Thursday, 15 December 2011

Baby, it's cold outside. Probably.

   Below, nestled amongst my collection of elephants and cowboys, can be seen my collection of Galilean thermoscopes. Everybody gotta collect sumptin'.

   Explanations of how these thermometers function can be found on line. I have read several articles that describe the process very clearly, but I still don't understand it. I especially don't understand how mine work as each of them registers a different temperature, a disparity that can be explained in various ways: Galileo was wrong, there are extraordinarily local variations in the temperature of my living room or I was sold a load of old tat.


Thursday, 8 December 2011

Low on High

In my previous post I mentioned how, for my seventh birthday, I received a pair of Greenfinches.

   At seven I felt I knew all about Greenfinches, I knew their diet, how to sex them (“the female is more dowdy than the male”), the size of their clutch and the incubation period of the eggs therein. This information was gleaned from copies of “Cage and Aviary Birds” a hobbyist newspaper that, as a result of my birthday present, my father could now bring home as a matter of course rather than as an occasional and guilty luxury. I would pore over each word of every article paying particular attention to the price lists placed by dealers who advertised inside the back cover. The motivation for scrutinising the price lists was to see how cheaply I could create in my imagination the most comprehensive collection of birds, particularly parrots. The exoticism and rarity of parrots were reflected in their price – even in the 1960s it was a month's wages for a Hyacinth macaw, despite these beautiful birds being less rare then than now. There were no restrictions on the importation of birds at the time, it was never reported how most died in transit, at least not in “Cage and Aviary Birds”. It never crossed my mind that for the vast majority of exotic birds their being for sale was to the detriment of their wild populations. For a boy of seven all that is beyond immediate experience is immutable.

   There was an anomaly in my closed world of birds, and that was the presence of Rosemary Low, a journalist who wrote in “Cage and Aviary Birds”. My avian world, save for Ms Low, was uniformly masculine; men ran the pet shops and the dealerships where we bought the birds, I saw only men at the bird shows I was taken to, and of course, towering over all, was the very male figure of my father. I found Rosemary Low intriguing, a parrot enthusiast who kept, it seemed to me, every parrot species that existed. Week after week she would churn out lucid, authoritative articles usually accompanied by a black and white photograph of yet another successful brood of wobbly, fledgling parrots that had appeared in one of her innumerable nest boxes. I know the articles were lucid and authoritative because I still have a scrapbook of her clippings. I recently looked up her name on the Internet and was heartened to see that Rosemary Low is still writing and is now universally acknowledged as a world expert on all matters psittacine.

   I have since bought one of the twenty or so books Ms Low has written on parrots. It seems inevitable that, like the Holy Ghost in Flaubert's Un coeur simple, she will one day in the distant future assume the form of a gigantic parrot and ascend, screeching, heavenwards.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Putting the male parent first

   My father, in common with many working men in the England of my youth, kept birds as a hobby. Next to our garden shed, which would come to serve as a hide, he erected an aviary for a trio of fantail doves he had bought in a local pet shop. He built the structure of the 'flight', as we called it, with scrap wood he carried home from the factory. My father would later move from doves to canaries and other finches, a shift marked by his gift to me, for my seventh birthday, of a pair of Greenfinches (Carduelis chloris). Money was tight and it would be easy to see my dad as having used my birthday as an excuse to buy the birds for himself, but I clearly remember my febrile anticipation of their arrival. It is irrelevant that my reaction was the result of conditioning; what my father really gave me was enthusiasm.  

   Cousins of mine took an interest in this pastime, young men without academic qualifications who would go on to have aviaries of their own. They gradually accrued a deep understanding of genetics as a knowledge of bloodlines is essential in developing (as they did) healthy colour variants from limited gene pools. It's clear that these acolytes were heavily influenced by the calm of our little wooden haven and the knowledgeable, taciturn man who oversaw it. All problems of work and family were forgotten as they sat in quiet contemplation listening to the soft chirrupings that surrounded them - the only distraction the rustles emanating from the corner where a boy sat on a tea chest poring over his precious copy of “Cage and Aviary Birds”.

   Occasionally we created hybrids. A pair of finches of different species could be induced to breed if they were kept in isolation. Some of these hybrids were mules, a 'mule' being a cross between a canary and another species of finch. Birds bred this way were not only sterile but also at a social disadvantage; I remember a Goldfinch mule whose ethereal song enchanted human ears, but whose mongrel melodies bewildered the hens for whom he sang. My favourite was a Siskin-Greenfinch cross whose plumage was so harmonious it made the bird appear to be a genuine species, unlike the Goldfinch-Bullfinch that, to me, looked strangely cobbled together. An aviculturist such as my father would have noted that I wrote 'Goldfinch-bullfinch' and not 'Bullfinch-goldfinch' as male Bullfinches cannot be induced to mate with any other species and when describing a hybrid it is traditional to put the male parent first.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Coots on Gunnera

Gallinules preening on immense peltate leaves lend Kew Gardens an Amazonian air.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Show's over

   Yesterday a headline in the French news read, “Berlusconi – une sortie en catimini”. I couldn't recall seeing the word catimini before and so looked it up.
   It sounded a little as if his exit from political office was chaotic or calamitous, but it turned out leaving en catimini means “sneaking out” or even “sneaking out under shameful circumstances”. Some say that the shameful aspect can be explained by the association of the word catimini with menstruation, “catamenia” being a medical word for menstrual fluid (in the 16th and 17th centuries the phrase avoir ses catimini meant “to have one's period”). However, others think this etymology fanciful and suspect that catimini has more to do with the skulking habits of felines and has its origins in the Picard language of northern France; cate (cat) + mini from min also designating “cat” and the root of minou, minette (kitty, pussy). Minette and “pussy” both refer to a cat and both are slang terms for the female genitalia – a linguistic analogy demonstrated by French and English sub-editors who translated Berlusconi's crass exhortation, Forza Gnocca! (an intended parody of his party's slogan, Forza Italia!) as Allez Minette! and “Go Pussy!”.

Well, whatever the language, he's gone. Probably.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Living sculpture

   This summer I nipped into Harrods, a department store in in the West End of London. It sells nothing of interest, but is well worth a visit, or more accurately, the food hall is worth a visit. Get there at ten in the morning when it's opening and one can examine the decorative sculptures before the place fills up. It's a good time to take photographs and generally get in the way of the employees trying to set up the stands.

   Mermaids clinging each to each. I like the way their caudal fins are gathered in wet, lazy folds, a much more sensual arrangement than the way their tails are traditionally represented.

   It seems these pieces were created at the London workshops of "U.K. Sculptors".

   The wall tiles were designed by W J Neatby (1860-1910).

   They're real fish swimming around behind the leaping sea trout. I wonder who feeds them, the fishmongers or the maintenance people? I would be nice to think it's some impossible-to-fire old retainer whose sole responsibility it is and who is a vestige of the old days when Harrods boasted that it sold everything from a pin to an elephant. I remember as a boy taking the famous puff seriously and being disappointed at the pet section's paucity of p-p-pachyderms. There were monkeys in cages, and even galagos - nothing there now of course, except acres of g-plan sofas.

Assorted game ignored by an urban fox who's stealing away to raid a few dustbins.

            More splendid Neatby ceramics. These tiles and peafowl weren't in the food hall, they were in the bauble and wig department.

PS Don't race round to see these creations just yet – today I read that Harrods has been sold and is closed for two years for refurbishment.

   And the fish, who will feed the fish?  

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Confession of a nympholept

 Illustration of a European Robin by Paul Barruel (1901-1982)

   I picked up a Robin (Erithacus rubecula) yesterday. It had stunned itself on a window pane. I took it into the garden, held out my open hand and waited for it to revive and take off. It revived, but before flitting away decided to linger for some long intimate minutes. It started to preen, conscientiously running each primary feather through its mandibles, apparently happy to be sitting on the palmate branch of an enthralled tree. The bird was so ineffably beautiful I didn't want to blink in case it disappeared, and so light that if I wasn't looking at my hand I wouldn't have known there was anything there.

