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SkyFall – Does “M” stand for Mother?

The first film I ever saw at the cinema was “For your eyes only”, in case you’ve never seen it, it’s a film where a ginger comedian / assassin looks for a giant calculator. Highlights include a talking parrot commanding a sexually aroused Margaret Thatcher to “give us a kiss” and in the pre-credit sequence our hero kills a disabled person by dropping him down an industrial chimney stack from a helicopter, the disabled man’s screams then morph into a sexy love song while Sheena Easton writhes out the credits.

I was 5 years old.

It is definitely one of my favourite films ever.

At the time I had never seen skiing before, let alone someone skiing down a luge run whilst fighting stuntmen. I had never seen mountain climbing before – a still exciting assault with Art Garfunkel? (see picture) on the mountaintop monastery St Cyril’s, or the old smugglers trick with cashew nuts or two unbelievably beautiful women throwing themselves at a middle aged pun merchant wearing a polo neck (actually one of them was just a sexually promiscuous child who Bond, quite sensibly, spurns and then offers to buy an ice cream). It was a crazy winter-olympics-mediterranean-diving-holiday adventure, a mishmash of what was hot at the time, culminating in Bond throwing the object he has spent the entire film chasing off a mountain. So all a bit pointless really. Luckily though they end on a high: a parrot talking dirty to Thatcher whilst Bond goes skinny dipping with a greek orphan.

Classic entertainment.

You see, the thing about the Bond franchise is that Post-Connery it didn’t take itself seriously for a very long time; from “invisible cars” to Roger Moore’s karate, it coasted along with a knowing wink – Bond’s casual indifference to killing only palatable because they never suggested it was real. Let’s not forget, Lazenby aside, for all the exotic travelling there was rarely any emotional journey at all; the man who started the mission was the man who ended the mission.

But indifference isn’t cool anymore. Gone is the is the casual shruggery of by-gone heroes, the men with nothing to lose, nothing to be threatened with. Today’s audience need good old fashioned motivation. Peril isn’t really peril if there is no emotional investment in the character and in the action genre it’s vital, it’s the difference between Cobra and Rocky – the audience only feel the thrill of victory, they only cry, with one of those films.

Spectacle can no longer distract from dodgy plots and poor characterisation.

In short, these days it has to take itself seriously.

So what to say about SkyFall, the 23rd film in the mega-franchise, following 2008’s universally disappointing Quantum of Crapness?

Well, what a difference 4 years can make. Sam Mendes has delivered a film with that most elusive of qualities: balance. We have an original story, a character arc and some serious acting talent including Ralph Fiennes, Albert Finney and Judi Dench’s M, who is given a more pivotal role than the usual “scowls and exposition”. There’s a genuinely creepy but ultimately well motivated Javier Bardem, the man with the golden mullet, playing unhinged cyber terrorist Silva and a new Q in Ben Whishaw, a move which at first suggests that MI6 are recruiting their quartermasters from One Direction or Skins but which we become quickly comfortable with. Most importantly though, we are given the man himself – Daniel Craig’s Bond. Gone is the glacial, invulnerable super-spy and in his place a conflicted, driven, human being: Does he walk away or does he stay and risk his life defending the woman who has no compunction about sending him to his death?  And how much of his decision has to do with the loss of his own parents? Does M stand, in some way, for Mother?

Craig is good at unspoken dialogue, with no mention of what has gone before in the previous 2 films, his Bond wears regret, loss and sheer emotional mileage on his granite face, a far cry from Moore’s levitating eyebrows.

The requisite action sequences, from the candle lit ‘dragon’ casino to the stygian murk of the last act’s caledonian siege, are convincing, gorgeously shot and refreshingly diverse in palette; the gadgets almost non-existent and for all the usual outcry about product placement there is only one really obvious one that grates. The ending is surprisingly touching and closes the circle nicely.

With enough nods to the past to keep the die-hards happy and enough depth to ensure Bond’s future it is a well balanced entry in to the Bond canon – there is little doubt that James Bond will return.

Educating Africa

My story begins with Sthoko, a young South African woman who gave my feet a wonderful pedicure after walking in the Drakensberg mountains in South Africa last week. Sthoko is one of the new generation South Africans, proud of her heritage and looking forward to a happy and successful economic future. Sthoko is educated and has a good job in a resort spa. She hopes to find a good and decent man to marry and start a family. But for now, she lives in a remote region of South Africa where three provinces meet at the escarpment. Mobile phones are plentiful in South Africa, but outside of the metropolitan areas, coverage is sparse and internet access is patchy to say the least. Satellite TV provides most of the news, but it’s expensive. Sthoko is lucky – she can read so will be able to find out about current affairs for herself. She wonders, for example, why the Zimbabwean people are not rising up en masse against Robert Mugabe. But there are many others who are not so fortunate, who are unable to read or write.

