Sunday, 24 May 2020

in praise of the house martin


The may’s in blossom and at last the summer’s starting;
we watch for the first swallow to confirm to us it’s made,
but fail entirely to remark the sober, modest martin.

The screaming swifts put all their soul and heart in
to devil-take-the-hindmost zooming high-speed escapades
that graze the blossoms of the the summer’s starting;

while fluttering swallows twitter over linhays, byres and bartons,
their long forked tails that trail behind so gracefully displayed;
a panache absent from our dumpy chum the martin,

whose burbling call sounds vaguely like some woodland creature farting,
or a creaky hinge that cries for WD40 to be sprayed
while swinging wildly open to let in the summer’s starting.

They gather on the river bank, collecting mud and carting
it up to the eaves of houses where their nests are all arrayed,
like little muddy beehives, bustling colonies of martins

And it’s cheerful as all heck until the time comes for departing,
and the eaves return to silence where the absent broods were laid.
Frost blossoms on the windows and we yearn for summer’s starting,
returning us the swallow; and, of course, the humble martin.

A friend was asking after poems about swallows, swifts and martins, and remarked that there weren't that many about martins. 

So I said I'd write one.

By the way, the picture of Crofton that illustrates this is now available in my Etsy shop, as is this one about canal cuisine...

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

when you wish upon a bug

my new picture; a red kite over Crofton pumping station
I was worried that I'd been oversensitive about the Mansplainer yesterday; maybe I'd imagined it?

He and his partner had popped round for a bike. They're stuck on the canal because of the lockdown and I'm lending them one, that I rescued from the bins. It's basically sound but with a couple of things need sorting. And I'd been told he's practical.

I'm showing them the bits of the bike that need a bit of fettling and he starts explaining it to me. I'd had one of Those Days and thought O just SHUT UP.

Maybe I'd imagined it...

Fortunately he came back to set my mind at rest.

Fair play, he's happy to have a go at the mechanical side of things; they'd got hold of a second bike and set off for Bath; but a perished tyre burst, so they returned, holding the hole in the tyre together with gaffer tape.

So I dug out a tyre.

He said in passing; "I moved the brake lever on the folding bike over to the back brake, cos it's safer" (one of the brake levers was broken, you see)

"Oh!" said I; "I was always told with motorbikes that you should use 70% front brake and 30% rear, unless it's wet in which case 50/50"

He paused. "...yeah,'s different on motorbikes. They've suspension ...on the front?"

I may have raised an eyebrow just a little.

Never mind, it was worth it for the entertainment value.

Up on the Wharf, I finished installing the bilge pump in someone's cruiser stern engine bay. It needed a fuse in the circuit, and I'd not plumbed in the overboard discharge because I wanted to get the water out safely; to do that you pump it into a 25L drum, let it settle, then syphon off the water *if* there's any oil on the top. I'd got about 125L of water out, and thought that would do for the moment; the council dump is closed, and there's nowhere to dispose of dirty oil at the moment.

But you need an operational bilge pump, especially on a cruiser stern, in case there's a flooding in the engine bay.

Anyway, I finished the job, and he was v cheerful about it in a slightly-three-sheets-to-the-wind sort of way. I cautioned against using the pump other than in an emergency.

As I left he was clicking it on and off, happy as Larry and for all the word like Eeyore with his toy balloon.

The gnats are getting very bad. At bedtime I found them swarming into the cabin out of the engine room through the gap in the door, like bats out of a cave in an Indiana Jones movie. There are bats coming out of caves in an Indiana Jones movie, aren't there? If not, I'm sure there ought to be. Anyway, I defended myself stoutly with the electric tennis racquet, and in consequence must have looked like Gandalf or possibly Hermione, waving their wand furiously with sparks erupting like fireworks all over the place as each gnat exploded, little shooting stars with an aftersmell of roast bug. As Neil Young said, it's better to burn out than to fade away, especially if you're fading away on the fly paper in the galley.

Sunday, 3 May 2020

playing with nightingales

Listening to Sam Lee duetting with a nightingale on Radio 3 yesterday, I was inspired to join in the fun. So here is my own delightfully tasteful hommage to Beatrice Harrison, whose cello playing in the Sussex woods for the BBC in the 1920s started this whole thing off. It became something of a tradition, and when a recording was begun one night in 1942, a formation of RAF bombers on their way out to Germany flew over to add to the mix, a poignant sound you can hear here.

