20 June, 2014

Bird Brain!

One of the many design modifications
My back garden has in recent days witnessed something of a stand off and mounting tensions reminiscent of Cold War Berlin when Russian and American troops faced each other each day at Checkpoint Charlie. If any of the neighbours have watched the goings on they will, I expect, have been on occasions both confused, amused and intrigued as how it will all end. For me what began as an amusing episode has become something of a tussle in which my very manhood is at stake! One of my defining characteristics is, I am told, that I never give in – I will not be beaten. If we have a problem then I will work away at it until I find a solution – it may not be the expert’s solution or even the best answer, but it is my solution. I will happily lie in bed at night wondering how I might approach the problem in order to resolve it. I am, in short, and as my wife has many times reminded me, a typical Taurean, both persistent and stubborn. She may well be right but in some ways it is an almost primeval desire to prove my very masculinity. And, I suppose, that as I have got older and in small ways become a little more limited in what I can do – go for a long walk, lift heavy loads, run to catch the bus, climb ladders – it becomes increasingly important to me that I am able to prove myself and my worth in the smaller things of life.

I'll get to those nuts somehow - and he did!
One leg holds the tray one leg holds one of
my deterrent screws!
Well, over the past few weeks a battle has developed in my back garden with an equally persistent, stubborn and determined foe – the neighbourhood pigeon! What began as a minor and amusing irritation has developed into the situation where we both – the pigeon and I – like enemy soldiers stand in our respective trenches looking across no-man's land  glare at each other. I glower through the window, he sits on the garage roof or the lawn and eye balls me back. Both of us are equally determined that we will each prevail in the end. Both unwavering in our belief that our respective manhoods triumph. Let me explain!

We have in our garden a bird table and hanging from it a bird feeder which we regularly fill with nuts and seeds. It is visited by a variety of birds – nothing extravagant just ordinary garden birds – sparrows, a couple of robins, blue tits and so on. In recent weeks the local pigeon has begun to take an interest in it and slowly but surely he has taken it over. He’s  far too big to access the roofed bird table, he devours the nuts and bread that we throw on the lawn and has now turned his attention to the bird feeder. Because of his huge size  if he tries to land on the feeder it swings like some deranged pendulum and he has to twist himself into all sorts of positions to access the nuts. But, not to be beaten, and as the days and weeks have passed, like a well drilled SAS officer he has honed his skills and can now cling on precariously for hour after hour while he empties the feeder completely of its nuts and seeds. He leaves nothing for the smaller birds and his size prevents others of his smaller brethren using the feeder as he sits and gobbles. When the feeder is empty, like some lumbering, overweight behemoth flaps his wings to struggle slowly into the air – like a heavily laden B47 bomber his hold filled.

And I'll use my wings to help!
This, we decided, had to stop. We had no objection to the pigeons, or this pigeon in particular, enjoying the food but being fair minded people thought they too ought to share the nuts with their lesser brethren. A way had to be found of making it just a little more difficult for him to access the feeder whilst still allowing the smaller birds free range. That is the nature of my battle with the wild life of the village!

The passing days have seen me plan and execute a number of design modifications to the feeder – each one calculated to counteract the latest pigeon strategy. First I put Velcro around the cylinder in which the nuts and seeds are held. The Velcro had some short screws protruding out of it to gently prod the pigeon in his huge flank as he clung onto the feeding tray at the bottom of the feeder. This plan didn’t work – he simply used his body mass to push the screws out of the way. Something more brutal and solid was needed. So next, used the drainage holes in feeder tray to insert short screws to put him off landing. This failed miserably – he completely ignored them. Even though each time he left the feeder he also left a few feathers - he was obviously quite happy to sacrifice  these to fill his belly.  I drilled the feeding tray and inserted long nails, my reasoning being that these would surely put him off landing  whilst but still allow smaller birds to land. If he did alight on the feeder, I reasoned, the nails would give him a sharp reminder of where he was. It had a small success but temporary only. He soon learned to calculate exactly where to land in order to minimise the impact of the nails. He could also now stand one footed on the rim of the feeding tray and use his other foot as a counterbalance holding onto one of my deadly nails! That incensed me – I became convinced he was  having a laugh at my expense! Clearly this called for a further refinement so I added more nails. In response he became more skilful yet and I swear sat and mocked me as I peered out of the kitchen window! There was a limit to how many nails I could insert if other birds were still to use the feeder – another plan was needed.
See - I can get past any security you put up

