Wednesday 30 December 2020

Cinematic Fancies

Beau casting judgement on our cut of cloth

The original Dandy, Beau Brummell, was a man who certainly had a few opinions about dressing for the occasion, and indeed there was probably no occasion in his books that didn't require a considered review of the sartorial choices before setting out. And to give the fops their due, neither would they forego an opportunity for some peacock preening, just with a more colourful flourish. 

All hail the Macaroni!

Just imagine him in colour!
Philip Dawe mezzotint, 1773

Given his eventual fall from royal grace, Beau would have been delighted to see Our Queen, below, arriving for her cinematic viewing of his 1954 MGM bio-pic, Beau Brummell, accessorised quite appropriately in the Vladimir tiara and Delhi Durbar suite with emeralds. Details, Dear Reader!

Embed from Getty Images

Ah, going to the cinema ... once such a Grand Affair.

It's been a while since the last time we Pipistrellos went to the cinema. In fact, I can't remember what the last film was. Perhaps it was The Favourite, with its own resplendent cast of popinjays, which seems like ages ago. Or The Lobster **. Regardless, I don't believe I saw any parures or sweeping hemlines on my fellow cinema-goers in recent times, or ever, notwithstanding my own attempts to keep the game lifted from my plush seat in the darkened auditorium.

Big hair: tick. Jewelled colours: cross.
A bit of artistic license taken here with Queen Anne's foppish courtiers

But when we emerge from these socially isolated-times, blinking into the light like butterflies emerging from our chrysalid state, maybe Cinema-going could be a Grand Affair once more. It would delight me no end to see everyone dress for the occasion, and let everything old become new again. 

Celebrating our new butterfly form with
Elsa Schiaparelli's 1937 aquamarine jacket

Oh, and to really cap off our stylish outing, instead of a bucket of near ubiquitous popcorn* in a neighbour's lap, or a crisp chocolate-topped ice-cream that will guarantee to shed grubby stains down the front of (some)one's shirt in the dark, or a bag of cellophane-wrapped-sweeties for another neighbour to infuriatingly rustle, perhaps we could all have a posy of flowers to sniff through the showing? It is, after all, only a couple of hours out of our lives to endure without sustenance.

Embed from Getty Images

Typically fragrant (Royal) family outing to the cinema, 1949

The Queen doesn't seem to shed tears easily, something we learn if we pay attention to The Crown, but the proof of this pudding really lies in the countless photographs of her through the past decades attending gala premieres in her customary party finery, and as there would have to have been at least one tear-jerker among them, gala dressing for the cinema would be a blotchy, runny-nosed disaster best avoided for one prone to tears.

Unlike Your Correspondent, for whom it greatly annoys me that I am prey to the emotional manipulations of lilting soundtracks and can be brought to sentimental tears by a 30-second toilet paper commercial, so avoid commercials altogether like the plague they are as I find weeping so draining. It baffles me that there is an attractiveness to be found by sniffling through a movie with one's friends and I shun the so-called weepy as I do the aforementioned Labrador puppies romping with a roll of Sorbent.

One of my earliest cinema experiences was to see the 1976 version of King Kong as a child***.  I was mortified to discover Jessica Lange and myself convulsed with weeping, myself sans hankie****, over his miserable demise. Too shy and embarrassed to ask for a tissue from the kindly, middle-aged neighbours who took Brother & I for a treat, I tried to suppress my snivelling in the dark and had to resort to surreptitious use of my long sleeves. A gesture completely beyond the pale, I know, but I'd been caught totally unawares. When the lights came up, we all pretended not to notice my red-eyes and rather besmeared and exhausted self. 

King Kong and Jessica in happier times

Hankies. Not even a dry-eyed ERII would ever leave home without one, and neither do I these days. 

Double-duty hankie, proof against dramatically-dying giant primates
... And a runny nose
Georges Barbier, c. 1910

* Lovely L's eldest child had a high-school job as a cinema usher where, within five-minutes in the job, he became vehemently anti-popcorn as it was his job to rush about with the Bissell, scooping the mountainous scatterings left in the wake of the cinema-goers.

** What are the odds? I've just noticed both films were directed by Yorgos Lanthimos.

*** Not quite sure how this came about as it was rated Not Recommended for Children, probably owing to the Sad Ending.

**** Handkerchiefs have gone the way of the Dodo, it would seem, judging by the distinct lack of them in the shoppes this past birthday for Mr. P. To replenish his collection, much hunting brought down perhaps the last boxed set in this city.

