The world is so full of a number of things, I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings. -- Robert Louis Stevenson

Monday, 30 December 2013

Eleanor Louise Borneman Henry, 1926-2013



Today we had the memorial service for my grandmother, who died last month. Each of us was asked to read out a piece we had written. This was my contribution:

Those to whom my grandmother gave the most cannot be here today. She always knew that they wouldn’t. The people with whom she shared her greatest gift are long dead, and even when they were alive they were unable to thank her. Often they could no longer speak, or remember who she was, or who they were themselves.

Week after week, my grandmother went into the buildings where these people were kept, and she shared with them the most meaningful gift God had given her: the gift of music. People who barely made an intelligible sound between one of her visits and the next would raise their voices and sing. It was here that my grandmother's voice, too, was most clearly heard.

In Luke's gospel, Jesus is quoted as saying: “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

My grandmother always believed in that resurrection. May she have her reward.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

My HMV story

It must have been in April 2001. Chris had asked me to stop in to the big HMV on Oxford Street and buy the new Snow Patrol album (Snow Patrol were still kind of cool back then). Perhaps as I came in, I noticed that the store was a bit busier than usual, but it didn't bother me. I'd only be in there for a moment.

Except that by the time I'd found the CD, the number of people in the shop had at least tripled. Most of the crowd looked to be under 16. The air was filled with shrill cries and the sound of stomping feet. I had no chance of getting near the tills, and the exit wasn't looking too likely either. So I bolted down the stairs and through the swinging glass doors of the classical section. 

The well-dressed men behind the sales counter were looking at the ceiling as if doubtful that it would hold. 

"What's going on?" I said. 

"It's the group from that reality show," one of them replied. "They're giving their first performance today." 

I browsed through the classical recordings until the noises from above suggested that the mob was dispersing. It was time to pay, but I felt embarrassed about using the classical counter just to buy a Snow Patrol record. A budget-priced CD caught my eye: The Sofia Recital. That sounded pretty interesting, and it could make my purchase respectable without too much harm to our bank account. 

"Excellent choice," said the shop assistant. "A real masterpiece." And he was right. 

That's how I accidentally attended Hear'Say's first in-store (a boast now guaranteed to impress precisely no one) and first heard Sviatoslav Richter (an experience that should impress more people than it does). 

I won't really miss HMV, the chain. In recent years most of its branches devoted less and less space to music, filling up with DVDs and games instead. And less and less of the music they did stock was outside the mainstream. It's like they tried to appeal to the lowest common denominator, and then discovered that the lowest common denominator preferred to buy its CDs at Tesco. 

But if the Oxford Street shop goes, I will miss their classical section and the helpful and knowledgeable staff who worked there. And I wonder where they will find a job that uses their knowledge now.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Not in your image

He died with scripture on his lips. For months, seven-year-old Yaseen Ege had been struggling to memorise the Koran. But the words never came smoothly enough to avert his mother's wrath. Even after she beat him with a stick and dumped him on the floor of his bedroom, he kept murmuring his latest passage, trying to get it right -- until his body, already weakened by previous beatings, succumbed to internal injuries. His mother returned in time to see him take his last breath. Then, thinking of her husband and the police, she fetched some barbecue gel and set his body on fire. 

At Cardiff Crown Court yesterday, Sara Ege was sentenced to "life" in prison (which is more likely to mean 17 years). Inevitably, comment pages and blogs were invaded by bigots ranting about the inherent evil of Islam and calling for restrictions on Muslim immigration. Some atheists, meanwhile, have used the case to illustrate the dangers of all religion.

While plenty of harm has been done to children in the name of religion, I don't think Islam is the true culprit in this case. Here's a quote from the BBC story. I believe the key to Yaseen's murder can be found in the bolded paragraph:
She and her husband had enrolled Yaseen in advanced classes at their local mosque as they wanted him to become Hafiz - an Islamic term for someone who memorises the Koran.
As a child Sara Ege had taken part in competitions showing her knowledge of Islam and had recited from the Koran. The court heard that she had become increasingly frustrated with her son's inability to learn the passages.
This was about a frustrated woman wanting to recapture childhood glory by living vicariously through her son. If the family hadn't been religious, she would probably have pushed Yaseen to become a maths prodigy (she has a mathematics degree, but had apparently been a housewife since moving to Britain for her arranged marriage). 

You could argue that religion helps explain why no one tried harder to stop Mrs Ege's abuse of her son. Becoming Hafiz is considered highly desirable in Islam. Mrs Ege's eagerness for her son to do it may have been regarded as praiseworthy, even if her methods were excessive. Perhaps if she'd been obsessed with Yaseen learning to do quadratic equations, her behaviour would have struck more people as odd. 

Perhaps. But even then, for many people it would have represented the extreme end of an otherwise acceptable spectrum. From the miniature football kits sold to expectant fathers, to the books praising "tiger mothers" who micromanage their children's days, society finds it unremarkable that parents should not just encourage their children to do their best in whatever they pursue, but also try to dictate what those pursuits should be. It is "normal," in short, to try to form your children in your own image. As long as that remains the case, some lunatics like Mrs Ege -- and other parents who are less murderous, but who still damage the children they are determined to form into prodigies -- will slip through the cracks. 

Recently, after a court ruled that a mother could not prevent her son from having life-saving cancer treatment, one Internet commenter complained that "your children do not belong to you any more." Perhaps it's time to spread the word that they never did.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

An open letter to the makers of Aussie hair products


Racist shampoo advert by Laura A. Brown
Racist shampoo advert, a photo by Laura A. Brown on Flickr.
(I put this on their Facebook page, but I've a feeling it may get deleted, so here it is for posterity.)
I have a few questions about your most recent Tube advert (picture attached).
1. Which specific people are you identifying as "ancient Aussies"? Do you mean one of the several hundred Aboriginal tribes, or the Torres Strait Islanders? It is estimated that up to 750 indigenous Australian languages have existed at one time or another; which one does "killibinbin" come from?*

2. Referring to the Aborigines and/or Torres Strait Islanders as "ancient Aussies" implies that these people are long gone. Are you aware that this is not the case? Over 500,000 Aboriginal people live and practice their traditions in Australia today, despite the best efforts of white settlers. Even the Tasmanian people were not completely wiped out by genocide until the late 19th century - hardly "ancient."
3. Is your reference to "ancient Aussies" meant to imply some connection between these peoples and your brand, which was founded by a white American and is currently owned by Bristol-Myers-Squibb?
4. Did you consult with any representatives of the Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander communities before approving this ad? In particular, were they happy with the reference to them "killibinbinning around the bush" in wonder at your product, and with your lighthearted attempt to make up a fake Aboriginal word?
5. Out of curiosity, does your company make any products designed for Aboriginal or other non-white hair?
Thank you.
* I did some Googling after writing this, and eventually worked out that it's probably Awabakal.