Saturday, 26 March 2011

Why I like giraffes...

I read the most amazing things about giraffes on my way home from work earlier this week. For instance, did you know that giraffes come across as being silent to us humans, but they're probably communicating using infrasound? 

Giraffes are apparently unable even to warn their companions of the presence of predators such a lions, although they may pick on behavioural cues such as nervousness and whether their companions are startled.

This is very strange indeed. People also assume giraffes to be social animals because they are so often found in what appears to be family groups. Yet these groups are extremely unstable – giraffes join and leave them apparently at random.

Biologist John Doherty from The Reticulated Giraffe Project, speculates that perhaps they communicate using vocalisations below the frequency range of our hearing, in this month’s BBC Wildlife magazine.

“They are certainly big enough to provide infrasonic signals and it has been suggested that they do so by means of Helmholtz resonance – the noise produced by blowing across the open neck of a bottle.”

This would be consistent with the way in which elephants use infrasound for long distance communication.

Maybe that’s part of why giraffes come across as thinkers. One of my first jobs involved working as a copywriter on the farm owned by Johnny Morris of Animal Magic fame. I know anthropomorphism (the attribution of human feelings and characteristics to animals) is frowned upon by some, but Johnny’s impression of a giraffe was very funny. If only I could find it on YouTube! 

I gave Johnny lifts to a few speaking engagement and he used to entertain me with stories all the way there and back. We'd usually be invited to a dinner in his honour afterwards and I then had to ferry a tipsy octogenerian all the way home. He did like his whisky our Johnny, despite being diabetic!

Anyway, I digress...back to the giraffes and what makes them so great.  Size usually poses problems for big herbivores but giraffes have made it a virtue. Most large herbivores have such high calorific content that they must eat abundant but often poor-quality food – dry grass or touch leaves – whereas smaller species can pick and choose, favouring the best foods such as berries and seeds.

In extreme environments such as African savannahs where food availability varies greatly with the season, this is reflected in the energy budgets of buffalos and other big animals, which can breed only in times of plenty.

But giraffes are different. Quite apart from their height – which enables them to munch the foliage of taller, deeper-rooted and thus more drought-resistant trees – their fine tapering muzzles, mobile lips and long prehensile tongues allow them to be unusually picky. Add to this a highly efficient digestive system (even by ruminant standards) and the result is ‘supercharged’ giraffes with enough of an energy surplus to breed all year round.

A giraffe’s height also poses a problem though. A fully grown giraffe can raise of lower its head by up to 5m and might pass out with the blood rushing away were it not for a dense network of fine capillaries (the ‘rete mirabile’) that cushions its brain against rapid changes in blood pressure. Quite an amazing biological adaptation really. Although it has its limits. Giraffe actually sleep sitting bolt upright otherwise they might die from a lack of blood circulation to their brains!

To Doherty, megaherboivores such as giraffes represent echoes of a younger planet, where giant life forms were commonplace. "When they are extinct such creatures become objects of wonder – think of our fascination with mammoths, giant sloths, and especially, dinosaurs."

I can completely understand what he means. When I was travelling across Kenya and Tanzania I went on a walking safari and it was all so reminiscent of Jurassic Park. These majestic animals move across the savannah with such grace and the odd comic moment when they shuffle awkwardly and splay out their legs to drink. It looks like they might very well get stuck and never get back up.

Sadly, my favourite giraffes – the reticulated ones – are endangered. They look quite different to Africa’s other eight giraffe subspecies due to their signature hide pattern: dark chestnut polygons divided by a complex tracery of narrow white lines.

In 1998, there were thought to be 28,000 giraffes in northern Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia, but this figure has plummeted by 80% in only 10 years. They inhabit a volatile area characterised by growing human population, poverty, habitat degradation and drought, regional conflicts, overstretched security forces and a widespread availability of automatic weapons.
They’re tempting targets as they yield large amounts of meat and some pastoral groups value them highly as trophies and for their hides, tail hair and bone marrow.

Who could do such a thing to such a majestic animal? Although it’s easy for me to say that as I don’t face starvation or privation. Thinking about this, I must do something to support The Reticulated Giraffe Project.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Why I like 'The Rivals' by Richard Sheridan

The Rivals was Sheridan's first play, written in 1775. At the time, he was a young newlywed living in Bath. At Sheridan’s insistence, upon marriage his wife Eliza (born Elizabeth Linley) had given up her career as a singer. This was proper for the wife of a “gentleman,” but it was difficult because Eliza had earned a substantial income as a performer.