Friday, 4 November 2011

When Methodists dream

Wedged between the tumescent guru being bearded by a prude
And the spluttering priest being suckled by a nihilistic nude,
I wonder if I was right to have killed that man I found so rude
And who hastens toward me.


Friday, 28 October 2011

Haydn to Nothin'

   The only fiction I seem ever to read is “The Journal of Edwin Carp”, to the extent that I've almost memorised it. However, I've recently discovered a way of expanding my reading without straying from my obsession; I came across a copy of Richard Haydn's masterpiece that was translated into French by Henry Muller.

I intend to search the Internets for versions in other languages; surely others have translated this important work?

Whether other versions are any good is another matter. Literary translations can never be exact, they can only detract from or improve on the original, and given that I think “The Journal of Edwin Carp” is perfect I suppose I am doomed to disappointment. Here is an extract, it describes a scene where Maude, Carp's fiancée of eleven years, helps out in Carp's boarding house;

“The happy willingness with which she performs her self-imposed duties is a joy to behold. Indeed, yesterday, when I entered the kitchen and discovered her ironing our paying guests' personal laundry, I was so affected by her flushed, smiling face that I could not refrain from taking her in my arms and kissing her. My impulsiveness caused her to scorch Mr. Murke's dickey. Fortunately it is reversible.

This is rendered by Henry Muller as;

“La bonne volonté avec laquelle elle s'adonne à ces travaux fait mon bonheur. Et, pas plus tard qu'hier, en entrant à la cuisine et en la voyant repasser le linge personnel des hôtes, je fus si touché par son souriant visage que je ne pus empêcher de la prendre dans mes bras et de l'embrasse. Ce geste impulsif provoqua une brûlure sur le caleçon de M. Murke; il est fort heureusement réparable.”

Muller obviously felt that plastron (in this case “replaceable shirt-front”) lacked the comic potential of “dickey” and so replaced it with caleçon (under-shorts) incurring in doing so the inevitable and detrimental loss of “reversible/réversible. A valiant effort, but the result could never be as good as the original whose comic brilliance, intensifying as it does in the last sentence - down to the very last word - is inimitable.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

On nature's shelf

Decades ago I would gaze in wonder at my classroom's nature shelf.

 Since then institutions seem to have given up on me (hopefully for good, though we know that the first involuntary dribble and relatives you've never heard of do what's best for you), but I still stare at nature shelves, especially my own,

and their occupants, careful not to over-salivate, stare back at me.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Points of View

 Inspired artwork by Jacque-Louis David, Paul-Jacques-Aimé Baudry and Frank Cotham.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Terra cognita

May you be big as three hills,
Too big for the crows to see.

Children will climb your slopes,
Tumble down your flanks.
Exhausted, they will sleep on you,
Your pulse their pulse.


Thursday, 13 October 2011

Art Life Death

“The Alchemist” by William Fettes-Douglas (1822-1891)

 “The Naturalist” by Carl Spitzweg (1808-1885)

   I find these two paintings very reassuring, I suppose they're meant to reassure, portraying, as they do, stereotypes. I like the apparent disorder found in both the scholars' rooms, it's somehow easy on the eye, or at least it is on my eye – especially the lower one, I think the setting is superb.

   Spitzweg was immensely popular in Germany and, despite his sympathetic portrayals of Jewish subjects, he was a favourite of Adolph Hitler who collected his work.

   Above is a self-portrait by William Fettes-Douglas (c 1845). The long nose and incipient sneer look to me as if they belong to a younger version of the languorous fellow pictured below.

   In fact this brilliant portrait, “The Yellow Scale” by František Kupka (1871-1957), was painted in 1907, 16 years after Fettes-Douglas's death. It's most likely inspired by images of Baudelaire merged with aspects of Kupka's own physiognomy.

   František Kupka could not have survived as an artist without the art-collector and industrialist Jindřich Waldes, a friend who supported him for twenty years until, in 1938, the Hitlerian regime sent the Jewish Waldes to Dachau concentration camp. 

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Malplaquet House

   Malplaquet House is in London's East End. It was named after the eponymous battle fought in 1709 that resulted in a Pyrrhic victory for the Duke of Marlborough and his gang against the French and their gang (the 'victors' lost over 21,000 men, twice that of those who retreated to fight another day).

   The house has had a chequered history but is now owned by Tim Knox and Todd Longstaffe-Gowan who have decorated it almost perfectly. I say 'almost' because a discerning eye would appreciate that it needs more old taxidermy.

Photo; Barry Lewis

Look at that; a nice Cape buffalo with turtle skull and assorted whale vertebrae.  

Fine Warthog skull on the extreme right, I think that's a Zebu top left.

An impressive pair of Gannets, and an interesting gallinule next to the egret.

A successful landing

An excellent Himalayan Tahr

Behind the Ostrich skeleton is the Zebu head again and under that a Razorbill, and under that a Golden pheasant, and under that- it's difficult to make it out even with my magnifying glass -  

- ah, now I see, fascinating...

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Pink palindromes

   I wish I knew who took this stunning photograph (I presume it's a photograph), it's of Roseate spoonbills (Platalea ajaja - Ajaja is a South American native name for the bird).

   As with pink flamingos their roseate pigmentation is due to the canthaxathin in the crustaceans they eat. The ethereal beauty of their plumage is a challenge for any artist to capture, this painting is by Krysti Melaine;

   “A bowl of spoonbills” isn't a main course in a Dadaist restaurant; it seems a “bowl” is the collective noun pedants apply to spoonbills. I imagine it's because the drinking bowl is synonymous with conviviality and that these birds, when sifting through the mud of shallow waters with their spatulate bills, often mix with other large wading birds. As a possible result of their gregariousness Roseate spoonbills are serially monogamous (Parallels can be found in nature for any form of aberrant behaviour – including one's own).

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Of a different stripe

   As there are only a couple of thousand tigers left in the wild tiger skin rugs often elicit revulsion, but this is a recent phenomenon, previous reactions were often more carnal as can be seen in this detail from Stanley Spencer's 1940 self-portrait with the redoubtable Daphne Charlton,“On the tiger skin rug” -

    - though there were others less comfortable with tigers who'd had their ribs ablated;

                                                                                                                C E Jensen 1892

Thursday, 22 September 2011

An unlikely feline

   This fellow mooched by my front door yesterday morning (and, no, he didn't follow me around all day. I gave him the slip at lunchtime);

   It's a Fox moth caterpillar (Macrothylacia rubi), fully grown (8.5 cms long) and thus lacking the thin orange bands and black coloration it exhibits when younger. It spends the winter in leaf litter hibernating in larval form and doesn't pupate until the spring; it seems the hairs, which can cause intense irritation of the skin of anyone touching them, make the caterpillars less appetizing to foraging birds than would the pupae.

   It's interesting that the pilosity of caterpillars such as this one led to the word 'caterpillar' – it is derived from the Old French chatepelose meaning 'hairy cat'.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Magnificent kitsch

   The French term for a ship's hull, une coque (a shell), is particularly apt in the case of my latest vide-grenier (car boot sale) find. The man selling this metre long shell-incrusted vessel couldn't believe anyone would want to buy it as he found it extremely ugly - it was a gift from in-laws - and is covered in grease from years of sitting in a kitchen. It sails under the green and red of County Mayo, though I suspect that's because paints of that colour happened to be around during construction. Whatever its history I'm delighted with the end product.

   It even lights up!

   I've been informed by a professional that the trick to cleaning the shells is to dab them individually with cotton swabs dipped in acetone. I'm filled with a weary ennui at the prospect of such a tedious task, luckily I will never get around to performing it.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

"As ignorant as the back of a cab"

   In my 'cranioteque' (above) is a plaster bust of a man with domed head and pinched features (he's hidden on the top shelf). I bought the cast at a junk stall thinking it was a likeness of Voltaire. It turned out to be that of the masochistic Curé d'Ars, the patron saint of priests, whose image, I've since realized, crops up a lot here in France and serves as a regular reminder to me of my ignorance regarding the appearance of Voltaire. But I know what the Priest of Ars looked like;

   Here's what St. Augustine has to say of him (to De Selby in Flann O'Brien's “The Dalkey Archive”);

But do you know, I think the greatest dog's breakfast of the lot is St. Vianney.
I never heard of him.
'Course you have. Jean-Baptiste. You'd know him better as the curé of Ars.
Oh yes. A French holy man.
A holy fright, you mean. Takes a notion when he's young to be a priest, as ignorant as the back of a cab, couldn't make head nor tail of Latin or sums, dodges the column when Napoleon is looking for French lads to be slaughtered in Rooshia, and at the heel of the hunt spends sixteen to eighteen hours a day in the confessional – hearing, not telling – and takes to performing miracles, getting money from nowhere and taking on hand to tell the future. Don't be talking. A diabolical wizard of a man.”

Saturday, 3 September 2011


Words are not in the room;
Noise is in the room.
All meaning is in the shape of the room
Whose curved wall leads us back to what we once were.

That's to say; what we were before crying,
The creation of self and of lying,
And the shrill, pathological my-ing
That became what most of us is.

So, it's back to pre-blah-blah
And wondering who we are,
And whether it'll be far
To what we will be.


Saturday, 27 August 2011

The more things don't change, the more they don't stay the same...

This is an old picture of me playing with the model zoo that my father made me. 

   It is clear to me that I have hardly changed in the intervening decades. There's been a slight redistribution of hair follicles, the addition of glasses, a doubling of height, but that's about it. My interest in the unnatural aspects of natural history has also remained constant, weathering even the priapism of adolescence; I still go to zoos and stare at the inmates.
   And I still have most of those toy animals. Despite her cramped living conditions a friend kept them in a shoe-box for fourteen years during one of my footloose periods. Unfortunately there are a couple of pieces missing; a gibbon and an anteater (G, if you're reading this – I realise Ireland has suffered economic collapse, but before you emigrate could you check down the back of the sofa? Best of luck on both counts. S).

   To prove I haven't changed - apart from the redistribution, addition and doubling - here's a recent portrait; 

   I look very writerly - the result of a trompe-l'oeil conjured up by talented stylist/photographer Annelie Bruijn.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

"A sort of living doubt"

   I often listen out for Corn crakes and I think I heard one once, but it could have been someone using a ratchet.

   The Corn crake's habit of nesting in wheat fields had disastrous consequences following the advent of mechanised harvesting. It is normally loath to break cover, though in the breeding season the males sometimes dash around like well-groomed chickens. Its Linnaean name is Crex crex and when it calls, as in this video clip by Mikhail Rodionov, we can hear why;

   John Clare (1793-1864) referred to the Corn crake by another of its common names, the Landrail.

The Landrail

How sweet and pleasant grows the way
Through summer time again
While Landrails call from day to day
Amid the grass and grain

We hear it in the weeding time
When knee deep waves the corn
We hear it in the summers prime
Through meadows night and morn

And now I hear it in the grass
That grows as sweet again
And let a minutes notice pass
And now tis in the grain

Tis like a fancy everywhere
A sort of living doubt
We know tis something but we neer
Will blab the secret out

If heard in close or meadow plots
It flies if we pursue
But follows if we notice not
The close and meadow through

Boys know the note of many a bird
In their birdnesting bounds
But when the Landrails noise is heard
They wonder at the sounds

They look in every tuft of grass
Thats in their rambles met
They peep in every bush they pass
And none the wiser get

And still they hear the craiking sound
And still they wonder why
It surely cant be under ground
Nor is it in the sky

And yet tis heard in every vale
An undiscovered song
And makes a pleasant wonder tale
For all the summer long

The shepherd whistles through his hands
And starts with many a whoop
His busy dog across the lands
In hopes to fright it up

Tis still a minutes length or more
Til dogs are off and gone
Then sings and louder than before
But keeps the secret on

Yet accident will often meet
The nest within its way
And weeders when they weed the wheat
Discover where they lay

And mowers on the meadow lea
Chance on their noisy quest
And wonder what the bird can be
That lays without a nest

In simple holes the birds will rake
When dusting on the ground
They drop their eggs of curious make
Deep blotched and nearly round

A mystery still to men and boys
Who know not where they lay
And guess it but a summer noise
Among the meadow hay

   An exhaustive description that certainly gets across the point that the bird is easier to hear then see. I like the phrase “they peep in every bush they pass and none the wiser get” - it could apply to a lot of our pursuits.

   In the following film the innovative composer Olivier Messiaen makes an excellent fist of the corncrake's cry, his wife, the gifted pianist Yvonne Loriod, punching it out on the piano;

   Messiaen then appears to go on to talk about the Corn crake's “torculus victorieux”, but surely this refers to another bird and is a result of the editing, the film editor understandably thrown by Loriod's radiant smile.
   “Torculus victorieux”, now there's a phrase to conjure with, contrive to use that in a sentence and you'll surely win the hand of the fair maid who, up until its unlikely appearance, has fast been losing interest.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

The Detritus of War

   I'm not sure there is any such thing as an English Haiku, the phrase itself is probably oxymoronic, but "Beachhead" by Samuel Menashe must come close. Born in 1925 Menashe fought in the Battle of the Bulge, his lines call to mind the Normandy landings;

The tide ebbs
From a helmet
Wet sand embeds.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Chance encounters

   A couple of years ago a friend gave me “Austerlitz” by W G Sebald. It is one of the few novels (if it can be classed as a novel) that I have read several times. Sebald has an unpretentious style and covers big themes as he meanders through time and thought.

   Last week my friend's husband, who has read more than I will ever read, suggested that I try “Rings of Saturn” also by Sebald. With that in mind, and seeing that I find second-hand books more agreeable than new ones, I wandered into “Books for Amnesty” in Hammersmith, London. It was during my first trip back to England in years. Despite generous assistance from one of the bookshop's volunteers I couldn't find “Rings of Saturn”, but found instead “Vertigo” the first volume of a trilogy that ends with “Rings of Saturn”. This chain of events – ordinary, multi-layered and somehow slightly unreal - seemed a fitting way to find a book by Sebald.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Silence is golden

   A friend of mine, Jack, when asked what he thought about a certain goldfish, pointed out that it was very quiet. The same can be said of another orange organism, the carrot. The American physicist Robert W. Wood (1868-1955) put it best when he compared the taciturn root vegetable to a garrulous bird in his flornithology, “How to tell the Birds from the Flowers”;

Monday, 4 July 2011


   I was recently in Lion-sur-mer in Normandy. In Rue Joseph Pasquet I came across a house, 'Villa Louis', decorated with beautiful ceramic scallops.  

   The French call the 'scallop' 'Coquille Saint-Jacques' due to its association with St. James and the pilgrimage to his shrine in Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Pilgrims carried the shell as a food and drink scoop.

   In this case the scallop seems purely decorative reflecting the house's proximity to the sea.  

   The tiles were made by Alexandre Bigot (1862-1927), a ceramicist active during the Art Nouveau period.  

This is the view from the balcony of Villa Louis - Bigot got his colours right.  

   I walked along stretches of this coast, idly stuffing razor-shells and scallop shells into my pockets, and lapsing into the kind of existential reverie that we all do when beach-combing. But these were no ordinary beaches. They previously had names like 'Omaha' and 'Utah', and it was here, only 67 years ago, that the biggest amphibious invasion in history* took place. These blue-green waters once ran red.

   *For obvious reasons the preparations for D-Day were conducted in the greatest possible secrecy. Officers involved in the planning were never sent anywhere where there was a danger of their being captured. These men went under the codename “Bigot” (a reversal of “To Gib” - an abbreviation of “To Gibraltar” – which had been stamped on the passports of those officers involved in the North African Invasion of 1942).