Phil’s Ashes

At the beginning of May, Nick and I made a visit to Kilve on the Somerset coast.  We were to rendez vous with Jenny and John, Liz, Charlie and Amy.  We had a task to perform, a ritual, the scattering of Phil’s ashes.  John and I enjoyed a friendship with Phil’ which extended over many years.  John first met Phil’ ‘behind the scenes at the Museum’.  I met Phil’ when I joined the Conchological Society of Great Britain and Ireland in 1981.

Liz is Phil’s daughter and she had planned the scattering, partly to involve people like me who were unable to be present at Phil’s funeral.  We met up at the Chantry Tea Gardens, tucked back in a secluded position not far from the beach at Kilve.  A path leads down from the chantry through fields now used as a car-park to the beach which William Wordsworth, the Romantic poet, who lived for a brief period with his sister Dorothy at Alfoxton House, described as “Kilve’s delightful shore”.  The beach is on the West Somerset Coast Path.  Kilve had special significance for Phil’ whose geological speciality was the Jurassic.  As we accessed the shore we walked over ammonite fossils embedded in the limestone pavement.  We picked our way over the mixed flag and boulder shore until we reached a point just short of the cliffs where we could descend to the water line.  The sea received the ashes and I read out some postcards, three of the many Phil’ had sent to me whilst he was conducting fieldwork along the Dorset coast.

Mission accomplished we drove back to Watchet and checked into our B&Bs.  We were booked into The Bell Inn to eat supper but made a detour to drink a jar or two of cider at The Old Cider House, Pebbles Tavern.  This was an enjoyable occasion, the pub we had chosen had given us a table in a cosy snug just off the main bar.  The meal was good and the conversation was lively and we ranged over many topics.  How Phil’ would have loved the banter.  The following morning we dispersed after a special, heart-warming experience.

Subsequently I would write my contribution to an Appreciation of Phil’ for our in-house magazine.  This runs as follows:

I met Phil’ Palmer when I attended my first Conchological Society (CS) meeting in October 1981.  That day is vivid in my memory as if it were yesterday; it has huge significance for me.  I had been joined to the Society during the summer and at that meeting, the first of the CS year, I met other elder statesmen of the conchological world, well known names in the annals of the Society’s history: Peter Oliver, Bob Scase, Fred Pinn, Dr Sandor (I never did know his first name), Tom Pain and Stella Turk.  It was her first council meeting since becoming elected President.  I would say that Stella and Phil’ are the two people to whom I have the greatest debt when it comes to the way the course of my life was changed forever on that October day.  Phil and Stella have died within six months of each other, both in their 90s and I feel the loss of them both.  It seems appropriate that I would take a ‘phonecall from Phil’s daughter, Caroline, with news of Phil’s passing, whilst I was working a shore in Salcombe during a CS field trip.

Phil’ was an intelligent and gifted scientist and modest with it.  He also had a wonderful sense of humour. He was hugely helpful to me with his advice and encouragement over the years, as I made the shift from a random collector of pretty shells to someone who needed to apply herself a bit more and would eventually ‘get science’.  Phil’ was good with beginners but they needed to demonstrate a willingness to learn.  He was a stickler for accuracy, a bit of a pedant (note the apostrophe after his name!) and did not suffer fools gladly.   At one meeting he once gave me a minor ticking off for using the word ‘creatures’ in the context of an animal or an organism.  Creatures he said were created, this did not apply to living things.  He was a natural teacher, with a great ability to share his knowledge and explain his reasoning.  He was meticulous in collecting and processing samples, both Recent and fossil.  He had a phenomenal ability to write well both scientifically but also in a more popular vein.   He sometimes had his own views on taxonomy even swimming against the tide: he tried to make a case for using the genus Littorivaga for the saxatilis complex (Palmer 1989).  My first insight into Phil’ the Stickler was on the subject of scaphopods, when I waved a ‘Dentalium’ under his nose (his chosen molluscan group).  He corrected me and delivered an explanation as to why Dentalium was incorrect and I should use the genus Antalis.  You never forget little lectures like that.  He wrote an article for the CS newsletter (Palmer 1983) ‘On referring to Scaphopods’  and was taken to task by Dennis Seaward in an edgy rejoinder (Seaward 1984), a correspondence I enjoyed.  Phil’ wrote prolifically and could be very witty.  The most enjoyable, laugh-out-loud piece written by Phil that I ever read appeared in CS newsletter in 1990, entitled ‘A Scurrilous Tale of a Conchological Term’.

Phil’ was part of the cohort of ‘British Marine’ in the Society which included Shelagh Smith, Julia Nunn, Celia Pain and others.  He once referred to the group as ‘The Marine Tendency’ (paraphrasing the Trotskyist ‘Militant Tendency’), which moniker appealed to the renegade in Phil’.  We formed a distinct minority group in a Society which, at that time, was dominated by the non-marine element of membership.  Non-marine molluscan collecting and mapping formed the original thrust of Society activity, marine recording coming later, and in some ways remained a poor relation for a good while after.  It would be Dennis Seaward who would be the person to lift the ‘British Marine’ game.  These days there is a more even distribution of spheres of interest in the Society, including molluscs in archaeology.

