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(Footnote: the shrubs have been replaced by a dog and cat lavatory, pictured below.)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

Remembering and Hoping

What possessed us to try to knit poppies?

One of us made a right mess. One of us- no prizes for guessing who- showed her usual persistence and made these:

Poppies 1

I suppose it stemmed from the wealth of commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the Armistice.

(Note: I nearly said “celebrations” there. What an irony.)

We particularly were moved by the photographs of cascades of poppies; so much so that we went to Essex to see some of them.

(Another note: this also involved us scraping the car in our hurry to find a pub in which to see the rugby, but that’s another story.)

Not only did we find these memorials, we also met some very interesting people. Here are a few pictures (of the poppies, not the people):

Once more, however, behind the bright displays are the grim stories of World War One and all the other wars. One small village lost five people- including a female nurse- from one family. I remember, when I was a child, seeing a veteran swinging himself around on a sort of truck. My grandfather was gassed. Mrs O’s grandfather had shell shock. Every day we are reminded of the horrific injuries to veterans of the Gulf War and others. The film ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’ by Peter Jackson, with its realistic colouring and naturalisation of movement, makes the old, jerky, black and white footage of the war seem awfully real.

The atrocity that is war continues to the present day. Why? (That is a rhetorical question, children.) How can it be stopped? (That is another, even more hopeless.)

Songs come into my head:

War, huh, good God; What is it good for? Absolutely nothing.” (Edwin Starr)

Never fight another war.” (Gong)

…and so on, and on and on.

Perhaps one day we will all see sense. Perhaps one day.

Poppies 2

Footnote: Yesterday we saw ‘Shrouds of the Somme’ an installation at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Village, in which 72,396  individual figures have been lovingly wrapped in shrouds to represent the British Commonwealth servicemen killed in World War One who have no  known grave. We expected it to be moving, but somehow it didn’t have as much impact as anticipated. The only way I can explain that is by saying that it’s all too huge to comprehend and oddly impersonal, as opposed to the little tributes we saw in Essex towns and villages.

Poppies 6

Millions and Billions and Trillions

Here’s an admission. I have not told the whole truth.

For years and years I lectured children (frequently bemused) about the difference between English billions and American billions. I was not aware of the whole story.

Let me explain.

An English billion is 1 000 000 000 000: one followed by 12 zeros, or 10 to the power 12.

An American billion is 1 000 000 000: one followed by 9 zeros, or 10 to the power 9.

Thus, an English billion is 1000 American billions- which is an American trillion.

With me so far? Never mind.


The English system is more efficient. You need fewer number names, for a start. However, the American versions of long numbers are easier to say. (And it’s easier to say you’re a billionaire.)

The American billion has now taken over in the U.K. Whenever we write a billion, it is now always 1000 million. Just another example, I used to pontificate, of the Americanisation of our culture.

It transpired, when I was looking this up recently, that our Continental cousins and lots of others use what I called the English style system. This is apparently called the long scale, based on multiples of a million. The American system is short scale, based on multiples of a thousand.

Just to add to the confusion, the long scale has some alternative names, such as milliard, billiard and trilliard. Confused? I sympathise. If you are really interested, there’s a good Wikipedia article:


Other number systems are available.