Farming matters

My country, by which I mean England, has a nice mixture of terrain. Quite a lot of it is lowland and green, but there are areas of mountains and lakes, bog and moor, and so on. For a long time, we pretty much had the means to support ourselves, making most of what we needed, fishing the seas, and farming the land and adding to our diets, knowledge and culture with what could be brought across the channel by boat1. And then we got silly and started chopping down our vast forests to provide wood for warships, and we wanted exotic things like spices and silks, chocolate and bananas and pineapples and so on, and we began to import and export and go to war over resources in far-flung lands, claiming that stuff belonged to us because we got there first, and our armies are bigger than yours. Well, that’s obviously an over-simplification and misses out various bits of history and it’s all water under the bridge, but the fact is that we’ve somehow lost the ability (and/or the desire) to support ourselves and we are no longer content to travel slowly using horses and carriages and some things are going seriously downhill.

Farming, in the UK, accounts for around 70% of our land use. England, this green and pleasant land of ours, has traditionally been a country of small farms and mixed landscapes dotted with hedges and drystone walls2. Now, though, our farming practices, changing over time to suit perceived needs, are threatening the delicate balance of nature. Farms have got bigger. We have lost huge percentages of almost every sort of wildlife, both flora and fauna, and we have catastrophic flooding. Since the introduction of factory farming3, animals have largely disappeared from most of England’s landscape to be replaced with monoculture arable farming.

This next bit will no doubt upset a lot of people, but bear with me. It’s just my opinion, but I do have environmentalists on my side, and considering that we are facing a very uncertain future what with global warming and all, I think we need to stop thinking about profit and more about sustainability and repairing the damage that we are doing to the planet we live on.

Monoculture arable farming – you know, that thing they do with gigantic fields full of a single crop, ripping out hedges and trees to make it easier for combine-harvesting behemoths – is not sustainable. It requires unconscionable amounts of pesticides, destroys ecosystems, and has a lot to do with the increase in flooding in certain areas. The soil in far too many of these fields is all but dead, there is no wildlife habitat to speak of, and the food that is produced is, not to put too fine a point on it, contaminated.

Building on greenfield sites – that thing that they do where developers place ‘options’ on land that doesn’t even belong to them and put in outline planning applications, so that they can go to a farmer and offer him hundreds of thousands of pounds to sell them a field to build hundreds or thousands of houses on – is not sustainable. We are losing farmland at an unacceptable rate, which not only reduces the area on which we can grow our food, but it further increases the loss of wildlife. Not only that, but much of our fauna, not unsurprisingly, often requires exactly the same type of landscape as we do. There are bog and moor and mountain specialists, but a huge amount of our wildlife likes to live where we like to live; in more equable conditions and where the food and water and shelter options are more varied. So the arguments that ‘only 10.6% of our land is used for housing, you know’ are rather specious.

More to the point, perhaps, is that both of these things have an extremely negative effect on the balance of CO2 in the atmosphere. Trees are probably the most efficient thing we have for locking carbon into the environment, with hedging also doing very well indeed, thank you very much. And yet we are told to use less of this, more of that, on a personal level, while the big boys and girls continue to play their wasteful games.

There is a glimmer of hope on the horizon. Michael Gove – who, as I remember, nobody liked very much prior to the election4 – has been making some encouraging noises. He seems to have all the right priorities and is promising some very good things. Of course, we will have to wait and see whether all this is actually put into practice or if it will fall by the wayside of political expediency, but the future is beginning to look a little brighter. Then there are people like Lynne and Stephen Briggs, whose innovative measures on a farm in Cambridgeshire look most exciting indeed. They are bucking the trend and dividing their huge fields into strips – almost like the old mediaeval ridge & furrow system, only … well, not really. Their 21 metre-wide strips are divided by trees, running north-east to south-west across the fields to maximise sunlight coverage. Their trees are apple, but they can be fruit or nut, giving high-value cash crops, or something like hazel, which produces large quantities of usable wood when coppiced. Profit from agroforestry (as it is known), can increase productivity by 40-50%, because the crops grow and are harvested at different times, and it’s three-dimensional farming, for heaven’s sake, making far better use of the space. What’s more, the trees bring nutrients up from the depths with their extensive root systems, parking them in the leaves, which then fall and rot, and cycle the good stuff up into the topsoil.

Another wonderful thing about this is that it would return our green and pleasant land to that lovely patchwork of crops mixed with trees and hedges of different shades of green and brown, and the autumn would have proper colour again instead of vast areas of dispiriting stubble and stinking stalks of oilseed rape. Add the proposed Northern Forest project which has now been approved, and if it weren’t for HS2 about to cause the destruction of huge swathes of irreplaceable virgin forest on its way up north I’d be a very happy bunny indeed.

1 There was – of course – poverty and inequality, but we haven’t exactly solved those now, have we?

2 Mm .. yeah, OK. This is fairly recent historically, because in the middle ages England was covered with vast tracts of virgin woodland and later grew into a feudal system consisting of a landlord whose land consisted of a large house and parkland, and a little autocracy of small farms and smallholdings. This began to change, partly due to changing laws, depressions and so on, and we started to import more goods, then there were two World Wars which basically left us with a system pretty similar to the one we have today. Historians will pick this explanation to tiny pieces in two minutes flat, but that’s basically the gist of it.

3 An abomination if ever there was one, and the single most devastating blow for animal welfare in my lifetime.

4 Possibly because of the way he shafted Boris Johnson.

Let’s not start …

You know that saying ‘Let’s start as we mean to go on’? Well, let’s not. Just .. let’s not, OK?

The New Year has rolled in with me still recovering from shoulder surgery, and suffering from a fluey virus which has given me bronchitis/asthma1, so I can’t do much at all right now and I’m feeling pretty miserable and helpless. Could be worse, I know, and to be fair, I’m not hospitalised, I’m warm and well-fed, and I have my lovely OH who is taking good care of me. But my spirits have not been improved by the snippets of news which I’ve been reading just lately.

