|Posted on March 15, 2015 at 8:20 AM||comments (0)|
If you are in any doubt about the value of vaccinating children watch http://bit.ly/1CiqFfIan You can also listen to this Canadian Radio Interview with Kathryn Harper, who caught Polio in the early 1950s: http://www.cbc.ca/player/Radio/Local+Shows/Manitoba/ID/2659260259/
|Posted on January 8, 2015 at 9:40 AM||comments (0)|
My name is Jeremy Bentham and for most of the past one hundred and eighty three years my skeleton has sat in a corridor in central London. It doesn't look like a skeleton because it's dressed in my clothes which are padded out with straw. You should come and see it, all you have to do is to come to University College London during normal business hours, and ask for me by name. The people on reception know me well. I usually sit at the end of the South Cloisters, except when there's a meeting of the College Council. On meeting dates my skeleton is solemnly wheeled into the Council Room to take its place among the present-day members. Its presence is always recorded in the minutes with the words Jeremy Bentham - present but not voting. That's what the legend says anyway. You can decide for yourself whether it's true or not. Just don't believe everything you read on the internet.
I should warn you though, that you can't see my real head. It's not what I intended when in 1832 I left my body to what was then the Webb Street School of Anatomy & Medicine, but back then people in London weren't very good at mummification. They tried to copy the process of desiccation, as practiced by the Maoris, but it went disastrously wrong, robbing my head of most of its facial expression, and leaving it decidedly unattractive - so they had to make a false one.
For over a hundred years they kept my badly mummified skull by my feet in the same cabinet as the rest of me, but by the 1950s student rag weeks became the fashion, and at least once each year my real head was stolen from the cabinet and paraded through the streets and tossed about by people wearing duffle coats, CND badges and college scarves. The University took a dim view of this, so nowadays my real head is locked away in a secret place and only ever brought out for research purposes. Even I don't know where my head is now. And I'm a philosopher!
You've probably noticed that I refer to my skeleton in the third person, so I think that it is safe to assume that this is my soul talking, not my mortal remains, although the separation of body and soul was never my area of scholarship. My contributions to the great debates of my period ranged from legal and penal reform, the rooting out of corruption in the London Docks, and above all to the concept of Utilitarianism, which can be summarised by the statement that "the greatest happiness of the greatest number, is the measure of right and wrong".
I was the first philosopher to suggest that there might be a concept of "animal rights" and one of the first thinkers to suggest that man and woman are created equal. My essay "Offences Against One's Self", which was never published in my lifetime, argued for the liberalisation of laws prohibiting homosexual acts.
Some people said I was a bit paranoid. I complained that my ideas for penal reform were thwarted by the King and an aristocratic elite acting in their own interests. But I look at what the students here put on Twitter today, and many of them are making the same claims today, so was I wrong? And have things improved?
University College London acknowledges me as its inspiration, which is why my remains are on display here. Prior to UCL's foundation, only members of the Church of England were eligible to go to university. UCL was the first English university to admit all, regardless of race, creed, colour, political belief or ability to pay.
But the title of this piece is A Skeleton in the Cupboard and I nearly forgot to tell you about the cupboard. It's more of a display cabinet really, and it - and I - are collectively called the auto-icon. I sit on a stool in this mahogany and glass cabinet wearing my own clothes, and some of my smaller personal possessions are laid out on a small table so that I can see them. Beneath my stool (you can't see them) are a lot of scientific instruments that control the auto-icon's temperature and humidity. The cabinet is on castors, so that it could - if my vote were ever needed - be moved into the council chamber quite easily.
I died when I was eighty four in 1832, and I never married. I fell in love many times but my love was never reciprocated. Frankly I was just not good with girls - according to one of my biographers I made passes at hundreds of society beauties at country houses but they found me a bit strange - too obsessive and paranoid. So in my will I left my body for dissection, together with detailed instructions about how to preserve my remains in the auto-icon as well as £100 to this University which has taken good care of me since 1850.
I do love to get visitors, so if you're in Bloomsbury come and see me. And I love to read your thoughts about the things I cared about -penal reform, justice, equality, inclusivity, transparency and animal experiments. You can tell me about your visit on Twitter using my twitter name @jeremybentham32, but I'm not on Facebook. If you're a member of a creative writing group you can share a story about me with others. I've really enjoyed talking to you.
|Posted on December 29, 2014 at 7:40 AM||comments (0)|
In 2006, when I was fifty-seven, I was made redundant. I wanted to find some constructive things to do while I looked for another job, and I heard that Richard was looking for people to read to him.
