Saturday, 31 January 2009

On living with predators.

One of the features of life with predators in your house, is that they occasionally bring in prey. Normally small mammals, occasionally a small bird, once a pigeon!
Sometimes I intercept the victim and set it free again, but generally the prey is in various states of being dead: "soon to be", "freshly deceased but intact", "disembowelled".

Every morning, I go down and perform what I call the forensic sweep. I check for dead animals and dispose of them or their organs before the rest of the family awake, then I clean up.
Today was special. I found one dead mouse and the face and entrails belonging to a second mouse. The evidence was eliminated before anyone noticed.

I didn't spot the third live mouse; my wife did.... when she put her foot into her boot and it didn't fit properly and something wriggled inside.

I heard her screaming from my office 6 miles away; the subsequent phone call was entirely unnecessary.

Insect Deaths

Insects, when we are in their presence, are mostly either alive or dead, and only occasionally in the process of dying. And this usually happens for them with abrupt violence. They meet with either a predator, poison or rolled-up magazines. In fact I challenge anyone to think of insect death and not conjure up some image of sudden and irreversible flattening.

I was sitting on the couch the other evening when I noticed a wasp buzzing in the window. I fixed my gaze on the hymenopterous intruder wondering whether it had come from outside or worse from a wasps' nest somewhere in the house.

The wasp then changed direction and flew into the room tracing large elegant circles in the air above me, and then something unusual happened: the wasp swooped down, banked left, climbed again and then died in mid-flight. Continuing on its trajectory it traced a lazy parabola and landed with an audible tick and a single bounce on the living room floor where it lay motionless. I got up to check. Yes, dead!

I had witnessed my first insect death that wasn't of a violent nature. I like to think it died of old age while doing what it enjoyed best.


Death of a Wasp Queen, by Stijn Coppens.

On Coaching

Over the weekend I was working on my son's future nostalgia again (and so, vicariously revisiting my own childhood). This most recent project has moved away from the smokey and uproarious mayhem of capguns, and advanced to the more stealthy art of shooting catapults.

I was in the garden with my boy taking shots at a bucket we had placed as target some distance away, after having admonished him not to point the catapult at his sister, windows or animals.

We were (that is to say I was) having fun, and naturally being the stronger and more experienced catapultist I was hitting the bucked consistently with a satisfying clang.

He, on the other hand, was not so successful and grew increasingly frustrated by his inability to hit the target. Eventually he asked: How do you do that daddy, can you show me?

Keen to mentor him in the fine art, and eager to appear heroic, I spoke authoritatively (I improvised wildly) about arm position, shape of projectile, balanced elastic tension, being in the zone etc. and then, to make the whole inevitable experience of missing your target more lighthearted and bearable for him, I added, jokingly:

If you do that you can hit anything. See that bee over there?

I pointed at a bee some 15ft away, buzzing erratically over some flowers.

Anticipating wild laughter from my son at my imminent failure, I fired my catapult.

To my horror and his amazement I shot the bee right out of the air.

There was silence, but in my head I was going: shit shit shit shit now what.

Poker-faced I looked at my boy who stood open mouthed, his expression changing from astounded incredulity to revulsion, then back to amazement then .... well, I don't know what, disappointment perhaps. At this point I couldn't read him any more, and there was no way I could coach him through his frustration and disappointment.

You killed a bee, dad!


(time to learn to cope with disappointment by yourself, son) I walked (strutted) away.

When life gives you lemons...

Because it is character building I sent my kids to spend half their summer holidays with my parents in Italy.

My parents live in a tiny landlocked village where nothing much happens apart from the odd murder or blood feud. Since the beach is an inaccessible 50 miles away, it can, understandably, get somewhat boring for little children. Naturally they will make their own entertainment.

The house my parents live in is the penultimate house in a narrow cul-de-sac not 8 meters wide. Outside the front door is small area with a table & chairs and a lemon tree, all enclosed and separated from the pavement beyond by a tiny wall perhaps 2ft tall.

Because life is boring even for adults, one kind of taedium is often replaced by another and so boredom gets averted by such fanciful means as walking back and forth. Endlessly. It is the Mediterranean way.

There is this 80-year-old man who lives on our street who does just that: he walks to the end of the road, turns round, walks back and then repeats the process many, many times a day, giving a cheery hello if you see him for the first time, or a simple nod of the head if you've seen him for the 9th time already.

My 6-year-old boy has noticed this, so he thought it would be fun to play a little prank on this man. He and a friend shook some lemons off the tree in front of the house, stockpiled their yellow arsenal and crouched in ambush behind the 2 ft wall.

Bearing in mind that ours is the only lemon tree on the street, that ours is the last inhabited house at the end of the road (the one with loud children playing outside climbing on a lemon tree) and that it is the house just after which the man executes his turn, and bearing also in mind that a 2 ft wall hardly affords any cover to two giggling six-year-olds who had just been seen (many times), it strikes me as an odd plan to carry out.

But small children aren't noted for their ability to plan complex military ambushes or foresee the consequences of their actions (he really is a chip off the old block).

No sooner had the man walked past (on our side of the street) they pelted him with lemons and quickly dropped down again, giggling, to hide behind the 2 ft wall.

The astonishment (and then the terror) on their faces when the man turned round and walked straight towards them, is something I would have loved to have seen. They fled inside the house.

It's true when they say that it takes a village to raise a child.

The man knocked on the door and informed my mum of the behaviour of these little tearaways. Hollow threats of involving the fruit-police, and a swift tails-between-their-legs apology ensured that the matter went no further.

I can imagine the de-brief: both kids looking at each other confused and wondering just where their brilliant plan went wrong.

I think the character building lesson here is that if life gives you lemons you don't hurl them at old men unless you have adequate cover and an escape plan that doesn't involve running to grandma (who is unlikely to side with you on this).

On Ugly Blankets

Living in Britain has taught me that when the sun shines you make hay; this is to say that I have learned to take full advantage of sunny days. Unlike in Italy where we have one weather-forecast in about April / May which says something like: "Sunny outlook till October. See you again in about five or six months for the autumn forecast", here even the merest hint of warmth and sunshine is met with ludicrous levels of enthusiasm.
Out comes the paddling pool for the kids, off come their clothes; toys and hats and sun cream (SPF 50 because the sun is fierce at 53° N) and blankets all find their way onto the lawn. You always have to have a blanket out so that the kids can take it, put some soft fruit or yoghurt in it (often both) then crumple it up and stuff it into a bush or a corner of the garden where the contents can ferment away.

On Sunday my in-laws came round for an obligatory barbecue. After the meal I sat with my 70 year old father-in-law in the shade drinking a couple of beers when he spotted the crumpled up blanket. The blanket, I should add, is the horrid synthetic fleecy thing shown in the picture above: beige with brown rhinos on one side, and brown with beige rhinos on the other side. I've wanted to throw it away many times, but for some reason hadn't.

"My goodness, that blanket has done the rounds" announced my father-in-law.

"Tell me" I replied.

"We bought the blanket in '67 when we moved to Africa. We got off one of the last passenger liners that went from Southampton to Cape Town and boarded the slowest train in the world to Zambia. It took five days to get to Lusaka and it went through South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe and up to Zambia. The train was so slow that local people in Botswana could at times walk besides the train and sell things. It was a poverty stricken area and these people were selling all sorts of stuff. We bought two blankets, a toy gun for David and a wooden carving of a dug-out canoe with a bird on the front. I don't know where the other things are. I think David has got the canoe. The toy gun has long gone. I remember David dropped it out of the window, so I had to jump out, get the toy and then run back and hop onto the moving train. The locals cheered me on as I caught up with it."

"And the blanket?"

"Oh, that came with us to Zambia. It has covered all the kids at one time or another. David at first, then John, and when Paula was born it passed to her. It was even Badger's blanket for a while.
After a few years in Lusaka we moved to Kitwe. We sent all our stuff ahead but took a few things with us, including the blanket. Packing it all into a Fiat 500, all five of us then drove north. On the way we acquired a small deer and a chicken. And then we got into a swarm of insects which caked the windscreen so much that I couldn't see out. Because we wanted to save water we used Coca Cola to wash the insects away from the windscreen. It works a treat."

I was tempted to let him go off on tangents typical of someone who has a life's worth of stories to tell, letting him recount his African memoirs, but I wanted to know about the blanket

"You obviously brought it back to England..."

