Monday, 31 August 2020

Journal of the Plague Year 18 - The Fence Repair

A well stocked work shop stands at the beginning of every successful DIY project!

Hi and Hello, and all that sort of thing!

No posts for three months, I can't believe it.  Well, I have been busy.  And since I also had to recover from various viral diseases and their debilitating side effects, blogging was low on the agenda.  I continue to do stuff - I just don't have the energy to write about it afterwards.

Anyway, I have just had a week off work, because I had to fix the fence.  Well, rebuild a large section of it.  Not as nice as spending the holiday in La Bourboule, but equally necessary.

In my experience, it is easier to completely rip something out and then rebuild it, than to repair what is there.  Of course, I did the latter.

As mentioned in the last post, I had spent a considerable amount of time and energy cutting down the hedge.  That had to be done, so I could repair the fence that was pretty much obstructed by the hedge.  After I had finished with the hedge I was so exhausted that I did diddly-squat for two months.

Then I pulled myself together and inspected the fence situation.  Almost a month was spent in preparation and planning. Finally ten days ago I had accumulated all the necessary materials needed, figured out the workings of my electric saw, and discussed the interruptions and irritations my project would cause with the neighbour.  She was extremely helpful, no doubt worried that I would abandon my project if she discouraged me.  All the fences in the neighbourhood are falling down, various storms and the endlessly gnawing tooth of time have rendered them all ineffective, and having at least one portion of local fencery restored was an alluring prospect.

She did ask whether I had done that sort of thing before?  Funnily quite a few people asked me that question, including my good friend from Cleveland, who wondered whether "an office girl" like myself was capable of handling a saw.

The fact is, I had never used an electric saw before I started this project, and I never repaired a fence, either.  But I figured, millions of XY chromosome type people can do this, so why shouldn't I?  Besides, my grandfather was a master carpenter, and though I can't recall that he ever taught me anything (he was old and I was a girl) I nevertheless think that I should be able to do at least basic carpentry, by virtue of genetic drift and cellular memory.

And I was proved right, because I was massively successful and am now proud as Lucifer!  I have already received offers from neighbours to repair their fences, but I am too exhausted, and anyway have other projects to attend to.

Another rip roaring success for the DB Tribe!

The old fence before I took it down - basically a collection of random planks, held together by habit and the neighbour's creeping vine.
 

I had bought all sorts of planks and beams and stored them in the garden

The main post, which had a rotten bottom.  I had to cut off the top and bottom, and re-cut all the notches for the railing of the fence on either side.  This was extremely tricky! But I managed, with the help of making lots of little cuts with my saw, and using my chisel to chip them away.

The old fence planks are leaning against the compost heap - I will have to fit them into the operations somehow.  Aside from rotten tops and bottoms they are in a good condition, so maybe I can build a wood shelter or something similar.

Busy beam-notching - sometimes a helping hand from a friend would have been useful, but I remembered the one at the end of my own arm and used that one, instead.


The neighbour's water drain pipe, and water butt, had been illegally attached to my decrepit fence, and had to be detached/moved.  The neighbour hasn't re-attached it yet, I shall have to offer my services next weekend, when I tackle my next garden project.


The skeleton structure was created first.  Basically, a beam at the bottom, two half beams across, and one on top.  The top one is solely for the neighbour's cat, so she can walk across the fence.


I cut two planks short at the bottom and reinforced the hole, to function as a cat entrance.

For the last three planks, I decided to afix them together to form one big piece, and fashion them so that they can be removed, to function as an emergency door. 


The fence door can't really be seen from the other side, from my side you just see the extra little railings.  Note the cat ladder on the right hand side?  The idea is, the cat walks up the ladder, across the plank on top of the fence, and then jumps onto the conservatory.  A further jump will get her to the bedroom window of my neighbour.  Unfortunately the cat is ornery, and never does what she is supposed to do, so I am not sure she will do as I suggest!

Close up view of the cat-gap - too small for me, alas!


One of the leaning fences in the neighbourhood

and another one ....

Well, I am sure you will agree that my new fence section is beautiful and sturdy and bound to outlast those other, lesser, fences in the area!

Friday, 29 May 2020

Journal of the Plague Year 17 - The Battle of the Pyracanthas


It has finally happened. I have tackled the pyracantha menace.  It was a long time coming ...

When I had first bought the Little House I was particularly excited about the garden - I had never had one, but had read loads of gardening books by Beverley Nichols.  I was dying to try out all his ideas!

It was a particularly tragic chapter in a gardening life dominated by pain and rejection.  To summarise, my neighbours all loved tall trees with dense foliage, and nothing grew in my garden.  I spent thousands of pounds on it, but everything died.

