Dragonfly season

Just lately, the weather could be best described as having been ‘moody’. Some sultry nights, occasional hot sun, with daytime temperatures rarely reaching a seasonal norm. To balance this, we have had threatening clouds, some thunder and lightning, and raindrops as big as ten-pence pieces.

Following a long spell of constant heavy rain, this combination has seen the foliage and vegetation spring up to new heights, as well as an increase in the number of small biting insects. Halfway through July, it still doesn’t really feel much like summer, to be honest.

Walking with Ollie this afternoon, I dallied awhile, as he went to stand in the river to cool down. Hovering just above the surface, I noticed a huge dragonfly. It had a body as big as my thumb, and an impressive wingspan too. Unusually, it was a yellow/gold colour, not the iridescent greens and blues I have previously noticed. It was soon joined by others, their distinctive flying style seeming to take them off at right angles without effort. Smaller damsel flies stayed on nearby leaves, appearing to keep clear of their much larger relatives. Once these monsters appear, you can be sure that it really is summer, even if it doesn’t seem like it.

These large dragonflies are impressive insects indeed, and go about their business without any fear. If you get close enough, you might sometimes hear the motion of their wings, and be able to marvel at their controlled flight, and occasional bursts of speed. I am not an expert, but their confidence suggests that they are the kings and queens of their domain, and have no obvious predators. I sat watching them again for a while later on, as I rested on a bench. One thought occurred to me.

If they were as big as crows, we would be in serious trouble.

Officially irresistible

It’s official. I am irresistible. At least to any form of biting insect, stinging plant, irritating leaf or creeper. In fact, as far as most of nature is concerned, I am the main course of choice, as well as the starter, and a tasty dessert too.

One of the joys of better weather is being able to shed clothing. To wander freely in shorts, not having to wear socks, discarding heavy coats and warm coverings. The downside to this is having to be aware of all the things that want to bite you, sting you, and otherwise cause discomfort and irritation. So I plaster the exposed areas with repellent, adding the much-lauded Avon ‘Skin so Soft’ for good measure. I try to wear long-sleeved shorts or tops to escape the ravages on my arms, and rarely leave the house unprepared.

But they are never fooled or deterred by these careful preparations. These tiny insects and delicate plant filaments will seek out any chink in my armour, and punish me accordingly. To them, I am fair game. Something to be feasted upon, stung as a warning, or even just for fun. Because they can.
If I didn’t know better, I would think that all these minute forces of nature gather together for a briefing. They check their watches, almost 2 pm. He will be out soon. They wait to see me lumbering along my usual route, their delicate senses seeking out any uncovered or unprotected spot. Then they attack, all forces combined.

Perhaps they have become inured to my sprays and potions. Maybe they have evolved to be able to disregard them completely. Whatever the reason, my walks are becoming a feat of endurance of a different kind. No longer slogging through mud, encumbered by heavy boots. Instead, I have to try to avoid the obvious places where insects dwell; shady spots, under trees, close to the riverbank. This makes it almost impossible for me, as all of my walks contain such hazards. As the grasses and plants grow during the season, I can feel their eager tendrils reaching up beyond the limit of my shorts, in search of exposed flesh wherever it can be found.

For me, the consequences of my dog-walking ritual are legs covered in bites and itchy rashes. I have bites next to other bites, painful weals on my fingers, and I have to re-cover myself in creams and potions to avoid an evening of scratching.

But I would take it over rain, any day.

The real price of Summer

After spending most of the year complaining about bad weather, Summer has arrived once more in Beetley. The temperature is soaring, and thunder storms are occurring. There is still some rain, but it is intermittent, if no less torrential. We have achieved enviable temperatures in excess of 24C, with attendant blue skies, occasional breezes, and uncomfortable night-time humidity.

The plants over the meadow are at shoulder height, and the river water is achieving a bearable temperature. Plant life is blossoming, and insect life is notable by its abundance. The cold and wet of a few weeks back is but a memory, and we need the fan on, to get a decent sleep. In many respects, this is it. The reason for moving to the countryside, to enjoy the balmy summers of yesteryear.

