Edward Jenner – The greatest man you might never have heard of

This morning I received my free Flu vaccination and a time when nearly all of us are fortunate enough to receive vaccinations and inoculations for many illnesses from the winter flu upwards it is well worth remembering that there was once a time when people weren’t so lucky.  When there were countless diseases and infections that were every bit as deadly and even more untreatable than Ebola has been until at least very recently.

In Victorian Britain, people were considered lucky to reach their 40th birthday and yet this in itself is a much longer life than was enjoyed in the preceding centuries.

The very fact that you are reading this blog today may well be due to one man, Edward Jenner.  He was born on 17th January 1749 and is widely considered to be the father of immunology.   His work not just in creating a vaccine for smallpox but also on vaccinations generally mean that he has no doubt saved more lives than anyone before or since.

Portrait of Edward Jenner by James Northcote

Portrait of Edward Jenner by James Northcote

Born the son of  a Reverend in the small Gloucester town of Berkeley, Edward Jenner was fortunate to receive a good education.  At the age of 14 he became an apprentice to the surgeon Daniel Ludlow for 7 years which gave him the grounding for his future career.

Working under the auspices of the legendary surgeon, John Hunter, he was part of a small team of men who worked to bring medicine from being something of a best-guess butchery to a modern science.

Science played an important role in every aspect of Edward Jenners life.  He even met his wife during an experience with balloons, his society of friends recently discovering and isolating the first gasses including Hydrogen and Oxgyen, when a balloon filled with gas landed in the grounds of an estate where Catherine Kingscote lived.

Though there was an inoculation method against Smallpox that had long been used by the Ottomans in Istanbul, 20% of those died and 60% of those inoculated went on to endure full blown Smallpox which was a terrible disease that killed many and left survivors disfigured in a way unimaginable to us today.

Far from today when celebrities are ditching milk and dairy products in the belief that it helps their skin, back in the 18th century it was a well known belief that milk-maids generally had much better health than the general population.  Their skin was healthy and attractive to look at and more importantly they never seemed to contract Smallpox.

Milkmaids did however suffer from Cowpox, a disease transmitted from cows and with similar but infinitely milder symptoms than Smallpox.  In fact when a town or village suffered from a deadly Smallpox outbreak, it was a pretty safe bet that milkmaids would not be affected at all.

Edward Jenner postulated that the pus that was inside the blisters of cowpox somehow offered the milkmaids a natural protection against the disease and putting into practice the medical saying of the time “don’t think, try”, he wanted to prove it.

On 14th May 1796 scraped the pus from the blister of a milkmaid named Sarah Nelmes who contracted Cowpox from her cow, Blossom.  Jenner then proceeded to infect James Phipps, the 8 year old son of his garden with the Cowpox puss.  The young boy became somewhat ill from a fever but did not develop the disease itself.  Then Edward Jenner injected the boy with Smallpox not just on one occasion but twice.  Little James Phipps did not fall ill with Smallpox and was totally unharmed and he had also become the first person in the world to be successfully treated with a safe inoculation.

Jenner’s unique contribution was not that he inoculated a few persons with cowpox, but that he then proved  that they were immune to smallpox. Moreover, he demonstrated that the protective cowpox pus could be effectively inoculated from person to person, not just directly from cattle.Jenner successfully tested his hypothesis on 23 additional subjects.


Contemporary image illustrating the first recipients of the vaccine wondering whether they will take on cow like characteristics.

Jenner continued his research and reported it to the Royal Society, which did not publish the initial paper. After revisions and further investigations, he published his findings on the 23 cases. Some of his conclusions were correct, some erroneous. The medical establishment, cautious then as now, deliberated at length over his findings before accepting them. Eventually, vaccination was accepted, and in 1840, the British government banned variolation – the use of smallpox to induce immunity – and provided vaccination using cowpox free of charge. The success of his discovery soon spread around Europe and and the world. Jenner himself wrote, “I don’t imagine the annals of history furnish an example of philanthropy so noble, so extensive as this.”

Such was the importance of Jenner’s work that he was unable to take up paid work at his medical practice and so the King and Parliament agreed to fund his work with donations of first £10,000 and then £20,000.

In January 1823, Edward Jenner was discovered partially paralysed after apparently suffering a stroke and he died just days afterwards at the age of 73.

Memorial to Edward Jenner in Gloucester Cathedral.  Photo by Andrew Rabbott.

Memorial to Edward Jenner in Gloucester Cathedral. Photo by Andrew Rabbott.

His legacy to medicine and the world at large is unquantifiable and in 1979 the World Health Organisation formally declared that Smallpox had been eradicated.  Jenner’s work has gone on to the basis of modern immunology that the vast majority of the world now receive shortly after birth.

Though many do not know anything of Edward Jenner, it is likely that in some-way most of us owe our existence to him in some way.  He is commemorated across southern England in understated ways with statues, hospital wards and colleges bearing his name. His former home now a small museum whilst a number of small villages in Pennsylvania are named after the great man as well as a crater on the moon. The hide of Blossom the cow is mounted on the walls of St George’s Medical School Library in Tooting.

Since I wrote this post earlier this week, I have started watching the TV show The Walking Dead which for 2 episodes in season 1 feature a man working in a laboratory trying to find a cure for the disease.  His name was Edwin Jenner.

In 2002 Edward Jenner was named number 78 on the list of Greatest Britons poll.

Memorial to Edward Jenner in Kensington Gardens.  Photo  by Iridescent

Memorial to Edward Jenner in Kensington Gardens. Photo by Iridescent

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

An unapologetic guide to saying Sorry

When was the last time you said Sorry to someone?  It’s not something that any of us like to do and it is something that many of us don’t do.  Often it is the people who should say Sorry the most that do so the least.

Saying sorry implies that you did something wrong and doing something wrong is just a few steps away from being a bad person.  Few of us actively want to be wrong, we try to look out for people and take into considerations others when deciding upon our own course of action.  We might perform charitable works, give up our seat for the elderly.  We may even vote for political parties that may penalise us but we don’t mind because we know that actually other people are less fortunate than ourselves.  Then we go and mess things up by doing something wrong or bad even if accidentally or on the spur of the moment and it impacts on others.

Sometimes not saying sorry when it is appropriate can be a bigger problem than the original even that caused the situation in the first place.

Personally I say sorry all the time but not necessarily for things many people do.  Being one of those old fashioned English type people, I apologise to others for incidents that are not my fault at all for example someone standing on my foot on the train or even if someone gets wet in the rain or bangs their foot on a table leg.  I’m just sorry for whatever it was that has happened whether I caused it or didn’t.

I don’t tend to say sorry for many things I do.  To a large extent this is probably because I put a great deal of effort into not doing anything bad in the first place.  I’m not one to do something just to make a point or to put myself first above others.  Life would be easier sometimes if I did but 9 times out of 10 if there is a course of action that would be entirely justifiable to take and that most others would, I won’t just on the off-chance it upsets someone.

In fact my wife and I who have now been married 7 years have never had a real argument.  Those times we do get slightly unhappy are usually caused by people who act entirely thoughtlessly towards one or both of us especially when we put a lot of thought or energy in how we treat others.  What disagreements we do have can often come from the fact that we both put the other first to such a degree that we assume we shouldn’t do something for ourselves or make ourselves happy in our own way.

As big as I am at saying sorry for things that aren’t my fault or not doing things in case it might make people unhappy, on the few times I do something because I want to put myself first and it does upset someone else, well then I don’t really apologise for it.  If I did a course of action then I really wanted to do it and I am really not sorry for that even if it makes someone on that instance think I am selfish or horrid in some-way.

I don’t think I have any enemies, I don’t think I have ever been deliberately bad to anyone.  I’m always told how everyone loves me or that I am the nicest or sweetest person they know.  I’m sure there may be one or two who think differently in the old world of work but they were largely horrid, selfish or bullying people to begin with and though I wouldn’t be horrible to them, I would just refuse to buy in to their self-proclaimed awesome personality and make no effort whatsoever to be anything but workmanlike with them.

However there are times in life where you just have to say sorry.  If you don’t then it takes a way a little something about you.  If you don’t care about this then you’re probably the sort of person who doesn’t take others into consideration in the first place.

Firstly, don’t try putting yourself into someone else’s shoes.   Don’t think that because an event wouldn’t upset you that it wouldn’t upset them.   You might have some idea of what someone else thinks but you can never really be sure.

If you are sorry for something then just come out and say so.  Don’t beat about the bush and do it half-heartedly by saying I’m sorry you feel that way or that you’re sorry if someone took something the wrong way.  A real apology consists of you admitting that you did something and it made something happen and that you are sorry you did that thing and that that something happened.

If you can’t admit that you were the cause of the unhappiness or offence then think it through more and if you still can’t see the issues then maybe you have to decide that either you did nothing wrong or that you don’t care that you did.  Maybe even say just that.

If you are genuinely sorry then work towards remedying the offending situation and even better make sure that it doesn’t happen again but don’t expect the injured party to help you if you’re the sole person who screwed up.

Never ever start you apology with a “I’m sorry but”.  There are not ifs buts or maybe in an apology and these terms make it an argument or opinion but not an apology.   If you are really sorry then your opinions or extenuating circumstances are not important at this time.  What is important is what you did wrong and the feelings of those you’ve bruised.  It doesn’t matter if the other person did something wrong too, they can apologise for themselves after you’ve finished or at a later date and if they don’t then it doesn’t mean you can retract a real apology.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that just because you apologise, it doesn’t mean that the other person has to accept it.  They might not want anything more to do with you whether they accept your apology or not.  They can have nothing more to do with you either way and that is perfectly legitimate for them.  You don’t just apologise to someone else to make them feel better but because it is the right thing to do for you and if you have wronged or alienated someone and apologised or tried to apologise to them and they want nothing more to do with you then you can’t hold that against them as it was you who changed the natural foundations on which your shared relationship was based and we all know what it is like when things happen to us.  Sometimes you can get over it, others you decide to move on without them.

I hope you enjoyed reading this, I really do but if not then I am genuinely sorry.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Dick Turpin Highwayman – Stand and Deliver

For millennia, travelling by land across the British Isles was a dangerous and slow business.  Most people when they could travelled by boat on rivers and along the sea-coast and later by canals.

Travelling by land was a slow and arduous thing to do at the best of times.  After the Romans, the roads largely fell into disrepair and stayed that way until the turnpikes moved us towards modernity.  To make it worse, much of the land was forested with wolves and bears lurking in the darkness.  Isolated and impoverished hill-billy villagers from time to time did travellers in and then there were the highway men.

Stand and deliver your money or your life.

Stand and deliver your money or your life.

Highwaymen were really the closest we got to the wild-west cowboys but they were far to close to comfort for those who lived in those times.  They rode horses, often worked in pairs or gangs and held up travellers and stagecoaches imploring their victims to

Stand and deliver, your money or your life.

Depending on the morals of the highway men, handing over money, valuables or even women might be enough to save ones life but it was no guarantee.  If one refused to hand over their belongings or made a wrong move then they would be shot. This was particularly the case once a highway man had been identified as robbery by force was a Capital Offence and as such the highwayman had little reason to leave any witnesses.

Strangely, despite their despicable actions, highwaymen even at the time were thought to be socially superior than common thieves and brigands.  They were romanticised by many in a way similar to Robin Hood and were euphemistically referred to as Knights of the road or Gentlemen of the road.

A fellow of a good Name, but poor Condition, and worse Quality, was Convicted for laying an Embargo on a man whom he met on the Road, by bidding him Stand and Deliver, but to little purpose; for the Traveller had no more Money than a Capuchin, but told him, all the treasure he had was a pound of Tobacco, which he civilly surrendered.

The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 25 April 1677

Highwaymen would often work on the roads that radiated from London and other major cities.  They would wait in ambush in the woods and heath-lands waiting for a tempting and poorly defended target.  Even modern day places of leisure such as Hyde Park was preyed on by Highwaymen in the 17th century and the short road between some of the Royal Palaces was the first road in the country to be lit by lamps during periods of nightfall.

Though many were armed with daggers and swords, most also sported muskets rather like my one below.  They could only fire one shot at a time and weren’t always accurate and so many highwaymen would have 2 muskets loaded and ready for action.

Early 18th century musket

Early 18th century British musket. Dick Turpin would have had two earlier varieties.

One of the most infamous highwaymen was Dick Turpin.  Dick Turpin was a deer thief, poacher, burglar, horse-thief, highwayman and murderer.  On his horse, Black Bess, he terrorised travellers on the 200 mile long route between London and York.

Dick Turpin and Black Bess

Dick Turpin and Black Bess

Born in 1705, he moved from York to the county of Essex as a young man where he became involved in the deer thievery trade and began working with the Essex Gang.  So many deers were taken that this minor domestic crime grew in importance and much effort was placed on breaking up the trade in the area leading to many gang members being caught or fleeing.

As such the few remaining members started raiding and robbing wealthy households of a certain social standing and in 1734/35 they carried out countless such raids.

On Saturday night last, about seven o’clock, five rogues entered the house of the Widow Shelley at Loughton in Essex, having pistols &c. and threatened to murder the old lady, if she would not tell them where her money lay, which she obstinately refusing for some time, they threatened to lay her across the fire, if she did not instantly tell them, which she would not do. But her son being in the room, and threatened to be murdered, cried out, he would tell them, if they would not murder his mother, and did, whereupon they went upstairs, and took near £100, a silver tankard, and other plate, and all manner of household goods. They afterwards went into the cellar and drank several bottles of ale and wine, and broiled some meat, ate the relicts of a fillet of veal &c. While they were doing this, two of their gang went to Mr Turkles, a farmer’s, who rents one end of the widow’s house, and robbed him of above £20 and then they all went off, taking two of the farmer’s horses, to carry off their luggage, the horses were found on Sunday the following morning in Old Street, and stayed about three hours in the house.

—Report from Read’s Weekly Journal (8 February 1735)

Soon things began to spiral out of control, the gang became more violent and their notoriety spread throughout the land.  When one of their number, a young lad of about 15 years of age, was caught, he quickly confessed and gave the authorities all they needed to know about the gang and Dick Turpin in particular who was described in the London Gazette  as “Richard Turpin, a butcher by trade, is a tall fresh coloured man, very much marked with the small pox, about 26 years of age, about five feet nine inches high, lived some time ago in Whitechapel and did lately lodge somewhere about Millbank, Westminster, wears a blue grey coat and a natural wig”.

The robberies continued as the gang hid in the impenetrable Epping Forest but four of their number were captured when drinking in London and they were hanged at the famous Tyburn gallows with their bodies being hung out to rot in gibbets along Edgware Road.  Dick Turpin evaded capture but he was now very much a wanted man.

Another string of robberies saw the remaining gang members injured, arrested and executed leaving Turpin to find a new profession, that of a highwayman. With a bounty of £100 on his head, Dick Turpin started his highway robberies in April 1735 in Epping Forest and through the summer attacked travellers on Hounslow Heath, a coach load of five people on Barnes Common before moving off to attack those in the county of Hertfordshire and then 70 miles south west towards Winchester.

It is thought that Turpin spent 1736 in the Netherlands continuing his highwayman career before returning to the Cambridge area in 1737 where he and two accomplishes held up a number of coaches and made many robberies until one got out of control leading to one of Turpin’s partners in crime being fatally shot.  Dick Turpin fled to his hideout in Epping Forest where he was discovered by Thomas Morris,a servant of one of the Forest keepers.   Morris attempted to capture the highway but was shot.

Dick Turpin shooting Morris in Epping Forest.

Dick Turpin shooting Morris in Epping Forest.

The London area was now too hot for Turpin who fled north through Lincolnshire and towards Yorkshire where though he tried to fit in under the assumed name of John Palmer with an identity of horse-trader and gentleman hunter.  His natural violent tendencies meant he kept coming to attention.  He once killed a cockerel in the street and when his owner complained in public, Turpin threatened to shoot him as well.

It was thought that John Palmer may have gained his wealth from criminal endeavours but when he was arrested for this minor crime and taken to jail, no-one suspected that they had the most wanted man in England.  This was all to change by an incredible and for Turpin and terribly unfortunate co-incidence.

From his cell, Turpin wrote a letter to his brother-in-law, Pompr Rivernall in Hempstead.  His brother-in-law though didn’t think he knew anyone from York and didn’t want to risk paying the postage for the 18th century equivalent of spam and so the letter was taken to the local post office.  Here James Smith a former school master who worked at the post office recognised the handwriting as being one of his former pupils, Dick Turpin.  Smith travelled up to York and identified John Palmer as Dick Turpin and collected the £200 reward (about £28,000 or $50,000 in today’s money).

At the time, theft and property crime was very serious. In fact many still believe that property crime is punished more seriously in the U.K. than murder.  There were over 200 theft and property offences punishable by death.  As Turpin had robbed some of the most important people in the kingdom and committed murder too, his conviction was almost an open and closed case.

It was not helpful that Turpin continually claimed his supposed witnesses and character references never turned and his request for more time and for the trial to be moved to Essex was turned down.  He was found guilty by the jury.

Before sentencing him, the judge asked Turpin if he could offer any reason why he should not be sentenced to death; Turpin said: “It is very hard upon me, my Lord, because I was not prepar’d for my Defence.” The judge replied: “Why was you not? You knew the Time of the Assizes as well as any Person here.” Despite Turpin’s pleas that he had been told the trial would be held in Essex, the judge replied: “Whoever told you so were highly to blame; and as your country have found you guilty of a crime worthy of death, it is my office to pronounce sentence against you”, sentencing him to death.

Before his execution, Turpin was visited my a long line of people, so many came over the coming days that the jailer made £100 selling them drinks.  The day before his death, Turpin bought new shoes and a coat as well as hiring 3 mourners for 3 pounds and 10 shillings.

Dick Turpin Trial

Dick Turpin Trial

On 7th April 1739, Dick Turpin and another unrelated criminal were taken by cart through York.  Turpin behaved impeccably and bowed to the assembled crowd.  An account in The Gentleman’s Magazine for 7 April 1739 notes Turpin’s brashness: “Turpin behaved in an undaunted manner; as he mounted the ladder, feeling his right leg tremble, he spoke a few words to the topsman, then threw himself off, and expir’d in five minutes.”

Grave of Dick Turpin

Grave of Dick Turpin

Turpin was left hanging all afternoon when he was cut down and buried the next morning at St. George’s church but within a few days, his body had been taken by grave robbers, mostly likely to sell his body for medical research.  The perpetrators were quickly found and he was reburied inside a quick lime tomb.

Since then, Dick Turpin has been immortalised by Victorian novelists, TV series and movies and in 1981 Adam and the Ants achieved global fame with the first of their historically themed records “Stand and Deliver” which was the number 1 hit in the UK for 5 weeks.  Dick Turpin was a dastardly criminal who much like figures such as Robin Hood before him and Billy the Kid afterwards has long since become a folk-hero.

Stand and Deliver

Stand and Deliver – What would Turpin make of this?

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Apple or Microsoft – The big dilemma

All these years of blogging I have been working on a 10 year old + PC, sometimes a first generation iPod and in the last year just occasionally an iPad Air.

Writing out a long blog on an iPod is quite a labour of love.  The tiny keyboard makes writing out a blog of several hundred or thousand words quite a task, let alone inserting photos and positioning everything just right.  However, in many way the old iPod is much better to use than my old PC.

My PC crashes perhaps 5 or 6 times a day but freezes at least a dozen times and many of the freezes stay frozen for a good minute or two until I give the computer a big fat reset.  It’s not much fun to use, much fun being my understated English way of saying what a total pain it is.

I’ve never been a fan of Microsoft PCs, primarily because I’ve never used one which has been so user-friendly, stable or just competent as my old Commodore Amiga computers of the 1980’s and 90’s which had me doing video effects, multitasking and modern every day computer tasks when most of the world were using typewriters or worse DOS PC’s.  All without sound card conflicts, video cards and complicated internet connections.

Amiga 1200 Workbench

Amiga 1200 Workbench

Sadly Amiga computers aren’t around any-more in a meaningful way and the closest to them have always been those from Apple.  Having now had an iPod and then an iPad for about 3 years now, I must say I love them.  They never crash, they work first time, all the time and they do just whatever I want them to do and I never have to worry about any of them.  Yes they are expensive but they also work and I’m the type of person that doesn’t have a lot of things but those I do are well made, last a lot longer and cost a bit more.  I’d rather pay extra for a real butchers sausage of beef or pork than a supermarket one that may contain horse.

Having said that, I’m really not into gadgets in a big way.  I always think it is funny when people obsess about not having their mobile phones with them or pay through the nose for a modern solution to an old-fashioned problem that doesn’t really exist.

My mobile phone is almost a relic of the 20th century.  It makes and receives calls, does the same with text messages if they are short and don’t contain and pictures and that’s about it.  It also holds its battery charge for about 2 months which means I know not the problems of having a phone connected to the plug every evening in fact if anything my problem is locating the phone charger which over a few months can get misplaced.

A non-smartphone

My non-smartphone

Unlike my PC, my mobile phone works perfectly and does more than anything I could want of it.  I’ve never understood why anyone would want to go on the internet when travelling or watch a TV or movie on a screen about the size of a post-it note.  I’ll just wait and do it properly on that big 50″ screen when I get home.  I’ll only get rid of my phone when it stops working or push button keyboards are outlawed in a way they are moving away from analogue tv and radio.  I admit it does get funny when people from Zimbabwe or Uzbekistan don’t quite get why someone in London doesn’t have a smart phone. My only answer and one I’d never give is why would you spend 2 months salary on a phone?  Though I know of course many places don’t have the luxury of big screen tv’s and unlimited broadband at home, the argument at least does hold for the poorest in the U.K., the oldest or indeed anyone who isn’t likely to use get real value from the monthly tariffs from phoning their friend and checking the weather forecast online whilst sat in their car looking out of the window.

So I’m thinking of getting a new computer.  It seems like the right thing to do seeing as I spend so much time writing on it.  It seems that most creative people go with Apple and I can see myself doing the same.  I know Windows based PCs are more popular and you get a lot more software for them both good and of the virus variety.  Apples are much harder to upgrade and aren’t very good for games but they are also more stable and generally less annoying once you get past the price-tag.

I don’t play computer games or watch videos of cute dogs skateboarding on You-tube.  In fact though my PC does have a very good sound-card, well at least for 2004, I don’t have any sound at all as I never bothered plugging in the speakers.  Does it bother me?  Not really.  My browser also doesn’t have any JavaScript or adobe flashes or any other major processor killing, joy sucking add-on so yes my web pages are kind of boring but I never have adverts or annoying advertising jingles.  I get on using my PC for what I do, write and read.



It shouldn’t be much of a problem copying my data over as really I don’t have much except a few holiday photos and writing assignments and stories in various stages of completion.  I’ve read that a big screen iMac can make the average user 20% more productive than average so any time lost will be quickly made up.  Anyway, the decision has already been made for me as Windows XP is no longer supported and one of the few pop banners I can’t avoid are the various software ones telling me to upgrade.  Upgrading Windows on my era of PC which is largely powered by a running hamster in a wheel means buying a new PC anyway and nothing in the last 20 years of using Windows has convinced me that any of it is any good or fun to use.

That takes me to the last question; a Macbook or a iMac.  Ideally I’d like both but that isn’t going to happen.  I have never really liked laptops. Possibly it is because I like to differentiate my work and life and always have done.  I don’t like sitting with a laptop on my knees on the sofa, half watching TV and half not doing what I’m meant to be doing instead.  I like a dedicated desk, preferably in a quiet room where I can get on and do things properly and quickly and then come back and rejoin the real world quicker than I might have done if was half-heartedly on the laptop.

Besides, 10 months on and I still love my iPad.  I wouldn’t have got one myself but in the preceding year having lost my mother and my job and seeing as no-one else in the family seemingly noticed it would be my 40th birthday and indeed 40th Christmas, my lovely wife decided my near 4 year wait meant I should be treated in a big way that I’m sure my mother would have approved.

iPad Air

Hello you

Where I go, so does the iPad.  In the kitchen, on the sofa, in the garden even the bathroom.  To me it more than fulfils the purpose of a laptop or a flashy smart phone except I don’t wait for it to boot up and have little pretence of doing any work on it… I still don’t watch videos on it though!

So it seems the choice has been made for me then, an iMac it is but the 21″ or 27″ screen.  Which ever, I’m sure it will be a lot better than what I have now or indeed have had ever since my trusty Amiga was shown the back-door.  However, when I will get it, I don’t know.  My PC is on its last legs but then it was last year and 2 or 3 years before that.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

The death of the Aral Sea

Once the fourth largest inland body of water in the world and half the size of England has over the last few decades almost totally disappeared. The Aral Sea sits in the middle of the Kyzylkum Desert fed by the two rivers, the Syr Darya and Amu Darya.  It wasn’t really a sea but a huge lake that these huge rivers flowed into but as it was in a large depression, the water could never flow out to the real sea and instead kept a steady level due to the evaporation from the sun.

Map of the Aral Sea area

Map of the Aral Sea area

After WW2, the Soviet Union came up with the idea of becoming self-sufficient in almost every regard and different parts of the huge country were forced to specialise in certain industries no matter what people had worked as before.  Soviet planners decided that Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan would be great agricultural areas and particularly good for cotton if only they weren’t so dry and arid.  Never fear though for they decided to divert the rivers  and they used the snowmelt waters from the distant Tien Shan mountains to irrigate the dry deserts.  Cotton production soared but as the Aral Sea was no longer receiving much water, it began to become more shallow.

As a result the sea became ever more salty and by 1977, the fishing industry had collapsed by 75% and by the next decade had disappeared entirely.   As the sea shrank, the until now relatively benign climate considering its desert location became much harsher as the cool waters no longer moderated the climate.  The weather became hotter and more extreme in the summer and much colder in the winter. Cotton production became nearly impossible.  The Sea shrank further and the contaminated exposed salty seabed soils and salts were blown across the region, poisoning the nearby land.

Disappearing Aral Sea

The disappearing Aral Sea – note that the first photo is after the sea started shrinking.

The once great lake split in two in the 1990’s and by the year 2000 split into 4 but still the waters receded until there were barely any waters left.  In a last-ditch effort to save some of the lake, Kazakhstan built a dam between the northern and southern parts of the Aral Sea.   It was completed in 2005 and meant that all the water from the Syr Darya was now kept within the northern portion of the Aral Sea.  However the dam was basically a death sentence for the southern Aral Sea, which was judged to be beyond saving and it has now almost vanished. Fishing communities now lie helpless, miles from any sea water whilst in the smaller north Aral Sea, the lake is re-establishing itself with the salinity of the water decreasing and fishing once again becoming viable.

Aral harbour

Abandoned ships at a former Aral Sea Port.

The health of the local people has suffered with high rates of cancer and respiratory diseases no doubt caused by the polluted soils and airborne salty soils.  The government of Uzbekistan sees no need in doing anything to reverse or even mitigate the problems of the vast wastelands of the southern Aral Sea and as if pollution there isn’t bad enough is looking at drilling for oil there.

At least in the Soviet era, the problem could be managed or rather ignored and hidden away by one central government.  Now though the Aral Sea is a problem for multiple nations and only one of which shows any intent to solve the problem which has seen the sea reduce to around 10% of its former size.

60 miles from the coast lies this large rusting ship.

60 miles from the coast lies this large rusting ship.

Evidence shows that a certain level of recovery would be possible for example in Iraq, Saddam Hussein drained the marshes in a deliberate attempt to ruin the habitat and culture of the marsh Arabs.  It was something he was largely successful in achieving but many years of hard-work have reversed the worst effects of his policy.

However for the same to happen in the Aral Sea, the amount of water diverted from the primary inflows would have to reduce by 92% whilst the governments of central Asia have plans to use even more water.  Kazakhstan has plans to build a new dam and enlarge the northern portion of the sea but it would still be a fraction of the original size.

As such the fate of the Aral Sea looks to be a bleak one and makes for a useful warning of what can happen when people take too many liberties with the environment.  Not only can the natural resources be ruined and wasted but mother nature can quickly take away any short-term advantages and in fact create serious problems much worse than were present in the first place.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

The Angel of Mons

Whilst writing and researching my WW1 history book, Lest We Forget, I came across a number of semi-mythical events and accounts that went from the completely unbelievable to those that actually occurred despite being hugely unlikely.   There is the grim tale of the Crucified Soldier which went from being common knowledge in WW1 to increasingly a work of wartime propaganda until 21st century investigations and a stroke of luck meant that in all likelihood this awful event did occur.

There was another interesting story of how a young soldier was woken in the night and urged to leave his position as he was told he was in great danger.  The young man was confused and reluctant to move but as it was his brother helping him with his kit and rife he agreed.  They scurried a short distance until the exhausted soldiers’ brother told him to stop and rest.  As the soldier sorted himself out he turned to speak to his brother who had been there just seconds earlier only to find out that he had vanished.   Later that night, the former position of the young British soldier was hit by a direct enemy artillery shell, killing his comrades.  The twist in the tale is of course that the brother of this soldier had already been killed some weeks earlier.

The Angel of Mons is the biggest supernatural event of WW1 and possibly the last such occurrence, at least in the western world.  Some military actions are still enacted in the name of God.  Suicide bombers kill innocents in the name of God, the President of America always manages to bless his country on ever television broadcast whilst in Great Britain much less often, it is proclaimed God Save The Queen though interestingly not the country or the people.

Being a Protestant nation, England and then Britain was not so much in the habit of seeing appearances of Angels, the Virgin Mary or anyone else and in fact this was a side of the national consciousness that separated us from the Catholic nations who were at war with throughout the centuries.

The Battle of Mons took place on 22-23rd August 1914 and was the first major British engagement of the war.  Incredibly  a British force of 70,000 managed to hold off the overwhelmingly superior German force of 240,0000 until they were almost entirely surrounded.   Then, without adequate, food, water or military supplies they retreated and escaped where they had no right to expect even to keep their lives, let alone come through unscathed.


The last gun in action of L Battery, RHA, Néry, 1st September 1914. Impression of actual photo, the last gun fired until it ran out of ammunition. Note the empty shells, dead men and horses.

It was an incredible military feat that very quickly became ascribed being down to Angels and the view that God would protect Britain and save the righteous from defeat.

The fact is the army did escape and many in the modern-day would obviously look at the facts.  The men had fought a huge battle against the odds before escaping on foot, marching 5 days and 5 nights without food, drink or rest and so obviously any Angels present must have been only through hallucinations or cloud formations.

Many believe the Angel of Mons was inspired by the published book “The Bowmen” where British forces were assisted by St. George and a force of supernatural medieval bowmen.

Angel of Mons

A symbolic painting of a fighting Tommy reloading his rifle over his injured friend as Angels keep the enemy at bay.

Nevertheless, reports of divine intervention spread like wildfire.  Numerous men and officers swore on record that Angels appeared and protected them, sceptics might claim this was part of a government campaign to re-assure the people back home that we were fighting on the side of good.

However, the weather that day was hot and sunny at Mons and correspondence from front-line soldiers mentioned that their army was protected by Angels long before The Bowmen book was published.  One soldier who had previously been a hard drinking individual saw the angels and never drank again and became a pillar of his community after the war.

There are even records of German soldiers also witnessing the Angels giving their enemy protection and inspiration to escape.

Whatever side of the fence you take, the one thing most people can agree on is that something strange and hugely unlikely occurred that afternoon and it is a good thing too as the gallant effort at Mons combined with another a few weeks later at Marne fought the unstoppable men of the Kaiser to a standstill and bought time to save Paris permanently otherwise the war would likely have been over in weeks.

Whether the 3 Angels actually did appear is now almost irrelevant, the people who were there believed something happened and so did the entire country at a time when the nation needed more than ever in something to believe in.  Given that, the Angel of Mons is as definite a historic event as any other.

If you’d like to know more about the Angel of Mons, the Crucified Allied Soldier or anything else about WW1 why not follow my shameless promotional links for my book Lest We Forget: A Concise Companion to the First World war available on Kindle and in Paperback at Amazons worldwide and from all good bookshops.

Lest We Forget

My easy to understand but comprehensive history of WW1 in Kindle and Paperback.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The mixed blessing of reviews

Are you the sort of person who likes to know the truth of what someone thinks of you?  Most people do, some people don’t.  I’m firmly in the latter and would entirely rather not know anyone, at any time, anywhere thinks of me unless it is 100% positive.

I know it is said that it is better to know what people think of you but really, I’d rather not know at all.  Similarly, I’d never tell anyone what I thought of them whether I like them or despise them and if I do very rarely give an opinion then I must really love them.

It can be hard living this way in the 21st century, we’re always told that everyone has a right to have an opinion on everything and that they should voice it.  I’m not sure it’s such a good thing myself.  For example on television when something really important is happening, I’m not too bothered on the opinion of the average person, especially those who think they know it all.  I’d much rather listen to the expert in their field with decades of experience and years of study rather than some chap stopped on the street coming out of McDonald’s.  I’ve already got either my own better informed opinion and if I don’t then I’d rather someone who knew better than myself was giving their advice or opinion.

Normally almost everything I do is based on the assumption that I am going to enjoy it.  It does mean I might miss out on some experiences or people but it also means I tend to really enjoy the people I meet or the places I go.  In that regards I’ve always been a bit of a Black or White sort of person.  I make instant judgements on people and places and am often mystified as to why others later complain that they were let down by such and such or surprised that someone or something turned out so bad.  Some people might think this is a bit of a bad attitude but I don’t ever remember taking a liking to someone either a friend, colleague or acquaintance and then ending up disliking them.  On the other hand, I wouldn’t be nasty to someone I didn’t like, I’d just ignore them and keep out of their way.

I act the same sort of way about leaving reviews.  I’ve never given anything a bad review.  Who knows the real reason why a product, restaurant or hotel turned out so bad on that one day you had reason to use it?  Maybe the hotel got robbed the night before, perhaps the waiter’s best friend got run over by a car last week and is entitled to be grumpy on a personal level if not professionally.   I’m certainly not going to publicly badmouth someone for that.

That’s not to say I don’t complain, well actually I don’t really but have done once or twice at the sort of things most people would already have killed someone for… and all of their living descendants.  If I don’t like something, I just don’t go there again.  I don’t buy their product any more.  Complaining can be more constructive than giving a bad review.

With that in mind, it can be a little unnerving being in my position as virtually my entire life is up for review on-line.  With Airbnb, our home is open to paying guests who obviously want to have a good time and have some sort of value for money.  The whole system is based upon hosts reviewing guests and guests reviewing hosts.  We’ve now had over 100 people stay with us, some for months on end.  Happily, we have over 65 Five Star reviews, well actually only 5 star reviews. I guess people either love us or are polite enough to not mention it if they don’t like us… actually a certain percentage of people don’t leave reviews at all which isn’t so nice when we give them good reviews.

When I started my Ye Olde England Tours, I was very anxious that if I were to get reviews they would be good ones.  Almost everyone these days consults with TripAdvisor or similar sites. I know I sometimes use them, not so much to check out bad places but to make sure the ones I am visiting are good ones.   There is one bad hotel I still enjoy reading the reviews of, The Step Hotel in Prague.  By far the worst place I have ever stayed in, surrounded by dozens of train lines, busy traffic, surly staff, broken rooms, awful food and alcoholics going to the toilet just yards from the entrance. Best summarised by the question “Who would you recommend this hotel for?  Insomniacs and train-spotters”.

Trip Advisor 5 star rated

Trip Advisor 5 star rated and recommended!

Every time I got a review I would be genuinely surprised, delighted and just a bit relieved.  After all with a whole world of tour companies to choose from, why would anyone chose mine with no reviews let alone with bad reviews.  Happily I now have about 13 Five Star reviews on Trip Advisor and several others elsewhere.

I genuinely love receiving good reviews.  Someone has taken the time to give me a recommendation days or weeks after they last saw me.  I’d liken a positive review as to a tip for a waiter.  Of course, I like tips too after my tours if guests are so minded but a review is non-monetary and so in some ways seem more genuine and meaningful.  I’ve also been told in person that I’ve made dreams come true and given people not just the best day of their holiday but the best day of their life.  To me, that makes much more sense telling someone that, rather than a simple ‘You suck’.

The other part of my life that is open to reviews are my books.  I have plenty of 5 star reviews that I treasure and I have some 3 and 4 star reviews which suit me just fine.  I don’t expect everyone to like everything and it’s not a personal insult if someone has a different opinion than myself or anyone else and it’s not a personal judgement on myself.  The fact I wouldn’t leave a review for anything less than 5 stars, if it wasn’t brilliant then I’m not highly motivated to tell anyone, doesn’t mean I judge them.  Probably, as is the case with myself, there are plenty of people who love things and never leave a review for anything.

Of course the thing about reviews is that not everyone is fair.  Some have bizarre personal viewpoints, particularly bad experiences or maybe just are written by horrid or even vindictive people.  I recently suffered from that, someone recently gave my WW1 history book a 2 star rating and gave it a scathing review.  At first sight, this could have been horrifying to me.  Why would anyone do that?   Who were they?

I thought to myself how typical it was, that my book must have been read by a leading academic at Oxford or Harvard but know.  I can find only one person with that name and they seem to be a very ordinary individual indeed.

Then I read their review through a few times and realised that almost everything in their review was simply wrong.  They even highlighted a spelling mistake for a military word which can be spelt in more than one way which obviously the reviewer was totally unaware of and spent a great deal of effort generally trashing by writing style.

Beware all those who publish here.

Beware all those who publish here.

Fair enough thought I, I’d been reviewed by the last living Victorian English professor but if you do leave a review and write something that isn’t just opinion but claiming to be factual like a spelling, then surely you should at the very least get your facts straight.  Interestingly given her overwhelmingly hostile nature, she didn’t find fault with any of the actual history, quite an achievement when dealing with something as large and complex as WW1.

Just when I put it behind me, a week or two later this same person left an even more vindictive review on a foreign Amazon site.  Who would do that? How much must you hate someone to try and sabotage their income and livelihood?  Why would you take the time to register for a foreign website just for the purpose of a character assassination and further incorrect opinions dressed up as facts?  Especially if they got the book on one of the Publishers Freebie-Kindle days as I am 99% sure they did.

My only guess is that they are a writer less down the path of publishing success than myself or possibly a fellow WW1 historian doing their best to get rid of new competition or just plain jealous.  Either way it seems this person has gone out of their way to unpleasant and deliberately misleading but that is always the risk if something you do is in the public eye.

It isn’t just the subject that at risk of judgement from the review.  If the majority of reviews are negative then perhaps they have a point but such a negative as this one risks turning the tables on the reviewer.  The reviewer can easily appear an idiot or their review can be seen for the over the top lies that this one seems to be.  Many websites now allow for the rating of the review when over the time the writer of the bad review becomes noted as the sad person they really are.

Lots of people do pay attention to reviews, most writers know that the more reviews they get, the more sales are produced.  That’s certainly the way with my tours though by far my best-selling book only has 1 review which I guess means it does the job as well as it could for 99 pence.

I could ask for Amazon to remove the offending review as it certainly merits that under their policy and it may indeed effect a small proportion of sales.  If I were particularly bored or insecure I could comment on their review but I think what I’ll continue to do is to do to this person on-line, what I would do in the real world and ignore her and having nothing to do with her.

As Theodore Roosevelt put it much better than I ever could:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments