Saturday, January 31, 2009

Mrs T's floral tribute

It's good to know that my correspondent from the Principality is still banging the rocks. She writes:-
Dear Mrs Bush - or may I call you Laura, I feel I know you so well? - I was very moved by your husband's little piece, I mean, his obvious pride in his periwinkle. I assume you will take some cuttings with you now that you have had to let your house in Washington to that Obama person. He doesn't look much like a gardener to me, dear, let alone a periwinkle lover.
Men, I am sure you will agree, need a hobby, otherwise they can "stray" so easily, can't they? Luckily, Mr Trellis, my late husband, had a hobby that absorb him totally. He used to lock himself in his "den", bless him, and play Wagner on his Pfafner gramophone, and then emerge pale and trembling, muttering about the Valkeries, whatever they were.
Well, I must let you get on. I hope your husband keeps his hand in, as I am sure you do. If you are ever in Llanfairpg, do call in and I will let you fondle my begonia.

Flower power

I don't wish to appear immodest, but I want to boast about my periwinkle. It is a gladsome thing, god wot, ready to bring joy and comfort in every month of the year. In fact, it's the only flower in my garden that has blooms in every month, although, of course, it is at its most vigorous during the warm season. As indeed I am myself. It is a plant that spreads. so that now I have periwinkles in most parts of the garden, and even on the verges of the footpath on the other side of my hedge.
But, much as I love my periwinkle, I have another love at this time of year. My snowdrops, Britain's answer to edelweiss, are just beginning to emerge. Just as we are about to enter a period of Siberian weather (February is always a treacherous month), the snowdrops are defiant. I have several clusters round the garden, front and back, so I am never short of a glimpse of this doughty flower.
It is not only beautiful in its own right, but it is an harbinger of better times to come. When snowdrops appear, can Spring be far behind? Well, in the case of East Anglia, probably another four bloody months at least. A long time to wait, but I will console myself with my periwinkle.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Let's hear it for Tyto alba!

The winter fens were at their best today: cold but dry, an altocumulus sky, good light and not too much wind. My colleague Peter and I had a late start, but we still managed to tick a few more items off our Winter Work List.
For example, we checked a box only put up last autumn, and were pleased to find evidence of occupancy (a fresh wet pellet). We visited a farm where we had advised on where to put boxes, and were delighted to see two boxes on poles, one of which already showed signs of occupancy. And we erected a new indoor box in a barn on another farmer's land.
Erecting a box doesn't sound like much, but every erection is different. Some boxes go on beams, some are set on brackets on side walls, some rest on cross-joists, and so on. This one was special. We had to drill holes through corrugated iron, two battens and the side of the box. Two bolts then held the box perfectly. We were well pleased.
OK, compared to winning the war against terrorism, solving the world financial crisis and finding a cure for melancholy, what we did today is no great shakes. But it's something we can achieve, unlike trying to tackle the three problems I just listed.
And now, in the glow of a warm evening after a good day, it's time for a glass of the good stuff. Cheers!

Flytipping Bastards

This morning, a woman with a black labrador stopped me in the road (The dog takes no further part in this anecdote) and told me that someone had dumped a whole load of rubbish in the drove (lane) which runs close to my house.
The rubbish included:
- a sofa
- an armchair
- a television set
- other assorted household implements
- several plastic sacks filled with goodness knows what.
- all kinds of cardboard boxes and similar detritus.

All the smaller items could have been taken to our local landfill site, which is no more than a mile from here.
All the larger items could have been collected by the municipal waste disposal department, all it takes is a phonecall.
So, my question is: why do people do this?
No, my question is: why don't we find and shoot the people who do this?
This kind of "fly tipping", which sadly is very common in the fens, can only be done by people who have no respect for the environment, and definitely no respect for their fellow-citizens. In other words, they have forfeited the right to be regarded as citizens, which is why I think we should shoot them.
I appreciate that this is not a sustainable opinion, unless you happen to be an Old Scrote like me. It is the privilege of Old Scrotes to have outrageous opinions, and I do recognise that it is the duty of the rest of you to ignore us.
Question: if you don't shoot these flytipping bastards, what is YOUR remedy?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Occlusal disharmony

Bugger, I never thought I would suffer from Occlusal Disharmony. In fact I had never even heard of it till this morning, when I visited my dentist with yet another tooth-breakdown.
It turns out that the disappearance of one tooth - in this case into a lump of Brie - can put the other teeth out of position, so that they no longer fit perfectly. It's as if some of your teeth have suddenly grown protrusions. And then it's like your teeth don't "fit" any more, and you are into occlusal disharmony.
What worries me is that the repaired tooth may not be "proud" enough, because some of my upper teeth are definitely not being friendly with their lower brethren.

