Archive for February, 2014

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Dickens used imagination to address the State of the Nation

Posted in English Literature, Historical articles, History, Literature, London, News on Friday, 28 February 2014

This edited article about Charles Dickens first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 574 published on 13 January 1973.

Charles Dickens,  picture, image, illustration

Dickens sends his first literary efforts to the Monthly Magazine in a dark court off Fleet Street, by Peter Jackson

The 12-year-old boy left his first, long day at work close to rats and in a mood of deep despair. The dark, dirty warehouse seemed like a prison and the dull, mindless work of pasting labels on to bottles had felt endless. Only a year ago he had been attending school, immersed in his books and eagerly looking forward to a future that promised much. But although the young Charles Dickens did not then realise it, his parents were already in difficulty and the future was much less rosy than he imagined.

Life for the Dickens family had become a dreary, unhappy affair in which disaster always threatened. Furniture had to be sold and Charles, who could no longer be kept at school found himself running errands to the pawn shop instead. Often cold and hungry, he did not know that the worst was yet to come. Then a friend suggested he could be found work at the blacking factory for six shillings a week and so a fearful 12 year-old started his working career in the rat-infested old building that seemed to symbolise all that was wrong with the world.

Charles Dickens never forgot this episode in his life, even though times improved and he only worked there for a few months. Nor did he ever forget that he was one of the fortunate few in being rescued from such conditions and later, when he had become the most famous author of his time he did all in his power to improve conditions for the poor. His books made the public realise the scandals and abuses that existed and they helped reformers to create conditions in which changes could be made. Dickens could have little idea of the future that was to be his when he left the blacking factory, but he did have a burning ambition which drove him forward. The results echoed round the world, and also played a significant part in changing the country in which he lived.

Charles Dickens was born at Portsmouth in 1812. His father was a clerk in the Navy Pay Office and after a few years the family moved to Chatham and to London. The family’s changing fortunes sometimes made for a precarious existence and at one time (just after his start at the blacking factory) Charles’ father had to go to the Debtor’s Prison at Marshalsea. But later on prosperity returned and Charles was able to finish his schooling at the age of 15.

He started work as an office boy to a firm of solicitors but the law was a dull business to a young man with so much energy and later his father, after teaching him shorthand, was able to find him work as a newspaper reporter. Charles specialised in Parliamentary reports and soon became known as one of the fastest and most accurate reporters in the country.

When Parliament was not sitting he was sent by his paper all over the country to cover by-elections, important speeches and other occasions. Since this was before the telephone, speed was all important. The brisk Mr. Dickens, who was now a dashing young man, loved the excitement of working at high speed and then travelling as fast as horses could carry him in the hope of delivering his copy before his rivals!

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Governor Grey and the preservation of the Maori people

Posted in Historical articles, History, War on Friday, 28 February 2014

This edited article about New Zealand first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 574 published on 13 January 1973.

Battle of Tauranga,  picture, image, illustration

tThe Battle of Tauranga where the Maoris obligingly built a road for the British redcoats to reach their Pa

Britain’s new colony of New Zealand was in despair. The year was 1864, and for the second time in ten years war had broken out between white settlers and Maori natives.

It was one of the strangest wars ever fought. The enemies – redcoats and dusky warriors – cheered each other after battle and shook hands. The dead were given honourable burial, and both sides erected monuments to each other’s bravery.

The Maoris had lived in the islands of New Zealand for several hundred years before the first white settlers arrived in the early nineteenth century.

This dark-skinned, handsome Polynesian people had sailed their canoes across the ocean to settle in the fern forests and plains of the land they called Ao-tea-Roa – Land of the Long White Cloud.

Early Christian missionaries found the Maoris an intelligent race. They taught them to read and write and to worship God.

But the Maoris were at the mercy of land-hungry white traders who bought their land in return for guns and rum. The result was disastrous, for the warlike Maoris soon realized that the musket was a better weapon than the spear.

Trouble had already arisen over the sale of land by members of tribes without the consent of their chiefs.