Instead, the Sheridans lived beyond their means as they entertained the gentry and nobility with Eliza’s singing (in private parties) and Richard’s wit. Finally, in need of funds, Richard turned to the only craft that could gain him the remuneration he desired in a short time: he began writing a play. He had over the years written and published essays and poems, and among his papers were numerous unfinished plays, essays and political tracts, but never had he undertaken such an ambitious project as this. In a short time, however, he completed The Rivals. He was 23 years old.

This is a play about the comedy of courtship and duplicity in 18th-century Bath. I recently went to see a production directed by Sir Peter Hall in his 80th year. The performances of Penelope Keith as the “Queen of the dictionary” Mrs Malaprop, and Peter Bowles as Sir Anthony Absolute, a man who rumbles and thunders with rage whenever his iron will is crossed, were outstanding.

There was a mixture of hauteur, roguishness and vulnerability in Keith’s performance that is truly endearing. Mrs Malaprop is noted for what Julia calls, “her select words so ingeniously misapplied, without being mispronounced.” Bowles is terrific too, his sour, pursed face.

The dramaturgy is impeccable. Sheridan roots the play in the audience's taste for comic character: from Shakespeare (Mistress Quickly and Dogberry are Mrs Malaprop's antecedents) and Jonson (Sir Lucius O'Trigger, Sir Anthony Absolute bearing Jonsonian monikers that define type) via the Restoration.

In poking fun at poseurs, pretentious country arrivistes and snobs, Sheridan pushes the manners and stereotypes of the plays and society of the time to extremes. He is attacking attitudes to love and money, marriage and responsibilities, the battle of the sexes, and the age-old tensions between the generations.

Sheridan was satirising a new society, although he signed up to it in one chief respect: that anyone could be a gentleman through their own efforts and achievements rather than through birth or marriage. He was very American in this respect - the revolution in that country was just a year away.

The Rivals is set in Bath, a newly invigorated city: new architecture, new fashions, new intellectual curiosity avidly embraced by newcomers. Bath offered a levelling of society. There was no hierarchy to be observed in the ballrooms, for example. But it also bred snobbery from the old order. With a fondness for the new comes the posturing of the nouveau.
Bath was also where Sheridan had spent the most tumultuous time of his life on leaving school, as an employee of his father's elocution academy (there was a ready market in social climbers looking to knock the edge off their common accents).
The rivals is a comic gem in which Sheridan combines mastery of situation with an awareness of sentimental absurdity that Jane Austen went on to harpoon in Northanger Abbey.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

My favourite children's books...

After reading The Little Prince the other week for the first time, I got to thinking about what would make it onto my list of my top ten favourite children’s books.

In no particular order, the following immediately sprang to mind...

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen
 –  Alan Garner
His Dark Materials trilogy – Philip Pulman
The Cat in the Hat – Dr Seus
Calvin & Hobbes – Bill Watterson
The Little Prince or Le Petit Prince – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
The Earthsea trilogy – Ursula Le Guin
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass – Lewis Carroll
The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings – J.R. Tolkein
The Dark is Rising 
 Susan Cooper
The Chronicles of Narnia
 – CS Lewis

I'll try and explain why...

The Cat in the Hat – Dr Seus

In May of 1954, Life magazine published an essay by John Hersey, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning author, about why American children were having trouble learning to read. Hersey ripped the stultifyingly boring "Dick and Jane" stories of the era to pieces and pleaded for someone to do better. Theodor Seuss Geisel, an ad copywriter, responded with The Cat in the Hat.

The Cat in the Hat 
and its sequel operate on many levels. Yes, they teach us to read. But they also teach us about poetry, politics, ethics, comics, history and con-artistry - not to mention spot removal and indoor kite-flying. All this and the books use just 236 different words. This is experimentation with language and meter/verse at its very best.

Calvin & Hobbes – Bill Watterson
Calvin & Hobbes tells the tale of a young boy whose stuffed tiger is as real to him as the people around him. It deals in the process with philosophical issues about free will and the meaning of life, via the perspective of a child with an extraordinary imagination.

It’s great to share with children for its sheer use of humor, puns, implied meaning, figurative language and sarcasm. 

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen – Alan Garner
The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and Garner's other children’s books The Moon of Gomrath, The Owl Service and Elidor are truly unforgettable. 

