The pointless, self-defeating burning of ash trees could have been avoided

If it hadn't been for a name-related confusion, the government might have imposed a ban on imports of ash and ash products years ago.

What’s in a name? Ash fungus by any other name would have burned as sweet in the recent bonfires. But the name does make a difference. Had it not been for name-related confusion, the government might have imposed a ban on imports of ash and ash products years ago. Then the pointless, self-defeating burning could have been avoided.

EU rules prohibit a ban on imports of a species if the threatening pathogen is already endemic. The ash fungus is widely reported as being Chalara fraxinea. This is widespread in the UK, and benign: no ban was possible. However, many fungi exist in two forms, one that reproduces sexually, and one that reproduces asexually. In 2009, researchers suggested that the pathogen was in fact Hymenoscyphus albidus, a sexually reproducing version of Chalara fraxinea. A ban, then, was still impossible. But last year Swiss researchers showed the pathogen to be a different organism that they named Hymenoscyphus pseudo-albidus. That could have been banned.

Things could get worse. A decision taken at the International Botanical Congress in Melbourne last year means that mycologists – those who study fungi – will no longer be allowed to give separate names to the sexually and asexually reproducing variants of a species. Ironically, the idea is to limit confusion. With all the evolving variations of our forest pathogens, it’s likely to cause more problems than it solves.

Evolution is fearsome to behold. We’ve been watching it in our hospitals for years – it is what gave us our antibiotic-resistant superbugs. Put a wide variety of bacteria together in a confined space with plenty of very habitable niches and they will indulge in an orgy of gene-swapping. This creates new strains, many of which are resistant to all known toxins.

Ash dieback is another example of an evolved pathogen. It arose in Poland in 1992. There is nothing we can do about it except let the naturally resistant trees emerge as winners in the evolutionary arms race. It’s impossible to tell which trees will survive without carrying out a genetic analysis; that’s why burning swaths of ash trees is self-defeating.

In truth, the issue over naming the fungus is probably a convenient scapegoat. Researchers were advising an import ban years before anyone looked into whether the fungus was of an endemic species. Somehow, no one wanted to react to the threat, and it’s not just the UK’s researchers who didn’t want to see the coming evil: Danish experts pointed out an impending problem to the Swedes, and they did nothing either.

Import duty

What we can do now to safeguard the future of our forests is reduce the demand for imported plants. Read the scientific literature on plant pathogens, and you find that experts are issuing 13 times as many alerts on new plant-infecting fungi as they were in 1995. The ash fungus may be one of the relatively few natural mutations that have occurred in recent times: most of them are triggered by human activities. Plant pathologists put the blame squarely on the taste for imported plants.

Our craving for exotic plants and ready-grown trees for our gardens and public spaces has moved plants and their pathogens around the world in unprecedented numbers. In new environments, the pathogens swap genes and evolve into forms for which native species have no resistance.

The surging global trade in plants is essentially a huge microbiology experiment that is destroying the world’s forests. But perhaps we think that interesting suburban gardens are worth it?

Michael Brooks’s “The Secret Anarchy of Science” is published by Profile Books (£8.99)


Ash trees in Pound Farm Woodland, where many have been identified as having Ash Dieback Disease. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

Martin Knoller/Wikimedia
Show Hide image

End of an orator: the ancient Roman machinations of Robert Harris's Dictator

Dictator, the final installment in the "Cicero trilogy", finds the great lawyer exiled from Rome.

If ever a Roman was lucky enough to win a great military victory without losing too many of his men, he could return to the city in triumph. He would be paraded through the streets alongside placards proclaiming his successes, trophies and spoils, prisoners and horses. Cicero, who was never one for frivolous excess, triumphed in a different way. It was just a pity that his kind of triumph was also his undoing.

At the beginning of Dictator, the much-anticipated final instalment in Robert Harris’s “Cicero trilogy”, the great orator and lawyer has been exiled from Rome. What Cicero considered to be his great triumph – the quelling of a conspiracy to overthrow the Republic in 63BC – was all his enemies had needed to get him out the way. Illegally, he had put the conspirators to death without trial. A protracted absence from Rome was just the first way in which he would pay for acting so precipitously.

We see him through the eyes of Tiro, his trusty secretary, who is a delightfully subjective biographer of his master’s last 15 years. Tiro has had plenty of time to discover that, for all his kind-heartedness, Cicero can be incredibly tiresome. So when Cicero threatens to kill himself rather than endure the ignominy of his new life in exile, Tiro stands aside, as if to let him get on with it. “He couldn’t stand the sight of others’ blood,” he says, “let alone his own.”

Self-pitying and incredulous how a man of his intellect could fall from such a high status so quickly, Cicero grows his beard and awaits news from Rome, where the ruthless demagogue Publius Clodius destroys his house on the luxurious Palatine Hill, replaces it with a temple to Liberty and generally dispenses with all justice.

All of which makes this novel just as thrilling but altogether more sorrowful than the first two books. Grim inevitability lurks in the background of every page, as all that Cicero loves most about the Roman Republic goes to pot. When he returns to the city the situation grows still worse: the “triumvirate” alliance uniting Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great and Marcus Licinius Crassus begins to crack and the politicians hurtle into civil war, which dominates the second, busier half of the novel.

The events and political upheavals of these years are some of the most complicated in ancient history. Undaunted, Harris remains impressively faithful to the ancient sources, embellishing the gaps with terse dialogue, exhilarating exchanges and witty observations of some of the lesser-known senators.

Tiro is an indispensable guide, proving himself a more objective historian than he is a biographer of his master. Indeed, there are times when he is just as conscientious about describing the significance of events as a modern-day historian would be: “Even allowing for a degree of exaggeration, it was plain from the Commentaries that Caesar had enjoyed an astonishing run of military successes.” Not that this does anything to distract, as Harris skilfully navigates these fraught years in Cicero’s life. His novel often feels like the best kind of narrative history, at once frenetic but measured in its assessment of the characters who brought the Republic to an end.

Although it is true that Cicero is one of the most documented figures of antiquity, capable of providing a fair self-portrait through his own letters, it can be hard to differentiate between how he saw himself and how he was seen. This is where Dictator triumphs. Although it is hard to blame him, given the crises that unfurl between Octavian (the future Emperor Augustus) and Mark Antony, Cicero becomes a caricature, ever certain of his own greatness, ignorant of how unhinged he must look to everyone around him. And yet, it is impossible not to warm to him, especially as the darkest days draw near. He was, historically no less than in this novel, a loving father, a defiant believer in a cause, an excellent writer and public speaker, and an intellectual.

Harris’s trilogy leaves one pondering: was Cicero born at the wrong time, or precisely the right time? Without setting himself up to challenge the inevitable return to one-male rule in Rome, he would never have found the fame and legacy he so yearned for, but nor would he have suffered the painful demise that Harris charts so spectacularly. Catapult him back two centuries earlier into the Republic, and his life would have been far more pleasant – pleasant enough for us never to have heard a thing about it.

Daisy Dunn’s “Catullus’ Bedspread: the Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet” will be published next year by William Collins

Dictator by Robert Harris is out now from Hutchinson (£20, 464pp)

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror