How to understand this blog

Friday, July 30, 2010

job titles

Today on the back of a bus I saw a big advert for a new finance company in town. It featured some mildly famous rugby league player on the back, thumbs up, his signature scrawled down the bottom as if to say 'I guarantee this finance company will not screw you over.'

I won't even get into the disgust I feel at being supposed to care whether some rugby player thinks a finance company is good (or was paid to think so). But I did find this rather amusing:

Underneath his picture, it said 'Stacey Jones - Kiwi Legend'.

Next time I am asked for my job title I am going to write 'Kiwi legend'. Sounds much better than 'student' / 'unemployed'.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

this time last year...

... I was about to go to the northern hemisphere, to the UK, to Europe. In honour of that, and for northern hemisphere readers (with slight overtones of jealousy), I give you:

This is the first in what may be a series: images, advertising, excerpts from the 1930s newspapers etc which I have been using in my research. I find myself becoming absolutely delighted by some of the little things I come across in the primary sources I collected. As they are completely irrelevant to my thesis, you are going to be the recipients of them. I'm really looking forward to sharing them with you and hope you will love them too!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

rediscovering rupert

I have this memory that seems to me completely idyllic, a picture of my childhood, that has reappeared in my mind this winter: Lying on my stomach in front of the fire on a Sunday afternoon. I’m full of something like roast chicken, gravy, roast potatoes and kumara (but no pumpkin, yeuch), I’m satisfied, and I’m reading Rupert annuals.

Rupert Bear was a character on a Daily Express children’s page in the sixties in Britain. The pictures were accompanied with a simple poem, but there was also a prose description of what was happening, in greater detail. I don’t know where else he got to, but the hardcover Rupert Bear annuals definitely made their way to New Zealand, and my family were avid purchasers. And yes, I am a child of the eighties/nineties, and by rights should never have picked up a Rupert book, but I have a strange, stretched-out family and while my friends were playing with My Little Pony I was reading popular children’s literature of the sixties and seventies.

I saw a limited edition reproduction of the 1965 annual in a bookshop the other day, on sale with 25% off. It was still more than I should spend but I bought it, and have been rediscovering the world of Rupert since then. It’s a charming world, a world of adventures, a world in which it’s possible to help out Jack Frost and his naughty sister; to get blown away by a storm and visit the kingdom in the clouds; to chat with a scarecrow; to live nearby a Chinese magician and his magical daughter Tigerlily; to attempt to dissuade the local birds from bullying the cuckoos. Its characters are very black and white, either villainous and faceless, or upstanding decent Brits who might smoke a pipe or constantly wear an apron or be Girl Guides. But despite this it’s very imaginative and it’s not as jingoistic as one might expect.

I’m noticing things I never picked up on as a child. A child reading Rupert in the nineties is completely oblivious to the Cold War tensions which made their way into the Rupert books. Now I notice with interest, however, the times when Rupert is worried that someone acting suspiciously might be a spy, or the time when he actually helps to catch someone who is spying on a “hush hush” military place.

I don’t currently have the book with me so I can’t quote Rupert to you, but I will edit this later so blog readers can enjoy Rupert too!

Isn't it weird that I had completely forgotten about Rupert? He was so much a part of my childhood, and now I love him again.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

hello, posterity!

As I write my thesis I'm very much aware of the generalisations I have to make about history. As academic historians (-in-training), we have to be very careful about writing in a number of disclaimers into methodology sections, accepting that we can't know everything about the past, and that the only sources we have are flawed, biased and incomplete. And that's okay. It doesn't mean we no longer have a responsibility to the truth; it just means that we are aware that "the truth" is elusive and sometimes multiple.

I love going through my old sources. Archives, which I didn't get to use much of for this project, are especially exciting when you see handwritten notes by or about the people you spend so much time thinking about. The newspapers I've researched are more exciting to me than today's, and I especially loved the big volumes from which the dust rose in a cloud as I tentatively turned a page. (One of my lecturers always wears an apron and a dust-mask when going to Indian archives, much to the amusement of everyone who sees her.) But they're always going to be limited. Mrs Bloggs down the street who was only really interested in her cat, or Mr Finnigan in the pub who expounded daily, drunkenly, on the exploits of politicians - they are lost to history (most of the time).

