About Me

My photo
I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

..and so ends Mad March. I hope that it at least raised a few eye brows across the InterWeb. Next up is one of my Favourite months - April: Book Month!!!! 
Cartoon Time.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

'Duck-eating' fish removed from Lakeside shopping centre lake

From The BBC

30 March 2019

A "rogue" fish has been removed from a lake after children reported seeing it eating ducks. The 25lb (11.3kg) catfish was caught at the man-made lake at the Lakeside shopping centre in Thurrock, Essex, by the Environment Agency (EA). A spokesman said fishing contests would be held at the lake to reduce the population of invasive species. Officer Ben Norrington said: "Large fish have the potential to eat wildfowl so we're pleased we could remove it." The EA said the animal had been seen eating ducks and other wildfowl. "Invasive species pose a serious threat to our native wildlife," Mr Norrington added. The catfish has been "relocated" to a fully enclosed lake with help from the Catfish Conservation Group.

[I did have to check on the date for this one – expecting it to be 1st April ‘Fools Day’. But apparently it’s real! Two things I love about this story – the fact that the fist was relocated by the Catfish Conservation Group and the fact that the other catfish would be ‘reduced’ by competitive fishing by the public (who presumably would pay for the privilege!). Whoever came up with that idea is smart!]

Thursday, March 28, 2019

It's the only way....

Just Finished Reading: The End of Absence – Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection by Michael Harris (FP: 2014)

Member of ‘My Generation’ (complete with The Who soundtrack) are liminal – we have lived in two separate realities: both before and after the existence of The Internet. Those youngsters born after its invention have lived their entire lives in this electronic sea we now find ourselves in. They have never know absence. They have never known the reality of being ‘off-grid’ for the simple reason that the grid never existed only a few precious years ago. They have never, or only in their wildest nightmares, been unable to contact someone or themselves being unable to be contacted. They have never been at a loss of a fact or an opinion. They have never, in any real sense, had to cope with being truly alone, thrown back on their own resources, even for a few hours. They have probably never even been lost.

This is the feeling that the author tries (and I think succeeds) in getting across especially to those who have never felt it. I grew up, went through adolescence and into adulthood knowing that if I needed to call someone I had to find a static (and hopefully working!) phone box on the street or in a public place [usually smelling slightly of stale urine. Likewise if I was away from home I was essentially unreachable until I called someone else to tell them where I was. If I wanted to, or simply forgot, I could disappear for as long as I wanted to. If I wanted to know where I was I would either have to ask someone or work it out for myself by reading maps or extracting what information I could from my local environment. I had to work at it. If I got lost, which I sometimes did, I had to find my own way back to a known location. Again the responsibility was mine and only mine. Everyone, even young children, had basic navigation skills because they had no other choice. All of that has gone. It has been destroyed by the cell phone in your hand. Not only can you reach out and touch someone (as they can to you) but you always know where you are and you always know everything you want to know – instantly and without any real effort. Results without effort. Rewards without cost. What could go wrong?

But it goes further than these seemingly trivial aspects of modern, especially urban, existence. There are teens who would rather be separated from their parents than their smart phones. There are countless millions who cannot concentrate long enough to read more than two pages of text, most of which they skim read. There are untold numbers of especially younger people who communicate largely by hand-held device, who are awkward in social situations and yet fear loneliness and isolation above all else. But when they look for partnership online – especially with phone based ‘dating’ aps – they ‘hook-up’ and consume their would-be partners like fast-food sushi. Yet again when the required result is arrived at instantly and without much effort the eventual fulfilment is transitory and fleeting – not unlike the drug high it emulates.

This, and so much more, is highlighted in this interesting short book. The author became intrigued when he saw some of his friends, both younger and contemporary, full immerse themselves in the pervasive electronic miasma we ‘naturally’ find ourselves in today. We have certainly gained but what, he asked, have we lost and how do you explain that loss to those who have never felt and will never feel it and, finally, does it actually matter. Full of interesting anecdotes and observations – both personal and larger scale this is a must read for anyone interested in how or technology is not only changing us but changing our relationships both with each other and with the very culture we swim in. Recommended. 

