In Praise of Alpacas


It’s never a great idea to admit to a passion for a particular breed of livestock, particularly when you are Welsh. I’ve never known how the international stereotype arose and probably never will, it falls under the heading of Things I Am Worried To Google, yet it perseveres even amongst our own kind.
Many years ago, a friend I shall refer to as Berwyn, because that is his name, told us he had broken a sheep’s leg over the weekend. Into the vacuum which followed, he rapidly explained he had fallen over a fence and onto the sheep. We were all very relieved to hear this explanation but I’m not sure any of us then present will ever remember Berwyn for anything other than breaking a sheep’s leg in definitely not dubious circumstances.

I am as fond of sheep as the next person, unless that person is Berwyn of course. I love the Hampshire Down and Lincoln breeds. The Lincolns are basically an Old English Sheepdog re-imagined as a sheep that you’ve permed, while the Hampshires are round, fluffy and slightly evil looking.
While I am able to summon an enthusiasm for sheep, such enthusiasm does not last for very long. Once the fact of their existence has been fully assimilated into my brain, I grow bored of them. Sheep do not do much other than catch pneumonia when the weather is excessively wet. They are also only worth keeping if you intend to kill and eat them at a later date. A sheep’s fleece is barely worth the money it costs to sheer it.

Instead, I have an enthusiasm for Alpacas. Alpacas are great. They’re look like Llamas, but instead of biting your head and spitting at you, they protect things. If they are pregnant, they conveniently only give birth between 10am and 3pm.
On The Yokel Show, which the BBC insists on referring to as Countryfile, Adam the farmer went down to visit some sheep on Portland Bill. In the field, the shepherd had three alpacas to protect the sheep from whatever calamities might have befallen them in an isolated field on the south coast. As soon as the alpacas clocked the threatening ginger figure advancing upon their charges, they immediately ran to form a defensive triangle around their dinner trough and looked at him with great suspicion. Oh yes, alpacas can look suspicious; that’s how great they are!
When not being convenient, protecting things or looking suspicious, alpacas remain busy growing their fur. An unprocessed alpaca fleece, I am reliably informed, goes for about £30 sterling (a sheep fleece is worth under a pound) and a freshly shorn alpaca remains one of the most comedic sights upon this earth.

Clearly, I need to find some sort of excuse to buy some alpacas. Having given this some careful thought, I have decided that what County Wexford sorely lacks is an Alpaca Rental Service.

As in the UK, it has become rather au fait around here to keep your own chickens. My neighbour (not the porn star, another one) is getting some chickens. My other neighbour already has some. My Dutch friend is getting some. My posh friends out on the Hook have some. Miranda at the garden centre had some for sale but when the bloke came to take them away for the winter, she gave him some money to let her keep them instead. Mammy has been desperate for some for years.
So, my plan runs thusly: You get chickens. You swiftly discover said chickens are vulnerable to foxes, dogs and other rural based predatory creatures. I come to your house and hand you a leaflet filled with threatening statistics regarding how many chickens a typical buzzard can carry away in a year and how this can be prevented through renting an Alpaca from me for a reasonable sum. You rent an Alpaca from me. Your chickens are kept safe, I have Alpacas, the world becomes as it deserves to be.

If only my bank manager could understand my vision.

In other news:
It’s been a rather damp day today. The newsagent, no doubt spurred on by the plethora or news surrounding him, observed this.
“It’s a wintery day,” he said.
I knew this. I had just been out it in. I made the reply Mammy made to me when I made a similar observation earlier that morning; “Yes, but it will bring the garden on a treat!”
“No,” he said, “It won’t. It’s. Too. Cold.”
He didn’t verbally add “now take your paper and go you hippy, Guardian reading optimist,” but I like to think it was implied by his stance.

Mail Overload

It may have taken me a while to notice and then a while longer to get around to mentioning it, but it was a great thing to know that my begging did not go to waste regarding the Irish Blog award nominations. My thanks extend to the nominatory elves who filled out the form. It’s more than I managed to do.
Of course, this meant judges visited the blog and read it. Had I noticed they were going to do something like that, I would have ended up trying to write something hilarious to win me something to fit on my, already overflowing, desk; now featuring a WWI medal, Stanley knife and Tibetan Temple Bell (What, you don’t have one?).
In any case, they didn’t like what they found here as much as what they found elsewhere. I think it was mainly due to my habit of referring to the British as a Liberation Army rather than the more colourful terms the Irish usually use. My use of the words “peasant mentality” were also unlikely to have found favour with the judging panel. No official long-list nominations for me, I’m afraid.

