2014 Blog Statistics!

My addiction to webcomics is crippling my ability to study, and I’m struggling to keep the Facebook habit under control, but my blog statistics page usually makes me feel good about myself. It’s wonderful to see how many people, and from how far away, have been led to my blog. I’m astonished that when you google a major Shakespearean character, I’m now on the first page of Google (albeit at the bottom). I have had a lot of unusual search terms, thanks mostly to my post about the York Naked Bike Ride. As the stats page also breaks down views by country, I noticed that one of the lewdest search strings coincided with my first view from Vatican City. Coincidence? I think not.

It’s hard to pick a favourite among this year’s entries, but The Drunk Samaritan was the most interesting to write, while Waterlog 7: Laugharne and Pendine Sands didn’t quite get the attention I was hoping for.

Thank you all for dropping by, subscribing, and showing your willingness to read what I write!

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 4,400 times in 2014. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 4 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.


Conversations with Strangers: The Forager

50 Since I started this blog in December 2013 I’ve written 50 blogposts and achieved 7300 views from all around the world, including Indonesia, Iraq and Vatican City. This would be the ideal point to look back, evaluate and reminisce, and such indeed was my original purpose, before I remembered how much I hate writing self-reflexive articles. True though it may be that the unexamined life is not worth living, I’ve never enjoyed doing it in front of an audience. I keep a journal for that, now well into its ninth volume, and woe betide he who peruses it without permission! So it is with some delight I have tossed aside my projected plan of discussing the motives that led me to begin blogging, complaining about how much I hate taking photos – the worst part of the blog – and trying to impose a retroactive rationale on a rattlebag of miscellaneous writing that incorporates anecdotes, poetry readings and academic conference reports, on topics as varied as astronomy, wild swimming, flying a glider, the Homeric translations of George Chapman and the embarrassments of taking a tramp home after a beer festival.

Instead, here’s an interesting conversation I had with a complete stranger.


… Over the bridge, a couple of people had vaulted the railings and were browsing on the blackberry bushes sloping down to the edge of the Taff, that mostly flows grey, brown or greasy green, but in these hot summer days had grown so clear that its rocky bottom was just visible through the weed.

– Found any juicy ones? I inquired, leaning against the railings.

The girl looked up. – They’re all a bit sour at the moment.

A green stripe varied the blonde hair that curved down her cheek toward her chin, and her bare bronzed arms were daubed with abstract colour, worked into her skin with the needle’s point, striped white also with the fainter mark of thorns. Her friend or boyfriend, with similar tattoos and a wild tangle of hair and beard, never spoke.

– Everything is coming into season about three weeks early this year, I observed, but even so I’d give the blackberries till the end of the month.

– Want to try one? she said, extending a purple hand. I picked the largest, dark, plump and softly bobbled; still my mouth filled with the familiar bitterness of a berry a few weeks under-ripe.

– No, not quite there. Have you ever tried making blackberry gin?

– We’ve done blackberry vodka.

– Does it still go that wonderful blood colour?

– Oh yes. Tastes great with cloudy apple juice.

– I like doing mine as a gin and tonic – then it bubbles upwards into a foaming glass of gore! I’m looking forward to laying in a stock for Halloween. Have you ever made nettle tea?

– No, but I made a chickpea and nettle curry the other day. It’s very versatile. I use it instead of spinach in a couple of recipes.

– Really? I’ve done it up with butter and pepper before, but it just tasted of pepper and butter. Kind of flavourless. Ah, just like…

-Just like spinach, yes. Bute Park’s a really good place for foraging. Her gaze roamed beyond me, upriver and down. There’s a big patch of elderflower over there. We made a ton of cordial. And there’s wild garlic and dandelion for salads.

She was eating up the rest of the blackberries from the palm of her hand as we spoke. Her friend or boyfriend found a little worm in his last, and threw it away. Then, not without awkwardness, they climbed back over the railings.

– See you when they come into season, I guess.

Oh, you tease

Teaser trailers are getting stingier. True, they were always meant to tantalise us with a few seconds of footage from films and TV programmes we wouldn’t get to see for months, but as studio execs get slicker at viral marketing and riding the hype whilst keeping every bit of plot information they can under wraps, the teaser trailer is torn in two directions – revelation and secrecy. Too often, this becomes a pointless exercise in frustrating your audience.