The Orange Buffoon is determined to challenge the Volatile One to a spitting match which might well end in tears, the weather has gone crazy, and the environment is under multiple threats both large and small. Yesterday I heard that a small wooden footbridge in our village, much used by walkers (both with and without dogs or children) has once again been vandalised by some idiot with a power saw, and has had planks from the walkway removed leaving gaping holes through which a person (or a dog or a child) could fall about twelve feet to the brook below. This footbridge is on a back road in the country. It isn’t on the way to anywhere, unless you’re a dog walker, and you’d have to know it was there in order to find it, so I’m guessing it’s some deranged local (with or without some kind of bizarre grudge).

As if that weren’t bad enough, the same thing has been done at Ferry Meadows, a local country park eleven-and-a-half miles away, which has an excellent record for wildlife curation, watersports and family fun. It seems pretty certain that it’s the same person because the same two events have gone hand in hand before2, so they must have transport, as well as a power tool and a grudge. At the country park, they not only vandalised nearly two dozen memorial benches and all of the wooden footbridges, but they also hacked twenty-six newly planted trees in half3.

I’m not sure what kind of maggot gets into someone’s head for them to deliberately go out and do this kind of thing. Being somewhat of a student of human nature, I can kind of, sort of, understand what motivates someone to commit a one-off act of vandalism as an expression of frustrated anger, but this goes beyond such an act. This is a deliberate, cold-hearted, selfish desire to wound other people and make them suffer, either emotionally or physically. It’s only a matter of time before someone gets hurt, either by falling through a gap in a footbridge or over the side, or by falling backward off a bench. Such a desire must surely be rooted in mental incompetence of some kind because there are very, very few people who are truly evil.

But you know what? The true measure of man’s spirit is not to be found in how many times he gets knocked over, but in how many times he gets back up again. This vandal (or vandals) will not win. The footbridge in my village has been roped off, and will be repaired as soon as can be managed. The bridges and benches in the country park will also be mended and the trees replanted by many willing hands. Eventually, of course, the person responsible will be caught and punished, and life will go on, and he – or, it has to be admitted, she – will be quickly forgotten, because that’s what happens.

So in this new year, this 2018, I will shake off my cough and my sore ribs and my shoulder will heal themselves, and I’ll get back on the treadmill and put myself on the Clever Guts diet4, and eventually we will get our new dog. I am already looking forward to the hoverfly season and to getting back out into the garden and planting up my new plants and digging a new pond and putting OH to work getting the new bee houses installed, and no doubt I’ll have great fun photographing all this stuff. I have plans. Venice in the spring, learn to speak French, improve my Italian, begin Swedish Death Cleaning5, visit relatives and some new people I only know from the internet, and I also want to replace a row of Leylandii with a mixed deciduous hedge.

Sounds fun, huh? We may have started the year badly, but that doesn’t mean we have to continue that way. I bet the power saw-wielding chopper-up of benches won’t have half so much fun as me!

Photos of the damage at Ferry Meadows courtesy of Martin Chillcott

1 It’s a bit hard to distinguish between the two, since both give you a lot of congestion and wheezing and make you cough. All I know is that I’ve been coughing for far too long, my ribs hurt, and I need to use my inhalers to the limit. But since the treatment is pretty much the same, I guess it hardly matters what you call it.

2 The same vandalism was perpetrated in the same two places within the same time-frame and along the same path of destruction a while back. Yes, it’s circumstantial, but my money is on a repeat offence by the same person.

3 I think it’s the trees which annoy me the most. Trees take time to get established and become useful to wildlife and, indeed, us. We all need trees to deal with pollution and with the CO2 in the atmosphere. Destroying a tree is like smacking yourself in the face with a brick. Only less messy.

4 Michael Mosley’s Clever Guts Diet is a one-off protocol to rebalance your gut flore (your gut’s microbiome). Since I suffer from acid reflux, which might be affected by those little guys that live down there, I thought I might try it.

5 Swedish Death Cleaning is an approach to clearing out accumulated junk, and one which I sorely need. The name comes from the philosophy that it is unkind to leave your horribly cluttered house to your children to deal with after you’re dead.

Give these guys a medal!

It occurs to me that the last few posts here on the Sparking Synapse have been, shall say, a tad on the cloudy side of the street.

Partly this due to the fact that I am a little more than three weeks into having to wear a very restrictive shoulder immobilising sling night and day for six weeks, and I am constantly uncomfortable, hot, and unable to function normally, with a side order of pain, random itchiness and boredom. This the second such period within five months, with a surgical repair thrown in for good measure, and I can’t even have a good slug of wine now and then because alcohol doesn’t mix too well with heavy-duty painkillers. So perhaps it’s forgiveable, but methinks it’s maybe time to haul on those bootlaces a little and cheer the fuck up.

So, with this in mind, and with a gentle reminder from Valerie over at A Mixed Bag, I am inspired to write this.

As we go about our daily lives we come across all sorts of people, and all-too-often, the ones that leave the biggest impression are the idiots, the rude, and the incompetent. We love to come home and say to our families and friends “You’ll never guess what a stupid woman in Boots said to me” or “the way some people park is (expletive of your choice) atrocious” or “it took me forty-five minutes to get home today, because some stupid idiot at the council thought it was a good idea to … (blah, blah, blah). And if we are angry enough, we follow it up with a complaint in writing, do we not? Or we get all hot under the collar and pick up the phone and give some poor lowly office worker hell. Yep. I know. I’ve done it myself. In fact, I am in the middle of a series of ultra polite, barely-sarcastic-at-all emails1 at the moment with a company who refuse to refund the shipping costs on some returned goods (but that’s another story).

The thing is, dear readers, that we so seldom remember to fill in those forms and write those letters – or even go home and tell our loved ones – when we are met with smiling helpfulness and efficiency, or outstanding service.

