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Archive for February, 2013

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Colourful Wood ducks perch in trees

Posted in America, Animals, Birds, Nature, Wildlife on Wednesday, 27 February 2013

This edited article about wood ducks originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 163 published on 27 February 1965.

Wood duck, picture, image, illustration

Wood duck

Sometimes called the Summer Duck, on account of the male’s striking plumage in late spring, the Wood Duck is native to North America.

Unlike most ducks, which are more at home in the water than on land, the Wood Duck is a forest-dweller and spends a great deal of its time perching in the trees bordering rivers and lakes. For that reason it has very strong, long and sharp claws with a well-developed hind “toe” specially designed for gripping branches.

The male Wood Duck is about 20 inches long from beak to tail and is one of the most handsome and colourful members of the duck tribe. The mauve, green and red colours on the head are separated by bands of white, making it particularly easy to recognize.

Wood Ducks nest in holes in trees, and the female lays three to four bluish eggs. Both the cock and the hen share the duty of hatching and looking after the chicks.

Because of the male’s brilliant colouring, Wood Ducks are often kept and bred in captivity. Unlike most ducks, they are very intelligent, and it is quite usual for a Wood Duck to come to its owner when called by name.

Another curious thing about Wood Ducks is that they will only breed among themselves. Most other species of duck inter-breed freely.

Closely related to the Wood Duck is the Mandarin Duck of Japan and eastern Asia. In fact it is very difficult to distinguish the females of the two species, and even ornithologists are not always able to identify one from the other.

Despite their very close relationships, Wood Duck and Mandarin Duck never inter-breed. And if ornithologists cannot always tell a Wood Duck hen from a Mandarin hen the males never make a mistake.

Also included in the Wood Duck group of perching ducks are the Muscovy Duck of Central and South America, the Pygmy Geese of South Africa and Madagascar, the Green Pygmy of Australia, and the Cotton Teal of India.

As their name suggests, these are the midgets of the perching ducks, seldom being more than twelve inches long. All of them live and breed in trees.

Although some of these perching ducks are called geese they are, in fact, true ducks. This is proved by the shape of their syrinx, or vocal organ, which is more inflated than that of the goose. Also, they all have the whistling call characteristic of the Wood Duck and the Mandarin.

Another characteristic that definitely establishes the so-called Pygmy Goose as a relative of the Wood Duck is the speculum, or metallic sheen, on the wings.

The Holy Roman Empire was Charlemagne’s inspired creation

Posted in Historical articles, History, Politics, Religion, Royalty on Wednesday, 27 February 2013

This edited article about Charlemagne originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 163 published on 27 February 1965.

Charlemagne, picture, image, illustration

The Pope crowns Charlemagne at his coronation on Christmas Day 800, by John Millar Watt

Among the troubles that were on the mind of Pope Stephen the Second in the eighth century were the continuous threats that the pagan Lombards, inhabitants of a State in northern Italy, were making against his Holy See in Rome and the authority of his Church.

Thinking about these mettlesome Lombards the Pope had an idea. He would call in King Pepin of the Franks, the largest tribe in France, to help him.

Pope Stephen had a special interest in this King of the Franks. The first dynasty of Frankish kings, called the Merovingians, had failed in France through their complete inability to govern and the Pope had agreed to recognize a new dynasty of monarchs, called the Carolingians, the first of whom was King Pepin.

The Pope’s recognition and support of Pepin is important because to a certain extent it put Pepin in Pope Stephen’s debt.

Two very strong powers had now emerged from the Dark Ages in Europe. They were the Franks of King Pepin, a little man but as hard as metal; and the Church of Rome.

Since the fall of the Roman Empire in the West (the Roman Empire was to continue for a while longer in the East, with its capital at Constantinople), the Bishop of Rome, whom we call the Pope, owed no loyalty to any European nation. His religious authority was already widespread; he was rich, and people recognized him as being the successor of Saint Peter.