I don't mind a good hard grind, but this is not quite what I had in mind.

Hit and miss

As I progressed through the decades, or down the arches of the years if you prefer. I gradually came to realise that one of my greatest faults was my tendency to set myself up for failure.
Today, guys, I am going to learn Turkish! Wrong! Didn't happen.
Today, guys, I am going to lose weight! Wrong! Didn't happen.
Today, guys, I am going to eat healthy! Wrong! Didn't happen.
Today, guys, I am REALLY going to memorise bird calls and song! Wrong! Didn't happen.
And so it goes: targets set, targets missed. So, the blessed moment came when I finally realised I should stop setting up the conditions for yet another failure. And since then, I have been much happier.
Does anyone have Barack Obama's email address? There's something I want to tell him.

Nostalgia is still what it used to be

Do you remember - no, of course you don't - those old boys in your village when you were growing up who would say, querulously, things like: "I can remember when you could buy a pint of beer, a packet of crisps and five Woodbines, and still get change out of a shilling"?
Well, now, sixty years on or so, it's my turn. I can remember....But hell let's not go there.
What I DO remember is the simplicity of life in Hadley, my natal Shropshire village. No, it's not just about distance lending "enchantment to the scene". Life really was much simpler, and part of that simplicity was that everyone knew everyone.
When I first came to my Cambridgeshire village, Haddenham, twenty-five years ago, I was struck my how similar it was to Hadley: same higgledy-piggledy architecture, same long High Street, same scatter of small family farms, and - eventually - the same friendliness as you walked up the High Street and stopped a half dozen times to "pass the time of day" with neighbours and acquaintances.
In those early adolescent Hadley days, I loved Alicia Ball. She is still living in Hadley, and we still chat on the phone from time to time. In my early seventies I still love her, thank God, but of course it's a different kind of love now, somehow deeper and dearer.
Nothing special, but as the years pass and your joints ache more and the people you once knew fall by the wayside one by one, it's wonderful to have someone with whom, even at a great distance, you can still share all the innocent joys of childhood.
Damn, I am getting maudlin. I need a drink.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Why DO we do it?!

When birders go for a blog round their local patch, what are they hoping for? Of course we are all different, and it may be that some are simply trying to get out of the house for while. But I think it's safe to assume that all of the following are on their wish list:

1 To be assured that all the species that ought to be there ARE there

This might seem like a very pedestrian objective, but 90% of birding chat is about what's missing, or what is present but in much reduced numbers.

2 To locate the less common ones that, for example, occasionally winter, or occur on passage

This involves a kind of Ray Mears Bushcraft, in other words, going to the right place at the right time because you are predicting that such and such a species OUGHT to turn up there sooner or later. I have been trying this winter for Waxwing and Great Grey Shrike, and still live in hopes. Today, I even had Rough-legged Buzzard and Short-eared Owl at the back of my mind.

3 To enjoy anything that counts as "avian spectacular"

We all enjoy large flocks of birds, the sky filled with a skein of geese or thousands of Golden Plover or the wheeling of Starlings going to roost. Under this heading too are what you might call dramatic encounters, such as the sight of a corvid mobbing a large raptor, or a Sparrowhawk pouncing on unsuspecting prey.

4 To find something REALLY rare and exciting

This, as you can appreciate, doesn't happen very often, and then only to the very best and most persistent birders. If you are ever lucky enough to come upon a rarity, make sure that someone else sees it. Otherwise two things will happen:- [1] others may not believe you; [2] you will eventually begin to think that you imagined the whole thing.

Go on, ask me how I got on on my blog round my local fen this afternoon. Go on, please! I satisfied 1, 2 and 3.

1 "Ordinary" birds were there - Mistlethrush, Reed Bunting, Yellowhammer, Linnets, Fieldfares, various gull and corvid species, and so on.

2 I managed to find FIVE Stonechats, a personal best for Haddenham fen. I also came across a feeding party of 10 Bewick Swans, which, though to be expected in the fens in winter, are very uncommon in my parish.

3 Spectacle there was a-plenty today after a long period when the fen has been very quiet. Apart from the hundreds of Fieldfares, I clocked up a flock of 2000 Golden Plover, and later a flock of 4000, though it's possible that the initial two thousand had joined up with another two thousand. Similarly, I lost count of Lapwings after 2000. Even corvids were making a contribution, with a feeding flock of a hundred Jackdaws, though what they were feeding on I cannot tell you.

As to 4, I guess the only rarity on Haddenham fen today was me:- I have been staying in the house lately because of the bitter cold weather and the delicate state of my bronchial tubes. But I returned home a very happy bunny.

