Thursday, 21 November 2013


As I said a few days ago, animals have been on my mind recently.
It's my own fault.
I shouldn't look on Facebook. Or, perhaps I shouldn't have 'Liked' half the Animal Charities in Ireland on Facebook. Then I wouldn't have to be confronted with the realities of furry life in this country.
The trouble is, I'm not great at sticking my head in the sand, either.

The realities don't make pleasant viewing, by and large, although there are (mercifully) lots of happy endings.
I know there are also lots of excuses for why things are so bad. Ireland has been in the grip of recession for a long time now. People are poor, hard-pressed, struggling to keep things together, losing jobs and homes. And, let's face it, other countries are just as bad...
But actually, the longer I think about it, the more pathetic any excuse seems to be.
This isn't Syria, or the Phillipines. We should be responsible for the animals in our care, and yet animal welfare in Ireland is in a truly shocking state.

Of course, I know there are lots of eejits like me who would give their last crust to the cat (not that my cats would look at crusts); who'd perch on the floor because the dog's got the sofa, and rush outside in a thunderstorm to make sure the outdoor critters have their umbrellas up.

Two happy endings for two Rescues, thanks to ForDogsSake DogRescue and Great Hounds in Need

Bur sadly, there seem to be many, many other people who just don't give a damn. Either that; or they're blind, deaf and dumb, or - worst of all - they actually choose to take out their frustrations and anger on any animal who comes within range.

It appals me to the point of sleeplessness that anyone can willingly harm an animal, yet people do it all the time.
It appals me that people can see animal abuse and neglect going on under their eyes - next door - down the road, and do nothing about it.That people can literally watch an animal die of starvation, or neglect, or injury, without intervening.
And that so few people do the one thing they could do to help - neuter/spay their own. Loads of charities offer vouchers to help with the cost of this simple operation, yet the country is overrun with strays and unwanted litters.

Mayo Cat Rescue has trapped, neutered and returned over 250 stray cats in their area this year. That is aside from all the other rescue work they do. Yet, in truth, as Maureen (who runs the charity) says: 'It's a drop in the ocean'.
If only people would look at the wider picture and see that not neutering adds exponentially to the whole sorry mess.

Considering how relatively small the population of Ireland is (somewhere round the 4 million mark), why is the animal problem so big? There seems much to answer for, and yet so few people being brought to account. And that is despite the fact that in many abuse cases, a whole parish might know what is going on.
Perhaps, worst of all, is the fact that those in an 'official' capacity appear to do least of all. From the government down, they pass the buck round and round while in the meantime, the animal charities have stepped in to pick up the pieces.

There was a picture on Facebook this week of a dead foal lying on rough grass. The photograph showed that the ground all around the poor little creature's feet and body was just a mire - it must have spent its last hours thrashing its hooves - in pain, or trying to get up perhaps. The photo was taken by Animal Heaven Animal Rescue, who responded as soon as they were called, but were too late to save the foal, although they did take its poor mother and 3 other horses away.

A poor dead foal.  Photo: Donna Tier via PAWS Animal Rescue who were instrumental in helping these horses

AHAR is a charity that had already rescued 93 equines and 27 dogs this week, the horses from all corners of the country, both North and south. They have been on the road day and night, responding to calls to pick up horses that were starving, horses that had been dumped, horses that might have been destined for the illegal meat trade (until that bubble burst), horses that are left-overs from the good times when everyone was breeding right left and centre to make an extra buck.
Why is it always the people who are prepared to do something who end up doing everything?

About the dead foal and its mother, a local woman told this charity: 'I have been on to everyone I can think of about those poor horses, from the county council, to site owner, to environmental officer and at the end of it all, hit a brick wall. The final word was all boiled down to money and what it would cost for each horse to be removed to the one would take responsibility.' 
So a foal is dead, and an un-funded charity takes in the unwanted animals. Again.
What would happen if the charities didn't act until they had the money 'in place'?
They rely solely on donations? What if it's a 'thin' week - as so many weeks are?

I saw another horse picture on Facebook recently.
I couldn't make out what it was at first. I can be a bit dim like that, but afterwards, I couldn't get the image out of my head.

Photo:  Hungry Horse Outside

Were the owners of this horse aware of its condition? The follow-on question is inevitable. If not, why not? They were, apparently, aware of the rescue attempt being made by another of this country's amazing charities, Hungry Horse Outside, but they didn't put in an appearance - then or later.

When I saw the picture, I truly thought the horse was dead, but incredibly she wasn't, and in HHO's care, she is gradually coming back to life, but to quote the charity: 'She is so unhappy, it is heartbreaking. She is being treated like a princess by the volunteers but she has lost the sparkle...she is completely uninterested in life itself. Despite all the love and care...she is unhappy.'
Some wounds don't go away overnight - if ever.

Rachael, well but still unhappy.  Photo: Hungry Horse Outside

Back in September, I was shocked into silence by the state of some of the hens I helped re-home as part of LittleHill Animal Rescue & Sanctuary's 'Great Escape' in which 7000 chickens were saved from a battery. (You can read about it here.) The birds, in just 15 months of life, had gone from healthy young pullets to lifeless, dull dabs of skin and bone, some of them almost completely featherless, a few too far gone to want food, water or even freedom.
A Year in a Cage.
It would make a good title for a play.
Sadly, it wouldn't be a comedy. Possibly a farce. Definitely a tragedy.

Yah Bird after several weeks of rehabilitation. She was almost completely bare to start with

With care and individual attention, alongside those things that hens ought to be able to take for granted - like fresh air, a bit of space, natural light, shelter, somewhere to scratch - most of them are now completely restored to health and well being.
But the battery was re-stocked with another 7000 bright-eyed pullets long since.
It's not illegal, after all.

A typcial battery. NOT the battery in question   Photo: Facebook

Yah Bird now

Not everyone is as lucky as the Escapee hens.
Being a long-dog lover, it's the plight of greyhounds that wrenches my guts. Perhaps the most gentle dog on the planet, the only mistake greyhounds ever made was catching our eye by running too fast. We'd never have focused on them, out of the ordinary, otherwise.

Photo:  Martin Usborne  (seen on

They are bred and bred, always hoping for that one dog who will make it to stardom and earn megabucks, but like everyone else in this world, very few make it that far, and if they do, the bright lights are short-lived.
I'm sure there are some decent racing greyhound breeders out there - at least, I hope to God there are - but the sorry truth for unrecorded numbers of greys is that once they're injured, or past it, they are 'disposed of.' 
For a lucky few, this might mean being handed over to a rescue. For countless others, it means having their ears hacked off at the root (if using a stanley knife qualifies as hacking) being taken to remote woodland or a quarry somewhere and shot. They are tatooed inside their ears, so traceable. Some, God help them, are just left without food or water (possibly muzzled) lying in their own mess in tiny cages, until nature takes its course.

But the possibilities don't end there. Some greyhounds end up on a vet's pristine table, while all the blood is drained out of their bodies. They are then, of course, dead, but the blood is very useful. The dog is not.
Some unlucky dogs are exported to places like Spain where, if that's possible, life as a greyhound will be even tougher than it is here.

The gambling public don't get to see all that.
Would they care?
If the question: 'What happens to these animals?' hasn't flagged itself up in their heads, then probably not. Those who do care don't support the dog racing industry by partidipating in it.

If you want to find out more about ex-racing greyhounds, or join a protest, contact Shut down BelleVue Greyhound race track in Manchester who work tirelessly trying to stop greyhound racing and abuse of these beautiful, gentle hounds.

I'm sure there are lots of people out there who aren't involved with greyhounds. Or mutts. People who stick to purebred dogs because then you are paying for provenance, you know what's what and you can be sure of what you're buying.
It's a nice idea - but can you be sure?
If you have ever bought a puppy, did you see its mother and the place where it was reared?
Did you see anything except the room/office/van the dealer wanted you to see?
If you did, well and good. Hunky dory and tickety boo - thank heavens for dealers who actually breed dogs because they love dogs, not cash. But you surely got one of the lucky ones.
If you've ever bought a puppy that got sick soon afterwards, or didn't socialise well with people, or - worse - died - then start asking yourself serious questions.
For vast numbers of young dogs being sold out there, the truth behind the seller's sunny smile isn't so good.
More pups than you would believe are bred on puppy farms, from worn-out bitches confined for life to breed like machines in small, possibly not very clean cages, until they too are past use.

Don't buy a dog. Choose a Rescue. You'll never regret it - and nor will they. (And that goes for cats too - every animal, probably - though I don't know how many rescued gerbils there are out there...)

If you read my blog regularly, you'll know that generally I'm a pretty positive sort of person who tries to be fairly upbeat about life, but there just doesn't seem to be much 'upbeat' in all of this.

There seems, instead, to be no end to the ways in which people can make a dog suffer.
Meet Charlie.
Charlie was found one winter's evening in a ditch. It was a miracle anyone saw him at all, really.
Julie, from Offaly SPCA, climbed down into the cold water and mud and somehow managed to pull him out. It was quite hard work because he was half dead, had almost no fur, was covered in injuries and was sticky and greasy.

Charlie, in Julie's car after being pulled out of a ditch  Photo: Offaly SPCA

It took umpteen baths with warm water and gentle hands to remove the coating embedded in Charlie's skin.
Perhaps fortunately, almost all the rest of his fur came away with it, revealing bites, holes, wounds...
Between them, the vet and the charity volunteers worked out that it was -cooking oil. Old, sticky cooking oil, like a pan that isn't ever washed, just used again and again. It's not uncommon, apparently. If you smother a dog in cooking oil before using it as bait in a dog-fight, it makes the whole thing so much more entertaining and fun. Of course, it doesn't stop the dog being bitten and savaged. In fact, it probably winds the attackers into more of a frenzy, because they can't get hold of their prey properly.

What a great world we live in.

It took months for Charlie to get better. The wounds got better soon enough, with treatment. The continuing baths got his skin back to normal function, and eventually his fur started to grow again. But the other wounds? Do the wounds inside ever totally go away? His foster 'mum', and now his permanent 'mum' have brought Charlie over the threshold into a new world where he knows happiness and love, but who knows what goes on inside a dog's head. I have had rescue dogs all my life, and the ones who have been really damaged, no matter how happy they become, are only every a shadow away from their memories. All you can do is keep the shadows away.
Fortunately, love is great for banishing shadows.

Charlie today - loved and part of a family   Photo: Offaly SPCA

Charlie sporting a rather splendid hat - his best friend's tail!   Photo: Offaly SPCA

Charlie's story is bad enough, but sadly it's only one of many. And some contain a different kind of horror.
The tale that is snaking round every lane and down every chimney in these parts at the moment is something I can barely bring myself to think about.

There has been a courtcase, apparently. (For once.)
Someone eating in an ethnic restaurant in a town close to us found himself chewing on something that didn't 'chew'.
Apparently, it proved to be a microchip.
Which, apparently, proved to belong to a dog stolen from the other end of the country.
It is grotesque, but turning away and pretending it isn't happening doesn't make it go away.

I couldn't run an animal charity. I'd be too involved with every case I was called to. I'd never be able to let an animal go. I'd worry myself sick over every creature I hadn't been able to help. I'd lie awake even more than I do, haunted by the horror stories. But thank God for people who do run them. They work tirelessly, they face ignorance, brutality, cruelty, abuse and neglect on a daily basis, but somehow they maintain a positive outlook and keep going. They are on call 24/7 with nothing that could remotely be called a routine, or a social life, or a planned 'day off'. And far from being paid, most of them are up to their ears in debt.

What happens when their credit runs out? Do they play 'Eeny-meeney-miney-mo' about who gets rescued and who doesn't?

As I am writing this, the wind is raging out of the north, hurling hailstones at my windows. Winter looms on the horizon, racing up behind us, snapping at our heels.Thank God my dogs and cats are all in, snug in their beds, dreams of supper dancing in their heads, a warm fire kicking in the belly of the stove. The hens are in their henhouse, huddled together on the perches, their heads under their wings.

But what of the creatures up and down this country who have no one and no where?

Two friends and I, in a small attempt to help animal charities throughout Ireland, have started something small, which we hope might grow. We are all creative people - art and craft people, sewers, knitters, photographers, and we thought that if we could add value to anything we could give, it  might be worth more.

We've called our venture Creating Creature Comforts because that's what we do - make things that, we hope, enhance life. What we'd like to do is sell some of the things we create in order to provide some basic creature comforts for needy animals in the care of Irish Rescues.  Anything that we can give to help towards food, shelter, medical treatment and finding permanent homes, has got to be better than nothing.

A lot of people in Ireland these days - especially artists and crafters - don't have spare cash to give, but they might be willing to give something they create. I've been knitting and crotcheting patchwork blankets for just this reason. One-off colourful throws for a sofa, playroom, nursery, TV chair, petbed...

Handmade throws for sale. €65 each plus p+p - of which €25 will go to an Animal Charity (approx 38%)

What do you make?
We'd love to hear from you if you'd like to join in. The idea is to offer items - singly or in bulk - for sale, and give a minimum of 25% from each sale to one of Ireland's hard-pressed charities (which leaves the producer money to pay for materials etc). If we can get this going, maybe we could even feature a 'Charity of the Month', and highlight what they do while raising a bit of cash for them. It goes without saying that we don't want anyone who already gives to a charity to stop doing so - this is something completely outside that loop. We hope that maybe, by coming at the same problem from another angle - people looking for crafts, gifts, cards etc - we can even get more (and different) people thinking about the animals around us. Who knows?
It's worth a try.

The first project we are undertaking is a 2014 calendar. The photographs are by Martina Killian, and feature the animals on her own smallholding. The pictures are warm and often amusing and represent the side of life we all need to focus on - animals living the lives they ought to be living.

You know what they say, big oaks etc - everything has to start somewhere. You may already have bought a calendar, but hey!  Put one in the loo, or the kid's bedroom, anywhere, and help us raise money for animal charities in Ireland. €5 from each calendar will be split between Sligo Animal Rescue - you've got to start at home! - and LittleHill Animal Rescue and Sanctuary, the charity which brought us together to form this small endeavour.

A website is on its way, but for the moment Creating Creature Comforts is on Facebook, and this blog.

You can contact us on: or by leaving a comment below.

Please buy a calendar and help us create more happy endings  - it will be great reminder throughout next year of how things can be for animals if we all work together!
We can re-write the old rhyme:
Catch a Rescue -
Don't let go!
Some pictures from our 2014 Animal Charity Calendar

Calendar €10 plus €3.00 p+p (we can post worldwide)
To pay via PayPal or a card, go to the Buy Now button in the right hand column of this blog, near the top of the page.
Or go to Creating Creature Comforts Facebook page and use the link there.

Thank you for helping.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Prisoner of War

Animals have been much on my mind of late.
'Well, there's a surprise!' I hear you cry. And: 'What's new?'
I suppose they are fair questions, as animals are never far from my mind.

It's probably something to do with the time of year.
And the state of the country.
And because some dear friends lost their dog this week, to cancer - something that besets old age in many dogs. But age is irrelevant when it comes to losing someone you love; it makes it more reasonable perhaps, but no less painful.

But I did read a lovely story this week as well.
You may already know it, but I'll share it anyway.
It's about Judy, a pure-bred Pointer, who began life in Shanghai in 1936, but by the time she was six months old had become the mascot of a Royal Navy gunboat, HMS Gnat.

A PDSA photo. Frank Williams and Judy

As dog's lives go, hers was packed with adventure, but she had a pretty rough time too. She was stolen by the crew of a US gunboat, and only  returned to her own ship when the Gnat's crew secretly boarded the US boat, stole the ship's bell and then offered the bell in exchange for their beloved mascot. She was, apparently, returned within the hour.

But life was to get much tougher for Judy than being kidnapped by a US gunboat.
In 1939, Judy transferred with some of the crew to HMS Grasshopper, but in 1942, while evacuating personnel from Singapore, the ship was bombed and the crew and passengers abandoned ship.  Judy, below deck at the time, was left behind. However, as the Grasshopper remained afloat and the island the crew were marooned on was found to be without water or supplies, a Petty Officer was sent back to the vessel to find food. He found Judy, trapped under some lockers, and made a raft to float her and the food to safety. She, in turn, sniffed out and then dug down to a spring of fresh water near the shoreline, and saved everyones' lives.

Alas, in escaping from the island - which involved commandeering a Chinese junk and then trekking 200 miles cross-country - they ran into Japanese troops and were taken captive. Judy was smuggled into the prisoner of war camp with them, and there she met Leading Aircraftman Frank Williams who shared his pitiful portion of food with her, and in return she gave the alarm when poisonous snakes or scorpions approached. Incredibly, he even managed to get the Commandant to give her official status as a prisoner of war by promising the man one of her puppies - a promise which was redeemed. Frank also trained Judy to lie completely still in a rice sack, so that when the prisoners were transferred to Singapore in 1944, she was able to be smuggled aboard the transport in a sack slung over his shoulder. Despite having to stand for 3 hours in hot sun on the baking deck, Judy never gave her presence away by so much as a whimper.

