Great-Uncle Vasily & Friends, c.1910

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

Tuesday, 24 December 2002

Christmas Newsletter 2002

Dear Distant Kin or Absent Friend,

So sorry you didn’t hear from us last year - I quite forgot to send out
the Newsletter because of all the trouble with the floods, and then with Foot and Mouth. Of course, it could have been much worse for us. As it happened, Olivia’s TA battalion was on standby at the time, so we had them stand guard over the stock after we fed them with the mashings from Uncle Igor’s vodka still. They all looked dead enough to convince the DEFRA inspectors (who have only the vaguest idea what a sheep or a cow looks like anyway). Then we had an ideal excuse to burn up all the old tractor tyres and Wellingtons that have been piling up around the place since the War, along with poor Aunt Eudora’s collection of shoes. The things one has to do to in farming nowadays. I must say, though, that grim as life is, things this year seem to have taken a turn for the better - though it didn’t seem that way at first...

January - Terrible news came from cousin Benjamin on his farm in Zimbabwe: he was besieged by hundreds of war veterans, to whom the government has promised his land. I really can’t imagine anything like that happening in England - say, the Louth branch of the Royal British Legion camping out in our beet and demanding the whole place be turned into Council allotments. They must be mad. Nobody in their right minds wants to take up farming.  

February - Benjamin asked if he could send Great-Aunt Lavinia to us. We could hardly refuse. Nor, it seems, could we refuse her silver-backed gorilla, Cetchewayo. Because of the
cold weather we put him in the Orangery to acclimatise. He is an engaging chap, if rather wilful, he really took to living in the Orangery, and absolutely refused to budge from there (he likes to nest in the branches of the hybrid Satsuma grapefruits, much to dear old Gresham’s
consternation, bless him). Roger, to cheer up poor Great-Aunt Lavinia,  engaged an artist to come and paint Cetchewayo as a birthday surprise.

March - The painter, by arrangement, and so as not to arouse Lavinia’s suspicions, agreed to pose as the new under-gardener, whose first job was to hand-pollinate the trees in the Orangery. This conveniently explains his long-term presence in the Orangery, his paintbrushes, and his spending hours in the tree canopies up a step-ladder near Cetchewayo. It also means he can pollinate the citrus flowers at the same time.
April - Roger’s seminal work Post-Processualism and the Permeability Paradigm: Cognitive Problems in Late  20th Century Silaging, which caused such a storm at the Montevideo Conference in 1997, came out in paperback. Naturally, he’s delighted. Justin calls Roger the James Joyce of the academic world - no-one can understand a word he writes, so he must be a genius. He’s jealous, of course. To cap it all, Roger was also awarded the Sainsbury
Humanities Professorship at Kesteven University College. Perhaps he can now do something about persuading Sainsbury’s to pay us slightly more for our milk than it costs us to produce. If not, we might as well let the cows go, buy our milk from Sainsbury’s, empty it into the tanker and sell it back to them. We’d have a use for all the empty plastic containers, too: you see, we are now officially the Bain Valley Brewery, as well as Sotby Hall Farm. Uncle Igor’s GM maize lager made its first appearance two years ago as a guest beer at the Green Man in Utterby, then won the Gold Medal at the Market Rasen Beer Festival, and last year we started supplying two or three other local pubs with a barrel. Now we do four farmers’ markets and a dozen pubs between Louth and Lincoln. Uncle Igor wanted to call it “Kirov Cossack For Men”, until Oscar persuaded him that that was already the name for a popular aftershave. Justin said no-one would know the difference. Anyway, thanks to Oscar, it’s now sold as “Lincolnshire Poacher Ale - Smooth and Golden as the Cornfields of the Lincolnshire Wolds”. Roger says it tastes like a low-calorie diet pilsener with a double scotch in it. I wouldn’t know about that, but the landlord at the Green Man makes his customers hand over their car keys before he sells them a half pint (he refuses to serve it in pint glasses at all), and when it was offered to the Hunt as a stirrup-cup at the Utterby Meet last year, no-one got further than the first hedge.

May - Mr Ford the painter and Cetchewayo are getting along famously. He has built a platform up in the canopy, where he now takes his meals and even sleeps at night. He has had to supply Cetchewayo with his own paints, brushes and canvases, because the gorilla is so interested in what he’s doing and wants to help, and gets awfully cross if he isn’t allowed. So Cetchewayo paints away and allows Mr Ford to paint him. Mr Ford says Cetchewayo has produced several works already which wouldn’t look out of place in the Tate Modern. He says he may be able to interest a collector, in return for an agent’s commission.

June - Imagine!  A rather large painting by Cetchewayo, just a few stripes of raw colour  running into each other really, fetched £17,500 at Bonham’s the other day!   More wonderful news - Wilhelmina, as part of her therapy, is now working in the accessories department at
Halford’s in Market Rasen. She’s doing well, although suddenly coming across a complete bicycle will still cause her screaming fits. Everyone says what a brave girl she is. 

July - Rebecca won a Waitrose Bursary, which we’re all over the moon about, but it now means the camel will need a new home - so if you think you can help, do please get in touch!

August - Our agricultural student accidentally fuelled up the combine harvester with a drum
of Uncle Igor’s beetroot kvass, mistaking it for red diesel. At least we’re fairly sure that’s what happened. There was an almighty explosion, and the only trace left was a huge spiral swathe in the middle of our hundred acres of barley. We reported the combine as stolen, and we’ve made up for the spoiled barley by charging hippies from Lincoln £5 a time to see the crop circle. Together with the insurance money for the combine, we should be able to make ends meet on the cereal front for another year. Good old Uncle Igor!

September - Most of us went down to Town for the Countryside Alliance March, in two coaches chartered by the Bain Valley Mink Hounds - which some of you may remember were
founded in 1995 after a mob of Animal Righters released about 5,000 caged mink from Mr Jennings’ farm over at Ranby. At the time, most of them were rounded up and homed in Paula’s laboratories, and they’ve come on wonderfully since then. The Mink Hound is a lovely, intelligent creature with a beautiful coat, part dachshund, part miniature Yorkshire terrier and - of course - part mink. They retrieve salmon, trout and waterfowl, and will give any pike a jolly good run for its money. Unfortunately we haven’t been able to interest them in
foxes - and Cruft’s won’t recognise them as a breed, which is an absolute disgrace.

Anyway, once in London we decided to do both the ‘Liberty’ and the ‘Livelihood’ march routes, so I suppose we were counted twice - which is only fair as we had to leave Justine and some of the boys at home to watch the stables and kennels. At Hyde Park Corner we were confronted by a sort of New Age type, with pink hair and a nose ring, handing out leaflets explaining that it was morally depraved for people to do what we do. She said that she couldn’t understand what country people were complaining about, as no-one had to eat
meat and we all have such lovely fruit, vegetables and corn right outside our front doors, while people like her in the cities have to go a very long way to the supermarket. She said it cost her much more to drive her car than it did us, too, because city people don’t get cheap red diesel from the government like we do. She said that it would be much more humane to shoot foxes if they were a problem, and they could get the Army to do it like they did with all the cattle during the Foot and Mouth Disease outbreak.

While Paula and Justin held Roger back and Tamsin stuffed a bacon sandwich into his mouth, I drew a deep breath and told her that what we were protesting about was that country people have to go a very long way to find a fox, often having to travel great distances on horseback owing to the high cost of car insurance and the absence of public transport in rural areas. And thatwe might as well exercise the dogs while we’re at it. I added that when foxes run away across the fields and we follow them, it keeps them from being run over by traffic on busy roads too. I explained that foxes were moving into the towns from the countryside because it’s so hard for anything to make a living in the country any more. I said that if the government wants to stop it they should build more affordable houses in the countryside, which will attract more foxes and so country people won’t have to go so far to find one. She believed every word, and before she went away smiling and happy, Roger gave her a couple of Liberty and Livelihood stickers and a Mink Hounds placard. We spotted her
later on, marching through Parliament Square, and she waved to us.

October - Uncle Juan came to stay for a few days on his way home from Rome. All very quiet until Hallowe’en, when he and Charles had a terrible argument. I don’t know what started it, but they’ve been very edgy in each other’s presence ever since Uncle Juan fixed the damp problem in the cellar two years ago. They were in the Billiard Room at midnight, shouting at each other in Latin and waving their arms about. There was a goat with Charles, and Uncle Juan was shouting at it, too. Then Charles left, slamming the door and drove away furiously. Then Uncle Juan celebrated Mass - on his own, just like the other year, but in the Billiard Room. After midnight. I ask you. I sometimes wonder if he’s finding that being a bishop is rather too much of a strain. We can’t find the goat anywhere.

November - The Horncastle Tar Baby Night was the usual riot of fun. Like all these old customs, its origins are lost in antiquity, and people still do them because they always have done. Needless to say, most of the Tar babies resembled Mr Blair again this year. If it really IS an old pagan magical practice of getting rid of evil spirits, I’d like to know what it is we’re doing wrong.

December - The plaintive whistle of the old Louth-Horncastle Flyer has been heard on still,
frosty nights. The last time that happened was just before it disappeared in a snowdrift during the terrible winter of 1895. I think something dreadful is going to happen, but Roger tells me not to be silly as it’s really quite good time-keeping for Great North-Eastern Trains.

Well, all the best for a happy and prosperous New Year, from all of us Kirov-Renshaws!

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