Richard was married to Ruth and they lived just a few miles from us, in Broxbourne. I had got to know Richard and Ruth through Marilyn, my wife. Both Marilyn and Ruth are artists who had co-operated in joint selling exhibitions from their respective homes. Both families had grown-up daughters of a similar age.
Richard was a biochemist. Originally an academic at Southampton University, he and Ruth had moved to Broxbourne in the 1980s when Richard joined the research team at Merck Sharpe and Dohme. Shortly after Richard joined Merck he was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. The disease attacked Richard's central nervous system particularly aggressively; by the time that I was made redundant Richard had recently had to retire as by now MS had robbed him of the use of his legs and had also affected his eyesight, which is why he was looking for volunteer readers.
For the next six years I visited Richard and Ruth's house almost every Wednesday evening and read with Richard. We read about twenty-five books in that time, including works of fiction, biography, science, economics, politics and current affairs, history and travel. Some of the individual books were chosen by Richard, I suggested others. We read hardbacks, paperbacks, e-books, books we'd bought and books we'd borrowed.
The first book that I read was Richard Dawkins' The Ancestors Tale, a natural choice for a biochemist but not a book that would ever have made its own way on to my reading list without his help. But Dawkins deals with complex biological and genetic concepts in a very accessible, and very literary way. He borrows the structure of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, structuring the narrative as a pilgrimage, with all modern animals following their own path through history to the origin of life. Humans meet their evolutionary cousins at rendezvous points along the way, the points at which the lineage diverged. I enjoyed The Ancestors Tale a lot, much to my surprise I decided that I liked reading science literature.
Ruth loves cooking and gardening and she's very good at both. She wasn't always at home when I was there, as she's a chorister and often I would be reading with Richard while she was at choir practice. But if she was there she would keep me supplied with delicious homemade cakes or fruit pies that she'd made from her own garden produce.
The next two books that we read were Bill Brysons' The Thunderbolt Kid and A Short History of Nearly Everything. Bryson, we discovered, was already a firm favourite of both of us, and so was Alan Bennett. We shared Bennett's Untold Stories in the autumn of 2008.
I introduced Richard to Paul Torday. The first Torday we read was Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, and we quickly followed that with The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce. Wilberforce is a computer geek who starts, and then sells a multi-million pound software company. After the sale, he no longer has anything to occupy his time until he discovers fine wine. He is now a fully-fledged wine nerd. He has no other interests; wine has absorbed his entire life. Torday tells the story in four sections, each describing a different year, but in reverse chronology. The book begins in the year Wilberforce dies. He staggers around Mayfair, drinking 250 units of alcohol every week, and hallucinating. He spends six grand on two bottles of 1982 Petrus in a Michelin 5 star restaurant and drinks them alone at a table, then gets thrown out when he starts abusing the other diners.
This section really is very funny, in a tragic way. And when you' re reading aloud, your eye is about twenty or words ahead of the words that are coming out of your mouth. This meant that while I was reading about this incident I started to laugh, before Richard knew why I was laughing. But we'd both been laughing together earlier in the Chapter, both of us "got" Torday's sense of humour, and Richard trusted me enough to start laughing a split second before he knew exactly what he was laughing at. Paul Torday didn't let him down though. Richard was a big man, very tall and if his muscles hadn't started to waste because of MS, he would have been very muscular. He had a loud, deep throated laugh which got even louder when my speech finally caught up with my eyes and brain and we both dissolved into even bigger fits of laughter. The only resident of the house who didn't find it funny was the cat, who was asleep on Richard's lap. The cat woke up, gave us both a withering look and went into the next room to get some peace and quiet. This is my favourite memory of Richard, and it's why I say that I read with Richard, not to him.
As well as the twenty-odd books that we finished, there were a few that we gave up on. We'd both thoroughly enjoyed Terry Pratchett's Going Postal. Neither of us had read Pratchett before, and somebody had recommended this book to Richard. We both found it a very funny, very clever satire about global corporations, human rights and the excesses of the market economy. Enthused, we tried to read Pratchett's later novel Unseen Academicals, but neither of us could finish it. I think the problem is that there is such a large cast of characters, and if you're only reading the book once a week, you find it difficult to remember which characters you've met before and which you haven't. Another failure was Mark Haddon's The Red House. This book has a large number of very short chapters and sections of chapters, each written from the point of view of a different character, and I found it too difficult to convey these point of view changes to Richard while reading aloud. I subsequently finished it on my own.
