Author Archives: Richard Carter, FCD

Darwin struggles with German

I was reading Sir Francis Darwin's reminiscences about his father yesterday, and was amused by the following passage describing Charles Darwin's approach to reading German:

Much of his scientific reading was in German, and this was a serious labour to him; in reading a book after him, I was often struck at seeing, from the pencil-marks made each day where he left off, how little he could read at a time. He used to call German the “Verdammte,” pronounced as if in English. He was especially indignant with Germans, because he was convinced that they could write simply if they chose, and often praised Professor Hildebrand of Freiburg for writing German which was as clear as French. He sometimes gave a German sentence to a friend, a patriotic German lady, and used to laugh at her if she did not translate it fluently. He himself learnt German simply by hammering away with a dictionary; he would say that his only way was to read a sentence a great many times over, and at last the meaning occurred to him. When he began German long ago, he boasted of the fact (as he used to tell) to Sir J. Hooker, who replied, “Ah, my dear fellow, that's nothing; I've begun it many times”.

In spite of his want of grammar, he managed to get on wonderfully with German, and the sentences that he failed to make out were generally difficult ones. He never attempted to speak German correctly, but pronounced the words as though they were English; and this made it not a little difficult to help him, when he read out a German sentence and asked for a translation. He certainly had a bad ear for vocal sounds, so that he found it impossible to perceive small differences in pronunciation.

Old friends, New Fragments, old inscriptions

Last Monday, I made an all-too-rare tryst with an old friend. We met at the small town of Sedbergh in what was once part of Yorkshire, but is now part of Cumbria. I have something of a soft spot for Sedbergh on two accounts: it was the town where Charles Darwin's friend and mentor Adam Sedgwick went to school (he was born a few miles away in Dent); and it is the home of one of my favourite second-hand book shops. The book shop was the reason we had arranged to meet in Sedbergh: my friend and I both suffer intractable addictions to old books.

Amongst the books I bought was a set of essays, New Fragments, by another of Charles Darwin's friends, John Tyndall. I also have something of a soft-spot for Tyndall: I managed to sneak him into two of the chapters of the book I have been writing about my local moor. He was a thoroughly good chap, and, unlike Sedgwick, one of Darwin's strongest supporters.

Although I would never dream of writing inside a book, I am always delighted to see the marginalia and other inscriptions of a book's previous owners. The title page of my new Tyndall book bears a rather dramatic inscription:

John Tyndall's ‘New Fragments’.

John Tyndall's ‘New Fragments’ (1892)

Received at the Temple Chambers on Friday 15th January 1892 (on a bed of sickness that has been well nigh unto death)

I guess I'll never know the story behind these words—which is one of the appeals of such enigmatic inscriptions.

7th November, 1913: Alfred Russel Wallace dies

Alfred Russel Wallace

Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913)

On this date in 1913, the co-discoverer (with Charles Darwin) of Natural Selection, Alfred Russel Wallace, died, age 90, at his home in Dorset.

My history of science friends generally pooh-pooh the idea of science heroes, but I have no time for such nonsense. Wallace should be seen as a hero in anyone's book. He was also a top naturalist, and a thoroughly decent chap.

To mark the 100th anniversary of Wallace's death, the BBC and Natural History Museum have put together a brief video slideshow, narrated by Sir David Attenborough, about the great man.

Contrary to many of the headlines you might read, Wallace has never been ‘forgotten’—and long may that remain to be the case!

End of the Darwin tenner

Jane Austen

Jane Austen
(a famous southerner).

Pretty much as predicted, yesterday, the Bank of England announced that Jane Austen will replace Charles Darwin on the £10 note (most likely, some time in 2017).

With its announcement, the Bank of England has cleverly appeased campaigners who insisted that there must be at least one woman (in addition to the queen) on its bank notes by saying that it's going to do exactly what it was planning to do all along—a wonderful example of diplomacy in action.

Jane Austen wouldn't have been my first choice—or even my twentieth—but neither would Adam Smith, whose irritatingly smug profile currently disgraces the £20 note. As I said previously, personally, I'd have preferred the Brontë sisters over Austen, to bring some much-needed northernness to our bank notes, but regional inequality is still not seen as a pressing issue, it would seem.

20th July

20th July marks a number of Darwin-related anniversaries:

  • On 20th July, 1804, Darwin's future friend and enemy, the brilliant anatomist and palaeontologist (and inventor of the word dinosaur) Sir Richard Owen was born in Lancaster;
  • On 20th July, 1817, the eight-year-old Charles Darwin attended his mother's funeral in Shrewsbury;
  • On 20th July, 1858, while staying at The King's Head Hotel in Sandown on the Isle of Wight, Darwin began an ‘abstract’ of his planned major work on evolution—this abstract was to become On the Origin of Species.

11th July, 1836: Darwin visits Napoleon

Towards the end of her second voyage, HMS Beagle called at the volcanic island of St Helena in the South Atlantic. Darwin went ashore to spend a few days geologising. While he was there, he took the opportunity to visit the grave of St Helena's most famous former occupant (and prisoner), Napoleon Bonaparte. He recorded the event in his Beagle Diary:

9th to 13th [July, 1836]

I obtained lodgings in a cottage within stone's throw of Napoleon's tomb. I confess this latter fact possessed with me but little inducement. The one step between the sublime & the ridiculous has on this subject been too often passed. Besides, a tomb situated close by cottages & a frequented road does not create feelings in unison with the imagined resting place of so great a spirit. — With respect to the house in which Napoleon died, its state is scandalous, to see the filthy & deserted rooms, scored with the names of visitors, to my mind was like beholding some ancient ruin wantonly disfigured.

Darwin's servant-cum-assistant, Syms Covington, recorded the visit in more detail in his own journal as follows:

ON the 11th, went to Napoleon's Grave, a distance of about two and a half miles from port. This tomb is situated in a valley, WHICH has gardens, houses, etc. The grave is simple for so great a man, having no more than a large oblong stone with no inscription, surrounded in same form by iron railings AND also with wooden railings round the iron ditto leaving a space of about ten to fifteen feet for visitors to walk, and that beautifully green with grass, with the willows and cypresses. Outside the wooden railings is the small beautiful, clear well, where he (NAPOLEON) constantly every morning used to send for water to wash etc. Beautiful, clear water. Here is stationed a noncommissioned officer, an old soldier, to take care that no one injures the above. The willow is strictly forbidden for anyone to touch, but from the cypresses, a small twig is allowed only. At the East end or head of tomb, within railings, is a geranium, planted by Lady Warren (Admiral Warren's wife) and HER daughters; at THE West end or foot are several Cape bulbs, etc. The house IS situated from THE tomb, about a mile, along a ridge of mountains. I went to house the 13th; which is in a very decayed state, one room is a billiard room for visitors (wine sold also!). The remaining part serves as a barn and dwelling for the servants of the clergyman who inhabits the new house, which was built for Napoleon, but HE never inhabited it.

Covington's journal entry also included a sketch of Napoleon's grave:

Napoleon's grave

Napoleon's grave, St Helena by Syms Covington.

The absence of an inscription on the former emperor's grave was down to politics. The British governor of St Helena, Napoleon's gaoler, Hudson Lowe, ruled that the inscription should read ‘Napoleon Bonaparte’; the French generals Montholon and Bertrand wanted the grave to bear the more imperial, first-name-only inscription, ‘Napoleon’. An inscriptionless gravestone was the closest they could come to a compromise.

Five years after Darwin and Covington's visit, Napoleon's remains were moved from St Helena to a far more imperial tomb in Paris.

Napoleon's tomb.

Napoleon's second final resting place, Les Invalides, Paris.

Bank of England caves in to pressure

BBC: Mark Carney to review female representation on bank notes

Bank of England governor Mark Carney will look at the women represented on banknotes by the end of July. […]

He wrote a letter in response to a Conservative MP who is disappointed that the appearance of Sir Winston Churchill on a new £5 note leaves no female characters on the currency. […]

"Like you, I consider Sir Winston Churchill to be an excellent choice to appear on a banknote," he said. "However, I fully recognise that, with Sir Winston replacing Elizabeth Fry as the character on the £5 note—in the absence of any other changes to the Bank of England's notes—none of the four characters on our notes would be a woman."

(My emphasis added.)

I'm taking this to mean that the bank is unlikely to replace Fry with someone other than Churchill (almost certainly Jane Austen) on the fiver—which would, no doubt, be seen as a ‘snub’ to Churchill. So I'm guessing they will announce that they are bringing forward the replacement of Darwin on the tenner, and that he will be replaced by a woman (again, almost certainly Jane Austen). Alternatively, they might delay the introduction of the Churchill fiver and introduce a new tenner at around the same time.

