Monday, 25 March 2013

More from Stanley

I'm going to take a break from talking about the wildlife of the Falklands to return to Stanley (note, the 'Port' only applies to the actual harbour). As I mentioned in a previous post, it has the air of a small town on the west coast of Scotland, although the presence of huge cruise ships in the harbour, or just outside, can dispel that illusion.

We stayed at the Waterfront Hotel, a smart, modern establishment that wouldn't be out of place in most cities, although it is pretty small. It boasted a warm welcome, though, and a nice coffee shop that's clearly popular with locals, residents and cruise ship visitors alike.

We also ate at the Malvina House Hotel*, along at the other end of the main waterfront road. This is the top hotel in town, and the restaurant was really excellent. It seems to be the main meeting place for the town, or certainly for its business community.

Of course, we also wanted to see what the town's pubs were like, so on the last night we went along to The Globe, very close to our hotel. Inside it's not too different from what you'd expect in any smalltown British pub, although the odd assault rifle and rocket launcher on the wall is a giveaway as to location. Inside, the beer was all British brands (just as the West Store, the town's main shop, stocks M&S, Tesco and Sainsbury food items), and the atmosphere thoroughly relaxed. And don't think that the War dominates wall space - as in most of the houses, hotels and other establishments we went in during our stay, the islands' maritime history and wildlife riches also loomed large.

A single squaddie was defeating all-comers on the pool table - the locals told us that the following night, a Saturday, was the big one for servicemen coming from the Mount Pleasant base, 30-odd miles away. You can't imagine there's much trouble, though - both the military and local police wouldn't have too much of a job tracking down trouble-makers.

In fact, throughout our stay, we saw precious little trace of the military presence, except when we flew in and out of Mount Pleasant. A couple of Land Rovers, perhaps, but that was it. No low-flying jets or helicopters. There are still a number of minefields, but they're all well mapped and fenced off, and experts from Zimbabwe were actually present on Stanley Common (itself scarred by peat-digging) removing some of them.

* The founder named it after his young daughter, Malvina being a Scottish name that was popular in the islands. It seems to be something of an ironic coincidence that it's almost the same as the Argentinian name for the islands, Las Malvinas.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Lern yersen t'speak Coville

I love anything to do with accents and dialects, so I've been enjoying looking through this Facebook page about my hometown.

Coalville does have a significantly different accent to, say, Leicester, only 12 miles away, because the mining industry brought influxes of people from Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, and then later County Durham and Ayrshire. That's probably why a Coalville accent can sound surprisingly northern, although there are certainly West Midland influences in there too.

Although I spent my entire childhood in Coalville, and have been back there a good few years now, I don't have a typical accent, probably because neither of my parents are local - my dad's from North Lincolnshire and my mum from South Wales. But a lot of the stuff on that page sounds familiar, and if I was back in town, I'd certainly normally use some of the words myself ('snap' for packed lunch, for example).

It set me thinking about the name of the town. Every few years, some local businessman or councillor suggests changing it, saying that it projects the wrong image and is too backward-looking now that the pits have gone. I'd always oppose that anyway, being proud of our history, but anyway it never seems to take account of the fact that no-one local sounds the 'l' - it's Coville, and it always will be.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Albert Ross and friends

Until a few weeks ago, I'd never set eyes on an albatross of any kind. OK, that's fairly normal for a UK birdwatcher, because other than the occasional bird that strays into our waters from time to time (I'm pretty sure one of them became known as Albert Ross), we don't get them.

Still, it feels very strange to go, in the space of a day, from seeing none to having seen literally thousands. On our first day on Carcass Island, we could see reasonable numbers of Black-browed Albatrosses offshore, and 24 hours later, on West Point Island, we were able to see the colony they were coming from.

Black-broweds aren't anything like the biggest of the family, belonging instead to the group of albatrosses known as mollymawks, but they're still pretty big, to be honest. Near the colony, I settled down for a good long wait in an attempt to film them in flight. A constant stream of the birds dropped in on the same downdraft, turned sharply, then landed. As they passed just a few feet overhead, they made a sound exactly like when a glider goes over low.

