Wednesday, January 30, 2013


In a single eight page essay Robert Louis Stevenson set several of the hares in my brain to scampering. That's one of the things I like about essays, especially the essays of those of an earlier age who had the learning and the leisure to write them, and the indulgence of editors, and readers, of journals who appreciated wide-ranging explorations of lively minds.

This essay, published in 1878, is entitled somewhat alarmingly Aes Triplex. A footnote explains that this translates as "triple brass" and means, broadly speaking, boldness. The over-arching theme of the essay is to celebrate the art of living boldly. RLS scoffs at namby pamby stuff about being careful, watching your step, looking after yourself, not making mistakes. On the contrary, he rejoices in the fact that people build houses beside smouldering volcanoes and reminds us that simply occupying this planet means living dangerously because of the possibility of being blown to bits by another planet flying the other way.

He admires Dr Johnson who set to work on his Dictionary without wondering if he would be able to complete it, and who, in advanced age, set off on a walking tour of the Highlands, his heart "bound with triple brass". Thackeray and Dickens both died before they could finish works in progress. There is no excuse in Stevenson's mind for not doing something in case you couldn't finish it: "It is not only in finished undertakings that we ought to honour useful labour".

RLS would surely not have approved of how we now protect children from taking risks that would teach them how to cope with risk later. We need excitement and danger, and probably seek it more dangerously if we are prevented from meeting them as children. RLS admired people who climb mountains "roping over a peril" and hunters "riding merrily at a stiff fence".  He advocates a headlong rush at life, no peering anxiously ahead, no looking back, in order to cope with what the world flings at us.  People who do that, he thought, have a stronger love of living than those who fuss about what they eat and trudge dolefully round the block because doctors say they must for their health's sake. "It is better to live and be done with it," he writes, "than to die daily in the sickroom".

He would surely hate air-conditioning, that all-purpose air that keeps us comfortable but shelters us from the real air that blows and stings and keeps us aware. We need the bite of the wind to appreciate the warmth of the fire. An air-conditioned atmosphere would be, to Stevenson, to live in that "parlour with a regulated temperature" which he thought would be to "die a hundred times over".

It's time enough for the parlour with a regulated temperature when we're carted off to the retirement home.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013


There is a small but significant move here to rid our country of cats. The suggestion has caused a wave of alarm from a lot of people who love their cats and can hardly imagine a life without them.

The thinking is that cats are killers, and what they kill most of is birds. Our precious native birds are under threat not just from wild and stray cats but the tame moggies that live with us, are well fed, but can't resist the flutter and cheep from any bush or tree within cooee. The suggestion is that everyone who now has a cat should view it as the last cat in their lives. When it dies, we shouldn't get another one. If everybody did that, there would be no more cats, and lots and lots of birds.

Whoever said that knows absolutely nothing about cats.

We bought our first last cat. It cost us five shillings. It was many years ago, we were new to things then and didn't know much about cats either. Somehow it survived – and that's fact #1 about cats. They are survivors. He lived for the requisite number of years and then died. We found the next last cat in an Auckland city street, said ah poor kitty, and brought her home to a flat where pets weren't allowed. We hid her for as long as possible but when she started to make calling noises we had to make the terrible decision to have her killed. That is fact #2 about cats – they force terrible decisions on you.

Since then we have had many last cats and every one of them has appeared out of nowhere and needed help. We have never set out to acquire them, not even for nothing. Fact #3 – cats know where the fools live, they can read the signs as they watch from roadsides and hedges. They make their move, they have a repertoire of mournful cries, and they turn on personalities that can melt hearts. Every one of ours has been cherished, but considered the last cat we'd have. Fact #4 – cats care nothing for such attitudes, they know how to manipulate.

Yes, they hunt occasionally, although I wish they didn't and I stop them if I can. They favour mice and birds, but mine have helped themselves to praying mantises, beetles and even a skink. One brought me a goldfish – readers who remember a post about Finnygan may be pleased to know that he has grown fat and happy in the neighbour's pond.

Currently I have two cats. They are of course the last. Enough is enough.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013


I am quite tall and have most of the usual requirements of a human person such as bones, liver, kidneys, heart, plumbing and so forth. All those essentials are kept in place by skin, to stop them escaping. In addition I wear clothes – not flashy but, you know, visible: red top, navy pants – that sort of thing. And, in the supermarket I'm usually pushing a trolley. Together it makes quite a sizeable, solid whole.

However, it seems that in spite of all this, I can be invisible.

In the bread and cheese aisle of my small local supermarket the other day there were three large pallets containing goods for re-stocking the shelves. In charge of those were three young men transferring the goods from pallets to shelves. They were chatting to each other and laughing about their jolly weekend.

I wanted to select a pack of bread rolls. There was a pallet in the way. The man in charge of it was so caught up with the riveting account of what he'd got up to that he didn't notice me trying to reach across. Indeed, several times he looked straight through me. Amazing, I was invisible! How did I do that?

I waited. After all, people have jobs to do and I wasn't in a hurry. I leaned against the shelves on the other side of the aisle and listened to the conversation. It was bog standard for a weekend by the sound of it – a footie match, a few bevvies at the pub afterwards, and a barbie on the Sunday with a bit of a rave-up that went on, and on, and on ... yeah, no, ha ha, ho hum.

Enough. With some difficulty I reached up and across the pallet, said "excuse me" and managed to scratch down a pack of rolls. The three of them chattered on, oblivious.

It occurs to me that there must be a fortune to be made here, if I could only work out what the magic was. Could it be bottled? Would it need some kind of manufacturing process? Imagine how interesting it would be to wander round at will, watching and listening without being seen. But hey – that's what happens now. Anyway the technique still needs work. It's all very well to be invisible, but it can be inconvenient. It would be handy to be able to turn the magic off now and then.

NB: for some reason I can't upload pictures from my computer any more. If anyone knows why, please tell me.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013


According to the radio this morning, one in four people in Britain is obese. Not just overweight, or piling it on a bit, or chubby – OBESE.

It seems that doctors – some of whom are presumably included in that one in four – don't take this seriously enough. Their bumper-sticker advice is to eat more fruit and vegetables and take some exercise. Excellent idea, we should all do more of both.

The trouble is that those who enjoy exercise do it. Everyone else hates it and won't do it. Anything that you have to do only because it's good for you is not going to get done for long. Just ask anyone who signs up for a year's gym membership in the guilty wake of Christmas over-indulgence.

That leaves the fruit and vegetables. There is a small but insistent lobby that wants greens to be cheap so that everyone will buy them instead of the sweet and fatty things that they actually want. Oh come on. People don't buy greens because they don't like them. They don't like them because they haven't been taught to like them. Greens could be cheap as chips but they would rather have the chips.

But there is hope. Again according to the radio, there is a school of thought that says part of the obesity problem is that we are swallowing too many anti-biotics. These kill the bad bugs, but they also kill the good bugs that we need to keep us healthy. I'm not sure how this affects our tendency to obesity, but perhaps I wasn't paying enough attention. However, it seems that we also obsess about keeping our houses too clean, and stop our children eating dirt. Well, that's what I heard, this morning, on the radio, but it was a bit early for me. I might have dropped off now and again and missed the connection.

Anyway, if I got it right, the answer to the obesity problem is to leave our houses to gather dust, stop fussing with the disinfectants and household cleaners, and let our children mess about in the dirt. Oh, and eat more bugs.