But it excites me to think that in the future, historians will have so much to work with on the internet, in the blogs, on forums, etc. Comment is so much freer on the internet, and while sometimes this is unfortunate (leading to abuse), it is very, very interesting, and I beg you all not to delete your blogs if/when you decide to stop writing them!

How do you feel about your blog being a potential mine of information to future historians? What are we writing about that will be plucked from obscurity for the purposes of their MA theses?

Friday, July 16, 2010

sign the petition

This is from an email I was sent by Avaaz after signing a petition against the stoning of a woman in Iran. Please sign too, and make sure the Iranian Government knows that the world is watching.

Dear Friends,

Last week, an Iranian woman, Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, was saved by global protests from being stoned to death.

But she may still be hanged -- and, meanwhile, execution by stoning continues. Right now fifteen more people are on death row awaiting stoning in which victims are buried up to their necks in the ground and then large rocks are thrown at their heads.

The partial reprieve of Sakineh, triggered by the call from her children for international pressure to save her life, has shown that if enough of us come together and voice our horror, we may be able to save her life, and stop stoning once and for all. Sign the urgent petition now and send it on to everyone you know -- let's end this cruel slaughter NOW!

Sakineh was convicted of adultery, like all the other 12 women and one of the men awaiting stoning. But her children and lawyer say she is innocent and that she did not get a fair trial -- they state her confession was forced from her and, speaking only Azerbaijani, she did not understand what was being asked of her in court.

Despite Iran's signing of a UN convention that requires the death penalty only be used for the "most serious crimes" and despite the Iranian Parliament passing a law banning stoning last year, stoning for adultery continues.

Sakineh's lawyer says the Iranian government "is afraid of Iranian public reaction and international attention" to the stoning cases. And after Turkey and Britain's Foreign Ministers spoke out against Sakineh's sentence, it was suspended.

Sakineh's brave children are leading the international campaign to save their mother and stop stoning. Massive international condemnation now could finally stop this sickening punishment. Let's join together today across the world to end this brutality. Sign the petition to save Sakineh and end stoning here:

In hope and determination,

Alice, David, Milena, Ben and the whole Avaaz team


Iranians still facing death by stoning despite 'reprieve', The Guardian:

Britain condemns planned Iran stoning as 'medieval', AFP:

Thursday, July 8, 2010

the hills will be alive

We are having a Sing-along Sound of Music at out flat next week! Finally!

There'll be crisp apple strudel and pink lemonade and Austrian beer. There'll be costumes! (Eek - still haven't thought of a really killer idea for me!) There'll be singing, shouting at the TV, booing the Nazis, hissing at the baroness, and a goody bag filled with things to do during the film - edelweiss to wave in the air as we sing; party poppers to let off when they kiss; a whistle to try our hand at calling the children. It's going to be awesome!

In preparation, we are turning our flat into Austria. We're thinking pine-scented air fresheners, we're thinking Christmas tree sans decoration, and we're PAINTING. I found some really cheap poster paint at a bargain store, and I borrowed a huge roll of plain newsprint paper from my father. My flatmate R. has painted a huge mountain and lake scene, probably about 3 metres by 1 metre, and I have been painting these scenes:

Recognise this? The hills are alive!
That was my first scene and I'm really quite proud of it. My second was taken from a background from the Lonely Goatherd puppet show scene, including the puppet prince.

