Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2015
This is the winner of the 'Under Water' category.  It's a Bryde's whale ripping through a sardine 'bait ball' off the Transkei coast of South Africa.  The picture was taken by Michael Aw, of Australia.
In a world as wayward and as unpredictable as ours, things don’t always turn out the way we would have liked.  And sometimes, the world surprises us into laughter or rumination - or even both. 

Which is another way of saying that I reckon it’s about time we had some more….


* A bungling burglar has been jailed for 26 weeks after getting trapped in a petrol station’s security shutter.  Essex police received a 999 call from Paul Davies (47) saying he was stuck in the Asda petrol station in Basildon.  When the burglar alarm went off, the shutter came down and he was trapped under it when he tried to get out.  Ouch.

* Scotland has been found by language researchers to have historically used 421 words relating to snow, dwarfing the number famously used by Inuits.  Definitions listed in the online Scottish Historical Thesaurus include ‘small flakes of wind-driven snow’ - spitters - to ‘a ghostly figure in a blizzard’ - a snaw-ghast.

* A macaque monkey which took ‘selfie’ photographs should be declared the copyright owner of the photos, rather than David Slater, the nature photographer who positioned the camera - or so says the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) in a lawsuit filed in San Francisco.

* The Royal Mail has fixed a large sign to a red postbox in Penzance, Cornwall, stating that dogs repeatedly urinating on it pose ‘a significant health and safety risk’.  The company said it would have to remove the postbox if urine continued to soil the letters inside.

* An Indian man who hasn’t cut his fingernails since 1952 has made it into the Guinness Book of Records.  Shridhar Chillal officially has the world’s longest fingernails ever on one hand, with a 2-metre thumbnail.  The 78 year-old’s obsession began when he was at school and a teacher beat him for breaking one of his nails.

* A stowaway kitten which arrived in Britain in the cargo hold of an Emirates jet is set to be re-homed after the airline offered to pay her quarantine fees.  The cat - named Cairo - was found at Birmingham airport in a shipment from Egypt.

* The UK is the best country in the world in which to die, followed by Australia, New Zealand and Ireland, according to The Economist’s latest index which measures end-of-life care.  The index uses 20 indicators to measure the effectiveness of care in 80 countries, placing the UK on top of the world.

And finally…

* An astrophysicist has won the coveted ‘golden spurtle‘ trophy at the world porridge-making championships.  Simon Rookyard, of Tyldesley, Manchester, beat 20 international competitors - including a Finnish biochemist, a Swedish doctor and a South African chef.  The contest was held in the village of Carrbridge, in the Cairngorms.
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It’s become traditional, whenever I’m in London, for my old friend Brian and I to have a coffee (and occasionally even a cake) sitting at a table outside our favourite West End branch of Pret a Manger.  It’s at the point where Charing Cross Road and St Martin’s Lane join together and run into the north-east corner of Trafalgar Square.

Within a couple of metres of ‘our’ tables stands this impressive monument.  It commemorates the execution of Nurse Edith Cavell in Brussels at the height of the Great War.  Brian and I have often sat in its shadow watching the London world go by.  After all this time, we tend to take the monument for granted, not giving it much thought.

But, if I was there today, I would be giving it a very great deal of thought.  It would again be the centre of my attention, as it most surely deserves.  I would be thinking very hard about the selfless and loving things she did, and the sacrifices she made, in the most dangerous and frightening circumstances.  I would be thinking of what motivated her and about her thoughts and emotions as she faced the firing squad.

And I’d be wondering what she would have thought of all the conflicts that have followed her actions and her death, some of the most brutal of which are, of course, still continuing 100 years after she laid down her life.

Because, as you can see from the inscription, today marks the centenary of her execution.

The anniversary will not be marked in any grand fashion, either here or in Belgium.  But we must not let it pass completely unnoticed.  For, as long as there are self-aggrandising politicians and generals willing to send young men and women to their deaths in war, and as long as young men and women agree to go, there will be a need for those like Edith Cavell who are prepared to put humanity above all other considerations.

That’s why it’s written, simply and starkly, at the top of her noble monument.

