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Archive for September, 2011

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The ingenious traps of cannibalistic spiders

Posted in Insects, Nature, Wildlife on Thursday, 29 September 2011

This edited article about spiders originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 828 published on 26 November 1977.

Water Spider, picture, image, illustration

The Water Spider

Spiders are strange and fascinating creatures – and there is none stranger or more fascinating than the trapdoor spider. Although it spends most of its life underground, it’s first venture in the world is to travel by air.

A few weeks after a family of spiderlets have hatched out of their eggs and are strong enough to move about, they form up in single file and march off to a tall bush or tree. Then they climb up to the top, throw out some silken threads and are carried away by the breeze.

Just how far they fly or balloon along in this way depends upon the air currents. Sometimes they travel for many kilometres, but usually they drop back to earth after a flight of only a few hundred metres.

Spiderlets’ air voyages are a wise precaution by nature to make certain that they have a reasonable chance of growing up. Adult trapdoor spiders are ardent cannibals and most of the youngsters would be eaten by their parents if they did not leave home.

Wherever it may land, the young trapdoor spider immediately sets to work and digs a shaft or tunnel into the ground. It does the job with it own built-in tool: a rake consisting of thin but very strong bristles arranged like the teeth of a comb and growing from the jaws.

As the grains of earth are loosened, the spider spins silk thread round them to make up tiny parcels which it carries some distance away from the tunnel. This prevents wasps, centipedes and other enemies from finding the excavation.

When the tunnel has been dug to the depth of a 50-pence piece, the spider covers the opening with a lid made from the grains of earth held together with a silk web. The lid has a bevelled edge so that it fits tightly into the hole like the plug of a bath.

Next, silk thread is spun along one edge of the top of the lid. The other ends of the thread are fixed to the ground to make a hinge.

On the underside of the trapdoor, the spider drills two holes. These form handles into which the spider places its legs to pull the door shut.

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Recapturing the ancient spirit of Athens

Posted in Ancient History, Travel on Thursday, 29 September 2011

This edited article about Athens originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 828 published on 26 November 1977.

Acropolis, picture, image, illustration

The Acropolis in the Fifth Century by Pat Nicolle

On the surface modern Athens seems not unlike any other small city. Large ugly buildings, shops selling shoddy gifts for the undiscriminating tourists, noisy cafes and restaurants, too many shabby streets and too many cars, all this makes up a part of the Athens of today.

But there is another Athens which time and the march of so-called progress has not managed to destroy. We refer, of course, to Ancient Athens, the home of democracy and the cradle of a culture which has excited the world for centuries. Its supreme memorial is the Parthenon, or Temple of Athena on the Acropolis, the original site of the city, now dominating modern Athens from above the slopes of Lykavitos. There the height of any building is limited to two storeys, so that the magnificence of the Parthenon, and of other ancient buildings on the Acropolis, is not obscured.

The true Athens is to be found in its historic monuments and antiquities, in the ancient streets of the Plaka, full of tavernas and tourists, but still retaining something which is essentially Athenian, and at the busy and often chaotic port of Piraeus, the birthplace of Athenian commerce, visited by ships from all over the world. All these make Athens a city quite unlike any other.

Heroine of the stormy seas – Grace Darling

Posted in Heroes and Heroines, Historical articles, Sea on Thursday, 29 September 2011

This edited article about heroism  originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 828 published on 26 November 1977.

Grace Darling, picture, image, illustration

Grace Darling rows out to rescue sailors fron the rocks off the Farne Islands

The date was 7th September, 1838. The steamship Forfarshire, bound from Hull to Dundee with 63 people aboard, struck the dangerous Hawker Rocks in a gale near the Farne Islands, off the coast of Northumberland. The ship foundered but nine people managed to find, handholds on a rock.

The keeper of the Longstone lighthouse and his 23-year-old daughter could just see them through the storm-tossed clouds of spume.

“Poor souls,” murmured the man. “There is no chance of us reaching them in such a sea.”

“But we must try, father,” cried the delicate-looking girl beside him. “If we could get to the rock, the sailors could help us to row back.”

Before her father could reply, Grace Darling was running down the lighthouse steps. Soon the lighthouse-keeper was beside her and together they pushed the flat, square-sterned raft into the terrifying waves.

When they drew nearer to the survivors it was a miracle that the little boat was not smashed to matchwood against the rock.

Four men and a woman managed to clamber aboard the craft and the return journey began.

When Grace had helped the woman and two of the men ashore, her father and the other two survivors set out once more for the rock. Again their luck held and they were able to return with the remaining four men.

When news reached the outside world. Grace Darling became a national heroine. The Humane Society immediately presented her with a gold medal and many people clamoured to meet her.

Grace, who was born at Barn-borough, Northumberland, on 24th November, 1815, had suffered with consumption for several years, and she died from the disease on 20th October, 1842.

The romantic death of Thomas Chatterton, forger and poet

Posted in English Literature, Historical articles on Thursday, 29 September 2011

This edited article about English literature originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 828 published on 26 November 1977.

Chatterton, picture, image, illustration

The Death of Chatterton by Henry Wallis

Thomas Chatterton was born at Bristol on 20th November, 1752, and attended Colston’s Bluecoat School.

His family were heriditary sextons at the church of St. Mary Radcliffe, and young Thomas spent many hours in the church. What particularly fascinated him was a chest of old parchments he found. He practically taught himself to read from these and was soon as familiar with the old English style of writing as he was with the modern.

By the time he was ten years old he was writing poetry and at 12 he was inscribing his own fifteenth century-style poems on vellum, in imitation of the old parchments in the church.

He was so clever at this “forgery” that he showed some of these “ancient” manuscripts to experts, claiming he had found them in St. Mary Redcliffe.

These poems – known as the “Rowley poems” because Chatterton claimed they were the work of a monk of that name – received great acclaim.

Meanwhile, Chatterton had become a clerk in an attorney’s office, but it was not work he liked, especially as his master tore up any poems he found in his desk.

In 1770, Chatterton went to London, determined to earn his living by his pen. Though he worked hard at writing, he earned very little money and was soon reduced to living in a wretched garret.

Not wishing to worry his family, he used the little money he had to send presents to his mother and sister, so that they would think he was doing well.

On 24th August, completely penniless and in despair over what he felt was his failure as a writer. Chatterton retired to his room. He tore up all his poems which came to hand and then swallowed a fatal does of arsenic. He was not quite 18 years old.

The most tragic aspect of his story is that, after his death, his true genius began at last to be properly appreciated.

The triumphant progress of Napier cars

Posted in Cars, Engineering, Historical articles, Sport on Thursday, 29 September 2011

This edited article about cars originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 828 published on 26 November 1977.

Napier 1904 victory, picture, image, illustration

Selwyn Edge driving a Napier to victory in the 1904 Gordon Bennett Race, by Graham Coton

It was night and Brooklands race track in Surrey looked dark and eerie. The place was virtually deserted save for a few officials and the lone driver racing unceasingly round and round the circuit.

Hurricane lamps, glowing yellow around the middle of the track, helped the driver to steer his course. By day he followed a mid-track line of paint-daubs, specially put there to ease his task.

The year was 1907. The track had been open for two weeks and already it was the scene of a world record challenge.

A racing star of those days, Selwyn Francis Edge, was making an attempt on the 24-hour record, then held by an American who had covered 800 miles in this time.

Edge in his 60 hp Napier car was out to average 60 mph to reach a total mileage of 1,440. The pessimists doubted whether he could do it, but Edge roared around the track, breaking one track record after another.

Edge kept going and, after the 24 hour deadline had been passed, had driven over 1,581 miles for an average speed of just under 66 mph, a record which no other competitor could surpass for 17 years.

