When sending them back where they came from is a good thing

I spent a wonderful couple of hours on Wednesday at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, doing my bit for the repatriation of cultural artefacts.

The artefact in question is an ornate feather cloak gifted by the Maori Wairau Pa (tribe) of South Island, NZ to my great great grandfather, Dr George Cleghorn MD. Those present were me, my mother (who is Cleghorn’s great granddaughter) and Dr Lorraine Eade of the Tokomaru Research Centre, Blenheim, NZ, who is the great granddaughter of the woman who crafted the cloak in the first place. I hadn’t realised how moving the occasion would be. Lorraine was on the verge of tears as she opened the proceedings with a karakia – a Maori incantation for blessing.

Cleghorn was an official Good Egg of the British Empire. He helped the Pa in their dealings with the Europeans and gave a lot of medical help and advice, like the importance of boiling water. Ill Maoris were expected to attend a hospital 17 kilometres away, while Europeans could use the local one. If a Maori turned up at the local one, they were turned away. Cleghorn put a stop to this and allowed them to be treated locally, especially during a typhoid epidemic, despite reprimands from his superiors.

The cloak is just one of the many honours the Wairau Pa gave him. The cloak itself was gifted to him on his retirement. What he might not have gathered was that as part of the Maori culture, such gifts are eventually returned. What with moving back to England, illness, remarriage, dying and the outbreak of World War 1, contact was lost. His widow loaned the cloak to the Pitt Rivers.

The first we heard of this was when New Zealand relatives came to visit in the late nineties. “Oh, Ben [or more like, “Ow, Bin”], you live in Oxford, go and find the cloak.” That bit wasn’t too hard: I went to the PRM and there it was in the feathered cloaks section. However, back in 1998 the museum wasn’t having any of this giving it back thing, taking the (not unreasonable) line that even though the tag on the cloak says “lent by Mrs Cleghorn”, an unclaimed loan after 90 years is pretty well a gift in its own right. But the upside was that contact with the Maoris was restored. And now, a generation later, the atmosphere is very different when it comes to cultural artefacts. It’s an exquisite piece of workmanship, so can be used to teach young Maoris a traditional craft as well as their own history, and of course it symbolises co-operation between the European and Maori communities. There are still hurdles to overcome, but a lot of that revolves around making absolutely sure it will go to a better home when, not if, it is repatriated. (Cleghorn, I’m sorry to say, draped it over his piano.) It would have been simpler if it was just a straightforward case of looting.

Watch this space …

Knowing when you’re beat

Okay, I can take a hint. Score one for the bots. A triumph for the values you’re mindlessly trying to follow, if I may say so.

I like to review the books I read on Amazon. One of my latest reads was mostly about an obnoxious individual who was prominent in the government of Germany between 1933 and 1945. His first and last name both began with the eighth letter of the alphabet. I will just call him Himself. So, the book is called The Himself Brothers, and is by Katrin Himself, who is Himself’s great-niece, the granddaughter of his younger brother. Himself was the middle of three boys, only one of whom survived the war.

So, you will understand that it’s quite hard not to touch on touchy subjects in reviewing a book like this. The algomorons still told me I was going against their community values and asked me to edit. I did, and they still objected, and sent a warning that if this carried on then I would be unpersoned.

So, okay, I deleted it

Still not sure what my crime was, apart from saying Himself’s name a lot. I never mentioned the name of the party he belonged to, or his ultimate boss, the guy with the funny moustache, or the people he persecuted and tried to exterminate. Maybe I was just too even-minded? Did I sound like I was defending him?

You see, the impression I got from the book was that if you had met him and not known what he did for a living, he would have come across as a slightly pompous, slightly chippy middle class middle manager. He got on well with his two brothers, and he respected and loved his parents and they returned the favour. His headmaster father cared deeply about social respectability, and that seems to have instilled in all three brothers a drive towards bettering their situations and caring perhaps a bit too much about what other people thought of them. But that, really, seems to be the most negative thing Himself Senior did.

And yet.

The author is married to an Israeli so we can safely say she has put the Himself legacy behind her. She still chose to keep the family name because, well, it is her name. The legacy cannot just be shaken off. It must be explored and investigated. That is what she does. It is a brave and eye opening venture that took a lot of courage. She never does explain quite what made her great uncle what he was – and that is the point. The most sobering conclusion is that a monster like him does not have to be created through some cataclysmic event. They can just emerge, though they might still need the right circumstances to show their true colours. Without Germany’s defeat in WW1, perhaps Himself would never have risen to the heights he did; he might have stayed a relatively harmless chicken farmer with unpleasant views on race. So, how many hidden Himselfs are all around us, maybe not even themselves knowing what they are?

