Wednesday, February 24, 2010


Listened to the fantastic radio play by David Hare, based upon the memoirs of Craig Murray, ex-British Ambassador to Uzbekistan. It stars David Tennant, and is a wonderfully engaging, absorbing, horrifying sort of play.

I'd recently signed a petition against the prosecution of a photographer who is accused of the foul crime of showing the country in a deliberately negative light, so I knew that all was not well with the country. What I learned in the course of the play about Uzbekistan and the UK, horrified me.

When I visited Craig Murray's site, I was appalled to find that Sting had played an expensive concert there at the behest of the torturing regime in power... and tried to cover his embarrassment at having given support to the insupportable by claiming it was a Unicef gig (it wasn't) and that cultural boycotts don't work (oh no?).

The wikipedia entry for Sting draws heavily on Craig's page, but is none the worse for that. I am appalled, and I am boycotting Sting for the foreseeable future, removing his music from my itunes and spotify. His website contains a reverent thought for the day from Sting, which on the occasion of my visit said: "I want my children to do something that feeds their souls. It's not about success or power or money. It's about satisfaction."

I see. So the concert in Uzbekistan wasn't for money? That's strange. Wikipedia seems to think the tickets cost $250. I'm assuming Sting got paid handsomely for the concert. Shame on him. Really. I thought he had principles....come to that I thought this country had principles. I'm beginning to wonder what sort of principles those might be.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

10 presents for a new mother

A friend asked me today what would be a suitable present for a new mother, which wasn't something I had had to think about for a while. I assumed there were likely to be dozens of websites with information, but most of the ones I found were commercial websites with expensive wares to sell or tacky stuff with "mum" engraved or outlined in bling or stencilled into it.

So I decided to make my own list. I have put in links to a random selection of companies, but with the exception of Amazon, I haven't used any of the companies myself and so this is not an endorsement of their services.

1. Muslin cloths
The number one gift in my estimation for a new mother is muslin cloths. It may seem boring, but I have to say that this was the most useful thing I ever received. MUCH better than all in one stretch baby suits which are invariably the wrong colour or size or weight for the time of year.

Muslin Cloths can be used on one shoulder for baby sick in the early weeks, to drape over to discreetly breastfeed, or as an impromptu baby changing mat when necessary. Later on, they can be used as bibs and wipes, and grandparents can boil wash one for straining jam....

2. Triangular or L-shaped pillow
This comes under the boring but really useful heading! A triangular pillow or two can come in extremely useful in the months after birth. It can be used to support a newborn who is breastfeeding and make positioning much easier. It can be used to prop a mother up in bed, or to find a comfortable position in an armchair. You can sit on it if you have stitiches or piles. When babies get to the rolling stage, it can be used to contain the baby while dressing or changing him, and when he gets a little older to prop the baby up. A ittle older than that, it can be used behind a baby who has learned to sit up independently, but occasionally keels backwards when he loses concentration.

3. Lavender oil
Pure Lavender oil is a very useful thing to have in the baby changing bag. It can be put on a muslin cloth and draped near a baby with a cold, to clear the nose and soothe - it's much gentler and effective than eucalyptus, which is very harsh for a baby. It can be used as an antiseptic, as a scent to drive out the bad smells of baby digestive systems, and, diluted in a carrier oil, as a massage oil for mother or baby.

4. Food
For the first-time mother, this is one of the times in life when you can eat biscuits or chocolate with a clear conscience. Snacks that would be suitable for the night-time feeds would also be very welcome, particularly home-made flapjack with lots of dried fruit and honey in.

5. Books
This is a bit of a minefield. There are any number of babycare books out there which offer advice and training programmes for babies. Buying a suitable book is fraught with difficulty... a breastfeeding earthmother would probably hurl "The Contented Little Baby" book as far as she could (and hooray for that), whereas an uptight four-hourly bottle feeder may not welcome any book which indicates that she isn't loving her baby if she isn't breastfeeding.

Books which try to give new mothers confidence that they know their baby best, and which respect the idea that not everyone is the same, are safest. For myself, I liked the Penelope Leach book about child development that I was given as a present, on the birth of my first baby. I ignored the advice in it about buying lots of toys and consequently had a mountain of bright plastic rubbish after a couple of years. I found a baby medical book reassuring on occasions, and I liked anything with a bit of humour in it. Baby massage books are popular.

