Pointe Technique

First a quick follow up to last week. Generally more things seem to have eaten the caterpillars then they have eaten our vegetables, though I am not sure any of our green will win awards for beauty. I just think it is fun growing them, and the red currant harvest was as good as last year’s so the problem is now what I can do with the things. The preserve cupboard (yes, I have one) is still pretty full from last year.

Some people who probably do not eat as much jam are ballet dancers. Or maybe they do. Certainly they expend a lot of energy bouncing elegantly over the stage. I have never been really into ballet, although I suppose being from the home of Billy Elliot I probably should always had an inner drive to put on the tights. The Lovely Wife is fond of any kind of dancing so we do go sometimes, most recently to see ‘Coppelia’ – which for those who, like me, had no idea what it was about, is a slightly odd but amusing tale of toymakers, unlikely lovers (the male protagonist seems to prefer a doll for goodness sake, and his intended seems not to mind once her rival is shown to be made of wood) and a resolution where everything is OK with a few dances, a bag of money and some beer – and I was surprised to find I enjoyed it immensely.

I know that sounds like damning with faint praise. But I am not a fan of ballet as an art form normally. I can appreciate it to be clear; I admire the fitness, skill, strength and grace of the dancers. I think the music is often wonderful. But put together… It just does not usually work for me. I was trying to work out why all these good elements just do not quite click with me.

I think it is lack of plot.

So for example with ‘Coppelia’ there are three acts, with the last act being the wedding. By this point the plot is pretty much over and it is a series of dances by various guests and the principals and a tiny amount of last minute drama, quickly forgotten, and then it is back to happy dances again. I can feel my eyes glaze over as yet another set piece is executed, but there is no progression. I found this to be a bit of a shame as I really enjoyed the first two acts, which were full of humour… Now, I know it is a short ballet relatively thinking and it did end before I started looking at my watch, but really I would prefer something shorter and concise – the attitude seems to be that if it doesn’t last for 3 + hours somehow you have been short changed. Now I can concentrate for that length of time – goodness, sitting through any Peter Jackson Middle Earth movie enforces that – but only if the plot keeps moving. So I do not think I’m ever going to be a big fan of the ballet, or indeed opera, which also has a tendency to be (in my opinion) overlong and have too many moments where nothing happens very much and what you have is a lot of beautiful music; but I would rather sit in my own armchair to listen to such music than to be cramped into a balcony and worrying about the train home.

That said – I’ve booked for The Nutcracker at Christmas. But then that’s a fluffy one and we are going to a matinee… And it’s Christmas.

I do not think that I am ever going to really be a fervent fan, but I’m glad I’ve the opportunity to go and see such things; that is something that most people I know do not have the opportunity to do so.

Now excuse me while I try practising impressive lifts on the Lovely Wife. I might even ask her first.


Butterfly in the Ointment

So what do you do when the caterpillars start to eat your broccoli?

I have a very inconsistent approach it seems versus invertebrates that attack the plants that we have, at cost and expense – mostly of time – put in our garden. The latest difficulty is that now we have a bunch of burgeoning Brassicas of various types putting down some serious growth and spreading enticements of fresh home grown vegetables to be enjoyed at some point. But we hit a snag recently.

The Lovely Wife noticed her first. White and pure, hanging around the vegetable trough, fluttering her wings as if protesting her innocence. But this was no virgin. No, it was a female cabbage white and she was systematically laying small clumps of her yellow eggs on the purple sprouting broccoli and the cauliflower. Oddly, she was entirely avoiding the cabbage. I have suggested that because she is a Middle Class St Albans resident the concept of letting your offspring feed on mere cabbage is just not on… ‘Only the best purple sprouting broccoli for my little dears’ I hear her cry while complaining that the Tortoiseshells are bringing the neighbourhood down.

So we checked yesterday and they have begun to hatch. And the holes are appearing and they are growing quickly.

So now we are confronted by the question of what to do.

I have to say, to some creatures in the garden, no quarter is shown. I have very little guilt about eliminating slugs and greenfly, and judging from the never ending waves of attacks – a kind of slimy version of ‘Plants versus Zombies’ springs to mind – I’m not making much of a population impact and the voracious crawling things do indeed seem intent on destroying everything we put in to make our garden look more like a planned garden and less like a wilderness. So war was declared.

But butterflies are pretty. Slugs are not. Unless you are a slug specialist I suppose in which case you probably find them endlessly fascinating, but I am not one of those.

So we compared the options. Well, we could try and clip off all the eggs we could find, and kill the caterpillars. We did consider moving them all away from the main patch and relocate them on a sacrificial cabbage somewhere else in the garden. This second plan appealed as it sounded more humane – and I like the idea of a ‘sacrificial cabbage’. Or we do nothing and watch them chomp through the vegetables.

