Saturday 31 December 2011

Bertie's First Christmas

The first indication for Bertie that something different was happening was the sight of the Master and Mistress filling black bags. His inquisitive nose investigated as we attempted to make enough room in the bedrooms for guests to reach their beds. An indecent amount of washing and dusting, vacuuming and tidying went on as his familiar surroundings became unfamiliar. Settee cushions were upended so that his friends and relations could not climb on them. Winston, being a cat and therefore superior (and lighter) managed to balance on them and Bertie developed a trampoline act on the webbing. Meanwhile, big strong Gus panted and worried over the changes taking place.

As the house was divested of dust, extraneous goods such as old music tapes, mountains of odd socks, old pillows and clothing that adult children had stored and forgotten, chewed slippers and remnants of the various childhoods of now grown offspring so it simultaneously filled with parcels and boxes and enough food to feed an army. The dog freezer (for frozen dog food, not dogs) was filled and the old freezer in the garage was brought into service to accommodate the overflow. Five dogs and two puppies consume a lot of food in a short period. Likewise the human freezer (for frozen human food, et cetera, as above) and the fridge were organised to within an inch of their lives to take in the extra provisions needed to sustain human life during the Christmas period when, Heaven forfend! the shops would be closed for an entire day. (Actually, I was horrified to discover that the local shop would be open until midday on Christmas Day.)

The most disturbing thing for Bertie was when his puppy pen was dismantled. Suddenly his dining room, rest room and secure zone disappeared. This was the downstairs pen in which he had eaten and slept in safety from his first day in our house. He shared it with Buster when he visited and now it was gone. Oh, calamity!
Bertie (left) and Buster  - 8 weeks old
Sharing the pen with Jenna . . .
 . . . and with Frodo
In front of the pen with Gus
Finally the house was ready. Bethan and Robert arrived on Friday to be followed by Bertie’s brother and his family. Everyone brought piles of boxes and bags and more food and all the effort of the preceding days seemed to have been in vain. 
Bertie (left) and Buster
Bertie (left) and Buster
Sometimes the boys were too tired to share a bed. Bertie slumbers.

Bertie and Buster played themselves to exhaustion.

On Christmas Eve some of us went to Midnight Mass - a beautiful introduction to Christmas Day when Gareth and his family arrived. The day passed in a blur of people, food, wine and gifts. Boxing Day was a repeat performance with slight changes in personnel. On Tuesday, everyone departed to their own homes and life suddenly seemed very quiet once more. We all enjoyed our time together and though there will undoubtedly be gatherings during the coming year, none of them will be quite like Christmas, and none of them will bring similar dramatic changes in Bertie’s little life.
Oh, and quite a lot of the items we have been storing have gone home with their respective ownersJ J

At some point we will erect Bertie’s pen again so that we can leave him safely but he’s quite a responsible young lad now and the need is not so pressing. New Year’s Eve will pass quietly – just the two of us, four dogs and Winston Ocicat.
Happy New Year to you all and may 2012 be Healthy, Fulfilling, Peaceful and Prosperous.

Home Brew

Home Brew – two words to strike fear chill into the heart of anyone with any semblance of a sense of taste. A few years ago, well, more than thirty years ago, (because Bethan had not been born then and she’s just thirty) Barry embarked on home brewing.

As with all his enthusiasms he went headfirst into the business and we were soon bursting at the seams with demijohns (carboys), rubber pipes and bungs (which looked strangely threatening), fermentation locks and bottles into which the delicious end product/s would be decanted. Visitors quickly learned to wave away a proffered pint of whichever vintage Barry had just completed. The beers were never started from scratch but from kits that contained all the vital ingredients apart from water.
Eventually, even Barry admitted that the beer wasn’t up to much was horrible. Maybe wine would be better, he thought. Our neighbours gave us a huge quantity of apples which produced a light golden wine that was quite acceptable but the best of all was the dandelion wine. Bear in mind that we had three willing slaves children at the time who relished the idea of picking dandelions even though there was no chance that they would be invited to sample the wine. 
The five of us picked for what seemed like hours. Our hands were yellow and we proved conclusively the untruth of the old wives’ tale – our beds remained dry all night. As far as I can remember the resulting wine was delicious but the process was too labour-intensive and was never repeated.

Home brewing became a chore and finally dropped out of favour but the empty demijohns hung around for a few years on a high shelf in the kitchen – Barry is averse to throwing things away in case they should be useful in the future. Really, what purpose could a demijohn serve other than to store alcoholic beverages? Too big for a flower vase, too heavy to carry water for thirsty dogs – a dust collector, pure and simple.

One day, when Bethan was a tiny girl, one of the demijohns imploded. While I was agonising about what could have happened – shards of glass flying through the air in the vicinity of small human being - Barry was exclaiming about the chances of such a thing happening.

The remaining demijohns were consigned to the garage and eventually moved out. Much as I like the idea of country wines I think we’ll leave the brewing of them to those who really know what they’re doing! 

Friday 30 December 2011


I was reading Joshua’s post at ‘Vive le Nerd’ wherein he commented on the Rough-legged Hawk he had seen in his garden. It reminded me that I had seen a Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) just before Christmas.

From the corner of my eye I saw a bird fly into the holly tree and watched to see if I could identify it when it emerged. I was excited to see it was a Sparrowhawk. Pleasingly it flew to the top of the nearest arch and posed obligingly for me. I had to photograph it through the (grubby) patio door and managed to get five shots before it took flight.
I rarely see Sparrowhawks. I hear them more often or find the pitiful evidence of their depredations in the garden. It’s not their fault that their diet consists almost exclusively of birds. 

Mainly they eat small birds – 120 different species have been recorded. The smaller males catch birds from titmice up to birds the size of thrushes but the much larger females will prey on birds as large as wood pigeons and magpies. Some have been known to catch bats.

Very rarely they eat insects.
This time the Sparrowhawk went hungry. I’m almost sure it was a male.

Smile, please!

Smiling is good for us, it makes us happy and those who receive our smiles, whether a closed-mouth lifting of the lips or the full gnashers, feel better, too. Even better is to laugh – giggle, chuckle, snort, guffaw.

However, as the muscles move the skin in repeated patterns, faint lines appear. With age, and more smiling and laughing, the lines deepen to creases and wrinkles. Lotions and potions, creams and unguents are applied with increasing desperation to hold back the march of time, to no avail.

The most desperate among us – and usually those with abundant funds – seek medical aid to turn back the clock. The surgeon’s knife is brandished expertly and bloodily to return sagging skin to a semblance of unlined youth.

Those who find such intervention abhorrent may choose another solution – Botox – Botulinum Toxin. The syringe-wielding physician injects Botox to paralyse the muscles and iron out the despised furrows. The effects may last for as long as eight months or may need to be repeated sooner.

Conversely, with the loss of the creases comes a more significant cost. The paralysed muscles can no longer convey to the brain the sense of happiness that comes from smiling and the now line-less patient suffers depression. That seems a rather extreme price to pay for vanity. How must it feel to be unable to smile? I suppose it must be like a permanent face pack, when the mud has hardened to a mask.

Omnia Vanitas - All is Vanity
'All is Vanity'  (1892) by Charles Allan Gilbert (1873-1929)
Image courtesy of Wikipedia
As a strictly medical treatment Botox can be usefully applied in the treatment of movement disorders like those displayed in Parkinson’s Disease or cerebral palsy, for chronic migraine, for muscle spasms like Blepharospasm (excessive blinking)

For the rest, I’ll live with my wrinkles and creases – after all, they don’t bother me unless I look at myself and I do that less and less these days J

Thursday 29 December 2011

The Further Adventures of Frodo the Faller – Frodo Visits His Friends the Vets

Frodo implores
Just over six months ago Frodo had a gastric torsion and underwent an operation to untwist his stomach. As a precaution, Phil-the-Vet put a stitch in to prevent it twisting should he have bloat again.

A few days before Christma Frodo turned his nose up at his supper. He’s a naturally greedy dog but the anti-epileptic drugs he has to take twice a day make him ravenous. Rapaciousness is a well-documented side effect of the medication, together with ataxia, which is variable.

I looked at him and ran my hands over his sides. He looked a little full but nothing too much. Then I felt the underside of his tummy and that seemed somewhat distended. He wanted to go out in the garden so I took a torch and went with him but he didn’t do anything, just mooched around a little then came back in. I was concerned that he hadn’t peed and although he didn’t appear to be in great discomfort he had retched a couple of times, which filled the air with an interesting odour.
Frodo with Bertie
With our experience of dogs with bloat – three, all Dalmatians – we decided that he should be checked over. I wanted to take him but Barry insisted I stay at home and look after the other dogs.

He and Frodo were gone for ages and my imagination was running riot by the time they came home. There was an accumulation of gas in his stomach from undigested fermenting food so Phil and Nadia had introduced a tube into his mouth and down to his stomach to relieve the pressure – that is, release the gas!! Barry enjoyed that bit;-) After that, he was given an injection – Frodo, not Barry – to relax his intestinal tract so that any remaining gas could be expelled.

We expected to spend a malodorous few hours but actually, it wasn’t bad at all. Frodo slept soundly all evening and I decided I’d sleep downstairs for the night with him but he went upstairs and so did I. He then proceeded to sleep deeply all night, not moving from his bed. Normally, he ambles about, rather like Goldilocks trying out different (dog) beds. If the bed he wishes to commandeer is occupied he looms over the occupant, not making a sound, until the bed is vacated, often with a snarl. The protest is purely for effect – Frodo is the senior dog and all the others know it.

On the other hand, I slept badly, one ear open for sounds of discomfort. I was concerned that Frodo had not had his full quota of drugs though it takes more than a missed dose to cause him to seize. He is fortunate in that respect. Some dogs are so sensitive that the doses must be administered at the same time every day. For them delays can trigger seizures.  One owner I know gets up at 5:00 a.m. to give her dog his pills. His second dose is at 5:00 p.m.

Frodo went back to see Nadia-the-Vet the following morning and was pronounced fit and well. She remarked on how different he is when Barry takes him. With me he’s on guard the whole time, watching and grumbling quietly to protect me. With Barry he’s relaxed and completely unconcerned. It’s the same when we go out walking. He rarely strays from my side but if Barry takes the dogs out without me, Frodo strides ahead confidently, barely giving Barry a second glance - unless he has a pocketful of biscuits.
Back to normal . . .
Anyway, the boy had a special diet for a few days and we introduced his normal fare gradually, mixed with the blander food, as his digestive tract recovered.

I call him ‘the boy’ but he has just had his tenth birthday so he is really getting to be quite an old dog. He doesn’t know that, thoughJ

The Eleventh Family Birthday of the Year

Bethan opening presents on her second birthday, helped by Sam
It is Bethan’s 30th birthday today and she is celebrating it in Bruges with her fiancĂ©.
With Barry, Sam and Daisy
Bethan was a shy little girl and softly spoken. Today she still has a quiet voice but she is confident and strong-minded. She needed to develop a sense of self quite early as she had not only two parents, but three teenage siblings who all wanted to guide and protect her.
As she has grown older the age differences have disappeared and now she is the confidante of her two elder sisters and a good friend to her brother. Her nieces and nephews love her and she knows just how to interact with them.
With Barry in Mumbles
As a girl she showed considerable musical ability and quickly learnt to play the violin and to enjoy singing with her school choirs. She has a natural charm and ease with people of all ages and a keen sense of humour – like her father and her siblings she is an excellent mimic.
With Susannah and Marnie, Buckinghamshire
Bethan is open-minded and fair, listening attentively to the arguments of others before stating her own opinion. From Barry she has inherited an analytical brain and like him she is left-handed – somehow the two are linked, at least in my mind.

She was the grandchild with whom my parents spent most time – a gift for my father who was away so much when his own children were growing up. They looked after her while I worked part-time - who better to care for her? - and from them she learnt patience and trust.

Happy Birthday, dear Bethan, and Many Happy Returns of the Day! J

ABC Wednesday X X X

The only Xs in my garden are the two little Xmas trees that I bought last Christmas and put outside after Epiphany. We always observe the tradition of Twelfth Night and put away all Christmas decorations on that day.
You can see the tiny cones on the little tree
Anyway, the trees survived and thrived but I could only bring one indoors because the other had been ‘leant on’ by a hanging basket and displayed brown needles where there should have been green. It will recover in time for Christmas 2012 I’m (almost) sure.
The one I brought indoors is decorated with buttons of glass and brass and the red ribbons and bells that adorn the necks of Lindt rabbits, reindeer and Santa Clauseseseses. 
There are one or two small wooden ornaments, too. 
The white and silver gauze trimmings and ‘pearls’ from Christmas crackers make tiny baubles and the whole is lit with battery-operated strings of small lights. 

I took the photos so they’re not very good. The busyness of Christmas has left me strangely ill-coordinated and eyes, brain and hands are not working in synchronicity, it seems J

I hope you all had an enjoyable Christmas/holiday season and are looking forward to New Year’s Eve. I wish you a Peaceful, Prosperous, Happy, Healthy and Fulfilling 2012J

To see more Xs please click here.

Friday 23 December 2011

ABC Wednesday W is for . . .

‘Warm Welcome’

Rosa ‘Warm Welcome’ is a semi-evergreen climbing rose that flowers profusely in summer and autumn. The clusters of flowers are sweetly scented and a vibrant orange-red, a welcome splash of brightness on our often less than sunny summer days.

White starling
Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) are on the RSPB Red list. This means that they are globally threatened. They are abundant in Berkshire and frequent our bird feeders with noisy enthusiasm. A few years ago I spotted a pure white starling. Not quite believing my eyes I took some hasty photographs and though I watched and waited for several days I never saw it again.
Woodpecker – of the three UK woodpeckers, two can be seen in gardens. The Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major) is the commoner visitor to our garden. It is a striking bird and vies with the starlings for a place at the table. It eats insects and fruit.
The Green Woodpecker (Picus viridis) is the largest of the woodpeckers that breed in Britain. It eats insects and has a particular liking for ants. It is popularly called the Yaffle because of its laughing call. It is on the RSPB Amber list, meaning that its status is causing concern.
The bird at the front is a juvenile. The white neck patches will develop later.
The Wood pigeon (Columba palumbus) is Britain’s largest pigeon. It is the major agricultural pest and a favourite species for sport shooting. However, I am not a farmer and am always pleased to see these heavyweights in the garden. Their repetitive soft cooing call is a reassuring sound that all is well in the bird kingdom.
The Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes) is the UK’s commonest breeding bird. Like other small birds it suffers a decline in numbers in cold weather. It is often to be seen creeping mouse-like round plant pots, seeking the insects and spiders that form its diet.

To see other Ws please click here.

Monday 19 December 2011

Image copyright Lee Friedlander 1966

Troubled by facial hair? Don’t adopt that defensive stance – get HAIROFF today! Order now for delivery before Christmas and enjoy a new lease of life.

HAIROFF SCARE OFF those unwanted whiskers and smile again.

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(Caution – may stain skin if used in conjunction with soap, shower gel, cosmetics. Do not consume food for 48 hours after use. Test first on unrevealed skin. In some cases may increase hair production. Use at own risk. No liability accepted.)

With thanks to Tess Kincaid. Click here for more Magpies.

Thursday 15 December 2011

ABC Wednesday V is for . . .

Verbena is also known as Vervain. Sweet-scented, it attracts butterflies and bees.
Veronica (Veronica longifolia)
Viola 'Jackanapes'
Violet (Viola odorata)
Violets and veronica grow like weeds in our garden and spread further each year. This delights me.

Click here for more Vs

Sunday 11 December 2011

Magpie Tales #95 The Fisherman

Image by Mostafa Habibi
Taking the path to the village along the cliff the old fisherman paused in his customary place to view the sea. The rowing boat caught his attention immediately - a dinghy cast up on the shore, oars shipped. No footprints on the smooth sand, no body drifting in the water, no sign of life anywhere. The tide crept closer, rocked the craft, yet it remained as though anchored. No seabirds wheeled in the air or pecked along the shore line and that was unusual.

The old man clambered down a narrow path to the beach. He wanted a closer look - there might be someone lying in the hull. He stood for a long time, watching, listening, before approaching the craft. The sand sucked at his boots and a sea mist crept in towards land, the dampness infiltrating his layers of clothing. He was not a fanciful man, indeed was known and respected for his practicality, but a sense of dread was growing in him.

Reaching the boat he peered in. There was nothing there. He chuckled and turned to retrace his steps. There were no footprints in the sand.

