Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Mousetrap

fusilli mouse
Two mice in the kitchen last night. Four traps were set. One dead mouse this morning. One mouse in packet of pasta this evening. Lucky mouse, squeamish me couldn't kill him (her?) and he got released outside near Prinsengracht canal.

I suppose he'll be back tomorrow evening. Better put the pasta away.

fusilli mouse 1fusilli mouse 2
fusilli mouse 3fusilli mouse 4

I feel very tempted to say one mousetrap is still going after 55 years but this one only lasted 11 minutes. Too corny, so I won't.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The fucking cheek of it!

I’m amazed at how quickly complacency sets in with me. One moment I’m a finely attuned killing machine, the next, the enemy has breached the gates and I’m allowing it to party under my nose.

Yes, the mouse is back!

Not that specific mouse, of course. It was well and truly dead when I found it at the bottom of the bucket of water I’d used to trap it with. And I don’t think Dutch mice are any more prone to resurrection than British or South African ones are. This is a new one. For a short while though, it seemed as if its ghost had made an appearance. A couple of days after it had been sent out in a body bag (= kitchen rubbish), a mouse appeared for the briefest of moments one evening. That was all. There was no further sign of him in the week that followed. I put it down to an apparition created by my over-developed mouse-detecting sensors. With no further sign of him, I forgot about mice until I started hearing suspicious noises in the kitchen. Still no sign of a mouse though. One of the kitchen windows has been taped with thick tape to keep out draughts but the tape gives way on particularly gusty days. Perhaps that explained the ‘mouse noises’?

Then I saw it again.

It ran along the entire length of the kitchen surfaces. This was no ghost. Nor was it a product of my over-active imagination. This was a real mouse. Unlike the first appearance of the first mouse, I wasn’t consumed with an immediate desire to get rid of it. The whole rigmarole of setting up a trap seemed like too much effort. I tried to ignore it. As the days went by, it got bolder and bolder, making less and less of an attempt to disappear as quickly as possible. I suppose its lack of speed could have had something to do with it getting fatter on all the rich pickings to be had in the kitchen. Surely not that quickly? Still I made no attempt to get rid of it. The closest I got to displaying it any ill-feeling was stomping loudly in the kitchen. Not a pretty sight but not scary either; hardly the actions of a hardened mouse-killer.

Then, on Sunday night, I heard screeching sounds. They sounded like fighting noises but they could have been the noises of mouse revelry. How does one distinguish between the two? I’ve no idea. But there was definitely more than one mouse in the kitchen.

And then last night, while lying in bed reading, a mouse ran across the bedroom floor. Bloody hell, talk about getting bold! I threw Sunday’s newspapers at it and felt rather pleased with the way I made it scuttle, its arse and tail bouncing ungainly as it fled out of the room. ‘War and Peace’ may have been more effective but there was still no sign of it by the time I’d switched the light off.

Hours later, in the middle of dreaming about Helen Mirren, I woke up. Nothing odd about that as I usually wake up several times during the night. But what was odd was feeling something moving against my ankle. It had to be a mouse. To check, I slowly moved my leg to see it there'd be any reaction. Sure enough, something moved. And very quickly too! I had a fucking mouse in my bed. The fucking cheek of it!

I’m not going to bother about my water bucket trap tonight. Instead, I’ll stick with convention – I’ll be setting several conventional mousetraps.

UPDATE: My next post proves that the mouse wasn't a ghost or a figment of my imagination. Squeamish readers need not worry about the PG-rating of the evidence.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

The Metro can be such fun!

It takes me half an hour to get to work each day. Trams 1, 2 or 5 get me to Central Station then I get metro 54 to Bijlmer.

Although the metro is a rapid-transit system connecting various parts of the city, it’s not the mode of public transport used in the city centre (Amsterdam Centrum), the only part of the city that tourists tend to visit. There, the tram is king. Working in the outskirts of the city, I need to use the metro even though I prefer the stop-start jerkiness of the tram. It connects far-flung bits of the city but only consists of 4 lines at present. Born in 1968, it’s a very modest and much younger cousin of the great metro systems of the world, like the Paris Metro and London Underground.

It took me about 6 weeks before I noticed something familiar about the metro map. I was standing in a packed carriage on my way home and peering through the tall Dutch men at the map above the doors, checking how many stops were left before I got to Central Station.

metro map
When the carriage emptied, I took the pic above. The angle isn’t great but for those of you who know the London Underground, you’ll know why I was reminded of it.

GVB metro mapI had a closer look at the metro map on the platform. The similarity was still there but not quite as strong. With only four lines spread across a representation of the entire Amsterdam region, the similarity is less obvious. It wasn’t quite as much of a reminder of the London Tube as the compressed map in the carriage was. At the bottom, towards the right, I noticed that the map had been produced with permission from the London Transport Museum.

