Friday, 9 October 2015

Protective mimicry

It was definitely probably a hornet, possibly a giant hornet, possibly if the rumour-mill was worth listening to, even a giant Asian bee-killer hornet. And if it wasn’t the effect was the same, as I was both excited and worried. If you look up anything about hornets you will find that they are aggressive, dangerous, and eat all sorts of good things like bees, and bad things like wasps, and even doing that doesn’t improve their reputation.

I have to admit to having had some investment in this one actually being a hornet – I have been pointing out hornets to people for years, noting their generally placid behaviour, their brown and faded yellow stripes that make them look like tired old wasps, their aimless wandering about the place and their tendency to settle and appear to have to catch their breath. All of which are in fact characteristics of the hornet mimic hoverfly, which this was, as I discovered when it was pointed out to me that I ought to look it up. And thank goodness that it was not a specimen of the true hornet, which is aggressive, dangerous, as previously mentioned, as well as fast, noisy and which dresses in hazard warning tape. Hornet mimic hoverflies have evolved to look like hornets, to avoid being chased and eaten. They certainly have done well out of fooling me, even though I would not have chased or eaten them. But it’s certainly considerably more than one-nil to the hornet mimic hoverfly: indeed, a walkover, a whitewash, a rout. They’ve done well out of pretending to be hornets. And being a gentle soul I take my defeat manfully and praise my opponent. Protective mimicry is great, and clearly works. I admire it. I admit defeat.

But, if a handful of hornets arrived in my garden I would think very seriously about taking action, phone the person who deals with such things – the council I suppose, though a moment’s thought would tell me that the relevant department was probably privatised years ago, and its work is now done digitally with a three-month waiting list and payment required by some technology that hasn’t reached me yet. And I think I would be similarly disposed towards urgent action if half a dozen hornet mimic hoverflies started hovering over the patio. Their mimicry would not help them. The problem is that human evolution has moved so fast that it has left other bits of evolution far behind, specifically the retention of hornet-like coloration by the hornet mimic hoverfly. Hoverflies evolved taking benefit from a chance mutation that caused a similarity to hornets, but which unfortunately makes humans more likely to kill them, which we can now do with ease, theoretically; that is, we have the means, though not always success in deploying them.

An addition to the situation is the Asian hornet, now successfully ‘invading’ France, and threatening British shores with its reckless violence, voracious appetite and barbarian reputation, heavy baggage to add to that of any migrating species, which if it does any damage to any species already here is doomed to be termed ‘invasive’. 

Asian hornets may already be here. On 14 August 2015 the Central Somerset Gazette posted a story about Sally Bancroft, who owns Bancroft carpets we are told, and who spotted a wasp-like inspect on the balcony of her mother’s Glastonbury home. 

‘It flew into a cobweb, it was stuck,’ she said. ‘I couldn’t believe the size of it. It was as big as my husband’s thumb. It was about two inches long and its stinger was out, and it was about 5mm. When we Googled it, and from the description, it sounded like a Giant Asian Hornet. I don’t know if there have been any other sightings.”

The Central Somerset Gazette added ‘Mrs Bancroft stressed that she wasn’t a nature expert but it fitted the description perfectly. She said it had a yellow head and legs. Mrs Bancroft’s only regret is she didn’t manage to catch it as now she can’t get definitive proof if it was a Giant Asian Hornet, the world’s largest hornet, or not.’

Note that the Asian hornet has become the Giant Asian hornet. Mrs Bancroft’s curiosity is admirable, but a more likely scenario was that reported by the Daily Mail on 21 May 2014 - an Asian hornet 2 ½ inches long entered a kitchen in Staffordshire and was sprayed with fly-spray, expiring after ten minutes. No doubt the fears about potential invasions of Asian hornets, giant or otherwise – they eat 50 bees a day, according to ‘some experts’ cited by the Daily Mail 21 May 2014 – will have many good honest folk, and Daily Mail readers, reaching for the can of Raid when they see a hornet mimic hoverfly. What price protective evolution then?

