A Paean to Plants

It is all too easy for those of us belonging to the Animal Kingdom to look down on plants.  They seem a pretty static form of life and don’t seem to have mastered even basic tool use, let alone any of the trappings of civilisation.  However, this ‘summer’ has suggested to me that we shouldn’t underestimate them.

The weather in recent months has been erratic at best: it has apparently been the wettest summer in a century and the dullest in thirty years (I think this latter statistic relates to lack of sunshine rather than an oppressive degree of ennui engulfing the country).  Not ideal growing conditions for plants one might imagine but an extremely productive time for their enemies: slugs and snails (though not, to the best of my knowledge, puppy dog tails).  Despite these apparently unfavourable conditions, most of the plants in my garden have gone beserk with new growth over the summer.  The vine and the beech hedge in particular have produced truly prodigious volumes of foliage, so much so, that when returning from my sojourn in Edinburgh I feared that Fish Towers would resemble the castle of Sleeping Beauty and I would need a machete to break through the undergrowth (well, I’m no prince).  It’s not just my garden, the hedgerows and verges of South Cambs have also been growing at an amazing pace, though this has raised one question in what remains of my mind: why do the fastest growing plants all possess either vicious thorns or stings?  They all reach out from the verges to snag the unwary cyclist, especially those of us foolish enough to wear shorts.

The marvel of this vegetative growth is that it has been achieved with little more than rainfall (all too plentiful), carbon dioxide (a tad more plentiful than of late through man’s tireless burning of ancient plants), nitrogen and (rather limited) sunshine.  I’m beginning to wonder if my (mostly) vegetarian lifestyle is a rather riskier option than previously imagined.  If the plants manage to metabolise one more major molecule, I think we animals  could be in serious trouble and my habits may make me somewhat of a target for our new vegetable overlords.

By the way, shouldn’t the classification of life have moved on from patriarchal monarchy?  How about the democratic republic of the animals?  Or does that sound too like a brutal dictatorship?  The federal republic of fungi, anyone?

Edinburgh delights

There are many joys to being in Edinburgh – and not just the various arts related festivals at this time of the year.

Friday night, as I was waiting for my bus on Princes Street, the city staged a firework display to keep me entertained.  You don’t see that in Cambridge!  The buses, once they arrive, are also substantially cheaper than their Cambridge counterparts (and more frequent).  OK, I’ll admit that the fireworks might have been related to the Tattoo – but in my solipsistic world they seemed timed for my personal pleasure.

Whilst the south-east of England has been roasting in unpleasantly high temperatures (in my opinion), Edinburgh has been much more temperate – and surprisingly dry.  Yesterday afternoon, it did rain for a while but I managed to miss most of it filling my face with a truly prodigious volume of vegetarian fare at Henderson’s Bistro.  I seriously approve of their portion sizes: a starter for two which lives up to its name, rather than being a disappointingly small snack for one.  I also hope this single incident will cover two concerns for readers relating to previous coverage of this year’s Festival which apparently lacked sufficient references to food and rain.  No-one should fear that I am suffering any lack of sustenance.

But the best thing about Edinburgh is the drinking policy.  Down south, pubs throw you out at around 23:00 – but here they throw you in at 22:00.  It doesn’t seem to be that important if you were already drinking and are just choosing to enjoy the cool evening air, or are merely passing by.  I think the policy is that it is now 10pm and you are in Scotland, so you should be drinking.

I have also been introduced, for the first time, to the work of Messers Innis and Gunn – Edinburgh brewers to toffs and gentry (and me).  In those venues where the draft drinking options are limited to over-chilled, fizzy yellow muck, the work of I&G is available in bottles and very potable it is too.  Quite strong though – and I haven’t been brave enough to try the “Rum Finish” yet (though it does look a lovely colour and the tasting notes are tempting.  Actually, the whole Innis and Gunn website is rather fine, I particularly recommend their spider graphs!).  In conjunction with a rewed acquaintance with the fine folk of Brewdog, I fear my alcohol consumption might best be measured not so much in units but tens (assuming we are working in decimal).

May be disappointed

Recent news shows that June joins April in being the wettest month of its name since records began back in 1910 (before that, weather information was stored on wax cylinders).  This morning saw precipitation and flood-warnings galore – with much of the country promised more than one month of rain in a single day.  If the Met Office know their onions (which they may, though I’m less convinced by their powers of weather-related divination), today will be looking positively arid by the middle of next week.  So, July too would have been looking forward to meeting Roy Castle had it been around in days of yore.

All of which must be pretty humiliating for poor May.  In many years, it might have expected at least a decent place (and perhaps a medal) with its compelling combination of cold and damp – but it let itself down badly in the final week and in the context of such a strong field in 2012, it already looks like an also-ran.  I guess it has to look to stay injury-free, train hard and hope for better things in Rio in 2016.

