We try to warn overnight guests about the crows but the invariable opener at breakfast is “Oh my god, the CROWS” as though the guests didn’t hear/believe us. They’ve been woken by a pair of birds who attack a particular set of windows, pecking at the glass with such ferocity it sounds exactly like someone knocking loudly at the door.  It’s impossible to sleep through and usually begins around dawn.   

Many studies have been made of corvids and their intelligence:  In one, seven birds were captured and then released by researchers. The following year the same birds “scolded and harassed” the researchers – picking them out in a crowd. The study is in its 14th year and the birds still spot the original team, with 30 birds now joining in.  Corvids, in other words,  have long memories, hold a grudge and spread the word. 

This, I think, affects my options.

Linnet, yellowhammer, goldfinch, swallow, blackcap, dunnock, chaffinch, white throat, garden warbler...

It has been suggested that I stick a huge picture of an owl in the window to intimidate them so I am googling posters (most of which make owls look cuddly and wise and not at all intimidating) when I hear Zam swearing loudly.  I tend to ignore this having learnt over the years that the violence of his expletive bears no correlation to the subject - could be imminent nuclear war or it could be we’re low on milk.  Often it means he’s lost his phone.  But I know that on this occasion he can’t have because I, very considerately, brought it in from the table near the Corvid window where he had obviously forgotten it.

Turns out he was recording birdsong on his favourite app and I have disturbed it before it could add Eurasian Treecreeper (recorded later) to the impressively long list.  A couple of days later I find myself home alone listening to birdsong and the next thing I know I’m downloading the same app and transfixed by the sounds around me.

We are woken by the crows again and I can’t help wondering if they’re all THAT intelligent given that they seem to be either attacking or trying to mate with their own reflections.  But what do I know.  I sit on a bench watching the app tell me what is singing around me.    Minutes later I can’t tell a blackbird from a wren, having a much shorter memory than a Corvid.

Birds recorded at the winery on 13th June: Linnet, yellowhammer, goldfinch, swallow, blackcap, dunnock, great tit, robin, greenfinch, chaffinch, bullfinch, magpie, white throat, wren, blackbird, song thrush, collared dove, wood pigeon and garden warbler.

Paul Richardson’s book Hidden Valley is an account of his last decade spent cultivating a small plot in Spain, trying to be self-sufficient and working out what makes a life. He was given two rules by neighbours when he attempted to make wine: the stronger the better and always harvest in the third week in September.  Oh for such certainties.  Here, potential mildew has ousted potential late frosts into the top spot of vineyard worries.  For now.   

“nunca llueve a gusto de todos”

I stare out of the window where stair rods have snapped off the tulips and wonder if I’ll ever get the sweet peas planted.  On the upside it’s been a magnificent year for dandelions and buttercups and our garden, plentiful in both amid the uncut grass is, I tell myself, highly fashionable.

The winery team are busy bottling last year’s harvest - 16,000 bottles today despite a temporary breakdown of the machine.  And 20,000 tomorrow. 

I get home to an email from Paul in Spain. Not a drop of rain this year.  He ends it with:

“nunca llueve a gusto de todos”   (It never rains to everyone’s taste.)

Now that’s someone who’s learnt to roll with the punches.

There is a pool of water in the footwell of the passenger seat and another in the footwell behind that.   They have been there for so long that mould is growing up the back of the seat and when driving it, one has a sense an unhealthy level of spores invading the respiratory system.  The garage diagnosed a leaking windscreen, which is in fact a newish windscreen. I have received this information and done precisely nothing with it although when the sun came out last week I opened the car doors in a vague attempt to dry it out.  I am not, as is often pointed out, a practical person.

...it is not without a little bit of schadenfreude that I witnessed his part in an email debacle.

Nor do I have any understanding or interest in what might loosely be termed IT which includes switching t.v. channels.  Zam on the other hand is both practical and rather proud of his technical skills and whilst I don’t mind the sighs as I pick up the wrong t.v. handset again it is not without a little bit of schadenfreude that I witnessed his part in an email debacle.  I think it would be unwise to revisit this in detail, suffice to say that following his avowed understanding of MailChimp, a lot of people got a lot of emails and some people got none at all.  

Who got what is still a mystery and the last time I said “But I still don’t understand why you sent….” He looked up and said “Please go away.”  I think it’s to do with two-finger scrolling but then I’m not a practical person.

A few days later he gave a talk in our local pub.  Historically, Zam loathes public speaking, partly because of anxiety and partly because he always cries.  His anxiety stems from a traumatic schoolboy event when he had to recite a poem to his peers which he hadn’t learnt.  On drying up somewhere in the second verse of The Wild Swans at Coole, he was hauled off stage and still shudders at the memory.  The crying… well things just set him off.  He can’t watch an ice skater performing a triple axel or The Repair Shop without tears rolling down his cheeks.

But he returned from the pub very buoyed up and jubilant.  “It’s the oddest thing” he said, “but ever since I’ve been talking about the vineyard in public I find I can do it quite easily, without notes or fear… in fact I love it.  I can do it for hours.”