So when Pope Stephen decided to call in Pepin he was asking for the aid of one of the few men in Europe strong enough to give him help, and one who already owed him a debt of gratitude.

Across the Alps went Pepin at the head of a great army of Franks. After winning a terrible battle he forced the King of the Lombards to swear that he would never leave the town of Pavia. Then Pepin went home again.

No sooner was he gone than the King of the Lombards began to cause trouble again. He swept out of Pavia, plundered and looted the surrounding towns, and began a march on Rome.

Pope Stephen knew that Pepin was not enthusiastic about fighting battles outside France and was therefore unlikely to come back a second time. Unless, that is, remarkable powers of persuasion were brought to bear on him.

The Pope sat down and wrote a letter to Pepin. He wrote that the letter came from Peter, the disciple of Jesus, and if Pepin were to return to fight the Lombards again he, Peter, would come to his aid.

Pepin must have thought this a very unusual letter when he read it. But he decided to act upon it, and again he marched into Italy with another army.

Again he was victorious against the Lombards, taking from them all the towns they had captured. The keys to these towns he then sent to Pope Stephen, asking that they be laid on the altar of the Church of Saint Peter in Rome. Spiritually, Pepin was giving the keys of these towns to Peter, as God’s representative, in thanksgiving for his victories; in fact, however, he was giving them to the Pope.

This gesture of Pepin’s marks one of the most important events in the story of Europe because it meant that the Popes were the heads of these captured towns – which were the first of the Papal States.

Not long after this event Pepin died. He was succeeded by his son Charles, called Charles the Great, or, as all the world knows him, Charlemagne.

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The origins and meaning of the word ‘classical’

Posted in Historical articles, Interesting Words, Language on Wednesday, 27 February 2013

This edited article about interesting words originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 163 published on 27 February 1965.

Mozart family, picture, image, illustration

Leopold Mozart and his children Wolfgang and Nannerl, the most famous musical family of the so-called Classical Period in the history of music,  by Peter Jackson

When a book, work of art or piece of music is described as a classic, this means that it is of the highest rank or authority, and has become a standard educational or cultural experience which everyone is expected to share. A classic example of anything is a typical specimen that is almost perfect in form and style.

The word comes from the Latin classicus, “of the highest class or rank,” which then seems to have developed a secondary meaning, “used in the classes of schools, etc.”

The classical languages (or classics), still taught in public schools, are Greek and Latin. A classical style in art, literature or architecture, is one which closely follows the formal rules of the Greek and Latin models. It is often contrasted with the later romantic style, in which the theme and its imaginative treatment are more important than the basic form.

Anna Pavlova became a living legend

Posted in Dance, Historical articles, History, Music, Theatre on Wednesday, 27 February 2013

This edited article about Pavlova originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 163 published on 27 February 1965.

Anna Pavlova, picture, image, illustration

Anna Pavlova

There is sunshine, but it is also autumn, and a strong wind is blowing through the public park, deserted save for a solitary man strolling among the falling leaves. Because he is a poet, and therefore no doubt a sentimental man, he is prompted to pick up a dying chrysanthemum which he finds lying in his path. A little sadly, he lays it by a fountain, hoping that it may live longer there.

The autumn wind, which has temporarily abated, suddenly blows again and the leaves scud and dance before it. The chrysanthemum, inevitably, is lifted from its resting place and is hurled among the whirling, sodden leaves. The poet rescues it again, only to find it is now quite dead. Suddenly seeing his fiancee, the poet drops the flower and hurries towards her.

As they disappear from sight, the curtain falls and a great burst of applause comes up from the audience, who have just seen the premiere of Autumn Leaves, a new ballet by Anna Pavlova.

It has to be said that despite all the tremendous applause, no experienced ballet-goer in that audience could seriously consider Autumn Leaves as a major work of art. What they were really applauding was Anna Pavlova, one of the great ballerinas of her time, who had danced the role of chrysanthemum.

