Wild about wildlife

November 1st, 2009

I can’t quite work out why AA Gill would want to tell everyone that he’d killed a baboon to find out how it felt, but I have met quite a few people who would like to kill a baboon.

In the summer, when we stayed in the winelands of the Western Cape we took the mountain road above Franschhoek , came round a bend and almost immediately into a troupe of baboons sitting in trees, gambolling across the road and playing on the verges. We were completely mesmerised – I have never been so close to wild animals and there was a complete family, the dominant male sitting in a tree, the females with babies clinging to their backs or feeding. We turned off the engine, locked the doors and watched the troupe for about 20 minutes, fascinated and thrilled.


The next day we went to wine tastings at the farms. At the first one, the dogs rushed to greet us. The owner’s wife told us that the dogs had to be kept in at night because the baboons will attack them if they get the chance. Everyone we spoke to about the baboons talked of their destructive nature, their tusks and their size. They are a protected species but they are also dangerous. I suspect the wine farmers of the Cape might be happy if there were more AA Gill’s visiting.

The next time I saw wild animals up close was in the game reserve. We set out with the game warden, Stu in the dawn light. It was the tail end of winter and bit nippy but nonetheless I felt it wasn’t quite right to start off with a blanket and hot water bottle. On the other hand, as we got higher into the hills it was quite welcome.

The game wardens are the stars of the reserves. And they fill hot water bottles and provide hot coffee for the journey too. His knowledge of the terrain and the wildlife was intimate and his love of both was evident.

The most thrilling for me was seeing a giraffe outlined against the dawn sky of Africa. Giraffes chew the cud. This beautiful creature stood virtually unmoving, chewing and our warden told us to watch for the ripple of the food as it was regurgitated up that long neck

Stu had no sentimentality about the need to control the baboons. Dangerous creatures to be treated with caution. He spoke almost tenderly about the elephant family he took us to see – rescued from Zimbabwe and re-homed along with their Zimbabwean handlers,
but he also talked about the destruction the elephants could cause to the villages and to the people who live there and the crops. At the time there was an uproar in Britain because Australian game wardens had taken to small aircraft to shoot camels which were causing widescale damage. Apparently this is the best way to cull large animals, accurate and humane. Stu told us there are tracking devices which locate the animals, transmit that information to the hunters so the plane can find them and dispatch them cleanly. Culling elephants, he told us, was “not nice”. They must kill a whole family as elephants don’t survive well outside that unit. And then, there has to be a disposal of the bodies, big bodies.

I don’t think I’m sentimental about animals but the truth is that I am hypocritically squeamish. I think grey squirrels are a pest but I doubt I could kill one myself – any more than I could kill a baboon.

Remembering Mary Stott

October 11th, 2009

Way back when the SDP was a proper party fighting a General Election, I met Mary Stott who arrived at our HQ in an old off-licence in deepest South East London and rolled up her sleeves and stuffed envelopes for our candidate, who was her friend Polly Toynbee, and made tea and talked deep good sense.

I actually at that time had no idea who she was other than the person I sat with on the routine chores of election. Grey haired and calm Mary and I chatted as we packed. I can’t recall really what we talked about. I suspect if I had realized then that Mary was one of the most respected and loved journalists of her day, founding editor of Guardian Women I would have been too overawed to talk about anything, It was only later that I found that out. And when I did it it made sense of something that happened one afternoon.

A woman came in and started to talk to us in a rather general way – “what’s this party about then”, “what are you going to do for me”, “you’re not going to get in are you.” Her accent seemed educated but her manner was distracted. Mary replied in measured tones, answering the questions without patronizing, but kept focused on the envelopes. Then the woman said “I lost my husband you know”.

Mary immediately stopped working, stood up, moved to the woman and took her hands. I clearly remember that all she said was “oh, my dear”. She stood in front of our visitor, just holding both her hands in hers, while the tears fell.

