Common people

Last Sunday, to make the most of the autumnal sunshine and the riot of anthocyanins and carotenoids, I wandered up to the Common.  I’m sure that New England in the Fall can offer a more impressive display, but it makes for a far less practical ambulatory excursion from my demesne.  Even were I the proud possessor of seven league boots, there would still remain the watery challenge of bridging the Atlantic without a convenient island chain and with ever declining sea ice to use as stepping stones.

The trees looked suitably beautiful, captured part-way through their annual striptease.  I attempted to capture their colourful burlesque using my smartphone to share its glory with my adoring fans but, while the camera may – like Sir Mix-a-Lot, but without his gluteal obsession – be incapable of falsehood, it does not tell the whole truth.  Still, for what it’s worth here is one mellow fruit harvested from my several attempts:

But a poor shadow

But a poor shadow

Despite my demonstrably limited photographic skills, and my inability (or lack of interest) in the selfie, I do find myself framing my view of the world to improve its aesthetics.  Recently, while waiting for the (unseasonal) green man to show his face (in profile at least), I found myself adjusting my position at a Pelican crossing to optimise the positioning of a nearby branch against the near-full moon which lay behind it.  Oh yes, that really happened – I even had to crouch down a little to achieve the ‘perfect’ effect.  I suppose that I, at least, should be grateful for the chronic underfunding of mental health services which leaves me free to roam the streets.

As the image shows, I was not the only person to spend my afternoon on the Common: though I was probably the only one listening to Hear and Now, brought from Radio 3 to my temporally out-of-phase ears by the magic of the iPlayer.  This was a concert hosted and curated by James McVinnie – who I slightly know or have at least shared a beer with on a couple of occasions – of music from the Bedroom Community and mostly featuring the organ of the Royal Festival Hall.  It made for rather effective accompaniment to my perambulations.

Over the months, I have seen a wide range of activities pursued by people on the Common.  I have spoken before of those practising in the hope of gaining sporting prowess, including the playing of Muggle Quidditch.  Training was occurring again on Sunday, but I suppose that the university team have a triumphant position to defend this season having topped the league in 2014/5.  I also realised that muggle players do retain a vestigial broomstick – though it would be of little use for sweeping (or, indeed, flying).  Slightly closer to flying, I have often seen a rope strung up between two trees and young people attempting to walk across it – something I might be tempted to try myself once my gymnastic-honed balancing skills have improved a little further.

There are obviously those like myself out for a constitutional: often with a dog, ageing relative or pram-borne infant in tow.  Barbecuing is also a common choice – and given the autumnal absence of the ice-cream van (a foolish waste of a solid business opportunity) a tempting option for the peckish.  In the past, I have seen a couple practising some form of dance which I took to be Latin.  They made this look a lot more sensual and fun then anything which televised pro-celebrity dancing contests have suggested is strictly ballroom.  There is also a band of folk who re-enact Norman combat (and we’re talking Angevin here, not Wisdom or Schwarzkopf) with swords, spears, shields and some degree of vaguely appropriate dress.  I’ve also seen archery – though this seems to have a more modern vibe and seems independent of the descendants of King Rollo (not the harmless duffer that children’s television might have led you to believe).

As well as the opportunities for people-watching, the Common is also pretty good for wildlife.  On Sunday, I found a tree full of tits: stratified by altitude.  The Great Tits commanded the heights, below them the Blue and at eye-level the delightful antics of their Long-Tailed brethren (though they are only very distantly related).  Actually, despite being a scant mile from any plausible definition of the city centre, my garret does provide hints of a pseudo-rural idyll – even without the short stroll to the Common.  A few evenings ago, when I was being uncharacteristically quiet (not that I am normally an especially noisy neighbour, just rarely entirely silent), I could hear tawny owls courting in (presumably) nearby trees.  Are they following the foxes into our cities?  Will we soon find owls rifling through our bins?  People laughed at Futurama, but they were the first to identify the menace that owls will pose in the future. What other apparently foolish predictions may yet be proved accurate?

Trouble with the fourth dimension

I have reason to believe that I may have been affected by illicit experiments in temporal mechanics.  I seem to be living in two distinct months at the same time.  All the official sources of information as to the current date insist that I am living through the dying days of July 2015.  However, other evidence suggests quite strongly that it is already Autumn.

Following recent heavy rains, there has been a decidedly autumnal feel to the air and our early mornings are now graced by the characteristic chill of the season of mellow fruitfulness.  Still, I will admit that these, merely climatic, signals could easily be blamed on climate change: or just the natural – if growing – variation in our weather around its drifting mean.  I could perhaps also categorise the recent pruning of the rose garden in East Park as seasonal “drift” – in this case, from February 2016 (or was it delayed form February 2015?).  At this rate, we will be able to wear fresh, local poppies on Remembrance Sunday!

Last night was, for me, the clincher.  As I arrived back at Southampton Central, the platforms were overrun by aficionados of association football in their traditional red-and-white stripped garb (looking not unlike an unwound barber’s pole) – accompanied, of course, by the more drably caparisoned members of the local constabulary to prevent any lekking displays from getting out of hand.  Their mating “plumage” was emblazoned – as is so often the case – with the name of a company of unknown industry: who or what are Veho?  (A Vietnamese poet of easy virtue?)  They were clearly fresh (ish) from what I believe is known as a “match” and strongly indicate that the football season is upon us once more.  I know the scope of the association’s works has been expanding across the year, but I was still under the impression that the season began in the autumn.  Has money changed hands and Chronos been inveigled upon to interfere with the normal flow of time?  FIFA does seem to have paid off almost everyone else and offering a backhander to Time may be their best hope for human-viable ball games in the Qatari summer.  A risky strategy as I don’t think his other half would approve and even the gods don’t fight against Ananke (then again, Sepp Blatter has never put up much of a fight against his overwhelming hubris).

So, I seem to be stuck in both July and Autumn: simultaneously.  It is terribly vexing.  I’ve had no joy with either the police – despite the long association between one of their boxes and the fixing of matters temporal – or the myriad firms of ambulance-chasing lawyers which clutter the daytime television schedules with their appeals for the blameless infirm.  Does anyone have the number for the Celestial Intervention Agency?

Conference time

In days of yore, Autumn was poetically associated with mist and mellow fruitfulness.  More recently, for those of us using the trains, it has also become associated with the menace of “leaves on the line” – the curious ability of a little vegetation discarded by some (careless – or perhaps, malicious) deciduous plants to bring the 21st century rail network to its knees (and, yes, I do realise that a network probably doesn’t have actual knees).  However, it also seems to have become associated with the conference – and not just the pear!

I found myself speaking at two such conferences last week, have another couple next week and yet another towards the end of the month.  You readers may mock (or merely ignore) my output but there is a greater call for my services than you might have imagined!  It’s not just a local audience – my victims have been drawn from across the whole of Europe, and even given positive feedback after being exposed to my “content” (proof – if proof were needed – of the reality of Stockholm Syndrome).

Actually, one of my recent gigs was held in the French Salon at Claridge’s – so a brief opportunity to discover how the other half live (I did feel dreadfully common).  It was nice – but if I needed somewhere to stay for the night, give me a student room at a Cambridge College or a budget hotel chain every time and I’ll spend the money I’ve saved on something which would give me more enjoyment.

However, it is not just me attending conferences – our political masters (and would-be masters) are at it as well.  In the past, these conferences tended to be held in remote seaside locations (presumably using similar logic to the siting of nuclear power stations), but now they infest our inland conurbations without a second thought.

Of late, some of our politicians have taken to speaking without notes – and being lauded for this as though the achievement were comparable to that of a talking dog.  In all my years of public speaking, I have only once used notes – and that was only because the conference organiser insisted on it – and even then I ad-libbed extensively.  It would seem that poor old Ed Miliband came a little unstuck with this approach and forgot one of the key strands of his speech.  I know how easy it is when talking off the top of your head to lose track of your key messages, though I’ve found this can (usually) be fixed by introducing a strong narrative element to your talk.  Still, missing possibly the most important element of your talk does indicate very poor short-term memory, a tendency to get carried away by the sound of your own voice or too many messages for a single speech (to all of which I would have to plead guilty in my own less than illustrious past).  Loath as I am to admit it, less can often by more when haranguing a crowd.