Which is why education is so important for South Africa’s next generation. In the eight years since we were last there, infrastructure has deteriorated. Roads in particular are most badly affected. If children are unable to get to school, or are unable to communicate with a teacher via the internet, using Skype for example, how on earth can they be educated? We spent some time with Megan Bedingham at The Cavern Resort. Megan and her family have set-up and built a school, The Royal Drakensberg Primary School, for local children. This local school means that the parents of little children no longer have to find the money to travel an hour by taxi to school. No money means no school for many children. The South African government provides no financial support for the school, so it must find funding for teachers and supplies from other sources. Parents are, however, expected to pay R400.00 (about £30.00) a month for each child at the school, and that is a huge sum of money for most of these parents whose main employment is at The Cavern Resort or the neighbouring hotels. The remainder of the school fee is generated by tireless fundraising.

The problem for the education of girls is even more desperate. In this area of South Africa, Zulu tribal traditions are very strong, which means that boys are born with more advantages than girls. Girls are still growing up and working in domestic service. Of course, this will always happen, but it is said that the education of children is only as good as that of their mother. So, unless we can educate the mothers of tomorrow, children in South Africa will never rise above the basic level. I believe very strongly that there needs to be more focus and commitment on educating girls, empowering them through education, to healthier, happier lives as confident women in South Africa’s future.

The newly appointed health minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi has declared his aim of an HIV-free generation. The recent public awareness ads are hard hitting and make it clear that responsible sexual practice will be a major contributor to halting the spread of the infection. South Africa cannot afford the widespread use of anti-retroviral drugs forever.

While in South Africa, I listened to a debate on broad-based black economic empowerment, which the local people refer to as BBEE. Eighteen years after Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress came to power, this is still the main concern amongst young black South Africans. MOprah Winfrey opening her leadership academy for girls in South Africaay is Africa month, a celebration of all things African. But everyone is wondering if this generation will enjoy true economic freedom and independence, that which previous generations have fought for.

Oprah Winfrey has started a girls’ school in Johannesburg to address just this issue. I have previously written about Thandulwazi, a maths and science academy in Johannesburg. And now, I’m asking you to consider the Northern Drakensberg Khanyisela project. Khanyisela means to enlighten. Thandulwazi is the love of knowledge. Two more projects inspiring brighter futures for South Africa and its children.

Don’t Reign On My Parade

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II en route to St Paul's Cathedral, 5th June 2012. Photo: Defence Images

The Queen on her way to St Paul’s Cathedral

As a metaphor, the image of the whole country going down the river for the Jubilee is so appropriate, I’m surprised more wiseacre commentators haven’t picked up on it. It is galling enough that a country in such dire straits — with high unemployment, a double-dip recession in progress, a failing health service, and its myriad other problems — can afford to splash out on celebrating the one person in the nation who never need worry about the spectre of poverty or work (the Queen is, after all, permanently underemployed) not dying.  But that the manner of this spectacle should be her sitting idly while a pageant of her subjects float past on what might as well be a river of tears, in barges crafted from their dashed hopes and dreams, is nothing short of cheek.She stood watching this flotilla of filthy followers for hours, we are told, as if that was enough to justify her privileged position. The time, money and effort of thousands of people was evident, while all she had to do was put on her best hat and watch them pass in their little boats with the rain beating down upon them, giving them the appearance of drowned rats. It must have looked like something out of a postmodern Wind in the Willows.

I wonder, as she stood there, undoubtedly bored, whether she was aware of what some of her subjects had to endure to enable this event. The Guardian reported that a number of long term jobseekers were forced to work as stewards without pay during the event. That, in itself, doesn’t count as out of the ordinary in this Tory Britain, but the details revealed a sequence of uncaring treatment that was described as akin to slavery. They were bussed in from Bristol in the early hours of the morning and abandoned, told to camp under a bridge like common trolls, made to change into their uniforms in public and had no access to toilets for the whole day. I don’t expect the unemployed to be treated like royalty, but I’d demand at least they be treated like human beings.

A Celebratory Message for the Queen. Photo: jordi.martorell

Celebrating the Jubilee

I tried my best to avoid coverage of the Jubilee, but the signs and signifiers were everywhere. I reached a point where I swore that, if I saw another Union Jack, I would wrap myself in it and immolate myself in Trafalgar Square. Displays of excessive jingoism only seem to manifest during royal events, football tournaments and wars; the rest of the time, most citizens couldn’t give two patriotic shits about the country. But stores have done a roaring business in red, white and blue tat – from bunting and tableware to clothing and cushion covers – so every home can look like the venue for a BNP rally. The only theme that I’ve found more annoying is constantly being confronted with the litany that I should ‘Keep Calm and Carry On,’ on posters, mugs and T-shirts. In the current political and economic crisis, that’s the equivalent of saying ‘What iceberg?’ when the ship is already sinking. I, for one, will be donning my T-shirt featuring the slogan ‘Time To Panic and Set Fire to Things’ any day now.