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

On the Gothic trip

This was written soon after the ending of the Gothic exhibition at the British Library, in January 2015, much inspired by a poem by colleague Petonelle Archer, and a note to do with Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

On the Gothic Trip

Megan, on the Gothic trip,
Was captivated by a slip
Of paper bearing words in blue,
Words she recognised and knew
Related strongly to the text
She would be teaching Year 8 next.
The paper held her, quite engrossed her,
And then a book, and then a poster
(Year 8 were running round the place).
Glancing at her watch’s face
Megan saw they had to go
And meet the coach to school, and so
She gathered all the children round
And counted heads, and then she found
Her colleague on the trip, named Grace,
Had gone. They searched, but found no trace.
Some Gothic awfulness was feared -
The teacher had just disappeared.
Megan ran around distracted.
The SENCO said that this impacted
Detrimentally on the students.
With professional speed and prudence,
Her Head put ink to paper thus:
Dear Megan, after all this fuss
We cannot have you teaching here.
So ended Megan’s school career.

Speaking at the coroner’s court
Megan said ‘I saw – I thought -
A smile on Dr Jekyll’s face,
In that weird photo … in that place …
I think…’ And now she can’t remember
Anything of that November
Day she left poor Grace behind
And lost her friend, her job, her mind.

Monday, 10 August 2015

To Padua

We were late starting, we usually are. I couldn’t tell you exactly how late, because I reckon on a pretty long period of time between when I’d like to leave the house and time we actually do leave. I’ve been here before, several times, and I know that expectations have little to relate them to reality. The only reality is that I will feel that we are late starting.

As regards the trip to Padua, the expectations of lateness began with my taking the ten-minute stroll over to the station the evening before to see the times of the trains. Part of me still lives in an imaginary world where a day out begins about 7.30 with sandwich-making; as no sandwiches would be involved in this case there was at least a leeway of an hour, plus an hour to be late, plus another half hour to be really late. If I looked at trains starting at about 11, a two-hour window might give us something we might just reach.

Padua has promise; its name, Padova in Italian, sounds noble and playful at the same time, a name for a rich woman’s slipper, or a caprice of stonework, both light and structurally sound. Shakespeare set most of The Taming of the Shrew there, and should have written about Two Gentleman of Padua, or The Merchant of Padua; he would have been much more successful. Having caught the train at a little before one, on Sunday, we arrived at what seemed to be a deserted town. The promise was a bit deflated by the walk from the station to the town centre, along a street lined with what are possibly fascist era office blocks, heavy and grey, and modern era office blocks, light and grey. I had told my family that here we would be in an exciting medieval town, free from the masses of tourists that make Venice such a squeeze. I was correct as regards population density, but as we passed a park with a fenced off area of collapsed Renaissance masonry, I began to feel anxious.

Eventually, if you walk in a straight line from the station (everybody can walk in a straight line from the station), the streets give way to pedestrian zones, the space between buildings narrows, arches appear, and you come to some pretty impressive squares, edged by colonnaded buildings, clearly of some major import. Squares are good. They encourage civic identity and the mingling between ages and classes and genders, and they are undoubtedly good places for celebrations, demonstrations, heretic-burning, riots, and markets. A square is a good place to hang out, to watch and be watched, a place to be without having to pretend to be on the way to somewhere else, a place that encourages people to look good, even to compete in looking good. If you are not a good looker, a square is probably hell, a place of disenfranchisement, sorrow, and judgement. But these awfulnesses happen in the open in a square, where they can be castigated and suppressed, rather than on social media; this is surely a good thing. At least, I think it is. But then, on such a stage I would be neither hero nor victim, a looker-on rather than a peacock or an ugly duckling.

We had lunch outdoors in a square. We were watched by many pigeons, who wanted a close engagement with our food. I tried not to look at my watch as others were served ahead of us, and the pigeons landed club-footed on tables around us. Service was so slow that I adjusted my body-clock to the idea that we were having an early high tea. The food was good, but delivered in installments with long intervals so that eating became more of a spectator activity than it already was, being in a square and involving active avian envy.

We risked missing the Palazzo Bo, my main reason for setting up the trip. For our teenage sons the main reason was a shop that sold gaming cards of a vintage now unavailable in Britain. When we found that access to the Palazzo Bo was only by hourly timed guided tour, and that we had just missed one, we agreed to let them go, understanding that they were guided by free technology only apparently accessible to teenagers. I had spent 6 euros on a map which showed me that if I walked 60 metres east of the restaurant I would be pushing my face against the walls of the Pallazo Bo.

Palazzo Bo is part of the University of Padua, Italy’s second-oldest university, and Europe’s fourth oldest. Its attraction for me was its medical school, where the great minds of the early modern period had gone to study, Thomas Linacre, William Harvey, Nicolas de Cusa, Thomas Browne, Gabriele Falloppio; in the university Galileo had lectured on mathematics, Vesalius on anatomy, and in 1678 Elena Piscopio had become the first woman to be awarded a doctorate in philosophy. The name Palazzo Bo comes from a house where an early lecturer offered both teaching and lodging to students tired of the strictures of Bologna University. In those happy, confusing days before street numbers, when in London books were published and advertised for sale ‘at the sign of the Child and Willow’, or ‘the Snake and Gibbet’, this enterprising gentleman hung the skull of an ox over the entrance to his house, which must have discouraged all but the most dedicated, a way to ensure an attentive class. ‘Bo’ sounds odd now, especially as the name for a palazzo, but is linked to early words for a bull, beef, bullock, bovine, and so on. More than ancient, it is easy to imagine it as an intuitive response to the power and size of a bull; ‘bu’ may have been all the Indo-European chap managed to get out as he vaulted the primeval hedge.  

In our 50 minutes of grace we wandered gently between vaulted arches, cool in the afternoon, down (south) to the Prato della Valle, a large formal space with an oval canal lined by statues. We ate ice-creams, luxury ones of extravagant flavour and price. We wandered back, met up with our sons, bought tickets, read the brochure and dunked our heads under the taps in the toilets. I had long before heard about the wonderful anatomical theatre here, one of the oldest, functioning from 1595 to 1872. I knew it was arranged in ascending galleries in the form of an oval coliseum, with ornate balustrades, and I supposed that our view would be from the top downwards. Instead we were led in on the bottom floor, the stage of the theatre, its space originally intended for only the lecturer, the dissector, the demonstrator and the corpse. There was room for no more than two or three more, pressed around the table. At little more than head height above this cockpit was the first gallery, and the second was at shoulder height above this, and so on in the form of the galleries of Dante’s heaven. To allow for anyone above the first gallery to get any sort of view, the galleries appeared to be no more than eighteen inches deep. Few dissections were allowed – the Church's dispensation permitteded only two corpses, and only two days per year; the thirst for knowledge and the lack of more opportunities must have packed the theatre. It is, like the square, a place of looking, the layers of galleries of decreasing size functioning like a spatially inverted telescope, nearly collapsed, as many of the students must have been - we were told that 300 of them would have watched the dissection. And, despite the generous dispensation of the Church allowing the viewings to take place in February, the heat and the smell would have been frequently overpowering. But, we were told, the tightness of this miniature theatre meant that on the occasions when a student fainted the press of his fellows held him upright. I wondered about this - if you are going to be able to see a dissection only twice a year, and your mate next to you faints, you’d probably feel justified in elbowing him backwards to give you a better view; at the end of the session would there be a front rank of conscious students sitting on the collapsed forms of their fainted colleagues? Presumably the attractions of being at the lowest tier, and getting the best view, would have been balanced by the smell from the corpse and the risk of sensitive reactions from above.

In this funnel-like environment, students were able to see, with the guidance of experts, the mysteries of the body unravelled, the workings of nerve and artery opened up and knowledge brought up and out from an architectural space that both concentrated the gaze of the 300 downwards in increasing discomfort, and blew out the vision into the infinite space of the world and time and human life.

No photographs were allowed, which was good; we had to look and remember.

There are other things to admire and wonder at in the Palazzo Bo, the family coats of arms, the gorgeous modernist designs of Gio Ponti and Carlo Anti. I recommend it. We came out blinking into the five o’clock sun, thanked the tour guide, and agreed under pressure to go back to our sons’ shop, which they had to revisit in case there were any bargains they had missed first time around (they hadn’t). We wandered down again to the Prato to look at the statues. We sat on the grass. There were ants, but we didn’t care. For the first time in a week we sat on grass, and it felt good. We paused on the way back for a drink. While waiting for awfully slow service we looked and were looked at. We had another ice-cream. We got lost on the way back to the station, but recognised a landmark and found the straight road. We caught a train an hour after the last of the seven trains whose times I had noted. For a long time I wasn’t convinced we were on the right train, but then I seldom am.

The Fly

The large black and white floor-tiles are very pleasant, they combine clean modernism with classical allusion. The only problem is that the black is good quality matt, a black so black that it seems to suck the colour out of things that come to lie upon them, form and edges disappear and the tiles themselves sometimes look like they are at a lower level than the white tiles. That fly, for instance, how big is it? You just can't be sure. It was easy to see when my eyes were just drifting around, but I'm trying to look at it now, and it just doesn't work. Easy to see, but hard to look at - how does that work? It was so annoying yesterday, but now it's dead, it's still annoying, and it might end up being there for days, just because I can't see it properly. It might be pushed back and forth by drafts of air from the window or under the door, or people passing by, going from one black tile to another until it falls apart. And then I probably won't be able to see the parts of it.

I've got to do something about it, can't have a dead fly on the toilet floor, no way.

Choice: to pick it up with the fingers - no - or use a fresh piece of toilet paper, or the folded papers I've just used. There is no way that a dead fly is worth a single sheet of toilet paper. The economics just don't add up. On the other hand using the soiled paper would almost definitely soil the tiles, it's not worth considering the risks of a) soiling and b) infection. It's a choice between two wastes of resource. 

Maybe a dead fly is worth a sheet of toilet paper. How do you go about assessing it? Dead fly, toilet paper. What points of similarity or comparison do they have? Materiality, functionality, ability to make this a better planet, or a worse one? It's not good when dead animals have this much influence. Or toilet paper.



Miss Hollins, the headmistress, was large and wore floral print dresses. We were all slightly afraid of her, though she never did anything to cause us fear or distress. Just that I don’t remember her smiling. She was very much there, part of the school architecture. We never saw her leave, or arrive in the morning. Shirley Moss thought she lived there.

Miss Hollins was also the aunt of Andrew Russell, my best friend. Andrew Russell wasn’t so enthusiastic about my being his best friend, which puzzled me: I was young and had uncomplicated views as regards fairness. Andrew was the fastest runner in the school, until by a freak turn of events, I won the running race at Sports Day, and he came second. This curiously didn’t fall within my views as regards fairness. Andrew’s family moved away soon afterwards and I never saw him again, and soon got a new best friend.

There’s a woman I see around, I’ve passed by her for a decade or more, who looks like Andrew Russell; some people around here don’t move away, they like it here, like me, so it’s possible she’s been here for as long as I have. I’ve often wondered whether she is related to Andrew Russell, or to Miss Hollins. ‘Hey,’ I’d like to say, but I’m not sure what I should say next. ‘Is your family name Russell? Are you related to Andrew Russell who was my best friend – you have the same high cheekbones and slightly too broad forehead that demand prolonged attention? I hope you don’t mind my asking, but can you run fast?’ I don’t suppose, after she’s probably noticed me looking at her features for 15 years every time we pass in the street, that she’d say ‘Yes, that’s me, I’m his cousin, and I know you, in fact I’ve been waiting to congratulate you on your athletic prowess that day, subject of conversation every Christmas, Andrew was massively put out but over time, and with the help of friends and relatives, he has come to acknowledge you as the better man on the day.’

So I avoid making eye contact, and it’s better that way; I long ago gave up thoughts of being an athlete, and sidled over to the life of the mind, though I can still show a clean pair of heels when needing a way out of conversations that turn embarrassing.