After a few nights lying awake at night pondering my next plan a trip to the local DIY store was undertaken. I came back with what I thought was my master stroke, something that would surely win the battle – some very long bolts and a metal ring that would enclose the cylinder and prevent a large bird like him getting close to the seed. I sat at our garden table constructing my metal cage and fitting it to the feeder. He sat on my garage roof watching and nodding his head as he worked out his strategy. At last it was finished. Initially it was successful – it certainly prevented him landing easily and undoubtedly made it more difficult but by the time that I woke next morning and stood in the kitchen making the first cup of tea of the day he had cracked it – he perched regally, his legs spread eagled over two of the bolts, his head twisted under him as he thrust his beak into the seed tray. It was at this point that I resorted to banging on the window and running outside in my dressing gown. He merely rose majestically up to the garage roof and looked down at me savouring his victory. Had I had a shot gun at that point I might have used it!

And I'll invite my friend for lunch - just to raise
your blood pressure even more
Observation and scientific analysis of his feeding habits were called for. Clearly, I was making it more difficult for him and equally clearly, whatever I did must be done so that other birds were not prevented from enjoying the food. Slowly but surely a plan emerged. All that I had done so far was useful but something else was needed. After a few days of watching it hit me – a kind of net that would allow small birds through but prevent this particular bird getting his beak to the nuts. Next morning I sat at my garden table with string, super glue and scissors. I was ready this time. I knew that I might have to adapt and refine it because I already knew my enemy and he knew me. –I knew he would find a way through. When my net parasol was complete I put up the feeder. He sat there watching and shaking his head. True to form he was soon at it. It didn’t take him very long to find a way through. He was not fazed by having to put his head through a network of string and although I might shake my head in anger and frustration I had to admire the sheer grit, determination and bravery of my adversary. We were, I felt, beginning to develop a mutual respect for each other. I continued to watch him. By watching carefully which bits he used to put his head through I slowly developed a plan for improving the network. It took three more  refinements and the substitution of garden wire for string but now it seemed to work. He still fluttered on, but so far he was, for the most part defeated. He glared in obvious frustration and anger when he saw smaller birds hop on and feed happily while he sat on the lawn below, forced and humiliated by to pick up their dropped seeds. As I peered through the window, a small smile on my face he glared back – obviously planning his next move. Whoever coined the phrase “bird brain” to describe someone who is rather stupid could not have been more wrong – this particular bird might exasperate and infuriate me but I cannot but respect his ability to solve a problem and develop his skills.
And now I'll just sit and eye ball you while my
dinner digests!

The grudging respect that we have developed for each other means that I now throw seeds on the grass for him – he can compete there with the rest of the birds. He gobbles them up but all the time keeping a watchful eye on the full feeder swinging tantalisingly above his head. I don’t know what curses pigeons use but I’m pretty sure he is cursing me. I might feel smug at my “success” such as it is, but the battle is not, I know, over. I may have temporarily beaten him but even as I write this I can see him hanging upside down clinging to the wire network which is supposed to deter him as he stretches to find a weak spot and an access so that he can nibble at the few seeds that smaller birds have left in the tray at the bottom of the feeder. Earlier, I watched as he squeezed himself under the network in a vain effort to get to one of the bottom feeding holes – I cannot fault his perseverance. He will, I am sure, like a determined terrorist eventually find a way through my latest security systems  and added to that I know that what I have created is not the finished article. The  net will, in time, rot and lose its tension and I know that he will be back even more determined to exploit any weak links in the system. I’m already planning my next refinement and have a plan which I will put into operation after my next visit to the DIY store. And I know that he will be waiting to test it out. I may have won this battle but I know that I haven’t won the war! I have a very formidable foe!

