Friday 20 March 2020

Guest blog - Nick Albert, bestselling author of the Fresh Eggs and Dog Beds series

Bestselling author Nick Albert on The Burren, County Clare Ireland.

I’m delighted and honoured Beth Haslam has asked me to be her guest blogger this month. Although we’ve yet to meet in person, Beth and I have been virtual friends and professional colleagues for several years and I have long been a fan of her excellent Fat Dogs and French Estates books. On the day I signed the contract to write my Fresh Eggs and Dog Beds series, my publisher advised me to contact Beth for advice and support.

“She’s great,” they said, “and she’ll be happy to help. Her story is just like yours.”
Of course they were right. Beth is a lovely lady, always willing to offer advice and encouragement – even when it’s only to help me identify some particularly stinky French cheese. And our stories are certainly similar. At the time Beth and Jack were gazing listlessly through a rain speckled window in England and dreaming of a better life elsewhere, my wife and I were just 50 miles away having the same thoughts, but where the Haslam’s moved to France, Lesley and I headed west to a country we had never visited.

Why did we pass up the promise of seemingly endless sunshine in southern Europe, in favour of buying a derelict farmhouse with a few soggy acres in the rural west of Ireland? It’s still somewhat of a mystery. My humorous riposte to that frequently asked question is, “It was an idea conceived in drink,” but that isn’t strictly true. On our first visit to the emerald isle, we were magnetically drawn to the beautiful unspoiled countryside, the lovely people and the feeling we had been transported back to a time when life was less complicated.

County Clare, Ireland.
By the middle of the first week, we were hooked and quickly began hunting for our new home. Much like Beth, our carefully choreographed search soon degenerated into a comedy of errors. Whereas finding our dream property proved difficult, buying it seemed almost impossible – and that wasn’t all. Soon we were being stymied by indifferent lawyers, unenthusiastic banks, unsalable properties and a complete absence of available builders. Undeterred, Lesley and I pressed on and eventually became the proud owners of Glenmadrie, a former goat farm high in the hills of beautiful County Clare. With little money and even less experience behind us, we bought a secondhand DIY manual and began the long process of renovating our home by ourselves. Although there were some close calls and hilarious adventures along the way, somehow we survived and those experiences brought us closer together.
 For eight years we lived like this.
Eventually our house became a home.
A muddy field transformed!

When the renovations were completed, we had a delightful family home and a productive vegetable garden. At last I had the time to tackle another challenge – writing a series of humorous memoirs. As well as telling the story of our move to Ireland, I had plenty of interesting friends to introduce to my readers and dozens of amusing tales to tell about our dogs, cats, chickens, ducks and the local wildlife.
 Here are a few lovable villains from the first three Fresh Eggs and Dog Beds books.
 Let me introduce you to Honey, by way of an exclusive extract from
Fresh Eggs and Dog Beds book four.

