Tag Archives: Agriculture and Forestry

Wussy Malone and the Mystery of the Missing Courage

It’s a strange thing, but one of my weirdest adult terrors has always been with taking my car to the garage to have work done. Obviously it’s ridiculous, a mature, well educated woman who turns into a cowering wreck when faced with a man whose job is changing oil and windscreen wipers for a living. Please don’t get me wrong, being a mechanic is a job requiring skill and dexterity and some mechanics really are wonderful, it’s just very sad that a few of these men seem to take great delight in their ability to patronise any woman who dares to set foot inside their realm. For five years now, we’ve used the same garage for all the work on our car, and they have mostly proved to be reliable and honest. There was the time when I arrived at eleven in the morning to book the car in, only to be told to come back in an hour when they had finished their sandwiches, and the patronising way the owner treated me when I first went in and he assumed that because I didn’t know the Norwegian for head-light, that I was generally an idiot, but on the whole they good has outweighed the bad, hence the reason we have continued to return.

The first inkling I had that I might have to go back in this time after the service was when one of the small light-bulb-covers over the number plate fell off when I closed the boot, just the day after the car had been returned. When I looked at it, it had obviously been broken at one end, and rather than order another, they presumably stuck it back in place and hoped that we would just never notice. I wondered whether I should go in and say something, but it seemed such a little thing that I shoved it back in place, and hoped that it would stay on.

The next setback came when we received the bill. Checking through it, I noticed sadly that they had charged me for new windscreen wiper blades. All very well, but the blades had been changed literally the day before I took the car in for service. Obviously that sounds stupid, but I was due to drive to the airport at night, and stormy weather was forecast, and they were really awful. So bad that driving with them was a nightmare. Again, I wondered about going in, but was put off by thinking that really it was my own fault for not telling them when I took the car in that the blades had been changed. I went to see my friend Lynne on Monday, and she said she would go in and at least ask… and again I toyed with the idea and procrastinated because of my fear, and the additional mental block I have because I know that if I go in, I would have to try to ask in Norwegian. There is definitely something about speaking a language not my own that makes me feel insecure when going in to discuss anything. I even use English when I go to see my GP because he patronises me a whole lot less when it’s him that’s struggling to find the words.

Anyway, several days later, and yesterday another midnight trip to the airport, and another dreadful drive because one of the dipped headlights wasn’t working, and that was the last straw. This morning I finally took a deep breath and marched into the garage with my list of woes. I managed it all in Norwegian, and I don’t know if that was what tipped the balance, but the garage owner couldn’t have been more helpful. He has ordered a new cover for the light, he changed the bulb in the headlight without charging me (he’s charged me twelve pounds before once for doing it) and best of all, he told me that as Charlie has already paid the bill, I should remind him next time I’m in, and he won’t charge me for the wiper blades. Given that they cost about fifty pounds, that’s a significant saving. I left the place with my heart singing. I’d like to think that the next time I have a problem, that I will sail through, but I suspect that my innate cowardice might reassert itself.

When I popped into the Co-Op afterwards I was delighted to find that they had both lobster and sashimi salmon going cheap, so there’ll be a good (and easy) dinner tonight.

In other news, Marion is too unwell today to go for our Vernal Equinox celebratory walk. I’d very much like to return to a place we went on one of the evening walks from Charlie’s work. It would be lovely to see it in daylight.
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Marion and I have done a few good walks lately, so here are some pictures.
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Hope you feel better next week Marion.

And now I have to go and bake. Due to my poor housewifery skills, I have somehow managed to let some milk go sour. I can feel some scones coming on. Anyone for afternoon tea?

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Blissful Ignorance

Sunday this week: a lovely day, and the day I had arranged to go out and “see practice” with Jan-Arne. I had been hoping to do this for a while, but it had proved difficult to arrange. In the event I ended up seeing only one patient, though Jan-Arne did all that he could to drum up some additional business, first by telephoning the previous days clients to see if they needed a follow-up call, and secondly by driving me around the entire district in a vain attempt to run over an animal (or cyclist).