To illustrate my point, let us return to the halcyon days of my youth – to the golden year of 2001, when two of my favourite books hit the big screen at once: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.

At the time, I thought Harry Potter was the better movie. I was young and naieve. It’s still plain, however, that while the Lord of the Rings teaser is overloaded with exposition, the Harry Potter teaser contains everything a young fan might want to see without giving too much away – the letters swooping down the chimney! The Hogwarts Express! Hagrid! The Great Hall! Dumbledore! Snape! McGonagall! Harry, Ron, Hermione, and the tantalising prospect of Quidditch on the big screen! Nothing could be more exciting.

Fast forward to 2012, and the teaser for The Dark Knight Rises resembles something put out by one of those irritating people who fake trailers for new movies by splicing together footage from old ones. Some offcuts from Inception – a few clips from Batman Begins and The Dark Knight – while Commissioner Gordon wheezes something inaudible from a hospital bed. Even the blink-and-you’ll-miss-them appearances by Bane and the new Batman costume can’t save it.

It is possible to do this properly, as JJ. Abraham’s trailer for Star Trek (2009)showed. It contains no footage from the film we saw in cinemas – it doesn’t even tell you the name of the film. Yet, lifted as it is by marvellous sound design, Leonard Nimoy’s goose-pimply voice over and the surprise reveal, it’s a wonderful bit of cinema in its own right, and a concise introduction to the dynamic visual style of the Star Trek reboots.

The worst culprit is the most recent – the first teaser trailer for Doctor Who Series 8, the first season starring Peter Capaldi as the Doctor. Of the 15 seconds the trailer lasts, 10 of them are taken up with the Doctor Who logos that top and tail it. 2 of the remaining 6 seconds are taken up by staring at a dark screen. The other 3 seconds show a few frames of Peter Capaldi, standing in silhouette, against the TARDIS console. And that’s it. No monsters, no Daleks, no alien planets. No glimpse of the main characters in action – not even a proper look at the new Doctor’s costume, and photographs of that were released to the media months ago. Instead, a total waste of 30 seconds of my life.

(Yes, I played it twice.)

Casual snogging in the eighteenth century

I cannot be the only modern reader to have been completely wrong-footed by the passage in Bram Stoker’s Dracula where Lucy is receiving Quincy P. Morris, who has just delivered her second marriage proposal in one day. ‘And then, my dear,’ Lucy writes to her faithful correspondent, ‘before I could say a word he began pouring out a perfect torrent of love-making.’

Maybe later, I remember thinking, after she’s said yes and he’s obtained her father’s approval, but mid-proposal? In the drawing room? That’s a little precipitate even for an American, surely?

I swiftly gathered that in Victorian English, to make love to a beautiful woman is to ardently yet respectfully protest your passion, rather than to ardently ravish her on the drawing room carpet. Yet the incident highlights, I think, how difficult it is to imagine the manners of a former age, even with a detailed realist novel to fall back upon.

Take the way the gallants of the eighteenth century used to ‘salute’ a woman, not by jerking their hands to their foreheads and down again, as the modern usage would have it, but by kissing them on the lips. Three hundred-odd years ago, we were regarded as ‘the kissing nation’ all through Europe – even by the French – but manners have changed so much since it’s impossible now to reconstruct whether this was a perfunctory greeting – a mere dry peck – or something more lascivious. The danger of the former turning into the latter is clear from William Wycherley’s comedy, The Country Wife, where the foolish Sparkish urges his fiancee Alithea to salute his friend Harcourt – to kiss and make up – unaware that all the while Harcourt has been seeming to plead Sparkish’s love for Alithea, he has in fact been protesting his own. ‘What, invite your wife to kiss men?’ exclaims another, much more jealous character. ‘Monstrous!’ Yet kissing was socially common, though undeniably occasionally embarrassing or unpleasant – especially in Eliza Haywood’s novel The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless, where an unwelcome suitor is described as giving the heroine, mid-speech ‘a kiss, the smack of which might be heard three rooms off’.

