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Sunday 27 June 2021

I’m Not A Foxglove

Every year, self-seeded foxgloves spring up all over the garden descended from a packet of seeds bought over twenty years ago. They were multiple colours then, but have now reverted mainly to natural pinks and purples.  

Those that come up in the vegetable patch get pulled out except for a few I transplant to the border next to the neighbour’s overgrown holly bush. It is rather dry there, but foxgloves cope with it well.


This year, one of the transplanted seedlings seemed a bit more hairy than the others. We thought little more about it until it grew taller and we began to wonder whether it is actually a foxglove. It turns out not to be a foxglove at all. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one before, certainly not in the locality. Where it came from is a mystery.

Anyway, now it is in flower we have worked out what it is. It should keep us safe from being turned into pigs. Here is a closer view and a picture clue. I doubt it will give us blossoms and almonds like that, though.

POSTSCRIPT: And here it is three weeks later. The metal post you can see in the first picture, above, is the bird feeder:

Thursday 24 June 2021

Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood
The Handmaid’s Tale (4*)

Having come to realise that the horrifically violent television serialisation of The Handmaid’s Tale exceeds by far anything in the original, I got the book. I certainly would not watch it. From what I’ve read, the televised version falls little short of militant Islamic beheading videos.

So, what did I make of the book? In essence, it’s a bit silly. Am I going to get into in trouble for saying that? It is feminist fiction about the subjugation of women in a totalitarian patriarchy. 

In the Republic of Gilead, women are the property of men. Some even take the names of the men to whom they belong. The narrator, Offred, ‘Of-Fred’ (sounds like ‘offered’), belongs to Fred, a ‘Commander’. She is one of the handmaids whose role is to bear children to leading men when their wives no longer can. Other women have other specified roles.

Handmaids wear colour-coded religious habits with winged hoods to prevent seeing anywhere other than on the ground ahead. They are pious and submissive, and walk with bowed heads. They are not allowed to read or write, or look at others, with compliance enforced by a system of severe physical punishments. Once each month, they are ceremonially raped by their commanders and their wives until they either conceive or are discarded.

Offred may go out, but only in the company of another handmaid, Ofglen. They are only allowed to whisper in permitted phrases.

… we peer at each other’s faces, looking down the white tunnels of cloth that enclose us…
“Blessed be the fruit,” she says to me, the accepted greeting among us.
“May the Lord open,” I answer, the accepted response.
… “The war is going well, I hear,” she says,
“Praise be,” I reply.
“We’ve been sent good weather.”
“Which I receive with joy.” (p29)

They pass through checkpoints and look at executed corpses hanging on a wall. Offred secretly needs to know that her husband from her previous life is not among them.

And here lies my problem. Offred, and everyone else in the republic, previously lived in a free Western society. She had her own name, friends, summer dresses, a house, a car, a cat, a husband, a child and a career. Then, suddenly, one day she finds her bank account has been frozen, and on arriving at work that she and all women have been “let go” from their jobs. She and her husband try unsuccessfully to escape. She is sent to a training school to learn her new duties.

It remains vague how long it took to establish the republic, how big it is or how its economy works. The changes seem to have taken place within just a few years because Offred previously had a child and is still of child-bearing age. Gilead also seems quite small but there are references to slaves, colonies and wars. Tourists and trade delegations visit from ‘normal’ countries. It is difficult to imagine how such a place could function.

In other words, albeit an entertaining read, I find the concept ridiculous. Whereas the post apocalyptic society in, say, The Chrysalids, is entirely believable, this is not. Could we really within the space of a few years move from a present day western society to one in which women are slaves to cardboard-character men and forced to take specific roles? Would we have stood for it?

But I’ve been had. I’ve taken it too literally. It’s a satire. It does not matter whether it could be possible. What matters is that this is what a brutal patriarchy, or any other repressive regime, might feel like. And yet, for me, it gave no strong sense of terror or foreboding. Perhaps the televised version does. I’m still not going to watch it. I have no desire to read the recent sequel, The Testaments, either.

The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985. Today, this kind of tyranny would be more of a possibility through big data, compulsory device tracking, surveillance cameras and denial of rights to specific groups or individuals, which could be any of us, men or women. Indeed, in some parts of the world, we can see it happening now. How far could it go?

Key to star ratings: 5*** wonderful and hope to read again, 5* wonderful, 4* enjoyed it and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.

Friday 18 June 2021


This is Sooty, the first of five cats I’ve shared a home with. He wasn’t black all over but we called him Sooty anyway because it was a good name for a cat.

He came as a six-week old kitten from a friend’s cat’s litter when I was nine or ten. Oblivious of the omnipotent choice I was making, I picked the one I wanted when they were just a few days old and never thought to ask what became of the others. On the day he came to us, he lay on the carpet in a patch of sun as I built around him with my toy wooden bricks, buzzing in a peculiar way.

