31 October, 2006

A rose by any other name.....

Sign seen outside a farm gate in Norfolk, UK:

Horse Muck - 50p
Equine Residue - £1.00
Poo de Chevaux - £2.00

Clearly a man who knows his market!

25 October, 2006

Ancient Egyptian hair dye - technology finally catches up

Ever wondered why the people in Egyptian tomb paintings all seem to have such lovely lustrous black hair? Apart from the fact that the well-off wore wigs, of course. It turns out that the ancient world used a hair dye that - apart from the unfortunate drawback of being toxic - was several thousand years ahead of its time. I’m indebted to Philip Ball of Homunculus for an explanation of this ancient technology. Annoyingly, the American Chemical Society website with the original research report isn’t open-access and I haven’t got a subscription, but there’s enough information in the Homunculus post to work out the basics.

First, a little background on hair structure. Hair is made up mostly of a protein called keratin, which is the same material that makes up hooves, claws and fingernails. Each keratin molecule is a long slender thread coiled to form a cylindrical helix, exactly like a spring. This is why hair is flexible and will stretch before it breaks - the keratin molecules can uncoil and stretch out before springing back into their original shape, like a spring. Four of these keratin springs are twisted together to form a rope, called a protofibril, and eleven of these protofibrils are twisted together to form a thicker rope, called a microfibril. Microfibrils are packed together in long thin bundles called macrofibrils, the macrofibrils pack together to form long thin cortical cells, and the cortical cells pack together to form a single hair. There is a neat little animation here showing how all this works. The ropes are held together by chemical bridges between sulphur atoms in adjacent keratin molecules. You need a lot of these sulphur bridges to hold the many millions of keratin molecules together in a single hair, so hair contains a lot of sulphur. This high sulphur content is why hair and feathers smell so disgusting when burned - many sulphur compounds smell foul (hydrogen sulphide, the characteristic stink of rotten eggs, is a good example). The more sulphur bridges, the stronger the structure - so fingernails have more sulphur bridges than hair and are therefore stronger, even though they are made of the same keratin protein. Permanent wave and hair straightening products work by breaking these sulphur bridges and then reforming them while the hair is pulled into a different shape.

With me so far? Good. The ancient hair dye recipe is as follows: Mix lead oxide with slaked lime (a strong alkali) and water to make a paste. Rub this paste into the hair for three days. After this time, the hair will be dyed black throughout, and the dye won’t fade or wash out.

The alkali component of the dye breaks some of the sulphur bridges holding the keratin molecules together, and the sulphur then reacts with the lead oxide to form lead sulphide. Lead sulphide is a dense black substance that’s insoluble in water - it’s similar to the black corrosion that forms on silver jewellery. The clever part of the dye recipe is that the lead sulphide forms tiny crystals that attach to individual keratin microfibrils, deep within the structure of the hair. This makes the dye deep, long-lasting and permanent. It’s also something that materials science has only recently learnt how to do.

The drawback is that lead is poisonous. Homunculus comments that this rarely bothered people in the ancient world, since lead compounds were used in cosmetics (and paint, until very recently). This may be because life expectancy was shorter then, as he points out. Lead is a slow cumulative poison and it would probably have taken years to accumulate a lethal dose from face paint or eyeshadow, quite possibly more years than the average lifespan. It is also often very difficult to recognise the connection if the effects are delayed, as would be the case with chronic lead poisoning. If you have been using lead cosmetics for 40 years before you fall ill, your face paint or hair dye isn’t the first place you look for the cause of illness. It took Richard Doll years of rigorous epidemiological research to demonstrate a connection between smoking and lung cancer, and I don’t suppose he had a counterpart in Ancient Egypt. Moreover, the ancient Egyptians were great users of wigs, and some examples have even survived to this day - the British Museum has some in its collection (the link is to a picture gallery, click on page 6). A wig would only need to be dyed once as the dye would not grow out, so exposure to lead from a hair dye used on wigs would be much lower than the same dye used on natural hair. It seems quite possible to me that the lead hair dye might not be sufficient to cause poisonous effects if it was applied to wigs rather than to hair (unless there was some poor slave whose task it was to dye wigs all day, which would surely be a candidate for Worst Job in History).

22 October, 2006

Miscellany: history quizzes and a short story competition

Skint Writer is running the second Skint Short Story Competition. Entries must be no more than 1500 words, never before published (not even on the Web), and the closing date is 30 November 2006. The theme is spirituality. Full details here. Entries are posted on Skint Writer's blog - I haven't found a page that groups together all the entries so far, so scroll down through the posts until you find them. If you can write short stories, why not give it a go?

If you're interested in history, and if you're reading this you probably are, test your general knowledge with the history quizzes on the European History website. There are lots to choose from, including:

The links take you to the first question in each quiz. Pick your answer, click on it, and you'll be told whether you were right or wrong and invited to try again or go on to the next question. There are 15 questions in each quiz.

Let me know how you get on!

There are lots more to play with, and if you don't find one that takes your fancy, you can create one and submit it to the site via email.

16 October, 2006

Nigel Tranter's historical novels

This is in response to a query in another discussion, in which someone asked which of Nigel Tranter’s novels were worth reading besides the Bruce Trilogy.

Nigel Tranter wrote more than 60 historical novels set in Scotland, plus a great many other books. The public library in the town I lived in as a kid had a lot of his historical novels, and I read twenty or thirty of them. So although I haven’t read everything, and a good many of them have blurred together in my memory, I can probably claim that my impression of his novels is based on a reasonably representative sample.

The typical Nigel Tranter historical novel takes a chunk of Scottish history and dramatises it in narrative form. It may be a historical event or episode, e.g. the Wars of Independence or Bonnie Prince Charlie’s flight after Culloden, or a dramatised biography of a historical figure, e.g. William Wallace or Rob Roy MacGregor, or a combination of both e.g. the Bruce Trilogy is both a biography of Robert Bruce and an account of the Wars of Independence. Sometimes the main character is an important historical player, e.g. Bruce or Wallace, sometimes it is a real figure on the periphery of events, e.g. Thomas Kerr of Ferniehurst who tells the story of Mary Queen of Scots’ personal rule in Scotland in Warden of the Queen’s March. As far as I can tell, the novels stick closely to historical events and weave a story in the gaps where information is missing.

Real life, and therefore real history, doesn’t usually follow a nice neat “story arc” (I think that’s the correct lit-crit term?), and doesn’t always take the most dramatic turn of events. I find many of Nigel Tranter’s novels episodic, rather than following a simple three-act play structure with a character in pursuit of a single goal. I think this is probably a consequence of respect for the underlying history. For example, it would be satisfying for Robert Bruce to defeat his main antagonist (Edward I) in battle to win Scotland’s independence, and it’s less dramatic for Edward I to die of a stroke and Robert Bruce to defeat his successor, Edward II, at Bannockburn. But that’s how the history happened. Another author might have chosen to alter the date of Bannockburn or the date of Edward I’s death in pursuit of a dramatic clash between the main protagonist and the main antagonist. Tranter sticks to the history. I prefer that approach - that’s why, in my view, it’s called historical fiction - but plenty of people disagree. You take your choice. When the underlying history is stirring stuff, as with the Wars of Independence, the actual events are dramatic enough to carry a story, even if it may not be as neat as books of literary theory prescribe. When the underlying history is rambling, as with Bonnie Prince Charlie’s flight after Culloden where he seems to have stumbled from one refuge to another without much of a goal beyond avoiding capture, the associated novel seems to be rambling too.

Tranter is good at capturing political complexity. Taking the Wars of Independence again, plenty of Scottish nobles fought for Edward I and/or against Bruce. Rather than taking a simplistic nation-state view that they were ‘traitors’ or ‘backsliders’, Tranter’s Bruce Trilogy recognises that family loyalties and rivalries were at least as important as nationality (a concept that hardly existed at the time). Similarly, although Robert Bruce is the hero of his trilogy he is not without flaws, and although Edward I is on the opposite side he is not shown as a black-hat villain but as a fully developed character with a mix of good and bad qualities. Expect to find at least two sides to every war, and good people on all of them.

Tranter is also very good on historical detail, especially on minor aspects of everyday life. Expect to learn about the workings of a Highland shieling (summer grazing in the high mountains), the method for waterproofing boots when going duck shooting in a marsh, castle architecture, battle tactics and strategy. Landscapes are accurately and vividly described. I happen to have visited the Pass of Brander, Rannoch Moor, Glen Sligachan on Skye and Glen Trool, and they look much as described in the novels. The plants and wildlife are right too, except for that curious conspiracy of silence about the midge common to most Scottish novels and maintained by Highland tourist boards to this day.

