Even the sparrow finds a home

Sad retired person that I am, one of my main pleasures is our morning walk. We are lucky in that ours is a leafy area, with many mature trees. A particular joy is the bird life; especially the flock of sparrows which congregate in the bushes outside a doctors’ surgery. They are, as I have probably said before, my favourite bird, and invincibly chirpy.

Today, to my great gloom, I saw that a large part of the shrubs they shelter in has been cut down and dug up.

I have no idea why this has happened. Did the shrubs obscure the view of the residents of the flats behind them? Did somebody fall into them? Were there concerns about evil persons lurking in them? (All these, incidentally, are reasons I have heard for removing other areas of vegetation.)

The shrubs were not particularly sightly. They were not wild.

But they were evergreen, and did provide welcome shelter for my sparrows. Not only that, but they absorbed pollution (much needed) and road noise (much needed).

As so often, writing this seems pointless. I have no idea who owned the shrubs. I have no right to tell them what to do. All I know is that this is a sad loss to me and the sparrows, and more importantly another example of how the natural environment is being slowly destroyed.

(Footnote: the shrubs have been replaced by a dog and cat lavatory, pictured below.)


World War 2 and me

(Of course, I took no part in World War 2. Thank goodness, or thank God, or whatever.)

Last year, one of the most moving cultural events was the release of the Peter Jackson film, “They Shall Not Grow Old”. It is sadly no longer available on iPlayer; it may be on subscription TV. If you get a chance, see it.

It consists of World War 1 footage, colourised, with the original jerky movement of hand-held cameras smoothed out and with sound effects; and, movingly, with actors speaking the words of the soldiers, as transcribed by lip-readers. It makes the events, which previously seemed far distant, appear modern.

There is nobody left alive who fought in World War 1. My grandfather did. He was apparently gassed. He ended up in the occupation army in Cologne.

30th september 1917001

(30th September 1917. The last in front row is, I believe, my great-uncle, Will Eyre.)

There are fewer and fewer people alive who fought in World War 2. My uncle did. He lost his right arm and his left was rescued by a German doctor. The surgeon who he saw in England after the war said he had no idea how the arm was working and told him not to let anybody interfere with it. He never did. He was the managing director of a successful plant hire firm.

Closer to me, my mother and grandmother were in London during the war. They told stories of sheltering under the table during bombing raids, rather than going down shelters, and of how they would be praying that the engines of V1 flying bombs (“doodlebugs”) would cut out only after they had passed over. Then, my mother said, she would feel guilty, knowing the bomb would fall on somebody else.

I was born eleven years after the end of World War 2. Rationing ended two years before. When I write those two sentences, it seems unbelievable. For children of my generation, the war was very much in living memory. There were still easily identifiable bomb sites (there still is one in Southampton). We played war games in the playground: curiously we played English vs. Japanese more than English vs. Germans. Occasionally shrapnel could be found. Our parents and grandparents told us stories about the war, and about the one before. (In our village there was a man with no legs, who got around by swinging himself along on a trolley; I assume he was a World War 1 veteran.)

Now my parents and grandparents are all dead, and I hold the memories, as well as a small stock of photos and two medals.

My father had as a boy talked to veterans of the Boer War. When I die, there will be few people left who talked to veterans of World War 2. So it goes; but somehow that chain of memories is precious, and so I go on telling the stories.

I find I have already mentioned the Peter Jackson film before: see Remembering and Hoping  . No matter. It’s worth mentioning twice.

Mr Oblique’s Christmas Musings

Mr Oblique's Christmas musingsYes, it’s that time of year again. I’m starting to write this on the 21st December: the Winter Solstice. Even for non-Christians like me, this is a special time, because it marks the turning of the year; when the days, imperceptibly at first, start to get longer. Tomorrow will be a fraction of a second longer; the next day six seconds longer, and so on.

