Utterly Undiscovered – Fur Coated Visitors

These two snippets from my book Utterly Undiscovered describe our wildlife lessons as newcomers to the countryside:

*

Having been city dwellers, it took us a while to appreciate the range of creatures that would turn up on our remote country doorstep. Our idea of wildlife was squirrels scurrying up trees, red deer grazing at the edge of verdant forests and buzzards floating on warm currents off the Stiperstones – all to the background music of some Beatrix Potter movie.

Buzzards there certainly were. Thriving in ideal terrain, their faint miaowing and graceful spirals drawing the eye, they ventured closer each year, especially in winter when foraging in the hills was less fruitful. Near the back door one morning I find a giant specimen perched on a post checking the brookside grass for signs of a decent meal. Disturbed from his vigil, he turns and stares long enough for me to get a rare close-up of his sharp eyes and iron beak, the tools of a survivor.

Of course there are plenty of squirrels, and as well as common garden birds we have goldcrests in the conifers, crying curlews each spring in Geoff’s field and dippers, herons and grey wagtails using the brook.

What we hadn’t thought was that it was also a perfect setting for the squatters of the animal kingdom – mice, moles, shrews, voles and rats – many of whom wanted equal ownership.

*

Moles come and go. Romany moles. When they arrive it’s like an army has invaded,     though it’s normally a lone explorer. I wage war with Mr Mole. I don’t need another range of hills – the Stiperstones are fine. Although we’d sacrificed a lot of grass for Jack’s soccer pitches and made gorgeous flower borders in its place, the idea was to keep the rest as lawn. If Mr Mole chose to build castles and dungeon-runs in the borders – fine. But in the lawn – let battle commence.

It can drag on for days. To make up for their poor eyesight the suspicious creatures have an extraordinary sense of smell and a strong instinct telling them something’s not right. To stay friendly with the NSPCM (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Moles), I started with humane deterrents – a child’s plastic windmill stuck in a hillock or a talking greetings card delivered first class to the entry hole. I was especially hopeful with a card from the “Moles” section in my local Spar shop (just under “Granddaughter’s Birthdays”) saying:

Hello Mr Mole. Please go away. Or else.

‘You do realise moles don’t understand English?’ Debbie said.

I hadn’t thought of that. And having also failed to discourage the little dears with a slow release gas cartridge, I resort to Jack’s country recipe:

Ingredients

One stout wooden stick

Galvanised-iron spring traps from local farm merchants

One pair well-used garden gloves

Large leaves – foxgloves etc

Method

Push stick firmly into raised grass until it goes in without resistance

Repeat in same area to determine direction of run

Excavate neat hole in run, putting turf to one side

Set trap and lower into run, wearing gloves to mask human smell

Place pieces of turf and leaf around trap handles to block out light

The trap now forms part of the run

Set remaining traps in other areas

Check daily to see if traps have been sprung (handles will be released)

It’s hit-and-miss, but always hit in the end. At first the canny fellow teases me, switching burrows, starting new ones or pushing soil ahead to trigger the finely poised trap. But eventually he gets careless. Finding the slain invader means I’ve rescued my lawn. Fair cop – I did try to warn him off. But the victory is hollow. It seems sad that a velvety, perfectly-proportioned, underground powerhouse should have to meet such a sticky end.

Note to self: find a greetings card with instructions in native mole language.

Utterly Undiscovered          Out early spring 2013  

Fineleaf Editions  www.fineleaf.co.uk

ISBN 978-1-907741-30-2 

Paul Costello © November 2012

www.paulcostello.me

@PaulCostello8

Spraying Your Territory – a cautionary note for soccer fans

Why do sportsmen spit?

Or soccer players to be precise; because it does seem confined to that sport. You don’t see Kevin Pietersen letting go as he disputes an lbw decision, nor rugby players when the ref disallows a try. Bradley Wiggins didn’t flob his way round the Tour de France, and it’s not saliva being mopped up by large brooms as they change ends at badminton.