Avoid any book purporting to show women how to revert to their normal size after a couple of months, or which may imply she is fat. It comes as a shock to many women that they don't immediately shrink down to their pre-pregnancy size, and they don't need anything that reminds them of that.

6. Scented stuff and cosmetics
Avoid scented bath stuff as a woman ought to avoid putting anything (except maybe a couple of drops of lavender oil in her bath after birth. There are some lovely natural massage balms and oils out there, many of which are suitable for mother and baby.

7. Scarves and pashminas
Both of these are useful for concealing breastfeeding, and for draping around to keep the sun from the baby.

8. Babyholding vouchers and pampering paraphenalia
Many mothers can't bear the idea of leaving their precious baby for an evening, but would welcome the chance to have a bath and pamper themselves knowing that someone is around for the baby. From a partner, close female friend, mother, mother-in-law or sister, I think this could be the pinnacle of new mother presents: a nice novel or luxury magazine, some chocolate, some freshly squeezed orange juice, some nice moisturising body lotion, and someone to look after the baby while you indulge yourself.

9. Acid-free scrapbook, notebook or keepsake box
A beautiful acid-free notebook, scrapbook or box is a wonderful gift to a new parent. They will received notes and cards, photographs and ephemera which will rattle around in drawers for years if they aren't gathered together in one place. Acid-free ensures that the book won't self-destruct in 10 years.

10. Stairbag
It isn't until you have a baby constantly on one arm that you start to appreciate the need to take things up and downstairs when they occur to you. Leave aside the scrambled brain that pregnancy and birth can leave you with (whatever recent research says) which may lead you to find yourself on the upstairs landing for the third time without a clue what brought you there, something you can stuff things into is very usefu to have. I was going to recommend the stairbasket, but I read a review about how useless those are....

If none of these suggestions appeals to you, there is no substitute for buying the thing the mother herself says she needs. Within your budget, find out, and buy that, whether it is a thermos flask which can have soup in it for night time feeds, slippers that won't trip her up when going downstairs with the baby, or a new pillow and pillowcase.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Busy rez day

Spent Friday working like the clappers on a project and then realised quite late that is was my sixth rez day in SL.

For those who don't frequent the virtual world, six is akin to 85 in the real world; I meet very few people who are older than me.

I may find time to reflect on what being a resident in Second Life has meant to my life...but later! I have to spend the weekend building, terraforming and rezzing stuff for an urgent project. I'll brb, lol.

Elfod tells me there is an anti-Valentine party at his place this evening... not sure what the dress code is for an anti-Valentine's party, but if I am not catatonic by then, I shall go!

A history of the looted world

I can't be the only person who has listened to episodes of "A History of the World in 100 objects" and thought... ok, why do we have *that* in the British Museum. Just as I felt uncomfortable as a child reading the tales of derring-do from the books my mother's generation read in the 1940s, which described Germans as Huns and American Natives as Red Indians... where the white man was always cultured, scientific and right, and the Barbarians began at Calais. Nowadays I feel that same sense of my cultural conscience pricking whenever I go near to a museum which is filled with the plunder of previous ages.

I listened to the factional tales of the Codex Sinaiticus on Radio 4 last year, which is split up in four different locations due to its having been removed from the monastery of St Catherines in Sinai, where it was kept, and thought... how can we, morally, hold onto so much stolen property as though we had some right to it? The only reason it is in four locations is due to its theft, on the pretext of academic study of what is the oldest existing bible, although the facts of the theft are disputed between the different institutions holding the pieces, according to the Radio 4 programme and Wikipedia.

It seems to me that academic reasoning for keeping artefacts which we have, in previous generations, looted from all corners of the world, is shaky at the least in a world where travel is fast and cheap and cameras, videos and 3D interpretations of objects as possible. The idea that we need the Elgin marbles to be in London is ridiculous.

I have no problem with artefacts found in Britain being kept in Museums, and I realise that the provenance and chequered history of some items may make it debatable where their true home should be. But some things... the Codex Sinaiticus, for example, have clear home from which they were looted. And those should be returned.

So the pleasure of listening to people on the History of the the world in 100 objects is marred for me by the feeling that quite a quantity of the things which are mentioned were stolen or looted from their rightful home, and should not be in the British Museum anyway.

Much less conscience pricking - and to me, more interesting - are the items submitted by listeners, with their personal stories about why they are significant to them or to world history. It seems to me that it would be great to have a place to display these things in real life - a public museum space. You could probably get an arts council grant to do it....

