The Third Kingdom

What is it?

It’s an alien growing out of a dead tree-stump. Not animal or plant. I spotted it on New Walk.

New walk has a strange history: it was constructed along the riverside, a mile or so outside town, with no obvious origin or destination. Its purpose was solely to enable grand, Regency types to promenade of a warm evening and show off their finery. So it was basically a glorified catwalk (or runway, if you’re from the USA.)

It was planted with stately horse-chestnut trees of which this, in the picture, was once one. Most of the rest are still thriving, and the path has since been extended all the way to Skeldergate Bridge to the north and beyond our allotments to the south. So it’s basically my walk into town – which is why bits of it feature on this blog so often.

This time of year and the next month or so are the best for spotting fungi of both the edible and inedible sort. Telling the former from the latter is a black art mostly lost to us Brits. But some of us are married to Central or Eastern Europeans, so we get to cheat a bit. We get our other half coming home from ‘a quick bike-ride’ with things like this little lot:

(The egg-box is for scale)

Peeled and stewed, Boletus Mushrooms are great with gently-fried onions and mashed spuds. They have, ounce-for-ounce, a protein content that’s not far shy of the best steak.

And our Unidentified Fungal Objects at the top of this post? Apparently they’re Dryad’s Saddle – at least, according to the first answer to my query to The Facebook Hive-Mind. And they’re edible, but not once they get as huge and tough as the one in the picture…

Unless, of course, you know different.

10 things I love (and 3 I do not) about Fulford Show

10 things…

  1. Walking there from our house – so no battling with Bank Holiday traffic!
  2. Early morning mist on the expanse of field as we get there first thing to help put up the stalls and gazebos
  3. Being one of the few ‘veterans’ who knows how to put up an old-style gazebo! Getting all the numbered poles in order, and raising the edifice in such a way that its legs don’t drop off at the crucial moment is a Black Art.
  4. Bacon butties and coffee for helping
  5. The queue at the Social Hall door: people carrying everything from giant beetroots (complete with leaves) to bottles of wine, floral displays and model castles. I have to get there with our wine and fruit before the doors ‘close for judging’ at ten – it’s almost apocalyptic.
  6. Fulford Community Orchard stall – I generally put my name down on the rota for the whole day. The produce we sell there – jams, chutneys, cake and cards with arty pictures of the trees in all seasons – helps pay for tree maintenance and insurance. Barry brings his apple-press and we hand out juice to the kids, who always want to know how the almost steampunk-looking device works.
  7. The other stalls! We take turns away from our own stall to amble around. I’ve bought some amazing (and very cheap) things over the years: big planters, winter pyjamas, an entire set of bed-linen – deep purple with a design of cursive letters (for £1), lego Vikings, numerous books and even a book-case. One year someone came selling nothing but root ginger. We bought enough to keep us in stir-fries for months.
  8. The actual ‘show’ part: seeing everyone else’s beautifully-crafted work, seeing if Dee or Azzie have won in the Jam (‘Have you got your jam ready? Let Midsomer Murders commence!’) and finding out what I’ve won for my wine. It always wins something because so few folk enter wine. It’s a bit of a cheat, really, but it’s nice to say ‘my prize-winning wine’…
  9. The ‘auction’ – well it’s a bit more like a free-for-all. Everyone has the chance to buy any exhibits that haven’t been ‘reserved’ in advance. I’m afraid I reserve our wine, but not the fruit or veg.
  10. The takings! For our stall these help keep the Orchard going for another year. For the show as a whole, they keep the whole thing on the road – the show pays for itself.

3 things…

  1. Taking down the gazebos – it means it’s all over for another year. Worse still if it’s raining and they’re all sodden wet.
  2. Weather lottery! We’ve sweltered in 30 degree heat (and none of us was used to it), and braved freezing squalls. Some August Bank Holidays it’s blowing enough for a poorly-anchored tent to get airborne. More than one year we’ve been in pouring rain – not too terrible by itself, but grievous if it’s also windy and you’re having to wrestle putting up the gazebo ‘sides’ before everything gets wet. But then, at least it’s something to boast about afterwards.
  3. The field is silent this year, and I’m at home. The Social Hall is locked and empty – I checked, moved by that strange way you think that if you return to a place where you once lived, then you’ll also go back in time to the years you lived there. Or just in case someone had decided to go ahead with a few informal stalls anyway. I have no idea how long a tradition the show is, but I like to think it’s one of those things that ‘Hitler couldn’t stop’ back in the day. We even had a Spitfire flyover last year, for the 75th anniversary of the D-Day Landings. But this year, Plague has done what War has never managed. It makes sense to hold off at the moment, but it’s too sad. To cap it all, Barry – our apple expert and Custodian of the Press – passed away in March. Of a heart attack – not Covid. He always was a one-off. We have a bottle of his home-made cider waiting in the kitchen. This evening we’ll drink to his memory, and to the Return of Fulford Show.

