Cast Iron Alibis

I haven’t looked it up, but assume this phrase comes from the fact that cast iron is very strong and therefore hard to break.

Having had many encounters with cast iron over the years I can confirm that it is strong, but also that it rusts over the years. In the case of gutters, many proud house owners will paint the exterior and seen from the ground they look great! But as a rule they will not check the interior, invisible from the ground, where the water flows and also where it stands for long periods. Why does it do this? Sometimes the gutter is not completely horizontal on its way to the downpipe, other times it faces obstacles such as autumn leaves or, very often, grass and other plants finding a wet gutter offers a happy home.

It’s when things go wrong that we discover how hard/impossible cast iron is to work with. There is absolutely no give in it and it is also brittle and easy to break if you try too hard. It can be cut with an angle grinder, thoough. The most I have ever been able to do is patch it, provided the hole made by the rust is not too large.

A case in point. On my way to visit my daughter I pass a house with a cast iron problem. As may easily be seen most of the water does not make it all the way down the pipe, and the wall won’t like that. On a rainy day, neither will passers by.

Cast Iron 1But even if it did make it all the way to the ground, it hits another problem.

Cast Iron 2How did this pipe end up in such a bad condition? I don’t know, of course, but I can guess. It may have been where it is now since 1897 and age has taken its toll. (Know the feeling!) Another possibility is that the drain is entirely or partially  blocked below ground level. This will mean water filling the downpipe for hours, days , weeks, because it can’t run away. And this will lead to rust.

For this here pipe there is no hope. And if you’ve just bumped off your husband or wife, the same will be true of your cast iron alibi.

As for cast iron guarantees . . .

Wry Thoughts on Losing Control

Like many of us, I’ve had to deal with large documents, usually course submissions for an exam board.

But people like me (I ran a recording studio) are not to be trusted with such things, so the college employed a woman whose jobs was to check through our submissions on the look-out for errors, weaknesses and possible improvements.

And I can’t deny that she found them. She could have marked up the text with revisions, suggestions and so on, but preferred to slap explanatory Post-its on the sections she wanted amended.

I was not alone in thinking she went a bit over the top here. Our documents would be returned positively bristling with Post-it notes, despite the existence of other colours all yellow, and one such occasion, rather than top myself, I went for a cunning plan.

I accepted Pat’s major suggestions, but there were many others, most of a nit-picking nature. So, life being short, I artfully removed quite a few of these notes before returning the document to her. Since she couldn’t remember all the Post-its she’d placed in the document in the first place, she didn’t notice that several were missing. Sneaky, right?

Pat was so well known for her system she was referred to as Post-it Pat, no doubt based on the children’s character Postman Pat.

Another example. A certain education administrator I knew many years ago had a long, rectangular office, along one wall of which he had a long rectangular pin board. This was his pride and joy. Written on small plastic pins of various colours were the class, classroom, teacher and subject of every class in the college. In short, the timetable for the entire institution.

Yes, he had it all under control – until certain students who’d figured out the weakness in his system, snuck into his office one evening, removed every single pin from the board and left them in a heap on the floor.

The following morning, he came close to a nervous breakdown because now he had no idea which of his many pins went where. In one fell swoop, from total control to no control at all. His world had collapsed on his office floor.

So the fact that a system is physical does not make it safe. Even in the real world (the world not involving computers) backup is essential.

Of course, we all lose control in the end, but that can’t be helped. If you find the thought disturbing, take the advice of Swami Rod – just relax and have a bad time.

Bookshops changing with the times

They don’t have it easy these days and are obliged to follow certain trends to stay in business.

The bookshop I know best has a lower ground floor which used to be full of books – not surprising in a bookshop. Now, though, it hosts a large selection of games ranging from Monopoly through Harry Potter to Star Wars. And there are models of X-Wing fighters for those into Star Wars to assemble. Hours of joy all round.

So shelves which used to be full of books are now full of games. I can’t say a single intelligent thing on this subject because I have never played any of them.  What I notice, though, is the astonishing amount of packaging these games come in, a level of waste that books can’t compete with.

