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Tuesday, 6 July 2010

A day at the Zoo with Ziggi

I treated myself to a day in London with Ziggi Alexander. "Bring your walking shoes" she'd said, so I left my bicycle and took a 16 into New Street and then an easy train south. She was waiting for me at Euston, knowing my platform. The stroll from the station took us towards Regents Park, once we'd turned north from the stridency of Euston Road - "You know this is ridiculous, but I'm unused to walking, Ziggi. I'm forever on my bicycle or a train or bus. I'm wobbling. In the country I'd have a good stick" - to Park Square East and into St Andrews Place a cul-de-sac edged by the Royal College of Physicians on one side and on the other - more discrete - the Faculties of Public Health and Pharmaceutical Medicine, where Ziggi, who knows these places, and has her own allotment up north London, showed me small front gardens brimming with pharmaceutical plants, discretely labelled, mingling unregimented, but tended. We chatted with one of the gardeners - lithe and adept talking as she worked - about some of the plants. "This, looks like green tomatoes. Same family. It's a mandrake....because its root..." - her miniscule pause emanated the wary look of science ringed by the superstition surrounding this plant - "...looks like a man."

The mandrake is a plant; its roots grow in human form, male and female, and shriek when torn from the ground. It is of great use in medicine, but anyone who hears the plant's cry dies or goes mad. It was therefore a custom to tie a hungry dog to the plant by a cord and place a piece of meat beyond its reach. To get at the meat the dog tugged at the cord and dragged up the plant, while its master remained safely out of hearing. The mandrake grows in the East, near Paradise. In order to conceive, the female elephant must eat some mandrake root. (and so on...)
We nodded in empathy and strolled on, past magnificent terraces, long narrow gated gardens fronting Regents Park, looking at high plane trees, gardens and hedges, feasting on detail -granite kerbs, uneven slabs of York stone paving, sturdy bollards, street lights under the stewardship of the C.E.P.R. "Who are they?" [I looked it up later. The Crown Estate and the Crown Estate Paving Commission]. The pavement was edged by low walls surmounted by sturdy cast iron railings that had escaped being chopped down for the war effort in the 1940s, to the mouldings and the work on John Nash's grand frontages - statues, windows, balconies, doors, porticoes.
View My stroll with Ziggi in a larger map

We examined those plants in the gardens around St Andrews Place with such pleasure, touching and smelling, wondering if we could cultivate them in our allotments. Only later when I checked them on the internet did I note the volume of Classical reference attached. The beds in the picture are on the other side of St Andrews Place, backing on to the black brick wall of the Wolfson lecture theatre:

The bed starts back by the gate where the white and pink forms of Dictamnus albus are in flower. This is the ‘burning bush’ which produces an inflammable oil whose vapour can be ignited on a hot day. Culpeper’s Dictamnus cretensis, ‘Dittany of Crete’,is not D. creticus but Origanum dictamnus, which was used to heal wounds. Culpeper writes ‘... they say the Goats and Deer in Crete, being wounded with arrows do eat this herb, which makes the arrows fall out of themselves.’
Nearby is Rhamnus frangula Asplenifolia, Buckthorn, the fresh bark of which contains emodin and causes vomiting and purging, although old bark only is used for treating constipation. In the middle of the bed is a large bush of the Pomegranate, Punica granatum, which appears on the College Coat of Arms. Near it are some interesting plants at the interface of herbal and pharmaceutical medicine.
An important plant in orthodox medicine, growing a few feet to the left, is Digitalis lanata, the woolly foxglove. While Digoxin, a medicine that increases the efficiency of the cardiac muscle, allowing an increase in cardiac output in a weakened heart, can be extracted from all foxgloves, this is the one that has the highest concentration of the drug. Digoxin slows the heart rate and is used to control atrial fibrillation and atrial flutter. Culpeper knew nothing of these properties, noting (1821, but written before his death in 1654) that it was good for healing wounds and treating a scabby head. It was not until William Withering wrote An Account of the Foxglove and some of its medicinal uses in 1785 that its cardiac properties became widely known.
Close by are the yellow-green leaves of Tanacetum parthenium Aureum, Feverfew, although it is not used to treat fevers. It has been found to be effective in treating migraines. Culpeper found that it prevented abortion; if applied to the navel it induced micturition and relieved dysuria; he wrote that it was also useful to alleviate gout. Beneath the pomegranate is Hypericum perforatum, St. John’s Wort (although this name is used for several different species). Long recommended by herbalists in the treatment of depression, it has been found effective in mild depression following double blind, controlled studies.
Look for Deadly Nightshade, Atropa belladonna, at the back of the bed. It is in full flower and its black shiny berries will not appear for another month or so. Atropa was the third of the three Fates. The first of the Fates was Clotho who spun the thread of life; Lachesis measured its length, and Atropos cut it. The berries are a source of the crystalline alkaloid atropine, C17H23NO3, which in small doses dries the mouth, speeds up the heart rate, dries the skin and dilates the pupil. In larger doses it is poisonous producing confusion and hallucinations as well. These effects are commemorated in the mnemonic ‘Mad as a hare, hot as a hen, blind as a bat and dry as a bone". Atropine drops were used by fashionable ladies (bella donna= beautiful lady) to dilate the pupils in the belief that large dark eyes were beautiful, but it is difficult to see in bright light with dilated pupils. They are still used by opticians wishing to have clear view of the retina. Culpeper (1653) has nightshade in the index but no text relating to it, perhaps anxious lest his readers learn too much about poisons. It is there in his posthumous work (1826), where he writes ‘... in some it causeth sleep; in others, madness, and shortly after, death.’
Aegopodium podagraria, a terrible weed known in England as Ground Elder or Bishop’s Weed, is grown here as the ornamental variegated form. It is not quite as invasive. It was grown as a food in the Middle Ages (the young leaves being eaten) and was thought to counteract gout. Culpeper (1826) wrote that it was used for provoking lust; as a diuretic; for colic; as an antidote to snake bites and for dissolving bruises. It is reported as being the only food of the Russian saint Seraphim of Sarov for three years.
At the end of the bed one can see the large furry leaves and white flower spikes of Salvia sclarea. The leaves may be intoxicating in their own right but more so when added to beer as a hop substitute. They can be fried in batter! Mainly regarded as much like our common sage Salvia officinalis, although herbalists recommend that it should be avoided in pregnancy (a warning that perhaps should apply to all herbal medicines). Arundo donax is the tall variegated grass at the back corner, behind the Salvia. From it is obtained the local anaesthetic lidocaine (isolated by Löfgren & Lundquist in 1943) and tryptamine (von Euler, 1929). In the lawn is a large plane tree, Platanus orientalis, grown from a cutting taken from a plane tree from the island of Cos. It was under such a tree that the Father of Medicine, Hippocrates (c. 460-370 BC), taught his students.
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I hadn't been to The Zoo for 40 years. I'm not too keen on zoos but nostalgia had led to me suggesting this visit to Ziggi - as a close alternative to Kew Gardens or Greenwich Museum which we're saving for another day. The place teemed with summer visitors. Everywhere I was reminded of the acronym - ZSL, Zoological Society of London, but also of the major shift to conservation and education - altogether less gawping at stir-crazy beasts. Our entrance tickets weren't cheap - £35 for the two of us; me, a 'Senior', getting a small concession. Nearest the entrance, we went into the cool gloom of the aquarium. The first thing I noticed were the tanks containing fragments of living coral amongst whose gentle submarine meadows swirling in wayward water breezes swam and flicked small tropical fish exquisitely patterned radiating colour.
The Blues
Photo with thanks: yayforskinnyjeans
 A notice reminded us the corals had been confiscated from smugglers and given to the zoo. The zoo's urgent earnestly repeated message is about endangerment, extinction of species and the challenge of conservation; matters not mentioned or considered publicly important only decades ago when I'd strolled innocent and entranced through this darkened space, my face lit by the dappled bubbling water of successive tanks. Later we wandered between spaces reserved for lions, gorillas, tigers, okapi, wart hogs and tropical birds, and descended into a dark space where bats fluttered and rats wandered behind the ubiquitous glass that's largely replaced bars. Indeed all barriers seem to remind us humans to stay away; implying protection from our voracious depredation.
In the giraffe house, a high stable I remembered well, three beasts of surpassing elegance towered above us casting their wide eyed gaze on the human audience, wandering gracefully between stalls, peering out at the keepers tidying outside, looking back at us on our antique wooden benches. As we chatted their rhythmic movement broke the sunbeams shining on us casting shadows. I felt myself mesmerised, dipping into gentle oblivion. "Listen!" says Ziggi "Are you falling asleep on me?" "Yes but not on you. It's just me and the giraffes."
We took a bus to Marylebone Road, and another to Euston and finished the day with an Italian meal before I caught my train back to Birmingham.
What I recall especially from our almost constant conversation is the hopeless selectiveness of the values factored into appreciations of the state of the economy. We'd been talking about the cupboard Lin and I had made that cost us €20 in bits and pieces like door handles and hinges and "close to €10,000 in labour!" "So much of our time and energy is given to activity economists can't measure." I spoke of Alan's balcony, stairs and porch for which we've paid an agreed and 'competitive' price but whose construction contains elements that are priceless, certainly things which, if priced, we couldn't begin to afford. As Honey put it
Because you seemed to have 'seen' what it would become and wanted what you saw he gave more than what anyone else would have given because it came from the heart. He has put vast amounts of time into this project. It wasn't just a case of doing a sketch. He has been building towards this (since you told him you wanted it) with all the work he has been doing there, for example the side mouldings and the cornice, which he has spent a lot of time working on to get them just right.
Yes indeed - and what's a balcony really for.
Last year - April 2009 - we'd been having coffee next door:
Natasha, the Leftheris' daughter - over a Greek coffee in their sitting room, mentioned the vexed loss of our side balcony (μπαλκόνι). I asked her the word for ‘stupidity’ – ‘vlahas’ “βλάκας” – and repeated the word with appropriate gestures. “I promise it will be restored” I said, rubbing my finger and thumb with the need-for-money gesture. (I’m determined we should do this). We exchanged animated gestures of astonishment at human folly, muttering “βλάκας” again. “Why take it away?” “Akrivos. Yiati?” I replied (“Ακριβώς. Υιατί;”) “βλάκας” we agreed. “Balcony!” she gestured gently “You say ‘Calimera’ to the street!
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Meanwhile Lin's been mending steps in our garden in Handsworth watched by Flea and me.
after which Nico came to help us with our struggle to learn the beautiful language:
...and now here's the naughty thing. Lots of people understand French but with the Greek alphabet* - pssst! Ελληνικό αλφάβητο - you can start to encode, say things you don't want others to understand, and - guess what - I find that on Facebook our daughter is sending us messages in Greek. But as he left our house I mentioned that I hoped one day I could recite Cavafy in Greek and without a pause as he stepped from our hall Niko replied
Βεβαίως. Of course. Σα βγεις στον πηγαιμό για την Ιθάκη,να εύχεσαι νάναι μακρύς ο δρόμος, γεμάτος περιπέτειες, γεμάτος γνώσεις. Τους Λαιστρυγόνας και τους Κύκλωπας, τον θυμωμένο Ποσειδώνα μη φοβάσαι,...
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Ascension of the Prophet Elijah to heaven

The Ano Korakiana website reports this image on display in Athens. Some decades ago - I'm not sure when - this painting, about 6' x 4', was stolen from the Church of the Prophet Elias, on the hill to the south east of Ano Korakiana, and cut into nine pieces. It was painted by Theodore Poulakis in the second half of the 17th century. The painting was recovered - I don't know when or how - and is now hung in the Byzantine and Christian Museum in Athens. A measure of the artist's genius is how the picture's magnificence shines through its mutilation, as the human spirit can surmount the same.
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Email after I'd asked Alan and Honey about Summer Song:
I just went and checked on your boat. She is dry and peaceful. If there ever was any water in it, you wouldn't know it now. Love, Honey
*This Greek Alphabet by Harry Foundalis is helpful though I can't yet detect the difference between his Psi/Ψῖ - ψ Ψ and his Chi/Χῖ - χΧ and when I emailed him he said that this was a problem with my non-native ear, but also that his sound recording was inadequate. Hm. I find his site very helpful.
8 July: Amazing! A day later listening with Lin just now and I can hear the difference. Hoiw amazing how the ear can be educated. Now to learn to say these right....Ψῖ-Χῖ, Ψῖ-Χῖ, Ψῖ-Χῖ, Ψῖ-Χῖ, Ψῖ-Χῖ...

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Simon Baddeley