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Blind

3 Jul

Dear readers, my dear friend Alec emailed me today and asked me if I was ok, seeing as I had not posted a blog for quite a while. I told him I was suffering from ‘Brexit’ – a condition whereby the brain temporarily exits stage left due to incredulity.

Many years ago my brother Tim came home from primary school to report to our mother that he had been punished for misbehaviour. His teacher, Mrs Kay, had hit him across his hand with a ruler for persistently using the ‘wrong’ colours when colouring in a scene. Orange grass for example, green sky – that sort of perfidy.

The next day our mother steamed in to school and tore several strips off the teacher and the Head. Yet, ever aware of our needs, she asked our neighbour Mike Green (optician) to check Tim’s vision out.


Mike showed my brother a little booklet of Ishihara colour tests and discovered that Tim could read even the most obscure ones (left). Tim is colour blind.

Over the years Tim has turned this minor handicap into a boon, with the leverage of his very flexible scientific mind.

In the 1980’s he was studying for his Ph.D. on oyster biology in Jamaica. He relied on old fashioned histological (microscopy) colour dye test to assess the parasite loads in cultivated oysters (parasites reduce commercial yield). He also needed to ask colleagues to look down his microscope to check the colour reaction, because he could not see it (red).

Eventually he was able to short circuit this problem by developing a new antibody test, that did not rely on colour change, using state of the art molecular technology. His line of research led directly to a very successful career in molecular evolution.

Why might it be useful for all of us to be a little ‘colour blind’?

By now the world has absorbed the shocking reality that the citizens of the ‘Dis-United’ Kingdom have voted to leave the European Common Market in a referendum.

How do we understand this? Have we doughty Brits suddenly found a more lucrative way to peddle our wares and do business?

Well, no. It turns out that a majority of the population are deeply concerned with immigration – to the extent that a significant proportion  may be deeply racist. They would rather pull up the metaphorical rating draw bridge and ‘go back to the way things were’ (three day week, national strikes, bloody awful food, no avocado pears, vile beer….). Clearly some of us are NOT colour blind.

Unlike my brother these people have not recognised the myriad opportunities that colour blindness brings:

Hybrid vigour, cultural exchange, philosophical enrichment, import of skills and the joy of diversity, great food, opportunities to work abroad and so on.

Since the referendum on the EEC at the end of June racist abuse and spontaneous aggression towards Polish, Black, Muslim – indeed anyone not deemed ‘British’ in the eyes of the abuser – have increased significantly.

What are our leaders and betters doing about this? In fact they have no solutions and are busy squabbling over power, convulsed in internecine back biting both Tory and Labour are playing leadership contests. NO ONE seems to be addressing the future of the UK outside the EEC or making a plan.

So this is what I would like to propose:

 

 

1. Let us forge a new, written British constitution of rights and responsibilities that enshrine the kinship of all humans on these Islands of ours. Everyone should contribute, but please let’s pay attention to the writings of our neighbours – the Scottish Philosophers (David Hume, Francis Smith, James Hutton and so on – The Scottish Enlightenment and the Importance of Reason– they have plenty to say on the human condition and represent the very best of British Exports – Our Rational Ideas.

It will be an even bigger disaster if, following ‘Brexit’, the United Kingdom loses Scotland to a devolution vote.

2. Educated people are politely asked to please stop looking down their patrician noses at the people who voted ‘out’ and pay attention to what they are really saying. “Pay attention to us”. They are part of British Society too, they need to be given the chance to articulate their fears, address their legitimate concerns and contribute. In this regard let us re-examine Freedom of the Press. Newspapers are never ‘free’ and are certainly not ‘independent’ – we are still easily duped by propaganda it seems.

3. Declare a state of Emergency Colour Blindness. It is time to see through the skin colour of our brothers and sisters to the human being beneath, to open our ears and our hearts and minds. To put the ‘Great’ back into Britain.

How about a national ‘Ishihara’ test? A little booklet of real British people in which we try to guess their heritage and their contribution – to  remind us that colour blindness is a most desirable trait. It is what we do that defines us, not the colour of our skin.IMG_5287.

Sun

27 Dec

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Hemingway spent his last birthday in Andalusia, the southern reaches of sunny Spain. A region steeped in Arab influence, Flamenco music and machismo. My wife and I found this lovely bronze plaque in memory of the great novelist just outside the bullring in Ronda a fortnight ago.

