Great-Uncle Vasily & Friends, c.1910

Great-Uncle Vasily & Friends, c.1910
Justin at The Tar Baby Festival, Horncastle 2009

Monday, 24 December 2012

Christmas Newsletter 2012

 Sotby Hall, Christmas Eve, 2012

Dear Distant Kin or Absent Friend,

What a year it’s been for us all - and it isn’t over yet, even if we survived the end of the world on the 21st! Disaster struck again last week! Whilst mulling some wine for the coming of the Minting Mummers with the Yule Bear, I left the pan on the Aga to answer the door.

Afterwards the Fire Brigade wanted to know why I had poured a plastic gallon container of red diesel into the jam-kettle and warmed it up to flash point. I had that terrible cold that’s doing the rounds (still have, actually), and simply assumed it was some of Uncle Igor’s beetroot claret that he’d racked off and left by the kitchen door for me. So we now have no kitchen, and are using the Great Hall fireplace instead. I must get Justin to overhaul the clockwork spit-jack…

Xavier flew in from Santiago de Cali yesterday with an awful lot of luggage (presents for all his business associates, he says), and Julia dropped in with just a back-pack the day before from Calvi where she's been having a nice rest with the rest of her regiment, and where she says she met one of the Saudi royal family. I can't remember which one (there are dozens) but she referred to him as a 'trouduc et branleur', which I suppose is roughly equivalent to a royal duke and a mover and shaker, so she must mean Prince Abdullah Al-Saud, who did quite well in the Olympic equestrian show jumping. And I think I can hear another Learjet circling over Xavier’s in Barlands as I write: it must be dear Uncle Juan, just in time to celebrate Midnight Mass in the Chapel! What with Tamsin, Justin, Igor, the twins back from Madagascar, Roger from his lecture tour, Aunt Lavinia from the opening of the Galeria Cetchwayo in Barcelona, and Oscar and Bunnykin both out on parole, it will be quite a throng of family again, this Christmas.

To cheer ourselves up after a thoroughly miserable day on the Thames for Her Majesty's Diamond Jubilee Regatta, we went on to Oxford to visit Tamsin at Bolingbroke (or 'broke', as they call it). No wonder they call the College 'broke': I doubt most people could ever afford to pay for bed and breakfast there, never mind full bed and board for three years. It makes the Randolph, where Roger and I like to stay when we're among the dreaming spires and ivory towers of privileged paedagogy, seem positively moderate. Of course I know I'm jealous - the broadest my educational horizons ever got at her age was going off to Riseholme to do my diploma in Agriculture.

The Wragby and District Women's Institute Book Club has been reading 'Fifty Shades Of Grey' by E. L. James. I joined in, if only to see what all the fuss was about. Well, it's true what Oscar Wilde once said: that there is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are either well written, or badly written, and that is all. The title itself is a warning: it's about half as interesting a book to take to bed with you as a Munsell Soil Colour guide, because at least Munsell has shades of brown in it was well. It seems to me that its popularity (Fifty Shades of Grey, not Munsell) is in the fact that as an e-book you can download it to your Kindl Surprise or whatever those tablet things are called, and when you're on the bus or in the cafe no-one knows you're reading the Mills and Boon equivalent of the Marquis de Sade. People don't seem to consider it at all embarrassing that on the other hand it looks as if you're playing with an Etch-A-Sketch.

Poor Uncle Juan thought he had got through to the Pope at last, about becoming more modern. His Holiness now has a Twitter account: https://twitter.com/Pontifex/with_replies, but as you’ll see, he hasn’t sent any tweets yet, or even tried to follow any. Juan tells me there is a reason for this. It’s on hold until Juan can convince him that tweeting in Latin is a bit self-defeating.

In August we were all in London again, eager to watch little Wilhelmina compete in the Olympics, especially in the BMX events. Poor girl. Dr Hegel's assertiveness therapy has its drawbacks. When the first race started, she assumed some predator had frightened the herd and, asserting herself as the alpha cow bicycle, turned on the starters who had to run for cover. So she's back home with us, on a change of medication and pedalling the generator, which has at least saved us from erecting a couple of wind turbines for the time being.

Went to the first meeting of the new committee for the Friends Of Market Rasen Old Police Station in October, or at least I tried to! Only two councillors turned up, so it wasn't an official meeting, but a chat! Still nothing happening, so frustrating. By the way, there is a vacancy on the town council again! Igor is standing as an independent, wholly undaunted by having lost his deposit in the Police and Crime Commissioner elections for the county. I haven't the heart to tell him we didn't vote for him. Even so, he polled 124 votes. I have no idea who they were, but Justin kept trying not to smile when he heard me wondering aloud over the results in the Sleaford Target.

Dreadful weather all summer, but the capybaras did well at the county show, mainly because the parts of the showground that weren't under canvas, were under water. Then an open meeting about flood prevention in the Bain Valley, hosted by Hemingby Group Parish Council and sponsored by the Environment Agency, Lindsey Marsh Drainage Board and Lincolnshire County Council, was cancelled - due to flooding. Mind you, the capybaras did well at the county show, mainly because all the showground that wasn't under canvas, was under water.

Another first for the family, f a bit mysterious, but then it's about Charls, so it would be. We got a postcard from him to say he's been awarded an Otto Rahn Fellowship by the Wewelsburg Institute for his work Pigs And Breadfruit Of The Gods: The Fifth Root-Race Genomic Diaspora In The Pacific Rim 50,000 BCE - 1790 CE. It will keep Charles busy and away from home for at least three years whole he does field research, so he's resigned from the Commanderie. Roger laughed uncontrollably when I told him, and asked me if I knew who Otto Rahn was. I asked him to spell his name so I could Google him, but he simply said it was money well spent, and I should ask Justin.
This year they've been handing out special wristbands for children to wear at the Christmas Market in Lincoln, in case they get lost and separated from their parents. When Justin took Igor up there for the Bain Valley Brewery beer tent, I made him promise to put one on Igor just in case.

With things as bad as they are - economic meltdown, ash die-back, floods, DEFRA brain-death over the badger cull debacle, and I don't know what else, I confess I've been avoiding old Mr Benniworth and his omens of doom and gloom, or what he calls The Year's Luck. After the luck we've all been having this year, I really didn't think I wanted any at all for 2013... but he ran into me on the 20th when I was trying to start the beet-cutter and I thought: Please God, at least don't let it be something about the Mayan calendar ending on the 21st ... well, as he ambled towards me pushing his bike, he told me that that the snails were high up the walls of Nanny Sausthorpe's room at her care home in Ingoldmells. He'd been over to see her, he said. Crawling up the cornices, they were. Even though they'd been skulking around the skirting boards since 2008. He went on, waving a copy of the Financial Times at me, to say that the FTSE 100 Index, the Hang Seng, Dow-Jones, NASDAQ and the Nikkei were all down yet again, but the snails were up and nothing else out of the ordinary had been seen or heard by anyone. Everybody now knows that when the snails are low on the walls of Nanny Sausthorpe's bedroom, the Stock Market is bear-ish.

