Categories
Culture

My perfect Strictly Come Dancing lineup

Peter Mandelson
Winona Ryder
Christiano Ronaldo
Werner Herzog
Tina Fey
Carey Mulligan
Sachin Tendulkar
Venus Williams
Mark Zuckerberg
Sarah Palin
Prince William
Scarlett Johansson
Tom Cruise
Condoleezza Rice

Obviously.

Categories
Nature

Provençal wildlife roundup

It was really a bit late in the year for the best of the wildlife; many of the classic Mediterranean birds — bee-eaters and what have you — were probably already in Africa, and there weren’t many flowers around. Although the oleander everywhere still looked spectacular.

Not that it was a complete bust on the bird front. It was nice to see lots of black redstarts everywhere; I saw a couple of female pied flycatchers, which are also charming little birds; there were crag martins flying around at the Pont du Gard (above); and I saw dipper at a coffee break on the way back. So no absolute show-stoppers, but some nice things.

Also, to stay on-theme with my recent post, I was pleased to see plenty of hornets around. It’s very much wasp time of year, of course: my mother tells me that the wasps ‘come with the plums’. It’s not strictly true, you see wasps all summer, but there are a lot more in late summer/autumn. That’s because (I learnt recently while reading about hornets), a lone queen starts a new nest every year.* Which makes large wasp nests all the more impressive.

The queen then has to build the nest and gather food for the young on her own until there are enough workers around to do the scut work, and she can concentrate on producing eggs. And they build up the nest until in late autumn they produce a load of reproductive individuals — queens and drones — and those fertilised queens who survive the winter set out and start the cycle again in spring. So a single wasp queen may have generated thousands of individuals by the time the plums are ripe. Or hundreds, for the hornets.

Also pleasing was a praying mantis; we don’t get those up here in northern Europe. I think the species was Mantis religiosa, which I guess was the very first of the mantids to be given a Latin name, presumably by Carl Linnæus personally.

Another curiosity with a great Latin name was a tree with what looked like huge red chiles growing on it. It turns out the tree is a relative of the pistachio called terebinth (another great name, incidentally), and the ‘chile’ is a gall formed by an aphid, Baizongia pistaciae. To which I just have to say: baizongia!

And finally on to the Lepidoptera. Above is a pretty little day-flying moth, related to the burnets, called Zygaena fausta. The flower is Virgin’s-bower, Clematis flammula.

And there were loads of good butterflies, which I mainly don’t have photos of. Clouded Yellow, Cleopatra (the Brimstone’s flashier cousin), Southern White Admiral, some kind of amazing iridescent blue which was probably either Adonis Blue or Turquoise Blue, and the curious-looking Nettle-tree Butterfly or European Beak.

And there was this tiny little fellow, the Geranium Bronze, living up to his slightly inaccurate name by sitting on a pelargonium:

The Geranium Bronze is actually an import from South Africa which apparently arrived on imports of pot plants. Notice the teensy little swallowtails! Cute.

But the most spectacular butterflies were two big species. One, the Great Banded Grayling, is hard to do justice to in photographs because it sits with its wings closed, but this blog post shows one displaying itself properly.

And most remarkable was a huge great fast-flying thing which when you see it properly, looks pretty amazing above and maybe even more spectacular below. Yup, it’s one of Europe’s most exotic-looking butterflies, the Two-tailed Pasha or Foxy Emperor. Woo-hoo.

* or to be more strictly accurate: most European species of social wasp start a new nest each year; your local wasps may vary.

Categories
Culture

Only Yesterday by S.Y. Agnon

S.Y. Agnon is apparently a key figure in Israeli literature, and Only Yesterday is very much a novel about Israel. But it is my book from Ukraine for the Read The World challenge.

