Search This Blog

Friday, 20 November 2015

The devil's limitations



The devil, Old Nick, has many names. The first comes from an Old English term, déofol, which has a clear link to the Greek diabolos (which we run into most often in the form of 'diabolical', or in advocatus diaboli, discussed below). So it is little wonder we call the devil in his Satanic form "Old Nick" — quite clearly he has been around for a very long time as a doer of evil.

There is just one caveat here: the word for devil is common right across the Indo-European languages, which means devils were around long before Christianity took hold in Europe, so what was a devil originally? We may get a hint from the German word waldteufel, a wood-devil who is no more than a woodsprite. Devils, it seems, were originally just slightly malignant supernatural creatures who came to carry all of the emotional baggage assigned to Satan in the Bible, from the Garden of Eden onwards.

Yet some forms of devil, like the printer's devil, who is no more than an errand-boy, are comparatively harmless, the equivalent of what we would call a gopher today. Unless you have a taste for cheap jokes about lawyers, you would probably accept that somebody who devils for a lawyer, is fairly harmless as well. The story goes that lawyers would drink at a pub called the Devil's Head, and 'devilled' to earn what they needed to pay for drink.

It is easy to understand why a machine with sharp teeth is called a devil, or why highly seasoned foods and fireworks are called 'devils', but the devil on a ship is the seam which lies on the waterline of a ship (most commonly heard of in 'between the devil and the deep blue sea').

It is this devil plank, by the way, which is intended in the expression 'the devil to pay', according to another charming but probably erroneous etymology, which has 'paying the devil' as the act of caulking the seams on that plank. I think it may be erroneous, because there is a similar expression in French, and an opera of that name was performed as far back as the 1730s, when nautical terms were uncommon in everyday English.

Most things related to the name of the devil are bad news, or can be seen as such. Jonathan Swift called playing cards "the devil's book" — perhaps after a losing streak, but the devil's advocate, or advocatus diaboli, is on the side of the goodies. While the office is commonly misconstrued, the true role of a devil's advocate is not to argue an evil case, but to see the other side of the picture when the case is being assembled for somebody to be named a saint.

Even though printing shops have traditionally been called chapels, they are a home for printers' devils, who are boys that work in print shops. This particular devilish variant seems to have got his name from the ink that they became covered in, or perhaps the name came originally from Aldus Manutius, the famous Venetian printer who founded the Aldine Press, who was accused of having a real devil on his premises because he owned a black slave.

Aldus responded to claims that he was harbouring the devil by advertising that his 'devil' was flesh and blood, and that anybody who wished could come and pinch him. We have no record, however, of what the 'devil' thought of this generous offer.

For all that the idea of the devil is widespread, we know little enough about him — or most of us remain ignorant, and a little fearful of the devil's powers, but not Georges Cuvier, whom Aldus would have loved because Cuvier fought for freedom of the press, but today, he is recalled for his zoological skills, which he once applied to define the devil.

The famous biologist was an expert with fossils, and he liked to boast that, given a single bone, he could argue his way to a logical description of the whole animal. According to legend, Cuvier was visited one night by a joker, disguised as the devil. "Cuvier", roared the prankster as he burst in, "I've come to eat you up!"

Cuvier, was reading in bed, and he looked up calmly to consider the figure. "You have horns", he declared, "and a tail, and a cloven hoof, so you're herbivorous, and you can't!". Then he returned his attentions to his book.

Be assured, though, the devil is busy still, or so conservatives would have us believe. Once, the railway was the work of the devil, then it was electricity, heavier-than-air flight, space exploration or rock music. Now the latest alleged work of the devil is genetic manipulation, or perhaps the Internet. Isn't it odd how the devil, for all his powers, never gets ahead of the technology of humans, but just keeps pace with the latest advances?

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Scotching the thistle

Thistles are a serious menace in Australia, introduced weeds that run wild. I plan here to discuss the past history of the plant in Australia, and then discuss what is involved in reducing the scourge.

I am sufficiently separated from my Scots forebears to share none of their love of the thistle, but in a time when Scots in Australia were all first-generation and sick for the lack of pibrochs, bonnie braes, and haggis and neeps, the thistle was an essential adornment for their St Andrew’s Day, Hogmanay and Burns’ Night celebrations. The thistle was also the Antipodean Scots' symbol, and as early as 1817, one James Chisholm kept a house called the ‘Crown and Thistle’ in Sydney.

