Dabbler Diary – Man versus Nature

Clutching our yellow balloons we sidled through the crowd into the windy car park. There was an excellent turnout for the nursery’s 10th ‘birthday party’. The balloons were being handed out by Natalie, the manager, while her number two Melissa filled ever more from a vast helium cylinder and in the jammed hallway black-coated parents politely fought each other to get at them. Brit Junior had a butterfly painted on her face, this having been expertly done by Kylie, who used to be her ‘key worker’ back when my girl was in the Frogs room. I like Kylie, she exudes sensible but warm motherliness and once I saw her in mufti with her boyfriend and they had a bit of an interesting goth/heavy metal look going on and unexpected facial piercings.

While the face-painting took place I elbowed my way off through the throng to find some cake to eat. On the way I spoke to Lily’s mum, who I always sense is rather wanting to get away from me when we converse. Then I got talking to Sophie’s mum who, I realised, I always rather want to get away from. I made a special effort not to let this show. Fortunately we were interrupted by Natalie announcing that the Great Balloon Let-off would be occurring imminently.

So out in the car park we gathered, a hundred yellow balloons flapping furiously in the cruel wind. It was also raining somewhat. (Got to get through January, Got to get through February sings Van Morrison over and over in the song Fire in the Belly. How right he is.) Each balloon had a card attached to its string, requesting that the finder post it back so we could discover which balloon went the farthest. We wrote the girls’ names on our cards and waited for Natalie to begin the countdown. Brit Junior held her string with both hands and intense concentration.

“Right!” yelled Natalie, after an eternity. “Are you ready?” We were, but first we had to sing Happy Birthday to the nursery. This we did, quickly. “Right!” yelled Natalie again. “I’ll count to three, and then everyone let go of your balloons.” Miraculously nobody jumped the gun. “One…two… three… Go!” Brit Junior flung her arms wide. Up went the balloon, up went scores of balloons, a bobbing yellow swarm flung immediately eastward by the wind straight into the row of bare trees in front of Asda. It was a massacre, as if the branches had been lying in ambush. Bang bang bang, I had an inappropriate vision of soldiers pinned to barbed wire on the Somme. Soon the trees were quite clogged with yellow… But wait! Not quite all had perished. For wriggling free of the uppermost branches of its tree, like some strange anti-gravity fruit, was one bold balloon. Away it sailed, this lone escapee, up and away over Asda towards the wilds of Hanham.

“Oh look dear, there goes your one,” said all the parents.

***

I’m having trouble with Africa, presented by the sainted David Attenborough. Nothing wrong with the programme of course – awesome, incredible, watch it in HD et cetera – but I struggle with nature. Nature is horrible, but more than that, I get depressed by it. The relentless, meaningless, monotony of survival. The frigging Circle of Life. The lack of variety. Of course all the creatures look different and have their crazy quirks etc, but from frogs to elephants it’s always the same old thing: creature ekes out living on the brink of starvation; male creature gets horny, fights other male; if wins, impregnates female; dies; female rears selected young. And off we go again. It seems so needlessly grinding.

As for their ‘fascinating’ behaviours: nine times out of ten, just horrible. The writers of Saw IV couldn’t come up with a sicker system for despatching victims than the average spider’s modus operandi, for example. No, your natural wonders are all very well, but I’ll take cathedrals, music and paintings over rainforests and flocks of flamingos any day. And this is why I find Population Matters – of which the sainted Attenborough is a patron – so objectionable. Behind population control advocacy lies the idea that humans should be sacrificed in favour of spiders and elephants and what have you. So, I ask myself in a daft thought-experiment, would I sacrifice every animal on the planet to save one human child? Depends on the child, but, in principle, yes, because as wretched as humans can be they have the capacity to transcend, so the whole purposeless, soulless animal kingdom can go as far as I’m concerned. It’s just a pity the child would have to grow up vegetarian.

