Friday 8 December 2017

Living the Wild Life

One of our motivations for moving to Ireland was a desire to be closer to nature. In our little corner of England, on the border between Essex and Suffolk, there was wildlife to see, but it was inevitably squeezed into the ever-shrinking green spaces between the ever-growing towns and cities. Our house in England was in a nice little village, a few miles from the county town of Colchester. But the countryside was flat uninteresting farmland, growing wheat, vegetables, or bright yellow oil seed rape, and the views were of distant hedges, small woods and vast skies.

When I was out walking our dogs, there was beauty to see, provided I turned my back on the litter and pointed my camera in the right direction, but I had to shut my ears to the constant drone of traffic and aircraft. Even my favorite wood had just had its ancient heart ripped out, just to give some natural camouflage to a cell phone mast.

Of course, these thoughts are largely retrospective. At the time, Essex was our home, and we made the most of what we had. We were happy there. My wife Lesley had done wonders turning our grubby patch of overgrown scrub into a productive vegetable garden and sanctuary for some of the local wildlife. But, it was only when we arrived in Ireland that we appreciated what a privilege it is to stand on a vast moor and be truly alone, or walk in a wood where you are quite possibly the first human to make footprints.

Once we were established in Ireland, I began to take an interest in our local wildlife. Lesley is very much the gardener. Her interests are more horticultural than mine. Sometimes her knowledge of flora and fauna seems encyclopaedic. I am always impressed when I point out some random plant at the garden centre and she can immediately summon the name and its history, although I sometimes suspect that she has just made up the names to humour me.
“Lesley, that’s a pretty flower,” I say, pointing. “What is it called?”
“Oh that?” she replies, “It’s a ‘Syllyarsehusband’ or ‘Hubsbanda-pratticus’ in Latin. It’s rather a gentle little flower. It thrives best when kept well-shaded and fed a little manure from time to time.”
“Well, it looks nice. Do you want me to buy one?”
“No need dear, I already have one at home and that is more than enough.”         
My interest is more for wildlife, and the countryside – particularly if it contains a golf course. Although I enjoy taking photographs, apart from a brief dabble with a 35mm SLR camera thirty years ago, most of my pictures have come about through the convenience of carrying a mobile phone with a really good camera. But there are only so many places around our new home in Ireland where I can walk our dogs and many of the views, whilst spectacular and beautiful, were becoming routine. I wanted some action shots that didn’t involve our dogs chasing a ball, playing in water, or rolling in mud. I knew from my daily walks there was wildlife in abundance up at Glenmadrie. I’d seen the tracks and scat, so I was confident there were badgers, pine martens, pole cats, mink and deer to be seen. Recently, we’d lost several chickens to foxes, so they were around as well. But all of my sightings had been fleeting and distant, particularly when I was with the dogs. A mobile phone wasn’t suitable for distant pictures of nervous wild animals and an expensive SLR camera with a telephoto lens was financially out of the question, or so my wife told me. So what was I to do? Then I hit on the perfect solution. A wildlife trap camera is affordable and easy to use.
I’d seen these small camouflaged cameras used on wildlife television shows. They have sensors that detect heat and movement to trigger a camera that will record photographs and video, even in total darkness. I had to have one! So off to the interweb I went, taking my time to find the device most suitable for Irish conditions – which is code for robust and totally waterproof. After ten days of eager waiting and checking tracking numbers, I was the proud owner of a Victure IP66 Full HD Wildlife Trail Camera.
“Batteries not included,” I read. “Blast!”
It needed eight AA batteries. I only had two. Off to the shops.
Carefully following the instructions, that evening I positioned the camera near to our chicken coop, tested it was working, and waited. The following morning, I checked the memory card. All I had was several pictures of my dogs fooling around and rolling in the mud.
The next evening I took my camera into the forest, to a spot where I knew there was a badger set. I got nothing, not even a picture of a mouse. Each night I tried a different location and every time the result was the same. I was failing miserably. It was frustrating, and doubly so because I frequently found animal footprints at the exact spots where I had previously positioned my camera.
Three weeks and 64 batteries later, my enthusiasm was lagging in inverse proportion to my respect for ‘professional’ wildlife cameramen (and women). Talking of which…
 We had tickets to see Colin Stafford-Johnson’s one man show in our local town. You may not recognize his name, but you will most likely have seen his work. Colin is an Emmy award winner, and one of the best wildlife cameramen in the business.

