Friday, 26 October 2018

Older than Dracula: in search of the English vampire

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The Premature Burial. Antoine Wiertz (1854)
Sam George, University of Hertfordshire

The story of Count Dracula as many of us know it was created by Bram Stoker, an Irishman, in 1897. But most of the action takes place in England, from the moment the Transylvanian vampire arrives on a shipwrecked vessel in Whitby, North Yorkshire, with plans to make his lair in the spookily named Carfax estate, west of the river in London.

But Dracula wasn’t the first vampire in English literature, let alone the first to stalk England. The vampire first made its way into English literature in John Polidori’s 1819 short story “The Vampyre”. Polidori’s vampire, Lord Ruthven, is inspired by a thinly disguised portrait of the predatory English poet, Lord Byron, in Lady Caroline Lamb’s novel Glenarvon (1816). So the first fictional vampire was actually a satanic English Lord.

It is nearly 200 years since this Romantic/Byronic archetype for a vampire emerged – but what do we know about English belief in vampires outside of fiction? New research at the University of Hertfordshire has uncovered and reappraised a number of vampire myths – and they are not all confined to the realms of fiction.

The Croglin Vampire reputedly first appeared in Cumberland to a Miss Fisher in the 1750s. Its story is retold by Dr Augustus Hare, a clergyman, in his Memorials of a Quiet Life in 1871. According to this legend, the vampire scratches at the window before disappearing into an ancient vault. The vault is later discovered to be full of coffins that have been broken open and their contents, horribly mangled and distorted, are scattered over the floor. One coffin only remains intact, but the lid has been loosened. There, shrivelled and mummified – but quite intact – lies the Croglin Vampire.

Elsewhere in Cumbria, the natives of Renwick, were once known as “bats” due to the monstrous creature that is said to have flown out of the foundations of a rebuilt church there in 1733. The existence of vampire bats, which sucked blood wouldn’t be confirmed until 1832, when Charles Darwin sketched one feeding off a horse on his voyage to South America in The Beagle. The creature in Renwick has been referred to as a “cockatrice” – a mythical creature with a serpent’s head and tail and the feet and wings of a cockerel – by Cumbrian County History. But it’s the myth of the vampire bat that has prevailed in the surrounding villages and is recorded in conversations in local archives and journals.

What picture emerges then in this history of the English vampire? The Croglin Vampire has never been verified – but it has an afterlife in the 20th century, appearing as The British Vampire in 1977 in an anthology of horror by Daniel Farson, who turns out to be Stoker’s great-grandnephew.

The Nightmare. John Henry Fuseli (1781)

Nightmare in Buckinghamshire

But there is one case that has no connection to fiction, the little-known Buckinghamshire Vampire, recorded by William of Newburgh in the 12th century. Historical records show that St Hugh, the Bishop of Lincoln, was called upon to deal with the terrifying revenant and learned to his astonishment, after contacting other theologians, that similar attacks had happened elsewhere in England.

St Hugh was told that no peace would be had until the corpse was dug up and burned, but it was decided that an absolution – a declaration of forgiveness, by the church, absolving one from sin – would be a more seemly way to disable the vampire. When the tomb was opened the body was found to have not decomposed. The absolution was laid inside on the corpse’s chest by the Archdeacon and the vampire was never again seen wandering from his grave.

The Buckinghamshire revenant did not have a “vampire” burial – but such practices are evidence of a longstanding belief in vampires in Britain. Astonishingly, the medieval remains of the what are thought to be the first English vampires have been found in the Yorkshire village of Wharram Percy. The bones of over 100 “vampire” corpses have now been uncovered buried deep in village pits. The bones were excavated more than half a century ago and date back to before the 14th century. They were at first thought to be the result of cannibalism during a famine or a massacre in the village but on further inspection in 2017 the burned and broken skeletons were linked instead to deliberate mutilations perpetrated to prevent the dead returning to harm the living – beliefs common in folklore at the time.

‘Vampire graves’ have been found at the abandoned village of Wharram Percy in Yorkshire. Paul Allison via Alchemipedia, CC BY

Vile bodies

The inhabitants of Wharram Percy showed widespread belief in the undead returning as revenants or reanimated corpses and so fought back against the risk of vampire attacks by deliberately mutilating their own dead, burning bones and dismembering corpses, including those of women, children and teenagers, in an attempt to stave off what they believed could be a plague of vampires. This once flourishing village was completely deserted in the aftermath.

