Wednesday, 30 May 2007

Second homes

Speaking as a Devonian who has never got so much as a toenail on the property ladder, I am finding the continually rising house prices in the county beyond a joke. With the exception of one grandparent who was born over the border in Dorset, the last four generations (at least) of my family were born in Devon. Whilst that doesn’t give me a God-given right to be a Devon homeowner, it does make me a bit cross.
Unless I lie about our earnings, which is what everyone else is doing, it appears, the most we can raise is a mortgage of £90,000. In the village where I live, that might buy a share in a dilapidated stone shed.
Yesterday, I read that Devon’s property prices have practically doubled since 1999. I reckon this is partly due to pointless surveys commissioned by estate agents that suggest Devon is the best county to live in. We residents already know this, of course, but I really wish the fact wasn’t advertised in London, where stressed out city dwellers can be tempted to swap their annual bonuses for a nice little thatched retreat in a quaint village which they can visit once in a while in order to patronise the locals over a couple of pints of Speckled Hen.
In the South Hams where second homes make up 11% of all housing, councils are discussing whether to raise the discounted council tax on second homes from 50% to 90%. Big deal. If you can afford to run a house that you don’t actually live in, I hardly think you’re going to be dissuaded by a 40% rise in council tax.
An organisation in North Devon, the Appledore Pirates, is considering whether to draw attention to the problem by sticking black bin liners in the letterboxes belonging to second homes. This might sound a bit hostile, but if councils fail to provide adequate affordable housing, you can understand why the local residents get angry at what could be seen as social cleansing by economic means.
If things carry on as they are, rural Devon will become a massive theme park devoid of life. No farms, no shops, no schools, no pubs, no animals, and nobody to deliver advice on growing spuds. At that point, of course, second home owners will decide on selling up because the area will have lost it’s character.


The other day I was with a child who was openly discussing her fear of creepy-crawlies. Toward the end of the conversation she told me there was a word for her condition and proudly said she was arachnophobic. I responded with sympathy and told her I happened to be a hippophobe. I found I needed to go into some detail about my irrational fear because she politely asked why I was scared of hippies.
Thinking she was going to go round giving the impression that I locked myself in the nearest cupboard at the merest whiff of patchouli oil, I explained that being a hippophobe meant I was scared of horses, and, if she thinks that’s weird, I used to have a friend who was terrified of polystyrene. She looked at me as if she had encountered madness personified.
I told her that while she saw My Little Pony cantering merrily in a flowery meadow, I happened to see a beast with the power of around twenty-five bull mastiffs, the speed and unpredictability of a runaway Ferrari, and the kick of several million vodkas. And it’s no coincidence that equine creatures happen to be the transport for the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Unable to explain the polystyrene thing in any way, shape or form and aware I might give her nightmares, I decided to terminate the conversation quickly.
Spiders and creepy-crawlies in general, don’t really bother me. I mean, there’s not a lot of point being scared of something small enough to incarcerate in a wine glass is there? I know they have a lot of legs and aren’t very cute, but the spiders in this country can’t really do you much in the way of damage can they?
Therapists dealing with phobias tend to adopt the ‘Face the fear and do it anyway’ approach. Good practice, I should imagine, with many irrational fears. After all – spiders lurk about in every house and the likelihood of finding one in your bed every now and then is quite high.
I tend to use the avoidance technique, though, for two reasons. One: in order to exist and function, I do not need to become familiar with horses. Two: unless you happen to be a member of the mafia, it is highly unlikely you will ever, ever encounter a horse in your bed.


My dog has recently started acting rather strangely. He is a bearded collie named Doolin, and to those who are not familiar with the breed, he is basically a large lolloping, slobbering ball of black and white fluff, the sort that would make a fantastic fireside rug if such a thing was socially acceptable.
The personality change started with a look of disdain and boredom. He then became increasingly grumpier and has been having more bad hair days than not. Normally he keeps himself looking quite dapper and I was a bit concerned that he might be 'letting himself go'. Also - you'll think I'm mad - I am sure that he has been trying to communicate with me.
We decided on lavishing him with extra fuss and attention but dispensed with the idea of giving him a mirror as that might possibly result in an outbreak of wanton vanity. The extra cuddles and chats seemed to have little effect so I had a bit of a rethink.
He is 5 1/2 years old. So, in dog years, that means he must be pushing forty. It suddenly became clear. He's been having a mid-life crisis! It happens to men, so why can't it happen to dogs?
In the case of the human male, the mid-life crisis usually manifests itself in a period of simultaneous self-loathing and re-evaluation. They think about what they have achieved in their time on this earth and often seek new pastures. This can be a career change, a new wardrobe or an extra-marital affair. All desperate signs of the last shreds of youth disappearing before their very eyes.
With this information in front of me, I realised it made perfect sense. It explains the mood swings. Doolin obviously feels that he has a dog's life and is yearning for a change in direction. The bad hair thing, I think, is actually a sign of rebellion. He is rejecting an enforced stereotype by refusing to grow old gracefully - a bit like Peter Stringfellow. Like Mr Stringfellow, Doolin also displays embarrassing behaviour traits when he's in female company.
Despite all this, I think his long-term prognosis is quite favourable. Because, unlike the human male, at least Doolin is trying to communicate.