Step 1: Paint the scenery - mmMm, lovely sixties' browns and greens. (By the way, the stripey material under the paper is one of the super-cheap shower curtains we bought to protect the carpet/table from paint soaking through cheap newsprint paper!)
Step 2: the prince.
Step 3: the castle, a few little touch-ups here and there, and here is the finished product:
I am particularly proud of my puppet-prince: (A prince on the bridge of a castle moat heard, lay ee oh a lay ee oh a lay EE OOO)

It is SO MUCH FUN painting again. I haven't really painted since I did Art at school when I was fourteen-ish. And the size of the paper we're using is very forgiving, because you stand back at a distance and everything looks grand. It is so relaxing coming home in the evening and doing something as therapeutic as pushing paint around on paper.

My next scene will be one of the frames in the opening credits of the movie, I think - something architectural from Salzburg - while flatmate R. is planning a scene from the abbey.

I can't wait until the night!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

my abiding sense of grandeur

As the youngest by six years, in a family of six, I missed out on a lot of the family holidays my father took everyone on. A lot of them were spent by a little-known high country lake of exceeding beauty, Lake Heron. The whole family used to camp there in summer and take winter trips there. There is photo after photo of happy children enjoying the lake, families bonding, dignified yet joyful photos that bubbled over with a sense of an experience. I looked at the photo albums with jealousy, wondering why we didn't go there anymore very much and I didn't feature in this attractive set of photos of my family doing interesting things.

Well, I had my chance to join the Lake Heron photo albums, on a winter trip in, hmm, 1996-ish? The sole photo featuring me is this one. Unfortunately, I was going through a phase of doing the V-sign for photos. So, another scene of awe-inspiring beauty, ruined by a ten-year-old girl in orange pants and a tartan Swanndri, doing the V-sign. Hardly the effect I had imagined.

Monday, July 5, 2010

sea bass (among other things)

Oh, what sort of career am I plunging myself into? A pit of scrapping toddlers? I have been following the news surrounding Orlando Figes' fall from favour with a mixture of pleased amusement and an audible "ick".

Figes is a British historian of Soviet history, at Birkbeck College, who really is a wonderful historian. Unfortunately, he seems to have a little problem - competition. Orlando, Orlando. It's nice to share.

Figes started by posting negative reviews of other historians' books on Amazon. [Source]
Of Rachel Polonsky: This is the sort of book that makes you wonder why it was ever published.
Of Robert Service: This is an awful book. It is very poorly written and dull to read … it has no insights to make it worth the bother of ploughing through its dreadful prose.

All the while, unfortunately, his amazon username was "orlando-birkbeck". Oops!
Another oops - he reviewed his own book, The Whisperers:
A fascinating book about the interior lives of ordinary Russians … it tells us more about the Soviet system than any other book I know. Beautifully written, it is a rich and deeply moving history, which leaves the reader awed, humbled, yet uplifted … Figes visits their ordeals with enormous compassion, and he brings their history to life with his superb story-telling skills. I hope he writes for ever.
I'm almost tempted to break into applause. It's beautiful.

When Polonsky and Service raised objections, Figes retaliated immediately with threats of legal action. Then, when the fact of his username came to light, he blamed it on his wife. Sigh - it just makes me want to sit him down and reason with him. Eventually, he admitted that he did it, and claimed that he had been so traumatised by researching his latest book that it led him to behave irrationally. Yes, Figes, you are the victim here.

Well, all this kerfuffle in the dour world of academia was pleasant to observe for a while, until it became clear that all the historians who have chosen to comment on the issue have come across as equally silly!

Robert Service, for one. In an article for the Guardian, he manages to come across as particularly loony.

This is a matter that has broad implications for the public interest, as can be seen from the way I've spent my week. I got up last Sunday earlier than usual. Been doing that since the week before when Figes's lawyer started to correspond. Don't know why I thought I would sleep. My wife, Adele, and I went to an afternoon concert in Goring by the Thames where a piece by her composer grandfather, Claude Cover, was played. We could have done, however, without the traffic jam on the way back on the M4. ...

