Monday, June 26, 2006

Animal of the Week June 26, 2006 -- World Cup Nations 3 (Portugal)

So, Portugal eh, apparently football is the national sport of Portugal, just as, after kabaddi, it is in England. But what about an animal to symbolise Portugal, welcome this week’s animal of the week Sardina pilchardus (sardine, sardinha [Portuguese]). Given England's love for these little beasts served from an iconic rectangular tin, you might be excused for thinking that they could be this nation's animal too, but herein lies the fundamental difference between these two outposts of western Europe, the Portuguese love them fresh.

In Portugal, 90% of the sardines are consumed not from a can, but straight from the sea. The way to eat your sardines is apparently simply grilled, preferably over charcoal served with boiled potatoes and a salad of grilled green peppers, basil, and olive oil, sounds delicious; I’m going to Hatt’s fishmonger first chance I get.

This celebration of the sardine in Portugal would have been more appropriate a couple of weeks ago, for June 13 was St Anthony’s feast day, when people take to the streets of Lisbon to feast on sardines cooked over open grills on the street. Sardine season lasts from April to November when the plumpest fish can be caught in abundance in the eastern Atlantic by the traditional Portuguese fisheries.

What is a sardine? Well, you may gather from the Latin name that Sardina pilchardus are actually pilchards, and the contents of your can of sardines and your can of pilchards are the same species, sardines are simply younguns. But what is a pilchard? In fact there are at least six species of fish called pilchard and at least 12 called just sardine. So it’s all rather complicated—but hey, they all look pretty much the same when barbecued or squished three to a can with tomato sauce.

As a nod to the wonderful country of Ecuador, here is a song about llamas Sorry if you have seen it before. I've watched it too many times and am numb to it now but if you've not seen it, well, you might be amused...or scared.

RIP Bruno

Monday, June 19, 2006

Animal of the Week June 19, 2006 -- World Cup Nations 2 (Sweden)

Hello all,

This week's animal is the unofficial animal of Sweden, Alces alces (elk, Älg [Swedish]). In North America these animals are known as moose (from the native American Algonquian word 'moos' meaning 'leaf eater'), but, as we are on Sweden this week for our World Cup nations themed animal of the week, it's elk all the way. With a population of 250 000 elk, Sweden has the highest density of and the best chance of spotting this magnificent creature anywhere in all the world.

Elk are the largest member of the deer family alive today and, in many places where they occur (as in Sweden), the largest terrestrial animal. They are also quite dangerous, males during the rut and females when with a calf have been know to attack people. By far the greatest danger to human beings posed by elk is that of road accidents. With a high centre of gravity, upon impact with a car the spindly legs snap and 500 kg of venison and antler shoot through the windshield with disastrous consequences for elk and motorists. The Älgtest (Elk-test) was developed to test rapid cornering of cars to simulate navigation around an elk in the road at high speeds. Saab's elk test includes simulated collision with elk to test their reinforced windshield.

Across their range, road signs warn of this risk; attached is the Swedish interpretation. Like a nation of drunken students, German tourists find these warning signs hilarious and make trips to Sweden to gather them. The Swedes have made it a criminal offense to take the roadsigns and instead have produced a range of tourist tat bearing the roadsign image. Postage stamps in the form of the warning sign were even developed to appeal to the German tourists sending postcards home. The elk warning sign is Sweden's equivalent of our royal family.

Stepping away from Sweden, in Fairbanks Alaska, it is illegal to give a moose alcohol. One wonders why they had to instigate this law at all but also why here and nowhere else?

If you should meet an elk, here are some simple survival tips.

1. If you meet an elk on a path, turn around and walk away, this is what elk do when recognising another elk's superiority.
2. Never get between a cow and her calf.
3. Try to get behind a tree if an elk charges. You can run around the tree better than it can.
4. Remember, if you see its ears laid back and/or the hair on its "hump" stand up, it's angry or afraid and may charge.
5. Elk can kick with their front legs as well as their back.
6. If there is an elk in the road in front of you, be patient, wait for it to move.

It occured to me that I should be preempting England matches rather than covering the nations retrospectively. So, unfortunately, Trinidad and Tobago gets skipped. But look out for a T&T special when the world cup is over.

Remember to play safe and enjoy/endure the World Cup responsibly and with respect for your fellow human beings.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Animal of the Week June 12, 2006 -- World Cup Nations I (Paraguay)

Good Monday one and all,

Those of you who know me will know how excited I am about the World Cup! Not one bit, which explains why I am trailing a week behind with my nations-themed animals. This week's animal Chlamyphorus retusus (pichiciego, fairy armadillo) is an inhabitant of the Gran Chaco, an area of dry scrubland with rich plant and animal diversity in the homeland of this weekend's losers against England, Paraguay.

