In the Presence of an Emperor

One of the most entertaining moments I have had recently was down to an insect. Not just any insect, though, something large and colourful – and to its prey, deadly, too. On a warm September afternoon, the Lovely Wife and I stood watching as it hunted, quartering the territory around us as you see large birds of prey do – looking for the moment to grab its prey out of the air and consume it immediately on the wing. It totally ignored us, of course, bar ensuring that it did not actually fly into either of us.

The hunter in question was an Emperor Dragonfly, about 7 cm long, clad beautifully in blue and green, all of which was picked out in the bright sun. Anax Imperator (I admit to looking that up) is a truly impressive sight. It was mostly blue, apparently that makes it likely to have been the male (yes, looked that up too).

The Lovely Wife and I were at Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire, not far from Ely. The nature reserve, run by the National Trust, includes one of the only fragments of authentic Fen land among a man-made landscape of rich arable farming, droves and waterways. Apparently, it is well known for its dragonflies, and certainly this reputation seemed well earned as we walked along, quickly losing count of the species that seemed to be active. I have always had a soft spot for dragonflies, there is something wonderfully archaic – and for good reasons, similar animals ruled the skies long before the dinosaurs – and yet they are such wonderful aerial acrobats. They are, as you might say, a design classic (and before my biologist friends protest I just mean that, like the original Mini there are cases where something just comes together and perpetuates because, frankly, it’s pretty hard to improve on). They are also terrifying predators, tiny aerial sharks and wo betide any smaller beastie that cannot get out of the way fast enough. They are equally terrifying – if considerably less attractive – in their larval stage. A couple of years I was pond dipping in the garden and fished up a dragonfly nymph – frankly the thing made me nervous, and to them I am this incomprehensible behemoth.

Watching the Emperor trying to catch some of its smaller brethren, I did wonder about the whole concept of scale. It is something I think about every time I, or someone I am with, has their quiet drink in the pub disrupted by a wasp; or the abject terror that some people have of the tiniest spider. To these creatures, even instinctively, we must be too big to compute. To the dragonflies we might as well have been trees, indeed the Lovely Wife joked that since we were standing stock still watching the show, there was every chance that one of the many dragonflies hovering around us might decide were provided a convenient perch (as it happens, we were spared that, this time). But that wasp in the pub is not out to get us – we are just this huge living thing getting in the way, and most of the time they would just ignore us; the real problem is that much of the time we cannot ignore them.

That same day we watched a wasp attempting to prey on honeybees that were intent on their normal work on a flowering bush. Every time the wasp pounced on one of the bees, the intending victim simply dropped to the ground like a stone, effectively getting it away from its attacker. We watched the wasp try again and again, and each time to bees responded in the same way, and then flew back up into the bush to continue their business. Small things can be fascinating, and wasp v bee was another special insect moment.

But it was not a patch on our encounter with the Emperor.


The Problems of Being a Hoarder

I am a hoarder by nature. Beyond the obviously ephemeral, I have considerable trauma in getting rid of anything that has featured in my life, whether that be books, souvenirs, theatre programmes or a particular bugbear of mine, guidebooks to places I have visited. They just keep building up and gradually take over wherever I live to the point where it starts to become a nuisance.

I kind of grew into this; my parents were both hoarders too, so the recent efforts to clear my childhood home have been around clearing a lot of what can only be described as ‘stuff’. Some of this ‘stuff’ is useful and beyond the things that we wanted to keep – might come to that at some later point – anything we can find a home for we are keen to do – and so far we are doing pretty well via charity of specific rehoming, and that has made the whole process a lot easier than it might have been. But then there is the ‘stuff’ that no one would really want – the broken ornaments, the ‘rest your ash here’ ashtray in the shape of a toilet (and its ilk) – which I have no real idea what to do with. In the end, the very nice house clearance people that we used to clear the garden and garage waste (as an aside for those of you in the North I can heartily recommend Mawsons, based in the Team Valley, they were very good) will have to deal with what’s left – I cannot bring myself to put these kind of things in the bin, because, well, my Dad kept them for some reason. Possibly he did not notice them anymore, in the same way that you become acclimatised to a pervading smell. I don’t know. Maybe the house clearance folks will take a shine to something – they adopted the five-foot stuffed crocodile from a previous job after all – and that is a minor consolation.

