? Our hobby? Ornithology, that's what me and Monty like. The dogs just had the sitting room.

It's very busy in the garden right now – lots of birds flying around. One of them flew into the patio door the other day – deafening thud but it didn't fall on the ground like they sometimes do, just flew off into the shrubs.

I've put up some pictures of me and Monty. He's an Ocicat just like me but he's not my brother, he's a month older than me. You can see he's a different colour – it's called Chocolate Silver. I'll tell you more about him another time. TTFN.

Little things please little minds - further

Our doves are back. The female is dutifully sitting on her nest among the prickly holly leaves.

Yesterday the visiting lilac Burmese was watching from the fence. He has cruel eyes, not like the gentle, soft eyes of the Burmese cats we bred so many years ago. I don't think he'll leap into the holly tree though, however enticing the prey.

Wednesday 11 March 2009

Spring has sprung - further

Okay – just a quickie– or maybe it's a slowy– in any case it's an update. We now have about forty frogs in the pond that I can see so probably double that for the ones unseen under the surface of the water. They are fairly enthusiastic but not incredibly noisy as in the past (maybe they know someone is watching) No more clumps of spawn so far but there should be thousands of froglets later in the Spring.

Happier now!

Little things please little minds

Today I noticed a collared dove sitting on a rather flimsy nest in the holly tree. As I slid the patio door open another dove high in the oak tree flew out with that characteristic flight call. 'Ah,' I thought, 'diversionary tactics.'

I cannot adequately express how delighted I was to think that a pair of doves had chosen our tree to bring up a family. Mind you, when I went out to retrieve the washing I saw that the nest was bare of birds, devoid of doves, avians were absent so maybe they've found somewhere else to lay their weary eggs.

Manners maketh man

A neighbour came to our house the other day to ask us to sign a petition. The local post office is threatened with closure which will have an adverse effect on the ageing population. I know it must be ageing because another funeral parlour has opened in the village, no doubt to take the overspill from the many retirement homes and sheltered accommodations in the area. Personally, it seems a strange place to retire to; the village is not pretty and is more of a dormitory for London than anything else and, of course, there's the local hospital for the criminally insane – sorry, politically incorrect there - high-security psychiatric hospital from which inmates occasionally escape. At the other end of the village is a well-known public school from which some of the inmates would like to escape.

Nonetheless, postal services must be maintained and we were happy to affix our signatures. After he had left my husband told me what the neighbour had said as he came into the house. The dogs had rushed to the door with their customary enthusiastic curiosity and as the neighbour was invited in he said, 'I don't know how you can live with all these dogs.' It was not a jocular comment, more of a complaint.

Perhaps next time we see him we should comment on his decor – or clothing – or choice of car. 'How can you live with that wallpaper?' we could say, or 'H'mmm, don't think much of your curtains.'

It's foolish to trouble myself over these minor irritations, I know, but while I try to be courteous to people, all too often some are, at best, thoughtless. Someone once sat in my house drinking sherry and said, 'I could do such a lot with this room.' Others have made to sit down, looked at the seat and remained standing. Our house is a home, not a show house and there is wear and tear (and animal hair) on the furniture, marks on the wall, mud on the floor, dead rats in the cupboards (okay, I'm exaggerating – only one dead rat) but I'll bet our house is intrinsically cleaner since animals create a lot of washing (see the previous post 'I live to launder') and we have wooden floors to make floor cleaning quicker and easier.


Tuesday 10 March 2009

The Adventures of Frodo the Faller (8)

The dogs regarded me anxiously as I paced, unable to settle to anything, waiting tensely for another call from Barry. When the telephone shrilled I nearly jumped out of my skin before I rushed to answer it.

Has anyone ever literally jumped out of his skin, I wonder? Where did the saying originate? Pupae of various insects shed their skins after their metamorphosis into their ultimate imago or adult conformation. Snakes - and tarantulas and other arthropods - slough off their outer casings regularly as they grow. Humans shed their skin all the time, albeit not in great quantity at any one time - but has any creature ever leapt entire from its skin leaving it empty and discarded?

Consider if a human could spring out of her outer casing; the skin, with its disparate coverings of hair, some scattered widely, as on the forearms, others arranged in patches, for example on the head, would lie forlornly on an uncaring surface while the newly-freed body cavorted with pleasure or relief at its release from subjugation. What would this figure look like? Would it be deep blushing pink or would it perhaps have a new skin, not yet quite seasoned for daily use, requiring its inhabitant to lie low for a while to allow adjustment to atmospheric forces.

