Monthly Archives: June 2020

See How They Run

Some previously shy creatures have become more visible in our now quieter towns. Foxes. Squirrels. Hedgehogs.

Joggers.

The closure of the gyms has driven these long-hidden animals out onto our streets. It is quite common to see them now, red-faced, sweat spraying in their drift like the tail of a comet, their breath in short pants, like their legs.

They do not appear to be enjoying themselves.

This is because they aren’t. Joggers do not like to run on the street. If they did they would run to the gym instead of driving there.

To be honest they do not like to run at all. Ask any one of them why they run and the best reason that they can come up with is that “you feel great afterwards”, a phrase that can be equally applied to tooth extraction.

But run they do, driven by innate, primitive instinct. Not a fleeing-from-the-mammoth instinct, but a competitive one. And the most competitive one of all.

They are competing with an infinite number of their other selves. Twenty-year Old Self. Still Playing Football Self. Yesterday’s Self.

So they look constantly at their watch as they run. They have a Fitbit, a device that sees them when they’re sleeping, and nags when they’re awake. They have a small rectangular pad strapped high up on one arm, which I assume is to gather data about them – though it may in fact be a Kindle, or a GPS system. Perhaps it’s a solar panel.

Anyway, all of these things help them to run faster, to do better, to ignore the taunts of In Your Dreams Self, who has given up drink and has not survived lockdown solely on Jaffa Cakes.

Next Monday the gyms will re-open, and the joggers will return to their natural habitat. Bird-song will be replaced by techno music and by the occasional shuddering thud as someone loses control of their kettlebell.

Scenery will be replaced by Sky News on a muted TV. Blue-cold air will be replaced by muggy staleness. The scent of post-rain soil, of cut grass, of wildflowers, will be replaced by the odour of sweat and athlete’s foot powder.

They will be back, literally, on the treadmill, running to stand still.

But they will no longer be alone, out in the wild. There will once again be rows of them pounding their feet in unison.

They will once again be running with the pack.

 

Diego, the giant Galapagos tortoise whose tireless efforts are credited with almost single-handedly saving his once-threatened species, is retiring. The 100-year old tortoise fathered 800 hatchlings during his time on Santa Cruz, but is now returning home to his native island of Española after having taken part in a breeding program since the nineteen-sixties…

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Tortoises are looked upon by their cousins, the turtles, as the boring, stuffy members of the family. They do not swim. They walk at a snail’s pace. They eat lettuce.

There has never been a teenage mutant ninja tortoise.

But then, no turtle has ever saved his whole species from extinction.

We should start by bemoaning the fact that chelonians’ attitude to male/female roles seem to match ours. Diego is regarded as a legend, a hero, saviour of his species, simply because he has spent a lifetime laying. The lady tortoises, the ones who then did the further, more difficult, laying, do not seem to get any credit, although they probably also reared the children, swept the island, and have made sure that Diego is going to get eight hundred Father’s Day cards tomorrow.

Still, he has given fifty years of devoted service, so to speak, and it would seem churlish not to acknowledge his, well, efforts.

There will be those who envy Diego his job. Such people have not thought this through, and have never listened to the tales of couples Trying For A Baby, when the whole thing becomes a chore and all the fun goes out of it.

Imagine Trying For A Baby every single day.

There is an Irish phrase, ‘an rud is annamh is aontach’, which translates as ‘what’s seldom is wonderful’. Diego felt sometimes as if it were written especially for him. Some days he simply wouldn’t feel up to it, and would hide in his shell, looking like a Volkswagen Beetle up on blocks.

But he was a consummate (dear God) professional, and would always eventually drag himself out to work.

And now he is retiring, having reached a hundred years of age. His neck is wrinkled, his face lined, so he hasn’t changed much since the day he arrived.

He is knock-kneed now, but in fairness, so would you be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Licence To Trill

A Pakistani pigeon accused of being a spy has been captured on the Indian side of the border in Kashmir (Irish Times 06/06/2020)…..

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Fred

Fred had started work in MI6 as a mere courier, a job that required no more skill than the ability to outwit Dastardly and Muttley, but he had always accepted this lowly role, knowing that humans would get the more glamourous work.

Then came facial recognition software. The Double-O’s had been moved to jobs in payroll, and Fred had been promoted.

A pigeon spy has it tougher than a human one. James Bond would be sent into action with a bow-tie that became a boomerang, a biro that became a bazooka and an iPhone that gathered personal information. All Fred would get was a packet of exploding bird-seed and a leg-ring that picked up Radio Luxembourg.

Bond was trained in weaponry and martial arts. Fred was trained to find his way home.

But even so, Fred had been remarkably successful, again due to technology. And fear of it.

Paranoid about planted bugs and tapped phones, conspirators now meet exclusively on park benches. Fred would simply walk around in front of them, head bobbing as if for worms, and listen to every word.

Plus he sometimes got bread thrown to him.