I’ve nothing personal against the Queen. As run of the mill old ladies go, I suppose I find her inoffensive enough. If I were in a post office queue, she’s the kind of person I’d rather was behind me than in front of me, as you know she’s going to try to engage the person serving in conversation about her various aches and pains, the doings of her million grandchildren, and what her husband said to the Chinese ambassador this time. I’m also not going to let this article descend into an over-reaching republican diatribe, in spite of that being the general thrust of my opinions. My issue here is with the misplaced and mystifying adoration of her social position.

In 2002 a BBC poll revealed the country’s preferred list of 100 Greatest Britons, which placed Elizabeth II at number 24. Two monarchs beat her: Queen Victoria and her namesake, Elizabeth I, the only crowned head to reach the top ten. But, tellingly of the contrary nature of all of us, Oliver Cromwell, who chopped off a King’s head and briefly turned the country into a republic, beat all monarchs bar one. Three Prime Ministers and a man who tried to blow up parliament with a King in it also placed nearly as highly, or higher than, our present Queen. The rest of the top of the list was completed by notable scientists, authors, explorers, mathematicians, military leaders and musicians – in other words, people who actually contributed to the betterment of the nation and its people, not just someone who got to where they are merely by being born. So do we really love our monarchy as much as all the pomp and trumpeting would have us believe?

Tradition was you’d rid yourself of a troublesome head of state by divorcing their head from their body. Now, any policy passed by parliament must be signed into law by the monarch, meaning they would have to sign the law removing themselves from the constitution, and finding any monarch progressive enough to throw themselves from the royal gravy train is as likely as finding a stone that bleeds blue blood. The truth of the matter is that we still have a monarch because this system is set up in such a way that no government would make so radical and potentially unpopular a proposition as to abolish the monarchy, and no monarch would put themselves out of a job. It’s a classic elephant in the room dilemma. Everyone knows the role of the monarch is entirely ceremonial and symbolic, but no one is prepared to take the steps to cut away the dead flesh. It’s tradition, but that’s just another way of saying we do something a certain way because that’s the way we’ve always done it. I’m not sure that our adoration, bordering on religious idolatry, doesn’t come about largely because it’s expected of one.

I also wonder what the rest of the world thinks when they see the footage on their evening news. Undoubtedly the royals are good for tourism, they’re a spectator sport. But so are the Hunger Games, and if the country needs a distraction in these troubled times I would rather the O2 Arena was rechristened the O2 Thunderdome and the privileged few would be forced to duel until only one was left standing, and in that way at least they would have earned my respect, and any right to parade.

Cereal Killers

Last week, research scientists sent an open letter to a group of activists called “Take the Flour Back” imploring them not to damage and destroy a field in Hertfordshire during a day of “planned action” at the end of May. The field is part of Rothamsted Research’s study into a genetically modified wheat which, it is hoped, will be highly resistant to aphids. A crop, which if successful, could eradicate the need for pesticide use.

Which is a good thing right? Well clearly not according to some.

We’ve been tinkering with the science of genetics for thousands of years, it’s almost as old as agriculture itself. Wheat, the most widely grown crop on the planet, is already a hybrid of many different species. Commercially grown modern wheat, untended, wouldn’t even survive in the wild; human beings have changed it beyond what would ever appear naturally. The grains are a lot bigger than undomesticated varieties and it has a real issue with seed dispersal, an impotence which has been cultivated through years of selective breeding: so it’s easier and more worthwhile to harvest. We’ve also bred in “dwarfing” which means the stalk is shorter, so the energy of the plant can be more usefully diverted to the production of seed. Trying to grow it in the wild would be the agricultural equivalent of releasing a sausage dog into the wilderness and expecting it to survive. All the aspects that make the dog desirable to us – in this case resembling a tiny-legged-sausage-with-a-face, would be exactly the things that would give it no chance. It is as far from a wolf as it’s possible to be – because that’s how we want it. But to most of us it’s not a dangerous abomination, it’s just a sausage dog.

So what has inspired such promises of violence towards a field of GM wheat? After all, since the late 90‘s when the widespread commercial use of GM crops started in the US, there has never been a single proven case of anyone ever having suffered ill effects through their consumption. All those millions and millions of people and nobody’s grown another head or a third armpit. Presumably because extensive trials, like the one under threat in Hertfordshire, are carried out to ensure the product is safe. GM Crops undergo a far more rigorous process of regulation than their non-GM equivalents and have since the very beginning.

“Take the flour back”, have suggested the threat of contamination, but that doesn’t really ring true. The safety measures in place for this particular trial are impressive to say the least: the crop will be surrounded by inert fields far beyond the dispersal range of the wheat’s pollen, making the threat of contamination as effectively close to zero as it is possible to get.

It’s difficult to understand the mindset of a group, whose concerns regarding GM include the fact that not enough research is being done, destroying that very same research. Protesters often cite the dangers of corporate oligarchy – control and profit, as a reason against GM crops, and whilst this is a very valid reason for scrutiny and where my own concerns normally lay, it doesn’t apply here either: the end-product, if successful, will not become a patented biocrop only available to the highest bidder. Despite all the doom-mongering, Rothamsted Research is not a malevolent multinational, hushing up mutants in it’s basement, it’s a group of well respected scientists whose aim is to improve on what we have and share it with the world. Their ultimate aim is a crop whose yield, resistance to drought, nutritional value, shelf-life and cost to grow could help end starvation in the Third World.

When I hear people say that we don’t know the results of long term use, that we’ve only been using GM crops for 20 years, I think to myself – that is considerably longer than millions of Africans are currently living. With around 15 million children dying of hunger every year, destroying this important work is destroying a manifesto whose ideals would wipe out famine.

In keeping with the subject of mutation, the word “activist” is one whose meaning has perhaps mutated as much as the crops some seek to destroy. In this instance though it is a moniker that seems destined to ring true. Rather than the admirable mission of concerned citizens, activist is now the “go-to” word to describe any campaigners associated with some degree of violence or destruction. I’ve felt for as long as I can remember that this is exactly the wrong thing, as a protester, to do. As soon as you become a crusader with the mindset of a terrorist, then you sacrifice, not your ability to be noticed, but your ability to be taken seriously, it dilutes the purity of your message. The role of a protester is to engage sympathy through peaceful actions, to shine a light on inequalities or dangers and thereby expand your audience. Once this has been achieved you voice valid points to that audience – be they the community, the government or the world.

You raise your voice, not your fist.

Stuff The Jubilee

Bin the crownIt’s not happening until June, but I’m seriously fed up with the Diamond Jubilee already.

I make absolutely no effort to find out anything about it, yet every time I turn on the TV, browse the internet, walk down the street, read a newspaper, go to a pub or a shop, even go to work, it’s being rammed down my throat so hard it makes me sick.

Ironically, the propaganda churned out by the Royal press machine to brainwash the population that these celebrations are worthwhile has served only to increase my opposition. The more I am encouraged to take part in and enjoy the jubilee celebrations, the less I want to. I’ve always had anti-monarchist tendencies, but ever since the ridiculous charade of the Royal Wedding last summer, my Republican views have grown ever stronger.

But let’s remember that wonderful day last April – wasn’t it just the Wedding of The Century? Britain at it’s best?

Kate’s lovely dress! Will’s dashing uniform! Their kiss! The carriage! The flag waving school children! An extra bank holiday! A nation united!

Bollocks. What a ridiculous fuss over the marriage of two people we don’t know and we are unlikely to ever meet. I can’t understand why there was such adulation over two people, who, if they were not obliged to, would not give a flying fart about 99% of those who profess to love them. Millions of pounds spent on security that could have been better spent elsewhere. The unconvincing attempts to portray a public schoolgirl of millionaire parents as a People’s Princess. The totally one-sided sycophantic 24/7 media coverage. Or the baffling obsession with Pippa Middleton. I wouldn’t. (No offence Pippa, if you’re reading this).

And we’re getting it all again…

The Queen’s wonderful service to the nation! The concert at Buckingham Palace! Kate’s charity work! Harry larking around (he’s such a card)! William protecting the Falklands! The barge parade on the River Thames! The flag waving school children! The community spirit! Street parties bringing the nation together! An extra bank holiday! The economic benefits to our struggling economy!

The last one is rather questionable. The Centre for Economics and Business Research estimates that each bank holiday costs the UK £2.3 billion and the Diamond Jubilee is no exception. Even the government’s own impact assessment for the extra bank holiday states that “inevitably there will be an impact on economic output as most workers are likely to be given the day off by their employer”.

Of course it’s not all about the economy though. In a further attempt to justify the celebrations, the impact assessment gushes that there will be a lifting of national spirit, improved national identity and increased profile of the UK to the rest of the world, extra tourism and trade, etc (it actually says etc). These benefits are naturally all intangible though and are impossible to accurately predict or measure. Isn’t that convenient?

Leaving aside the Jubilee for a moment, the arguments for and against the monarchy have been well documented over the years. For: history/national pride/tourism. Against: cost/undemocratic/inequality.

Much better writers than me have debated these arguments in detail so I don’t intend to discuss them here, but what I do want to do is highlight a few of the many recent royal stories that have attracted my attention.