"Yes, when we came back from Africa the blanket came with us, we came back via Kenya, Pakistan and Lebanon. What a marvelous country Lebanon was; full of cedars..."

"And the blanket moved with you every time?"

"Yes, once back in England we lived with my sister for a bit, then moved into Whitehouse Lane, then Holmwood, then Lone Stack. You probably ended up with the blanket when we sold Lone Stack. How long have you been in this house now?"

I replied "Nine years" and mused that now the blanket was at the mercy of my kids. My 6 year old boy first, then my 3 year old daughter, too, stoically, if that can be said of a blanket, enduring further use and abuse. In what obviously has become a bit of a tradition, it even provided some comfort for our cat. I think the ugly blanket will continue to stay with us for a long time.

And to think I was going to throw it away.


I went away on business today. My transportation included two train journeys and four taxis. Taxi driver number one told me about his motorbike accidents. Taxi drivers two and three didn't say much. In fairness to them I read the newspaper in taxi two and slept in taxi three. Taxi driver number four though....

I stood outside the station and waited for my car to pick me up. Eventually I spotted a middle-aged man smoking a roll-up; he was holding a clip-board but I couldn't see what was written on it. I walked round him and saw that it bore my company's name so I asked him if he was waiting for me.

"ohhh, soaree you xav to vait. I vas toald your train vould com at 16:20"

I hopped in the car and sat in the front (I do that when I get a good feeling about the driver),

"So, where are you from?"

His reply came with a smile: "Sout-eest Seeberya", and I knew this was going to be an enjoyable ride home.

I asked him how he got from south-eastern Siberia to the north-west of England. He chuckled and told me: "Oh, it's a story very much long. But I vill tell you the short."

The short took nearly 35 minutes to tell and it was as fascinating a story as I have heard in a very long time. Secretly I was hoping for red lights and traffic-jams and all manner of delays.

Naturally I won't be able to report here half an hour's worth of conversation peppered with interesting detail and seemingly irrelevant excursions, and besides I would not do it justice in these few paragraphs, but here is the short short nonetheless.

Like many life-changing events, this one too could be traced back to a single banal episode. How we react to certain events around us can have a significant effect on the life that follows.

A retired army colonel, Vuva had remained in the militara doing an administrative job in Ukraine.
His journey to England began with a decision to have a cup of tea in a cafe in Sevastopol. He told me that another man was having a coffee on a different table, when suddenly two police men came in, grabbed the man and dragged him out into the street where they started interrogating him. After a while Vuva followed and stood outside not too far away from the police men shouting in Russian at a man who did not seem to understand what was going on. The England man apparently had trespassed onto military ground and the policemen wanted to know why? They spoke no English, the man spoke no Russian. It was hopeless (for the foreigner). Vuva intervened. As the superior officer he told the two police men to "check the stripes" and that he would handle the situation from then on.

The man was in Ukraine on business intent on buying mining equipment from someone but these guys hadn't shown up, so the man walked about and unable to read the Cyrillic 'do not trespass or we'll bust your arse' signs did just that.

Vuva took the man to his Hotel, made some checks and phone calls to the supposed vendors of the mining equipment and then told the silly man to stay put and not go trespassing again. The vendors were going to be late, so Vuva sat down with the man for a little while and told him that, as Vuva saw it, he had some problems of which the trespassing and the Ukrainian police were only a minor one.

'The equipment you want to buy belongs to a mining firm. They have been bankrupt for 10 years. How will you know that the sale is genuine and that you aren't dealing with the mafia?'

'Oh, I don't know.'

'OK. The documentation has to bear the stamps from Moscow and from Kiev, it should be counter-signed by such-and-such.

Your other problems are that you do not speak Russian, and the vendors speak no English. How will you do business?'

Eventually silly man manages to convince Vuva to act as the interpreter and as someone who can check that the relevant documentation is in order.

They met the vendors, Vuva negotiated a good deal for the silly man and everything turned out right. Silly man was allowed to get back home without any more trouble from the Ukrainian police, he got his machine through a genuine state-authorised deal, at a good price.

Many weeks late Vuva received a telephone call from the silly england man.

"Thank you for all your help. I want to repay your kindness. Will you come and work for me?"

"No" was the initial reply, but silly man proved to be insistent, tenacious and persuasive. After many, many months Vuva agreed to fly to Manchester to meet silly man David again and hear him out.

And so Vuva got a job with David who turned out to be a remarkably wealthy industrialist with many business interests (including mining). He got an office next to David's. In the three years and three months he stayed at the firm, not-so-silly man David and Vuva travelled to Russia 23 times and secured deals worth many, many millions of pounds.

Then, in the space of 6 weeks, David died of cancer. Vuva's expression became serious; with rheumy eyes he said softly: "he was like my brother".

He tried to stay at the firm for a while longer, "but my heart was not good any more" so he left and took a job as a chauffeur.

He finished the last few minutes of the short story while parked outside my house.

When he had finished I shook his hand and told him that I had enjoyed listening to him and that I would love to travel with him again.

He laughed "you tell this to my company, yes?"

"Of course, what is your full name?"

"Oh my full name is Vladimir ... ... ... ... (and he told me about five or six Russian names) but everyone calls me Rick."


"Da, da, Russian Rick"

Fabian's mistake

My brother in law (D.) is not an evil person, but he is a vengeful man. He has in the past shown extraordinary ingenuity in his vindictiveness. This is a story which, every time I think of it, makes me laugh and marvel at his capacity for planning and executing mischief when he feels that retribution (usually out of all proportion to the offence incurred) is called for.

On a very hot summer’s day a few years ago, a friend - Fabian - called him on the phone and asked D., under some pretext, to go to his house. When he arrived at Fabian’s house he stood by the door and rang the bell. Fabian, from the balcony immediately above the entrance, did him the courtesy of showering him with the icy contents of a large bucket of water, leaving my brother in law surprised and dripping wet.

Normally this sort of stuff is ok, especially when you have nothing to do and it is a supremely hot day.

But Fabian then made a crucial mistake which sealed his fate.

Had he let D. into the house and offered him a beer and a towel the whole incident would have ended there, for my brother in law is not entirely devoid of a sense of humour. Instead Fabian refused to open the door and chose to point and laugh at D., who in turn momentarily accepted the prank in good humour and, I expect through gritted teeth, made light play of the situation. He then went home to formulate his revenge.

In characteristic fashion he let several days pass, continuing relations with Fabian as normal. The whole incident was forgotten, surely.


On another unbearably sweltering day not long after the original prank my brother in law learned that Fabian had some business in a nearby city about an hour’s drive away. He was going there with some clients. Time execute the plan.

As expected, a short while into Fabian’s business trip, D. received a distress call from an agitated Fabian.
“What is this smell? What have you done to my car?”

asked the panicking voice, by now half-way to his destination and carrying his complement of business men.

My brother in law just laughed and told him to ring back, after he had served his penance, in a few minutes time when he would reveal the origins of the vile smell.

A little while later an angry Fabian rang again,
“Have a look under the driver’s seat” said D.
To Fabian’s dismay, and I imagine eternal embarrassment, he found a dog-turd placed inside a plastic carrier bag underneath the driver’s seat. You see, my brother in law had at that time a few dogs that produced copious amounts of shit. He chose the pungent produce of his Yorkshire Terrier.

With the source of the stench identified, Fabian threw out the bag, apologised profusely to his guests and drove on.

This is, I'm sure, in most people’s books, a disproportionate response to a little prank. Personally I would have been quite angry at him for pulling this stunt in retaliation for a mere splashing of water.

I am sure that in Fabian's mind this was the end of the matter.

It turned out that this was in fact, only the prelude to the gag (for want of a better word) proper.

The smell persisted. Fabian rang again.

“The smell won’t go away” he growled.
Really?” feigning concern, D instructed: “Look, I’m sorry. Put the fan on, open all the vents and fully turn up the aircon. That ought to get rid of it in a few minutes.”

Partly out of desperation and partly for lack of a better plan Fabian turned the fans in the dashboard on maximum, as instructed.

And this is where the real revenge took place. Unbeknown to Fabian, D. had removed the vents on the dashboard and placed an additional large turd, this one produced by his Great Dane, inside the air ducts. Turning the fans on was the premeditated means for delivering the full blast of his particular brand of revenge.

My brother in law did not answer the subsequent, numerous, phone calls. Fabian didn't learn about the second turd until he got home later in the evening.

Revenge, it seems, is a dish best served through the vents of the air-conditioning system.