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Archive for May, 2011

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Anti-Fascists flock to the Spanish Civil War

Posted in Historical articles, History, Politics, War on Tuesday, 31 May 2011

This edited article about the Spanish Civil War originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 954 published on 3 May 1980.

Spain, picture, image, illustration

The Republicans fought valiantly but Franco’s superior forces finally told, by Severino Baraldi

There are many recorded instances in the twentieth century of men, and women, taking up arms to fight for a cause in which they passionately believed. Often the struggle in which they engaged had no direct connection with their own country and was centred on the resistance of a foreign people to tyranny or aggression. But they were prepared to fight for, and if necessary die for, the principle of freedom.

In July, 1936, a group of Spanish generals attempted to depose the legal Republican Government of Spain by force. Their coup d’Ètat failed, the country and the army divided into two camps, and civil war broke out.

The generals, led by General Franco and supported by the Royalist and Fascist parties, led the Foreign Legionaries and Moorish troops of Spanish Morocco, with regular forces from the mainland, against the untrained Republican Militia, largely composed of peasants, workers and townspeople. The militiamen fought stubbornly, but they had little defence against Franco’s regular troops, who pushed steadily towards Spain’s capital Madrid.

The governments of Britain and France proposed a Non-Intervention Pact which would ban military aid to either side in the Spanish conflict. The democratically governed nations of Europe upheld the Pact but the fascist powers, Germany and Italy, supplied Franco with arms, equipment and men.

German planes and artillery bombarded the republican troops, while Italian tanks and soldiers stormed their trenches. To many of the peoples of Europe and America the struggle in Spain was now a part of the larger issue of Fascism versus Democracy.

Volunteers from many nations rushed to Spain to help the Republicans defend Madrid against Franco. They went because they wanted to fight Fascism or simply because they believed that men should be able to choose their own government in peace and freedom. Communists, Socialists, intellectuals, poets, artists, writers, and working men left their homes behind and took up arms to defend their principles. As their numbers grew they were formed into International Brigades.

Many of the men arrived in Spain unequipped and largely untrained. Some had fought in the First World War and some had experience of service in peacetime armies, but the majority of them had to learn the lessons of war on the battlefield.

The British battalion served with the English-speaking 15th International Brigade, which was composed of French, Belgian, British, Canadian, American, Irish and East-European volunteers.

The British came in small parties of ten, twenty, or fifty. By the beginning of January 1937 the battalion had a strength of 600 men. The British volunteers were lucky, for they had over a month’s training as a battalion before they went into action. In their first battle at the Jarama River the 15th Brigade fought the Fascists to a standstill, but their inferior numbers and equipment led to severe casualties.

Altogether five Brigades were formed and 40,000 volunteers fought in Spain. Of this number, 2,000 were British and they alone lost 500 men killed or missing and 1,200 wounded. The International Brigades were disbanded at Barcelona in November, 1938. The cause they had served so courageously was finally defeated in March, 1939, and General Franco began his long rule as the dictator of Spain.

Although freedom’s battle had been lost in Spain, volunteers fighting in defence of another nation’s liberty were soon to be in action again.

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The beauty of Swans

Posted in Birds, Nature, Wildlife on Tuesday, 31 May 2011

This edited article about swans originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 954 published on 3 May 1980.

swan, picture, image, illustration

A mute swan and her cygnets, by J Chalkley

There can be no more glorious sight in our skies than that of migrating geese and swans. These large water birds in flight have a most romantic appeal. As the sun sets low on the horizon, the brilliant autumnal colours are broken only by the black shapes of birds flying in a ‘V’ formation. Occasionally a solitary goose passes slowly overhead, the only sound being a distant throbbing wing beat.

The only member of this group not to take part in the annual migration ritual is the mute swan. This partially domesticated bird has lost the migratory instincts of its wild ancestors, and spends the entire winter on its usual pond or park lake. It differs from its immediate relations in yet another respect. The mute swan is well named, for its repertoire consists of mere grunts and hisses. The whooper and Bewick’s swans’ stirring bugle calls proclaim to the world their freedom, untainted by any history of domestication.

The graceful curve of the mute swan’s white neck has inspired many artists and photographers. The exhilarating sound of their wing beats is said to have stirred the composer Wagner to write the Ride of the Valkyrie. In contrast, the whooper and Bewick’s swans fly in almost total silence, their long, straight necks stretched out before them.

Although in the main these two swans spend their breeding season high in the Arctic zone of the USSR and Lapland, they travel great distances in the winter months. The whooper swan is often seen along the Mediterranean Sea, but Bewick’s swan comes to Britain.