The bewildered Maoris, aware that they were being tricked over land prices, began raiding European settlements in revenge.

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Charles Darwin changed our view of the world forever

Posted in Discoveries, Exploration, Historical articles, History, Nature, Science on Friday, 28 February 2014

This edited article about Charles Darwin first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 574 published on 13 January 1973.

Charles Darwin on the Galapagos Islands,  picture, image, illustration

Charles Darwin on the Galapagos Islands by Andrew Howat

Aboard the 10-gun brig, H.M.S. Beagle, a regular feature of Sunday afternoons, as she sailed round the world on a scientific and surveying voyage, was her captain’s entertaining his officers by reading extracts from the Bible.

Captain Robert FitzRoy, only 23 years old and descended from Charles II, was a deeply religious young man, as well as being hot-tempered, eccentric, brave as a bull, just, strict and given to fits of deepest gloom. Like many religious people at that time – the Beagle sailed in 1831 – he firmly believed in the Genesis story of the creation of the world, with Man being made on the sixth day.

Not only that, FitzRoy and millions of others believed that the world was made at 9 am on 23 October, 4,004 B.C., a date worked out by an Irish Anglican archbishop of the 16th century called Ussher. All the ship’s Bibles, like countless others of the day, had a note to that effect. But on board the Beagle was a young naturalist, dressed as a civilian among all the naval officers, who was later to prove that the good archbishop was wrong by millions of years. His name was Charles Darwin.

Darwin, born in 1809, was one of the mildest of revolutionaries, who, in most Victorians’ opinions, was later to break the rules of decency in the most spectacular way by daring to challenge the Book of Genesis.

His beginnings were not spectacular. Though he came of a brilliant family, with a Shrewsbury doctor as a father, a poet and scientist as a grandfather and a mother who was the daughter of the great potter, Josiah Wedgwood, he was rather a dunce at school, was a poor medical student at Edinburgh, and, at Cambridge, seemed destined to become an obscure country parson, a strange beginning for a scientific genius.

It was at Cambridge, however, that he met botanists and scientists, who transformed his outlook on life. One of them, the Rev Professor Henslow, recommended him to FitzRoy as the ship’s naturalist.

When they met, FitzRoy disliked him on sight, mainly because he disapproved of the shape of his nose. It was not the nose, it seemed, to endure the hardships of a trip round the world. But after talking to the keen young naturalist, who was anything but the stuffy-looking Victorian his later photographs suggest, FitzRoy decided that Darwin would do, even with his nose!

On the great voyage, which lasted from 1831-6, Darwin did everything from climbing volcanoes in South America to studying the social life of ants. All of creation fascinated him throughout his life from tiny insects to the fossils of prehistoric monsters, and it was all triggered off for him by the voyage of the Beagle and, especially, the creatures he saw on the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific.

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The female stag beetle is more dangerous than the larger male

Posted in Insects, Nature, Wildlife on Friday, 28 February 2014

This edited article about beetles first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 574 published on 13 January 1973.

Stag beetle,  picture, image, illustration

The female Stag Beetle by R B Davis

On a late summer evening in June when the sun is just about to set, a grotesque shape of an insect can be seen outlined against the red dusky sky, circling clumsily around an oak tree in the warm night air.

This is the male stag beetle with its formidable-looking horns that stick out from its head like a stag’s antlers.

As soon as the insect senses danger, it will stiffen and raise itself up in a threatening position, its antlers held out wide open ready to pounce on its attacker. But frightening though the stag beetle may look when it does this, it cannot really inflict much pain with its huge horns which are really overgrown jaws. Its enemy will only suffer a feeble nip from an attack by the male stag beetle, never a severe bite. In fact, sometimes two males may be found fighting each other but seldom seem to do each other any injury. The female of the species is far more deadly than the male. She has smaller jaws but these can cause quite serious wounds when she attacks an enemy. So the female stag beetle, though she is less lethal looking than the male, is a much more dangerous creature.