I’d come across my first example of another public transport map based on Harry Beck’s iconic London Underground map.

Although the Amsterdam metro map has been called a soulless copy of the London Underground map, with only four lines, what else could it be? Soulless or not, it also spawned its own version of the infamous Tube anagram map. For all sorts of annoying legal reasons, the London map was removed from its original site but it can still be seen here.

As to be expected, the anagrams are Dutch words. Many of them are very funny but not of much use to a person who can’t speak Dutch. I could translate them (or get them translated) but, instead, have decided to produce my own version with English words. Yes, I know that I’ve come to the party late but I seem to be good at that. With a good anagram generator it’s a simple thing to do but some of the shorter station names were problematic. Being Dutch, they make use of Dutch word constructions which differ from those in English. There were a number of them that didn’t produce any anagrams in English. To get around that, I cheated by tacking ‘station’ on to the station name to 'force' an English anagram from the anagram generator. I did it with these stations: Bijlmer, Brink, Bullewijk, Gein, Westwijk and Zuid.

Here you have my version. If you click on the map you'll be taken to another page where you can hover your cursor above the station name to get its proper name.

amsterdam metro anagram map
So my daily commute isn’t between Central Station and Bijlmer but, depending on which map you use, it’s either between ‘Notelaars Intact’ (Whole Walnut tree) and ‘Belrijm’ (rhyming bell) or ‘Raincoat Talents’ and ‘Tom Jib’s Latrine’.

Note: I've had some problems loading the anagram map using Firefox. Not sure if that's a problem with my computer or something else. If you're also having a problem, let me know. The problem may have something to do where the page is hosted. Try here if you're having a problem.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Learning to lithp in Dut-th

Learning Dutch is no easy thing, particularly for English-speakers, as most of the Dutch are very fluent in English and will quickly switch to English if they hear a foreigner trying to speak Dutch. Consequently, many expats in the Netherlands make no attempt at learning Dutch. I could easily do the same but speaking Afrikaans means that I already understand a substantial amount of Dutch. So I've resolved to learn the language.

Today is my second lesson.

Now while Afrikaans is considered a language in its own right, rather than a dialect of Dutch, there is a greater divergence within the dialects of the Dutch-speaking zones of the Netherlands, Belgium and Suriname than there is between standard Dutch and standard Afrikaans. So it's going to be a real breeze for me, right? Well, maybe, but there are quite a lot of basic differences one has to get used to at the start.

English, Dutch and Afrikaans are all West Germanic languages but English developed from the Anglo-Frisian branch unlike Afrikaans and Dutch which developed from Lower Franconian. Despite that, some Dutch-speakers will say that the simpler Afrikaans grammar is a bit like English.

Like English, Afrikaans nouns only have one gender whereas Dutch has two, common and neuter. And since gender influences the pronouns referring to a verb and the article used with it, there is a more complicated way of expressing these than in English and Afrikaans.

grammar lessonNotice how the third person plural 'hulle' in Afrikaans differs from the Dutch 'zij'. Several Dutch dialects, however, use 'hullie' and 'zullie'. The word is so different to 'zij' which is also used for the third person singular that it's difficult for me to get used to.

And then there's the pronunciation. The Afrikaans word 'loop' is sort-of pronounced 'loo-ip' whereas the Dutch pronounce it 'lope'. 'Uit', the Afrikaans for 'out' or 'from' is pronounced 'eight'. The Dutch pronounce it as 'out'.

A particular feature of Afrikaans is its use of the double negative, something that is absent from the other West Germanic standard languages. Most people learning Afrikaans find the double negative an odd thing to understand as a double negative in, say, English, tends to indicate a positive. Being used to it, I keep having to stop myself from using it but I get confused about whether I should keep the first negative or the second one.
  • English: I do not want to do that.
  • Dutch: Ik wil dat niet doen.
  • Afrikaans: Ek wil nie dat doen nie.
When it comes to vocabulary, the two languages are still very close. Because of the linguistic influences of English, Indian, Malay, Malagasy, Khoi, San and Black African languages, Afrikaans has a more diverse vocabulary than Dutch but most sources suggest that it still shares about 85% of its vocabulary with Dutch. The 15% divergence is very marked in everyday life. Just by going to the supermarket, I pick up on it:

vocabularyBut, oddly enough, for all the diversity of the Afrikaans vocabulary, it seems that the Dutch use more English words than the Afrikaans do. For example, the Dutch and English use the same words for 'drugs', 'stewardess', 'lunch' and 'barbecue' whereas the Afrikaans words are 'dwelmmiddels', 'lugwaardin', 'middagete' and 'braai'. And then there are words such as 'poes', the Dutch word for 'cat', which has an entirely different meaning in Afrikaans.