Well, something there upset the bots. I concluded long ago that the future is not the human race cowering from the Terminators sent by Skynet to destroy us. It’s the human race walking on eggshells in case we upset mindless algorithms that can make our lives a misery in a million passive-aggressive ways.

The year my life rebooted

Crikey. The last twenty years of my life have gone by a lot more quickly than the previous twenty (which included university, graduation, at least thirteen addresses, at least five jobs, and most of my professional writing career). My life very clearly divides into “since March 2004” and “before that”. For ’twas but twenty years ago today, 9th March 2004, that I got the best job I have ever had; the one where I have most felt I found my tribe; the one where life began again in a new and better direction. Documentation Officer / Technical Writer / Senior Technical Editor (if you don’t mind) for JANET.

I had worked non-stop in publishing since graduating, an adventure which ended with voluntary liquidation and staring personal bankruptcy in the face. So I decided I had had my fun in publishing and was looking for something more communications based – though frankly I was getting to the stage where I would have taken anything.

I had heard of UKERNA, and JANET, when I worked in IT publishing. I hadn’t really understood what they were about. I toddled along to the interview vaguely thinking it might be something nuclear, because UKERNA is almost like UKAEA and it was based on the Harwell site. It was housed in the magnificent retro post-war dinginess of the Atlas Centre, where one of the offices had a funny smell that defied analysis or tracking down, and the control console of an Atlas computer was still on display in Reception.

It was nothing to do with anything nuclear. It was the United Kingdom Education and Research Networking Association, and it ran JANET, the computer network for the education and research sector. JANET is still here; UKERNA had a few name changes and ultimately was subsumed into its funding body JISC. But all that lay ahead.

And it needed a Documentation Officer to write, edit and produce … well, everything that goes in front of the public gaze. Web material, leaflets, technical documentation, reports … I would be using my publishing skills, but communicating, and being paid decently and contributing to a USS pension, as UKERNA came out of the academic sector.

And so I did. A decent salary for the first time in four years, lovely colleagues, like minds and a definite sense of my life being rebooted. Ben2. A second chance, gratefully received. But there was more…

The actual authors of everything I was meant to publish were all technical people far cleverer than me. But because they were so busy being cleverer than me, they by definition didn’t have time to do the actual writing. And I hate chasing up non-deliverers; it’s about the least satisfying and most depressing aspect of any job I have ever done. It didn’t take long to work out that everyone was happier if I just talked to them, then wrote the thing up on their behalf. Thus I accidentally became both a ghostwriter and a technical writer without even realising it.

Meanwhile, I just plain approved of JANET. A publicly funded good idea, dating back to the sixties, when it first became policy that the education and research sector needed a network of their own. Much toing and froing and research followed. One insuperable obstacle was the Post Office’s monopoly on telecommunications, which the founders of JANET eventually just chose to ignore (before it was scrapped anyway). It formally went live in 1984, evolving out of the Science & Education Research Council’s SERCnet, running on X.25 and the Coloured Book protocols (stop sniggering at the back, there). This was long before anyone outside the networking fraternity had heard of the internet. The internet runs on IP; the Chief Technical Officer when I was there had come on board at the start of the 1990s to investigate this technically inferior, hugely inefficient yet strangely popular colonial import and set up the impenetrably named JIPS, the JANET IP Service.

IP was fated to win that battle, of course. In due course the X.25 service was shut down and JANET became pure IP. And once a network runs on IP then to all intents and purposes it becomes invisible, subsumed into the internet at large. (Meanwhile UKERNA had been the logical choice to take on the task of domain naming and Nominet, which now manages UK internet domain names, arose from this.) But JANET is still there, if you know where to look, as a network of its own. If your internet address or institutional website ends with .ac.uk then you could well be on JANET without even knowing it.

So, just by working for UKERNA, I felt clearly and distinctly on the right side of history. Which was nice. Oh, and a decent salary and financial stability also gave me confidence to pursue a particular romantic interest that led to marriage. Also nice.

I’ve previously described how this halcyon period of my life came to an end after seven years. It was an interesting time; publicly funded, yes, but with the first faint hints on the horizon that the gravy train was chugging to a stop, or at least slowing down. Management was in an interregnum period and the new CEO was the first to come from the commercial rather than the academic sector. Every decision they made in that direction was the right one but it did inevitably bring on the day when the company was taken over by Evil Marketing Droids.

But then, nothing is forever, which thankfully I had already learned in the previous twenty years. 2044, here I come.