A Week In The Life Of Eddie Jones

(As imagined by DAVE BROMAGE)

SUNDAY

THE Vunipola brothers both have knee injuries. Well, carrying around that sort of weight has got to put a strain on the old joints.

It’s a blow. Mind you, it means there’ll be more food to go around at dinner time! Have you seen the rest of my squad? They’re positively malnourished.

We’re big favourites to win the Six Nations but I know to my cost how complacency can make you slip up. So I order rubber safety mats in the showers for all.

MONDAY

I’M getting a lot of flak for saying in an interview that I’ll be reincarnated as an otter. But I bloody love those little critters.

We’re quite similar. Otters might look cheeky, cute and chubby-cheeked… but rile us up and we’ll have your fricking fingers off in a heartbeat. 

Also, I’m quite elusive and the best way of tracking me down is by searching for the pungent, fishy faecal deposits I leave in my wake.   


TUESDAY

FORMER Scotland coach Jim Telfer says I’m arrogant and disrespectful like Donald Trump. 

Well, I HAVE made England great again. Bigly. 

Telfer’s problem is he’s just a loser. Sad.

He’s even called Twickenham fans ‘poshos’. It’s totally unfair and inaccurate. I tell the head of the England Supporters Club what Telfer’s said and he damned near chokes on his black-truffle caviar blini.

WEDNESDAY

MIKE BROWN reckons his designer girlfriend Eliza Woodcock has made him a fashion icon. Hmmm, your head still looks like a potato, son. Now it’s just in a more expensive jacket.

George Kruis is the latest injury in training, following Anthony Watson.

“Hey, you either go tough or go home. If you want non-contact, play volleyball,” I tell my players. An hour later, I’ve got a rebellion on my hands. Maro Itoje’s set up the net and the lads refuse to get off court.

THURSDAY

IT’S great that Joe Marler is available to play for us just three weeks after breaking a leg.

He’s put it all down to drinking two pints of milk a day, while I reckon it’s got something to do with all the sea air he gets down in East Sussex.

Certainly beats the usual rugby-player routine of drinking aftershave and breathing in the smoke from the farts you’ve just lit.

FRIDAY

RUMOURS abound of cocaine use in rugby but there’s nothing like that in our squad. Our uber aggression and inflated egos are all natural, I promise.

Not like those football wimps. I read about Saido Berahino testing positive for MDMA. Suspicions were first raised when he was sent on a three-month training camp to Ibiza.

Berahino grew up in Burundi, which is ranked as the second unhappiest place on the planet. Behind Stoke.  

SATURDAY

WE may get called arrogant but it’s hard to be modest when you’re as terrifyingly brutal as we are.
I’ve been building up talk of war this week, because I figured that was all I needed to do to make the French surrender.

Mind you, for a while it looks like we’re the kind of soldiers who shot themselves in the foot. Luckily, Ben Te’o wins it for us in the end.

Fifteen in a row! No one can beat us! And I mean that in a real sense, not the Jurgen Klopp sense.

A Week Of Daft Sports Opinions

In a departure from the usual service, DAVE BROMAGE reviews a week of sports-based opinions, which are – to be frank – utter nonsense…

SATURDAY

OPINION: The London Stadium should be demolished to stop crowd trouble
OPINION HELD BY: Paul Fletcher

IT’S been extra lairy down at the ‘Ammers this season. Why? The new stadium, obviously. It’s that athletics track, you see? You’d think being given one of the most iconic stadia in the world for free would make fans happy but no. Just the sight of that red tarmac strip makes beered-up yobs so full of rage that they can’t help throwing pint glasses and punching visiting – and often home – supporters in the face. In true East End fashion, they only hurts their own (and them’s what deserves it).
The evil, bewitching athletics track is the only conclusion we can draw for this. It’s not like West Ham have a history of violence so infamous that they made a Hollywood movie about it. Or that, as recently as May, they gave Manchester United’s team bus a ticker-tape reception – albeit using coins, bottles and masonry when they ran out of paper.
The only solution, so says former Burnley chief exec Fletcher, is to knock down the entire stadium and start again. I’m envisaging a chilled-out paradise, with the uncomfortable plastic seats replaced by massage chairs close enough so fans can stroke the wingers’ hair as they gambol down the flanks, while a panpipe version of I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles plays over the Tannoy.
Damn the Olympic legacy. Damn it to Hades. We all remember the London riots started in 2012 when shot put fans kicked off because their faves were out in that green bit in the middle.

