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Wednesday, 30 June 2010

End of the road blues: Part Two


We are, I think, all familiar with this famous North American road sign. Having laughed heartily, and, it must be confessed, with a degree of superiority, at whoever planned, designed and then installed the above, it was somewhat humbling to discover that the Scots, famed across the world as engineers, could also concieve of turnpike insanity on an equal level. The first glimmer of this came about five miles up the half-metalled single track clifftop track that leads to Rubha Reidha. As our car crawled along, clinging to the path with every ounce of traction available to it, my companions were marvelling at the 300 ft cliffs that plunged away on our left. Suddenly, a hairpin bend took us slightly inland as the road followed a ravine back inland. Another few twists, then the road plunged downwards and darted across the ravine as if it had lost patience looking for a way across. The bridge that (somewhat reluctantly judging by its construction) had followed the road, seemed to be made of old Zimmer frames and bike parts, and on the other side, I could see that the road twisted sharply left, then leapt almost vertically up the hillside as if relieved to be free of the gorge. I slowed the car so that it crawled down the hill, then lined it up along the bridge and gunned it ferociously. We shot across the shambolic span, then more vicious acceleration as the car strained to make the top of the opposite slope without stalling.
As we crested the hill, Culham and Large laughed:"Did you see that sign?"

I was too frightened to pay attention to road signs, but fortunately, later in the holiday, we had time to record it for posterity. The sign, placed just at the approach to the bridge, was the following:


A couple of miles on, another gorge, another sign. It was as if the roadbuilders were challenging truckers:




And finally, about a mile before the lighthouse, the stakes were raised. The final gorge to cross was, it has to be admitted, slightly less imposing than the previous ones. The bridge was, however, still determinedly flimsy. So, just in case a truck much heavier than the 7.5 tonne ones banned from the two previous bridges had decided that 7.5 tonnes was a lower weight limit, the last bridge was protected by the following sign, a sign which refers to what would be called in North America 18 wheeler tractor trailers.
The road also featured in our first encounter with our fellow lighthouserers. Before launching into that tale, I should illuminate it slightly with the information that having learnt Canadian hinking etiquette from two of Nova Scotia's leading plodders, I have, since my arrival in this country, continued the tradition. On a local Sunday hike, amid the gentle hills of the East Riding Of Yorkshire, for example, I will insist on stopping someone on the path and enquiring if they have water, emergency supplies, a map, compass, sturdy shoes, a whistle and all the accoutrements necessary for wilderness venturing. Of course, the East Riding of Yorkshire is hardly the wilderness and the fact that the person being grilled is probably just walking off a hearty Sunday lunch, and that, in this crowded country the last thing they want is a conversation with a stranger, and also that in this part of England, a fully equipped supermarket, not to mention their house, is usually just over the brow of the nearest hill often makes the question superfluous, but it is a hard habit to shake. Thus spotting a lonely hiker( at nearly ten in the evening) five miles away from shelter trudging up a cliff-top Scotish track, I felt justified in applying the Canadian convention.

I slowed the car gradually as we approached, creeping up behind the hiker until my window was level with her. Once in position, I hit the window control, but unfortunately hit the wrong one, winding the rear window down. Upper most in my mind was the need to ascertain that a fellow hiker was in no danger, so while continuing to drive, and frantically jabbing controls on the armrest to try to get the window down, I started bellowing "ARE YOU ALRIGHT?", "DO YOU NEED WATER???", "IS EVERYTHING OK". While this was going on Cristiana, an Italian of our acquaintance who has never (despite living in Canada and the UK for some time) quite lost what she would willingly describe as a cultural volatility, started shouting at me "What the F***'s are you doing". Additionally, my control jabbing was misguided and the wing mirrors were waggling frantically as the car weaved jerkily along the road. Meanwhile the hiker had on her face an expression similar to that of a startled heron. Taking a slight shake of her head to mean that she was ok, I sped off down the road towards the lighthouse, front and rear windows winding up and down and side mirrors circling merrily, Cristiana still shouting and Nel cackling. It shoud be added, in the interests of historicity, that in truth, we had no water whatsoever in the car. Nevertheless, I felt the gesture was the important thing, and if the hiker had expressed a need for liquid, then one of the bottles of Stella Artois that had been warming in the trunk since Inverness would substituted nicely.

