Sunday, December 23, 2007

How I got into mountain biking

Me and Jude in Glencoe, 2004

I took up climbing whilst I was still at school, introduced to it by teachers and school trips. I'd always been crap at school sports and took every opportunity to skive out of them. maybe as a result of that I always tended towards being a bit of a chubber. Not fat, per se, but a bit padded.

With the discovery that I liked climbing, the first physical activity, apart from masturbation, which I had any real enthusiasm for, I began to change my physical shape, simply by getting out there and climbing. I became lean and fit, enhanced by my taking up running and yoga whilst at University.

I climbed throughout the 80s, but when I got married in 1988, my climbing gradually tailed off, and I saw less and less of my climbing friends. I kidded myself at the time that it was just a result of us drifting apart as we forged the courses of our own lives, but in reality, my (now ex-) wife didn't care for my climbing mates, or perhaps, for the amount of my time and affection which I devoted to them, and which she felt should be all devoted to her.

Whatever the reason, by the start of the 1990s, I was no longer climbing. Not only that, but my running also gradually tailed off, as I failed to set aside time for it amidst my household chores and sundry pieces of life. One day, around 1994, I was suddenly no longer a runner.

The result of the incremental decline in physical activity was that I began to put on weight and to get unfit. By 1998, I weighed 16 stones, compared to the 12 I'd been in 1990.

OK, we all put on a little weight as we age, but I was up to a 36" waist and found it hard to climb a flight of stairs without getting out of breath. I had to do something, so in desperation, I took up running again. I managed several runs of around 5 miles, and began to feel fitter again, though I was still overweight. I split up with my wife that summer, and even got a new, much younger girlfriend, like the classic mid-life crisis man.

The stress of that split caused me to lose my appetite, and weight fell off me (mostly muscle loss I suspect), until I was down to 12st 6lb by August 1998. That month, I spent a week camping in Dufton, in the Vale of Eden, and did some fell-walking and even a fell-run on one day. I was feeling spiritually low, but physically better than I'd been for years, due to the weight loss.

My dalliance with the younger woman fizzled out. There was no heart in it, and I decided to give it a go with my ex-wife again. After a long period of joint counselling from Relate, we got back together. My diet returned to normality and immediately, my weight began to climb again. I reached 14 stones before deciding I had to do something.

I'd tried to pick up running again, but was having problems - persistent shin splints. My GP suggested I was too heavy for running and should try swimming or cycling.

I'd swum in the mid-80s, when I suffered from knee trouble, but found it boring as hell, just plodding back and forth in the pool, even though it got me fitter than I'd ever been before. So I decided to buy a bike. I fancied a bike which I could use out on rough trails in the countryside; a mountain bike.

I'd not had a bike since I was at school, and knew little about them, so I began to pore over mountain bike mags, gleaning advice and information. I set a budget of £300, but ended up spending £500, in July 1999, on a shiny red Specialized Rockhopper, from Ellis Briggs in Shipley. I rode it home to Pudsey, and though it was hard work, I realised this was what I needed. It replaced both running and walking, getting me out into the countryside without damaging my already damaged legs even further, and without taking up an entire day, thus making it easier to fit into my life.

Unlike running or walking, there was an extra dimension, the dimension of speed. A fast downhill brought adrenaline pumping through my brain, and provided the link to my other long-abandoned outdoor love, climbing. It was perfect.

Below: The 1999 Specialized Rockhopper FS

More importantly than the thrills perhaps, it began to get me fit. I started to commute to work in Leeds, detouring along the way to reach the Leeds-Liverpool canal, whose towpath took me into the heart of Leeds. This sinuous route took almost 9 miles, compared to 7 at most on the most direct roads. But it was worth it, and I began to enjoy it more and more, the fitter I got.

Below: me and Horse in Glencoe, 2004

That was 8 years ago. I've since moved to Sheffield, but still commute every day on that same bike, though my commute is only about 3 miles each way now: less distance, but more hills (for those who know Sheffield).

The commuting got me somewhere resembling fit again, but the real joy came when I began to venture out onto the moors and do some 'proper' mountain biking. My skills developed, and although I still can not do a bunny-hop or pull a wheelie, I can ride most of what I come across, wherever I may be.

Through mountain biking, I renewed friendships with people I'd not spoken to in years, and visited parts of the country I'd not seen in over a decade. Most importantly, I found a new facet to a life that had grown stale, and that facet continues to lead me into new territory.

I've never had much money, and lately, things have been extremely tight, financially, due to heavy debts left over both from my and Jude's divorces. As a result, I've kept the same old Rockhopper, replacing parts as they wore out until only the springy steel frame is original, and even that's been bent by occasional crashes. This year, therefore, I determined to buy a new bike, one which would better suit the rocky downhills of the Peak District. One, in other words, with full suspension! I was getting fed up of teeth-jarring, arse-kicking bouncing down steep rocks, and felt the need for more control and more comfort.