No, it’s only soccer players. But not all of them; let’s not implicate Bobby Charlton or Gary Lineker, David Beckham or Michael Owen, or the entire Brighton and Hove Albion team – I’ve never seen them gob. And make that male soccer players. I don’t recall Rachel Yankey or Laura Bassett executing a suck and thud on the Wembley pitch. It simply wouldn’t be ladylike.

What’s more, they only spit when they’ve done something wrong – like missing an open goal or handling the ball in their penalty area. They don’t do it after they’ve scored a fantastic goal, which is frankly a good thing, since with ten other spitters jumping on top of them like a frog orgy, the resulting spawn could mean playing the rest of the half glued together, posing problems with substitutions and sendings-off.

I’d like to think there was an innocent explanation for this gooey behaviour, like self-loathing because it was their gran’s birthday and, damn, they’d forgotten to send her a card. They’re a sensitive lot. But I suspect the message is, ‘Pah, I spit in the face of failure!’ – a brave gesture but one that only draws attention to them. Macho, but actually – pratcho. Because they’re not spitting at failure, they’re fearing it. Sportsmen of true quality rise above this showmanship and let their ability speak for itself. When things don’t go right they swallow their pride, and saliva. And to acknowledge success, an old-fashioned handshake or pat on the back will do nicely.

That’s not to say that sputum doesn’t have practical value. I’m thinking of the corner-flag slide. You need plenty of moisture to execute an attractive yet painless full frontal or double kneed ten foot slide after scoring your first goal in eighteen games. On a dry pitch, the ‘Look at me!’ slide would really hurt.

And I realise what coaches are up to on the touchline with computers and notepads. It’s a sophisticated game, is soccer. When the pitch flob stat reaches a certain level, they can switch from a diamond formation to, say clubs or hearts, or to a rhombus or equilateral triangle. If your full back is a slide-tackle specialist, he can use the extra moisture to his advantage, while on the other hand, wetting the corners of the pitch puts opposition wingers and overlapping fullbacks at a slippery disadvantage.

Sadly, it’s the quality players that have to tolerate the oral excreta of the flobbing ones. Which raises another important point. In an era when sportsmen are swiftly carted off to the ‘blood bin’ the moment a pimple bursts on their backside (because Health and Safety say so), what’s the situation with gob-spread diseases? No surprise that with all that lying spittle, many players choose safer forms of celebration when they score. A shirt pulled up over the face is a dryer bet, though it does pose the problem of not being able to dodge mates who are about to bury you on the sodden ground. Perhaps this tactic is best when you’ve missed a sitter in front of goal; at least the shirt hides your blushes, though best not to spit at the same time.

Circling the corner flag like Kanu, with dainty steps like you were firming down soil before laying a gravel path, is popular; or executing a Viennese Waltz round the pole – a trustworthy dance partner, good backwards bend, ideal for Strictly.

Peering into the camera like Rooney or Suarez, or tapping the lens in a pratcho kind of way happens a lot, some players also using it to check their hair is okay – and of course, making a photo shape with your hands to encourage the crowd to take a picture. Then there’s the tried and tested running the perimeter of the pitch, cupping a hand to one ear and pointing forcefully to the name on the back of your shirt, or proudly smacking the anti-wage limit logo on the front.

Some players leap over the advertising hoarding and hold out their arms like a Messiah, little realising they too will be crucified ten minutes later for trying to score from a narrow angle when tapping the ball to a team mate would have meant an easy  goal. I even saw a Juventus player slap his mate’s face in admiration after scoring. There really are no bounds. Inventiveness is the secret; make up anything you like, and call it trending. It comes natural to pratchoes.

And there’s a whole industry waiting out there. Whilst most working people settle for courses on, say First Aid or Manual Handling, soccer clubs could offer drama classes. Pratchoes could learn corner flag dancing or finger gesturing. The spitting brigade could take trajectory lessons, perfecting the angle of flight like in archery or shot-put, and with advanced technology the results could be played back in HD slo-mo for training those who haven’t quite got it right – the dribblers.

