Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Where do we find men such as these?

1950s explorer, photographer, falcon-enthusiast and climber of arctic cliffs Stanley Cerely lived in Woking. An attempt at local humour is really just an excuse to post this heartwarming picture. You don't get many people like this wandering round Woking these days. You probably didn't in the fifties either.


Today I'm going to find the central core of the evil Artificial Intelligence that controls music in Starbucks. It sends out the music compressed from a control tower in Slough or Seattle or somewhere, presumably via a geosynchronous satellite stamped with mermaid decals over its previous military ones.

Once I find the central core of the evil AI, I shall, Tron-style, fling in a frisbee of ... Sibelius or something. Bartok. Nancy Sinatra. Anything. I'd rather listen to Norwegian black metallists shouting about pig-killing and burning churches, or loop-tapes of people screaming, than put up with that bastard mix tape I hear every single morning one more bastard time.

Once upon a time I thought that the music's sole function was to get people to drink up quickly and leave. In the same way that they make plastic chairs in fast-food restaurants uncomfortable on purpose. Take up your laptop and walk!

But it seems clear, now, that it has an extra, useful, educational function. And in this it's done well. I thought I only hated brass bands and 50s doo-wop music, but no! I hate LOTS more. In fact, Starbucks has taught me to hate far more types of music than I thought possible. More types of music than I even thought existed.

Yes, this all smacks of late capitalist psychotic individualism; these are not the ratings of a freedom fighter. It doesn't make me come across as a G8 summit firebomber. More the sort of person who'd demand their own television in hospital, or get ratty about their 'right' to have plastic surgery. Am I simply a duped stooge of the right-to-chooseTM society?

No! Nonononononononono! I just want an evil big brother with consistent taste. Starbucks tries to please everyone in a creepy, creepy way. So very, very creepy. It would be so much better if they just played one type of music, even if I hated it. I could bear that. If Starbucks just played cheesy west-coast pop, or gilbert and sullivan (or Gilbert O' Sullivan) or North Korean Party Anthems sung by schoolkids, or even the sound of dripping water, constantly dripping. That would be better.

Once they've sorted the music out, I have a list of other things: the murals, the cups, the lights.
I have a lot to say about all those, too. And then I should sort out my loser life.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Flash, Bang, Wallop

I've tried doing real, actual work today. But the old noddle simply isn't quite 100% enough to deal with conjecture or snipe-shooting. So posting old photos on the web is about as much as I can manage. What larks, though! Here's the first one, which is not a photo, but a card. I am sure you agree with my brother (who sent it) that there can be no finer card for a falconer or hunter than this:

The next photo shows a young gyrfalcon sliding down through crosswinds and autumnal rain to land on a grassy knoll near the road. It's Lake Myvatn, in north Iceland, she's flying over, a long, long time ago. My family were in a rented car entirely unsuited to the terrain, breathlessly viewing her through fogging-up binoculars. She sat there for about ten minutes, occasionally raising her wings to lift a few feet into the air before landing again. Such a baby, she played grab-the-grass-stems with her big blue feet like a kitten. She was the colour of dry slate, a rich grey with creamy darts and spots and arrows, a fluffy beard under her beak (sign of inordinate good humour, in a hawk) and a pair of dark eyes that even as far away as the car, were utterly transfixing. I was ten years old and this was sort of a religious experience for me. My parents were pretty impressed too.

Hawking on Newmarket Heath, a few years back. Such an incredibly leisured and nineteenth-century composition that it's hard to believe it's a photo at all. It was a glorious day. Warm sun, springy turf dotted with toadflax flowers, good company, and some really good merlins. This year was horrible. It poured viciously. It was cold. I had a cold. And worst of all, my merlin was mugged by some nasty crows. Boo. Tucker and I tracked the little mite to where she was hiding, soaked, thin as a pencil with fright, on a wall behind some houses. She was so freaked out it took her a while to collect herself enough to fly back to the fist. "Should I fly her again?" I asked Tucker, really not thinking. "She buggered off, she's soaked to the skin, and she didn't want to come back to you" he said, drily. "Yes, why not."

Me, ages and ages ago, in a falcon shop in Sharjah, UAE.