What on earth can it mean? I asked him. That was stupid of me, I know...

Well Missus, he said, It's all to do with this Mayan calendar. It ends tomorrow, he said. And tomorrow is Saint Barnwald's Day.

Never heard or him. Or her, I said.

Him, he said, accusingly. Then he recited one of his odd little rhymes:

 "When sunrise halves the Milky Way,
At dawn upon Saint Barnwald's Day,
The Fourth Age will its time have run
Full thousand years, twoscore and one."

 That's from the prophecies of Old Mother Martin, apparently, as is most of the stuff he comes up with. The Mayans, he explained, say each 'Age of the Sun' lasts for 21,000 years, and on the 21st of December this year the plane of the ecliptic bisects the visible midpoint of our galaxy, which it hasn't done for all that long time. The snails know this, and are responding to the new law of a New Age, that of the Fifth Sun, in which everything will be different.

 Then the beet-cutter suddenly fired up, which I'd despaired of ever happening. Perhaps it was a good omen? Let's hope Old Mother Martin and the ancient Mayan priests are right! Poor Mr Benniworth looked very glum about it all, though. I think he feels that, somehow, he's let everyone down.

Anyway, here's all the very best for 2013, from all of us, to all of you!

As ever,

Anastasia XX.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Christmas Newsletter 2011

Dear Distant Kin or Absent Friend,

Every family has its Yuletide traditions, and everyone cherishes some event or other that heralds, for them, the excitement of its beginning - so I thought you might like to know how we celebrate the festive season at Sotby Hall Farm. The real start of Christmas for me begins with the scent of fir boughs, when the twins rig up a block and tackle in the roof beams of the Great Hall and hoist Mr Benniworth up with a chainsaw to prune the tree - which has been a permanent fixture in the Great Hall since 1919, when Great-Grandfather found it had rooted through the pot and the cracks beween the flagstones, into the earth floor beneath. Julia used to be so good at doing this, but nowadays she's rarely with us at this time of year... anyway, while this is going on the rest of us collect all the offcuts and bind them into nice sprays with fir-cones and ivy from off the walls - it's as much as we can do these days to keep the inside walls clear of the stuff.

Mistletoe is brought in from the orchard - just as soon as there isn't a woodland burial going on - and it's Roger's job to fumigate the harmonium in the minstrels' gallery so Igor can accompany the carol singers when they pay us a call. and soon the family start arriving from far-flung places - Xavier from La Paz, Julia from Tagab if the Legion can spare her, Juan from Rome, Eudoxia and the cousins from Kyiv, Tamsin from Oxford, Roger from marking PhD theses in the library, and - hopefully - fingers crossed, everyone! Humphrey will be allowed out on parole to be with us, too.

 By then the tree is decorated with the presents (or the keys to the presents, when it's a new tractor or a gun safe or a 4x4), and ever since Justin put Cetchewayo in a tutu and tiara a few Christmases ago - didn't I tell you? - guess who the Christmas Tree Fairy has to be!

Because our home is so large, as is our family when it gets together, we only decorate the Great Hall, which is the one room big enough for everyone to sit down and eat in all at the same time... unless you count as Christmas decorations the little wreaths Aunt Eudora makes with a lit candle in the middle of each, which she puts on window-sills all around the house, one for every deceased family member, to guide their spirits back home for the holidays, from the Otherworld beyond the fens. It's an ancient local custom hereabouts, where they're known as 'corpse candles'. They do look very pretty from a distance at night. Even so, the only family members they've guided back so far are Igor and Justin, who usually come home rather the worse for wear after last-minute deliveries of 'Lincolnshire Poacher' to the pubs in Horncastle and Market Rasen.

Soon the carol-singers come, and we're ready for them with hot mince pies and mulled beetroot claret. They always sing the Osgodby Carol, which is very old and in English, so no-one understands what it means any more:

 "Edil be þu, levedi quene;
Ne was no wight ne so wel bisene
 As þu, þat bar þe blissed daye-springe
 At midernicht, þat beeþ þe hevene kinge."

Even so, we all love it, though Justin says it was written to be sung by drunks because the pronunciation doesn't scan if you try to sing it otherwise.

Between sunset and midnight we also await the coming of Minting Mummers with the Yule Bear, who doesn't look like a bear at all but a walking cone of bean-sticks covered in ivy. He (or it) is accompanied by six swordsmen with branches on their heads to represent antlers, a man dressed as a woman with a cow's tail, a crusader knight on a hobby horse, a Robin Hood and a Turk with a cork-blackened face. Sometimes there's also an accordionist but often they just borrow the harmonium. The Bear dances a bit, falls over, is given a drink, gets up again, dances a bit more and away they all go to their next call. Folklorists say there must have been a lot more to it at one time because of all the other characters, but the ancient pagan essence of the death and resurrection of the natural world at the winter solstice is there, at its heart, still. Roger tells me the Bear has also been equated with the Green Man carved on the choirstalls at Minting church, some Celtic Dionysus, or possibly the Norse god Baldur. Justin says since time out of mind it's always been some unsteady and oblivious drunk who's been dressed up like that for a joke. Meaning is wherever you find it, I suppose.

Juan celebrates Midnight Mass in the chapel, and on Christmas morning Uncle Igor likes to go for a swim in the moat. It seems to sober him up, and he maintains he owes his robust health and longevity to midwinter bathing. He even used to do it on the Eastern Front during the war, and insisted the whole company join him. Lately Roger and I have been worried about the shock of the freezing cold water on his heart, so we hit on the idea of turning the whole moat into a hot tub by using a geothermal bore (since Igor wrecked the dry sauna the other year by throwing water on the heating elements to make steam). It's been a partial success, heating the moat by only a few degrees so at least he doesn't have to break the ice before his morning dip. That's probably why the capybaras decided to stay with us after the floodwaters receded and Wragby Fen shrank back to its usual size. The carp seem to be growing bigger as a result too, which is good news since we can get more than £50 a kilo as soon as they're over eight inches long. Now - what news have I got to tell you?

To be honest, it's been a quiet year. It was nice to have a little break in April to go to William and Kate's wedding - though I thought the Bishop's reference to St Catherine of Siena in his sermon was in rather poor taste, seeing that she made a vow of chastity at the age of seven. Her mystical marriage to Jesus later on was, I suppose, a reference to Prince William being one day the future head of the Church of England. I really don't know why they don't declare all members of the royal family to be living saints. like the ancient Romans deified their emperors, and have done with it. It wouldn't be the wickedest or the silliest thing to have come out of Lambeth Palace in the last 475 years. The food at the reception afterwards was absolutely scrummy but I rather thought the cake looked like a traffic cone. Anyway, we do wish them well, poor things. As to where the private island where they spent their honeymoon actually was, Xavier's lips are still sealed.

