Tuesday, 18 December 2012

How can we know the yawner from the yawn?

The lingual frenulum is rarely portrayed in art.

Hendrick de Keyser (1565-1621), a Dutch sculptor and architect, created a spectacular one (see below) in 1615, it forms one of the lines radiating out from the protester's nose.  

Here's a bust Keyser made in 1615,

but the best-known portrayal of this neglected ligament was made by the extraordinary Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (1736-1783) in 1770;

It was after Messerschmidt's death that someone named this piece “The Yawner”, an appellation that seems to have stuck. Messerschmidt didn't name it anything. He didn't name any of the forty-odd “character heads” that he made after he had been forced from public life (he was thought by his aristocratic employers to be mad). Giving such a name to this piece seems reductive, there is far more than a yawn going on here, assuming there is a yawn involved at all. I suspect we keep our sublingual ligaments hidden when yawning...

Self portrait (circa 1783)

… a pandiculating Joseph Ducreux certainly did. We should pay attention to Ducreux, he was an exact contemporary of Messerschmidt

Self portrait (1893)

… and there wasn't much you could get past him.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Red Tree (1928-1930)

Séraphine de Senlis (1864-1942)


Bees cover your body,
When I come to you
They swarm and swirl
And settle on us both.


Thursday, 15 November 2012

Portrait of a Lady wearing a Green Dress

Herbert James Gunn (1893-1964)


You accommodate me,
Then squeeze me out like a pip.
I catch my breath
Before heaving myself to one side
Of your nascent resolve.


Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Methodist Party-Animal

It's cadence that airs our emotion,
It's demeanour that signals our plight,
In vino veritas est bunkum,
Drunken words that get lost in the night.


Monday, 15 October 2012

Water closet

   This is an aquarium I found in a junk shop. I mounted it on a pedestal and painted the woodwork black. My intention is to found a colony of Cherry Shrimps (Neocaridina heteropoda var. red).

   Rearing from the floor of the tank is a cow's skull given to me by a friend who had found it in his barn. I'm hoping that the bolt hole left by the abatteur's stun gun will serve as a bolt hole for my crustaceans. Yes, there's nothing like an obscure subaqueous pun of questionable taste to get the party going.

   I have been on the lookout for a vertical tank for some time, they're quite rare and it wasn't until I was setting it up that I realized why; landscaping the substrate is almost impossible. Planting the Eelgrass (Vallisneria americana) was achieved by standing on a chair, stooping over the rim and submerging my denuded upper body.
   Had the chair toppled it would have resulted in a disconcerting discovery for those curious enough to eventually batter down my door (“Strange he left no note”), but it would have been in keeping with my original aim of creating a watery memento mori.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Green Flies

   At six years old I was morbidly attracted to a flame-haired classmate called Sandra Edwards. I would stalk her with the imperceptible stealth of a tick, insinuating myself into her anticipated path and waiting, aquiver, for her to brush by.

Once, during an S. E. reconnaissance mission, I came across a couple of boys peering at a small turd they had discovered just outside the school lavatories. They said it had been left by Gary Rowley in his haste to get back to the chaos of the playground (from the presumably even greater chaos of his lavatorial procedure). Soon an ever-changing group of children was keen to experience and spread news of this most mundane of apparitions as if it were a miraculous acheiropoiton - 'that not made by human hand', which, indeed, it wasn't. Sandra Edwards, on hearing the rumour, was quickly upon the scene and so, sensing a romantic opportunity, I prepared to exchange smirks over our shared derision of Gary Rowley. All that was needed was a moment of eye-contact. Unfortunately Sandra Edwards' gaze remained resolutely downcast, she had found something altogether more interesting to look at.

Seeing as the much vaunted “shared interest” approach had proved futile I decided to try a more traditional tactic; I would buy her affection. My bribe would be that ornamental scarab of my childhood, the Ladybird. At the next opportunity a reluctant Coccinella septumpuncta was plucked from a rosebush and dropped into a matchbox along with some Greenfly aphids to act as its packed lunch. For added intimacy I resolved to present my gift away from the bedlam of the school.

