[Review] 'The Best Man'

Some things never change. American elections, for example, as this near 60-year-old play about two candidates slugging it out for the American presidency demonstrates. The writing is wise, waspish and insider-ish. Just what you’d expect from the acidic Gore Vidal. Martin Shaw plays William Russell, the principled Secretary running for President at the 1960 Democratic Convention. His trouble is that he can’t keep his trousers on (just like John F Kennedy), and he’s had a mental breakdown the press doesn’t know about.
[Honeysuckle Weeks, Maureen Lipman, Glynis Barber]
His brash rival is Senator Cantwell (played by Jeff Fahey, all teeth and Brylcreem), an unscrupulous Southerner, a family man who 'pours God over everything like ketchup' and who has his own skeletons rattling in the closet.

In Cantwell you hear the chest-thumping of Trump. He’ll use any dirty trick to smear his opponent. But will the more noble Russell hit back with what he knows?

Hobbling between the two candidates is Wycliffe star Jack Shepherd as the lame old President, oozing mortality from every pore.

As the matriarchal representative of 'the women voters', Maureen Lipman casts a beady eye about like an escaped goose. She's great value, though sadly she waddles off for good after livening up Act One.

There are also fine performances from Honeysuckle Weeks, as the shallow chatterbox Mrs Cantwell, and from Glynis Barber, whose loyal public poise hides a decayed but fond marriage to the philandering Russell. The action is all set in a hotel suite and the raucous press gaggle outside the door is reminiscent of that lovely old screwball newspaper comedy The Front Page.

Dated it may be, yet 'The Best Man' is also a real crystal ball of a play, predicting the total moral debasement of today’s political climate. Very well acted, it’s recommended if witty, astute old Broadway plays are your thing.

Honeysuckle Weeks on 'Foyle's War'

'Foyle’s War', the absorbing detective drama starring Michael Kitchen as a Detective Chief Superintendent (DCS) battling crime, the Axis and the odd English traitor on the home front during World War II. And there’s always an absorbing whodunit (or mad bomber or rogue pilot or warped priest) and a psychological twist to keep things interesting. But the best thing about the show isn’t always Foyle or the great plots - it’s his female driver Samantha Stewart. She’s tough without being stony. Righteous without being preachy. Girly without being frilly.

Honeysuckle Weeks was the actress who played Sam and she gave her thoughts on some aspects of the series.
She started off the show as quite a young person, and I’ve tried to keep that youthful essence as the show has progressed over the last seven years; partly because that is part of her appeal as a character, but also because I instinctively feel that people living during that time had a greater degree of innocence. The war has its effects on her of course, especially in her relationships with men, but it’s her spirit of ploughing on and making do and grace under fire that shines through more than world-weariness, I would say. She brings relief from some of the plot’s darker aspects by being resolutely cheerful, which is great fun to play. During the first season one could say she has more pluck than sense, but as the series progresses she gradually becomes less of a spanner in the works and more of a cog in the engine, so to speak. She has a stoical attitude to adversity and puts the idea of ‘duty’ before self, and this I think informs all the characters in 'Foyle’s War', a selfless attitude which perhaps we’d do better to hold onto today!

My favorite episode is probably 'Among the Few,' which is largely to do with doctors in a hospital that specializes in treating burns victims. It sounds grim, but in fact it’s an incredibly uplifting episode because of the moving relationships that are built up between doctor or nurse and patient, and the bravery of the men who struggle on through life even though their bodies and faces are destroyed. It’s about the heartache of the sweethearts who have to come to terms with the disfigurement of their pilots, and the carousing spirit of the staff who try to improve the lot of their heroic wards. In short, it’s an episode that I think champions all that is best in the human spirit. Oh... and of course, there’s a gripping murder case with lots of explosions and spitfire aerodynamics on the side. It’s also exquisitely shot. Source here.

The first episode of 'Foyle's War' was aired in 2002. The series was canceled after the fifth season (2008), but was revived in 2010 to run for another three years. A total of 28 episodes were created by screenwriter and author Anthony Horowitz.

Will there ever by another unexpected revival of 'Foyle's War'? Anthony Horowitz said “It had to come to an end sometime. We went from 1940 all the way through to 1947 – and I told countless true stories about the war. I felt that there were no more true stories to tell about that period, I’d sort of covered pretty much every area”.

He's wrong of course, because 1947 was essentially the start of the Cold War and that tense period could produce some very interesting scripts.

Since Michael Kitchen will turn 70 in 2018, he will probably not be particularly interested to participate. That said, we could contemplate a structure like 'Morse' morphing into 'Lewis' and 'Lewis' hanging into 'Endeavour'.

So, 'Foyle's War' could become 'Stewart's Peace' with Honeysuckle Weeks in the starring role. She confessed to me that the prospect was 'most cockle warming'.

[Review] 'The Blood' by ES Thomson

These days, the Thames is a relatively clean, if somewhat murky and muddy, river slowly meandering towards the North Sea. In the early Victorian Era, the Thames was an open sewer, stinking and polluted. Bodies, both animal and human, were regularly dumped in its waters. The London fog was at times so think that it invited people to whisper and candle light wasn't able to penetrate the darkness.

Moored on the Thames was 'The Blood', a hospital ship avant la lettre. Like the river itself, 'The Blood' is a place for dying, not for healing.

'The Blood' is the third adventure of the intrepid couple, Jem Flockhart, apothecary, and Will Quartermain, architect. They are summoned to 'The Blood' by an old friend, John Aberlady. But, just as they arrive, Aberlady jumps to his death, driven by fear and poison. Why ask for help and then die at that precise moment?

Corpses start to turn up at an alarming rate. The deaths seem somehow related, but it takes a lot of blood, sweat and tears to finally discover the solution.

Eliane Thomson gives us a real vivid sense of what life on the waterfront of the Thames was in those days. The closer one lived to the river, the cheaper the rates of 'services rendered' would become. Living on the divide of water and land was living on the edge. The Victorian Era, with all its prejudices of women in medical professions, was not a glamourous one. It was a time of invention and progress, but not many benefited from these. Some even fell victim to them.

I wish I could somehow convey the sense of urgency that slithers though the novel. 'The Blood' is a mystery you need to read.

The evolution of the sweet potato

While some argue that the presence of the sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) in Polynesia is proof of early communication between America and Polynesia, a new study suggests the sweet potato seeds simply have floated across the vast Pacific Ocean[1].
The research reveals that the sweet potato evolved just once, probably in central or northern South America, and originated from a single ancestor.

To delve into the sweet potato’s past, scientists analysed genetic material from almost 200 specimens of the plant and its 14 closest related wild species to reconstruct a family tree.

The results suggest that the sweet potato is more closely related to one wild species, known as cotton morningglory (Ipomoea trifida), distributed around the Caribbean, than any other, suggesting that both evolved from a common ancestor.
[Sweet potato and 5 closely related species: A: Ipomoea batatas, B: I. trifida, C: I. triloba,
D: I. ramosissima, E: I. cordatotriloba (South America), F: I. leucantha]

The team adds that this branch in the family tree occured some 800,000 years ago. Moreover, the analysis suggests the sweet potato interbred with the cotton morningglory at some point within 56,000 years of the two species evolving from their common ancestor.

While some have suggested that the plant’s presence points to communication between inhabitants of the two regions, the latest study suggests it is more likely that seeds of the sweet potato simply floated across the Pacific on sea currents.

A wild relative of the sweet potato found in Polynesia, but not America, appears to have split from American species more than a million years ago – ruling out human transport. The seed pods of this plant, the authors note, are very similar to those of sweet potatoes, suggesting that it, too, could have travelled around the world on the waves.

The evidence, so conclude the scientists, against human-mediated transport of the sweet potato to Polynesia is, therefore, extremely strong.