Image credits: 1: via; 2: British Museum; 3, 6: Getty Images; 4, 7, 8: via Google; 5: via Pinterest

Thursday 24 December 2020

Merry Christmas!


Thank you, Dear Reader, for following along.

I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Image credit: Lennart Helje

Monday 21 December 2020

Be Hale!


Yuletide. How did that sneak up on us, Dear Reader? In this wide brown land of ours, wassailing is officially Verboten as at today. So this rather leery Father Christmas shall be imbibing from his wassail cup on his jolly own. Ditto the rather more rustic traditions of Saturnalia, if your family traditions are a tad more pagan. Singing naked in the street, gambling in public and making noise alongside your feasting and drinking cannot possibly fall within the bounds of the present strictures.

Nonetheless, the tinsel tree is decorated and I triumphantly bore home a ham-ette from the shoppes yesterday* which I've decided at the last minute to glaze for the wild crowd of two for Friday's lunch. I think the rather Australian tradition of a prawn and mango salad shall also feature in there somewhere. And I believe today or tomorrow there'll be a bit of baking of ye olde Bethmännchen and I want to try out a Zimtsterne recipe, as in more recent years, I've been loving having a few German Christmas biscuits about the place. 

There's been a bit of Handel's harpsichord chirruping away merrily on the B&O but we've not cracked out The Messiah nor any of its ilk. Have to hold something back since the whole of Yuletide looms with only the cicadas for entertainments.

So, what's left? Summer solstice tonight and the 794-years in the waiting conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter will grace our Solar System. Eyes aloft, everyone! Wait ... what's this? ... the trusty Bureau of Meteorology says it'll be raining cats and dogs just after sunset. Drats. Scrap that delight, too.

Be Hale, Dears!

* Yes, I'm up and about again, just not able to get my bearings yet when upended, but that's an overrated posture, anyway. 

Image credit: Illustrated London News, 1857

Saturday 12 December 2020

You Must Have Rocks In Your Head


Mascarade à la Grecque etching emphasises "on" more than "in"
Ennemond Alexandre Petitot, 1771

Nota bene: If you have come here only for some usual fare, Dear Reader, avert your gaze now as today there is something completely different: a bit of Real Life, and possibly Too Much Information.

Even a casual acquaintant with this blog will have noticed there is a doormat and umbrella stand at its entry, with which to leave the Cares of the World behind before setting foot within. Here you will find no more than allusion to Real Life, no heartfelt biographical truths or details about myself nor those in my colony, and you can be sure that if you poke about in my proverbial cupboards, the contents within shall be neatly folded, colour-coded and/or labels facing forward*.

We are all adults and understand that one cannot exist in this world without suffering its many indignities but I don't like to leave mine laying about like dog-hairs on the sofa for you to even inadvertently sit upon. Now that I also have rooms off to the side where you are free to wander, one of which so clean and white with just some words, and my Wunderkammer where I'm arranging my assortment of treasures, we especially don't need to drag about our muddy feet or poke the curios with grubby mitts. 

While I am more than happy to gently kick the autumn leaves about in the comments section of some favourite bloggers where chewing over the issues of the/ir day is their métier, I find my own to be tedious and do not wish to afflict you so. But I'm going to break my own rule today because I've had a bit of a Funny Turn recently and as it's not in the Dire Department, rather the Interesting, I'm going to give it an airing.

You see, the Rocks in my Head gave gone awandering. I've had a Case of BPPV - Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo - and have been reminded yet again why I'm not flinging about in low orbits in a spacesuit as motion-sickness and I are unhappy bedfellows. Which is where I'm at right now, mid-second week and happily on the mend, and able to put digital pen to paper again.

In Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (BPPV) dizziness is generally thought to be due to debris which has collected within a part of the inner ear.  This debris can be thought of  as "ear rocks", although the formal name is "otoconia". Ear rocks are small crystals of calcium carbonate derived from a structure in the ear called the "utricle". [Dr. Timothy C. Hain, via]

Queen Elizabeth II famously described one year in her life, 1992, as her annus horribilis. Latin and I are not on first-name terms so I do not know how best to describe five horrible years to date (rest assured, some goodly time will be spent with my useful friend Google Translate later), but we Pipistrellos feel as though we are part way through the penance from having broken the mother of all mirrors, which we neither can remember, and respite from which sent me to this part of the interwebs to skip about and strew some daisies.