These days, modern technology has a lot to answer for, some good and some bad. In our case, it resulted in the arrival of a new dog to our happy home. It all started after I changed mobile phone providers…
As usual, I was welcomed as a new customer, with the gift of a shiny new smartphone. Now, I’m quite tech-savvy, particularly for someone who grew up long before the interweb thingy was a glint in Mr Tim BL’s eye. That being said, I was still pretty impressed with the capabilities of my new HTC phone and enthralled with its numerous exciting but utterly pointless features. On the other hand, I’m nearly as paranoid about my privacy as a pot-smoking spy. So it might surprise you to learn I didn’t follow my usual protocol of disabling every feature and only using my phone for making calls, sending texts or as a glorified paperweight.
With the clever interactive features enabled, HTC soon became my virtual friend, watching my every action and making useful suggestions.  Consequently, just after I had casually searched for one of those drone helicopters, as a gift for my son-in-law, my smartphone enthusiastically took up the challenge and started bombarding me with suggestions as to how I could spend my money on unrelated electrical items.
“I see you were searching for a drone helicopter,” HTC said, “perhaps you might be interested in this robot lawnmower?”
“Not really,” I laughed. “That’s a 12-inch solar-powered lawnmower, fine for a tiny back garden in sunny Surrey, but hardly suitable for four-acres of wet meadow grass in rain-lashed Ireland.”
A few minutes later, my phone pinged again.
“I see you were searching for a drone helicopter,” HTC said, “perhaps you might be interested in this remote controlled car?”
“No thanks,” I tutted, whilst surreptitiously trying to figure out what ‘push notifications’ were and if I should turn them off. Before I could, my phone pinged again.
“I see you were searching for HTC phone instructions,” HTC said, without a hint of irony, “perhaps I can interest you in this advert for an HTC phone.”
I involuntarily ground my teeth and politely declined by banging my new HTC phone on the table. Lesley glared at me. Nevertheless, a few moments later, my phone pinged again.
“I see you were searching for electrical items,” HTC said, “so perhaps I can interest you in this electric dog.”
“An electric dog,” HTC casually repeated.
“You’re kidding me,” I said.
“I kid you not – it’s an electric dog.”
“Show me.”
And it was…
 “My goodness!” I showed Lesley the advert. “Look, I’ve found the answer to all of our problems!”
“Ha! What a great idea! I bet it’s clean, obedient and better behaved than this lot.” She nodded towards our four lovable pooches. Like the unfortunate victims of a canine train wreck, they lay scattered around the fireplace quietly leaking noxious gas.
“I’m not so sure.” I grinned. “Knowing our luck it would probably drip oil on the rug and need new batteries every week.”
“I guess…still, it is kind of cute looking…” She left the clue hanging.
“And about as useful as a chocolate teapot,” I countered, trying to defend my wallet.
“I suppose you’re right,” Lesley sighed, clearly meaning the exact opposite, even though she usually despised such extravagant electrical oddities.
“Perhaps we should get another dog?” I suggested casually and without much enthusiasm, but guessing what Lesley was thinking.
She gave me a look which suggested getting another dog was a wonderful idea, but at the same time completely mad and irresponsible. Confused, I looked to our alpha dog for advice.
“What do you think Lady, should we get another dog?”
Lady lifted her head and gave me a sour look. She clarified her opinion by letting off a loud fart.
“Well, I guess that settles it!” I opened the window for some much-needed ventilation. “No more dogs!”
And we would have left it there had HTC not intervened.
It was approaching Christmas, the time of the year where Ireland’s climate encourages most sensible people to stay indoors and enjoy the twin pleasures of a warm fire and old movies. We were indulging ourselves in the delights of Gregory Peck at the peak of his acting skills, in Captain Horatio Hornblower, when my smartphone decided to interrupt.
“Hi Nick, I see you’ve been looking at dogs.”
“No, I haven’t!” I replied, firmly confident in my user history (for a change).
“Yes you have, I distinctly remember you looking at this Electric Dog…”
“You’re mistaken,” I said. “It wasn’t an animal, it was electric.”
“And a dog,” I imagined HTC giving me a sly smile.
“I can see what you’re thinking, but Electric Dog would come under computers and the like,” I explained.
“I understand… So dogs it is! Here’s a picture of a puppy which is for sale and may be of interest to you.”
“Oh for God sake! I said computers, not dogs, and I’m not really interested in another computer – or a so-called smart phone, thank you very much!” I angrily poked at the screen with my finger. “Now, how do I delete this advert for a pupp– Oh my God it’s so cute!” I held out the phone for Lesley to see. “Look at this little doggy!”
And so it began. Every evening, as regular as clockwork, my phone would chime to announce the arrival of the latest batch of adverts, featuring variously delightful dogs and puppies for sale or rehoming. At first it became a soft form of entertainment, like window shopping for houses at the obviously extortionate end of the price scale, but soon the Oohs and Aahs became more considered. I’m not really sure at what point we transitioned from idle speculation and adorable canine daydreams, to serious dog hunting. I suppose it was around the time we hypothetically discussed what sort of dog we would prefer.
