Notes on nature: stories of fear.

For the last month, it seems, queen bees and wasps have been sneaking into our house just so that they can bumble against our windows. I’ve lost count of how many I’ve returned outdoors.

Maybe it’s just the same one or two, irritated to find themselves trapped in a glass tumbler, then ushered out. Perhaps, after that, they lurk nearby, watching for their moment to fly back in.

I thought the first two or three I caught might have hibernated somewhere inside, in a fold of the curtain, perhaps, all winter. After day four, though, that seemed less likely. I may be a bit of a casual cleaner, but the house isn’t that big. Besides, we’ve had the wood-burner stoked pretty warm at times this winter, if the trigger is temperature they should have shown themselves much earlier in the year.

It seems, therefore, that we live in an insect des-res. I’m not sure what that says about us.

At any rate, Rusty would prefer us not to. An unfortunate early encounter with buzzing insects has given him a powerful aversion. He’ll even quit the settee to avoid being in the same room with that threat. Very often, the first indicator of a winged squatter is Rusty hurrying in from another room to snuggle behind my knees.

‘Aren’t you supposed to protect me?’ I ask, as I gather my improvised humane insect trap and go to investigate.

It’s the bumble-bees I like best. I know that wasps are a useful part of the ecosystem, and do not exist just to get mean-drunk on fruit juice in the autumn, but still, I give them more respect than affection.

Queen bumble-bees are, sort of, cute. Apart from the name, there’s all that fur. It makes them so improbably big, and clumsy looking, that the idea that they should fly, borders on comic.

So, I evict, but I find them all fascinating, even the hornet that visited last year. While the bees and wasps seem indifferent to my presence, I had the impression that the hornet watched me. It was a hot day, but her size, and slow entry, was chilling.

I followed Rusty’s rapid exit, slamming the door behind us. Once we were safe, he began to bark with excitement. I leaned against the door, thinking in cliches of fear.

It took several deep breaths before I could convince myself to dash back in and open the other two windows. Then I waited, outside, watching the hornet reverse my glass trick.

She circled calmly, investigating every corner and object. Once, she landed on the window in front of me, and crawled slowly across it. I stepped back, ready to run, but she wasn’t ready to leave.

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Eating Elephants

Photo of two of the children posing by a gnarled tree with newly planted patch of trees in the background.

We’re in the car, coming back from an afternoon in the forest. All three grand-kids and the dog have managed to stay with us. We gave them breadcrumbs, honest, but they ate them before we reached the spot where we’d planned to suggest they make their own way home.

‘I guess we’ll just have to feed them at tea-time, too, then,’ Ray says.

I’m not sure what with. At home the cupboard and freezer are bare of the stuff that they think delicious, or even edible. Apparently we eat ‘weird’ food.

Photo of the three children hiding in a large hollow tree, while Rusty waits for them to come out and play.

It’s Easter Sunday. All the places we pass where we could stop and buy something are already packed. There’s not an empty table to be had.

Well, it is, officially, the hottest Easter on record, here in the UK. Seems like the whole population may have opted to eat out.

But heck, the whole point of hoping to lose the kids in the forest was to avoid having to cook for them. If we had to take them home again, then we needed to agree on buying a meal. You think that’s easy?

Set aside the closed shops, for a moment, and think about three individuals of varying ages from pre-, to mid- teenage. They’ve been over two hours suspended in phone-free enjoyment of sunshine, trees, dog and pond, then we return to the car. It’s hard to imagine how even short journeys were achieved before there were portable screens and headphones.

Our questions about what might be suitable have to be negotiated between songs, text messages and important updates. Parents, perhaps, go into this situation with several advantages. Authority, by my estimation, is not the most important, they know the full range of what is acceptable.

As temporary weekend surrogates, maintaining our status as ‘fun’ limits us. The voting system is tortuous, and in the end we abandon democracy in favour of pleasing all. I plan a route that takes in four types of take-away, and we head for town.

It takes ten minutes to discover they’re all closed. My heart sinks.

Ray names a pizza place sure to be open. ‘We’re all okay with that,’ says Sammy, without looking up from her phone. The others agree.

Well, I think, that was easy after all. By now they’re so hungry that there’s no real discussion over the toppings, either.

‘I’ll stay at the car, with granddad and Rusty,’ Sammy says. Brandon, Breanna and I go to sort out our order.

Here’s the deal. It costs less for our two pizza’s if we also buy two side-dishes, than if we just buy what we went in for.

When we get back to the car Sammy is giving Rusty some valuable re-training on walking to heal, so he’s happy, too.