08 June, 2014

Out of Date, Irrelevant and Faded "Tat"

The  Queen's Speech
(photo: Carl Court/AFP)      
After the State Opening of Parliament (which took place a couple of days ago) there was much reporting on the event – the Queen’s Speech, the government’s proposals for the next year of their administration, the “fainting” of a page boy, the grandeur of the ceremony and so on. It’s always a magnificent window on Britain and its traditions, the nation’s history and most importantly the unique British parliamentary balancing act of monarchy and democracy. Even a staunch anti monarchist like myself cannot help but be stirred by the grandness of the occasion and the historical and democratic significance of the various ceremonies and rituals.  When Black Rod, for example, summons the Members of Parliament  to attend the Queen’s Speech  he approaches the doors to the chamber of the House of Commons which are then slammed in his face to symbolize the Commons' independence of the Sovereign. He then strikes the door three times with his staff, and is admitted to issue the summons of the monarch. This ritual is derived from the attempt by King Charles I to arrest the Five Members in 1642, in what was seen as a breach of the constitution. This and prior actions of the King had led to the Civil War. After that incident, the House of Commons has maintained its right to question the right of the monarch's representative to enter their chamber, though they cannot bar him from entering with lawful authority. Theatre this might be, but it is important theatre – and, I suppose, every nation must have similar little bits of ritual that go the very heart of their nationhood and parliamentary system.

However, amongst the many press  photographs of the day one stood out – for all the wrong reasons.  It was of a group of Lords and Ladies in their full regalia. When I gazed at it I sank into depression. The Ladies Sharples, Rawlings, Trumpington, Lawrence and the Lords Grade and Howe looked totally misplaced – indeed, their largely vacant faces, shambling appearance and general decrepitude made them look  “past it” and “seedy”.  These were members of the House of Lords, the “Upper Chamber”, the “Second House” – the people who ultimately vet and approve the bills and laws proposed by the elected government. They are in a way the guardians of the nation’s conscience and democracy. They are too, by default, amongst the shakers and movers of society – there because of their good deeds, their past record, their alleged wisdom. Sadly, however, they looked like escapees from some care home. In the society of twenty first century Britain who are these people? I asked myself. Only Lady Lawrence looked of this life - and she clutched her mobile phone - telling indictment of our times.  Like an overdressed tourist she stands apparently sending a text message in this one of the most sacred and magisterial events in our nation’s democratic calendar. Sadly the whole scene was a grotesque snapshot of all that is wrong with the Second Chamber and, indeed much of the governance of the country.
The noble Lords and Ladies of the Upper Chamber (L-R): Lady Sharples, Lady Rawlings, Lady Trumpington,
Lord Grade, Lady Lawrence, Lord Howe (photo: Carl Court/AFP)                  

