from Anne in Adelaide, Australia: Winter tennis and a daytime koala

Kensington Gardens Tennis Club in Adelaide

June 11. Our winter tennis competition started today, almost two months late. Its a more casual affair than our summer grass-court competition and is played in my local park about 3 kms from our home. We play 3 sets, first to 9. Surrounding the courts is a veritable forest of old eucalypts – most of them being the enormous and long-living River Red gums or Eucalyptus camaldulensis. A winter-rain river runs through the park and a new wetland is being planned in order to slow the river and clean its waters before they reach the Gulf of St Vincent.

Everyone was excited to start our tennis once more. Maybe even more so on a glorious sunny day with the temperature at 16o C. I stripped down to a tee-shirt. There is a greater sense that we are getting back to normal. What remains to be done is to open the state borders. West and South Australia, the NT and Queensland are reluctant as a few new virus cases are popping up in the most populous states of Victoria and NSW (7 overnight). Some of the cases are people in quarantine, newly arrived from overseas. Once our state borders are open, New Zealand’s government is considering a travel ‘bubble’ with Australia. Australians love travel and the snow fields around Queenstown in South Island, New Zealand are popular. They have real mountains there.

On the way to tennis I encountered a koala on the move. They seldom walk in the daytime. These are their hours of relaxation in a fork of a tree. This one was loping up the driveway in that strangely uncomfortable gait they have. The back legs look almost malformed and they have a grey patch of fur on their behinds. But once the animal reached a tree trunk it leapt up in bounds and I realised why HE was on the move. A female koala was perched on the next tree. The males smell the tree trunks to check on local ladies and this chap was hot on her trail. At night, we often hear the males proclaiming their territories. The sound is similar to a donkey braying. Not pretty.

We can start making plans once more: for lunches at local restaurants; for trips with my husband’s geology club to the Flinders Ranges in August; for our walking group to plan excursions and for more bridge sessions. What we are not planning is to apply for the 2,000 tickets for this weekend’s footy clash, or ‘Showdown’ of our two AFL clubs: the Crows and the Port Adelaide Footy Club. Even if we wanted to go, the tickets are in extremely short supply. Only 2,200 socially-distancing people will attend at the Adelaide Oval which seats 53,000+. But the show is starting….

From David Maughan Brown in York: Of Sheds and birds.

May  20th

Our allotment came with a shed.  We acquired it in bygone days (about twelve years ago) when there wasn’t a waiting-list list of 50 to 100 aspirant fruit and vegetable growers anxious to get their hands on a piece of earth to till.  We even had a choice of allotments, whereas now people are lucky if, when they get to the top of the list, there is a vacant quarter of an allotment for them.  There is an element of lottery to what one finds. If you are very lucky your allotment will come with a greenhouse, or established raspberries, or apple, plum or pear trees.  One of the ones we were shown had three knarled apple trees at the far end, but was some way up the hill from both the main path and the nearest tap; another was an impenetrable bramble jungle.  The one we chose was on the main path and, in addition to a world-beating crop of couch grass, it had a shed, inherited from many generations of allotmenteers who have tilled that piece of land before us.

This isn’t the kind of shed David Cameron bought to lick his wounds and write his memoirs in after the Brexit referendum, nor is it a Roald Dahl bottom-of-the-garden, cosy book-writing type shed.   Our shed looks as if it was somewhere on the fringes, rather too close to the trenches, during the Battle of the Somme.   The vintage looks about right, and, while it doesn’t appear to have sustained a direct hit from which it has been resurrected, it gives every evidence of having had its now rusting corrugated-iron sides pierced by a variety of shrapnel and the occasional stray bullet.  This is surprisingly helpful in a number of ways.  We were able to have a choice of allotments partly because there had been a spate of vandalism at the time and a number of the tenants had given up in despair.  Our shed looked as if it had already been so severely vandalized that there wasn’t any point in setting it on fire.  It appears never to have had a door and looks so decrepit that nobody in their right mind would dream of keeping anything valuable in it.   So through all these years I’ve kept all my garden tools there quite safely, using a motorcycle lock to secure the wheelbarrow, spade and fork to one of the still very solid uprights.  

Best of all, the shed allows free passage to any intrepid bird interested in exploring it, and right now it boasts three blackbird chicks in an appropriately dilapidated nest on a high shelf in the far corner from where the door isn’t.   The nest, like the shed, has clearly been inherited from a venerable lineage of previous tenants.

The morning’s jobs being done, we sat down to have tea in the only significant shade on the allotment at present, which happens to be beside the shed, to the evident consternation of the two adult blackbirds who were intent on feeding the chicks.  The male had tried a couple of intimidatory fly-pasts quite close to me during the course of the morning to let me know I wasn’t welcome and, deciding there was no mileage in that tactic, concluded that stealth was the answer.  As the female sat at a safe distance waiting her turn with a beak-full of grubs, the male flitted nearer and nearer from cover to cover:  from behind the cordon apples, to the rhubarb, from there to a clump of lupins, getting closer and closer to the shed with each flit.  If either of us looked directly at it, it suddenly remembered that it had urgent business elsewhere and headed off back to the cordon apples to start again. When we pretended not to be watching it, once it had stalked close enough it would make a couple of feints to see what we might do, which was obviously precisely nothing, and than take a giant leap for blackbird-kind by flying in through one of the shrapnel holes and depositing its worm into one of the eagerly waiting mouths.  As soon as the female saw that her pioneering mate had made it past us, she flew straight in herself.   He, however, still didn’t share her newly acquired confidence and, once he had collected his next mouthful, which he did surprisingly quickly, he started the whole routine all over again.   So our tea took much longer than usual. TV and Netflix have their uses under lockdown, but there is a greater immediacy to live entertainment, and one gets it where one can. 