Brisingamen is set in and around Macclesfield and Alderley Edge in Cheshire, and tells the story of two children, Colin and Susan, who are staying with some old friends of their mother's while their parents are overseas.

Susan possesses a small tear-shaped jewel held in a bracelet: unknown to her, this is the Weirdstone of the title. As its nature is revealed the children become hunted by the minions of the dark spirit Nastrond who, centuries before, had been defeated and banished by a powerful king.

They have to compete with a wicked shape-shifting sorceress and evil wizard but are aided by a good wizard and his dwarven companions.

Garner didn’t write the book ‘for children’ who don’t spoken down to by it. For this reason people of every age can enjoy the jeopardy and magic of it all the more.

His Dark Materials
 – Philip Pulman
His Dark Materials comprises three books, Northern Lights (1995), The Subtle Knife (1997) and The Amber Spyglass (2000). Pullman has written an epic with the entertainment value to capture a mass audience, which simultaneously taps into the same profound themes as Homer and the Bible. 

It's a story with a dark and powerful undertow – a creation myth for the 21st century.
His Dark Materials has its origins in the writings of Milton, Blake and Kleist, but if that sounds literary and erudite, don't worry, it’s a page-turner too. 

The books attack such things as cruelty, oppression, intolerance, unkindness, narrow-mindedness, and celebrate love, kindness, open-mindedness, tolerance, curiosity and human intelligence. It alludes to a broad range of ideas from fields such as physics, philosophy, theology and spirituality. 

The Little Prince
 or Le Petit Prince – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Outwardly a children's book, The Little Prince makes various profound points about life and humankind. It looks at how and why we find joy in friendships, nature and the things around us and reconcile ourselves with the inevitability of death and loss.

In it, the narrator tells of being stranded in the Sahara Desert (which actually occurred to the author on a pioneering flight) where he meets a young extraterrestrial prince. In their talks, the author reveals his own views about simple truths and the follies of mankind.

The Earthsea Trilogy – Ursula Le Guin
Earthsea is the setting for six books, beginning with A Wizard of Earthsea, first published in 1968, and includes The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore.

In A Wizard of Earthsea a young goatherd Ged discovers his talent for magic and is sent to the school for wizards on the island of Roke. There his pride leads him to folly, and the loosing of a terrible evil on the world and an epic quest to restore balance.

In The Tombs of Atuan, a priestess discovers an intruder in the forbidden labyrinth that is her domain. She chooses to turn her back on everything familiar, in exchange for an uncertain future.

In The Farthest Shore something is leaching the wizardry and joy out of the world. Arren, the young prince of Enlad, joins Ged on a quest to find the source of the evil. Their search will take them to the raft people on the open sea, then across the wall into the dry land of the dead.

A Taoist conception of "Balance" underlies Earthsea: the use of magic is dangerous, and can destabilise the natural order. They are also, first and foremost, spellbinding "coming of age" stories with memorable characters.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland 
and Through the Looking Glass  Lewis Carroll
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was written by the Oxford maths lecturer Charles Lutwidge Dodgson under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll. It tells of a girl named Alice who falls down a rabbit hole into a fantasy world populated by peculiar creatures.

The books also critique the new mathematical theories and approaches which were gaining currency in the mid 19th C. Lewis goes on the attack using an approach familiar from Euclid – reductio ad absurdum – where the validity of an idea is tested by taking its premises to their logical extreme. 

This is seen best in the scene with the Caterpillar where Alice's size fluctuates wildly with every second that pasts. Proportion, rather than absolute length, was what mattered in Alice’s above-ground world of Euclidean geometry. In an algebraic world, of course, this isn’t easy as can be seen when Alice's neck elongates alarmingly.

The books have given rise to some of my favourite phrases delievered by the White Queen to Alice, "The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday – but never jam to-day". 

 The White Queen offers Alice "jam every other day" as an inducement to work for her:

"I'm sure I'll take you with pleasure!" the Queen said. "Two pence a week, and jam every other day."