It is critical that we have a “Second Chamber” – possibly in this day and age more important than ever before. Extremist political views, lobbying,  the impact of global politics, big business and the potential influence of the media and technology are all anxious to nibble away at our elected representatives. A Senate, or in our case, the Lords fulfils a critical function in curbing excess and bringing a longer term vision to simple party politics. Clearly, the members of that Second Chamber must also be people who by their actions, thoughts, words, experiences and beliefs  be able to fulfil this important task. What I saw in the photograph was a group of largely senior citizens who might indeed once have been the glitterati of national life but now looked slightly confused at where they were and what they were about.  I wondered how representative they were of our society – I don’t mean representative in the sense of racial or gender mix but rather how representative they are of the feelings, emotions, aspirations, hopes, fears, needs and way of life of the sixty million or so people that inhabit this tiny island. Yes, I am sure that they have all done much good in their lives and I am sure that the counsel of Lady Lawrence (mother of the teenager Stephen Lawrence who was brutally murdered some years ago in a savage racist attack) or of Lord Howe (a man who has held many of the great Offices of State) would be immensely valuable and wisdom not to be lost. But to be at all relevant, the qualification for membership of  Upper Chamber,  seems to me to be not past good deeds or longevity.  It is, rather, that the members are able to understand and be in tune with the aspirations of the nation. Yes, there might be a need for older members , but there is, too, a greater need  for  people who are understanding of the workings of society, the economy, politics, business and all the rest work in the United Kingdom of today. The House of Lords must, above all things be relevant – not a club for senior citizens who once did the nation some service. And, since today we live in a more open and transparent society where the press  and  24 hour news reports and shows all that is happening in the Chamber and what the members are saying, it must be seen to be relevant. In the State Opening of Parliament there was much wonderful history and tradition which is part of our heritage and which helps bind us as a nation – but the way that the Lords is composed, how it conducts itself, how it and its members  presents themselves and especially the photograph that I saw makes it look  irrelevant and a mockery. There are many more critical reasons why politicians today are viewed with cynicism and why the electorate are becoming increasingly apathetic, but the irrelevance and perceived lack of reality in their Lordships should not be easily dismissed.

If I’m pushed to it and wearing my “religious hat” I might applaud the fact that the Bishops of the Church of England all sit in the House of Lords – yes, all 26 of them - and are known as the Lords Spiritual. (They read prayers at the start of each daily meeting and play an active role in the work of the Upper House). Even in modern, multicultural Britain I might accept that a strong Christian input is vital to the work and decisions of the Upper Chamber. In the social tapestry of 21st century Britain. I might find it difficult to  defend on grounds of relevance, democracy, good governance, common sense or any other given criteria. But I will live with it and accept that, maybe, someone greater than I can see its value.

But there are other aspects epitomised in the photograph that I cannot accept. I read yesterday that one of the Ladies in the photograph – Lady Rawlings - has been criticised for her bizarre comments  about how “the poor” should cope with their predicament (this, in austerity Britain, a country with one of the most unequal societies on the world – a fact that politicians of all persuasions agree on).  Her comments were not only  staggering but offensive. That this woman should be one of those we are supposed to admire, respect and look up to – for after all she is a “Lady” and a member of the nation’s  highest political chamber, the House of Lords – says much with how out of touch the Second Chamber is.

Black Rod demands entry to the
Commons to summon MPs to hear
the Queen's Speech
(photo: Carl Court/AFP)      
Amongst the good Lady’s suggestion for “the poor” in these hard times are: that the poor should keep the crusts from their toast to dip into their boiled eggs on the following days. And, when they have guests for dinner the table should be arranged so that guests can help themselves to the lobster rather than giving it to them on a plate. This will cut down on waste and so be cheaper and more economic/eco-friendly. If you do that, says Lady Rawlings you “....won’t be left scraping luscious lobster into the bin.” Oh, and another good bit of advice from the Lady who lives in a 13-bedroom mansion set in 38 acres near the Queens house at Sandringham, Norfolk is that people should “Grow their own apples, pears and quinces........” Lady Rawlings has previous “form” in matters like this. A few months ago, at the height of winter when there was much concern that old people might not have enough money to keep their homes warm she made the helpful suggestion that instead of heating the home they should plug in their electric blanket and wrap it round them – this would be much cheaper that heating a whole house. Well, I suppose there is a sort of logic to that.

And another of the pictured Baronesses, the Lady Sharples,  was widely reported for using her handbag on a cyclist passing her outside the House of Lords. He had, allegedly, jumped a red light and nearly knocked the 84 year old over. Describing the incident, she said: "I had a bag and I swiped him. I did not hit him hard enough. They are a ruddy nuisance.”

