Stunted family tree

Last night we went to dinner at a chef friend‘s house. There were ten of us in total; five of whom I’d never met before. During pre-meal cocktails (which reminds me, I need to go shopping) we exchanged some basic personal information, including, as is normal in gatherings in Brussels, a potted history of where we came from, where we’d lived before, and what we were doing in Brussels (six of the ten present, myself included, were immigrants to Belgium).

Then one of the native Belgians, a lady probably in her late 50s or early 60s, mentioned that her maternal grandmother was Russian (at first I thought she’d said “mother” but that doesn’t fit with the timeline so maybe I misheard and she actually said “grandmother”). Apparently she had been smuggled out of the country aged three during the upheavals of the Russian revolution and sent to live in the safety of a Belgian convent. She spent the rest of her life here, never spoke Russian, and was never able to re-establish contact with any of her family back in Russia, even assuming they’d survived. There was no paper trail and any contact with the authorities hit a brick wall.

What struck me about this was how much I take for granted that my ancestors, as far back as records exist (which in my case is several hundred years) are known. I have names, in some cases photographs, and in a handful of cases living memories through my mother. But for this lady there was nothing prior to the two previous generations. Her grandmother had started from scratch; a refugee orphan cut off from her culture, history and family.

How many of the child refugees from places like Syria will have similar experiences now? Parents dead or lost during civil war or during their flight across Europe in search of safety, their memories hazy and fading, they’ll have to hope that they’ll be given the opportunity to make a new life for themselves elsewhere, to create a new history and a sense of cultural identity.

The World of Disney

So this Easter we took our kids to Walt Disney World Florida. They were already a little too old to get excited about seeing people dressed up as princesses or Mickey Mouse, and besides they’d seen that stuff a few years ago when we visited Disneyland in California. The Florida branch, however, appeals to the slightly older child (particularly those in the 35-55 age range) as the Hollywood Studios section features a fair amount of Star Wars and Indiana Jones attractions.

Two of our three signed up for the Jedi training activity. This basically involves being given a nylon Jedi robe and a plastic lightsaber and being marched across the park to a mock-up of a Jedi temple where you are taught a handful of saber moves.

I’d always wondered what the inside of an AT-AT looked like. Basically it’s a lighting rig:

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The Jedi younglings gather and a couple of “cast members” do a comedy routine and then encourage everyone to open the temple doors with their minds. “Use the Fastpass!” Umm, I mean, the Force.

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But who’s that lurking inside? It’s Kylo Ren’s grandfather! (oh, sorry. Spoilers for The Force Awakens, I guess).

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And he’s brought one of the Expanded Universe characters with him to help out, and perhaps for laudable gender balance reasons.

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One by one the trainees take turns facing their fears. The first boy was one of the smallest and was obviously, hilariously terrified. Unprompted he tried to ward Vader off with the Force:

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But there was no escaping the hand-to-hand combat. Judging by the look of terror on his face I half expected him to leave a little Padawan puddle on the stage floor.

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Thankfully he prevailed against evil, as, unsurprisingly, did all the other would-be Jedi. None of them chose a different path, as this little girl so memorably did:

And of course Kylo showed up too, probably because he had an imminent DVD release to promote.

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Meanwhile, back in the Magic Kingdom there’s a parade. No need to queue for hours for a meet and greet when you can just sit back and watch them all file past you. Some of the floats were very pretty.

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Sometimes the costumes outshone the floats.

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Tinkerbell was a little too smirky for my taste.

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Merida from Brave, astride a giant set of bagpipes!

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A giant fire-breathing dragon from Sleeping Beauty.

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Impressive, although I think the one at De Efteling is better. I did like the accompanying creepy stilt walkers, though.

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Oh Mickey, you’re so fine. You’re so fine you blow my mind.

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I wouldn’t rule out a return trip some day, as they’re planning to massively expand the Star Wars element. Plus, they’re currently building Avatar World next door…

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The myth of the monstrous teacher

Recently we took the kids to see the stage musical Matilda in London’s West End. We’d all read the book and seen the movie but this was something different. It’s a great show with memorable tunes, entertaining performances (especially the ten year old girl in the title role) and lots of parent-pleasing stuff about how much cooler books are than TV. But towards the end one thing about the story struck me as being perhaps a little bit dated, albeit in an interesting way.

The main thrust of the plot has Matilda (and other characters) standing up to a vile, cruel, child-hating teacher called Miss Trunchbull, and one of the repeated musical refrains has Matilda asserting her right to stand up to bullying adults, “be a little bit naughty” and defy authority. What I wondered whilee listening to this was that the archetype of the monstrous teacher may have a long and popular history, but does it really have any basis in reality any more? When (spoilers, although it shouldn’t come as a surprise) the whole class rises up in noisy defiance, I found myself thinking that maybe contemporary teachers would view this scene rather differently. I don’t think kids any longer have the kind of cowering fear faced with adults in positions of authority, and they probably no longer need such encouragement to rebel and talk back. Might not a teacher these days think “Actually we could do with a little more classroom discipline, and some of the kids I teach need to sit down and shut up and listen a bit more”?

Now the novel was written by Roald Dahl in 1988, which to my mind already puts it into an era when this kind of monstrously cruel teacher was already probably a thing of the past, more or less. And I don’t recall anything in the other versions of the story about it being a period piece. But compare this portrayal of teachers with what you can see nowadays on children’s TV drama on channels like CBBC. You see very few scary, authoritarian teachers and a lot more weak, comically ineffectual ones trying in vain to control a rowdy, aggressive bunch of kids.

This is maybe a small complaint, as the rest of the story is very much about using your intelligence, self-respect and fighting anti-intellectualism. But it might be nice to see more stories which present teachers as heroes, rather than villains.