Just recently at an ancient Roman site in Italy the severed skull of a ten-year-old child was discovered with a large rock inserted in the mouth to prevent biting and bloodsucking. Then skull belongs to a suspected 15th-century revenant which they are calling locally the “Vampire of Lugano”.

There has been a wealth of other stories from the UK and other parts of Western Europe – but, despite this, thanks to the Dracula legend, most people still assume such practises and beliefs belong to remote parts of Eastern Europe. But our research is continuing to examine “vampire burials” in the UK and is making connections to local myths and their legacy in English literature, many years before the Byronic fiend Count Dracula arrived in Yorkshire carrying his own supply of Transylvanian soil.

Sam George, Senior Lecturer in Literature, University of Hertfordshire
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Thursday, 25 October 2018

No wonder dads aren't taking shared parental leave – most employers have failed to embrace it

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Ernestine Gheyoh Ndzi, University of Hertfordshire
Parental leave for new mums as well as new dads was always going to be a potentially tricky sell. On top of prejudice, societal pressures and expectations, many people still believe a new baby is best being looked after by its mother, and some new mums may feel they have earned the time off.
This is despite the fact that a recent study shows a direct correlation between dads who are more involved and the stability of their long-term relationships with partners. The study looked at more than 13,000 mixed-sex couples and found that fathers who spend more time alone caring for their babies are less likely to separate from their partners.

But three years after the introduction of shared parental leave – whereby parents can share up to 50 weeks of leave (37 weeks of which is paid) if they meet certain eligibility criteria – its benefits are yet to be obvious to many parents. And my researchinvestigating the reasons why mothers may or may not want to share their leave with their partners suggests that some employers have failed to embrace and normalise shared parental leave in the workplace.
The research, which involved 756 online responses and 20 semi-structured interviews with parents found that, while most organisations now have policies on shared parental leave, only 18% of respondents heard about it from their employers.

‘Complex and bureaucratic’

The findings reveal that many employers don’t seem to understand how shared parental leave actually works. Many companies were unable to explain to their staff what shared parental leave is, or how it works – as Sarah, a 32-year-old mum explained:
I’m sure my HR department still don’t understand what shared parental leave is, because there was so much confusion.
Participants also talked about HR policies being too difficult to understand. Though this may not be surprising, given the shared parental leave policy has been described as complex and bureaucratic. In my research only 11% of the survey participants said they understood their company’s policy on shared parental leave pay. Companies also seem to be reluctant to share the policy widely within the company, as James, a 37-year-old line manager put it:
I like being helpful, but I don’t think I’d necessarily say: ‘Oh guys, I’ve just learnt something new. Here, do you know that you can take more time off, just go and have another child’.
This lack of employer awareness and communication then affects staff decisions and attitudes towards shared parental leave policy – making it less likely that employees will consider taking shared parental leave.

Social stigma

But there are other challenges that go far beyond what employer awareness and communication can resolve alone. This includes leadership and culture in the workplace, as well as the lack of role models for stay-at-home dads.
There are also issues around mother and child health after birth – some women aren’t able to go back to work straight away due to complications. Then there is a cultural perception of dad still being the breadwinner of the family, issues around breastfeeding and the nature of the type of work mother and fathers do – including the impact that taking time off can have on careers.
Most new parents choose not to take shared parental leave. Pexels

Another part of the issue is the fact that shared parental leave is paid at the statutory rate – this leaves it up to the employers to chose whether or not to enhance shared parental leave pay.
Shared parental leave pay is currently £139.58 a week or 90% of an employee’s average weekly earnings – whichever is lower. But an employer may offer more. This is the same as statutory maternity pay – except during the first six weeks of maternity, pay amounts to 90% of whatever the employee earns, with no maximum.

