England

Six Books for a Desert Island #3

I’m a bit of a nature boy at heart even though my knowledge might not be as deep as I’d like. As a little kid living in the boring suburbs, I treasured knowing the whereabouts of ponds. These were mainly artificial: created as obstacles on a golf course, or for coarse fishing clubs, or a rare dew pond made by a farmer long ago on the few remaining fields not yet swallowed up by the advance of metro-land. We would go pond dipping and bring home our zoological bounty in jam jars. One Christmas, I asked and got an optical microscope to see the tiniest of the pond’s inhabitants in a droplet of water: amoeba, daphnia, hydra, and the cyclops.

Later, I could have become a botanist. Exploring woods as a teen, I found a fascination in their prehistoric flora. The strange sights of various ferns, and mosses which, up close, looked like swathes of forests on a reduced scale.

Insects, birds and wild animals, all found their way into my heart too, a joy to see and study.

A Kestrel for a Knave (Barry Hines).

This was a set book on the English Literature syllabus at school. It was a rare good choice, I think: modern, accessible and appealing. The way literature was studied at school was to sample passages rather than begin at the beginning and read it through as the author intended. So, once I left school and chose to read for pleasure, this was one of the novels I picked out to read properly.

It’s also a “kitchen sink” story, a contemporary social commentary of working class life. The protagonist, Billy Casper, is poor, practically friendless, and in an unsupportive family. He has acquired a disdain for formal education, an unnecessarily harsh and systemically failing system. He takes solace in acquiring a fledgling kestrel which he sets out to train. He succeeds, with the help of a book on falconry he steals, and this comes to the attention of a kindly teacher who is the only person to take an interest in Billy’s life. It’s a great story and, like all good fiction, carries much truth.

Excellent alternative reads, all non-fiction;

The Peregrine by JA Baker.

Beautifully written accounts of bird observations in an estuary in the east of England, on an author’s search to discover falcons in the wild.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald.

More hawk training. A goshawk this time, a bird notoriously difficult to master.

A Sting in the Tail by Dave Goulson.

Not birds but bumblebees. A fascinating and entertaining read nevertheless. For a scientist, Goulson is a very accessible writer without too much dumbing down. Bumblebees, probably the most essential creature of the lot.

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Fat Tuesday, No Pancake

So, today is Fat Tuesday! Mardi Gras, if you prefer, or Pancake Day here in Britain.

I don’t know about you but pancakes are one of those foods which you imagine are better than they actually are. Fried batter with raw lemon juice and white sugar. Yum. Like you could eat any of those ingredients on its own, in quantity, with relish.

In my youth, I vaguely remember an eatery chain dedicated to pancakes. What was it called? Pancake Hut? Pancakes R We? Flat Batter Fry House? I honestly don’t remember. Inside, the menu was almost entirely pancakes. You chose a savoury filling for the main course and a sweet filling for dessert. I think the savoury ones were stuff like chilli con carne, ratatouille or fried beans; the sweets were predominantly stewed fruits with ice cream on top. It was somewhere to take your girlfriend when you wanted to impress her without much money. We were young, see!

Well, much like Christmas mornings and Hallowe’en, Pancake Day hasn’t a lot of traction without kids about the house. I think we may forgo them this time. We have some venison meatballs in the freezer and I might do a wild mushroom and shallots gravy, some parsnip mash and lightly steamed cavolo nero. Enjoy your pancakes!

image: detail from The Fight Between Carnival and Lent by Pieter Bruegel, the elder (1559)

In Future This Blog Will Be Closed On Wednesday Afternoons

In preparation for our house move, I loaded up the car with accumulated garage rubbish and we headed off to the dump (aka “the tip” – official name: Civic Recycling Centre). Damn us if the thing weren’t open.

Lots of other people were caught out too, enough to alert us something was up before we even reached the gates. To be fair to the dump, they’ve always been closed on Tuesdays and there’s a dirty great sign by the gate which says so. The thing is, these days, in England, we’re just used to everything being open whenever we need it.

I’m old enough to remember when shops and stores were closed all day on Sundays and shops would close for Wednesday afternoons, and banks, bless ’em, would shut their doors mid-afternoon, Monday to Friday. Weekend banking? Not a chance.

The thing was that this wasn’t really a problem for most of us as the situation was quite clear. Shoppers had a responsibility to mind the time and, if they missed the shop, they only had themselves to blame. It usually meant opening a tin of something, like it or lump it.

I have noticed whenever holidaying in Wales and Spain – in certain parts, at least – you can’t find a restaurant or gastropub (or whatever the Spanish equivalent of that is) open on a Monday. Sundays is normally dead being the Sabbath, so avoid going on a short break anywhere over a Sunday and a Monday, unless you want to eat McDonald’s.

What’s my (serious) take on this?

Well, for a long while I’ve kind of missed the spirit of the quite Sunday (early closing Wednesday was sometimes a pain in the arse). There was something ineffably calming and peaceful and ordered about Sundays. I mean, it wasn’t ever a religious thing for us but if that’s what it takes, so be it. A sabbath made for man; I quite like it.

Thaiku

Thank you for the fall
the bestest season of all
apart from the spring

Here in England, the Autumn can go any kinds of ways. For a few days last week, the sun shone brightly in a clear sky and you could sense its benign radiant heat while the breeze, uncharacteristically, also carried some warmth – in mid October! (Remember, “October can be nice, also.”)

The English – and probably the British by extension – are known to complain about the weather and, god knows, we have enough of it to complain about; if heat is not your thing, there are those days to complain about; if you hate the cold, your opportunity will come soon. If you miss the rain, or think it too wet, we can cater for those too. We offer a democratic style of objection to climate.

But this Englishman doesn’t complain – well, not much normally. Not only do I think of its inconsistency and variety and not forgetting its moderation, as a blessing but I don’t get why humans take against nature so. The weather was here long before we were. If you don’t like it blame your nomadic antecedents who pitched up, threw away their bivouacs and tents and took to farming. They must have recognised the benefits.

Nature, if we imagine it to be anthropomorphic, would regard humanity as an adult might regard a petulant child. You know, the kid you might see in a café or restaurant, first adamantly wanting pizza, and then not wanting it the moment it arrives. That’s the English with their weather.

The seasons are not as complicated and more inevitable. There can be a few surprises, as we’ve had this month, but the cycle of seasons ultimately prevails. Yet each season as it emerges from the previous one and goes on to merge into the next, gives us its special beauty. These wonderful experiences are things we ought to embrace psychologically, not fight.


image: untitled photo by Chris Lawton via Unsplash.com

It’s raining in Baltimore

It is.

Even though I am in England – it’s raining here too though that’s never surprising – I checked the weather out in Baltimore. Drizzle. Isn’t that the worst kind of rain? It’s hopeless trying to dance in it. A bloody insult, I call it.

I began this post by considering its title to be, It’s raining in Gloucestershire after that Counting Crows song. It’s a funny thing with Americana that when you try for the British equivalent, it just doesn’t sound right. I blame history: we simply have too much of it. We were hey-nonny-no-ing with pig bladders on sticks centuries before Bill Haley rocked around his clock. It’s not easy shaking off a first impression.


Plans thwarted by weather, I had an extra half hour in bed, thinking about things. Like,

Why do we Follow, instead of just remembering who the good ones are and thinking, “hey! I wonder what they’ve been up to recently?”


I thought about Relaxation and became aware that though I was recumbent on a good mattress and with my head on a comfortable pillow, I wasn’t completely relaxed. I noticed a tension in my muscles between the shoulder blades; for some inexplicable reason, I was unconsciously lifting my upper back imperceptibly off the bed. I practice a little yoga so I’m used to monitoring the old bod for unnecessary tension and managed with some mental effort to switch the offending muscle off.

Relaxing, or the process of it, is quite frightening. It’s psychological. It is essentially overcoming the fear of letting go, akin to falling. I find the biggest hurdle to fully relaxing is around the chest, all that physical apparatus which deals with breathing. Though there’s plenty of scope to let go of the unnecessary tension, it feels to me like I might stop breathing altogether and won’t be able to start up again. Nonsense, of course, but that’s the treachery of the thinking mind.


Now if you ever plan to motor west, travel my way, take the A road that’s the best
Get your thrills on the A-Thirty
It winds from London to Land’s End, less than three hundred miles, give or take a bend
Get your thrills on the A-Thirty
Now you go past Camberley, Basingstoke, and Egham…

When I was small, the family would head in the car to Cornwall for our regular annual holiday. From NW London, we’d pick up the A30 somewhere south-west of our house and it would take you all the way to the far edge of the country. It’s not called Land’s End for nothing. This way is mostly defunct now as you’d be mad not to hit the motorways, M4 and M5, but you’ll be hard pressed to find the poetry in those.

I was attempting to fine tune the version then I remembered Billy Bragg’s parochial parody of Route 66. As small as we are, I’ve no knowledge of Shoesburyness or why it would be anyone’s destination. It must be part of the parody.


I nearly forgot to say I downloaded an app to tune guitars and the last thing I did before getting into bed last night was tune the guitar beside the bed. It was easy, but what was more amazing was it hardly needed any tuning. Maybe there’s hope yet.

Now if you ever plan to motor west……🎵

A13, Trunk Road To The Sea – Billy Bragg