Tag Archives: Jethro Tull

What Is A Weed?

For the first two decades of my adult life, I neither rented nor owned a single sod of earth that was not covered either by concrete or bricks and mortar. Gardening was an abstract concept, affording me, as a Classicist, the glimpse of a world in which peppering my speech with the odd word or two of Latin would not be deemed to be too pretentious. Eventually swapping a metropolitan lifestyle for suburbia, I found, like many, considerable solace in searching for any vestige of green on the ends of my mud-stained digits.

What I found was that I had cultivated the happy knack of persuading certain types of plant to take root which more experienced gardeners derided as weeds. As I set about removing them, I wondered what is it that characterised a weed. Was it, as Ralph Waldo Emerson defined in his essay, The Fortune of the Republic, in 1878 “a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered” or just a case, as the Oxford English Dictionary rather dismissively defines it, of “a wild plant growing where it is not wanted, especially among crops or garden plants”, the wrong plant in the wrong place at the wrong time?

Characteristics which define a weed include their ability to establish themselves quickly, popping up almost in the blink of an eye. They are prolific and adept at spreading, either reproducing vegetatively without the need to form seeds or, where they are reliant upon seeds, by producing so many that some are bound to survive and root. Weeds can grow in the more inhospitable areas that those plants we deem to be desirable would struggle to get a foothold in. Even if you think you have eradicated them, some produce seeds that lie dormant for a long time until conditions are conducive for them. Simply scratching the surface of the soil can cause them to leap into life.

Clearly, until Homo sapiens started cultivating plants in earnest in a systemised fashion, the distinction between a plant that was potentially useful and one that was to be actively discouraged was otiose. However, there is archaeological evidence to suggest that once the earth was first broken by a primitive hoe it provided an open invitation to weeds to take root, particularly those adapted to thriving in naturally disturbed habitats. Even today agricultural weeds are a leading cause of crop loss, accounting for upwards of a 10% reduction in global crop production.

Atlit-Yam, now submerged under the Mediterranean off the coast of modern Israel, was a thriving coastal settlement nine thousand years ago. Plant material from that time has been preserved by the seawater. Alongside the remains of seeds for cultivated crops, such as durum wheat, figs, chickpeas, and herbs, thirty-five weed species were found, five of which, known as obligatory weeds, could only grow in cultivated fields. Within a couple of millennia of man first sowing seeds, agricultural weeds had evolved to exploit these unique conditions, an example of what is known as fast adaptive evolution.

Even more sneakily, some obligatory weeds evolved to mimic the appearance of crop plants, thus more easily evading detection and eradication. Darnel, one of the five obligatory weeds found at Atlit-Yam, is known as “false wheat”, because of its remarkable similarity to the staple crop. Perhaps, as Kenneth Olsen noted in his paper, The Red Queen in the Corn, (Heredity, November 2012)[1], the weed’s greatest virtue is its ability to adapt.    

For millennia, the farmer’s only weapon against the incursion of weeds was the back breaking task of weeding by hand, something often delegated to children and women. Although the arrival of iron tools such as hoes made the work slightly easier, distinguishing between seedlings and weeds was problematic. Seeds were hand-scattered over the newly ploughed fields and any discernible sowing pattern was often hard to detect.

It was not until the 18th century that a solution to this problem became widely available, thanks to Jethro Tull’s grain drill, which planted the seeds in rows. Use in conjunction with a harrow which loosened the soil between the drill rows meant that anything outside the rows were weeds.

Weeds were not just an agricultural phenomenon. Their presence became increasingly unwelcome as the fashion for growing plants for pleasure took root, a pastime upon which Britons now spend over £7.5 billion a year. Gardeners would spend as much time waging war against them as tending the plants they wanted.

The urban sprawl created a new battleline. By the Louvre in Paris’ First Arrondissement, the rue des Orties-du-Louvre and the rue des Orties-Saint-Honoré bear testament to the fact that they were built on land where patches of nettles once stood. Weeding paved and open spaces by hand became a common sight in towns, as George Boughton’s painting from 1882, Weeding the Pavement, shows.

Weeding the Pavement 1882 George Henry Boughton 1833-1905 Presented by Sir Henry Tate 1894 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N01539

Once the weeds were uprooted, they acquired an economic value. Henry Mayhew’s survey, London Labour and the London Poor (1851), tells of street vendors who sold nettles, chickweed, plantain, dandelions, and groundsel, gathered from the gardens of the rich or from parks or fields, as fodder for caged birds.

