Thursday, 29 March 2012

You Bustard!

It's been unseasonably warm and sunny these past few days, and I've been doing a lot of driving. It does make a nice change to be driving to and from work in daylight and sunshine, and to be able to see some of the birds and animals which live around here.

I'm no Birdchick. My knowledge of birds is limited - mostly I classify them as:

- Little birds found on the birdfeeders
- giant feral pigeons
- Ducks
- suicidal pheasants
- Magpies
- Others.

However, in the past few days I've seen several which all fit into the '
'others' category -

On Friday there were a couple of herons - one flying, with it's neck all folded up, which always looks highly improbable to me, the other standing by a rhyne, oon the levels, very visable agaisnt the bright green new growth of reeds.

This evening, there was a peregrine falcon - possibly a young one, as it looked brown rather than grey.

There were also, this evening, some deer*

The prize, however, has to be the bird I saw on Monday evening, as I was driving home after a tiring, unexpected, and somewhat stressful afternoon in court  (I was not expecting to be in court at all, but a mix up with listing and Counsel's diary meant that the person who should have gone, couldn't, so I needed to over it at short notice. Then instead of being there for about an hour, as expected, I was there 4 hours)

There was a lot of traffic, and it was slow, and I was hot, and tired, and hungry. Then, as I stopped in the queue of traffic caused by a large lorry trying to pass under a small bridge, I saw a Very Large Bird in the hedge-bottom next to me.  At first glance I thought it might be a peahen, but it was the wrong shape and size, and much taller. It stood in the hedgebottom, looking indecisively at the road for a few moments, then turned and disappered back into the undergrowth.

The only thing I could think of which it might be was a Great Bustard - these birds were hunted to extintion in the UK in the 19th C, but they have been re-introduced to Salisbury Plain over the past 6 or 7 years (from Russia).
When I got home, I looked for pictures of the Bustard - I mostly know of it from the fact that it is the County Bird of Wiltshire - many years ago when I was a Brownie Guide we had a picture of the Bustard on our uniform to show we were from Wilthire (I was quite pleased when we moved to Somerset, and we got to have a Wyvern, instead!) They are not particularly attractive looking birds, and the one I saw looked, to be hoest, a bit gormless.

But I am pretty sure that it was a Bustard -the pictures I've found, such as the one on the BBC story here look exactly like the bird I saw, so I do not see what wlse it could have been.

I didn't see a wing-tag, so can't say how old it was or identify the individual bird, but I'm quite excited to have seen it.
*Yes, I know deer are not birds. But they are generally shy enough that seeing them always feels like an unexpected gift.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012


My sister, E, has just had a birthday, and decided to hold a party, to celebrate. She lives about 2 hours drive from me, so it was an excellent excuse for an overnight visit. It meant, too, that I got to see both of my sisters, and my brother, plus my cousins and their 18 month old son, who live close to my sister.
It was a lot of fun.

E decided to start with afternoon tea, and then gradually segue into the cocktail party stage of the Party, in order to accommodate everyone's availability.

When I arrived, I was immediately co-opted to bake scones, while E finished decorating a fantastic triple layer chocolate cake.
It was a beautiful sunny day, so we were able to spill out into the garden. Scones and cream and Pimms and sunshine make for a good tea-party. (and yes, I did have some tea, too)

Also, there's nothing like including an 18 month old child in the party to break the ice!

Later, we reached the cocktail part of the day. It began with Cosmos. (well, I suppose one could say it began with the Pimms, but that hardly counts. It's really only a fruit delivery system)

Later there were Mai Tais, and other things. (E has a Big Book of Cocktails, and we let the boys make them. They kept wandering back in with a big jug. And once with a whole tray of shot glasses. It worked pretty well) at some point in the evening the conversation turned to diet, and we established (to our own satisfaction, if not that of any passing nutritionists) that a G'n'T counts as one of your 5 portions of fruit / veg a day (I mean, it's got lime in. And juniper berries) Also drinking a glass of wine counts. It's EXACTLY the same as a bunch of grapes...

It was a fun evening. And then later on, it was a fun night. Then the clocks went forward and it was 3 a.m and there was the challenging 'unfolding the sofa-beds and inflating the airbeds' part of the event.

