Monday, 18 March 2013

Oak Marble Gall

Nightmare in Spain

Three of us, myself, Joe and Nigel, had decided to go to Switzerland for a fortnight, travelling in my old G.P.O. van. However, it was cold on the morning we set out, so we went to Spain instead.

At the time, campsites in Britain were carefully devised to take the pain out of returning from holiday: Getting back to hot water and flush toilets (a luxury after having to find a handy tree) was actually something to look forward to. There was nearly always running water on site, but it was freezing cold and emerged from a stand-pipe surrounded by a mud bath. Flat stones would be scattered around to keep your feet from the bog but these would be unevenly balanced and liable to dislodge the unwary. A visit to the tap would often culminate in the returnee looking something like The Monster from the Black Lagoon. In France though, they were different: rows of mirror-backed wash-basins were accompanied by shaving points and clean toilets.

We gazed in amazement at the first one and Joe shut himself in a cubicle. The lavatories were the continental type, basically a ceramic hole in the floor, and at first he was puzzled. He had contemplated washing his feet in it before the penny dropped and its true function occurred to him. Having solved this conundrum he sat back ready to take a leisurely bowel movement in civilised surroundings. Unfortunately he leaned too far back and inadvertently depressed a button on the wall, which turned out to be the flushing device.

The thing about continental toilets at that time was that the pressure in the cystern seemed to build up overnight and the first flush of the morning was a little over the top. So it was that Joe shot up on a column of water like a ping pong ball in a fairground shooting booth. The first we knew of this was when the door flew open and he emerged on  a tidal wave with his trousers round his ankles. At this point, the French and German holidaymakers who, until now had been standing around waiting for something, all disappeared into cubicles, secure in the knowledge that, as usual, some ignorant Brit had relieved the pressure from parts other than his bowels.

Travelling got more uncomfortable the further south we got. A post office van is not designed to cope with high temperatures and the back interior worked a bit like an oven. We were forced into a routine whereby the driver would do a stint for half an hour at which point a system of swaps took place: the one in the passenger seat would move over and drive, while the burnt offering from the back took his vacated seat and the driver took his place in the oven. I don't know what the gas mark would have shown but we were done when we came out . As part of the battle against frying, we were all dressed in swimming trunks only. We were stopped by the police when I took the step of opening the back doors to sit with my legs dangling out. They delivered a lengthy harangue which would probably have scared us if we'd understood a word. I don't know what they were worried about. The driver was under strict instructions not to do any fast starts or, at least, to regularly check whether I was still there. As it was, we nodded and smiled manically while making door shutting motions. I think they decided to let us continue because their lunatic asylums were all full.

We gave up on the open door technique anyway, because it seems that a G.P.O. van going at speed causes a bit of a vacuum immediately behind. This leads to the exhaust fumes being sucked into the interior with the prospect of the driver going off on a trip unconnected to that of the van.

Having chugged slowly up the Pyranees, then done a white knuckler down the other side, we eventually found our way to Lorette de Mar. Nigel, our interpreter, (he nearly passed his French 'O' level) informed us that the name meant something about 'mother's laundrette', but we never really established why.
Oak marble galls with ladybirds
It had  become apparent that qualification for driving in Spain (and France) was an honours degree in lunacy. We'd broken down on the exit of a motorway and were trying to push the van up the slope to get   off when cars we were temporarily blocking had to pull up. The drivers sat and pressed their car horns. No effort to help - just make a noise and watch us struggle. This could have become an international incident had not Nigel and I restrained Joe from sticking a few car horns in more creative places. I forget what the mechanical problem turned out to be, but vaguely recollect that putting oil in seemed to help. In Barcelona we found ourselves lined up at a stop light in six lanes of traffic. It was like the start of Le Mans - everyone revving furiously and making sideways glances at the opposition. When the lights changed, five lanes roared off in a suicidal rush, while the little G.P.O. van in the sixth puttered off in backfiring pursuit. The black pall of smoke it gave off seemed to signify its opinion of Barcelona and its resident nutters.

