Friday, July 30, 2010

Of Aerial Things

Between the mountains scrub (monte bajo, I don’t think it has an exact name in English. Hill scrub would be another try) the arable land and the lakes we get a lot of different birds here. Apart from the ubiquitous sparrows, a detail of whose life was discussed about three posts back, we also have, just in the garden, magpies and a kind of coloured jay, both of which are considered vermin and treated as such, which doesn’t stop them coming back, hoopoes, which like to strut up and down the path, pigeons, which have a loft in an unused part of the building and are put in the pot from time to time, a type of owl which sits on the chimney pots and twos at night, and the partridges which drop in from the hills. The place is full of partridges, because they are what bring in the money from the hunters. They like to nest at the base of trees in the thick stuff that grows there, or among the corn, which isn’t a good idea because their breeding season coincides with the harvest, and in the scrub. They move about a surprising amount during the day, but take fright easily and head for the dark patches away from the sown fields. They only fly when they absolutely have to, so they run in a rather ungainly fashion while they still think they can get away with it. In fact it’s quite a good idea because they don’t get shot unless they’re in the air, but I doubt they’ve actually worked it all out.

Eagles are common in the mountains. You often hear a pinging noise and look up to see a pair circling high above you, on the lookout for anything small that’s moving on the ground. From time to time they dive down to look more closely, and sometimes reappear with a mouse or some such in their beak. Their circles take them slowly across the country, almost imperceptibly drifting towards the higher hills or the more open land.

As well as eagles sensu strictu there are kites, occasionally seen in great clouds but usually in pairs, and hawks of different types, kestrels, buzzards, hobbies etc. They tend to avoid human company, but sometimes you come upon one rising from a low branch of a tree, or even on the ground under a bush as you walk past, and they lazily spread their wings and take to the air.

At the lakes it’s more waterfowl. Ducks of various kinds, including diving ducks of the thin-headed kind that look like small herons (in other circumstances I’d do some proper research and be a bit more precise, and I’d post photos, too, but hey, it’s summer; this is all about how it feels to lie back and watch them, it’s not a zoology class). Talking of herons there are several types that nest in the rushes all around the borders of the quieter lakes in particular, and some are big and thin and long of wing and neck and body, like grey storks. Languid and spare, they fly with efficient parsimony and reach down into the water at intervals to casually pick up a careless fish.

The air is full of creatures and the sounds they make. To sit back and enjoy the show is too easy and too enjoyable not to do.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

On Dragonflies

One of the things that bring pleasure to the heart of this old wanderer, as I pass by the lanes and fields and villages and streams and hills of wherever I happen to be, is unexpected colour. Many times I have written of the overriding yellowness and brownness of this place in the summer- even the greens are dry, dusty greens- and you have to make the most of any colour the eye can find. In the spring this is mostly poppies, broom, gorse, rosemary, thyme and daisies, with the almond groves in some places adding a sprinkling of white at eye-level, but in summer the only thing that you are likely to see breaking the pattern of burnt earth is lavender. You can find whole fields of soft purple flowers merging into a carpet of colour, standing out starkly against the shades of summer, in some surprising places.

Outside the village there is an old, very old, plant consisting of a giant, ancient, open-air oven fed from a great stack of logs which stands nearby, and whose purpose is to extract perfumes from wild flowers, including lavender and rosemary. Those who do it are known as ‘piconeros’ and it has gone on in much the same form for centuries. Somehow they have managed to survive into the age of mass production and automation and they still seem to be making a living out of it. It is they who provide a little of that colour.

In England, in my hometown, there is a spot on the river where a bridge crosses, that has become a little world of its own. The bushes that have grown up on each side, overhanging the water, a couple of willows just beyond the bushes doing the same at a larger scale, the slowness of the current allowing algae to grow plentifully on the rocks on the bed, the water lilies that partly cover the surface and were in flower last month, and the water itself, clear and cool, provide a home for ducks, coots, moorfowl, swans, their various young, for fish small and large, and for insects of all the many kinds that like water.

Among the many kinds of annoying little fly that zizz and buzz and fly into your eyes and mouth, and sting you constantly, are insects of great beauty, mostly butterflies and dragonflies. Unable to capture any successfully with the camera while in England, I have been on the lookout for dragonflies over here when I have been to the nearby lakes, as we do quite regularly. And I’ve been lucky to get a number of photos of a range of colours, from cobalt blue to blood red to black to the pure gold of the chap in the picture above*.