Monday, March 25, 2019

Sorry, my cat did *what* in your rose bushes?

Crisis? What Crisis?

It’s hard to believe that another week has flown by. Only a week ago the country and the government elected to run it were in crisis. Now, here we are, in probably a worse place than before.

The original date for Brexit is a mere 4 days away: this Friday. However, Teresa May’s awesome negotiating skills (AKA begging to the EU) has managed to push this out by, at the very least, a whole two weeks further to April 12th. But that’s only if Parliament can’t come up with an agreement on the PMs Plan. I mean they’ve only been arguing about it for weeks now so another 2 weeks probably won’t change very much. Of course this will, essentially, be the third time ‘The Plan’ is due to come before the House of Commons. The last defeat of 149 was bad enough but pails into insignificance to the previous truly historic vote against. As of a few hours ago it’s been decided not to bring the Plan back just yet for another go. Even the Prime Minister realises that another defeat by any significant numbers would be catastrophic to her premiership.

So, what on earth do they do now? After arguably the biggest public demonstration in a hundred years on the streets of London for a second referendum this weekend and with a petition to repeal Article 50 moving towards 6 million signatures (5,616,825 @ 21.21 on 25th March) it’s difficult to argue that the country is either ‘coming together’ or is moving towards the idea of an acceptable no-deal Brexit. Yet Parliament has still yet to come to a consensus on the issue. Tomorrow is looking like we’ll see a series of ‘indicative votes’ that will aim to show exactly where MPs want to hang their hats. I’m not sure if any of the ideas floating around will get a majority. Even if one does the government has already said that they don’t approve of the votes, will not do anything to enable the process nor say if they will even take the outcome into consideration. In other words they don’t like the game anymore, the rest of the House of Commons are just being mean and they’re taking their half of the game home to sulk.

To not put too fine a point on it it’s a mess, a big, useless, pointless mess. There’s only really one deal on the table – take it or leave it. The view being to leave it. So, clearly that only leaves a few options: No deal – which parliament has already rejected, Revoking Article 50 – which would probably cause riots, a 2nd referendum – which would probably cause riots or…… Or what? That’s a VERY good question. There are a number of alternatives – all of them bad to one degree or another and all of them rejected by significant numbers of people both inside and outside parliament. It’s an impasse that I can’t see around. But what I think is going to happen whether people want it or not is what I was predicting originally for this Friday. Because no one can agree on a deal or any other way forward there is only one alternative: a No-Deal Scenario by default. Europe say they are prepared. They may well be – or at least as much as they can be. We, however, are not prepared (in my estimation). So, in just under 3 weeks we crash out of Europe. What happens after that is anyone’s guess. But I will try to report for as long as I can. For as long as the power lasts. For as long as my food holds out. For as long as I can hold off the biker gangs looking for the last can of tuna fish. I just hope that they believe me when I say I’m a vegetarian…..       

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Exoplanet tally set to pass 4,000 mark

By Paul Rincon, Science editor, BBC News

23rd March 2019

The number of planets detected around other stars - or exoplanets - is set to hit the 4,000 mark. The huge haul is a sign of the explosion of findings from searches with telescopes on the ground and in space over the last 25 years. It's also an indication of just how common planets are - with most stars in the Milky Way hosting at least one world in orbit around them. That's something astronomers couldn't be certain of just 30 years ago. The Extrasolar Planets Encyclopedia, run by the Observatoire de Paris, has already passed the 4,000 mark. Dr Françoise Roques, from the observatory, who is on the scientific board of the encyclopedia, told BBC News: "The great news is that we shift from a starry sky to a planetary sky, as there are more planets than stars. And also that the planetary systems have great diversity of structure, with planets orbiting zero, one, two... stars, or other planets." The Nasa Exoplanet Archive is 74 planets away from the milestone. But there are 443 planet candidates detected by Nasa's Tess space telescope (launched in 2018) awaiting confirmation. There are a further 2,423 candidates detected by the Kepler space telescope. The latest exoplanet to be added to the Nasa archive was the Super Earth GI 686 b, which orbits a red dwarf star (a type cooler than our Sun) which was discovered using ground telescopes. It was added on 21 March. The total number of confirmed planets differs between the two catalogues because of slightly different acceptance criteria - along with other factors.

