Monday, September 23, 2013

Hacking through FaceOff (sorry, -Book)

There are lots of Like-Fests happening on Facebook and Twitter this autumn, so I'm having to develop a strategy for getting the most out of their potential - and also to stave off potential irritations.

The negatives

First, I've decided I won't Friend people from one of these virtual Facebook love-ins. I'm not that promiscuous. So, you need to make an author page or a business page that I can Like. Occasionally if people send a private message and I find their interests are similar to mine I will Friend them or Follow on Twitter. Otherwise, no.

Second, when I read your page profile -- or whatever you like to call the text that will appear automatically next to the URL link to your Facebook page -- I will filter you out if any of the following conditions are true:

  •     You can't spell, or you deliberately spell in an arbitrary or Txt Spk manner.
  •     Your sentences don't make sense or you have written typos such as "which" for "while" and not bothered to correct them.
  •     You start with the words "I was born..." and continue with personal, family and geographical history that should be on your personal page. 
  •     Your chosen writing themes are erotica, same-sex romance/erotica, paranormal, vampire/werewolf fantasy, politics, religion, gossip/celebrities, personal angst (including some poetry), horror or sci fi. 
  •     Your writing reveals you to be a sloppy-thinking, careless, inexpert or poor storyteller. 
Any of these things mean that I will not Like your page.

You may connect with lots of other people who will Like your page for the above points, but these, specifically, are not my bag. Probably the people who enjoy my writing won't follow you, and I suspect the reverse may also be true, so why should we exchange Likes in a pointless manner?

The positives

I will usually Like or Follow authors of non-fiction, because they have to do their homework thoroughly before they get going and they can't rely on glitz to carry them through. I do like an expert.

In fiction, I will Like or Follow writers of novels, short stories,  historical fiction (and I don't exclude romance unless it is modern chick lit in petticoats and breeches), literary fiction, most (but not all) equine, canine, feline or wildlife topics, adventure, humour, well crafted crime / thrillers and well crafted thought-provoking poetry. I also Like or Follow artists, if I like the images they supply of their work. Oh, and editing and proofing services.

Did I mention that I like an expert?

This discrimination is only meant to preserve my sanity. It's nothing personal.

Now, please excuse me while I go and do some writing.

Sue Millard's books almost all have a rural or equestrian background and can be found on her web site,

Her poetry pamphlet "Ash Tree" was published in August 2013 by Prole Books.  

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Spicy Pickle Jam

In honour of our 38th wedding anniversary...

The autumnal pickling continues. Gooseberries, wild plums and some onions have gone into a sort of gooey vinegary sweet mess. Didn't quite know what to call it on the labels, as it isn't chutney... so I've called it Fruity Pickle Jam. And it's yummy.

Gilly Fraser asked for the recipe and something silly went Pop in my head, so here it is.

What ya need

Three big jars (really big coffee jars) of slightly burnt gooseberries (must have been cooked by other half, who cooks and eats all wild fruit without sugar); one big jar of wild plums, sort of made into jam, with sugar; a pound of small, flower-shot onions, cleaned of woody stalks and peeled, and chopped finely while holding your breath and crying; half a pound of demerara sugar, preferably rescued from the back of mother in law's cupboards. Half a pound of elderly currants. Three big teaspoonfuls of ground ginger. A pint of spiced pickling vinegar (6%) and a bravado grinding of black pepper.

What ya do (can't dignify this with the term "method")

Boil the onions in water for five minutes to soften them. Drag the gooseberries kicking and screaming out of their jars and force them into marriage with the wild plums in a large preserving pan. Drain and add the onions, which by now are past caring about relationships. Add the sugar, currants, vinegar, ginger and black pepper.

Stir and heat very gently to simmering point, and put up with the fruity, spicy smell for the next twelve hours while you pick out plum stones from the murky depths. This will reduce the pan-ful to something like a chutney consistency; either that or jam. Mine veered towards jam, probably because of the sugar in the wild plum jar. I got seven standard jam jars out of this.

Some of them even have chutney in them.

I know you are all crying at the impossibility of copying this virtuosity.

Sue's books can be found at her web site, Jackdaw E Books,

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Performance and the audience

We're sometimes told when writing: "Consider your audience."

I'm sure we should do so, to the extent of being aware of the kind of vocabulary our readers may appreciate and also how far we can push the limits of their understanding - you can't write for young children in the same terms you would use for an audience of critical PhDs - but from a creator's point of view there are other things to consider.

I found this illustrated rather oddly via music at a recent scratch "concert" performance. Our local choir was giving its first public renditions of various songs: old-time music-hall songs and a couple from stage musicals. We weren't so much giving a performance as leading the audience. This worked all right for "Pack Up Your Troubles" sung against "It's a Long Way to Tipperary", as well as for "Daisy Bell" where in the little-known second verse the ladies got to sing "damned" with considerable force.

