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Dr Maturin's puffin [Jul. 2nd, 2015|05:54 pm]
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Help me, internet: do you know of any sort of concordance to Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey / Maturin novels?

As I said, while I was in Berwick I picked up The Mauritius Command and Desolation Island, and swallowed them straight down in long draughts. I am not the reader they deserve, because most of the carefully researched nautical detail passes me straight by, and I am content to let it do so; I skip or at best skim the scholarly essays included in the backs of my paperback editions, pausing only to curse that they bulk out the number of pages remaining, so that the end of the book always comes as a surprise. I can usually tell from the narrative that Jack Aubrey has done something particularly clever with the arrangement of his sails, without any need to know what it is - and I suspect that the author is resigned to this, since he provides in Stephen Maturin a similarly uncomprehending observer, to whom may be explained as much - or as little - as is required.

It is the details of daily life, on ship and ashore, which make me wish for an easily accessible glossary. Sometimes a decent dictionary will do. In Desolation Island, transported convicts bring an outbreak of gaol-fever on board the Leopard (I don't think this is a spoiler; it is referred to in the back-cover copy). I'd heard the name before, and thought of it as any of the diseases that could break out and spread in the crowded and unsanitary prisons of the time: but here it seemed to refer to one specific disease, and I looked it up - yes, it's typhus.

The Branco puffin which appears in the same book was more elusive. Stephen goes ashore in search of physic-nuts (in the dictionary) and a Branco puffin (definitely not). He finds it at the house of a vendor of salted-preserved Branco nestlings (honorary fish, and so permitted food in Lent), and has the body of an adult nailed to his door as a sign. Stephen is delighted with this trophy, which is an authentic, true Branco puffin and not, as he had feared, a cormorant or gull. All the internet could offer me on this passage is this archived blogpost from Tom Watson, who dismisses it: "O'Brian was clearly inventing; even this non-birder knows a Puffin looks nothing like a Cormorant - that the two could hardly be confused. I suspect the great writer merely liked the sound of the words."

The sound of the words, that's the thing, and we have been here before: Martin Martin, writing at the end of the seventeenth century, does not attach the name 'puffinet' to what we now call a puffin, but to a shearwater. This was a more fruitful search topic. The first possibility I came across was the White-chinned or Spectacled Petrel, because in French it is a Puffin à menton blanc ou P. à lunettes, and I am delighted to learn that 'puffin' is a French word - but it won't do, it lives too far south - Dr Maturin is ashore in the Cape Verde islands (and the wonderful Patrick O' Brian Mapping Project helped me here).

Never mind, other shearwaters and petrels are also available: and charming though the Christmas shearwater (Puffinus nativitatis) is, the prime suspect is obviously the Cape Verde shearwater. The clue is in the name - and while it isn't all that like a a cormorant or a gull, Dr. Maturin probably doesn't expect too much accuracy from his informant.

So I'm glad we've got that cleared up. But does anyone know of any sort of concordance?
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Counting elephants [Jul. 1st, 2015|03:44 pm]
The threatened thunderstorm seems to have arrived right on top of us: the thunder is thunderous, and the lightning flashes "within a mile," says durham_rambler, who has come upstairs to watch from the attic window. I have closed the skylight, and it is stifling up here. And now there is a fusillade of hail...

July, and the days are getting shorter. Summer is over.
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Launching a coracle [Jun. 30th, 2015|09:13 pm]
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Sunday was the afternoon of the Big Lunch, a very local (two streets? or maybe one and a half) version of a street party which one of our neighbours has been organising for a couple of years now. If you go up the lane opposite our house, and turn left at the top, you come to a space between two houses which backs onto a couple of garages: it belongs to one of the houses, so at their invitation we gather there, one one of the rare areas of flat ground. People bring whatever contribution they can, and I am always amazed at their generosity and their organisation: there are salads and deserts and plates and cutlery and chairs and tables... There was almost, but not quite, rain, but it decided to be blowy instead, and we spent a certain amount of time holding down tablecloths which wanted to billow madly and throw plates and dishes into the air and onto the ground - and then it calmed down and the sun came out. It was all very pleasant, and after a cup of strong coffee and a lazy afternoon, I was ready for the evening's concert at the Sage.