But there is a price to pay for such luxury. As well as feeling uncomfortably humid, the nights restrict sleep. We need to have the fan on in the bedroom as mentioned above, and the noise is irritating. Open windows during the evening just attract endless bugs, and more biters. The contrast from the cold of only days ago, means that we are unprepared for the change to heat. Sleep comes hard, and both of us are tired. Ollie is too hot on his walks, spending too much time in the river, in an effort to keep cool.

Last weekend, a brief diversion into the woodland nearby, resulted in an inordinate amount of insect bites. Whether Midge, Mosquito, or unknown biter, I emerged with legs comprehensively overwhelmed by bites. On the left leg, nine, the right leg, seven. On my head, four, and all raging with itchiness. Creams and lotions applied, the relief is temporary. Trying not to scratch is a full-time preoccupation. The house feels warm, even with most windows open. Those same windows attract yet more biters, as well as irritating bugs, so the circle continues.

My much longed-for Summer is here, but the bill has also been placed on the table. Not one, without the other. I suddenly yearn for a return to milder days, less bothered by biting insects, and cool walks with Ollie. That is the paradox of the English Summer. You want it all year, but you cannot stand to receive the invoice.

Autumn is looking more inviting than ever.

Holidays and Travel: China 2000. Part One.

I had always wanted to see China. Ever since watching films as a child, and later reading about Marco Polo, Kublai Khan, and others, it seemed a place of mystery, and home to a totally different idea of culture. Later interest in the Boxer Rebellion, the Japanese invasion in the 1930’s, and the Communist dictatorship formed by Mao, and I was more than ready to go and see this legendary country. But it never happened. Despite travelling to lots of other places, China had always seemed too daunting, too vast, and also too expensive. Over the years, I often wondered if I would ever get to see the Great Wall, The Forbidden City, and the other spectacles on offer.

In the late 1990’s, an old friend contacted me. He was working for an advertising agency, and he had been offered the management of the Audi contract, through an agency in Beijing. He was off to China, and he would be in touch, and let me know how it was there. His wife and son were going too, as it might be a long contract. After a period of settling in, and adjustment, he contacted me. At the time, I was single, and living in London. I had recently moved to a flat in Camden, subsidised by being in my job. (The LAS) I had a reasonable amount of savings, and a fair bit of disposable income, courtesy of that reasonable rent. I had two weeks holiday booked for September, and with a bit of shift-jiggling, I could manage a few days either side as well. The world was my oyster, and I was looking to do something extravagant. My friend suggested that I come to visit him in Beijing. He would put me up, in his luxury high rise in the city centre. Although he would have to work, his wife would be around most days, (and I knew her already) and he would arrange some weekend trips, as well as some interesting evenings out, after work. I made some enquiries, and found that I could fly direct, with British Airways, for around £700 return. With Visas, spending money, appropriate gifts for my friends, and a reasonable crop of souvenirs, I could definitely do fifteen days, for around £1500, maybe £2,000, at an excessive pinch. I decided to throw caution to the winds, and booked it all. I could never see a time in the future, when I would have such an opportunity again. OK, it was ‘only’ Beijing, but as that was my first choice anyway, so what was the problem?

I went to Oxford Street, and booked a scheduled flight with British Airways, which came in at a shade under £650, for the chosen dates. I also applied for my visa, to be collected from the Chinese Consulate, in Portland Place, a short walk from my flat. My friend was really happy that I was coming to visit. I went shopping in Camden, and bought his son a model car, and his wife some perfume. He would be content with booze, which I would get at the airport. I sorted my camera gear, ready for the photographic opportunity of a lifetime, and arranged all my leave, and finances. When the day came, I was more than ready. I took a cab to Paddington Station, and the Heathrow Express out to the airport. It was nice to be travelling on a scheduled flight again, so much more civilised than some of the package tours that I had become accustomed to. It was a little disconcerting to be travelling alone, though the prospect of being collected by, and staying with a good friend, assuaged any concerns. The flight was long and uneventful, but very comfortable. My arrival in Beijing was exciting, but the time of day meant that my friend had to drop me at his flat, and get off to work, arranging to meet four hours later, for lunch.