I am indebted to Phil’ for a valuable friendship that lasted from the moment we met.  He took an interest in my family and was later blessed with his own granddaughter, Amy.  Having a passion for photography he taught me how to use an SLR camera.  He taught several people over the years, I imagine Caroline was his first pupil.  But he disliked having his own photo taken, it reminded him that time did not stand still.  This is why my selection of photos for this article shows Phil’ typically engaging with colleagues in the field.

My greatest debt is that he is the person who nudged me into tackling a taxonomic project after I quizzed him about Chlamys nivea, after a field trip to the Isle of Skye.  He did not know the answer to my question, he said, I had better go and find it for myself.  With my background in modern languages and a modest little GCE in general science, I needed his guidance to conduct a biometric study on shells from several sources, including institutions.  I learnt to do standard deviations ‘by hand’!  The late Nora McMillan loaned me her holdings of what I refer to as the Orkney ‘Great White’, the large white Chlamys varia which can be found on Orkney beaches and, I believe, nowhere else in the British Isles.  These shells are a conundrum in themselves: a project waiting in the wings.  I wrote my paper on Chlamys nivea and it was accepted for the Journal.

Phil’ was at his best on a one to one basis, or with small groups.  Apart from an informal talk he gave at a British Marine workshop I organised, to the best of my knowledge, he never delivered a lecture because he was fundamentally a shy man.  But he was also a maverick and proud of it, and he enjoyed friendships across a spectrum of age groups.

In closing I can only reiterate the sentiments expressed above by John, Phil was indeed wise, meticulous and uncompromising in his principles.  And you could count yourself fortunate to be considered a friend.

References

Palmer, C.P.  1983.  On referring to Scaphopods. The Conchologists’ Newsletter no. 87.  119-121

Palmer, C.P.  1984.  Pax Carthaginis – A Very Old Gamesmanship.  The Conchologists’ Newsletter no. 89.  176-17

Palmer, C.P.  1989.  A Case for Littorivaga.  The Conchologists’ Newsletter No. 110.  200-202

Palmer, C.P.  1990.  A scurrilous tale of a conchological term.  The Conchologists’ Newsletter no. 113.  285-286

Seaward, D.R. 1984.  The New Gamesmanship.  The Conchologists’ Newsletter no. 88.  157-158

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A Day with Simon and the Pieman

And so it begins.  The annual jamboree with my clique of CS friends has come round all too quickly.  Which means in the blink of an eye, not that it is a chore.  At least I hope it will not be.  This September we might have to cope with an elephant in our midst.  Wait and see.

Saturday we converge on a very pleasant converted barn near Bantham.  Seven of us will share this abode for a week.  There is an adjacent building that goes with the property, a games room which will serve very nicely as a lab.  Nick and I arrive first to open up and bag a room.  We leave the lovely master suite for one couple on that basis that one of them is convalescent.  There are three other rooms with beds to sleep six people.  Although all rooms on a sharing basis are equal, clearly some rooms are more equal than others.  Nick and I have a couple of hours before anyone else arrives which allows me to make a start on the turrid material I have brought to curate.  These are from Stella Turk’s collection and will be useful, even though many of them have no locality data, because turrid specimens are few and far between.

Gradually the others arrive.  Hail fellow and well met.  We all move into our rooms and I serve the assembled a fish pie for supper followed by a plum tart.

On Sunday we are going to North Sands Bay, Salcombe which is the shore below the Winking Prawn café.  Once parked I need a comfort break so Nick and I repair to said Whistling Whelk so I can use the facilities and take in a flat white.  It is then time to hit the shore and I follow the cliffs on the left hand side of the bay and make for the lowest point on the shore.  There are a few shady recesses with weak crevice development which might be hopeful for the usual suspects but although there are plenty of winkles about it is not a propitious habitat.  cupcoralretracted  caryophyllia3By the time I reach the waters edge, if I look around towards the outcrop on top of which is perched the old Fort Charles, there is enough shore to start turning stones and rolling boulders.  Time flies when you are engrossed in staring at the undersides of rocks on a shore.  Together with the rest of the group which includes Simon the Marine Recorder we plodge around in the shallows and together manage to compile a respectable list of mollusc species.

Reaching the law of diminishing returns Nick and I eat our sandwich on the beach then repair to our car in the carpark of the Wisecracking Wentletrap.  After I process the small amount of rockscrubbings and weedwashings and sit down to compile the joint list on paper we have recorded 64 species of mollusc and one Devonshire cup coral……….. and still counting.  Whilst restricting myself to the amount of weed etc that I take back to the lab., I do collect some cushion stars (Asterina gibbosa) to see if by any chance they will be harbouring one of the tiny mollusc species.  When I get back to the house I put these little treasures into a shallow dish of seawater to see what if anything might crawl out.  After my picnic lunch on the beach Nick and I drive back to the house so that I can start to process my samples.