Although it is infra-dig to think of using chemical preparations as a quick fix to the weed problem nowadays, they have been around for almost two centuries. The Journal of usual and practical knowledge, a French monthly magazine, provided its readers in 1831 with a recipe for a mixture designed “to kill grass that grows in garden alleys and between cobblestones in courtyards”. All that was needed to “purge the soil of rebel herbs for several years” was to mix twelve pounds of lime and a couple of pounds of sulphur to 60 litres of boiling water. The recipe crossed the Channel and was promoted as a way of removing “very injurious as well as unsightly” plant growth from between pavement stones.

Readers of detective fiction will know that by the turn of the 20th century many garden sheds held a stock of arsenic-based compounds, such as Eureka weed killer, to be used to eradicate weeds and the occasional relative. The world’s most widely used herbicide, 2, 4-D, was first made available commercially in 1946, although it had been developed by W G Templeman of Imperial Chemical Industries at the start of the Second World War. Glyphosate was introduced in 1974 and soon established itself as a widely used, cheap, and popular non-selective form of weed killer. 

Environmental and sustainability concerns have led to significant resistance to the indiscriminate use of chemically based weedkillers. There is a growing recognition that weeds are not just pests but play their part in stabilising the soil, drawing up nutrients from deep in the ground, attracting pollinators and insects and, when they die, decomposing into humus, adding to the richness of the soil. In a further step towards their rehabilitation, Sandra Nock’s garden full of weeds, Weed Thriller, has just been awarded a Gold Medal at this year’s RHS Tatton Flower Show. However, if they are in the right place and valued, are they really weeds? It is a puzzle.

[1] https://www.nature.com/articles/hdy2012104

Feckin Irish Gin

Travel may broaden the mind but, as that is problematic these days, try drinking some gin. Feckin, I had always thought, is one of those expletives along with frickin that are deemed by some to be less offensive than the more guttural Anglo-Saxon fucking. It is and its use in connection with a type of gin makes it stand out from the crowd and create a bit of a talking point.

Feckin, though, is also the participle derived from the Irish verb, feck, which means to steal, to throw or to leave in a hurry. More intriguingly, it is a version of the name of an Irish saint, St Fechin, who founded several monasteries on the island, including the one at Fore in County Westmeath. He was also said to have possessed supernatural powers and the ability to cure others. In an act of self-sacrifice which marked him out for canonisation, he refused to use his remarkable abilities on himself and succumbed to the yellow plague in 664 CE. His feast day is on January 20th.

There is a discernible trend amongst Irish distillers of taking a slightly wry, if not comic, approach to presenting and marketing their wares. A classic example of this trend is Shanky’s Whip, which I reviewed a little while ago. Feckin Irish Gin, produced at the Echlinville Distillery in Kircubbin in Northern Ireland’s County Down, on the shores of Strangford Lough, is another.

It comes in a tall angular bottle made of clear glass, not unlike those used by Martin Miller, with a longish neck and deploys a distinctive yellow for its labelling with black print. Looking more closely at the labelling I see that it is designed to look like a newspaper, the Echlinville Times, a marketing ploy used by Jethro Tull in 1972 when they wrapped their album, Thick as a Brick, second only to Aqualung in my view, in a copy of The St Cleve Chronicle and the Linwell Advertiser.

The newspaper idea affords them opportunities for a spot of whimsy, including an advert for a cat flap that is now surplus to requirements as Tiddles was lost out in the lough and a headline informing us that a man wearing a camouflage coat disappears in the forest. Visible from the back of the bottle is the inside of the label which screams “Out of this Feckin World” and that Feckin Irish Gin was found on the Moon. Don’t you just love the Irish sense of humour?

The Feckin brand first emerged in 2005 with the launch of its whiskey and then in 2014 Echlinville Distillery was granted the first licence to distil spirits in Northern Ireland for over 130 years. Yhey also produce a vodka and are expanding to include a museum and visitor centre.

The colour scheme, as well as giving the spirit a distinctive look which stands out from the crowds spawned by the ginaissance, also gives a heavy hint as to the predominant flavour the drinker can expect. There are just five botanicals used in the distillation process: juniper, lemons, angelica root, cassia bark, and coriander. As one who fervently believes that less is more and that each botanical must be made to work, this approach wins my seal of approval.

