Scarecrows, Sprockers and State Visits

Have you ever thought about the history of scarecrows? I hadn’t but the 12th annual Ranskill and Torworth Scarecrow Festival – a village fundraiser close to where my mother lives in Nottinghamshire – prompted me to do some research. The Egyptians were the first to make wooden scarecrows in the likeness of deities to deter the birds from eating grain. In medieval Britain children would walk through the fields throwing stones at birds raiding the crops but when the Black Plague decimated the population in 1348, there weren’t enough people to work in the fields so they made scarecrows out of straw with turnips or gourds for heads.

I always think of that song in Joseph and his Technicolour Dreamcoat (still one of my favourite musicals of all time) Stone the Crows, the one that comes after Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dream:

Well, stone the crows
This Joseph is a clever kid
Who’d have thought that 14 cows
Could mean the things
He said, they did

And who remembers Worzel Gummidge, the TV series from the 70s and 80s, based on the books by Barbara Euphan Todd with John Pertwee aka Dr Who as Worzel, the scarecrow? I’ve just read that the BBC is filming a new adaption to be screened later in the year. There’s something very lovable about a scarecrow who comes to life and befriends children, getting up to tricks and mischief.

I didn’t count the scarecrows lining the roads around the two villages but there must have been a good fifty or more covering topics ranging from humour to history, cartoon characters, fiction, fantasy and fairy tale. Mum and I hopped on Wilfreda Beehive, a 1965 London Routemaster Bus, to view the exhibits in style.

Some of my favourites included three Spitting Image-style politicians: Theresa May, Jean Claude Juncker and Jeremy Corbyn, a policeman holding a hairdryer as a speed detector and a robed figure sitting on a chair entitled Mindfulness. Positioned atop trees and hedges along the route were knights on horseback, astronauts and children’s favourites such as Peppa Pig. A lot of fun.

But there was more: amid the stalls selling hand-crafted bags and natural skincare products there was a dog show and competition with categories including Gundogs, Working Dogs and Hounds, Pedigree, Pastoral and Toy, Good Looking Boy/Girl and Most Appealing Eyes. Drawn to the spaniels, I met several Bertie lookalikes. They were, in fact, sprockers – a mix of cocker and spring spaniel. Bertie is the result (one of ten) of an accidental mating between a field spaniel and a cocker spaniel. What does make him? A focker, a flocker? The mind boggles. That same day I accompanied Mum to St Peter’s Church in nearby Clayworth, home to theTraquair Murals by renowned Scottish Arts and Crafts artist Anna Traquair (1852-1936). I reckon Mum goes more for the social connection than any deep-rooted faith. The somewhat happy clappy vicar – it was Pentecost Sunday (reminding me of our/Australia’s Pentecostal PM, Scott Morrison) – challenged us to reflect whether we were ready for God’s Kingdom on earth. The lady in the front pew assented with a vigorous YES and clapped her hands in the penultimate hymn. Mum, meanwhile, whispered all too loudly, that the service was going on way too long and she hoped there wouldn’t be yet another hymn. There was. I enjoyed a bit of time out to reflect, count my blessings (excuse the pun) and admire the fabulous murals.

Not to be defeated by the rain, we also visited Retford’s local museum housed in a handsome Georgian mansion. A mix of various private collections – china, glass etc – and displays of bygone eras, I enjoyed the Second World War Kitchen, the cabinet full of lotions, potions and medicines such as Dr MacLean’s Stomach Powder and the Victorian schoolroom. Although once a thriving market town (granted its first charter by Henry III in 1246) and then a coal-producing centre connected by a network of canals, it’s gone rather downhill and is now full of shops such as Primark and Poundstretcher.

There’ve been some afternoon naps – I’ve bagged what was Dad’s reclining chair and plugged in a little hot pad in an attempt to create a sun lounger experience. I’ve done lots of cooking and, to Mum’s delight, tried recipes that I have collected over the years with only one culinary flop so far. And all this against the backdrop of the ongoing Brexit debacle: no deal, a revised deal, a postponed deadline, proroguing Parliament, a General Election, scrapping Brexit or remaining. It’s chaos. And the way the Conservative party leader selection process is going, it looks like the UK and the US will each will be ruled by blond blusterers with bad haircuts. I met a lady on the train to London who was on the Conservative Executive Committee under Thatcher and was injured in the Brighton Hotel bombing in 1984. She knows Boris and insists that the buffoonery is all an act and that he is a shrewd player. Let’s hope she’s right!

