Thursday, December 26, 2013

Ding dong!

If you had presented the following list to me, I could not have told you what they refer to. 
I hope you are better informed than I.


If you are still puzzled (no googling, mind), maybe the following additions will help you:


 A Happy New Year to you. May the best thing that happened to you in 2013 be the worst thing that happens to you in 2014.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013


Here's a seasonal poem that even Stephen Fry would approve of (I hope!)

That Christmas
God treated himself to a new coat.
Till then he’d not really been dressed for visiting.
He’d nothing dull enough to wear.

Quite early he had come to realise
his appearance didn't put people at ease.
Even the very first ones were nervous—
when he took an afternoon stroll round the garden
they would run and hide.

And when he showed someone around,
he had to admit their reactions were hardly reassuring.
He saw it was a little difficult
to be wholly relaxed in the presence of a host
with dazzling white hair, emerald eyes
and a tongue like a sword,
seated on a blazing throne
guarded by four six-winged living creatures
and two dozen elders chanting incessantly.
Polite, yes, but probably not relaxed.
Likely to slop tea on to the chocolate digestives.

So he took to meeting just a trusted few
in places carefully arranged—
a mountain or a desert
away from crowds.
He made them build a tent for conferences,
with heavily-restricted access.
When he spoke, he found that quiet voices worked best.
Eventually it became easier just to send a messenger.

Of course people were still startled
when a shining creature several metres high
materialised in their living rooms
like something from the Starship Enterprise,
but they did their job.
And angels don’t have feelings you can hurt.

He learned that people
were more comfortable with their own kind.
Pleased when you showed an interest, of course,
but when the boss from the top floor drops by
the conversation’s always stilted,
and both sides are relieved after he’s gone.

So when the time came
for the business that had to be done,
he went incognito.
Dressing down for the occasion,
he chose skin.
Not suede or leather, only skin.
Close-fitting, durable, anonymous, adaptable.
No special style or colour.
Skin was his lifetime companion.

He nursed the scabs of childhood games on his knees and elbows.
He felt the muscles grow inside it,
the ligaments stretch when he extended himself.
He fingered the callouses made by a workman’s tools on his palms.
He came to know skin from the inside.
He knew the pleasant shock of cold water
splashed across his face in the midday heat.
He knew the touch of cool parchment
unrolling beneath his fingertips,
the dryness in his mouth as he prepared
to read what was written there about him.

He noticed skin harden
under feet that walk long distances.
After sleepless nights
he felt it hang in folds beneath his eyes.
When he was most tired
it felt almost detached from him,
a loose sack keeping him warm.

when he thought he had their confidence enough,
he gave three of them a glimpse of his real appearance.
They were terrified, and he never risked it again.

He saw skin made repulsive by disease, and healed it.
He saw Lazarus walking,
and felt a ripple of gooseflesh on his spine.
He knew the feel of an animal’s rough back beneath his thighs,
and breezes from waving branches.
When anger sluiced blood to the surface of the skin
he felt his face flush red.
He watched how liquids trickled over it.
He could tell the different tensions of tears and ointment
as they ran down his cheeks and beard.

He washed skin carefully,
not just his own but others’.
He saw how it protected them,
the tiny beads of water dripping
from their feet into his bowl.
He knelt on dew-drenched grass
and felt his cloak cling round his legs.
His burning forehead prickled with cold drops of fear.

He felt how,
when whipped repeatedly,
skin disintegrates and the soft flesh underneath
is ploughed up like a bright red field.
He knew then how necessary it had been.
Skin had dulled the pain of being a man,
and kept the parts together long enough.
Now it was time to shed it.

It was torn in strips from his back,
gouged out of the palms of his hands,
and pierced so that fluids would spill out more easily.
At the end he saw it was no more
than a ripped bag bursting with offal,
cut down and wrapped
like meat to put into cold storage.

It was finished.
What would happen next,
even he did not exactly know,
but he had watched creatures discard their coats
in preparation for something.
He was ready
for a new and different skin.

Godfrey Rust
Written for the carol service at St John’s, West Ealing in 1995

Friday, December 20, 2013

Old? Who? Not me!

If you are within hailing distance of the Apocalypse, I recommend that you read a piece by Penelope Lively, from which I offer a few extracts (below). When I was a young dad, or an apprentice grandpa, I used to croon a mantra to my puling infant offspring: “It's not so bad” “It's not so bad” “It's not so bad”, and it generally calmed them down (sometimes a nappy-change and a feed was also needed). The effect on me of reading Penelope Lively's piece (found in the Guardian) has been to accept of old age that: “It's not so bad” “It's not so bad”..

