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Thursday, 29 April 2021

I hope I have better luck.

One of the great joys of life is discovering something or someone new, and in terms of the dead, the supply is inexhaustible. I bought Jules Renard’s Journal 1887 – 1910 for my daughter who, to my relief, liked it immensely. But then what was there not too like, the man had opinions and expressed them in unexpected ways. He had none of the showy flamboyance of Oscar Wilde, who he described thus:

'Oscar Wilde next to me at lunch. He has the oddity of being an Englishman. He offers you a cigarette but selects it himself. He does not walk around a table: he moves the table out of the way. A face worked over by tiny red worms, long cavernous teeth. He is enormous and carries an enormous cane.'

But he had all of the wit, and this despite or because of a troubled childhood. His father was a peasant farmer who rose to become Mayor of the village, but after the death of his first-born child he became increasingly bitter, barely spoke to his subsequent three children and didn’t speak to his wife for the next thirty-three years, which must have made procreation interesting. When he had something to say to his wife, he would use the young Jules Renard as go-between and whenever she entered the room he would pause in mid conversation until after she’d gone.  It is perhaps not surprising that Jules Renard, in contrast enjoyed a long and happy marriage with two children he affectionately mocked but adored. 

Reading through his journal is a delight, the bons mots interlarded with gossip, every day life, and the profound, most of them involving deaths in the family. But it's the pithy comments, some of them one liners that stick in the mind, and there are hundreds of them.

below are just a few examples and believe me, it was difficult to stop :


German, my favourite language in which to be silent.

To snore is to sleep at the top of one’s voice

While talking, he directs a quantity of spittle in my direction, almost a gob of spit. He does not wipe it off. Nor do I wipe it off. I avenge myself by not wiping it off, and has to keep on talking, his eye drawn unavoidably to the spittle. There is something between us after all.


A friend is like a suit of clothes. You must replace it before it becomes too worn. Otherwise, it is you who are replaced.

With all due respect for the Sermon on the Mount, if you thirst for righteousness, you will thirst forever

How monotonous snow would be if God had not invented crows

When they broke the news to a politician, ‘Your wife is dead,’ he replied: ‘Is that official?’

Solitude, a place where you can finally blow your nose with enthusiasm

Very pleased with myself for having noticed that, when a woman farts, she immediately coughs afterwards

She has teeth worth their weight in gold, literally

You could see through his beard how ugly he must have been without it

I thought you were dead. Oh, well, another time

Not only was he the master of the offhand put down, Renard was also a keen observer of life:

The rat is on the end of a branch, the cat is on the trunk. Neither moves. A rifle shot. The rat falls. The cat jumps, sniffs the air and moves off, impressed none the less by her own powers.


I complain of my lot, but I have just seen a small child with a wooden leg hitting the ground with all his might, in a rage because he could not keep up with the others. 

If Renard had any fault, other than his dislike of bananas, it was in his belief that French literature was the only literature worth speaking about. Heine, Dickens, and Thackeray, he consigned to the dustbin. Shakespeare, he found disappointing until, in 1906 he read Julius Caesar. A damascene moment. The Englishman, he concluded was ‘less literary. . . but more human than Victor Hugo; and that, whereas Hugo left us with an image burning in our mind, Shakespeare left us with the truth, the muscles and the blood of truth.’ Renard died four years later, his appreciation of Shakespeare perhaps proving too much for him.

I hope I have better luck, appreciating Renard.

Friday, 23 April 2021

Walking Through Invisible Worlds

A childhood treat was watching and then later participating in the making of a fire. First the cold ashes were raked out from under the grate, placed on two sheets of newspaper, rolled into a parcel and taken out to the bin. Kindling and more sheets of newspaper rolled up into balls were already at hand. These were placed in the hearth and dotted with small pieces of coal on top and around. The matches were lit and we’d ease back and watch as the first small flames appeared, reinforced by fresh sheets of the Liverpool Echo—one or two sheets kept in reserve.  

A sheet was placed in front of the fire with instant effect. Hot air sucked at the paper which had to be held with some firmness. ‘Drawing in the fire’ was the term, encouraging the fire to take hold. Gradually the paper browned. Timing was everything. Leave it too late and the paper would flame in your hands. The trick was judging the moment—release one end of the paper and in the same movement seize the poker and thrust paper and flame up the chimney.

A real coal fire made excellent toast, but the real magic didn’t involve toast. The real magic was staring into the flames and seeing strange patterns that turned to an alternative world. Later, the coal would settle into an intensely deep motley of black and grey, and varying shades of reds from salmon pink to ruby, flickers of crimson. I remember it sucking me in to magical kingdoms inhabited by fire-elves and sorcerous kings. 