We found a suitable campsite in Lorette and pitched the tent. The idea was for two people to sleep in the tent and one in the van, taking turns. However, the discovery that giant ants roamed the sites caused the plan to be revised so that two would be in the van while only one braved the wildlife. In my role as entomologist, I informed the others that it was a known fact that ants went home to bed at night, but this didn't seem to ease their fears. The fact that I'd made it up ensured that I took my turn in the van without fail.

The first day we went swimming, then we lay on the beach before swimming again. Then we lay on the beach.....

The following day we couldn't walk. The sunburn rendered us beetroot-like and the touch of material on flesh was agony, so we stayed in the tent, reading.

The next day was slightly less painful and we managed to wander around in the shade of shops and pubs. In the evening we ate out at the cheapest place we could find.

On the fourth and fifth day, we had food poisoning. This is something not to be recommended at the best of times, but  more so when you're living in a tent.
Larvae of Andricus kollari on cut-open gall
The rest of our time in Spain was spent in standard holiday terms but with the potential horror of the return journey looming ever closer. In the event, this turned out to be not as bad as expected. I suppose we'd acclimatised to the temperature to some degree, so it was in relative comfort that we rolled through little villages where heavily armed Franco's police glared ominously at us from street corners. We kept the back doors shut.

Only in Paris did we encounter difficulty: we got lost. Joe's french was non existent, but, as he was driving, we felt it was his responsibility to ask for directions - it would be good for his confidence. Nigel groomed him in what to say and, when we spotted a gendarme, the van slid to a halt.

"Excusey moi mon sewer", said Joe to the gendarme, who had stepped back quickly in order not to have a G.P.O. van parked on his foot, "er oo ey, emm..... oh shit!" as the carefully tutored words escaped him. The logical thing would have been to involve Nigel in the conversation - he could usually communicate on a basic level by using his fragments of G.C.E. French interspersed with a sort of pigeon English. This would be delivered in a very loud voice in the traditional British 'why don't  sodding foreigners speak English?' manner, accompanied by a lot of arm waving. However, Joe panicked and resorted to the only thing he could think of - he put his foot down. The van roared off, depositing Nigel flat on his back in the rear, and the gendarme  rendered invisible by black smoke. And so we continued to go round and round in Paris until we eventually flew off the edge and toiled our weary way back home.
Oak marble galls with exit hole clearly showing
Talking about France brings me to oak trees, because so many of them were cut down to build boats for fighting the French. The ones that were left are now often adorned with oak marble galls. These are buds which have had eggs layed in them by a little wasp called Andricus kollari, on the basis that you can hardly call a wasp 'Bert'. Instead of growing into a leaf, the bud develops into a little balls which were, according to Richard Mabey, used  as marbles by Cornish children. When the wasp has developed inside the gall, it eventually eats its way out, leaving a perfectly round hole, as in the picture. Andricus was deliberately introduced in the eighteen hundreds, because the galls produce tannic acid which was used for making ink. It seems the Dead Sea Scrolls were written using the same type of ink.

There are a number of gall wasps which have a similar effect on the plant they choose to inhabit and one which often perplexes gardeners is the Robin's pincushion or rose bedegar gall usually found on roses. The wasp causing this is called Diplolepis rosae and lays up to sixty eggs into the bud. It seems that other wasps and insects then often lay their own eggs in the gall and even in the larvae of the Diplolepis. This reminds me of the old rhyme:
       'Little fleas have lesser fleas upon their backs to bite 'em
      And lesser ones have tiny ones, and so on ad infinitem.'
Or something like that.

The name Robin's pincushion is a reference to Robin Goodfellow in Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream. He was a woodland sprite and went around er, spriting.
Robin's pincushion gall

No comments:

Post a Comment