Stag beetles are found all over the world and are most common in tropical eastern countries.

They live mostly in thickly-wooded areas, especially where there are many oak trees. The grubs or larvae, which are white and fleshy, feed inside rotting tree trunks on decaying wood and usually take four years to grow into adult insects with tough, hard bodies. When at rest the large transparent wings are ingeniously folded and hidden under the stag beetle’s wing covers.

Francis Bonivard was the political prisoner of Chillon

Posted in Castles, English Literature, Famous landmarks, Historical articles, History, Politics on Friday, 28 February 2014

This edited article about the Prisoner of Chillon first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 574 published on 13 January 1973.

Chateau de Chillon,  picture, image, illustration

The Chateau de Chillon and Bonivard were immortalised by Lord Byron in his poem The Prisoner of Chillon, by Harry Green

The Lake of Geneva is a long crescent-shaped stretch of water with Switzerland on its northern side and the Savoy region of France to the south. Many famous places lie along its shores – Lausanne, Vevey and Geneva itself – places that are visited by tourists from the world over.

Towards the eastern end of the lake, past the resort of Montreaux, stands the Chateau de Chillon, a building that has a far darker history than its beautiful surroundings would seem to suggest.

The Chateau de Chillon dates back to the seventh century, but it was not until about 1250 that it was expanded to become an impregnable fortress. Subterranean dungeons were hewn out of the massive rock foundations. On three sides, the castle rose sheer from the icy waters of the lake. Its fourth side faced towards the cliff that towered above the shore. This side was strengthened, and the roadway between the lake and the cliff was narrowed, so that at most only two horesemen could ride abreast along it. A heavy gate was built across the path leading to the castle.

The Chateau de Chillon had been made impossible for an unwelcome intruder to enter – or for an unwilling prisoner to escape from – a prisoner such as Francis Bonivard.

In those days, the Savoy district of France was a separate country ruled over by its warrior dukes and counts. They looked upon Geneva as part of their territory by right, although the people of Geneva would have preferred to ally themselves with the neighbouring states in Switzerland. But as long as the people of Geneva stood alone, the dukes of Savoy were too strong for them. So revolutionary groups began to be formed, people who made plans for the day when Geneva would be free of the chains of Savoy. Francis Bonivard was one such person.

Francis Bonivard was born in 1493. His uncle was the prior of the monastery of St. Victor in Geneva and, when he died, Bonivard took over the position. It was really a position in name only, offering a good salary and little in the way of duties. Bonivard used his salary to further his own education, travelling and studying law. When he was about twenty-five he joined the “Children of Geneva,” a young political, group who seemed to be more enthusiastic than sensible, for their main activity was to swagger round the town shouting “Down with the Duke of Savoy!”

The following year, the Duke of Savoy visited Geneva to wipe out this talk of sedition. Bonivard’s closest friend was caught and beheaded as a warning to others. Bonivard himself left Geneva disguised as a monk, but he was betrayed and imprisoned by the Duke of Savoy for two years.

“Never again shall I endure the horror of imprisonment,” Bonivard vowed. He little realised that a far worse prison was waiting for him.

When Bonivard was released, he found that his position as Prior had been taken from him. He was friendless and without money. He decided to fade from sight until the right moment came once again to try to help Geneva gain its independence.

After a few years, his position as Prior of St. Victor was restored to him. But the position was one thing, money another. The money had previously come in the form of rents collected from estates in Savoy. These had ceased. So Bonivard now built up his own private army and went to war. He would sally forth, striking without warning, and conducting a form of amateur guerilla warfare. However, the people of Geneva became worried by his activities, fearing reprisals from Savoy. They persuaded Bonivard to stop, offering him instead a small yearly income from the city exchequer.

But Bonivard had already gone too far. The Duke of Savoy now had other plans for him!

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De Gaulle choreographs his triumph during the Liberation

Posted in Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, World War 2 on Friday, 28 February 2014

This edited article about the Liberation of Paris first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 574 published on 13 January 1973.

