Archives for category: Not Book Related

There are good teachers, and bad teachers. Fat and ‘fin’ teachers. Some ugly and others are pretty. Some are ‘cool’, a few are clever. Some can teach. Others are just able to recite what they know, but are unable to explain it. Some think outside of the boxes. Some don’t know about boxes at all. Some are kind, and some are bullies.  There are frightened teachers, relaxed teachers. Others are brave, and then there are the down right brilliant teachers, teachers such as he.

I would not say that I particularly enjoyed school. I would rather have spent my time with Ptolemy, my Abyssinian  guinea-pig. I did, however make an impression on one or two people.  My headmistress expelled a pupil, in circumstances that I felt weren’t right. I told her what I thought about that.  I also had a short discussion about the freedom of choice about how much money should be put in the weekly collection. I explained to another how the death of a clergy orphan’s father, was none of a class’s business, and I also spelt the word library wrong, when I moved from lower school to senior.

It seems the first R is of importance.

Probably more so than the library rules that we had been transcribing.

My year and I were told, by the English teacher who had set the work that, amongst other things, that this proved that there was little point in attempting to teach such a person, who could make such an error. In fact it was further stated that should she ever be given the rather questionable opportunity of trying to teach me, that she wouldn’t. As there was no point; so she wouldn’t do so and didn’t want to.

I suppose we must have been allowed out from the library at some point. I don’t remember much more, apart from realising I would do well to avoid having anything to do with her. She was a large woman & I remember thinking she was older than most of the others, heavy, with her greying hair plaited tight around the crown of her head – I suppose in some sort of ancient Greek style.

She taught Latin, and English and frankly, I avoided her like the plague. As did several other pupils. It was certainly worth walking down the other side of the corridor. I wasn’t very good at Latin either; I remember once receiving the great result of 11% in an exam – but I look on this as not something that was particularly my fault. After all she was the teacher, I but the pupil. It didn’t help, that I really didn’t like her. For that matter, I don’t think she liked me either. She also took the classes for those pupils who weren’t doing so well at English, as well as putting us through our paces with Latin, and I was always rather relieved to know that I was in the middle group stream – with Mr Brown.

He was a smallish man, who wore a tweed jacket with elbow patches, he had a beard and a twinkle in his eyes, slightly dwarfish in appearance. Apart from being relieved about the group I was in, I didn’t think much about him really.

Until the day he called me up to his desk and asked me whether I would mind moving down to her group, as he felt my English would benefit from a firmer grounding. To be honest the idea didn’t appeal, as you can probably imagine. It was like Mr Brown to ask, rather than arbitrarily move me to her stream. I suppose, though, the end result would have been the same, except I replied that I didn’t, (which was I’m afraid a lie), however, I knew that she would.

Mr Brown looked at me very hard, and asked why I should think such a thing, as it couldn’t be true. I replied that I knew that it was, and further that she had already stated that given the opportunity she wouldn’t, as she had said there was no point in trying. Mr Brown looked surprised, and asked me for the details of what had happened. He was sure I had misunderstood. So I explained. He turned to the class and asked whether it was true, to which my friend Philippa replied that it was, and no-one understood why anyone would bother trying to teach me – there wasn’t any point.

Mr Brown left her in charge of the class and took me to the staff room, knocked on the door and we waited. When she came out Mr Brown asked her about it. She replied that she didn’t remember. So I gave her more details. Her reply amounted to the fact that she may have said something of the sort, she really couldn’t really remember, but what of it?

Mr Brown pulled himself up to his full height, and turned on this Grecian colossus – he explained that what she had said was not true and went on to express his opinion of what she had done in words that were clear and disparaging…so much so she seemed to shrink. His anger was as all encompassing as any I have seen or experienced in my life – perhaps made more impressive as I had never heard him so much as raise his voice before. Thinking back now, I realise that even then he didn’t shout. It was just a very intense and clear statement of facts. It wasn’t even a conversation, more of a soliloquy.

At the end, he turned to me and told me that if I was willing he would prove to me and her that he was right. Would I be happy to do extra work for him – which he would mark and give back to me? I could write about anything I wished – but he would ensure I got good grades, and further would enjoy English too.

Which resulted in my writing numerous essays,  and I received two B’s for my English exams, but what is more important to me now is that he instilled a love of words, and the use of English. For that, and for standing up for me in such a way, I will never forget him, he was truly a brilliant and inspiring teacher.

Sadly a few years ago, when I thought to contact the school to let him know about how English has become so important to me, I heard he had died.

Since there is no proof either way, however, I like to believe that Mr Brown knows about my blog, letters, books and the fact that I have encouraged so many children to read and to enjoy the language.

He was a remarkable man, and an exceptional teacher.

 

 

 

 

 

The Farne islands are mostly made up of rock (that sounds like a remarkably stupid comment, but I hope you will understand as you read) – rather stark shards of stone, though some of the larger islands have a heavy head of grass in which puffins have made their burrows. The other islands have mainly guillemots, and cormorants etc with just a few puffins sitting like wooden carving on the top. Should you visit the islands, there are some trips that enable you to get out onto one of them where the puffins have their nests so you can walk amongst the birds (which are cordoned off), and you can spend a an hour just admiring them.

2015 Satanic & Moon 008The boat trip starts with a visit to the rocky outcrops of islands, where the other sea birds were nesting. The guano covering the tops of the cliffs look as though someone had inadvertently dropped a large can of white paint over them. Noisy and odorous to say the least, and I’m glad to say we didn’t stay long around them and soon moved on to Puffin Island, (actual name Staple Island Bird Sanctuary) and it is here you can disembark and walk amongst the birds.

They are quite extraordinary. 2015 Puffins etc 421 - CopyOnce you gain the top of the footpath you find a small number of puffins just standing having their photographs taken – even before you are really up on the top of the headland and at that point there are a large number of people taking numerous photographs. Some of the people there, I am sure never get beyond this ‘landing’ in the path and so don’t see the rest of the island and have the true puffin experience.

As you stand on the island the puffins whir like oversized feathered bumblebees, beaks full of slim fish, whose tails are bright in the sunlight, the fins seeming pushed into the body as though clipped together like a piece of Lego. The puffins land beside the burrows and comically look around. Sometimes walking a few paces before suddenly dropping into their holes as though they have never been.

They are there one moment, and are suddenly not.

2015 Satanic & Moon 211

They appear again just as suddenly to gaze at a black-headed gull, perhaps too close for comfort, before suddenly paddling the grass and whirring back low overhead into the sky. Some of the cormorants nest near the landing stage, yellow beaked, throat undulating as they watch the arrival of these peculiar birds whose outline is nothing more than a curve from the tip of the beak back over to the tip of the tail.   There are sudden flocks widelyspaced with birds flying just above your head, wings whirring (they soundlike wound up tin toys), as they turn and twist to land near

2015 Puffins etc 237their holes. Some stand and gaze out to sea; others watch the gulls and gannets. Others drop into the water and bob, little flashes of yellow from their feet beneath, a sharp contrast to the dark blue of the water. They are strange and wonderful, and I feel that like bees they shouldn’t be able to fly – though in their case no one has said they shouldn’t, unlike bumblebees, which I believe aren’t supposed to be able to.

Perhaps 2015 Satanic & Moon 261no one has looked into this – they really are gorgeous, eccentric and unlikely birds. Every year they lose their bright beaks in the winter and at sea and only gain them again when they come in to find a mate and nest. I don’t suppose anyone has ever found a cast off beak – they must sink to the bottom of the ocean, which is a pity – I would love to have one, a unique and very special piece of natural history ephemera…

2015 Puffins etc 185

We also visited Lindisfarne Castle situated on Holy Island – and a friendlier beautiful castle I have yet to find, though the outside belies the beautiful décor and architecture within. Gorgeous arches leading in two directions, lovely old fire places, and prints adorn the upstairs hall, taken I’m afraid from a probably rare French falconry volume – depicting owls being trained, and a heron hunt. There is also a small reading room looking out to the water. The views in all directions are superb; I have always had a hankering to live right by the sea… The castle looks forbidding from the outside and there is a long walk up to the rock on which the fortification perches, followed by another, steeper climb to the front door, but from then on it is one of the most captivating castles I have visited. It was renovated by Edwin Lutyens – and has distinct Arts and Crafts elements throughout – including a beautiful weather vane. Some way away – is the small walled garden, planted and designed by Gertrude Jekyll – useful, simply and gorgeously designed, but so inconvenient should you want to add some mint to your spuds, or have forgotten to collect some other essential ingredient for your meal. A touching element is the stone and chain affair to ensure the gate closes behind the gardener…

To me though the highlight of the weekend though was the puffins – so unbelievable they really should be part of the fauna of Madagascar…

The Grand Tsingy is an outcrop of limestone escarpment in the west of the island (Bemaraha National Park – Madagascar).

