Lost In A Pyramid

One of the best vampire short stories I’ve read recently has to be Lost in a Pyramid, not least because it’s a really interesting take on the genre, but also because it proved revelatory when I considered the last work by this author. It’s written by Louisa May Alcott, best known for that saccharine take on sisterhood in Civil War America, Little Women. I always wanted to be Jo, mainly because she was the only one who seemed to have any personality.

Anyway, back to the subject in hand. Lost in a Pyramid is, in my mind, two stories in one; the first half details the expedition to Ancient Egypt and the latter half details events following what they found. To say any more is to give it away, but it really isn’t what you think it is and I thought it was really very clever. More to the point, it was nothing like Little Women, which I found amazing!

I don’t know if Alcott wrote any more horror fiction (I suppose this does count as horror, as it’s quite creepy in places) but if she did, it really does deserve to be better known. I found this in my copy of Dracula’s Brethren, a recently released paperback featuring a number of late Victorian and early 20th century vampire stories which I really do recommend.

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Mary Delany’s Botanical Collages

I blame the Savoy for this. In the atrium, just before you go into Kaspar’s restaurant, they have a room filled to the rafters with the most wonderful artwork. The large feature painting was a portrait of the Queen, but my eye was caught by five small pictures on the lintel above the entrance to the restaurant. I am ninety nine percent convinced that they were original Mary Delany botanical collages, made in the early 1770s out of coloured paper on a black background. The majority of her works – of which there are 938 in total – are in the British Museum and are incredibly fragile, so it is wonderful to see some “in the flesh” as it were.

Mary Delany was born in 1700 to an army colonel, and her uncle was Baron Lansdowne. She was married twice, firstly to a man over forty years her senior and, after his death, to an Irish clergyman, Patrick Delany. It was after becoming a widow for the second time at the age of sixty eight that Mary Delany started work on what she called her “paper mosaicks”, which she continued until her eyesight failed – by which time, she was in her late eighties.

As Mary and her late husband were both interested in botany, she made sure that her collages were as accurate as possible, using layers of sheets of tissue paper to create shades of leaf and petal appropriate to whichever plant she was trying to represent. It is thought that she dissected the plant to ensure her accuracy, but her collages are nevertheless incredibly detailed.

She also corresponded with many of the leading figures of the time, such as Fanny Burney, Jonathan Swift and Sir Joseph Banks – who created Kew Gardens – and her letters offer an equally detailed picture of polite society of the time as her collages do of polite society’s gardens.

Hope Not Opium

Al Jazeera is rapidly becoming my news channel of choice if I want to catch up on global news (and weather – always interesting), since the BBC seem to be either Eurocentric – by which I mean France, Germany or Russia – or obsessed with Donald Trump; and if I’m going to be honest, I’m utterly sick of him. I was surprised that it’s not completely focused on the Arab world, although it does cover the area in depth, but I’ve learned more about the rest of the world lately than I have in ages from the BBC.

For example, I caught a wonderful piece about how villagers in rural Afghanistan are being encouraged to keep bees and harvest honey instead of growing poppies and harvesting opium. Since the start of the war in 2001, opium poppies have rapidly become the cash crop of choice, as the returns on opium can be lucrative – the British realised this when they conducted the Opium Wars against China in the late 1800s. However, there were a number of interesting points that I learned from this report.

Many Afghan women (especially in rural areas) are not allowed to work outside the home. However, it seems that many village elders consider beekeeping housework, and consequently, many women are starting their own businesses keeping bees and marketing the honey. One young woman interviewed started three years ago with a small loan and one hive; she now has five hives, repaid her loan in full after the first year and is now making twice as much money per annum as the average Afghan. No wonder they are taking to it with a vengeance. It is hoped that at some point in the future, Afghan honey will be available internationally.

Honeybees are globally endangered so I think anything that promotes their care should be encouraged – and anything that knocks a hole in the global opium trade can only be a good thing. I hope this is something that can be encouraged in other developing areas, as it would not only help the honeybees, but also promote global biodiversity and hopefully find a way to bring these rural populations out of crushing poverty.

A Darwinian Parable

Early on in John Wyndham’s best known novel, The Day of the Triffids, one of the characters suggests that the triffids had the potential to become the dominant species: having adapted to a sightless existence, in the event of humanity becoming blind, the triffids would become top predator. It is, in my opinion, a clumsy way to explain your plot, but since we are already aware of the fate that has befallen the majority of humanity, I suppose Wyndham gets away with it – just. What is less clear is the link between the triffids and the “meteor” shower which blinds everyone; it may be a combined Soviet experiment in biological warfare, or it may be that the triffids are simply exploiting the new ecological niche.

If I’m honest, I’ve never really thought of John Wyndham as an environmental writer, but its clear in this novel that he is concerned about the relationship between humans and their environment, and in particular in the fact that many people at that time were completely disconnected with the means of food and clothing production – Bill Masen, the narrator, himself admits that he had no idea where his food or clothing came from. It is this disconnect that many dystopian writers manipulate to create the horror in their worldview. I do wonder if people living in cities today would manage any better – I like to think I would, but I’m never sure.

The triffids themselves are quite fascinating, occupying a space somewhere between plant and animal. They look like plants and reproduce like plants, through seeds – although ninety five percent of the seeds are sterile, which is probably a good thing – yet they are ambulant, have a sting, apparently communicate and are carnivorous. Now I know there are carnivorous plants, and plants that sting and apparently communicate with others of their species – but they’re not ambulant. So Wyndham uses language somewhere between botany and agriculture when writing about them. It’s quite fascinating.

Ultimately, though, it’s a Darwinian parable. If evolution is about survival of the fittest, given a change in the environment, it’s very possible that humanity may no longer be top of the tree, as it were. Post-apocalyptic fiction relies on showing the adaptability of humankind, but it’s very clear from Wyndham’s novel that people simply haven’t evolved to deal with triffids.

The Gall of the Oak

I love trees. That’s not really news if you know me, nor is it news that I am often finding little oak seedlings growing in my garden due to forgetful squirrels and jays. However, watching a recent documentary on the BBC led me to realise how little I actually knew about this wonderful plant. Out of a host of wonderful and amazing things, the oak gall must be one of the most fascinating.

Oak galls are formed when tiny wasps – the oak gall wasp, unsurprisingly – lays its egg in the female flower of an oak tree. As the flowers are what form the acorn, as they develop, instead of forming acorns the flowers turn into huge, strangely shaped growths from which the larvae of the wasp grow and finally hatch. It is not unusual to find a twig containing three or four acorns and at least one gall. The other acorns will be unaffected.

What I did find interesting is that there is more than one species of gall wasp, and each species creates a uniquely shaped gall. Some are round and quite plain, others have offshoots that look like tentacles. There are quite a few distinct species of gall wasp in Europe and America, so lots of galls to collect if you fancy an unusual hobby.

Oak galls were also used to make ink; and this ink proved to be incredibly important to historians. By crushing oak galls and combining them with iron sulphate and a binding agent, a dark blue-black ink is created which not only darkens over time but is quite permanent. From the earliest years of writing legal documents, this ink was used to create a permanent record and is still used today in the form of “registration ink” – this is what is used to write birth, marriage and death certificates.

It is striking how something that is a pest to a tree can actually produce something so useful and – when you explore the variety of oak galls – unusual. If I hadn’t watched this documentary, I would never have known just how varied and fascinating the product of the oak gall wasp could be.