Friday, 18 May 2018

Conscientious Objection

I worked at UCL in Bloomsbury for 23 years and, although I walked around the campus area to shop, to go to different lecture rooms and Departments, and for pleasure, I had never visited the garden in Tavistock Square, just a few hundred metres away from my office. Three days ago, I travelled into London from my home in Berkhamsted for a meeting and afterwards walked back to Euston Station past Tavistock Square On the spur of the moment, I decided to pop in and look around this lovely green space. In addition to the lawns and shrubs, there are interesting trees, including a cherry tree dedicated to those who were killed by the atomic bomb at Hiroshima and among the monuments in the garden is an impressive statue of Gandhi. I was drawn to a large stone (see below, image from Wiki) that had been covered by white carnations, laid out singly in a rather striking way all over its surface. This stone bore a plaque bearing the inscriptions:

To commemorate men & women conscientious objectors to military service all over the world & in every age.

To all those who have established and are maintaining the right to refuse to kill. Their foresight and courage give us hope.

This stone was dedicated on 15 May 1994 International Conscientious Objectors’ Day

How interesting, then, that I decided to discover the Tavistock Square garden on the twenty-fourth anniversary of the day that the monument was unveiled. That explains the presence of the carnations and I’m only sorry that I couldn’t take a picture of it at the time (unfortunately, I don’t own a mobile telephone and wasn’t carrying a camera, or my iPad).

The monument set me thinking about what I would do if threatened by the need to fight and kill opponents. Firstly, I don’t think that I could take the life of another human being and, while I have killed mammals when I was younger, I’m not sure that I could now. That’s not to say that I respect all life forms, as I’m an enthusiastic killer of wasps and flies when they invade “my” space and I am an omnivore, so cannot object to killing of mammals by others. Secondly, I find it difficult to accept that war is inevitable and that killing opponents results in anything but pain. Of course, there are victors and vanquished (at great cost on both sides), but settlements are negotiable without resort to force.

A web search reveals the names of many famous objectors, especially during the First and Second World Wars, but large numbers of other citizens, who are less famous, followed their conscience and beliefs and refused to fight. Among famous conscientious objectors was Kathleen Lonsdale (see above) and her story has a personal ring for me as she worked for many years at UCL. She was a distinguished scientist who was raised as a Baptist (as I was), but became a Quaker as she believed in pacifism. Gill Hudson writes [1] that:

..Kathleen saw her life as scientist, Quaker, and mother as inextricably linked. She gave the Eddington lecture in 1964 and described how the practice of science, of religion, and of child rearing should be founded on common themes of scepticism and of knowledge gained at first hand.

She was a firm believer in Gandhian non-violent resistance and in civil disobedience. During the Second World War she refused to register for civil defence and when she refused to pay the fine for this was committed to Holloway prison for one month. Although she would have been exempt from civil service duties, it seemed important to her that she should make the point as a conscientious objector.

Not everyone has the courage of Kathleen Lonsdale and the Peace Pledge Union [2] provides support for conscientious objectors in the contemporary world.

In thinking about my views on conscientious objection, I find myself in a quandary. In my last blog post [3], I recalled the tragedy of the Harrowell brothers, just two of many millions who died prematurely while fighting for their country. I don’t know if they were enthusiastic volunteers in the Great War, or whether they were reluctant conscripts, but many would argue that their deaths, and those of many others, resulted, eventually, in the maintenance of civilised society. Certainly, many combatants show extraordinary bravery and sacrifice and I cannot belittle their contribution in allowing me to enjoy my way of life. However, I still think that I would be a conscientious objector, although who knows? I just hope that the situation does not arise where I have to make the choice.   

It surprises me that this series of thoughts all came about after a serendipitous detour into one of London’s squares, while strolling back to Euston Station to catch the train home. Should it?

[1] Gill Hudson (2010) Lonsdale [née Yardley], Dame Kathleen (1903-1971). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:

Monday, 30 April 2018

Origami doves

I attend an Art History group run by our local U3A. Last month, we looked at examples of Japanese Art and some in the class brought along examples from their own collections. We met again last Monday and our leader, Val, didn’t make the usual prior announcement of the art we would be discussing: we were just told that there would be visitors. All very intriguing.

On turning up at the Quaker Meeting Place in Berkhamsted, where we hold our meetings, I was surprised to find two tables, with chairs arranged around them, and the visitors all wearing T-shirts with “Dacorum Heritage Trust” written on the front. They were to lead us through a session making origami doves, so there was a connection to our previous subject. We were given paper sheets that had been cut to shape and which had lines drawn on them to show where we should make folds. I quickly completed two doves and handed them in. 

The doves from our group will be added to many others to form an installation in an empty building in Hemel Hempstead [1]. Each dove (see below for an image from the Dacorum Heritage Trust) will represent a soldier who died in the First World War and we could select his name from the thousands available. I chose at random and was given the names of Private Albert Harrowell and Lance Corporal Frank Harrowell, two brothers who were brought up in a cottage in the centre of Berkhamsted. After visiting the road where it was located, I’m fairly sure that this cottage no longer exists.

