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.

 

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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.)

Ivan Turgenev and his Birds

Turgenev knew nature very well and certainly knew his birds. Part of the reason for this was that he liked to rise early of a morning and blast them to pieces with guns – and so we kill the things we know so well and love.

The following examples are all from Fathers and Sons (Oxford edition, translated by Richard Freeborn), but the list could be extended considerably by including references from his Sportsman’s Notebook (also published in English under the title Sketches from a Hunter’s Notebook.) And I have to admit that the list is not complete – I have omitted the reference to an ornamental bird of paradise found on a lady’s hat.

I particularly like the intervention of a chaffinch deflating the balloon of a declaration of love. Such declarations should be deflated wherever possible.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

If it is open to dedicate a post, I dedicate this one to elizabethm. Here is a link to her latest post which takes Turgenev as its subject.

https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/

And if you are a native speaker (Hi there, Gerard!)  then this post is also available in Dutch.

1 Chicken

A plump young chicken in motley plumage strutted self-importantly along them, tapping away firmly with its large yellow claws.

2 Dove

A large grey dove flew down on to the road and hurriedly set about drinking from a puddle beside the well. Nikolai Petrovich started watching it and then his ear caught the sound of approaching wheels.

3/4 Skylarks and Rooks

Everywhere skylarks poured out their song in unending, resonant streams. Lapwings cried as they circled above the low-lying meadows or ran about silently among the tufts of grass. Rooks wandered about, darkening beautifully among the soft green of the low spring wheat and disappearing in the rye, which was already beginning to whiten, their heads showing here and there among its smoky waves.

5 Snipe

‘You’ve got a bit of marshland there, by a grove of aspens. That’s where I started up half-a-dozen snipe. You can go and kill them, Arkady.’ ‘You’re not a hunter yourself?’ ‘No.’

6 Long-tailed Siskin

From the ceiling, on a long cord, there hung a cage containing a short-tailed siskin; it ceaselessly chirruped and jumped about and the cage ceaselessly rocked and shook and hemp seeds pattered down on to the floor.

7 Quail

Dunyasha would gladly giggle at him and give him sidelong, significant looks as she ran past him all aflutter like a little quail.

 8 Swallows

Swallows flew high above; the wind had quite died;

9 Nightingale

And now I hope, Arina Vlasevna, having sated your mother’s heart to the full, you’ll think about sating our dear guests because, as you know, even nightingales can’t live on songs alone.’

10 Telling a bird from its flight

‘Have it your way, please,’ responded Vasily Ivanovich with a friendly grimace. ‘I may be put on the shelf now, but I’ve also been about the world a bit and I can tell what a bird is from its flight.

11 Fledgling Hawk

Somewhere high above in the tips of the trees the unceasing screech of a fledgling hawk rang out plaintively.

12 Falcon

‘There’s nothing for it, Vasya! Our son’s cut off from us. He’s a falcon, like a falcon he wanted to come and he flew here, then he wanted away and he flew away. But you and I, we’re just a couple of old mushrooms, we are, stuck in the hollow of a tree, sitting side by side and never moving. Except that I’ll always remain the same for you for ever and ever, just as you will for me.’ Vasily Ivanovich took his hands away from his face and suddenly embraced his wife, his true friend, more tightly even than he’d been used to embrace her in his youth, for she had comforted him in his misery.

13 Sparrows

He held in his hand a half-opened book while she picked out of a basket some last crumbs of white bread and threw them to a small family of sparrows which, with their characteristic cowardly impudence, jumped about twittering at her feet.

 14 Chaffinch 

‘I suppose,’ he began again in a more excited voice, just as a chaffinch in the birch foliage above him launched casually into song, ‘I suppose it’s the duty of any honest man to be entirely candid with those … with those who … with people close to him, I mean … and so I, er, intend …’

15 Jackdaw

‘Goodbye, old mate!’ he said to Arkady when he’d already climbed into the cart and, pointing to a pair of jackdaws sitting side by side on the stable roof, added ‘There’s a lesson for you! Learn from them!’ ‘What’s that mean?’ asked Arkady. ‘What? You can’t be all that poor at natural history! Or have you forgotten that the jackdaw is the most respectable family bird? Let them be your example! Farewell, signor!’

16 A wee grouse hen

Arina Vlasevna was so flustered and ran about the house so much that Vasily Ivanovich compared her to ‘a wee grouse-hen’ and the docked tail of her short blouse actually did give her rather a bird-like look.

