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Dig up Shakespeare In The Name Of Science?

An African-based scientist wants to pick over the bones of William Shakespeare to establish whether he smoked dope.




Clues buried in the writings of William Shakespeare suggest that he may have partaken in the perceived ‘wisdom of the weed’. At least one Johannesburg-based scientist is convinced of it. And the proof may lie in The Bard’s Stratford grave in England.

It was while reading Sonnet 76 that Professor Francis Thackeray had a Eureka moment. The palaeo-anthropologist and director of the Institute for Human Evolution at Wits University recalls the moment during an ambitious project to read all 154 of Shakespeare’s 14-line poems in one sitting: “Shakespeare writes about ‘… invention in a noted weed’. And invention refers to creative writing, and we know that creative writers are known to enjoy the stimulation of cannabis.”

From behind his busy desk in a large office populated with casts of famous hominid skulls—among them the Taung Child and ‘Mrs Ples’—the tall, bespectacled academic proffers more clues garnered from the sonnet to support his hypothesis: “In the same sonnet, there’s reference to ‘…compounds strange’, which means strange drugs. And so, in my Eureka moment, I thought, ‘My goodness, is he making hidden reference to cannabis?’”

To further bolster his argument, Thackeray points out cannabis references in other Shakespeare works: “In other writings—for example, in Macbeth meeting the witches before he assassinates King Duncan, Shakespeare invents the word ‘assassination’. It’s derived from the (Arabic) word ‘hashashin’ – and ‘hashish’ is, of course, cannabis. It’s known that assassinations took place by assassins (sic) who got themselves high on cannabis before they executed their deadly deed.”

The learned professor’s curiosity about The Bard’s smoking habits were first awakened after stumbling upon a book lying on a dusty shelf in the Shakespeare section of a second-hand bookshop in Hampstead, London. The book, Shakespeare’s Garden, referred to a 1920s excavation of the Stratford property, which threw up pipe bowl and stem fragments from a rubbish heap discovered there. Not one to pass up a good dig, Thackeray headed for Stratford to see the pipes for himself: “When I looked inside the pipe bowls from Shakespeare’s garden, and from other parts of Stratford, I could see that there was black residue.”

The palaeo-anthropologist, also a qualified chemist and mathematician, then got special permission to take 24 pipe fragments from Stratford to Pretoria, where he ran a chemical analysis at the narcotics laboratory in the police’s forensic lab. The gas chromatography technique used there revealed a plethora of compounds including vanilla, cinnamon and camphor, as well as cannabis. Until then, it was assumed that such pipes contained only the residues of tobacco from Virginia, which Sir Walter Raleigh had brought back to England. “They were experimenting!” exclaims the scientist excitedly. The findings led to his 2001 publication of a paper in the South African Journal of Science, which made a global impact.

Since then, Thackeray has hoped to prove his theory by examining The Bard’s remains, buried in a Stratford church next to his wife, Anne Hathaway, and their daughter. But his attempts have been thwarted curiously by Shakespeare himself—an epitaph written in the form of a curse has protected the grave for almost 400 years: “Cursed be he who moves my bones, and blessed be he who spares these stones.”

So Thackeray has proposed to carefully expose the skull and skeleton by excavating away the sediments without moving any bones. His team would then perform a laser surface scan, similar to those which have already been achieved by his institute on hominid fossils from the Cradle of Humankind. At best, he would hope to extract keratin from the hair and nails, which upon forensic analysis, would almost certainly provide conclusive proof of cannabis use.

DNA could also be extracted from a tooth, though that would be a more invasive procedure. A simple examination of The Bard’s exposed teeth would, however, reveal whether or not he was a regular pipe smoker. After deliberating over Thackeray’s proposal, the Holy Trinity Church Parochial Committee turned it down.

But for the Wits scientist, all is not lost. The church has more recently agreed to a proposal from archaeologists at the University of Birmingham to undertake an analysis which should determine simply whether there is indeed a body under the ground, without excavating. Technology such as ground penetrating radar could be employed to achieve this. Thackeray is delighted that the church has granted permission for such a preliminary exploratory study. He will be following these events closely and is optimistic that possibilities for him to do the kind of work he has been proposing may emerge.

The scientist first visited the church as a seven-year-old boy with his parents. Standing in the chancel by the grave, he recalls: “The thought did pass my mind. Wouldn’t it be interesting to look at the skeleton of Shakespeare?” It’s been a long wait for Thackeray and his collaborators, though he brushes it off: “We’re patient. I’m a palaeontologist. We can wait.”

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May Will Be Gone In June Ending Months Of Political Battering And Speculation



British Prime Minister Teresa May – just under three years into the job – says she will step down on June 7.

This follows a hammering, from both sides of the house, over her clumsy handling of the Brexit process. She has lost countless votes in Parliament over a Brexit deal and was seen by many in politics as weak and dithering. It is ironic that May herself voted to keep Britain in Europe, only to see her career expire as she struggled to make the opposite happen.

READ MORE | Chilling Words From The Man Who Broke The Bank Of England

Her heartfelt farewell speech on the steps of Number 10 Downing Street concluded that she had done her best to make Britain a better place not merely for the privileged few, but also for the whole population.

The supreme irony is that her shuffling off of the Prime Minister’s job will see the shuffling in one of Britain’s best known members of the privileged few. Eton and Oxford educated Boris Johnson is likely to step in as leader of May’s Conservative party ahead of what surely is going to be a snap election.   

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Big Shots

Poll Position: The South African 2019 Elections




May 8, a landmark day for Africa’s second biggest economy. South Africans will cast their votes for the country’s sixth general elections since the dawn of democracy in 1994.

In the run-up to the polls, the country saw flagrant protests in some parts, as disgruntled citizens expressed disapproval of their stifling living conditions. 

In this image, a resident of Alexandra, a township in the north of Johannesburg, squats in the middle of a busy road leading to the opulent precincts of Sandton, Africa’s richest square mile.  

The dichotomy of socio-economic circumstances is an accelerant in one of the country’s poorest communities filled to the brim with squatter camps and the restlessness of unemployment.

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Current Affairs

A Tale Of Two Presidents And One Phone Call To Freedom



A month before South Africa’s elections, one of the country’s leading political figures exposed a number of his former comrades for corruption with evidence to the Zondo Commission on State Capture. It was box office material, yet just another eventful period in the turbulent life of Robert McBride – guerrilla fighter, policeman and death row prisoner.

Robert McBride has one of those faces full of character that looks like it has endured life as much as lived it. A glance through his tough years of struggle yields a list of reasons why: five years on death row to screams and tears of the condemned; scores of beatings over decades; shooting his way out of hospital; years of the shadowy and violent life of an underground guerrilla fighter.

McBride was born in Wentworth, just outside Durban, in 1963, and grew up amid racist insults and violence. It swiftly politicised him and he was taken into the military wing of the African National Congress where he carried out sabotage with explosives.

Even by the standards of the desperate days of the gun in South Africa, McBride’s political activity is remarkable. In 1986, McBride fought his way out of an intensive care ward in a bizarre rescue of his childhood friend and fellow fighter Gordon Webster. It happened at Edendale Hospital in Durban where Webster lay, with tubes in his body, under police guard.

McBride posed as a doctor, with an AK47 hidden in his white coat; his father, Derrick, was dressed as a priest with a Makarov pistol under his cassock. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission heard, in 1999, that hospital staff cheered them on and held back an armed policeman as the McBrides shot their way out, pushing the wounded Webster to freedom on a trolley.        

Thirty-three-years on, McBride went into battle again for his beliefs, this time with words and documents, against a more insidious and formidable foe than armed police – corruption. He gave evidence before the Zondo Commission, in Johannesburg, springing from his days as head of IPID, the independent police investigators.

He spent more than four days on the stand – longer than most cricket matches last these days. He told of missing police evidence, claims of sinister moves to remove corruption busters and the misappropriation of money, under a cloak of secrecy, by the crime intelligence agencies.    

“People don’t like me because of my anti-corruption stance, their dislike of me I wear as a badge of honour. Those who dislike me for other reasons, it is a free country and you are entitled to your likes and dislikes. I have no problem with you. But wherever I am, I will do my work and will always be against corruption. I understand how corruption affects the ordinary man and means there is so much less to go around,” he says.   

To give a little more context, McBride’s erstwhile job went with unpopularity. The head of IPID is a post that politicians, plus probably more than a few disgruntled policemen, wanted him out of. They ended his contract and he assures me he is going to court to get his job back. His stance may give clues as to why some wanted to see the back of him.

“I have spoken loudly every time I have seen something wrong and raised unpopular issues. Some of the issues we picked up early on was police involvement in cash-in-transit robberies… The looting of police funds, the corruption, the wastage and the leverage, we then began to understand it; the leverage that some policeman have over politicians… Any criminal syndicate that is operating requires police to help them otherwise they will be found out in the normal course of events,” says McBride, the month before the hearing.

“Rogue activity by certain elements in the prosecuting authority, the willingness to prosecute people for non-criminal acts and unwillingness to prosecute when there is a pile of evidence…We will also speak about the abuse of state funds, the abuse of power by the police by negating investigations. Most of our evidence is backed up by court papers, evidence and affidavits,” he says.

Many activists who saw the nasty, ugly, side of the struggle often are the first to come down, hard, when they feel freedoms they fought for are being abused. You could argue McBride, an intelligent thinker, is very much one of them.

You could also argue that McBride has been cut adrift by many former comrades and demonized as the Magoo’s Bar bomber – the 1986 car bomb on the Durban beachfront that killed three and wounded scores. Others, on both sides of the South African struggle, who issued orders, or did worse, are undisturbed and anonymous by their swimming pools. Any regrets? I ask.

“It’s like asking me ‘do I regret living in a free and democratic country’, the answer can’t be yes… We would have preferred that things went differently. If you are in an armed struggle, you are the cause of hurt to other people and as a political activist, as a revolutionary you can defend that and justify it.

“But as a human being, you know that when it concerns other people, it is not the right thing to do to cause the hurt of other people. I have expressed myself as a human being on this, not because I was trying to elicit any sympathy or anything; I have never asked for redemption, I have never asked for forgiveness. Those who know me know what I am about and those who understand the circumstances in the early 1980s when we became active; those who are old enough to remember that was what the circumstances were.”

Those circumstances recede further into the darkness of memory of democratic South Africa every year, yet, in the minds of those who suffered, it stays pin sharp. McBride spent five years on death row, in Pretoria, after being sentenced to the gallows for the Durban bombings.

He reckons the prison hanged more than 300 prisoners in this time. Through the cell door, he heard the condemned screaming and crying as warders dragged the condemned along the passages to their fate. The hanging warders used to bring back the bloody hoods from the gallows and force the next batch of condemned men to wash them.

In May 1990, the sun shone as hope visited death row in Pretoria. The prison management summoned McBride and a group of fellow condemned activists, to the main office at the maximum security prison. Each were given green prison jackets – the garb of special occasions. Warders drove them, in a van, to a distant part of the prison and all feared they were either going to be executed or allowed to escape and shot in the back.

“We were told not to talk and then we were put in this big room with a steel of security around the room and after about 45 minutes the former president (Mandela) walked in and it was the most beautiful sight on earth; the greatest feeling ever and when he walks in, he says: ‘Ah, Robert! How are you!’ As if he knew me forever. It was the most important meeting I had in my life. It was like a God-like environment. He gave us a rundown of negotiations and what can be expected and that we must not worry, we must be patient and sit tight, he knows all of our backgrounds and will do his utmost to get us released and we will never be forgotten.”

It took more than two more years, in the shadow of the noose… until a fateful Friday. September 25, 1992. McBride will never forget the date.

“Round about half past four in the afternoon, I got a call to come to the office, I didn’t know what it was about, and when I came there, the head of the prison said: ‘You have a phone call’. It was my first phone call in prison. On the other end of the line was comrade Cyril Ramaphosa and he says: ‘Hi chief’. I keep quiet and then he says: ‘Monday’. I say: ‘What’s happening Monday chief?’ He keeps quiet, then he says: ‘You are going home!’ There was a bit of a smile you could feel in his voice,” says McBride with a huge smile on his face.

Long after Mandela had completed his long walk to freedom for his country, McBride was to yet again hear the click of a prison key and feel the pain from a warder’s boot.

It was the summer of 1998 and in Maputo, the sea was warm and the prawns were hot. The police in Mozambique picked up McBride, then a high-ranking official in foreign affairs, on alleged gun running charges that appeared to be trumped up to us journalists. We scoured the streets of the capital, for weeks, in search of witnesses.

McBride argued that he was on an undercover operation for the National Intelligence Agency trying to uncover gun runners who were flooding neighbouring South Africa with illegal weapons and fuelling crime; a counter that eventually set him free.

Despite this, McBride spent six months in the capital’s notorious, grim, Machava maximum security prison, where he told me violence was meted out.

I covered that story for many months and came within a split ace of interviewing McBride in his cell. We spent hours plying the Portuguese-speaking warders with beer and the story, through an interpreter, that we were friends visiting from South Africa and we just wanted to say hello. We told them our friend was a big man in South Africa.

“He is a small man now,” smiled back one of the warders icily.

We convinced the guards and as they moved towards the prison doors, keys in hand, our cover was blown. One of the not too bright colleagues from our TV station strolled into the prison waving his press card.

“Hello Chris!” says he. The none-too-pleased prison guards threw us out.

I had to wait more than 20 years for my interview with McBride.

A phrase I always remembered from those many hot, crazy, days in Maputo was a quote we got from the late presidential spokesperson Ronnie Mamoepa when McBride went behind bars yet again.

“He is a tough guy who can look after himself,” said Mamoepa.

The Zondo Commission and scores of corrupt policemen last month found out how tough.  

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