Basically, we do not thank people enough, or give credit where credit is due. I try to remember to do so but it’s so easy to forget, and if you’ve ever worked in the service industry, or in any job where you have contact with the public, you’ll know how one compliment or genuine smile of heartfelt thanks can brighten your whole day2.

So I’m going to try to concentrate on looking for the good in people again. To this end, at the end of my hospital appointment yesterday I filled in one of those feedback forms so industriously that the young lady behind the desk asked me if I was writing a book.

Despite the title of this blog post, the quietly efficient, the compassionate, the polite and the helpful don’t usually want a medal, and quite often they don’t even need to be commended3. But everyone does like to be appreciated, and we all feel better for meeting someone who knows how to smile without being patronising, or help someone in need without being pushy. A smile here, a word of thanks there, a bit of eye contact … and I’m told that the best way to show your appreciation for an employee – especially someone who works for a smallish company – is often a letter of commendation to their boss, which mentions them by name.

So go ahead. Make someone’s day! And it doesn’t have to cost you a thing.

1 I specialise in ultra-polite, barely-sarcastic-at-all letters of complaint. They are written rather passive-aggressively, I have to admit, and in the best and most polished prose I can muster, with perfect grammar and high-level language (Thank you, Mrs Learmont*). The recipient knows that I am probably being rude, although there’s nothing in what I say to hang that particular hat on, and they are left in absolutely no doubt that I know what I’m talking about. Of course this is never the first letter that I send, I only do this if I get stupid, misinformed or obstructive letters back in reply to my first letter, and the progress into veiled insult is gradual, and always well deserved.

* Mrs Learmont was my High School English teacher. She was a Scot, and she was fierce, but she gave me an enormous affection for our beautifully rich, complex, and absurd language.

2 There doesn’t even have to be money involved, though in the restaurant/cafe trade where the waiting staff are often poorly paid, it certainly helps.

3 Although some of them perhaps do, especially if they’re in the running for a “Volunteer/Employee/Etc of the Year” award. And why not, if they deserve it?

To the young, whose lives we are ruining

My husband and I (gosh, I sound like the queen!) are both over sixty. I’m not quite sure how that happened, although I suspect it’s a simple case of tempus fugit, and the thing about tempus fugitting is that is unstoppable, so I can absolutely guarantee that this will happen to you, too, barring accidents. I know there’s a tendency for the young to feel immortal and invulnerable, but trust me, this is just a cruel illusion. Been there, done that, got the tee shirt.

Looking at you (my sons’ generation) today, I see an awful lot of really great young people who are innovative, energetic, intelligent, polite & courteous, and who want to make a positive impact on the world that they have inherited. Well, I’m not talking about you. You guys can stop reading right here. I love you guys.

For the rest of you, I have a few things I’d like to get off my chest.

When we grizzled old crumblies are walking around town, using public transport, doing our shopping etc, we often have to pause to make way for you youngsters. There are those of you who don’t wait for us to exit lifts, step off escalators, pass in narrow areas, or even for me to walk through a door which OH is holding open for me, and some of you actually grin and say ‘thank you’ as you push and jostle past us1. Some of you do it thoughtlessly, but some of you seem to do it because you feel entitled, or perhaps just … more important than we are.

And this may be because some of you think we oldies are to blame for ruining your entire futures. I have heard that you also think we are horribly greedy and selfish for expecting your taxes to pay for our pensions.

Well, let me explain a few things to you.

Pensions

We, your older generation, paid a proportion of our wages to support our own elders. We watched our parents do the same; paying in a percentage of their wages each week, from the year 1946, to provide healthcare and geriatric care for everyone, the difference being that they received their pensions at the promised time3. We were PROMISED our pensions at the age of sixty years for women, sixty-five for men, and we arranged our savings and our lives accordingly4. So how is it fair to us that the government can now renege on that promise, leaving us high and dry?

The bottom line on pensions is that we paid, during our working lives, into a compulsory fund which the government promised us would provide an adequate pension for our old age, beginning at sixty years old for women, and sixty-five for men, and that promise has not been kept.

Brexit

The vote on leaving the EU was a democratic process. I’m not sure quite what your view of ‘democratic process’ is, but in terms of the referendum, it means that everyone over 18 years old who was neither a guest of HM Prison Service nor mentally unfit to make important decisions had the right to vote, yes or no. You had a whole day to make that vote, and there was provision to vote by post or by proxy if you couldn’t make it to a polling station. The votes were counted, and since more people voted to leave than voted to remain (that’s regarded as the ‘opinion of the people’) the government acted accordingly, and triggered Article 50. If you couldn’t be bothered to 1) get yourself to a polling station, or 2) make the necessary arrangements and vote by post or by proxy, you have absolutely no right to complain about the result if you don’t like it.

Did you not know which way to vote? Couldn’t decide? Well, neither could I, so I signed up for an online university course about Brexit which covered the history of the EU, the advantages and disadvantages to being a member, what works well and what doesn’t, and the implications for leaving. It was still a hard decision to make, but I thought about it, made my (informed) decision, and voted. You cannot take that right from me, nor do you have any right to know which way I voted or to complain about my choice.

The Environment

Don’t blame us! My generation can hardly be held responsible for the industrial revolution which brought the age of coal-fired industry, pea-soupers and the birth of the infernal internal combustion engine. We are not to blame for the drastic change in agriculture following WWII which resulted in inorganic fertilisers and pesticides being poured over the earth in vast quantities – I was just eight years old when Rachel Carson wrote her book ‘Silent Spring’, cataloguing the environmental damage which was being done so recklessly by the indiscriminate use of pesticides like DDT. And I loathe the proliferation of plastic packaging probably more than you do 5.