The single call was to a cow with mastitis. I walked into the barn and as with the small animal clinic, had an immediate feeling of coming home. I miss farm work so much. I love the sense of peace that I experience when I am in the presence of dairy cows. These large animals are so docile; they allow us to stand so close and rarely object to being handled, except now and then when they need to protect their calves and even that is mostly done with a doe-eyed gentleness. But there is also a sense of community in farming that is so very different from city life. Years ago in Scotland, working in a dairy practice, I felt almost (only almost) as if I belonged. I wasn’t born to it, and yet as a vet there was a sense of integration. I was wanted and needed within their society, and it is that feeling of belonging that appealed to me, almost as much as the animals themselves.

There were some interesting differences. Norwegian farms are strict on biosecurity. I was fascinated to see the gigantic pair of wellington boots that the farmer’s wife brought out from a cupboard. They fitted right over Jan-Arne’s trainers and he clomped around with feet like those of a yellow elephant. I had to make do with special plastic wellington boot covers. I had the tremendous feeling that I could just walk back into that lifestyle. It all felt so similar to the old days that I could almost see myself there.

Any delusions about that were shattered later when we visited a farm where Jan-Arne was friendly with the family. We looked at a couple of their bottle-fed lambs and all the time the conversation was rattling on around me. I couldn’t follow a word and the farmer couldn’t speak any English. They had a lovely young daughter though, who kept grinning at me conspiratorially. She wanted to show us her pet lambs and tried various methods to capture them, including an attempt to entice them with some food. Afterwards, she raced around the field chasing them, a streak of pink in a pair of purple wellingtons, childish hair flying everywhere. Finally she managed to catch one, a sturdy black lamb of a traditional Norwegian breed. My biggest regret of the day was that in my haste to leave the house I managed to forget my camera. Jan-Arne very kindly offered to take some shots of the field and the child and the sheep and here they are…

Jan-Arne's Sheep 1

Jan-Arne's Sheep 2

Jan-Arne's Sheep 3

Always difficult to get a good action shot, but it was a beautiful setting on a wonderful day.

The biggest revelation occurred when we got back to the practice where I had left my car. Jan-Arne pointed to the house next door.

‘I wonder if Magne and Gerd are in there, enjoying their day off,’ he said. ‘Did you know they lived there?’

Did I know they lived there? My mind was screaming.’Magne and Gerd are married?’ I managed to croak it out at last.

‘Didn’t you know?’ He was laughing at me.

Amazing the things I fail to register. Everyone else knows presumably and maybe they just forgot to tell me, but more likely I missed it. Perhaps they stand and chat at the desk about what they are going to have for dinner. I have no idea because after so long in Norway, my brain just switches off when other people are chatting to one another. They could be talking about me, and I would remain in a happy state of oblivion.

I realised recently that this was, in many ways, a blessing. When I return to Scotland, it always comes as a shock to overhear conversations which my mind automatically processes. There are so many preconceptions based around accent and word use, instant frustration at the banalities of life. Here I escape all of that. I wouldn’t change it, even if it means that occasionally things pass me by. I wondered recently whether this must be like for a young child, having a mind that passes over incomprehensible things that don’t really matter.

When I discovered Magne and Gerd were married, it leaped into my head that I should be worried about whether I had ever said anything reprehensible about one to the other, but of course I was able to dismiss that in an instant. I just don’t have those kinds of conversations. I would love to say I have never said anything offensive about anyone, but of course, there is Scary Boss Lady. Apparently the other staff found “All Change” so amusing that they had to tell her and she read it. Since then, she has tried to convince me she isn’t scary. She even appeared one day in a poncho with the words “Love Me” woven into it. I left no doubt, she told me over a mammary tumour, that it was her I referred to. In case there was any confusion, I had clearly stated “Dagny, the scary boss lady”. She tells me that it will follow her now. Even at the Christmas party, she is in no doubt that her name-tag will read “Scary Boss Lady”. Still, she can’t have been too offended. Apparently she told her friends in the cycling club about me on a train journey. I can imagine their wide-eyed shock as they asked her, “Did she know you would read it?” Of course, I didn’t know. But I was aware it was possible, because I had already friended some of the others on Facebook. Ah well, it’s always a good idea when starting in a new job to begin on good terms with your boss!