Their visits to the Wildfowl Trust at Slimbridge in Gloucestershire are so regular that it is possible to make accurate records. A team of experts sit beside the lakes and note the exact time of arrival and departure of each swan. The distinctive bill patterns of the Bewick’s swan make it possible to identify every individual. From this charted history it has been discovered that broods raised in successive years tend to stay together in family flocks of up to 15 birds.

Swans form long-lasting pairs. Consistent with this is the exceptionally aggressive behaviour during the courtship season. A male swan is particularly violent when defending his chosen territory. He may launch a savage attack on any intruder, even man, with his powerful wings and bill. With neck folded and feathers ruffled, he will beat the surface of the water with his long remiges. If a rival takes up the challenge a fight ensues.

With their elegant and majestic bearing and unblemished white plumage so rare amongst wild birds, they are the epitome of purity and beauty. This makes it rather surprising to find that, within the same group of birds, there is a species with a strongly contrasting black neck, and one that is even totally black except for the pure white of the quill feathers. In addition, this black swan of Australia has a coral red bill instead of the black or gold of the white swans.

The numerous species of swan are related to the geese through a very beautiful South American species, the Coscoroba swan. But this small white bird is still very unlike its rather drab goose relations.

On the whole the domestic geese have retained the grey plumage of their greylag ancestors. But to compare a domesticated goose with a wild one is to compare a farmyard pig with a wild boar. The differences are great.

The best-known of the many species of wild goose is probably the Canada goose, with its black neck and curved white face patch. This member of the group has now managed to gain quite a strong foothold in Europe.

Wild geese mate for life and this relationship is established through a rather dramatic ritual. Konrad Lorenz, the eminent naturalist, chooses to describe the activities of the female goose as “falling in love” with the male. The females begin by shadowing their chosen partners from among the flock, never making it too obvious. Lorenz describes how they will ogle the ganders out of the corners of their eyes, and not apparently notice the more obvious manoeuvres. The males get very excited by this attention, beat their glistening wings and circle around the females, keeping up an incessant chatter.

The ritual is not complete until the strongest member of the flock, usually a gander, hurls itself at the adversary, even if the latter is only imagined to be hostile. When he has won a retreat, he returns to the group honking loudly and beating his wings. Then, in the second stage of the exhibition, all the members of the flock babble softly and touch heads.

Adult geese united by this performance remain strongly tied for the rest of their lives. Should one of the pair die, the other is seriously affected. It will wander in search of its partner, calling both day and night. It becomes totally subdued and timid and sometimes even panic-stricken. Geese affected in this way have been known to flee in terror from something that they would hardly have noticed before. In addition, many students of animal behaviour maintain that they can see suffering in the facial expression of a goose.

This steadfastness of relationship can be seen at an earlier stage in the life of a goose. For when goslings are born, the first object they set eyes upon becomes imprinted in their minds as their mother. Fortunately it usually is indeed their mother. However, they have been known to fix their affection on any manner of things. It could be a person watching the eggs hatching, a passing duck or cat, or even the artificial incubator in which they were born! In one recorded instance it was a wheelbarrow. This particular gosling set up a fearful rumpus whenever the wheelbarrow was moved from sight, causing the owner of the goose some terrible problems in his garden.

It is a sad thing to see the flocks of migrating geese and swans so diminished today. As swamps and lagoons are drained dry, as rivers are dredged, dammed and cleaned, many of the aquatic plants essential to water fowl are destroyed. Factory waste and chemical byproducts are relentlessly poisoning other rivers and streams and killing off the habitat of these water birds. As habitats disappear so do the residents. Fortunately there is no immediate danger of extinction, but the plight of many ducks, geese, swans, coots, moorhens and grebes still gives rise to concern.

Sir Christopher Wren and St Paul’s Cathedral

Posted in Architecture, Historical articles, History on Tuesday, 31 May 2011

This edited article about St Paul’s Cathedral originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 954 published on 3 May 1980.

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Sir Christopher Wren inspecting work in progress at St Paul’s, by John Keay

Although there has been a cathedral on Ludgate Hill since 604, the magnificent building we see now was not built until after the Great Fire of London, 1666! Considerable controversy surrounded Sir Christopher Wren’s successive designs for the new cathedral, but work finally went ahead in 1675 and was completed in 1710. Wren died in 1723, at the age of 90, and was the first person to be buried in the new cathedral. A plain black slab marks his grave – but an inscription above it reads, “If you seek his monument, look around you.”

How do planes fly?