[1] Muñoz-Rodríguez et al: Reconciling Conflicting Phylogenies in the Origin of Sweet Potato and Dispersal to Polynesia in Current Biology – 2018

[Short story] 'Kissing the Shuttle' by E.S. Thomson

For 200 years, Stanley Mills used the power of the River Tay. Its workers, many of them women, endured long hours and dangerous conditions. And it wasn’t only the machinery that they had to fear.
When I was six years old my father showed me the tunnel cut through the rock. ‘Your great grandfather built this,’ he said. ‘He spoke only the language of the islands, but he knew what was being asked of him when they put a shovel in his hand and sent him down into the earth.’ I watched the water racing out of the dark hole. It was black – not clear, like water should be – black and cold as the ground it had surged through. ‘Black with the souls of the men who died digging it,’ my father used to say, ‘and as cold as Mackenzie’s heart. There’s never been a foreman at Stanley as cold and hard as John Mackenzie.’ By the time I was 17 my father’s hatred had solidified into something as unyielding as the stones on the hillside, and as capricious as the river.

From the foot of the brae, at the gate to the mills, we could watch the Tay rushing past. Unstoppable, slate grey, tumbling around the peninsula as the land fell away, swollen with the rain that poured from the skies and the water that drained off the land. By the time it reached us at Stanley, it had coursed all the way from the southern Highlands, through the lochs and glens some of us had once called home, and it raced and boiled as though filled with all the rage and sorrow of those lands. A narrow curving weir, built out into the flood, scooped up an armful of the Tay and hurled it into the tunnel my great grandfather and his fellow workers had sliced through the rock.

As my father and I walked across the yard from the workshops, we heard Mr Mackenzie telling the factory inspector about it as they stood outside the Mid Mill. My father made me stop, and pretended to adjust the burden I carried so that he might listen.

‘Yes,’ said Mr Mackenzie, ‘the Duke of Atholl dug the tunnel right through from the falls up at Campsie Linn – brick-lined all the way. The Tay drops 21 feet as it passes around the headland. The waters are harnessed to power the wheels that drive the mills here at Stanley.’

‘The Duke of Atholl didn’t dig anything,’ said my father.

Fortunately Mr Mackenzie didn’t hear. The inspector looked uninterested. It was the buildings that concerned him, the buildings and the machines inside, not the mill lades and the river – though we would not have one without the other. He blew a breath into the wintry air and watched it bloom before him.

‘Does it freeze?’ he said. ‘The mill lade? What happens then?’

‘Sometimes it does,’ said Mr Mackenzie. He shrugged.

‘Then we go curling on it.’

The water in the lades was as smooth as a mourning band by the time it reached the mills, a shining ribbon of silk tamed by the flat bottom of its brick-lined bed as it curved behind the low buildings of the North Range. Giant black cogs and studded wooden gates drew it to a halt before the wheel pits. Sometimes, in the summer, we saw the silver flash of a trapped trout glistening in the dark pool at the sluice gates. My father caught one once. He killed it with a stone. It was a pale and fleshy thing in his hands, a reminder of what happened up at the top of the Mid Mill. I had to look away. The lades passed under the road and into the wheel pits – two beside the Bell Mill and two beside the East Mill. A boy died down in the water, right beneath the windows where I worked, crushed and drowned while helping to fix a broken bucket on the East Mill’s wheel.

‘Should’ve been Mackenzie,’ my father had said. ‘It was him who sent the lad down there. For two pins I’d hold him under the water.’

‘Jenny McRae said John Mackenzie was in Glasgow all week,’ I’d said. ‘He didn’t send Tom Rennie into the wheel pit, it was Tom Rennie’s da’ –.’

‘Should’ve been Mackenzie. He’s the foreman. He’s responsible. Should be him drowned down there.’ He’d not looked at me. ‘Jenny McRae said so, did she? Well, well.’
I’d thought of Mr Mackenzie drowned and floating face down as the wheels turned above him, his head pulped by the blows of the metal-edged buckets. Perhaps things would be better if he was dead – my father seemed to think so. I’d peeped into the wheel pits. It was hard to imagine that they had not always been there, those great curving slopes of wet stone, slime-green and slippery, dripping and dark as the giant wooden blades that swept over them. They drove the gears that worked the machines crammed into the hulking buildings – including those that my father tended, for he was over-looker to Nearly 100 looms on the top floor of the Mid Mill. Two of those looms were mine, and I worked them every day from half past five in the morning until seven at night. Five floors beneath our feet the water ran and ran. I could feel its power and fury in the thrum of the belts that drove the shuttles on our looms back and forth with a vicious clack and rattle. After that, it escaped beneath the mill and back into the Tay. But I could never escape. Not from him. None of us could.

The Mid Mill was only recently re-opened. Destroyed by fire – as is often the case with mills, so my father said – it had taken two years to put it right again, though Mr Buchanan, the owner, said it would take more than a few flames to put him out of business. Mr Mackenzie insisted that a water tank be fitted on the roof of the Bell Mill, the building that ran adjacent to ours, so that fires could be attended to quickly and efficiently with the necessary resources to hand. I heard him laughing with the inspector about it.

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘despite the greatest river in the kingdom flowing right around our ankles, it seems that a good part of the Mid Mill still managed to burn down.’ My father heard him too. ‘I doubt whether Isobel Douglas and Jean Reid are laughing, for they both lost sons to the blaze,’ and he scowled at Mr Mackenzie, who didn’t notice as he was pointing to the new brickbuilt water tank. The factory inspector shaded his eyes as he peered up, and then dropped his gaze to watch the wheels turning. I could tell at a glance that they were running sluggish. It had been raining for days and there was every likelihood that the river would back right up into the wheel pits and prevent the wheels from turning altogether. The inspector, who had no doubt seen hundreds of water wheels, seemed to be thinking the same. ‘How many days’ production do you lose a year?’ he asked. ‘It varies,’ said Mr Mackenzie. ‘Sometimes 30, sometimes 50.’

‘Unfortunate,’ said the inspector.

‘For who?’ muttered my father. ‘It makes a change to get a day off.’

‘But we get don’t paid when the water stops the mills,’ I said.

‘Hm,’ said my father. ‘No doubt we have Mackenzie to thank for that state of affairs too.’

In fact, I’d heard that Mr Mackenzie had told Mr Buchanan that we should be paid when the wheels wouldn’t turn, as it was hardly our fault if the rain came down and the Tay rose up, and it was no less than Mr Dale or Mr Owen would have done when they’d run the place, no matter how long ago that was. I opened my mouth to say as much – but Mr Mackenzie caught my eye, and I closed it again.

‘Well, well, Tam McGregor,’ he addressed my father. ‘Don’t you have work to do? Take that stuff inside.’ He never said much – not to my father, at least. My father said it was because John Mackenzie didn’t have the courage for a fight. It seemed to me that it was probably because my father only sneered at Mr Mackenzie when he was out of earshot. I’m twice the man he is, he used to say to anyone who would listen – apart from Mr Mackenzie himself. If I’d had his opportunities, his luck, I’d be something better than a miserable foreman like him. Now, he tugged his cap, his face stony at so public a rebuke, and stalked into our building. Resentment seemed to boil inside him like hot treacle whether Mr Mackenzie spoke to him or not. The McGregors had always been weavers, he had often told me, though not in big places like Stanley. He said weavers were once respectable people, skilled people with money and status, not children and barely competent young women like me. But that was before the mills came. Before men like Mackenzie, whose only talent, he said, was ordering people about.

Mr Mackenzie took the factory inspector by the elbow and led him away, his head bent towards the other man’s ear, his hand over his mouth. Even though we were outside, the noise of the place filled the air with a constant clatter. They were now too far away to overhear, but I saw him glance at my father. Perhaps he was saying that he had not been the same since my mother had left. That had been years ago now.

‘Come along then, Annie!’ my father cried. ‘Don’t stand there gawkin’!’

I followed him inside.

Our building – the Mid Mill – was built along the riverbank, and was as tall and wide as a barracks. Our closeness to the water kept everything damp, which was good for the cotton, though in summer the sun blasted its southern face, so that the rooms with the carding engines and the spinning machines were raging hot, and we had to open the windows wide to catch any breeze. The north side lay in perpetual shadow. At the base of the mill, the wheels turned in their dark and shaded pits. Above them row upon row of windows stared in blank indifference. No one looked out. The windows were there to let the light in or the heat out, not to allow our gazes to stray from our work. In the roof, the line of north lights that ran from east to west told where we toiled over our looms, beneath bright but sunless skies so that we might easily see any imperfections in the cloth. My father fixed the looms and kept them running smoothly. There were others housed in low sheds behind the East Mill, but I was not lucky enough to work there.

Within, the noise of the place was like a blow to the head. When I had first started work as a weaver, when I was 10 years old, I thought it might be possible to touch the sound with my fingers, for it had felt like a physical, tangible presence. But I had got used to it quickly enough, and now I hardly noticed the air trembling and the walls ringing with the din of wheels and gears turning belts and shafts, and machines rumbling and rattling. Once, years ago, Elspeth McInnes got her hair caught in the shuttle. A great bloody hank of her scalp and hair was torn out, though we didn’t hear her screams because of the noise. At Stanley Mills, on the weaving floor, no one’s screams could be heard.

We were allowed home for lunch – we could not take our piece and jam at our machines – and then streamed back to work, down the brae from the village and into the mills. I ran up the stairs with the other girls. My father would already be at the door, where he stationed himself every morning and every afternoon, watching the women file in after breakfast or lunch, noting which of them was the last to arrive. He treated me no differently, and he took me away from my machines the same as he took anyone else. When the others realised this, they had looked at me pityingly, though they said nothing. Now, we hung up our bonnets and stood before our looms. I saw that Jeanie Gilchrist was late again. He’d make her pay for it – but only when Mr Mackenzie wasn’t looking. And yet perhaps she would not suffer today, for had I not been with him when Mr Mackenzie had told him to get back to work? I had heard the reproach and I had seen my father’s face as it was uttered – though it was no less than he deserved. I knew him better than anyone, and I knew how he would slake his sense of inferiority, and his anger, and I felt my stomach knot inside me at the thought.

Later, on the way back from the privy, I met Mr Mackenzie on the stairs. This time he was alone.

‘How are you keeping, Annie McGregor?’ he said. His voice was mild and soft. Even though there was no one around to listen to us he brought his face as close as a lover’s to my ear so that I might hear him above the noise. And yet he had no need to do so, for I could read his lips well enough. We all could read lips, there was no conversation to be had otherwise.

‘I’m very well, sir,’ I said.

‘Are you crying, child?’

I said I was not, that it was just the air full of cotton dust that made my eyes water. He nodded. ‘I think you have just come from your father,’ he said.

‘No,’ I replied, perhaps a little too quickly, for he smiled grimly and said ‘No?’ in a questioning way, as if he didn’t believe me. He offered me his handkerchief.

‘It was made a long way from here,’ he said. ‘I’m afraid we produce nothing so fine at Stanley.’

But we were paid by the piece and I had already been away from my looms for too long.

‘Mr Mackenzie,’ I said, using the backs of my hands rather than his handkerchief to wipe my eyes, ‘please let me get back.’

‘You tell that father of yours I’m watching him,’ he said, suddenly stern.

‘Yes, Mr Mackenzie,’ I said. But I knew I would say no such thing, for no one could be watched all the time.

The Mills were constantly changing. My father said that when he was a boy there had been only one water wheel. Now there were four. Some years earlier, when he had taken over the place, Mr Buchanan had ordered a North Mill to be built, enclosing the wheel pits and the gas works in a dark cramped square bounded on all sides by the tall mill buildings. Not 10 years later he had torn the North Mill down, so that only stumps of stone jutting from the East Mill told where it had once stood. The lades were always needing repairs, for the winter weather caused cracks to appear and the stonework to rupture. The flues that heated the buildings, drawing hot air upwards from fireplaces in the lowest levels of the mills, had to be maintained too; and the bearings in the wheel pits replaced whenever they became worn and caused the wheels to shift. That winter, the stonework in the pit beside the Bell Mill had shattered due to the force of the water and the constant turning motion, and it had thrown the wheel off-kilter. The grinding of it against the masonry was terrible to hear, and the broken stones were to be replaced with wood. I heard Mr Mackenzie complain about the size of the task and the difficulty of working in the slippery wheel pits in the cold weather, but it could not be helped. Other jobs were to be tackled at the same time – one of the flues in the north wall of the Mid Mill needed work. It had been blocked off years ago at the top, and the fireplace at the bottom bricked up. But the old flue had become prone to damp, and a great dark patch had appeared on the plasterwork near the looms. Now, workmen had torn a hole in the wall revealing part of the flue behind the brickwork. Its blackened lining was exposed against the whitewash on the weaving floor like a dark and angry sore. My father complained that it wouldn’t do to have a great sooty hole like that beside a working loom, even though Mr Mackenzie said he would cover the hole with canvas sheeting, and promised to seal it up as soon as the work was done. ‘It won’t take longer than a day, two at the most,’ he said.

‘Smoke smuts won’t come out at the bleach works,’ said my father.

‘Then stop the looms,’ replied Mr Mackenzie. ‘Stop these ones close by and cover them up.’

‘But the women are paid by the piece,’ said my father. ‘They will have nothing for two days.’

‘That cannot be helped,’ said Mr Mackenzie, in front of all the women. ‘They can thank you for the stoppage. And I’ll thank you to remember who’s the foreman, Tam McGregor, for it isn’t you.’

My father halted the looms, as he had been instructed, and went about his business with a furious face. Those girls whose machines were silent found other work about the mill that day, and they smiled as they left for the weaving sheds beyond the East Mill. My father’s knuckles turned white as he gripped his hammer. The stoppage of half a dozen looms near to the open flue made no difference at all to the din of the room, and the roar and clatter of the place seemed to burl and buffet us, as if we were surrounded by the whirling fury of his rage and resentment. There was plenty for my father to do. Two of the looms kept sticking, and a third needed its reeds replaced. The leather straps on some of the older machines were in a poor state of repair, worn and soft-looking as they thwacked the shuttle back and forth, and he had promised to replace them weeks ago. One of the stopped looms had been troublesome for a while, and he might just as well have opened it up while he had the chance and fixed that too – but he didn’t. Instead, he watched the men working on the flue, shaking his head as they made the hole even bigger to allow them to re-block the chimney, and in no time at all it was as wide as a fireplace and as tall as a man. When they disappeared down to the workshops to get some new bricks to block up the hole, he went over and jabbed at their work, loosening what they had done so that some of it fell out and spilled all over the floor. He took to pacing amongst us, then, criticising our work and stopping machines here and there on the most flimsy of pretexts, making us wait while he pretended to fix something, before starting our machines up again. And all the while I saw his lips muttering and cursing. We kept our eyes on our work as he stalked up and down, for we knew what was coming.