***

Perhaps that was a bit strong. I like sealions. Not all animals are necessarily wicked per se. I have amongst my many unfinished grand schemes a project entitled Towards an Ethical System of Biological Taxonomy, in which all members of the animal kingdom will be classified according to whether they are good or evil. For example:

Good: Dogs, horses, dolphins, elephants, little Robin Redbreasts (the Christmas bird), sealions, penguins, donkeys, pandas,  red squirrels, whales and baby lions.
Evil: Cats, boa constrictors, rats, orang-utans, vultures, wasps, Piers Morgan, spiders, grey squirrels, great white sharks, camels, hamsters and sheep.

We can also apply the classifications retrospectively to prehistoric fauna. Thus:

Good: triceratops, brontosaurus, iguanadon (thumbs up!) woolly mammoth, dodo, unicorn.
Evil: T-Rex, velociraptor, pterodactyl, sabre-tooth tiger, giant octopus.
Neutral: stegosaurus, trilobite.

***

Another good project, which I’ve just thought of, would be a coffee-table book called Bad Royal Portaits, and the Artists who Presumably Apologised For Them. Paul Emsley goes straight in with his wrinkly Duchess of Cambridge – all the more egregious because for once the Royals provided a real looker for a subject – and I love this amusingly giraffe-like Queen by John Napper. It was painted in 1952 and has been banned until now for looking nothing like her (Napper himself called it “ “a beautiful painting of a queen, but not this Queen”) You can’t help wondering what the conversation was like at the unveiling. And when an artist does something like that, is it deliberate (and the artist ‘sees’ the subject that way), or have they simply cocked it up?

***

As HMV goes gently into that good night, over here Nige remembers the first record he ever bought. Like Nige, I’m always suspicious when people claim it to have been something cool, like The Clash or David Bowie, because children have awful taste in music. I honestly can’t remember which of the risible novelty singles in my little collection was the first one I paid for out of my own pocket money, but there’s a strong likelihood that it was We All Stand Together by Paul McCartney and the Frog Chorus.

***

I noted above that humans can be wretched. Oprah did her best not to let Lance Armstrong off the hook, but she wasn’t a tribunal and he didn’t have to face the people he’d wrecked in the whole sorry saga. What takes Lance’s great fraud beyond the boundaries of merely cheating at sport isn’t the doping or bullying but the whole multi-billion dollar industry he built out of complete bullshit and joyless winning. He’s a long way off redemption and he didn’t look contrite. I’d be happy never to see his face on television again, nor to read another column about him; not even one by David Walsh, admirable as that tenacious journalist is.

***

Snows have come, deep and crisp and disruptive. I shovelled ice and snow from around the car on the street outside our front door. Two of my neighbours were doing likewise; we exchanged grim remarks to the effect that nature must be fought, ever fought. But it always wins in the end. In the back garden we made a snowman, sinister with button eyes and John Merrick-like deformities. Cold gets in your bones. Soon the snow will turn to queasy brown slush. December’s payday always comes too early and then there’s the dentist and the MOT and traffic jams. Bare trees with dead yellow balloons sagging, and parasitical insects planting their eggs in spiders. Got to get through January, got to get through February. Hang on in there, everyone, for one day soon spring will come and the eggs will hatch, bursting the spiders open and there will be daffodils in the park, and a weak sun, and children on their Christmas bicycles pedaling for the innocent joy of speed.

Dabbler Diary is brought to you by Glengoyne single malt whisky – the Dabbler’s choice.

25 thoughts on “Dabbler Diary – Man versus Nature

  1. I turned on that Africa thingy and then turned it off again, there were some elephants having a scrap and they’d put on sound effects that made it sound like two rusty battle tanks ripping oaks out of the ground, and a backing soundtrack of epic fighty music. It was so silly and contrived that I had to watch Splash! instead

    good animal: manatee

  2. So, I ask myself in a daft thought-experiment, would I sacrifice every animal on the planet to save one human child? Depends on the child, but, in principle, yes …

    Strangely, I have sometimes asked myself the same ridiculous question and arrived at the same meaningless conclusion (is it possible you and I had a semi-drunken conversation about this once?).