Designer lettuce

Last weekend I read an article in one of the broadsheet colour supplements about lettuce. Not your common or garden iceberg, you understand, but the designer type that comes as a bagged mixture of several ready-washed varieties, ranging from your peppery Rocket or Red Mustard, through to the flamboyant but tasteless Lollo Rosso. It turns out that not only are these packets of leaves a massive rip-off, they are also not particularly good for you.
These salad vegetables, which on the surface look quite nutritious and wholesome, are immersed in a chlorine wash that is equivalent to twenty times the level in swimming pools. They are then packed using a process known as Modified Atmosphere Packaging, which alters the normal levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide within the sealed package, thereby extending the product’s shelf life for, in some cases, up to a month. Imagine what all this chemical warfare does to your salad.
I’ve often wondered what type of person bought these elaborate and pretentious salad vegetables. Well, surprisingly two thirds of the UK population regularly do! When I walk past the salad counter in a supermarket, I look at these flirtatious bags of leaves with contempt, viewing them as the vegetable equivalent of high-maintenance women. All style, no substance, no taste and, according to the newspaper report, subjected to regular chemical peel treatments.
I see shoppers tempted by the apparent freshness, colours and convenience and I desperately want to tell them that for around £1, they can buy a packet of seeds that will keep them and several close friends in designer lettuce all summer. A tiny bit of land – heck even a window box - will suffice for cultivating a fantastic crop of salad leaves that can be picked and eaten within minutes, ensuring the optimum in freshness and nutrition. These leaves can be cut and, lo and behold, they will come up again – an again! All for minimum effort and expenditure.
Maybe I should start a lettuce growing campaign. A growing army of amateur gardeners could join me in fighting back against the economic power of the supermarkets. Soon, the designer lettuce counter could disappear along with powdered egg and Vesta curries. Power could be restored to the consumer and we could, literally, reap what we sow!
Just a dream…just a dream…

Debunking detoxing

At last! The British Dietic Association has rubbished the very popular and fashionable concept of de-toxing. They claim that de-toxing is nothing more than a marketing myth and a complete waste of time and money, and that a simple glass of tap water will have the same effect.
I have always viewed anyone that partook in such a stupid, pointless and extremely restrictive fad as being either gullible, into self-denial or in need of a biology lesson. I once had a friend who had spent about £30 on some naturally extracted, seaweed-infused, gingko based, batwing flavoured, blind-worm’s sting essence, believing that it would flush out all her free radicals and toxins, leaving her innards fresh and pure. I told her that she should have saved her money – what on earth did she think her liver and kidneys were for?
I am hoping that the British Dietic Association will go one further and call all the self-appointed experts and dubious opportunists who are making millions out of this quackery to account. Yes – I’m talking about you Carol Vorderman. Is there any field that that woman doesn’t claim to be an expert in? Even Su Doku isn’t safe from her bid for world domination I can’t even look at a 9x9 grid any more without seeing her smug, over-painted face!
As much as I’d like, I can’t just lay the blame at Carol Vorderman’s door, however. I just logged on to Amazon and there appears to be nearly 30,000 diet-related books listed. Everyone’s at it – from celebrities to doctors and back to celebrities again. Everyone’s making a mint out of people’s desire to be slim.
The solution to losing weight is so, so, simple – it can be written on a postage stamp. Literally. Eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly: Just seven words that, if followed, will show positive results. Nobody needs to go out and buy a diet book or talk about glycaemic indices ever again! Nobody has to drink wheatgrass juice and no-one has to buy Slim-fast bars ever, ever again.
What a blessed relief!
While the answer to a long-term healthy weight is easy, I seriously struggle when it comes to finding out why we still continue to be conned to the tune of billions by celebrity-endorsed diets and food fads.

