Dear Distant Kin or Absent Friend,
Can it really be that time of year again? Well, it’s certainly been a case of “interesting times” for us, I can tell you.
January – No sugar-beet wassailing this year, thank goodness! Instead, the twins had one of their brainwaves. In addition to being the Bain Valley Brewery, we are now the Avalon Orchard Burial Trust – eco-friendly woodland burials for all those New Agers, hippies and neo-pagans – any tree you like, so long as it’s a variety of apple. It’s going to appeal, apparently, to all those people who like everything Celtic – druids, and that sort of thing. Mistletoe extra. I can see where this is going already, and I don’t think I like it. We’ve made a go of planting most things in the past, but I think dead people is the limit. Unfortunately Roger is as enthusiastic about the idea as anyone, so we’ve made a start and registered a domain name and are building a website. It will be at the very least another seven years before any of the trees start to fruit, by which time I suppose Justin and Roger may have gone off the idea of cider production. Meanwhile, Roger says that £500 a time is an unmissably good price for planting trees, the slow-release fertilizer is free, and there’s the added possibility of a development grant from DEFRA or the EU or North Kesteven District Council.
February – The bird ‘flu paranoia reached its peak in our part of the world when Justin telephoned the DEFRA Avian Influenza Helpline to report, just as the DEFRA handouts say you should, that he had seen a pile of dead wild birds, all the same specie, dozens of them. They weren’t best pleased when, arriving in six Land Rovers, all in white space suits and face masks, they found themselves at the bag count of one of our biggest pheasant shoots of the year. Justin kept a perfectly straight face and told them that he had heard a swan cough on Kidby Long Drain a day or two before, and had they come about that and did they want to know where it was? Hours later they apparently turned up, in answer to another alarm call about a lot of dead chickens, at a GPS mapping reference that turned out to be the location of the frozen poultry aisle in Sainsbury’s in Sleaford. I can guess who made that call, too.
March - The biennial Shrewing Festival at Wragby took place on Shrew Tuesday, which this year was February 28th, or the Ides of March, Old Style. The Shrew Riband and silver ladle were both presented to little Wilhelmina – imagine! We were all so thrilled!
April – This is always a busy time of the year on a modern English farm, when we turn out the overwintered East European migrant workers from the holiday cottages to redecorate for the coming season, then there’s fertilizing the grass, maize sowing and planting the other game cover crops – linseed, mustard, kale, cannabis. It all goes by in a blur, but one thing I do distinctly remember: on one of his infrequent visits, Charles brought an old mirror which he asked us to store for him. It looked rather nice so I hung it in the hall over the fireplace. Some of the old silvering on the back has tarnished into a pattern of what looks for all the world like another room. Tamsin says it’s possible that the silver nitrate they used to use, which is light-sensitive, has picked up the image of the room seen from where it used to hang, like a slow photograph taken over many years. In the middle, where it is least obscure, you can make out a fireplace and a couple of faces. It is strangely compelling, and the more one looks at it, the more one wants to.
May – It seems that Justin and Uncle Igor managed to hide a few hundred litres of their sugar beet cider last year, despite Roger ordering them to pour it all down the drain at gunpoint. I intercepted a letter to Justin agreeing a 'Hanuman Special Export Coconut Toddy' sponsorship deal for the 27th All-India Inter State Electricity Board Kabbadi Tournament. And – since the stuff cleaned out our septic tank so well last year - the Taj-I-Noor Kebab & Curry House in Louth has ordered two more cases of the fragipani perfumed variety marketed as Green-Kleen Drain Cleaner to offer as a complimentary digestive to obnoxious drunks they want to get rid of after closing time.
June – Busy, busy, busy – cattle mating, silage-making. More people appear to have moved into the room in the mirror-picture over the fireplace, almost as if they are looking out, with their backs to the fire. You can almost see the flames flickering – I know it must be a trick of the light and a slight flaw in the old hand-rolled glass, but it all does seem very lifelike, like the ghosting effect you get on a television screen sometimes. The other day I found I’d been staring at it for half an hour, with no recollection of the passage of time.
July – Uncle Juan came for a few days, inviting us back to Rome for the rest of the month. He – and several others in the Office of the Holy Inquisition – are working on a Vatican response to prove The Da Vinci Code is a work of fiction, which is odd because I thought that was what it was supposed to be. Apparently, the whole point is that people believe it to be a revelation of secret truth about Jesus and the Church, so the Catholic Truth Society plans to publish a whole series on different artists, such as The Caravaggio Key, The Constable Cipher, The Lowry Leitmotif, The Stubbs Sigils, The Giotto Glyphs, Durer Decrypted, The Reynolds Riddle, The Augustus Egg Enigma, The Monet Mandalas, The Manet Mystery, The Picasso Puzzle and so on. By arranging a lot of lines around blank spaces in the paintings, and projecting these onto a map of France, and then looking at things that the places the lines join up have in common, each one will demonstrate beyond all doubt that the Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes or the Society of Oddfellows or the League of Rechabites, has for millennia been running the planet in partnership with the intergalactic slave-trading clone-farming lizard men of Alpha Centauri, one of whom was Christopher Marlowe who after faking his own ritual murder spent the rest of his life writing the complete works of Shakespeare as a set of encoded prophecies for the Aquarian Age. I asked Juan: But what if people end up believing all those too, and still consider the Bible to be a work of fiction? He says that at least the Catholic Church will be getting a big share of a vigorous growth market, and one or two might even consider a career in the priesthood as a result.