So, this learning Dutch lark may not be as simple as I'd hoped. But, it's a small class, just three students and the teacher, so that should help. We're all gay so if I learn to lisp in Dutch, you'll know why.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Especially for Caroline

This post is especially for Caroline. Bristol Caroline, not Amsterdam Caroline. I'm having dinner with Amsterdam Caroline tonight, but have never had the pleasure of meeting Bristol Caroline so far.

orange building
Firstly, I've posted another picture of the building that I work in to show you that the building is truly orange. Previous pictures weren't quite as clear.

Do you agree with me now?

Secondly, you weren't that keen on my recent tweaking as you find the text on a semi-transparent background a bit disconcerting. There may be others who feel the same but, especially for you, I've implemented a choice of themes for viewing this blog. You can choose between 'transparent' and 'opaque' depending on your preference. Make your choice in 'display themes' just above the picture of the strange boy without an arm.

I think that it works properly with Firefox, IE7 and previous versions of IE. If anyone notices any glitches, please let me know.

Friday, February 16, 2007

As of today, Tony Benn no longer exists

grandpa Mac aka Tony BennI’ve been masquerading as Tony Benn. Not the real Tony Benn, of course. That would be way beyond my capabilities! My Tony Benn looks exactly like the real thing but in every other way, including his name, there’s no similarity at all.

After getting Razaq’s letter offering to make me rich by helping him realise his dream of assuaging his conscience before he died of a horrible illness, I thought that I’d indulge in a bit of scam-baiting to get his picture. That’s when I became Mac Hooper.

Mac Hooper, 76 and retired, lives with his daughter, son-in-law and grandson in Nottingham. Mac Hooper is a novice with computers and emails, has a bit of money and feels that he’d like to put a bit of good back into a world where he’d been a bit of a bastard in his time. I thought he was just the sort of person who’d appeal to Razaq and I was right.

I got his pic. Two of them, in fact. Poor thing, he does look poorly, doesn’t he? Mission accomplished, I could have stopped then but once I’d hooked Razaq, I felt that pulling him in would be quite fun. To do that, I needed to send him a pic of myself.

I've removed the pics he sent me. One of my readers (see comments) told me that they are the pictures of a man who is since dead. His widow has been distressed by the use of her husbands's pictures in this way.

My first inclination was to find a picture of some despot or other. Someone who’d been in the public eye but who was less likely to be recognised these days. So no Saddam Hussein. Too young, anyway. Margaret Thatcher? Wrong sex. Augusto Pinochet? P W Botha? Good choices! I especially liked the idea of P W Botha. These guys had been bad in their time. Really bad! Their heyday was long gone. Whomever I chose had to pass as Mac Hooper, retired Nottingham businessmen, beloved grandfather. Military uniforms and admonishing fingers wouldn’t do. But every single picture I found of them was forbidding, threatening or angry. I should have known that avuncular and despot were unlikely bedfellows so I moved on to another unpopular species. I could have gone for estate agents or lawyers but chose politicians instead.

That’s how Tony Benn came to be Mac Hooper.

power of attorneyI’m now at the point where I must return a signed power of attorney to his attorney in Maida Vale. Since letters from Nottingham don’t usually have Dutch stamps on them, I’m visiting my sister in the Netherlands. The old dear had a stroke so I’ve come to visit her for a while. I was going to post it to him but Razaq’s boring me now. And, anyway, tweaking the appearance of this blog has been much more interesting.

So, as of today, my Tony Benn no longer exists.

Razaq and his cronies are the dark side of the really unpleasant face of capitalism. Actually, that’s not true. They’re just opportunists preying on naiveté, ignorance and greed. Not really the sort of territory Tony Benn would have much truck with.

Tony Benn was a politician in less cynical times. Corrupt politicians weren’t uncommon in his day, of course, but those were also more principled times. Tony Blair is no Tony Benn! Or am I the naive one here? So what would he have thought of all this? Not much, I’m sure, but I’d like to think that he’d see the humour in being Mac Hooper for a while.

After ignoring Razaq's last few emails, this is the one I received yesterday:

Dear Partner
What is the problem you getting back to me, dont forget you are assisting a deying man willing to touch the life of the poor all over the world which has been my dream, have you collect the money from the bank, please get back to me urgently so i know what to do next.
I am typing this mail with pains all over me awiating for the day I will be call tp Glory,.
I await your urgent mail to keep my nerves down

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Gary Frisch: RIP

Gary Frisch, the co-founder of Gaydar, the phenomenally successful gay dating website, was found dead on Saturday.

Gary and his then-partner, Henry Badenhorst, moved to England from South Africa in 1997 and co-founded QSoft, an information technology consultancy firm, that owns the Gaydar brands. Gaydar was launched two years later. Today, it's believed to be earning more than £1m a year, has more than four million subscribers and is one of Britain's busiest internet sites. Last year, Gaydar was included in the list of Britain's 'Coolbrands' by the Superbrands organisation, an independent authority on branding.