What this process has brought home to me is my own situation. The Lovely Wife and I have no children. I am not sure of either of us want to leave a nightmare of a job to the executers of our will when we are no longer here. And, as things stand, that would be the case – and, with all hope, we have decades to add to the problem.

The alternative is to try and start making things simpler now.

People are reluctant to talk about the end of life and often avoid talking about it, but it is inevitable, and we do our friends and families and injustice by not doing at least the minimum of preparation. As an adult you should have a will, no matter how young you are, if only to make your wishes clear on what should happen in the case of your passing. It is very comforting to know that you are executing the wishes of the deceased, and that there is legal certainty around that. We have a will and, for various reasons, need to revise it, but I also need to start organising my ‘stuff’ so that when the time comes it is easier to deal with. It does not necessarily mean gifting things to others or indeed disposing of things although that will come into it, nor does it mean I intend quitting this earth anytime soon – I’m also looking forward to a less cluttered existence and when I think about ‘health’ as I look towards fifty, there is more to it than the obvious physical state to think about if the next phase of life is going to be an enjoyable and sustainable one.

House Proud

My parent’s house has never looked so good. The garden paving has been cleared of weeds by the Lovely Wife in a systematic campaign carried out over a sunny North East day in a successful way that attempts to keep them at bay using chemicals never really achieved showing that getting on your knees with a sharp knife and a strong attention to detail is not really beatable (and probably better for the environment). The Sea Holly, a massive thistle like thing I very nearly pulled out as a weed is magnificent in a shade of prickly purple and covered in bees; most of what I have planted over the year has survived the heat and is looking healthy enough.

Inside the house the clutter of a lifetime has mostly gone. The removals people have been, efficiently removing the furniture we want to keep to a mysterious location (OK, a temperature-controlled facility in Longbenton, but I do like to think of it as the massive warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark where the Ark of the Covenant finds its resting place). The ornaments we like are packed up and stored elsewhere; the rubbish has been cleared by David and his teenager Josh, working for a lovely local business we will be using when the final moments come. The Lovely Wife has cleaned everything and now the house has minimal furniture and ornaments tastefully arranged in that way that reminds you of those adverts which show houses that cannot possible be being lived in on a regular basis, but have just the right amount of fittings that allow for the fact that many people have no imagination and need to be informed that ‘this is the bedroom’ or ‘you can put you family pictures here’.

People have asked me how it is going, how I am managing getting my childhood home, and the happy marriage home for my parents ready for sale. It is not an easy question to answer. In practical terms, it has gone very well. We have been organized, we have had some great help from a practically skilled good friend fixing minor but glaring problems which has been invaluable (thank you, you know who you are). There has been a certain pleasure in getting everything as beautiful as we can, as a tribute to Dad and Mum… And of course, it has been deeply upsetting for both of us. In fact, now that we have more or less finished anything we can do – now it is up to the Estate Agent to a certain extent – we look around and have very mixed feelings about selling. For a brief moment, a few weeks, this is our ‘other’ house and we will miss it and all the memories that it holds, even in its current slightly unreal state. This year we have effectively lived in two houses at opposite ends of the A1(M) and in many respects have been more part of the community in Pelton than in St Albans – whether that be enjoying moments of relaxation and ridiculously cheap (but rather nice) beer at the Newfield Inn around the corner, or being reminded what it is like to be almost the youngest people in a church community of about 35 rather than one that number 100s. We’ll even miss the COOP in the village and its surprisingly good Brie. In my mind I think we have had our chance to live in a different place and while I am looking forward to getting back to something like normal I do think 2018 will have left some fundamental changes – I will not say scars – in how I at least see things.

The house will not be ours soon, but I think it will leave something of a permanent legacy for us, practically and otherwise.