On the ground, they're much more clumsy, and they used little downhill grass runways to waddle along to get back into the air. Once there, though, they're every bit as graceful and effortless as you'd imagine. A flap of the wings becomes a very noteworthy event. It was worth noting, too, that they didn't necessarily need those runways - they took off from the sea easily enough when they needed to.

They're pictured below along with swimming Rockhopper Penguins - there might be the odd Kelp Gull there too.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Some more Falklands residents

Tussac Birds (more properly known as Blackish Cinclodes), is found in the southern part of South America, as well as on the Falklands. It's restricted to the smaller, rat and cat-free islands, but where it is present, it's present in large numbers. It's also very, very tame (see below).

Black-throated Finches (below) were elusive, but we found a few round the coast of Carcass Island. The Falklands subspecies is becoming increasingly important in world terms, as the species as a whole has suffered on the mainland in recent years.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Every month is NaPoWriMo

Last week, Carrie Etter drew my attention to the fact that it's almost National Poetry Writing Month time again. I've signed up to it a couple of times in the past - you have to write an post a poem a day throughout April - and have found it a lot of fun and a great way of generating ideas, plus a fair few poems worth working on.

I'm going to have to give it a miss this year, because work and other commitments would make it hard to keep up with things, but Carrie did point out that there's no reason not to give it a try any time.

So, later this year, I'll be doing my own one-man NaPoWriMo (unless you'd like to join in), and attempting to write a section of a longer poem every day. Not only is it a good way (I think) to throw off the shackles and finally get something down on paper reharding an idea that I've had for a long time now, but the more I think about it the more I think a diary-like approach might suit the subject matter well. I'll keep you posted.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

RS Thomas: Always Seeking Greater Silence

Over the weekend I listened to the recent Radio 3 documentary, RS Thomas: Always Seeking Greater Silence, on iPlayer. It didn't disappoint, including as it did plenty of clips of the great man talking about his poetry, his faith, and his interest in birdwatching (the point being, of course, that all three were absolutely inextricably linked). It considered some of the motivations for birdwatching as a pastime, and it was significant that for all his devotion to it, and considerable expertise, Thomas never considered himself a twitcher, that term beloved of the mass media whenever birdwatching hits the headlines.

It covered some of the same ground as Byron Rogers' superb biography of Thomas, The Man Who Went Into The West (Rogers was featured at one point), but there was a lot more, too, with Andrew Motion's comments particulary thought-provoking.

And there was plenty of poetry, of course. Two particular favourites of mine, The Other and A Marriage, were read, but there was more, besides. I don't usually need an excuse to go back to Thomas's books anyway, and I was digging around in the bookcase before the programme had ended.

Monday, 18 March 2013

States of Independence - the best yet?

Saturday's States of Independence event at De Montfort University was arguably the best yet - certainly it seemed busier than ever.

I was only able to be there for part of the afternoon, but I did catch readings by Simon Perril and Julia Gaze, promoting their Open House chapbooks. I bought both, and very good they are too - I'll have more to say about them in a later post.

I caught up with plenty of familiar faces from Leicester, Nottingham, Birmingham and further afield - Roy Marshall, Mal Dewhirst, Alan Baker, CJ Allen, DA Prince, Mark Goodwin and Jane Commane among them - and it was nice to meet Ian Parks for the first time.

Oh, and I bought a few more books. A chapbook of translations of TH Parry-Williams from Shoestring Press is excellent, and I also picked up Shoestring's Commons, Nadia Kingsley and David Calcutt's Road Kill, from Fair Acre Press*, and a book of local history, Getting The Coal, which I've been enjoying immensely. Congratulations to all concerned on another superb event.

* Fair Acre also had a gorgeous-looking book, Shropshire's Butterflies, which ought to appeal to the natural historian every bit as much as the poetry reader. Definitely one to add to the must-buy list.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Caracara compare and contrast

On the smaller islands in the Falklands, Striated Caracaras (known locally as Johnny Rooks) are a constant presence, either hanging round on the edge of the penguin colonies in search of food (dead penguins, preferably), or staking out the few houses, and the tourists, in expectation of a rich harvest of food scraps.