I learned the first rule. Do not sit behind the cab driver with your window open. Despite a humid temperature, in excess of 35 degrees, my old pal closed my window, and I soon discovered why. The Chinese spit. They do this constantly, and habitually. Everyone does it, from old men, children, housewives, to attractive young girls. All the time, day and night. Their culture demands spitting, to expel the things in their system that they believe are bad. They see nothing wrong with this, or with contaminating their walkways and paths with gobbets of spit. It is accepted, even encouraged. It is very different to what we regard to be acceptable behaviour, and it takes a great deal of getting used to. I also discovered something else that I had not expected. Six-lane highways, choked with cars, and wall to wall traffic. Tower block offices, western advertising signs, neon, and garish illuminations. Subway, MacDonald’s, Starbucks, and any other Western-influenced product or establishment you can think of. Every high street bank, familiar from the UK, and chain hotels from the same companies known so well here. I was left wondering what had happened to the China that I had imagined. I felt that I could have just as easily been in Chicago, or Hong Kong perhaps.

The flat, right in the heart of the business district, was luxurious. On the nineteenth floor, with panoramic views, tiled floors, and a well-staffed concierge entrance. I was taught my first words in Mandarin; ‘Neih Ho’, and ‘Shei Shei’, Hello, and thank you, both addressed to the immaculate staff in the foyer. I did not learn much more, save for something that sounded like ‘Jella Ting’, said to taxi drivers, when you wanted them to pull over on the right. After settling in, I met my friend in Subway, of all places, for lunch. I told him that I was disappointed, that Beijing was too modern, too western. He assured me that I would see the ‘real’ China during my stay. He also told me about his contract and salary, and the fact that his Chinese female ‘boss’ was only earning $200US dollars a month, and she spoke three languages. She also supported her family on this salary, as well as running a new car, so she wasn’t doing too bad. However, this was only a tiny percentage of what he was getting, over $200,000 a year! So some indication of how economics worked there at the time. It was nice to see his wife and young son again, and we spent the first night in the flat, catching up.

The next day, his wife took me to the shopping district, and to a large department store. We went everywhere by taxi, as it was very cheap, comparable to bus fares in the UK. I got cash from an ATM, a branch of my own bank in England, with the same pin number, and no formalities. I found the Yuan notes colourful, and the exchange rate was good. I bought cigarettes, at half the price compared to England, and we went for a light lunch, in a reasonable outdoor restaurant, that was acceptably cheap. Things that did prove to be expensive, were red wine, and some western sweets, that I bought for their son. We ate at home again that night, and I was introduced to someone from the Turkish Embassy (my friend’s wife is Turkish) who was a heavy drinker, and a complete hedonist. My head was spinning, as here I was in China, and I was eating Turkish food, and getting drunk with an Englishman, and a Turkish diplomat. I resolved to see more of the city, and decided that the next day would be spent exploring.

I started out early, and took the reasonable walk to Tianenmen Square. This was a long time after the televised demonstrations, and excessive reaction from the authorities, that have since given this place an infamous, rather than famous name. It is certainly huge, and home to many official buildings, heroic sculpture, and hundreds of tourists. I was a lone westerner that morning, and could feel what it was like, to be so out of place. Opposite the square, the huge portrait of Chairman Mao, so often seen on TV, marks the entrance into the Forbidden City, the main destination for me, that morning. Built in the fifteenth century, this vast complex, of almost 1,000 separate buildings, was the Imperial Palace of Chinese emperors until 1924, when the last emperor was forced to leave. It has since been a museum, and an amazing one too. To go into detail, would take a complete post in itself, but it is an overwhelming place, that cannot all be seen in one visit, let alone one day. The entrance fee was very reasonable, and the large numbers of tourists, almost all Chinese, really did make it feel as if you were wandering around in a populated city, at the time of the Ming Dynasty. The architecture is fully restored, and each level into the deeper depths of the city, towards where the Imperial family would have resided, is crammed with interesting statues and carvings, with the numerous buildings each housing exhibits. My camera was on overdrive, and I was so excited, I almost ignored the 35 degree heat, that was sapping my energy. I stopped and bought water, and a strange twisty bread confection from a vendor, and had a break. Carrying on later, I realised that I would never see it all, and even after almost five hours inside, I still felt that I had not done it justice.