While I'm musing in this rough ballpark, the other thing which drives me to distraction is when museums containing artefacts owned by the nation insist on charging ridiculous amounts for the right to reproduce them. For example, the image above, which shows the disputed Codex Sinaiticus, is copyright The British Library. What? Their photograph which only contains the image of an object which does not belong to them, but which they retain in their possession. I don't think so.

In the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery, I think it should be possible to take photographs and use them however you wish. And I think the museums should make their reference photographs available free of charge, creative commons. If education is really their aim and raison d'etre. they would change their policy on this, pronto.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Family History

I've been researching my family history for well over twenty years, and I have learned a lot about my background in the course of those years. I started with the great grandmother who was talked about a great deal in my childhood, although she had died before even my mother was born. She was very unusual for her time, having been one of the first ballet dancers, working in both the respectable establishments such as the New York Metropolitan Opera, and the music hall. Unusually for her time, she had travelled all over the world, and I was given photographs by my grandfather that were taken in New York, Sydney, Glasgow, London. Despite his pride in her, he often said that he didn't really have a mother, and pictures of the family show him, aged about 10, dressed in a crumpled blazer that speaks eloquently of maternal neglect.

I started my family history with a significant advantage, as I had spent a considerable amount of time with my grandparents as a child, and had asked questions often, and remembered the answers. I wish - oh how I wish - I had asked more questions when my grandparents and the other people of their generation were still around. But I have been lucky to have so much information to start with, in my mother's family.

I was contacted recently by a descendant of my great-great-grandmother's sister, and reflected that while I have very little photographic evidence of that generation and the one before, as the 21st century passes it will be commonplace for people to be able to look at photographs of their direct ancestors... colour photographs, showing people who look very similar to living people. I wonder how that will change people's perception of the past and of their ancestors.

When I look at the pictures of my great grandmother Spivey, she is posed in a studio, in black and white, wearing a variety of outfits for dancing, including a gypsy, ballet, ethereal greek, or in her day clothes, looking oddly Victorian (although she was an Edwardian as an adult) and other worldly. I wonder whether I would see her differently, regard her differently, if she was in colour, and in clothing which I could imagine wearing myself?

As the century progresses, people who die will not only be available in colour imagery, but in video. They'll have myspace and facebook pages. Both the things they are proud of, and their inconsequential tweetings will remain after they have died. Will people feel that they know them better? Feel more connected to them, once their late great grandparents have a website or a blog?

It is something which fascinates me. Apart from the photographs my grandfather gave me, and the odd family document, I have very little beyond my great grandmother's generation, most of what I have, I have researched and discovered myself. Although you can work out the facts of someone's life... who their parents were, who they married, what they did, how many children they had, there is very little way to discover who they really were. Will we know more when someone's facebook page remains after their death? Sometimes it seems to me that there is more and more data available, but it may be just so much noise. How long will pages remain, and what sort of memorial will they be?

I've always tried to keep up to date with the current events in the family, recording marriages and children for future generations. It amazes me how quickly families fall out of touch. Children who grew up together, grow apart, set up families of their own and cousins lose touch with cousins. Will that happen less now that we can all keep in contact through our social media pages?

Trying to think about what sort of legacy you will leave to future generations, will they want the unvarnished truth, that their great great grandmother wrote erotica and had a virtual life which ran alongside her real life... or might they rather not know that? Hard to say, and hard to know what the impact will be of the unvarnished truth. I have been distressed in the past to hear of diaries censored or destroyed, because for most people those sorts of things are the ony trace of ourselves that we leave behind currently... and I feel that honesty and openness are the only ways to make sure that sort of legacy means something, even if it might be embarrassing to learn that Uncle George liked to wear women's clothing, or Aunt Emily once used to be a stripper.

On the other hand... who really tells the truth about their life? It takes a rare person to have enough self-knowledge and courage not to rationalise and justify the things they do, not to put a spin on the events and happenings of their life. Even if they manage it personally, unless you put a publication embargo of at least 50 years on the naked truth, it means that you maybe revealing secrets from other people's lives too, when you speak the truth about your own.

I like to think that some essence of myself will live on in the things I have written, and in the things I have composed... but actually, the lasting effect of my presence in the world must be the contact I have had with others, and it is hard to know what difference that may have made to the world, good or bad, positive or negative.

Maybe in the end it won't matter what photographs or facts are left behind, it is the person that you are, and how the person that you are has changed the people you have lived with. In the end, the main memorials to who you are, are the people who grieve your passing and in whose hearts you live on after your death.