Tag Archives: Charles Darwin

Another St Lubbock’s Day

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It is a public holiday – another one. Rather like the mythical London bus we wait ages for one and then a number come along in a short period of time, a feeling exacerbated by Easter being late this year. We have Sir John Lubbock to thank for the institution of public holidays here in Blighty.

Until 1834 the Bank of England observed around 33 saints’ days and religious festivals but in that year in a fit of puritanical pique the Old Lady reduced the number of holidays to just four – May 1st, November 1st (All Saints Day), Good Friday and Christmas Day. In 1871 the Liberal politician, Sir John Lubbock, later Lord Avebury, introduced the Bank Holidays Act introducing, along with Christmas Day and Good Friday, holidays in England on Easter Monday, Whit Monday, the first Monday in August and Boxing Day. According to the Act, no person was compelled to make any payment or to do any act upon a bank holiday which he would not be compelled to do or make on Christmas Day or Good Friday and the making of a payment or the doing of an act on the following day was equivalent to doing it on the holiday.

The ever grateful British public, used to feeding off scraps thrown from the tables of their superiors, christened the newly sanctioned days St Lubbock’s Days.

And so it remained until 1965 when, on an experimental basis and subject to a specific annual order submitted to Parliament, the August Bank holiday was moved to the end of the month, although it remained at the start of the month north of the border. The Banking and Financial Dealings Act of 1971 is the Act which specified the majority of public holidays which are observed here, although New Year’s Day became a public holiday in England in 1974 and the May Bank Holiday was introduced in 1978.

Sir John Lubbock was an interesting character. As well as being a leading politician of his time he became from his youth a firm friend of Charles Darwin which led to Lubbock’s passion for science and evolutionary theory. He became a passionate supporter of the evolutionist, Thomas Huxley, spoke in favour of the concept in the famous evolution debate at Oxford in 1860 and published many articles in which he used archaeological and fossil evidence to support the theory. Lubbock also joined forces with Darwin in advocating English spelling reform and when Darwin died in 1882 Lubbock lobbied for and was successful in achieving burial in Westminster Abbey for the great man. Lubbock’s final act of kindness to his life-long friend was to be one of his pall bearers.

After all that I shall sign off and enjoy what is left of our latest St Lubbock’s Day.

 

De Gustibus

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The fate that befell poor Marius the giraffe in Copenhagen – culled and then fed to the lions after a public dissection – set me musing about alternative uses to which the meat may have been put. I’m omnivorous and fairly adventurous when it comes to dining off-piste in a restaurant. What, I wonder, would giraffe taste like and is there a business opportunity to establish an eatery adjacent to a zoo which could make use of the meat of animals which have been culled?

In satisfying my curiosity about giraffe I need look no further than Hugh Fearnly-Whittingstall, the English celebrity chef and “real food” campaigner, who recommends the dish to be properly prepared and cooked rare. The meat which has a natural sweetness is, when grilled on an open fire, according to the culinary sage, better than steak or venison.

In the interests of fair play, the next item on the menu should be lion. A little while ago a Tampa Bay restaurant sold lion tacos for $35 a go. The texture was said to be similar to alligator whilst the taste was rather like venison.

Intrepid explorers had to suspend their susceptibilities if they wanted to survive. David Livingstone was served up a breakfast in Mozambique consisting of elephant’s feet. One can imagine that there was enough to go round to feed a large family. The Scottish missionary found the repast to his taste, describing it as a whitish mass, slightly gelatinous and sweet like marrow. Doubtless the taste was enhanced by the pint of beer that came with it.

19th century matelots would have given anything for such luxuries. The Galapagos Tortoise was a staple item on the menu for sailors in the area and was compared to fine veal. Charles Darwin whose taste buds had evolved to a higher level of sensitivity claimed that whilst the breastplate when roasted was very good and the young tortoises made excellent soup, the meat otherwise was indifferent.

Next up is the hippo. The American hunter and author, Peter Hathaway Capstick, reported that in his opinion it was one of the finest game foods. The taste is mild, less than lamb and more than beef and the meat is slightly more marbled than venison.

Naturally there are some too horrible to countenance.  According to a Belgian seaman writing in 1898 penguin is something to avoid. “If it is possible to imagine a piece of beef, odiferous cod fish and a canvas-backed duck roasted together in a pot with blood and cod-liver oil for sauce, you’ve pretty much got the picture”!

If you have to catch your prey, then you would think the sloth, not noted for its Usain Bolt-like sprints, would be fair game. You might want to think again if you believe American composer, Aaron Paul Low. He found the creature really tough with little meat and what there was wasn’t for the weak-stomached. He rated it the most disgusting meat he ate during a trip to Peru in 2012.

As the Romans said, it is all a matter of taste but, perhaps, after all I will stick to the tried and tested.

Bon appetit!

A Cabinet Of Curiosities

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Two Temple Place, in an area occupied by barristers and baristas, is one of London’s best kept secrets – a wonderful, heavily carved monument to late Victorian and Edwardian opulence. Now under the care of the Bulldog Trust it opens its doors in the winter season to the hoi polloi, hosting exhibitions featuring collections from outside of the metropolis. Discoveries: Art, Science and Exploration is its third exhibition which runs through to 27th April and features artefacts, exhibits and curiosities from eight museums at Cambridge University. And what a cornucopia of delights it turns out to be.

Housed in three rooms, the visitor moves from one astonishing item to another. There is a tiny Tinamou egg which belonged to Charles Darwin (after the Tinamou, obviously) – he has written his name on the dark brown shell – and it is the only surviving specimen from his expedition in the Beagle. It bears a crack said to have been caused by Darwin trying to put it in too small a container.

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In the hallway is a magnificent model of the double-helix shape of DNA, made in 1953 and it has a sort of meccano feel to it. I am fascinated by orreries and there is a magnificent example dating from the 1780s. Geologists can take delight from an enormous 120 million old ammonite and a much younger fossil of an ichthyosaur, carved out of the rocks by the queen of Dorset fossil hunters, Mary Anning, and sold for the princely sum of £50 to Adam Sedgwick.

One of the show pieces is a dodo skeleton pieced together from bones scattered around the marshy areas of Mauritius.

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There are also pieces of art dotted around, those which caught my eye were a series of prints by Isaac Frost which were designed to show that the Earth was at the centre of the universe. This tenet of Muggletonian belief is beautifully illustrated and compared and contrasted with the Newtonian view of the universe. They are fascinating examples of wrong-headedness subtly executed in pastel colours.

What really piqued my interest was a chart produced by Hugh Strickland in 1843 and is an attempt to group birds by type and to standardise nomenclature. It also shows that Strickland was on the cusp of realising that there was an evolutionary dynamic involved. The chart, pieces of paper stuck together with rudimentary colouring, has the feel of the residue you associate with a brain-storming session. For all its crudity it is epoch-making and, the organisers claim, it is the first time it has been displayed to the public.

Some of the exhibits defy any serious attempt to study them – a couple of drawers stuffed full of fossils and ossified remnants of fish, a bizarre double panel of paddles and weaponry to name just two – and some are just too stunning for words – a Sufi snakes and ladders board, the only one of its type and, the curator, suspects one that was filched, rather like Wilkie Collins’ Moonstone, during the unrests in India.

For a Classics grad it was good to be reacquainted with the Roman copies of Praxiteles’ Athena and Hermes, so often my study companions.

My only cavil is that it was sunny when I visited and the light streaming through the magnificent stained glass windows made it difficult to read some of the verbiage explaining what you were seeing.

I came away truly uplifted. Unfortunately, one old lady was so transported by what she had seen she took a tumble and had to be whisked away by ambulance. This required us to go down into the bowels of the building to get out via another exit. Such are the trials and tribulations of a museum goer!