Bunny boiling

I’ve just come back from a visit to my mate, Henry, and his wife, Beryl. Over a cup of coffee and a discussion about drugs in world athletics, they offered me a brace of rabbits which I gratefully accepted, along with several gargantuan beetroot, a couple of red onions and around two pounds of spuds.
Well chuffed with my gifts, I returned home and plonked the home grown harvest on the table and had a good look. Not only did I feel lucky to have such generous friends, I felt privileged to be able to have immediate access to real food.
All around the UK, there is a profound worry about what we put in our mouth and where it comes from. Consumers are concerned about levels of chemicals and flavourings and the implications on their family’s health yet sales of convenience foods still rise, kitchen skills are more or less extinct and the idea of being presented with a recently-killed animal and vegetables that still have soil clinging to their roots would have most domestic food preparers running out of their Poggenpohl kitchens screaming.
When I used to keep chickens, it always amazed me how excited city-dwelling friends would get about the fact that these feathered creatures actually laid proper eggs, and conversely, how appalled they were when it was time to cull one because I fancied a bit of home-reared roast chicken. Brought up on supermarket, cling-wrapped and skinned fillets of poultry, they had become so disassociated with the fact that what they were buying had in fact, once been an animal – they found the very idea of killing an animal for meat absolutely barbaric.
People don’t really eat rabbit much nowadays. The reason, I suspect, is because given the size and anatomy of the creature, supermarkets would have to display the whole carcass because filleting it would be an absolute waste of time, money and energy. And can you imagine what squeamish Joe Consumer would do if faced with the skinned carcass of a rabbit in the meat counter at Sainsbury’s? They’d think about Disney’s Thumper and cry depravity.
Health studies show that the closer the food is to its natural state, the better it is for you. Not only that – come the Armageddon – it’ll be the self-sufficient bunny-boilers who will inherit the earth.

Brace yourself

Recently, my son paid a visit to an orthodontist, after a referral from our dentist. I was reluctant to take him initially as, apart from two teeth at the side of his mouth that are a bit cramped, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the arrangement of his dentures.
Despite my reservations, I took him along to the ‘brace man’, mainly because I trusted my dentist’s judgement – after all, teeth are what he is supposed to do best.
After a very short examination, the orthodontist recommended that my son did indeed need a brace. Not just any old brace. In order to correct the miniscule dental problem of two teeth that are a tad too close for comfort, my poor boy was expected to wear some weird contraption on his head for twelve hours a day.
As the orthodontist showed us a picture of this device, I winced and couldn’t help thinking about the Spanish Inquisition. My son looked at me pleadingly.
We left abruptly, having told the orthodontist that we’d think about it. As soon as we got out the door, my son said to me,
“ Do I have to wear that thing, really?”
I reassured him that unless he had any ambitions to be either a model or a member of a boy band, he would never have to even think about that instrument of torture again.
As I drove home, I felt content that I had spared taxpayers a big wedge of cash and my son months and months of discomfort and humiliation.
Every year, nearly 100,000 children have corrective dental treatment at a cost, on average, of around £800. Is it just me, but at a time when NHS dentists are as rare as rocking horse droppings, doesn’t this seem like a big case of getting priorities a bit confused?
Eighty million pounds are spent every year on appeasing parents who demand that their offspring have perfect teeth, yet people have to tolerate prolonged dental pain that can result in chronic pervading infection because they cannot afford treatment.
I’m aware that some children need and deserve corrective dental treatment. We all remember poor old Johnny Buck Teeth at the back of the class. But if my son was recommended such extreme and unnecessary treatment, millions of pounds are being wasted on treatment that is, to all intents and purposes, purely cosmetic.