Anna Pavlova. Even now, thirty-four years after her death, her name is a legend, and known even to those who are not keen students of the ballet. Why should she have remained such a legend after all this time, when there have been so many other great ballerinas since?

The question is answered by a film that rests in the archives of the British Film Institute. It was made in Hollywood in 1924, and consists of a number of solo ballets, including the immortal Dying Swan. Although it is a primitive piece of film making by today’s standards, a great deal of Anna Pavlova’s rare qualities as a dancer shine through.

In the solos she dances Pavlova displays a rare quality of feeling that communicates itself to an audience, even through the medium of this ancient piece of film. Her interpretation of the role of a dying swan is as moving today as it must have been to those who actually saw her dance the role.

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Al Jolson’s song signalled the death of Silent Cinema

Posted in Cinema, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Music, Technology on Wednesday, 27 February 2013

This edited article about the cinema originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 163 published on 27 February 1965.

Al Jolson, picture, image, illustration

Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer

It was the most exciting night that the cinema is ever likely to know, for after more than thirty years, the silent screen had found its voice, and here was the first feature film to demonstrate the marvel.

As the crowds stormed into the New York cinema on a night in October, 1927, eager to see – and hear – Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer, the Warner brothers, Harry, Jack, Sam and Albert who produced it, must have thought they were experiencing a fantastic dream of good fortune.

Only a few months before, as producers of silent films, they were near to bankruptcy. Then representatives of the Vitaphone Company came to see them with what appeared to be a crazy idea. Why not make pictures that talked? They had the necessary apparatus.

Today, nearly forty years later, it is difficult to think of talking pictures as a doubtful proposition. But the great entertainment medium of the cinema had been born in silence in the 1890s, people marvelling so much at the fact that the pictures moved that no one expected them to talk as well.

As the years went by the silent film became an accepted art. When lips moved in speech a printed “sub-title” was flashed on the screen giving the words that were spoken. To make the silence less obvious, and to create the “mood,” an orchestra played for the main film, and a pianist took over for the remainder of the programme.

No wonder Hollywood wanted the silent film to stay. With sub-titles written in the appropriate language a film could be understood and enjoyed in any country in the world.

Until that night in 1927 when Warners took a gambler’s throw with The Jazz Singer. It was a poor film, mostly a “silent,” but right in the middle Jolson, as the young Jewish singer, sat at the piano and spoke to his Momma telling her that he was going into Show Business. The silence was broken – and so was the reign of the silent film.

Other producers at first hoped that the talking picture would be a passing craze, but soon realized the truth. Hollywood was panic stricken. Silent film production schedules were scrapped, sound apparatus fought for, studios sound-proofed.

Al Jolson followed The Jazz Singer with The Singing Fool, a full-length talkie which not only flooded the cinema with sound, but tears as well. It was, as the trade termed it, “a weepie.” But he was established forever as the prototype black-faced “Mammy” singer of the cinema.

Vitaphone, a clumsy sound-on-disc system, eventually gave way to the more reliable Movietone with sound on film, and the cinema began to write a new chapter of spectacular achievement.

But as we look again at this scene in 1927 and the frenzy of the crowds trying to get into the cinema, we wonder (and no cinema historian can tell us) when sound would have arrived if it had not been introduced by the Warner brothers in a desperate gambler’s throw.

Gandhi led the peaceful struggle for Indian independence

Posted in Famous crimes, Famous news stories, Heroes and Heroines, Historical articles, History, Politics, Religion on Wednesday, 27 February 2013

This edited article about Gandhi originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 162 published on 20 February 1965.

Gandhi, picture, image, illustration

The passive resistance of Mohandas Gandhi by John Millar Watt

It was as if the city of Bombay had died. Not a breath of wind disturbed the closed and shuttered shops. Not a footstep walked the empty streets. Not a sound came from the solemn houses.

