Archive for March, 2009

A Nice Cup of Tea

These ‘memes’ of which we hear so much these days are not confined to the internets.

There is a poster that has become exponentially popular during the past few months ever since it was rediscovered by the owner of Barter Books in  Northumberland, England. After he displayed it in his shop window, he was startled at the huge amounts of money people were falling over each other to offer him to buy the thing. The Chicago Tribune, among other sources, has the full story.

This is, of course, the “Keep Calm and Carry On” (or “KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON”) poster, produced in 1939 ahead of an anticipated German invasion.


It was never widely distributed because the invasion — history lesson here — never occurred; but it is charming to imagine our 1940s Mr and Mrs England taking its advice to heart with the cheerful stoicism for which World War II is renowned.

They would be pushing past — yet barely cognisant of — serried ranks of the jackbooted Waffen SS goose-stepping along the perfectly ordinary suburban High Street, on their way to buy a stamp, a jar of Horlicks, or perhaps a nice bit of finnan haddock for a cosy supper.

In these straitened times, the advice and seems to have found a new niche. Although it’s a pretty cavernous niche judging by the tonnage of t-shirts, tea-towels, mugs and other paraphanelia emblazoned with the message.

I’ve come up with a couple of my own soothing versions that are sure to help everybody’s peace of mind. Look out for them in an Etsy shop near you soon:



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Of time and travel

If time travel is possible, how is it that we are are not inundated by time-travelling tourists?

Assuming that, H G Wells notwithstanding, the time machine has yet to be invented, any time travellers would perforce be from the future — whatever ‘future’ might mean, ha-ha. timemachine

So the absence of 25th century visitors is perhaps a) because it is impossible to travel into the past (that whole ‘what happens if you kill your own grandfather’ paradox); or b) because everybody would rather take a look at the future than the past. And who wouldn’t? Apart from perhaps taking a peek at what dinosaurs or Jesus actually looked like, the future would be much more fun.

A third possibility of course — let’s call it c) — is that, just like in ‘Stargate’, we in the present first need to invent the other end of the gateway that might enable these voyages across the centuries.

higgs-eventThere’s a theory that the Large Hadron Collider is just that device. Who knows quite what might happen when it finally powers up, the particle beams collide, and the Higgs Boson finally and coyly takes a bow? I’m no subatomic physicist but I bet that’s what’s going to open up the wormhole our future selves require.

Unless it has already happened. Because I reckon I have spotted the evidence that suggests it might.

rogerbannisterTake a look at this picture. It shows Roger Bannister exhaustedly crossing the line as he becomes the first person to run one mile in less than four minutes. That we know of, anyway: who’s to say that some untimed Aztec, Spartan, Athenian or Minoan didn’t thrash that record with nary a thought? They could hardly get an accurate measure with an egg timer or a sundial. Mind you, I have my doubts as to the accuracy of the methods on display even as recently as 1954.

The fellow with the stopwatch — insouciantly puffing a briar pipe, if you please, if you look closely — seems to be relying on a tap on the shoulder from the chap in the enormously heavy-looking trench coat, manhole-cover sized cap, and pebble glasses, who isn’t even looking in the right direction. This, however, is by the by, so let’s return to the time-travelling case in point.

Take a closer look at the fellow sporting the chunky cable-knit fisherman’s sweater. Here he is, enlarged.


Now what is that he’s doing? He is clearly taking a photograph of the event on a cell phone. And that’s quite a compact and slim-looking mobile phone as well, which suggests to me that it might be from about, ooh, I don’t know … 2009? And when is the Large Hadron Collider due back online? Hmm? September 2009.

Think about it.

Of course, that would suggest that time travel into the past is after all possible; and that people could be rather more interested in what they might find there than I previously thought. He’s probably Roger Bannister’s grandson. At least that’s not a gun he’s wielding.

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I like fish.

I like their grace, alacrity and litheness. I like the way their scales flash in tropical sunlight. I like their big stary eyes and the odd capers up to which they get — the spitting at flies, the angling in the depths with a dangling bioluminescent lure, the stripping-of-a-cow-to-a-skeleton-in-thirty-seconds.