Please spare a thought for her today.
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I wrote about Edith Cavell over 3 years ago, in posting 364.  To save you the trouble of scrolling all the way back, this is the reverie I tried to put into words at the time...

‘They don’t build monuments to the right things.

Kings and Queens, great statesmen, military men on horseback.  They are all very well but they are pompous and proclaim uncritical praise where it may not necessarily be due.

Closer to the mark are the few paltry statues and plaques to Clever People Who Did Great Things.  Discoverers, seekers and finders, creators and questioners.

They make a strong case, yes.  But they are
still not the right people or things to build monuments in memory of.

I remember first thinking thoughts like this when I lived in London and saw the statue of Nurse Edith Cavell just off Trafalgar Square.  Nearby, Nelson is raised on his column in memory of a battle he took almost no part in winning.  He gazes down on London’s countless statues of royalty, aristocracy, clergy, military and government.

Edith, though, stands on a small plinth at a cramped crossroads.  In the First World War, she nursed and cared for soldiers from
both sides.  ‘Patriotism is not enough.  I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone’.  Someone whose statue in Germany is probably much more vainglorious than hers ordered her to be shot by firing squad for her trouble.

The origin of straightforward devotion and love like this is immaterial.  Nurse Cavell or Greyfriars Bobby; it doesn’t matter.  Their monuments and memorials and statues should be several times grander than they are because they provide a focus for us to remember good things - the humanity (or caninity) of devotion, loyalty and tenderness.

Why are there no monuments to flowers and trees?  I want to see a giant, bronze statue of tulips and bluebells and sycamore keys and apples.

Why can’t someone design a sculpture to the glory and wonder of chaffinches and robins and blackbirds - and to how very much we love them, and to how much joy and pleasure they bring us without asking for anything in return?

There should be a sculpture somewhere in honour of sunsets or thunderstorms or heavy rain or deep snow or butterflies or bats or walruses.

I want to build a tower. 

It will be very, very high so that it can be seen from many lands and by people speaking lots of different languages.  You will be able to climb to the top and watch the sun rise or forests turn from green to brown or feed the birds or feel the wind kiss your face.

People will want to come from miles around and from across the sea to visit my tower.  Their hearts will beat faster when they first glimpse it from a distance because they will know that it is a monument to
them.  It will have to be very grand indeed because it will have been built to honour humanity and all the things that give us grace and beauty and all the graceful and beautiful things we love and that have no monument or memorial.

My tower will be a recognition of selflessness and courage, devotion and care.  It will honour all the millions and millions of people who care for each other unrewarded and unnoticed.  People who seek no praise - not even the praise of self-satisfaction.

People who doggedly persist in facing difficulty, tragedy and adversity because of a love they cannot even clearly define deserve a tower like the one I have in mind.’

I felt a lot better after I wrote that than I had felt before.
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The award of this year’s Nobel Prizes in Sweden has been popping up in the news over the last few days.  Truckshunters do not, however, concern themselves with such trivia.  We set our sights much, much higher - or at least way off to the side - and focus our collective attention on the kind of scientific research and innovation that really matters:  the kind that doesn’t just make us think but makes us laugh as well.

Which is why it’s time once again to report on this year’s Ig Nobel prize recipients who received their awards at...

The 25th First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony

...which took place on Thursday 17 September at Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre (which, for some reason, uses the British English spelling of ‘theatre’).

You can watch a webcast of the whole shebang here:


I can confirm that it’s great fun.  I can also confirm that it takes almost two hours.  So - in case you (mistakenly) think that you may have better things to do with two hours that you’ll never get back - here’s a summary of this year’s Ig Nobel Award Winners.
Awarded to a joint team of researchers from Australia and USA for ‘inventing a chemical recipe to partially un-boil an egg’.

Awarded to a team from USA and Taiwan for ‘testing the biological principle that nearly all mammals empty their bladders in about 21 seconds (plus or minus 13 seconds)’.
This seems to be broadly true - I’ve tested the theory myself several times over the last few days.

Awarded to a team from the Netherlands, Belgium, Australia and USA for ‘discovering that the word huh? (or its equivalent) seems to exist in every human language - and for not being quite sure why’.