For forty days…

Saint Swithin’s Day, if thou dost rain

For forty days it shall remain.

Saint Swithin’s day, if thou be fair

For forty days ’twill rain nae mair.

trad

A quick count finds that we’ve now come to the end of those forty days. How did St Swithin’s prediction do? Well, on 15th July it rained for some of the day – and for the last forty days it has, indeed, rained on some of the days! A prediction like that can’t go wrong, really, can it?

But to the point.

Rain on St Swithin’s day is supposed to ‘christen the apples’ – though my bet is this particular piece of lore pre-dates Christianity by quite some time.

They don’t seem to have done too badly.

Neither do these:

Our pears don’t seem to want to be out-done, either. This is the same pear-tree which, all those years ago during ‘The Year-Long Lunch Break’ – my first ever blog – was the beneficiary of ‘the Sporting Chance School of Gardening‘, also known as my tendency not to bother digging up a plant and chucking it on the off-chance that it might come good. That was over ten years ago. This is now:

The tomato plants, from Lockdown times, are giving us our first toms ever. I think the secret is to have them near enough to the back door that you can water them in your slippers, and pick them as soon as they are ripe!

Finally here are some pretty calendulas. Just because.

The Plot: Late summer

Late summer – that is, from about now – has a scent all its own. I’ve no idea why, but it always makes me think of Scotland. The heatwave is over; everything has its energy and is no longer thirsty. There’s petrichor – the smell of rain on dry earth – but even that isn’t the whole of it. There’s pine, grass; a spot of night. Where we live, the first day of August brings the first proper night that isn’t just Astronomical Twilight.

And the Plot, bless it, begins to Produce.

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Last year I bought beans in a Hungarian market. Like an idiot I put them in the fridge rather than do the correct thing and hang them up to dry. They went manky but I couldn’t bear to sling them so I planted them anyway (this is what’s known, in our house, as the Sporting Chance School of Gardening). And some came good! Here they are, in all their puce-speckled glory. They’ve been joined by some half-a-dozen more now, which are all being kept to sow for a proper crop next year.

And now, meet our first potato:

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Yes that’s a life-size hand, and quite a large one (mine).

Here’s the first celeriac we’ve ever sucessfully grown:

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And finally, here’s one of the 20 or so Kale plants which, when in their tiny pots, I thought had all been eaten by slugs, but planted the little sticks out anyway:

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Our plot is surrounded by brambles. They’re a nuisance to keep in check but this year they’ve given us nearly three kilos of blackberries. Just the right quantity for a batch of dark red wine…

Back to the Plot…

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Here’s one of the last of our Globe Artichokes. The patch – about 4 square metres – produces a couple of dozen of these beauties every year. We eat them French style: saw off the bottom, cut off the top, sharp spikes of each leaf (I use sturdy scissors for this), and steam for 40 minutes or so. Then each leaf can be peeled off and the inner side has a nutty-tasting soft bit that you can pull off with your teeth! Having eaten all those, and peeled off a sort of hairy top-knot inside, you get to the heart. Mmm…

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The Radishes are also ready now: here are our first few. We may have left these in the ground too long: they certainly have ‘character’!

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Runner beans are taking over – they’re even outgrowing the bindweed! (You might be able to see it there – in the lower right-hand corner by the poppy-head.)

The plot can look a bit bedraggled now the first flush of green has had a few weeks of summer weather thrown at it, but to us that just means it’s ‘wildlife-friendly’!

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Wildlife, though, are the reason we have to spread nets over the purple spouting broccoli. If we didn’t, the greedy wood-pigeons would have the lot.

Finally, here is part of last week’s harvest:

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The path not taken

“That Rich,” scoffed Nathan as he turned to his wife, “is a freaking Narcissist.” He scowled, waiting for confirmation about the President’s mental health.

“Yes, dear.” His wife didn’t take her eyes off the T.V.

Sam and Olivia burst in, home from school.

“Hang your masks up on the hooks, SamAnOllie, and go wash your hands.”