Posted in Aerospace, Aviation, Famous Inventors, Inventions on Tuesday, 31 May 2011

This edited article about aerodynamics originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 954 published on 3 May 1980.

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Sir George Cayley’s early design for an aeroplane crashes, by Ferdinando Tacconi

How does an aeroplane get off the ground? The answer lies in the aeroplane’s wings, which are designed to make the air moving over them provide the necessary lift to get the plane airborne. The top surface of the wing is curved whereas the underside is relatively straight. Air moving over the top surface of the wing travels faster than the air going underneath. This causes a lower air pressure on top of the wing and a higher pressure below. This difference in pressure sucks the wings up and pulls the aeroplane into the air.

James the Second’s escape is foiled

Posted in Historical articles, History, Religion, Revolution, Royalty on Tuesday, 31 May 2011

This edited article about James II originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 954 published on 3 May 1980.

James II, picture, image, illustration

Faversham’s  local fishermen recognised Hales and took James to be a priest in disguise, by Ken Petts

In the ancient town of Faversham stands a building which was the scene of one of the least glorious episodes in the history of England’s monarchs. Now a shop, three centuries ago it was an inn, the Queen’s Arms.

The events which brought the inn its moment of fame began in the early hours of a December morning in 1688. Three horsemen were riding through the lanes of Kent. Two were elegantly clad; the third, to judge by his shabby cloak and short black wig, looked like some kind of serving man.

Hurrying on in the growing daylight, the little cavalcade avoided towns and busy roads. Those were troubled times, especially for Catholics; and one of the riders was the most important Catholic in England. For the man in the old cloak was no servant, but King James II.

The king’s attempts to revive Catholicism, and his disregard of the laws, had caused widespread resentment. Finally some of his most influential subjects had invited the king’s son-in-law, the Dutch Prince William of Orange, to come to England “and rescue the nation”.

When William had landed in Devon in November, many of the king’s most trusted “friends” had deserted to the invader’s side. After weeks of indecision, James despaired of saving his kingdom and resolved on flight. Escorted by Sir Edward Hales and another gentleman, he set out on his secret ride to the Kent coast.

By mid-morning they had crossed to the Isle of Sheppey, and had boarded the small craft that had been hired to take them to France. But they got no farther.

Catholics, or Papists, as they were called, were now regarded as public enemies. Uphappily for James, Hales, who was known in the district and was a convert to the Catholic faith, had been recognised.

That night, as they were about to set sail, boats pulled alongside, and a party of fishermen and others roughly seized Hales and the king, whom they took to be a priest in disguise. They were taken ashore to be carried off for questioning by the Mayor of Faversham.

In Faversham the coach in which they were conveyed stopped at the Queen’s Arms, and the prisoners were dragged inside. Here, at last, the king was recognised. But his humiliation was not yet at an end; for the mayor insisted on keeping him in custody. At last, however, he was released and escorted back to London.

Prince William, who had reached the capital, was far from pleased. He wanted nothing more than to see James depart so that he could seize the throne himself. When, a few days later, James again slipped away, nobody hindered him. He sailed to France, never to return.

Basilica of San Dominico, Bologna

Posted in Architecture, Bible, Historical articles, History, Religion on Tuesday, 31 May 2011

The Basilica of San Dominico was built on the site of the old church of San Nicolo, where the first followers of Saint Dominic had worshipped.

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The Basilica di S. Domenico, Bologna, by William Wilkins Collins

During the thirteenth century all the land there was purchased by the Dominicans and a large monastic foundation built which supplanted all original buildings, and when the apse of San Nicolo was demolished, the nave was extended and redesigned until the present basilica had taken shape. A bell tower was added early in the fourteenth century and side chapels constructed in the fifteenth century. The basilica was divided in the classic Dominican fashion between the church of the brothers and the simpler church of the people, the former in a proto-Gothic style, the latter of simpler design, but the dividing wall itself was taken down in the sixteenth century. This great basilica was also partly built to house the shrine of Saint Dominic, and the thousands of pilgrims perhaps expected more than a simple sarcophagus hidden away in a side aisle, so a more elaborate shrine was designed and decorated by Nicola Pisano. Outside, adjacent to the apse is the striking tomb of Rolandino de’ Passeggeri.

Many more pictures relating to ecclesiastical architecture can be found at the Look and Learn picture library.

The Return of the Exiles

Posted in Bible, Religion on Tuesday, 31 May 2011

The Prophet Isaiah had prophesied that the Israelites would be delivered from exile by the advent of Cyrus, whom God had chosen “to subdue nations before him….to open before him the two-leaved gates; and the gates shall not be shut”.