And on this, I can truly say,  we have no disagreement whatsoever.

A friend sends me a WhatsApp that says “Good Luck for tomorrow” which is when we leave for Japan to attend an international trade fair.  The Widow has been promoted to Assistant for the next week.  “It feels like the opposite of Christmas Eve” I message back. 

That evening we go to the launch of The Silo Collective which is packed with friends, most of whom seem to know a lot more about Japan than I do and I find myself practicing bowing and receiving business cards with two hands but my attempts are met by a puzzled “No… not quite like that.”  In the back of my mind I am definitely thinking “I may never see any of you again”.

This is because aeroplanes are not natural, a 14 hour flight is not natural and I will probably get a blood clot despite two pairs of very unnatural stockings in my bag.  When I get there, I will loom over everyone on account of being over 6ft in the aforementioned stockings and be unable to communicate and therefore possibly starve.     

Back home I find myself looking at the drooping basil plant by the kitchen sink and wondering “Oh, has a plant ever been quite so lovely?”. (I am listening to Mansfield Park and can’t stop thinking in Austen speak).  I am, in other words, already homesick.

...an app that tells us to put on dark glasses and sit in dim light at 3pm, then get up at 5am in bright light...

Zam is obsessed by jet lag and how to avoid it.  He has downloaded an app that tells us to put on dark glasses and sit in dim light at 3pm, then get up at 5am in bright light.  It tells us that we’ll be fine in three days time which seems to me exactly when one would be fine anyway.  When we try to check in we are told “no reservation found” about which Zam is more relaxed than whether he should be doing this in the dark.

24 hours later - it must be more but what with time zones and lost days I can’t be specific.

  1. It is very sunny and pretty warm.
  2. Zam’s jetlag is worse than his Assistant’s.
  3. Only one person has commented on our height and he said it very politely.
  4. I have not yet bowed on account of still being very self conscious about this but it doesn’t seem to matter and I will attempt it tomorrow.
  5. Everybody wears a mask all the time. Which is not compulsory.
  6. There is a card on the table at breakfast with various instructions including “please enjoy your meal silently” which is a card I will be bringing home.
  7. And yes, the loos are clean with many symbols none of which illustrate Flush.  It turns out be the button with 9 dots on it.  I googled it. In desperation.
  8. I spend the day in the Great Britain section surrounded by UK cheese makers.  Estonia is on my left, Italy on my right and Latvia just behind me.   
  9. Team spirit amongst the British is high.  Am very happy with the three stoppers Adrian lent me.  He’s got one of our ice buckets.
  10. Skeins of cormorants fly over a lot.
  11. I have just been told that the Japanese do not on the whole go for sarcasm or irony. So I must stop saying it never rains in England.

Not being one of the world’s natural travellers, I am eyeing up the impending trip to Japan with a mixture of feelings. Zam is joining a number of English vineyards, invited by the Department for International Trade, to promote English sparking wine at a trade fair in Tokyo. He gets to take an assistant. I am nervous.

Being an assistant involves answering questions and for some reason, I panic when asked for the simplest information about the wine. How big is the vineyard? When was it planted? What year are we drinking? I should know. I do know. But whenever I’m asked anything I stare at my interlocutor and my mind goes blank. As for bottling dates, dosages and pruning techniques… I wonder if it’s because Zam has told me all of this so many times that it’s like being given directions to somewhere and you just switch off after the second directive to turn right.

The beauty is in its simplicity, few parts to break.

I am attempting some revision when he appears in the kitchen, beaming. He rubs his hands together, and declares that this has been a really terrific day. The reason, it transpires, is down to the 1964 German corking machine that I had seen earlier in the week at the winery, bought from a closing down sale. It had just arrived and it had not been plugged in. In design, it reminds me of the 1960’s orange squeezer I recently bought online.

The beauty is in its simplicity, few parts to break. But when the Korma corker was turned on, nothing happened. Harry and Samuel took it apart and put it back together and… well the details being given to me by Zam are somehow akin to the second directive to turn right but I do remember jubilee clips and hydraulic tubing being mentioned. “And it makes the most beautiful noise,” he concluded.

Zam’s luxury on a desert island would be a box of broken things so I’m not remotely surprised that this episode has brought him joy. “But I’m not clear quite what you had to do with mending it?” I ask. That he was not part of the solution doesn’t dim his enjoyment one bit. That evening he spends hours with a pin trying to unclog the bialetti coffee pot that hasn’t worked for months and which has been gathering dust next to the broken toaster. Breakfast, I tell him, is becoming increasingly difficult. The pin yields no results and toast is now made on the hot plate. The aga toasting rack fell apart years ago. But the orange squeezer is, at the moment, operational.

Gratifyingly, the panorama I have managed to film on my camera draws an awestruck reaction on the family whatsapp group. JEEEESUS being the general tone.  I am quite proud of this little film, especially as I find the phone button counter-intuitive and tend to find I have filmed the ground.  Actually the ground is, in this case, the point.

We picnicked by the ditch but neither of us said it aloud until a long time later...

