Sunday, 6 June 2021

Masks and Masking

With masks and masking being very “in” at the minute, I thought that it was time to revisit the sixteenth century, Shakespeare’s day, in fact. In his play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Flute says to Quince: Nay, faith, let me not play a woman, I have a beard coming, (Act One, Scene II, 43-45) Quince replies That’s all one. You shall play it in a mask. In Shakespeare’s day, masks were not just for actors, it seems. Women wore them generally, especially while out of doors in the summer, to protect their complexions. Ah, I love that. Those Elizabethans were a funny lot, when you think about it. On the one hand, ladies courted poisoning by covering their (indoor) faces in white lead in order to appear pale and beautiful. On the other hand, they were aware of the deleterious effects of the sun on the complexion – but every age has its contradictions and paradoxes. Now, we are masking for another, very serious purpose. Whatever, pay attention to style as you mask - see above!

Thursday, 27 May 2021

Never cast a clout....

As someone who is still wearing her winter woollies at almost the end of May, I have never poured such endorsement upon that old adage. As I write this however, the sunshine pours in the window and I believe we may be seeing the beginning of summer, at last. Whatever, it is interesting to note that summer hasn’t always been the red-hot demon that we have come to experience it as, this past number of years. For example, consider this extract from Titania’s speech to Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain,
As in revenge, have suck'd up from the sea
Contagious fogs; which falling in the land
Have every pelting river made so proud
That they have overborne their continents:
The ox hath therefore stretch'd his yoke in vain,
The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn
Hath rotted ere his youth attain'd a beard;
The fold stands empty in the drowned field,
And crows are fatted with the murrion flock;
The nine men's morris is fill'd up with mud,
And the quaint mazes in the wanton green
For lack of tread are undistinguishable:
The human mortals want their winter here;
No night is now with hymn or carol blest:
Therefore the moon, the governess of floods,
Pale in her anger, washes all the air,
That rheumatic diseases do abound:
And thorough this distemperature we see
The seasons alter:
But do read this speech from Act 2, Scene 1 of the play. Experts believe that Shakespeare and his peers may have been experiencing the rougher end of the Little Ice Age, a period of cooler weather that covered Europe from about the mid-1300’s to the mid-1800’s. It was that time when, in winter, bonfires were lit upon the frozen Thames and skating parties abounded. Great fun, I am sure, but this inclemency extended to cooler, wetter summers. But the sun is still shining and I intend to make my first salad of the season. And my winter jackets, etc, may find their way to the back of the wardrobe, after all.

Friday, 30 April 2021

Finding a slice of the cheese market.

Almost exactly eight years’ ago, I reported on a Guardian editorial (April 20, 2013) that explored the possibility of building a British, cheese-based economy. On churning over the matter, I lauded the idea as a good one. I wrote the following:
“There is so much already in place (in Britain); the land, the rainfall, the herds, the people, and cheese districts like Stilton and Cheddar. What is more, our grazing pastures and herds of cattle cannot be salted off abroad. This is in contrast to the manufacturing sector where moneymaking enterprises are routinely carted to faraway places. Another plus is that agri-businesses can be distributed throughout Blighty in ways that compartmentalised sectors like finance cannot. Just think of young people flocking to courses in stock husbandry, dairy culture, nutrition, cheese cuisine, marketing, branding, advertising – OK. We got those already, but this would be marketing with a twist – a cheesy twist, you might say. And just think of the spin-offs; the mountains of crackers and biscuits, the olives and bottles of wine, the cheese tastings and fondue parties – we might even knock the Swiss off their mountain perch. So, how about milking this idea for all it is worth, leaders? My mouth is watering already!”
Well, what goes around comes around and a few days ago, the same newspaper reported that the cheese business is booming, yes, booming, thanks to a number of factors, the lockdown included. And with it, the attendant rise in cheese futures' investment. At production level, well done to those of you who found a slice of the cheese market. The remainder of us will go on maturing for a while, yet.

