The Negroni

As most of my friends (and relatives, it has to be said) will tell you, I’m rather partial to gin – even though I openly admit to cleaning my jewellery in it. Does bring the old diamonds up a treat, I must say. It’s much better in a cocktail though, so I’ve dug out my old recipe book to see what gin-based potions take my fancy. Top of the list is one of my favourites, the negroni.

The negroni is an aperitif comprising equal parts of gin, red vermouth and Campari, served with a sliver of orange peel. It’s remarkably tart, fruity and extremely potent. Just the thing to kick start a three course dinner. It was based on an established cocktail called an Americano, which was equal parts Campari, red vermouth, topped up with soda water and garnished with a slice of lemon.

If gin isn’t your tipple (strange person you are), there is a whisky variant called the Boulevardier; the Dutch make a negroni with their own native genever rather than London dry gin; an Old Pal is a version using dry vermouth and Canadian rye whisky. There’s even one with tequila!

However you like your cocktail, I hope you have fun experimenting and enjoy a negroni. Please remember, however, the recommended guidelines for alcohol and also bear in mind that the average cocktail is often a lot more alcoholic than it looks!

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The Third Horseman Rides Again

I’ve just finished The Plague by Albert Camus which, I have to admit, has surprised me. I had always thought that Camus wrote difficult existentialist books, bleak and dismal – but this is actually incredibly readable and really very enjoyable. It’s also quite realistic, depicting a town in Algeria where a virulent strain of bubonic and pneumonic plague has taken hold.

If you’ve ever seen the series Containment (either the original Belgian version, called Cordon, or the US remake) you will immediately understand the plot of the novel. Here it starts with rats, dying in their thousands, and then the first people die of a strange looking viral illness. It takes the doctor, Rieux, some time to persuade his colleagues and public health officials that it is, in fact, bubonic plague, but once the disease is formally identified – and the body count starts to rise – the town is placed under a cordon sanitaire to prevent the disease from spreading. The bulk of the novel is how the occupants of the town survive in the face of virulent disease and what, to all intents and purposes, are siege conditions.

It’s this human element that makes the book interesting. While there are some quite graphic descriptions of the disease in the early parts of the book – do we really need to know about lancing buboes? – by the time we are halfway through, we have a central collection of characters who are all trying to survive as best they can. We can feel their exhaustion and sympathise with their despair or desire to find a way to escape, no matter what. At times, I found myself asking how I would cope in that situation and the simple answer is that I don’t know. A lot would depend on whether I was alone or with members of my family, and if anyone I knew were sick. It’s something nobody can predict unless they were in that situation and it’s not a situation you would wish anyone to be in.

That said, I was very impressed with how easy the book was to read. There is a little existentialist philosophy and a fair bit of grimness, but given the plot, that’s hardly surprising. I’d definitely read it again.

In the Country of the Blind is the One Eyed Man Really King?

One thing that I’ve learned from reading Day of the Triffids is that being sighted may not necessarily be the best thing. Admittedly, you’re aware of the location of triffids, so are less likely to become their next meal – but you’re also just as likely to find yourself at the mercy of a blind person intent on using your sight to keep himself safe. This happens a number of times in the novel, where sighted people are basically used as minders, to find food and shelter and protect their blind charges from triffid attacks.

This led me to thinking whether having sight in a world where it is a minority is actually a good thing. It forces one to consider arguments about disability very carefully; just because deaf, blind or otherwise disabled people may be in the minority is that necessarily a bad thing, or do they have other advantages over “normal” people? (I put “normal” in inverted commas, because there is no real definition of normal and I don’t really want to get into an “us and them” argument). Clearly, some of the blind people in Wyndham’s novel were clever enough to see a way to manage their situation – admittedly by slavery – and it’s also apparent that not all of the sighted people are adjusted enough to make the best of their terrible situation.

It’s an interesting thought that in the land of the blind (or deaf, or wheeled or whatever), the fully able many not necessarily be king. There are disadvantages to being fully abled in that the blind are well adjusted to working in the dark; the deaf have adapted to noisy environments; and so on. I don’t know whether it’s true that some disabled people have improved function in other senses (i.e. the blind have better hearing, or the deaf a better sense of smell) but I can see how that would work. It’s a fascinating way to consider how being disabled may not actually be such a terrible thing after all.

Carnivorous, But Not Homicidal

I love carnivorous plants, but I’m hopelessly brown thumbed. I really have no idea how to keep plants and could probably kill an artificial one if it was left in my care long enough. So I try to keep my botanic interests to reading about plants rather than going too near them – for their safety, rather than mine.

