Pee for the Planet

Despite having a woman as its Director General, the National Trust has issued some surprisingly sexist advice on saving the planet: they want men to pee on their compost heaps. Doing so will make better fertiliser and save the water that would have been used to flush the lavatory. The result can be used to grow vegetables and thus save even more energy by reducing food miles. Human waste, says Rosemary Hooper, the National Trust’s ‘master (sic) composter’ (yet more sexism?) creates ‘lovely organic matter’, and thus ‘makes sweet-smelling flowers come up better’.

It is true that male pipework makes it easier for them to become urinating eco-heroes, but surely the National Trust is missing a trick by excluding more than half the planet? The ‘pee for the planet message’ could easily have accommodated members of both sexes if the National Trust had simply launched a new range of chamber pots, beautifully packaged and featuring the National Trust’s spanking new logo which, we are told, ‘retains the familiar oak leaf symbol’, but in a jazzed up version that will, in future, be reproduced ‘in a more colourful palette, including blues, purples and pinks, rather than the uniform dark green colour of old’.

It is not such a long time ago that the euphemistically named ‘commode’ was a familiar item of household furniture. Junk shops in the 1970s were full of ‘gazunders’ in such pretty patterns that trendy designers, such as Terence Conran, recommended their use as plant pots and cache pots. The flushing toilet was invented by John Harrington as early as 1596, but did not become a standard fitting, even in stately homes, until the late 19th century. The future Edward VII set the fashion in the 1880s by installing 30 water closets (supplied by the firm of Thomas Crapper) at his Sandringham home.

In Swindon, where the National Trust has its headquarters, the railway village built by Brunel to house his Great Western Railway workforce had no indoor toilets until 1974. The only danger is that a revival in the use of the potty in the potting shed might also mean a return to 1950s humour, and all those hoary Goon Show jokes about the hapless Colonel Neddie Seagoon of the 4th Royal Armoured Thunderbox Brigade (for readers under the age of 50, the thunderbox was the military equivalent of today’s Glastonbury festival portaloo).

Knickers are heritage

The news that Queen Victoria’s underwear has been designated as an important part of the nation’s heritage is an irresistible follow-up to the mention of The Goons. Wouldn’t Spike Milligan and chums have had a wonderful time with the thought that queen’s linen bloomers and chemise have been given ‘national designated status’ by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council in recognition of their ‘national and international significance’.

Textiles expert Vanessa Savage describes Queen Victoria’s knickers as ‘extremely plain, but made of a soft fine cotton and sewn by hand, with fine attention to stitchwork — the minute sewing would have taken days.’ Ms Savage also revealed that the queen had a 50-inch waist and a 66-inch bust, that her underwear is embroidered with a small crown and the initials VR, and that a discrete laundry mark ensures that the royal knickers did not get mixed up with those of a lesser mortal when they were returned to the airing cupboard.

‘Like other ladies of the late-Victorian era,’ she added, ‘the Queen wore open-crotch knickers whose separate legs were joined by a draw-string at the waist’, no doubt making it a simple matter to hitch up the royal bustle and sit upon the royal ‘throne’ to make a contribution to the Osborne Palace compost heap.

Lawrence of Arabia’s shirt

Garments designed to be shown rather than hidden are among the exhibits on display for the first time at the newly reopened Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Instantly recognisable are the traditional Arab robes worn by Lawrence of Arabia and made so familiar by David Lean’s epic film of the same name.

In his autobiography, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T E Lawrence recalls that these ‘splendid white silk and goldembroidered wedding garments’ were given to him by the aunt of the late King Faisal of Iraq. Faisal had advised Lawrence that he should dress like an Arab nobleman if he wanted to carry weight with the Arab leaders that he wished to recruit. Ruth Barnes, the museum’s textiles curator, said of the newly displayed robes, ‘You can just make out the gold and silver thread; imagine the light on that in the sunshine — it would have looked fantastic to the people he was trying to win over.’

Other textile exhibits on show for the first time include silk robes given to the explorer Robert Shaw. The garments were found in a chest ‘stuffed with hats, robes and boots that Shaw had been given as diplomatic gifts’, and that had been found uncatalogued in the museum’s store.

‘An Infinity of Things’

Another institution that found itself the heir to a mass of uncatalogued possessions is the Wellcome Collection. When the American-born Sir Henry Wellcome died in 1936, having established the international pharmaceutical company that bears his name, he left behind what was ‘perhaps the greatest collection of artefacts ever amassed by one man’, according to a new biography, An Infinity of Things, by Frances Larson.

As his vast fortune grew, so did Wellcome’s passion for collecting: his first personally acquired acquisitions consisted of painted gourds from Guatemala; but eventually he delegated the collecting task to teams of experts who scoured the globe for booty — 110 cases of Graeco-Roman artefacts, 85 cases of historic surgical instruments and 60 cases of pestles and mortars flooded into his firm’s Willesden warehouse, most of which he never even saw.

As a pharmacist, Wellcome can be considered a success. Whereas early European colonists brought disease and death to the Americas in the 17th century, Wellcome brought health and medicine on the coat-tails of 20th-century British imperialism in Africa and Asia. But as a collector he was a grand failure. The Wellcome Historical Museum held a huge auction in 1943, selling off literally tons of material that the museum had inherited, but could neither display nor store.

Ironically, even Wellcome himself ended up becoming lost amongst the vast uncatalogued collection. A small urn containing his cremated ashes was placed in the company’s strong room in 1936 and was only rediscovered in 1987. They have now been interred in the churchyard of St Paul’s cathedral.

Please don’t plough

Back to the business of planet saving, and the latest advice from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) could signal the end of metal detecting as a hobby. The Staffordshire Hoard — and the many other spectacular finds reported every year to the Portable Antiquities Scheme — are usually recovered after ploughing. But DEFRA is now advising farmers not to plough their fields at all. Rural  Affairs Secretary Hilary Benn is urging farmers to stem the loss of carbon from the land by adopting a new ‘no tilling and low tilling soil strategy’, whereby only the surface is raked, and new seed is planted amongst the stubble from the previous crop.

Bob Watson, chief scientific adviser at DEFRA, says such techniques are more environmentally friendly because ‘ploughing releases carbon held within the soil fabric’. Soil is the world’s second biggest carbon store, after the oceans, and British soil contains the equivalent of 57 times the nation’s annual greenhouse gas emissions.

Watson says that DEFRA will also work with farmers to protect carbon-rich peat bogs, which also store an immense amount of carbon — not to mention being hugely important stores of archaeological material — so perhaps there is a positive side to global warming after all.

The end of the world is not nigh

Visitors to the British Museum’s current Moctezuma exhibition are greeted by an explanation of the intricate 52-year calendric cycle of the Mexica, the people over whom Moctezuma ruled. They believed that the end of each cycle and the start of a new one was a time of disaster — and the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés happened to arrive at just such a conjunction.

Another 52-year cycle in the Mayan calendar will end on 21 December 2012. This fact is being exploited by Hollywood, which has just released the blockbuster 2012; the Mayan calendar and its dire predictions are absolutely central to the film.

The many people of southern America who still observe calendric rituals and look for the most propitious days on which to plant seed, or harvest crops, or get married, have joined forces with NASA to deny the film’s premise that the world is due to end on that day. Jesus Gomez, head of the Guatemalan Confederation of Mayan Priests and Spiritual Guides, has accused the makers of the film of exploiting Mayan culture. NASA, too, has taken the unusual step of issuing an official statement saying that ‘credible scientists worldwide know of no threat associated with 2012′ and that ‘there is no factual basis to the idea that the world will end on that day’.

January 2010

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