We went on to Oxford to visit Tamsin at Bolingbroke, quite a privilege for me as no woman has been allowed in the college since its foundation in the fourteenth century and apparently no-one ever thought to invite one in before. Mind you, it is almost unbelievably small. Tamsin, of course, won her case at the European Court of Human Rights (and it was nice too see Strasbourg, and be there just in time for the International Film Festival). We were so proud to see Tamsin conducting her own case, an appeal based on Article 9 of the Convention which guarantees freedom of thought and belief. The Court upheld her appeal on the grounds that she has every right to believe herself to be a pipe-smoking middle-aged don with a tweed jacket and external gonads, and has an equal right to manifest that belief by studying and teaching at Bolingbroke. Hurrah! We pushed the boat out rather afterwards, and celebrated with a Methusaleh or two of Cristal Brut 1900. At least we thought we had, when Justin confessed to decanting some of Igor's kale and sultana premier cru Sekt into the Cristal bottles. Then he said he was joking, but to be honest it just didn't taste the same afterwards.

Something rather odd happened at Bolingbroke that weekend, or to be precise, at the much larger, overshadowing Saint Aldate's College next door. Famous for their parsimony despite the fact that they own half of Oxford, Aldate's, I was shocked to learn, employ illegal immigrants as college scouts (citing the Statute of Labourers Act of 1351) and even charge people admission to walk through their Quad. This is quite unfair, and causes no little hardship to their poor undergraduate students who have no choice but to pay to enter and leave and come back again. As for the scouts, the coin-operated turnstiles mean that many have been working there for years under a kind of debt slavery. Even the College rubbish-bins, identifiable with the College coat of arms, are padlocked and chained to the pavement.

Anyway, Saint Aldate's College now owns a large expanse of water-meadow which they won in a fixed game of cricket against its original owners, Harton College, back in the 1890s. It has proved a bone of contention between the two colleges ever since. Well, imagine the fuss one morning when the College cattle (a very pretty little herd of Ayrshire-Angus crosses) who normally graze there, were all missing, and a frantic search found them all in St Aldate's Quad, wearing Harton scarves! The finger of blame has been pointed, quite unjustly, at Bolingbroke students. Anyway, it was all quite interesting and very reassuring to see Tamsin going around with a serene smile on her face - and in a dress - after all the trouble she's had.

The Christmas crackers are doing well at the Farmers' Markets. I'm so glad we found a use for the GM cattlefeed lentils after the breakfast cereal fiasco. With a bit of butter spread on and a slice of something good and strong like Cote Hill Blue, they don't taste half bad.

The Friends Of Market Rasen Old Police Station have been gathering support for the "jewel in the crown of the town" since they launched a Facebook page at the beginning of December. No, really. They want to make sure it's open to the public. Call me old-fashioned, but I happen to think that moving some policemen back inside would be a good start. Go and have a look on Facebook, if you must. It's at https://www.facebook.com/groups/FOMROPS/.

Oh, and that reminds me: I've decided that if you can't beat Facebook, one had better join it. Look out for the Kirov-Renshaw Family Facebook page, coming soon! So, let's see what 2012 holds for us all - apart from the Olympics, of course. We're all so looking forward to watching little Wilhelmina compete, especially in the BMX events. I do think she deserves a medal at least, having been pipped for the yellow jersey at Grenoble this year.

We thought a great black phantom dog, last seen in 1926, had been seen over the Revesby side of Horncastle, leaping hedges and overtaking cars, but it turned out to be a black plastic haylage bale rolling and bouncing about in a rather stiff breeze. Old Mr Benniworth just shakes his head, and says:

"When howls th'east wind o'er Dogdyke Fen,
It bodes but ill for beasts and men."

And they say the world will be coming to an end on 21st December 2012. Well, if it does, at any rate, we shan't miss the Olympics!

 As ever,

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Christmas Newsletter 2010

New Year’s Eve, 2010-11

Dear Distant Kin or Absent Friend,

As you can see, I’m dreadfully late with the family newsletter this year (or last year, now). So much has been going on of late, we haven’t even sent Christmas cards to most of you, so here - at Justin’s suggestion - are our season’s greetings for Chinese New Year. We look back on the old year with mixed feelings - it’s been such a roller-coaster…

January – Brrrrr! What a chilly one it was to see the new year in! Roger, Justin and the twins were busy gritting the lanes around the farm with used capybara litter, because everyone ran out of road grit after a week on the cold snap, and in any case the Council won’t ever do minor roads. We couldn’t get the beet up – it was all frozen to the ground. Filling the sprayer with horilko and trying to set the fields alight was not one of Uncle Igor’s better ideas.

February – You may remember that, the year before last when Cetchewayo was disappointed in not being chosen for the drummer in the TV commercial, he made a huge impasto silver, purple and (mostly) brown painting which Justin tells me is called ‘Cadbury’s Dairy Milk Is Shit’? Well now, after the takeover by Kraft Foods put so many out of work, the trade union ‘Unite’ bought it for their pension fund. And they have also asked for a copy to be sent to the factory in Poland where all the work is now being outsourced. With the title gouged into the deeper, browner bits in Polish so they will be sure to get the point.

March – Poor Humphrey had had to stand down in his constituency after the business claiming MP’s second home expenses on the moat maintenance and he tells me that, as if all this wasn’t enough, they are prosecuting him. He says he will be claiming Legal Aid.

April – I find Uncle Igor has put himself on Facebook. Even worse, he seems to have found some American woman from Kansas who wants to come over here and marry him. If we could only persuade him to go out there instead, I’m sure he’d fit in quite well, especially since he has taken to shooting at people he doesn’t like. We have had to persuade election canvassers from the Labour, UK Independence and British National Parties that Igor is wassailing the sugar-beet. In the end, we had to substitute blank cartridges when it went on for more than a week, and the notion of an Octave of Beet-Wassail seems somehow to lack credibility - even to Protestants.

May – What a terrible mess this election has been! Uncle Igor got really cross when he went to Horncastle to vote and was then told that he wasn’t allowed to - even though he’d been queueing for three-quarters of an hour. Apparently there weren’t enough ballot papers available, they didn’t order enough and they ran out at three in the afternoon. It’s hard to know exactly what happened afterward but I understand Uncle Igor led a group of similarly disaffected people into barricading themselves inside the polling station, refusing to leave or to release the poll officers, the two attendant policemen and the ballot boxes, until police reinforcements arrived. I did bail him out the following morning (as if the election result alone wasn’t bad enough to wake up to), and lectured him all the way home.

June - Igor pleaded Not Guilty of causing affray at Sleaford Magistrates’ Court. He got off with an Antisocial Behaviour Order. He must be the oldest person in Britain to have an ASBO. Igor is now convinced Britain is no longer a democracy, because (he keeps asking) how can wanting to vote be anti-social? I explained to him for the umpteenth time the difference between representative democracy and participative democracy is that the one is our cherished way of life that we fought a world war twice over for, while the other is what they do in France, and is illegal here.