Now, many cheered her bravado and perhaps this is all good knock about stuff but the worrying thing is that she then raised the matter in the Upper Chamber. She asked the government's transport spokesman: "Can the Minister say whether I am within my rights when, at a pedestrian crossing, a cyclist rides straight at me when I have the lights in my favour?.....I swiped one with a bag the other day. Would I be in trouble?"  is this what the Upper House is for? Is this why we pay huge amounts of money to subsidise the little personal foibles, prejudices, adventures and experiences of the noble Lords and Ladies? I think not. Does it show off our government at its best? Does it make them appear relevant, worthwhile and important to the nation on the eyes of the electorate? I think not.

I read these little tales and look at the photograph and think to myself how divided we are as a society. Do we need any more evidence of the unequal society? How can an Upper Chamber composed of people like the Ladies Rawlings and Sharples conceivably understand the life and needs of the pensioner living in a tower block unable to get out because the lifts do not work; how can they really get to grips with the fact that the parents with the handicapped child who requires full time care are finding it very difficult to afford “luscious lobster”; how can they comprehend the parents on zero hours, minimum wage contracts for whom the advice on toast crusts and eggs will be largely irrelevant because they can’t afford bread and eggs in the same week? But still the noble Ladies will don their ermine gowns,  live pampered in their mansions and every so often travel, all expenses paid, to sit in judgement and graciousness in the Upper Chamber quite oblivious to most of 21st century Britain.  

A bit of ceremony, tradition and heritage
(photo: Carl Court/AFP)      
Like a real life version of Dickens’  Marquis St. Evrémonde  in A Tale of Two Cities  Lady Sharples sees it as her right to injure a peasant of whom she disapproves and  she feels has wronged her. Like a modern version of Marie Antoinette  telling the poor to eat cake when they have no bread Lady Rawlings advises “the poor” how they should live their lives – and then both Ladies continue to draw their expenses for attending the House, mix with other Lords and Ladies, sip the wine, enjoy the lobster and believe all is well with the world. But, since we all know what happened to the  Marquis St. Evrémonde and  Marie Antoinette. Just maybe, the Lords needs to look at itself.

In writing this, the words of Mabel Layton in Paul Scott’s  great series of books on the last days of the British Empire in India, The Raj Quartet,  came back to me. It is 1944 and Mabel, the widow of the ex-commander of the Pankot regiment is at a family wedding. She is  standing in the Officer’s Mess at Pankot. She  looks around at the fading battle flags, the antique silverware and mahogany. It is the final months of the Second World War and the British Raj in India is in its death throes. Mabel has not visited the Mess for many years – when her husband died she became somewhat of a recluse mainly because as a younger woman she had incurred the wrath of the Raj military and social elite of Pankot when following the Amritsar massacre by Brigadier Dyer at Jallianwala Bagh in 1919 she had secretly made donations to the victims of the massacre in the local Sikh population. Mabel knew there was something profoundly wrong with the Raj and the way that it clung to the past rather than moved India forward to its future as an independent nation. As she stands there taking in the faded glory and outdated, prejudiced atmosphere and behaviour she turns and says to her friend “I thought there might have been changes, but there aren’t. It’s all exactly the same as when I first saw it more than forty years ago. I can’t even be angry. But someone ought to be.”  To a small degree that was how I felt when I looked at the photograph of the Lords and Ladies and thought about the prejudiced comments by Lady Sharples and Lady Rawlings.
Mabel Layton (played by Fabia Drake) as she was
depicted in the TV version of The Jewel in the Crown

History, tradition and theatre can and should be wonderful and vital to the dignity and soul of a nation. There is nothing wrong with ritual, tradition, history, heritage, theatre and the rest but it must not prevent the institution being vibrant, up to date, relevant and dynamic. What was in the photograph was just faded “tat” and the out of date utterances and behaviour  of the  Ladies Rawlings and Sharples  both prejudiced and offensive. To use two 21st century clichés  the Upper House is “not fit for purpose” and many of those who inhabit it bring it “into disrepute”.  That we have not developed a Parliament and Upper House which retains the heritage, the tradition and theatre but at the same time reflects the times and the nation in all its many facets is a sad indictment of our governance and society. As Mabel Layton said of the Officers’ Mess “Someone ought to be angry”.