Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Stolen bones and harvested tissue

The BBC1 documentary 'Real Story' tonight, which reported on the illegally harvested body parts from the USA, was quite disturbing... the story accidentally came to light about a year ago, when a funeral home person noticed that a corpse's leg bones had been replaced with plastic piping used by plumbers. Parts of corpses - skin, bones and other tissue - were harvested and sold on to biomedical tissue processing companies, for supply to medical organisations for surgical use. Consent documents were forged, along with other required legal papers needed for the legitimate donation and supply of healthy tissue for medical purposes.

A US investigator interviewed in the documentary said that a whole corpse, when 'harvested' and cut up into saleable elements, would be worth around $150,000. In this country, the Welsh recipients of stolen bone fragments found the news of the origin of their bone graft material, post-operation, disturbing (unsurprisingly). Apart from the possibility of acquiring diseases such as syphilis, HIV and hepatitis from the bone, the idea that it had been obtained without consent from someone who probably didn't want to be chopped up after death was also disturbing.

Although tissue processing companies did a 'product recall' after the story broke, it's not quite the same as removing contaminated tins from a supermarket shelf... bone chips are used in grafts as they gradually knit together with the other existing bone tissue, so the illegally obtained tissue becomes part of the recipient's own body.

I found the film of 'bone chips' being processed in a UK plant rather gruesome, with frozen human body parts being fed into a industrial equivalent of a food processor and coming out finely minced... but all perfectly legitimate for medical use. I really don't want to minimise the seriousness of the original issue, but visually the footage reminded me of Jamie Oliver's attempt to put schoolkids off eating over-processed meat products last year, by showing how meaty bits ended up reshaped as 'Turkey Twizzlers'...

Service with a Smile!

Here's a photo of a lovely Metropolitan police mug my mum got from a charity shop, because of the strange slogans on it.

It might be a bit annoying sometimes, to be reminded by a rather chunky mug of 'Service with a Smile' when you're at work. Especially if you feel more like 'serving with a snarl.' It's quite difficult to be nice all the time in jobs where you deal with 'the public'. Such as working on an IT Helpdesk...listening to people complain about their computer problems all day, every day, with varying levels of exasperation and rudeness. Paid to be moaned at, about stuff out of your control....

I had a really crap temp job once, working on a BT freephone line, every workstation in the office had a notice telling you to 'speak with a smile' because people could apparently hear it in your voice. Good customer service. Even when the ubiquitous telephone sleazeballs rang, asking about your underwear or more explicit streams of obscenities...all part of the job, but you still couldn't be rude to them. The sort of job where the door had to be specially unlocked for you to go to the toilet and then they timed you, to stop you taking the piss. (oops- bad pun, but very appropriate.)

Only stayed there 2 weeks, surprisingly enough, I walked as fast as I could every lunchtime in the opposite direction but then had to go back again, until I begged to be moved to another temp job. Well, not quite begged...I don't do that, but you get the idea. But some people do jobs like that every day, so don't be horrible to them on the phone, they don't deserve obscenities or rudeness.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Eyes without a face

The French woman who recently had a full face transplant is now 'able to smile and looks more like herself'. Or more accurately, herself, with addition of a nose, lips and chin from a brain-dead donor's face. Although it's a fascinating medical development, the ethical and psychological aspects of carrying out this type of surgery remain to be seen.

So much of a person's identity is invested in their face when alive. Would the the newly bereaved be comfortable in donating the facial tissue of their 'loved one', in the knowledge of the physical disfigurement to the body it would incur, and the awareness that those features, albeit in soft tissue form, will be transplanted onto a stranger? Even for potentially less emotive organ donations, the health service is unable to match donors with needy recipients - at present over 7000 people are registered as needing transplants of various organs, with less than 4000 registered as potential or actual donors (living or deceased). (UK Transplant statistics).

What might the potential psychological effects be on someone, knowing they have 'received' part of the face of a dead person? How might this affect one's perception of individuality and personal identity? The man who had the world's first hand transplant eventually asked for it to be removed, as he wasn't happy having someone else's hand. But a face?

George Franju's elegantly dreamlike black and white film 'Eyes Without a Face' (1960) is about face transplants, from a classic horror perspective... so many haunting images remain with you long after the film has finished, of the heroine gliding around in her white gown and mask (in pic above), waiting for yet another a 'donated' face procured by her monstrous surgeon father... Yes, I know it's fiction and intended as horror, but still interesting for different ideas about current issues... nothing's really new, is it?

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Dragon tattoos

I really miss my little sister today, not sure why this particular day, as she's been dead for years (a sort of freak accidental death from taking ecstacy). I guess I wouldn't have minded a chat with her about stuff at the moment... if you could have a catch-up with someone dead, I wonder what they'd tell you...anything...or nothing? Also, I found her autopsy report a few days ago when I was looking for something else. The doctor photocopied it for me, as I knew I'd forget everything that happened at her inquest (the same thing happened the previous year with someone else's inquest and I couldn't remember what was said, which was quite upsetting...)

I think all her tattoos stretched the autopsy writer's powers of description a bit, just logged as 'dragon on left foot', 'dragon on right shoulder' etc., but I guess they don't need that much detail for their purposes. She spent lots of money on her tattoos, very spectacular and quite exotic, many of which were designed by her artist boyfriend at the time, who is now apparently a 'cult figure' according to someone at work (the Cult Figure and I found that quite amusing, as Sarah would have too). She liked dragons as tattoos because of their symbolic meanings, as in this stuff by Don Ed Hardy... (apparently it's quite a rare book about tattoos)

"The Oriental dragon represents the awesome pure force of Life itself, a composite creature of magical dimensions that is a study in the balanced negative and positive forces - yin and yang - believed to underly all existence.

"...As tattooing transforms us, so the dragon as symbol of metamorphosis, power and mystery is a particularly apt image. Dragons continue to live and breathe on bodies worldwide, fantasy projections for daily contemplation of the larger energies contained within our transient forms."

So now dragons remind me of her, but they're quite appropriate really...Victor did the coloured one for her funeral booklet.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Official Irish Dirt

A new business website importing bags of 'official' Irish dirt into the USA, to sell to nostalgic Irish Americans have a special Christmas offer on now- buy 3, get 1 free! At $15 per 0.75 lb bag, a bargain not to be missed!

Alan Jenkins, one of the company founders, realised that there was a large market for second, third and fourth generation Irish in America to buy a handful of real Irish dirt to throw on their caskets when they died - a token handful of 'auld sod' from the mother country.

The firm has already received an order from an elderly New York businessman, originally from the west of Ireland, for $100,000 worth of dirt.

"He was in two minds about his final resting place, but now he's decided to be totally immersed in a full grave of Irish soil -- in Manhattan," Pat Burke, the other company founder, said.

(from CDAS November newsletter)

Friday, November 17, 2006

Not 'flying rats' back then...

A large pet cemetery in Ilford, East London, with graves of more than 3,000 animals, is waiting to find out today whether they have got money from the Lottery and ITV 'People's Millions' funds to help restore its site. The PDSA charity (People's Dispensary for Sick Animals) is looking for money for its Cemetery Restoration Project, to maintain and repair existing graves, make it more accessible to visitors and to tell the stories of many of the animals buried there.

12 animals buried there were awarded medals for outstanding services to people during the Second World War... dogs sniffed out people buried under bombed buildings during the Blitz; 'Seacat' Simon, (above, with his crewmates), helped the crew of HMS Amethyst by catching the rats that were stealing their meagre rations while they were all held captive, following a bomb blast which killed 17 men and also injured Simon the Cat.

The special Dickins Medal for animal bravery was awarded 54 times between 1943 and 1949. 32 recipients were pigeons, valued for delivering messages under difficult circumstances to troops and frequently contributing to rescues being carried out. The same creatures which are popularly regarded as 'flying rats' or 'vermin' by many Londoners today... reminds me of the arbitrary nature of 'The Inequality of Being'...

Sunday, November 12, 2006


It's Remembrance Sunday, with the annual ceremony and march past the Cenotaph in Whitehall, to commemorate the war dead of too many conflicts. It seemed more sombre than usual, perhaps because of the ongoing situation in Iraq...