The first one concerns our Brave Prince William, who was recently sent to the Falkland Islands to fly a helicopter around.

anti-monarchyI quote Rear Admiral John ‘Sandy’ Woodward: “To have a Royal anywhere near the front line is a bloody nuisance for the rest of the front line. You have to take extra precautions that he doesn’t get shot down, that his plane doesn’t fail. You maintain it three times as carefully. If you have a Royal on board your ship it is the end of your career if he gets so much as a scratch. It’s never said, but it goes without saying. He’s not there as a military man, he is there as air sea rescue which is really not military at all. It’s civil. I think it’s pointless, I can’t imagine why they sent him. Maybe they were just trying to wind up the Argentinians, I don’t know.”

My personal view is that this was a marketting exercise ahead of the Jubilee to increase our pride in the Royal Family and for them to highlight their usefulness to the nation – but then I am a cynical bastard.

Without question this episode demonstrates the blatant inequalities created by the very existence of a Royal Family: one man’s life valued much higher than that of the Joe Nobody’s around him, simply because he was born into a family of privilege.

Further evidence of these inequalities was recently provided by Buckingham Palace itself.

The Royal Household advertised for a trainee butler to serve the Royal Family. The salary is £15000 for a 45 hour week.

The job’s duties include: “collect and deliver tea/coffee trays, breakfast trays and newspapers for Royal and Household purposes in an efficient and discreet manner” and “to be responsible for the valeting of guests and Members of the Royal Household invited to stay with the Royal Family ensuring that clothes and uniforms are cared for to the highest standards”.

Christ, this doesn’t half boil my piss. It’s England in 2012, and we still have people serving other people. Masters and servants. This needs to stop right away. Let them carry their own trays, pick up their own newspapers and wash their own clothes like everyone else.

And they want us to celebrate this shit?

 

ZX Spectrum – Eighties icon

Keyboard30 years ago this week the ZX Spectrum was released upon the unsuspecting Eighties; very quickly it claimed a huge chunk of market share and many happy hours of my childhood. At £125 it was cheaper than it’s rivals and looked it; anyone that has ever used one will still miss the iconic grey rubber keys with their bouncy/sticky feedback, the rainbow slash, the separate tape player and that signature tune as the screen border flashed and frazzled whilst loading some of the most wonderfully BASIC computer games ever devised. Yes kids you had to wait for a program to load back then, there was none of this instant clicking of icons, you had to load software via tape cassette every time you wanted to use it. A full 5 minutes of growing excitement with only a heavily pixellated screen still for company – it was almost always worth it. Released during the employment famine of the early eighties when £125 was a proper investment, it was the enfant terrible of Clive Sinclair, later knighted for his efforts. His mission was simple and audacious: to bring home computers into the UK mass market. He achieved this by keeping the price down and giving us the barest of bones: a black box of RAM and a tiny processor. And I do mean tiny. To give you some idea of the genesis of the home computer and a snapshot of how far the PC has come, I am tapping this article out on a MacAir which has a processor speed of 1.7GHz and SDRAM memory of 4Gb – very modest by today’s standards. In 1982 my ZX Spectrum had a processor speed of around 3.5MHz and an 8-bit memory, in other words my laptop is getting on for 500 times faster and with a staggering 4,000,000,000 times more SDRAM memory.

JetPac game loading screen

The loading screen.....

And yes of course my laptop has many features that the “Speccie” didn’t have, but it doesn’t have the kinky rubber keys, it doesn’t run on a computer language so basic it was actually called BASIC: a language so easy to programme in, that at the age of 7, I was writing rudimentary programmes. And that was the real joy, it was a computer designed for you to tinker with, to see what you could make it do. It willingly led you behind the curtain, admitted there was no great Oz and said it doesn’t matter, tell me what to do and I will do it, my limitations are your challenges. It trusted you. Weekly magazines were available which published lines of code that were there, ostensibly, for you to change anyway you wanted. A generation of coders became very talented at getting around the limitations of the hardware, producing classic games like Horace and the Spiders, Manic Miner and my personal favourite: JetPac.

When the more powerful machines came along the UK had already grown some very talented programmers with a real problem solving mentality, well placed to take advantage of the burgeoning software market and the unstoppable tide of the games consoles.

spectrum 16k

A proper rubber fetish.....

And then, in the late eighties, admitting that it’s time was up, the black slab of dreams wished them well and went the way of all computers. But unlike other computers, the ZX Spectrum still retains something that has never been seen since, surely the most elusive quality for any computer: charm.

Gross Anatomy

I went to Medical School in 1987. It was an incredible experience, crammed full of learning from inspirational Professors at the peak of their careers. My stand-out memory is the first day of Gross Anatomy. Faced with dozens of cadavers in shrouds, fresh-faced students in crisp, clean white coats, and that smell – I couldn’t wait to get started. Such a privilege.