SUNDAY

OPINION: Telling your boss to “F*** off” is fiiiiine
HELD BY: The FIA

SEBASTIAN VETTEL put the F back into F1 at the Mexican Grand Prix, with a mid-race, expletive-filled rant at cocky teenage upstart Max Verstappen.
It’s not uncommon for an 18-year-old lad, filled with the sense of invincibility which comes from passing his driving test, to drive like – to use Vettel’s words – “a c**t”. So I can fully imagine Verstappen, whose inflated ego has been further validated by being paid £25,000 a race, is a total nightmare.
Yet Vettel didn’t just vent his ire at the Belgian boy racer, he subsequently told race director Charlie Whiting to: “F*** off. Seriously, f*** off.”
FIA president Jean Todt launched an investigation into whether Vettel had brought the sport into disrepute… then decided the German shouldn’t face any punishment. At all.
It prompted all the other drivers to yell: “What the f***? Are you f***ing kidding us, you f***ing idiots?”
The precedent has been set, though, so there’s nothing the FIA can do.

MONDAY

OPINION: England and Scotland should not wear poppies
HELD BY: Fifa

THE FA rightly asked the question: “Why is the poppy banned as ‘a political symbol’, when Ireland were allowed to wear a badge commemorating the Easter Rising?”
“Were they?” responded Fifa, before looking into it and fining the hell out of Ireland. Well, that didn’t quite go to plan. Sorry, Ireland.
Of course, the poppy is not a political symbol. At least not until next year when anybody not wearing one can be jailed for six months.
The FA – showing hitherto undetectable ballsiness – is determined to defy the ban. England players will wear black armbands with a poppy insignia when they take on Scotland next Friday.
That doesn’t go far enough for me. If you really want to stick it to Fifa, go the whole hog and change the entire kit. Get Wayne Rooney sitting on the bench like this guy…

poppy-man-2

TUESDAY

OPINION: Religion is not to be mocked
HELD BY: British Gymnastics

LOUIS SMITH mocked Islamic prayer in a video. And everyone knows you mustn’t mock prayers because otherwise they won’t work.
Ahem.
Aaaanyway, despite apologising, putting up with daily death threats, going on a UK-wide tour or mosques and being publicly flogged on Loose Women (as June Sarpong rang a bell and shouted “Shame” repeatedly), Smith landed a two-month ban for blasphemy from British Gymnastics chiefs.
He broke their code of conduct, which is presumably chiselled on to a stone tablet from the 7th Century and states that: “No gymnast shall mock any religion, suggest praying is silly, laugh at the idea of suicide bombers receiving 72 virgins in the afterlife, or deny the existence of fairies, unicorns or flying reindeer.”
Conclusive, then – and definitely not a case of Islam receiving special protection. Definitely not.
After making their ruling, British Gymnastics chiefs probably went out to watch award-winning musical Book Of Mormon. Hahaha! Stoopid Mormons.
Depressingly, despite having the muscles of a daddy-long-legs, the agility of an ancient sycamore and an inelasticity which makes it impossible for me to touch my upper shins, let alone my toes, it’s my antitheistic columns which are most likely to stop me representing Team GB on the pommel horse.

WEDNESDAY

OPINION: Jamie Vardy is not a natural goalscorer
HELD BY: Michael Owen

BECAUSE lucky Vardy scored 28 goals last season by closing his eyes, hitting and hoping. It’s easily done, really.
It’s a bit embarrassing when someone labels a prolific scorer of goals as “not a natural goalscorer”. Just ask Glenn Hoddle, who once said the same thing about… erm… Michael Owen.
The notion of a naturally occurring goalscorer is an intriguing one. You either score goals or you don’t. If a player scores lots of goals over the course of his career, then suggesting he’s somehow done it unnaturally is just plain weird, Michael.

THURSDAY

OPINION: Ex-Olympic fencers shouldn’t make rules on Brexit
HELD BY: The Daily Mail

GENERALLY, this isn’t actually a bad rule. UNLESS, since their Olympic appearance, those fencers have spent nearly 30 years studying intently the minutiae of British constitutional law, as Sir Terence Etherton has. In which case, it’s fine.
The Mail didn’t seem sure we could trust fencers to be impartial on European matters. En garde? Épée? Flunge? All sounds very French…
Sir Terence and his two fellow wiggy mates ruled that the Government must consult Parliament before pushing the big red Article 50 button.
Theresa May is appealing against the ruling because she can’t accept that she lost, refuses to get over it, and is now hell bent on going down different avenues until she gets the result she wants. Brexiters back her fully.
Both May and Boris Johnson have said that the judges’ decision changes very little and that the emphasis is still very much on getting out of Europe as quickly as possible.
They have approached Jose Mourinho for advice. Hur hur hur.

