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In praise of hover flies, or a little knowledge is a dangerous thing

Against my better judgement, the September sunshine has lured me out of my flat, and my broken toe grumbles sullenly as I shuffle under the railway bridge. At the far end of the tunnel, a man on a ladder is applying white paint to the wall with a roller. At first I fear it’s anti-graffiti paint, but when I return after a few minutes’ sheep-watching at the city farm, he’s atop the ladder, iPhone in one hand, brush in the other, sketching out the initial lines for a new painting. I admire the skill and patience of street artists, especially those whose work doesn’t attract the price tag of a Banksy. It takes some kind of grit when you know your efforts are going to be obliterated in days, or mere hours. I think perhaps these wielders of spray cans have learned something crucial about the impermanence of life that I have yet to grasp.

Onward to the community garden, and my eye is drawn to the bed of marigolds that have been left to grow wild and golden. Insects of all kinds love marigolds, and I love photographing insects, so it’s one of my favourite places. A plump hover fly is doing what it does best above one of the taller flowers, and I’m away with the camera.

It seems incomprehensible now that I lived more than sixty years with no idea what a hover fly was. Until around four years ago, I believed firmly that any black-and-yellow creature that buzzed was either a bee or a wasp. Bees were revered as pollinators and creators of honey. I remember the hives at the end of my grandfather’s garden when I was a child, and the honey, dark as treacle, that we ate with bread and butter when we went to tea. Wasps, on the other hand, were reviled as disruptors of summer picnics, and served no useful purpose at all, that I could discern.

I’d discovered the sting in both their tails at an early age, and had no wish to repeat the experience. My father once told me that my grandfather used to let his bees to sting his hands because their venom relieved rheumatism, but I strongly suspected the mere pain of the stings would be sufficient to take his mind off anything else that ailed him. While I’d never have killed either a bee or a wasp, I was more than happy to keep a safe distance from both. All that changed one summer afternoon in this very garden, when I discovered the delights of bee photography.

In the early stages of obsession, my sole aim was to take a photograph of a bee, preferably in flight and hopefully in focus. This wasn’t easy, given that everything I knew about the technical skills of photography could have been written on the back of a postage stamp. But it’s not for nothing I’ve been called a stubborn woman (the description was less polite, but I’m trying to make this a family-friendly post) so I persisted. The camera came with me everywhere I went, and if a yellow-and-black-striped creature crossed my path, I snapped at it like a hungry frog.

The first lesson was that bees move incredibly fast. If you don’t use a high shutter speed, you’re not going to get a bee in flight, but you’ll probably get some great shots of flowers. Next, as I peered at ever more bees through my brand new macro lens, I began to see where the myth that they’re aerodynamically incapable of flight must’ve originated. If you watch an average bee launch itself backwards from a flower, it really doesn’t look as if it ought to be able to fly. But what’s an average bee? There are around two hundred and fifty species in the UK, depending on your source of information, and that’s not including a couple of creatures that look like bees but actually aren’t. Ah, don’t you just love the precision of Google? But maybe it’s not simple inaccuracy. In truth, it’s likely nobody knows the precise number of bee species. Science is a journey of constant discovery, rather like my photography.

I was walking home from work one summer afternoon when things began to get complicated. The black-and-yellow creature in my sights didn’t look like any of the bees I’d ever seen. It was hovering just above its target flower, which made it easy to get a reasonable shot, and when I got home, Google told me it was a hover fly. I’d never heard of a hover fly, but I wasn’t much fazed. So, there was a buzzing thing out there that didn’t fit my wasp versus bee world view? I didn’t see the need to change. It was an anomaly. A harmless fly, masquerading as a major player. A sheep in wolf’s clothing.

Fast forward two years, and we’re all in lockdown. I’m spending my allotted hours of exercise meandering in a meadow, and as spring melts into summer, I’m on an unexpected learning curve. Not only am I discovering more plants and grasses than were dreamt of in my philosophy, but I’m seeing ever growing numbers of black-and-yellow anomalies hovering over them. There are large flies and tiny ones, long ones and round ones, fat, thin, brightly striped and subtle ones. I’m fast becoming fascinated.