The notes provided by my tour operator (Undiscovered Destinations) stated that though it could be a challenge for some, many felt it was the highlight of the holiday. I wondered long and hard about whether I should go. On walks with Clare in Yorkshire I have been known to balk at a slope, which has been frustrating for everyone concerned.

The group discussed the idea the evening before. There was much laughter. Some it was obvious were fit (one a silver medallist trampolinist), one or two were definitely not. On the whole the gentlemen were ‘up for it’, whilst a good number of the rest of us decided that they preferred to remain at the hotel and to hear of our adventures on our return. There was a lot of laughter when I asked that if we went, and decided we couldn’t go on, if there was a way to return. It became quieter when Ollie our guide said it was a good question. There wasn’t – we would only be able to continue, irrespective of how we felt.

In the middle of the continuing discussions he told me that I’d be fine – and so, I thought I’d give it a go – after all Ollie had

said, he believed I could do it 2015 Madagascar Red Camera 085– and for some bizarre reason, I believed him.We drove to a small clearing and were fitted up with harnesses and then began to walk down the valley, towards a wood we could make out in the distance. I initially followed one of the men, one or two after the local guide. Strangely my harness tightly belted around my waist, and around my thighs didn’t help my nerves that were beginning to make themselves apparent.

I suppose I really began to realise quite what was ahead when after strolling through the wood spotting lemurs we came up against a rock, taller than I, with a smaller stone in front. Stretching my arm up I could just reach the top of the boulder and then put my foot up on the stone, and brought my now wobbly other leg up, past the first to near where my hand was…and scrambled to the top. The start of the Tsingy proper, I suppose, and the start of many scrambles. Most of the rocks at this stage were just round heavy boulders, with the odd tree growing between them, others were thin, incredibly hard slices of very thin limestone…

I began to think of ‘now’, rather than think about what was around me; where to put my foot this time and not to look down into the hole that seemed too deep, or at the vertical slithers of stone rising beneath me. Then there were the times where I didn’t know what to do next. Where was I supposed to put my hand, and then a panic, to call out that I didn’t know what to do with my other foot, the first balanced precariously cross-wise across a piece of thin hard sheer limestone, the fear in my voice becoming clearer as I began to wonder if I was actually going to manage this, or be the first person left, hanging onto a sheet of limestone…which was when Charlie the local guide, quietly took over.

Carefully and patiently he told me what to do. Where to put my feet, my hands, when to move quickly and with the confidence that Ollie (our wonderful Undiscovered guide), had shown the previous night (‘You can do it.’) and with some

determination encouraged me to clip onto 2015 Madagascar Red Camera 119the cables, then to unclip again – which always seemed a very silly thing to do. He showed me the small rocks bolted to the sheer limestone, making small stepping-stones, rising up the sheer limestone until we reached the viewing point, a few hours later.

Actually probably only two or three perhaps, I suppose, though for me, that climb took all day, except it didn’t.

The viewing platform was made of wooden rough posts and planks with a nice waist high horizontal barrier and a view that was astonishing. In the far distance I could just make out a plant that had managed to grow

right up above the tops of the trees that we were looking down on. 2015 Madagascar Red Camera 115Charlie gleefully took photos, and then came the problem of coming down from the platform, which I did, using that wonderful piece of anatomy designed for such times and slithered on my bottom until my feet could find a ‘stable’ starting point to begin the transverse across the escarpment.

Once more Charlie guided my feet and ensured the front of the group were moving (there were times when I wanted just to ‘stop’ and never move again), and Ollie brought up the rear with a nonchalance that was embarrassing. Not long after the first viewing point, I was offered another, but declined and with a rare burst of confidence asked Charlie if over the ridge was the much talked of rope ladder, and boldly left the group to climb over one of the edges to find the bridge hanging over space. That was something I suddenly found would be easy. A doddle – One or two of the early planks were a little irregular, but the others were clearly in place and I thoroughly enjoyed walking the bridge – somehow my fear there diminished considerably. I was quite chuffed with myself, and having not taken any photos for some time (my mind had become very focused, I was pleased to have had Charlie offer to take my camera after the first viewing point, he took some lovely photos, including one of me in the middle of the bridge. On the other side I was surprised to see a second, shorter

bridge and was pleased to be able to stride 2015 Madagascar Red Camera 106over that, but came abruptly to a halt to wait for Charlie again as a new cable twisted down the side of one of the slices of rock and I really wasn’t sure again. The darkness beneath my feet between the shards of limestone suddenly looked very black.

The Internet has photographs of some of the lemurs we saw at the beginning holding on to pieces of limestone, in the midst of the Grand Tsingy. Usually an element of ‘animal’ has the effect of distracting me enough to deal with the ditch or slope. We didn’t see any, or at least none was indicated to me whilst we were navigating our way around the shards of limestone. I’m absurdly pleased about

2015 Madagascar Red Camera 133 - Copythat. I’m not sure I’d have seen them, certainly not enough to have appreciated them. Unless of course they had been sitting delightfully on the rope ladder…

We crawled through some tight passageways, and at one point working around one piece holding on as I did with everything (including I think my toes, even though they were encased in my foot-ware), I was astonished to find the sheer limestone sheet was too hot to handle and complained to Charlie, who just said, ‘Quickly quickly, it’s the sun, on the stone…’

I will never go pot holing – I have never thought that being underground was a good idea.

I have however, crawled on my hands and knees through a cave (a short distance, but it was a cave, and I did), and squeezed through rocks almost too close for me to get through.

2015 Madagascar Red Camera 095I have glanced up with my torch, and seen a large moth, sitting against the roof of the cave, its red eyes glinting in the light. I have also fed a small Madagascan rat, most of a

chicken sandwich, which to be honest I really didn’t want or 2015 Madagascar Red Camera 145need. I have sat in that cave whilst the guides went back to help someone else in the group who got into trouble (he fainted and arrived a few minutes later), and have smiled and laughed at myself.

Apart from bruises where I braced myself too hard against the limestone, I have climbed The Grand Tsingy and arrived unscathed,hot and emotionally exhausted on a path above a small ravine and walked back up to the clearing with a rest in the sun part way, as I wondered about what I had just done, until I reached the coach and was helped from my harness.

I have climbed The Grand Tsingy – not everyone has done that.

2015 Madagascar Red Camera 112

We travelled around Madagascar in a small coach, and whilst we were in the West of the country in four by fours. After our trip around the Grand Tsingy we climbed into these to make our way back to our hotel, not a great distance away and I was really looking forward to just sitting on the veranda of my chalet and watching the evening come in.

Brian who’s bride had decided the trip to the Grand Tsingy was not for her accompanied me in my four by four and we both relaxed as our driver started to navigate the murrain roads back. We had become used to large holes in the road, some of which stretched from one side to the other and were often deep and filled with the soil-red coloured water. Which can be disconcerting. We didn’t have any trouble really, sometimes we would take a ‘water jump’ twice if the car refused – but we

became if anything a bit blasé until this journey, when we rounded a corner in2015 Madagascar Red Camera 160 murrain track to find it had become nothing more than a bog, stretching from one side to the other, with vegetation and forest preventing a new path being made.

The car swung from side to side, slipped rapidly and we tried again. Suddenly we reversed back up a side road whilst the others tried, their higher axels enabling them to forge through the mud. We tried again. Mud sprayed everywhere. Out of the blue the track was surrounded by local Malagasy, women with children on their backs, heavy loads on the heads stood back to watch, young men shouted at our driver – he shouted back. The other drivers returned to give suggestions and young boys materialised out of the bush and stopped to watch. Small toddlers ran around the back of the four by four as the wheels spun and it slid violently from side to side. We started a roller coaster ride, but it seemed at every attempt our driver wasn’t doing something that someone thought he should, and as is the way of the world, everyone had a different idea…

2015 Madagascar Red Camera 163A small boy aged around four or five with a bright yellow t-shirt and very little else suddenly stood close to our back window. Very tentatively he raised his hand in a shallow shy wave, so I waved back really enthusiastically. He grinned and waved some more. So I stuck my tongue out at him and he grinned even more, if that were possible, and stuck his out and we started a non-verbal conversation together through the glass as our car swung back and forth. With no warning he turned tail and bolted into the forest.

There was more talking, more reversing, back and forth, everyone helping, and I was becoming increasingly tired after an already long day, when suddenly I spotted a boy whom I think of as ‘the hunter’. He stood a little back from the rest; face very serious, shorts and a cap on his head were the only clothes he was wearing. He was carrying though, a small packet, held in place by a long piece of cord over one shoulder, so it lay flat against his opposing hip and he stood with a catapult in his right hand, well used, and ready.