Charles de Gaulle in Paris 1944,  picture, image, illustration

Charles de Gaulle takes his Victory Walk down the Champs Elysses during the liberation of Paris, by Graham Coton

The Champs Elysees was crammed with people pressed breathlessly together in one great cheering mass. The more agile had climbed the lamp-posts and clung there waving, shouting yelling greetings to a tall, lank man most of them had never seen before.

He moved slowly in a small group that could only trickle through the crush while all round him, his name was chanted out and echoed from pavement to pavement: “De Gaulle! De Gaulle! De Gaulle!

During World War Two, if any name had a meaning for Parisians and Frenchmen everywhere, it was this one.

For four years, it was a name to be whispered in bistros and cafes, with one’s eyes always wary to detect the approach of a Nazi uniform. It was a name to strain one’s ears for, while huddling round radios turned down to near-inaudibility in case some sharp-eared German should know illicit Allied broadcasts were being heard.

By 26th August, 1944, the day General Charles de Gaulle walked in triumph down the most famous street in Paris, the need for secrecy and watchfulness had come to an end. But its marks were still starkly apparent on the faces and in the eyes of the Parisians.

They had the gauntness and pallor of those who had known years of food shortages, empty grates and freezing hours spent queueing for the simplest of human wants. The smiles and laughter of new-found freedom failed to dim the sadness in eyes that had seen sons and husbands carried off to forced labour camps, or hostages snatched in the streets and slaughtered in a burst of rifle fire.

Scenes and experiences like this were not unique to Paris, of course. They were repeated in towns and cities all over Nazi-occupied Europe. However, for Parisians, Nazi domination held a special disgrace.

On 14th June 1940, their famous city had been yielded to the Germans without a fight. And the next four years had seen dozens of men and women openly collaborating with the invader and accepting from him the comforts denied to those who were less perfidious.

This was an affront which had to be avenged; for the honour of France, a compelling ideal to the French, had been smirched and sullied.

The spirit of vengeance was particularly strong in those who actively resisted the Germans, wrecking cars, sniping at soldiers, blowing up railway lines, cutting telephone wires.

Others resisted more passively, but with no less conviction. They sheltered fugitives from German labour gangs, scrawled insults on walls, ignored faults in arms produced for German forces, and even jabbed dirty thumbs into a German officer’s soup while serving in a restaurant.

Whether active or passive in their resistance, they all derived inspiration from Charles de Gaulle, even though he was nothing more than a voice beamed over radio waves from London.

On 18th June, 1940, in his first broadcast, this obscure army officer who came to embody the spirit of Free France, told his captive people, “The flame of French resistance is not extinguished, and it will not be extinguished.”

It never was, though its vigour was muted at times when Resistance leaders were arrested and killed.

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Savonarola – the Dominican friar who suffered an ordeal by fire

Posted in Historical articles, History, Religion, Sinners on Friday, 28 February 2014

This edited article about Savonarola first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 574 published on 13 January 1973.

Savonarola at the stake,  picture, image, illustration

Savonarola, about to be burned in 1498 by Tancredi Scarpelli

The crowd of several thousands hurrying towards the Piazza della Signoria in Florence were buzzing with excitement. They had been waiting for weeks for this spectacle and they jostled and shoved to be there first, to get the best vantage points.

For in the Piazza della Signoria that day two priests had volunteered to burn themselves alive in an ordeal by fire.

In the piazza workmen had built two banks of inflammable material, 40 yards in length with a narrow space between them, in front of the palace of the ruler of the city state. Five hundred soldiers formed a wide circle to keep back the jostling crowd. Thus was the scene set for one of history’s most curious “trials.”

At the appointed hour the two priests – one a Dominican, the other a Franciscan – flanked by their supporters, came out into the open guarded circle. The crowd hushed expectantly as they took their places before the two great unlit pyres.

The ordeal by fire was to be the climax of the amazing career of Girolamo Savonarola, a Dominican friar whose preaching had shaken the complaisant people of Florence to their roots. That day, the Florentines hoped, God would judge by fire whether Savonarola was a saint, which was how half of them saw him, or a fool, the view of the other half.