Which was the Emily Portman Trio (Emily Portman aided and abetted by Lucy Farrell and Rachel Newton) touring to promote their new CD of Emily's songs, Coracle. Last night of the tour, and they were bringing it all back home, back to Hall 2 of the Sage where they had met as students on the Folk Music degree: the first time we played together, said someone, probably Lucy, was at Emily's final recital. A beat, then, squinting into the back of the hall: I hope no-one's marking us tonight... I don't think anyone was, and I don't think they had anything to fear from appraisal, but I recognised plenty of Folkworks tutors in the audience. So there was a happy atmosphere. The video on the Sage's advance description of the concert catches the faintest suggestion of the interaction between the trio:

They didn't perform The Hinge of the Year on Sunday, they they did open the show with some older songs, in particular a very spooky Stick, Stock:

Ebullient stage presence, chilling songs - Stick, Stock is Emily Portman's take on The Juniper Tree - no, I don't know how they get away with it either.

I'd like to share more from the new album, and I'd like to deepen my own acquaintance with it, too, these aren't songs to be grasped at first hearing, but the only thing that seems to have made it online so far is this rather elaborate set piece (animated by Marry Waterson):

It's not the song that most impressed me at first hearing, and I find the visuals distracting, but your mileage may vary. And while I was looking, I found a video from the concert we went to in 2011 as part of the Brass Festival, so the search was rewarded, not with what I had hoped to find but with what I had not hoped for.
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Midsummer report: part one [Jun. 27th, 2015|06:25 pm]
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The important thing is the sunrise: it was raining, the sun was not seen to clear the horizon, but we were there. We being the hard core of durham_rambler and myself, D. and valydiarosada; occasionals G. and C. (with family); and neophytes, the Bears. Only Richard was absent. I could say his spirit was with us, or some such, but I don't believe that, so I won't. He wasn't there, and this was wrong, and we missed him.

durham_rambler had enlivened Friday evening with the discovery that he had failed to pack his medication, leading to a whip round which demonstrated that between the other five of us we could supply all his immediate needs (this says something about the age of the party, but I'd prefer not to explore that), but did not have enough supplies to see him and us through the week. So on Saturday morning, having failed to raise our GP by phone, he and the Bears and I headed into Berwick in search of medication (and other supplies). Once there, we set to work to accomplish our various missions: durham_rambler consulted the pharmacist at Boots, who recommended the drop-in centre at the infirmary, while GirlBear bought some postcards at the stationer adjacent to the market hall, BoyBear and I scrutinised the secondhand / antiquarian bookshop at the back of the market itself. So by the time we were reunited, I had found the next two books in the Aubrey / Maturin series (and asked the price of what turned out to be the most expensive volume at the shop, on the prehistory of Malta, at £140), BoyBear was in the music shop, I was stocking up on goodies in the Green shop and durham_rambler had an appointment with a doctor at 2.30. This gave us just time for lunch at the Curfew, a tiny pub with a good range of interesting beers and a tapas bar next door. The appointment went smoothly, a prescription was issued and in due course filled at Tesco's (all bar one item), and we also did some heavy duty supermarket shopping.

Which was just as well, because we served dinner for 11 at Coble Cottage on Saturday evening (the table is described as accommodating ten, so this is a plus, to be recalled when I come to write, as I will, at greater length about the cottage). We went to our several beds, sofas and in one case van, and emerged at four a.m. into the rain. I am proud to announce that no-one bailed at this point. We straggled down the road, past the castle and out to the edge of the island, and we were all eleven of us gathered there by 4.30, when we declared that the sun must surely be risen by now = or else not - and that the world would either carry on or it would not, and either way there was no point in standing around any longer in the cold and rain.


The party continued en masse a little further along the shore, then some of us turned back to the village, while others continued to the white pyramid (it's a navigational aid) on Emmanuel Head. Some of the younger members of the party declared it to be climbable, if only we had some rope (which we didn't), and if it weren't wet from the rain (which of course it was). Older hands pointed out that it was clearly in need of repainting, and the imperfections this revealed in its surface made it more approachable now than it had been for years, a state of affairs which would probably have been remedied by next year. By now the rain had stopped, and the party splt again, some returning the way we had come and a hard core continuing along the dunes, getting wet all over again in the long grass, before turning inland and home across the nature reserve. The castle floated in a moat of mist, but the sun was shining brightly by the time the last few of us reached home, and bed - and all of this was right and proper.

Castle in the mist

Sunday was a blur of peple getting up and different times, and lingering around the long table eating different meals and discussing different plans, declaring they must go, they had things to do, but well, if you are making coffee... In the course of these conversations, G. revealed that he has been looking into his family history and discovered, several generations back, that durham_rambler's surname crops up. When this happens, we have a simple test: are you related to the boy V.C.? G. said, yes, it seems that he was my grandfather's cousin. As he was also durham_rambler's grandfather's cousin, the two of them must be, in some degree, cousins: which was unexpected, but pleasing. The day ended with all visitors departed, and with the resident party raising a glass of prosecco, above the bowls of more strawberries than we could eat, to Richard Turner, our absent friend.
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Semi-communicado [Jun. 22nd, 2015|06:20 pm]
I aten't dead, but I am on Lindisfarne with very intermittent internet - in

lighthouse terms, it is flashing rather than occluding. The solstice has been

observed, the sun has been seen to shine, briefly, photographs and descriptions

will occur but not right now.

