The Archers Year of Food and Farming – A Christmas reading

For the December extract from The Archers Year of Food and Farming, I’ve gone the full Jackanory and actually read a passage. I’ve tried to conjure up the magic of Christmas as seen through a child’s eyes (in this case Pip’s daughter Rosie). I do hope you enjoy it.

If this whets your appetite, you can buy The Archers Year of Food and Farming as a hardback or ebook through all booksellers. If you’d like to buy online, could you consider using Hive, which supports local bookshops.

You can read other extracts from the book on this blog under The Archers tag.

And do let me know what you think of the book – or these snippets –  by leaving a comment here or on Twitter: @keridavies 

The Archers Year of Food and Farming – a taste of November

book packshot strapline roundel

Here’s the latest extract from my book The Archers Year of Food and Farming. This is from the November chapter, and gives an insight into what some of the farmers of Ambridge are getting up to in that dank month. 

For the farmers of Ambridge, it is the dampness of November which raises the greatest challenges. This is a key time of transition for Bridge Farm and Brookfield. At the start of the month, both have their cattle out in their fields. By the end, most of them will be housed indoors. The big question is, when to bring them in?

Johnny is in Long Meadow, gazing thoughtfully at the dairy herd. Montbéliardes are officially a red pied breed. ‘Pied’ in this case just means two-coloured, originally in reference to the black and white of the magpie. Each one displays a unique coat of random white and red-brown patches. They are good-looking beasts. But at the moment, Johnny is more concerned about the ground on which they are grazing.

With the reducing temperatures and elusive sunshine, the grass is getting dangerously low. And the more rain that falls, the more the horny, cloven hooves of the cattle will ‘poach’ the soil into mud. They must be moved into their winter housing before the ground is damaged, or it will not provide the high quality grass they will need come the spring. But as soon as they are inside, Bridge Farm’s costs will effectively rise, as the cows will be housed on straw, eating silage.

“What do you think, then? Tony joins his grandson in the gateway. “How much longer?”

“I were going to ask you, Granddad.”

Tony does not really get on with the ‘Monteys’. For him, they have too much Gallic obstinacy. But he knows his land, and has been checking the weather forecast.

“We’ll probably be all right for another week.”

Perhaps a fortnight after that, Tony will bring in his suckler herd of Angus cattle. A suckler herd is pretty much what it sounds like: cows who are still feeding their calves, although it must be said that by now these are pretty big calves. He will need a few helpers, so most of the family will turn out: someone leading, another driving them from the rear, plus a couple of stoppers in the yard, to make sure they don’t make a break for it and end up among the mismatched vintage crockery in Fallon’s tea room. The temptation to make a bull in a china shop joke here is almost irresistible…

At Brookfield, Pip, David and Ruth go through a similar anxious process. Although their timings might be a little different, the principle is the same. One evening after milking, rather than being walked back to the field, the dairy cows will find themselves directed into a strawed-down barn, their quarters for the next five months.

And within a few weeks, they will bring in their Herefords too. But not all of them. They will leave some youngstock (a term which covers anything from a calf to a heifer about to give birth) in the fields all winter. The Hereford is a hardy breed, perfectly able to ‘outwinter’. But any animal that is in the final stages of fattening is best brought under cover, so they can use their energy to put on condition, rather than keeping themselves warm against the chill winds and frosts of December.

If this whets your appetite, you can buy The Archers Year of Food and Farming as a hardback or ebook through all booksellers. If you’d like to buy online, could you consider using Hive, which supports local bookshops.

You can read other extracts from the book on this blog under The Archers tag.

And do let me know what you think of the book – or these snippets –  by leaving a comment here or on Twitter: @keridavies 

The Archers Year of Food and Farming – an October nugget

book packshot strapline roundel

This is the second of a collection of extracts from the book I wrote in 2019. The Archers Year of Food and Farming is published by Seven Dials.

The October chapter starts like this:

I have to warn you, there is a lot of sex in October. And it is described with very direct Middle English words, so buckle up.