And here's my dear friend Erin, eating Waitrose sushi in Newmarket

Two nearly-fledged imprint falcons lounging on a windowsill. Here's a female barbary falcon with (behind) near-legendary new zealand falcon x peregrine hybrid, Spitfire. (The name wasn't our idea. We wanted to call him Scaramanga, but no dice).

See? Baby falcons are cute! Someone sent me this picture. It's an eight-day old baby merlin. Nothing like a kitten.

Piva, American bandido?

Lack of food, lack of coffee, lack of contact with the Outside World: all have made me prone to nostalgia, fierce neuralgia and the shakes. I went outside just now for the first time in ages: it's cold, humid and slippery out there. Spots of rain, ragged clouds, and a sort of generalised yuletide resentment hanging in the air. Gosh, how I'd missed it. I walked into Debenhams department store. It utterly bewildered me. That any of these shiny things were needed—by anyone—seemed ridiculous. Asceticism through illness—now there's a rubbish route to enlightenment.

It reminded me (see? nostalgia!) of walking into Tescos, Carmarthen, a few years ago, with a bunch of workmates and a young visitor to The Farm, a Kirgiz falconer called Anarbek. Who was baffled almost to the point of distress by this brightly-lit food temple. One of those moments of cultural dislocation that make your teeth itch. (though Tescos, Carmarthen, is brain-scrambling for all sorts of reasons apart from consumer culture shock).

Anarbek had turned up in Carmarthen a few days earlier with a bag of small, sweet Kirgiz apples, a bag of fresh Kirgiz walnuts, and a couple of horsemeat sausages. He was fantastically cool. This was a guy who trained and flew a female goshawk he'd caught with his bare hands in his school classroom (she'd crashed through a window trying to catch pigeons she'd seen reflected in the glass). At least I think that was the story, because Anarbek spoke no English, only Russian and Kirgiz. But amongst falconers, as among fighter jocks, pretty much any important conversation can be communicated with hands (representing hawk and prey, rather than aircraft) and latin names of birds of prey. He shared a damp, ancient caravan with my friend Erin. A damp caravan sounds a terrible fate for a valued guest, but the alternative to the caravan was the house itself—where I lived—a pebble-dashed building so run-down that a bead-curtain of water decorated the stairwell every time it rained, rats lived under the stairs, and our boss asked us not to take hawks home with us because of the risk of them contracting respiratory diseases. The only heating was from a coal-stove that occasionally malfunctioned and burned the wallpaper off the wall. Still, it was quite fun, at times, living the life of a fourteenth-century serf. What was I saying about culture shock?

In the evenings Anarbek practised kickboxing in the barn (he was a champion back home) rode the hell out of the boss' wife's stroppy arabian mare, emptied the lake of trout (quietly, at night, with worms), and amplified his already terrifying coolness by munching raw red habanero chilis with every meal. We tried, and failed, to emulate him.

Erin has fond memories of his time as Anarbek's caravan-mate. Every morning he'd be woken with cigarette smoke and Anarbek proffering a can of beer to him. "Piva, American bandido?" he'd enquire, before bursting into laughter.

He was an absolute star. God knows what he's doing now. I hope he's alive: Anarbek was resolutely and very vocally against falcon-smuggling. A laudable stance, and one that puts you in personal danger. Praying for him.

Thursday, November 24, 2005


Have been lying on the floor. Living room floor. Near radiator: warm place. Furry blanket. Sheepskin slippers. Well, these last couple of days have been grim. Dragged myself to Starbucks to be sociable this morning. Shouldn't have gone: hard to stay upright, and the manager bumped into me: second degree black coffee burns on left hand. I didn't even order coffee. Have retreated to furry blanket and living room floor. Safe here.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

We sail the ocean grue

The professors at my local university are renowned for their eccentricity. But in real life they're disappointingly ordinary. On a quest for eccentrics? Forget the Colleges. Go to the glorious University Library! An amazing building, constructed entirely from bricks. Modelled on the Great Library at Alexandria, but with a tower.

