Notes on...

In defence of rats

I n the ranks of unloved animals, rats are  surely king – so reviled that other pest species are often referred to as variations of the rat archetype: pigeons are ‘rats with wings’, grey squirrels are ‘tree rats’. There was also a recent flurry of stories about Britain facing an ‘invasion’ of ‘300 million monstrous

The mystical power of the coronation spoon

A spoon may seem too homely for grand ceremony. It might even, in this sceptical and utilitarian age, seem slightly ridiculous. This prompts the question of how, or whether, we value ancient traditions and ceremonies whose original meanings and power are largely lost to us. And if we do value them, why? This particular spoon,

I’m grey – and proud

In the wake of new research by New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine, scientists think a treatment for stopping our hair going grey – and even reversing it – may soon be possible. Their optimism is based on early positive experiments with mice, which is great news if you’re a mouse, but what if

We are losing the war to save red squirrels

Two years ago I watched a red squirrel climbing a pine tree at my home in Northumberland. I fear it may be the last time I have that thrill. Twenty years ago they were everywhere in our woods and regular visitors to my bird table. Then in 2003 we saw the first grey squirrel. Almost

The colourful history of the green man

All hail our pagan King! The time has come to lay down your crosses and take up the bough of oak. Britain is to return to the old ways – at least if you are to believe the conspiracy theorists, who were distressed to see, on the bottom of the coronation invitation sent out last

The beauty of the Easter lily

The Easter lily, or Lilium longiflorum, grows from a bulb buried underground to bear white, trumpeting flowers which face outwards and smell divine. One doesn’t need to be an expert in semiotics to see why it came to be associated with the resurrection. In Christian tradition, lilies were said to have grown in the garden

The new age of sleeper trains

It’s a fabulous combination: travelling by train and sleeping. And the good news is that the concept of sleeper trains is being revived. The bad news is that, like trams and trolleybuses, a wonderful form of travel was allowed to decline in the first place. The first sleeper carriages – as opposed to trains you

The secrets of Highgate Cemetery

Things are hotting up at Highgate Cemetery. Or they’ll need to if the grander tombs are to survive. During one cold spell last year, the huge mausoleum to Victorian banker Julius Beer froze on the inside as well as the outside, breaking some of the glass tiles. Lead lettering is another weak point – water

The art of eating alone

To some, the phrase ‘table for one, please’ is among the saddest in the English language. Perhaps this isn’t a surprise; the concept of social dining for pleasure dates back to Ancient Greece. There, meals would be served at all-male gatherings on low tables so the guests could recline while eating (a recipe for heartburn,

The truth about corsets

There’s a scene in the recent film Corsage in which Vicky Krieps, playing the melancholy anorexic Empress Elisabeth of Austria, has a strop with her maid. As part of the arduous process of getting dressed, she must be encased in an impossibly small corset (the real Empress reportedly had a waist of 16 inches). Krieps

Is it time to get rid of my beloved DVDs?

The problem with being a film collector is that the technology on which films are preserved keeps changing. I’m not talking about abandoning my DVD library – although I’ll come to that – but my collection of LaserDiscs. LaserDiscs were a forerunner of DVDs. They were the same size as LPs and you often needed

Confessions of a meal deal addict

Floor to ceiling, sandwiches are piled high. Not just sandwiches: pastas, wraps, baguettes, sushi. Brown bread, white tortillas, bacon, chicken, vegan chicken, tuna, cucumber, falafel. Smoothies and energy drinks crowd on one side, while yoghurts, crisps and cakes are heaped on the other.  The meal-deal section of a supermarket is a thing of beauty. The

The cultural life of orcas

Male killer whales are all mummy’s boys. That’s not a revelation; their curious and intense social lives have been studied for decades, but the extent to which a male orca depends on his mother has been revealed by new research, which shows that mothers routinely sacrifice their food and their energies for their enormous male

Why do we associate Christian funerals with burial?

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust is all very well, but nowadays the melancholy business of disposing of human remains can be expedited with caustic soda. I only know this because the Church of England’s General Synod has been asked to consider the burial alternative of water cremation, or resomation, which uses a bath of

Where to find the finest snowdrops 

Who does not love a snowdrop? The pure white of their pendulous petals may be chilly, but who cares when they flower in the chilliest months, often on their own, or accompanied only by hellebores and aconites. I grow a number of snowdrop species and cultivated varieties, as well as unnamed seedlings that seem to

Save our stamps!

Some of us still have stashes of traditional stamps which we were told would become redundant after 31 January. Royal Mail (whose CEO Simon Thompson is on £753,000 per annum) promised old ones could be exchanged for new, but the system has struggled to keep up with demand. Now a chaotic Royal Mail says there

Will shoe-polishing be given the boot for good?

As I digest the news that Kiwi are ceasing the sale of its shoe polish in the UK, due to plummeting demand in the age of trainers, I find myself in mourning chiefly for the tin. What will the ritual of shoe-polishing feel like when it no longer starts with the thumb-against-index-finger rub of the

It’s time to tuck into Twelfth cake

This week we get to Epiphany, the Twelfth Day of Christmas, when the wise men finally make it to baby Jesus in Bethlehem. Properly, the feast starts the night before, so Twelfth Night is the evening of the 5th, which in some parts of Europe is the climax of the Christmas season. And, as with

Operation Turtle Dove: can these birds be saved?

With the exception of turkeys and geese, turtle doves are perhaps the birds most associated with this time of year. They are, of course, the second gift in The 12 Days of Christmas and they also feature in the nativity story – in the Gospel of Luke, a pair of turtle doves are sacrificed at

The etiquette of canapés

Canapés are one of life’s delights and surprises – surprises because drinks party invitations usually give nothing away. Perhaps because ‘nibbles’ is such a hideous word, or perhaps just because of invitation convention, hosts tend simply to put ‘Drinks, 6.30 to 8.30’ on the Paperless Post card. So you arrive with no idea whether you’re