About an hour later, we were settled into the kitchen of the hostel partaking of some liquid refreshment, probably discussing underpants or cats (I had put a cap on the allowed duration of academic conversation per diem) when a mousey head, accompanied by an equally mousey face, poked its head round the door. We all cried a cheery "Hello!", but for a second, I wondered where I had seen that face before. It was only as the face suddenly withdrew from the crack between door and post, in a fashion reminiscent of a doormouse surprised by a snake, that I relaised it was our hiker from the road. The next four days were like living with a ghost. I would emerge from the common shower facility, then, just as I was entering my room down the corridor, would feel a wisp of wind. I would turn just in time to see the shower-room door slam shut and hear the sound of the lock being thrown and what also sounded like large objects being pushed againstit from the other side. I would enter the kitchen for breakfast, short-sighted and dozy as always, half-noticing someone eating at the table, then by the time I had turned round, they would be gone, their meal apprently abandoned mid-mouthful. It was a bit like living on the Marie Celeste.

Others in the lighthouse were equally strange. In the refrectory was a "Wildlife Spotted" whiteboard. Soon after arriving, a smug European pair began to fill this board - "Sea Otter: 7.15am". "Pod of Orcas: 8.20am" "Played water polo with seals until got bored: 18.00 - 22.00". The only word they exchanged with us were the names of the wildlife they had seen, how early in the morning they had seen it, and where, accompanied with a knowing smile. JC rapidly became convinced they were making it up, and proposed retaliatory strikes in the form of made up postings "Kraken: 13.00", "Went to dinner with mermaids: awful hangover" "Unicorn and foal borrowed £2.50. Will return same time tomorrow".

Then there was also the fact that everyone else went to bed at about 10pm despite two very, very comfortable sitting rooms, ideal for groups to gather and chew the fat. This early a-bed is forgivable if they were engaged in vigourous outdoor pursuits requiring an early start, but in truth we saw no sign of that. And the idea occured that they all wanted solitude, but this also seems illogical to me. While I didnt particularly want to have a full blown party, it seems very odd that people would voluntarily go to a hostel where all the facilities are shared and to not want to share even a "hello", but the fact remains that getting a conversation out of most of the other guests was like prising a mollusc off a rock. In truth, what most of the other guests seemed to do was to walk out of the hostel's door in the morning, amble up the headland, remove enormous binoculars from their bags and look at things all day. Inevitably, there was conflict, between our diverse lifestyles and that of the other guests.......

On our third evening I was telling Cristiana, during a particularly aggressive moment, that what I was offering, right there and then, in front of Nel and Jody, was a one-time offer. I continued:

"This is the best offer you've ever had. Turn your back on this, baby, and you'll regret it for ever. And I wont forget. So what's it to be? Right here, right now, on this table - everything you've ever wanted? Or nothing! Zip! Nada. I got it, you want it, lets do it! "

Cristiana's face grew thunderous.

"F**k you, asshole. Keep it. I donna wanna! I got plenty". She made the Italian hand signal at me that means "you are dismissed".

Culham and Large exchanged glances. Large though for a second and glanced briefly at me;

"I've never seen you play Monopoly so recklessly before" she said, before continuing "You're going to go bankrupt, but I'll give you something for the railway stations".

Just at that moment, a head peeked round the door. It was a guy RHB had been talking to earlier, a nightclub owner from London, here with his huband. We assumed that out of all the guests we'd met, being nightclub owners, they'd be up for a laugh.

"Excuse me, it's nearly eleven pm. I'm sleeping right above you. Could you keep the noise down?".

Naturally we did. In fact, we packed up and the next day drove to Inverness, where JC caught a flight to Italy, then Durham where CCP lives, then finally Hull where the cats were waiting and my phone was screaming text messages at me demanding that I travel to London the next day to work.

