Novichok: The deadly story behind Russia’s nerve agent

chemical weapons
Soldiers wearing World War I gas masks. L-R: American, British. French, German (Shutterstock)

Against the backdrop of Salisbury’s beautiful cathedral, a new word recently gained global notoriety. But the three people who had the right to know most about Novichok, a nerve agent, were oblivious to its sudden appearance in headlines around the world – for they lay fighting for their lives in a British hospital.

Former Russian spy Sergei Skripal, 66, his daughter Yulia, 33, and police detective sergeant Nick Bailey, were all exposed to Novichok (or “newcomer”, to use its more parochial translation from Russian) in the English city on March 4. The circumstances surrounding the case are still being investigated – but the latest (unconfirmed and improbable) reports suggest that Skripal may have been exposed through the air vents of his BMW car.

Skripal was directly targeted, and perhaps his daughter was too, although it may simply have been Yulia’s proximity to her father that resulted in her exposure. Bailey was affected by the nerve agent as he was one of the first to respond and came into contact with it at a location as yet unknown. The police officer’s exposure is more likely to have been through contact with the nerve agent contaminating some surface.

At the time of writing, the Skripals remain in a critical condition in hospital. Bailey, meanwhile, is reportedly making a slow recovery and may be able to speak about his ordeal, perhaps providing vital clues. Environmental sampling will provide the evidence showing where the Skripals were most likely exposed and, hopefully, how that exposure occurred.

While the full facts have yet to come to light, the Novichok attack is developing into a full-blown international incident. The UK and Russia, which Britain has blamed for the attack, are now engaged in an increasingly bad-tempered tit-for-tat expulsion of diplomats.

The UK foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, even pointed the finger squarely at the Russian president, Vladimir Putin himself. Johnson said:

We think it overwhelmingly likely that it was his decision to direct the use of a nerve agent on the streets of the UK, on the streets of Europe, for the first time since the Second World War.

So how did we get here? And why do these lethal chemical agents exist at all?

The first nerve agents

The story stretches back to 1936, when the first nerve agent, named tabun (after the German word for “taboo”), was synthesised by talented German chemist Gerhard Schrader. Schrader was investigating organophosphate compounds for the Third Reich in an effort to find suitable insecticides to improve crop yields. He quickly discovered that tabun was too toxic to ever be used in farming as it would almost certainly kill those applying it. A year later, however, he developed a second, even more toxic nerve agent: sarin.

Reasons for this are unclear. Some historians cite Hitler’s own exposure to chemical weapons during World War I and his apparent revulsion towards their use in battle. Others note Churchill’s warning to Hitler that any use by Germany of chemical or biological agents would be met with a swift response. But the most convincing reason is likely to be the one mooted by Schrader himself.In debriefings by Allied intelligence officers after World War II, Schrader said that he’d been required to inform the Nazi authorities about his discoveries. But while Germany made munitions with both tabun and sarin, which were discovered at the end of the war, they were never used against Germany’s opponents.

Schrader noted in his post-war debrief that other scientists around the world, including in Britain, were working on organophosphate chemicals and believed that they were almost certain to have also discovered nerve agents. So if Germany used them, other countries would use them on Germany. In fact, Schrader was wrong; only Germany had the chemicals.

Nazi Germany had weaponised nerve agents, but never used them against Allied troops, pictured here landing during D-Day. (Shutterstock)

Going global

After World War II, however, the UK, US and Soviet Union gained access to Nazi chemical know-how – and many German scientists began working for the victors. At the time, the prevailing view was that chemical weapons would almost certainly be used in a future conflict, and so the military usefulness of nerve agents such as tabun and sarin was investigated.

But tabun and sarin had their limitations. They were well suited for use on a rapidly moving battlefront because they vaporised and broke down in contact with water and so would disappear rapidly after use. But this left a gap in the arsenal, so-to-speak, for more persistent, longer-lived agents.

These were developed in the UK in the 1950s and include the now well-known VX. This was the nerve agent used in the 2017 assassination of Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, in Kuala Lumpur airport.

Unlike sarin and tabun, VX-type agents, which have an oily texture and are very slow to evaporate, were considered to be what’s called area-denial chemicals. Any troops, or vehicles, moving through an area where VX had been used would have to be rigorously protected, compromising their manoeuvrability and fighting efficiency.