An entire team could be professionally choreographed for group charades after scoring – like digging, or baking a cake. The crowd may not know what the moves mean; for all they know it could be cleaning out a toilet or putting on socks, or watching a partial eclipse of the sun. It doesn’t matter; their team has scored! Join in, for heaven’s sake!

Yet it’s the crowd participation that’s most worrying. There are thirty thousand watching the pratchoes at work, and they all copy their heroes. It only takes one dodgy refereeing decision, or one player to remember his gran’s birthday, for thousands of tapioca globules to start flying round the stands. If the whole crowd released at the same time, the pureé on the smooth concrete floors – two hundred litres of spilt Bovril, half a ton of Pukka Pie droppings and thirty thousand phlegm balls – would be a Health and Safety nightmare. And if they all pulled shirts over their faces too, the surge of disorientated spectators down the slimy terracing doesn’t bear thinking about.

Fortunately this will never happen at the Amex Stadium.

Paul Costello © November 2012

Utterly Undiscovered – delightful Bed and Breakfast memoir.  Spring2013.  

Publisher: Fineleaf Editions.  www.fineleaf.co.uk

ISBN 978-1-907741-30-2

www.paulcostello.me

@PaulCostello8

Utterly Undiscovered – But Found Under My Bed!

I drag out a dusty box from under my bed.

Inside are seventeen year’s memories of Cricklewood Cottage, all the richer for maturing another five.

–       A breakfast menu – as enticing as ever

–       Magazine articles about the garden

–       Our first business card – rustic in the extreme

–       A sketch map for Garden Open days

–       Lyrical descriptions of where to eat locally

–       And the fattest prize of all – a thinning, brown A4 envelope, bulging with torn-off reminders of people and peculiarities:

  •  the weird, wonderful and downright wicked;
  •  the good, bad and decidedly ugly;
  •  and the sad or straightforwardly silly.

Now all brought together in my charming and humorous Bed and Breakfast memoir:

Utterly Undiscovered

A jagged page torn from a small, lined notebook said: ‘48 hours – they haven’t stopped’. As you’ll see from the extract, this amorous couple found their way into the chapter called Love Nest:

Another time I received a lunchtime call from a man wanting a double room. Pushing aside my helpful information about room and price, his only concern was did it have a double bed and was it free now. It was a quiet time of year, and with all three rooms unoccupied his trade was welcome. Arriving at three o’clock, the couple retired directly to the Bow Room and, apart from one brief absence for pizza, didn’t emerge for forty eight hours. Apparently the man was a builder from across the hills in Church Stretton and had a reputation for “finding” women and whisking them off at short notice – although how Geoff knew that I really don’t know. The cottage resounded to their special brand of entertainment, and I was honoured to have been part of his exciting lifestyle.

Paul Costello © November 2012

Utterly Undiscovered          Out early spring 2013

ISBN 978-1-907741-30-2

www.paulcostello.me

@PaulCostello8

Postcard from Gloucester

Dear Auntie Evelyn

I love the bus station cafe. There’s something homely about a woman mopping with disinfectant as I nibble at my Bakewell tart and make a spoon stand in the tea.

Been to Gloucester – to save a few bob and catch a movie. There’s a bleak feel to the centre. Chain stores like Next and Currys have moved to retail parks, or like Woolworths gone out of business, and many premises stay empty. Town clocks have stopped in sympathy – at twenty to four, the ‘sad’ smiley.

But other shops like Greggs and McDonalds do well when there’s little money about. And in Northgate, Wilkinsons sells cheap essentials from a bright and well-stocked store with vague checkout assistants. Mine, fresh out of school, said they only sold second class stamps in twelves, but then asked if I wanted six or twelve, all the while looking over my shoulder as if fixated by Don’t Tell the Bride on a wall-mounted TV.

‘But you only do twelves,’ I said.

‘Six or twelve?’ she repeated.

‘You told me you only do twelves,’ I said.

‘Okay, twelve,’ she said, not seeing the funny side of it.