The date was April 6, 1919, a significant day in the history of India.

That morning all the citizens of Bombay had gone down to the city’s beaches. All that day they sat there looking at the sun, chanting hymns and washing themselves in the cool water.

All over India millions of people like them closed their shops and houses and spent that April day in prayer and fasting.

Satyagraha – or passive resistance – was the name the Indians gave to this sort of “strike for everyone.” It was a weapon that was eventually to unite a much-divided nation and leave its mighty British rulers perplexed and bewildered.

The aim of the Indians that April day was a simple one. Recently their British rulers had passed an act which gave the government power to use swift measures against “revolutionaries.”

The Indians did not like this curtailment of their liberties. The answer to it was passive, non-violent resistance to the British.

Satyagraha was the ingenious device of one small, scrawny Hindu named Mohandas Gandhi. He was trained as a lawyer, and had not been very successful at it, yet already India’s three hundred and fifty million people were calling him Mahatma, “great soul.”

When Mohandas Gandhi was born the British had ruled India for many years. As he grew up the little Hindu was filled with admiration for Britons and their ways – so much so that he decided to go to London for his legal training.

All his life Gandhi remained a friend of Britain. But as time went by he longed to see his country free from all conquest, and independent of its rulers from across the seas.

Gandhi, however, hated violence. He wanted no bloodshed in India’s struggle for independence.

And while his opponents mockingly declared that freedom without fighting was impossible, Gandhi instituted passive resistance, one of the most amazing campaigns for independence ever waged.

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The last journey of the Flying Duchess

Posted in Aviation, Country House, Disasters, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Transport on Wednesday, 27 February 2013

This edited article about aviation originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 162 published on 20 February 1965.

Woburn Abbey, picture, image, illustration

A picture history of Woburn Abbey shows the Flying Duchess (bottom row)

Think of the surprise and the raised eyebrows, and the exclamations of “Grandma, don’t be so silly” there would be. Much as we take airplanes for granted nowadays very few of us, let alone elderly ladies, ever learn to be pilots.

So you can imagine what a fuss there was nearly forty years ago when, at the age of sixty, the Duchess of Bedford, grandmother of the present Duke of Bedford, took up flying. And the even greater fuss there was some years later when she took off in her de Havilland Gypsy plane one day, disappeared, and was never seen again.

Back in the 1920s airplanes were not the smooth-travelling, streamlined affairs that they are today. Flying them was still an adventure. It was the age of pilots who set off across the world in tiny planes with cans of extra petrol stacked behind them, and little more than hope in their hearts and determination in their minds, to guarantee that they would land safely somewhere on the other side – in India, in Australia, in America.

It was the age of the pioneers and the trail-blazers. Colonel Lindbergh became one of the world’s heroes by making the first solo flight across the Atlantic from New York to Paris in 1927; Amy Johnson was the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia in 1930.

Flights like these helped to pave the way for the airliners of the future. The men and women who made them were dedicated to flying, to proving that there was no part of the world which could not be reached by air.

And at sixty the Duchess of Bedford, this remarkable woman with a rich husband and a famous name, a great house at Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire, and other homes in various parts of the country, decided that she was going to join them.

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Wheatear are poor songsters but colourful moorland birds

Posted in Animals, Birds, British Countryside, Nature, Wildlife on Wednesday, 27 February 2013

This edited article about the wheatear originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 162 published on 20 February 1965.

wheatear, picture, image, illustration


Bringing a cheery touch of colour to moors and hillsides, the wheatear is one of the most attractive summer visitors to England. It arrives from Africa about the middle of March and does not migrate back again until early in October.

There is a common story that the wheatear gets its name because it raids the growing crops of wheat. That is not at all true. The wheatear is an insect eater and is a good friend of the farmer, as it lives on grubs, snails and other pests.