July – As if Igor on Facebook weren’t enough, I find that Tamsin and Charles are both on the thing as well – and arguing with each other, and the dreadful American woman. Sooo relieved to find it’s all off between her and Igor now, though, because she’s a Protestant and Igor is quite insistent that she must be re-baptised as a Catholic (thank Heaven). I must try and set him up on one of those internet dating websites - I assume there’s one out there for Catholics, somewhere.

August – Monsignor Marini, the Papal Master of Ceremonies and his three assistants were here with Monsignor Summersgill, the Papal Visit Co-Ordinator, and Uncle Juan, to brief Tamsin on receiving her Order of Saint Gregory the Great. It turns out that there are not enough tickets for the beatification of Cardinal Newman in Birmingham, because they have worked out the numbers from weekly averages of those attending Mass – which is a bit like ordering only as many ballot papers as there were people who could be bothered to vote last time. Tamsin said she’d be just as happy with a tee-shirt with the Order printed on it and besides, there wasn’t much point since she’d regained her atheism again despite her refutation of Richard Dawkins, which she says she still stands by. That meant the redecorating was all for nothing, since His Holiness will not now be staying with us, and Tamsin will not be getting the Order. Tamsin was so argumentative about the whole thing it was easier for us all to settle down together and watch the Vatican censors’ preview of Harry Potter e i Doni della Morte, kindly brought over by Juan, with English subtitles, and which we all enjoyed no end. I expect most of you have also seen it by now.

September - Tamsin says she discovered, whilst working at the Max Planck Institute for a few days to research the chapter of her doctoral thesis entitled Die Strukturanalysen Hauptsätze der Thermodynamik In Anorganische Chemie, a large consignment of laboratory coats marked ‘XXL’ , but barely big enough to fit a small child. Poor girl, she was genuinely concerned that the Institute may be manufacturing Affenklonarbeiter (or Oompah-Loompahs, as Justin called them (until she hit him with a Heart Speaks Unto Heart commemorative paperweight we had to console ourselves with instead of the Order Of St Gregory). Igor missed the whole Papal visit entirely, I’m glad to say, having decided to canalize his romantic disappointment by working on his memoirs instead.

October – All about Tamsin again, I’m afraid: She wants to play Fives for Bolingbroke, but since the only schools who send players to Oxford and Cambridge are Winchester, Eton, Harrow and St Paul’s, and these are of course all boys’ schools, it effectively means girls cannot compete: Tamsin says this is wrong, a clear infringement of the European Convention on Human Rights, and even though both the college and the university would jump at the chance to win at something for a change, they won’t change the rules without a judicial review in the High Court of Appeal, with subsequent appeal (if there is a Cambridge majority on the bench) to the Supreme Court and (again, if Oxford alumni are outnumbered by Old Cantabrigian judges) a final appeal to the Strasbourg court of Justice, which of course is higher than the UK Supreme Court - so she has had to personate a male student again, just as she did to satisfy Bolingbroke’s medieval entry requirements. Well, it’s one thing to pay her tuition fees, but quite another to pay for the litigation with no guarantee of award of costs if successful. Accordingly, she has exchanged places with an undergrad. from St Paul’s, who is eligible but who speaks only Russian. She’s nearly on top of the irregular instrumental and prepositional declensions now, and says she’s doing fine on two hours’ sleep a night.

November – Splendid news! We’ve been invited to The Wedding next year! Roger is less than enthusiastic about the expense. Justin suggested selling Wilhelmina for spare parts on EBay but it seems she was listening and we haven’t seen her since. We’ve tried to tempt her out from any number of possible hiding-places by leaving bread-and-butter pudding out, and it does disappear, but we suspect Hermione and the capybaras tend to get to it first.

December – Poor Bunnykin! Sir Humphrey has been sentenced to eighteen months. Pending his appeal, the rather nice open prison they were going to put him in, was burned down to the ground by the inmates protesting about the quality of the accommodation. I can’t see what that achieves, apart from ensuring that what’s left afterward is in still worse repair and even more overcrowded. It was on the television news one night. That started Uncle Igor off on a rant about how luxurious modern prisons are compared to the huts he had to share in the Volunteer Overseas Workers’ Scheme. So then, Justin felt he had to remind Igor that he had been a war criminal, and then Igor countered by saying he had joined the First Galician Division for purely patriotic reasons and had never knowingly broken the Geneva Convention, and that there was nothing wrong with making real criminals build their own prisons and how, in any case, everyone too young to remember the War is far too soft for their own good. He got quite carried away and shouted that the hard times of the 1930s were coming back, and the only way for an individual or a nation to regain its self-respect is through self-sacrifice and discipline. I have an uneasy feeling Igor will be volunteering a contribution to Mr Cameron’s Big Society just as soon as he has designed the armbands. But on the bright side, thanks to the European Convention on Human Rights, Bunnykin will still be allowed to cast his vote at Her Majesty’s Pleasure. I have a feeling we’ll all be voting again this year, somehow.

Well, there it is, and January of 2011 gone already, too. Until last week, we were frozen up, back to gritting the lanes with used capybara litter because they’re always in the house this cold weather - despite the twins breaking the ice in the moat for them - and queueing up to use the bathroom, where the water isn’t quite so chilly. The Belchford Yule Bear has been seen out on the Wolds, on January 5th, or Christmas Day, Old Style. This is not the same as the Sedge Bear, which brings good luck, but is said to be the ghost of a polar bear intended as a gift to Edward 1 by the King of Norway, shipwrecked off Saltfleet. Then there’s the Stenigot Stone, which hasn’t moved in centuries since the druids planted it there, or St Paulinus turned someone into it, depending which version you believe. Or millennia, if you are among those who say it arrived in a glacier. The last time a farmer tried to move it, according to old Mr Benniworth, the Hundred Years’ War started. Well, now it has fallen over - or rather, it was pushed, when one of Mr Wragby’s beet lorries backed into it. Mr Benniworth recited this verse for me:

“When Belchford’s Bear be seen at Yule,
The times to come mote be full cruel.
“An if the Stenigot Stone shall move,
The century shall luckless prove.”

It’s the cheery Dunkirk spirit of people like Mr Benniworth who help keep the rest of us going, don’t you think? Here’s wishing you all the best we can make of the dark times ahead… Gung Hey Fat Choi, as the Chinese say!

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Dear Distant Kin or Absent Friend...

...Soooo glad you could drop in to see how the family's doing. I hope to post up here all our news, pictures and - speaking of which - Cetchewayo's artwork. Do let me know what you think, and what you'd like to see here.

Best wishes to you all,

Anastasia Kirov-Renshaw.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Christmas Newsletter 2009

Dear Distant Kin or Absent Friend,

What a year it’s been for all of us! Money worries for everyone, so many poor folk struggling even to keep a roof over their heads. Christmas Day is, of course, for us, Rent Day. The lordship of the manor of Sotby confers an obligation in fee entail to present to the monarch, as represented by the Lord Lieutenant of the County of Lincoln, by way of yearly rental on Christmas Day, a brace of red-legged partridges and a pair of yellow hose. It goes back to the time of Edward II, who was famous for thinking up silly inconveniences like that. Well, getting the partridges is no problem – we simply pick them up from our beet fields, but these days as far as the hose are concerned we make do with a pair of ballet tights from a dancewear suppliers. In case you are wondering what the Lord Lieutenant does with them, he wears them at the Boxing Day Drag Hunt. They go well with his saffron ballgown, in which he never rides sidesaddle. Somehow I think Edward II would have approved.

