Ashes To Ashes?


I well remember the devastation caused to the English countryside caused by Dutch Elm disease. I was particularly distressed when a wonderful avenue of elms from the rear of my alma mater to the Backs had to be cut down.

Dutch elm disease was a fungal based disease and first appeared in north-west Europe in 1910. It came to Britain with a vengeance with a more virulent strain in the 60s and within a decade 20 million elms out of the estimated UK elm population of 30 million were dead. By the 1990s the number was well over 25 million.

It now appears that the ash is under threat from a fungus called Chalara fraxinea. Chalara dieback causes leaf loss and crown dieback in affected trees and can lead to the death of the tree. The disease has been found widely across Europe and it first made its appearance in the UK in February of this year when a consignment of infected trees was sent from the Netherlands to a nursery in Buckinghamshire. In June ash trees planted in a car park in Leicestershire which were supplied by a nursery in Lincolnshire were found to be infected.

To date, the disease has not been found outside nurseries and recent plantings in the UK. However, the authorities are very worried and asking everyone to be vigilant and report any trees they suspect to be affected.

Let’s hope the noble ash will not be a rarity like the elm now is today.

Keep Taking The Tablets

Exciting news is emerging from the other university that academics are close to deciphering the Proto-Elamite tablets – a writing system dating from around 3,200 BCE and originating from what is now south-west Iran. It is thought this form of writing was adopted from neighbouring Mesopotamia and it runs from right to left. There are over 1,000 examples of the script extant but the task of deciphering them has been complicated by the fact that they contain numerous errors. Perhaps they were the offcuts from a careless scribe.

Speculation is rife as the contents of the first tablet to be deciphered. My money is on “That will keep the buggers quiet for five millennia”. The bookies’ favourite is “Very good – but I think I will wait for the iPad”.

The Meaning Of Life – Part Seven of Forty Two

Has man come to the end of the evolutionary road?

At the risk of offending creationists – on second thoughts, to hell with it – I wanted to examine whether modern homo sapiens is as good as it gets and whether we have stopped evolving. You have to accept that a grand master plan controlled by an omnipotent deity is kind of comforting and easily intelligible.

The classic causes of evolution are

1)    Natural selection – the survival of the fittest

2)    Genetic drift – random changes in the frequency of traits due to chance factors

3)    Mutation – changes in the DNA composition

4)    Gene flow – changes due to movement from one place to another and having offspring in the new place

5)    Non-random mating – actively selecting individuals with particular traits with whom to mate

So the big question is whether there is prima facie evidence that homo sapiens for any of the above reasons is still evolving. It appears that there is.

  • ·         Drinking milk – originally the gene which enabled us to digest lactose shut down as babies were weaned off breast milk. The domestication of animals meant that being able to drink became a nutritionally advantageous quality and individuals who were able to digest lactose were better able to pass on their genes. 95% of Northern European now carry the genetic mutation enabling them to digest lactose.
  • ·         Wisdom teeth – our ancestors had bigger jaws and their diet meant that they wore out their choppers more quickly than we do. Wisdom teeth are vestiges of the third set of choppers which they developed. Today around 35% of the population are born without the propensity to develop wisdom teeth.
  • ·         Greater resistance to disease – researchers have found around 1,800 genes which have developed in humans over the last 40,000 years, mainly geared towards fighting disease. More than a dozen genetic variations designed to resist malaria are spreading rapidly amongst Africans.
  • ·         Our brains are reducing in size – brain capacity has shrunk over the last 30,000 years from 1,500 cubic centimetres to 1,350. This is due to more efficient processing capabilities within our grey cells.
  • ·         The development of blue eyes – originally all homo sapiens had brown eyes but around 10,000 years ago a genetic mutation developed which turned brown eyes to blue.

So now we know!  

Book Corner


The Shipping News by Annie Proulx

I rediscovered this wonderful book during my recent holiday. This is the story of Quoyle, a hapless, large overweight man with two daughters from a failed marriage with an unfaithful wife who died in a car crash. It tells of his move back to his root in Newfoundland and his attempts to reintegrate himself into the society of his ancestral home, Killick-Claw. He has an on-off affair with a widow, Wavie Prowse, who has a handicapped son. Quoyle finds a job on the local paper, the Gammy Bird, and is responsible for reporting the movement of ships in and out of the harbour, hence the book’s title.

A quoyle is a spiral coil made of one layer only and laid on the deck of a ship so it can be walked over easily if necessary – an apt description of Proulx’s (anti)-hero. Each chapter starts with a description of a knot or some other maritime term and these form the source for her imagery, each knot or term foreshadowing the events of the chapter.

Proulx’s characterisation is superb – she has a penchant for characters who are down on their luck or have eccentricities. The story has moments of high pathos and rich comedy –  the storm and its consequences and the funeral being particular highlights. Although it has its dark moments the book is eventually a triumph of hope over adversity.

Proulx’s style is characterised by short sentences with minimal regard to grammatical conventions. It is difficult to get used to but has the effect of moving the book along with pace.

A wonderful book and I am glad I took the opportunity to revisit it.

In Graham We Trust – Part Fourteen

Thirteen down, thirty three to go, thirty seven points to find.

Portsmouth 3 TMS 1

To Fratton Park for TMS’ first game against Pompey in 23 years (lost 2-0 in Jan 1989) to see TMS extend their miserable record there to played 10 lot 10. At least they scored yesterday, Morgan joining Mal Starkey (1961) and Steve Cross (1983) as the only TMS players to have scored there..

An unchanged TMS started brightly and were the better team in the first half, Parry missing a marvellous opportunity blazing wide when it seemed easier to score.

In the second half one or two players seemed below par – sleeping tablets rather than caffeine pills? – and rather like the Notts County game away the match came to life in a frenetic six minute period around the hour mark. First Portsmouth capitalised on a blunder by Hector to take the lead through Thomas and then shortly afterwards McLoed chipped Weale to put Pompey two up. Almost immediately Morgan pulled one back following up on a rebound but almost immediately blotted his copybook (and compounded TMS’ problems) by getting into a dispute with the ref which earned him hi marching orders.

TMS huffed and puffed and tried to get back into the match but to no avail and to make matters worse were hit at the death by a McLoed breakaway, TMS didn’t play badly and for times were much the better team. However, in Thomas and McLoed Pompey had players who knew how to convert their chances.

TMS need to get back on track with their next two games – home to Yeovil and Colchester – looking increasingly more important.

Books, words, gin and much more