This half term has been a nightmare. All week, I have been busy catching up with all the urgent and overdue business that I have chosen to ignore since I got back from my holiday. Meanwhile, the kids have been moaning about how bored they are and it has driven me to distraction.
I blame a variety of sources for their discontent – the weather, for one, because with the exception of a couple of days, it has been quite abominable. But I have to say I lay most of the blame firmly at the feet of my kids – for their inability to keep themselves occupied and their lack of appreciation of how far we have come in the last 25 years in terms of in-home entertainment.
Every time they have complained that there is nothing to do, I point at the 28” screen in the corner of the living room and calmly explain that boredom was what the telly was invented for. If there’s nothing but makeover shows and daytime soaps on the box, I then point to the array of videos and DVDs. If they decide that they are not in the mood for Batman, Titanic or Gladiator, I remind them that they have a Playstation. If they tell me that they have completed all their games, I suggest they go on the internet, after all, with goodness knows how many billion web pages, there has to be something there that interests them! If, at that point, they shrug their bored little shoulders, I drop to my knees, proceed to pull my hair out and yell,
The World Wide Web was just a virtual glint in Tim Berners Lee’s eye. Computers were huge bulky machines used by white-coated boffins on the telly. Computer games were limited to Space Invaders or Pac-Man and could only be played in amusement arcades. There were no videos, let alone DVDs and television was just BBC1 and ITV with a small amount of programming on BBC2, in between the test card!
Bored? They don’t know the meaning of the word!

Afternoon delight

I often take a nap in the afternoon. Should I be ashamed?
When my husband pops home during work hours to pick something up and finds me installed in my lovely comfy bed in the middle of the afternoon, indulging in forty or so winks, he is horrified. His reaction would lead most people to believe that he had discovered me in bed with another man!
I have told him, many times, that napping is a form of therapy. I nap so that I can do all the things that I need to do for the rest of the day without flaking out. I have mentioned that sleep experts in the US have scientifically proven that a power nap boosts alertness, memory, learning and mood. There is even a company in New York that provides sleep pods for stressed out executives to go and have a power nap. Customers are queuing up for a twenty- minute lie down, after which they return to their desks alert, revived and invigorated.
Despite my protestations, he thinks I’m lazy.
Sometimes, I wonder if he should have joined some strict, sado-masochistic cult whose members rise before the crack of dawn, work like a ferret-on-the-edge-of-a-nervous-breakdown for anything between eight and fifteen hours a day, go home and eat gruel then give themselves twenty lashes before lying down on a concrete slab for the night.
I suppose I can blame the filtering down of the protestant work ethic for his low opinion of me. Once upon a time people believed that hard work received a place in heaven. As he doesn’t believe in God, I’m wondering where he’s expecting to go.
I have told him countless times to chill out. He might feel guilty about my snoozing, but I don’t. I come from a long line of afternoon nappers. As long as I can remember, the words ‘I’m just going for a nap’ have been heard as frequently as ‘Coronation Street is just about to start’. Everything that was supposed to be done, was done – and usually with a cheery disposition.
Unfortunately, most employees in this country would tend to agree with my husband, believing that every hour spent at the desk is just as productive as the last.
We ought to take a leaf out of our Mediterranean cousins’ book and have daily siestas. When global warming results in sweltering English summers, we’ll have little choice.

A lady's drink

The British Beer and Pub Association are hoping that women in the UK are going to start turning their noses up at the usually favoured Chardonnays and Merlots, and opt for a nice glass of beer instead. One of the ways in which they plan to lure the female market to the barrels is by serving real ale in third-pint glasses. Maybe it’s the women I mix with but, my goodness, how we all laughed in our pint glasses when we heard this little piece of news.
Speaking as a long-term beer lover, a one-time judge at a beer festival (probably the only one there without a beard), and a woman to boot, I think I am in a suitable position to comment on this sexist and elitist strategy.
For as long as I’ve been old enough to frequent pubs, I have known my Speckled Hen from my Sutton Comfort, and my Broadside from my Bishop’s Tipple. Over the years I have come to love real ale in all its cheering, scrumptious, glorious forms and one thing I know is that it does not require rebranding in order to appease a few women who choose their drinks solely on the basis of the shape and volume of the glass that it is served in.
If I went into a pub and the barman offered me a beer in a third pint glass, I’d assume that he wanted to get to know me better. If every time I went to the bar I was given such a miniscule serving, I would spend as much time ordering it as drinking it.
What the breweries mean, of course, is that - in the words of Little Britain’s rubbish transvestite Emily Howard - they want to create a ‘laydees’ drink for ladies. They want to turn my lovely, dependable, reassuring beer into a sophisticated lifestyle drink, instead of leaving it where it belongs – in the annals of working-class culture.
For centuries, a good old pint has been associated with sing-songs, smoky pubs, raucous laughter and lively banter. Call me a beer snob, if you like, but real ale is for real people and those who feel they can only order it if it is served up in a fancy glass, quite frankly, don’t deserve it.