Butterfly update

Butterfly Conservation are holding an organised Painted Lady count this Saturday when they’re asking people to count passing butterflies for two hours and post their sightings online. It’s an exciting aspect of the internet that it allows this kind of rapidly organised exercise in citizen science.

Anyway, I thought I’d do a little preliminary count of my own at lunchtime and just counted PLs in the half hour between 12.30 and 1.00. The result: 36. Slightly over one a minute.

What’s interesting is that on the one hand, that’s a staggering number, when you extrapolate out over the whole country: butterflies going past at the rate of one a minute for days at a time over the whole of England (the whole of Northern Europe, possibly). And yet if you weren’t paying attention, it would be possible to be out in the garden and not even notice that this huge natural phenomenon was going on.

Ladies, stags and owls

Last week — last Thursday, I think? — I was walking along the road and saw a butterfly go past which I thought was maybe a Painted Lady. Not actually my first of the year, because I’d only recently returned from Provence where I saw *thousands* of ’em, but still quite pleasing because they’re a migrant species resident in North Africa, and while they are not actually a rarity in Britain — some turn up every year — they’re not especially common either.

Then the next day there were a few in the garden, and mentions of them started popping up on the blogs and Twitter feeds of the handful of British natural history bloggers and twitterers I follow. And so I started thinking maybe this was going to be one of those years, when all the conditions come together and they are suddenly all over the place. Something that became very clear when I saw this tweet from @SallyCourt on Sunday:

An incredible sight at Strumpshaw Fen today with hundreds, probably thousands of Painted Ladies flying west. Also Swallowtails + H Dragonfly

In fact over the past week we’ve been in the middle of a massive movement of painted ladies across the whole country. Apparently it’s because they had good weather for thistles in Morocco over the winter. It probably isn’t a coincidence that I saw quite so many of them in Provence; I didn’t think that much of it at the time, since they’re a more common species in the Mediterranean, but there were an awful lot there. Maybe some of them were the same ones that are now fluttering across England.


It hasn’t been particularly obvious that they’ve been migrating in my garden; there are a few flowers they like and so I’ve been seeing them fluttering back and forth, in no apparent hurry to get anywhere. But while it might appear to be the same three butterflies going round and round in circles, I guess it has probably been a whole sequence of new ones.

Today, after a couple of days of rain when I guess all the butterflies have been sensibly laying low, I saw one fly past outside the window, so I went along to the local park. And sure enough, there they were. Not in their thousands, but a regular stream of them passing through, looking much more determined, flying more or less straight by, heading about NNW. One every few minutes rather than one every few seconds, but once you knew what you were looking for, it was still quite striking.

Here’s an intriguing snippet about painted ladies from my butterfly guide:

Reported occasionally from Iceland, which has no indigenous butterflies.

I bet a few will make it to Iceland this year.

So that was good. My other good local sighting was this (apologies for the rubbishy iPhone photo):


That’s a Stag Beetle. There are many species of stag beetle worldwide, so to be exact it’s Lucanus cervus, but in the UK it’s just Stag Beetle because we only have the one species with proper antlers. There is also, to be pedantic, the lesser stag beetle, but that’s much less interesting.

South London isn’t exactly a wildlife stronghold for many species, but stag beetles are increasingly rare nationally and doing pretty well around here, so it’s good to see one. It’s also good to see them because they are just fabulous little beasties.

While I’m on insects, a few things from Provence. We saw lots of butterflies, most of then just too hard (or too much work) to identify: blues, fritillaries, either Pale or Berger’s Clouded Yellow and so on. But also Swallowtail, Scarce Swallowtail, Red Admiral, Brimstone, Orange Tip. And this, the Southern White Admiral; another iPhone picture but it has come out looking surprisingly good. Most of the time they didn’t actually look that blue, but the light was obviously catching it just right.