He would lie on the hearth rug stretched out by the fire, or sit in the garden with his fur puffed out looking cute. He would go to sleep in the best chair, paws trembling as he dreamed, furry radar ears tracking every sound. When it suited him, he would jump up to your knee, turn round a few times paws kneading, and settle down, soft and warm, fur moving to the rhythm of his breathing.

But in a house with two boys he was teased a lot. Worse, I saw the lad who sometimes stayed next door swing him by his tail. He quickly learned to stand up for himself and could be vicious. He was fearless. He would run up behind, encircle your ankle with his front legs, sink in claws and teeth, and scuff vigorously with his hind claws as if trying to disembowel you. It could be nasty if he got your arm and brutal if you tried to pull away. His tail would be going like a windscreen wiper. My arms and legs were usually scarred in weals and scratches. 

Later, we moved. He ran back and forth between the front and back windows of the new house, disorientated, looking out and miaowing pathetically. When he eventually settled he spent hours stalking in the long grass in a field at the back.

We built a house of cards and rolled chocolate Maltesers underneath so he would chase them and put his head through the cards. It took rather a lot of sweets to get the right shot. “Cat crunching up chocolate covered malted milk ball” might have made a good picture too. “Cat being sick”, maybe not.

I know now that chocolate is toxic to cats but, according to the next-door neighbour, he sneaked upstairs in her house, ate some of her chocolates, and hid the paper wrappers under her bed. Another day, he came home covered in tar which had to be cleaned off with petrol. On another occasion, he swallowed around eighteen inches (45cm) of string which came back out of his throat like one of those animal-shaped retractable tape measures with tape that pulls out of its mouth.

How many lives do cats have? I still wonder whether that ‘string’ led to his final undoing. Rather than string, it was actually quarter-inch wide (0.5 cm) paper ribbon, used to tie up brown paper parcels, with the name of the shop repeated along its length. I haven’t seen any like it for years. He might have mistaken it for grass. It also had a slightly fishy smell. The edges were sharp enough to give you a paper cut. Did it damage his mouth? 

Two or three years later, after I left home, my mother, who, of course, always looked after his food and litter tray, thought he was finding it difficult to eat because of something stuck in his throat. He had lost weight. One bank-holiday Tuesday, I drove them to the vet. Sooty was kept in for further investigations and I returned to work in Leeds. Not being in constant communication as we are now, I did not hear what happened until Friday. He had a large tumour at the back of his tongue and the vet advised putting him to sleep. He was ten and a half years old.

Tuesday 8 June 2021

Brugada Syndrome

Some fifteen years ago, my youngest cousin had a cardiac arrest. His heart simply stopped. He got up during the night and was found downstairs on the floor in the morning. He had been absolutely fine the previous evening. He was thirty-one. The funeral was a wretched affair in pouring rain. 

His father, my uncle, died in a similar way aged thirty-nine. He was eleven years my elder, fourteen years younger than my mother. It was one of the few times I saw my mother cry.

Going back even further, my grandfather also died suddenly of heart failure at the age of fifty-six. None had any obvious warnings, although my uncle and cousin both experienced dizzy spells. Concerns that it might be some kind of inherited condition were not taken seriously until more recently.

In part, this was because of the very public incident involving the Bolton Wanderers footballer, Fabrice Muamba, who collapsed during a televised match in 2012. He could not have been in a better place. He received immediate attention, and, in another stroke of good luck, a consultant cardiologist attending the match as a fan ensured he was taken to a specialist coronary unit where he recovered. His heart stopped for 78 minutes and he received fifteen debrillator shocks.

This led to greater awareness of Sudden Arrhythmic Death Syndrome (SADS, not to be confused with Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD). There are several kinds – Muamba has hypertrophic cardiomyopathy – but taken together, SADS kills at least 500 people a year in the U.K. at the average age of 32. It is under-diagnosed, with some deaths probably put down to drowning, falling or road accidents. 

Two further cousins, half-sisters of the one who died, insisted on investigations. They were referred to the Inherited Cardiovascular Conditions Service at Leeds General Infirmary where they were diagnosed with Brugada Syndrome, an inherited condition which disrupts the flow of sodium ions into the heart muscle, causing abnormal heart rhythms. These rhythms are so infrequent as to be difficult to spot. Often, there are no symptoms at all. In other cases there may be dizziness or fainting. Sometimes, the first time it shows itself is through fatal cardiac arrest, often during sleep.

Because Brugada is an inherited condition, and there being no surviving intervening relatives, it was recommended that all the cousins be tested.

Now, having reached such an age that I would probably have dropped dead decades ago if I had Brugada, I am not particularly concerned for myself. However, I am occasionally aware of brief palpitations. Weeks can pass without anything and then I’ll get three or four the same day. It seemed sensible to be tested for the sake of my children.