We were genuinely concerned introducing a mature dog into our relatively well-balanced pack of old ladies might lead to problems, so we agreed a puppy would be the best option. Initially, Lesley was keen on the idea of getting another Lhasa Apso, but they are rare in the West of Ireland, primarily because short-legged dogs with long fur are about as inappropriate for muddy fields and wet grass as a supercar is for our narrow lanes and potholed farm tracks. We toyed with the idea of a Border collie puppy. They were all insufferably cute and available in their hundreds, but they are working dogs and need to be worked hard to remain healthy in body and mind. All four of our dogs were rescued from the pound and we would have been delighted to go down that route again, had there been a puppy available, but it was not to be.  And there was another consideration.
Almost everyone who has ever been a dog owner knows the dreadful pain we suffer when a beloved pet dies. Dogs fill our lives with such joy and passion. They are our constant companions, never needing time alone, or space to grow, and they are always there for us, with a head on the knee, or a lick of the hand, as soon as we need some comfort. Overflowing with unconditional love and friendship, they are so prevalent in our days their passing can leave a void so vast it can never be filled. We may be able to get over the death of another human, perhaps by imagining they have gone on to a better place. Our heart may still grieve, but life will go on and our friends and family will somehow fill the vacuum death has created. But there is something different about our relationship with dogs.
Dogs may not be our whole life, but they make our lives whole. Only children and dogs give their love unconditionally, in a way which makes you want to be as good a person as they already think you are. Children grow up and become people with their own lives and perhaps their own dogs. Only dogs will provide such silently devoted companionship. Their presence is constant, their attention total (particularly if you’re eating biscuits) and their love is unwavering. Each dog is so unique in its interaction with our lives they can never be replaced or replicated. Once gone, they are lost forever, but the open wounds they have left in our hearts will never heal. It is their only fault. So Lesley and I decided one more dog would be enough and our special dog would be a golden retriever puppy.
Once we had made a decision, it was time to put the technology to work. Inevitably, my HTC thought otherwise.
“I noticed you were searching for golden retriever puppies,” it said. “Here are some adverts for puppets which may interest you.”
And then…
“I noticed you were searching for golden retriever puppies. Here is an advert for gold flint garden gravel which may interest you.”
“Chinese golden urns.”
“Golf ball retriever.”
Eventually, with a combination of threats and IT skills, I managed to convince HTC we really were looking for a goldie puppy. Grudgingly it complied and showed me some adverts. There were several litters of puppies for sale, possibly because it was so close to Christmas. Lesley was keen to ensure we only bought from a good and reputable breeder, or preferably a family. So we discarded any suspicious-looking adverts, principally those with a sales history showing repeated breeding, or any with pictures of puppies in a permanent breeding enclosure. That certainly thinned our choices. However, there was one advert we found to be particularly promising. The pictures showed several puppies playing with a child in a kitchen, which suggested a domestic seller, and although the puppies were priced slightly below the average, the seller was demanding evidence his dogs were going to a good home. Several phone calls later, along with a lot of map reading and a trip to the cashpoint, we were on our way.
Gareth was a friendly family man and farmer. He had bred his golden retrievers for the first time and was now selling the litter. He readily agreed to our request to see all of the puppies and the parents in the home before we committed to buying, so we arranged to meet at his farmhouse that evening. The farm was about twenty miles west of Ennis and about an hour’s drive from our house, hidden deep in the winter darkness of west Clare.
On the assumption we were going to buy a puppy eventually, we stopped at a pet supermarket on the way to buy some essential supplies. Like excited parents at the mother and baby superstore, we filled our trolley with glee. There would be no hand-me-downs for our golden puppy! We selected new dog bed, a collar and lead, some bowls, various toys and chews and a sack of the finest puppy food. The bill was only slightly less than the cost of the puppy and left me wondering if we should have bought the electric dog after all.
Despite the inky darkness and the lack of any relevant road signs, we navigated our way through the cold drizzle and found the farm with surprising ease. In typical Irish fashion, we were greeted at the door by Gareth and his wife Mary and welcomed into their home as if we were old friends visiting from afar. They led us past the living room, all decked out with Christmas decorations, and into the warmth of their kitchen where we could get to know each other. Or at least that was the plan, but it was difficult to have even a short chat with the farmer and his wife, whilst eight gorgeous golden retriever puppies were demanding our attention.
Not much bigger than a domestic cat, all eight puppies were almost identically cute, with soft snow-white fur, stained with a little hint of vanilla on the ears and across the snout, and fat black noses which made a perfect triangle, along with the dark chocolate of their captivating eyes. Instantly we were in puppy heaven, tickling, stroking and petting any dog within reach. I was almost bowled over by a jumble of excited fur, as four of the puppies scrambled over each other in a desperate attempt to get the most attention. In retrospect, it wasn’t a good idea to wear my best black trousers, but I didn’t care. As I rocked back on my heels for balance, I glanced at my wife and saw from the look of delight on her face, we would soon be the proud owners of a golden retriever puppy.