As I said, you have to go out of your way to find colour here in the summer, but it’s worth it when what you find is this.

*I have just worked out how to upload photos on this stick thing without waiting about all afternoon, so there should be more of them from now on.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

On the Loose in San Vicente

I like Cantabria. In fact I like the whole of the North coast, from Hondarribia to Finisterre, and I like the mountains behind the coast, with their slopes and fields and villages and plants and animals. And I like the dozens of small fishing villages with all their sparkling colours, and the green, everything and everywhere you see green.

La Mancha, down here in the south, is not a bad place to live at all, but it’s very, very dry, and as summer approaches the physical sense of suffocation increases unbearably. Everything dries up and burns, everything turns yellow and brown and the air is stifling.

So in summer we always head north, this year, mot for the first time, to San Vicente de la Barquera, a lovely place, once a fishing village, but now mostly a place for the sort of tourist who appreciates beauty and seafood and doesn’t mind getting wet occasionally. Even so there are plenty of boats of all sizes in the bay, and they aren’t all pleasure boats.

I call it lovely, and it is. In fact we went there the first time because I had seen it several times from the old road, on which you approach on a descent and you suddenly see the mediaeval bridge which you have to cross, the colours of the many and varied boats, and in the middle distance the columns of the main square and the castle and the church up on the hill. This view had always stuck in my memory and so we started going there in summer.

Walking around the port, up to the castle and the mediaeval town, taking in the views from the walls of the whole series of channels and flats which make up the estuary, dining in the Boga Boga (the freshest and finest fish and seafood, and cheaper than it used to be), these are obvious things which anyone who goes there will do. As is going to the beach, a wide ribbon over two miles long, reached by crossing the bridge. There people play racquet and bat games, volleyball, football, they swim, take the sun, surf, run, eat and do whatever takes their fancy.

But as well as its beauty, part of its charm is its position. It’s near Llanes, Comillas, Santillana, a number of small estuaries leading to rocky coves hiding small beaches where you can be completely alone, and which are much more attractive than the typical Mediterranean beaches. A little further away are Santander, Covadonga, Cangas de Onis, Ribadesella, and the mountains of the Picos de Europa.

To go up through the Hermida Pass is to see the beauty of the mountains in a new and different way. On a very narrow road, carved out of the rocks that flank the stream, with the water beside you and roofed over with greenery. And from Potes, another lovely town, you can reach, on foot, Santa María de Piara, Santo Toribio and its satellite shrines, the whole of the Liébana and the mountains, for climbing, walking, taking photographs or whatever you want.

This has been a quick run through what San Vicente has to offer. (The Telegraph had a supplement on the north coast around the 10th of June on the cover of which was a photo of San Vicente. You can probably still dig it up on their site.) Anyway, wherever you go and whatever you choose to do, have a good summer holiday.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Quote of the Day- from George Steiner

“Bullshit, Profesore. The old Party-line blood-libel on human nature and on America. About which… you and I know very little. To me it sounds like the society which says to every man and woman: ‘Be what you want to be. Be yourself. The world was not made only for geniuses and neurotics, for the obsessed and the inspired. It was made for you and you and you. If you choose to try and be an artist or a thinker or a scholar, that’s fine. We will neither inhibit you nor put you on a pedestal. If you prefer to be a couch-potato, an auto-mechanic, a break-dancer, mile-runner, a broker, if you prefer to be a truck-driver or even a drifter, that’s fine too. Perhaps even better. Because it so happens that ideological passions and ascetic illumination, that dogma and sacrifice, have not brought only light and aid to this approximate world of ours. [America] is not saying, ‘Do not better yourself.’ It is saying: ‘Go after… what fires your soul… Move up the ladder, if you can… because the desire to live decently, to give your family a comfortable home, to send your children to schools better than those you attended yourself… is not some capitalist vice, but a universal desire.’ …America is just about the first nation and society to encourage common, fallible, frightened humanity to feel at home in its skin.”

I had never read George Steiner, because I had always assumed him to be one of those idiot lefties, like Shaw or Saramago, for whom the writing of fiction is not an attempt to create something worth reading, some new character or motive or image that has not existed before, an object of some aesthetic value that might give pleasure or intellectual stimulus to others, and satisfaction to the creator, but an exercise is repeating beneath a ham-fisted veil the things they think that, if we hear them often enough, we might start to believe.