Years ago, I heard Anthony Burgess speak at the Edinburgh book festival. He was impressive in that he spoke for an hour without a single note, and was fluent and coherent. But of the content of his talk all I remember are his opening words: "For me, death is already sounding its high C." This was around 1980, I think, so he was in his early 60s at the time, and died in 1993. I was in my late 40s, and he seemed to me – not old, exactly, but getting on a bit.
Today, people in their 60s seem – not young, just nicely mature. Old age is in the eye of the beholder. I am 80, so I am old, no question. The high C is audible, I suppose, but I don't pay it much attention. I don't think much about death. I am not exactly afraid of it, though after reading, with admiration, Julian Barnes's book Nothing to Be Frightened of, I felt that I had not sufficiently explored my own position on the matter. But perhaps I have arrived at the state of death-consciousness that he identifies – we cannot truly savour life without a regular awareness of extinction. Yes, I recognise that, along with the natural human taste for a conclusion: there has been a beginning, which proposes an end. I am afraid of the run-up to death, because I have had to watch it. But I think that many of us who are on the last lap are too busy with the baggage of old age to waste much time anticipating the finishing line. We have to get used to being the person we are, the person we have always been, but encumbered now with various indignities and disabilities, shoved as it were into some new incarnation. We feel much the same, but clearly are not. We have entered an unexpected dimension; dealing with this is the new challenge.....
You aren't going to get old, of course, when you are young. We won't ever be old, partly because we can't imagine what it is like to be old, but also because we don't want to, and – crucially – are not particularly interested. When I was a teenager, I spent much time with my Somerset grandmother, then around 70. She was a brisk and applied grandmother who was acting effectively as a mother-substitute; I was devoted to her, but I don't remember ever considering what it could be like to be her. She simply was; unchangeable, unchanging, in her tweed skirt, her blouse, her Shetland cardigan, her suit for Sunday church, worn with chenille turban, her felt hat for shopping in Minehead. Her opinions that had been honed in the early part of the century; her horror of colours that "clashed"; her love of Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Berlioz. I never thought about how it must be to be her; equally, I couldn't imagine her other than she was, as though she had sprung thus into life, had never been young.…...
Am I envious of the young? Would I want to be young again? On the first count – not really, which surprises me. On the second – certainly not, if it meant a repeat performance. I would like to have back vigour and robust health, but that is not exactly envy. And, having known youth, I'm well aware that it has its own traumas, that it is no Elysian progress, that it can be a time of distress and disappointment, that it is exuberant and exciting, but it is no picnic. I don't particularly want to go back there.…...
And in any case, I am someone else now. There are things I no longer want, things I no longer do, things that are now important. This someone else, this alter ego who has arrived, is less adventurous, more risk-averse, costive with her time. Well – there is the matter of the spirit and the flesh, and that is the crux of it: the spirit is still game for experience, anything on offer, but the body most definitely is not, and unfortunately calls the shots. My mind seems to be holding out – so far, so far.…...
I have sometimes wondered if an experience like that has some salutary value for any of us: it puts into perspective subsequent distresses. As for the rest of my continuing ailments, they seem more or less par for the course for an 80 year old; of those I know in my age group, most can chalk up a few, or more, with only one or two that I can think of maddeningly unscathed.…...
You get used to it. And that surprises me. You get used to diminishment, to a body that is stalled, an impediment. An alter ego is amazed, aghast perhaps – myself in the roaring 40s, when robust health was an assumption, a given, something you barely noticed because it was always there. Acceptance has set in, somehow, has crept up on you, which is just as well, because the alternative – perpetual rage and resentment – would not help matters.....

There's a lot more: you can read it here. Me, I'm off for my morning prune juice and a long overdue scratch.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Open for business

It's mid-December, relatively mild in this fen-edge village, though there can be a sharp wind round your ankles some days. I have lots of feeders up: sunflower hearts, mixed finch seed, red millet, peanuts, fatballs, and an occasional spread of porridge oatflakes on the two bird tables.
So far feeding has been quiet, with birds appearing in quantity only on the colder mornings. Usually a couple of Great Tits, three-four Blue Tits, an occasional flurry of Longtailed Tits, but rarely more than four. Regular too, but in two and threes mostly: Dunnock, Chaffinch, Starling, Blackbird, Woodpigeon. There is a small flock of a dozen or so House Sparrows regular on the feeders nearest the hedge, where clearly they feel safe from the marauding Sparrowhawk. Goldfinches, usually no more than six-eight are regular too. Real splashes of colour are provided by regular single Green Woodpeckers and Great-spotted Woodpecker, the latter coming in both male and female guise.
Everything else is still out there in the hedgerows or on the fen, presumably because there's still plenty of food about. I like to watch the passing flocks of Black-headed Gulls over the field below mine, and sometimes a flurry of a dozen or so Common Gulls. It's fun too to watch and listen to the Jackdaws, which always manage to look like scraps of charred black paper scattering from a bonfire as they tumble past.
I guess it will be a few weeks before I can lure the more unusual species back into my garden: Tree Sparrow, Reed Bunting, Yellowhammer and, more remotely, Lesser Redpoll, Siskin and Brambling. If we get snow, I will clear a nice green area on the lawn (usually by putting a huge tarpaulin out the night when the snow is forecast and then removing it after snowfall) and strew it with apples. That's sure to bring the thrushes in: Blackbirds mostly, with a Fieldfare and a Redwing or two and, increasingly rare these days, a Song Thrush.
One species I miss is the Wren: hardly ever see one these days, must have had a poor breeding season. Or it's had a better offer....

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Leaping women

A quote from a recent issue of the Economist:
unmarried women are one of America’s fastest-growing groups, leaping from 45m in 2000 to around 53m today
Apparently this favours the Democrats, though the reasons are obscure. What perplexes me is why there are so many leaping unmarried women in America. Any offers?


Prototype wind turbine
Worth reading the article from which this photo was taken. If the present design is based on the propeller-driven engine, this new one is modelled on the jet-engine, and is superior in a number of ways (cheaper, more efficient, easier to install, less intrusive), not least that it is less likely to kill thousands of birds and other flying objects, thought neither it nor any other design so far dreamt up is completely safe.
PS The elk is optional.

Saturday, December 14, 2013


In general, I like flash mobs, even when they are covert advertising gimmicks, but this one took my breath away. If this isn't beauty, then my hat's for dinner.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Mrs T on grammar etc

Another challenging missive from my North Wales correspondent.