2015 Madagascar Red Camera 162He looked for all the world as though he was wondering what we were doing there on his land, a little aloof, and certainly very serious. I watched him for a while, as I took photographs of the turmoil out of the windows as everyone tried to help us out of the mud, when the car wheels span wildly and a spray of mud flew up from the back wheels and obviously covered someone, I assume someone important, or at least someone who thought they were, and ‘my’ hunter laughed and laughed, his grin splitting his face for pure joy…then he remembered where he was and became serious again…

2015 Madagascar Red Camera 164Not long after that one of the slim finely built Malagasy young men walked in front of the car and taking a long hoe like tool started to dig the central mass of mud away, swinging the tool over his head and flicking the mud into the two deep tracks that had been made by the wheels, slowly lowering the mud in front of the axel and raising the height of the mud where the wheels would go. Wearing just long shorts he worked methodically, and quickly, the tool he used could only be about five inches across the blade but it was obviously a very efficient piece of equipment. He became muddier and muddier as he worked until he seemed to have a second skin of mud coating him. The other Malagasy stood and watched periodically commenting. After a while one of the drivers started to help and I thought we might get back to the hotel before dark.

Watching through the window I was startled to see my yellow t-shirted friend was back, standing close to the car again and watching. I waved, he waved, and we both grinned. I realised that he was standing very close to the side of the car, and was worried he might get pulled under the wheels, so I raised my hands and ‘pushed’ away from me and he nodded and stepped back a good six feet, but looked rather sad… Just as we started up again, I realised why, I think he thought I wasn’t going to ‘say’ goodbye and so turned to him just as our wheels at last made contact with more solid earth and waved frantically at him and his face bloomed into an enormous smile and he waved too; both of us looking slightly demented, but both understanding more than could be said without words…

We crossed two rivers on our trip, both in the West of the country on our way to and returning back from the Bemaraha National Park. We arrived at the bank of the river sand running down to the water to find that our ferry, that had been booked had been snatched from under our noses, by another group. An irritation that I think bothered Ollie and the drivers more than it did us – we were able to people watch and spent a lot of time sitting in the slightly cooler four by fours waiting for the return of the ferry. The only problem we had there was that there were some very large and to be honest quite evil looking insects that flew around and periodically entrapped themselves in the vehicles. These were large, black and seemed to be flying vertically with the majority of their bodies hanging down below them with the head and thorax horizontally above. Though advised there was nothing in Madagascar that could cause us harm, I felt these in particular, along with the scorpion we were introduced to, should be given a very wide berth.

We waited I suppose about an hour before the ferry returned, with about four large four by fours lined up on the wooden pontoon. The ferry was brought to the side of the bank and a couple of ramps made out of iron were dragged from them

2015 Madagascar Red Camera 046and tied somewhat haphazardly to the edges, and wedged into the sand. Without a by your leave, but with some care, the drivers drove off the wooden pontoons and onto the ramps, across to the sand, where they pulled themselves up with their engines revving. The ramps were then shoved along so that they were ready for the next four by four, once more tied with bits of cord to the pontoon, and the whole process was repeated again, and again for each vehicle.

To load, the principle was in reverse, and was not a little disturbing – especially if you were in the car, which had to be evenly distributed with weight – the drivers seeming without thought ran their cars down onto the rails and with a lot of energy drove quickly onto the ferry, throwing their breaks on at the last minute to prevent them from driving off the other side…

Once loaded the whole thing was propelled down the river by an outboard motor – run by a Malagasy man who controlled the engine with his feet, periodically dousing the engine with water, his legs and feet slowly getting coated with fuel whilst black smoke regularly engulfed that end of the pontoons…It took some while to cross, and we took great pleasure in watching another ferry returning like ours heavily laden with four by four vehicles, their tourist passengers standing next to

them along with locals, with small children at hand looking beautiful as 2015 Madagascar Red Camera 051they waited for the ferry to dock, when they would stride off the ferry, baskets and bags carefully balanced on their heads, small children running ahead…

Once on a smaller crossing we did the whole thing in the dark, arriving after a long day’s drive, the ‘port’ lit by lights from the headlights of traffic coming and going. That was more disconcerting…but as usual our drivers did us proud and with a quick rev of the engines we were up the other bank and on our way to our hotel.

The following day after our trip to the Grand Tsingy we had the opportunity to attempt the Petite – lower and less arduous, they said. I thought I had done enough really to ‘challenge’ myself after the Grand, and said I would sit that one out, which I did. Probably a wise decision, my legs ached abominably four – five days or so after the Grand; I think because they had been going into spasm whilst I was climbing.

The evening after the Grand Tsingy, we discussed as we did each night the following day’s fun and games. It was then that I said I had thought I had challenged myself enough, but was interested to hear what else we would be doing in the afternoon after the others had returned. It seemed we were to do something remarkably dangerous – We were to be punted down a river. Jane asked if she could do some punting and was told that this wasn’t possible. Immediately we asked why not. ‘It’s dangerous,’ was the response.

At which point I started laughing hysterically, which confused poor Ollie. When I explained that that day’s efforts to get me around the Grand Tsingy was actually very dangerous, he looked puzzled. ‘But you see, the river, it has crocodiles…’ he said.

My reply was to ask how many, and what was the chance of meeting one. About 10% – they don’t come near where we were to go, but even so, the trip was dangerous, and there would be no chance of Jane attempting to punt us down the river. I did think that after that day’s adventures that I just might have smacked a Nile crocodile on the nose, should I have met one…but the chance was not to be.

2015 Madagascar Big Camera Vol 1 272Actually it was one of the most beautiful parts of the trip. The river was wide and calm. We saw a kingfisher and our punters were expert. The boats were a little disconcerting. Two long thin crafts tied at both ends with bits of cord and planks just dropped on the top of the edges of the boats on which to sit…

The purpose of the trip was to see a grave high in the cliff that rose over the river, the polished skulls of the remains

glowing out from 2015 Madagascar Big Camera Vol 1 278the sacred burial site high above our heads. We stopped too to climb into a cave, the sands slipping under our sandals as we navigated away from the boats. Some of the others climbed higher into the cave, however I voted to stay where we were looking out onto the boats, until encouraged to crouch down and to make my way further into the cave to view small bats that fluttered around our heads and the stone formations within. It was a beautifully peaceful day after the challenges of the previous one.

2015 Madagascar Red Camera 217Madagascar… When I left I took several notebooks, pencils and pens and intended to write extensive notes on the different types of lemur I might see, the people I met, the invertebrates I avoided, the amphibians and reptiles I came across, the landscape, food, and other interesting things. I planned to sketch little drawings throughout and I even thought of purchasing some coloured pencils, however Dad dissuaded me – I probably wouldn’t have time. That was some understatement.

The place is almost too extraordinary to contemplate.

Initially I tried to take short notes of important facts, or at least of the most interesting. There seemed, however, too many of these, and I found I was always behind with my notes, and the subject discussed had passed on to more interesting topics, from the burial rights, through to the likelihood of our spotting various creatures. Even if I had been able to disentangle my handwriting, which is poor in the general way of things, let alone being markedly further handicapped by craters in the murrain road that our driver tried unsuccessfully sometimes to circumnavigate, while I scribbled on my lap.

If I could, I would perhaps describe the holiday day by day. How I would do this, I’m unsure. The days were long. That too is an understatement. We left our accommodation between 05.00 and around 07.00 each morning and arrived at our new hotel sometimes well after dark, though once or twice we arrived in day light, a fact to celebrate. Which would mean that the letters would turn into some sort of book, and I’m not sure its one I would like to write, let alone read, so I think I will just plunge in, as it were and describe things as they come to me.

Andasibe lies east of Antananarivo, the capital a little more than half way up the country.

The private sanctuary we visited on arrival in Andasibe had an interesting collection of creatures. To reach some of them were to be taken across a stretch of water by canoe to an island where the lemurs came down to the bank to watch our arrival. These had been pets and had been rescued, but still liked to have some human contact.

The canoe trip was a little wobbly, however in due course I managed to 2015 Madagascar Big Camera Vol 1 009scramble out from mine (with some help from a Malagasy guide), and he introduced me to the first lemur, a black and white gorgeous creature; a black and white ruffed lemur, about the size of a largish cat… On presentation of a hand with some banana, he leapt delicately onto my shoulder, leant down across my chest and grabbed my hand to lick it clean…from that point there was a sort of mild skirmish of lemurs leaping from the fence, and other people to land on shoulders; some chirruping amongst themselves.

