When did travelling become such hell?

I am a little unusual I admit, I quite like travelling by public transport and I always have. I don’t see driving a car as superior and much prefer to pay someone to do that for me so along with anything from 1 to 50 fellow humans, hire a chauffer in the form of a bus driver to do that sort of thing for me whenever possible.

That being said, there isn’t much worse than having your journey ruined by an obnoxious, spoilt child, especially on longer journeys or on travels to holidays.  Though sometimes their parents do make a good attempt at being more annoying.

It’s not always the fault of the child or parent but it is almost guaranteed that if you are travelling with a small child that at some point in your journey, likely before the child has even made a peep, you’ll be the recipient of disapproving looks so venomous you might as well be going to the toilet on the carpet of the plane, train or bus you occupy. For such parents you travel anywhere then you’re guilty until proven tolerable.

I really like well behaved and polite children, I like well behaved and polite adults even more and I always try and give everyone the benefit of a doubt and if necessary put up a reasonable amount of noise.

You can tell a lot about a parent by their behaviour on public transport.  I can’t abide some of my fellow passengers who decide that out of an entirely deserted long tube train, they decide to sit next to me.  It’s bad anywhere, ten times worse if you have music playing or intend to go on the phone and insufferable if the children run riot and the parent thinks it is perfectly fine so long as it doesn’t interrupt their innane facebook messenger chatter.

If you go on a long distance train or plane journey then you might see some attempting to distance themselves from their own child: who is this savage beast? I cannot claim it as my own. Watch my back as I skip off to business class and leave it in steerage (a true story of transatlantic child-custody-sharing).

Others, adopting a more socialist attitude to public spaces, think the entire community – sorry, planeful of strangers – should be responsible for the care of their offspring.

Why, after all, wouldn’t the man in 17B want a child to play with his laptop or the lady infront object to a brat continually kicking at the seat.

There is a lot to be said for the old fahioned ethos that a child should be seen and not heard.  There is a lot not to be said for it too, why have children if you are going to treat them like robots or soldiers?   On the other hand, the rest of us travelling who scowl whenever a parent and child seat nearby only do so because we are so used to the parent letting the child run wild.

So whilst children are prone to kicking the back of seats because as parents say “Kids will be kids” – especially when kicking of the back of your aeroplane seat. How can I be expected to get my fun-loving child to sit like a statue?

Objectively though  It is impossible to find something more annoying in traveldom than being kicked from behind.  Recently an American family was removed from a flight reportedly after their one-year-old repeatedly kicked the back of the seat in front of her, I did feel sympathy for the person with the seatback.

As with a dog, when you bring a child on a plane, you should bring it well-exercised, well-watered and fed; in prime condition for a nap. As back-up, bring silent entertainment of proven popularity; 35,000 feet up in the air is not the moment to experiment.

And if you’re a child-free passenger, bring your manners. As with the Tube and bus, offer to swap seats if that will improve everyone’s journey. Know that the child will want to be on the move if they’re not asleep; facilitate this by offering an aisle seat.

Apparently, in parts of the USA, parents preemptively hand out apology packs to nearby passengers that are filled with sweets and earplugs.   I can only think in Britain that this would ensure everyone hates both the parent and children as they expect the worse.

On public transport, parents can often be worse than their children, displaying as they do a misplaced sense of entitlement. As with dogs, the fault lies entirely with the owner. Yes this might be a tad judgemental but then I am doing that in my head anyway.

I live in an area euphemstically called Social Housing and the amount of local mothers on buses I witness who totally ignore their children just so they can use their phone is unbelievable.  Worse still, several swear at their children to be quiet.  The time to be obsessed with your phone is when you are a child, not a parent.  The parents though seem oblivious to the fact that half a bus is wishing the mothers phone would run out of battery and the other about calling Social Services to have the child brought up in a loving environment.

I know I am 43 and things are different now, actually they were all ready different when I was 10 and had to stand up for my elders on the bus so they could have my seat.  These days, I still give my seat up to anyone who needs it whereas few children do and fewer parents would ever think of asking them to.  In fact in the UK recently there has been quiet a few cases of disputes because parents can’t be bothered to fold up their push-chairs and move out of the spaces reserved for disabled people reliant on wheelchairs.  Unbelievable!  Others rather let their children sit whilst they themselves stand.    The wheelchair vs buggy on the bus debate had to be decided recently by the courts. Rightly, wheelchair users – who have no alternative forms of transport – have been given priority so parents do actually have to have a modicum of responsibility for their sprogs.


In the case of parents vs child-free passengers, we all have a stake. But here’s the bad news: no one has the moral high-ground on public transport. Trips – on plane, train or bus – are the one situation in life in which we really, truly, are all in it together. There are no winners – but there are good manners and stopping being selfish would be a good place to start.


But what about seats on buses and the Tube? Recently Debrett’s, arbiter of all that is decent and British, ruled that adults should not feel compelled to give up their seats to children. Nor should they. Most children can and should stand.

But make sure your child’s fun isn’t landing on someone’s shopping. And if you see a tired, sad child – or parent – why not offer them a seat? There are energetic nine-year-olds, and there are springy 90-year-olds. Assess the situation and offer your seat to someone who might want it more than you – not because they’re wearing a badge saying they are pregnant, disabled or old, but because you’ve noticed them and you care.  It happened to me in June, I’d had my 6th day in a row of walking 20+ miles and a kindly tourist said that I looked like I needed the seat more than they did.


London Underground Commuting Hell

London Underground Commuting Hell

I often go into London which for me using public transport can be anything from 1 hour to 2 hours (still quicker than driving).  I’m aghast at how people fight over seats on the tube.  I’m going to be walking 15-20 miles all day and I am fine with standing or giving up my seat… the majority of the commuters are going to be doing nothing more energetic than sitting on their fat harris’s all day.  You’d think they might welcome the chance to stand.   These same people though are also very lazy and would never think of running to catch the train whilst I probably hold the record for the Euston Escalators-Concourse and station dash.

Happily, I don’t have to go into London today or tomorrow and instead will eat out with a friend whose strict policy is to eat as far away from children as possible, perhaps because though they are lovely little darlings, he couldn’t eat a whole one.

