One constant good: Semper eadem

The Queen in March 2015. Licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0As a child, I remember reading in my treasured 1990 edition of the Guinness Book of Records about the longest serving monarchs. Back then, the book was a scholarly work, and amongst the detail, it gave the date, a quarter of a century in the future, when the Queen would take that record.

Today, that day has finally come. Much has been said of how the Queen has been a beacon of stability as the world changed around her. This has long been recognised. At the time of Her Majesty’s silver jubilee in 1977, Philip Larkin wrote:

In times when nothing stood
But worsened, or grew strange,
There was one constant good:
She did not change.

This idea of constancy in a rapidly changing world reminds me of the motto semper eadem: “always the same”. This was actually the motto of the first Queen Elizabeth, and has since been adopted by the city of Leicester. By all accounts of both Queens’ lives, it would seem far better suited to our present Queen Elizabeth than to her earlier namesake.

Return of the giant hogweed?

Giant Hogweed. Photo by Fritz Geller-Grimm, CC BY-SA 3.0This summer has seen numerous stories in the media about giant hogweed, including plenty of cases where people, particularly children, and even pets, have been injured after coming into contact with it. My fascination with the giant hogweed began in childhood when on holiday in Cornwall one year. There was an article in a local newspaper with a remarkably familiar story of some boys who had used stems of the plant to have a sword fight, and had been burned in the process. The idea of a plant that was not only big and impressive, but also dangerous, and even more dangerous in sunny weather, somehow appealed to me and seemed to be something worth looking out for.

It must have been the late ’80s when I saw that newspaper article. But then Genesis even released a song in the early ’70s entitled The return of the giant hogweed, which more or less tells the true-to-life story of how the plant was first brought here from the Caucasus Mountains (albeit with a touch of John Wyndham). Yet from the recent newspaper reports, you would think giant hogweed was a new threat that has only just emerged in this country.

Giant hogweed, Heracleum mantegazzianum, was first recorded as growing in the wild in Great Britain in Cambridgeshire in the 1820s, so it’s been here for 200 years and is hardly a new arrival. But why spoil a good headline? Some tabloids have even branded the plant the “Taliban weed“, claiming it comes from Afghanistan. (I thought the Caucasus were between Russia and Georgia.) The newspapers appear to have caused some panic among the public this summer, with some people scared to walk in the countryside as a result. Yet despite being on the lookout for this plant for the last 25 years, and walking in many parts of the country, I have very rarely seen it. It surely can’t be as widespread as the tabloids are making out. I suspect many people are confusing it with the native hogweed, Heracleum sphondylium. There was an article in the Oxford Times earlier this month where a lady was complaining about council inaction over “giant hogweed”, yet the plant shown in the picture is clearly not giant hogweed at all (it’s most probably common hogweed).

There are, however, some voices of common sense. Experts in Warwickshire have urged people not to let fear or giant hogweed spoil their enjoyment of the outdoors. Parents teach their children not to brush against stinging nettles, or for that matter not to eat deadly nightshade berries or mess with all sorts of other hazardous plants. People just need to know not to touch this particular plant, either. In that respect, the newspapers are performing a useful function. However, in a year or two, no doubt people will have forgotten about giant hogweed – exactly because it isn’t really that common – and in a few years the cycle will repeat with a load of new stories about people being injured by it. It’s not really the return of the giant hogweed, just the return of stories about it.

Giant hogweed towers over a well-protected expert. Photo by The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Giant hogweed towers over a well-protected expert

It should be easy to identify giant hogweed, not least because of its size, with a height of up to 5 metres, leaves a metre long, flower umbels 50cm across, and stems up to 10cm in diameter. Its leaves are much more serrated than common hogweed, and the umbels contain far more individual flowers, whereas common hogweed typically only has a dozen per umbel. Giant hogweed also has purple blotches on its stem. It is a member of the Apiaceae or carrot family, and in common with relatives such as carrot and parsley, it is monocarpic, i.e. once it flowers, it dies. It usually grows as a biennial, putting out leaves in its first year, storing energy in its roots, then flowering in the second year. It can flower in a single year, or may take several years, particularly if it is cut back. However, it only flowers for one year, and doesn’t mature like a tree over the years, as some sources seem to imply. Its danger lies in chemicals called furocoumarins, which are a defence mechanism against various types of pest. These chemicals cause skin that has been in contact with the plant to burn when exposed to ultraviolet light, which is why the effects can be worse on a sunny day.