Every student graduating from the university is allowed to use this library for the rest of their lives. Some of them take this very seriously. Wolfman, for example. Natty tattered tweed, cycle-clips, and a pair of 19th century sideburns. He spends his days emitting gruff barks and copying chemistry papers in pencil onto 1980s-era concertina printer paper. Less appealing is the psychopath with advanced desk-territoriality. Others build walls of books to hide behind. Others look normal but really aren't. They're the ones working on schemes of world domination, or who are using alchemical texts to prove Newton created life from inanimate matter, etc. etc. Compared to this, actual professors are really tame.

But every so often a really good anecdote at High Table restores your faith. Recently I heard that a few years ago, a maths don at one of the richer and scarier colleges took to working late at night in his spacious, ground-floor college rooms. Strange noises of hammering and sawing; odd deliveries, all dutifully ignored by the College Porters, until the don disappeared.

He was rescued by coastguards a day later, some miles off the east coast of Britain in a woefully unseaworthy home-made boat. He wasn't happy they'd found him. "Fuck off!" he shouted to them. "Fuck off! I'm going to America".

Wednesday, November 16, 2005


Dr. Adams was disappointed. He maintained that fires generated by bomber bats could have been more destructive than the atomic bombs that leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki and ended the war...


Tuesday, November 15, 2005

We're all going to die.

Parrot 'did not die of bird flu'
More than 50 finches imported from Taiwan died from the deadly strain of avian flu in a UK quarantine facility, a government probe has found. Reports a south American parrot in the same Essex centre had the disease seemed to be mistaken, the report said. The mixing of tissue samples after death left it unclear which birds had the H5N1 virus strain, officials said. They believe the strain of the disease suggests the finches - known as Mesias - were the source of the UK infection.

This should strike a chill to your heart. Mesias aren't finches! They're babblers! For chrissakes, who did they get to write this report?

This sort of thing really worries me.
Doesn't it dent your confidence in government probes? It's a slippery slope, I tell you.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Fawkes and the Lambkiller

The phoenix, of which there is only one in the world, is the size of an eagle. It is gold around the neck, its body is purple, and its tail is blue with some rose-colored feathers.

Pliny the Elder wrote that. Anyway, in milder moments, I sometimes entertain the thought of writing an daft conspiracy potboiler about a search for the mythical Phoenix.

My 30 second pitch: Indiana Jones meets Richard Hannay meets David Attenborough. Towering mountains, dark gorges, excessive CGI, spooky rituals, local cult religions, wars, a few Nazis, at least one evil turncoat English ornithologist-spy, lots of sky and mist, white silk scarves, lightning-strike-close-shaves, motorbikes, aerial dogfights, and a happy ending that manages not only to feature HUGE explosions, avalanches, and disintegrating mountains, but also a poignant take-home message that environmental degradation lessens mankind. And the hero and heroine snog backlit by a sunset over the slopes of the Karakoram, etc, etc. There'd be a twist, too, but I'm still working on that.

The most famous of all real-life English ornithologist–spies (and there are many), Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen, was convinced the mythical Phoenix was based on the Lammergeier. Amazing bird. It lives off bones. It carries them to dizzying heights, drops them on rocks to shatter them, then eats the shards. How cool is that?

This theory of Meinertzhagen's is pretty believable (unlike much of his other work). Carrying Harry Potter and Ginny Weasley would have been much easier if Fawkes had been the right size. And it is such a pity that the talented animatronicians at Harry Potter Central didn't know that Fawkes could resemble a real live phoenix, not an attenuated, livid Bateleur with pheasant feathers stuck in its head.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Black Helicopters & the City of Trees

A few years ago, I spent a fair few months in Boise, Idaho. Beautiful place. It has a refreshingly un-English atmosphere. For example, the airport lounge spurned Sock Shops in favour of displays of gun safes and a parked humvee.

I rented a room five miles from town, with a great landlady, a cute cat and a garden full of chickens. Bucolic, huh? Almost. The other lodger was a Harley-driving ex 16-wheel truck driver. She'd moved to Boise because her husband beat her up, stole her truck, and buggered off. Hey ho. Things got stranger. Landlady's son—we'll call him Al—came to stay, along with his longstanding meth addiction and accompanying psychosis. Creepiness quotient of house rocketed.