FRIDAY

OPINION: David Moyes was actually pretty good as Man United boss
HELD BY: David Moyes

OH Moyesy, you can be forgiven a touch of schadenfreude at Mourinho’s United foundering in Europe and lying below Watford in the Prem table.
But you’d look less of a div expressing it if you hadn’t just set the record for the worst start in Premier League history.
Think it through, Davie, yeah?

Catholic Church 0 Bromage 1 (Catholic og)

POPE FRANCIS, Mother Teresa, Bloody Mary, Cardinal George Pell, the Borgias, Joseph Ratzinger, the Spanish Inquisition, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the Virgin Mary, the scary monk played by Paul Bettany in The Da Vinci Code, the Singing Nun, erm, God, Father Dougal… can you hear me? Father Dougal, your boys took one hell of a beating!

It’s an upset to end all upsets to be sure, but apparently in my last column I successfully managed to bully the Catholic Church – the largest denomination of the largest religion on the planet. Go little ol’ me!

According to David Morson’s letter to the Observer on February 11, my outpourings were “a chilling reminder of the worst form of inflammatory and bullying rants designed to galvanise opposition to minority groups by some 20th Century authoritarian regimes”.

And there I was, thinking I was merely arguing that religious institutions should not indoctrinate children in state-funded schools. In reality, I was coming over all Adolf Hitler. Remember him? The guy whose Roman Catholic upbringing forged his belief that the Jews should be punished for their Christ-killing ways?

What form did this alleged bullying take? Did I give the Pope a wedgie and steal his lunch money? Did I threaten Catholics with eternal torture in the fiery pits of Hell? That would have been out of order.

No, a little light mockery and calling out religious leaders for targeting the ductile minds of children was enough to get me chucked in with the likes of Pol Pot, Josef Stalin and the Kim dynasty.

It takes mere milliseconds these days for certain religious quarters to whip out the victim card in the face of criticism.

Firstly, I’m not apologising for having a dig at religious “fairy tales”. For example, the Catholic tenet of transubstantiation – the belief that wafers and wine literally transform into Christ’s flesh and blood inside your body – is clearly nonsense, should be rightfully mocked and has no place being taught to children as fact even outside of taxpayer-funded schools. If you don’t want your beliefs ridiculed, don’t hold ridiculous beliefs.

That Mr Morson went on to insist that the Catholic ethos is not only compatible with but also beneficial to science is laughable.

Tell that to Giordano Bruno. No, wait, you can’t, he was burnt at the stake by the Catholics for questioning transubstantiation and believing the Earth went round the Sun.

In the case of the Catholic Church, whose record on child welfare has in recent years been shown up to be (understatement alert) a bit iffy, the myth of a war on religion is a diversionary tactic, an example of DARVO (Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender).

Indeed, there was something peculiarly apt, if rather sobering, about the fact that Mr Morson’s letter was published on the same day the Vatican (possibly still punch-drunk from my withering, bullying attack)  issued guidance to its priests that the clergy were not obliged to report child abuse.

Now THAT’S a chilling reminder – that powerful institutions must be held to account and that people shouting “persecution” where no persecution exists should not make us feel cowed into giving these organisations a free pass.

After all, many religious people have reconciled themselves with the idea that the vast majority of humans will end up suffering for eternity.

To quote the fantastically forthright critic of religion Helen Pluckrose: “If your religion states an intention to do me horrific harm, how dare you claim you are the one being victimised by my verbally expressed disapprobation?

“If I were supporting a regime that intended to round you up and subject you to horrendous brutality for not sharing my worldview, I am sure you would have something to say about this.”

I don’t write my religious-bashing columns for the likes of Mr Morson, in any case. I write them for those who may be wavering in their faith, confused about why the stories they were taught in their childhood don’t hold up to any kind of scrutiny. I’ve been there.

I’m not arrogant enough to think I could deconvert anyone, but I hope I can offer some comfort to anyone worried about the consequences of losing their faith. It’s fine. Genuinely. In fact, it’s more than fine. After the initial, short-lived, feeling of embarrassment that you were taken in for so long, it’s great, freeing, and opens up a world of awe and opportunity.