Maybe I'll duet with the nightingale again this evening, playing my bugle; or at least, blowing it. I can't really play it. Tan-ta-rah!
There’s something about the nightingale’s song
that makes folk determined to play along;
like, say, Beatrice Harrison’s cello on the BBC
and then those RAF bombers on their way to Germany;
or that piano orchestration from Olivier Messiaen
Which was musically interesting but a rotten impressiaen.
Still, good, bad or indifferent, they all fail
to make an impression on the nightingale,
who sings for ears that are not human at all;
if there’s no-one in the forest where its song falls
does it make a sound? Oh, bless;
the answer's an enormous yes.

(from Drawn Chorus, my alphabet of birds)

Sunday, 26 April 2020

stop all the dandelion clocks

Spencer and Victoria came by again on the coal boat, though their biggest sales on this run were charcoal and potting compost. Boat people are digging vegetable gardens and potting up tomato plants with the sole purpose of convincing Respectable Walkers that we’re all growing dope. There are plans to have a sunflower growing competition too.

I look across the water to the Horse Field in hopes of seeing deer or foxes, and sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t, but these are on and off things, and it’s harder to note the smaller changes; the cowslips which proliferate across the top of the field and are a yellow constellation from where I sit, though I know they’re now starting to run to seed. The trees are still getting leafed up; the ash came before the oak, but the oak trees have filled out far more over the last fortnight, fresh bright leaves that you can make a surprisingly nice wine with. Who on earth thought of that?

All along the edge of the towpath the dandelion heads are stopped clocks waiting for the wind. The air is stillas anything, and when a jogger or cyclist pass at speed, grunting and panting, a second or two passes and then you feel the wake of them hitting you and you hold your breath for a little while to keep the germs out.

But this morning there’s nobody about but me

Wednesday, 22 April 2020

cockle bread

Halcyon days, now wars are ending
You shall find where'er you sail
Tritons all the while attending
With a kind and gentle Kale.

A bit of Purcell there, from the Tempest, lightly adapted to suit the leaf of Cavolo Nero that went by in the morning. I always found the idea of a kind and gentl gale amusing, especially when listening to this tune as we butted through just such a gale in the Western Approaches or indeed Biscay.

Over on the canal facebook group there was alarm and consternation from one poster who saw some cauliflower leaves float by. Fair play, who likes cauliflower at the best of times?

Down here on the West End we get a better class of vegetable in the rich Minestrone of the canal. It turned out that a neighbour was shaking a slug off this particular stalk and inadvertently dropped the whole thing into the canal.

Breadmaking is of course de rigeur in these lockdown days, and today I divided the dough into two and added mixed fruit into one half. I dusted them with rice flour to stop them sticking too much. The result was really rather good, even if it did look a bit like an arse.

Out and about with the volunteers, delivering food parcels and stuff. 

Observe Blake's Proverb of Hell on the side of the boat there. 

Later, a quick dash to the Wharf to bandage up someone's nasty gash (they slipped on the side of the boat). 

I put my Marigold gloves on, and my Darth Vader respirator. "There's no need for that", said the patient; "I've not got the bug".

"It's to protect you from me" I said; "You don't know where I've been"

Emerging back onto the towpath I see two friends sitting outside their boat enjoying an evening beer. Mr and Mrs Thornproof have paused in their walk to stand looking angry and outraged at this flagrant display of Fun. Unfortunately, the display was only observed by me. Hopefully they will have gone home to spend an agreeable evening write angry letters to the Daily Mail, and best of luck with that.

Monday, 20 April 2020

a jammed propellor

Sharon and Mark's water tank was running low so they set off for the water point, first turning at the winding hole. They'd got the bow into the inlet, when the engine faltered and suddenly stopped. I wandered up to see what was going on.

Something had jammed the prop. Unfortunately, unlike on a narrowboat where there's a weed hatch above the prop to allow you to reach down and examine the prop, this boat, a Broads cruiser, has no hatch and a prop recessed under the hull too far in to reach without diving.

Marc resignedly scrambled down in borrowed waders which had a hole in them, though the hole didnt really matter because the water came over the top anyway. Jim prepared a harpoon in case a great white whale should appear.

The narrative arc ground to a halt at this point, because prodding and probing was to no avail. Jim volunteered to dive down and clear it in exchange for a week's supply of sherry. Sharon did some rapid mental calculations and looked startled.

But they tried easing it into gear a few times and eventually whatever it was down there cleared, and they were on their way victorious.

From George's camp came the melodious bonging of one of those steel drum things.

Thursday, 9 April 2020

lockdown on the canal

The canal, or at least its resident population, is on lockdown, one of the terms that's entered our vocabulary over the last couple of weeks, like 'social distancing', that curious free-form version of country dancing that we practice without music.

So I minimise my trips out, other than the patrols I do as part of a team of volunteers, to keep an eye on vulnerable boaters.

But yesterday I cycled up to Claverton to drop off books, badges and cards, and to do a bit of bicycle fettling. And to say hello to friends along the way.