I may not have any prizes, but I have received a small bump in traffic. This increase in attention has led to communications reaching my inbox (as well as comments linking to websites of a dubious nature). It’s nice to receive communications. They make me feel wanted. Unfortunately, I’m not the greatest at replying to any of them. Much of this is due to my inability to actually read them. I only check my email when I’m expecting something and I only read my email while I’m waiting for something to arrive. I consider inbox twelve hundred an achievement.
The majority of the information clogging up my inbox comes from circulars and newsletters. They aren’t important things, but they are usually things I need to at least cast my eye over. When I reach something which consists of an actual communiqué from a real person who typed it out using their real fingers rather than smacking their head against a keyboard until the space was filled, it gets filed away in the “address this later” folder and never returned to.
I have massive guilt due to a bloke who took the time and the trouble to tell me that he’d read my MS on Authonomy, thought it was wonderful and hoped that I would finish it because he couldn’t bear the idea that it would go to waste. He sought out my email address because he noticed that I wasn’t using the Authonomy website anymore. How nice is that? Yet, I ignored him. If he’s reading this now, I apologise profusely and admit that while I could have spent my time sending you a note instead of writing this, I didn’t. It’s the kind of person I am.

When I’m not receiving undeservedly kind and complementary messages, I receive messages offering me monies to place advertisements on my website. For some reason, these are in Dutch. For further and slightly bizarre reasons, I’m able to read them pretty well without the help of Google Translate. Apparently I’m able to speak Dutch now.

I’ve also received a message offering me an interview with some guy I’ve never heard of, who will be able to give valuable advice and information to the OAP members of my readership. I’m sorry to disappoint the OAP members of my readership, but I’m of the opinion that if you have the nous to operate a computer well enough to find your way here, you are doing better than he is. He can’t manage to employ marketing people who read enough of a blog to realise it’s not the kind of thing they are looking for before they cut and paste a message off to its author.

Numerous mails have arrived to let me know that I have inherited several thousand dollars and that this money can be transferred to my account as soon as I forward them my bank details. I’m very impressed with these particular scamming emails. There is only a slight lapse in the quality of the language used towards the end of the message. If I were less cynical and didn’t know my entire family tree back to the thirteenth century, I might consider the possibility it was true.

Anyway, congratulations to all those on the long-list and good luck with the next round.

The Book Snob

From the length of the blogs I end up writing, you can probably guess that I am one of those odd people who reads for pleasure. Not only do I read for pleasure, I read proper books full of words with many syllables written by people you probably haven’t heard of and who sometimes compound that error by also being foreign.
You see, rather than impressing through the usual routes of attractiveness or achievement, I like to impress through literature. I bought a copy of Douglas Coupland’s Generation A the week it was published. I didn’t actually get around to reading it for a month, but anybody who came to my house was able to see it occupying the surface of my coffee table and ask if it was okay to use it as a coaster.

Happily, my local library manages to defy the trend of the rest of my local amenities by being rather good and for this I forgive them their conviction that Braille is a necessary and desirable thing on all of their signage. Unlike the local library where I grew up in the UK, they do not keep Lady Chatterley’s Lover beneath the counter; nor do they file Helen Fielding’s books under J.
Instead, they provide a wide variety of newly published books, run two book clubs, hold events for aspiring writers, organise exhibitions about local history and promote reading as an activity to the next generation. All this and interweb access. Marvellous.

Of course, being in a small town not generally renowned for its literacy, the librarians know all the regular users of their facilities and like to be helpful to them. I was returning my books on one occasion and the librarian said she had something out the back that she thought I might enjoy. I was very relieved when she returned bearing nothing more scandalous a copy of Xinran’s Sky Burial (and she was right, I did enjoy it).

The down side of this is that a book snob such as myself can no longer just pick out the books that take her fancy. She must instead treat the books as a collection. For every piece of populist dross I check out, books totalling a level of opposite complexity must be included.
For instance, last time I was in I borrowed a Sophie Kinsella and to cancel it out, took A.S Byatt’s The Children’s Book (recent Mann Booker nominee : +20 points) and Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts. To be on the safe side, I took an Andrey Kurkov as well.

This may seem like an unnecessarily complex system but it actually helps me to push myself with regards to the books I read. If I get to the end of the shelves to find I have too many, let us say, “commercial” novels in my bag, I’ll do another round with an eye out for something impressive by somebody who gets nominated for things.
It was in this way I came to read Michael Booth’s Just As Well I’m Leaving (Non-Fiction about somebody Dead : +10 points) from which I learned a wealth of things about Hans Christian Andersen which his Wikipedia page, inexplicably, fails to mention. Did you know that not only was he thought to have died a virgin, he was also a copious masturbator who made careful note of the frequency of his habit? Don’t say I never teach you anything useful.

Clearly I am wrong to behave like this. Shame on me for being so snobbish and judgemental. Shame on all of us.
You see, anybody who enjoys reading is a little bit of a book snob. I blame our childhoods. Show me a person who buys books exclusively from a supermarket and I will show you a person who made fun of me as a child. They called me weird. I will now take my revenge by sneering at their literary choices. Dan Brown? Ha! I mock your convoluted plotlines and questionable grasp of Parisian geography! James Patterson? Ha! I look sideways at your repetitive narratives and conveyer belt output! As for you celebrity ghosted commercial fiction, do not think your sparkly pink covers will diminish my disdain. They will not.

It’s rather bizarre that we Readers are so averse to anybody joining in. Shouldn’t we be a little bit pleased that we no longer have to explain the purpose of these flattened trees we insist on carrying around with us? Instead, we’re like all of the hardcore gamers who complain about the influx of casual gamers they now have to put up with. Personally I’m just pleased that people no longer look at me with fear when I mention that I’ve been wasting all of my spare time growing crops which don’t exist, but for many, playing the wrong sort of games is, somehow, far worse than not playing games at all.
Really, it all boils down to frustration. There are a wealth of brilliant games on a multitude of systems and instead you’re spending your money on “Imagine: Lobotomy” and “Hannah Montana Looks At A Poorly Animated Background”. It’s the same for us Readers, why are you reading Martine McCutcheon when you could be reading virtually anything else? This is time you are never going to get back and you waste it.

Even I waste my time reading dross. As a book snob, the majority of the dross I read is by whoever the literary author of the moment happens to be.
Ian McEwan can write; he just doesn’t seem to write anything I enjoy reading. Saturday? Atonement? I found them both hugely boring. It’s just selfish the way he refuses to acquaint himself with my personal tastes in literature and bend his talents to writing something I would part with money for.
The aforementioned A.S Byatt’s novel was, again, wonderfully written, but enjoyable? Only in parts. It came and it went and paused helpfully for book club discussions. There were characters that didn’t seem to do anything; they would occasionally be mentioned and I’d have no idea who they were.
I read Sarah Water’s The Little Stranger and, having absolutely loved it to pieces, went to read Affinity. It was disappointing. I found the protagonist underdeveloped and never had a sense that anything happening when she wasn’t there. I was similarly disappointed in The Night Watch. I was left underwhelmed by the story and still don’t really “get” why it was structured as it was.

However. Reading literary novels you haven’t enjoyed is not the same as reading some of the more transient authors landing publishing deals. My complaints about the above authors stem from my frustration because I know that somewhere in their writing is something I can connect with and forget what is going on around me, it’s just being stopped by something which doesn’t quite click. I could talk all day about any one of the above authors - what’s good, what’s bad, what I would have liked to have seen more of , why a character behaved the way they did – but how long can you maintain a discussion about a celebrity Chick Lit novel?
People who only read bestsellers from Tesco are missing out on half the pleasure of reading a really good book: talking about it. Like a film, a book doesn’t stop when you reach the end; it enters into your culture and the way you think about things. You can quote parts to other people you know have read it and you can apply its language to your life.
More valuably, it will teach you more about yourself than any other medium I have found.