Friday, 23 April 2021

The rise and rise of the hybrid word

In recent times, I have been compiling my own register of hybrid words, chief among usage being “frexhaustion” (frustration + exhaustion) and “vexhaustion” (just guess). Previously, I created “mizzly” (miserable + drizzly) to describe that sort of day. And “melding” (melting + blending) is a very useful word when describing oil paints on canvas, with particular reference to the sunsets of JMW Turner. However, I involuntarily clench my jaws and grind my teeth to the sound of “glampers”, redolent of a hormonal disorder, and “staycationers” which brings to mind a chain of questionable stationers. And “chillaxing” so beloved of politicians a decade ago, conjures an image of an ice monster gone mad with an axe! I have tried consoling myself with the knowledge that many words we use colloquially today began life as hybrids, e.g., “brunch” (breakfast + lunch), “glitzy” (glamorous + ritzy) and “twittering” (talking + wittering). But somehow, it all feels horribly wrong. Melding, brunch and twittering are made of two words spliced together to describe similar activities or things. The resulting hybrid is all the stronger for it. On the other hands, “glamper” and “staycationer” are oxymorons, the adjective/noun pairs in contradiction with each other. These hybrids have a ring of bitter irony, of someone torn between being very clever or very funny, and not really succeeding in either aim. It remains to be seen whether such words die the death they deserve, or if they creep into our dictionaries, like lice into woodwork. If the latter happens, it wont be long before a good book becomes a “gook”, going “clubbing” is synonymous with beginning the cleaning and scrubbing, and a poor tourist is reborn as a “poorist”. Truly, we need a force of word police.

Saturday, 10 April 2021

More Precious Than Gold


As a creature of the Seventies’, I have always had a thing for the colour purple. Even in the middle of the finest summer, I loved getting out of toxic sunlight and into the dark heart of a boutique, pulsating strobe lighting and rock music by turns, and finding that perfect purple handbag, preferably made of suede and alive with fringing. Or a jacket of aubergine wet-look plastic. Or a pair of purple wedgies to match either accessory – ah! What’s not to love? In the longer term, it came as a surprise to learn that purple dye, as we know it, came not from the imagination of a hyper-aware hippy, but from the laboratory of one William Henry Perkin. In the mid-nineteenth century, h
e was trying to synthesize the malaria drug, quinine, normally extractable from the bark of the exotic cinchona tree, in a glass flask. But the experiment failed and the only result was a black solid. Perkin tried to clean out his flask with alcohol, and it was the resulting solution that gave the world mauveine, or synthetic mauve. With it, a whole new Victorian cult of purple was born. The fashion for purple has waxed and waned ever since. It became very  popular in the 1970s, being regarded by the 'new agers' of the time because of its associations with higher consciousness. 

Throughout the ages, purple has always been a special colour, associated with magic, mystery and royalty. In antiquity, writers like Democritus (c. 460 - 370 BC) believed that the colour resulted from the harmony of the four elements the ancients believed the world was made from; earth, air, fire and water. By Roman times, the wearing of purple had become a royal prerogative, a colour reserved for the highest officers in the state in the form of a purple and gold robe. By the time of Diocletian (244 - 311 AD), it had come to be exclusively associated with the Emperor. For anyone else to wear it was tantamount to treason. Until the Middle Ages, purple had connotations of magic. In William Shakespeare's play, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Oberon describes the flower as 'purple with love's wound'. One reason for the cult of purple may have been the expense involved in its manufacture.