Richard died in January 2013, almost two years ago, after a long series of critical illnesses and hospital stays caused by the progression of MS, and I still miss my visits to him and Ruth. During that six years both his and my elder daughter married, and both of our younger daughters graduated and began their careers. A lot of good things happened in parallel in both of our lives. Sometimes I'm browsing in a bookshop and I pick something up and think "Richard would like that". Then I usually, but not always, put it down again.
|Posted on December 19, 2014 at 7:40 AM||comments (1)|
To: Mr Justice Spencer
C/o the Registrar of Criminal Appeals
Royal Courts of Justice
London WC2A 2LL
18th December 2014
From: Andrew Bradford
Dear Mr Spencer,
The Trial of three security guards accused of the manslaughter of Jimmy Mubenga
I am a 66 year old retired banker who has never before thought it necessary to write to a judge. However I feel so strongly about the ruling you gave that the evidence of "racist texts" sent or received by at least one of the defendants was "inadmissible" that I wanted you to know that I feel that you may have presided over a serious miscarriage of justice.
After Mr Mubenga's inquest, the Coroner wrote:
“It seems unlikely that endemic racism would not impact at all on service provision. It was not possible to explore at the Inquest the true extent of racist opinion or tolerance amongst DCOs [Detainee Custody Officers] or more widely. However, there was enough evidence to cause real concern, particularly at the possibility that such racism might find reflection in race-based antipathy towards detainees and deportees and that in turn might manifest itself in inappropriate treatment of them.”
In view of the Coroner's remarks, I think that the Jury had the right to hear this evidence. What is the point of having a jury at all if you don't give them all the facts of the case to consider? To unilaterally decide that the Jury hearing about the racist material would “release an unpredictable cloud of prejudice” in the jury is patronising and condescending and doesn't lead to fair trials.
I have no connection with any organised campaign on behalf of the Mubenga family or any other deportees. I am just a concerned citizen who thinks that your ruling was plain wrong and that justice has therefore not been done.
This is an open letter, I have posted it to my Twitter account. I would have emailed it to you so that you could see it before Twitter got hold of it, but nobody at the Royal Courts of Justice would give me your e-mail address.
|Posted on October 28, 2014 at 8:30 AM||comments (0)|
I've just been reading one of the many Wikipedia entries about Roosevelt. This one, entitled "Franklin D. Roosevelt's paralytic illness" casts doubt about whether the president actually had Polio, or whether he may instead have had Guillain–Barré Syndrome, a very rare neurological disorder that also causes paralysis.
This theory was put forward by five medical researchers at the University of Texas in 2003. They used statistical techniques to correlate the various symptoms observed during the early onset of the illness (some of which are common between both illnesses and some which are unique to one or other of them) with the annual number of reported cases of both illnesses in 1921. Of course, to classify the symptoms they had to rely on eighty year old physicians' notes that needed contemporary interpretation, and could no longer be clarified, since both the note writers and the patient were long dead. They came to the conclusion that " six of eight posterior probabilities favoured a diagnosis of Guillain–Barré syndrome." I am not a statistician, but I think that in layman's terms this means that they were 75% confident that he had Guillain-Barre and only 25% confident that he had Polio.
What these researchers did may be a valid form of medical research, but I can't help thinking that postulating such a theory diminishes the humanity of the man himself. The important facts to me are:
• Roosevelt was told he had Polio and thought of himself as a Polio survivor.
• He went on to found "The March of Dimes" Foundation in 1938. This became, by a wide margin, the largest charity in American history. From 1938 through the development of the Salk vaccine in 1955, the foundation spent $233 million on polio patient care, which led to more than 80 percent of U.S. polio patients' receiving significant foundation aid. It is still active today, funding research and treatment for a wide variety of childhood illnesses and birth defects.
The March of Dimes is an important part of Roosevelt's legacy, and would never have existed in its present form had he not been diagnosed with Polio. To posthumously diagnose the man with another disease is to treat him as merely as a medical case and to ignore his humanity.
|Posted on October 22, 2014 at 6:10 PM||comments (0)|
I'd always thought that none of my relatives served in World War 1. But that's because I was thinking about young men, and the sacrifices they made. But I've started to read "Daughters of Mars" by Thomas Kenneally, which tells the story of two sisters - Naomi and Sally Durrance - who were brought up on a remote dairy farm in New South Wales and, when they were in their early twenties, joined the war effort as nurses; first of all at Gallipoli and then at the Battle of the Somme.