He chose Mary Golspie that day – the youngest at only 15 years old – and he took her, as he always did, into the store room that overlooked the wheel pits in the shadowy corner of the East and Mid Mills. Not two months ago they had found a body down there, floating in the water, for the river was so high in December that the corpse had not drifted out beneath the building into the Tay. It was Mary Golspie’s older sister. Mr Mackenzie had told the Fiscal and her family that she must have slipped, and banged her head as she fell, making it impossible for her to cry out, for she was no doubt dead before she even hit the water. He said she had surely died quickly, and without pain. He said this so that she might be buried properly, and with dignity, but all of us in the weaving room knew what had really happened. We all knew that Jane had worked alongside Mary, that she had been a pretty girl, that both her parents were dead, and that she had been one of my father’s favourites. We also knew that she had killed herself in fear and desperation at my father’s tyranny. John Mackenzie knew it too, I was sure, though he said nothing.

At first my father used to make excuses – some fault or other in the mechanism of the loom that needed it to be stopped, and then he would take the girl into the store room to find ‘a spare part’. If a girl objected, then he took her anyway, but he would let her machine run and run until the thread broke and the weave was spoiled, and so she took twice as long to catch up once she came back. Flora Campbell had resisted him forcefully at first, and had almost lost her job because of it. But every one of us needed to work, and there seemed nothing we could do to stop him. Latterly, he had given up stopping our looms, finding us more compliant if we were threatened with the destruction of our work and the fouling of the loom – a situation that we alone would be blamed for. We lived and worked in fear of him, and he knew it.

And so he took us away; whoever he wanted, whenever he wished. No one could hear what happened in the store room, half-hidden amongst bales of cotton. The roar of the machines blotted out all cries, and we were deaf to anything but the crack of a hundred shuttles being smacked through the warp, the turning of the drive belts and the quick, rhythmic lift-and-drop-and-lift-and-drop-and-lift-and-drop of the loom reeds. But we knew what he did. All of us knew. We knew that he would stuff the girl’s mouth with a piece of fabric woven on one of our own looms; that he would bind her hands with a strip of cotton. And if we complained? No one would listen – we were women, after all, and of little value to anyone if we did not keep up our work. Besides, none of us ever got pregnant, that was not his way, he was far too clever – and far too brutal – for that.

The others looked down at their work, their faces impassive, as Mary was led away. The girls nearest to me looked over to catch my eye – but I was no different to them, I knew what happened in there as much as they, and I had no words to say in his defence. How could I? My father had done the same to me. They hated him, of course they did, but not as much as I.

Mary Golspie wept as she walked back to her loom. I saw two droplets of blood on the floor where she had passed by, scarlet and thick and as big as pennies, smeared by the hem of her trailing skirts. My father stood and looked out at us with his hands on his hips, and he smiled. And then all at once he was no longer standing there at all. I heard nothing because of the noise, but I saw him jerk suddenly, half spin around and then fall sideways, collapsing onto the floor with his arms and legs awry. Three of us, who had seen him drop, stopped our machines and rushed over to where he lay – and then we stood still. I held out my hands to keep the others near me, taking their fingers in my own as we looked down so that they would not touch him, would not show him any compassion. We did not stoop, or kneel at his side, but just stood there, staring down. None of us spoke. None of us could have been heard if we had, for the belts and the drive shafts kept turning overhead, the floor kept trembling beneath our bare feet, the echo from the walls hard and flinty with the clatter of the pickers striking against the metal-tipped shuttles over and over again. Beside him, on the wooden floor polished smooth by machine oil and the passing back and forth of so many feet, lay one such shuttle, six inches in length and bloody at the end. The side of his face – the cheek below his right eye socket – was bleeding; the skin sliced open to expose the bone beneath in a gash of white and crimson. The lips of the wound seemed to have drawn back, pulling it open like an obscene second mouth.

It was uncommon, if the machines were well-cared for, for such an accident to happen, but a sloppy overseer deserved what he got. It was not the first time the shuttle had flown out of the loom when the leather strap that bound the picker had snapped, though it was the first time that it had found its mark. We watched as the blood leaked from his face into the floor. Was he dead? Perhaps the white stuff I could see was brain as well as bone. And yet, would the blood flow so profusely if he was dead? I was sure it would not. And then I noticed a pulse throbbing in his neck and I knew he was no more dead than I, and I felt a terrible sense of injustice welling up inside me – how close we had come to being liberated! Were we meant to call Mr Mackenzie and have our persecutor taken up to the infirmary? He would be back amongst us in little more than a week and what, if anything, would have changed for the better? Had the shuttle been but two inches higher, I thought, it would have plunged into his eye, perhaps into his brain, killing him instantly. Beside me, I saw my father’s blood mixing with a splash of little Mary Golspie’s. Some of the others noticed it too, and I saw their faces darken.

It was not long before the men returned from the workshop. They brought with them a truckle of wet cement and some new bricks, and they laboured as fast as they could so that they might get out of the place and away from the dementing racket of the looms. They asked where my father was, mouthing the words as if I were deaf. I shrugged that I did not know.

When I walked home that night, back up the brae to the village, I was wearing my father’s boots under my skirt. No one noticed. Later, I went out and I threw them into the Tay.

The next day, the men came back to plaster the wall. By the following morning when the plaster had dried, and been whitewashed, there was no evidence that there had ever been a hole there. Mr Mackenzie came up to look at the job. He ran his hand over the plasterwork and inspected his fingers, and seemed satisfied enough. He looked out of the window at the wheel pits, and at the men swarming about down below, at the lifting gear that had been brought in and the carts and horses standing around. The inspector was waiting over by the gate house, scribbling in his notebook. There were plenty of things for a foreman to fret about, trying to keep the mills as productive as possible while one of the wheels was not working, and I saw his shoulders lift and fall as he sighed. He turned to me.

‘Where’s your father?’ he mouthed.
‘I don’t know, Mr Mackenzie,’ I replied.
‘Perhaps someone’s bricked him up inside this wall.’
He grinned. ‘I’d be tempted, if I were you.’

I smiled, as I was supposed to, and watched him walk away. How simple he made it sound! And yet it had taken six of us to do it, six of us working in silence as the looms roared and rattled around us: six of us to bind his hands and feet and stuff his mouth with rags, to clean up his blood and force him into the derelict flue. Our fingers were quick with his bindings – had we not spent our lives knotting and tying? We could truss him as fast as we could thread any shuttle. But then we had struggled, for his shoulders would hardly fit and his knees bent and wedged tightly against the bricks, his boots catching on the stonework so that eventually I had torn them off and tossed them aside. We had stuffed bricks and rags in after him, filling the hole as the workmen had done, mopping the blood from the floor with old sacks and pushing them up there, before stepping away to admire our handiwork. We were afraid of being caught, very afraid, for what would become of us if we were found out, even those who had helped only with their silence? But what was done was done.

And so we waited: would he move his knees and ankles and slip back down? Would the workmen look up and see the soles of his feet protruding from the stuff we had rammed in after him? We had no sleep until the hole was bricked up and its scar painted over. I wondered, sometimes, what he had thought when he awoke in that dark confined space, tightly bound and gagged, with the stink of blood and whale grease in his nostrils from the shuttle, and the pain of where we had pushed it. Did he die screaming? No one heard him if he had.

The links between Morse, Lewis and Endeavour

'Morse', the creation of Colin Dexter, has been immortalized on television by John Thaw. When he sadly passed away far too early at age 60 in 2002, the series was continued as 'Lewis', the name of his trusty sidekick. Then, after 32 episodes, Kevin Whateley, the actor who had played Robert Lewis, decided that it was enough. He had played Robert Lewis for a total of 65 episodes.
[John Thaw, Kevin Whately, Colin Dexter]
But the series didn't end there. The creators harked back to the very beginning, to the early days of Morse. So, we find 'Endeavour', played by Shaun Evans, back in the sixties.

Can we find any link between Morse, Lewis and Endeavour besides Colin Dexter, the genius who created them all and had a cameo in a total of 50 episodes of the three series.