With 700 prisoners on board, conditions on board were cramped, but all was well until the ship was torpedoed. Williams pushed Judy out of a porthole in an attempt to save her life, taking quite a risk, as it was a 15 foot drop to the water. He was unable to escape and was recaptured and sent to a new camp, where he had no way of knowing whether Judy had lived or died; but gradually stories began to filter in of a dog helping drowning men to reach pieces of debris which they could grab onto, and even allowing men to hold on to her while she swam them to safety. Eventually - to Frank's amazement - Judy turned up in his new camp. In recollecting the moment they were reunited, Frank later said: '...a scraggy dog hit me square between the shoulders and knocked me over! I’d never been so glad to see the old girl. And I think she felt the same!'

During the following year of laying railway tracks in Sumatra, the two kept each other alive - Frank by sharing his food with her, Judy by giving him a reason to live. 'All I had to do was look at her and into those weary, bloodshot eyes,' Frank later said, 'and I would ask myself: What would happen to her if I died? I had to keep going. Even if it meant waiting for a miracle.' Judy nearly didn't survive this part of her ordeal. The guards threatened to shoot her, and she only stayed alive by hiding in the jungle and finding food for herself - rats, snakes - anything she could catch.

Once hostilities ceased, Judy was smuggled aboard a troopship heading back to Liverpool. The ship's cook fed her on the journey, and in 1946 she was awarded the Dickin Medal, the highest award that can be given to animals. Her citation reads: 'For magnificent courage and endurance in Japanese prison camps, which helped to maintain morale among her fellow prisoners and also for saving many lives through her intelligence and watchfulness.' Frank also received an award - the PDSA's White Cross of St Giles, for his devotion to Judy.

Judy was even 'interviewed' by the BBC for the Victory Celebrations in 1946, and her barks were broadcast on the wireless. During the following year, she and Frank visited many families of prisoners of war who had not survived the camps. Frank always believed that the dog had a way of comforting them that no person had.

In 1948 she and Frank went to East Africa on a Government funded food scheme, and it was there in 1950 that she was discovered to have a tumour and was put to sleep. Frank built a memorial to her with a plaque telling her life story. She was almost 14 - a great age for a dog who had been through so much.
But, for all the hardships of her life, was truly loved.

Isn't that a great story?

Friday, 15 November 2013

Game On!

Apart from a nasty sinus headache that has persisted all week, I've had a lovely day.
I've been in my garden since mid-morning, and, although overcast, it's been calm and still and dry.
The rather savage storm we had a couple of nights ago appears to have done no damage, and it's amazing how many plants are still flowering out there. Roses, delphiniums, scabious, achillea and that lovely scarlet thingamijig whose name I can never remember. Well, whatever it is, it's still going strong.
As is the faithful, hardworking allysum. You'd think, after six months of continuous flowering, it would have called it a day by now, but no.

We spent a bit of time in the orchard first of all, but not, alas, planting daffodil bulbs - although I have some still waiting to go in up there. The orchard is the dogs' playground, and they race about while I keep my eyes shut. I don't know how they can go that fast without crashing into something. Model Dog is very fond of playing with a ball - the first dog we've ever had who is. She has a squishy football and an endlessly renewable stock of brightly coloured solid, smaller balls. She is quite happy to throw them for herself if no one else is willing.

The TeenQueen doesn't really understand this game, but she likes to get the ball and tease Model Dog into a mouth-to-mouth tug of war to get it back. 

Na-na, na-na-naa! I've got your ba-all!
You can try and get it, if you want! Go on, - try!

I'm not letting go

I'll bite your leg off if you don't give it back!!

Eeek - quick - run away!

If TeenQueen does get it for any length of time, she bites chunks out of it.
She really has no idea at all.
What she likes best, is sitting on the sidelines waiting until the Model has got up enough speed to be worth chasing, then she charges after her and chases her round and round the orchard, growling ferociously all the time.
Honesty compels me to add that Model Dog adores this game as well.

I let them play this for a while, but eventually I went off to gather up my tools and some spring bulbs and of course they followed along behind. Dogs never like to be left.