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The return of the exiles, by William Hole

So many years later, when the epic events unfold between the Persian and the Babylonian empires, it is Cyrus the Great who enters the city gates and conquers Babylon. Jeremiah had foretold it and Daniel had foreseen it not long before the city’s fall. But Cyrus, though a great warrior king,  was minded to let the Jews return to Judah, whence the Lord had taken them, and build a temple in Jerusalem. So the exiles returned, and Cyrus fulfilled the rest of Isaiah’s and Jeremiah’s prophesies, and built “the house of the Lord God of Israel, which is in Jerusalem”.

Many more pictures relating to the Bible can be found at the Look and Learn picture library.

Thomas Middleton

Posted in Actors, English Literature, Literature on Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Thomas Middleton (1580 – 1627) was an English playwright and poet whose theatrical canon remains a subject of some conjecture.

Middleton, picture, image, illustration

Thomas Middleton

He was a frequent collaborator, considered brilliant enough to revise and rewrite  Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Measure for Measure, and while some co-authored works are disputed, other attributions remain largely accepted. This is true of the most famous play he almost certainly wrote, The Revenger’s Tragedy, one of the greatest triumphs in that eponymous genre. Middleton was the son of a bricklayer, like Ben Jonson, but his father had risen to be a gentleman, and so the son unsurprisingly  entered The Queen’s College, Oxford. He left without taking a degree and was soon writing for the theatre in London, where after the 1603 closures, he was given work by several companies who evidently regarded him as a trusted freelance. He was soon collaborating with Chapman, and the two opposed Jonson and his cronies in the Theatre Wars; indeed, this bitter rivalry he kept up for many years, referring in one of his masques to the “silent bricklayer”, a cruel jibe at Jonson. Satirical cruelty and cynicism were Middleton’s lifeblood, and his best work is largely city comedy or that extravagant tragedy so popular with the Jacobeans. Women Beware Women and A Chaste Maid in Cheapside are unrelenting masterpieces, glittering with fully imagined characters capable of amoral loftiness and immoral depravity, ever able to betray and destroy their fellow man in whatever manner comes to hand. Middleton appears to have been a Calvinist, and this view of a world divided into sinners who are damned and the elected who are saved may well have fired his moral indignation. He probably co-authored Timon of Athens with Shakespeare, and was considered second only to that peerless dramatist by no less a critic than T S Eliot.

Many more pictures relating to English literature can be found at the Look and Learn picture library.

Countless Russians slaughtered by one spy

Posted in Espionage, Historical articles, History, War, World War 1 on Tuesday, 31 May 2011

This edited article about espionage originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 953 published on 26 April 1980.

Nicholas II, picture, image, illustration

Tsar Nicholas II who ruled Russia during World War One until the Russian Revolution of 1917

Most secret agents are very small cogs in a very large machine, forwarding tiny pieces of information to their superiors in the knowledge that a number of seemingly trivial facts may well build up into a very important whole. Only very rarely does an agent have a single, clearly defined task to carry out, and more rarely still does he have a completely free hand in how he sets about doing it.

At the beginning of World War One, a German agent named Franz von Rintelen had such a task, with permission to tackle it in any way he liked. It was an assignment that he carried through with such cold-blooded efficiency, that it has been estimated that he was responsible for more deaths than any other man during the whole of that grim and terrible war.

Before the outbreak of hostilities in August, 1914, the countries of Europe had been going through a period of intense political turmoil, as each manoeuvred for power by means of alliances. Russia was something of an unknown quantity, even to her own leaders. She had an army of five million, and a reserve of manpower that would easily enable her to put more than twice that number into the field. Certainly, she could find more soldiers than Germany ever could. On the other hand, the Russian armies were desperately short of ammunition, arms and almost every kind of modern technical equipment.

The Czar’s ministers made enquiries and decided that these shortages could be made up by making enormous purchases in the United States, a country that seemed unlikely to be drawn into the fight on either side. And so, satisfied that it had guaranteed supplies and the support of such strong allies as Britain and France, Russia went to war.

At first there were no difficulties. The Austrians, allies of Germany, were supposed to block a thrust into Poland, but at the battle of Galicia they were overrun by the Russians, who were making use of the best-equipped troops they had. Other Austrian invasions were beaten off, although with heavy casualties, and in the late summer of 1914 two German armies were simply swamped in East Prussia by the large forces of Russians. Superior arms and training were bound to tell in the end, and at the battle of Tannenberg the Russians suffered terrible losses when they faced massed gunfire against which they had not the means to reply.

