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Archive for January, 2013

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Who poisoned Napoleon Bonaparte?

Posted in Famous crimes, Famous Last Words, Historical articles, History, Mystery, Royalty, War on Saturday, 26 January 2013

This edited article about Napoleon originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 110 published on 22 February 1964.

Napoleon, picture, image, illustration

Napoleon on his deathbed clutching the cross of the Legion d’honneur which he had himself founded

The storm which came sweeping in from the sea battered at the doors and windows of Longwood House on the lonely island of St. Helena. Draughts crept in through cracks in the badly-built walls and made the candles flicker.

Weak light played over the face of the man who lay on the little curtained bed. Only the faintest suggestion of movement under the blankets showed that he was alive.

The merest whisper came from the delicate, half-open lips: “At . . . the head . . . of the . . . army . . .”

And then no more.

At ten minutes to six on the evening of May 5, 1821, Napoleon Bonaparte died, and the people gathered around his bedside wept.

So ended the life of the greatest soldier the world has ever known. For six years Napoleon had been living in exile on St. Helena, an island in the middle of the Atlantic, where he had been sent by his British conquerors. And for the whole of that time he had been guarded night and day, for fear that he might escape and plunge Europe into war again.

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Morayshire – historic land of legend

Posted in Famous landmarks, Geography, Historical articles, History, Legend, Mystery, Royalty, Scotland on Saturday, 26 January 2013

This edited article about Morayshire originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 110 published on 22 February 1964.

Elgin Cathedral burns, picture, image, illustration

The Wolf of Badenoch burns Elgin Cathedral

Sir Robert Gordon of Gordonstoun in Morayshire, sold his soul to the Devil. Then, overcome with horror at what he had done, he tried to save himself from the consequences of his action in a rather curious way. . . .

“Hamish,” said Sir Robert Gordon to the local stonemason, “Hamish, ye maun build me a house.”

“Aye, aye, Sir Robert,” answered the stonemason cautiously. “No doubt ye’ll be wanting some grand affair, wi’ great pillars and many windows, wi’ –”

“Tash, man, dinna presume! The house is to be circular – ye understand? Circular! For does not the circle protect us from a’ manner o’ harm and evil? Let me see some drawings, Hamish – drawings o’ a round house!”

And a round house was indeed built – a circular group of buildings in which Sir Robert Gordon could live free from the Devil’s claim to his soul, for even at the end of the seventeenth century the belief in witchcraft was strong. The circle was said to give protection from the powers of evil.

What happened to Sir Robert? Once the house was built, he was afraid to enter it. Calling for his horse, he rode furiously across the country – only to be slaughtered by a ghostly hound which pursued him there.

That is the story. The Round House still stands – which, people point out, proves the old tale.

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The Psalms are devotional texts and great poetry

Posted in Bible, Historical articles, History, Literature, Music, Religion on Saturday, 26 January 2013

This edited article about the Book of Psalms originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 110 published on 22 February 1964.

Choirboys, picture, image, illustration

Choirboys and lay clerks singing psalms

If the people of Jerusalem had been able to use hymn-books before the time of Christ, then the Book of Psalms is the book they would have chosen.

Such books, however, were not available, for the art of printing was unknown in the Near East. The only versions of the Psalms were on sheepskin scrolls, and all the writing had to be done by hand.

But from perhaps 1000 B.C., collections of Psalms used in worship by the Hebrew people were carefully preserved for the use of choirs and musicians in the Temple at Jerusalem.

It was probably not until about the year 200 B.C. that these Psalms were gathered together in the form in which they have come down to us, and in the order in which they are printed in the Bible. The collection is a very varied one, and between the oldest and the latest to be written several hundred years may have elapsed.

Although they are often known as “The Psalms of David” probably very few were actually written by him, for some of them concern events which took place long after his time. For example, Psalm 137, “By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept” belongs to the time of the Exile, long after David’s reign.

Many other writers made contributions to the book, and probably dedicated their works to the memory of David. It is, however, easy to believe that the loveliest and best-known of all the Psalms, “The Lord is my shepherd” (Psalm 23) was written by David, who was a shepherd in his youth.

