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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Tuesday 20th December 2011 

Ventriloquists, mutant rabbits, murdered schoolteachers and substance abuse. No, not the four objects featured in the most surreal ‘Only Connect’ question ever though the first three do lead, for me, to the fourth.

Let’s begin with ventriloquists. Someone pointed me to clip of an entertainer they thought was the world’s best ventriloquist. I didn’t agree, though that’s not relevant, but it did remind me of seeing Nina Conti and Grandma on an episode of ‘QI’. Nina Conti talked about being mentored by the late Ken Campbell who had made a study of the history of ventriloquism and was fascinated by the way it fell from favour in the UK but was widely accepted in the USA.

In particular, Campbell noted that ventriloquists were often involved in educational programmes for young people and, it appeared, children were more receptive to advice given by the dummy than they were to the same information delivered by an adult.

The mutant rabbit comes from this story about an interactive museum display intended to teach about poisons and poisoners. In the exhibit, visitors are asked to help investigate the (fictional) murder of Professor Felix Splicer. I’d love to be able to visit New Zealand myself because it sounds as though the museum has put a lot of effort into getting its information right. The exhibition developer, Janneen Love is quoted as saying “I think our audiences will be surprised to find out what's really deadly and what's not - it's not always the obvious plants or animals that deliver the toxic punch and some of the most feared creatures actually pose very little threat."

But, since the chance of me getting to New Zealand before February next year is less than zero, I’ll have to settle for my memories of a visit to the Alnwick Garden Poison Garden by a group of schoolchildren as part of a science project.

In the project, the children found the school’s headteacher dead and had to examine the murder scene and discover which of the items in it could have been used as the murder weapon as well as systematically collecting evidence to lead them to the murderer.

The Alnwick Garden visit was to provide them with information about the various plants and plant extracts that had been placed in the classroom where the headmaster was found to help them eliminate those that could not have been used and learn more about those that might turn out to be the weapon. There’s no way to prove it, of course, but I’m pretty sure that group of children got more out of their visit than all the other groups who came along on ‘an educational visit’ that had no motive with which to excite their interest.

And so, to the last in the sequence; substance abuse. You cannot expect children to understand the potential for harm that lies in unrestrained use of psychoactive substances just by having an adult tell them about it. If it is the illegal substances, then the reaction is likely to be that the adult doesn’t ‘get it’ or is just trying to stop young people having fun. If the substance is legal, like alcohol or tobacco, the young person will ask why they shouldn’t do what they see so many adults doing.

And, of course, as I’ve said many times before, there is absolutely no point in lying about the substances because children will quickly expose those lies and give no credence to anything further said to them by an adult on the subject.