I am aware that for many, there is another meaning to Christmas: the birth of Jesus. Even an atheist person like me was horrified to go into a “pop-up” Christmas shop (looking for Nativity figures; don’t ask why) to find that the ONLY item out of thousands that referred to the Christian story was a “treetop angel”. Oh dear.

However, my main theme is that Christmas staple: that perennial favourite, the Christmas newsletter; the round robin. I believe the latter expression is an Americanism. Why a round robin? I’m sure Google could tell me, but I’d sooner fantasise about why robins write newsletters.

The yearly newsletter has been roundly mocked, especially by newspaper columnists looking for a quick target. They apparently range between two extremes.

At one end of the spectrum is the eulogy to the family. Tarquin, who at the age of eight wrote his first oratorio, is now studying quantum mechanics at Harvard, while playing violin for the Met orchestra. (I have no idea if that is geographically possible.) He will be off to work in the slums of Mumbai in the summer, before his free climb of K2. Meanwhile, Lucilla is modelling for Vogue, but still finds time for her campaigning journalism, while playing rugby for Harlequins at the weekend. The England tour of New Zealand looms. The whole family are having a brief week in Namibia, then a proper holiday in Tibet, where Dad will once more study with the Dalai Lama. He and Tarquin will have their usual bonding week in a sweat lodge in Greenland. Then Mum and Lucilla are recording another…. oh, I can’t be bothered. You get the point.

On the other hand…… Antonia is fighting hard to overcome her crack cocaine addiction, but her terminal cancer means she can’t make it onto the streets to finance her pimp, so she has started begging to make ends meet. Mum, who is coping without her leg, has left Dad for the car park attendant at the shopping mall, who knocks her about but makes her feel like a real woman. Dad’s operation has gone well but the sepsis is a problem. He has however found salvation with the Church of the Divine Bob, and is devoting his earnings from his compensation package to Bob and…. You get the point of this one, too.

Actually my correspondents are mostly rather different from this. They write interestingly and often amusingly of what has happened to them and their families. They are realistic. I am glad to receive the newsletters, as I don’t see many of these old friends and family from year to year.

As for the Obliques; well, it depends which of us is writing it and the mood we are in. If anything, we have sometimes been guilty of the misery letter. However, I know that we have some pleased recipients, one of who even says she looks forward to it.

So, if you have sent us a newsletter, thank you very much. We love getting them. Although I’m hoping my daughter gets a distinction in her MA, so I can crow about it.

(Finally: who remembers the lobster and the ironing board? Oh, of course, you do. So do I. Happy Christmas.)

An Inconsequential Piece on Mobile Telephones

I have, as I believe the common expression has it, been owned.

I was sitting at breakfast, rather wishing to avoid the minor dispute that was occurring between the two other participants in the meal, when I saw that my mobile telephonic device was (unusually) lying on the table. I picked it up and started perusing the news.

The voice of my conscience, ably made audible by my life partner, spoke.

You were always telling the children not to use their ‘phones during meals. Why are you doing it?”

I had been hoist by my own petard.

(A petard, interestingly enough, was a bomb. To be “hoist by your own petard” was to be blown up by your own bomb.)

Mobile phonesTo complete my shame, I was going to the shops the other week- just to the shops, not on an epic quest- and I found myself searching frantically for my ‘phone. I’m not sure what I thought would happen if I didn’t have it. Would I miss some vital communication? Would my life be poorer?

Recently I said that I never go out without my keys and my bank cards. One of the most intelligent people of my acquaintance added that he always has his mobile on him as well, as it is his way to access the entire world and its knowledge. I’m not so sure that’s literally true, but I appreciate his point.

Where is all this leading? I suppose to the dawning of the realisation that we all are being transformed by the mobile telephone revolution, even those of us who scoff about it.

What’s next? Wearable technology, apparently. After that, technology we can control with thought. I have often thought that eventually there would be USB ports in the back of our necks. William Gibson and other writers have used similar ideas. Then, we would all be permanently connected.