There were so many to choose from, I had to do a world of research on each and every one I came across that seemed to fit the bill. I looked at new ones, second hand ones and ex-demo ones, until my head ached. Until, that day... I looked on ebay and there was this bike, made by Canadian bike giants Norco. Only 3 months old, not ridden much, top spec parts throughout, and on offer at almost half what it was costing in the shops!

Catch? There was none. The seller was a reputable guy, good ebay ratings and feedback, a Cytech bike mechanic. I placed my bid and got the bike, all £3,000 worth (if you were to buy it in a shop, that is!). No-one else bid on it. For some reason, the Norco brand hasn't really caught on here, despite good reviews in the press for all their bikes.

It cost a lot of money (for me) but it was worth every penny I'd saved up for it.

This is it. It's a Norco Six SE (the SE stands for Special Edition)...

For the bike-minded amongst you, this is its specification:
Frame: Hydroformed Aluminium
Swingarm: Hydroformed Aluminium
Fork: Fox 36 Talas RC2, 20mm, 100-160mm
Rear Shock: Fox DHX Air 5.0, 7.875 x 2.25" 145 or 165mm
Headset: Chris King
Rear Hub: Mavic Crossmax SX 135mm
Front Hub: Mavic Crossmax SX 20mm
Spokes: Mavic
Rims: Mavic Crossmax SX
Tyres: Bontrager Big Earl Tubeless
Shift Levers: SRAM X-0
Front Derailleur: E-13 DRS, Shimano XTR
Rear Derailleur: SRAM X-0
Cassette: SRAM PG-990, 11-34, 9 speed
Chain: SRAM PC-970
Crankset: TruVativ Stylo OCT, GXP 24/36
Bottom bracket: TruVativ GXP
Seatpost: Titec Scoper telescopic 30.0
Seat: WTB SLT Rocket V, with Titanium Rails
Bar: Synchros Race Gain 35mm Rise
Stem: Synchros Race
Grips: ODI Lock-On's
Brakes: Avid Juicy 7 with 150mm Rotors
Brake Levers: Avid Juicy 7
Pedals: Time ZZ freeride
Colour: Anodised Gold

Yes. GOLD! I am indeed a pimp on wheels. Or would be if a combinatiuon of illnesses, DIY demands, social events and shite weather hadn't kept me off the trails between August and now. In four months I've onlt ridden it in anger ONCE! That's not really on, and is an insult to a great machine. Well, I have 10 days off now, and I'm just about over my cold, so I will get out on it soon. There's a christmas to do, but then....vroom!

Mountain biking doesn't have the spiritual dimension that walking or mountaineering has: you're concentrating too hard on what you're doing, much of the time, to fully commune in any reflective way with your environment. To get that diimension, you need to stop and sit down and watch the sky and let it flood your soul. Then you can capture that same communion. Not all mtbers (as mountain bikers dub themselves) seek a spiritual element, but I do. It's part of why I'm out there.

Check out these images of riders in the Peak District. This is what I'm talking about...

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Comet Holmes - Towser's comet

Last night, around 11.30 pm, I spent 10 minutes lying flat on my back in the darkness of the frosty back garden, peering through binoculars at the latest comet to grace our skies; Comet Holmes.
It's an unusual comet, in that its tail is pointing away from us, so we see it end-on as a fuzzy circle, rather than the classic comet shape, such as Comet West (below).

Comets have always struck a particular chord with me. Their ghostly, spectral appearance in the sky evokes visions of the cold remoteness of outer space, whence these visitors come from. I remember comets Hyakutake in 1996 and Hale-Bopp in 1997, and the way, night after night, they hung like ethereal phantoms in our night skies, and I can well believe that ancient peoples believed them to be harbingers of doom, or evil spirits (see articles here).

Below: Comet Hyakutake

Below: Comet Hale-Bopp

Comets are still mysterious objects. There are billions of them orbiting our sun, most of them way out beyond Pluto in deep interstellar space, in the Kuiper Belt or the even more remote Oort Cloud. Those that are disturbed from their orbits by whatever means, may veer inwards towards the planets, to become visible to us as their icy surface is heated by the sun, producing the jets of material which make up the characteristic tail.

Some, a few, even occasionally crash into the planets, as Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 did when it hit Jupiter in 1994 (lots of links and info here). The comet was torn into several pieces by Jupiter's immense gravity when it made an initial pass-by the giant planet years previously (below).

Below: Jupiter in 1994, showing the huge scars left by the impacts of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9

Of course, we know more about comets these days. We even crashed the Deep Impact probe into Comet Tempel 1, to see what happened, and analyse the material ejected. We have detailed close-up pictures of the surfaces of Tempel 1 and Wild 2. They look like the Moon.

Below: Comet Tempel 1

Below: Comet Tempel 1 being hit by the Deep Impact probe

I prefer by far the image taken of the nucleus of that most famous of comets, Halley. It's taken from a great distance, and is fuzzy and indistinct, but there's an impression of great size, and immense activity, coupled to a chilling remoteness, which no other picture of comets has ever conveyed. I find it almost terrifying in its ghost-like qualities and hints of unimaginable violence.

Below: the nucleus of Halley's Comet: impossibly remote, supremely terrifying

So what of Comet Holmes? Well, it's been reported on the national news, but has gone largely unnoticed by the public. It looks like a fuzzy patch in the night sky, and only through binoculars or a telescope does its ghostly image make itself clear.

The peak of Comet Holmes' activity, its closest approach to us, more or less coincided with Towser's death. I can't help but think, as I lie there on the cold decking, gazing at that sky-bound phantom, that Towser's spirit has somehow latched onto the comet, and is up there in the darkness, receding from us, from our lives, as the comet carries him away. Because of this, I've called the comet 'Towser's comet' and if I ever see it again, I'll think of him, of his spirit soaring through the universe.

Below: Towser's comet, seen through a telescope

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Just a cat: Farewell to Towser

He was just a cat, when I first met him. He sniffed round me, unsure of me, then warmed to me when I offered him peekaboo fingers round Jude's gatepost, which he vigorously attacked with his little paws. I noticed then how the tufts of white hair poked out from between his toes, kept immaculately clean by his constant grooming. With his pointy fur 'sideburns', he looked like a cartoon cat, like Sylvester or Tom or Top Cat, but was funnier than all three.

He was just a cat, but never a big cat, or a heavy cat, even at 13. His long soft fur hid the lightness and smallness of his frame. Towards the end though, he felt hollow, like a bird, as his muscles wasted away and the flesh fell from his bones. I picked him up and stroked him, just five days ago, the day he stopped eating, and I felt each rib, and the knobs of his backbone, still hidden beneath his deceptively fluffy coat. The picture of him under his fur was no longer a pretty one. I worried then. I worried that he was going, like Barney back in May, wasting away until his spirit left his body like the last wisp of smoke from a dying candle.

He was just a cat. He was just a cat, but he was much more than that. "Just a cat" is what soulless people say. I have no time for people like that. Say that to me and I'll laugh in your stupid face.

He was just a cat, and he was my friend. He knew me as well as I knew him. We understood each other, each in our own way. We trusted each other. He knew I'd never hurt him. He showed it in so many ways: in waiting for me to come up the road on my bike after work, just so he could roll on the ground and purr and stretch whilst I rubbed his sheepskin tummy; in the way he'd be there sometimes, on the pillow next to my head when I woke on a morning, sleeping softly, or the way he followed me down the garden and sat vigilant on a rock, defying the Big Toms of the neighbourhood to come near, because I was there to scare them off.

He was just a cat and I worried about him, when the vet named his illness, his reason for wasting. When he stopped eating and just lay there, eyes dull, I already missed him. I missed my friend, missed his mincing walk and his feather-duster tail and his constant need to sit on my knee whenever I sat down. Missed the way he used to sit on the table and reach out with his paw when it was feeding time as if to say "just give me the tin, I'll open it". I forgave him all the times he deftly flipped a piece of food off my plate as I ate, and ran off to eat it under the table.

He was just a cat, and I could see him waiting for death to come and I knew he was going, even as I muttered unfelt words of hope. The operation which would save his life was already planned, but he was never going to reach it.

He was just a cat, but yesterday I woke up and he wasn't there, and he wasn't just a cat, he was an empty space, an absence of cat, and a gentle fear in my mind. I looked and looked and found him, lying amidst dead wet leaves in the back garden, under a bench. He was cold, like he'd lain there for hours in the rain and dark. I carried his weightless body in as he purred gently against my chest.

He was just a cat and he's gone now. A last straw was clutched at with a night spent in a vet's cage, fed by a tube. Poor small, soft Towser, in a cage, without his friends, alone, would never see his home again. I can still feel his paw against my lips, waking me just days ago, to tell me it was breakfast time. I can still feel it, warm and soft, with the faint trace of claws. Yes, I can feel that and I always will, even though I'll never feel it again.

He was just a cat, but he was himself, his own being, unlike all other cats. He was Towser, and I wanted him to stay Towser and carry on being just a cat. I wasn't there when the needle went in. I never got to stroke his fur and hear his last purr. I never said goodbye to my friend.

Goodbye Towser my friend. You were just a cat, but I'm just a man.

Below: Jude with Towser as a kitten

Below: a distraught and tearful Jude cradles Towser's body, 5th December 2007

Below: Towser in typical repose

Below: Towsers "sheepskin tummy"

Below: Me relaxing with the cats in our back garden, after a bike ride; summer 2004

Below: Towser sitting on Barney's coffin; April 2007

Below: returning home for the final time

Tuesday, December 04, 2007


OK, I have neglected my music fans;

Please note: there is a degree of irony in the title.