So far as I can tell, there are three main types of carnivorous plant – the pitcher, the fly trap and the sundew, which has sticky fronds to trap insects. Almost all of them feed on insects, although I’m told that fly traps are rather partial to cat food if all else fails. Admittedly, they don’t come from outer space, try to eat their owners or wander the streets looking for prey, but why should they when the prey comes to them? There’s an evolutionary question as to why some plants are carnivorous and the majority aren’t, which I simply do not have the answer to, and I’m sure a talented writer could create a plot around it.

I’m surprised that carnivorous plants don’t play a greater role in modern science fiction. I mean, outside of Wyndham’s triffids and Audrey Two from Little Shop of Horrors, I can’t think of any plants that aren’t the anonymous lianas that wrap around the heroine in a pulp movie and drag her into the undergrowth so she can be rescued by the hero – I’m fairly sure that was Flash Gordon, but I can’t swear to it. There’s a carnivorous tree in an obscure horror story that I’ve managed to track down but that’s pretty much it. Fiction has rather more vampiric plants, but they’re not quite the same thing – at least, I don’t think so. There’s a fabulous short story called Lost in a Pyramid which features a vampiric plant that feeds on a human’s energies, rather than blood. I really must get round to re-reading that one day. And, of course, poisonous plants are everywhere – which reminds me to re-read Rappaccini’s Daughter soon as well.

I think the difference between these plants, triffids and Audrey Two is that the latter pair are actively homicidal. They have a plan which involves seeking prey rather than just taking advantage of the prey that comes to them. Let’s just hope that in the event of an apocalypse, the carnivorous plants die off as well.

A Plague on Both Your Houses

Mercutio’s vicious verbal attack on Romeo and Tybalt in Act III of Romeo and Juliet would have had a devastating impact on contemporary audiences. Plague was rife in Tudor England and a number of times in his career, Shakespeare found himself without a theatre due to an outbreak of the disease. It was not really controlled until the widespread development of brick-built houses, as flea infested black rats tended to live in thatched roofs and wattle walls. Being a parasite, the fleas would look for a new host as soon as the previous one died – in rats, after about a week – and it was only a matter of time before they moved to humans.

Bubonic plague was a dreadful disease. Apart from aches and fever, the patient would develop a red, ring shaped rash followed by massive swellings would develop in the patient’s groin and armpits – the buboes that give the disease its name. Actually, if you want to know how the disease progressed, just recite the nursery rhyme “Ring of Roses” – that’s where the rhyme comes from. From infection and first symptoms to death would usually take about three weeks.

Of course, not everybody died and it was quite possible for some people to develop an immunity from repeated exposure. These people often became “plague searchers”, who would go from house to house during an outbreak to see if any of the occupants were infected. They would also be responsible for removing the dead and ferrying them to a burial pit outside the city. The searchers are also referenced in Romeo and Juliet; the priest is prevented from explaining to Romeo that Juliet has faked her death because he is in quarantine, having visited a house where plague was discovered.

I’m starting to wonder if Romeo and Juliet ought to be read as a plague play rather than a great romance. Perhaps if I tried that, I might find it a bit more interesting.

Bug Ugly!

Don’t panic – this isn’t anything like as large as it looks. The acorn weevil is tiny and can often only be seen under a microscope – which given how it looks, is probably no bad thing. Have you ever seen a more peculiar creature? It reminds me of nothing more than a medieval plague doctor.

At the end of the weevil’s beak are two tiny pincers which it uses to bore a hole into the side of a young acorn. It lays its eggs inside the kernel and as both the acorns and larvae grow, the larvae will eat their way out of the acorn leaving just a shell. Infested acorns are easily spotted by the tiny holes in the kernel. What with the weevils and the gall wasps, it’s amazing any intact acorns actually manage to become oak trees!

I must admit that when I first saw the acorn weevil, I was fascinated by the large round eyes and tiny little beige hairs covering its face. It looks like some kind of cute alien. It’s the angled antennae on the beak that fascinate me; that must be a unique feature. It’s not one I’ve seen before and I’m not entirely sure of their purpose – any resident entomologists out there who could explain it for me?

That said, acorn weevils are a pest and if you have an oak tree, it might be an idea to keep an eye on any fruits it produces as the grubs will hibernate underground before developing into adults and climbing into the trees to cause their havoc.

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.

The Whisperer in the Dark

When I sat my first aid certificate refresher course recently, a discussion emerged during a coffee break about operations. Strange, discussing medical things at a first aid course, but there you are – we’re a morbid lot really. One of the attendees claimed that he’d read somewhere that an entire head transplant was proposed for later in the year. “It’s a massive operation,” he said. “It’s going to take two days. They’re going to do it in teams.”