So in this sense it could leave some families worse off, as the policy does not place legal obligations on employers that enhance maternity or paternity leave pay to do the same for shared parental leave pay. Although some companies decided right from the introduction of shared parental leave to offer enhanced pay, many are yet to do so. And employees who can’t get enhanced pay – but have access to enhanced maternity or paternity pay – may not take the shared option because of the financial cost. As 32-year-old Jade explained:
We both work for the NHS and are eligible for enhanced maternity and paternity pay … However, if we had taken shared parental leave, we would have lost the enhanced pay so would have been financially much worse off.

Redefining parenthood

Shared parental leave is a policy that is a milestone towards cultural change. It provides an opportunity for fathers to be more active in caring for their children and for mothers to have the opportunity of limiting the effect of caring responsibilities on their career.
But this policy and its intended aims cannot be achieved if employers don’t engage with it and embrace it. This is important because if employers are not being proactive and passing the relevant information onto their staff, many will not know or push to know about shared leave.

What all this shows is that employers are key players on shared parental leave. And for society to truly benefit from the introduction of shared parental leave, more companies need to communicate effectively with their employees, enhance pay where possible and encourage staff to take advantage of the policy.The Conversation

Ernestine Gheyoh Ndzi, Senior Lecturer and Cohort Tutor, Hertfordshire Law School, University of Hertfordshire

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

We've spotted signs of collisions that may finally help us prove that supermassive black holes exist

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Visible light image of the radio galaxy Hercules A obtained by the Hubble Space Telescope superposed with a radio image taken by the Very Large Array of radio telescopes in New Mexico, USA. NASA
Martin Krause, University of Hertfordshire
Observations of nature tend to throw up unexpected results and new mysteries – whether you’re investigating the rain forest or outer space. When radio astronomy took off in the 1950s, we had no idea that it would lead to the discovery that galaxies including our own seem to have terrifyingly large black holes at their centre – millions to billions of times the mass of the sun.

A few decades later, we still haven’t been able to prove that these beasts – dubbed supermassive black holes – actually exist. But our new research, published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, could one day help us do so.

Early radio astronomers discovered that some galaxies emit radio waves (a type of electromagnetic radiation). They knew that galaxies sometimes collide and merge, and naturally wondered whether this could have something to do with the radio emission. Better observations, however, refuted this idea over the years.

They also discovered that the radio waves were emitted as narrow jets, meaning that the power came from a tiny region in the nucleus. The radio power was indeed huge – often surpassing the luminosity of all the stars in the galaxy taken together. Various suggestions were made as to how such a huge amount of energy could be produced, and it was in the 1970s that scientists finally proposed that a supermassive black hole could be the culprit. The objects are nowadays known as quasars.

Theoretical models estimated that these objects would have a mass of an entire small galaxy concentrated in a space comparable to Earth’s orbit around the sun. But because only some galaxies produce energetic outbursts, it was unclear how common supermassive black holes would be. With the advent of the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990, the centres of nearby galaxies that did not emit radio bursts could finally be investigated. Did they contain supermassive black holes too?

It turned out that many did – astronomers saw signs of gravitating masses influencing the matter around it without emitting any light. Even the Milky Way showed evidence of having a supermassive black hole at the centre, now known as Sgr A*. At this point, astronomers became increasingly convinced that supermassive black holes were a reality and could plausibly explain the extreme energetic outbursts from some galaxies.

However, there is no definitive proof yet. That is despite the fact that some supermassive black holes emit jets – these come from the surroundings of the black hole rather than the black hole itself. So how do you prove the existence of something completely dark? A black hole as defined by Einstein’s theory of general relativity is a region of space bounded by a horizon – a surface from inside of which no light or material object can ever escape. So, it’s a pretty difficult task for astronomers: they need to see something that emits nothing.

Black hole collision and merger releasing gravitational waves. LIGO, CC BY-SA

For smaller black holes the size of a stellar mass, a proof was indeed found: when two such objects merge, they emit gravitational waves, a tiny wobbling of space that was for the first time registered in 2015. The detection proved that black holes exist, that they sometimes form pairs and that they indeed merge. This was a tremendous success, honoured with the Nobel prize in 2017.

We also have a good understanding of where normal sized black holes come from – they are what is left after a star much more massive than the sun has arrived at the end of its lifetime. But both the existence and the origin of supermassive black holes are shrouded in mystery.

