Wednesday, 24 April 2019

The Lion on the Cheesegrater

Reading James Davidson's splendid book, "Courtesans and Fishcakes: the consuming passions of classical Athens", I discover that the Athenian brothels offered a service called, "The lion on the cheesegrater". What on earth might this have been? Nobody seems to know. Imagination boggles!

Friday, 5 April 2019


My father used to enjoy conjugating certain ideas in the manner of the Latin verbs we had to learn at school (Amo - amas - amat: I love, you (singular) love, he loves, etc). This one sounds particularly apposite to the current disputes about Brexit:-

I am firm
You are obstinate
He (or she!) is a pig-headed idiot
We stick to our principles
You are doctrinaire
They are utterly blind to the true state of affairs

Here's one about going on holiday:-

I am a traveller
You are a tourist
He goes on coach trips
We have discovered a marvellous Greek island
You have pushed the prices up alarmingly
They have ruined the place completely

This one, about racist feelings, is best done back to front:-

They are Nazis
You are bigots
We only want to stay with the sort of society we're used to
He is a racist
You are prejudiced
I have plenty of black friends, but ....

No doubt readers can think of other examples 

Postscript: Matthew Parris produced a new one the other day in the "Times", concerning freedom of speech:-

I am fearlessly outspoken
You had better watch what you say
He should be no-platformed

he didn't suggest a plural. 

Saturday, 23 March 2019


March 25th is the Feast of the Annunciation, when the Archangel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary. This event is mentionaed only in St. Luke's Gospel, but since Christ was born at the winter solstice (though this date is not to be found in any Gospel), it was logical that he should be conceived at the spring equinox.
   The subject was always a great favourite with artists, especially in the Italian renaissance. The setting is almost always the same. Mary is wearing her traditional colours of red dress and blue cloak, and she is sitting in a cloister or loggia. Often she is shown reading a book, open at the prophecy of the birth of the Saviour. Gabriel usually enters from the left of the picture. Sometimes he carries a white lily, symbolising Mary's purity. Often there is a white dove, or a single narrow shaft of light.
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This version by Lorenzo Lotto is not typical of the genre, but I love it because of the cat, which has seen the archangel and is suitably 
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Until 1753 England used the Julian calendar, which had become increasingly inaccurate, and March 25th was the start of the New Year; but then Lord Chesterfield pushed through Parliament his reform to bring the country in line with the continental Gregorian calendar. The start of the year was changed to January 1st, and eleven days were added to the year to catch up with correct dating. However, the financial year did not change, and continued to start at March 25th plus eleven days.
   A glance at a newspaper horoscope will show that the astrological year still begins with the sign of Aries, the Ram, starting at the spring equinox in March.

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Do Animals Have Rights?

Animals do not have any legal rights. They cannot be prosecuted in a court of law, or be called to give evidence, they cannot sue or be sued, and it is very doubtful whether they can inherit money or property. So what is usually meant when we talk about "animal rights?

It has been pointed out that pain, and the fear of suffering future pain, are important tools in aiding survival. For instance, because we know that burning is painful, we are therefore afraid of being burnt, and we know to treat fire with caution. Without pain and fear, we wouldn’t survive long!
Psychological pains, like shame, jealousy and loneliness, stem from our being animals who live in herds. Herds always have hierarchies, and we want to find our place in them. At the same time, virtues such as generosity and courage, which involve placing the wellbeing of others above our personal benefit, also stem from the herd-instinct.

Descartes thought animals were mere machines; what we might nowadays called programmed robots; but this is plainly incorrect. We all know that the animals that are close to us, like cats, dogs, horses etc, certainly feel physical pain in a similar way to us, and seem to feel some psychological pains as well. But these creatures are mammals; genetically similar to us. Does the same apply to reptiles and fishes? And what about invertebrates, such as snails? They presumably feel physical pain, but what about fear? E.g. humans endure psychological pain if they know they could be tortured or executed, or will suffer an unpleasant disease. Can animals anticipate suffering in this way? We know that in the end we shall all die. Do animals know this?
To take an even more extreme example: Plants are certainly sensitive to light and in some cases to touch. But they have no brains and no central nervous systems, so we can be certain that they cannot experience fear, but what about pain?

Similarly, we know that domesticated and farmed mammals can communicate to some extent. But does this communication merit being called a “language”?  Is it capable of transmitting abstract ideas that can be understood by a listener? We have no way of knowing.