I certainly didn’t believe him then, and I’m not sure I believe him now, but I don’t doubt that sooner or later, this will not only be achieved, but routinely possible. Just imagine – I really could end up looking like Morticia Addams! So can you imagine how such an idea must have sounded when Lovecraft wrote this late tale, in the early 1930s? Even in these days of modern medical and surgical wonders, the idea of transplants still seems like something out of science fiction. Okay, maybe we have got used to kidney and lung transplants, but heart transplants or multi-organ transplants are much more complicated – and that’s before we get onto such things as entire limbs or heads….

If I say anymore I really will give the game away.

It’s a really well written story. I think by this stage in his career, Lovecraft had got the idea as his later stories are well paced and genuinely creepy. The things that you think may happen don’t always – and what happens instead is often scarier. I’d not read this story for a long time and I’d actually forgotten just how clever it was. Even if you do work out the end, it’s pretty chilling so stick with it. It’s a good one.

How Sustainable is Traditional Medicine?

As if I don’t have enough issues with Traditional Chinese “Herbal” Medicine… Now we have another case of the planet not being able to keep up with us demanding humans. It seems that the demand for “Himalayan Viagra” (I kid you not), a fungus grown and harvested on the heads of caterpillars found in the mountains of Nepal, is vastly outstripping supply, creating a knock on effect on the Nepalese who risk life and limb to gather it. Given that other notorious traditional Chinese remedies include rhino horn and tiger penis – both creatures being critically endangered – you can see why I wonder how sustainable this is. **

It is a wider issue, however. As the climate changes, it will affect the growing patterns of traditional European herbal remedies, such as arnica or black cohosh. And unless and until the provision of herbal remedies is based on organic permaculture principles, there is a question mark over its sustainability. I fear that it will take dedicated herbal gardeners to keep the supplies going, as there is no guarantee of a wild (and unpolluted) population of any given plant at any given time.

This, to me, demonstrates very clearly how climate change can affect every aspect of human life. It’s not just about the weather – it’s health care, migrating populations, food provision, business – it really does impact on everything. As a species, humanity really cannot afford to just pretend it isn’t happening and hope it goes away. It won’t, and unless we take active steps to do something about it now, it will only get worse. If you have an interest in herbal medicine, try growing your own remedies using organic and permaculture principles. If you sell herbal remedies, consider your suppliers and where their stock comes from, and try to encourage long-term supply.

It may just be that this is something people haven’t considered, but I really hope someone, somewhere, has and is working very hard to make sure that traditional medicine can survive for many years to come. The rate we’re going, it may soon be the only medicine that still works.

** As a disclaimer of sorts, I have found other Asian remedies such as acupuncture to be very effective – and by extension, acupressure works as well if you are not keen on needles.

Burke and Hare and the Importance of the Resurrection Men

I was watching an old film over the weekend – Burke and Hare starring Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis. Whilst mostly true, it wasn’t 100% factually accurate, but it had a great cast, a wonderful script and was a highly entertaining couple of hours. In telling the story of these two quite notorious criminals, it also explored a crucial early part of medical and surgical education.

Until the Anatomy Act 1832, medical students could only practice dissection – or observe anatomy lectures – using the corpses of convicted murderers, usually whisked straight from the gallows to the mortuary or lecture theatre. This meant that demand far exceeded supply, as lectures were often twice weekly and there was still the practice that the students needed to obtain their degrees. This led to the rise of the Resurrection Man, who would often hover around graveyards and dig up freshly buried corpses to provide to medical schools that didn’t ask too many questions – and a startling number didn’t.

Burke and Hare were quite successful in the resurrectionist business, and had a decent line in providing Sir Robert Knox with bodies for dissection before his students. However, after nearly getting caught by the Edinburgh Militia, they decided that a safer way was to actually murder some of the derelicts and drunks they found wandering the back alleys of the city, on the grounds that they were unlikely to be missed, and hand these bodies over instead. Unfortunately for the pair, someone was missed and they were arrested and tried.

The Resurrection Men were put out of business by the Anatomy Act 1832, which allowed any unclaimed body to be taken for dissection – this included any hanged criminal, occupants of workhouses and basically any corpse left in the street. The medical schools were all licensed and there was no need to rely on murky dealings at the back door.

The 1832 Act has subsequently been repealed and replaced with the Human Tissues Act 2012, which now sets out the full procedures for any kind of post-mortem medical dissection. That said, the twilight world of the resurrection men will remain one of the more interesting aspects of medical history for many years to come.