Book Corner – September 2020 (5)

The Pursuit Of Love – Nancy Mitford

I am going through a phase of reading, often for the first time, novels from the mid-20th century by authors whose popularity has somewhat waned. This, her fifth novel, published in 1945, is the first of Mitford’s books I have read. I’m not sure what I was expecting but I rather enjoyed it.

It seems to me to work on two levels, a light, romantic comedy, gently satirising the behaviour and attitudes of an eccentric upper-class family, closely modelled on Mitford’s own. But there is a darker side to the book, a feeling that the pursuit of love for love’s sake is doomed to failure. The book’s rather curt and tragic ending underlines this sense that there is more to the book than meets the eye.

The book is written from the perspective of Fanny Logan, whose mother, nicknamed the Bolter, has palmed her off to be looked after by her sister, Emily, in order that she can pursue a series of ill-fated and unsuitable flings. Emily regularly takes her charge to visit her other sister, Sadie, in Gloucestershire. Sadie’s husband, the formidable Uncle Matthew, aka Lord Alconleigh, is a short-tempered, overbearing man, who disapproves of educating women, and despises intellectuals and foreigners, whom he calls sewers. He uses his pack of bloodhounds to hunt down his children. Surprisingly, they don’t seem to mind.

The children, there are six, spend much of their time in the only warm part of the house, the airing cupboard, and while away their time, dreaming of love. The eldest daughter, Louisa, marries the eminently suitable but dull John Fort William, but Linda, the book’s main character and the most beautiful of the sisters, is determined to pursue love. Her romantic decisions, though, prove disastrous.

As Mitford admits herself, there was something bipolar about the Radletts; they “were always either on a peak of happiness or drowning in black waters of despair; their emotions were on no ordinary plane, they loved or they loathed, they laughed or they cried, they lived in a world of superlatives”. Linda takes this bipolarity of emotions to the ultimate.

The family disapprove of her first choice, but she goes ahead and marries Tony Kroesig. They quickly realise they are unsuited and drift apart – to modern eyes, Linda’s treatment of her daughter from the marriage, Moira, seems cruel and callous. She then takes up with a communist activist, Christian Talbot, and spends time on the front line in the Spanish Civil War before losing patience with his indifference and falling for the charms of the raffish Fabrice de Sauveterre whilst in distress on the platform of the Gare du Nord. The latter part of their love affair is conducted in wartime London against a background of the Blitz.

Mitford’s world view is unremittingly upper class, the plebs barely get a look in, and this may partly explain why she is now out of favour. You can imagine, though, that, as Britain was lurching towards victory, the book was seen not only as a bit of top-class light entertainment, which it is, but also a record of a world that was vanishing, never to be seen again.

Mitford can be witty, ironic and then almost at with the flick of a switch acerbic and cruel. She is not averse to some purple prose or an image that remains with you. When describing a family photograph of the Radletts, Fanny comments, “there they are, held like flies in the amber of that moment-click goes the camera and on goes life; the minutes, the days, the years, the decades, taking them further and further from that happiness and promise of youth, from the hopes Aunt Sadie must have had for them, and from the dreams they dreamed for themselves. I often think there is nothing quite so poignantly sad as old family groups.”

There is much to savour in a book that I was not sure about when I picked it up.             

Cyber Terrorist Of The Week

We associate cyber terrorists with shadowy figures working on behalf of governments trying to make life difficult for ourselves or bored teenagers with too much time and technical know-how on their hands. The cyber terrorist who brought down the broadband service in the Welsh village of Aberhosan without fail at 7am for eighteen months had a decidedly retro feel about them, though.

The sudden burst of electrical interference that occurred like clockwork each morning perplexed the experts and broadband providers – there may be a difference. Extensive tests were carried out and even part of the cabling was replaced.

The problem, it seems, was what experts call SHINE or, to you and me, single high-level impulse noise, which testers tracked down to a particular property in the village. It is heart warming to hear of a track and trace success.

Further investigation revealed that the sophisticated equipment the hacker was using to bring down Aberhosan’s digital connection with the outside world was an old television set which the elderly resident switched on in the morning for a bit of company and background noise. A case of rise and shine, perhaps. Old people, eh?

Since the unnamed culprit has agreed never to switch it on again, broadband connection has been as right as rain.

To add to the villagers’ delight, they are moving on to fibre cabling later in the year.  

Why Do Insects Avoid My Windscreen Now?

I call it soap star syndrome. Take a character away from the cobbles of Wetherfield or the squares of Walford and usually some dreadful disaster befalls them. There was a time when I wondered whether I too was a victim. Leaving the sanctuary of suburbia to savour the delights that the countryside has to offer on a summer’s night in my car, I soon found I had turned into a mass killer. So delighted were the hordes of flies, gnats, moths and other assorted bugs at the advent of my headlights that they would fling themselves selflessly at the windscreen in a kind of invertebrate suttee.

And what a mess they made. The screen soon became a mass of blotches and smears, made worse by the injudicious use of windscreen wipers. Instead of clearing the smudges, they simply spread them more evenly over the surface of the glass. Often the only way to see where I was going was to stop the car, unfurl a dampened chamois leather and manually clear the screen, before setting off again. Occasionally, I had to repeat the exercise several times before I reached my destination.

