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Puffin body language [Nov. 25th, 2014|11:54 am]
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A puffin also communicates information in its manner of walking. If the puffin is walking rapidly with its head lowered it is saying, "I am just passing through and don't mean any trouble." This is called a low profile walk and is useful because the colony is very crowded and a puffin is often crossing another puffin's territory as it walks. The puffins that are guarding burrows usually assume a pelican walk position that has the puffin stand stiffly erect with its beak next to its body and using slow exaggerated foot movements. This makes the puffin look like a soldier on guard duty, which is just what it is doing by guarding the burrow.

"The puffin may also stomp its foot in place to show its displeasure."

Puffin FAQs from Audubon's Project Puffin
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Whalers and witchcraft [Nov. 23rd, 2014|06:22 pm]
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Meanwhile, back in September: Wednesday was the day we spent in Boston; Thursday we spent in Cambridge with nineweaving and others; on Friday I built myself a nest in our cosy bed which filled very nearly the whole of J.'s study, and treated my cold with sleep, Swiss sugar-free throat sweets and an abundance of paper hankies.

The treatment was successful, and by evening I was feeling well enough to go out to dinner with sunspiral and roozle. One of the good things that came out of that dinner was that our hosts recommended an excursion to Salem, to the Peabody Essex Museum. So that's what the four of us did on Saturday.

durham_rambler and I had been to Salem before, long ago. We had walked by the sea, and watched the gulls cracking open mussels by dropping them on the jetty, and we had visited a museum (which did not in my memory match the description of the Peabody Essex - more local history, less art gallery - but in retrospect clearly was). This time we walked through a street market, past shops which were gearing up to make the most of Hallowe'en, and I thought of Whitby, and wondered what it was about whaling ports and witchcraft.

The museum's entrance hall is an amazing space, high and light and airy, but it leads into galleries which are dim and warm: good for the treasures stored there, but a challenge to my still rather stuffed-up head. The collection is - as J. said - eclectic, and not always well explained. If I were showing you round, I'd be pointing out individual favourites: one particular blue and white vase, big and round, some scrimshaws, including a whalebone pastry wheel, some netsuke (especially the rat and daikon), a totem pole-like sculpture of found textiles (which turns out to be a Nick Cave Soundsuit, but the more I learn about these, the less that description matches what I saw). To my surprise, I enjoyed the current exhibition of Alexander Calder mobiles. Yes, it had been particularly recommended to us, but I don't have a high success rate with modern art, and Calder's mobiles all seem to do the same thing. Nonetheless, it was pleasant, and mildly hypnotic, to wander around and watch them doing it.

Actually, I did have a favourite gallery, the Native American Art collection which we came to right at the end of our visit. I saw a few things, beautifully displayed but not necessarily clearly explained or contextualised, and now I'm looking at the website and discovering how much I missed: I certainly didn't see this rattle made of puffin beaks, for example. I did see this, though, Carl Stromquist's Lunar Eclipse of Hale Bopp, which doesn't seem to have made it onto the PEM website:

Exit through the gift shop. There aren't many museum gift shop's where I can't find anything to buy, but this was one: many arty objects designed to appeal to cultured people who like the museum, but not so much relating to what I'd seen and liked.

And home via Trader Joe's, the perfect finale to any excursion. The man on the checkout enthused over my purchase of 'hobo bread' - "Oh, brown bread! We used to eat this when I was a kid..."
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Flambards in autumn [Nov. 22nd, 2014|10:54 pm]

We went last night to the announcement of the winner of the first Flambard Poetry Prize. There were speeches, and the winner and runner up each read a couple of poems, all of which I thought were fine but none of which grabbed me - which is par for the course. There was an outside chance that I'd be bowled over by something, but the main point of the exercise was to see friends: tea beforehand with Gail at Northern Stage, then at the event itself.

We travelled by train, and I made sure to take with me the book I am currently reading, to entertain me en route: so I had the pleasure of showing Bitter Waters to the publishers of Blood Waters.
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Five things make a newspaper [Nov. 22nd, 2014|10:43 pm]
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  • The Guardian for Friday 27th October 1995 offers a compendium of 'The Darling Words of Mae' - quotations from Mae West. Several of the best - certainly the best known - come from I'm No Angel (1933):
    • Beulah, peel me a grape.

    • When I'm good I'm very, very good, but when I'm bad, I'm bet­ter.

    • She's the kind of girl who climbed the ladder of success, wrong by wrong.

    Then there's:

    Give a man a free hand and he'll try and put it all over you.
    Klondike Annie, 1936

    I've been in Who's Who, and I know what's what, but it'll be the first time I ever made the dictionary.
    Letter to the RAF, early 1940s, on having an inflatable life jacket named after her

    "Goodness, what beau­tiful diamonds!"
    "Good­ness had nothing to do with it, dearie."
    Night After Night, 1932

    Why don't you come up sometime and see me? I'm home every evening.
    She Done Him Wrong, 1933 (yes, this is apparently the original text)

    Connie Mines: Oh Miss West, I've heard so much about you.
    MW: Yeah honey, but you cant prove a thing.
    From the television pro­gramme, Mr. Ed, 1960 - wait, Mae West was on Mr. Ed? Oh.Kay.

  • At the other extreme, I've been reading today's edition, too. There's a project just waiting for someone with too much time on their hands, to log the writers who appear - who are quoted, profiled, reviewed or reviewers - in the Review, the Saturday books section, because it is obvious on even a desultory reading that certain people form an in-group, who get far more attention than others. Neil Gaiman seems to have joined their number. I don't dispute that Neil Gaiman is a Good Thing, but he appears three times in the first two articles: on page 5 he annotates a copy of The Ocean at the End of the Lane to raise funds for PEN, on page 6 he appears twice in the diary, suppporting the campaign to Let Books Be Books and as an author whose readers are profiled by YouGov's Profiles service. Reaching the centre spread, and a profile of Ursula Le Guin, I reflected that she, too, has entered the enchanted circle, but without the overload - but, wait! here she is receiving the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from - yes! - Neil Gaiman.

  • Also in today's Guardian, it seems that Newcastle-upon-Tyne is the UK's best city: with a photo of the Lit & Phil to prove it. An associated article lists Newcastle's top 10 craft beer pubs - I'm not sure what the criteria are for inclusion, but they managed to exclude the Bodega. Note for the bewildered: number 1 on the list, Pleased To Meet You in High Bridge, is (i.e. was) the Turks.

  • Last week's travel section had some suggestions for UK seaside holidays in winter. I may be missing the point here, because it seems obvious to me that the seaside is somewhere you can also enjoy in winter. One of their suggestions is Tynemouth - and very nice too. They recommend some places to stay in Oban and Portmeirion, either of which I'd be happy to visit. Curiously, their explanation why you might want to go to Portmeirion is "You can pretend you’re on a Mediterranean holiday..." Some of us might want to pretend we're being pursued along the beach by giant white balls, but the young things who write my newspaper don't mention that...

  • Last week's paper also offers a bonus piece of travel writing disguised as a gardening column: Alys Fowler heads to Kazakhstan in search of the origins of the apple. She makes it sound ravishing, but then she doesn't mention the government, with its appalling record on human rights. I liked this, though: "Birds are thought to have carried the seeds of an early apple from China to Kazakhstan, where the Tien Shan brown bear fell in love with them. Bears like big, juicy apples and will hack their way through a tree to get the best fruit, pruning the trees as they go. They poop out the seeds in a perfect germination package. Thus, big, juicy apples do better. Bears don’t roam a great deal, but horses do, and Kazakhstan was one of the first places where they were domesticated. Horses love apples, and distribute the bear-selected apples far and wide." Let me tell you about the birds and the bears (and the apples)...
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Got my scanner working (redux) [Nov. 20th, 2014|09:01 pm]

For some reason, my scanner had gone off the idea of OCR. I could scan images, as long as I allowed the machine to make all the decisions, in full auto mode, but I couldn't scan text to text. This evening durham_rambler gave it a good talking to, and we have reached an accommodation.

So, to celebrate, some text - from 'Notes & Queries', The Guardian, Friday 12 February 1993.
QUESTION: Is there any truth in the suggestion that sculptures of nude males in the British Museum had their sexual appendages diligently removed by the Victorians?

□ MR G JERMAN is not entirely cor­rect about the demise of the original fig leaf on the Achilles statue at Hyde Park Corner (Notes & Queries, Janu­ary 22). I can assure your readers that it was not apt to come loose, nor did it fall off in the frost. It required a great deal of hard work with a hack­saw, the blades of which snapped fre­quently, to get the fig leaf away. It was secured by three very solid brass bolts, and it was necessary to get a park chair in order to climb up on to the plinth of the statue and then to put a second chair between the feet of Achilles in order to reach up between his legs to get at the fig leaf. As I remember, it took us about six hours of sawing on different nights to get through the three bolts. We were for­tified by pints of beer from The Nag's Head in Kinnerton Street.
We had in mind attaching the fig leaf to the door of London Rowing Club at Putney as a spectacular door knob but it was so heavy it proved unsuitable.
Last year I spoke to the Ministry of Works officer in charge of the statues in Hyde Park and asked whether it would be acceptable if I were to return the fig leaf and pay for its reinstatement or whether she would take a serious view that we had been defacing a work of art. Happily, she thought the whole affair very amus­ing and I paid a substantial sum for its reinstatement. So, Achilles is now again wearing his original "under­wear" — a much more impressive figleaf than his temporary one in the 1960s. — Peter R C Coni, OBE, QC, London SW1.

And, from The Guardian of Wednesday 4 August 1993, a reprint from a still earlier edition:
The lasses at the pit-brow
August 4, 1911

"Well, I don't know!" I can almost hear the well-worn phrase, expressive alike of surprise, consterna­tion and indignation, going up from a hundred homes as it becomes real­ised that the younger daughters now at school are to be debarred from "working on the screens" and that the occupation of their elder sisters, their cousins and aunts, and even their mothers is to be officially scheduled as degrading and im­proper. The proposal is a perfect ex­ample of legislation which is prompted by the most admirable intentions and marred only by an ig­norance of the conditions with which it proposes to deal.
What is the pit-brow lass really like? In Lancashire, at all events, you may always tell her, if you meet her coming away from work, by the scarlet band of flannel across her forehead, which gives her a strangely foreign aspect. The ban­dage is worn to protect her hair from the coal dust while she is at work, and as she swings along homeward in her clogs you see but a triangle of it under the shawl which invariably covers her head and shoulders. It is a curiously becoming head-dress and one would not will­ingly miss from our monotonous streets the sight of these light-hearted home-coming girls. For their superior health and vigour is no fairy-tale. They work almost in the open air though sheltered from rain. Their work is arduous enough, but it is not high-pressure work and does not involve the kind of strain, either muscular or nervous, that is particularly injurious to the phy­sique of women. The coal as it leaves the screens passes slowly before them on an endless band, and as it travels along they remove the "dirt" and deftly handling large lumps and smaller ones send the mineral duly clarified to its proper destination.
Compare this with the strain on the "four-loom weaver" or the card-room girl. A good index of the com­parative healthiness of different oc­cupations is the incidence of phthisis among those engaged in them and judged by this standard there is no doubt as to the advan­tages of the pit-brow girl over her sister in the mill.
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A misty weekend. with Bears [Nov. 18th, 2014|10:21 pm]
It was a pleasant weekend, with no particular theme or pattern, just one thing after another, many of them good things and some not, but improved by the company of the Bears. Now that I try to write about it, I think: But there was this - and this - . Learning of Richard's death casts a shadow, and I see the dark as well as the light: the fact that durham_rambler spent much of Friday at a memorial service (for Margaret Dobson), that BoyBear's friend was unable to meet us for a walk because of family illness. So it goes.

It's all about the details, of course: the pause before dinner for a glass of wine and a bowl of spiced cashew nuts, the pleasure of hearing the CD which has been Work in (slow) Progress for the last two years, the colour of the fallen leaves in the gutter behind the cathedral with the green-and-yellow hosepipe like a snake curving through them, the extraordinary resonance of the bridges over the old Castle Eden railway:

Each one was different, but each had one particular spot which responded to its proper pitch with an enthusiastic and prolonged echo.

Lunch at the Vane Arms offered vegetarian spätzle, and an educational study of the gin menu (I had not realised that gin could be made from apples). Dinner at home, and J. joined us, by special request, bringing a carrot cake with her. Sunday was a lazy day, though we managed to polish off the prize crossword, and GirlBear and I went for a meander around Durham. After dining on a giant pizza, which we had bought at Sainsbury's the previous day (GirlBear said "Skip would approve of us buting the biggest pizza," but I said "No, she'd have bought two!") we spent a happy evening watching YouTube on the television, taking turns to suggest things to watch. We'd still have been there in the small hours, but the power went off just before midnight, just as durham_rambler was making his choice: the screen went dark, and the room went dark, and when we looked out of the front door, a whole stretch of the street was dark. We took the hint and went to bed.

The power was back on when we got up, and the morning's entertainment was resetting all the timers.
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Autumnal [Nov. 17th, 2014|09:53 pm]
I've been offline for a few days lately, as we have had visiting Bears. It's been a pleasant weekend, with walking and talking and music and such, and I hope to write more about it soon.

For the time being, though, all I have to say is that it was spoiled only by a phone call from D. to tell us of the death of an old friend. I'm not ready to write about that just yet, either.

Good reasons and bad, and that's why I haven't been posting lately.

A day in Boston [Nov. 9th, 2014|06:37 pm]
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Previously: We flew out of Edinburgh, the journey was a journey, we started by exploring Woburn - and since we had a date to meet non-LJ friends for dinner in Boston, the next day was our day for being tourists in the city.

Our gracious hosts drove us to the end of the T, where we bought passes, and then it's an easy trip to Downtown Crossing, where a banjo player on the platform is just setting up for some travelling music, and out onto the Common. Now what? We hadn't made any particular plans, and though there was a tourist information place on the Common, it didn't offer us anything that really appealed: but we wandered across the Common, came out on Beacon Hill, and were very happy just to keep wandering there. Wandering, and taking pictures, so perhaps we'd better have a cut here:Collapse )

I'd call that a day well spent.
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...and five more: [Nov. 7th, 2014|09:59 pm]
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  • Driving in to Newcastle for Ann Cleeves' book launch on Tuesday, we were delayed by heavy traffic in Gateshead - a mixture, I think, of people avoiding the roadworks on the motorway, and people going to bonfire parties. But we had plenty of time, as we crawled down the hill to the Tyne, to admire the fireworks somewhere in Newcastle.

  • The party was for Thin Air, Ann's latest Shetland book, which I had enjoyed reading on the flight from Edinburgh to Boston. There was Shetland fiddle music, too, from Catherine Geldard, who loaned her surname to the book's child ghost - and since the story begins at a wedding on Unst, she played us the Unst Wedding March. It's very mournful; I can't imagine marching to it. (This is a bit different to what Catherine played solo, but I'm enjoying listening to it, anyway).

  • Afterwards, we went for a pizza at The Herb Garden, a hip, high-design (there's a full-size statue of a horse in the foorway) restaurant in one of the railway arches in the Westgate Road. "Last time I was here," said durham_rambler, "I got my exhaust fixed." Pizza was good, though.

  • When I read about Mark Thomas's play Cuckooed at the Edinburgh Festival, I thought it sounded worth seeing, and I thought it sounded like something that could very easily be toured around small venues. Right on both counts: last night it was in Durham, and an interesting and thought-provoking evening (with a 20-minute standup set, which we were invited to regard as the support act). We looked around the theatre, convinced that some of our old political contacts must be present, but didn't meet anyone we knew until the interval, when we discovered that the Graphic Novels Reading Group was out in force.

  • From The Guardian of twenty-odd years ago, the incomparable Nancy Banks-Smith describes Ricardo Belmont: "He is craggily good-looking... open-necked denim shirt... shining teeth hung from ear to ear like pillow slips on a washing line... all that."
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Five good things to start November [Nov. 2nd, 2014|12:22 pm]
A new page on the calendar that hangs by my desk:
Winter sunset shining through the passage into Maes Howe

The first entry in my 2015 diary:
Martin Simpson at the Old Cinema Launderette (strange but true...)

A quince poem:
Iain Galbraith's translation of Jan Wagner's Quittenpastete won the Stephen Spender Prize 2014 for poetry in translation. I like the 14 and under winner, too (from the French of Jean Dominique).

There are two kinds of physicists, the ones who are devoted to their blackboards and the ones who have to have a whiteboard -
according to Wendy James, project manager for Studio Daniel Liebeskind on the University's planned new Centre for Fundamental Physics. (She makes a good case for the building, too, and promises it will be "polite" and melt into the landscape. You might ask why the University has saved its polite and harmonious building for a site entirely within its own territory, and has built its domineering and impolite building on the main road into Durham - but that's not a fair question for Ms James).

An unexpected lunch date:
Talking of fundamental physics, we have a last-minute lunch date with a professor of chemistry and physics (one person). Better get ready to go!
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