Sunday, 19 December 2010


There are all kinds of folk in this world, most of them them at least reasonably pleasant to be with, or, at least, no more than mildly annoying.

Unfortunately, there are some who are not pleasant to be with.

Sometimes their darker aspects are kept hidden, expressed only to themselves, or in private with other, like-minded souls.

Sometimes, though, the dark aspects can be revealed, especially when alcohol is involved.

A friend of mine, someone I have known vaguely for a while, but only relatively recently have I known her well enough to "promote" her from acquaintance to friend, was in her cups this week, and was upset about it. She was, in fact, extremely drunk, because she had trusted somebody else, somebody who is nominally a very responsible person, to pour her drinks. The drinks being mixes, and she being trusting, she was at the edge of conciousness in only a couple of hours.

It was, I will admit, funny at first, because I was stone-cold sober when we met that night, and she was rolling giddy. Then I realised, a little later in the evening, that she was in distress.

She had realised, through the ethanol-induced fug, that she was drunker than she had intended to be, and not under as much self-control as she wished.

She was upset and annoyed at herself for getting herself in such a state.

Here's the thing, though. The actual perpetrator here was the one who poured her drinks, who deliberately got her drunker than she wanted, because it would be funny to see her drunk.

To me, this is disrespectful, and even misanthropic. He had made her a victim.

Worse, though, was the fact that she had been a similar victim a week or so before.

Another man, one she thought was a friend, also got her drunk, and himself, and then tried to take advantage. Forcibly.

Fortunately she was able to fight him off, and other people there, better friends than he deserves, took him away.

That man is a criminal. I wish I knew who he was, but my friend, out of a wish to avoid further trouble, will not tell the police what he did.

As I write here, I am torn. I know, and you, dear reader, also know, that this man should pay for his crime. But my loyalty to my friend's wishes prevents me giving more details so that he may be identified, because I do not wish that she be identified as well.

I would post dates, times, locations if I could.

Names and addresses, if I had them.

I am not a violent man, but I wish violence upon this person. Unfortunately, I am no great specimen of athleticism, so I could not dole out anything like what he deserves, and would suffer worse myself.

Instead, I must be vague.

Somewhere, out there in the East of England, is a man who thinks that a woman must give up her virtue simply because a friend was willing to.

A man who treats women as entertainment, not as people.

A man willing to commit rape (for that is what he attempted) to satisfy himself.

A man who tries to blame the woman for "making him" force himself upon her by refusing to give herself willingly.

I remind my friend; you are not to blame. You did not invite this. You are a victim, the fault is not yours.

I doubt that you, dear reader, know this man at all, or the victim, but, if you know of one like him, I am placing you under an obligation, a geas, to watch him. Monitor him. To warn others of his nature.

And as soon as he steps out of line, deal with him.

If you are as civilised as most of us pretend to be, then deal with him through legal channels.

If your reaction is as visceral as mine was when I first heard, then do as you see fit.

But don't kill him. Don't beat him to the point where punishment falls on you rather than him.

Hold him up. Publicly shame him.

Show the world his true nature.

In fact, maybe it's time we brought back the stocks.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Dear Mr Baker...

Dear Mr Baker,

I just read your article on the BBC website.

I agree that the plans will churn out top quality teachers, but it will also result in an even greater shortage of quality staff than already exists.

The idea of "teaching schools" will prevent married people, tied to their family's location, from taking up the profession, and people burdened with student loans will not be able to afford even more house-moves.

There are three things we need to be good teachers:

1. More realistic targets with less administration required to track them.

2. More non-teaching time to keep up with the admin, tracking, marking, planning, training ...

3. Respect.

Of course, we will never get these

1. If they make the targets realistic, they will not have the excuses to keep adopting "improvements" which also happen to save money (our local authority [Suffolk] is closing all the Middle schools, allegedly to improve standards, but they have already admitted that it was really to save money - after July, two thirds of the staff in my school [including me] will be made redundant as the pupils are crammed into over-large classes in an under-resourced high school).

2. Requires more teachers, when there is already a shortage.

3. We haven't had the respect of government or public for years - empty words from the front benches won't change that (and the media doesn't help, only reporting on poor examples, and showing unrealistic rubbish like Waterloo Road).



Wednesday, 17 November 2010


It's taken me a few days to get this down. It's has been spinning around in my head without "gelling" for some time, even before the 11th.

Fortunately, though,I had one of my 4am moments of clarity, and it all settled into place.

Remembrance causes me problems. Quite deep ones, sometimes.

It's a cliché, but War is Hell. The World conflicts caused death, pain and suffering on a scale we lucky 21st-Century humans have trouble comprehending. WWI in particular ate whole generations, chewing the heart out of entire towns when the "pals" brigades took off.

Today' conflicts cause major headlines when individual troops are injured or killed. Each victim is named on TV.

Undesirable as such deaths are, they pale in comparison to the battle of Passiondale, when each step the Allied lines advanced cost twenty thousand Allied lives, and probably similar numbers of Axis lives.

The thought of such waste chokes me up.

When I stand on parade with my Cubs, I stand behind them so that they cannot see me cry. When I see the ever-smaller group of WWII veterans, when I hear the Ode of Remembrance and the Kohima Epitaph, a real lump comes to my throat. I managed to hold it in during the laying of the wreaths this year, until, instead of being laid on behalf of a regiment or association, one wreath was laid by "The Family of ......". A woman and her two children laid the wreath, and instead of saluting or bowing their heads, the little girl blew a kiss towards the memorial.

Typing that brings a lump to my throat now, three days later. There and then, tears streamed down my face.

Fortunately, I suppose, the weather was foul, and we were standing in the rain.

Later, in the church, a girl in her teens sang, alone, unaccompanied and without a microphone, The Green Fields of France. I don't remember her name, but the song, and the purity of her voice, set me off again.

In case you haven't realised, Remembrance Sunday is an incredibly sad day for me.

But I wouldn't miss it for the world.

Because those deaths, that suffering, were not truly wasted, because they changed the world. Every death changes the world a little bit, for better or worse. The changes wrought by those wars were immense, and, I believe, ultimately to the good for all sides.

And, in between the horrors inflicted by the masses at the will of the politicians, in spite of the glory some found in the horror, some also found joy.

This is what gives me pause; without the millions of deaths in WWI, I would not exist.

My great grandfather was an American serviceman, travelling through Scotland and England for reasons I do not know. On that journey, he met my great grandmother. She accompanied him back to the States, where my grandmother was born not long after.

Things did not work out, and my great grandmother returned to England within a few weeks of my grandmother's birth. He, though, remained in America.

The world turned, as it does, and eventually I came along. Although she is years dead, my grandmother remains one of the most influential people in my life. From her I learned personal honour, national pride (not jingoism), confidence in my abilities, and a love of chess and Scrabble.

She unwittingly gave me an interest in nature and birds, even before my father did, thanks to the copy of the AA Book of British Birds she kept beside the back window, for when she sat and watched the birds eating scraps in the garden.

I loved my grandmother, and miss her still.

I never knew the millions of war-dead, but I regret their loss.

But without that war, great grandfather would never have visited the UK, and, for me, history would have been vastly different.

And my 4am clarity, the gelling moment that summed all this up?

The realisation that I cannot sum all this up. I cannot bring these thoughts to a tidy end, and I must not.

Tidy ends lead to closure.

Closure eases the pain.

Pain eased is pain forgotten, and if we forget the pain of war we will, inevitably, have another, and another and another. Einstein said that he did not know what weapons WW3 would be fought with, but he did know that WW4 would be fought with sticks.

But that's a whole other kettle of emotional scars...

Friday, 22 October 2010


A friend built himself a whole new computer recently, purely because he wanted one that was capable of running the latest version of CorelDraw.

I wonder, sometimes, why people put so much effort into being bang up to date, on the cutting edge of software technology. New software doesn't work. It's buggy, unpredictable, and never meets expectations.

If it's an update of something you already owned, you don't just have to learn how to use the new stuff, you have to unlearn the habits and shortcuts you had learned for the earlier version.

How much of an update do people actually use? How many unused, memory-eating features do they add, just to call it an upgrade?

Microsoft publish a word-processor and a DTP package, but the word-processor can do everything the early DTPs could do, and the DTP has far more word-processing capability than earlier versions of the word-processor. Who needs both?

Not me.

The latest version of PhotoShop costs $700. The "extended" version costs $1000. Do I want them? I do not. Do I need them? I do not.

I am still using my eight-year-old second-hand copy of PhotoShop Elements that cost a fiver.

It does everything I need - stick a few layers together, tweak a few colours - and uses a tiny fraction of the memory.

When I reveal this fact to my constantly-updating friends, I get treated like some kind of Luddite.

I haven't told them that I am planning not to upgrade my phone this Christmas. Again.

Saturday, 9 October 2010


My latest project has gone completely awry!

I've been working on making paper from nettles, and was all ready to do the actual sheet-forming, but I'd been delayed - events conspired to rob me of time whenever I tried to set periods aside to do things.

The pulp ended up sitting sealed in unsterilised jars for far too long.

Even though it looked OK, it smelled utterly faecal.

So, it has gone down the toilet and I have gone back to step one: collect nettles.

I have not given up, though. The local nettle patches have grown since I collected the last batch. The stems are woodier, and the bast might be easier to strip.

I am considering skipping the retting step this time, and going straight for the cook.

Watch this space.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Lunchtime Twitch

(I should have posted this yesterday!)

I went on my first ever proper drop-everything-and-run twitch!

Lunchbreak had just started, a colleague stuck his head around the lab door; "Have you got your binoculars with you?"

He'd just had a text, a Red Flanked Bluetail had been found in a field behind a church a few minutes away. Just found, in the last hour. Hardly anybody knew...

We leapt into Womble (I say "leapt", but my colleague is rather tall. He rather folded into the seat), and shot off to the next village...

... pulling into the church car park, we crossed into the next field, and found a small group of twitchers already there. Quite a mixed bunch to look at, several had done the same as us and popped out in their lunch break at the call of an SMS (I still had my suit on!), others were more dedicated, and had arrived with full gear - all-weather clothing, bins, scope, large-lens camera...

It was very civilised, newcomers greeted and pointed to the willow with the tiny brown bird, at first keeping company with a flock of robins, then showing on its own in the lowest branches, and even out in the open.

It was quite an odd feeling, but very enjoyable, to be out of bounds like this, with probably the most dedicated bunch of birders I've met in a long time (including the supply teacher I mentioned in Twitch! - he had been the one to find it in the first place and start spreading the word). Quiet, civilised, friendly.

Plenty of photos were taken by the other twitchers (I do not take many bird photos - I just don't seem to have the knack to get them really sharp). Images of this particular bird have been posted by Andrew Easton on the Lounge Lizards website.

I really enjoyed twitching this bird, so far from it's home ground. I may just pop out again...

Sunday, 26 September 2010


Idle wonderings...

In recent news, studies show that crowded urban populations are evolving a greater resistance to "slum" diseases, such as TB. It even seems that cystic fibrosis is a side-effect of an evolved response to cholera - carriers of the CF gene are more resistant to cholera toxins. The occasional instance of CF is outweighed by the benefits of being better-able to resist cholera.

It seems human DNA has yet to catch up with modern medicine.

A related article from that give hints that human evolution is accelerating.

We already know that populations around the world have taken different evolutionary paths to our Rift Valley ancestors - those who moved North, to less sunny latitudes, developed paler skin to aid the formation of Vitamin D; those at higher altitudes developed larger lungs and hearts; cold environments selected for eye-insulating epicanthic folds...

In the past, predictions of "future humanity" tended to involve words like "melange" and "melting pot". Increased global travel, growing acceptance of other cultures, all of these would see humanity becoming one homogeneous, undifferentiated population.

Now, though, storytellers and futurists must allow for the possibility - the strengthening possibility - that human populations are isolated enough (and the loss of cheap fuel will only increase the isolation) for speciation to occur.

But, what an odd event it will be - assuming the occupants of this planet retain easy communication for long after we lose easy travel, that some descendent of the internet persists, these new divisions of genus Homo will still share so much; language, culture, humour. To an outside viewer, it would look as though several disparate species had arisen and yet found enough common ground to unite under one cultural umbrella.

Or, maybe, Wells was more on the mark than he thought...

Monday, 20 September 2010


Two stories caught my eye today.

Firstly, there has apparently been a 40% fall in child employment in the last five years. Hypotheses abound, including competition from cheap migrant labour eating into the number of jobs available.

More likely, to me, though is:
"Children today are priceless possessions whose wants and needs are attended to. Because they can obtain pocket money from parents, they can by and large enjoy drifting around in society. You have to actually exercise some responsibility and initiative in order to get a job."
Health and safety scares, tabloid obsessions with child snatchers, and just plain old poor parenting have robbed generations of children of the gumption to get up and do something of actual value for themselves.

The second story to catch my eye, minutes later, backs me up:
Andrew Croskery, from County Down, applied for a judicial review of the [2:2] grade he received from Queen's University in Belfast.

Mr Croskery claimed if he had received better supervision he would have obtained a 2:1, the High Court was told on Monday.

What he means is, "I didn't get the grades because you didn't tell me to do the work"!

Try getting over yourself Mister Croskery - you missed out on a 2:1 because you needed to be watched. You failed to earn a 2:1 because you did not motivate yourself to earn the rewards you knew were available.

According to his Lawyer (and who is paying for that?):
"He avers his employment prospects have been jeopardised... in this competitive job market,"
I'll tell you what, I aver that Mister Croskery's employment prospects have been jeopardised far more by this open declaration that he cannot perform to his full abilities unless closely supervised.

Why couldn't he just suck in his result, and either work the job market harder or, if he has parents who can afford a lawyer for this expensive childish strop, why can't they fund another year at university so he can try again for the grades he claims he deserves?

I've been on both sides of the interview desk over the years, and I'd be a damn site more likely to hire a kid who bollixed a few points on his degree because he had a social life, knew it, and was ready to get back on track than some whining priceless possession who would take me to court if he missed out on a pay-rise because I didn't stand over him and force him to work.

Take heed, children of the 21st Century.

You don't need skills or aptitude to get on in life, just a lawyer good enough to sue the people who refused to spoon-feed you for the first thirty years of your life.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Making Joy.

This last week, I've regressed some twenty years.

You probably don't know, but my original degree was in Paper Science, at a university that no longer exists. For four years after I graduated, I ran the labs in a paper mill in Derbyshire.

Since redundancy accelerated my move into teaching, I have done very little with paper. The odd bit of recycling, helping other teachers with projects and whatnot, but nothing serious.

This last couple of weeks, car trouble has meant I have spent quite some time alone with our head of Art, and we fell to random plotting. We decided it would be a good idea to have a joint project between Science, Art and Technology to make paper and paper-making equipment.

So, I resurrected a project that has sat on my to-do list for over three years, and started making paper from scratch.

Not recycling, as most paper-making projects do, but from actual raw materials, something I have not done for over two decades, and even then I used a bunch of specialised machinery.

For a man in his shed, wood is not a good material to turn into paper. It's too tough, and requires too much in the way of heavy machinery and corrosive chemistry. I had a cast about in my mind, and came up with... nettles.

I had always treated nettles as weeds, but as a raw material they are fascinating. Soup, tea, beer, robe, fabric... the wonder is why we do not have farms full of nettle crops (of which, more later).

There is very little online about making paper from nettles, mostly comments along the lines of "Hey, did you know you can even make paper from nettles?" so a lot of what I did was cobbled together from ill-remembered lectures and hobby-level reading.

I went old-school, and borrowed a few tricks from the Japanese traditions (very different to European techniques), and I made a fascinating discovery - nettles provide a wide range of fibres.

To a European papermaker, plants provide single kinds of fibre - hardwoods give short fibres, softwods give longer fibre, and cotton gives very long fibres, up to 5 or 6 centimetres (although papermakers tend to get the short bits, since the long fibres go to fabric). The nettles, though, are like two plants in one. the core of the stems is like a mixture of hard and soft wood - the fibres seem to be in the order of two to five millimetres long (I haven't had a chance to do any microscopy on them yet). The outer layers of the stem, though (the bast) gives fibres that could be, potentially, be up to a foot long! Split a stem with a twisting motion, and the strands seem to reach from root to tip!

No wonder they used to make rope from nettles!

Turning the stems into paper was a struggle, one that I'm documenting in an instructable that probably won't be finished before October, but the work so far has been a joy!

I'd forgotten how much fun it is to make paper. Not just make paper, but Make paper.

This isn't science, it's alchemy!

I have spent hours harvesting, stripping, cutting, retting, cooking, splitting and beating these plants. On a sheer physical scale, this is the biggest Instructable I have ever done. I have been stung, stunk out half my school, upset my neighbours and over-worked machinery.

I have been enjoying myself!

What the heck, maybe nobody reads the final project. Maybe it slips into obscurity (somehow I doubt that, though). It is a landmark project for me, far more significant than publishing my hundredth project, or even than having a Guide dedicated to my work. This project, to me, epitomises what Making means to me.

I have gone back to basics, the very soul of a product. I have taken it back far enough, I am fairly sure that, if you left me in a field with a knife and something to start a fire, then I could walk out (days) later with a sheet of pale green paper.

Ha! I'd like to see a computer geek build his own computer from a pile of sand and copper ore...

Thursday, 16 September 2010


Birdwatchers are a mixed bunch.

From dedicated experts with decades of experience, to kiddies who like ducks.

One popular stereotype is the twitcher. A birder, usually a man, who rushes about the place to see as many birds as possible. I once tried to twitch a lesser kestrel, but failed. My father has twitched a few times.

Some twitchers, though, are very dedicated. I know a teacher who only does supply work, so that he has the freedom to drop everything and dash off to see an interesting bird at the buzz of a pager.

Generally seen with mild indulgence, even by other birders, twitchers are a competitive bunch, but in a civilised sort of way - lining up to take turns at a scope for a glimpse of a single rare warbler, keeping to footpaths and generally behaving themselves.

Some, though, are less orderly. At the very top end of twitching, people who have given up jobs and travelled tens of thousands of miles around the UK to push their year lists to the limit (383 in a year is the highest I have heard of, which leaves my current ten dozen in the dust) are also not above tossing around a few writs to challenge the validity of other twitchers' lists.

That's all showbiz, though. Not a real problem, more of an entertainment for those of us who struggle to reach 150.

It's how they get their birds, though.

I recently discovered how one of the UK's "top" twitchers, a man I had previously heard of spoken only with respect, ensured that he got at least a glimpse of the rarities he targeted.

At a twitch that happened on private land, the landowner (a farmer with experience of rarities on his land) had posted signs asking birdwatchers to keep to footpaths and the edges of fields with crops. The twitchers respected his wishes, searching for the bird at range, peering into ploughed ruts with bins and scopes.

This twitcher, though, tramped back and form across the field until he flushed the bird, allowing a brief glimpse of the departing bird, a tick in his book, and leaving an enormous dent in the good will that twitchers rely on to get to see most of their birds.

At another twitch, the same person pushed chest-deep into bushes, again to flush the target bird and leave immediately.

That is just plain selfish, denying other birders (whether they keep lists or not) a chance to see something special, and I would like to reassure readers that the vast majority of even the most OCD twitchers are not like this.


Oops, got to go...

Saturday, 1 May 2010

May Day

British (English) Gill & Wright (2006) / IOC Scientific name
vernacular name international English name

Mute Swan
Cygnus olor
Greylag Goose
Anser anser
Canada Goose
Branta canadensis
Barnacle Goose
Branta leucopsis
Shelduck Common Shelduck Tadorna tadorna
Anas strepera
Anas platyrhynchos
Shoveler Northern Shoveler Anas clypeata
Tufted Duck
Aythya fuligula
Pheasant Common Pheasant Phasianus colchicus
Little Grebe
Tachybaptus ruficollis
Grey Heron
Ardea cinerea
Marsh Harrier Western Marsh Harrier Circus aeruginosus
Buzzard Common Buzzard Buteo buteo
Kestrel Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus
Moorhen Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus
Coot Common Coot Fulica atra
Oystercatcher Eurasian Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus
Avocet Pied Avocet Recurvirostra avosetta
Ringed Plover Common Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula
Lapwing Northern Lapwing Vanellus vanellus
Calidris alpina
Black-tailed Godwit
Limosa limosa
Curlew Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata
Spotted Redshank
Tringa erythropus
Redshank Common Redshank Tringa totanus
Turnstone Ruddy Turnstone Arenaria interpres
Kittiwake Black-legged Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla
Black-headed Gull Common Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus
Mediterranean Gull
Larus melanocephalus
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Larus fuscus
Herring Gull
Larus argentatus
Little Tern
Sternula albifrons
Sandwich Tern
Sterna sandvicensis
Common Tern
Sterna hirundo
Rock Dove / Feral Pigeon Common Pigeon Columba livia
Woodpigeon Common Wood Pigeon Columba palumbus
Collared Dove Eurasian Collared Dove Streptopelia decaocto
Barn Owl
Tyto alba
Swift Common Swift Apus apus
Skylark Sky Lark Alauda arvensis
Sand Martin
Riparia riparia
Swallow Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica
Meadow Pipit
Anthus pratensis
Pied Wagtail White Wagtail Motacilla alba
Wren Winter Wren Troglodytes troglodytes
Prunella modularis
Robin European Robin Erithacus rubecula
Blackbird Common Blackbird Turdus merula
Cetti’s Warbler
Cettia cetti Heard
Grasshopper Warbler Common Grasshopper Warbler Locustella naevia
Sedge Warbler
Acrocephalus schoenobaenus
Marsh Warbler
Acrocephalus palustris
Reed Warbler Eurasian Reed Warbler Acrocephalus scirpaceus
Blackcap Eurasian Blackcap Sylvia atricapilla Heard
Garden Warbler
Sylvia borin
Whitethroat Common Whitethroat Sylvia communis
Phylloscopus collybita Heard
Willow Warbler
Phylloscopus trochilus
Blue Tit
Cyanistes caeruleus
Great Tit
Parus major
Magpie Eurasian Magpie Pica pica
Jackdaw Western Jackdaw Corvus monedula
Corvus frugilegus
Carrion Crow
Corvus corone
Starling Common Starling Sturnus vulgaris
House Sparrow
Passer domesticus
Fringilla coelebs
Goldfinch European Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis

List compiled from 05:30 - 16:30 at Carlton Marshes, Lowestoft Harbour, Walberswick Nature Reserve and Minsmere Bird Reserve.

69 species in 11 hours - a personal record.

Friday, 16 April 2010


OK, going from a grand response of two (one here, one on Instructables), I am going to start mixing projects into the blog.

There is a garden contest on the horizon at Instructables.

Personally, I don't "garden". I cut stuff down when it gets in the way, but I don't garden. If stuff survives, then it was obviously fit to survive. If it doesn't, then its remains can fertilise the survivors. Darwinian isn't in it.

So, I can't really enter with growing things, or how to grow things (though I sort of did in a past contest). I have decided to built a garden ornament.

Norfolk Chronicle, November 22nd 1783:
On Tuesday last a grant passed the great Seal to Mr Benjamin WISEMAN, of Diss, in this county, for his new-invented sails for windmills, with horizontal levers, vesting in him the sole and exclusive rights, by patent, of making and vending the same.

I like windmills. Any sort - corn mills, power turbines, decorative pinwheels - so why not make a windmill for the garden?

Purely decorative, entirely impractical.

Benjamin Wiseman's windmill is the perfect candidate - a vertical axis windmill, over two centuries before they became practical, with actual sails, like a boat. That's all I know as fact, so there's plenty of scope for creativity. Nobody can call me out on it being wrong, either, since no images seem to exist on the internet, and the (expired) patent is (apparently) all but illegible.

As they say; watch this space.

Thursday, 4 February 2010


Birding is a peculiar hobby.

It has the widest variation of any hobby I know. From home-makers watching birds visit the scraps they put out in the garden, through to manic twitchers who will drive the length of the country to add another tick to their list.

Birders might watch wherever they happen to be, or stick to "their patch". They might have a favourite spot on the cliffs for seawatching, or they might like to "browse" reserves.

Personally, I've come late to the hobby - I've liked birds for most of my life, but only gotten into actually watching them for a couple of years. It can be an expensive hobby as well - quite aside from the petrol money, there are the binoculars, the scope, the clothes. If I bought all the kit from new, it would cost me hundreds, maybe thousands.

Fortunately, my dad has been into birds for years, and has enough disposable income to buy himself decent kit. He uses me to rationalise his buying - he can pass his old kit onto me, "to save me money". He's spent thousands saving me money. The only new kit I have are my bins (a nice pair of roof-prism 8x32s from the RSPB) and my books.

A good guide book is essential. Obviously, you choose the right book for your area, but I highly recommend RSPB's Birds of Britain and Europe by Rob Hume. My dad swears by the latest Collins guide.

You may also need more specialised books if you settle on a particular style of birding, or type of birds. I seem to end up at beaches a lot, so I also have Shorebirds of the Northern Hemisphere by Richard Chandler and Flight Identification of European Seabirds by Blomdahl, Breife and Holmstrom.

What you need most of all, though, is a patient sense of humour. You can spend all day in the field, see some lovely birds, have a great time, then you get home, tell your tales and somebody says "So, nothing new, then?"

Or the number of times you arrive at a spot already occupied by a group of birders who say "Oh, you just missed..."

The funniest thing, though, is the instant expert. The chap who decides he wants a hobby, something to get him out of the house. Half the fun for them is buying the kit, getting all the "right" stuff.

Last January, a few days after Christmas, I was at Minsmere Reserve. The place was stiff with middle-aged men with brand new equipment. Bins, scopes, even jackets.

I was in a hide, with a dad and his lad in at the same time. The boy, keen, pointed out of the window and asked what a bird was. The dad peered through his thousand-pound binoculars, frowned, set up a scope more expensive than my car, had a look, smiled, and declared; it's a duck.

Sunday, 31 January 2010


The end, as they say, is nigh.

Hopefully not very nigh, but, eventually, nigh it will be.

That bothers me. I would be stupid if it didn't.

Of course, most people don't know when the end will come. Stray buses,
badly-earthed wires, lightning, there are many ways to shuffle off this mortal coil without actually noticing.

That's slightly attractive, because what bothers me is not the aftermath (being an atheist, there's no reason for me to be bothered about any post-corporeal consequences). What bothers me is knowing. Seeing it coming more than a few seconds in advance.

I do not look forward to having thoughts of mortality forced upon me for any length of time, say with illness or encroaching age. I expect to end up (if I keep my faculties) in some sort of state of mild, but permanent, panic.

It's bad enough now, when the thought of The End crosses my mind (as it does, when events remind me of my mortality, such as friends losing relatives, or I have a close call myself), to consider a world without me in it. The mental picture doesn't work. The best that I can do is to think of a me-less world in which I am some sort of powerless observer, like a television viewer with no remote.

It is easy to see, at times like that, where the idea of life continuing after death came from. It's just so much easier to go into denial and delude yourself into thinking that dying is just a temporary inconvenience, then you just carry on as before, just a it more ethereal.

But, in these modern days, there arre extra things to worry about.

When I die, my family and friends will know. They will grieve (hopefully), but they will go on and remember me with affection.

But what about you, dear reader?

There are hundreds, possibly thousands of people who know I exist through other websites, particularly Instructables. Pardon my ego, but I'd like to think they like my work, and would miss me when I'm gone. But, if I die, how would they know?

If you are in the habit of checking my stuff (or anybody else on the web) every few days or weeks, how long would it take you to notice I had stopped posting? How long would you keep checking before deciding I wasn't going to post again? Would you even consider the possibility that something was more seriously wrong than a laxness on my part?

And, maybe, you are reading this for the first time. Browsing the bloggosphere, you have only just happened upon this rather morbid post. Am I, to you, dead, alive, or maybe even neither? Am I inhabiting a timeless limbo?

I tell people who ask me; When I die, all that will remain of me will be the memories held by those that knew me. Does this count as a memory? And whose memory? Post-mortem readers did not know me. Do you remember me by reading this?

Is this, then, the afterlife I have never believed in?

Saturday, 30 January 2010


I approve of alcohol. Beer was a major step forward in human civilisation.

What I disapprove of is the mass production and mass consumption of poor-quality alcohol.

Ale, made with care and natural ingredients, is an art form.

The simple melding of hops, malt, water and yeast produces beers as diverse in nature as humanity itself. Dark, bitter, light, hoppy. Beers to quaff, beers to sip and savour.

A true beer, an ale with soul and character is a Maker's drink. As much black art as science, a decent beer is a genuine pleasure to drink, as much for the aroma, flavour, and even the feel in the mouth.

Mass produced beers, though, chemical-raddled lagers, over-chilled, carbonated "smooth" beers, are poison to the palette, sins against the sacred hop.

Proper beers are not intended to get you drunk (although they can - I've had a couple of very nice beers at 10% or more). You drink a bottle or two, savour it, and have a very pleasant evening. You try new beers from trusted brewers, or recommended by a friend with a discerning palette. Their flavours and nuances can be compared and discussed.

The dross, though. The ice-cold lagers, the alcopops, the two-for-one shots are not there to be enjoyed for their own sake. They are churned out, cheaply, by the bucket-load. No care, no soul, just lab-coats and QC technicians. As soon as alcohol is taxed according to the %vol, rather than by the type, the sooner we can be rid of the foul corporate crud doled out in mass-market off-licenses and burger-pub-chains.

They are there just to get people drunk, people without the imagination to look beyond "get bladdered and fall down" as a form of entertainment. I know, I've been there.

Manufactured without art, drunk without skill.

Yes, I am a beer snob.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010


Mornings are... zombie time.

Children sit and stare blankly until filled with cereal and chased to get washed and dressed. Adults stumble around, muttering, snatching food whilst ironing and putting packed lunches together.

Around 07:30, everybody is awake enough be trusted behind the wheel. The family parts, to schools and to childminders.

Sometime between home and school, spinning mental gears catch, and you notice you are in the car...

...the working day happens...

Home again.

Meals happen. Conversations happen. TV happens. Hobbies happen. Cubs, Scouts, Hip-Hop dance classes happen.

Children go to bed, reading happens.

Adults have calm time, TV time, internet time.

Bed happens.

The alarm goes off...

Friday, 22 January 2010


Officially, I disapprove of bad language.

Swearing, cursing, blaspheming. It annoys me when other people use it, and it annoys me when I find myself using it.

Why? Because swearing is, to me, a failure of self.

It means you have reached a point where you are experiencing something which you cannot articulate - you have gone beyond the limits of your vocabulary, and landed in the midst of expletives.

I am an intelligent man, and proud of my linguistic skills. Swearing dents that pride.

That does not mean I do not swear. I swore when I found out my Grandmother's cancer was terminal. I swore when I accidentally shot a methanol cannon inside my shed. I swore when I found out my school's closure was certain, and I swore, quite loudly, when I was mid-air in my Mini.

But, notice please, I know when I swear. There are other occasions, naturally, but I am aware of them all (though my unreliable memory means many will stay lost in history).

Many people do not know when they are swearing. I know people whose casual speech contains at least one profanity for every two or three "normal" words, especially when relating stories and events.

There are times, though when swearing has a knowing function. When the language of the gutter serves a higher purpose.

The harsh, angularity of taboo phrases makes them stand out of normal speech, gives them a weight beyond mere letters. Carefully-selected profanity can be a precision tool.

My father, who was a church elder, once found himself giving a sermon when his church lacked a permanent minister. At the time, a famine was fading from the headlines, even though there was not enough being done to help the victims.

My father stood up in the pulpit, and addressed the congregation;
"Every day, around the world, hundreds, thousands of children starve to death, and you lot just don't give a FUCK!

"What's even worse is the fact that you are sitting there now, more shocked at my language than at countless, needless deaths."

He went on to harangue the congregation about the distorted priorities of modern, middle-class theists, more concerned about being seen to be doing things the right way than about doing the right thing.

His sermon worked, it was memorable, and galvanised that church into some much-needed self-evaluation.

But it wouldn't work every time. A curse a week would quickly result in the congregation checking their watches, wondering when he's going to get it out of his system. It would lose its impact, which is exactly what happens with the casual user.

That begs a question - what do you say in those moments where normal language fails the civilised speaker? What words remain that possess the impact of a few choice Anglo-Saxon monosyllables?

I'm buggered if I know...

Monday, 11 January 2010


How many school kids complain about their uniform?

"I want to be an individual!" they proclaim.


Look around you. Humans need to belong to groups. They need to be identified as part of that group, even if they are not with that group.

Look at the football terraces, seas of red, green, yellow, checks. Watch the supporters walking to the match, nodding and smiling at strangers who wear the same colours, frowning at the other group.

Look at a school on a "non uniform" day. Look at the groups of kids, all keen to express their individuality by dressing exactly like their friends, or like those they want to be friends with, of those they want to be like.

The girls all wearing the same skinny jeans and lumpy bangles from the same fashion chain.

The boys all wearing the Animal hoodies.

Jocks, cheerleaders, geeks, nerds, emos, punks, rockers, mods, new romantics - they all have their own uniforms.

They may want to be unique, but they need to belong, and they only have one way to show it.

And if they turn up in the "wrong" outfit, suddenly they don't belong. Suddenly they are unique, but unique in a school means outsider.

So, a school that wants to be a community, with all its pupils belonging, needs a uniform.

Nothing complex, nothing uncomfortable, nothing strange, just uniform.

Uniforms are also great levellers - it brings down the snobs, it lifts up those who cannot afford cutting-edge fashion.

In the long-run, uniforms are good for the environment as well.

Somebody expected to wear a uniform needs to own fewer clothes, so fewer clothes need to be made.

Some of the money that would be wasted on soon-to-be-discarded fashion items gets spent on uniform that is used to its full extent, worn 'til it can be worn no more, then passed on to younger siblings. The rest can be spent on more important things - food, shelter, the latest Seasick Steve CD...

Kids may not want to wear a uniform, but they need to. It's good for them.