Trade is briskest in Southgate. Four years ago Poundland grabbed all the budget customers with a £1 store, before a 99p Store set up opposite, stealing much of Poundland’s trade. An enterprising local then opened a 98p Store next to Poundland, and it was no surprise when a 97p Store took up residence in an old Bradford and Bingley premises next to the 99p store. The pattern continued down the street, even prices one side, odd the other, and it’s now got as far as a 17p Store, with 13 to 16 opening shortly.

I must say, auntie, this is a boon for everyone. In the last year I’ve refurbished my entire living room and kitchen for two pounds, thirty three pence. I know much of it doesn’t match and isn’t Lakeland quality, but it’s better on the pocket. Even this postcard was discounted to 1p in the 21p Store – sorry there’s no picture!

I had lunch in the docks (a Fatty Melt™ from Greggs and a Twix reduced to 7p in the 18p Store), surrounded by beautifully preserved but largely unoccupied warehouse conversions and glossy restaurants with few customers. Meanwhile, some folk are being forced to live in semi-derelict houseboats. One barge called Hope had a revolving dryer on deck, holding trousers, a shirt and a pair of knickers. When a woman came through the shutter doors to collect them, I saw how far things had gone; down to one set of clothes and having to hang them out with nothing on! It’s really sad, auntie, that things have come to such a pretty pass.

Yet, off Westgate, the fine 15th century tower of Gloucester cathedral, an inspirational setting for Harry Potter and Shakespeare productions, rises proudly through the deprivation. Other gems sit amongst the post-war drabness, like the decorative frontage of the Imperial Inn and the fascinating clock figures above Bakers the jewellers, fighting a lonely battle with the bland fascias of Southgate’s discount stores.

And I’m impressed by the high spirit in these tough times. With a large student population there’s a youthful vibrancy to the streets, fashion-conscious youngsters thriving on cheap deals from Primark and burgeoning charity shops. Other generations have followed. I saw groups of men chatting and laughing outside Wetherspoons in handsome retro shell suits, and on Eastgate, lively, ruddy-faced people had gathered on town benches to chat and share a drink. A man stepped in front of me and asked,

‘Have you got any money, mate?’

I hadn’t thought I looked in need, and assured him I had enough, but I was overwhelmed by the locals’ generosity, when they too must be feeling the pinch.

Near their meeting place is a barely discernible doorway leading to a different world. A grand staircase rises to the galleried corridors and panelled rooms that make The Guildhall a perfect escape from the Gloucester chill. For a giveaway £5.50, tea and lemon drizzle cake are included in a Screen Tea Matinee at the delightful art house cinema. I’ve just seen an excellent VW Polo advertisement, followed by a thought-provoking, if slow-moving Argentinian film about cattle rustling. Before the red velvet curtains opened, I sat sipping Earl Grey at my beaten-copper side table, swapping literary banter with other World Cinema enthusiasts, watched over by handsome characters in rich oil paintings above the frieze of what must once have been a thriving boardroom.

Well, my bus is due, so must dash. I’m expecting another hairy Stagecoach journey. On the way, the driver cornered the double-decker so fast that the top deck bounced off the hedges each side. I thought he was just showing off with that captain’s hat – but he clearly pictured himself banking to land.

Bye for now, Auntie Evelyn. Hope the ulcer is better. Absorbent gauze is so expensive, but it’s definitely the best thing for weeping sores.

Love Paul

Paul Costello  ©  November 2012

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News

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Fineleaf Editions

Philip Gray

The first Fineleaf title in 2013 will be a new book by Paul Costello – Utterly Undiscovered. The author sets the scene:

Council workers Paul and Debbie leave the Brighton rat race to open a Bed and Breakfast so close to the edge of civilisation that a rotting signpost at the crossroads says Shroosbury in one direction and Utterly Undiscovered in the other three. Dubbed My Basil by long-suffering Debbie, Paul fights off furry invaders, fat Americans and teenagers who hang around half-naked. How is it that neighbour Jack finds him crawling across the car park at dawn in his dressing gown? Why does he loiter in a listed Victorian urinal? And how can he discourage the visitors he most fears – winos and noisy parrots?

http://www.fineleaf.co.uk

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Utterly Undiscovered – My Basil and the Pigs

Been punching the air this week, ever since Fineleaf Editions said it wants to publish my first book, Utterly Undiscovered – a Fawlty-inspired relocation memoir set in deepest Shropshire.