In 1823, Donald M’Lean was publican at the ‘Scotch Thistle’ in Hobart. Now a word on terms: my forebears would say you could scotch a snake not kill it, and that one could drink Scotch whisky. A later generation added Scotch tape as a trade mark, but otherwise, they said, the correct descriptor was Scots. Well Onopordum acanthium, usually taken to be THE Scotch thistle, is always called Scotch. Mind you, what is meant by "Scotch thistle" is often Silybum marianum. No matter, they are all pests.

Which plant it is matters little to the Scots, who revere the thistle in a general way, because in legend, a Norseman, part of a sneak attack, yelled out in pain when he ran into a thistle, giving the alarm and saving the Scots. If it prickles a Viking, it’s a thistle. Oh, and just to confuse the issue, 19th century laymen often called it Carduus.

We are happy to observe that Mr. Gordon of Forcett, has received by one of the last ships which arrived from England at Launceston, a few seeds of a magnificent variety of the real Scotch thistle. It has been not inaptly called Carduus Burniensis, from being found originally within the iron railing which surrounds the grave of the poet Burns at Dumfries. On the 1st of June last, which is scarcely half the growing season in England, the leaves were upwards of a yard in length.

The Hobart Town Courier, Saturday 8 March 1828, 3, http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/4223780
Still, the Scots’ celebration of St Andrew in Hobart in 1829 (appropriately, at the Macquarie Hotel), lacked any real thistles. By 1832, the Scotch thistle was a pest in Hobart, and the fault lay, not with a Scot, but with that carousing clergyman and magistrate, Robert Knopwood (who was born in Norfolk, in case you were wondering):
A few years ago when the Rev. Mr. Knopwood lived at Cottage Green, he happened to have a Scotch thistle in his garden; the seeds of which disseminated themselves along the shore at the Battery, and the plants springing from them were admired and religiously protected by emigrating patriots of old Scotia who approached them.
 Since that time however they have become so numerous and have spread themselves so widely that almost every field and garden for miles around is more or less infested with them and the purpose of our remark at this time when the winged seeds are on the point of quitting their native pedestals, is to entreat those who have any interest in fields or gardens to use some diligence in destroying them.

The Hobart Town Courier, 28 January 1832, 2, http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/4200297

Two months later, a correspondent to the same paper called for urgent action to eradicate the “Scotch thistle”:
Let the Government order such a number of prisoners as may be necessary, under proper superintendence, to destroy every plant of it to be found in the neighbourhood… It is not as yet in seed, and close attention for 2 or 3 years in this manner, would, I trust, save the whole island from certain evil, the extent and injury of which is scarcely to be calculated.

The Hobart Town Courier, 3 March 1832, 2, http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/4200099

Well, that didn’t happen, and in 1841, the Hobart Town Advertiser suggested a new tool to its readers:
… we recommend those of our readers who intend to wage war against that most formidable pest, the Scotch thistle, to adopt the kind of hoe or spud used by Mr. Gordon, and well adapted for the purpose, as it serves also as a walking stick. It is about three inches wide, made strong, and with a staff made conveniently heavy. It is a good weapon also for snakes, or rather against these intruding reptiles.

— Quoted in The Courier (Hobart), 8 January 1841, 2, http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/2957324


Thistles are good at travelling, and in 1846, people were getting alarmed in Geelong, and some of them wrote to the papers about the thistles, lurking and massing, just across the Bass Strait:the invasion was coming, they warned.
… the Scotch Thistle. It is only a few years since the seed was imported, and it is already beyond the art of man to eradicate this most pernicious and useless weed. There is scarce a doubt, if the thistle is allowed to spread as it has done, that in the space of a few years it will completely destroy the pasturage, and then farewell to our wool growing prosperity. In the interior on the rich soils, the thistle grows much more vigorously than on the strong hills in the vicinity of the metropolis; some plants have a circumference of several, feet, six feet or more, and will produce some thousands of seeds; indeed the fecundity of the thistle is beyond belief.

Geelong Advertiser and Squatters’ Advocate, 25 April 1846, 4, http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/94444658
I have to say that when I was young, "fecund" sounded like a really rude word. The youngster within me likes to think that any word applied to thistles should be rude.  The aged hunter of the thistle that is me now, says "Fecund, fecund, fecund!".

Anyhow, in spite of what the paper said, nothing happened, and the inevitable followed, as the same paper reported in 1848:
THISTLES.-Within the last few days, the discovery has been made that this insidious weed has sprung up in several places near Geelong. Its identity with the Scotch thistle of Van Diemen’s Land has been doubted by some, but we are afraid that it will be found to be too truly so.


