Friday, 27 March 2009

Nasty moment

I woke last night at 1.30 - and there was silence in the garden. Oh no! So soon! I felt dreadful. Had it been love at first sound? Don't say he'd already taken the ultimate desperate step! So I was relieved to wake a couple of hours later to hear Randy Romeo Robin duetting with the blackbird again.

Meanwhile some good local news: Formula One Williams team is based just round the corner from us in Grove, and it seems they (along with Brawn and Toyota) have stolen a march on the big boys with their superior design of diffuser. Of course Ferrari et al are crying 'Foul!' but for now it looks as though they'll just have to catch up. Meanwhile our local team, with Nico Rosberg and Kazuko Nakajima have put in two of the fastest practice times so far. Hopefully we won't have local lads imitating them at night on Newlands Drive. I'd prefer a whole aviary in the garden to that.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Wherefore art thou...?

But, soft! what light
through yonder
window breaks?
It is the east,
and Juliet is the sun.

Something that mildly irks me is the frequent misquoting of the line, 'Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?' to mean 'Romeo, where are you, Romeo?' In fact, of course, it means, 'Romeo, WHY are you named Romeo?' and Juliet (who's a Capulet) is bemoaning the fact that Romeo, whom she's fallen in love with, is a member of the Montague family. And the Cs and Ms are at daggers drawn.

Which is by way of informing you that I have dubbed Randy 'Romeo' and have named my new RSPB robin 'Juliet'. This evening we held Juliet by the open window and then began a plaintive duet between Randy Romeo and Juliet. Juliet would sing her double burst of song and RR would respond. Silence. A burst from her and a reply from him. It was quite touching. But I fear it's the stuff tragedies are made of. Their love is doomed. It will never be consummated. Will I wake one morning to find a lifeless Randy Romeo on the patio having tried in vain to reach his Juliet and penetrate the cruel glass barrier lying between them?

Surprisingly, despite earlier comments, that would considerably distress me. 'A glooming peace this morning with it brings,' would be all too true. So here's hoping Randy finds his real live Juliet. I'll keep you posted.

Uncanny or what?

After my last angst-ridden posting, two odd things happened. One was I received an email from a friend whom I've not seen for years. Its subject was 'You MUST watch', and it said, 'This is truly awesome and inspirational - never seen anything approaching this. May it bless you. Copy and paste link into your browzer.
Barrie'. So I clicked on the link, and he was right. It IS inspirational, especially from my point of view Nick's comments at the end. I won't spoil it for you. You MUST watch it. But it did put a different perspective on my incipient self-pity.

Then this morning I received a padded envelope from Nottingham. I recognised my brother's handwriting, but the card inside wasn't from him, but from someone who's commented here in the past. It said, 'With thanks for the enjoyment your blog gives me and in case Randy ever goes on holiday -'. Also in the envelope was a furry robin from the RSPB 'with a real bird call', when you squeeze its tummy. It had me roaring with laughter. Thanks, Pat. Besides the kindness and the wit of the present, what struck me was the timing. I don't suppose either Pat or Barrie were aware of my gloom, but both sent me something to lighten it. So who tipped them off? I wondered. A mystery. Anyway, I'll be grateful to God.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Ants and elephants

There was once an ant who lived in the jungle. Of course, he wasn't the only ant, but he was an unusually thoughtful one. In the same jungle there was also an elephant; he was unusually large. The ant often used the same forest track as the elephant. One day they both happened to be walking together. The ant was quiet. He suddenly stopped, and said to the elephant, in a voice you'd not have been able to hear, best beloved; it was so high: 'You're very big, and I'm tiny. I've been thinking - you often come this way. How come you never step on me?' A low rumble came from the elephant which might have been a chuckle or might have been these words, 'Have you never noticed, my friend, that our name is like yours, only bigger?' Now ants like puzzles; which was why they're so good at finding their way home. So, while the elephant went swaying on his way out of sight, the ant stopped and scratched his head with his two front legs. 'Elephant - eleph-ANT! Oh yes!' And then he tried anagrams: 'Help ant e', 'E help ant'. They didn't quite make sense. And then he recalled the elephant's words, 'Our name is like yours only bigger'. OUR. Elephants. 'So let's try adding an S,' he said to himself. 'E help ants. That makes more sense.' Now, it's a little known fact, but it's perfectly true, that unlike Jonathan Ross ants can't say W. Suddenly the ant stopped scratching and placed his feet back on the forest floor. 'I've got it,' he squeaked, 'Elephants - we help ants!' From far away in the jungle came the sound of deep trumpeting.

I've not been full of the joys of spring, to be honest, which is perverse seeing how nice the weather was last week. We even planted an apple tree in the garden - at least, Jane did. I just helped choose it. I think I've been indulging in a bit of what they used to call existential angst. I've been thinking about the size of the universe, which I can't even begin to conceive. And then there's the complexity of the natural world, which I suppose has been brought to mind by the current programmes about Darwin's 'dangerous idea'. Of course none of that has anything to say about God's existence or his role as creator. But it does make it hard to credit his being interested in me. How can it be that the God behind all this really be even aware of an insignicant being like me? It feels a bit like an elephant noticing an ant, only infinitely more.... Well, I'm afraid I can't get my mind round that one, but I do find it reassuring that Karl Barth, the greatest theologian of the 20th century, summed up his faith in these profound words, I believe: 'Jesus loves me. This I know; for the Bible tells me so.' OK, so they're lines from a children's hymn, but actually we ARE children in the face of the mysteries of existence, and always will be. And I reckon if that's good enough for Barth who wrote 13 volumes of 'Church Dogmatics', it's probably good enough for me who has managed one slim volume of 'My Donkeybody'. Last night we had Peter and Jeanette round to supper, fresh from a week in Israel, and I was reminded again that the events of the New Testament are really history. There may be dispute about exact locations of events, but Jesus did die and rise from death in 1st century Jerusalem. And the explanation of his friends was he did because he loved them and the world, including me. That's something even an ant brain like mine can just begin to comprehend, because I see reflections of it around me. Even the excoriated Jade Goody, mixed though her motives may have been, reflected something of that love in her last months, caring about her family and fellow cancer sufferers in the midst of her pain.

Thanks to © Jeanette for photos

Thursday, 19 March 2009

What time of day do you call this, then?

A few nights ago, I woke up practically every hour. It might have had something to do with my having had a prolonged nap in the afternoon. Be that as it may, it did give me the chance to do some scientific observation. So I can tell you that the robin was quiet until one o'clock. Catching up on lost sleep, I imagine. Then he had a burst of twittering for a couple of hours. About 3.30 to 4 am, blow me if he wasn't joined by a blackbird, and they proceeded to sing a duet. I must say the blackbird was the better musician. Now I'm used to blackbirds leading off the dawn chorus. At least one used to in Stanford. But what time of day did he call this? It would be getting on for two hours before rosy-fingered dawn began to creep across the eastern sky. I can only conclude that the sap is rising with this balmy daytime weather we're enjoying. This week the first butterflies have been out, the yellow brimstones bouncing around in the sun. Somehow it's appropriate that they're always first, with their cheerful sulphur-yellow wings and small orange spots. This year they've been closely followed by the darker tortoiseshells. I imagine they all hibernate somewhere, enjoy a few days of free-flying and mating, and then lay their eggs - and die. I love their freedom and mobility. They are, I believe, a symbol of resurrection. Now there's something to look forward to. No more wheelchairs and walking sticks: just gravity-defying freedom! I guess then there'll be some dawn chorus!

Oh yes, I nearly forgot. The University Challenge scandal! I was ashamed to have been trained at an Oxford hall. You'll remember, the final was between red-brick Manchester (with thousands of students) and little Corpus Christi College, Oxford. Manchester were going strong, and then in the last 10 minutes or so the questions suddenly became more literary and classical and Corpus romped through to win 'emphatically'. Now I'm not saying anything about the question setting, except that if there'd been more science.... But I don't need to, because it emerged quite soon that one of the students from Corpus wasn't a student. He HAD been, but he was now working in the city. Apparently it's not the first time something similar had happened (someone had changed college and was in his former college's team). 'Cheats!' the media howled. The trophy was taken away and given to Manchester. What was odd was that in all the comment following the shock-horror revelation no one seemed to observe that the contestants introduce themselves saying something like, 'I'm ..., studying ...'. I'd have thought the issue was more one of truth than one of cheating. Let's hope the Oxford boat crew next week are all bona fide students.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

If it's not broke, don't try to fix it

I see that The Times of London had a leader on Saturday calling for Parliament to debate Assisted Suicide again in the wake of the couple from Bath, Mr and Mrs Duff, both of whom had cancer and who had killed themselves in the Zurich clinic last week. The argument of the leading article is that because 'around 100 Britons' have availed themselves of the clinic's services the silence of Parliament on the issue is 'deafening'. It's a very odd argument in that neither house of Parliament has been silent on the subject, as anyone who follows PMQs or Yesterday in Parliament knows. What the Thunderer (as Trollope called the Times) seems to be after is legislation to permit assisted suicide in this country, though of course it purports merely to be calling for a full public debate.

What I find most disturbing about the Times' (which of course is not alone among the media) covert campaign is that it feeds on fear and it fuels fear. People are naturally afraid of dying, and they're afraid of not being in control. Personally I know both fears. MND has the popular reputation of having one of the most unpleasant conclusions of any disease. The first time I expressed this fear in print I received a letter from someone who visited many MND patients. She said, as I remember it, 'It really doesn't have to be like that, Michael. Palliative care practitioners are very good at managing the final stages.' The MND Association gives similar reassurances. I've certainly seen the last stages of cancer well and peacefully managed. That's not to minimize the pain and distress. However, they are universal experiences, which don't need compounding with fear. The fact is that millions of Britons have their last months and days and moments made dignified and bearable by Macmillan nurses, hospice staff and carers. Their concern is to minimize suffering which is a world apart from the aim of expediting death - even though its effect may be indistinguishable.

The 19th century poet, Arthur Clough, wrote a satirical poem called 'The Latest Decalogue'. Some reckon it's a blaphemous mocking of the Ten Commandments, but I agree with the chap who described it as a 'salutary warning against hypocrisy and self-righteousness'. Sometimes people speak more truly than they think. So Clough wrote:
'Thou shalt not kill; but needst not strive
Officiously to keep alive.' I haven't asked any doctors, but it seems quite a neat working formula in medicine, bearing in mind that the stress falls on the word 'officiously'. And I believe it's the approach of the vast majority of the medical profession, and the one that's eased millions into the next world. If it ain't broke, don't try to fix it. And woe betide those who try to pile up fear for a society that's already running scared of so much.

Incidentally isn't it ironic that a side effect of the credit crunch is that some hospices (who rely on voluntary donations) are having to cut back on the services they offer. I heard of one recently which was stopping its home care service; so that they were no longer able to offer people the option of dying at home. I raised in 'My Donkeybody' the possibility of assisted suicide being legalised for economic reasons. The cutting back of palliative care could be the first step.

Good news

It was nice to hear some good news among so much gloom in the week. And that was the news that researchers in Edinburgh and Toronto have made a breakthrough in stem cell research. As I understand it, they've found a way of creating stem cells from adults' skin. These induced pluripotent stem (IPS) cells can apparently transform into any of the body’s cells. The problem previously has been that introducing to the body cells created in this way caused problems such as cancer. The breakthrough is the discovery of a method of doing it without the problem. So it should, in time, be possible to introduce new healthy stem cells to replace ones which have gone wrong. In time, that sounds like good news for people with spinal injuries and neurological degenerative illnesses. It should also supply a source of stem cells for research into conditions like MND. From my point of view, the great benefit is that this method does not involve creating and killing embryos. That's the really good news.

Friday, 6 March 2009

Is 8 a charm?

This week Jane counted eight goldfinches in our garden. I don't know whether this technically constitutes a charm, but I reckon so. Meanwhile the other week, the big bird feeder had about a dozen starling squabbling over it. The collective term for starlings is, I believe, a murmuration. Ours were more like a squawk of starlings. (Oh yes, and Randy - identified by Ian - the robin's still keeping up his nocturnal twittering.)

You have to feel sorry for Andrew Strauss, the England cricket captain. You'd really have thought that a first-innings total of over 600 would put you in test match winning position. It must have been gutting to see the West Indies pass it and disappear out of sight with a good 700+ runs. I gather the pitch was to blame, but I can't help thinking that Shane Warne might have made something of it. I have to agree though with my friend Peter who commented (actually about the England v Ireland rugby) 'I do feel the commentators and pundits have a downer on England at present at whatever they try to do.' There's a sort of death-wish in some of them, almost as if they expect England to lose. On the other hand, I hate the jingoist 'My country right or wrong' attitude, echoed by fans booing and trying to put off the opposing penalty kickers. Or spectators at Wimbledon cheering a mistake by Henman's (blessed Tim) opponent.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Godwits - various

There's been a response of blank incomprehension to my reference yesterday to godwits, so a word of explanation for those of you who were never members of the Young Ornithologists Club (YOC). Godwits (bar-tailed and black-tailed) are migratory wading birds, of the same family as the sandpiper; they can be found on estuary mudflats, including the Thames, digging in the mud for worms and snails. Imagine a tawny chicken with a long straight beak, on stilts and with the appropriate appendage at the back, and you'll get a rough picture. The RSPB has the following on its website: "Help the Black-tailed godwit - We need to take urgent action to secure the future of this species. Become a member today and help us continue our vital conservation work."

I read recently that over 70% of research at Cambridge University was rated world leading or internationally excellent (according to the UK's Research Assessment Exercise 2008) leading to its being dubbed the 'top university'. So presumably we can take seriously the research of Cambridge scientists which indicates that bankers' success may depend as much on their biology as their rationality. Apparently the most successful financial traders have a relatively long ring finger compared to the index finger on their right hand. Huh? Well, that's, I learn, an indicator of having been exposed to high levels of prenatal testosterone. On average, traders with longer ring fingers made six times the profits of short fingered ones. So, check out your right hand. My right ring finger? Well, it's longer.

However John Coates, lead author of the research paper, warns that 'the traits that benefit high-frequency traders may prove a hindrance in poositions involving more long-term investments'. Shame... Maybe that's explains a lot. Less godwit, more nitwit.