Right now is a glass of wine and some crisps before dinner, and waiting to see

whether the internet eats this post...
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Quotation of the day: the DIY version [Jun. 18th, 2015|10:19 am]

steepholm questions the narrative in which Labour's election defeat comes from being too left wing. Frankie Boyle, in yesterday's Guardian doesn't question it, he shreds it.

Every line of the piece is quotable: I read several paragraphs aloud to durham_rambler, but it doesn't seem right to do that here (tempting, but not right). Just one paragraph, then, the point at which I stopped reading silently because this just had to be shared:
Of course, none of the frontrunners are proper socialists; they don’t even hate each other. Jeremy Corbyn did scrape together enough nominations to stand, causing the left of the party to get quite excited that it is still allowed to lose. One of the few decent politicians remaining in the Labour party, he reminds me of those old drinkers you see haunting a new bar because they used to go to the pub that was there before.
If this seems excessively depressing and cynical, blame me: the article itself actually has some constructive points to make. Go on, read it...
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Eating out on Skye [Jun. 16th, 2015|10:19 pm]
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From Talisker we went to our hotel, the Rosedale in Portree, three fishermen's cottages right on the harbour now converted into a family-run hotel with many stairs: it was friendly and comfortable and, provided you can cope with the stairs, I entirely recommend it.

Dinner at the RosedaleCollapse )

Dinner at the BosvilleCollapse )

Neither of the aboveCollapse )

After which, it was time to go and look at the broch. But that's another story.
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Murmurs [Jun. 14th, 2015|10:34 pm]

I hadn't expected to segue neatly from the previous bird post into another, but when Martin Simpson, Nancy Kerr and Andy Cutting took the stage at the Sage last night, they opened the show with Martin Simpson's stunning song, Dark Swift and Bright Swallow. How did the swallow manage not to be one of the nation's ten favourite birds? Something badly wrong there.

Nothing at all wrong with the concert, three strong and creative performers clearly having just the most fun ever playing together. Some fine new songs, and some splendid arrangements of old ones: I'd love to share their version of Lads of Alnwick ("because," says Nancy Kerr, "if you don't have a Northumbrian piper in your band, clawhammer banjo and one-row melodion are the next best thing." On the other hand, if you do have a Northumbrian piper in your band, this is what it sounds like), but just one track from the collaboration seems to have made it onto the internet, and it does give the flavour of their work:

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Britain's Got Birds! [Jun. 11th, 2015|08:54 pm]
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The winner of the poll for Britain's National Bird was announced this morning: it's the robin. On this morning's Today programme the interviewer - was it John Humphrys? - was unimpressed: he'd been backing the blackbird, which came third. David Lindo, the ornithologist who came up with the scheme, explained that the blackbird had seemed set to come second, until they counted the votes of the schoolchildren who had voted on election day: a surge of support for the barn owl ("the Harry Potter effect") pushed the blackbird down into third place. But Lindo seemed pleased that 60% of voters were not associated with any wildlife organisation. It's a clever piece of PR for birds in general, though I see it more as further proof that if you solicit the opinions of people who are not really interested, you will end up with an uninteresting answer.

Naturally, I voted for the puffin, with my usual instinct for the popular choice: it came tenth (that is, the least popular of the shortlisted birds; the full list is here). I could make a case for the puffin as our national bird: it is found all round the coast of Britain, and we are a maritime nation. I didn't expect it to win, but I didn't expect it to come last, either. Clearly not Britain's most popular bird, then, but perhaps our most relentlessly marketed.

We didn't see any puffins when we were in the Hebrides (we probably saw more starlings than anything else): I'd have been more disappointed if I'd been less surprised. Puffins on postcards, on mugs, in artworks of all qualities and none, in calendars, yes, and I may have purchased one or two. But the actual puffins nest in specific places, and these are on the smaller islands. We could have taken a boat trip from Stornoway to the Shiant islands, and if it hadn't been so wet and windy we might have, but as it was, the prospect wasn't inviting, and no right-thinking puffin would have hung around outside its burrow. Likewise, if we had made it to St Kilda, we'd probably have seen some puffins there.

This is what Martin Martin wrote about his visit to the island in 1695 or thereabouts:
The scraber, so called in St. Kilda; in the Farn Islands, puffinet; in Holland, the Greenland dove; its bill small, sharp pointed, a little crooked at the end, and prominent; it is as large as a pigeon, its whole body being black, except a white spot on each wing; its egg grey, sharp at one end, blunt at the other.


The bouger, by those in St. Kilda so called; coulter-neb by those in the Farn Islands; and in Cornwall, pope; it is of the size of a pidgeon, its bill is short, broad, and compressed sidewise, contrary to the bills of ducks, of a triangular figure, and ending in a sharp point, the upper mandible, or jaw, arcuate and crooked at the point; the nostrils are long holes produced by the aperture of the mouth; the bill is of two colours; near the head, of an ash colour, and red towards the point; the feet are yellow, the claws of a dark blue; all the back black, breast and belly white. They breed in holes under ground, and come with a south-west wind about the twenty-second of March, lay their egg the twenty-second of April, and produce the fowl the twenty-second of May, if their first egg be not taken away; it is sharp at one end, and blunt on the other.
I knew that puffinus puffinus is not a puffin, and presumably Martin's scraber / puffinet is some kind of shearwater. The bouger, or coulter-neb is the puffin. A coulter is the blade of a ploughshare, so coulter-nose is a fine tribute to the puffin's impressive beak.

And one last piece of ornithological etymology, to which I was directed by one of WordSpy's Monday round-ups. I know the Yiddish word to kibbitz, to spectate with audible and unwanted commentary (I associate it with the game of chess, but not in a good way). I hadn't known that it derives, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, from the Middle High German word for a lapwing which apparently has "a folk reputation as a meddler. ... Young lapwings are proverbially precocious and active, and were said to run around with half-shells still on their heads soon after hatching."

Which brings me back to my starting point, because my second favourite bird (one which didn't even make the top 10) is the lapwing.
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Over the bridge to Skye [Jun. 10th, 2015|09:59 pm]
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To fill in the gaps between what I posted while we were in Scotland: starting again from the beginning.

I left us at the Glenspean Hotel, with its Durham émigré proprietors, preparing to take the road to the isles. I had haggis for breakfast (with poached eggs on top) after which I felt ready for anything, and we embarked on another spectacular drive, through Glen Shiel, past the Five Sisters (a ridge of five linked summits), along the little rushing stream and its waterfalls. The silver lining of a summer full of rain clouds is that all the waterfalls are at their best.

Road sign of the day: Feral goats for 2 miles - but disappointingly, we didn't see any feral goats.

We stopped for coffee at Eilean Donan. It's a long, long time since we were last there, and the image in my mind was - well, the famous image, the castle reflected in the gleaming water, the one that you know if you know any image of a highland castle at all. I had managed to forget that the water is a sea loch ("where three great sea lochs meet," says the castle's website), and was taken aback at the site of the castle on its rock rising out of the mud and seaweed of low tide. I hadn't forgotten the visitor centre, that simply hadn't been built at the time of our previous visit, but we managed to snag the table by the window, the one with the view:

The cafe at Eilean Donan

It was beginning to rain as we left, and was pouring down by the time we reached Kyle of Lochalsh, so we stopped only long enough to pick up a few essentials (cash, throat sweets, a paperback from the charity shelves at the pharmacist's) and then crossed the bridge to Skye. That too hadn't been built at the time of our previous visit: technically it's two bridges, a short hop from the mainland to Eilean Bàn, and then the longer crossing to Skye.

There was rain and sunshine and surprising gusts of wind and more rain. The old joke about forecasting Scottish weather goes: If you can see the hills, it's going to rain; if you can't see the hills, it is raining. We could only guess at the bulk of the Cuillin as we skirted the island, and took refuge from the rain at Talisker.

The distillery tour was - well, it was OK, but it wasn't the best I've done. How could it be? A combination of health and safety legislation and economies of scale means that, as distilleries market themselves more and more as tourist destinations, there is less and less they can actually show the visitor. When I first visited Highland Park, we tiptoed around the malting floor, hoping for a glimpse of Barley and Malt, distillery's the legendary cats; Talisker boast that they malt their own barley, and they do, but at another distillery in the group, not here. Still, every visit has something new to offer: at Talisker for the first time in my life I added a drop of water to my whisky - or rather, on our guide's recommendation I invited her to do so. She delicately released a single drop of water from a glass rod; I could not detect any difference. I might have been tempted to acquire a dropper of my own, as a souvenir and for showing off purposes, but they weren't on offer. I wasn't impressed with the shop, which majored on sweatshirts, and offered the entry level Talisker at only a few pounds more (once you claimed the reduction included in the price of the entry ticket) than I had paid in Tesco's for durham_rambler's birthday present.
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