The angry letters in response to my columns, however, replete with logical fallacies, occasional vitriol and repeated irrationality, do more to show up religion as an ill-thought-out human construct  than my writing could ever do.

I’ve spoken to a surprising number of readers about the confused word salads that my columns provoke and one phrase crops up over and over: “That letter was a bit of an own goal, wasn’t it?”

So, please, do keep responding. Here’s another through ball – feel free to boot it into the back of your own net.

Let’s ignore Bremain ‘experts’ and their shameful fact-based scare tactics

(This column was published in the Herts & Essex Observer on May 19, 2016)

PROJECT FEAR! Are you, like me, infuriated by the Bremain campaign’s strategy of trying to scare us into staying in the European Union?

Hardly a day goes by without us hearing dire warnings from the likes of Prime Minister David Cameron, Governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney, head of the IMF Christine Lagarde, US president Barack Obama and the heads of state of our other allies, former chiefs of Nato, the London School of Economics, MoneySavingExpert’s Martin Lewis, the RSPB, the National Trust and other leading environmental groups, Professor Stephen Hawking and other eminent scientists, top health professionals and researchers, travel firms and airlines… well, the list is endless.

These so-called ‘experts’ indulge in hyperbolic exhortations about how Brexit would have a detrimental, if not downright ruinous, effect on the UK in terms of the economy, the environment, our health, our standing in the world and our security, not to mention peace across the continent in general.

I am appalled at the fearmongering by people whose only right to talk about the subject on which they are pontificating seems to be years of research and study and a so-called ‘expertise’ in these matters.

Well, I’ve never been one to scare easily. I’m more willing to listen to Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Iain Duncan-Smith and Nigel Farage, who dismiss these doomy portents with a haughty exhalation and a dismissive flick of the wrist.

I’ll admit, I’d be more assured if they offered facts to support their rejection of the claims of these so-called ‘experts’ but, as one fellow Brexiteer opined wisely in conversation the other night: “You don’t need facts. It’s just common sense.”

Indeed, did we need facts when Britain owned half the planet? Rarely. The only fact one needed was that the British Empire was bally marvellous. Rule Britannia! Britannia rules the waves! We could have that again, you know, if we weren’t shackled to the anchor that is the EU.

How dare Cameron claim that a Leave vote on June 23 would plunge us immediately into World War III and a catastrophic nuclear holocaust from which the planet would never recover? Or words to that effect. I didn’t hear the speech first hand, merely read the analysis by Leave.EU – and it’s not like them to erect straw-man arguments just so they can tear them down.

Of course, Brexit could precipitate the break-up of the EU, as others decide to follow the UK’s lead. The worst that could happen then is that a bloc of countries – many with increasingly Far Right-leaning governments, with nationalist agendas rather than a co-operative, Europe-wide one – is left in its wake. And who’s to say that’s a bad thing? That type of scenario hasn’t caused an issue in Europe for 98 years (if you discount World War II).

Such tactics won’t put us off. Why should it?

It’s time we stopped being governed by fear. Everywhere you turn, there are signs warning of potential dangers. Our friends, our parents, our teachers and others in authority can’t stop themselves dispensing their cautionary pearls of wisdom, which come with the implication that disaster may follow if such advice is not heeded.  

What we need to do in these situations is seek counsel from elsewhere. From those who tell us everything’s going to be all right. So let’s ignore anti-Brexit, anti-Britain, half-Kenyan Obama. At least Donald Trump is very much in favour of the Leave campaign.

So, too, are Marine Le Pen – leader of Le Front National in France – and Russian president Vladimir Putin.

These are the folk we should be listening to.

I know I’ve always found it useful, when my friends warn me against doing something rash, to turn instead to a cabal of assorted bigots who reaffirm my pre-existing convictions.

If Trump doesn’t become President and the American electorate chooses Hillary Clinton – who agrees with Obama that the US would trade with the EU ahead of an isolated UK – then screw ’em.

We don’t need the USA, either. We’re quite capable of negotiating trade deals with the likes of China and Saudi Arabia. Russia, too, will certainly be more amenable to doing business with us in the event of Brexit. No issues there.
The fact that there is not one reputable study which concludes we will be better off out is irrelevant. But our allies and so-called ‘experts’ advising us against Brexit is troubling.
It goes without saying that the EU is 100 per cent bad. Even the Remain camp admits there are massive flaws with it, which proves the point.
So, what have the naysayers got to gain by us staying in? Far better not to take their consternation at face value and instead believe there is some sinister-yet-nebulous benefit for them that isn’t for the greater good.