Nerve agents were evolving. But so too were the kinds of targets for chemical weapons. Increasingly, they were being used against civilians.

Who controls them?

About 20 different nerve agents have now been manufactured and all are listed, and restricted, under the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention. Novichoks are an exception because they have never been declared, more on which later.

In World War I, before the arrival of nerve agents, it was primarily troops who were affected by chemical weapons. During that conflict, some 1.5m military casualties were exposed to irritants such as chlorine and phosgene, or the blistering agent mustard gas – and around 8-10% of those affected, died. Meanwhile, around 1,000 civilians were injured by chemical weapons during that war.

Since World War I, however, chemical weapons have been used by Italy in Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) in 1935-6; by Japan in China during World War II; by Egypt in Yemen between 1963 and 1967; by Iraq in Iran (1983-1988) and Kurdistan (1988); and between 2013 and 2017 by the Syrian government against its own people. Sarin was also used in a 1995 attack on the Tokyo subway by the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult, killing 13 and making thousands more ill. This is not a comprehensive list, but many of the victims of these attacks, particularly in Kurdistan and Syria, were civilians rather than troops.

Evidence of Iraq’s 1988 chemical attack on civilians in the Kurdistan town of Halabja, which included the use of sarin nerve agent, accelerated discussions already underway on a comprehensive chemical weapons treaty at the UN Council on Disarmament. In 1993, the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) was agreed. In 1997, the convention became international law following ratification of the treaty by 65 countries.

Today, 192 countries are fully paid-up members of the convention with only North Korea, Israel and Egypt still not part of the group. However, as the convention is international law, these three countries are still bound by its provisions that any use of a chemical to deliberately harm another person constitutes use of a chemical weapon – and is illegal.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) oversees implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention and supervises destruction of declared chemical weapons and any production facilities for these weapons. To date, approximately 96% of declared stockpiles have been destroyed. In October 2017, Russia announced that it had destroyed its stocks of some 40,000 tonnes. The US is expected to complete destruction of its weapons stockpile by around 2021-2022.

In addition to supervising the destruction of stockpiles, the OPCW operates a control regime for chemicals that are either chemical weapons or could be used to make them. Every year, each signatory to the convention is required to provide the OPCW with details on the location, manufacture, use, sale or disposal of these substances. The OPCW audits these returns and verifies them by random annual inspections of some 400 military bases and chemical companies around the globe.

All manufacturing programmes which resulted in stocks of chemical weapons exceeding one tonne per year after January 1, 1946 must be declared to the OPCW. But on March 16, 2018, the OPCW announced that it had never been notified about Novichok-type nerve agents by any state.

So what is Novichok and what does it do to its victims?

Novichok family

There is no doubt that nerve agents similar to the Novichok family exist, something that has been described by defectors from Russia. One of these was used to poison the Skripals and Bailey.

Nerve agents, including certain Novichoks, are part of the family of organophosphate compounds – albeit at the most toxic end of the spectrum. They all operate in a similar way by inhibiting the enzyme acetylcholinesterase (AChE). The enzyme can be found in various locations in the body, but it’s at the junctions between nerves and muscles where its activity is most critical. AChE regulates the message from nerve to muscle by inactivating the neurotransmitter acetylcholine.

Acetylcholine binds to receptors at the neuromuscular junction, instructing the muscle to contract. The enzyme then removes this messenger, splits it in two, and with its removal from the receptor the muscle relaxes. This cycle is repeated as often as required by the demands on the muscles.

Inhibition of this removal and cleavage process sends all muscles into spasm and they no longer function normally. The effects are wide-ranging with the most critical being on lung and heart function. Respiratory paralysis is common in severe poisoning and the resulting lack of oxygen to critical organs, such as the heart and brain, can have serious consequences. If untreated, it may be fatal.

Exactly where, when and by whom these chemicals were made, however, and how and who used them against the Skripals remain unclear, triggering a major international crisis.

Was Putin really behind the Skripals nerve agent attack? (Shutterstock)

The UK is now exercising its rights under the CWC and has asked the OPCW to investigate Russia’s so-called Novichok programme. This is the first time one party to the CWC has accused another of attacking it with a chemical weapon. It will be a major challenge for the OPCW, which has been invited to send inspectors to the UK to collect samples for testing. The OPCW will use its own laboratory in Rijswijk, next to The Hague, and perhaps one of some 20 other designated facilities around the world to confirm the exact identity of the nerve agent.

Once it is confirmed, the OPCW will endeavour to find out more. However, it has never pointed the finger of blame at a user. Its remit is to confirm the use or identity of chemical agents and it can be called upon to carry out inspections in countries accused of using one. Others, such as the UN, will then assess the evidence and do the finger pointing. This is what happened when Syria was accused in 2017 of using chemical weapons against its own population.

The CWC does not preclude bilateral action by its signatories – and Britain and Russia have already begun expelling each other’s diplomats over the row. Russia has also closed the British Council and a UK consulate in St Petersburg.

On the ground

But what of the situation on the ground in Salisbury, where the Skripals were attacked? Nerve agents can poison somebody though inhalation, ingestion or skin contact which is why investigators in Salisbury are wearing full protective clothing and gas masks.

In fact, it is now the investigators, rather than the public, who face the risk of sustained exposure to any contamination. Some 130 people have so far been identified who may have been in contact with the agent but none beyond the Skripals and Bailey have shown any symptoms.

It was reported that the Skripals were essentially comatose when discovered and so were unable to say how they felt. But paramedics would likely have found the couple struggling to breathe. They may also have noticed twitching muscles, a glassy appearance to the eyes with pinpoint pupils and profuse salivation. In hospital, there may have been evidence of increasing fluid build-up in the lungs, and their heart rates may either have been rapid or slowed, and uneven.

Effects on the brain would be less evident as the couple were unconscious, but can include restlessness, headache, confusion and convulsions. A part of the brain is concerned with regulation of respiration and this may be affected directly, slowing breathing. A fall in blood pressure is also likely.

Possible treatments

Antidotes to reverse the clinical effects of nerve agents are available and are more likely to be successful if administered early. Around 200 cases of less severe accidental poisoning and four severe ones have been reported since 1948.

In all of the severe cases, the person poisoned lost consciousness and breathing was inhibited. But prompt treatment by doctors who were nearby and aware of the potential for exposure resulted in the victims’ full recovery.

In a quirk of fate, the UK’s own defence teams against chemical weapons are located at Porton Down, just outside Salisbury. Indeed, there have also been tests on hundreds of military servicemen with small doses of nerve agents and in 1953, after one poorly conducted test in the UK, a 20-year-old leading aircraftman, Ronald Maddison, died. The 2004 inquest into his death returned a verdict of unlawful killing. It’s also claimed that in the Novichok programme one person was accidentally exposed and died.

Treatment can include the rapid administration of atropine. This blocks the effects of acetylcholine accumulation by occupying the same receptors and reverses some symptoms, but has little effect on skeletal muscle. The rule of thumb is to maintain dosing of atropine (at intervals) until the heart rate is over 90 beats per minute. Administration may be necessary for a significant period.

Drugs known as oximes can also be used as an antidote. These restore enzyme activity and, crucially, skeletal muscle function. But oximes tend to be specific for certain types of nerve agent and it is unclear which would work with the specific Novichok agent as there is little information in the public domain about them or their effective treatments. Faced with this dilemma, the clinicians treating the Skripals and Bailey would have had to have made a choice.

A third drug used in nerve agent poisoning is diazepam, which can prevent any dangerous convulsions which might occur. Regrettably, however, evidence indicates that severe nerve agent poisoning can cause long-term irreversible changes in brain function.

Nerve agents are grotesque weapons and their use against civilians is a deeply disturbing trend. But in the weeks to come, there will have to be a dispassionate review of the evidence. And as the spat between Russia, and the UK and its allies worsens, cool heads will be needed.

Amid all this frenetic activity, however, we must not forget the three victims – and wish them a swift recovery. After all, they are the ones paying the heaviest price.

By Alastair Hay, Professor of Environmental Toxicology, University of Leeds

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

This compilation of Nicolas Cage meltdowns will make your day 200% better

There’s nothing much to say about this video of Nicolas Cage other than it is worth every second of your time. And you’ll probably end up investing a portion of your finite and precious time on this planet more than once.

It’s a compilation of Nicolas Cage’s crazy meltdowns in his various films. And it’s a piece of hilarious art. Enjoy.


The creator of Super Mario really hated GoldenEye on the N64

For anyone who played video games in the 1990s, GoldenEye is seminal. The 007 game was easily the best first-person shooter of its time. Everything about it, from the missions (Jungle was a nightmare) to multiplayer (friendship-destroying) to masses of unlockable features (those bonus levels were sensational).

Everyone loved GoldenEye. Well, not everyone. The creator of Super Mario absolutely detested the game. He seemed to think it fetishized gun violence. Yes, the same GoldenEye with its cuboid-featured characters who, when shot, looked like they’d been blasted by a paintball gun and span absurdly to the floor.

According to a New Yorker piece on the false belief that video games cause violence:

The repeated accusation that games beget violence has inspired a siege mentality among those who play and make them, but few notable designers have publicly expressed concern about the fetishization of firearms. Martin Hollis, a developer of the 1997 James Bond-themed game GoldenEye 007, told me that he once received a fax from Shigeru Miyamoto, the inventor of Super Mario, calling the game “tragic” and “horrible.” Miyamoto proposed that, at the end of GoldenEye, players should be forced to shake hands with their victims as they lay recovering in hospital beds. (The idea was never implemented.)

That may be the most retro anecdote ever told. The inventor of Super Mario faxing a complaint to a developer of GoldenEye.

And what makes it particularly hilarious is Miyamoto’s hospital proposal. Hopefully it was said to make a point rather than as a serious suggestion because it’s absolutely ridiculous.

Though it might have made for an interesting bonus feature… visiting Alec Trevelyan in hospital to apologise for dropping the double-crossing rat onto that massive satellite dish.

Internet acronyms: What lol, iirc, icymi and other bits of online slang mean

Nobody wants to be the person asking: what does lol mean? Or caught searching Google for the answer. But internet slang, unless you’re familiar with all the acronyms new and old, can be confusing as hell.

Browsing the internet and stalking social media is like swimming in a bowl of alphabetti spaghetti sometimes. It’s another language.

And sometimes it’s just too embarrassing to ask what someone means. Well, be shy no longer: here’s a simple list of some of the most popular internet slang acronyms being tossed around right now.

You’ll soon be a master of arguing on the internet — HTH.


Laugh out loud

lmao / lmfao

Laugh my (f**king) ass off


Roll on the floor laughing


If I recall/remember correctly


I know, right?


What do you think?


In case you missed it


Jesus f**king Christ


For f**ck’s sake


Too long, didn’t read


Last retweet (a reference for Twitter)


As far as I know


For what it’s worth


By the way


Shake my head


For the record

imo / imho

In my (honest) opinion


None of your business


Get the f**k out


On the other hand


Original poster/post


With regards to


My face when (usually accompanied by a gif or image)


Talk to you later


Thank you very much


Hope this helps


Let me know


What you want to talk about?

Who invented lol?

If you’re interested, here’s the history behind lol from a guy called Wayne Pearson who claims to have invented it back in the 1980s:

“LOL was first coined on a BBS [bulletin board system] called Viewline in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, in the early-to-mid-80s. A friend of mine who went by Sprout (and I believe he still does) had said something so funny in the teleconference room that I found myself truly laughing out loud, echoing off the walls of my kitchen. That’s when “LOL” was first used.”

Why you really need to stop looking at your phone before bed

Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge
Looking at your phone exposes you to blue light which can damage your sleep and health.

We’ve all done it. Most of us probably still do it. That final look at our mobiles before bed, just to see if there were any last minute notifications, which turns into mindless scrolling through updates on Instagram or Twitter or Facebook, until you realise it’s 2am, you’re totally wired, and you need to be up in four hours for work.

Ok, maybe it’s not that bad every night. But a lot of us are guilty of using our smartphones right before we try to go to sleep. And then we wonder why we tossed and turned all night, struggling to get some shut eye, before waking up feeling like we had zero hours sleep, totally drained of energy.

Take it from us: you need to stop looking at your phone before bed. Actually, don’t even take it from us. Take it from science. Because here’s what actually happens to you if you don’t give yourself an hour’s break from screen time before going to sleep.

What is blue light?

You can find LEDs which produce blue light in your devices, such as your smartphone or tablet. The wavelengths produced by blue light are very short, which make things much clearer, hence why it’s used for our display screens. The sun is a giant natural source of blue light. But we use LEDs to produce artificial blue light for our own purposes.

How blue light affects us

Scientific studies show that exposure to blue light during the day can increase cognitive performance and alertness. This is fine during the day. But this is terrible when you want to go to sleep.