Actually, the name “wheatear” is a corruption of white rear, and comes from the bird’s habit of showing its white rump as it flies close to the ground and then suddenly perching on a stone or other object, dipping its head, and raising its tail.

Wheatears are small members of the thrush family, seldom being more than 5 and a half inches long. The male bird’s plumage is pale grey above with a yellowish cream breast, while the cheeks, wings and tail are black with some splashes of white.

The female is more generally buff in colour, but with black cheeks and tail and white rump.

The wheatear is seldom seen on trees. Its favourite haunts are downs, moors, hillsides and open country, particularly in the north and west of the British Isles. In the south of England they are often seen on the seashore.

About the end of April or early in May the wheatear builds its nest. The favourite place is a hollow in the ground, under a large stone, or in a hole low down in a stone wall. Sometimes a pair of wheatears will set up house in a deserted rabbit hole.

The nest consists of dry grass and roots, and is lined with hair, wool and feathers industriously collected by both birds from nearby farmland. When the nest is finished, the hen bird lays in it four to six eggs of a pale turquoise-blue colour.

During their summer stay in Britain, wheatears usually raise two broods of chicks. The young birds are at first speckled like our own thrushes but in a few weeks they adopt their parents’ distinctive plumage and white rumps.

Wheatears are constantly bowing and bobbing on the ground, and then making sudden darts to catch flies and other insects on the wing.

You will very seldom see wheatears perching on trees except in the autumn, when they are collecting in great flocks to begin the long flight back to Africa. These flocks include all the birds hatched from the eggs laid during the summer visit.

The wheatear is rather a silent bird and its song is seldom heard except between April and June when it is breeding. The song is a squeaky little chat-like warble. The call note is a rather grating chack, chack or weet, chack chack. The wheatear often imitates the calls of other birds.

In late April you may occasionally spot a somewhat larger wheatear with a reddish tinge on the breast. This is the Greenland Wheatear on its way from Africa to nest in Greenland. It is sometimes seen in September making the return flight to Africa.

The Frankish kingdom rose after the Fall of Rome

Posted in Ancient History, Historical articles, History, Royalty, War on Wednesday, 27 February 2013

This edited article about France  originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 162 published on 20 February 1965.

Vercingetorix and Caesar, picture, image, illustration

Vercingetorix flings down his arms at the feet of Caesar on condition his supporters be allowed to disperse unharmed, by John Millar Watt

The first question which is bound to be asked is, why should an English-speaking person want to know about the story of France?

It is a good question, and one with several answers.

Firstly, when you read about the story of England through the ages you do not get anything like as clear a picture of what was going on if you study it in isolation to the rest of the world. The Romans in Britain, for example, did not fill their minds only with the problems of Roman occupation in Britain. They had often to think in terms of the Roman occupation of Europe. What was going on in France – Gaul as they called it – and the rest of Europe often influenced such important things as the amount of money they had to spend, the length of their stay, the number of reinforcements they could expect, and the quality of their supplies.

Similarly, when King Charles the First was led out to his execution in Whitehall, his thoughts must have dwelt at length on the court of his kinsman, King Louis the Fourteenth, on the other side of the Channel. What was happening in that country at that time was vital to England’s future, for Charles’s family, including the future Charles the Second, had found a safe refuge in Louis’s palace.

History does not happen only to one country. It happens to the world. Any major step that Britain takes today outside the realm of her purely domestic policy is not taken before the effects of it on other nations of the world have been judged.

But why ought we in particular to know about France? The reason is that for centuries what England and France did, either together or in opposition, had important effects on the rest of the world. For centuries our friends the French were our enemies, and the way that enmity ebbed and flowed dictated to a large extent the development of three continents – Asia, Europe and America. To know only what was happening in England, therefore, is to know only half the story.

In the days when France was Gaul, in the days before the Romans came, that country was a marshy, tree-covered dreary land. It was also much bigger than France is today, stretching eastwards as far as the Rhône and the Alps. Across this land the Gauls, fierce, wandering tribesmen who dyed their hair yellow to make themselves look frightening, built their mud-wattle huts and paused in their tribal clashes only to listen to, and obey, their strange Druid priests.