When we went to visit the Grand Canyon about thirty years ago Zam suggested we view it “from the other side.”  We drove, for hours, we parked, we walked. And then we peered at a wide-ish ditch.  “Are you sure?” I asked. “Yes” he didn’t sound it. “But in the films people fly airplanes through it and this….” I hesitated, thinking someone with a more athletic build could jump across it.  We picnicked by the ditch but neither of us said it aloud until a long time later: we had actually failed to find something you can see from the moon.

the big chalk hole

My panoramic film shows a hole in the ground that is over 100 metres long and about 30 metres wide.  Zam makes sweeping movements with his arms to describe areas for fermenting, bottling, storing, labelling… we nod as he explains entrances and exits and that the winery, on its incredible chalk plateau, has to be finished before this year’s harvest.  JEEESUS we think, all over again.

Amazingly you can hardly see it till you come across it.  But it feels like you could see it from the moon.

Not everybody loves the newly pimped landrover that our old neighbour Robert has transformed from a beaten up lightweight, short-wheelbase, Series III into an idiosyncratic mobile bar.  But Zam does. When his sister Rose asked to borrow it, freshly painted and ready to go he was delighted to share the joy.  She rang 20 minutes later having broken down going up a hill and was now taking shelter at the nearest house. The occupants of this looked amused but not particularly surprised.  “They all have their little ticks” the farmer and Zam agreed fondly.
“They all have their little ticks”
In order to prove that it just takes a bit of this (pump the brakes), and that (change gear at exactly the right moment and lean forward), Zam drove it home. 

He booked himself and it into various Christmas fairs but got Covid and so asked genius winemaker Harry to take it to Wiltshire.  The landrover averages about 35 mph. The tailback on the A303 became considerable.  The wind and cold whistled round Harry’s head.  The brakes were hair-raising.  He didn’t want to drive it back again.  When Zam recovered he went to collect it and arrived home pale and chastened.  The “quirks” were, he now admitted, considerable.  It went into the local garage for remedial attention and now it’s back. As a bar it’s rather wonderful.  As transport… he’s on his own. 

Zam tries to round up people to take part in two photo shoots… he wants young people but not too young and older people who are not too old.  I am too old but he’s desperate.  The photographer, Tom, has been photographing the vineyard since this adventure began ten years ago and is now so successful that he needs booking months in advance.  Whatever the weather.  The weather actually turns out to be the last nice day I can remember so the first shoot is an afternoon of picnics and swimming.  The older group gather in a tent at the Grange Festival for supper, cooked by my sister: egg and prawn mousse, cold beef and salads, raspberries. “But don’t eat the mousse” she tells us, “It’s been sitting in the sun too long and will probably kill you.” We know that Zam will ignore this but Clare and I nod at each other. We’re not touching it.  My only job, other than to turn up, is to bring cream.

"... don't eat the mousse."

I have it in my head that we are “borrowing” the supper tent from people now sitting in the first half of the opera and that we must disappear without trace before they emerge from the theatre. “What time does the interval start?” Nobody seems to know or care.

delicious egg and prawn mousse

I’m so anxious I have second helpings of mousse. The other guests are so late they’ve tucked in before anyone has time to warn them.  Then I realise I’ve forgotten the cream so we pour milk onto raspberries but it moves too quickly - as Tom explains while telling me to hold a glass by it’s stem. All I can see is the gardening dirt under my nails.  Milk, dirt and poisonous prawns.  I haven’t seen the photographs.

I am sitting under a grey sky outside a bookshop talking to a friend. “And it’s June,” I say morosely, waving in disgust at the opposite of a late Spring sky. “Is it?” There is a note of panic in her voice, a flash in her eyes I wasn’t expecting, “Well no, not quite… but you know…” I am exaggerating, but only by six days. Her face relaxes, “Thank god for that,” she says. I’m about to concede that at least it ISN’T quite June when she adds “We’re very competitive in our family and if it was the 1st June and I hadn’t got pinch and punch in first I’d be...” she trails off, seeing my expression.  
At home, the rain pelts down on freshly planted sweet peas which lie forlornly on the soil…  Until last week they were in a new plastic greenhouse I begged Zam to buy (this is the definition of an object he cannot stand, but I persuaded him his Turban squash seedlings needed it). When the gales blew it over leaving young plants scattered from their pots, he shoved it in the shed where it will probably live for the rest of its days.  This happened on the same day that a pallet of shiny foils destined to dress the necks of the longawaited magnums was also caught in some wind-related courier catastrophe (the details of which remain mysterious) and have been crushed, useless.  He puts on his coat, his wet boots… steps over the parsley and coriander seedlings drowning in puddles by the back door. 
“Where are you going?” I shout at his retreating back, my words almost lost in the wind. “A Spring Evening Tour of the vineyard,” he shouts back.  When he returns it’s dark but his mood is light it always is after these events because he can talk about vines, buds, pruning techniques, dosages, brix levels… without his audience wandering off.  “And they ask really good questions.” “Where did you eat?” I ask. He looks at me, and I realise he thinks this isn’t one of them.