Monday, 30 May 2011

On the cutting edge of science

   In reference to my blocked auditory canal (see previous post) my friend Benicek (an experienced medic who works in an emergency ward) sent me the following message; “... get your doctor to clean your ears with a clean, warm water jet, which is the standard procedure for ear wax. It'll be somewhat less likely to injure or infect your ear than your swimming pool idea”. Kind and informed words, but then I'm sure that Alexander Fleming's scientific colleagues were similarly well-intentioned when they suggested he clean his mouldy Petri dish (coincidently, I too have an aversion to washing-up).

   As the discoverer of penicillin knew, answering the call of history is never easy. Especially when it's muffled.

Friday, 27 May 2011

Reflections on a swimming pool

   One of the drawbacks of being a right-handed middle-aged crank living alone is that there's no one around to tip hot oil into one's left ear when it gets clogged up. Having said that, experience has taught me that living with someone doesn't necessarily mean that they'd be willing to tip hot oil into one's yucky ear, or indeed that one would want them to (a steady hand, correct temperature and good relations being crucial to the operation).

   Another corollary of living as I do (in a sort of gothic isolation ward) is that it takes a while to realize one has an auditory malfunction in the first place; the howling wind is just wind and the phone doesn't ring anyway. But yesterday it finally dawned on me that the world was even quieter on my left side than it was on my right, even when I turned around, pirouetted or performed fouettés en tournant on the dining room table. So last night I lay on my right side and tipped a teaspoonful of heated olive-oil into the requisite antrum - first attempt, no spillage, a feat so unexpectedly successful that it was cause for (muted) celebration. I remained in position, the oil theoretically melting the wax, until I became bored (I'd forgotten to bring a book) and then paced around as the oil dribbled out. Unfortunately the plug of wax, leaves and bits of newspaper didn't join the dribble. It's still in there. I don't intend to see a doctor as I don't like them; they're as self-opinionated as I am and look even more unhealthy.
   I remember once having a pain in my lower back, I had it checked by various self-proclaimed experts, all useless, the best treatment took place when I went to the local swimming pool and sat, sighing with relief, as my sacrum was pummelled by a hot water jet. It's just occurred to me that the eddy currents produced by those hot water jets must create low-pressure zones, which, if correctly applied, could suck out whatever is in my ear. I imagine it would be best to lie on the side of the pool with my head submerged in the turbulent waters. I would emerge a new man, de-plugged and with the hearing of a bat, all the better to hear the congratulations of my fellow pool users.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Joining in

   On Sunday I joined a group of about twenty neighbours on a stroll through the environs of my village (which is tucked away in deepest Burgundy). It was most enjoyable. We were guided by a friend called Jean-Marie who is a retired builder, hunter and keen local historian and who was generous enough to spend time interpreting various features of architecture and landscape that usually go unnoticed by the rest of us, certainly by me.

   During the morning we traversed a forest where we were shown the imposing grave stone of a doctor who had been the owner of large tracts of land in the 19th century. Jean-Marie told us that the doctor was buried alongside his horse and dog.

   In contemplating this mildewed memorial partially obscured by trees, I was reminded of the works of Ozymandius and their obliteration by the indifferent sands of the desert. Having reflected on the folly of man I felt driven to ask if the doctor's beloved animals had been sacrificed at the demise of their master or whether they had died of natural causes and been buried later. In response Jean-Marie told me that the horse had been interred standing up - an oblique retort perfectly suited to the supercilious tone of the question. A lady, clearly warming to the topic, wondered if it would have been easier to bury the horse in a foetal position, Jean-Marie reminded her that in those days people didn't mind digging holes and that they'd dug the Suez Canal by hand. It then occurred to me that the doctor may have been inhumed whilst sitting astride his dead yet erect steed, but was unfortunately unable to verify this startling hypothesis as Jean-Marie had resumed leading the tour and was setting too brisk a pace to be interrogated.

   At midday we repaired to Jean-Marie's barn. The open doors allowed the sunlight to stream in and illuminate the magnificent flowering boughs that Jean-Marie had arranged as decoration. We enjoyed a sumptuous spread consisting of home-made concoctions skilfully prepared by the cooks amongst us. My own modest contribution of a six-pack of Heineken was soon shouldered aside by bottles of wine from nearby vineyards. The beer wasn't the wisest of options; if I get invited again I'll take along a frozen pizza. Everybody likes pizza.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Taxidermia II

More photographs of my lair by Ginny Munden;

Carrion crow

Print of King vulture by François-Nicolas Martinet 

Tin lizards

Thursday, 19 May 2011


   Last year I asked my photographer friend, Ginny Munden, to take some pictures of my little world, I think she captured the mood exactly;

Pink-backed pelican

Puffer fish

Grey Heron 

Tuesday, 17 May 2011


   I came across the following line of poetry recently, “songs of reft joy upon another planet”, it's from “In Memoriam: Aleksander Wat” by Geoffrey Hill. It was on Patrick Kurp's excellent blog, “Anecdotal Evidence”.

   What had particular resonance for me was the word 'reft', past participle of 'reave'. I've heard the word 'reave' spoken only once, it was by an enraged man who intended to 'reave' someone. According to the Oxford English Dictionary there are two strands to the etymology of 'reave';

   The first, “archaic or poetical”, has various nuances all referring to committing spoilation or robbery, plundering, pillaging and so on. This is presumably the sense in which Hill used it; a reft/stolen joy.
   The second strand, “dialectical or archaic”, means to break in pieces, to burst, to tear, to split, to cleave. This is the sense in which the angry man was using it, though, given the context, the connotation of the other meaning, that of spoilage and plunder, made his use of the word exemplary.

   Perhaps I should explain this context. It was many years ago in Dublin. I was working with a friend as a carpenter and we had heard of the demolition of a monastery and the second-hand pitch pine floorboards that were up for grabs as a consequence. Pitch pine (Pinus rigida) grows only on the eastern seaboard of the United States, it's a highly resinous softwood, harder than most hardwoods and when of good quality much sought after. So, having given money for the floorboards to someone whose claims of ownership we chose to believe, we were in the monastic car park loading our van with unseemly haste.
   It was late Friday afternoon and around us amassed a dozen or more men who had been demolishing the building. They were waiting for the owner of the demolition firm to arrive to pay them. It seemed most were to have been paid cash as they were working on the black. Eventually a big black car swung into view and parked next to the assembly. A couple of full-time employees climbed into the back seat while their employer emerged from the front to announce that unfortunately he couldn't pay anyone right now, cash-flow-you-know-how-it-is, and that he would be arranging to have the money sent to the casual workers. There were expressions of disappointment and shufflings of feet and that seemed to be the end of it until one man, incredulous as to the naivety of his workmates, pointed out that they were being duped. There was much talk of “but what can we do” until he showed them what could be done by picking up a sledgehammer and announcing that he was going to “reave” the man who was duping them. He started marching toward his rapidly blanching target. With great difficulty fellow workers restrained the would-be reaver who said that all he was going to do was batter the big car if payment wasn't organised immediately. While the struggle was going on the said car sped away, sadly unreft.

Erratum!  My friend Declan, who was raised in Dublin, tells me what I heard used was the word 'reef'. I think he's right. That said, I think the etymology holds true and that 'reef' is a dialectical variant of 'reave'. The similarity of the verb 'to reef', meaning 'to furl a sail', is coincidental (The reason marijuana cigarettes are sometimes called 'reefers' is due to their resemblance to a furled sail).

Tuesday, 10 May 2011


Simon Gray

   I'm reading Simon Gray's “The Year of the Jouncer” yet again. Late last night I came across the following sentences;

   “A playwright friend says he doesn't 'do' funerals. I point out to him that there's one he'll have to do, willy-nilly. He says that that one doesn't count, as he'll have no choice”.

   I admire Gray's subtly controlled, discursive style (not that it's particularly well demonstrated by the above extract). I especially like his punctuation, which he uses to great effect in making his prose sound off the cuff. And, of course, he finds the right words. I have all three of Gray's “Smoking Diaries”, of which “The Year of the Jouncer” is the second, next to my bed. Alongside them is a permanent livre de chevet, a Chambers dictionary that my hand can find, as it can my spectacles, without visual assistance. It is only on this latest reading that I paused over Gray's use of “willy-nilly”. I'm not sure why I hadn't before – I must have thought he meant he did his pointing-out in a haphazard fashion. But that doesn't really make sense. Consequently, as so many times before, the independent hand shot out, located Chambers, brought Chambers back to me and all was well with the world. All was well, that is, until I found what I was looking for;
   “willy-nilly; adv. willing or unwilling: compulsorily. - adjs. having no choice: vacillating (erron.)”

   I think the erroneous “vacillating” bit must be due to confusion with “shilly-shally”, I'll check that later. Incidentally, “willy-nilly” was followed by “willy-willy - (Austr.) n. a cyclone” - I wonder if that's from one of those countless Aboriginal languages? Or is it just from “whirly-whirly”? They don't bother telling you in Chambers. That's another thing to check, but for now “willy-willy” can wait its turn along with “shilly-shally”, I've got enough on my plate with “willy-nilly”.

   The point is, regardless of what “shilly-shally” and “willy-willy” mean, “willy-nilly” didn't mean “haphazard” and I'd spent decades thinking it did. Curiously, instead of feeling the slight jolt of happiness I usually do over the discovery of a new meaning of a word, I felt the kind of uneasiness sensitive types feel when they're miles from home and think they remember leaving the gas on. What I experienced - deep in the isolation of my baldaquined bed, teetering at the top of my ivory tower, encircled by weedy moats, drawbridge hoist high and nailed shut, the entire kit and caboodle invisible in the shrouding mists of a remote Burgundian hillside - was a twinge of social embarrassment. Had I been employing, all these years, “willy-nilly” incorrectly? Was it further proof of an ignorance never fully buried by the mounds of books that surround me?

   So, first thing this morning I check on the Internet and find the meaning of “willy-nilly” has changed over time and, nowadays, normally means “unplanned, random”. Phew. I like Gray's use of it though, le mot juste as usual. The meaning I'm familiar with seems to have developed relatively recently (My Chambers was printed in 1972). The Online Etymological Dictionary says that the origins of “willy-nilly” can be traced to the 13th century in a phrase that was then in common use, “nill he, will he” - the “nill” meaning “to be unwilling” from OE ne (“no”) + “will”. By Shakespeare's day the order had reversed; “And, will you, nill you, I will marry you” (Petruchio telling Katherina she's going to marry him whether she wants to or not, in “The Taming of the Shrew”).

   P.S. My Oxford English Dictionary claims that “willy-willy” (a reduplicative rhyming compound, as is “willy-nilly”) is from a “Native name”, but I think “willy-willy” is derived from “whirly”. I also think that “willy-willy” sounds suspiciously like a parody of an Aboriginal language's way of expressing a plural (c.f. Wiradjuri's Wagga wagga “many crows”) and that the OED explanation is the result of some bored Ozzie farmer leading a credulous Pommie linguist up a gum tree.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

The emperor has no mouth

   A few days ago my friend Dennis told me of a giant moth that had appeared in his house one evening, he shooed it out and the next morning found it resting on an outside wall. I raced round to see his visitor. It really was impressive; 14 cm across with ocelli like owls' eyes staring out of wings that look to have been dipped in sepia ink.

   It turned out to be a Giant Emperor Moth (Saturnia pyri), a magnificent creature that lives throughout southern Europe and is Europe's largest moth. I imagine the generic name Saturnia refers to its range, 'Saturnia' being a poetic term for the Italian peninsula, whilst pyri makes reference to the pyriform (pear-shaped) nature of the cocoon. The caterpillars feed on the leaves of fruit trees. Like most moths, the imago (the adult insect) doesn't feed at all, its mouth parts are vestigial.
   This one appeared to be a female as it didn't have the large feathery antennae that the males use to locate the pheromones generated by the females. The male's natural life is sometimes of only a few hours duration, his mate usually lasts a week or so.

   There is an apple orchard close by Dennis's house so it seems the moth was simply waiting for her suitors to find her. Once fertilized she exhausts herself laying eggs on the apple leaves and then, having lived her life in magisterial silence, she quietly joins the silent majority.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Putting out a camel

   Many years ago, in Ireland, I went through a phase of making wooden animals intended for children. Due to societal pressures (“You're comin' for a pint?”) most weren't completed, the reindeer never rocked, the hedgehog never rolled -

 - but the Tauromachian Tricycle mooched along. I wonder if its authentic horns are still putting eyes out.

This fellow is Eoin (I heard he's now a Hell's Angel and doing very well in the Wexford chapter)

   Due to the haste of my departure from Ireland I was obliged to leave my camel behind, not easy, but needs must when the devil drives - especially when he's driving a white Transit van that's already packed to the gunnels.

   The diminutive cameleer is my friend's son, Jamie. I met Jamie again a couple of years ago, a nice chap who's now big enough to carry the camel around under his oxter. I also found out what had happened to the camel. It turned out it had changed hands numerous times, gained rockers along the way, and had ended up in a children's home - a narrative worthy of Walt Disney.

   In Disney's hypothetical “The Camel Story” I wonder who would play the feckless individual who abandoned the beast in the first place? Ewen Bremner? And would he be redeemed at the end, extraordinary happenstance reuniting him with his creation, the dissolute, intervening years forgiven and forgotten as he hoists a gouty leg over the wooden humps and begins to rock, at first with a modest reluctance and then with gusto, encouraged by the cheering of hope-imbued orphans. The credits roll; “This film is dedicated to S R Plant without whom-” etc..
   Or would the scene continue, and the camel, now lurching wildly and appalled at finding itself straddled by its treacherous, beaming maker, inch with grim and vengeful intent toward an open window...