A friend called me from England one afternoon. She asked me what the noise was. "It's Al." I said, cheerfully. "What's he doing?" she asked. "He's yelling at the chickens. He thinks they're spying on him". Thump thump thump. "Jesus! What's that!!?" "Oh, that's Al. He's stopped yelling at the chickens and he's trying to break into the house. Anyway, what were you saying about...". Ah, how quickly domestic scenarios normalise themselves.

The saga ended early one morning, about 4am. I peered out of my bedroom window. There was Al lying prostrate on the concrete drive in a pool of flashlight, surrounded by cops. They were all pointing guns at his head. It's possible I dreamt this, but I didn't see Al again.

Anyway, before the swat team descended, Al and I used to have the odd conversation. Yep. I was usually making coffee in the kitchen, and he'd wander in and tell me all sorts of ways to prevent the FBI hearing your thoughts. When Rob sent me this excellent link here, I couldn't help but feel nostalgic.

Al told me that foil helmets were all part of the conspiracy. Now it's been scientifically proven, I shall treat chickens with more caution from now on.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Monday, November 07, 2005

This Bondage

Is the title of a hilarious 1929 book by Commander Bernard Acworth, D.S.O, R.N. In fact, the full title is:

This Bondage: A Study of the 'Migration' of Birds, Insects and Aircraft, with some reflections on 'Evolution' and Relativity.

Hark at those scare quotes! Acworth was a fervent creationist, big buddies with C. S. Lewis, and co-founder of the Evolution Protest Movement. He also wrote another bonkers book that attempted to persuade its readership that cuckoos are hybrids between male cuckoos and female birds of other species.

So what does
This Bondage argue?
  1. Birds don't migrate on purpose; they're passively carried around the globe by prevailing winds. This explains other phenomena too, such as birds deserting their nests (winds blow them away).
  2. And the same applies for aircraft, explains Acworth.
  3. Thus international aviation is physically impossible.
The book is such a feast of wonders that it's hard to excerpt, but here's a flavour from pages 187-188:
Turning again to sucessful flights and projected routes from North Africa to South America, we at once observe the significance of the steady and permanent north-east trade wind. But where can we find the return voyages? In South America, European aircraft will become as indigenous as are European birds reported to become indigenous in the Cape Verde Islands. Flights to and from South Africa follow the route, and to a great extent, the seasons, of the swallows. There is indeed no exception to the rule that aircraft in long flights migrate with the wind and are seldom seen again in the land of their origin if the prevailing wind is from one direction, as in the northern hemisphere it is. Thus all 'migratory' aircraft in the northern hemisphere gradually accumulate in the East until they are destroyed from one cause or another, when they are replaced from the 'breeding grounds' in the West.

A migratory aircraft, fresh from its breeding grounds in the West...

Friday, November 04, 2005

Consumer demands

Why can't you buy aerogel from your local hardware store?
Perhaps they need to find a novelty use for it, first. Maybe only then can it take its place among the pantheon of other space-age triumphs of materials science


Julia Ball painted this. It's even bigger in real life. Awesome.

Hawking grounds

Two weeks ago, I’m standing, out of breath, on muddy stubble on an old WWII airfield. My neck’s cricked because I’ve been watching Tony’s peregrine falcon circling hundreds of feet up in a grey east anglian sky. The partridges flush, she turns, and falls at 150mph+ in a long, hissing, near-vertical stoop. Overhauls a fleeing partridge and just gets a toe to its tail feathers before the partridge makes it to safety in a belt of trees. She circles once over the spot, then sails down to the lure.
We're in my all-time favourite hawking ground: Mendlesham. I first hawked with Tony here ten years ago, flying a merlin. I remember wide expanses of stubble, a hazy autumn sun and flocks of turtledoves. And of course, the 1000 foot tv mast.When it was built in 1959 it was the tallest in the country. It dominates pretty much everything around. At night, you can see its winking red lights from the A14. But Mendlesham is famous for more than its mast (and its beautiful church). In WWII this was the haunt of B17s. The 34th Bomb Group were stationed here. There's a memorial to them, just off the A140. It's a place of pilgrimage: I've been told that USAF veterans come here to chip off bits of the runway.