We can point to John Thaw and Abigail Thaw, his daughter who plays Dorothea Frazil in 'Endeavour'. But that lonely fact does not include Lewis. We can also mention the composer Barrington Pheloung, known for the theme and incidental music to the Inspector Morse television series, the sequel Lewis and the prequel Endeavour. But he didn't really perform in the series.

No, the only person who has performed in all three incarnations is Janis Kelly, heralded as a 'singing actress of near genius' by the Sunday Times, who 'has such natural grace and emotional eloquence that she cannot fail to touch the heart', according to the Independent.
Janis Kelly sang "Caro nome" and "Signore, ascolta" on Inspector Morse in the episode 'The Death of the Self' (1992). She sang in a number of episodes of Lewis: "Voi Che Sapete" from "Le Nozze Di Figaro" in 'Old School Ties' (2007), "Als Die Alte Mutter" in 'Expiation' (2007), "Wesendonck Lieder" in 'Music to Die For' (2008) and “Wenn dein Mütternlein” in 'Allegory of Love' (2009). To conclude, she sang “Un bel di vendremo” from Puccini's "Madame Butterfly" in the Pilot of Endeavour (2012).

[Review] 'The Chinese Birdcage' by Heleen Mees

'The Chinese Birdcage' is a thought-provoking book. The real content is powerfully described in the subtitle of the book. 'How China's Rise Almost Toppled the West' is the undertone in the entire story. Until a few decades ago, China's economy was mainly focused on agriculture and heavy industry.

When, in the 80s, the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping hinted that showing entrepreneurial spirit and thus also making profit was no longer prohibited, China quickly became one large factory for all kinds of goods that the West found necessary. At one point the assortment of the large American retail store behemoth Walmart consisted of 80% Chinese goods.

In normal circumstances, this turbulent economic growth would lead to inflation. More and more factories were producing more and more products and more workers were needed for the production. But China had an inexhaustible amount of cheap laborers who moved into the city from the countryside to find a better life. Moreover, the Chinese currency was kept artificially low. The money that flowed into China was reinvested in US bonds. Nowadays, China is the largest donor of the debt-ridden US economy. Should China stop, then America will come to a sudden standstill.

Western companies couldn't possibly compete with the influx of cheap Chinese products. We bought ever more Chinese manufactured goods, which was to the detriment of Western producers. In order to (re)stimulate the economy, interest rates were reduced, leading to a housing bubble. That bubble eventually broke the back of the financial sector.

It might seem we have arrived in somewhat calmer waters, but that is an illusion. Read 'The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers' by Paul Kennedy and you will understand that the power and wealth of America is faltering. China is on the verge of (again) taking that leading position.

'The Chinese Birdcage' paints a gloomy prediction of a future. Read it and be prepared.

This review has also appeared on and

An alternative etymology: Witch

Etymologists are at a loss to explain the origins of the word 'witch'. Old English 'wicce' is thought to originally mean 'female magician' or 'sorceress'. If 'wicce' is a female sorcerer, what is a male one called, you may ask. Well, such a person is called a 'wicca'. Both originate from the verb 'wiccian', wth the meaning of 'to practice witchcraft'.
The word 'wiccian' is of uncertain origin, but let us see if we can discover words in some adjoining languages. In modern Dutch we find wicht which now has the meaning of 'young female', but further back in time it simply meant 'person'. In the same language we also find booswicht, which combines both boos ('evil') and wicht ('person'). It therefore has somewhat more darker meaning as 'evil person' and it is both male and female. But in Dutch we also encounter gewicht ('weight') as a noun of the verb wegen 'to weigh'. Also evenwicht is translated into English as 'balance' or 'balanced weight'.

The Dutch have a proverb that says na veel wikken en wegen, that means something like 'after much deliberation' or 'to weigh the pros and cons'. The word wikken is thought to be related to wichelen ('dowsing') and wichelroede ('dowsing rod'). These words are supposedly connected to the Old English wigle 'divination'. But we run again into problems here, because the true origin of these words are also uncertain.

But the Dutch verb wikken is also reminiscent of wiegen ('to cradle'). Those words are connected to English 'wiggle', meaning 'to rock' or 'to move from side to side'.

If one can imagine a witch as being a 'wise woman' who dabbled in herbal medicine, we can argue that she had to weigh her ingredients or weigh the pros and cons of which medicine would help the patient. But these 'wise women' also served as midwives, which could explain the word 'wiggle'. So, would it be possible that both the words 'witch', 'weighing' and 'wiggling' can be traced back to the same source?

[Review] 'Dark Asylum' by E. S. Thomson

After 'Beloved Poison', 'Dark Asylum' is the second thriller by E.S. Thomson featuring the male/female apothecary Jem Flockhart and her faithful companion Will Quartermain. Both are drawn to 'Angel Meadow', an asylum that is a truly grim place even by the standards of 1850s London.
Jem Flockhart is on the scene when a body is found: the resident physician to the insane, Dr. Rutherford, has been murdered within the asylum's walls. But that's not all. His ears were cut off, his lips and eyes stitched closed. Yes, Rutherford was an arrogant and unpopular member of staff, but his postmortem stitches raise the question who's mad enough to perform such a gruesome act. Was it one of the patients or one of Rutherford's own colleagues?

As is so often the case, the reasons for the murder lie hidden in the past. Jem and Will must delve deep (sometimes even physically) to uncover the truth. The vulnerabilities and inner strengths of both leading characters were perfectly described. I especially liked the unspoken love and respect both had for each other.

Not since reading Lisa Appignanesi's 'Mad, Bad and Sad' I came upon a story that gave such an illuminating insight in the early days of treatment of mental illnesses. We are witness to the last traces of phrenology (the theory that thought that measurements of a skull might predict or prove madness or a criminal mind), primitive brain surgery and discussions amongst the physicians on the speculative techniques to manage or possibly cure mental illness and the patients.

The story itself is devilishly clever. It reminds us that souls can be lost and won. And those lost souls may reside in the twilight or eternal darkness. Because of the vivid descriptions I recommend that 'Dark Asylum' should only be sold with a warning that your mental health may be in mortal danger while reading it.

Obviously E.S. Thomson's 'Dark Asylum' is highly recommended.

[Review] 'A Proper Education for Girls' by Elaine di Rollo

'A Proper Education for Girls' is the electrifying debut of Elaine di Rollo and, if you didn't know that nugget of information, you could certainly be fooled into thinking she was already an accomplished writer when this novel was published. Not so.

The novel alternates between Victorian England and Imperial India. Lilian and Alice Talbot are twins, outwardly different, but inwardly very alike. Their father is an avid collector of all things strange and unusual. As the ever growing collection is steadily invading the huge mansion, the largely unattended plants in the immense hot house display the same behaviour.

Following a scandal, Lilian is married off to a dreary missionary and effectively carted off to faraway India. Alice is left behind to attend to the daunting task of photographing the entire collection. What follows is an entertaining struggle of two intelligent young woman who are constantly scheming to reunite again.

'A Proper Education for Girls' is an unusual novel that superbly combines the tragic and the comic. I am sure Elain di Rollo was smiling all the way to the final page of her manuscript. Like I did when I was reading the novel.

If we take the title of the book as a question, then the answer to 'A Proper Education for Girls' is simply: the freedom to live your own life.

'A Proper Education for Girls' was followed by 'Bleakly Hall'. Elaine di Rollo is now writing under her own name E.S. Thomson and recently published the highly acclaimed 'Beloved Poison'. For a review see here.

[Review] 'Bleakly Hall' by Elaine di Rollo

Bleakly Hall is a crumbling, rumbling, mildewed hydropathic institution, where aging, gouty residents try to regain their once lost health via its supposedly curative waters. They drink the foul smelling and tasting water, they bath and shower in the hope to cure their vague ailments.

