Posts for ‘View from the Teapot’

March of the Darwinists

We’re here because
We’re here because
We’are here because
We’re here.
We’re here because
We’re here because
Wea’re here because
We’re here.

Sung to the tune of Auld Lang Syne


There were four things about New Zealand that upset me when we first arrived in March 1956: the paucity of the butterfly population, the primitive nature of the railway system, the lack of television and the fact that I had to go back to wearing short pants to school. Other than that, the place seemed pretty cool, although that was not a word I would have used back then. ‘Hot’ was the fashionable idiom and more appropriate, too, after England’s tepid summers. I remember our first walk down Queen Street – the hard, bright light of the roadway, the dark shade under the verandas. It all felt strange but I was used to adapting to new places and too young to judge the place. I just took note of the compensations like the huge golden queen peach tree in the back garden of the house were we were staying. I can only remember having eaten one peach before and here they were in such profusion they were rotting on the ground. Then I found my first weta. I had no idea what it was but it impressed me. Any country with fauna like this must have something going for it.

I quickly got used to the short pants and the lack of television. I abandoned my enthusiasm for trainspotting and I swapped my love of butterflies for a comparable interest in ants.

The land at the back of our house was flat and rough, covered in gorse and blackberry, which burned down every summer or so in a spectacular display of dark orange flame and roiling grey smoke, leaving behind a thick layer of apricot coloured ash. Beneath this layer the rocks were riddled with volcanic pipes that opened up here and there into low, dome like caves. Some of these you could crawl into – a dangerous practice I think now because the land belonged to a quarry, which did some blasting from time to time with accompanying jolts like little earthquakes. The roofs of the caves were unstable looking – cracked like crazy paving – and above ground there were concavities were some of them had collapsed.

We didn’t spend much time in the caves, though. They were too cramped. It was more fun wandering around in the open air, looking for wildlife – insects mostly, although there were a lot of skinks, too.

There were several species of ant. Some were big, slow, primitive creatures, maybe 15mm long, that lived in colonies with only a few dozen members but there were also big colonies of red ants with seething populations. These nests were everywhere. Sometimes they were only a few metres apart. It struck me as interesting that I never saw any of them in the house where some species of black ant (formica fusca, I decided they were) was a nuisance, requiring saucers of poison in the pantry cupboards. I decided that the two species couldn’t occupy the same territory – there were ants of the field and ants of the house. This thought (it might have been a rationalisation) encouraged me in an experiment

I had a copy of the classic Victorian text on the hymenoptera, Ants, Bees and Wasps by Sir John Lubbock in which he described a method for keeping ants nests so that they could be observed easily. This involved two sheets of glass separated by thin strips of wood around the edges with a few gaps  to form exits and entrances (rows of matchsticks did the job perfectly). The space between the sheets was filled with damp earth and the whole covered by a sheet of wood or cardboard to keep out the light. This arrangement was then supported by four legs standing in bowls of water, which formed little moats over which the ants couldn’t pass. All you had to do was dig up a nest and put it on top of the wood. As the dirt dried and crumbled the ants were supposed to abandon their old home and tunnel into the space between the sheets of glass to form a new one.

My only problem was where to try this experiment. The only place I could think of was the bottom of my wardrobe.

It all worked perfectly. Within a few days, my colony of several hundred ants and a couple of queens had moved in between the glass plates and built a beautiful set of inter connected chambers, the interiors of which were all clearly visible when I cleaned off the dirt of the old nest and lifted the cardboard cover.

I don’t remember now what I fed them on but they seemed to thrive. The queens laid eggs. The larvae grew. The pupae hatched into new workers. Of course, I forgot to renew the water in the saucers but this didn’t seem to matter. The ants came and went, quite happy with no thought of abandoning their new home. They didn’t infest my bedroom and, more importantly, they didn’t find their way into the kitchen either. After a while I stopped feeding them and they seemed quite capable of fending for themselves, going off into the outside world through some crack in wardrobe wall or floor.

This story ought to finish with my mother opening up my wardrobe and reacting in disgust or horror at what she found. It didn’t turn out that way. I don’t think anyone ever found out the ants were there. I could have shared the secret with my little sister but I don’t think so. I’m not sure I could have trusted her that far. My mother was too busy to care beyond a cursory glance round my room, which was usually pretty tidy. She probably felt my wardrobe was best left unexamined. Goodness knows what I might have had in there. Copies of Playboy or something.