Exposure to blue light disrupts your “circadian rhythm”, or biological clock. By staring at your phone before bedtime, you’re messing with your natural impulse to want to sleep at the right time in the evening. You’re essentially giving yourself a massive dose of sunlight, tricking your body into thinking it’s daytime and heightening your alertness.

And that’s why it’s hard for you to get a decent night’s sleep if you checked your phone before bed.

This is the alarming conclusion of a 2014 study into the effects of blue light on sleep published in the scientific journal PNAS:

“The use of light-emitting electronic devices for reading, communication, and entertainment has greatly increased recently. We found that the use of these devices before bedtime prolongs the time it takes to fall asleep, delays the circadian clock, suppresses levels of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin, reduces the amount and delays the timing of REM sleep, and reduces alertness the following morning. Use of light-emitting devices immediately before bedtime also increases alertness at that time, which may lead users to delay bedtime at home. Overall, we found that the use of portable light-emitting devices immediately before bedtime has biological effects that may perpetuate sleep deficiency and disrupt circadian rhythms, both of which can have adverse impacts on performance, health, and safety.”

Sleep deprivation is serious. We need rest to recover.

According to the NHS: “Regular poor sleep puts you at risk of serious medical conditions, including obesity, heart disease and diabetes – and it shortens your life expectancy.

What’s more, a lack of sleep can hurt your mental health: “Given that a single sleepless night can make you irritable and moody the following day, it’s not surprising that chronic sleep debt may lead to long-term mood disorders like depression and anxiety.

“When people with anxiety or depression were surveyed to calculate their sleeping habits, it turned out that most of them slept for less than six hours a night.”

How to sleep better

There’s only one tip you really need and that’s this: turn off all your screens and devices a full hour before you go to bed. Give yourself proper time to wind down without any blue light. Take a bath, read a book or magazine, chat with your partner. Anything but staring at blue light. You’ll be surprised by how much better you sleep if you do this.

Ernest Hemingway’s recipe for the perfect hamburger sounds delicious

Ernest Hemingway's Hamburger Recipe
Ernest Hemingway’s hamburger recipe. (JFK Library/Ernest Hemingway Museum)

The American novelist and journalist Ernest Hemingway certainly knew how to write. But as well as a pen (or a typewriter), he also knew how to handle a frying pan and a hamburger flipper. Which is perhaps not surprising given the vivid, lingering descriptions of food you often find in Hemingway’s work.

In between writing classic novels including For Whom The Bell Tolls, The Sun Also Rises, and A Moveable Feast, Hemingway also found time while living out the last years of his life in Cuba to note down his recipe for a lean, mean hamburger.

This hamburger recipe came to light when a huge cache of his personal files, donated to the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum by his widow Mary Hemingway, were made public in 2013.

According to the JFK Museum: “Mary Hemingway saw the Kennedy Library as a fitting place for her late husband’s papers due to the role President Kennedy played in helping her collect them after Hemingway’s death.

“In 1961, despite a US ban on travel to Cuba (the result of high tensions between the two countries following the Bay of Pigs invasion), President Kennedy made arrangements for her to enter Cuba to claim family documents and belongings.

“While in Cuba, Mrs Hemingway met with Fidel Castro who allowed her to take her husband’s papers and the artwork he collected in exchange for the donation of their Finca Vigia home and its remaining belongings to the Cuban people.”

So here it is, without the extra handwritten notes, which were added by his fourth wife, Mary.

Ernest Hemingway Hamburger Recipe

Variations on the theme of ground beef —3


PAPA’S FAVOURITE HAMBURGER. There is no reason why a fried hamburger has to turn out gray, greasy, paper-thin and tasteless. You can add all sorts of goodies and flavors to the ground beef – minced mushrooms, cocktail sauce, minced garlic and onion, ground almonds, a big dollop of Piccalilli, or whatever your eye lights on. Papa prefers this combination.

Ingredients —

1 lb. ground lean beef
2 cloves, minced garlic
2 little green onions, finely chopped
1 heaping teaspoon, India relish
2 tablespoons, capers
1 heaping teaspoon, Spice Islands sage
Spice Islands Beau Monde Seasoning – ½ teaspoon
Spice Islands Mei Yen Powder – ½ teaspoon
1 egg, beaten in a cup with a fork
About one third cup dry red or white wine.
1 tablespoon cooking oil.

What to do —

Break up the meat with a fork and scatter the garlic, onion and dry seasonings over it, then mix them into the meat with a fork or your fingers. Let the bowl of meat sit out of the icebox for ten or fifteen minutes while you set the table and make the salad. Add the relish, capers, everything else including wine and let the meat sit, quietly marinating, for another ten minutes if possible. Now make four fat, juicy patties with your hands. The patties should be an inch thick, and soft in texture but not runny. Have the oil in your frying-pan hot but not smoking when you drop in the patties and then turn the heat down and fry the burgers about four minutes. Take the pan off the burner and turn the heat high again. Flip the burgers over, put the pan back on the hot fire, then after one minute, turn the heat down again and cook another three minutes. Both sides of the burgers should be crispy brown and the middle pink and juicy.

Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, a food writer, noted in The Paris Review that you can’t get the Mei Yen Powder made by Spice Islands anymore. So she recommends this recipe as a replacement:

9 parts salt
9 parts sugar
2 parts MSG

If a recipe calls for 1 teaspoon Mei Yen Powder, use 2/3 tsp of the dry recipe (above) mixed with 1/8 tsp of soy sauce.

These stunning Instagram photos prove Scotland is the most beautiful place on Earth

Along and between its 10,250 miles of coastline, Scotland and her isles boast stunning natural landscapes, awe-inspiring manmade structures, and enough wildlife to keep David Attenborough busy.

There’s so much to explore north of Hadrian’s Wall that it’s a pity the poor Romans never got to see it.

Scotland’s dramatic and varied landscape boasts sky-tickling mountains – including Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest – and stunning ranges such as the Cairngorms in the Highlands and the Coulins on the Isle of Skye.

Some of the world’s oldest surviving manmade structures are here, including
Skara Brae in Orkney, which is Europe’s most complete Neolithic village.

The military might of the Roman Empire, which conquered lands across Europe, the Middle East and Africa, wasn’t enough to overcome the grit of Scotland’s warrior tribes, the Picts and the Scots. 

They held the Romans down in England and caused them so much trouble that Emperor Hadrian had to build a fortified wall from coast to coast, which still stands today along the border of the two nations. 

And a large number of other historic buildings are intact, including the mysterious Iona Abbey, where Christianity was first established on the British Isles when St Columba landed there from Ireland in 563 and founded a monastery. 

As for wildlife in Scotland, its rich environment caters for the likes of puffins, red squirrels, red deer, pine martens, sea eagles, buzzards, and even wolves, which were recently reintroduced to the Highlands.

And Scotland’s coastal waters and rivers are renowned for some of the most delicious seafood on the planet, from mussels to langoustines, lobsters to cod, and, of course, herring – perfect for kippers. And let’s not forget the world famous Scottish salmon.

As these incredible shots of Scotland on Instagram prove, it’s the most beautiful place on Earth.

Anyone else ready to move in? . 📷: Dunvegan Castle, captured by @sibotk . The site is likely to have been a Norse dun (fort), though no traces of any prehistoric structure now remain. The promontory was enclosed by a curtain wall in the 13th century, and a four-storey tower house was built in the late 14th century. This tower was similar in style to contemporary structures at Kisimul Castle and Caisteal Maol. Alasdair Crotach, the 8th chief, added the Fairy Tower as a separate building around 1500. . During the 17th century, new ranges of buildings were put up between the old tower and the Fairy Tower, beginning in 1623 with the state apartment built by Ruaraidh Mor. The old tower was subsequently abandoned until the late 18th century, when the 23rd chief began the process of homogenising the appearance of the castle. . Tag us to be featured 🇬🇧

A post shared by InstaBritain (@instabritain) on

Yesnaby, Stromness, Orkney #orkney #scotland #yesnaby #hike #outdoors

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Hadrians Wall #Scotland

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A priest’s hilarious diary reveals how rowdy London’s theatres were in the 1700s

Karl Philipp Moritz
A portrait of Karl Philipp Moritz

In the late 1700s, a young German priest and self-confessed Anglophile called Karl Philipp Moritz (1756-1793) fulfilled an ambition to go travelling around England. The product of that trip is an incredible diary Journeys of a German in England in 1782, though the translated edition in English is called, somewhat less pithily, Travels, chiefly on Foot, through several parts of England in 1782, described in Letters to a Friend.