The early technique of detecting new worlds by the "wobble" induced by a planet's gravitational tug on its star yielded many giant planets known as "hot Jupiters", which orbited close to their stars. These planet types were easier to detect using the wobble method. Nasa's Kepler space telescope was launched in 2009; it used a different technique known as the transit method to measure the dip in brightness as a planet passed in front of its host star. Kepler discovered hundreds of Neptune-sized planets and those that fell into a category known as Super Earths (those having a mass larger than Earth's but below those of Neptune-sized planets). Dr Roques said it remained a difficult task to distinguish between a type of star known as a brown dwarf and giant planets. "Four-thousand is just a number as the frontier of the planet domain is uncertain," she said. "The brown dwarfs have been defined by the [IAU - International Astronomical Union] as small stars, but in fact, some of them are big planets. Our database collects objects until 60 Jupiter masses and contains a mix of the planetary brown dwarfs (formed in a protoplanetary disk around a star) and starry brown dwarfs (formed by collapse of interstellar cloud). The only way to ensure the difference is to access its internal structure, which is a difficult/ impossible task."

The first exoplanets were found around a pulsar - a highly magnetised neutron star - in 1992 by Aleksander Wolszczan and Dale Frail. The initial discovery of a planet around a main sequence star - those that fuse hydrogen into helium within their cores - was made in 1995 by astronomers Didier Queloz and Michel Mayor. Dr Roque explained: "For the field of exoplanet exploration, we [are going] from discovery projects to exploration projects, for a better understanding of the structure, formation, atmosphere and, of course habitability of exoplanets."

[“There are more planets than stars”…… OK. That’s OFFICALLY mind-blowing. Just look up at a clear night sky and think about that for a few seconds. Every point of light you see probably has at least one planet orbiting around it…. And probably more than one. That’s a LOT of planets out there. The odds of them ALL being lifeless barren rocks, ice planets or gas giants? Not good I’m thinking. Some of them, and probably a lot of them, MUST have life of some sort…. Surely!]

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Just Couldn’t Finish Reading: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (FP: 1955)

I did start this book with some trepidation. I’ve seen the 1970 Alan Arkin film several times – most recently a few months ago – and was not overly impressed. I thought that maybe things had been overplayed by Mike Nichols (the director) to bend the story too much to reflect on Vietnam. However I quickly learnt that many of the elements in the movie come directly or little changed from the novel itself. I also know that, although I enjoy a good laugh as much as the next person, I’m not a huge fan of humorous literature. The odd funny bit, funny situation or funny person, sure. Just not the whole book being comedy. Such was Catch-22.

Now personally I think that life in general is pretty absurd for a whole host of reasons. Sometimes you can’t help yourself from stopping, taking stock and saying to yourself (or out loud) ‘Jeeze, this is absurd’ usually followed by an ironic laugh. I get that. I’m ‘down’ with that (and ‘the kids’ apparently – according to a 20 something who used to work for us). But what I found simply too much was the absurdity of the novel being laid on so thickly. Not only was the overall situation in the novel absurd but all, and I mean ALL, of the characters were absurd to an absurd degree – annoyingly so actually. So when an absurd character became entangled in an absurd situation and acted absurdly because of it…… where did you go the next time? Answer – increased absurdity until I just couldn’t take it anymore and I abandoned the book around 130 pages in.

It’s a shame in many ways. It’s not the first classic that I found unreadable (far from it) but I had hoped to make a clean sweep on my 20th Century Classic series. But such is life I guess. Next is a two book diversion into Fantasy/Sci-Fi before starting another ten book sequence of Historical crime novels – with the ever present possibility of some random reads falling in-between. More to come.

Monday, March 18, 2019

A Fictional Dinner Party: 11 people I’d like to sit down to dinner & drinks with

Sherlock Holmes

What a great mind to sit down and discuss things with – although I suspect that he wouldn’t be the most sociable at the table. For anyone who expects tales of his (many) detective achievements it should be remembered that Dr Watson wrote them.