It is actually perfectly legal to grow giant hogweed in your garden, should you be so inclined. It was originally introduced as an ornamental plant, after all. These are a few laws that apply, the best known being the Wildlife and Countryside Act, which makes it illegal to plant or cause it to grow in the wild. This act usually only applies to animals, but a small number of invasive plants are specifically scheduled. Giant hogweed is also covered by hazardous waste regulations, so if it’s cut down, it can’t go in with the normal garden waste. Finally, recent laws give local authorities powers to order people who fail to control invasive plants on their land to act, ultimately with a hefty fine or even prison sentence if they ignore it. (The usual advice for controlling the plant is to use Roundup, but this is being progressively banned around the world due to health concerns – good news for giant hogweed.) I don’t really know why anyone would want to grow it in their garden. While it is a large and impressive plant, it does look like many of the common weeds that grow everywhere.

Giant hogweed can be an problem when it does colonise large areas, usually along river banks. It is a real issue along some rivers in Scotland in particular, as these dramatic images from a drone show. Not only does it prevent people from enjoying the river, it crowds out native plants, and once it does, the hole where the roots were causes the river bank to erode. This is an issue largely confined to waterways, though. The plant thrives next to water, which also carries the seeds downstream.

Paolo Mantegazza: cocaine and cohabitation

The oversize giant hogweed has an equally formidable-looking botanical name, Heracleum mantegazzianum. It is clear that the hogweed genus, Heracleum, comes from Heracles or Hercules, due to the plant’s Herculean size and stature. In the 19th century, when European explorers were discovering new plant species, they each classified plants they encountered as they saw fit. When giant hogweed was first brought to Great Britain, it was most likely known as Heracleum giganteum. French-Italian botanist and anthropologist Stefano Sommier (1848–1922), and Swiss-Italian doctor and botanist Emilio Levier (1839–1911) visited the Caucasus in the late 19th century, and named giant hogweed in honour of the Italian polymath Paolo Mantegazza. Their choice of name was to become the accepted scientific name for the plant, as is still used today.

Paolo Mantegazza

Paolo Mantegazza

Paolo Mantegazza (1831–1910) is himself a fascinating figure; a neurologist, physiologist, and anthropologist. He travelled and lived for a while in South America, and some of his best known work is on the effects of coca leaves, which he experienced first hand. Yet he was not only a scientist, but also an author of fiction. His The Year 3000 predicted technological developments including artificial intelligence, modern aircraft, prefabricated buildings, air conditioning, credit cards, and instant global communications. However, he didn’t just predict scientific and technological changes, but also social ones: for example, the couple depicted in his book spend a five year period together, “with love but not children”, before they marry. He also correctly predicted the First World War, with “One million deaths in a single day”. Just about the only thing he got wrong was the timescale, which was out by roughly a millennium.

It’s worth remembering that, at the time, the Catholic Church strongly influenced science and culture in Italy, and his views on sexual liberation can hardly have been met with official approval; nor could his scientific views, as an athiest and staunch defender of Darwinism. The Church may have found Mantegazza’s views toxic, whereas to others he was an impressive giant, which perhaps makes it fitting that the toxic but impressive giant hogweed is named after him.

Edited on 29 February 2016 to replace deleted Youtube video

TV licensing: i-Playing fair

BBC iPlayer

BBC iPlayer

As expected, the government have decided that the BBC should meet the cost of providing free TV Licences for over-75s. Also as expected, to soften the blow of an effective £600m a year cut in revenue, the BBC has been promised a change in legislation to allow the TV Licence to cover the BBC iPlayer. Leaving aside the rights or wrongs of making the neutral BBC pay for a government policy that exists for political reasons, I would like to focus on the practicalities of licensing the iPlayer.

It seems fair enough to close the loophole, which exists only because catch-up TV services such as iPlayer did not exist when the law was drafted. Extending the law to cover catch-up TV isn’t straightforward, however. It’s important to remember that a TV Licence is required to watch any broadcast TV, not just BBC channels. Even if a viewer has subscription-based pay TV and never watches the BBC, a licence is required in order to stay within the law. Extending the same principle to catch-up TV throws up the question of which sites would be covered. If it only applied to the BBC’s iPlayer, that would be a departure from the principle of universality: that the BBC is free to everyone at the point of consumption, and that there is no specific subscription charge for watching the BBC. But if the law is to encompass other catch-up sites, the line between catch-up TV and other online video is rather blurred. It seems clear that ITVPlayer should be covered, but what about the BT Sport app? How about videos on a newspaper’s website? What about video sharing websites such as Youtube, which sometimes show TV episodes on a pay-per-view basis? And what about shows from foreign TV stations that are available online?