It may appear that shouting “Project Fear”, “Scaremongering” or “Boogeymen” every time the Remain campaign raises a seemingly valid concern is merely a diversionary tactic – albeit one as effective as the whistling of a man at a busy urinal trough who remembers all too late that he had asparagus for lunch.
But this climate of trepidation needs to end. Ignore the pessimists and doom merchants.
Drink that one for the road, date that convicted wife beater, put all your chips on black, take out that pay-day loan, eat those prawns with the January use-by date, pet that hungry ocelot, stick that fork in the toaster and live your life.
Vote Brexit without fear. What’s the worst that could happen?

State-sanctioned life support for our dying church

(An edited version of this article was published in the Herts & Essex Observer in January 2016)

I’M always a little suspicious when a church leader is supremely confident about something against all the evidence.I know, I know. I shouldn’t be. This “faith in something being certain despite all available data pointing towards the contrary” is kinda their thang.

But still, we’re not talking about the concept of an ethereal creator controlling the lives of his human puppets here. What’s got my skepti-senses tingling is the Anglican church’s reaction to something for which the evidence against is even more damning: that the Church of England is not dying.

Figures released last month showed that CoE attendances had dipped below one million. Sunday attendances were down to 764,000 (take out the number of district councillors and it’d probably be double digits).

The demographic of church members is hardly rosy, either. The majority are old. Really old. Bruce Forsyth, Duke of Edinburgh, Mumm-Ra from Thundercats old. And a church made up mainly of ancient parishioners does not seem to have much cause for optimism – at least, not here on Earth.

Younger generations, particularly those between 18 and 40, are increasingly irreligious. And this atheism and agnosticism is sticky: A child raised in a non-religious household is far more likely to be non-religious in adulthood than a child raised in a religious family will continue to believe in God once they have grown up.

As the godless heathens breed, so the number of Christians will decrease. In fact, if the current downward spiral continues, UK-born Christians will be extinct by 2067.

Yet the Archbishop of Canterbury is not all doom and gloom. Yes, he admits, one per cent of his congregation dies off every year. Yes, he admits, things will continue to get worse before they improve. But, he claims, they will improve and more people will be drawn to the church in the next few years.

How is he so cocksure of this?

The Most Rev Justin Welby explained: “It is easy to paint a very gloomy picture. In this country, many talk of the post-Christian society but the CoE educates more than a million children in our schools…”

Ah, so this is the plan. Get ’em while they’re young. 

He may as well have said: “We can’t get grown-ups to believe our fairytales any more, so we have to indoctrinate them early.”

For the only adults of whom you hear turning to Christ tend to have been recently either incarcerated, intoxicated or bereaved. The Church does a grand job as a safety net for the vulnerable in society.

And there are none so vulnerable as children, with their pliable, Play-Doh minds. People can’t be forced to go to church but they do have to go to school – and this is increasingly the CoE’s only recourse of survival.

Let’s be blunt: If religious leaders (of all faiths) truly, TRULY believed their god was the right one, they would be confident enough to let children mix with those who thought otherwise.

Teaching children provably false stories (never let me sit through a Nativity play with a QI klaxon) at school is an artificial way of keeping the movement alive – a disingenuous life-support machine.

It was ever thus, of course. But it seems more sinister now, as the country’s population becomes demonstrably less religious, while efforts to inculcate kids double.

It could be seen as a drastic manoeuvre in its death throes – the last whip of the tail of Tolkien’s mortally wounded Balrog.

But, in this Conservative government, the Church has a State perfectly willing to go along with the plot.

Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, for example, seems to be delighting in her role as a Boudicca-style heroine, fighting off the secularists in their War on Christianity.

Last week, the resilient minister slapped a ban on “vexatious” campaigns aimed at stopping state-funded schools discriminating on religious grounds in their admissions criteria.

Oddly, of the 42 schools the Fair Admissions Campaign took to court, 41 were found to be acting illegally.

Yet rather than reform the system, Morgan wants to prevent these troublemakers from digging up any more dirt so that this educational apartheid can continue.

Full disclosure: My son attends a CoE school. As I discussed in a previous column, this may suggest hypocrisy on my part but also highlights the distinct paucity of provisions for non-believers. We’re lucky our school does not do as St Mary’s Catholic School in Stortford does, and select 100 per cent of pupils on a religious basis.

