Thursday, 18 January 2018

Star-Gayzing : Discovering Dwarves

For no other reason than we are coming to the end of the British pantomime season I thought I’d write about one of the dwarves today. Not one of Snow White’s seven dwarves but an interstellar brown dwarf star and an lgbt astrophysicist who discovered the very first one.

As with the dwarves of Snow White there are seven different types of dwarf star. They are named after the colours which indicate their temperature and mass – red, yellow, orange, blue, white, black and brown. All of them are relatively small in size compared to our Sun (obviously, that’s why they’re called dwarf stars!).

The Sun, like the majority of stars, fuses hydrogen atoms to produce its light, heat and radiation. Early on in their life-cycle stars also fuse lithium atoms. Once a young star has burnt up all its lithium and uses hydrogen it has become what you might call an “adult” star. However, a brown dwarf star is too small to produce enough energy to fuse hydrogen and still has lots of lithium left to carry on fusing for the rest of its life cycle. Brown dwarves can be only slightly bigger than the planet Jupiter but have more mass (heavier, for want of a better word). The illustration below shows you the relative sizes of our Sun, Earth, Jupiter and the Gliese 229 star system of which Gliese 229B is a brown dwarf star.
In size brown dwarves come between the smallest red dwarf stars and the largest gas planets. The difference is that a gas planet, like Jupiter and Saturn, aren’t quite massive or active enough for nuclear fusion to take place within them when they form. Another difference is that a brown dwarf forms from the same cloud as other stars, whereas planets are formed from the dust discs that surround stars that have already been formed. There are varying other criteria and definitions still being debated and discussed about brown dwarf stars.

Their existence was first theorised back in 1962 and were given the name brown dwarf in 1975. Because these brown dwarves are only just bigger than Jupiter and emit very little light they have been difficult to find. As telescopes and technology has developed the hunt became easier. Searches using infrared found several possible candidates in the 1980s.

Now we come to the Gliese 229 star system and Gliese 229B in particular. This was the first brown dwarf star to be confirmed and photographed. It is also the first methane-rich brown dwarf and the first in a new category called T Dwarf star. A leading member of the team of astronomers who discovered Gliese 229B was transgender astrophysicist Dr. Rebecca Oppenheimer of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).
Gliese 229B is located in the constellation of Lepus and is the companion to the larger red dwarf star Gliese 229 (the stars are not visible to the naked eye, even though I have shown them on the star map above). The distance between them is roughly the same as the average distance between out Sun and Pluto. Both Gliese stars are quite close to us, almost 19 light years, meaning that what telescopes see today is how they looked just before the millennium. At the time of its discovery Gliese 229B was the faintest object ever seen.

Gliese 229B was discovered during the systematic survey of near-by stars by Caltech. Rebecca Oppenheimer, a graduate Research Fellow, led the Caltech team. Using the 60-inch diameter reflecting telescope at Mount Palomar Observatory in California an image of the larger red Gliese 229 was taken on 27th October 1994. The image was enhanced by using adaptive optics, an image-sharpening system. Adaptive optics was used by another lgbt astronomer, Franck Marchis, which he helped to developed and led to his discovery of satellites around asteroids. Infrared images and follow-up observations and images from the Hubble Space Telescope confirmed the new brown dwarf star’s existence.

The discovery was important in another area of research, the hunt for exoplanets, planets orbiting other stars. Because it is hard to tell if an object is a brown dwarf star or a giant gas planet the information gathered by Rebecca Oppenheimer and her team has helped to clarify the distinctions between the two.

In fact, it was the discovery of Gliese 229B that led Rebecca to switch to searching for exoplanets. She has led several planet-hunting projects and developed better adaptive optic systems. In July I’ll return to Dr. Rebecca Oppenheimer and planet hunting and look at her and other lgbt astronomers involved in searching for worlds beyond our own solar system.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Around the World in Another 80 Gays : Part 3) Controversial Legacy

Previously : 3) Sir Roger Casement (1864-1916) enlisted help in his plan of Irish resistance from Count Johan von Bernstorff whose nephew, 4) Count Albrecht von Bernstorff (1890-1945), followed him into the diplomatic service after graduating as a Rhodes Scholar, named after 5) Rt. Hon. Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902).

Cecil Rhodes has become a highly controversial figure in history and at the university which takes in Rhodes Scholars. The controversy derives from his colonial administration. Students at Oriel College, Oxford, wanted to remove Rhodes’ statue from their grounds because of his imperial racism. The controversy was quite heated during 2015 and 2016. The campaign was called Rhodes Must Fall and began at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. It quickly spread to Oxford.

The Oxford students were criticised by academics and historians for their apparent bias against just one man when many others commemorated throughout the university had worse reputations than Rhodes. The historians pointed out that 22 of the first US Presidents and most of the Signatories of the Declaration of Independence were slave-owners and white supremacists. There were no calls from students to remove George Washington’s coat of arms from Oxford’s Trinity College library. (Last year the Virginia church where George Washington worshipped removed a commemorative plaque to him because of his links to slavery.)
Cecil Rhodes
In his lifetime Cecil Rhodes was considered to be the greatest colonial figure in the British Empire. Not only did he become the Prime Minister of a colony but he had another colony named after him. That colony, Rhodesia, became the present independent nations of Zambia and Zimbabwe.

When Zimbabwe became independent in 1979 Robert Mugabe became President. It’s an irony of history that a republican regime like Mugabe’s, which was finally removed last year, could have been so homophobic when Cecil Rhodes was very probably gay. It is the colonial powers in Britain that set the political boundaries of Zimbabwe way back in the 1890s as part of the territory known as Zambesia. It was named Rhodesia in 1895 due to Rhodes’ popularity.

We may never know for sure if Cecil Rhodes was gay. He never married and never seemed to have any public romantic attachment to anyone, male or female. It is his private life which offers glimpses of what his sexual interests might have been.

The first significant friendship was with Neville Pickering (1857-1886), a good-looking young man whom Rhodes employed as company secretary of De Beers, Rhodes’ huge diamond-mining business. Shortly afterwards they were living together in a modest shack. On Pickering’s 25th birthday Rhodes left some important business meetings to spend time with him. He even changed his will to make Pickering his sole beneficiary. Pickering never inherited Rhodes’ fortune. He broke his leg in a fall from his horse and septicaemia set in. Again, Rhodes left an important meeting in Johannesburg and rushed back to Kimberley to tend to his injured friend. Rhodes nursed Pickering until he died in Rhodes’ arms and Rhodes was absolutely inconsolable.

After Pickering there was Henry Latham Currey, who angered Rhodes when he decided to get married, and there was Dr. Leander Starr Jameson. Rhodes and Jameson had been friends, possibly more, through all of Rhodes’ relationships. All of them could well have been non-sexual.

Rhodes earned his fortune and the means by which the Rhodes Scholarships could be funded, was though De Beers diamond company. In 1866 diamonds were found in what became Kimberley, South Africa. A diamond rush led to the higher demand for diamonds, which had until then had only been obtainable from India or to a lesser extent Brazil. Cecil Rhodes took advantage and formed De Beers, the company that still dominates the industry.

Here I could go in several directions through this 80 Gay journey with diamonds and its connections. I could go into De Beers’ famous slogan “A Diamond is Forever” which influenced the title of the James Bond novel “Diamonds Are Forever”. If you’d like to follow that route you can begin with my article on James Bond’s queer connections here. Two people in that article are Numbers 77 and 78 in this “Another 80 Gays” series – but you’ll have to wait until December to find out who they are! Bond fans, don’t worry, because there is another, very surprising and uplifting, link to 007 coming in late summer.

The route I’ve chosen from Cecil Rhodes and diamonds takes us back thousands of years to where diamonds first came from, India. There was a legendary place called the Valley of the Diamonds in northern India. Legend says that this Valley was discovered by a Greek king who invaded the area and who was said to be the first to bring diamonds back with him to Europe. He was the famous 6) Alexander the Great (356 BC-323 BC).

I hope to write a more detailed article on Cecil Rhodes, Alexander the Great and diamonds later in the year.

Next time we look at something else attributed to Alexander the Great, his coat of arms.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Around the World in Another 80 Gays : Part 2) Rebellion

Previously : 1) Sir Noël Coward (1899-1973), when a tennage, became an unofficial mascot of the Sherwood Foresters regiment through his relationship with 2) Philip Streatfeild (1879-1915), whose regiment took part in the Irish rebellion led by 3) Sir Roger Casement (1964-1916).

The Easter Rising in Dublin 1916, at which the Sherwood Foresters were a major British force against the rebels, was organised mainly by a more militant group of Irish nationalists than 3) Sir Roger Casement’s own Irish Volunteers. Sir Roger knew about the uprising but may not have been fully aware of the militants’ plans to use the Easter assembly of the Volunteers as the date to start an armed rebellion. The Irish Volunteers tried to cancel their assembly but the militants decided to go ahead anyway. Sir Roger has expected to be involved in the rising but the militants thought they could manage without him.

In the lead up to the Easter Rising Sir Roger was in Germany arranging for arms shipments to be smuggled into Ireland by sea. He was uncertain about Germany being serious enough to send enough arms to be of any significant use. The arms and ammunition Germany offered was less than he had asked for, and he had to proceed without the assistance of the German military.

I have written several articles on Sir Roger Casement in the past and his activities are described in more detailed here. The ship carrying German arms to Ireland was intercepted by the Royal Navy just a few days before the Easter Rising. Sir Roger was captured and put on trial for treason. He was executed in 1916.

The smuggling plan was first discussed by Sir Roger in 1914 shortly after World War I broke out. He had gone to America to meet the German ambassador to the US Count Johan Heinrich von Bernstorff. Bernstorff was sympathetic to Sir Roger’s plan and he was himself placed in America to gather anti-British intelligence. The count was involved in many plots against the British, although he denied it at the time.

Another member of the Bernstorff family was a German diplomat at the time of the 1916 Easter Rising, Count Johan Heinrich’s nephew 4) Count Albrecht von Bernstorff (1890-1945). When Germany began to increase their submarine warfare in the Atlantic in 1917 Count Albrecht contacted his uncle in America to get his view. Albrecht himself was opposed to the action because, like many other Germans, he feared it would bring the USA into the war on the British side. They were right to have such fears. President Woodrow Wilson cut off all diplomatic relations with Germany and Ambassador Bernstorff was sent home.

Count Albrecht was horrified at the large number of casualties on both sides as World War I progressed, unlike his uncle. Although Albrecht can not be described as a pacifist he was certainly anti-war. That made his diplomatic roles even more important to him. During the Easter Rising and his uncle’s expulsion from America Albrecht was an attaché at the German embassy in Vienna. Later in 1917 he served in the German Foreign Office in Berlin. After that he assisted in peace negotiations with Romania. Between 1923 and 1933 Count Albrecht was appointed to the German embassy in London.
Count Albrecht von Bernstorff
It was during the formation of a government after the fall of the German monarchy in 1917 that Count Albrecht got to know the new Foreign Secretary, Wilhelm Solf. It is through this connection that Count Albrecht became a kind of German Scarlet Pimpernel during World War II. I gave a brief description of his wartime activities several years ago on Holocaust Memorial Day. Here I recount the circumstances of his arrest.

After Solf’s death his widow formed an informal resistance organisation called the Solf Circle to which Count Albrecht von Bernstorff belonged. Members of the Solf Circle met in September 1943 to celebrate a birthday. One guest was actually an undercover Gestapo agent and he encouraged an anti-Nazi discussion during the party. He reported what was said, and in some cases written down, to the Gestapo. The party guests were rounded up and sent to the Ravensbruck Concentration camp, one of whom was Count Albrecht.

Albrecht’s contribution to anti-Nazi resistance is commemorated with plaques in both London and Berlin. He is also commemorated with a memorial cross at his ancestral palace in Stintenburg.

Count Albrecht von Bernstorff’s diplomatic leanings began long before his appointment to Vienna in 1916. In 1909 he had been granted a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University. There he helped to form an Anglo-German debating society which was created with the intention of increasing ties between the two countries. Albrecht led the first debate, and at the end of his studies he gave a speech on behalf of the German Rhodes Scholars to Alfred Milner, 1st Viscount Milner. Milner was Governor of Cape Colony and knew personally the man after whom the Rhodes Scholarships are named, 5) Rt. Hon. Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902).

Next time we see how Cecil Rhodes has a link to ancient India.

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Queer Swiss Chickens

Fans of mythology, legends and even Harry Potter will know that the world is full of strange creatures. From gorgons to bunyips, and Bigfoot to Nessie, lots of theories about them abound. One of the most well-known creatures is the basilisk.

The basilisk is often called a cockatrice, for reasons we’ll come to later, but for now we’ll just use the name basilisk because that is the name which is used in the Swiss city of Basel, where a local medieval legend may give us a clue to the biological origin of the basilisk.

Let’s begin with one of several legends about the basilisk of Basel. During the summer of 1474 a cockerel laid an egg. The citizens of Basel were horrified and terrified because, they believed, the egg would hatch out as a basilisk. Europe was full of legends like this, and it is also the reason why the creature is also referred to as a cockatrice. In the Middle Ages the basilisk was seen as a creature of evil. It had the body of a serpent or reptile, bat’s wings and a cockerel’s head. Looking into its eyes could turn you to stone and it had a poisonous skin.
One of the many basilisks to be seen in Basel
The cockerel’s egg in Basel was immediately thrown onto a fire and destroyed. The cockerel, however, suffered a more unusual fate. The citizens of Basel decided to put the bird on trial for being in league with the devil. The outcome was certain. The cockerel was found guilty and beheaded.

By the year this legend is said to have taken place the basilisk had already been associated with the city for over 20 years. It was part of the city’s coat of arms supporting the shield. The legend is contained in a chronicle of Basel written in 1624 and may have been like one of those folk stories that turn into urban legends. Another local legend say that a basilisk lived in a cave in the city near where the present Gerber Fountain is located.

Legends of basilisks go back to Ancient Greece. The origin of the creature is lost in time and has become distorted and elaborated over the centuries, but perhaps there is a real biological reason why a cockerel could lay eggs. It still happens today.

There are two possible biological processes which may have led to the original legends. The first is that chickens can change sex. Instances of egg-laying hens becoming cockerels is more frequently reported than cockerels becoming hens but the process is known as spontaneous sex reversal. Reports in the media appear every year telling of farmers or chicken keepers noticing the sex reversal in their birds.

The second biological process is more bizarre. There are many reported incidents of birds, not just chickens, whose bodies are divided as if split down the middle – one half is male, the other half is female. This condition is called gynandromorphism (split the word into bits to get your tongue around it: gyn-andro-morph-ism). One half displays typical male plumage and physical characteristics while the other half displays typical female plumage.

The photo below is of an actual gynandromorph chicken. Its left half is a hen and its right half is a cockerel. The bird was part of a study undertaken by the Roslin Institute at the University of Edinburgh, a leading institute in animal research.
Both conditions are a result of the fact that the cells in birds have their own gender. It’s all about the chromosomes. Cells in humans contain X and/or Y chromosomes. Men have XY, and women have XX. The Y chromosome contains genes which switch on male gender production in a human embryo, otherwise nature’s “default” female gender production begins. Human embryos develop into a person which only have one set of chromosomes in every cell in their body, either XX or XY cells. Intersex and other genetic variations are rarer and are different to the process produced in birds.

In chickens the gender determination is produced differently. They have two chromosomes in each body cell as in we humans, but their chromosomes are called Z and W. Chickens have ZZ and ZW cells in the same body, irrespective of which gender the embryo develops and the chicken hatches out as.

That doesn’t really explain the half-and-half gynandromorphic chickens because, like all other chickens, their ZZ and ZW cells and distributed throughout the body. Think of these cells as 2 Lego bricks of different colours, red and yellow, representing ZZ and ZW. Generally it doesn’t matter what colour the brick is, you can use both coloured bricks to build a model of a chicken. The colours are mixed up and, roughly speaking, you’ve got an average orange chicken.

When the cells of one gender randomly congregate more onto one side of a chicken’s embryo the bird that hatches will have more male or female cells on one side of its body than the other. Again, if more red Lego bricks are randomly distributed on the left than on the right the completed Lego chicken will look more red on one side than the other. In real chickens enzymes will recognize this gender bias on one side and produce more gender-specific hormones on that side. The result is that half of the chicken looks like a hen and the other like a cockerel like in the photo above. That’s the simplified reason. There’s more to it than that, but I hope you get the basic idea.

There’s still a lot to learn about the way birds’ reproductive process creates either gynandromorphism or spontaneous sex reversal. What scientists know at the moment may go a little way to explain how the legends of basilisks and laying-egg cockerels began.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Around the World In Another 80 Gays: Part 1) Our Journey Begins

Today I begin the main theme running through 2018. Old readers of my blog may recall the original series I did called “Around the World in 80 Gays” for 2015. I’ve researched a brand new series with another 80 members of the lgbt community who can be connected, one by one, to each other in a complete circle.

Whilst it would be easy to resort to Wikipedia and click on the links to other pages in order to form a continuous line of connected individuals my aim from the very start was NOT to rely on Wikipedia and look for connections that were not easily identifiable. In other cases the connection may be obvious but unusual.

The starting point for this new “Around the World in Another 80 Gays” is a significant figure in the lgbt community and entertainment, 1) Sir Noël Coward (1899-1973).

Sir Noel was born around Christmas time, hence his first name. At the end of the 80 Gays we’ll look at Sir Noel’s later years, but we’ll begin with his teenage years. Even as a teenager Noel was quite precocious. His stage career began at the age of 11 and he had been having sex with other boy actors before meeting an artist by the name of 2) Philip Streatfeild (1879-1915).

Philip Streatfeild was part of the outer social circle of Oscar Wilde through his friendship with Wilde’s ex-partner Robert Ross. Philip worked as an artist in London. Probably among his many acquaintances was another artist called Henry Scott Tuke who was well-known for his paintings of naked young boys bathing.

One of Philip’s few known works is of just that, clearly showing Tuke’s influence. When Philip Hoare was researching for his biography of Noël Coward published in 1998 he came across this painting. It was probably painted in Cornwall where Streatfeild often went to paint. Looking at the painting Hoare was struck by a familiar face among the boys in the painting. Was it the 14-year-old Noël Coward?
Philip Streatfield (right) wih the teenage
Noel Coward.
Philip Streatfeild met young Noël sometime before Spring 1914 and it wasn’t long before he invited the boy to accompany him and a friend down to Cornwall for the summer. We can only guess what Noël’s mother thought about that, but she probably thought it might help re-establish her family’s place back up the social ladder that had slipped when her family lost their fortune.

Noëls’ mother was right to let her son be in the company of Philip because it was he, a member of a landed gentry family, who sent a letter to an aristocratic socialite suggesting she invite the young actor and aspiring writer to her stately home.

Meanwhile, World War I had begun and Philip decided to join the army. He enlisted in the Sherwood Foresters regiment in November 1914 and was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 6th Battalion. When he was at training camp young Noël Coward was apparently nearby, as he was often to be found in the officer’s mess. Noël wrote to his mother that all the officers were very kind to him and that they had “adopted” him as the unofficial regimental human mascot. Young Noël obviously had an appealing personality.

For Philip Streatfeild the war lasted less than a year. His battalion was soon sent to the trenches in France. There he caught tuberculosis and was brought back to England. He was taken to a nursing home in Norbury, south London, and died there of peritonitis on 3rd June 1915.
Regimental badge of the
Sherwood Foresters
The Sherwood Foresters regiment remained in France. In April 1916 one battalion was sent to Ireland to deal with a more local conflict. They became a major combatant in the conflict with Irish nationalists in what is called the Easter Rising.

The Easter Rising was part of a long campaign to establish Irish independence. One of the leaders was captured at the start of the Rising, someone I’ve written about before, 3) Sir Roger Casement (1864-1916).

How Sir Roger can be linked to Oxford University via New York will be told next time.

Sunday, 31 December 2017

In Memoriam 2017

A selection of members in the lgbt who we lost this year.

2nd – Julie Barnes-Frank (56), pioneering out police officer in the UK
17th – David Le Lay (72), architect
23rd – Gorden Kaye (75), comedy actor
28th – Stuart Timmons (60), historian and “Advocate” journalist
2nd – Gordon Aikman (31), campaigner for research into motor neurone disease
6th – Alec McCowen (91), actor
7th? – Jorge Schmeda (35), Mr Gay Argentina 2008 (fired when uncovered as gay porn actor Max Schutler)
11th – Judy Bradford (73), leading researcher into lgbt & health issues
17th – Nicole Bass (52), bodybuilding champion and professional wrestler
18th – Norma McCorvey (69), pioneering campaigner for abortion rights
MARCH 2017
6th – Robert Osborne (84), veteran broadcaster on TCM
9th – Sir Howard Hodgkin (84), artist
30th – Gilbert Baker (65), activist and creator of the Rainbow Pride flag
APRIL 2017
18th – Joan Garner (65), Commissioner of Fulton County, Georgia USA
21st – Sandy Gallin (76), tv executive producer and manager to many US stars
MAY 2017
24th – Richard Moll (82), multiple Gay Games swimming champion
31st – Morgan Monceaux (72), artist, Vietnam veteran, Leather title holder
JUNE 2017
2nd – Sir Jeffrey Tate (74), Principal Conductor, Royal Opera House
3rd – David Delfin (47), fashion designer, Spanish National Fashion Design Award 2016
4th – Juan Goytisolo (86), writer
16th – Jim French (84), photographer, founder of Colt magazine
29th – Chuck Renslow (87), photographer, co-founded Leather Archives and Museum
JULY 2017
1st – Aleshia Brevard (79), transgender actor and writer
18th – David Scott (82), San Francisco mayoral candidate 1979
18th – Andrew Paulson (58), entrepreneur
21st – Billy Manes (45), journalist, prominent in the wake of 2016 Orlando shooting
4th – Celeste Newbrough (77), co-chair of 1978 parade which saw 1st appearance of Gilbert Baker’s flag
5th – Lee Blakely (45), opera director
12th – Holly Boswell (66), transgender pioneer, created of trans symbol
15th – Mark Merlis (67), novelist
18th – Liz MacKean (52), journalist who helped to uncover Jimmy Savile sex abuse
25th – Richard Smith (49), former Senior Associate Editor of “Gay Times”
31st – Dexter Pottinger (35), fashion designer and stylist, murdered
3rd – John Ashbery (90), poet
6th – Kate Millet (82), feminist theorist
8th – Pierre Bergé (86), co-founder Yves Saint Laurent fashion label
9th – Michael Friedman (41), Broadway composer and lyricist
12th – Edie Windsor (88), pioneer of equal marriage campaigns
23rd – Charles Osborne (89), actor, poet and theatre critic
24th – Ron Muncaster (81), Sydney Mardi Gras costume designer
28th – Roger Lockyer (89), Tudor historian and academic
2nd – John Paul De Cecco (92), psychologist, pioneer of sexuality studies
3rd – Ed Flanagan (66), 1st openly gay elected US state official 1995
7th – Debra Chasnoff (60), Oscar-winning documentary film-maker
11th – Henry Badenhorst (51), co-founder of
12th – Liz Smith (94), gossip columnist and journalist
18th – Azzedine Alaïa (77), fashion and shoe designer
19th – Jana Novotna (49), tennis champion and Olympic silver medallist
30th – Jim Nabors (87), comedy actor
2nd – Alan Sinfield (75), Shakespearean scholar and queer studies pioneer
21st – Wolfgang Lauinger (99), Nazi concentration camp survivor, gay rights activist
During the past few years we have seen the increase in lone terrorist attacks. The lgbt community has not been unaffected by these attacks and we have also lost several members.
Paris Terror attack – 20th April
Xavier Jugelé (37) police officer.
Ariana Grande Concert Terror attack) Manchester – 22nd May
Martyn Hett (29).
Las Vegas Harvest music festival shooting – 1st October
Cameron Robinson (28)

Sunday, 24 December 2017

The Four Santas of Advent : 4) Santa Speaks

With Christmas Day only hours away I end this year’s Advent series with an interview with Santa Claus himself. Not one that I conducted myself but one conducted by Margaret Mead and Rhoda Metraux in 1977. Margaret Mead (1901-1978) has been described as one of the world’s most influential anthropologists, and has even been described as one of the world’s first academic celebrities. Her writings were popular with the public as well as scholars and her interview with Santa Claus was an immediate hit.

Margaret Mead’s literary output was quite varied. Her work in anthropology, ethnology and sexuality entered into most of her writing, even in an essay on UFOs which she wrote for “Redbook Magazine”. The articles she wrote for “Redbook”, of which the one on UFOs was among over a thousand she wrote on every topic you can imagine, made her a household name in the USA outside the academic world.

Even though Margaret married and divorced three times, retaining her surname throughout for professional reasons, she had her most loving relationship with Rhoda Metraux who was the editor of “Redbook Magazine”. A previous relationship with fellow anthropologist Ruth Benedict was revealed in a memoir by Margaret’s daughter in 1984, but it was with Rhoda that Margaret lived for the last 25 years of her life.

In her “Redbook” articles Margaret wrote about Christmas reminiscences and about parenting. In 1964 the two subjects came together when a parent asked her about what answer to give when children start asking questions about Santa Claus. Even today adults have a difficult time putting all the many aspects of Santa’s existence into a concise and simple answer.

The question lingered in Margaret’s mind for several years until she finally decided to go to the most authoritative source she could think of – Santa Claus himself.
Margaret and Rhoda wrote “An Interview With Santa Claus” with children in mind though it was popular with parents who wanted to know some answers themselves. It was dedicated to Rhoda’s 4-year-old daughter Kate, Margaret’s god-daughter. Both women had backgrounds in anthropology and this can be seen in Santa’s answers to their questions. Santa discusses his origins among various cultural groups and historical figures like St Nicholas, and he talks about all the other Christmas and winter gift-bringers.

The interview ends with the writers waking from a dream. “A dream, yes”, writes Margaret and Rhoda in the book, “But it makes a kind of sense, doesn’t it? Why shouldn’t there be a whole clan of gift-giving figures? Don’t they all, in some way, convey a special message to children? …children can learn that giving as well as receiving is joyous, and that the gifts that seem to be given freely by wonderful, benign visitors are tokens of happy care given by mothers and fathers.”

Margaret and Rhoda encouraged their readers, both young and old, to learn more about Santa and his many incarnations and associates. This is something I am keen to do myself, not just because I am a historian, but because it shows how the world’s many cultures are not as different as they seem.

In the early 1990s when I did a lot of amateur dramatics I wrote a pantomime for my drama group called “The Magic Snowman”. It featured Santa and Mrs. Claus and made mention of several of Santa’s friends who help to distribute Christmas gifts around the world. More recently, I’ve become a really big fan of the Spanish El Apalpador.

Margaret Mead didn’t live long enough to see the enduring appeal of her book. It was published in the Christmas issue of “Redbook Magazine” in 1977 and in book form in November 1978 (I am the proud possessor of a first edition copy). Margaret Mead died on 15th November 1978.

“An Interview With Santa Claus”, although popular, has not achieved the world-wide fame of other Christmas stories like “A Christmas Carol” or “The Night Before Christmas” (as it is popularly known). Perhaps it should because we live in a world that is more multi-cultural than it was in 1977 when the interview was first published. It can be regarded as ahead of its time in encouraging children to think of a multi-cultured world at Christmas time. For all parents – whether gay, straight, or gender variant – this little book is a marvellous way to introduce your children to the magic of Christmas. I hope in time that it becomes as well-known and loved as “A Christmas Carol”.