Reading this book made me remember that I had a relative who played some role in the health services during the war. I'll tell you Great Aunt Ethel's story a bit later.
Now, I'm less than half way through Kenneally's long, epic and gripping book. It's 1915, and so far Naomi and Sally have sailed on a hospital ship -the Archimedes - from Melbourne to Alexandria. The early days of their war are easy. All they have to do is to treat young Australian men who've caught venereal diseases in the brothels of Cairo, and their leisure time is taken up with tea dances and visits to Greek, Roman and Egyptian remains, in the company of Australian and British Officers, many of whom have studied classical civilizations at Oxford or Cambridge, and wanted impress these naive young women with their knowledge. The girls' experience of the world is already far broader than it would have been had they stayed on the farm.
Then the Archimedes makes its first voyage to Gallipoli. They've taken what was thought to be three months worth of morphine and bandages with them but supplies begin to run out after twenty four hours. Aboard the ship, country doctors are asked to perform major surgery of the kind they've only read about in journals in inadequate conditions. Kenneally's highly detailed and sometimes quite technical description of some of the injuries turns the stomach.
On the Archimedes' second voyage to Gallipoli the ship is torpedoed and the main protagonists have to take to the lifeboats - if there is room - or cling alongside while treading water if there isn't. This scene is depicted over forty highly turbulent, descriptive and emotional pages. The main characters are eventually rescued by the French navy and taken to a British Hospital on the Island of Lemnos to recuperate.
And that's as far as I've got - 167 out of 519 pages. But I know from the reviews and the cover blurb that the two sisters will eventually serve at the Battle of Somme, and they may or may not find love, and that some relationships will probably be terminated by sudden death. This book has prompted me to find out more about my mother's aunt Ethel - her mother's sister. So I googled "Ethel Bridgeman World War 1" and immediately got the result I was looking for.
Ethel was sixty-two in the year of my birth and she died when I was thirteen. A Londoner by birth, she lived in Edinburgh with her husband Sandy Stevenson and they had no children. I've always known that they had met during the Great War, and I think that Sandy may have been quite a lot younger than Ethel, who was twenty-nine when she became a Red Cross Volunteer. Family folklore says that they met when she was nursing him, and that she had continued to nurse him - whether he needed it or not - throughout their long marriage. I recall my Mother telling me that she had visited them at home in Edinburgh when she was a young woman, and had seen Ethel waiting hand and foot on her husband. "She used to blow on his soup to cool it" she said.
There's nobody around to ask any more, but could it be that Sandy's experiences in France had damaged him to such an extent that he couldn't function without this sort of attention? He came to our house only once after Ethel died, and was clearly totally disorientated and incapable of looking after himself without her. He died only a few months after Ethel.
Ethel and Sandy always made an annual trip by train to London, and they would stay with Ethel's sister-in-law Ada in Clapham. And during that trip the three of them would always come to afternoon tea with our family in North London. Ada was very old and very deaf and used an ear trumpet which both fascinated and horrified me as a small boy. It didn't seem to do very much for her hearing, as when she was in the house everybody had to shout very loudly to make her understand. She was , by far, the dominant personality of the three of them.
Ada was also very wealthy, unlike most members of my extended family. My Dad knew Ada years before he met my Mum because in the 1930s she used to knock on doors on the street where he lived to collect debts. She was a Great War widow who had, after her husband was killed, taken over the running of his family's business, which was that of a "Tally Man" - a firm that sold cheap clothes and household goods on credit to working class people on the 'never never', or hire purchase; and visited each household at the same time each week to collect the payments of just a few pennies or shillings. At some time after World War 2 she'd sold the business to Freemans of London, a public company that operated a mail-order catalogue business, and she was a substantial shareholder in Freemans. My mother bought from the Freemans Catalogue and so did many of our neighbours. Ada had no children , and when she died she left my parents a small legacy - £250. When they received this cheque they opened their first bank account. They were by then in their sixties.
But back to Ethel. I only dimly remember her from these childhood visits because of Ada's dominant personality - when Ada was in the room it was difficult for anybody else to get a word in edgeways and everything had to be repeated loudly several times before Ada got the gist. Ethel was one of over 90,000 people who volunteered for the British Red Cross during the conflict. She joined one of the Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs), which were attached either to the Red Cross, the St Johns' or the Territorial Forces. The Detachments were intended to be used for home defence only, but in the event they served in France, Belgium, Gallipoli and Mesopotamia. Each women's detachment consisted of a Commandant (either male or female), a Lady Superintendent (preferably a trained nurse) and 20 women (four of whom had to be trained cooks).
Twenty-nine year old Ethel joined her VAD in May 1916, and her first position was that of a lift attendant at the King George Military Hospital in Stamford Street, Waterloo. Reputedly the largest hospital in the United Kingdom, the King George Hospital was a converted warehouse that had 1650 beds. The convoys of wounded men were brought by boat train to Waterloo Station, and then taken to the hospital through tunnels which were built as an integral part of the warehouse. The tunnels enabled badly wounded men to be conveyed to the Hospital out of sight of the public, so as not to damage civilian morale. Perhaps that's when Ethel and Sandy first saw each other; maybe she brought this wounded man up from the tunnels in her lift?
The Red Cross and the St Johns' equipped the wards, operating theatres, dispensaries, the chapel, day rooms for the patients and sleeping quarters for the staff, all paid for by public donation. The British Farmers' Red Cross Fund donated £4,000 to purchase equipment for the operating theatres and the X-ray Department. There were 149 doctors, a Matron, 3 Principal Sisters, 10 Senior Sisters, 37 Sisters, 228 Staff Nurses and 80 female orderlies, including of course my Aunt Ethel.
On the 29th August 1919, just over eight months after the War had technically ended, Ethel was transferred to a "Casualty Clearing Station" in France. Her service record doesn't say where in France this was. There were over thirty such stations, which were generally located on or near railway lines, to facilitate movement of casualties from the battlefield and on to the hospitals. The job of the station was to treat a man sufficiently for his return to duty or to enable him to be evacuated to another hospital. The Wikipedia entry for this topic says that the station "was not a place for a long-term stay", but this cannot actually have been the case if Ethel was still working at such a centre so long after the end of hostilities.
Ethel was finally discharged on 16th March 1920, Her role was then a storekeeper. She married Sandy in her home town of Wandsworth in 1924 when she was thirty eight and went to live with him in Edinburgh. She died in 1962. This is her service record.
What a pity that the young boy she took afternoon tea with every summer holiday never asked her or Sandy more about their experiences. But those who served in the Great war became taciturn, they probably wouldn't have wanted to tell me even if I'd had the forethought to ask.
Finally, here's an image of Thomas Kenneally's great book that stated me on the on the quest to discover Ethel and Sandy:
|Posted on June 15, 2014 at 7:55 AM||comments (0)|
At a writers group I was asked to write something on that subject. At the time, Michael Gove was sounding off as usual. So I wrote this:
I can't believe it was thirty years ago. On the morning when we first arrived we were taken to our dormitories where we changed into our uniforms and were told to arrange the few personal items that we had been allowed to bring with us in, or on the top of our lockers. The instructions about how to arrange these things were very detailed and very specific.
Instruction 1 said that we could place no more than one personal photograph of our families on top of our locker. It must include all close family members and must not exceed 25 cm in height. Instruction 2 said that we should write our names in the cover page of any books we had brought with us, and place them in the green plastic containers provided. Any suitable material would be returned to us within twenty four hours; and any unsuitable material would be substituted with something more uplifting and positive. The third instruction told us to change into our party uniforms, fold the clothes that we had brought from home neatly and place them in our lockers.
There were lots more instructions, but I can't remember much about them. All of them were given to us over a loudspeaker by a disembodied female voice. It was impossible to guess her age or anything else about her, but we all called her Teresa. I can't remember who first called her that or why we chose that name over any other. Somebody said it, and it just sort of stuck.
Teresa's final instruction was to wait by our beds until someone escorted us to the great hall where the principal would address us. In the meantime there was to be no talking. Teresa informed us that we were all being monitored by CCTV, but of course we'd all noticed that anyway. We all knew about CCTV; it was installed in all the urban areas to monitor extremists. As we got to know each other we found that nobody in our dorm lived in the urban ghettoes, but of course all of our parents had installed CCTV on the perimeters of our properties. This was so that if extremists were loitering outside, the rapid reaction forces would get there in minutes. Because we all knew about CCTV, we all knew how to evade the cameras. We were too young to realise that if we could do that at the age of thirteen, then highly trained, highly motivated adult extremists who had access to virtually unlimited enemy funding would be able to evade the system as well.
We only had to wait a short time before an elderly man wearing some sort of ceremonial military uniform incorporating three red silk chevrons on his tunic sleeves and wearing a red peaked cap opened the door to the dormitory, walked in and looked around.
"Good morning Gentlemen" he said. "I'm Sergeant Cannon, I'll get to know all your names later. Welcome to the Party Academy. I will call each of you Sir, sirs, if you will address me as Sir, Sirs. Is that clear Sirs?"
There were ten of us in the dorm, and it took a few seconds for the penny to drop, but we all got the gist at about the same time. A bit falteringly we all, not quite in unison, replied "Yes Sir".
" I think we can do better than that" replied the Sergeant. "One more time, but this time together, please Sirs. Is it clear what I said?"
"Yes Sir" we all replied, this time in unison.
"Very well done Sirs. Now if you'll follow me I'll escort you to the Great Hall where the Principal, will explain to you how you are being groomed for the highest offices in the land and how to deal with success. Please form an orderly queue behind me"
We were the last group to enter the great hall. There were, I now know, about a hundred of us in the room altogether, fifty boys and fifty girls all aged between thirteen and sixteen. We sat in groups of ten, each group accompanied by a man or woman dressed in the same uniform as the Sergeant. Our group was told to sit in the left of the hall.
It was a very long time, over an hour, before Mr Gove, the Principal entered. While we waited a military band played music by Elgar, Purcell and Vaughan Williams. One of the women in uniform introduced herself as the music teacher. She told us that from now on we would only hear music written by British musicians. All forms of music were OK; Rock, Folk and Jazz were just as uplifting as the classics, but we should avoid listening to any classics written by Bach or Shubert as they were German, and the Germans were responsible for the crisis in what was then called the Eurozone. Bob Marley should be avoided as he had a perverted idea of what a Redemption Song was. Personal redemption can only follow national redemption.
Mr Gove didn't wear uniform in those days, he only started that when he was appointed national saviour after the second financial crisis. He was a very charismatic speaker. First of all he told us why we were divided into two groups. This was necessary because the people sitting on the right needed to have extra citizenship lessons to counter the influence of the extremist ideologies that they had been exposed to in the urban ghettoes, where they had spent their childhoods foraging for food. Our group, on the left had lived in the suburbs or the country and didn't need these extra lessons. Only when the citizenship course had been completed were the two groups to be allowed to mingle. People criticise the Academy system today, but the system catapulted some of our country's finest leaders from the fetid squalor of the big cities to the high positions in industry, medicine, academia and politics that they occupy today. The people in our dorm would probably have made it anyway, but I'm proud to live in a meritocracy. I thank Mr Gove for that.
Most of the rest of what he said was about literacy. He told us which books we had placed in the green containers would be confiscated. I can't remember them all. 'Of Mice and Men' was unacceptable as it conveyed the message that people with learning disabilities might have the same value to society as those of us who were being groomed for success, and Arthur Miller was suspect because he was almost certainly a Soviet agent. In our history lessons we would shortly learn about the Soviets - during the twentieth century they were the equivalents of today's extremists. I'd never heard of Steinbeck or Miller at the time so it all went a bit over my head. But he re-iterated. Steinbeck, Miller and Harper Lee would only fill our heads with left-wing negativity. Left wing negativity was incompatible with being prepared for success. Our language was great gift. We should be careful how we use it. I've never forgotten what he said.
|Posted on November 14, 2013 at 12:10 PM||comments (0)|
This week I decided to review a song that I've known and loved for years and years.
Plane Crash at Los Gatos Canyon (sometimes known as "Deportees" ) is a folk song written in 1948 by Woody Guthrie. I've known it since I was a teenager and I think that it may be the best political song ever written.
It's poetic, with remarkable imagery. It's written from experience and from the heart and the political message is just as relevant today as it was when it was it was written sixty-five years ago.
Woody Guthrie was born in Oklahoma in 1912, and was one of the "dust bowl refugees" described by John Steinbeck in "The Grapes of Wrath" who sought work in the orchards of California in the 1930s. He and Steinbeck knew each other. When he wrote the song Guthrie had just heard that a plane had crashed in Los Gatos Canyon, California its way to Mexico, killing all those onboard. The plane was carrying four American crew members and twenty-eight illegal immigrants who had been working in California's orchards. The plane had been chartered by the Immigration Authorities specifically to deport the twenty-eight and did not have enough seats for them all.