Each precious body had been donated to medical research, to help train doctors, nurses and physiotherapists. We stood next to our allocated body, four students in a group, and recited a modified Hippocratic Oath. We were to dissect the body over the academic year, 565 hours of dissection, in detail, covering all organ systems, blood vessels, nerves and the brain. Our bible for the year was Man’s Anatomy by Tobias and Arnold, in three volumes. Professor Tobias and Professor Arnold were the big beasts of Anatomy. We were in awe of them. They were known affectionately as PVT and JCA (behind their backs of course)!Diagram showing a skin flap incision for anatomy students

Getting started was a hand-trembling affair, guided by this illustration. Skin preserved in embalming fluid is very tough. But once you’re in, you’re in – and the delights of the human body were ours to explore. Over the weeks and months, we committed to memory all the arteries, veins, nerves and bones (oh, my poor parents had that box of bones in their living room); using mnemonics to remember the long lists. For example, Peter And Paul Masturbated So Much Their Balls Shrank refers to the branches of one of the thoracic arteries (I wish I could remember which one)! I can remember, though, that this one refers to the twelve cranial nerves: Oh Oh Oh To Touch And Feel A Girl’s Vagina Very Happily (or something very like it). The point is, we were drunk on anatomy for that year. We were walking encyclopaedia of lists of body parts, our text books were marked in wax pencil (I still have one I used in 1987), and nobody would share the lift with us because the smell permeated our clothes and hair. We knew it and we didn’t care. We were doing something that not many people ever get to do. It would shape our lives in the future. Some would go on to be world class surgeons, some physicians, sports scientists, pharmacists. I decided on a career in research.

Who knows how a career will turn out. I didn’t even do Science at school. I was expected to study Languages at University. I’m grateful to a Biology teacher for showing me something different, and changing my life. She asked me to help her clear out the cupboard in the lab. What we didn’t find in there. And lurking at the back, in a dark jar, was the most gorgeous pig foetus. We changed the preserving fluid, to reveal the tiny, perfect animal; when was he put in there, kept for me to find? I was hooked.

Page from an anatomy textbook, featuring student anotationsAnd so, standing in the dissection hall, several years later, in the basement at Medical School, I knew I was in the right place. I grasped the scalpel with both hands and made the first cut. Nine months later, the Technician was standing over the cadaver we had been working on. It approaching the final Lesson – the brain. He used a tiny, whirring saw to remove the cranium. He revealed a clean, shiny brain in situ. In order to complete the study, we had to remove the brain, with all the cranial nerves in tact. I had the smallest hands and I put them on either side of the brain, inside the skull. I tugged gently and felt around the base of the brain, to free the nerves from their restraints. A little more tugging, and I had the brain in my hands. We prepared the dissection and made 1cm slices through the brain, sectioning it in cross-section. I have never forgotten that moment. And neither will countless other medical students. That brain, sectioned, preserved and displayed can still be seen in the Anatomy Museum at Wits Medical School.

Gross anatomy? I don’t think so. Stunning, wondrous anatomy, is more like it.

Ethics and Consent in Research

In general terms, we expect that people who ask our permission, who require our consent, will have the morals and ethics to respect our wishes and do the right thing. Recently however, I have seen a few examples where, frankly, the people concerned have the morals of a snake. I’ll say no more on that, but it prompted me to think more widely about these terms; ethics, morals, consent, permission.

Doctor and patient discussing consent forms.  Photo: GC CommunicationIn my own field of life science research, no research may be undertaken without a prior favourable ethical opinion. It used be ethical approval, which implied that a peer-reviewed process had taken place, and an important group of senior people had carefully considered the application and deemed it ethical to conduct the research. Now, it simply means that a committee has spent a few minutes of the agenda discussing the merits of the work, and no responsibility or blame can be put their way should the experiment turn out not to be ethical, either in its design or in the outcomes. A matter of semantics, perhaps, but important none-the-less.

Important because many of the subjects for my research are human volunteers who trust us, the scientists, to do the right thing. Now, I don’t want to put anyone off contributing to a research project; we do still need to do research using human subjects. But I do want to point out that the administration of the rules is not what it should be. To my knowledge, there is no enforcement of the consent. I have seen inspections. I have seen paper records. I know that biological material collected years ago is still lurking in the bottom of freezers in research laboratories. Consents and research records belonging to PhD students who have long-since moved on lingering on dusty bookshelves in study rooms. There is almost no way of knowing which material should be destroyed, ethical opinion and consents having long-ago expired. And that’s just in small university laboratories. Surely in large pharmaceutical and biotech organisations the record keeping and ‘policing’ of the research consents is more robust?