 Dear Boris Johnson, she writes, I was intriguated by your little piece about grammar. Mr Trellis, my late husband, was always most particulous about where he put his prepositions. I remember him struggling with the sentence: What are you up to? He changed it to:To what are you up?
And then he tried: Up to what are you? before giving up in desparity and going back to his shed.
I am sure you don't have such problems, you being a pubic school toff and all. By the way, I like your hair all wild and unkept: you could almost be Welsh.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Jake Thackray - Leopold Alcocks


Many years ago I wrote an English Grammar for foreign learners. It made me a few bob and did nothing to harm my reputation as a chap who knew a bit. But after listening recently to a discussion programme on BBC Radio 4 in which the great British public was invited to take part, I don't know why I bothered. There seems little mileage in having Johnny Foreigner speaking our language more correctly that we do ourselves. I am also dismayed by the inarticulacy of so many adolescents these days. Their speech is like you know really like bad, dyknowhatImean?, never mind like the bad grammar, innit?

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

From yan to jigget

I recently posted a clip of Jake Thackray's song “Sophie”. I am told by an American friend that it was blocked in the States, goodness knows why, as it's naughty but not obscene, unless you have a mind like a sewer.
Anyway, I am in love with another of Jake's songs, the one called “Mad Molly Metcalfe”, a poor girl who looked after sheep on a Yorkshire moorland above Swayledale, and who was found frozen to death. She was only in her early twenties. I won't post it here, as you can easily track it down on You Tube. One thing that bowled me over was the counting system she used for counting her sheep. You count to twenty, then transfer a pebble from your hand to a pocket, then start again to the next twenty, transfer a second pebble, and so on. Here are the numbers one to twenty:
yan tan tether mether pip
azer sezar akker conter dick
yanadick tanadick tetheradick metheradick bumfit
yanabum tanabum tetherabum metherabum jigget
Read them aloud. Such rhythms, such euphony! Apparently they derive from a Brythonic Celtic language long lost. I like old things, don't you? I just hope the US grundies don't find something to object to here, though dick and bumfit might be a bit near the knuckle for them.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Good on ya, Jasper!

A recent article in the Economist reported a move to outlaw the old Dutch tradition of ZwartePiet (Black Peter), a celebration connected with Saint Nicholas (Santa Claus) and the giving of presents to children. As you would expect, the move originates from the usual pc people, to describe whom I have run out of scathing adjectives.
I like this response in the Letters column of the Economist in the following week:

As attempts are now being made to purge politically incorrect fantasy figures like Zwarte Piet, I would like to blow the whistle on another case of unacceptable exploitation. Each December, a certain chubby children's figure from the Arctic has the habit of exclusively selecting horned cervids for the slave labour of pulling his obese posture around the globe.
As any biologist knows, only female reindeer and some of their infant sons keep their antlers in winter. A thorough UN review into gender and age discrimination seems in order.
Jasper van Soest

Sauce for the gander?

The following is taken from an article on the BBC website.

Almost half (49%) of state-funded mixed schools in England are "reinforcing gender stereotypes" in terms of the subjects students study at A-level. This is according to a report published on Monday by the Institute of Physics. It says these schools are failing to counter the idea that certain subjects are for girls and others are for boys.The institute is calling on schools to address the issue to avoid inadvertently limiting pupils' options.
The study looked at six A-level subjects - three that have a very female-biased student base and three that are studied by many more boys than girls.They assigned schools a score based on how well they were doing compared to the national average. The analysis involved looking at what proportion of girls and boys from each school went on to study physics, maths and economics, which are traditionally male-biased, and what proportion went of to study the female-biased subjects - English, biology and psychology.

 Key findings
  • Four out of five state-funded co-educational schools do no better than the national gender ratios for A-level subject choice. These average ratios are already very imbalanced
  • Single sex schools are significantly better at countering these gender imbalances
  • Schools with a sixth form have smaller gender imbalances
  • Independent co-educational schools perform better than state-funded schools, but there are far fewer of them
  • There are differences between regions and local authorities that experts say will require further research to explain.
What I like about this article is that it gives me an opportunity to air two of my most cherished prejudices: [1]single sex schools are better; [2]secondary schools wirh an inegral sixth form are better. You can tell I went to a boys' grammar school!

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Look out, there's a snake about!

I recently published a silly piece about crow's calls, A couple of days later I come across this (serious) piece, adapted from an article in Animal Behaviour. How's that for serendipity? Or is it synchronicity?
Great tits use different alarm calls for different predators, according to a scientist in Japan. The researcher analysed the birds’ calls and found they made “jar” sounds for snakes and “chicka” sounds for crows and martens. From his previous observations, the researcher, Dr Toshitaka Suzuki, from the Graduate University for Advanced Studies in Kanagawa, found great tits appeared to be able to discriminate between different predators.To test whether they could also communicate this information, he placed models of three different animals that prey on nestlings – snakes, crows and martens – close to the birds’ nest boxes. He then recorded and analysed the birds’ responses.
“Parents usually make alarm calls when they approach and mob the nest predators,” said Dr Suzuki. “They produced specific ‘jar’ alarm calls for the snakes and the same ‘chicka’ alarm call in response to both the crows and martens.” But a closer analysis of the sounds showed the birds had used different “note combinations” in their crow alarm calls from those they had used for the martens. Dr Suzuki thinks the birds might have evolved what he called a “combinatorial communication system” – combining different notes to produce calls with different meanings.
Since snakes are able to slither into nest boxes, they pose a much greater threat to great tit nestlings than other birds or mammals, so Dr Suzuki says it makes sense that the birds would have a specific snake alarm call. He added: “Human language is based on a combinatorial rule, which allows us to generate an infinite number of expressions (ie words) from a finite set of elements (ie alphabets). Similarly, the tits can make a word ‘crow’ or ‘marten’ by combining different types of notes into an alarm call.”

The article does not specify whether they have calls for CAR and TRUCK.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Jake Thackray - Sophie

A hero of mine as I have said many times. I listened recently to his wonderful song "Last Will and Testament": it will go nicely at my funeral in place of any eulogy.
This song, Sophie, has been running in my head for years. I apologise to any Sophie I have known: it doesn't apply to you, dear. Necessarily.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Doctor Trellis...