2015 Madagascar Big Camera Vol 1 017There were three types on the island, the aforementioned black and white ruffed lemur, the smaller, but possibly more dextrous brown lemur that had the most expressive eyes, and would stand on my shoulders and peer under my hat at me. Then there were the small grey bamboo lemurs, nervous, but willing to sit close in a tree, though very reluctant to climb or jump onto a person. They were very endearing, but didn’t get as much attention as the others.

There is nothing like leaping onto a person’s shoulder to make them pay attention to you.

On another island in the same reserve we watched some Sifaka’s – the dancing lemurs on the banks of another island leap from tree trunk to tree trunk. Their golden coats shining in the light; they were beautiful and almost ghostly. There are several different types of Sifakas, but all of them have a grace that is quite extraordinary.

One of our group commented that I looked as though I had been handling lemurs all my life, particularly as I had put my elbow out in front of me so that my lemur would be more stable.

Pakka often travels on my shoulders and I have learnt by experience that an elbow out at an angle is often gratefully accepted if we are walking around uneven ground for any great distance, or if we are just walking for any length of time… The lemurs were much more stable though than Pakka – but then again, they are arboreal…

We had two night walks too – these entailed us coming out in the evening, often half an hour or so after we had arrived at our next location. Neither walk started from a long way from our accommodation, which was good as both times we were more than a little tired and hadn’t eaten our evening meal.

On our first walk was from Andasibe, and we were driven probably less than a mile down the road and with a night guide we set out.

2015 Madagascar Big Camera Vol 1 087Chameleons habitually rest with their tails curled under them, pale and interesting at the end of long stems of vegetation, often hanging over the road. The rainforest frogs made a cacophony of sound shouting against the sound of the insects that make the background music of the forest. These amphibians often perched rather precariously on an almost vertical cliff wall that ran down the side of the road, on the other side of a rather traitorous ditch, their throats ululating as they croaked into the dark. Large spiders caught in the light of the torches and moths, surprisingly small on this walk fluttered up into people’s faces as the head torches confused them.

We spent some time in a rather hopeless search for that illusive nocturnal night lemur. Shining torches rather haphazardly into the rainforest, hoping for the glint of a pair of very small eyes, or just one eye, should the mouse lemur be peering around a trunk of a tree. This seemed an unlikely occupation, to be honest and I was increasingly sure that this wasn’t to be. After all we were told they are tiny (one, the smallest can fit comfortably into an egg cup), and at this time of year they hibernate, being small, and it being (would you believe) the beginning of winter.

We did, I am sure see one. At least I certainly saw something; a curve of a head and two small eyes. I think the rest of the group thought it was wishful thinking on my part, however, I am almost sure…

On arrival at Antananarivo from our flights from Nairobi and the flight from London we were taken to a money exchange hut situated in the airport car park, of all places, where we each passed over varying amounts of Euros. 500 Euros seemed a good quantity to be going on with after all we were advised that we could change more later on in the holiday, if it became necessary.

It was disconcerting (not to say problematical) to hand over five hundred Euros; the pile of fresh Euros standing no higher than a quarter of an inch or so, freshly pressed (possibly printed) by the Post Office before I came away and to receive back in carefully segmented small batches some three inches (I do not exaggerate) of somewhat worn notes, totalling a grand total of 1,580,000 Ariary.

I wish, I had the sense to photograph the transaction, but was so bamboozled by the whole thing and was beginning to panic about how I should keep the money secure. After all, the money belt I had taken with me was such that the zip wouldn’t close over such a largess…and so it was that this extraordinary transaction wasn’t recorded, apart of course from the docket detailing the matter.

2015 Madagascar Red Camera 274Antananarivo is full of people, many of whom sell food from the side of the road. Small stalls set out with beautifully displayed fruits and vegetables. Little pyramids of small tomatoes balanced one upon the other, small onions lined up in rows, hands of bananas hanging from a precariously supported cane over the heads of the stall holder. There is something extraordinary about the care they take over their ‘merchandising’, however, it is only on my return that I have realised that they don’t weigh their produce, and as a result they have to have some way of selling a set quantity for a set amount – and so they divide their goods up.

The stalls selling raw meat, often coated with a living sauce-like covering of flies, were off-putting to put it mildly; the stand near where we stayed that first night, selling raw chicken was particularly badly infested.

Some retailers had more substantial huts, more like small rundown sheds, and these too were open to the elements, the meat often hanging over the edge of the window…

Really it was extraordinary.

The food we were given was of a very high standard – in some places the presentation and quality was that you might have expected from a French restaurant in Paris. We stopped on the way to, and the way back from the Grand Tsingy, at The Mad Zebu in a small town. Murrain roads. Ox carts being driven through at speed. Small children wandering around, bare foot, wearing scraps of clothing and a queue outside a small shack, where they had rigged up a television, and seemed to be charging for people to come and watch. The town was busy, not far from a main river that we had crossed, with people moving goods in the dusty road. The Mad Zebu had a small veranda – on which a cloth had been set, and was where we were treated to an astonishing meal and the best chocolate moose I have ever eaten. Quite sublime.

The first reserve we visited, the Andasibe National Park, not only had the lemur2015 Madagascar Big Camera Vol 1 076 islands, but also had what amounted to a small zoo of other creatures. This was set further into the forest, and we had a small walk to reach the enclosures, including over a rope ladder over a Nile crocodile infested river… Which was slightly disconcerting, but if you didn’t think about the fact that one of the planks was missing, and that a crocodile was floating, rather like the traditional log just below, it was achievable without being too unnerving.

The crocodiles seemed relatively content. Somehow they don’t strike me as particularly ‘thinking’ animals, (unlike sloths, which I think of as being the equivalent of the S. American rain forest’s philosophers), however, this might be a disservice, but they did seem ‘happy enough’, as far as one could tell.

2015 Madagascar Big Camera Vol 1 077I found the enclosure though with the fosa (in Malagasy pronounced ‘foosa’), probably one of the saddest things I saw on the trip. He seemed healthy enough, but as I explained to our guide, I would rather he had told us about them, (‘There is a story…’) and we didn’t see him, but knew he was ‘out there’ hunting lemurs, than to see one in captivity. The fosa is the largest carnivore in Madagascar – a sort of cross between a smooth coated dog/coati/ or large cat with a long tail. They were ‘advertised’ as dangerous; with a hint that we would, in all probability, come to grief should one cross our path, which I have to say seemed a little unlikely.

I suspect we wouldn’t have known he was watching us.

We were also shown, of course, the ‘required’ chameleon and we were introduced to a Madagascan tree boa, a rather lovely example, again taken from an enclosure. The three tortoise’s seemed content I suppose, but I think its difficult to assess how cheerful a reptile might be at any given time. After all, I have almost concluded that chameleons are on the whole pretty depressed. All their mouths turn down, in an extraordinary depiction of someone who has come across something that they really don’t like. Perhaps their physiognomy changes when we aren’t around…

2015 Madagascar Red Camera 371Wherever we walked any distance in the countryside we seemed to be accompanied by small butterflies. With wingspans no larger than half an inch or so these butterflies floated and settled on small tufts of grass and vegetation sometimes in groups of four or five. The white insects in sharp contrast to the orange often making a swirling mass of wings as we walked amongst them. Being tiny, they were very difficult to photograph; they seemed to almost touch down, and fly off again in one swift movement. Larger butterflies, about an inch across also accompanied these. Once again they were of a tawny colour with dark marks on them.

These were more tempting – at least to try to photograph. I managed one, which surprised me, however on looking at it on the computer on my return I found it to be slightly out of focus and so it was deleted from the file. Nearing the end of our trip we were driven on a long tarmac road (a true rarity), which seemed to go on forever and should you look out of the front of your vehicle it seems to disappear into the horizon… We stopped for a break a little way into the drive and found a number of large white butterflies floating around the flowers in the border and ditch that ran along both sides of the road. These were exquisite, slightly larger than the others we had seen, were white with a hint of yellow and a couple of spots on each wing. Suddenly I found myself being investigated by a large insect this butterfly was a hands breadth from wing tip to wing tip, dark black with white speckles almost too close to me to photograph as I stood rather precariously in the ditch. It seemed to have more of a purpose, (if not an attitude), and further to have a conscious direction in its flight. I had often felt previously that butterflies are blown at the whim of the wind, though of course this can’t be true, otherwise they wouldn’t find flowers and of course the nectar they so need.

After feeding on various flowers this butterfly-bat-bird suddenly flew higher and higher into the sky, and took a firm steep coordinate up across the sky and the road, to disappear, a tiny dot in the haze. I don’t think I will ever view butterflies in quite the same way again.