As well as butterflies, there were a few other things; lots of burnet moths flying around, which are always nice, and the Narrow-bordered Bee Hawkmoth I mentioned earlier. Those big black ants which are one of my earliest memories of southern Europe. And one critter that was a real puzzle. Take a look at this:

Now maybe you know what that is, but it confused the hell out of me. It looks most like a dragonfly, sort of, and it flies rather like a dragonfly, but the head isn’t right and look at those antennae! They were almost enough to make me think it was some kind of weird clearwing moth or even weirder butterfly — but it just doesn’t look right for either.

Thankfully for the sake of my sanity, my mother’s superior Google skills came to the rescue when we got back: it is an owlfly. A what? I’d never heard of them. They are related, Wikipedia informs me, to the lacewings and antlions, something which is not at all apparent when you see them sitting with their wings spread like dragonflies, but which makes more sense when you occasionally see one with its wings folded.

» All the pictures except the last were taken by me. The last is Libelloides coccajus, uploaded to Flickr by and © Le pot-ager (Philippe Vannier).

Echoes from the Dead Zone by Yiannis Papadakis

Yiannis Papadakis is a Greek Cypriot anthropologist, and Echoes from the Dead Zone is based on his fieldwork in Turkey and on both sides of the Green Line in Cyprus. he investigates the different attitudes of people on each side of the conflict, and in the process has to confront all his own prejudices from growing up on the Greek side.

Papadakis only managed to spend a month in the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and was accompanied by government minders the whole time, although as well as that he spent a few months in Turkey itself and a year in the village of Pyla/Pile which is within the UN-controlled ‘Dead Zone’.


I came to it vaguely expecting it to be a basically two-sided conflict, Greeks vs. Turks, but of course it’s much messier than that; there are tensions between the Greek Cypriots and Greeks from Greece, and between Turkish Cypriots and Turks from Turkey. There are tensions on both sides of the divide between those who see themselves as Cypriot first and Greek or Turkish second, and those who look to the motherland, who see themselves as Greeks or Turks who happen to live in Cyprus.

And the different groups have quite different views of history; not just the relevant modern history, the half-century or so that takes in Cyprus winning independence from the British, the Turkish invasion and so on, but also the longer history of classical Greece and Byzantium and the Ottoman empire.

I think it’s probably inevitable, as a British reader, that it reminded me above all of Northern Ireland; but I guess all these local religio-culturo-ethnic conflicts are fundamentally rather similar: deeply intractable and ultimately pointless.

Weather forecasts in Cyprus did not just tell the weather, I now noted. They expressed positions on the Cyprus Problem. ‘The Flag’, the Turkish Cypriot TV channel, broadcast a daily news bulletin in Greek for the enlightenment of Greek Cypriots. During the weather forecast, they gave temperatures only in towns in the north, where no Greek Cypriots lived. The towns were called by their Turkish names. On the Greek Cypriot side, RIK, the state TV station, used a map of Cyprus without a dividing line, but only mentioned the temperatures in the south. other Greek Cypriot channels, right-wing private ones, regarded this as unpatriotic. they also showed temperatures in the north to make the point that those areas too belonged to Greek Cypriots.

Maps in Cyprus, as elsewhere, were a political instrument. I remembered the map of Greece — not of Cyprus — at school. In order for Cyprus to appear in the map of Greece, it was cut and placed in a box next to Crete. I only became aware of this when I first saw Turkish Cypriot maps. No need to cut and paste to include Cyprus in the map of Turkey. Greek Cypriot maps showing Cyprus in the world at large always extended westwards, positioning Cyprus in a European context. The never showed Cyprus in the Middle East or Africa. The problem with the ‘Cyprus in Europe’ maps was that bits of Africa, the Middle East, and — sadly — Turkey were visible. One such map by the Greek Cypriot Public Information Office presented such undesirable bits as blank. The biggest challenge was to make a map of Cyprus that included Greece but not Turkey. The map shown as background during the news on The Word, the Church channel, managed best, with Turkey obscured by mist, as if weather conditions had rendered it invisible.

Echoes from the Dead Zone is my book from Cyprus for the Read The World challenge.

» The photo, crossing the “green line”, is © danceinthesky and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou

Broken Glass is a novel from the Congo (aka the Republic of the Congo aka Congo-Brazzaville; i.e. the smaller of the two Congos, not the one which used to be Zaire). It was translated from French by Helen Stevenson.

It takes the form of the notebook jottings of the customer at a bar called Credit Gone West. Perhaps rather than try to explain:

let’s say the boss of the bar Credit Gone West gave me this notebook to fill, he’s convinced that I – Broken Glass – can turn out a book, because one day, for a laugh, I told him about this famous writer who drank like a fish, and had to be picked up off the the street when he got drunk, which shows you should never joke with the boss, he takes everything literally, when he gave me this notebook he said from the start it was only for him, no one else would read it, and when I asked why he was so set on this notebook, he said he didn’t want Credit Gone West just to vanish one day, and added that people in this country have no sense of the importance of memory, that the days when grandmothers reminisced from their  deathbeds was gone now, this is the age of the written word, that’s all that’s left, the spoken word’s just black smoke, wild cat’s piss, the boss of Credit Gone West doesn’t like ready-made phrases like ‘in Africa, when an old person dies, a library burns‘, every time he hears that worn-out cliché he gets mad, he’ll say ‘depends which old person, don’t talk crap, I only trust what’s written down‘, so I thought I’d jot a few things down here from time to time, just to make him happy, though I’m not sure what I’m saying, I admit I’ve begun to quite enjoy it, I won’t tell him that, though, he’ll get ideas and start to push me to do more and more, and I want to be free to write when I want, when I can, there’s nothing worse than forced labour, I’m not his ghost, I’m writing this for myself as well, that’s why I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes when he reads these pages, I don’t intend to spare him or anyone else, by the time he reads this, though, I’ll no longer be one of his customers, I’ll be dragging my bag of bones about some other place, just slip him the document quietly before I go saying ‘mission accomplished’

That’s the whole of the first chapter; the entire book is written without full stops in this way as long, run-on sentences. Generally it’s a pretty effective device, though at times it can be a bit tiring to read.

The first few chapters tell the stories of other customers at the bar, and then the second half of the book concentrates on Broken Glass’s own life, and how he went from being a school teacher to a drunkard. As the material becomes more personal the tone shifts from comic to melancholy, and the book ended up being more moving than I would have expected after the first couple of chapters.

I heard Mabanckou interviewed on the radio (or a podcast?) and one thing he said was that he didn’t particularly want to write about politics. Well, that’s fine by me. Over the course of reading books from every African country I can see that I’m likely to read an awful lot about civil war and dictatorship, both because that’s a real part of the African experience and because it is the kind of thing that is likely to attract Western publishers; so it’s good to read more personal narratives as well.

Broken Glass is my book from Congo for the Read The World challenge.

» the photo is 032_BIERE NGOK, uploaded to Flickr by & © jmlaurent.

The Maias by José Maria de Eça de Queiroz

The Maias, by Eça de Queiroz/de Queirós, is a proper doorstop of a C19th novel, over 700 pages long. It’s late C19th, though, 1888. I was trying to think of apt comparisons, and none of them seemed exactly right, but it’s more like George Eliot or Tolstoy than Dickens. Or even early C20th novelists like Forster or Proust. Though the Proust comparison is not so much to do with style as subject matter: the romantic entanglements of wealthy, mildly bohemian society types.

One of the blurbs on the back compares him to Flaubert — ‘Eça de Queiroz rivals Flaubert in his suavely satiric pictures of provincial torpor and metropolitan glitter’ — which is another plausible choice.


Among the themes running through the book, the one I found most interesting was the question of Portugal’s place in the world, which is seen in terms of tradition vs. modernity but also Portugal’s cultural relationship with other European powers: there’s a real sense of a smallish country on the edge of Europe looking towards London and Paris with a hint of an inferiority complex. So the characters swing between claiming unique virtues for Portugal and admiring, for example, a dress that could only have come from Paris. Every discussion, of literature or an event or whatever, turns to comparisons with other countries; the yardstick for quality is an external one. It’s oddly like reading post-colonial fiction, even though Portugal was in fact colonist rather than colonised.