My reasons for assigning the book to Ukraine were basically pragmatic — there wasn’t an alternative from Ukraine which sprang out at me, and I felt like reading something more contemporary for Israel — but it’s quite fitting anyway. It’s a novel about the early waves of modern Jewish settlers to Palestine at the start of the twentieth century, and although nearly all the action takes place in the Middle East, in many ways it’s a story of eastern and central Europe. The various characters are still as much identified with their homelands — Russia, Hungary, and so on — as they are with any nascent Israeli identity. In fact the book’s central character, Isaac, moves in an almost completely European world; the Arab population of Palestine is occasionally mentioned, but I can’t remember a single named Arab character. The few non-Jewish characters seem to be European Christians.

Neither Ukraine nor Israel existed as independent nations when this novel is set; Isaac is a Jew from Galicia, in the Austro-Hungarian empire, who immigrates to what is then the British Mandate in 1908. It is obviously not a coincidence that S.Y. Agnon was also a Galician Jew who made the same move at the same date. The novel is clearly only autobiographical in a limited way, though, since Isaac is an unsophisticated working man rather than a bookish one.

This is the book I have been whinging about (1, 2) because of its sheer physical weight. And it may have been a self-fulfilling prophecy, but I do think I would have finished it quicker and perhaps enjoyed it more if it hadn’t been so unnecessarily bulky. But I still enjoyed it; it’s humane and even quite funny, as literary novels go.

The human story of Isaac held my attention; I did sometimes start to lose focus with some of the more detailed stuff about Zionism and so on. There are so many people and organisations who get mentioned: writers, politicians, theologians, Zionist charities, settler organisations, religious groups. There wasn’t too much of the book taken up by characters sitting around in cafés and having conversations about Zionism, but there was a bit, and I just got the feeling that generally in the novel there was a whole level of commentary and satire that I was missing because I didn’t have enough context. Which is unfortunate.

But even if I didn’t get all the nuances, I still thought that the ideological aspect was important to the novel. One of the striking things about it is the portrayal of people trying to create a new place from scratch. It’s not a utopian project precisely, but all these settlers have made the difficult and expensive journey from Europe to Israel because of some idea or idealism, whether political or religious, and that idea may or may not survive contact with the reality . At the very least, the reality is unlikely to be exactly what they expected.

One of my reasons for reading it was that I was interested in a book set during that early history of modern Israel. But it’s not a history book, and like all(?) good novels what makes it work is an interest in people, not in ideas. And it is a very good novel, and generally a readable and engaging one.

» The first photo is of a street scene in Jaffa in 1917. The second is Jerusalem in 1918. Both from the British Museum.

Categories
Nature

Hornets, and toodle-oo for now

About three weeks ago, I was in the garden and I saw a largeish brown and yellow insect fly past which I thought looked like the right general size, shape and colours for a hornet… but I thought that couldn’t possibly be right, and it must be some kind of hornet mimic — a large hoverfly species, or (more excitingly) a hornet moth or one of the bee hawkmoths. But I almost immediately lost track of it.

And then, ten days ago I was in the local park, standing on the little walkway over the lake looking for dragonflies, and again I saw an insect-that-looked-surprisingly-hornety, and again it didn’t wait around for to get a good look at it. So you can imagine how pleased I was a hundred yards later when I came upon this sign:

I should probably explain at this point, for all you norteamericanos, that I don’t mean something like your bald-faced hornet, which looks like an attractive little beasty but still a fairly typical wasp. No, I mean the one-and-only original, authentic, European hornet. Vespa Crabro. They say: seven stings to kill a horse, three to kill a man and two to kill a child.

This catchy little bit of folk-wisdom turns out to be rubbish, as a lot of folk wisdom does; apparently it’s only a bit more painful than any other wasp sting. But it captures something of the mystique around the hornet. It is, in the end, just a wasp, but it’s a very large wasp; it’s about twice the length of other British social wasp species, a great big bulky brown and yellow thing.

