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Alternative etymology: Curcuma

Since times immemorial, the roots of curcuma or turmeric (Curcuma longa) have been used on the Indian subcontinent as a spice and as a pigment. It was used as a somewhat cheaper substitute for saffron, the vivid crimson stigmas and part of the styles of crocus (Crocus sativus).
If one searches for the lemma of 'curcuma' in the Etymology Dictionary, you will find that the word originates from the Arabic kurkum, meaning both 'saffron' and 'turmeric'. Well, that etymology would be acceptable if Arabs were trading in both spices and if we can find an etymology that gives an acceptable meaning of, say, 'yellow'.

Wikipedia claims that kurkum is derived from Sanskrit kuṅkuma, referring to both turmeric and saffron. However, says Berthold Laufer in his book 'Sino-Iranica' (1919), 'It cannot be too strongly emphasized that Sanskrit kuṅkuma strictly denotes Crocus sativus, but never our Curcuma or turmeric (which is Sanskrit haridrả), and that our genus Curcuma has nothing whatever to do with Crocus or saffron'.

As the American Museum of Natural History still calls Berthold Laufer (1874-1934) 'one of the most distinguished sinologists of his generation', we must accept his views.

But if Laufer is correct, then we have to search elsewhere for the origin of the word curcuma. We find a solution in Martin Bernal's 'Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, Volume III: The Linguistic Evidence ' (2006), where he writes that '… girls wore robes over their normal garments, the colour of which was κροκωτος (krokotos). The usual translation for this word is “saffron, yellow” as in crocus. Many scholars, however, have plausibly seen it as “tawny” to match a bear's fur. It should be noted that the Greek word κροκοδτιλος (krokodtilos) “crocodile” comes from the same root: it could also mean “tawny”. The chromatic uncertainty is confirmed by the mixed colour of the equivalent of the crocodile skin on the backs of the geniii portrayed on a fragment of Myceanean wallpainting'.

To conclude: the origins of the words 'crocus' and 'curcuma' are entirely different and 'curcuma' means 'tawny' (brownish-yellow or yellowish-brown').

What made us humans...

Science is still unable to explain why, when and how humans became humans. What changed in our genetic database that created the modern human, Homo sapiens sapiens? Now, research has unearthed a clue that might be part of the solution: our intelligence might be the result of a mutation that resulted in an extra supply of a signalling neurochemical called dopamine in several brain regions that help us think and plan[1]. Our brains produce far more dopamine in these regions than the brains of other primates like apes.
Dopamine is a brain signalling chemical that is vital for our control of movement. It is depleted in people with Parkinson's disease, leading to mobility problems, tremors and speech impairments. But it also plays a pivotal role in many cognitive abilities at which humans excel, including learning, concentrating, pleasure-seeking and planning ahead.

When scientists measured the activity of individual genes in tissue samples from six humans, five chimpanzees and five macaque monkeys, they found elevated activities of two enzymes that make dopamine - tyrosine hydroxylase and DOPA decarboxylase - in two parts of the human brain, both vital for higher-level thought.

The researchers found that 1.5 per cent of the neurons in the human striatum, an important part of the brain, were making dopamine, three times more than in the ape striatum. Likewise, they accounted for 0.2 per cent neurons in the neocortex, versus none at all in apes. What's more, the extra dopamine in these regions was made almost exclusively by brain cells called interneurons. These form local connections, rather than linking distant parts of the brain.

What did cause the mutation or mutations that resulted in elevated levels of dopamine? Nobody is quite sure, but I remember, now totally discarded, visionaries like Immanuel Velikovsky and Alfred di Grazia. Their proposition was that radiation created the mutations that changed humanoids into humans.

[1] Souza et al: Molecular and cellular reorganization of neural circuits in the human lineage in Science - 2017

[Review] 'Spycatcher' by Peter Wright

When 'Spycatcher' was released it caused a major uproar. Peter Wright (1916-1995) had clearly violated the Official Secrets Act, but how do you prevent a book from publication when the author is out of reach. Wright was living in Australia and the book became a runaway success in that country and the US.
Spycatcher
'Spycatcher' was the story (and revenge) of former intelligence officer Peter Wright. The reason for his book was simple: when he switched jobs to join MI5, Wright was promised that his pension would be taken care of. When it was time to retire, nothing was ever done to repair his pension. The book was his way of earning his well-deserved pension.

The story of 'Spycatcher' is engrossing, but badly written (by journalist Peter Greengrass) and has a garbled timeline. Stories sometimes appear twice and out of sync. However, we end up with a picture of a scientist-turned-spy and his quest for moles in the service.