In summer Mendlesham is beautiful. But even on the most unprepossessing, miserable, winter day, it's oddly magnetic, rather like Avebury or bits of The Plain, or the strange hybrid landscapes of Minsmere or Bempton, wildlife reserves filled with the ghosts of wartime architecture.Tony and I drive along a stretch of the once-runway, now piled with beet-clamps and muckheaps, water puddling on its concrete slabs. This whole landscape is running with birds: even on the concrete, small flocks of pied wagtails zoom about on the slabs picking insects from the cracks. Above us looms the mast. An industrial estate has grown up on the former airfield's technical area. The whole place is a friendly wilderness of shipping containers, old nissan huts, flocks of starlings, ghostly traces of wartime roads, woodlarks, pheasants, and acres and acres of stubble, beet and plough.

It's a magnet for raptors. A fortnight ago we watched a hunting sparrowhawk turn itself practically inside out in pursuit of a small bird. Stoop after shallow stoop, turn after sharp turn, right over the vehicle. Just as a capture looked inevitable, fffffffft! A space in the air where the bird had been—and one very confused sparrowhawk. For a moment, we were confused too, until we looked out of the far window and saw a female merlin carrying a small bird. She'd come out of nowhere and hiked it out from under the spar's nose. Spar sulked off into some trees, and the merlin pitched in the stubble to eat her sneaky prize. Beautiful little falcon. Amazing silver wash on her plumage as she sat there, eating her prey in the pallid afternoon light.

More on this place soon. Going hawking again there this weekend, I think. Will try and get photos...

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Arms for the millennium

Ahhhh. 1999, preparing for the inevitable breakdown of civilisation. My dad still has dried soup in the garage. You know. Just in case.

I turn off CNN, and on the next channel

AOR is playing through a fog-machine and star-filtered lights, and a woman is removing a bikini while clambering all over a red ferrari. Classy


Germany last week, on a poetry reading tour. Rock and Roll, eh? "It's Wednesday! It must be Frankfurt". My German is non-existent. Apart from hello, goodbye, thank you, excuse me, coffee, and wellensittich.
So, in Frankfurt, back in the hotel room (still sulking because I didn't have time to bunk off and go the zoo), under framed intaglios of Die Wülkere, listening to the sounds of a late-night delivery to the Turkish restaurant next door, I flip on the telly. There's bound to be some Hollywood movie subtitled in German, I think. Flick through the channels. News, cookery programmes, news, footage of ruined Schlösser, Blam! CSI! Dubbed into German. The Rock! Dubbed into German. A little frisson of brownout dims the repro chandelier for a second. Blam! American tv movie, dubbed into German. Ach....

So what was left? CNN EUROPE. OMG. I swore blind I'd never, ever have a sophomoric rant about the media, but I was wrong. CNN Europe is repetitive; segments fold and reappear with nightmarish, sickening, HP Lovecraftish inevitability. It is a land of bristling superficialities cut through by Day Today graphics, interspersed with Hilton Hotel infomercials and populated by bizarre creatures made of crisp serge, porcelain teeth, and lighting effects. Masters of the Universe my arse.

Report on bird flu, 27 October 2005. Enthusiastic anchorwoman interviews epidemiologist. "I was talking to someone earlier" she says, wide-eyed, "and they told me that the reason bird flu is spreading is because birds migrate! Is that true?"

Now: fifteen seconds footage of Kofi Annan giving a speech. What do you hear? Not Kofi Annan, mate. You might want to know what Kofi Annan is saying, but you can't. Oh no. What you DO hear is CNN news drums blamming away in the background. And out of the drums, like a voice from far away, comes the Truth. Out of the delphic vapours the deadly voice of the killer anchorman says something of no more import than: "Kofi Annan gave a speech today". Disasters! Hurricanes! Famines! Here are the dispossessed, angry and voiceless, talking. You can see their mouths moving. But you don't get to hear them talk. Oh no. "Bringing you the people see it" is an inspired slogan.

CNN is like someone who, upon witnessing a multi-vehicle fatal car accident, points at the carnage and says "that's a Ford Focus and that's a Scania sixteen-wheel truck".

Sophomoric rant over. Thank god for this