Friday, 26 April 2013

Birds who play by the rules

Our department is moving to a new building soon and the thing I will miss most is watching the birds on the lawn and its surrounding shrubbery from my office window. I wrote about them here:


But the sound I will miss most is the herring gulls; I fear, although we are only moving a quarter of a mile away, our new location will be too far from the river Mersey for them. In his classic 1953 work, The Herring Gull’s World, the ethologist Niko Tinbergen wrote, ‘The voice of the herring gull is wonderfully melodious.’ I’m not sure I agree, but it is certainly characterful, and evocative of all our seaside summers past. Another fan of Larus argentatus is the Aberdeen resident Esther Woolfson, who writes about them in her new book, Field Notes from a Hidden City: An Urban Nature Diary. ‘Visible, audible, omnipresent, drifting endlessly in the sky above us, L. argentatus is another of the “urban exploiters” who seem numerous, safe in their very existence, but who aren’t,’ she writes. ‘Monogamous, capable of mutual recognition, of respecting their neighbours, living amicably with their partners, gulls are faithful to their homes, practise “site fidelity” and return to the same nest sites annually.’ In other words, gulls would be a far better symbol of uxuriousness than those supposed models of amorous fidelity, the doves, who are actually quite tarty.

In fact, if they were human, herring gulls would be model citizens in Cameron’s Britain. For they are the hardworking families, the strivers not the skivers, the birds who play by the rules and want to get on. Except, of course, when they swoop down and steal from your bag of chips with their beaks, as they have been known to do. Then they are part of our something for nothing culture.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Do not go to the ant

More on bugs. One of the best pieces about insects I’ve read is the ‘Contemplation upon Ants’ from John Stewart Collis’s wonderful The Worm Forgives the Plough (written during the war but not published until 1973), inspired by ploughing a field with a large number of ant-hills:

‘When I did pause, sometimes, to consider what I was doing on that field I could not fail to feel the enormity of my act. The shining blade crashed down through the centre of a city built up with skill and labour; the inhabitants were thrown into confusion; then another flash and crash of the blade, and another, till bits of the home were flying through the air … My power of destruction over this ant-world was really prodigious, as if a giant with legs the height of Snowdon and arms as long as the Sussex Downs were to throw London away in an hour or so.’

There then follows a little essay on the parallels that have been made between ants and men – their rigid hierarchies, waging of wars, keeping of slaves etc. - which concludes that these parallels are not, in fact, that useful:

‘Consciousness is the miracle of man. That is his whole significance, and the meaning of his imperfection, and his promise. Because it has broken in, because he does not possess it, then it will evolve in him as it has already done, it will go on evolving; this burden of apartness and semi-understanding which he often feels too heavy to bear, will be lifted; he will attain a higher state of consciousness and enter again into the unity that he has lost. He should not turn to the animals for directions. He should not go to the ant. He should fix his gaze steadily upon this human gift that makes him unique, and see in it, and the evolution of it, the key to all his set-backs and the meaning of all his suffering.’

But my favourite insect-contemplation piece is probably Virginia Woolf’s ‘The death of the moth’. One day in 1941, while she was reading in her study, Woolf spotted a moth fluttering frantically against a window pane, putting its body and soul into the effort and eventually dying of exhaustion. ‘Watching him, it seemed as if a fibre, very thin but pure, of the enormous energy of the world had been thrust into his frail and diminutive body,’ she wrote. It was as if someone had taken a tiny bead of pure life, and decking it as lightly as possible with down and feathers, had set it dancing and zig-zagging to show us the true nature of life … One's sympathies, of course, were all on the side of life. Also, when there was nobody to care or to know, this gigantic effort on the part of an insignificant little moth, against a power of such magnitude, to retain what no one else valued or desired to keep, moved one strangely.’

Woolf’s essay is a lovely meditation on the fragility of existence and the way that life counts for nothing but itself. But I have always wondered why she didn’t just open the window and let the moth out.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

A timeless love story

I wrote this for Saturday's Guardian:

“I like insects for their stupidity,” wrote the American author Annie Dillard in her book Teaching a Stone to Talk. “I hope we seem as endearingly stupid to God – bumbling down into lamps, running half-wit across the floor, banging for days at the hinge of an open door.” Even those of us who like insects, such as Dillard and myself, have to admit they don’t do themselves any favours. They are, with a few exceptions, irrefutably ugly and they do seem pretty stupid - or perhaps it is just that, since they live out their lives in near silence, they never make the point of their bumbling behaviour clear to us.

A new series of events at London’s Wellcome Collection, titled “Who’s the Pest?”, aims to make us look anew at these disparaged but actually quite indispensable creatures, who pollinate our flowers, turn waste matter into fertile soil and, if we could just get over a bit of cultural conditioning that makes the thought of eating them revolting, are the most reliable and sustainable protein source on the planet. The Welcome Collection’s programme of events includes “a gastronomic evening of insect appreciation” at which insect canapĂ©s will be served. The whole series aims to explore the “entwined, co-dependent and timeless love story between humans and insects”.

Love story may be pushing it a bit. In human imaginings, insects have mainly been used as a metaphor for futility and insignificance. “God in his wisdom invented the fly,” wrote Ogden Nash, “and then forgot to tell us why.” The insects of the Australian jungle on I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, eaten in bushtucker trials or dumped en masse on ex-soap stars and celebrity chefs, suffer an extreme version of this centuries-long condescension and revulsion.

