Sunday 28 February 2010

Myths and Monsters

Been a bit busy recently with work and the children's half-term. One of the things we did during that week off was visit the wonderful Horniman Museum in Forest Hill, South-East London. We've always loved this great venue which has so many different kinds of spaces that you could easily spend all day here - it has wonderful collections of objects focussing on people and cultures from around the world, beautifully kept gardens with stunning views over London and the small menagarie of animals next to the picnic tables. There are some other great children-friendly activities there too - our children like the interactive Music Room, the aquarium (with seahorses, yey!) and the various 'hands-on' sessions.

The museum is free with one temporary exhibition which is ticketed - we went to see the 'Myths and Monsters' exhibition, newly-opened on 13 February. The Horniman blurb describes it thus:

"Cyclops, unicorn, yeti, dragon, the chimera… are these creatures real or imagined? Take a journey into the strange world of Myths and Monsters and unravel the truth behind universal legends and myths. Discover the origin of the Cyclops, the links between dragons and the dinosaurs, and why the yeti is the monster most likely to be real."

The exhibition has several life-size animatronic models of the mythical creatures, along with photographs and displays. My 7 year old was able to engage with the displays but my 5 year old was more interested in the colouring area in the exhibition room! The museum is well worth a visit, especially with children. I have to say though, non-parents may wish to avoid school holiday time unless they are feeling strong.  Here below are some photos I took at the exhibition - enjoy if you go.

Myths and Monsters at the Horniman Museum, 100 London Road, Forest Hill, London SE23 3PQ. It is open daily 10.30am to 5.30pm, until 5 September 2010. Tickets cost £5 for adults; £2.50 for children; children under 3 Free, Family ticket (2 adults and 2 children) £13. For more details visit the museum’s website.

Monday 8 February 2010

Should Sikhs wear kirpans in school?

Britain's first Asian judge Sir Mota Singh says Sikhs should not be banned from wearing kirpans to school or work.

Sir Mota was raised in Nairobi, Kenya, before coming to England in 1954 to complete his studies in law.He joined the English bar in 1967 and made headlines with his appointment to the bench in 1982 when he wore a white turban in court instead of a wig. [Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Rex Features from The Guardian website]

Sir Mota Singh QC is being quoted widely in the UK press and blogosphere today, following his interview on BBC Radio 4 this morning - you can listen to that interview here.

The kirpan is a small ceremonial daggar required to be worn as an article of faith by every baptised Sikh, under their clothing. Although Sikhs carrying the kirpan are exempt from prosecution under the offensive weapons act, it is believed that objections about the ceremonial dagger have increased following the September 11 attacks and instances of knife crime. There have been some recent cases of schoolchildren who are baptised Sikhs, not being allowed to wear their daggar to school - I wrote about one such case last year.

"I see no objection to a young Sikh girl or boy, who's been baptised, being allowed to wear their Kirpan if that's what they want to do," said Sir Mota."I wear my Kirpan and I've always worn it for the last 35 to 40 years, even when I was sitting in court or visiting public buildings, including Buckingham Palace."

I'm not sure what has triggered Sir Mota Singh, now retired, to speak to the BBC at this time - he didn't refer to any particular case going on. According to which paper or blog you read, opinion seems divided about whether kirpans should be allowed - I think the balance of (non-Sikh) opinion is probably in favour of their not being allowed - mostly on safety gounds but also, as you can imagine, on the 'it's one rule for 'them' and one for us' grounds. You can read comments on the BBC forum on this issue here - though frankly the tenor is generally quite depressing.

My family background is Sikh though I am an athiest and now only a 'cultural Sikh'. Growing up within that community in London I have known lots of baptised Sikhs who quietly wear their kirpan without any fuss. I also know how much it means to practicising Sikhs. On the other hand I can also see the problems about daggars in school in a country where the carrying of a kirpan is not fully appreciated. On balance the suggestion of daggars welded into their sheaths seems to me a good compromise. Though, on the third hand (!) I can see why Sikhs wouldn't be happy with that - what do you think?

Saturday 6 February 2010

Eltham Palace now famous!

Yes, it's true. Never mind that this royal medieval Palace has been there for centuries, that kings and power-brokers have lived here, and that it has been the site of fashion and style history. The video for Cheryl Cole's latest solo single, 'Parachute', was filmed a few weeks ago in the Courtauld House at Eltham Palace (in Eltham, South-East London) and is bound to put the Palace on the map for a whole new audience. MTV will be airing on 27 February a programme about the making of the video at Eltham Palace.

I'm not sure how familiar non-UK readers are with Cole. Let me enlighten you - she is part of an all-girl pop band, is married to a well-known UK footballer and, more recently, was a judge on 'X-Factor', Simon Cowell's phenomenally popular TV singing talent contest. It would be fair to say that Cheryl Cole has the 'midas touch' at the moment, with every magazine, tv show and advertiser pursuing her. And she is making hay while the sun shines.

So, given Cole's vast popularity at the moment, and the attention which her video will attract, it's fair to say Eltham Palace will now come to the attention of a whole new audience. Although my seven-year old daughter has always been happy with a trip to the Palace, I think she will be even more thrilled knowing that her singing heroine had set foot in the same hallowed halls. My son won't care, he only has eyes, and ears, for Micheal Jackson. (As for hubby, well, the poor disillusioned man cannot understand why the not-unattractive Ms Cole didn't give him a call as she was in his manor...ha-ha).

Cynicism aside, the video's not bad if you like that sort of thing. I like the dancing and moody lighting. But the best thing is how prominently the clearly-recognisable grand circular lobby of the main house features in the video, as well as the art deco-styling for which the Courtauld-restored house is famous. You can watch the video here above and to the left, a picture of the circular lobby as it normally looks. You can read more about this English Heritage-owned property here.