The story of 'Bleakly Hall' alternates between the horrors of the trenches and the casualties of the First World War, and the aftermath when several of the survivors meet in Bleakly Hall. Roberta Montgomery ('Monty') is a nurse who worked in hospitals near the front line and drove an ambulance with Ada to rescue wounded soldiers.

Monty takes a poorly paid job at Bleakly Hall and appears to have a score to settle with Captain Foxley, Ada misses her wartime sense of purpose, the Blackwood brothers must reinvigorate or reinvent Bleakly Hall for a new era and Captain Foxley has his own particular ways of keeping his ghosts at bay. Can the story be classified as a mystery? Not really, but everyone has their own secrets to live with.

Other reviews tried to make sense of the novel by calling it a tragicomedy or creatively describing the story as 'swung so acrobatically between lightly carbonated comedy and pitch-black horror'. They are all wrong, but I admit that I was puzzled too at first. I felt a bit like the Sorting Hat in the novels of Harry Potter that had a hard time deciding in which House it would put Harry: 'Difficult. Very difficult'. But then, suddenly, I understood.

The residents of Bleakly Hall were all suffering physically and mentally from their harrowing experiences at the front. The main characters clearly exhibit the telltale signs of a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), such as mood swings, trouble sleeping, forgetting (inability to recall), repression, depression, irritability, sudden outbursts of anger and difficulty in concentrating. Everybody has its own personal ways of dealing with their ghosts of the past.

Elaine di Rollo has managed to write an engrossing story. I imagine the immensely moving and intensely tragic tale of 'Bleakly Hall' can produce a secret tear or two from readers. Buy it and read it!

Elaine di Rollo is now writing under her own name E.S. Thomson and recently published 'Beloved Poison'. For a review see here.

[Review] 'Beloved Poison' by E. S. Thomson

What happens if you situate a mystery in the grime and desolation of a crumbling hospital in the early Victorian time? What happens is that you get a dark, blooding and foreboding atmosphere in which the protagonist, Jem Flockhart, a male/female apothecary tries to uncover the truth about six tiny mildewed coffins that were found in a largely abandoned church. Are they part of some arcane ritual or do they signify something even more sinister?
Assisted by junior architect William Quartermain, who is sent to survey the emptying of the over-stocked burial grounds of London's St. Saviour's Infirmary that itself awaits demolition, Flockhart quickly discovers that these tiny coffins with their macabre contents are the prelude to murder.

Flockhart is masked by a disfiguring birthmark around the eyes. A protagonist with a disfigurement or injury is a trick of the trade that is used by many writers, including by myself. But Elaine Thomson uses it expertly. The books itself weaves an intricate web of suspicions and suspense. It paints a disturbing picture of the soot and grime of Victorian London.

When we need hospitalization today, we are welcomed into a pristine environment with learned and friendly staff. In the olden days hospitals were merely a place to die if your injuries became infected. Antibiotics weren't available in the 1840's and STD's, like syphilis, were spreading like wildfire through Victorian London.
Elaine Thomson (1968) is a Scottish academic with a PhD in the history of medicine, which clearly shows on each and every page. 'Beloved Poison' is one of the very few books I want to read anew in the future. This is a tale you will remember for a long, long time. I am already eagerly awaiting the publication of part two of the series, titled 'Dark Asylum'.

Highly Recommended. Many thanks for the review copy.

Ghetto: an alternative etymology

The etymology of the word ghetto has long been debated. Several solutions have been offered. The very first use of the word has been traced back to 1516 to the Jewish area of Venice. There, residents will proudly tell you that ghèto meant 'foundry'. The problem is that it seems strange to name an area after one foundry and not 'foundries, because there must have been more than one.

Other suggestions are that it originates from the Yiddish gehektes ('enclosed'), from the Italian borghetto ('little town') or from the Old French guect ('guard'). All these suggestions eventually fail, mostly because of phonetics.
Southern Germany isn't far removed from northern Italy. There, we can find the term Jüdische Gass(e) or 'Jewish Street'. Yiddish gas means ‘street’. In the German language one often finds the switch from 'ss' to English to 't' (strasse to 'street', wasser to 'water', scheisse to 'shit', and more). Gasse therefore also is rather similar to English 'gate' and Dutch gat ('hole', 'opening'). The trail seems to turn cold here, as the Etymology Dictionary claims that it is of 'of unknown origin'.

But in Dutch language we find several words that describe a steeg ('alley'). In the southernmost province of Limburg a steeg is called a gats. That changes to gas in the city of Nijmegen, and finally to steiger in Enkhuizen in the north. Both steeg ('alley') and steiger ('jetty') are related to stijgen or 'to rise up'.

In English we discover that 'jetty' ('pier') also once had the meaning of 'a passage between two houses' in central and northern England.
And there we have it: the word ghetto simply means '(a series of small) alleys' in the sense of a medina quarter (Arabic city), a distinct city section found in a number of North African and Maltese medieval cities. A medina is typically walled, with many narrow and maze-like streets.

During my research for this article I found a text by Anatoly Liberman that seemed to have traveled much the same route as I did.

On President Trump's Dementia

President Donald Trump (1946) is 71 years old. Everyone experiences at least some degree of cognitive and motor decline over time, and almost 10 percent of people over 65 now have dementia.

Trump exhibits some worrisome symptoms that fall into three main categories: problems with language and executive function; problems with social cognition and behaviour; and problems with memory, attention and concentration. They raise concern for a neurocognitive disease process or cognitive decline, which results in dementia.

So, when Trump went in to have his a annual presidential physical exam at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, he was also given a test to see if he is plagued by early signs of dementia. He came out with 'no issues whatsoever' with his mental ability. He got a perfect score on a 'gold-standard dementia test'. That standard is the Montreal Cognitive Assessment (MOCA).
The Montreal Cognitive Assessment is a cognitive test, meaning that it assesses memory, executive function, spatial skills, calculation - so it’s mostly cognition that is assessed, not the rest of the mental abilities.

The MOCA test is a 10-minute routine screening test and, unless the patient is indeed displaying signs of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, is incredibly basic. In other words: Trump passed a test designed for patients that have advanced stages of dementia.
Passing that very basic test was reason for Donald Trump to boast that he was a 'stable genius'. Which means that he's neither stable nor a genius.

One typhoon away from disaster

The US has poisoned an entire region of the Pacific Ocean with nuclear weapons tests. Beginning in 1977, more than 8,000 people worked to clean up the Marshall Islands, shifting 80,000 cubic meters of contaminated soil and debris into a blast crater. This 10 meters-deep crater on Enewetak Atoll is called the Runit Dome, also called 'Cactus Dome' or - locally - 'The Tomb'.
The dome spans 100 meters across with an almost 50 centimetres thick concrete cap covering radioactive debris from 12-years of US government nuclear tests.

The costs associated with nuclear tests for any country have been quite devastating for surrounding communities. Enewetak Atoll is a large coral atoll of 40 islands in the Pacific Ocean, where the US detonated 30 megatons of weapons – equivalent to 2,000 Hiroshima blasts – between 1948 and 1958. In total, 67 nuclear bombs detonated on Enewetak Atoll and Bikini Atoll of the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean.

The massive explosions created cracks in the coral. This allowed the tides of the ocean to pump water into the dome and then pump radioactive water out. Now, the dome’s concrete structure is rapidly deteriorating. Since global warming will result in a continued rise in seawater levels, the concrete dome may soon be exposed to the tides. The dome could be just one typhoon away from a breach.

