Category: interview

Mark Thomas’s lockdown check-up

This summer, I’ve been working as commissioning editor on a podcast about coronavirus written and presented by comedian and activist Mark Thomas and published by Wellcome Collection.

Mark moved back in with his mum Margaret for lockdown, which has been an emotional rollercoaster for them both. He describes her as curmudgeonly; she says he’s the most aggravating person on the planet. In his six-part podcast, Mark has reflected on their lockdown life together while exploring the wider impact of Covid-19.

Every night, from a small bedroom in his mum’s south London flat, Mark has called a network of people working on the coronavirus frontline, be it in hospitals, GP surgeries or care homes. Humbling and often heartbreaking, these conversations with health workers across the country have revealed the highs and lows of life during a global pandemic.

Each episode has tackled a different theme: touch, protection, communication, isolation, coping, and the future. We’ve heard from Barbara, a consultant in a major trauma unit, Mike, a nurse in a private care home, Max, a haematologist, Eimear, an infection-control lead, Steve, an ancillary care worker and Amrit, a consultant psychiatrist, to name just a few of the many people who’ve spoken incredibly honestly about their experiences over the last few months.

Mark’s mum has featured in person every week, discussing everything from death wishes and depression to her mate Sylv’s unusual habit of disinfecting everything with gin. Mark, meanwhile, has talked candidly about how lockdown has affected him, confessing to ballet dancing through his darkest days, much to his mother’s dismay.

Mark and I had a small but brilliant team working with us, including sound editor Helen Atkinson and producers Nicolas Kent and Susan McNicholas. The fantastic Franklyn Rodgers was commissioned by Wellcome Collection’s photography and illustration editor, Ben Gilbert, to produce a series of portraits of Mark and his mum.

Making the podcast has been hard work but the end result is, I think, something really special. I hope you enjoy it.

Listen here: ‘Mark Thomas’s lockdown check-up

The last glass-eye maker in Britain

Ocularist Jost Haas works only with glass, custom making artificial eyes in front of his patients. As the last maker of glass eyes in Britain, he reflects on a trade that combines intricate craftwork, medical knowledge and psychological support.

Photography by Carmel King and words by Helen Babbs. First published by Wellcome Collection.

The first thing Jost Haas notices when he meets someone new is their eyes. He’s not unusual in this but, where you or I might notice them in a general way, he is noticing finer details. At first glance my eyes are brown. Jost would see that they are also grey-blue and green. I suspect he’d clock the contact lenses, too. As an ocularist – someone who makes artificial eyes – he can tell if an eye is real or not but insists nobody else should be able to: “If it’s a good fit, it’s barely to be seen”.

Jost works exclusively with glass, which is less usual. In fact, he is the last person making glass eyes in the UK. While most people who lose an eye will wear a plastic prosthetic, some choose not to. They might have always worn glass and feel most comfortable with it as a material, or they might have a plastic allergy.

Now in his 80s, Jost became a glassblowing apprentice aged 15. Over the many decades that he’s been making glass eyes, he’s developed close relationships with his patients, who return to see him every three or four years. Their loyalty, and the distances they are willing to travel, are testament to his skill as an ocularist. He’s expecting a patient later, from the north of England, who will have driven for six hours down to London to see him.

The reasons people need artificial eyes have changed, Jost explains: “These days it is less likely to be accidents, because people wear seatbelts, and, because of health and safety, even if you are a decorator you wear safety glasses. At the moment, it’s mainly older people who lose an eye, through cancer, or some other ailment.”

Jost’s way of working seems pretty unique. A patient will sit with him over two or three hours while he custom makes and paints their prothesis in front of them. He will then fit the eye, so the patient can leave with it in place. Jost explains that colour and shape are key, and realism and comfort are his aims. Getting the fit right is the most challenging part of the process.

What’s perhaps most surprising about Jost Haas is where he works. After the six-hour drive, that patient he’s expecting won’t arrive at a hospital in the centre of town or at a smart private studio, but rather at the house where Jost has lived since he moved to the outer edge of London in 1968.

Tucked inside a well-kept but entirely ordinary-looking house, on a cherry tree-lined street in deepest suburbia, Jost’s workspace is a tiny front room, with blank white walls and carpet tiles on the floor. It has two desks in it – one for paperwork, the other littered with eye-making kit, including numerous glass rods and a gas Bunsen burner, which is hooked up to the mains. It’s here that Jost makes protheses while his patients watch and wait in a chair tucked to one side.

Jost explains that the protheses he makes are more than just cosmetic: they offer people protection, both physical and psychological, and he offers “an element of psychological support” as well as an eye-making service.

I ask Jost how he sees himself – as a craftsperson, a medic, something in between? He says medics heal, and so he couldn’t be called that, but he’s happy with craftsperson. He does have a caring role, though, as well as a practical one. For those few hours when they sit in Jost’s office, with the white noise of the gas burner blurring out any other background sound, Jost’s patients have a safe place to talk, or simply to rest. Jost says the burner’s gentle roar will often send people to sleep.

Jost is semi-retired with nobody lined up to succeed him. He seems comfortable with the idea that he’s the last glass-eye maker in Britain, pointing out that there are still plenty of people doing it in other parts of the world, particularly in Germany.

But Jost is keen to share his knowledge, and happily welcomes artists, photographers and writers into his space. He’s recently produced eyes for a sculptor who plans to fix them into his bronzes, as well as agreeing to let a poet watch him work for several hours. “It’s not often I meet a poet!” he says.

Jost seems invigorated by these experiences, ones that will introduce his craft to a wider public. He also points out that the photographs in this essay will give someone all the information they need to get started as a glass-eye maker: “He or she could actually see how the whole thing is done… Perhaps there will be somebody else coming along – you never know.”

The art of scientific glassblowing

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This article was first published by Wellcome Collection, with photography by Thomas SG Farnetti.