From the Daily Telegraph:
Gary Frisch was born on January 22 1969 in Cape Town. While working for the De Beers industrial diamond firm, he studied computer sciences at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

On graduating, he set up his first computer software company, Frisoft Software, which he later sold to Q Data (now Business Connection, one of South Africa's biggest information technology companies) in 1994. He became technical director of one of Q Data's divisions until 1997, when he and Badenhorst moved to Britain to launch QSoft Consulting, which they originally formed to develop revenue management systems for the Dutch airline KLM.

Gary was found dead beneath the window of his eighth-floor London flat. At this stage, the police do not suspect foul play but have not ruled out suicide. Known to be a shy man, he'd probably not relish the media attention that his death has attracted.

At 38, most of his life was still ahead of him. Gary, rest in peace.

Tweaks done for now

Well, I managed to get the '.png fix script' working. For the uninitiated, that means I've managed to implement transparency in Internet Explorer for versions prior to IE7.

You can't imagine what a sense of achievement this has given me. I must be a geek after all!

Unfortunately, due to a lag in it becoming active, the transparent bits are first displayed in grey. To me, the end product looks good but some readers may find the delay annoying. I could just say 'Do yourself a favour, and use a proper browser like Firefox,' but that would be rude. So if you do find it really annoying, let me know and I may consider removing it.

If any geeks out there know how to speed it up, please let me know.

Monday, February 12, 2007


I'm tired of this blog's fussy background so I'm tweaking the template a bit.

So, if you notice odd things happening with the formatting, you'll know why. Once I hit on something I like, I'll leave it there but I'll be expecting comments about how it looks and whether it's an improvement on the one you're used to or not.

UPDATE: I've incorporated some suggestions made such as making the blog fit into the display size of lower resolution monitors. I've also done a bit of work in getting the posts to display on a semi-transparent background. Unfortunately, due to deficiencies with Internet Explorer, I can't release it just yet. There may be a work-around but it's quite techy stuff that may be beyond me. If you're interested in seeing how it works with Firefox, have a look here.

I quite like the look of it, what do you think?

UPDATE (contd.)
If I ever manage to get round the transparency problem with .png files for IE prior to IE7, I'll do something about it. For the time being, the transparent background will display as grey for earlier versions of IE.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Ball bearing? Not here!

 ball bearingI'm really sorry to disappoint all you testicle-shavers out there but how was I to know that this would come up fourth in a google-search for 'how to shave your balls'?

And in case you search for 'ball bearing', you'll arrive here or here. A search for 'ball baring' will also disappoint.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Post of the Week

Mike and a few others have revived his ‘post of the week’ idea. This time it has its own home.

It’s a great idea as it acts as a portal to some of the best blog-writing chanced upon by participating blog-readers during the week. And I’m not just saying that because Mike has nominated me twice in as many weeks! It’s actually true! Not only does it pull together some of the best writing of the week, it’s also the perfect way of discovering new blogs.

So far I’ve just been a lurker, but it’s far better to be an active participant as the more people that get involved, the wider (and richer) the source of nominations. You can also go one step further and really get involved by volunteering as a judge as well as nominating posts.

post of the week

Monday, February 05, 2007

Felicitas - a year on

It’s coming up for a year since Felicitas, a friend of mine in Maputo, carefully planned her suicide by writing suicide notes to various friends before taking an overdose. As far as I'm aware, it was her only suicide attempt. It worked. She put the suicide notes on a 'memory stick' with instructions for a friend on how to email them to the people concerned.

I was one of those friends.

We’d known each other for close on 3 years but had never met. Ours was an email friendship that had developed from an email I’d sent her asking for advice on how to get a copy of my Mozambiquan birth certificate. A formal email correspondence quickly developed into a close friendship where we discussed every facet of our lives. We were of a similar age, we both smoked and liked whiskey, and although I’d grown up in Mozambique where she’d moved to 16 years previously, that’s where the similarity ended. She was a childless, German divorcée living on the outskirts of Maputo, the 'third-world' capital of Mozambique; I was a South African gay father living in Nottingham, an English provincial city. She taught languages and did translations for a living; I was an IT consultant in a large corporate environment. For all our differences, we got on famously.

For many months, my flag counter was a constant reminder of Felicitas’s death as the number of my readers from Ghana stayed constant after her suicide. Although she was based in Mozambique, her ISP always registered her as being in Ghana. Slowly, the Ghanaian flag started dropping down my sidebar as the flags of other countries overtook it. It was this blog’s way of lowering a flag in her remembrance.

felicitasWith the huge spike in readership I got after having my insults post picked up by dooce and kottke, Ghanaian readers increased but Ghana’s flag slipped dramatically as more and more readers from elsewhere found my blog. Felicitas wasn’t forgotten but the daily reminder of her death was no longer there. The recent discovery of a photograph of her that I’d thought lost after reformatting my hard drive in May last year was the most forceful recent reminder I’ve had of her. That was about six weeks ago.