The trouble came when we started in on Lionel Bart's "Food, Glorious Food!" It's well known as a big set-piece in "Oliver!" where the workhouse boys vigorously express their desire for something interesting to eat. The time signature is therefore a march-time 4/4, but often with triplets on the second beat ("Food - GLO-RI-OUS - food"). It's by no means a predictable, disciplined march! So we had rehearsed it a few times and got it about right. But this is a novice choir, as yet unconfident in its skills. We marched all right through the intro, complaining about "groooo-ell", and swung with some relief into the famous tune.

So far, so (moderately) good.

Our mistake lay in giving the audience the words and expecting them to sing along. Oh, they did, don't get me wrong; they joined in with gusto. But the audience was much larger than the choir, and the audience didn't want to know about those unsettling and difficult triplets. They wanted a jolly good sing, nice and easy. Before we were halfway through the first verse, conductor, accompanist and choir had been railroaded out of the threatening march-time and into a nice cosy slow waltz.

I've been niggling over this phenomenon all weekend.

I'm sure that more than half the choir didn't actually know we had shifted from one rhythm to another, and if they did, like the audience they found it much easier to sing. Someone made the excuse, when I mentioned the shift, "Well, they were having fun singing." Yes, they were, and it was appropriate enough for a Methodist Harvest Festival supper, but it was certainly not the edgy message bellowed by Bart's hungry workhouse boys.

What I'm trying to work out is, did it matter?

This morning I remembered another famous musical, "Cabaret" where in the movie version a lyrical young tenor sings, "Tomorrow Belongs to Me". The swaying waltz time of the original Landler-style solo is gradually changed by Fascist soldiers joining in, until by the end of the song the phrase "tomorrow belongs to me" has become an aggressive march, threatening the sunshine with the dark days of the Third Reich. The majority of the audience takes over, to terrifying effect.

All of which should give food for thought to a creator, whether of music or of words. 

Connolly is quoted as having said: "Better to write for yourself and have no public than to write for the public and have no self."

Despite being a selfish git, I would rather like to fall somewhere between those two.

Sue's books can be found at her web site, Jackdaw E Books,

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Sammy the Philosopher

Yesterday our sheepdog, Sammy, aged 11 years and 6 months, was put to sleep. In his honour I'm reposting a piece I wrote about him when he was in the full vigour of his youth.


Sammy the Philosopher

Sammy is a red and white, longhaired sheepdog. Surprisingly for a dog, he is also a hero, a philosopher and a teacher.

He is ostensibly a purebred Border Collie, though he can’t claim all the lengths of a pedigree. I know  (though he doesn’t) that he only exists as an accident, due to a half day hiatus between his mother Molly arriving at the Collie Rescue Centre farm and his father Bob being taken to the vet’s for neutering. The moment Molly arrived on the farm, they got together and a litter of five was the result.

Both Molly and Bob were non-workers, which was why they were at Collie Rescue in the first place. They had been sent to find new homes where no sheep demanded responsible attention. Both found, happily, in due course and Bob is now doing agility tests and taking owners for walks, while Molly is generally being a rural but non-farming angel.

We intended Sammy to be the farm’s guard dog. Shep our previous sheepdog had died, after a long and effective existence. 

I am not sure that I really picked Sammy out of the litter. In the goat pens where his family lived at the time, there were two red girls and himself, and I am fairly certain it was one of the girls who came forward and introduced herself to me. But we’d had girls for twelve years along with all that “taking to the vet” stuff when they were molested by the local Romeos. We wanted a boy again, so Sammy it had to be.

He loved the car ride home, sitting on my husband’s knee and behaving with perfect decorum while I drove. Periodically he licked Graham’s face and ears with great enthusiasm. For weeks before he arrived the various animals of the farm had been admonished by my husband that they would have to behave “when my puppy dog comes.” He is still emphatically Graham’s dog, except when he misbehaves, when he becomes mine.

Back home on our yard Sammy attached himself to our ankles and waddled anxiously after us wherever we went. Unfortunately, because his destined role as guard dog meant he would have to spend his nights outside the house, he had to become accustomed to sleeping on his own; so we made up a bed, with straw and boxes, in the stable normally occupied by Mr T the Fell pony. We gave him water, and a meal mixed with ewe’s-milk-replacer powder just like at Collie Rescue; and we went about our business. Sammy howled and cried. And then stopped. Suddenly there he was, out on the yard again, investigating the midden and delightedly waddling after us once more. We blocked the gap in the door with a straw bale.

When we went indoors for the evening and left him in the stable, Sammy howled and cried again. We felt like child-murderers, even though he was a big well grown pup of ten weeks old and we were pretty certain he wasn’t going to fade away overnight. It was still a relief to go in early the next morning and find him bouncing with delight at seeing us again.

His first coat was rich brown with the classic sheepdog white collar, chest, muzzle, tail tip and socks. The short dense puppy coat turned into a long dense adult coat, fine and silky and remarkable for keeping itself clean in the dirtiest of weather; his long feathery socks are hardly ever anything other than pure white.

He wasn’t quite brave enough at first to clamber down the steps to the back door, so we have a lot of early photographs of him sitting wistfully on the top step, gazing down into the kitchen. We also pounced on him in passing and carried him indoors quite a lot. This was supposed to be so he could socialise with us and learn our commands. In reality it was just such fun having a pup around the place that we were quite unable to resist the temptation to play with him.

He learned very quickly that “Fetch” was a good game, and within a week of his arrival he was reliably bringing back all the toys that the family offered to throw for him. Lacking any hens to practise herding, and sternly told off for being too keen on sheep, he took to herding the family. He still does. He knows, now, that when people go out they will come back again, but nevertheless he sighs deeply when presented with the jingle of car keys, accepts very reluctantly that his group is divided, and goes to lie down somewhere and wait for our return to make the pack complete once more. This is all very well, but when we come home his insistence on trouser-browsing to find out the news from abroad can get a little wearing, especially on a wet winter day when he’d be better off snuggled down in the cart shed with the blackbirds and we’d be better off indoors with a hot coffee.

In his second summer, the brown shades in his coat bleached to foxy reds and blond highlights. In winter its density enables him to sleep out in the open, which he evidently prefers to sleeping in a building or a dog bed, though he retreats there to shelter from the rain. Whether due to the influence of ewe’s-milk-replacer powder, or just being a naturally vigorous young creature, Sammy has outgrown both his Mum and Dad and become what our farming friends call “a strong dog” with seemingly boundless energy.

Both his ears, at first, flopped over. In time, one stood up like a huntaway’s, but the other never managed to match it. This clownish lopsided appearance has set the character of most of Sammy’s escapades. When he began to grow his adult teeth, the chewing started. Sammy has adopted many strange toys in his life so far and one of his favourites is a worn-out rubber horse feed skip that had endured some fifteen or twenty years of being snuffled, chewed, picked up and stamped on by various ponies. Having eventually developed a split down one side, it was replaced, whereupon Sammy took it over as his chewing toy. Unfortunately this also developed in him a firm conviction that rubber was a good thing to chew. It led to us losing “the electrics” once from the car towbar, twice from the horsebox towbar, once from the tipper wagon, and twice from the trailer lighting board; from the horsebox brake lines, only once, thank God, after which I think he must have reasoned that brake fluid tasted really nasty and perhaps rubber was not such a good thing after all. Still, by persistence he has gradually removed both handles and all the sloping sides from the feed skip, and it is now a twelve-inch pancake that he will fetch, and throw at you, and demand that you throw, for him to fetch endlessly and throw at you again.

However, it was and is Sammy’s deeply held belief that the world is a sad place. Winter is the worst time; it preys on his philosophical mind. If nothing is happening outside, he sits sighing in the rain at the top of the kitchen steps. Stopping occasionally to shiver and whine, he observes us all dimly through the frosted glass of the kitchen door and is thrown into transports of delight when we reach for our boots and bend to put them on. Occasionally, when he thinks we have all gone out, I have heard him wind up from a whine to a howl, as he used to when a puppy. Solitude is his bane; attention his only goal. He cannot believe that he and you exist in the same dimension unless he has a minimum of one foot on you, or around your leg, and to ask him to exercise self control in this is equivalent to asking him not to breathe. Yet, if you advance on him for the ultimate in attention, a good grooming, he turns into a hedgehog, rolling on his back and paddling his long white-socked paws at you to keep you at a distance. Brushing with the pin-brush (the only implement that can get through his six-inch pelt) is an activity that, he tells us, was invented by the Devil. In Spring, the fine fawn-coloured piles that I rake out of his moulting winter coat could fill several cushions.

He is a most handsome animal now, silkily feathered and in the prime of his strength; a vital young dog, sleek of muscle, deep through the heart, with tremendous speed and agility. He has a jaunty bounce to his stride as he trots round the yard flashing his white socks. Yet despite his vigour and power he is still deeply worried that his pack will vanish if he does not keep it under tense surveillance, and Graham’s frequent remarks to him that he is “a hero” have a distinctly ironic flavour. True, if he were arrogant and haughty, the term would fit his appearance well, but his tendency to stick out the tip of his tongue and cock those lopsided ears would give him away. In fact, he is determined to put a brave face on his knowledge of the infinite sadness of the world. He is convinced that no human being can have, or has ever had, enough Fun, and inevitably that turns our Philosopher into Chief Clown. Because he is (of course) the only dog who knows the sad facts of life, it is his Heroic Mission to add Fun to everybody’s existence who comes within sniffing distance.