The poetry in which the Psalms are written is not like English poetry, for it has neither rhyme nor metre. Hebrew poetry depends on another device, which consists in saying similar things in two different ways. Here is an example: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” (Psalm 27, verse 1).

All the Psalms are written in this “parallel” style in the original Hebrew, even though the English does not always bring it out clearly.

The Psalms, like other poems and hymns, vary greatly in length and in their subjects. The longest, Psalm 119, has 176 verses; the shortest, Psalm 117, only two!

Many of them are hymns of praise to God which have never been excelled, and which are still used all over the world, not only by Jews, but by all branches of the Christian Church.

There are others which contain meditations about God’s ways (139 is the finest of them), or confessions of the failings of the writer and his nation (51 and 130). There are also Psalms for Royal occasions (45), for national thanksgiving (65 – still used at our Harvest Thanksgivings), and for Pilgrimages (121 and 122).

Queen Victoria ruled over a quarter of the world

Posted in Historical articles, History, Politics, Royalty on Saturday, 26 January 2013

This edited article about Queen Victoria originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 110 published on 22 February 1964.

Victoria and Albert, picture, image, illustration

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert by Pat Nicolle

As the shining carriage wheeled swiftly into the courtyard of Windsor Castle and the fine horses clattered to a stop, a handsome young German prince stepped reluctantly out. He was nervous, irritable, anticipating his visit only with displeasure.

In the castle, a fairy-like young queen waited to receive him with a cool animosity that matched his own. Four years earlier he had been sent to her as a suitor, and she had spurned him. She had no intention of surrendering her freedom now.

Slowly, with all the splendour of a conqueror, the prince came up the stairs towards her. He was tall, majestic, broad-shouldered, powerful.

The queen’s bold blue eyes surveyed him closely, and softened.

“But he’s beautiful!” she gasped.

The match had been planned for the couple for years. Now it blossomed into romance. In the following year they were married.

The young queen, Victoria, had come to the throne at the age of 18, so frail in build that at her coronation she could barely carry the sacred orb. When she drove through London, cockneys mocked her by shouting: “Where’s your nurse?”

Nobody could then predict that this innocent girl, barely five feet tall, would yet become a sovereign of heroic proportions. When she died in 1901 her reign had spanned 63 years, four years longer than any other. Her life, by three days, was the longest in English royal history.

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The cunning ingenuity of the trapdoor spider

Posted in Insects, Nature, Wildlife on Saturday, 26 January 2013

This edited article about the trapdoor spider originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 110 published on 22 February 1964.

spiders montage, picture, image, illustration

Trapdoor spider (bottom right)

All the 50,000 species of spider are strange creatures, but trapdoor spiders are the strangest of all. Although they spend most of their life underground, their 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 miles, but usually they drop back to earth after a flight of only a few hundred yards.

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 terrible 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 its own built-in tool: a rake consisting of rows 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 an inch or so, the spider covers the opening with a lid made from grains of earth held together with silk web. The lid has a bevelled edge so that it fits tightly over 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 threads 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.

The holes are also used to lock the door. If an enemy tries to force a way into the burrow, the spider slips its legs through the holes, so bolting the door.

Immediately it has finished the trapdoor the spider digs its tunnel deeper and deeper. As it works its way down, it “plasters” the wall with earth mixed with its saliva. This makes the shaft waterproof.

The “plastered” wall sets hard and smooth and is then “papered” with spider web.

Very often a second tunnel is dug to branch off from the main one.

The second tunnel also has a trapdoor. If an intruder gets past the first door it has to tackle the second before it can reach its quarry.

Sometimes, too, there is a third trapdoor opening on to the surface of the ground. This provides the spider with an escape hatch if the first and second doors are broken down.

Throughout the day the spider sits just outside its closed trapdoor waiting for the insects upon which it feeds. Immediately one comes along, the spider snaps it up, opens the trap and disappears into the tunnel for dinner.

There are more than a hundred species of trapdoor spiders. They range in size from midgets about half-an-inch across to giants bigger than half-a-crown.

All true trapdoor spiders are native to warm climates such as those of Africa, Indonesia, Malaysia and South America.