17 A Crowing Cock

Everyone had long faces and a strange quiet descended. A noisily crowing cock was removed from the yard and carted off to the village, quite unable to understand why it was being treated in this way.

 

 

 

Turning an honest penny?

There has been a care home in our area for many years. Some residents leave it on foot and risk crossing the road to the newsagent or the supermarket, though constant traffic, mostly exceeding the speed limit, make this a hazardous undertaking.

guthrie-court

Recently, two new businesses have opened nearby. The first is a funeral undertaker, who has spotted an obvious  market niche as people entering the home by the front door tend to leave by the back.

david-porteus

The second was more unexpected, an outfit offering to pamper us all, both in mind and body. My wife suspected this might be a front for a house of ill repute, catering entirely for the body and letting the mind go hang. But it transpires that the business is, how shall we say, ‘straight up’.

pampered

This may be seen by the special offers they post from time to time on a swinging metal board on the pavement outside; for example, holistic massage with mineral salts. But the current one takes the biscuit (holistic biscuits, no doubt, offered with a glass of Madeira). And what was this special offer, I hear you ask? A Jurassic Mud Foot Soak!

I took the photograph on a Sunday when the shop was closed, so avoiding the risk that the staff would rush out and drench me in patchouli oil or ylang ylang. Had it been open, I would have been tempted to wander in, assume the innocent expression of the aged and infirm, and ask where they sourced their supplies of Jurassic mud. I mean, who falls for this sort of thing?

Will the business last? I have no idea, but will keep you posted if I live long enough.

Surviving The Death Railway -Review

This book documents two things: what happens to the  men of 27 Line Section when they are captured by the Japanese during WWII, and the efforts of Barry Custance Baker and his wife Phyllis, not only to keep in touch with each other but the valiant efforts of Phyllis to keep the families of other prisoners of war as well informed as possible regarding the fate of the men.

deathrailwayT

Phyllis was in regular contact by letter with relatives of the captured men who, for a long time, had no idea whether or not they were still alive, where they were, or what condition they were in. Over a period of time she compiled what someone at the War Office referred to as a ‘fearsome dossier’. She could not have worked harder at this. Many letters from relatives are quoted, and without exception the relatives, mostly women, do their level best to express themselves and their feelings even when they know their letter-writing skills could be better.

The enforced slave labour of the POWs has been well documented, and is so again here. Barry proved to be an enormously resourceful man who did his utmost to help his men in the appalling conditions they found themselves. Many died, and at one point he was given the job of making crosses to mark their graves. There was also the ever-present danger of disease and the measures the POWs were forced to take to combat it.

‘There were, of course, no antibiotics regularly available though small quantities of one of the sulpha drugs did appear occasionally. The doctors decided that when an ulcer patient had a life expectation of not more than a fortnight then the limb, almost always a leg, would be amputated. Markowitz got to work immediately to sort out the backlog. It is recorded that he took off over a hundred legs in his first month.’

On the subject of these nice Japanese:

‘To discourage looting from the windowless shops anyone caught by the Japanese Special Police, the Kempi Tai [Kempeitai], was immediately beheaded. The heads were then displayed on small bamboo stands at street corners in the city, each head being guarded by a Japanese sentry with a fixed bayonet. Each stand also had a small notice in English and in Chinese characters describing the man’s crime. The Japanese policy, as we later learned, was to be generally very anti European and pro Asiatic, this being part of the ‘Greater Co-Prosperity Sphere’.’

And yet, what struck me most about this account was the amazing efforts of Phyllis to keep her marriage alive through writing, which provides a strong narrative thread running through the book. She adopted the technique of numbering her letters so that Barry could tell at once if one or more had failed to arrive. But sometimes her problem was what to include, how forthright to be. She could be very forthright indeed.

‘Now I’ll say goodnight and try to dream I am sharing that small bungalow and big bed with you. All day I want my husband and Robin’s Daddy home again, but now I want a lover back, and those times when you read bits of Bilitis, or Song of Songs to me before we once again translated their subtle, delicate, sensuous imaginings to glorious reality. My body lacks the vigorous, healthful stimulus of your presence, beloved, almost as much as my mind the perfect peace & relaxation of our fulfilled love. I can keep myself busy during the day, but at night I ache for you, body and soul. Remember, won’t you, your love means my whole life, darling.’