‘Tup’ is both a noun and a verb. It’s the old name for a ram, and you will still hear it used in that way. More frequently it is used to describe the act itself. At many farms, including Brookfield, October into November is tupping season.

As the morning sun lances through the mist, giving an ethereal quality to the familiar pastures, David and his younger son Ben drive their bleating ewes. David nods with approval as sheepdog Bess responds fluidly to Ben’s commands. A firm “Come bye!” and Bess moves to the left, clockwise around the flock. “Away!” means the opposite. When Bess is at a distance, Ben uses the whistle – a curved-sided metal triangle that sits on his tongue. A quick, high double note through the small hole signifies Come Bye, a single mid-tone Away. Now Ben blows a longer, higher blast and Bess immediately drops to the ground, alert and ready for the next command.

These ewes are being placed in various fields depending on their weight. Too skinny and they may not ovulate, but too much fat will bring problems come lambing time. So they will be fed appropriately to bring them all near the ideal tupping weight of about 70 kilograms. This will be a daily job for someone, and they need to as nimble as Robert Snell in the Village Hall doorway. Keen Flower and Produce Show contestants are as nothing compared to hungry ewes hearing their dinner tumbling from that large plastic sack into a long metal trough. David has had his legs bowled from under him on more than one occasion.

Ben turns to his father. “So we’re not doing anything for Harvest Supper this year?”

David’s face darkens. “No. Uncle Tony’s giving them a side of beef.”

“That’s good isn’t it? If we don’t have to bother – ”

“Because your uncle Kenton reckoned Bridge Farm beef was better than ours.”

“What?!”

“Yeah. Thanks, brother.”

Celebrations of the end of harvest exist all round the world. In Britain, the tradition dates back to pre-Christian times and is synonymous with this time of year; literally, given that the Old English word ‘haerfest’ actually means autumn. A good harvest could mean the difference between life and death. So when everything was safely gathered in, it was usual for the farmer to host a meal to thank everyone who had been involved. ‘A meal’ makes it sound like a sedate and civilised affair. But we can imagine that the relief after a month of toil, coupled with free food and (especially) drink gave the peasantry licence for the hooliest of hooleys. Imagine the Grundys in full flow, with a side order of Horrobins, and you will get an inkling.

The Ambridge Harvest Supper is a true community affair; lots of people mucking in with the arrangements and the catering. There is usually entertainment of some sort – often a barn dance with the steps called by buxom, buckskin-clad Jolene Rogers, the one-time Lily of Leyton Cross.

At various times the meal has been held at the Village Hall, Brookfield Farm, Bridge Farm, The Bull, Home Farm, and even in a marquee on the village green. In 1997 it became a truly moveable feast, on ‘safari supper’ lines. One course was served in each of the surrounding villages: Darrington, Edgeley, and Penny Hassett; while in Ambridge, Jennifer Aldridge waited with the desserts she had lovingly created. And waited… And waited. She eventually learned that each village had gone so over the top with their catering that most people were stuffed to bursting and could not consume any more. Poor Jennifer!

If this whets your appetite, you can buy The Archers Year of Food and Farming as a hardback or ebook through all booksellers. If you’d like to buy online, could you consider using Hive, which supports local bookshops.

You can read other extracts from the book on this blog under The Archers tag.

And do let me know what you think of the book – or these snippets –  by leaving a comment here or on Twitter: @keridavies 

The Archers Year of Food and Farming – a September morsel

book packshot strapline roundelIn 2019, I wrote a book, The Archers Year of Food and Farming. It was published by Seven Dials in September of that year. 

As it has twelve chapters – one for each month of the year – I thought it might be nice to dust off my ancient blog and put up a monthly extract, to give people a flavour of the book.

As I’ve only just had this idea (in November, duh), I’ll put up three this month and one a month thereafter. 