Late December and the sun blazing down we explored the building. Clare would not set foot on the sand, it felt macabre to her and not a place for holiday snaps.

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I witnessed a bullfight in 1998 in Madrid – it is not for the faint of heart. The ritualised slaughter of a massively powerful, beautiful animal by a matador and his team of picadors on foot and horse back is supposed to be a demonstration of supreme machismo – literally ‘the sense of being manly’.

The bull does not stand a chance of course – he will die, that is his fate. Sitting in the arena I asked an old Spanish guy next to me to explain the meaning of the bullfight as we watched. He said “Signor, the bull is the man, the matador is the woman”

This surprised me, as you can imagine.

Hemingway was somewhat obsessed with hunting, drinking and death – he was a man’s man. The culture of hunting is still strong in this region of Spain. This is the Hunting Museum in Ronda.

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None of these specimens was hunted for food, they were all killed for trophies. What lunacy, a byproduct of the same machismo which gives us the bull fight, the trophy hunt, the religious fanatic and the terrorist.

The certain testosterone fuelled knowledge that “Might is Right” yields a cult of Death. By killing the trophy hunter satisfies his hunger for power not meat. Taking life to feel alive.

As a professional Zoologist in the past I have collected many species of animals (all invertebrates) in order to understand their physiology, relationships and ecology. I was never comfortable making collections of reference material for the sake of future study. So I did not indulge in this form of esoteric stamp collecting.

To be fair there is not a huge difference between a trophy hunter and a butterfly collector. The only way I could feel happy collecting is with a camera.

What then is the counterbalance to machismo?

Life bursts forth in its fabulous complexity, fuelled by the sun through photosynthesis. Carbon dioxide plus water joined in green plants and algae to make sugars. The start of most food chains. Synthesis and symmetry – mathematical, chemical and physical processes – hinted at by the Arabs who built their palaces in southern Spain.

It was just near here, in the park in Seville that this woman danced for me a ballet of such blinding absurdity that it made me laugh in the midst of suicidal depression.

The counter to machismo is humour. Sharper than the sword wielded by a matador, and pen of a Nobel laureate novelist.

The Alcazar, Seville, Spain.

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Eel

12 Dec

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I was asked to make a writing slope for a fisherman. I came across an end section on a 16 foot slab of sycamore in my timber store, cut from near the root ball of an old tree. Nicely spalted by invading fungi and with a hint of stress figuring – it spoke of stream. At 2 inches thick I was able to chamfer the top and bottom of the piece and turn a little foot on the lathe to make the piece stand up at comfortable angle for the writer.

As I was carving out the groove for the pen with my router I had a thought, “…what if?”. Digging out my pyrography kit I sketched the outline of an eel around the groove of the pen holder.

I was well pleased with the effect.

When asked to describe what I do for a living (a perennial British Obsession used to classify new acquaintances into categories of usefulness, inferiority or ‘be nice and forget’) I use various descriptions depending upon the audience: woodworker, carpenter, cabinet maker, furniture designer, but never do I use the word ‘Artist’.

It seems somehow disreputable. Implying an ability to move sinuously, to evade responsibility in order to avoid actual work, to ‘eel’ in fact.

eel life cycle

Yet eels are the most spectacular fish – able to adapt to both fresh and salt water. In fact the common European eel lays its eggs in the Sargasso Sea in the Atlantic Ocean, hatching to release larvae which will grow into glass eels. These little creatures swim thousands of miles to the rivers and canals from which their parents journeyed to grow, and fatten and mature. They then spawn in estuaries in the transition zone from fresh to salt water. The life history of the eel is enigmatic – it is only relatively recently that it has been uncovered. Eels taste delicious too – it must be all that maritime migration – a sort of ‘marination’ lacing their flesh with taste from the experience of travel and experiencing such different worlds.

So it is as an ‘Artist’ I will greet 2016 migrating this new piece to the Millennium Gallery. Commissioned by the gallery for an exhibition on Craft and Art it will have forty small paintings inspired by the life, work and thoughts of John Ruskin hanging in it – the contribution of my collaborator, the artist Mir Jansen.

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Some very friendly people came to view this at Exchange Place whilst it was marinating in my studio,  at Yorkshire Artspace’s annual public ‘Open Studios’ event. One visitor liked it so much she has asked me to make a piece  for her new sculpture garden in the new year.