Perhaps the best clue to how all this kissing worked is provided by Lucy Lockit in John Gay’s proto-musical The Beggar’s Opera, filmed by the BBC in the eighties with Roger Daltrey of The Who wenching most enthusiastically as the dashing and wildly promiscuous highwayman Captain MacHeath, while the ladies seem nothing loth. Upbraiding her for having fallen in love with MacHeath, her father says ‘Ah, Lucy! thy education might have put thee more upon thy guard: for a girl in the bar of an ale-house is always besieged.’ Lucy responds with a song:

When young at the bar you first taught me to score
And bid me be free with my lips, and no more,
I was kissed by the parson, the squire and the sot;
When the guest was departed, the kiss was forgot.
But his kiss was so sweet, and so closely he pressed,
That I languished and pined till I granted the rest.

That, at least, clarifies the sort of thing that was expected of a barmaid – kisses were free, so long as they didn’t go further. But when you factor in the many gradations of class and respectability that eighteenth century society existed on, and the even greater number of kisses – mournful, respectful, dutiful, passionate, soft, hard, light, deep, not to mention matters of individual technique – it soon becomes impossible to be exactly sure how any kiss, fictional or otherwise, would have been. Which is where imagination (and personal experience) has to come in.

BARS Romantic Locations Conference 2014

BARS Locations - Thomas Tyrell

My account of the conference is reblogged from the BARS blog, curated by Matthew Sangster.

– – – – – – –

I had not even started my PhD when I first saw the call for papers for the BARS early career and postgraduate conference on Romantic Locations, but I had come away from an internal postgraduate conference at York brimful of misplaced confidence, and that very week I was hitch-hiking into Keswick for a few nights free board at the youth hostel where my friend worked. I took a copy of Wordsworth’s Guide to the District of the Lakes with me, and in the meditative moments between the rambles and the wild swims, an idea took root. It grew slowly – I sent my final abstract from a public library in Christchurch, New Zealand, in the three month interregnum, and I received my invitation to present a paper just before I moved into Cardiff for my PhD.

As the conference approached, I was filled with nervousness. I was after all a PhD of only three months seniority, and my research area wasn’t even properly in Romantic Studies. Would the others sniff me out as a romantic imposter, the Dr. Polidori amidst the Byrons, Clairmonts and Shelleys around me?

Such was the gloomy tenor of my thoughts, but as the train left Oxenholme and began to rumble towards Windermere, I found myself uplifted by the sublimity of the scenes around me. Arriving in Grasmere, I followed the hum of mighty workings into the Jerwood Centre, and over a reviving cup of tea I was reassured to discover that more than a few of my peers had cudgeled their brains, ransacked their notes and creatively re-interpreted their research plans in order to attend a conference in so splendid a location as Wordsworth’s own Grasmere; furthermore, I was the only one who would be talking about Romanticism and cartography, and would have a wide field in which to range. Feeling much more confident, I sat down to the first panel.

Highlights of the first day included Kate Ingle’s paper on ‘Personal Place-names and Dorothy Wordsworth’s Writing of Grasmere’, which immediately made me want to run out and find all the places mentioned; Daniel Eltringham’s on upland enclosure and Wordsworth’s ‘Michael’, which read more critical theory into the practice of sheep-farming than I thought it ever could hold; and the final panel of the day, where Alexis Wolf, Honor Rieley and George Stringer introduced us to the impact of Romanticism in places as diverse as France, Canada and India. The concluding plenary lecture was given by Professor Simon Bainbridge of Lancaster, whose paper on Romanticism and the history of mountaineering made every postgraduate with a pair of muddy boots in their luggage wish they had thought of the idea first. The wine reception, held by candlelight in Dove Cottage, was an experience I am sure that none of us will forget.

Next morning dawned bright and early, and in despite of having drunk an inadvisable amount of wine the night before, the fresh air and change of location wrought wonders. This was a good thing too, as my paper on ‘The map, the territory, and the small cloud between Scafell and Great Gavel’ opened the first panel of the day, at 9:30 in the morning. Other highlights included Philip Aherne’s ‘Incomplete Communion: The Reception of the Conversation Poem’ and Leanne Stokoe, whose paper on Jeremy Bentham, Adam Smith and Shelley’s prose I had secretly been dreading, but which turned out to be absolutely fascinating. The day was varied by a talk from Jeff Cowton, curator of the Wordsworth Trust’s collection (pictured below), who passed around plenty of original manuscripts for us to coo over and sent us home with our very own love letters – from Mary to William. This was followed by a seminar with Jeremy Davies on Percy Shelley’s time in Tremadoc, North Wales.