It is true we have always reserved a grudging respect for the Hymenoptera, the insects like bees and ants that build elaborate nests and form social groups. Ever since Plato, who admired the way ants could lead such complex social existences without need of the philosophical meaning-making that he considered a condition of human life, we have been fascinated by the tiny, self-contained universes these insects create. Virgil looked inside a beehive and saw a little model of Roman society, “the marvellous spectacle of a tiny world and great-hearted leaders”. But this respect for the efficient hierarchies of ants and bees has usually been accompanied by a feeling that there is something alien and soulless about their overly structured lives. “Still we live meanly, like ants,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in Walden. “Our life is frittered away by detail.”

There are, however, signs that we are learning to pay more attention to insects, as more of us recognise that without them, the world’s ecosystems would collapse. This growing awareness is partly thanks to the charity Buglife, which has just begun a project to create “living roofs”, transforming the tops of urban buildings into wildflower meadows to provide havens for insects. A recent series on BBC4, Alien Nation, was devoted entirely to the insect world. It included a jaw-dropping programme, Planet Ant, which recreated a million-strong colony of leafcutter ants at the Glasgow Science Centre, in specially designed tunnels that allowed cameras to see inside. Within weeks, the colony had built a whole working metropolis, with everything from ant crèches to ant graveyards. Ants do not live quite as meanly as Thoreau thought. The study of the application of ant behaviour to human society – so-called ant-colony optimisation – is a growing field, used to work out things like traffic flow, the efficient delivery of goods and the positioning of emergency exits in buildings.

We are starting to realise that insects are pivotal to our lives, not something to be noticed only irritatedly as we squirt them with fly spray or swot them away. Our ignorance and dismissal of them is part of the universal human urge to step over the things commonest and closest to us, to ignore the unglamorous and ubiquitous in favour of the rare and beautiful. It says more about us than it does about them.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Deadlines whooshing by

Many of our students’ assignments are now submitted online: the deadline is usually 11.59pm on the final day of submission. If you’re a tutor, you can go on to our ‘virtual learning environment’ and track the timing of these submissions. It’s an interesting read for an anthropologist of everyday life: mass behaviour made visible. There is always a small straggle of people who submit well before the deadline. Then the mass submission gradually picks up speed and strength on the final day, like a Tsunami wave, until critical mass is finally achieved around 11pm – although the number of students submitting around 11.59pm is, you may or may not be astonished to learn, still quite large. Nothing wrong with that: they still made the deadline and are only demonstrating that universal human trait, known as ‘leaving things to the last minute’, probably first exhibited by that hunter-gathering alpha male who was given a strict deadline of sundown to come back to the cave with something to eat.

‘I love deadlines,’ said the famously procrastinating author Douglas Adams. ‘I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.’ Most people need some kind of deadline to concentrate the mind. For the writers on the 1960s satirical TV show That Was the Week, That Was, it was the ticking meter of a taxi cab outside the door. ‘Willis [Hall] and I tended to write our TW3 sketch at the last minute on Friday morning, when the BBC would send round a taxi to whisk it over to Lime Grove for the cast to learn and rehearse for the following evening,’ recalled the late Keith Waterhouse. ‘Sometimes, if inspiration faltered, we would hear the cab meter remorselessly ticking away in the street below even as we wrestled with the final lines. The fashion at the time for sketches without blackout punchlines was put down to the influence of Beyond the Fringe; I am inclined to think it was often more to do with the impatient presence of a cab at the door.’

I have never missed a deadline in my life. It is part of my suffocating eagerness to please. The trouble is, there is always another deadline to replace the one you just made. Sometimes my life feels like one long essay crisis. The modern, managerialist university has no memory: the deadline you just made is replaced by another set of hurdles to leap over. I guess this is how capitalism works: slash and burn, endless, limitless growth. Everyone in universities is now worrying about the looming deadline for the REF [the Research Excellence Framework]. But that will come and go, to be replaced by Year Zero and another set of deadlines. No doubt I will meet all of those as well - like the good, well-behaved, docile little boy that I am.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

An address to politicians

I found this ‘address to politicians’ in the third issue of the underground magazine, Oz, dated May 1967:

‘First to you who are currently successful: you who made it mouthing phony, ill-written, unutterably boring, lying, arse-licking speeches. Lend an unctuous ear – it may prove expedient.

And you out of office need not look so pious. Sincerity, sensitivity or honesty did not cost you election. Had you possessed any of these qualities you would never have stood. Only the scum of a society could bother to fashion a career so ruthlessly opportunist, so intellectually parasitic, so spiritually unrewarding.

Platitudes. This indignation doesn’t bruise your egotism, this rage prompts no self-assessment, nor costs you votes. Philosophers, poets, authors, dramatists, artists and tele-pundits have interminably exposed the vileness of your methods, the sordidness of your ambitions. The masses, whom you despise, hold your profession beneath contempt.

And still you survive.

You think that Parliament is the greatest institution in the world. Parliament! Parliament: bloated with fat, pompous, dying alcoholics who babble on with: here, here, honourable member, procedural motions, precious amendments, last ditch filibustering … Parliament: the gulch parting promise from achievement.’

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Consider what value, what meaning is enclosed even in the smallest of our daily habits, in the hundred possessions which even the poorest beggar owns: a handkerchief, an old letter, the photo of a cherished person. These things are part of us, almost like limbs of our body; nor is it conceivable that we can be deprived of them in our world, for we immediately find others to substitute the old ones, other objects which are ours in their personification and evocation of our memories.’ – Primo Levi, If This Is A Man