On the way back, in the late afternoon, I noticed how many cycles, mopeds, and motorcycles were on the roads, and alongside them too. They all seemed to be heavily laden, often having to be pushed instead of ridden, so high and wide were the loads. Crowds of brightly-uniformed children were getting off buses and coaches, returning home from school, and street vendors were beginning to set up for the evening, in the streets around the main station. Crowds gathered around their stalls, which all seemed to be selling food. On closer examination, I realised that they were selling fried insects of some kind, grasshoppers, or similar. They were selling fast too, as hundreds of people walked around with the stiff paper cones, full of the crunchy creatures. And no, I was not tempted to try them. As I strolled back to my friend’s flat in the business district, I took in the sights and sounds of the approaching rush hour. Thousands of people,  and almost all of them, including children, and young women, spitting constantly. The traffic was already at fever pitch, and the strangely old-fashioned looking vans and trucks all belched black smoke into the sky. Looking across at the horizon, the pall of pollution was easy to see, hanging over the natural basin that Beijing is built in, like a cloud of low fog. I had to almost pinch myself. Here I was, wandering in Beijing, as if it was nothing. I could never have imagined this, thirty years earlier. I felt fantastic, but as I was alone, I had nobody to share it with. Perhaps the only downside to being a lone traveller, on that occasion.

That evening, we went to an expensive restaurant, housed on the penthouse floors of the same building my friend lived in. I was raving about my day, and how much I enjoyed this strange city. They were unhappy living there, they told me. They found the Chinese to be ‘difficult’, and were hoping for a transfer to somewhere else. They had not even bothered to visit the Forbidden City at that stage, though they did recommend a trip coming up that weekend, that they had arranged, along with a group of diplomats from the Turkish Embassy, and their families. I ate the best Chinese food that I had ever seen in that restaurant, though I confess to refusing a huge black scorpion, deep-fried, and offered as a complimentary starter. I just couldn’t do it. I had delicious braised eel, snake ‘cooked in its own blood’ (according to the translated menu), and various delicacies, best not elaborated on here. Other than the insects and arachnids, I did not refuse to try anything. We had numerous courses, and copious amounts of alcohol, and I went to bed thinking that it had been a great day indeed, one of the best ever.

The next morning, I took myself off to the famous street market, to buy souvenirs, and to get a feel of everyday life once again. I was a bit early, and many stalls and shops had not yet opened; but as soon as they saw me wandering around with a camera, and a presumably bulging wallet, they waved me in anyway. Disappointingly, most places specialised in clothes. Padded jackets, winter gloves and hats, ski wear, mittens, and waterproofs. This seemed strange in late summer, when I was sweltering, but this part of China does face harsh winters. I did buy a watch with Chairman Mao on it, his arms serving as hands. I still have it, but it no longer works, unfortunately. I had to haggle fiercely, even worse than in Egypt, or Istanbul. The start price was just laughable, hundreds of dollars. The whole transaction was carried out on a calculator, due to the language problems. After spending an eternity with this lady, I finally bought the watch for $10US, about £7 at the time. My friends later told me that I was too easy, and should have paid no more than £1, but it was acceptable to me. I took a taxi to Sanlitun, the embassy district popular with ex-pats, to have coffee and lunch. Taxis were all metered, and no attempt was ever made to rip me off. If you gave the driver a tip, he would be very appreciative. Sometimes I could see them cruising the area, hoping to get me as a return fare, waving at me as they went past.

I had not even been there a week, and felt that I had seen and done so much. The rest of the trip will be covered in part two, otherwise this post will be far too long.

The return of my senses

Since giving up work, and retiring to Norfolk, I have noticed something quite strange. This was almost immediate, and happened without warning. My hearing returned. Not that I was deaf, you understand, just unaware how much auditory capacity I had previously lost.

