Most people who visit the region on the border of Kent and East Sussex do so by skipping by this curious peninsula. An area of arid shingles, dotted with islands of vegetation, where unusual lichens make a satisfying crunching sound in the summer, a crunch somewhere between sand and snow.
Smack bang in front of you is mile after mile of flat, pebbled terrain, the skyline dominated by a nuclear power station.
I say ‘a’ power station, it’s actually two. Dungeness A – joined to the grid in 1965, it’s two nuclear reactors helped generate thousands of Gigawatt hours (GWh) per yer. A Gigawatt hour is equivalent to one million kilowatt hours (kWh) and the average UK home today uses around 4,000 kWh of electricity per year. At peak performance, between 1967-1979, Dungeness A was producing enough electricity to power 1,000,000 homes, alone.
Dungeness A closed in 2006, entering the full decommissioning phase.
Dungeness B is a very interesting story. It is what is known as an ‘Advanced Gas-Cooled Reactor’ or AGR and was the first large scale station of this type to be built based upon a smaller design at Sellafield. It was run by a consortium of engineering firms known as Atomic Power Construction (APC).
Engineers encountered significant problems in this scaling up process. A clear example that engineering theory and engineering practice seldom walk hand-in-hand and an excellent demonstration of the expense of innovation!
The solution? The same solution private investors always come up with when their get-rich-quick schemes meet difficulties, they ended up caving under the financial pressure of having to pay for changes and dealing with the fact this power-producing cash cow was non-operational and ultimately backed out, leaving the government run Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) to foot the bill and complete the work.
A nod to how public/private initiatives would work in the UK long into the future, the ambitious and ill-considered plan of a group of private investors leant on the government for a bail-out. How very 2008 banking industry!
It worked out well for APC, as material flaws led to major redesigns and rebuilding with new, more consistent, materials. The project was finally completed in 1983, 13 years late and at around 4x the initial projected cost.
Since 2009 the station has been on shut-down due to a variety of problems. Multiple restart dates were scheduled but as of this year a decision has been made to move Dungeness B into its defueling phase, effectively starting the process of decommissioning, with the station having only produced power for only a short amount of it intended life-cycle.
So it might be hard to believe that this area is actually, in terms of its geomorphology, one of the most unique sites in Europe. This is the largest shingle expanse in the continent! Leading to a whole host of interesting nature-related letters! It’s a National Nature Reserve (NNR), a Special Protection Area (SPA), a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and part of the Dungeness, Romney Marsh and Rye Bay Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).
A third of UK plant biodiversity can be found in the region, supporting a host of otherwise very rare UK invertebrate species. It was the site of the reintroduction of the short-haired bumblebee (Bombus subterraneus), a species of bumblebee last naturally recorded at Dungeness in 1988.
Whilst the reintroductions have not been as successful as hoped, with the short-haired bumblebee not thriving, the measures taken to attempt to get it to be fruitful and multiply have led to increases in populations of other rare bumblebess, such as the moss carder bee (Bombus muscorum), the brown banded carder bee (Bombus humilis) and the ruderal bumblebee (Bombus ruderatus).
I think this demonstrates one of the key things I’m always trying to talk about with ecology. When you are looking at an ecosystem and the niches within – G. Evelyn Hutchinson described it as an ‘n-dimensional hypervolume’.
Fancy words, I know, but what it basically means is ‘n’ is just ‘a number’ – indeterminate, often indeterminable, and the dimensions are conditions and resources. The ‘hypervolume’ is the space utilised by those resources, and how they are used; light, natural structures, plants, nutrients, etc.
In setting up measures to analyse the n-dimensions involved in reintroducing the short-haired bumblebee, however difficult or ill-fated the project might have been, they have improved the hypervolume to an extent that other species which exploit that ecological niche in a similar way are thriving.
Is it a win? Well the target species has not performed well, but other rare species have been given a boost by the actions intended to help the target species.
This is why a lot of modern ecological study and, particularly ecological conservation, takes on a lot more of a holistic role. It is not about “SAVE THIS SPECIES!” but rather improve the ecology of the species to minimise the number of conflicting dimensions in their hypervolume so they can save themselves. This includes working with local communities to establish sustainable, wildlife friendly enterprises and ways of life, and finding ways to minimise human-animal conflicts – two major problems in ecology.
This form of ecology recognises the levels of complexities and sensitive dependencies that life just lives with, until they become a problem.
Fictional example but it could be, say, that Jaguars in a particular area of the Amazon basin subsist on a diet of mainly turtles. We’ve noticed a decline in both jaguars and turtles. Which do we focus on?
Well using this model you’d look at why the decline in prey species? Perhaps a species of plant that the turtles like to eat is not doing so well.
So you look at why that? Well it turns out the local communities are pulling it all up because it makes fucking killer baskets!
Okay, so now we have to look at finding a means of transitioning these peoples from utilising wild resources vital to the turtles that are vital to the jaguars to help everyone.
So we either provide these people with alternative basket materials, perhaps some social enterprise scheme where they can sell their killer baskets to a wider market, perhaps find, and work to encourage sustainable growing and harvesting methods, we get the numbers of these plants back up but, oh no, the turtles aren’t coming back.
Then we realise that a species of invertebrate is eating these plants from the bottom up, and a predatory beetle once used to take care of that but their numbers declined too, so now we have to assess whether it is viable to reintroduce these predatory beetles to sustain the water plants.
If you’re asking “Is it realistic a decline in numbers of one beetle can so negatively impact an entire ecosystem affecting jaguars way up the trophic levels?” YEAH! It’s that mad, chaotic and interdependent!
It works, the turtles come back, the jaguars come back – but it’s taken 20 years of research, effort, study and work and in the meantime, right behind you, acres of the rainforest has been cut down for logs!
Welcome to ecology and conservation work! Long-sighted hard work is often dramatically outpaced by lucrative exploitation!
Back to Dungeness.
Contrary to a lot of reports it is not Britain’s only desert. There is, as far as I am aware, no area of the UK that meets the classification of a desert. On a day like the one I visited it on, this vast, isolating shingle expense can very well feel like one.
Watching a fox dance across the shingles looking for unsuspecting rabbits under a hot, early-evening sun was the closest I’ve come to seeing a coyote in Arizona or New Mexico – this slinky canid dancing across the flat, desolate land. It was awesome.
I’m making it sound a bit Spartan but these shingle dunes and ridges are home to about a third of the UK’s plant biodiversity, making it an excellent place for invertebrates.
If you’re a fan of the lepidopterans, if you’re into your butterflies and moths, it is a must visit. Cabbage white (Small – Pieris rapae, large – Pieris brassicae – Yes there are two species of ‘cabbage white’) was all over the shop, I saw marbled whites (Melanargia galathea) a monochrome, stained-glass beauty of a butterfly, and small coppers (Lycaena phlaeas) were everywhere. It also gets a fair share of migratory butterflies like red admirals, clouded yellows, and long-tailed blues.
As far as moths go – take your pick! I mean, it is the most likely place to see a Sussex emerald (Thalera fimbrialis) but we’re talking over 600 recorded species of micromoths and macromoths. If they’re your thing, get down there during the day for some day moths and get your light box out at night, it won’t disappoint.
But I’m not about lepidopterans.
I’m a hymenopteran fan. I went to check out the bees and the wasps and it did not disappoint. Approaching any of the little islands of vegetation in this desolate shingle you will be met with the constant hum of the bees and flies around. Most of this is bumblebees, I saw more of them than anything else, although smaller solitary bees and a few honey bees were present.
As far as wasps go I found a high density in the wild carrot between the far wall of the power station and the big shingle defensive wall, as well as lots of them hanging around various apiaceae plants elsewhere. I found the highest concentration of ruby-tailed wasps I’ve ever seen, likely 5-6 individuals in one small area, indicating a healthy presence of solitary bees (which I heard, but did not see much). There were many Gasteruption (or skinny arse wasps if you prefer their scientific name), a lot of small black-and-orange ichneumons which are impossible for me to identify properly. I even spotted a couple I don’t think I’ve seen before or have seen very rarely.
I saw the ashiest of ashy mining bees, I mean this thing was just a tiny, buzzing, floating mini old-man’s beard it was so fluffy and grey.
A couple of miles along the shingle beach will take you to the vegetated sand dunes near Romney Sands and here I, as expected, found a higher concentration of digging wasps, sand wasps that sort of thing. You can, if you’re lucky, watch these little wasps and bees digging and making their nests. Just look for areas where the sand is forming a solid wall and look for small holes. These are almost certainly bee and wasp burrows and I got to watch one little digger bee going in and out with petals from the nearby flower, as well as what I think is a wasp in full Minecraft mode (I only saw its arse as its back legs kicked sand out of the nest it was digging).
If birds are your jam there is a nearby RSPB reserve, a wetland made up from filling in the old gravel pits. Bitterns, smews, wheatears, grebes, cormorants, gulls and terns, and rare migratory visitors like collared pratincoles, rosy starlings, glossy ibis, cattle egret – I mean, it’s a fucking haven, man!
It’s easily accessible by car or bus and I just feel a little sad that generally it gets bypassed via the A259 as people make their way East or West to more ‘popular’ seaside areas, they bypass this beautiful, unique habitat to go sip pints on concrete or play fucking mini-golf!
The fact is there is not a lot of glitz and glamour to Dungeness but there is a ton of character. Some of it is amazing, as a wildlife spot it’s incredible. Some of it is creepy – It is distinctly Lovecraftian in vibe around there, I mean if a local asked you to go worship to them you wouldn’t have a clue what arcane Old God they’re praying to. Anyone who has played Bloodbourne, just think the Fishing Hamlet and that’s Dungeness!
But that’s what I like about it! It’s not like everywhere else. Most importantly it’s quiet. I was there on a busy day and I could walk with no one around me for miles with little trouble! There are a few nice little pub-restaurants about for your dinner, fish and chip joints and local seafood places for a little light lunch or it’s the perfect damn picnic spot. Parking is ample and mostly free on the Dungeness Estate itself.
If you’re an angler! Oh boy! The sea just off where the hot water outlet pipe of the power station is provides some of the best, weirdest fishing you can do. Expelling water that’s a good 12°C warmer than the rest of the water it creates a mini-reef like area. People love to fish down there.
So if you’ve never been, go. I know the temptation, as the world flings its doors open with welcome after a pandemic, is to go to the crowded spots you’ve missed. But why not play it safe, and go find a new quiet spot where you can appreciate everything you love.
Go to Dungeness, if you regret it, at least you tell everybody about how oddly creepy Dungeness is.
If you’ve been following my cat content you will know that my all-time favourite cat is the cheetah. I put domestic cat as number one in our Top Ten Cats list because, besides the lion, no other cat is as synonymous with human culture. As far as I am aware lions did not domesticate themselves by taking care of small rodent or bird species that would steal grain from our grain stores.
Without successful agricultural practices humans would not have blossomed to become the ever-growing boil on the arse of nature we are today – so we owe a small part of that success to our domestic feline friends.
Lions could easily top the list, having a lengthy history of association with human culture. Tigers are another close favourite of mine, and used to run cheetahs very close but…In a running race, you ain’t gonna beat a cheetah!
So they’re my favourite. Their adaptations, their attitudes, their behaviours, their history, their hunting! Oh my god, their hunting! Like a carnal, brutal, beautiful, balletic, athletic dance to the death – It’s fucking sexy, okay! I can’t apologise for being a child of the Brutal Beauty, I’m erotically embowered in this savage garden and I find it hot!
But now is a good chance to talk about adaptation.
That shouldn’t be a foreign word to any English speaker – adaptation is just something changing. In biology it is usually referring to evolutionary changes that allow an organism to better suit its environment.
In your own case you can look at our nearest living relatives, chimps and bonobos. At one time in our evolutionary history it is likely human ancestors had a similar lifestyle. They had similarly long, lithe, tree-adapted limbs, those weird hand-like feet a lot of primates have, big swinging arms and generally built like brick-shithouses. If you’ve never seen a hairless chimp they’re fucking shredded! Like, even captive ones have got that weird, cut, Bruce Lee-muscle going on! They will fucking batter you!
But humans adapted.
This usually happens because of some kind of selection pressure, or opportunity. Perhaps there were too many large apes in our neck of the woods and resources were scarce? Perhaps there were just vast plains of fruits, roots and shoots going unexploited.
The exact circumstances of how humans adapted is a relative unknown, with multiple theories but ultimately we got this beast! Bipedal; compare the hip bones of a chimp to a human and you can see the way we hold our bones has moved to facilitate standing upright. Our feet are less dextrous, less hand-like, and have instead become supports for that bipedal stance. What this has done is allow us to free our hands. No longer the elongated branch-graspers they once were they became gathering tools, digging tools, crafting tools and weapons platforms.
Let some more time pass and now we use our hands to do all sorts of things but mainly scroll twitter on our smartphones and masturbate – That’s adaptation!
That’s a lot of words without even talking about a cat but I figured it’d be easier to describe adaptation to you with an example you’re familiar with because otherwise all I can say is “Like a cheetah but bigger” about the Giant Cheetah (Acinonyx pardinensis).
And from all the fossil evidence we have that’s the long-and-short of it! It’s like a cheetah but bigger, adapted for all the same things, but bigger. Naturally since it was larger it is theorised it was slower. I’d argue that’s a difficult one to say for sure – Usain Bolt is one big, lanky bastard but he made a hell of a sprinter!
Otherwise the same adaptations as the regular cheetah are there; Shorter muzzle, increased nasal cavity size for sucking in air (because cheetahs breathe as they sprint, unlike humans).
Interlude: I didn’t really cover this in the cheetah article so I’d like to go through it here. Cheetahs, like many ‘sprinter’ quadrupeds (four-legged animals) do not knowingly breathe whilst sprinting. That is to say it is not breathing necessarily via the same action it would use when just laying down or having a slow wander.
Instead, the very motion, the flexion, during the sprint forces the air in-and-out. Whilst sprinting, think of a cheetah as a big pair of bellows!
They extend outwards to a huge length, facilitated by their very flexible spines. This changes the forces acting upon their thoracic (chest) and abdominal (gut) cavities. When fully stretched out it effectively pulls on the diaphragm (the muscle used to control breathing) to force air into the cat.
Then, when they pull that stride in they bundle themselves up into a taught ball, ready to explode out again. As they do so they compress everything up, forcing that diaphragm again and pushing the air out.
So, what’s the deal? Why cat so big?
Because everything was bigger! We have evidence of giant cheetahs from the Early-to-Middle Pleistocene, that era when mammalian life on planet Earth was being huge and doing weird shit. It was world of rhinos and mammoths on the European plains, South America had sloths the size of people carriers and beavers the size of small bears!
It’s an excellent demonstration of adaptation. Whether these giant cheetahs were hunting larger prey than their extant African cousins or not they would have still faced competition from wolves, Eurasian cave lions, cave hyenas and other cats like Homotherium – the scimitar-toothed cats – that we’ve covered before.
Modern cheetahs are very selective, preferring Thomson’s gazelle over other prey. Whether the giant cheetah was as fussy is not known but they were probably busy tackling species larger than a Thomson’s gazelle – but they may have been opportunists.
Either way the selection pressures are there. When everything around you gets BIG your adaptation is likely to take one of two ways – Either grow larger in turn, so that you can compete with the other big life around you, or else find a niche, fill an opportunity, for being a bit smaller.
Well there was already a species filling the smaller niche – The cheetah. Yup, our beloved sprinter-cat dates back to the Pleistocene too, with the oldest fossils being in the region of 3 million years old. There was also a species in size somewhere between the two – Acinonyx intermedius (yup, points for originality on that name).
The giant cheetah is an exceptional example of adaptation at work. In many ways little different to its smaller, extant cousin and yet at the same time altered and changed to suit a slightly different habitat, lifestyle and different prey.
If there’s one thing I absolutely love about biology it is piecing together these little puzzles. Trying to figure out why something does what it does, or is as it is. Looking at the clues, comparing skeletons, anatomies, body forms, changes, sizes, little claws, their teeth – It’s a fascinating journey to go on.
You can CAT-ch up with the rest of our Caturday Specials here
Caturday Special: The Origin Story – Proailurus 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. Caturday Special: The Sand Cat – It started as a cute distraction from the world’s ills but became a lesson, from an amazingly well-adapted, resourceful desert cat, on how to better use resources. Caturday Special: The Ocelot – The cat, the myth, the legend, the meme, star of Archer, Metal Gear Solid and a weird little invisible dragon kid in Dark Souls 3? We look at the ocelot, a medium-sized cat from the Americas that is as cute as it is deadly.
Gimme all the ocelots, ‘coz ocelots is what I want, and I like ocelots a lot!
If you don’t know what on earth I am on about I am reciting the lyrics to a short song from early internet meme machine ‘rathergood.com’ featuring Iggy Pop’s Ocelot Shop.
Does it make any sense? No.
Should you watch it? Yes.
Will you ever be able to see an ocelot, ever, in your life, without singing to yourself “Have you got an oceloooot?” Fuck no! This one stays with you.
Honestly it’s a solid meme for a worthwhile meme cat. There is something about the ocelot where it gets the balance between wild and cute just perfect that we recognise it for a potentially dangerous medium size cat but want to hug it and love it regardless.
See Babou the ocelot owned by millionaire-heiress/Cowboy Country singer/BDSM fiend Cheryl Tunt in the animated TV series ‘Archer’, who has his own Twitter account.
Moreover this is a reference to millionaire-artist/Cowboy absurdist Salvador Dali and his pet ocelot, Babou.
And any fan of Hideo Kojima’s mad, pop-culture reference crammed, anti-war, yet somehow understanding the complex socio-economic inevitabilities of war romps, the Metal Gear franchise, will know Revolver Ocelot.
We don’t know much of the origin of his codename ‘Ocelot’ but he was likely given it whilst working for the Russian GRU (who took him in and raised him as an ‘orphan’) to reflect his American origins – the Ocelot being a cat native to the Americas and his mother, The Joy (later The Boss) having been American and a founding member of the elite COBRA special forces unit.
Honestly there should be a whole series of We Lack Discipline article doing a full analysis of the Metal Gear Solid franchise because not only is it one heck of a socio-political anti-war set-piece but it’s bat-shit insane and so deeply, disturbingly image rich that there’s so much room for artistic interpretation!
But it’s more than just a modern phenomenon. The importance of Ocelots dates back to their native Central and South America in the Aztec and Incan civilisations that depict ocelots as an integral part of their mythology and artistic symbology.
Although it should be noted the old Nahuatl word, the language group spoken by many Mesoamerican groups, for ‘jaguar’ was ‘ocelotl’ so we should be careful with many interpretations, in language, that refer to ‘ocelotl’ as they may mean jaguar.
So, before we even get to the cat itself we have an interesting, culturally significant species on our hands!
So what is an ocelot?
It’s a slender, medium-sized cat, with a blotched/spotty coat. They can be up to 50cm at the shoulder, head and body length between 50-100cm, tail is usually quite short at 30-45cm. Weight is usually somewhere around 8-15kg, females averaging slightly smaller, but not by much.
It is easily confused with the other small, slender cats in its genus, the margay and the oncilla – with the ocelot’s bulk being the main clue between them. They are significantly heavier. They have a small head, with a little, slightly pointed muzzle and small, rounded ears on the top of the head. They also have these big, soulful eyes that beg for you to pet them, but don’t! Ocelots are wild animals and a challenge to keep.
Whilst we associate the ocelot with a spotted coat the bulk of it is actually marked by blotchy rosettes, with pale lines in between. It tends to be spottier on the face, legs and belly. This gives it a special, marble-like pattern that make the ocelot particular prone to hunting for its pelts.
Of course its main threat (isn’t it always?) is habitat loss and fragmentation due to human exploitation. Increasing areas of ocelot habitat have been exploited to split to make way for modern roads, farms or other infrastructure. In areas of Argentina, for example, more ocelot deaths are being caused by traffic collisions. The logging trade is taking away huge areas of ocelot habitat and not replacing it fast enough.
It’s got a hell of range to experience these problems in, too. In case you can’t tell by the pictures and description this is a forest cat, but it’s fairly well adapted for any kind of forest. The short tail should tell you whilst it can hunt in the trees it is probably not exclusively an arboreal hunter, so basically anywhere there’s dense vegetation an ocelot will fit. From Texas in the Southwest United States all the way down to the elevated forests of Northern Argentina and into the Amazon basin in Brazil these cats basically take in every country along the way as part of their territory.
One of the reasons is they are very disperse. Female ranges tend to be a little smaller, estimated up to 6 square miles, whilst males can have territories wanting up to 20 square miles. Female ranges do not tend to overlap, male ranges definitely overlap with female ranges. It’s how we get kittens. But that doesn’t mean ocelots aren’t fiercely territorial, and fights can occur, sometimes resulting in death. However, ocelots have also been known, even during non-mating periods, to spend time together. It is unsure whether these are related individuals, but juveniles have been noted returning to their parents.
Given their wide range and, as mentioned, the wide range of habitats they can live in, it should come as no surprise that ocelots are relatively opportunistic hunters and seem to have different preferences depending on where they are. They only need around a kilo of meat per day to sustain themselves and so small prey of about 1kg are perfect. In the US/Central America this can include rabbits and hares, large rodents, armadillos, birds etc. In Mexican forests they seem to have a liking for iguana meat. In part of Brazil they prefer a bit of monkey. They really are a delightfully varied little cat, showing themselves to be highly adaptive.
They are mainly a crepuscular and nocturnal (twilight and night) species, active and hunting during those times and choosing to spend the day resting in trees or in dens.
Being a tropical/sub-tropical species there’s no real ‘season’ for breeding in ocelots and the peak time for it changes across their habitats. Usually it seems to come around Autumn/Winter time. They only gestate for two to three months and have small litters of 1-3 kittens, which can stay with their mother for up to two years! This is a relatively long time for parental investment in a cat!
There are two recognised sub-species of ocelot – that one could nominally call the ‘Northern’, Leopardus pardalis pardalis, and ‘Southern’, Leopardus pardalis mitis, ocelot, I suppose, with their territories basically divided by the Andes. The ‘Northern’ inhabits the space North of the Andes Mountains from Texas and Arizona down to Costa Rica, Panama. The ‘Southern’ Ocelot is more prevalent in South America in the cats’ range in Brazil, Guyana, Suriname – all the way down to the southernmost reach of their range in Northern Argentina.
Whilst being ‘of least concern’ to the IUCN, certain sub-populations are hugely at risk. The population in Texas, for example, likely only numbers around 50 adult individuals and is well into the inbreeding threshold putting increasing pressure on them.
CITES – The international law banning trade in certain wild animal parts certainly helped. Whilst illegal poaching for their skins and sometimes meat does take place it is a far cry from when they were being killed in high numbers to make fashionable furs. As a result the global population sits around 40,000 individuals, the bulk of which are in stable populations in the Amazon basin.
It is showing itself to be adaptable to human exploited sites such as oil palm farms and cattle ranches, with little danger to either palm trees or cows this could provide an excellent opportunity for peaceful, and beneficial co-existence as the ocelots could kill any bird or rodent pests that might cause problems for the agricultural communities.
For want of a better term, ocelots’ got swag!
There’s a certain something and you can’t quite put your finger on it but ocelots have it. They are the perfect blend of wild and cute, they wear a coat you’d expect a flamboyant boxer to turn up at a press-conference wearing, soul-piercing eyes and a lithe body that looks like they could do anything with it. They don’t look real, they look like a kid designed a cat that looked like a teddy bear and some genius CGI artist just stuck it in our world. They’re special!
And for once I don’t have to cry foul, fall to my knees like Charlton Heston at the end of ‘Planet of the Apes’ and scream “God damn you all to hell!” It’s doing alright! This shy, elusive jungle cat is used to running and hiding from the most effective predators in the light-dappled darkness of the densest forests on the planet – dodging, ducking, dipping, diving and dodging between the trees and the shadows avoiding jaguars and caimans. Further north they have to avoid coyotes, cougars, bobcats and eagles.
They’re great at doing what they do and staying the hell out of our way – and I think that stand-offishness is a little bit attractive in them.
Yeah, I like ocelots a lot.
You can CAT-ch up with the rest of our Caturday Specials here
Caturday Special: The Origin Story – Proailurus 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. Caturday Special: The Sand Cat – It started as a cute distraction from the world’s ills but became a lesson, from an amazingly well-adapted, resourceful desert cat, on how to better use resources.
We left off after the (potential) defeat of the Romans after the Battle of Asculum and the role of Roman/Carthaginian relations in proceedings.
Well those relations were about to be tested for the flimsy trans-Mediterranean partnership that it actually was.
We have spoken how it seems Pyrrhus may have had eyes on Sicily. The Greek city states there were already a part of his Epirot League, effectively a collaboration of a bunch of areas of ‘Greek’ control. As mentioned there is a notion of ‘Greece’ as a unified ancient civilisation when that couldn’t have been further from the truth. Much like the Gods they almost uniformly worshiped these were effectively a bunch of constantly squabbling kin, with similar cultures but constantly at each other’s throats.
Well, Pyrrhus did go to Sicily. Trouble stirred between the Carthaginians in the West and other Greek cities was enough to spark his journey there and, let’s be honest, whilst he was ‘winning’ against the Romans the phrase ‘Pyrrhic victory’ has not persisted for nothing. Pyrrhus’ fights against the Romans were sapping the shit out of troops, morale, patience and energy and a short stint of successful campaigns in Sicily could help win back a bit of public support, earn a few more troops and get him back on track with regards to bringing Rome to heel.
There are suggestions this was to be a stepping stone in itself, that Pyrrhus had eyes on Africa and Carthage. How much of that is true and how much bullshit will never be known.
There are differing accounts of Pyrrhus’ time in Sicily.
I’m not going to go into too much detail but Pyrrhus was less-than successful in Sicily. After a blitzkrieg-like start to the campaign, taking multiple Carthaginian territories he successfully besieged Eryx and garrisoned it, using it as a base to take Panormus. Laetia surrendered with no fighting whatsoever.
Then came Lilybaeum. During the siege of this city the Carthaginians brought over reinforcements, not only man power but food and resources. This allowed them to strengthen the fortifications, bolster anti-siege troops and weaponry. This basically halted Pyrrhus’ progress.
Negotiations ensued but they did not go well, with the Greek city states on the island being unsatisfied with any concessions to the Carthaginians. Allegedly Pyrrhus had begun to behave in an increasingly tyrannical way and upset a lot of people and everything sort of took a turn for the worse for Pyrrhus.
Mercifully he received word from the Italic Greek states that they were up the creek without a paddle again. The Samnites (I told you in their article we weren’t done with them) were being forced out of their territories and struggling to defend their cities and needed assistance, through which they had reached Pyrrhus by going via the Tarentines.
It gave Pyrrhus the excuse he must have dearly wanted to leave the complicated conflicts in Sicily but far from having won hearts and minds, bolstered his resources and returned to Italy reinvigorated he was now even more depleted in troop and spirit.
What’s more, he left without saying goodbye to the Carthaginians and according to Plutarch they took great offence at this and fought him in the Strait of Messina as he made his crossing back. Against the well-drilled Carthaginian navy Pyrrhus lost many ships and personnel. Although Dionysius doesn’t mention this battle, he mentions a strong wind causing ships to stray off course and be lost. Either way, Pyrrhus lost a lot on his way back from Sicily.
The Romans, in the meantime, in case you hadn’t gathered by the begging letter from the Samnites, had been busy raiding Samnium with mixed results. Whilst they clearly took enough territory to cause the Samnites to ask for help, they lost many troops attempting to fight in the wild hills where Samnites were used to dwelling and Romans not so much.
When Pyrrhus finally got back to fighting the Romans their main armies were divided on two fronts. Lucius Cornelius Lentulus Caudinus was in Lucania and Manius Curius Dentatus was in Samnium. It was the force of Dentatus that would be Pyrrhus’ undoing.
According to Dionysius he rushed his forces to meet Dentatus’ in battle through trails in the woods that were “goat paths.” Thirsty, hungry and tired he ended up encamped in full view of the Roman army, who advanced on Pyrrhus’ position.
The multiple sources disagree about what exactly happened but they all agree on one thing. It was Pyrrhus’ own war elephants that were his undoing. An injury to either a calf, or a couple of larger, elephants caused panic and confusion among the rest of them. They turned from their intended target, the Romans, and trampled right through the Pyrrhic lines, causing them confusion and a mad scramble too. For the disciplined Romans this was a solid opening and whilst we do not have any solid figures of casualties it was a substantial enough defeat to send Pyrrhus back to Epirus.
Pyrrhus would go on to fight the Kingdom of Macedon, defeating Antigonus II, attempting a war with Sparta and would allegedly die in a battle in the streets of Argos.
Rome, within a couple of years, had taken Tarentum and with it pretty much any hope of Greek independence in the Southern Italian peninsula. They would go on to take Brundisium, defeat Umbrians, bring various other tribes under their umbrella and effectively control the whole Italian peninsula.
Rome’s victory established them as a true, legitimate force to be reckoned with in the Mediterranean region. Other Hellenistic Kingdoms, such as the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt, established relations with them on these grounds.
It had been a troubled few years that saw Rome tested in the direst of circumstances. But Rome held strong, defiant in the face of defeat and insistent on protecting Roman interests at all costs, this was an attitude they would carry forward into the future.
But they had also, now, opened up allegiance with Sicily, pulling the diplomatic strings with Carthage tighter and tighter. That tension was soon to break.
A small contingent of Greek might, who fought mostly on land, was one thing. How would Rome fare against the naval focussed Carthaginians? It wouldn’t be long before we get to find out.
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.
You may have heard on the news, read in The Guardian, seen in the full-page ad in The Sun *spits* newspaper or seen on BBC Breakfast the heartwarming tale of Damian Aspinall, the multi-millionaire animal lover, who is air-lifting, at great expense, an entire family of elephants raised at Howlett’s Wild Animal Park, near Canterbury in Kent, all the way to Kenya.
And you would probably have been left thinking that this is a wonderful thing. Wondering why people could be opposed in any way! But conservation is nothing if not messy and a lot of people elbow deep in the grime of conservation work have problems with this scheme.
So why could you possibly have a problem with the return of beautiful, wild, animals back where they belong?
Well – I’m going to try to explain.
For one thing I read often of the ‘success’ of the Aspinall Foundation for re-releasing other wild animals, specifically gorillas and rhinos, into the wild. Some successful re-releases have occurred but this is usually within Aspinall owned, and managed, reserves. Effectively these animals live a semi-wild kind of life, they’re in their native environment but still watched, monitored and managed.
Funnily enough large animals used to wandering around plains are…well, not used to planes!
A project to move 14 black rhinos from others National Parks in Africa (Lake Nakuru and Nairobi National Parks) to another (Tsavo East National Park) ended with the deaths of the 11 rhinos that were actually moved – not from poaching, not from some grim human activity. These rhinos were being moved to a managed, monitored space and they died from…being…rubbish at…living there?
The media presentation focussed heavily on the ‘salt poisoning’ part which, unfortunately, does not inform the public of the reality of re-locating animals – and again, this was a group of Rhinos being moved from Africa, to another part of Africa. Not from KENT!
You’ve probably heard the stories of how many gorillas have been re-wilded by the Aspinall Foundation. Most of these go to Aspinall owned and managed reserves in Gabon and Republic of the Congo.
This has gone quite well at times but itself has not been without its problems. You may have seen the lovely videos on the news or on YouTube, of Damian Aspinall, his wife, and his daughter Tansy reuniting with a family they helped raise in Howletts before releasing them. They went to a special gorilla re-wilding training school, were moved to a specially managed island in the Aspinall reserve in Gabon to acclimatise and then a bridge was built to connect them with the ‘wild’ unmanaged part.
Well, experts, such as Tara Stoinski of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund warned this might not be such a good idea. The ‘wild’, even managed, is a savage eden – it’s the brutal beauty I so often talk about. Never mind the dangers of humans and their constant meddling, habitat loss, poaching, the bushmeat trade; there are predators, diseases, poisonous plants, injuries, infections. ‘The Wild’ is not paradise – It’s the most beautiful hell you can imagine!
And it’s believed one of the males killed, or is implicated in the deaths of, 6 of the others. Five adult females and a baby.
It’s the bit missing from heartwarming Youtube videos.
I’ll play devil’s advocate for a bit here the Aspinall Foundation has done an awful lot on its reserves to help numbers of western lowland gorillas in Gabon and Congo.
But this is where we have to get to the other questions. Why?
Maybe it’s the piss-broke council tenant in me but I don’t trust millionaires. Damian’s father, John Aspinall, sold his stakes in casino businesses in order to help fund his – admittedly controversial – wildlife parks. Damian has bought those back. Damian Aspinall is also spending huge sums of money investing in land in Africa, has recently called for all captive animals to be returned to the wild (as if it is that easy!) and is paying to take out huge ads and running a PR machine to advertise it. Why?
I don’t trust that this is out of the goodness of his heart. It may be, and I might just be a cynical git who has seen too much corruption and misery, but millionaires do not become or stay millionaires by throwing their money away trying to make themselves look like wildlife Jesus.
The Aspinall Foundation’s wildlife parks, Howletts and Port Lympne, over the last few decades, have turned themselves from regular old zoos into glamping and luxury wildlife accommodation experiences. They’re a zoo-hotel now. I think this is a model.
I think the ultimate aim is to own and run wildlife tourism reserves in Africa, whilst running campaigns to end wildlife captivity, close other zoos and parks in the UK, such that the Aspinall Foundation can have an effective monopoly on seeing rhinos, elephants and gorillas ‘in the wild’.
Damian’s buying back of the casino businesses his father once sold is also another piece of the puzzle, we wouldn’t be talking mosquito-bitten wildlife-tourist pioneers in yurts. I suspect it would be luxury resorts. Their lodges at their parks in Kent are incredibly high-end and expensive. I suspect they would do similar in Africa.
What’s more you, in the West, in the UK or the US or wherever, might think “Africa” and imagine a savage dustbowl full of starving children with protruding bellies and sad faces covered in flies.
Welcome to the PAST of marketing! Kenya is a surprisingly modern country and is growing and modernising rapidly. They’re also not dumb. A huge part of the Kenyan income is from wildlife tourism already so they’ve done a great job over the years of bringing elephant numbers up.
Back in 1989 it was estimated there were fewer than 16,000 elephants in the country. By 2018 that was up to over 34,000.
There are so many, right, that they’re a problem! Here’s an excellent impact study done in 2020 that goes into detail about how and why elephants can be a problem to the communities they co-exist with. It talks not just about the direct impacts – loss of crops, danger to human lives, but the psychological and well-being impact. Kids having curfews because of elephant movements, living in fear that elephants could ruin your livelihood and how all of that impacts the grass-roots conservation work because one of the fundamentals of conservation is making sure the people in the area of the species you are trying to conserve actually support it!
Elephants are fucking massive! They roam, and these animals are literal forest clearers! When elephants roam a track through a forest what they effectively do is trample the shit out of it, eat the vegetation, stomp the trees – Surely this is bad? Well that’s up for debate. There are suggestions that they clear old trees to encourage new sprouting which helps both the trees and the elephants, as well as other herbivorous species. There are suggestions that it’s a little excessive and causing problems. There are suggestions that in a human-free, ideal world these forests would be big enough to cope and that human effects make the elephant behaviour problematic because there aren’t enough trees. Like everything in nature; it’s complicated! One thing I can say for sure is they do significantly less damage to forests and trees than humans do!
The problem is they also do the same with human farms and villages! When they raid crops they’ll stomp, turn over and clumsily damage just as much, if not more, than they’ll eat! If they scratch their arse on the side of your house they may well take your roof off or break a wall! Like you going for a walk and accidentally snapping a small branch or stepping on a snail, there is no evidence of malice from the elephants. They’re just big and don’t register the small shit they damage.
As I said, Kenya is quite modern and modernising fast. Urban centres, suburban centres, increasing agricultural needs, requiring more land for farms and elephants, those farms build communities around them for workers, who need houses and schools and hospitals and elephants – basically being an intelligent, hungry, thirsty battle-tank – they’ll just tread all over it.
Human-wildlife conflict is, outside of preventing habitat loss, possibly the BIGGEST problem in conservation right now. Increasing human populations, increasing populations of the species we are trying to save due to working initiatives, modernisation, increased need for land for agriculture for native populations, increased desire for agricultural land for export markets to make more money, it all adds up and complicates conservation.
There is no right for Western conservationists from wealthy, developed nations, to tell people not to change, adapt and enrich themselves because of wildlife. The UK, for example, has a significantly altered biodiversity from 1,000 years ago, 500 years ago, even a century ago, because of the species we have persecuted and made extinct. For us to now tell people in Kenya to ‘suck it up’ because we like elephants and don’t have to deal with the problems they bring when they’re on your doorstep is the kind of backwards, colonial thinking that caused a lot of these problems in the first place.
Africans are not all semi-naked starving children, many of them are ambitious people in business attire and they are entitled not only to have problems, as they grow and adapt, with the wildlife in their area, but to be part of the solution to those problems. In fact it is vital they are the leading drivers of the solutions to those problems – Not some millionaire whose main office is in fucking Central London!
These elephants kill people, and people kill elephants in retaliation as a result. Kenya has too many Kenyan elephants! We don’t need to introduce the Kent variant!
The amount of money that has been spent, that will continue to be spent, on what is a saviour-complex pseudo-conservationist project; if spent on the ground, in Kenya, could save many human and elephant lives.
It could even go to places outside of Kenya, that do have reduced elephant populations, that do need help to manage their wildlife.
This is money that could be given to true conservationists to research, to plan, to develop systems and schemes that promote healthy wildlife and biodiversity and minimise human-wildlife conflict, saving animal and human lives and setting a blueprint for inevitable projects in other developing nations into the future.
Instead it’s being spent advertising in the second shittiest newspaper in the UK and airlifting Kentish elephants to Kenya.
Many conservationists are begging for this not to go ahead and for good reason.
Like with the black rhino, some of these elephants could die of stress in transit.
Like the relocated rhinos these elephants will probably just die quite quickly while they’re in Africa, being unused to the vegetation, the climate, the water or even finding water sources (a very wild-elephant skill!)
Even if they survive, where will they survive? In ‘the wild’ free to roam? Or in ‘the wild’ a penned in, managed reserve?
So, if you see people criticising this move please don’t think they’re just do-gooders who are never happy.
When the gorillas died Damian Aspinall himself said he reckoned people like me, other conservationists critical of what he does, would be “Jumping for joy.” While he was angrily ranting about others being the problem those conservationists were hanging their fucking heads in grief.
None of us want this.
No conservationist wants animals in captivity.
No conservationist wants animals to die.
No conservationist wants humans to have conflicts with animals.
No conservationist celebrates the failure of conservation related project, even the ones they disagree with.
The fact is conservation is messy work. There are compromises and trade-offs all over the place and they have to be made objectively, with research, with careful consideration of the tangled web of problems that they could bring, and often with a brutally utilitarian perspective.
There are no simple problems and there are certainly no simple solutions. There are people out there in labs, in universities and in the field, trying to figure out all the chaotic, messy variables that make up these problems and attempting to work at solutions.
Damian Aspinall is doing the equivalent of catapulting animals randomly into the wild and screaming “FREEDOM!” There’s a lack of thought, a lack of planning, a simplicity to this bullshit, ‘maverick’ pseudo-conservation.
Because the truth is…
Well it’s We Lack Discipline’s First Rule of Everything;
It’s always more complicated than that.
Usually I’d use this spot to advertise some of my other articles but I’d rather share some good, grass-roots, hands-on and in some cases local, charities dealing with conservation in elephants or wildlife conservation in Kenya and beyond. Feel free to check them out and donate if you can to help save elephants, other wildlife and promote peaceful co-existence of humans and wildlife across Kenya.
For some of these charities, the level of investment going into translocating just 13 elephants could fund them for a decade and help protect hundreds of elephants, people and acres and acres of habitat.
The Big Life Foundation – They partner with local communities across Kenya and Tanzania in East Africa working on initiatives to protect wildlife, protect habitats, reduce human-wildlife conflict and educate local communities about their wildlife and how to co-exist with it. Heavily involved in protecting elephants from illegal exploitation they employ hundreds of rangers to patrol the area and protect elephants.
SORALO – The South Rift Association of Land Owners – These are a smaller charity working in the South Rift Valley between the Maasai Mara and Amboseli National Parks on the border between Kenya and Tanzania. Their aim is to create an environment of peaceful co-existence between the native wildlife and the people of the South Rift region by working with local communities, including by managing issues of local governance and legal rights and by creating a sustainable living for people in the region that encourages cultural values of co-existence in the region.
Save the Elephants – Probably one of the larger and more well-known charities dealing with elephants they were established in 1993. Based out of Nairobi and doing a lot of their research in the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya, they also do significant grass-roots work helping to protect elephants, and encourage the peaceful co-existence of humans and elephants. Save the Elephants also invest a huge effort in international outreach, promoting cross-charity, multi-organisational initiatives as well as providing scholarships for elephant researchers to raise awareness of elephant conservation and encourage scientific solutions to problems from around the world.
Ewaso Lions – Not so elephant focussed but a small, local, “100% African”, grass-roots project aimed at working with local communities to conserve lions and large carnivores mainly in the Ewaso Nyiro River area (check out their website for more details because they work across multiple reserves and community conservancies). They are another charity that is heavily people-focussed, attempting to promote a sustainable lifestyle in local communities via an appreciation of, and a change in attitudes towards, their wildlife.
Lion Guardians – Working closely with local community members in the Amboseli-Tsavo area, this is another more lion focussed charity (lion numbers are signficantly down across Africa versus a century ago and are a predator vital to healthy ecosystems). Like Ewaso lions they attempt to involve local communities in investing in their lions, developing sustainable ways of living, and using local cultural values to enforce the culture of the value of wildlife and manage the issues of human-wildlife conflict that arise, particularly among pastoralist communities. This aspect of conflict mitigation is, as mentioned, one of the most important factors in wildlife conservation as we do restore numbers of potential conflict species and human-wildlife conflicts increase. By using local people, charities like Lion Guardians can ensure a community led, native-values led, approach to that conflict mitigation providing a sustainable model for the future that is not dependent on external, foreign intervention.
Lion Landscapes – As the name may suggest this group takes a literal ‘grass-roots’ approach, starting with promotion of a healthy ecosystem and conserving prey species to help ensure a healthy lion population. It may seem irrelevant to elephants but nature is chaotic and ensuring balance is good for all species in an ecosystem. By working with local groups, using a science-led approach and attempting to innovate to create sustainable models of living for local communities this charity is about so much more than just lions.
Wildlife Action Group: Malawi– Outside of Kenya this time, this NGO works in the Thuma and Dedza-Salima Escarpment Forest Reserves of Malawi to help protect the local habitats and ecosystems, protect their biodiversity and encourage sustainable community involvement and local educational schemes to encourage co-existence with wildlife. They work a lot to protect elephants and are partnered with Save the Elephants, above.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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!?”
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Story – Proailurus 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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.