I think what I liked most about the book was the leisurely pace of it. Events at which nothing much happens — or at least nothing which is essential to advancing the plot —are allowed to spread over five or ten pages. There’s a 30-page description of them going to the races which is a big set piece within the book, full of social observation, incident and humour, but none of it is actually crucial to the plot. On another occasion, in another mood, I might have just been bored by it; but this time I enjoyed that expansiveness.

In Lisbon, from the Grémio to the Casa Havanesa, there was already talk of ‘Ega’s mistress’. He, for his part, was trying very hard to keep his happiness safe from prying eyes. While perfectly serious about the complicated precautions this entailed, he also took a romantic delight in mystery, and so always chose the most out-of-the-way places, n the outskirts of the city, in the area near the slaughterhouse, for his furtive meetings with the maid who brought him Raquel’s letters. But his every gesture (event he affected way he had of pretending not to look at the clock) revealed the enormous pride he felt in that elegant adultery. He was perfectly aware that his friends knew all about this glorious adventure of his, and were au fait with the whole drama, and this was perhaps why, when in the company of Carlos or the others, he never even mentioned her name or betrayed the slightest flicker of emotion.

One night, however, a night lit by a calm white moon, as he and Carlos were walking along together in silence on their way to Ramalhete, Ega, doubtless filled by a sudden inrush of passion, uttered a heartfelt sigh, reached out his arms and declared to the moon in a tremulous voice:

Oh, laisse-toi donc aimer, oh, l’amour c’est la vie!

This escaped his lips like the beginning of a confession. Carlos, at his side, said nothing, and simply blew his cigar smoke out into the air.

Ega clearly felt somewhat ridiculous, because he immediately recovered himself and pretended a mere literary interest.

‘They can say what they want, but there’s no one like old Hugo.’

Carlos still said nothing, but he recalled Ega’s Naturalist outbursts, in which he had inveighed against Victor Hugo, calling him a ‘spiritualist blabbermouth’, ‘an imitative yokel’, ‘a lyrical old fool’ and worse.

But that night, Ega, the great phrase-maker, went on:

‘Ah yes, old Hugo, the heroic champion of the eternal truths. We need a bit of idealism, damn it, because the ideal might one day become reality.’

And with this formal recantation he shattered the silence of the streets.

It’s good stuff. Another of the blurbs says ‘Eça ought to be up there with Dickens, Balzac, and Tolstoy as one of the talismanic names of the nineteenth century’, and without deciding at this moment exactly where I think he ought to come in the leaderboard for C19th novelists, I would say this: The Maias is undoubtedly a substantial, high quality and important novel, and at the very least deserves to be better known. I certainly hadn’t even heard of it before I noticed it in a bookshop.

A quick name-check for Margaret Jull Costa, who translated this edition, and has done a good job of it, as far as I can tell without knowing any Portuguese.

The Maias is my book from Portugal for the Read The World challenge. I realised after making up my original list that I had actually read a book from Portugal already: The Lusiads by Luís de Camões, which I read in a second hand copy of a 1950s Penguin Classic edition which I seem to have lost. But I was happy to read another.

» The photo, which comes from Wikipedia, is of Eça de Queiroz.

Good bird days

I’ve had a couple of good days of birding. Yesterday we had a walk in some dry scrubby brush – cistus (ie rock rose), wild lavender, broom and flowers like wild gladiolus, orchids and so on. There were nightingales and woodlarks singing, and I also saw Dartford warbler, woodchat shrike, black kite and possibly most exciting, turtle dove, a bird I haven’t seen for a surprisingly long time.

Then today we went for a walk somewhere picked for no other reason than there was a big lake on the map, and again it was a lovely landscape with masses of flowers. Nightingales singing beautifully, and this time I managed to see subalpine warbler. And even better, red-backed shrike, which is a bird I’ve only seen once before, many years ago, and then I saw a juvenile or a female, so it was a boring mottled brown instead of the attractive male I saw today with a pink tummy, a rufous back, grey head and a rakish highwayman’s mask.