Our second night walk was near the Ranomafana Rainforest Reserve near the end of our trip, and again we drove out back to the entrance of the reserve to walk back along the road. Once more we used torches, though I have to admit that I removed my head torch this time and used it in my hand. Being bombarded by large moths is not only frustrating – they will get in the way of the camera, but a little disturbing too.

Again we searched for wildlife along the side of the road, the coach travelling on just ahead of us.

The frogs again had perched themselves half way up the cliff that ran along the side of the ditch. It was damp, not to say wet, and in places the water actually ran down the cliff at the side of the road, tiny waterfalls. There were the usual chameleons, though many of these were too high for us to photograph, just pale shapes above us. As to lemurs, none had been spotted and after some time we were beginning to think we ought to be going back to the hotel. After all we hadn’t eaten. Two of us were strolling down the road, a little away from the rest of the group, just gazing at the stars when suddenly it was

‘Quick, come quickly, quickly, lemurmouse lemur…’ 2015 Madagascar Big Camera Vol 1 455and my arm was abruptly caught and we were both pulled through the dark across the verge, such as it was, then to stand at the edge of the ditch…to see in the torch light, in the edge of the rain forest a small delicate little face peering out at us from behind a tree trunk.

It must I think be a little like suddenly being caught by the paparazzi.

The guide who had noticed the small eyes reflecting from his torch kept it shining on him whilst photos were taken. Not something I was happy about – it must mean that he/she would have blind spots for the rest of the night from the lights, but of course selfishly and perversely I too was, so pleased to see him.

We were told that they had been putting squashed bananas out to entice them, but had ceased doing that, and hadn’t seen a mouse lemur for seven or so days…and since they sleep through the winter, actually hadn’t expect us to see one at all.

We were so lucky with the weather when we were in the rainforest. Usually there is, well, a lot of rain, they said, however, though it seemed damp, it didn’t seem unpleasantly so. One morning I sat and watched the clouds form across the, the mists rolling around the valley; a few moments to myself with the forest below.

Our local guides whom we met at the start of each day were extraordinarily knowledgeable – and observant. We were walking down a path when we were stopped by ours, who pointed out a ball of rather dank, dark looking leaves –

‘Look, a satanic leaf tailed gecko…’2015 Madagascar Red Camera 249

and the regular and almost immediate cry of

Where?

was more understandable this time – after all he was just pointing at some leaf litter caught amongst some twigs.

And then he pointed out it’s head, hanging down from the ball of brown leaves, almost triangular, with extended ocular ridges like fans over his eyes, his body and legs rising above him and his tail resting along the top of the ball of leaves…an exquisite endemic creature and truly demonic in its form. His Latin name, for those of a more classic nature is Uroplatus phantasticus – he really is a most fantastic leaf tailed lemur, and quite my favourite…

Some time later our guide pulled us off our path to show us two lizards, heads down looking not unlike pieces of moss or bark and it was only with s2015 Madagascar Red Camera 243ome care we could slowly make out the legs, tails, torsos and heads of the sleeping creatures. They would wake, we were told, later in the evening and so were snoozing away whilst we looked at them. They were quite difficult to spot, even with a guide, their out-lines were broken up with flaps of skin to merge into the tree trunks. The guides used bits of twigs to point them out, and I was always worried they might poke one in error. I am pleased to report, however that they were able to sleep undisturbed and though viewed with wonder by us, didn’t know anything about it.

Should you ever decide to go to Madagascar, it would be wise to purchase the latest Bradt guides to the country. They are incredibly informative, both about its history, anthropology and wildlife.

I purchased the standard book some time before I left and went carefully through it reading all the general information and any that related in particular to any part of my trip. There are 18 main tribes and these are distributed over the whole country and the book not only has a map showing their location, but it also has a small description of each. Which has whetted my inchoation of anthropological interests. So much so I ordered a copy of Taboo from Via Libri, a book search engine on the Internet. Irritatingly this was deemed not to be in stock, just before I left, so I will have to go to the BL and borrow it, I suppose. I don’t want to spend a lot on the book, so didn’t want it sent from overseas. I digress – many apologies…

Both the standard Bradt guide and the book specifically published by them to cover the natural history of the island, stated that one of the glorious things about the wildlife that occurs in Madagascar is that there is very little that will do an adult human much harm.

You might get bitten, clawed or defecated on (one lemur when climbing over me did a very neat deposit, dry and cylindrical that dropped from my shoulder), but on the whole as a species we don’t come to much harm, the books said, oh, apart from the scorpions.

I am sure there were scorpions everywhere we went. We wouldn’t have seen one though, if it hadn’t been for one of our guides who carefully turned over a small rock so that the example he found was resting on the top. The invertebrate didn’t seem very pleased about this, they like, we were told shadows, and shade.

On being presented he seemed to be flat, not to say two-dimensional, a paper cut-out and really rather insignificant. I turned to my camera to photograph him and when I raised my head he had expanded from a flat drawing, about a centimetre in length to one about two and a half times that size, and three-dimensional too.

He was in his way quite beautiful, however I gave him a very wide berth and have to admit to not turning over many stones over the holiday. Just in case.

2015 Madagascar Red Camera 334

We saw too a stick insect that without exaggeration was about a foot long. She was tucked under a branch in a small bush, and looked like nothing more than another limb of the plant, until she turned around to face the other way. I took a photo’, but on reflection, its not very good. It looks like a photograph of a very twiggy plant…

On our first trip to see ring tailed lemurs our local Malagasy guide casually pointed at a very peculiar insect. I couldn’t believe it as I had seen pictures of it in my guide books, but hadn’t thought we would see any – they are tiny, reminding me a little of rather over grown woolly aphid type things Mum has sometimes found in her greenhouse. They were the nymphs of the flatid bug – and looked for all the world like curious wisps of cotton wool with legs…

Often it was the tiny rather insignificant creatures that they pointed out that caught my interest…the place is it seems alive with creatures…

Most of our hotels were designed around a reception building, including the restaurant, and pool, with our sleeping accommodation in separate buildings, with bathrooms attached. I enjoyed this a lot – it meant you had complete privacy, and were not disturbed by anyone else. It did mean though that to contact the reception for help, should you need it, meant leaving your room to walk outside. I was extremely pleased with the torches I took, including a small lamp – one hotel turned its lights off without warning at around 10 pm – which could be a bit irritating, when in the middle of reading The Aye Aye and I…

Returning one evening to my chalet in one such hotel I stepped carefully into my room pulling the insect shutters behind me to hear a scuttle. Using my torch I lit up an insect, some three inches or so in length running up and across the wall. I would have been happy enough to share my room with a lizard (in fact I would have been extraordinarily happy to have done so), a frog wouldn’t have caused a problem, nor a small furry creature, though I suppose he might chew holes in my rucksack. I cannot abide things with more than four legs that scuttle. Those who sit on webs are I suppose allowed. They usually stay there. Creatures that run around with boots on, are another matter entirely.

We had mosquito nets in all the rooms, which I suppose would have given me some protection should I had needed it (which was unlikely, considering this was not a scorpion), but somehow, I really didn’t like the idea of him wandering around, and promptly left my room again. I considered asking my friend the groom of the honeymoon couple to come and see to it, but in the end returned to the reception building.

It took a little time to explain, but in the end the lady behind the desk said she understood – she would get the hotel security to deal with the matter.

Which seemed a little extreme, but actually was a remarkably astute decision. As with farms in Kenya, security entailed a couple of local men who squatted at the entrance to the hotel grounds with a blanket around their shoulders, and, I suspect periodically walking the perimeter. He looked bemused, and said something back to which she said, would I go ahead and show him…So once more I approached my chalet and climbed the steps, opened the wooden door and peered around the shutter. Once again my torch encouraged the insect to run.

I could tell my security officer was even more perplexed – he looked as though he couldn’t believe what I was asking, and was almost laughing, however, with a flick of his fingers, he knocked it to the ground, attempted to stamp on it with his bare feet…and in the end resorted to grabbing it by a hind leg and tossing it out the door…

It was at that hotel when walking back to my chalet, for want of a better term, I came across a beetle, large and shiny, that really would have preferred my not shining my torch on him. He too scuttled and was perhaps a kin of the beetle that had got into my room. He was rather beautiful, if not interesting, but then again, he wasn’t in my room.

I then noticed a hole in the sand, some two inches across, from which his friends and relations were coming to investigate the night. I think they were cockroaches. I went back to my room a different way.

One of the most poignant, and memorable events was when we visited the Andasibe National Park to try to locate the Indri.

There are five families of lemur of which the Indri has perhaps the most diverse collection of lemurs…there are the nocturnal (Woolly) Lemurs of which we saw none, 2015 Madagascar Big Camera Vol 1 103the Sifakas, which include those that seem to dance and leap vertically between tree trunks, of which we saw a few, including some who were playing with each other high up amongst the trees, and the Indri – the largest of the lemurs.