Google tells me around two hundred and seventy species of hover flies have been identified in the UK. Its circumspect use of language suggests there may be more, as yet unknown, and I’ve always loved a mystery. Hover flies are more diverse and mysterious even than bees, it seems, and I lived sixty-three years with no idea they existed. How did that happen? Happily, their hovering habit means they’re far easier than bees to photograph in flight, and they don’t have a sharp end either. Knocking sourdough baking off the top spot, hover flies become my new lockdown obsession.

An image of my grandfather watching the bees explore his hands has stayed with me ever since my father told me the story. Grandad himself loved a story. I can remember him on his deathbed, telling tales of the canary girls in the mustard gas factories of the First World War, their skin stained yellow by the chemicals they used. My son, not yet five years old, was so absorbed by the story that he fell off the bed into the laundry basket. He still remembers the moment as vividly as I remember the bees.

When Grandad died, I decided to find out how much truth there was in the idea that bee stings could cure arthritis. This was 1988, the low-fat era of the F-plan diet and Edwina Curry’s obsession with eggs. The books I consulted assured me the idea had no basis in scientific fact, so I filed it under Painful Old Wives’ Tales, and quietly forgot, until the bee obsession struck.

One of the things I love about real science is that it’s not afraid to change its mind when faced with new evidence. The certainty of that late 1980s belief has yielded to more recent research that suggests Grandad might not have been wholly crazy after all. It’s possible bee venom might actually contain compounds with anti-inflammatory properties, that had yet to be discovered when I raided the public library, more than thirty years ago. It was around the same time as I began to fear my grandfather’s suffering might have been in vain that David Icke discovered the Queen was a lizard. I have no idea how he came by such knowledge, but his belief has been unshakeable for more than three decades. I assume he’s kept up with the latest research, and his findings have never been superseded, but maybe … just maybe he’s simply avoiding knowledge which might call old certainties into question.

A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, especially when it challenges our most cherished beliefs. The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off, as Gloria Steinem apparently liked to say. I’ve been reading Padraig O Tuama’s In the Shelter:Finding a Home in the World. He quotes a Dictionary of Etymology, which ‘notes that a particular Germanic rootword contributing to [the word] ‘believe’ means ‘to make palatable to oneself”. Real knowledge is seldom palatable. The truth is usually not what we want to hear. In fact, sixty-seven years and more on this beautiful planet have shown me exactly how little I really know about anything, which wasn’t in the least what I expected when I set out. Nonetheless, there’s something deeply magical about inhabiting a world filled with unfathomable mysteries, impermanent certainties, limitless questions, circumstances wholly beyond my control … and picnic-disrupting wasps, of course.

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Sheep wear masks

I remember once reading that one should never begin a piece of writing with a description of the weather. I suspect this edict was not penned by an elderly British woman, cooped up in a second-floor flat at the scrag end of a wet Saturday in November. In fact, I doubt whether it originated in Britain at all, although I’ve not gone down any Google rabbit-holes to find out. After all, those of us who’ve spent our lives marooned on this off-shore island are painfully aware that we’re animals whose habits are dictated by whether or not we’re able to see the sun. And, rules, schmules. I shouldn’t start a sentence with ‘and’ either, nor ought I to use horrible cliches and leave out the verb. But as I used to tell my students, one has to know the rules of English grammar before one can break them to good effect. And this is my blog, so I can do what I want.

I grew up in a world filled with confusing rules. Why must women wear hats in church, while men had to take theirs off? Why was I expected to wear gloves when we dressed to go out in the middle of summer? Why were my younger brothers sent to school in shorts all through one of the coldest winters in living memory? And why did my mother refuse to allow us to wear denim? Of course, some of the rules were perfectly reasonable. We washed our hands before meals, we said ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, and we didn’t play with the gas tap next to the sitting room fireplace. Actually, I was terrified of that gas tap. I used to lie awake worrying that someone would leave it on by accident, and we’d all die in our beds, so I wouldn’t have touched it for a king’s ransom.