It wasn’t all easy though. The bad guys also hired avian operators, and over the years Fred had had to fight skuas, hawks and falcons, all faster and stronger than him, but all dispatched with ingenuity and a killer pun.

In South Africa he once defeated a Cape Vulture called Bloveldt by suggesting to him that he might appear more menacing if he took to stroking a cat.

Now, though, it seemed his ingenuity had let him down. He was in the Indian part of Kashmir, and had unearthed a plot to flood the world with cashmere sweaters, collapsing the price to allow total market domination. The man who came up with this plan might have made as much money, legally, by investing in IT, but fixation upon a single mad scheme is the true hallmark of the supervillain. To this end he had built an underground base and the world’s largest weaving machine.

The base alone cost five billion dollars, and smelled overwhelmingly of goat.

Hoopoe (from justbirding.com)

It was while leaving this base that Fred had been caught. He had gone undercover as a hoopoe, a native Kashmiri bird, but it is not an easy look to capture and Fred had ended up looking like an extra from Trolls.

He had been quickly rumbled, caught in a net and denounced as a spy – a Pakistani one, since the two nations blame each other for everything. He had been placed in a cage, deep in the underground base, and was now listening to low rumblings, yells of panic, and a disembodied female voice intoning “T Minus three minutes, and counting”.

Because before being caught Fred had filled the weaving-machine motor with exploding bird-seed.

He was stoically keeping his upper lip stiff when he heard a voice say “need a hand?”

Alyona

He looked up. A Siberian Accentor was looking in at him, a smile on her face.

“KGB?” asked Fred.

“There’s no such thing,” said the bird. “MI6?”

“No such thing either,” said Fred.

“Mmm,” said the bird. “Anyway, it seems the two agencies neither of us work for have a common foe here. My name’s Alyona,” she said.

“My name is Fred. Fast Fred.”

“Seriously?” said Alyona.

“It’s a Lancashire name,” sighed Fred. “I come from a long line of racing pigeons.”

“I see,” said Alyona. She tilted her head to one side as the voice said “T minus two minutes, and counting.” “Well, it looks like that might be useful right now.”

She plucked a feather from her tail and picked at the cage lock. The door swung open.

“Let’s go,” she said.

They flew out into a corridor filled with smoke, shouts and running humans. They weaved and swooped around falling beams and sudden bursts of flame. They streaked vertically, wings by their sides, up a lift-shaft, then darted under a massive metal door just as it was closing and found themselves outside, on a heli-pad. The villain was escaping, his helicopter already feet from the ground. Fred and Alyona dive-bombed the rotor, pooing into it over and over until it stuck. the engine stalled, and the helicopter crashed to the concrete and burst into flames.

“Bird strike,” said Fred, feeling it was expected of him.

“T minus five seconds, and counting,” said the voice.

Fred and Alyona fled, but were just two hundred yards away when the base exploded.

The sky caught them, and threw them.

They cut through the air faster than either ever had before, tumbling over and over at the bow of the wave of fire. Their wings touched, and held, each supporting the other.

Gradually they slowed, then hovered, resting on the sky. They were both panting from relief, from exhilaration, from the sheer joy of being alive. Their feathers were singed, their faces were blackened, and neither had ever seen anything as beautiful as the other. They grinned, then realised at the same time that they were still holding wings. Neither moved to let go.

“Fancy joining the mile-high club?” said Alyona. “I’ve suddenly become a pigeon-fancier.”

“Coo,” said Fred.

 

 

 

 

The Call Of The Mild

Dublin Zoo re-opened to the public this week…

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It was dawn and so, as has become customary, one could hear the birds.

And in a zoo, this is a problem. The animals were woken, not gently by the sweet song of the blackbird or wren, but joltingly by the simultaneous shrieks, screams and howls of the flamingo, the kookaburra and the cockatoo. The overall sound was like someone trying to fit a bagpipes into a duvet cover.

The penguin groaned and rolled sideways off her ledge into the water. The hippo buried his head in his mud. The elephant tried vainly to flop one ear across the other.

The lion raised his head and roared. The birds quickly fell silent.

“Well, that told them,” murmured the tiger, curling sleepily back into a ball.

“Actually, that was just a yawn,” said the lion, “but don’t tell them that.” He sat up and stretched. “They’re coming back today,” he said.

The tiger opened one eye, then the other, then sighed and dragged herself to her feet. “So they are,” she said.

Eleven weeks ago the visitors had suddenly stopped coming. They went instead into something called ‘lockdown’.

The irony had not been lost upon the zoo animals. The humans were confined to their individual pens, their food delivered to them by a man standing at a safe distance. They quickly became bored. Then very bored. They scratched where they wanted to, when they wanted to. They developed hairstyles like the lion’s, though none of the others had felt brave enough to say this aloud.

At first the animals had found all of this really funny. But then, to their surprise, they began to miss the humans. They missed having an audience. They missed the gasps of delight, the squeals of terror, the rounds of applause. They secretly missed being fed ice-creams.

They too, became bored, and struggled to find ways to fill the time. The panda was teaching the hippo Mandarin. The monkeys were trying to see if they really could write a play. The tiger, using grit and penguin-dung, was making sourdough.

But today the zoo was re-opening. One by one the animals rose and got themselves ready for work. The sea-lion practised balancing her ball on her nose. The elephant stretched and loosened his trunk, using yoga moves he had learned from the python. The lion gargled.

Suddenly the giraffe looked out over the trees. “They’re coming!” she said.

The animals listened. They could hear high-pitched, high-speed chatter, the unmistakable call of the young human helium-ballooned by excitement.

The peacock spread its great fan. The loon grinned like, well, a loon. There was a smile on the face of the tiger.

“It’s showtime,” she said.

 

 

 

 

 

Through The Too Many Miles

“The private rocket company SpaceX has sent two NASA astronauts into orbit. Doug Horley and Bob Behnken are not only trialling a new capsule system, they are also initiating a new business model for NASA. The agency will no longer own the vehicles it uses but merely purchase the “taxi” service offered by SpaceX” (BBC News website 30/05/20)…. 

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The elevator door hushed open at the top of the gantry. Doug and Bob turned to each other and fist-bumped, grins wide inside their helmets.

It was showtime.

They stepped across the small platform and into Dragon, the module at the top of the giant Falcon-9 spaceship. They busied themselves strapping into their seats, so carefully that they did not notice that they were not alone, so were startled by the sudden sound of a voice.

“Where to, lads?”

Doug and Bob looked up in shock to see a man in his sixties and in a PacMan T-shirt sitting in the seat in front of them, looking back over his shoulder.

“Who are you?” asked Doug.

“I’m Pete,” said the man. “I’m your driver.”

“Er, I thought we’d be driving,” said Bob.

“Should’ve ordered a rental, then,” said Pete. “You ask for a taxi, you get a taxi driver. Now, where to?”

Doug looked at Bob, who shrugged. “The International Space Station,” he said.

“Right you are,” said Pete. He pulled closed the hatch, popped The Eagles’ Greatest Hits into a slot on the control panel in front of him, then flicked a big red switch.

A low rumble started, which quickly became a thunderous roar. Bob and Doug were pressed back against their seats as if they’d been ironed onto them, juddering along with the rocket as it climbed past wispy clouds into pale blue sky.

Which suddenly became dark blue as they cleared the atmosphere. The juddering stopped and  the noise eased. The feeling of relief was intense, as if someone had unplugged the vacuum cleaner in which they’d been trapped.

Pete looked back cheerfully over his shoulder. “Going on vacation up here?” he asked.

Bob shook his head, “Work,” he said. “Four months.”

“Bummer,” said Pete. “Still, it gets you away from the virus.”

“That’s true,” said Doug. “Hopefully they’ll find a cure soon.”

“Oh, there’s a cure,” said Pete darkly. “The ones who gave it to us have the antidote.”

Bob groaned inwardly. “You’re not blaming this on -”

“- the Martians,” nodded Pete.

“What?” gasped Bob.

“Yep,” said Pete, “they came here and spread germs. I saw a film about it. It was called War of the Worlds.”

“That’s not what happened,” said Doug. “They caught our germs. It made them sick.”

“And now they’ve spread that sickness right back at us,” said Pete.

“No they haven’t,” said Bob, “because no actual Martians actually got sick.”

“Your friend just said they did,” said Pete. “But they’re cured now, and they’ve come here -”

“Stealing all our jobs?” suggested Doug sarcastically.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” sneered Pete. “You ever seen a Martian working in Starbucks?”

“Well, no,” said Doug, unsure how he had suddenly become the one on the defensive.

“Of course not,” said Pete. “They’re living off Benefits.”

Doug closed his eyes as if in pain. Bob turned away towards the window, then suddenly frowned. “Are we passing the moon?” he said.

Pete blushed briefly. “Well, yes,” he said. “we went out past the SatNav satellite, turned right at KGB, then left at Find My iPhone. Now we’ll whip round the moon and come at the Space Station from the far side.”

“But that’s much longer than the direct route,” said Doug.

“Longer in miles,” said Pete, “but shorter in time, because you don’t hit traffic.”

“What traffic?” snorted Bob.

“Exactly,” said Pete.

The astronauts lapsed into stunned silence for the rest of the journey, ignoring Pete’s conversational gambits around the laziness of the young, the myth of global warming, and how beer is now ten per cent cat-pee, as well as his repeated use of the phrase ‘political correctness gone mad’.”

At last they arrived at the Space Station. Pete nudged the Dragon gently, and to the others’ surprise expertly, up to the hatch, and they heard the soft click as they docked. Pete looked back over his shoulder one last time.

“That’ll be forty million dollars,” he said.