Moritz offers an incredible window into English social history, detailing his encounters will people from both low and high society, in all sorts of scenarios, from cooking toast over the fire in a tavern to being shown around the university buildings in Oxford. He encounters a lot of friendliness, particularly in London, but as he travels out to the country, he experiences a lot of anti-German xenophobia, which taints his love for England.

One of the most memorable passages in the diary – and there are many – is his description of how rowdy London’s theatres were in their Georgian heyday. So here it is below. (If you want to read Moritz’s diary, Project Gutenberg turned it into an ebook and there’s even a free version for the Kindle.)

The Theatre in the Haymarket.

Last week I went twice to an English play-house…For a seat in the boxes you pay five shillings, in the pit three, in the first gallery two, and in the second or upper gallery, one shilling. And it is the tenants in this upper gallery who, for their shilling, make all that noise and uproar for which the English play-houses are so famous. I was in the pit, which gradually rises, amphitheatre-wise, from the orchestra, and is furnished with benches, one above another, from the top to the bottom.

Often and often, whilst I sat there, did a rotten orange, or pieces of the peel of an orange, fly past me, or past some of my neighbours, and once one of them actually hit my hat, without my daring to look round, for fear another might then hit me on my face.

All over London as one walks, one everywhere, in the season, sees oranges to sell; and they are in general sold tolerably cheap, one and even sometimes two for a halfpenny; or, in our money, threepence. At the play-house, however, they charged me sixpence for one orange, and that noways remarkably good.

Besides this perpetual pelting from the gallery, which renders an English play-house so uncomfortable, there is no end to their calling out and knocking with their sticks till the curtain is drawn up. I saw a miller’s, or a baker’s boy, thus, like a huge booby, leaning over the rails and knocking again and again on the outside,
with all his might, so that he was seen by everybody, without being in the least ashamed or abashed. I sometimes heard, too, the people in the lower or middle gallery quarrelling with those of the upper one.

Behind me, in the pit, sat a young fop, who, in order to display his costly stone buckles with the utmost brilliancy, continually put his foot on my bench, and even sometimes upon my coat, which I could avoid only by sparing him as much space from my portion of the seat as would make him a footstool. In the boxes, quite in a corner, sat several servants, who were said to be placed there to keep the seats for the families they served till they should arrive; they seemed to sit remarkably close and still, the reason of which, I was told, was their apprehension of being pelted; for if one of them dares but to look out of the box, he is immediately saluted with a shower of orange peel from the gallery.

This is the oldest love poem in the world and it’s kind of beautiful

A cuneiform tablet from the ancient Middle East. (BabelStone/Wikimedia Commons)

Around four millennia ago, one of our lovestruck ancestors in the heat of the Mesopotamian desert grabbed their stylus and a clay tablet and got etching what would become the oldest known love poem in the world.

The ancient tablet was only discovered at the end of the 19th century by archaeologists digging in Nippur, southern Iraq – formerly Sumer in southern Mesopotamia – an area rich with history. And they did what archaeologists often do with the treasures of antiquity – slapped a reference number on it and stuck it in a museum drawer.

That reference number became the beautiful poem’s unseemly adopted name: “Istanbul #2461”. Its full title is actually The Love Song for Shu-Sin. But this was undiscovered for over seventy years because it was just sitting in storage. Nobody had got around to decoding its text.

According to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, the archaeologists who found the tablet took it to the Istanbul Museum in Turkey and locked away for decades until it was dug out again in 1951 by the famous Sumerologist Samuel Noah Kramer.

Kramer finally translated the mysterious cuneiform tablet to reveal the stunning truth about its origins and what it says.

The locals, Ancient Sumerians, were the first people to use a written language. They developed a system where symbols represented spoken sounds. These symbols were written into wet clay tablets using a stylus and the system is called cuneiform.

Nobody knows who wrote the poem. There are no other records of it, and no signature at the bottom to say who the poet was. But the Sumerian King Shu-Sin ruled around four thousand years ago.

Shu-Sin was king of Sumer and Akkad. He reigned under the Ur III dynasty and is known for building a large fortified wall between two rivers – the Euphrates and the Tigris – to stop violent nomadic groups attacking the cities under his control.

In his 1956 book History Begins at Sumer, Kramer recounts his discovery of the tablet.

