Waiting for the Bats

We were very happy to see the bats.

The last few years we have got used to seeing these lovely little creatures doing aerobatic displays over the garden or over the park, after the swifts, swallows and martins have finally given up on their shift and popped off to roost. Mostly the bats are pipestrelles, our commonest bat, a cute little pointy teethed mouse with wings (general point: if there is a choice between you sighting being something rare and exciting and normal and common the latter always wins – that big bird in the tree will turn out to be a pigeon. Inevitably, that peregrine falcon is actually a – still in my mind rather exciting – sparrow hawk).

But just because our little bats are common does not mean we cannot be excited sitting in the dusk of the evening on the decking at the back of the house and watch them sweep over, executing impossible looking turns in pursuit for a particularly juicy (and suddenly unlucky) bug.

But for most of this summer we have missed them. We thought that maybe we just were not being observant. But as time as gone on we have become fairly sure that the reality was there were actually not there, or at least that locally to us at least something bad has happened to the bat population.

I suspect it was the winter we have just had. It was so mild that many of the hibernating animals began to wake up. Unfortunately for the bats, who are insectivores and need to eat constantly when they are awake in order to get enough energy, there were just not enough bugs about; I suspect many of them starved. This may well explain why there seem to have been so few around this summer.

Hopefully, in some other areas it might be different, and I am hopeful that next year will be better for my furry friends. Certainly this fine summer has produced plenty of insects, so hopefully those that did make it through will have fed (and hopefully, bred) well. Now what we need is a proper winter. Well, we’ll see.

Actually it has been a slightly odd year for some other wildlife. Wasps, for instance, have been oddly absent from my life this year. They were all over the place last year – both the Lovely Wife and I were stung for the first time in over a decade by unprovoked wasps; they were strangely aggressive. This year I have had hardly seen one. They are around, as the nest in my dad’s loft shows; but mostly they seem to have kept themselves to themselves this year. Usually they get aggressive later in the year as they hunt for food having finished their communal breeding and have to fend for themselves and get, well a little desperate. I can only assume that the lack of aggressive attempts to steal food is down to abundance of fruit and other insects to prey on; another reason to enjoy what has been, on the whole, a good summer.

But it was good to see the bats were still around. As the smell of the summer jasmine fades and the leaves finally begin to change, there a few more moments of summer to savour before the weather finally changes.


Different Strokes

I had a weird timey-wimey university experience this weekend – thankfully I came through it OK without being ravaged too much (more) by the time winds and was left still wanting more to study more. Shame about the time and money – current and future students, and their parents, you have my sympathy – so another project is probably going to have to wait a while until I can locate some funding. But at least I can enjoy the achievement now and can perhaps claim to have accidentally pitched myself at both ends of the academic spectrum.
This was brought home to me with the Open University graduation ceremony at the Barbican in comparison to my previous Oxford experiences. I don’t recall those officiating making gags in the Sheldonian in Oxford (although considering a lot of it was in Latin, maybe they were slipping in a few one-liners). Secondly, dancing across the stage to be received by the Vice Chancellor (who was also more than happy to wave cheerfully at supports and be in at least one selfie) was most certainly not allowed. And finally, some of my fellow graduates were not even wearing the correct gown! You would not be allowed into the building if that was the case in the Oxford (and I am not joking – in my day at least if you turned up for your final exams without the entire correct academic dress you would not be able to take the examination.)
I would have said it was enjoyable if it had not been ridiculously long – bless the Lovely Wife whose poor hands were dropping off from all that polite clapping. It was certainly different. Was it better? No, I don’t think so. The ceremony on Friday fitted the institution – the Open University has an incredibly diverse collection of students and does not have the traditions that some of the physical and older universities have. It has to be sensitive to that. One thing for example that impressed me was that the Vice Chancellor while effusive in his handshakes with most people very carefully avoided any contact with the Muslim ladies who were graduating. Subtly but carefully done.
It is just as well the Open University does not have to carry the burden of tradition as it would drag it down. It is happy being its own thing. Oxford on the other hand carries its tradition stoically on aged shoulders, but at least it fits. Personally I like both; they both recognise and celebrate the study within two different contexts.
Having celebrated with some great steak and ale (sadly, in another difference from the Oxford ceremony, Friday’s graduation dinner was at my expense rather than the college) I then fell into a time warp as I attend the open day at my old haunt at the Oxford Department of Zoology (or Biological Sciences as it is now). Surprisingly interesting – I must blog about the nitrogen crisis at some point as I was completely unaware of that impending disaster – it was also nice to meet some current students and find out that some of the things I remember as a student – such as the time when a fellow student managed to shove a razor shell through his foot on a Pembrokeshire field trip (not one to try at the beach guys) have now slipped into department folklore.
But the weirdest point was walking into part of the building and looking around at all the computer screens with a dawning realisation something was wrong. And then it came to me. No library. With most journals online, there is no need to have and keep physical copies so the space where I sweated over essays hoping that having read the abstracts and the conclusions was enough to get the point and therefore avoid having to trying to read the impenetrable paper itself (goodness scientists are terrible writers when it comes to readability). It was very odd, and it was just as well that they had put out some rather nice New Zealand sauvignon to end the day to ease the pain of the loss of my student history (well, this is Oxford after all, what do you expect, Echo Falls?).

