Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Liberation of Paris: The hidden truth

Months before D-Day, American and British commanders decided that only French troops who were 100 per cent white could take part in the operation to free Paris. John Lichfield reports
Published: 31 January 2007

The story is one of the most written about events in modern French history. The first large Allied military force to reach Paris on 24 August 1944 was the only French unit in France at the time.

The second armoured division led by General Philippe Leclerc swept aside all opposition - including American objections - to be the first to liberate the capital. What was not known, until now, is that Leclerc's division was hand-picked for the task five months earlier. It was chosen partly because it was French but, more specifically, because its soldiers were white.

According to a book published in France this month, British and American generals insisted in early 1944 that non-white French colonial troops should be excluded from the liberation of Paris. The revelation, drawn from US and UK military archives, coincides with the success of the Franco-Algerian film, Les Indigènes which tells the almost forgotten story of the north African troops who fought in Italy and southern and eastern France in 1943-44. The movie has just been nominated for an Oscar as best foreign film of 2006.

A book on D-Day and its aftermath published this month by a distinguished French historian, Olivier Wieviorka, includes much other new material from American and British archives. It reveals, for instance, the depths of the crisis of morale which threatened to incapacitate the Allied armies in Normandy a month after the landings on 6 June 1944. At one point, according to US records found by Professor Wieviorka, one in three "wounded" American soldiers suffered from psychological, rather than physical injuries. British infantry fighting spirit at the time was equally poor.

The stated aim of the book (Histoire du Débarquement en Normandie", Seuil, €24) is to tear away some of the legends of glory and "willing sacrifice" surrounding the D-Day invasion. These legends have perhaps survived longer in France than in Britain or America.

The most startling revelation occupies only two out of the book's 416 pages. It throws new light on one of the most mythologised events in French history: the liberation of Paris. At the start of 1944, Leclerc's armoured division was stationed in Morocco. It was chosen, from all other units in the French army to play a headline role in the liberation of the capital because - in the words of one of the most senior US D-Day generals - it was the "only French division which could be made 100 per cent white".

All other units in the French army at that time were two thirds or more African. They fought in Italy and took part in the secondary invasion of France, on the Mediterranean coast, in August 1944. Their role in the defeat of Nazism was little acknowledged during and after the war. Many of the colonial veterans were denied full French army pensions until the Franco-Algerian film Les Indigènes, directed by Rachid Bouchareb, appeared in September last year.

The book reveals that American and British commanders agreed months before D-Day that, for reasons of propaganda and French national morale, a French division should help to liberate Paris. However, they - and not the French leader, General Charles de Gaulle - insisted that the unit must not include colonial troops. In an interview with The Independent, Professor Wieviorka, said that the motives of American and British commanders may have been more political than racial.

"It was agreed that a French unit should be present for the liberation of Paris because that event would inevitably attract great publicity in France and internationally," he said. "Once that decision was made, it was perhaps important to the Allies, for the same propaganda reasons, that the unit should appear French to the people of France. But this was something that the British and Americans insisted on, not De Gaulle."

Professor Wieviorka says that the episode remains perplexing. US military attitudes might have been influenced by the fact that its army refused to allow black conscripts into combat units. On the other hand, the US military made no objection to fighting alongside French colonial troops in southern France.

Equally, the British view is somewhat puzzling. Comments made by a very senior British officer in the memos found by Professor Wieviorka appear tinged with racial fears about the presence of French colonial troops in Britain. On the other hand, the British Government made no objection to - and ordinary Britons largely welcomed - the black American troops serving in logistic and menial roles with the D-Day invasion force.

A memo from 28 January 1944, found by Professor Wieviorka in the National Archives in Washington, was signed by General Walter Bedell-Smith, Chief of Staff to the Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight D Eisenhower. General Bedell-Smith, who was to head the CIA in the 1950s, wrote: "It is highly desirable that the [French] division should be composed of white personnel, which points to the second armoured division, which has only one quarter native troops and is the only French division which could be made 100 per cent white."

The Americans initially wanted the French unit to be infantry, not an armoured division. Leclerc's American-built Sherman tanks were awkward to transport by sea all the way from Morocco to Britain. There were plenty of American and British armoured units available in southern England. Infantry was scarce. General Bedell-Smith suggested a way around this problem. "If sea transport problems make it impossible to send an armoured division, we might find it necessary to create a [French] force, from all arms, composed of white troops and designated as a division."

A British general, Frederick Morgan, the officer who headed the D-Day planning team, made the same argument. In a memo written on 14 January 1944 found in the American archives, he wrote: "I am convinced that it is of the greatest importance that there should be French troops among the first units to enter Paris. The bigger these units are the better."

However, the French troops would have to be based in Britain before the invasion. This worried General Morgan and also General Hastings Ismay, Chief of Staff to Winston Churchill, later the first secretary general of Nato. General Morgan wrote to the Americans: "General Ismay and I have made it clear [to the French] that we would accept only with great reluctance anything but troops from France proper... It is unfortunate that the only white French unit is an armoured division stationed in Morrocco... The other French divisions are only 40 per cent white. I told [the French] that they would get [a place in the invasion force] far more easily if they could produce a division of white infantry."

In the event, the decision was made to send the second armoured division from Morocco, with its Sherman tanks but shorn of its 25 per cent non-white troops. The division landed in France on 1 August 1944 and played a role in the Allied break-out from Normandy. Despite American doubts about the wisdom of attacking the capital immediately, Leclerc sprinted east and, on 24-25 August, relieved the army of resistance fighters and policemen which had begun the liberation of Paris. General Leclerc's force was all white - but it was not all French. It contained many volunteers from Spain and a few from Portugal.