It turns out I was wrong. Maybe I had him mixed up with someone else. In any case he is actually a genuine writer, in that he writes because he has something to say, and he knows how to say it. I read ‘Proof and Three Parables’, an admittedly pretentious title for a small collection of short stories, each of which takes an idea, in itself worth expressing, and writes a story around it. This matters, because ideas, clever images, are not themselves stories, and more people know how to come up with a clever image than know how to use it in a story, or any other medium.

Steiner does, and I am delighted to prove myself wrong. I’ll be digging up some more of his stuff.

Monday, July 19, 2010

What I'm Worrying about Instead of Politics

There is a sparrow’s nest in the kitchen window, wedged between the glass, the bars, and the blind, which is an old-style roll of slats furled and unfurled with a cord and a lot of effort usually involving a ladder. That’s why the nest is there, we never bother lowering the blind. Mrs Hickory, doing a bit of cleaning the other day, reached up and pulled the nest out, thinking it was just a stray bunch of straw. It was not. It was a functioning nest, with half a dozen day-old chicks, one of them still stuck to a bit of egg by the avian equivalent of the umbilical cord.

What to do? Mrs Hickory picked the chicks up from the floor, rearranged the nest as best she could, put the ones inside the other and stuffed it back where it came from. She then called a council. The general opinion was that the mother sparrow would not want to know now that the nest and the chicks had been handled, but that we should wait and see.

Wait and see we did. That evening a junior member of the council reported seeing the mother go behind the blind, but this was not confirmed. The next day, however, the chicks were still alive, and it was the general, if tentative, opinion of the council that they would already be dead if their mother had abandoned them. The tension mounted throughout the day, as inconclusive sightings were reported, but still absolute, indisputable verification was missing.

It was around six o’clock when reliable members of the council, among them your blogger, observed, from both the kitchen and the garden, that the mother sparrow entered the nest without apparent concern, and fed her brood.

Now we hear their chirping, louder and happier every morning, and see their necks and open mouths as they stretch up to be fed. They are mostly mouth at that stage, and their eyes and skin are almost transparent. They grow up quickly and will leave the nest in about another week or ten days, having survived their peri-natal accident without apparent harm.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

On Wetness in Dry Places

The lakes here, about which I have written quite a few times (putting Ruidera into the search box at the top left will doubtless turn them up), are probably the most beautiful, and certainly the wettest and greenest thing, in many, many miles. They rise and fall as water will, but they don’t respond directly to the local rainfall, their level is determined by the height of the water table, which in turn depends on the rainfall in the mountains a long way to the north-east over the previous few years. Last year they were very high, because of a particularly wet winter two years before, and now, after a late winter/early spring whose wetness is supposed to be the greatest in living memory (that famously reliable and understated thing) they have risen higher than anyone has ever seen them (see previous note).

The reason the rain has acted so quickly to top them up is that the water table was already so high that there was nowhere else for the water to go. This can be seen most dramatically in the local rivers. One flows past the southern edge of the village, the other flows west a bit further south, and they come together at the beginning of the lakes, which they appear to feed, but in fact they only contribute a tiny fraction of what they hold. Flow is not really the word, and neither is river, as these ‘rivers’ are never normally more than stagnant ditches, and often long stretches of them are completely dry, but now they are definitely streams, which flow, gurgle and babble and have green stuff living in them, and possibly fish, though I have yet to verify this.

The wells, which are important to farmers, as there is very little chance to water the land and many houses are too isolated to have mains water, often dry up, too, but now they are flowing freely, saving a lot of money and time. And an artificial pond, constructed to capture water to allow irrigation of a small farm a few miles away which was once run by my brother-in-law, and which has been dry for years, has water and bird-life once again.

All of which makes the place even more pleasant for spending the summer in. And I don’t watch the television and can’t read the papers, so if there is anything going on in the world that I should get excited about, I shall never know. The overall effect of these things, plus the walking and biking around the area which I do daily, is to produce a deep calm, a profound sense of relaxation.

As I rediscover every summer, the world is quite capable of getting along by itself without my obsessively dissecting and ranting about every little detail. At least, it has so far. Is there anything I should know?

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Framlingham, Gateway to the Counter-Reformation

Framlingham is a name that may evoke little to most people, but to me it is mildly evocative, mostly as somewhere that used to be talked about at school, an interesting and convenient place to take us for one of those educational outings that schools have always tried to provide for their pupils (teachers hate them, of course- once you get outside the classroom all sorts of things can go horribly wrong). I mentally attach the word ‘Castle’ to it, and it then evokes memories of some great role in English history, though until last week I couldn’t have said what that role was, or even to what era it belonged. I’m not even sure I ever went there, but I think I must have done.