That was then, but these days I cannot honestly remember the last time that my windscreen took on the appearance of an insect charnel house. Perhaps it has something to do with the design and shape of my car. The shape of later models I have bought has been more aerodynamic, or, at least, that was what the gushing sales representative always told me, than the angular shapes of the older cars. Did this mean that the insects attracted to the glare of my headlights were confronted with a lower obstacle to negotiate to escape the oncoming windscreen?

Or was there some Darwinian evolutionary thing going on? We are told that the survival of species is dependent upon weeding out those characteristics which are likely to lessen the creature’s chances of survival and encouraging those traits which are likely to put it on top of its specific pile. Clearly, having a propensity to throw yourself at the nearest on-coming windscreen is not a characteristic that is conducive to ensuring the long-term future of your species. Have those insects which have survived or avoided their motoring Armageddon developed a breed that can eschew the momentary attraction of a glaring headlight?

On the other hand, could it be something to do with the increased density of traffic, even in our country lanes? With a greater number of windscreens to crush themselves on, the carnage is spread around. The same number of insects may be killed but the individual motorist sees a reduction on their individual windscreen.

Or is it simply that there are fewer insects as a result of climate change, alterations in land use, enhanced deployment of insecticides and the like, notwithstanding the considerable conservation effort directed at improving the lot of invertebrates?

Fortunately, there are people with greater brains and more time on their hands to give the decline in the number of insect-splattered windscreens, the windscreen phenomenon as it is known in scientific circles, some serious consideration. One of the earliest pieces of research was carried out in Denmark. Each summer from 1997 to 2017, the researchers made sixty-five car journeys along the same road at the same speed and collected data about the number of dead insects on their windscreens. Over the twenty-year period they noted a decrease of around 80%, a phenomenal reduction.

Here in Britain, in 2004 the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), recognising the environmental link between insects and birds, prey and predator, encouraged motorists to attach a PVC film to their freshly-cleaned car number plate, what they called a splat-o-meter, and count the number of insects they squashed during a journey. The experiment recorded 324,814 splats, which boiled down to a splat every five miles travelled. 

The survey was not repeated, the results rather hung in the air. For the purists there were a couple of serious deficiencies in the way that the survey was set up, no attempt being made to differentiate between the results from short and long journeys nor between the ages of the vehicles involved. In 2019 Paul Tinsley-Marshall and his team from Kent Wildlife Trust decided to address these shortcomings, whilst repeating the RSPB splat test, and to compare results fifteen years on.

The same methodology was used, a splat-o-meter attached to a number plate, but participants were asked to differentiate their results between journeys within the boundaries of Kent and those which crossed county lines. Classic car owners were actively recruited, ensuring that there were cars ranging in age from 1957 to 2018. The results revealed that there was a statistically significant reduction in splat density between the two surveys of the order of 50%, the Kent survey recording a splat every ten miles. Interestingly, they discovered that newer vehicles had a positive effect on splat density, meaning that more invertebrates were squashed by newer cars than older ones.

Fascinating as these results are, it is always satisfying to see rigorous research confirm one’s empirical findings, it doesn’t get us very far with the most important question, the why. There is more work to be done, as Kent Wildlife Trust admit, building up a trend over time to confirm whether there is really a decline or whether other factors such as the weather have had an effect, to increase confidence in the findings over the variations in vehicle ages and to extend the geographic reach of the survey. Even this, though, doesn’t get to the nub of the problem, whether the insect population really has declined to the extent that the data suggest.

In a strange kind of way, I miss having to clear my windscreen of dead insects and I hope it isn’t a harbinger of a bigger problem.

Fountain Of The Week (2)

Council officials are often accused of being heartless, but at least the heart of a former mayor of the Belgian city of Verviers, Pierre David, has been recovered.

David died in 1839 after falling off a building. In 1883 the grateful denizens of the city clubbed together to erect a fountain in his honour, underneath which was buried his heart in an ethanol-filled jar in a small metal box. In case you thought the citizens were themselves heartless, David had earned their heartfelt gratitude by organising their first fire brigade and letting the public attend council sessions.

The whereabouts of his heart had been forgotten in the mists of time, although there was an urban myth that it was underneath the fountain. Recently, diggers moved in to carry out some excavation works and the box was unearthed.

It is now on temporary display at the Verviers Museum of Fine Art and Ceramics and will be returned to the Fontaine David in the city’s Place Verte, when the renovation work has been completed.

Covid-19 Tales (13)

I recently qualified for a Senior Citizen’s bus pass and the application process required me to provide a digital photo of my face. It struck me as a bit odd as if and when I board a bus, all the driver will see of me is a mask with a pair of spectacles atop. Perhaps the pass needs two photos, one with and one without a mask.

At least face coverings provide an opportunity for expressing a degree of individualism. Take the man who was spotted on board a bus from Swinton to Manchester, wearing a light brown serpent with diamond=shaped markings wrapped around his mouth and neck. The snake, which was alive, seemed unconcerned about it being used as an impromptu mask, although it might have gained some insight as to its fate when it died, and the other passengers found it amusing.

Not so Transport for Greater Manchester. A spokesperson advised that although there was “a small degree of interpretation” in the matter of face coverings, “we do not believe it extends to the use of snakeskin – especially when still attached to the snake”.

Spoilsports! At least he was wearing a covering, until it slithered off, that is. Back to the drawing board, methinks.