So when I awoke ten days back with wild and shuddering vision and a sensation of walking on a waterbed (not that I've ever done such a thing but it just sounds so right), Mr. P called in sick for the day and we were straight off to hospital. If this sounds a little over-reactive, it is only because my life seems to be ruled by one Colonel March of Scotland Yard's Department of Queer Complaints**, and I thought we were in for a second round of something which reared its ugly head in Year 3 of the broken mirror penance, and even left my wedding ring at home in anticipation of some grim medical intervention.

Blessed are we in this roost that it was but twenty-five minutes later that I was being whisked off in a wheelchair to Acute Bed 13 in the Emergency Department of our fabulous local teaching hospital, told I was going to be "nil by mouth from now" when  I asked for some water (always a grim sign) and asked to change into the presented gown quickly and hop into bed as "I mustn't be alarmed, but rather a lot of people will be congregating about you in a minute". Which there was. A stroke protocol was being undertaken, then a CT-scan and MRI owing to my medical history and so the day unfolded.

Mr. P held up rather well, which is always hard when you're on the outside of the main action. The neurologist registrar was fairly confident that it wasn't a stroke but we just had to wait on the final report from the radiologist and attendance by the Professor of Neurology on duty that day, so there was just a lingering doubt about things when we were left just the two of us. I'd answered in the negative to boxer?, head trauma?, infection?, and though personally acquainted with the medical term "idiopathic", I dislike it.

Then we had another flurry of activity and my bed was on the move and we were off to a ward. We'd been to Ten North before, visiting an ailing octogenarian neighbour during the year, so it didn't seem to auger well when we sailed through swing doors with exhortations to keep them locked against wandering delirious patients, and then as I was parked momentarily beneath a wall of leaflets labelled so optimistically "Life After Stroke" &c, and the accompanying nurse said "she's a stroke patient", I think I aged the thirty years required for automatic entry into this world.

Fortunately, there was a student nurse who set us to rights. It seemed Acute Bed 13 was needed for another and they needed to put me somewhere handy for the consultant to find me and apparently all suspected neurological patients get parked in with the stroke victims when the emergency department fills up. Mr. P and I laughed rather heartily when she departed, anguish falling away, and an involuntary tear of relief was shed by my stoic self. The look on my face was priceless, he said, when he watched me absorbing the wall of brochures earlier, himself contemplating the next decades with a disabled wife.

The neurologist*** was not long after, with a half-dozen earnest registrars in his wake, and he sent me home with the diagnosis of BPPV and an invitation to come and see him and/or a vestibular therapist (next week for that) if needed, and told I should be my old self in a few weeks. I actually got worse the next few days, when the nausea kicked in, but apart from the usual wishing for death at that point, all has been okay. 

And that's it for a glimpse behind the curtain of Flying With Hands, and normal programming will be resumed with the next post. Cheerio!

On the internet, nobody knows you're a dog

* Yes, it is true. In Real Life I am messy chaos on the surface but everything must be just so when put away in its rightful place. A perfect yin to Mr. P's yang in the housekeeping department.

** Thanks Bruce P-P for alerting me to this dapper eye-patch wearer on his blog, Eclectic Ephemera.

*** And throughout the day we learn some new vocabulary: nystagmus (involuntary eye jumping); otoconia (a.k.a. our ear rocks); Eply manoeuvre (a sometimes-working system of shaking the ear rocks into the Dark Cells of the Labyrinth); The Dark Cells of the Labyrinth (excellent name for a book).

Image credits: 1: LACMA via Public Domain Review; 2: Archives NZ via Flickr

Monday 30 November 2020

Keeping It Simple In Darling Point


We had dinner with the Two Peas last night, beyond our local Rushcutters Bay Park in the lofty suburb of Darling Point. Scorpio Mr. P had his birthday recently, so they were kind enough to host a dinner for we four in his honour. 

Theirs is a cool and elegant late Art Deco apartment*, it's interior spaces painted white, and with a bit of well-appreciated air conditioning, for it was a fearsome heat that frizzled us over the weekend. 

The fan-forced oven conditions saw both days hit 40.5 degrees along the centigradium in our 'hood, which was a bit of a shock to the system as the winter doona only got swapped out for the summer a couple of weeks ago. There had been a bit of lolling limply about in one's smalls in our more eco-friendly abode during the day, so we forewent the usual legging it across the park and up the hill to theirs and, ahem, took a taxi for the few minutes drive.