Over ten years of working in Police Control Rooms had meant that I had to wear a headset for 12 hours a day. This was a dual-purpose item, used for radio transmissions, and answering telephone calls too. It was never turned off, so even if other operators were talking, you always heard everything that went on. Meanwhile, you could hear all the talking and shouting across the room, and the noise of the telephone ring signal in your ear, despite whatever else you may have been doing. Other than the occasional headache, I was not really aware of any damage that this may have been doing to my hearing; though on reflection, I was turning up the TV at home by a few notches, and finding myself straining to hear things, from time to time.

There was also the cacophony of London life to deal with. Intrusive sound from neighbours at all hours, roadworks and utility companies digging, traffic sounds, and helicopter flights that would do justice to Saigon in the 1970’s. All part of living so near the centre. I had to suffer it, although I was aware that it was getting worse.

Then I moved to Norfolk. I had removed the headset for ever, traffic was a thing of the past, and there was nobody shouting, at least not visible with binoculars anyway; my neighbours were so quiet, I presumed the houses were empty. Within a few days, I started to hear things.

Not things that were not there, things that were. Rustling of leaves, buzzing of insects, wing beats of small birds, footsteps on gravel drives. The TV volume went down from 25 to 16, reading a magazine seemed noisy, as the pages turned, and I could even hear the difference in the size of raindrops. Hearing is a wonderful thing, and I feel so lucky to have it back.

Recently, as you may have seen in other posts, I gave up smoking cigarettes. This has started to bring back another long lost sense, my sense of smell. As long as I can remember, I could only really smell the most extreme things. I could certainly notice the smell of a dead body, left untended in summer heat for a few days, during my time in the London Ambulance Service; and If I was unlucky enough to step in some dog mess, I would notice that pretty quickly too. However, most everyday smells were lost to me. Fresh bread, sweet smells, perfumes, (unless over-applied), flowers, and even newly cut grass, had all been erased from my nasal functions.

Now, it is beginning to return, and not always for the better. I can now smell Ollie the dog, and wish that I couldn’t. I can smell someone smoking a cigarette on the other side of Tesco’s car park, giving me some idea what I must have smelt like for the last 44 years. I have also almost stopped sneezing. My constant sneezing fits were well-known to friends and colleagues alike. They could go on for a considerable time, often at inopportune moments, and were most embarrassing. They seem to have diminished, presumably having been a side effect of smoking.

So, I can now smell when my dinner is almost cooked without having to physically check on it , and hear the postman on the gravel outside, long before the letters come through the box. Small progress to some, a revelation to me.

Man Fly

During my daily walk with Ollie the dog last week, I was bitten by an insect (again). As regular readers will know, this is something of a recurring theme in this blog, so I do apologise for repetition. When I got back home, the bite had started to feel extremely hot, and the area behind my right knee had swollen to the size of a grapefruit. Despite the application of tea tree oil (thanks again Gill) and other bite soothers, the swelling and heat continued. By the following day, I could not bend my right leg at all, as the knee had also swollen at the front.

A few days later, I was discussing this with a fellow dog-walker. She advised me that this was probably a Horse Fly bite, as it had a very raised puncture area, and was forming a scab. This made me think. Why did it bite me, if it is a Horse Fly? The answer is obvious of course. Lack of its traditional target, not enough horses around to support the population of this type of fly. It is not all that long ago that the horse was used for almost everything, whether in Rural Norfolk, or Central London. As a child, I well remember the milk man using a horse and cart, as well as other delivery tradesmen. Even as recently as the 1960’s, horses were a common sight on farms, and still in regular use in a lot of country areas. Since the onset of vehicles to replace all the former tasks done by a horse, the animal has become used solely for recreational pursuits, or kept as a pet. Horses now spend their time in cosy stables, adored by loving owners, or carefully tended to provide income for riding schools. There may be the occasional lone horse wandering in a field, offering scope for a roving Horse Fly, but it is a rare sight, even in the countryside. So, the Horse Fly has changed its prey. It has adapted, as only Nature can. Why bother searching in vain for a horse, when there are enough shorts-wearing, arms-exposed, dog-walking men about? It seems our blood is as good as that of a horse, and so the Horse Fly lives on, biting me, instead of old faithful Dobbin.
Time to change its name I think. Who do I approach? The Zoological Society perhaps, or maybe the Natural History Museum. The Horse Fly is no more. Behold, the Man Fly!

Insects and Genies

When I was very young, I read a story about a young adventurer. He finds an old lamp, and as he rubs it, to make it shine, a spirit appears from the spout, in the form of smoke. This takes form, and declares that it is the Genie of the Lamp, and that it will grant the finder three wishes. This fascinated me at the time, and I often considered what three wishes I would have chosen, had I been the lucky lad. More than 50 years later, I know that Genies do not exist, and that it is an Arabian folk tale, which later became a swashbuckling story embellished by Hollywood. None the less, I still have my three wishes ready, just in case.

Wish 1 would be to have a lot of money, say £100,000,000. This would mean that my latter years would be lived free from financial concern. My wife would be able to stop working, and all our family and friends would be well looked after too. Nothing unusual in that one. A bit greedy perhaps, but I am considering inflation.

Wish 2 would have to be that poverty and famine were eradicated in The World. I know this is technically two wishes, so I would have to be careful how I phrased it. Genies are known to be cunning after all, and I wouldn’t want to lose my third wish. It is also a bit worthy, though I do feel that in that situation, you are duty bound to do at least one selfless thing.

Wish 3 would be the achievement of a lifelong, personal ambition. The eradication of most flying insects. I say most, not all, as I would have to be careful not to lose the necessary ones, like Bees, and Ladybirds. If this meant that contingency plans would have to be put into place to feed some birds, frogs, lizards, etc; then so be it. I already put out nuts, fat balls and meal worms, as well as throwing old bread onto the lawn. Others could do the same to keep the animals that they like. When requesting this wish from the Genie, it would be complex in its wording, to still only be one wish, but I would give it my best shot. I would not include crawling insects, like beetles, though many do have the capacity to fly. They tend to be easy to kill, when necessary, and rarely invade your home. Imagine, no more Malaria, no swarms of locusts, and just as importantly to me, no flies on my dinner.

I feel as if I have spent at least a third of my many Summers, trying to kill insects. I say trying, because though I have managed to kill many thousands, most have escaped me. I have armed myself with all known weaponry used in Man’s fight against the flying pests. The rolled-up newspaper, the undersides of slippers or shoes, aerosol sprays, tennis rackets, table tennis bats, even lumps of wood. If unsuccessful swatting was a sport, I would be a household name.

I have recently invested in a selection of electronic fly bats. For those of you that have never seen one of these, they resemble a squash racket. Two batteries are inserted in the handle, a button depressed, and the wire mesh becomes electrified. My strike rate with this type of weapon is not a great deal better. However, the satisfaction element is beyond compare. Once trapped in the mesh, the insect is electrocuted. It sparks, smokes, and eventually dies, recalling the electric chair scene from ‘The Green Mile’, but in miniature.

Some people do not seemed to be bothered by flies landing on their food, or their bodies. I am. These filthy disease carriers have no place in my World. Moving from London to the countryside has increased my contact with flies. In the city, they can gorge themselves on discarded rubbish, half-eaten junk food, and other deposits left by drunks, or dogs. They just couldn’t be bothered to drag their full bellies up three floors to the windows of my flat. No need, as the next pile of kebab residue was only a short crawl away. In my present house, open windows and a door to the garden seem to be considered an invitation to come in and enjoy themselves. Getting a dog didn’t really help. His alfresco toilet habits, and his uneaten dog food, are all haute cuisine to the flying legions of filth.

Wasps also appear to have no purpose, save crawling around on cakes in a Baker’s window, or trying to get into your drink, if you are foolish enough to want to drink outside, in good weather. They buzz, they pester, and worst of all, they deliver a painful sting. As for blood-sucking insects, midges, gnats, and mosquitoes, they seem to all carry a photo of me, headed ‘Most Wanted’.
I have suffered all my life from reactions to bites and stings, as I outlined in a previous post. To imagine a World free of all this, is to me, to dream of Paradise.

So there you have it. I have got my obscene amount of money. All my friends and family are happy. The Peoples of the World no longer die prematurely, or want for food, and I can have a picnic in the park without being unduly bothered. Except for the ants…