Heart pounding I answered the phone. After an agonising two hours Barry had found Frodo who had emerged from the trees not very far from the car. He was now taking him to the vet to be checked out. Our lost boy was feeling rather sorry for himself and would be happier if I were present too. Once again I clambered into the respectable car and drove the short distance to our vet.

As I entered the consulting room three things struck me simultaneously. My nostrils were assailed by the most overwhelming odour, like the smell that emanates from a butcher's shop but a thousand times stronger. The next thing I noted were Frodo's eyes peering at me from a face strangely changed. Thirdly, I saw that his coat also was different. Our Dalmatian, with his clear black spots on snowy background, had turned reddish-brown from his head to well below his ribs. He was the very personification of hangdog. The vet was gently talking to him as she bathed him to discover if there was anything other than superficial damage.

We will never know for sure just what happened that night and can only surmise that Frodo had found a deer carcass and feasted royally on it. To say he stank is an understatement. The deer had been well hung – i.e. rotted - and the stench had invaded every pore of our dog's body.

Once we were all satisfied that the abrasions on Frodo's face and legs were the result of bones scratching as he passed them on his way into the body cavity we bade farewell and took our rather portly lad home. Our dogs are always interested in any of their number returning after an absence but this time Frodo was the centre of truly excited attention. He still smelt quite dreadful so underwent a bath, to which he submitted with unusual grace and docility. Clean and white once more he, and we, and the rest of the dogs, went to bed.

We anticipated a busy night expecting stomach upsets from the boy but he slept extraordinarily soundly and suffered no side-effects whatsoever. He was on light rations the following day!

Monday 9 March 2009

I live to launder . . . or, I wash therefore I am

I have lost count of the number of washing machines we have gone through. I remember that we bought the first one while living in Northern Ireland. The boiler which dealt with terry napkins and dish cloths and towels was not really adequate and I was finding it difficult to keep up with the laundering demands of a husband, toddler and new baby. The toddler was fascinated by the washing machine and delighted that her orders to it – 'Again, again' – were heard and the drum spun round obediently. We had no television at the time so the washing machine was a source of entertainment for her.

Through the ensuing years machines were purchased, given extended warranties, broke down irretrievably (frequently), caught fire (twice), flooded the kitchen (many times) as our family grew. Sports clothes of all descriptions tumbled round soapily, people complained when colours ran or garments shrank, and I continued to work full-time, chauffeur my children to their various sporting and social events, be chief cook and bottle-washer and, of course, laundry maid. The husband by then was working very long hours, often overseas and returning for brief periods to make contact with his children (and me).

When the children grew and flew I expected the washing piles to reduce but they didn't. I had overcome my near descent into OCD – at one time if one item of a load dropped to the floor I would wash the entire lot again – but still the floor next to the latest model was carpeted with things to be washed. The husband was working more reasonable hours, giving him more time to run cross-country with his canine companions.

We have always had dogs, even before we had children but when the children were living at home we had mostly owned small dogs – Jack Russells. Now as the JRs passed on we migrated to larger dogs. When dogs grow old they often experience arthritis and mobility problems and need warmth and soft bedding. With age comes, sometimes, a measure of incontinence so that their bedding needs to be washed more frequently. Inevitably, larger dogs require a greater acreage of bedding and less of this can be fitted into the machine at one time. Add to this the amounts of mud larger paws bring into the house and onto the (washable) rugs and the laundry question begins to answer itself.

We have four dogs at present, three Dalmatians and a working Labrador. The oldest, Dominie Dalmatian, will be fifteen later this month. She has a wonderful temperament and hates to be in trouble. Unfortunately, she had a bad attack of spondylitis late last year which has left her hind legs very weak. So, though she tries her very best to get up and out of her bed, she often falls down and has to be lifted. To this end she wears a special harness with a handle on it. She cannot get to the door to ask to go out and has to rely on one of us interpreting her vocalisations correctly. Sometimes she speaks to be helped to find a new position in bed but often she is telling us she needs to go outside to relieve herself ('go potty' - tee hee!) If we are not quick enough her bedding becomes soiled and needs washing.