The Shot at Dawn Pardons Campaign also marched as part of the procession today, having finally won a posthumous conditional pardon a few days ago from the British goverment, for all the soldiers executed by their own colleagues during the First World War. Over 300 young men were shot by firing squads following a tersory Court Martial process, which has now been acknowledged as being a contradiction of justice for those who were executed, for offences such as desertion, cowardice or simply falling asleep in the trenches. Many were very young, some under-age boy soldiers, others with years of military service behind them. Intended as a disciplinary measure by the army, the Campaign has offered evidence of class and race bias in the often arbitrary legal processes used to execute military 'justice'. All aspects of war are horrible, but it seems even more brutal when officers order the death of their own colleagues at the hands of their friends. 90 years on, the reasons which led to many of those being shot at dawn would be recognised today as 'post-traumatic stress syndrome' or 'combat fatigue'... at least some views have changed...

I came across the Shot at Dawn campaign a few years ago. The image (above) is of a statue by sculptor Andrew DeComyn, based on a 17 year old soldier who was blindfolded and shot; the wooden posts behind the statue represent each of the other soldiers who were also tied to a post and shot. It is just one long-concealed story from one war; there are so many others...

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Fashion rant(ers)

Why do some people get so bothered about others taking an interest in fashion? Do they get as agitated by an interest in other visual and applied arts, which involve comparable levels of creativity, skill or technology in their production? Fine art or product design don't seem to attract the same reaction... Maybe it's based on a narrow definition of fashion offered by the glossy magazines, apparently drawing in helpless victims of slick advertising campaigns... Or is it tainted with negative connotations of gender - isn't it just frivolous, feminine frippery, after all? What's the alternative - fashion co-existing with intelligence, whatever that is...? And maybe a social conscience? Surely not! Oh dear... it looks like it's back to the old brainless bimbo cliche again... do you decide what clothes to wear each day?

It's not decided in a cultural vacuum, funnily enough. All levels of fashion, from couture to high street to anti-fashion, reflect the cultural milieu in which we live, as does clothing in its wider sense. So that includes economic, political, practical, religious, social and sexual influences then. No different to other aspects of material culture, except it's wearable. I was kind of hoping that all the academic work on gender, identity and the body over the past few decades might have had some impact outside the world of fashion theory, but maybe not...

Why do clothes matter? Or do they?

Chris Breward's 'The Culture of Fashion' (1995:1) suggests that the potency of clothing as cultural evidence can be tested by simply criticising someone's clothes; the reaction is much more intense than that aroused by criticising someone's TV, car or house, suggesting a high correlation between clothing, personal identity and values. The recent debate in England about Muslim women's veils is an extreme example of this. Hardly a life or death situation, obviously, but lies at the heart of who we think we are. Or want to be. Fashion is unlikely to change the world overnight, but is not some dreadful evil or completely irrelevant either...

So... what did you wear today... and why?

Goodness... my first big blog rant! Only 2 weeks and I'm already 'venting my spleen' in public...

Monday, November 06, 2006


Too ill to write. Too ill to watch Ironside. Blimey, that is bad....

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Stewed Tripe and Toast Water

I know we're supposed to be a 'creative constellation for the arts' since the last University rebranding exercise, but sometimes it feels like working in a giant arty petri dish, where new and exotic varieties of cold virus are created too... it seemed deserted last week, so many SICK cancellations, and those who came in looked quite GREY. So now I've got a cold, the 2nd one this term - cotton wool for a brain again, and 2 lectures to rewrite and a paper for an ESRC funded thing at Goldsmiths coming up...and a PhD to finish before the funding runs pressure there then. Huh! Pressure? Never heard of it...

Mrs Beeton's Everyday Cookbook has got a few suggestions for nourishing recipes, to satisfy the 'cravings of the sick'...hhmm maybe that'll help. She was, after all, the Finest Housekeeper in The World during the Victorian period....

Stewed tripe.
Ingredients: 1/2 lb of tripe, half a pint of milk, spoonful of flour, chopped onion, salt and pepper.
Method: Boil, drain and cut into small squares; simmer for 2 and a half hours and serve.

Toast water.
Ingredients: 1 crust of bread, 1 pint of cold water.
Method: Toast the bread very brown and hard, but do not burn, or it will impart a disagreeable flavour to the water. Put it into a jug, cover with the cold water and soak for 1 hour. Strain and serve as a drink.

Sorry, Mrs B,
It's not for me...
I'll end up in A&E (yes, really!)
I'll just settle for a nice cup of tea.

I saw some tripe once on a meat counter - all grey and undulating, what you might expect from a cow's stomach... I felt quite sick. Sicker than looking at the trays of pig's nostrils in Brixton Market. But I'm sure they all have their connoisseurs...

Friday, November 03, 2006

Frozen Tights

Brr! It's cold today in London - only 3 degrees c., but enough to get the winter clothes out.


My Swedish Aunt told me once, when I was very young, that it got so cold in Sweden during the winter that if you didn't wear sensible clothes, very bad things could happen... she painted a grim picture of women whose tights became frozen to their legs and had to be surgically removed in hospital. As it was the 1970's when she mentioned this, I had hideous visions of the curiously popular orangey-brown American Tan coloured tights being painstakingly (and probably painfully) picked off womens' legs in A&E departments, recklessly suffering in the name of fashion.

I mentioned this dubious memory to a Swedish person recently, probably revealing a terrible naivety on my part (or just a very strange memory). I should really investigate this frozen hosiery thing further, to see if there's any truth in it, in appropriately rigorous PhD style....but maybe tomorrow....

Apparently, American Tan tights were popular in the 1970s, according to an enthusiast's fully-fashioned hosiery website. So at least that ghastly memory is correct.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Spectacular Bodies indeed...

Less dead bodies left to medical schools for dissection these days, according to The Guardian. It's partly attributed to the changing attitudes about what happens with our bodies after death, since the unauthorised retention of deceased children's organs at Alder Hey Hospital, Liverpool. The often controversial press coverage which followed Bodyworlds, Gunther von Hagens' travelling collection of preserved dissected corpses, is not cited as an influence on why less people are donating their bodies to medical schools.

Quite the opposite, it seems...if you haven't quite made celebrity status during your lifetime, why not go for immortality the plastinated way? Travel the world and attract awed attention wherever you go... you just have to be dead and dissected first, and no-one will actually know it's you, but it still gets you more than the proverbial 15 minutes of fame - a lot more than being a humble medical school cadaver.

Alternatively, why wait until you're dead to give your internal organs a media airing? Reality TV shows like the BBC's 'City Hospital', filmed at London's St Thomas's and Guy's Hospitals, might broadcast your operation, if you've got a particularly spectacular illness or something which affects a lot of people. Educational. Not recommended viewing if you like a late breakfast though...

Do surgeons ever stop to think how weird it might be for patients, to have a chat with someone who was grappling (in a very skilled medical sense, of course) with their innards, hours earlier? Unpleasantly intimate. Conjures up visions of being the unfortunate dissected person in Hogarth's engraving 'The Reward of Cruelty' (1750-51), with the obvious difference of not being dead or dissected, but having undergone major surgery instead. Maybe it's the drugs they give you... Or maybe it's the downside of studying death...odd snippets of information and images sometimes pop into your mind, at times you'd really prefer them not to...

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

No trip to Sun Hill tonight...sigh...

I bumped into an ex-student yesterday at work. She was wearing a special Halloween outfit - black, straight-cut trousers and a black polo-neck jumper with white ribs and arm bones knitted into it, so her top half looked like an X-ray. A very stylish X-ray, though. Made me smile.

But sometimes work is just tiring... today I'm very, very tired. I thought a nice dinner, followed by a trip to Sun Hill would fix that, but my plans have been thwarted at the last minute by a change of TV schedule. No 'Bill'* tonight (some old awards thing instead). Some people think I have very dubious taste in televisual viewing matter (my mother...). But a scene from 'The Bill' has been featured in a Galway Film Festival exhibition, reinterpreted by an artist, so it must be ok....

As it's not on telly tonight, here's that drawing instead, by artist Robin Whitmore: it's 'Mad' Margaret the Cleaner From Sun Hill After Stabbing DC Perkins in a Bathroom, as a reminder of their strangely enduring storylines...

* 'The Bill' is a fictional TV cop show set in Sun Hill, an imaginary part of London, for those who don't know. It can become quite...addictive. But not to my mum.