Albert operated a Lewis gun and was injured during an attack at Ypres on 31st July 1917, during which he was recorded as missing. He was married to Florence and was aged 31 when he died, his grave being at Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial [2]. Frank was also a machine gunner and he was killed at Loos in France on 5th May 1918, aged 34. He was married to Ada Jane and, Frank being the elder brother, the couple lived in the cottage where Frank and Albert grew up. Frank’s grave is at the Loos Memorial [3], 43 km from Ypres. I don’t know more about the family and I can only imagine the grief suffered by the wives of the two men and the loss felt by William and Lizzie, their parents. I wonder how close they were as brothers? What were their occupations?

The brothers are commemorated on the War Memorial at Berkhamsted (see above) and, if it hadn’t been for the Dacorum Heritage Trust initiative, they would just have been names to me among many others. Now I feel differently and, on Remembrance Sunday, I will remember “my” Albert and Frank. I look forward to seeing the installation of all the origami doves. It is a little like the display of poppies that made such an impression at the Tower of London and I’m sure it will have a similar impact on the residents of Dacorum.

Doves are symbols of peace and help us to reflect on the horrors of war and each of us who made an origami dove now has a soldier (or soldiers) who is special to them. It is a lovely, and involving, thing to do and I realise once again how lucky I have been in not having to go through the horrors of war that the Harrowell family suffered a hundred years ago.

Many thanks to the Dacorum Heritage trust for letting me be a part of this marvellous initiative.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Torbay and a passion for collecting on the shore

Many British seaside towns are currently fighting a reputation for being run down, having many residents suffering financial hardship, having an influx of homeless people with all their problems, and also for open drug use. This is, of course, a generalisation, as there are many “bijou resorts” with many (un)occupied second homes and even the major resorts have marinas filled with craft owned by wealthy residents or by visitors who own apartments where they spend a few weeks, or week-ends, each year.

The influx of visitors to UK resorts has always been at its height during summer and in the 1950s and 1960s tourists poured in by train, coach and, latterly, by private car. “No Vacancy” signs were everywhere: on large and small hotels and also on guest houses, often converted from large Victorian properties built for a quite different type of visitor. I was brought up in Torbay and, as a year-round resident, was aware of the huge differences in the numbers of people in Paignton and Torquay in the summer months compared to the population in winter, when so many businesses that catered for holidaymakers shut down. All this was obvious, but I was not as curious as I should have been about the origins of the handsome villas and large houses that had been converted to accommodate visitors (and are now more widely used as holiday apartments). The young rarely are curious about history: it is something which comes with age and a sense of time passing.

Torquay was especially lucky in having a building boom in the mid-Nineteenth Century, with villas in an Italianate style being common, mirroring the Riviera feeling that the location of the town provided. Some of the villas were permanent residences and some were for shorter-term stays for those who wanted to own property in this fashionable resort. Then there were hotels that catered for First Class passengers and for members of the burgeoning middle classes who were attracted by the climate, beautiful setting and social cachet of the town. It was a time when visitors enjoyed a gentle walk, or a carriage ride, through the beautiful countryside and many also joined in the passion for Marine Natural History that was at its height at this time.

We get an idea of just how important a visit to the shore could be from the writings of Philip Henry Gosse, who lived in St Marychurch in Torquay, venturing round the coast and out to sea [1]. He was one of the great popularisers of Natural History and part of the fascination for visitors to the shores of Torbay was down to him [2]. In his book Land and Sea [3], Henry Gosse describes the local coastal scenery and the book is illustrated by woodcuts in a highly Romantic style that must have encouraged readers to visit Torbay (some are shown below).

Another woodcut from the book (see below) shows a man and woman on the shore, dressed appropriately for collecting and making observations [4]. This is what Henry Gosse writes about the effects of collectors, especially of sea anemones, that would be added to their parlour aquaria, a popular form of “entertainment” at the time:

Ah! gentle reader, I’ll whisper a secret in your ear; but don’t tell that I said so for ‘tis high treason against the ladies. Since the opening of sea-science to the million, such has been the invasion of the shore by crinoline and collecting jars, that you may search all the likely and promising rocks within reach of Torquay, which a few years ago were like gardens with full-blossomed anemones and antheas, and come home with an empty jar and an aching heart, all now being swept as clean as the palm of your hand! Yet let me do the fair students and their officious beaux justice: the work is not altogether done by such hands as theirs; but there is a host of professional collectors, small tradesmen whom you must search-up in back alleys, and whose houses you will easily recognize by the sea-weedy odour, even before you see the array of pans and dishes in front of the door all crowded with full-blown specimens. These collect for the trade, and are indefatigable. Only think of the effect produced on the marine population by three or four men in a town, one of whom will take ten dozen anemones in a single tide!

A reflection then of the popularity of the pursuit of collecting marine animals. It is not something that we recognise today, although families still venture on the shore to examine rock pools.