Schools Out: For now at least

Late last month I had an odd experience of walking through Camden Town in a dark suit, in the middle of the day. I say odd as normally walking around in London on a weekday in a suit means you blend in. In Camden, you are the only one in a suit, once you glance around at the host of eclectic fashion statements on one front and awkwardly attired tourist parties on the other. It is an odd place. It is also where you find the London building for the Open University. Which was where I was on my way to in order to have my Graduation photo taken – several weeks before the actual event – to save time ‘on the day’. It was a relatively painless exercise – apart from negotiating possibly the scariest receptionist I have come across outside the ranks of Oxford Porters – and I was glad to get it done, because I am rather proud to be collecting my degree this week, on Friday at the Barbican.

I had been toying with the idea of doing some more study for a number of years before I actually did anything about it, half heartedly looking at prospectuses and then just not getting around to applying. The main stimulus came from the youth work I was doing at the time; seeing the teenagers go off to university probably contributed to a nostalgic longing for the past and my Oxford Zoology days. Secondly, since I suspected that I would be involved in encouraging some of the young ones through their studies it seems appropriate to me to share some of their pain, if not the intensity.

So the last five years has been a bit of a journey which ends with a BA in Humanities (with Creative Writing and Religious Studies). And I have learned quite a lot about myself along the way too, which might reverberate with others.

  1. Be careful about what you are studying versus what you love. I knew that I wanted to explore the humanities and was initially attracted to heritage related studies, as it is an area I have always been passionate about. In the end that heritage module was the biggest struggle of all of them, and I hated it. It took something I had enthusiasm for and crushed it mercilessly in a torrent of figures, conflicting priorities and harsh reality. Interesting I am sure, but not when I realised that my interest in heritage was through the heart and not the head.
  2. What you might enjoys studying might not be what you expect and be prepared to change course. The flip side of this was creative writing. I was terrible at creative writing at school and approached this aspect of the earlier modules that covered a range of Arts topics in a poking your toe in kind of fashion) with much the same trepidation as I did music appreciation (another heart versus head conflict for me). But I found I enjoyed it immensely. I am not any good at it, but I enjoyed the act of creation as something in itself, of bringing into existence stories and characters that never existed until I created them. A couple of hundred short stories later I do want to get into writing longer form, but that may have to wait until I have a lot more time on my hands to give it the attention that they deserve. This has been the revelation for me in this course (though I am still not keen on poetry).
  3. In the end, be realistic with expectations. You can fake it up to a point but in the end the quality of the result will be impacted by how much time you put into it. As my University work had to be in the spare time of my spare time any thoughts of high grades should have been slaughtered on the cold alter of realism early on, but that did not stop me stressing about failing. This despite constant and unswerving support from those close to me reminding me that I was doing this ‘for fun’ so why should I get so stressed about it? Sigh. If only it were that easy.

But I have gotten through it, with a somewhat flattering 2:2 and while I do not intend to jump back into more studying just now, I am sure that at some point I will come back to it. I guess that the main reason will be that it was just fun learning new stuff –both about the topics I’ve read and about me as a student.

The awkward moment when you realise they’ve put you in the next age range bracket