Then I started getting further reminders.

Caroline is always going on about synchronicities, a concept that appeals to me but in which I've no belief. To me, synchronicities are coincidences, nothing more, nothing less. But having said that, my mind always picks up on coincidences, no matter how tenuous they are. Sometimes you’d think that I try to create links where there really aren’t any.

my motherIn a recent blog entry of hers, Caroline posted a picture of the shrine at the bottom of her garden. It prompted me to comment about visiting my mother’s grave for the first time in 1996. She’s buried in a beautiful, tranquil spot under coconut trees about 200 metres from the sea. Wild and overgrown, it's a wonder that the weeds, wild-flowers and grasses grow in the sandy soil. The blue of the sky rivals that of the sea that can be seen through the trees. Seagulls and crows swirl in the sky, competing with each other in trying to drown out the gentle sound of the waves. In turn, they are drowned out by the sounds of children playing at the nearby school. You’d never realise it was a cemetery if it were not for the faded white crosses battling to emerge from the undergrowth. The cemetery is attached to the Anglican Mission just outside Maxixe, Mozambique. My mother was buried there in January 1970.

Like Felicitas, she was a horsewoman and a foreigner in Mozambique. Again I was reminded of Felicitas.

under the frangipaniA few days before, I’d picked up ‘Under the Frangipani’ by celebrated Mozambiquan author, Mia Couto, to read on the tram. Set in a decaying, colonial fort that’s being used as a refuge for old people, it’s about an African world in which people pass through the door separating reality from the spirit world. At first I couldn’t get into it and put it down - I suspect that I may have over-dosed on ‘magic-realism’ in the days when I couldn’t get enough of Gabriel García Márquez. I gave it another go a few days later. The book and I suddenly clicked. Days before, the characters had seemed wooden and lifeless. Now they were brimming with vitality - I felt myself accompanying them in and out of the spirit world, I felt their despair, their hope and their resignation with their lot in life. I could even smell the strong, cloying scent of the frangipani blossoms as I sat in a crowded tram full of people bundled up in their winter woollens.

One of the fort’s occupants, talking to the sole white man in the refuge, says, ‘You, Sidimingo, belong to Mozambique, this country is yours. Without a shadow of a doubt. But doesn’t it make you shiver to think of being buried here?' The old white man shrugs. ‘It’s that your spirits don’t belong to this place. If you’re buried here, you won’t have a peaceful death.’ He isn’t suggesting that the old white man has no place in Africa but that his spirits, without the company of their ancestral spirits, will not feel at home.

Although I’m an atheist, I began to wonder about my mother’s spirits in that tropical graveyard. Felicitas was cremated but I began to wonder about her spirits too.

As I write this, I can feel the scorn that Felicitas is pouring on me, pouring herself yet another Jameson’s. ‘These are the only spirits you’ll find in me,’ she’s probably saying.

Up until then, I’d forgotten that Mia Couto also connects me to Felicitas. Tenuously, but there’s a connection, nevertheless. In the month before I started blogging, a time when we were still in almost daily contact, Felicitas asked me to proof-read a translation she was busy with. Her command of English was excellent (she once corrected a grammatical error on this blog) but she’d sometimes ask me for advice on how to word something in a more idiomatic way. She felt that her formal written English was not always right for the work she was translating. She hoped that my advice would give it a looser feel. The piece she was translating was the transcript of a speech (*) that Mia Couto had given to the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation the month (June 2005) before.

Unlike most other trees in Mozambique, the frangipani loses its leaves in winter. The character Domingo Mourão remarks on this fact when he says, 'When I came to Africa I didn't experience autumn anymore. It was as if time no longer moved forward, as if it were always in the same season. Only the frangipani restored that sense of time passing to me.' It’s not an indigenous tree, but no one is aware of this. It has come to belong in Mozambique. Does it shiver thinking about dying in Mozambique? I don’t think so. I’d like to think that the spirits of my mother and Felicitas belong where they are. I know they do.

And I know that while their deaths may not have been peaceful, they are at peace now.

(*) English translation (not by Felicitas)

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Window on my world

Unusually for me, I decided to tag myself with something that minge has been touting:

Please take a photograph of whatever you see before you, this Sunday (4th February 2007) at 5pm/17:00 (local time) and email it to me. Feel free to add any information you like, what the picture shows, what you were doing at the time, where you are, whether it's typical or atypical of where you are or what you do at 17:00 on a Sunday afternoon. Anything. It's up to you. helpful.

I hibernated this weekend, spending most of the time indoors, only venturing out twice to get a few groceries and an English Sunday newspaper so my contribution reflects that. And being an indecisive sort, rather than send him just one picture, I've sent a collage. That's cheating, I know, but I cheated more than just that - none of the pictures were taken at 5pm today and some were even taken yesterday. Ok, so I'm a cheat, but here you have a window on my world.