Sound advice from my North Wales correspondent:

Dear Nick Clogg, she writes, I don't know how you can eat garlick, nasty foreign stuff. I think you're just pandering to your EU buddies.
Anyway, what's wrong with a good honest Welsh leek I want to know? Wash, peel, chop, boil, wrap in a linen cloth and sleep with it on your pillow and you'll be right as ninepence in no time.
By the way, BLOW, not SNIFF. Or, as Mr Trellis, my late husband, used to say: “Get it out, boyo!”, a lusty cry that would raise a few eyebrows in the village, I can tell you.
Yours medicinally
Blodwen Trellis, Mrs, widow, retd.

Atishoo dammit

Hack, hack, sniff, sniff, splutter splutter. I have a persistent cold with runny nose and ticklish cough. I used to dose myself with Benelyn, but it's rubbish since the Health Gestapo Nannies banned morphine as an ingredient.
 A friend told me to eat lots of organic garlic: chop it up, spoon it on your tongue, swallow with lots of water, chew a slice of bread after. Repeat twice or three times a day. Avoid snogging people you really like.
 So far, no effect, apart from a dead fly lying on its back on the kitchen floor and holding its nose.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013


It's started: the annual mystification when Christmas cards arrive and you have no idea who they're from.

Fondest love, Megan”, this one says. Megan? I don't know any Megan! Wait a minute, there WAS that funny creature with the bad teeth... No, can't be her, why would she me send a card after the way I stared at her mouth. More likely to send me a letter-bomb... Oh yes, and there was that other Megan, the inexplicably fat, can't be her, she's most likely gaga by now, given her drink habit. Postmark? No help. The bloody stamp isn't even franked (Note to self: I wonder if I could steam it off and re-use it..).

Oh bugger, here's another one: “All the best, mate. Darrell.” Mate? I've never mated with anyone called Darrell. Maybe he's sent the card to the wrong Old Scrote. Postmark? Same again, looks like I might have TWO free stamps this year.

You see, darlings, what really bothers me is the realisation that somewhere this Christmas, somebody is going to stare at the card I sent them and say “Who the frack is Jake??” Unlike Megan and Darrell, though, I am unforgettable and take it very badly when I'm fracked.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Trellis gives advice

Mrs T is keeping her finger on the grindstone as usual.
Dear Stephen Fry, she writes, I do admire how you can do so many things, and some of them quite well, but I hadn't realised you went around collecting languages. I will be honest, I hadn't heard of the Beriberi people, but I can see why you enjoyed their lingo so much, all full of dirty words and references to the private parts. I am, as anyone will tell you, as broadminded as the next bigot, but your obsession with the naughty bits bothers me. You should have grown out of it by now even if you are a nancy. You're a nice boy, mostly, so why don't you get over it, start afresh, maybe take up a nice hobby, or some kind of socially-useful work, like scouting or helping with the Duke of Attenborough's Award?
Your helpfully
Blodwen Trellis, Mrs, Widow, retd.

Predictions and theories? Not from me!

Factors determining timing and success of breeding?

In captivity, Barn Owls breed prolifically, often having several broods throughout the year. That is why, years back, breeders would be forever releasing young owls into the wild, a practice that has dwindled after legal restraints on release of captive-bred birds were imposed.
Could it be that, underlying and determining the breeding behaviour of wild Barn Owls is the same urge to prolific breeding? Thwarted constantly, of course, by such factors as inability to come into breeding condition because of
inclement weather that makes hunting difficult or lack of sufficient prey when the vole population crashes.
In the season just gone, a lot of pairs formed but didn't breed at the usual time, and then, there was a spate of late first clutches, probably because the vole population had increased in the summer (as often happens) and the breeding imperative kicked in again.
The trouble is that the later in the year the hatch, the less likely it is that the young will make it to fledging. Result: lots of failures, or at best just one or two chicks getting off.
It is important, though, not to make bald statements about good years and bad years, as the situation can vary considerably in different parts of the country. The West Country has a bad season, Suffolk, it seems, doesn't do too badly. Central Cambs and other parts ofthe Fens are disappointing, the Peterborough area has a fairly normal breeding season.
And now, as we approach winter, it is tempting to start another round of theorising and predicting: a poor breeding season means fewer birds means less competition for the food during the winter. Well, maybe. A mild winter favours the owls. Well maybe, but does it favour the rodents and inverterbrates? And is the converse true? How do owls fare in a hard winter? And does the timing of cold snaps, wet spells, strong winds play a role?
About the only prediction that's reliable is, to paraphrase a famous saying of a southern Baptist Minister: “things ain't what we want 'em to be, and things ain't what they're gonna be, but they shure ain't what they wuz.” I find that mildly comforting, even though it is deeply meaningless. Anyway, it's as near as you will get to a prediction from me.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Throw Grammar off the Train

I am enjoying a blog called Throw Grammar off the Train, written by a former newspaper subeditor. I recommend it. Here is a piece where he is discussing something he found in the Wall Street Journal. He writes:

Today's WSJ piece on the controversial anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon includes a baffling bit of terminology:
The Yanomamö, like anthropology subjects everywhere, regarded the note-scribbling scholar as a choice target for practical jokes. Only after months of effort did Mr. Chagnon learn that his informants had been deliberately feeding him bogus names. Naturally, he found out in the most humiliating way possible: Telling a group of men something about a headman's wife, he unknowingly referred to her by a capillo-vaginal epithet.
Even if you knew the meaning of capillo- ("hair"), the intended epithet might not be immediately apparent. Luckily Google Books will show you the page with Chagnon's actual words:

My anthropological bubble was burst when I visited a village about 10 hours' walk to the southwest of Bisaasi-teri some five months after I had begun collecting genealogies on the Bisaasi-teri. I was chatting with the local headman of this village and happened to casually drop the name of the wife of the Bisaasi-teri headman. A stunned silence followed, and then a villagewide roar of uncontrollable laughter, choking, gasping and howling followed. It seems the Bisaasi-teri headman was married to a woman named “hairy cunt”. It also seems that the Bisaasi-teri headman was called “long dong” and his brother “eagle shit”. The Bisaasi-teri headman had a son called “asshole” and a daughter called “fart breath”.