When all the packaging is ripped off where does it end up? I’m reminded of a store specializing in children’s toys (no longer trading) which was even worse. The ratio of packaging to toys did not favour the toys, most of which – to make matters worse – were made of plastic.

So if we aren’t following the trend, not playing the game, we can always stick with something safe. A book hot off the press.

 

Autobiography

Some years ago now a friend showed me chapters of an autobiography she was writing, and very good they were too. She said I should give it a go and eventually I did. But unlike her I had no aptitude for it. I began well enough, Hello, my name is Rod and I was born at an early age. But I wasn’t capable of keeping it going. More accurately, I was capable, technically, but completely lacked the motivation to do it. At root, I found myself boring. And if I failed to interest myself, why would I interest anyone else?

A few bright episodes came to mind, especially concerning my travels in Iran, Afghanistan and their aftermath. For instance, when I was finally released from the Infectious Diseases Hospital in Belgrade, a member of staff drove me to the UK Embassy prior to catching a train the following morning. One of his first acts was to drive the wrong way up a one-way street, and while he was at it hoped I would understand that he had a wife and children. Good for him, I thought. But it turned out he was afraid I would contaminate his family with infectious hepatitis. To eliminate this non-existent risk, he put me up for the night in an embassy outhouse, where I slept in a roll of carpet and was wakened with the lark by field telephone.

But if we included events like that in a novel, who would believe us? In any case, taking all such stories together, a string of narrative pearls though it might be, nothing came close to a continuous narrative. I was reminded of a description I had once seen of Berlioz’ Damnation of Faust, which someone had compared to reading Faust by lighting. So how about a succession of dramatic episodes? But that also failed to get me going. Writing biography would be a different matter altogether, provided the subject was of interest.

What follows from this?

Firstly, I think that those bloggers who are most successful are those who take themselves as their subject. Not only do they let strangers into their lives, they open the door and usher them in. If they could offer them refreshments they would. Not everyone can do this, though. I don’t have what it takes.

Secondly, those of us who write fiction give ourselves away all the time. I obviously can’t prove this, it is merely what I think. And some will reveal their hand more than others. I would say I reveal my hand quite a bit. In fiction there is usually an element of self-description at one remove. The reader can infer various things about the writer even if he does not divulge the name of his cat.

 

Grounds for Concern

We used to live in a farmhouse on the outskirts of town. There was considerable hedging and many trees which I used to climb  to prune. Two cats and one pheasant lie buried in the grounds.

When I came home from work of an evening, the bus passed open fields before it reached us. Below is a small part of what used to be one of those fields, now covered in houses with driveways and garages.

The planners insisted that an old footpath by the impressive name of the Via Regis be kept – and it is still there if you know where to look for it. But now there is no field to either side, as once there was. Dog walkers don’t like this so much. Neither do dogs. I was just chewing over this sad state of affairs with Buster the Staffie the other day when he spotted a lamppost and ran off.

If I stayed on the bus past my stop, (as sometimes happened when I dozed off en route), I would see more open ground on the left. Now this is also covered by a large housing estate.

The same has happened with ground to the right, now another large housing estate called The Murrays.

Its route then takes the bus past West Edge Farm on its way to the town of Bonnyrigg. Bonnyrigg used to have a thriving market on a Thursday morning, but apartment blocks are now being built on the the ground. Though in a nod to history  the developer has called this development The Market.

Not so long ago there were fields on both sides of the road, and if the driver of the bus (Number 31, for those who like to know such things) had turned right by mistake at the top of the brae onto the Lang Loan, she would have seen a large expanse of agricultural land to her right. Here is a small part of what is on that land now.

A cottage on the outskirts of one of the fields is now surrounded by construction work and their bus stop has just been taken out of service for eight weeks. There is a helpful sign, though: USE AN ALTERNATIVE. Yes, thanks for that.

Much of the land at the Lang Loan has now been built over and even more is under construction. And the same is true of the land at West Edge Farm.

The collective acreage of all this is considerable, with ground being built on and paved over on a large scale.