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: the divided golf course

May 14. A month ago, on April 14, I wrote a piece on ‘Borders’, describing the ‘insane’ prospect of different lockdown regulations on either side of national borders within the UK.

Now it has come to pass.  The picture above is the view from the bottom of my garden.  Below the field is the Severn, hidden by the trees on the bank.  Almost unnoticed in the current crisis, we have been enjoying a warm, dry Spring and the river is unusually low for this time of the year.  Beyond it, across a few more fields, is Wales, with the Breiddens in the distance.   Were I to go for a walk on the hills, as we often did in peacetime, I could now be stopped by the police.  It is legal to drive to take exercise in England, not in Wales.  It is permissible for people to go to any kind of work in England, not in Wales.  There is a golf course in the border village of Llanymynech, a few miles away, where 15 holes are in Wales, 3 in England.  According to the new rules, only the English holes can be played. 

Some of this is just a trivial irritation.  But there is a more serious event taking place.  The leaders of Scotland, Wales and even Northern Ireland, have publicly condemned Johnson’s broadcast on Sunday, where he announced a partial, if very confused, relaxation of the rules ‘in the UK’.  The nation leaders were quick to point out that they had not been consulted about the new regime and did not agree with it.  They were free to go their own way and intended to do so.  This is partly a matter of local calculation about the state of the pandemic and the risk of relaxing the lockdown.  It is also a consequence of the growing perception that the Westminster government is fundamentally incompetent.  The electorates of the other nations are looking to their own representatives for a road map out of the crisis, and practices are likely to diverge still further in the coming months.

The coronavirus pandemic did not invent the break-up of the UK, but amongst the consequences will be a significant acceleration of that process.  And Brexit is yet to come.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: follow the tortoise …

a tortoise walk

April 28.  Casual walking out of a house, down the street, into a park or out to the countryside, has long-been the most practised and least studied form of recreation.

For most people in most times, it was the basic form of relaxation.  Until the twentieth century, domestic over-crowding meant that it was often the only means of escaping the press of people and finding some privacy.  Because it was essentially unstructured and unrecorded, it has rarely received the attention of historians.  Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust, to which I referred on April 24, is, like a handful of other such books, essentially an account of literary walkers, from Rousseau and Wordsworth onwards.  The one exception is the now elderly account by Maurice Marples, Shank’s Pony (1959).

In Britain, however, one of its most common forms, walking the dog, has long been counted.   During the nineteenth century an increasingly firm distinction was drawn between walking with a dog, and dog-walking.  Next to the immobile pedestrian, the greatest fear of polite town dwellers was the uncontrolled dog.  It was at best a source of noise, pollution, and unwanted physical contact for other pedestrians, and at worst a threat to life through the widely-feared disease of hydrophobia, or rabies. Taxing dogs, which began in 1796, was a means of policing their mainly urban owners.  Rural working dogs were exempt.  Following reforms to the cost and efficiency of taxation in 1867, reliable records were kept.  By 1877, there were nearly 1.4 million licensed dogs in Britain, mostly in towns and cities. At least as many owners again were believed to be avoiding the tax.  By the second half of the twentieth century the figure had reached four million, doubling again before the licence fee was finally abolished in 1987.

In most countries in the coronavirus lockdown, some kind of exemption has been allowed for exercising a pet.  Last week a story went viral of an Italian woman who had been fined for exceeding the time limit for this activity.  Her excuse was that the pet was not a dog, but a tortoise, and there was a photograph to prove it.

Initially I had much sympathy for the woman.  In my adult life the only pet that I have owned myself, as distinct from the family cat, was a tortoise, named Herodotus, or Hod for short, after the first historian.  It always seemed an appropriate companion for an historian, or indeed anyone engaged in the slow business of writing a full-length book. At this time of the year Hod would be trundling about the garden, eating buttercups and clover as he recovered his strength after the winter’s hibernation.

But then again, a tortoise really does, in Kipling’s terms, walk by itself.  Cats are in fact always aware of human company and generally seek to be close to it.  But a tortoise is entirely indifferent.  That is what makes it so relaxing a pet.  No complex emotional interactions.  Our cat would walk surprisingly long distances with us when we were out on an expedition.  Not Hod.  It is not so much about mobility.  On a hot day, especially if there is a tortoise maid in the offing, a tortoise can manage a turn of speed.  Rather it is a matter of independence.  There is just no way in the world you can get such an animal to follow you down the street.

I am afraid the Italian police had the right of it.