Sunday, 28 February 2021

Pubs, Pubs, Every Where, Nor Any Drop to Drink

As everyone is aware, the Covid-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on businesses in many places. In the UK it has been particularly hard on a beloved institution: the public house -- and its patrons. 

Pubs are not just drinking establishments: they are venerated social gathering places. For millions they function much like places of worship. In both, you  hand over some money in the hope that you will leave feeling better than when you entered. In both, the hope is not always realized, but that doesn't stop supplicants coming back for more. 

I've noticed one difference between the two, however. Some churches have been turned into pubs. But to my knowledge, no pub has become a church. Please correct me if I'm wrong! It seems A. E. Housman was right.

"Ale does more than Milton can, 

To justify God's ways to man."

Where I live, here in Carshalton, Southwest London, I am fortunate (or unfortunate, depending on your viewpoint) to be surrounded by pubs. Most of the pubs pictured below lie within a few hundred meters of my residence, the farthest away about a mile. Several are within a two minute walk. Temptation? You bet your donkey. But not, alas, these days. To paraphrase Coleridge,

Pubs, pubs every where,

Oh, how our fate does stink, 

Pubs, pubs every where,

Nor any drop to drink. 

Like the rest of us, pubs have been in lockdown for much of the past year. Most recently, they have been closed since just before the Christmas holidays. They are unlikely to reopen before the summer. The tentative date is June 21, the longest day of the year. What exquisite planning. That could also be the drinkingest day in British history. 

It is my fondest hope that Covid-19 will retreat mighty soon, and the pubs will survive this drought and reopen. Speaking of hope, pictured below is one of my favorite watering holes, blessedly situated only two minutes from my home.

The Hope, a community owned pub, has won many CAMRA awards including London CAMRA pub of the year. CAMRA = Campaign for Real Ale. The Hope always features a nice selection of traditional ales and microbrews. 

To while away the time of waiting, I have been taking lots of photos of the neighborhood pubs, walking about with my tongue hanging out. Here they are:

The Palmerston, named for a famous Victorian Prime Minister. 

The Windsor Castle. Not to be confused with the Queen's residence. Notable for its music events on Saturday nights, when it was open.

The Railway Tavern, close by the local railway station, of course.

The Coach and Horses, close to the parish church, All Saints, and beautiful Carshalton Ponds.

The Woodman, next to the Coach and Horses and the church, which is very handy. It used to be a butcher shop. Some of the hooks still hang from the ceiling, so be careful! Taken after a light snowfall.

The Sun, next to Carshalton Ponds, here bathed in sunlight. A fine Victorian building, it used to be a hotel. 

The Rose and Crown, close to lovely Beddington Park.

The Racehorse, diagonally across the road from the Hope. 

The Greyhound Hotel and Pub, across from the Ponds. In the 18th century it was a gathering place for fox hunters.

Disclaimer: I am not a lush. I just like the ambience.

Tuesday, 16 February 2021

Covid-19 should be renamed Proteus.

Almost everyday it seems, we learn of some new variant of the Covid-19 virus. So far, we have the UK variant, the South African variant, the Brazilian variant, the Indian variant, and the Bristol variant. Other variants are surely in the pipeline. 

WHO has just announced it will rename all the variants after letters of the Greek alphabet, alpha, beta, gamma, delta, etc. 

In light of this may I suggest that we rename Covid-19 in all its now and future variants the Proteus Virus, after the Greek deity of that name. 

Proteus was a water god of ancient Greek mythology who could shift shape at will. In The Odyssey, Homer called him  "The Old Man of the Sea." Proteus was subject to the Sea God Poseidon (Neptune for Romans), for whom he tended flocks of seals. 

In some Protean myths, Proteus has the gift of prophecy. He can foretell the future but will do only to those capable of capturing him, or pinning him down, so to speak. His shape-shifting is his means of avoiding capture. 

In The Odyssey, Proteus takes the shape of a lion, a snake, a leopard, a boar, water, and a tree in order to avoid capture by King Menelaus. The King captures him, however, and forces him to reveal his secrets. 

There's some good news here. Proteus was seized and provided the needed information. (Unlike Trump and Boris, Proteus had to tell the truth.) We can hope that the scientists will be able to extract from the Covid-19 virus the knowledge required to keep it under control.  