Trump, of course, basked in the attention, pomp and ceremony surrounding his State Visit to the UK (labelling anti-Trump protests as fake news) to mark the extraordinarily emotional 75th Anniversary of the D-Day landings. Britain being Britain, he was highly criticised for his sartorial faux-pas with the vest of his white-tie outfit way too long under the jacket. Then there was the errant h in his spelling of the Prince of Whales and his vicious verbal attack on the Mayor of London. By contrast, the Queen so dignified and chipper and doing her bit for that so-called special relationship between the two countries.


Back in Blighty

Well, I made it over here in one piece. The flight was LONG as it always is but I stuck to my plan of seeing it as a mini holiday. The food was pretty mediocre but I watched three films, a light Spanish comedy, Ocho Apellidos Vascos, Words and Pictures, a rather hard work film with Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche, and The Grand Budapest Hotel, which I loved. I also continued to read Slipstream, Elizabeth Jane Howards’s autobiography. Howard, who died recently, was an author married to the naturalist Peter Scott and then, latterly, after multiple affairs with married men, to Kingsley Amis. The book is full of encounters with literary figures, artists, playwrights and the like – from Charlie Chaplin, Laurie Lee, John Betjeman, Laurens Van der Post, members of the royal family and other glitterati. The rest of the time I slept and dozed and longed to lie down. I’m normally very organised but had run around all day like a mad thing only taking Bertie to the dog sitter a few hours before I was due to leave so I was still watering my lemon tree and washing up when the taxi came. No wonder I felt a bit tense and stiff by the time I got on the plane!

I’m now back in Nottinghamshire, the county we’ve all heard of thanks to the forest-dwelling tax evader, Robin, he of the Hoodie, with my parents. I did spend some of my childhood years in Nottinghamshire, but I don’t feel any particular allegiance to it or that it’s what the Spanish call ‘mi tierra’, which, literally translated, means my homeland or my country, but on a deeper level conveys a sense of soul connection with a place.

I flew into Manchester airport, where Eddie from Mum’s village met me, along with his dear little dog Scruffy who was rescued from a Spanish village. We travelled over the Pennines (following at one point the Tour de France route) passing through wild expanses of moorland cloaked in bracken and heather, now turning brown and gold as autumn moves into winter. It was unseasonably mild and sunny and the trees look magnificent in shades of russet, copper and gold. We passed through tiny villages with names such as Tintwhistle and Stone and past fields bordered by hedgerows and dry stone walls. I’d forgotten about hedges but now I’ve seen and remembered them, I realise how much I’ve missed them! Hedges are havens for wildlife – according to the Royal Society of the Protection of Birds, Hedges may support up to 80% of British woodland birds, 50% of British mammals and 30% of butterflies.

A good native hedgerow is made up of a mix of plants such as Hawthorn, Blackthorn, Crab apple, Guelder rose, Dog rose, Wild privet, Honey suckle, Hazel, Field maple and Holly. As a child I used to look for birds’ nests in the hedges and watch the parents flying in and out until the babies flew. Even in my mother’s garden we get a great selection of birds; this morning we saw goldfinches, blue tits, robins and green finches all darting around on her bird feeders. Although Australia has a rich diversity of birds, I only seem to get mynas, an introduced species, wattle birds (they can be very noisy too) and pigeons in my Melbourne suburban garden.

Much as I love Australia, the life I have created there and all my wonderful friends, I really miss the British countryside. It’s definitely mi tierra, my spiritual home. There’s something about the soft, green, gently rolling landscape that gets under my skin; it reminds me of family walks on Sunday afternoons, picnics by rivers, bike rides along country lanes, village fetes with tombolas and teas and long summer evenings when it’s light till ten o’clock.

I read an article a few years back about Sidney Nolan who moved to England in 1955 and then to the borders of Wales where he settled in 1983. He painted Australian landscapes from afar, but also travelled widely outside Europe to Africa, China and Antarctica, returning regularly to Australia to connect with the quality of light and the shape of the trees. When people talk of homesickness, perhaps what they are really getting at is a yearning for the topography of their native country. Every time I return to English I feel like doing a Pope John Paul II and kissing the ground.

I have very intermittent internet access and so am writing this from the library in Retford near where my mother lives. It’s a small market town, worlds apart from Melbourne in every way, but I’m rather fond of it. There are no shops to speak of – not even a Marks and Spencers – but there is a great little market on Thursdays and Saturdays. On Saturday I bought a wonderful 1950s style cloche hat with a flower on the front ready for Krakow and Zurich, and a red leather collar for Bertie. The hat cost just £10 and the collar £3.50; everything seems much cheaper here. My brother tells me that the cost of living is indeed higher in Australia but so are wages. Not mine, I fear! Next time I come over I’m going to bring an empty suitcase and load up with goodies.