The only plants that didn't die were ivy, ferns, and pyracantha bushes.  So that's what I planted.  They didn't grow all that well, but they survived, and provided a little green colour in the unremitting gloom on the forest floor that was my garden.

Then the incredible happened - my neighbours started to cut down their trees!  Sunlight entered my garden.  And the hitherto subdued pyracanthas thrived and reached for the sky.  Every year they grew taller and wider.  I tried to cut them back a bit, but they have up to 4 inch long spines, and my compost heap was small.

I extended the compost heap, by digging two feet into the ground and making it 2 meters long and wide, but it still wasn't large enough to accommodate all the foliage that I needed to cut down in my garden.

For years I let things slide, indulging in massive, futile, slashing orgies once or twice a year, compost heap space permitting.  Things came to a crisis this year, because I had not been able to do much last year, on account of being unwell.  The pyracanthas completely dominated the garden, strangling the damson tree, the apple tree, and even the birch.  The neighbour's honeysuckle had inserted itself into the pyracantha hedge, and connected, by means of its endlessly long vines, the birch, the damson tree,  and the apple tree with the pyracantha hedge.  The resulting matted mess was impenetrable, and pigeons used it for immoral purposes.  I harvested neither damsons not apples, and the birch looked increasingly aggrieved.  Things had to change!

So at the start of May, emboldened by the three day Bank Holiday weekend that lay before me, I donned my Japanese working skirt, turtleneck, and fleece jacket, and ventured into the wilderness, armed with shears, a small saw, and a side cutter (usually used to cut electric wires, but pressed into service, since I own no secateurs).

I started systematically at one end of the hedge, and sawed off the large trunks.  Then I wildly brandished my long handled shears, to frighten off the wildlife that was caught up in the trunk, and cut through any branches and honey suckle and ivy shoots that connected the hedge to the severed trunk.  Then I threw the trunk into one of the two open areas in the garden, and steeled myself to cut the next one.

This activity took up most of the Bank Holiday weekend, and every evening of the week that followed.  Finally I was done!

Now the real work started.  All the cut branches taken together came to about 5 cubic meter - to compost them I would have had to turn half the garden into one vast compost heap.  But there was another option - an incredibly labour intensive option.  Obviously I took it.

I processed every cut branch individually.  First I sawed off the really big side branches.  Then I clipped off the smaller branches.  Then I cut the smallest branches into 4 inch long pieces, and added them onto the compost heap.  From the medium sized branches I cut the smallest twigs, which againI cut into small pieces and added to the compost heap.  The longer branches I denuded off their leaves, which I added to the compost heap.  Then I took the side cutter, and snipped off every single thorn and spike.  The medium sized branch, now innocent of all leaves and thorns, I piled against the garden fence.  The large branches/trunks I treated in a similar way, and piled up in another place.

All this took over two weeks, including two long weekends (I had added some annual leave to the Bank Holidays) and every evening (about three hours every day after I had finished the office work).

I cannot exaggerate how proud I am of myself!!!!!  I spent approximately 60 hours (sixty!!!) snipping thorns off pyracantha branches - who does that?  A lesser DB would have ordered a large container and had the lot hauled off to the city dump.  But I am made of sterner stuff!!!!

Anyway.  Last Sunday by midday I had completed my labours.  I now had a high compost heap (about 2 cubic meters), a large pile of medium sized branches and twigs, and another large piles of large branches and trunks.

At the bottom of my garden is 2 meter high brick boundary wall.  Almost half of it is taken up by the compost heap.  The other half was populated by various oddments of garden rubbish.

I cleared the garden rubbish, and then constructed a Dead Wood Hedge Thingy.

My thinking was, since I had destroyed all those pricker bushes, which had served the local wildlife as shelter and a source of nourishment (mind you,I found no bird nests in my cuttings), I determined to make amends.

I rammed several poles and branches one foot away from the wall into the ground, parallel to the wall.  Into the gap between the wall and the poles I stashed my twigs, branches, and trunks, carefully leaving little gaps, to accommodate hibernating amphibians and nesting birds.

At one end,where the wall meets the fence,I incorporated my old bird-feeder, as a particularly luxurious nesting opportunity. I closed off two of the openings, and surrounded it by a few pyracantha branches that had retained their thorns, stacked too close for large birds like magpies, but not too close for little birds like robins and wrens.

There is a huge canopy of ivy on the wall, so hopefully it will soon disguise both the compost heap and the dead wood hedge.

I am typing this seated on my garden bench, pleased with my labours, and mulling over plans of how to repopulate the now strangely empty garden.  I want to plant flowers, and maybe some fruit bushes like currants - after all these decades of gloom I crave some colour.  Besides,the pyracanthas did provide blossoms for the bees, and berries for the bird, so I will needs to offset the loss of all the cut down bushes.

Just in case you wonder, I have retained two pyracanthas.  The one in front of the kitchen window, that shields the garden bench, and one especially tall one next to the birch tree.  I cut back of the other stems, and only retained the tallest, which reaches for the sky and looks like a tree, with a bare trunk and a canopy.  It looks a little off, but I need it for the washing line.

I add lots of photos below, to illustrate my writing.  I wish I had a polarising filter, thelight is never so cold as in the photos, and the garden, while bare, really does look very nice and inviting in the sunshine.

I am very pleased to be sitting here on my bench!







After the slaughter

Pyracantha tree

Bottom of pyracantha tree -I have since cut back the non-tree branches

Big branches

Bare wall, to soon host the dead wood hedge

Compost heap

Small and medium sized branches, sans thorns




I am watering the compost heap to encourage swift processing of clippings

The dead wood hedge


Covered compost heap, Christmas Tree, and dead wood hedge


Still quite a lot of foliage left!

View from the garden bench

Pond with fountain


Those pots contain seeds - hope they will come up!

A peaceful nook in the garden

Luxurious bird bath, 60cm across and filled with pebbles to varying heights, to accommodate different sized birds.  The lupin flower is the only one so far, I bought some plants in


Journal of the Plague Year 16 - Divide and Rule

It's the Wrinklies wot done it!


I have noticed recently that the idea that old people are ruining things for the young is being increasingly pushed during the current crisis.

Blaming the wrinklies for the woes of the young has been rumbling on for a few years, and curiously enough it isn't the 'young' - ie anyone under 30 - who are doing the arguing.  Indeed, I have discussed this with many of my young friends, and they have all dismissed the notion, sometimes offering up the same arguments I had prepared to convince them.  I will return to them later in this post.

Instead this idea is promulgated by middle aged and older folks, mainly on the right or left wing fringes of the intellectual spectrum.  Why do they do this, and why now increasingly so?  Why this mustard keenness to stab an entire generation in the back and divide the nation?  Since it is not a notion that stands up to close questioning, why is it being pushed?

With regard to the individuals who argue for it, they probably have a multitude of reasons.  A guilty conscience for having had a good and, as they see it, undeserved good life, an erroneous comparison of the past with the present, selective memory, and a desire to make a name for themselves by making inflammatory statements, have probably all contributed.

With regard to those who give column inches and talk show time to such views, I think they do it to deflect the public's attention from the real villains, and thus protect the special interests that they serve.

Corona Crisis


Take the current crisis. 

(1) It is not the old people who demanded / decided to shut down the country to 'protect the old and vulnerable' - it is the government.

(2) About a third of the young have health issues that make them vulnerable to not just death, but also serious illness that may leave them long-term impaired, from the Corona virus.

(3) The situation has been made worse by governmental mismanagement:
          (a) An NHS starved of resources, and undermined by various re-organisations
          (b) An initial laissez faire approach to the disease which allowed the virus to spread
          (c) A refusal to participate in EU ventilator sourcing project for ideological reasons
          (d) A continuing penny-pinching with regard to PPE, that has cost lives
          (e) Impoverishing the population, many of whom have inadequate housing and income
          (f) Enabling greed and selfishness, which undermined social cohesion
          (g) An ideological approach to problems, rather than a practical one
          (h) Allowing fools to occupy important positions for party political reasons
          (i) Applying different standards to Toffs & Co versus the plebs
          (j)  Complete the list with your own examples, as appropriate!

THUS, the government and its enablers are in dire need for a scapegoat.  Not just for the current mess, but even more so for the Brexit Hard Exit situation they are continuing to prepare for, in the teeth of all reason and practicality.

Since they can't really blame the EU for their mismanagement of the corona crisis (not to say they won't try), they are throwing shade on China (which is deserved but fraught with danger, since they need China as a trading partner) and on those who can't fight back - the old and infirm.

However - Before blaming older generations, you may want to consider the following


The young have always been exploited and given a raw deal.  Who do the fighting and dying in the wars?  The young.  Who do the hard physical labour?  The young.  Who risk life and limb giving birth to future generations?  The young.  Who get paid the lowest wages?  The young.  It was ever thus.