On Writing

Some of those who access this post will recognise I have shamelessly stolen today’s title from Stephen King… because one day I’m going to be as big as him, obviously. I’m not going to emulate him in trying to tell others how to write however, I just wanted to reflect a little on the writing process, and on the dreary experience of approaching a brick wall of literary agents. I think that is the correct collective noun, though of course (as ever) I hope to be proved wrong this time.

I find the whole process of trying to find an agent very distressing. I am fully aware there are other people out there who are much worse off. I could, for example, be trying to try and find a job to pay the bills. I am immensely lucky in having a very supportive husband. But the process of putting my work out there and then… well actually the rejections themselves aren’t so bad; it’s the long silences I find harder to bear. I find myself checking my e-mail box with ridiculous frequency. It would be easier if I knew that agents had down time. If I could stop checking over the weekend, for example, it would give me a break, but I know they read and respond at all sorts of odd times. They are very busy, that much is clear. Of course, if I had any of that thing known as self-control, I could have a break anyway. Sadly the self-control gene passed me by.

For the moment, it is “Tomorrow” I am trying to promote. An odd experience because I have done it before with the same chapters and a similar synopsis. The last time, I had the unmitigated joy of receiving a request for the full manuscript. In the event, the full MS was rejected within a day of being sent off, (rightly so as it wasn’t ready) but at least I have to presume that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the chapters I am sending. It is just a subjective matter of finding someone who likes them.

In the meantime, I want to get on with something else, and although I have been toying with putting together a detailed plot for a new book, I have also received some feedback on “Ready, Vet, Go!” and I feel inspired rather to head back and redraft that before moving on. One of the frustrations of teaching yourself to write is that feedback can be terribly difficult to come by. Informed feedback even more so. So then, I have to take what I can, where I find it. I have various friends who read “Ready, Vet, Go!” and the majority of them reacted positively. One or two never finished reading it, which I put down at the time, to life getting in the way. When I sent my chapters and synopsis off to the first agents, (for anyone reading who doesn’t write, this is the standard sample that literary agents ask for to assess your manuscript) I was fully expecting an enthusiastic response… or at least some response other than absolute silence or flat generic rejection.

The first response I received was from an agent I’ve been communicating with occasionally for years, ever since I wrote to James Wight (son of the late, great James Herriot) and he generously (and incredibly) telephoned me to put me in touch with his agent. They’ve been very kind, though they have steadfastly rejected me a number of times, but one thing they have always done has been to give me feedback. They commented that the chapters were well written, but that the plot seemed a little slow, and they were struggling to see a narrative hook that they could use to sell it to publishers. I wasn’t too downhearted at that, and set out to send it to other agencies. Resounding silence ensued. Having contacted twenty agents, I couldn’t honestly bring myself to carry on putting myself through the wringer. Only one more agency gave me feedback, this time to say “Your veterinary details ring true but you need a much greater depth of characterisation and a stronger plot.” For those of you who have never been through this process, it will be difficult to understand why I felt glad to receive such a brief and negative message, but I had honestly reached the stage when any feedback at all regarding my utter lack of success was valued.

It took a while to work out my next move. I really wanted to know whether there was a genuine fault with my narrative, or whether it was just that it hadn’t resonated with any agents, so I set out, via this blog, to find some readers who weren’t friends and family to test-drive my novel. It was an interesting experience. I posted on a Facebook forum, and very quickly received seven enthusiastic offers. Smiling to myself… obviously my three chapters were not so awful… I send out the book to my new group of beta-readers… and the result was another deafening silence. It was a very odd experience. When I contacted them, those who did respond invariably said that they had been enjoying the book, but life got in the way. Some of them cited bereavements, some just family pressures. One lady, after my prompting did finally finish, and said she enjoyed it, but I had to accept that even without more concrete feedback, a novel that can be put down so easily and forgotten, is fundamentally a novel that isn’t doing its job.