So. I have news for you. I still have a life at sixty-four years old, and if all goes well I could keep it for another three decades. If you are really lucky, one day you will be sixty-four, too (and then sixty-five, seventy, seventy-five, and so on). At the moment I am in full possession of my faculties, have been described as intelligent, and I am sane. While I struggle a bit with health, I am still fully capable of independent living, and like so many others of my age, I spend a part of my time volunteering6 and I have family and hobbies and things to do. You may find yourself in the same position, or you may not be so lucky; when you are sixty-four, you may be suffering from long-term health problems. You may be clinically depressed, injured in an accident, or unable to work (or live) independently for a whole truck-load of reasons. And you may then feel differently about all that ‘unnecessary’ help you think we are getting.

Perhaps what’s needed is a change in attitude. This occurs to me having recently watched on the news that a lot of young people are getting into serious debt. The first example they gave us was a girl who looked barely old enough to sign a credit agreement, but was in way over her head having taken out three loans within a couple of years. The first was for a holiday to Disneyland in Paris. Well, I’m sorry if this sounds harsh, but maybe you should do as we did when we were young and only buy what you can afford?

So let me turn your question on its head. You ask why you should pay to support us in our old age. I ask you why we should go without essentials like food, medical attention and a roof over our heads so that you can go on foreign holidays and run a car that you can’t afford and expect someone else to pick up the pieces? Because, make no mistake, defaulting on your debt costs everyone else money, and causes taxes and the cost of living to go up.

Well, there you go. That’s all I have to say. Do forgive me if you are not one of the profligate and do not hold these hostile and offensive views. But I did tell you to stop reading after the second paragraph!

1 Twenty-five to thirty-five years old, roughly speaking

2 Which actually bloody hurts, by the way, when you are old and stiff and have trouble moving quickly

3 They were the first to do so, by the way. The first to pay in, and the first to receive State pensions. My father was twenty-seven years old at the time, and had been working since he was just a little over fifteen years old when he was apprenticed to the printing trade for a period of seven years. In those days, the Master practically owned you. He got ten shillings a week (that’s the equivalent of £26 per annum at a time when average yearly salary was £195.80) and was allowed one week’s holiday per year. I know this because I have his Articles – the legal document which binds the apprentice to his trade. I don’t think anyone would have paid National Insurance (for pensions etc) from that sum, but would have begun doing so at the end of the apprenticeship, at age twenty-two. My mother also left school early, became a nurse, and voluntarily worked past retirement age.

4 Many of us also paid money into company pensions (superannuation schemes) or private pensions to ensure a more comfortable retirement and avoid being a burden on our children. Some of those pensions companies invested our money badly, so that many people who did try to provide that little bit more for their retirement found they had little or nothing after having paid into the fund for decades. In the case of Equitable Life, I believe it was 90,000 of us.

5 If not more, because trust me, as the strength and flexibility of your fingers begins to fail you, you will curse it with all the profane vocabulary at your disposal, even if that is only multiple fucks.

6 Volunteers are filling in for more and more services which have had their government funding cut. Services like mental health, because ‘Care in the Community’ often means ‘No Care at All’. Volunteers run soup kitchens for the homeless, make baby clothing for premature baby units, fill in on hospital wards doing things like pushing the library trolleys around, and a whole truck-load of other stuff. An awful lot of retired people do an awful lot of volunteering. They have the time, you see.

Well, Poot!

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‘Poot’ being a polite way of saying what I screamed to the unfeeling skies late on Thursday afternoon when I tripped up a little step in the garden, fell awkwardly, and dislocated my shoulder.

There was the inevitable moment of flight, the sudden intervention of gravity, and then I was aware that my outstretched hand had somehow hit the ground wrong and it was taking my rigid left arm forward at an angle which boded No Good At All1. I am no svelte young thing, so when my torso weighed in at the moment of impact, there was an ominous crunching and tearing sound which reminded me of 500 giant cows all ripping up a section of lush meadow grass at the same time. I knew then that Something Bad had happened.

Instinctively, I rolled onto my back, and was informed by my entire nervous system that the Something Bad was extraordinarily painful, and, having managed to completely immobilise my arm, was settling in for the long haul. There was no way I could bring my arm close enough to my body to attempt to get up. I tried grabbing it with my right hand and gently easing it over (Oh fuuuuuuuu …. cckkkk, that hurts!), and I tried inching my body around to meet it (“GAAAAAHHHH! No-no-no, that’s worse!) and in this I was hampered by the presence of a narrow flowerbed bordering my garage wall. I was on my back with my arm stretched out sideways at 90 degrees and I could not move. It was a dead weight – albeit a painful one.

I don’t know if any of you have ever dislocated a shoulder. I am told that it’s one of the most painful of dislocations because an awful lot of very large muscles keep your shoulder in place and when it is out of place, they go into spasm to let you know that Something is Wrong and needs fixing, and it needs fixing now. But they don’t do it all at once – oh no. Over time, they gradually increase their grip and so, just as you are getting to grips with one level of pain, they ramp it up and make you cry again2. I don’t like opiates, but after two hours lying there waiting for an ambulance and in screaming agony, I was thinking extremely friendly thoughts indeed about them.

By the time the paramedic got to me, I’d been laying on rapidly chilling concrete for two and a half hours. My pain level had passed my previous worst a long time ago, and seemed to me to be hovering around a 12 on the 1-10 Chart of Degrees of Pain. This may, to be fair, have something to do with the fact that I have fibromyalgia, which helpfully amplifies any pain signals going around and adds a few extras of its own, but as I said, shoulder dislocations have quite the reputation.

Obviously, people at risk of dying from cardiac arrest, bleeding, poisoning, burns, or any other critical condition are going to take precedence, also small children and the frail elderly – and damn right, so they should. After all, I was only suffering extreme pain and some non-life-threatening damage. But I wonder if those idiots who call 999 for a non-urgent problem think – really think – about the consequences? You see, what happens is that when a true emergency call comes in, there literally may not be an ambulance at the station to send out to it. They have to wait for one to come back in, complete any paperwork (I assume? There’s always paperwork …) and then send it out to the next on the list.