Well, for now we have chosen the third approach, and we are feeling reasonably good about it. In the end, most of the vegetables we have planted are not yet putting forth the parts we actually intend to eat so on the whole the holes are not so much of a problem. Secondly, the constant presence of our robins and blackbirds in the garden is a reminder that together with a host of invertebrate predators – the leaves are also crawling with spiders – most of Mrs White’s offspring are going to end up as lunch for something anyway. Finally, it gives us something to watch and I’m looking forward to examining the leaves for pupae soon for the first time in about 30 years. It is not a good attitude if you want fine garden greens I know; but it kind of feels better and anyway, I won’t notice the holes when the leaves are eventually stir fried or whatever (probably with bacon).

So I don’t know. I may be going soft. The thought does pass through my mind that I am now going to stand around now and let the roses fade under the onslaught of the aphid horde in the hope that the few ladybirds in the garden decide to pig out one afternoon. Or maybe I’ll just be nice to my butterflies, as a better class of pest.

Every day’s a school day

Well, the Canadian adventure is over for now, and I’ve had a chance to catch up with friends in Cincinnati. Once I have finally manage to sort out arrangements in the chaos that seems to be the internal flight system in the US – where no one seems to know what is going on and times or indeed the existence of flights seems to be a distinct variable – I can get home.

I’m starting to feel homesick, I realised in the last few days. I knew there was a problem when I started to look at the fairly uniformly black (and therefore slightly sinister) squirrels in Ottawa and fondly look forward to reacquainting myself with my own British grey vermin. Visiting new places is fun, but after a while the novelty starts to wear off, and once the distracting hurly burly of work is done all that is left is just a feeling of being out of place, especially stuck alone in a hotel room.

But it has been an interesting lesson for me in Canadian history and in the current political environment and how it holds together as a country. I found it positive and upbeat, and the contrast with the airport here where I am stuck in Chicago versus the cheery Ottawa I left almost wants to make me get on the plane back there. Almost – it is not home after all. I was interested in a number of things notably:

  1. Elizabeth II is queen of Canada. Now, I knew that of course but it was slightly odd to hear it several times over the last week. My reaction to seeing all the portraits in the Parliament building there was ‘aren’t they offended by all these British monarchs?’ And maybe some are. But to the Canadians I met she is their queen. The fact she is queen of a lot of other places and based in Britain seems largely irrelevant. The attitude seems less of rejecting the past and more of looking forward and I think that’s a good place to be.
  2. I did not have time to really go into the current relationship between the impact of the Europeans and latter immigrant waves and the indigenous peoples of Canada, but one thing I did notice was the denomination of ‘First Peoples/Nations’ to describe the diverse types of people there before the British and the French arrived. It seems clever to me – innately respectful, and again a lot of what I saw was less about apportioning guilt for past misdeeds, of which there are many, and more in terms of accepting the history and art of those people within the history of this country called Canada, rather than grafting on some second age and leaving the older cultures as something past, even anachronistic. It’s not perfect as an appellation but it seemed better than some I have heard in the past.
  3. Canadians seem fond of imagery. A lot of the First People art is filled with imagery and it seems impossible to find anything major in formal Canadian architecture and such that does not also drip with additional meaning – as my very cheerful (half Egyptian) Canadian guide pointed out as she showed me around the Governor General’s official residence, even the fountain out the front, when looked at from above, is the shape of the medal awarded to the Order of Canada, which itself is in the shape of a snowflake – because we are all unique. Charming.
  4. Finally, I came across a stuffed animal in the Nature museum – a wee beastie called a Fisher, about half the size of its bigger relative, the wolverine, who apparently is one of the few animals that hunt porcupines. The museum says that they apparently dance around them nipping at the nose until the prey becomes so agitated it gives the Fisher and opening to flip it over and get at the unprotected belly. Unfortunately I have since found out it is more just the case they stay in front of it and bite its head until the porcupine dies. A lot less romantic (and acrobatic).

So thank you Canada for teaching me an animal I didn’t know, getting me far too over excited at just seeing a wild chipmunk, and giving me some food for thought. I’ll probably be back, if only for the poutine.

Divided I fail (to make myself understood)

My French is rubbish. I blame my language unfriendly British 80s education.

I grew up in a time when language was taught like history and equally poorly, with emphasis on grammar and form and less on actually speaking the thing (my analogy with history is that I recall it all being a series of facts and not enough on why history matters, how it forms and moulds societies and why mistakes of the past are probably going to happen again – people are people). So give me a French newspaper and I can follow it pretty well, but when confronted by having to perform anything but the most basic conversation my mouth remains open and silent like a dead goldfish and I begin to panic.

Especially when I did not expect it – as I found out this weekend when I arrived in Ottawa. I had booked what seemed a well located hotel for the meetings I am here to attend and was greeted by a smiling young lady at reception, just what I needed after 13 hours travelling. And then she ruined it by talking to me in French. Weirdly, I almost never get that from hotel staff in Brussels, but then I had managed to book on the Quebec side of the river, so I should have expected it. Because I am not in Ottawa, I’m in Gatineau.

I should also be used to this as well – I mean I was born in Gateshead and ask anyone born up there it matters which side of the Tyne you come from. You share the river, but you are a different palace, if only separated by only a few minutes walking across the bridge. It reminds me of the New Year holiday we spent a few years ago which was in an old canal workers cottage (obviously?) on the edge of the canal. If you ran along the towpath to the left of the front door very soon you came to a viaduct across a flat valley (or is it an aqueduct since it carries a canal as well as a path? Too confusing for today… Let’s ignore that for now). Anyway, as you go out onto the duct thing you have a cheerful sign telling you that you are now going into Wales. In Welsh first of course on the English side and vice versa on the other side. Personally I didn’t see the point of a sign like this in what is almost the middle of nowhere but there you go. I’m sure the makers of signs are rubbing their hands together in anticipation of a possible ‘Yes’ in the Scottish independence referendum later in the year for all extra signs they are going to have to put up to show that somehow we are now different from each other having got along perfectly well with our own cultural identities for the last few hundred years without needing to be political about it.

My problem with my current location, and my lack of decent language skills, is that I want to talk to people here the way they want to. I want to pronounce the place names correctly. It shows respect and makes me feel less stupid, in the way I know visitors to the UK feel when their English is not very good – or even if it is – they fall victim to the level of ridiculous irregularity and inconsistency in my language, especially when applied to place names. Even the English cannot agree who to pronounce Shrewsbury and as far as I am concerned there is no ‘r’ in Newcastle. But hey, I can feel that by Northern blood is rising so I’d better stop before I start campaigning for the reinstatement of Northumbria as a separate country (which I will rule from my fortress of Bamburgh Castle. Ah the dreams of the eight year old fantasist never truly die).

So apologies to my lovely Canadian hosts with my paucity of language skills. Be patient with me and I’ll get there in the end. Or I will just smile and make a quick exit before it becomes too embarrassing.

Thicker than Water

This weekend I was at an excellent birthday garden party where there were a number of children. One of the more amusing moments was watching two sisters – both in their tweens – running around shooting each other to death with Nerf guns. They both seemed to have an unlimited appetite for firing foam projectiles at each other and then providing graphic explanations of what, at least in their fantasies, the terrible wounds these weapons of mass destruction had inflicted. Briefly they ganged up on another boy (he asked for it) but soon went back to the preferred activity of taking each other out (until, inevitably, one of them actually got hit where it hurt, resulting in the elder of the two pretending ignorance to her mother before giving me a look of smug satisfaction). Now, from conversations with several people, this scenario is extremely recognisable as being similar to much of their childhood. This concept that your siblings are both the preferred target and occasional ally seems to be universal, the weapons and severity may change but the principle seems quite constant to me. My father for instance grew up with a large number of uncles and aunts. The general principle was this – they had a go at each other, but if anyone outside the family criticised any sibling then the ranks were closed and whichever unfortunate who had had the audacity to say something negative about a brother or sister would find united and terrible wrath aimed in their direction. I recall vividly Christmas day in the afternoon, when I would be sent over the road with my Grandmother to see my Great Aunt – her sister. Usually things would be fine for about a sherry and a piece of cake. But if the visit reached certain time duration – let’s call it the ‘second sherry stage’ I quickly began to realise that trouble was brewing. The smiles started to fade and the conversation would become shorter, snappier and blunt. My Grandfather – when he was around – and I would start to get uncomfortable and look at our watches, wondering at what point we could reasonably suggest rejoining my parents. I had always assumed that I was sent over the road in an effort to get everyone else out of the house to allow my parents a brief moment of Christmas day on their own; while I am sure they took advantage of that, I suspect now I was sent in much the same way as boron rods are plunged into a nuclear reactor to keep the reaction at a controllable level, as open warfare would not break out when I was in the room. On that, at least, both these (utterly lovely and sorely missed by me) relatives of mine could agree. So I just ate more delicious cake and waited. Do I feel short changed not having had any siblings? No, and it is a bit of dumb rhetorical question as with a lot of things in life there are positives and minuses and we are all a product of our upbringings. I never missed having a brother or sister as a child, and I am not sure I would have found the inevitable competition something to relish. However, it does mean that no one else is there to help take responsibility when close family are ill or need attention, and recent events affecting the Lovely Wife’s slightly larger family have shown how brothers and sisters can share support in a way that is incredibly effective. And you always have someone to blame when you are a child when things go wrong (hard luck first born children – you’re always going to be the one that is old enough to know better). But the biologist in me says this is all very normal and healthy, providing there is balance, and I firmly believe that providing the home environment is a good one, the relationship has a better chance of not considering murder on a daily basis. In fact I know some sibling relationships that seem so close and harmonious I have to wonder what’s going on there, and rather hope that behind closed doors the claws sometimes come out. Maybe I should buy them some Nerf guns.