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Archive for February, 2012

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Pont-Saint-Esprit suffered collective hallucinations caused by ergotism

Posted in Historical articles, History, Medicine, Mystery, Oddities, Plants on Wednesday, 29 February 2012

This edited article about medicine originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 655 published on 3 August 1974.

Pont-Saint-Esprit, picture, image, illustration

Various phenomena witnessed by the afflicted inhabitants of Pont-Saint-Esprit

As Dr. Albert Gabbai trudged along the familiar streets of Pont-Saint-Esprit, he was glad to be back. Admittedly, it was not a very exciting town, typical of many in the southern part of France. With a population of about 5,000, it had one decent hotel, a couple of garages and a tiny hospital. Certainly, it was not a place where anything much happened. Indeed, most travellers who crossed its little bridge over the River Rhone found the place exceptionally dull.

Dull or not, the sun usually shone on Pont-Saint-Esprit and that, so far as Dr Gabbai was concerned, made up for a lot. He had just taken his family on holiday and it had rained so much that, after a week, they had all returned home in dismay. So now, on 24th August, 1951, the doctor was making his way along the Boulevard Gambetta with the sun shining down on his head and almost looking forward to getting back to work.

“I’m an aeroplane! Look, I can fly!”

Dr Gabbai stopped dead in his tracks and stared up at the little hospital towards which he had been making his way. At a second floor window, a man was waving his arms up and down like the wings of a bird. The doctor recognised the figure instantly, for in a town the size of Pont-Saint-Esprit the inhabitants knew each other, at least by sight. The capering figure was that of Joseph Puche, a one-time pilot who had been admitted to hospital that day, gasping for breath and obviously seriously ill. Now he seemed to have gone out of his mind.

“Don’t you believe I can fly?” Puche yelled. “Just watch me!”

With his tremendous strength, the sick man broke free of the nurses who were doing their best to hold him and, with arms flailing wildly, launched himself into space. He dropped like a stone on to the cobbles below, crying out in agony as he cracked the bones in both legs. Then, before Dr Gabbai’s unbelieving eyes, he jumped up and actually ran fifty yards on the damaged bones before he was seized and carried, raving, back into the building from which he had just leaped.

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Touching wood for luck is a more pagan than Christian custom

Posted in Customs, Historical articles, History, Religion, Superstition on Tuesday, 28 February 2012

This edited article about superstition originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 654 published on 27 July 1974.

Druids, picture, image, illustration

Druids under the oak trees gathering mistletoe, by William Rainey

“Touch wood” said our ancestors hastily, as a kind of insurance against disaster. But in these enlightened times, we modern people are above such idle superstitions. We no longer believe in such outmoded nonsense – or do we?

It has always been held unlucky to anticipate future luck or happiness, in case some jealous sprite might steal it away; or the gods overhear and withhold the good fortune to teach the boaster a lesson. It is equally dangerous, for the same reasons, to congratulate someone else on his good looks, or good fortune.

Touching wood has long been one way of compensating for possible harm done – Christians sometimes believed it brought the protection of the Cross. (In Ireland, if a stranger admired a baby too highly, its mother would often touch wood, make the sign of the Cross, and say “God be between him and harm.”)

But the practice goes much farther back than Christianity. Throughout mythology there have been sacred trees, such as the oak which was supposed to be immune to lightning and give protection in storms, as well as harbouring the mistletoe, a plant sacred to the Druids.

Nowadays people often think it is enough to say – “touch wood” without actually doing so. Children sometimes touch their heads as a joke, to suggest “wooden-headedness,” or stupidity (perhaps half-believing that such modesty will appease the angry gods!)

In some countries iron replaces wood. Touching iron is still sometimes practised in mines. If some other mining superstition has been defied, disaster can be averted if the speaker, and his hearers, immediately “touch cold iron.” Its “supernatural” properties date back to the earliest days of man’s life on earth. The first iron found was meteoric. Because it appeared unexpectedly, in strange, menacing shapes and unlikely places, it was believed to have been hurled from the heavens by angry gods. When it was first used in tools and weapons its natural superiority over stone and bronze caused it to be feared as “magic” by tribes who still used the older and more inferior metals.

The Battle of Maiwand was one of Britain’s cruelly noblest defeats

Posted in Famous battles, Historical articles, History, War on Tuesday, 28 February 2012

This edited article about the Second Afghan War originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 654 published on 27 July 1974.

Battle of Maiwand, picture, image, illustration

The Afghans seized their chance to smash the British which spelled disaster for the valiant men of the 66th at Maiwand, by Graham Coton

There were only eleven of them left alive in the ruins of the walled garden, two officers and nine men, and in the end they charged out in a defiantly hopeless last attack on the hundreds of Afghans who surrounded them. When total exhaustion and their wounds brought them to a halt, they formed a miniature square and fired at the enemy until the last of them fell dead. Then and only then did the tribesmen close in and overrun the tiny, blood-stained position.