There were 550,000 men in the French army in 1944. They were partly assembled from the Free French forces which had gathered around Charles de Gaulle in Britain from 1940. Many others were recruited - not always voluntarily - in the French African colonies. Of these [leaving aside colonists of French origin], there were 134,000 Algerians, 73,000 Moroccans, 26,000 Tunisians and 92,000 men from colonies in black Africa.

This multiracial army was first thrown into battle in Italy in 1943, particularly in the grim struggle to dislodge the Germans from Monte Cassino. The same troops landed with the Americans in the south of France on 15 August 1944, while the main German force was still engaged in Normandy. After advancing through France with little opposition, the southern invasion force became involved in terrible winter fighting against the German armies which had assembled to defend the approaches to the Reich in the Vosges mountains and in Alsace in north eastern France from December 1944.

Les Indigènes, follows the boot-steps of four north African soldiers, all played by well-known French actors of Arab origin: Jamel Debbouze (Amélie), Samy Naceri (Taxi), Roschdy Zem and Sami Bouajila. Bernard Blancan plays a pied-noir (white Algerian colonist) sergeant, who is revealed - to his fury - to be half-Arab. All five men shared the male actor's prize when the movie was shown at the Cannes Film Festival last May.

Professor Wieviorka's book also includes new material on the collapse of the morale of British and American troops in Normandy a month after the D-Day landings. The reluctance of some Allied soldiers to fight - and the reluctance of senior officers to send them to their deaths - has already been described in classic recent accounts of the battle of Normandy by the British historians Max Hastings and John Keegan.

Professor Wieviorka adds a mass of telling detail. According to US Army medical records, a third of all soldiers listed as "wounded" in mid-July 1944 suffered from psychological, not physical, injuries. Both the British and American armies suffered an epidemic of self-inflicted wounds at this time, the book says. Professor Wieviorka quotes an account by one of Eisenhower's aides which says that the Supreme Allied Commander was "depressed" to find 1,100 cases of self-inflicted wounds by American soldiers when he visited a large field hospital near Carentan in Normandy in July 1944.

At this time, after the initial success of the landings, the British, Canadian and American armies were being held back by the Germans in a series of murderous close-quarter battles comparable to the bloody struggles on the Eastern Front or in the First World War. Morale rose sharply after the Americans broke through on 24 July.

In his book, Professor Wieviorka suggests that part of the problem was that many of the US and British infantry in Normandy were a "weak link" - poorly selected and undertrained. "Thrown into infantry units by default, less educated than the average sailor or airman, they often had little pride in their units," he writes. "And yet the battle fell largely on their shoulders ... the infantry took 76 per cent of all battle losses in Normandy and 76 per cent of the psychiatric cases".

Professor Wieviorka said his intention was not to denigrate the achievements of the Allies. "Quite the opposite," he said. "The standard picture of young men ready and eager to lay down their lives to defeat Nazism is too simplistic. Only when you look at what these troops really went through do you have a proper understanding of their achievements."

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Andes field trip reveals new species of climbing rodent

By Steve Connor, Science Editor
Published: 25 January 2007

Zoologists have discovered a new species of squirrel-like mammal, which they have described as a strikingly unusual creature, in the high mountains of Peru.

The nocturnal animal looks similar to a squirrel, and is about the same size, but DNA tests have shown that it is more closely related to a family of South American spiny rats, whose fur bristles with spines.

The new species is a climbing rodent with strange-looking, long, dense fur, a broad head and thickly furred tail tipped with white. It also has a distinctive blackish crest of fur on its crown, nape and shoulders.

Scientists discovered the rodent during a field survey in 1999 of Peru's Manu National Park and Biosphere Reserve Mountains on the lush eastern slopes of the Andes in southern Peru, which is one of the richest regions in the world for wildlife.

Its formal scientific description and official naming has only now been made public with the publication today of a description of the Manu reserve findings in the journal Mastozoologia Neotropical. The same field trip, which extended from 1999 to 2001, uncovered 11 additional species new to science, namely one opossum, seven bats and three other rodents.

"Like other tropical mountain ranges, such as the Himalayas, the Andes support a fantastic variety of habitats. These in turn support some of the richest faunas on the planet," said Bruce Patterson, the curator of mammals at the Field Museum in Chicago, who led the research team.

"The new species is not only a handsome novelty. Preliminary DNA analyses suggest that its nearest relatives, all restricted to the lowlands, may have arisen from Andean ancestors," Dr Patterson said.

"The newly discovered species casts a striking new light on the evolution of an entire group of arboreal rodents," he added.

Little is known about the species - which has been named Isothrix barbarabrownae after a Field Museum scientist called Barbara Brown - except that it lives in the cloud forests at an altitude of 6,200 feet and probably feeds on seeds, nuts, berries and small insects.

Subsequent attempts to find further specimens of the rodent have failed. The species is known to have five other close relatives belonging to the same genus living in South America.

The Manu reserve extends from the lowland forests of the Amazon basin to open grasslands above the Andean tree line.

It is home to more species of mammals and birds than any other area of the world of comparable size. In total, the team recorded 222 species of mammals, 94 of which were bats, and 1,003 species of birds, twice the number of breeding bird species in North America, during the three-year field trip.

Sam Turvey, a research fellow at the Zoological Society of London, said that this region of South America is renown for being one of the richest regions in the world for biodiversity.

"It covers an area from low to very high altitude, which supports many different kinds of ecosystems. It's very much a centre for biodiversity," Dr Turvey said. "People think it's very unusual to describe a new species of mammal such as this one but in fact several new mammals and birds are routinely reported each year. There's still a lot of new species of relatively large animals in the world left to be described, certainly more than we think."

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Exhibition reveals secret history of Nazi sex slaves
By Tony Paterson in Berlin
Published: 24 January 2007
There are no photographs and no names, just scores of faded brown index cards with anonymous prisoner numbers, dates of birth, and the hideously functional term "brothel woman" handwritten in black ink on the bottom right-hand corner of each form.