They look not unlike over sized teddy bears with rounded ears, long arms with a very small stub of a tail. Those we saw were black and white, but they can be almost completely black. They seem to sit for hours high in the trees, thinking and eating leaves, with a sort of benign relaxed expression, with a very relaxed attitude to the tourists who suddenly arrive beneath to take photographs.

2015 Madagascar Big Camera Vol 1 116

When we arrived the forest seemed quiet, and our guide began to find us small fauna to keep our interest. A frog was found, followed by a delicate lizard. We then saw some gorgeous Sifakas playing high in the trees, chasing one another, washing each other’s feet and generally enjoying themselves, ignoring the gasps and the people beneath taking the same picture over and over again. After a surfeit of these we moved on. An interesting plant was talked about, a small bird was pointed out, and then suddenly we heard one of the most haunting and beautiful sounds I have ever heard floating though the forest.

‘Indri…’

Where?

‘Oh, somewhere over there…their calls can be heard for miles…’ came the reply.

Which for me was a little disheartening.

We walked on and then suddenly above our heads we saw a round heap of black and grey fur. Then it moved – an arm stretched out to pull some leaves towards it, which it munched in a desultory sort of way.

It is very difficult not to take photographs of ‘special animals’. The dancing Sifaka’s in the trees were so beautiful, and these were extraordinary, and so impressive. We spent some time photographing and just gazing upwards, the lemurs hardly acknowledging our existence, if at all.

After a while our guide led us away, we were, we thought sated. A little further along, however, we came across another group, with another group of tourists photographing them from below, (there should be a collective noun for tourists, perhaps a ‘gang’). Since we had already taken an overly large number of photos, I decided to step back a bit and just watch one or two of them.

Without wa2015 Madagascar Big Camera Vol 1 133rning one pulled his lips together as though to give a whistle, his mouth extended into a tube and the most haunting loud and exquisite call reverberated through the forest. His friend in the opposite tree, joined in and then suddenly, we were surrounded by a choir of Indri. The sound vibrated through the air and the ground and then flowed out into the forest. The call is particularly eerie – a long ululating cry which reminded me of whales, but was so much more emotive.

I managed to take one or two photos of them singing, and then just stood back under the trees, a Malagasy guide standing beside me, periodically pointing out another lemur amongst the group and just listened and watched…

We stayed of course until that performance was complete.2015 Madagascar Big Camera Vol 1 004


2015 Madagascar Big Camera Vol 1 0222015 Madagascar Big Camera Vol 1 1402015 Madagascar Red Camera 2812015 Madagascar Red Camera 243 2015 Madagascar Big Camera Vol 1 581 2015 Madagascar Red Camera 3022015 Madagascar Big Camera Vol 1 253   2015 Madagascar Red Camera 340   2015 Madagascar Red Camera 051      2015 Madagascar Big Camera Vol 1 073   2015 Madagascar Big Camera Vol 1 229                            2015 Madagascar Red Camera 386     2015 Madagascar Big Camera Vol 1 029     
2015 Madagascar Big Camera Vol 1 195
2015 Madagascar Big Camera Vol 1 2502015 Madagascar Red Camera 2522015 Madagascar Big Camera Vol 1 6232015 Madagascar Big Camera Vol 1 4552015 Madagascar Big Camera Vol 1 2142015 Madagascar Big Camera Vol 1 1332015 Madagascar Big Camera Vol 1 0772015 Madagascar Big Camera Vol 1 1652015 Madagascar Red Camera 2562015 Madagascar Red Camera 133


I visited the dentist yesterday to have my teeth checked and ‘de-scaled’ in preparation for my great adventure. Whilst the hygienist was working I started to wonder about wisdom teeth. Firstly whether I had any.

It seems I have the full complement of four, one for each corner, though at the time I was told this they were obviously not as pristine as they should be.

I then interrupted her work again to ask her why people have wisdom teeth. What is their purpose?

I think she was rather taken aback by the question. I suspect she likes to work on patients who don’t ask her questions that seem irrelevant and have nothing what so ever to do with how to clean their pearly whites. She didn’t seem to know, but suggested I spoke to my dentist.

The work on my teeth was done in reverse of the usual order – due to someone before me making Kirsty work harder than usual. So, when I went in to see her I asked her the same question. She initially (and I hope tongue in cheek) suggested that we had them to keep dental surgeons in business, but then went on to ask, if when I found out, I’d let her know…

After confirming my teeth shouldn’t fall out of my skull whilst I’m searching out tiny Madame Berthe Mouse Lemurs, (these are so small they can fit easily into an egg-cup) Kirsty took me through to the reception area to pay and I promptly asked the girls there what they thought.

The first response from one of their receptionists (Rebecca Duff) seemed most likely – those of you without wisdom teeth are more developed than those of us who do. It would seem possible, she thought, that our diet was such that we needed an extra set of molars to crunch up our rough diet in the past, and we are slowly evolving away from such a necessity. This seemed to me to be quite possible. Her colleague promptly looked up the question on the Internet. If you do you will probably come across the following entry:

Anthropologists believe wisdom teeth, or the third set of molars, were the evolutionary answer to our ancestor’s early diet of coarse, rough food – like leaves, roots, nuts and meats – which required more chewing power and resulted in excessive wear of the teeth. 5 Feb. 2007

We then went on to consider those whose wisdom teeth hadn’t erupted, that stayed in the jaw, often because the jaw was too small. We then wondered how this might be – how does the tooth, which has grown, but not erupted ‘know’ not to go further in its ‘life’ and do the next stage and try to poke through?

How is it, that other people have problems, because their teeth don’t? I mean, don’t ‘know’ they shouldn’t emerge…

It then became a general discussion about how amazing our biology is and then on to a discussion that it isn’t a foregone conclusion that wisdom teeth have to be removed once they grow, irrespective of whether they cause any problems or not.

Also that if you have an extraction it’s a good idea to have a replacement, otherwise the opposing tooth is likely to keep on growing (a vague connection to rodents, perhaps).

Then we got on to the development of babies and such like other things that had nothing whatever to do with teeth…

Having stirred up the reception area into a lively discussion group, I went on my way and returned to Mark Lane.

Before leaving the subject of teeth I must mention my dentist practice The Dental Surgery and in particular Kirsty. It is in the Corn Exchange on Mark Lane very near to Aldgate Underground Station and Fenchurch Street Station and I have been going there for many years.

Really the first time I realised quite how good Kirsty is was when I had to have a root canal done – and I had only had a couple of injections in my life before.

She is brilliant (for me) as she tells me all about what she is doing and why, whilst she works – (I am always a bit curious) it keeps my mind occupied. I have only one (very small) complaint – I had a cap fitted some while ago, and on trying it on, Kirsty decided it wasn’t quite right and ordered a new one for me and let me have the imperfect one to keep. I asked whether I could have another – ‘failed’ cap as it were, so I could have a pair, and make them into earrings.

Though promised, with everything she does, it was forgotten and this second unwanted cap never materialised. I keep the first though, in its little box, in the hope that one day I might need another or have an opportunity to ask for a second one… Not quite as interesting as this jewellery set of (I think) real wisdom teeth (well, three-quarter set), but I thought a pair of caps would be an interesting addition to my earring collection as a pair of studs…

London is quite extraordinary. I worked in the city for about 11 years in the reinsurance market, most of that time as a claims broker. This entailed carrying large piles of folders of claims around to the Lloyd’s Insurance Market (mainly based at that time in the Lloyd’s Building in Lime Street) and around non-Lloyd’s companies in the streets around the area. This meant that I knew this patch architecturally quite well – well, very well to be honest. I could walk around that patch of London without knowing the names of the roads – by sight – the buildings were distinctive. One or two we could walk straight through and out as a short cut. Now, whenever I go up there – usually it has to be admitted about once or twice a year, whole blocks have disappeared like missing teeth. Pubs I used to go to – The Blue Elephant for example has gone today – and there is a large crater on Fenchurch Street. It is quite distressing. Further, the little piece of garden that ran down the side of Aldgate Station and St Botolph’s Church has been dug up and I assume the lovely rowan tree that grew there has been dug up… I quite enjoy it in a way – but the changes never seem to stay for long. The only buildings that seem to stay are the churches.

One, St Olave’s is a small church just off St Mark’s Lane, and it was one I used, when time allowed, to wander into – for five minutes before an appointment in an office two doors up from where my dentist now is, and which on glancing into today, is being internally gutted. It was always a very peaceful church, tucked away as it is. Samuel Pepys is supposed to be buried there – though I haven’t been able to trace exactly where (I haven’t tried very hard, it has to be admitted). It has a crypt that I would like to visit one day – but have never had the courage to go down. There is a gate at the top, and the area never looks open – though today the gate wasn’t locked; I don’t though want to get stuck in the crypt of a medieval church when I should be having my teeth polished up the road.

So it is rather a special place. I have just looked it up (for a picture or two) and have found that several people have connections with the church – one of which was Queen Elizabeth I. She held a thanksgiving service there in 1554 – on the day of her release from the Tower of London (just up the road, and around the corner) – which is rather super. I like that idea a lot. I suppose you would want to do that after all she went through. I just wouldn’t have expected anyone to know where she did it! They also maintain that the churchyard is said to contain the grave of Mary Ramsay – popularly believed to be the woman who brought the plague to London in 1665 – The parish registers have the record of her burial, on the 24th of July 1665… After which in the same year, the victims of the plague were parked with a ‘P’ after their names… I wonder if she really did bring the plague to London and where she caught it from. Why was she visiting London? Or did she visit somewhere else and bring it home with her? What a thing to be remembered for.

On the opposite side of Mark Lane is a tower, which I think must have something to do with the church. It stands alone quite separate between a pathway round back to Fenchurch Street and a very large modern building that looks for all the world as though it is something out of The Wizard of Oz. It has a small yard around it, with a gate, again one that is always locked, and I often wonder about that too – it does have a notice, and I did read it once, but have forgotten, but still haven’t been able to get into see…

This is a bit of a rambling post, to say the least – but the city of London really is in constant turmoil, with some buildings going up and disappearing, almost before they have time to settle into their foundations.

Some older buildings disappearing too, leaving enormous holes and yet there is a stretch of buildings from just opposite where the pump used (it may still be there, but I didn’t notice it yesterday) to be in Fenchurch Street up towards Mark Lane, which is obviously waiting for development and has been like it for years. The old shop fronts looking very decrepit…

It is very different from the one I remember. Not least as very few people are broking in the old way now – it is rare to see anyone carrying a folder and if you do – they are obviously placing business if they are brokers at all, there are no longer people going around asking companies to pay what is owed on a contract, which is what I did, (as a Reinsurance Claims Broker) from behind a pile of folders, that I had to carry from White Kennett Lane to their offices and to the Lloyd’s building, sometimes not being able to see around or over the top of the pile.

On the whole they were fun times and I learnt so much about people…and how they work, which I have been able to build on when dealing with all sorts of customers – but particularly certain people I dealt with in Harrod’s…many years later.

I suppose I first knew about Arthur Rackham from an edition of Wind in the Willows that was published with his illustrations. His willow trees are unique and are really distinctive. The details in his pictures are extraordinary and I have always liked them as a result. As I have grown older I have come across more and now enjoy his fantasy pictures, the fairies with spiders and their webs and of course witches with their various familiars…there is a streak of darkness throughout most of them which makes them fascinating to look at – there is always something you haven’t noticed before. Born, Wikipedia says, in 1869
he died in
1939 and seems to have been a prolific illustrator – with a very individual style that has become very sort after. I buy second-hand and antiquarian books on various subjects (children’s books, natural history and falconry books, when I can afford them) and one of the greatest irritations I find when going around the book fairs is the cost of early editions of books published with his illustrations. If it has a Rackham, it seems you can increase the price exponentially – and so I have some modern reprints that often have poor quality paper and are not as well designed. When truly I’d like to buy a good quality print and hang it up – I must look into seeing if there are any reasonably sized pictures I can purchase off the Internet.

It is odd how the illustrators of your youth become the ‘right’ illustrator for a book. I grew up with Wind in the Willows illustrated by Rackham and by EH Shephard. – both editions are gorgeous and for some reason I am happy with and enjoy both.
This is unusual for me – usually I like books to be illustrated by the original illustrator and it is rare for me to like newer versions. I’m not sure of the two, who illustrated this classic first, but it is of no matter.

I do find thought that I have this problem with Paddington (Michael Bond) – not the bear of the film, but the younger abridged picture books, illustrated by R W Alley. 

They are nice enough, but they are not Paddington to me – and I don’t understand why it was necessary to illustrate these with a new artist’s work (however good), when Peggy Fortnum’s illustrations are sufficient and are in fact illustrations of Paddington and not some  bear attempting to stand in for him. Further more they are perfect. How can you not buy the original book and have this sort of picture on your bookshelves?

For that matter I feel the abridged books in themselves are not really necessary. Why not introduce the books and Paddington a little later, when the originals can be appreciated in all their glory? There is a plethora of picture books out there actually written for the younger age group and it seems a pity to change something that is nigh on perfect, if not actually so. My colleague at work would protest that there must be some later editions of titles with new illustrators that I must like. If so, I think they must be books I was introduced to at a later, possibly less impressionable age… Peter Rabbit,
and the World of Peter Rabbit are only Peter Rabbit and the Flopsy Bunnies etc, if illustrated by Beatrix Potter. ‘They have, of course, produced a number of television spin-offs. Though why it was necessary for the books to be put on television, I’m not sure. I am sure they are very nice, as far as they go and other people have illustrated the continued tales of Peter Rabbit – but however similar or not, they are not quite the thing – if you understand me, but that is just my opinion.

It seems I wrote this as a Word document on the 22nd of December 2013 just two months after I paid Kuoni for my trip to Madagascar. I should, perhaps, for those who don’t know, state that I should have gone last October, however Kuoni cancelled the holiday not long before we were due to go. I then rebooked with Undiscovered Destinations and am now due to go out in May.

You would think with an extra seven months I would be ready…anyway, I thought this piece might amuse.

22nd December 2013 

Just woke having dreamt of Madagascar. I have never visited this east African kingdom, but back on the 15th of October I paid the deposit for a ten-day adventure to this extraordinary island. I have started to read about the country, their flora, fauna, beliefs, customs, and intricate complicated series of fady, or taboo. All of which try to out do the other with their astonishing anthropology, zoology and botanical uniqueness. So I suppose to dream of arriving at an island (by boat), with just a small pack to stay in a shack at the edge of a beach isn’t to be surprised at. I was with a group of people, most of whom went to the beach immediately – I walked to my lodge in the dark.  African dark of which I have had some experience, so that did come out of my memory. The red carpet was a little incongruous I suppose, but then so was finding a small blue octopus and a sand coloured turtle trying to survive amongst its threads. There may have been three creatures, because initially I tried to gather up the one with a shell, like a shrimp, pink and quite large, only to find it twisted so much I was bothered I might get bitten. Though how this creature was supposed to bite without an obvious mandible, I never queried. In the end I took the small turquoise blue coloured octopus in my hand and carried it carefully out to the beach, with a mind to releasing it. There I found the water at ‘high tide’, and our guide, with the others on the trip, amused that I should have missed the crashing waves and that I had thought to bring the creatures out to the beach. The waves were about twelve foot in height as they crashed to the shore and I found myself with the others just watching the water as it broke, just before I woke to find Pakka curled on my feet.The Grange 2012 April 105

Harris Hawk close up

I became interested in birds of prey after a falconer brought one to my school and flew it across the hall. I was thrilled.

Years later I wanted a different sort of holiday. One that no one else in my family, or amongst my friends had done and on searching through the British Tourist Board book, found a course down in Stelling Minnis at the British School of Falconry with Steve and Emma Ford.

I had a series of marvellous holidays/courses/and hunting experiences with them over the years – a beginner’s, advanced, an owl, and eagle course and then hunting weeks, culminating in being a guinea pig for their new falconry venture attached to Gleneagles. Which was an extraordinary experience and one of which I have very fond memories. It became more expensive to go hunting with them, and slowly they drifted away and I was left to find a new place where I could handle a bird, and perhaps enjoy the hunt once more.

The first morning on my second week with the BSF, I was disconcerted to be told that I would be taking a bird out with me in the afternoon to hunt rabbits.

I had thought I would only be handling the birds, in a similar fashion to the way I had on the beginner’s course.

That had culminated with Bloggins flying back to me from a tree after a week of theory in the mornings and the more practical hands on manning and training in the afternoons. He, of course, had known more about the process than I ever did (or perhaps still do), and was returning back to me, having been cast into the tree, almost before I had realised he had reached it.

My second week had been detailed in a leaflet too. The booklet, though had said nothing about hunting and having been brought up in suburbia with a love of all things fluffy, (but with very little practical or sensible knowledge), I really wasn’t sure what I had got myself into.

Image

Late that afternoon I walked back up the hill, with a bird on my fist. She was totally uninterested in my lack of experience, or the pleasure that she was giving me. Feet gripping my glove and body moving to compensate for my stride as I walked up the hill, she was alert to any small creature that just might bolt out from the grass.

