Saturday, 23 May 2015

Hobs and Bats

I’ve known my mate Phil since we were eleven. We met at secondary school and have been firm friends ever since. He came to visit me this week. The first time he had been over since his wife Jean died of cancer two years ago. Talking on the phone regularly is no substitute for face-to-face. We had a great time catching up and packed a lot in to four days.

Phil is very handy. He and Jean often bought old, rundown houses and did them up whilst still living there. Then, just as the house was looking fine, they would sell it and invest in another rundown one. Plenty of times I went to visit and they were living in a couple of rooms with the rest of the house a bit like a builder’s.

Phil was the right fella to ask how to repair a kitchen hob; one of the rings on mine had just broken. ‘Don’t bother,’ he said, ‘get a new one, they’re easy to replace’. We went to B & Q and found that hob and single oven sets were being sold off (double ovens are now fashionable). So I bought a set, it was only £50 more than a hob on its own. Back at the house we set to work. I was the apprentice who handed Phil the tools and did the easier tasks. I’m very glad he was there as I would never have taken on such a DIY job on my own, especially as it involved electrical wiring. The job turned out to be mostly straightforward, but there were a few tricky bits that would have flummoxed me. Half a day later the new hob and oven were installed and working.

Phil is a park ranger in the New Forest and very knowledgeable about plants and animals. We went on a couple of good walks at Murlough and Castlewellan, then a cycle along the Newry Canal. At Murlough we saw a peregrine and a cuckoo - the first either of us had seen for many years. Like swallows scything after insects, the call of a cuckoo is a harbinger of summer, but you rarely see them.

In the evenings we went on a couple of bat hunts. T had bought me a bat receiver. You turn the dial to different frequencies and can hear the sonar that bats emit to navigate by. Different bats emit at different frequencies and you can go a good way to identifying the bat by the frequencies that they use. The sounds are very eerie, a series of clicks and longer sonic pulses. You hear the bats flying around nearby but it’s often hard to see them. There are sixteen different bats in the UK and they are all very small, none bigger than the palm of your hand. Bats fly very fast and with great agility, rather like nocturnal swallows, as they pursue insects on the wing. If you are lucky you will see them briefly silhouetted against the moonlit sky.

Going out at dusk, under a crescent moon and a gleaming sky, we saw small pipistrelle bats darting around the old graveyard near to my house. We also spotted a long-eared owl in a tree, its pointed ears swivelling from side to side as it listened for its prey. Down at Hillsborough Lake we saw Leisler’s bats flashing across the shadowy surface of the water. These bats are much larger than pipistrelles, they have distinctive hairy arms and emit very eerie long pulses of sound.

The bat receiver was an excellent present. I’ve loved going on the bat hunts; you are entering into a strange and exciting nocturnal world that is normally hidden. I’m becoming the Bat-man of Ardbrin.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Blame it on El Nino

Headache, sore throat, chest pain and aching limbs; no need for a specialist diagnosis, I was down with spring ‘flu. On Tuesday I began to feel ill. I’d probably caught the bug from T who started hers last weekend and has been off work all week with it. I rued my luck, we were booked to be away in Galway for the weekend; now paracetamol and throat pastilles were my companions.

I sat in an armchair in several extra layers of clothes with a blanket tucked around me. I drank peppermint tea, watched daytime TV and read the newspaper. One article described some new medical research that believed our immune systems to be seasonal: boosted in the winter and reduced in the summer. This seasonal variation was reckoned to be evolutionary from a time when surviving the winter was touch and go for our species. The downside for us now was that more inflammatory markers in our bodies when the immune system was cranked up could lead to other problems such as heart attacks, strokes and depression.

I thought back to the last time I had a ‘flu bug. It was October last year. And wasn’t this a normal pattern? Didn’t I always catch a virus around the start of the academic year? I’d put this down to coming into contact with students and all the new bugs they brought with them from their travels. So, after the fine early spring weather, had my immune system begun to wind itself down and I’d been caught out by the return of cold and damp conditions?

‘Isn’t the weather terrible,’ said a friend, ‘one minute you’re roasting, and the next the wind is cutting through you. I don’t know whether it’s summer or winter.’ In another part of the same paper, I read that a significant El Nino was under way this year. This major reversal of warm and cold currents in the Pacific hadn’t happened for the past five years. The article went on to explain that in years when El Nino had taken took place there was increased instability in weather around the world, including severe floods and droughts.

After a few good summers, we look to be in for a very mixed one. We should expect our immune systems to be confused. As will be deck-chair and ice cream sellers. Nothing for it, I thought, but to sit tight, keep reading and wait for better weather. I pulled the blanket closer, supped my tea and took another paracetamol.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

What's Yours Called?

I’ve just bought a new car. As I picked it up at the garage, an old Renault advert came into my mind. Not Thierry Henry and his ‘va-va-voom’, but two decades earlier when Renault had a campaign that focused on the ways that buyers personalised their cars: ‘what’s yours called?’ was the slogan. To a soundtrack of classic songs, people appeared on screen with their Renault 5 to reveal the often quirky names that they had given to their cars. Not only was this a novel attempt to make mass produced vehicles appear more customised, but it was also tapping into the notion of a community of people who were drawn together by their association with a particular brand.

Cars, like clothing and smartphones, are worn in public and provide social and cultural markers. Whether Apple, BMW or Chanel, it is unsurprising that people should be drawn to others who value the brands that they themselves choose. The Bugatti Owners Club was founded in 1929 and still holds regular meets, whilst in NI you often see dozens of ancient Massey Fergusons tootling along in file on rural roads.

Henry Ford, the pioneer of mass production, had little interest in consumer behaviour: ‘any colour you like, as long as it’s black.’ Nowadays we take it for granted that people are choosing to purchase pieces of identity and meaning through the products that they consume. Our screens are full of knowing ads that display and celebrate particular identities, with the brand itself often appearing at the end of a series of lifestyle images as an almost ironic statement. Ads for mobile devices are perhaps the most iconic of this type and people have queued up for days to be the first to buy a new Apple Iphone upon its release.

For the past decade I’ve had an old Ford Focus, manufactured in 2003. I bought it in 2005 and have driven it most days since. The car has been reliable and has done me very well for over 100,000 miles. But last week I was told by my local garage that it had just about reached the end of its days. Reluctantly, I was forced to look for another. Since then I’ve been reading reviews of cars and trying them out at different dealers. I found this a strangely dispiriting exercise. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I’ve ended up buying a new Focus, the 2012 model, a turbo-diesel this time.

I’ve no desire to join a Ford car club. And I can’t stand Top Gear in general and Jeremy Clarkson in particular. I think I plumped for a newer example of the same model because it was a car that was tried and trusted. I was also offered a good deal in part-exchange on my loyal old motor. The controls and switches are in the same places, there are just more of them, so it makes the changeover to the new car much easier. I suppose I could have chosen a Bugatti or a Massey Ferguson. But I ended up with the Focus; I’m calling him Erik, after the famous Viking explorer.