Well, yes it is, and that results in a different problem. Large organisations who embark on long term research require consent from participants to be able to follow up on the outcomes of the research over a very long period of time, decades in some cases. With changes in technology, particularly in genetic research, where even five years ago the cost of this work would have prohibited it, that is no longer the case. Cost are down, through-put is up. In short, scientists can analyse more data, more quickly, at much lower costs. If the material already exists, if the methodologies are the same, there are also no start-up costs. Results could be coming within days. That means that if you volunteered ten years ago, donated a tube of your blood, approximately 10ml, and gave scientists permission to keep cells, plasma and DNA, they will still have all those bits of you in storage and on file.

I mentioned genetic research, for this is where I am most concerned. When you donated that small amount of blood all those years ago, you were probably young, in your twenties (most lab volunteers are), and too young to be showing any sign of disease. Your parents would have been young too; too young in most cases to have cancer or heart disease. You wouldn’t yet have had children either. And now, what if you are told that scientists have just worked out that your DNA shows a variation recently found to be associated with cancer – would you want to know? What would you do about it? Cancer cannot be treated if it hasn’t formed a tumour yet. This is the proposal of researchers, owners of these so-called ‘bio banks’, because origMicroscope slide being used for research.  Photo: CBSCinal research is too expensive and largely unfunded. Would you still give your consent for your material to be used?

I believe that material collected more than five years ago should either be destroyed or re-consented. Yes, that will cost money, but it keeps science honest and transparent. It makes sure that scientists’ personal ethics and morals are not tested. It introduces a check that the material we think is there, has been stored correctly and will be useful in the research. Very often, biological material degrades over time and is useless. Better then to destroy it.

And finally, I must reveal here that I never allowed my cells or DNA to be stored. I have never used my own blood, cells or DNA in any experiment I have conducted. I do not want to know that I have a particular genetic variation. Until scientists are clever enough to re-program my genetic material, there are some things not worth knowing. Of course, there are some conditions for which there are extremely good genetic tests, and with the correct counselling, it is very helpful to do these tests. But these tests have made the transition from research to clinical application. We can’t change what has gone before, but we can make sure that we are informed about the future. Research must be done, human biological material must be used for research wherever possible. Don’t take ethics, morals, consent and permission for granted in science, or anywhere else for that matter.

Hobophobia

Dealing with the homeless is tricky and no mistake. I don’t know the differences between beggars, tramps, hobos and homeless people but if I had to define myself in relation to them I might call myself “hobophobic”.
I wasn’t always like this, I used to buy the big issue on a regular basis and I do still give “Tattoo Sid” a tenner at Christmas. But these days I tend to avoid getting into conversations, I tend to look away.Cartoon old fashioned tramp.  Photo: dutchb0y
It’s not the smell or some fear of transmittable lurgie, it’s the not the vicarious shame and indignation that a modern day society can still allow people to fall between the cracks, it’s not that they keep dogs when they can’t even feed themselves properly or the fact they insist on drinking cans of super-strength Tenants when they are clearly not “tenants” of any kind. It’s not because they have perfected the inflections on “You have a good night” to ensure you’ll spend the next few minutes imagining the hardships they’ll experience with a lump in your throat. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the work that’s gone into “the unconvincing back story” or that they’ve taken the trouble to steal an old copy of the Big Issue which they cling to like tattered dignity.
And it’s not the fact that but for a few pieces of random luck it’s them and not me huddled under a wet blanket howling at the moon.
No it’s not any of these things. It’s worse than that.I am in a uniquely bad position at this time of year when it comes to dealing with beggars because they think I’m lying to them, they think I’m teasing them.Just before Christmas I noticed that i had a small hole in one of the pockets of my covert coat – just big enough to allow coins to fall through (You can see where this is going. I’m sure the penny’s dropped – so to speak). I took it in to the Dry Cleaners, explained the problem and they said they could repair it in a day. Later I realised that although they had indeed repaired the hole, there were still a handful of clinking coins at the bottom of the lining, gaily bouncing off my knee when I walked and calling homeless people to me wherever I go. To the destitute I’m the pied fucking piper. And you trying explaining that to a vagrant – it was costing me a fortune.

“Any loose change Boss?”
“Sorry I don’t have any change”
“I can hear you’ve got some change Boss”
“Yeah but it’s not loose change, it’s stuck in the lining of my coat”
“I’m not on drugs you know Boss”
“No really – although “technically” I have some change I literally cannot give it to you”
“I just want a cup of tea Boss – I’m not Amy Winehouse”
“What?”
“I mean I’m not on drugs”
“Oh for God’s sake here’s a fiver – I don’t suppose you’ve got any change?”
“I do actually Boss………….but It’s stuck in the lining of my coat”
“Funny guy – and now that you have my money – are you on drugs?”
“Yep – can’t get enough of them”
“You have a good night”

As I said “hobophobic”

Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves…

Life goes on. The world turns – civilisation evolves and adapts. For the travelling community, nomadism – that intrinsic need to roam – is as much a choice as it is a survival technique.