The battle of Maiwand, fought on July 27, 1880, was not yet over, but this could only be a matter of time. When it finally ended, a nightmare retreat began. The six companies of the 66th Regiment (later the Royal Berkshire Regiment) had started out with 19 officers and 427 other ranks. After the battle they had lost 10 officers and 275 men killed and 2 officers and 31 wounded. It was a catastrophe, but a glorious one, even though no battle honours could be awarded for a defeat. And the fact that the 66th won no Victoria Crosses was easily explained. There were no senior officers left alive to recommend any. The rest of the army and the people of the Empire were in no doubt about the gallantry displayed, and the Commander-in-Chief in India, General Primrose, wrote in his official despatch that “history does not afford any grander or finer instance of gallantry to Queen and Country than that displayed by the 66th. . . .”

Maiwand! Except in Berkshire and among military history enthusiasts, few people remember it today, though readers who know their Sherlock Holmes stories well, will recall that on the very first page of the first Holmes book of all, “A Study in Scarlet,” the good Doctor Watson reveals that he was wounded in the shoulder when serving with the Berkshires at Maiwand.

In the 19th century, the British were always suspicious of Russian designs in Afghanistan, leading to a threat to India. Apart from this supposed danger, they were often engaged in fierce skirmishes along the North-West Frontier with the wild tribesmen whose favourite sport was fighting. The events leading up to the disaster at Maiwand began in 1879. The British envoy in the Afghan capital, Kabul, was murdered and this triggered off an invasion, which led to the deposition of the Emir and his replacement by a pro-British ruler. The Berkshires arrived in Afghanistan and headed for the city of Kandahar 320 miles from Kabul, only to find that they had missed all the action. Or so it seemed.

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The Lanchester’s brief moment in the spotlight before Daimler stepped in

Posted in Cars, Engineering, Historical articles, History, London, Transport, Travel on Tuesday, 28 February 2012

This edited article about motor cars originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 654 published on 27 July 1974.

Daimler in Pall Mall, picture, image, illustration

Daimler had glamorous offices and showrooms in Pall Mall and took over Lanchester in 1931

Britain’s first successful four-wheeled car – as against converted carriages or tricycles – was built by Frederick Lanchester. This was designed in 1894, when all other designers were improving on Daimler or Benz vehicles.

However, Lanchester preferred his own ideas. In company with his brother, George, he built two experimental machines incorporating these. In 1899, the second of these cars won a special gold medal at the Richmond Motor Show after running for 68 miles at an average speed of 26 m.p.h.

But there was a setback during the thousand miles’ trial in 1900. During this, one of the Lanchester cars split in two, leaving a hefty reporter, in the rear seat, immobile in the road with the unpowered half.

It was not until 1901 that a production car took to the road, because Lanchester was such a perfectionist. He insisted upon his various models having fully interchangeable parts, something Henry Ford is usually credited with introducing.

During the First World War, Lanchester was the only British company, besides Rolls-Royce, to build armoured cars, most of which saw service on the Russian front.

After the war, Lanchester continued to build fine cars, but they looked like most other cars of the period. In 1931, Lanchester was taken over by Daimler, who continued to build cars called “Lanchester” although they lacked the character created for them by their original designer.

The Bacchic pleasures of those intoxicating fruits of the vine

Posted in Ancient History, Bible, Historical articles, Plants on Tuesday, 28 February 2012

This edited article about fruits originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 654 published on 27 July 1974.

Cleopatra and Mark Antony, picture, image, illustration

Cleopatra teasing Mark Antony with a bunch of grapes by Don Lawrence

If you ever have an opportunity to visit Hampton Court Palace, in Middlesex, take a look in the vinery. There, you can see a gigantic grape vine, which has a girth of six-feet two-inches, and a main branch measuring a hundred-and-twenty feet long. It was planted in 1769, but still yields three hundred pounds of fruit each year, which is sold to the public.

Grapes have been popular in Britain since the 1st century A.D. when our ancestors called them winberige, meaning berry of the vine. After the Norman Conquest, winberige was replaced by the French word, grappe, which really referred to the hook used to gather the fruit.

When the Domesday Book, William the Conqueror’s survey of England, was prepared between 1085 and 1086, there were thirty-eight vineyards in the south of the country. Gloucester, in particular, was famous for the quality of its grapes.

Although this fruit was grown as a luxury in this country, it has been a source of food and wine in the hot regions of the world for thousands of years. Its importance is shown in the Biblical story of Noah which tells how, immediately the flood subsided, he planted a vineyard. Grape seeds have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs and instructions for its cultivation and wine production have been deciphered from hieroglyphics written about 2,400 B.C.