Last June, nearly two years after seeing my G.P., a letter came from Leeds asking me to attend on two successive days – surprising as it was during the pandemic.

The first appointment was to get a Holter monitor: a phone-sized device to record heart activity over time. For the next 24 hours I carried it around and went to bed with its electrodes stuck to my chest. It had a button to press if I experienced any symptoms, which I did twice on feeling a few ‘flutters’. 

The second appointment was for further tests: most significantly a 12-lead electrocardiogram (ECG) and a transthoracic echocardiogram which uses ultrasound to look at the structure of the heart in motion. It was a relief to be told everything was fine (well, the blood pressure wasn’t on that particular day, but I wrote about that last year). Although these tests rule out a number of SADS conditions, they do not rule out Brugada. This requires a further diagnostic test: the Ajmaline provocation test.

The Ajmaline test aims deliberately to trigger the specific ECG pattern that occurs in Brugada. It does not produce the pattern in those who do not have Brugada. My cousins’ abnormal rhythms were observed only during the the Ajmaline test. After another ten-month wait, my name reached the top of the Ajmaline list in March. Again, it surprised me they were still testing during Covid, but as with any potentially fatal condition, it seems right to be doing so.

I thought it would be carried out in a clinic like the first set of tests. I didn’t expect to be in a hospital ward, in a cardiac bed, surrounded by seriously ill patients. The man beside me was just coming round after an angioplasty and stent operation. An older man opposite had been in since a heart attack some weeks earlier, and was waiting for the same operation the next day. A younger chap had a congenital hole in the heart, which had been causing his oxygenated and de-oxygenated blood to mix, not detected until his thirties when he had suffered a stroke. And there was I, apparently nothing wrong, occupying a bed for three hours, most of which was waiting for the effects of the test to wear off. It felt tactless afterwards wishing them good luck and walking out.

Basically, what they do is connect you up to an ECG machine and gradually inject you with Ajmaline to see whether it causes the abnormal Brugada rhythm. I had to sign a consent form. The specialist nurse practitioners who carried it out described the odd sensations you might experience, none of which I had, and the terrifying things that can go wrong, none of which they had never known despite carrying out the procedure up to a dozen times a week.

You get the result straight away. I do not have Brugada. They sent me a letter listing some of my ECG readings: the PR interval, the QRS interval, the QTc, the J point elevation, the V1 and V2 rSR patterns in the second and third intercostal spaces…   

Me neither! But it does mean that my kids should be all right and do not need to be tested. They also picked up my occasional brief tachycardia on the Holter monitor but said it was absolutely no cause for concern unless it becomes frequent or sustained.

None of my diagnosed cousins’ children have Brugada either. Apparently there is no gene mutation in the family, so where it came from, and where it has gone, remains a mystery. Some of my other cousins, even my late cousin’s brother and son, head-in-sand, have decided not to have the tests: “I’ve got too many genes already,” one said.

I’m glad I did get tested. In effect, I’ve had a thorough heart checkup and passed, all free on the wonderful NHS. Privately, it would have been done sooner, but the costs (three appointments, various tests, half a day in hospital, a follow up phone call) could have been prohibitive , leaving us worrying and wondering.  

Friday 4 June 2021

Catch Me If You Can

A short video from the infra-red camera last night.

It reminds me of a series of sketches from the British TV comedy show Little Britain. They showed a wheelchair user who would get up and do the pole vault in an athletics stadium, or dive into a swimming pool and do a couple of quick lengths whilst his carer wasn’t watching. I believe wheelchair users loved it.

I think this mouse must have been watching that. Black Kitty hasn’t a clue. 

The hedgehogs are back, too (emerges from behind the plant pot half way through).


Tuesday 1 June 2021

New Month Old Post: ‘A’ Level Geography

(First posted 28th August, 2016) 

A nostalgic look back at the 1977 JMB ‘A’ Level Geography Paper

Geography A Level Paper 1977

“Le Creusot,” I enunciated excitedly in my best ‘O’ Level French accent as we sped past the road sign. “That’s one of the most important steel producing towns in the country.” The others in the car yawned.

Some hours later there was a sign to Montélimar. Neville and Gilbert started to sing George Harrison’s ‘Savoy Truffle’ but instead of joining in I said “Great! We’re getting near the André-Blondel hydro-electric scheme at Donzère-Mondragon. And we’ll soon be near the Marcoule nuclear power station.”

Tussler and Alden Mapbook of France Benelux Countries

I had been like that all day. Neville and Gilbert must have been pretty fed up with the running commentary. We were driving down through France on our way to Provence and I was prattling like a poor Geography text book about the country’s electric power and industry. Having memorised most of the sketch maps in A Map Book of France by Tussler and Alden for ‘A’ level, I thought everyone ought to be fascinated by French economic activity. 