Later in Land and Sea, Gosse describes travelling to parts of Torbay that were less popular for collectors [3]:

Therefore it was that we ran some miles away from home, and pursued a pleasant road, partly through green lanes, rank with the glossy young leaves of the arum, and the arching fronds of the hart’s-tongue fern, scarcely embrowned by the late arctic winter; and partly sweeping along the shore-line and over the cliffs that make the base of this beautiful bay; till, Paignton being some distance behind us, we turned off to the left down a little lane, and drew up at the margin of the broad flat beach called the Goodrington Sands.

Far away is the edge of the sea, for the tide is wonderfully low, though we have yet a full hour and a half before it will be at its lowest point, and an immense breadth of soft, wet sand lies exposed. We pause for a moment to gaze on the boundary to the right. It is Berry Head, a noble headland that projects like a long wall far out into the sea, and presents its bluff termination, crowned with fortifications, to the impact of the waves that drive in with impotent fury from the wide Atlantic.

Berry Head is mentioned in the label to the woodcut of collectors shown above and, in Land and Sea, Gosse goes on to describe his methods of collecting, although contemporary Natural Historians would frown at his use of chisels and hammers to remove specimens together with the rocks to which they are attached.

Above are two contemporary images of Goodrington Sands and I wonder how many visitors today are aware of the activities of the passionate collectors of the mid-Nineteenth Century? The rocks in the lower picture were one of the collecting sites used by Henry Gosse and it is good to see young children in the picture following his example, but presumably without chisels and hammers. If only they knew about their enthusiastic predecessors.

[1] Edmund Gosse (1896) The Naturalist of the Sea-shore: The Life of Philip Henry Gosse. London, William Heinemann.

[2] Charles Kingsley (1855) Glaucus; or, The Wonders of the Shore. London, Macmillan and Co.

[3] Philip Henry Gosse (1865) Land and Sea. London, James Nisbet & Co.

Friday, 13 April 2018

Tempus fugit

More than 45 years ago, I spent two summers at the Moor House Field Station. It was a remote place, only accessible by a track from Garrigill near Alston in Cumbria: an idea of how remote is provided by the videoclip below [1]. Originally, the building was a hunting lodge, but a succession of outbuildings was then added and a laboratory (the large square structure shown clearly at 3.04 in the video) constructed for those working on the  IBP (International Biological Programme) in the 1960s and 1970s. In addition to research on the biology of vegetation and grouse, the laboratory was an outstation of the FBA (Freshwater Biological Association), with scientists investigating the effects of building Cow Green Reservoir on local rivers. Most of the “permanent” members of the Field Station came in by Land Rover each day, but there were also residents, including a cook/housekeeper in the summer months to cater for visitors, staying for days to months, from Universities and other establishments.

I first visited Moor House as a research student of the University of Durham from 1970-1973 but returned during the time of my first academic post at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. In the summer of 1972, I lived at Moor House during the week and walked to the local streams that I was studying, as well as driving to sites in Upper Teesdale in a Land Rover. My interest was in the distribution and biology of blackfly larvae in moorland streams (it was usual at that time to have an interest in one group of animals or plants) and compare the effects of altitude on distribution and production. All the collections needed to be processed and this work was carried out in the laboratory at Moor House (see the photograph below, taken by Patrick Armitage of the FBA).

All the hours of work resulted in a PhD thesis and some research papers, although my contribution to science was at that time minimal. By the time of my second summer, in 1974, my interests were broadening into studies of feeding in freshwater invertebrates and, serendipitously, these led to a paper in Nature [2], regarded as something of a “holy grail” for scientists starting out on their careers. It was from this work that I became a little more widely known and I then began a collaboration with the Rheo-Group in Lund in Sweden that provided both a jumping off point for my studies on particulate and dissolved organic matter in water bodies and for many research visits to Sweden and Finland. I never went back to Moor House.

So, what became of the Moor House Field Station? Sadly, it was regarded as being of limited use to the research community after the 1980s, except for those who continued to make day visits, and “permanent” staff left for other posts. The buildings began to decay and were then demolished, the rubble being used to reinforce the track – providing an odd memorial to the achievements of many who stayed, or worked, at Moor House (see below for how the site looks now [3]). My study streams remain – they were there long before the House, of course – and there will otherwise be no record of my research other than a few pieces of paper in journals. Of course, my memories are strong and there are many happy times to recall. These included playing Layla (Derek and the Dominoes) and All the Young Dudes (Mott the Hoople) at full volume on some evenings and, more reflectively, listening to Bruch’s Scottish Fantasia so often that it almost became a theme for the place. Then there was the excellent food cooked by Mrs Dunn in the large AGA in the kitchen and the pleasure to taking a bath at the end of a long day – once one became used to the peat-stained water.

Like I say, just memories and little else, yet it all seemed so important at the time.

[2] R.S.Wotton (1976) Evidence that blackfly larvae can collect particles of colloidal size. Nature 261:697.

[3] John Adamson (2009) Moor House Memories. (access through