I've been longing to get back out into the garden since my tulip-planting session last Saturday, but it was not to be.
The In-Charge has been in Venice all week  at the Biennale (no, no, I'm not even slightly jealous), and I thought I'd spend a consoling few days catching up with my garden, putting it to bed and cuddling it up under a liberal layer of the delicious compost we collected from the Council place in Ballysadare last weekend.

Instead, I've spent great wodges of every day firmly attached to my computer, fighting with my inability to grasp the technical niceties of PayPal v Facebook, and website construction.
Never mind. All in a good cause (which I will tell you about tomorrow), and swearing loud and long at the screen probably does wonders for clearing the sinuses.

This afternoon, after I'd finished gardening, and the dogs had finished their bones, we all went and stood around in the hens' field for awhile, while I watched my new babies to see how they're settling in.
They are so tiny, I have felt a bit anxious about them this week. The littlest one is only the size of a collared dove. I even left the cats inside while I went to town the other day, just in case. I usually lock them out while I'm gone away, but I thought that, deprived of their cosy kitchen beds, boredom might take them to the hens' paddock and revenge might do the rest...

They are so dainty and very sweet, the two littlies. And very clever. I think they are the first hens I've ever had who went into the henhouse on their own on their very first night, and not just into the nesting boxes, which some hens do for weeks, but up onto the perches with the big hens. All without me having to put them there. All except one, that is. If I'd needed any proof at all that Napoleon was their grandfather, I had it on that first evening.

I went out as the light was starting to fade, just in case I had to spend time looking for them. Once I'd got over my astonishment that two of them were where they ought to be, dismay took over as I discovered that No.3 was nowhere to be found. I did the rounds of every possible place in the paddock twice with no joy. I got a torch as dusk had turned into twilight (or is it the other way round?) and searched again. Then, remembering Napoleon and the quirky (but terrifyingly risky) places he sometimes chose to bed down in, I thought I'd better widen the field before it got totally dark.

Shades of Napoleon

Eventually I found her, more by chance than anything else, perched on something in the turf shed where the cats sleep at night. I wouldn't like to guess whether or not she'd still have been there in the morning. Hobbes is partial to doves and pigeons, when he can stir his lazy stumps, and all birds look grey in the dark - don't they?

Rapiers at dawn

Tonight, when I went back out to shut them up for the night, they weren't sitting on the end of a perch, side by side as they have been. One of them was almost completely hidden from sight, tucked under Wellington's capacious wing. I've no romantic illusions about my huge black cockerel though, as he's rather tetchy these days. He was fast asleep and probably oblivious.

Soon I must decide on suitable names for them. They are granddaughters of an Emperor, after all.
Any suggestions?

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Of Birthdays, Tulips, Princesses and Cats

Today - tonight - would have been Top Dog and Under Dog's fourteenth birthday.
I can still hardly bear to think of them, even though it's almost a year since they died.
I have spent most of the year, I find, expecting Top Dog to suddenly appear, especially when I've been away. Driving home from the airport, I have to remind myself that he won't come running out to greet me.
I am sure everyone feels the same, about anyone they have loved and lost.
It's a tough one to get used to.

Top Dog and Under Dog sleeping the sleep of the just. As they do now.

I came across their collars the other day, folded together in a drawer, their mother's collar with them.
I could have wept.
The resonance of them still fills the quiet corners of this place.

But it has not been a mournful day. Far from it - despite the lowering sky and steely edge to the breeze.
I have been out in the yard potting up tulip bulbs, the ever-faithful Model Dog at my side.
The TeenQueen doesn't really like such pointless activities, especially if there are no bones involved, so after a while she opted to keep Model's bed warm in the cosy kitchen.

Potting tulips is such an obvious thing to do, but somehow it has largely eluded me until now.
Of course, they look wonderful in vast drifts as well, but, lovely as it is, I'd need a tad more space, and maybe a handful of full-time gardeners to achieve something like this.

Thank heavens I didn't have to plant these

Over the years I have planted I don't know how many tulips in the flower beds, and for one season they rise, stately and beautiful, but generally they don't put in many subsequent appearances. Our climate is too damp, or perhaps the slugs and snails eat them, or mice, or people steal the bulbs from under my nose - who can say? But last spring, on Gardener's World, Carol Klein said she always planted tulips in pots,  and at last I woke up to the blindingly obvious.