South-East London MPs to stand down

More to follow on the forthcoming general election in the UK (possibly to be held on 6 May 2010, tbc), but South-East London readers will be interested to know that the current Members of Parliament will be standing down on that date for the constituencies of Erith and Thamesmead, Lewisham East, Old Bexley and Sidcup, Beckenham and Orpington.

For now, here's the so-far complete list of London MPs who are standing down, together with their reasons for doing so. This list comes courtesy of

John Austin (Lab) – Erith and Thamesmead. He said he did not want to be working a 70-hour week at the age of 70, which he will be by the end of the next five-year parliament. He claimed more than £10,000 to redecorate his London flat, 11 miles away from his main home, before selling it and making £30,000 in profit.
Harry Cohen (Lab) – Leyton and Wanstead. After 26 years as MP, he announced his decision to stand down after it emerged he had claimed more than £300,000 in second-home allowances since 1990, as "part of my salary". He said the resulting backlash had caused him "intolerable stress".
Neil Gerrard (Lab) – Walthamstow. As he will be 67 at the time of the election, the backbencher said it was time for him to step down. He has served the constituency since 1992 and in 2005 was re-elected with 50.1 per cent of the vote.
Keith Hill (Lab) – Streatham. He was the first Labour MP to be elected to the seat, which he has served since 1992. Last year he argued the expenses system should be scrapped completely and MPs should be given a higher salary.
Andrew Pelling (Independent) – Croydon Central. The MP and former London Assembly member had the Conservative whip withdrawn following allegations he had assaulted his pregnant wife in September 2007, although the case was later dropped without charge.
Bridget Prentice (Lab) – Lewisham East. Having held the seat since 1992, the feminist justice minister decided to step down long before the expenses scandal broke. She made headlines last December backing a campaign to boycott pink toys for girls, saying they funnelled children into "pretty, pretty jobs".
Rudi Vis (Lab) – Finchley and Golders Green. He claimed 40 per cent of the vote at the 2005 election but is holding the country's most marginal seat – a 0.2 per cent swing would see it go to the Tories. He used his expenses to help buy a retirement home worth £520,000, but argued this was "well within the rules".
Derek Conway (Con) – Old Bexley and Sidcup. The disgraced Tory had the whip withdrawn last January when it emerged he had paid his son an inflated parliamentary salary (£11,773 plus more than £10,000 in bonuses) for his work as a researcher while he was a full-time university student.
Jacqui Lait (Con) – Beckenham. The MP was forced to repay £7,000 after over-claiming mortgage interest on her second home. Her claims also included dry cleaning bills from a company in Rye, East Sussex, where her husband works as leader of the county council.
John Horam (Con) – Orpington. He has sat for three different parties throughout his political career; Labour, the SDP and the Conservatives. He has held the seat since 1992 and his replacement is to be Boris Johnson's brother, Jo. 

Interesting to see how much the expenses scandal features in this list, though not, it has to be said, for all of them.

Wednesday 3 February 2010

Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim

I've been reading about a new biography which adds further to the intruiging connections between Victorian Britain and colonial India.

Victoria and Abdul is Shrabani Basu’s biography of a servant, Abdul Karim, who became an influential and, often an apparently disruptive, adviser to Victoria on India, “a good looking, extravagantly dressed servant…hated by the Queen’s household both for his race and class”.

Abdul Karim arrived in England from Agra when he was just 24 years old. The one-time clerk at Agra Central Jail found his way to waiting on tables during Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee. He was soon installed as a personal attendant to the Queen, becoming a powerful figure, instructing her in Urdu and Indian affairs. The timing was just right. The 'munshi' arrived to fill the gap left by John Brown's recent death, the Scotsman with whom the Queen had developed a close friendship. Of course, Karim was turfed out of the royal court by jealous courtiers within a week of Victoria's death in 1901.

The connection between the Queen and Karim is an intruiging one especially given the Queen's dalliance earlier in her life (all innocent of course) with another Indian gentleman - the last Sikh Maharaji, Duleep Singh, which I wrote about last year. This biography promises to be fascinating.

Victoria and Abdul, by Shrabani Basu, published by The History Press Ltd, due out Mar 2010.

Monday 1 February 2010

Danson Stables for Sunday lunch

Local readers might like to know that we had a wonderful visit to Danson Park today with an even more wonderful lunch at the Danson Stables which we'd thoroughly recommend.

Danson Park, in Bexleyheath in the London Borough of Bexley, is apparently one of the largest public parks in London - it has some wonderful parkland including a huge lake, great children's playground (with one of those abseiling thingys which our son loved) and a 200-year old oak tree.

Also in the Park is Danson House, sometimes referred to as 'Dansion Mansion'. Danson House was built by about 1766. The house is mostly the creation of two men: John Boyd, the wealthy merchant owner at the time, and the architect Robert Taylor (who also was the architect of the Bank of England) in the style of a classic Palladian villa. The house was extensively restored by English Heritage in the late 1990s and was re-opened to the public. At moment it's open from 1 April to 31 Oct so it was closed today but it will be on our radar for later in the year.

But having braved the bitter weather, it was the great roast lunch in the Danson Stables, now a pub run by Bass Breweries, which was most welcome. Rumour has it there are still secret underground tunnels between the' big house' and the one-time stables. But we didn't get to explore those - a glass of pinot grigio beckoned. The lunch was reasonably priced, with a children's menu, and despite it being pretty busy, the service was good. It had a lovely period feel quite different to the usual chain pubs offering Sunday roasts. Thoroughly recommended.