In Moscow, it was realised that it was no use relying on the traditional fortitude of the Russian soldier, if he had no boots on his feet and no ammunition in his rifle. Everything depended on getting supplies from the United States as quickly as possible. But this was something that was equally clear to the Germans, and they contacted von Rintelen, who was already working for them in America under a Swiss passport.

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When horses had toes

Posted in Animals, Historical articles, Prehistory, Wildlife on Tuesday, 31 May 2011

This edited article about the prehistoric horse originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 953 published on 26 April 1980.

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The Merrychippus (below) is the ancient ancestor of the modern-day stallion, by Angus McBride

Of the scores of breeds of horses in the world today, none runs truly wild. Przewalski’s horse, a small animal only 120 cm or 12 hands tall, continued to roam the steppes of Mongolia into the 20th century, but has now become extinct in the wild. Zoos are well supplied. It represents the species Equus caballus, to which all domestic breeds belong.

In the past few thousand years the horse has changed a great deal, mainly through man’s selective breeding. If you look, for example, at statues and paintings of horses from our immediate past, you will see animals that do not look like the horses we knew today.

The great bronze horses of Venice or the magnificent animal that bears Charles I in Van Dyck’s portrait make you mistrust the artists’ dimensions: large bodies carry enormously powerful chests which in turn curve up to heads that seem too small. This kind of horse was bred to have its head pulled back proudly in battle and, of course, there is no longer any need for it. Instead, we have sleek racehorses, whose necks follow the line of their bodies and whose heads are kept low to reduce wind resistance.

If such a change can occur in only a few hundred years, then you may well imagine the number of changes since the first horse developed from the small creatures that lived in the age of the dinosaur. Hundreds of different kinds of horse fossils, studding the rocks of Europe, Asia and especially North America, allow us to chart those changes.

The Equus caballus is an ungulate, a name which comes from the Latin ungula, meaning hoof. It applies to all animals which have a sheath of horn covering their feet. The development of the hooves tells us to which era the fossils belong. The earliest ones to be found belong to the Dawn Horse (Eohippus) which lived in the Eocene period around 50 million years ago. But already one toe on its forefeet and two on its hind-feet had become obsolete since its five-toed ancestors, the Condylarthra, had crawled into the Tertiary era after the dinosaurs died out, 65 million years ago.

At each stage of evolution, the other toes have become increasingly redundant, losing their importance and their size. Finally, with Przewalski’s horse, there was only the middle toe left, encased in a hoof.

The first horse for whose existence we have physical, as opposed to hypothetical, evidence, the Dawn Horse, ranged in size from that of a fox terrier to that of a Shetland pony, with a head barely recognisable as a horse’s. It was widely distributed throughout Europe and North America.

In the millions of years that followed it developed on both sides of the Atlantic in many different shapes and forms. To make life a little easier, the main species – Eohippus, (the Dawn Horse), Miohippus and Pliohippus – have been named after the age in which they lived – Eocene, Miocene and Pliocene.

Of course, there have to be exceptions to the rule, such as Mesohippus, the middle horse, which followed the Dawn Horse in North America. This was a speedy animal built on the lines of a greyhound, with long, slender legs.

The American line then produced the Miohippus, which was slightly bigger – about the size of a sheep. Like its predecessor it had three toes on each foot and, although the other toes were still visible, they were starting to grow smaller. The species that followed reached almost the size of a modern horse, but lived in forests and looked more like a deer.

In the meantime another line had branched off, moving more directly towards the modern horse, Still exclusive to North America, this was the Merychippus, which lived in herds on the grasslands and became adept at running on hard, flat ground.

It marked a parting of the ways for these ungulates, splitting them into at least six further lines, of which two were successful. One is typified by the Hipparion, which made its way across to Asia and Europe and down to Africa, where it took over from the original Dawn Horse and survived until about three million years ago. The second branch produced Pliohippus, from which Equus, the genus of modern horses, developed about a million years ago.

By this time, the end of the Pliocene period when the Hipparion was becoming extinct, Equus caballus was emerging in North America as Przewalski’s horse. The only two side toes remaining were covered in skin, as in modern breeds of horse.

Equus caballus made its way across the Bering Strait and moved down into the steppes of Europe and Asia, pushed south by the encroaching Ice Age. Now it was North America’s turn to be deprived of the horse, and it died out there not more than ten thousand years ago. Not until the Spanish conquistadors crossed the Atlantic in the 16th century did the horse return to the lands where it had developed.

Although a great friend of man, the horse was one of the last of the domesticated animals to be tamed, much later than dogs and cattle. There is no evidence as to when this took place, but tablets written in 1500 BC tell of “trainers” who looked after the stables for Assyrian kings.