Irish Roots

Our cousins across the Atlantic seem very keen to trace their ancestry back to Ireland (or failing that, Scotch-land; no-one in the Land-of-the-Free™ has so much as heard of Wales).  This process seems especially popular with the incumbents of the Oval Office and the current President is no exception (though, Mr Obama does seem able to trace his ancestry to almost anywhere on earth, if required).

As a result, it seems quite tough for the more sporting residents of the Emerald Isle to represent their country as they have to compete not only against their own countrymen but also against the descendants of the Irish diaspora.  Indeed, it sometimes seems that as long as a distant ancestor once saw Ireland on a map, partook of a half of Guinness or possessed an article of green clothing, then you qualify as Irish.   It is worth noting that this same laxity in the definition of sporting nationality has been somewhat beneficial to the performance of the English – or, perhaps one should say, the South Africa B – cricket team in recent years.

This week, scientists have reported that the Irish diaspora started rather earlier than previously realised – and, on this occasion not as the result of English mis-management or oppression (so far as we know).  Analysis of the teeth and bones of long-dead Irish brown bears have proved that these (well, at least their women-folk) were the ancestors of all today’s Polar Bears.  Yes, even before St Patrick (allegedly) started purging Ireland of its zoological diversity, some of the bears had left, heading north and adopting a rather natty white livery.  I wonder if the Romans had some inkling of this link to the Arctic, as Ptolemy named the island Hibernia after the Latin word for wintry (as opposed to the Latin word for rainy, which might have been more appropriate based on personal experience).

Surely this ancient link must give the Irish a much needed claim on the resources being discovered in (and under) the Arctic?  Or at least a few royalties from the sale of Fox’s Glacier Mints?  Can it be coincidence that these mints started production in 1922, the very year that the Irish Free State won its independence from Great Britain?  I sense a conspiracy…


No, it’s not rude – even in Spanish – though it is but one small vowel away.  In fact, it is the Spanish for ‘drawers’ – not the undergarments but those items which tend to come in chests (though now I read that back, it does look quite rude).

However, it is also the name given to a Peruvian drum – well, cajón is – and it is these drums or cajones which I saw being played last night.

Talking of Spanish, and the rather extreme changes in meaning the replacement of an ‘o’ with an ‘a’ can occasion, reminds me of an incident which occurred when I was taking Spanish lessons for business.  As rather lazy comedy has taught us, many Spanish words end in either ‘o’ or ‘a’ – and as a rule of thumb, those that end with the vowel associated with ‘orses are usually feminine (unless from a Greek source word, e.g. el estratagema) and those linked to the wings of a dove (with apologies to Felix Mendelssohn) are commonly masculine.

As the native speaker of a language which does not assign gender to most of its nouns, I sometimes find I know the word (or think I do) but am uncertain as to its gender. As a mathematician, I like to keep things consistent and so tend to match the final vowel with the article when in doubt.  I also try and apply logic to the choice of gender, where the selection seems obvious.  On one occasion, this perfectly reasonable approach caused my Spanish lesson to come to rather an abrupt end.

The Spanish stem ‘poll’ can form two words, the masculine el pollo and the feminine la polla.  Both have a certain relation to the English word chicken – one is the word for chicken (presumably from the same Latinate source as our word ‘poultry’) and the other a word for a part of the male anatomy which is not normally linked to the words au vin (though homophonous with a word that is).  I, not unnaturally, assumed the male member to be masculine and that the hen-meat was feminine.  I learned this was an incorrect assumption when my description of a delicious meal of chicken wrapped in bacon (this is long before my eschewing of mammalian flesh) caused my female Spanish teacher to collapse with the giggles – a position from which she did not rapidly recover.  I can only assume I was the first of her students to make this, entirely logical, error – however, I do feel she could have handled my linguistic faux-pas in a slightly more sensitive manner.

I am now much more cautious about guessing the gender of any Spanish words.  Given that the choice is so illogical in such an apparently clear-cut case, I have taken to heart the words of Cicero about discretion being the better part of valour.


Yesterday was the fourth of July, a day when people across the land celebrate the successful disposal of one of the less desirable chunks of our imperial real estate back in the final quarter of the eighteenth century.  I think we can all agree that the disposal decision has been fully vindicated by subsequent events, with the colonies in question making almost no impression on the world in the centuries since leaving the nurturing embrace of their imperial overlords.

I chose to celebrate by attending the Launch Party for Fiver Unplugged at the Junction in Cambridge last night.  The intention was that this post would be produced using only battery power and wifi – but, as it transpires this would have provided evidence only of my musical naïveté.  I had assumed that an ‘unplugged’ performance would mean that the only sounds produced would derive from the physical endeavours of the musicians themselves using the purely mechanical means provided by their voices or instruments. However, everything was miked up or directly plugged into an amplifier – though I will admit that all the instruments (bar one) were capable of producing an audible sound without such aid.  It would seem that unplugged refers only to the majority use of ‘acoustic’ instruments, as opposed to those that were basically mute prior to the development of the triode valve.  Indeed, almost the most commonly repeated phrase during the concert was the cry of “plug it in” from the sound desk as a performer forgot to reconnect their guitar after changing instruments.