Love it!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013


It is significant that the following is set in Massachusetts.

Researchers for the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority found over 200 dead crows near greater Boston recently, and there was concern that they may have died from Avian Flu. A Bird Pathologist examined the remains of all the crows, and, to everyone's relief, confirmed the problem was definitely NOT Avian Flu. The cause of death appeared to be vehicular impacts.

However, during the detailed analysis it was noted that varying colors of paints appeared on the bird's beaks and claws.  By analyzing these paint residues it was determined that 98% of the crows had been killed by impact with trucks, while only 2% were killed by an impact with a car.

MTA then hired an Ornithological Behaviorist to determine if there was a cause for the disproportionate percentages of truck kills versus car kills.

The Ornithological Behaviorist very quickly concluded the cause: when crows eat road kill, they always have a look-out crow in a nearby tree to warn of impending danger. They discovered that while all the lookout crows could shout "Cah", n
ot a single one could shout "Truck."

What's it like to be a bird?

This is a review of a recently-published book, Bird Sense by Tim Birkhead. it's definitely a book I want for Christmas....

Who’d be a bird anyway? Chickens have bi-focal vision: one eye for the close-up work of pecking seed; one for the fox on the horizon or the hawk in the sky. Peregrine falcons don’t swoop directly on prey – as the crow flies, to coin a phrase – but in a wide arc, using the right eye. Mallard ducks on the ground and swifts on the wing both nod off with half the brain at work and one eye wide open watching for danger.
Bird Sense: What it’s Like to be a Bird, by Tim Birkhead
Nightingales in Berlin have to up their vocal performance by 14 decibels to be heard over the traffic; great tits in the city keep down the volume but change the pitch or the frequency to get the message across. The oilbird of Ecuador sleeps with its eyes closed but then it could even fly with its eyes closed: like a bat, it uses echolocation to work out where it is in total darkness.
The ears of the great grey owl are asymmetrical – higher on one side than the other – the better to pinpoint prey on the vertical as well as the horizontal axis. That is why it can swoop on a mouse under the snow. All listeners can localise a source of sound by unconsciously measuring the difference in time as the waves arrive at each separate ear: for small birds, this would dwindle to less than a millionth of a second so little birds move their heads from side to side to increase the range.
Avian hearing ability varies according to the season. So do other features. In winter, the testes of the cock sparrow dwindle to the size of a pinhead; with the nesting season, they swell to the volume of a baked bean. The ability to sing tends to surge with the urge to nest. A hormonal response that varies with daylight length also does strange things to the brain: the ability to acquire and deliver song dwindles, and the relevant area of the bird brain shrinks, in the winter. This is, says Tim Birkhead in Bird Sense, “a sensible energy-saving tactic” because brains are a big expense: the human brain for instance uses 10 times as much energy as any other organ.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

A letter to Sarah

I am grateful to AGB, an incurable romantic if ever there was one, for drawing my attention to the following letter. It was written by Sullivan Ballou, an officer in the Union army during the American Civil War. He was killed in action shortly after this letter was sent.

July 14, 1861
Camp Clark, Washington

My very dear Sarah:
The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days—perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write again, I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more . . .

I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans on the triumph of the Government and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and sufferings of the Revolution. And I am willing—perfectly willing—to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt . . .

Sarah my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me unresistibly on with all these chains to the battle field.

The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them for so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our sons grown up to honorable manhood, around us. I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me—perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar, that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battle field, it will whisper your name. Forgive my many faults and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have often times been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness . . .

But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the gladdest days and in the darkest nights . . . always, always, and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath, as the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by. Sarah do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again . . .

Trellis is back

Trellis is back, firing in all directions.
Dear Sarah Palin, she writes, fancy having a go at the new Pope! You are a caution, and no mistake! Believe it or not, I wrote to him myself recently about how he should improve the position of women in the Catholic church, not just cleaning pews and flower arranging and making lardy cakes for the poor. I haven't had a reply, so if you talk to him, perhaps you could mention it. I am sure he will listen to a person of your Intellectual Statuary, even if you are as mad as a bag of spanners.
Blodwen Trellis, Mrs, widow, retd

Why even atheists should be praying for Pope Francis

An article from the Guardian. Thought-provoking.