Delving through reports of defectors, through sometimes only partially decoded secret intelligence and interviews with old colleagues, he would uncover spies and moles throughout his career. His hunt for the infamous 'Cambridge Five' was intense and could be called a personal vendetta. We all know about Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and Anthony Blunt, but the fifth member always remained a mystery.

Strange incidents led Peter Wright to conclude that Sir Roger Hollis, director of MI5, must have been that fifth member and a spy for the Soviet Union. In the end the evidence was inconclusive and the investigation was directed to the annals of history.

When 'Spycatcher' was released in 1987, MI5 started a campaign to discredit him. Stella Rimington, then director of MI5, let it slip that Wright took files home to write his book, that he was 'quite clearly a man with an obsession, and was regarded by many as quite mad and certainly dangerous' [Source]. Her lame efforts only showed to the intelligence community how good and thus how right Wright must have been about Roger Hollis .

It's therefore curious that Stella Rimington wrote an autobiography and several spy thrillers that gave information about 'the inside of MI5'.

[Review] 'A Rising Man' by Abir Mukherjee

Abir Mukherjee’s debut whodunnit, 'A Rising Man' features former Scotland Yard detective Captain Sam Wyndham, a First World War survivor with painful memories who arrives in Calcutta in 1919 to join the local police force.

Before he has had a chance to settle into his new surroundings, job and home, he is tasked with solving the gruesome murder of Alexander MacAuley, a senior British official. His lifeless body was discovered in a dark and muddy alley outside a brothel, with his throat slit and a message of revolt in his mouth. Then there's a botched train robbery. Are these troublesome events connected?

Wyndham and his assistant Indian Sergeant 'Surrender-not' Banerjee go on a frantic search for the killer. His superiors are adamant that terrorists were to blame for the murder, but Wyndham has his doubts. When Wyndham bravely manages to capture the long-sought terrorist Sen (think: Gandhi), everybody seems only too willing to put the blame on Sen.

The writing of Mukherjee is assured and he can certainly put a smile on your face with his mischievous sense of humour. The plot is rich in detail, lightly clued and the narrative is very good. You'll like the characters and I'm uncertain as to what the title, 'A Rising Man' was actually supposed to mean. Yes, Sam Wyndham was wounded physically and mentally in the trenches of the battlefields in Flanders in the First World War en he seems to be getting a second chance in 1919's India. But his assistant Indian Sergeant 'Surrender-not' also seems a candidate for the 'man on the rise'.

In the end, I was pleasantly surprised by 'A Rising Man' and will certainly get hold of the second, 'A Necessary Evil' and the third, 'Smoke and Ashes'.

This review was accepted on Amazon.co.uk and bol.com.

E.S. Thomson knows the pain of fleshing out a character

[Guest post by Magnus Linklater, previously published in The Times]

The heroine of Elaine Thomson’s crime novel 'Beloved Poison' has a strawberry mark on her face. It is as nothing to the afflictions of the author herself. While she was writing, eczema covered her face and body. Her hair fell out and she had to wear a wig. The drugs she took to counteract the disease turned her skin red and it began to flake off. If ever a writer felt at one with her character, it was Elaine Thomson.
"It was unmeasurably horrible," she admits, as she sits in her Edinburgh flat, thinking back to the two years she spent writing her book, which is set in Victorian London. "It was the pain as much as the sight of it. It was on my face that it was particularly awful, because that is what people look at when they want to speak to you, and when they did so, they would slightly recoil. They wouldn’t realise they were doing it, but I could see when they were looking at my face they were seeing the thing on it, not the person."

She understands the isolation that people with some sort of facial blemish feel. They are looked at, but rarely seen, she says.

"You ask anyone with a disfigurement to their face, and they feel quite lonely and isolated, so I gave [my heroine] all those things. I thought it would add a bit of depth to the character."

Today Elaine Thomson is clear of her eczema. A lifelong sufferer, she realised that the steroid creams she had been using to treat it had become part of the problem. “After a while you become addicted to them,” she said. "If you’re not careful, the rash gets worse and worse, and when you give up the steroid creams your whole skin melts off. It’s called red skin syndrome and not a lot of people know about it. It’s hideous and debilitating and people feel very depressed, almost suicidal, because of the pain and the ugliness."

The cure, she realised, was to give up the steroids and let the body cure itself, which it did.

Meanwhile, she has ploughed her experiences into a book suffused with grim details about the primitive way that medicine was administered in Victorian hospitals, before anaesthetics such as chloroform or modern ideas about hygiene.

"I was a little bit against doctors I have to say, so filling the book with evil doctors who don’t listen to what you say was on my mind a little bit," she joked.

It was not the only battle she has had to fight. Two previous books, 'Bleakly Hall' and 'A Proper Education for Girls', were published under her married name of Elaine di Rollo. Though widely praised these books failed to sell in sufficient quantities and, in her own words, she 'fell off the radar'. Publishers took one look at her previous sales, and turned her down. She decided to turn to crime fiction. She wrote 'Beloved Poison' as Elaine di Rollo, but when it, too, was rejected she changed to her maiden name, Thomson, and immediately found three publishers who were keen to take it. She now writes under the name E.S. Thomson, and has a four-book contract, all crime novels set in the 19th century.

With a PhD in the social history of medicine from Edinburgh University, E.S. Thomson has studied the role of women doctors in medicine as they struggled to be accepted. But it was the 1850s that intrigued her.

"If you move back a bit, just before anaesthetics, just before chloroform, before the telegraph, and with the railways only just starting, it’s like a different world," she says. "I felt I could describe the indescribable, they were such terrible times, before you got slum clearance, sewage works or public health. Places like Glasgow, London and Manchester were on the very brink of survival, almost falling into their own mess."

'Beloved Poison)' is set in a crumbling infirmary, with stinking wards and cramped corridors, where doctors do amputations without anaesthetics and a "blood box” is kicked around to catch the patient’s blood as it pours off the operating table. “I was fairly graphic about it because I do feel that as a historian you should know about that. It should not be prettified in a Hollywood sort of way."

Alternative etymology: Zek and KZ

If you have watched 'Jack Reacher', starred by Tom Cruise (as Jack Reacher) and Rosamund Pike (as Helen Rodin), you couldn't have missed the villain who choose to call himself 'The Zek', once an inmate in a Russian prison camp in Siberia.

That would have been The Gulag, the Soviet forced labour camp system, that was a mirror-image of the concentration camps or Konzentrationslagers in Nazi Germany. The Gulag institution was officially closed in 1960, which means that 'The Zek' might be a survivor of these forced labour camps.
Both Jack Reacher and Helen Rodin immediately knew that 'zek' meant 'prisoner' in Russian.

An explanation.

You should have read the 'The Gulag Archipelago', a three-volume book written by Russian ex-prisoner, writer and historian Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008), to really understand the horrors and the hardship that prisoners in the Gulag had to endure.

Russian prisoners were put to work as forced labourers and their first major project was the digging of the White Sea–Baltic Canal, that connected the White Sea (in the Arctic Ocean) with the Baltic Sea. The entire canal was constructed in just twenty months, between 1931 and 1933, almost entirely by manual labor. Beginning and ending with a labor force of some 125,000, possibly as much as 240,000 laborers died.
At first, prisoners, put to work there, were called kanaloarmeyets (каналоармеец), meaning something like 'member of the canal army', an analogy of krasnoarmeyets (красноармеец), meaning 'Red Army man' or 'member of the Red Army'. Later zaklyuchyonny (заключённый), meaning 'prisoner' or 'incarcerated', was added to their job title

Understandably, zaklyuchyonny kanaloarmeyets was usually abbreviated to 'з/к' in official paperwork and pronounced as 'zeka', which gradually transformed into 'zek'.

For the very same reason, Konzentrationslager in Nazi Germany was shortened to KZ-lager.

[Review] 'Death Knocks Twice' by Robert Thorogood

Robert Thorogood career can be called meteoric. That is, if you can imagine that a meteor can defy gravity and shoot upwards into the universe. Thorogood wrote scrips, but became used to getting negative replies. His luck turned in 2011, when 'Death in Paradise', based on his scripts, was first broadcasted to much acclaim. What followed was a contract to write thrillers based on Richard Poole, the detective who was like a fish out of the water.

'Death Knocks Twice' is the third thriller in the series to be published. The story revolves around a coffee plantation, where the body a man was discovered in a locked shed. He appears to have committed suicide. As most of the episodes of 'Death in Paradise' are locked-room-mysteries, it shouldn't come as a surprise that Poole and his team inevitably come to the conclusion that the man must have been murdered, but how could the killer have escaped?.

Robert Thorogood's writing has been compared to that of Agatha Christie, the Grande Dame of thrillers. So, how good is 'Death Knocks Twice'? Not so good, I'm afraid. While reading I had the distinct feeling that Thorogood changed his mind halfway as to who the killer would be. The plot is so jumbled that he needed some 60 pages to let DI Richard Poole explain the murder. In essence, the story could have been so much more elegant.

And, as other reviewers have mentioned, the book is filled with Richard Poole saying 'What's that?' (and some similar words). The frequent use of those words became very irritating and led me to believe that there are two possibilities: the first is that Poole is gradually becoming deaf, while the second is that Thorogood padded his word count because he felt that the manuscript would lack substance.

But most of all, I missed the fun, the quirky sense of humour that was so prevalent in the first two books. It seemed as if Thorogood now feels that writing has become a tedious job.

This review has also been published on amazon.co.uk

Agatha Christie and Honeysuckle Weeks

[1]
On December 3, 1926, the then 36-year-old Agatha Christie left her home in Sunningdale and drove her car towards Surrey. The next morning the vehicle was found abandoned with a fur coat and her driving license left inside.
Her disappearance sparked an extensive manhunt, with over 1,000 police officers and 15,000 volunteers searching for the author, as well as newspaper adverts urging any members of the public with information to come forward.

Was Christie abducted? Was she lost, wandering through the countryside? Or was she murdered? The prime suspect at the time was her husband Colonel Archibald Christie, who had recently informed his wife that he wanted to divorce her because he had fallen in love with the far younger Nancy Neele.

Eleven days after she disappeared, Christie was discovered in the Swan Hydropathic Hotel in Harrogate where she had registered under the name of Theresa Neele of Cape Town, using the surname of her husband's lover. She later claimed that she had suffered from amnesia.

What really happened will always remain a mystery, but we can assume that Agatha Christie would have been very depressed after learning of her husband infidelity. She might even have contemplated suicide. In her bittersweet semi-autobiographical novel 'Unfinished Portrait' (1934) her alter ego, Celia, made a suicide attempt. "She admitted that it had been very wicked of her to try," Christie wrote.

[2]
Then, almost 90 years later, on July 25, 2016, the then (also) 36-year-old actress Honeysuckle Weeks disappeared. She was last seen driving her car 14 miles away from Chichester where she lived. Sussex Police said they were concerned for her welfare as it was unlike her not to get in touch. She had recently told family and friends she was feeling anxious.
The actress was described as around 1.62 meter in height with cropped gingery blond hair. She was last seen wearing a blue anorak and faded blue jeans.

On July 29, Honeysuckle Weeks was found 'safe and sound' after a relative, living in London, contacted the police.

So, why did Honeysuckle Weeks emulate Agatha Christie? Shortly after her disappearance a neighbour hinted that the anxiety could have been exacerbated by the actress and husband Lorne’s regular vicious rows. She disappeared during a stay as a voluntary patient at a care centre near her home in West Sussex. Stressful family issues led her to walking away from problems, she later explained.

"I had to have counselling", she confessed openly two years later. "And I am still having it. It was not a good time for me, but unless you talk about it, you are only repressing yourself again, aren’t you, and that cannot be healthy. I don’t mind you mentioning that time. It was part of me, and, well, there we are."
[3]
Was there ever a Nancy Neele in the life of her husband ‎Lorne Stormonth-Darling?

More about Honeysuckle Weeks can be found here

Honeysuckle Weeks on 'Foyle's War'

'Foyle’s War', the absorbing detective drama starring Michael Kitchen as a Detective Chief Superintendent (DCS) battling crime on the home front during World War II. But he had to share the limelight with his female driver Samantha Stewart.
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 in another revival. That said, we could contemplate a structure like 'Morse' morphing into 'Lewis' and 'Lewis' changing 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'.

More about Honeysuckle Weeks can be found here

[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.

[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 amazon.co.uk and bol.com.

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.

Update [10th April 2018]: The first two novels, 'Beloved poison' and 'Dark Asylum' have now been optioned by the television production company behind the primetime hit, 'The Durrells'. A proud Elaine Thomson said: "Sid Gentle Productions have optioned them and are working on getting a writer to adapt them for the screen. Then it will be put to the BBC and ITV, and I believe Netflix are interested."

Who will be the lucky actress to play a believable Jem Flockhart? I've sent Sid Gentle Production a suggestion: Honeysuckle Weeks, who played Sam Stewart in 'Foyle's War'.

[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.

Update [10th April 2018]: The first two novels, 'Beloved poison' and 'Dark Asylum' have now been optioned by the television production company behind the primetime hit, 'The Durrells'. A proud Elaine Thomson said: "Sid Gentle Productions have optioned them and are working on getting a writer to adapt them for the screen. Then it will be put to the BBC and ITV, and I believe Netflix are interested."

Who will be the lucky actress to play a believable Jem Flockhart? I've sent Sid Gentle Production a suggestion: Honeysuckle Weeks, who played Sam Stewart in 'Foyle's War'.

Alternative etymology: Ghetto

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.

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

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

[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).

[Review] 'Classical Traditions in Science Fiction'

'Classical Traditions in Science Fiction' (edited by Brett M. Rogers and Benjamin Eldon Stevens) is a book that contains 14 essays by scholars of the classics, Greek, English, and philosophy. The essays explore connections between Jules Verne and the Greek satirist Lucian; Dune and the Iliad; Alien Resurrection and the Odyssey; antiquity and Western identity in Battlestar Galactica; the Iliad and Dan Simmons’ Ilium; The Hunger Games and the Roman Empire; and the graphic novel Pax Romana, which explores the transition from antiquity to a Christian world.

The term 'science fiction' is inherently vague and finding an all encompassing definition proves surprisingly elusive. Adam Roberts’ dictum that science fiction is 'premised on a material, instrumental version of the cosmos,' in contrast to its close ally, fantasy, which concerns 'magic, the supernatural, the spiritual.' Alternately, Susan Sontag summed up the whole genre as consisting of the 'imagination of disaster,' a fascination with dread of irresistible destruction.

At first science fiction did keep itself busy with 'novel ideas' about a possible future as dictated by Adam Roberts. Yet, the next wave of SF consisted of visions of a drab and depressing future as summed up by Susan Sontag. During the Victorian era, the world was changing fast, for some too fast. When extrapolated, the rapid industralisation with its smog and crumbling institutions, could herald an apocalypse in the future.

To be literature, one school of thought goes, a science fiction novel must be depressing, ginging an account of hubris and failure, such as George Orwell’s 1984. Some consider Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein the first science fiction: the optimism that drives scientific advance is thwarted by that unreliable factor, the human element.

Jesse Weiner’s essay “Lucretius, Lucian, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” gives a thorough account of the book’s debate with the ancients, its later influence, and Shelley’s ambivalence about scientific progress.

But Frankenstein is subtitled The Modern Prometheus. Shelley drew upon the myth of Prometheus, who steals fire from the gods and is condemned to eternal damnation. Dr. Frankenstein is seeking higher human knowledge, the secret to the spark of life, and pays dearly for it.

'Classical Traditions in Science Fiction' is a book that contains a fascinating collection of essays that gives readers a new understanding of the place of science fiction within the Western literary tradition. Science fiction certainly harks its history back to classical Greek literature. Well worth your time. 

Diet Soda Linked to Weight Gain, Not Weight Loss?

Olive Oil Times, formerly a site with a good reputation, ran an article with the heading 'Diet Soda Linked to Weight Gain, Not Weight Loss'.
The article used data from recent Canadian research that claimed that 'Evidence from RCTs does not clearly support the intended benefits of nonnutritive sweeteners for weight management, and observational data suggest that routine intake of nonnutritive sweeteners may be associated with increased BMI and cardiometabolic risk'[1].

Well, that was a strange outcome, because a previous study that used the same data reached a different conclusion 'Overall, the balance of evidence indicates that use of LES (Low Energy Sugars) in place of sugar, in children and adults, leads to reduced EI (Energy Intake) and BW (body weight), and possibly also when compared with water[2].


What I think is that the effects of all interventions to combat obesity are limited and inconsistent. There are many variables and no study will ever be able to control for all of them. People might drink diet soda, but still eat to much fast food, nullifying the effect of the zero calories of the diet soda.

So, if you are trying to lose weight replacing sugary drinks with low calorie drinks can be a helpful part of your overall strategy. It will not be a panacea or make weight loss easy. See here.

The Olive Oil Times made things even worse by asking a naturopath (quack alert!) for her opinion. 'Carolyn Dean, medical doctor and naturopath, didn’t mince words in giving her opinion about the research. “This study, which exposes the false claims of synthetic sweeteners, should have the industry quaking in its boots”'.

As Wikipedia rightly warns: 'Naturopathy or naturopathic medicine is a form of pseudoscientific, alternative medicine.' Poor Olive Oil Times. I hope they didn't pay the writer of that article, because it did more harm than good.

[1] Azad et al: Nonnutritive sweeteners and cardiometabolic health: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials and prospective cohort studies in Canadian Medical Association Journal – 2017
[2] Rogers et al: Does low-energy sweetener consumption affect energy intake and body weight? A systematic review, including meta-analyses, of the evidence from human and animal studies in International Journal of Obesity – 2015

Human Brain Is Still Evolving

Two genes involved in determining the size of the human brain have undergone substantial evolution in the last 60,000 years, suggesting that the brain is still undergoing rapid evolution[1].
New versions of the genes - or alleles - appear to have spread because they enhanced the brain's size and function in some way. These new alleles improve brain function, but that would not necessarily mean that the populations where they are common have any brain-related advantage over those where they are rare. Different populations often take advantage of different alleles, which occur at random, to respond to the same evolutionary pressure, as has happened in the emergence of genetic defenses against malaria, which are somewhat different in Mediterranean and African populations.

The researchers studied study two genes, Microcephalin (MCPH1) and ASPM (Abnormal Spindle-like Microcephaly Associated), that came to light because they are disabled in microcephaly ('small brain'), now better known because Zika Virus causes it[2].

Lahn and his colleagues have studied the worldwide distribution of the alleles by decoding the DNA of the two genes in many different populations. They report that with microcephalin, a new allele arose ~37,000 years ago (between 60,000 and 14,000 years ago)[3]. Some 70 percent or more of people in most European and East Asian populations carry this allele of the gene, as do 100 percent of those in three South American Indian populations, but the allele is much rarer in most sub-Saharan Africans.

With the other gene, ASPM, a new allele emerged ~5,800 years ago (between 14,100 and 500 years ago). The allele has attained a frequency of about 50 percent in populations of the Middle East and Europe, is less common in East Asia, and found at low frequency in some sub-Saharan Africa peoples. They note that the ASPM allele emerged at about the same time as the spread of agriculture in the Middle East 10,000 years ago and the emergence of the civilizations of the Middle East some 5,000 years ago, but say any connection is not yet clear.
The Microcephalin and ASPM genes are known to be involved in determining brain size and so far have no other known function, he said. They are known to have been under strong selective pressure as brain size increased from monkeys to man, and the chances seem "pretty good" that the new alleles are a continuation of that process, Dr. Lahn said.

[1] Mekel-Bobrov et al: Ongoing adaptive evolution of ASPM, a brain size determinant in Homo sapiens in Science – 2005
[2] Evans et al: Microcephalin, a gene regulating brain size, continues to evolve adaptively in humans in Science – 2005
[3] Evans et al: Evidence that the adaptive allele of the brain size gene microcephalin introgressed into Homo sapiens from an archaic Homo lineage in PNASofUSA - 2006

Stunting and Anorexia

Most experts now probably agree that stunting is a development disorder[1]. 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[2]. It is a largely irreversible outcome of inadequate nutrition and repeated bouts of infection during the first 1000 days of a child’s life.

In my previous paper, 'Stunting: Malnutrition or Exploitation?'[3], I claimed that stunting is not only the result of malnutrition, but also of child exploitation. Both are indicative of poverty.

I also linked stunting to rigorous training by athletes. These athletes eat meals that contain more than enough nutrients to grow, but their bodies use these nutrients to enhance the short-term goals to the detriment of long-term growth. My conclusion was that, while stunting is usually monitored in children less than five years of age, stunting should also be monitored in children older than five years of age.
But what if malnutrition is the result of an ill-advised choice? What if anorexia also leads to stunting? The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5 (DSM-5) classifies Anorexia Nervosa as an eating disorder. Criteria include [1] Restriction of energy intake relative to requirements leading to a significantly low body weight in the context of age, sex, developmental trajectory, and physical health, [2] Intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat, even though underweight and [3] Disturbance in the way in which one's body weight or shape is experienced, undue influence of body weight or shape on self-evaluation, or denial of the seriousness of the current low body weight[3].

How will a voluntary restriction of energy intake relative to requirements, that leads to a significantly lower body weight in the context of age, sex, developmental trajectory and physical health, influence your growth?
One study revealed that 'Male children of women with a history of Anorexia Nervosa [...], and female children of women with Anorexia Nervosa, were shorter throughout childhood'[4]. Another study found that 'linear growth retardation was a prominent feature of Anorexia Nervosa in our sample of male adolescent patients, preceding, in some cases, the reported detection of the eating disorder. Weight restoration, particularly when target weight is based on the premorbid height percentile, may be associated with significant catch-up growth, but complete catch-up growth may not be achieved'[5].

Therefore, anorexia is a type of malnutrition and can lead to stunting.

Part 1 'Stunting: Malnutrition or Exploitation?' can be read here.
Part 3 'Smoking and Stunting' can be read here.

[1] Kraemer: Making Stunting a Development Indicator in Sight and Life - 2016 
[2] WHO Global Nutrition Targets 2025: Stunting Policy Brief. See here
[3] De Vries: Stunting: Malnutrition or Exploitation? in Sight and Life - 2016 
 [4] American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5 – 2013 
[5] Easter et al: Growth trajectories in the children of mothers with eating disorders: a longitudinal study in BMJ Open - 2014 
 [6] Modan-Moses et al: Stunting of growth as a major feature of anorexia nervosa in male adolescent in Pediatrics - 2003

[Review] 'The Evidence of Ghosts' by AK Benedict

Maria King, blind from birth and now blind by choice, sits by the Thames mudlarking, sifting through the history of London. Having been blind all her life, she can't get used to being gifted with sight after surgery. She wears a blindfold that gives her a feeling of security. Only, one day, while mudlarking, she finds a ring still on a finger in a box with 'Marry me Maria' on the lid in braille.