This is how the book starts:

No, you haven’t opened the book at the wrong page – and the publisher has assembled it in the correct order. A teacher will tell you that of course the year starts in September. And so will a farmer, so that is where we are starting our Archers year

But for many Ambridge worthies, September also means a culmination. Armed with weighing scale and preserving funnel, trug and trowel, they are preparing to do battle in the annual Flower and Produce Show. Two rivals are gearing up for this gladiatorial contest. It started with an unthinking remark from Fallon Rogers, during a busy Sunday in her Ambridge Tea Room. Apparently unaware that the 1950s ended some time ago, Jennifer Aldridge had treated her stepson Ruairi to a slap-up end-of-the-holidays afternoon tea. A wizard wheeze, Ruairi had dubbed it, although Jennifer did not quite catch the irony. In any case, both had been sent into raptures by the scones and driven quite ecstatic by the Victoria sponge.

[There’s a recipe for Victoria sponge at this point]

The sugar rush might have had something to do with it, but Jennifer was effusive in her praise. “It’s just as well you can’t enter your cakes in the Flower and Produce Show, Fallon”, she had said, dropping her change into her Moroccan leather purse.

“It leaves the way clear for people like Emma”, Fallon joked as she closed the till, unaware that her employee had suddenly turned as cold and chippy as the mint choc ice-cream in their freezer.

“What did you mean by that?” The cafe was now empty, and Emma was sweeping the floor with unnecessary vigour.  “Are you saying I’m an amateur?”

“Um…” They usually rubbed along well, but sometimes Fallon was reminded that Emma was Susan Carter’s daughter. Both could take offence in an empty room, if they thought it was casting aspersions on their status.

“’Cos I bake as much of the food here as you do.” This was not strictly true, but Fallon knew better than to quibble.

“No, I just meant… you have put stuff in the show.  Your…  those Brazilian things.”

[Recipe – Brigadeiros]

Fallon blundered on. “It just wouldn’t seem right for me to enter, somehow. I’ve been a judge.”

“If you did, I’d give you a good run for your money.”

“I’m sure you would, but I can’t, can I.”

Emma’s eyes narrowed. “Not with a cake, maybe.”

And so the battle lines were drawn and the weapons selected. Cakes were clearly off limits. But the chutney that the tea room serves with its Ploughman’s Platefuls comes from a small supplier in St John’s Parva. So there could be no accusations of professionalism in that category.

[This imagined story continues through the chapter, interspersed with explanations of what’s happening on the farms in Ambridge, food-related stories from The Archers Archive, behind-the-scenes insights and lots of recipes. Over the months, I’ll choose bits from all these categories.]

If this whets your appetite, you can buy The Archers Year of Food and Farming as a hardback or ebook through all booksellers. If you’d like to buy online, could you consider using Hive, which supports local bookshops.

And do let me know what you think of the book – or these snippets –  by leaving a comment here or on my Twitter stream. 

See One, Nineteen in Birmingham this weekend

My friend and fellow Archers writer Tim Stimpson has a play on this Friday and Saturday, at the Old Joint Stock Theatre in Birmingham.

I saw One, Nineteen when it was premiered in London. It’s fast moving, funny and thought-provoking. It got great reviews, including four stars in Time Out.

Since then it’s been performed in Suffolk and Salford, and finally comes to Tim’s home city of Birmingham.

And given the news from the other side of the world, the subject matter is, to say the least, prescient. To quote from the press release:

“…Freak storms bring devastating floods to the English coast, but before the rescue effort arrives, the media are already in town spinning their story.
A play about the power of the news, the strength of the government, the question of climate change, and of course, and the search for Sam, Jack and little Chloe…”

See you there, I hope.

More details and to buy tickets

Flyer and production company details

Singles reviewed as if they were Archers characters

The Lipster has reviewed this week’s singles (well, some of them) as if they were Archers characters.

Morrisey’s new single is described “as all rather spineless, but in a pleasant enough way”, which equates it to “wet” Nic Hanson.

And Thunderheist’s Sweet 16 is compared to sexy Annabelle Schrivener.  “…Rather like Krystal Carrington with her high-falutin’ head for business and bod for sin, Annabelle also has a fearfully dirty way of intoning sentences about protection orders on local bird’s nests. She is, to use modern parlance, well fierce…”

It won’t mean much to non-Archers listeners, but The Lipster clearly knows her (I suspect it’s a her) music and her Archers, which makes her a top bean in my book.