This can give the impression that they're plentiful, but in fact they're one of the world's rarer birds of prey. On the two main islands, they're far less common and you're more likely to see Crested Caracaras, and both there and on the South American mainland, they've sometimes been persecuted because of their perceived impact on livestock, especially sheep. It's rather similar to the way Ravens have always been seen over here, and the way Red Kites and other birds of prey are sometimes demonised. I found them endlessly fascinating, though - they're a raptor with the mind of a corvid. They're not small, either - think Buzzard in terms of size.

Below is one of the Chimango Caracaras that we saw in the park in Santiago on our way home. They're much smaller - in this case, think Kestrel or Sparrowhawk for comparison. They were a little more nervous than the Johnny Rooks (although not much more), but there was no shortage of them at all, strutting around on the grass.

Friday, 15 March 2013

Some Falklands wildfowl

The Chiloe Wigeon that we saw on Sea Lion Island was probably the wildfowl highlight of our trip, but sadly it was a bit too distant to get an even half-decent photo of. These Speckled Teal, photographed at the same site, were lovely, though - teal generally are understatedly beautiful, and consequently seem to get overlooked far too frequently.

Below is a female Upland Goose, a species that we saw pretty much everywhere we went on the islands, and below that, a pair of the same species, obligingly living up to their name by posing on one of the higher points of Carcass Island.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

March 2013 Shindig!

The latest Nine Arches Press/Crystal Clear Creators Leicester Shindig takes place at The Western, Western Road, Leicester, next Monday at 7.30pm.

Featured readers are Nicola Deane, Jonathan Taylor, Jess Green and Mark Goodwin, and there are the usual open mic slots available - sign up early to make sure of one. Entrance is free.

States of Independence 2013

Just a quick reminder that this year's States of Independence event takes place this Saturday, in the Clephan Building, De Montfort University, Leicester.

As always there's a range of small presses exhibiting, and there's a full programme of readings and talks throughout the day.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Sea Lion Island

While in the Falklands we (Dominic Couzens, Mike Unwin, and myself) spent a couple of days on Sea Lion Island, which lies to the south of East Falkland. It's probably better geared to tourism than anywhere else in the islands, with a purpose-built lodge, easy walking, and of course, plentiful wildlife. There's even a pitch and putt course if you can find the time.

Down on the beach nearest to the lodge, we found lots of Gentoo Penguins, quite a few Magellanics, and two Kings. All three species are pictured above, in that order from left to right.

I'll publish pictures of some of the other bird species in subsequent posts, but it goes without saying that the island also had sea lions, Southern Sea Lions to be exact. Look at this chap, and you start to understand exactly how they got their name!

Friday, 8 March 2013

Robyn Hitchcock, The Bodega, Nottingham, 7.3.13

Early on in the show, Hitchcock reminds us that he's over 60 now, which of course means he has a vast back-catalogue to draw on, from his solo career, as a member of the Soft Boys, and from his recent work with the Venus 3.

I've always preferred his solo acoustic mode, though, especially live, and it's good to see him re-interpreting old material with just a guitar and harmonica. It's a reminder of just what an inventive guitarist he is, and it frees his superb songs from the sometimes fussy arrangements that have buried them at times in the past.

One half of that songwriting craft is strong, plangent tunes with infusions of both folk and psychedelia. The other is his lyrics, and I'd guess that they're what mean you either love or hate Hitchcock. To his detractors, he's guilty of being by turns wilfully obscure, wacky, and superficially surreal. To his fans, he's a genuine poet.

I'm in the latter camp. Occasionally, he does overdo it (though let's face it, most writers occasionally get stuck on their default settings), but the key, I think, is how strongly Hitchcock commits to his particular vision. His between-song banter is in exactly the same vein as his lyrics, and in both the wilder, sillier fancies are contrasted by frequent use of highly resonant images, and occasional startling directness. This is a man who can place the lines "the sun is shining very hard / it melts both margarine and lard" in close proximity to "I'm in love with you" and carry them both off with aplomb in a song of shimmering beauty.

He's also unafraid to return to the same themes and strands of imagery again and again - mortality has always been a major concern, and it's heightened with each new release. But although at one point he sums life up by saying "it doesn't end well", he's never hopelessly gloomy - hopelessly romantic is more like it. And as always, fish and insects dart and flit out out of his songs, manifestations of a long-term obsession.

