Monday, September 27, 2010

Festival and other delusions

I thought we were going to have a great weekend of diddley eye and sailing. On Friday evening we set off in the van for Mountshannon and the inaugural Mountshannon Trad Festival. Dinner first in the fabulous Snug, then off to the hotel. The last session we'd been to there was lovely but this time I was stuck behind a wall of banjos. The first two were fine (and one of them was Joe, so finer than fine) but then another arrived and that was that. Impossible to hear anything but banjo.

There are some instruments you might prefer fewer of rather than more. The bodhran is probably the most complained about. One bodhran can destroy a session if played by someone with no sense of rhythm ('I've no sense of rhythm. Think I'll take up a drum!') and even less sense of courtesy. Two or three bodhrans played with more enthusiasm than ability and you feel like leaving. Some people do. In Pepper's bar in Feakle Gary Pepper always put up a sign during the festival saying 'Only one bodhran per session'. Some people took offence.

The compost heap with mined section
When we got back to the van that night it was cold from the north wind that had been blowing all day. The forecast was for no wind the following day (typical). We only had summer duvets. And we felt like going home. So we did. It became a gardening weekend instead of a sailing and music weekend. Which is A Good Thing. This is my chance to feel that I'm on top of things - a delusion but an important delusion for the gardener.

Why I'm a deluded gardener. I weeded this last week.

Today I was out there again. I found a rich seam of compost in the heap in the corner of the haggard. This is one of those heaps where everything gets thrown. Bits of tree, docks with  roots that would survive a journey to hell and back, weeds loaded with millions of seeds. But this compost has been rotting away for years and it's fabulous. I went mining.

But rosehips like this make me happy.

I'm supposed to tell everyone about the poetry reading in Galway City Library on Thursday evening  at 6.30 because I'm in it. I find it very embarrassing doing so. But in the name of shameless self-promotion (and the comforting knowledge that nobody reads this blog anyway) here we go:

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Fake hairy legs and saving seeds

The legs photo shows what happens when you start a job you didn't think was going to take long. It looks like instant hairy legs but is simply the muck and filth off the paving in the courtyard. I had the power hose out to wash my car (NCT imminent - just got this morning - hurray!) and thought I'd give the paving a going over. Three hours later I had it finished. The grime under the trees turned these bright colours to black. To remove it I had to hold the hose six inches off. Every edge threw up this wet blackness. Water everywhere. Intensely satisfying job though.

I suppose the film of dirt is actually a light covering of the beginnings of mosses and lichens on the paving. Stuff that grows so easily in the climate of this country. It was at its worst under the big apple trees that have been in this garden for eighty odd years. The trees are laden with apples of an unknown variety. A local type, probably passed around the farms in this mountainy place as slips and grown on. I have four of them all the same. I don't know if they exist anywhere else. There are many plants like this - only growing in their local areas and vulnerable to development or disease.

Down the road from me is the Irish Seed Savers Association, an organisation that has been instrumental in collecting and acting as guardian for old Irish apples that had gone out of fashion and so were not available in nurseries. Some, indeed, were thought lost, only to be discovered leaning in the overgrown garden of a falling-down cottage, or still-fruiting in an orchard unbeknown to the owner.

Nikolai Vavilov
Seed saving began in Russia with Nikolai Vavilov (1887 - 1943) who collected seeds from around the world, bringing them back to St Petersburg (then Leningrad). Vavilov was one of the first scientists to recognize the need to keep a collection of seeds and plants against future loss of biodiversity.

Vavilov is in the news recently as his priceless collection of fruit trees and berries growing on 1200 acres near St Petersburg at the Pavlosk Experimental Station is under threat from developers. The land has been zoned for housing to provide holiday dachas for wealthy Russians. This collection is probably the most important in Europe.

I suppose some people wonder at the point of all this. Who needs all those varieties of apple or blackcurrant or pear? Or maybe potato. The famine that destroyed half a nation here in Ireland happened because the populace relied on a crop that had no resistance to the blight. We don't know what is going to happen in the future, or which of our plants are going to succumb to disease or, indeed, over-development by humans. To destroy one of our most important plant safeguards to benefit a few of the world's wealthy would be an unbelievable act of human arrogance.

Vavilov was arrested during one of his plant-finding expeditions to the Ukraine and accused of espionage, sabotage and anti-Russian behaviour. He died in one of Stalin's prisons. Now his legacy to the world is also under threat. Sign a petition against this destruction here.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Ration books and the Bismarck

There's been a lot on BBC Radio 4 recently about the Second World War, and the Blitz in particular. One woman was describing watching the Battle of Britain when she was about six. It seems so extraordinary, but my father was talking of similar experiences last time I saw him. He was older, around ten or eleven, so more able to appreciate what was going on, but there was no question he got a thrill from watching German bombers raiding along a valley below Beverley in the North East of England where he was living at the time.

All this talk makes me think about time and its passing. When I was growing up the war was all about me - on television, on the radio, in peoples' conversations. It seemed like ancient history to a young child, and it was only when I was in my twenties when time began to accelerate that I appreciated how shortly after the war I was born. If I had lived through a war only thirteen years ago I'd be thinking of it as happening yesterday. Sweet rationing only ended in 1953, the year before my brother was born. Meat came off the rationed list in 1954.

Catalina flying boat
I was thinking about all this when writing about Castle Archdale on Lough Erne in Northern Ireland. Castle Archdale was the base for Catalinas and Sunderlands, the RAF flying boats that patrolled the North Atlantic searching for German U-boats. In the early days of the war pilots had to navigate north and then go west – they were not allowed to fly over the neutral airspace of the Irish Free State. They could give some protection to the shipping convoys coming to the UK from Canada and the USA but there was a protection gap in the mid-Atlantic that gave the U-boats free rein to do their worst. Hundreds of Allied merchant ships carrying essential supplies were being lost to the U-boats.
Huge pressure was put on Eamonn DeValera and his government from both the British and the Americans to allow British military aircraft to pass through Irish air space, and eventually a secret agreement between DeValera and Sir John Maffey, Britain’s representative to Ireland, brought into being the Donegal Corridor, a strip of Irish air space between Lough Erne and the Atlantic. Catalinas and Sunderlands changed their course, and possibly the course of the War. It was a Catalina that spotted the Bismarck, the formidable German battleship.
Photo taken by the Spitfire on 21 May 1941. The Bismarck is on the right.
On 18 May 1941 the Bismarck had left its berth in Gotenhafen (now Gdynia) along with a fleet including the heavy cruiser Prince Eugen and three destroyers. Their mission was known as Operation Rheinübung and they aimed to prevent essential supplies getting to Britian by sinking the merchant ship convoys coming in from North America. The Bismarck and Prince Eugen hoped to reach the Atlantic without being spotted by the British. They headed north through the Kattegat between Sweden and Denmark.
Their hopes to pass undetected were frustrated: they were spotted both by members of the Norwegian resistence and the Swedish cruiser Gotland. The German warships stopped briefly in the Korsfjord on 23 May to wait for darkness, but a British Spitfire sent out to look for the fleet discovered and photographed them here. That evening they headed north along the coast, the Bismarck and Prince Eugen splitting from the three destoryers to set a northwest course in worsening weather to continue their mission.
There was heavy fog which allowed the German ships to travel undetected as far as the ice-edged Denmark Strait between Iceland and Greenland. It was here that the British battlecruiser Hood and the battleship Prince of Wales caught up with them. The guns were out and the Battle of the Denmark Strait began. It was short and sharp, lasting just over fifteen mintues, but resulted in the sinking of Hood with the loss of all but three of its crew of 1,418 men. The Prince of Wales was damaged, as was Bismark. Only the Prince Eugen remained unscathed. The German ships headed for port and repair while the Prince of Wales retreated into the fog, but the British were hugely indignant at the sinking of Hood, one of their finest battleships, and wanted revenge. The chase was on to find and sink Bismark.
At first shadowed by British ships and attacked by aircraft launched from the aircraft carrier Victorious, Bismark changed course to allow Prince Eugens to escape, then changed course again under darkness to lose its stalkers. On 26 May Bismark was well on the way to port in France and receiving congratulations for sinking Hood when two Catalina flying boats took off from Castle Archdale to continue the search. One of them was successful. At the controls as co-pilot was Leonard ‘Tuck’ Smith from Higginsville, Missouri who was not supposed to be there at all: it would be six months before the USA would officially enter the war. Smith was on loan to the British to oversee the pilots who would be flying the US-made Catalinas, given to the British as part of a Lease-Lend programme.
The weather was atrocious with gale force winds, Bismarck was closing on the French shore, there were no British ships within range of the German battleship and it was getting dark. The only chance was to disable Bismarck with aircraft fire to reduce her speed. An aerial attack was launched from the Ark Royal. Torpedo strikes hit and damaged both rudders: Bismarck was unable to manoeuvre and British destroyers closed in. Bismarck kept them off all through the night until the arrival next morning of British battleships Rodney and King George V. They were joined by heavy cruiser Devonshire and more fighter aircraft. At 10.30 am Bismarck capsized and sank.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Seamus Heaney, waterfalls and scabies

Never ask someone who doesn't drive for directions. At least not if you're trying to get somewhere by car. We went to a reading by Seamus Heaney on Tuesday night at NUI Galway, and if we'd followed the instructions given would have ended up at a bollard with nowhere to park. But all was well. We arrived safely, and were even on time. The evening was a charity event in support of Cancer Care West, and gave me a sense of déjà vu as it was held in the same hall as my MA graduation last year. Except this time we had poetry and music from the ConTempo String Quartet, the Galway Ensemble in Residence since 2003. They are from Romania and perform and teach throughout the county.

I haven't been to many classical performances being a diddly eye person, so we felt very cultured listening to this. Superb musicians. Then there was Seamus, introduced by his friend from schooldays Des Kavanagh, who is a member of my poetry group. It was all very personal, and Seamus' readings reflected the nature of the evening. He not only read from his new collection Human Chain, but chose older poems from times spent in Galway or were otherwise meaningful.

More poetry tonight, though the evening won't be at quite such an elevated level. Here's the poster for it:

I was one of the editors of Behind the Masks so will be reading a poem - but not my own. Each of the editors will read someone else's poem.

Joe's been given an evening off poetry - he's done his stint for this week.

Water water everywhere. Again. The small river was roaring all through the night. I like that sound. It's constant and soothing. We've a few waterfalls on the river and that's what makes the most noise.
Below the waterfall in the garden
This photo is looking down from the flat bridge to the whirlingness below. No risk of it coming up over the bridge this time though I don't think.

Looking across the hills from the gateway up the track.

This photo suggests more rain to come.

Hope it's not a foretaste of what the winter might bring.

It's Devil's-bit scabious time on the verges. I love the name. It's a beautiful flower too. Purple pompoms loved by insects. It can be mistaken for sheep's-bit (wouldn't you know), but is of a different family.  Devil's is in the Teasel family while sheep's is a Bellflower. Devil's-bit is a tantalizing name and makes me think it should have something to do with magic and cauldrons, but disappointingly, according to Richard Mabey, it comes from the short, bitten-off look of the rootstock. The name scabious is better though. It was a medicinal plant for scabies which is also known as sarcoptic mange. My god. I think I'd rather have scabies than sarcoptic mange.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Cunning Plan

It was Friday morning and Joe said he had a Cunning Plan. We would go to Mountshannon that evening in the camper van with the dinghy on tow. After a sail we'd eat in The Snug, a favourite eatery of ours that's only open at the weekend. It's a bistro/pizza house with excellent wine and food and music.

Our sailing dinghy. Photo by Richard Little.
Ok, I said. It's a good plan. And we can have some tunes afterwards in the hotel. There's a new(ish) session started up in the Mountshannon Hotel that we'd been meaning to go to for while.

The Cunning Plan worked. We hadn't forgotten how to launch the boat - it's been in the water for most of the summer, so it was a distinct possibility. The wind moderated enough to be not too scary and it was blissfully warm. Odd being in Mountshannon in the van instead of the boat though.

There were a few discussions among people in the harbour about the proposed new Waterways Ireland bye-laws. The one that concerns me the most is the change from the five-day rule to the three-day rule. This will be incomprehensible to non-boating readers, but do not despair! It's quite simple. At the moment you can leave your boat in a public harbour for five days, after which you are supposed to move it on. This allows boaters who wish to traverse the system to travel over the weekend and leave the boat in a harbour during the week. You can make good progress this way, and it opens up the waterway to people who cannot take more than a week or two weeks off work.

Waterways Ireland have been attempting to police this five-day rule over the last couple of years. They've even lifted some persistent harbour hoggers out of the water altogether. Now they are proposing a three-day stay only, which is what they have in the north. If they want to make the bye-laws consistent throughout the island, then bring in the five-day rule up there.

We got in another sail before we left Mounsthannon on Saturday, but we were across the other side of the lake when the wind dropped altogether. We weren't moving at all. So we dropped the sails and went for a mooch with the outboard propelling us. Into a sweet little bay that's too shallow for a cruiser. There were a couple of boat sheds, and houses with little jetties, and a feeling of other worldness. It was flat calm which was a Good Thing as Joe noticed the outboard was overheating. Luckily we have oars on board. Nothing like a good row to keep your spirits up. I love rowing actually, but I'm stiff today. Not used to it.

This was followed by an aborted trip to Terryglass. I had the bright idea that it would be good to try out sailing there this morning after a jolly evening at the harbour. As we arrived around seven it started to rain. Lashed. Pissed down. Localised flooding and so on. And people trying to put up tents in it which was diverting for a while. After it got dark and still hadn't stopped raining we drove home. It was bone dry.

Produce from the garden! In the photo a basketful picked today.

And a flower in what I like to think of as the Mediterranean garden because it's hot and dry and full of flowers that don't do well anywhere else.

The flower is an Osteospermum which sounds like a whale with arthritis.

And butterflies on the lavender. So many butterflies. I think there's a blurred bee in that picture too.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Euphemisms in a bad world

This is a horrible euphemism picked up by Mark Peters in this article.

sudden in-custody death syndrome
I still want to believe this term is a piece of spectacularly dark humor, a Colbertian satire of medical truthiness, but alas, it appears to be real. I spied it in an article by Chris Thompson, who describes this "Orwellian euphemism" as the label for this situation: "...a suspect is intoxicated, usually on cocaine, he's already highly agitated and got his heart pumping like a marathoner, and the cops hit him with electricity or pepper spray, then pin him to the ground and shackle him. Not everyone dies after such an experience, of course, but an alarming number of them have." I don't know what's the sickest thing about this term: the resemblance to sudden infant death syndrome, or the fact that it reduces officer-caused deaths to "Wow, how'd that happen?" Excuse me while I shower—I need to scrub my psyche free of this term.

I've just finished reading Margaret Atwood's The Year of the Flood. If you haven't read it, it's a continuation of the story in Oryx and Crake, a near-future dystopian tale. Sudden in-custody death syndrome would fit snugly as a normal occurrence among the poor and oppressed in The Year of the Flood.