It turns out to have been built in the 12th C by Roger Bigod, who had very much his own ideas about both politics and architecture. It has no keep, but is just a curtain wall some 30ft high enclosing a couple of acres rather irregularly. Inside are a couple of normal houses, and once there were more, great salons and dining halls and living quarters for the lords and their staff. The towers have no backs, there were just wooden walkways across them to link the ramparts, which could be removed quickly if the enemy got up. It can’t have been a lot of fun waiting up there, watching for signs of an approaching army, knowing that if anything went wrong you would probably be thrown off.

The enemy was usually the King, as the lords of Framlingham over the centuries had a far greater interest in making a fortune out of wool (like many families in the area- Suffolk, as I forgot to mention) than in going to war, and a couple of monarchs were none too happy about this. But the castle held out and in the 16th C was the property of Mary Tudor, in a brief interlude between centuries of ownership by the Howard family. It was here, confident in the loyalty of her tenants, that she waited during the brief reign of the tragic Lady Jane, and here that she began her rule, and from here that she set out to be crowned.

It’s still surrounded by the remains of the bailey and a partial moat, a pleasure meadow linked by a ruined bridge, and a path leads to a mere where the usual fish and birds disport themselves. To the north there was once a great park, dotted with hunting lodges, but it was long ago disparked and is now a forest, gaining in the exchange I would say.

The church is also worth a look. Large, perpendicular, lots of wood, and a monumental Renaissance tomb that has been described as comparable to anything outside Italy. Sorry I can’t upload photos, drawbacks of rural living, but Google should be able to help.

Friday, July 16, 2010


One of the things that strikes you on returning to England in the summer is the attitude to the sun. As soon as the temperature reaches 90ºF (about 32ºC) the press goes mad, predicting the end of the world, children reduced to cinders, en epidemic of heat stroke, and giving dire warnings about drinking lots of water, covering our heads and not jumping into rivers. The late unlamented government of dictatorial (and incompetent) puritans, inevitably tried to take all the pleasure out of summer by having us bury our children under tent fabric and smear ourselves with inch thick gunge, lest we be tempted to relax and enjoy ourselves.

Where I live we have had 90º for a month or so, and it usually start around mid-May, and the world has not ended. Here in the country it is now mid-30’s every afternoon and will soon be higher. It cools down at night, which is one of the reasons we come here, but in the town where I live it is hotter still, and 90º is what you get at three in the morning.

Here on the farm we don’t go out between about 1 and 7PM if we can help it, because it’s asphyxiating heat which can sap you of energy and dehydrate you quickly, especially if the air is humid (not that it often is). And prolonged exposure of the nape of the neck or hairless parts of the head can, occasionally, result in sunstroke. But if we have to, we do. All those who work on the land do, too, and they survive it.

The sun is more important than the heat, in fact. Only an idiot will allow himself to get dehydrated, since a healthy person has to try very hard to reach that state, whatever the weather, and repeatedly ignore the very obvious messages the body is sending out. Serious sunstroke is very rare and is also difficult to achieve unless you ignore the fact that your head is burning.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that you can get sunburnt in England, you can become dehydrated and you can suffer from sunstroke, despite the great differences in temperature between there and here. Perhaps the reason people get so nervous about the sun (apart from the press and the government telling them every evening that they’re lucky to be alive) is that they see it so rarely. When you are used to burning sun almost every day from May to October you learn what it is and what to do about it. It doesn’t frighten you, and the government knows that. They issue warnings, but just to let you know. They are not accompanied by reams of advice and morose Jeremiads.

The message from your friendly blogging hedgehog, then, is this: it is quite possible to enjoy the summer, and I hope you will.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Great Repeal Bill and FM Radio

Those of us who have watched with horror as the Labour government, to applause from Brussels, has turned Britain into a land of restricted freedom, where you can be arrested for a large number of non-crimes, and detained without trial for months, where many perfectly normal activities are forbidden as a sop to some whining bunch or other, or simply to make it clear, by the arbitrary exercise of power, who is in charge, where people feel obliged to get someone’s permission before doing anything, where everyone thinks they are entitled, not only to opine about what others choose to do, but to determine whether or not they should be allowed to do it, where neighbours spy on neighbours, and report them to the press if they disapprove of anything they do, in the knowledge that the media can be relied on to make their lives unliveable...

