Category Archives: Social comment

Eugene Grant: “I prefer the term dwarf”

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Eugene Grant is a dwarf and the founder of the viral site EveryDayDwarfism that chronicles the day-to-day experiences of what it is like to be a dwarf in 21 century Britain. Despite his experiences, Grant is optimistic that he can contribute to changing people’s understanding of dwarfism. Steve Hynd caught up with him to find out more.  

For many readers the term ‘dwarf’ is one they are not familiar with. I know some people are nervous about using it, afraid that it is derogatory. Can you tell us what the word means to you?

I personally much prefer the term ‘dwarf’ as opposed to others like ‘midget’, which many dwarfs I know find offensive. But, for me – and this is where the whole idea of political correctness becomes redundant – what’s more important are the intentions behind the terms used.

People can be ‘politically correct’ but employ such words with malicious intent; others may use quite derogatory terms without any idea or intention of insulting or hurting a person. It all depends on the way such terms are framed.

Can you tell us a little about why you set up EveryDayDwarfism?  

The aim behind EveryDayDwarfism is to document and present just some of the things that I – and my partner who also has dwarfism – go through during our day or week. Its purpose is to try to make people just that little bit more aware as to the things we encounter as dwarfs.

A lot of what we experience, I would put down to stigma and discrimination still being relatively acceptable to lots of people. The whole tone of the site is not supposed to be angry or ‘martyr-ish’, but relatively neutral, matter-of-fact and informative.

It’s to say: ‘these things happen, quite regularly. I just wanted you to know’.

Within the EveryDaySexism movement, there is a strong feeling of finally ‘shouting back’. Within EveryDayDwarfism it also feels like there is quite a lot of rage, is this an important element of responding to discrimination?

It depends what you mean by rage. Rage is very important but it needs to be channelled in the right way and used very carefully.

Leaving out abuse in the form of physical violence, I think when responding to discrimination it’s vital to ask oneself: ‘what is it that I want to achieve here?’ and, more importantly, ‘how will I get this person to change the way they think and act towards me and others like me’.

Can you tell us a bit about how you coped with the attention and discrimination before you started chronicling it on EveryDayDwarfism?

It really depends on two things: the type of abuse, attention or discrimination, and the intentions behind it.

Some abuse – e.g. an individual shouting insults from a moving car – is best left ignored. What can you achieve when they’re 100 metres down the road by the time they’ve finished their sentence?

Others – the attention from a small child for example – is normally fine; although, as I wrote on the site, it’s often the reaction – or lack thereof – from the parents that is the most frustrating thing.

Some abuse though might manifest itself in the form of totally unprovoked physical violence or confrontation.

Have you been in contact with other dwarfs, how do they feel about EveryDayDwarfism? Do others relate to your experiences?

It’s very important that people don’t think that EveryDayDwarfism or my own experiences reflect those of other dwarfs; I can’t speak for them. Not even my partner.

However, I do know that lots of people like me experience such things – sometimes less so, sometimes more so.

If you had one message to the metaphorical guy in the street who tries to take a photo of you with his phone, what would it be?

Just stop, for a moment, and think: What are you doing? Why are you doing this? Why would you or your friends find that photo or film to be of any value or interest? What does that say about your character, as an adult, and how you think about and respond to people who are different? What if I was your brother, son or cousin? How would you see it then?

A bit of a long message!

You wrote for the Guardian about the portrayal of dwarfs in the media, do you see EveryDayDwarfism as an effort to counter some of that through the illustration of agency?

Not really, no. Sadly, but also deliberately, EveryDayDwarfism documents some of the negative things that happen. And in this way, there is a negative tone to the blog.

What I was trying to say in the article you mention was that there needs to be more boring, regular, neutral representation of dwarfism in the media – weather reporters, Masterchef contestants, Question Time panelists, kids on CBBC – whatever.

Basically, more portrayals of dwarfism that do not limit that person’s identity to ‘a dwarf’ but reflects what they really are: a citizen, a parent, a doctor or lawyer, a voter, someone with views, ideas, etc.

What has been the reaction of family and friends to EveryDayDwarfism, are they shocked to hear of such day-to-day encounters? 

It was actually as a result of encouragement from friends to set up EveryDayDwarfism that I did.