Do you all like to PARTY? OK, let's go back to the Manor Hall Disco, Pudsey, in 1977: Catherine Shaw doing a striptease for 50p; some disco dancing extraordinaire, and this; Heatwave - Boogie nights; big tune in 1977, the soundtrack to my summer hols in Perranporth, to teenage snogging at parties, the counterbalance to punk's sneering and spit(e), and above all, a perfect slab of funky pop...

Roxy Music 'Ladytron' - great title and it unfortunately passed me by in 1973, even though it's GENIUS!
My non-existent teenage readers will find it astonishing that in 1973, 11-year olds just weren't musically aware, but that's the way it was. Consequently, I was cheerfully oblivious to most of the amazing music being made at the time, even that which bothered the charts and made daytime radio.
Here is Ladytron, performed in '73 on the Old Grey Whistle Test, the coolest music programme ever...

Right, two tunes don't make a party, do they? SO on to the next piece of music for you to shuffle awkwardly to (so far, apart from Boogie Nights, the 'DANCE' element of the title has been ironic: I challenge anyone to dance to Ladytron).
Way back in 1972, I used to walk to Junior School (on my own!) with this tune ringing in my ears, fresh from the Jimmy Young show.
Widely reviled, sneered at, I have it here as a guilty pleasure, and the warm Northern swell of the brass band, coupled with the blunt, almost flat, vocal style, are guaranteed to warm the cockles of my heart and bring me out in a fever of nostalgic yearning. Oh, and despite what critics may say, it's a gorgeous song of love.
Peter Skellern, with 'You're a Lady'...

Easy listening eh? I love the North, me.

Next up, a contrast. Back in the late 80s, the Son of God, John Peel, went through a phase of playing 'tunes' by death, thrash and doomcore merchants like Extreme Noise Terror (photos), Carcass, Napalm Death, Electro hippies and their ilk.

Below: Electro hippies:

As a lifelong fan of metal (except US hair and pomp metal like Kiss, Van Halen or GnR, collectively known as shite metal or false metal), I thrilled to this new offshoot of the genre, often featuring songs growled or barked out over devastating explosions of guitar, bass and drums, many of them less than 30 seconds long. Timing was critical, to avoid a structured mess of sound becoming just a mess. I ventured to the late lamented Duchess in Leeds (good thread about the Duchess here)to see several of these bands, and very exhilarating they were too.

An offshoot of this metal offshoot was a slowed down version, like the above named bands played at 33 instead of 45rpm. This grindcore was exemplified by dutch masters Gore (whose epic instrumental 'Arena' remains a monolithic statement of the music's visceral power - seek it out if you can!), and by our very own innovators, Bolt Thrower (note the touching Peel tribute on their homepage), whose 1988 LP 'In Battle There is no Law', set the pattern for countless bands to follow.

I now urge you to climb on the sideboard or other suitable item of furniture, and to throw yourself off it into an imaginary crowd of sweating moshers. Repeat until song ends....

Bolt Thrower - Cenotaph

I hope you are now bruised and battered, soaked in sweat, and that your room is totally trashed. Typical Bolt Thrower gig.

Now let's all calm down shall we? Not too much though, because we've already gone all last of the Summer Wine with Peter Skellern, so let's have some still extreme 'easy listening' courtesy of Tokyo's masters of Noise, Merzbow. For those who found Bolt Thrower harsh and tuneless, better skip this next piece (CLUE: Merzbow are described as sounding like "a robot in a woodchipper" - GREAT comment! and "like a cow being castrated" - BULL, surely?)

Nice. Thing is, I really like this stuff, even though it's 'just' noise.

OK, ta ta for now. maybe next time we'll do African, yeah?

Monday, November 12, 2007

Sheffield Documentary Film Festival 2007

Well, that was good.

By 'that', I mean to say, the 2007 Sheffield Documentary Film Festival, at which Jude and I have virtually lived for the past 5 days.

In and out of the Showroom, between bar and cinema, Guinness, pints of Stella, Leffe, Hoegaarden, meeting and chatting to strangers, being tired, being thrilled, being excited by superb documentaries of all shapes, colours and sizes.

Jude will be blogging in detail about it, but highlights for me were:

The BUZZ of the whole thing - mainly industry movers, shakers, up-and-comers and wannabees, BBC, C4, SKY and Five, mingling with directors, producers, presenters and a smattering (a mere smidgeon) of the general public;

Jude's infectious enthusiasm for her volunteer work on the festival team, which led to her winning a prize for being one of the best of the 80-strong team;

The FILMS - so many to choose from, so many quickly sold out, forcing unexpectedly astonishing second or third choices to the front;

The people, from pinstriped 'Lee' who lost all interest in talking to me once he discovered I wasn't in the industry, to Phil, the young producer of The Cuban Skateboard Crisis, who ended up talking to me about his film and about the mend-and-make-do skateboard scene in Cuba;

Chatting briefly to Ross Kemp at the bar, and realising he's not as tall as me. Friendly bloke though;

Film highlights I managed to catch included:

To the Limit, a film by Pepe Danquart and Kirsten Hager, about Austrian climbing prodigies, the Huber brothers, Alex and Thomas, set against their audacious attempt to set a new speed climbing record for the 3,600 foot high Nose of El Capitan in Yosemite. Awesome is for once an apt word. The film tells us more about the characters than about the climb, and is all the richer for it. Best climbing film I've seen by far, though whether the linearly-thinking climbing community at large will agree, remains to be seen.