At least two questions arise here. Will this land provide a habitat for living things when all this work has been completed? Even if the answer is a limited yes, not so much as before. Hedgehogs used to live here. Now they don’t. It is many years since I’ve seen one and I read that the hedgehog population has suffered a large decline.

The other issue is water. A large acreage of soil which used to absorb rain is now trapped under houses, streets and pavements. Where all the water supposed to go? Floods, anyone?

But people have to live somewhere, right?

Well, yes, they do. Though compared to previous times when tenements were popular, the same number of people are spreading themselves over far more ground than before.

And, to tie in to the theme of The Ears of a Cat, I would contend that there are too many people anyway.

Which makes me part of the problem I am describing.

A Tale of Two Professors

There is a science festival taking place where I live right now. I had tickets for two events. The first concerned cyber security and the various scams designed to part us from our money. The second was an introduction to viruses.

The professor occupying the cyber security slot had ninety minutes to cover the subject. He showed signs of knowing what he was talking about, including footage of himself addressing a parliamentary committee examining the subject, and further footage of Amber Rudd, who plainly hadn’t a clue. (For anyone outwith these shores, Ms Rudd is Her Brittanic Majesty’s Home Secretary.)

The trouble with the professor’s presentation was that he flitted like a butterfly from one blossom to another and so achieved a remarkable degree of incoherence. He also fancied himself as a stand-up comedian, which didn’t improve things at all. Despite his best efforts, I did pick up the odd nugget, such as how easily passwords can be cracked in these digital times and how quickly this can be done.

When I was younger than I am today, which wouldn’t be difficult, I was sometimes confronted by on-screen messages accusing me of having made a syntax error. Well, this particular professor is no stranger to syntax errors either, of the order ‘I had went.’ And despite having ninety minutes, he left no time for questions. Too bad. Given the chaotic nature of his talk there must have been many.

So I attended the second presentation with some anxiety, but it was everything the first was not. Professor Dorothy H Crawford was introducing us to viruses – in more ways than one as she was suffering from laryngitis at the time. The lecture was given in the old anatomy lecture theatre in the building which housed our vet school before the new one was built; hard wooden seating raked to a vertiginous degree but intimate withal.

She was coherent and lucid, with a wonderful command of clear expression.  Though having thirty minutes less than the cyber security expert, she left fifteen minutes for questions. These were many and she answered them equally clearly. Dorothy Crawford is the author of several books on this subject, including Viruses: A Very Short Introduction. I now have a copy of this book, which is excellent, expressed in the same clear language as the lecture. Having said that, many sections will repay repeated reading, as can happen with prose when hardly a word is wasted – doubtless a function of her remit to keep the book ‘very short’.

Below is a link to her Author Page.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Dorothy-H.-Crawford/e/B001IQUPF0/ref=dp_byline_cont_book_1

In the old days, and maybe it still happens now, students were asked ‘to compare and contrast.’ This I have done.

 

Hunting

Some people hunt for survival, in which case they are part of a larger group of animals, fish and insects which do the same. If they didn’t hunt they would die. They may also be part of a larger picture, protecting the balance of a given ecosystem through the regulation of animal numbers. Then there are those who don’t need to hunt but do it anyway.

The fact that they dont have to do it is not in itself an argument against it: if we only did what we had to do we might not do very much.  We don’t have to sing, dance or drink alcohol. Come to that, we don’t have to breed. But we might question the motivation of those who kill living things for pleasure. One such person was Ivan Turgenev who, though he takes the joys of hunting for granted, occasionally tries to explain it for the benefit Hindus who feared reincarnation as a duck within range of his gun, not to mention pacific individuals like me.

Turgenev Hunting by Nikolai Dmitrjewitsch Dmitrjeff-Orenburgsky, dated 1879.

In the concluding sketch from a Hunter’s Notebook, Forest and Steppe, Turgenev writes:

Hunting with a gun and a dog is a delight in itself, für sich, as they used to say in the past. But let us suppose that you are not a born hunter, though you still love nature; in that case, you can hardly fail to envy the lot of your brother hunters . . . Pray listen a while.’

The ‘while’ turns out to be an evocation, several pages long, of getting out and about before dawn and spending the day amid nature. The following is a brief extract.