The ostrich is nature’s most ancient flightless bird

Posted in Birds, Nature, Prehistory, Wildlife on Thursday, 24 January 2013

This edited article about the ostrich originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 109 published on 15 February 1964.

ostrich nest, picture, image, illustration

Ostriches and their nest

Although it cannot fly, the ostrich is the biggest bird in the world. It is also the one with the longest ancestry. Fossils prove that birds very like the ostrich of today were strutting about the earth sixty million years ago.

At one time ostriches ran wild all over southern Europe, throughout Africa and into Asia as far as the Mongolian desert. But throughout man’s history ostriches have been so relentlessly hunted for their feathers that today they are found wild only in central Africa and a few other parts of that continent, where they live safely in national nature reserves.

A fully-grown male ostrich stands eight feet high and weighs about three hundred weight. The female is slightly smaller.

With his black body plumage and white tail and wing feathers, the male is much more handsome than is the female, whose plumage is a uniform dusky grey. In both male and female the legs, thighs and neck are bare.

The ostrich’s foot is quite unlike that of other birds. Instead of four or five claws, it has two toes with short but strong nails. On the underpart of the foot are fleshy pads like those on the paw of a four-footed animal.

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‘Love’s Labours Won’ – the lost plays of William Shakespeare

Posted in Actors, English Literature, Historical articles, History, Literature, London, Shakespeare, Theatre on Thursday, 24 January 2013

This edited article about Shakespeare originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 109 published on 15 February 1964.

Shakespeare writing, picture, image, illustration

William Shakespeare writing at home by Ron Embleton

The scene is the back room of a small printer’s works in an alley in the heart of sixteenth century London. Enter two men. The decaying flamboyance of their dress indicates that they are poor actors. Their stealth indicates they are up to no good.

1st Actor (addressing printer): Would you be interested in a little bit of business?

Printer: Always glad of business, gents, provided it’s honest.

2nd Actor: Honest for you, but a trifle dishonest for us, we must admit.

(He pulls out a filthy screwed-up bundle of papers, covered in scratchings-out and alterations, and hardly legible.)

1st Actor: Look. A play by Will Shakespeare.

(The printer snatches at it and thumbs the sheets.)

Printer: It’s Richard II. I saw it at the Globe.

2nd Actor: That’s where we . . . well, shall we say, “found” it.

Printer: But only half of it’s here and most of this is almost unreadable.

1st Actor: Don’t worry. We played in it. Only small parts, mind you, but we can remember most of the lines.

Printer: Right then, let’s get down to work.

That scene is typical of how about eighteen of Shakespeare’s plays got into print during his lifetime. The lesser actors, or wardrobe men, might steal the pieces of paper on which the rough draft was written, or the “prompt” copy, or even the sheets that Shakespeare had thrown away after completely rewriting them.

No wonder there are early Quartos – the Bad Quartos as they are called – so full of errors and variations of text that they provided a long-lasting source of conflict among scholars.

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Co. Fermanagh is the most westerly county of the United Kingdom

Posted in British Countryside, Famous landmarks, Geography, Historical articles on Thursday, 24 January 2013

This edited article about originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 109 published on 15 February 1964.

Lough Erne, picture, image, illustration

Lough Erne with Devenish Island in Co. Fermanagh by J C Varley

Courage is the watchword of the men of Fermanagh, Britain’s farthest-flung westerly county . . . courage that has shown itself with unflagging relentlessness through the ages.

Courage . . . the famous regiments of this Northern Irish border county are the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and the 5th Inniskilling Dragoon Guards which grew out of a band of soldiers hastily formed by the townspeople of Enniskillen in 1689, when they learned that soldiers of James II, exiled Catholic monarch of England, were to be quartered there during a rebellion.

The improvised garrison kept James’ troops at bay and dispersed them, holding the town for William III, Protestant king of England, until James’ rebellion collapsed.

Courage . . . a hundred years later the same regiments fought with such bravery at Santa Lucia in the Peninsular War that the British Commander-in-Chief, Sir Ralph Abercrombie, ordered the defeated French garrison to surrender their arms to the officers of the Fusiliers.

Courage . . . Napoleon is said to have remarked bitterly of these Northern Irelanders: “They do not know when they are beaten.”

