ideas

Nature Notes: Painted Ladies & Butterfly Bushes

It’s easy to see why butterflies have an appeal despite being bugs. The gentle, unthreatening way they move around and the diverse and spectacular colouring of the wings of some.

We have inherited a plethora of buddleia and it’s no wonder they are known also as “butterfly bushes”. I can’t remember seeing as many different butterflies before, outside of a butterfly house. They come to drink nectar out of the buddleia blooms; great tortoiseshells, peacocks, red admirals and painted ladies.

I read that it’s a favourable English Summer for painted ladies, a once-in-a-decade abundance partly due to the wind. Who’d have thought a good wind would benefit such fragile wings? It’s a long flight from North Africa otherwise.

The buddleias come from China. Originally, I mean. Ours probably came from a garden centre down the road. Probably just one or two as they are demons for self-propagation, as any trip along a railway in town will show you. They’re not fussy about where they settle in, even growing out of the sides of viaduct brick walls. Railway maintenance consider the species a nuisance.

We take out several plants leaving a few choice specimens where we can see the butterflies from our window, or from seats in the garden. Buddleias need attention, maintaining a good, constrained shape rather than a gangly, overbearing upstart. Pruning and dead heading also encourages fresh blooms, and more butterflies. That’s what you want – a butterfly bush.

The Foreign Bloke

a flash-fiction piece

“Minding my own business, I was; jest popped out for a drink; the missus’s sister come visiting and I can handle a woman’s company, but two in the bush, you get my drift? I always sez, it’s for a man to decide whether he wants it or no. So, I sez, I’ll go for a snifter, my sweet, and give me regards to yer sister! So, I’m enjoying my lonesome with a glass and it’s slipping down peaceful, when this chap’s come over and what if he don’t settles besides me and bends my ear over a story ‘bout this man he met in a place like this. What a peculiar sight, sez he, I’d never believe it but it were true. It wasn’t that I doubted him, nor any word he spoke, it was jest I couldn’t understand everything he said, his accent, see? He was some foreign bloke.”

(150 words)


The city of Bath has a modest art museum. Its exhibits are not exceptional but it is a gallery and it’s a good place to experience something other than work for half an hour of a lunchtime. After many visits over a long time, I get to see the paintings as you might old friends. I see their familiar sides and then they reveal other things about themselves.

I hadn’t really taken in this funny little painting before, by Rex Whistler (not to be mistaken for the guy who famously painted his mother; that was the American artist, James McNeill Whistler). I snapped it on the mobile phone, it’s easier than describing it in words but I’ll do that as well.

It shows two guys sitting at a table upon which are two quite different drinks. Judging by the glasses, they look alcoholic so we can assume they’re sitting in a bar or pub, though the view out of the window behind them suggests the room is upstairs. Maybe a private room in a pub, or an hotel bar. The signs outside the window behind them don’t appear to be in English, so which of the two men is the eponymous “Foreign Bloke“?

It soon struck me that this painting would make a good prompt for a flash-fiction piece. Actually, galleries are awash with paintings which are ambiguous enough and intriguing to be fiction prompts (rather like The Girl With The Pearl Earring – a whole novel was inspired by that one).


Rex Whistler died in action in 1944, after the Normandy landings. He was a tank commander in the Welsh Guards Armoured Divisions. He was struck by the blast of a mortar shell whilst running between his incapacitated tank and the one following behind. When they recovered his body, there wasn’t a mark on it but his neck had been broken.

During combat service, he was an unauthorised war artist, stowing his brushes in a bucket hooked on the side of the tank. There were official war artists employed as serving men in WW2. It seems a very strange assignment to me.

Rex Whistler, artist 1905 – 1944 (wiki)

Doing Almost Nothing for the Environment

Last weekend, firing up the Mountfield, I took aim and cut as graceful an arc as I could with a mower having a fixed wheel on each corner. We are “wilding” part of our front lawn and I was striking the dividing line.

It’s a trend. Now that we’ve started, we notice quite a few gardens have done it, many with an advanced growth of red poppies, cornflowers, and daisies. I expect there are other wild plants in there too though too short and too far away to see.

To speed things along, ready seeded turf can be laid, or you can sow wildflower mixtures from a seed packet. It’s much more interesting to watch how things develop by nature, I think, though there is a temptation to give it a helping hand. Of course, some intervention is necessary to stop the dominant weeds taking over, like dandelions. Though it can be a very useful plant – and not that unattractive I think – a lawn full of dandelion heads gives the ready impression of a neglectful gardener rather than a wilding one.

Already after seven days there are swaths of clover, buttercups, clumps of violet flowers – which I think are curiously named “self heal” or “heal-all” – and those ubiquitous small daisies kids sometimes make bracelets from. The grass itself is also putting up a variety of seed heads which normally wouldn’t see the light of day given regular mowing. Nature is having a small field day.