After the initial chaos subsided, Gareth politely excused himself from the conversation and went out to the yard to fetch the parent dogs, leaving Lesley and me to chat with his wife. I tried to join in the conversation, but there were two women talking and the puppies would not be denied the attention, so I crouched down and put both hands to good use.
Mary watched me for a moment before asking, “Was it just the one you’d be wanting, or have you space for more?”
Lesley beamed a huge smile at me. “How many do we want?” she teased.
“Eight would be fun, but I think we’ll have to settle for one.” I scanned the furry gaggle of gorgeous pups. “But which one?”
After the initial excitement of meeting someone new dissipated, the puppies were beginning to turn their attention to other matters. Some were sniffing around the base of the cooker, perhaps attracted by the memory of roast beef, others were by the door, possibly looking for their mother. A couple had curled up under the table, unsure of the excitement, but too tired to care. However, one puppy sat confidently at my feet and politely demanded my attention. I gently picked her up and held her in the crook of my elbow, while I stroked her fat little tummy. She accepted my attention with a contented sigh, snuggling her face deeper into my sweater as she closed her eyes.
“I think I’m in love,” I whispered to Lesley, with a smile.
That exquisite moment of affection was rudely interrupted when Gareth came back into the kitchen with the puppies parents. They were attractive and excitable dogs, but obviously well cared-for. There was an undignified scramble as seven of the puppies fought to get to mummy and the prospect of some milk. She joined in the fun by doing a little dance, in an attempt to keep her teats away from their hungry mouths and needle-sharp teeth. Even the pup in my arms was taking notice of the commotion, so regretfully I put her down, all the time hoping she wouldn’t become lost to me forever within the group of eight near-identical puppies. I needn’t have worried. Five minutes later, the little fur-ball was once again back at my feet, full of milk and waiting patiently to be picked up. As before, content and trusting, the puppy snuggled into the crook of my arm and closed her eyes. Not to be left out, Lesley came over and joined in the petting and stroking. A little calm was restored as Gareth took the parents outside again. It was time to get down to business. Mary took the lead.
“It looks like she’s chosen you,” she said, stating the obvious with a gleeful smile.
“It certainly seems that way,” Lesley cooed.
With the shaking of hands, the exchange of good wishes and a not insignificant amount of cash, the deed was done, and we were the proud owners of a new dog – or more likely her new slaves!
Anyone who says, “Money can’t buy happiness,”
has never bought a new puppy.
 We had a long drive ahead and it was already late as we finally set off for home. The journey along unfamiliar roads was not made any easier by the steady drizzle which turned the oncoming headlights into a succession of greasy flares on the windscreen. During a break in the traffic, I glanced at Lesley who was sitting in the front seat and cuddling the puppy. In our excitement, we had not thought to bring a blanket, so our new friend was safely wrapped in Lesley’s best coat. By the faint light of the dashboard clock, I was able to see my wife was gently stroking the little dog and smiling like a new parent.
“So, what shall we call her?” I asked, hoping the conversation would help to keep me awake until we got home. Lesley looked down at the puppy. She gently stroked its soft white fur and the honey coloured tips of its ears.
“How about Goldie?” she asked.
“I think that’s what every other golden retriever on the planet is called.”
“Blondie?” Lesley suggested.
I pulled a face and sucked my teeth. “A bit obvious don’t you think? Anyway, I was never much of a fan of her music.”
Lesley gave my arm a warning thump. “You suggest something.”
“What about Kim?”
“Kim’s a boy’s name.”
“Won’t work.” Lesley shook her head. “We had a next door neighbour in England called Sally. She had jet black hair.”
“Let’s call her Joanne,” I quipped.
“I don’t think our daughter would approve of us calling our dog by her name.”
“At least she’ll come when we call her.”
“I wouldn’t bet on it,” she said, with heavy irony.
There was a natural pause in the conversation while we got on with the quiet business of driving and dog petting. I thought about our daughter, her husband and our grandson, Austin. They were happily preparing for Christmas at their new home in England. Austin was two years old and excited at the prospect of his first proper Christmas. They were due to visit us in January. I reached over and gave the little head a stroke with my fingertips.
“I hope she stays this soft,” I said. “Austin’s going to have a fit.”
“I can’t wait to see his face. He’s never been in a house full of dogs, it should be fun.”
“Should we call it Honey?” I suggested.
“Honey…” Lesley said, in a gentle whisper. “Honey… Yes, that could work.”
“Do you think so?”
“What about it little one?” My wife gave the tiny pup a stroke between the ears. “Shall we call you Honey?”
Honey lifted her sleepy head and, after a moment’s careful consideration, promptly regurgitated her supper over Lesley’s best coat.
“Well, that’s settled then,” I said, as I pulled off the road and handed Lesley the roll of kitchen towels all experienced dog owners carry in their cars. “We shall call you Honey.”
And so Honey was christened in a Volvo on a rainy night in December whilst Lesley was liberally splattered with milk. A fair exchange in anyone’s book.