Those of us who have seen this happen were much cheered by the stated intention of the new government to repeal many of these laws in an attempt to make Britain a freer and better place once more, and I, at least was cautiously glad to hear that they intended to ask country- this is a democracy, after all- what laws they wanted them to have a look at, with a view to expunging them from the statute book.

There are little things and big things that need to be reviewed, from smoking bans to 90 day detention and beyond, but top of the list (as reported in the Telegraph, top of more than one list) is delaying the suspension of analogue radio transmissions. This is very depressing, and shows once again that the problem with democracy is the demos; as many politicians and bureaucrats in the EU say quite openly, if we went around listening to the people who pay us to represent them we’d never be able to do what we want. But I’m a democrat, with all the consequences, so if that’s what people are most concerned about, the government should take them seriously.

It’s still depressing, though; we armchair revolutionaries were hoping for something better.

*Down here on the farm blogging is by a stick thingy of very limited speed and volume, so there will be no links and no photos until September.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Fight Against Knife Crime

We’re back and blogging. The haitus has been occasioned by a few days holiday in the north of Spain (San Vicente de la Barquera. Nice place, more about it later) and a further few days in England (about which also a bit later). Now we’re on the farm, but I almost didn’t get here…

I tend not to read blog entries where the blogger talks about himself in the manner of a self-obsessed newspaper columnist, so this is not really about me, though it uses an incident I was involved in to illustrate a point that is rather more important than I am.

I was stopped at Stansted airport by a security officer who had seen something he didn’t like on the scanner, and searching through my luggage he found, in a forgotten pocket of a bag I was using for some other purpose, and which was buried in a rucksack, a small penknife that I had not known was there. Oh damn, I thought, they’ll confiscate it.* And so they did, but then it got a lot more complicated.

The knife has a blade of about two and a half inches, and I use it in the country for cutting cured meats, slicing tomatoes, picking flowers, cutting string, and a hundred little things for which generations of people, and not just those who enjoy the country, have found it useful to carry a penknife. But not in modern Britain. The colleague of the security officer decided that the blade was lockable, a concept I still haven’t fully understood. All folding knives have some kind of mechanism to stop them closing while in use, and why mine was any different from a Swiss Army knife of the same size, which I was explicitly told was ok, I have no idea. But it seems that Parliament, in response to some thug knifing someone, and at the instigation, one would imagine, of someone who was never a boy scout and has his fruit pre-sliced by the staff, at some point made such things illegal, and they also took the highly illiberal step of removing any possible defence, as I discovered when the police were called.

I had, of course, done nothing wrong. I had neither hurt, nor threatened anybody with the penknife. I had not even known I had it on me and if I had no reason to suspect that such an unremarkable, useful, everyday object was illegal in the land of my birth, which used to be a beacon of freedom and commonsense in a depressingly benighted and totalitarian world. But this is not about me.

None of these facts was disputed by the police, but even so, it’s an ‘offence’. And none of those facts matters in the slightest. They clearly knew I had done nothing wrong; from the way they treated the matter it was quite obvious that to them it was no more than a bit of paperwork, and I was some idiot who’d got himself caught up in the machinery of asinine law. They were more interesting in making sure I didn’t miss the plane than in protecting the world from your humble blogger. They were charming and efficient about it, but they said that they were only letting me go because I didn’t live in the UK. Presumably that’s their letout, even though ignorance of the law isn not supposed to be a defence in this case.

Even though it was made clear that I had no defence, and that there was no point shouting about the despotic stupidity of the law as it stands, it did cross my mind to call a solicitor and see what he said. I could have tried to show that the knife wasn’t ‘lockable’, but in the absence of any clarity of definition, it didn’t look a good bet. I might have been on firmer ground in disputing that I had been in ‘possession’, but I had a plane to catch and a life to lead, so I accepted a caution,** the policeman bade me good-day and called the gate to hold the plane. All very civilized, but stupid and pointless. No purpose has been served by it, everyone involved was well aware of this, and I may yet find that it has consequences at some future time.

*About 15 years ago, on the way to Istanbul from either Gatwick or Heathrow, I forget which, my father had a similar experience, in that he had accidently left a penknife in his hand luggage. Those were more sensible times- it was packaged and checked, and given back to him on arrival.

**Being accused of having an offensive weapon by a man carrying a machine gun is a bit rich, too, but it brings up another point. His machine gun didn’t bother me in the slightest because he didn’t do anything threatening with it and he was clearly a competent and responsible person to be carrying it. As my knife was, in my hands, equally clearly harmless.