Elizabeth Bennett (Pride & Prejudice)

Lizzie was one of my earliest crushes who probably ruined me forever in the love stakes. It would be nice to have her around to spar with and maybe seduce her away from D’Arcy – after all I have more money than him so must be in need of a wife!

Mr Spock

Say no more really – Spock was THE icon I looked up to in my teens and probably saved my teenage soul when my brain was drowning in testosterone. I have a lot to thank him for and I’d really like to argue Logic with the great man – believing as I do that it’s a great way to make mistakes with confidence.

Chrisjen Avasarala (The Expanse)

Chrisjen totally blew me away in the first two series of The Expanse so I’d jump at the chance of sitting down with her and discuss international and indeed interplanetary politics as if it really mattered – which it does. I think going down the rabbit hole with her discussing realpolitik and her impressive survival skills would be like breathing pure oxygen.

Dr Who (Tom Baker)

I mean, who wouldn’t like to be entertained with a hundred stories from across the galaxy and the centuries – some of which might even be true? Just think what you could learn, just think of all the great people he has met, just think of the FUN.

Sarah Jane Smith (Dr Who)

Sarah was another early crush of mine so it would be fun to have her around. I’d like to bring out her humorous, mischievous side and hear her laugh the night away. I’m sure that her adventures with the Doctor would transfix the whole dining table. 

John Conner

But which one? Not the sulky teenager I think. Not the angry one played by Christian Bale. Maybe the one in Genesys played by Jason Clarke before he ‘turned’. It’d be interesting talking about how you fight an AI so much more intelligent than you are.

Galadriel (LoTR)

I’ve found the idea of Elves fascinating for as long as I can remember. Being so rational (or as much as I can be) being face to face with an actual magical being would be quite a challenge to get my head around but probably one she wouldn’t mind putting up with for a few hours, you know being immortal and all… It’d be an especially good evening if she could be persuaded to provide some Lembas bread!

Susan Ivanova (Babylon 5)

Being VERY Russian Susan can be a little dour at times but deep grounding in the harsh reality of life and her acceptance of the nature of things gives her a huge gravitas that you can’t help but be pulled in by. Yet another fascinating character full of stories – both funny and dramatic – someone who is full of life because she has seen with her own eyes how tragic things can be. Most definitely someone to drink a few glasses of good Vodka with.

Willow Rosenberg

Someone that cute would light up the room (even without using her magic) although I suspect she’d be happier if Tara was there with her for moral support. I’d probably know enough about magic (being honestly fascinated by the subject – go figure) to at least not ask too many stupid questions. It’d be interesting to at least get some idea of how it all works.

Robert Langdon

Apart from the fact that Tom Hanks is an absolute delight in real life (so I understand!) and is a superb actor the ability to discuss Semiotics (the study of signs and symbols) with THE Professor who figured out so much so quickly would (yet again) be riveting. I can imagine that Robert could hold the whole room in the palm of his hand – even with such a tough crowd – when he explains how the science of symbols can be used to ‘read’ the world around us.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Training for the future effects of Global Warming....

Contactless card use surges as doubts ease

By Kevin Peachey for BBC News

15 March 2019

Two in five card payments are made using contactless technology as consumers appear to have cast aside any doubts of paying without a Pin. The number of transactions using contactless rose 31% in 2018 compared with the previous year, banking trade body UK Finance data shows. Adoption of this technology on public transport and by more retailers has led, in part, to the rise. The contactless payment limit, before entering a four-digit Pin, is £30.

Debit card use had already been rising dramatically at the expense of cash. In 2017, debit card use overtook the number of payments made in cash in the UK for the first time. The growth in contactless in 2018 is expected to lead to a widening of this gap. Some 6.3 billion payments were made using contactless debit cards last year, a 29% increase on the previous year, the UK Finance data shows. These purchases were worth a collective total of £58bn. The increase in the use of contactless on credit cards was even greater - with 44% more purchases of this kind in 2018 compared with the previous year. More consumers have been sent replacement credit cards with a contactless facility, but they are still used far less than debit cards. There were 1.1 billion credit card payments on contactless last year, valued at nearly £11bn.