Finally Roger and I decided to get Uncle Igor a mobile phone for Christmas, so we can at least use it to wake him up when he falls asleep in department store windows in Louth. I got Asprey’s to make an attachment for Great-Uncle Vasily’s silver cigar-case (that's Great-Uncle Vasily on the main page, by the way) so he can keep the phone safe inside and hang it on his watch-chain and put it in his other waistcoat pocket. Justin even downloaded “Sche ne vmerla Ukraina” as a ringtone. Uncle always rises to his feet when it’s played, even if semi-conscious, so now we should be able to locate him anywhere. We tried it out after dinner when he was dozing off in Mr Obama’s senate chair, so we know it works. The only downside is that Uncle insists on singing all of it once it’s started, and at six and a half minutes it’s the longest national anthem in the world. Anyone who’s coming to stay with us this year can learn how it goes, and sing along with Uncle Igor, at

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SEksnU488qM

and the words at

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shche_ne_vmerla_Ukrainy

Go on - he’ll be ever so pleased! He may even break out a bottle of his artichoke horilka (God knows the rest of us would like to see it finished).

January – Despite the grim economic outlook, our hedge fund continues to do well. We have 500 blackthorn, 300 hazel, 85 field maple and a dozen beech, so far. By March we should have enough to stop the wind blowing our top-dressing across Old Hundred, Gibbet Piece and Cromwell’s Bottom. Meanwhile, our new wind-turbines are up and running now but at 4am one morning we were all woken up by an enormous Clang! and several neighbours said they saw bright orange lights in the sky with tentacles dangling from them. At dawn we went out to look and one of the rotors had two of its three blades very badly bent, but there was no debris around, so Lord knows what hit it. Roger’s explanation is that it was one of those low-flying Taranis stealth bombers we aren’t supposed to know anything about. Justin very sarcastically said that a bright orange stealth bomber with tentacles that bumped into things in the night was so subtle no-one would ever suspect that was precisely what it was. Meanwhile, Tamsin is refusing to answer questions about the Cthulhu Christmas illumination she made last year, and what she has done with it. The Ministry of Defence say they are not investigating the matter, which is rather worrying because it means that is exactly what they are doing. The sooner Tamsin goes back to Oxford, the happier I shall be. The nice thing about January was that, at the Opening of Parliament, Humphrey took his well-deserved seat in the House of Lords. Well done again, Bunnykin!

February – What with all the wheat fetching premium prices for biofuel, we thought last year we’d try and make a maximum return on the cereal crunch, coming and going. It started because we had 110 acres down to lentils for Tesco’s, and then they changed their minds on us, leaving us with a bit of a problem. We tried adding lentils to the ‘Lincolnshire Poacher’ beer mash to reduce the wheat content, so we’d have more grain to sell for biofuel, only it made the beer so cloudy it couldn’t be cold-filtered out. Then Uncle lgor tried distilling some to see if that worked as biofuel, but it doesn’t have the necessary sugars unless you sprout the lentils first. That was fine until the carybaras got into the malting-floor and scoffed the lot - they love lentil sprouts. But that gave Justin an idea. By heat-treating the remaining, de-sprouted lentils (which taste sweet, like malt) so they exploded like popcorn, then spraying them with chocolate milkshake, they are almost indistinguishable from a certain well-known breakfast cereal. We had invented the breakfast pulse. Advertised as ‘Choco-Lenties, the low-fat, high-fibre puffed lentils in a chocolate coat, all-natural country goodness, right down to the last crunch, with a chocolate capybara in every pack’. We spent a fortune on an ad. with Anglia TV, showing our capybaras paddling around in the brewery mash-tun full of the stuff, apparently singing ‘Guantanamera’ and ‘Carmen Capybara’ (it was Ernesto, really, he’s the most intelligent of the whole bunch) telling you “Ay, Ay! They’re Choco-Lentil-icious!”. The whole venture seemed so promising until Wetland World at Louth heard about it, and had the cheek to demand royalty payments for the capybaras, who, they insisted, were their property. So we put in a counter-claim for eighteen months’ feed, accommodation and veterinary bills. An out-of-court, no-score draw, so now we’re having a go at Choco-Dal Crocodile in India. “Be seeing you later, Ali Gator!”, he shouts to his amphibian chum in the Ganges, since he’s too busy chomping his breakfast bowlful of Choco-Dal to go and play just yet. But when he does, he’ll have all the energy he needs to… well, you get the idea. The things one has to do to make a profit out of farming, these days. What a crazy, crazy world we live in!

March – April –A rare letter from Julia, saying she’s with the Legion’s Deuxième Régiment des Parachutistes in Afghanistan. One of her old Roedean chums has joined the same unit, under the name of Karl, so that will be lovely for them both. I almost feel sorry for the Taliban. Her all-legionnaire rock band, ‘Feuerfeucht’, have made a new video and you can watch it here:

http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=077_1242699437

(that’s Julia and Karl on vocals, by the way). Julia says that German is such a pretty language to sing in. Can’t say I agree, but Uncle Igor loves the video. Says it reminds him of the old days before he came to England.

May – After all the terrible fuss about Parliamentary expenses, poor Humphrey has had to pay for the capybara house on the moat and the restoration of the bell tower out of his own pocket. Really I had no idea we were down as his second home address. He said it was to allow him to be closer to London, which of course it is, much closer than his estate in Cumberland.

June – Our Longwool tup Bertram (get it?) came second at the County Agricultural Show, with his ‘Andy Renwick’s Ferret’ dance medley. The Twins had worked really hard with him ever since last show. He would have come first, but spoiled it all at the last minute by mounting one of the judges’ Old English Sheepdog bitch. Well, they do look like Longwools, don’t they?

July – When Sammy, one of our Tamworth barrows, went for this year’s breakfasts last year, Justin borrowed some of Aunt Eudoxia’s rather wobbly rejected ethnic pots from her night school pottery class, filled them with the burnt bones and buried them for a few months. Then he took them along to the pagan moot in Lincoln and put them down on a table, saying he’d been “ploughing over one o’ them lil’ hills on th’ farm” and that these had turned up, so here they were, he couldn’t be arsed to take them to the County Archaeology Unit so they could have them for honouring as their sp[iritual ancestors, and re-cremate them, because he’d heard that’s what they wanted to do with prehistoric remains. He said their faces were a picture. Honestly, one of these days Justin is going to take one of his practical jokes too far.