I was about three and a half when my parents introduced me to Sunday School. I remember my mother pointing out the corrugated-iron-clad building, adjoining the church, during a trip to the greengrocer’s. She asked if I might like to go there on Sunday, and I must’ve said yes, because come Sunday afternoon I found myself, dressed in my best frock, with gloves of course, in a room full of strangers much the same size as myself. There were brightly-painted chairs, and birthday candles, whose smell I love to this day. We sang about ‘small corners’, and ‘taking little lights round the world’, we listened to stories, and we played with plasticine, a substance heavily restricted at home because of the mess. I was hooked.

The church in ‘The Village’, which had in reality already been absorbed into Greater London, became a central part of my life. Before long, Dad was Church Treasurer and Mum was Missionary Secretary, and the bottles of sherry my uncle used to bring every Christmas had been replaced by exotic fruit juices. Nobody had heard of cultural appropriation back then, so we dressed in the national costume of whichever country the speaker for the annual Missionary Anniversary was on furlough from converting, and I learned about food and local customs around the world in a way that was oddly non-judgemental for the 1960s.

As I grew older, I was sent out to collect Christian Aid envelopes, and stood on the church steps, urging passers by to sign petitions. One called for 1% of GDP to be spent on aid for the nations we’d ravaged during our colonial past. That target hasn’t been met to this day. This was Methodism at its best, in the heyday of Donald Soper, whose blend of evangelism, socialism and pacifism still influences my thinking more than sixty years on. I grew up with a deep understanding that the one thing that separated the sheep from the goats in Jesus’ powerful parable of Judgement Day was their active concern for the welfare of others.

During the end stages of the Second World War, my mother had been sent to stay with relatives on a farm in Anglesey, and the summer after my eighth birthday we were invited to spent two weeks in the whitewashed farmhouse of her memories. The 17th century ceilings were so low my father had to stoop, and the walls so thick that the tiny windows let in barely any light. We had milk fresh from the cow on our cornflakes, collected eggs in the ancient barn, and I taught a Welsh-speaking sheepdog puppy to ‘sit’ in English.

No matter how much I longed to take it home, the puppy was destined to become a working dog. One afternoon, I was allowed to tag along with my aunt to watch its parents round up sheep from the hillside for dipping. Sheep may have a reputation for compliance, but it was pretty obvious they loathed the galvanised trough of liquid they were being herded toward. They kicked, bucked, twisted and jumped over one another. Time and again they scattered, and had to be headed off by the dogs. When there was finally no option but to plunge, they galloped through the dip at a speed I had no idea sheep could achieve, some so fast they had to be hooked back into the trough because they’d barely touched the surface. It looked cruel to my childish eyes, and my aunt must’ve noticed my worried expression. She leaned on the gate beside me and explained that blow-fly larvae burrow deep into the flesh, doing lasting damage or even killing the sheep. Far better to endure a few seconds of discomfort in the dip than to die in agony.

From Baa Baa Black Sheep to The Lord is My Shepherd, sheep featured heavily in the stories, songs and experiences of my childhood, and I formed a pretty positive impression of them as a species. Admittedly they went astray from time to time, and had to be brought home by Good Shepherds, but they also fed the hungry, cared for the sick, welcomed refugees and visited people in prison. They liked to live in peaceful communities too, but they weren’t averse to kicking up a fuss in the face of perceived injustices. They sounded like my kind of sheeple.

The words ‘sheep wear masks’ appeared on an advertising hoarding round the corner a month or so ago, and as I’ve been writing today, a few hundred people have gathered in the city centre to protest the coronavirus restrictions. They flaunted slogans like ‘HIDE IF YOU MUST. I DO NOT LIVE THROUGH YOUR FEAR’. No, I didn’t understand that one either, but I think a rough translation would be ‘I DON’T CARE WHAT YOU’RE GOING THROUGH. THIS IS ALL ABOUT ME’. What I do understand is that police officers were assaulted, and arrests made, all because a few people believe they have a right to choose for themselves how to behave during a global pandemic. Rules schmules. After all, who are scientists, virologists and epidemiologists to tell us what to do, when YouTube has the answers? We’ve had enough of experts.

I could, like a lost sheep, wander into conspiracy territory at this point, but it’s not the right time to speculate as to why people crave simple solutions to complex problems, or want to be told it’s OK to break rules. Of course, there are rules that merely reinforce social conventions, like the hats and gloves of my childhood, but others are there to save lives. In my mind the distinction is fairly crucial, which is probably why I neither wear gloves in the height of summer, nor have a gas tap in my living room these days.

The wounds in our communities are growing deeper and more angry by the day, so I think it’s time to be brutally honest. I do not want to catch coronavirus. It’s an illness whose effects are not understood, because it hasn’t been around long enough for anyone to research them. It’s killed more than 50,000 people in this country, left others with debilitating long-term symptoms, and nobody knows how it will affect them. I know an 81-year-old who’s recovered fully, and a healthy 42-year-old who’s been battling symptoms for eight months. It doesn’t matter how loudly people mock me, I don’t want it.

But it’s more than that. I don’t want to give it to anyone else. I’m aware the risk is small, but I’m not about to play Russian roulette with anybody’s life. If wearing a mask in the supermarket means the checkout operator doesn’t end up with a ventilator tube down his throat, bring on the mask. It’s a lot like the sheep dip. The discomfort of living through a global pandemic is very real, but it’s not permanent, and if we all work together things will get better.

If all this makes me a bona fide sheep-in-sheep’s-clothing, it’s a mask I’ll wear with pride. No, I’m not scared, or no more so than a reasonable person ought to be in the circumstances, and anyone who thinks I’m meekly compliant clearly doesn’t know me very well. Instead, I choose to hope we’ll build a positive and caring future for our children and grandchildren from the debris of these COVID days. But to do that, we’ll need to stop tearing out one another’s throats, and I have a sneaking suspicion that’s the one thing the shadowy figures who finance the conspiracy theories don’t want.

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Connection in a time of COVID

We would like to say thank you. That’s all it says on the business card in the box on the end of the bookshelf in my hallway. It makes me smile as I drop my keys, mask and hand gel on top of it. To be honest, that last is not a sentence I imagined myself writing a year ago, but one unexpected positive of the need to be fully armed is that I lose my keys far less frequently these days. It’s six thirty in the morning. I’m not entirely sure what time the milkman arrives, but he’s always here before I get up. The only time I’ve heard him was the day he dropped the empty bottles in the car park, somewhere around four. I’m pretty sure what he said then woke most of the neighbours too.

Back in the day, everyone had a milkman, and it was part of the milkman’s job to know the latest gossip. He’d arrive on a Friday morning, a leather satchel on his shoulder, pencil behind his ear, and pull out a dog-eared, black ledger, from which he’d magically summon the week’s total. He’d then launch into the latest scandal, while I ferreted for the right change. His knock, one memorable morning, woke the three-month-old puppy, who’d been spark out in front of the Rayburn in the kitchen. As I chatted, a half-dazed fluffball appeared, peed all over my feet and reduced the milkman to helpless laughter. Those were the days.

Now of course, it’s all done online, and I wouldn’t know my milkman if he ran me over in the street. He can bring me organic bananas, non-dairy oat drinks or washing-up liquid in returnable glass bottles if I want, but he no longer brings the gossip. His name’s Richard, I know that much, and in time-honoured tradition we still exchange Christmas cards, mine including a Christmas Box tip, but that’s as far as the connection goes.

My ears look huge when I’m wearing a mask. I catch a glimpse of myself in the bathroom mirror as I wash my hands before putting the milk in the fridge. Small things seem more noticeable in these strange days. That business card thanks me every time I deposit the essentials of minor travel. It must’ve come with something I ordered online, but I can’t remember what. Lately I’ve been ordering far too much stuff. Two suspicious transactions appeared on my bank account on Tuesday, likely a result of reckless internet shopping, so my debit card has been abruptly cancelled. I’ll have a new one in three to five working days, but meanwhile I’m cast adrift. After a long conversation with the bank, I found myself staring out of the window, feeling alone and vulnerable. The only redeeming feature of the previous twenty minutes had been a moment of connection with the woman on the phone.