Ever since the puritanical priest had arrived in their city, no one had been spared from the lash of his tongue. “Florentines!” thundered Savonarola from his pulpit in St. Mark’s. “You have lapsed into paganism and you will surely perish for it in the fires of hell, unless you repent at once!”

Then he had switched his attack to the city’s feared ruler, the all-powerful Lorenzo de’Medici, until Lorenzo’s smile tightened on his lips and his hand began to shake with anger. Next the Pope himself was denounced, until the Holy Father’s patience broke into vengeful wrath and he ordered the noisy Dominican friar to be excommunicated.

On one thing all the bemused Florentines were agreed: there had been nothing like Father Savonarola since the Old Testament.

The wisest of them had plenty of sympathy for the Dominican friar’s viewpoint. Sixteenth century Florence might be the centre of that brilliant explosion of art and culture that was later defined as the Renaissance, but in spiritual matters it had gone sadly adrift and its morality could rightly be described as depraved.

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An ancient copper scroll told of fabulous treasure in the desert

Posted in Ancient History, Archaeology, Bible, Historical articles, History on Friday, 28 February 2014

This edited article about the Dead Sea Scrolls first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 574 published on 13 January 1973.

Dead Sea Scrolls,  picture, image, illustration

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls

It was a clear and brilliantly sunny morning in early summer, with the promise of a scorching heat later in the day. The Arab shepherd lad idly watched his sheep and the rocky, barren landscape on one side with the shores of the Dead Sea on the other. His name was Muhammad, his nickname “The Wolf” but today he hardly had the energy to live up to this name. It was 1947, at a place called Qumran; he had been up since dawn and now all he wished to do was look for some shade as the sun rose higher.

The sound of stones being dislodged made him look upwards and he saw that one of the goats which fed with the sheep had strayed up a steep cliff path. His shouts were of no avail and, unwillingly, he rose to his feet and went after it. Unless he could drive the goat back to the plateau there would be real trouble. But the goat simply scampered on, with Muhammad wearily climbing afterwards. Soon he came on an overhanging crag of rock, and decided to use its shade for a brief rest.

As he sat down, his eye was caught by a small, queerly placed hole. Tossing a stone through, he was even more surprised when he heard the sound of breaking pottery. Soon he had cleared the entrance to a long, narrow cave, and inside were several tall, wide-necked jars. At this, Muhammad began to fear, for who would expect such signs of habitation in this wilderness? He wondered about evil spirits and swiftly decided that this was no place for him. Forgetting all about his goat, he dashed back to the camp and told his story.

Next day Muhammad returned, more boldly, with a friend. They squeezed through the entrance hole and took the bowl shaped lids off the jars. But instead of the Aladdin’s treasure they had hoped for, all they found were some evil smelling cloth-covered bundles – and underndeath each cloth was simply a roll of parchment.

Although the shepherd boys may have been disappointed, they were, in fact, looking at some of the most precious manuscripts the world has known. The “Dead Sea Scrolls” as they became known include copies of parts of the Old Testament older by a thousand years than anything we had ever seen. The fact that they were still in such good condition seemed miraculous and it was only the heat and dryness of the Dead Sea Rift Valley, 1300 feet below sea level that had made it possible.

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Cardinal Richelieu exercised absolute power with cruel resolve

Posted in Historical articles, History, Politics, Religion, Royalty on Friday, 28 February 2014

This edited article about Cardinal Richelieu first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 573 published on 6 January 1973.

Cardinal Richelieu,  picture, image, illustration

Cardinal Richelieu

“My first goal is the majesty of the King. My second is the greatness of the realm. To achieve these goals it is sometimes necessary to turn all criticism with the stubbornness of a man who stops his ears.”

The iron-willed speaker was Cardinal Armand Jean du Plessis of Richelieu, for nearly 20 years the greatest man in France and in Europe, greater in power and authority than even his own King.