Stewart the falconer who worked with Steve and Emma looked across and asked if I had enjoyed myself. To which I had to reply that I had, I had loved it. He laughed and said that he had known the afternoon had been a success, because of the inane grin that was spread across my face. He added that it was a very different physiognomy from that of the morning!

Birds of prey have an innate something. Each and everyone has its own personality as well as being some of the most perfectly designed creatures on the earth. Their entire being is designed and developed for the sole purpose of their existence and it is always a privilege for me to handle one.

My favourite, is the bird that is on my fist, or was last on my fist, (whether a good hunter or not), though it has to be admitted that one or two stand out in my memory. Bloggins was a common buzzard. Sebastian, a golden eagle and Gilbert a harris hawk, (who once fell into one of the canals around Romney Marsh many years ago, after trying to take on a swan). More recently Spud, a tawny owl, Ramsay another harris hawk and, of course Tiny the (then) juvenile condor.Image

The pleasure I have, is like nothing else I have ever come across and over the years I have enjoyed a variety of different things.

I have been flown in two aerobatic displays, fired a series of small hand guns up to a Magnum, taken the controls of a glider, slid down a very long zip wire, been snorkelling, enjoyed a flight in a jet, blown glass (not very well), and enjoyed a hack when both my mount and I have galloped together, exhilarated, even though that had not been my intention at the start of the ride.

I have found that only ‘one’ (if I may combine them) activity has constantly given me pleasure over the years – hawking and falconry.Harris's in tree

I don’t remember where I heard of the English School of Falconry. It may have been through seeing a display at a show. I believe the way in which birds are displayed and kept gives a good indication of the type of people concerned and I used to visit shows and take the details of any companies that seemed to me to care for their avian charges; rather than  being just concerned with the monetary aspect of their business.

The first time I visited Phil and Maggie I remember driving past the garden of their house and seeing a field of birds. Each with a block or bow perch every three foot or so apart and knew I had come to the right place. Since then I have been back and forth to their various sites. The last was at The Shuttleworth Collection and now they have moved to their new site at Herrings Green Farm, Wilstead.

In 2001 and again a few years later I was diagnosed with breast cancer. The Bird of Prey Centre has been a great source of solace of me and continues to give me an immense pleasure. It is a very special place.

The Bird of Prey Centre has until recently been split through the year; largely between the Falconry and Hawking season (October to February) and the rest of the year providing excellent displays, educational visits, experiences, corporate, and photographic days. This has now been enlarged and they are now offering a wide range of Field Sports in addition to their previous repertoire.

Primarily the reason why The Bird of Prey Centre is such an extraordinary place is the result of the people who own, run and keep it going. The passion that drives the centre is consummate – every visit I have had has added to my knowledge and enjoyment of the birds, of falconry and hawking. I always come away with a smile on my face, tired but full of the day and its adventures. Phil, Maggie and Emma are straight talking people who are obsessed by what they do and over the years have built a centre that is full of unique people, and an astonishing range of birds from Duggie the northern hawk owl to Tiny the aforementioned condor

.Eagle

Many of the species they breed there are endangered and are listed on the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) lists and it is a wonderful opportunity when you visit the centre to be able to make eyeball to eyeball contact with some of these superb birds.

Hawking and falconry are not one of the essential industries for this country. They provide nothing (or very little) to the economy or to reducing our national debt.

Hawking and falconry are not then very crucial, except for one or two vital things.

Falconers have an intrinsic need to care for the environment, birds of prey, and for their quarry. All of which are actually essential to the countryside, if not to industry.

If we don’t look after the environment, birds of prey and the general natural history of this country and, if it then becomes largely mechanical and industrial, it will surely lose part of its soul.

There is nothing like a bird flying to the fist, whether for the first time, or the hundredth.

Image

I have heard the sound of the wind whistle through the slit in a hawk’s bell.

I have smelt the peculiar musty aroma that seems to permeate around birds of prey.

The feeling of the grip of a bird sitting on my fist still makes me smile in a strangely inane fashion and to have one rouse and settle on my fist, tucking one foot up into her breast feathers gives me enormous pleasure.

At present, due to factors beyond their control, the Bird of Prey Centre is unable to provide their usual outstanding series of experiences. In due course this will be resolved and normal service will resume.

Now though, is the time to book and to organise a trip to the centre.

If you have never had an owl swivel her head to look at something over its shoulder or keep it’s head stationary as its body rises and falls, as you raise and lower your fist.

Never had a hawk rouse and fluff its feathers and call so that your left ear rings.

If you have never had a bird shuffle along and shelter under your shoulder as the rain begins to fall.

Never had a hawk croon softly, so that when you croon back he seems to reply (and who says he doesn’t?)

If you have never had a bird preen, then rouse itself preparatory to being cast into the wind, and if you have never had a bird fly back to you across a muddy large field, wings working hard as it returns to your fist tired at the end of a day’s hunt, then frankly, you haven’t lived.

Contact the Bird of Prey Centre (the details are below) and ask about their experience days.

At the moment you can enjoy a day of Field Sports (clay pigeon shooting, archery, knife throwing, shooting and dog handling).

Harris on CadgeLater on in the year, however, you will be able to gaze into the golden-ringed dark depths of an owl’s eyes, feel the grip of an eagle’s feet, admire the beautiful lines of a falcon, have your ears ring from a scream of a hawk sitting proudly on your fist, and have the pleasure of a bird return to your fist at the end of an extremely enjoyable and satisfying Ultimate Hawking Day.

You can adopt one of the birds and know you are supporting a superb centre and more importantly, that you are helping to preserve not only a superb institution, but also these extraordinary and gorgeous birds.

You won’t be disappointed and will have photographs that you will treasure and memories that will last forever.

The Bird of Prey Centre’s details are as follows:Image

The English School of Falconry

Herrings Green Farm

Wilstead, Bedfordshire MK45 3DT

Tel. 01767 627527

falconry.centre@btconnect.com

http://www.birdsofpreycentre.co.uk/

One of the great pleasures of walking the estate in the early hours, apart from watching Pakka take on the odd fox, and listening to the early morning calls of the birds, whether the dawn chorus or a late owl, is the weather and the various different types that we have. On the whole, I am like most people, aware that it is sunny or raining as I try to get from one place to another, and it is really only in the quiet of the mornings that I really appreciate what is happening.

This morning’s walk was one such. I noticed the ice first, as my Muck Boots (positively the best Wellington Boot for comfort), slipped a bit on the paving stone by our back gate. The short Muck Boots are not the best for traction, but are superb for pure comfort and I’m afraid I will probably never go back to the old rubber variety of Wellington. The longer Muck Boot (that my sister bought me for Christmas last year) I use for going out on long walks and at the Bird of Prey Centre have better support and grip, but are a bit much for Pakka’s and my walks around the estate in the early hours. I highly recommend both. I digress.

I was relieved to find the padlock at the gate hadn’t frozen over, (I have been known to spend some time trying to get out, while Pakka waits on the other side getting impatient), and walked carefully though the gate. The path by the river had black ice, so I walked on the verge, my feet crunching through the grass. We turned at the end, away from the river and the weir and came across the first ‘frozen’ car.

I have over the years noticed the superb William Morris like effects the ice has on many car roofs; beautiful leaves depicted in the frost, coloured by the paintwork beneath.

2014 Mobile Pictures Car Frost 022

There are also those that look not unlike the skin of some 

2014 Mobile Pictures Car Frost 017 

strange, but beautiful dragon and others

that remind me of the sea, dark and swollen.

2014 Mobile Pictures Car Frost 011

It seems (unless I am really confused) that this is not ice. The Meteorological Society (otherwise known as The Met Office, since 2000), state on their Internet site, that this is frost – actually something called Rime:

‘Rime, is a rough white ice deposit which forms on vertical surfaces exposed to the wind. It is formed by supercooled water droplets of fog freezing on contact with a surface it drifts past.’

2014 Mobile Pictures Car Frost 013

That description really doesn’t describe what is really a very beautiful and quite extraordinary natural phenomenon. Last year I used some as postcards around Christmas time. I thought though I would put some pictures of this morning’s artwork on my blog.

Not all the cars have frost (or rime). Some don’t seem to be affected at all. Some are covered in a dull sheath of frost, with no pattern at all, and others are quite extraordinary. One blue car this morning was particularly interesting.

2014 Mobile Pictures Car Frost 020

Half the roof was covered in a dull pattern, which suddenly changed to form the beautiful William Morris design till the far edge of the roof. One had one sort of design on the roof and a gorgeous swirl effect over the door 

2014 Mobile Pictures Car Frost 024

handles where the shape of the car curved. It seems to depend on the direction of the wind in relation to the surface of the cars.