And then, after a lengthy pause, there was tea, and toast, and that traditional breakfast food, twiglets.
And then I came home. And had a very early night.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Palaeontology and Politics - the last Bath Lit Fest Post (at least for this year)

Bath Lit. Fest. ends today, and the last two events I had tickets for were yesterday, with Richard Fortey and Jeremy Paxman.
I’d booked the ticket for Richard Fortey’s event having enjoyed his book, ‘Dry Store Room No.1’ about his time at the Natural History Museum, and his recent TV series, 'Survivors' (which has an accompanying book, of course!)
Richard Fortey
Fortey is a Palaeontologist, with a special interest in trilobites, but his theme today was to look at the range of organisms which have succeeded in surviving one or more of the great extinctions, and to speculate a little on how and why they succeeded in doing so.
Horseshoe Crabs, for instance (which can still be found in large numbers, coming to Delaware Bay to spawn) are found in the fossil record over 150 million years ago, Stromatolites, now found in  Western Australia are over 2.5 billion years old, and there are anaerobic bacteria in hot springs in Yellowstone, (among other places), which are even older. Some of the other survivors are Magnolia Trees, which were around with the dinosaurs, Nauteloids (which were contemporaneous with Ammonites) and the Echindna, whose babies delight in the glorious name of  'puggles', and which interests scientists both as its milk is so nutritious that it is being studied by researchers interested in anorexia, and as it has no nipples, just a slightly modifies sweat-gland which 'oozes' milk, so it represents an evolutionary step on the way towards true mammary glands. (of course, it also looks very cute, like an overgrown hedgehog, and lays eggs, just to confuse)
Fortey pointed out that most of the survivors have certain attributes in common: enduring habitat (often tidal),  a willingness to eat a wide variety of foods and/or the ability to go long periods without food, good defence mechanisms such as being difficult to eat, (Apparently the only part of a horseshoe crab which is edible is its eggs, and they taste pretty nasty!) a little counter intuitively, many of the survivors also have relatively few offspring or (like the Echidna) have slow-growing young needing a relatively high level of parental care.

It was fascinating, and afterwards, when I went to get my slightly battered copy of 'Dry Store Room No 1' signed, by Fortey, (rather than having spent £20 on the new hardback 'Survivors' book) he was charming about it, and commented that he liked signing books which had been read, which was very nice of him, whether it was true, or simply to put me at ease!

The second event I had a ticket for was Jeremy Paxman, talking about his new book,Empire (What Ruling the World Did to the British). However, as this didn't start until 4 hours after Richard Fortey's event finished, I had plenty of time to treat myself to a delicious pie and a pint in the The Raven, and still had time to visit Mr B's to drink coffee and buy books, and then to the Guildhall where, having some time to spare, I wandered around a little to admire the empty corridors, and the many splendid pictures of all of the majors of Bath, going back to about 1870. (The first clean-shaven Mayor appeared in 1899, but was clearly an aberration, as there wasn't another until 1913) Women took rather longer, there wasn't one until the 1960s.
After that little diversion, I settled in to listen to Mr Paxman. He has a ferocious reputation for his political interviews, and for his sometimes scathing comments to contestants on 'University Challenge', so the warnings, before his talk, not to annoy him by letting your phone go off during the presentation were particularly effective!
The presentation was more of a potted history of the Empire (mainly, but not exclusively, in India) than a discussion of how it affected the British and as such most of the information was not new, but it was very well presented (despite Mr. Paxman's difficulties with the remote control for his slideshow!) and entertaining, particularly his somewhat caustic asides; In describing the Privateer Henry Morgan  he explained that Morgan, seeing the Spanish exploiting indigenous people in South America, worked out that it was much less effort to wait and then steal the goods from the Spanish, became immensely wealthy so was, in the fine British tradition, rewarded with a knighthood..

He also commented on Gordon of Khartoum's decision to disobey orders and try to hold, rather than evacuate Khartoum, describing Gordon as  "Brave but deranged" -  Gordon apparently believed that he was in direct communication with the Prophet Isaiah, who, understandably, he considered outranked the Prime Minister..

Part of his theme was that the British Empire was not in any way planned, it grew as a result of a lot of opportunistic people trying to get rich, although the Victorians, in particular, liked to see it as a benevolent way of bringing Christianity and civilisation to the 'less advanced' parts of the world.

While acknowledging the many negative issues in the Empire (referencing the atrocities committed during the Indian Mutiny (1st War of Indian Independence), for instance) he did also flag up some of what he saw as positives; the introduction of in theory and principal, at least, a largely non-corrupt cadre of public servants, the abolition of slavery, including the fact that around 150,000 people were liberated due to the Royal Navy being used to enforce Britain's anti-slavery laws. He also commented that without defending colonisation, if you were going to be colonised, it was probably better to be colonised by the British than by many of the other colonial powers - Belgium and Portugal being particularly bad examples.

The American questioner had a rather rambling comment, resulting in saying "we got rid of them (the British monarchy)
Paxman; "Yes, you did. What's your point?"
American Questioner; "DO you have any comment?"
Paxman; "I wouldn't dream of intruding on your private grief"...

The Canadian Questioner spoke about the issue of Quebec and the odd partnership of the French and English;
Q "I don't know how the English ever expected that to work"
A "They probably took the view that it's your problem now. What do you want me to do?"

Perhaps not terribly serious responses to serious (if poorly constructed) questions, but most entertaining. I shall continue to watch the rest of the TV series, and will probably buy the book once it is out in paperback.

A very interesting finish to my Bath Lit. Fest.
It will be interesting to see what next year has to offer.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Humour and (More) History

If Sunday was all about history, on Monday I was expecting to be entertained, more than informed. I had a ticket to see Sandi Toksvig. I love her dry humour, and thoroughly enjoy her as host of ' Radio 4's News Quiz. I also missed seeing her when she was due to appear in Bath a couple of years ago, as she was ill and had to cancel, so was particularly pleased to see she was going to be at the Lit. Fest. this year.

Sandi is possibly Denmark's best known import to this country, (after bacon) - I am most familiar with her radio work, but she's also a regular columnist and has written a number of books.  She admitted, when asked, that her upcoming book, Valentine Grey, has communalities with her other books "I used a lot of the same words. But in a different order". It's a novel set during the 2nd Boer War (1899). The eponymous heroine disguises herself as a man and joins a bicycle regiment and goes to war. Toksvig explained that she got the original idea to set a book in a bicycle regiment in the Boer War after seeing a memorial in (I think) Canterbury Cathedral. It fired her imagination, she wrote the novel, and then went back and found that the memorial which started the whole thing was, in fact, in remembrance of members of a bicycle regiment in a different war, and a diferent country....

She read a short extract from the book, about the first occasion Valentine tries on male clothes, and talked a little about the way clothes change the world - Pockets! Trousers!

the conversation wasn't limited to the book (which isn't out yet) but also encompassed comedy (and the terrible scandal of the 'cuts' joke she made on R4 last year.."It's the Tories who have put the "n" into cuts" which led on to talking about politics and politicians more generally, to Sandi’s childhood and her family.

When we got to the Q&A section she was asked about the Great Marmite Scandal (last year there were a lot of news headlines about marmite being banned in Denmark) Sandi explained that the Danes are not interested in Marmite because they have real food, like herring…

More than any of the other events I’ve attended this one felt like a conversation we were lucky enough to have joined, rather than a scripted ‘talk’.

After the event, I got Sandi to sign my copy of ‘Hitler’s Canary’, and she definitely wins the ‘friendliest author of the festival’ prize, too!

Two days later I was back at the Guildhall to listen to physicist  Professor Jim Al-Khalili, talking about the “Golden Age of Arabic Science”.

He started by explaining that the “Dark Ages” between the fall of the Roman Empire and the start of the Renaissance, were really only ‘Dark’ in western Europe, and that during this time, and in particular during the period from the 8th to 10th Centuries, Arabic was the language of Science, and Baghdad was the centre of the scientific world. Harun al-Rashid, the Caliph, was tolerant and encouraged scholars within his empire.

This wasn’t a solely Islamic phenomenon; although Islam did feed into a great deal of the science; for instance, the need to be able to accurately locate Mecca was one of the motives for work on astronomy, cartography and geometry, but the Caliphate welcomed scholars from other countries and religions, and extensive work was done to translate earlier scientific writings such as those of Aristotle, Euclid and Galen. 

I think it’s fairly well known that  the word algebra comes from the Arabic. Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi wrote a book ; Kitab al-jebra, which set out the principals of solving algebraic equations, and which ultimately became Latinised to ‘algebra’, but what we learned was that the word ‘algorithm’ comes from the latinisation of al – Khwarizmi’s name – he was known as Algorithmus!

 There was also Ibn Sina (980-1037) whose name was Latinised as Avicenna, and whose ‘Canon of Medicine’ and ‘Book of Healing’ became the standard medical texts for the next 700 years, and, like other Arabic texts, spread into the west as Arabic texts were translated into Latin.

Al-Khalili is clearly enthusiastic about the subject, and his interest comes over very clearly, and he managed to make what could be a dry subject accessible and interesting even to a non-physicist such as myself.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

History, of Diverse Kinds

This is a slightly belated blog - having been going out to lots of events, I've been short of time to then write about them.
On Sunday I was in Bath again, for two very different history events. The first was (Sir) Simon Jenkins, talking about the entire history of England, and his new book (imaginatively titled 'A Short history of England' and the second was Faramerz Dabhoiwala, discussing his book, ''The Origins of Sex'

Simon Jenkins is a journalist and Chairman of the National Trust, and is unimpressed with the current habit of teaching history in unconnected chunks. He argues that it is necessary, in order to understand history, including current events, to understand their causes. (which seems fairly reasonable, although I am not 100% convinced that it necessary to understand the entirety of English history to achieve this in respect on a single part of it)
Simon Jenkins
Having set out his stall, Jenkins then proceeded to gallop through the whole of English History, from 410AD to 2012, in around half an hour (although to be fair there was a rather large leap from 410 to 1066).

He has a gift for picking out interesting and unobvious nuggets of information. I realised, afterwards, that only one of these was actually new to me (I hadn't appreciated that the 'Glorious Revolution' of 1688 was a proper, armed invasion, even of it didn't lead to a bloody civil war, at least in England. I just thought we just sent out for a mail order King.)

I was aware that Magna Carta was not a success at the time, and was then virtually forgotten until the 17th C, that Agincourt was a PR success but a practical disaster and that we ended up losing that war (Shakespeare spun it a little...)  he suggested that when you have a monarchy, what you need for political progress is a really incompetent King - the examples he gave were King John, Richard III, the Stuarts and George III. You can see his point.

It was a fascinating lecture, and his conclusion, that we're seeing a return to an elite executive - back to the old Norman pattern, which was a chilling thought to leave us on...

The second event was also about history, albeit of a different kind. Faramerz Dabhoiwala discussing his book about what he describes as the 1st Sexual Revolution - the change, in the 17th - 18th C of attitudes towards sex and sexuality - specifically, that in around 1650 attitudes were similar to those we associate with modern day extremist theocracies - extra-marital sex could, and often did, lead to severe punishment; public shaming, whipping and banishment for life from the parish, and even to execution. Dabhoiwala (in response to an audience question) siad that this applied across the social spectrum, but I did wonder whether this were true - I am sure that there were wealthy and powerful people who faced punishment after accusations os sexual impropriety, but can't help but feeling that such accusations would be awfully handy as a way of controlling political emenies, for instance, and that it may be that among the upper echelons of society we only ever hear of those who were punished, not those who were not.

Faramerz Dabhoiwala
The prevailing view, according to Dr Dabhoiwala,  was that such behaviour was a risk to society as a whole, not merely to the individuals concerned. There was also an assumption that women were naturally weaker than men, and therefore more lustful.

By the 1750s the philosophical ideas of the Enlightenment extended to the sexual sphere; ideas that sex outside marriage were 'unnatural' or intrinsically wrong were challenged, and surprisingly, Dr Dabhoiwala had even found evidence of such arguments being put forward by at least one gay man.

The idea developed that there was a difference between public and private, and that private life was, well, private, and not the concern of the state.

Courtesan Kitty Fisher become, arguably, the first sexual celebrity and pin-up girl (She commissioned Joshua Reynolds to paint her portrait, for instance, and was written about extensively. We are far from having invented celebrity gossip! ), and the first 'homes' for 'fallen women' were established, with people starting to see them (up to a point) as victims in need of help rather than as criminals in need of punishment, although this appears to have been somewhat patchy, and of course there tended still to be a strong impulse to evangalize to such fallen women.

Interesting stuff. Not least for the reminder of how recently our society changed. I think I shall see about getting a copy of the book from the library. The discussion  certainly piqued my interest.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Religion, Atheism, and More Dickens

This year's Bath Lit. Fest. opened yesterday, and I had tickets for two of today's events.
The first was a talk by Alain de Botton whose most recent book, 'Religion for Atheists' has just come out. He is an excellent and engaging speaker. His theme was the many positive things which religions offer, and what these can still offer a secular society.