Meet Gayle Price, a glassblower whose work for chemists, physicists and medics shows that craft skills and creative thinking are essential to science.

Wearing a knee-length white lab coat and wraparound shades, her long hair clipped back, Gayle Price adjusts the amount of gas and oxygen flowing into her burner. It has the look of a blowtorch, but one fixed in place and with six different outlets. The wavering orange flame that’s shooting out of it becomes fierce blue and sharp as a pin, its dull roar now a hiss.

Holding a 1.5-metre-long glass rod in one hand – hollow, with a 7 mm diameter – and a much shorter, thicker solid metal rod in the other, she starts heating the glass in the flame. As it glows and softens, she begins coiling it evenly around the metal. Her movements are quick but rhythmic. She works by eye alone.

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Gayle hasn’t always worked with glass for a living, but she now can’t see herself doing anything else. She studied photography at school, then trained as a painter and decorator. After that she worked as a bouncer in Glasgow for a couple of years, but found night shifts increasingly tough.

Wondering what to do with her life one day, she saw an advert in the paper for an apprentice scientific glassblower, a scheme run jointly by the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow. She was intrigued, so applied and got the job, which was based in East Kilbride.

Under the direction of William McCormack – a glassblower who appreciated the importance of passing on his knowledge, nurturing five apprentices before he retired – Gayle cut her teeth making spiral taps for filtering gases, while also studying applied science on day release at college. The instruments she was making reminded her of the ones that often featured in the old horror films she loved watching with her dad.

During her training, Gayle realised that she’d always wanted to work with her hands like this, and that the promise of having her own workshop one day was compelling.

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Step into Gayle’s current workshop at the University of Leicester and the joy of having a room of one’s own in which to work is easy to see. Packed with glassware of all sorts, and the tools required to manipulate it into a multitude of shapes, she’s made this practical basement space immensely personal.

There are posters and postcards all over the walls, and stickers decorating the burners and lathes. Teardrops of glass have peacock feathers trapped inside, glitter-encrusted glass flasks have wings. It’s Gayle’s space, but she’s not in the least bit territorial. She’s more than happy for me to poke around.

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As Gayle works at the burner, a spiral forms in the heat, each twist and turn symmetrical. In her hands, something I think of as rigid and fixed becomes elastic, amorphous. The coil complete, she removes the entwined metal and glass from the flame and places them on a rack to cool. In a few minutes the metal will contract, allowing the glass to slip off easily.

Gayle takes another 1.5-metre length of hollow glass rod. Using a stubby knife with a tungsten carbide blade, she slices into it, leaving a deep scratch in the surface. She snaps the glass along this groove. Slowly spinning a now shorter length of glass between forefinger and thumb, she inserts one end into the burner’s 1,220°C heat.

Surrounded by flame, the end brightens, becomes liquid-looking, and eventually seals off. Despite being far from the flame, the other, still-open end of the rod glows. Instinct tells Gayle when to pull the glass out of the flame and press that orange, open tip to her lips.

I gasp, anticipating seared flesh. She blows, gently at first, then harder. A beautiful bubble grows at the rod’s opposite, softened tip. A perfect sphere, swelling out evenly under her steady breath. The end she blew into was in fact cool; glass is a good insulator and that orange glow just a fibre-optic trick of the light. She places the finished bubble alongside the spiral on the rack.

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Working mainly for the university’s chemistry department, but also for physics and medicine, Gayle makes a mixture of standard and bespoke glass instruments to order, as well as fixing broken glassware from the teaching labs. Glass is an excellent material for scientific equipment: it’s durable, transparent, non-reactive, and easy to sterilise in the oven.

Gayle also collaborates with artists, recently working with a ceramicist and a jewellery designer on two projects for British Science Week. One resulted in delicate fungi-like structures made from white porcelain and clear glass, the other a large sculpture of reindeer lichen, rendered in green and clear glass.

Gayle savoured the chance to work differently, although admits it did feel odd to deliberately introduce flaws. “I usually work to very exacting parameters,” she explains. “It was different to be asked to just explore, to not create something regular. And good to be reminded how beautiful and versatile glass can be.”

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Watching Gayle work, it’s clear that to be a scientific glassblower you need to be a problem-solver, and a logical but creative thinker. You need to be patient, dexterous and able to control your breath. Gayle’s scientific job involves much artistry.

Her enthusiasm is infectious, so when she invites me to have a go, I can’t resist. Putting on her spare set of wraparound shades – these have a special coating that allows you to see the glass more clearly in the flame – I ready myself in front of the burner.

Gayle sets me five tasks: cutting a glass rod, softening a sharp edge, creating a test-tube end, blowing a sphere, and making a bend. All of it is far, far harder than she makes it look, especially the blowing. Getting the glass to bubble out seems impossible at first. Gayle eggs me on – “Blow harder! Harder!” – and eventually I squeeze out a tiny, lopsided sphere. It’s pathetic, but I’m proud.

Watching – but most of all feeling – the glass transform in the flame is fascinating. I now understand more clearly what Gayle means about this everyday material’s elasticity, versatility and beauty.

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I ask Gayle about the places where art and science meet, and whether she would ever consider herself to be an artist or craftsperson. “The intersections between art and science are undeniable,” she says. “Both are about discovery, exploring the unknown, making something new. As a scientific glassblower, I like the freedom to be both a craftsperson and an engineer.”

 

 

 

Connect | autumn winter 2017

09C2D023-946A-4E99-AC41-2533D34408C6The autumn winter 2017 issue of Connect – the magazine I work on as a freelance writer and editor for Greenpeace UK – was published in December.

Our cover feature – ‘The people versus oil’ – was about how Greenpeace is challenging the oil industry on all fronts, from the Amazon to the Arctic, and from boardrooms to court rooms.