Yellow equates to lemon and Feckin Irish Gin is a lemon lover’s heaven. As soon as you release the artificial stopper your senses are hit by a waft of juniper and lemon and in the glass the clear spirit launches a bold assault on your tastebuds. Juniper is ever present, but the bitterness of the lemon soon comes to the fore before dancing a duet with the sweeter flavours of the coriander. The aftertaste is long and lemony with almost a sherbet feel to it. There is nothing subtle here but it makes for a feckin distinctive and refreshing drink which, with an ABV of 40%, makes the thought of a second glass irresistible.

Until the next time, cheers!

Baroque ‘n’ Roll

Jethro Tull – Birmingham Cathedral

It takes a lot to imbue me with the spirit of Christmas, it’s all this enforced jollity and good will to all men that gets my goat, but I must admit that when I left the architectural wonder that is Birmingham Cathedral, I felt at peace with the world. It’s amazing what a couple of pints in the Old Joint Stock and a cheeky large glass of wine in the cathedral’s nave can do.

This concert was part of the Jethro Tull 50th Anniversary tour and for the last ten years or so the band have been putting on concerts in cathedrals around the country to celebrate Yuletide. This year it was Birmingham Cathedral’s turn. All monies raised went to the cathedral’s restoration fund and, in particular, towards the preservation of the wonderful Edward Burne-Jones stained glass window. A worthy cause, to be sure.

One of two baroque cathedral in the country, St Paul’s being the other, and one of the smallest, standing cheek by jowl with the edifices of Mammon on Colmore Row, it made for an unusual and curiously intimate setting for a seasonal and more acoustically orientated Tull gig.

Ian Anderson has had to be inventive in recent years to mask his set of failing vocal chords but there was less need for such subterfuge as he wasn’t having to battle against the might and fury of a prog band at full throttle. A gentler, more relaxed style seemed to suit him better and perhaps this is the direction that he should move towards, if he feels the need to continue to tread the boards.

The band was helped out by the Cathedral choir on a few seasonal ditties which were given the Anderson twist. The set included a generous helping from the 2003 Jethro Tull Christmas album, was sprinkled with a few old favourites, Aqualung in particular was heavily bowdlerised to suit the surroundings, and seasoned with a couple of guest artists.

Violinist, Anna Phoebe’s version of Bowie’s Ashes to Ashes and the breathtaking Celtic/Moroccan fusion that was Babouche were stand outs as was Bach’s Toccata and Fugue, started off on the stentorian cathedral organ and finished off in style by Florian Opahle on lead guitar.

A splash of celebrity star dust was provided by Loyd Grossman who thrashed around on lead guitar as well as treating us to some words of wisdom from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. I could easily have done without him but that may just be my taste buds.

Anderson knows how to put on a show and is beginning to acknowledge the effects of anno domini – he did seem to take more of a back seat and happier to let others share the limelight.

A lovely, uplifting evening and the Cathedral is a few steps nearer to getting those windows restored.

Hey! Santa! Pass us that bottle, will you?

Living In The Past

Jethro Tull 50th Anniversary Concert, Royal Albert Hall, 17th April 2018

It’s all too easy to take the piss out off a Jethro Tull audience. Perhaps the gig would have been better called the Prostate Prom or even Too Old To Rock and Roll, Too Young to Die. For many it may have been a new day yesterday but it is certainly an old day now.

It is true that there were some members of the post baby boomer generation in the audience – I even saw a couple of children and thought about contacting Social Services – but even with a more severe haircut than normal I found myself in possession of more follicles than most of the males there. And you know that nature is telling you that your bohemian days are over when the queues to the male bogs are longer than those for the female equivalents and a couple of pints of Old Speckled Hen – lovely but so it should be at £6 a pint – means impromptu visits to the toilets by many to the general inconvenience of the rest of the row. Alas, the extended drum solo in Dharma for One – usually a signal for a mass exodus to the carsey – was too early in proceedings to serve its purpose.

I’m not a fan of the Royal Albert Hall. You could hardly call what Philomena Cunk deliciously described as the receptacle for Adolf Hitler’s missing bollock as an intimate venue. Sitting in the circle we were far away from the action and the sound in the early part of the concert was a bit muddy. Fortunately, either the engineers got the balance right as the show went on or my ears grew more accustomed to it all.

