Blog has moved, redirecting you to the new blog...

Monday, 21 February 2011

The Birdwatcher’s Guide to Twitter: Basic Species Identification

The people I meet on twitter excite, irritate, amuse, impress, inspire and infuriate me just like real people do, which caused me to have a bit of a think about twitter types. In a totally non-exhaustive way, here are the first three I came up with:

#1 The Blue Footed Booby

Twitter is the Blue Footed Booby's natural habitat. Twitter is their sky, their nesting site, their feeding ground. Commonly spotted with upwards of 45,000 followers they are prone to follow nearly all of them back. They check their twitter ranking on a hourly basis, squawking with panic if they find themselves below the top twenty.

An inherent self-publicist, the Booby is nevertheless liable to misfire occasionally (see picture). No randomly snapped iphoto, the Booby profile picture is a thoughtfully lit, digitally enhanced, suggestively posed portrait, closely akin, and often mistaken for, Viagra Spam.

The Blue Footed Booby is a scavenger, happiest when rooting around in other birds' left-overs, tweeting photographs of animals dressed up in silly clothes, light-weight, feel-good, psuedo-philosophical observations, and tit-bits from YouTube. Occasionally it may be spotted in its own habitat, exhibiting itself and its mate at play, almost unwatchable even by the most voyeuristic of twitcher.

The Blue Footed Booby might look like one of nature's anomalies, but it is as indispensible to the twitter ecosystem as plankton is to the sea, bacteria to the compost heap and guano to Peru.

#2 Mother Hen

The main function of this twitter species is to keep us up to date with the minute workings of their family’s timetable. A preliminary identification is often made through the twitter name, which may include a mothering reference, often self-deprecating. In lesser members of the species, there will be reference to parenthood in the profile.

The male of the species also tweets about his children, but ironically, commenting wryly on how clumsily he’s managing all on his own. The female reports her day to day life; the male tends to display new manhood.

Mother hen is not bothered about numbers of followers, preferring instead to congregate with the like-minded, or the actually liked, fellow mother hens living within a 2 mile radius, and usually integral to her child-minding or after school arrangements, many of which arrangements she makes, confirms and alters publicly on twitter.

Apart from these practical communications, the mother hen's distinctive call takes the form of twitpics of messy meals, advice on how to get wax crayon off walls, and ideas on where to go in half term.

#3 The Peacock

The peacock shares many characteristics with the Blue Footed Booby, but a quick glance at its follower numbers will confirm a genuine sighting. Size matters to the peacock – the size of the ratio. The peacock will be followed by far more than he follows, by at least 5 to 1, and growing. The ratio reflects the way the peacock sees his life generally. Put simply, the peacock considers himself more interesting to others, than others are interesting to him.

The peacock has a flamboyant profile, boasting several high calibre accomplishments, though a quick sift through his website indicates that his greatest gift is of the gab.

Fiercely territorial, the peacock is very particular whom he follows. The hopeful disciple must be a) famous, b) in the top 100 tweeters, c) likely to be useful in the peacock’s career, or d) a close relation. Being amusing, pleasant, having met him once or twice, or trying to make it in the same field, will get you nowhere. Especially trying to make it in the same field.

The peacock’s call is instantly recognisable - a mewing screech of social engagements, even more bigged-up accomplishments, reminders of invitation-only social events, name-dropping descriptions the next day of what fun was had, all interspersed with detailed and self-pitying accounts of the latest bout of peacock flu.

Binoculars at the ready for the Bird of Paradise, the Robin and the Ostrich, coming soon. Sightings and observations of your own most welcome.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Mr Moon's Trip to Evreux

This is George Moon’s 186th Parents’ Evening, all of them at the same school.  The same school in name, anyway.  Today's Heathfield Girls hasn't much in common with the Girls’ Grammar in which he began teaching History and Classics forty years ago.  These days, Heathfield Girls is Comprehensive, though George finds much of what happens within it far from comprehensible.
There is something of the Medieval Fair about a Year 10 Parents’ Evening, George always thinks.  Part social event, part freak show, part trading opportunity.  Some parents are here to test the teachers; the rest are hoping to soak up praise for their daughters and gloat.  No one is expecting anything to actually change.
A few weeks ago, for the October half term, George took his bicycle to Normandy.  He crossed on the night ferry, docking at four in the morning.   It was both too late and too early to find somewhere to stay, so he started cycling straight away.  It was very cold and very dark, and the hill out of Cherbourg seemed to go on forever.  As did the night.  On and on.  Darker and darker, the further he worked his way into the countryside.  He stopped, took the half bottle of whiskey from his pannier and had a couple of mouthfuls.  It didn’t make him feel better, it just made him feel more tired, and a little more afraid.  By a quarter to seven George knew that this was the night that would never turn into dawn.  Mankind had been anticipating it for thousands of years.  It was just bad luck it had to be today when George was stranded in the French Nowhere on his bike.  He took another swig of whiskey and carried on his way, asking himself vaguely why he’d come, but too tired to find an answer.  He thought he noticed the sky becoming very slightly grey.  He cycled on and realised he’d been mistaken.  Then, an almost invisible string of light threaded along the horizon and within minutes, France appeared.  He pulled into a café for schnapps with some labourers.  Thank God, he whispered to himself.  Thank God. 
Mr and Mrs Broome and their daughter Kylie are heading for his table.  George thinks of an adolescent in relationship to its parents as isomorphic, of closely similar form but independent origin, a word used regularly at Crufts.  But Kylie is more like a product of asexual reproduction, like a baby mushroom.  All three of them shuffle into the seats and wait for him to speak, all three mouths open about a quarter inch.  The problem with Kylie isn’t so much that she’s thick, George thinks, as her supernaturally good behaviour.  He tells them that she’s a pleasure to have in the class, which isn’t a lie if pleasure can, in some circumstances, have a certain confluence with nothingness. They move off with their mouths still open.
There’s a woman by the fire exit he’s seen before.  It’s Cassandra Brigstock’s mother.  No sign of Cassandra.  George teaches Cassandra History, by which he means she’s in his History class.  If the school still offered Latin, which sadly it does not, he’d have insisted she took it.  He wouldn’t have put her near the Gallic Wars, with their tedious details of ramparts, fortifications, sallys and excursions, but Ovid and Catullus would have shown her how to turn maths into poetry which is exactly what she needs.  Cassandra is clever and bored.
Cassandra’s mother is tall, smooth skinned with a neat shiny bob.  She’s wearing an elegant mid grey suit which gives the impression she’s come straight from work, except there’s a glow about her which suggests she’s been home for a shower.  He’s willing to bet there’s nothing in her briefcase useful for this evening and thinks he knows, also, why she didn’t leave it in the car.  She is like Dido, proud in the face of what she knows will be her imminent destruction. 
“I think she’s aprosexic,” Cassandra’s mother says.  Close up small cracks are visible.  Her fingernails are rather uneven and there are more lines round her eyes that he’d noticed at first.  “She has no interest in anything at all.”
“They’re all aprosexic at this age,” he says.   This doesn’t seem to comfort her.  “It’ll get better.  No parent of a fourteen year old thinks the dawn will ever break.  But it does.”
She’s picking up her briefcase.  She’s heard enough of his platitudes. 
“I want to tell you something,” he says.  She checks her watch, rather obviously George thinks, but he’s begun already, telling her about France. 
Once he’d slept off the first night, he headed straight for Evreux.  It took him three days.  He’d heard about a dig that had uncovered a mass grave from the third century - skeletons of about 40 humans and 100 horses all mixed up.  He wanted to see it for himself before they built the bungalows.

Cassandra’s mother is checking her Blackberry.  George waits for her to put it away.

“The Romans had been in the area for 300 years by then, and this is not how they buried their dead,” he said.  “Roman cemeteries are rigorously organised, and they never mingled human with animal.  I’m not the foremost expert on the period but it seemed to me something pretty extraordinary was going on.”

She raises one shapely eyebrow, just a touch.

“The chap from the Collège de France said the site probably arose from a violent epidemic of some sort, the bodies of the sick simply thrown hurriedly in together.  I don’t agree.”

“What do you think, Mr Moon?”

“George, please," he says.  "I agree with the Institut National.”

“And what’s their feeling on the matter, George?”

“They think it points to the worship of Epona, the goddess of horses and warriors.”

“How very interesting.  Now, I think I have about four teachers left to see, so if you don’t mind-“

“The interesting thing is...,” George says.  He doesn’t hurry to get it in; in fact he slows down.  It’s very effective, “...that the worship of Epona had been forbidden by the Romans since the time they arrived in Gaul.  And you didn’t disobey a Roman unless you were both extremely brave and the rebellion was of the utmost importance to you."

“I suppose the fact is either interpretation is plausible,” Cassandra’s mother says.

“I don’t think so.  I saw a human skull wedged between two horses’ heads, like a pearl between shells.  They were not diseased carcasses thrown in a pit.”

“And what do you take from all this, Mr, ah, George?”

“The spectacular courage of the Eponans,” George says. “It made me shiver to witness such resistance,” he replies.  “And always,” he adds, “carry spare batteries if you’re cycling at night.”

Monday, 14 February 2011

Back When Valentine's Day Meant Something

Exactly a year after our wedding, my first husband announced that he wanted to leave me. There wasn’t anyone else; we were getting along quite well, or at least it seemed that way to me. He just didn’t think being married was the way he wanted to go. A bit like he’d thought sage green would be nice for the sitting room curtains, but once they were hung he decided that orange would go better with the carpet; or, after ordering an extra large pizza he’d realised he wasn’t that hungry after all and wished he’d gone for Regular.

The fact was that he’d made up his mind. His reasons were straightforward. He wanted to be a successful lawyer, and a wife ringing him in the evening, wanting to know when he’d be back, was interrupting his concentration. I’m not being sarcastic when I say I can see how that could have been very annoying. No, really, I’m not. He didn’t see any point talking about it. He knew it was the right thing to do.

So, he packed his bags and left the next weekend, right? Wrong. He said he'd move out over the May bank holiday. Which would have been pretty normal sounding if the original decision had been made in April, or even March, or even January, at a pinch. But this was the end of September. So between the announcement and the actual move, we had to get through the clocks going back, and the weather getting colder, and Christmas, and my birthday, and then, just over the half way mark, Valentine’s Day.

I like to have a bit of time to get used to things, too. I mean, I’m not one to exchange contracts and complete a house purchase on the same day. I only buy from shops with a liberal returns policy. But seven months is a long time to live with someone who’s decided their vows don’t count any more. It was a small house too, there wasn’t much room. I didn’t like to tell people, it was just a bit too weird. I could have thrown his stuff onto the pavement, but it wasn’t my style. And on top of that, property values were exploding under Nigel Lawson’s bubble and I was hoping for an amicable settlement.

So, Valentine’s Day. He asked me if I’d like to go out for a meal, to celebrate. To celebrate what? To celebrate Valentine’s Day. Better than mooching about at home thinking about what everyone else is doing. Possibly. Okay, I said.

The restaurant was packed with couples, of course, and as if he had picked up some subliminal communication, the waiter seated us in the darkest, hottest, noisiest corner and then apparently forgot all about his intuitive perception and presented me with a single red rose. It wasn’t funny. It was awful. Everyone else was enjoying themselves, that was obvious, holding hands, smiling, laughing, looking into each other’s eyes, feeding each other morsels of pudding, licking the spoon clean, all that kind of carry on. And then us. Not touching, not looking at each other, not speaking. Not even eating. I left the rose on the table, instead of a tip.

The weeks that followed were simpler somehow. For a start, there weren’t that many of them left. The weather got better. We discussed what we’d do about the house. I planned a holiday with some friends. I began to look forward to May which has always been my favourite month.

The next Valentine’s day I made a collage from pieces of fabric. Two figures, a girl and a boy; his trousers were tartan wool and his shirt was pink linen; she had a red corduroy skirt a blouse of Liberty lawn and they were holding hands. The year after, I did the same card but the girl standing sideways, so you could see she was pregnant, and the year after there was a little girl between them. Then I got too busy to make cards, what with that baby and another one, and everything. Now the kids get Valentine's cards, and go out for dinner with their girl friends and boyfriends, squashed in with all the other couples, demonstrating, mourning, escaping, chasing, celebrating their love.

Funny, I rarely think about my first husband. I know he thinks about me even less, because a few years ago I came across someone who'd met him. This person told me he'd once shared a long car journey with my ex-husband and been treated to his entire life story. There'd been no mention of a wife. I think about him easily. I'm not bitter or sad or cross, just very glad he did what he did. Otherwise, just imagine, I might still be hanging on to Valentine's Day.