The children pulled off their RichMasks, decorated with the flag and the slogan “We’re All Rich!”, and disappeared to the cloakroom. Strains of the world’s hardest-to-sing national anthem came, as they made sure to count the full twenty seconds.

The President’s speech continued:

“Today I announce zero deaths this month. Zero. Zero deaths total since the first case, and zero new cases. Aren’t they beautiful, those zeros? Aren’t they the best? And all because of my team.”

He threw a big, clumsy arm round the slight, bespectacled figure beside him. He patted the sheepish cheek with the other hand, knocking the glasses askew. The face behind the glasses blushed.

“Dr F. He’s the best Scientific Adviser. And I chose him – y’know that? Other people said, ‘Don’t pick him, he’s only worked on African viruses.’ But I ignored them. So it’s all down to me. I let him get on with his work like no-one else; I told him. When he came to me needing money for masks, PPE; PatriotTrace, I organised it. I told the Treasury Secretary – she’s the best, by the way, a real cutie – I said ‘Get the guy the money; get him all the loot he needs,’ and she did it because she always listens to me – she’s got brains. I like brains. I like a woman who can handle figures – know what I mean?”

“What’s for supper?”

“I’m cooking tonight.” Nathan rose from the couch and flipped the T.V. off. “Pizza.”

“Pizza’s unhealthy. They said so at school. President Rich wants us to eat healthy.”

“And salad. From the veg box.”

The veg box, delivered twice a week and adorned with the obligatory flag and slogan, had become an object of contention in the family. The kids loved the novelty, but their parents said it ‘made us look like we were poor. And anyway, poor folks need it more than we do.’

When her husband had left the room, Christine picked up the remote and quietly put the T.V. back on. The President was talking about the continuing Quarantine rules (‘Patriot Protection’, organised by ‘His Border Force. Y’know everybody used to hate them but since I took charge and put my guys in there, now everybody loves them!’), and the erection of a monument to ‘victims of the virus. Y’see, it’s just gonna be a plinth. No victims! We got zero victims. So it’s gonna have my name on it – my face because I’m the one who saw to it that there were zero deaths. It’s gonna be a big, beautiful monument to zero deaths!’

He moved on to what ‘his team’ intended to do to get the economy back up and running…

They’d have sunk – family and country – without the quarterly Freedom Checks: freedom, in their case, to stay at home and not risk going to work – two crowded 20-minute subway rides there, two back, and open-plan air-conditioned offices. They may look well-off – she did her best to make it appear so (don’t we all?) – but like everybody they were only one pay-check away from disaster, and there’d been talk of ‘downsizing’ at both her and her husband’s workplaces – she in Event Planning and he in Advertising.

Sure, the President was a narcissist – a real hard case. But who else would have grabbed the wheel and got the country through this mess? Who else would shout and bluster to make sure everyone – like her brother and sister both in Healthcare – got the protective kit they needed, every day? Who else could have gotten away with telling all the malls and bars to shut up shop, making everyone register for tracing, and above all persuading folks that wearing face-coverings was an act of patriotism? Look at England, France; Brazil – tens of thousands of virus deaths, and economies in meltdown.

Sure she’d vote him out at the next election, the egomaniac that he was. But for now…

 

How to spot a comet

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Anyone who’s even vaguely acquainted with goings-on in the night sky knows that at the moment Comet NEOWISE – brightest comet since the last Bright Comet – is visible (just) with the naked eye, in the North-West in the evening twilight, and the North-East before dawn.

I’ve been around for long enough to have been promised Kohoutek  (1974), Halley  (1986), and McNaught (2007) none of which exactly came good with the promise of actually, you know, shining in the night sky, in a Hemisphere near me. Or on the one occasion when they did (Hale-Bopp, 1997), I was living in rain-soaked, brightly-illuminated Glasgow city centre without the means to get to a rural dark sky devoid of clouds.

But this time it looked as if I was in with a chance of spotting an actual comet.

Viewed from as far North as our house, NEOWISE is circumpolar. That is, it sits day and night in the Northern skies going round and round the Pole Star and never setting. The only things that stop you seeing it are daylight (between about 3:30 a.m. and 11:30 p.m.), clouds (depressingly common here, though not as much so as in Glasgow), and other sources of light (street-lighting and the like).

NEOWISE also had the good grace to stay around for long enough to give the Average Brit a chance of at least one clear evening in which to try and find it.

We picked our clear evening, on Thursday.

We set off to the local playing field, which offers reasonable darkness (for urban surroundings like ours) and a view to down within about 5 degrees of the Northern horizon. The instructions I’d read said the comet should be visible from (and I quote) ‘just after sunset’.

Of course all we saw in the hour after sunset was twilight, and no actual astronomical objects at all – not even the brightest of the stars.

But our house boasts a North-facing attic Velux window, high enough up that our front garden trees block the nearest streetlight and the view extends down to the horizontal. We stationed ourselves there, complete with cushions to lean on, at about 10 p.m., and waited.

It wasn’t until after half past that my daughter spotted the first star. It was so faint that it could easily be mistaken for an illusion. The only way either of us could make sure it wasn’t one was by not-staring at it in such a way that it didn’t appear to move. Strangely, looking just to one side of it made it appear more distinct – something to do with how the various receptors (rods and cones) are arranged on the retina of the human eye.

Here’s my problem – the one which means that, though I have a degree in ‘Physics with Astronomy’, I am no astronomer. NEOWISE is best viewed – or at least found – using binoculars. I can’t use binoculars. I have no stereoscopic vision, and I use glasses with very different prescriptions for the 2 eyes. And before you ask, using a typical telescope with glasses is pretty hit-and-miss too. My chances of spotting anything in the night sky, binoculars or no, are minimal. I am also, though, astronomically stubborn. And so is my daughter (who has perfect eyesight).

So we stayed, gazing philosophically out at the sky and at our streetscape, the occasional post-lockdown reveller, and the low bar of cloud between the North and North-West horizon, watching stars appear one by one, until after midnight. We talked, sporadically (the best conversations are always sporadic), about all sorts: The research she’s doing, music (complete with lyrics), the smell of the evening air…

At half past midnight we decided that the low bar of cloud was going nowhere, the comet was most likely hiding behind it, and we’d call it a night. The weather forecast gave clouds by dawn, so it wouldn’t be worth our while getting up in 3 hours’ time to try and catch NEOWISE as it rose beyond the horizon fug again.

However, the sky is clear tonight…

(Picture not mine, of course. It’s from the i newspaper)

The plot thickens

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It’s that time of year when the garden and the Allotment are dressed in their best.

The Chard is taking over the world:

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The cherry tree went completely bananas:

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We’ve even had our first walnut (For a 5 year old tree at our latitude, that’s quite something!)

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Currnts and gooseberries – this year’s and last – will combine in a new departure for the homw-brew:

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And finally a follow-up to the mystery seeds in 17th May’s post – a Neural Miner has begun to show:

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Redemption on ice

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A man and a woman have been pulled over at the roadside by their local police.

To complicate matters further – at least for the man and woman in question – they are black.

The burly copper asks, ever so seriously, if they are aware of some obscure motoring infringement they might have made. It’s a belting hot Continental Summer mid-day and you can practically feel them sweating.

You might have seen the video.

Just when you think something awful’s going to happen, the second policeman produces two ice-creams – one each for the driver and passenger – and says it’s against Highway regulations to be driving without ice-cream.

The woman literally screams with laughter and as she and her passenger accept the proffered ice-creams the conversation becomes a little more natural – but only just – between more laughs. At which point I’m left thinking:

  1. Isn’t that a Happy Ending!
  2. But…

Now then. I’m not fully au fait with the past record of Halifax, Nova Scotia’s finest. Are they generally known as a friendly, approachable bunch, or do they have some ‘issues’ in their past (or worse, their present)?

And if the latter, or if – heaven help us – someone like Chicago’s force should try a stunt like this, what are we to make of it?

Meanwhile, I write my fiction. And in among the characters I’ve created is someone whose past deeds are dreadful but who has – quite literally – had a change of mind (this is sci-fi, after all). His ‘new’ character craves forgiveness from a past victim – or at the very least wants the said victim to trust him enough that they can carry out a scheme which both would want done, together.

How is one to write the new, ‘reformed’, character believably? Or in fact any ‘reformed’ character under more normal circumstances?

Because a writer of a tale involving ‘redemption’ has to deal with this dilemma: if the character changes too little, are they forgivable? And if they change too much, are they ‘credible’?

I think this little vignette shows a way.

Let’s imagine two police officers who have genuinely abused their power in the past take it upon themselves to imitate our two Nova Scotians’ cunning stunt.