Should I complain about the delay. I am undecided. I fell at around 4.30pm, the first paramedic came at about 7pm, was brilliant and very quickly gave me that blessed morphine. He had then to wait for the grown-up ambulance and a second guy to actually get me off the ground after air-splinting my arm, which they did so gently and efficiently and with the help of Entonox (wonderful stuff), and I was transorted to A&E where I had another wait for x-rays before the dislocation was finally reduced at somwhere around 11pm. That’s seven hours3.

But.

There was apparently ‘high demand’ for the ambulance service that evening. There were a lot of other people in A&E that night, all needing treatment, some of them critical, some of them merely in worse case than me, and all hoping that they would be next in for treatment. The nurses were brilliant, the radiographer and the doctor efficient and kind, everyone endlessly patient. They were all doing their best. On the one hand, I am extremely grateful that we have a freely available and free-to-use NHS. I won’t be getting any bills, there won’t be an insurance claim (unless I bent my sunglasses) and I certainly won’t have to remortgage the house. On the other hand, it is a hell of a long time for an over-60-year-old to lie on the ground in pain, getting freezing cold and both busting for a pee and desperate for a drink. And the sling they gave me to keep my shoulder still is complete crap and flat out does not work.

But hopefully, those on the critical list who also rode to hospital in an ambulance on Thursday will have been treated much more promptly, and with a bit of luck and the skill of those wonderful healthcare professionals are now doing OK.

1 – Yes, I know I’m supposed to fold and roll, but I failed, OK?

2 – And scream and swear and roundly curse all of those stupid, selfish people who have ever called an ambulance for a bruised knee, because they’ve been sick for a week and now the doctor’s is shut, because they think they might have been bitten by a spider, or simple to save the taxi fare or to make a point.

3 – What was the first thing I was taught about dislocations when I did my veterinary nurse’s training? The sooner a joint is put back into place, the more likely it is to be successful. Ah, well.

The Interesting Fact of the Day

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For some time now, my Other Half and I have had the habit of taking a few minutes at the end of the day to sit down with a drink1 and have a little chat. It’s a good thing to do, because it helps you wind down after whatever you’ve been doing all evening, and it’s especially good if – like us – you spend a lot of time at the computer, because even with F.lux2 it’s pretty bad for you to do that just before sleeping.

Anyway, these little chats have developed into somewhat of a competition, and it began like this; OH would kick off by saying ‘did you know … ?’ or ‘have you heard …?’ and I’d say ‘no, what?’ and he would impart some fragment of knowledge he’d picked up during the day. It could be political (Psychiatrists are saying that Trump really is nuts3) or statistical (one in ten UK households do not contain a single book4) or iconoclastic (the figures for how many units of alcohol you should drink per day was simply plucked out of thin air and has no basis in fact5) or something more obscure. I like the obscure ones best.

One of the most peculiar was the one I found about the little Pom-Pom crab who sticks sea anenomes to his claws. It’s not a useful fact. I can’t imagine ever being able to explain some great conundrum with it, or use it to stay safe while swimming in the Indian Ocean or anything, but it’s fun, isn’t it? You can read more about them – including why they do it – if you like6.

Not that we spend all day looking things up – that would be cheating – and we don’t fret if we don’t have an Interesting Fact to impart, but we have both begun to save these little titbits of information, and there’s one problem with that. You see, since we are both now on the wrong side of sixty, the old memory doesn’t work quite so well as it did and often, by the end of the day, we’ve forgotten what we were going to say – which can be quite amusing!

We’ve often pondered on those people we see who walk along with someone – maybe a husband, wife, partner, or friend – and they are silent. Not talking, not smiling, not even bickering, but totally silent. They usually look morose, and often pass a smiling stranger without a flicker, and we’ve always said we don’t want to get like that. Do you want to get like that? Have you?

If you have, you could do worse than to start the ball rolling with an Interesting Fact of the Day!

1 – Usually a hot drink for me and a glass of rum or whiskey for OH. No – the wine is for dinner!

2F.lux

3“Shrinks Breaks Silence” – New York Times

4No books in 1 in 10 households

5“The Great Alcohol Myth” – The Guardian

6Boxer Crabs and sea anenomes

TEN a day?

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Remember when we were being urged to eat five portions of fruit & veg a day?

Some of us decided that it was worth a shot, so we began watching our fruit and veg intake, bearing in mind that potatoes couldn’t be included, and fruit juice could only count once.

Then, not so long ago, someone decided that five wouldn’t cut the mustard and we needed to eat seven portions a day. Again, potatoes didn’t count, and the rule was still ‘more veg than fruit’, with an additional warning that fruit could only count as two of your five portions.

And now what do we hear? Five isn’t enough. Seven isn’t even enough. Now we are supposed to eat ten portions of fruit and veg a day – well, actually, make that ‘at least ten’ and again, the emphasis is on the veg … except potatoes. And sweet potatoes. And cassava. And it’s no good hypothesising that the wheat ‘berry’ is the fruit of the plant so why not include bread and pasta, because the answer is still no.

Hands up all those who eat five-a-day. Seven? Alright. How about ten? Yep, I thought so – a deafening silence … except you at the back there, and you can sit down because we don’t believe you1.

But wait! There is a burning question still to be answered, isn’t there? And I bet you don’t know the answer. What constitutes a portion?

Is it, for instance, one tomato? Fine, which size? Are we talking cherry tomatoes, or those smacking great beefy slicing tomatoes? What size pear? How many green beans – and what type? How many peas? How many stalks of celery – and is that large or small stalks, the big ones from the outside, or the little skinny sweet ones from the heart? Cooked or raw? And does that apply to everything, or just some types of foods?