Other great fims were:

The English Surgeon, a documentary by producer/director Geoffrey Smith, about top neurosurgeon Henry Marsh, and his selfless efforts to help save lives in Ukraine, where people die needlessly on a daily basis from entirely operable brain tumours. A moving film which has me on the verge of tears. Coming to a TV near you soon, I expect.

Below: The remarkable Henry Marsh

Echoes of Home, by Stefan Schweitert, about three remarkable and taklented musicians who have taken the age-old Swiss folk tradition of yodelling, which began as a cattle-calling series of whoops (as we are shown), into the 21st century, developing it into a beautiful and unique avant-garde musical genre. For any lover of new and often strange-sounding musics, this film is a must. Seeing Swiss yodeller Christian Zehnder, 'jamming' in a yurt in Mongolia, with Tuvan throat-singers, was truly wonderful, and the embarrassment of Erika Stucky's teenage daughter, who thinks her exuberant and likeable mum (pictured below) "sometimes goes too far", would provide knowing amusement to parents of teenage girls everywhere.

Gerald hauzenberger's Beyond the Forest, a heartwarming, funny and, ultimately, vaguely unsettling portrait of two old people, one of Saxon stock, one descended from the Landlers, who linger on, against their own expectations, in the astonishingly mediaeval environs of rural Transylvania.

All White in Barking, by Marc Isaacs, a study of the benign xenophobia of a handful of white inhabitants of Barking, faced with what they see as an unstoppable wave of immigration. Unintentionally hilarious in places, it also paints an unsettling picture of ignorance and fear which bodes ill for society.

For anyone who loves quality, well thought-out documentaries, the festival is a must. It's easy to dismiss doccos as being second fiddle to drama feature films but a 1 or 2 hour docco can be every bit as rivetting, moving and thought-provoking, if not more, because it depicts a reality rather than a construct.

Whatever, we'll be there again next year.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Mountain bike crashes

It's been a long time since I did a blog entry, what with one thing and another. I've been so busy with stuff I just haven't had timme, but now I'm back and I promise to my loyal readership that I will be doing a 'poper' blog entry in the next few days.

My last entry, which was just a few music clips, was commented on as "a load of bollocks". Not sure of the criteria by which bollockhood was achieved, but it's an opinion, of a sort. An opinion which is a load of bollocks of course. All the music on the last entry was top notch, no matter how mainstream.

What whould you rather be attacked by? The werewolf or a polar bear? Werewolf? Yeah, me too. Hairy bad tempered bloke with admittedly pointy teeth, vs 900lb of solid muscle and massive weaponry. No contest.

To look at, the werewolf is scarier. But you could fight it. It's a bloke, for a start. Kick to the nads, good headbutt and you've broken his pointy teeth. Try that with a cuddly polar bear. It'd just open its mouth and bite yer head off.

Anyway, I'm at work now so no time for an in depth article. Intead, I'd like to show you my new bike, or one very like it.

Nice eh? It's a Norco Six SE, 2007 model. I'll tell you more about it in my next entry.

Anyway, as I'm pressed for time, here's an ace YouTube clip featuring some fantastic mountain bike crashes, to give you a taste of what I'll be doing on my new bike!

Like those? Wanna see more?

Nasty? Well yeah, you might be thinking.

But no. That's not a crash. THIS is a crash...

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The return of Shirley Bassey

Shirley Bassey has probably never been away, but to most people, particularly anyone under 35, she may have seemed like a name from the past, because she hasn't been the star she once was since perhaps the late 70s.

Well all that mght be about to change, since Dame Shirley, aged almost 70 years old, took to a chilly stage at Glastonbury, wearing a spectacular pink dress and feather boa and looking impossibly glamorous.

She proceeded to belt out a selection of her hits of yesteryear, to a surprisingly big crowd, of all ages, who danced in the mud and sang along to the likes of 'Hey Big Spender' and 'The Lady is a Tramp'.

All good fun, and it was great to see la Bassey in good vocal form, but it was pure cabaret (if only she'd played at Lost Vagueness at 2am eh?)

However, little did anybody suspect just what vocal form she was about to unleash. Shirl hasn't been content to rest on her laurels and has engaged some hip young songwiters to provide her with some new material.