At the back of mind (not at present online, nor ever likely to be) is the nagging thought that all this is a first world issue, and any problems will be first world problems. On an Earth where millions (billions?) don’t have enough to eat, don’t have decent sanitation and/or are not allowed anything like free speech, mobile ‘phones and their successors are not the most pressing item on the agenda to deal with.

(Well, I thought, that’s enough of that. There’s another inconsequential blog for a future Sunday release. Then, last week, came the news that 30 million people had been without mobile ‘phone coverage for a day. This, of course, for people who do most of their communication and/or business on their ‘phones is a very real handicap. A first world problem, but a real one. Too reliant on technology? My worry is that one day it will ALL go down…. and then we will be lost.)

The search engine tells me this photo is free for non-commercial re-use.

Global Issues, Local Issues

In a week when the UN is being warned about the future of the natural world, perhaps we should be paying much more attention to our own small corner.

OK, OK, I have written about the following issue before. (See Danger in the Suburbs ) But I still feel very strongly about it, and don’t know what else I can do.

Very close to us is a historic footpath, down which the body of King William II (William Rufus) was carried on the journey from his “hunting accident” in the New Forest to its burial in Winchester Cathedral. When we moved here, about twenty-five years ago, there was flourishing wildlife along its edges: fungi, rare orchids, stag beetles, butterflies, bluebells and more, we heard owls near us, saw birds of prey and smelt the distinctive odour of fox. We saw bats hunting along there at night time.

Over the years it has been gradually tidied and urbanised. Particularly, the scrub areas, full of nettles, brambles, oak saplings and many more plants, which were food sources and shelter areas, have been trimmed, strimmed and sprayed with weedkiller.

I have written to Liberal and Conservative councillors; I have written to the Borough Council department responsible. (I have been mocked for this letter writing, but what else can I do?) Some of the excuses are laughable:

….we had a report that an elderly resident had slipped and fallen into the scrub along here and also we have had quite a few requests for the scrub to be cut down from parents that use this footway/cycleway to walk their children to school”. So it was thought best “to cut it all down to minimise the risk of injury to pedestrians and cyclists both”.

More plausible, but equally shameful, was the reasoning that a simple mechanical sweep was cheaper in these economically difficult times than a more sensitive trimming back from the path. Really? So there’s nobody who can go along with a strimmer and cut back by half a metre? (Half a yard, American readers.)

I very much feel I am fighting a losing battle here. Perhaps the sad fact that we can’t or won’t deal with local issues is a sign that we can’t or won’t deal with global issues.

Learning. Slowly. Very Slowly. Part 3

Further to my posts Learning. Slowly. Very Slowly. Part 1 and, inevitably as day follows night, Learning. Slowly. Very slowly. Part 2, this is a brief rant by Mrs O. It was originally for another purpose, but I feel it sums up better than I can some of the problems with having a child with learning difficulties.

When we adopted C., like our other three children, we felt like we had won the lottery. She failed to thrive and it became clear that she had severe leaning difficulties. Her life has been a struggle, but she always has a smile.

We have learnt that these children were shunned. Schools kept them in so-called learning corners away from the other children. Parents would openly say “she’s special needs so can’t come to play”. C. had no friends and grew up as if she and we would contaminate anyone who came into contact with us. She looks normal but needs people to treat her with tolerance and kindness. She feels like everyone else and so do we.

As C. becomes an adult there is a dumbing down of what is expected of these young people and they become marginalised. They are unable to fit in with normal education and produce results. It is a no win trap. Why invest in them at all? What can they possibly contribute to this world?

I am reminded at this point that on my first coffee morning with C. some bright spark piped up and said that if she had known she was pregnant with a baby like that she would have aborted it.

But there are hundreds of adults and children like C., who are all human beings with just as much right to be here as you or I.

We have through C. learnt more about the world she sees, the intolerance of others and how she accepts it as normal. This should not be so.

It is a deplorable, hidden and unnoticed prejudice. There are hundreds of charities, funds and spectacular Invictus Games type events; awareness of every colour, gender difference and physical disability. But special needs? Let’s be clear, there is nothing special about learning difficulties and there is nothing for them. They have no voice and are invisible, marginalised and treated with contempt, intolerance and indifference.

