Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Why does the Comma have a comma?

Buddleia bushes are flowering in our garden and I love their rich scent. It’s not only me that is attracted to the plants, as their dark purple flower spikes are visited by large numbers of bees and butterflies that collect the supplies of nectar provided by the plants. The Buddleia benefits, as pollen is spread by the insects when they gather this “gift”, and the bees and butterflies gain fuel for flight and a high-energy source of food for rearing young in bees. Both groups of insects also use the sugars in nectar as a store; with bees producing honey and butterflies body fat.

As the insects move over the flower spikes, it is easy to look at them closely and the common Peacock and White butterflies have been joined by Commas (Polygonia c-album), which seem plentiful this year. The wings of Commas have a jagged profile and, as with most butterflies, have beautiful colouration on the upper surface of the wings and a brown colour on the under surface, with a pattern resembling bark or lichen. The ragged outline of the wings, and the patterns of their lower surface, are likely to provide protection against predation during rest, when the wings are closed. The butterflies are then camouflaged and look to me like pieces of bark or dead leaves. I say “look to me”, as our perceptions are so much governed by our own senses and we do not know how the butterflies look to their natural predators. We know that the Comma is eaten by birds like great tits,1 but presumably in greater numbers when the wings are open and the butterflies active.

A feature of the camouflage of the under surface of the wings is the “comma” from which these butterflies gain their common name. The marking varies from species to species, and also within species, but it is a feature of Comma butterflies throughout the Northern Hemisphere. Why do they have this marking? A creationist might argue that it is something for which only God has the answer and, without wanting to sound facetious, creationists may also feel that God created the comma as a talking point and as a means of showing us His omnipotence. An evolutionist would have no difficulty pointing to the selection of mutations that provide the effective camouflage of the under surface of the wings, as the colouration presumably enhances the survival of individuals in which it occurred. The mutations require changes in the pigmentation of individual scales and also of the wing outline, but what were the stages that led to the forms we see today? Does the comma provide any selective advantage, or is it neutral? No-one knows the answers to these questions, nor do we know why the upper surfaces of the wings have their characteristic brightly-coloured patterns. Unfortunately, we are hampered in our inquiry by viewing Nature with human sense organs and from a human perspective. Of course, it’s the only approach we have and that is always worth keeping in mind, especially as humans are so recent in the history of living organisms.

1 Nylin et al. (2001) Journal of the Lepidopterists' Society 55: 69-73

Friday, 26 July 2013

Discovering John Betjeman

We obtained our first television set in 1959. It was rented (a common practice then, as TVs were so expensive) and received only the single BBC channel in black and white. As having our own TV was a novelty, I loved watching programmes on wildlife and sport, and sometimes those of a different kind caught my interest. It was through his excellent series of vignettes for the BBC that I first encountered John Betjeman. I knew nothing about him and his background, but I liked the way he described the places he visited, whether towns and villages, churches, or railway lines. As I was an enthusiastic train spotter at the time, it might be expected that it was this interest that drew me to Betjeman’s television work, but it was everything that he did. I learned about architecture, about how the arrangement of buildings in towns and villages was often haphazard, about the exteriors and interiors of churches, about so many things that caused me to look at my surroundings with a bit more insight. I was also attracted by Betjeman’s campaigning for buildings he felt strongly about, like St Pancras Station and the adjoining Midland Grand Hotel, efforts commemorated by Martin Jennings’ wonderful statue on the concourse of the restored station. 1

An important part of the “TV Betjeman” was his appearance, with rumpled suit, jacket or coat, a battered hat, and a range of deliberate affectations. I loved the eccentric persona, but the magic came from the way he used, and delivered, words. He conveyed nostalgia, a love of the past and the need for preservation, all described in a way that made it easy to be carried along. Take a look at this clip and you will see what I mean:

At the time I saw his TV programmes, I didn’t know that John Betjeman was a poet. I have always found poetry difficult, as it usually requires more concentration than I can muster, but Betjeman’s work is different. It is so accessible and has a lightness of touch. He has a way of describing feelings and anxieties, often couched in humour, that expose his vulnerabilities. Nowhere is this more true than in Summoned by Bells, the verse autobiography of his early years published when he was 54 years old. I have the version illustrated by Hugh Casson that gives two great artists for the price of one 2 and, each time I read it, I can recall John Betjeman’s characteristic delivery; the same method of delivery that drew me to his TV programmes when I was a boy.

Nostalgia for things past often comes with apprehension about the future and that was certainly true of Betjeman, especially as he neared the end of his life. If I had to pick a favourite poem, it would be “The Last Laugh” on the final page of A Nip in the Air (itself a memorable title for a last anthology): 3

I made hay while the sun shone,
My work sold.
Now, if the harvest is over
And the world cold,
Give me the bonus of laughter
As I lose hold.

By coincidence, this poem is used by Bevis Hillier, the official biographer of Betjeman, to close his book John Betjeman: A Life in Pictures 4 and I suspect that all who read it are affected by its sadness.

2 John Betjeman (1989) The Illustrated Summoned by Bells. London, John Murray.

3 John Betjeman (1974) A Nip in the Air. London, John Murray.

4 Bevis Hillier (1984) John Betjeman: A Life in Pictures. London, John Murray.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

An awe-inspiring religious ceremony

My childhood was spent believing that Roman Catholics had strange practices and ceremonies that were not part of the right way of worshipping God that we Baptists followed. 1 I broke away from all formal religion as a teenager, but I retained a lack of understanding of the need for highly decorated vestments, gilded surfaces, statues and pictures of The Virgin Mary, Saints and Angels, and of incense. Clearly, all these are important to Catholics, and have a special meaning for them, with the smoke from smouldering incense representing the passage of prayers from Earth to Heaven, or as a symbol of spiritual purification, with the three swings of the censer representing a blessing by The Father, The Son and The Holy Ghost. Of course, the use of incense is not confined to Catholicism within Christianity, and it is used widely in some Eastern religions, but it is this formal use of incense that seems, to an outsider, to be such a feature of Catholic worship. Its smell pervades churches and cathedrals after incense has been used in religious ceremonies. 

Cathedrals were often built on a very grand scale, as impressive structures to honour the magnificence of God. If they are awe-inspiring now, just imagine how they must have appeared to people 600 to 1000 years ago, a time when many great cathedrals were built in Europe to cement the power of Rome and to create the sense of wonder at the importance of the Christian story. One Cathedral continues to hold regular services that are so well-attended that queues form long before the scheduled start and the Cathedral becomes packed, with all seats taken and standing spaces, especially those in the transept and near the crossing, especially sought after. This is the Cathedral at Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain, and it is important as the site where relics of St James the Apostle are kept. It is the finishing point of the Camino (The Way of St. James), an ancient pilgrimage route with several starting points, 2 still popular with both believers and non-believers. Is this why the Cathedral is packed for some services? The answer to this question is partly yes, as the pilgrimage brings so many visitors, but the real reason is that those crowding the cathedral are doing so to see the use of a censer: Il Botafumeiro. It is 1.6 m in height and weighs about 100 kg when loaded with glowing coals, so it is quite different to the average thurible. 


In previous centuries, when the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela was filled with pilgrims, it can be imagined that Il Botafumeiro had a deodorising role, as well as that of the religious symbolism provided by the smoke of the smouldering incense. Originally slung from beams, a mechanical device was mounted high in the crossing during the Renaissance to allow the giant censer to be swung through the transept. The current Il Botafumeiro dates from the mid-nineteenth century and is tied to a rope and operated by a team of men who pull their individual connecting ropes downwards in unison, starting, and maintaining, the swing of the censer. We can see the splendour of the operation, and its accompanying music, in a video clip taken at the time Pope Benedict visited the Cathedral. His Holiness looks a little bemused by it all, while Monsignor Guido Marini, the Papal Master of Ceremonies (standing on Pope Benedict’s left), seems marginally more involved. I wonder what the Holy Father was thinking?


I have made two visits to Santiago de Compostela and, on both occasions, saw Il Botafumeiro in action. On the first occasion, I didn’t know quite what to expect, but found the spectacle to be high theatre and it is this theatre that visitors come to witness. Certainly, I was very keen to attend a second performance. Of course, it has its roots in religious practices, and it must mean a great deal to the devout who attend the ceremony, but the religious symbolism becomes lost in the scale of the entertainment, whatever the protestations of the clergy. After all, Il Botafumeiro, like the Cathedral, was designed to impress and I’m sure that the Baptist believers with whom I grew up would be appalled by it all. Yet their plain chapels can be places of high emotion during the theatre of their services of total immersion baptism, or when evangelical fervour begins to take hold. They are all manifestations of the role of religious ceremonies and perhaps these are as important as beliefs to most who attend.

1 Wotton, Roger S. (2012) Walking with Gosse: Natural History, Creation and Religious Conflicts. Southampton, Clio Publishing.  


Thursday, 18 July 2013

“ is moving peacefully towards its close”

Given the obvious concern of the public, Lord Dawson, physician to King George V, issued a statement on 20th January 1936 stating that: “The King's life is moving peacefully towards its close”. It is a moving and memorable sentence but the peaceful end was not a natural one as, later that day, Dawson administered two injections which effectively killed the King. One was of morphine and the other of cocaine. Dawson took this step to ensure that an announcement of the King’s death could be made in The Times on the following morning, as this would be considered the best way of breaking the news by the Establishment, a powerful presence, then and now, in British society. For King George V, death would bring an end to his suffering with bronchitis and other lung problems associated with years of heavy smoking, and the actions of Lord Dawson remain the highest profile case of euthanasia in the public domain.

Bertrand Dawson was born in 1864 and studied at University College London where he read for a BSc degree before going on to study medicine. One of his most influential teachers was E. Ray Lankester, with whom Dawson took courses in Zoology and Comparative Anatomy in the academic year 1882-3. 1 Lankester had been re-appointed to his post at UCL earlier in 1882, having accepted the Regius Chair of Natural History at the University of Edinburgh, and then rapidly resigned this prestigious position when he realised that he preferred the academic conditions and way of life he enjoyed in London. Lankester was impeccably connected and had the facility to make friends across a wide spectrum - Karl Marx, Anna Pavlova, Sir Henry Wood, Sir Edmund Gosse - and many other leaders of the Establishment of the time. He also had many excellent contacts within science, acquired initially from his father’s network (as we would call it now), but then from his own circle, and he was a man of enthusiasm and presence, unafraid of taking a stand for things be believed in. 2 Lankester must have made a strong impression on Dawson and probably encouraged him in his studies leading to medicine - he was a strong believer in “Medicine and Economic Zoology” - and his ease, and contacts, in Society would also have impressed the young man.

Throughout his life, Lankester preferred to be called a Naturalist, as this “linked him to his father’s friends” like Henfrey, Hooker, Owen and [Philip Henry] Gosse. 3 In contrast to the devout and immovable Christian beliefs of the latter, his view was that “Christianity was a compound of two things; a system of morality approved by the united conscience of civilised man, and a fantastic mythology”. 3 Typical of the man, this difference did not deflect from profound respect for Gosse’s achievements. 4 Lankester died aged 82, on 15th August 1929, during the last years of the reign of King George V and we have a marvellous painting made months before he died. 5  

Gone is the energetic and powerful figure of most of his adult life and the description given by Lester and Bowler of the picture sums up Lankester’s sad condition: 3 “Early in 1929 [or was it late 1928?] Sir William Orpen painted a portrait of Lankester that attracted much attention at the Academy exhibition. Wearing a brown tweed jacket, Lankester holds an open book and reclines on a couch. There is great knowledge and great weariness in the lined face.” The latter sentence would fit equally well to the late self-portraits by Rembrandt and the loss of faculties and the feeling of slipping towards death is something, accidents excepted, that we all face. Artists sum it up so well. 

1 I am grateful to Robert Winckworth of the UCL Records Office for providing this information

3 Lester, J and Bowler, P.J. (1995) E. Ray Lankester and the Making of Modern British Biology. British Society for the History of Science Monograph 9.

4 Gosse, E. (1890) The Naturalist of the Sea-Shore: The Life of Philip Henry Gosse. [Read in the 1896 Edition. London, Heinemann].

5 This image is reproduced courtesy of the Birmingham Museums Trust

Monday, 8 July 2013

Edmund Gosse on an “accidental portrait” of his father

Edmund Gosse wrote Father and Son as “a record of a struggle between two temperaments, two consciences and almost two epochs. It ended, as was inevitable, in disruption.” 1 It was published in 1907, nineteen years after the death of his father, Philip Henry Gosse, and describes the closeness, and then the developing tension, between them. The disruption in their relationship described by Edmund centred on Henry’s immovable and narrow religious beliefs that dominated his life and that of his son, until Edmund broke away. 2

In 1890, Edmund wrote an earlier biography of his father at the request of E. Ray Lankester, who admired Henry’s outstanding work as a Natural Historian, illustrator and populariser of aquaria, microscopes and what might be called the study of Nature (I share Lankester’s admiration). The Naturalist of the Sea-shore: the Life of Philip Henry Gosse included a letter written by Edmund to Ray Lankester in which he declared: “No one who reads this book will require to be told that there were many points of vital importance upon which your convictions and those of the subject of this biography were diametrically opposed. Yet you respected him and he admired you, and of all our friends you were the earliest to urge me to undertake this labour of love.” 3 The opposition between the parties refers to Henry’s deeply-held belief in Creation, as described in the Holy Bible.

The first biography, written when Edmund’s step-mother was still alive (Eliza Gosse contributed to the volume in writing “Reminiscences of my husband from 1860 [when they married] to 1888”) was respectful and did not contain the pent-up negative feelings that Edmund harboured and which were expressed later in Father and Son. In The Naturalist of the Sea-shore: the Life of Philip Henry Gosse, Edmund describes Henry as having a severe appearance, with his black hair brushed back from his “large and massive” face, a strong chin, “tightly compressed lips” and large hazel eyes. “His smile was rare, but when it came it was exquisite”.  The severity was partly the result of Henry’s very serious approach to life (he expected the Second Coming at any moment) and partly from his acute shyness and inability to be at ease in company. There are, of course, photographs of Henry Gosse and the cover of the Penguin edition of Father and Son shows a dual portrait of Henry and Edmund taken shortly after Edmund’s mother had died in 1857 and the little family had moved to Torquay. It was the time when they were at their closest, collecting together on the seashore and with Edmund increasingly involved in the Brethren chapel where Henry was the leader of the congregation. 2 There was much affection between the two as they shared their bereavement and started the process of recovery.

Having described Henry’s appearance in The Naturalist of the Sea-shore: the life of Philip Henry Gosse, Edmund then includes a fascinating footnote: “A very remarkable accidental portrait of my father, as he looked when he was about sixty years of age, exists in the museum at Brussels. Philip [Henry] Gosse might have sat for the man, holding a crimson missal, who kneels in the left-hand wing of the triptych, by Bernard van Orley (No. 40 in the Catalogue), except that the nose is too large and flat. The eyes and mouth, the general form of the face, and the colour of the skin are marvellously identical.” 3 The painting to which Edmund refers is The Haneton Triptych, Haneton being the figure holding the missal, with his seven sons behind him. It is a reverential and highly Catholic work, the wings being on either side of a Pietà, and Edmund would have been very aware of this. Throughout his adult life, Henry Gosse had a strong dislike of Catholicism and being likened to someone holding a missal and gazing on the Pietà would have made him very angry. Of course, we do not know whether Edmund was just drawing our attention to Henry’s likeness in the footnote (13 years after that in the earlier photograph above), or whether he was making an initial foray into the ground covered in Father and Son. I suspect it was the latter and that is why we have to find the work from the clues provided, rather than in an explicit reference.

1 Edmund Gosse (1907) Father and Son reprinted in 1989 in Penguin Twentieth Century Classics. London, Penguin.

2 Roger S. Wotton (2012) Walking with Gosse: Natural History, Creation and Religious Conflicts. Southampton, Clio Publishing.

3 Edmund Gosse (1896) The Naturalist of the Sea-Shore: The Life of Philip Henry Gosse. London, Heinemann [First published in 1890]