The issue also featured an interview with Sir David Attenborough, an article about how offshore wind is powering ahead, and an update on a growing campaign to stop the flow of plastic pollution into our oceans.

Intimate and invasive: the art of ethical taxidermy

The Ethical Taxidermist

This feature was first published by Wellcome Collection, with photography by Thomas Farnetti.

Jazmine Miles-Long kneels down to open up the small freezer that sits on her studio floor. Each drawer is filled with clear zip-locked bags, each bag is numbered, and each one has a body in it.

She selects a bag containing a juvenile greenfinch, takes out the skin, and begins washing it in a basin of warm soapy water. A few basins of fresh water later, she places the bird on a clean towel. It’s now sodden, and rather sad with it. Jazmine bends low over her work bench, her blue-gloved hands delicately working through wet feathers with a small brush and some long tweezers. She explains that, although the greenfinch looks like it has feathers sprouting all over its body, they actually grow from specific feather tracts. Large areas of the skin are in fact feather free. It’s this kind of detail that doing taxidermy brings to light.

Jazmine handles the greenfinch skin with the methodical patience of a craftsperson, the cool eye of a surgeon, the enquiring mind of a zoologist, and the reverence of an animal lover. As she works, I ask why contemporary taxidermists take such exception to the word ‘stuffed’? “Because it suggests there’s no process,” she replies.

Process is everything. It’s invasive – if you end up dead on Jazmine’s desk she will quite literally turn you inside out. And it’s intimate – she’ll spend hours poring over your every intricate detail, determined to make you look your best. “People don’t realise how delicate and slow you have to be,” she explains.

Every skin Jazmine works on teaches her more about how strong or light her hands can be. She describes her touch as “knowing”. The finch’s skin is strong when wet, but still delicate, “almost like wet cigarette paper, it’s so thin”. When it dries it will become very fragile. Jazmine admits she’s become desensitised to the blood and guts that are an inevitable part of her work, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t fascinated by what goes on under the skin. “Wild animals are really lean, with fat in all the right places”, she says, clearly impressed by their efficiency.

The cleaning complete, Jazmine pulls out a hairdryer and begins blow drying the bird. It’s an odd moment: the jets of hot air temporarily animate the skin, bringing it to a strange kind of life. The feathers fluff up and ripple. As well as volume, they start to regain their olive brown-greens, their banana-bright yellows, their soft-soft greys. She lays the dry finch on a towel so I can take a closer look, tummy down, wings spread. It’s the closest I’ve ever been, or probably ever will be, to a greenfinch. The bird’s beak, legs and claws are a delicate shell pink, and its characteristic boxy profile somehow seems more distinct now it’s dry, despite being without flesh. It’s tiny, and very beautiful.

Her demonstration done, Jazmine places the finch in a fresh zip-lock bag, numbers it, then files it away in the freezer. She’s carved a balsa wood body for the bird, and explains how if she was working on a mammal the process of preparing the skin would be different. Rather than washing and cleaning, she would pickle and tan. The insides would be moulded from wood wool, rather than carved from balsa.

But, one of the very first steps, whether working on bird or beast, is always to make a detailed plan. Jazmine does this by drawing around and measuring the animal, positioning it on a sheet of paper how she wants it to look when it’s mounted. The plans she has pinned to her studio walls are stained with blood. She says that making a piece of taxidermy is, for her, about copying the individual in front of her. Every creature is different, and each teaches her new things.

Jazmine studied sculpture, and volunteered at the Booth Museum of Natural History in Brighton after university. She fell into taxidermy there, loving it for its variety, and its craft. “It requires so many different skills, and types of making”, she explains. “You have to love animals. It’s a privilege to know more about them. I’ve learned so much from my making, seeing first-hand how a woodpecker’s tongue curls around the back of its head, between the skull and the skin, and how a rabbit’s whiskers grow right into its brain.”

It’s an unusual job, and people are generally fascinated when Jazmine tells them what she does for a living. The questions she’s most often asked are: What’s the biggest thing you’ve ever worked on? (A cheetah, which died in captivity of cancer, in case you’re wondering. It was the most challenging thing she’s ever worked on, too); Are the eyes real? (No, never); Does the animal have to die in the pose it’s mounted in? (No, of course not). I ask about the smelliest thing she’s worked on, and she says a gannet. Seabirds stink because their stomachs are full of rotting fish.

Jazmine describes herself as an ‘ethical taxidermist’, which is also a conversation starter, because what does that mean? “Ethical is an annoying word”, she says, “but it’s the only way I can communicate about what I’m doing, because it makes people ask questions.” She only works with creatures that have died of natural causes, or by accident, never anything that has been purposely killed. How the finished work is presented, and where it ends up, is important, too. “I say no to a lot of things”, she says, “I’ll only do things that feel respectful. I don’t do trophy heads of any kind.”

Jazmine does do commissions, and her work for the artist Abbas Akhavan features in Making Nature: How we see animals at Wellcome Collection. The final fox, badger and owl that are on display represent Akhavan’s vision, rather than Jazmine’s, and he was keen to provoke. There are no cases, and no interpretation telling you what you’re looking at, or what you should think. The animals are intended to look what they are: dead. The fact they’ve been placed on the gallery floor has been controversial for some, and proved that taxidermy has the potential to produce an emotional response.

Does Jazmine like the word ‘taxidermy’, which is derived from two Greek words, ‘taxis’ meaning ‘order’, and ‘derma’ meaning skin? Together they mean ‘the arrangement of skin’. “I love that word”, she says, while also admitting it’s complicated. “It’s broad, and can include so many things. Through my work I try to make the word have a better meaning.”

Although she accepts that dead animals make some people feel weird, and some will always insist on calling what she does ‘macabre’, Jazmine argues that, in most instances, it must surely be better to interact with a mounted animal that has died naturally, or by accident, than to see a wild animal alive but shut in a cage. Getting up close to an animal helps create a bond, and can open us up to new ideas and experiences.

Jazmine recently mounted a swift for the Booth Museum. In life the swift will likely have arrived in the UK in spring, staying until late July or early August. It will then have migrated through France and Spain to spend its winter in Africa, following the rains, and the insects they bring. In its afterlife the swift and its story are being used to teach kids about refugees and dual identity, as well as bird migration. In his essay ‘Why Look at Animals’, John Berger talks about the “universal use of animal-signs for charting the experience of the world.” Jazmine’s swift seems an excellent example of that.

Taxidermy transforms once living things into something very different. The “biological death of the living beast is the birth of the specimen”, as Samuel Alberti says in The Afterlives of Animals. There is of course a difference between how we relate to an animal in its new form, and how we would have done when it was alive. Does arranging nature in this way bring us closer to it, in more than just a physical sense? And could ignoring the person in every piece of taxidermy actually be driving us further apart?

Jazmine points out that when we look at a piece of taxidermy we often just see the animal, rather than acknowledging what it is now, and the relationship between it and its maker. We might wonder what the animal’s life was like, and how it died, but we often ignore the fact so much work and care has gone into creating what it has become after death.

“The craft has developed over such a long time, but it doesn’t have the prestige that others have because we are working with dead animals, and also because of where the work ends up, often presented anonymously with no detail about the maker”, says Jazmine. “A piece of taxidermy is a craft object that’s been made by a person, it’s not just an animal. It’s a partnership with a maker. It’s an animal and an object.”

Making Nature: How we see animals was on at Wellcome Collection until 21 May. A museum of modern nature will open on 21 June. Find out more about Jazmine’s work at jazminemileslong.com.

BBC Wildlife | Getting Britain buzzing again

imageMy article about the re-introduction of the short-haired bumblebee to Britain is published in the September 2016 issue of BBC Wildlife magazine, with images from award-winning photographer Nick Upton.

The last known sighting of Bombus subterraneus was in Dungeness in 1988. It was declared nationally extinct in 2000. The reintroduction of this lost insect is not just about bringing a native bumblebee back to Britain, it’s also a bold attempt to restore an entire ecosystem.

It was fascinating to research and write this piece, and it’s a joy to see it in print. I absolutely love the first spread – just look at all that glorious yellow. The magazine is for sale online and in all good newsagents now.

Dungeness isn’t classically beautiful. Flat and, in places, shingly, it’s as famous for its nuclear power stations as it is for its nature reserve. But it is picturesque in its own wind-blown way, and important too – for birds, of course, but also for bees. In fact this whole coastal area is an insect hotspot. Rarities are recorded here, but so sadly are losses.

Urbanisation and agricultural intensification have seen 97 per cent of Britain’s wildflower meadows lost, threatening the future of farmland wildlife. The short-haired bumblebee – Bombus subterraneus – was last recorded in Dungeness in 1988, and officially declared nationally extinct in 2000. Starting a new millennium with an extinction was a wake up call – something needed to be done.

Dungeness is now at the heart of an ambitious project to bring the short-haired bumblebee back to Britain. Reintroductions are fashionable right now, and it would be a cold heart that couldn’t get a little excited about the return of charismatic creatures like the beaver. But can we get enthused about a lost insect, one many of us didn’t even miss? The answer is yes, we absolutely can.

Returning a native

In collaboration with Hymettus, Natural England and RSPB, the Bumblebee Conservation Trust is attempting to reestablish the short-haired bumblebee on our south-eastern shores. There have been five releases since 2012, with 203 queens set free so far.

The queens are collected from Sweden, where short-haired bumblebees are common. A tiny proportion of the population is caught – just 0.01 per cent – and then quarantined at Royal Holloway University. Once the queens are confirmed disease free, they are released and monitored throughout the summer by a team of eagle-eyed volunteers.

Worker bees have been seen buzzing about East Sussex and Kent, which means the queens are successfully nesting. The ultimate aim is to establish a self-sustaining, genetically diverse population. Data is still being gathered and analysed, but, so far, it seems to be working.

For Dave Goulson, founder of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and author of the bestselling A Sting in the Tale, losing the short-haired bumblebee was a tragedy of our own making, and bringing it back is about hope. ‘It will show that we can look after our natural heritage,’ he says. ‘Perhaps future generations will be able to enjoy a healthy British countryside, rich in wildlife of all shapes and sizes.’

Engineering an ecosystem

But are attention-grabbing reintroductions really what our wildlife needs? ‘It’s always controversial to bring something back, you have to be confident it will work,’ admits Richard Comont, the Bumblebee Conservation Trust’s science manager. ‘A few eyebrows raise when you do something innovative, but in general people are supportive.’

The short-haired bumblebee is the tiny figurehead of a project that actually has much wider, landscape-scale ambitions. Nikki Gammans, who is managing the reintroduction, is clear – bringing back this bumblebee is essential, and it’s about so much more than a single species: ‘It’s about restoring a whole ecosystem that has been lost,’ she says.

Before the queens could be released, the team first had to ensure there would be enough food available throughout the summer foraging season. Local farmers were crucial to this – encouraging them to return to a more wildlife-friendly way of working was the only way to create the expansive sweep of nectar-rich land the bees need.

‘There’s no point in having a little bit here and a little bit there,’ explains Nikki. ‘ You need to have connectivity, so species can move and colonise new areas. We’re using GIS to plot all of the habitat, mapping the flower species, how long they flower for, the management technique in use. We can then see the gaps, and see who we need to work with next.’

It’s been relatively easy to convince farmers to help – crops like broad beans and peas need long-tongued species like the short-haired bumblebee to fertilise them. Together with other pollinators, bees contribute hundreds of millions to the UK economy every year. By working with 72 farmers and 20 landowners,1,200 hectares of land have been improved for bumblebees since 2009, with knock-on benefits for a host of other insects, mammals and birds.

Signs of success

Nikki invites me to walk with her through a glorious hay meadow in Dungeness. Her eyes are attuned to the micro-life at work in the field, and she’s constantly spotting different bumblebee species zipping low among the knotty vetches, or busy feeding on the pom-pom-like flowers of red clover. A kestrel glides overhead, skylarks sing, electric blue dragonflies cut a dash around a reedy pond.

‘We’ve done five years of reintroductions, so this is an important year for us,’ Nikki explains. ‘This is when we review the population of subterraneus to establish what is happening, and the genetic diversity of the workers we’re seeing. We’ll also be quantifying the amount of habitat and the amount of bumblebees over it.’

What if it isn’t working, if the reintroduced bees aren’t establishing? Nikki insists that, although Bombus subterraneus is important, the success of the project doesn’t hinge solely on it. Increasing floral diversity and extending the length of the forage season is having a positive impact, and other rare species are expanding into and colonising newly restored habitat. ‘This year we found ruderal bumblebee in an area it hasn’t been found in for 25 years,’ says Nikki. ‘This keeps us going, gives us momentum.’

The plants in the Dungeness hayfield are knee high and the tenant farmer will soon cut them back, then bundle up the hay to sell as fodder. Within three weeks, the dead-headed wildflowers will be back in bloom and busy with insects. Later, cattle and sheep will be brought in to graze, keeping the grasses under control and disturbing the ground, encouraging more wildflowers to grow. It’s a nature-rich landscape that’s completely human made. Without any large herbivores roaming wild, it is machinery and livestock that enables the flowers, and all the creatures they support, to thrive.

Farming for the future

This field is just one example of many. Across Kent and East Sussex, a network of bee-friendly fields, margins and gardens are being created and maintained. Nikki is also trying to convince local councils to do more – by cutting roadside verges less frequently, and insisting that municipal planting is bee friendly, they could make a big difference.

But it’s agriculture that’s having the fastest, most exciting results. I ask Nikki about the UK’s decision to leave the European Union. She groans. The EU has backed many agri-environment schemes, and she’s concerned what the future will hold. ‘We must make farming sustainable, and agri-environment schemes are the main way we can do that,’ argues Nikki. ‘If they went completely it could be a disaster. We really must keep the pressure on our governments and say let’s have farming sustainable.’

For now, her focus is on engaging more farmers, and collecting the data that illustrates the impact the reintroduction is having. ‘The project is very much underpinned by science, which influences how it moves forward’, says Nikki. ‘We’re collecting results that show if you create the habitat, the bees do respond, they do come.’

Timeline

1984 – the nationally extinct large blue butterfly is reintroduced to south-west England. It offers a strong template for future projects to follow, and shows what large-scale collaboration between scientists, conservationists and volunteers can achieve.

1988 – the last known sighting of a short-haired bumblebee – Bombus subterraneus – in the UK. It is recorded at Dungeness in Kent.

2000 – the short-haired bumblebee is officially declared extinct in Britain. Over the previous half century, the UK lost almost all its wildflower meadows, with disastrous consequences for bees and other farmland wildlife.

2006 – responding to a dramatic population crash – two species declared nationally extinct and several others in serious decline – the Bumblebee Conservation Trust is founded. Their aim is to support the conservation of all bumblebees, rare or abundant.

2009 – the Bumblebee Conservation Trust’s project to reintroduce the short-haired bumblebee begins, focusing first on preparing the wider environment for the release. Local farmers and landowners are key to this.

2012 – short-haired bumblebee queens that have already mated are collected from Sweden, then released in Kent and East Sussex, after first being quarantined and screened for disease. Volunteers monitor their success in the newly restored wildflower habitat.

2016 – the fifth batch of queens is released, bringing the total set free to over 200. Thanks to local landowners and farmers, more than 1,000 hectares of habitat have now been restored. Other rare bumblebee species are regularly recorded by volunteers monitoring the project’s impact.

Find out more

www.bumblebeereintroduction.org

Adrift | a Q&A

Helen Babbs’ new book Adrift, A Secret Life of London’s Waterways is published by Icon on Thursday 3 March 2016.

What’s Adrift about?

It’s about London’s canals and navigable rivers, exploring the waterways’ people, politics, history and wildlife. It’s about boats, landscape, alternative ways of living. The book travels from east to west over the course of a year, taking in the River Lea, the Lee Navigation, the Limehouse Cut, the Regent’s Canal and part of the Grand Union.

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Why write about London’s waterways?

London’s canals and navigable rivers have been my home for almost three years. Living on the water has given me a new perspective on the city, and as a journalist I felt compelled to document my experiences. The canal network is a really rich seam to delve into as a writer. It’s a long, thin public space with a miscellany of different stories attached.

The waterways – and the life they support, both wild and human – are perhaps a little misunderstood or misrepresented. For example, London’s boaters are sometimes lazily dismissed as hipsters or bums, when in fact I’d describe us as a small community of decent, resourceful folk finding creative ways to live in a capital city.

At the moment, London boating is often only discussed in the mainstream press in the context of property prices, but there’s a lot more to living aboard than saving money on rent or a mortgage. Indeed, my own experience promoting the book so far has seen a national newspaper make up a quote – put words in my mouth that I didn’t say – that suggests I bought a boat simply because I couldn’t afford a mortgage.

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I’m not a spokesperson for the boating community, and the views expressed in the book are just my own. But I do think that, as boaters, if we are open about how things work for us on the water perhaps, at those times when our rights are being undermined or our lives are being made more difficult, it will be easier to ask both policy makers and the wider public for support.

I believe we should actively protect London’s boating community, both the continuously cruising and the permanently moored. Boats bring welcome colour and character, an increasingly rare thing as the capital is smothered by a bland tide of chain stores and luxury flats.

The natural value of the canal network also felt like something really worth exploring – manmade waterways have become increasingly important as natural standing water like ponds and ditches have disappeared. The canal can sometimes be seen simply as an A to B, a commuting route, or as mere decoration for new blocks of flats, but it’s much more than that. For many Londoners, the canal is an important way to connect with nature. It’s a vital green-blue space within the grey.

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Did you buy a boat because you couldn’t afford a flat?

There was a lot more to it, but it was certainly one factor of many. Buying a flat would have been a more sensible financial investment, but I’m a self-employed, low earner living in a city where £450,000 is now officially (and outrageously) considered affordable for a ‘starter home’ and private rents are out of control.

So yes our budget did come into it, but there were more persuasive things that ultimately drew us onto the canal. The boat is allowing us to create a home in tune with the things we care about – respecting the environment, living sustainably. We saw living aboard as a chance to simplify things and strip back. The boat means we have our own set of solar panels and a beautiful cast iron stove, our main source of heat. We’re no longer wedded to the grid, and life aboard has bred a conservatism with power and water that’s surprisingly liberating.

Our home space is not entirely domestic either; it is mechanical, it moves, it is subject to the weather, the water, the landscape. The writer and naturalist Richard Mabey was on to something when he said many of us – wherever we might live – nurse a ‘dream of satisfying two strong and contrasting human drives, to be both settled native and adventurous pioneer’. The boat allows us, demands us, to try to be both.

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Is living on a boat cheap?

That’s a myth. Boats can cost tens of thousands of pounds to buy, plus there are annual licence fees, insurance, fuel and upkeep costs. And monthly rent if you are lucky enough to secure a long term or residential mooring. It depends on the size of your vessel, but yearly expenses can reach well into the thousands if you include routine maintenance like repainting the hull. It is also very time consuming – living on a canal boat is not for the time poor.

Residential moorings in London are rare, so most newcomers continuously cruise rather than moor permanently in one place. It’s a joy to slowly wend your way across the captial’s 100 miles of canal network, experiencing life afloat in the north, south, east and west. But, continuous cruisers give up mains water and mains electricity, as well as the security of a fixed address.

Is daily life difficult?

I wouldn’t swap my boat-home for anything but it is hard work, every single day. Living like this is full of its own specific concerns: the fear of running out of fuel to burn and freshwater to wash with, the blight of condensation and damp, flat marine batteries and mysterious leaks. The boat’s climate is tricky to control, freezing in winter, too hot in summer. We’re free of earthly ties but also free of everyday conveniences. We have to deal intimately with our own waste, emptying our caravan-style toilet by hand.

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What other challenges do you face on the water?

It was a shock to discover I had to register as homeless if I wanted to vote. Without a postcode, things like banking and healthcare become complicated too. I fear for my credit rating. I also worry about the future. There’s a concern that waterways are gradually becoming less open to cruising boats.

It’s completely legal to continuously cruise across the canal network as long as you move on every two weeks, a right enshrined in the 1995 British Waterways Act. But recently stay times in popular areas have been reduced to seven days, sometimes even less. The Canal and River Trust has also said it won’t renew the licenses of boats without long term moorings that it doesn’t consider to be moving far enough, despite not having the power to define what an acceptable distance is.

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What advice would you give a would-be boater?

Do your research first, and not just online. Definitely try out living on a boat before you buy one – hire or rent one, and for a significant period of time so you can really learn the ropes. I lodged aboard a friend’s canal boat for a month before we decided to buy ours; it was a crucial experience. It was a chance to learn the intricacies of life afloat, and it helped me decide whether or not I had what it takes to live like this.

While I’m happy with my decision to swap bricks and mortar for a boat, I actually wouldn’t actively encourage anyone else to do the same. Many of us are desperate to find a way to be in London that isn’t financially crippling. But, while living aboard works brilliantly for some, it’s a difficult way of living. It’s definitely not for the faint hearted. Nor are boats a solution to London’s housing crisis – that requires fair prices and rent control on land.

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The book is about a lot more than the practicalities and politics of living on the waterways – what are some of the other central themes?

The landscape and urban nature are really important strands that run throughout the book, as is history. For example, I spent some time tracing London’s lost canals, in both south and west London. The canalised part of the River Fleet running from King’s Cross to Blackfriars is the most well known lost canal, but the book also looks at the Grand Surrey Canal, the Croydon Canal, the Grosvenor Canal, the Kensington Canal and the Cumberland Spur, which have all disapeared but left their ghosts.

Are manmade, urban waterways like the Regent’s Canal really that good for nature?

Very much so. A place where rough land meets torpid water has potency, and the mixing up of the wet and the dry along the Regent’s Canal means it can support much wildlife. Artificial waterways are part of our ecosystem; in fact they have become increasingly important ‘natural’ features as traditional ponds have disappeared. The whole of London’s canal system was designated a Site of Importance for Nature Conservation (SINC) back in 1986. The SINC citation states that ‘London’s network of canals fulfil an important function in allowing nature into heavily built-up environments’.

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But aren’t boats bad for wildlife?

More boats mean more disturbance and less aquatic and marginal vegetation, but also more movement and in turn more scouring, flushing and induced flow. The Regent’s Canal’s water quality, for example, is surprisingly good. But, its growing popularity, with people on foot and on bicycles as much as on boats, is also its vulnerability. As towpath traffic increases, so does the amount of litter gathering under bridges, around weirs and at locks.

I am biased, but as a live-aboard boater I think the positive impact our community has outweighs any negatives. It is often boaters who feel most compelled to haul rubbish out of the water, after all. Urban canals are not a sterile places, and in many ways it is the imperfections that make them interesting. It is possible to enjoy the coupling of the natural and the man-made, even the coot building a magnificent plastic bag and bottle nest. The litter troubles me, but the fact a cormorant can ignore it and continue to fish gives me hope.

© Helen Babbs 2016

Puppetry and the First World War

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This feature was written for Animations Online

Later this week, a series of enormous puppets will walk the streets of Liverpool. Royal De Luxe’s marionette-style giants are part of a five day long programme of events marking the outbreak of the First World War. Word is, the puppets will explore the city streets in a moving story that recollects Britain’s preparations for war.

There are a number of reasons why Royal De Luxe have been commissioned to tackle this tough subject, not least the success of their 2012 Titanic anniversary performance – an epic piece of street theatre that apparently attracted an audience of 800,000. But is there more to it than the promise of pure spectacle? Is puppetry a particularly effective way of exploring the challenging issues of the so-called Great War? Royal De Luxe are not the first to do it, although the scale is unique.

‘War Horse’ has of course been wowing audiences worldwide for years now. It’s a show that has flung puppetry into the mainstream and one that is impossible to imagine working without puppets. As Basil Jones, Executive Producer of Handspring Puppet Company, explains, horses were crucial to the story they wanted to tell but they couldn’t use live animals on stage. Another solution was needed.

“Historically, one of the most important things about the First World War is that it eradicated the vast majority of horses in Europe,” says Basil. “Tragically, this happened just at the time when machinery was getting good enough to replace the horse as a means of transport, and a means to work agricultural lands.

“In a sense that war was a major contributor to the demise of our ten thousand year relationship with the horse. Because real horses cannot be trained to be actors in a complex live action drama, one cannot put a horse into a theatrical context except through the use of puppet horses. So puppets are indeed an excellent medium, indeed the only viable medium, to dramatise the relationship between The Animal and The Human.”

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In ‘The Trench‘, Les Enfants Terribles use live action, rod puppetry, shadow and animation to explore the physical and psychological torment of life on the front line. “The First World War is such a horrific period in our history, with the men who went through it living through what we can only imagine as hell on earth. The writer created something very epic and heavily influenced by Orpheus in the Underworld so this was our starting point,” explains producer James Seager.

“The story sees our hero Bert becoming entombed under No Man’s Land and then journeying into a strange land filled with demons and beasts; we as an audience are never sure whether what we witness is real or his imagination. Puppets seemed the best way to embody this demonic world and we used items from the war in their design – one puppet’s face is a gas mask for example. We never see puppetry as something that is separate to the piece we are creating. We don’t see its use as a prop or an effect, merely another way to tell the story.”

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Metta Theatre has, unusually, looked at the impact of the war on women as well as men, specifically on a mother whose son has been sent off to fight. In ‘Alice’, the company blend Lewis Carroll’s much-loved tale with biography and reflection. The play is set on the night in 1915 when the real life Alice’s son Alan is killed in action. Artistic director Poppy Burton-Morgan wanted to explore themes of war, madness and death. To do this, Metta Theatre use a series of puppets constructed from domestic and military objects from the era.

“All puppets are a conduit for profound and deep-seated emotion, and objects imbued with the associations of war even more so,” says Poppy. “Often audiences can invest emotionally in the life of a puppet to a far deeper level than with a human character, and, unlike human actors, puppets are incapable of over-acting.

“The honesty in action and intent that comes with good puppetry makes it so effective in exploring the darkness of war and death in the trenches. For younger audiences it can also be a lighter, or more magical, way into a subject that is so emotionally dark. On a practical level, it is very easy (and dramatically powerful) to see a puppet die on stage, which is an inevitable aspect of exploring the Great War. This can also be wonderfully heightened and stylised as puppets don’t have to obey the laws of physics.

“There is also something ageless about many puppets, they often have a quality simultaneously child-like and ancient, which at an emotional level resonates with the image of WW1 soldier: the eager underage recruit signing up in a fit of patriotism who in the space of a few short years has experienced things that age him beyond recognition. The same puppet can express both personalities and watching them we are constantly aware of the imminent threat of ‘death’, when the puppeteer walks away, leaving the puppet or object lifeless, nothing more than a discarded shell.”

Gardens Illustrated | nature’s palette

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This feature appears in the June issue of Gardens Illustrated
Photography by Rachel Warne

Dyer and designer Katelyn Toth Fejel hails from America but currently lives in Hackney Wick. As well as acres of urban grit, this part of east London also has a river, the Lee, and a modest tangle of woodland called Wick Woods. In the summer it’s tempting to get a little bit lost in its lushness. Sadly, I meet Katelyn on a day that’s less than perfect.

How many people in the fashion industry aren’t a little bit allergic to rain? Katelyn has excellent couture credentials but constantly craves the outdoors. Persistent drizzle, and the subsequent waterproofs it requires, doesn’t put her off. A walk in Wick Woods with Katelyn, her local dye foraging spot, involves getting down on your hands on knees to peer at things in intimate close up, whatever the weather.

Inspired by permaculture, Katelyn is part of the Permacouture Institute, works for the London College of Fashion’s Centre for Sustainable Fashion and helps run an ethical boutique called Here Today, Here Tomorrow. She’s a nature lover and environmentalist as much as she is a designer, and these passions inform and shape her work. “I approach fashion as if it were an ecology, an ecosystem.”

She began experimenting with mail order natural dyes at art school and hasn’t looked back, quickly graduating to ones she makes herself. “I love the diversity of the experience when you pick the dye yourself. With powders you get the same result each time.” She talks of the beauty of creating a dye palette that reflects her local environment, suggesting the blur of colour you might see through a car or train window is likely a similar spread of shades you would get from dye plants sourced in that area.