Over the centuries, as grape culture spread westward, through Asia Minor, Greece, Sicily and was carried by Phoenician traders to France, it also travelled into the Orient by way of India. So, today there are more than 8,000 known varieties of the fruit. Some are grown purely for the table. Others are cultivated for wine-making, because they contain more glucose and are more easily fermented.

During the process of fermentation, a deposit of acid potassium salt crystals is formed. The crystals are grey or red in colour and called argol. When this is refined, it becomes the cream of tartar used in baking powder.

A small, seedless variety of grape is grown to make currants, the dried fruits which take their name from Corinth, in Greece, from where the first currants came. Sultanas are obtained from another seedless variety, the Smyrna, from Izmir in Turkey, and raisins are produced from muscatel grapes grown in the Mediterranean countries, California and Australia.

Perhaps the climbing perch is neither fish nor foul

Posted in Biology, Fish, Nature, Oddities, Wildlife on Tuesday, 28 February 2012

This edited article about fish originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 654 published on 27 July 1974.

cimbing perch, picture, image, illustration

Climbing perch by Susan Cartwright

The Climbing Perch is one of the few fishes which have developed a rudimentary kind of lung so that it can travel overland in search of new water habitats. It does this by using its spiky fins, gill covers, and tail to propel itself out of the water, climbing over any obstacle in the way and travelling at about 200 yards an hour.

The long-beaked Woodcock cares for its young in several unique ways

Posted in Birds, Nature, Wildlife on Tuesday, 28 February 2012

This edited article about birds originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 654 published on 27 July 1974.

Long-beaked Woodcock, picture, image, illustration

The long-beaked Woodcock carrying a chick to a new nesting ground, by R B Davis

The long-beaked Woodcock is found in wooded country in most parts of Britain but is seldom seen except in the evening just after sunset when the male bird sets out on its courtship flight. This takes it on a circuit of a couple of miles or more round and round it’s nest site, flying just above the trees. While doing this it continually utters its peculiar call, consisting of two distinct notes, one a kind of short whistle and the other a low grunt.

For a long time it has been claimed that Woodcocks have the unique habit of carrying their young in flight to a new nest site, when the old one becomes threatened. It was the subject of great controversy and many ornithologists thought it to be just an Old Wives’ Tale. But in recent years many authenticated records have been published and it is now accepted as fact.

The nest of the Woodcock is just a depression in the ground in which the female lays her eggs, three or four in number. If an intruder approaches, the adult bird feigns injury and flutters along the ground as though it has an injured wing, in the hope of enticing the intruder away from the nest.

Rev. Edward Irving’s delirious congregation produced prophets of the Second Coming

Posted in Bible, Historical articles, History, Oddities, Religion, Sinners on Tuesday, 28 February 2012

This edited article about religious fanaticism originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 654 published on 27 July 1974.

Edward Irving, picture, image, illustration

Rev Edward Irving the charismatic Presbyterian preacher

The gaunt preacher with the mane of black hair leant out from his pulpit and blessed the vast congregation which stared up at him in admiration. He had been preaching for three hours and, as he stepped back, he mopped at the sweat that streamed from his brow. The silence that followed was broken by a piercing shriek: “The Lord is in the midst of you!” It came from a figure writhing in a corner of the chapel. Nervous ladies scurried for the doors. The writhing ceased and the figure revealed itself as a respectable-looking young man. He advanced into the middle of the aisle and addressed them: “Why will ye flee from the Voice of God?” he demanded. “Ye cannot flee from it on the Day of Judgment.” Up in the pulpit Edward Irving, no longer the subject of attention, groaned inaudibly. Mr Taplin was prophesying again and had upstaged him for the third week in succession.

It was 1832 and religious fervour was sweeping the country. It had been sparked off by the French Revolution which had seemed to bring to an end the world as most people knew it. No sooner had the spectre of the guillotine ceased to haunt the middle-classes than Bonaparte threatened death and destruction. The relief brought by his defeat at Waterloo had lasted barely 20 years before agitation for the emancipation of Roman Catholics and for the Reform Bill seemed to presage fresh changes in the world order. To crown it all, in 1831 an epidemic of cholera had brought death to many homes. Some fearful climax to these terrors must be imminent. And a number of prophets suddenly appeared to reveal just what the climax was to be.