In time all this was replaced by a modern tiled hearth and a three-bar electric fire. It made lousy toast and the magic vanished. For a time.

The thing is, in those pre-reading years, without TV or any kind of screen, long dark evenings were spent in front of the fire lost in strange patterns; the habit doesn’t die and as you grow older, you realise you walk through invisible worlds unless you know what to see.

In the sky, there are all manner of things.

A sky in Wyoming, a storm rolling in. Our tents didn't stay up 

In woods, especially so

And with thanks to two friends—even in gardens.

To my mind, sinister topiary. Once seen, it stays in the mind: a fusion of the Green Man and a crocodilian creature from the mythos of Cthulhu. It stalks the innocent with their drinks on the terrace. As twilight falls it edges closer. Sometimes I wonder whether by just saying it the invisible becomes real. But that would be the plot for a book. 

And often what isn't there is more fun so maybe it should be . . . and is.

A lake in Yosemite, some friends on a rock, but look down to the right - a pair of exposed buttocks or somebody's shoulder. You decide. 

Friday, 16 April 2021

Ancient Woodland

Along a lane we often walk, there’s a river on one side where sometimes otters play. On both sides of the lane are trees, the remains of ancient woodland. Recently, the owner of this woodland parcelled it into three acre lots and sold it. Being an unashamed nosey parker I took the first opportunity to quiz two of the new owners. It’s easily done. We passed them every day, coppicing and clearing unwanted trees. And the great thing about walking in country is that people are friendly, and everyone likes talking about themselves given half the chance.Or may be it's just me and it's why I have a blog  😎

        A compulsive viewing spot before girding our loins for the walk back home.

One of the men was in his seventies with 70k going spare and rather than blow it on a car he didn’t need or an even newer kitchen, he decided to buy three acres of land facing the river. His aim was to clear a small glade, plant wildflowers and create a viewing spot for himself and his wife. For a man in his seventies, he’s admirably energetic, thinning trees and planting more interesting but traditional alternatives. 

The second guy—on the other side of the road—was equally interesting. He is much more the committed woodsman, there virtually every day, chopping down unwanted trees. At first glance it looks like vandalism. In fact, it’s enlightened forestry work. 

The wood has overgrown, packed with sickly trees enjoying little light. A lot of the trees are unhealthy pine. His aim is to thin, thin, thin; allow sunlight in and, like his neighbour replant with traditional broad-leaf trees. 

This gives some indication of how sickly and light starved the trees are.

I loved his attention to detail, constructing a traditional woven fence marking his boundaries.

And below, you can see the next stage, planting along the edges for when the fence decays. 

Of course, it put me in mind of Annie Proulx’s Barskins. It also put me in mind of an article I read on Ruislip Woods, a small forest in London. It’s what remains of a vast forest that once stretched from London to Nottingham. The remnant is still large and has survived largely unchanged from medieval times.

The forest was given to Ernulf de Hesdin by Willliam the Conqueror but later came into the hands of the periodically insane Henry VI who gave it to King’s College Cambridge.  The great oaks of Ruislip were used in the building of the Tower of London, Windsor Castle and the Palace of Westminster. And something else, I learned. Hornbeams were planted amongst the oaks to make them grow straight and tall. Wonderful things, trees. The hornbeam grows more quickly than the oak, and so to claim their share of the light, the neighbouring oaks have to grow straight and tall to avoid missing out. Having done their job, the supple branches of the hornbeam were used in the making of fences. 

Things changed in 1914 when the Local Authority began the process of chopping it down to make way for 7,600 houses. But, luckily for the trees though not the luckless soldiers, World War I brought things to an abrupt halt and Ruislip Woods were saved. 

Having had such a narrow escape, King’s College sold the woods to the local authority in 1931 on the condition that no building would be allowed. The council were as good as their word, coppicing the woods on a 20-year cycle and cutting out unwanted species. And so, what you have is a forest of hornbeam and oak, one that a Norman, a thousand years ago, would recognise. 

Friday, 9 April 2021


I’ve just finished a wonderful book, Barkskins by Annie Proulx. It’s essentially a paean to a primeval wilderness, the once great Canadian forest. It’s a paean to trees in general, men coming out as both indomitable and grubby. The great despoilers. The book itself follows the James Michener-Centennial/Edward Rutherfurd Sarum pattern, ie tracing the story over generations. 

In this case, the story begins in 1693, two impoverished indentured  servants arriving at a remote river settlement in New France. Rene Sel has experience in cutting down trees, Charles Duquet has less going for him, a scrawny weakling from the Parisian slums, who during the long voyage was to be found folded up in a corner like a broken stick. 

On landing, they look for their new master.