It appears one must adapt, like the eel, to ever changing environmental conditions in order to migrate onwards.

Merry Christmas dear reader, may Santa’s Sleigh bring you joy and inspiration …just like my blue truck does for me. Blue as the Sargasso Sea.

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Invincible

29 Jul

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A naked man emerges from the cruel sea, the sole survivor of a terrible shipwreck – a painting by Jean-Louis-André-Théodore Géricault – the acknowledged founder of the Romanticist Movement. Romantics are inclined to spirited individuality, overt emotion, drama, and an affinity with the natural world – well that sums me up pretty well. Probably our best English Romantic painter would have to be J.M.W.Turner, whose lovely glowing images grace the National Gallery where the shipwreck survivor also hangs:

Turner Rain steam and speed

Rain, Steam and Speed – is my personal favourite.

Visiting London with my Dad this week, we took in the Imperial War Museum, the Natural History Museum and the National Gallery. I was struck by a romantic connection. All these buildings, apart from being the great store houses of riches and, through association romantic echoes of emotions from time long gone by are also, like the human body, frail vessels. The art I saw exuded the painters’ connecting us with our senses, the war artefacts and medals with the fear and horror of the civilians and combatants caught up in conflict, or the courage of the lone hero or heroine (particularly the fine Sainsbury Gallery housing many Victoria Cross and George Cross medals and citations), and the Natural History museum, capturing for us the moment of sheer unalloyed joy as the original scholar collector bagged some unsuspecting moth, bird or fish and popped it into a glass jar.

All these exhibits have been curated, that is carefully presented to the viewing public, labelled, ordered and displayed, framed, encapsulated, pinned and – these days video enhanced, modelled and animated. Names and attributions lend emotional weight to each object and the observer is free to project his or her romantic feelings using the object as a kind of touchstone.

“The term species, and the name of a living thing is but a hypothesis” my brother Tim said to me – “the scientific name of a species is not absolutely fixed in time or space, but depends upon the relationships and descriptions of other species”. We had gone from the station to rendezvous with him at his place of work. Not the usual opening gambit of a family visit, but then my (younger) brother has a most unusual cast of mind.

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Here is Dr Tim Littlewood, the Director of Life Sciences at the British Museum of Natural History, with my dad David S.Littlewood (concentrating very hard) as he describes his work. Steering this venerable Ark through the current storms of Government Funding cutbacks and the need to finding sustainable revenue income, whilst managing over 350 entomologists, palaeontologists, botanists, geologists and hundreds of other specialisms in Natural History he is like a modern day Hornblower. He showed me his own collection – a modest cupboard containing tiny phials of genetic material from parasitic worms. Russian Doll like vessels, within vessels – parasites being the sine-qua non of Zoological ephemera, yet so profound in their effect on us humans, our domestic livestock and the natural world.

But what did he mean “….a (species) name is just a hypothesis …”. Well, it would seem that even the name Terrible Lizard, or Dinosaur – a name coined by the great comparative anatomist and palaeontologist Richard Owen  is,  just at the end of the day a published hypothesis in a scientific paper – it might be more correct nowadays to call them “Terrible Birds” as our understanding of the affinities between the ancestor of the humble sparrow and Tyrannosaurus rex  has changed. Famous for his work on marsupials – those strange pouched mammals from ‘down under’ his specimens sit in large glass jars in the ‘Spirit Store’. Being the captain of the ark has it’s privileges, so Tim took dad and I into the vast store rooms of the museum to see jars, upon jars of weird stuff. Odder still to me was the fact that many of the larger glass containers which hold the original specimens are ‘creeping’. They don’t sit still – because glass, which is not a true solid, slumps and creeps over time. Coelocanths, sword fish, parrot fish, Owen’s Echidna specimens – you name it all sat in formalin or alcohol in giant deformed sweetie jars. If the jar has a red lid then this means that it contains the ‘holotype’ of the species – the original collected example from which the species was described and named – the zoological rubber stamp if you will. But, creeping glass, creeping ignorance and the creep of time itself all threaten the contents of this store house.

