All posts by John Abel

The Last Great Race on Earth — by Dennis Ashton 20th March 2014.

iditarodThe great race refers to the 1049 mile annual Iditarod race between Anchorage and Nome in Alaska by dog sled. The race is 1049 miles long because Alaska is the 49th state of America.

He star­ted by explain­ing the immense size of Alaska and its tiny pop­u­la­tion of 723,000 people.  Originally it was pur­chased from Russia for 2 cents per acre and it is now the 49th State of the USA.  Its wealth comes from oil.  In 1900 the prom­ise of wealth came in the form of the Ukon Gold Rush but gold hardly fig­ures in today’s g.d.p.

The coun­try has few roads and most of these become dif­fi­cult to nav­ig­ate in winter so that in the past dog sleds and planes were the main forms of winter trans­port.  Today snow­mo­biles have super­seded dog sleds.  In 1973 to keep an interest in dog sleds alive, the first Iditarod was held and com­peted by the winner in 20 days.

Now it is a much larger and more pro­fes­sional event. In 2012 there were 69 teams each start­ing with 16 dogs.  There were 15 rook­ies, 18 women and 5 past win­ners all hoping to win the $50,000 first prize.  The equip­ment has much improved over 40 years and the fast­est time is 8 days, 22 hours and 46 minutes of actual racing time.  There are a few 24 hour rest stages for the sake of the dogs.  There are sev­eral vets but no doc­tors to sup­port the teams.  Food is provided at the stage posts to reduce the weight to be pulled by the dogs.

Although Siberian Huskies are entered in the Iditarod, they are too large and slow to com­pete with the Alaskan dogs that are mon­grels with some Husky blood.

For Dennis Ashton a major attrac­tion of the race was the friend­li­ness of the people.  A par­tic­u­lar Favorite was Lance Mackay who has won the race 6 times and the other long dis­tance sled race called the Yukon Quest twice.  Dennis’ enthu­si­asm and gifts as a speaker made this a really enjoy­able and enlight­en­ing talk.

The Changing Concepts of Medicine (from sorcery to science) by Dr Rod Amos — 6 January 2014


Rod out­lined six stages of med­ical mis­un­der­stand­ing. These were:

  1. The age of mys­ti­cism.
  2. The age of reason – mis­placed.
  3. The dark ages.
  4. The Renaissance.
  5. Modern know­ledge.
  6. Science.

The earli­est ref­er­ences can be found in Samaria when the snake was the symbol of a priest with heal­ing power.  Later in Egyptian times only a Pharaoh could wear a snake symbol on his head to show his power.  Gilgamesh was the first record we have of some­body writ­ing down med­ical con­cepts.  Snake fat was widely used for pro­tec­tion from ill­nesses brought by the gods.

In the next age, Hippocrates around 500BC wrote about medi­cine and described the few oper­a­tions that were attemp­ted includ­ing drilling a hole in the skull to let out demons.  The dictum that was fol­lowed is known as “Primum non nocere” and means “first do no harm”.  At this time heal­ing was attemp­ted by inter­pret­ing a patient’s dreams and in Rome were Aesculapius temples where non-poisonous snakes roamed freely and people’s snake dreams were inter­preted.  Hippocrates rejec­ted the con­nec­tion between ill­ness and the gods and recom­men­ded care­ful listen­ing and obser­va­tion.  He believed there were chan­nels through the body and Yellow Bile; Phlegm; Black Bile and Blood must be kept in bal­ance and not blocked.

Around 100BC Theriac listed 54 snake derived ingredi­ents for use in heal­ing and these recipes were still in use in eight­eenth cen­tury.  Quacks were often snake hand­lers and could be found up to recent times.

In 130AD in Rome, Galen wrote much about medi­cine and this improved know­ledge became the unchal­lenged truth and required learn­ing of doc­tors right into the eight­eenth cen­tury.  During the Dark Ages this know­ledge was pre­served only in the Eastern Roman Empire and by the Arabs.  In the West, it became blas­phem­ous to heal as ill­ness was pun­ish­ment from God and only heal­ing by monks was tol­er­ated.

In the elev­enth cen­tury the first med­ical school was cre­ated.  The works of Galen were read out and doc­tors had to learn the whole work by heart.  It was only when Paracelsus (1493–1541) pro­duced a book cor­rect­ing Galen’s ana­tomy that there was any advance in med­ical know­ledge for over a thou­sand years.

Following the Renaissance, the belief in “humours” per­sisted but doc­tors began to at least touch their patients.  Bloodletting and boil pier­cing were common treat­ments.

It was only when the exist­ence of bac­teria was dis­covered that med­ical sci­ence as we think of it today began.  With improved hygiene the curing rates of patients under doc­tors rose dra­mat­ic­ally, espe­cially in hos­pit­als.

John Betjeman — Mr Steve Jackson — 18th November 2013.

Sir John Betjeman was born on 28 August 1906 to a upper middle class family in Highgate London.  He died in 1984 from Parkinson’s Disease at his cot­tage in Trebetherwick in Cornwall.  His father Ernest had a family firm that man­u­fac­tured expens­ive Victorian style house­hold fur­niture, espe­cially decanter hold­ers.  John strongly res­isted his family’s demands that he should go into this busi­ness.

He boarded at Marlborough College which he hated before enter­ing Magdalen College, Oxford.  He entered the School of English Language and Literature under CS Lewis who thought him to be an idle prig.  He grew to detest CS Lewis and to love Oxford and its social life.  He man­aged to fail to even get a third class degree but was in later life awar­ded an hon­or­ary doc­tor­ate of let­ters.

John Betjeman’s main legacy is pos­sibly not his poetry but his chan­ging the nation’s per­cep­tion of the value of our build­ing her­it­age and the need to con­serve the best.  He formed the Victorian Society was a patron of over 100 other con­ser­va­tion organ­isa­tions.  In 1948 after drift­ing apart, his wife Penelope (daugh­ter of Field Marshall Lord Chetsworth) became a Roman Catholic.  He loved the Church of England and they sep­ar­ated. In 1951 he fell in love with Lady Elizabeth Cavendish.  This developed into a lifelong friend­ship and through it he joined aris­to­cratic and royal circles.

He usu­ally described him­self as a journ­al­ist and through his con­tacts at Oxford he secured a job as film critic on the Evening Standard and as assist­ant editor of the Architectural Review.  It was with the latter that his prose style developed.  Collaborating with John Piper, he wrote some of the Shell Guides in the late 1930s.

He was a very good self-publicist and under­stood the poten­tial of tele­vi­sion to get his mes­sages across to the public.  He appre­ci­ated how people love an eccent­ric and he is famous for taking his teddy bear with him where ever he went.  The statue of him in St Pancras Station reminds us of his work to save the build­ing and his love of trains.  Perhaps his most remembered poem was about his dis­dain for pre-war Slough.


Close Encounters With Nature -Richard Ashbee — 16th September 2013.

Richard Ashbee stepped in at short notice with an excel­lent pho­to­graph led talk in which he revealed to us again both his pas­sion for nature and pho­to­graphy plus his under­stand­ing of wild life.  The stand­ard of the pho­to­graphs was quite out­stand­ing.

His talk ranged from every day sub­jects found in one’s garden to rare birds and mam­mals.  There was even a pho­to­graph of a male kestrel (I think) giving food to its mate in mid-air.  On the close up scale, after show­ing how a water boat man treads on the sur­face film of still water, he showed the water sur­face during a rain storm.  He also showed what hap­pens when a drop of water hits the sur­face of a pool.  He drew our atten­tion to the small things all around us like a rolled up leaf found under a stone to the col­ours in part of a rain­bow.  The col­ours in the head of a mal­lard to the might of a killer whale; the cute­ness of a water vole to the emer­ging head of a seal were all beau­ti­fully recor­ded.

Richard has a par­tic­u­lar pas­sion for wild birds which he has pho­to­graphed all over the British Isles and beyond.  His robin appeared to be posing for a Christmas card but his puffin with a beak full of sand eels is a more unusual sight.  Richard explained how the severe decline in the sand eel pop­u­la­tion was caus­ing the decline of some bird spe­cies and the rise of others.  His views of vari­ous hawks in mid-flight were quite spec­tac­u­lar in fact spec­tac­u­lar would be a word to describe the entire talk.


Voyage Into Britain — Mike Spick — 2nd September.

Mike Spick is a pop­u­lar speaker at Stumperlowe Probus having already spoken to us about “J G Graves” and “Salesman to the World”.  Today’s talk was about another pas­sion of both his wife and him­self who are part of a syn­dic­ate that own a long­boat.  It is moored to the south of Birmingham.

He star­ted his talk by describ­ing the lim­it­a­tions to industry during the age of pack horses and horse drawn wagons.  The latter were unus­able during parts of the winter because of the state of the roads.  It was no coin­cid­ence that Sheffield only man­u­fac­tured small items like cut­lery at this time that could be more easily trans­por­ted.

Whilst canals were prob­ably inven­ted by the Chinese and were built by the Romans, Lord Bridgewater was the first in more recent times to build one in this coun­try.  It was to con­nect the min­eral depos­its on his estate with the nearest indus­trial mar­kets.  There fol­lowed an age of impress­ive engin­eer­ing when canals were built over much of England and parts of the rest of the UK.  There are 2,200 miles of nav­ig­able water­ways and rivers in the UK and aban­doned canals are being con­stantly repaired and revived for the leis­ure industry.  When the Manchester Ship Canal was opened in 1894 it was the largest canal in the world.

Mike explained how the 7 feet wide and up to 56 feet long narrow boat had developed from a cargo trans­port with only a tiny cabin in which lived boatman’s entire family to a boat in which the entire cargo space is now living space with all mod. cons.  He explained how the boats were pro­pelled ini­tially by horse and man power and then by steam and then diesel engines.  He kept us enter­tained by the engin­eer­ing involved with aque­ducts, boat lifts, inclined planes, locks and tun­nels.

His talk was without notes.  It was fresh, lively and very inform­at­ive.  It was well received by the Club.