When reading a passage like this I feel uneasy, an intruder. Phyllis herself was aware of this possibility; on one occasion she writes:

‘My own dear darling, If when you get this you are with a crowd of people, please put it away to be read for another time. For I feel so full of love & longing for you, that I may be very indiscreet.’

It is known that Phyllis kept a diary but the editor of this volume, her daughter Hilary, was unable to find it and wonders whether she destroyed it because of the intimate passages it contained. We shall never know.

One factor here had to be the mental effect on Barry of the privation he suffered for several years as a POW, magnified by the responsibility he felt for those under his command and for whom he could do much less than he would have liked. Towards the end, after he has been freed but before his return, he writes:

‘I am very sick of my fellow men, and I’ve a terrible distaste for orders or authority in any form and even stronger distaste for any personal responsibility. This will disappear quite soon I hope. Whether I stay in the army or not must depend on a later decision. When I am mentally fitter than I now am to make it. Just now an army career fills me with horror.’

Hilary Custance Green has done an amazing job bringing order to the disparate materials at her disposal and bringing them into a coherent narrative. I read that it took her six years to complete this work and I can well believe it. But her efforts have paid off in an excellent book which, among other things, is a fitting tribute to her amazing parents.

hilary-custance-green

 

 

Learning by accident

When we arrived we went to our hotel, a well-designed modern building; every room has a picture window view over the river.

Victoria Hotel 3

This photograph of the parliament building was taken through the window of our bedroom.

Parliament from bedroom

To one side of Reception was a bar, to the other a dining room.

Victoria Hotel 2

But behind Reception, to the rear of the building, was something else entirely, an area normally kept locked. Through the doorway we could see beautifully carved woodwork and a flight of stairs.  ‘What is this?’ we asked the receptionist. This, he told us, was a reconstruction of rooms where a famous composer had lived before the Nazis invaded. The house had been destroyed during the defence of Budapest against the Soviets when Germans and Hungarians had tried to hold off Russians and Romanians.

And who was the famous composer? He was Jenő Hubay, which disconcerted me a lot because I hadn’t heard of him. A little research found that he was a fine violin player who had studied with Joseph Joachim, played chamber music with Brahms and had a string of famous pupils himself, including Carl Nielsen’s son-in-law, Emil Telmanyi, for whom Nielsen wrote his violin concerto.

B_hubay_jeno_0

The owners of the hotel have carefully reconstructed some of Hubay’s house, where he used to hold recitals until his death in 1937. They were so popular that his wife started them up again two years later.

Hubay rooms 2Hubay rooms 1

Hubay has a considerable number of compositions to his credit. These include operas and also, as you would expect, compositions for the violin including four concertos. It sometimes happens that when a virtuoso writes concertos for his or her instrument they are strong on technical demands but weak in musical interest. This is not always the case, though, and certainly isn’t with Jenő Hubay. His concertos are excellent and well scored. Here is Ragin playing a movemnt of the third concerto.

And there are a few recordings featuring Hubay himself.

Two more little wrinkles. Hubay married a countess, Róza Cebrian.

Hubay and Cebrian

And then there is the Chaplin connection. Chaplin’s daughter, Antoinette, studied violin with Jenő Hubay in Budapest in the 1920’s and often mentioned Hubay and members of his family in letters home. That said, she did not stand comparison with most of Hubay’s other students.

But I have just begun to explore all this and haven’t even mentioned General Bem, about whom a book could be written and probably has been.

Poetry Comics

For several years I wrote poems and published them in newspapers, magazines and anthologies. Then the mood passed, I stopped and turned to prose. Until recently.

A friend who is an artist wanted a poem to illustrate and checked a few of them out. She chose Philosophy is Forced Upon the Frog and submitted her work for inclusion in a new book; Over The Line, an introduction to poetry comics, edited by Chrissy Williams and Tom Humberstone.

overthelinecover

Their book not only contains a varied selection of poems illustrated in ‘comic’ manner but also an excellent introduction to the subject. Since I knew nothing about it, I learned a lot. So I now have a new addition to the shelf with my work in it and learned today that Over The LIne is up for a Saboteur Award (Best Anthology category).

http://www.saboteurawards.org

The friend is Zyzanna Dominiak and this is her work.

frog 1

In the fourth frame Zyzanna has neatly subverted my negative conclusion (We’re doomed!) by the introduction of hope in the shape of tadpoles. Good for her.

frog 2