We already have a genus of bacteria named Proteus. The Proteobacteria are opportunistic human pathogens, taking advantage of weakened immune systems to cause infections, especially urinary tract infections. 

So, why not a Proteus Virus? We could name each variant after a shape Proteus assumed: Lion, Leopard, Snake, etc. Sounds a bit grisly, I know, but we name big storms after people. 

Monday, 8 February 2021

Darwin's Bulldog Bites Soapy Sam: The Oxford "Debate" over Evolution, 1860

In June 1860, seven months after Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, scientists gathered at the Oxford University Museum. The occasion was the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Darwin himself was not in attendance, due to illness. (Image: Oxford Museum of Natural History, as it is today)

The meeting lasted a week but the main event took place on Saturday June 30. It was preceded by a long, tedious presentation by Professor John W. Draper of New York University. His subject was the intellectual development of Europe considered in relation to Darwin's theory. 

The discussion that followed is often called the Huxley-Wilberforce Debate after two the key participants, biologist and comparative anatomist Thomas Henry Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce, the Anglican Bishop of Oxford. 

Their clash has gone down in history as a dramatic moment when evolutionary science, represented by Huxley, self-styled "Darwin's Bulldog" delivered a knockout blow against religion, championed by the Bishop, nicknamed "Soapy Sam." 

How Wilberforce got his nickname is a matter of debate, but he is supposed to have explained it good-humoredly, saying that although often in hot water, he always came out with clean hands. 

The caricatures below are of Wilberforce and Huxley, by "Ape" from Vanity Fair, 1869 and 1871. The artist, Carlo Pellegrini, often signed his work "Ape." It was not a reference to anthropoids, fitting as that might be. It was Italian for "Bee." Pellegrini could sting as well as amuse.

The reality of the Great Debate is more complicated than the legend. No official record exists of the discussion. Those who attended left conflicting recollections of what was said. The main lines are clear enough, however.

Wilberforce and Huxley were not the only participants in the discussion. Both of them were supported by prominent scientists and clergymen, which renders a strict "Science v. Religion" interpretation problematic. Both, however, came to the meeting with the intent of defending their respective positions on "Darwinism."

Huxley's most notable ally at Oxford was the renowned botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker. Darwin's closest friend, Hooker was the Assistant Director of Kew Botanical Gardens. He later became its Director.

Several prominent scientists supported Wilberforce. Among them was Robert Fitzroy, who had commanded the expedition during which Darwin had conceived the outlines of natural selection. After The Origin appeared, Fitzroy is supposed to have declared that he wished he had never taken Darwin along on the Voyage of the Beagle. (Image: Robert Fitzroy)

Fitzroy was a first-rate meteorologist who devoted much of his life developing an effective system for warning ships of approaching stormy weather. He was also a devout Christian literalist. His main contribution to the Oxford Debate seems to have been raising a large Bible over his head and beseeching the audience to believe in God rather than man -- the man in this case being Darwin. 

(Image: HMS Beagle in Tierra del Fuego) 

Another of Bishop Wilberforce's supporters was Richard Owen, professor of biology. An accomplished comparative anatomist and paleontologist, Owen is perhaps best known for coining the word "dinosaur. " His greatest achievement was campaigning for and overseeing the establishment of the vast and wonderful Natural History Museum in South Kensington, London (below).

Owen had written a highly critical review of Darwin's Origin after its publication. He had also helped Wilberforce to write a longer review of his own. Owen encouraged Wilberforce to speak at the Oxford meeting and coached him on the main points of attack. 

Owen did not deny the idea of evolution itself, and some of his views have influenced modern evolutionary theory. But he claimed that Darwin had oversimplified the developmental process, that humans were a unique species, and that all life developed according to designed (divine) laws. (Image: Richard Owen)

Darwin ascribed Owen's hostility to the Origin to jealousy of the attention it brought to Darwin. Owen had also attacked Huxley and Hooker as Darwin's "short-sighted disciples." In particular, Owen had ridiculed Huxley for suggesting that humans were descended from an ape-like creature. 