BARS Locations - Jeff Cowton

After the last panel of the day, we adjourned to the Traveller’s Rest for dinner. Last orders was called at eleven o’clock, but by a combination of special pleading and skilful flirting, we kept the drinks coming until well after midnight, and it was a little after two in the morning before this bleary postgraduate scrambled into his bunk. Nonetheless, Shoshannah Bryn Jones Square, Hannah Britton and Joanna Taylor had clearly eaten their Shreddies the next morning, and their panel on Romantic Borderlands was one of the best of the conference. It left me eager not only to discover Mary Shelley’s Matilda, but to reread The Eve of St Agnes and the poems of Hartley Coleridge with the benefit of their insights.

Interesting papers on Byron’s closet dramas, Mary Tighe’s sonnets and the layout of Hardwick Park followed, alongside a film by MA students from Newcastle University, who took on the challenge of presenting Wordsworth to a new audience with fortitude and invention. Sadly, after two nights of wine and revelry, not even the combined brilliance of Craig Lamont, Tristan Burke and Mary Shannon could keep my head from nodding a little during the final panel. I was, however, much refreshed by the second plenary lecture, where Professor Nicola Watson, president of BARS (below), entertained us all with her tales of fell walking with Jonathan Bate and Duncan Wu, and the wizard-like way in which she transformed a block of wood from a thing, to an object, to a literary artifact before our very eyes.

BARS Locations - Nicky Watson

With that, the conference concluded. Some were whisked off by minibus to Windermere to begin their journey home, while others (myself among them) remained for a weekend of walking the fells and communing with nature. As Wordsworth said,

Enough of science and of art;
Close up these barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.

On the arrangement of books

A rainbow of books

Clearing out my childhood bedroom recently, I found throwing out all my old books to be a miserable experience. There’s something crushing about coming face-to-face with those hopes and ambitions of long ago and realising that there’s no day rainy enough that I’m going to read the Mahabharata, that research project on Dark Age Wales has long since fallen by the wayside, and that no-one, not even Andrew Motion, has ever written a halfway satisfactory sequel to Treasure Island. Still, now that I’ve moved them all to my new flat and have begun to find them homes on my shelves, I find the cliché is truer that many people realise: books really do furnish a room. Of course, you can bind them all identically in morocco leather and house them in oak cabinets; or you can buy individual cased hardbacks from the Folio Society to adorn your living room in style; but even my ragtag collection of poetry, science fiction, outdoor adventure and Russian Literature; ranging from svelte, selected modern paperbacks to tome-like turn-of-the-century collected works; even this can furnish a room. It provides an abstract pleasure for the eye as it slides along the row of spines, enjoying the change of colour and texture from jacket to jacket without thinking unduly of authors or subjects. A well-tuned bookcase can be a work of art, a kind of linear mosaic that provides visual pleasure independent of intellectual association. After having moved and reshelfed several times in the past few months, I can see fragments of the old patterns on my shelves, broken up where I unloaded a box in a different order, or found space to squeeze in an extra volume. It would be possible to agonise infinitely over the placement of everything, but I’ve decided to slot them in in any order and let them settle in for themselves.

A French friend once asked my advice on ordering her books, and I flippantly suggested colour-coding them by spine. What I didn’t realise is that French paperbacks are an almost uniform flat white, of a sort I only recall seeing here on the spine of a 1970’s Dickens reprint, so that idea was doomed from the start. English books may be more colourful, but they present their own problems. Do I shelf the matte black Penguin Classics together in one great uniform block, or leaven the effect by scattering them among the more vivid shelves? What do I do with something like Branch Lines: Edward Thomas and Contemporary Poetry, whose publishers gave it a dust jacket that was half green, half brown? Do I even own any indigo or violet books? At least the Faber and Faber paperbacks provide a basic spectrum from which to expand.

All this for the moment is academic; perhaps some very rainy day, after I’ve laid the Mahabharata aside, I may set to work on an aesthetic theory of bookshelves. In the meantime, it merely adds a new pleasure to that small empty space in the bottom right hand corner, where every night, at the stroke of midnight, the ghosts of all the books I have ever owned and am yet to acquire flicker past; red, purple, green and sober black, they dance briefly and then vanish into a haze of possibility.

Bridge Swinging

Swing collage
Before — During — After

Not many adventure sports begin by punting down the Isis on a sunny afternoon. To our left, a posse of medical students were drifting by on a relaxed revision cruise, testing each other’s gynaecological knowledge with the aid of various textbooks. No dirty joke here – this was what they were actually doing. To our right, there was nothing but green fields, cows, and the occasional jogger – that portion of Oxford that I only ever seem to see from the river.

We, the relics of a garden party for my sister’s 21st birthday, were in two groups. In my punt was Tom Codrington, who had the build I normally associate with a racing biker, but who turned out to be a rock climber – and a dab hand with the punting pole. His girlfriend Tabitha was with us. In the second, much rowdier punt were my sister Jessamy, her boyfriend Steve, and a smattering of friends from Oxford and Winchester. They had all the left over food from the garden party, some of which they would thoughtfully toss our way whenever the punts bumped together.

So far, there was nothing to separate us from the dozens of other luncheon parties on the river, save perhaps for the coils of climbing rope, carabiners, and tangled harnesses in the till of the punt. That, and the energetic way in which, when the punt came to a low-lying bridge, the occupants would swarm up over the side of it and drop back down into place, while the punt glided smoothly on beneath.

After about half an hour’s lazy cruising, we came to a taller bridge. It was a gorgeous twenty foot arch that crossed the river in a single span, simple, functional, yet still of a piece with Oxford’s greater architectural glories. Here we moored down stream, gathered up the rope and harness, and set to work getting the whole thing set up.

Bridge swinging, in its commercial form, is an alternative to bungee jumping where people swing to-and-fro like a pendulum instead of bouncing up and down like a yo-yo. Large sums of money are paid to do this. In its amateur form, I found, you fix a rope to the railings of the bridge, cross to the the far side, and then swing the other end underneath, high enough so someone on the other side of the bridge can catch it. This is a complex activity which requires timing, foreshortening, and good reflexes on the part of the person in charge of catching the rope. Tom Codrington proved to be expert at this, as well. When that’s done, all you need is someone foolhardy enough to climb into a fluffy, tatty climbing harness, long since discarded from actual climbing duties, clip themselves to the far end of the rope and leap over the railings. My sister went first, and I was close behind.

It was a nervous business, actually, since I had got to get as low as possible to be sure of a good swing, feet pressed flat to the stone and fingers gripping the railings for dear life, while the people on the other end of the bridge took in the tension until this new umbilical was stretched almost horizontal under the bottom of the bridge, taught as a guitar string. Then all I had to do was let go.

Three or four wild, whooping arcs ensued, as I swung crazily between the bridge and the water: then, at the apex of the upswing, Tom Codrington slacked his hold and I crashed into the silver-green Isis, surfacing seconds later, gasping for breath and wiping the water from my eyes. I trod water for a minute while I fumbled with the carabiner’s screw-lock, detached from the rope, and struck out for shore.

Except for Jess’s boyfriend Steve, who was too cool for it, we all took a turn. The girls shrieked, the boys whooped – even the most timorous went, after a false start or two. I went three more times, with varying degrees of disaster – the  first time I leaned too far back and inverted, swinging around upside-down like a bungee jumper in a high wind. Then Tom Codrington and I decided to do a swing together, but the rope stretched too much and we kept crashing into the water on the down swing, slowing us down and taking up from the perpendicular to the pendulous in seconds.

We finished up utterly soaked, thoroughly exhilarated, and with the satisfaction of giving all those picnicking upon the riverbank a little lunchtime entertainment. It was a good afternoon’s work.

2swing collage

Oats and Water

A new word hit the OED in November of 2010 – Glamping. It’s a form of luxurious camping where you’ve got all the pleasures of the outdoors without any of the trials – where your tent, for instance, happens to be an Indian tepee or a Mongolian yurt, and your campsite includes a sauna and a jacuzzi.

My formative camping experience was my Duke of Edinburgh expeditions, where you carried everything you’d need for the next 3 or 4 days on your back. Buying anything, or sleeping beneath a roof, was forbidden. Strictly speaking, they weren’t keen on you walking through towns or along roads, either. Hence, my idea of camping is the opposite of glamping. It’s a holiday from the luxuries, as well as the distractions of urban life. Unless I’m bedding down on a battered roll-mat with a bundled-up jumper for a pillow, in a campsite where the plumbing runs to two toilets and a cold tap, it doesn’t really count as camping.

IMG_4205A whole new level of asceticism was reached while I was preparing for a weekend in the Highlands of Scotland. I had to bring along my own breakfast and lunch for both days, but I couldn’t be bothered to bring anything fancy. So I brought four bags of oats. One with hot water for breakfast, and one with cold water for lunch. I was thinking chiefly of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, where David Balfour and Alan Stewart go on the run through the heather with nothing but a bag of oats to sustain them – hot porridge when they can risk a fire, cold porridge without. I seem to remember it being called skillet, like the frying pan, but a brief search of the online text reveals I was probably making that up. The recipe is:

  1. Take 250-300g of oats, for one serving.
  2. Add water until the oats are submerged. Stir until the water goes a milky colour.
  3. Eat.

It is lightweight, compact, hydrating, extremely economical, and leaves you with a pleasant feeling of having eaten something. It gets you plenty of attention and something of a hard-man reputation from those you’re walking with. On the other hand, you have to really, really like the taste of oats. Even so, it’s a pretty grim meal. I generally eat a chunk of fruit and nut chocolate afterwards to balance the carbohydrate with some sugar. Yet it’s quite reassuring, I think, to know that if things get really tough, in life or on the trail, all I really need to survive indefinitely is access to fresh water and a really, really big bag of oats.

Spring on the Airfield

IMG_4181A belated spring has finally reached Britain. The trees are beginning to come into leaf, a couple of months after the first flowers poked their heads above ground, only to be buried deep in snow and frozen into submission. Down at Pocklington airfield, everyone is out of doors and a grand fleet of gliders is lined up in two orderly queues, for winch launches and aerotows respectively. The first of the spring thermals have arrived, and no-one wants to miss a moment of flying time.

Thermals are columns of hot air rising from the earth below, which can be hijacked by gliders and used to gain height. The lack of any warm air at all during the winter months is what makes gliding relatively neglected for half a year, when all anyone can do is descend as slowly as possible. In spring, when the nights are cold and the days are warm, and the temperature differential is at its strongest, the thermals are at their fiercest. It is possible to climb thousands of feet in just a few minutes.

I’ve been gliding all winter through, and coming out to Pocklington once a fortnight on average. I’ve been up a dozen times, but even so my total flight time is still just under an hour. An average winter flight lasts about 5-7 minutes, and even if you’re lucky and get 3 flights in a day, it’s still not a lot of time. Often rain, or adverse winds, or ice on the wing, will scupper your chances of getting into the air.

By contrast, my first flight this spring lasted 38 minutes, and took me to heights of 3500 feet. It was terrifying – but then I find everything terrifying while I’m flying a glider. It’s part of the reason I go. In this case, my head knew, abstractedly, that the higher we are the safer we are, that we have more room to manoeuvre, more opportunities to find another thermal,even – God help us – more time to bail out should anything go catastrophically wrong. My stomach, however, has only just got used to seeing Pocklington from a thousand feet up, and is really unused to this new perspective. It doesn’t help that climbing in a thermal involves spiralling inside a column of hot air, and maintaining that spiral in despite of all the efforts of wind and turbulence to force you out of it. It requires a tight look out, careful handling of the controls, and a strong stomach, particularly on rough days. By the time I land, I am noticeably green around the gills.

Yet there’s fun to be had on the ground too. Once we huddled in the tea bus, hunkered over our mugs and shivering, while mist poured from our mouth and nostrils with each exhalation. Now everyone is sat out around a table, telling the tall tales of lightning strikes and crash landings that are so much a part of the gliding experience. All around us, the birds are back in force. Since almost all our aircraft are silent, and the one strip of tarmac we have dates back to World War Two and is harder to land on than the grass, there’s little to scare them away. The swallows are all over the place, and popular with everyone except the man who’s job it is to keep them out of the aircraft hanger, where they have an irritating habit of nesting inside the gliders. The moment one entrance is stopped up, they find another. It’s a never ending task. Swifts and skylarks are to be seen in profusion, and I was once halfway through my circuit when I looked to my right and found two buzzards flying a few feet off my wing. Of course, I couldn’t let that go by without writing a poem.