Lesley and I arrived at the theatre a little early. She went off to chat with a friend and left me to buy some refreshments. As I was queuing, I happened to notice the young man standing next to me. He was a short fellow, distinctively Irish, with a disturbingly familiar face. I have an excellent memory for faces, but an embarrassingly poor recall of names.
“Hi!” I said, “Fancy meeting you here.”
He frowned slightly and pointed to the counter.
“It’s where they sell the coffee.”
We both laughed. Not wanting to ask the obvious question and reveal my shameful memory, I played along, hoping that his name, or the nature of our relationship, would surface eventually. As luck would have it, I was starting to suspect he had also forgotten my name.
At one point we discovered a shared interest in nature photography and I mentioned my frustration with my new trap camera. The young fellow immediately suggested I should try using some bait.
“Experiment with some dog food to attract foxes and badgers, or peanuts for deer,” he said.
“Thanks,” I replied, “That’s a great idea.”
He was a polite and helpful lad, although several times he glanced over my shoulder as if he wanted to be somewhere else. Perhaps I was mistaken, or he was too polite to just step away. As the bell sounded for the start of the show, I had a wonderful idea.
“My wife’s just over there,” I said, “Why don’t you sit with us? We could chat some more.”
“Thanks, but I can’t,” he replied.
“I know the seating is allocated,” I countered, “but there’s usually plenty of space. Nobody will mind.”
“That’s very kind,” he smiled, slightly embarrassed, “but I’ll be on the stage.”
I had been talking to Colin Stafford-Johnson!
The show was excellent, both funny and informative. Here are a few links to some of his finest work:

And so, carefully following in the footsteps of the delightful and polite Colin Stafford-Johnson, I finally captured some video of foxes at Glenmadrie. Enjoy!

Tuesday 14 November 2017

Spotlight Sunday!

I've been invited to chat and answer questions on "We Love Memoirs Spotlight Sunday". You can ask me anything and I'll do my best to answer. "What made you choose Ireland?" Is the most common question I am asked (almost every day). If you want to know the answer, well here's your chance!

You can ask about Ireland...

Or our chickens!

Or my thriller, "Wrecking Crew"...

Or my bestselling golf book. WHAT?? A golf book? Yes, really.

Or you can ask about our dogs...

And, of course, you can ask about my new book, "Fresh Eggs and Dog Beds".

I hope you can make it on Sunday. I'll be online from 2pm to 9pm GMT.

If you're not already a member of "We Love Memoirs" you can join here:

There's more to see than just me.

See you then!

Friday 20 October 2017

A tale of two storms

Today I was thinking about Storm Ophelia and some of the stories of kindness and bravery that had occurred in its wake. My mind wondered, like a butterfly in the breeze, eventually settling on a memory of something that happened many years ago…

My first ‘proper’ job was in 1976, working as a trainee manager in a posh English department store – and it was a proper job. Back then, jobs were for life and companies invested in their employees through good education and training. Over the following two years I was privileged to work in every department of the store, from the warehouse to the accounts department and everywhere in-between, including a week in the lingerie department – tough going for an impressionable young man! I learned much that would serve me well in the future from the kind and gentle employees of that wonderful family-run establishment. Of all the work-placements I experienced, my favorite by far was the stationery department.

I’ll admit, I found studying for the British Stationery Products Federation diploma course to be rather less interesting than learning about bra sizes, but I was saved from terminal boredom on the day I was moved to the pen repair counter. Back then most people learned to write with something called a ‘fountain pen’ and continued to use the same pen for many years – I still write with one today. A good quality, wet ink, fountain pen manufactured by Parker, Sheaffer, or Waterman, would have a gold nib, a tortoise shell case, and cost more than a lowly trainee manager earned in a week. Once it is worn-in, a fountain pen becomes unique, with the nib worn just-so, it perfectly matches only one person’s handwriting, feeling as comfortable as an old pair of slippers. Such an instrument cannot be replaced, but it can be repaired. Trained, qualified and equipped with my magnifying glasses and special toolkit, I was a micro engineer! I stood behind the glass counter and whiled away my days straightening bent nibs, unblocking ink feeds, and replacing broken clips. This seemingly insignificant service was of great benefit to our customers and their gratitude gave me a real sense of purpose and achievement.

One of the first pens I repaired belonged to a diminutive lady named Mrs. Storm. Standing just over five-feet tall, with dark auburn hair, carrying a black handbag, and wearing a beige tweed jacket and matching skirt worthy of a school headmistress, she was perfectly disguised for her role as the shop floor security guard. Every day she drifted through the store unseen by many, as invisible as a ghost, while her eagle-sharp eyes searched for the opportunist thief. At a time before CCTV, Mrs. Storm spent much of her time near to the pen department. From here she had a good view of the counters that displayed many of the stores high-value items that were small enough for a thief to slip into a pocket or bag. To enhance her disguise, sometimes I would pretend to show her pens, while we chatted about her family, her life as a police officer, or sports, or nothing in particular. Even though we were quite friendly, and she called me ‘Young Nick’, I always addressed her as Mrs. Storm. Her Christian name had always been a closely guarded secret – until the day of the soccer match.