But ....  everyone who is old now was young once, and equally exploited, and usually worse.  The ancients currently in the stocks for being greedy were caned in schools, got their first job when 14, did not go to university, had no access to birth control or divorce so frequently 'had to marry' and got trapped in bad marriages, lacked many of the luxuries we nowadays take for granted (internet access, employment protection, health & safety - yes, protection from exposure to asbestos, for example, is so worth it!, all year round special foods, multiple holidays abroad, etc etc).  I could go on, but you get the point.

Instead you may want to consider WHO has always done this exploiting?  Hint - it was not the older generation as a whole.  It was those in power, who usually exploit us all more or less equally.  Just because most of those in power are older, doesn't mean that THE OLD as a group rule the country for their own benefit!

The older you get the more you have accumulated.  Seems obvious - if someone has worked and earned for 50 years their chances of having accumulated enough to have a nice house and pension are a lot higher than those of your average 30 year old.  Comparing the material circumstances of the old and young who currently live in the same country, and concluding that the young are disadvantaged, is disingenuous.  The comparison should be between what the ones who are old now had when they were young, and what the ones who are young now have.  The current young generation is better off, in my opinion.

Lastly ....  When people are young, most of them have a healthy body.  The older one gets, the harder it is to feel the joys that come from having a healthy body.  The senses dull or even disappear.  I lost my sense of smell about five years ago, and the world has become duller.  No more smelling of flowers, savouring subtle nuances of food, feeling comforted by the smells that go with favourite friends and relations.  And no more avoiding spoilt foods - I have a lot more food poisoning now than when I was able to smell things.  The same goes for the other senses, of course, and the rest of the body - what was easy and natural when one was young, because increasingly an effort and a chore as one ages.

To make up for this declining body, one has to spend money.  In my case, I throw away a lot of food that is probably perfectly alright, because I cannot detect whether or not it is safe to eat.  

When your senses dull. live becomes duller, and you have to turn up the volume, to still get some joy of it.  That is why people need more money when they grow older.

And as aging accelerates, there are medical and mobility issues, and grieving for one's ailing body is overshadowed by mourning the loss of one's relatives and friends, who drop off the perch, one by one.

Being poor is OK when you are young and healthy - it certainly was for me.  But being poor when you are old and decrepit is not OK.

I appreciate that most of the young folk I know appreciate this.

I am not, by the way, complaining - growing older is a heck of a lot better than the alternative!










Thursday, 16 April 2020

Daydreams of a Realist 1 - The Deal with Tineola

Having spent three days solid on her carpetry, Mrs Allnixguts had enough.  For three days she had shaken, fumigated, hoovered, vinegar watered, and brushed, the carpets that lay on her floors, the saddlebags that covered her chairs cushions, and the kelims that curtained her four poster bed.

She was battling against the moth menace again, and loosing every fight.  No matter how hard she cleaned, no matter how many strips of moth killer she slipped under her carpets, no matter how many pheromone traps she distributed around the house, the moths were still winning.

She was no longer prepared to tolerate it.

"Helga," she shouted at the top of her voice, "Helga, something has to be done!"

Her daughter lifted her head from a book, and smiled.  "Mother dear," she intoned in her honeyed voice, which she always employed when trying to get out of helping with the housework, "have you tried Transcendental Meditation?"  "You are taking these things entirely too seriously."

"Harrumpph," or something like that, said Mrs Allnixguts.

Then she telephoned the university.

"Put me through to the Biology Department," she demanded. The telephonist recognised her voice from previous calls, and tried to stall.  But Mrs Allnixguts was adamant.  "The Biology Department!" she demanded in that stentorian voice that put the fear of God into anyone it was directed at.

Sighing, the telephonist put her through to the Biology Department.  It took some time before she could transfer the call, since most biologists knew Mrs Allnixguts of old and preferred not to take her calls.

Everyone, that is, except the janitor, who was a secret experimenter and illegally used the laboratory to test his harebrained inventions after opening hours.

He took her call, nodded sagely, occasionally asked a clarifying question, and eventually admitted that he had no idea of how to help her.

"If all else fails go to the Philosophy Department," thought Mrs Allnixguts.

The Philosophy Department consisted of five Professors who liked to use their brains.

"Militant moths," mused Byron.  "Let's analyse the possibilities," opined Dan.  "Above all, we must do no harm," interjected Irving.  "This is definitely multi-departmental," concluded Don.

Mrs Allnixguts was informed that the Philosophers would accept the challenge, and told to return in a week's time.

With her out of the way, the Philosophers brain-stormed the situation.

(1) Do moths have a language?  Ask the biologists and the chemists.
(2) If they do, how can we magnify it so it becomes discernible to humans?  Explore this with the engineers.
(3) What sort of language do they speak?  Explore with the classicists and modern language teachers.
(4) Do moths do deals?  Enlist the help of economists.
(5) What sort of deal can we offer them?  Discuss with Mrs Allnixguts.