Birdwatching on the Airfield.

The swallows nest in gliders in the spring.
Leave one uncovered for a week and when
You check inside the canopy or wing,
You’ll find them stowed away there in their den,
Awaiting launch by aerotow or cable,
As if they thought to fly up like the wren
Upon the eagle’s back, in Aesop’s fable.
This spring, there’s many kinds of birds around,
I’d name them all for you, if I were able,
But of the ones whose proper names I’ve found,
I like the skylark best for its ambition.
Because, like us, they’re born upon the ground
But will not be content with their condition.
To see them struggling skywards in full song
Fills we with – well, a kind of recognition
Of my desires in them. Oh, prove me wrong
If you’ve a mind to, but I think we share
A certain glee in flight, now Winter’s gone.
It wasn’t long ago I saw a pair
Of buzzards in a thermal spiralling
Beside my glider on the rising air,
And as we soared together, wing to wing,
I thought: to us, with human speech’s gift
There’s mystery in all they do or sing,
But sympathy as well. Why, take the swift:
Would it play all the games it does in flight
With drag and thrust and gravity and lift
If with us it shared not the same delight
In ease and speed and silentness and height?

Benjamin Franklin meets Voltaire

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin

History is full of great men and women running into each other by coincidences that must have seemed like nothing at the time, but which often throw their biographers into flights of speculation as to what was said, and what was thought, and how each must have reacted. Sometimes the results are seismic, but too often the encounter ends in disappointment. John Keats meeting William Wordsworth was, by all accounts, a social disaster. Elizabeth Gaskell, the industrial novelist, lived on the same street for years as Friedrich Engels, co-author of The Communist Manifesto, without either of them appearing to know who the other was. Edward Thomas and Wilfred Owen would have known each other by sight without either of them having any idea that the other wrote poetry – much less some of the best poetry of World War One.

In the case of Benjamin Franklin meeting Voltaire, however, the charm of the occasion is that the spectators appear to have pre-empted the biographers, and been positively rabid with excitement.

On a Wednesday in April 1778, Benjamin Franklin, at that time a Minister Plenipotentiary to the newly formed United States of America, had with dinner with John Adams, the commissioner and the future President of the United States, and both went afterwards to hear a few papers read at the Academy of Sciences, the premier intellectual gathering in Paris. Benjamin Franklin was already famous throughout France for his discovery of the lightning rod and the electric properties of thunderstorms, in addition to his many literary and philosophical works and his staunch defence of his country’s new independence. Dubbed L’ambassador electrique, he moved among the social circles of Paris with much greater facility than Adams, whose stern republicanism was shocked at the frivolity the French mixed together with the serious affairs of science and diplomacy.

Also attending the Academy of Sciences that night was Voltaire, a voluminous writer whose religious and political scepticism had made his life one long litany of imprisonment in, and banishment from, his native France, but whose many sufferings had never stopped him writing , and served but to increase his fame and popular appeal. Now aged 83 and aware he had only a few months to live, and that the current climate was sympathetic to his opinions, he had broken a three decade sentence of exile and returned to Paris.

According to Adams’ account, the meeting began routinely enough, with D’Alembert, the president, reading eulogies on the recently deceased members of the Academy. But some of the crowd, electrified at the presence of two living legends of the Enlightenment among them, began to demand that Franklin and Voltaire be introduced to one another. The two philosophers bowed formally and spoke to one another, but this was no satisfaction to anyone, and served but to increase the clamour of the audience. As Adams dryly notes:

Neither of our Philosophers seemed to divine what was wished or expected. They however took each other by the hand…. But this was not enough. The Clamour continued, untill the explanation came out “Il faut s’embrasser, a la francoise.” The two Aged Actors upon this great Theatre of Philosophy and frivolity then embraced each other by hugging one another in their Arms and kissing each others cheeks, and then the tumult subsided.

What the two thought of each other, we hardly know, and the meeting led onto nothing new in the careers of these two titans of the Enlightenment, whose greatest triumphs were now behind them. All the same, one would have loved to have been there.