Juan also left a preview copy of next year’s Calendario Romano (www.calendarioromano.co.uk/). As in former years, all the pictures are photographs of handsome young priests. I thought they looked rather scrummy (especially the August one), but Tamsin absolutely went off on one and called it vile and revolting. Since she’s the only non-Catholic in the family (non-practising, I mean, once a Catholic, always a Catholic), I do find her attitude peculiar to say the least.
August – A really elegant crop circle appeared right in the middle of the GM maize one morning. It was actually a labyrinth, so of course we started putting up road signs to ‘Sotby Hall Farm Maize Maze’ straight away. Roger denies all knowledge of it having been any of his Postmodernist Mythology and Media Studies students, and the two aliens who were walking round and round in it all day looking hopelessly lost, who I took to be the twins in masks and kitchen-foil suits, weren’t.
We took Charles’ old mirror to Rome with us, at Juan’s insistence. He said he knew a firm of specialists who are very good at resilvering old mirrors, and he wouldn’t take no for an answer. So we brought it back, good as new, all the tarnishing gone. All you can see now is your own reflection in it. Charles was very ungrateful when he saw it – obviously he preferred the patina of age, and I suppose we should really have asked him – but what good is a mirror you can’t see into properly?
September - Poor Oscar’s life is in ruins, or at least you’d think so to see him moping about the place. You see, for the past two years he’s had this online love affair over the internet with someone called Morag MacKendrick, who was supposed to be a designer tweed and cairngorm jewellery supermodel somewhere up in the Scottish highlands. I ask you. They were always emailing one another, and I even had to ask him to put away his mobile and stop texting her at the dinner table. What seems most peculiar to me is that during all this time they never actually met. Anyway, what destroyed the romance was him finding out that Morag was a 15-year old schoolgirl and her friend on a council estate in Cumbernauld. He really ought to get a life. He says he’s going to join the French Foreign Legion. Julia (living with us at the moment, and who is actually thinking of taking a commission in the Legion now her regiment has been disbanded) rather upset him by suggesting that he try a virtual role-playing game variety instead – and if there isn’t one, he could make a fortune starting one up for other sad cases like him. One finds it worrying enough when at age 8 or so one’s children have their imaginary friends, but at 25, it’s really too silly for words.
October – The Bain Valley Hunt enjoyed a really splendid meet this month. We drove one fox, fifteen Animal Rights activist-released farm mink and a mysterious panther-like creature to Bracey’s Covert where the waiting guns blew them all to bits. No-one from the League Against Cruel Sports was there, so we made a video-recording of the whole thing ourselves and sent it to them.
November – Roger bought me a super birthday present – an infrared sauna! I enjoyed it exactly once, as it lasted only three hours and seventeen minutes. Uncle Igor had to try it out, taking a bucket of water in with him – when he threw it on the infrared lamps, to get some steam up, as he explained - he not only ruined the sauna, but also plunged the entire farm into darkness. The only one whose work or recreation it didn’t interrupt, was Cetchewayo.
December - The Boxing Day Drag Hunt was a great deal more fun than anyone expected it to be. There were some spectacular turnouts. The deputy Lord Lieutenant even wore an evening gown, long gloves and a tiara. Jumping Kidby Long Drain sidesaddle and wearing long skirts really sorts out the horsemen from the dillies, you know.
And another hunt has been heard, if not seen, in the skies over the Bain Valley – one that I should like to see the anti-hunting monitors get in the way of! Of course it’s really thunder and migrating graylags that have been heard, and not horses’ hooves and baying of hounds, but old Mr. Benniworth shakes his head, and recites: “When the Wild Hunt rides o’er Ranby Hill, to all the land it bodes great ill.” He claims to have last heard the horses in 1939, and that his father before him heard the hounds in 1914. “When the horses’ hooves ye hear, great danger cometh England near,” he said, and added: “When the hounds bay in the sky, many living soon shall die.” What’s going to happen now he’s heard both, I wonder? Will they cancel each other out? Or should we start filling sandbags? Whatever happens, we shall just have to make the best of things, I suppose, as we always do. At least life never ever seems to be dull…Best wishes from all the Kirov-Renshaws, anyway, for another year!