By the way, this was probably my favourite song from the show.

Brussels Toy Museum

Last weekend we paid a brief visit to Brussels toy museum with our smallest child. A couple of years ago we went to the one in Mechelen which is a lot bigger and has a wider range of stuff on display, but the Brussels version has its own charm. It’s chaotic and dusty and haphazard, and concentrates mainly on early to mid-20th century toys. It’s more like stumbling into a large attic full of old and unsorted toys than a real museum, although there are glass display cases and the occasional explanatory note.

This gigantic, limbless, featureless baby doll welcomes you after you’ve paid your entrance fee.

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In one corner of the ground floor there’s a toy kitchen area where a lot of the kids played. In fact quite a lot of the toys were scattered around on the floor and were available to play with.

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The bus, in the centre of this photo, was also a popular seat.

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A display on dolls notes that the first attempts at making racially diverse baby dolls simply involved taking standard white babies and painting them black.

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Another toy kitchen. These dolls are about six inches tall.

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There were a lot of toy shops and kitchens, and I was struck by the detail and craftsmanship of the individual items.

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Fish and squid.

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The religious toy display. Who among us has never wanted to play at being nuns?

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Don’t ask me why this boy has a transparent cage torso. The girl on the left seems to be wondering too.

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The glorious Raj.

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Shadow puppet theatres.

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I remember watching Bonanza on TV as a child, but I never knew there was a toy line.

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Lorne Greene!

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Back in my day we couldn’t afford individual baths, so we’d all pile into the tub together. With a fish.

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There’s a lot more than this on display – it spreads over three floors – and it’s worth and hour or so of your time if you’re in the neighbourhood.

Little boy lost

I remember a family outing to a forest in Devon with a river running through it (broadly similar to Tarr Steps). I was probably somewhere between 6 and 9 years old at the time. I was there with my parents, siblings, grandmother, aunt and uncle.

We were heading back towards the car park and I had run on ahead. Just before the car park I stopped and decided that it would be a funny joke to head up the hill a little and hide behind a tree. As family members gradually arrived back at the car park I watched from my hiding place as they started to look around for me. After a few minutes they started to get more worried and a couple of them headed back they way we’d come to search along (and in) the river. The more serious things got the less keen I was to venture down from behind the tree and to reveal myself, fearful of the inevitable tongue-lashing. But at a certain point it became unavoidable so I meekly trotted down the hill to where my uncle and gran were waiting while the others had gone off looking in various directions. These being the days before mobile phones we had to wait until they’d all come back before they knew I was safe and sound.

And this was back in the 1970s when parents were noticeably more relaxed about their kids wandering off on their own. I’ve experienced a couple of occasions where I’ve ‘mislaid’ a child and it doesn’t take long for the cold feeling to grow in the pit of your stomach and for your mind to leap to the darkest conclusions. Somewhere between thirty and sixty seconds.

So…yeah. Sorry, mum.

Life in the future

Recently I read a collection of articles by Arthur C. Clarke called The View From Serendip. Here’s the review I posted on goodreads:

I finally picked this off the shelf because some of it is about Sri Lanka. Unfortunately for me, not very much of it. It’s a random collection of articles, most of which have Clarke speculating on where technology, and specifically space exploration, will go during the last few decades of the 20th century. But his prose style is quite irritating: by turns dry and smug, with the occasional stilted attempt at humour.
Having said that, some of the predictions are remarkable. While he misses the mark on some things (he couldn’t have imagined the stalling of the space programme) he also basically predicts – in the early 1970s – the Internet, email, RSS feeds, social media and smartphones. For that alone it’s a valuable piece of history. It’s just a shame there wasn’t more about his life in and around the Indian Ocean (apart from a couple of snorkelling trips).

Yesterday I was driving the 10yo to an appointment and she put on the car radio. Some 60s-style jazz full of Hammond organ noodling came on and we listened to it for a bit. We had a conversation about how old-fashioned it was; how music has changed; whether old people (i.e. me) can like modern music too. Then she asked me what I had thought the future was going to be like when I was a child. I was stumped for a moment so I told her that I’d read and watched a lot of science fiction and that I was probably expecting things like a colony on the moon within my lifetime.

She said that she imagines flying cars will happen in the not too distant future. Then I explained about all the unexpected ways in which life has changed since I was young, and what things were like before mobile phones and the Internet.

Her final comment before we arrived at our destination was that she thought technology made people lazy, whether it be because they feel they can duck out of appointments at the last minute by sending a text, or because they don’t feel they need to learn facts or arithmetic because devices can provide the answer with a quick click or swipe.

Antici-pain-tion

Compare and contrast: Last Saturday I went to a friend’s birthday party. I had a few beers and got home around 1:30. I slept until 5:30, then woke with a pounding head. I was awake until 7:30 when I was sick. The pain was sharp, located in a precise spot just at the base of my skull, and impervious to Paracetomol. The usual “never again” thoughts passed through my head. Now when I’d had the drinks (although they were stronger than I’d anticipated) I knew that a certain quantity would be enough to have this effect the next day. But somehow that’s never enough to stop you.

Then yesterday I took my kids for vaccinations in anticipation of our trip to Sri Lanka at the end of December. One of them in particular was very upset about the idea of a small amount of brief pain, even knowing that it would be over in a matter of seconds. The suffering, at least in terms of physical pain, was much less than mine, and yet the emotional stress was that much greater. It’s like the opposite of those old “delayed gratification” experiments. We’re more upset at the idea of a little pain right now than the strong possibility of maybe even greater pain in the future (even if only a few hours in the future).