Rise of the Planet of the Rats in the US

While President Trump still denies climate change, warmer weather is fueling a rodent surge in his own country. It’s no surprise that rats thrive in cities, where humans provide an abundance of food and shelter. But experts now agree that the weather is playing a role in these recent increases. Extreme summer heat and this past winter’s mild temperatures have created urban rat heavens.
Breeding usually slows down during the winter months. But with shorter, warmer winters becoming more common—2016 was America’s warmest winter on record[1]—rats are experiencing a baby boom. The rats have taken advantage of these condition to squeeze out one more litter, resulting in exploding numbers.

One more litter makes a serious difference when a population boom is not only a nuisance, but a public health and economic crisis. Rats breed like rabbits: two rats in an ideal environment can turn into 482 million rats over a period of three years. Urban rats caused $19 billion worth of economic damage in the year 2000, partially due to the fact that they eat away at buildings and other infrastructure. Imagine how much they’re costing now.

What’s more, every new litter increases the risk of a rodent-borne disease. A 2014 study showed that New York City’s rats carry diseases like E. coli, salmonella and Seoul Hanta Virus[2]. Rats also carry the bacteria that causes leptospirosis, which recently killed one person and sickened two in the Bronx[3].

No one really knows how many rats there are. Not in New York City, nor Washington, DC, nor Chicago—all three of which rank among the most rodent-infested cities in the U.S.
Clearly, the coming 'ratpocalypse' is threatening the health of millions across the US, costing billions of dollars and is being fueled by global climate change that the US itself primarily created.

[1] Holthaus: It’s Official: This Was America’s Warmest Winter on Record in The Slatest – 08 March 2016. See here.
[2] New York rats carry some pretty scary diseases in Washinton Post – 21 October 2014. See here.
[3] This rare disease spreads through contact with rat urine. In New York, it has left 1 dead in Washington Post – 15 February 2017. See here.

The domestication of turkeys

Researchers studied the remains of 55 turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo), dating from between 300BC to 1500CE in various parts of pre-Columbian Meso-America[1]. They discovered that turkeys weren’t just a prized food source, but was also culturally significant for sacrifices and ritual practices.
The team measured the carbon isotope ratios in the turkey bones to reconstruct their diets. They found that the turkeys were gobbling crops cultivated by humans such as corn in increasing amounts, particularly in the centuries leading up to Spanish exploration, implying more intensive farming of the birds.

Interestingly, the gradual intensification of turkey farming does not directly correlate to an increase in human population size, a link you would expect to see if turkeys were reared simply as a source of nutrition.

Lead author, Dr Aurélie Manin, said: “Turkey bones are rarely found in domestic refuse in Mesoamerica and most of the turkeys we studied had not been eaten – some were found buried in temples and human graves, perhaps as companions for the afterlife. This fits with what we know about the iconography of the period, where we see turkeys depicted as gods and appearing as symbols in the calendar.

“The archaeological evidence suggests that meat from deer and rabbit was a more popular meal choice for people in pre-Columbian societies. Turkeys are likely to have also been kept for their increasingly important symbolic and cultural role”.
Dr Camilla Speller said: “Even though humans in this part of the word had been practising agriculture for around 10,000 years, the turkey was the first animal, other than the dog, people in Mesoamerica started to take under their control. Turkeys would have been easily domesticated would have been drawn to human settlements searching for scraps”

Some of the remains the researchers analysed were from a cousin of the common turkey – the brightly plumed Ocellated turkey (Meleagris ocellata). The diets of these more ornate birds remained largely composed of wild plants and insects, suggesting that they were left to roam free and never really domesticated.

By analysing the DNA of the birds, the researches were also able to confirm that modern European turkeys descend from Mexican ancestors.

Manin et al. Diversity of management strategies in Mesoamerican turkeys: archaeological, isotopic and genetic evidence in Royal Society Open Science - 2018

The evolution of the word 'tea' (or 'cha')

If you look around the world, you might notice that there are two ways to designate 'tea'. One consists of variations of the English term tea, such as thee in Dutch. The other is some variation of 'cha', like chay in Hindi.

Both versions come from China. The words that sound like 'cha' spread across land, along the ancient Silk Road. The 'tea'-like phrasings spread over water, by Dutch traders of the vOC, the very first to bring tea to Europe.
The term cha (茶) is 'Sinitic', meaning it is common to many varieties of Chinese. It began in China and made its way through central Asia, eventually becoming chay (چای) in Persian. That is no doubt due to the trade routes of the Silk Road, along which, according to a recent discovery, tea was already traded over 2,000 years ago. This form spread beyond Persia, becoming chay in Urdu, shay in Arabic and chay in Russian. It even it made its way to sub-Saharan Africa, where it became chai in Swahili. The Japanese and Korean terms for tea are also based on the Chinese cha, though those languages likely adopted the word even before its westward spread into Persian.

The Chinese character for tea, 茶, is pronounced differently by different varieties of Chinese, though it is written the same in them all. In today’s Mandarin, it is chá. But in the Min Nan variety of Chinese, spoken in the coastal province of Fujian, the character is pronounced te.

The te-form, used in coastal-Chinese languages spread to Europe via the Dutch, who became the primary traders of tea between Europe and Asia in the 17th century. The main Dutch ports in east Asia were in Fujian and Taiwan, both places where people used the te-pronunciation. The Dutch East India Company’s expansive tea importation into Europe gave us the Dutch thee, French thé, the German tee and the English tea.
Yet the Dutch were not the first to Asia. That honour belongs to the Portuguese. The Portuguese did not trade not through Fujian but Macao, where chá is used. That’s why, on the map above, Portugal is a pink anomality in a sea of blue.

A few languages have their own way of talking about tea. These languages are generally in places where tea grows naturally, which led locals to develop their own way to refer to it. In Burmese, for example, tea leaves are lakphak.

The map demonstrates two different eras of globalization in action: the millenia-old overland spread of goods and ideas westward from ancient China and the 400-year-old influence of Asian culture on the seafaring Europeans of the age of exploration.

Whisky kills bacteria in ice

Italian researchers studied 60 samples of ice from domestic, restaurant or industrial producers. They found 52 different strains of bacteria, including Pseudomonas, Staphylococcus, Bacillus and Acinetobacter, across the 60 samples of ice, some of which were 'agents of human infection' indicating environmental contamination[1].
The researchers then took samples of contaminated ice and, to simulate a bar environment, used this ice to serve a range of drinks, including vodka, whisky, peach tea, tonic water and cola.

In the case of each drink, they found that the population of bacteria in the sample was reduced and cited the levels of alcohol, the drink’s pH and the amount of carbon dioxide in each serve as reasons for the reduction.

However, their results also showed that the ice sample served with whisky saw the greatest reduction in bacteria – none of the bacterial strains on the ice cubes survived after they were added to the whisky. The researchers noted that this was likely to be because whisky is somewhat more acidic than vodka. They speculated that the more acidic a drink is, the less likely bacteria are able to survive.

The question remains however why in the world would you add ice to your whisky or any other alcoholic drink.

[1] Settanni en al: Presence of pathogenic bacteria in ice cubes and evaluation of their survival in different systems in Annals of Microbiology - 2017

The domestication of chickens

Chicken and humans have conquered the world together. Where humans went, chicken went too. Chicken (Gallus gallus domesticus) were first domesticated some 8,000 years ago from a hybrid of wild red junglefowl (Gallus gallus), and gray junglefowl (Gallus sonneratii).
[Red Junglefowl]
Domesticated chickens are less active, have fewer social interactions, are less aggressive to would-be predators and are less likely to go looking for foreign food sources than their wild ancestors. Chicken now have increased adult body weight and simplified plumage, while their egg production starts earlier, is more frequent and produces larger eggs.
[Grey junglefowl]
Research suggests there may have been multiple origins in distinct areas of South and Southeast Asia. The earliest archaeological evidence to date is from China about 5400 BC, though a few studies supported even earlier domestication of chicken in northern and central China[1]. Researchers think that chickens were a rare occurrence in northern and Central China, and thus probably an import from southern China or Southeast Asia where evidence of domestication is stronger.