Highlights are a mid-show run of three songs from what, to me, is his best album, Eye (it's a close thing, but I think it edges his better-known and much praised I Often Dream Of Trains). Clean Steve, Queen Elvis, and especially the lovely Aquarium ("all you need is love / but all you get is afraid") outshine even the best Venus 3 track here - Saturday Groovers.

Soft Boys classic Only The Stones gets a deservedly warm welcome, representing as it does Hitchcock's knack of making serious points in an offbeat fashion, and he ends with nods back to two of his 60s inspirations, covering Waterloo Sunset and Arnold Layne with conviction and care. Given the frequency with which Syd Barrett is cited as his major influence by music journalists, the latter could be risky, but the truth is that Hitchcock has long since reached legendary status himself.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Stanley in summer

As I write, large numbers of journalists from all over the world are descending on Port Stanley to cover the referendum being held there on whether the Falklands should remain a British Overseas Territory. It's a bit of a foregone conclusion, of course, and it's a shame that the only time the Falklands hits the headlines, usually, is when the sovereignty debate comes up.

A week ago now I was in Stanley. It has the feel of a village on the west coast of Scotland, with its views over a wide natural harbour (above), and beyond to the mountains familiar from news coverage of the 1982 war. In terms of size, it's home to a couple of thousand people. Other than when a cruise ship is in, which is often but not as often as many locals would like, it's quiet and peaceful. You can count yourself really unlucky if you have to wait for more than 10 seconds to cross the waterfront road (below), and at night, the lack of light pollution makes sky-watching a pleasure. The existence of a Stanley bypass did make me chuckle a bit - I'm not sure why you'd want to bypass the only sizeable settlement in the archipelago.

There's a cathedral, a few hotels, a pub or two, a lot of gift shops, and the West Store, a supermarket that's as British as you can get. I was warned that it was expensive, and it is if you're after fresh fruit and veg. If it's just chocolate or toiletries on your shopping list, though, it's roughly equivalent to UK prices. I had a quick browse through the well-stocked book section, and one of the first volumes my eyes fell upon was a novel by Birmingham poet and author Joel Lane, which felt slightly bizarre. I had to buy it, of course.

One thing the afore-mentioned coverage of the war does seem to have fixed in the minds of us over here, wrongly as it turns out, is that the climate is utterly inhospitable. Because the ground fighting took place in the southern winter, and a bad winter at that, people arrive expecting snow, wind, rain and biting cold. I packed fleece after fleece. Most of them never made it out of the rucksack.

In fact, the Falklands has a climate that's also not unlike the west coast of Scotland (and without the infernal midges to deal with). The winters are generally milder than in the UK, the summers a little cooler, and rainfall lower. We barely saw a drop, and only one day was windy.

That made it all the easier to set out in search of the islands' natural riches, foremost of which are, of course, the penguin colonies. Now, if you're not a fan of the waddling wonders, then I apologise, because you'll be seeing quite a lot of them in the next few weeks.

For now, here's a King Penguin having a wander away from the well-known colony at Volunteer Point. Two of the islands' other famous residents (they ensure the landscape is constantly evocative of Scotland and Wales) appear totally unconcerned.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Up close and personal

I've just got back from a trip to the Falklands, via Chile, and over the next few weeks I'm going to be posting some photos, plus some reflections on what is a pretty extraordinary place.

Where the wildlife is concerned, the thing that strikes you straight away is that you can approach it very closely. Species that you'd usually expect to be nervous and/or aggressive towards humans (such as terns and skuas), are unperturbed by your presence, provided you're quiet and avoid sharp movements. The Magellan Snipe pictured above was another case in point. It's a subspecies of Common Snipe, but rather than flying away fast, high and noisily when flushed, like the birds we see in Britain, it does a half-hearted flush and comes down a few feet away. This, of course, offers good photographic opportunities even to novices like myself. The Rufous-chested Dotterel below fed happily around our feet as we stood on the beach.

It's true of the headline species, too, such as albatrosses, Striated Caracaras (known locally as Johnny Rooks) and penguins - the picture below shows three of the five breeding species, from left, Gentoo, Magellanic and King.