If animals can be considered to have "rights", these cannot be the same rights as we have as humans. Since the first Cruelty to Animals law was passed at the start of the 19th century, they have had some legal protection (though the laws only apply to vertebrates). It is much debated how far this applies to hunting and shooting, and to the extermination of “vermin”. Should we always try to draw a clear distinction between hunting for “fun” and hunting for food (including some,though not all, fishing)?
Is it wrong to kill rats, which eat stored grain and spread disease? What about the Masai who kill lions which eat their cattle? Or from the opposite extreme, can it be wrong to kill mosquitoes in order to eradicate malaria?

Animals for farming
It has been argued that ever since farming began in the Neolithic period, there has been a “social contract” between man and his animals: not so much with the individual beasts as with the species. The animals and their offspring would be looked after, fed and sheltered in winter and protected against diseases and wild beasts; and in return they would provide milk, wool etc. In the end the animals could be killed for meat, but they would have led a more comfortable life than in the wild, and the species would survive. One downside of farming is that, after generations of domestication, if farm animals and pets were suddenly released into the wild without any support from humans, the great majority would soon die.
(If veganism became general, farm animals would quickly become extinct, bar a few who might be kept as pets. Are vegans happy about this prospect?)   

Medical experiments, etc
We can all accept that it is surely wrong to inflict unnecessary pain on animals. The key word here is obviously the adjective! If we concede this, how do we decide what is “necessary”?
I think we would all agree that there is a big difference between testing cosmetics and testing potentially lifesaving drugs or medical techniques (e.g. transplant surgery). It is obviously necessary to test whether these work (for which must be tested on mammals resembling us), and whether they have unpleasant side-effects. It is surely not envisaged to test them on humans! (Except possibly in very mild cases, and only on volunteers. Or perhaps not even then: in a dictatorship, is "volunteering" a meaningful and acceptable concept?)

Ultimately, it must be conceded that animals are less important than humans. Or are some animals more important than some humans? That seems to me to be an extremely slippery slope. I would not feel safe living in a society in which someone else could decide that my life was less important than that of an animal!

Monday, 4 March 2019

The last man to discover an alien life-form

Magro looked across the greensward. It always reminded him of home, and it was hard to remember that this wasn't Earth, that the plants beneath his feet weren't grass, and that the trees in the distance were wholly foreign.  Amongst the trees stood one of the enigmatic buildings with which the expedition had become familiar: a cylinder of silvery metal, somewhat higher than a man, capped with a dome, without any visible windows or doors. None of the humanoid beings who inhabited this planet was currently in sight.
   As well as feeling nostalgic, Magro felt depressed. They had been on this planet for almost a hundred of its days, and yet they had discovered nothing useful at all; about how its climate might change with the seasons, about its ecology and geology, about its wildlife (if any), and least of all about its inhabitants. After endless tests, the air was finally recognised as breathable and the crew had been able to remove their helmets. But the water from the streams and the fruit on the trees were still out of bounds: they contained no obvious poisons, but there were chemicals which it was feared might cause stomach disorders. Then there were the inhabitants ......
   The crew had met them soon after landing, but were yet to make any meaningful contact with them. Someone had christened them the "Noids", for they looked distinctly humanoid. They were about the same height as humans, and they were entirely hairless. It was impossible to distinguish betweeen men and women, and there were never any children on view. They all dressed alike, in a simple shift reaching to the feet, so they gave the impression of gliding as they moved. They had ever been heard talking to each other.
   Infuriatingly, they showed no interest in making contact with their visitors. They ignored the spaceship entirely, and when they encountered the crew they bowed slightly and then moved on. They appeared to walk around randomly, in ones and twos, never in groups. They were never heard to utter a sound, and were never seen eating or drinking. Whatever did these strange people do? Magro wondered, for perhaps the hundredth time.
   Azarin, one of the crew, came running towards him. "I've just discovered something!" he called, gabbling in his excitement. "I saw one of the Noids entering a cylinder!"
   "Go on!"
   "Yes! He walked up to it, and suddenly a door opened and in he went! And I looked, but I couldn't see any sign of a door at all! So I sat outside for ages, waiting for him to emerge, but he never did. What do you think's going on?"
   "How can I say? For all we know, it could just be a lavatory! They aren't very big, those cylinders: no room for more than two or three people inside."
   "No. Unless, of course, they contain steps going down underground".
   At this point Telemar, the commander of the mission, who must have been listening to the conversation after approaching unobserved, intervened to say, "Has it occurred to you that all this has been set up for our benefit? A scenario very close to life on earth has been specially created here; only they haven't got it quite right.
   "Consider: the air is breatheable, but contains too many rare gases. The water has trace elements that make it unsafe to drink. These plants under our feet look like grass, but they aren't. The fruit on the trees could be eaten, but the chances are that you'd be spending a long time on the toilet afterwards. Then again: there aren't any animals or birds. There aren't even any insects! I haven't seen an insect. Have you? And as for the Noids... have you never suspected that they might be robots? They aren't the slightest bit interested in our spaceship. Can you imagine chimpanzees, or even cattle, completely ignoring a strange new object that suddenly appeared in their territory?
   "So: whoever might be in charge of this planet: how are they doing this? and even more importatly, why?
   "We could try forcing some truth out of them!" Azarin said.
   "Well, we could kidnap one of the Noids. We wouldn't hurt him: just take his clothes off, perhaps, and see what he'd got underneath. Anyway: make him communicate. Or we could blast our way into one of the cylinders. Or perhaps ignore the Noids entirely, set up the heavy digging equipment, and see if there's anything useful to be had here".
   Telemar shook his head. "No; for a variety of reasons. Firstly, because, as you well know, we're strictly forbidden to use violence towards indigenous inhabitants unless we're in serious danger. Which at the moment, we're not; though we might be if we followed your suggestions. Whoever set up this ridiculous planet for us must be extremely intelligent; extremely powerful. Who knows what might follow if we started to get aggressive? Intergalactic war maybe?"
   "Well,have you any bright ideas?" Magro asked.
   "None at all. And in any case, we'll be leaving this planet soon enough."
   "Leaving? whatever for? are we running out of food, or what?"
   "Yes, but there's more to it than that. You don't understand the politics of it. Voyages like this are fantastically expensive. It was made clear that this was our last shot, and if we didn't discover something really profitable, that would be it. Even the food for the trip was cut back, to save money, so we can't stay here much longer even if we wanted to. And what's happened? We've discovered a planet that makes no sense, inhabited by creatures (if they are really creatures!) which make even less sense. So we'll go home having achieved precisely nothing. And that will be that. Goodbye to any further explorations". 
 Magro looked across the grass that wasn't grass, through the trees that weren't trees. The spaceship stood there, shining and silent and redundant.