Due to my years I must have been escorted by my mother to the end of Sandra Edwards' street, though I remember being alone when I tapped on her front door. Mrs Edwards answered and summoned her daughter who appeared wearing the wary expression that she had come to adopt in my presence. I presented my tribute and the recipient, at her mother's insistence, took a tentative peep inside. Alarmed she dropped the box.

“It's a Ladybird - it eats Greenflies”, I blurted to a retreating mop of red hair.

It eats flies?”, came an incredulous and distant reply.

Green Flies”, specified I, to me.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Secrets of Interior Design

Interior Design has been with us ever since we left the Exterior.

Self-appointment to the rank of Interior Designer can be accomplished through spending a lot of time in IKEA. It can also be achieved by amassing dead birds, addressing them individually...

Source unknown

 and then sticking them all over the place.

My cranioteque

It is important to take the occasional break from the rigors of Interior Design...

C D Friedrich

 so that you are able to remain focussed on the task in hand...

J E Millais

even when the curious are trying to ascertain what exactly it is that you do all day.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Articles of Faith

A friend of mine, Neil McCulloch, called around the other day and took some photos of my house. He has a great eye for composition and I'm delighted with the results. More of the photos that Neil took can be found here on his wife Bobbi's blog “Finding Me in France”, an entertaining account of her migration from Canada (where she was a psychiatrist dealing with difficult cases) to sleepy Burgundy (where she became a travel writer – her blog was recently transformed into a greatly acclaimed book).

The above photo depicts a “terrarium” containing a Sarracenia carnivorous plant made of paper and rooted in polystyrene, to its right is a Giant Clam valve and above that a Loggerhead Turtle carapace.
The stooping figure is made of welded strips of steel and is a life-size self-portrait by Declan Field.

This is an ampoule of salt water. I like the muted tones lent by the dust (so often sadly lacking in households “cared for” by people with CCD (Compulsive Cleaning Disorder)). The blurred image in the background is of a glass dome that houses a plastic elephant-head umbrella handle.

The ampoule's label reads “EAU de MER, Isotonique, Methode de Quinton”. René Quinton (1866-1925) was a French polymath, now largely forgotten, who in his day was famous for his saline treatments. In 1897, to prove his theory that saltwater does you good, Quinton conducted an experiment on a 10 kilogram dog called “Sodium”, replacing half a litre of the animal's blood with the equivalent of saltwater. After a week of being at death's door Sodium recovered and was declared “more gay than ever”, his gaiety being attributed to the saltwater rather than his relief at having survived such an ordeal. After five more years of intermittent gaiety Sodium was killed by a cart.

The water in the vial is of a weaker concentration than the intravenous type and is intended to be taken orally (I keep it on hand for emergencies (along with the teeth)).

And finally a stunning picture of my most treasured possession: a Pink-backed Pelican (Pelicanus rufescens). Arranged in front of it, as if in tribute, are a posy of glass flowers, a ceramic bloom from a broken grave ornament and the polished shell of a Turban snail (Turbo marmoratus). I think the diffused sunlight helps give the pelican a faintly messianic air...

And so began the early 21st century “Cult of the Pelican” whose sole adherent, a middle-aged recluse with a long nose and pouch-like double chin, would waddle in circles around his room composing odes dedicated to the object of his veneration; “... pelican... pelican.... more than his belly can... no, not memorable enough... needs more religion, how about Vatican? That's it!... better feathered than the Vatican... Perform miracles? You bet he can... ”

Sunday, 16 September 2012


Plodding down the broadening stair
Away from the table's wagging tongues,
Each step a promise of elsewhere;
L'escalier is where l'esprit belongs.


Thursday, 23 August 2012

Himba Colour Perception

On the radio someone from Dulux
Is explaining how we are new to blue,
How people from northern Namibia
Have no word for it.
This must be because they've never lain on hot sand
And stared up at eternity
Or down into your mad eyes.


Wednesday, 8 August 2012


Spilt wine
Seeps into the soil.

Spent lust
Seeps into the soil.

Let blood
Seeps into the soil.

Salt tears
Seep into the soil.

Beneath the wilting plant
Love seeps into the soil.