DI Jonathan Dark is assigned to the case. The finger and the ring belonged to the last woman who received a similar proposal and was murdered. Jonathan Dark was unable to prevent that murder and his intention is not to let Maria be the next victim of the stalker.

Jonathan Dark is a detective with a disintegrating private life. His personal problems constantly interfere with his professional life, but the real question in 'The Evidence of Ghosts' is: who's stalking Maria King and why?

The other question that may be on our lips is: if I was being stalked by a murderer would I want to keep wearing a blindfold? I know that seems an odd question but when you consider Maria wears one by choice all the time, it makes sense to ask. While most reviewers think that this doesn't reflect true life, I can assure readers that one can never understand the psychology of the human mind.

Alexandra Benedict weaves a fascinating supernatural (or supranational) world where the dead are always with us, sometimes helping, sometimes obstructing and sometimes urging to kill.

What do I think of 'The Evidence of Ghosts'? I got the distinct feeling that Alexandra Benedict was trying to weave too many storylines in this book and not quite succeeding. Yet, it still is a perfect albeit unusual amalgamation of a crime novel and a Gothic novel. A.K. Benedict has a rich imagination and a dark sense of humour that enlightens nearly every page.

Death has no sequel. So ends the book. But I'm certain that AK Benedict's fertile imagination has already conjured up other adventures for our troubled detective Jonathan Dark. Highly Recommended.

Sss-Cut...

[Review] 'Classical Traditions in Modern Fantasy'

'Classical Traditions in Modern Fantasy' is the second in a series, the first being 'Classical Traditions in Science Fiction'.

'Classical Traditions in Modern Fantasy' is a collection of essays focusing on how fantasy draws deeply on ancient Greek and Roman mythology and literature.

Edited by Brett M. Rogers and Benjamin Eldon Stevens, the book contains fifteen essays intended for scholars and readers of fantasy alike. This volume explores many of the most significant examples of the modern genre, including H. P. Lovecraft's dark stories, J. R. R. Tolkien's 'The Hobbit', C. S. Lewis's 'Chronicles of Narnia', J. K. Rowling's 'Harry Potter' and George R. R. Martin's 'A Song of Ice and fire' (aka 'Game of Thrones'), in relation to ancient classical texts such as Aeschylus' Oresteia, Aristotle's Poetics, Virgil's Aeneid and Apuleius' Metamorphoses (aka 'The Golden Ass').

So, the writers of the essays try to find links and similarities between modern fantasy and classical texts. It's a comparatively easy task, because both hark back to universal stories that lie buried deep within us. All writers, ancient and recent, will tell stories that have the same issues at the heart of it: a quest for freedom, a rebellion against repression or the urge to discover unknown lands.

What most of the essays fail to mention is the education the modern fantasy writers have had. We know that Tolkien was a philologist and university professor, but he said his main inspiration for 'The Hobbit' was the Old English epic 'Beowulf'. I agree with Benjamin Eldon Stevens, writer on the essay on Tolkien, that Bilbo's travels into the tunnels and his encounters with Gollum/Sméagol echoes the underworlds of Dante and Virgil. We also know that Rowling studied classics at the University of Exeter, so her classical 'roots' are also not in doubt. But what of George R. R. Martin, who 'only' studied journalism? Did he write his sprawling fantasy series with the classics in mind? Or did he simply write a story that has so many similarities with classical stories that one is easily tempted to deduce that Martin is influenced by them. H.P. Lovecraft never finished high school, but was interested in chemistry and astronomy. His dark writing was fueled by his nightmares, the result of parasomnia or ‘night terrors’.

In the end, 'Classical Traditions in Modern Fantasy', is certainly a book that you should read, because it gives you a reason to ask yourself a lot of questions. And that's the very best one might expect from a book.

Alternative etymology: Viking

Everybody knows about Vikings, the fearless warriors from the cold and barren north. People who have studied history (but not etymology) will tell you that Viking is an Old Norse word meaning 'pirate' or 'raider'. It's not.
Actually, the English word 'Viking' went extinct in Middle English, was revived in the 19th century and borrowed from the Scandinavian languages of that time.

The etymology of víkingr and víking is hotly debated by scholars. A víkingr was someone who went on expeditions, usually abroad, usually by sea, and usually in a group with other víkingar (the plural).

Both words are thought to be connected with Old Norse vík meaning 'fjord'', 'small bay', 'inlet' or 'cove'. Towns such as Reykjavik and Lerwick may trace their origins back to the Vikings. But it would be a step too far if one would decide that viking was named after a 'fjord'. Vikings were a diverse group and originated from the entire Scandinavian peninsular. We need another explanation.

The Swedes will tell you that vig means 'battle' and therefore a viking would be a 'warrior'. Not so.

Both wic in Old English and wick in Old Frisian meant ‘camp’ or ‘a temporary living space'. So, it's quite possible that, if vic means 'camp', then 'vikingr' could well mean '(one) going on a camping trip'.

As camps grew into more permanent settlements, the word vic also came to denote something different. We can discover the word in Old English wīc ('dwelling place', 'abode') and Middle English wik, wich ('village', 'hamlet', 'town'). Modern Dutch wijk and modern Frisian wyk still mean 'part of a city'. This solution also ties in very neatly with the old Norse word vestrvíking. It is usually translated as 'raiding in the west', in the context of 'the British Isles'. Now we can give its original meaning 'camping in the west'.

[Review] 'Sleeper' by J.D. Fennell

'Sleeper', the debut by J. D. Fennell, is marketed as a young adult thriller. Yes, it is that and much more. The book is also a masterful melange of fantasy and war-time chaos. The protagonist Will Starling is a sixteen year old and he must keep a mysterious notebook out of the hands of VIPER, a murderous bunch of villains. After being shot and fallen into the icy water near Dover, he is rescued only to discover his memory is gone. You might think that this is some sort of homage to Jason Bourne, but 'Sleeper' is different. Very different.

Slowly but surely the memory of Starling returns and he understands that he's no ordinary lad. He's been trained to kill and to maim. As could be expected the story takes place at the backdrop of air raids on London, which adds another layer of fear and chaos to 'Sleeper'.

Just a few pages into the tale, I was certain that this was no ordinary thriller. This was something new. If I were a native English speaker, I would be able to say that it is a ripping yarn told at breakneck speed. What can it be compared to, I wondered aloud. In the end I decided 'Sleeper' might well be a start to a wonderful series that emulates the movies about 'Indiana Jones' with elements of Young Bond (by Steve Cole) and Alex Rider (by Anthony Horowitz) thrown in for good measure.

This is a thriller I would certainly highly recommend to young adults, but more adult readers might find 'Sleeper' also very entertaining. If I were pressed to mention a minor negative, I might mention that I missed a bit of British tongue-in-cheek humour to lighten the narrative a bit at opportune moments. But I would only mention that after a fair bit of torture.

The fear of cats in Victorian times

It was in the late nineteenth century that medicine turned its attention to irrational fears. The German physician Carl Westphal (1833-1890) made the initial diagnosis of a phobia, agoraphobia, the fear of open spaces, in 1871[1]. He studied the behaviour of three otherwise sane and rational men who were terrified of crossing an open city space. Following this diagnosis, the notion that individuals could be overtaken by various forms of inexplicable fear was quickly taken up by medical practitioners around the world.

The American psychologist Granville Stanley Hall (1846-1924) soon identified 138 different forms of pathological fear[2]. Not only did these include recognised phobia, such as agoraphobia and claustrophobia, but also some fears that were particular to the Victorian era: amakophobia (fear of carriages), pteronophobia (fear of feathers) and hypegiaphobia (fear of responsibility).
However, it was the fear of cats (ailurophobia) that attracted the most attention from Victorian researchers. Hall, with his colleague Silas Weir Mitchell, even conducted experiments, such as placing sufferers into a room with a hidden cat, to see if they picked up animal's presence. He became convinced that many of his patients always could sense them. Trying to explain the phobia, he ruled out asthma and evolutionary inherited fears (people who were terrified of cats could look at lions and tigers without problems).

Eventually Hall suggested that emanations from the cat 'may affect the nervous system through the nasal membrane, although recognised as odours'. He remained baffled over why cats seemed to have an urge to get as close as possible to individuals who were scared of them.

Research now suggest that the Victorian urge to classify almost everything was the result of a rapidly changing, industrialising society, where new scientific theories were starting to challenge long-held religious beliefs, explanations and dogma.

[1] Westphal: Die Agoraphobie, eine neuropathische Erscheinung in Archiv für Psychiatrie und Nervenkrankheiten - 1871
[2] Stanley Hall: Synthetic Genetic Study of Fear in American Journal of Psychology - 1914