Often friends have no idea of the things that I – and lots of others like me – encounter on a daily, weekly, monthly basis. Some have even been in situations with me when there has been abuse or something happen. Quite often, they are absolutely shocked at the way some people behave. It’s not a question of going looking for abuse or discrimination – that’s not a productive or positive way to live – it’s that, a lot of the time, this stuff finds youseeks you out, interrupts your day, your evening, when you’re just trying to live your life. And that’s what I wanted people to realise.

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www.twitter.com/aneverydaydwarf

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George the Poet – ‘Go Home’

George the Poet is a spoken word artist. In this video he takes on the government’s latest pilot policy encouraging illegal immigrants to ‘Go Home’.

You can follow George the Poet on Twitter.

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Filed under Politics, Social comment, Spoken Word

“The long slog through the desert of pre-season football will soon be over and at last the rains of competitive football will once again fall”

This article was first published on Tattooed Football.

20130730-100825.jpgOn 1st August, at exactly 19:45 British Summer Time something truly remarkable will happen.

Football fans up and down the country will breathe a collective sigh of relief, for the long slog through the desert of pre-season football will be over and at last the rains of competitive football will once again fall.

The cruelty of crushing defeats, the deafening roars of previous victories, and the inevitable inaction of the transfer window can, at long last, be put behind us. Now, as the summer heats disappear almost as quickly as they came, so to can the suspense, the anticipation and anxiety of pre-season.

The time for reflection is over, now is the time to look ahead.

This annual cleansing, the leaving behind of the past, is an essential ritual for football fans. It allows us to be simultaneously enticed by the possibility of the up-coming season whilst also, holding on to a near eternal pessimism that borders on fatalism.

Take my team, the Robbins as an example. No not Bristol City and defiantly not (spits on the floor in pre-historic ritual) Swindon, but Cheltenham Town.

The last two seasons have been stained by the enticing near success of play-off failure. So close, and yet so far away.

The present, the now, the days before the new season however build on this turbulent past. The players who battled to last season’s triumphant failure have now been joined by fresh talent and some tested experience.

The present allows us to reach out to the future in anticipation. It entices, it allows all who habitually take to the stands to start dreaming of the coming season.

Yet, despite these fresh winds of possibility that surround us, despite sitting at work and toying with the ‘what ifs’ that rest somewhere in the back of all of our minds, we are all also confident in the certain failure of our team.

There is a part of us that is certain we will slip up against [insert local rival here].

This cocktail of aimless optimism combined with pessimism bordering on fatalism allows us, the football fan, to exist in a reality entirely devoid of reality. Both simultaneously imagining a cup run alongside battling for draws away against the (spit on the floor) [local rvials].

This safety net of pessimism allows us to dream of the impossible, to escape the traps of the possible.

Some might read this and think that this level of self-delusion is a worrying trait. For me, someone who has been through this ritual one too many times, it is a sign of the eternal beauty of this so aptly named beautiful game.

Every year we are born again in our collective hope, our collective dreams, and our collective ‘what ifs’. Past failures matter not, we are levelled, equal and looking ahead.

If you are reading this and worrying about me, about us, football fans, don’t.

We – the football fan – are not so different. Think of the obese that plod the pavements sweating in the winter sun of New Year’s Day dressed in lycra convinced that this year will be different to all the rest, that this year will yield results.

We are all delusional – football fans are just better at embracing it and having more fun.

Here’s to 2013/14 season. Remember, anything is possible!

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Filed under Football, Gloucestershire, Social comment

The incarcerated nomad

A global nomad,
a no-man belonging nowhere,
desperately trying to escape,
another concrete landscape,
to  avoid another urban jail,
to speak through a medium,
other than posted airmail,
from one job,
to  another,
a quick meet and greet later,
a latte with a filofax,
income tax,
money back,
staring,
dreaming,
scheming,
to try and get the sack,
a sack back on his back,
so he can turn his back,
on this concrete jail,
push his boat out to sail,
He wants to rest his head on a new shore,
rest assured that he can actually rest,
where the air gives credit to the phrase,
take a breather,
this global nomad wants to go,
to another land, another place,
to escape the 9-5 rat race,
to sit back and take it at his own pace,
the impossibility of this though,
just goes to show his predicament,
and so, he is too often found,
in the bars, incarcerated, exasperated,
knowing nothing will see him set sail,
and let him escape his latest urban jail.

