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Victorian milliners almost killed off the Great Crested Grebe

Posted in Animals, Birds, Nature, Wildlife on Wednesday, 19 March 2014

This edited article about birds first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 599 published on 7 July 1973.

Great Crested Grebe,  picture, image, illustration
Great Crested Grebe by R B Davis

With so many of our native birds declining in numbers and some even disappearing altogether, it is good to know that at least one species is on the increase. One hundred years ago the Great Crested Grebe was in danger of extinction, chiefly because it was the fashion in Victorian times for ladies to wear hats that had been trimmed with grebe “fur.” Towards the end of the last century the number of breeding pairs of these birds was estimated at less than 50. Today, nearly every large sheet of fresh water supports at least one pair of these attractive birds.

Grebes are expert divers and can stay underwater for a considerable time while they feed on small fish, weed and water insects. The courtship display of these birds is unusual. Sometimes a pair face each other, with “ears” held erect and ruffs spread out, and then solemnly shake their heads from side to side or rise up in the water breast to breast and present each other with bits of water weed. This kind of courtship takes place at most times of the year but, in spring, leads to the building of a nest, a floating mound of dead reeds and water plants among the reeds in shallow water.

The three to five eggs laid from April onwards, are white, but on leaving the nest the parents cover them with weeds and this makes them a dirty colour. The chicks have attractive black and white stripes and are often carried on the backs of their parents, sometimes concealed among the feathers with only their heads poking out.

Israel won the Six Days’ War and crushed her Arab neighbours

Posted in Historical articles, History, War on Wednesday, 19 March 2014

This edited article about the Middle East first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 599 published on 7 July 1973.

Israeli forces,  picture, image, illustration
Israeli forces on the move by Graham Coton

On Wednesday, June 7, 1967, Israeli paratroops stormed the Mount of Olives on the east side of the Old City of Jerusalem. There was a brief pause. Then over the crackling intercom came the voice of their commander: “Paratroopers, today we stand at the gates of the Old City where so many of our dreams lie. Be proud.” The order to move was given and vehicles climbed the steep track to St. Stephen’s Gate. By ten o’clock they were at the Temple and the Western Wall. The paratroopers, boys of 19 who had grown up with the State of Israel, wept. It was the climax of the Six Days’ War.

The Six Days’ War between Israel and the Arab states was a crisis of the first magnitude. But it arose and was resolved so quickly that the world had barely time to tremble. The war had become inescapable as the series of border incidents and retaliatory threats between Israel and the Arabs escalated to an intolerable degree. Arab radio propaganda had become frenzied in its shrill denunciation of the Israelis who, it insisted, had dispossessed the Arabs of part of their homeland. “Fight Arabs,” shrieked Radio Damascus. “We shall hang the last imperialist soldier with the entrails of the last Zionist.”

The Arab states began military and diplomatic manoeuvres that could only spell war, not only to the watchful Israelis but to a now attentive world. In May President Nasser of Egypt sent Egyptian troops into the Sinai Peninsula. He asked the United Nations Emergency Force, which had been sent after the Suez crisis to keep the peace, to withdraw. Finally he closed the Straits of Tiran, cutting all access to Israel through the Gulf of Aqaba. And in case anyone still had any doubts about Arab intentions Nasser declared: “We have completed our preparations and are ready to confront Israel.”

At the end of the month King Hussein of Jordan and the Egyptian President hugged each other at Cairo airport, clearly indicating that Jordan was on Egypt’s side. The remaining major Arab power, Syria, was equally explicit in its intentions: “Only Palestine-born Jews will be left in Palestine,” declared a Syrian leader, “but I think none of them will be left alive.” Read the rest of this article »

Robert Smith Surtees wrote the funniest novel about hunting

Posted in Animals, British Countryside, English Literature, Historical articles, History, Sport on Wednesday, 19 March 2014

This edited article about Robert Surtees first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 599 published on 7 July 1973.