The files, stacked on desks in a former garage for SS guards at the Ravensbrück women's concentration camp museum in Germany, provide evidence about one of the most sordid but least known aspects of Nazi rule. They recall how hundreds of women, written of as "antisocial elements" by the Hitler regime, were arrested, dispatched to camps and forced to work as prostitutes for slave labourers during the Third Reich.

The plight of the hundreds of women who suffered this fate is the subject of an exhibition which opened last week at the former Ravensbrück camp's museum, north of Berlin. It breaks a taboo on an issue which has remained a virtual secret since the end of the Second World War.

"Hardly any other part of concentration camp history has been so repressed and so tainted with prejudice and distortion," said Insa Eschebach, the museum's director. "The women prisoners who were forced to work as prostitutes remained silent after 1945. Hardly any applied for financial compensation because talking about their experiences was too degrading for them."

Yet with the help of testimonies by former Ravensbrück prisoners, excerpts from Nazi SS files and accounts by camp guards, the exhibition manages to capture the horror and degradation suffered by the Third Reich's sex slaves.

Antonia Bruhn, a former inmate at Ravensbrück, where most of the prostitutes were recruited, recalls in a video interview how the women were lured with promises that they would be set free after six months, fed fresh food and vitamins and tanned with sun lamps to improve their looks. Unlike other women prisoners they were allowed to keep their hair. "After they were primped up, they were all tried out by a group of SS guards in the camp operating theatre. Then they were sent off to the concentration camps to work. Of course none of them were set free as the SS had promised."

The women were forced to work at 10 camps, including Auschwitz, from 1942 until 1945. In special brothels equipped with tiny "copulation cells" the women were obliged to receive eight men a day and up to 40 each at weekends. Sex was only permitted lying down in 20-minute sessions and was controlled by SS guards who watched through spy holes.

Irma Trksak, another inmate, recalled the victims returning from a six-month stint at one camp. "They came back as wrecks. God knows how many men they had had to sleep with. They were ruined, sick and many died afterwards," she said.

The idea was conceived by Heinrich Himmler, the Nazi SS chief, as an incentive for slave labourers. But it was also designed to combat the spread of homosexuality in all-male labour camps. German prisoners were the chief beneficiaries.

The exhibition reveals how the SS delighted in making lesbians work as prostitutes in an attempt to "convert" them. Homosexuals were also forcibly sent to have sex with prostitutes.

On their return many of the prostitutes were subjected to medical experiments and several died as a result.
Yorkshire link with Africa revealed in genetic study
By Steve Connor, Science Editor
Published: 24 January 2007
White men with a rare Yorkshire surname have been found to be descended from black African ancestors who came to Britain many centuries ago.

A study of Caucasian men who share the same English surname has found that they also share a type of Y chromosome that has previously been found only in men living in west Africa.

Scientists believe the findings show that Africans who came to Britain as Roman soldiers nearly 2,000 years ago or as slaves after the 16th centuryleft a line of descendants.

The results are the first genetic evidence of black Africans living in Britain centuries before the influx from Commonwealth countries with black populations in the mid-20th century.

The researchers say they have to keep the Yorkshire surname confidential - it begins with the letter "R" - because they would need permission to release it from everyone with the surname who took part in the study.

Professor Mark Jobling of Leicester University said the men are white and did not know they had black ancestry until his team pointed out that they had a type of Y chromosome that could only come from west Africa.

"The Y chromosome is passed down from father to son, so this suggested Mr R must have had African ancestry somewhere down the line. Our study suggests that this must have happened some time ago," he said.

The type of Y chromosome is known as hgA1 and was found in seven out of 18 men who shared the same surname. Only 25 other men have the same Y chromosome, all from west Africa.

Because of the west African connection, it is more likely that the origin of the gene in Britain lies with the slave trade which was heavily based in the region, although a garrison of Moors was installed by the Romans when they were building Hadrian's Wall.

The study is published in the European Journal of Human Genetics.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Valery Gergiev: Light the red touchpaper, stand back
Ticket sales boom when Valery Gergiev is in town - and the fiery Russian now heads the LSO. Jessica Duchen salutes a conductor who can galvanise the concert business - if he chooses to
Published: 19 January 2007
He's been called the greatest conductor on earth, with a cult following like nobody else. He's been called demonic, a control freak, a creative dictator.

When Valery Gergiev, 53, takes over as the new principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra next week, it will mark the start of a musical partnership between the Russian maestro and the British capital that could be the most significant in years. For the LSO, he looks a great catch.

Gergiev, the long-standing director of the Mariinsky Theatre (formerly the Kirov) in St Petersburg, is a man of superhuman energy. His feverish, magnetic, high-octane character, which produces such thrills for his audiences, has its downside: he drives not only the music but himself, and those around him, with maximum intensity. Nor is he exactly renowned for accurate timekeeping. Some cynical orchestral players in London have been wondering aloud whether he will actually show up. Earlier this month, he didn't, pulling out of the BBC Symphony Orchestra's Composer Weekend (devoted to Sofia Gubaidulina) owing to a viral infection.

Were the musical world a Monopoly board, you might think that Gergiev is careering round it collecting the best complete sets, throwing double sixes every time and no doubt pocketing a lot more than £200 on passing Go. In London - aka Moscow-on-Thames - he's already drawing inevitable comparisons with Roman Abramovich and "Chelski" FC.

He's as renowned for his packed schedule as for his music-making. Besides running the Mariinsky, he's principal guest conductor at the Metropolitan Opera, New York; he'll leave his post as chief (since 1995) of the Rotterdam Philharmonic only next year; and he regularly appears with the Vienna Philharmonic. He's cut back his guest conducting to concentrate on long-term associations, but the workload is still unbelievable.