That Obama poster on the wall, promising hope and change, is looking a little faded now. The disappointments, whether over drone warfare or a botched rollout of healthcare reform, have left the world's liberals and progressives searching for a new pin-up to take the US president's place. As it happens, there's an obvious candidate: the head of an organisation those same liberals and progressives have long regarded as sexist, homophobic and, thanks to a series of child abuse scandals, chillingly cruel. The obvious new hero of the left is the pope.
Only installed in March, Pope Francis has already become a phenomenon. His is the most talked-about name on the internet in 2013, ranking ahead of "Obamacare" and "NSA". In fourth place comes Francis's Twitter handle, @Pontifex. In Italy, Francesco has fast become the most popular name for new baby boys. Rome reports a surge in tourist numbers, while church attendance is said to be up – both trends attributed to "the Francis effect".
His popularity is not hard to fathom. The stories of his personal modesty have become the stuff of instant legend. He carries his own suitcase. He refused the grandeur of the papal palace, preferring to live in a simple hostel. When presented with the traditional red shoes of the pontiff, he declined; instead he telephoned his 81-year-old cobbler in Buenos Aires and asked him to repair his old ones. On Thursday, Francis visited the Italian president – arriving in a blue Ford Focus, with not a blaring siren to be heard.
Some will dismiss these acts as mere gestures, even publicity stunts. But they convey a powerful message, one of almost elemental egalitarianism. He is in the business of scraping away the trappings, the edifice of Vatican wealth accreted over centuries, and returning the church to its core purpose, one Jesus himself might have recognised. He says he wants to preside over "a poor church, for the poor". It's not the institution that counts, it's the mission.
All this would warm the heart of even the most fervent atheist, except Francis has gone much further. It seems he wants to do more than simply stroke the brow of the weak. He is taking on the system that has made them weak and keeps them that way.
"My thoughts turn to all who are unemployed, often as a result of a self-centred mindset bent on profit at any cost," he tweeted in May. A day earlier he denounced as "slave labour" the conditions endured by Bangladeshi workers killed in a building collapse. In September he said that God wanted men and women to be at the heart of the world and yet we live in a global economic order that worships "an idol called money".

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Sein Kampf

After watching a presentation by the historian, David Irving, who is known and notorious for his apparent sympathy for Hitler and Nazism, I was sufficiently intrigued to buy a copy of Mein Kampf (In translation: I am no masochist). I was curious because Irving said that he had never read it, and I would have thought it counted as a primary source, and Irving castigates other historians for using mainly secondary sources.
It's a turgid read, repetitious and full of tendentious statements, but I am glad I have dipped into it (Years back, I carried out a similar exercise with Marx's Das Kapital, and dipping is all I could manage there, too). I am glad because it has shown me that Hitler was very clear about what was wrong (basically racial impurity) and how it could be put right. Most significantly, he was clear that the masses had an uninformed perception that things were wrong, a longing for things to be put right, and that they would rally to the leadership of a man who could define the disease and apply the remedy, namely himself.
Call it megalomania, call it a Messiah complex, but whatever it is, it sustained Hitler, it gave him the strength and determination to carry out his mission. As such, this drive is very very dangerous, because it brooks no opposition, it recognises no variation or alternative vision; and it is inflexible in the face of changing circumstances.
Looking at what has happened since Hitler's day in so many countries – Cambodia, Libya, North Korea, Venezuela and so on – the same phenomenon repeats itself. The latest country to fall victim to the Messiah complex is, in my view, Turkey. I have no doubt that if he had time, the PM of that country would write about sein Kampf,  his “struggle”.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Surgit Trellis!

It delights me to be able to tell you that Mrs Trellis has broken her long silence.
Dear Anglea Merkel, she writes, I have to say I agree with you that men ought to sit down to tinkle. They are such messy creatures, aren't they? The front of my husband, the late Mr Trellis, for instance, was permanently encrusted with porridge, and the lower half of him, well, delicacy prevents me from being more specifical, but I will tell you that when he took off his trousers at night, he used to stand them in the corner.
Yours in sisterly solidarity
Blodwen Trellis, Mrs, widow, retd, fastidious.

Monday, November 11, 2013


The Germans – I don't mean all of them, of course – have been propagating the idea that men ought to sit (sitzen) to urinate (pinkeln). Combine this with the development of a tubelike device which enables ladies to pinkle while standing and ask yourself where all this is leading. Is there a hidden agenda to masculinise women and feminise men? I don't like this at all. In fact it makes my blood boil. It's enough to make me tear my frock. OK, I guess it's just my time of the month. I will get over it, standing up or sitting down.

More about the Tui

As you all know by now, the Tui is a New Zealand endemic and a member of the honeyeater family of birds, hence its name in French: Méliphage tui. I like the Tui for the white plumes on its breast, which caused the early British settlers to call it Parson Bird; for its acrobatic way of feeding, typical of honeyeaters; and for its vocalisations, beautifully captured in the accompanying video. I guess I also like it because I have seen one and you haven't!

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Call me Pi-waka-waka

I wrote elsewhere that if there's anything in metempsychosis, I want to come back as a Fantail. I had not realised until I met up with this feisty wee bird in New Zealand that the family to which it belongs, the Rhipiduridae, contains upward of fifty different species scattered throughout Australasia and South East Asia. The only other Fantail species I have seen is the Australian Willy Wagtail, which, as the name suggests, bears a superficial resemblance to our Pied Wagtail.
Anyway, the reason I am so taken with the New Zealand Fantail is not just its pretty appearance, wren-sized body, cheeky face and the amazing tail that gives it its vernacular name. That would be enough to make you love it, but it also has an endearing habit of flitting round you restlessly as you walk across the grass. One second its over your head, the next it is practically under your feet. It reminded me of the bluebird in the Walt Disney movie, Song of the South, where the old negro slave, Uncle Remus, sings Zippedy Doo Da (“Mr Bluebird on my shoulder, it's the truth, it's actual, everything am satisfactual!”).
I thought at first the Fantail was just welcoming another visitor the way most New Zealanders do, but I soon realised that it was waiting for my size 10 boots to kick some insects out of the grass for its breakfast. Our Yellow Wagtails (Motacilla flava) do the same around cattle.
So I'd quite like to come back as a New Zealand Fantail, because it's a fun bird in a beautiful country. And there's a bonus. Its scientific name is a bit of a mouthful: Rhipidura fuliginosa (rhipis, a fan; ouros, tail; fuliginosa, sooty). But the Maoris call it Pi-waka-waka. I wouldn't mind if people called me by such a pretty name.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Solenodon paradoxus