I tell Ray, ‘We’re going to save a quarter of the price and take home an extra quarter of a portion.’ I show him a handful of change.

Fifteen minutes later, Brandon is struggling to manoeuvre his long legs into the car while carrying the heap of hot boxes.

Back at home the boxes fill our modest table. ‘How do we even eat all that?’ Breanna wonders.

‘One bite at a time, I guess,’ says Brandon, reaching for a slice of pepperoni.

Photo of a mother elephant and her baby.
Photo by Ruth Boardman

‘Same way you would an elephant,’ I say, reminded of a quote I’d read just that morning, as I fitted in a little class preparation.

‘Eew,’ says Breanna. ‘Eat an elephant?’ .

I nod. ‘That’s what an American general, called Creighton Abrams, once advised.’

‘But who would eat an elephant?’

Brandon takes another slice of pizza. ‘She doesn’t mean you really do it,’ he says. ‘It’s a metaphor.’ He nods at me. ‘That’s cool.’

Serendipity, I think, isn’t it wonderful?

Good language…

I swear, not often, but with feeling, when the occasion arises. The language I use is not especially shocking or wide-ranging. I favour a couple of words that used to be referred to as ‘Anglo-Saxon’. I think of them as earthy, and aim to keep them for private moments of stress, rather than upset anyone.

My words can be heard, on occasion, on the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) – in the past, some people claimed that the presenters were the standard for how the British nation should sound. I will say that four-letter words, as they used to be known, are rarely heard before the nine o’clock watershed on BBC radio.

My mother will tell you that I wasn’t brought up to curse. She believes that there is ‘no need for it’. Swearing, she says, is the sign of a limited vocabulary.

If I want to be mischievous, I can point to scientific tests that have proved fluent swearers tend to have good vocabularies. ‘Swearing,’ I say to mum, ‘has its place in life and in fiction.’

Irvine Welsh embraces expletives. Many of his characters use profanities as adjectives so prolifically that the words are de-valued. They are mostly not conveying a specific shock or emotion, they are about attitude and portraying a particular society.

Between Welsh and the writers who avoid any profanities, are those who use them sparingly. They understand that generally, less is more.

There is, I think, an art to using ‘offensive language’.

A couple of weeks ago we went to see the period drama The Favourite, a film about Queen Anne’s friendships with Lady Sarah Churchill and Abigail Masham. I’d seen a few trailers, and knew it would be what mum calls, ‘close to the knuckle’.

I loved it. Whatever the reservations might be about historical accuracy, it was entertaining. What made it comic, in part, were the moments when the characters dropped their guards, and used what I can only describe – in this context – as, ‘dirty’ language.

Did I believe the film? Entirely. I entered a fictional world, and lost my sense of self. I don’t know whether Queen Anne, Sarah Churchill or Abigail Masham would have actually used such language. What I saw was a faction. The film was reflecting history in a manner that an audience of our period would understand and engage with easily. I’m okay with that.

My gran kept a postcard of a rhyming motto on her mantelpiece. I often think of it when considering how our everyday use of language shifts over time. Gran thought of herself as deliciously naughty for promoting a word that had been prohibited when she was growing up.

Never say 'die', say 'damn'. 
It isn't classic, it may be profane;
But we mortals have use of it time and again;
And you'll find you'll recover
From fate's hardest slam
If you never say 'die':
Say 'DAMN!'

Thoughts on breaking a digital barrier

If, a couple of years ago, anyone had suggested that I’d willingly remove the sticker from the lens of my web-cam and watch myself chatting on-line, I’d have said they were crackers. Ask any of my family and they’ll confirm that I loath having my photo taken. I am the phantom of our family album.

Image taken by Juhanson , published on Wikipedia.

I’ve been told it’s vanity. Even that blow at my pride doesn’t work.

I’ve an antennae for cameras aiming in my direction that has me ducking or turning away as the shutter is operating. So me, flattened onto a screen, for minutes at a time? That was a, NO, even before I realised that taking part in an on-line activity meant having to see your own face in a little box on the corner of the screen too. Watch myself talking? NO THANKS!

It’s one thing to stand in front of my students and deliver a class. I see their faces, not mine. I know I’ve brushed my hair and straightened my outfit before I start. Once the class is running I’m concentrating on the plan I’ve worked out, not what I look like.

My first on-line meeting was some teaching-training I’d volunteered for, without properly reading the details. ‘Where is it?’ I texted my line manager, the day before the session. ‘I need to book a train ticket.’ It was lucky I hadn’t phoned, my response to her answer might have shocked her.

I wanted to get the knowledge on offer, but was I ready to pay the price? I wasn’t sure. Right up to five minutes before the start-time I didn’t think I could do it. I brushed my hair and tidied the kitchen, but that was just-in-case.

When I took a deep breath and logged in I felt like a teenager in a new school. I was on screen. There was a moment of heightened self-consciousness as I stared into my own eyes, then the class began. We were introducing ourselves, and I was looking at the tutor, taking in information, making notes and concentrating.

Two hours later, when the class closed, I realised I’d forgotten about being on-screen, except occasionally. And that’s how it happens, I’ve discovered, as the on-line meeting format has replaced geographical ones over the last year. After the first few seconds, when I’m horribly self-conscious, interest takes over.

This has been a rewarding learning curve for me. Last week I delivered my first on-line creative writing session, Writing Haiku’.

Was it scary? You bet. I spent even longer preparing the session than usual. Was I self-conscious? Only at first. Once the session started I was too busy making sure my students were comfortable, adapting my plan and listening to their responses. I didn’t think about watching myself talking.

In search of entertainment.

I ended last week feeling like that Bear of Very Little Brain, Pooh. I’d been Thinking of Things so much lately to do with books, and then finished not only a couple of classes, but the final paperwork too, that on Wednesday evening I felt I was owed a celebration.

As I considered the state of my shelves, looking for a Thing that would be bookish, but not workish, I hummed a little tuneless something.

There are books, 
     (Dum, dum, dum)
Too full of hooks,
     (ta la da da).
What I need,
     (Da do do do).
Oh yes indeed,
     Da dum dum dum)
Is something not too long...

Luckily for my sanity, at that point I reached a selection of Daphne du Maurier novels I’ve been collecting. None are very long, but for decades she was a top writer of quality-romances. They seemed like a safe bet.

I’d read three of her most famous titles as a school-girl, so opted for one I’d missed, a historical adventure, Frenchman’s Creek. It was just what I needed. Not great enough to keep me reading into the small hours, but I picked it up at breakfast and lunch-time, and finished it as I ate tea.

Then I dropped it in my discards bag and looked for something of a matching size and age on the next shelf. Evelyn Waugh’s Edmund Campion has been there for so long I’ve forgotten where it came from, though I do have a hazy recollection that someone recommended it.

If only I had done more than notice that the cover illustration suggested it was set in a similar period to Frenchman’s Creek,I might have realised it is a biography, not a novel before I opened it. It’s also set in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, not Charles II.

After a momentary hesitation, I read on. Perhaps because the first section, The Scholar, begins by describing Elizabeth’s last days.

She had round her neck a piece of gold the size of an angel, engraved with characters; it had been left to her lately by a wise woman who had died in Wales at the age of a hundred and twenty. Sir John Stanhope had assured her that as long as she wore this talisman she could not die.

I probably should have stopped on page five, when I found this paragraph:

In these circumstances the Tudor dynasty came to an end, which in three generations had changed the aspect and temper of England. They left a new aristocracy, a new religion, a new system of government; the generation was already in its childhood that was to send King Charles to the scaffold; the new, rich families who were to introduce the House of Hanover were already in the second stage of their metamorphosis from the freebooters of Edward VI;s reign to the conspirators of 1688 and the sceptical, cultured oligarchs of the eighteenth century. The vast exuberance of the Renaissance had been canalized. England was secure, independent, insular; the course of her history lay plain ahead; competitive nationalism, competitive industrialism, competitive imperialism, the looms and coal mines and counting houses, the joint-stock companies and the cantonments; the power and the weakness of great possessions.

Aaaagh. With a few adjustments it could have been written in the 1560s.

I hadn’t even met Edmund Campion yet. It seems I’d fallen through a wormhole to that time before I gave up on my vow to never let a novel defeat me. Like Pooh, I’d found that a Book I’d anticipated being very Bookish was quite different once opened. Meanwhile, I was caught up with turning pages. The sentences got longer, the paragraphs continued to bounce backwards, forwards then back through time again. Still I continued to read.

Campion makes his first appearance on page seventeen. Even allowing for a largish font, that’s a long wait for a heroic entrance. Then, immediately after mentioning him, Waugh side-tracks to tell us about ‘another young Oxford man’, and doesn’t return to Campion until page twenty-two.

I read on. I’m still reading, though I’m not sure why.

There’s more to be irritated by than the examples I’ve already provided. The narrator demonstrates just the kind of bias I enjoy in fiction. Here it keeps drawing me away from engaging with Campion, though I want to know more of him.

Though perhaps after all I do know what holds me. This is a story about discord and martyrdom, and I’d like to understand.

As Pooh says, “When you are a Bear of Very Little Brain, and you Think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it.