The thing is, he gets results. On the platform, Gergiev is the maestro sans frontières. He's a performer of extreme intensity who visibly gives everything to his music: he appears to feel every note throughout his body and conveys this to the orchestra in a way that some players compare to a sculptor, shaping the work with a mingling of energetic, large-scale gestures and precise, artistic motions of the hands. The music, too, can seem extreme - some of the tempi are wild (he's fitted the complete Tchaikovsky Nutcracker on a single CD) - but his interpretations often make a near-mystical experience out of a concert.

To hear him conduct Russian music - Shostakovich's devastating symphonic testimonies, Stravinsky's terrifying Rite of Spring, Tchaikovsky at his most tragic, or Prokofiev in visionary mode in his opera The Fiery Angel - is to experience the kind of breathtaking, seat-of-the-pants excitement that's talked about for weeks afterwards.

Part of the adrenalin rush, it must be said, can at times arise from under-rehearsal, but there's still that intangible element of genius. Reviewing the climax of his roof-raising Shostakovich cycle at the Barbican last year, the Symphony No 11, Edward Seckerson wrote: "Gergiev's stonking performance seemed more than ever to project its message into the future. When the brutal fusillades of percussion had been silenced and the marches ground to a halt and all that remained was the lone voice of the cor anglais, beaten but unbowed, then you realised what this and all the other symphonies were really about - the quest for human dignity." Gergiev can come out of this looking quite a fiery angel himself.

Will he change the LSO? When his appointment was announced, various articles quoted him as saying that he had no plans to change the orchestra's sound. But orchestral sound changes, to some degree, of its own accord; conducting is about chemistry as much as technique, and an orchestra usually plays differently in response to different conductors' particular energies. The LSO's previous chief conductor was the patrician Sir Colin Davis; its principal guest conductor is the youthful, rather delicate Daniel Harding. It is difficult to imagine any maestro more different from either than Gergiev. He can certainly inject the band with a passion that could turn it from a fine orchestra into a world-beater - assuming he spends enough time with it.

The box office is bound to benefit when Gergiev's in town, however. The British music business offers endless gimmicks to boost audiences, but in the end only one thing can ensure its survival: inspiring performances. Boring concerts entice nobody back, however funky the marketing. But bring in a Gergiev, and tickets fly out.

I interviewed him at his London hotel when he celebrated his 50th birthday and his 25th anniversary with the Kirov. I was unusually lucky; stories abound of journalists trying to catch him for a word between naps on rickety Russian private jets or at 4am after gala-concert dinners, or following him round the globe only to find that the interview never materialised.

He's a tall, striking man with dark, green-brown, blazing eyes. His aura is charged with energy and testosterone; the sweaty, no-time-for-a-shower patina only adds to the magnetism. Heading for his concert after our interview, I bumped into some female musicians from the orchestra, who all melted at the mention of him. In 1999, Gergiev startled a music world that considered him wedded to his theatre by marrying a 19-year-old musician named Natalya Debisova. They now have two children. Gergiev has a grown-up daughter from his previous relationship with a language teacher, Lena Ostovich, about whom he's very secretive.

His charisma works wonders with sponsors and politicians, too. Not least, he has the ear of Russia's premier Vladimir Putin. At the Mariinsky, his political clout has helped him to carry the organisation to new levels, steering it through the upheavals after the fall of the Iron Curtain.

And it's the Mariinsky that is his first love. "There was never in my mind any other destination to settle than St Petersburg," he told me. "I didn't start * * all this just to say, 'Goodbye, I have invitation from a big American orchestra, I am now leaving.' That was never, ever in my mind, even theoretically - one would not speculate on these things. I'm interested in conducting the greatest orchestras, but I'm not interested in moving or settling myself and my mind."

Gergiev was born in Moscow to Ossetian parents, two months after the death of Stalin. He grew up in Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia, where his father, a military officer in the Red Army, was posted. His uncle was reputedly Stalin's favourite designer of tanks.

The family loved music, and one of Valery's sisters, Larissa Gergieva, is a celebrated pianist and the director of the Mariinsky singers' academy. Gergiev's Ossetian background remains vital to him; after the school massacre by terrorists in Beslan in 2004, he flew to Russia to appeal on TV for people not to allow retaliation. Later, he conducted a series of benefit concerts around the world to raise funds for the victims' families.

Gergiev's father died suddenly when he was 14. This shattering revelation of life's brevity might to some extent explain Gergiev's possessed, driven nature; certainly, it was then that he resolved to become a musician. He went on to study at the Leningrad Conservatory with Ilya Musin, the most celebrated professor of conducting in Russia. He wasn't quite 25 when he became assistant conductor at the Kirov Opera under Yuri Temirkanov, making his debut conducting Prokofiev's opera War and Peace.

The players elected him Temirkanov's successor in 1988, giving him a landslide victory against two strong candidates, including the distinguished conductor Mariss Jansons. "In fact, it was nothing to do with the authorities in the Soviet Union," Gergiev told me. "It was a big shock for them, even a bigger shock for them than for me. But that was the choice of the orchestra, chorus and singers, and even the ballet. From that point, I had to switch my own understanding, my emotional love for music, opera and dance, from loving it to being responsible for it."

It was an era of breakneck change. "Russia has its own drama," Gergiev said. "In a way, as well as developing or progressing, many, many things in Russian culture which we loved were becoming lost. It's something to do with the change of system, with the arrival of so-called money-driven realities. I'm not speaking about classical music, I'm speaking in a very broad sense."

He emphasised that his achievements at the Mariinsky depend on long-term "building". "You call it sound or style or orchestral or musical, a spirit or way of doing things, behaviour, interpretations, I don't even know which word is applied to this," he said. "But I am responsible not only for the way the orchestra plays, but in some ways also the life of this institution. Because I make certain decisions - some of them are wrong, some are right - but there's always a sense of responsibility for what would happen to these musicians, especially in the difficult 1990s. It was hard work for us, but many things stay in the memory and many of those are positive things we can look at with pride. One has to build something."

In 2003, the Mariinsky's set workshops were destroyed by a fire; all sets and costumes stored there were lost. Gergiev initiated construction on the site of a new 1,100-seat concert hall, which opened its doors for the first time, in the presence of Vladimir Putin, in November last year.

Equally galvanising has been his effect as director of the Stars of the White Nights Festival in St Petersburg, which now ranks as an annual highlight alongside the biggest festivals, such as Salzburg and Verona. On the Mariinsky stage, Gergiev has injected new life into the repertoire by unearthing Russian operas that were all but forgotten: lesser-known but often enchanting works by Rimsky-Korsakov, Glinka, Prokofiev and even Tchaikovsky.

Gergiev began to tour his company to the world's opera houses in the early 1990s. At first, they met some odd responses. "At the beginning of the first tour to the Met in 1992," Gergiev said, "our presenters didn't know particularly well how to tell American audiences who we are. People sort of knew the Kirov Ballet but they did not know, and in a way did not want to know, Kirov Opera. My first press conference before the tour started was rather funny and rather sad. I was asked many questions, but every other question sounded like, 'Why did you come to the Met?' Which was not put in such a respectful way; it sounded like, 'Who needs Kirov Opera in New York?' So we had to give an answer. And we did. We brought 10 major voices with us, and they were constantly singing in the major American houses." Among the singers Gergiev helped to establish are the sopranos Anna Netrebko and Elena Prokina and the tenor Vladimir Galuzin.

The company's London seasons are always a talking point and usually a triumph - although the Mariinsky Ballet's all-Shostakovich run at the London Coliseum last summer included some dubious productions. Still, Gergiev is probably the only international conductor who takes ballet as seriously as opera. Describing the Mariinsky ballerina Uliana Lopatkina in Swan Lake, he said: "I was not only impressed and proud, but I felt: thank God we keep classical tradition, thank God we do not pretend to be only modernisers, because I just can't imagine how one could say goodbye to all these classical productions, and the style most of all, the elegance, precision and beauty."

Elegance, precision and beauty didn't seem uppermost in the Mariinsky's account of Wagner's Ring cycle, given on four consecutive nights at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff last year. The event sold out in four hours, and the audience was bowled over; but The Independent's reviewer commented: "A lot of the musical performance might have fallen off the back of a pantechnicon."

The trouble was that Gergiev appeared to have been sailing even closer to the wind in terms of that famous schedule. After that Ring (30 November to 3 December), he and the Mariinsky made straight for the Barbican to finish off the Shostakovich cycle with the last six symphonies on three consecutive nights (5 to 7 December). Gergiev may seem superhuman, but making such demands of the players could seem inhuman. They pulled it off - but how they did so is anybody's guess.

So, just how good an appointment is Gergiev for the LSO? On the most obvious level, it's marvellous. Classical music desperately needs leaders like Gergiev to act as ambassadors for their art among an alienated populace; and in a paradoxically overcrowded field, there aren't many. The grand maestros Herbert von Karajan, Georg Solti and Leonard Bernstein are dead; the senior roster, such as Wolfgang Sawallisch, Bernard Haitink and Kurt Masur, are growing long in the tooth; a succession of youngsters have brought exciting headlines but - with a couple of exceptions - they lack crucial experience. And the middle-aged ground in Britain is full of self-made conductors, Oxbridge graduates with woolly beats, bumbling good intentions and hit-or-miss results. Perhaps the closest to Gergiev are Sir Simon Rattle (in charisma terms) and the powerhouse that is Daniel Barenboim.

If there's a downside to Gergiev's appointment, it's that a question remains over whether his heart will really be in the job. His priority is bound to be his beloved Mariinsky. And in London, where orchestras have scant rehearsal time compared to their counterparts in continental Europe, it's no joke to risk losing what there is because the conductor's been rehearsing in another country hours beforehand and his plane is late. Even the LSO needs a maestro who will bring dedication, substance and presence, not just a big name on the letterhead.

Of course, there's no point in a conductor being on time if he doesn't excite the players, pull in punters and give fantastic concerts. And there's competition from the South Bank Centre across the river. The Philharmonia has named the dynamic Finn Esa-Pekka Salonen, 48, as its new principal conductor-to-be, while the London Philharmonic welcomes Vladimir Jurowski, 34 - dubbed "the next Gergiev" - as chief conductor later this year when the refurbished Royal Festival Hall reopens. Salonen and Jurowski have plenty of charisma and are noted for open-minded programming. Jurowski is expected to give about 20 London concerts per season with the LPO, against Gergiev's 12 with the LSO.

If he is truly committed to the orchestra; if he's willing to act as a spokesman for it and for musical life in Britain; if he could use his power to coax funds out of politicians and sponsors as he has in Russia; then Gergiev could be the best thing that's ever happened to the LSO. But the "ifs" are numerous and the ride isn't likely to be smooth. Whatever happens, it won't be dull.
Valery Gergiev: Light the red touchpaper, stand back
Ticket sales boom when Valery Gergiev is in town - and the fiery Russian now heads the LSO. Jessica Duchen salutes a conductor who can galvanise the concert business - if he chooses to
Published: 19 January 2007
He's been called the greatest conductor on earth, with a cult following like nobody else. He's been called demonic, a control freak, a creative dictator.

When Valery Gergiev, 53, takes over as the new principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra next week, it will mark the start of a musical partnership between the Russian maestro and the British capital that could be the most significant in years. For the LSO, he looks a great catch.

Gergiev, the long-standing director of the Mariinsky Theatre (formerly the Kirov) in St Petersburg, is a man of superhuman energy. His feverish, magnetic, high-octane character, which produces such thrills for his audiences, has its downside: he drives not only the music but himself, and those around him, with maximum intensity. Nor is he exactly renowned for accurate timekeeping. Some cynical orchestral players in London have been wondering aloud whether he will actually show up. Earlier this month, he didn't, pulling out of the BBC Symphony Orchestra's Composer Weekend (devoted to Sofia Gubaidulina) owing to a viral infection.

Were the musical world a Monopoly board, you might think that Gergiev is careering round it collecting the best complete sets, throwing double sixes every time and no doubt pocketing a lot more than £200 on passing Go. In London - aka Moscow-on-Thames - he's already drawing inevitable comparisons with Roman Abramovich and "Chelski" FC.

He's as renowned for his packed schedule as for his music-making. Besides running the Mariinsky, he's principal guest conductor at the Metropolitan Opera, New York; he'll leave his post as chief (since 1995) of the Rotterdam Philharmonic only next year; and he regularly appears with the Vienna Philharmonic. He's cut back his guest conducting to concentrate on long-term associations, but the workload is still unbelievable.

The thing is, he gets results. On the platform, Gergiev is the maestro sans frontières. He's a performer of extreme intensity who visibly gives everything to his music: he appears to feel every note throughout his body and conveys this to the orchestra in a way that some players compare to a sculptor, shaping the work with a mingling of energetic, large-scale gestures and precise, artistic motions of the hands. The music, too, can seem extreme - some of the tempi are wild (he's fitted the complete Tchaikovsky Nutcracker on a single CD) - but his interpretations often make a near-mystical experience out of a concert.

To hear him conduct Russian music - Shostakovich's devastating symphonic testimonies, Stravinsky's terrifying Rite of Spring, Tchaikovsky at his most tragic, or Prokofiev in visionary mode in his opera The Fiery Angel - is to experience the kind of breathtaking, seat-of-the-pants excitement that's talked about for weeks afterwards.

Part of the adrenalin rush, it must be said, can at times arise from under-rehearsal, but there's still that intangible element of genius. Reviewing the climax of his roof-raising Shostakovich cycle at the Barbican last year, the Symphony No 11, Edward Seckerson wrote: "Gergiev's stonking performance seemed more than ever to project its message into the future. When the brutal fusillades of percussion had been silenced and the marches ground to a halt and all that remained was the lone voice of the cor anglais, beaten but unbowed, then you realised what this and all the other symphonies were really about - the quest for human dignity." Gergiev can come out of this looking quite a fiery angel himself.

Will he change the LSO? When his appointment was announced, various articles quoted him as saying that he had no plans to change the orchestra's sound. But orchestral sound changes, to some degree, of its own accord; conducting is about chemistry as much as technique, and an orchestra usually plays differently in response to different conductors' particular energies. The LSO's previous chief conductor was the patrician Sir Colin Davis; its principal guest conductor is the youthful, rather delicate Daniel Harding. It is difficult to imagine any maestro more different from either than Gergiev. He can certainly inject the band with a passion that could turn it from a fine orchestra into a world-beater - assuming he spends enough time with it.

The box office is bound to benefit when Gergiev's in town, however. The British music business offers endless gimmicks to boost audiences, but in the end only one thing can ensure its survival: inspiring performances. Boring concerts entice nobody back, however funky the marketing. But bring in a Gergiev, and tickets fly out.

I interviewed him at his London hotel when he celebrated his 50th birthday and his 25th anniversary with the Kirov. I was unusually lucky; stories abound of journalists trying to catch him for a word between naps on rickety Russian private jets or at 4am after gala-concert dinners, or following him round the globe only to find that the interview never materialised.

He's a tall, striking man with dark, green-brown, blazing eyes. His aura is charged with energy and testosterone; the sweaty, no-time-for-a-shower patina only adds to the magnetism. Heading for his concert after our interview, I bumped into some female musicians from the orchestra, who all melted at the mention of him. In 1999, Gergiev startled a music world that considered him wedded to his theatre by marrying a 19-year-old musician named Natalya Debisova. They now have two children. Gergiev has a grown-up daughter from his previous relationship with a language teacher, Lena Ostovich, about whom he's very secretive.

His charisma works wonders with sponsors and politicians, too. Not least, he has the ear of Russia's premier Vladimir Putin. At the Mariinsky, his political clout has helped him to carry the organisation to new levels, steering it through the upheavals after the fall of the Iron Curtain.

And it's the Mariinsky that is his first love. "There was never in my mind any other destination to settle than St Petersburg," he told me. "I didn't start * * all this just to say, 'Goodbye, I have invitation from a big American orchestra, I am now leaving.' That was never, ever in my mind, even theoretically - one would not speculate on these things. I'm interested in conducting the greatest orchestras, but I'm not interested in moving or settling myself and my mind."

Gergiev was born in Moscow to Ossetian parents, two months after the death of Stalin. He grew up in Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia, where his father, a military officer in the Red Army, was posted. His uncle was reputedly Stalin's favourite designer of tanks.

The family loved music, and one of Valery's sisters, Larissa Gergieva, is a celebrated pianist and the director of the Mariinsky singers' academy. Gergiev's Ossetian background remains vital to him; after the school massacre by terrorists in Beslan in 2004, he flew to Russia to appeal on TV for people not to allow retaliation. Later, he conducted a series of benefit concerts around the world to raise funds for the victims' families.

Gergiev's father died suddenly when he was 14. This shattering revelation of life's brevity might to some extent explain Gergiev's possessed, driven nature; certainly, it was then that he resolved to become a musician. He went on to study at the Leningrad Conservatory with Ilya Musin, the most celebrated professor of conducting in Russia. He wasn't quite 25 when he became assistant conductor at the Kirov Opera under Yuri Temirkanov, making his debut conducting Prokofiev's opera War and Peace.

The players elected him Temirkanov's successor in 1988, giving him a landslide victory against two strong candidates, including the distinguished conductor Mariss Jansons. "In fact, it was nothing to do with the authorities in the Soviet Union," Gergiev told me. "It was a big shock for them, even a bigger shock for them than for me. But that was the choice of the orchestra, chorus and singers, and even the ballet. From that point, I had to switch my own understanding, my emotional love for music, opera and dance, from loving it to being responsible for it."

It was an era of breakneck change. "Russia has its own drama," Gergiev said. "In a way, as well as developing or progressing, many, many things in Russian culture which we loved were becoming lost. It's something to do with the change of system, with the arrival of so-called money-driven realities. I'm not speaking about classical music, I'm speaking in a very broad sense."

He emphasised that his achievements at the Mariinsky depend on long-term "building". "You call it sound or style or orchestral or musical, a spirit or way of doing things, behaviour, interpretations, I don't even know which word is applied to this," he said. "But I am responsible not only for the way the orchestra plays, but in some ways also the life of this institution. Because I make certain decisions - some of them are wrong, some are right - but there's always a sense of responsibility for what would happen to these musicians, especially in the difficult 1990s. It was hard work for us, but many things stay in the memory and many of those are positive things we can look at with pride. One has to build something."

In 2003, the Mariinsky's set workshops were destroyed by a fire; all sets and costumes stored there were lost. Gergiev initiated construction on the site of a new 1,100-seat concert hall, which opened its doors for the first time, in the presence of Vladimir Putin, in November last year.

Equally galvanising has been his effect as director of the Stars of the White Nights Festival in St Petersburg, which now ranks as an annual highlight alongside the biggest festivals, such as Salzburg and Verona. On the Mariinsky stage, Gergiev has injected new life into the repertoire by unearthing Russian operas that were all but forgotten: lesser-known but often enchanting works by Rimsky-Korsakov, Glinka, Prokofiev and even Tchaikovsky.

Gergiev began to tour his company to the world's opera houses in the early 1990s. At first, they met some odd responses. "At the beginning of the first tour to the Met in 1992," Gergiev said, "our presenters didn't know particularly well how to tell American audiences who we are. People sort of knew the Kirov Ballet but they did not know, and in a way did not want to know, Kirov Opera. My first press conference before the tour started was rather funny and rather sad. I was asked many questions, but every other question sounded like, 'Why did you come to the Met?' Which was not put in such a respectful way; it sounded like, 'Who needs Kirov Opera in New York?' So we had to give an answer. And we did. We brought 10 major voices with us, and they were constantly singing in the major American houses." Among the singers Gergiev helped to establish are the sopranos Anna Netrebko and Elena Prokina and the tenor Vladimir Galuzin.

The company's London seasons are always a talking point and usually a triumph - although the Mariinsky Ballet's all-Shostakovich run at the London Coliseum last summer included some dubious productions. Still, Gergiev is probably the only international conductor who takes ballet as seriously as opera. Describing the Mariinsky ballerina Uliana Lopatkina in Swan Lake, he said: "I was not only impressed and proud, but I felt: thank God we keep classical tradition, thank God we do not pretend to be only modernisers, because I just can't imagine how one could say goodbye to all these classical productions, and the style most of all, the elegance, precision and beauty."

Elegance, precision and beauty didn't seem uppermost in the Mariinsky's account of Wagner's Ring cycle, given on four consecutive nights at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff last year. The event sold out in four hours, and the audience was bowled over; but The Independent's reviewer commented: "A lot of the musical performance might have fallen off the back of a pantechnicon."

The trouble was that Gergiev appeared to have been sailing even closer to the wind in terms of that famous schedule. After that Ring (30 November to 3 December), he and the Mariinsky made straight for the Barbican to finish off the Shostakovich cycle with the last six symphonies on three consecutive nights (5 to 7 December). Gergiev may seem superhuman, but making such demands of the players could seem inhuman. They pulled it off - but how they did so is anybody's guess.

So, just how good an appointment is Gergiev for the LSO? On the most obvious level, it's marvellous. Classical music desperately needs leaders like Gergiev to act as ambassadors for their art among an alienated populace; and in a paradoxically overcrowded field, there aren't many. The grand maestros Herbert von Karajan, Georg Solti and Leonard Bernstein are dead; the senior roster, such as Wolfgang Sawallisch, Bernard Haitink and Kurt Masur, are growing long in the tooth; a succession of youngsters have brought exciting headlines but - with a couple of exceptions - they lack crucial experience. And the middle-aged ground in Britain is full of self-made conductors, Oxbridge graduates with woolly beats, bumbling good intentions and hit-or-miss results. Perhaps the closest to Gergiev are Sir Simon Rattle (in charisma terms) and the powerhouse that is Daniel Barenboim.

If there's a downside to Gergiev's appointment, it's that a question remains over whether his heart will really be in the job. His priority is bound to be his beloved Mariinsky. And in London, where orchestras have scant rehearsal time compared to their counterparts in continental Europe, it's no joke to risk losing what there is because the conductor's been rehearsing in another country hours beforehand and his plane is late. Even the LSO needs a maestro who will bring dedication, substance and presence, not just a big name on the letterhead.

Of course, there's no point in a conductor being on time if he doesn't excite the players, pull in punters and give fantastic concerts. And there's competition from the South Bank Centre across the river. The Philharmonia has named the dynamic Finn Esa-Pekka Salonen, 48, as its new principal conductor-to-be, while the London Philharmonic welcomes Vladimir Jurowski, 34 - dubbed "the next Gergiev" - as chief conductor later this year when the refurbished Royal Festival Hall reopens. Salonen and Jurowski have plenty of charisma and are noted for open-minded programming. Jurowski is expected to give about 20 London concerts per season with the LPO, against Gergiev's 12 with the LSO.

If he is truly committed to the orchestra; if he's willing to act as a spokesman for it and for musical life in Britain; if he could use his power to coax funds out of politicians and sponsors as he has in Russia; then Gergiev could be the best thing that's ever happened to the LSO. But the "ifs" are numerous and the ride isn't likely to be smooth. Whatever happens, it won't be dull.
Sex and the seahorse
Scientists have solved one of the most baffling riddles of these mysterious creatures - how they reproduce
Steve Connor reports
Published: 19 January 2007
They are among the most graceful and intriguing animals of the ocean and their strictly monogamous lifestyle breaks one of the golden rules of biology - it is the male rather than the female who is left holding the baby.

Scientists have unravelled another mystery of the seahorse and in the process discovered that these unusual fish may be more vulnerable to environmental pollution than was previously believed.

Until now it was thought the eggs and sperm of seahorses are protected against external pollutants because the creatures engage in a form of internal fertilisation, where the eggs and sperm come together inside a body cavity.

However, an anatomical study of the male has found that seahorses release sperm directly into seawater before these delicate "germ cells" of the body are brought quickly back into the protective environment of the male's incubation pouch.

Scientists believe that this key observation could explain why seahorses may be more vulnerable to environmental pollutants, such as heavy metals like mercury, than some marine biologists had thought possible.

Unlike the sex roles in the vast majority of animals, the male seahorse looks after the fertilised eggs in a special brood sac on the front of his abdomen, which works much like the womb of a female mammal.

The fertilised eggs get embedded into the wall of the pouch and are bathed in a fluid that provides nutrients and oxygen. In effect, the male seahorse becomes pregnant and gives birth to live offspring - the only male in the animal kingdom to do so.

It was known for many years that female seahorses deposit eggs directly inside the male's incubation pouch during the close contact of the breeding ritual. It was also assumed, but never proven, that it was in this incubation pouch that the male directly released his sperm to ensure that he, and he alone, fertilised the eggs.

However, Katrien van Look and colleagues at the Institute of Zoology in London looked again at the delicate male anatomy of the common or yellow seahorse, and found that this was not the case. The sperm was released externally into the surrounding seawater, as it is in most other species of fish.

"We found that the sperm duct is actually external which means that the sperm has to go outside into seawater before it can enter the pouch," Dr Van Look said.

"This means that seawater is in direct contact with the sperm, as well as with the inside of the pouch when it is opened to let it in. This means that any environmental pollution in the seawater will also be in direct contact with the sperm and eggs."

Previous studies have shown that relatively high levels of mercury in seawater can inhibit the motility - the swimming ability - of seahorse sperm. So, if sperm comes into direct contact with seawater, it makes it more vulnerable to similar environmental pollutants, Dr Van Look said.

Bill Holt, head of science at the Zoological Society of London, said the discovery was particularly important for the conservation of the seahorse as it furthers our understanding of how this vulnerable fish reproduces in the wild.

"This helps us to understand the implications of environmental change, including global warming and pollution, on the ability of the seahorse to reproduce," Professor Holt said.

Of the 33 species of seahorse, nine are listed as vulnerable - including the yellow seahorse - and one is classified as endangered. Too little is known about the remainder to know whether they are at serious risk from the environmental threats.

However, it is known that seahorses are fished extensively for the trade in traditional Asian remedies, as well as for aquarium pets. Many are also caught and killed as bycatch from other marine activities, such as shrimp fishing.

In addition, Dr Van Look and her colleagues discovered that seahorses produced two distinct types of sperm - type one with a small, elongated head, and type two with a much larger head.

"The research suggests that the type two sperm does not take part in the fertilisation process, but that it is a relic of a previous reproductive strategy in which the male seahorse fertilised the eggs in the water before they entered his brood pouch," she said.

Tim Birkhead, of Sheffield University, who is an evolutionary biologist with a special interest in sperm biology, said the study's findings could lead to a better understanding of the unusual breeding pattern of seahorses.

The strict monogamy of the seahorse, as well as the role played by the male in brooding the fertilised eggs, must have arisen for an evolutionary reason, Professor Birkhead said.

"It provides further confirmation that promiscuity doesn't come cheap. Monogamous species, like the seahorse, save a considerable amount of energy by not having to invest in making testes or sperm," he said.

"The mystery from this study is the occurrence of two types of sperm. That's a real puzzle. All the other animal species with multiple sperm types are promiscuous.

"Then next big questions for seahorse researchers are to figure out whether other species also have two sperm types, and what their function is."

Conventional evolutionary theory states that it should be females of any species who look after the eggs and their young because they provide a far bigger initial investment in the offspring compared to males - since an egg is much larger than a sperm.

However, if the male can be assured that any eggs have been fertilised by his own sperm, and not the sperm of another competing male, then there may be an advantage in him looking after the eggs.

Some biologists have suggested there is something about the ecology of the seahorse habitat which also makes it conducive for males to benefit from monogamy and egg-brooding.

Seahorses cannot swim very well - they use their prehensile tail to hang on to seaweed - and so it may be that once they have found a mate, it makes sense to stick with that mate and concentrate on a life of egg-brooding monogamy.

The facts

* Seahorses are true fish with a dorsal fin on the lower body and pectoral fins on the head near their gills. They are members of the "bony" class of fish, the same as salmon and tuna.

* They live in coastal areas, from Australia to the Caribbean, and prefer seagrass beds and coral reefs where they can hide easily among the vegetation.

* Despite having no teeth or stomachs, they are voracious predators. They suck prey into their mouths and pass it through an inefficient digestive system.

* Seahorses can roll their eyes independently of one another to search for prey, but are not good swimmers.

* About 33 species are recognised today.

* Seahorses range in size from 16mm to 35cm. They can change colour to blend in with their surroundings.

* About 20 million are caught each year for Chinese medical remedies, despite the trade being illegal.

* Captive-bred seahorses survive better than seahorses taken from the wild.