The people played a minor role in Richelieu’s goals. “If they are too prosperous they cannot keep their minds on their duty. They must be subjected, like mules, who, knowing always the burden they must carry, are spoiled by long idleness when they should be working.”

“Cold, cruel, petty and avaricious,” is how he has been described. But for all that, he was also determined, courageous and amazingly competent.

Richelieu came from a noble family in Poitou and was trained for a soldier’s life when he was still a boy. Quite suddenly, he switched from a uniform to a priest’s cloak, agreeing with his father that the ambition for glory burning inside him would best be satisfied from the pulpit rather than the battlefield.

How quickly that ambition worked can be gauged from the fact that at 21 Armand du Plessis of Richelieu was appointed Bishop of Lucon.

His diocese was tiny and in the poorest part of France. But it was a start. And although he was penniless he determined to make his presence felt in style. Having no coach, he borrowed one and hired a coachman and horses. A bishop, he said, should sleep in a velvet bed, so he scraped together some sous and bought a second-hand one.

As a bishop, Richelieu had a seat in the States-General, the Parliament of France, and as a bishop, too, he went often to Court.

This was the Court of Louis the Thirteenth. When he was nine, Louis’s father was murdered and his mother, Marie de Medici, became Regent, ruling the country while her son was still a boy. It was a situation where nobles and ambitious commoners could advance their progress by befriending the widowed Regent, in the knowledge that the game might have to be re-played when Louis was old enough to wear his own crown.

At Court it was said that no one could withstand the fascinating look of Richelieu, who, with his tall, proud, slender figure, thin lips, goatee beard and cavalry-style moustache, was both a distinguished-looking and dominating man.

Marie de Medici fell under the spell of that charm and made him her almoner in 1616. His first taste of office did not last many months, for one day in 1617 the Queen-Regent’s chief favourite was murdered and young Louis, responding to the cry of his own favourite, Albert de Luynes – “Now you are truly King of France!” – decided that that would indeed be the case.

Marie and Richelieu were sent away from Court by the King, but Richelieu continued to advise the Queen Mother. When passions between Louis and his mother reached such a state that civil war was likely, it was the Bishop of Luçon who cooled the royal tempers and effected a reconciliation.

Louis was aware of the important part Richelieu had played, but he and his minister, de Luynes feared the Bishop’s thirst for power.

“Beware of him, madame, for I know him better than you,” the King told his mother. “He is a man of unbounded ambition.”

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British Centipedes have fewer than 100 legs

Posted in Animals, Insects, Nature on Friday, 28 February 2014

Centipedes and other animals,  picture, image, illustration

Page from The Pictorial Museum of Animated Nature showing centipedes

Under a pile of dead and rotting leaves that have settled on the moist soil in an English garden, a centipede stirs drowsily from its sleep. Using its many pairs of legs to upturn the pile of leaves, it creeps out into the open as soon as night has fallen to search for its food, for strong light can easily kill it. Moving along at lightning speed, the centipede has no difficulty in catching slugs, worms and small insects which are its favourite meals.

It can grip a slug in its two poisonous claws which are like little legs on the first segment of its body near the head. Once the victim is caught, the poisonous liquid flows from the curved, hollow organs of the claws and is injected into the unfortunate prey’s body, instantly paralysing it.

This poison is harmless to man but there are some tropical centipedes which are one foot long, capable of inflicting a painful bite which can cause a fever in human beings.

Centipedes do not always have 100 pairs of legs as their name implies. Some have more than that, while others have only 28.

The flat bodies are made up of many segments joined together and each segment has a pair of legs growing out of it.

The two types of centipede most often seen in English gardens are the lithobius and the geophilus (unfortunately, there are no simple, common names for them). There are two unusual characteristics of these centipedes. The geophilus, which is the larger of the two, being two inches long with 43 pairs of legs, gives out a steady glow when it is alarmed at night, and the lithobius, which is only one inch long with 15 pairs of legs, can live to the ripe old age of six, which is a very good age for a centipede.