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To be a true feminist is to dismiss the very idea of gender

“I fear that many boys of my age fundamentally don’t respect women. They want us around for parties, banter and most of all sex. But they don’t think of us as intellectual equals, highlighted by accusations of being hysterical and over sensitive when we attempted to discuss serious issues facing women.”

altrincham feminists
This quote and photograph comes from an articulate and passionate article from 17 year old Jinan Younis. Her article compromises of a series of reflections and reactions to her attempt to set up a feminist society in her school.

An article that I would add is well worth a read.

Her article is both inspiring and depressing. It is depressing to read such a clear illustration of sexist norms being cultivated in a new generation of men. Yet it is inspiring to read such a powerfully articulate article from a girl who I have no doubt will spend her life pushing for change.

Her article at times hits on the horrific slurs that challenges anyone who thinks that there is no need for feminism. She was called a “feminist bitch” and told her “militant vagina” was as “dry as the Sahara desert” for wanting to stand up for equality, for meritocracy, for the right to not be seen as just a pair of tits.

As with many (but not all) feminist critiques though, her article only tells half a story. It articulates the frustration, anger and indignation of a 17 year old girl but does not begin to look at why the boys might have responded with such seemingly atrocious and irrational views. All over social media the boys are (to a degree rightly) labelled as ‘morons’ ‘arseholes’ ‘fucking idiots’ etc.

To give just one example*:

Without exploring this male flip side of coin, we cannot move any closer to tackling the sort of abuse that Jinan had to suffer for speaking out.

For the boys in her school to have responded in a way that many of us would have wanted – with humility, with intellectual interest and willingness to engage – it would have taken something truly remarkable.

It would have involved the boys not only tackling their own prejudice, asking themselves difficult questions around identity, gender and their own roles in life; but, it would have also involved them challenging the same issues in their peer group. It would have involved them stepping out from their ‘in-group’ and challenge everything they have ever known – their gender identity as a core element of their personal identity.

This is an incredibly hard thing for anyone to do, let alone a 17 year old boy who almost inherently comes packaged with insecurities and uncertainties around their identity.

These 17 year old boys from Manchester, conforming in the way they did to repellent to gender divisions, serve as an interesting illustration of Social Identity Theory and the sociological idea of in-groups and out-groups.

Briefly, Social Identity Theory states that the social groups we belong to (religious, family, football team we support and yes…gender) are  incredibly important for our pride and self-esteem. They also give us a social identity (I am a man, a Cheltenham Town FC support etc etc). In order to enhance our status we attach unrealistic positive attributes to our identity and unrealistic negative attributes on the ‘other’ group. We divide the word into ‘us’ and ‘them’ – even if rational examination challenges these assertions.

I am British and the French and cheese eating surrender monkeys. I am a Cheltenham Town fan and Swindon Town fans are scum. I am a man and women are emotional, vulnerable and pathetic.

This result comes about through three simple steps – categorisation, identification and then comparison.

First we categorise society (are you a student or professional, white or black, British or Irish, male or female?). We then identify and adapt our behaviour to conform with our in-group and lastly we then compare ourselves to other groups – which in turn leads to an artificial understanding of rivalry and thus prejudice.

If we apply this theory to the sexist outburst of the 17 year old boys we can see from the earliest of ages they are taught that they are boys and this constitutes a primary form of their identify. As a baby you are dressed in boy clothes, encouraged to behave like a boy. At school you use the boy’s cloakrooms, play boy sports and told to use the boy’s toilets.

By the time these kids reach sixth form college the self-identification of being male is engrained into everything they know.

This identification then encourages them to modify their behaviour – often in a stereotypical unhelpful way (think about the abuse the boy in your class who cried received). In turn they then reinforce this identity by belittling the ‘other’ – girls.

The other thing that was missing from Jinan’s article was the observation that of course the exact same process has occurred for her female peer group. How often at school did you hear boys being called ‘meat heads’, ‘stupid’, ‘aggressive’, ‘he just thinks with his dick’, ‘all brawn and no brains’ etc etc. Unrealistic and negative attributes to a group that of course have the same capacity for feelings, and thoughtfulness as their female peers.

