Toon and Country

Bemusement by phone is the only way I can describe my Fleet Street pal's reaction when I replied to his scornful inquiry: "So what have you been doing up there today in Sleepy Hollow?

Bemusement by phone is the only way I can describe my Fleet Street pal's reaction when I replied to his scornful inquiry: "So what have you been doing up there today in Sleepy Hollow? Decent lunch at the local?"

"Not at all," I sniffed... "Actually, I went to a farm sale," adding snootily for maximum impact: "On my bicycle."

You could sense my mate's astonishment. He blithely ignored the fact that I had been at this golden acre's biggest social gathering for years: hundreds of flat caps, Barbours and green wellies following a fast-talking auctioneer round a field as he knocked down lines of parked crop sprayers, tractors and even a £21,000 combine harvester ("fully taxed and MoT, as new, one careful lady owner") to the highest bidders.

"On your bicycle?" he gasped, admiringly. "That is so very Now!" He then proceeded to tell me that the latest PC (politically correct) campaign against the broadcast media was being waged by a pro-bike lobby group called Cycle England.

"They've spent four weeks watching soap programmes like Corrie and EastEnders," he said, "and discovered that while their inhabitants imbibed 498 alcoholic drinks and consumed 232 cups of tea in that time only four bike trips were ever mentioned."

Now I'm not sure what either cyclists or soapies will do with this info. Neither was my Fleet Street friend (and to think I once spent working hours worrying about that sort of stuff, too!) but we agreed that the statistic was a) significant, and b) undesirable.

I tried to tell him that Malcolm the Byreman's sale had gone very well and that Young Neil and I had picked up a second henhouse (going cheep!) to bolster our burgeoning egg business, but he seemed less interested in that than the prospect of seeing Ken Barlow riding a bike along Coronation Street. Honestly, rustic types like me don't know what the mad, mad media world is coming to any more.

SLEEPY Hollow, that heavenly hamlet in the quieter reaches of Paradise on Tweed I'm pleased to call home, has been hit by the sort of crime that would perhaps have baffled even the wisest old woman in St Mary Mead.

I refer, of course, to the heroic Miss Jane Marple, Agatha Christie's white-haired sleuth. And, dear reader, my intention is to adopt the mantle of Miss Marple in solving my own Mystery of the Poison Hen Letter.

The unstamped plain, white envelope - addressed to "Neil and Banksie" and undoubtedly the work of some twisted animal rights agitator with a grudge - was posted through my front door last week as I rehearsed the speech I was to make later that evening at Ford Carpet Bowls Club's annual prizegiving.

It contained an unsigned greetings card, inside which was a slip of paper bearing carefully-typed doggerel entitled Hettie's Lament, which began:

O where, O where has my little egg gone?

O where, O where can it be?

I was so proud of my very first-born,

So beautiful to see . . .

The "poison hen" letter is Crookham's first serious disturbance since the Deacon's clematis was pruned by a callous hand at dead of night (and that was two years ago). Its appearance coincided with the purchase by young Neil of a second henhouse, soon to expand our egg hatchery to a three-shift roster of 36 chickens and two exhausted cockerels.

Its arrival on my doormat yielded only two clues: the note arrived in the same hour as the Crookham Newsletter was delivered.

And the card in which it was contained had been sold in aid of the British Red Cross. As a result, two suspects spring immediately to mind, oh dear me yes! And, rest assured, with the support of the Wooler constabulary I shall spare not a single brain cell in pursuit of the villain.

To be continued . . .

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