Believe it or not, this little chap is a mammal. Sure, he's ratlike (belonging to the order Soricomorpha, mouselike, which includes shrews and moles), and to be sure he's not beautiful. But he is amazing. The solenodon is an ancient beast, the only mammal known to have survived the dinosaur cataclysm. It is a little known creature, found only on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, and on Cuba. He defends himself by spitting poison, he has a ball-and-socket joint in his nose and, they say, finds his prey by echolocation.
Why am I telling you this? Because it's important to realise that you don't have to be beautiful to be interesting. I find that a comforting thought as my ageing face slowly collapses into wrinkly decrepitude.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Putin it bluntly

I can't believe that the following is genuine, but a lot of its contents resonate with me. I wince every time I see a public notice in the UK in a dozen immigrant languages: if you want to live in Britain, learn English, integrate, and above all don't WHINE, you are not bloody victims.


Vladimir Putin's speech
On February 4th, 2013, Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, addressed the Duma (Russian Parliament), and gave a speech about the tensions with minorities in Russia.
He said:
"In Russia live Russians. Any minority, from anywhere, if it wants to live in Russia, to work and eat in Russia, should speak Russian, and should respect the Russian laws. If they prefer Sharia Law, then we advise them to go to those places where that's the state law. Russia does not need minorities.
Minorities need Russia, and we will not grant them special privileges, or try to change our laws to fit their desires, no matter how loud they yell 'discrimination'. We better learn from the suicides of America, England, Holland and France, if we are to survive as a nation.
The Russian customs and traditions are not compatible with the lack of culture or the primitive ways of most minorities. When this honorable legislative body thinks of creating new laws, it should have in mind the national interest first, observing that the minorities are NOT Russians!"
The politicians in the Duma gave Putin a standing ovation that lasted for five full minutes . . . . . 

Sunday, October 27, 2013

A bit about New Zealand birds

Where would you go to see Blackbirds, Song Thrushes, House Sparrows, Starlings, Goldfinches, Greenfinches, Yellowhammers, Dunnocks and Skylarks? Try New Zealand! All these species – and some others from Australia – were introduced by the early (white) settlers and are mostly thriving. Among other introduced species are the Indian Myna, the Eastern Rosella and various morphs of the good old Mallard.
There are a few common native species to be seen, of which the Tui and the Pukeko (Purple Swamphen) are the most frequent, at least in the Auckland area on North Island, which is where I was. A real treat were the Paradise Shelduck, which I previously knew only from collections.
The only little birds of note are the Silvereye, Grey Warbler and the endearing Fantail, of which more anon.

Raptors are few and far between in NZ, apart from the local Harrier, which is as common as Buzzards are here. There is a falcon, similar to our Kestrel, but I didn't see one.
If you are in the right place at the right time, there are plenty of shorebirds and pelagics to be seen, but I managed relatively few: Redbilled Gull, Blackbacked Gull, Australasian Gannet, New Zealand Dotterel, Spurwinged Plover, Pied Stilt, Variable Oystercatcher and two out of the fourteen species of Shag (Cormorant) that are on the country's list.
Most of the endemics are threatened, rare or even extinct, at least on the mainland. Islands are now the main stronghold of threatened species, because it is easier to eliminate the introduced pest species that have caused the problem: rats, stoats, possums, feral cats, hedgehogs and so on. I visited one such island, called Tiritiri Matangi, a short ferry ride from the mainland north of Auckland, where I was lucky enough to see several species that most kiwis have heard of but never seen: Stitchbird, North Island Saddleback, North Island Robin, Bellbird, Red-crowned Parakeet, Brown Quail, Brown Teal, and a real prize, the Kokako, also known as the Purple-wattled Crow.
It's not much of a list, I know, but I went to New Zealand to be with my family, not to birdwatch. Even so, I managed a handful of “lifers” for my little-boy-collectors' list.

Paradise Shelduck

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Psst, fancy a bit o' porn, squire?

Stap me, there's some funny stuff about these days. According to something I was reading – of US provenance – the most popular categories of porn watched by men are:
-interracial (mostly white wives with black lovers)
-feminization (men dressing up, or being forced to dress, as women)
-women dominating men (sometimes most graphically and painfully)
-futanari, presumably a Japanese fantasy, in which nubile females have a set of male genitals in addition to what they were born with.

What strikes me about this list is that the naughty stuff of my youth, viz a man with a woman doing whatever comes naturally (the postcard above is from another planet), seems to have disappeared completely. In fact the nearest to “normal” sex is a black man charvering a white woman, usually with a pathetic white husband/boyfriend looking on.

There's a pattern here underlying these various porn themes: women are dominant, women don't need men ( the subtext of lesbian porn), and any women who does need a man will choose a black man over a white man.

At the risk of being the target of a feminist fatwa, I will suggest that (white) men have been emasculated by the relentless denigration of men and the complicity of the media and other big interests in portraying women as strong and men as wimpish.

In a conversation about primary schools in New Zealand, I was quietly horrified to hear how teachers, almost entirely female, systematically peddle the feminist anti-male agenda, and I have no reason to doubt that the same thing is happening in the US and in many European contexts. God knows what the effect this is having on boys' self-esteem. And the irony of it is, girls in the end are no happier for being thrust into the amazon role prescribed for them by feminist propaganda.

Sorry there's no joke in this piece. It's no joke.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Open sesame dammit!