Illustration for Mr Facey Romford's Hounds,  picture, image, illustration
A humorous llustration for Mr Facey Romford's Hounds by Surtees, picture by John Leech

It was a dark winter’s afternoon in 1832, as the 27-year-old Robert Smith Surtees sat writing in his London room. He was working on the next episode of his novel Jorrocks’s Jaunts and Jollities which was being serialised in the New Sporting Magazine, when something reminded him of his childhood. He leaned back in his chair in the flickering candlelight and relived the adventure of his first fox hunt.

He had been a boy of 12, the son of a well-to-do country gentleman. His family home was Hamsterley Hall, in Durham, where he had lived since a few years after he was born in 1805. He had been standing in his father’s stableyard when the local hunt passed by. The harsh note of the huntsman’s horn split the morning calm. The hounds were hot on the scent of a fox, and, close behind the dogs, came the huntsmen. The thundering hooves filled Robert’s ears, and, without hesitating, he leapt on to the nearest horse – which was unsaddled and still wearing only a stable blanket – and galloped off in pursuit of the fox.

His father’s reaction to Robert’s bareback cross-country chase had been very mixed. As Master of the Hunt the older man had been amused and pleased by the boy’s enthusiasm, but as owner of a valuable horse which might have been seriously harmed by such thoughtless treatment, he was furious. Robert was lucky, however, for the sportsman was stronger than the disciplinarian in his father and his anger soon faded.

Robert Surtees came out of his day-dream and started busily writing again. He had to finish the episode he was writing, that evening, but he did not mind the work for the serial was about his favourite subject, hunting. By writing of the adventures of his hero, Jorrocks, Surtees could escape from the equally pressing and more serious work of his profession, the law. He hated all things legal, however, finding them dry and dull. So he escaped from London whenever possible and could often be found galloping through the Surry countryside with one of the many local hunts. Read the rest of this article »

The true origins of the Renaissance lay in scientific enquiry

Posted in Art, Historical articles, History, Religion, Science on Wednesday, 19 March 2014

This edited article about the Renaissance first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 599 published on 7 July 1973.

Gallileo on the tower of Pisa,  picture, image, illustration
Gallileo on the tower of Pisa by James E McConnell

New Year’s Eve in the year A.D. 999 was not the most joyous festival in the story of our world. In the churches men and women crowded the pews, weeping and lamenting. In the streets outside, crying sinners flayed each other with birch branches.

In the churchyards crowds on their knees waited for the graves to burst open, and for the skeletal dead to rise and beckon them with bony fingers to their everlasting fate.

For, said the knowledgeable, on the morrow, the first day of the year A.D. 1000, the world would come to an end. On that day Jesus would return to Earth to judge all men, to send them off to heaven or hell.

The appointed day, discovered by the sages in their study of the stars, approved by the Church and accepted by the gullible multitude, had for long been anticipated. Famines and plagues, sent by the Lord as advance warnings of His wrath, had been steadily increasing in number. In an attempt to counteract their evil effects, pilgrimages had multiplied. As the day of doom drew nearer, all Europe was gripped by a paralysis of fear.

On New Year’s Eve that fear turned into an hysterical panic. Those who dared to go to bed, closed their eyes never expecting to open them again. Those who stayed up, watched the sky and waited in wonder for the descent of Christ.

But He didn’t come. And when the cock crowed and the restless sleepers awoke, and first light streaked the dawn sky, men all over Europe rubbed their reddened eyes and looked at each other saying. “It’s just like any other day. We’ve been fooled!”

The dawn of the eleventh century, however, was not perhaps quite like any other day. For it may well have been the first day in history when a large number of people realised that what they had been taught to accept for centuries was not necessarily true. As such, it may have been the first birth pang of the glittering epoch that we call the Renaissance.

Like the middle ages and the industrial revolution, the Renaissance is an era which cannot be confined between dates marking a beginning and an end. It touched many countries and was about many different things, and most of those things were happening in different places at different times.