Many of them were associated with the Irvingites, followers of Edward Irving, a Scottish Presbyterian minister at Regent Square Chapel in London. He was a brilliant orator and regularly drew congregations of over a thousand. The tense atmosphere created by his marathon sermons seems to have encouraged members of his audience, like Mr Taplin, to “prophesy” – to babble incoherently in strange tongues, or to utter mysterious warnings. When Irving and others examined their utterances, striking similarities appeared. Their words corresponded with the writings of several mystics which had been published in Britain and the Continent. Together they indicated that the world in its present form was drawing to a close and that the Second Coming of Christ was at hand.

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Nashional Taste!!! The remodelling of the Prince Regent’s London by John Nash

Posted in Architecture, British Cities, British Towns, Historical articles, History, Illustrators, London, Royalty on Tuesday, 28 February 2012

This edited article about architecture originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 654 published on 27 July 1974.

John Nash, picture, image, illustration

A contemporary caricature of John Nash perched on the spire of All Saints, Langham Place, by George Cruikshank

John Nash was the son of an engineer and millwright, born in London in 1752. After ten years as an architect in the office of Sir Robert Taylor, Nash set up his own business but went bankrupt in 1783.

Soon, however, Nash established himself as a country house architect and from this period there survive several of his houses; at Southgate Grove, Middlesex; Sunbridge Park, Kent, and Cronkhill, Shropshire.

In 1796 he set up in partnership with a landscape gardener called Humphrey Repton in London, and a few years later obtained the patronage of the Prince Regent (later to become George IV).

He began his major work in 1811. This was the development of Regent’s Park and Regent’s Street as a residential area. This Regent’s Park-Regent’s Street scheme is the most important and best preserved of all the building projects carried out at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century. The curved, sweeping Regent’s Street linked the Prince Regent’s residence, Carlton House, with the centre of Georgian London and was completed in about 1825. Nash’s plan included the Regent’s canal, churches, shops, arcades as well as the magnificent and charming terraced houses in Regent’s Park itself. Nash also built the circular, porticoed church of All Saints in Langham Place, London.

During the two years between 1813 and 1815 he held the post of deputy surveyor general and by that time had become the Prince Regent’s personal architect. Between 1815 and 1823 Nash extended and altered the Royal Pavilion at Brighton in a flamboyant style which cost the enormous sum of £160,000.

In 1821 Nash was instructed to rebuild Buckingham House as a royal palace regardless of expense but his work there was left uncompleted in 1830 when the king died and Nash himself was dismissed. The great architect died on May 13th, 1835, at Cowes.

Operation Barbarossa was the tactical error of a Fuhrer paranoid about Stalin’s duplicity

Posted in Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Invasions, World War 2 on Tuesday, 28 February 2012

This edited article about the Second World War originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 654 published on 27 July 1974.

Operation Barbarossa, picture, image, illustration

Operation Barbarossa by Gerry Wood

Nazi Germany’s ten year treaty of non-aggression and neutrality organised with Stalin’s Russia was the safeguard that had allowed Hitler to start the war. During the campaign against France, the Germans had only ten divisions on their Eastern frontier, facing a hundred divisions of the Russians. It took nerve on Hitler’s part, to trust that his partner in the treaty would keep faith.

After the fall of France, came the carve-up. As we have seen, Russia had already seized control of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, as well as Finland. In November, 1940, the Russian Foreign Minister arrived in Berlin to discuss further moves. Considering that Hitler was already contemplating the invasion of Russia, the talks had a certain macabre unreality. It was like Chicago in the early twenties: the rival gangs agreed on their territories; Dion O’Banion stayed east of the river, the Touhy Gang kept to the west – and Al Capone had nearly everywhere else. The European super-gangsters of 1940 agreed that Hitler should control Rumania in return for Russia’s free hand in Bulgaria; while Germany would step aside in favour of Stalin’s ambitions in the Dardanelles.

In both situations, the gangster leaders kept up a facade of mutual agreement and understanding.

And while this was going on, the hoodlums in the back rooms oiled their guns for the coming battles!

Britain was a thorn in Hitler’s side. She refused to accept defeat and scorned his peace proposals. The Battle of Britain had scotched the myth of the invincible Luftwaffe and his Italian allies had fared badly from British arms in the Western Desert. He became convinced that Britain’s continued confidence and aggressiveness stemmed from a secret agreement she must have with Russia.

The very thought drove Hitler wild. He, who had no intention of honouring the non-aggression and neutrality pact one moment longer than it served his needs, was furious that his partner might be contemplating a similar double-cross. So he gave orders that the subjugation of these islands could wait till the bigger enemy was destroyed. He told his generals to prepare a plan for the invasion of Russia – and he called it “Operation Barbarossa,” after the famous Holy Roman Emperor of the twelfth century. Russia was to be knocked out in a quick campaign before the end of the war with Britain. Stalin (who the Fuhrer described as ‘an ice-cold blackmailer’) must be eliminated.

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