In the meantime dawn has burst into flame; stripes of gold have risen across the sky and wreaths of mist form in the ravines; to the loud singing of skylarks and the soughing of the wind before dawn the sun rises, silent and purple, above the horizon. Light floods over the world and your heart trembles within you like a bird. Everything is so fresh, gay and lovely! You can see for miles. Here a village glimmers beyond the woodland; there, farther away, is another village with a white church and then a hill with a birchwood; beyond it is the marsh to which you are driving… Step lively there, horses! Forward at a brisk trot!…’

Unfortunately for the logic of his case, he weakens it with a question to which he believes the answer is obvious or he wouldn’t be asking it in the first place.

‘Has anyone save a hunter ever experienced the delight of wandering through bushes at dawn?’

So according to Ivan Sergeyevich the only reason to wander through  bushes at dawn is to massacre wildlife, though it is perfectly obvious that no one needs a fowling piece to do this: a biologist might, or a bird-watcher or even, to lower the tone, someone in search of a discreet place to relieve himself.

Ivan reveals his hand most openly in the sketch Yermolay and the Miller’s Wife. In the following extract, note what ‘delights’ him as he bumps off his birds.

‘The ducks rose noisily, literally ‘exploding’ from the pond in fright at our sudden appearance in their domain and gunfire resounded in unison after them and it was a delight to see how the stumpy birds somersaulted in the air and splashed down heavily in the water. We didn’t of course retrieve all the shot duck. Some of the slightly injured ones dived, some of the dead ones fell in such thick ‘mayer’ that even the lynx-eyed Yermolay couldn’t spot them, but nevertheless by dinnertime our boat had become filled to the brim with our bag.’

Now it so happens that on one of his many excursions he was challenged by a man called Kasyan who knew exactly what his motivation was and confronted him with an opposing philosophy. The following extracts are from the wonderful story, Kasyan from the Beautiful Lands.

‘You shoot the birds of the air, eh?… And the wild animals of the forest?… Isn’t it sinful you are to be killing God’s own wee birds and spilling innocent blood? Why is it now that you should be killing that wee bird?’ he began, looking me directly in the face.

‘How do you mean: why? A landrail is a game bird. You can eat it.’

‘No, it wasn’t for that you were killing it, master. You won’t be eating it! You were killing it for your own pleasure.’

‘But surely you yourself are used to eating a goose or a chicken, for example, aren’t you?’

‘Such birds are ordained by God for man to eat, but a landrail – that’s a bird of the free air, a forest bird. And he’s not the only one; aren’t there many of them, every kind of beast of the forest and of the field, and river creature, and creature of the marsh and meadow and the heights and the depths – and a sin it is to be killing such a one, it should be let to live on the earth until its natural end… But for man there is another food laid down; another food and another drink; bread is God’s gift to man, and the waters from the heavens, and the tame creatures handed down from our fathers of old.’

Turgenev’s hunting companion, Yermolay, complained to him more than once about his habit of engaging ‘the lower orders’ in meaningful conversation. But Turgenev learned a great deal from these converstions and much of it found its way into the Hunter’s Notebook. In this case he gives an excellent account of the time he spends with Kasyan, in the course of which we discover that he has no adequate answer to the points Kasyan puts to him. This doesn’t concern him much, partly because he is secure in his own viewpoint, and partly because Kasyan is clearly an eccentric person whose thoughts, however well argued, may too easily be discounted for that reason. But I’m with Kasyan on this one.

I don’t want to give the impression that the Hunter’s Notebook is all about hunting. It’s true subject matter is the natural world and the many different creatures (including people) who inhabit it – which he describes with a naturalist’s eye and attention to detail. (I could write a post in praise of his pen portraits, and might if I live long enough.)

For those dog lovers among you, I should point out that, in his opinion, and if you were thinking of getting one, Borzois are uncommonly stupid.

However all this may be Turgenev, a thoughtful man, concludes his final sketch, Forest and Steppe, with these kind words:

‘Farewell, my reader; I wish you lasting happiness and well-being.’

(All quotations are from the translation by Richard Freeborn.)