The biologists and chemists confirmed that moths did have a language.

The engineers built an electronic magnifier that made it audible.

However, the language experts turned out to be completely useless, and failed to decipher the language of the moths.  That stalled progress for a few days, until Irving went back to first principles, and managed to decode the most frequently used sound bites he heard, with the help of a visiting economist, Isabella Kaputnik, who had a vast experience of moths.

She also helped with the deal-making aspect of the matter.  According to her, the Common Clothes Moth, Tineola bisselliella, had few wants and was easily satisfied, provided it was treated with respect. "They are just as happy eating unwanted left overs as expensive cashmere sweaters," she said.  "Provided you supply them with some sort of food, address them correctly, and don't swat or poison them, they will be quite amicable."

Mrs Allnixguts was confronted with these findings, and asked what sort of deal she would accept.

"Do they eat fluff-bunnies?"  By which she meant, did moths eat the balls of fluff found behind the doors and in the corners of houses owned by persons who don't like dusting - popularly referred to as sluts-wool.

"It is definitely worth asking," said Isabella.  "But you should also offer them other things."  "Old sweaters and wool blankets that I no longer need," said Mrs Allnixguts.  "Cut-offs and left-over crafting supplies," she added.

They set up a meeting with the moths. The moths were happy with all the offered food, but asked for the contents of the hoover bag to be thrown in as well.  This was conceded by Mrs Allnixguts.

Next they discussed the location of the food, and thus the moths.  The moths demanded a warm and dark place.  No garden shed, no outhouse, and no cellar.  Mrs Allnixguts suggested the attic.  "I hardly ever go there, and there is lots of old furniture and such like, where you can build a nest, if you like."  The moths agreed to this location, with the provision that they would be allowed into the house if the attic got too hot or too cold.  This Mrs Allnixguts agreed to, with the proviso that the moths would abstain from eating anything except the dust that collected on her furniture.  The moths were happy with this.

That gave Don an idea.  "If the moths like house-dust, which is mainly fluff, why don't they come down once a week and eat all the dust?  They have an outing, and you don't have to do the dusting!"  This idea was taken up with alacrity by both moths and Mrs Allnixguts.  So they agreed that the moths would be summoned every Saturday morning to come into the house and 'do the dusting'.

There remained one sticking point, however.  Mrs Allnixguts was unhappy about the moths' demand to be addressed in what they considered a respectful manner, and balked at addressing them as 'Their Imperial Mothnesses'.  It seemed excessive to her.  Yet worse, the moths insisted that every Saturday morning, when they entered her parlour, they would be announced and introduced to whoever happened to be present at the time, in the following way:  "Hail and Praise Their Imperial Mothnesses, Rulers of Carpets, Queens of the Fluffballs, Majesties of the Wool-closet!"  They also insisted to be told the name, rank, and relationship to the household, of everyone present.

Mrs Allnixguts resisted.  "Everyone will think me mad," she complained.

"No one would dare," said Irving, who knew her well.

Since Mrs Allnixguts could not ague with that without losing face, she agreed to address the moths in the way they desired.

Thus began a life of bliss and happiness for Mrs Allnixguts, who no longer had to dust and worry about her carpets and woolens, and the moths, who finally received the respect and acceptance from human beings that they had always craved and longed for.

In time Mrs Allnixguts' visitors got used to the moths, and several of them, upon hearing of the Deal, enlisted the Philosophers to arrange something similar for their own home.

And they all lived happily ever after, or until they died.

 I can dream, can't I?       







Tuesday, 14 April 2020

Annals of the Book-Club - Mongolia (better late than never!)

Why-ever not Mongolia?


A few weeks before the last Book-Club event, the Booksters and I were haunting the club terrace, decanted into deck chairs, sipping Pimms, and wondering what topic to pick next.

After a while one can easily run out of subject matters - I should explain that in this book-club, we choose subjects, not books.  Back in our pioneer days, when one of our number chose a book, and the others were obliged to read it, life had not been quite so pleasant.  To be frank about it, unfortunate choices frequently lead to altercations.  Because we are all very different.  And some of my fellow club members are decidedly scurrilous in their literary tastes.

Discussing the finer points of the Necronomicon, or delving into the secret languages of gut bacteria, or even tackling the fluffier chapters of Barbara Cartland's Autobiography, can have a corrosive effect on the proceedings of even the most even-tempered bookinistas - and we are so not even-tempered.

So we decided that we would chose a topic, rather than a specific book, for our monthly meetings, and that everyone could pick a book that fit within that topic.  During the meeting everyone can discuss their book for half an hour or so, and that way we learn about lots of books we never knew anything about, and also don't fall out over having to read books we don't want to.

I note that while we were running with the one-book-for-all book-club model, some members used considerable deception and trickery to avoid reading an assigned book they didn't like, pleading ever more ludicrous reasons why they couldn't.  The Morrigan was particularly averse to any book I chose, and did this at least three times to my favourite volumes.  Not good Morrigan, very not good!

Anyway.  There we were, ruminating about the next topic, and suddenly someone opined, "Why-ever not Mongolia?"  We pretty much all agreed that Mongolia had no literary value, lacked recent history,  was touristically uninteresting, and probably imaginary.  "It'll be a challenge then," we were admonished.  "I don't even know where Mongolia is," complained Maddy.  "Alright, that's agreed then," I summed up the situation.  The Morrigan glowered.

At lunchtime of the Friday before the meeting, we all received an emergency luncheon invite from The Morrigan.  I wondered what excuse she would use this time to explain her lack of application to the Mongolian subject matter.....

"I can't possibly cope with reading the history of Genghis Khan," she opened the conversation.  We booed and hissed.  "There are other Mongolian-related books," I pointed out.  Everyone else looked pained.  "There so are not," said Joseph.  "There is nothing except history of the period between Genghis Khan and Kublai Khan."  Maddy agreed.  "A bookishly barren landscape, is Mongolia."

I smiled my most superior smile, and pulled out The Bloody White Baron, by James Palmer, a book which recounts the story of Roman von Ungern-Sternberg, who mixed things up a bit in Mongolia in the 1920s.  "What's that then?"  The Morrigan looked at the cover, which featured a portrait of the baron, surrounded by a profusion of skulls (the baron was a bloodthirsty maniac), read the blurb on the back, and dismissed the book out of hand.  "Even worse than Ghengis Khan," she pronounced.  "I have a better plan."

"That's all very well," said Joseph, "but I have spent ten hours I will never get back reading the history of women at the court of Genghis Khan, and I am neither willing nor able to read another book by tomorrow morning!"  "Ditto", added Maddy.  I just looked hurt.

"It takes ten and a half hours to fly to Mongolia," said The Morrigan.  "Here are the tickets.  I checked with your managers, you can all take Monday off.  We leave today after work, arrive early Saturday morning, and leave Monday evening.  Then we go straight back to work."  You see what I mean about using trickery to get out of reading things she doesn't want to?

We obviously all had to agree to spend a long weekend in Mongolia.  Why-ever not?

The Flight to Ulaan Baatar


Luckily I had a few hours to prepare before I had to be at the airport, and I spent it locating some reading matter that might come in handy during the holiday.  My fellow booklovers had brought their Mongolia-themed books along - having already read them, they were averse to forsaking them completely - and it was decided that each of us would have half an hour to introduce their chosen volume during the flight.  

Luckily the plane was practically empty, so our little group dominated the cabin, and none of the other passengers (dared to) complain.  The solitary steward, having completed the emergency drill, glazed over within minutes of our readings.

The Morrigan had a Lonely Planet Travel Guide, from which she read us some interesting statistics.  Maddy entertained us with ‘The Secret History of the Mongol Queens - How the daughters of Genghis Khan rescued his empire’ by Jack Weatherford, Joseph read us the introduction of  ‘Genghis Khan: Life, Death and Resurrection’ by John Man, and last went Blondie (who had missed the lunchtime meeting but came along anyway) and extrapolated from the blurb on the back of  'Women and the Making of the Mongol Empire' (Cambridge Studies in Islamic Civilization) by Anne F Broadbridge.

I had decided to go last, knowing from bitter experience that my offerings did not always find favour.  I reasoned that by going last, having listened to everyone else reading from their books, I had earned the right to be listened to in my turn.  It was dark outside, and my fellow travelers had snuggled deep into their blankets, when I introduced my reading matter.  "In consideration of The Morrigan's aversion to my chosen book about von Ungern-Sternberg, I have brought along a few different articles of interest about Mongolia."  Before I settled into my task, I decided to go for a quick trip to the toilet.

When I returned, my friends looked incredibly sleepy, and upon closer inspection I noticed an empty tube of sleeping pills that had rolled under The Morrigan's seat.  Since I knew the way she operated, I surmised that she had utilised my toilet break to peruse my reading matter, shared her knowledge with the alarmed bookinistas, and suggested the sleeping pills as a way of avoiding my impending lecture.

Well, I wasn't that easily thwarted!  Whether they liked it or not, I had a captive audience, albeit asleep, and I was going to read them my chosen article.  Who knows, maybe they would absorb the subject matter in their sleep?  With an even, quiet voice, loud enough to be heard, but not loud enough to wake them, I started to read.  

"The lactic acid bacteria in traditionally fermented yak milk products.  In 64 samples of fermented yak milk, 216 strains of lactic acid bacteria (LAB) were identified.  They belonged to six genera and 17 different species.  The distribution of the isolates by genus was as follows:  Leuconostoc (40.8%), Lactobacillus (39.0%), Streptococcus(13.2%), Lactococcus (5.6%), Enterococcus (0.94%), and Weissella (0.46%)."

It took 45 minutes to complete the reading of the entire article, and no one awoke during the reading.  Satisfied with my labours, and full of future plans, I, too, went to sleep.


Adventures in Uulaan Bataar


We awoke shortly before landing.  Maddy looked vaguely suspicious, The Morrigan smug, Joseph thoughtful, and Blondie had a hangover.  We found out later that she had smuggled in a large bottle of gin, which she claimed was similar to having an emotional support animal.  I was nonchalant, and assumed an air of injured innocence - I am rather good at that, and it is quite necessary to be so, on rather too many occasions.

Going through customs, the officer attempted to flirt with Blondie, the most physically attractive member of our little group.  "So what are your plans?  Is there anything in particular you want to see while in Ulaan Bataar?  I can recommend the Toy Museum!"  Her answer puzzled both him and her.  "I should adore to see the Institute for Fermented Yak Butter," she said in a low, husky voice.

Luckily no one aside from me and Joseph heard her....

In the hotel we had a quick wash & brush, and then assembled at the breakfast buffet.  It was unremarkable, being of the sort one usually finds at international hotels, but was augmented by a few national specialties.  To my quiet satisfaction, everyone added some milk or cheese product to their breakfast tray.

The morning was spent touristing about on Chinggis Square, and lunch was obtained from a small local restaurant we discovered in a side street. The Mongolian food pyramid is top heavy with milk products (called white food), so it was quite natural that we all ate various combinations of mutton, cheese, and potatoes.  The tea afterwards was served with a liberal serving of milk (goat, not yak), and the alcoholic beverage Blondie tasted was called Airag and made of fermented horse milk.

We then repaired to the Feminist Club; I am an auxiliary member, of course, and it seemed an easy way to make some connections.  Ulaan Bataar is simply crawling with educated women - they far outnumber educated men.  In Mongolia, the boys take care of the animals while the girls are sent to school.  The unfortunate consequence of this is often that the women, no longer inured to certain unpleasant courtship rituals, remain men-less.  A number of them had formed the Feminist Club, which was part social scene and part special interest group.  They welcomed us with open arms, except for Joseph who had to sit outside in the garden and brood.  The club was ladies only.

However, his isolation did not last long.  Half a dozen club members decided to give us a taste of the town, and soon we all set off for a whirlwind tour of the beauties of Ulaan Bataar.  I am not going to give details, because we went around so quickly that I couldn't remember much, but let it suffice that there was more to see in the Mongolian capital than I had suspected.  The Morrigan took credit for everything, of course, and since she had both our return tickets and the credit card that subsidised us, we did not argue with her.

We finally sank into our bunk beds - The Morrigan had bought the cheapest room going, and it was a common one for all of us.  They all grumbled a little, but finally fell asleep.  I was mightily pleased to have them all in one space again, and decided to continue to read them excerpts of my Mongolian scientific articles (after they had dropped off).

"In another study carried out on the diversity of Mongolian traditional fermented dairy products using pyro-sequencing, it was found that there was a correlation between animal species and the genus Lactobacillus which was found to be the core foundation in Mongolian fermented milks. L. kefiranofaciens, L. helveticus, and L. delbrueckii were the predominant species sequenced using NGS for ethnic Khoormog, Airag, and Tarag fermented samples, respectively."

After I had finished reading them the article, I, too, went to sleep.

Sunday was overcast and rainy, so we decided to spend the day in the Toy Museum, followed by the Mongol Costumes Museum, The Memorial Museum of the Victims of Political Repression, and The Institute for Fermented Yak Butter.  I had expected greater resistance to this last choice, but it seemed that traipsing around town for two days straight had undermined their resistance.  Or perhaps my plan was working?  I was determined to continue my bed time readings that night.

Which I did.  "In a clinical study on this strain, it has been found that LCZ carried an ability to modulate the composition of fecal microbiota in both elderly and adult subjects. The strain exhibited growth-suppressive effect on pathogens such as Acinetobacter and Pseudomonas."

Monday morning was beautifully sunny and put us all in a wonderful mood - our last day in Mongolia had arrived!  The happy mood was unfortunately spoilt over breakfast, when The Morrigan overheard Blondie (the most susceptible member of our group) give a fellow European tourist a little talk on the benefits of fermented yak products.  She was using long words and liberally sprinkled her sermon with Latin words which The Morrigan suspected she did not understand, but which seemed strangely familiar to her.  "Randomized, double-blind clinical trials using L. plantarum showed that there was significant lowering of sepsis and lower respiratory tract infections among infants in rural India," she heard Blondie saying while slurping an extra large serving of Mare's yogurt.

Now The Morrigan, say of her what you will, has an active intellect and an incisive mind.  Her suspicion aroused, she looked around the breakfast table.  All members of the Bookclub were eating super-human sized portions of milk products - all non-Bookclub member tourists had given such products a wide berth, and were tucking into bacon and eggs, and similar western fare.  She glanced at her own plate, which was laden with cheese derived products, and at her glass, normally full of orange juice, now mysteriously full of double-distilled goats milk.  She then turned towards me, not just her face, but her entire body, and said in a cold hard threatening voice: " This is your doing, dastardly DB."

I shrieked and shivered inwardly, but admitted nothing.  "Whatever do you mean, is anything the matter?"  

But she just snorted.  Obviously she was on to me - would all my hard work be undone?

The Trip Home


Back on the plane Monday evening we were all rather tired after our eventful long weekend, especially I, since The Morrigan had forced me to swallow three sleeping pills or "remain in effing Mongolia 'till you rot!"  She had not forgiven me for having tried to brainwash her into liking microorganisms by nefarious means.

Soon we had all dropped off.  The last thing I heard, before losing consciousness, was the sonorous voice of Joseph, loud enough to be heard, but not loud enough to wake us, reading from an article I had entrusted to his care earlier that day, while The Morrigan was searching my bag and confiscated and burned all readable material she found.

"In human intestinal epithelium, the interaction between adjacent cells and cell-basement membranes form a crucial barrier that prevents the translocation of the microbes to the sub-epithelial layer. This adherence is governed by tight junction, gap junction, adherence junction, and desmosomes. The mechanistic role of probiotics reported in various studies associated with the strengthening of mucosal barrier function is mainly directed toward examining the ability of probiotic bacteria to prevent alterations in bridging proteins and ....."

Journal of the Plague Year 15 - Photos of Breakfasts Past

The High Street on a Sunday morning, before all the tourists have descended upon it

Every Sunday morning, other social engagements permitting, I meet my good friend A. at some likely eateria for a gossip & forkful.  A. is an old colleague from my university days, and since she shares my love for hanging out endlessly in cafes while discussing the events of the day, meeting up for breakfast has become a dear habit for us over the last ten years or so.

I like to arrive a little early, so get a chance to glance at the papers - always good to be up-to-date when having a gossip with A.!  She quite often pips me at the post and gets there first - but she doesn't read the papers!  She gets her news from more reliable sources, like one of her numerous friends & acquaintances or even the serving staff.  A. makes friends easily, and invites confidences, and is an excellent source of reliable gossip.  My newspaper gleanings come a poor second in our discussions, but she has a generous spirit and doesn't hold it against me that I am short on university gossip and long on news!

Those breakfast mornings are one of the things I really miss during these cooped-up days at home, and so I was particularly cheered when I discovered some photos I took of Oxford and our then breakfast hang out.  We have moved on since, because this one has become so infested with tourists that locals don't get a look in anymore, but I thought you might enjoy the photos.

Below is the photographic evidence of a typical Sunday morning in Oxford, rainy and gloomy and full of gossip and food!


All Souls College, that has no students and a desirable location right next to church St Mary the Virgin

St Mary the Virgin, official University Church; used to house the library

"Ich halt' es mit dem Gockelhahn" - identify the quote!

And there it is again - the tree in front is a magnolia, which blooms splendidly for a week or two in Spring.

This Buddleia came uninvited, as usual, but blooms for 9 months of the year and never fails to cheer me

Catte Street - between All Souls and St Mary.  Further down to the left is the entrance to St Mary's crypt

View from entrance to the crypt - Radcliffe Camera overlooms the garden

The crypt garden serves as an outdoor cafe annex, and can be very nice in the sunshine.  Notice the tourist group in the background?  This is at 08:30 in the morning.  Four hours later there will be more tourists than landscape.

Entrance to the crypt

Crypt garden, different angle

Inside the crypt

Ditto