Geelong Advertiser, Nov. 21, http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/93137604
In 1849, the same paper returned to the attack:
… the rapid propagation of the Scotch thistle has been productive of incalculable injury in the neighbouring colonies, yet our colonists appear totally indifferent to the matter, although year after year rich pasture lands have become over-run with these vegetable plagues, and have been suffered to spread over the country without any efficient means being adopted for their extermination The thistle was probably imported in the shipments of hay once so frequent from Van Diemen’s Land, and made its appearance first in the neighbourhood of the flag-staff hill, Melbourne, from whence it soon spread to Keilor, but may now be found so far up as the Wardy Yallock, and unless the settlers set to work in earnest and speedily check their progress, thousands of acres of our most valuable lands will soon be rendered totally unfit for either pastoral or agricultural purposes.


Geelong Advertiser, 12 July 1849, 2, http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/93135028
The Argus (a Melbourne paper, printed some 70 km from Geelong) had a different view of how the thistle arrived, a few days later:
This is certainly not the true origin of the introduction of the thistle, for we well recollect it first grew on the green knoll, a little to the south of Liardet’s Inn, on the Beach, about where the residence of the Custom’s Officer is now built, and it has gradually radiated from that centre with the course of the prevailing winds. In all probability it was introduced as a garden flower, as it is said to have been in Van Diemen’s Land, by an enthusiastic Scotchman, who sent home for a supply of the thistle seed, and on its receipt took his seat on the top of the stage coach from Hobart Town to Launceston, and scattered the seeds right and left the whole way. At all events, we well recollect that when it first appeared at the spot we speak of, a “brother Scot,” we wot of, was at great pains to procure healthy specimens of “the emblem dear,” for transplantation into his garden in Melbourne.


The Argus, 16 July 1849, 2, http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/4775150
The Geelong Advertiser returned to the topic of thistles again later in the year, through a correspondent at Devils River, north-west of Melbourne, and now the Scots were the target:
… the Scotch Thistle … this noxious plant is now firmly rooted, and has propagated itself extensively, even in this district, one hundred and fifty miles from Melbourne and Geelong, is but too true, and threatens to overrun the soil in all directions. Last year it was noticed in some parts of this locality, but so scarce and unconnected as to create no serious apprehension; but this year however bears ample and fearful testimony of its propagating quality; thick and stubborn clumps being found, where not a vestige of its existence could be perceived before. This is particularly the case along the banks of creeks and water-courses…

The Introduction of the Scotch Thistle into the Devils’ River district was by a Scotch gentleman, who, before the dissolution of the Company, superintended the stations of the Messrs Watson and Hunter, and who it would appear, enamoured of every or anything from the ‘land o’ cakes,’ no matter how pungent or repellant, in the full bloom of his patriotism transplanted the emblem of Caledonia into the very heart of Australia Felix?

Such is patriotism! But the patriot did not stop here, he caused one of his subordinates, an unfortunate overseer, who is now a settler on this River, and who sorely repents the patriotic enthusiasm of his former superior, to plant some of the ornamental but noxious thistle in his garden. The overseer, who would not be outstripped in amor patriæ, gave some seed to others, and thus their darling thistle was nourished, nurtured, and propagated, and in due time has become to be no very great rarity…


Geelong Advertiser, 9 August 1849, 1, http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/93138358
 But was he right? In 1886, J. A, Froude described another way that weeds could spread, after a discussion with Captain (later Professor) Ellery at the Melbourne Observatory:
The Observatory was but a quarter of a mile distant, but in the forenoon, and under a Victorian sun, we had a mauvais quart d’heure in getting there. On the way, amidst some coarse grass, I beheld a scarlet pimpernel, the veritable ‘poor man’s weatherglass’ of northern Europe, basking wide open in the rays. If I had been studying the language of the New Hebrides, and had found imbedded in it a Greek verb, perfect in all its inflexions, I could not have been more surprised. How in the wide world came a highly organised plant of this kind to be growing wild in Australia? Had the seed been brought by some ship’s crew, or in a bird’s stomach, or been wafted over in the chambers of the air? To what far-off connection did it point of Australia with the old world? I gathered my marvel, and carried it to Mr. Ellery to be explained. How idly we let our imagination wander! He laughed as he said, ‘Many weeds and wild flowers from the old country make their first appearance in this garden. Our instruments are sent out packed in hay.’


— J. A. Froude, Oceana, 1886. 
At the end of the 19th century, an Irish-Australian politician was sure he knew which race was responsible:
A Scot introduced their charming thistle, and we will have to put a sum on the estimates to extirpate it. Edward Wilson introduced the sparrow, and the sparrow is playing havoc with our vineyards. Some busybody introduced the rabbit, and the income of Ballarat would not save us from the consequences.