The reason I was so surprised to see them in south London was that I was under the impression that they were uncommon to rare in this country, and certainly unlikely to turn up in suburbia. But increasingly as you get older you find yourself wrong about things not because you learnt them wrong in the first place, or because you misremember them, but because the facts changed when you weren’t paying attention. And apparently hornets, which in the 60s were largely confined to the New Forest, have been spreading gradually for some time and particularly rapidly in the past ten years.

Who knows, maybe it’s global warming; but even if they are a portent of doom, they’re still a great insect and a very pleasing addition to my garden list.

And, fyi, I’m going to France tomorrow. Just for a week. So I probably won’t be posting, although I suppose if the place we’re staying has wifi I might blog from my phone.

Categories
Tumblr

Tumblr round-up, September 13th

This is St Peter, by the Master of the Chora, Constantinople, 1320. Click through for a larger version.

A stunning photo of an Atlas moth — an Ocellated Turkey — Ping Pong Tree Sponge Chondrocladia lampadiglobus (a carnivorous deep-sea sponge) — a pair of bleeding heart doves — a Goblin Shark biting a diver’s arm (slightly grotesque, but not as gory as it sounds).

Terracotta jug from Cyprus, ca. 1600–1450 BC — earthenware bowl painted with the arms of Pope Callixtus III (Alfonso Borgia, 1455 – 1458) — an early Christian roundel of glass with gilded decoration, found in the Roman catacombs — intaglio of the adoration of the shepherds; rock crystal with gold and ultramarine on reverse. Giovanni Desiderio Bernardi, 1525-1550.

Stained glass: Apostles and saints (including St Peter) from a Last Judgement. Germany, 16th century — Virgin and Child with Saint John the Baptist and Saint Dorothy. Upper Rhine, ca. 1470-1480 — Martyrdom of Saint Peter. Painted by Arnoult de Nimegue, Normandy, ca. 1525-1530.

Mishmarot I by ceramic artist Avital Sheffer (but check out her website for lots more gorgeous work; I rather like the early stuff as well) — coloured pencils by Jonna Pohjalainen — Self-Portrait with Saxophone by Max Beckman — Spring by Ferdinand Hodler.

Nushirwan and the two owls (and two storks) — Spring (with stork) — wind — dust storm — plane — a cook and his wife

And finally, I think the most popular thing I posted this week was one of the images from Scaf le Phoque (Scaf the Seal, 1936) by Rojan, aka Russian illustrator Feodor Rojankovsky (1891–1970).

Categories
Culture

Afghan Star

Just a quick mention for this documentary, which I’ve owned on DVD for ages but only just got round to watching. It follows season three of Afghan Star, an American Idol type show in Afghanistan. It’s a brilliant idea for a documentary, because the glitz and bombast of those talent shows seem like the very epitome of a certain kind of western consumer culture. And in many ways it seems like the very worst of our culture: vulgar, shallow, manipulative and at least partially fake.

But in a country where quite recently music and television were banned by the Taliban, where people were killed for owning a television, putting on a music talent show — one where women compete against men! — suddenly becomes a powerful thing to do. And its not often that light entertainment gets to take a heroic role, but actually in a country oppressed by dry, moralistic theocrats, I think it is heroic to assert the value of lightness, of entertainment. And it may be the newly democratic Afghanistan, but it’s still the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, and there are still plenty of angry, bearded, conservative men in positions of power, and those Taliban are still out there, and they still have guns and bombs. These people are risking their lives to bring people joy.

And yet, despite all the enthusiastic comments from people about the new freedom the show represents, when one of the female contestants does a little bit of very tame dancing on stage while singing, nearly everyone is genuinely and visibly shocked. Not just the beardy imams, but the other young contestants. The whole thing is fascinating on all kinds of levels.

And I watched it directly after watching some of the current British incarnation, X Factor, and it was intriguing to see something with many of the clichés of those shows — the embarrassingly bad early auditions, the queues of people waiting to audition, the dramatic pauses as they announce the results — but put together by people who are inventing a TV industry from scratch and have almost no budget. Although if you visit the show’s website and see some of the more recent videos, the whole outfit now looks a lot more slick.