Friday, 25 June 2010

End of the Road Blues

Part One:

As the car winds up the partly paved ('metalled', for some unfathomable reason is the correct term) single track, cliff-top road from Gairloch to Rubha Reidh Lighthouse, the tension, among some of our party in the vehicle, becomes palpable. The reason for this burgeoning trepidation is that the whole future of object recognition research across three continents - Canada, Europe and Hull - has been placed in the hands, amid the dying light of a Scottish evening, of a half-blind, astigmatic Scouser (who's solitary remaining thought is "BEER!!!!") tasked with steering a vehicle both unfamiliar and unsatisfactory, the remaining nine miles of our voyage. And loaded into that vehicle is the combined brain power of Large, Culham and CCP, not to mention et al (with 'al' being the suitcases).

Co-temporally with the vehicle rounding another hair-pin bend, the Scouser in the party (AKA self), democratically minded as always, decides to assess the alert level of his co-travellers in order to decide whether a new operational plan (ie get out and walk) is necessary and safer, given my percepion of our impending doom and immediately discovers two things. The first discovery is that the second year of one's degree programme has not been a complete waste of time because it is now within one's acquired vocabulary to scientifically identify as "less than a phoneme", the unit of sound that it is possible to interject into the conversation occuring between the other three in the car. And the second discovery, gleaned from the conversation of my fellow argonauts, is that they are not echoing my own alert levels (which are set at "Post-Double Red") and I am, apparently, 'flying solo' in my elevated alertness levels . Their conversation, illustrating this, follows a path which, to me, sounds like :

Large: "...of course, the reaction times are less than a micro-second so we have to adjust the sensitivity of the manganlangous timbrational speracity ..."

CCP: ".....I know, but Culham and CCP (2008) quite clearly demonstrated that the occipital parietal/frontal vermiculite sporangieoform nucleus deters reciprocity across the ventral falagacious..."

Culham: "...that's true, CCP...WOW...what a cool cliff . See right here next to us, it plunges at least 330 foot down ..."

The car, therefore ploughs on, and I conclude that it would be an act of extreme impoliteness to interrupt their conversation by reminding the Red Haired Boffin, especially here and now on this road where visual cognition is paramount and hazards such as cows, vertical plunges from cliffs and the onset of evening require acute observational skills, that the driver (self) is a person who is banned - after spectacularly failing as an experimental subject for said visually oriented boffin - from even mentioning the words "object" and "recognition" within the same week let alone the same sentence. In short, I remain schtumm and point the car towards where I think the road probably is, and the cliff probably isnt.

Eventually, we reach the lighthouse, intact and a quarter of the party amends it's thoughts from the previous incarnation "BEER!" to a rather more expansive "BEER !!!!!! NOW!!!!!!!!". That same fourth is also amazed to find that, whatever its preconceptions about a lighthouse might have been, the structure that is to be our accomodation for the next four evenings is a rather tall building perched at the edge of a rocky promontory. Retrospectively, one supposes, it would have been more surprising to find that the lighthouse was a small, squat building in the middle of a field in Leicestershire, but having never stayed in one before, and at the end of ten hours of travelling, excuses, I suppose might be made. But another explanation is that all of our conquistadores are, simply put, 'gobsmacked' by how beautiful the building is, and its placement within the landscape.

The next four days are a blur, but I will try to summarise. On the first night, plans are made by everyone to buy, and move into lighthouses. The next evening, after a hike near to a loch, plans are made, by everyone, to buy, and move into small cottages at the foot of loch-nestling hills. On the third night, all are agreed that a croft on a sea-shore beach overlooking the Atlantic is the most desirable real estate. For self and RHB, this is our first trip to Scotland in about fifteen years and our memories of how beautiful vast swathes of this country can be, are not, for us, exagerrated.

In our next installment, an opinion is offered in respect of our fellow hostellers, a series of curious roadsigns are discussed, Mazzer O'Reilly makes a number of groundbreaking archaeological discoveries and the Fab Four get into serious trouble.