But in the broadest sense we could say that it began in Florence about the end of the fourteenth century and that the major changes associated with it went on for two hundred years, until the early years of the seventeenth century. Read the rest of this article »

General Robert E. Lee became a national hero after his surrender

Posted in America, Heroes and Heroines, Historical articles, History, War on Wednesday, 19 March 2014

This edited article about the American Civil War first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 599 published on 7 July 1973.

General Lee and his horse 'Traveller' surrenders to General Grant.
General Lee astride his horse 'Traveller' surrenders to General Grant by James E McConnell

The spring sunshine beat down on the long lines of ragged men. Suddenly a bugle blared and guns fired in salute, while into sight rode a tall, handsome, bearded man, in grey full-dress uniform. At once, a great yell, the immortal, unforgettable Rebel yelled of the Confederate Army, burst from thousands of throats.

The soldier on the horse, General Robert E. Lee, took off his hat to his men and the ear-splitting yell rang out again.

“Does it not make the General proud to see how these men love him?” asked an onlooker, who was standing by one of Lee’s staff.

“Not proud,” replied the officer. “It awes him.”

It was 1864 and the Confederacy, the group of Southern States which had broken away from the U.S.A. in 1861, had just a year more to live. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia were the key to Southern survival.

Lee was a Virginian. Born in 1807, he was the son of a hero of the War of Independence against Britain, and the Army seemed his destiny from childhood. He did well from the moment he entered it, in war and in peace, until the fatal year of 1861 found him, along with countless other Americans, in two minds as to which side to support.

As the finest officer in the Army, both sides wanted him to lead their forces! At this tragic hour, he had therefore to choose between State and Union. It was an easy choice for some, but not for him. He believed in the Union; and unlike many Southerners, he was passionately opposed to slavery, which was a part of the Southern way of life because the slaves picked the all-important cotton, and which was a cause of the war.

The other cause was the Southerners’ belief that a State had the right to decide what it did (like allow slavery) whatever the Government in Washington said. It was this that finally decided Lee. First and foremost he was a Virginian. He would side with Virginia.

The Confederates had to win fast before the sheer size of the North and its colossal industrial power swamped them. Lee’s men were born fighters and his officers were the pick of the old United States Army. His second-in-command was the granite-like “Stonewall” Jackson, so called because the sight of him and his brigade standing like a stone wall at the First Battle of Bull Run (July, 1861) had rallied the rest of the army. The two men made a matchless team. Read the rest of this article »

Czar Paul’s one ambition was to avenge his father’s death

Posted in Historical articles, History, Royalty on Wednesday, 19 March 2014

This edited article about Czar Paul of Russia first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 599 published on 7 July 1973.

Czar Paul of Russia,  picture, image, illustration
When Catherine the Great died, Czar Paul of Russia shed no tears of grief but cried out an inner cheer of vengeful delight

The small squat ugly man stood looking at the coffin of his mother, Catherine the Great, still lying in state. There were no tears in his eyes. His face was white and the muscles of his face twitched – but this was anger not sorrow. Suddenly he raised his clenched fists upwards and hissed: “And now at last I shall have my revenge!”

This was Czar Paul of Russia who in 1796 had just succeeded to the throne. His mother, Catherine the Great, believed that his fits of uncontrollable temper bordered sometimes on madness and that he was not suited to take her place and rule over Russia. She meant to name Paul’s son, Alexander, as next Czar, but her death from a sudden stroke prevented her from making her intentions known publicly. And so Paul became Czar of Russia.

Paul had always disliked his mother while she for her part had treated him with contempt and hostility. He had been brought up by his aunt, the Empress Elizabeth. When Elizabeth had died, Catherine had still shown no interest in her son. Paul had married when he was 19 but his wife died a few months later. Soon after, he married again, this time a Prussian princess – Maria. Catherine only showed some interest when Paul’s son was born. She held an enormous banquet in his honour, and then took the baby Alexander from his parents to be brought up by herself.

Paul had always firmly believed – and probably not without reason – that his mother was in some way to blame for the murder of his father, Peter the Third. Now that his mother had died, it was his opportunity to show some gesture of revenge.