Although I thought I could recognize distress I had not seen what Mary had; the directionless despair of loss. Later I read her autobiography “Forgetting’s no Excuse” when she writes of her life and of her marriage to Kenneth Stott and of how she learned to live alone after he died. I have always remembered (and passed on) her advice to married women, “keep your own bank account”. I’ve just looked at my copy, unread for many years and think I must re-visit. Our visitor, incidentally came back quite often after that, drawn to Mary’s company, never quite as distracted as that first visit, and she even helped from time to time.

Later, I would often see her in Blackheath Village. As The Guardian inaugurated a prize in her name and I see that this year’s winner writes about widowhood. Mary Stott would have understood.

From somewhere near the middle of England

September 28th, 2009

I had a day off today so I went down to Burford. I’ve already mentioned that I live alongside some of the most beautiful countryside in England. Burford is the essence of Cotswold village set along a hill with a High street that drops between stone houses essentially unchanged externally for three hundred years, and down to a single bridge crossing the Windrush river. The post office looks as must have done when Flora Thompson wrote Lark Rise to Candleford not far from here.

Burford High Street

I am particularly fond of the church at Burford. It is nearly a thousand years old and full of stories. The Levellers were under siege here in 1649 and on the wall of the church is a plaque commemorating the three ringleaders who were executed by Cromwell’s troops. On the lead rim of the font Anthony Sedley engraved his name. The Harman family memorial shows 16 children, all at prayer, (although a good few of them died in infancy) and features natives of a Brazilian tribe – possible the first depiction of American natives in England. There is a romanesque Norman entrance and a wonderful and awesome memorial to Lord and Lady Tanfield who were hated by the village, Lady Tanfield in particular. And up near the ceiling is the strange carving of three figures known as the Three Disgraces.

I went in and sat and thought about the men who had spent their last night here – unpaid and rebelling against Cromwell, himself the rebel leader. And what they wanted to achieve. I thought too about ideals diverted or, perhaps, perverted. Cromwell is an ancestor of mine (as he is of many people) and I take pride in the small part of my Parliamentarian blood heritage but not of the treatment of the Levellers.

Outside, the high street is completely full of gift shops, antique shops, Cotswold candy stores and restaurants, gastro-pubs, cafes and delicatessens. There is a shoe shop too where I heard the kind of accents that I thought had died with the Mitford girls sometime in the early 50s. I can buy lots of reading specs with fun frames and lots of ornaments on hedgehog themes and hand-baked meringue nests. There are bay trees in tubs outside the front doors which, if they are not 400 year old wood, are painted French Grey. The charming properties in Burford sell for huge sums of money, presumably to bankers with their bonuses. In the summer the pavements are shuffle-along only. It is massively popular with tourists.

Much as I like Burford, I think it is even less of a real place than Oxford. I live in a tourist town but at least we have butchers and places to get shoes repaired and Pret a Manger and dry cleaners. We have drunks and lots of thin blonde girls enjoying Friday nights out. I think that might be better than the almost Disney like quality of many of the perfect Cotswold villages. The question of whether to move to Burford or any of the villages around it is not one that I am likely to be able to afford to face I’m rather pleased to say. But I do suspect that if the Levellers came back they would recognize the town where they were finally run to ground and they would also think that their work was by no means over.

They do things differently

September 8th, 2009

It’s not just the past that is another country where they do things differently – other countries are also places where they do things differently. In South Africa where I’ve just spent 12 great days I noticed that by great cliffs or by swimming pools there are warning notices. And they warn that anyone who gets injured has only themselves to blame. The management will take no responsibility. If it’s a teeny child that gets eaten by a lion, then it’s the responsibility of the adult with the child, and not the game reserve. It can’t be much more than a decade since the British took the same view but I realized quite how restrictive the UK has become. Rather than take the robust African view of matters, we simply restrict what one can do – walk on cliff edges, take more than one child at a time into a swimming pool – so that there is a minimal risk of danger and litigation.

I was also impressed by another area of robustness in SA. One of the big stories was the planned strike of taxi owners on the day that Jo’burg’s brand new public transport system was opened in time for next year’s World Cup (which le tout South Africa is agog about). The taxi drivers are, I am reliably told, unpopular with everyone. Their vehicles are dangerous and ill maintained, the drivers are erratic and unsafe and they are sometimes given to violence towards their passengers. So unlike our own dear cabbies.