If you click on an individual picture, you'll get a bigger version of it. And if you want a bigger version of the collage, click here.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

An unwelcome visitor

mouse trap
A simple rat/mouse trap using a bucket, newspaper, cardboard ramp and bits of cheese.
mouse trap
A simple rat/mouse trap using a bucket, newspaper, cardboard ramp and bits of cheese.
commercial mouse traps
Thinking that my trap wasn't going to work, I went out and bought some mousetraps.
You may have been wondering what's brought on my recent obsession (*) with killing poor defenceless animals? Quite simply, I woke up a week ago to find a mouse in my kitchen. It scampered away as soon as I arrived and wasn’t seen again until I returned from work that day. Again it scampered away not to be seen until the following morning.

And so it went on, day after day.

Mice are very cute but they’re still vermin. Not vermin in a rat kind of way, of course. If anything untoward were to come of it being in the kitchen, it wouldn’t have been much more than mice droppings and nibbling away at any foodstuff it came across.

Nevertheless, I decided to get rid of him.

And rather than go out and buy a mousetrap, I decided to try something I’d heard about before. Fill a bucket with water; cover it with newspaper that has had a cross cut into it with a sharp knife; sprinkle cheese on top. A rat would easily jump on to the paper to get at the cheese but a mouse is a lot smaller so I created a ramp to the top by balancing a piece of cardboard against the bucket.

I fully expected to find a drowned mouse the morning after setting up my contraption but it had managed to get the cheese without mishap. ‘Oh well, so much for that,’ I thought and went out and bought some mousetraps. They're very flimsy, made from plywood and thin bits of wire. Definitely mousetraps as opposed to rat traps. Very cheap too - less than 2 euros for four of them! Despite having bought them, I decided to give my contraption another go. I made a bigger cut in the newspaper so that there was less chance of it being able to take the mouse’s weight.

It worked - no more mouse in my kitchen!

A much better way of disposing of a mouse than having his body broken by a conventional mousetrap, don't you think? And definitely much more humane than the glue traps Ambling Sheep drew my attention to. Yes, I know that my contraption could have been even more humane by leaving the bucket empty. But what would I have done with the captured mouse?

There you have it, the reason for my going through my past experiences of being an animal murderer.

dead mouse
Do NOT click on this picture
if you are of a sensitive disposition.
You've been warned!!

(*) part 1, part 2, part 3

Friday, February 02, 2007

Moles and mustard gas - more death in the garden

‘I’m not enjoying this.’’ I called out to my wife.

She was standing at the upstairs window as I held a struggling mole underwater in the fishpond. ‘I’m sorry,‘ she said. What else could she say? Even though it was all HER fault.

The mole showed no signs of giving up its struggle. ‘I really am NOT enjoying this,’ I called out again.

For a while in the mid-nineties, my troubles with moles became an absolute obsession. They weren’t much of a problem at the Claremont house as most of the front was paved and the back garden was small enough to keep them at bay. Then, in 1994, we moved to Kenilworth. The new house had a much bigger garden. The previous owners had neglected it but the fundamentals were still there, including a big area of patchy lawn that wouldn’t take much to be transformed into a luxuriant stretch of green grass. Fertilizer, regular watering and lots of loving care were all it needed. I was in my element. I’d always been a keen gardener and the new garden offered so many more possibilities than the old one. Within the space of a few months, the lawn looked amazing. It was perfect for volley ball, frolicking with the dogs and, best of all, lying on. I loved lying on it on a hot summer’s day, feeling its moisture cool my skin as I looked at Devil’s Peak in the distance.

the lawn
And then the moles arrived!

There’d been no sign of them when we moved to the house so I can only assume that the much softer, moister soil I’d created after several months of devotion to the lawn had turned it into an attractive place for moles who were feeling over-crowded in our neighbours’ lawns. My every morning was greeted with fresh signs of them - huge mounds of black soil dotted all over the place; long tunnels zigzagging across the lawn like drunken spider legs. They incensed me. Stamping down the soil provided brief relief - their traces were less obvious and it gave my aggression towards them a necessary outlet. But it didn’t get rid of them. Before long, parts of the lawn were looking patchy again.

Something had to be done!

It’s amazing how many home-made remedies you hear about when you get a group of gardeners together and discuss mole problems. Ground glass, Jeyes fluid, soapy water, you name it. They all insist that their remedy works and that it’s the best. I tried them all. Some seemed to work but never for long. Then someone mentioned mustard gas.

‘You mean the stuff they used in the first world war?’ I asked.

‘Yes, the same; It's called Phostoxin, you can buy it at the chemist. It comes in big pellets that you stick into the tunnels after you’ve moistened the soil. The moisture releases the gas which then travels along the tunnels, killing the moles. But you have to be really careful with the stuff, it’s lethal.’