Apropos of which, I find myself thinking about a giant, anthropomorphic letter “O” from an educational cartoon for children.  Like a person, it has a pair each of arms and legs projecting out from its ring-shaped body.  Someone (perhaps “R”) has taken a series of photographs, each capturing an arm or a leg with just a glimpse of the body.  Oh yes, I am thinking about “O” limb pics.  A ‘gag’ that I feel would have worked so much better if I were a cartoonist (or that is the excuse I’m using for its anticipated poor reception by the reading few).

Plus ça change…

plus c’est la même chose.  That’s your actual French!  This somewhat Hackneyed (or should I be using some cognate Parisian arrondissement?  Is Cliché somewhere in the banlieue, peut-être?) old phrase was brought to mind by a couple of recent events which, if you are sitting comfortably, I shall now go on to relate.

After a few days of relative dryness and warmth – on a couple of occasions I was bold enough to venture out without the prophylaxis provided by waterproofs, and on some 50% of these excursions I didn’t even get wet – normal service has been resumed.  This particular part of “flaming” June is, of course, famed for its extreme precipitation: forming as it does that dangerous conjunction of the Glastonbury Festival and the start of Wimbledon.  Such is the mythic power of Glastonbury, that even in a year marked by its festival’s absence it is still able to cast a pall over the weather.  This is a part of the grail and Arthurian legends that is little mentioned, though Joseph of Arimathea was supposed to have arrived by boat across the flooded countryside, which should perhaps have been a warning (many myths do hold some small germ of truth within).  The foolish organisers of the Isle of Wight festival – and more cogently those choosing either to attend their event or who merely wished to visit or escape the Isle – are paying for their hubris in moving to such an ill-omened weekend.  If there is one thing Tlaloc loves more than a four day bank holiday, it’s the conjunction of an outdoor festival and a tennis tournament.  I rather think he is a fan of the concert hall and Real Tennis: talking of the former, I did wonder if Gustavo Dudamel had been mis-informed about the climate of Stirling when he choose to hold a concert outdoors last night (rather than choosing an indoor setting), the poor audience did look very storm-wracked.

In an attempt to find some psychic shelter from recent meteorological conditions, I have been watching the re-booted version of Hawaii Five O: it does rain quite a bit, but it does look like very warm rain.  This is all very glossy and seems to have the sort of budget of which British television can only dream.  It also tends to be a tad irritating, but I’ve kept watching it (so far) for Scott Caan’s Danno who is allowed to be sardonic and to limp (though the latter may not be acting, I have not researched the real-life state of his cruciate ligament).  However, my primary beef is that it suffers from the same issue as Midsomer Murders (among many others) – no, it is not that the cast is overwhelmingly white and given that it is set in the US, I am willing to believe the rate of violent death portrayed may be realistic (though I have not checked the stats on this) – it is just that the villain is always the most famous member of the guest cast.  The only saving grace is that my knowledge of the relative fame of US actors is less finely nuanced than it is back home, and so for a few episodes there does remain a small element of mystery as to whodunit.  I think this may be why I find Scandinavian detective drama so effective – I don’t (yet) know their pool of acting talent and so I can still rely on the traditional bases of good police work (so far as I’m aware, CID are unable to use the fame of their suspects to find their (wo)man).  I really feel casting is in need of a revolutionary new approach – both here and across the Herring Pond – if detective drama is to regain its ability to confound my expectations.

The quality of mercy

is supposedly like the gentle rain from Heaven, though recent events would suggest that celestial mercy may be rather strained.  Recent precipitation brings retribution to mind rather than mercy, and suggests a vengeful deity with an itchy trigger finger.

In the last 15 days, I have been soaked to the skin on three days (though four occasions) and have have been rendered pretty wet on a further ten days.  This is despite attempts on my part to use intelligence from the Met Office to travel at times of lower risk wherever possible.  In an attempt to restore the much-missed drought, I never leave the house without being laden down with waterproofs and an umbrella.  I have also purchased additional waterproof clothing (which gives my existing waterproofs longer to dry after each drenching) and even scarified the lawn (which has always generated desiccating weather in previous years).  What more can any man do?  If reverse psychology has stopped working on the weather then we really have wrecked the climate.

A recent article in the Guardian (or at least its headline, I refused to read further for fear of raising my blood pressure) exhorted cyclists to enjoy riding in the warm summer rain.  With temperatures struggling to reach my age (in Fahrenheit) and with 10-40mph of wind chill to add to that, I don’t really feel the rain is terribly warm (though one of the Inuit or Saami might take a different view).  If warmth were on offer, I might consider an alternative approach and swap the waterproofs for an absolute minimum of clothing (though cycling naked strikes me as a very dangerous and painful choice) and some shower gel: my skin would dry quicker and I’d save both on time and my water bill.  The only downside is that arriving in little more than my birthday suit at a theatre, concert hall or railway station, I would probably be considered a tad under-dressed however clean and sweet-smelling I was.