Saturday, 21 July 2012

Albatross Gets Earful

A Jastrow's Albatross being aurally fed at the Inyuria bird sanctuary.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Bedroom Farcie

A dog called 'Haggis' wandered into my bedroom the other day and was promptly terrified.

Luckily he found solace on the sofa.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Fern Fever

I stumbled upon an abandoned cemetery in Vezelay the other day.

At the far left of the site this tomb caught my eye;

It was surmounted by a structure whose original purpose, I imagine, was to contain relics of some sort, it still has its lock.

The glass is broken and ferns have taken over, they give the impression that they are breaking out of a Wardian case. It would be nice to think that the entombed was a pteridomaniac.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012


   “Some men, on leaving this vale of tears, are fortunate enough to leave behind them tangible and lasting evidence of their greatness. Their memories are perpetuated in the minds of generations to come by, perhaps, books they have written, discoveries they have made or edifices they have designed.
   What man living today, can pick up a copy of Oliver Twist without the magic name of Dickens immediately springing to mind? Who can look at an apple without thinking of Sir Isaac Newton (Discoverer of the Law of Gravity) or, perhaps, William Tell? A dullard, too, must he be who, on looking at a postcard of the Taj Mahal, does not remember Shah Jehan and his wife Mumtaz.”

From “The Journal of Edwin Carp” edited by Richard Haydn.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Musings of a Methodist Apostate

Some inhabit their heart
And drown.

Others live in the mind,
That spectral tenement
Full of clamour and doubt

(There are also those who patrol
The dungeons of the groin
Beating the walls with frantic fist).

But the happy live in their nose
Where the world comes to them
And, should the Black Death call by,
May blossom enthralls
Even when not there.


Saturday, 2 June 2012

A Clash of Cultures

   Two or three decades ago when speeding through the streets of Dublin in a white van laden with building materials I passed the Chester Beatty Library and noticed it was hosting an exhibition of Muscovite enamels, so, instead of racing on to the house I was supposed to be working on, I slewed into the library's gravel drive and wedged my battered charger amongst a smattering of shiny cars.

   It turned out they were about to broadcast a television programme about the enamels – various technicians were dragging cables about, some presenter type was combing his hair – everyone was too busy to mind my being there so I examined the exhibits on display and eventually discovered a weighty publication that described them. It was far too expensive for me to buy so I scanned a few passages. They described how in the 13th century the Mongols, during what was the only successful winter invasion of Russia (they charged up the frozen rivers on horseback giving no time for defenses to be organised), had sacked Moscow, at the time a beacon of civilisation, and murdered so many Muscovites that one of the techniques for enamelling, that of cloisonné - a word I'd never seen before - was lost for ever. This last fact intrigued me. The book explained that despite there being an example of something very similar to cloisonné in the main cabinet there was no example of this lost process in the collection on display - they did exist elsewhere, but their locations were not given. I asked an attendant where such enamelling could be found, he had no idea, however he did say that there was one person who was sure to know and that was the expert who was about to be interviewed for the television show. As we spoke that very woman was striding toward me on her way to two floodlit armchairs. What a stroke of luck!

“Ah! Excuse me, could you tell me where I could find an example of cloisonné?”

“What? Oh. Over there in the main cabinet.”

“No, that's a different technique. I'm looking for cloisonné - it's a lost technique.”

Is it. Well look in the other cabinets.”

“I did and there's none. It says so here on page 247.”

   After a moment of intense mutual assessment we separated and she strode off to be questioned by someone more civil, whose hair was not full of cement dust and who knew how to pronounce cloisonnéAnd I took off in my white van, its spinning wheels scattering gravel and taking me forward to where I once was.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

The Descent of Man

   As a child at school back in the sixties I remember being taken into a room, physically examined by an elderly medic and hearing him apply to me a big word I didn't understand, but whose tone and context told me was important, and possibly shameful, so I memorised it. It was before I knew how to use a dictionary. At the time the chief clues to word meanings were hung on the classroom walls. I remember the picture of an axe and being mystified by the spelling of the accompanying word – why the E at the end?

   The presence of an E at the end of AXE remained a mystery but the meaning of my big word didn't. After a while I learned that “underdeveloped” was every bit as shameful as I'd suspected.