Alice couldn't help laughing, as she said, "I don't want you to hire ME - and I don't care for jam."
"It's very good jam," said the Queen.
"Well, I don't want any TO-DAY, at any rate."
"You couldn't have it if you DID want it," the Queen said. "The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday - but never jam to-day."
"It MUST come sometimes to "jam to-day,"" Alice objected.
"No, it can't," said the Queen. "It's jam every OTHER day: to-day isn't any OTHER day, you know."
"I don't understand you," said Alice. "It's dreadfully confusing!"
The Queen's rule is a pun on a mnemonic for remembering the distinction between the Latin words "nunc" and "iam" (sometimes written "jam"). Both mean "now", but "nunc" is only used in the present tense, while "iam" is used in the past and future tenses. In more recent times, the phrase has been used to describe a variety of unfulfilled political promises on issues such as tax.

The comment by Humpty Dumpty also sticks in my mind:

“Words mean exactly what I want them to mean, neither more nor less”. It was once a history of the English language university exam question, suffixed with the daunting instruction to “discuss”! 

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings – J.R. Tolkein

"In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit," is one of the most memorable and charming lines in the history of literature. 

The Hobbit continues in this beguilingly unpretentious, delightfully funny and splendidly restrained way. Bilbo's journey from his cosy village across risky territory to the Misty Mountains with their goblin-infested caverns, and to the dragon-haunted Lonely Mountain beyond, provides the geographical and narrative matrix for Frodo's quest in the sequel The Lord of the Rings.

Moreover, The Hobbit is a neat little parable about the first world war. Plucked from his rural idyll and catapulted into a brutal and totally unnecessary conflict, Bilbo soon discovers the futility of old-style heroism, and learns that the best place for him is out of it all. He manages to get walloped on the head, and spends most of the battle unconscious — just as his creator Tolkien caught trench fever on the Somme, and was safely invalided out of the carnage.

The Dark is Rising – Susan Cooper

The Dark Is Rising is the name of a five-book series of fantasy novels (published 1965–1977) which depicts the struggle between the forces of good and evil. The series is based on Arthurian myths and Celtic and Norse legend.
Will Stanton, the main protagonist in the book, exists in two separate worlds. He is the last of the Old Ones, a circle of magical men and women who exist throughout the ages of the world fighting a constant battle against the powers of the Dark.

Traveling back and forth in time, witnessing the invasion of Wales by the English and observing the construction of a Roman amphitheatre in England, readers are given a history of the British Isles that is remarkable for its unconventionality. Both Herne the Hunter and Arthur Pendragon playing roles of vital importance in the fight against the Dark in this gripping tale.

The Chronicles of Narnia
 – CS Lewis
The Chronicles of Narnia is a series of seven fantasy novels for children written 1949-1954 and published 1950- 1956. Narnia is a strange blend of magic, myth and Christianity, some of it brilliantly fantastical and richly imaginative and some heavy handed and clunking. 
But despite this and a few unpleasant social attitudes it embodies, Narnia makes the list as nothing else springs to mind right now.

Well, that's all from me for now as it's way past my bedtime for a Monday! 

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Why I love the theatre...

I love the theatre because it combines many arts in one – from writing and music, to set and costume design, as well as acting and dance or movement choreography.

Beyond that, anything that happens live is great. A play is recreated every time it is performed. It’s not exactly the same over and over again like a film. The audience’s experience is unique.

The audience plays a role in creating atmosphere which the actors feed off. We wait with anticipation to see the drama unfold...and the actors rise to that occasion and respond to each other. No-one knows what’s going to happen that night. Within this confluence, there’s an unknown factor. It’s risky.

Peter O’Toole once said, “Oh, it's painful seeing it all there on the screen, solidified, embalmed. Once a thing is solidified it stops being a living thing. That's why I love the theatre. It's the ‘Art of the Moment’. I'm in love with ephemera and I hate permanence.”

The very best actors learn how to identify, internalise and magnify the feelings of a character. They have a special gift and can be “fully present” when expressing a character’s intent to the outside world.

“Acting is making words into flesh,” according to O’Toole. He, “love[d] classical acting because... you need the vocal range of an opera singer...the movement of a ballet have to be able to's turning your whole body into a musical instrument on which you yourself play.”

It takes amazing abilities of empathy to transpose a character into your being as an actor. The best actors portray characters as if he or she were real. The period or country in which a play was written should have no consequence. Actors have to live and breathe the motivations and the voice of their characters and bounce off the rest of the cast to create something that’s truly special.

We go to the theatre to be inspired and entertained, to learn and to seek answers about ourselves. We identify and we berate, we admire and we admonish.