While working in the Istanbul Museum of the Ancient Orient as Fulbright Research Professor—it was toward the end of 1951—I came upon a little tablet with the museum number 2461. For weeks I had been studying, more or less cursorily, drawerful after drawerful of still uncopied and unpublished Sumerian literary tablets, in order to identify each piece and, if possible, assign it to the composition to which it belonged. All this was spadework preparatory to the selection, for copying, of those pieces which were most significant—since it was clear that there would be no time that year to copy all of them.

The little tablet numbered 2461 was lying in one of the drawers, surrounded by a number of other pieces. When I first laid eyes on it, its most attractive feature was its state of preservation. I soon realized that I was reading a poem, divided into a number of stanzas, which celebrated beauty and love, a joyous bride and a king named Shu­-Sin (who ruled over the land of Sumer close to four thousand years ago).

As I read it again and yet again, there was no mistaking its content. What I held in my hand was one of the oldest love songs written down by the hand of man.

It soon became clear that this was not a secular poem, not a song of love between just “a man and a maid.” It involved a king and his selected bride, and was no doubt intended to be recited in the course of the most hallowed of ancient rites, the rite of the “sacred marriage.”

Once a year, according to Sumerian belief, it was the sacred duty of the ruler to marry a priestess and votary of Inanna, the goddess of love and procreation, in order to ensure fertility to the soil and fecundity to the womb. The time­honored ceremony was celebrated on New Year’s day and was preceded by feasts and banquets accompanied by music, song, and dance. The poem inscribed on the little Istanbul clay tablet was in all probability recited by the chosen bride of King Shu­-Sin in the course of one of these New Year celebrations.


Here’s Samuel Noah Kramer‘s “tentative translation”, as he described it, of the world’s oldest known love poem.

The Love Song for Shu-Sin

Bridegroom, dear to my heart,
Goodly is your beauty, honeysweet,
Lion, dear to my heart,
Goodly is your beauty, honeysweet.

You have captivated me, let me stand tremblingly before you,
Bridegroom, I would be taken by you to the bedchamber,
You have captivated me, let me stand tremblingly before you,
Lion, I would be taken by you to the bedchamber.

Bridegroom, let me caress you,
My precious caress is more savory than honey,
In the bedchamber, honey filled,
Let us enjoy your goodly beauty,
Lion, let me caress you,
My precious caress is more savory than honey.

Bridegroom, you have taken your pleasure of me,
Tell my mother, she will give you delicacies,
My father, he will give you gifts.

Your spirit, I know where to cheer your spirit,
Bridegroom, sleep in our house until dawn,
Your heart, I know where to gladden your heart,
Lion, sleep in our house until dawn.

You, because you love me,
Give me pray of your caresses,
My lord god, my lord protector,
My Shu­-Sin who gladdens Enlil’s heart,
Give me pray of your caresses.

Your place goodly as honey, pray lay (your) hand on it,
Bring (your) hand over it like a gishban-­garment,
Cup (your) hand over it like a gishban­-sikin­-garment,

It is a balbale­song of Inanna.

This tragic film about a dog called Oden will make you cry your eyes out


Last Minutes with Oden
Oden, from Last Minutes with Oden, shortly before he receives his lethal injection.

Almost a decade ago, filmmaker Eliot Rausch captured the final moments of a sick dog called Oden after his owner, Jason Wood, made the heartbreaking decision to have him euthanised. The result was a stunning documentary called Last Minutes with Oden.

Rausch’s beautiful short film is incredibly emotional and an intimate portrait of the intense relationships that exist between people and their pets, especially dogs.

The award-winning documentary is only six minutes long, but that does not limit the power of its punch, and it will leave you a crying wreck.

Once you’ve finished watching the film – which, at the time of writing, has been viewed 3.3 million times on Vimeo since it was first published back in 2009 – you can also watch Eliot talking about it in his interview with Carson Daly.

Last Minutes with Oden won the award for Best Video at the first Vimeo Festival + Awards back in 2009. Rausch scooped a $25,000 filmmaking grant as his prize.

Wood, the subject of Rausch’s film, had severe ADHD as a child, for which he was heavily medicated, leading to drug problems in later life – though he eventually got clean. Wood had spent a decade behind bars but now focuses on helping others in difficulty.

He is “a radical, Mother Teresa-type-person,” Rausch told NPR in 2010. “They call him the Mayor of Long Beach … His life is dedicated to loving on the forgotten people.”