Tyrian purple had been manufactured from the shells of sea-molluscs by the Phonecians, from about 1500 to 300 BC. For many centuries, the closest the common people got to the wearing of purple was from a blue dye, approximating to indigo, obtained from the woad plant. But unlike magnificent Tyrian purple, it faded easily. Modern optical physics was born in 1704 when Sir Isaac Newton published his book, Opticks. As early as 1665, Newton had 'bent' light rays from the sun by passing them through a glass prism, and producing the spectrum of colours that we call the rainbow; red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. At one end of the spectrum  violet light waves approximate to 400 nanometres in length. At the other end, red light waves approximate to 760 nanometres, with the remaining colours in between. Violet waves are shorter and high-frequency, while red waves are longer and low-frequency. What we call ultra-violet is a wave higher in frequency than the violet we can see, and therefore not visible to our eyes. It is this high-frequency quality at the violet end of the spectrum that gives us the abundance of 'blues' in nature - and turquoise, ultramarine, mauve, mulberry - in contrast to relatively few reds and yellows.
Until William Henry Perkin's time, other purple dyes had been available but these were unstable and unsuited to mass manufacture. Following Perkin's discovery, the Victorians went purple crazy. In Bleak House by Charles Dickens, Mr Guppy wears a pair of mauve kid gloves as he proposes to Esther Summerson. Today, I am in possession of purple sheets, towels, blouses, t-shirts, skirts, undies and yes, a purple handbag. Wherever and whatever, long may purple last. 

Sunday, 7 March 2021

Perseverance and Curiosity


Now that Perseverance is beaming back Earth-like pictures of Martian landscapes, the age-old question raises its head: could man and woman ever go there? The answer is, very definitely yes. The next question is: could man colonize Mars? Again, the answer is positive: it is perfectly possible. There are a number of practical challenges to overcome first, however. There are differences between Earth and Mars, but also a number of similarities. The Red Planet, so-called because the abundance of iron oxide or haematite on its surface gives off a reddish light in space, has polar ice caps. It spins on a single axis and there are roughly twenty-four hours in its day. Mars has Earth-like seasons and in addition to iron oxide, the planet surface is abundant in minerals like magnesium, sodium, potassium and chlorine, all essential for plant growth.

Phobos and Deimos

However, liquid water cannot exist on its surface. This is explained partly by the low atmospheric density, due to a weak gravitational pull. Mars has only about half the diameter of Earth, but only marginally less surface area. However, the 'mass' of the planet is much less dense, which accounts for the low gravity. The planet core is made of iron, also magnesium, calcium, silicon and oxygen. Unlike Earth, Mars does not have a polar magnetic field. Scientists believe that the two Martian moons, Phobos and Deimos, are "captured' asteroids, and they do not have the stabilising effect on the spin of the planet that the moon has upon Earth. Because Mars is further from the sun, a Martian year is 687 days, nearly twice as long as an Earth year. By implication, Martian seasons are twice as long as ours. The Martian environment is not a friendly one, its average surface temperature being minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Its atmosphere is 95% carbon dioxide while that of Earth has only 0.039% carbon dioxide and 21% oxygen. In preparation for the human colonisation of Mars, seeds and organic matter would have to be transported from Earth to begin growing plants and establishing a food supply.

Super-sized Bees and Mars Bars

An unmanned mission could utilise Perseverance-type vehicles to drill for water in the subsurface aquifers that scientists believe are there, and channel it to 'growing hubs' or 'growing bubbles' or 'grubbles', where plants could grow. Again, an unmanned mission could construct these. The grubbles would have transparent walls to let in light and activate photosynthesis. The walls would also serve to contain respired water. Condensation would trickle down the grubble walls and into collection channels. The 'rain' would be recycled for watering. Plants need pollinators as well as water, and the best pollinator on Earth is the humble bee - and entire hives would be transported to Mars. Once there, the insects would be let loose among the grubble-bound plants. However, without natural predators, they could grow very large, indeed.

The scientists who initially colonise Mars could find themselves having to deal with super-sized bees. However, all kinds of other, interesting things will be happening. When the scientists have established a food supply within the grubbles, they can experiment with growing them in a pure Martian environment. By now, road building will have been established and scientists can travel to and from work in cute little Martian buggies. At weekends, they will go on excursions up mountains and down into valleys. Slowly, automated building machines will establish a network of small settlements. For relaxation, there will be the public house - the Mars Bar?

Martian Arts

There are still problems to overcome, for example, the infamous Martian "dust devils", dust storms that begin when Martian weather is at its hottest. There are also the seasonal "wobbles" to which Mars is prone. Just as on Earth, life will not be perfect. Earthlings are bound to deal with earthquakes and volcanoes, tornados and hurricanes - and this on the one-tenth of the Earth's surface that is actually habitable. Yet, seven billion of us live to tell the tale. Over time, science will settle into the background of life on Mars. Humanity will assert itself and children will be born. These Martians will be like any immigrants to a New World, defensive of their roots, but full of the hubris of having been among the first people born on Mars. They will be creative, establishing a body of Martian art and music, literature and philosophy.

Overcoming Challenges - Opening Possibilities

There will be other challenges to overcome, for instance, the effect on the human body of living in a field of lower gravity. But these are already issues for astronauts living on the International Space Station. There will be grumbles from conservationists about how human activity is going to change the face of Mars. Yes, this could happen, but we must not forget that early plant life changed the oxygen ratio in the Earth's atmosphere, completely. Right now, we ought to welcome the challenges that colonising another planet will bring. The more challenges that we overcome now, the more prepared we will be for moving out of our solar system (comfort zone?) and into the grand, cosmic adventure that is ahead of us.

Saturday, 20 February 2021

Alchemy and the Canterbury Tales


Still on matters medieval, my thoughts have turned in recent times to the subject of alchemy. To the majority, the word “alchemist” conjures up the image of a scholarly person in a cap and gown imprinted with cosmic symbols, waving a wand and mumbling jumbo over a variety of everyday substances, in the hope that one of them at least, would transform into shining, yellow gold – aaah, if only! To throw light on the subject, I enter into
The Canterbury Tales, that epic work by Geoffrey Chaucer, structured about a group of travellers on a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral. Every night as they sit about the fire of whatever inn they stay in, one of the group tells a tale to the others. The entire gamut of medieval professions is represented by the characters present; a Knight, Miller, Reeve, Shipman, Physician and so on,

In one instance, Chaucer recounts the tale of the Canon and the Yeoman, who enter into a dialogue about the secret craft that they practise. The Host asks the Yeoman why, if his master (the Canon) is truly so sagacious, then why is he, the Canon, dressed in gaberdine that is hardly worth a mite, torn to bits and isn't even clean. The Yeoman hints darkly that what the Canon works at can never be successful. The Canon, he tells them, is clever enough to understand his esoteric craft, but does not know enough to make it succeed. The Yeoman doesn't want to say any more, but the Host slowly teases more details out of him.

Presently, the Yeoman warns the gathered company against the debt, despair and ruin that practising the craft has brought them. He names the substances we worked upon, among them silver, orpiment, burnt bones and iron filings, ground into finest powder and poured into an earthen pot, followed by salt and pepper, and covered by a sheet of glass. At this point, I wondered if Chaucer were not indulging in a medieval leg-pull, rather than rendering an authentic account of the chemistry of the time. Tradition has it that he himself had sometime practised the "esoteric craft", in addition to being a poet, soldier, knight and Justice of the Peace.

The odder substances mentioned by the Yeoman, the least of which are the salt and pepper, are likely thrown in by Chaucer for comic effect - or just to trip up would-be practitioners with. After all, if Chaucer really did know "the secret", he was hardly going to give it away. No matter his agenda, there is enough evidence to demonstrate that the fourteenth-century alchemist was actually a proto chemist. For example, the Canon's Yeoman lists orpiment among his roll-call of substances.

Orpiment, or sulphide of arsenic, made a beautiful yellow paint in illuminated manuscripts, but
it is too poisonous for contemporary use. As the Middle Ages ran into the Renaissance, trade rather than alchemy, became the fount of wealth. Out of the crucible of persecution and superstition, the modern chemist, distinct from the miscreant and the mystic, was born. However, I suspect that even the earnest, hard-working, proto chemist of Chaucer’s imagination toiled with gold pieces rather than the betterment of mankind, prominent in his imagination? Whatever, I do urge you to read the wonderful snapshot of medieval England that is The Canterbury Tales.