    The follow up question is perhaps harder: would we be prepared to sacrifice the world’s stock of “cathedrals, music and paintings” (not to mention books) to save the same human child? Again, I am inclined to an “in principle, yes”, although rather more uncertainly.

    There’s a strange letter by that strange man T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia), in which a visit to the cathedral close at Wells inspires similar broodings. Lying on the grass by the great west front of the cathedral, he watches “a white-frocked child” playing with a ball:

    the child was quite unconscious of the cathedral (feeling only the pleasure of smooth grass) but from my distance she was so small that she looked no more than a tumbling daisy at the tower-foot: I knew of course that she was animal: and I began in my hatred of animals to balance her against the cathedral: and knew then that I’d destroy the building to save her. That’s as irrational as what happened on our coming here, when I swerved [my motorbike] and myself at 60 m.p.h. on to the grass by the roadside, trying vainly to save a bird which dashed out its life against my side-car. And yet had the world been mine I’d have left out animal life upon it.

    Just a little eerily, this prefigures Lawrence’s death a dozen years later, when he seems to have swerved his Brough to avoid two boys larking about on their bikes (no doubt “pedalling for the innocent joy of speed”).

    • Good to see you JL – excellent apt quotation, how do you locate these things so readily.

      I don’t think we’ve discussed it semi-drunkenly but it is the sort of rubbish I would talk about when in my cups.

  3. it’s always the same old thing: creature ekes out living on the brink of starvation; male creature gets horny, fights other male; if wins, impregnates female; dies; female rears selected young. And off we go again. It seems so needlessly grinding.

    Heh. Very good. This is why Darwinism appears to work so well for mammals and icky little creatures. Grinding is a wonderful way to describe it–an unconscious life devoted entirely to repeated eating, propagating, eating, propagating….. The minute you throw in anyone writing a poem about the futility of it all or secretly imbibing to escape an unhappy lair (or building catherdrals or committing genocide), it all becomes empty and forced,

    However, confusingly for curmudgeons like you, Brit, that human transcendence you celebrate encompasses a sense of wonder, affinity and responsibility for the dirty, smelly creatures I suspect if you told Brit Jr. you’d off all the animals to save a child, you’d have some serious splainin’ to do to a distraught child.

  4. There’s an area somewhere down the M6 Toll where there appears to reside a higher than average number of buzzards. On rare sunny days, I’ve glanced them as they glide on thermals, and I think ‘How wonderful it must be to be a buzzard: incredible eyesight, views across eight counties, no need for propulsion, the glorious sensation of drift, only the sound of the breeze for company.’ And then the spell broken by the person on my left: “Have you got your credit card for toll plaza, I’ve forgotten my purse. And never mind the buzzards, they’ve only gone up to get a good view of their prey – think about the poor little sods on the ground.” Then there’s the cheetah: the gathering of mind and muscle, the Boltian feeling of invincibility, the joy of travelling at 60mph, claws barely touching the ground; the awareness of being the undisputed king of speed; nothing much safe in front, nothing with a hope behind. But that voice again: “Bugger the life of a cheetah; what happens when he’s at maximum velocity and sticks a front leg down a pothole; you know, like those in Princess Street that the council won’t repair. He’s not laughing when he’s surrounded by a pack of chuckling hyenas! I suppose I’m the sort who wants Lincoln Cathedral, the Clifton Suspension Bridge, and the Daily Mail as well as the peregrine falcon: oh, the joy that bird must feel as it touches 200 mph when performing the stoop. It does feel joy, doesn’t it? Tell me it does, please. “No it doesn’t! Its all about relief that he’ll eat again today. Probably spends 90% of his time checking that he’s not about to be shot by a pigeon fancier.”

    • It came in an unmarked envelope, the writing an illegible scrawl and minus the obligatory stamp. They had moved into our wood, building a nest the size of a small shed, in one of the scots pines. We had, for some years, enjoyed their mewing call as they circle overhead in pairs and in season accompanied by the young, coming off the hill and soaring back in a thrice.
      They took up occupation unnoticed, like goth squatters in an unoccupied house in metro land, then one day walking the bounds, I discovered them, oh joy, put that in your anorak Packham, I thought.
      Then the bad guys turned up, the crows nasty black things, horrible accent, mob handed. They spent weeks harrying the tenants until I had enough and brought out the artillery. Malty alliance 8, Crows 0.
      Peace reigned for a while, soaring, circling, mewing and nesting, all that BBC stuff. Then the Jays arrived, flash bastards, all mouth, squawking, screeching, just like Harriet. The poor dears haven’t known a moments peace, hence the correspondence.
      Owing to the inconvenience caused by the noisy neighbours we must ask for a reduction in rent.
      Those buzzards eh, they ain’t all like Tweety Pie.

      • I trust you’ve already reduced that rent, Malty, and taken out the shotgun again. My wife, aware of my feelings about this bird has, on several occasions, shouted “Look!” I’ve usually replied: “What? Can’t you see I’m driving the bloody car?” “A buzzard – on a stump!” I usually turn back and, usually, the buzzard has gone.

  5. There is a clever one-act play by David Ives on the Attenborough theme, “Time Flies”, with a David Attenborough narrator. You can find a high school production or two of it on YouTube with a little looking.

  6. I proffered my ultra cool first records over at Nige’s place but upon reflection and a session with the tarot cards and my old mum, It may have been Sparky’s Magic Piano, how cool is that.

    I must insist upon, with immediate effect, the reinstatement of schnee to its elevated position in the grand scheme of things. Greatest substance since that loafer invented the sliced. Pure, white, improves upon already idyllic settings, skiable and importantly, when set hard, climbable, a magic playground, them thar peaks at the moment. Providing of course that you can tell the difference between a dodgy looking snow covered face and an Abyssinian fly whisk.

  7. Depends on the child, but, in principle, yes, because as wretched as humans can be they have the capacity to transcend, so the whole purposeless, soulless animal kingdom can go as far as I’m concerned.

    Of course, without guide dogs, drug sniffing dogs, bees that pollinate, bats that disperse seeds, donkeys that draw carts, herbivores that graze, cows that provide milk, chickens that lay eggs, fish that offer protein, rats used in scientific research, mites that decompose organic matter et cetera this human and all the other members of his or her species would have some big problems.

    Besides, as Peter mentions, one of the most important features of the human ability to transcend its evolutionary urges is the need to find beauty in life and the universe and without the biodiversity of the Earth this would be rather more difficult.

    I don’t disagree that nature can be awfully grim, though. Even old Attenborough isn’t going to broadcast a Komodo dragon eating a deer while its still alive

    • And then there are those helper monkeys – Homer Simpson got one once. You’re right, Ben, I hadn’t considered the full practical implications….

  8. Like Nige, I’m always suspicious when people claim it to have been something cool, like The Clash or David Bowie, because children have awful taste in music.

    Dry Your Eyes by The Streets. As if that wasn’t enough, the first video that I rented was an Adam Sandler film. It is probably futile to be ashamed.

  9. Eric Hoffer:

    All through adult life I had a feeling of revulsion when told how nature aids and guides us, how like a stern mother she nudges and pushes man to fulfill her wise designs. As a migratory worker from the age of eighteen I knew nature as ill-disposed and inhospitable. If I stretched on the ground to rest, nature pushed its hard knuckles into my sides, and sent bugs, burs, and foxtails to make me get up and be gone. As a placer miner I had to run the gantlet of buckbrush, manzanita, and poison oak when I left the road to find my way to a creek. Direct contact with nature almost always meant scratches, bites, torn clothes, and grime that ate its way into every pore of my body. To make life bearable I had to interpose a protective layer between myself and nature. On the paved road, even when miles from anywhere, I felt at home. I had a sense of kinship with the winding, endless road that cares not where it goes and what its load.

    Almost all the books I read spoke worshipfully of nature. Nature was pure, innocent, serene, health-giving, bountiful, the fountainhead of elevated thoughts and noble feelings. It seemed that every writer was a ‘nature boy.’ I assumed that these people had no share in the world’s work, and did not know nature at close quarters. It also seemed to me that they had a grievance. For coupled with their admiration of nature was a distaste for man and man’s work. Man was a violator, a defiler and a deformer.

    The truth about nature I found in the newspapers, in the almost daily reports of floods, tornados, blizzards, hurricanes, typhoons, hailstorms, sandstorms, earthquakes, avalanches, eruptions, inundations, pests, plagues, and famines. Sometimes when reading about nature’s terrible visitations and her massacre of the innocents it seemed to me that we are surrounded by devouring, pitiless forces, that the earth was full of anger, the sky dark with wrath, and that man had built the city as a refuge from a hostile, nonhuman cosmos. I realized that the contest between man and nature has been the central drama of the universe.

    [. . .]

    http://brothersjuddblog.com/archives/2006/05/lawnmowing_thoughts_on_visitin.html

  10. Will I get banned from The Dabbler, or lynched in the street, if I say that I just wish Attenborough would sod off? The elevation of this TV bureaucrat and voice-over specialist with a quiver-full of unattractive notions to the status of a secular saint is really beginning to grate.

    • Will I get banned from The Dabbler…if I say that I just wish Attenborough would sod off

      Given the cantankerous, Waugh-like nature of so much commentary here, I would have thought it might earn you a bottle of one of those rare whiskeys they tout periodically.

  11. ‘On the way I spoke to Lily’s mum, who I always sense is rather wanting to get away from me when we converse. Then I got talking to Sophie’s mum who, I realised, I always rather want to get away from. I made a special effort not to let this show.’

    I wonder what it is with Lily’s mum, and I wonder if Sophie’s mum is a Dabbler reader. If she is, I’d like to be a fly on the nursery gate next time you meet.

    The reference to John Napper’s portrait of the Queen reminded me of Graham Sutherland’s portrait of Winston Churchill, a gift to the great man from both Houses of Parliament to mark his 80th birthday. One can only guess at the thoughts going through the minds of Winston and his wife Clementine as the portrait was unveiled. Churchill said “You can’t look a gift horse in the mouth. The portrait is a remarkable example of modern art. It certainly combines force and candour.” In ‘Churchill – The Struggle For Survival’, Lord Moran, Churchill’s doctor, recorded: ‘He does not like criticism, written or pictorial. A lot of his time since the end of the war had been spent in arranging and editing the part he will play in history, and it has been rather a shock to him that his ideas and those of Graham Sutherland seem so far apart. ‘Filthy,’ he spluttered. I think it is malignant.’ So did Clementine who had it destroyed.
    http://art-damaged.tumblr.com/image/22197133154

    • ‘You can’t look a gift horse in the mouth’ – love it.

      Luckily, the Sophies and Lilys are numerous, I think I’m safe.

  12. Dolphins are a bit of a tough case, being (sorry for the culturally bound reference) the Eddie Haskell’s of the animal kingdom. They’re all well-behaved while we’re paying attention, but once our back is turn out to be weasels of the sea. What’s worse, with dolphins you have to imagine that they’re doing it on purpose.

  13. Blimey wot lovely writing! Even if some of your views are, at best, controversial – sheep, evil?! Nuts.

    • Look carefully at their eyes next time you’re in the shires, Gaw. Their pupils are alien oblongs of malice.

    • Thanks SRP – much appreciated.

      Ebooks compiling the ‘best of’ The Dabbler are a project we have under consideration. In the meantime, you can buy Dabbler Editions only current title ‘Blogmanship’ via the link at the top right.

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