Sunday, 19 August 2018

Gerald Durrell; the Authorised Biography by Douglas Botting - book review

Gerald Durrell has been one of my favourite authors since I read The Bafut Beagles when I was nine and I've always admired his determination to conserve endangered species, the little, un-noticed creatures more than the spectacular, headline-grabbing ones.
Douglas Botting's biography was approved by his family and presents a detailed and unflinching portrait of this charismatic, driven and creative man. GD wasn't a saint or any kind of paragon, he was a high functioning alcoholic and could have lived so much longer. His remarkable achievements have altered the way endangered species are appreciated and conserved. His Jersey Zoo is a model for conservationist worldwide and his books are many and varied.
All this Douglas Botting catches with zest and a plainly enormous quantity of research. The details of GD's final illness are not for the faint hearted but are honest. My only qualms are with the way the treatment of Jacquie, GD's first wife, seem to be glossed over. Otherwise this is a fascinating read for any GD fan, and for anybody interested in how attitudes to conservation have progressed since the 1950's.

Saturday, 18 August 2018

It's the Environment, Stupid.

My recent reading matter has brought something to my attention. I read 'Reservoir 13', I have just finished Gerald Durrell's biography, now I am reading, with a little difficulty, 'H is For Hawk.' All these books have at their centre a depth of knowledge of and care for the natural world and man's involvement with it. This morning I wokup and realised that this is what I care for and about, more than anything else. How have I not been able to acknowledge this before?

Online, I read stories about environmental destruction and devastated communities, about for example, rhinos slaughtered for their horns and children suffering from terrible diseases. All these make me feel sad, more than sad, but the ones that make me feel desperate are the environmental stories and the slaughter of endangered, irreplaceable species. And so then I feel guilty about not caring enough for the suffering children. Maybe this feeling of guilt has clouded my sense of what is fundamentally important.

But thinking about it, my care about suffering children is innate. I'm a mother and grandmother, of course I care about the suffering of children. However I have to protect myself. If I grieve over every little boy with incurable brain damage or every little Yemeni girl starving to death before her mother's eyes, then I will die of exhausted grief and nobody will gain. Empathy can only go so far if an individual human being is to survive and remain sane. Think of the X Men founder Charles Xavier as a young man, having to learn to control his empathy before the mass of human suffering over-whelmed him. We all need to learn this - or switch the internet off.

A love for 'God's Creation' wasn't dutifully pumped into me as an infant, although christianity was vaguely involved. I was read bible stories involving animals at a sunday school that I attended for a couple of years. And I was read Kipling, the wonderful, poetic Just So Stories, the more adventurous Jungle Books, all about man and animals in natural settings. So partly by their chosen reading matter it was the adults in my family who began my deeper involvement in creatures and nature in general.

My mother's mother taught me many things in the garden, when I was very tiny, including that worms were good and should not be killed. My father's father showed me that nature was to be tamed, controlled and turned to production in his burgeoning fruit garden, he would trap and shoot the brown rats that dared to venture into his compost pits. Meanwhile his wife was allowed to feed 'her' robin, Bobbity, at a little bird table on the kitchen window ledge.

Their son, my father, loved wild and solitary places, marshes and mountains, deserts and rocky coasts. He was a twitcher and more. He showed me that nature was wild and free. When I was a confused, sulky teenager he drove us for many hours to Loch Garten, to show us the only ospreys then nesting in the UK. All I saw then was a distant bird, soaring, silhouetted against the grey sky and water. Nobody controlled that bird.

Today there are probably 300 pairs of osprey breeding in the UK. Should this give me hope?

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

We're Having A Heatwave - the Fair Weather Gardener

We've had absolutely no rain and some very hot weather for the past six weeks at least. This could be described as the ideal summer, but it's far too dry for farmers and too dry for most UK gardens. Temperatures in the high 20's C have been recorded most days but one notable Sunday, the first of July, when the met office admitted it could be 32 outside, that was in the shade on my patio.  I put out a cheap thermometer and it shot up to 39 in the sun. That's over 100 degrees in old money! Even the cats stayed indoors.

So what's in flower? More than I expected, there are daisies and day lilies, miniature roses and oregano, clematis and thunbergia - also known as Black-eyed-Susan! Grown from seed, the marigolds and viola are just coming out. Also from seed, nasturtiums in pots were doing fine until the small white butterflies found them, now they are a scene of devastation, I think the caterpillars are running out of leaves. Should I take pity and transfer them to the remaining nasturtiums under the apple tree? And I have numerous pots of vivid, gorgeous red geraniums  - yes I know I'm meant to call them zonal pelargoniums, but I refuse!

My small lawn is completely brown and crispy, not a single blade of green. The plus side is that I don't have to mow it, I expect it will come back once we have some significant rain; this will happen at some stage, we are in England not the Sahara and grass rhizomes are very tough. The other plus is the ground elder has vanished. I kept mowing it in the lawn and rooting it out in the beds but it's an everlasting task. I don't suppose it's gone forever, some roots will survive even in bone dry soil, but I'm pleased for now that it's reduced so much.