The main advantage of the ‘unplugged’ event, as opposed to the normal Fiver, was that the audience is allowed to sit-down.  (I also suspect the degree of amplification is rather more modest and the music perhaps more folk-inflected than usual.)  I should perhaps explain that the Fiver is not, on this occasion, a tea-timely football email from the Guardian but an event showcasing new bands from the Cambridge area – named for it’s very reasonable price of entry if one is desirous of being an audience member.  This was not the first such unplugged event, but I think that earlier examples were considered to be of a pilot nature only.  The word ‘party’ in the title is slightly mystifying – though I did (briefly) see a single, small bowl of crisp-style snacks at one point which may explain its inclusion.

Despite my rather unnecessary de-construction of its title, the event itself was really excellent.  Five very different acts, all entertaining – one even comical (and more than good enough to grace Mitch Benn’s podcast).  Slightly depressingly, whilst I am used to those producing music in Cambridge being somewhat my chronological junior (though possibly operating with a rather greater mental age), at least with CUMS they have completed the 6th form.  Last night, one act was still in the 6th form, and one clearly had yet to enter it – I strongly suspect that the combined age of the three performers was still less than mine (and they were probably one of the best of the 5).

The acts also introduced me to two completely new instruments – both with significant aspects in their favour.  The Uilleann pipes pleasingly provide a starring role for the player’s elbows and at least one of her wrists (body-parts which have otherwise had a pretty easy ride in the field of music production).  The second new instrument, used by 60% of the acts, was a hollow cuboid box with one of the largest faces missing and which is placed on the stage so as to maximise its gravitational potential energy.  The player sits astride the box and plays it somewhat like the bongos, striking the face directly opposite the one which is absent.  Whilst it may not replace the timpani any time soon, it does furnish the player with both instrument and seat (and a handy storage vessel when not in use).  I think the world needs more multi-purpose instruments that utilise previously neglected portions of the human body in their operation.  So, it’s off to the drawing board for me…

The Ascent of Man

I must start by offering an unreserved apology to the late Jacob Bronowski.  I should probably also say sorry to you the readers, but unlike the great documentary-maker you have been warned, so I won’t.

I should also report that this post will only involve the hypothetical ascent of a single man.

There, that’s your expectations safely managed downwards – my inner consultant is content.  Formalities over, on with the motley…

If I were to climb a tree unaided by ropes or the like (a pretty unlikely state of affairs), would I then by moving on-wood and up-wood?

I thank you.

Summer Snow

Not a reference to freak weather conditions on this occasion, though I have seen snow in London in May (like an exhausted hen, it didn’t lay) and know of a June cricket match in Yorkshire, back in the days before colour, which was called off as a result of the descent of the self-same fluffy flakes, but to a more zoological happening.

When considering large numbers of animals congregating together, wildlife documentaries seem to resort to the traditional, rather tired tropes of herds of wildebeest, flocks of roosting starlings, shoals of silvery fish and the like (sadly, I couldn’t think of an example to cover the element of fire – covered earth, air and water rather nicely though).  However, at this time of year, the English cyclist wending his way in the early evening encounters a volume of biota to challenge any of these more clichéd gatherings.

Cycling home from Cambridge a little earlier, it felt like I was travelling through a blizzard – though a blizzard not of snow but instead comprised of members of Phylum Arthropoda, mostly, I think, the airborne members of Class Insecta.  Unlike a motor vehicle which tends to kill such critters on impact, the lower velocity, or softer bodywork, of the cyclist leaves them alive – though the impact can stun heavier insects (and, indeed, for more serious ‘strikes’, the cyclist!).

As a result of this living ‘snow’, breathing can be a challenge – if you make the mistake of parting your lips you are either picking the little wretches out of your teeth or, if they evade your incisors, “enjoying” an early supper (or a good choking).  Glasses – and preferably largish ones with some wrap-round – are de rigueur unless you wish to ride with tightly closed eyes which given the difficulty of using clicking sounds made with the tongue (when the mouth is also tightly closed) to facilitate sonar-style navigation is asking for (née demanding) trouble.

In addition to the insect facial, the rider also acquires large numbers of the darlings on all forward facing clothing, exposed limbs and in the hair (for all I know, they may also come to rest on backward facing clothing, but I am unable to inspect this without the aid of an arrangement of mirrors, prisms and/or video equipment which I find it impractical to carry on most journeys).  These pests appear to view the cyclist as a taxi service delivering them to exciting new locations and, on arrival, vigorous patting down of the entire body is needed to evict the squatters.  Despite this, I usually find a number that manage to escape my attentions for several hours after arrival at my destination and who are, by then, enjoying the film, concert or other (normally indoor) event I happen to be attending.  Whilst many species are involved, the largest number always seem to be aphids – which I assume would find rather thin commons in most arts venues (unlike our hero, they are probably incapable of gorging themselves on high-priced tubs of ice cream).  I do wonder how many years of cycling I will need to complete before hitch-hiking is eliminated from the aphid genome?  (At least locally).

What I find particularly distressing is that with this abundance of prey there is not a sign of swallow, swift or martin to munch their way through the bounty.  Where have they all gone?  Surely it’s too early to head back to Africa yet?  Or do they know something about the rest of the summer which the Met Office is keeping from we mere humans?