From traditional Yurt communities, to Bedouin tribes and the Eastern European Roma, the gadjo (non traveller) represent a confusing mix of authority and conflict.

Settlement acts passed from the early 1960’s in former Communist states which intended for travelling families to establish themselves and work in the oppressive Land regimes forbade the use of identification as a Roma or Gypsy and forced integration into a society which, for many at that point in time, they neither had a natural affiliation to or comprehension of. Even British legislation prevented ‘vagabondism’ in most forms – causing the outlawing of occluding public by-ways and roads. Yet none of these techniques worked to incorporate a transient and Travellers on the Glen Road, Belfast, 1980. Photo: Bobbie Hanveymobile nationhood of people into host populations. Constantly persecuted, frequently misunderstood and a mystery to both the non traveller and themselves, the history of these people is a fluid and inflammatory story of optimistic struggle and straggling survival. One to which no one is immune, nor alien to.

Current popular interest in the lifestyle of traveller families has highlighted the differences between the old notion of extended support networks – which many Roma enjoy – and the insular autonomy of host nations which prevent, to an extent, the ability to disengage and re-engage at will into everyday life. The majority of Roma have settled due to financial stability which a permanent residence encourages; those that choose to continue a mobile livelihood face prosecution and persecution. This is undeniable. Media fear mongering – the idea of the gypsy as sly, dishonest, dirty – still permeates in news reports which ostensibly serve to both integrate and isolate the traveller community.

No solutions are advanced, the traveller community ‘travels’ and therefore it is perfectly reasonable to expect them to move on when the local community feels that this time has come. No other migrant community has such an uncertain future. Two days, three weeks, four months in one place at the most. When land is acquired, not only do they have to navigate a planning process which is confusing even to gadjo but they face the added suspicion as to how this would impact on local population. But does it really matter, in the long term? Surely a settled community – even one which flouts planning laws, is better than one who is hounded and hindered.

And this can be violent in its extremes. France and Italy have progressively legislated against traveller input into their respective societies. In Romania and Balkans areas violent attacks on settled traveller camps have increased according to the ERRC. Very few of these attacks are prosecuted, out of court settlements are meagre and do not reflect the severity of these. For instance, retributive justice, whether real or imagined, often take the form of burnings. Whole communities set alight. Maimed and broken. Women, children and men – those who have been neighbours – are targeted as embodiments of criminality and treated as such.

Trawling the archives of the ERRC and social sciences departments throw up truly sickening accounts, each followed by interviews by both victims and offenders. Offenders here is loosely used, frequently they miss the justice system. And similar justifications occur throughout these: we don’t want them here. They bring nothing to society. They dress provocatively. They don’t want to work. They have no respect. They deserve everything they get – taking our jobs, our benefits. It is a tale as old as time. One to which no minority community has been exempt. A basic lack of understanding of culture clashing, simplistic, indeed, but sometimes a simple statement starts a debate rolling.

Traveller children are instilled in respect of older generations, often they live in close knit groups and they have a very real feeling of family. In many areas there is a complete innocence toward everyday living. Education is secondary – and this is understandable to an extent. If no one is willing to see the person, the potential to excel, why invest in a system which is geared toward ideals they do not hold. Education is a key to future, a key to employabTraditional Gypsy Caravanility, but if no one will employ a traveller above a menial position, why bother? Why bother sending a child to school to be ridiculed, put in special institutes (a common practice) because they do not conform to a pattern of life which is so skewed against them? Isn’t it better to have the children close, to teach them what has been tried and tested as useful?

Gender is also an issue in traveller communities. Women are often not valued as autonomous people, but as glue to the community. They are an amalgam of mother and nurturer – an old fashioned premise but one which is diffused between all the group. Traveller women are usually proud of this role – and if lack of ambition is to be reviled then they truly lack a feminist impulse. But this is a contentious statement. Feminists everywhere will argue for and against, and here is not the place to pull this apart.

In times of recession scapegoats are easily found. Be they Jewish, Islamic, poor or rich…Aushwitz was home to over half a million Traveller families; marked by a ‘Z’ on entry. Hardly any were liberated. Mengeles systematically medically tested traveller people seeing them as subhuman, denying them an identity and a history. Denying them culture, as the Nazi regime sought to do with most disenfranchised groups, minority ethnicities.

Yet it is only within the last 30 years that the loss of life has been acknowledged by governments. They are a sideline in history, and for most travellers’ this collective amnesia has worked to preserve them. A people with no past or future can glide through life, but they cannot enjoy it fully. They cannot step proudly and say who they are. The controversy that has surrounded recent documentaries, the sensationalistic reporting denotes a change, a change in perspective in the gadjo community – could this be a recognition of the freedom that Roma enjoy – but with an ignorance towards the cost that this represents? Now is the time to see the bigger picture.

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