Romantically, it is easy to attribute value to a beautiful painting or a sculpture – humans have no difficulty paying money for beauty and skill if they covet it, or wish to show off their wealth. No one in the right mind would question the value of a Victoria Cross, nor the price tag of £60K or similar for one of these rare awards for extreme courage – though the question remains ‘why would any family sell it?’ (needs must one supposes, and greed must – of the collector). But a jar containing whale tape worms? Disgusting! A putrefying giant squid in a a fifty foot bath of formalin? Good grief! And what of little tubes of sink snot – my brother’s predilection?

Well, it turns out that it is the information encoded within the tissues themselves which hold the key to their value. DNA analysis enables Zoologists these days to unpick the deep ancestral relationships between living things and in so doing spotlight an whole new treasure in the hold of the Ark. For in being able to identify species from mere traces and bits of tissues leads to delicate forensic possibilities (catching the bad guys), finding out precisely what type of stupid bloody seagull mashed up a jet engine (bird strike), which plants may yield new potential crop species to feed the multitude, and what devious parasites might help protect them (or be debilitating us – and how to zap it). This ship holds treasure.

It needs a steer too.

Tim studied for his Ph.D. in the University of Kingston in the Carribean and the traditions of the University Alumni demanded that he be ‘launched’ as a postgraduate student. Thus ‘HMS Invincible’ made sail amidst the Oysters and their Parasites of Jamaica and his strong hand is now on the tiller of the BMNH. I’m just an old romantic, but I couldn’t imagine a better captain. But then I’m just an old romantic.

The fighting Temeraire, JMW Turner

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Stuff

30 Mar

In the realm of Bonkers, the art of Victorian Taxidermy is King. I had the serene pleasure of stumbling into Warwick Museum this weekend whilst attending my niece’s wedding. As I stepped inside the old museum in the market square I was greeted by a glass case containing two stuffed Choughs, examining a beetle with very beady eye.

Just as the Victorians were fascinated by the natural world and wanted literally to own bits of it, preserved for posterity in their parlours, so we too collect trinkets. Today’s stuff is kept as digital files and posted on Facebook. It’s the same schtick: “Hey look! I found this amazing thing, shot it (with a gun/Victorians, iPhone/us) and ‘stuffed’ it – displayed it in an amusing pose for you to look at and admire.

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Peter Spicer, master taxidermist of Leamington Spa, stuffed this bear and rendered him in the anthropomorphic pose of a Roman Emperor. “Friends, Romans, Countrymen – lend me your bears”. Appropriate for Shakespeare’s county I feel and a moth eaten literal rendering of the County’s badge. Motto ‘Non sanz droict’  – literally – ‘Not without right’. What right had anyone to shoot and stuff this bruin, let alone chain him to a post and set the dogs on him?

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This distinctly anorexic Badger begs the topical question, “TB or not TB?”

And the fox with ear mange chasing the partridge seems a reluctant Rotten Reynard.

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My Bipolar mind is always stuffed with crazy unconnected images, sounds and ideas – such is the nature of manic depression. Natural History Museums are balm to this unquiet mind, because to see the physical expression of cultural obsession displayed with such rigour is somehow deeply soothing to me. One person’s Bonkers, is another person’s serene tranquility. Thank you Peter Spicer for this daft treasury, if only I could skin, stuff and pose the madness in my head. The quietness of curation, bliss.

A final absurdity in this little chocolate box of a museum was the magnificent skeleton of an extinct Irish Elk. A cracking display mounted so that it faces out of an obscure museum side window. Visitors to the gallery are greeted by an extinct deer’s arse and not the seven foot span antlers which so fascinated Charles Darwin.

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Darwin was able to come up with a reason for growing these magnificent antlers and shedding them annually – sexual display and mate acquisition. There is no evolutionary reason for manic depression that I can deduce – only the exhaust fumes of an unquiet mind.

Too much stuffing? Give me taxidermy, give me curation, give me peace of mind.

 

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Rot

21 Mar

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Timber from a beech tree infected fungus inspired my inlay of an albatross gliding over the vast southern oceans.

Many fungi cause marbling, mottling and discolouration in timber, and whilst this rot may detract from the structural value of the wood, the ‘spalting’, as the patterning is called is much sought after by wood turners and knife handle makers. This discolouration was probably produced by ‘white rot’, which is caused by a common polypore fungus called Trametes versicolor, the ‘turkey tail’ bracket fungus.