Posted in Travel, Life, Opinion | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Gertrude Bell – The Ketrun – Desert Queen

From time to time, I have written about iconic and pioneering women in relative recent history, well recent by British standards 🙂  I also sometimes write about the Middle-East which is actually the one area of life that I can actually claim to have some academic expertise.  So I have finally taken the opportunity to put both of these themes together over the last few months in the form of this blog post of Gertrude Bell who despite having had more influence and importance than any other lady in the Middle East for at least 1400-2000 years (depending on your religion of choice) is almost entirely unknown.

In a picture taken to mark the Cairo Conference of 1921, Gertrude Bell – characteristically elegant in a fur stole and floppy hat, despite being on camel back – sits right at the heart of the action. To one side is Winston Churchill, on her other TE Lawrence, later immortalised in David Lean’s 1962 epic, Lawrence of Arabia.

Sir Winston Churchill, Gertrude Bell and Lawrence of Arabia at Giza, Egypt in 1921.

Sir Winston Churchill, Gertrude Bell and Lawrence of Arabia at Giza, Egypt in 1921.

Bell was his equal in every sense: the first woman to achieve a first (in modern history) from Oxford, an archaeologist, linguist, Arabist, adventurer and, possibly, spy. In her day, she was arguably the most powerful woman in the British Empire – central to the decisions that created the modern Middle East and reverberate still on the nightly news.

Yet while Lawrence is still celebrated, she has largely been forgotten.

Newspaper articles of the time show she was known all over the world. The minutes of the Cairo Conference record her presence at every key discussion but not one of the men mentions her in their memoirs. It’s almost as if she never existed. Even if you go to the north of England, where both myself and Gertrude were born, most people seem not to have ever heard of her.

Gertrude Bell was the granddaughter of Liberal MP Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell and was born in 1868, in County Durham. She paid her first visit to the Middle East after Oxford when she went to stay with her uncle, who was the minister to Tehran in Persia or what we would know now as being an Ambassador in Iran.

The city set her imagination alight. “I have landed in the Garden of Eden” she wrote to her father, adding “I have had my first Persian lesson with a sheik, who is a darling.”

The trip resulted in her first book, Persian Pictures, and a lifelong love affair with the region began. “I never weary of the East and I never feel it to be alien,” she wrote a few years later. “I don’t expect to be in England again – inshallah.”

Gertrude did return home from time to time but only briefly, sometimes to indulge her daring mountain exploits in the Alps during the 1890s, in which she climbed Mont Blanc and almost died after spending “forty-eight hours on the rope” in a storm. But her life from then on was largely spent in the deserts and cities of Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Mesopotamia (now Iraq).

So who exactly was the lady known as khatun, or “Desert Queen”? Raised by a family of steelmakers who supplied the railways of Britain’s ever-expanding empire, Bell could just have been married off into the aristocracy, as many industrialists’ daughters were.

Wearing a ‘divided skirt’ that allowed her to ride like a man, she would spend up to 12 hours a day in the burning heat, and drink water from stagnant pools.
But the Bell family’s riches came with a social conscience. Her father, Sir Hugh Bell, was an active supporter of the trade union movement, and her stepmother, Florence, conducted a pioneering study of the working poor. Hence Gertrude’s education at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, where, despite a male tutor who insisted that females sat with their backs to him, she became the first woman to gain a First in modern history.

That honed intellect, though, led to her being deemed “too Oxfordy” for success at society balls in London, where she moved after university for her “coming out”. More interested in metaphysics than marriage, in 1892 she jumped at a chance to accompany her Aunt Mary to Tehran, where her husband was ambassador.

Those early travels with her aunt were to shape the rest of her life. For, as many others have since found out, the Middle East can be a welcoming place for Western women, a place where men may be men but where women can be too, treated as they often are as honorary males. In the company of sheikhs, imams and tribal potentates, first in Tehran and later in Damascus and Baghdad, Bell suffered none of the social judgments made upon her in parlour society back home. Falling in love with the region almost instantly, she mastered Arabic, despite complaining that it had “three sounds almost impossible to the European throat”.

Soon she was roaming deserts where many other explorers feared to tread, relying on trusted local fixers and her own charm with local Bedouin sheikhs, who were always the key to securing safe passage. Wearing a “divided skirt” that allowed her to ride like a man, she would spend up to 12 hours a day in the burning heat, and drink water from stagnant pools. Yet her travelling caravan also included a tin bath, a full Wedgwood dinner service and a formal dinner dress for evening wear.

To the sheikhs she drank tea with, the small, waiflike figure with the ivory cigarette holder was a fascinating enigma. According to Georgina Howell’s acclaimed 2007 biography of Bell, Daughter of the Desert, many assumed she was a man until she opened her mouth.

Such encounters, though, gave her an unrivalled knowledge of the way Arab society worked. And so it was that in 1917, as a British invasion via Basra sought to oust the Turks from oil-rich Mesopotamia, she was enlisted as the first female military intelligence officer, tasked with assessing Arab willingness to join Lawrence’s anti-Ottoman revolt. The Turks eventually capitulated after fierce resistance. But what followed bears uncanny resonance with the campaign of 2003.

Just like Saddam’s vanquished Ba’athist regime, the Ottomans left behind a corrupt, ramshackle infrastructure that virtually collapsed overnight, forcing the British to rebuild schools and hospitals from scratch. And as Bell drily remarked: “If it took rather longer to open some of the Baghdad schools than expected, the delay may be attributed to the people themselves, who looted all the furniture and carried off the doors, windows and other portable fittings.”

By 1920, the thinly stretched force of 60,000 troops was fighting an anti-British jihad, waged by fundamentalist Shias and Ottoman-bribed tribes. With the war-battered British Empire already wary of expansion, the solution was self-government under a British mandate. Bell then played arguably her most influential role, lobbying successfully for King Faisal, a Sunni leader of the Arab revolt, to be installed as Faisal I of what was now Iraq.

She appeared out of the desert with all the evening dresses, cutlery and napery she took on her travels.  
Gertrude Bell, the Queen of the desert.

Gertrude Bell, the Queen of the desert.

She became known to the Sunni, Kurd and Shia tribes as “al-Khatun” (The Lady) and cut quite a figure as she roamed the deserts, recording and photographing ancient sites. The writer Vita Sackville West encountered Bell in Constantinople where she “appeared out of the desert with all the evening dresses, cutlery and napery she took on her travels.”