— Sir Charles Gavan Duffy, My Life in Two Hemispheres, 1898.
And now, scotching the thistle

Just a note here: you can see most of these pics full-size, if you click on them.

This diatribe was brought about by my Big Game Hunt today. I am a volunteer gardener and things in the Nursery Group at the North Head Sanctuary, and one of my aims is to wipe out what we call Scotch thistle, and I am fairly sure it is Onopordum acanthium. This morning, I found two large plants, about to set seed, so I get out the Big Game Hunter's Tool Kit.

Some background: I have been working over this infested area for maybe 18 months now, mainly digging up young plants, but digging disturbs the soil and gets other weeds going, so it is preferable to use topical weedkiller. I use a benign one that requires no protective clothing.

The problem seems to have begin with one seed that grew to maturity. At some point, some idiot chopped the first plant down and left it there.  The seeds continued to escape, and we came across the infestation as the second generation was springing up.  I removed the old plant, but now we have a large seedbed to contend with, because some of the second generation reached maturity. If we stay on it, sooner or later, we will win.

The only way to wipe out thistles is to remove all the flowering and seeding heads with the small secateurs, then cut off the flowerless stems which can be left to rot, while the flowering heads are destroyed. Then the main stem, and on some of my prey today, that stem was 3 cm across, is cut with the big loppers, and the stem is then poisoned. Because there are people out there who know nothing about poisons, but have opinions, I'm not saying what it is. Suffice it to say that I know quite a bit about poisons, and I see no need for protective gear. or to argue with the ignorant, so they will get no traction here.

Now here is how the operation proceeds:

The Big Game Hunter has to infiltrate, because the plants often lie in concealment, as you can see here on the left. The Hunter has to sneak up on them, and while they quiver with rage. To get close you cut back the dead wattle bushes they are hiding in.

The flowering heads (right, above) are snipped off, wearing a raincoat and gauntlets, then the branches are taken off and inspected, working down to the base. It's slow work: it took me the best part of an hour to take out six plants — it had looked like two plants, but they were growing in a small space.

Then all that remains is for the Great Hunter to return to base, with the flowering heads of his prey in a basket, for the obligatory trophy shot, posing with one's foot on their heads, exhibiting his weapons. Thanks to Jenny Wilson for the last shot: the rest were All My Own Work.

Why kill the thistles? Simple: we have the now rare Eastern Suburbs Banksia Scrub growing on North Head, and thistles just don't belong in that.  Not only that, if the thistles got away, I suspect that the animals we are trying to protect would also face problems.

What you see in the basket, above left, is just the flowering heads and many, many seeds or potential seeds. Back to the Geelong Advertiser again:
The following is the calculation of a naturalist: “Another species of thistle called the Aranthum Vulgare, produces about 100 heads, each containing from 300 to 400 seeds. Suppose we say that these thistles produce at a medium only 80 heads; and that each contains only 300 seeds, the first crop from, these would amount to 24,000. Let these be sown, and their produce will amount to 546 millions. Sow these, and their produce, will be 13,824,000,000,000, or thirteen billions eight hundred. and twenty-four thousand millions, and a single crop from these, which is only the third years’ growth, would amount to 331,776,000,000.000,000. or three hundred and thirty-one thousand seven hundred and seventy-six billions; and the fourth years’ growth will amount 7,962,624,000,000,000,000, or seven thousand nine hundred and sixty-two trillions six hundred and twenty four thousand billions — a progeny more than sufficient to stock not only the surface of the whole earth, but all the planets in the solar system, so that no other plant or vegetable could grow, allowing but the space of one square foot for each plant.”

Geelong Advertiser and Squatters’ Advocate, 25 April 1846, 4, http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/94444658
I do not question the sums, and that's why we seek to scotch the thistles!




Saturday, 7 November 2015

Grammar and the eunuch pygmies



This is a rant brought on by seeing eunuch pygmies seeking to take control of the sex education curriculum for tall people. I am referring here to the mandatory testing of grammar among 11-year-olds in Britain. Here is a link to a sample test, but don’t feel sad if you struggle with it, because I did: I apologise for citing a third-rate paper, but this sort of rubbish is correctly domiciled there.


I am a professional writer who wins prizes for his writing (one award was even for “literature”), I can’t answer most of those questions. Parts of speech are not my thing, never have been, never will be. I don’t need them. I acquired my total mastery of grammar and style by listening and by reading. I learned spelling the same way. Lists are for those whose brains are deficient, those better suited to being trained than being educated.