‘Mosquitoes covered their hands and necks like fur. A man with yellow eyebrows pointed them at a rain-dark house. Mud, rain, biting insects and the odour of willows made the first impression of New France. The second impression was of dark vast forest, inimical wildness.’

These are the men who begin their first nibble at what they see as an inexhaustible supply of wood. Their employer is Trepagney who needs extra hands to cut down more trees. Dusk is descending and they follow him into the forest.

‘They plunged into the gloomy country, a dense hardwood forest broken by stands of pine

. . . In a few hours the sodden leaf mould gave way to pine duff. The air was intensely aromatic. Fallen needles muted their passage. The interlaced branches absorbed their panting breaths. Here grew hugeous trees of a size not seen in the old country for hundreds of years, evergreens taller than cathedrals, cloud piercing spruces and hemock. The monstrous deciduous trees stood distant from each other, but overhead their leaf-choked branches merged into a false sky, dark and savage.’

Within generations everything changes. Rene Sel marries a Mi'kmaq widow, his descendants half native half French. Through their eyes we see the relentless degradation of the native tribes in line with the destruction of the great forest. Charles Duquet on the other hand reveals a drive and cunning which leads to the foundation of the first great tree felling company. The despoliation of the wilderness and exploitation of natives and desperate immigrants that follows are seen through the eyes of his descendants, all of whom manifest his drive and cunning to different degrees. 

The prose is lyrical and dense, the characters subtly portrayed so that they stay in the mind. The immediate comparison must be Rutherford’s Sarum, which I enjoyed well enough, but there I was always aware of historical ‘set pieces’ like, for example, when the plague arrives. There is none of that predictability in Barskins, other than the relentless pressure on forest and those who originally lived there. These are replaced by new cities like Detroit as the drive for timber takes them further and further west, and throughout, you become increasingly angry at the vandalism and great waste - of both men and trees. 

 You also get a sense of the maritime tentacles of these new commercial empires, vignettes of China and the great Kauri trees of New Zealand that become the new field of gold for logging companies and missionaries. This for me was entirely new. I’d never heard of the Kauri before and the visual description of trying to fell them with a mere axe was breathtaking – understandable at a glance when you appreciate the size of the Kauri. 

Second in size only to Sequoia, reaching heights of nearly 200 feet. A thousand year old kauri is counted as young

The 42,000 year old Kauri allows an accurate analysis of the Earth's last magnetic field reversal.

So, in all, a great and satisfying book. Perhaps a Fu Manchu novel for my next read. 

Friday, 2 April 2021

ZEB2 What a waste

Lentil size mini brains grown in a petri dish had shed light on one of life’s great mysteries. Why are our minds greater than those of the great apes? A two-day window just after conception is the key and it involves the activity of a single gene. This one gene ensures that a certain type of stem cell keeps its cylindrical shape for that crucial forty-eight hours, forty-eight hours longer than in our nearest ape cousins. So, what’s in a shape? The answer is neurons. That cylindrical shaped stem cell is what’s called a ‘neural progenitor’ with the ability to split and create identical cells and the longer they multiply the more neurons created. After seven days, that initial neural progenitor loses its unique cylindrical shape along with its ability to multiply. The neural progenitor of the ape and chimp and for all I know the bonobo monkey loses the ability to multiply after just five days. Hence our significantly larger brains. Interesting trivia, but some things just stick in the mind—for which blame the gene ZEB2 that switches the neural progenitor off and on. 

Other than briefly pondering what this could mean for the future—apes subject to human tinkering—my butterfly mind (with all those extra neurons) fluttered to the next flower, a whole field full of trivia that sticks in the mind. 

Do you know, for example that humans possess genes connected to our salivary glands that could in theory be tweaked to produce venom?

That just two sausages a week increases the likelihood of a stroke,

That four glasses of red wine a week reduces cataracts by 25%

That coffee during pregnancy increases the likelihood of small babies. 

Eggs are good for you.

Eggs are bad for you.

Neurons wasted on this. I’m ashamed but find the nonsense hard to resist—especially this final ‘fact:’  A cold shower is almost as good as the gene ZEB2. It boosts memory and guards against Alzheimer’s (if you don’t suffer a heart attack first) stimulates the immune system, stimulates endorphins, serotonin all kind of wonderful happiness inducing things. Well, I’ve tried—or at least am in the process of trying. 

Normally, like most sensible people, I always make sure the shower head is some distance from my body until the water runs hot. Now, however, I boldly extend my arms into the cold. And its hell! Sod serotonin, and who needs a memory boost anyway? Even so, I grit my teeth and persevere. Today I extended a shoulder, tomorrow perhaps the second, and then who knows two shoulders at once. Then again maybe not. The neurons haven’t yet decided. The only thing I am certain about are the four glasses of wine, the possibility of avoiding cataracts merely a bonus.