Trees, like humans, gain character (and a huge disease load) with age. Beech trees, in particular, are prone to fail suddenly – huge limbs dropping off in a storm, or entire trees keeling over – due to the insidious activity of the fungal hyphae literally eating the tree’s heart out.

Yet, in so doing, we are sometimes left with something which is ‘more’ than the unaffected original. It is as though the humble process of rotting has wrought a truly beautiful transformation.

The albatross is sometimes used metaphorically to mean a psychological burden or curse from Coleridge’s ‘Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner’. I have always thought of them as truly unburdened in their wandering, effortless and epic flights.

I doubt there are fungi in the sea (bacteria do the rotting there), here is an escape from rot.

Thigmotaxis

1 Jan

Centipedes, like many other small creatures exhibit a curious behaviour called thigmotaxis – they like to squash themselves into corners in order to maximise body contact with surfaces.

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This is a common brown centipede resting against the side of a plastic sandwich box.

The reason small soil dwelling creatures do this is because they are particularly vulnerable to changes in humidity, they dry out quickly, or become water logged. The behaviour is so overwhelming that it can mask other reactions to external stimuli such as vibration, chemicals, etc..

Years ago I spent long hours studying the behaviour of Lithobius forficatus L. (the common brown centipede) as a Ph.D. student in order to discover what the beautiful structures on its hind legs were for:

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This is a diagram of the underside of a male centipede. You can see that the fattest segments of the last four pairs of legs, closest to the body, are equipped with a row of interesting pores. These are the coxal pores. Under the pores lies a curious tissue, known as the coxal organ.

You can see the pores more clearly here:

Coxal pores dimensions

At very high magnification the organ looks like this:

LM coxal pores

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Under the electron microscope the cells look for all the world like ‘kidney’ or ‘malpighian tubule’ (insect kidney) cells. On this basis it was classified as a ‘typical transporting epithelium’, a not very helpful description as we had not a clue what might be transported.

The Behavioural experiments proved compelling and, using a circular choice chamber to get around the centipede’s natural tendency to flatten itself to a wall I was able to demonstrate that the coxal pores were responsible for releasing a sex hormone, or pheromone attractive to members of the opposite sex.

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I came to the conclusion that the main problem facing centipedes (and anyone living under ground) was not drying out, but becoming water logged. So the coxal organ is most probably very good at getting rid of excess water (centipedes living in xeric or dry habitats have very small coxal pores, or none at all), and in so doing chucking out a useful ‘come on’ signal to other centipedes of the same species. The pheromone chemistry is phenolic and related to the chemistry of centipede cuticle (hardly surprising given that the coxal organ is modified cuticular epithelium which normally secretes the centipedes exoskeleton).

Sticking closely to a surface is not my thing. I prefer to venture out and discover things anew. Multifunctionality is common amongst amongst biological systems – it is the stuff of evolution and natural selection: a hand becomes a wing (pterosaur, bird, bat); a wing becomes a diving tank (Great Diving Beetle’s plastron); a zoologist become a woodworker…… A close study of centipede backsides was instructive in beginning a small voyage of discovery for me, a gift by a true mentor J.Gordon Blower, the ecologist and millipede man who pointed them out to me whilst smoking a number 6 filter tipped in his nicotine stained lab way back in 1979.

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I have always thought the phrase ‘there is no need to re-invent the wheel’ the dullest of aphorisms. Re-invention is human, discovery and rediscovery a divine gift. Get out there and look at something very small, or something very big, but please do go and look, because your discoveries will be unique.

PMH Littlewood. Fine structure and function of the coxal glands of lithobiomorph centipedes: Lithobius forficatus and L. crassipes (Chilopoda, Lithobiidae) 1983. J. Morphology  Vol 177

PMH Littlewood. The chemosensory behaviour of Lithobius forficatus. 1. Evidence for a pheromone released by the coxal organs (Myriapoda: Chilopoda).Journal of Zoology Vol 211 January 1987

PMH Littlewood and JG Blower. The chemosensory behaviour of Lithobius forficatus. 1. Evidence for a pheromone released by the coxal organs (Myriapoda: Chilopoda).Journal of Zoology, Vol 211, 1987

PMH Littlewood.The water relations of Lithobius forficatus and the role of the coxal organs (Myriapoda: Chilopoda).J.Zoology, Vol  223, 1991