Peter the Pieman is in charge of supper.  That’s great, I can just get on with my stuff and after we have eaten I can barely stay awake and after a fruitless attempt to interact with the internet (it is suffering from too many residents and not enough go-go juice) I go to bed where I promptly fall asleep in front of the printed word with my glasses on my nose.

 

 

Christmas is Coming and we have People to See.

Back in England and I have a sense of acceleration towards our forthcoming festivities.  But first we have an important birthday to celebrate.  We drive up to Hackney on the 12th and collect Lola and Ruby from school.   It is wonderful to see them and a special treat when we take them to the Fish House at Hackney for supper.  There they have F and C whilst Nick and I have lobster and chips for the first time.  We have presents to leave, and my mysterious Christmas slippers.  Back at the house we chill out with Emma and Dan and drift into Nick’s birthday, the reaching of which is marked by a comfortable doze with Rooney sprawled across Nick’s chest. Blog-NickAndRooney

In the morning Emma is away early for her clients and the rest of us scrabble our way out of the house to drop the girls at school, Dan at his office and on to central London where we park the car.  We walk from Piccadilly to the V & A, which museum we have not visited for many a year.  They have a temporary exhibition on Pearls which I want to see and Nick prowls round the building taking in many of the permanent exhibits.  The museum café provides a very adequate salad mid-afternoon then we take a bus back to Piccadilly and check into the Thistle hotel to await the arrival of Charlotte and Ryan.

Earlier this year Charlotte proposed a surprise for Nick’s birthday: a theatre trip to see The Book of Mormon followed by dinner and an overnighter in London. The show is at one an ‘indecently funny and a brilliant musical’.  No-one of sensitive religious disposition should subject themselves to the experience but Charlotte, Ryan, Nick and I laughed our way through the show.  After we ate a wonderful dinner at Hawksmoor Restaurant in Soho, enjoying the best fillet steak we have ever eaten, cooked to our perfection.  The following morning after breakfast we beetled back to Godalming where we dropped CJ and Ry.  We caught up with Ted and after a short interval drove back up to London for the Conchological Society meeting at the Natural History Museum.  The Christmas meeting is always a convivial affair with many exhibits and short presentations.   We didn’t stay in London to eat with our friends, having a prior arrangement to sit Ted at Godalming.

After an excellent Perryman brunch on Sunday we drove across to Barns and Lukie’s cottage where we spent the day with the crew, ate a delicious late afternoon meal and drove back to Winterborne K in the evening.  We left presents and Christmas slippers for all the Oxford kin.  On Monday we were due to meet up with John and Gill for a walk at Lyme Regis before lunching together.  In the event the weather was too unpleasant to walk, but we met for lunch just the same at the River Cottage Canteen in Axminster.

On the day before we crossed the Channel for our appointment with Christmas we drove to visit Maddy and catch up with Lis who took the train from Taunton to Maiden Newton that morning.  If I’m honest I was more excited to meet up with Bertie.

Blog-Bertie2      Blog-Bertie4

I enjoyed the treat of walking him to the station, in company with the dogs Flossie and Teddy.  Back home at WK for lunch, we then spent the afternoon and evening packing the car and settling the house before we decamped to France.

Connemara Companions

It’s that time of year again, the Equinox, when low-tiders’ thoughts turn to shores and field work.  The Conch. Soc.’s annual marine meeting took place in Connemara.  Six of us shared a cottage on the island of Inishnee, near Roundstone.  This area has found recent fame, thanks to Monty Halls and his tv programme Great Irish Escapes.

We converged at our base over the weekend and on Monday we drove north to Doonloughan for our first rendez-vous with the other participants. We parked on the new pier, littered with crab pots, and dropped down onto the beach.  It was a fun shore to work consisting of sands and gravels with scattered rock outcrop resulting in channels and runnels.  In places the narrow gullies and the drainage to low water, resulted in stretches of fast-moving water.  Some filter-feeding marine life loves the rapid flow with its suspended particulates.  Like the variegated scallop Chlamys varia.  The French call these ‘petoncles’ and they are sweeter than the larger St Jacques if you can gather enough to make a mouthful or two.  We were to see lots of these during the forthcoming week.

We were joined on the shore by a group of French fishers.  They were wielding serious shrimping nets and waded around in the slightly deeper water sweeping, apparently randomly, and filling their keep nets.  The French woman I spoke to said this was their third visit to the site and that they found the best strategy was to sweep below the floating kelp blades, under which the prawns lurk.

While seasoned conchologists splashed around in the shallows working the shore, Sonia took photos of the searchers and of some of the animals we found under rocks.  By her kind permission the slide show below gives a flavour:

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