Good morning, how can I help you? Oh God, I’m sorry, it’s afternoon isn’t it?

How many times have I done that too? A few seconds of shared humanity, before we got down to brass tacks.

After a lifetime spent on buses, I’ve not used public transport since March. This has a lot to do with the woman who coughed up her lungs for twenty minutes on the number seventy-six, a week before the nation went into lockdown. My new-found aversion to buses has given me ample opportunity to observe life on our COVID-era streets. Discarded masks are ubiquitous – I counted four along a twenty-yard stretch near a well-known supermarket the other day. Cyclists with bells are a near-extinct species in most areas, the exception being the motorway underpass round the corner. And younger people – men especially – are more likely than anyone else to barge past without distancing if you’re walking too slowly for their liking.

The etiquette of distancing is interesting. Many people seem unaware that social distancing is the most effective means of controlling COVID. I scuttle along crowded pavements like a demented beetle, skipping in and out of hedges and gutters to avoid people who seem oblivious to my existence. Perhaps my childhood wish for a cloak of invisibility has been granted, and I really can’t be seen once I leave the building. I’ve just passed the entrance to a local nursery when I see a man approaching, with two small children. I step down onto the double yellow line, and realise there’s another young man, also with two toddlers, a few yards behind. The first man moves away from me, smiles and thanks me. There’s a moment of connection, before the second leaves me standing in the gutter without so much as an acknowledgement. I walk on, and find myself wondering how differently these two men’s children will experience the world as they grow up. In these days of COVID-induced fragmentation, connections, however brief, are crucial. Thank you is the difference between a smile and a well of loneliness, and it doesn’t cost a penny.

Confession is good for the soul, and writing a blog is as close as I’ll get to a confessional today, so I’m offering two for the price of one. Not only do I buy far too much stuff, but I also spend way more time than I should on social media. The problem is, I have the heart and stomach of a writer, and that has fascination with people written into the contract in blood. Every nuance of belief and behaviour can be found somewhere on Facebook – my drug of choice – and quite a few amongst the friends I’ve accumulated along the way, so there’s plenty of fuel for conflict. I mean, who knew the nice lady my niece met on a mission trip would turn out to be a fanatical QAnon conspiracy theorist?

The sheer volume of anger on social media can be exhausting. In a world of infinite connection, we seem more disconnected than ever before, and the inscrutable algorithm ensures a rolling feed of negativity, night and day, should you choose to engage. Of course, when you’re online, you can become anyone you want to be, and anonymity emboldens people to do things they’d never dream of if they could look their victims in the eye. After all, who’s to know, when there’s a glass screen, a magic black box, miles of cable and a half a dozen fake profile pictures between you and reality? Only a day or two ago, I had yet another friend request from a man who looked exactly like Simon Cowell. I’ll swear that man has more clones than Dolly the sheep.

In these days of Cummings, Johnson, Trump and COVID, much of the anger is political. Some are angry because governments haven’t done enough to control the virus, others because they’ve done too much. Some are angry with me for criticising governments. Masks get a lot of attention, and I’ll lay my cards on the table, if I can save anyone’s life with a mask, I’ll wear one night and day, regardless of who calls me a sheep. My neighbour’s in the early stages of dementia, and I’m not about to risk adding coronavirus to her family’s problems.

The masks of social media, on the other hand, don’t protect anyone except the wearer. They’re all about the image – oddly often, the image of Simon Cowell. Once the mask is firmly in place, the keyboard warrior strides off into the fantasy world of cyberspace, where lies, insults, and rape or even death threats, can slide off the fingers with impunity.

For all that, when faced with lockdown back in March, one of the very first things I did was contact a wise and wonderful friend, with a view to setting up a Facebook group. Seems I’m hardwired for connection, and when normal communication was threatened, my instinct was to find another way. That group, alongside Messenger, Zoom, FaceTime, WhatsApp and Skype, to name but a few, has become the armoury for a pandemic. In a time when connection has never been more crucial, or under greater threat, I would like to say thank you to everyone I’ve travelled alongside on the road to hope, in a time of COVID.

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