The first I knew of it was when an altogether moodier musical beast came rolling from the PA, courtesy of her full orchestra, as she launched into the powerful and defiant opening verse of 'The Living Tree', which I've since learned is to be a single released in the next week or so.

I sat up and took notice, just in time to be blown back into my seat by a searing blast of pure vocal power as Bassey hit the chorus. It made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck, which is more than I can say for any of the other performers on the BBC's Glastonbury coverage, Arctic Monkeys included.

Unfortunately, the footage doesn't appear to be available, but I've found the official video and soon-to-be-released single, on the ever dependable YouTube.

Now THIS is singing...

Wow. Number one for sure.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Spooky Woods, Glentress. Mountain bike heaven!

Back in 2003, me and Jude went to Glentress, near Peebles, 20 miles or so South of Edinburgh, to meet some mates for some mountain biking fun. Glentress is one of the increasing number of Forestry Commission forests which are being equipped with purpose made mtb trails. We did a brilliant 20 odd mile circuit including some of the best singletrack (narrow track, one bike wide). It included this, the descent through the brilliantly named Spooky Woods, captured wonderfully on helmet cam with some excellent self-composed music to accompany...

Friday, June 08, 2007

Blue tits and woodpeckers

Back in March, our next door neighbour, David, gave me a nestbox. Dave is a long-standing member of the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds), and has an assortment of variously-sized nestboxes scattered about his large garden.

The box he gave me was one he'd made, from bits of an old pallet probably (Dave's a great one for making quality items from recycled timber), and was designed for a Blue Tit. It's all to do with the size of the hole, apparently.

Now, I've been a sort of half-hearted twitcher since childhood. I love most living things, and birds are interesting, amusing, and occasionally, exciting and spectacular, but I'd never had a nestbox, so I was grateful to David's gift. I knew that birds were nesting so I had to get it up quick if I hoped to catch a pair for this year.

Two days later, I was up a ladder, in the large weeping willow which spraeds like a great umbrella over the central part of our back garden. There was a 4" branch stub projecting from one of the main branches which looked perfect. It was on the North side of the tree, which I figured would be best, as it would be out of the heat of the sun.

I screwed the box securely into place, and left it. Within a day, there were birds visiting. First up, a Great Tit, who obviously liked the property, but found the front entrance a bit tight. He was followed by a Blue Tit, who popped inside, back out, then repeated the in-out movement several times, obviously having a good look around. Then he proceeded to start pecking and tugging industriously at the edge of the hole, presumably tidying up the rough sawn margins, until he was satisfied.

Below: Blue Tit

A few days later, I sat quietly in the garden, and was delighted to see a pair of Blue Tits busily flying to and from the box, carrying bits and pieces of material for the nest. We had tenants!
After a week or so, I began to wonder if the birds had deserted the nest, as I couldn't see them, but then one evening I saw the male fly to the box and go inside, carrying something in his beak, so I knew they were still there.

Below: 'Time for your close-up Mr Tit!'

Two weeks ago, I eased myself into the hanging swing-chair suspended from the weeping willow, directly beneath the nestbox. Once I'd been quiet for a minute or so, I realised that I could hear loud cheeping coming from the box. The eggs had hatched!

On Monday, I was scanning the trees out the back with the binoculars, laid on the Mammoth Bed. I noticed a movement in a Goat Willow two gardens along from ours, and focussing in, I could see it was a young fledgling Blue Tit, sitting plumply on a branch, still with bits of fluffy down clinging to its plumage. The adults visited it every minute or two, bringing it food, as it waited patiently. I don't know if it was one of ours or not, or whether they have yet to fledge. If it was then I wonder where the others are. There was obviously more than one in the box. Fingers crossed they all made it.

Below: baby blue tits: aaaah!

As an addendum, I've heard the drumming of woodpeckers a few times in the woods at the back of the house, but never seen one. Whilst I was scanning the trees with the binocs laid on the bed as already described, I looked up and down the trunk of a huge ash at the foot of the garden, which has only just come into leaf. To my delight, a woodpecker flew directly into my field of view, alighting on the sunlit trunk for a second, then flying off again. I had no time to study it, but got a good impression of its size and markings, leaving me in no doubt that it was a Great Spotted Woodpecker. First time I've ever seen one, despite hearing them all my life.

Below: Great Spotted Woodpecker

Next year, I may try and build a box for Long-Tailed Tits, which seem to be common where we live. I'd also love a Tawny Owl box, as these lovely animals call all night in the woods, but are so hard to spot.

Below: Long-tailed Tit

Then there's the Treecreepers, the Wrens, Robins, bats. It's all happening! I had a normally cautious Jay so close I could have touched it, had I dared move, last weekend. Beautiful bird, and bags of intelligence by the way it peered intently at me, as most of the Corvids do.