They missed him in the village, sent out search parties when days passed without sight of him, but he was never found. No-one claimed the dinghy and it soon drifted away. If anyone noticed the faded name they thought nothing of it. ‘Reaper’ wasn’t a local name.

Click here for more Magpies

Saturday 10 December 2011

Central heating on the blink

The old boiler – not me! - aged gracelessly. With the passage of years it became increasingly temperamental, even cantankerous - perhaps me, after all;-)

Some days it would work, on others it refused to wake up at all. This made the approach of winter a matter of concern as temperatures dropped. Eventually it died and had to be sent to the great gas boiler graveyard.

Fortunately we have multi-fuel log burners and were able to heat our sitting room and conservatory. An immersion heater took care of the hot water but moving from the warmth, nay, tropical heat of one room to the Arctic regions of the rest of the house transported me back to my childhood when chilblains were the order of the day. It wasn’t as bad as that, of course, but one must allow for poetic licence.

Paul and John arrived on Monday to replace the gas boiler.
Out comes the old boiler
It might be butchered to rescue any useful parts, unlikely as that seems!
 Copper pipes going nowhere - the hole ensured that the garage was well ventilated!
 As usual, it was not a straightforward job, and the weather had turned very cold so they were working in many layers of clothes, with hoods up – the boiler lives in the garage. A good cooked breakfast in the morning and hot chocolate at regular intervals helped to warm the inner man and almost stopped them turning blue.
'Hot chocolate, drinking chocolate,
Hot chocolate, drinking chocolate'
I liked the Cadbury's advertisement but this chocolate was Charbonnel et Walker - yum!

Barry stoked the fires and kept them burning hot, hot, hot. The sitting room fire resembled a blacksmith’s furnace and I expected any moment that Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego would come walking through the flaming coals to join me.

There were three children from the land of Israel
. . Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego

They took a trip to the land of Babylon
. . Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego

Nebuchadnezzar was the king of Babylon
. . Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego

He took a lot of gold and made an idol
. . Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego

And he told everybody when you hear the music of the cornet
And he told everybody when you hear the music of the clarinet
And he told everybody when you hear the music of the horn
You must fall down and worship the idol
. . Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego

But the children of Israel would not bow down
. . Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego
You couldn't fool them with no golden idol

So the king put the children in a fiery furnace
He heaped on coals and red-hot brimstone
Seven times hotter, hotter than it oughta be
. . Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego
Burnt up the soldiers that the king had put there

But the Lord sent an angel with snowy white wings
Down in the middle of the furnace
Talking to the children 'bout the power of the gospel
Couldn't even harm a hair on the head of Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego
Laughing and talking while the fire is jumping around

Oh Nebuchadnezzar called when he saw the power of the Lord
And they had a big time in the house of Babylon
. . Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego

Paul and John were staying with us. Now this is not a service we offer to all men who come to work in our house but Paul is our son-in-law. I was worried that they would be cold at night. Yes, we kept them working all through the night and didn’t allow them indoors until the job was done. No, we didn’t – they slept in the cold bedrooms but were perfectly warm and comfortable under the duvets.

Barry and I roasted in our bedroom – the chimney goes up through our room* and we had the dogs and Winston with us. Our pets like to share their love and company with everyone and enjoy moving freely from room to room. Paul and John needed their sleep so we kept our door closed so that they wouldn’t be disturbed by nocturnal visitors.

*I wouldn’t like you to run away with the idea that we have a stove pipe running up through the centre of the room, rather like the one on George Stephenson’s steam engine. 
George Stephenson's 'Rocket' 
image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
The chimney is enclosed within a wall, all neat and tidy – one of the few things in the house that can be so described.

Once the work had been completed in the freezing garage the rest of the house became the work space. Hose pipes were attached to radiators to drain them and then thermostats were fitted. After that the radiators had to be bled. What a strange expression that is. Whenever I hear it I imagine specialised leeches attached to the metal to suck out the life force. 

Strange whistlings and gurglings filled the air, towelling mopped up any spills and Paul and John rushed from room to room and from radiator to radiator to discern emanating warmth. Finally the system was pronounced in full working order and the men went home to Dorset. We have been basking ever since in the warmth that permeates every corner of our abode.

Meanwhile, Bethan and Robert were burgled, but that’s another story.