We Lack Discipline Reads: The Bet – Chapter 2

(Credit: Vivienne Tuffnell)

CONTENT WARNING: Contains discussion about sex, sexuality, sexual exploitation, sexual abuse, sexual assault, sexually predatory behaviour and paedophilia.

Strap in, this is a long one!

Here is where we need to discuss the slightly postmodern structure of the novel itself. Firstly, I don’t think this is a deliberate stylistic choice by the author.

The opening is powerful, and actually the way the story begins would otherwise just be another tale of horrible abuse of a vulnerable person. If you’re into that there’s a whole genre of it out there. It has never been and will never be my cup of tea. For as much as I am a decadent and enjoy a bit of the suffering reading an entire book dedicated to someone else’s rubbish life just seems too much like…fetishing abuse.

This tale is categorically not about fetishing abuse. In fact it is pretty clear from the outset that the main character, our ‘victim’ if you will, has agency, has a voice and has power. I think this is one of the most important and strongest aspects of this book. Were the story to start ‘at the beginning’, as it were, there would be a long period where that agency, and thus the power of it to the reader, would be lacking.

But also this story…sort of…comes together. I would describe it like weaving a tapestry outwards, from the middle, toward both ends. We begin in the middle with this horrible night of Ashurst having abducted his dead child from the hospital, given his dead wife a tentative kiss and trudged who knows how far, through the woods, in the dark, in the snow in this fit of what can only be described as primal grief.

Consider this tapestry. Imagine it was being weaved from the centre outwards – You would begin with what is clearly the focal point, the main topic, and then slowly reveal the imagery, the symbolism, the images that provide that central focus with its meaning. This is what I feel Vivienne does with the structure of ‘The Bet’. Whilst it is easy to start from the top and work down, to start from the beginning and move to an end, presenting the story in this way develops a huge amount of intrigue, but also, from the start, presents us with the image of Ashurst as someone with power in this story. To me one of the key themes is the power and agency of Antony Ashurst despite every wrong done to him. (Credit: takazart via Pixabay)

That’s a thrilling middle of a narrative, sure. But it’s also a very well baited hook. It is such a simple device, to narratively break your story, now-and-then it, so that it gradually unwinds. It’s so simple that to actually pull it off without it reading like an A-level creative writing exercise is tough to do and I think Vivienne nails it.

I think she nails it because it doesn’t seem like a conscious device, but rather just how the story developed, in her mind. It flows, meandering across this border of time, taking you from past to present, always pulled forward by the current, always moving forward in time but hopping between this past and the now.

I’m not a huge fan of post-modernism in literature, nor am I against it. If I had to give my criticisms I find that often the ‘device’ can overtake the narrative. It can become style-over-substance. Meanwhile plenty of writers have used postmodern structure to enhance a narrative and give us a greater understanding of characters and their place. I’m not a huge fan of de Bernières but the way he used postmodern aspects in ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’ is, I think, one of the reasons for the novel’s enduring success. It is, at its core, a very traditional, narrative driven, one could even argue derivative work, but the way that it is structured and uses postmodernism in that structure, gives it room to explore the characters and their place in the narrative in a way a traditional structured A-to-B-to-C, linear timeline, singular method, kind of story-telling can’t.

Naturally some people simply may not like the structure. That’s fine, but my argument is that if you place this story in a more traditional, linear, start-to-finish, timeline, it loses most of the potency – especially the potency of the main character, Antony Ashurst – and a lot of its intrigue, too.

You see there’s a reason I didn’t want to spoil too much of ‘The Bet’ in my introduction and it is because it is a novel constantly posing questions that Ashurst is on a quest to find answers to. You, the reader, are never quite in full possession of the facts – because of the way the book is structured – to make educated guesses yourselves. In a way the structure puts you in Ashurst’s mind, as he scours his memory, adds in the bits and pieces of data he’s gathered from elsewhere and puts together this picture of his own life, and how the other cogs within it turn in his absence.

Since these literary analyses do not necessarily have images or singular themes I often rely on stock image sites. I mean, I searched for ‘hot and sticky’ and – well – they’re not wrong! (Credit: ds_30 via Pixabay)

Enough about the structure, though. On to the actual words.

Again we start with an exceptional opening sentence, almost disgustingly erotic.

“A Friday night in July, hot, sticky with the promise of a great night for all.”

It’s fucking filthy!

But, consider the snow. Remember what I talked about earlier, with the decadent use of the natural as being reflective of an internal state, a mirror of the humanity. I’m the one doing it! We are to blame for that reflection, it comes from us! The sentence is nothing but a description of a summer’s evening and yet I’ve sexualised it. Now, do I think it oozes sex? Absolutely, I thought it the moment I read it, before I even knew where the chapter was going, and knowing where the chapter is going just makes me even more certain that consciously or unconsciously that introductory sentence is horny!

A ‘welded’ join – at once connected and yet, not, unnaturally connected by a third-party material. This is a mechanical join, not a natural one. (Credit: 6782865 via Pixabay)

We are at a bar full of women who appear to be celebrating. That is not innately horny and it would be sexism to suggest otherwise. But the description of a social event where the ties-that-bind are so relatable to anyone of an introverted or autistic disposition it’s unreal.

“There was something unwelded about this group…” I like the use of the term ‘welded’ – again it removes human from nature, the congregation of people is not fused or formed, it does not grow together, it is mechanical, engineered, welded. It is unnatural.

“…a sense of inadequate connections, a sisterhood too tenuous to truly justify the extent of the celebrations. This was someone’s great idea, and they were all going to do their best to enjoy it.”

Vivienne is describing literally every ‘works-do’ I’ve ever been on and that’s just what this is. They are a group of teachers having a bit of a get-together to celebrate the end of term. Of course it doesn’t take long before the pretenders have ‘ran out of steam’ and we are left with two women.

“Blonde, shapely and attractive.” Outside of that, though, few similarities but what they did share was “a look, a hint of something deep in the eyes more commonly seen in those of some hunting predator, perhaps one of the big cats.”

Cougars, in other words.

Any excuse to cat! An absolute beauty of a big cat I do have an article about cougars (or pumas – in fact they’re actually a contender for the record of the animal with the most common names) on We Lack Discipline as one of our Caturday Specials. Check it out. (Credit: No-longer-here via Pixabay)

Now again we have an invocation of the natural and a comparison between the human and the animal that – it’s not specifically judgemental but it does heavily imply that these women are more attuned to…

…I’m going to interlude and say I am genuinely struggling to find ways to try to put this point non-misogynistically.

…These women are more in touch with, and comfortable with, pleasing their more primal urges than they are indulging themselves humanistically and spiritually.

Is that okay? I hope so. I do not wish to ‘slut-shame’, nor do I think this book is ‘slut-shaming’. I think it tackles the concept of a very harmful, predatory, asymmetrical sexuality where one party is effectively used or abused.

An illustration for Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ by Harry Clarke, oozing with slender, surreal, almost arachnid uneasiness. The whole short story itself is a man driven mad by his having murdered someone and arguing, appealing, for his own sanity. (Credit: Public Domain)

This is the interesting aspect of the more Christian-inspired, guilt-addled, internal psychological decadence. Decadence itself is very much about decline, and again it can suffer for it or revel in it. But once you make it internal you propose an alternative, a ‘better’ state.

In Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ the narrator makes it pretty apparent they committed a murder. They are not trying to argue their innocence, but rather their sanity – and yet the very development of the argument demonstrates their argument as false. This person, in guilt, has lost their mind. Therefore Poe is proposing a ‘better’, alternative state. Not sanity, but innocence.

I feel Vivienne, at various times, uses a similar device. There is no judgement on these women for their predatory eye, but sometimes a lioness gets a kick in the jaw from a wildebeest. Ideally you would know what prey to hunt to not get hurt but the only assured way to not get hurt is to not hunt. For cats, bless their obligate-carnivore paws, this is not a possibility. But for these women? They could be more selective with their prey or, perhaps, choose not to hunt at all. The zoomorphism, the presentation of them as animals, is a device indicative of their propensity for bestial behaviour, but they are still human.

The invocation comes again later, emphasising this wildness, this inhumanity, after discussing the ‘kindred’ nature of the two women we have the sentence “All cats are said to sleep with one eye half open.”

There’s friction, suspicion, these two wild animals stare each other down trying to figure out if they are safe or in danger, in humans often a process lubricated by alcohol and it is made clear neither woman has had enough to drink yet, caught somewhere in the buzzy-phase, post sobriety but pre-loss of inhibition.

I know this book was written before the great hipster gin boom as the ‘older’ of the two women, Judy, is drinking a gin and tonic. Meanwhile Jenny is drinking white wine.

As a reformed boozehound I want to provide a little detail about the drink selection, particularly the use of gin, ‘mother’s ruin’, a drink that had to rehabilitate its image after toothless women up-and-down working class streets would bounce a baby on one knee and a bottle on the other. It’s done a good marketing job in the last few years, and become very trendy, but once-upon-a-time this was a drink of ill-repute for ladies of a similar reputation.

‘Gin Lane’, by William Hogarth, 1751. An exceptionally interesting artist with a very interesting story. His moral studies, ‘A Harlot’s Progress’, ‘A Rake’s Progress’ etc. demonstrated the lives of people of ill-repute. He would go on to produce a diptych called ‘Beer Street and Gin Lane’. The good, low-alcohol and safe, English drink of beer was presented as encouraging jolliness, friendliness, wealth and prosperity whilst the ill-reputed drink of gin is depicted as leading to ruin, violence and neglect. Hogarth may have been encouraged to produce the piece by his friend, writer and magistrate Henry Fielding, who was attempting to pass the Gin Act at the time. Gin once had a very bad reputation. (Credit: The Wellcome Collection, CC-BY-4.0)

White wine, meanwhile, is a step above a fruit juice in comparison. It’s an entry-level drink.

Through the presentation of what they are drinking we are already establishing a sort of mentor/mentee relationship.

Now for all of my dancing around trying to defend these women and their reputations from what could be perceived as my innate whitecishet misogyny; they speak, or don’t, and basically show themselves to be complete pieces of shit.

Firstly Judy slags off one of the other colleagues by saying she’s “too wholesome” and “eats enough pie.” So this fatphobe can fuck off and die.

Jenny, meanwhile, does nothing to defend her absent friend from what is described as “rampant bitchiness.”

They laugh at her boringly stable life with her boringly boring boyfriend and then Jenny goes on to talk about the affair she’s having with a married man which, for personal reasons, is a specific trigger of my ire so frankly she can already fucking die in a fire.

We’re not exactly off to a great start, here.

Judy boasts how she wears her toyboys out and they’re basically having a giggle at the expense of horny, fumbling young men. Honestly, usually the sort of crowd I’m all for having a laugh at the expense of but there’s a touch of the sinister about the conversation. There’s little self-awareness, there’s no resistance to it. This is not feminism in practice. It’s quite the opposite. These are users of people. These women are talking of men in the same dehumanising tones the same kinds of men they prey upon may talk about women. There’s no ‘shoe on the other foot’ satisfaction to it, though. It just highlights how deplorable and disgusting it is to dehumanise any person.

I stress this in just about any analysis I do, but I think it helps to know my perspective. I cut my teeth in biology. So I know a certain, inevitable horny exists. It’s a difficult thing for me to come to terms with, and I know others who struggle with it more than I do.

An abstract of the double-helix structure of Deoxyribonucleic Acid, or DNA – The fundamental unit of inheritence of every single organism on planet Earth and, to some extent, the driving force behind many of our behaviours. However, studies in humans often demonstrate far from behaviours being ‘innate’, ‘instinctive’ or ‘genetically determined’ a lot of human behaviour is learned via direct teaching, conditioning, or application of lessons from our external environment via cognitive interpretation. Basically, whilst sex and sexuality are natural behaviours we can moralise a means to civilise the way we use them. People like Judy act upon their baser urges, demonstrated a lack of moral imperative to control themselves. Others, like Ashurst, may be very cognitively controlled, caging natural urges for the sake of what’s ‘right’. Either way can be potentially harmful in certain circumstances. (Credit: OpenClipart-Vectors via Pixabay)

Humans reproduce sexually; biologically sexual reproduction is fundamental to most aspects of human life. Indeed, most life is sexual life. It is innate. Sexual reproduction is, far and away, the most unifying feature of organisms. They don’t all reproduce sexually, they don’t only have to reproduce sexually, and sexual reproduction does not follow the same mechanics in all organisms. But the vast majority of organisms are sexual, including humans. The human being is a sexual being. That’s not to say that people should be sexualised just for existing, but rather an acknowledgement that at some point, inevitably, they will be sexualised just for existing.

What we do, ethically, with this information is a different matter. I know there are some who believe this to be out-and-out ‘wrong’. That to sexualise someone merely for the act of being is, in essence, to dehumanise them.

The key, I feel, especially in humans, is being consciously aware of this and ensuring we do our best to humanise. We might notice someone in the street, our gaze drawn towards them in a subconscious sexual desire but our conscious mind must be trained to step in and realise that the person is a human being, with thoughts, feelings, emotions and desires of their own that may not line up with yours. Perhaps that person does not want to be sexualised or perhaps that person does not want all eyes on them.

In this case then it is not ‘wrong’ sexualise a person, but wrong to linger upon that sexualisation. A glance and internal admission of attractiveness is not innately bad, but to leer, to linger, to harass or worse. It is in the action that wrongdoing takes place.

But I don’t have the answers. Nobody has ‘the answers’ if there can be said to be any in the first place!

If you had to ask me the aspect of the politicisation of sex and sexuality that troubles me the most this is it! It is a biological truth to me that the human body is innately sexual. Humans reproduce sexually. Reproduction is one of the few things we have puzzled out as at least a flimsy excuse for the pain of existence. The human body possesses traits primarily aimed at advertising this sexuality, as well as secondary traits that demonstrate sexual fitness.

At the same time morally, ethically, one simply cannot use a biological argument as a justification for oversexuality, sexualised images, sexual exploitation and certainly never as an excuse for sexual harassment, assault or abuse.

As a little experiment on sexualisation. This is a banana, nothing more, nothing less. However I am sure a solid 90+% see something sexual in this image. Even though it’s just a banana. It can be hard to overcome that unconscious processing, but consciously you can. Whilst unconsciously you might be seeing a dick, consciously you can tell yourself it is just a banana. To me that’s where the balance for humans is. Our sexualisation behaviours have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years and will adapt to social movements of equality and changes in attitudes to sex just as slowly. But our conscious minds can be made to intervene and ensure we behave ‘properly’ – which to me, merely means with due respect and proper consent. (Credit: Shutterbug75, via Pixabay)

Agency, responsibility and consciousness have to come into things. If anthropologists of old are to be believed we already have a multitude of ‘new’ (as in hundreds or thousands of years old, rather than millions or billions) behaviours intended not only to highlight our sexuality – women wearing lipstick, men showing a bit of chest etc. – but also those that mask it (uniformity of clothing, conservative, loose fitting clothing, haircuts and styles, deodorants etc.).

Somewhere our society is torn, battling between horny and respectable, rutting Dionysiac beast and asexual Apollonian higher-power, and I’ll be honest – I’m just lost in that argument! But it is an argument we are about to have due to this chapter!

I think it speaks volumes of a species evolving. Again, the genome is slow to adapt, but thoughts and ideas, the memome (is there a ‘meme’ equivalent of the word ‘genome’?) evolves much more rapidly.

I think our ideas about sex are advancing far quicker than our bodies, our hormonal regulatory systems, our autonomous reactions, can keep up. I think back on my awkward teenage years, when a hug might be enough to initiate an erection. I did not want to overly sexualise the contact consciously, but things happen.

The point I am trying to make, badly, is there is positive sexuality, an equal and consensual sexuality, where all parties are given a stake, a mutual pace of proceedings is agreed upon etc. this can even include kinks, explorations of consent, of being used, of playing roles of dominance and submission, but it is negotiated, carefully managed and all involved parties and their feelings are respected.

But there can also be a negative sexuality, a predatory, exploitative and unequal sexuality. This does not necessarily have to be non-consensual. Judy’s very comment about “Wearing them out,” implies overuse, implies she wants more from them than they can give and yet clearly they feel expected to perform until a breaking point. It may be consensual, but there is an imbalance created and a harm caused, and Judy’s only care about the harm caused is for her own dissatisfaction. She has little to no concern for her partners.

I hear some people have kinks about dressing up in costumes and using whips. I can only assume this is what they mean! (Credit: MabelAmber via Pixabay)

As ever, my apologies if I have said anything that has offended you. If I have got anything categorically wrong I am happy to be corrected so please discuss it with me. Otherwise please forgive me, as I explained in my introduction issues of sexuality like that have seldom been a thinking point for me and it is remarkable the aspects of my own life and sexuality that I have been enabled to think about by reading ‘The Bet’.

I’m still on the path of learning, I will get things wrong!  Back to the story.

They say you only get one chance to make a first impression and my first impression of Jenny and Judy is I fucking hate these people.

Eventually the conversation moves from how Judy is not merely a cougar or a sexual predator but a paedophile.

She tells a story of how she deliberately and wilfully pursued a pupil in her care, at her school, despite his obvious lack of interest. This pupil is Antony Ashurst. She talks of how she specifically manipulated him psychologically, putting his academic performance in jeopardy, targeting him and longed for his attention.

Jenny then replies with the sort of homophobic twattery that heterosexual men and women use to attempt to insult anyone who rebuffs their sexual advances. “Gay?” She asks. As if any boy who refuses the advances of her friend cannot possibly be sensible, smart, moral or just not interested, but must be gay.

In this case it’s a frank discussion between two disgusting, vile people, but when used against prospective partners it is specifically a homophobic manipulation tactic, as if being ‘gay’ is ‘bad’ and the only way to prove you’re not gay is to engage in sexual behaviour with the person accusing you of homosexuality. It is coercive.

I cannot express strongly enough how much this chapter makes me dislike these people!

It’s difficult to express (there is a lot of difficulty in expressing these things, forgive me for continually bringing up those difficulties), if I am honest, because the way we form, and consider, relationships and human interactions is so shaped by our selves and our personal experiences. In my case I have experienced first hand, and second hand, the miseries of deceit, being used and infidelity. As much as I understand the so-called ‘irrationality’ of my relationship expectations they are as they are because of what I have been through and experienced.

I won’t go into too much detail but I am a monogamist, although I understand humans find it difficult to be exclusively monogamous for lengthy periods and thus for transitional phases it is often best one has open, and honest, communication with one’s partner. People change, lives changes, expectations change and I think it is only ethical to try to perform those changes as mutually and respectfully as possible. Sadly this rarely happens.  

Sex is a weapon. The physiological and psychological links between fear and arousal are well noted and to anyone who has experienced either sensation, obvious. Every act of sex for as loving as it may be, is also, to some extent, an act of mutual violence. In the cases of consensual sex this can be an incredibly tender exchange of violence! A naughty wrestle! Sometimes people like a bit of kink, sometimes people are open to sharing their partners with others – whatever, that’s their business.

God bless Robin Higgins, the model for these incredible stock photographs. A lady experiencing either fear or undergoing transformation into a werewolf. If we say fear then we can link it to the neuro-physiological response known as ‘arousal’ which involves activation of the brain through several neurotransmitters, chemicals that tell your brain how to respond to a situation and prepare your body to act. In the case of arousal symptoms might include increased blood pressure, increased respiratory rate, muscle activation and motivation to perform certain behaviours such as the guarded behaviour being shown here but it can include the ‘fight, freeze or flight’ response, or – in the case of sexual arousal – motivation to have sex. Through these systems fear and sex, are linked. (Credit: RobinHiggins via Pixabay)

In my case, that violence has hurt me, directly and indirectly in the past and I think it’s important, since this book deals with sex as a tool of violence, that you know my personal position.

I do not judge promiscuous people, much as I do not judge boxers or MMA fighters for their profession – in fact I quite admire wilful, consensual violence.

What I judge are assaulters, people who inflict violence on unwilling victims, or worse, coerce submission to violence.

Jenny and Judy are those kinds of people. They enjoy hurting people, sexually, for fun. I find that fucking abhorrent in a human being. I fucking loathe these kinds of people. For one, because I think sex is one of those exceptional primal pleasures. Sex, food and a good walk in the wilderness! Many people have had their enjoyment of that primal pleasure ruined by people who take pleasure in causing harm. The other reason is it breaks people, it breaks families and it shatters happiness.

Culturally sex has become – I dare say almost considered virtuous. The idea being that only someone truly rational and liberal can be free and open with sex. I think this is folly. I think this disregards, admittedly, the scant research that has been done on the psychology of sex and its importance in close human bonding. I think sex has been cheapened, when it is, in fact, one of the most primal and sacred acts one can commit. Sex has been cheapened when the consequences of it, literally in the case of children, or even emotionally and in terms of relationships and connections, are incredibly expensive.

Again – I have no problem with people who are sexually liberal. I merely disagree with many of their assumptions about what that liberty means, can mean, or suggests. If liberal sexuality is something you do ethically, and enjoy, then congratulations. But in suggesting casualty of sex is in some way virtuous you are ignoring the many people who will use casual sex to inflict harm. Sex must come with a heavy weight of responsibility. Many people merely want the ecstatic pleasure without the responsibility.

unwanted pregnancies are a perfect example of people wanting to pleasure without the responsibility. Whilst some surely come as pure accidents, freak occurances due to failure of contraceptive measures, many are people merely being overcome by an animal urge – and not consciously intervening. Often this may involve substances, like alcohol, that can increase risk-taking behaviour and lower our inhibitions – making us less likely to listen to the conscious voice in our head telling us of the danger. Regardless, many children are born into this world ‘by accident’ – it may or may not be a bad thing for them, but it does represent a lack of responsibility in the act of sex by their parents. (Credit: HolgersFotografie via Pixabay)

Jenny and Judy embody the disregard – in an almost caricature of a villain sort of way, they are so abrasively, coarsely sexual that we are supposed to be disgusted by their actions.

But there are some who may merely see them as icons. As taking back the sexual power from the masculine world and inflicting upon the hapless, dick-led men exactly what they have done to women for years. Again, I think this is misguided. Ashurst is certainly not that man, and the kinds of men you may be forgiven for meeting disgusting behaviour for disgusting behaviour, sexual power for sexual power, are unlikely to fall for it. I think that’s revenge thinking that will merely target those vulnerable to it and I don’t think that makes for a better society. I think it promotes selfishness and harm.

Anyway – I just wanted to share that. A lot of my dislike of these characters does hinge on my own personal experiences, beliefs, thoughts and philosophies on sex and I want you to understand if your thoughts vary, that’s okay. You may have different ideas to me.

They continue their conversation with Judy explaining that it seems like Ashurst’s head has “far too much else going on for the old biological urges to stand much of a chance.”

These women are leaning upon a trope that men are always ‘up for it’ – they must be, for they’re men. This is a dangerous stereotype. If we are to combat incidents of sexual abuse of men, particularly in a female-on-male abuse scenario, this stereotype is particularly damaging and must be challenged. One only need think of the reaction to incidents where, in real life, female teachers have assaulted male students, to see that the reaction is starkly different to if a male teacher assaults a female student.

The male, even if he is just a boy, is always given more power, more agency – though he is the victim of abuse! It’s shocking.

Here’s a group of men – I can almost guarantee they are not thinking about sex. Unless this is a race to win the affections of a maiden fair but I doubt it, it looks like a modern sporting competition. Whilst there is a sexual dimorphism in reproductive strategies between male and female humans, caused by how our gametes – our sex cells – are produced, there is, as far as I am aware, no evidence of male promiscuity being linked to it. Indeed, psychological studies have shown that, far from it, in stable, long term relationships females are more likely to have affairs for pleasure, whilst males will have them for an emotional need. It’s We Lack Discipline’s First Rule of Everything: It’s always more complicated than that! (Credit: Pexels via Pixabay)

That Judy has this idea, that there are these ‘special’ boys who aren’t thinking about sex all the time is a demonstration of that toxic stereotype. I’m fairly certain most men and boys aren’t thinking about sex all the time!

Judy was offended, “Seriously pissed off…” in fact that Ashurst may not have found her attractive. It then becomes about her insecurity. So let’s circle back to a little internal decadence.

To me ‘internal decadence’ is a psychological recognition of the slow, steady decline of everything. In some cases this may manifest as an outward fear, existential crises, nihilism, giving up or depression – that sort of thing. But then think of a mid-life crisis. To me this is an outward projection of an internal decadence. But whereas existential crises, nihilism, giving up can all be seen as recognition of the inevitable decay, mid-life crises are almost defined by rejection and denial.

One behaves in a manner as though one is younger. Risk-taking behaviours increase, impulse control reduces, often people will drink or do drugs, perhaps even perform sexual acts they otherwise would not consider due to their prior stance or, perhaps due to their illegality.

Say, for example, you’re a middle-aged school teacher who gets attention from all the boys except this one. This one makes you feel old, he makes you feel unwanted, he makes you feel like you are the age you are, he reminds you, daily, of that decay, of that inevitable decline. So what do you do? You deny, you reject – You prove him wrong by seducing him and demonstrating to yourself that the decline is not, and never was, real!