For St Joseph’s primary, “any other applications” (ie non-religious) is the 12th criterion of a very Catholic-heavy selection process.

Now, I don’t know why a non-religious parent would want to send their child to a school which states “Catholic doctrine and practice permeate every aspect of the school’s activity” (how’s that work for science, by the way? Or PE?). But nevertheless, its discriminatory nature is not becoming of a state-funded organisation.

That’s not to say St Joe’s is acting illegally. Hell no, Morgan wants more of these schools, of different religions, each teaching their faith, their denomination, as correct (with all others therefore wrong).

And the Government wonders why society isn’t as cohesive as it might be.

This isn’t the first time the evangelical Morgan has sided with religion over the wishes of parents and the findings of the courts.

In December, after humanist families won a High Court case, with the Government judged to have acted illegally by excluding non-religious worldviews from the curriculum, the Education Secretary issued guidance to schools in which she doubled down on her position.

High Court, Schmigh Court!

Schoolchildren, she asserted, should be taught that Britain is a Christian country, which is becoming something of a desperate mantra among the more fundamentalist members of the Tory party.

It’s a shame that only 1.7 per cent of the population agree with her enough to bother going to church.

And a shame that those of us who don’t believe in God are being told constantly that this nation is not our own.

Dismal December is a doggy delight

(This article was published in the Herts & Essex Observer on December 14, 2015)

DECEMBER is dismal. While the prospect of the fun-filled festive season keeps it ahead of November and January in the rankings, December is still a bland, chewy filling, barely indistinguishable from the bread encasing it in this wintry-month sandwich.Yet in spite of the stress of preparing for Yuletide and the depressing onslaught of dreary weather, I have found solace in the great outdoors.
In Decembers past, I have used temperatures below five degrees Celsius, deep puddles everywhere and the fact my car’s auto headlights stay on until 10am, then come back on by 2pm as excuses to stay huddled indoors.
But with a dog in the family now, this is not an option – so Dotty and I trudge gamely around the muddy fields around our home on a daily basis.
Whether it’s the fresh air, the (admittedly homeopathic) dose of Vitamin D from the milky disc in the sky or the bonkers company of an ever-enthusiastic Labrador, I don’t know, but I find our walks incredibly therapeutic.
Without snow (and don’t get me wrong, I DO NOT want snow), the landscape is overwhelmingly brown – muddy fields flanked by trees with bare branches.
And, yet, to describe this scene as barren or desolate would be a mistake. It just takes a little more time and effort to appreciate the plethora of life that is still at large.
A wren, nearly trampled by my size-11 Wellington, is flushed out of a tussock of grass, hurtling across the path of Dotty, who gamely leaps in a vain attempt to grab it in her jaws.
A clamour of rooks takes off from the adjacent field. I scan the vicinity for the catalyst and note a gigantic buzzard flying low, as if strafing the muddy furrows. That’d do it.
A kestrel sits magisterially on a branch ahead of us, until it deems me and my four-legged loose cannon too much of a risk, its nerve buckles and it soars away from us as we approach – taking up another perch further down the track.
A flock of who-the-hell-knows lifts up too, 30 or so little brown jobs, briefly scuttling this way and that through the air in controlled panic before settling down in the middle of the field, where they vanish like ghosts. Their camouflage is so unsettlingly effective, I wonder whether I have dreamt it.
Next comes the glorious sight of a male bullfinch, its fuchsia belly plump with all the berries it is guzzling.
As we pass a patch of tall grass to our right, Dotty’s presence causes scores of small birds to take wing from their ground-based hiding places. They congregate like fire-drill evacuees on nearby headgerows and shrubs. They are linnets and yellowhammers, birds which – particularly the latter – are on my ticklist of signs that spring is in the air.
That’s clearly not the case here but at least now I know where they go to in the winter, silently waiting for the cold, the wet, the weakness of an Arctic sun to pass before they can once again fill the vernal air with their melodies.
I am content.
Then a plop in a brook ahead alerts Dotty to a potential threat or, more likely in her case, a potential meal.
As I join her on the bridge, I glimpse it all too briefly, hurrying towards its escape tunnel – a water vole! I have rarely felt as lucky to live where we do.
Dotty has added a whole new dimension to my countryside exploration. I’ve seen things I’ve never seen before, taken routes I’ve never even thought about taking before – all thanks to our dog.
As long as I don’t think too much about it being largely down to her following her nose, sampling the aromas of urine left by the other canines in the area, it won’t lose its magic.
So goodbye to dark, dismal, desolate December – this year it’s a doggy delight.