Katelyn champions species that are abundant but others may see as a nuisance. “I love plants that do many things like nettle – it can be used to make soup or tea, as a fabric and a dye.” A favourite last summer was a container of cut-and-come-again pot marigolds – the flowers are delicious in salads and can also be used as a dye. She has a huge bag of frozen petals in her freezer, ready for brewing into a dye bath when the right project comes along.

Making natural dyes from plants is a lot like cooking – there’s no one way to do it. Bark likes to be cooked long and hot, whereas something light and leafy needs much gentler treatment. To turn the concoction from colourful stew into dye you may need to add a mordant like alum, which helps fix the dye to the fabric. It’s gentle enough that leftover dye can be used to water acid loving plants like blueberry or rhododendron.

Katelyn’s experiments with plants have produced hues of ombre, chestnut, rust, gold, mustard, terracotta, pink, mink and cream. The colours compliment each other and have unusual depths. “Natural dyes, like a Seurat painting, change in different lights,” she says. “They shimmer. It’s almost like an optical illusion. They have a richness and depth that synthetic colours lack.”

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Dock
For Katelyn, dock root is “an unusual blessing”. It may need to be boiled for several hours to release the dye, but the resulting rusty pinks, shimmering golds and autumnal oranges are worth it. In a world dominated by yellows, natural dyers come to prize the reds. Dock works beautifully on silk or wool, and you can achieve many more shades by adding acid or alkali to the dye. A dash of baking soda will bring out a warm terracotta. Dock leaves can be used too – young foliage produces a bright green-yellow, older leaves create more of a mustard.

Cherry
As someone who loves a challenge and embraces the opportunity to experiment, cherry is a favourite of Katelyn. “It’s such a mystery, still. If I had any tree it would be this.” While some people hate the inconsistency of natural dying, she relishes the unknown. The bark from young, fallen branches can produce a dye that ranges from pinks and oranges to greens and golds. The colour achieved depends on the variety of tree and the environmental conditions where it is found, not to mention the fabric you are dying – wool and silk will turn different colours when dipped in the same dye bath.

Birch
The inner bark of the birch tree produces a pretty pink, while the outer bark achieves a paler, subtler shade. The leaves create yellow or olive green. Add iron to the dye bath – Katelyn nurtures rusty nails in jars of water especially for the task – to produce a creamy, purplish grey. A range of special effects are possible with natural dyes and specific techniques can be used to create unusual patterns. For example, Itajime – Japanese wood block clamping – leaves behind un-dyed shapes with haloes around the edge. You can use natural dyes to colour yarn and for screen-printing projects too.

Elder
The bark, leaves and berries of the elder tree can all be used as dyes. The bark creates a delicate metallic colour like the palest pink of the inside of a shell, while the leaves produce tans, greens and golds. The berries can be used to create a fugitive purple stain, which changes over time and eventually washes out. Katelyn welcomes the impermanence – “embrace unpredictably and accept change – dye a dress afresh every season.” Her foraging also embraces the edible and she advises you eat some elder berries too. The ideal plant will colour your cloth and make a meal.

The magic makers

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This article was written for the Barbican

Tom Morris (artistic director of Bristol Old Vic), Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones (co-founders of Handspring Puppet Company), talk about life after ‘War Horse’ and their new collaboration on ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’.

For director Tom Morris, the decision to work with puppets never felt like a radical one. Talking as he cycles to catch a train, he’s not just breathless with exertion but also with enthusiasm for the theatrical possibilities puppetry offers. It’s a passion he’s nursed for some time.

Working at Battersea Arts Centre (BAC) in the 1990s, Tom shared a building with the Puppet Centre, an organisation determined to get puppetry taken seriously. Their enthusiasm was infectious. During this period Handspring Puppet Company came over from South Africa to perform at BAC, sealing Tom’s fate.

He later collaborated with them on ‘War Horse’, which has played to millions worldwide and is credited with sweeping puppetry firmly into the mainstream. As Toms says, “puppetry isn’t taboo any more.”

In a post ‘War Horse’ world, a second collaboration with Handspring was inevitable. The decision was to do something completely different next, a version of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ that Tom describes as “wildly experimental” and that features both people and puppets. It first played at the Bristol Old Vic last spring and comes to the Barbican in February.

Shakespeare’s play is well suited to puppetry, dealing as it does with the tricks the imagination can play. According to Basil Jones, executive producer at Handspring, “everything is potentially alive” in the production. “We slightly jokingly said everything has the right to life, so even floorboards can come alive.”

Hippolyta is imagined as a sculptress, crafting images of the spirits she hopes will bless her imminent marriage. These then come alive as puppets. “Out of the figures she makes, chaos erupts,” explains Tom.

Handspring has created about 30 fantastical puppets for the play, made from wood and cane, and ranging in scale from tiny to giant. Oberon and Titania stand two and half metres tall. Sometimes they’re used in bits – just a huge head and larger than life hand, say – and other times presented as the complete figure.

“The aesthetic of the play is a little bit future survivalist,” explains Adrian Kohler, artistic director of Handspring. “There seems to have been some destructive force on the universe that these people live in. It’s a world where magic has possibly been reinvented, or brought back into the lives of the characters because they need it. The puppets are an embodiment of that language.”

Shakespeare’s audiences believed in supernatural forces and spirits, and with this production Tom wants you to as well. “The audience creates the life of the show. This is true of all theatre to a certain extent but with puppetry nothing can happen unless the audience believes the puppets are alive.”

Expectations run high after ‘War Horse’, but the chance to revive their second show together feels like a privilege. After presenting ‘Woyzeck on the Highveld’ in 2011, this is a welcome return to the Barbican for Handspring.

“The show is a fluid entity, it’s a work that’s continually evolving,” says Adrian. “The production at the Barbican is fortunate as we have the opportunity to refine it further. We hope people come with an open mind to how we’ve interpreted Shakespeare, rather than how we have rehashed ‘War Horse’.”