In the first verse Guthrie deals with the pointlessness of it all. Too many crops have been picked and some of them left to rot, and next year the people who've been deported will pay hard earned money to people traffickers to get back to the USA so that the whole process can be repeated:
The crops are all in and the peaches are rotting,
The oranges piled in their creosote dumps;
They're flying 'em back to the Mexican border
To pay all their money to wade back again
Guthrie read about the crash in the New York Times, whose report printed the names of the crew members and a security guard, but simply described the passengers as "deportees" and didn't print their names. These people had no worth - this is the point that Guthrie stresses in the chorus which is repeated at the end of each verse:
Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita,
Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria;
You won't have your names when you ride the big aeroplane,
All they will call you will be "deportees"
The next two verses continue to describe the lives of the illegal immigrants that America depends upon to bring in its harvests:
My father's own father, he waded that river,
They took all the money he made in his life;
My brothers and sisters come working the fruit trees,
And they rode the truck till they took down and died.
Some of us are illegal, and some are not wanted,
Our work contract's out and we have to move on;
Six hundred miles to that Mexican border,
They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.
The next verse reminds me that little has changed in sixty-five years, and that Guthrie's words are just as applicable to Europe now as it is was to America then. It reminds me that this year hundreds of people have died in ill-equipped boats in the Mediterranean trying to enter Europe illegally, and it also reminds me of the fate of at least twenty-one Chinese cockle pickers , all illegal migrant workers who were killed by an incoming tide at Morecambe Bay, England in 2004:
We died in your hills, we died in your deserts,
We died in your valleys and died on your plains.
We died 'neath your trees and we died in your bushes,
Both sides of the river, we died just the same.
In the next, penultimate verse, Guthrie returns to the fact that the press refuse to name the victims of this disaster and uses the images of "scattered dry leaves" to describe the plight of the deportees. He convinces us that these people are his friends. It is unlikely that he did know any of them personally as he'd been living in New York for a decade by 1948, but of course when he was a migrant worker in the California orchards of the 1930s he would have known many people like them:
The sky plane caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon,
A fireball of lightning, and shook all our hills,
Who are all these friends, all scattered like dry leaves?
The radio says, "They are just deportees"
In the final verse Woody Guthrie continues the dry leaves imagery to rail against the system that caused the deaths of the thirty two passengers and crew.
Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards?
Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit?
To fall like dry leaves to rot on my topsoil
And be called by no name except "deportees"?
It's very clever imagery - just who or what is falling like dry leaves and rotting on whose topsoil? This is what makes this song such a profound criticism of the system that feeds us and these few lines are what makes the song so relevant to today:
The song ends with a final chorus which begins:
Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita,
Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria
By giving names to the nameless, Woody Guthrie has empowered them.
You can listen to Joan Baez singing "Plane Crash" here:
English folk singer Kevin Littlewood has written a very powerful song about the Chinese Cockle pickers. If you enjoyed "Deportees" you'll probably like that too.
|Posted on October 16, 2013 at 7:00 AM||comments (0)|
About two weeks ago Marilyn and I were tidying up the front garden in Bishops Stortford and a passer-by asked us if we knew anything about the history of our house.
We only moved to our current home in April, so we said that we didn't. The passer-by introduced himself as David, and told us something that really surprised us. Basically he gave me the idea for a true story, and a target date for publication, the anniversary of the events he told us about are just eighteen months away - 14 March 2015.
So here's a sneak preview of the story that David told me:
In the early hours of Sunday 14 March 1915 Private George Harrison of the Sherwood Foresters died as a result of inhaling his own vomit. He died at the house where I now live, and where I am writing this story. George Harrison was a twenty-seven year old soldier from Nottingham who was attached to the North Midland Divisional Cyclists’ Corps. Seven members if his unit were billeted at my house the previous evening.
Harrison's senior officer, nineteen year old Second Lieutenant Albert Ball was also billeted here. Ball was also from Nottingham and would go on to join the Royal Flying Corps, where he became the most decorated airman of World War I. Ball was awarded the Victoria Cross, the Military Cross and three Distinguished Service Orders. He was killed in action a few months before his twenty-first birthday on May 7th 1917.