There are two species of fairy armadillo in South America, surprisingly the pichiego is the less gay of the two, the other being the smaller "pink fairy armadillo" (Chlamyphorus truncatus). The fairy armadillos are less heavily armoured than some of their cousins, being noted for their downy white hair on their sides and bellies. Both species are able diggers. Thankfully, after last week's epic, not a great deal is known about these animals except that they sometimes make a noise like the crying of a human baby. They survive largely on a diet of ants and grubs, although one individual kept in captivity survived solely on a diet of grapefruit and rice. How long it survived on this diet is not reported.

And wow, look at the size of these guys' hands, maybe if Paraguay had had one of these as goal defender on Saturday afternoon the British wouldn't have been able to score a bullseye in the first chukka. Come on the lads!

Monday, June 05, 2006

Animal of the Week June 5, 2006 -- Islington to Camden on a sunny morning or Gulls kill pigeons by drowning them

If you need to get from Islington to Camden on a sunny morning you could do worse than take a stroll along the Regent's Canal. From Angel tube, cross the large junction to Liverpool Road. Head up Liverpool Road a short way and turn left by the far side of Sainsbury's onto Tolpuddle Street, walk the length of this thoroughfare, at the end, turn right and sharp left onto Maygood. Walk through the Maygood Estate (a perfectly tasteful Islingtonian estate, in the afternoon the teenagers play football in the basketball courts [how obtuse?] and shout obscenities about a transvestite on the new series of Big Brother "No but mate, we all fancied her till we found out", "Yeah, I f* did" -- which is honest of them). Cross Muriel Street and head down the ramp to the canal. You are now at the west end of the Islington Tunnel, you can only head away from the rising sun. Head west.

The air is thick with the scents and pollen of mayflowers and cow parsley; hayfever sufferers would be wise to take a Claritin or somesuch before the journey. Robins and wrens chatter in the bushes. Blackbirds root noisily through the leaf litter. As you walk along the canal look out for the various families of ducks, moorhens, and coots that swarm busily, chasing midges and other insects along the mirrored surface of the water, shattering the reflections of cotton-wool clouds in their wake. Lone fishermen's eyes droop contentedly as their rods dip to the water, floats bobbing gently, unbothered by fish. Cyclists' bells chime as they clatter under the bridges: Caledonian Road, York Way (where I doff my cap to the Macmillan building). At Camley Street nature garden look out for the terrapin that sometimes floats in the surface of the water or basks on a floating beam alongside the ducklings.

The canal now finds the north in its bearings. At St Pancras Lock a pair of coots brood a late clutch of eggs in the weir. Flotsam and jetsam lap against the lock gates, floating rafts break through each time a boat passes. Where on the earlier, western, stretch cow parsley and alexanders were the most prominent flowers, the verges on this northwestern segments are overshadowed by nodding spotty stems of hemlock, some reaching eight or nine feet tall. Pass the man doing tai chi, well it looks like tai chi, but I think he is a mental making it up, though I am no expert. You'll pass The Constitution (affectionately labelled The Con in the graffiti on the canalside wall), which I am reliably informed is a good pub although I have yet to sample it's delights (including a free barbecue on a Sunday night and a spacious waterside garden). Go under St Pancras bridge, there is another floating beam, in the winter a pair of red crested poachards (the only duck of the region with a bright red bill) could often be seen perched there. The other day, this beam looked to be crowded with a family of mallards, on closer inspection they turned out to be a covey of pigeons. As I got closer, the pigeons were rattled and tried to take to the air, but before they could clear the area this week's animal of the week swooped in, a Larus argentatus (herring gull), its wings, feet, neck and head all outstretched to give maximum coverage. As the gull bowled into the panicked pigeons, one was knocked into the water. The pigeon managed to haul itself onto the beam again, but now waterlogged it could not take to the air. The gull went up to it and knocked it into the water again. The pigeon flapped pitiful trying to distance itself from it's marauder. But the gull swooped down, ducking the hapless bird once, twice, three times. Eventually, warn out, waterlogged, and beaten, the pigeon throbbed limply in the middle of the canal, it's time was up and soon the gull would eat.

The beam generally isn't that interesting, so you'll probably keep walking, under Royal College street, then the very narrow Camden Road bridge, pedestrians and cyclists generally whoop or whistle as they enter to avoid the inevitable crash (I typically whistle a southern gospel song as I pass through the UV lit tunnel -- they use UV I guess to stop the junkies finding their veins). Here the quality of walk deteriorates, young punks drinking cider at eight in the morning sit on the lock outside the TVam/MTV building, where herring gulls perch atop masonry eggs, looking for all the world as though they are trying to hatch an outsized chick. Piles of vomit, discarded beer cans, half eaten kebabs (from Zula Vegetarian and Chicken which once was Tasty Corner), the detritus left by Camden's crapulous rogues.

Next week: Camden to Islington in the afternoon, 214 or 274?