Here’s the gist:

Council workers Paul and Debbie leave the Brighton rat race to open a Bed and Breakfast so close to the edge of civilisation that a rotting signpost at the crossroads says Shroosbury in one direction and Utterly Undiscovered in the other three. Dubbed My Basil by long-suffering Debbie, Paul fights off furry invaders, fat Americans and teenagers who hang around half-naked. How is it that neighbour Jack finds him crawling across the car park at dawn in his dressing gown? Why does he loiter in a listed Victorian urinal? And how can he discourage the visitors he most fears – winos and noisy parrots?

This extract introduces My Basil:

Four fat Americans, accustomed to fawning service in swanky New York dineries, have dinner in a twee cottage run by a country oik – who can fawn for England if he chooses.

‘Get me some water.’

‘Say please.’

‘We’re finished here – these plates can go.’

‘That’s why I’ve come to collect them, jerk.’  

No pleases, thank yous or appreciation of fine food. I am simply a conveyor belt. Back in the kitchen, self-medicated vin rouge between trips to the dining room and a good deal of ranting help me cope.

‘Bloody Americans! Who the hell do they think they are, arrogant b ––’

‘Ha ha! It’s My Basil!’ Debbie shrieks with delight, little knowing how the label would stick.

There’s no let-up at breakfast.

‘Can I get a poached egg in a cup?’ says one of the Americans.

‘You could try. I’ll hold the cup and you keep throwing the eggs.’

 ‘Your kipper fillets, are they in cans?’ asks another.

‘No, on plates, but I might have an old can in the waste bin I could use.’

The whole notion of kippers is British and slightly eccentric. An acquired taste – which like Marmite you either like or you don’t – the traditional time for eating kippers is at breakfast when you might least expect their strong flavour to be palatable. In Fawlty Towers a whole episode was devoted to the subject, linked to a guest found dead in bed. My experience with the Americans was more short-lived.

‘No, they’re fresh,’ I tell him. ‘Strong tasting, smoky flavour. You either like them or you don’t – one of those things.’

I fetch a sample from the freezer and dangle it before him. The fish brushes the tip of his nose.

‘Terribly sorry, I tried holding it steady,’ My Basil assures him.

He opts for a cupped egg instead.

And like cucumber or garlic, kippers do linger. I never actually met the man I felt most sorry for. His wife-to-be, flattering us by staying at the cottage with her friends for a few days before the wedding, studies the breakfast menu on the morning of the big day. Everything must be just as she wants it.

‘I’ll have the kippers please.’

‘You may now kiss the bride,’ says My Basil to the absent bridegroom.

‘How do you make your cauliflower cheese?’ asks a woman one morning, pointing at the chicken blackboard.

‘Er, with cauliflower – and cheese?’

My Basil is coming along nicely, especially at mealtimes. The fixed three course dinner menu is displayed at breakfast so that guests can book for the evening. Contractors generally prefer a pub meal, but as we start to attract a wider range of customers, dinner at Cricklewood becomes more popular. It’s good income but hard work.

‘Oh, the traditional way.’ I tell the woman. ‘Country herbs and spices.’

I put “country” before everything now. It sounds great! Country cottage, country views, spicy country muesli, the country hedgerow jam I make and sell. Country rats, country septic tank …

‘What? No bacon?’ she says.

‘Telling me how to cook in my own home?’ says My Basil. ‘Outrageous!’

The customer is right of course. They always are. But I have to say no or it would be unfair on others who’ve already opted for my “country” cauliflower cheese.

‘If there’s no bacon, I won’t bother,’ she says.

‘Please yourself.’

‘Have a lovely day,’ I say – with a country smile.