Pink tulips with a touch of orange - amongst my favourites

The massed effect, without disembowelling the flower bed, trashing bulbs already planted in the one spot you choose to excavate, and driving yourself into Bedlam.
I can't wait for them to bloom
Meanwhile I'll make do with fabulous paintings to brighten my days.
This one cheers me up no end.

Judith I Bridgland's wonderful painting of Tulips and Cherry Blossom

And these tulips, by another Scottish artist, Fiona Sturrock, never fail to cheer me up.
Her next exhibition runs from November 15-17 at Edinburgh Art Fair at the Corn Exchange. I wish I could go and see it.

Tulips and Lemon by Fiona Sturrock

Tulips by Fiona Sturrock

Tulips in Antique Jug by Fiona Sturrock

Beautiful, all of them.
Oh, how I wish I could paint.

The tulips weren't the only bright note to my day.
At lunchtime our friend Colin dropped by, as promised, to deliver a special present.
Three of Napoleon's grand-daughters.

You may remember Napoleon. I will never forget him, and like my lovely dogs, I miss him regularly.
He had so much character, and, despite his small stature (we can say that out loud, now that he's gone), he dominated the hen's paddock.

The Emperor Napoleon with his Little Empress

He caused me untold anxieties -as on the day when he was not to be found - anywhere - and, by dint of climbing a ladder to look over our high walls, I espied him in the wild churchyard behind our garden. I had to walk round, pick him up and carry him home through the street.
There are other, far more terrifying incidents that come to mind - one involving a dozen bullocks - but that is by-the-by. He was a dear creature and I loved him. I don't know if he loved me, but he was devoted to his wives, Josephine, then the Little Empress and finally Mrs Smith (aka the Golden Princess or Dolly).

I am thrilled to bits to have three of his grand-daughters. Although they came from his third marriage, they bear no resemblance to Mrs Smith, but look like Napoleon dressed in the Little Empress's attire.
They all have rather dinky little hats - somewhat more feminine than the Emperor's tricorne - and the larger of the three certainly has her grandfather's bearing..
I shall look forward to seeing how they grow up.

Napoleon's grand-daughter - she has his air

Is that a smaller version of a tricorne I see?

Tonight they are tucked into the spare pen I built for the Escapees. They are a little uncertain of their new home, and have spent the afternoon being stared at through the mesh by all and sundry. At dusk, I found them sitting on their roof in the rain, rather than cuddling inside. I put them into their shelter, and hope that by now, they are all fast asleep. Tomorrow they might feel up to staring back.

And last but by no means least, I have received queries as to why the cats never appear.
It's not because I have done away with them, nor have they left home via the churchyard.
It's just that I don't see much of them. Now that autumn is turning into winter, they have become lazier than ever. After their breakfast they retire to bed and don't get up again until supper time. And after supper they retire to bed... you're getting the idea.

Pushy has been performing quality control on the new pole warmer.

Pushy warming the pole warmer

And Hobbes is gearing up for a leading role in 'Red Sails in the Sunset'

Barley sugar ears

As for little Pixie - as she is very nearly blind, she can't see how lovely she looks on this Peruvian throw, but luckily, we can.

Pretty little Pixie in pink

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Food, Glorious Food

A typical sight in France

At a very cosy supper party last night, a friend was telling me that she had just come back from France, and went on to comment on how thin everyone is over there - especially the women.
Didn't I say the very same thing just a few months ago! 

There is nothing thin about me - well, apart from my bank balance that is - but nothing personally thin about me. And nor is there ever likely to be - I have just come in from a damp morning's work in the garden, utterly ravenous, and devoured I don't know how many rice cakes and cheese, closely followed by a large slice of the delicious chocolate cake that my friend Clare kindly sent yesterday.

Much to the In-Charge's disgust, I am very fond of rice cakes - especially with cheese. He often says: 'I don't know why you buy those, I've loads of that stuff in the workshop.' (He is, of course, referring to polystyrene insulation board.) My friend DodoWoman jokes of low-fat yoghurt: 'The more you eat, the thinner you get', and I guess rice cakes fall into the same category.
Although the trials on that one aren't too promising so far, despite forming the basis of my lunch, I haven't noticed any thin-ity creeping in.

Needless to say, it was at the chocolate cake stage that the extreme 'lightness of being' maintained by so many French women returned to my mind.
How is it possible to be thin in France (or anywhere else for that matter)?
Do the French not have eyes? Don't their mouths water? Do their tummies not rumble?
Are they boulangerie-d out, or are they just made of sterner stuff?

How can one resist?

I suppose, on reflection, I don't dive into a cake shop every time I go into my local town, but then (please forgive me, Irish cake shops) - there really is no comparison. NO comparison.

A pâtisserie in Paris

We sat at the high bar-style table in this very shop in Paris and had a quick bite one day. The In-Charge, as is his wont, chose some savoury item, and I ummed and aahhed and aahhed and ummed. The thing is, I tend to choose old favourites over and over again, instead of branching out and trying something new, and I was about to go for a tarte au citron when I surprised myself and - shunning strawberry, almond and chocolate confections - opted for the tarte à l'orange instead.

One mouthful convinced me that I had, in fact, died and gone to heaven. It was 'Tivine' as #1 Son used to say when he was tiny. Totally Tivine. I'd thought it might prove to be slightly artificial in flavour, or too sweet, or too something, but no, it was melting, smooth, tangy perfection. And had that particular pâtisserie been on our daily route, I would have found an excuse to go in every morning.

If I lived in Paris, I would get fatter and fatter no doubt learn to control myself. I would certainly have to plan my routes quite carefully in order to avoid such places of temptation. But that's just the problem - they are around every corner. Even the least promising of of streets will throw a chocolatier or boulangerie at you out of the blue.

Patrick Roger's wondrous chocolates

Innocently walking round the corner from Saint-Michel towards Odéon, we stumbled upon Patrick Roger, chocolatier extraordinaire, and stood staring, spellbound through the window. Or at least, I did. How could chocolates possibly be so beautiful? How could you bring yourself to eat them? I would just want to collect them - a different one each week, to keep in a gorgeous glass jar on the dresser.
I did - and do - wonder what they taste like. They look like splendiferous king-of-the-castle gobstoppers. Either that or Murano glass marbles. Alas, we didn't go in, so I shall never know.

Not everyone would find such things a temptation, I know.
My friends Sarah and DodoWoman don't have sweet teeth. But they are just as easily waylaid by other delights. They would, no doubt, have found their feet automatically turning left outside our apartment door every day, to visit the huitre-stall just a few feet round the corner. If there were just huitre-stalls everywhere, I would be mince, très mince indeed.

And I know for a fact that when Sarah or DodoWoman are in Paris, Italy, New York or even St George's Market in Belfast, just the sight of all this glory is enough to cartwheel both their brains and tastebuds through a kaleidoscope of cookery books, and they can't wait to rush home with newly-bought treasures and start cooking.

Glorious tomatoes

Every vegetable under the sun

More huitres - and allied fishy things


For me, the orgasmic delight isn't in the thought of mouth-watering dishes to come, as it is for them. It's in the colour-fest here and now. I can't get enough of looking, and could happily walk around all day, just absorbing the complete palette such an array provides, the light, the shadows, the shapes, the contrasts. The food itself could be flowers, or yarn, or bolts of material - if the rainbow colour effect was there, I'd be perfectly happy. Take these, for example. They fulfil all my colour-desires, but arouse no hunger whatsoever, so I'm obviously not past redemption.

Meringues as only the French could make them

I suppose part of it is that, much as I like eating, I don't particularly enjoy cooking. Perhaps the deciding factor on whether I see food as actual feast or visual feast is when it's already done for you - no cooking required. And while I have lots of sweet teeth, I have a good few savoury ones as well. These, lovely as they are to behold, I - like Sarah and DodoWoman, would also stop and buy.

A rhapsody of olives

 Instant food.

And these.
In fact, I might linger in the vicinity of this stall until I'd finished eating my purchase, so that I could get some more. They are my absolute favourites.

 And these I would buy because they combine both kinds of feasting in one fell swoop.

But then it's back to the boulangerie stuff. More instant food?

I don't know what it is about bread. Perhaps it has something to do with being one of life's staples, but it's hard to walk past a shop full of fresh bread without diving in, even if you don't need any. It's about more than need, it's about comfort and stability and well being, about sharing with friends and family, about hospitality and food on the table. And of course 'bread' is a generic concept, embracing all other food.

And once you're inside the baker's shop, well there you are, back at square one.

I'm afraid thin isn't going to happen any time soon.
How do these French women do it?

(I suppose I could try burning my passport. It would be a start.)