Well, as it happens, I have done that bit of research and I can now answer this for you. It’s 400g in total if you’re on five-a-day, and 800g for ten, with raw veg coming out slightly ahead of cooked. Interestingly, there is no difference in recommended quantity between raw and cooked, despite the fact that we cannot digest all that uncooked cellulose, so a lot of that raw carrot is actually nutritionally unavailable to us. Does it matter? Do we need to absorb it, or is the fibre the important component? And if fibre is the most important factor, why don’t wholemeal breads and cereals count?

Nobody knows.

You will notice, dear reader, that 800g is getting on for a kilo of fruit & veg. Greengrocers up and down the country must be rubbing their hands with glee!

But wait … How can we eat nearly a kilo of fruit & veg each day without unbalancing our diets and/or missing out on important vitamins, minerals and trace elements? And how can we do it without increasing our food intake and putting on weight?

We’ve been told that whole grains are essential to our health, being particularly good for our hearts (and to help prevent Type 2 diabetes) and we need to eat ‘at least three portions a day’ The American Heart Association goes further and says ‘six to eight’.

We’ve been advised to eat more fish – especially oily fish – because of the beneficial effect on our blood pressure & cholesterol levels. We’ve been told it’s good for the skin, brain and nervous system because of the vitamins and good fats that it contains.

How about dairy? Here we come to one of the most argued topics, with government advice on the subject being described as ‘baffling’ and ‘contradictory’. On the one hand we are told that a Parliamentary report issued last spring recommended that we should up our intake to three portions a day to improve the nation’s health, and on the other hand, Public Health England says we should severely curtail it to no more than 200 calories a day from dairy for men and 160 calories for women (which, according to the Telegraph, would be gone in a single latte) However, pregnant, lactating and menopausal women have a high requirement for calcium and need 1,200mg daily.

Then there are all the studies which come out and say we should eat a handful of blueberries a day for this reason, a handful of almonds a day for that, or a handful of walnuts, or seeds, or a tablespoon of coconut oi, or linseed. Or so many cups of green tea. Apples and cider vinegar for our acid reflux, etc, etc.

Once upon a time I went to a nutritionist and I asked the question ‘how can I lose weight without missing out on essential vitamins, minerals and trace elements?’ I wanted her to help me to plan a diet, taking these factors into account, and you know what? She couldn’t do it. It seems you can either get your recommended daily intakes of the major food groups and those pesky little vitamins, minerals and trace elements, OR you can lose weight, but you can’t do both. I am now questioning whether it is possible to eat 800g of fruit and veg while maintaining the recommended intakes of everything else.

Lastly, I have found a paper written by a British cancer researcher and published in the BMJ journal ‘Gut’ which states that too much fibre may be implicated in bowel cancer development.

See, in the past we’ve been advised to ‘Go to Work on an Egg’, switch to margarine rather than butter, and use artificial sweeteners to help cut down on sugar, and each one of those recommendations has been reversed. Now, palm oil is all the rage because it’s supposed to be healthier. I’m willing to bet that time will prove that it isn’t healthy at all, but quite the reverse – and in the meantime, its cultivation is devastating whole ecological systems in the countries where it is grown.

Personally, I think most people should eat more fruit and vegetables, less fat, more wholegrains and less sugar2. I love vegetables. I’m that woman in the restaurant who orders a side of veg in addition to the ones that come on the plate and eats her husband’s broccoli into the bargain, but I still find it nigh-on impossible to eat 800g of the stuff, and I just think that before people start recommending ‘eat more of this’ and ‘eat less of that’ they should make sure they have all the facts, and they have them right.

The study that sparked this recent recommendation appears to be flawed. Some of the factors were not followed through, some data was missing, they didn’t ask about other aspects of the diet, and it was self-reported, for heaven’s sake. They simply asked a whole bunch of people what they ate yesterday and how much exercise they took, measured them at set intervals, and followed their mortality over the years. Perhaps more tellingly, it says ‘This study has found a strong association, but not necessarily a causal relationship’. And on the basis of this, a whole nation has been advised to change their diets.

1 – Just kidding!
2 – Personally, I think sugar is our biggest problem, but maybe that’s just me.

A quick internet search will throw up a lot of date (much of it contradictory), but some of the references I’ve used are listed below:

The study

It’s still worth getting your five a day

Five a day should be upped to seven a day

Whole Grains – eat three portions a day to reduce risk of total mortality, in particular cardiovascular disease (NICE evidence search: an analysis of fourteen studies from reliable sources)

Advice on dairy foods ‘baffling’

Dairy nutrition

Friendly Gardening

BugLifeWildlifeGardening

I had an email this morning from Buglife, reminding me that I should be planning my garden for the coming spring and summer with due regard for our bees and other insects.

As my readers will surely know by now, I love insects and other invertebrates, and in particular I love hoverflies. I even have a soft spot for spiders, which my Other Half regards as a bit of a double edged sword, because though I will remove spiders from his vicinity and relocate them outdoors, I am also tolerant of their presence and seldom actually do so unless he asks me. Don’t tell him, but there’s an interesting little guy living in a pot in our conservatory, and I’m waiting at least until I can photograph and identify him before I want to even consider removing him. Besides, he eats the weevils that we managed to import with some bird food and which now appear to have colonised the conservatory1.

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Rice Weevil, Sitophilus oryzae

So I took a look at the Buglife page about wild-life gardening and took a screenshot to post on the Sparking Synapse Facebook page with a link to their site. It has some useful tips, and it’s well worth considering. A manicured garden is all very lovely – and fair enough, many people just want the pretty flowers and the smooth lawn – but it does little for wildlife, and since most farmers these days are also doing very little for wildlife2, those of us with gardens really need to think about taking up the slack.

What’s in it for you? Well, I’m willing to bet that you don’t much care for aphids, am I right? Inviting hoverflies into your garden will take care of that for you, because there are dozens of the little darlings whose larvae eat quite prodigious amounts of the blighters. My roses had a grand total of no aphids at all last year, not after the hoverflies found them. Providing a safe place for hedgehogs to hibernate, and water for them to drink, will help to rid your garden of snails and slugs. Allowing Leopard slugs to live peacefully on your property will also help to control these pests, because Leopard slugs will not destroy your plants, but do clean up decaying matter, and also eat other slugs.

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Hoverfly larva eating an aphid

So, how do you start? Well, if you grow vegetables, consider allowing a few of each to flower; many (eg carrots, fennel, and brassicas) are very attractive to insects, and if you have space for it, a single plant of angelica will feed huge numbers of bees and hoverflies. Perhaps you have ivy in your garden? It might be a pain when it gets out of control, but if you let it climb up a fence and retain some older strands when you clip it (twine them in or peg them back), the pollinators will love you for it in the autumn when little else is in flower. Also, a dense, intertwined layer of evergreen foliage like this is invaluable as a place to hibernate for insects like ladybirds – which also have larvae that are very keen on aphids for lunch – not to mention breakfast, dinner and supper. Wasps will also feed on ivy, but before you say anything, remember that wasps are valuable pollinators, too, and actually kill large numbers of insect pests, carrying them back to their nests to feed their young.

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An Eristalis sp hoverfly feeding on ivy

A source of water is useful for many creatures. Keep it clean for birds, but if you have an out-of-the-way corner, you can create a hoverfly lagoon with a small container of stagnant water full of decaying grass and leaves3.

You’d be surprised at what resources some beneficial insects need. There are hoverflies which love to feed on grass pollen and others which lay their eggs in rot holes in trees. There are bees which nest in bare earth and others which like to use old bird boxes. Some of our rare beetles need decaying wood lying around on the ground. And there are many tiny creatures which over-winter in drifts or piles of dead leaves – so it won’t surprise you to learn that having filled my garden incinerator with leaves and other combustible debris, I can’t bring myself to set light to it in case there are spiders, beetles, bees and so on living inside it.

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A small caterpillar found in leaf litter in January

There is also a hoverfly which lays its eggs in active wasps nests, but I’m not suggesting you keep one of those handy in your garden shed with the door left considerately open. All you need to remember is that a wild patch in your garden, dandelions left unmolested in your lawn and a little dead wood and garden litter left here and there, will help some of our most neglected wildlife survive and complete their life-cycles. If you can also dedicate some of your space to pollen-rich flowers, so much the better because many of the showier hybrid versions of old-fashioned flowers have virtually no nectar to give. Choose original versions or proven pollinator-friendly flowers and shrubs if you can, single flowers rather than double, etc. Chocolate-coloured primroses, PomPom dahlias or big, showy Spanish bluebells may look wonderful to you, but won’t be much visited by insects.

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A small solitary bee feeding on dandelion, Lassioglossum sp

1 I won’t use poisons if I can possibly help it. As far as I’m concerned, they are an unnecessary danger to other, more welcome, life-forms including my grandchildren and my dogs.

2 Wildflowers are disappearing from our countryside at an alarming rate as farmers feel the need to plough right up to the edges of their fields to maximise their crop yields. Not all farmers. Some are enlightened and considerate, and even if they do use pesticides (which are incredibly destructive to invertebrates – after all, that is their job) will leave an area wild to make up for it. Kudos to those people!

3 The Buzz Club’s Hoverfly Lagoon Project gives details on how to make one of these and if you are also willing to record the activity, that would be great! But they can smell a bit so you’ll need a site somewhere away from the house.

Predictive Text

IlRagazzini

You may recall – those of you who have been reading my blogs for a while – that I am learning Italian. I started about six years ago, but it’s an ongoing process and will continue to be so.  However, I can now hold a conversation in passable Italian on quite a wide range of subjects1, and I often talk to my Italian friends on Skype, or exchange a few words with any Italians I can lay my hands on while out and about in England, because the thing about a second language is that if you don’t use it, you really do lose it.

Anyway.

Skype-1-1

Those of you who were paying attention may further recall that my dearly beloved OH promised me faithfully, about two years ago, that he would also learn Italian. We were in Italy at the time and I think he got fed up with being left out of conversations which he couldn’t understand. After all, how did he know what I was saying to the handsome young waiter to make him smile so?2

And lo! We got home, and he did not learn Italian. He completely and utterly failed to learn more than odd word. And, I admit it, I have been teasing him about that and kind of (sort of) nagging him (just a little!) about fulfilling that promise and bloody well learning it. And a few months ago he decided that … well, alright then, he would. And he booked a week in Florence at a language school specialising in teaching Italian to foreigners and chose a class for beginners over fifty, and that’s where he’s been this week.

Skype-1

He found it quite hard going, because neither of us realised that this language school’s approach to teaching Italian to foreign students consisted of speaking purely in Italian with a lot of gestures. This might work for the clear-eyed and clean-limbed youth, but for the over-fifties? Uh .. perhaps not. And what’s more, there were only two people actually over fifty years old in the class, which was mostly composed of much younger people, and they hadn’t thought fit to inform him of this.  However, when OH and a few others startlingly failed to miraculously grasp the meaning of the lesson which was being taught in a language they had actually come to learn and of which they had no understanding, they were given some extra, one-to-one teaching and he did in fact come home knowing a little bit more than when he left.  But I still think it was a swizz.

Skype-2

The dictionary up there? I asked him to get me the Oxford-Paravia Italian-English dictionary while he was in Italy because it costs over £200 here, and it turns out that the reason for that is that it’s out of print. This dictionary (Il Ragazzini) was recommended to him in a bookshop, and my friend Paola endorsed this recommendation, so he risked a hernia to bring it home for me3.

Skype-3

Predictive text? Well, when his connection has been up to it, we’ve been Skyping to keep in touch. The screenshots in this blog are from one of those conversations. Enjoy!

 

1 Yes, I really can! I can, for instance, discuss the state of the world, how to cook culurgiones, the fact that English people consider a certain Italian ex-politician to be a buffoon, and why twin grand-daughters can be dangerous. I can also relate the story of the Pirate’s vegetable garden.   I might not always do it in very good Italian, but people can usually understand me.  That in itself is a minor miracle, considering the topics listed above.

2 Usually it’s something along the lines of ‘Is the pannacotta made with fish gelatine?’ or ‘do you have any egg-free pasta?’, but I admit, it can stray quite a long way from there, given time and encouragement.

3 It is a hardback, it measures 18cm x 25.5cm x 8cm, it weighs a ton, and comes in its own slipcase.

A question for International Women’s Day

Women

Today is March 8th, which is International Women’s Day, and I have a question for you: are you a feminist?

To answer that you first have to define feminism, but it’s actually much harder than you’d think. The official definition something along the lines of:

“Feminism is a range of political movements, ideologies and social movements that share a common goal: to define, establish, and achieve equal political, economic, cultural, personal, and social rights for women. This includes seeking to establish equal opportunities for women in education and employment. Feminists typically advocate or support the rights and equality of women1.”

That sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? But the people shouting with the loudest voices over this issue tend to be hard-liners. That is to say, they have their own definition above and beyond what is written there, and are not shy about expressing it, or loudly denigrating those who disagree with their interpretation, and that I do take issue with.

You see, what I believe is that yes, women should have the vote, and the basic rights accorded to men, and be treated equally in the workplace, etc. But I also strongly believe in the difference between the sexes, which is based in our biology and is irrefutable. And I believe in the right of any individual, male or female or trans, to behave exactly as he or she wishes to behave, provided that they do so within the law and without hurting anyone else.

This means that if I want to dress up to the nines for an evening out with my husband (whose name I have taken, because I wanted to), and go out in full make-up, perfume, high heels and sparkly/gauzy/frilly dress, it is absolutely my right to do so and expect to be treated respectfully2. However, if I put on a skirt which barely covers my naughty bits and a top cut right down to my navel, and go out alone to a late-night club, it is absolutely my right to accept that I do so at my own risk, in the full knowledge that it is going to excite some men3 and that I am putting out a subliminal ‘Hey guys! I’m available and I’m up for it’ signal. Because that’s the way hormones and social signals work.

BornToBeSexy

We all use a non-verbal language which I’m going to call ‘Human’, and we use it all the time4. It’s partly about facial expressions and gestures, the ones we all know about; the nods and smiles and waves, the hands on hips and the stabbing finger, and we know full well what we’re saying, don’t we? But the rest of Human is the really interesting bit, and the bit most of us know little about. Pheromones play a large part in Human communication, but so do body position, head tilting, small contractions in the muscles around our eyes and mouth, tensions in the hands and fingers, weight shifting, respiration depth, pupil size, rate & pitch of speech, and so on. Whether we like it or not, we are all sending out these social signals, all the time. And sometimes these contradict what we are telling people in words.

So. There are feminists who see the softer side of their gender-driven natures as something which will betray them and which must be suppressed, and it’s absolutely their right to do so if they wish, but it can happen that a women believes she is behaving like a strong feminist, whereas she is actually saying something entirely different in basic Human.

This is a problem because it appears that many quite ordinary, decent men can get confused, because they have no clue what women want – in particular, the individual women they meet and deal with on a day-to-day basis. For instance, many young women wear tee shirts with slogans across their breasts, and yet if a man dares to allow his eye to be caught by the writing, he is glared at and made to feel as if he’s assaulted them. Isn’t this a little unfair? Unless, of course, you yourself never, ever, read a guy’s tee shirt?

tattoo-clothing-for-women

I have always been a bit uncomfortable with the feminist movement, while at the same time approving of many of its aims: equality in pay and opportunity in the workplace, the right to vote, to take public office, to be taken seriously as a person first and a woman second.

However, I strongly disapprove of anyone dictating to me what I should and shouldn’t do, whatever sex they are, and I reserve the right to wear make-up and/or a bra (or even a corset if I should so wish) dye my hair, and to remain unoffended by wolf-whistles, compliments, or the odd wink from a tradesman. Quite frankly, I’m tired of all the nonsense. Of course women should be able to feel safe on the streets and in the workplace, but is it really necessary that all men should be regarded as potential rapists in order for this to happen?

Do we really want to put the whole masculine gender into a such an invidious position?

CinnamonRolls

This is a far from scholarly blog, but it seems to me that the worrying increase in levels of depression and suicide in men – particularly young men – in our society today may possibly be linked to a communication problem. They are reading the subliminal messages of the women they meet, who appear to be giving the right signals, but then they are slapped down when they make an approach. Result? Confusion, leading to anger and frustration, and – because society now requires more self-restraint than ever before – this can be transmuted into depression, which actually seems to be a fairly predictable response. Remember, too, that ‘Care in the Community’ means that we have people living among us who may not actually be very good at ‘Human’, or indeed at impulse control – and this includes vulnerable men as well as vulnerable women5.

Chrissie Hynde may have been indulging in ‘victim blaming’ herself, as spokeswomen from the feminist movement have said, but there is a teeny tiny little grain of truth in what she says, because, like it or not, there are always consequences.

Perhaps what we all need to remember is that in this life you can pretty much do what you want … if you can take the consequences. This does not, however, in any way mean that I excuse those who choose to perpetrate violent crimes against women.

1 From Wikipedia

2 Of course, people might laugh .. especially since I’m likely to fall flat on my face if I attempt to walk in high heels.

3 Ha. Well, stranger things have happened! I might be the wrong side of sixty and weigh enough to be worth two whole smaller people, but you know what they say. There’s no accounting for taste.

4 Some of us are considerably better at it than others. Some of us have a really feeble grasp of it – at least at the conscious level.

5 Who may not have great judgement skills but also need to be protected.