Saturday, 16 February 2019


Hitler was born in 1889 as a citizen of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, ruled by the Habsburg family. It was a vast multi-racial conglomeration which included, as well as the dominant Germans and Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Romanians, Italians, Slovenes and Croats, as well as substantial numbers of Jews. He formulated his ideas whilst living in occasional poverty in Vienna, where he came to regard the Germans as the superior race and to despise the lesser breeds.
   After defeat in the First World War, the Empire disintegrated, and the Treaty of St. Germain, imposed by the Allies in 1919, left as "Austria" merely a largely rural German-speaking rump around the oversized capital, Vienna. The new country was bankrupt and barely able to feed itself, and was forbidden to unite with Germany, which is what most of the inhabitants would have wanted. Hitler, of course, had long since decamped to Germany, though it is said that he never lost his provincial accent.
   Throughout the 1920s there were periodic economic crises, and the unemployment rate never dropped below 10%, though at least the country avoided the extreme political violence that bedevilled Hungary. But then from 1929 the Wall Street Crash brought catastrophe and political turmoil to central Europe. Early in 1933 Chancellor Dollfuss shut down the Parliament, crushed the Socialist movement and assumed dictatorial powers.

   Dollfuss did not enjoy his victory for long, because in July 1934 he was murdered by a group of Austrian Nazis. Any thoughts of a German-backed coup, however, quickly had to be abandoned when Mussolini moved troops up to the Brenner Pass, the Autro-Italian frontier, in a clear sign to Hitler to keep his hands off. As a result, Austria remained independent and Dollfuss was succeeded in power by Schuschnigg.   
   Britain and France deduced from this that Mussolini could be a useful counterweight to Hitler's disruptive ambitions; and indeed for the next few years Hitler behaved cautiously over Austria and tried to conciliate the Italians. The furthest he went was to sign an informal agreement with Schuschnigg that Austria would follow Germany's lead in foreign policy.  But from 1936 Mussolini's aggression against Abyssinia and his intervention in the Spanish civil war increasingly alienated him from the western powers and drove him into the German camp; and Hitler was able to contemplate more openly expansionist moves.
   An Anschluss (union) with Austria obviously fitted in with Hitler's ideas, and after meeting Lord Halifax in November 1937 he came away with the impression that Britain would be unlikely to intervene to prevent it. But at the so-called "Hossbach conference" at about the same time, he made little mention of Austria, devoting the meeting to reasons for destroying Czechoslovakia. (See my earlier blog post for this)