Paul Costello © November 2012

Utterly Undiscovered. Out spring 2013. ISBN 978-1-907741-30-2

Is There Anybody There?

‘Please do not leave bags unattended. Bags found unattended will be removed and may be …’

The hum of conversation I’d heard from outside the eighth floor office suite had promised the camaraderie I thrive on, but inside, muffled voices from nearby booths were the only sign of life.

‘ … is a no-smoking area. Please extinguish …’

I focused on why I was there – for a job as Customer Assistant. Having already declined two offers, one collecting motorway litter on the grounds that fumes were bad for my asthma, the other sluicing the floor of a nearby abattoir because I’m vegan, I had to show the Jobseeker’s people I was serious about work.

An artificial weeping fig offered scant relief in an interview booth surrounded by high screens. As in a hospital cubicle, I sat on the only chair, wondering when a consultant would come.

A woman’s voice made me jump – the same one that half an hour earlier had said: ‘Booth 3 please’.

‘Thank you for attending the Disembodied Voices Recruitment Agency. Please choose one of the following options. For Trains and Buses, say one. For Stations and Airports, say two. For Post Offices and Shops, say three. For Reversing Vehicles, say four. For Telephones, say five. For other enquiries, say six.’

This seemed more a game than a serious interview. I played along.

‘One,’ I said.

‘Now,’ said the voice. ‘Which of the following would you prefer? If you would like Trains, say “Mind the gap”. If you would like Buses, say “Next stop Museum”. Or, if you wish to hear other choices, say “Menu”.

‘Mind the gap,’ I said.

‘I’m sorry, I did not recognise that. Did you say “Mind the gap”?

‘Mind the gap,’ I repeated.

‘Thank you,’ said the disembodied voice. ‘Now. Which of the following would you prefer? If you would like London, say “Underground”. If you would like Welsh Borders, say “Arriva”. Or, if you wish to hear other choices, say “Menu”.

‘Arriva.’

‘Thank you. Now. Which of the following would you prefer? If you would like Stations, say “We regret that the 14.27 to Holyhead is delayed by approximately thirteen minutes”. If you would like Trains, say “We are now approaching Ludlow”. Or, if you wish to hear other choices, say “Menu”.

This was fun. But as the options narrowed I felt that, despite my love of travel, the category didn’t offer enough. I asked for Menu and chose Reversing Vehicles.

‘Thank you. Now. If you would like Dustcarts, say “This vehicle is reversing”. If you would like G4S, say “We blew the Olympics”.

This too had limitations, so I tried Argos which was even worse, only offering “Ticket number 785 is ready for collection”. Primark only had “Till number five please”, the Post Office only “Cashier number three please”, and with Telephones it was clear you’d never see anyone.

Disillusioned, I walked out and took the lift down, wondering how my benefits might be affected. But something didn’t feel right, and before I’d reached the end of the street I realised the perfect opportunity might have been there all the time. Rushing back to the Agency, I opted straight into “other choices”.

*

It was the voice in the lift that had inspired me. I now work from a small hut near the bottom of an elevator shaft at Birmingham University, with three lifts (some with a library) serving ten floors. 

The work is extremely varied; one minute I can be announcing,

‘Mind the doors. Doors Closing. Going down.’

The next it’s a different permutation, say,

‘Sixth floor. Mind the doors. Doors opening.’

And there’s lots of people-contact. Keeping a careful watch on the TV monitors, I relay friendly advice to customers at exactly the right moment. I’m told they used to do this with a recording! How soul destroying – I can see for myself it takes a proper voice to leave people fulfilled as they go about their busy lives.

The lesson is simple. If you baulk at working in a call centre or McDonalds, there are real opportunities through the Disembodied Voices Recruitment Agency. The lift category is popular, so you may be out of luck. But I hear they have vacancies in Trains. Go for the option “London Midlands apologises for cancellation of this train owing to driver unavailability”. They’ll snap you up.

Good luck!

Paul Costello © November 2012

Web:        www.paulcostello.me

Twitter:    @PaulCostello8