At the 1860 debate, Bishop Wilberforce used scientific arguments, largely supplied by Owen, to counter Darwin's position. But what made the encounter famous (eventually) was Wilberforce's question, directed at Huxley, which went something like this: 

"Is it through your grandfather or your grandmother that you claim descent from a monkey?" 

Many years later Huxley wrote that hearing that, he turned to the man sitting next to him, Dr. Benjamin Brodie, and said, "The Lord hath delivered him (Wilberforce) into my hands" 

Huxley had not sought this encounter. He had intended to skip the session and head for home. Wilberforce was a famous and accomplished orator. Huxley, not yet the great public speaker he later became, did not relish butting heads with the Bishop. He was persuaded to stay and "defend the cause" by Robert Chambers, a Scottish journalist. 

Chambers had published a book advocating evolution in 1844. The Vestiges of Creation was a bestseller that aroused a huge furor. Huxley, then an evolutionary skeptic, had written a hostile review of the Vestiges, but the two men were now on the same side. Chambers believed that Huxley's knowledge of comparative anatomy could carry the day.

Huxley countered Wilberforce by defending the main points of Darwin's theory of natural selection. Then he finished with the famous declaration that he would not be ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor. What he would be ashamed of was to be descended from a man who used great gifts to obscure the truth. 

According to later accounts, this put-down of Wilberforce left the audience in an uproar. One woman is reported to have fainted at seeing a bishop treated so disrespectfully. Or, maybe her corset was too tight.

History generally credits Huxley as the winner of the Great Debate. At the time, that was not so clear. Many contemporaries thought Wilberforce had the best of it. Never a shrinking violet, he was sure he had. 

Hooker claimed that Huxley did not adequately defend the arguments of the Origin and added the audience couldn't hear much of what he said anyway. Hooker, who spoke after Huxley, claimed that it was he and not Huxley who done the best job of countering Wilberforce's attacks. Scientists are human, after all.  (Image: Joseph Hooker)

The debate at Oxford did not receive a huge amount of attention at the time. It became legendary as a pivotal moment in the history of science only decades later. The monument memorializing the debate (below) was erected 150 years later outside the Oxford Museum.

Owen feuded with Huxley and Hooker for many years. Their disagreements became more than intellectual. Darwin, once friendly with Owen, wrote in 1871: "I used to be ashamed of hating him (Owen) so much, but now I will carefully cherish my hatred and contempt to the last days of my life."

Interestingly, Huxley and Darwin remained on good terms with Wilberforce after the debate. Darwin had gone to Cambridge with the aim of entering the church as an Anglican minister. Even after he returned from the voyage aboard the Beagle, he seems to have retained that aim for a time. 

In 1839, Rev. John Bachman of Charleston, himself an accomplished naturalist, was visiting England. He met Darwin and asked him what he was going to do with the rest of his life. Darwin replied, he intended to become a bishop. 

If Darwin was serious then he soon abandoned that intention. In his autobiography he explained that he no longer believed in God. His family removed those passages from later editions.  

The Oxford Debate may not have been the clear seismic event some later accounts claimed. But it remains an important and fascinating moment in the history of science. 




"The Tay Bridge Disaster": Magnum Opus of "History's Worst Poet"

On a stormy night in December 1879 one of the worst railway accidents in British history occurred. It resulted from the collapse of a bridge over the River Tay at Dundee, Scotland. A passenger train crossing the bridge at the time plunged into the river. 

The estimated death toll was 75, with 60 known dead. History calls it the Tay Bridge Disaster. A government inquiry determined the cause as faulty construction that left the structure vulnerable to high winds. (Image: photo of the Tay Bridge showing collapsed section.)

The Tay Bridge Disaster is remembered today more than most Victorian railway accidents because it is alleged to have led to another disaster: a poem of the same name by William McGonagall. This hard-rhyming Scots author has been labelled the worst poet in history. I don't know who called him that, but the claim is repeated in every reference to William, pictured below.

That judgment, I humbly maintain, is based on a narrow Anglo-centric analysis. The world in all its festering billions has surely produced worse poets than Willy McG. I would ask those who repeat that slur on the Poet, "Have you read his poetry?" But judge for yourself, Dear Reader. Here are the opening lines:

"Beautiful railway bridge of the silv'ry Tay

Alas I am very sorry to say

That ninety lives have been taken away"

OK, a bit of poetic license here, I admit. The Poet got the number of dead wrong. Dead wrong as it were. But one has to admit his lines do rhyme. How many modern poets accomplish that? 