It’s a really tough one to choose my top ten plays as I’ve seen or read thousands of plays...but generally only once. Despite this, there are things which have made an indelible impression on me to the extent that I can visualise the set at "curtain up" in my mind. And I can replay the drama that unfolds. 

The fact that something "stays with me" is as good a sense I can get that it's good. Although I recognise the fact that perhaps I just needed that work of art at that moment my life, I was inspired by exceptional direction or acting, or perhaps my field of reference was more limited when I encountered the play. Value in the world of the arts can be so subjective.

In no particular order, my top ten plays at this moment in time are:

- Arcadia by Tom Stoppard
- Art by
Yasmina Reza
- The History Boys by
Alan Bennet
- Welcome to Thebes by Moira Buffini
- The Glass Menagerie by Tenesse Williams
- The Rivals by Richard Brinsley Sheridan
- The Tempest by William Shakespeare
- King Lear by William Shakespeare
- Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf by Edward Albee
- The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekov

There are many other plays have “spoken to” or “entertained” me, but don’t quite make the cut as lasting works of art. Just missing out on this list are Aristophone’s The Birds as well as Michael Morpurgo’s Warhorse

I shall reflect on each work in subsequent posts...and make a point of re-reading them. It's something that I so rarely do. I'm drawn to the new and un-encountered in general. Life is so full of possibility...which is a good note to end on.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

My favourite books...

On my way to and from work today I read one of the most amazing books. It’s propelled itself into one of my top ten favourite books of all time.

I’ll post a few immediate thoughts on it in the twenty minutes I need to wait for my sardines with chili, parsley and lemon to cook! 

The Little Prince or Le Petit Prince was written by the French aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in 1943. Since its publication, it has sold more than 200 million copies worldwide – making it one of the best selling books of all time. Yet, I’ve never come across it until now, which is strange. Perhaps I’m not the only person. Which is why it makes the perfect subject for a blog post.

Outwardly a children's book, The Little Prince makes various profound points about life and humankind. It looks at how and why we find joy in friendships, nature and the things around us and reconcile ourselves with the inevitability of death and loss.

In it, the narrator tells of being stranded in the Sahara Desert (which actually occurred to the author on a pioneering flight) where he meets a young extraterrestrial prince. In their talks, the author reveals his own views about simple truths and the follies of mankind.

The book's essence is in the famous line uttered by the fox to the Little Prince: "It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye."

The fox and the Little Prince had been discussing why we need to establish ties – to have our hearts tamed – to love life, friends and things.

“To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you,” explains the fox.

“And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world.”

The fox talks about being bored with his life. With hunting chickens and being hunted by men.

“But if you tame me,” he says, “I shall know the sound of a step that will be different from all the others. Other steps send me hurrying back underneath the ground. Yours will call me like music, out of my burrow. And then look: you see the grain-fields down yonder? I do not eat bread. Wheat is of no use to me? The wheat fields have nothing to say to me. And that is sad. But you have hair that is the colour of gold. Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me! The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back the thought of you.”

When The Little Prince is about to pass away, or return to his own extraterrestrial planet as he frames it, he asks the narrator to look at the stars and know that he is laughing there. The Little Prince promises that,

"And when your sorrow is comforted (time soothes all sorrows) you will be content that you have known me. You will always be my friend. You will want to laugh with me.”

I came across The Little Prince as it was mentioned in the funeral service of my very dear friend Niki who prompted me to start this blog in the first place. I suddenly remembered that Niki had been reading this book to her little boy - my godson - in the very last holiday we took together in Cornwall. I also found that The Little Prince was the very first book Niki gave to her husband. It seemed to be very important to her so I thought I'd read it and I'm glad I did.

One of the times when Niki had to cancel a visit from me because she had to go to hospital she said, "it's not fair, there was so much I wanted to do this month". 

It's very sobering to measure out your life in months. It’s why I started this blog. I wanted to define the things I really love. Many of these things have been introduced to me by dear friends like Niki and remind me of them. I wanted to understand why I like them so much and make them a central part of my life. I thought it would help me find new related things too - like a cross-genre version of The idea was that people might say…”oh you really like X, I think you’d like Y too.” It's all too easy to amble along in life and not focus on the things that really matter.

Anyway, the oven’s just pinged so I’m going to go eat. It’s really difficult to do justice to such a profound…albeit whimsical book as The Little Prince. So I’ll just have to urge you to go away and read or re-read it.

Have a nice evening everyone.