Courage . . . in the Second World War (1939-45) the Fusiliers were among the first Allied troops to lead invasion forces into Italy in 1943.

Enniskillen is the chief town of Fermanagh, a county of water and wooded islands. Two great lakes divide the county, their surfaces dotted with innumerable islands, which are linked by bridge or a rowing boat to the hilly mainland.

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Did King Canute defy the waves to show his humility?

Posted in Historical articles, History, Legend, Royalty, Sea on Thursday, 24 January 2013

This edited article about King Canute originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 109 published on 15 February 1964.

King Canute, picture, image, illustration

King Canute defies the waves by James E McConnell

Into the patchwork quilt of history time has woven the strands of both fact and legend until one, with the passing of centuries, has become indistinguishable from the other.

One such incident, repeated and perhaps enriched in the telling, concerns King Canute, so grandiosely styled King of the English, the Danes and the Norwegians.

It is said that one day in the eleventh century Canute took his royal retinue down to the seashore. A servant carried his throne. On Canute’s head rested his crown.

The throne was set down on the edge of the lapping waves. The tide was coming in. Canute, with a regal gesture, stretched out his hand, and cried:

“I command you to stay.”

The sound of his voice echoed about the rocks, the sound of the sea beat upon the shore, the murmur of his courtiers fluttered over the sands, and the tide kept coming in.

It was not long before the King of the English, the Danes and the Norwegians had wet feet.

“Oh mighty one,” gasped one of his attendants. “Speak again. Send back the waves.” Canute took off his crown and rose from his throne, with the sea now swirling about his ankles.

“Listen all to me,” he said. “Now let men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings.”

So runs the legend. It may surprise you, for many people think that Canute’s action in attempting to halt the advancing tide was carried out in arrogance.

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A woman brought Christ precious ointment at Passover

Posted in Bible, Religion on Thursday, 24 January 2013

This edited article about women of the Bible originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 109 published on 15 February 1964.

Christ anointed, picture, image, illustration

The woman who brought precious ointment and anointed Christ was preparing Him for His coming death

It was Passover time at Jerusalem, and this was always a time of great importance to Jesus and His friends. Together they kept its ceremonies, in which they recalled the great deliverance of their people long ago from slavery under the Egyptians.

This year seemed more than usually solemn. There was a sense of uneasiness among the followers of Jesus, a tension which they had never felt when they walked with Him across the hills of Galilee, or listened to His teachings by the lakeside. They sensed that something new and fateful was about to happen.

Jesus sensed this too. It was in His mind as He spent a quiet evening with some of His disciples at the little village of Bethany. This was a place He loved to visit, for some of his dearest friends lived there, and He could come to their homes after the tiring days He had spent in the noisy and sometimes unfriendly city of Jerusalem.

On this particular evening Jesus was a guest in the home of a man called Simon. During supper a strange thing happened, but one which suggested that someone else knew that Jesus was about to begin the last fateful days of His life on earth.

While the guests were still eating, a woman came quietly up to the place where Jesus sat, and knelt humbly at His side. In her hands she had a beautifully carved jar or casket, made of alabaster.

As she passed the other guests a rich perfume arose from the jar, which they recognized as that of one of the rare and expensive ointments produced in their country. Such ointments were not only used for healing wounds; they were a great luxury, which generous and wealthy hosts sometimes used to refresh their most honoured guests. They were also used when the bodies of greatly loved members of a family were prepared for burial after they had died.

There were cries of amazement therefore when, with a deft gesture, the woman broke the seal of the jar, and began to anoint the head of Jesus with the precious ointment.

“What is she thinking of!” whispered one guest to another. “Such extravagance! Just think what that ointment is worth!”

“Far better to have sold it,” replied his neighbour. “Plenty of poor people would have been glad of the money it would bring.”

Meanwhile, Jesus sat gravely, and allowed the woman to complete this gracious act, which was as natural in its setting as it is strange to us who read of it. Finally He spoke.

“Do not reproach her,” He said gently. “What she has done is right and proper. I shall not always be with you, and understanding this, she has begun to prepare my body in advance for the burial it must receive.”

“And what is more,” Jesus added. “She will always be remembered for this act, wherever the story of my life is told.”