This stuff had to work! The following day, I asked for it at Noyes, the chemist on the corner, expecting to have to sign a poison register or something. Not only was there no need for a signature, but it wasn’t even kept behind the counter. Tubes of the stuff were on a shelf where they kept a small number of gardening items.

don't drink it, aliceWear rubber gloves….Do not handle with bare hands….Do not inhale fumes….Do not use during windy conditions….Contact your doctor on accidental inhalation….

My great-grandfather was buried in Flanders Fields (read more here). I’d read Owen, Sassoon, Remarque and others. To say I was nervous the first time I used the stuff, would be an understatement. I handled it with great care! It definitely worked as there was an immediate decrease in mole activity. Not permanently, however. Every time there was any sign of mole activity, out would come the mustard gas. Over time, I became blasé about using it, even handling the pellets with my bare hands. That stopped when I accidentally inhaled some fumes and felt an awful closing sensation in my chest. I can be so stupid at times!

I didn’t know what actually happened to the moles nor did I care. I assumed that overcome by fumes they curled up and died in their tunnels. I’m sure that’s what happened but the gas wasn’t always as lethal as I expected it to be. I suppose its effect dissipated the further away you got from where the pellet was placed and the more holes there were that connected the tunnels to the surface. Sometimes a gassed mole would emerge from its tunnel, blind, dazed and confused.

The first few times it happened, Headman, the gardener, was there to deal with it. He wasn’t there the day my wife rung me at the office.

‘You’ve got to come home. There’s a mole on the lawn.’

‘Now? What do you want me to do about it?’ I asked.

“You must put it out of its misery. It’s boiling out there and Barney (our large German Shepherd) keeps bothering it. I’m keeping him inside now.’

‘Can’t you do something about it?’

‘I can’t, you must.’

Who can argue with logic like that? Twenty minutes later, I was looking at what seemed to be a dead mole on the lawn. Hardly surprising as it had been gassed with Phostoxin, mauled by Barney then laid out to dry in the scorching sun for several hours. I picked it up. I was ready to toss it into the dustbin when I noticed a faint heartbeat. Shit, the poor thing was still alive! Just barely, mind you. I did the first thing that came to mind – held it under the water in the fishpond. A quick drowning would put it out of its misery.

Barely a second later, it was struggling like a wild animal. Not an almost dead one, very much a wild animal with lots of life in it.

Having started to drown the mole, I felt that I had to continue. Although the water may have revived it, it had to have been severely weakened by all that had happened to it that day, including being held under water. I continued holding it under while it tried its best to squirm out of my hand. ‘This won’t last much longer,’ I kept thinking to myself. The squirming wouldn’t stop. ‘Please die now,’ I said to myself, over and over again. Suddenly it stopped; it was dead. How long it took, I don’t know, but, to use a cliché, it seemed like an eternity. It was truly, absolutely horrid!

Next time it happened, I chopped off the mole’s head with a spade.

Death in the garden - pigeons this time

Deciding to get rid of pigeons is simple, getting rid of them a lot more difficult. I may think of them as jumped up rats but I wasn’t going to kill them, as easy as that may have been. Also, killing them would not have gone down well with the kids. In fact, getting rid of them without protest from the kids was not going to happen.

So they stayed until two events forced my hand.

Eight months after moving into the Claremont house, my wife got a stomach bug that persisted for several months. Night after night, she was in the grip of cramping pains. Her doctor was baffled. Each new course of medication failed to bring any proper relief, let alone get rid of the condition. It was only when her doctor heard about the pigeons and how they often strode into the kitchen demanding food that he realised she’d probably picked up some sort of parasite from them. A new prescription quickly got rid of the cramps. From then on, the lower part of the kitchen stable door was always kept closed. Yes, they definitely had to go.

Still we didn’t get rid of them. Not until one of them got ill.

One afternoon I found one of the smaller ones standing in the corner of the back porch. I approached it, expecting it to rush back into the garden. It didn’t flinch at all. As I picked it up, I could feel its nervous heartbeat but it made no attempt to escape. A bird with a broken foot or wing would still have tried to get away. This bird displayed no sign of fight; its fear was completely muted. Realising there was something wrong, I turned it over. I almost gagged. The smell of putrefying flesh was overpowering. Its anus was a mass of seething maggots.

In Africa, elsewhere too I’m sure, if you’re not careful, animals with flesh wounds often have fly eggs laid in them. Within a few days they’ll hatch and the wound will crawl with maggots feasting on the diseased flesh. Timely application of the right sort of disinfectant easily gets rid of them and the wound usually heals rapidly. With some species of dog, you have to be especially vigilant about eggs being laid around their eyes, particularly during the hot, dry months when flies descend in black, sticky clouds. This, however, was no ordinary infestation - nothing I could do with the bottle of disinfectant in the medicine chest was going to do the pigeon any good. I’d never been fond of ‘our’ pigeons; the rat infestation and my wife’s stomach bug had put them on borrowed time. There was absolutely no reason for me to feel for it. So I abandoned it to the rats? No, I took it to the vet.