Then just to top it off, a family of crested tits turned up at the villa during lunch. So that was nice.

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Exciting wildlife update

The wildlife picked up a bit today: some very camouflaged geckos on the walls of the house (I’ll post a pic when I get back to England), a raven flying over, bee-eaters heard but not seen.

And the treecreepers nesting in the roof, which I think I mentioned on Twitter but not here, turned out to be Short-toed Treecreeper. I thought initially it was a new bird for my life list, but I realised I saw them in Spain a couple of years ago. Still, it was a challenge to identify them, so I’m glad I managed.

And most exciting, what initially looked like a big fat bumblebee but turned out to be a bee mimic: the Narrow-bordered Bee Hawkmoth. I’d post a link but I’m blogging from the iPhone and it’s a PITA. I’ve wanted to see one of these little clear winged hawkmoths for years and years and years, though, so that was very pleasing.

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Holiday update

I’m still in France; no hot news on the bird front or indeed any other front, but it’s all very pleasant.

Some kind of lizard orchid. Not the prettiest orchid I’ve found, but maybe the coolest.

There’s a gecko behind the sofa on the other side of the room.

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I am in France, in a villa (or at least C17th farmhouse) in the hills behind the Côte d’Azur. Cork oak, cypresses, asphodel, thyme, broom, lavender, poppies etc etc. Scarce swallowtail butterflies, Sardinian warbler.

I’ll post some pics tomorrow. If I feel like it.

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The Last Will and Testament of Senhor da Silva Araújo by Germano Almeida

I’ll keep this fairly brief, because I’m going away to France for a week in Saturday and not only have I not packed, I haven’t done the more important bit of writing a list, and thus don’t know if I have to do some urgent shopping. Or laundry.

So: The Last Will and Testament of Senhor da Silva Araújo (translated from the Portuguese by Sheila Faria Glaser) is my book from Cape Verde for the Read The World challenge. For those who don’t know, Cape Verde is an island nation, an archipelago off the coast of Africa at about the point where the continent projects furthest into the Atlantic. It was uninhabited until the Portuguese started using it as a trading port, I learn from Wikipedia, and the population is largely of mixed European and African origin.

That history may explain why it feels more like a book from Latin America than from Africa. I would be hard-pressed to explain exactly what I mean by that: a sense that the European cultural influence is more deeply embedded is part of it, although I can’t immediately articulate what makes me say that. It may be no more than the fact that the book is full of names like Senhor da Silva Araújo, of course.

The book tells the story of a self-made local businessman; it starts with the reading of his will, which reveals unexpected news, and moves back and forward through his life, building up into complex portrait. It’s short — 151 pages — but nicely written, wryly humorous and open to the absurdities as well as the tragedies of the human condition.

» The picture, Ribeira Grande, Santo Antão, is © Cabo Verde 2008 and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

Van Dyck at Tate Britain

I went to see the van Dyck exhibition at Tate Britain the other day. I can’t say I was very excited by the prospect, but I’m a member and it seems silly to miss exhibitions I can get into for free. Perhaps especially if you’re English, Anthony van Dyck seems like the most establishment figure possible; court painter to Charles I, and primarily associated with grand portraits of aristocrats, above all the famous propaganda images of Charles himself. Which was what I expected and what I got: the least introspective portraits imaginable. People in shiny clothes standing around looking solid and respectable. I bet if Bernie Madoff ever produced any publicity material with his picture in, he found a photographer to make him look like that: with a sheen of prosperity, but carefully not allowed to look too exciting. Designed to conceal as much as it showed.

My favourite picture was actually one by Robert Peake the Elder, included to show what English court portraiture was like before Van Dyck, which normally lives in the Met in New York.

Gorgeous, innit. I’m not suggesting, btw, that this painting offers any more psychological insight than van Dyck does, just that I prefer it stylistically. I also preferred some of the later picture influenced by van Dyck, including some by Joshua Reynolds and Peter Lely. Most of van Dyck’s own work left me cold, although his self-portrait and his portrait of his wife have a bit more spark to them.