The band consisted of Dave Goodier on bass, John O’Hara on keyboards, Florian Opahle on lead guitar, Scott Hammond on drums and, of course, the only survivor of the original band, the septuagenarian Ian Anderson on flute, vocals, acoustic guitar and, occasionally, one leg. Anderson was helped out on vocals from time to time by virtual artists beamed up on the screen behind him, a triumph for timing, if nothing else. The video screen was also used to beam in messages from former members of the group – over the years Tull has had 37 members – and good wishes from some of the great and good of rock. While the band performed, we were treated to footage of the band in their heyday, considerably more hirsute than they are today, and fascinating as it was, I found it all a bit distracting.

Tull in the early 70s were probably the most exciting live act I had seen and, sensibly, Anderson chose to plunder his back catalogue from the first ten years of the band’s existence, ranging from the bluesy Mick Abrahams influenced numbers to the more folky rock numbers of the mid to late 70s. But their glory days were encapsulated by the albums I return to most, Aqualung and Thick As A Brick. My God, when the band is on form, as they were, there is nothing like Locomotive Breath, Cross-eyed Mary, Aqualung and a wonderful abridgement of Thick As A Brick to set what few hairs you have left standing on end. I could even forgive them a reprise of A Passion Play.

As I listened to the early numbers, I couldn’t help musing what sort of band Tull would have been if Abrahams had stayed. But there was never going to be room for two egos and look what happened to Blodwyn Pig.

Musically, it was a great night of nostalgia, featuring Tull, one of rock’s greatest survivors, at their best. Don’t tell TOWT but I have got her an early Christmas present – tickets for the Tull gig at Birmingham Cathedral in December. I wonder if they will play My God!

Living In The Future

JethroTullTheRockOpera (1)

Jethro Tull: The Rock Opera – Anvil, Basingstoke

I make it a rule to avoid karaoke like the plague. You know the scene – a dingy bar offering inebriates the chance to belt out their favourite song to a professional backing track. Of course, the nearest they will get to the Voice is if they broke wind and four people turned round.

For an artist with an extensive back catalogue and, alas, waning vocal powers but a yen to continue touring the dilemma is how to carry it off. Bob Dylan, of course, constantly reinvents his songs and the audience never quite know what they are going to get. Other artists employ backing singers to amplify aka drown out their failing vocal chords.

Veteran prog-rocker Ian Anderson has come up with a novel approach judging by this concert TOWT and I attended in the cultural centre that is Basingstoke. Firstly, he has woven some of his best-loved songs supplemented with a few new numbers into a narrative which tells the story of the historical figure, Jethro Tull, re-imagined as if in the near future.

There has always been a high rural, pastoral, folky content to Tull’s repertoire and it works quite well. The central conceit is that Jethro Tull was a pioneering developer of farm machinery enabling the British agricultural revolution to take off. So in a modern/futuristic context he might have devoted his time to genetic modification of crops, allowing Anderson to pontificate on the perils of GM and the impact of aggressive farming techniques on the countryside and the climate.

Anderson’s solution to the fading powers issue is more intriguing. He has developed what can only be described as reverse karaoke without the alcohol. The band – featuring the excellent Florian Opahle on guitar, John O’Hara on keyboards, bassist Greig Robinson and drummer Scott Hammond and, of course, Ian Anderson on flute and acoustic guitar – play live while most of the vocals are pre-recorded on a backing track with accompanying videos by Icelandic chanteuse and violinist Unnar Birna, Dave Goodier and Ryan O’Donnel with Anderson adding some vocals live.

Technically it is some feat to pull it off over a two-hour concert – a masterpiece of technological robustness and consummate timing. It could so easily go wrong. What it does mean is that the event is so choreographed that there is no opportunity for ad libs or impromptu repartee, something the seasoned Tull fan – and by golly the audience was well-seasoned, I felt positively youthful – would miss.

All the old faves were there – a coruscating version of Locomotive Breath, always guaranteed to bring the house down – Living in the Past – including a game effort on the part of Anderson to recapture his youth by playing the flute whilst standing on one leg, no mean feat for a 68-year-old – and a slightly under-cooked Aqualung. There were some welcome reprises of songs I had not heard live for many a year including Witches’ Promise, a New Day Yesterday with Anderson on blues harmonica and Jack in the Green. The new stuff paled in comparison but carried the show along.

Two final comments – the first half of what was the tour opener was a bit rusty and Anderson was not on top form, struggling with his vocals and forgetting to switch his flute mic on at one stage and secondly, there was a touch of wistful longing and melancholy towards the end making me wonder whether he knows his touring days are numbered. We will see.