Most of all, though, I like their taste.

Well, not their taste. Piscine interior décor, for instance, does not impress me. (Except for that haddock that one time; interesting wallpaper). Their flavour, on the other hand, does.

So despite much delight, amusement and awe every time I snorkel, and the inevitable pangs of guilt if I have snaffled up a salmon fillet the night before, I can never suppress a hankering, a few days later, to eat the critters.

grilled-sardines-022I therefore wonder if, regarding the post below, it was wrong of me during a documentary about sardines, to start drooling when a million of them flashed across the screen. They looked delicious, and so … so fresh .

Apart from our aquatic friends I don’t consume meat. “Eat nothing with legs” is my rule, for no good reason. So I wonder if any carnivores out there can say whether the same thing occurs when watching the cows on ‘Country File’. Or, more appositely, the inevitable nature documentary with wildebeest, dikdik and deer fleeing cheetahs and lions across the Serengeti.

As the big cats’ fangs sink into that succulent flesh, do the gastric juices start chuntering in the same way as mine do with fish?

I wonder.

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dolphintailIt’s an immutable law of nature documentaries that footage of porpoising dolphins will be shot in slo-mo, set against a joyful soundtrack of soaring strings and triumphant trumpets. But nothing else from the brass section: trombone and tuba are, naturally, reserved for walruses and elephant seals.

Even given that dolphins tend to paint a silly smile across even the most hardened faces, what if this giddy crescendo is merely illustrating a perfectly ordinary moment in the Delphinidaean day? Like Pavarotti belting out ‘Nessun Dorma’ as an accompaniment to my trip to the dry cleaner? Or, more pertinently, to the larder to scare up some cheese and crackers.

Because to the dolphins all that’s happening is they are looking for a bite to eat. Granted, that’s usually going to be chasing down an elusively flashing school of fish rather than trotting off to the scullery to make a choice between Edam and Brie. But then again they are blessed with sonar, flippers, and immense underwater manoeuvrability, whereas I am not. Frankly, it’s a rare day I don’t crash into the microwave.

Yet the point remains: this profound and uplifting score actually serves to illustrate a bunch of cetaceans merely feeling a bit peckish.

Most recently this was spotted on David Attenborough’s ‘Nature’s Great Events‘, and as it’s David Attenborough I shall not labour the point. There is little with which he is involved that anybody can criticize, and this was a superb show, documenting the ‘Sardine Run’ off the south-east coast of South Africa, which occurs every time the cold Agulhas Current decides to push north.

This provokes a frenzy — but a strangely balletic frenzy — of predation among dolphins, gannets, sharks, fur seals and whales. Quite a competition, one might think, given that there are 5,000 dolphins involved just for starters, never mind the hordes of gannets Stuka-ing into the briny; until, that is, one is reminded that there are about 500 million sardines scurrying their way north with the colder seas.

These huge numbers are just as well. For while most of the aforementioned species pick off the fish one or a few at a time, a giant Bryde’s whale has been lumbering behind — the short bus of the seas, if you like — and announces its presence with one of those gaping upward-plunges that, in one mouthful, takes in seemingly half the school, a quarter of the ocean, and any carelessly passing shipping. “Om-nom-nom”.

Such is the grampus’s indiscriminate approach, it would be a surprise if his pals didn’t notice he’d wolfed down more than just a large number of sardines: “Uh, dude — bit of gannet stuck in your baleen, there”.

The charmingly slow-witted whale is, of course, hoovering up his meal on the back of the effort and intelligence of the dolphins. It is clear that no other creature has a clue how to actually catch and eat the fish until our mammalian cousins arrive and round them up them with that whole fish-rustling or rodeo routine at which they excel. The gannets even have to sneakily tail them just to find this natural bounty.

This kind of behaviour, and the fact that they mysteriously communicate in some cryptic submarine fashion, always engenders speculation as to just how intelligent dolphins really are. Well, at catching fish, jumping through hoops and parping car horns for the entertainment of sweaty Miami tourists they clearly have no peers. But I always make this point — if they were all that smart they would have invented the wheel, wouldn’t they? And have they?

No, Sir. No, they have not.

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