Tranter’s historical novels are stronger on battles and politics than on relationships and romance. There are some convincing romantic relationships, such as Robert Bruce’s marriage to Elizabeth de Burgh, but they are not a key feature. If you enjoy romance and relationships, you’ll do better elsewhere. His prose style is fairly straightforward, though it does tend to be verbose and can veer into the coy. Love scenes in particular can get so purple as to be unreadable for me (they are short, so easily skipped). If you subscribe to the view that the only acceptable dialogue tag is ‘said’, you may have problems as Tranter’s style is to vary the verb wherever possible, so you get ‘mentioned’, ‘observed’, ‘began’, ‘returned’, ‘wondered’, ‘asserted’, ‘objected’, and so on. I like variation, as I find ‘he said/she said’ gets on my nerves, but one can have too much of a good thing and occasionally I feel as if I’ve stumbled into a game of Thesaurus Bingo. Also expect quite long stretches of narrative and backstory, with a fair amount of ‘telling’ not ‘showing’.

In summary, I’d say Nigel Tranter’s historical novels score highly for content, but less so for structure and style. So the ‘best’ for you are likely to be those that deal with a period or a character you’re particularly interested in. A bibliography organised by historical period and character can be found on the Nigel Tranter website*.

The ones that stand out for me are:

  • The Bruce Trilogy, for its recognition of the political complexity of the Wars of Independence, for the delightful character of Jamie Douglas, for the heroic figure of Bruce, for the description of the Hebridean Lordship of the Isles, and for the battle scenes. Easily my favourite of Nigel Tranter's novels.

  • Macbeth the King, because the historical Macbeth is an intriguing historical puzzle and Shakespeare was very unfair to him. And Thorfinn of Orkney is great if you like big bluff hairy Vikings.

  • Margaret the Queen, about St Margaret daughter of Edgar Aetheling and wife of Malcom Canmore (Macbeth’s successor), for the comparison between the ‘Celtic Church’ and Margaret’s Roman Christianity.

  • Wallace, as an antidote to the historical liberties taken in the film Braveheart

Four that stick in my mind as being rambling and meandering, with lots of detail but not much of a story (a bit like Odinn’s Child in that respect) are:
  • Crusader - an affectionate portrait of a high-spirited eight-year-old who becomes King of Scotland, fine if you like winsome children

  • Highness in Hiding - a travelogue of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s wanderings after Culloden, fine if you do a lot of hillwalking and can recognise every mountain pass they limp over and sympathise with every bog they fall into

  • Gold for Prince Charlie - lots of description of Highland shielings and how to keep goats

  • Warden of the Queen's March - the main character, Thomas Kerr, isn't party to the dramatic incidents in Mary Queen of Scots' life (e.g. was she complicit in the murder of Darnley, what was her relationship with Bothwell, etc), and his own life isn't that exciting.

* This is one of those annoying websites where it seems to be impossible to link directly to a specific page, so scroll down to the bottom, click the yellow button labelled ‘Links Page’ and then scroll down and click the flag next to ‘A dated timeline of the historical novels’.

13 October, 2006

October recipe: Spiced apple and walnut cake

The local market was selling wet walnuts the other day, and roadside stalls offering apples to passers-by have grown like mushrooms, as they always do at this season. So this weekend looks like a good time to bake apple and walnut cake, and here is the recipe for anyone else who is similarly inclined. You can substitute other nuts for the walnuts (almonds work well), or dried fruit of your choice, or miss them out altogether. I always make this with cooking apples, because that's what the tree in my garden produces, but it will also work with dessert apples if that's what you've got. (If the apples are sweet enough to eat raw, they're dessert apples). I would reduce the sugar to 5 oz if using dessert apples, or you can leave it as in the original and get a sweeter cake. You can use windfall apples, just cut out any bruises or damaged bits. You can also substitute spices of your choice for the cinnamon and nutmeg. Ground mixed spice works very well. You can use white or wholemeal flour or a mixture - I like half white and half wholemeal.

If you don't have a shallow baking tin, use a loaf tin or a deep round cake tin instead, and allow about 1.5 hours baking time.

Transatlantic note: I believe that plain flour is called 'all-purpose flour' on the American/Canadian side of the Pond, and that ground mixed spice is called apple pie spice. But I may be wrong, so use your own judgement. And I have never understood cups as a measurement, so I'm not even going to try.

