Across history, birds have bewitched poets and scientists alike. Photograph: Ruggero Maramotti/Gallery Stock
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Hope is a thing with feathers

Birds are all around us. They appear and disappear; they go between worlds as we never can.

We read so much into birds. The canary down the mine whose death warns miners of gas and the dove with a green twig that tells Noah the flood is receding feed into a feeling that birds are sign-bearers, omens, the gods’ messengers. Across history, across cultures, birds are also an image of escape. “Oh, for the wings of a dove,” says King David, so he could fly to the wilderness and be at rest.

Birds spell renewal. Children in ancient Greece welcomed the swallow as a messenger of spring. “Hope,” Emily Dickinson writes, “is the thing with feathers/That perches in the soul” – and when I hear a wren singing in the freezing cold of the early morning (how can something so small fill the backstreets of Kentish Town?), my heart does something that approximates to lifting.

But all this is just our imagination, as we plunder nature for symbols. In biological reality, birds are even more extraordinary. They are evolved creatures, programmed by their DNA, adapted to a particular place or trajectory, which fulfil the destiny written in their genes through behaviour that bewitches poets and scientists alike.

I spent Christmas and New Year in Assam, India. In the grasslands, I was thrilled to see a rare Asian otter climb out of the river among grazing rhinos and stand up like a periscope to look over reeds. On Christmas Day, I saw a tiger stalking deer. On New Year’s Day, I watched the red sun rise through strata of blue mist from an elephant’s back.

All of that was wonderful but, for me, one of the most exciting things was seeing bar-headed geese graze among wild buffalos. Their migration, a story of fortitude, risk and adaptation, demonstrates how ancient birds are. Their migration routes record the shift in the planet’s tectonic plates. Bar-headed geese nest in central Asia but they winter on the other side of the Himalayas and cross Everest to get there. The oxygen a bird needs to keep flying is 20 times what it needs at rest. The air over Everest has a quarter of the oxygen available at sea level. The haemoglobin of these geese absorbs oxygen faster than most other birds’ and their capillaries penetrate deep into the muscle, so the oxygen reaches further and they get more from each breath. The geese evolved like this because they and their route are older than the Himalayas. As rocks rose across their path, they didn’t look for a new route – they just changed their haemoglobin and went where their DNA said.

Birds are all around us. They appear and disappear; they go between worlds as we never can. They speak to us of distance, other countries, other ways of being. The medieval alchemists had a mystical language of birds which translated what was divine and of the air into the base earth of humanity. That’s why, curating this summer’s new writers’ talks at ZSL London Zoo, I picked the tropical bird house. Each writer will read a specially commissioned piece on an endangered animal in that animal’s presence, alongside one of ZSL’s conservationists. Helen Dunmore will take the Sumatran tiger; Glyn Maxwell has the Majorcan midwife toad; Mark Haddon has the Galapagos tortoise. Jo Shapcott began on 14 May with the slender loris and Andrew O’Hagan ends the series with Malaysian tapirs. I’m concentrating on bleedingheart doves, whose homes in the Philippines are vanishing as forests are cut down.

One of the main roles of the zoo is to fund conservation projects carried out across the globe by the Zoological Society, supported by research from its Institute of Zoology. This conservation work is the envy of the world but also, surprisingly, one of London’s best-kept secrets.

Today, the wren singing in my garden is doing its bird thing, giving me hope as I write – hope that these writers’ talks will light a few candles for urgent conservation.

For details of the writers’ talks at ZSL London Zoo, visit: zsl.org. Ruth Padel’s book on migration, “The Mara Crossing”, is published by Chatto & Windus (£14.99)

Ruth is a British poet and author with close connections to conservation, wildlife, Greece and music. She has published a novel, eight works of non-fiction and eight poetry collections, most recently The Mara Crossing, which mixes poems and prose to explore migration. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a Council Member for the Zoological Society of London.  See her website for more.

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, You were the future once

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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, You were the future once