Unlike Lawrence, Gertrude never dressed in Arabic clothess.  In fact she felt very strongly that you have to meet the other person as who you are and have an honest exchange, not try to be one of them. One of the reasons men probably saw her as a threat was that she got on famously with the Arabs.

On an archaeological dig at Carchemish in Mesopotamia she met TE Lawrence, who later said “she was a wonderful person, not very like a woman”.  I’d imagined that Lawrence  presumably meant this as a compliment.

Bell had red hair, green eyes and a thoughtful, fine-boned face. Small in stature, she was nonetheless forceful in nature: intelligent, energetic and sometimes brusque to the point of rudeness.

In later life, especially, she was quite hawkish.  At her archive at Newcastle University, her letters are incredibly articulate and amusing but she could impatient, especially of other women. She must have made the lives of the embassy wives in Baghdad a misery at times, regarding them as silly.

In 1907, Bell published The Desert and the Sown, chronicling the Arabian desert and cities for a rapt audience. She photographed ancient sites like Palmyra and began working with archaeologists uncovering ancient treasures. “I’ve never felt the ancient world so close,” she wrote home.

She gathered many such antiquities for her greatest achievement; founding the Baghdad Museum, which was heartbreakingly looted after the 2003 Allied invasion but has since reopened.


Perhaps what resonates most strongly today is her assessment of the political situation.

At the outbreak of World War One, Bell volunteered with the Red Cross in France but British Intelligence had other ideas: few could rival her intimate knowledge of the area, and she was asked to help soldiers find routes through the Middle Eastern deserts. It was the beginning of a new career that later saw her become a senior adviser to the military governor of newly-created Iraq.

Being a woman in a man’s world was seemingly more difficult for Bell in British politics than among desert tribes. In 1920, she produced a white paper on the government of Iraq and was exasperated that her peers seemed more interested in its author than contents. She wrote: “The general line taken by the press seems to be that it’s remarkable that a dog should be able to stand up on its hind legs at all – i.e. a female write a white paper.”

Consequently, it is difficult to gauge how much influence Bell actually had. Her star waxed and waned according to her superiors: some respected her opinions, others could not stomach working with a woman – especially one who knew so much more about the landscape than they did.

She certainly took part in drawing the borders that created Iraq by merging the provinces of Baghdad, Basra and Mosul after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. And she was partly responsible for selecting Faisal, the new king of Iraq, who was installed in 1921 following the Cairo Conference though the monarchy was eventually overthrown and replaced by the Ba’athist regime in 1968 that culminated with Saddam Hussein.

The arrangement did not stand the test of time. While the Arab world saw many worse governments, Faisal’s son, who succeeded him as king, was murdered in a military coup in 1958, paving the way for the Ba’athist takeover a decade later. Perhaps a more damning indictment of Bell’s political judgment, though, was that she saw Iraq’s better-educated Sunni minority as the natural party of government. The more devout Shias, she said, were too easily swayed by “fanatic” clerics, despite being the two-thirds majority. Thus was sectarian division institutionalised in both the monarchy and Saddam’s Sunni dictatorship, paving the way for the Sunni-Shia civil war that raged from 2006-07.

“In a sense, Gertrude Bell was right – the Shia are more emotional people, but her ideas did lay the framework for people like Saddam,” says Mowaffaq al-Rubaie, a Shia politician who saw the downside of Bell’s legacy first-hand. Tortured by Saddam, he was among the witnesses at the Iraqi dictator’s hanging in 2006, and today displays the gallows rope in his Baghdad home as a reminder of the bad old days. “There was a huge democratic fault in her thinking that would have minority rule forever.”

However, Bell was a passionate believer in Arab self-determination and was all too aware of the problems the new set-up might hold. Some of her letters from the time have eerie echoes of recent history.

“Can you persuade people to take your side when you’re not sure in the end you’ll be there to take theirs?” she asked at one point, noting that “we rushed into the business with our usual disregard for a comprehensive political scheme. Muddle through! Why yes, so we do – wading through blood and tears that need never have been shed.”

These days Iraq with its unstable ethnic mix is now considered a textbook case of imperial meddling, it may seem surprising that anyone in Iraq today might have a kind word for Bell. But thanks to her legendary fondness for its people – she spoke much better Arabic than Lawrence – her memory has lived on far longer than the average colonial viceroy. To this day, British women working in Iraq often find themselves smilingly compared to “that Miss Gertrude”, be they diplomats, journalists or simply a bit feisty.

Nonetheless, she remains a figure of respect among contemporary residents of the British embassy in Baghdad, who keep her original writing table in the ambassador’s dining room. “Any Arabist in the Foreign Office is always conscious of the remarkable people who first got to know the Arabs, and Gertrude Bell was one of them,” says Sir Jeremy Greenstock, Britain’s special envoy to Iraq from 2003-04. “As for her favouring Sunni rule – it was simply a different era. All over the globe, the British were looking for people whom they could work with in administration, so they tended to go for whoever was more educated.”

Today’s Foreign Office staff also envy the freedom she enjoyed. Bell roamed at will for months on end, meeting kings, beggars and jihadists alike. For her successors, every trip outside Baghdad’s Green Zone is security-vetted and requires an armoured car and bodyguards, depriving them of the richness of encounter that made her such an authority. Such knowledge, indeed, was sorely lacking in the post-2003 period, although as Sir Jeremy points out: “We have to be realistic – resources and the politics of dealing with other countries do not allow our diplomats to work like that anymore.” Either way, it is doubtful that Bell would be happy with the Iraq of 2014.

“She was a colonialist, yes, but she seemed completely devoted to the country,” says Dr Lamia Al Gailani Werr, a London-based archaeologist who works closely with the Iraqi National Museum. What is more, Werr says, Bell also helped avert an earlier mass looting of Iraq’s artefacts – this time by fellow European archaeologists.



Sadly, despite being the founder of the wonderful museum in Baghdad, there is no record of all about the pioneering Gertrude Bell.  Nestling in one of the museum’s Art Deco-style archways used to be a bust of Gertrude Bell, the formidable British diplomat, explorer and archaeologist.  Sometime before 2003, though, her bust went missing, along with a plaque beneath that read: “Gertrude Bell, whose memory the Arabs will ever hold in affection.”

“It is a shame the bust and the plaque of her have been stolen from the museum,” Werr adds. “Personally I would like to see one back there.” As of yet, the British government has no plans to insist that the bust is reinstated, despite the British Museum working closely with its Iraqi partner. Today’s politically correct curators, after all, might well balk at insisting that a museum honour its colonial benefactors, even one so key as Bell.

To quote the many words of Mark Sykes, architect of the Sykes-Picot agreement that carved up the Ottoman Empire, she was a “conceited, gushing, flat-chested, man-woman, globe-trotting, rumpwagging, blethering ass”.

A century on from the start of the British Mesopotamian campaign, the country is still struggling against Isis and sectarian strife.  Much of Baghdad still lies in ruins, and the small Christian cemetery where Bell’s body still rests is overgrown and bereft of visitors.

I feel quite an affinity with Gertrude Bell in so much as we both come from the same part of England and both love the people and places of the Middle East so much.  I’ve never met or read of a single modern day politician who has the slightest idea about the region but I’m sure with Gertrude, I could have quite a natter.

Gertrude Bell was the subject of a quite big budget Hollywood movie starring Nicole Kidman in 2015 entitled ‘Queen of the desert’ but like the impressive Gertrude Bell herself, it seems to have been largely forgotten.


Iraqi groundskeeper Ali Mansur at the old Christian cemetery in Baghdad points to the tomb of Gertrude Bell.

Posted in history, Life, WW1 | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

The Great American Eclipse and harbingers of doom!

With the Solar Eclipse about to hit the USA and a partial eclipse in many other places including the UK, it interesting to note that what is now a special tourist event was once something to be feared.

Whilst it is quite well known that comets were once harbingers of doom in days gone by as was the case with the yet unnamed Halley’s Comet and the Battle of Hastings in 1066, our superstitious forebears often found themselves fearful of solar eclipses.

The Great American Eclipse

The Great American Eclipse. How much of it will you see?


We’ve known for years that the “Great American Eclipse” will cross the United States from Oregon to South Carolina on August 21st 2017.  That’s from the benefit of science but can you imagine what it would be like if you had no idea the eclipse was going to happen and the sun just vanished, But imagine how freaked out you’d be if you didn’t know it was coming?

Myths in many cultures claimed animals such as dragons, frogs, snakes or jaguars devoured the sun during a solar eclipse, then regurgitated it out.

Early words for eclipses in China were to eat or devour, they thought that creatures such as dragons had eaten the sun only to spit it out later.  The moment the sun was totally eclipsed then the people who witnessed it would do all kinds of things to make the sun return which in China meant lighting fires and shooting aburning arrows at the sun to try to make it catch fire again.”

Vikings thought eclipses were caused by two great wolves chasing the sun and moon across the sky, while Mayans imagined snakes were eating them.

People in the U.K., Europe and as far away as India would bang on pots and pans or drums and make all kinds of noise to try to scare the “monster” that ate the sun away.

People also thought of solar and lunar eclipses as bad omens or as portents of doom.  The Dresden Codex, a well-known Maya text, puts hieroglyphs representing misery, malevolence, and death next to a set of images representing an eclipse.

Several deaths of famous people have occurred around eclipses, fueling the fear: Charlemagne’s son, Emperor Louis the Pious, may have died in the aftermath of the terror he felt due to an eclipse on May 5, 840, Gibelyou said.

An eclipse on Jan. 27, 632, coincided with the death of the Prophet Mohammad’s son Ibrahim.  Here in England, King Henry I died shortly after an eclipse that produced “hideous darkness” on August 2nd 1133 that was so dark and lasted for so long that the people thought it was the end of the world.  It is worth remembering that Solar Eclipses come in different lengths with the maximum of 7 minutes 32 seconds putting mondays 2 minute+ eclipse rather to shame.

But it wasn’t always bad news: A total eclipse of May 28th, 585 BC, occurred during a war in eastern Turkey between the Lydians and Medes. Greek historian Herodotus reported the combatants were so disturbed by the sight of the sun being “devoured” that they stopped fighting and made peace.

Some cultures saw eclipses as a good thing, such as the Tahitians, or the Warlpiri people of the Australian Aborigines, according to Gibelyou. Those groups thought an eclipse “involves an amorous encounter between sun and moon,” he said.

Pre-scientific astronomers in some cultures — such as the Greeks, Mayans and Egyptians had some success predicting eclipses.   Clay tablets found at ancient archaeological sites show that the Babylonians not only recorded eclipses—the earliest known Babylonian record is of the eclipse that took place on May 3, 1375 BCE—but were also fairly accurate in predicting them. They were the first people to use the saros cycle to predict eclipses. The saros cycle relates to the lunar cycle and is about 6,585.3 days (18 years, 11 days, and 8 hours) long.

Christopher Columbus wows the locals with his scientific prediction of a solar eclipse.

Christopher Columbus wows the locals with his scientific prediction of a solar eclipse.

Better predictions of eclipses began during the Renaissance. Christopher Columbus, during his final voyage to the New World in March 1504, used his knowledge of an upcoming lunar eclipse to basically blackmail what he considered to be uncooperative natives in Jamaica.

Columbus told the Jamaicans that soon God would take away the moon. And when the eclipse occurred as predicted, the Jamaicans “came running with food” to Columbus and his crew.

Accurate celestial tables with precise eclipse paths, times and dates were finally widely available in the 18th century from the British Royal Astronomical Society. They were useful as the British Empire spanned the entire world.

This sort of knowledge allowed hundreds of astronomers and thousands of tourists to travel by train to Wyoming, Colorado and Texas to witness America’s first “Great Eclipse” of July 29th, 1878. These folks had to brave treacherous storms, debilitating altitude sickness and the threat of Indian attacks to enjoy the spectacle.

However the era of eclipses as signs of the supernatural hadn’t quite past when at 2.29pm on 22nd January 1879 a Solar Eclipse occurred on the battlefield of Isandhlwana in South Africa the 25,000 Zulu warriors saw the eclipse as a signal that they were to be victorious as the battlefield fell into gloom and shortly afterwards around 1,400 British lay dead.

PKT3227 -  227111FILM: ZULU DAWN

Zulus, thousands of them!

I still remember the last full eclipse in the UK and I took the 11th August 1999 off work to observe it.  The upcoming eclipse is on August 21st 2017.  The eclipse will begin at Lincoln Beach, Oregon, at 9:05am PDT and make its way to Charleston, South Carolina, at 2:48pm EDT. Observers outside its path will see a partial eclipse: if you’re in the UK, for example, you’ll see a partial eclipse around 7.35pm BST on August 21st.

For an idea of what it will be like, below is the BBC coverage from the 1999 event in Cornwall.

Posted in history, Life, Science and Engineering | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

What type of sleeper are you?

We’re all used to dividing ourselves between Early-Birds and Night Owls depending on our natural predilection for when we get up and are at our best.  I’m very much an Early Bird, I don’t own an alarm clock and indeed have never been woken by one.  I get up around 5am almost every day and even if I need to get up at 2 or 3am for an early morning flight, have a habit of waking up almost to the minute as to when I have to.

Recent research however indicates that all of us might not just be one of two categories but actually of four categories.  Dolphins, Lions, Bears and Wolves.

Different people fall into different classifications, based on sleep drive, and require different tweaks.




Dolphins sleep with only half their brain at a time, while the other half is awake and alert, concentrating on swimming and watching for predators. In humans, the dolphin chronotype is a light sleeper easily roused by slight sounds and disturbances. They have a low sleep drive and often suffer from anxiety-related insomnia.

Out of bed, dolphins tend to be nervous, irritable and perfectionist. They are often highly intelligent. They make caring, attentive partners and hate conflict, though at times they are so sleep-deprived they argue anyway.

With a naturally fast metabolism, dolphins are rarely overweight.


6.30am: The typical dolphin is awake, but too tired to get up and too wired to go back to sleep. Start moving anyway: roll out of bed straight onto the floor and do some exercises.

7.30-9am: Eat a high-protein breakfast of eggs, bacon, yoghurt. Morning is the wrong time for dolphins to eat relaxing carbs, which will hit their system like a tranquilliser dart.

9.30am-12pm: Usually foggy-headed at this point, dolphins should have one coffee.

12-1pm: Dolphins often forget to eat lunch — they tend to be lean and wiry in body shape — but it’s not a good idea to skip meals. A soup and salad (one-third carbs, one-third protein, one-third fat) will keep you on an even keel.

1-4pm: Dolphins often want to nap at this time, but hold off. Go for a walk instead.

4-6pm: You’re as alert as you’ve felt all day, so this is the time to do intellectual work or get stuck into a new project.

6-7pm: Don’t eat yet, no matter how hungry you feel. Dolphins’ hyperactive minds get increasingly restless as the night wears on: take 30 minutes quiet time alone to ward off anxious thoughts.

7.30pm-8pm: A time of high energy for dolphins, so eat calming carbs. Have a baked potato or a big bowl of pasta.

8.30-11.30pm: Don’t be tempted to go to bed early to catch up on sleep. Watch TV or meet a friend for a glass of wine (but stop drinking by 9pm).

11.30pm: Bedtime. Try counting backward from 300 by threes and if you’re not asleep in 20 minutes, get up for 15 before trying again.

Dolphins’ low sleep drive means they need only six hours to wake up refreshed and restored.





Lions rise before dawn to hunt, while their prey is still sleepy, and the human equivalent also gets up before the sun, bursting with early, purposeful energy. Lions are leaders. They have analytical, organised minds and are fixers rather than brooders.

Most CEOs and entrepreneurs are lions. They are conscientious and optimistic, but since they get up so early, they’re flagging in the evenings and tend to have poor social lives. Lions sometimes find it hard to meet other people. In general, they have healthy diets and are rarely overweight.


5.30-6am: Lions are fully alert as soon as they wake. Eat breakfast and drink two glasses of water so your stomach is full.

7.30-10am: Conserve your energy so you’re not burned out by the end of the day. Snack now so you can push lunch back. Mid- morning to midday is your peak, when your mind is sharpest — power through some work.

12-1pm: Eat lunch, but avoid heavy carbs, which will make you sleepy. Go out into the sunlight.

1-5pm: Lions have been up for ten hours already and are starting to wilt. Stop trying to stay alert and instead let your mind wander. This is a good time to brainstorm new ideas.

5-6pm: Exercise. Switching gym-time from morning to evening will boost energy when you most need it.

6-7.30pm: Have dinner and one drink. Avoid carbs, which will make you even sleepier than you already are. No alcohol after 7.30pm or your body won’t be able to metabolise it before bed.

7-10pm: Lions typically hit a wall of tiredness now and crave their pillow. Live it up instead! If you’ve subtly shifted your exercise and eating schedules, you should gain an hour or two of social time in the evenings.

10.30pm-1.30am: Since you’re pushing your limits to stay up later than usual, you should fall into restorative sleep.

** I must say, I am 100% Lion in almost every way. No actually in every way.  Always up first in the entire street and often start work by 5.30am whilst having breakfast.  I’m an entrepreneur, very conscientious and ready for bed by the end of the afternoon so I never eat after about 4pm and if I am out one evening in a year then that is 100% more than most years. **




With their high sleep drives, bears prefer to sleep for at least eight hours a night, if not longer.

Bears in the wild are active in the day and restful at night, and human bears’ sleep/wake patterns similarly match the solar cycle.

With their high sleep drives, bears prefer to sleep for at least eight hours a night, if not longer. They wake in a daze and start to feel sleepy again by mid-evening.

Bears may be hungry all the time and will snack whenever they can. They tend to be at least a little overweight.

They are gregarious, easy to talk to and open-minded. They make solid, affable colleagues, and loyal friends. Half of people fall into this category.


7am: Typical bears hit the snooze button at least twice. Try not to. Instead take a quick walk around the block while still half-asleep to raise the heart rate and core body temperature.

7.30-9am: Don’t be afraid of a hearty breakfast but keep it protein-heavy and avoid carbs. No coffee yet for bears.

9-10am: Walk to work in the sun if you can. It helps eradicate that foggy feeling of sleep inertia.

10am-12pm: Your cognitive peak comes mid-morning. Don’t fritter mental sharpness by socialising — tackle difficult work now to get it done quickly. Have one coffee.

12-1pm: Bears tend to crave a big carb-rich lunch. Instead, do 30 minutes of gentle exercise before eating to speed up your metabolism — a walk is good. Lunch should be half the size of breakfast and twice the size of dinner.

1-2.50pm: Don’t eat a chocolate bar to boost flagging energy. If you can, take a power nap. Set an alarm so you don’t sleep longer than 20 minutes.

3-6pm: Now is the time to snack, but keep to 250 calories or less: cheese and crackers or fruit.

6-7pm: Bears want dinner at this hour, but instead they should exercise. As an outgoing, sociable type, play a team sport or go speed-walking with a friend.

7-8.30pm: Eating dinner an hour later than normal is a challenge, but you’re less likely to binge on junk food at 10pm. Don’t eat anything after 8pm and you’ll lose some of that bearish tummy fat.

8.30-10pm: Biological down-time. Take a hot bath, read, talk with the family.

10pm: Turn off screens. Don’t snack.

11pm: If you’ve been active all day, you should fall asleep quickly and soundly.





In nature, wolves come alive when the sun goes down, and the human wolf type does the same. They have difficulty waking before 9am, are groggy until midday and don’t feel tired until midnight or later.Wolves are risk-takers. They’re likely to drink more than other chronotypes and to eat sugary, high-fat foods after dark. Not surprisingly they’re often overweight.

Fun at a party, they’re insightful and creative — but also more likely to suffer from mood disorders such as anxiety and depression.


7-7.30am: Wolves find it very hard to wake up. Allow yourself two alarms with a 20-minute half-awake and drifting time in between. Don’t shower now.

7.30-8.30am: Wolves often skip breakfast, but you must eat now. Drink 12oz of water to quick-start your metabolism and keep the food protein-rich. No coffee! It will only make you jittery.

8.30-9pm: Move to dispel the chronic brain fog. A 30-minute walk is all it takes.

9-11am: The sleepy feeling disappears at 10am, but you’re still off-peak mentally.  But don’t sleep in, even at the weekend — it will wreck your bio-rhythm.

11am: Drink coffee. Keep it black and avoid biscuits.

1pm: Your mental sharpness is rising. Eat lunch with friends; you’ll be articulate and witty.

2-4pm: A wolf’s workday really starts now. For two hours after lunch, you’ll hit your stride and get lots done.

4-6pm: While dolphins, bears and lions flag, you are bursting with energy. Now is the time to impress the boss, tackle heavy housework or admin.

6-8pm: Exercise. Use your evening energy surge in the gym. It’s important not to eat dinner yet.

8-9pm: Dining on the late side will prevent night-time snacking.

11pm-12am: Power down. Switch off all screens. Showering or bathing at night not only buys you that drifting time in the morning, but will also help you fall asleep.

Midnight: Go to bed. A couple of weeks of following your new schedule, plus restricting coffee and alcohol, and you should be fast asleep by 12.30am.

I am very much a Lion! What type are you?

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Peter The Wild Boy

In the summer of 1725 an uncouth youth was found in the forest of Hertswold near Hameln in northern Germany. It was thought the boy was aged about 10 years old though he walked on all fours and fed on grass and leaves. ‘A naked, brownish,

‘A naked, brownish, black haired creature’, he would run up trees when approached and could utter no intelligible sound. The latest in a long line of feral children – in turn celebrated, shunned and cursed through the ages – ‘The Wild Boy of Hameln’ would be the first to achieve real fame.

After a spell in the House of Correction in Celle, the boy was taken to the court of King George I, Duke of Hanover and King of the United Kingdom who was visiting his homeland at Herrenhausen. Here the young curiosity was initially treated as an honoured guest. He was seated at table with the king and dressed in a suit of clothes with a napkin at his neck.

However, he repelled his host with his complete lack of manners. He refused bread, but gorged himself on vegetables, fruit and rare meat, greedily grasping at the dishes and eating noisily from his hands, until he was ordered to be taken away. He was given the name of Peter, but was variously known as ‘Wild Peter’, ‘Peter of Hanover’, or, most famously, ‘Peter the Wild Boy’.

In the spring of 1726, after briefly escaping back to the forest, Peter was brought to London where his tale had aroused particular interest. As in Hanover, he caused a sensation and his carefree nature provided an amusing antidote to the stultifying boredom and decorum of court life. For some reason there was something about Peter that appealed  to Caroline, Princess of Wales, who persuaded the king to allow Peter to move to her residence in the West End, where he was kept virtually as a pet. Though he insisted on sleeping on the floor, he was dressed carefully each morning in a tailor-made suit of green and red. He was also appointed a tutor, who had him baptised and taught him to bow and kiss the hands of the ladies at court.  By all accounts this was something of a battle as Peter hated clothes and was literally wrestled into wearing them every day whilst his natural tendency was to pick-pocket and steal from those in the royal court.

It must be noted that there is no real reason to assume the boy was actually called Peter, for sadly, Peter was unable to talk.

Peter quickly became a celebrity. On one level, tales of his antics busied the London gazettes. Jonathan Swift, whose fictional ‘Yahoos’ Peter appeared to personify, noted sourly that ‘there is scarcely talk of anything else’. He was soon the ‘talk of the town’, his portrait graced the walls of the King’s Grand Staircase at Kensington Palace and an effigy of him was erected in a waxworks on the Strand. In 1727 a premature report of his death gave rise to a mocking epitaph in the British Journal. His resemblance to Swift’s fantastical characters had clearly not been missed:

Ye Yahoos mourn, for in this Place
Lies dead the Glory of your Race,
One, who from Adam had Descent,
Yet ne’er did what he might repent;
But liv’d, unblemish’d, to fifteen,
And yet, O strange, a Court had seen,
Was solely rul’d by Nature’s Laws,
And dy’d a Martyr in her Cause!
Now reign, ye Houynhnms, for Mankind,
Have no such Peter left behind,
None like the dear departed Youth,
Renown’d for Purity and Truth,
He was your Rival, and our Boast,
For ever, ever, ever lost!

But Peter could not to live up to the popular interest invested in him and as like today, a fickle public quickly abandoned him in favour of the next unfortunate oddball to appear on the London stage. His academic progress also failed to match his earlier promise. He was declared ‘unable to receive instruction’, despite the attentions of ‘the ablest masters’. He could say nothing beyond his own name and a garbled form of ‘King George’. By 1728, his tutor had given up his efforts and Peter was retired to the country. A home was found for him on a farm near Northchurch in Hertfordshire and a generous crown pension of £35 per annum was supplied for his upkeep. The ‘talk of the town’ became a humble farm hand.  This though was much better than could be expected for many such people in Georgian England when they would be packed off to the Freak Show Circus to spend the rest of their natural lives being gawped at and prodded by onlookers.

Though still only what today would be known as a teenager, Peter faded into provincial obscurity and thereafter rarely gained publicity. He developed a taste for gin and loved music, reportedly swaying and clapping with glee and dancing until he was exhausted. But he never learned to speak and his lack of any sense of direction gave cause for concern. In 1745, the year of the Jacobite Rebellion, he was arrested as a suspected Highlander and, six years later, he wandered as far as Norwich, where he was thought to be a Spanish subversive. As a

In 1745, the year of the Jacobite Rebellion, he was arrested as a suspected Highlander and, six years later, he wandered east as far as the city of Norwich, where he was thought to be a Spanish subversive. As a result he was fitted with a heavy leather collar bearing the inscription: ‘Peter, the Wild Man of Hanover. Whoever will bring him to Mr Fenn at Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, shall be paid for their trouble.’   It may look a little inhumane or rather like a collar that a slave might wear but it was not meant to be so and was a kind gesture by the local farmers who though rather fondly of Peter.

The inscription on the collar of Peter The Wild Boy, lest he wandered off.

The inscription on the collar of Peter The Wild Boy, lest he wandered off.

Tales of feral children always fascinate, but Peter caused a sensation. It was the Age of Enlightenment, and he became a symbol in the debate about what it meant to be human.

People were beginning to question established authority and religion. And they were interested in what distinguishes us from the animals.  If he has no speech, does that mean he has no soul? Do human beings really have souls? He raised lots of philosophical questions.

Though Peter’s life is remarkable enough, what is most astounding is the sheer scale of scientific and philosophical interest that his case aroused. While wits opined that the boy might be corrupted by the sybaritic life of London high society, others saw in him an ideal test case for the nascent sciences of anthropology and psychology.

To the thinkers of the Age of Reason, Peter represented a blank slate. As humanity in its ‘raw’ state, he was what Jean-Jacques Rousseau called ‘the noble savage’, man ‘unspoilt’ by society and civilisation. He was indeed a fascinating subject, but he provoked further, disquieting, enquiry. He was undoubtedly human but, lacking speech and socialisation, could he be classed as a man? Could he have a soul? Could he possess the power of thought?

Of the numerous thinkers and writers who addressed the subject, Daniel Defoe did so with the most clarity in his pamphlet Mere Nature Delineated, published in 1726. He described Peter as an ‘object of pity’ but cast doubt on the story of his origins, dismissing it as a ‘Fib’. On the issue of Peter’s soul, he was more charitable. Possessed of the gift of laughter and thought, Peter clearly had a soul, he wrote, but its powers did not yet act within him. He was, in sum, ‘in a state of Mere Nature … a ship without a Rudder’. And it was the task of his tutors to bring him to ‘the Use of his Reason’. He deferred the final verdict on Peter, therefore, until the results of his education became apparent. If he could receive instruction – if he could be taught to heed his soul – then he would become a man. And, what was more, he would be a lesson to us all, especially, wrote Defoe, ‘those who think nobody so wise as themselves’.

Defoe wrestled manfully with the uncomfortable question that Peter posed: what was it that divided ‘us’ from ‘them’, man from the animals? Different minds arrived at different conclusions. But the habitual tidier of nature Carl Linnaeus was typical. He reassured mankind by creating a separate species of ‘wild men’ or homo ferens. Peter was still clearly an outsider – one of ‘them’.

Peter’s example was later used in numerous theories of child development, socialisation and the role of language. Many thinkers dwelt on his inability to learn to speak. The philosopher James Burnett (Lord Monboddo), whose ideas anticipated some of those of Charles Darwin, presented him as an illustration of his theory of the evolution of language in the human species. He saw Peter as evidence that ‘man was born mute, and that articulation is altogether … a habit acquired by custom and exercise’. To others, Peter was thought to demonstrate the existence of a ‘critical window’ in which language and other skills are developed in the child. Having missed the ‘window’, Peter could never learn such skills again. Hence the apparent failure of his esteemed tutors.

Other scientists concentrated on the role of ‘socialisation’ in child development. After a childhood supposedly devoid of parental care and nurture, Peter was considered to have developed a ‘mental indifference’ and a lack of empathy, reflection and memory. In common with other feral children, it was argued, he ‘lived solely to survive’, satisfying only his base desires for food and sleep. In other interpretations, Peter’s mental shortcomings were attributed primarily to his lack of language. Having never learned to speak, it was suggested, how could he comprehend his own ‘inner voice’? How could he order and make sense of his world? The result was that he was virtually unable to display higher mental functions. He was trapped in the mind of a toddler.

Rather than being a genuine ‘feral child’ then, Peter was most likely abandoned by his parents who were unable to cope with his behaviour and impairments.  Though sent to the country, Peter was recorded as a small part of a very grand painting which can be found in Kensington Palace.

Recent analysis of this portrait suggests Peter had a rare genetic condition known as Pitt-Hopkins Syndrome, indicated by:

  1. His short stature
  2. Lustrous mop of thick curly hair
  3. Hooded eyelids
  4. Cupid’s bow mouth, with a pronounced curve to the upper lip
  5. He disliked clothes, but was wrestled daily into a green suit
  6. Pictured holding acorns and oak leaves – symbolic of living wild in the woods – and some fingers on his left hand (not seen) were fused 

The closest match is Pitt-Hopkins, a genetic condition only identified in 1978, which has severe neurological effects, says Professor Beales. “It’s severe learning difficulties, developmental difficulties and the inability to develop speech.”

Contemporary accounts chime with his diagnosis, such as this description of Peter’s first appearance at court:

“The wild boy played with a glove of Caroline’s [the Princess of Wales], grew fascinated by a pocket watch that struck the hours and, as was usual with him, attempted some mild pickpocketing. Furthermore, rumour spread that he had, in breach of all civilised decorum, seized the Lord Chamberlain’s staff and put his hat on before the king.”

Whatever his ailments, Peter was not forgotten by the royal court. His keep was paid by the crown for nearly 60 years through three reigns and when he died a brass tablet was erected to his memory at royal expense.

He was given a prime spot in the graveyard at Northchurch, which is only about 8 miles from where I live.  Close to the south porch his rough-hewn stone, now shaded by an unruly dog rose, reads simply: ‘Peter the Wild Boy – 1785’.  The stone was paid for by the locals and even today flowers can often be found on his grave.

Despite his moniker, Peter was never reported as being aggressive or hurting anyone and whatever the philosophical debates of the time, it seems he was a gentle, happy if very unusual human being.

The Gravestone of Peter The Wild Boy

The Gravestone of Peter The Wild Boy

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Secret London: streets beneath streets of London

Sometimes we hear about how some of the oldest cirties are built on top of the ruins of earlier incarnations. Rome, Paris and London are some well known examples. In fact many British cities are built upon several earlier eras such as the Romans or Vikings which can lay 20-30 feet below the modern streets. Sometimes you can visit these streets such as the famous tourist attractions in Bath and York. At other times, ancient streets are discovered almost by accident when excavated in London before construction work takes place only then to be covered again waiting for new discoveries centuries down the line, Today though was the first time I accidentally discovered a real life Victorian street literally under my feet when I looked through the grate of a drain…..

The Great Wen

Paul, the librarian at Time Out, first told me about the street beneath Charing Cross Road in around 2005. He promised to show it to me, but never did.

Then, last month, I saw it. I was mooching around Cambridge Circus, noting the loss of London’s best-named book shop, Lovejoys, a landmark from the time I used to be a dedicated fanzine-browser across the road at Sportpages, also since departed. I had always assumed Lovejoys was a wittily named Soho porn shop, but it actually stocked cheap classics and DVDs. The shop taking over the site will be a sex shop it seems, albeit of the modern, seedless, air-brushed, air-conditioned variety rather than Soho’s traditional damp basement. With the erasure of any trace of character at the arse-end of Berwick Street, the old Soho sex shop is nearly gone. Indeed, much of this post is about things…

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I’ve just had my DNA tested

I’ve always wanted to have my DNA tested and short of getting myself arrested, it seemed the best way to do this was to pay for one of those home-delivery kits.

It must be said that I know quite a lot about my likely heritage and have written before about being related to various Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian royal and warrior figures going back to 200BC and without going back through the records, about 85 generations if I remember.  You can see my post about it here.

In amongst all of this, there didn’t appear to be any real foreign element at all which these days we are led to believe is almost unheard of.  It’s ok for BBC or National Geographic documentaries to feature remote tribes who have farmed the same patch of land for hundreds or thousands of years but as we are often told, there is no such thing as a real British or indeed real English, Scots, Welsh, Irish and that we are a mongrel race.  I’m sure it is the same in which ever country you might be reading this.

Obviously, this is to a large extent true of most people in almost every country and the recent emphasis has been placed on this by the discussions of immigration during the whole Brexit situation.  Whilst this might be more true for the London area and other places prone to invasions, international trade or migrations, I honestly didn’t think it would be the case for me.

Screen Shot 2017-07-26 at 10.30.37

I was born in the red dot between “United Kingdom” and most of my family are from the encircle purple areas. Predominantly the homeland areas of Celtic and other ancient races.  A long way from the buzz of London and in the old days, almost impossible to get to… even if you knew it was there.

Both branches of my family come from some of the most remote places in the UK, far away from any city, let alone London and Europe.   The opportunities for travelling and meeting with anyone outside the next valley was unlikely and to put it frankly those beautiful and wild looking places I and millions of others sometimes visit on holiday for pleasure now were until the 19th century forboding, dangerous and distant places.  Why would anyone travel from Europe and the Middle East for months by foot and then get to the beautiful richly agricultural lands of southern England or the big city of London and then think to themselves “This place is just too good for me, I’m going to walk another month and become a coal-miner or a shepherd on the snowy moors, be generally freezing cold, probably be poorer and more uncomfortable too”.

It just doesn’t make logical sense but still, being interested in history and travel, I assumed my family tree must have missed something.  I must have some geographically exotic element in my DNA.  I crossed my fingers that I might have a bit of Mongol in me or maybe Greek, Iraqi, Iranian, native American or at a huge stretch, Zulu.

I didn’t expect anything but hoped that maybe someone had come to the middle of nowhere as a refugee or maybe a love-child of a Roman legionnaire or had been up to mischief on some distant shore in the old Empire days.

Apparently not though, for my DNA is 100% British and Scandinavian.  The Scandinavian no doubt being the pesky Danes and Vikings who possibly came from the one place more colder and remote than where my forebears came from… which makes total sense.

Screen Shot 2017-07-26 at 10.23.04

I was a bit deflated by the news, I am a genetic bore albeit it one with a long heritage and  as they would say in the old movies, of good lineage.   Interestingly, I have no English DNA in me whatsoever according to the test which may not be wholly accurate.  However, this can be explained away in their small print and by the real-life history in that my family come from the Scottish-English borderlands and despite living pretty much within a stone-throw of each other in England for centuries, it is very close to English-Scottish border and whilst the border moved many times, the people tended not to and I’d imagine that most of the people who lived there came from very similar Scandinavian forebears in the 5th century or so and few people from warmer parts of England would go there to inter-marry.

In reverse, until the last century or so, it was equally impossible for my ancestors to travel anyway more connected with the world. They’d likely never have heard of London and even if they had, they would have neither the money, means or inclination to go there and meet some exotic continental.

Besides which, before the unification of Scotland and England, the Liddell clan were feared warlords who claimed parts of the area with their territories shown on maps of the time with castles and areas of land still bearing the name.

The other section of the DNA result is Irish, Scottish and Welsh which are sometimes said to be the Celtic nations and they came to Britain from 3,500-4,000 years ago.   Originally they lived in much of the islands but were later pushed back by later invasions including a relation from my Scandinavian line, Erik Blood-Axe.

The next time I hear someone on the news say is no such thing as really British or English or Scottish etc, I will put my hand up or remind them it is another example of London-centric media.  True 1,500 – 4,000 years ago isn’t originally from Britain but it seems I really am from here just as much as some isolated Ethiopian or Tibetan farmer is from their lands.

Of course, no-one can take much pride, credit or indeed blame for the country or heritage that they invoke, the most important thing is your own character and achievements and not whether you are descended from kings, warriors, social workers or tyrants but I’m still very glad to have done my DNA test to know where I come from.

Family Trees don’t always tell the whole story but it seems in my case it is pretty accurate. So there you go, I await National Geographic to come and do a slightly condescending documentary on me.    A third of me is going to make some ancient temples and stone carvings and wait for the other 66% of me to come along in horned helmets and smash everything to smithereens!





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