The youngest Dalmatian is epileptic and is given a cocktail of anti-epileptic drugs each day in an effort to control his seizures. One of the side-effects of the drugs is that he often dribbles urine so if he isn't wearing a wrap (a doggy diaper) whatever he is lying on can become saturated. The involuntary urination is variable and unpredictable so on days when it doesn't seem to be happening, he goes Commando.

The working Labrador spends as much time as she can in water and so brings huge amounts of mud into the house in her coat which is then deposited on furniture, clothes, rugs, us!

Thus, our washing machine works as hard as it and its predecessors have ever done and to be honest, we wouldn't have it any other way for the dogs give us enormous pleasure and wonderful companionship. In any case, when 'the children' (what do you call your adult progeny??) come home to visit they invariably bring washing with them so I have to keep my hand in or I might forget how to do it!

Spring has sprung – in parts – and continues to spring

At last, there are busy frogs in our pond and clumps of spawn have appeared. Though I am delighted to see them I am still concerned that the water isn't boiling with activity. Maybe, as the days grow warmer, more frogs will travel to our pond to shake a leg and do what's supposed to come naturally. Most years there are more than one hundred frogs disporting themselves and there are plenty of frogs to go round, though even so the inevitable frog clumps in amplexus are much in evidence.

Sunday 8 March 2009

The Adventures of Frodo the Faller (7)

It is difficult to move out of a room without the Velcro Dog being aware of it – I could be persuaded quite easily that I have a dog-shaped shadow. Many times I have spun round quickly and fallen over Frodo who then looks sheepishly at me and vigorously wags his tail. If the tail, which is very solid, should beat against a hard surface the tip of it splits and before we know it every available surface within a square metre is splashed and striped and smeared with blood. Carnage!

Our vet suggested constructing a cardboard tube to encase and protect the tail tip to allow it to mend. I carefully rolled thin card into a cylinder and tried to fit it over Frodo's tail. He was rather suspicious about me fiddling with his tail so was not very cooperative and kept wriggling away just at the moment I was about to achieve lock-on. Eventually I managed to slide it on and secured it with sticking plaster, which actually doesn't adhere very easily to dog fur. Frodo looked at me rather quizzically, wagged his tail and the cardboard flew off. I left the naked tail to heal by itself.

Out for walks Frodo is always the first dog to return when called. He never goes very far from us and is constantly verifying our whereabouts. We play hide and seek with all our dogs but Frodo is the one who is most alert and consequently the one most difficult to hide from. The day early one October that he disappeared in the forest was very worrying.

At that time Barry was still running regularly and had taken the dogs out in the late afternoon. He was returning to the dog car – a disreputable-looking vehicle which is used solely to transport our dogs to the forest – as dusk was falling. Jenna-the –Labrador was just growing out of her habit of following fresh deer tracks and he was anxious to avoid any opportunity she might take to revisit her hobby so he was hurrying. Suddenly he realised that Frodo was missing. He assumed that Frodo must be deeply involved in a tantalising sniff and called, expecting him to materialise immediately in his customary manner. Nothing! He called and whistled and whistled and called and the familiar white face with the piratical patch over the left eye remained obstinately absent.

He called me on his mobile and I drove the respectable car to the forest to collect the remaining dogs and bring them home, leaving Barry there to hunt for Frodo. The dogs and I, feeling the absence of the Velcro dog, were somewhat subdued. It was now full dark and there was no clue to Frodo's disappearance. Neither Barry nor I thought that Frodo would go off with someone he didn't know but we couldn't be sure that he wouldn't do so if he had got lost and frightened. He needs human companionship and reassurance as much as he needs canine and feline friends. Our imaginations were running riot and we felt completely helpless. Barry took time out from searching for Frodo to call the police but had no joy – no spotted dogs had been turned in or reported seen wandering. He prepared to spend the night in the forest and I prepared to wait up all night in case Frodo somehow found his own way home as once, years ago, our little Jack Russell Daisy had done. Both these determinations proved not to be necessary however, of which more anon.

A lesson to be learned?

A few years ago the Telecoms Industry suffered enormous losses; several trillion pounds were lost, a sum of a similar order to that lost by our banks (and they are increasingly our banks – yours and mine) and yet the industry was not bailed out by the Government. Not only have the banks been salvaged like broken-backed wrecks from the rocks of poor judgement but some of the people whose decisions were in part to blame were then invited by the Government to help rebuild the ship of finance and refloat it.

As in the case of Telecoms, drastically failing businesses which changed their boards seemed to succeed. Those that didn't change their boards continued to fail.

Public sector pay rises are planned for the next three years. Those in the private sector have not only had their pay rises frozen but some also face pay cuts. Hewlett Packard, which announced global job cuts of 24600 last September, has recently advised its employees that they can expect pay cuts of between 5% and 10%. The larger pay cuts will be made in the salaries of the higher-paid employees. Are the banks doing this?

Another thorny problem is that relating to Public Sector pensions. The country faces massive debt because of the pensions which must be paid in the future. Not only can Public Sector employees retire at the age of sixty (and in some cases earlier) and receive a full pension but their average pensions are six times higher than those of private industry employees. Their pensions are paid from taxes.

There seems to be a lack of understanding in the Government or perhaps a loss of sense of reality. Industry is not protected and has been forced to cut jobs and take wage cuts. Why haven't the banks and the Civil Service followed the same procedures?

Another multi-billion pound injection of public cash has been pumped into Lloyds. The Treasury takes a 65% stake in Lloyds as it lends £25 billion. The bank has clearly failed so why are Sir Victor Blank, the chairman of Lloyds, and Eric Daniels, his chief executive, still in position? The buck has clearly stopped a long way short of the main protagonists.

Afghanistan – History repeats itself

Great Britain first started waging war in Afghanistan 170 years ago. There were three Anglo-Afghan Wars, from 1839 to 1842, 1878 to 1881 and in 1919. In 1885 a military skirmish, the Panjdeh Incident, occurred when Russian forces seized Afghan territory, threatening war between Great Britain and Russia; this was averted through the diplomatic intervention of Lord Dufferin. There was Civil War briefly in 1929 followed by the current Civil War which started in 1978 and continues to the present day. A Soviet War was fought for ten years, from 1979 to 1989. The Afghan Government collapsed in the Civil War of 1989 to 1992 and was followed by a period of Anarchy and further Civil War from 1992 to 1996. From 1996 the Taliban oversaw Civil War until 2001 when NATO became involved and engaged in War in Afghanistan where it remains to the present.

In November 2008 Major Sebastian Morley, a former SAS commander in Helmand Province, resigned his commission in protest at the apparent inability of the British Government to equip its troops adequately. Principally his complaint was that Snatch Land Rovers were not being withdrawn, even though it had been widely recognised that they were inadequate for the job and provided little or no protection for troops travelling in them. With typical gallows humour soldiers dubbed the Snatch 'the mobile coffin.' The lightly armoured Snatch Land Rovers have been implicated in the deaths of thirty-four British troops. They are not equipped to withstand rounds and cannot travel off-road.

'... the MoD said: "Equipping our personnel is a clear priority and we are absolutely focused on providing them with a range of vehicles that will protect them from the ever-shifting threats posed by the enemy."'

Major Morley declares that the Government has blood on its hands, there is chronic underinvestment in equipment and argues that UK presence in Afghanistan is 'useless.' Meanwhile the Government steadfastly maintains that the troops are 'making progress.'

The following is taken from the MOD site on expenditure.

Defence Spending

Information about key areas of the Defence Budget. '

The Government plans departmental spending through the process of the spending reviews. As part of most recent settlement, the Defence Budget is set to increase from a baseline of £32.6Bn in 2007/08 to £36.9Bn in 2010/11 in Total Departmental Expenditure Limit (Total DEL). In real terms (i.e. after inflation) it represents average annual growth of 1.5%. By 2010/11 the Budget will be some 11% higher in real terms than in 1997, and represents the longest period of sustained growth since the 1980s.


The additional net costs incurred on operations (for example in Afghanistan and Iraq) are not paid for from the Defence Budget, but rather by the Treasury Reserve. Since 2001, the Reserve has provided an additional £9.5Bn on top of the Defence Budget to cover operational costs. This reflects over £3.6Bn that has been approved for Urgent Operational Requirements. This is a process designed to provide commanders on the ground with the equipment they need quickly.

'...Urgent Operational Requirements... is a process designed to provide commanders on the ground with the equipment they need quickly.'

Patently, the needs of the commanders have not been met.

'...the men were aghast when they were told during pre-deployment training that only Snatch Land Rovers – designed to withstand rioters in Northern Ireland – were available.'

'Emails were sent to Whitehall planners in the MoD, but they were told to "get on with it".'

'... soldiers also arrived in Afghanistan with a "desperate shortage" of night vision sights ...'

In any event, UOR are really a patch-up process when what is really required is a speeding-up of the procurement process. There appears to be an overriding inability to provide equipment quickly, as failures in the past have proved – in the case of Chinook helicopters, for example, or night vision sights. There is a shortage of radios so that even communications are compromised. Al-Qaeda does not seem to suffer the same sort of long procurement cycles.

How much longer can we expect our over-stretched troops to 'make do' with outdated equipment? What faith have they that they will receive efficient support when in December 2008 Defence Secretary John Hutton dismissed adverse criticism of Snatch Land Rovers; he declared that the military commanders believed them to be essential even though they have caused the death of dozens of troops. He later confirmed that Snatch would be replaced on operational manoeuvres by the better-armoured Snatch Vixen. Some of these vehicles are already deployed in Afghanistan and the number will be increased in 2009.

We have been sucked into this war with no apparent exit strategy and while our troops are performing very well even while limited by poor/insufficient/inadequate supplies, the politicians don't seem to have agreed a plan for the endgame. Do we continue to exert force without considering how to help the benighted civilians in this sorry affair? Are we just to destroy and depart and not help to rebuild? Worse yet, will we ever be able to withdraw?

Yet still the troops fight, are wounded or killed. Still the survivors return to Blighty where they must fight a different war; they must find a means of surviving in the face of the Government's indifference to their plight while charities – so many charities – help them as they attempt to heal their shattered minds and bodies and adjust to an altered life.

Friday 6 March 2009

Winston’s Blog

Winston here . . . p'rrrrr, p'rrrrr . . .
I'm a happy,laid-back cat of the Ocicat variety, (Chocolate, if you must know) I'd love to write my own entries but the claws are too long, don'tcha know, so I have to rely on the humans to do it for me. I'm watching all the time of course but you can't trust people to do it right. For goodness' sake they can't organise their own affairs efficiently – just look at the banking system for a start.

My stars, if cats behaved the way bankers and politicians do, we'd starve. Catch a few mice (or birds, we're not fussy) offer them for sale to the highest bidder on the promise of more to come because there's rich pickings out there (WHERE??) and we'll all grow fat on the proceeds . . . oh, yeah? I'm just a cat, pretty smart, but just a cat and even I know you get nothing for nothing.

Thursday 5 March 2009

Talking to myself

I've spent a good deal of my life talking to myself. Occasionally I've disguised it as teaching. It can seem that the little children sitting at your feet are drinking in every word when what they're really doing is wondering why your hair looks young when the lines on your face clearly indicate that you're extremely old, just like their mums or, worse yet, their grandmothers. Sometimes a small child will boldly reach out and touch the polished surface of your shoe to see if it really is shiny or just wet. Once in a while an infant will whisper shyly, 'I like your blouse' or even, touchingly, 'I like you'.

Children can be devastatingly honest when young and unhampered by conformity. Very politely a little girl may put up her hand to indicate that she wishes to speak and when acknowledged say, 'Excuse me, I don't like you.' Often actions speak more piercingly than words. Couching instructions in the form of requests – 'Would you like to . . . ?' can be answered by the child shaking his head vigorously or turning his back and walking away. If the instruction/request involves three-dimensional items to be sorted, built, placed, the answer may be an eloquent gesture sweeping the items to the floor, or, if already on the floor, far and wide across the room. Nothing could be plainer – the child does not want to cooperate. If the instruction/request is repeated a little more firmly there are several possible outcomes:-

1: the child acquiesces and does as he is told. Result!

2: the child bursts into noisy sobs and demands her mummy.

3: the child repeats 'NO' with increasing vehemence until your ear drums are ringing, he has turned purple with rage and ends up having a full-blown tantrum, maybe even succeeding in making himself sick.

3: the child throws the items at the nearest adult (you) and possibly aims a kick at your shin.

4: the child wets herself, indicating at the same time, by the volume of the flow, that she has not emptied her bladder since the night before.

5: the child soils himself, indicating at the same time that he consumed far too much fruit yesterday.

None of these outcomes were quite what was in mind at the beginning of the 'lesson'. I believe that the hardworking teachers of very young children deserve more generous pay than their colleagues at the other end of the age range, when students attend lessons (now known as lectures) voluntarily, are usually articulate and toilet-trained, can dress themselves and use a handkerchief and know that writing on walls is unacceptable. Pause here, while I think about this last statement – okay, they know it's unacceptable but do it anyway, arguing the right to free expression.

Wednesday 4 March 2009

The Adventures of Frodo the Faller (6)

Frodo is a lovely family dog, enjoying the company of young and old but he has always wanted to be very close to me in particular – something about the hand that feeds, maybe? Since becoming a Faller his desire has become more extreme. He will hardly leave my side and going downstairs can be hazardous for he will not commit to going down until he is quite sure that is my intention too. Once confident that I am descending he then rushes past me. That is quite acceptable unless I am carrying laundry, a tea tray or supporting Dominie who is stiff first thing in the morning and needs help. On the flat again he trots ahead of me, glancing over his left shoulder every few seconds, consequently frequently hitting his nose or shoulder against my husband, the door frames, other dogs or anything else that may impede his progress. I am used to tripping over hungry dogs and cats, for they make their requirements very plain and usually settle after the worms have stopped biting. Frodo, however, will not let me out of his sight and follows me all over the house. When I went away for a few days he howled the whole time he was awake because I was absent. My husband expected daily a visit from the RSPCA. Even on our walks Frodo checks on me every five to ten seconds, sometimes to see if I'm checking on him and his turdy tastes. In short he is a 'Velcro' dog.

'Velcro' is the trademark for a clever method of fastening one piece of material to another. It was invented by Georges de Mestral, a Swiss engineer, who had studied the burrs that stuck to his dog's fur and to his own clothes. Examining them under a microscope he saw that they had hundreds of hooks that caught on the loops of rough surfaces like clothing, hair or animal fur and resolved to reproduce them in material. A clever man and tenacious too, for although to begin with no-one would take him seriously, in 1951 he was granted a patent in Switzerland for his new fastener. He called it 'Velcro' from an amalgamation of the French 'velours' meaning velvet and 'crochet' meaning hook.

Owner/companions of epileptic dogs recognise the 'Velcro' tendency in their dogs. Epileptic dogs form a special bond with their people; maybe, in the deeper recesses of their consciousness they recognise that their people are trying to help them. Sometimes before a seizure when a dog senses that something unpleasant is about to occur – humans call this having or seeing an aura - he will seek out his owner, whether for comfort or acupressure or supplemental medication one cannot be sure. After the episode, the dog may remain very close to his person. Anything up to twenty-four hours before a seizure Frodo becomes exceptionally clinging and will not go outside unless I accompany him. Just like a small puppy he wants reassurance and company.

He is at all times a most responsive dog, coming immediately when called, spinning on a sixpence in his eagerness to return to us. All the stranger then was the occasion when he disappeared in the forest as dusk was falling and did not come back when summoned, of which more anon.

The Adventures of Frodo the Faller (5)

Following Frodo's first falling I took him to the vet. Naturally, by the time we got there he was absolutely fine and wondering why on earth he'd been dragged away from his friends and relations. A thorough examination revealed nothing untoward and the likely diagnosis was idiopathic epilepsy. Four years and two MRIs later nothing is different and although his seizures are alarming they are relatively mild. What has changed has been his attitude to life. He has always been a greedy dog, an opportunistic thief, like many Dalmatians. The medication has made him ravenous and if he were to be fed to satiety he would weigh at least twice his thirty-two kilograms. He filches the other dogs' food if he thinks he can get away with it and moves extraordinarily swiftly to achieve his objective. He spends a good part of his waking hours searching for food. Consequently, nothing can be left within reach and as he is a tall dog when on his hind legs this means that all work surfaces and the cooker hob must be kept clear of all edible substances at all times. Naturally, we do not always manage this because sometimes we are distracted by other things.

Our first warning that Frodo has discovered a source of food comes from Dominie. That is to say, she barks. We fondly tell each other that she is telling him off when in reality she's peeved that she can no longer stand on two legs and will therefore miss out on the delicacies Frodo is busily scoffing.

In addition there is often a loud commotion because Buddy, no mean pilferer himself (he stole a cabbage from the fridge yesterday) is attempting to share the refreshments, much to Frodo's chagrin. Cats may be able to purr while breathing in and out but dogs can growl and gobble at the same time. Should Dominie not have realised that Frodo is thieving the alert that rings through the house is the crashing of pans or dishes on the kitchen floor accompanied as ever by snarling slurps.

Our grandchildren, accustomed to their own biddable Labradors, have to adjust to our ill-behaved hounds every time they visit, usually after food has been stolen from hand or plate. It's not that our dogs won't do as they're told, rather more that they don't believe the children mean what they're saying.

Walks with the dogs are always entertaining. Jenna-the-Labrador does not consider that she has had a rewarding outing unless she has been in water. When her Labrador friends come to stay they form a small black and yellow pack, racing after the ball, retrieving in the long grass, jumping in every stretch of water, large or small. The Dalmatians form another pack, doing the things that Dalmatians enjoy, principally ambling along reading the pee and pooh mails. Unfortunately, Frodo's urgent hunger means that he often ingests the pooh mails. He knows he shouldn't but finds them very difficult to resist. Buddy has cottoned on to this and also attempts to sample the leavings. So our walks involve throwing the ball with a ball flinger for the Labradors, helping Dominie along when her back legs won't cooperate and watching Buddy and particularly Frodo like hawks and making discouraging noises as their mouths start to take over from their noses.

Sunday 1 March 2009

Lance Corporal Johnson Beharry V.C.

Lance Corporal Johnson Beharry V.C. has spoken out about the iniquitous treatment of servicemen and women and former colleagues. He is still serving, still suffering flashbacks, still having nightmares and still in constant pain as a result of his service in Iraq. He applauds the personal medical treatment he has received for much of the time, though he had to wait three hours in a hospital waiting room for emergency treatment for excruciating pain, but says rightly that the Government depends too heavily on charities to support the bruised and broken people who return from theatres of war. Some of them are so badly damaged that they may never be able to lead a normal life again. Many of them live on the streets. Few experience an undisturbed night's sleep. Most have terrifying flashbacks to the contacts they have been involved in and experience uncontrollable surges of anger in reaction to otherwise trivial incidents. These young people have been trained, and trained well, to kill and yet they are not given the help they require to enable them to adjust to non-combatant life.

It can take many years for the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to be revealed. In the meantime, there are on the streets, in the supermarkets, driving cars, walking in the parks, a huge number of personnel who show no outward signs of mental illness. Facing the trivial stresses of daily life which may make civilians mutter and curse has unpredictable effects on veterans and those still serving; they react with frightening speed and hostility, thanks to their training and no thanks to the too-long periods they have spent in life-threatening situations.

Will Gordon Brown speak honeyed words and then turn his back on them and lean again on the charities which bring some respite to their troubled souls? Will he turn his attention away from the stuttering financial institutes long enough to pledge money and assistance?

Spring has sprung – in parts

My favourite time of the year? Spring is my favourite period, but as each season is succeeded by the next, so my loyalties change, and each in turn becomes the one most cherished.

Our garden is not looking its best at the moment – in fact it more nearly resembles a building site-cum-municipal dump. Unkind people might remark that this is how it normally appears. Even so, the signs of Spring are everywhere and we are confident that it will recover as it has had to do so many times in the past.

After the excitement of seeing a couple of frogs in our pond the other day there has been a sense of deflation because the expected influx of amphibians has not happened. The water remains ominously calm and the night warblings are missing.

All else in the pond appears to be as it should be. Water plants are beginning their sprint to cover the surface and all adjacent hard areas. Myriads of insects both in and out of the water are busily fishing, flying and doing all the things myriads of insects normally do. The fish are more in evidence as the days grow longer and warmer and bask in the sun, simultaneously keeping a weather eye out for visiting grey herons. The local crows are taking an interest in the pond, looking for a quick meal of grenouilles – indeed, not being connoisseurs of haute cuisine, they grab the entire luckless beasts and fly off with their wriggling prey. On occasion, the frogs manage to escape from the pitiless talons and plop moistly to the ground, often to live to hide (for they are woefully ill-equipped to fight) another day. However, for the moment at least, the crows must look elsewhere for their snacks.

Otherwise, Spring is coming along apace. The buds on shrubs and trees are swelling, daffodils are nodding their golden heads, hellebores are in full bloom. Yellow and purple pansies offer their faces to the sun as the last snowdrops begin to fade; crocuses show their jewelled colours, the wonder of the tulips is yet to come. The brown and yellow and grey of winter are yielding to the crisp green of new grass and shoots, azure sky, spinnaker clouds and gentle breezes. Naturally, all this can change and probably will but Nature is resilient and adept at resisting cold snaps of frost and late falls of snow. It is heartening to see the days lengthening – an extra fifteen minutes a week – and the cold clear nights allow a splendid view of bright Venus, shining improbably brilliantly.