Spinning black holes

We have now found indications that many of the radio jets produced by supermassive black holes may in fact be the result of these objects forming pairs, orbiting each other. We did this by comparing the observed radio maps of their regions with our computer models.
The presence of a second black hole would make the jets produced by the first one change direction in a periodic way over hundreds of thousands of years. We realised that the cyclic change in jet direction would cause a very specific appearance in radio maps of the galaxy centre.

Lobes are created by the jets depositing energy to surrounding particles. Author provided

We found evidence of such a pattern in about 75% of our sample of “radio galaxies” (galaxies that emit radio waves), suggesting that supermassive black hole pairs are the rule, not the exception. Such pairs are actually expected to form after galaxies merge. Each galaxy contains a supermassive black hole, and since they are heavier than all the individual stars, they sink to the centre of the newly formed galaxy where they first form a close pair and then merge under emission of gravitational waves.

While our observation provides an important piece of evidence for the existence of pairs of supermassive black holes, it’s not a proof either. What we observe are still the effects that the black holes somehow cause indirectly. Just like with normal black holes, a full proof of the existence of supermassive black hole pairs requires detection of gravitational waves emitted by them.

Current gravitational wave telescopes can only detect gravitational waves from stellar mass black holes. The reason is that they orbit around one another much faster, which leads to the production of higher frequency gravitational waves that we can detect. The next generation of instruments will however be able to register low frequency gravitational waves as well – potentially from supermassive black hole pairs. This would finally prove their existence – half a century after they were first proposed. It’s an exciting time to be a scientist.

Martin Krause, Senior Lecturer, University of Hertfordshire
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Monday, 1 October 2018

It’s International Coffee Day – should we be celebrating?

Professor Jonathan Morris, University of Hertfordshire

It’s International Coffee Day today, but what exactly is there to celebrate?  Coffee prices have fallen to their lowest levels for 12 years. The International Coffee Organisation (ICO) composite price last week stood at US$0.98 per lb, compared to over $1.20 a year ago. The current levels are widely considered to be below the cost of production for many farmers, particularly those small holders who make up 95% of the world’s coffee farmers. These include many of those Women in Coffee whose role the ICO is rightly celebrating during International Coffee Day. One reason that women are increasingly involved in coffee cultivation is that men, particularly the young, are leaving the land to look for more lucrative opportunities in the cities. Those who remain are increasingly tempted to grub up their trees and switch into more profitable, if illegal crops, such as drugs.  

Yet over the last thirty years there has been a revolution in coffee consumption habits, epitomised by the rise of the international coffee shop chains. 
This is widely perceived to have transformed coffee into a premium product, delivering high margins to hospitality operators. How can it be that the latte revolution has still failed to deliver sustainability throughout the coffee economy?  

This question is hardly a new one. During the last coffee crisis between 1998 and 2007, a host of analyses and proposals were put forward to resolve this so-called ‘coffee paradox’. Oxfam published a scathing report warning consumers about the ‘poverty in your coffee cup’, the film ‘Black Gold’ flew Ethiopian farmers to London to witness the disparity between the price they received, and that for which their coffee was sold on the supermarket shelves, while Starbucks found itself at the centre of anti-globalisation riots in its home city of Seattle. The apparent injustices of the market spurred a range of ‘ethical coffee’ initiatives, notably around the Fair Trade movement, as coffee roasters scrambled to sign up to schemes that demonstrated their corporate responsibility.

Yet despite all of these efforts, the fundamental instability within the world coffee trade remains.  It takes up to five years for a coffee tree to reach commercial maturity, so there is a significant lag in the response of supply to demand. Over the last 100 years we have all too frequently experienced instances when, as now, an excess of supply has led to price collapse.

During the 19th century, Brazil became the world’s principal coffee producing country supplying the mass market for coffee that was developing in the United States. The coffee barons of Sao Paolo, the centre of the Brazilian industry, followed a strategy of increasing their overall revenues by expanding production further into the interior, and accepting low prices so as to further stimulate consumption in the US.  This Brazilian strategy was made easier by the fact that the large coffee plantations were worked by slaves up until the 1880s, and by indentured peasants thereafter. These colonos had little choice but to accept the compensation offered them. The system reached its zenith in 1906 when Brazil produced over 20 million sacks of coffee (compared to 5.5 million in 1890), 85% of the world’s output.