First he ordered that the body of his father, killed 34 years ago, should be exhumed and placed in a coffin alongside that of his mother. The two coffins, side by side, formed the head of the vast and long funeral procession. And then the man who Paul knew to be guilty of the actual deed of killing his father – Count Alexis Orlov – once a strong fierce soldier but now an old man – was forced to walk behind the two coffins carrying Peter the Third’s crown in his hand. The bodies of Peter and Catherine were then buried together.

But Paul’s revenge was not yet complete. Catherine had had a favourite admirer who had helped and advised her during much of her reign. His name had been Potemkin and Catherine had been desolate when he had died a few years before her. Paul now had Potemkin’s remains dug up and scattered into a ditch to lie there forgotten. Read the rest of this article »

The Berlin Wall divided Europe and was an offence against humanity

Posted in Communism, Famous landmarks, Historical articles, History on Wednesday, 19 March 2014

This edited article about the Berlin Wall first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 598 published on 30 June 1973.

Berlin Wall,  picture, image, illustration
Escapees trying to cross the border between East and West Germany after the wall was built in 1961; some succeeded, while others were shot down by East German border guards; picture by Graham Coton<

On the morning of Sunday 13th August, 1961 an old man lay asleep in his home in the village of Rhondorf. Exhausted by a hectic election campaign and by mounting criticism, Konrad Adenauer, Chancellor Of West Germany, tossed fitfully. His bedside telephone shrilled suddenly. News had come from Berlin that a barrier had been built, sealing off the East German frontier. Chancellor Adenauer listened quietly. Two hours later he went to Mass. But although he continued to remain calm for the rest of the day, he knew, as the world knew, that the ever-tense situation in Berlin had been tightened to breaking point.

Why was the Berlin wall built?

At the end of the Second World War Berlin had surrendered to Russian forces and so lay within the area of Germany claimed by Russia, which became the East German Republic. The city itself, however, was quartered between French, British, Russian and American commands. It became the scene of a trial of strength in 1947 when the Soviet Union attempted to blockade the western sector; the siege was only overcome by a massive airlift. Early in 1961 the Russians again threatened western access to the city but it was the East German Republic which brought matters to a head.

Since the early days of the republic numbers of East Germans had “voted with their feet,” by fleeing over the border from east to west Berlin to seek political refuge in West Germany. By 1961 the flow had risen to over a thousand a day. It was a direct result of the policies of repression and brutality imposed by the regime of Walter Ulbricht the East German president. The effect of the mass emigration was to reduce drastically the labour force in East Germany and to ruin plans for the expansion and improvement of the East German economy. Read the rest of this article »

Jerome K. Jerome was a droll late-Victorian humorist

Posted in English Literature, Historical articles, History on Wednesday, 19 March 2014

This edited article about Jerome K. Jerome first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 598 published on 30 June 1973.

Three Men in a Boat,  picture, image, illustration
A scene from Three Men in a Boat by Paul Rainer

Jerome K. Jerome walked slowly along the dark London street, past Langham church as the clock on its tower showed 1.20 a.m. It was the winter of 1884 and the empty streets were still. Suddenly pulling a battered notebook and pencil out of his pocket, he stopped by a street lamp. Turning towards the dim glow shed by the gas light he started to write quickly.

Jerome was a writer who liked to do his writing out of doors at night. Work on his first book, On the Stage – and Off, was going well and he was eager to finish it. Then, hearing approaching footsteps, Jerome looked up. Over the past few months he had got to know all the policemen who patrolled this beat, and he quickly recognised the inspector walking towards him.

“Evening sir” said the policeman, and Jerome, smiling a greeting, said eagerly.

“Listen to this,” and began to read aloud from his notebook. The policeman listened and then, to Jerome’s relief, began to laugh heartily.

“Very good sir,” he said. “That should make a fine book when it’s finished,” and he nodded towards the notebook in Jerome’s hand.

Jerome smiled again, pleased with his success. It was always more difficult to make the inspector laugh than any of the other men on this beat. After the inspector had gone Jerome stuffed notebook and pencil back into his pocket and walked thoughtfully towards home, a shabby little room off the Tottenham Court Road.

Jerome had always been determined to be a writer. Once, when only a small boy, he had been left behind during the long train journey home to London after a holiday in Cornwall. He had consoled himself then by thinking what a good adventure it would make when he wrote about being lost in his diary. Read the rest of this article »

The Common heron goes fishing in garden ponds

Posted in Animals, Birds, Nature, Wildlife on Wednesday, 19 March 2014

This edited article about the heron first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 598 published on 30 June 1973.

Common heron,  picture, image, illustration
Common Heron

It is estimated that there are about 10,000 herons in England and Wales and you will have been rather unlucky if you have not seen one flying overhead at one time or another. In flight the heron has a heavy, slow-flapping appearance with legs stretched straight out behind and with the long neck drawn in. You might see one on some stretch of river, wading in shallow water on the look-out for eels, frogs and small fish. It will also take small mammals, young birds and even goldfish from garden ponds!

The heron, it seems, is a cunning bird, for one has been seen to carry a piece of bread to the water, drop it in and then wait for small fish to come and nibble the bait so it can gulp them up one by one.

The nest of the heron is a large, untidy affair made of small branches and sticks in which smaller birds like sparrows, sometimes become squatters by moving into the “basement flat” and making their own nests. Two to six eggs are laid in early spring but the rather comical-looking crew-cut chicks are unable to fly until they are two months old.

‘Great God! This is an awful place . . .’ so wrote Captain Scott

Posted in Disasters, Exploration, Famous news stories, Heroes and Heroines, Historical articles, History on Wednesday, 19 March 2014

This edited article about Scott of the Antarctic first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 598 published on 30 June 1973.

Captain Scott,  picture, image, illustration
Scott reached the Pole only to find that he had been beaten by Amundsen, by Angus McBride

The race to the South Pole was on! Captain Robert Falcon Scott, RN, had not wanted a race, but now he had no choice. The great Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen, was out to reach the Pole first, having switched his plans to try and be the first man to reach the North Pole!

Captain Scott was leader of the 60-strong British Antarctic Expedition, which had headed south from New Zealand aboard the Terra Nova, surviving a terrible battering in heavy seas to reach the mighty southern continent on the last day of 1910. Scott was following up an earlier expedition to the fabulous, majestic land of ice and snows, a land of awe-inspiring, desolate beauty, of stupendous mountains and glaciers, of deadly danger and many other wonders to behold.

He and his men had come to learn first and reach the Pole second in an unhurried way. Now he had to decide at once whether or not to challenge Amundsen, for news had just reached him that the Norwegian had landed at the Bay of Wales, 60 miles nearer the Pole than he was, and Amundsen was interested in success, not science, and had more than 100 dogs to get him to the Pole.

Scott made up his mind. They would “go forward and do our best for the honour of the country without fear or panic.” From his base at McMurdo Sound it was 923 miles to the Pole. He decided to use motor sledges at first, then the ponies they had brought with them, then dogs. For the last lap, Scott and a few picked men would drag a single sledge to the Pole, having left the dogs and supplies at a depot for the return journey.

They started on November 1st, 1911, after the Polar winter was over, in high spirits and sure of success. The motor sledges had gone on ahead and they marched with the ponies and the dog-drawn sledges to One Ton Depot, which they had built the previous autumn. Twelve men, 10 ponies and a dog-team reached the depot on November 15th.

Then things started to go wrong. First the cylinders of the motor sledges cracked and they had to be abandoned. Then the ponies, despite every effort of Captain Oates of the Inniskilling Dragoon Guards, began to die. And the weather, which should have been good, turned nightmarish, with blinding blizzards and glaring sun in between them which caused snow-blindness. Twelve miles from the great Beardmore Glacier they were brought to a standstill and remained trapped in a camp for days.

Even Captain Scott confessed his deep depression to his diary, though to none of his men. By December 7th, there was hardly any food for the ponies and the men were eating into their advance rations. Then at last the wind dropped. Read the rest of this article »