Modern wrapping is the subject of my latest grump. I tried to get an item out of its plastic moulding but, finding no way of separating the upper from the lower part, I cut across the top with a pair of scissors. I then prised them apart, only to discover that the item was still imprisoned in some kind of stiff paper. No, it doesn't peel off. It never does. You have to plunge the point of your scissors into it, and pull the paper apart messily. Why? Why all this wrapping? After all, the item was only a quartet of AA batteries. What are they being protected against? Don't the manufacturers WANT me to get at the batteries?
I haven't had such frustrations since my adolescence, when I broke fingernails trying to open bras one-handed while distracting the girl at the front with appoximately-aimed kisses. At least the little sweethearts weren't imprisoned in plastic, you didn't need scissors to open 'em up.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Tui whom it may concern

I am grateful to my fan for nudging me to restart my blogging. As you can see, dear friend, rumours of my demise were greatly exaggerated. The fact is, I have just returned from a six-week visit to my New Zealand family, hence the punning title of this piece. I got back last Friday and I am pleased to say my head and my intestines have finally caught up with the rest of me. So, watch this space, the OS is back and ready to create more breathless prose. PS The tui is one of the few native New Zealand birds that is widespread and easy to see. It is blackbird sized and has a repertoire of calls and noises reminiscent of Spike Jones and his City Slickers at their most manic.

Saturday, August 24, 2013


It looks as if we have another of those issues which polarises opinion, and where it is really hard to get at the facts, or even at reason-based estimates of probability. The anti lobbies are well represented in the media - after all, it's another catastrophe-in-the-making kind of story - so I thought you might like to get another perspective here.
I have to confess that "fracking" is my kind of word.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Some serious pissing about

I came across this snippet on a US news channel:

To the accolades of the leaders of a Cultural Revolution - and the shock and despair of most parents - Governor Jerry Brown signed California Assembly Bill 1266 into law. It mandates that restrooms in public schools, from kindergarten through the twelfth grade, no longer be limited to boys or girls, young men or young women. Students who self identify as transgendered will now be able to choose which restroom they use.
I had to cross reference this piece before I could be sure that it was not a spoof. Pursuing this surreal notion, I found an Australian article which listed 23 gender variants. Yes, TWENTY-THREE. To be honest with you, I have had enough difficulty coping with TWO gender categories during my life.
I'm not sure if there is vocal opposition to the new law about loos, but I suspect there will be howls of protest from the girls when they discover how scattergun the aim of micturating penis-toting adolescents is as they point percy at the porcelain in their very approximate way, seat up or seat down.

Monday, July 22, 2013

I do! I do! I do!

I was invited to a wedding on Saturday afternoon at St Etheldreda's, our lovely little Catholic church in Ely. The wedding ceremony was scheduled to take one hour, from one-thirty to two-thirty, after which there was a reception in a local village hall.
Boring stuff, I hear you say. Wait.
First off, this was no ordinary wedding. Both the bride and groom originate from Cameroon. By half past one, the church was PACKED with friends and relatives, mostly from Cameroon (I was one of the few palefaces there, having been invited by the bride's mother). The men were mostly dark-suited with stiff collar-and-tie, but the women... oh my goodness! The women! My words cannot do justice to the amazing range of styles, vivid colours, vibrant patterns. And the hairdos! And the unbelievable hats, some like giant piles of folded satin, some like those creations that Edwardian ladies favoured: lacy broad-brimmed and as tall as the Tower of Pisa.
No African wedding would be complete without music, in this case, provided by a Congolese choir brought in from London accompanied by guitar, bongo drums and rattly things I have no name for. Everything was sung, bongo-ed and rattled: the antiphons, the Gloria, the Gospel Acclamation, the Lord's Prayer, the Agnus Dei, quite often in the native language.
And you can't sing à l'africaine without dancing and tapping your feet. We even danced our way down the aisle to congratulate bride and groom after the solemnity. My little Catholic parish was a riot of colour and noise and harmony and laughter and love. My head is still buzzing: it and St Etheldreda's will never be the same again.
Envoi: did I say one hour? The church finally emptied at six-o'clock, four and a half hours later. Some wedding!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Bishop and my Bum

The other day, I went to Norwich Cathedral to install a Bishop. Well, I didn't personally install him, but I and a couple of thousand others were present for the ceremony. In fact, the Cathedral was so packed that for at least two hundred people, including me, it was standing room only. I managed to get a perch against a pillar, resting my bottom on the ornate carvery at the foot of the column.
The ceremony was spectacular, as you might imagine, lots of pompery-popery, made even more colourful by the contingents of various orders and other denominations in their characteristic garb. I think the Orthodox Archimandrite was my favourite.
It was a long and moving ceremony, that has left a lasting impression on my mind. It has also left a lasting impression on my bottom, thanks to the unforgiving carvery I had perched on, for I now have a pattern of acanthus leaves there that I suspect will not fade any time soon. Sorry for you I haven't a photo of such magnificent gluteal tracery.

Anyway, apart from the Swift in the organ and the indentations on my bottom, nothing much has happened to me lately. What about you?

St George and the Swift

The other day, I had a phonecall from a lady who suspected that she had a Swift in her organ. Well, you know me: when it comes to helping damsels in distress, I'm a regular St George.
So I met her at the church where, that very same morning, she had been at organ practice, when she heard a strange twittering from somewhere under or within her organ. As she had seen a Swift flying around in the nave the day before, she assumed it was the same bird finding somewhere to roost.
I scoured the church but no sign of the bird, I explored the lady's organ as best I could, but no sight or sound. She mentioned that the birdy noise had only started up when she was about ten minutes into her practice, so I suggested she should start playing again to see if we could get a response. I think it was Bach, or it might have been Telemann, but whatever it was, she played it beautifully and I immensely enjoyed the experience, especially as the church itself is magnificent, grand as a Suffolk wool church.
There was no birdy noise, but the lady was clearly grateful that I had so gallantly responded to her call for help. Chivalrous to a fault, that's me. “Any time, madam,” I told her, as I left the church composing this blog piece in my head.