The bumper harvest of 1906 led prices to fall by over 50% from 13 to 6 US cents per pound. The Brazilian authorities, worked in cahoots with a consortium of US bankers and brokers, to keep the surplus stocks off the market. This policy of ‘valorization’ resulted in a price recovery by 1910, but became increasingly difficult to enact as other volume producers, such as Colombia, entered into the coffee market. Having expanded production as a result of the growth of the US market in the 1920s, the Brazilian authorities were so desperate to get rid of excess stocks in the 1930s that they began mixing coffee and tar to create an alternative fuel for locomotives.

Post-war affluence in the West led to an intensification of coffee production in the Americas, further stimulated by developments in agronomy. Meanwhile the newly- independent African states of the 1950s and 60s rapidly expanded their production by planting robusta, a cheaper and hardier species, well suited for use in the increasingly popular  instant coffee products. During this era a new mechanism for managing supply was created with establishment of the ICO which operated a production quota system as a form of price management. This was accepted by the major consumer countries, principally for political reasons connected to the Cold War.  After America withdrew its support in 1989, the system swiftly collapsed.

Subsequently one county has been the great disruptor within the coffee economy: Vietnam. In 1991 Vietnam produced 1.3 million bags, in 2001 14.8 million bags, and in 2018 30.9 million bags – the vast majority of this being Robusta.  It is now the second largest producer in the world behind Brazil, with an output that it is greater than the whole of Africa. It is this increase that lay at the heart of the coffee crisis between 1998 and 2007, and again today.

How can we move on from this?  It is chilling to note that the ending of most of the price crises during the last century has been achieved not through good policy, but as a result of natural disasters, such as the severe outbreak of coffee rust in Latin America in the early 2010s, which, of course, had devastating effects on individual farms.  Do we really want to rely on climate change to bring prices back into line?

While a return to the ICO quota system might appeal to some, we need to recognise that this was much less beneficial to farmers than to government agencies who used it to secure foreign exchange returns for themselves. The years the quota system was in operation did see a significant diminution of price volatility, but much of this was probably a consequence of the disastrous Brazilian frost of 1975 which destroyed many trees, leading to a tripling of the coffee price.

In fact, it’s unlikely that the so-called specialty coffee revolution of the last 30 years would have occurred without the ending of the quota system. Under it, coffee tended to be sold in homogenised lots according to basic classifications which provided no guarantee of flavour. Today, by contrast, it is possible to buy micro-lots of coffees from particular farms: in July a new world record price of $803 per lb was set at auction for a lot from Panama.

While the disparity between this price and that for commodity coffee might seem to reinforce the lack of connection between the sectors, further investigation shows how it might point a new way forward.  The lot in question was purchased by a Taiwanese roaster, with the next two highest bids coming from Japanese coffee companies.  Asia has overtaken North America as the second largest continental market in the world by volume after Europe, and is by far the fastest growing market in the world for coffee, recording an average annual compound growth rate between 2012 and 2016 of 4.5% pa.

The reason for this is, at heart, a simple one – the success of Starbucks and similar international coffee chains in transforming the image of coffee from an everyday beverage into a premium lifestyle product.  Emulating this western lifestyle has driven a growth in world consumption (both in and out of home) to the point that just under half the world’s coffee is drunk beyond the traditional markets in Europe and North America. 

Driving this growth represents by far the best bet for creating a more sustainable level of income for coffee producers. Instead of seeking to manage supply, coffee producers need to stimulate demand, principally in their own markets. This has already begun to happen – Brazil is now the second largest consumer country in the world, while Indonesia is the fifth. The potential for growth remains enormous – per capita consumption in Asia is still only 10% of that in the United States. Coffee chains such as Java House in East Africa are reconnecting producers and consumers in countries such as Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda.

If International Coffee Day can help persuade consumers in these non-traditional markets to drink more coffee, then it will be well worth celebrating as an initiative with the potential to transform coffee from a product grown in the Global South for the benefit of the Global North, into one that confers benefits – and pleasure – all along its value chain. 

Professor Jonathan Morris's new book Coffee: A Global History can be ordered here.