Blessed are the cheese joke makers! The Pythons reunite on stage. Image: Alamy
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Everyone expects the Spanish Inquisition: Monty Python and their loyal superfans

While it’s generous and sensible to give the fans what they want, the familiarity of the material starts to feel weird.

Former members of great cultural juggernauts are doomed to spend their later lives on the interview circuit being asked if they have definitely ruled out a reunion. Despite the death of Graham Chapman in 1989, Monty Python still has sufficient members and friendship for a run of ten nights at the O2 in London and they’ll be fine as long as their various post-surgical scars can withstand the effort. The arena is most often booked by musical super-brands, so it is the perfect choice for this event, as Palin, Cleese, Jones, Idle and Gilliam are comedians with a rock band’s following and a rock band’s problem: the greatest hits or the new material?

There are a few fresh routines here – including a lightly anti-tabloid satire with Palin as the host of a TV game show called Blackmail, in which contestants pay to maintain their privacy – but the running order mainly consists of the No 1 hits, including in the second half a medley of “Spam”, “dead parrot” and “cheese shop”.

Other beloved material that is either logistically or medically impossible onstage – the football match between well-known philosophers, the fish-slapping dance – is taken from the DVD box sets and played on giant screens – though Cleese, who has expressed orthopaedic and artistic objections to doing “the ministry of funny walks” again, has managed to veto that routine, except in a brief quotation of stiff, high-kicking limbs from the Arlene Phillips dance troupe, who intermittently give the boys time to change costumes and catch their breath.

While it’s generous and sensible to give the fans what they want, the familiarity of the material starts to feel weird. Just as Rik Mayall, a comedian who made his name by projecting a tangible sense of danger, came to be given in his obituaries the sanitising tag of “national treasure”, so the Pythons, whose early work was famed for its strangeness, have become performers who warmly fulfil expectations. The most graphic illustration of this process is that their “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition” gag is so well loved that this Inquisition was not only expected but demanded by the audience who, recognising the couple of lines of dialogue before the pope’s interrogators burst into a suburban living room, roared its relief in the manner of rock audiences hearing familiar opening notes.

League of gentlemen: the Pythons at the O2

League of gentlemen: the Pythons at the O2

While the Pythons were never politically radical, they did upset the TV establishment with their surrealism and bum jokes, so it’s odd too to feel such warmth pouring into the great bowl of the O2. The early sight of the face of the late Graham Chapman on one of the screens induces the sort of ecstatic applause that would be matched among the English dead perhaps only by Diana, Princess of Wales.

Terry Gilliam tries to inject some disrespect by having Chapman’s head kicked into space by the celebrated Python foot, while in one of the musical routines, a couple of cock cannons fire sperm into the sky – but the fans didn’t want naughty boys. They had come to worship messiahs. When Cleese forgot his lines in the cheese shop scene – and Palin, with characteristic niceness, leaned across to help – there was more or less an “Aaaah!” from the auditorium.

And yet there is something undeniably touching about seeing them all, at the end of the night, side by side as septuagenarians in white tuxedos and black cummerbunds that, in some cases, are under considerable strain – though, at 71, Palin remains so trim and lithe that he sometimes resembles a kindly youth escorting his grandads and their civil partners on a night out.

Even so, there’s a double edge to the evening, in which gags about what a rip-off the whole thing is – a jokey merch-o-meter on a screen clocks up the sales of memorabilia – coexist with stalls asking, in all seriousness, for £20 for a thin, paperback programme. And celebrity guest cameos in person or on screen – Stephen Fry, Stephen Hawking – add to the sense of a memorial service that five of the six subjects have been able to attend. The surreal has become the so sweet. Everyone is hoping for the Spanish Inquisition. Blessed are the cheese joke makers!

Silent running

Harold Pinter introduced to British theatre a particular sort of silence and the dramatist Richard Bean is pioneering another noiselessness, in which the audience, rather than the performers, is given pause.

The “Bean silence” descends whenever the playwright makes a joke about some liberal shibboleth. There was a tangible chill in the stalls during much of his play about immigration, England People Very Nice, and also during his comedy about climate-change science, The Heretic.

It happens several times during Great Britain, his new work about tabloid bad behaviour, which opened suddenly at the National Theatre this month after secret rehearsals during the phone-hacking trial. A media-heavy crowd loved the gags against the Mail and the Sun but went solemn at jokes about disability or race. Pinter became a darling of the theatre. You suspect that Bean, unusual among dramatists in not bothering about whom he upsets, never will.

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, After God Again

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The Wood Wide Web: the world of trees underneath the surface

Mycorrhizal networks, better known as the Wood Wide Web, have allowed scientists to understand the social networks formed by trees underground.

In 1854, Henry David Thoreau published Walden, an extensive rumination on his two years, two months and two days spent in a cabin in the woodlands near Walden Pond. It was situated on a plot of land owned by his friend, mentor and noted transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Thoreau’s escape from the city was a self-imposed experiment - one which sought to find peace and harmony through a minimalistic, simple way of living amongst nature. Voicing his reasons for embarking on the rural getaway, Thoreau said, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.”

Walden cemented Thoreau’s reputation as a key figure in naturalism; his reflections have since been studied, his practices meticulously replicated. But in the knowledge that Thoreau’s excursion into the woods was a means to better understand how to integrate into society, curious minds are left to wonder what essays and aphorisms Thoreau would have produced had he known what the botanists of today know of nature’s very own societal networks.

As scientists have now discovered, what lies beneath the ground Thoreau walked upon, and indeed beneath the ground anyone walks upon when near trees, is perhaps the most storied history and study of collaborative society in something which is now known as the mycorrhizal network or the “Wood Wide Web”.

Coined by the journal Nature, the term Wood Wide Web has come to describe the complex mass of interactions between trees and their microbial counterparts underneath the soil. Spend enough time among trees and you may get a sense that they have been around for centuries, standing tall and sturdy, self-sufficient and independent. But anchoring trees and forestry everywhere, and therefore enjoining them into an almost singular superoganism, is a very intimate relationship between their roots and microbes called mycorrhizal fungi.

Understanding the relationship between the roots of trees and mycorrhizal fungi has completely shifted the way we think about the world underneath them. Once thought to be harmful, mycorrhizal fungi are now known to have a bond of mutualism with the roots – a symbiotic connection from which both parties benefit.

Despite the discovery being a recent one, the link between the two goes as far back as 450 million years. A pinch of soil can hold up to seven miles worth of coiled, tubular, thread-like fungi. The fungi release tubes called hyphae which infiltrate the soil and roots in a non-invasive way, creating a tie between tree and fungus at a cellular level. It is this bond which is called mycorrhiza. As a result, plants 20m away from each other can be connected in the same way as plants connected 200 metres away; a hyphal network forms which brings the organisms into connection.

At the heart of the mutualistic relationship is an exchange; the fungi have minerals which the tree needs, and the trees have carbon (which is essentially food) which the fungi need. The trees receive nitrogen for things such as lignin – a component which keep the trees upright, and various other minerals such as phosphorus, magnesium, calcium, copper and more. In return, fungi get the sugars they need from the trees’ ongoing photosynthesis to energise their activities and build their bodies. The connection runs so deep that 20-80% of a tree’s sugar can be transferred to the fungi, while the transfer of nitrogen to trees is such that without the swap, trees would be toy-sized.

It’s a bond that has resulted in some remarkable phenomena. Suzanne Simard, an ecologist at the University of British Columbia, has researched into these back and forth exchanges and has found that rather than competing against one another as often assumed, there is a sort of teamwork between the trees facilitated by the mycorrhizal fungi.

In one particular example, Simard looked at a Douglas fir tree planted next to a birch tree. Upon taking the birch tree out, there was a completely unexpected result: the fir tree – instead of prospering from the reduced competition for sunlight – began to decay and die. The trees were connected underground via the mycorrhizal system, transferring carbon, nitrogen and water to one another, communicating underground, talking to each other. As Simard says in her TED talk, “it might remind you of a sort of intelligence.”

It has been documented that trees share food not just with trees of the same species, but with trees of all kinds of species, forming a social network which some have come to describe as a socialist system. Growth rates are positively affected while seedlings face greater chances of survival. There is in fact a group of plants – the mycoheterotrophic plants of which there are around 400 species – which wouldn’t survive without the mycorrhizal network. These plants are unable to photosynthesise and are therefore heavily dependent on other plants for carbon and minerals.

Over the years, Thoreau has had his fair share of critics who deemed his trip to the woods nothing more than an exercise in self-indulgence and narcissism. Perhaps if Thoreau had the chance to head back to Walden Pond with the knowledge of the Wood Wide Web at hand, he would fully understand that no one man is an island, as no one tree is a forest.