The interior of the compost bin is dry and dusty, even though it's in the shade. The tiny fruit flies which normally swarm up in a miasma when I open the lid to tip in kitchen waste are growing sluggish. Slugs and snails have hunkered down, though some are still alive enough to know when I've watered the cucumbers in their gro-bag.

For over a week the sun was too much for those cucumbers, every day they wilted even though I was watering three times a day. I even tried shading them with a light-filtering parasol but it didn't really help. We've had a few small crisp cucumbers from them, though the skins are tough, and a couple more still on the plant. I haven't grown cucumbers before, a neighbour gave me two seedlings. They're short cucumbers and taste very good, but a lot of effort and a lot of water for ten small cucumbers, don't think I'll bother again.  Prickly pears might be a more appropriate crop for the weather! Is this continuous hot, dry weather a sign of climate change? Well  one swallow doesn't make a summer and one summer doesn't make global warming, but overall the signs aren't good.

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Dada Baroness - it's her birthday!

Today is the birthday of the utterly fabulous and more than slightly bonkers Dada Baroness (1874-1927)  Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven. She has been largely written out of the history of the Dada movement by male chroniclers. She probably invented performance art in 2015-16 on the streets of New York. She was a painter, poet and creator of art objects. Her poetry has recently been published, her art is almost all lost.

Portrait of Elsa by Theresa Bernstein 1918

Elsa was friend/lover/collaborator of many more famous people in the dada period including Marcel Duchamp, Berenice Abbott, Man Ray and Djuna Barnes. She wasn't really a Baroness - a bigamous marriage to a dispossessed Baron lasted only a few months. She lived in poverty much of her adult life. There's a fuller account of Elsa below -

Sunday, 24 June 2018

British Flowers Week - The Fair Weather Gardener

It's British Flowers Week from 18-24 June 2018. Every day seems to have become something-or-other day or week and we all wisely ignore most of them and get on with our lives. My take is to stick a comment on my FB feed if a particular one catches my attention, it's usually for being daft! However this one caught my attention by making me think about the flowering plants in my garden; how many are endemic species?

Started at the Covent Garden Flower Market in 2013, the official week is a promotion for florists and flower farmers around the country who grow and sell UK blooms, in the UK, as opposed to the giant flower markets in Europe. It could be interpreted as a bit Brexit-ish, but has a point, the international movement of billions of blossoms around the world is not strictly necessary - we can grow plenty here.

The current situation is obviously deleterious to the environment, you can't put flowers on a ship from Kenya to the UK and expect them to survive the journey in good condition, so they're air-freighted. Flying, as we all know, is bad for the environment. On average a plane is said to produce over 50 pounds of CO2 per mile of flight, although Eurocontrol International claim that aviation creates less then 2% of climate change gases. I'm trying to present a vaguely balanced argument here!

Back to the plants. I'm not a florist, just a gardener, but apart from the foxgloves, which are almost over and the glorious oxeye daisies, I wasn't sure which of the flowering beauties in my garden are native and which originated far from British shores. Much research is needed.

Monday, 18 June 2018

The Innocent by Ian McEwan - review

I was disappointed reading Amsterdam (reviewed in March), how the hell did that win the Booker Prize? I thought I'd better try a different Ian McEwan book, to see if he was still one of my favourite authors or if I should demote him. I went shopping, came home with The Innocent, written in 1990 but set in the mid 1950's.

The Innocent has been published with a number of different covers, trust me to buy the least interesting (the one on the right). Book covers are important but in this case had no influence on me, I was buying for the author.

It's sort of an espionage story, set in divided West Berlin during the 1950's. I was there as a teen-ager some time later so I decided I had to read this particular book. The setting is pretty real, a city still struggling to recover from the second world war, whilst suffering under the domination of the cold war. Although set before the Berlin wall was built, it felt familiar enough, I'd seen the check-points, the bomb sites. The main character is Leonard, a GPO technician seconded to work on a top secret project in the American sector of the city. I won't tell the story, impossible without spoilers.

The Innocent is very well written, as all McEwan's books are, he's a professional in every sense. The narrative is tense, a very good story. It does take a bit of digesting... hmm.  Maybe digesting is the wrong word. Is it a good read? Oh yes, definitely but maybe don't read the second half just after a large meal. 

Has it restored my faith in the author? Yes, it has. Although a very different story it takes me back to his first book, The Cement Garden which was also about innocence.

Sunday, 10 June 2018

Danny Kirwan - Desert Island Discs

Fleetwood Mac's fantastic heavy rock number, 'Oh Well' was my previous desert Island choice a few days ago. Danny Kirwan, one of three guitarists in the band at the time the recording was made, has just died at the age of 68.

It's very sad, he was a talented musician and songwriter who never quite made his mark after he left the band in 1972. He was just 18 when he joined Fleetwood Mac, after his own band, Boilerhouse, had supported the Mac at several venues in London. Drummer Mick Fleetwood invited him to join the Mac, he then became Peter Green's protégé for a few gigs before as a fully fledged band member his passion for blues music combined with his creativity, he contributed his own compositions to their repertoire and their next five albums.

I saw him play with Fleetwood Mac twice, at the Leas Cliff Hall in Folkestone, in 1968/9 when the band were at their very best. I have his autograph.

Farewell Danny Kirwan, blues boy.