The difference is that the male ‘in-group’ has a millennia of domination behind them which comes with a plethora of tools such as language, behaviour and social structures to project the ‘othering’ through.

This is one theory of how where we have got to where we are (prejudice, gender based violence, discrimation etc) but the pertinent question is, how can we move this forward?  Here a division occurs in my thinking between the ideal and realistic.

The ideal involves breaking down the very idea of gender. I have written before about why I don’t think gender of sex identification is particularly useful but understand that that getting people to drop their gender identity might be difficult.

The realistic approach would be to move to stop putting such an emphasis on gender – to teach kids that their gender is just one of a plethora of ways to categorise themselves and that in the vast majority of social stratifications they will share characteristics with girls. In short – to focus on the overwhelming similarity that exists between boys and girls, rather than the difference.

Any sharp minded reader will spot just how far we are even from my ‘realistic approach’ though.

It is not an easy issue to challenge, but if our next generation is going to grow up in a society free from such sexist prejudice that at the moment so disproportionately limits girls, we need to face up to the fact that our gender identities are perpetuating some of the most pertinent problems are society faces.

*It has been rightly pointed out to me that my one example I pulled out of twitter at random was actually talking about the boys behaviour and not the boys themselves (an important distinction). 

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‘That was my mosque you tried to burn down’

Police outside Mosque on Ryecroft Street in GloucesterIn the early hours of this morning, someone tried to burn down the Masjid-E-Noor mosque in Ryecroft StreetGloucester. CCTV footage shows someone pouring petrol onto the front door before lighting a rag to ignite the fire.

This is just one of a recent spate of anti-Islam (Muslim?) attacks that have occurred since the tragic murder of Lee Rigby.

In reaction to these attacks the liberal left have gone on what I refer to as the, “we are all the same” offensive. Owen Jones writing in the Independent illustrates this phenomenon by stating:  “83 per cent of Muslims are proud to be British…compared to 79% of the British public” – a gallant effort to highlight the ludicrousness of the EDL’s arguments.

I think something slightly more nuanced than this though.

I don’t really share many nationalistic sentiments, with the right or the left. Why would I? What have I got in common with someone from Glasgow, or Gilford, or even Glandyfi?

In contrast however, what do I have in common with someone from Gloucester? Well, quite a lot now you come to mention it…and yes, I do take it personally when an arson attack occurs in Gloucester.

The good people of Gloucester and I, we share a lot. We probably share friends, favourite places to eat, bus routes, schools, hospitals and everything else that makes a community. And yes, despite being a de facto atheist our friends and family will share places of worship.

So when a man approaches the mosque with petrol and matches in hand, he isn’t just approaching a place of worship that is special to hundreds of Gloucester residents. He is wading through the centre of my community.  He is lighting a fire under something that I hold very close to me.

The vibrant Muslim community in Gloucester is part of what makes the city what it is. The Masjid-E-Noor mosque has been part of this city for generations. People have been worshiping in the mosque since 1974 and at the site even longer. An arson attack on the mosque is like burning a hole in the patchwork rug of Gloucester.

This arson attack, on my local mosque, is no different to trying to burn down my neighbour’s house. It’s fucking with people that are close to me, and the metaphorical flames of hatred might burn down something that I deeply care about – the diverse tolerant multicultural ambiance of my home town, Gloucester.

You can sign a letter to Yakub Patel and the congregation of the Masjid-e-Noor mosque on the hope not hate website – here

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Good men need to speak out and say that good men also rape

Did you know that one in three people “believe that women who behave flirtatiously are at least partially responsible if they are raped”?

Shocking isn’t it?

One in three people think that when a man puts his penis inside a woman without her consent, she is at least partially responsible for this action.

How on earth did we get to a stage where so many men and women can think this?

These views, despicable as they are, didn’t just materialise though. People are not born with an inherent predisposition to blaming the victim for their own rape. These attitudes are crafted, moulded and evolved in the culture that you grow up in.

When, as is the case for majority of Brits, you are raised in what many refer to as a ‘rape culture’ it is hardly a surprise that some men develop a warped understanding of sex and gender.