And yet still I had this problem of a lack of constructive feedback. I knew there was something wrong, just not how to fix it. I am an enduringly fortunate person. At this point my parents, for the first time, really engaged with my plight and stepped in. Perhaps this was because I had spent part of the summer holidays hogging their printer to send out four precious printed submissions (one of which prompted the “Veterinary details ring true” response). A friend of theirs was a professional playwright and poet, and better still she used to run creative writing courses. For the first time, I was able to receive some detailed feedback from someone who had read the whole work, and knew what she was talking about. She had some very positive things to say abut my easy writing style, and consistency. She suggested that to improve the work, I would need to inject some additional tension, and perhaps a little dark to counteract the lightness. She also suggested that to improve the characterisation, I perhaps could weave in some back-story for the protagonists. She was very upbeat about the prospect of me finding an agent. She said she thought it was just a matter of time and perseverance. She did have some negative feedback though on my subject matter. Her gut feeling was that the veterinary theme has been done to death, and that very few publishers would even consider it. She suggested I move on and work on other projects.

This was a very odd feeling for me. I have always felt that there continued to be such an interest in animal-stories that, so long as it was really well done, there would always be a space for another vet. Last year there was a blatant attempt by the BBC to reinstate James Herriot, which to me suggests that they would like to have a new veterinary series. The immediate audience response was to tune in (nine-million of them, I believe) and then to tune out again because… well in my opinion the characters were just not engaging.

Anyway, I put everything aside, and had been trying to start something new. A couple of days ago, however, I received an unexpected e-mail from one of the agents I contacted with “Ready, Vet, Go!”. Now I don’t know whether she was kind enough to give me feedback because she my submission had been “misfiled” (her word) and there had been an excessive delay. Anyway, for whatever reason, she was the third agent to give me feedback on “Ready, Vet, Go!” and this is what she said.

“I’m sorry that your novel is not one for which we would be confident of securing a commercial publisher’s support. I’m old enough to remember the James Herriot novels which I loved and I was initially intrigued by the idea of something similar. I do think your idea has potential, but I didn’t feel your narrative voice was quite strong enough to support the ambition of your ideas. I felt as if I was being retold a story, rather than the story itself.”

This then was something new. An agent who didn’t like my writing so much, but who definitely didn’t feel negative about the subject matter. I have honestly been toiling with starting to put together a whole new project. I am aware that agents want you to do that. You should always be writing “the next thing”. But really, it is hard to motivate oneself with so little feedback, so little positive affirmation that yes, at some point, someone will read and love my work. Hard to find the enthusiasm when there is wind and rain and grey skies outside. And so rather than starting something difficult, I have decided to go back and review an old friend. I don’t want anyone to feel I am just retelling a story. I want them to share the joy of standing in a cow-byre, ankle deep in straw and unnamed muck looking at a placid, motherly animal, in the knowledge that it really is possible to make life better.

Oh Christmas Tree

Yesterday was the now annual event that is setting up the Christmas tree. For the last three years, it has been snowy, but this time round it was dry and well above freezing. Not so Christmassy perhaps, but not so chilly on the feet either. We buy the tree in the neighbouring village. Wandering around the plot and trying to find the perfect tree can take a while, but having found one we liked, which was actually far taller than we needed, the man came and cut it down and packed it up for us. At least we know it’s freshly harvested! And now, there it stands, the centre-piece in the room sending its wonderful warm light out into the darkness.
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It was raining quite fiercely earlier today. I generally try to get out for a walk each morning at eleven, but sometimes these dull wet mornings it can be difficult to motivate myself. I could, however, hear the surf from inside the house, so convincing myself that it would be spectacular, I donned a waterproof jacket, tied up the hood (so the wind didn’t just blow it straight back off) and set out.
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I tried to take some photographs, but as ever it is impossible to capture the sullen ferocity, the continuous boiling motion and the roar that fills the air. Ferocious is the right word for it. As ever after a storm, there were sad little avian bodies scattered along the shoreline along with the washed up seaweed.
When I do walk down to the sea on a windy day, I find it hard to drag myself away. I eventually turned back when I realised I couldn’t get any further without getting my feet wholly soaked. And anyway, by that time, the rainwater soaking into my leggings was becoming heavy enough to cause them to descend. Even I have my limits!

Finally, when I got home, I finished making the Bailey’s Irish Cream and Rum Butter Truffles. You can find the recipes here.