Moreover, he analyzes, forthrightly, the weaknesses of the bridge. He summarizes hundreds of pages of public reports in concise, vigorous -- one might even venture -- pithy language. And he adds a note of caution to us all. He tells the world 

"fearlessly without the least dismay, 

That your central girders would not have given way,

At least many sensible men do say,

Had they been supported on each side with buttresses

At least many sensible men confesses,

For the stronger we our houses build,

The less chance we have of being killed."

What solid advice in those last two lines! 

In order to flesh out my defense of this unfairly maligned Bard, it is incumbent upon me to note that McGullagal wrote two other poems about Tay Bridges. He wrote the first after the bridge that later collapsed was opened in 1878. He gave it the apt title "The Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay." 

Here he anticipates a great song of the future -- "By the Light of the Silvery Moon". It is also worth noting how he charms us by altering "silvery" with "silv'ry."

The Poet praises the first bridge as the "Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay" as the best of all bridges, a bridge "unequalled to be seen." Yet, ominously, he seems to have had an ominous feeling about it.

"I hope that God will protect all passengers

By night and by day,

And that no accident will befall them while crossing

The Bridge of the Silvery Tay"

WE can imagine the Poet had already found here the theme of his second poem about the Tay Bridge, the one about the bridge's collapse. Perhaps he had already begun to write it, to be ready just in case. We wonder how his poetical career might have been altered had the first bridge stood erect and firm.

McGagitall wrote the third of his bridge trilogy about the second Tay railway bridge, built to replace the collapsed one. It is entitled, with Willy's typical genius, "An Address to the New Tay Bridge." This poem is brimming with self-confidence. We find The Poet at his cheeriest, predicting a long-lasting and satisfactory erection. 

"With your strong brick piers and buttresses in so grand array, 

And your thirteen central girders, which seem to my eye 

Strong enough all stormy winds to defy 

The Poet excels himself here with his uncanny prescience. The second bridge remains firmly erected in the Year of Our Lord 2021. It carries trains across the Tay right up to this very day. 

WE would be remiss if we did not call attention here to the sheer economy of McGoonagall's poetry. Compare the opening lines of his three Tay Bridge poems:

Poem 1: "Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!"

Poem 2: "Beautiful railway bridge of the silv'ry Tay"

Poem 3: "BEAUTIFUL railway bridge of the Silvery Tay"

Note the subtle changes he makes in each opening line to convey the mood of the poem's situation. 

The first is triumphant, befitting the rise of an erection that will inject new life into the town of Dundee.

The second is more subdued. This is a sensitive opening, attuned to the tragic subject matter. He omits the enthusiastic exclamation mark and removes the caps from "railway" and "bridge". The Poet effectively dismisses the fallen erection as simply not up to the job. Which is of course true, since large bits of it are in rather than on the Tay.  A subtle distinction perhaps, but crucial in practical terms.

The third opening line marks a revival of the enthusiastic optimism of the first. but in a more muted, cautious way. The bridge is no longer "beautiful." It is "BEAUTIFUL." The word "new" is cleverly added, alerting the reader to the undisputed fact that this poem is not about an old bridge that couldn't. 

The way the Poet transmutes these opening lines is awe-inspiring, even jaw-dropping. I could say much more about this unfairly maligned Bard. But here I will put down my pen in envy of his poetic art. They don't make poets like McGonadgall anymore. We shall never see his like again.

C. 2021 by Sacha Dufuss, PhD, Linguinistics, Oxtonguebridge

PS. It remains incumbent upon me to add that although McGullabal was born in Scotland, he was of Irish ancestry. This may explain his unique lyrical skills.

Wednesday, 3 February 2021

Of Mice and Men and Covid


"The best-laid schemes o' mice and men gang aft agley." This line from Robert Burns' "To a Mouse," published in 1786, has become internationally famous. (Image: Burns by Alexander Nasmyth, 1828)

Burns wrote "To a Mouse" like many of his poems, in a Scots dialect many people can't follow without a bit of translation. The relevant line from the poem is usually rendered into "standard" English as "The best-laid plans of mice and men oft go awry." 