Saturday, January 17, 2009


Thanks to my Parisian friend Suzanne B, I have become acquainted with Marcus du Sautoy and am battling my way through his book, The Music of the Primes, which gives an account of the search for an equation that will predict all the prime numbers. The fact that I don't understand most of it does not get in the way of my enjoyment, mainly because it gives me such a self-congratulatory buzz that I am even trying to read it at all.
Of course my genius daughter, Sarah, to whom I sent a copy, will romp through it nodding sagely all the while.
Once you get used to the idea that your kids are smarter than you are, it's not really so bad.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Mrs T extols the culinary arts.

She writes: So many postings! What a prophylactic person you are, Nigella! Or may I call you Mrs Lawson? You are so right about men's obsession with bosoms. The late Mr Trellis, when he was frisky, which was usually around mid-August, used to push mine together as if he was trying to turn them into a single mound, and then make appreciative noises, like "Ooh" and "Aah" and "Just like snuff". I have no idea what he meant by the last remark, but he was given to sneezing a lot in the summer.
As an enthusiastic cook myself, I am a great admirer of your culinary skills, but I would love to know how you manage to keep from spilling gravy and custard, etc, on your front, given that you are a bit of a bow-window in that department. Anyway, if you are ever in my neck of the woods, do pop in - or indeed pop out! Just my little joke, dear.

It's not all in the mind

Apparently my lovely ex-wife has finally seen my blog, thanks to her sister. And my lovely ex-wife's reaction was "He is obsessed with boobs!".
Moi? It is true that my lovely ex-wife, and indeed her sister, were well endowed in that respect, though that is not (necessarily) why I married her, or indeed why I admired her sister.
But, mes chers potes, my lovely ex-wife does have a point. My generation of bonny boys were indeed focused on the mammary attributes of females. Names that mean nothing to you - Jayne Mansfield and Jane Russell to name but four - were thrust in front of us, so to speak, inviting us to pant and drool. Which we did.
So it is not surprising that I have more than a vestigial interest. Apart from which, don't blame me, blame Evolution. What part of any female is most prominent? Well, if she is a baboon or a chimpanzee or other primate, it is her brightly-coloured bum. But with the human ape, it is the bumpy bits on the front.
Indeed, there is a quite serious theory that the human female's breasts are prominent (in contrast to the other primates, that is) as an attractant alternative to a bright purple rump, or whatever it is that causes a male baboon or chimpanzee to lose his cool. Personally, I am glad my lovely ex-wife had an ample bosom rather than a psychedelic backside.
What I mean, is don't blame me if I notice a bazoom. Moreoever, given the cunning structural engineering that has gone into the design of the modern brassiere (I wonder where that word comes from?), it is impossible for a man NOT to notice a bosom, or, in the worst case, get his eye poked out by one.

What was that you sang?

Much of birdwatching is in fact birdhearing. You hear the "butchers boy" whistle of a Bullfinch long before you locate the bird itself. In a wood, the Nuthatch announces its presence with a piping phrase, and it is only then that you seek to see it. A penetrating whistle from a watercourse draws your attention to a Kingfisher and with luck you may see it. And so on.
As this is Friday evening and I am in Old Scrote mode, I wish to complain to Whoever Makes the Rules In This Universe that I am losing the ability to hear the higher frequencies. So, for example, I can no longer hear Goldcrest, Treecreeper or Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. Even the pinging of Bearded Tits is getting harder for me to pick up.
There's no point in complaining of course. God clearly favours the young. If he didn't, my knees would still work properly.
But there could be a glimmer of hope, a technological breakthrough in fact. There is a machine called a Bat Detector that picks up the frequencies of batcalls that are inaudible even to the sharpest human ears, and you - or the people in the know - can identify the species from the pitch and other characterisics of what the Bat Recorder records. The Bat Detector can also be used to pick up the various calls of Crickets and Grasshoppers.
So, methinks, maybe I should buy a Bat Detector and thereby get a visual equivalent on the LSD of what I can no longer hear when a Goldcrest or a LSW warbles its "I'm home, dear!" message to the missus.
Bugger, I've just realised the flaw in my Cunning Plan: I might get a readout, but how will I know what species it represents? Have you noticed how often technology offers you a solution but then throws up problems to prevent you from benefiting from it?
All this because I bought a router a week ago, and I am STILL trying to get it to work.