The Anschluss crisis, when it came, was very sudden, and the German action was clearly improvised, with no indication of prior military planning. It came about as follows:- 
   On February 12th 1938, Hitler summoned Schuschnigg to a meeting at Berchtesgaden and bullied him into promising to release all Nazis from Austrian gaols and to appoint the pro-Nazi lawyer Seyss-Inquart Minister of the Interior. The Austrian leader acceeded to all these demands, but then on March 9th suddenly made a desperate bid for freedom by announcing that in three days' time he would call a referendum on the future of his country. 
   Why Schuschnigg took this step  is not at all clear. It is most unlikely that a referendum could be organised at such short notice, and he had consulted Mussolini, who rather feebly told him that it was "a mistake". But Hitler, taken completely by surprise, was furious. There was actually no military plan for the invasion of Austria, so he ordered one to be created immediately, to be codenamed "Operation Otto". It was, he stressed, to take place without any violence if at all possible. At the same time, hewas worried about Mussolini's reaction, because the 1919 peace treaties had given to Italy the Tyrol region, where there were many ethnic Germans. Therefore on March 10th he despatched an envoy to Rome, stressing his friendship, calling the invasion "a matter of national self-defence", and carrying the assurance that the Brenner Pass, north of the Tyrol, was the permanent border with Italy.
   Goring now took charge, demanding the resignation of Schuschnigg and his replacement by Seyss-Inquart, who would then request that German troops should enter the country. But in fact the invasion began on the evening of March 11th, before a reply from Seyss-Inquart had been received, and Schuschnigg,who had already cancelled his referendum, told the Austrians in a radio broadcast not to resist.
   What line Mussolini would take was stilll not known; but later that same evening a telephone call from Prince Philip of Hesse in Rome assured Hitler that "The Duce accepted the whole thing in a very friendly manner". Hitler was quite hysterically relieved. "Please tell Mussolini I will never forget him for this .... If he should ever need any help or be in any danger, he can be convinced that I shall stick to him, whatever may happen, even if the whole world were against him". This is one of the very few promises that Hitler kept; but for Mussolini it was the first fatal step that led he and his country to disaster.

But what would happen in Austria itself? Operation Otto proved to be something of a shambles, which much German military equipment breaking down on the way to Vienna; but there was no resistance. On the contrary, the German army was greeted with cheering crowds. 
   On March 12th Hitler himself entered Austria, and visited his home town of Linz, which he had not seen since he was a teenager. Addressing an excited crown from the balcony of the town hall, he suddenly announced that he would be incorporating Austria into the German Reich. Seyss-Inquart, who was expecting to be the Chancellor of a pro-Nazi state, was ordered to issue a law legislating his country out of existence. He did so on March 13th. On April 10th a referendum was held in Austria and Germany, where over 99% of the people voted for the new arrangements. Although this near-unanimity clear;y indicates a fraudulent vote, there is no reason to believe that a majority did not approve of the Anschluss. All this demonstrates how difficult it was for any outside state to make any response beyong protests.

The Anschluss was marked by savage outbreaks of antisemitic violence. Vienna had a larger Jewish community than any German city, and according to Hitler himself it was in Vienna that he first conceived his hatred of Jews. Jews were strongly represented in the legal and medical professions and in the arts, but there were also large numbers of poor Jews who had come from the provinces of the old Empire. Now, even before the arrival of the Wehrmacht, Nazi thugs smashed up Jewish shops and apartments, stole cars, and took delight in forcing well-dressed Jewish men and women to scrub the pavements on the hands and knees and clean the public lavatories. Crowds of onlookers jeered, and the police made no attempt to intervene. These outrages were far worse than anything that had yet happened in Germany, and were soon followed by laws removing all Jews from the professions and from government service. At the same time, officials of the Gestapo and the Security Police arrived to arrest all potential opponents. These outrages were noted by the internationa press, but seemingly had little or no impact on how foreign governments were prepared to treat Hitler.

In retropect it was now surely obvious that Hitler's next move would be against Czechoslovakia.  

Sunday, 10 February 2019

Quiz: Royal Consorts

Here are ten Queens of England. Which Kings were their husbands?

1.  Anne of Denmark
2.  Ann Neville
3.  Beringaria of Navarre
4.  Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz
5.  Caroline of Ansbach
6.  Catherine of Braganza
7.  Eleanor of Aquitaine
8.  Margaret of Anjou
9.  Matilda of Flanders
10. Philippa of Hainault

Two of these Queens were childless. Who were they?
Apart from these two, two others were not among the ancestors of our present Queen. Who were they?

It's noticeable that only one of the Queens is British! What claims does our monarchy have to be called British in any genetic sense?