Across the different news sources, there seem to be a range of suggestions as to what the new law could cover. Some suggest only the iPlayer; others that servies such as ITVPlayer would be included. There have been suggestions that iPlayer would be offered on a subscription basis, with TV Licence holders entering a code to watch for free, or that there would be a cheaper “digital only” TV Licence that would cover iPlayer use. At the moment, there are actually no details of the proposals, so all these are speculation. Let’s look at what the minister, John Whittingdale, actually said:

As part of these new arrangements, the Government will ensure that the BBC can adapt to a changing media landscape. The Government will therefore bring forward legislation in the next year to modernise the licence fee to cover public service broadcast catch-up TV.

The key phrase is “public service broadcast catch-up TV”. This doesn’t necessarily only apply to the BBC. I believe ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 all to varying degrees have public service requirements as conditions of their licences to broadcast: for example to broadcast news, children’s programmes and the arts. It seems likely that a change in the law would therefore also cover, ITVPlayer, 4oD and Demand5. It presumably wouldn’t cover Sky, BT Sport or Youtube as these can’t really be construed as public service broadcasters. That would be a slightly narrower coverage than the Licence as applied to broadcast TV. However, trying to make it broader could open a can of worms, as it could then apply to all manner of online video that few people would consider television at all.

The final question is whether the new licence requirements would be enforced by the BBC by requiring a licence number to be entered before watching programmes via the iPlayer website or apps. Technically, this should be fairly simple to implement. However, the BBC may not want to go down a road that could form the basis of a subscription model were the BBC’s Charter not to be renewed at some point in the future.

While the whole saga has been prompted by the funding arrangements for over-75s, it may be worth noting that one group of people who would be hit hardest by a licence for iPlayer would be university students. Students have always been required to buy a TV Licence for their individual rooms in university accommodation, but many now avoid this by using iPlayer to watch only catch-up TV. Given the huge increase in university tuition fees in recent years, students may resent having to pay more money out of their student loans in order to watch television, while wealthy over-75s all receive a non-means tested free licence. We therefore are back to where we started, with the question of whether making the BBC fund free TV Licences is really fair in the first place.

James Horner (1953–2015)

James Horner in 2015 - photo by StarCards, public domain licenceIn March, I was fortunate enough to see the première of Collage, which was to be James Horner’s last concert work, at the Royal Festival Hall. At the end of the performance, the composer came on stage to take his bow, the same smiling, bearded gentleman as in the pictures accompanying his many obituaries this week. Appropriately for someone with the name Horner, the work was a concerto for four horns. The composer had once played the instrument himself, and had known the soloists for this concert for over 20 years.

Collage was a great piece of orchestration, although perhaps sounded like film music transplanted into the concert hall. Towards the end, it features the tinkling Titanic watery effect. That begs the question: was Horner a one trick wonder? The Titanic soundtrack is still the best-selling orchestral soundtrack of all time. It reached the top of the pop album charts – Henryk Górecki only managed number 6 – and My heart will go on, one of many movie songs Horner penned with lyricist Will Jennings, scored a number one hit for Celine Dion. But remembering James Horner only for Titanic and the perhaps thematically similar scores for the likes of Avatar and The Perfect Storm doesn’t do him justice. He wrote such a wide range of music, many people won’t realise some of the soundtracks are by Horner at all. I was certainly surprised to read a list of his compositions.

James Horner’s output ranged from more tender scores such as Iris and A Beautiful Mind to bombastic sci-fi soundtracks for the likes of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Aliens. It also included films as diverse as How the Grinch stole Christmas, Field of Dreams and Patriot Games.

When approached to do the Star Trek sequel, he was apparently told the studio couldn’t afford to have Jerry Goldsmith back. He also succeeded Goldsmith in the Alien(s) franchise, this time with long-term collaborator, director James Cameron. The experience nearly led to the pair falling out, a story repeated in other famous director–composer partnerships such as Hitchcock–Herrmann and Burton–Elfman, although happily not ending as acrimoniously as the former, as then we may never have had Titanic.