   It's odd to think that I remember a particular word being said when memories of my early school days are normally so hazy, but then the handling of ones genitals without invitation by a towering stranger lends itself to recall. It's also odd to think that this manipulation was considered normal practice. Maybe it still is. Or perhaps nowadays the examiner uses some sort of electronic soup ladle (or teaspoon in cases like mine).

   I have long had a mental picture of my father being present at this institutional groping, I can see him slumping in resignation upon learning that his son was never going to be a caber tosser and was destined instead to lead a life of unalloyed milksoppery. I now suspect I added my dad to the scenario at a later date just to confirm the ritual humiliation of it all. The real interlocutor was probably a secretary with a clipboard, fountain pen poised to mark me down for life, stockinged legs scissored, strained lab coat threatening to catapult buttons-

   Anyway, sometime during the following years my genitals must have put on a metaphorical spurt as I remember engaging, as a cocky nineteen year old, in frenetic and seemingly concatenate bouts of copulation for months on end with an obliging girlfriend. I couldn't believe my luck and was far too hyperactive to worry about underdevelopment, that was until she referred to me as being “immature” a term that had uncomfortable echos of the U word. It came as a tremendous relief when she patiently spelt out to me, in what turned out to be our final conversation, that she was referring to my morbid jealousy, snide comments and all-round superficiality.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Swings and Roundabouts

In Belarus a child counters the force of a bucketing merry-go-round, the cold steel warmed by his dissident grip.
One more revolution and the ride will be over. Time for the ghost train.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Of Hooves and Hats

I found this in a junk shop recently;

   It's a Hoof Fungus (Formes formentarius). It grows on various hardwood trees and, occasionally, conifers. The one I found is mounted on chipboard the formica veneer of which is peeling, an unattractive backing not worthy of the magnificent fungus. With my customary insight into these matters I deduced that someone had attached the fungus to a plaque that had originally been used in a perfumery as it is there that a word such as “Amadouvier” surely belongs.

   It turns out that “Amadouvier” is French for Hoof Fungus. It's somehow typical that the French word sounds suited to a perfume and that the English version is reminiscent of athelete's foot.
   Both its English and French names refer to physical characteristics, the English one is obvious, but the French term reveals a hidden and more sensual aspect – many say that it is ultimately derived from the Latin ad manum dulce, “soft to the touch”.

   “Amadouvier” is linguistically derived from “Amadou” which is physically derived from Amadouvier. Amadou is the “soft to the touch” spongy material found within the fungus. When amadou is dried after soaking in a solution of saltpetre the desiccated result is very easy to ignite with a spark from, for instance, a flint - some French sources claim that “amadou” is from a Provençal word meaning amoureux/loving (“because it ignites so quickly”...). Such tinder was among the possessions of “Ötzi the Iceman” who was murdered 5,300 years ago and found, mummified by icy conditions, in 1991 in the Ötzal Alps (the mountains between Austria and Italy).

   The less spongy form of amadou (that nearer the surface) is used by dry-fly fishermen to dry their flies. It is prepared by cutting it into slices and boiling them for a few hours or soaking them for a week in washing soda or urine. The dried end product (below) is one of the most naturally absorbent materials known.

   Amadou can also be worked like leather or processed like felt (whose processing also traditionally involved steeping in urine). These crafts are still practiced in eastern Europe, various items are made including table mats, handbags and headgear;

Mycologist Paul Stamets sporting an amadou trilby. Very natty.

I find something disturbing about this assembly of amadouvian creations; a sort of nightmare in fawn dreamt up by Joseph Beuys.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Spotted in Africa

   I watched a televised nature documentary the other evening, it was set in the Kenyan plains, various familiar characters from such programmes were present; dead and dying rhinos with their horns hacked off to supply other people with other remedies, white people driving around in Land Rovers, black people scratching a living. The dominant character was a white woman who was studying mortality rates among big cats. The cats were regularly being killed by herdsmen whose livestock was under threat. Local Maasai people had informed her that the body of a big cat had been found in some remote spot so she drove out to identify the species. Surrounded by her informants our protagonist explained, with a practised forbearance, that identification in such cases was difficult without her seeing the animal for herself as the Maasai language didn't differentiate between “cheetah” and “leopard”.
   I suspect I wasn't the only armchair ethnologist to find this assertion surprising considering the Maasai have been living alongside these disparate types of feline for countless generations. I would wager that despite the supposed paucity of its vocabulary there is more than one word in Maasai for “self-proclaimed expert from elsewhere”.

Orkedi [Maa], or Spotty Cat [Eng.]

Olowaru keri [Maa], or Spotty Cat [Eng.]

Saturday, 21 April 2012

“The gradient's against her, but she's on time.”

 “This is the Night Mail crossing the border
Bringing the cheque and the postal order...”

from 'Night Mail' by W. H. Auden

Thursday, 12 April 2012


“… what she saw hanging from my hand, like a painter’s rag, was the lifeless body of that faithful weasel. In my frenzied desire to escape I’d used it as a cosh... once again that selfless creature had saved my life.”
                                                                  from “Buridan's Ass” by, err, S.R. Plant

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Philadelphia, there I went.

   Well, I'm now back in the Old World after having an extraordinarily good time in the New. “Buridan's Ass” went down very well, thanks to the fine direction of John Doyle and the marvellous acting of Steve Hatzai and Adam Altman. My friends Emma Gibson, Lucille Larkin and Margaret Driscoll went to great lengths to make my visit to Philadelphia both possible and thoroughly enjoyable.

   Here's an excerpt from the show;

   And here's a clip of the subsequent “talk-back” (a.k.a. the “rambling monologue-back”);

Many thanks to the selfless John Doyle for filming and posting these on Youtube.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Buridan's Ass Straddles the Atlantic

   Some years ago I wrote a short play about a failed taxidermist (what else?). It was called “Buridan's Ass” and premiered in Bewley's Café Theatre, Dublin. Thanks to the brilliant direction of Michael James Ford and the inspired performances of Arthur Riordan and Frank Bourke it was enjoyed by audiences in Dublin and Limerick, and also in Scotland where it was performed at the Òran Mór Theatre in Glasgow. Michael recently sent a script to Emma Gibson of TINY DYNAMITE in Philadelphia and I was delighted to learn that Emma would be producing Buridan's Ass along with the dynamic IRON AGE THEATRE COMPANY. It will be directed by John Doyle, with Steve Hatzai in the role of Mahone and Adam Altman as Mahone's assistant, Ernest Blades.

   The byline is as follows;

   “Ever since an aquarium explosion forced him to choose between running to the aid of his stricken girlfriend and saving the life of a floundering turbot, Mahone the taxidermist has suffered from Buridan's Ass Syndrome – a fear of making decisions.”

   It's an autobiographical piece though obviously I played down certain aspects.

This is the inside-out badger that features prominently in the denouement of the denouement

Buridan's Ass will be performed at

The Red Room, Society Hill Playhouse,

Philadelphia, PA

March 27th and 28th, 6:30 – 7:30 pm

I will be doing a “talk-back” after the opening performance, but don't let that prevent you from turning up.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Interspecific Relations

   Some time ago I was looking at a lizard and a lizard was looking at me. It (Lacerta vivipara) was on a south-facing stone wall in my garden, a favourite hangout for saurian types. They usually scatter whenever I draw near, but this one stayed put. Finding myself within arm's reach I felt driven, for some bizarre and atavistic reason, to make a grab for it and to my surprise suddenly found the bemused lizard in my fist. To somehow justify my impulsive act I decided to create a vivarium – the work of a few minutes as I often have old fish tanks in my cellar (I often buy old fish tanks with the intention of having a tropical fish collection. I still intend to have one. I will always intend to have one). I put flies, and once a spider, into the tank as food, but the lizard ignored them. The spider made a web and ate the flies. If there were no flies around nothing much happened in the so-called vivarium; the spider waited, the lizard watched. It was the flies that supplied the action and yet no one would think of keeping a fly as a pet, or, more correctly, almost no one;

This wasp (Eumenes pomiformis I think) was the pet of Sir Thomas Lubbock (1834-1913).

   The following extract is from “Treasures of the British Natural History Museum”.

   “ … Lubbock had learned to feed and stroke it without getting stung. He caught the wasp in the Pyrenees and kept it as a pet until its death ten months later. His account of its demise is touching. 'One day, I observed that she had nearly lost the use of her antennae, though the rest of the body was as usual. She would take no food. Next day I tried again to feed her; but the head seemed dead, though she could still move her legs, wings and abdomen. The following day I offered her food for the last time; for both head and thorax were dead or paralysed; she could but move her tail, a last token, as I could almost fancy, of gratitude and affection. As far as I could judge, her death was quite painless; and she now occupies a place in the museum.' Despite this rather eccentric (?. Ed) tale, Lubbock was a respected scientist, author, banker and Liberal politician. He improved labour laws and introduced the Bank Holiday Act, Wild Birds Protection Act and Public Libraries Act among others.”

P. S. I let the lizard go in the end. The spider had to be forcibly evicted. The flies are still around.  

Friday, 9 March 2012

Courtship Rituals

   Some go to great lengths to make their special day special, though not all – Emus, despite being frilly, favour a no-frills approach to holy matrimony;

Black and white plates from Curt Thesing's 'Genealogy of Love' (1933)

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Multum in Parvo

   Above is the frontispiece from August Johan Roesel von Roesnhof's 'Historia naturalis Ranarum nostratium' (1758) - 'Natural History of our Frogs' – which describes in great detail all the frog species of Germany. Amongst the teeming marsh life a stone dais sinks into Ozymandian oblivion, engraved into it is a phrase taken from Virgil's Georgics: 'Admiranda tibi levium spectacula rerum' - 'I'll tell of tiny things that make a show well worth your admiration'.

   Virgil was talking about bees, but natural historians in particular see evidence of this sentiment everywhere. The motto was used to good effect some 200 years ago in the creation of an extraordinary ring now found in the entomological collection of the London Natural History Museum. The words encompass a weevil (Tetrasothynus regalis) from Hispaniola.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Ode to an Amazon

(or The Triumph of Curiosity over Discretion)

Tis well known that ye cut
Off thine own left breast but,
Given the lie of myth,
I must asketh forthwith

Canst it really be true
In re the candiru,

That it swims up thy pee
So as to enter thee?


Friday, 2 March 2012

Where Thoughts run Wild

   An abundance of books, a reassuring disorder, indoor plants to supply oxygen to the absorbed reader, taxidermy cabinets to stimulate the imagination, plenty of natural light and the possibility of a shower when it rains are just some of the elements that contribute to the allure of this wonderful library constructed by Lori Nix
  Unfortunately it's less than six feet high.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

The Pacemaker's Beat

“There's a race of men that don't fit in,
A race that can sit still;
So with single mind and double chin, they roam the world at will.”

Robert Service's doctored lines refer to the remarkable Derny men, the poem's relentless meter echoing the throb of a Derny man's Derny.

By definition, the Derny man is a leader; it's what he does -

The biological phenomenon known as 'convergent evolution' as demonstrated by these two bicyclists and their respective mounts.

   (Flann O'Brien famously touched on the close relationship of man and velocipede in “The Third Policeman”;
“The gross and net result of it is that people who spent most of their natural lives riding iron bicycles over the rocky roadsteads of this parish get their personalities mixed up with the personalities of their bicycle as a result of the interchanging of the atoms of each of them and you would be surprised at the number of people in these parts who are nearly half people and half bicycles... when a man lets things go so far that he is more than half a bicycle, you will not see him so much because he spends a lot of his time leaning with one elbow on walls or standing propped by one foot at kerbstones.”)

   In the world of cycling lean is the norm, but the best Derny men are on the heavy side, as with Sumo wrestlers a large girth is an advantage in their chosen sport; in the Derny man's case it makes him a more effective wind-break for those behind. Derny men are a dedicated group of semi-professionals much sought after in Europe and Japan. They act as pacers on their Derny bikes for racing cyclists whose speed is increased when they are are sucked in to the Derny man's sizeable low-pressure zone.

  A huddle of Derny men prepare for action, the tension mounts...

Here we have one Derny man show-boating, another doing the Derny work.

And so on and so forth.