Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Wasp marbles

These are Oak Marble Galls. They aren't naturally occurring. They are actually chemically induced to form by the Gall Wasp for the rearing of a single wasp larva. Eventually the young wasp wakes up, breakfasts on the inner lining (very nutritious), chews a hole in the gall and emerges. If you look very closely at the bottom gall in the picture below you can just about see the exit hole.
They used to make inks and dyes from Tannic Acid which can be extracted from the galls. Also it is said that ground up galls mixed with hog's lard is a great cure for piles. I'll leave the testing of this remedy to someone else.

Monday, 29 March 2010


Harry is looking a bit pensive here. He also likes to snuggle up for some strokes. When you stop he will poke you with his paw as if to say, "More."

Sunday, 28 March 2010

The Canterville Ghost

No tour through the literary landscape of The Ghost Story would be complete without Oscar Wilde's clever little tale The Canterville Ghost. He turns the whole concept on its head with the ancient titular ghost, who has spent several centuries not paying for the sins of his life by blithely terrifying the old house's residents and visitors to death and insanity, being driven to his own wits end by the American family who bring their own blithe modernity to bear in dealing with him. The results are very funny; Wilde is justly famous for his wit and his command of satire. It's not just a comedy though. There are more serious themes at work, not least the chance for redemption. Wilde also can find time between the fun to show he can use lyricism to evoke pathos with equal mastery. This is one you can read more than once, because like good poetry it doesn't always give everything up with the first reading.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

The Moon Rabbit

It is said that if you look at the dark shadows on the moon you can see the shape of a large rabbit. Many legends have sprung up over the ages as people have gazed up at the moon and spotted him. Chinese legends abound but he also appears in Japanese legends, Korean, Aztek and in the Buddhist Jataka tales. In one of my favourite books, Watership Down, he is known as the Black Rabbit of Inlé. According to the book Inlé is the Lapine word for Moon and the Black Rabbit of Inlé is a Rabbit who only appears when it is time for a rabbit to die. Most of the rabbits who live on the hill above my house are the usual grey brown colour but not this chap.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Pigeons from Hell

First published in 1938 not long after R.E.Howard's suicide, Pigeons from Hell is a Gothic Horror tale set in the deep south of the USA. Two friends decide to spend the night in an abandoned old plantation house. The story eschews the more traditional slow build of atmosphere and tension, choosing instead to scare the pants off you in the first few pages. It certainly succeeds. The rest of the story's fear is generated by apprehension about returning to the old deserted house that has already demonstrated its terrors. It is superbly told and very creepy. It also features one of Howard's recurring characters - Kirby Buckner. If I was assembling a reading list to use for developing a horror writing style I'd certainly think about including this one.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Mr Timothy

Louis Bayard's Mr Timothy rejoins Dickens's Tiny Tim when he is an adult. Timothy is something of a lost soul, drifting through the days waiting for the happy part of 'happily ever after' to kick in. Dickens didn't conclude 'A Christmas Carol' with that phrase but it was certainly implied. In this book the majority of the Cratchits are either dead or scattered, no longer a family but instead a remnant of one. Scrooge goes on though, locked forever in his embodiment of the spirit of Christmas generosity. It is this continuing generosity that has so stagnated Mr Timothy's attempts to rise above supporting character status and make a life worthy of a leading character. Bayard never really comes close to emulating Dickens's style further than populating the first person narrative with a host of very Dickensian eccentric caricatures; the cat-haunted crusty sailor, the brothel madame, the scatological licorice proffering detective, the philosophical cab driver and the singing adventurous street urchin. It's a pretty enjoyable read with a very dark mystery at its core and if Bayard doesn't quite nail-on the Victorian setting it is still a very admirable effort.

Monday, 22 March 2010

There's always one

Face of the Week
Someone commented on my last post that the geese should have looked up for a second to smile at the camera. Well, one did at least. Geese aren't subscribers to the notion that you shouldn't smile when your mouth is full.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Beak-tip search

These geese look like they are helping the police look for evidence. I'm sure there's an Old Bill joke here but I'm having trouble thinking of one.