The newspaper report was refreshingly direct.

“Gauteng Premier Nomvula Mokonyane said ” Those who have spoken out on TV and in the media will find they will have to take responsibility for their loose talk. She added that those threatening the new public transport system were in the minority and that authorities would take a heavy-handed approach against troublemakers planning to use vehicles to block bus routes.

“If someone leaves a vehicle where it should not be, we will… throw it in the rubbish unless somebody wishes to step forward and claim it”

Speaking about threats of violence and intimidation, Mokonyane said “We are government and we are in charge. The others don’t have the police, the army and the metro police to call on”

That’s what I call the firm grip of government. In the event the strike didn’t take place but some members of the army were in a pitched battle with police in the centre of Pretoria, protesting about low pay.

South Africa is a fascinating and wonderful country. More anon. Meanwhile, here’s a picture of a lion.

Bottlierskop resident

Bottlierskop resident

A Duck story

July 27th, 2009

I’ve always been very fond of ducks. They’re essentially rather jolly creatures I always think and I like that slightly aggrieved brurk brurk noise they make. The ducklings are essence of cute, the males are blokey in a duck sort of a way and the females always seem busy and slightly cross.

When I was at primary school we kept ducks as class pets and one summer we looked after them at home during the long break. My mother adored the ducks who would follow her around when she was gardening so she could feed them worms. She would cook an evil smelling stew of vegetables and pea pods specially for them and they showed their affection for her by eating the stuff with apparent enthusiasm. It was of great sorrow to my mother when these well-fed, organic creatures went missing from their duck house just before Christmas.

Yes, I know a couple of them are geese

Yes, I know a couple of them are geese

On my way home through the local park I watched the large numbers of ducks busying around the pond and noted the ducklings are obviously at the gawky teenage stage. What I also noted was that the ducks were all girls – I don’t think I saw a single lad. G suggested that maybe all the male ducks were gathering somewhere at a gay duck convention. He referred me to a rather beastly story about a Dutch museum, two ducks and an Ig noble prize (see what I did there). I found it in The Guardian so it must be true although I’m a little sad to think it might be. Just shows one shouldn’t anthropomorphise too much – one can be so disappointed.

Ramblings from the sick bed

July 8th, 2009

I’ve been off sick for a couple of days and in between bouts of feverish sleep I’ve passed the time by listening to the news and watching television programmes on my laptop. Today the 7th British soldier this week died in Helmand- another day, another death.

When ex-President Bush sent troops into Afghanistan I remember saying to an old friend that Afghan British history didn’t fill one with optimism for a good result. Afghans have always been fearsome fighters and a trip to the Khyber Pass am, bears testament to previous attempts to subdue the populace. Along the hilltop are carved the coats of arms of the British regiments (I’m told ) remnants of the wars in the nineteenth century, part of the “Great Game” the territorial battle between the British and the Russian Empires. It didn’t really go well for the British and ended in withdrawal. The Russians occupied Afghanistan for about a dozen years in the late 20th century where (and again I am told) they managed to secure Kabul sufficiently for a relatively normal society to work, women able to be educated and to be educators and for commerce and government to work. The history is long, complicated and I’ve not really got enough life left to live to study it sufficiently to speak with any authority. But I will say that it’s always seemed like a buzzing wasp’s nest and going in there militarily seemed like poking a stick into a wasp’s nest and then stirring.
I could understand that the hills along the Afghan Pakistan border were sheltering Taliban, a more vicious, destructive group it would be difficult to invent. Their evil, grim ways of terrifying and intimidating a populace seemed something to be fought and the thick political and religious stew in which they boil produces toxic swarms of rabid young men and increasingly women to fly out into the world to wreak destruction.