Although their intentions may be laudable, and they are doing no-one any direct harm this time round, they are nevertheless putting themselves in a position of massive power over their ‘victims’. And in that way, although they look – and believe themselves – reformed characters, they still want to exercise power. In that one crucial dimension, even though they’ve gone from ‘evil’ to ‘good’, deep down they haven’t changed.

 

 

Under a spell

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Everyone knows Magic Spells, as usually described can’t happen in real, physical life.

Creating something out of thin air contravenes the intuitively obvious law of conservation of matter, while spiriting an object from a to b takes energy, which has to come from somewhere and then travel via some known, measurable means (sound waves, laser beams, the No 7 bus…)

Light, darkness, fertility, and all the other things magicians may want to invoke don’t just turn up on demand without a physical cause.

But ‘spells’ of a sort are nevertheless out there, and I think it pays to be able to notice them, particularly at times like the present.

Nobody actually refers to them as ‘spells’, though – that would be giving the game away.

Take a large body of people going about their everyday lives. Most of us – even those like me who like to think themselves immune to that sort of thing – have something in life that we want – or at the very least would like more of. If it isn’t the obvious one of money then it might be security, love, prestige…

And these wants make us susceptible to ‘spells’.

If they didn’t, then I defy anybody to explain why firms expend so much money and expertise on advertising things such as (to take one obvious example) dark reddish-brown fizzy drinks of whose existence we are all perfectly well aware already thank you.

Adverts, and the sort of spells that concern us here, don’t work by directly moving the physical world but instead cause us to believe something – whether it’s the classic ‘The Forest is Malevolent (and threatening that safety that you want)’, ‘There’s a conspiracy, founded in Continental Europe, to keep your wages low (and depriving you of more of that money you deserve)’ or ‘This Government is Benevolent (and has, with Herculean effort, dispelled a Plague)’.

All this has the effect of altering our behaviour. It harnesses energy in the form of enthusiasm – energy, in other words, that wasn’t previously visible.

Thus there are people who are now convinced that the present U.K. government have handled the pandemic well, and that here it is effectively all but over. This conviction stands, in spite of verifiable evidence to the contrary.

At the time of writing, the U.K. has suffered 43,000 deaths, with more added every day. Even Sweden, with their bold experiment of eschewing lockdown, have now suffered fewer deaths – both in absolute numbers and as a proportion of the population.

Added to our death toll, and less often spoken of, is the large number of people who have not, and perhaps may never, recover from C19.

Their number is not at present made public, and may not yet have even been collated. All I know from my own experience is that the total is not yet so vast that we all know one personally. So, even if the number were eventually to come out, those ‘under the spell’ of belief in our Government’s good management of the pandemic may dismiss the news because the idea of ‘surviving but never fully recovering from Covid-19’ doesn’t fit with our ‘background knowledge’ – our mental model – of colds and ’flu, two infections with which we have been led to compare it.

However this number, like the death toll, could eventually be verified – through health records, for example. Also verifiable in numbers are: the initial shortages of P.P.E. for people working in close proximity to the afflicted; the cost of attempts to devise the wrong sort of set-up for tracking the spread of the disease, and the ongoing non-existence of any Government-established means to do so. Though I do recommend one devised by the Research community.

So much for stark numbers. What have we actually been led to believe?

Most people think of a disease as some kind of ‘enemy’ which one must ‘fight’. This can be harmful on a personal level: if I ‘lose my battle’ with some affliction, doesn’t that make it sound as if I lacked the Character to put up a proper fight? But on a national level it can be useful: we are called upon to do things, even make sacrifices, beyond the everyday. We are kept informed of the progress made, using charts or figures, so as to keep up morale. True leadership is also, in a way, a ‘spell’ cast over followers.

Now think of the two dates which the U.K. Government chose for the easing of restrictions: 8th May (V.E. Day, and a Bank Holiday weekend), and 4th July (‘Independence Day’ – not here, but who in the U.K. doesn’t make the association?)

What are we being convinced of, without the words being said? What mental models are we inadvertently pulling out of the bottom drawer of our minds?

And so, as we pour out of our houses and flats, to the beaches and beauty spots – as the Government with its messages to our unconscious evidently intended us to do – they can step back in feigned shock and declaim “No! We didn’t mean that!”

But they did.

If, due to people having to return to work in indoor workplaces with their recirculated air, a second wave of disease comes, who will get the blame? The few individuals who take profit from those offices, shops and factories, or the very visible crowds in the open air where the virus quickly disperses and, as research has shown, is far less likely to be caught?

If you think the latter, are you sure you’re not under a spell?