The average amount spent in a transaction of any kind on a debit or credit card last year was £35. Eric Leenders, managing director of personal finance at UK Finance, said: "Many of us are now reaching for our cards or mobiles rather than cash to make low-value purchases, as customers opt for the convenience and security of paying with contactless. There has also been an increase in credit card use although growth in outstanding balances has slowed, suggesting many consumers are using their cards for day-to-day spending rather than as a means of borrowing." A major report, published earlier this month, found that cash was at risk of disappearing without action from regulators and the government. The system which underpins the use of notes and coins was at risk of falling apart, the Access to Cash Review concluded.

[I use the chip & pin with the 4 digit code all the time. I’ve used contactless a few times too – almost without thinking sometimes. We even chatted about it tonight during a meal out with the guys (but interestingly we all paid with cash just about an hour ago!) with one saying that he gets cash out at the beginning of the month but pays contactless far more than he uses cash. Personally I like cash. For one thing it’s pretty much untraceable and I like that very much. Every time you use your card ‘the system’ knows exactly where you are and what you’re buying. That bothers me…..]

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Just Finished Reading: All The President’s Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward (FP: 1974)

It started like so many momentous things do – with a sloppy example of overreach, with an arrogant abuse of power and with a reporter sent to produce a nothing story to be tucked way back on page 10. But what that reporter found was a loose thread and, as we all do from time to time when presented with such an enticing thread he pulled on it. The more he pulled the more thread emerged. The identity of the burglars at the Watergate building was intriguing. The fact that their lawyer appeared out of nowhere to defend them and then there was the evidence found on the men themselves, sophisticated bugs, Cuban literature and a strange cheque. More threads to pull, more stories to follow up on, more names, more links – certainly too much for one reporter. So Bernstein was assigned with Woodward to ‘get to the bottom of things’ and report back. Now they were digging as well as pulling on threads and the more they dug and the more they pulled the more was revealed about the seemingly simple attempted break-in. Looked at from a distance the Watergate break-in was like a hill on a flat plain, but with perspective it began to look like a small hill that was part of a much wider range of hills with the faint impression of much larger mountains behind it overshadowing the whole range. The more names they collected and the more links between them pointed increasingly to a truly frightening prospect. The burglars it seemed where only part of a much wider and much deeper conspiracy to manipulate the democratic process in America, to win at all costs, to discredit opponents, to intimidate those who could not be discredited and to ‘do what it takes’ to cover the whole thing up. Some of the names were known in every American household. Most where unelected appointees but some, it seemed had been elected into office and it was just possible that at the very centre of things was the occupant of the highest elected office in the land. If that was true…….

Of course we all now know how it ended for Nixon and his corrupt administration. Oddly we are being reminded of those turbulent times by the echoes of the present corrupt administration. History, we are told does not repeat itself but sometimes it does rhyme. The tune from 1974 and 2018 is similar enough that people from both eras can hum along with relative ease. I found myself more than once gasping at the similarities between Watergate and whatever the hell people are going to call the Trump Presidency. The story reads like a true detective novel which, in a sense, it was as the co-authors of this classic tale of political overreach track down leads, figure out clues and publish their regular findings in the Washington Post. Luckily for them their paper took its duty as the Fourth Estate seriously and despite threats and an increasingly focused dirty tricks campaign continued to post stories about the widening conspiracy until other papers picked up other threads and began pulling on them too. Before long the trickle of bad news for the Nixon Presidency became an unstoppable flood. But, just like the movie starring Redford and Hoffman as the reporters in question, the story portrayed was only half finished. The Watergate hearings, the Nixon tapes and the President’s resignation in disgrace would be reported in other books. This one, however, shows how it all started, how the ground was laid for what came later and what can be done when the media is courageous enough to talk truth to power.