The point of this, and the reason we’re doing it, is the first hand experience of not seeing the normal quantity of insects here these past Summers. There are a number of uncertain reasons for this: unduly successive cold and wet Summers, excessive and discriminate use of “pest” controls, exotic diseases, trophic disruption and habitat loss.

Where have the bugs gone? Remember the Summer’s when you had to wash down the car windscreen after a jaunt through the countryside? I tell you, I can drive practically all Summer without needing to do this now.

Understandably, humans have a innate aversion to insects and for agriculturalists and gardeners historically they’ve been enemies no. 1, 2, 3 and beyond. Yet many insects are crucial to our survival, and all of them play important roles in a self sustainable ecological system. It’s fair to say we cannot know if the removal of any one seemingly insignificant bug has a big knock on effect, perhaps quite literally the butterfly effect.

Anyway, I’m looking forward to seeing what happens to our third of lawn left uncut – apart from digging out any rogue dandelions. And I don’t have as much grass to mow weekly, which is a very welcome bonus as well. Every bit helps.


hey, that image is not my wilding lawn but something I’d like to achieve.

Ivory Towers

“I have always tried to live in an ivory tower, but a tide of shit is beating at its walls, threatening to undermine it.”

wrote the French writer, Gustave Flaubert, in a letter to the Russian author, Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev. Thanks to Lit.hub.com, a blog I follow, for this quote.

It’s a timely quote as it does reflect a sense of the world I see today.

I was interested in the term Ivory Tower. It isn’t literally a tower made from ivory but refers to the colour. A symbolic colour of noble purity, Wikipedia tells us. It is mentioned in The Song of Solomon, part of the Old Testament; “Your neck is like an ivory tower”. Quite a long neck, then, and in no literal sense being an abode.

But it probably didn’t originate in the O.T. and its use is found littered throughout time.

Modern usage has modified its sense to convey the idea of a person isolated from common experiences rather than, as Flaubert probably had it, simply striving to live a more virtuous or meaningful life. Of course, in his case, no doubt he sees the average person’s preferences as being part of the “shit”.

Social media has provided the platform for free speech and democratic expression from all quarters of the free world. People say what they want. Is it fair to regard any of it as “shit”? The trouble is, I suppose, this idea of “the will of the people”; is this today’s “shit” that’s beating at the walls, the utter certainty and determination of the plebiscite?


The picture is an altered image of Broadway Tower which is near here. It is actually built in Cotswold limestone which has turned a beautiful, deep and mellow honey colour with time, something which is peculiar to the Cotswold stone around about the county of Worcestershire, in the north west of the area.

Is it okay to be in love with your protagonist?

The idea occurred to me while walking the dogs this morning. Actually, no sooner was this idea given oxygen when it latched itself onto an old idea that all our protagonists are, in essence, autobiographical, just different versions of us. Combined, this asks, how much writing a central character is an act of narcissism?

I’ve just begun reading Montalbano’s First Case, a book of short stories by Andreas Camilleri, a kind of prequel to the Montalbano novels of which he has written many. It’s apparent that Camilleri emphasises Montalbano’s good character: his virtues, his compassion, his good judgement, his wisdom – even when his man goes against the grain, bends the rules and breaks the law, there is an apology and virtuous reasoning. I’d say he is in love with him. But whether Montalbano is secretly Camilleri, I have no way of telling.

Of course, there’s the other idea that our characters are our fictional children, or even that they are our Adams and Eves to which we play God. We simply love our children, whatever they may do.

Roll ‘em: Robert Johnson & how to properly pack a bag

Down to the crossroads.

My Youtube suggestions unearthed an old documentary on the legendary delta blues musician, Robert Johnson, yesterday. It had up till now escaped my notice but if you’re at all interested in the blues genre, it’s well worthwhile. (Link below.)

The label “legendary” or “legend” might be bandied around too casually these days as if it equates to just being famous but in Robert Johnson’s case, it is arguably apt.

So, in a nutshell for those who may be unaware, I shall attempt a precis of the salient points. Johnson, then known by his step-father’s family name of Spencer, aspired to be a musician, and not a farmer or farm labourer as was the usual work of his peers. His early attempt at music was to hammer nails into the outside of his mother’s house and string three wires between them and wedge a bottle under to provide tension; then he would pluck those wires to make music.

He would visit the bars and juke joints to hear the travelling musicians. He begged, amongst others, Son House, a loan of a guitar to practice on. But, according to House, the neighbours complained of the noise and so the guitar had to be taken away form him and subsequent begging turned down.

And here’s the legend part: Johnson took off, it’s not sure where, for six or seven months. When he came home, he begged to show how he could play. Of course, they feared the worst but it turned out he could not only play but play better than anyone around. It was said of him that he must have traded his soul to the devil to be able to play so well in such a short time.