As is the way in this city, the crazy-hot days don't last long as they are immediately curtailed by what is known as a Southerly Buster. A cold front moves over the continent to our south and the dense cold air that gets trapped against the mountain range on the east coast forces a funnel of air over the Tasman Sea to come whooshing up the coast, accelerating as it goes and by the time it gets to Sydney it comes thundering in like a freight train and the temperatures plunge in minutes.

Last night was no different, and by the time we were to head back home, the temperature was 20 degrees and the chilly wild wind made it feel like 16, according to the Bureau of Meteorology**. Dressed now inappropriately in our summer linens, there was no countenancing a stroll back home through the park, so another taxi ride was in order.

The gabled house in the top left was once owned by Our Nick
a.k.a actress Nicole Kidman

But that kind of indulgence is perfectly in keeping with Darling Point, and no curtains twitched as we clambered into the backseat of the waiting vehicle, as they are of a posher nature than we on the Island, for whom our trotters are best relied upon to get us hither and yon.

And steep streets like this beauty are what we would have had to scramble up
in the heat if not for the taxi ride

Talk of Darling Point reminds me that, temptress that I am, Dear Reader, you are overdue the promised exploration of the infelicitously-named Governor Ralph Darling, who has lent his name to much of the geography in our neighbourhood. 

But that is not for today. Instead, a simple survey of some of the fancy architecture of the suburb will be undertaken. Can you spot the theme of this assemblage of pics?

While Elizabeth Bay is rather heavy on the red-brick and it's mainly the modern buildings that sport a simple white livery, Darling Point has really taken the lack of colour to heart and uses white render, often with a splash of black, to great effect.

* Not seen in this lineup of White Houses.

** As the computer modelling becomes fancier, the BoM now seems to get further away from the accuracy of its predictions, but can still keep our attention with their adoption of the "feels like" temperature measurement. Finally, someone has taken heed of the typical exchanges heard about the land and now give us what we Need To Know:

P: Phew, it's witheringly hot! What's the temperature, I wonder?

Mr. P: [Checks] Thirty-umpty degrees according to the Bureau ...

P: Rubbish! It feels like Forty-umpty to me!

Saturday 28 November 2020

Colour Me Purple, November

Spring is nearly done and I've not yet done a Jacaranda Tribute, so cast your eye upon the purple glory we have been revelling in, Dear Reader.

Here's a few Beauty Shots to get you in the picture: 

The first is one I'd actually taken last year for my now defunct Instagram page and it was too pretty to consign to the dustbin so it gets to live again on Ye Olde Blog. Consider the scene this month outside these nearby apartments as Ditto.

Just next door to Elizabeth Bay House is this rich purple specimen. And yes, that is a New York City Flatiron-inspired apartment building.

The lime-green robinias are also in leaf right now, making a great colour foil for the jacarandas.

These are all local photos as the purpled perambulations have been closer to home this year.

This is a rather chic conversion of a decades-old panel-beating workshop that recently materialised. Therein Creatives are transforming our culture and enriching our lives with joy, apparently. (These phrases do come from their website). All mysterious nonsense to me and I'm definitely now in the Old Camp when I can't understand what modern jobs entail. Panel-beating I understood; Bridging "the gap between brands, people and potential" I do not. 

Anyhoo, with that touch of modernity, here are a few photos to keep it real:

Bins! And a sofa on the footpath which I presumed to be dumped but the yellow (bin-matching) van is a removalist's, so someone was just on the move.

The petal litter that the street sweepers cannot scoop up as they drive around, so a game must be played where someone in the street finally has to blink and bring the broom outdoors.

Car bonnet where the beauteous blossoms are taking their toll.

This little lane in Paddington is known as a Dunny Lane - dunny being a charming vernacular term for toilet. In past times, the night soil men and garbage collectors would reign supreme. These days, indoor plumbing and garages for cars have replaced the outhouses, and the laneway is better known by the universally recognised term Rat Run. Jacaranda blooms improve the tone no end.

The jacarandas are past their best now but the colour baton has passed to the agapanthus. These are called blue but I don't care, they're identical to the colour of the jacarandas, as far as I can see, so will always be purple to me.