I intend to write something about these two men, and the five fellow soldiers they were sharing our house with. Ball's story is well documented, as is the sad but brief tale of George Harrison. But what about the other five? did any of them survive the War; are there people still alive who remember them?
It's very early days in my quest to write something about these men and those times. At the moment I'm not sure whether to write pure history or to try to fictionalise something about that evening.
I'll keep you posted as I go along.
|Posted on July 30, 2013 at 9:40 AM||comments (0)|
This time last year I wrote a number of blog essays on the subject of the Paralympics, the final one expressed three hopes for the future:
Last weekend (26 to 28 July) saw the first athletics and para-athletics events in the Olympic Stadium since last summer, as well as the Open East Festival in part of the Olympic Park. On Monday a substantial part of the park was re-opened to the public for the first time. So this is the right time for an update how well we are doing in these three challenges. Let's take them one-by-one:
Rio must continue what London began.
I was referring to the fact that London 2012 was the first time that para-sports had sold out large stadiums, attracted sponsorship and mainstream TV coverage, and was asking whether this could be maintained?
So far, it's looking good. The week before the London Events saw the staging of the International Paralympic Committee's Athletics world championship in Lyon, France. 1300 athletes from 94 countries competed, French mainstream TV (which had been widely criticised for giving inadequate coverage in 2012) gave it 2 hours of coverage each evening; while in the UK Channel 4's More 4 affiliate provided 5 hours of live coverage each day.
GB came sixth in the medal table winning 11 golds, ahead of China but behind, among others, Brazil who won 16 golds. I think it's important that the next host country is doing well at this stage - if they weren't I'd be pessimistic. In Alan Oliveira Brazil has a potential iconic figure who could become the face of both the next Olympics and Paralympics, and that's very encouraging.
The day after the Lyon games closed many of the elite paralympian athletes were facing each other again in the Sainsbury's International Para Challenge in the Sainsbury's Para Challenge in London. This event was once again sold out; over 75,000 people were watching the events in the stadium. Sainsbury's sponsored the event and Channel 4 covered it live.
My party had tickets to the Open East Festival in the Olympic Park (more about that later) so we were thrilled to see things on the big screen. We watched Hannah Cockcroft easily win the T33/T34 100 metres event, David Weir win another victory as he clocked a time of 3:16.40 minutes to win the mile, and the thrilling T43/T44 100 metres race that saw both Alan Oliveira and the USA's Richard Browne break world records, and our own Jonnie Peacock take the 'bronze position.
So I think that the future for participation and coverage of para sporting events still looks very bright.
The Olympic park legacy must be to provide homes, jobs and recreation for the people of East London.
Well the Open East Festival was a definite hit with me on the culture and recreation front. Tickets for each day were only £9.50 and the vent was packed with people of all ages and ethnicities. On Saturday there was a wealth of World Music; headline artists included Vieux Farka Touré - son of the late, great Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré - as well as Malian superstars Amadou & Mariam. We went on Sunday and the highlights for me were the acrobats Una Via Aerial Circus, a walkabout by Joey, the horse from the National Theatre's War Horse play, and The brilliant Graeae Theatre Company's staging of Ted Hughes's "Iron Man" Here are some of the pictures we took:
Some of the people we saw at the Festival
Iconic view of the Stadium from the North Bridge
Joey from "War Horse"
Graeae's "Iron Man"
There's a much longer review of the Festival here - courtesy of the "Daily Telegraph."
On the jobs front, BT are converting the old press centre into TV studios, and as far as homes are concerned apartments in the former Olympic Village will be offered for sale this Autumn. Will these flats be affordable for local people? Prices haven't been announced yet but I have to say that I doubt it. I'll report back when I get more information.
The right-wing press must stop demonising disabled people.
Well, This was always going to be a tall order. Up to half a million people with disabilities are likely to lose financial support as a result of the replacement of Disability Living Allowance (DLA) with Personal Independence Payments (PIP). Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson, writing in the Daily Telegraph, stated that these people are " now at risk of being unable to get the social care support they need to do the basic things in life. What is at stake here is the independence of hundreds of thousands of disabled people." You can read Tanni's full article here.
So how do I score progress on a scale of 1-3?
My current score is 2.75 - I think that para sporting events will continue to be high profile vents, I'm encouraged about the future of the Olympic park site but concerned about the cost of housing, and desperately concerned about the place of people with disabilities in British society as a whole.