He became an itinerant performer and a successful one. He was invited to Texas to record his music – 29 songs recorded off one mic in a hotel room, straight onto a disc. He was, by all accounts, a nice person but he had a thing for the ladies and it is suspected that he was poisoned by a jealous husband of one of his lovers. Or perhaps a jealous woman. The poison was hidden in a glass of whiskey handed to him during a performance. He died in pain the following day.


I followed her to the station, with a suitcase in my hand.

I had heard the stories before but there was a little gem within that made me smile. It was recounted by his travelling companion and fellow guitarist, Johnny Shines. He said Johnson had a routine of rolling up his suit, together with a white shirt inside, and carrying them around in a paper bag. When he put on his suit – presumably for a gig or a date – his clothes looked as if they were freshly pressed.

Why does this interest me? Well, for a while now, I’ve been rolling my clean shirts to put away rather than folding them, and when I pack to go away, I roll most of my clothes up. It seems to work, saves space, and avoids the creased look.

I got this tip from the Gentleman’s Gazette guy, Sven Raphael Schneider, the urbane, dapper dresser also featured on Youtube. Then, a while ago, I saw this packing diagram on Pinterest. It’s the new thing! Or the old thing, if we think about Robert Johnson.

For sure, it’s the small things in life which can bring the most pleasure. 😁


Can’t You Hear The Wind Howl? | The Life and Music of Robert Johnson (youtube)

Picaresque

“When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.”

(Jonathan Swift from “Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting”)

Do you ever go on a Google Safari?

This may look like a conjoining of two popular search engine names but really my meaning is the popular and ubiquitous meaning of the first word and the literal meaning of the second.

So, it may start by recalling a phrase or quotation or, in this instance, a title of a book, and I’m curious as to its origin or context or literal meaning. The book is the only work published by the author, John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces.

This was a book I’d judged by the title back in – whoa! the 1990s, I reckon, when Penguin issued a series of modern classic novels at an introductory bargain price. I wasn’t disappointed.

The phrase used for the title came to mind this morning after reading the news, but in particular the readers’ comments which are invited below many of the news items. I will admit that I have commented on items myself though I hope I haven’t been typical of these commenters. It’s a healthy sign of freedom and democracy that we are allowed to express ourselves publicly even if we wrongly equate our opinion with that of the author’s. A moment’s thought would tell any reasonable person how wrong this is likely to be so they might discard their certainty before going in search of the truth. Yet vanity and pride overwhelm, so generally people will choose ignorance over correcting themselves.

So, discovering the title comes from Jonathan Swift rather than The Holy Bible or Shakespeare, and being happy with that, I find a term I wasn’t familiar with but ought to be: Picaresque.

Essentially, Picaresque is a literary genre which deals with the lovable rogue, in particular someone from the lower orders in society, though in a broader sense anyone swimming against the popular tide. I love this genre and find such persons, whether fictitious or real, interesting.

In human nature, I feel there must be a “gene” which compels us to move with the herd. You can see its possible “evolutionary advantage”, can’t you? The downside is, amongst other things, people are informed by a narrow section of news outlets – somewhat bias driven for cynically commercial reasons, we get hemmed in by “party politics” – mostly self-serving and unrepresentative of ordinary citizen’s needs or views, and a largely out-of-date and devalued education.


The author, John Kennedy Toole’s life story is a sad one. Having written A Confederacy of Dunces – a brilliant and funny debut novel, I thought – he failed to get a publisher interested in it. He suffered depression and took his own life at the age of 31.

It was his mother, an influential figure throughout his life though not always a welcome one, who championed the novel in her son’s memory and eventually had it published. Later, Toole was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It reads like a good story in its own right and although there is a play, I don’t know if anyone’s made or thought of making a film of it.

Though the Safari could’ve gone on, I chose to end it there.

Tingles

Could it be that we are bombarded with so many ideas these days that one phenomenon that’s been going on for years has only today come to my attention?

ASMR: have you experienced it and, if so, does it work for you?

In case, like me, you haven’t a clue what it is, it stands for a therapeutic exercise called “Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response” and it’s a response to certain focussed sensations, in particular amplified sounds such as tapping a hard surface, the clip of scissors, the hiss of gas on opening a beer bottle, or a human whisper.

Some people don’t get it and the last of the above examples really doesn’t do it for me. I detest noticeable sibilancy – that “sssss” sound the English language makes which normally goes unnoticed by native speakers but becomes exaggerated in recordings and whispers.

I think it was in a history of native Australians that I read of their distrust of English colonists when they heard them speak. They couldn’t understand what they said, of course, so it sounded to their ears like a bunch of snakes. I understood that in many aboriginal tongues, there is no such sound.

Apart from that one, does any of the rest produce “tingles”? And why?

They seem at pains to exclude the likelihood of sexual responses to the stimuli. I’m a bit sceptical about this. The other thing which is likely, I think, is good old nostalgia. When I came across the Soundcloud site, I played around with a bunch of sound clips to make a personal piece of nostalgic sounds. These sounds, some of them rarely heard now and some forgotten, do evoke pleasant memories for me, a kind of tingle, I suppose. I think we all have them, the sounds of waves lapping over pebbles, the noise of children playing, ducks squabbling over breadcrumbs, a light aircraft passing overhead, the sound made by a manual typewriter… Maybe the tingles are the same as when detecting the presence of any ghost.

However, returning to the sexual/non-sexual issue, are we in any doubt as to the intention in this 2019 beer commercial? Nope.


ASMR: Science – How Stuff Works

ASMR: It helps people, it’s not sexual (BBC)

Woman – her journey

To paraphrase the old chicken and egg thing, I wonder which came first, the woman or the man. I know, I know, the bible says, and all those other versions about the globe concur, mostly though perhaps not all, but…think about it.

Logically, it seems to me that while a man cannot possibly grow an infant alone, chances are a little better for a woman.

I think, free from politics, religion and all other enforced mumbo-jumbo, men and women could get along just fine. Or at least better than they have with all the historic mumbo-jumbo. I wonder how it would be if there was equality between the sexes. I don’t mean equality of opportunity, careers and wages, or anything modern like that, but physical equality. I’m not sure the men would fare as well; possibly they would be like the bees and ants, subservient and with one purpose, and once that was over the women might bite off their heads and eat them. Despite the randomness of evolution, are males not merely couriers for chromosomes?

I think the males better watch out. And I don’t mean fight back. They are clearly evolving into a weaker version of their sex, psychologically mostly but with the advent of modern technology, clearly physically too. While there is still evidence of chumps about, knuckle dragging ignoramuses, grunting and blowing in your ear ‘ole, these are swimming against the tide. The great emasculation is happening, concurrently with the slow progress of feminism. Thanks to technology – ethics and morality, philosophy and politics have no option but to follow on – the gap is closing. And if we can all keep our cool, that’s good, isn’t it?


written for Reena’s Exploration Challenge Prompt #77 – “Woman – her journey”

A difficult thing for me, a privileged, white, western male, to write about not wanting to cause offence. Sorry if any offence is unwittingly caused.

Four Lessons for your consideration

This article in Artsy magazine on Willem de Kooning had me thinking whether there was an equivalent in painting and drawing to “writer’s block”. Why I should make this leap – more a sidestep in reality – when the article doesn’t mention anything like it, I don’t know but thinking does that sometimes. There probably are some similarities between the creative arts.

The article deals with de Kooning’s lessons in becoming an artist. I thought I might consider these in the wider perspective of creative work. There’s a link at the end to the actual article if you want to read that.

Lesson #1: Don’t be afraid to be influenced by fellow artists’ work.

This is funny because I’m often unashamedly, and sometimes unconsciously, mimicking the work of others I admire. Sometimes I might even play around with stuff I don’t particularly admire.

I remember reading a story about Jimi Hendrix when he was seen coming out of a back street dive having gone in to see some second rate band. “Why on earth would a player of Hendrix’s standing bother watching a bad act?” He explained that even a poor player can sometimes give you a great idea about performing or songwriting. He took the influence and improved on it.

Lesson #2: Seek out glimpses of inspiration in the world around you.

This is probably the writer’s block bit. I don’t know about you but there’s always moments when I notice something interesting or inspirational. It might be a small thing, or it might be significant. It’s important to just log it in your mind – or jot a note down (I admire note takers a lot even though I rarely do this for myself).

Lesson #3: Pay attention to your desires, not the critics.

What motivates us? Yes, I think we all like a little approval, we like a little praise. Constructive criticism would be good too, providing we can handle it, though it’s not very nice; it depends where we’re at, past the tipping point of having gained self-confidence enough to brush off the nonsense stuff.

I think you have to be faithful to your desires.

Lesson #4: Embrace imperfection—even failure.

Whatever you’re into to, there ought to come an important tipping point when you realise that a mistake, far from being annoying or an embarrassing set back, is actually a real progression in learning your art. Failures make better teachers than successes. Of course, you have to look it squarely in the eyes and know why, and how to avoid it a second time, but this isn’t something you’re more likely to do with a success.

As a perfectionist myself, this has arrived later than it could have. I see perfectionism as a disorder and it still cuts deep at times but it shouldn’t hold you back.


Article: Willem de Kooning: How to be an artist (Artsy magazine)

image: The Privileged (untitled XX), 1985 by Willem de Kooning