Spiced apple and walnut cake

4 oz (approx 120 g) butter
8 oz (approx 250 g) light brown soft sugar (or any sugar type of your choice)
2 eggs
8 oz (approx 250 g) plain flour
1 tsp (5 ml spoon) bicarbonate of soda
1.5 tsp (1.5 x 5 ml spoon) ground cinnamon
1.5 tsp (1.5 x 5 ml spoon) ground nutmeg
1 lb (approx 450 g) cooking apples, weight AFTER peeling, coring and cutting out any bruised or damaged bits
4 oz walnuts (or other nuts of your choice, or dried fruit), chopped

Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
Beat in the eggs.
Fold in the flour, bicarbonate of soda and spices.
Grate or finely chop the apples.
Stir in the apples and nuts, mix well.
Spread the mixture in a greased shallow baking tin, approx. 8" x 12" x 1" deep (approx 20 cm x 30 cm x 2-3 cm deep).
Bake in a moderate oven, approx 170-180 Centigrade, for about 1 hour or until a fine skewer inserted in the cake comes out clean.
Cut into squares while still hot, cool for 10 minutes or so in the tin, then lift the squares out and cool on a wire rack. I usually cut this into 24 squares, but you can make them larger if you prefer. Don't try to get the squares out straight away as the cake is quite crumbly and is inclined to fall apart when very hot.

Can be frozen.

Can also be served hot with yogurt, cream or ice cream as a pudding.

07 October, 2006

In praise of curiosity

Lablit has a fascinating article by Mark Haw on the importance of curiosity in culture. Do click over and read it, even if you think you’re not interested in science. He argues that curiosity about the natural world was celebrated in the Victorian era, and that this was reflected in the fiction of the day. Tertius Lydgate, the doctor and scientist in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, is cited as an example, as is Eliot herself. He then argues that modern society places less value on curiosity than the Victorians did, to the detriment of literature and culture in general.

Is he right that fewer people are curious about the world around them now than was the case in Geroge Eliot’s day? I couldn’t answer that without some comparative data. Certainly there are plenty of people around who seem to have little interest in anything beyond the practical, plus the reverse snobs who acclaim ignorance as a badge of pride. But surely it was ever thus. For every Victorian vicar enthusiastically cataloguing hundreds of species of British moths or every George Eliot observing the workings of her society, there were surely others who thought no further than dinner or a new hat.

Conversely, there are enough people today who are curious about the world for programmes like the BBC’s Autumnwatch and In Our Time to find an audience. Curiosity may not be actively encouraged, and one could comment cynically that it tends to be uncomfortable for vested interests such as politicians (“Oh no! Somebody might question our actions!”) or corporate marketing departments (“Oh no! Somebody might try our competitor’s product instead of blindly buying ours!”), but it still exists. I’m thinking of the retired teacher in the next village, studying stag beetles with all the passion and knowledge of a Victorian naturalist. Of the couple I met in a pub in Cumbria, who happily discussed place names, Viking settlement, mobile phone design, the contrasts between Roman and Old English law, the OJ Simpson case, ancient Irish kin groups and historical mysteries until closing time. Of the American business consultant who was far more interested in the history and geology of the North York Moors than in whatever he was supposed to be trying to sell my boss. And probably you, if you’re reading this blog.

Curiosity, you see, is not confined to any particular field of study. History needs it just as much as science. Nor does it require a vast amount of specialised knowledge, though that often follows on as a consequence. You don’t have to be a professional to be curious, as Mark Haw’s article says. Curiosity about the world and the creatures in it - including people - is one of the joys of life, and is open to everyone.

The article made me think about other characters in fiction, beyond those like Lydgate who are recognisably scientists. I hadn’t thought of it before, but I find characters who are interested in the world around them far more appealing than those who spend much of their time agonising over their own dilemmas or showing off their superior knowledge to the reader or the other characters. For example, I was talking about historical mysteries with a friend the other day, and realised that one reason I like the Brother Cadfael series better than many others is because of Cadfael’s insatiable curiosity. He wants to know why things happen and what makes people tick, and whenever he’s offered an opportunity to go somewhere new or do something different, he jumps at it. Not only does this help to move the plot along, nosiness being a handy characteristic for a detective, it also reassures me that Cadfael is going to be good company for the next 300 pages.

What are you curious about, and do you have a favourite curious character in fiction?