Such is the power of knowledge. It gives you the means to bore everyone else to death in the mistaken belief you are being interesting.

Geography was the second subject I took at ‘A’ Level in my mid-twenties (the other was English Literature). It was going to be History but just as with English, the Woolsey Hall correspondence course started badly. The first half dozen pieces of work on Tudor and Stuart England came back from the tutor in Clacton-on-Sea graded from Very Good down to Weak without any clear indication why. Correspondence courses are not always a good idea, especially in subjects that benefit from face-to-face discussion.

But then, a couple of strokes of good luck. An old school friend, now a Geography teacher, suggested his subject would be more straightforward. He gave me a one-evening crash course and overview of the syllabus, and I decided to switch. Then, a friend of a friend lent me her impressively thorough notes from a few years earlier. They were full of splendid sketch maps and diagrams of river valleys and other landforms. She had got a grade A. You could almost fall in love with someone through the beauty of their ‘A’ Level Geography notes.

So I did Geography on my own, without a formal course, and got away with it. I bought copies of the syllabus and previous papers, analysed them carefully, pared everything down to what could be achieved in a year and planned my time meticulously. Just as in English Literature, the Geography syllabus offered an excessive amount of choice, which meant you could omit complete sections. Again, you were allowed to take away the question papers after the examinations, so here they are (click to enlarge). My son, who took ‘A’ Level Geography in more recent years, was surprised by the high quality of the supporting maps and photographic materials.

If you have trouble seeing full sized images of the papers, you can download them in PDF form here.


Geography A Level Paper 1977
Section A: Geomorphology. On first sight it seems you had to answer one question from three, but as the second question was an either/or on different topics, it was effectively one from four.

There were questions on lakes, erosion in different climates, landforms and coasts. It looks like I went for Question 2(b) on landforms.

I enjoyed this part of the syllabus and covered more than necessary. I still pretend to be knowledgeable about such things when out in the countryside, and have kept my copy of the wonderful Physical Geography by P. Lake.

Of the accompanying images, Photograph A was obviously the magnificent Flamborough Head which I know well. Please could someone enlighten me as to the location of Photograph B? Is it Orford Ness?

Geography A Level Paper 1977
Section B: Meteorology, Soils and Vegetation. You had to answer just one question from these topics. In other words, you could omit two thirds of the syllabus here. I prepared the question on soils. Consequently I am still unable to distinguish stratus, cumulonimbus and other cloud formations.

Geography A Level Paper 1977
Section C: Economic Geography. You were required to answer two questions from six.

Candidates still attending school would have carried out field studies covered by Questions 9 and 11(a), but not me. 1977 may have been the last year you could get away without doing a practical element.

I am no longer sure how many topics I did prepare, but it looks like my answers were on hydro-electric power, cotton and maritime fishing.

The street plan for Question 11(b), which I avoided, I can now identify as part of Bristol. 


Section A: map reading. One compulsory question.

Geography A Level map reading 1977

The map covers an area to the south of Chatham in Kent.

Many faced map reading with trepidation but for me it was the part of the examination about which I felt most confident. Just like a driver with a few years’ experience, several years of country walking had made me certain I was an expert. It serves as a warning not to rely on confidence alone. Afterwards, I thought I had messed up this part so badly as to fall short of the grades I needed for university (BB or BC). I put in late Polytechnic applications and received offers of DE and EE. They turned out to be unnecessary.

Sections B and C: Europe (3 topics) and other parts of the world (7 topics).

Geography A Level Paper 1977

Sections B and C cover ten topics in all, with a choice of six questions on each topic. You had to answer a total of three questions including at least one from each section. As there was nothing to stop you choosing two questions on the same topic, you could get away with preparing only two topics out of ten.

I thoroughly prepared B2 France and the Benelux countries (on which I answered two questions) and C6 the U.S.S.R.

Despite approaching it in a very strategic way, I liked this part of the syllabus too. It was great to find out more about the Charleroi area – the location of my foreign exchange trips while still at school (I had A Map Book of the Benelux Countries too). And in part C, I was captivated by the romantic and mysterious places of Asian Russia, such as Novosibirsk, Petropavlovsk and the Silk Road towns of Samarkand and Tashkent, then still little known behind the iron curtain.

Neville and Gilbert should have been thankful we were only spending a day driving South through France rather than a fortnight across the Soviet Union.

The full list of topics in Sections B and C was:

B1 West Germany, Norway and Sweden
B2 France, Belgium, Luxemburg and the Netherlands
B3 Italy Switzerland and Austria

C1 The U.S.A. and Canada
C2 Latin America (including the West Indies)
C3 Africa
C4 India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka
C5 Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Indonesia and New Guinea
C6 The U.S.S.R.
C7 China and Japan

Dare I also mention that I got a grade A?