Not only was this achievement a triumph for Edge, it was also a tribute to a fine breed of racing car, the Napier. Its triumph was confirmed when the first race in the track’s opening public meeting was won by a Napier car, this time driven by H. C. Tryon.

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Turkey’s heroic saviour – Kemal Ataturk

Posted in Heroes and Heroines, Historical articles, History, Revolution on Thursday, 29 September 2011

This edited article about Turkey originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 828 published on 26 November 1977.

Ataturk, picture, image, illustration

Kemal Ataturk by John Keay

Peace at any price. These four words summed up the thoughts and heartfelt wishes of the Western European Allied Powers when their leaders sat around a conference table in Paris rebuilding the map of Europe.

The year was 1920, and after four years of the worst war known to mankind, peace had to be bought at any price. And even while they were seeking it the war-weary statesmen were sighing hopelessly, for already the prospect of war was looming again, this time with Turkey.

During the First World War, Turkey’s Sultan had made the mistake of siding with defeated Germany. At the peace talks, the Allies therefore decided to destroy the Sultan’s corrupt and outdated Ottoman Empire. The terms they imposed, however, were so severe that the rapidly disbanding European armies would have had no chance of enforcing them if called upon to do so.

News from Turkey revealed that they were indeed being called upon to show their teeth. Trouble was coming not from the Sultan, who had been fawning on the British ever since the armistice, but from a young Turkish army officer based in Angora. He, it was reported, was about to attack the Allied armies in Constantinople (now Istanbul).

His name, it seemed, was Mustapha Kemal. For three years he had been a thorn in the side of the Allies, organising resistance to them, defying his own Sultan’s government and winning a civil war with the Sultan’s army. He and his followers, calling themselves Kemalists, had their own government at Angora and claimed it to be the true voice of the Turkish people.

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The poetic prisoner of Wimpole Street

Posted in Animals, English Literature, Historical articles, Literature on Thursday, 29 September 2011

This edited article about English literature originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 827 published on 19 November 1977.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, picture, image, illustration

Elizabeth Barrett Browning with her cocker spaniel Flush, by Jamesd E McConnell

On a chilly autumn morning in 1846, few people gave a second glance to the middle-aged woman and her maid, walking slowly down Wimpole Street in London, towards Marylebone Church. Even when the woman almost fainted and had to be revived by her maid with smelling salts, no bystander took more notice than to raise a sympathetic eyebrow.

They might have done, if they had known that the woman was Miss Elizabeth Barrett, whose poetry was already well known in both Britain and America, and that she was on her way to the church to marry another poet, Robert Browning.

Earlier that morning, Elizabeth had crept silently out of her father’s house in Wimpole Street, without even telling her sisters about her wedding. Knowing that although she was already forty and an established poet, her father would not allow her to marry Browning, they had decided to marry in secret.

Elizabeth had been an invalid most of her life, forced to remain indoors almost continually because of her ill-health, and the walk to the church was a great strain on her weak lungs.

She almost fainted, and, although revived by her maid, arrived at the church looking more dead than alive. However, the wedding took place and the bride returned home, creeping quietly up to her bedroom.

A week later, still without telling her family that she was now Mrs. Elizabeth Barrett-Browning, she left the house, never to return.

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When Italy’s Renaissance ended the Modern World began

Posted in Architecture, Art, Artist, Historical articles, History on Thursday, 29 September 2011

This edited article about the Renaissance  originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 827 published on 19 November 1977.

Michelangelo, picture, image, illustration

Michelangelo – painter, sculptor, poet and genius

It was night, and as Niccolo Machiavelli accompanied Francesco Soderini into the tent he saw before him a noble figure sealed by a table. Machiavelli’s throat tightened. It was his first meeting with the monstrous Cesare Borgia. This monster proved to be as handsome as a Greek marble statue – but also just as cold and hard.