The history, the arguments, the politics, the cultures and religious rifts are all beyond me and frankly I suspect beyond many ordinary British people. But then, looking at the political leaders one has to wonder what they were thinking. Our troops went into Iraq with less Parliamentary debate than was devoted to banning hunting. We know about the murky depths behind that decision and we know too that back benchers in the Labour party who also had doubts managed to overcome them.

When the military was sent into Helmand, John Reid who was Secretary of State for Defence downplayed the dangers – indeed he implied that there wouldn’t be a shot fired. It sounded unlikely even then and 176 deaths later we know for sure. Any anyway, the British military get sent into the toughest places because they are good. When Blair ordered troops into Iraq, I was profoundly wary of the argument that Al Qaida were operating out of a state where secularism had been imposed as rigorously as whatever it is the Taliban impose.

I just know that I would like our troops to come home after 6 years. And I know that watching Tony Blair being interviewed by a particularly unctuous Graydon Carter was pretty uncomfortable for me. Graydon pointed out that Blair is the highest paid public speaker in the world, eclipsing even Bill Clinton and Blair acknowledged that when one has been Prime Minister, one gets used to a certain standard of life. But he did it in a modest, half-smiley regular guy sort of a way. So that’s alright then.

Well, you never know

May 31st, 2009

I really am surprisingly rubbish at politics. I learnt to read using newspapers, I ran committee rooms for Margaret Thatcher’s first Minister of Health when I was 16, I wrote filler pieces for the Young Conservative newsletter before I’d even left school, before I got out a bit more into the wider world and began to reassess my political standpoint. You might think that under these circumstances I’d worked it out a bit but no. Circumstances, conviction and loyalty meant that I even went with the doomed rump of the SDP, the party I joined, as a Founder member and where I spent 10 years of my life. I was at the bedside when the life support was turned off and it died at Woolwich town hall in 1992.

I used my mastery of politics to bet that Gordon Brown would never be Prime Minister. I decided in 1997, when it was suggested that Tony had promised Gordon that he could have the next go, that is was nonsense. The idea that the Prime Ministership was somehow in the gift of the incumbent and Tony and Gordon could just arrange it between them was, to me, literally unbelievable. It also seemed (and still does to some degree) just as unbelievable that a PM would willingly stand down and say that it was “someone else’s turn” or that there would be no ambitious, smart (and not so smart) members who wouldn’t use the opportunity to take what would possibly be their only chance to be leader of their party and PM too. Luck is a huge element in politics and the chances for the top job don’t come about that often. In the event, we know that I was wrong. Apparently there was no-one else who felt either the desire or capability to stand for the post. No members strong enough or brave enough to challenge Brown. That the Labour members allowed this to happen is, in my opinion, to their discredit and has done Gordon Brown no favours.

Three weeks ago I decided that there would be no PR for the Westminster Parliament in my lifetime. Obviously I’d be ill advised to predict my lifetime so I don’t but look, here is a resurgent movement for change (which of course I signed up to this morning).

I can only hope that my legendary political instincts are working as well as always, in which case be prepared for PR by the next election!

A sense of proportion

May 17th, 2009

It is a matter of sadness to me that I am unlikely to see any system of proportional representation come about for Westminster elections in my lifetime. It seems a long time since I was heavily committed to campaigns to change our voting system – hell, it is a long time since the early 80s and we still have the first past the post system which has brought us “strong” government and, in my opinion, an electorate who are reluctant to vote if they see, rationally, that their vote is not going to change anything, as in the British equivalents of American “Yellow Dog States” where it is said, a yellow dog with the right rosette gets voted in. British constituencies where, we used to say, they weigh the votes rather than count them.

One the particular aspects of the current MPs expenses scandal – and I think it is a scandal – is that it is offends just about everyone who isn’t an MP (and it offends quite a few of those who are decent and understand the word Honourable). Those who are working in jobs with low salaries and no possible claims of expenses just don’t understand how people earning twice the national average salary are able to use this device to act effectively as property developers People who do have to claim expenses wonder why the MPs don’t have to present proof of every purchase and justify it, unemployed people wonder why they are pursued through the courts if they make a genuine mistake in their benefits claims and anyone paying tax marvels at the way the legislators managed to exempt themselves from stamp duty and other taxes related to house sales.

Beyond that, those who have always thought that MPs were money-grubbing, power hungry semi-crooked characters feel vindicated (although they should not – we know the names of a few good guys). Those, like me and people who know or have known MPs and have defended them against often silly critics. We think it reasonable that people who represent a constituency way out of London should have some place to sleep when they are working in the capital and we also think our MPs should be paid a good professional wage. The alternative is leaving politics to the wealthy who can afford expensive hobbies. But we have been completely shocked by the level of the chiselling and also made to feel fools. I have heard people who passionately defend democracy and the responsibility of voting (and that includes me) say that for the first time in their adult life they will not vote.

One possibility that comes from this (although frankly I don’t think it will happen in any meaningful way) is that independent candidates emerge. A friend pointed out how successful the MP for Wyre Valley, Dr Richard Taylor who was voted in to stand against the closure of his local hospital has been. He was voted in for a second term which is unusual for single issue MPs, except he isn’t single issue any more. Indeed, as Marina Hyde pointed out, he has been trying to shine some light on the expenses issue. One of the inhibitions on people like Dr Taylor is that the electoral system just doesn’t give them a chance unless there are very special circumstances.

Well these are special circumstances. I think it’s time for a full and proper reform of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, just as long ago Tony Blair pledged to do. And a system that would be fairer and would mean that votes count and that a far wider more diverse group of people were elected, who when they were in Parliament would have to be much better negotiatiors and representatives rather than just being lobby fodder should be part of it. I’ve had enought of strong government with long periods of one-party rule and the complacency and contempt of the voters that too often comes with it.

..lude sing cuckoo

May 4th, 2009
May morning Oxford

May morning Oxford

A young colleague of mine arrived at work on May morning and told me that she’d just been assaulted by a Morris dancer! I think she was more surprised than upset at having been slapped on the bottom by a man with flowers in his hat, bells on at his knees and smile on his face

If you live long enough in a place it gets to be normal. I’ve lived nearly 15 years in Oxford and accept all sorts of strange things which in the real world might be considered very abnormal.

May 1 is a very particular day. The Magdalen choir sing from the top of their tower and, having spent several years getting up at 4.00 am on Mayday to escort a chorister to his important day, I’ve grown very fond of this somewhat eccentric but certainly charming ritual. They sing the Hymnus Eurcharisticus and Summer is icumen in with the line, I have been informed by my choir expert, lude sing cuckoo. Perhaps it should have been lewdly..

I’ve heard the choir sing to blue skies in warm breezes and also battle against winds on the swaying tower against slate skies. On that particular year we’d been invited to watch and hear from one of the other College towers. The experience must have been a bit like that of a Spartan son, exposed to the elements to toughen up.

And the Morris men, and women. On May 1 in Oxford the full English country folk tradition is on show. There are the Morris troupes, known as sides and the men (I think they’re men) dressed as trees. I arrived at work to find a congregation of groups gathering outside the next door College.

I’m not going to reference the well-known quote about incest and Morris dancing. I’m going to suggest looking at this trailer for a film with a wonderful cast which can’t get mainstream distribution – it’s been going around the church halls. I think it may have managed to combine several English traditions – Morris dancing, a certain knee-jerk embarrassment for our own traditions, and an English way of managing such things – through self-deprecating humour. It might also mean we look at Morris men in a different light – just like my work colleague probably will.

Swan’s black

April 2nd, 2009

On the way home from listening to Yasmin Alibhai-Brown talk about her book, the Settlers Cookbook, I glanced over the bridge and there, floating around was a swan. A black swan. This is becoming a bit of a theme I know but I was completely struck by this gorgeous creature looking so exotic and almost unreal. If I’d been on my own I would have wondered at my memory afterwards but I had witnesses and I have a photograph – in fact several photographs but most of them aren’t any good. I’m beginning to wonder if I have the start of a short story.

Swan on the Thames

Swan on the Thames