Whilst recognising the dangers of solipsism, on several occasions the weather has been dry for an extended period before my journey, with the first spots only appearing as I leave the shelter of a building.  I begin to think that rain-generation is either a third, unwanted super-power or to wonder if the fact that I called God a lousy lay in a previous post might have returned to haunt me.  On the plus side, I suppose I could hire myself out to drought-stricken regions of the globe or join the Fire Brigade (though they’d have to relax their eye-sight requirements and I’m not good with heights) and, of course, I should only be used for some types of fire (adding rain to those involving electricity or very hot metal would not be advisable).

He who makes things sprout

The second four day bank holiday of 2012 is upon us, and once again Tlaloc is giving unstintingly of his benison.  Perhaps stung by criticism that his previous offerings have not been wholly effective in delivering us from drought, temperatures have also plummeted. No longer will the water companies be able to complain that the rain is evaporating before it can enter their reservoirs.

Still, the good offices of the Aztec God of Rain have not been beneficial to all.  The water companies’ gain must be balanced against the adverse effects on so many outdoor events, whether Royalist or Republican, planned to mark the Jubilee and into which so much work has gone.  It was obvious to me that planning to hold the Jubilee over a bank holiday weekend was going to be asking for trouble.  You’d think that after 60 years as monarch of these rather damp islands the Queen would know better – but, as she has never had a 9-5 job and famously doesn’t carry money (much like myself), perhaps the whole bank holiday concept has rather escaped her notice.

Then again, perhaps it wasn’t Her Majesty’s fault: after all, it was the government (only Her’s in name) who moved the bank holiday at the end of May from its traditional temporal location, a weekend of high temperatures and glorious sunshine, to its new date and the cold, wet conditions we are currently experiencing.  I fear the poor saps can’t even organise bread and circuses successfully (a failure which rarely boded well for the rulers of Ancient Rome) and sadly, unlike the taxes on pasties and static caravans, I fear it is too late for a U-turn to do much good.

Still, I’m sure my fellow countrymen (and women) will be able to cope with a little (or more relevantly, a lot) of rain – let’s face it, we are rarely short of opportunities to practice.  After all, is this not the country that invented the mac?  And did so long before Apple came along and claimed the name, making it far more cool but far less waterproof.

Pharos

Over this last weekend, there was a strange light in the sky over South Cambs.  Village elders claimed that this was called the “sun” and used to be a regular visitor – but I’m sceptical and suspect they were gently ribbing we younglings.  Some even claimed that the brief warming we experienced was an atavistic glimpse of something called a “summer” which apparently once lasted for many weeks, but that’s clearly fantasy.  Still, I did use the opportunity to sport both my panama hat and my fivefingers to considerable acclaim (well, the hat part anyway).  Luckily, the normal world order has now been restored and I have been zipped back into my waterproofs for the week.

As part of my efforts to keep the arts going in Cambridge going single-handed, I was out every evening last week from Monday to Saturday.  This did enable me to cover theatre, music, comedy and cinema – but also took its toll.  I’m not sure how my mind and body would have stood up to such exertions when my telomeres were rather longer – largely because I was not foolish enough to put matters to the test in my youth – but by yesterday I was really quite tired.  So, I scheduled an evening catching up on the output of BBC4 – that pharos of the mind – which I had missed during the week.

Between the cerebral delights of BBC4, my recording device chose to revert to Channel 4 for some reason and so I caught brief glimpses of one of the Twilight movies.  Young people today are often criticised for having very short attention spans, but many of them (I believe) enjoy these films despite the fact that this one, at least, was interminable.  I managed to watch an episode of the Bridge, a documentary on the Antikythera mechanism and hold a telephone conversation of reasonable length and yet still the film was continuing when I shut-up shop for the night.  The plot seemed to revolve around a miserable girl moping a lot, quite often in heavy rain.  She seemed to keep afflicting herself on some lad who initially had long hair and dressed relatively normally but later had clearly had a haircut and spent most of his time wandering around topless in shorts and heavy rain.  I presume he had been driven to this by the relentless melancholy of his female chum, perhaps in the hope that he would catch his death of cold and be spared her attentions?

Anyway, this lad (I think he may have been the J of the series’ very own Jedward) seemed to have a very healthy all-over tan for someone who spends quite so much time in the rain.  I do not seem to have been similarly blessed despite the recent precipitation – perhaps I should be cycling around topless?  If nothing else it would resolve the issues caused by my waterproofs (human skin, as recently reported, is waterproof thanks to some of the fats in the stratum corneum) and as a bonus could yield a healthy glow.  However, it was not the boy’s skin tone that caught my attention but his teeth.  Even in the screen-based “entertainments” from the land of the free, where the whiteness of one’s dentition is seen as strangely important, I have never seen such brilliantly white teeth before.  They were literally fluorescently white: positively glowing.  If his movie career doesn’t take off (and on the evidence of the clips I saw, acting may not be his strong suit), he could find work with Trinity House keeping ships safe from rocks (and other maritime hazards) around this country’s shoreline.