I’m not a follower of football, so some of the details are rather vague, but I recall it was a big match (perhaps a local derby), and we were all on high alert as trouble and violence was anticipated. It started off to my right, with a scream of shock and dismay, followed by the crash and tinkle of something being knocked over. Then there were the sounds of fast running feet and the shouts of indignation as shoppers were pushed aside. Just as I stepped out from behind the counter to investigate, a very large youth with a ‘skinhead’ haircut came running into view. He was wearing a red football shirt and a look of violent desperation. His right hand was clutching a bundle of cash. Before I could react to what was obviously a robbery in progress, a beige blur came out of left field. It was Mrs. Storm. With astonishing alacrity, she dipped her right shoulder and tackled the man as if she were an England international rugby scrum half. The huge thief went down like a felled tree, scattering the stolen cash across the floor. There was an audible “Ooof” as the air was expelled from his lungs.

Despite the shock of this unexpected tackle, the thief had the resilience that comes from youth and the fear of impending arrest. Even with a middle-aged woman sitting jockey-like on his back, the big lad quickly recovered and it was only when Mrs. Storm turned her pleading eyes in my direction that my bewilderment dissipated and I sprang to her aid. With the benefit of my additional weight and muscle, the robber was quickly subdued, and once the handcuffs were clicked shut, he hung his head and complied.

Afterwards, Mrs. Storm came by my counter to thank me for my assistance.
“Think nothing of it Mrs. Storm,” I said, waving my hand dismissively, “I’m happy to have helped.”
“Well, I’m very grateful,” she replied, smiling. “In future, you may call me Ophelia.”
I nodded and returned her smile, proud of the privilege she had just bestowed.
“Ophelia Storm,” I whispered, “What a lovely name.”


Storm Ophelia crossed the Atlantic ocean, picking up energy from the unseasonably warm waters and spinning into a hurricane before it slammed into the south west coast of Ireland on the 16th of October 2017.

With wind gusts of 191km/h and waves over 17 meters high, it was the most powerful storm ever to hit mainland Ireland. In its wake 295,000 homes were left without power, thousands of trees were down – many blocking roads, and hundreds of buildings were damaged. That only three lives were lost, is testament to how well the public obeyed the advice to stay indoors until the storm had passed. We spent most of that day looking out of the windows and hoping for the best. Our power went off just after lunch, so there was little else we could do but light candles, hunker down and wait.

My wife had longstanding plans to visit England for a holiday, beginning on the 17th of October (the day after Ophelia). Hoping for the best, Lesley packed her bags by candlelight, then we set the alarm clock for 3:30 am and headed to bed. During the night the wind had eased considerably and, as Ryanair was reporting ‘business as usual’, we set off for Shannon airport at 4 am.  Although there was much debris to avoid along the way, and one diversion caused by a fallen tree, the thirty mile trip was slow, but largely uneventful. Back at the house, with the power still off, I stoked the fire and snoozed on the couch as I waited for the sun to rise.

The morning seemed eerily calm, with only the distant buzzing of chainsaws to disturb the silence. Soon the cattle began lowing – like a call to prayers – as the scattered herds reassembled. It was a chilly morning, with a crystal clear blue sky and not a breath of wind – a typical autumn day in the west of Ireland. After feeding the chickens, I walked our four dogs around our land and checked for damage.   

We had lost a few trees and our power was out for twenty-eight hours, but otherwise there was no significant damage. Given the incredible power of the winds, I felt we were extraordinarily lucky. By the time the ESB electricians and linesmen reached our house, they looked haggard with exhaustion – but they were in good spirits, laughing and joking as they worked.

There are many tales of local heroism that I could relate, but one in particular really summed up how our community can pull together at a time of need.

Bob is an elderly American, living alone in a remote part of Ireland, just south of Killaloe and close to Lough Derg. We’ve been friends for a couple of years. He is a kind and intelligent man. We meet for lunch about once a month as well as conversing by email. In his own words, this is his experience of storm Ophelia and the kindness of strangers…

“We lost electricity about noon. Around 4:00 pm the folks on our road got it back, but we did not. I checked my breaker box and it was OK so I suspected the problem was somewhere in the wire from the utility pole. I called the electric company to report a problem and was told it could be up to five days to get it looked into.

“There are still about 150,000 homes without electricity, but mine is not one of them. This morning I went over to Bobby Reidy's Pub to use his free Wi-Fi to send you guys a message. Bobby and his family were good friends of my wife before she passed. His mom is a neighbor of ours. I told him I was still without electricity, he said that he would  call a friend who could possibly help me out. I said thanks, but never expected anything to come of it.

“I was asleep in the guest house (my bedroom being very cold without heating and electricity) when my niece came over to tell me the power was back on. At 10:00 tonight a guy pulled up to the cottage to repair the wire connection on our utility pole. I had just dropped off to sleep after getting into bed at about 9:30.  Now I am wide awake and will have trouble getting back to sleep, I did not even get a chance to thank the guy. It was Bobby's friend that fixed our electrics. He lives up the road past us a ways and was on his way home, dog tired after a 12 hour day, yet he made time to help someone he has never met. I’m still having a hard time believing it. I need to find an appropriate way to thank them both. I think I will go over to Reidy's tomorrow and thank Bobby and leave an envelope for the ‘friend’.

“The wind did no other mischief here. ELECTRICITY IS GOOD.”

Best wishes