Awarded to a dedicated team scattered amongst Italy, Singapore, USA, India, UK, France, Luxembourg, Germany and Japan for ‘discovering that many business leaders developed in childhood a fondness for risk-taking, when they experienced natural disasters (such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, and wildfires) that - for them - had no dire personal consequences’.

Awarded to the City of Bangkok Metropolitan Police for ‘offering to pay policemen extra cash if the policemen refuse to accept bribes’.

Awarded to teams from Japan, China, Slovakia, UK, USA and Germany for ‘experiments to study the biomedical benefits or biomedical consequences of intense kissing (and other intimate, interpersonal activities)’.

Awarded to a team from Austria, Germany and UK for ‘trying to use mathematical techniques to determine whether and how Moulay Ismael the Bloodthirsty, the Sharifian Emperor of Morocco (above), managed, during the years from 1697 to 1727, to father 888 children’.

Awarded to a team from Chile and USA for ‘observing that when you attach a weighted stick to the rear end of a chicken, the chicken then walks in a manner similar to that in which dinosaurs are thought to have walked’.

Awarded to a team of researchers across Canada, UK, New Zealand, USA, Bahrain, Belgium, Dubai, India, South Africa, China and Syria for ‘determining that acute appendicitis can be accurately diagnosed by the amount of pain evident when the patient is driven over speed bumps’.
Special congratulations to the Syrian researcher - Abdel Kader Allouni - for partaking in what must have been ‘difficult’ circumstances.

Awarded jointly to two people:
Justin Schmidt (USA), for painstakingly creating the Schmidt Sting Pain Index, which rates the relative pain people feel when stung by various insects; and
Michael L Smith (UK), for carefully arranging for honey bees to sting him repeatedly on 25 different locations on his body, to learn which locations are the least painful (the skull, middle toe tip, and upper arm). and which are the most painful (the nostril, upper lip, and penis shaft).

As the citations say, research that makes us smile and then think.
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Mr Saddlebags
I’m always deeply suspicious of - or at least, profoundly disappointed with - anyone whose toilet doesn’t have a pile of books for me to dip into (as it were) while nature takes its lavatorial course.  To my mind, the availability of reading matter, or the lack of it, in the cludgie (as they’re known in Sheffield) says a lot about someone’s personality, or lack of personality.  After all, you can’t be blessed with much of a sense of wonder or curiosity if all you want to do is just sit there and get it all over with as quickly as possible, can you?

On reflection, I’d say that I’ve had some fairly profound experiences in the jakes (as I think it used to be called in Gateshead) - both my own and other people’s.  It was in a friend’s toilet that I first read the poems of W B Yeats and another friend’s bathroom library introduced me to gardening - now, sadly, a skill I seem to have lost.

At present, the bookshelf in my own netty keeps me occupied, one way or another, for hours on end.  So much so that, if I didn’t live alone, there would always be someone knocking on the door asking if I was ‘nearly finished’.  (My Nana used to do this all the time; as a kid, I got no peace at all.)

For a start, there’s a cracking little book called Dirty French.  It lists the kind of phrases you don’t find in official French dictionaries but hear all the time on the streets of Lyon.  Such as…

Ce cassoulet m’a donné la chiasse
That cassoulet gave me the runs

Une louise
A long, thin, whistling fart

Il a une téte à claques
He has a face made for slapping

Un panier à salade
A ‘black maria’ - a prison van.  Literally, 'a salad basket'.

Watch out!
(Literally ’22!’ - nobody knows why)

Next to Dirty French is a wondrous volume called Queen Elizabeth’s Wooden Teeth.  It’s a digest of many historical facts which everybody believes to be true but which are actually complete fabrications…

Queen Elizabeth I did not have wooden teeth, Winston Churchill was not born in a ladies’ toilet, Sir Walter Raleigh did not introduce potatoes from the New World (or tobacco either, for that matter), Abraham Lincoln did not write the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope, King Cnut did not try to hold back the tide to prove his regal powers…

Good, solid, meaty, QI stuff like that.

