Category Archives: Writing

Obeying the call of nature

This is the only euphemism I will allow myself.

When I worked in scientific publishing I spent some time editing out the word ‘sacrifice’ from manuscripts submitted to The British Journal of Experimental Pathology. The most famous article ever published in this respected and long-standing, but rather staid, journal was ‘On the antibacterial action of cultures of a penicillium, with special reference to their use in the isolation of B. influenzae‘ published in 1929, and written by one Alexander Fleming. It took a few years to register, but this is now seen as the seminal article that paved the way for the discovery, study, manufacture and widespread use of modern antibiotics.

By the early 1980s, much of the work published in the journal was on T-cells, ‘helper’ cells, ‘natural killer’ cells and various others, all types of lymphocyte (white blood cell) important in the body’s immune response. Living up to the experimental part of the journal’s name, the experiments were carried out in rats and mice, rather than in humans. Between the experimental disease development and the examination of the cells under the electron microscope (or in some biochemical analysis) there came the necessary procedure of quickly getting the cells out of the laboratory rodents.

It was at this point that many of the authors claimed to ‘sacrifice’ the experimental animals. Some even tried to suggest the animals were ‘immolated’. I was having none of this. The Incas (or was it the Aztecs?) sacrificed their unfortunate victims on the altars of pagan gods, cutting out hearts in unholy bloody rituals, by all accounts. Self-immolation is the protest suicide of many religious cultures, even in modern times, tolerated perhaps because of the cleansing, auto-cremation of the flames. Lab rats are neither sacrificed nor immolated in the name of some scientific pseudo-deity, they are simply killed. They are killed out of scientific necessity, or at least out of expediency, but they are killed, not sacrificed. Just as animals are killed for food, or because they are agricultural pests, or because they do us harm.

This was just around the time that antivivisection feelings were beginning to run rife. Words like ‘kill’, ‘death’, ‘slaughter’ were coyly avoided by some scientists, aware of the cultural weight these simple and previously convenient terms now carried.

Perhaps it was because I was an entomologist, so I was used to killing insects. I never sacrificed one at the communion table of entomology, and I never immolated any either.

I subedited the journal for a year or so. During that time I doubt anyone (certainly not the editors, and probably not even the authors themselves) noticed my attempts to cleanse their research papers of this particular euphemism. The next subeditor more than likely turned a blind eye to these particular turns of phrase. We all have our foibles. Abhorrence of euphemisms is mine.


When caught short, out in the wilds, obeying the call of nature is sometimes a necessary function. Two functions, perhaps. It can, on occasion, add several species of Scarabaeidae to a site species list, but on no account should the records give, as they did in several early 20th century beetle lists, ‘in stercore humano’.

I’ve been a bit tardy on this one

How long does it take to publish a scientific article? In my case, just over 10 years. I’ve had a box full of specimens that I picked up on the beach in Normandy in 2002, but I only got around to working through them last autumn.

Picture 3

I quite like the idea of aerial plankton.

My excuse is that there is always something else that needs doing. Pathetic I know. Sorry. I’ll try and do better in future.

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And, by the way, thank you to John Badmin, editor of British Journal of Entomology and Natural History, for permission to post the PDF of this article.

The insects of the septic fringe — another reason to ignore brownfields?

I recently came across the term “septic fringe”, so of course I couldn’t resist using it. It was originally used in a sociological context to describe the squalid shanty-towns and peri-urban sprawl in developing centres. It immediately struck a chord with me; I fancied that I recognized it … or at least the shadow that remains decades (or centuries) on from slum clearance and piecemeal gentrification.

The brownfield jungle, once septic fringe?

The brownfield jungle, once part of the septic fringe?

The septic fringe is the unregulated, unplanned, insanitary and sometimes lawless squatter zone around the edge of a city. Fuelled by rural-to-urban migration it is built higgledy-piggledy, often along main roads, using whatever scavenged materials may be to hand, without any sewage or waste disposal system and without access to clean water.

Its unfortunate entomological significance lies in the plentiful opportunities that it affords pest insects, particularly disease vectors like mosquitoes, blackflies, blowflies, fleas and cockroaches, breeding in the disordered filth, and with access to a typically overcrowded, poverty-stricken and disease-ridden populace.

There is also an implicit assumption that, further back in human prehistory, a similar, though smaller, septic fringe around the most basic settlements of early protohumans allowed some insects access to a new ecological niche — our domestic dwellings. The reasoning goes that latrines, along with rubbish and food remains dumped around the edge of the basic human encampment, encouraged insect scavengers from the surrounding wilderness, and that these later moved in to attack food stores, skins, fabrics and structural timber as the previously sparse nomadic hunter-gatherer population became more settled and adopted to live in houses — or at least started to inhabit semi-permanent shelters, rather than temporary bivouacs.

The septic fringe is still a feature of many major Third World cities like Rio de Janeiro, Jakarta and Soweto. It happened rather longer ago in London, nevertheless….

To counter the septic fringe is an alternative concept — the affluent fringe. This time following a reverse migration from cities after World War II, colonization was into the suburbs. It left behind partly bombed inner city areas which were poorly populated, and perhaps populated by the poor. Slum clearance created the 1960s housing estates which are also presently being demolished, and a still-ongoing cyclical gentrification uplifts one set of streets, while another area suffers decline. This septic fringe is now a decayed ring between the central city core and the suburbs, and it is where some of the best (and most vulnerable) brownfield sites lie.

Deep in the city centre (London at least) buildings are still being demolished and new developments go ahead, but there is practically no gap between clearance and build; brownfield sites are very short-lived, if lived at all. There is barely a moment between the last load of rubble being carted away and the first load of concrete being laid. Further out, though, sites are still cleared before the next stage of their existence is finalized. It is here that the brownfield sites become unofficial wildlife reserves.

It is also here that derelict and apparently abandoned sites seem to be festering, where land-prices are at their most volatile, and where the wildlife value of these scrappy-looking bits of land is under-appreciated (it’s not real countryside, after all).

Just as the infected-sounding nature of the septic fringe is unappealing and uninviting, the often ugly-looking and dangerous-seeming ‘waste’ land of brownfield sites is also easily disparaged.

I came across the notion of the septic fringe whilst researching a book about household insect pests, where they originally came from ‘in the wild’, and how and when they adapted to become household invaders. The analogy between the septic fringe and the brownfield ring is, perhaps, slightly fanciful, but I’d argue that the hazy, dirty, irregular junction where human activity meets nature is still an important zone to study.