Friday, 19 March 2010

Chaste Snowdrop

Venturous harbinger of spring they may be but it's unlikely these snowdrops will get to monitor any fleeting years undisturbed. No sooner discovered than dug up and secreted in a bag probably already full of bulbs. These are from last weekend and are probably long gone by now. Shame. We liked them where they were.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

It takes two

The pairing up continues as spring prepares to ummm... spring. The Collared Doves were way ahead of the rest though and have been loving it up on the garden fence for weeks. Ruffled feathers and a general state of dishevelment are as good a giveaway as any, barring watching them at it. My mum calls them Billie and Ben. The Robin couple are a little more discrete but are still seen about together quite a lot. Debbie had a bit of a scare when she thought she'd seen one menaced by a swooping brown shape. I suggested it might not have been the Sparrowhawk but rather a female Blackbird wanting more of the birdseed for herself (which I've seen a few times). Thankfully the pair have since been seen together again, so unless the survivor 'moved on' very quick this looks like a happy ending. Talking of hungry predators - the Tawny Owls have been hooting up a storm in the early hours this week so we are very hopeful they'll be settling down for some chick rearing this spring in our area. Also the drumming of the Woodpeckers in the nearby woods has picked up recently - maybe we will actually get to see them a bit more this year. Still no sign of our Nuthatches though. They were sorely missed last year from our feeders with only a few making a pitstop while passing through.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

The Graveyard Book

Although I adore Neil Gaiman's comic book work like his wonderful Sandman magnum opus, I have never really enjoyed any of his novels. His adult novels like American Gods failed to interest me and his books more aimed at younger readers never quite hit the right mark. Stardust attempts to to tell a tale in fairy tale style but is far too long for that style to engage. Basically I think he wrote a novel using a style more suited to the short form. He has great ideas, a wonderful imagination and a wide eclectic grab-bag of interests and knowledge to draw upon. Neverwhere was an explosion of concepts, wordplays and atmosphere but too much jumble at once and always preempted by the tv series and undermined by rewrites to suit other audiences.
The Graveyard Book is for me his first hit, yes, a very palpable hit. Escaping from the man Jack (a very Gaimaneske assassin) who murders his family in their beds, a young toddler escapes to the strange safety of a nearby graveyard. He's adopted by the local ghosts and named Nobody - or Bod for short. Each chapter is pretty self contained as Bod grows up and learns about the different characters that inhabit his new world. Perfect for reading a chapter a night for the kids. And there are some really fine characters; the vampirish Silas, Miss Lupescu, Scarlett and my favourite, the capricious ghost witch Liza Hempstock. It's a simply written, pleasurable, charming and surprisingly emotional read. My copy was illustrated by the excellent off kilter line drawings of Chris Riddell.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

The Willows

As someone who has had a lifetime fascination with ghost stories and mythology I could hardly ignore the works of Algernon Blackwood. If you have ever picked up one of the multitude of anthologies that profess to contain the best ghost stories it is a good bet that one, if not more, of Blackwood's tales will be included. The Willows was first published in 1907 and is not a ghost story. It is, however, a horror story. Blackwood was a great lover of the natural world and it shows in the elegant first person prose characterizing the elements as described by the unnamed narrator of this novella. Two men are attempting to canoe the entire course of the Danube (as Blackwood himself had done) until they are forced by high flood waters to take refuge on a tiny, crumbling, willow infested island. One of the men is the aforementioned narrator and the other is an initially phlegmatic Swede. Once settled on the shrinking island the two men are disturbed by several unsettling happenings. Blackwood is a master of maintaining an eerie atmosphere; no small feat over 80 or so pages. The narrative that began with such imaginative and beautiful imagery starts to deteriorate as the story teller finds himself trying desperately to rationalise and quantify his experiences. The reader is forced to work harder as the psychological aspects of the story push to the fore. The story works on many different levels and is ambiguous enough for the reader to draw his own conclusions or speculate on the nature of reality and whether knowledge of something is something to be feared more than the unknown.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Don't tell him Pike!

Face Of The Week
Debbie says this picture of Harry with sand on his face makes her think of the mustachioed Captain Mainwaring as played by Arthur Lowe from TV's Dad's Army. Apparently for best effects you should also say "Don't tell him Pike!" to complete the illusion.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Remember the floods

Weekend Reflections
The months of snow lasted so long it seems an age since the curtain fell on the floods of the Autumn. Nature seems to be giving encores recently but only in excess. Wish for a long hot summer but beware. We've had rain on rain and snow on snow on snow. Perhaps a long drought is about to enter stage left.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010


Bleeding with warmth,
daggers of light,
softened by sun,
forged new with the night.

Talons of ice,
curtains so cold,
crystalline coats
that sparkle so bold.

Blankets of frost,
sheets to green mold,
skeletal chills
salt stories so old.

Michael Finn

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Lean on Pete

Willy Vlautin is the frontman of a band called Richmond Fontaine who also writes novels. Lean on Pete is his third such book. It introduces us to Charley Thompson, a 15 year old boy who lives an unsettled life with his dad. Pretty much left to his own devices and uprooted from his previous life in Spokane, Charley tries to make the best of things. He pines for his old home and friends while doing his best to stock a fridge that is as neglected as himself. His dad isn't a bad sort but doesn't make spending time with his son a high priority. Charley just wants a bit of stability in his life. He doesn't get it. Tragedy and bad luck dog the boy's steps from page to page and an already introverted personality starts to slide. The book charts an emotional and fraught journey as Charley takes responsibility for a no-hope race horse called Pete. It's all told in a spare and economical first person, with the eye and imagination of a 15 year old. Is there no hope for Charley? Can he save Pete? There is only one way to find out.
This review is from an uncorrected proof.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010


On the 9th of June 1865 The Folkstone Boat Express arrived early at a section of rail being repaired. The train derailed while crossing a low bridge and the carnage depicted in the image above (from Illustrated London News 1862) ensued. Ten people were killed and 40 more were injured. This event would become known as the Staplehurst Rail Crash. At the time crashes like this and worse were commonplace. What made this crash notable was that one of the passengers was one of the most famous writers the world has ever known - Charles Dickens. The man himself was unharmed and even helped with the rescue operation. Psychologically Dickens would never be the same again, suffering anxiety about rail travel for the rest of his life, which would end five years later to the day. He mentions the accident in the postscript of Our Mutual Friend and was part of the inspiration for one of my most favourite ghost stories - The Signal-Man.
Dickens tells the story of the Staplehurst crash again to his protege and sometimes friend Wilkie Collins at the beginning of Dan Simmons's historical chiller Drood. This time though he tells of another survivor of the train crash; a dark and sinister figure, seemingly preying on the dying. The last five years of Dickens life are told first person in Simmons's book by the decidedly unreliable pen of Wilkie. It's all wonderfully researched and detailed. Wilkie, less known now than he was in his day, still remembered for a small handful of books like The Moonstone and The Woman in White, took massive amounts of Laudanum and eventually Morphine to deaden daily pain and becomes more unlikable as the book progresses. He is obsessive, fiercely jealous, especially of Dickens, manipulative and treats his women abominably, even considering the times. Simmons slips the Drood character into the tale without hardly a ripple on the surface water of established history. The book weighs in at just shy of 800 pages but it never lost my interest. My home town gets a few mentions mainly owing to the fact that Dickens would tour the country on reading events, reciting segments of his books on stage. One of the last towns he read at before illness ended the tours was Blackburn. The biographical elements of the book are often more fascinating than the fictional elements, so if you are interested in either writer or just the Victorian era I heartily recommend this book.