‘Please see what you can do for this pigeon,’ I told him. ‘’It’s not a pet or favourite animal or anything, so don’t spend too much time on it if it looks unlikely to survive. I just don’t want it to suffer.’

Some 36 hours later, I got a call from his receptionist. ‘Mr Nomad, I’m very sorry to give you bad news,’ she said in her practiced sympathetic tones. ‘Your pigeon didn’t survive its illness.’

‘It looked very poorly, I didn’t think it would make it,’ I said. ‘I just didn’t want it to suffer.’

‘We tried our very best,’ she said, her voice lowering a few more octaves.

‘Oh, that’s alright, it wasn’t a pet.’

I knew that my Samaritan act wasn’t going to be free, vets not being known for their altruism, but some painkillers and, possibly, the assisted death of a pigeon shouldn’t cost much.

‘How much did you say?’ I asked when she told me how much I owed them.

‘Three hundred rand (*),’ she said again.

‘What did you do? Put it on life-support for 24 hours?’ I wanted to say. Instead I said, ‘I really didn’t expect to pay that much.’

I should have stomped on that fucking pigeon, not taken it to the vet! In the next few weeks, I got rid of them all.

(*) A lot of money for not saving a pigeon's life in 1993.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Drowned rats

Putting down rat poison isn’t the same as shooting a bird, is it? You know they’re going to die; you may even get to see their bloated bodies but it doesn’t feel like deliberate killing. They’re vermin, they spread disease. Letting them live is stupid and dangerous. You can do it yourself or have pest control do it for you. Getting pest control in is a bit like buying your meat at the supermarket. The sounds and smells of beef roasting away in the oven are untainted by the bellowing of animals being led to the slaughter and the smell of their fear mixed with the smell of their blood. But how can I compare a cow with a rat? A cow is a beautiful animal with deep, brown eyes; eyes that will easily drown you. Rats are, greasy, literally so; they twitch furtively, feverishly; their tails are scaly. There’s no comparison at all!

I first put down rat poison when living in Claremont, Cape Town. We lived across a canalised river from Villagers Rugby ground. The small, back garden was dominated by an ancient oak tree that once formed an avenue of trees along the river bank when it was still a proper river. A pigeon hutch perched on top of a tall pole under the tree. An ugly blight on the urban landscape, I’ve never been particularly fond of pigeons (*) - flying rodents, feathered vermin. Feathered rats, you might say. These, however, were of the fan-tailed variety. Brilliantly white, their tail feathers fanned out proudly behind them. Kitsch, feathered rats, in other words. Jumped up rats, but still rats. We’d inherited them from the previous owners and although we’d rather not have had them there and they seemed perfectly capable of feeding themselves, we took to feeding them.

By feeding them we were also feeding the large, dark rats that lived in the river canal’s cracked walls.

Not much was seen of them during the day but as soon as night fell, the area under the oak tree became a sea of undulating fur and slicing tails. Sometimes you’d see a rat scampering over the lawn in the twilight, but it was too dark to see their massed milling from the back porch. For that, you needed to get closer. Not too close as that would scare them back into the river. After seeing three of them shred a fledgling that had fallen out of the pigeon hutch, I decided to wage warfare on them.

They had to go!

Putting down rat poison is tricky business when you have dogs that have free rein of the garden. Not only is the poison fatal but you need to keep them away from the poisoned rat carcasses. The safest place to put the stuff was in the garden shed. While the dogs were unable to get in there, we knew that the rats had no trouble at all - rat shit was all over the place!

In the first few days of my war on the rats, I collected numerous of their bodies on a daily basis. In less than a week, their numbers had dropped off radically.

The daily carcass collection involved a hunt round the garden and careful examination of the shed. On the second day of the war, while lifting up pots and other bits and pieces of garden equipment in the shed, I came across seven blind, hairless, baby rats. With the mass killing of rats that was taking place, it shouldn’t have been unexpected but discovering them was still a bit of a shock. They looked so defenceless. Of course they did, they were so defenceless! Seven may not be three and farmers’ wives don’t live in Claremont, but there was no way that they’d be running anywhere. I couldn’t just leave them there to starve to death.

It would have been easy to crush them under foot but remembering how, as a child, I’d seen unwanted newborn kittens disposed of, I chose to drown them. It was swift and, I hope, painless. But despite the enjoyment I’d been getting from killing the adult rats, it was very unpleasant.

Soon we were rid of them. Living near the river, it was never going to be a permanent thing but feeding the pigeons was definitely going to encourage the rats.

Those pigeons had to go!

(*) I may not like them that much but one of the best sounds of summer is the sound of the doves calling out to each other in the stifling heat.