The line got a major boost from the success of John Steinbeck's Depression Era novel Of Mice and Men. Steinbeck projects Burns' theme onto the lives of George and Lennie, two down-and-out farm laborers seeking jobs and a better life. Their plans of buying a little farm with rabbits and settling down "gang agley" in a tragic denouement.

In the past year most of us have learned to appreciate Burns' rumination on the fates of mice and men as never before. The raging Covid-19 pandemic may be likened to the destructive force of Burns' plough. 

In the poem Burns, who was a working farmer in his native Ayrshire, apologizes to the mouse. His plough has destroyed the "wee beasties'" home. However humble, the mouse had labored hard to make his house secure and planned to winter there. 

In addressing the mouse Burns sounds much like a modern environmentalist. He stresses the interconnectedness of humans and the natural world:

I'm truly sorry Man's dominion,

Has broken Nature's social union,

An' justifies that ill opinion

Which makes thee startle

At me, thy poor, earth-born companion

An' fellow mortal!

Burns goes on to compare the mouse's predicament to his own. He was in financial difficulties at the time, and also reaping the consequences of his relentless womanizing.  

Still thou are blest, compared wi' me!

The present only toucheth thee:

But Och! I backward cast my e'e

On prospects drear!

An' forward, tho' I cannot see,

I guess an' fear!

Since the early months of 2020, many of us have had our plans ripped apart by the Covid Plough. Holidays abroad, business trips,  and visits to families and friends were churned up and away.  

We had planned a holiday to Portugal in late March 2020, only to have it cancelled by the first lockdown a few days before our scheduled departure. Other trips we had been thinking about taking were put on hold, and still are. Since the first lockdown we haven't traveled more than a few miles from home. We hadn't planned for that.

The disruptions to our plans pale by comparison to those the pandemic has inflicted on many others. Weddings and other ceremonies had to be postponed or greatly altered, moves cancelled, schools closed. Jobs and businesses that seemed secure disappeared. Incomes for billions of people shrank while billionaires raked in huge profits. Mr. Bezos, Can you spare us a dime? 

As unpleasant as all these disruptions have been, they pale in comparison to the massive loss of life and pain Covid-19 has produced. How bad it will ultimately prove to be we can only wonder. This pandemic shows no sign of abating yet. 

Meanwhile, tour companies are advertising great trips for 2022 and 2023. My first to this reaction is: You cannot be serious! On reflection, I remind myself, life must go on. We need to dream, to have something to look forward to, to plan ahead for good or ill. But we can be forgiven if we sometimes feel like the mouse with Burns' plough bearing down. 

PS. Burns was looking for new opportunities around the time he wrote "To a Mouse." One of the jobs he almost took was that of overseer on a Jamaican sugar plantation, which sits in stark contrast to the anti-slavery and egalitarian themes of many of his later poems. 

While preparing for the voyage to the West Indies, he sent his poems to a publisher in Kilmarnock, and the volume was published to great success. It is known today as the "Kilmarnock Edition." (Image: Title page to Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect by Robert Burns.)

The success of the book led Burns to abandon the Jamaican plan. He decided to stay in Scotland, left his Ayrshire farm to his brother, and headed for the bright lights of Edinburgh. 

There he would find further success and wide acclaim in the clubs and salons of the Scottish capital. In time, however, he soured on genteel society. He alienated many friends and influential men through his outspoken support for the American and French Revolutions and for political reform in Britain. 

Burns returned to his native Ayrshire and became an excise officer. He died in 1796, possibly from rheumatic heart disease aggravated by hard work. He was only 37. (Image: Burns by Alexander Nasmyth, 1787)


Monday, 1 February 2021

Pandemics may be Inevitable: Ignorance is Not

"Migration of man and his maladies is the chief cause of epidemics." Alfred W. Crosby, The Columbian Exchange, 2003

(Image: Romanticized depiction of the arrival of Columbus in the New World)

Alfred Crosby's words were written in connection with the European discovery of the New World. In the wake of the discovery, Europeans began to migrate to the Americas, first a trickle, then a flood, then a tsunami. The same is true for Africans, although they did not come by choice. 