He began by disclosing that he is not, himself, a believer (to give anyone who might be offended the opportunity to leave), and went on to explain how he felt this allowed him, and other atheists to take a 'pick'n'mix' approach to religion and it's trappings, starting from a view of religions as part of our cultural heritage, in a similar way that art, literature and music are.

It seems a far more positive and constructive attitude than the more typical religion/atheist divide. (and such a refreshing change from the intolerance often seen from the extremes on both sides of the divide)

He suggests that religions have a lot in common with big business - big groups working towards a common objective, multi-national organisation,  logos, uniform, brand messages, they aren't just collections of ideas, and so seeking to convince people by making arguments over those specific doesn't, generally work - the organisations are so much better at propaganda. Secular culture has, in contrast, remained more of a cottage industry; writers, artists and musicians all working independently.

In effect, de Botton's thesis is that rather than arguing with religions or the religious, atheists should steal or borrow the 'best bits' - the good ideas, the community building, the accessible art, the effective education.

He is a fluent, passionate and entertaining speaker, and he left me wanting to read his book! Following the lecture, there was time for a few questions, unfortunately the first of these was that scourge of the Q&A, the person who cannot, or will not ask a question, but instead starts their own mini-lecture, on this occasion, to 'prove' that there's always a fundamental  choice between right and wrong (AKA you must believe in some external force really, you just won't admit it) which was a little wearying.

Over all, however, I found de Botton's approach refreshingly different, and was inspired to buy his book, despite my intention to come for the talk alone!

The second event which I had booked was to hear Claire Tomalin interviewed about Charles Dickens, the subject of her most recent biography, but I first had several hours to kill, so took myself to the Wild Cafe for brunch - pancakes with bacon and maple syrup, after which I found the lure of the bookshops too great, and my resolution to buy no books today a further beating.
Back at the Guildhall, I settled in to listen to Claire Tomalin, interviewed by John Walsh.

I found this less gripping than either Alain de Botton, or Simon Callow's Dickens talk last week - partly, I think, this was down to presentation; Walsh had clearly prepared for the interview, but was reading from notes, which did  mean that the interview didn't flow as well as it might have done, and it was very much geared to the Dickens aficionado.

Tomalin clearly knows her stuff, but I didn't feel that her enthusiasm for the subject quite came over to the audience - I wasn't left feeling either that I'd learned anything new about Dickens (which as I'm by no means a Dickens expert, is saying something) or that I wanted to go on to buy the book and read more.  I think I shall continue to read Mr Callow, and Mr Dickens himself, instead.

Tomorrow, I shall be back in Bath for further events. Watch this space.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Friday at last!

I woke up this morning, about 10 minutes before the alarm went off, and was completely, utterly, convinced that it was Saturday. It was a terrible disappointment to me to realise, a few minutes later, that it was only Friday.

I think it's because it's been a very full week, so at some level I felt I'd already had a week's worth of work, without today!

I've been out of the office a lot - several court hearings, and conferences with Counsel, which has meant a lot of driving. One drive through a cold, foggy morning, another through glorious sunshine. I enjoyed the second. I had to go over the Levels, and saw not only the usual cows, and clouds of starlings, but also a group of 7 or 8 roe deer, bouncing along,  a heron fishing in one of the rhynes, and a Peregrine falcon perched, motionless, on a gatepost.

The downside of all this rushing about was that I wasn't able to go to see the National Theatre Live showing of 'The Comedy of Errors' (starring Lenny Henry) It was on yesterday, and I'd booked a ticket at a cinema in Bristol (as my closest participating cinema, in Bath, had sold out) Unfortunately, I found myself having to go to Taunton during the afternoon, and by the time I had finished, it was 5.30, which meant that the chances of me getting to the cinema in time were slim, and the chances of being able to grab anything to eat first were zero. I decided, reluctantly, that it wasn't practical. I admit that my decision was influences by the fact that I am going to get to see the live version, at the National Theatre, at the end of the month, but realistically I'd have had to make the same choice even if that weren't true.

And at least it meant that I got to have a (relatively) early night.

Tomorrow I'm going to the first of the events I've booked at the Bath Festival of Literature - Alain de Botton, talking about religion and atheism, and later, Claire Tomalin, talking about Dickens. I expect both will be interesting. I hope they will  be. And I should ahve time to pop into the library on my way, to pick up the DVd of 'The King's Speech', so I can compare it to last week's theatre version, and a copy of H.M. Castor's Henry VIII, which I've wanted to read for a while, since hearing Castor speak the BristolCon.

It should be a good weekend.