The Facts of the Matter

For those of you who do not know, William McGonagall was born in Edinburgh in 1830.  He was the son of a handloom weaver and pursued his father’s trade until the mechanisation of the weaving industry made life hard for him.  In June 1877 he experienced a life-changing visitation from the muse

‘I was sitting in my back room in Paton’s Lane, Dundee, lamenting to myself because I couldn’t get to the Highlands on holiday to see the beautiful scenery, when all of a sudden my body got inflamed, and instantly I was seized with a strong desire to write poetry, so strong, in fact, that in imagination I thought I heard a voice crying in my ears-


I wondered what could be the matter with me, and I began to walk backwards and forwards in a great fit of excitement, saying to myself– “I know nothing about poetry.” But still the voice kept ringing in my ears – “Write, write,” until at last, being overcome with a desire to write poetry, I found paper, pen, and ink, and in a state of frenzy, sat me down to think what would be my first subject for a poem.’

There could hardly be a more powerful experience of poetic inspiration than this.  If the burning desire to create was any guarantee of the quality of the creation, this should indeed produce a work of genius and, in a sense, so it did.  Here are the opening lines of ‘Burial of the Rev. George Gilfillan’, the first poem written by the man who was destined to become The Great McGonagall:

On the Gilfillan burial day,
In the Hill o’Balgay,
It was a solemn sight to see,
Not fewer than thirty thousand people assembled in Dundee,
All watching the funeral procession of Gilfillan that day,
That death had suddenly taken away,
And was going to be buried on the Hill o’Balgay.

McGonagall points up a paradox central to artistic creation – the lack of any necessary correlation between the experience of making the work, with its powerful feelings of engagement and self-authentication, and the quality of the work itself. Every artist who is subject to even the most rudimentary self-doubt (and what artist isn’t?) feels the tooth of this paradox. The problem is made worse by the fact that if you are really doing something new and interesting your own critical faculties might not be able to recognise it. As so often with a paradox, there are two points of view here: one for the maker, engaged in the work, the other for the critic, judging it dispassionately. The flip-flop between these two is a peculiar mental torture, one that renders the process of creation ultimately absurd.

McGonagall was famous for his lack of self-criticism. Some time in the 1880s he fell victim to a bunch of clever fellows who feted him to his face and laughed at him behind his back. They paid for him to come to London where they showered him with phoney honours including a knighthood in the Order of the White Elephant of Burma. He took all this as his due and from then on called himself Sir William Topaz McGonagall.

Recently, I read a suggestion that he knew very well what was going on but he was a poor man with a large family to bring up and no talent other than his utterly redundant skill as a handloom weaver. Poetry had become his livelihood and if he could make good money out of pretending to be the unwitting victim of this mockery then it was fine by him.

I like the layers of irony here.

                Song of the Ninny

Ninny ninny noo.
Just what you can do.
Count your toes
And blow your nose
And see how this new morning goes.

Ninny ninny nee.
Just what you can be
Count the pence
And jump the fence
And catch yourself  out making sense.

Ninny ninny na.
This is what you are.
Count the spots
And join the dots.
See how you’ve tied yourself in knots.

Ninny ninny num.
Look how far you’ve come.
Count the days.
Divide the ways.
See if you now deserve the praise.


My apologies to the micro-cohort who regularly visit this website. My posts of late have been somewhat desultory, if not dilatory. Truth is I have been a bit preoccupied and also not particularly well. All is on the mend, however. Three days ago I had an operation for the removal of my gallbladder – all neatly done by keyhole surgery by the great people at Hutt Hospital.  Everything went according to plan although, in my case, the operation took a lot longer than it should because my gallbladder was in a mess (that’s about as much detail as I need to know) and because of the Gallstone.

Gallstones, according to a quick scour through Google, are generally about 10mm across, about the size of a pea. Mine is the size of a large plum, about 30 times the average. I am not sure it qualifies for the Guinness Book of Records but it impressed the staff at the hospital. It looks rather like a miniature boulder of dark, striated sedimentary rock from a model landscape. I am tempted to include a photo with this post but the camera is broken and Barbara thinks it would be in bad taste. I suppose she is right in that for every person who is fascinated by medical adventures there is at least one who finds them, at best, boring and, at worst, gross.

One of the more curious experiences of being in hospital was a period on the second day, when I was still coming through the anaesthetic. A voice kept talking to me from out of the twilight. It wasn’t in my head exactly but it wasn’t anywhere else either. Most of what it said was garbled nonsense that went by me so quickly I could hardly register it. One thing stuck, however, a piece of verse.

Sister, sister, James is one.
Will he ever be undone?
Comb your hair and fan your tail.
Lose your feathers in this gale.

I assume that the word ‘sister’ is used in a medical sense but maybe not. Who James might be, I have no idea.

Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.