How many charities see this as worth bothering with? Or see it at all?

An example of the prejudice: C., who looks normal, needed a helping hand in the disabled toilets. This got a filthy look from a wheelchair user waiting outside- because she was able bodied? So I said: “Would you like to wipe her bum, help pull up her trousers and supervise her washing her hands? No, I thought not. Not all disabilities are visible.”

C. is at a fantastic school which she leaves at 16. Then hopefully she goes on to the only college with anything like a challenging education, although this is only three days. For the rest of the week she is presumably left to occupy herself.

Soft Machine at the 1865, Southampton (22nd November 2018)

Soft Machine 1865 22nd November

This gig was originally scheduled for  Talking Heads, where we first saw the Soft Machine (see Soft Machine at Talking Heads ) back in 2016. How can it be more than two years already? Sadly, that lovely venue has now closed, and all the bands now play at the 1865. It’s under the same management, I believe, but the 1865 has previously had less character. However, for this gig there have been tables and chairs put in, so there is a much more pleasant atmosphere.

On this occasion we took- with some trepidation- my oldest friend, MSC, who is more of an Eagles, Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young man.

Soft Machine now comprise John Etheridge, a superb and versatile guitarist who I first saw play with Stephane Grapelli; Theo Travis, a great sax player who played with Gong for quite a while, and has recently played with David Gilmour; then Roy Babbington on bass and John Marshall on drums, both now in their 70s.

In their 70s? You wouldn’t know it, given the verve and indeed attack with which they play.

The band have a new album out, ‘Hidden Details’, and open with the title track and another, before a long introduction to everybody from John Etheridge. There follows another new one, with some remarkably free jazz blowing, which I feel leaves MSC a little uneasy. My apologies; I haven’t played the new CD yet, leaving it as a treat to myself, so can’t necessarily name all the tracks.

They play two sets, with a wide range from the 1970s up to 2018. It’s lovely to hear the older pieces given complete reworkings, principally with the keyboards of Mike Ratledge and Karl Jenkins replaced by sax and flute. Stand out older tracks are the Ratledge compositions ‘The Man Who Waved at Trains” and “Gesolreut”, as well as the lovely Jenkins piece “The Tale of Taliesin”. Modern pieces range from the heavy to the delicate, including “Fourteen Hour Dream” and “Life on Bridges”.

The oldest piece is “Out-Bloody-Rageous” from the “Third” album, a huge favourite of mine, updated with respect and care.

It’s all played with wonderful musicianship, great and relevant improvisation, and huge enjoyment. This is the sort of gig where the musicians get up on stage from the audience, John Etheridge carrying his guitars on, and chat during the interval. It’s the sort of gig where they are watching what the others are doing and even smiling.

They finish with a four part medley: a Theo Travis piece about Pluto (really), “Tarebos”, a Mike Ratledge riff, a great and powerful John Marshall drum solo and finally “Hazard Profile Part 1”, another huge favourite, with an awesome riff and lovely soloing.

There is an inevitable encore, after John Etheridge has told us that we’ve made “a bunch of happy men very old”: it’s “Chloe and the Pirates”, a beautiful track from the album “Sixth”.

I’m sorry to say that that, my friends, was the last gig of this tour, which has ranged from Japan to America, Canada and Europe. It was lovely for me that they finished in Southampton. If you ever get a chance, and you appreciate great musicianship, go and see them. I don’t think the album will disappoint, if it’s anything like the gig.

Note 1: MSC did enjoy it, which made me very happy.

Note 2: The support act were “Silas and Saskia”. Saskia has a good voice. Silas makes interesting techno noises. However, the two don’t seem to us to complement each other. They needed a better sound mix which made the vocals clearer. (And they did play glissando guitar, Gong folks.)

Note 3: The photo is courtesy of Mr Mark Cole.