The wit and wisdom of Toby, aged 4

AT the start of 2015, Fran had the smart idea of writing down funny things Toby said and putting them in a jar. Over Christmas, with family all present, we opened it up. What follows is a small selection of the wit, wisdom and quite often downright confusion of our wonderfully amusing, dinosaur-obsessed, nature-exploring four-year-old…

The time Toby gave a cute role play game a subversive twist…

Toby: I’m a doctor. I’ll look after your owie foot, Daddy.
Dave: Thanks, Doctor.
Toby: But I’m only pretending to be a doctor. I’m actually a baby velociraptor.

When he looked into the future…

T: One day, when I’m bones, then maybe a paleontologist will dig ME up.

When dinosaurs were all he thought about…

(Driving past a pub)
Fran: I find that pub quite… what’s the word? Begins with P.
D: Poncey?
F: No.
D: Pretentious?
T (chipping in from back seat): Parasaurolophus?

When words are confusing…
T: Mumma, you know there’s two-gether and there’s four-ever? What’s in between?

When he finally told us something about what goes on at school…

D: Tell me about Adrian. What do you like playing with him?
T: Star Warts.
D: Er, don’t you mean Star Wars?
T: No, no. Star Warts.

When he suspected gender politics were at play…

T: Florence was Star of the Day. I think it’s because she’s a girl.

But he is a feminist really…

T: Some of my cuddlies are male. But the super-cool ones are female.

When he bigged me up…

(Watching Monsters Versus Aliens)
General W.R. Monger: And this is Dr Cockroach. He has the most brilliant mind in all the Universe.
T (shouting at the TV): No he doesn’t! My Dadda has!

But he’s not averse to telling it to me straight…

(Tucking Toby in on the night Fran left for two weeks in Zambia)
T: Remember, Daddy, I’m in charge.

D: Have you missed Dadda, Tobs?
T: Yes.
(long pause)
T: Not really much.

(After waking up Fran in the spare room)
F: How did you know I was in here?
T: That’s where you always are when Dadda’s annoying.

(Playing the geography card game Mapominoes)
D: If I were you Tobs, I’d put Slovakia there.
T: If you were me, you’d put Slovakia there. But if I was I, I’d put Germany here!
(places Germany card with a flourish)

And I’m not the only one who gets it…
T: I can’t sleep. Something is keeping me awake.
F: Oh bubs, what’s keeping you awake?
T: You are, Mumma. Can I PLEASE have some quiet?

T: Have you been making stuff again?
F: No.
T: But you’ve got glitter in your hair.
F: Have I?
T (pulling one grey hair): Yes, this long bit at the front.

T: Ohhh!
F: What’s the matter, Toby?
T: I’m just making another puppet but there’s a problem. I’m trying to do Grandad Colin but I’ve drawn on some hair and Grandad Colin hasn’t got any.

When he had a visitation in his sleep…
T: Daddy, I need to tell you about my dream because God came to visit me three times.
D: Er, what?!
T: He was very friendly to me.
D: Er, what?!
T: And he didn’t want to eat me. But he did try to eat Buzz and Woody.
D: Sorry, Tobs, WHO was in your dream?
T: Scud, the dog from Toy Story.

What he really thinks of religion…

F: What’s your idea of Heaven, Tobs? Who would be there?
(pause)
T: Dead people?

When his attempts at magic fell flat…

T: This isn’t a real wand. Look. Abracadabra, into a koala.
(points stick at Tiffin the dog, who does not turn into a koala)
T (shrugging): See?

When he invented an eight-day week…
T: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Catday, Sunday…
D: Woah! Hold up – what’s Catday?
T (impatiently): Catday! When all the cats lay their eggs and then the children eat them and then… go to bed.
D: But cats are mammals. They don’t lay eggs.
T: The mummy ones do!

When he was very helpful…
F: Argh! Mumma’s so messy!
T: Did you know, there’s an advert on television that has something you can put in the washing machine that makes things all better and it comes out clean again?

He’s always immersing himself in nature…

(Driving through the countryside)T: Tick… tick… tick, tick, tick, tick, tick-tick, tick-tick-tickticktickticktick…
D: What are you doing, Tobs?
T: I’m ticking off all the things that are green.