For example: most people who have dogs, throw balls or sticks for them. It must be a rare family that has, as we have, a dog who throws balls or sticks for us. When you go to feed in a morning, Sammy is there with a toy of some sort; he cares nothing for his breakfast and will allow the blackbirds to steal most of it while he attends to giving you the first of the day’s doses of Fun. He stands up against the feed chest, plonking his big white-feathered feet on the lid until you give him a morning cuddle; then when you lift the lid and reach in for food he will be there, dropping the toy inside, licking your face with his huge tongue, then looking keenly into the depths among the sacks and scoops, waiting for you to retrieve the toy for him. Take it out and tell him to go away? it just doesn’t work – he’ll  be right there dropping that toy in again. When on occasion you just don’t have time to retrieve such a slimy item, his disappointment is palpable. Put down the lid and walk away leaving the toy within, and he’ll sit down and stare at the chest in disbelief, as though a law of Nature had been suspended. Come in from work and cross the yard from the car, bearing a box full of groceries, and Sammy will be at, around or in front of your feet, uttering muffled greetings through his Santa Claus playball; and as you start down the kitchen steps he will throw the ball merrily to coincide with your descent. He can’t believe your curses are not friendly, and he doesn’t accept your refusal to throw it back; he will sit there looking intelligently down the steps at it until you give in and throw it back up to him. You see, he KNOWS you need to do it. He only has to wait till your Fun level drops to the point at which it needs a top-up. The game ends when you throw the ball far enough that by the time he’s retrieved it, you have mastered your hysterics and shut yourself indoors.

You may think that this comedy is all due to us being a load of softies: that the whole family is daft to humour a fool of a dog, and spoil him rotten. Not so. Let a stranger appear on the yard and Sammy will be there, proving his worth in his originally intended role of guard dog. There is not a shred of aggression in this. He is genuinely interested in the unusual and will take considerable pains to investigate it, and therein lies the uncertainty for newcomers. I have seen three big delivery-men sit doubtfully in their wagon cab, staring out at the red-blond dog who waved his tail at them and stared right back. His perfect white teeth were bared in a cheerful grin and his sheepdog-keen amber eyes gleamed with what I knew to be a desire to share Fun. They just didn’t dare to put it to the test.

He is in charge of the yard. He’s probably the only dog in the world who does it by teaching the poor sad humans how to play. Bringing with him the immensely long rope on which he is tethered while we’re away, he will bounce and sniff and dance around the stranger. Uttering muffled wuffs through a mouthful of whatever toy he finds within reach, he almost always trips up the intruder in the friendliest fashion. The Jehovah’s Witnesses call him and his rope “The Reaper”. If I’m indoors, it isn’t Sammy’s bark that warns me of visitors; no, they announce themselves, with cries of, “Gerroff, dog! Giddoot, man!”

Sammy has no need to bark at strangers. He trains them instead to do what he requires. He is an excellent teacher, too; roofers, plumbers, children and postmen are usually trained in less than half a day to throw whatever toy he presents to them. Electricians and builders, so far, have been slower to respond. Busier? Or less intelligent?

Sammy’s out there now, panting in the summer sunshine, watching Graham move building materials around the yard; two red haired, fit animals filling the place with an atmosphere of health and vigour. Let him into the kitchen and he immediately occupies Graham’s bentwood chair, sitting up very straight and quivering with pride at being allowed to fill the Pack Leader’s place. Take him round the fields and he is a streak of lithe muscle, golden-red against the green grass, his white socks flying; he can gallop and leap and turn with dizzying speed and yet drop into statuesque stillness when told “Down” in the face of sheep. Give him company, let him be in on the act, and he is happy.

His one remaining ambition is to master the third dimension: the air. The red dog’s deepest wish is to be a Red Arrow, to rival the swooping swallows. April to September is spent in total concentration, attempting to match the grace and speed of the birds who dive-bomb him in defence of their family’s air space. It doesn’t matter that in this he singularly fails, and makes a complete fool of himself, because during those summer months our loveable philosopher, teacher and clown is honestly too busy to remember that the Life of Man is Sorrow.


Sue Millard's books almost all have a rural or equestrian background and can be found on her web site,

Her poetry pamphlet "Ash Tree" was published in August 2013 by Prole Books