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Fungus from Flanders

I PASS it often, in the car, the calm, impressive campus where once poets came to recover from the horrors of war.

The Herald reports that a rare fungus has been discovered there and that, like the poets, it was brought here from the trenches. Clavulinopsis cineroides was spotted by ecological consultant Abbie Patterson at the old Craiglockhart military hospital, now part of Edinburgh Napier University.

It's thought the fungus came from Flanders. Looking at an old photograph of First World War officers standing on the grass banking where she found the fungi, Ms Patterson said: "I thought of the soldiers' boots trampling the devastated fields of Flanders and perhaps picking up the spores and then depositing them on that grass bank."

It's an unsettling thought. Craiglockhart is a tranquil, leafy suburb, as lovely a place to live as you could imagine. It is, in its way, heaven. And these men had come from hell.

Wilfred Owen spent time in the hospital, before he was posted back to hell and killed. In his poem Mental Cases, he wrote of the war-tortured men he saw at Craiglockhart, suffering from shell shock, hearing and seeing endlessly the "batter of guns and shatter of flying muscles, carnage incomparable".

"These are men," said Owen, "whose minds the Dead have ravished."

Siegfried Sassoon spent time there too, forming a friendship with Owen and coming deeply under the influence of psychiatrist WHR Rivers. Pat Barker, in her novel Regeneration about this period in Sassoon's life, reported Rivers's view that "it was prolonged strain, immobility and helplessness that did the damage, and not the sudden shock or bizarre horrors that the patients themselves were inclined to point to as the explanation for their condition".

As you pass the Craiglockhart building today, it's hard to associate it with bizarre horror. It started life, in 1880, as a hydropathic institute, became a military psychiatric hospital between 1916 and 1919, then a convent and a Catholic teacher training college, before passing in 1985 to the then Napier College.

The main Victorian building, designed in the Italian style, is supplemented by a fabulous-looking business school, complete with a massive, egg-shaped lecture theatre straight from outer space.

Now, we learn that, all along, the campus has been harbouring an alien fungus. The fungus survives, enjoying life in a better place. The poets died, though their works live on.

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Education

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