Below: a Jay

The next bit in the bird saga came last weekend, when we'd been out overnight at a friend's house, after the Peace in the Park festival in Endcliffe Park, Sheffield (see Jude's blog article about it here). Jude was upstairs when I noticed our cat, Towser, peering intently beneath the sofa in our living room. Behind the sofa is a fireplace, boarded over with a sheet of plywood.

As I looked to see what he was after, I heard a distinct scratching, fluttering noise. There was a bird down the chimney! Lucky bird. Of all the chimneys it could have fallen down, it chose one with no gas fire, just a sheet of thin plywood!

I dragged the sofa out of the way, unscrewed the plywood and peered inside. There sat the dirtiest young Starling I've ever seen, covered in sooty dust, but crouched defiantly and gazing up at me with its shiny black eye, as if saying "come on then, if you're 'ard enough!"

I put the board back in place, then closed the curtains, to stop it trying to fly through the window and breaking its neck, then took the board away. Immediately it tried to fly out, and flew to the top of the curtains where a small chink of light shone in. I managed to get hold of it, and carefully prised its claws off the fabric, then took it out the doors at the back. I let it go and it flew a few yards to sit on the fence, where it glared at me, as if it was all my fault, then let out a croaky squawk, before indulging in some serious beak-wiping on top of the fence (classic inter-species bird behaviour indicating displaced aggression, presumably, in this case, at me).


The croak made me think it might be dehydrated and hungry, so I crumbled up some horrible caramel ryvitas, and put them with a bowl of water on the bird table on the opposite side of the decking. The starling watched me and when I returned inside, flew across, hoovering up the crumbs, before taking several long drinks of water.

I watched it until it flew off, and felt smug for the rest of the day.

Below: "it's all your fault!"

Incidentally, there's a Starling in our neighbourhood who does a great impression of a mobile phone ringtone!

I knew living next to the woods would be good. All I need now is to see the badgers which make so much noise when darkness falls...

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Germaine Greer - feminist crumpet

Think of a sexy Australian.


Hmmm. Nice try, but no, not Cate Blanchett...

Oh come ON!


Ah, much better, but I mean a really sexy Australian.

No, not Clive James. Not Dame Edna. Not the bloke from 'Wolf Creek'. Not Delta Goodrem, Rolf Harris, Jason Donovan, Steve Irwin, David Gulpilil, Russell Crowe, Paul Hogan, Angus Young, Mel Gibson, Olivia Newton-John, Peter Garrett, Kimberley Davis, Nicole Kidman or even Skippy.

Can you guess which is which by the way?

I'm talking, of course, about the epicentre of classy Australian eroticism, the inestimably gorgeous Germaine Greer.

Above: "You'd better not be taking the piss, young man!"

When I was young I used to sit up late at night, long after my parents were abed, and watch the offbeat films which BBC2 showed in the small hours. Emotionally involving films, often in foreign languages, sometimes featuring (then unusual) nudity, usually subtitled, such films as 'Belle de Jour' or 'All Quiet on the Western Front', or strange, idiosyncratic hallucinatory things like 'Johnny Got His Gun'. They opened my teenage eyes to a filmic world beyond Hollywood.

Remember, this was in the days when we had just three TV channels broadcasting evenings only and that was it. 24 hour telly was a distant nightmare.

One night, the late slot on BBC2 was occupied, not by the usual dose of strange offbeat foreign dramatic fiction, but by a documentary feature film. I almost went to bed, I remember, but idly half-watched the first 10 minutes or so, which was long enough for me to notice this strong-faced woman with a shock of dark hair and this coolly appraising gaze, which she turned witheringly on her antagonists in a debate on feminism filmed in 1971 by D.A. Pennebaker and Charles Hegedus as the peerless Town Bloody Hall .

The film was fascinating, even to me as an 18 year old, and the verbal sparring between chair Norman Mailer and the woman, Germaine Greer, was the equal of any boxing match.

What really held my attention though was Germaine Greer in her black dress, arms and shoulders bare, as she utterly dominated the stage, completely refusing to back down or be intimidated by Mailer's grizzly bear performance. It wasn't just her manner, which was assured and confident, without ever seeming arch, that captivated me. Nor her hot/cool, half-hooded eyes and knowing half-smile. No, it was her ferociously projecting sexuality, which seeped from the TV like gas, making my head reel. God she was sexy!

Above: bored by Norman Mailer's anti-feminist polemic in 'Town Bloody Hall', sexy feminist icon Germaine Greer dreams about the day that someone will write a blog article extolling her outrageously under-represented virtues as a total babe

Now, I can hear many men, the men who don't read my blog anyway, snorting in derision, and turning away to flick though the non-threatening girls in the laughably titled 'FHM 100 sexiest women'. Well, to me, much as I like a nice safe little kitty cat, I'm in awe at the beauty and power of a tiger, and there is no more tigerish woman walking this earth than Germaine Greer.

Not convinced? OK, let me break you in gently. These next three pics are Germaine snapped by photographer Bryan Wharton in 1969.

Below: Germaine shows a typically Australian open-minded attitude

Below: From the same shoot. NOW are you coming round to my viewpoint?

I hope Bryan Wharton won't mind my including a couple of his shots on my blog. To view the full set, go here.

See? Bet they got your interest. Now you might be wondering "So what did you see in Town Bloody Hall that had you all falling out of your stupid pyjamas late one night in 1980?"


...Germaine laughing openly at Mailer's evident discomfort, showing her unrestrained sense of humour...and her luxuriant mane of wild, dark hair...

...and now Germaine laughing with her antagonist, showing her empathy...and those tanned, bare, sexy shoulders...

...lastly, a volcanically powerful Germaine gives poor beleaguered growly bear Norman Mailer that LOOK which says "I like you, but you're talking bollocks"

I guess what I'm trying to say with those three grainy images is that, when I sat there in my Parent's living room, aged 18, and watched 'Town Bloody Hall' into the small hours, it was Germaine Greer's humour, her warmth, her strength, her humanity, as much as her obvious physical attractiveness, which caught and held my attention. I damned sure hadn't met a woman like her before. Not then, not at that age, in that time.

Up until then I think I'd always tended to focus on the way a girl looked, and I think the same narrowness of focus also clouded my vision when I considered my teachers, or my friend's mothers. It was as if I couldn't see beyond this facade of eyes and skin and breasts and hair and physical womanhood to the fact that there was a human being underneath it all. Of course, I knew that there was, but somehow the physical landscape obscured the person.

Hey...back to the subject! Me!
Now, here on the telly was a woman whose personality was so bloody huge, so powerful that, despite the fact that she was physically, by any standard that might have been set in my hyperactive teenage mind, quite gorgeous, it spilled out and through and round and over the contours of her body, and overwhelmed them. Her looks became almost an accessory to the force of her psyche, and the combination was mesmerising. It was the moment when I realised, perhaps, that no matter how lovely someone may look, the inner, psychological, spiritual essence of that person is at least as important as what you see on their exterior.

But hey, it helps when you look like this...

Or indeed, this...

See, when I see Germaine Greer on Newsnight Review, being argumentative and good-naturedly opinionated, I don't think to mself "She used to be really tasty". Because the things that made her really tasty when I watched 'Town Bloody Hall' as an 18 year old still make her so now, 26 years later. Her face wears its age lightly, and her eyes still shine with the same humour and warmth and lack of pretension that popped locks in my mind in 1980. She always appears to be open-minded and full of laughter, carried along on an undercurrent of sexuality, which she was happy to reveal to a laughably indignant public with her book in praise of the physical beauty of adolescent boys (oh that she'd met me when I fitted the bill!).

So many people believe the hype about her, and see her as some sort of bra-burning anti-male radical, which I don't think she ever was, at any time in her life. Despite her rather disastrous attempt to show her fun side in the horrible Celebrity Big Brother last year, too many people in the UK and elsewhere, still see Germaine Greer as stern, crabby, hard-faced.

Below: "Come here at once!"Germaine tries to look stern, crabby and hard-faced...

I'm sure she has a temper and an intolerance of idiots, and can indeed be stern, crabby and if pushed, perhaps even hard-faced, though I suspect the latter sits ill on her shoulders at those times it's required.

Below: Germaine fights hard to remain hard-faced, but can't keep it up...

Below: Germaine, frustrated at her inability to keep her sense of humour in check whilst trying to be stern, glances wistfully out at the quadrangle...

Below: Gathering her sternest thoughts, she pulls it together, but an unexpected flashback from her acid taking days ruins the effect...

Below: "Oh BUGGER!" Germaine's attempt to look stern, crabby and hard-faced, merely to meet the expectations of an ignorant public, collapse into the laughter which swam in her eyes all along anyway...

I apologise to the uncredited photographers whose pictures I've used, but whose names weren't available on the sites where I found the photos.

The Germaine Greer whom I saw and whom I still see on TV, although I don't know her in any personal sense, and may never meet her, displays qualities which, when seen together, make her, for me, as idealistically beautiful a woman as any Bardot, Loren, Monroe or Minogue.

'100 sexiest women'? Don't make me laugh. I'm not knocking the women referred to one little bit. Sexy they undoubtedly are, or many of them are, at least, BUT the 'sexiness' of the title is just the glittery wrapping on the parcel. Yeah, looks nice, but what's inside?

Below: Exquisite wrapping, but crucially, full of goodies. A radiant Germaine shows her delight at Brian's blog in praise of her multi-dimensional loveliness...

NOTE: If Germaine Greer ever does find her way here and read this: Germaine, the whole thing is tongue in cheek but it's not a piss-take and it's not meant to be offensive or insulting. If nothing else, I hope it made you laugh, or got you mildly aroused. And no, I'm not a stalker, nor do I have a room in my house wallpapered with press clippings and pics of you. Just one wall.