Next, there’s a book called The Old Dog and Duck:  The Secret Meanings of Pub Names.  Hildie gave it to me as a birthday present years ago and it’s been in my toilet ever since.
It tells me why the pub near where I used to live in London was called The Eagle and Child and why there are two pubs in London called The Case Is Altered.  Then there’s The Cat and Fiddle (and in Rotherham, The Cat and Cabbage), The Pig and Whistle, The Bag of Nails, The Tumbledown Dick, The Swan With Two Necks, The Quiet Woman, The Trouble House, and The Tickled Trout.  To name but a few.

The next book on the shelf is called One Hundred Favourite Poems.  I love this book - it calms me down when I’m agitated (and who has never been agitated in the toilet?) and lifts my often beleaguered spirits by turns - which is what poetry is surely meant to do.

Who would have guessed - for example - that care for animal welfare is nothing new or that it could be expressed as elegantly and as simply as this…

'Twould ring the bells of Heaven
The wildest peal for years,
If Parson lost his senses
And people came to theirs,
And he and they together
Knelt down with angry prayers
For tamed and shabby tigers
And dancing dogs and bears,
And wretched, blind pit ponies,
And little hunted hares.

My book tells me that that was written by a man called Ralph Hodgson, who was born in Darlington in 1871.  That being the case, I’m ashamed never to have heard of him - especially as ‘he was one of the earliest writers to be concerned with ecology, speaking out against the fur trade and man’s destruction of the natural world.’  Reading just this one poem makes me want to know more about yet another of our forgotten local heroes.

As if all this weren’t enough - and to stop me pondering the meaning if Life, the Universe and Everything as I sit enthroned - there’s The Ivan Morris Puzzle Book.  I’ve had this vexing book for so long that I can’t ever remember not owning it.

The puzzles, mostly of the logic or lateral thinking type, are genuinely infuriating.  Here’s one to take to the toilet with you…

Three professors of philosophy have applied for a job at the university.  As a test of their logic skills, the Dean tells them: ‘I will draw a blue or a white dot on each of your foreheads.  If you see a white dot on anyone’s forehead, raise your right hand.  As soon as you know your own colour, lower your hand.’

He then puts white dots on each of their foreheads and of course they all raise their hands.

But soon, one of them lowers his hand and says ‘Obviously, I must have a white dot.’

How did he know?  (...assuming there were no mirrors in the room.)

But for quite some time now, my favourite toilet book has been The Book of 1,339 Facts - yet another present from Hildie.  I’ve quoted it on the the blog before - here’s a second helping…

*The longest recorded flight of a domestic chicken lasted 13 seconds

*The world’s largest jigsaw has 552,232 pieces

*The official State Dance of North Carolina is the Shag

*Nazi uniforms were designed by Hugo Boss

*The Arabic word for a hamster translates as ‘Mr Saddlebags’
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Please spare a thought for one of my favourite creatures - the magnificent Scottish Wildcat, Britain's only surviving native 'lion'.  It's been persecuted for decades and now, despite its protected status, it's on the verge of extinction.  Some estimates suggest that the remaining population may be less than 100 animals - even as few as about 35.  And now there are reports that even these few animals are vulnerable to a virulent new strain of 'feline immunodeficiency virus' (FIV), which spreads to them via feral domestic cats.
We may have to say Goodbye to the Scottish Wildcat within a year or two.
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Here are some more unusual words for you to drop into everyday conversation.  They're lifted from Foyle's Philavery (like the words on posting 571) and they all begin with B...

related to kissing

to attack with the fists or nails

idle chatter

a boil; to fester like a boil

to dress gaudily or in bad taste
It rhymes with 'horizon'.

a woman of exceptional beauty and goodness
It's derived from French belle-et-bonne, surprisingly enough.

a two-year-old sheep
Do we really need this word at all?

Or this one, for that matter...
an abnormal fear of slime or mucous

the rumbling sound of gas and fluid in the intestines
Yes, it has a name and this is it.
an alcoholic drink made by fermenting ale and honey with spices
Sounds good to me.
wooden boarding, often temporary, used to partition off something dangerous or to divide a space
This one came as a revelation to me.  In my grandparents colliery house on Blackhall, the front door was separated from the front room (into which it would otherwise have opened) by what my Granda called a brattish.  I had no idea it was a 'proper word'.
a projectile thrown by a bombard
I don't know about you, but I'm none the wiser.
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