Both Labour and now the Tories seem keen to convince us that, if elected, they will spend more money on the NHS.  Now, I know I dropped biology in the 3rd form and so am no expert – but I’m pretty sure that the primary objective of the NHS is to heal the sick, not to spend money.  Money may enable it to achieve its objectives, but I think I’d rather see some promises couched in terms of health-based outcomes rather than spending ones.  One could easily increase NHS spending by purchasing a Ferrari for every senior NHS manager, but whilst this may offer a lifeline to the Italian economy (and please at least some of the NHS management) I would be sceptical that it would do much for waiting lists, antibiotic resistance or the nation’s health.  I suspect spending more money is just easier than actually tackling any of the real issues which affect the NHS which I am quite certain (as it is a large organisation established by and involving human beings) wastes vast quantities of money (if, by chance, it doesn’t then it truly is unique and should be extended to cover a far wider range of activities – it would certainly be able to teach “the man” a thing or two!).

In the last couple of days, the Tories have continued to live by the dictum that if you thought the previous Home Secretary was reactionary then just wait.  It would seem that in the pursuit of soi-disant extremists my rights and liberties as a citizen are to be still further eroded.  I did wonder if this was, in fact, nothing to do with fears about the more frothingly insane members of Islam (and the young and impressionable that they have influenced) and is in fact a package of measures targeted at UKIP.  Then again, given some of the views coming from her own party, Ms May may find she has scored something of an own goal.

Still, at least someone has finally had the courage to take a stand against the evils of human rights: as a non-human myself, I feel that far too much is being done to molly-coddle the fleshy pink and/or brown bipeds that infest this planet.  Time they realised that they are allowed to exist (if at all) at the sufferance of their political masters (and the small number of wealthy individuals and corporations that are their masters, in turn).  Rights should only exist where they can be taken and held by force – whether that be physical or fiscal in nature – which has surely been the message that the world’s religions and philosophers have been banging on about for millennia.  I’m sure none of us want to live in a world where the rich and powerful might be brought to account should they chance to murder a citizen (or several) on a whim.


I always feel that harvest should be a superlative, one step beyond the comparative harver – an alternative formulation to most harve, if you like.  Well, you may like but my dictionary does not.  Mr Collins insists it comes from the old Norse word for harrow – or possibly Wealdstone (the Vikings were always a little shaky on the geography of Middlesex).  Now, I’m no farmer (shocking I know, but true) but I’m pretty sure that harrowing is a rather different operation to harvesting – certainly, I have never knowingly seen a combine harrower (which does sound like something from the imagination of one of our darker horror writers).  I imagine that getting harrowing and harvesting muddled up would quickly lead a farmer to the poor house (or worse).

But why, I hear you ask between sobs, is the old fool wittering on about harvesting?  Well, let me tell you dear readers…

When I cycle into Cambridge, I pass a number of arable fields (well, the crops are arable – the fields are just fields).  Between one evening and the next, these crops – cereals and rape – had not just been harvested but the stubble ploughed back into the soil. This struck me as very swift work – and if it weren’t for the chaff all over the cycle path (does rape produce chaff, or is that only wheat?) you’d hardly know the crop had been there at all.  This is rather sad as, along with the crop, the harvesting took out the taller, sturdier weeds that lived within it.  It was these that my frequent companions of the last few months, the buntings (reed and yellowhammer), used to perch upon to sing to attract the ladies and keep the other fellas off their ‘patch’.  Where are my bunting boys going to perch now?  I think there ought to be a subsidy for farmers to put perches into recently harvested fields so that the lads have somewhere to make a stand – or I fear anarchy may descend on bunting society.

With the recent run of festivals in Cambridge (though not, as yet, one directly linked to harvest – or even Harrow), I have been cycling to and from the city in the evening many times (many many times) over the last month or so.  As a result, it has been brought forcibly to my attention that the nights are drawing in.  Added to this, we have the recent cool, grey weather and the fact that the German word for autumn (herbist) is derived from the same source as our word harvest.  As a result, I am left with the feeling that the misty fingers of Autumn are already wrapping themselves around Fish Towers – and we’re not even out of July yet!  I fear we may be mere hours away from ‘seasonal’ displays appearing in our retailers warning us of the imminent arrival of Yuletide.   Perhaps someone has over-wound the Earth, and it’s running a couple of months fast – after all, we did have the summer in April…