Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The IED Registration Department

There will be no demonstrations.
Hand your devices over at the border.
They will be inspected, catalogued,
Tinkered-with to work out provenance,
then packed up neatly, marked as passed.

We'll hand them back to you,
for onwards passage to the battlefield,
where detonation depends on timing,
but neither skill nor training,
other than misguided ideology.

We reserve the right to test them,
prior to use, fired downwards into sand,
remotely from the regulation bunker,
stamp them with our little flags,
to make them authorised.

In political return we'll let you sail,
permit your sea patrols to catch our freight,
unpack the billion-dollar fighter jets,
pose with our missiles in your embargoes,
to boil the blood of your citizens.

We'll hold our hands up to this trade,
you caught us stained as we caught you,
red-handed at the window.
The only difference is our range,
that lets us dodge the shatterings of bone.

You'll analyze the samples from the scene,
picked up in plastic marked "Made in China",
and find a gene for self-destruction,
in all the casualties, post them as proof
of dedication, to classify the dead as heroes,

And were it not for guaranteed oblivion,
we'd end up in the same grey waste,
the eternal boredom of the bureaucrat,
left alone with just ourselves to fight,
vacuous, immortal combat with no end.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Subversion ("More Tea Vicar?" Edition)

Son (7) went into Church Parade singing "The Words That Maketh Murder" yesterday. I have no reports back on any shocked reaction from Purple-permed pillars of local religious society so I think we got away with it. Currently the album from which this song comes is the favourite of four-fifths of the family - my wife likes it a bit having been able to admit that it is actually quite good compared to all the shouting that PJ normally does. I've been trying to write a proper review of Let England Shake for a few weeks now but it needs proper consideration and more than the 20-30 listens I've already given it since it came out. However, review or not, I don't need to wait to say that you must buy it, for it is easily one of the best and most important albums that I can remember hearing since I first started buying music. You will not be disappointed.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Map Room

Listening to Strange the Things by Smoke Fairies (Shh! Don't tell them).

Many Books - too many to list though the last one is worth mentioning it being The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot which tells the story of the black American whose cervical cancer cells became the first immortal human cell line when they were taken from her in 1951. The cell line called HeLa, has been propagated and used for testing many many medical advances from Salk's polio vaccine to modern anti-AIDS drugs. Henrietta Lacks died without knowing any of this and yet today, the HeLa cell line has become a foundation of huge amounts of medical research and is so hardy that without proper procedures it can and does escape to confound other research. All of this happened without consultation with anyone in Henrietta's family who now are understandably angry that many commercial laboratories made money from selling the line. The scientist who first developed HeLa, made it available to anyone who could find a use for it but further down the line it has become a lucrative product for many less-principled people. None of the family's concerns about the financial remuneration that they might have received has any basis in law both in 1951 and now, though rudimentary legislation is in place to try and address this. The most terrible thing is that when some biologists found out where the relatives lived, under the guise of testing Henrietta's children for cancer, they took blood samples which they thought might help them do further research on the cells.

Although this is science writing, the author has started from the direction of Henrietta being a person and not a cell line. It brings alive both all the people involved and the science that has been carried out on HeLa since it was first cultured. I first read about HeLa in Omni magazine in the late 70s and from what I recall, the framework of the article was the general g-whizz amazingness of the fecundity of the cells themselves rather than the human aspect of the woman from whom they came. I am glad that TILOHL has redressed that. The surviving family are made interesting and real through not ignoring their flaws. It could have been easy to give them a free-pass after what has happened to them both at the hands of scientists and the "system" in general. Henrietta's daughter Deborah, is the focus of the family in the story and is funny and tortured at the same time. It is moving to read about the discovery of the medical records of her sister Elsie who was committed to a Hospital for the Negro Insane diagnosed with Epilepsy, Palsy and "Idiocy". She turned from a happy child to a broken shell after apparently being subjected to Pneumoencephalography, a horrific technique for examining the brain involving replacement of the fluid surrounding the brain with air in order to make X-Rays clearer. This practice was only stopped in the 1980's. And we still call ourselves civilized.

I seem to have got off topic simply because that was one of the most memorable sections of the book. This is a science book that reads like a novel and yet does not skip the technical aspects. The academic rigour is plain to see from the exhaustive notes and the careful list of acknowledgments which indicate the amount of work that Rebecca Skloot put into the book.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

It Shakes

It shakes us hard these days, the lack of danger,
Our time defined by blur and tedium,
               directionless and lacking war,
Safe and finely fed,
               we eat ourselves,
Turning snarling on our own quarters,
               As the cause of all that fails,
It kicks the children into fade and fits,
Now that we have our ideals fixed,
Now that we have crushed all these ills
               with logic.

There is no muddy trench to make us men,
No whistles sounded three times
               to pour us over wire,
into the screaming hail of shells
               and other metal,
We’re in a ragged hole now,
               becoming European,
Slowly mixing with the Earth
               of France and England.
Turning to interred flesh not marked
               By ritual,
Save for letters in a grimy pile
               meant for home,
Forgotten on our Captain’s desk.

The rubber has perished
               on the masks they carried,
Decomposed to dust and scraps,
               in every attic,
Lost in the ragged, glassy lagging,
The synthetic wool that scours
               a thousand cuts-per-second,
Over my skin, and not drilled at Sloping Arms,
               I drop my rifle,
Its clattering, a bomb
               dropped in the silence,
A butterfly to start a war,
               As houses fall in sequence,
Dropping like my ancestors,
               into the mud of Asia.