A threnody for the chronologically afflicted

Why is it impossible to get out of an armchair these days without emitting a groan?
If you bend down to pick something up off the floor, why do you always look round to see if there's anything else you can usefully do while you are down there?
Why are your feet much farther away than they used to be when you clip your toenails?
Why do people speak so much less distinctly than they did in your young day?
Given fading memory, what's the point of making a shopping list when you are going to leave it behind anyway?
What is it about children that they progress from admiring you to considering themselves your equal to pitying you?
How do you explain the feeling of relief when the phone rings on a Saturday evening and you thank god it isn't for you?
What is it about mirrors that they insist on showing you an image of your father when you look into them?
What is it about young women that they no longer regard you as a threat?
Can anyone explain why clothes shrink while hanging in your wardrobe, so that they no longer fit you when you try them on?

If you choose to reply to this, please use a very LARGE type.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Erections on a cold day

What a day this Thursday has been! Overcast skies and a biting nor'east wind cold enough to freeze the knuckles off a pig's trotter, but Peter and I braved the elements to get two more Barn Owl boxes erected, and to inspect another site with existing boxes which need modification.

And in between, we had lunch with our old and good friend, Audrey C, who serves up a griddle-cooked bacon butty that would cause Nigella Lawson to stick her head in the microwave.

In case you think we are crazy, it's important to realise that over 80% of Britain's Barn Owls are now in boxes, given that the number of natural sites has diminished to a few hollow trees and the occasional derelict cottage.

So, as JFK pointed out, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask rather what you can do for your country's Barn Owls."

Or worms to that effect.

Anglian Water Insurance

It is 7 15 in the evening. I am just sitting down to my evening meal.
The phone rings and the following dialogue ensues:
Female voice: Is that Mr Allsop?
Me: Who are you? I don't recognise your voice.
FV: I am phoning from Anglian Water Insurance. You have a policy with us.
Me: I do, and I am very happy with it, but I don't want to discuss it right now.
FV: There's no need to be rude.
Me: I am not being rude. I just don't want to discuss it right now.
Phone goes down at the other end.

Is it just me, or is there something wrong with the above?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

People die.

In the last few years, I have lost so many friends, colleagues and lovers that I have become numb. What I have to remind myself of is that I am still here, for what that is worth.
Yesterday I received an email from the younger sister of a girlfriend - Beth - from my University days telling me that Beth had died. Beth and I had been together at Oxford and in Italy, but after that, we didn't meet until many years later, when we spent a day together (in Oxford, appropriately) reliving old times.
And now she is dead. I am not smitten with grief, to be honest, but there is a terrible feeling that pieces of my life are being torn from me, willy-nilly, each death diminishing me, impoverishing me.
But I am still here. So tomorrow I will go out and erect Barn Owl boxes. And on Thursday too.
And if one of you dies in the meantime, do leave a message on my answerphone.
Listen, my good friends, colleagues, family and ex-lovers, when I go, don't mourn my passing, celebrate my life, ok?
And the pissed-er you get, the happier I will be up there on my cloud. Glass in hand too, God willing.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

News from the Principality

It's always a joy (?) to receive a missive from the unpredictable Mrs Trellis.
Dear Mrs Cameron, she writes, I don't blame you for wanting to be the next Prime Minister - it's time we had another woman anyway - but I do think you are going about it the wrong way. I mean CYCLING to work! A person of your calibration ought to be in a posh car, like that man John Prestock used to. I mean, you wouldn't see Her Majesty on a bike, would you? So, a little dignity, please.
Also, I think you should stop writing about animals, unless you intend to eat them. Anyway, apart from your bicycle clips, you are clearly a nice person and if you are ever in Llanfairpg, I will happily roast a druid in your honour.

Let me count the ways....

How do you tell her that you love her? What are the words that can encapsulate your bottled-up feelings for the most wonderful woman in the world? Whatever you say, it won't be enough, will it?
In my little Shropshire village, the men had it sorted. The standard expression to tell a woman how much she meant to you was:
"I wouldna swap thee for a big black pig."
Seriously. And what is even more astonishing, the women took it for the compliment it was meant to be.
My problem is not knowing what to say, but who to say it to. Well, there ya go. One day, Joanna Lumley might knock on my door......

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Que leiloeiro

On a state visit to China, the Queen was taken round the famous Ming collection, the centrepiece of which is a huge vase, the rarest and most expensive piece of Ming in the world. She admired it, but as she turned to move on, accidentally knocked it off its pedestal. It hit the ground and smashed into a thousand pieces. Her host burst into a frenzy of shouted Chinese, clearly beside himself, pointing alternately at the pieces on the floor and at Her Majesty. During a lull while he paused in his ranting to get his breath, she placed her hand on his sleeve reassuringly and said: "I'm all right."
Sorry the link didn't work. I will try to fix it.

A flight of wombats

There is an extraordinary thread at the moment in the Cambridge Bird Club yahoo group. It's about whether records of bird sightings published by various bodies should be accompanied by the name of the observer submitting the record. Harmless enough, you would think, uncontroversial even. But no, this is the stuff of passion and high drama.
Forget birds, this is about human nature.

The core of the problem, it seems, is that some people submit dodgy records, in some cases maybe even fictitious records in order to bring glory upon themselves. One notorious such was a guy who stuck a cardboard cutout of a rare wading bird in the mud of his local estuary and then photographed it as evidence. He was already under suspicion because nobody else EVER saw the rarities he reported.
Why did he do it? Why do people do such things? Well - and it may be a male thing - it all starts with what in Turkish is called the SIDIK YARISI, the "pissing game", ie, the competition to see who can piss farthest up the wall. Little boys (my female readers will have to take my word for this) can so control their weewee pipes that they can make their peepee go higher and higher, and the one who hits the highest point on the wall is the hero of the moment. This is a game that most males never stop playing, metaphorically speaking at least.
So, you want to be a hero among birders? Find rarities! Get your name in print against the names of exotic birds in your local Bird Report! Make your mark high up the wall!
As to the title of this little piece, I am sure you all know the story of a man called Rougemont who wrote about his adventures among the aborigines of Australia. He was a very successful author until he made reference in one his stories to being startled by "a flight of wombats". His cover was blown, and he probably took up birdwatching after that.......

Here, in case you have never seen one, is a wombat:

Friday, January 09, 2009

Fair weather birding

Goodness, it's cold, you guys. After the deep frost, we now have the piercing freezing fog.
All my brass monkeys are now sopranos.
Damn, I really mean, every morning, to get out there on the fens, and knock up some spectacular records of whatever is out there in spectacular numbers.
But it's no good, I just can't get out of my fleecy dressing gown. I was built for comfort, and OUT THERE, there is no comfort.

I made a bold dash across Grunty Fen two days ago to get in supplies from Tesco's for the continuing siege, and caught a glimpse of a small fastmoving wader (shorebird) that dived (dove) into a ditch (dyke) by the roadside.
I checked on the way back, but couldn't find it, so I am now at liberty to make it anything I want. Size and shape and jizz of, say, a Green Sandpiper, but it wasn't a Green Sandpiper. After that, not much left, unless you start fantasizing about real rarities. What about the bird in the picture?!
This morning, my feeders were HEAVING with birds. All the usual suspects, of course, plus the male Sparrowhawk on the lookout for a quick fast-breaker.
And a brief glimpse of something finchlike that could have been anything, other than what it manifestly wasn't. Please be some kind of Redpoll. And come back so I can confirm you!
All in all, I think it's time I reviewed my options.


Dr Johnson (or it might have been my dentist) said "Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel". Well, I can now confirm that DARTS is the last refuge of the scoundrel.
We are good at minority sports here in the Untied Kingdom. Golf, snooker, bowls, we can bore the balls off a buffalo with TV coverage of these totally uneventful events. But until today, I had not realised the DARTS outstrips them all in its total inability to rouse even the slightest interest.
True, the organisers try to raise the pezazz-quotient with funky music, strobe lights and dodgy pyrotechnics. True, the players do their best to be colourful with outrageous shirts, logos and beerguts. And their audience, aware of the utter nothingness of the event as these fat guys throw diminutive arrows into a cork circle, go to great lengths to be interesting.
Including the females in the audience, a curious subculture who seem to drool uncontrollably for their obese champions. Normally I would cede the palm to busty females, but these harridans, these harpies, are the kind of women who make a man check to see that he still has his kit intact.
The trouble is, there is so little else on TV, unless you are into the Israeli "surgical strike" in the Gaze Strip, that it's Darts or back to Bedford for another J Arthur.
So, maybe darts isn't so bad after all.
Yep, that'll be the day.

Friday, January 02, 2009

She'll be apples,,mate!

Every year, we anticipate an invasion of birds from Scandinavia. We always get the Fieldfares and the Redwings, but there are two pretty species which are less predictable: Brambling and Waxwing. Last winter was a good one for Bramblings, and I found my share of them around the fen. This winter is a good one for Waxwings, and so far everyone I know, except me, has seen Waxwings. So, this morning, I went to our local orchard where there are still a few trees with fruit on them, and tried to find the Waxwing(s) that everyone else had seen.
I really don't want to take up philately, numismatics or crossstitch, but at this rate of avian failure, I might have no choice.
Envoi: at least the buggers who have seen Waxwings in Britain this winter didn't see the species illustrated above, of which I have seen hundreds in my time!