Generous clumping of agapanthus under blooming magnolias. Cunningly kept from the left of frame are the bin chickens (a.k.a. Australian white ibis), raiding the dozen over-flowing garbage bins from the backpackers hostel and cafés thriving behind this verdancy. Keeping it real, within reason.

Photo credits: Flying With Hands

Friday 27 November 2020

A Taste Of Thanksgiving


Pumpkin Army
Yoyai Kusama, 2014

My first trip to America was in 1993 to spend Thanksgiving with a friend in Chicago. I was living in London so a trip across the Atlantic for the weekend was almost unremarkable before the term Carbon Footprint was coined. Indeed, the era of cheap flights was upon us and one could pour over the weekend-getaway price lists in the newspaper every week, listed from Amsterdam to Zurich, and dream* of seeing more of the world between shifts at the (Banking) coalface.

Bobby was one of a tribe of Americans, stockbrokers mostly from Chicago, who'd spent time in Australia in the 1980s and 90s, working in their Sydney branches and where we'd become friends. When I moved to London, the opportunity to meet him for a proper American experience arose when he moved back home.

Thanksgiving, at his parents' house, was as though all the TV-fodder of my youth had come to life in one lurid, noisy, technicolour day and ol' Pipistrello, used mostly to neat and compact family affairs, had a full immersion experience of a boisterous and jolly Irish-Catholic family having one of theirs.

I remember his mum in a ruffled apron in the kitchen with some of the ladies putting the last touches together, where I beheld the marvel of the gigantic enamelled oven, big enough for the annual turkey to fit with no complaint. A buffet feast was laid out and to the attendant din of lots of kids running about, sampled an extraordinary array of familiar foods put together in rather surprising combinations. 

The two dozen or so revellers didn't even make a dent in the otherwise recognisable bird, so massive was it, as room was needed to be made for the likes of marshmallow salad and mashed sweet potato with nuggets of candied brown sugar and, of course, the near-mythical pumpkin pie, before following it all with dessert. Fortunately, the bracing, autumnal Chicago clime made short work of the resulting sugar-rush and no lasting harm was done.

Happy Thanksgiving for any Dear Reader in America, and I hope that even if you couldn't have a typical celebration, you could look back fondly on any previous reminiscences.

* I say dream, as most times the siren call of domestic chores and London pleasures was enough for weekend relaxation. 

Image credit: Sotheby's

Wednesday 25 November 2020

Dennis To The Rescue

Feast your eyes, Dear Reader, on the Fire Engine Mr. P did stumble upon whilst perambulating  recently. It's a restored and privately-owned Dennis Ace from 1938. English-made to order and a regular fixture in Australian country towns, most especially, up until the 1960s despite fire engines becoming fully enclosed in England from the 30s. We're a bit slow to catch on here, it would appear.

Not very dissimilar to 1934 models, so far as I can see, which was what I first thought it was (I did check for you as I know you are oh, so curious). Noisy when the pump was under operation, so directions were sometimes issued with whistles, and dangerous for the seated fireman when racing off to the rescue. But terribly cute, nonetheless. And probably made for an exhilarating ride. 

A few bits and bobs intact on this one and some modern-ish seat belts espied, but very nicely polished and evidently someone's pride and joy. And a sight to gladden the eye for any in need of rescue.

Antonia Yeoman Punch cartoon, 1951

Image Credits: Flying With Hands

Saturday 21 November 2020

The Mutton-Bird Mercy Dash

There was a time when I did not think so cooly* about the dramas in the lives of our avian visitors to these shores, if, Dear Reader, you think our foray into the Furneaux Islands yesterday seemed all about the numbers. It was but a single mutton-bird that fell from the sky into the laps of the Pipistrellos as they were gardening in their home by the sea around this time of year many moons ago that was once cause for much hand-wringing consternation. One minute the path was empty, the next there was an unfamiliar bird sitting looking at us. It was obvious something was wrong.

What to do?? A vet must be called! Do we even know where to find one? It was a hot Saturday afternoon. A frenzied flicking through the phone book led to a breathless appointment before the vet shut up for the weekend and then a 30-minute car dash to an unknown destination in our filthy gardening clothes with an ailing bird wrapped in a beach towel in a cardboard box. In the way of such mad-cap adventures, a mercy dash, really, what can go wrong, will go wrong. With moments to spare before closing time, we find the clinic, accompanied by a last-minute screeching of brakes and a whirling u-turn, as a back tyre explodes against the gutter and I dash inside clutching the box with nary a glance over my shoulder, leaving an aghast Mr. P to deal with the Manly Business.

There was no mocking from the very patient Veterinarian as I described, anguish written on my face, how the alert but flailing bird just appeared out of nowhere and needed help to save it! He very kindly described how it was merely a mutton-bird, it was essentially flown-out, off-course to its breeding ground and while it may be able to be revived, it would probably expire. Try coaxing it to drink some water, see if it might take some pilchards as food, and hope for the best, he said, and didn't charge me for the consultation.

A little abashed, I apologised for being so dramatic, but he reassured me that I won't be the first to walk through his door clutching a box bearing a seabird this season; every year Visitors from the City come on similar Missions, and, once, a chap had nearly fifty with him that he'd scooped up from the beach, in the vain hope he was rescuing them. And as I intended was still going to happen to our exhausted bird. Time was now of the essence!

Leaving the boxed bird with a hot and bothered Mr. P at the car, now with only 3 tyres and up on a jack, I ran to a nearby supermarket for a tin of pilchards (cat food) and some bottled water, and then, sitting in the gutter, attempted to nurse the poor bird in the blazing sun while Mr. P continued to wrestle with the cuckoo of an ill-fitting tyre he had discovered lurking in the boot (where last he had looked was nesting the Correct replacement, when the car in question had been lent to, ahem, a junior member of the colony).

We eventually limped home, the journey slowed by the car listing, all the while the bird remaining unresponsive to my ministrations. And after some more helpless tending in the shade of the verandah, the bird eventually died in its bed. Of course, there were tears as there's nothing more wearying than a futile mercy dash, and with due ceremony the bird was buried in the garden.

R.I.P. Mutton-Bird

It was a recent post by Sarah over at A Wine Dark Sea that had me thinking about Mutton-birds. She's a writer in Western Australia and the birds had an airing in one of her tales and, thinking they were only an Eastern visitor, of course I had to check on their whys and wherefores. Lucky you!  

Image credit: via Google

Friday 20 November 2020

Counting The Birds Of Babel


But where are the birds?
Lucas van Valckenborch
Tower of Babel, 1594

If you were to grasp three seemingly unrelated threads in your hands, Dear Reader: the Tower of Babel, the uber-controversial HS2 rail development in England, and the derring-do of Georgian-era maritime exploration, and I asked you to guess what would pop up if you gave them a slight tug ... 

Probably the oddest thing in the universe

I would admire your thinking if you gave an answer of Babel Fish!, and that would be a long bow I should be proud to draw, but cannot, as the answer comes in the form of the modest Royal Navy officer, navigator and cartographer extraordinaire, Captain Matthew Flinders. There is no attractive likeness of him to be found on the interwebs, so I proffer up a photograph of his famous cat Trim, who stands behind his statue outside the State Library in Sydney.

Cat on a hot tin library roof

Nota bene: If this is all you wish to know and your curiosity is satisfied, then avert your gaze now, as I am about to take you on a merry ride of discoveries, a.k.a. A Lesson.

Whatever one may have to say about the English multi-billion pound high speed rail project, HS2, Your Correspondent, for one, is pretty thrilled by one delightful outcome. It was during excavations around London's old St. James's cemetery by archaeologists last year, readying the ground for Euston Station's upgrade, that the lost grave of Matthew Flinders was unearthed. Athough his reinterment is somewhat delayed by this being Year of the Plague, he is eventually going "home" to Donington in Lincolnshire.

St. James's Churchyard before Euston Station encroached &
Where Flinders was first lost then found

While this talented navigator, hydrographer and scientist is mostly unknown outside of Australia (and Donington), his is a household name here*. Flinders had learnt his craft under the tutelage of Captain William Bligh**, of the infamous Bounty, who in turn had his navigational skills honed by the preeminent Captain James Cook. He subsequently filled gaps on maps, proved things, named things (he was modest, however, and named nought after himself, just Flinders Island for his brother Samuel), got wrecked & rescued and generally dazzled brightly for a short career. 

Do you see Trim?
Loyal to the end

It was during one of Flinders' celebrated journeys that we come upon our Tower of Babel thread. Between the Australian mainland and Tasmania there is a group of islands by the name of Furneaux*** where Flinders and fellow Fens-man George Bass (naval surgeon and naturalist) were doing a bit of high-end surveying from the tiny sloop Norfolk in 1799 - circumnavigating and mapping Van Dieman's Land and proving the existence of the Strait to be named Bass - and Flinders named a remote, granite island within it Babel, for the confusion of voices of the astonishing numbers of roosting penguins, geese, shags, gulls and petrels getting down to the business of domestic chores and child-rearing on its 440 hectares.

One of the rather unsuitable survey ships
From which great scientific strides were made

It was Flinders' second voyage to this neck o' the woods within a year. His first was aboard the schooner Francis, sent to survey the islands as one of a party on a shipwreck recovery mission.

Flinders charting on the Francis voyage
Engraving detail by John Buckland Wright, 1946

He writes in his later published narrative of his voyage, his witnessing, what he was not to know at the time, a great flock of migratory petrels which had come to the Furneaux Islands to roost from the Bering Sea, and where Babel Island has the largest rookery:

There was a stream of from fifty to eighty yards in depth and of three hundred yards, or more, in breadth; the birds were not scattered, but flying as compactly as a free movement of their wings seemed to allow; and during a full hour and a half this stream of petrels continued to pass without interruption at a rate little inferior to the swiftness of a pigeon. On the lowest computation I think the number could not have been less than a hundred millions.

If this seems a fantabulous and unlikely number, Australian historian Ernest Scott did his own calculation in his 1914 biography of Flinders, where he did not dispute the reliableness of Flinders' estimate, and arrived at 151,500,000 birds.

These petrels, short-tailed shearwaters (Ardenna  tenuirostris), are known commonly as mutton-birds around these parts and nest in burrows, which is rather handy for harvesting (except when there is a venomous snake lurking at the end of one's reach). They're a bird that has long been part of the Aboriginal diet and indeed Babel Island is now a privately-owned island where a Tasmanian Aboriginal community come to commercially harvest eggs, birds for meat and oil, and feathers, once. Early Colonial settlers to this country had many an occasion when mutton-birds saved them from starvation. So they're looked upon benignly. And consequently, the giddy bird count of 1798 is more typically just the mere tens of millions.

Mutton-birding in the Furneaux Islands with 1955 style

Alongside our friend, the Bogong Moth, they're recently showing some erratic and dramatic reduction in numbers. For the birds, it would appear that there's not enough food in the North Pacific to give them sufficient sustenance to undertake their epic annual journey. Even on a good year, mutton-birds fall from the sky along the coast of Australia, just too pooped to make it to any of the number of rookeries on islands around south-eastern Australia, washing up on beaches sometimes in their thousands.

Mutton-bird 30,000km migratory route
Illustration by Craig Smith, 2019
From children's book Windcatcher by Diane Jackson Hill

For those on the lookout for these endearing seabirds, there has been plenty of chatter about dwindling numbers and notable absences. But this could be a temporary blip, and a recent article in the Audubon Society's magazine hopefully suggests that breeding has lately taken a back-seat to foraging in Antarctica for those that survive the lean seasons in the Arctic, for they are long-lived birds (over 40 years) and will make several million kilometres flight over their lifetimes, so in better times will come back to Babel to contribute their thrumming and chugging train-like voice to the rest.****

* Where all school children learn that his charts are still used today and he coined the name Australia for what was called New Holland. 

** When poking about on the Naval Historical Society of Australia website, I did discover that Flinders had a hiccough in the eyes of the disciplinarian Bligh, and occasioned a demotion for a time. It is inferred that the cause was "the favours of attractive and uninhibited South Sea maidens", leaving the young midshipman with venereal disease and the only blot on his otherwise unblemished copybook. It is here I found the suggestion it contributed to his early demise at 40.

*** In one of those peculiar coincidences, whilst I was perusing a bit of interweb cartography for this post, Mr. P and I were having a side conversation about Vansittartism, arising from our both reading London War Notes by Mollie Panter-Downes, and lo! there is a Vansittart Island in the Furneaux Group!

**** And a surprising boost to the numbers could come this year in that Plague-Times has meant restrictions on the numbers of eligible persons to set foot on Babel and its sister islands for harvest season.

Image credits: 1: Wikimedia Commons; 2 John (Viet-Triet) Nguyen via; 3, 5: Flying With Hands; 4, 6: via Google; 7: Antipodean Books; 8: via 1993 PhD thesis of Irynej Skira @ UTas; 9: CSIRO Publishing

Bats In The Belfry