You know what I mean. When you are filling in a survey and you are putting in the demographics, or looking at the results of your race. Suddenly you realise that you’ve crept into the next bracket up – with the really old people. This weekend was one of those (sadly increasing) moments in my life when I suddenly feel old. As I slogged around the 13.1 miles of the Great North Run this year I found myself looking at the usual places and not seeing much change. Then I looked around me and realised that everyone seemed at least ten years younger and in some cases much more. Either that or they were the grizzled veteran type runners, often with rather odd running gaits that look incredibly inefficient and/or painful and slow, but of course ’work for them’ (proven as they power past you unconcerned at the moment you are seriously beginning to flag). It was not so much that I felt physically old. That said I do have more aches than before and that last few miles are starting to be less and less fun. The battle against the waistline (always a struggle for me ever since childhood, which makes my heart break when I see a lot of the overweight kids these days, but that is a rant for another day) is becoming harder. I’ll never, ever get back to my half marathon best time of around an hour and a half (in fact, if I did not have the official results I probably would not believe now I could ever have run that fast) and struggle to keep it to two hours. Slowing down is inevitable without making the lovely Wife a complete running widow or being a lot more focussed; and anyone who knows me well will also know that focus is not my strong point and I am a lot more likely to waft around like a particularly chunky butterfly. No, I just start to feel the passage of time. This year the Great North Run was my 20th consecutive time, having first ran it in 1995. It is quite sobering. I have some younger friends who were not born when I first crossed the line in South Shields. Part of me is proud to reflect on that, part of me is shell shocked by what that means. For some reason it never seems as bad when I’m thinking of my 22 years with P&G, although that also causes some trauma when your memory goes past the number to think about the details of those years and the people and memories that time represents. I think coming to term with the passage of time for me is a matter of keeping as physically active as I can, while getting the mental state right – for me. Some things you have to cast off and let go. The place I grew up in is gradually being whittled away as I go home – areas that were open fields that I used to run in are turning into housing estates; the main reason I go back to the North is my dad, and beyond that really, much as there is much to recommend the city that is Newcastle these days, I do not think that I will be going up for any other reason. So I’m letting go, and this will be my last GNR. It’s been fun, I feel I’ve achieved all I can achieve (including the silly fancy dress option a few years back) and by not taking up my entry next year someone else will succeed in the ballot. Meanwhile I go out when it is my choice and before my knees give way and start something else. That is what I find most helpful in avoiding feeling old. Being blessed with young friends thanks to previous youth work emphasises the importance in me of starting new things and keeping something fresh in the portfolio because I see it in their freshness; whether it be something like a new volunteering post, or my Open university degree – or even just shaking up my work routine – if you can introduce something new you can recapture a little bit of the enthusiasm of being young. It is not the elixir of youth, and you cannot avoid getting older, but damn it, you don’t have to grow old gracefully. I’m going kicking and screaming with all the low animal cunning I can muster.

Terms of Engagement

Well the bucket challenge was more fun than expected – at least for the Lovely Wife who is now on photographic record of taking undue pleasure in dowsing me. Almost feral delight I think you might say. Maybe this is a new way of keeping marriages together; and annual opportunity to abuse your husband with cold water. Of course, I get my own back pretty much every day by being annoyingly awake and cheerful immediately after getting up, even at stupid times in the morning.

I note incidentally that it seems to be unspoken protocol not to nominate your other half. I can kind of understand that. I did not nominate anyone – that is probably cheating – and in some other cases where the result might be more interesting and insightful than how high you can scream I certainly wood and I did have a list; but in the end I was torn between not wanting to embarrass certain good friends and also offending by not nominating them. I think I’ve told my potential victims privately and they’ve been done by others already, with one notable exception.

The politics of this, the rules of polite engagement interest me. In this social media world that I did not grow up in and is constantly developing, there is not much in the way of accepted rules – bar those imposed by laws and the service providers which are mostly obvious. But there are certain aspects of cultural interaction which are unspoken and unwritten but impactful. The awkward moment when someone at party says or does something that is followed by silence and the nervous checking of watches/suddenly everyone wishing they were somewhere else and had not actually heard or seen what just happened. Fill in your own buttock clenching moments, most of us have them.

But with social media, I don’t know what the rules are and I suspect most people not only do not know what they are but even if they do develop an etiquette I often feel things move on a pace so much that even those who know the game now might be lost to the next evolution.

Is it a bad thing? I am not sure. I think that this is mostly nuances but when you start talking about cyber bullying etc it does start to matter. Sometimes it is obvious and no different from the bullying in the school yard that I and many others experienced. But I am more concerned about the bullying that is within the new rules, the ones I do not understand and if I am looking out for young friends I may not pick up. If I do not pick it up and they do not ask for help, I worry that just by being out of the new cultural loop I am hamstrung from offering the help and support I might be otherwise able to offer.

That said, there is much wrong with existing culture, and the nature of global and constant connectivity will undoubtedly change some things for the better. Communication is an absolute key to allowing us to live together in anything approaching peace. But it is still and will always be a double edged sword. And in this case, if I’m to understand it I need to listen and be prepared to be taught by people much younger than me, because then I can find the space we can work with to make it as positive a set of interactions as possible.

Finally, going back to the ice buckets, in terms of water wastage I think it is a good time to remember we can all contribute a lot more to this by turning the taps off when we are brushing our teeth and spending a little less time in the shower. The latter case even more since as well as the water usage you are using less energy, and while it may feel sometimes that water issues are more local – although, in some senses, they are not – the effects of energy usage are and will be global.

But please do spend long enough in the shower to warm up in the warm water after all that ice…