You absorb an education, you imbibe it, you glory in it, you savour it, you play with it, you acquire it and it becomes yours. You learn to obey training.

Where do these rules of grammar come from? Were they written down first, so that the first cave man to emerge from the simian pre-human fog and mist could slavishly obey them? Or did the rules evolve over time, until somebody sought to extract the essence of grammar, turning it on the rack, drying it on the griddle, so the desiccated corpse could be raised on an altar, or run up a flag pole, for all to be trained to bow down before it?

As a child, I knew that training was what you did to recalcitrant animals, and I quite enjoyed being recalcitrant. So I switched off whenever training kicked in. Recite the times tables? No thanks: I'll move my lips and fool you unless you're a lip reader, but my mind is working on extending my powers-of-two list above 65536, or finding the longest run of composite numbers under 100. My Different Drummer was my only drummer.

True, my father subjected me to endless sterile exercises in what was then called "parsing", but no part of it ever took hold. I do know about the subjunctive after the conditional (Q4), but this demand for testing in the rules of grammar strikes me as being in the same class as people, unable to string a sentence together, let alone write a book, pontificating on how to write. Or pygmy eunuchs teaching tall people how to procreate.

This attitude of mine explains why, on my first attempt at the Leaving Certificate in 1960, I broke down and wrote a brilliant essay explaining that it was pointless to psychoanalyse Macbeth, because Freud had not been invented when Shaksper (and you would think that spelling might have rung a few bells) was working, that he was a working playwright, seeking to get bums on seats in the Globe Theatre, and putting in whatever the crowd wanted, so his themes stemmed more from populism and building up logically than from any grandiose mind-fart.

It would be as useful, I said, to ask me to say if I thought it was Macbeth who painted "Go Home Macduff" on the walls of Edinburgh Castle, or to examine the coexistentialism of Macbeth as exemplified by the witches.

That is pretty close to verbatim, and there was a lot more in the same vein: it was literate, coherent, and went totally against what the sterile, dumb cattle who passed for English teachers clung to. These same people would probably get restive at my ending a sentence with a preposition.

If I may diverge for a moment and quote from my own work, elsewhere in this very blog:


The King James Bible, generally regarded as a foundation text of modern English, setting many of today's standards, is also available in electronic form. A pass of the global exchange mechanism in my computer reveals the following sentence endings: 9 overs, 1 under, 68 ups, 39 downs, while 'to' ends four sentences, while 'for' ends two sentences. There are 9 sentences ending in 'by', 2 ending in 'with' and 2 ending in 'from'.



Search where you will among the works of classical writers of English, the heroes of literature, and you will find them joyfully breaking the 'rule' that never was. Chaucer did it, Charles Darwin did it, so did John Bunyan and Jonathan Swift, and the Reverend Gilbert White, in his Natural History of Selborne. In fact, no author deemed worthy of electronic storage by Project Gutenberg seems to be entirely free of this wicked sin of ending a sentence in a preposition. As a law of careful writing, it seems only to be honoured in the breach.

Now back to my examination paper: the examiners, those dull bovine lickspittle eunuchs, held the whip hand, and I was accorded a failing mark on the pass paper. I was doing English Honours, and supposedly, when you failed the pass paper, your other exam paper, your honours paper was not marked. Or so they said.

Because I was in charge of all examinations (including English), 25 years later and 30 years ago (so I am out of reach of any prosecution), I pulled out the old records. This was against the rules, but hooray for the Statute of Limitations: if you are the sort who thinks I should be prosecuted, don’t even think about it, because I eat people like you for breakfast.  You may stand by your rules, but I don't necessarily fight by them.

Anyhow, as a result of what I choose to dismiss as a minor infraction of foolish rules, I learned that my honours paper had indeed been marked, and skimming through, I saw that it gained a higher mark than that of a mate who gained first class honours.

(I might say that while I was in that job, I went in to bat for a few kids who did similar things in their exam papers, and saved the bloody lot from the pygmies’ cauldron. I used my speaking and writing skills, my command of language, not my simpering rote-learned knowledge of formal grammar, to run rings around the cattle, and each time I passed behind them, I knotted their tails together. It was a pleasure to be what a public servant should be, a servant of the greater good.)

Nobody stood up for me at the end of 1960, so I had to go back and do the whole thing again. It was a good year, with lots of time for independent and extra-curricular reading, but I dropped English Honours for chemistry and physics honours (and later got both of those). I toed the line in English, getting a good A in the pass paper. Luckily, the cattle didn't test parsing or any of that rubbish in the Leaving Certificate.

I break wind in their general direction.