(Do books have beans?)

Stephen Fry’s “L” competition – and the little voice

When I started following Stephen Fry on Twitter (and was stupidly chuffed that he followed me back), I was one of just a thousand(ish) who did so.

Unsurprisingly, this figure has grown hugely.  As I write, he’s being followed by over 63,000 Twitterers, and to mark passing the 50,000 mark, he set a competition for his fawning accolytes (one of whom I cheerfully admit to being).

You had to write a tweet (a Twitter message) which contained exactly 50 “L”s – L being the Roman numeral for 50.  Quite a challenge, given that tweets have a rigid 140-character limit.  Even more so, when spaces count as characters.

And you had to mark the message with a hashtag: #L  so that it could be identified as a competition entry.  So that’s two characters gone already, I thought (fatal mistake, as you will see).

What I wrote

A quick look at the entries as they enthusiastically rolled in showed a lot like this:

gavski82: #L illegal llamas loll, a ball?hells bell!all call a folly.a hill will roll,willy nilly.bill fell ill, all still.a pull will lilt,will fall.

Doesn’t make a lot of sense, really.  Nor did most of the others.

I thought the only way to stand a chance of gaining Mr Fry’s approbation was for it to be about something, and ideally to have a bit of rhythm to it, like a poem.

So after a bit of scratching about, this is what I submitted:

Ill,dull lull. Poll-all well,lol! All hail jolly poll!All roll pell-mell,all ululate,all lalala!Hail BHO!Hail Michelle!Tell world,allswell#L

BHO, I hoped, was recognisable as Barrack Hussein Obama, whose inauguration had just taken place.  And I used as much punctuation and spaces as I could spare to indicate the rhythm of the piece (piece?  tut, pretentious, moi?), which should read like this:

Ill, dull lull.
Poll – all well, lol!
All hail jolly poll!
All roll pell-mell, all ululate, all lalala!
Hail BHO! Hail Michelle!
Tell world, all swell

I was quite pleased with it.  At least it wasn’t total nonsense.

But I messed up the hashtag.  I didn’t leave a space before it, so the hashtag engine didn’t pick it up, which means it wasn’t considered for the competition.

Boo, hoo, so what?

Why am I telling you this?  It’s because of the little voice.

I thought, to protect my idea of doing an Obama tribute, I’d leave it until close to the deadline to post my tweet.

I was writing scripts for The Archers at the time, which takes total concentration.

As I sat at my desk at 9.30 on the Saturday morning of the (noon) deadline, I read my “note to self” to post the tweet at 11.30.  A tiny fleeting thought passed through my mind: “shall I set an alarm?”  No, I thought. It’ll be fine.  I need to get on with writing this script.

Next thing I knew, it was ten to midday. Sudden panic. I grabbed my draft, carefully typed it into Twitter, and sent it.

When I came to the end of a scene about twenty minutes later, I went hunting for my entry in the hashtags.

It wasn’t there.

And then I realised that the #L wasn’t two characters.  It was three, because it needed a space to separate it out from the other text.  A space that I has used in search of my precious rhythm, but could have sacrificed.

God, I was annoyed.  With myself, which is the worst sort of annoyance there is, of course. I’d worked quite hard in my limited free time to come up with this offering, and I might just as well have not bothered, as I told myself, my wife, my nearest son, my Twitter buddies, and would have told the milkman if he’d been around.

Listen, you idiot (me, I mean)

So to make myself feel a tiny bit better, I tried to think what I might learn from this.  And, not for the first time, it was a lesson about that little voice.

My subconscious knew what the right thing to do was, and it told me.  If I’d posted the tweet a bit earlier, my error might well have dawned on me in time to put it right.

But the subconscious is so easily shouted down by the noisy, busy forefront of the mind.

I’ve told the little voice “no, it’ll be fine” before.  And I’ve almost always regretted it later.

So when you get that little whisper, remember me banging about the house at 12.30 on a Saturday lunchtime, ridiculously annoyed about a little word game.

And PAY ATTENTION TO IT!

(And I’ll try to, as well)