Not being wholly familiar with the details of the events – despite being a teenager at the time - some of this especially early on in the text went over my head a little. I was familiar with the outline (both from basic history reading and from the movie) but the detail, and the names of many of the people involved were new to me. Of course by the end of the book I could ‘see’ the major players in my mind’s eye and was familiar with their individual stories. The book made the whole cast of characters – both good and bad – human to me. It also, like all good works like this, made me want to know more so expect much more of this turbulent era to come. If you ever wanted the inside scoop on Watergate or wondered at the historical echoes to the present this is definitely a good place to start. Recommended (R6). 

Monday, March 11, 2019

Déjà vu in Parliament

Next week Parliament are going to be allowed to have a ‘meaningful vote’ on Brexit. Of course we’ve been here before and it didn’t go so well for Teresa May but at least it made the history books with the worst defeat of a standing government since the 18th century.

There are, if it goes ahead (remembering the time that a promised meaningful vote was pulled at the last minute because the Tories *knew* that they were going to lose it), three votes on the 12th, 13th and 14th March – yes, that TWO weeks before the scripted departure from the EU. The first vote on the 12th is on Teresa’s ‘new’ deal which is essentially the same as the old deal (that of the historic defeat) which everyone is expecting the government to lose despite the threats and poorly executed bribery they’ve been spraying around the place. So, no deal is expected on the 12th. The second vote is on the no-deal scenario. Smart money (and I agree with them) suggests that no deal will be rejected by Parliament as a viable option. It’s just by how many votes that’s up for debate. The last vote on the 14th will be about extending Article 50 past the 29th March date. My guess is that this will fail for a number of reasons although I’m guessing that it might be close (less than 50 votes maybe?). One of the problems is that European Elections are coming up in June so it’d be kind of embarrassing (and pointless) to have the opportunity to elect people to an organisation you’re trying very hard to leave.

Inevitably the voting would be another referendum in all but name. However the kicker is that any extension (with just two weeks to go remember) would have to be agreed by the EU 27 nations and they’ve already said that they would extend the Article 50 deadline ONLY if there was a good reason to do so – like us having time to pass laws and such. Giving us more time to argue and squabble is not, according to the EU a ‘good reason’. So, as long predicted by myself on March 29th we will crash out of the EU without any deal.

So, what happens then? I think that after the Tuesday vote is lost the present slow undercurrent of prepping for a no-deal scenario will break out into an increased level of panic buying. I’m expecting there to be an increase in empty shelves at supermarkets and even talk of unofficial rationing. There will also be (undoubtedly) a sudden increase in heated rhetoric in the blame game – most of it aimed at the EU for not giving us what we wanted and at the Labour Party for not being Teresa’s backing group at all times. That will go on with increasing volume right up to the moment the country drives itself off a cliff. Then what? Well, here’s what won’t happen: It won’t be the End of the World. There won’t be riots and the Army will not be on the streets. Contingency plans (mostly admittedly half-baked and ill-prepared) will go into effect. It will not be like The Blitz or just after Dunkirk when we expected (wrongly) to be invaded at any minute. But what will happen?

Inevitably there will be a breakdown in the supply chain as customs services on both sides of the English Channel get fully up to speed. That’ll take somewhere around 2-4 weeks. For that time there will be shortages of something exacerbated by panic buying. After the initial chaos things will start settling down. Supplies will be getting through and the initial panic will subside. But some things – like cut flowers for example – will take much longer to recover. Inevitably prices on probably all goods will increase from a few percent to over twenty percent depending on the product. It wouldn’t surprise me at all (sadly) if hate-crime against anyone with a foreign accent increases at this time. That too will settle down but I’m guessing that the level it returns to will be higher than before.

Longer term we will lose jobs and manufacturing capacity. This is already starting to happen with companies either moving or actively talking about moving jobs and factories out of the UK. It’s always been obvious that this will happen despite the lies (it’s difficult calling them anything less) from Brexiteers. It’s simple economics. If there’s an EU tariff on a product that is hurting sales and it can be eliminated by moving a factory inside the EU that’s exactly what will happen. It won’t happen overnight but any new investment simply won’t be happening here. In 10 years I imagine that most of the foreign car manufacturers will only have the runts of their global empires based here for purely domestic consumption. Naturally we’ll get back on our feet whatever happens. But Britain’s economic future won’t exactly be bright for the next 10-25 years, not unless something very unexpected happens. I’m not exactly holding my breath on that one. But you never can tell. Teresa might win her vote on Tuesday against all of the odds and negative predictions – which will mean two years in that half-way house of being outside the EU but still inside the Customs Union and Single Market. How THAT works out is, as with so many other things, ANYONE’S guess.   

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Cartoon Time.

International Women's Day: Trail-blazing women of Kew

By Helen Briggs for BBC News

8 March 2019

London in 1896, and a curious turn of history. Women gardeners were employed for the first time at Kew, and on equal pay, decades before women gained the vote. Made to wear the same garb as male gardeners so as not to distract their colleagues, their brown woollen bloomers soon made the news. As the satirical magazine, Punch, put it, "They gardened in bloomers the newspapers said. So to Kew without waiting all Londoners sped." After a blaze of publicity, the powers that be changed their minds and skirts were reinstated. Now, more than a century on, Kiri Ross-Jones, archivist and records manager at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, reflects on the trail blazers of Kew. She says it's incredible that at this point in time, women were in horticultural employment. "They worked long days, there was a lot of physical work involved in it - and also the studying side of it as well - these women were studying in organic chemistry and physics as well as botany and horticulture. And I think it's just amazing that at this point in time these women were doing that here at Kew."

Annie Gulvin, Alice Hutchings, Gertrude Cope and Eleanor Morland, who trained together at Swanley Horticultural College, became the first female gardeners at Kew. Their days were long, digging in the dirt from 6am to 6pm in the summer months. They were expected to spend their evenings attending lectures or studying in the library. "As far as we can tell, the women were employed on exactly the same terms as the men - and they appear to have been paid the same salary - it was quite a low salary for that day - but it was, as far as we can tell, exactly the same as the male gardeners," says Kiri Ross-Jones. Dr Catherine Horwood, a writer and social historian on women's horticultural history, says the appointments were enormously significant. Until then, the only women on the payroll at Kew were caretakers and a pot-washer in the tropical department. "Although women at that time could pay to learn about horticulture, this was the first time they could earn a wage while honing their horticultural skills," she says.

The writers of the Journal of the Kew Guild for 1896 had mixed feelings about the employment of female gardeners: "Some of the work seems too laborious for them but this is their affair… Given fair play and no favour we do not object to anyone competing in the field of horticulture, be it prince or peer, retired army officer or young lady. The pity it is that in the case of women, marriage would terminate their gardening career." As it turned out, the experiment was to last only a few years. By 1898, Alice Hutchins had been promoted to sub-foreman, Annie Gulvin had left, and a small number of other women had joined the gardens. Kiri Ross-Jones says it was normal for students to be employed at Kew only for a couple of years and then to move on to better paid positions. "Pleasingly, looking at our records that does appear to be what seemed to happen to these women," she says. "They generally moved on to roles as head gardeners in some cases at other large gardens."

Although it was a challenge for women to find jobs, Gertrude Cope went on to work with another pioneering female gardener, Miss Harrison, at gardens near Birmingham owned by George Cadbury. After 1902, there were no more female gardeners at Kew until the First World War came along, and women were needed to replace the men who had gone to fight. Women were recruited once again during the Second World War, but it was only in the 1970s when their number increased to become equal with male students. Eli Biondi who supervises the Princess of Wales Conservatory at Kew says gardeners there today are united by a common interest and passion in plants. The early women were heroic, she says. "It's thanks to them that I'm here and I've got a very exciting and interesting job in one of the most famous botanic gardens in the world."

[I do love this kind of social history – especially of early trailblazers like the women listed above. It’s also interesting that in some places women were paid far less than men because (it was assumed) they didn’t need the money as they were naturally being ‘kept’ by a man – father, husband etc. Whereas other places women were paid exactly the same wage because, logically in some people’s minds, they were doing exactly the same job so why not? I’ll see if I can find out some more about these pioneers….]