Although born in Los Angeles, James Horner spent much of his childhood in London, and studied piano at the Royal College of Music. He returned to the US and completed his bachelor’s and master’s degrees and doctorate in California. His grounding as a serious composer is evident in his scores. He composed at a desk with pen and paper, and unlike many film composers, did most of his orchestrations himself. The result is a much more colourful orchestral palette in his scores than perhaps in the soundtracks of some of his contemporaries.

A recent revelation in an interview was that Horner was originally asked to write the music for the Lord of the Rings trilogy. He told interviewer Tommy Pearson that he was asked to do “the trilogy”, to which Pearson jokingly asked which trilogy he meant. Horner declined to work on the films as his daughter had recently undergone surgery. Horward Shore was chosen instead, and went on to win three Oscars. Horner commented that he would have approached the films differently, but that Shore’s music does a brilliant job in the films. The fact that, despite all of this, he said he didn’t regret his decision to turn down the films says more about him as a person than any analysis of his music ever could.

Happily, with many of the films he worked on set to become classics, audiences will enjoy James Horner’s music for generations to come, and his name will always have its place among the greats of film music.

Idiotic Brits abroad and their tabloid defenders

Mount Kinabalu - photo by Wikipedia user Oscark, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Mount Kinabalu

It’s infuriating that whenever a British person is charged with committing a crime abroad, the British press, particularly the tabloids, respond in such an indignant manner. “How dare a foreign country accuse a Brit of doing something wrong. They can’t possibly receive a fair trial in another country, and anyway the crime they have supposedly committed isn’t something we even consider a crime in our superior homeland.” It’s as if they think British people can’t do anything wrong, we are exempt from local laws in foreign country, and that it’s somehow a newspaper’s duty to defend our citizens, irrespective of the facts. Yet it is the very same newspapers who will write stories about crimes committed by immigrants, and complain how they are treated too softly, and how difficult it is to deport them.

A recent example is the case of Eleanor Hawkins, the British woman who was among a group who stripped off to take photos at the top of Malaysia’s Mount Kinabalu. Although there were reports of individuals in Malaysia blaming the recent earthquake on their actions, it was clear that they were simply going to face a minor charge and then be asked to leave the country, under a perfectly fair and proportionate legal system that, indeed, is still based on the system of English Common Law. Yet the tone of the reports in the British media seemed to imply that the group were being mistreated, and that we should all feel outraged that westerners should be detained in that way in a country such as Malaysia. (Reading about wealthy and spoilt Ms Hawkins, who attended an £11,000 a year private school, “waiting to pay” her £860 fine before leaving made me think of the film Quadrophenia, where Sting’s character mockingly tells the judge, “I’ll pay now”.)

The other infuriating aspect of coverage of this case is the people who have defended the actions of the group, claiming that it’s just a right of passage and that it’s the sort of thing everyone does. Again, there is an implicit superiority of western people, who are entitled to act according to their own values when they are abroad, with no need to take into account the customs or sensibilities of the locals.

There really has been a progression in the spread of British tourists ruining foreign destinations. With the emergence of the cheap package holiday in the ’70 and ’80s, the Balearic islands were transformed into a destination for people from the rest of Europe to indulge in drinking and “partying”, with any local culture squeezed out. Then in the ’90s and ’00s, the stag and hen parties discovered eastern Europe, turning picturesque capital cities of culture into riot zones every weekend. Now it seems the “gap yah” travellers are similarly afflicting south-east Asia.

Any claim that “travellers” such as there are at all interested in different cultures is clearly nonsense. Where were the Malaysian, or any Asian, members of their group? They were all from the UK, Canada, the Netherlands, etc. They stayed in a hostel frequented by western travellers, travelled with other westerners, and when their local guide told them to keep their clothes on, they ignored him. Were they interested in the unique flora and fauna, or taking in the breathtaking views from the regions highest mountain? No, they preferred to behave in a boisterous and offensive manner, just as they would on holiday in Tenerife or Tallinn, and to post photographs documenting their behaviour online. Sandi Mann, senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Central Lancashire, sums the situation up quite nicely in a BBC News article:

It means that Westerners are imposing themselves on other peoples and “trying to demonstrate to people on Facebook, Twitter and other sites that they’ve had ‘wild experiences’ rather than actually experiencing a culture, which is the whole point of travel in the first place”.

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