D: I was pretending to be a hyena, sneaking up on you to see what scraps you’d left. And Mumma was a vulture, swooping in. I think you were a lion, eating your fill.
T (very confused): Who’s Phil?!

T: When I go to the zoo with a lion and an elephant, I think I will have to wear my ear defenders.

(Playing I-Spy in the car)
D: I spy with my little eye, something beginning with H.
T: Horseshoe worm?

(First-ever go at ‘Guess which animal I am’)
D: Do you have four legs?
T: Yes.
D: Are you a mammal?
T: Yes.
D: Do you have fur?
T: Um, no.
D: Are you extinct?
T: Um… Mummy, are pigs extinct?

(Discussing photosynthesis)
D: And do you know how we produce carbon dioxide? It’s something we do all day, every day.
T: Eating?
D: No.
T: Blinking?
D: No – it’s something you do even when you’re asleep.
T: Spinning around?

(Another game of Guess Which Animal I Am)
F: Do you have two legs?
T: Yes.
F: Are you a herbivore?
T: Yes.
(Lots more questions)
T: I’ll give you a clue… I have a really long neck. And I like leaves.
F: Toby, are you a giraffe?
T: Yes!
F: But you said you had two legs.
T: I do have two legs. And another two.

When he wondered about war…

D: Would you like to wear a poppy, Tobs?
T (sadly): I would… but I can’t remember anyone who’s died.

(Watching a trailer on TV)
T: Is that man in the middle the man who doesn’t like anybody?
D: Er, what do you mean?
T: When there was all the fighting.
D: You mean, ‘Is that Hitler?’
T: Yes.
D: No, Tobs. It’s Alan Sugar.

When he scared himself to death…

(After half an hour quiet in bed, there’s a panic-stricken yell)
T: Mumma! MUMMA!
F (hurtling upstairs, fearing an intruder in his room): Yes, Toby?
T (sitting on edge of his bed): Mumma… I can’t feel my pulse.

And there were a few tantrums, too…

(Going in to Sainsbury’s)
T: Are we going to buy some woggles?
F: What?
T: Woggles, Mumma. Are we buying woggles?
*long pause*
F: What?
T: Woggles, Mumma. Everyone has woggles!
F: Hmm.
T: I would like some green and yellow ones.
F: What do you do with woggles?
T: EVERYBODY HAS THEM!
F: Toby, I just don’t know what you mean. I’m sorry.
T: WOGGLES, Mumma! WOGGLES! I want some WOGGLES!
F: Toby… darling…
T: WOGGLES, MUMMA! WOGGLES ON YOUR FACE! EVERYONE AT SWIMMING HAS THEM.

(In Stortford on carnival day, Toby spots lots of kids with weird toys – essentially floating snakes on sticks)
T: I want one of them.
D: Well, you can’t have one.
T: But I REALLY want one.
D: You’ve just had your birthday. Didn’t you get enough presents then?
T: No. I want more.
D: That’s very ungrateful. You need to realize that you’re really very lucky. Do you know Patience we’re sponsoring in Africa. Do you know what she gets for her birthday? A rock and a stick.
(a beat)
T: But I want a rock and a stick!

He is down with pop culture…

(Listening to Lady Gaga)
T: Why does she want you to poke her face?

And was occasionally rude…

(Very loudly, while using the iPad on a plane)
T: These are called COCKS!
(Cue hurried checking of the iPad, only to see he’s looking at a picture of people playing badminton).

T: What are the rules of rugby? Can you use your hands?
D: Yes.
T: Oh good. I like to use my hands when I’m playing with my balls.

And he never shirked big questions…

INT: A gents’ toilet)
T: What’s that Daddy?
D: Erm.
T: What’s that, Daddy?
D: Keep walking.
T: But what’s THAT, Daddy?
D: It’s a machine.
T: What kind of machine?
D: It sells things.
T: What does it sell?
D: Never you mind.
T: WHAT DOES IT SELL?
D: Condoms, Toby. Condoms.
T: What are condoms?
D: They’re something you use if you want to avoid awkward questions five years later.

D: It’s up to you what you believe. All I would ask you to do is never stop being inquisitive. Never stop asking questions.
T: OK Daddy.
(pause)
T: Why are there dogs?

T: You will keep me forever, won’t you?

When he misheard Mumma and had a panic…

(Mumma and Dadda’s bed, 6.40am, after complaining that he had woken up with a sore willy)
F: Toby, do you want me to sort out your willy or do you want to cuddle for a little bit?
(pause)
T (worried): Cut off a little bit?!