About the year 59 B.C. one Gallic tribe asked a German tribe to come to its aid in a struggle with a rival Gallic tribe. Not to be outdone, the rival tribe asked for the help of the Roman Empire. The following year the Romans sent to their aid one of the greatest conquerors in history – Julius Caesar.

Caesar was made for much bigger things than the settlement of small tribal wars. With the blessing of the Roman Empire he quickly subjugated all the warring tribesmen of Gaul and imposed upon them the discipline of the Roman Empire, just as was to happen in Britain a few years later.

The great conqueror, however, wanted his power to be truly felt. Soon he was approving acts of barbarity against the Gauls that no Roman had ever had to suffer under his leadership. As the Gauls groaned under the weight of Caesar’s taxes, as thousands of them had their right hands cut from their arms for minor misdemeanours, they began to regret ever having asked Rome for help.

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Winning the 1927 Schneider Trophy would help win WW2

Posted in Aviation, Engineering, Historical articles, History, Weapons, World War 2 on Wednesday, 27 February 2013

This edited article about aviation originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 162 published on 20 February 1965.

Supermarine S6, picture, image, illustration

The Supermarine S6 by J H Batchelor

It could well be argued that the 1940 Battle of Britain was won by a British plane in the year 1927.

For in that year over the skies of Venice, six seaplanes screamed on a triangular course, battling to obtain the highest speed and win the Schneider Trophy.

It was won by a British Supermarine, and if you do not recognize the name of the plane you will certainly know the name of one of its descendants – the Spitfire, which shot the German raiders down from the clear blue British skies of the fateful 1940 summer.

Jacques Schneider was a member of a French firm of armament makers, and an enthusiastic airman. He first presented the trophy in 1913 to encourage the development of seaplanes (in those early days the plane with floats was expected to play a big part in long-distance flight).

The race was flown on a triangular course and the competing planes had to be anchored in the open on the night before the race to prove their toughness.

Results of the race over the years give a crisp history of the fantastic increase in air speed. In 1913 France won the Trophy at a speed of 45 miles an hour. Britain won it a year later at 86 miles an hour. The Great War naturally meant a suspension of the races and in 1920 Italy was the victor at 107 miles an hour. British, American and Italian victories brought the speed up to 246 miles an hour in 1926.

Then in 1927 came the year of Britain’s triumph, and the inspiration it gave to our aeroplane builders, with the second Great War still twelve years away. . . .

There were three Italian machines and three British, two Supermarines and a Gloster. The Italians, holders of the trophy, saw the Supermarines and realized that the race was going to be tough. They were sleek and powerful, and had behind them the full backing of the British Government – the first time this had happened. The R.A.F. had formed a special High Speed Flight for the occasion, with hand-picked pilots and mechanics. For weeks the pilots had trained at Calshot, learning all the tricks of the machines and how to get them tightly around the markers of the triangular course.

The start was signalled and soon all six machines were airborne, the roar of their engines thundering against the walls of the four-centuries-old Doge’s palace.

All the months of planning, preparation and training – and the race was over in five minutes! Flight Lieutenant Webster, in his Supermarine 85, had zoomed to victory at a speed of 281.68 miles an hour.

It was the first link in a train of British triumphs, for two years later another Supermarine took the trophy at 328.63 miles an hour and in 1931 the same great family of planes triumphed at 340.08 miles an hour.

Behind all these successes was a quiet Englishman, Reginald Joseph Mitchell, chief engineer at the Vickers Supermarine Aviation Works – the man who visited Germany in the early thirties, saw the growing might of the Luftwaffe and returned to Britain determined to design the plane that could meet the threat.

The Spitfire was born, but Mitchell died in 1937, never to see the extent of his triumph.