Their interview turned out to be far less dramatic than was their meeting. A little touch of theatrical lightning, plus Cesare’s appalling reputation, were normally quite enough to ensure that he got his way. This time Cesare led a Papal army and he was determined to terrorize Florence into “friendship” with Rome. It worked! That frightening meeting also convinced Machiavelli that this Borgia was the ideal tyrant – just what a wartorn, divided, invaded and pessimistic land like Italy needed. Later, Machiavelli wrote a book called The Prince that is still one of the greatest works on politics that has ever been written.

Italy at the end of the 15th century was in a mess. Spanish invaders were taking control of the south; French armies came and went in the north, while Swiss and German mercenaries ravaged the country in the pay of one or other petty prince. Only Venice seemed strong and independent, and for that reason found all others ganging up on her. In Rome it looked even worse, as the Borgia popes tried desperately to bring some order to their anarchic lands. Not surprisingly, the greatest building that Pope Alexander VI left on the banks of the river Tiber was a reconstructed Castel Sant’ Angelo fortress. New, deeper dungeons, carved from the rock beneath this grim castle made from a Roman Emperor’s tomb, were among Alexander’s improvements. Other building works were going ahead, of course, as a new Rome of domes and broad streets grew out of a medieval maze of towers and narrow, polluted alleyways.

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The Red Squirrel’s struggle against the Grey

Posted in Animals, Conservation, Nature, Wildlife on Thursday, 29 September 2011

This edited article about animals originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 827 published on 19 November 1977.

Red squirrel, picture, image, illustration

The vanishing Red Squirrel by R B Davis

Of all the small animals native to Britain, none is more attractive than the red squirrel, whether it is sitting nibbling a nut held in its “hands” or making flying leaps from branch to branch on a tree.

Because its teeth are designed for gnawing, the squirrel is classed by zoologists as a rodent. It belongs to the same family as mice, rats and rabbits. But it is one of the few rodents that is more at home in a tree than on the ground.

When seen sitting with its long, bushy tail curved over its back, the squirrel appears to be quite a large and portly animal. Actually it is small, with a rather thin body.

An adult red squirrel measures about 400 mm. (16 in.) from the tip of its nose to the end of its tail. The bushy tail makes up about half this length.

The hind legs are considerably longer than the front ones and are used like those of a rabbit as it bounds along the ground. Each hind paw has five toes with strong curved claws specially designed for climbing trees.

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The last Empress of China

Posted in Historical articles, Royalty on Thursday, 29 September 2011

This edited article about China originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 827 published on 19 November 1977.

Dowager Empress, picture, image, illustration

The Dowager Empress of China

On 15th November, 1908 an era ended – Tze-Hsi, the Chinese Empress, died. Four years later China became a republic.

Tze-Hsi was born in Peking in 1835 and when she was 15, entered the Imperial Palace to become one of the wives of the Emperor Hienfung.

Power came to her by chance. She was the only one of the Emperor’s wives to bear him a son. This meant that, when the Emperor died in 1861, her son, Tung-Chih, came in the throne. He was only five, at the time, so the Dowager Empress ruled as regent. When Tung-Chih died, in 1875, another minor succeeded and she continued to rule.

Tze-Hsi is probably best known for her suppression of the Chinese opium trade.

She dreamt of rebuilding China into a great and powerful nation, and urged her subjects to resist the Western influences of the European traders. It was during her reign that the Boxer Rebellion occurred, when fanatical Chinese tried to wipe out all the “foreign devils” living in China. The rebellion failed, and the foreign powers concerned increased the strength of their bases in China to protect their citizens, most of whom were traders trying to “open up” China.

In 1895 the Chinese forces were defeated by the Japanese. Tze-Hsi was blamed for this and for a while it seemed that the old lady might lose her throne. But by great cunning, she managed to defeat her political enemies and continued to wield enormous power.

Though the Empress sincerely believed she was doing what was best for her country, many of her subjects were critical of her – particularly of her practice of appointing her favourites to important government positions, whether or not they were suitable. In spite of this opposition Tze-Hsi managed to cling on to her throne until her death.