One of the universal symbols of the male, mid-life crisis. A phallic sports car. Other symbols being haircuts, ear piercings, leaving your wife for a younger woman…It’s all related to the same thing – one last throw of the dice before senescence eventually takes over. Getting living out of your system before accepting the inevitable. It’s decadence, decline, decay that we deny when we undergo such processes. (Credit: Mikes-Photography via Pixabay)

To me this is Judy. She is a wrecking-ball of thanatophobia, of fear of death, and the only way she can feel not only alive, but as though she is immortal, is by preying on young men. As long as she can attract young men she can feel as though she is never aging. She denies the decadence.

I know there’s a trend these days that asks “Why can’t people just be bad? Why do villains always need to be explained or need a reason?” and to me the answer is simple. There is no innate good or bad.

People do not act on innate impulses. Almost every study of human behaviour has placed the nurture over the nature, we are creatures of learning. We adapt our behaviours based upon our experiences.

Could Judy just be a total piece of shit? It’s possible. But if we only acknowledge her as total piece of shit we can never come to understand villainy. Only through understanding villainy will we have any potential chance to prevent it from happening. It is our imperative, for the sake of those potential future victims who could be saved, that we understand the scenarios, the mindset, the experiences, the thoughts, feelings and fears, of people who abuse so that we can stop them before they perform abuses.

To me this is one of the key reasons for understanding villainy. I do have my problems with it, once it becomes tropey – when a woman can’t be badass until she has experienced some form of trauma etc. then it gets a little daft. Women do not need to be ‘broken’ or traumatised to be superheroes or villains. However what I recognise in Judy is not some major traumatic event – it’s fundamental human development. It’s learning to cope with aging and mortality and how we go about it. People deal with it in different ways and in her I suspect she uses sex with younger men to ‘keep the demons at bay’, to stop her thinking of the inevitable, eventual decline in mind and body.

Judy goes on tell her story. How she specifically targets a 14 year old boy, emotionally and psychologically bullies him and manipulates him into acting out so she can specifically put him in detention. She deliberately chooses a detention room that would be remote, where she could do as she pleases. She spies on his school records to get an idea, a notion, of his vulnerabilities and his situation.

“He was shaking when he arrived that afternoon.” A nervous system doing the job it’s supposed to for a nervous boy trying his best to act civilised in the face of bestial brutality. Then she gets in with the good-guy act, emotionally pulling him this way and that, acting concerned when her only concern is gratifying her base desires. She touches him – “just to make first contact,” a technique used in hypnosis, suggestion and manipulative psychology.

Whilst touch like this, a hand on the shoulder, is common between people who know each other (and I assume by that wedding band this is a husband and wife). In certain situations it can be used as a manipulative tactic. Humans are very tactile, we have a strong sense of touch and can quickly create associations between feelings, thoughts and touch sensations. As such the kind of ‘first contact’ Judy talks about has been used as a means of imparting suggestion on people via psychological suggestion or ‘hypnosis’ techniques. It is a powerful manipulative tool in the wrong hands. (Credit: Mike Renlund CC-BY-2.0)

He begins to cry, not merely at the situation he is in at that moment, but the weight of that situation and a whole lot more. It’s a cry that begs for escape, for quiet, for peace, for freedom. What does Judy do? Have some compassion? Ease off her hunt? No. “That’s when I moved in for the kill,” she says. She kisses him, and gropes him.

If there was any doubt in your mind that my hated for Judy may just be lingering misogyny and this doesn’t put that to bed then you need to go away and think hard about what behaviour you exactly think is acceptable. I don’t dislike Judy for being a sexually empowered woman; I dislike her because she is a sexually abusive animal.

I find the use of the zoomorphism, the description of Judy and Jenny as ‘cats’, interesting. Many people, when they wish to zoomorphise loathsome behaviour, will use an equivalent loathsome animal, something with a bad reputation. It’s an undeserved reputation but hyenas, for example. Wrongfully considered dirty scavengers – I’ve a whole article absolving them but the popular reputation outside of their home ranges continues.

So why use cats? Because cats are cute, they are inviting, they are admirable, and they look amazing. Jenny and Judy, it is made quite clear, are attractive women. But there’s also pretence. We forget when the bundle of fluff is curled up in our lap that this bio-machine kills. That’s its job. It’s what it is evolved and adapted to do.

Any excuse for cat! A cat on its side, showing its belly is like a missile with its electronics exposed. This is machine intended to kill that merely enjoys a beneficial relationship with you. That’s not to say real feelings cannot exist between a cat and a human, they do. But due to their cuteness there is a innate discomfort with the reality that this is a predator, a killer, an animal that kills for a living. When used in a zoomorphic context, cats can often have that disquieting, background violence to them. (Credit: Alexas_Fotos via Pixabay)

Likewise Judy has been getting away with her obviously disgusting behaviours because she utilises expectations, her cunning, her sexuality and should the need arise, society’s ignorance, society’s consideration of women as cute little bundles of fluff and the neglect that they, as much as any man, have evolved to be a socially cunning killing machine. In this way misogyny can be weaponised against men and this is one of my key points in my fight for equal rights for all sexes and genders. When we make assumptions we permit injustice.

Judy is the animal. It’s almost not zoomorphism at this point! She’s driven by baser urges, perhaps to squash deeper, more human aspects, fearful aspects, deep, poignant and scary aspects, but base nonetheless.

If she fulfilled her needs sensibly, consensually and, God knows there’s a willing enough community out there, I’m sure! I’d have no problem. But there are people who need to use sex to feel powerful, and those people are dangerous. There are people whose insecurities about their own potency, or lack thereof, in the universe mean they must control what they can. They use sex as a means of expression of power and control and those people are dangerous. Those people are assaulters, abusers and rapists.

Judy is one of those.

Ashurst leaps out of a window, a desperate act from a desperate boy and far from being concerned about him or his welfare Judy is only concerned with who he might tell and what it might do for her life and her job. Somebody get two-belt UFC champion Amanda Nunes on the phone to beat the shit out of this fictional woman, please!

Ashurst confided in his doctor. The same family doctor who attended him during the dead baby kidnapping incident in chapter one. He doesn’t want things made official but the doctor warns Judy off.

Of course Judy is more interested in trying to seduce the doctor!

And then, to finish her story, she makes a gag about the size of Ashurst’s genitals.

“And they collapsed into fits of raucous laughter, more like hyenas than leopards.” And there it is!

A zoometamorphosis! A shapeshifting from one animal into another – as I mentioned, cats have a touch of the loveable or the innocence about them but this whole story demonstrates not a lick of it in either of the two women. Vivienne with a deft touch, at the very end of the chapter transforms them from one animal, a respectable predator, into one with a less respectable (albeit undeserved) reputation.

The spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) has an undeserved reputation as a giggling, mocking scavenger, certainly outside of its home continent. It makes perfect artistic sense to utilise an audiences beliefs and expectations in your imagery but can we give hyenas some love? I wrote an article about them (and how they’re more closely related to cats than dogs) go check it out. (Credit: tonyo_au via pixabay)

There’s not a lot of imagery to study in this chapter and I think that’s quite deliberate. It’s a conversational chapter. It’s a development of scenario and character.

For one thing we get a lot (far too much…but then any is too much…) of Judy, and the establishment of this sort-of mentor/mentee relationship between Jenny and herself. There are parts when Jenny is lost in Judy’s story, as if she’s looking up to her, lost in her power! There’s something aspirational to Jenny about the way Judy behaves.

This is a juxtaposition chapter. Whereas the opener is a limbo, a between-worlds, caught between the corporeal and the ethereal this chapter is firmly rooted in corporeal. It’s literally all about our bodies and their gratification. It sets up, perfectly, one of the key themes of the book which is the idea of the human versus the bestial.

Humans are animals – you don’t even need to flunk undergrad biology to figure that out! But something of our lives, pursuits and cultures attempts to remove us from that. Now it is my belief that a healthy balance between the two things is the ideal human condition, so one can enjoy the primal – cooking some good food over an open fire, dancing to some rhythm no matter how primitive the music, fucking like a good ‘un – spiritual pursuit need not exclude those sorts of things. The pursuit of something ‘higher’ does not need to exclude the animal in the human, but rather needs to understand and harness it. Reel it in where necessary, or let it go when needed.

Go off, hunt an animal, slaughter it, bleed it, smear its blood in streaks on your cheeks to symbolise your role as hunter, cook it above the open flames, then dance to the beat of some rhythmic drums in celebration of your success, you fed yourself, you fed your family, you fed your group. Then take your favourite lady off to your yurt and rut like wild beasts. Some might consider it primitive but letting go, connecting with that more ‘primitive’ aspect of life can be good for us. Do people like Judy seek their pleasures because there is so little opportunity to connect with the real, arousing dangers of being a wild human in a relatively safe modern world? (Credit: Free-Photos via Pixabay)

We don’t know enough about Ashurst yet to know if he enjoys open fire cooking, skanking to some rhythms or having a quality shag, but we do know enough about him to know that his mind is often too elsewhere to let go in that primal fashion. There is something ‘higher’ about him, as if the consideration of how to be, and what it is right to be, is more important to him than being.

Judy, and by extension her little pupil Jenny, quite clearly try to dull those ‘higher’ thoughts and considerations by immersing themselves in carnal, primal desires. Nothing wrong with that in moderation, everyone needs to let their hair down but they have no balance.

Ashurst harms himself through his overemphasis on, for want of a better term, a spiritual enlightenment. To think what’s right. Although he clearly acts on impulse (jumping out of the window) he also demonstrates remarkable restraint (biting his lip when he wants to chastise Judy). In trying to do what is right and honourable harm can enter his life – but this is not his fault. He is merely trying to be good. He would not have harm done to him if other people acting in a less considerate manner had the same restraint he does.

Ashurst is a trademark ‘Thinker’. One of the things I love about this statue beyond the fact that it is a beautiful sculpt, is that ‘thinking’ itself is often accompanied by a pause in action. We ‘stop to think’, “Let me stop and think!” We say. In a way thinking is attempting to remove us from the corporeal, establish a third party view, and come to a conclusion. Ashurst is often guilty of being statuesque, not merely in his presentation but in the fact that often he is so busy thinking he doesn’t act. (Credit: jstarj via Pixabay)

Judy harms herself by acting solely on animal desire. She’s a piece of shit and for all her life might be okay now she’s fucked. She is using sex as a tool of denial of the decadence, of the decline and the decay that will take its toll on her mind and body and she is neglecting what we might call the ‘soul’, the inner peace. She will be a very bitter, sad, lonely old woman if she doesn’t take her life sooner. She has no restraint because restraint is a tool of those who aim for something higher and she is as base as it gets. She harms herself by leaving in her wake a line of people she has harmed, and any one of these people could, themselves, learn a harsh lesson, act just as base, and come back for revenge. Living that kind of unbalanced life will inevitably harm you.

There is no balance, yet, to these people. But we are learning about a 14 year old boy and a woman who has been getting away with it. Balance comes with age, experience, knowledge, wisdom, understanding, hurt, consequence and most importantly an acceptance of fault. Whether you are too reliant on your thinking to ever just be, or whether you’re too busy trying to stop the thoughts by being – it’s unsustainable.

I think that’s one of the points Vivienne is trying to make, here and I think this chapter serves as the perfect juxtaposition to the opening chapter with its atmospheric spirituality.

Chapter one is a solemn hymn, echoing through a Cathedral, the scent of frankincense sending you to the halfway-house between heaven and earth. Chapter two is a hot, sweaty mid-summer bonfire, the smoke will be a pleasing aroma until it smothers you tomorrow, soot caught in your sweat as you dance barefoot, toes feeling the earth, lustful and animal.

Heading to Chapter 3 I reckon we’ll get a lot more Ashurst and thus a lot more of this echoey church-cathedral interior. In his thought, his quest for enlightenment, he places himself in this half-way realm, a limbo, between heaven and earth but – it leaves his body in danger. His corporeal self is left unprotected for all his sense is away with the gods and the fairies. (Credit: Skitterphoto via Pixabay)

This is what I mean about the tapestry coming together, the structure of the novel permitting this slow meet-in-the-middle of the apollonian aspirations of Ashurst and his spiritual purity, this angel slowly descending to learn the realities of earth; whilst these chthonian spirits, demons of the underworld, slowly climb and realise their powers are not so potent or without consequence on the surface.

Religious and spiritual considerations – in the most gnostic fashion – ooze out of this novel and had it been written by any number of dozens of other names it’d be considered a work of genius and be held in the highest regard as a part of the modern literary canon.

Missed the other parts?
We Lack Discipline Reads: The Bet – Introduction
We Lack Discipline Reads: The Bet – Chapter 1

Or buy your copy of the book, and read along, here!

Celestial Classics: Artemis

Artemis with a Stag, believed to be 2nd Century CE and found in Rome it is now in the Louvre in Paris. Artemis is seen here with her quiver (one of her trademarks) and taming a stag (another trademark of Artemis). To me she represents the fundamentals of human survival and the necessity to both live with, and from, nature. (Credit: Rodney CC-BY-2.0)

CONTENT WARNING: Contains discussions of Greek myth which, inevitably, means discussions about sexual assault, sexual violence and rape.

I’ll be honest, this one is an excuse to chat Artemis! We’ll get to her but there’s some astronomy to get out of the way first.

We have talked about the asteroid belt before, I think. It’s a bunch of broken up little rocks between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter full of asteroids and minor planets.

We’ve talk about it before because we have covered Ceres and Vesta, the two largest planetoids in the asteroid belt, and also very important Goddesses in the Roman pantheon (the group of Gods) as well as having their Greek counterparts in Demeter and Hestia.

Showing the position of the main asteroid belt in comparison to the planets between the Sun and Jupiter. The belt is toroidal (donut) shaped and full of fragments of rock that are asteroids, minor planets or dwarf planets. (Credit: NASA, Public Domain)

It’s basically made of up the stuff the entire solar-system was made of, formed out of the same nebula that gave us the sun and the rest of our planets, but it just can’t ‘accrete’ or come together to form a planet. Because of their location between Mars and Jupiter, and given Jupiter’s mass and gravitational pull especially, nothing large could form in that region without breaking up, as well as there being regular collisions between all the protoplanets.

It’s an interesting lesson in how planets form and under what conditions they can’t!

Anyway, 105 Artemis is a designated minor planet in the main asteroid belt. It was discovered in 1868 by a man in Michigan named J. C. Watson.

Since then multiple measurements have been made, discovering the size and shape of Artemis, as well as its make-up. It is very carbonaceous (known as C-Type Asteroids) – made up of carbon or carbon compound materials. This would give them a very low albedo – the measure of reflectiveness of a celestial object – and would make Artemis difficult to see.

A shape-model of 105 Artemis, an asteroid classified as a minor planet, made up of carbon stuff, in the main asteroid belt. (Credit: Lucas, M. P, et al. Lightcurve Analysis of Five Taxonomic A-Class Asteroids, The Minor Planet Bulletin, 2011 – Used without Permission.)

But Artemis, as far as astonomy goes, is not just a minor planet in the asteroid belt.

NASA’s current program to land astronauts (specifically American astronauts, way to make it about nationalism…) back on the Moon by 2024 is named the Artemis Program.

The purpose of the program is not merely to get people back to the Moon as a PR exercise like it was in the 60s. This time around it’s not about beating Communists by providing a massive public budget to a huge national project where the funds are apportioned equivalent to their necessity and people are fairly rewarded for their labours…Wait…That sounds like…

No, this time it’s about the human exploitation of space. For one thing it is specifically nationalist – Americans want to control space. Good luck with that, it’s pretty fucking big.

Explained on their website, this is the main logo for the Artemis mission. The ‘A’ shape is a silver arrowhead allegedly to represent Artemis’ silver bow and arrow although it is my understanding she is more associated with the gold bow and arrow and her brother, Apollo, the silver…Whatever…Myths differ. The tip of the ‘A’ reaches beyond the semi-circle representing the Moon to demonstrate NASA’s mission to use the Artemis program to reach beyond the Moon. The blue cresent represents the Earth, from which the missions will originate, and our collective, global interest in the missions. The red swoosh represents the trajectory of the mission craft, moving through the ‘A’ shape, whilst the similar motif on the Apollo mission logo moved under it, to represent the differences in motivation behind the two missions. This trajectory is represented in red to demonstrate NASA’s ultimate goal with the Artemis program, as a stepping-stone for a crewed mission to Mars. (Credit: NASA, Public Domain)

But also they want to test and demonstrate new technologies of resource exploitation, chemical processing to gather resources for human use, like oxygen or water, working with commercial partners like Space-X to develop the kinds of public-private initiatives that have always proven to be ineffective money-quicksand in the past and to provide a commercial service of regular deliveries to and from an established Moon base – which they aim to start doing by 2028.

Ultimately it’s a stepping-stone – a proof of concept that a temporary base can be established between the Earth and other targets such as Mars, or Moons of Jupiter like Europa.

I know I’m being cynical about it – do you know what? I am! Money goes to money and whilst this plan, ultimately, will enrich the human species and achieve things we have never achieved before it’s – let’s be honest – with the public/private partnership, also about rich dickheads getting richer.

The technologies used to discover resources on the Moon will be used to do the same as we have done on Earth. Exploit and deplete those resources until they are no longer sustainable.

The main stage booster of NASA’s SLS (Space Launch System) rocket being moved to a barge, it will be first sent for testing, and should it pass the tests it will be shipped on to the Kennedy Space Centre from where it will, hopefully, launch in 2024. For as much as I am cynical about these sorts of things there is no denying the scientific, engineering and technological marvels that go into these technologies. (Credit: NASA Marshall Photo Archive, CC-BY-NC 2.0)

Commercial payloads to-and-from other celestial bodies has an aim and that aim is to mine far off objects for precious minerals, metals and materials because Earth only has a limited supply.

Yes there is real science, and real scientists invested in this. But there’s a tinge, a taint, to it, whereby the seeming aims of further exploration are not merely to expand human knowledge and horizons but harness the resources on those horizons for the benefit of a few wealthy groups, nations and persons on Earth.

I hope it does not come to that, but these are ambitious humans we’re talking about.

So that’s the ‘Celestial’, where does the ‘Classic’ come in?

Artemis. Oh! Artemis!

Sorry but if one can have anything like a divine, mythological crush, she is mine.

A statue of a seemingly carefree Artemis being looked at by a doe as if she were a Disney Princess but this Goddess, whilst potentially often wild and carefree, is the greatest hunter of all time. A power capable of taming the wilderness who chose, instead, to revel within it. To me she is the very natural, bestial aspect of humanity itself, in all its dualities of cruelty and compassion. This statue likely dates to around somewhere between the 1st Century BCE and the 1st Century CE and is of unknown Greco-Roman origin. (Credit: Wally Gobetz, CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Artemis is the twin sister of Apollo – and I would love, love, love to get into – mixed discipline style, cultural, psychological, artistic and metaphorical analysis – how these twin siblings represent both the cruel Artemisian reality of life on Earth and the lofty, heavenly Apollonian ideal of heaven – effectively the duality between the Human as beast and the Human as thinking or ethical, higher being – but frankly there’s a PhD in that so to cover it in a few thousand words would make it dreadfully superficial and also a waste!

Artemis and Apollo are the twin children of Zeus and Leto. Zeus you should know,the son of Kronos and Rheia, the Big Guy, the only thing he throws around with more abandon than lightning is his dick, usually non-consensually, the rapist fuck. However I believe his relations with Leto were consensual, after her subtle beauty caught his eye. Not that it took much to catch his eye. Did I mention he’s a rapist fuck?

Leto is the daughter of the titans Coeus and Phoebe. Considered the Goddess of motherhood, as well as potentially feminine modesty and demure (incidentally all things her daughter would also become associated with…) as a result of her romance with Zeus, Zeus’ sister-wife Hera basically banished her and forbade her from ever resting or having a place to give birth. It is said Poseidon took pity and raised an island, Ortygia, for her to give birth on.

An Attic amphora (a wine, water or oil storage vessel) from around 515 BCE, depicting the attempted rape of Leto by the Giant Tityos. In this story the giant Tityos, a son of Zeus by the mortal princess Elara, was supposedly tasked with raping Leto by a jealous Hera. Hera was jealous that Leto had been banging Zeus. However, Leto’s children, both incredibly skilled with a bow, intervened and killed him. (Credit: Jastrow Public Domain)

Now this is a great time to say that these stories are not universal, are liable to change between versions interpretations, regions etc.

Anyway, so according to a mix of Pseudo-Apollodorus and the Homeric Hymn to Delian Apollo, Leto gave birth to Artemis on Ortygia. The hymn states she then travelled with the ‘God who shoots afar’, taken to mean Artemis by Pseudo-Apollodorus, I think, looking for a place to give birth to her other twin. The Island of Delos accepted her but she had a troubled labour which caused problems amongst the Gods because Leto was awesome, but Hera was powerful and very, very jealous.

Because of this Hera kept Eileithyia, described as the ‘Goddess of sore travail’, who was basically the Goddess of midwives and childbirth, at her side so she would not aid Leto. At this point we get a beautiful insight into why I love Artemis because no mention is made of her going on a rampage and given her attitude she would have positively kicked any God or Goddess’s arse to protect and help her mother, but she was presumably consumed by compassion rather than anger at this point. Iris, the messenger Goddess and personification of the rainbow (basically a lady-Hermes) was sent to Eileithyia to inform her of Leto’s current trouble.

It is said that as soon as Eileithyia set foot on Delos, Leto immediately went into labour, grabbed the nearest palm tree and pushed out Apollo.

Leto had given birth to two ‘far shooters’, both Artemis and Apollo are associated with the bow; Apollo with the ‘silver bow’ and Artemis with the ‘golden arrow’. Again, I love the harmonious duality of these two, that yin and yang, the gnostic balance.

A statue of Leto (or Roman Latona) with her two infant children, Artemis and Apollo. Mythological accounts of their births differ. (Credit: PubliC Domain)

But we’re not talking about the two of them. We are talking about Artemis.

She is the Goddess of the hunt, first and foremost, but she is also the goddess of wilderness, animals and partially associated with the moon. To me the most interesting aspect of Artemis is also associated with chastity, protection of the innocence of maidens, but also with childbirth and the protection of mothers.

One thing I love about Artemis, in a Greek society rife with misogyny, is, like Athena, she holds her own. In fact, she more than holds her own she is the very protector of people, especially women. She, a virgin herself, protects chastity, but being of nature and knowing the inevitable she does not judge those who are unchaste – she is also the protector of mothers and the pregnant! More on that later.

To me this makes Artemis the most human of all the Gods. She is the Goddess of our fundamental needs, protecting and soothing, as is needed, our wild waters, the animals for meat, the skills of hunting, and our reproduction. She represents that primal, survival instinct within all of us. Many are the Gods to lofty ideals but she is base and yet measured, proper, in her baseness. Her virginity is almost a symbol of that. I often speak of nature as a cruel or brutal beauty – Artemis is the brutal beauty. She is at once this divine gorgeousness, and yet this blood-soaked huntress.

Based upon interpretations of the Homeric Hymns, the representation of Artemis as a master of the hunt and hounds, skewering stags with her golden arrows! But the hymn also speaks of the huntress who “when she is satisfied and has cheered her heart…Slackens her supple bow.” She is no mindless killer, the hunt is a ritual of a joyful celebration of the inherent violence of nature – but in God and human it must be tempered! It must be moderated. When one has ‘enough’ when one is ‘satisified’ one stops. And then she “goes to the great house of her dear brother Phoebus Apollo.” Apollo is associated with music, knowledge and arts as much as he is the bow and the Moon. Whilst Artemis is a goddess of wild animals, Apollo protects the domestic herds and flocks. To an extent Artemis represents the human bestial whilst Apollo represents the human divine – and yet they are not enemies – they love each other and work together. Indeed, their power is the relationship they share – an understanding of the necessity of each aspect. (Credit: Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Public Domain)

And soaked in blood she is, indeed! Many are the myths of rape in Greek tradition, such that it is danced around and almost normalised in the classics. Artemis, though, basically murders anyone who even so much as tries to get a glimpse at her!

The tale of Actaeon is probably the most famous story. Again there are multiple versions of the myth but basically he was a hunting companion of Artemis who, seeing her bathing in a spring attempts to rape her. She’s having none of it, because she’s Artemis so she turns him into a stag and has his own hounds rip him to shreds.

She is said to have killed Adonis, either directly or by sending a boar to murder him for potentially multiple reasons. Either he boasted of being a better hunter than her, or he was killed in revenge as Adonis was adored by Aphrodite who had Hippolytus, Artemis’ mate, killed – so it was revenge.

Orion seems to have been the only figure to have got close to Artemis at any point and again, there are multiple versions of the myth but it goes that Orion met Artemis and Leto on Crete and became friends and hunting companions with Artemis. Orion, being a boastful rapist piece of shit decided he wanted to kill every animal on the planet which Gaia, the Titan Earth Mother, took objection to and sent a giant scorpion to kill him. In one version the scorpion kills him; in another version Artemis kills him as he swims away from the scorpion and he boasts that she could not hit the black thing in the sea, she fires her arrow at ‘the black thing’ being his head, not the scorpion, and not recognising the hunter. She gets quite upset about this.

Artemis/Diana weeps over Orion’s dead body, before having him ascended into the heaven’s as a constellation of stars. I personally don’t like this version of the myth because Orion is a borish rapist with no respect for nature and is not good enough for Artemis but…I may be jealously biased. (Credit: Daniel Seiter, Public Domain)

There is also a version of the story in which Orion tries to grab her robe and remove it so she rightfully stuck some golden arrows through him.

It’s safe to say Artemis doesn’t take shit from anybody – again in this regard she represents something fundamentally bestial in the human. She is well-tempered until in danger, at which point she will do what is necessary, what may be animal instinct, to protect herself. But she is also compassionate and protects others, as demonstrated in her saving the young Atalanta, abandoned and exposed by her father as a baby; Or her protection of her friend and attendant Arethusa, whom the river God Alpheus attempts to rape as she unknowingly bathes in his water. Arethusa was unwilling as she wanted to remain a chaste attendant to Artemis, but Alpheus pursued her insistently. Arethusa perspired so much from the chase that she transformed into a stream and Artemis broke the very ground so that Arethusa could escape, Alpheus now insistent on having Arethusa and mixing their waters together continued the pursuit. Arethusa was protected, as a spring, in a temple to Artemis.

The Greek heroine, Atalanta, often modelled after Artemis and associated with her, having been rescued from exposure (leaving a child to just…die…alone…outside) by a she-bear, a symbol of Artemis, she grew up to be a strong, athletic woman. This is her aiding in the hunt of the Calydonian boar. The boar itself was sent to Calydon by Artemis to ravage their lands after the King failed to honour her with a sacrifice. (Credit: Giovanni Battista Palumba, Public Domain)

Every story of Artemis is bound in humanity – chastity, envy, anger, compassion, protection, bleeding, hunting, she dances with the Muses and Graces, a celebration of the seeming innate human love of rhythm and movement, she controls the earth, hunts to her heart’s content and yet, in a manner befitting sense, compassion and a love of nature, stops herself when she has had enough, she is both bloodthirsty and joyous in the hunt whilst being moderate and measured in sating that need.

Again, to me, she represents the divinity of the animal in man itself, she is a celebration of the primal origins we came from and how we must, as a matter of divine principle, celebrate them, understand them and use them wisely – with moderation.

Her protection of chastity could easily be seen as a misogynistic throwback – some insistence on women remaining, in some way, ‘pure’. I think her associations with motherhood show that assumption to be false. It is not that women should remain ‘pure’ but that, due to the nature of life at the time, the dangers of childbirth which would have been a major killer of women, they must be sure of their motives before engaging in sexual relationships. To me, the importance of chastity, to Artemis, is not a denial of a natural sexual urge but the recognition, in a world before contraception and modern medicine, that you should only give up that chastity for a man with whom you are willing to die to have their children. Because that was a very real prospect!

Artemis (central) fights one giant, believed to be Otos, to her left, whilst her hunting dog takes down another. To the right of Artemis, her mother Leto fights too. This is from the Pergamon Alter, East Frieze built in the 2nd Century BCE and depicting the Gigantomachy – when the Olympian Gods fought the race of Giants. To the right of Leto, not pictured, her son, Apollo, fights too. The placement of all three together I think symbolises the strength of their relationship, with Leto’s placement between her children showing their protective nature over her. What’s more, the frieze depicts them all as solid fighters in their own right yet the huntress, Artemis, is the only one depicting taking down two giants at the same time, thanks to her hounds! Truly a master of killing. (Credit: Carole Raddato CC-BY-SA 2.0)

As I have said, Artemis is the brutal beauty – she represents the facts of life! And life is cruel! As mentioned, the reception of, thoughts of and beliefs around Gods and Goddesses was not universal across the regions those Gods were present. In some places Artemis was the protector of the pregnant and in other cases she was the reaper of those who died in childbirth! She is the brutal beauty!

One of the most important cults of Artemis is that at Ephesus. The Ephesian Artemis is a famous figure, the supposedly many-breasted woman statue replicas of which could be seen around the Greco-Roman world.

This Artemis appears to have been mixed in with aspects of a Mother Goddess cult from the East, the Cybele (who would be an important figure in Roman mythology in her own right) a Goddess of Phrygia, but from a tradition which seems to have originated in Anatolia, Asia Minor, or basically most of modern Turkey.

The statue of the Ephesian Artemis – whilst the bulbous protrusions on her chest are often said to be breasts they may also be bull testes or gourds. She is covered with, and surrounded by, wild animals, symbolising her links to the wilderness. (Credit: Blcksprt CC-BY-SA 4.0)

In Greece this mostly manifested as associations with Rheia, the Mother of the Gods, or possibly Demeter. At Ephesus this ‘Mother Goddess’ figure seems to have become associated with Artemis making her an exceptionally important figure. The Ephesians believed Artemis was actually born at Ephesus, not Ortygia or Delos. Whilst the representation of the statue usually has the bulbous lumps on her chest representing breasts this is contested. They may be bull testes, or gourds instead – both used as symbols of fertility or abundance.

The Ephesian Artemis is often depicted with animals, showing that this association of Artemis and the wild and animals still existed – again, Artemis always seems to be fundamentally associated with the natural.

I also love her Roman equivalent, Diana, whose cult at Nemi, allegedly, had a remarkable means of becoming high-priest. The Rex Nemorensis, the King of Nemi, was the high priest of Diana at Nemi, an area about 30 km Southeast of Rome which had a lake and forests and groves and it was basically a little wilderness retreat and showpiece for rich people. Caligula famously had some ridiculously luxury barges built for Lake Nemi – again I can’t go into detail now but look ‘em up.

There was a long-standing cult to Diana at Nemi and the high priest was decided not by politics, as so many priesthoods were, not by the customary Roman nepotism or giving the priesthood to the Emperor as a matter of course. No, apparently the high-priest was decided by murder!

The Fountain of Diana, the Roman equivalent of Artemis, in this amazing 16th Century French sculpture by an unknown artist. The stag, with gilded horns, is pacifed by Diana’s touch, possibly wounded by an arrow from the golden bow she holds in her hands. The stag is flanked by one of her hounds (you can see the tail to the left of the stag). Meanwhile another dog sits beneath her legs, shielded and protected. She is both destroyer and protector, reveller in wilderness and tamer of it. (Credit: Miniwark CC-BY-SA 3.0)

The priest would be decided in a trial by one-on-one combat and even the Romans, who could rightfully leave babies exposed to kill them if they didn’t want them, habitually raped their slaves and committed incredible acts of genocidal war, thought this a barbaric practice.

It is, in a way. But in a way I can think of no greater way to prove one’s devotion and honour to Artemis/Diana than a one-on-one fight to the death in the forest. It is, again, the brutal beauty.

Artemis is one of the Twelve Olympians, the pantheon of major deities in Greek tradition and I think this is for good reason.

If you read ‘We Lack Discipline’ regularly, if you follow my Twitter, you’ll know I regularly talk biology and ecology. The natural world was, academically, my main passion and the only one I actively pursued at one point.

I am also, for all my liberal politics, socially and personally a very…for want of a better term…conservative, and ‘chaste’ person. It stems from a belief in that brutal beauty. That we are wild beasts tamed by thoughts, but those thoughts can overrun the animal and destroy the whole; and the animal can overrun the thoughts and destroy the whole. We must understand, and learn to live with, both aspects of ourselves to live a ‘good’ life. We must harness both aspects to be our best selves.

The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, The Artemision, historically one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, is now merely a few crumbled ruins. I think this speaks volumes, as a metaphor, in our changing attitudes to how we live life and to the natural world, too.

Some of the sorry, fragmented remains of one of the world’s finest ever temples, the Artemision at Ephesus. This once Wonder of the World, much like the human understanding of our role as part of nature, part of the wilderness, and how to live with it rather than control it, lies crumbled. I can think of no greater metaphor for the trapping of human self-importance and the destruction of nature that has come with it than the ruins of this temple and the Goddess to whom it once stood. (Credit: sailko by GFDL)

Paganism, often rooted in an animist system of beliefs, a recognition of a divinity in everything, recognised something of the necessary in bloodshed, hunting, violence and wilderness.

Other religions, particularly the Abrahamic religions, speak of humankind’s ‘dominion’ over the earth and the creatures on it. The Book of Genesis talks of how humans should ‘subdue it’.

Artemis, for all that she may be the most accomplished of hunters, far-shooter of the golden arrow, represents something opposite to that. Whilst brutal with a bow she also took as her friends the Nymphs of the forest, the Oceanids of the sea, the very spirits of the wilderness and – as we have seen – she would stop at nothing to protect her friends. She befriended Pan, the wild God of forests and obtained her hunting hounds. She captured the golden stag to pull her chariot.

Artemis does not represent dominion, or subduing nature. She represents working with it, asking its spirits for assistance and assisting them in turn. Hunting only what you need, enjoying the hunt for what it is, but never taking that hunt too far – and the one time she came close in mythology, when she got lost in Orion, his death came swiftly after and she wept and knew sorrow. Even this Goddess is not stronger than the system, the innate brutal beauty itself.

A Hymn to Artemis

Artemis, leaning casually and looking like the Boss Bitch! This independent mindedness, the self-awareness, the revelry in the cruel realities of nature whilst rarely overstepping its bounds. Protecting others and keeping other people true to their boundaries too. To me this is the amalgam of the divine, the knowledge, the civilisation and the rooted, chthonian truth – the Earthly, cruel nature of all things and Artemis, my dear Artemis, represents them perfectly. (Credit: Carole Raddato CC-BY-SA 2.0)

I sing of Artemis,
whose moonlit, golden bow
sheds blood of those who mar.
But, to chaste, verdant hearts
her arrows are as those
that violent passions stir
when loosed by Him of Love,
Amorous Cupid’s, shot.
She takes, by hand, the stag,
whose piercing antlers’ dull
in tame submission to
this Huntress of the groves.
The hounds cry, barking hymns
of joy and glory much
in chasing noble beasts,
and bringing them as meat,
to honour our kin folk.
Whilst we ourselves do gift
a sacrifice to her
she pays us back in kind
and placates Mother Earth.
Then, when the hunt is done,
her bowstrings she lets slack.
Aphrodite of groves,
now, carefree, makes merry.
She dances with the trees,
the streams, the soil and air.
Leto’s brutal beauty,
and sister to the Moon,
dance by Apollo’s light
to the Orphic rhythm.
And teach us in your grace
how we can co-exist
with blood and suffering,
and still find joy, as you.

Hail, foul Zeus’ daughter,
whom Leto purified.
And may we sing to you
forever, free of pride.
For Our world is borrowed
from Gaia and from you.

By © Mercerspoems, 2021 – Read more poems here.

Learn about More Space Stuff that’s Also Ancient Myth Stuff In Our Celestial Classics Series

Celestial Classics: Introduction – The basics of why the ancients are linked to the skies.
Celestial Classics: Vesta – Roman Goddess of hearth and home, associated with willies.
Celestial Classics: Ceres – Roman equivalent of Greek Demeter, goddess of agriculture.
Celestial Classics: Proserpina – Greek Persephone, goddess of the underworld.
Celestial Classics: Orion – The hunter so renowned the Gods put him in the sky.
Celestial Classics: Pluto and Orpheus – The God of the Underworld and his fav poet!
Celestial Classics: Venus – Love goddess who dates back as old as religion itself!

Roman History in a Nutshell: The Pyrrhic Wars – Carthage and the Battle of Asculum, 279 BCE

This map seems to follow the notion that Pyrrhus marched from Heraclea via the West coast and Neapolis towards Rome, before meeting at the battle of Asculum. Other reports suggest he went elsewhere, ending up back at Tarentum and then moving north from there to Asculum. It’s ancient history – who fucking knows!? (Credit: Piom By GDFL)

We left off at the end of the Battle of Heraclea and the attempts of envoys to make peace between Pyrrhus’ forces and Rome. A peace pretty much guaranteed not to happen once elder statesman and man of much auctoritas Appius Claudius Caecus told them, I’m paraphrasing, “I don’t trust you. Fuck off and appeal to us from Epirus you invasive bastards!”

Romans had made many enemies across its wars, that much was true. But it had also brought many communities under its umbrella and, in that peninsula at least, had a steady supply of fresh troops. Meanwhile Pyrrhus was unlikely to get support from mainland Greece and was reliant on the communities of Magna Graecia on the South of Italy and Sicily, as well as alliances with other, still Roman-hostile, Italic tribes.

After Heraclea both sides took some time to replenish themselves so it’s a good time to talk about the third party in all this.

I mentioned in the previous article the Greek cities on Sicily, but there was a steady Carthaginian presence there too. I also mentioned that one of the reasons Pyrrhus may have got involved was specifically so he could travel West and ‘take’ Sicily in its entirety which would, naturally, have pissed off some Carthaginians.

According to the historian Justin, the Carthaginians had worries about this too. Allegedly they sent an envoy, Mago, a commander of the Carthaginian fleet, to Rome to meet with the Senate and offer assistance in their wars against Pyrrhus. The Senate declined. Mago then went to Pyrrhus, allegedly to make motions of peace whilst actually trying to figure out the Epirot King’s true intentions towards Sicily.

The Greek Theatre at Taormina, Sicily. Greek culture was heavily entrenched by the 3rd century BCE with the tribes who has once lived there integrating with a Greek way of life. This theatre was enlarged by Romans in 2nd century CE. (Credit: Terry Feuerborn CC-BY-NC 2.0)

This was alleged to have taken place after the Battle of Heraclea and during the time Rome and Epirus were sending envoys to each other to discuss peace and/or future war terms. More to come from the Carthaginians later (I mean…Obviously! But also in terms of the Pyrrhic wars).

So Romans gathered en masse. This was now a major conflict and many legions were gathered. Pyrrhus, meanwhile, had gathered some support in the Southern Italian Peninsula and decided to make a march on Rome. On his way he plundered and pillaged, allegedly having to stop in Anagnia in Latium because, like a rap video, there was too much booty.

Winter was also approaching and neither army is likely to have wanted a major campaign in cold soggy drizzle.

That is at least according to Appian and Justin.

Dio gives a different account, suggesting Pyrrhus marched towards Neapolis in order to capture it. That he did not pillage along the way, instead indulging in what we might currently call a ‘hearts and minds’ campaign of winning the support of locals before being harassed back to Tarentum by the army of Laevinus, whilst an army from Etruria, under Tiberius Coruncanius was brought in to defend Rome.

A marble bust of Pyrrhus of Epirus from the Villa of Papyri in Herculaneum (modern Ercolano) now in the Naples National Archaelogical Museum. Why would a Roman villa have a statue of Pyrrhus? The Sons of Mars, God of War, the Romans, often celebrated ‘great enemies’. They made statues to worthy adversaries, usually ones they had defeated, to commemorate having had such a worthy foe. (Credit: Public Domain)

Whatever version of events actually happened two things are clear. Rome gathered troops from the North and started bringing them South, likely not merely to defend Rome but with an eye to the next bloody big fight with Pyrrhus. At some point Pyrrhus marched North, with eyes on either Neapolis or Rome, but regardless getting closer to Rome and thus increasingly becoming a threat.

Around winter, it all – pun intended – cooled down for a bit. But by the following spring both sides were itching to get back to business.

That spring Pyrrhus invaded Apulia, the heel-to-ankle bit of the boot of Italy, killing, pillaging and capturing whilst many communities merely capitulated and surrendered. Roman forces came to meet them near Asculum.

There is a story from Dio that one of the consuls, Publius Decius Mus, intended to perform the act of devotio where a commander effectively heads the army into battle, offering themselves as a sacrifice, in exchange for a guaranteed Roman victory. As well as putting the Roman soldiers in good spirits (after all who doesn’t want to see their commander running head-first in a suicide charge! Great fun!) it allegedly alarmed the Italic followers of Pyrrhus, followers who would know the significance of such a sacrifice.

Pyrrhus is said to have made moves to ensure any Decius family member would be captured but it was all a load of bollocks anyway, with Decius being told not to be such a numpty and there’d be no need for that because the Romans would win anyway.

And win they did! According to Dio.

According to Plutarch they lost.

According to Dionysius there was no decisive winner!

So what the hell happened?

Plutarch writes that after the battle Pyrrhus said, to someone congratulating him, “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans we shall be utterly ruined.”

This is the true inspiration for the term ‘Pyrrhic Victory’ and I think it gives us a good insight into what happened.

Prior to Roman control the area of Asculum (modern Ascoli Satriano – not to be confused with the other Asculum (or Ausculum) of Ascoli Piceno) was inhabited by the Dauni tribe. As I have so often mentioned these pre-Roman tribes were not mud-hut dwelling savages, they had complex cultures, lives, social structures and art of their own and this exceptional marble sculpture is a 4th Century BCE Dauni work, now in the museum at Ascoli Satriano. Believed to have been a ‘trapezophoros’ it’s basically an ornate table leg or base for a small side table but…WOW! Featuring two magnificently sculpted griffons just munching on a deer. I love it, I want it and I think it’s an excellent example of just how cultured other pre-Roman Italic peoples were. Rome did not stand alone in developing culture and civilisation – rather it adopted elements from nearby tribes and cultures, most notably Etruscans and Greeks but – I mean this is outstanding. It is believed there are no known comparable pieces so this stands alone as a world masterpiece by whichever Dauni sculptor made this. (Credit: Maredentro, Public Domain)

What counts as a ‘win’ in a war? What is the purpose of a war? It depends, right? In this case the purpose of Pyrrhus’ conflicts with the Romans is related to the stability of the Italic-Greek city states and their stability. The Romans have threatened that stability and it is Pyrrhus’ job to pacify those Romans, either entirely through total conquest, or through combat so spirited and defeating they agree to a peace.

Except Romans – well for all that we might consider them military geniuses one of the most genius moves they made, militarily, was convincing an awful lot of human beings to throw themselves into near certain death ‘FOR ROME!’. Their greatest tactic always was overwhelming numbers, whether in the immediacy or as backup when the going got tough.

Who won the Battle of Asculum? It doesn’t matter, it’s pretty apparent it was a bloodbath and both sides took a hell of a beating. Did this defeat Rome’s aim? Absolutely not. It’s was a 5-4 to Pyrrhus! Both sides took a drubbing but there was spirit in the loss, the Romans can say. It keeps Pyrrhus as a powerful invader and a motivator for getting more troops involved. They would rally more soldiers, gather more troops, call this a victory against this powerful invader.

Did this defeat Pyrrhus’ aim? To an extent, yes. Unable to draw forces from mainland Greece his Southern Italic allies were almost certainly not going to want to expend more of their resources supporting his campaign. It is suggested he lost many of the troops he brought with him from Epirus, including some key commanders.

It was likely a TKO victory for Pyrrhus, but after an absolute hell of a fight and Rome didn’t stay down on the mat for long. There will be a rematch!

Yes, you are correct. I am running out of images of ancient historical things! With no camera phones in 279 BCE it is hard to find good shots of what actually took place at the Battle of Asculum. Instead have a coin minted during Pyrrhus’ reign as King of Epirus. Interesting to note is that neither of these figures is Pyrrhus. The head side, on the left, is Kore – the maiden – sometimes called Persephone, although they may have been two different people. She is the daughter of Demeter, goddess of grain. Heavily involved in the Mystery Cult of Eluesis, a cult centred on new life, regrowth and regeneration which people from all over the Greek world made a pilgrimage to in order to be initiated into the rights.
On the right hand side, the domineering female figure is Athena, whilst usually associated with Athens the figure of Athena was, religiously, important to many Greek cultures as a protector. (Credit: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com by GFDL)

Back to Carthage.

The Greek historian Polybius discovered a series of documents, treaties, between Rome and Carthage. Dated between 509 BCE and 279 BCE it is an excellent representation of the respect these two parties held for one another. It is also testament to two almost entirely different, burgeoning empires.

Rome was a land army based agrarian/industrial empire. They made food, traded a lot in people (slaves), mined precious metals etc.

Carthage was a naval, mercantile empire, in the imports and exports trade. They conquered by sea, built port-forts and sailed around selling shit. Having an ally in Rome would be wonderful for a place like Carthage who could rock up in their boats, sell some shit, buy some shit, trade some shit before moving on to somewhere else in the Mediterranean to do the same with the added exotica from Rome.

If you look at the emergence of territories, the Phoenician colonists that founded Carthage did not build an empire far-and-wide, they did not go deep in land early in their development. The founded coastal towns, their territory was a narrow band, often fragmented, of port towns and cities from which one could send boats to trade and to which trade boats could arrive.

We’ve used this image before but it gives a good demonstration of what was going on. The Persian Empire seen here, by 279 BCE, was mostly the Seleucid Empire and part of the Hellenistic world, excluding Egypty which was the Ptolemaic Kingdom. All of this was apportioned it in various dynastic conflicts after the death of Alexander the Great of Macedon who, for all his greatness, did not sort out his succession very well. Also by 279 BCE the island of Sicily had Carthaginian (the greeny-blue colour) colonies on it’s Western coast. This is what put Greece (and Pyrrhus particularly) in conflict with Carthage. It was believed one of Pyrrhus’ aims, since Sicily was allied to him as part of the Epirot League, was to conquer the whole island. Rome, meanwhile had conquered, pacified or adopted most of the land of the Italian peninsula excluding the far North and South.
So this gives you a good idea of how narrow but naval the Carthaginian influence was, whilst Rome and various Hellenic and Hellenistic states help more in-land spaces. Rome was vulnerable to naval attack, Carthage by land attack – so their treaties up to 279 BCE were aimed at nullifying each other’s strengths against each other. Meanwhile the treaty of 279 BCE proposed a potential alliance whereby each would use the other’s strength to gain advantage.
This is complex geopolitics in 279 BCE! Technology has moved fast but our behaviours have not! (Credit: Utah State University via intechopen)

Rome wasn’t built on a sea, although they had a solid port in nearby Ostia, it was a fertile swamp on the banks of the Tiber. For their senators, the wealthy, being able to trade with Carthaginians was a blessing.

This series of treaties enforces this relationship in a formal, political context and with conditions that would be naturally imposed at a time when bonking your near neighbour on the head and nicking their shit was not considered rude but just how things were done.

Slowly but surely a catalogue of conditions and stipulations was made to ensure there “Shall be friendship between the Romans and their allies, and the Carthaginians and their allies.”

The conditions are mostly sensible. Don’t sail past X-point, anyone washed ashore has Y-number of days to fix their boat and piss off. Trade is only permissible here and here. Don’t attack this place. No fortifications in that place. No staying here whilst armed.

The future treaties iterate on these points – It’s only really relevant as context.

A stele (basically a slab) supposedly depicting Polybius, the statesman and historian. He allegedly found the treaties with Carthage after moving to Rome to write a history. He’s clearly insane, because as I have said on Twitter, no sane person would write a history of Rome. (Credit: Jona Lendering, Livius Onderwijs by GFDL)

The treaty of 279 BCE was specifically related to Epirus, Pyrrhus and the on-going wars. The main stipulations were very interesting. For one thing it was prospective. Not a formal alliance, but an agreement that should either side decide it necessary there should be an alliance, and if so what the terms should be.

You see, the general gist of it was that if Pyrrhus was being a dick to Carthage, Rome would help. If Pyrrhus was being a dick to Rome, Carthage would help. But the stipulations make the strengths, weaknesses and tension between the two parties obvious.

Whilst Carthage would supply the ships, land armies would be taken care of (as in paid for) by each mutual state. This would allow extremely naval Carthage to effectively operate as a sea transport for a Roman land army whilst not endangering their troops.

In fact one of the stipulations – presumably specifically aimed at a situation where Rome needed to call on Carthage for help, states that whilst they would give aid by sea to the Romans, they could not be compelled to disembark against their will. I say it is aimed at a potential invasion of Roman territory because why would Carthaginian force not want to disembark is a Carthaginian territory was under attack?

Whatever happened next between Rome and Pyrrhus, Sicily was likely to be a huge factor in the potential future of the Mediterranean. Not only was the island renowned for being fertile agricultural land, a great place to export grain from to feed the population of a growing nation, but it was controlled by two superpowers in Greece and Carthage.

Pyrrhus wanted to take the island for the Greeks, Rome was at war with Pyrrhus and the Carthaginians were in a treaty with Rome that suggested they could, at any point, decide to ally, but it was testy, tentative and militarily playful.

Where was it is all leading?

Read the other parts in our ‘Roman History in a Nutshell’ Series:
Introduction
The Founding – 753 BCE and Before

The Kingdom – 753 BCE – 509 BCE
The Patrician Era and the Conflict of the Orders – 494 BCE – 287 BCE
Wars with Etruscans Pre-753 BCE – ~264 BCE
Wars with Sabines, Veii & Fidenae ~753 BCE – ~287 BCE
The Latin Wars 7th Century BCE – ~338 BCE
The Gallic Wars ~390 BCE – ~284 BCE
The Rest of the Med ~2,000 BCE – ~3rd Century BCE
The Samnite Wars ~343 BCE – ~290 BCE
The Pyrrhic Wars – The Battle of Heraclea, 280 BCE

We’ve got more on Rome, too!

The Mother of Rome: Livia Drusilla – Before the hit Sky TV series ‘Domina’ there was me espousing the life and works of Livia (Some might argue I did it better…), the canny politician, the Patrician, the Patron and the wife and mother of an Empire.
The Pleb who Built Rome: Marcus Agrippa – It is my belief that the right-hand-man of Augustus had a much bigger part to play in the building and management of the Empire than did his friend with the titles. Find out why.

Bad History: Boudica and Bullshit Nationalism – Looking at the use of historical figures for current political or social agendas.
Bad History: Did Rome ever Actually Fall? Questioning the ‘Decline and Fall’ narrative and looking at structures inherited from the Romans we have to this day.

A New Lease of Life? – A Discussion about the new floor in the Flavian Amphitheatre, the Colosseum, and what Vespasian, who initially commissioned the building, might think.

The Fan-TAS-tic Virtues of Rome – A look at the moral virtues of Roman life.

What are the ‘Ides of March’ – Because I envitably get asked by my dad every Ides, I wrote about it!

Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Introduction
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Easily available abortion (CW)
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Drawing dicks on things.
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Energy Drinks
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Gender and Sexuality Liberation (CW)
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Travel and Tourist Tat.
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – AirBnB
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Bipartisan Politics
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Fast Food
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Pro-Wrestling
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Social Media (Especially Insta and Twitter)

Caturday Special: The Sand Cat, Felis margarita

The positively adorable sandcat sleeping. It looks like your regular old moggy with big ears but this is one finely honed desert predator. Those big ears and long whiskers to detect the faintest traces of movement, big night-vision eyes to lock-on to the prey and a body built for stealth, speed and a fight if needs be! What’s a biological marvel. I wanna hug it! (Credit: Public Domain via Pxhere)

I mean, for starters it’s named after a cocktail! Felis margarita! I don’t want to hear your roots, etymologies, histories and justifications. The linguistics mean nothing to me. I don’t care if it’s named after some French General or whatever.

I’ve been sobre, stone-cold sobre, not a sip of booze for 18 months, the hardest 18 months of my life. The most intoxicating things my body has taken in have been beautiful scenes from nature and images of this amazing, gorgeous cat.

It’s a cocktail for the senses, the sparkling gems for eyes, the dusty, pale straw floof and look at those ears on that little, blocky, floofy face – if this little beastie isn’t intoxicating, if this is not enough to keep even a former drunken waster, who would have had to visit a doctor for having too much blood in his alcohol stream, like me, on the wagon – I don’t know what, in nature, is.

OH. MY. WORD! Again – cute as a button but absolutely not intentionally. Every aspect of this animal that makes it ‘cute’ is an evolutionary adaptation to make it a perfect, small desert hunter! Those big eyes for spotting, targeting prey in the dark desert nights or – if it’s day-hunting – hunting sand-coloured prey in a sand-coloured desert. Those red lines, that look like eye make-up, around the eyes, may very well serve to reduce glare. Even the little nose, not-quite-pink, flecked with black – A pink nose would burn easily in the desert sun, the melanin, the pigment to make it black, serves as excellent protection. And those ears! They are radar! (Credit: Nathan Rupert CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0)

You might be thinking “It’s a sand cat…it’s that colour…it clearly lives in the desert, why is that floofy!?” Well for one thing it gets cold in the desert at night. Some people still don’t realise that large stretches of open land that can overheat in a barrage of the sun’s radiation during the day also cool down significantly and quickly at night.

The difference can be 42°C! Temperatures can get down as low as -4°C! That’s on average, lows of -15°C have been recorded! You can go from scorching, equatorial summer heat to UK winter temperature in hours.

It comes down to this. Most deserts are made of fine grains of eroded rock or soil called ‘sand’ which is surprisingly good at heating up but not so great at holding the heat. It radiates a lot of that heat into the dry, desert air, heating up the air. But, if it’s not great at holding the heat, without direct sunlight on it, the sand doesn’t stay hot for very long. Likewise, the air in deserts tends to be dry. Water, humidity, in the air would hold the heat longer (as we see in temperatures in equatorial rainforests for example), but in the dry air of the desert the heat in the air disperses quickly, too.

Another schleepy sand cat. Behaviour to be expected. Cats tend to be very restful anyway, their hunts are high-energy affairs and expending too much energy when not hunting is wasteful. When you live in the desert, though? You’ll likely find a shaded den or hole to rest in and spend much of the day asleep, out of the heat. (Credit: Ltshears CC-BY-3.0)

Desert animals have to be adapted to these two extremes and, as much as you might not think it, a decent layer of gorgeous, pettable, fluffy cat floof is actually good for that. Think about what thermal insulation does. It doesn’t just keep heat in and cold out, but it does the reverse. Try it yourself, stick something cold in a thermos flask and see if it’s still cold a few hours later.

So for sandcats, for one thing, their colour – that pale straw colour is about as close as you can get to white without being completely reflective of the sun’s harsh radiation. Not only does it offer excellent camouflage in the dusty, yellow condition they live in but it doesn’t absorb the heat. Have you ever petted a black cat that’s been laying out in the sun and it feels like you could cook on it? Then done the same with a lighter coloured cat and wonder quite how the black cat hasn’t roasted alive!? Sand cats don’t have that problem.

They also have longer hairs on their paws, giving their pads extra protection against what can be a scalding, scorching desert surface.  

They’re only small, weighing around 1-4kg, shoulder height is about 25-35cm, head and body 40-50cm with a shortish tail around 25-30cm. We’re talking a tiny cat here. Not as small as the black-footed cat or rusty-spotted cat but not far off!

But that face! How can we not talk about that face! It is special for so many reasons.

One – Short muzzle, large, round forward facing eyes just equals ‘cute’ in the human brain. Think of many of the creatures we think of as ‘cute’ and they have those features. Think of animals we think of as ‘cute’ that don’t have those features and we’ve bred them, or adapted them to be cute in those ways, like with dog breeds or teddy-bears.

A sand cat in the Arabian desert. They are spread from the North African Sahara, across the Arabian peninsula, in countries like Israel, Jordan, down into Oman and into Central Asia in places like Uzbekistan, Iran and Afghanistan. Human conflicts in many of these regions make monitoring sandcat numbers very difficult. (Credit: Ranjith-chemmad CC-BY-SA 4.0)

There are multiple anthropo-psychological theories why but they usually all come down to shit looking like babies and it bringing out a natural protective, parental instinct in us.

But this is a wild cat! This cat has not been bred to be cute, this wasn’t designed by a committee of cat-mad humans trying to make the ultimate cute cat. Everything from the oversized ears, the short snoot and the eye make-up is evolutionarily honed to make this an exceptional predator.

It has big eyes because, certainly during the summer, it’s crepuscular and nocturnal – it comes out during twilight hours and at night. It makes sense, it’s too fucking hot during the day to do anything. Winter time they have been known to wander about in the day. But they need those big eyes to spot prey.

The question: How much do I want this article broken up by photos of adorable sand cats? The answer: If it wasn’t, you know, my thing to write – I’d just have a gallery of sand cats! (Credit: Tambako The Jaguar CC-BY-ND 2.0)

The other thing to consider is what prey they are spotting. Sandy colour mice and rodents like gerboa, desert camouflaged reptiles, buff-colour birds. A lot of the stuff they hunt is as well camouflaged as they are and they need keen vision to spot it.

The eye markings are similar to those possessed by cheetah (although sand-cats don’t have the dark, stripe crosshairs pointing down the nose) but in cheetahs it is suggested the dark marks and lines around the eyes help reduce glare from the sun around the cat’s eyes.

But if you’ve been learning anything of comparative anatomy – the study of the differences in bodies and what they mean – from my articles so far you’ll be screaming at me “WHAT ABOUT THE EARS!?”

Look at them ears! Snapped in a motion-activated camera trap you can see many of the adaptations of this beautiful kitto. This is Felis margarita thinobia, the Asian sand cat. They tend to be slightly larger and, in some cases, have slightly longer fur (for dealing with lower temperatures at higher altitudes). But what a beautiful little creature. (Credit: Payman sazesh CC-BY-SA 3.0)

And if you are, you’re right! As important as the eyes are the sand cat has two adaptations that suggest eyesight might not be its foremost sense when it comes to hunting. For one, it has very long (up to 8cm!) white, whiskers. But it also has those massive pyramidal ears with large, wide ear canals, the openings through which sound can go.

The special bones used for hearing, and the ear drums themselves, of these cats are comparatively larger than those of other wild cats. Their hearing is significantly more acute than almost any other cat.

This beautiful, dusty feline doesn’t look for prey, it listens for it!

When they’re out on the hunt they slink, staying low to the ground, between their hairy paws and this low posture they’re near silent. They twitch their ears listening for the sounds of potential prey and once they clock it – BAM! – They can burst at speeds up to 40km/h! A short sprint, a pounce, hold it down, bite, game over. Small prey they may even eat whole!

It’s a small cat so most of its prey tends to be small birds, lizards and rodents. But in the desert you take what you can get, and you get what you’re bold enough to take! As well as opportunistically preying on invertebrates like beetles or crickets, there is also evidence of them hunting desert monitor lizards (that can grow up to 2m in length!) and MacQueen’s bustard, a bird around 65cm tall with a 1.5m wingspan that can weigh as much as a sandcat itself!

A lion of the Namib desert population. These lions are so exceptional some seek to have them classified as a sub-species. They survive, against all odds, in the harsh Namib desert. But that we consider their survival ‘against the odds’ demonstrates these lions are exceptional. Sandcats survive in the desert not through exception, but as a rule. (Credit: Linux_RT via Pixabay)

They’ve also been seen, you know, just taking on vipers, as you do!

For all that they may be small and, to our eyes at least, very cute, these are some ‘ard bastards! Their environment demands it as they are basically the only cat known to exist in solely desert environments. There is a population of lions in the Namib Desert – they’re pretty tough, but they do not represent most lions. Sand cats are the desert cats.

Their evolution is pretty interesting, too. They diverged from the rest of the felis lineage somewhere between 6.5-1 million years ago.

This is depending on which data from which DNA you use. I’ve explained before, animals technically have two genomes – two sets of genes – in their bodies; Their nuclear DNA which is ‘your’ genome, the one that codes for your body, eye colour, tongue-rolling, ability to make your wee smell funny when you eat asparagus, whether coriander tastes like soap or not; and your mitochondrial genome.

Sure to give anyone who studied A-level biology flashbacks, a diagram of a cell with the major organelles, the cell’s organs, labelled. The mitochondria are the pink, pill-shaped organelles. (Credit: AJC1 CC-BY-SA 2.0)

Mitochondria are tiny ‘organelles’, like a small organ within a cell, believed to have been derived from a symbiotic organism – some little creature that lives in, on or connected to another creature. They provide our cells with a much more efficient pathway for generating and processing ‘energy’ and thus they’re known as the ‘power stations of the cell’. One of the reasons we think that these are developed from a symbiotic relationship (specifically an endosymbiotic relationship, where the symbiotic organism is internal – that’s what ‘endo-‘means) is due to the fact that the mitochondria has its own genome sequence.

Little bit of biology lesson in your cat article, for you there. Either way they genetically diverged from the common Felis ancestor before the likes of the African wildcat, the European wildcat and the Chinese mountain cat. But a really interesting thing is the timing.

These cats are at least one million years old, meaning they have survived an awful lot of the glaciation events of the Pleistocene. Ice ages – to use the common parlance – caused a lot of changes, specifically in sea levels. We know, from both fossil and genetic evidence, that Asia is the home of the cat lineage, the Felidae, and they radiated from there. So it is likely that our little sandcat found its way to the deserts of Africa in a migration out of Asia due to low sea levels between Asia and Africa caused by glaciation.

Whilst many species were blossoming and struggling with the coming and going of glaciers and seas, the sand cat found a means to exploit it, increase its range and thrive.

It’s an excellent reminder that in the extremes of climate upheaval some species will find advantages. Our current climate crisis threatens many species, species that do not deserve to perish because humans fucked things up, but most significantly it threatens us, humans. We’re fucked, in all honesty, if we don’t do something.

Breaking up the serious with KITTEN TAX! This is a young sand cat – they are usually paler and extremely, almost achingly cute. (Credit: Charles Barilleaux CC-BY-2.0)

But in being so fucked we open up niches for exploitation by so many other species. This is heartening, at least to this bastard writing. Whilst many of us, myself included, have conscience enough to care about the state of the natural world – that natural world is cold and indifferent to us. Whatever havoc we cause will likely not be enough to stop the march of evolution and other species shall overrun ‘our’ habitats and environments, crumble ‘our’ buildings, and destroy everything we helped build to build a world of their own and piss and shit on our graves.

Maybe you think it’s grim, but I like that thought. It feels like, unless we do something to stop it, we get what we deserve.

We don’t own even our own bodies, the nutrients, the chemical compounds and elements all get recycled when we die. We borrow all of it. If we don’t borrow responsibly, nature ensures those debts are repaid.

A sand cat in a squished, low crouch position. They move like this whilst on alert, either in danger or hunting – keeping low helps them stay quiet whilst their big ears can pick up sounds, big eyes can see things and those whiskers can feel disturbances in the ground or air around them. (Credit: Valerie CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Sorry, it’s been a tough time to be a wildlife enthusiast recently. You don’t want my brand of natural nihilism, you want cats.

Their migration means there are two populations, recognised as sub-species, of sand cat; Felis margarita margarita, the North African sand cat; and Felis margarita thinobia, found in West and Central Asia.

That there are two separate sub-species and looking at their distribution (particularly their fragmentation across Arabia) suggests the Sinai peninsula in Egypt may have acted as a barrier, preventing the Asian and African populations from mixing.

A map of sandcat distribution based upon IUCN data from 2016. You can see how their Saharan population is a lot more of a unified corridor, whilst the Arabian and Asian populations are potentially more fragmented. This fragmentation can cause problems as sandcats tend to be solitary, wide-ranging (walking 10+km on a night hunt) and disperse from one another. Breeding populations in the fragmented areas are in danger of inbreeding problems unless corridors can be established to allow gene flow. (Credit: BhagyaMani based on
Own work based on: Sliwa, A.; Ghadirian, T.; Appel, A.; Banfield, L.; Sher Shah, M. & Wacher, T. (2016). “Felis margarita“. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016, CC-BY-SA 4.0)

Given enough time there is the possibility they could evolve into two entirely separate species. Then we’d have twice as much cat! Which is always good.

This article has been dense at times – if you read it all, thank you very much. The thing is, look at this little kitto! It’s fucking beautiful!

Species like this…This adorable little bastard. We don’t think of them in our boardrooms, our political halls or even, unless they’re thrown in front of our faces in some Attenborough documentary, in our living rooms or around our dining tables. They represent something of the natural world that our modern lives neglect.

I live for shit like this. The world’s an interesting place full of interesting things. These cats, that look like butter-wouldn’t-melt but that live in the fucking desert, treading across 80°C sand like it ain’t shit and eating venomous snakes because there’s fuck all else to eat – that’s the duality of nature. The brutal beauty.

Humans, often, do not accept that brutal beauty. Indeed it seems our lot, our mission of ‘civilisation’, has been to ‘tame’ the brutality and fetishise the beauty. In so doing we make problems of nature and natural behaviours; in doing that, we make problems for nature.

Sorry, are things getting too real? Let’s break up the deep thought with KITTEN TAX! And forget photos, we need KITTEN TAX VIDEO! (Credit: NatGeo Wild)

We’re wrong and have been for hundreds of thousands of years. We have a brain fine-tuned to believe we know what we are doing, but we are clueless. We have an ego fine-tuned to possess, to own, to believe we are responsible custodians when all we are is reckless borrowers.

The sandcat, meanwhile, lives in the harshest environment, eats what it can, efficiently processes precious resources like water and finds a way to exist harmoniously in the most hostile environment possible.

I think there are lessons to be learned there about how we can be more sandcat, and learn to live within our means and accept the hostility of the natural world for what it is rather than attempt to craft the whole landscape in our image and make it palatable to our needs.

This sandcat looks at you with scorn and judgement, like “Air conditioning? Mother fucker – the fuck is wrong wit’ you!? I’m furry and I live in the desert, how can you not survive 30 degrees without switching on a damn machine! Have some self-respect! God damn!” (Credit: Tambako The Jaguar CC-BY-ND 2.0)

Survival – That’s the aim. It’s the closest anyone in biology has come to an objective ‘meaning’ for life. The sandcat does it in the harshest conditions. We try to change the conditions so we can survive. In so doing, we doom ourselves to perish. It’s unsustainable.

Be more sandcat.

You can CAT-ch up with the rest of our Caturday Specials here

Caturday Special: The Origin StoryProailurus and Pseudaelurus – The progenitor species of all modern cats examined.
Caturday Special: The Snow Leopard – The ‘Ghost of the Mountains’ gets an examination, a beautiful cat with some remarkable characteristics.
Caturday Special: The Scottish Wildcat – Once an emblem of so many Scottish clans, now this poor, cute, and feisty wildcat is struggling to survive due to historic persecution and current ongoing interbreeding with domestic cats.
Caturday Special: The Serval – Find out about this elegant and beautiful medium-sized African wildcat and how it has become part of our domesticated cat lineage!
Caturday Special: The Kodkod – The smallest cat in the Americas and endemic to only a small part of Chile and Argentina, find out about this amazing little boopster.
Caturday Special: The Feliformia and the Spotted Hyena – Did you know that hyenas are actually more closely related to cats than to dogs? They are members of sub-order of carnivores called ‘Feliformiae‘ or the cat-like carnivores. Learn more about them, the hyena and the hyena’s remarkable genitals here.
Caturday Special: The Cougar – The second biggest cat in the Americas is actually more closely related to your domestic moggy than the lion! Learn more!
Caturday Special: The Eurasian Lynx – One of my continent’s most handsome predators and one that certain groups are looking to get reintroduced to the UK after a 1,000 year absence in the hope it will control rabbit and roe deer numbers. I’m all for it!
Caturday Special: Hybrids – Looking at the phenomenon of hybrid species, with focus on cats like the liger, the pumapard and the Kellas cat, as well as some talk about domestic hybrids like chausie, bengals and caracats.
Caturday Special: The Fishing Cat – It’s a cat that loves to fish. An adorable little kitto from Asia.
Caturday Special: The Marbled Cat – A beautiful Asian cat of the Bay-Cat lineage that completes a write up of a cat species from every extant cat clade and that discusses the smaller, little known cats and why they are worth study.
Caturday Special: The Eurasian Cave Lion – A prehistoric beauty, around 10-15% bigger than the modern, African lion and as fearsome as it was admirable. Lions and humans emerged from Africa together and have a strong, cultural bond as a result. Like competing brothers.
Caturday Special: Homotherium – Less well-known than their Smilodon cousins, these pre-historic, sabre-toothed beasties have some incredible evidence for intelligence, social behaviour and the evolution of butchery!
Caturday Special: The Rusty-Spotted Cat – Possibly the smallest cat in the world (it’s close between it and the black-footed cat) this tiny, elusive feline of India and Sri Lanka is surely one of the cutest little hunters on Earth.
Caturday Special: The Leopard – One of the most well-adapted, disperse and diverse of habitat cats on our planet and one whose various populations are sadly threatened by human activity. Of huge cultural significance to humans going back at least as far as Ancient Greece, the leopard is amazing.

Or read our Top Ten Cats List

Top Ten Cats: Introduction – The basics of cat biology, evolution and natural history.
Top Ten Cats #10 – The Pallas’ cat – a small, very fluffy pika-hunter from Asia.
Top Ten Cats #9 – Jaguarundi – A unique and little known Puma relative.
Top Ten Cats #8 – Clouded Leopard – A stealthy and stunning Asian cat.
Top Ten Cats #7 – Jaguar – Beauty in spades, loves swimming, cracks skulls with teeth…
Top Ten Cats #6 – Lion – Emblematic, beautiful and social, an amazing cat.
Top Ten Cats #5 – Black-footed cat – one of the smallest, yet most deadly wild cats.
Top Ten Cats #4 – Smilodon – Going prehistoric with the sabre-toothed cats.
Top Ten Cats #3 – Tiger – One of the most gorgeous animals to have ever existed.
Top Ten Cats #2 – Cheetah – The placid lovechild of a sportscar and a murderer.
Top Ten Cats #1 – Domestic cats – Saviour of our foodstores and loving companions.

On the Origin of a Species – The Slow Worm, Anguis fragilis

The slow worm, this was a large male – you can tell from the uniform browny-grey colouration. He was probably 30-40cm in length, it’s hard to tell as he was coiled a little, but what a beautiful little creature. He was chilling on a footpath up to the hills and cliffs near me. (Credit: Me)

Its name is ‘slow worm’ when it is neither slow, nor a worm. Other names for it are the ‘deaf adder’ when it neither deaf, nor an adder. Perhaps ‘blind worm’ is the appropriate name, then? Well it can see, and, as mentioned, is not a worm. An archaic term for it is the long-cripple – well it can be quite long but I assure any ableists out there it is far from ‘crippled’.

Even if its Latin binomial, Anguis fragilis, effectively means ‘fragile eel’ when it is not fragile and it’s not a fucking eel!

So what’s the deal with these guys, why have we given them a bunch of names all of which are plain wrong?

Well perhaps the fragilis comes from their ability, as we saw with the common lizard, to autotomise. That is they can shed parts of their body, usually their rear parts, the tail, to escape predation. The tail even keeps writhing for a few minutes to distract the predator. Far from making this little beastie fragile it makes it quite tough! Imagine if you got in a fight and could just pop your arm off without worry knowing you could grow back a new one. That’s not fragility it’s a fucking superpower! Sadly it’s a one-time only deal and the tail that grows back is usually shorter than the one lost.

He was a thiccboi though! Some solid girth to him. I’m no expert so I couldn’t predict an age. Given how stumpy his tail was I suspect he has already shed it once at some point. (Credit: Me)

As for the rest of it, well it’s because it’s a long, wormy sort of thing. It’s not a snake, a remarkably common misconception from people who I think need a ‘We Lack Discipline’ article on taxonomy! They are in the same order as snakes, the Squamata, this order includes a lot of obviously unsnakelike things. Geckos and iguanas are Squamata and nobody says “Ooh look, it’s a snake with legs!”

Again, like with the common lizard, I can remember being fascinated by slow worms from an early age. It was an event to see one, like some small piece of exotica had come to us from a far-off land.

The slow worm has to be one of the most fascinating reptiles in the world. That might seem a stretch but that’s because they are very much taken for granted. It’s too small to be taken seriously as a snake like beast, too snake-like to be taken seriously as a reptile and when they are seen they are usually doing very little hanging around under rocks or in the undergrowth or just basking in the sun.

This girl was quite shy, deciding to coyly hide her face behind a leaf. (Credit: Me)

However their family, the Anguidae, have a fossil record dating back around 75 million years, to the late Cretaceous period, where they would have shared the earth with dinosaurs. Their genus, Anguis, likely evolved around 50 million years ago during the early Eocene. The lineage of these little reptiles saw off the strife that led to the extinction of so many species, included the dinosaurs, to chill out in our gardens in the UK today.

For as much as they may seem chill we mostly see them when they’re basically charging their batteries. They are voracious predators and you want them if you’re a gardener! They are a carnivorous species that feed mainly on invertebrates. After basking for the day, raising their body temperature, they go off on their dusk raids where they usually go after slugs, small snails, worms and the occasional insect (just a little insect, as a treat!). One of the reasons I often extend my walks into the evenings now is in the hope of seeing lizards and slow worms actually hunting!

These guys will eat the things you curse for munching at your flowerbeds or your cabbages – with no need for cruel and soil-harming salts, pesticides, insecticides or repellents. They are a charming natural slug remover!

This one looks like quite a large boy, snapped in Swansea. (Credit: © Copyright Dave Croker CC-BY-SA 2.0)

They are what we would call ‘semifossorial’. They’re burrowers, and if not basking in the sun they can often be found under large bits of wood, dense leaf litter, stones, rubble etc. Anywhere they can find a nice, warm hidey hole. In fact they are more likely to be warming underneath something than out in the open.

I believe I have mentioned my brother has a breeding mother regularly in his garden and cultivates families of slow worms. I’ve seen the whole group of them, mum and babies, chilling out under a stone. It’s beautiful.

They tend to hibernate (usually underground) between October and March so April-September is the best time to see them. Whilst they do have their own individual characters, some being happier to be prodded and bothered than others, I do advise being careful, do not handle it if not necessary (i.e. to protect it for some reason) and just leave it in peace. Even the one I saw was uncomfortable getting a camera shoved in its face and quickly spun around and disappeared into the long grass where I, clumsy, overgrown human twat that I am, am ill-equipped to follow.

You can usually tell sexes apart by appearance. The males are an almost uniform grey-brown, whilst the females are a beautiful gilded brown with darker flanks and sometimes a distinctive faint stripe on the head or down the back. I have personal photos from a female seen in my brother’s garden (the mother who is always having babies there) and the male I saw whilst on a walk so you can look to compare them.

The female in my brother’s garden. More golden in colour with distinct dark stripes down the sides (young of this species have the same colour pattern, regardless of sex) the stripe that usually runs down the back is faded in this girl. (Credit: Me)

Like the common lizard, and unsurprising given the common habitat they share for a lot of their range, they give birth to live young. These tiny little wigglers are absolutely adorable.

I wish I had some danger with which to discourage you from bothering slow worms but, as far as we know they don’t bite humans so they are of no danger to us.

In fact, we are the danger. Habitat loss has caused a decline in their numbers in the wild, whilst urban and suburban populations are prone to predation by cats and can often be found dead, with their extremities missing. My old cat, the late, great Smooze used to have a distinctive howl when she would find a reptile and I’d immediately dart down, chase her off it and ensure it got to a safe place!

They can grow up to 50cm in length but size is not their specialty. That would be longevity. How do we know my brother has the same mother slow worm breeding in his garden? We don’t! It’s hard to tell them apart. But there is one in the same place almost every year and in the wild we know they tend to live to be about 30 years old. The record is a specimen from Copenhagen Zoo captured in 1892 that died in 1946, at least 54 years old.


Look at this gorgeous girl from Hertfordshire. Not sure what settings have been used but it really sets off the golden-brown hue of their skin. Their scales do not overlap, like those of snakes. This makes them very smooth to the touch. (Credit: Peter O’Connor aka anemoneprojectors, CC-BY-SA 2.0)

In the UK they are a protected species. It is illegal to intentionally kill, harm, sell them or advertise to sell them under the Countryside Act 1981. So, please, I know they may seem tame and harmless – it’s because they are! But if you bother them you can end up with the police knocking on your door.

If you want to see them, to have some as garden buddies, well then I have some suggestions. Putting down a heavy slab or stone or two somewhere in your garden may help. If you can’t afford to make yourself a small rockery then a sturdy piece of dark plastic or a sheet of tin or corrugated iron will also do the job. Be careful not to disturb them too much (or they may piss off) and be careful when replacing their shelter as they are easily crushed or harmed. They love to hang out under things, especially warm things – but be careful where you live and when you lift to check, because so do adders and unlike slow worms, whilst they are mostly harmless too, adders can bite!

A juvenile slow worm – the species is ovoviviparous – this means the mother effectively incubates her eggs inside herself and only ‘gives birth’ after they have hatched. All slow worm young, regardless of sex, have a similar black-and-gold colouration, with dark flanks and bellies and a shiny golden top, similar in colour to a female. (Credit: Stijn99 CC-BY-SA 4.0)

So I have been very lucky, over the last few weeks I have seen two of Britain’s incredible, native reptiles. Chances are I’ve been close to adders, too, but they are notoriously shy! It is still my mission to see them all and after having seen them, to tell you about them.

But slow worms really are precious little things so do your best to help them out, don’t bother them and try to keep your cats away from them!

Want to read about more animals? Read more from our ‘On the Origin…’ Series!
Saltwater Crocodiles – Beautiful, potentially human-hunting, predators.
The Tapiridae – The tapirs, amazing, prehistoric looking animals.
The Common Lizard – Maybe common, but a rare sight as they are shy!
The Red Panda – What is it? Some of kind of raccoon-bear-cat!? Nope, it’s a cute panda.

Or check out our Top Ten Animals Series
The Top Ten Sharks – Including the White Shark, Greenland Shark and Whale Shark.
The Top Ten Cats – From the Lion to the domestic Moggy we rank cat species!
The Top Ten Most Hated but Misunderstood Animals – Because they all need love!

We also have a LOT of cats in our Caturday Specials!

Men, We Need to Talk About Violence

I have delayed this article, significantly, for the very simple reason that women’s voices deserved to be prioritised over my own, and other men’s, voices at that time. This, though, is an article I’ve always had in the back of my mind and one that I’ve never released for fear of the Wicked Problem effect (there should be an article about that, too.)

I also don’t want to be accused of what-aboutism. What I am about to discuss is not intended, in any way, to dismiss or demean the experiences women have with violence, harassment or assault by men.

Unfortunately it is a simple heuristic that “two houses both alike in dignity” to steal a line from Shakespeare, will find ways to do as the Capulets and Montagues did in those circumstances, fight, no matter how stupid the fight or how much they ultimately agree with one another.

This is one thing I fear is happening in the discourse about violence, against women specifically, and masculinised violence in general.  

But the recent attack on Professor Chris Whitty when he was just going about his business in the park makes this article all the more imperative. I have never, in my life, known an atmosphere of daily life like the one I see today. I have lived in spaces where such an atmosphere pervaded but they were the most spit-and-sawdust spaces you could imagine. These were situations and neighbourhoods where violence is an everyday reality. This used to be restricted to the worst neighbourhoods. Now it pervades across towns, cities and even countryside villages. An undercurrent, and looming threat, that someone may confront you, violently, at any minute.

I may write eloquently, I may seem intelligent, but for all of that I was born in the crucible of violence, a working-class household in a rundown seaside town where beating shit out of each other was often an act of fun. I have seen violence, been violent and had violence inflicted upon me. For people of my walk of life violence is a seeming inevitability.

However these days it seems different, it seems bolder and more widespread. The only time I have heard of when such an undercurrent of threat existed was during the Thatcher years, but at that time real harm was being done and people were really angry. Industry was being decimated, unemployment, particularly in the young and restless, at an all-time high, the violent atmosphere spilled into protest against an ignorant, out of touch, oppressive state machine. Now, though, the violence is seemingly for the oppressive state machine.

This is not a violence of righteous defence of a person’s right to exist, have a job, have a family etc. It’s a violence of righteous aggression against those arguing for fair treatment. It is against those who are fighting for their right to exist, have a job, a family etc. This is violence against the poor, against the religious, against the black, against the Asian, against the gay, against the trans – This is violence against anything unwhite British and it’s not coming from nowhere.

This article was initially written as a response to the Sarah Everard case. Since then, though, it has become clear the problem is so much more than masculinised violence which is what this article was about. Now, however, I am editing and adding. I also want to highlight how people specifically incite masculinised violence for their own agendas.

Cui bono – A Latin phrase meaning “to whom is it a benefit?”

As with the miner’s strikes, violence does not come from nowhere and it serves a purpose. But whose purpose? In those cases the police forces were committing acts of violence for the benefit of the state whilst the miners, if they acted violently, were doing so to protect their livelihoods.

So what about the violence of today? To whom is it a benefit?

Some violence is clearly a benefit to the perpetrators, drug and gang related violence is about protection of one’s own interests. Whilst criminal empires can be built, organised criminal violence will occur. But there is a violence, a political violence, being stirred directly by Number 10 Downing Street, by the Prime Minister himself, that is an attack on liberty and diversity of identity.

People feel empowered to attack figures like Prof. Chris Whitty because they are being led to believe they are ‘right’, that there is some kind of conspiracy to lock us all down, keep us captive. People feel covid is a lie. People feel anyone who goes against ‘their’ narrative, a propagandised narrative, a governmental, spun narrative is a rightful target.

From booing the German national anthem at the recent football match, booing players taking a knee as a gesture against racism, our Home Secretary, herself the child of double immigrant parents (moving from India to Uganda, then to the UK) witnessing so-called ‘illegal immigrants’ being forcibly removed from their homes in a show of violent power, people harrassing public health figures in the streets as if they have done wrong by acting to protect vulnerable people from harm, the regular, accusatory violence inflicted on the sick, the disabled, those on benefits, the violence inflicted by those on benefits to people of different colours or nationalities having been led to believe they are they reason they are down on their luck – The list doesn’t fucking end!

This is not from nowhere, this benefits someone. It usually benefits someone who wouldn’t last five minutes under the same, oppressive atmosphere, in the circumstances of the very real, clear and present threat of violence that many people are living under.

This is weaponisation of, predominantly, working class men against a fictional villain. This is an emboldening of violence in people, like me, who were born into the crucible of violence, by people who have never seen it, never lived it and likely never will.

Like the armchair generals of World War I we have a group of politicians playing toy soldiers with public opinion blind to the reality of what stoking that fire genuinely does and who, frankly, in the same circumstances, would wilt. Few if any of these Tory orators, these tongue-warriors, would last in a situation of real violence – and yet they stir the shit as though they’re the toughest people on the planet.

They’ve got people frothing at the mouth ready to fight ‘liberal media’, trans rights activists and people taking the knee at football matches. But they know nothing of what that violence entails, of the fear in communities, of walking home casting your eye about not knowing who might do what to you, when.

I am releasing this piece now because masculinised violence against women, politicised, weaponised violence against anyone who dares speak against a narrative decided for us by the state, violence in general has become a huge, non-isolated problem. It is no longer my place to step aside and let other people’s voices be heard, it’s time I, and everyone else who thinks this situation very fucking dangerous speaks up.

Anyone who thinks an act of unprovoked, unjustified violence against another person is in any way excusable is a fool.

Anyone who thinks street harassment, calling out and shouting at people in the street who are just trying to go about their business is a fool.

Anyone who thinks the active pursuit, against their will, of another person, whether for reasons of personal, sexual or ego gratification, is a fool.

Anyone who has been guilty of none of these things at any point in their lifetime is a liar, or a saint.

Especially if they’re a man.

The thing is I want a quick and easy solution but there isn’t one. For want of anything to demonstrate differently, violence is a ‘wicked problem’, male violence even more so.

The statistics speak for themselves. I will be using UK Office of National Statistics data, for the year ending March 2020 (so March 2019- March 2020) for this, but I think the pattern holds true for much of the world, as this Wikipedia page demonstrates.

The majority, by a significant margin, of homicide victims are male. In the UK for the year ending March 2020 you were three times more likely to die by homicide if you were male than if you were female.

In fact, as the ONS report on the data says “The increase in homicide between the year ending March 2015 and year ending March 2018 reflected a 50% rise in the number of male victims, which increased from 319 in the year ending March 2015 to 479 in the year ending March 2018.”

Effectively, until quite recently homicide stats had been going down, and their proportional rise has been because of a rise in homicides with male victims. Not female, as the report continues…

“In the latest year, there has been a 20% increase in the number of male victims (422 to 506). Conversely, the number of female victims fell by 16% (from 225 to 188), the first decrease since year ending March 2016.”

Now again, my quoting this could be suggested by some to be dismissing the lives of the women taken as being less important than the lives of the men, or diminishing the fear felt by women as they go about their daily lives. I do not want to do this. One woman dead by homicide is one too many, just as one man dead by homicide is one too many. I am leading to a point. Please, withhold your judgements until I get to it.

You see, yes, men might make up the majority of the victims of homicide worldwide. Approximately 79% according to a United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime study in 2013.

According to the same study they account for 96% of those crimes, though.

Here’s the point I’m getting to.

There is a tendency, when it comes to academic study of violence and men, to disengender men – so much is the assumption that masculinity, a maleness, and violence go together. It is not even a topic of discussion. ‘Men are violent’ is the seeming consensus; therefore the discussion is always of ‘men as a problem’.

The very presentation of violence, a google image search of ‘violence’ to find a card image for this article, presented me with numerous figures of cowering women with a man looming over them. It’s socially and culturally self-evident that men are the perpetrators and women and children the victims and that violence is a male trait. Yet the statistics suggests an overwhelming number of the world’s victims of violent crime are male, and there has never been any credible study or report linking being ‘male’, biologically a man, with violence.

We cannot disengender this problem. Men are engendered, masculinity and maleness are traits associated with violence, a violence that affects men disproportionately – not only as the gender associated with those traits, not only as the predominant perpetrators of violent crimes but also as the predominant victims of those same crimes!

Violence is the problem. Some men are the perpetrators. All men, as well as wider society, can be made better by the solutions and therefore all men, indeed all people, must work to be part of the solution.

Sadly it’s a tough problem, one that requires significant effort and a large social consensus to solve. A social consensus it will be tough to get thanks to the ‘wicked problem’ scenario. People feel ‘men’ are to blame, people feel victimised by ‘men’ and that it should be up to men to solve the problem. But that’s too much an oversimplification of a very complex problem. To quote an introductory article on male violence in Current Anthropology;

“The complexity of the subject requires anthropological engagement by specialists in all its subfields. If ever a topic cried out for integrated, seamless scholarship by anthropology in the broadest sense, maleness and violence, and their relations to masculinities, is certainly one example.”

There is a tendency to believe, thanks to pop-culture use of the word ‘testosterone’, for example, that levels of that hormone – considered a masculine hormone despite being present in women as well – particularly high testosterone, is a cause for increased violence in men. There has never been a credible study that has demonstrated a causal link between acts of violence and levels of testosterone.

This ties in with, in my opinion, a wider inability to correctly and accurately portray the complexities of hormones and neurotransmitters and their roles within the body. Testosterone becomes the ‘man’ hormone, oestrogen the ‘woman’ hormone, serotonin is the ‘happy’ hormone, adrenaline the ‘scared’ hormone – It’s all a massive over-simplification of what is actually incredibly complex biochemistry and metabolics.

The only time I was ever truly intimidated in a bio lecture was in metabolics when the lecturer put up a map of all the known metabolic pathways and how they interact with one another. It was in tiny print, projected onto this massive screen, and it was like looking at a near infinite-field of interconnected arguing spaghetti.

To simplify one chemical as being a causal agent of aggression is basically impossible and is done only by people with a significant ignorance of the reality of the science.

But that also is true of the notion that high or low testosterone makes you more or less of a man.

Guys – Your testosterone levels do not make you more, or less, of a man. What’s manlier than a bearded dad carrying his child on his shoulders? Well studies indicate males in longer-term monogamous relationships, or who have children, have lower relative levels of testosterone than single, non-fathers.

Some of the manliest men you know have low testosterone, it does not make them any less of a man.

So surely if testosterone is not the problem there must be some excuse, some biological mechanism to explain why men are so often violent, and so often with each other?

There is, as yet, no discovered innate, biological or neurological mechanism for male violence.

One of the other things that prompted this article is the #notallmen idea. The notion is that it is a minority of men who are committing these acts therefore women who are scared of all men as a result are overreacting.

Holly Brockwell (@holly on twitter) a tech journalist gave an analogy that really resonated with me, because I think it puts it in perspective. The ‘poisoned chip’ analogy.

Someone hands you a bowl of chips (could be American crispy-fried potatoes us Brits would call crisps, could be proper chips that others may call ‘fries’ – whatever) and tells you one of them is poisoned. Do you eat any of them? Or are you scared of all of them?

All it takes is awareness that it could be any one of those chips that could do you harm and you won’t touch a single one.

I do it! It has become a rare event but I have, in the past, been shouted at, spat at or attacked in the street by other men, as a result, now, I am almost braced every time I pass a stranger in the street.

I responded that from my perspective, one problem that men live with is that they either think they are the poisoned chip – they may or may not be, but they revel in the reputation – or they think they’re brave enough to eat anyway.

And this brings us back to the point, the reason why I used male-on-male violence statistics to demonstrate my point in this article.

Guys – STOP EATING THE FUCKING CHIPS!

The data is there to back it up, we’re killing ourselves. The majority of worldwide homicides are committed by men on men.

Even if you’re the biggest piece of misogynistic garbage alive, even if you hate women and think their every opinion worthless, and even if you think you’re the biggest Billy Big Bollocks time has ever known – You are more likely to die to an act of violence perpetrated by a man than your wife, your mum, your daughter or your niece is. If you need that selfish perspective to this problem, if you are that unfeeling for others, there’s your selfish incentive.

You are more likely to die in an act of masculinised violence if you are a man. There’s a good reason, men, to start looking at solutions to this problem! It starts with you and it can end with you. In fact, I would argue if you are a misogynistic piece of garbage and think you’re Billy Big Bollocks you specifically put a target on your back. You are definitely more likely to die to an act of male violence, because some young buck is going to want to prove himself more poisoned of a chip than you are!

Men, we’re killing ourselves. Always have been, these statistics don’t even take into account lives lost through war. These are just the ‘criminal’ homicide statistics.

If there’s no innate mechanism for it, why does it happen? Who does it benefit?

What if this is such a difficult problem to deal with because the very structural power that holds our society together has been forged in the fires of masculinised violence? The UK House of Commons, despite having a record number of female Members of Parliament, is still two-thirds male. Those males are still, predominantly, moulded in the factories of Imperialist era public-schools (a weird UK term for very elite private schools) with antiquated attitudes towards just about everything.

The policies our current government pursue increase deprivation, unemployment, underemployment, youth disenfranchisement and all the various environmental and behavioural trappings that we do know have causal links to violence.

But then they can argue for ‘law and order’ and get more votes from a bunch of people who, themselves, promote violence against those who perpetrate violence in the form of punitive consequences for crime rather than access to rehabilitation and opportunity.

When I see acts of mass violence it is always at protests (politically motivated), sports events (community/tribally motivated), or terrorism (religiously/politically motivated). Whenever I see severe acts of violence occur they occur not in a spur of the moment on some biological impulse, but as a considered response to a perceived attack on an idea. I suspect while there is an innate aspect to violence, this, in humans, is mainly related to method more than motivation. The motivation for most violence seem to stem from mere ‘ideas’.

There is a political machine literally creating a problem (violence) that it can then show a hard-line on (via violence) to prove how capable of preventing violence they are. And it works!

Is this what we’re killing ourselves for, in order to maintain a violent status quo and uphold the rule of tradition?  For ideas? Are men truly willing to kill and be killed for a political ideology? The sad answer, as demonstrated throughout history is – yes. Something needs to change.

We’re also killing ourselves LITERALLY! 75% of the UKs suicides, every year, since the 1990s, are men.

We’re literally killing ourselves. There’s clearly a problem! 

I think the problem must be psychological and behavioural.

I have been hearing harrowing tales of women being afraid to walk the streets at night, so they don’t go out. The stories of abuses shouted at them from random members of the public. The stories of feeling targeted, followed and threatened.

Do you know what? I have all of those stories to, and I’m a man!

I have walked weird routes home at night knowing the local nightclubs will be kicking out and I don’t want any trouble. I’ve walked with my keys between my knuckles in case someone from that group walking towards me wants to cause a problem. I’ve been shouted at, called names, had my appearance commented on and been spat at. I’ve even been groped in public, in broad daylight, by a group of teenage girls.

This sort of behaviour is not exclusively the realm of the female victim.

Men, though, aren’t necessarily ‘allowed’ to deal with it in the same way as women are. It is not permitted for a man to admit he is scared. It is not permitted for a man to admit there may be a scenario in which he cannot defend himself. It would be considered, socially, an act of cowardice for a man to not intervene in a violent dispute, despite the fact it may cause him harm. The pressures of the competition of masculinity all promote this.

Consider the #metoo movement, there was a massive uproar, rightfully, when we found out women were being abused, exploited and having their careers threatened if they did not sexually appease those who could help their careers. But then the bravery of men like Brendan Fraser or Terry Crews gets a completely different reception. A cold reception, a reception whereby the idea is that the man should ‘take care of himself’. Particularly so with Terry Crews, a former athlete, a man with muscles on his muscles, a very seemingly ‘masculine’ man.

These men sharing their tales of abuse and exploitation to be met with a chorus of boos only serves to prevent men stepping forward and admitting their own fears, vulnerabilities and the times they have been victims. These men deserve huge credit for knowing that talking about what happened to them was going to get them a negative response from certain sections of society, but that it was right to do so anyway.

Men get assaulted, sexually and physically. They suffer the traumas too, they get the PTSD too – only they are not permitted, by their masculinity, to be so open about it. Both male and female ideas of masculinity perpetuate a status quo of men not being permitted to be vulnerable. Many men who experience tragic, traumatic events, who suffer PTSD, kill themselves.

According to ONS data again, the leading cause of death in people under 50 between 2001 and 2015 was suicide with men accounting for around 75% of those deaths. Recently death by ‘accidental poisoning’ has become the lead cause of death in under 50s, likely this includes many intentional overdoses but also, according to the Mental Health Foundation men are around three times as likely to experience a drug or substance abuse problem. According to a University of York report, men account for around 75% of adult missing persons. ONS data on homelessness in the UK shows the majority of registered homeless people are male. Government data on rough sleeping, people who may not be registered as ‘homeless’, found an estimate 85% of people sleeping rough were male.

There is, quite apparently, an ongoing crisis for men.

Consider stories where a man, for the sake of the peace, attempts to break up a street argument of none of his concern, an act of violence between willing participants, and he, himself, gets murdered. This is never portrayed for the pseudo-heroic stupidity it realistically is. These victims of masculine expectation, instead, become tragic heroes, they are ‘brave’. Members of the community who would seek to do good who got caught up in violence.

To this day, for a man to die in an act of violence – particularly if his side can be portrayed as righteous – is considered ‘heroic’.

Even if he leaves behind a family. Even if he leaves children without a father.

That’s not heroism. That’s sacrifice. That’s martyrdom to an ideal of masculinity. Men should be allowed to be valued as more than just shields or swords and yet this is still the narrative.

What is a man considered if he does not attempt to intervene or break it up? A coward! Not sensible, not rightfully minding his own business – It is his ‘duty’, as a man, to perform an expected social role and put himself in danger regardless of the circumstances.

There is clearly a problem of perception. There is clearly a problem with what masculinity is and is expected to be.

In a lot of men this is entirely unconscious. Much like none of us imagines we will get cancer even though it affects upwards of 50% of the population. Men are behaviourally trained, socially, to believe that they can and should ‘take care of themselves’ – which basically means respond to any violent threat with a violent response that protects them and those around them.

People who perform this role and succeed are often rewarded. People who perform this role and fail are often martyred, made into heroes of the masculine ideal. People who, in plain sight, fail to perform this role are considered cowards, are marginalised and persecuted.

There’s a denialism there, clearly reflected in the statistics. Men are significantly more likely to be the victims of homicide or violent assault in most countries around the world. They’re clearly failing to defend themselves and the notion that they can, or should be able to is clearly a lie. A lie that they must believe, or else be considered less than a man.

I’ve found myself rocking and crying in hospitals because my brain broke, shame at my vulnerability has long since gone out the window with me. I don’t fucking care. I’ve been scared. I think, though, not everyone has been through that. Not everyone has been forced to confront their own vulnerability.

Many men, thankfully an increasing number, are now willing to admit and share their fears and vulnerabilities. But certainly among those of the opinion that is inciting this current atmosphere of violence, there is still denial, a willful denial. There’s still an idea of a manly man sticking up for himself, being the hero and saving the day. It’s bullshit. The reality, the statistics, speak for themselves, the reality is that when you incite masculine violence men, women and children die.

There’s also a denialism of one’s capacity for violence. I have read many responses to female stories, many perspectives from men saying “I’ve never had a problem controlling myself.” Or “Obviously not a problem for me, but…”. People claiming they’re ‘raising their sons to be different’.

These people are fucking fools. All it takes is that one bad day, that one bad mood, that one life event, bereavement, a car accident, an assault, a little PTSD and you can lash out. You don’t even have to be a man, this is a human thing! To deny your own capability to commit an act of violence is as foolish as to deny a problem exists and a sure-fire way to not be able to control yourself when that time does come.

Men need to think and admit to those times in their lives when they have been subjected to the same kinds of fears and humiliations as women. If you cannot think of a time in your life when you have ever felt like that then you need to have a serious think about whether you are either completely oblivious to danger, whether you are so priviliged as to have never had to have experienced it, or if you are, yourself, the problem.

The data suggests violence is more often than not a male problem. Men, maleness, is so assumed in violent behaviour that men have been disengendered from this problem, but we need to consider it from the perspective of gender because as of yet there has not been a discovery of a single, innate, biological cause for male violence.

If biology cannot be blamed then the social construction of masculinity needs to be investigated as a potential cause. We then need to look at how this is constructed. This would make it not merely a male problem, not merely a problem in men, by men, of men that men need to solve. It would be a social problem. One that all areas and all aspects of society would need to look at themselves and ask “What role do I play in this.”

I quoted ‘Current Anthropology’ earlier as requiring an “…integrated, seamless scholarship… in the broadest sense…”I think it needs the same approach from society, too. Not animosity, shouting, competition, us versus them, sex and gender division – but an integration, an intersectional discussion on what we believe masculinity is, what we expect of it and, most importantly, what it needs to be to stop the harm of masculinised violence.

Men are not the problem.

The construct of maleness and masculinity may be part of the problem.

Violence is definitely the problem.

Everyone is a victim.

Everyone needs to be part of the solution.

Grown Up’s Guides: UK Fossil Hunting

A small, fossilised ammonoid, clearly fossilised in iron-rich rock as shown by the red colour. Iron pyrites, fool’s gold, is also common around these rock layers and can result in a ‘pyritised’ fossil, giving them a gorgeous, golden shine. (Credit: Me)

Why Bother?

Simply put fossils are cool, can teach you a lot and in many places the activity is free!

Much like my hedge hunting guide (check that out too, surprisingly good fun. I watched a spider eat a shield bug once) this guide ain’t one for the kids. This is one for the parents of kids who want a cool activity to do that they can all enjoy, and that can knacker the little’uns out so they don’t argue over who gets the last fucking piece of the chocolate orange!

It’s also aimed at people with no damn money, so you can shove your fine air-brushes, little soft-bristle tooth brushes, hammers and chisels up your arse. Not everyone’s got £50 to spend on a brand new hobby that they don’t know if they’ll like.

“What do I know about fucking fossils, though?” a lot of you are saying. The thing is I know a lot of you don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about because, until I took some time, read some shit, watched some shit and researched it – neither did I!

Not a fossil, but a vein of iron pyrites or fool’s gold. If fossils become embedded in these layers they can become ‘pyritised’ and give off a beautiful, gold-like shin. (Credit: Me)

Nobody is born knowledgeable – so this is my way of saying it’s okay to not know. Make not knowing part of the fun of the process. Don’t want to look stupid in front of your kids, yours nieces, your nephews, whatever mates you might be with? It’s as simple as confidently saying “I don’t know, let’s go home and look it up!” Or even whack your phone out there and then, figure it out. That’s called ‘research’ and it’s basically how all the smart people you know got to be smart.

Make your ignorance part of the fun, make the learning part of the experience, make sharing that knowledge part of it too! Get on your social media “I just found a cool fossil, looked it up, it’s a such-and-such!” This is how we promote knowledge and understanding, by first accepting our stupidity. Be the Curious Idiot™!

The fact is this; here in Britain at least we are blessed with some of the finest cliff-bottoms and shorelines for finding certain types of fossil. If you get lucky, maybe you’ll score something rare, or big. If you don’t? Well you’ve had a day out by the seaside and had something to do besides argue with your partner about the bills and kept any children and/or dogs occupied by getting them tired and mucky.

This may be a fossil imprint, but it is likely just dendrite – the remnants of crystals growing in the rock. (Credit: Me)

I will start with warnings, however.

WARNING: Some areas with good fossil hunting are tidal. That is to say it might seem lovely and accessible at low tide but that tide creeps in and the next thing you know you’re stuck at the bottom of a cliff liable to erosion being battered by waves. Get your timings right.

WARNING: Some areas for fossil hunting involve scrambling over rocks, some of which may be quite slippery and/or covered in barnacles that are very sharp. Make sure you wear sturdy shoes and trousers, the last thing you want is sore feet and gashed legs. Also prepare for your hands to get dirty, scuffed and scraped. If you’re going to go alone take a phone, make sure you’ve got reception, bring plenty of water and be fucking careful.

There’s a lot in life you don’t want to miss out on. But nobody wants the ‘Been There, Done That’ t-shirt for having to call out the coastguard to rescue you because you got trapped by the tide or snapped your ankle whilst looking for tiny dead shit. Use your common sense. If you don’t have any of that, pretend you do.

If you can see the slightly golden colour? This fossil of a crinoid stem (we’ll get to them later) is partially pyritised. (Credit: Me)

Fossils? What are They?

They’re the remains of old dead shit in some form or other, preserved remains, impressions or traces of once living things. For all that they may be ‘common’, fossilisation, as a process, is very rare. When a fossil is common it implies both that there were a lot of these organisms and the conditions were good in that area for causing fossilisation – The process by which a fossil is made.

No idea what this is. I can only assume it’s a fossiled Hula-Hoop. (Credit: Me)

How the Hell is a Fossil Made?

There’s a lot of ways, but you don’t need to hear words like ‘Authigenic mineralisation’ right now. If you wanna nerd out on this shit you can do it once you know you’re into it. The basic gist is stuff dies and somehow leaves remains. The three main ways this can happen are;

A cast – sediment falls around a dead thing, compressing around it, the dead thing remains for some time – long enough for the sediment around it to harden to stone but by the time the dead thing has decayed it’s left a mark, a trace of where it used to be, in the stone. These can be fossils like shell casts, or they can be what’s known as ‘trace fossils’ – not parts of the animal themselves but evidence they have been there, such as dinosaur footprints.

A trilobite (more on them later) cast. As you can see there’s no solid ‘fossil’ here, there’s no body. The fossil we have is the imprint in the rock of where the trilobite was. (Credit: Gary Todd, Public Domain)

Compression – Think of this like preserving flowers in books, especially since this is common with fossil plants like ferns. The fern ends up buried somehow, there’s that compression, the fern ends up squished in layers where it can either, like the cast, merely leave an impression. If you’re lucky, though, the remains themselves will undergo a chemical process that leaves a film behind, so more than just an impression you get a bit of plant left behind. Often, both occur – this has its own special term, adpression.

A fern fossil in coal from Morocco. (Credit: Vzb83 by GFDL)

Mineralisation or Carbonisation – There are multiple forms of this but they all rely on the same basic thing happening. This is where aspects of the make-up of the dead thing get replaced, by chemical processes, with other minerals (mineralisation) or elements like carbon (carbonisation). For this to happen with, say, a detailed body (as has been seen in some fossils) that dead thing’ll have to be buried pretty sharpish before decay starts to happen. That is why fossils with feathers, fleshy bits and films (like mentioned above) are so rare. They basically require an event where a whole organism dies by, or very shortly after burial and in a fashion where microorganisms aren’t able to break down the fleshy parts. This is, though, why a lot of hard, already mineralised parts of organisms will be found – Bones, shells, teeth, corals etc. These are already hard, mineral rich structures that don’t decay quickly. What happens is, over time, their mineral structure is replaced by the mineral structure of the rocks they’re in.

Most fossils that you will find will be mineralised or carbonised. Many plant fossils tend to be carbonised, for example. Mineral fossils, however, depend on what minerals are in the rock in which the fossil is embedded. In this case these are some beautiful, polished, pyritised ammonoids. These fossils have been embedded in a layer of iron pyrites that has slowly replaced the minerals of the shell itself via chemical processes. Fossils can be opalised, or even crystalised in things like quartz. (Credit: Gabriela F. Ruellan CC-BY-NC 2.0)

There’s other stuff, and detail I’m leaving out for simplicity’s sake but that’s the basic gist of it. What you find is usually not the organism, the shell or bone itself, but a chemically changed version of it.

Where Can You Find Fossils in the UK?

The Jurassic Coast – One of the most famous stretches of beach for discovering fossils in the UK. (Credit: © Copyright Lewis Clarke CC-BY-SA 2.0)

Realistically, if you dig deep enough, anywhere! But mostly you’re not allowed to dig deep enough. In the UK most fossil finds, particularly casual ones will be from along the South and East coasts, the Jurassic Coast down in Dorset, through to the chalk and clays of Sussex and Kent, and the London Clay in North Kent and the Thames Estuary area by Essex.

There are spotty areas around other coasts – Southwest Wales in Pembrokeshire, the Northeast coast around the Yorkshire, Durham way, and in Scotland around Fife. If you’ve had a quarry or major ground excavation work near you the spoil heaps (where they dump all the earth they dug up) can also be a goldmine for fossils. Some of these have specific events where equipment and guidance and advice on how to find fossils is provided, but these services often cost money.

For specific locations, the UK Fossil Network has some great information on their website. They’re a much more knowledgeable resource than I am and provide much more detailed information on divided by regions and areas, so once you’re done reading this guide they’re a good place to head.

What Can I Expect to Find?

Look, you ain’t just gonna drive your old Fiesta out to Dorset, loaded with buckets and spades and trip up on a Tyrannosaurus Rex leg! As with everything, every hobby I endorse, I urge you curb your expectations and enjoy the process.

Disappointment only comes when reality does not meet expectations and unrealistic expectations are the biggest cause of disappointment.

The Folkestone Warren Beach – When the tide is low, head around those rocks in the distance to reach Copt Point and the base of the Folkestone Formation – clay and sandstone strata rich in fossils. (Credit: Fredfolkestonelondon CC-BY-SA 4.0)

As mentioned, fossils are rare. So the fossils you are going to find are mostly going to be of stuff that ends up buried in the sediment a lot.

It also changes based on where you are, and what layers of rock (strata) are there.

Where I am, for example, I don’t find a lot of shark’s teeth, but if I drive 40-60 minutes up the coast they’re all over the bloody place. Again, the UK Fossils Network has a lot of detail on what’s available at each specific location. Where I am, though, we get a ton of some of the most commonly found types of fossil in the UK so let’s have a run through.

Crinoids

My selection of suspected crinoid fragments (although some of them may be other corals or other stuff – I dunno! I’m not an expert!) Usually they will look like a screw-thread, a segmented cylindrical structure. (Credit: me)

In the phylum Echinodermata along with creatures like starfish and sea urchins, these creatures still exist to this day, being the relatives of creatures that survived one of Earth’s most extreme extinction events – the Permian-Triassic extinction event that happened around 250 million years ago!

A sort of plantish-animal they attach themselves to a rocky area, where a stalk is built up so they can suspend the arms of their tops, called the ‘crown’, that contain feathery tentacles that catch food.

A fossil of a whole crinoid. Something like this is very rare to find and what you are most likely to find are fragments of the stems – the thing bit in the middle. (Credit: 2211438 via Pixabay)

Finding whole crinoids and crinoid crowns is a tricky business but you will find is a fuckload of parts of their stalks.

These are generally thin cylindrical shapes with ridges running down them, where the stalk was formed in layers. When they are well preserved (see my example that is partially pyritised – the minerals replaced with iron-pyrite or fool’s gold) the structures are distinct. However they can also be well eroded and quite difficult to spot from just a thin pebble.

I’ve got a photo of a bed of iron rich fragments of crinoids, where you see things like this always have a mooch around – in amongst that lot I found a couple of crackers that we’ll get to later.

The photo of the very iron-rich crinoid bed. These tubular structures are mostly stalks and bits of crinoid but in areas like this it is good to have a dig around. I found a few beautiful gastropod shells in amongst this. (Credit: Me)

But crinoids, or at least fragments of crinoids, at least near me, are one of the most common things to see.

Bivalves

Some of these may be brachiopods but I’m fairly certain they’re mostly bivalves. A couple of impressive specimens in there. (Credit: Me)

I know, it’s hardly the height of exotica. These molluscs are related to modern mussels, scallops, clams, oysters etc. They’re basically molluscs with two hinged parts on their shell (hence the name bivalve, basically means two-shell).

The thing is some of these are spectacular and, around a certain part of my area there were loads of them. You see, serious fossil hunters have already got a ton of these, better examples, so they let these small fry sit – but it’s the perfect shit to encourage someone just starting out fossil hunting or to make your kids happy.

Propped up on a little fragement tile this is one of the best bivalves I have ever found! It’s a Gryphaea, I believe. An oyster-like species commonly referred to as ‘devil’s toenails’. (Credit: Me)

Don’t forget, kids are happy with a trip to fucking Build-a-Bear, or their favourite packet of crisps! Serious fossil hunters may take these little beauties for granted but there are some gorgeous examples available and they’ll leave a nature-hungry child chuffed to bits that they found so well preserved a fossil.

There are multiple varieties, different species, different time ranges so it’s difficult to tell you specifically what to look for but think cockles and mussels, you know? Some of them have smoothish shells like the Gryphaea, some of them have ridged shells like the Neithea. If it looks like a shell but is made of rock, chances are you’ve got a bivalve, unless…

Brachiopods

A brachiopod fossil found in the US. Honestly, there might be some lumped in with my bivalves above, I just don’t have the expertise to tell the difference. (Credit: James St. John CC-BY-2.0)

Brachiopods are a bit like bivalves, except different. They live exclusively in the sea (whereas there are freshwater bivalves) and modern brachiopods tend to live in the deep sea in cold waters.

Frankly, without getting technical it’s hard to explain the differences between other shelled shit from the sea and brachiopods.

The same rule applies as to bivalves, if it looks like a shell made of rock it could be a brachiopod. Unless…

Gastropods

Propped up on a bit of seaglass to give a better idea of how this is a spiral-shelled sea snail species. Found amongst the irony crinoid fragments I posted an image of above. This was a beautiful little shell fossil. (Credit: Me)

Remember those beauties I found in amongst the crinoid remains I told you about? Well they come from this group.

This one is tiny, we’re talking millimetres, but it’s clearly a small sea snail fossil. (Credit: Me)

Gastropods are the class of organisms we know as slugs and snails, so they clearly survive to this day, and obviously some of these, especially marine species, can have amazing shells.

In my case I found a tiny little screw-shell, almost whelk-like, and a tiny little round shell almost like a modern periwinkle.

To me these are one of the most satisfying types of fossil to find because they are usually well preserved and solid.

Belemnites

A belemnite fragment – this was maybe…2-3cm in length, very narrow. It is clearly fragmented as they mostly end in some sort of taper or point. (Credit: Me)

An extinct group of Cephalopods, the same class as squid and octopus, the fossils they leave behind are not the whole organism. But rather what’s known as the ‘guard’ of the ‘rostrum’ which was sort of like a big spike at the back end.

I mean, some of these can come with whole belemnites attached, some of them include other structures such as the phragmacone – a pyramidal segmented structure from the lower-middle of the rostrum, often at the base of the guard.

A belemnite embedded in the rock. Elsewhere in the UK they can be better preserved and larger, but you can still find some good examples near me. (Credit: Michael Jagger / Typical fossils at Saltwick Bay, near Whitby / CC BY-SA 2.0)

What I mostly find near me are very fine, almost hair-pin like structures that almost look like plastic and, again, they are usually in fragments. These are belemnite fossils, the rostra of these extinct squid.

Larger examples are found along the Jurassic Coast, where they have their own strata! The Belemnite Marls, from the early Jurassic period, about 190-180 million years ago.

Corals

Some of the hardest fossils to puzzle out due to their non-uniformity of sizes, shapes and patterns – but corals are a very common fossil and the UK is rich in them. This one was found in Weymouth. (Credit: James St. John CC-BY-2.0)

As far as organisms go corals are amazing. To most people we think of a ‘coral’ as one organism but they are actually colonies of creatures called Cnidarians, the same phylum as things like jellyfish. They work together to build an exoskeleton to house their community, from which they can gather food. But that’s an article for another time.

A chain coral fossil, known as Halysites, from the West Midlands – It is estimated to be around 425 million years old! (Credit: Black Country Museums CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Needless to say, if you’ve ever seen an Attenborough documentary on corals you’ll know they come in all shapes and sizes. Generally the fossils you will find will be the mineralised exoskeletons, or imprints of where the exoskeletons used to be.

As a result trying to identify individual coral fossils is, frankly, a nightmare for beginners. Look for out-of-place looking structures in or imprinted on rocks, organic looking patterns, ridges, bumps etc.

Echinoids

A fossil echinoid from Lincolnshire that was suspected of being used as an amulet! Discovered as a somewhat out-of-place object for the site it was at it was suspected it was brought there by middle-Saxons. (Credit: The Portable Antiquities Scheme/ The Trustees of the British Museum, CC-BY-SA 4.0)

These are your sea urchins. In the phylum Echinodermata along with starfish and the aforementioned crinoids unless you find a really good example these might be hard to spot.

They are generally in a rounded shape, with a symmetrical pattern, made up of multiple plates.

I have never found one of these where I am so, your guess is as good as mine when it comes to where to look for them and how to spot them.

Trilobites

Another beautiful specimen from the West Midlands, this is a trilobite. Like a big, segmented insect they are very recognisable unless they’re curled up in a ball! (Credit: Black Country Museums, CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Another now-extinct group, from the phylum Arthropoda with the insects and crustaceans, these look like big sea woodlice.

They first appeared over 500 million years ago, and seem to disappear from the fossil record around 250 million years ago.

I have never found one of these either, but they are pretty distinct. With a three-segmented body, segments along the body (again, like a woodlouse) whilst they are diverse in size, species, lifestyle and habitat they all have a similar body form so even if you can’t identify a species you can probably identify the bug-shaped thing.

Shark’s Teeth

A selection of fossils from Walton-on-the-Naze, Essex, where multiple fossil-rich strata can be found, including the London Clay which provides a lot of sharks teeth. (Credit: Derek Voller / Fossil finds at Walton on the Naze / CC BY-SA 2.0)

In case you didn’t read my Top Ten Sharks articles (which you should) there are two reasons shark’s teeth as so common as fossils. The first is that they’re fuckin’ ‘ard! They don’t break down easily, decompose or break so it doesn’t matter as much if they’re buried slowly or quickly, they’ll last. The other reason is sharks continually regrow and lose teeth. Their entire mouth is a slowly growing conveyor belt of teeth and so not only do they sometimes fall out, snap off or break during feeding events but they also just naturally grow out to be replaced with another set.

As a result certain areas are rich in shark’s teeth. The London Clay formation, for example, is dense with them – you can often find them along the beachside or at the bottom of the cliffs of North Kent near Whitstable, Herne Bay or Reculver or the southern coasts of Essex, particularly round Walton-on-the-Naze.

Not from the UK, but they have been found here. This is one of the immense teeth of Carcharocles megalodon – or just Megalodon, the largest known shark to have ever lived. (Credit: Tomleetaiwan, Public Domain)

It’s not just sharks though as you can find teeth from all sorts of cartilaginous fish like rays and skates, too. Their shapes can also be relatively distinctive so whilst you may not be able to find a species-level identification you may be able to find out roughly what the shark was, and what it may have liked to eat.

It’s rare, but the teeth of the largest shark ever known to have lived, the incredible Megalodon (read my article about it – and why, yes, it’s definitely extinct…) have been found in the London clay! You never know, you might get lucky.

Ammonoids

My collection of ammonoids and ammonoid fragments for the day. Some real belters in here. Besides the large ones in the centre and top-right all of these were found openly amongst the pebbles either at the shoreline or between the large rocks. The two larger ones were visibly poking out of the gault clay and had to be pulled out and washed but, they were still visible to the naked eye and I just used my hands to pull them out. No fancy equipment needed! (credit: Me)

I put these near the end because I know it’s the one you’re all waiting for! Commonly referred to as ammonites these are the fossilised shells of an extinct marine mollusc from the same class as squid and octopus, the Cephalopoda.

These guys are old, fossils have been found from as early as the Devonian period, beginning around 420 million years ago, and they disappear from the fossil record at around the time of the K/T extinction event that killed off the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous, around 66 million years ago.

This is your textbook ‘fossil’ – and there are reasons for that. For one, as mentioned, they have a long history. This means they can be used as what’s known as an ‘index’ fossil – if you can identify the ammonoid you can generally pinpoint a time or era, an age, of the rock strata it was found in.

A close up of my really good ammonoid. This one was visible but had to be pulled from the clay (you can see it still has some clay on it. I did soak it overnight and give it a good wash but you need to be careful as they can be delicate and break. (Credit: Me)

They’re also just beautiful! These astounding ridged shells with a visually pleasing golden-ratio spiral pattern. Sometimes secondary structure can be seen, the way in which the shell was built, or the iridescent trace of the ‘mother of pearl’, or nacre – the hard substance that lines the shells.

Not only can you see traces of the nacre, the mother of pearl, left on this fossil, but traces of the ‘suture’ lines, the outline of the way it builds it shell up – that’s the weird branching structure by the tip on the left. (Credit: Me)

If you want to find huge ones two warnings; 1) You will need equipment; 2) You will probably have to donate it to the local museum.

So to save yourself that effort look around for smaller ones. You can find some quality examples.

Of the ones I found on the day I went (and any of my photos are from the same day’s fossil hunting unless I say otherwise!) the small examples were found in between rocks, just washed by the sea.

This is the tiny fragment at the bottom-centre of my main image of all my samples above. Slightly out of focus but the only way I could capture the iridescence of the nacre. (Credit: Me)

The larger examples I did pull out of the clay, but I didn’t have to go digging, a part of them was exposed and I simply pulled it out and gave it a quick wash off in a pool of seawater in a rock nearby.

You will also find a load of fragments of these.

They are the textbook fossil, they are the one everyone wants so you may have to search and scour a bit for a good example. I was struggling to find one, writing this article in my head and thinking of ways to explain how usually there are loads of good examples but I got unlucky but, once I reached the more remote parts of the beach and, certainly the freshly washed clay (the tide had just gone out after a couple of, for summer, relatively rough and windy days) was a treasure trove of them.

Other Shit

And the award for ‘piece of rock most likely to be a turd’ goes to…This thing! It had little dimples either end that made it look like a crimped of shit fragment. It might not be but if you google ‘coprolites’ you’ll see that difference between them and regular old hunks of rock are difficult to determine. You never know! (credit: Me)

Sometimes literally!

Fossil hunting is a weird thing when you’re not an expert because you will find a lot of stuff that just…looks…off. Fragments of ‘stuff’ that don’t look like shells but have patterns, have shapes, have grooves that seem…organic.

What you might have is a fossil shit, or coprolite. If you imagine how rare fossil events are, and consider how many times an organism might shit in its lifetime – well then there are that many times more likely to be fossils of shit than there are of the organism itself!

No doubt it’s everywhere and from ichthyosaurs to crabs, from T-rex to fish, everybody poops! It might not be the first thing on your list of fossils to look for and they’re obviously tough to distinguish from just a rock but a fossil turd is sure to give a few people a giggle.

Sometimes you find small round things with holes or dimples in. I don’t know what these are? They could be parts of some crinoid or other, they could be vertebrae.

My most enigmatic round thing. The projection of the side and the structure itself makes me think it could be bone but, again, I’m not afraid to say I don’t know! It could be a fish vertebra (a part of the backbone), it could be a weird part of a crinoid or it could be nothing. (Credit: Me)

I’ve got some tubes, some bumpy tubes that I don’t know if they’re parts of coral, old bits of pipe or other parts of crinoids.

Bumpy tube! I don’t know if this is a poo, a part of a crinoid, a part of a coral. I just know it looks weird and not like the other rocks! (Credit: Me)

My greatest find is a chunk of what I’m fairly certain is petrified wood. A quite rare find from our strata.

I also have this broken off tapering thing. By the looks of the structure it could be anything from a well-worn phragmacone of a belemnite to a tooth fragment.

If it looks unusual, why not grab it? At worst you’re taking a pebble home and at best it might be something cool, weird, gross or amazing.

Like with every hobby, in fact for We Lack Discipline it’s like with everything in life, there’s great joy in not knowing and finding out. UK Fossils Network has forums, I haven’t used them but I’m sure they have plenty of people willing to help out. I hope they don’t have people who are going to be patronising arseholes to newbies but if they do, We Lack Discipline sent ya!

We tell those people to fuck off because they effectively gatekeeping hobbies to people who already have some knowledge of the subject, attempting to maintain and elitist stranglehold on something everyone should be able to enjoy. This kind of patronising behaviour only promotes ignorance and discourages people from getting involved and learning about things. They can fuck off!

A beautiful ammonoid fossil. (Credit: Me)

To Sum Up

Fossil hunting is often as easy as a piss-about by the beach. Take some drinks, some snacks and make a day of it. It doesn’t need fancy equipment, although if you’ve got the cash and don’t mind forking out you can get a few rock hammers and shit.

Do be careful where you’re hunting and what you’re hammering though. Cracking pebbles might be fine but my fossil beds are on a Site of Special Scientific Interests (SSSI) so it’s illegal (and just fucking stupid) to hammer at the cliff sides or the bedrock. I know other places like the Jurassic Coast have rules about what fossils you can and can’t take home with you but they also have ‘fossil wardens’ for advice. A general rule of thumb is if it’s bigger than you it needs to be donated to a local society or museum.

You can even do as my sister does. My niece loves wandering about collecting fossils and combing for ‘sea treasures’. I like that she uses this term because it makes me think of her as a tiny pirate. Her treasures are actually just unusual stones, beach glass, pottery fragments, tile fragments etc. But my sister has turned these fragments of ‘sea treasures’ and various fossils and their fragments into collages. More than a day out, she makes little works of art that she can hang on the walls.

One of my sister’s originals. I’m not sure if she takes comissions! This is a great thing to do with the fossils, fragments and bits and pieces collected from the beach. Maybe not for everyone but all you really need is a fully enclosed frame and some resin to set your pieces in. (Credit: My Sister)

But just…get out there and do it. It’s good fun, a great way to get involved in the hands-on science of palaeontology, a great way to encourage a curiosity about life, the past and evolution and I couldn’t imagine a better activity if you look after a lot of kids, your own or someone else’s. It’s fucking free and comes with free souvenirs! It’s great fun with a bunch of mates, too! Make a competition, see who can find the most fossils, the best fossils, etc. Have a few drinks, keep it sensible and heed my warnings from the start but have some fucking fun with it. Get out there and find some old dead shit!

Why should kids have all the fun? Want to learn about more fun activities! Read my Grown Up’s Guides
Grown Up’s Guide to Hedge-Hunting for Bugs

On the Origin of a Species: The Red Panda, Ailurus fulgens

“Oh, hello!” A red panda giving a wave! Look at this adorable little teddy-bear looking bastard! Everybody needs to know what this is and to love them unconditionally. Whilst many may look the same (darker underside, red top with white around the ears and face) their colours can vary and the facial marking in particular can be unique among individuals. (Credit: Mathias Appel CC-BY-NC 2.0)

In my articles on animals I have often written about my love-hate relationship with taxonomy and phylogeny – that is the classification and placements of various species, in relation to one another, on the tree of life.

I love it because it reveals fantastic relationships, things like the knowledge that whales evolved from the Artiodactyls – the even-toed ungulates, so they’re basically sea-dwelling relations of cows, sheep and pigs. It’s remarkable to consider.

On the other hand it can also be a nightmare, particularly prior to the advent of faster processes of genetic analysis. Being able to analyse the genetic code of an animal makes phylogeny a lot quicker, easier and – whilst still not certain – less arguable.

A Cladogram – a phylogenetic diagram organising species into ‘clades’ or groups related by a specific common ancestor. You can see from this that cetaceans, whales and dolphins, are related to the Artiodactyls, the even-toed ungulates like cows, sheep, camels etc. Their closest living land relatives are believed to be hippos. (Credit: C. Buell and L. Betti-Nash, CC-BY-2.5)

Prior to that, though, instead of getting busy doing important work like conserving the Earth’s biodiversity or learning about zoonotic diseases to prevent major pandemics there were scientists who would instead write petty back-and-forths arguing that X-species belong in Y-group, whilst another would argue it was Y-species and belonged in X-group.

That’s, honestly, where my frustration with taxonomy and phylogeny comes from because the answer is always going to change until you gather more evidence. Writing letters to ‘Nature’ magazine arguing with some paper that put X in Y group is solving nothing! Do the fucking work! Then write your own paper, present your findings. There’s an aspect of it that always seemed…arbitrary.

Notice the unique face whiteness? These markings, as mentioned, can tell individuals apart. It is hard to know, I’m not Dr. Doolittle, but with the right enclosure and enough branches and trees red pandas seem quite content in captivity. They can be curious, so require enrichment activities, but they are also docile and sometimes outright lethargic! It’s probably one of the reasons I love them! (Credit: Public Domain via Pxhere)

And it’s because it is, to some extent. Life and the evolution of species is a continuum. I know it is hard to think that, but you share common ancestry with every living creature on this planet. It is not a question of are you related, the answer is yes – to a slug, a banana, a slime mould and, sadly, Susan from the down the road who has that annoying yapping dog that won’t shut up no matter how much she shouts at it.

The question is not ‘if’ you are related, but at what point in time your families diverged. When did the human ancestor with the slime mould marry off, and one side of the family went to be other slime moulds and one side decided it wanted to evolve into something different, eventually becoming humans?

For as much as I may think it arbitrary or dislike it there are species that fully justify taxonomy as a discipline of its own and the red panda, sometimes known as the lesser panda, is one such species.

What is it? Some kind of cat-raccoon? A bear-dog? A skunk-weasel!? From this image it is quite easy to see why this raccoon-like, tiny-bear-ish, vegetarian carnivore could cause taxonomic confusion. (Credit: ifinnsson via Pixabay)

This adorable little bastard has been phylogenetically pushed from pillar-to-post. We’ll talk about that later but for now let’s describe what a red panda is.

I’m covering the red panda not just as an apologia, a devil’s advocate against my own negativity towards taxonomy, but because I’ve been to enough zoos and heard enough people misidentifying them that I feel they don’t get the respect they deserve.

Red pandas are in the order Carnivora, they’re a carnivore. They are also in the superfamily (a taxonomic layer between an order and a family) Musteloidae, along with skunks, weasels and raccoons.

Within that group, however, they are in a family of their own – the Ailuridae. Once considered a single species with two sub-species, genetic evidence suggests they may be two separate species. For now, however they are still classified as sub-species Ailurus fulgens fulgens, the Himalayan red panda; and Ailurus fulgens styani the Chinese red panda. Whether that will change is a current taxonomic debate!

What does it look like? Check the photos. It’s an adorable little reddish-orange thing with white markings that loves chilling in trees. They’re quite small, about 50-60cm in body length with a sizeable tail from 30-60cm in length and weighing up to around 6kg – so not too different in size to a large domestic cat.

Like its namesake the giant panda it has a specialised thumb for gripping bamboo, as well as other fruits and vegetation that it eats. Or is it? More on the thumbs later. Yes, it is a vegetarian carnivore – remember a designation of an animal in the order ‘Carnivora’ does not mean it must eat meat, even some meat-eating carnivores like bears or dogs are generalist and will eat vegetation and some, like the red panda here, are almost exclusively vegetarian.

The giant panda, Ailuropoda melanoleuca, is as confusing as its red namesake. Another vegetarian carnivore, choosing to eat almost exclusively bamboo (as pictured.) It is not a ‘panda’ like the red panda is, likely getting that name from a similar adaptation of the hands. It was also a taxonomic mystery until genetic analysis revealed its place as a basal member of the Ursidae, the bear family. So, even though they’re both called ‘panda’ the red panda and the giant panda are actually only distantly related! (Credit: Cloudtail the Snow Leopard CC-BYNC-ND 2.0)

If you remember my article about squirrels you will know the grey squirrel has a marvellous ability to rotate its ankles allowing it greater dexterity for climbing both up, and down, trees. Well, red pandas have a likewise adaptation. Likely an example of ‘convergent evolution’, where two completely different species adapt the same, or a similar, solution to their environmental problem – in this case efficient climbing of trees.

They’re a beautiful creature, and so distinctive that it actually irks me when people misidentify them. It’s like when I’m at a zoo and somebody sees a leopard and is like “Look at the cheetah!” It makes me angry. I have to taper that anger. I’m an animal fiend and if you count reading books and watching nature documentaries I’ve been studying the natural world since I could fucking read and watch TV. But still, it is clear the casual education about the natural world is fucked up if people don’t know the difference between a leopard and a cheetah. I’ll give you a free pass on leopard and jaguar but cheetahs are too different.

I get the same with red pandas, you stand around by their enclosures at zoos and people are like “It’s some kind of raccoon, a mini-bear or a weird, mutant cat!” And I have to check myself to stop me being outraged that people don’t know this is a red panda. They are a confusing species that not everyone knows.

I’m not sure if this is a wild shot. They can be active during the day but are known to be shy and elusive and thought to be a lot more active at night (nocturnal). They are clearly such elegantly beautiful creatures. Whilst mainly vegetarian (in the wild bamboo makes up around 2/3 of their diet) they have been known to eat small birds, fish and insects. (Credit: Shiv’s fotografia CC-BY-SA 4.0)

I have to remember, taxonomically, phylogenetically, for a long time science didn’t know what the fuck a red panda was, either!

It’s got the name ‘panda’ and was once thought to be related to the giant panda. Partially this is the giant panda’s fault because nobody knew what the fuck they were either, caught somewhere between a bear and a raccoon it wasn’t until genetic studies came along that we discovered they are a member of the bear family, the Ursidae, and are in fact the most basal – the genetically oldest – member of that family.

To further confuse matters it is believed the giant panda got its ‘panda’ name from the Nepali word ‘ponya’, or ‘pauja’ meaning claw or paw, or possibly ‘poonya’ meaning eater of bamboo – terms that the local people used to refer to the red panda that were then applied to the giant panda, which is not a panda, but a bear.

Over the next two images I will give you some adorable information about the resting habits of the red panda. They are very temperature sensitive, optimal temperatures, similar to humans, are between 17 and 25°C. When it is hot, they will rest draped in this sploot configuration, allowing their bodies to radiate out heat. Give me a 30+° day and I often do the same! (Credit: Public Domain via Pxhere)

Confused yet? Because you should be! The giant panda is technically named after the red panda, the red panda was once mistakenly grouped with the giant panda which is not a ‘panda’ but actually a bear!

Now, though, we have genetic analysis. After initially being considered a raccoon (in the Procyonidae family) and a bear (in the Ursidae family) and having been considered related to the giant panda in the Ailuropoda genus we now have enough evidence to say that’s all bollocks!

Instead it stands alone. The red panda species (either two species or the two sub-species – status TBD) are the only members of their family, the Ailuridae, and their genus Ailurus. It’s considered a living fossil, having diverged from its nearest relatively tens of millions of years ago, likely back in the paleogene (66 million to about 25 million years ago).

Should the temperature be a little chilly (under 17°C) they are known to rest curled up in a ball, with their thick tails wrapped around them. This is obviously to conserve heat. They live in temperate mountain forests, so variable temperature changes are to be expected and these behavioural adaptations show them to be well suited to the climatic conditions they experience. (Credit: Harlequeen CC-BY-2.0)

For a beautiful critter now endemic to the temperate mountain forests of the Himalayas, across Nepal, Tibet, India, Bhutan and into China (with suggestions of some in Myanmar) evidence of extinct species (such as Parailurus anglicus) have been found as far East as China and as far west as Britain. They were clearly quite disperse at one point in time. It is suggested to have lived in the Pliocene – a time of great climatic change and likely receding forests and cooling events would have led to these species extinctions.

The current population distribution map for the red panda, whose prehistoric relatives may once have spanned the forest of the entire Eurasian continent, or possibly the world given fossil evidence from the Americas. (Credit: IUCN (distribution map source), User:Mysid (initial map), User:rbrausse (clipping), CC-BY-SA 3.0)

What’s more, remember the ‘false thumb’ for gripping bamboo? Well a fossil species discovered in spain – Simocyon batalleri – a relative from the Miocene, between 25 million years ago and around 5 million years ago – suggests this adaptation may have had more to do with moving through trees and branches than gripping bamboo to eat it. Effectively the giant panda evolved the same mechanism separately, by convergent evolution, to eat bamboo!

It’s easy to see how this species is so confusing to a taxonomist!

But that’s good. It gives reason for taxonomic cynics like me to remember why that discipline exists. Sometimes the obvious is not always quite so obvious. Life has funny ways of solving problems in the same or similar ways and confusing the shit out of you. To you it may look like a raccoon, or a small bear, but the truth is, literally, somewhere in between! Without taxonomy we wouldn’t know that.

What’s more it means I have to forgive people for not knowing what it is. For as distinctive as the beautiful red panda is it does look like a fucking raccoon-skunk-bear-cat!

Even more confusing is they are known to stand up on their hind legs from time to time! What is it? Some kind of meerkat-person-raccoon-dog-cat-bear now!? (Credit: DANIEL WONG CC-BY-SA 2.0)

For all of its beauty and importance to science, though, nothing to can stop the encroachment of human exploitation of natural habitats and the inevitable decline in species numbers that follows.

The red panda is endangered, with likely under 10,000 adult individuals and falling, according to IUCN data. Observations are difficult so these populations are only estimates, with some estimates giving numbers between 6,000 and 20,000. Either way it’s too few.

There are now areas of habitat where the red panda is protected but no doubt on top of the very real threat of deforestation they are almost certainly hunted for their meat or, more likely, their fur. Until CITES – The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora – an international treaty brought to law in 1975, poaching for zoos was also incredibly common. Nowadays their illegal capture is usually intended to sell them to private collectors as part of illegal pet trade.

Like so many other species that we threaten, we fail to take into account a low birth rate. They have one or two young per year.

BABY TAX! This red panda baby is likely only a couple of weeks old. They tend to have one or two cubs per breeding season, which usually comes once a year. As a result they have a relatively slow birth rate, especially given the rate at which we are losing them to poaching, habitat loss and exploitation. (Credit: jhambright52 CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Thankfully initiatives are underway to bolster not only the populations of these beautiful creatures in their natural habitats, but to use captive populations to reintroduce individuals to the wild and bolster the genetic diversity to prevent inbreeding problems.

There are panda reserves in Nepal, where income is generated through wildlife and ecological tourism, giving a wonderful opportunity for the pandas to flourish and be appreciated in their native habitat.

As well as this there is a global breeding programme aimed at generating more individuals that can be returned to the wild. It is always a danger releasing a captive bred animal into the wild but a 2003 initiative by a Zoo in Darjeeling pulled it off successfully. Hopefully this paves the way for more future releases.

BLEP! It is hard to deny the cuteness of these amazing creatures. (Credit: © Copyright Christine Matthews CC-BY-SA 2.0)

So here’s hoping there’s a bright future for these beautiful, enigmatic and taxonomically confusing beasts. Because without species like these, I’d just be a grumpy bastard raging against arbitrarily classifying anything. As it is, I’m glad species like the red panda help me see the point, and taper my cynicism.

Want to read about more animals? Read more from our ‘On the Origin…’ Series!
Saltwater Crocodiles – Beautiful, potentially human-hunting, predators.
The Tapiridae – The tapirs, amazing, prehistoric looking animals.
The Common Lizard – Maybe common, but a rare sight as they are shy!

Or check out our Top Ten Animals Series
The Top Ten Sharks – Including the White Shark, Greenland Shark and Whale Shark.
The Top Ten Cats – From the Lion to the domestic Moggy we rank cat species!
The Top Ten Most Hated but Misunderstood Animals – Because they all need love!

We also have a LOT of cats in our Caturday Specials!

We Lack Discipline Reads: The Bet – Chapter 1

Buy the book here – (Credit: Vivienne Tuffnell)

“He woke with no memory of the recent past, just a cold blank tiredness and a vague sense of disorientation.”

So opens ‘The Bet’ and it is followed by a lengthy sentence, the kind of sentence that you’d expect to mirror the thought of what’s occurring in the character’s mind at the time. It’s an over-thought sentence, a reef-dive of a sentence, it surveys so much depth, but with such shallowness. It’s a keep-you-awake sentence.

We immediately get thrust into depictions of nature, of the ‘fluorescent glow’ of light off snow creeping through the windows, this man trying to wall himself, his consciousness, off from the blinding light, the biting cold, but it’s impossible. The external weather is impossible to ignore.

One of the key aspects of decadent literature, its fight-against-nature approach, is that it does not eschew natural imagery. Sure, some writers do. They write mainly of social interactions and allow only nature and decay to enter into the mix as a reminder of why people are behaving as they are. But the best decadents throw nature about with abandon but use those images, use that natural encroachment to reflect the internal.

Now the two main key terms are ‘pathetic fallacy’ – which is the attribution of human feelings to the inanimate or non-human. The other is ‘personification’ which is the attribution of anything human to an inanimate object or non-human. Then you have ‘zoomorphism’ which is the attribution of animalistic character traits to humans. There are a lot of terms, I will try not to use them and just describe what is being done instead. Needless to say, Vivienne employs these techniques in her writing.

Not a monochromatic starry sky, but a microcosm of it, an image of snowflakes, illuminated, falling in the black of night. Snow will be an important natural image in ‘The Bet’. (Credit: Enoch Leung CC-BY-SA 2.0)

You have no idea that this is a pathetic fallacy, that this is nature being employed as a device, until you get a little bit further, and that is magic. From a British author, where talking about the weather could just as easily be casually padding out the book, here it is meaningful. This snow means something.

It creates uniformity – “a white, featureless expanse” – and even those vestiges of society, this person’s radiator, the very essence of technological advances made by humans against the elements, cannot save him. It is not nearly warm enough to the touch.

No matter the effort we try to make in order to defy nature, nature can find a way to make it not enough. It can always be hotter, it can always be colder, it can always be drier, and it can always be wetter and, just as we’ve built irrigation to break the drought we can be drowned in flood.

There is mention of how in days past people would have “lit large fires and worn heavy clothing of wool and fur” – An adaptation to suffering. Modern comfort makes it harder to know how to suffer, especially when nature invades the human space. At one point it would have been a given to wrap up, to keep the fire burning etc. but in the days of central heating who needs this? Yet our character is in such a position, frighteningly, anachronistically cold. He is experiencing something of the suffering of the past and has none of the nous of how to deal with it.

His car, too, that modern carriage invented to replace feet or horses, is broken down. He must brave the cold, at least as far as the bus stop. His middle-ground and the concession he is willing to make in this fight against nature.

Our man arrives at a hospital, not a modern invention by any means but one which modernity, with some irony, infects and spreads in. Advances in science and technology spread in hospitals, like disease, as we, unnatural, forge a path to immortality and yet…

“Domes and humps of snow” sit on the roofs, like so many Tumuli, burial mounds or barrows; and the “flowerbeds like plump white eiderdowns” remind us that our final bed is the cold, muddy ground.

Tumuli on Salisbury Plain – Burial mounds, “domes and humps” symbolising death and burial. (Credit: © Copyright Caroline Maynard CC-BY-SA 2.0)

Even the hospital cannot bar the natural, the painfully inevitable. Death is coming.

He is at the hospital to visit his wife and newborn son, but he is tired, in a daze, he hears people “as if from under a blanket of snow,” as if somewhere between life and death.

On taking his son into his arms he feels an “atavistic surge of pride,” he has already fought cold, weather, modern technology’s inconsistency. He is already primed to feel primal.

For a moment he commands the room, his wife submissive, his baby curled up “like a rosebud” or “a daisy against the night,” and he gets what he wants. He is taking his baby home. His wife does not object. The baby does not object. He dominates and strides confidently out into the cold, night air with seemingly no sense of fear.

His atavism grows. He no longer needs the bus for he is primal man, self-sufficient. He will walk.

It is not long before such confidence is shattered. This is not the “proper way”, he has dragged his newborn from its mother, trudging through snow that “saps the energy” and strains the muscles. His tiredness catches up with him and he has hallucinations, “pursuit, voices and footsteps” are all heard in his mind, until he runs. He falls. We all fall, eventually.

Snow falls again, too, no matter his stop or his pause, nature will not stop with him. The snow lands on his “dark hair”, “turning it slowly white.” This premature aging, the cold, the situation, life, nature, stress, sleeplessness, it will age you. It will turn your hair white before your years.

Adding flecks of grey, as age does. Snow on hair turns it prematurely white. (Credit: via Pixnio, Public Domain)

Eventually he makes his way home. How meaningful is it that he wraps the baby up in a “small soft white blanket like the snow outside”?

Outside was a hive of activity, of lights and sights, of noises both real and imaginary, outside there was life, even in the deathly white glow of all the snow. Inside is “Utterly silent and empty.”

Inside is empty.

Two policemen arrive.

He has kidnapped his baby? Then why hadn’t his wife protested more? Was this what she wanted? What she preferred?

He’s dull, shrugging and speaking matter-of-factly. For a kidnapper speaking to the police he seems unafraid, as if whatever could be done to him could make him feel no worse than he already does.

His internal state is a mess, in decline. I mentioned in my introduction this concept of internal decadence. That the decadent art movement was very much about the natural, the visual decay, the breakdowns in society, the rotting of bodies, the physical and social diseases. Our man here, though, is clearly outwardly strong, stoic, even. He was stood “like a statue” earlier. But inside, it’s like he’s somewhere between hell and the abyss. Inside is empty, already decayed, rotted away, perhaps?

One of the officers mentions a post-mortem.

The baby is dead.

The first sign of life from our man, we see him “flinch slightly.” Still barely the response you would imagine. Yet grief is a strange emotion.

What happens is a variety of human interactions around a man so deeply entwined with the darkness that such allusions of humane light do not even register. The police want to ensure he is mentally stable but what is mental stability, especially when your baby is dead?

American sculptor William Wetmore Story’s tribute to Emelyn, his wife. Grief is so powerful we can even imagine the angels, supernatural beings who transcend death and decay, can weep. This was his last work. He died the following year. As if this lasting tribute, this expression of the overwhelming power of grief, was all he had left to do in the world. (Credit: Paolo Lucciola CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0)

We pretend, put on the central heating of cups of tea and conversation, but the winter is out there, that blinding white, the blanket to envelope you, it’s out there. No amount of tea and chat stops it.

The officers talk around him, this man-between-worlds, this Orpheus braving the dark recesses of the underworld in the hope that dragging his baby through that hell, pulling him from Lake Cocytus, Dante’s Lake of Ice at the bottom of hell’s depths, that penetrating cold, wishing he could somehow bring him back. But he can’t. That’s not insanity, anyway, that’s heroism, only in this case tragically human and ill-fated.

We find out our man’s mother killed herself, a year or two back. His father died only around nine months ago.

This is a man bathed in death, a man who has undergone a Stygian baptism. Insanity would be the reasonable response. What he is doing is showing immense strength. Strength, though, is generally built by endurance over time. Much as muscles only get bigger, only work better, only carry more power the more they are used, the more stress they are under, the more they break and repair. What has this man been through that the response to all this death and suffering is merely the hope he can tuck his dead baby into bed and somehow everything will be alright?

We find out, too, that his wife died due to complications in the birth.

Our man had to deliver the baby. His dead baby. From his wife. His dead wife.

The officers keep their distance. Humans are ill at ease with things tainted by the darkness. We do not like creatures of the night, we are barely equipped with minds able to deal with death and those who death touches must be cleansed and purified. They must get ‘back to normal’, sipping cups of tea and having conversations rather than staring into the middle-distance and stifling snorts of laughter at their own misfortune.

The officers establish a “cordon sanitaire”, as if our man is diseased or an undesirable. To the living death is a plague, to be purged and avoided, and anyone who has been in contact with it is filthy too. Numbers 19:11 says “The one who touches the corpse of any person shall be unclean for seven days.” This is a Bible book based on a book in the Jewish Torah, rules thousands of years old, written down likely 2,500 years ago or more but based on much older oral traditions, and yet we still feel them, as if they are innate, to this day.

Aversion to, and rituals for the dead are still commonplace today. From Christian last rites, absolutions and burials to tribal ceremonies. Inevitably a ritual is intended as a ‘change’, a spiritual or emotional doorway to walk through. The dead move on, and the living, the grieving, begin their cleansing. Without the ritual, can they wash themselves clean of the stench of death? (Credit: © Raimond Spekking / CC BY-SA 4.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

The family doctor turns up and it’s quite apparent from the way he talks to our man that he and this doctor go back some way. The doctor is dry and witty, inappropriate even, the kind of behaviour you don’t expect from a doctor, but the kind of humanity you always want from one.

At the time our man is changing clothes, a shedding of skin, almost a metamorphosis taking place. This atavistic man running on nothing but primality and momentous feeling is now, once again, becoming modern, civilised, washing the stench of death from himself and returning to the world of the living. His clothes are described as “dropped to the floor like the discarded skin of a snake.”

This is where we find out our man is called Antony. A name only made better by the inclusion of an ‘H’ but that’s personal preference.

The discussion he has with his doctor is quite informative. We learn of Antony’s resilience and yet there is a worry from the doctor that this resilience is more of a stuffing-it-down than dealing-with-it. Clearly Antony has been through a lot. We know he is a young man, one of the officers comments he seems too young to have been married so we’d say somewhere around 18-20. We also learn that the doctor doesn’t think he is in need of ‘urgent’ help. Even Antony picks up the tone of this, “with a painful half smile.” I know that half-smile. I’ve had it on my face enough times.

We also get a surname for Antony here as the doctor dismisses the officers by saying “Mr. Ashurst is not in need of hospital attention.”

We then find out his age, nineteen, and that he found his mother after she had committed suicide. Clearly death enjoys bothering Antony.

Is it for our own comfort that death has been personified going back thousands of years? Potentially as far back as the Canaanite God, Mot, as early as the 13th or 12th century BCE. We also have Thanatos of the Greek tradition. Here, Death is in his Christian incarnation, the rider of the Pale Horse of the apocalypse as fortold in Revelation. Death as a skeletal figure with a scythe which is a very agrarian, Western European, Middle Ages representation. (Credit: Peter Haas / CC BY-SA 3.0)

“It wasn’t the worst I’ve seen, but it was worse than most see.” The officer says of this incident. He was one of the attending officers. What rotten luck, some might think. But they were at the house of a nineteen year old lad who’d seen his mum die, who had been present for the delivery of his now born baby, during a birth that killed his wife. I know I’d rather see it as a third party than experience it as a first party.

The officer is clearly judgemental. The doctor notes this, telling him how unfair it is to discuss these kinds of things behind Antony’s back. The fact is people deal with things in different ways and just because someone may be dealing with something in a not-normal way, it doesn’t make it an abnormal way. It is mentioned that whilst attending the suicide of Antony’s mother Antony had insisted they don’t send for an ambulance because she’d been dead for hours. This is not normal, but it’s not abnormal, in fact it’s smart. Why waste the time? Why bother a crew of paramedics who could be attending someone who has a chance to yet live to come and take one look at a dead woman that everyone can see is dead and go “Yup, she dead!”

To people who see the overly emotional, desperately clutching, death-fearing realities every day it may seem a little strange for Ashurst (I will refer to him by his surname from now on, as the book does) to behave as he does, but it resonates with me.

Ashurst is back to be being cold, all eyes on him uncomfortable in a room with a police officer who’d probably rather be sat quietly in a lay-by waiting for a call about joy riders than in this room of doom and gloom, and the chill of death in the air.

We find out he was going to name the baby “Richard” after his father.

“Please don’t talk to me any more, I can’t bear it, he thought, but he couldn’t say anything.” Again, I’ve been there many times. It’s times like those I make inappropriate quips, jokes that make others uncomfortable. Anything to show the other people I’m ‘there’, I’m in the same room. It’s not for my sake. I’d rather stay silent. It is for theirs, yet what I say and do is always wrong.

“Candy says, “I hate the quiet places
That cause the smallest taste of what will be.””

So wrote Lou Reed in the song ‘Candy Says’ by The Velvet Underground. I believe he is writing about the same phenomenon. The officer speaks because if he doesn’t he’s in a room full of the taste of what will be, the painfully inevitable, the final.  

An absolutely haunting version of ‘Candy Says’ by ANONHI, then Antony of Antony and the Johnsons, and Lou Reed.

Mercifully, before any more inane chatter can come along just to take the uncomfortable officer’s mind off the inevitable cruelty of death, Ashurst throws up in the sink!

I love this.

The entire chapter has been this disquiet, this limbo, stuck in the grey between life-and-death, we don’t quite know what’s alive and what isn’t. Even the weather is simultaneously cold and deathly, yet white and vibrant. Everything is in this stasis until…Bleurgh! In comes the body to remind you, nope, mate, you’re still kicking.

Especially after the tension between him and the officer, this awkward conversation, it’s this visceral interruption, it’s Ashurst’s body doing what his mind cannot! His body telling this policeman to shut the fuck up!

The undertaker arrives and Ashurst insists on going out to see his baby one last time. “I have to.” He says “I can’t not do it. It wouldn’t be right.”

I haven’t been there with a baby but I’ve been there with death and, again, it’s so hard because I know exactly where he is coming from. There is so much shielding from death, shielding the living from the dead and it’s basically for the reasons we’ve talked about throughout this chapter. It’s an uncomfortable and scary reminder that thus goes all life.

It feels like an affront, as a living person of someone you love that has died, to not attend to them. They stand outside “…the gravel floodlit by security lights and speckled by falling snow.” We’re back in this between-world, the security lights like spotlights at a prison-camp, illuminating the falling snow, this intrusion of nature’s coldest touch. It is life and death in one image, the human separation and the inevitable intrusion of the natural in one image. He takes his baby and he says goodbye.

“Then suddenly the door was closing and they were gone.”

What a sentence!

The opening and closing of doors, is up there with opening and closing curtains and sunrises and sunsets as solid, metaphorical representations of duality. Between hopelessness and opportunity, between a chance taken and a chance lost, between life and death. They represent, in a very real sense, a transition from one space to another. I think the sentence “Then suddenly the door was closing and they were gone.” is a poem on its own! (Credit: Betty Wills (Atsme) CC-BY-SA 4.0)

I don’t know how much of Vivienne’s conscious thought went into the writing of this book, as far as I know it owes a lot to the muse, but I’m no believer in the supernatural. This didn’t ‘just happen’. I know Vivienne to be careful with her words and whether consciously or unconsciously this is a very powerful, simple image.

If you want to know the subtlety in Vivienne’s writing that I spoke of in the introduction and the power I spoke of, it’s right there.

What Vivienne does, whether knowingly or unknowingly, is takes the mundane and crafts it into depth.

That sentence is a description of what actually happened. The door closed, the undertaker, the police, his baby, they were all gone.

It’s also a complete summary of the chapter and given that this is effectively the third-act conflict at the start of the book in a very post-modernist way, it’s a summary of the entire plot.

“Suddenly the door was closing and they were gone.”

Is that not how we feel about almost every loved one in our lives as we approach their final hours? Whether tragically, before-their-time in an accident, whether in a slow drawn out, torturous decline of senescence, or even our own selves, as we gaze back on our own years and wonder why we can’t get them back. Is life not the realisation that suddenly the door is closing and everyone and everything is gone?

It’s literally a nothing sentence, a seemingly mundane description of a thing that happens. Yet read deeper. It carries an unbelievable weight and, if you’re reading the book along with my analysis keep an eye out for these kinds of sentences. They spring up. I know Vivienne well enough that even if it was not written consciously, or intentionally, her mind is always plumbing for meaning and significance. The sentence may spew with little to no conscious thought, but she’s a poet at heart and knows the value of every stress and syllable of every word. She picks these little sentences perfectly and they are the kind of thing that to a reader not knowing these significant insignificances, you’ll miss the impact.

A snow-touched forest. Antony Ashurst would have briskly walked, carrying his dead child, through deathly canopies like this. It speaks to the inevitability, the overwhelming power of those natural forces that we cannot control. (Credit: Turkkinen via Pixabay)

It is just Ashurst and the doc left and the doc gets to practicalities it is clear Ashurst is not in the mood for and who can blame him. It’s always the case at times like these, crises, deaths, traumas, everyone doesn’t know what to do so they try to do everything when actually it can sometimes be best to just…be…and do nothing.

We also get the impression Ashurst’s aunt is a pain. She will come into things later.

The doctor leaves.

Ashurst is left alone, with the cold, with the silence.

He makes his way to the empty nursery, making up the crib, as if, in some other world, he knows his baby shall sleep there.

He is bathed in moonlight. The moon is a powerful symbol, another representation of the dream worlds. The moon is very much of-the-night but reflecting the daylight of the sun, a dead rock reflecting the warmth of life, a courier, a bypass, between life and death. 

“He let a few tears fall untouched to the carpet where they vanished in the patchy moonlight like ghosts…” The moonlight is the tractor-beam, Charon, come to ferry the souls of the dead from Ashurst, to liberate him of their weight and leave behind emptiness, a space that will remain forever empty.

“It was going to be such a long night.”

In Greek tradition Charon was a shrewd businessman, someone who would not allow anyone with insufficient wealth to cross the Styx, but Dante turned him into the first torture. Ushering sinners onto his boat, and who “beats with his oar whoever lags behind.” Death is no kindness. (Credit: Doré, Public Domain)

Powerful words to end the chapter.

Consider Ashurst had been offered a sedative multiple times. He could have had his suffering eased, he could have had rest and sleep, but he refuses sedation and chooses sleepless pain. He insists on suffering.

Somewhere in him is a need to suffer, a need to feel pain, perhaps just to feel anything, perhaps he feels it is his responsibility to suffer? It is martyrdom, a messianic mindset that if he can suffer through his troubles he will overcome better, he will improve, ‘it builds character’ some people love to say.

Unfortunately sometimes it just makes you cry and throw up in the sink. Such is pride, though, and men are often taught to be prideful, men are taught to suffer and endure. Women’s pain is ignored as hysteria by men who have been taught pain is not there in the first place, no matter how much it hurts. It must not be acknowledged, it must be endured, and through gritted teeth one marches on, no matter how sore one’s feet.

In case you didn’t pick it up, this opening chapter is dripping with death and the symbolism surrounding it. It deals with grief in a very real and very uncomfortable way. Everything Ashurst does can make total sense to a grieving person and it is those not involved in that grief, those entirely removed from the suffering who feel his behaviour is not right.

Saint Sebastian, the martyr. An insteresting tale, he was allegedly persecuted during the reign of the Roman emperor Diocletian. Tied to a tree and peppered with arrows, this did not kill him. Instead he was healed by Saint Irene of Rome. He would later be clubbed to death upon confronting the emperor for his sins and the persecution of Christians. What I particularly like about Saint Sebastian is the calmness with which he is often depicted. It is the virtue of the martyr to suffer for their beliefs. There is a masochism to it. If one is to be truly virtuous one must enjoy suffering for what you think is right. This pale, blood-spattered, yet almost smirking Sebastian from 1522 sums it up perfectly. There is a touch of the martyr to Ashurst. Yet, also an uneasiness. He is not so comfortable with his suffering. (Credit: Photo by Carlo Raso from Monastery of San Damiano at Assisi – Public Domain)

As mentioned, there is an aversion, a human anthropological aversion, to death. Rules and laws about it date back millennia and even today we recognise the importance of rites to do with death because of how impactful it can be on the living human mind. Yet at the same time…It’s like watching your favourite boxer losing…You can shout all the advice you like, it’s different when you’re the one getting punched in the face.

When grieving there is a real punch-in-the-face aspect, there’s an impact, an “Oof!” Followed by a numbness, a grogginess, a foggy-headed, not-knowing-what-to-do-ness. Like a part of you is trying to follow the departed, you end up in this between-world we see Ashurst in here.

Maybe it’s not everyone’s cup of tea to open a book and read that. Maybe you’re untouched by grief in those ways. Maybe your denialism is so strong. Maybe you just dealt with it a different way. Maybe you’re a firm Christian believer and think the departed has ‘gone to a better place’.

But for me, I’m an Ashurst. I’m cold, I’m logical, I’m numb, I’m empty, I’m missing.

As far as opening statements go this is such a simple and deep set up.

It could possibly be argued that starting at this sort-of-end makes reading the rest of the book a bit meaningless. It’s a valid argument of any use of this sort of post-modern structure but the question to be asked is are you curious to find out how it got here? And I certainly was. That’s the point of a device like this.

Why did this young man have a wife? Who was she? We only know her first name, Jenny, we know nothing else about her. How did she get pregnant? We find out about his mother’s suicide? What’s the deal with that? His dad’s dead too, recently, how did that happen?

It’s like the opening chapter is intended to pull your emotions one way and your conscious thoughts another. Emotionally you’re supposed to be horrified and not want to read another word but consciously you’re just so curious about this story, about how this scenario came to be.

The fact is this is just a nadir of pain, of misery and of suffering and we’re about to embark upon a journey of learning just how painful life can be.

It is going to be such a long night!

Did you miss my Introduction? Read it here for an overview of why I am doing an analysis of ‘The Bet’ by Vivienne Tuffnell.

Or for more literature analysis and content click here.

You can also buy the book here.

Caturday Special: The Leopard, Panthera pardus

A beautiful leopard. (Credit: Tambako The Jaguar, CC-BY-ND 2.0)

CONTENT WARNING: Contains an image of an animal skin some people may find distressing.

Welcome to this Dionysiac festival, a veritable orgy of wine, dancing and leopards! Because for most people you think ‘leopard’ and you think of these beautiful spotted cats dancing across the savannah, creeping in the trees of various African plains.

To me, though, they are associated with Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and good times. You might be wondering, then, why it’s taken me so long to get to them…

An excellent image of a leopard showing how incredibly well adapted these creatures are. Large paws, great for running but not too specialised. A lengthy tail for balance. Strong muscular upper-body for dragging down prey, a thick neck (useful for dragging prey into trees to stop it being scavenged). It’s the small 4×4 of cats! Well adapted to so many different habitats and terrains, explaining its wide distribution. (Credit: Bernard DUPONT CC-BY-SA 2.0)

…Recovering alcoholic, here. Wine and good times are best avoided! I’m a rehabilitated Dionysiac!

This would be the only extant species of the genus Panthera that we have not covered yet. At this point I have written about all the extant big cats.

Think about that for a minute.

The five pantherines. From top to bottom; tiger, lion, jaguar, leopard and snow leopard. All predators at the top of their game. (Credit: VeronicaPR + Baerni by GFDL)

For all the diversity there are only five species of big cat in the genus Panthera; P. Leo, the lion; P. tigris, the tiger; P. onca, the jaguar; P. uncial, the snow leopard; and finally, today’s cat, P. pardus, the leopard.

As you’ll know if you read my article cheetahs are not in the Panthera genus, being the sole member of the genus Acinonyx and, what’s more, being evolutionarily closer to the Puma lineage than the Panthera lineage, the puma and cheetah for all that they may be ‘big’ cats are not ‘Big cats’ in the sense of being closely related to the Pantherinae.

It’s disheartening to know there are so few big cats, but I can think of genus level extinctions in recent time. It’s not that we’ve driven all the big cat genera out, if you think about the role they fulfil many of these cats are apex predators. In a society there’s room aplenty at the top and people just like to hog the peak. In trophic levels, when we’re talking food chains and webs, there’s only so-much room at the top.

These Pantherines, then, are the pinnacle. Every one of them expertly adapted killing machines. Representatives of that cruel brutality, the reality of life, tooth and claw, as it truly is. Yet, they play, they roar at each other, they roll around in the dust, they slow-blink and head-boop.

In the epilogue of ‘On Aggression’ Konrad Lorenz (himself somewhat a problematic tooth-and-claw type, having been a scientist in the Nazi regime – Much of his post-war work seems to have been an exploration of his own mistakes and the mistakes of human inhumanity) discusses human weaponry, and the fact that nature evolved its weaponry in tandem with behaviour whilst humans are evolving weaponry at an alarming rate with a brain still hard-wired to huck rocks at each other.

Aggression in nature is almost always tapered with submission. These cats are majestic examples of the most honed killing machines on the planet but they know when to put tooth and claw away and when to use them.

It’s honestly beautiful. To me, anyway. But I’m weird.

Another African leopard (Panthera pardus pardus) another good way to tell jaguar and leopards apart is apparent in this picture. Jaguar have fucking fat heads – they’re literal meatheads, very muscular because they have incredibly powerful jaws. Leopards tend to be slightly more slender, especially around the cheeks and muzzle. (Credit: Axel Tschentscher CC-BY-SA 4.0)

Anyway, the leopard, most famous for its African population but leopards were once widespread throughout Europe, populations still exist across Asia as far as Siberia where the Amur leopard remains one of the most endangered sub-species of any big cat. In fact they are the member of the Panthera genus with the most extant (currently living) sub species because of this distribution. The African, Indian, Javan, Arabian, Amur, Caucasian, Indochinese and Sri Lankan leopards are all currently living sub-species! Many of them, sadly, critically endangered. They have the largest distribution of all the big cats.

They’re a big, husky cat. Usually smaller than, but they can be up to the size of a large male lion; they’re a good bulk. They use this musculature to perform a role not dissimilar to their very similarly looking New World cousin, the Jaguar. The leopard is partially arboreal, so they need a solid muscular frame for climbing trees, but one thing they also do is drag their prey up trees! So they need to be strong enough to lift themselves and possibly a hundred kilos or so of meat into the boughs of a tree.

They’re easily spotted. Literally, they’re spotted! Or rather they have rosettes, ring-like dark spots. One of the tell-tale ways to tell the difference between a jaguar and a leopard (so often confused…) is to look at the centre of the rosettes. Jaguar have larger rosettes for the most part, but they also usually have little spots inside the rosettes. Leopards do not, and their rosettes are often smaller, tighter circles. Their fur is also quite dense and soft and they demonstrate countershading (being paler on the belly than on top) implying some degree of hiding above. They are known to hide in trees, and hunt from trees, so this adaptation fits.

The Amur leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis), one of the most endangered sub-species, seen here at Colchester Zoo and another chance for me to talk about the tapetum lucidum. This is the film at the back of the eyes of many nocturnal or low-light species that reflects light back onto the light receptors in the eyes. It’s what gives these species their amazing night vision, recycling what minimal light there is. (Credit: Keven Law CC-BY-SA 2.0)

Another thing they have in common with jaguars is a propensity for melanism. This is a genetic mutation that causes an overproduction of the pigment melanin, which makes things dark – in the case of cats, black. The so-called ‘black panther’ is often one of either a jaguar (most likely) or a leopard (a little rarer). But they both have this as a surprisingly common mutation. Their lifestyles make it obvious why, crepuscular/nocturnal hunters that use shadows and tree cover to surprise their prey – looking like a shadow is beneficial. A black lion? Now that stands out among the yellow grass!

I’m fairly certain this is photoshopped because if it isn’t WHAT AN AMAZING SHOT! This is in India, so this would likely be the Indian leopard (Panthera pardus fusca) but, for forest dwelling, nocturnal hunters like leopards a colour-morph mutation like this may not be a problem – in fact it may be a blessing! This is why melanism, whilst rare in other species (and admittedly still rare in leopards and jaguars) is less rare in others. (Credit: Dheerajmnanda CC-BY-SA 4.0)

This colouration, size, musculature camouflage – It all screams diversity! Unlike species such as lions or cheetahs who have distinct prey preference leopards are very broad in their diet, opportunistic, adaptable to changing conditions from plains and steppes to rainforests and mountains. If you’re looking for the all-terrain, all-purpose pantherine, this is the one! It’s why they were once so disperse and honestly the only reason they’re not common across Europe to this day is because humans massively deforested the areas and persecuted them because they probably kill humans!

In terms of size they’re dimorphic. Males tend to be a fair bit larger than females. A big male can be 70cm at the shoulder, up to 2m in body with up to 1m of tail. It’s a big cat. Females you can knock anywhere from 10-30% off that.

KITTEN TAX! Look at this cutie. I have to say leopard cubs are some of the most adorable, cuddly-toy like of all the big cat young. (Credit: Chris Eason CC-BY-2.0)

They tend to be solitary, unless they’re a mother with a cub. They are also territorial so they will patrol and maintain a territory usually keeping a solid km or so between each other, at least according to observations from the Kruger National Park. Conflict and confrontation, to go back to my Lorenzian learning, is naturally rare. The last thing a cat like this wants to do is fight a cat like this! It’s certain to end in a wound that will take time and resources to heal, at worst it ends in a pointless death.

During the day they spend most of their day looking like-butter-wouldn’t-melt just sleeping in trees. Being opportunists they are not against a day-kill should one present itself, but mostly they hunt during twilight (crepuscular) and at night (nocturnal). In Africa they prefer things like impala, bushbuck etc. but they’ll chomp a monkey, a jackal, foxes – Even evidence of cheetah (whether hunted or scavenged is unclear) has been found in scatological (shit) analysis.

Where they are not in competition with other, possibly larger, cats like lions or tigers they will take on bigger prey, though…Including – and this is not a fucking joke – giraffe!

In desert regions they’re also partial to a side of vegetables! Not for the nutritional properties, for as generalist as leopards are they are still obligate carnivores. Where it is particularly arid, though, they will eat desert vegetation to get valuable water. Cats have exceptionally good kidneys and extract most of their needed water from their animal prey, however, particularly in arid regions this might need topping up either with a stop at a watering hole or oasis or – as has been demonstrated, by munching a few moisture rich veggies.

A diagram showing leopard distribution, both current and historic. As you can see these cats were once very widespread and this map does not include pre-pleistocene data when leopards (particularly Panthera pardus spelaea, the cave leopard) would have roamed Europe! (Credit: BhagyaMani, CC-BY-SA 4.0)

Intraspecific (within the species, leopard on leopard) competition and violence might be rare but these cats are living with some of the biggest, hardest, cleverest predators in the world. Competition with lions, tigers, hyenas, wolves, wild dogs etc. is common. In fact lions have been known to kill and eat leopards, particularly younger or weaker ones. Leopards often lose kills to hyena such as the spotted hyena or the brown hyena – this is one of the reasons they tend to drag their kills to the trees in areas with stiff competition.

A mother being a, frankly, out-of-fucks-to-give toy to her wonderful, playful cubs. These are truly beautiful animals. (Credit: Michael Levine-Clark CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0)

They also have Nile crocs to contend with and these crocodiles would eat an anything if it stopped to drink nearby!

Their biggest threats are, as with most big cats, though, humans. Habitat fragmentation particularly is the danger. The use of their native habitats for humane exploitation not only reduces their home ranges, their prey species etc. but it also puts them in direct conflict with humans where they will end up getting killed or poached. Trophy hunting is also still disturbingly common and, frankly, I wish any wildlife poacher a true hunter’s death of being eaten by wild animals, they can fuck themselves.

Trade in skin and bones is still common across many areas of their range, especially in Africa and livestock farmers are known to poison potential big-cat prey species. It’s a fucking tragedy and I understand it can be difficult to make a living. Thankfully there are many projects and charities aimed at helping people understand the value of the amazing cats they’re living with and encouraging different ways of life that allow peaceful co-existence of cats and humans.

Leopard skins are one of the most traded parts of the animal. Something they are poached for. Why? There’s no cultural or medicinal value, this is purely aesthetic. Look at it, it’s beautiful but, I happen to think it looks more beautiful on a leopard than on a wall or floor. (Credit: Kürschner, Public Domain)

But you’re not here for any of that? Are you?

You wanna know about leopards and Dionysus! Well firstly it should be said that in Ancient times ‘Leopard’ often meant cheetah, not the leopard as we know it today. It can be difficult because artistic representations of the two cats often look quite similar!

A mosaic of Dionysus…what looks like getting a leopard pissed!? From a mosaic in a 2nd century Roman home in Brescia, Italy. (Credit: Stefano Bolognini, Wikimedia Commons)

But whether it’s a cheetah or a true leopard, Dionysus is associated with leopards. He is often represented riding a leopard or wearing a leopard skin.

As with many nocturnal species there is something ‘of the night’ about the leopard and, prior to obnoxious, non-gnostic Christian traditions, paganism and other religions had a lot of respect for the night. Yes, night was danger, night was to be feared, but that’s exactly why it must be respected rather than denied!

From a krater (a vessel for mixing wine and water on which, funnily enough, the god of wine, Dionysus, is often depicted) of the God of wine himself riding his trusty leopard! He must have been a small chap…(Credit: collection of Edme AntoineDurand, Public Domain)

Leopards have this magic and mysticism about them. This was a beast that slept during the day but was alive and alert at night. What better beast to represent Dionysus, the party-god! The unleashing of the beast in all of us that comes through too much wine, intoxication, around the fire of an evening!

A leopard relaxing in a tree. Besides killing, it’s what they do best. That’s the damn life! (Credit: LVictor via DepositPhotos)

So let’s raise a toast! To this most noble beast! Relaxed and savage, violent and calm, the duality in all of us. This beautiful, stout, spotted cat! To the leopards out there, and to the leopard in all of us! Blessed be the reveller, the hunter, the beast of the night! May we know when to use tooth and claw, and when to sleep off the sun! HERE HERE!

Thinking this is a purr-fect time for more cat articles screaming “Check MEOWT!”? Gotcha Covered. Catch up with our Caturday Specials!

Caturday Special: The Origin StoryProailurus and Pseudaelurus – The progenitor species of all modern cats examined.
Caturday Special: The Snow Leopard – The ‘Ghost of the Mountains’ gets an examination, a beautiful cat with some remarkable characteristics.
Caturday Special: The Scottish Wildcat – Once an emblem of so many Scottish clans, now this poor, cute, and feisty wildcat is struggling to survive due to historic persecution and current ongoing interbreeding with domestic cats.
Caturday Special: The Serval – Find out about this elegant and beautiful medium-sized African wildcat and how it has become part of our domesticated cat lineage!
Caturday Special: The Kodkod – The smallest cat in the Americas and endemic to only a small part of Chile and Argentina, find out about this amazing little boopster.
Caturday Special: The Feliformia and the Spotted Hyena – Did you know that hyenas are actually more closely related to cats than to dogs? They are members of sub-order of carnivores called ‘Feliformiae‘ or the cat-like carnivores. Learn more about them, the hyena and the hyena’s remarkable genitals here.
Caturday Special: The Cougar – The second biggest cat in the Americas is actually more closely related to your domestic moggy than the lion! Learn more!
Caturday Special: The Eurasian Lynx – One of my continent’s most handsome predators and one that certain groups are looking to get reintroduced to the UK after a 1,000 year absence in the hope it will control rabbit and roe deer numbers. I’m all for it!
Caturday Special: Hybrids – Looking at the phenomenon of hybrid species, with focus on cats like the liger, the pumapard and the Kellas cat, as well as some talk about domestic hybrids like chausie, bengals and caracats.
Caturday Special: The Fishing Cat – It’s a cat that loves to fish. An adorable little kitto from Asia.
Caturday Special: The Marbled Cat – A beautiful Asian cat of the Bay-Cat lineage that completes a write up of a cat species from every extant cat clade and that discusses the smaller, little known cats and why they are worth study.
Caturday Special: The Eurasian Cave Lion – A prehistoric beauty, around 10-15% bigger than the modern, African lion and as fearsome as it was admirable. Lions and humans emerged from Africa together and have a strong, cultural bond as a result. Like competing brothers.
Caturday Special: Homotherium – Less well-known than their Smilodon cousins, these pre-historic, sabre-toothed beasties have some incredible evidence for intelligence, social behaviour and the evolution of butchery!
Caturday Special: The Rusty-Spotted Cat – Possibly the smallest cat in the world (it’s close between it and the black-footed cat) this tiny, elusive feline of India and Sri Lanka is surely one of the cutest little hunters on Earth.

Or if you’re feline in the mood, read our Top Ten Cat Species List!

Top Ten Cats: Introduction – The basics of cat biology, evolution and natural history.
Top Ten Cats #10 – The Pallas’ cat – a small, very fluffy pika-hunter from Asia.
Top Ten Cats #9 – Jaguarundi – A unique and little known Puma relative.
Top Ten Cats #8 – Clouded Leopard – A stealthy and stunning Asian cat.
Top Ten Cats #7 – Jaguar – Beauty in spades, loves swimming, cracks skulls with teeth…
Top Ten Cats #6 – Lion – Emblematic, beautiful and social, an amazing cat.
Top Ten Cats #5 – Black-footed cat – one of the smallest, yet most deadly wild cats.
Top Ten Cats #4 – Smilodon – Going prehistoric with the sabre-toothed cats.
Top Ten Cats #3 – Tiger – One of the most gorgeous animals to have ever existed.
Top Ten Cats #2 – Cheetah – The placid lovechild of a sportscar and a murderer.
Top Ten Cats #1 – Domestic cats – Saviour of our foodstores and loving companions.