August – I’ve been busy giving Tamiflu to our Tamworths because they seemed very listless and off their grub. All DEFRA had to say was they usually respond to supportive treatment, so keep them warm and give them plenty to drink and the chances are they won’t die. Can you imagine what a riot there would be if the Health Minister had said that? So, since the government are spending millions on over-producing flu vaccines this summer I thought they might as well have some even if we didn’t need it. As it turned out, thank goodness, they were all right as rain once the effects of eating our cider pressings wore off.

September - Old Mrs Sausthorpe got her honorary Doctorate in Finance and Business Economics at the University of Kesteven, and we all went along for the ceremony. We are all so proud of Nanny. She’s taken a very nice retainer from Kleinwort Benson and the nursing home in Ingoldmells now lets her have as many snails in her bedroom as she wants. The tea-leaf readings are for short-range forecasts only, you see: the snails, she says, tell her what the futures markets will be doing next year.

October – A canvasser for the British National Party called, so I invited him in to talk to Uncle Igor because there was no-one else at home and I was busy making plum brandy bread for Tar Baby Night. It wasn’t long before, looking out of the kitchen window, I saw him running away through the walled garden with Uncle in pursuit, shouting uncomplimentary things after him concerning his views on East European agricultural workers. After all, he was one, during the War. Then he collided with a group of our seasonal workers from Byelarus grading carrots and it was ages before they, and Igor, let him go. Poor man, I couldn’t do a thing for him with my hands in the pudding basin. I’ve sent some flowers to the Infirmary, though.

November – Uncle Juan hinted that a Papal visit to Britain is on His Holiness’ itinerary for next year, so we have a few months to redecorate. We are all thrilled to bits. Except Uncle Igor, who we haven’t told.

December – I don’t know who packed up the Christmas tree lights last year, but when I came to unpack them again to redecorate the tree this year, they were all knotted up in a hopeless tangle. Uncle Juan saw me trying to sort them all out on my knees on the floor, then came and knelt down beside me to help. At his suggestion we said the Rosary together, bulb by bulb, and offered it up as an Advent penance. He is such a dear man.

Well, that’s about all for another year. The little lights Mr Benniwell saw on the Fen last Tuesday night that he swore were corpse-candles, or will-o-the-wisps (“Boggan Tapers on the Fen, foretell the deaths of many men”) turned out to be a disappointment, because Mrs Wragby our neighbour has installed some silly electric mushrooms in her garden, which she evidently thinks enhance the gnomes and other twee concrete statuary amongst the barbecue detritus and tractor spares. But this evening he says the monks of Minting Priory have been heard chanting Vespers, and as he quotes, with that appalling memory of his, from the Prophecies of Old Mother Hemingby: “When Minting’s monks sing Evensong, there shall be michel grief and wrong.” All I can say is, it can’t get much worse. At least, not because of that. Justin has just come in and plonked his portable CD player and collection of Gregorian chant albums down on the kitchen table where I’m writing this, with an evil grin on his face. So all I can say to that is, the omens are that Christmas and the year to come will be nowhere near as wretched as one might have expected. At any rate, let’s hope so! Love from us all, to all of you…

As ever,

Anastasia XX.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Christmas Newsletter 2008

Dear Distant Kin or Absent Friend,

As I sit down to write at last, my laptop perched precariously on the heaving, furry bulk of one or other of our capybaras – Bombur, I think: the no-longer-quite-so-little chap has quite taken to me, and is snoring on my lap in front of the parlour fire – a glass of Uncle Igor’s whortleberry vodka at my elbow, Hermione staring jealously up at Bombur(?) from her basket on the hearthrug, all the presents wrapped and heaped beneath the tree in the Great Hall, with Cetchewayo brooding up top in his tutu, Roger lost to the world in his spreadsheets, Justin and the twins out at the Sedge Bear Wassailing, Tamsin down from Bolingbroke, Julia up from Castelnaudary and Xavier out on parole and all three down the pub, with Wilhelmina safely plugged into her iPod and installed on her exercise bike propelling the electricity generator in the barn (it’s amazing what they can achieve with tricyclic antidepressants, these days), something approaching peace descends on our house and, on this very special night, with Ukranian carols playing in the background – A v’Yerusalymi dzvony at the moment - and Uncle Igor and the migrant farmworkers singing raucously along in the butler’s pantry, I reflect on everything the year has brought us.

Well, well – who’d have thought it? Nanny was right, after all. I didn’t believe her prediction last December about the sighting of the old wreck of the Incroyable meaning there would be an international banking crisis, but there we are - the global markets are in financial meltdown, though I must say our stall on Horncastle Farmers’ Market continues to go from strength to strength. Stranger still, old Mrs Sausthorpe has been receiving some very important visitors at her sanitorium in Ingoldmells, asking for all kinds of advice on how to salvage their national economies. Anyway, here’s the rest of our year’s news, which I know you’ll all have been dying to learn…

January – The capybaras seem to have adopted Hermione, who is nonplussed about it and seeks refuge in the airing cupboard. All of them are too big now to wriggle through the cat-flap in the airing cupboard door, so they all sit on the landing outside, squeaking for her. Funny little things. We have decided to name them Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Balin, Balan, Bilbo, Bambi, Bolivar, Buendia and Ernesto. (He’s the one the Ranby and Sotby Brownie Troop got into trouble for calling Jesus, last year).

February – The 27th saw another earthquake, centred on Market Rasen, just like the one in ’04 that emanated from Grantham, but bigger – a quite respectable 5.2 on the Richter Scale. This time, both dogs fell off the mantelpiece. Over at Wragby, the tremor caused a truckload of sugar-beet to spill its contents all over the road, and our Holsteins wandered over and stuffed themselves. It kept the Horncastle News in copy for all of March. That, and, on Shrew Tuesday’s Shrewing Fair, Wilhelmina prancing off with the Shrew Riband and silver ladle once again. I really must get her medication changed.

March – The Utterby St. Martin carnival was the usual riot, and when the torchlit procession down to the marshes ended with the customary ritual of 'Hanging the Frenchman', Cetchewayo, who had been asleep in the back of our Range Rover since we drove it out of the garage without realising, woke up and saw the landlord of the Three Legged Mare in his gorilla suit, apparently about to be lynched by a mob. Well, bless him, he waded in, in a spirit of selfless simian-specific solidarity, and laid four of them out before the police, in the ensuing confusion, bundled off the landlord to the cells in Louth police station and escorted Cetchewayo back behind the bar of the pub. It was quite a party. The case comes up at Sleaford Magistrates’ Court next month. It promises to be an interesting one.

April – It was, indeed. Roger dismissed the charge against the landlord for keeping a disorderly public house, seeing that the police custody sergeant had transferred him to the RSPCA shelter in Lincoln at the time, which was quite an alibi. Instead, the four complainants were all fined for ill-treating an animal, under a separate action brought about by Lincoln RSPCA.

May – The Lord Lieutenant’s garden party was beset by the vilest tempest that ever typified an English summer. No fewer than five inches of rain fell, horizontally, in a Force Seven gale, and the gazebo has not been seen since, though we heard afterwards that the Danish and German Air Forces had both been put on alert when a strange alien craft had been sighted over Flensburg two days later.

June – Showtime again, at the Lincolnshire Agricultural Show. Some upstart of a Norfolk Horn – from New Zealand, I ask you! - won the Dancing Sheep Competition with a sort of soft shoe shuffle, so I’m going to teach our Lincolnshire Longwools to tapdance for next year. One of our Tamworths did well by coming a close second in the pig racing event, though.

July – Lincolnshire Constabulary have launched a campaign against binge drinking by setting out a number of mannequins in high street shop windows showing people in a very unattractive and advanced state of intoxication, with the caption:“You wouldn't start a night like this, so why end it that way?". When poor Uncle Igor went shopping in Louth the other weekend and fell asleep in the window of Eve and Ranshaw’s, it took Roger ages to persuade the manager to give him up as he was one of our family.

August – So we finally discovered what became of the Lord Lieutenant’s gazebo. With a homing instinct uncanny in an inanimate object, it flew home to the source of its manufacture to shelter the Beijing Olympics under its wings. At least, the stadium looked to me an awful lot like some wretched cheap Chinese garden furniture monstrosity in a characteristic state of mangled collapse – don’t you think?

September - Oscar has finally given up on his project for a musical version of The Mabinogion. Now he wants to do it on ice. I despair. I really do.

October – Pope Benedict XVI's third encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, isn’t going to come out this year after all because of the burgeoning economic problems, but Uncle Juan assures me that Tamsin is definitely down for Dame of the Order of Saint Gregory the Great, since the manuscript of her unpublished book, The Dawkins Delusion, which Juan took with him to the Vatican last year, was such an inspiration to His Holiness.

November – The new Cadbury’s Dairy Milk Chocolate TV ad has sent Cetchewayo into another cathartic frenzy (you will recall last year he was shortlisted to play the drums for it but didn’t get the part in the end). This time, instead of throwing the drum kit through the orangery windows into the moat, he’s produced a very wild impasto work in purple, white and (mostly) brown, which Justin tells me is called Cadbury’s Dairy Milk Is Shit. Speaking of Cetchewayo, no sooner had the American election results come through than we got a call from his dealer in New York. Apparently the new First Family wants to improve the rather staid, colonial White House fine art collection with some new, vital work by an African painter, and a Zimbabwean refugee exile living in England ticks all the boxes for political correctness. Justin thought of renaming Cetchewayo’s latest work Uncle Tom’s Cabin To White House, but the dealer has settled for All The Oranges I Have Ever Slept With, and Neon Meat Dream Of An Octofish: A Tribute To Don Van Vliet. Speaking of the former, the Yellow Room will be big enough to take it (just), and regarding the latter…

December – … Tamsin came back from University intent on making another protest against what she calls the cultural kitsch devaluation of Christmas. It took the form of a giant squid done out in lights on the roof, with waving tentacles. She says it’s an ancient proto-Atlantean god called Cthulhu, and he has about as much right to be up in lights at this time of year as that old pagan Finnish trickster wizard Väinnämöinen, with his reindeer sled. One could see it for miles, until ISTAR at RAF Waddington made her take it down. Apparently NATO’s Allied Air Command (Europe) have had us under surveillance ever since the garden party in May. We decided it wouldn’t really be fair to charge Mr Obama for the paintings, so we’re going to ask for his old Senate chair, if it hasn’t already been sold. If it’s anything like the green leather House of Lords ones, it’ll look nice in the library.

I’m told by old Mr Benniworth that Blind Byard has been scaring lone cyclists, by jumping the A17 at High Dyke. Either it’s the ISTAR Nimrods are flying low in the fog, or Old Meg is abroad once more. Possibly both. You’ll remember the old rhyme:

“When winter’s fogs do cloak the fen,
And Blind Byard doth leap again,
Then Old Meg is come from her den,
To wreak the ruin of maids and men.”

In the light of last year’s prophecy, I was hesitant to alarm anyone so I thought I’d go and ask old Mrs Sausthorpe about it. You could hardly get near the place for Learjets and limousines and shifty-looking men in black suits. She said: “That nasty Mr Brown came for a tea-leaf reading, so I threw the pot at him. He wasn’t wearing a waistcoat.” And that was it. I was only allowed two minutes before the next politician with a pair of heavy suitcases came in. So this New Year’s prognostication is shrouded in mystery – perhaps that’s better for all of us!

Well, that’s about all our news. I can hear the Sedge Bear Wassailers meeting the Ukranians and the revellers back from The Green Man. By the sound of it, something made of glass has just broken and Julia is singing La Marseillaise. I’d better go and sort it out. And Aunt Olga and our Kiev cousins have just rolled up in a taxi. So – have a lovely Christmas and may everything in 2009 be a surprise!



As ever,

Monday, 31 December 2007

Christmas Newsletter 2007

Dear Distant Kin or Absent Friend,

Thank you so much, as always, for your e-cards and newsletters. They really help to make the season bright. Well, here’s another year gone by already…


January –Oscar has engaged in a therapeutic project to get his mind off his romantic disappointment of last September. It was something Justin suggested to him. He wants to turn the Mabinogion into a series of Bollywood musicals, done in early medieval Welsh (so even a Welsh audience will need English subtitles) and dubbed into Hindi. He says it’s time Britain had her own all-singing, all-dancing Mahabharatam. The working title is ‘VerNana KaraNa’ (which, I’m told, is Hindi for ‘Mabinogion’). I must say the stories seem extremely silly and unpromising. He wants to start with ‘Pwyll Pendaran Dyfed’ which is some ridiculous story about a hero marrying a horse from another world, then follow up with ‘Culhwch ac Olwen’ where the suitor and his exasperated friends (including the entire retinue of King Arthur’s court, King Arthur himself and a Celtic god or two) end up killing the bride’s father only after doing about a hundred impossible things to get him various treasures and curiosities by way of a bride-price. Then he wants to conclude with ‘Math ap Mathonwy’ where a wizard makes his unmarriageable son a prosthetic wife from flowers but she transfigures into an owl after having an affair with a lover who turns her husband into an eagle by killing him when he’s getting half-clothed into a bath which is floating on a river. At least, that’s what I think he was telling me but I was only giving him half my attention because when he was burbling enthusiastically to me about it, I was trying to get everything sorted out for the Wren Hunt. Roger quite rightly refused to fund it (the musical, not the Wren Hunt) but Oscar has written to the Arts and Humanities Research Council for a grant and is currently touring the Home Counties for rich Indian Gallophile backers. And for all we know, he might even make a go of it: the Tristan and Iseult story has already had the Bollywood treatment by Subhash Ghai in ‘Pardes’. I know this because we had to sit through a showing of the whole thing the other night. So far Oscar’s review blogs have failed to stimulate much interest but at least he’s not moping around the place any more.

February – The plumbers have been in with a vengeance, replacing our old steam heating – and a number of concealed objects have been found. A mummified horseshoe bat in a bottle under the hearthstone of the Great Hall, an old shoe stuffed with moles’ skulls up the Old Solar chimney and in the wall of the New Buttery a perfectly dreadful dessicated musty leathery old thing that Roger says is an incunabulum, but Uncle Juan identified it from photographs as an incubacunabulum, a kind of medieval imp that sleeps on babies’ faces when no-one’s looking, in the shape of a cat. He said he thought it might be one of Charles’ familiars. If so, I said, it really is too much. Then I made the mistake of asking Uncle Juan what the difference was between incubacunabula and succubacunbula. Juan explained that succubacunabula are pre-printed books, manuscript codices not to be confused with incubicula, which are things found in bedrooms, which would include succubacula (monsters found only under children’s beds), whereas incubabula are modern printed works that have taken to their sickbeds, their burgeoning typographical errors being aided and abetted by computerized spell-checking, especially those resulting from the B key on the keyboard being next to that for N. The so-called ‘Wicked Bible’ (the one printed in 1631 that says: “Thou shalt commit adultery”), Juan said, was just one such early specimen of , like that grimoire from which the legendary Doctor Faustus was working when he made that awful pact and sold his immortal soul to Santa instead of Satan. It was only at that point that I realized he was having his little joke. With Juan, one hardly ever knows, and working in the Vatican over the past year or two has made his sense of humour even stranger.

March – We had all the concealed objects in the walls of the Great Hall, the Solar and the New Buttery exposed in glass frames. A colleague of Roger’s (Waitrose Professor of Visual Studies, apparently) from The University of Kesteven came to dinner one evening and raved about them. Before Roger could say anything, Justin offered to come round to his house, knock a square hole in one of his walls, insert something surreal like a dried turnip studded with rusty nails, then cover it with glass and frame it, for £25,000. Happily at that point Cetchewayo came in, dragging his latest canvas and fortuitously changed the subject to the use of banana and peanut butter as impasto media.

April – Julia has decided to continue her military career and has been accepted by the Fourth Regiment of the French Foreign Legion as an unarmed combat, airborne skills and PT instructor. We’re ever so excited, as she’s another first for us! The Legion’s very first female officer. She looks very smart in her new uniform, and we all went to Castelnaudary to watch her inauguration. So nice to think that she’ll be so close to home, comparatively speaking, after all that time in Iraq and Afghanistan.

May – Oscar, it seems, hasn’t given up on Morag. He’s disappeared off to some perfectly dreadful craft-weaving event on North Uist, called the Llama Tweed Festival, organized by the Euro-American Celtic Association. Apparently, people come to it from as far away as Patagonia (whence, I suppose, the llamas). I do wish he could find a Bollywood backer for his Celtic-Hindu epic.

June – After six weeks of incessant rain, Wragby Fen has surrounded Hatton and Panton, and starts at the end of our lane.

July – Uncle Igor rushed in the other day, in a state of great agitation. He spoke of never drinking sugarbeet vodka again, and – in the same breath - of seeing giant rats the size of mastiffs swimming about in Wragby Fen. He positively insisted we all go and look. Poor Uncle – he was sooo relieved when he found we could see them, too. We found out later that, with all the recent flooding, a family of capybaras have escaped from Wetland World at Louth.

By the way, I almost forgot – Tamsin got her First – Trivia summa cum Laude - from Bolingbroke College. We’re all so terribly proud of her, just as we are of Julia, head-butting her inimitable way into what was formerly an all-male preserve. She’s taken to smoking a pipe and wearing tweed jackets. She’ll be staying on for her Master’s Degree even though Porterhouse in Cambridge, Harvard and Moscow all sat up and begged to take her on. Justin suggested a six-figure transfer fee to the Senior Bursar at the graduation dinner, which nearly made the poor old chap choke on his Eton Mess. Tamsin’s dissertation, at Roger’s suggestion, will be an adaptation of her unpublished book ‘The Dawkins Delusion’. Yes – she found Richard Dawkins so absolutely repellent she’s become a good lapsed Catholic girl once more. Meanwhile, Uncle Juan asked to borrow the manuscript and between ourselves, I shouldn’t be at all surprised if we see a Papal encyclical on a closely-related subject some time towards the end of the year.

August – The floodwaters have receded, but the capybaras have chosen to stay in our moat. The swans are not best pleased, and neither am I. Like geese, they do help keep the grass on the lawns down but the downside is in the enormous whoopsies they leave in the process. However, the children find them perfectly captivating (the capybaras, I mean) and they’re far less of a worry, in their way, than hamsters. No chance of one of those getting lost under the floorboards.

September - Roger was horrified to find that most of our Lincoln Longwools seemed to have caught Bluetongue Disease – but – thank goodness - they hadn’t. Our stockman had been dosing them with Methylene as they’d been at the broad beans again, where we’d planted them as a cover crop in Old Hundred.

October – Many people have been asking whether the drum-playing gorilla on the TV advertisement for Cadbury’s Dairy Milk Chocolate, is Cetchewayo. Of course it isn’t, sillies. Anyone can see the big chap on the drum kit’s not a silverback. The fact is, Cetchewayo failed the audition, and he’s been sulking about it ever since. He refuses to watch the television at all, and whenever he even hears anyone singing or whistling ‘In The Air Tonight’, he stomps off to the orangery to paint. And he hasn’t touched his drum kit since. Does anybody want one, before it goes on EBay? Or any baby capybaras? We found one enterprising mum had littered in the bathroom the other morning.

November – Huge uproar on the Parish Council after Ranby and Sotby Brownie Troop voted to call their new mascot Capybara Jesus. Several councilors have demanded the Brown Owl’s resignation. Justin, when he found out, said he thought that was too lenient by far: he says she should be imprisoned for fifteen days, given forty lashes and then beheaded. He wound a tea-towel around his head to tell me that, so I guessed he was probably joking. Meanwhile, Tamsin has bought a goldfish and named him God. Roger and I only found out by reading her Facebook page. I suppose she thinks it’s funny. Really, it’s all getting too silly for words.

December – A terrible mistake: we mulled our last bottle of Chateau Lafite 1947 for the carol singers. That meant we all sat down to eat our Christmas dinner with a bottle of Igor’s whortleberry and banana skin sherry. Fortunately we regained consciousness before the pudding boiled dry. The Strubby Turkey Racing was great fun as always.

The old prison hulk, L’Incroyable, has washed up again into Anderby Creek, after the storms and high seas: it had been buried in the sand-dunes around Mablethorpe for almost 80 years. The last time this happened, according to old Mrs Sausthorpe, was to announce the Great Depression of 1927, and before that, the Stock Exchange Panic of 1857 – so, she insists, this portends financial ruin for many. And to make matters worse, the snails are hibernating very low on the walls this year. And the cards are all coming up spades. Of course she’s 97, in a home in Ingoldmells and completely ga-ga, poor thing, and it’s longer than I care to remember since I believed Nanny was right about everything. Financial ruin? Let’s hope it’s just the Labour Party!

All our very best wishes for an otherwise uneventful but prosperous 2008, from all of us, to all of you!

As ever,