Both Europeans and Africans unknowingly brought their microbes along, unleashing an explosion of disease in the New World. All suffered, but the indigenous inhabitants suffered most, indeed catastrophically. It was like being attacked by several pandemics at once. War and enslavement worsened things as well.

Native Americans were extremely vulnerable to Old World diseases. Having been isolated from the rest of the world for thousands of years, they had no experience with or immunity to a host of infections. 

Smallpox, measles, influenza, pneumonia, and many other diseases killed Native Americans in huge numbers. The microbial invasion wiped out, or nearly wiped out, many Native American cultures. It was very likely the worst demographic disaster in history. 

The Europeans and Africans, in contrast, grew in numbers. They didn't exactly thrive, except for whites in temperate regions such as New England and New York. 

Unlike Native Americans, they had experience and some levels of immunity to the diseases they carried from their own regions, many of which had been around for centuries or even millennia. They suffered, too, just not as much. The only major disease that the New World gave to the Old is, possibly, syphilis. The disease exchange was heavily one-sided.

Africans were vulnerable to some European diseases, especially respiratory disorders such as pneumonia and tuberculosis. Europeans were vulnerable to some African diseases, especially tropical fevers such as falciparum malaria and yellow fever. Bad as these could be, they did not prevent some population growth.

There are many other examples of disease that spread through human migration. In the 14th century, the Second Plague Pandemic  (Black Death) migrated along trade routes such as the Silk Road and pilgrimages routes. Mongol horsemen also played a role in spreading plague as they moved rapidly across Eurasia.  

The Cholera Pandemics of the 19th century followed a similar pattern. Originating in British India, cholera crept along trade routes and reached Western Europe and the Americas by the early 1830s. 

The Third Plague Pandemic, which began in China in the late 19th century, spread around the world aided by steamships and railroads. It reached San Francisco and Sydney, Australia by 1900. It was especially deadly in India, killing about ten million. (Image: Plague in Sydney, Australia, 1900: rat killing)

The mass movement of millions of soldiers in World War I famously spread the Great Influenza of 1918-20. American troops aboard crowded ships brought the influenza to Europe, where it mutated. Then they brought the more virulent mutation back to the Americas. (Image: Pandemic Incubator: US troopship returning from Europe, 1918)

That is history, ancient history for many of us. Today the world is battling against another virulent disease that has spread in part through the temporary migration we call tourism. And commercial airliners can spread microbes around the globe at a faster rate than ever before. 

Hundreds of millions of people are on the move, fleeing from violence, oppression, and poverty. Human migration into hitherto sparsely populated regions like rain forests and increased contact with wild animals have helped to create new deadly viruses like Ebola, SARS and now Covid-19. Unlike the first two, coronavirus is highly contagious and becoming more so as new strains evolve. 

One of the main means of controlling Covid, or at least slowing its spread, is to restrict human migration, a difficult and sometimes inhumane thing to do. Countries can close their borders to prevent both in migration and out migration. Many have, but often too late. 

If they had done so early on as New Zealand did, it might have saved many thousands of lives. But the perceived economic cost led most countries to avoid such restrictions for too long. Their governments have mastered the art of closing the barn door after the horses have left. Economies are crashing anyway. 

"No one could have predicted this" is a common but largely false claim. Epidemiologists and public health experts have been predicting something very much like this for decades. WHO has been warning for decades that "disease X" will come from nowhere and we must be prepared for it. We weren't. 

Even the film industry warned us, if often in an overly sensationalized form. Contagion (2011) was the best of these.

Those who made the predictions had science on their side, and history as well. But who pays attention to science and history nowadays? Not enough people, obviously. (Some people, of course cannot, due to poverty and/or lack of education.) The ignorant focused on QAnon.

The present combination of overpopulation, mass migration, tourism, and destruction of natural habitats makes the coming of more more "disease X's" and pandemics almost inevitable. The changes necessary to reduce their likelihood may be beyond the capabilities of the global systems we  have created, with their emphasis on maximizing GDP at all cost to the planet. 

Humans have the ability to minimize the damage from pandemics. If we learn the lessons that history and science can teach us. Ignorance is not inevitable, but overcoming it is a huge task. It will be especially difficult as long as sections of the media, especially social media, give free reign to the spread of false information and bizarre conspiracy theories.