In case you missed my previous post, here's what I would do if I were them.

Change for a tenner?

If Charles Darwin taught us anything, it's that nothing is permanent. Things change. It's inevitable.

Back in April, the Bank of England announced that Sir Winston Churchill is to replace Elizabeth Fry on its £5 note. Good call, if you ask me: Churchill certainly had his faults, but he is perhaps our most famous statesman, was a great orator, and was our leader in what many people think of as our finest hour; Elizabeth Fry is mainly remembered, when she's remembered at all, for, well, being on the back of the £5 note. It sounds like a total no-brainer.

And yet, over the last couple of weeks, the Bank of England has been severely criticised for its decision to replace Fry with Churchill on the fiver, as it means that, the queen excepted, there will no longer be any women on any of its bank notes. Finally, having been put on the spot last week, the bank's outgoing governor, Sir Mervyn King, hinted very strongly that Jane Austen could soon replace Charles Darwin on £10 note (he actually said Dickens, not Darwin, but we knew what he meant).

Darwin tenners

Some moribund Darwin tenners.

To be honest, I've been bracing myself for the inevitable loss of the Darwin tenner. Having campaigned to have Darwin celebrated on a bank note, I'll be very sad to see it go. But it's only a piece of paper. When it comes to imminent extinction events, there are far more important things we should be worrying about.

It's not just women who are in short supply on our bank notes. There are no representatives of ethnic minorities. There are, as far as I know, no gay men or lesbians. There is no one from the North of England (by any northerner's definition of the North of England at least). There are no Welsh. There are, however, two Scots (James Watt and Adam Smith)—even though Scotland has its own banks and bank notes. Go figure. To add insult to injury, once Darwin goes, there will be no beards—although, if you ask me, Her Majesty is starting to show a hint of five o'clock shadow.

But it's a moot point: how on Earth do you decide who deserves to go on the next bank note? There's no right answer.

But… JANE AUSTEN?!!!

Oh, for Pete's sake!

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that not a single man in possession of a Y-chromosome is going to want such a misfortune. Yes, yes, I know, Jane Austen is superb. She must be: everyone says so. And they all say so because they all heard so from someone else who hasn't actually read her. Or, if they have read her, it's only because they were forced to read her for English Lit., when they had to say she was superb to avoid getting an ‘F’. And they probably didn't even read her then; they probably just bought the study guide, and watched the latest TV series/movie on DVD (Amazon: uk|.com). Trust me, kids, you really can get away with stuff like that in English Lit.—I write from personal experience (grade A ‘O’ Level, 1981, and I still haven't read two of the books).

True, Jane Austen did come a magnificent 70th in the 2002 BBC 100 Great Britons national poll—a mere 66 places behind Charles Darwin, and a mere 67 places (I kid you not) behind Diana, Princess of Wales. So it seems only fair that Austen should grace a bank note before the likes of Captain Cook, Emmeline Pankhurst, and Sir Cliff Richard (or any of the 55 other people who came ahead of her in the poll, but who also haven't yet appeared on bank notes).

Not that I think we should decide such important matters by way of specious TV celebrity beauty contests, you understand. No, if it were down to me, I would do away with the notion of one denomination, one note. Why not have twenty different fivers, thirty different tenners, and so on? The countries in the Eurozone seem to manage perfectly well with lots of different versions of the same note. That way, everyone wins: we could keep Fry and Darwin; introduce Austen, Pankhurst, Franklin, Stopes, and loads of other women; and keep the bolshie northerners happy with the likes of Cook, Turing (honorary northerner), Cobden and Carter. And why stop there? Who says bank notes have to have people on them? Why not a robin, Stonehenge, Hadrian's Wall, Durham Cathedral, Mallard, or even scenes from Shakespeare and Tolkien?

But, if it really does have to stay one denomination, one note, and if Darwin really does have to go, and if it really does have to be a female author of superior chick-lit who replaces him, try this for Persuasion… Forget Jane Austen; let's put the Brontë Sisters on the tenner! Perfect! There were three of them! That would almost redress the male/female (and north/south) imbalance in one fell swoop! The Brontë Sisters: a frankly brilliant, far less Austentatious choice!

(No, the fact that I live a mere five miles as the curlew flies from Wuthering Heights, and have more than a passing interest in the gritty West Yokshire moors doesn't enter into it.)