I wasn't sure whether I could stand the tension much longer, but at least we didn't seem to have to worry about holding on to our house and home. I had my book to write, a book about agents and commissars in the Russian revolution. Adele escaped to her yoga class on Tuesday – she's been brilliant while all this has been happening. I too needed an escape and went for a run over Walthamstow marshes. Strange absence of the police helicopter, though presumably that was not Iceland's fault. But elder daughter Emma was still stuck in Madrid, which was. ...

I found it difficult to believe that Stephanie Palmer had written the reviews. Few people whom I knew did. Most were inclined to think it was Figes himself but were scared of him and his legal letters. Anyway, why would any member of the Figes household want to squirt such venom into the Amazon system? Perhaps I was impulsive in raising questions about the anonymous reviews but I just felt that someone had to stand up to a bully. Meanwhile, Emma got back from Madrid. Brava! On Wednesday Adele cooked sea bass for supper and we were joined by younger daughter, Cesca.

Sea bass for dinner! Brava! Oh my! Poor Professor Service. It has been a tough week, and one that is particularly relevant to the public interest. He added, when Figes was found out, "I am pleased and mightily relieved that this contaminant slime has been exposed to the light and begun to be scrubbed clean."

Methinks someone has been studying Soviet history too obsessively. "Contaminant slime"? It's pretty much straight out of the pages of the Communist papers.

But Rachel Polonsky defends him:
Throughout this thrilling high-stakes chase, Bob has been a true comrade. He is a good man. ... As it turned out, that impulsive email could have destroyed Bob. He did not know how dangerous Figes would become when his reputation was on the line.
As one commenter on Service's Guardian article said, "I don't know why everyone is laughing at this. It's very serious! ... If we shortly hear stories of poisoned sea bass or unexplained car-crashes on deserted roads, then we'll know for certain that a truly dastardly plot is afoot in the vicious cut-throat world of academia."

Do you think historians have just studied the past for too long? Maybe they forget that when they criticise each other, they are attacking people who can defend themselves, by virtue of being alive. Or do you think they're just completely divorced from reality?

Saturday, July 3, 2010

ruining photos since 1999

Inspired by a recent post by Stacy of The Cat's Meow, I bring you (drum roll...) the first in a series of glimpses into our family holidays, otherwise known as vacations in other parts of the world, which is probably more logical, given that holidays imply "holy days". Ah well, who am I to argue with the dictates of my geographical location?

While Stacy spent most of her family holidays at long Bible conferences, I did go on quite a lot of trips with my parents and siblings, and I was even lucky enough to go overseas with them on a few occasions - the USA in early 1999, and Malaysia/Thailand in 2002. However, children and teenagers have an innate ability to lack appreciation for the wonders they are being exposed to, and here I am at Mt Vernon, the home of George Washington, in the United States with my father and a family friend from Boston, managing to completely ruin another photo with my horrible attitude.

I can't even remember what I was grumpy about. I think, however, that the twist of my mouth creates a most successful snarling effect while the scrunched-up eyes give an impression of a most unattractive person with whom to be on holiday. O, what lucky parents I had!

Friday, July 2, 2010


I went to Swan Lake on Ice (performed by the Imperial Ice Stars) yesterday, in the afternoon, at the Theatre Royal, with my sister and Niece-Aged-3. As I have mentioned before here, Niece-Aged-3 is obsessed with princesses, and she was completely over-excited to begin with, and spent the show gazing at the stage, eyes wide and mouth open, whispering comments to her mum.

As for me, I was not much less in awe. I have never seen anything like it. I've been to a couple of ballets before, but they were just not on a par with this, and they tried to be more contemporary, whereas this was completely stereotypical ballet but completely mind-blowing. It helps, of course, that this was a ballet (on ice) featuring Tchaikovsky's amazing score. I seriously think the swan dance, with its costumes, its dancers, choreography and THAT particular piece of music, was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen, and I don't say that lightly. I actually felt privileged to watch it.

The men were completely amazing too. I particularly loved the evil von Rothbart. Prince Siegfried's trusty sidekick, Benno, is also wonderful.

Anyway, if this production makes its way to a town near you - GO.