The red junglefowl and gray junglefowl also live in India. Domestication of chickens appears in the Indus Valley around 2000 BC[2]. From there the chicken spread into Europe and Africa. Chickens arrived in the Middle East starting with Iran at 3900 BC, followed by Turkey and Syria (2400-2000 BC) and Jordan by 1200 BC.

The earliest firm evidence for chickens in east Africa are illustrations from several sites in Egypt's New Kingdom. Chickens were introduced into western Africa multiple times, arriving at Iron Age sites in Mali, Burkina Faso and Ghana by the mid-first millennium AD. Chickens arrived in the southern Levant about 2500 BC and reached Iberia in circa 2000 BC.

Chickens were brought to the Polynesian islands from Southeast Asia by Pacific Ocean sailors about 3,300 years ago. While it was previously assumed that they had been brought to the Americas by the Spanish conquistadors, pre-Columbian chickens have been identified at several sites throughout the Americas, most notably in Chile and dated at about 1350 AD.

But there's a problem: some archaeologists argue that the presence of haplogroup E in chickens from Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and coastal Chile must have come from chickens that travelled the Pacific with the Polynesians[3]. Others claim that the presence of haplogroup E in chickens from Rapa Nui is from contamination[4]. If the latter is true, then chickens must have travelled the Atlantic with Columbus.

[1] Xiang et al: Early Holocene chicken domestication in northern China in PNAS -2014
[2] Kanginakudru et al: Genetic evidence from Indian red jungle fowl corroborates multiple domestication of modern day chicken in BMC Evolutionary Biology – 2008
[3] Storey et al: Polynesian chickens in the New World: a detailed application of a commensal approach in Archaeology in Oceania – 2013
[4] Thomson et al: Using ancient DNA to study the origins and dispersal of ancestral Polynesian chickens across the Pacific in PNAS – 2014.

Smoking and Stunting

Stunting, or being too short for one’s age, is defined as a height that is more than two standard deviations below the World Health Organization (WHO) Child Growth Standards median. Factors that contribute to stunted growth and development include – but are not limited to – poor maternal health and nutrition, inadequate infant and young child feeding practices, and infection. Stunting should be made a development indicator.

Here we explained that stunting can also be the result of exploitation and here we found that voluntary restrictions of the intake of food, such as in anorexia, might also result in stunted growth.
So, are there any other, less obvious factors, that can result in a stunted growth? There is an obvious one.

If you start smoking at a very young age, as happens so often in developing countries, you might experience stunting. In other words, you might not achieve your maximum length. At the same time stunted growth is of course only an issue for those still growing.
A scientific study on 451 boys and 478 girls showed that a boy who smokes ten cigarettes a day (or more) from age 12 to 17 will be about 2.5 centimeters shorter than a boy who does not smoke at all[1].

Strangely, in girls, cigarette use was not associated with any height or weight loss. Cigarette use appears to only decrease height and body mass index in boys. Young girls may be less likely to take up cigarette smoking if they would understand that cigarette use may not be associated with reduced weight in adolescent females.

Part 1 'Stunting: Malnutrition or Exploitation?' can be read here.
Part 2 'Stunting and Anorexia' can be read here.

[1] O'Loughlin et al: Does cigarette use influence adiposity or height in adolescence? in Annals of Epidemology - 2008

The Evolution of Melons

Cucurbitaceae are a plant family consisting of about 965 species. Well known genera are Cucurbita (squash, pumpkin, zucchini, some gourds), Lagenaria (calabash), Citrullus (watermelon), Cucumis (cucumber, various melons) and Luffa (luffa). This great diversity is related species wouldn't have been possible if it weren’t for an ancient event in plant evolution.
About 90 to 102 million years ago, the genome of a single melon-like fruit copied itself. Over time, this one ancestor became a whole family of plants with different colors, shapes, sizes, defenses and flavors, such as pumpkins, squash, watermelons and cucumbers, according to a recently published paper[1].

The researchers compared the genomes and evolutionary trees of a number of plants including cucumbers, melons and gourds. Millions of years of environmental changes allowed the fruits to lose genes over time and tailor their own codes to become what we know them as today.

After each major divergent event, genes were deleted, chromosomes were rearranged and new genetic patterns were created. Knowing more about which genes survived to do different things in each plant means scientists can now get closer to creating even more variations of these fruits.

[1] Wang et al: An overlooked paleo-tetraploidization in Cucurbitaceae in Molecular Biology and Evolution - 2017

[Review] 'Chaos' by Patricia Cornwell

I've read a few bad books in my life, some were even pretty bad, but 'Chaos' by Patricia Cornwell must certainly rank as the worst thriller I've read in a decade. Yes, Patricia Cornwell can write words that constitute a sentence and she produces many sentences. Far too many in fact and I wonder how she bribed here editor, because there could easily have been cut 100 pages filled with dribble from 'Chaos'.

Patricia Cornwell seems the enjoy the wealth she has accumulated, but she does so as a nouveau riche, a person who has recently become rich and needs to show the world just how knowledgeable she is about expensive food, wines and cars. And the book drags on and on about that (Kay Scarpetta wonders if husband Bryce may arrive in his Porsche Cayenne Turbo S or his Audi RS 7).

I wondered if Patricia Cornwell just started writing this thriller without any clue of a plot. Then, halfway in, she ran into difficulties. I will not refrain from warning the reader about *SPOILERS* and just mention that she uses a drone to kill people. A drone using electric wires that whizz down to the victim to electrocute him (or her). Then, surprised that the electric current cannot possibly be so powerful that the intended victim will die (Ohm's law), she 'invents' that panguite, a rare mineral found only in minute traces in meteorites, can supply that power. She even mentions that the mineral involves nano-technology. It doesn't: the amounts of Panguite in some meteorites are so small that you have to measure it in nanometers (nm), which means that you need tons of meteorites to get just a bit of panguite. Sloppy writing at its best, an uneducated woman at its worst.

What we have then is a drone targeting people that seem not to have noticed the sound of a strange apparatus above their heads and they seem not to have noticed that the wires came down. You would have thought that the intended victims would take evasive action, but no they didn't. So, we have victims that seem electrocuted by lightning without any thunder.

Like I said: 'Chaos' is easily one of the worst books I have ever read. Do not – I repeat NOT – buy this book. To be honest, it's the first time I ever reviewed a book with this sad result.

Earth's second sun

Earth has already a second moon, but a second sun is impossible. Right? Not quite.

In the constellation of Orion, Betelgeuse forms the left hand shoulder of the warrior (see the sword dangling from his belt). It is a red giant, a semi-regular variable star in the latter stages of its life whose apparent magnitude varies between 0.0 and 1.3. Which is a lot.
As Betelgeuse is using up the last of its fuel, it will become increasingly unstable over time and will eventually collapse due to its own gravity. Then Betelgeuse will become a supernova. Supernovae can outshine the whole galaxy they live in. Supernovae have a 'rising time' of about a week, when the star is increasing in brightness. It stays at its peak brightness for several days days and then slowly declines into obscurity over a period of a couple of weeks. At its point of maximum brightness it can compete with the brightness of a full moon (-11 magnitude). Because Betelgeuse is a star it will become a second sun. Our second sun.

Will we ever live to see such a spectacle in the heavens? Scientists have calculated that the possibility of Betelgeuse imploding and exploding is somewhere between nil and a million years. As Betelgeuse lives a mere 640 light years away from earth, it might already have gone supernova 640 years ago.

So, keep watching the southern sky (if you live in the northern hemisphere).