Scotland 2010

Friday, 11 June 2010

End of term exams

One of the requisites of modern anthropology is that more than informed consent, any study involving people should be a partnership between the researcher and the subjects. In fact, so strong is this theme that massive books and millions of papers have been devoted to analysis of the correct relationship between the studied and the studees. So much work on this has been done, in fact, that for decades, no anthropology was done while everybody worked out whether those involved in research should be participants, actors, partners, co-eval associates or comrades, and whether researh should be constructionist, textual, mnemonic, bionic, trepidatious or excoriating. By the time everyone had decided that no-one had it right, everyone had forgotten what the point was although because post-modernists can drone on the longest it was generally accepted that they had won.

THe point is though, that studying people should not be a matter of laughing at, judging or otherwise holding others up as curious specimens. And in that spirit, I present the first video of this post. On a recent trip to London, I was describing to my co-worker some several situations that had occured in Canada, where, despite apparently speaking the same language, purchases in a small store close to where I worked became a twenty-five minute pantomime whereby I had to act out the processes involved in dairy manufature, including mooing loudly, in order to purchase some butter. As we drove aimlessly around London, my co-worker, Chris, wondered what Canadians would make of his accent, which is moderately broad Yorkshire. We decided to find out. So in the following video Chris addresses a short sentence to you, Canadians, for translation. We could'nt decide who was being studied - Canadians, Yorkshire people or Scooby Scousers, but if you are a Canadian reading this, the requirement is for a literal translation, not the sense of what Chris is saying, as that is blindingly obvious:




video


The next video is slightly easier, featuring me and Chris driving through London trying to find the Natural History museum. This video is not ethnographic, just a review (I'm sure most are very familiar with this already) of London traffic, but does feature some of my own tones (cringe!) and Chris' as a comparison for how deeply different we sound:


video


THe final video is of a the famous anomatronic t.rex at the natural history nuseum. I'm sure many of you have seen this, but on my visit I was reminded that I very nearly got the job to project manage the production of these creatures. As things have turned out, I am happy not to have won that position, as the project (which was to involve a huge park full of these creations in Dubai) ran into numerous difficulties - not least of which was, I believe, some dispute over authenticity as Dubai was never home to Brontosaurii, T. Rex or Albertasaurus.

video

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

From Concretia to Hannibal

Some may recall that in the northern grounds of Large Mansions, we caused, in an Ozymandian gesture of grandiosity, a great lake to be created. Surrounded by stone edifice, cascading gardens, and hewn from the bare rock, with an area cast at a full two cubits by one, it has become a marvel of the locale, boasting not one, but two fully grown dragons - Diego, who arrived last year, and Lilly, who made an appearance a few weeks ago.The success of the front lake led to an enthusiasm for ponds, so as previously described, we proceeded to install one in the southern reaches of our estate. Prior to our occupancy, the lands here were a barren waste, subject to the tyranny of Concretia, but after a titanic struggle, she was overthrown and the ongoing attempt to reclaim the territory commenced.
With the formalities of history described, I can now introduce you to the new ruler of the Southern Estates. I would like to formally present Hannibal, Benevolent Dictator.



Hannibal is not alone. We have a magnificent collection of beautiful snails, most of which are called Brian. Here's a few pictures of Brian in action.The first picture may well be a little blurred, but Brian was moving at quite the pace when I took this, and it was only later when he settled down that I got the chance to take a better shot. As you can see, Brian is quite the poser. The black spot on the end of the stalk is his eye and he's looking right at the camera here.


In truth, its inaccurate to call Brian "he" as snails are hermaphrodite.

This rear garden also includes about six species of bees. Residents include a burrowing bee that has a next under the apple tree, several bumble bee nests and a smaller variety of what I think are honey bees. There's birds too that regularly visit Hannibal's pond, bathing in the shallows. And every day, there's an incredible variety of new buds from brightly coloured ones to balls of fluff that look like seeds floating on the wind.

This enthusiastic endorsement of gardening might sound like the ramblings of someone preparing for retirement, and there might be something in that, but I realised the other day, when I was watching one of the neighbour hood kids pulling up our tulips that for me, this garden is more a return to childhood. As a kid, I would trap caterpillars in jars, scrounge some lettuce from my mum, then place the jar on the windowsill where the caterpillars inevitably fried in the magnified sun, or died of asphyxiation. My dad disapproved strongly of this as cruelty and insisted that we should leave the caterpillars alone and just watch them, so attention then turned to tracking the cycle of the caterpillars. I would return to the same hedge every day, find the caterpillar, pick it carefully off the leaf and measure it. I say "the" caterpillar, because I was convinced that the one I measured every day was the same one. The mysterious fluctuations in size, apparent fatness and colour that I observed were explained by how "happy" the caterpillar was that day, which of course depended on the weather.

Of course, we continually get congratulated by passing adults on how environmnetally friendly our garden is, and what a "marvellous" thing it is we are doing creating a wildlife habitat. Such readings of our attempts are all very nice and everything, but are totally misplaced. Of course, its a very good thing to encourage wildlife and biodiversity and have natural gardens, there is no question of that, but it is not our motive. It is also very fashionable, unlike the clothes of many of those who stroke their beards or play with their dreadlocks as they stand chatting to us about hemp and composting and honey bee decline, to be ecologically aware - to garden "green". But the earnestness gets tiring pretty quickly. In fact, given all of this, plus the attempts by the corporate world to convince "us" to "do our bit for the planet" by purchasing a "native" British weed from their air-conditioned, oil-heated, plastic filled, road haulage supplied warehouse, the cognitively dissonant part of my left brain wants to tell me to lay down a load of concrete and park a hog in the front. The truth is, the garden is a far as I can get from being politically aware. The garden is a place where six year old boys can crawl round measuring caterpillars, talking to snails and watching, with as little understanding as possible, a small world change.









Add to this at least five spe

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

They think its all over ......

I stare out through the kitchen door window. My companion, equally solemn, watches with me as a hail storm marches across the landscape - or at least that portion of it visible - pearls of ice divebombing Baile Aoisaghe making gardening impossible. I sigh, frustrated, and turn to my friend:

"You know we should have done it yesterday. We could have had them beans all staked neatly. I know we talked about it, but you insisted it had to be today". The truth is, I'm mildly pissed at having allowed myself to be persuaded.

"I'm going upstairs. What about you?" I ask when, after a minute or so, I get no response.

He remains silent, contemplative.

"I suppose its only one more day" I say, anxious to be diplomatic.

I turn to leave. My friend seems more reluctant than me, but eventually sighs loudly, and pushes himself away from the door he's been leaning on. He slumps on the floor, disgruntled and begins loudly grooming his posterior.

Which is when I realised that tomorrow's final examination of my second year of university cannot come too soon. It's true, that in common with most pet owners, I have fallen into the habit of talking to the cats. But there's a big difference between 'talking to the cats' and 'having extended conversations with the cats about agricultural techniques and expecting an answer'. Since Easter, though, I have been reading, essay writing and revising for examinations which, for me, has to be a solo operation, and its obvious that in that period of time a pattern has developed. I realise, with some alarm that not only am I having extended conversations with the cats about agriculture and expecting an answer, but that I am also arguing with them, on a surprisingly consistent basis about what I should do about lunch, whether we should have any confidence in post-processual archaeology and if phenomenology is something we all experience or not. And, I have to confess, I am taking advice from the larger of the two animals on the timing of agricultural activities.

Tomorrow, it all ends, and sanity will return, I hope. I have a slew of activities planned for the summer, all of which can hopefully be accomplished without feline input, and more importantly, with human contact. Plans range from various jaunts to Scotland, East Anglia and as much cycling as I can squeeze in, to recording Cheek To Cheek's seminal first album. And there's also lots and lots of renovation to be accomplished.

I get upstairs to my lair, turn on the computer and click an icon on the desktop - an Excel sheet that I have developed to schedule my summer's fun. I make a few changes to "June", bringing "Make solar panel" forward by a few days, and slipping in "Re-plaster bathroom ceiling" hoping RHB wont notice. I go to press save, halt, then press "Save as" instead. Under file name, I change the name of the file to "Martin's Summer Plans", thereby eliminating the other named party from the file. If Toshack wants to plan his summer, he can make his own Excel sheet.