UK’s ‘rape culture’

Laura Baites writing in the Independent describes the term ‘rape culture’ saying:

“[it is] a widespread trend towards articles, websites and events that sexualise, objectify and dehumanise female[s]… I am talking about entire websites where across hundreds of articles about women not a single female name appears; they are replaced with “wenches”, “hoes”, “clunge”, “skank”, “sloppy seconds”, “pussy”, “tramp”, “chick”, “bird”, “milf”, “slut” and “gash”…. It is an atmosphere in which victims are silenced and perpetrators encouraged to see crimes as merely ‘banter’ – just part of ‘being a lad’.”

Although this is a powerful description of what many perceive to be ‘rape culture’ it clearly does not go far enough.  Baites description focuses in on a juvenile concept of ‘banter’ that is predominantly found lurking in student unions and intoxicated pub crawls. It paints it as something that you and I – good upstanding citizens as we are – would not be part of.

This definition not only allows us to look down our noses at the issue but to also keep it arms length. It fails to understand that the UK’s rape culture has permeated our football stands as much as it has our theatres. It has permeated our local boozers as much as our cheese and wine parties.

The more you look, the more you begin to see just how far it has spread. The husband, normally after a couple of glasses of wine, talking over his wife at a dinner party, the school teacher who turns a blind eye because “boys will be boys”, or the dustman who laughs out loud when a female colleague joins him for her first day at work. They are all, in their own way, contributing to the UK’s rape culture.

Good men rape

Just as we – good upstanding citizens – go to extraordinary lengths to separate ourselves from the “lad” behavior that perpetuates this culture, so we don’t even consider that the actual act of rape can be part of our lives.

As one friend eloquently said to me recently, “you have to be a fucking cunt to rape someone.” He couldn’t see the irony.

Sadly, we know that the sentiment of his feeling, which is shared by most, is flagrantly not true.

Laurie Penny in a moving and powerful article writes about the night that she was raped saying:

“The man who raped me wasn’t a bad guy. He was in his early 30s, a well-liked and well-respected…fun-loving, chap who was friends with a number of strong women I admired. I was 19. I admired him too.”

Rape is something that has become so endemic across the UK, that statistically speaking it becomes axiomatic that ‘ordinary guys’ rape.  Not hooded thugs down back alleys, social misfits in park bushes or creepy men hanging around street corners – but, statistically speaking, someone you know and trust.

While it is easier to write rape off as something that only ‘evil men’ do, it moves us no closer to tackling the problem.

We have to speak out and say it loud and clear, that good men rape.

With equal clarity and determination though, we have to draw to people’s attention the men who are standing up against rape, sexual violence and the underlying ‘rape culture’ that perpetuates and excuses this behaviour.

The White Ribbon Project is just one of many platforms that are collecting and empowering men to take action.

This is not just a women’s issue

There are a lot of strong wonderful men who fight sexism in whatever its form it takes. Equally though, there are also good men who struggle with not being able to live up to their own feminist expectations.

The role of everyone, men and women alike, has to be to support these men in their efforts to tackle the rape culture that has grown into our society like weeds in a cracked pavement.

Those writing on and tackling a rape culture have to do more than just criticise boys/men. They have to inspire a new generation of men into questioning and challenging so much that they have grown up with.

It is no easy task but the endemic nature of this problem means we have to tackle it.

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The whispered words of Musa Okwonga

Part of what I do at Hynd’s blog is to try and draw to people’s attention the people, poetry and issues that are important to me.

I am fully aware how limited this platform, Hynd’s Blog, is. But still, I keep adding to this platform because if you do not dare to whisper out loud the things that are important to you, they will never be heard.

Someone who whispers with more wisdom and wit than I could ever imagine mustering is the poet and journalist, Musa Okwonga. Musa has unwittingly been on-going source of inspiration to me over the last few years.

He has a turn of phrase unmatched and yet, inexplicably, he is yet to become a household name.

Let me give you a few examples of why I think he deserves to be huge:

I spend a lot of my time trying to articulate the blight of racism in football. I struggle though, constantly, to put into words the human stories that football projects without losing the impact and influence the game holds.

In response to Roberto Carlos’ decision to walk off a pitch after a banana was thrown at him; Musa articulated these imagined thoughts of Roberto in the first person:

I am a man first, and a footballer second.  I am a grown man, not an animal, and I am not a creature on display for your entertainment.  You have come to a stadium, to watch human beings play football.  This is my place of work, and if you will treat it like a zoo, I will show that this pitch is not a cage, and I will leave it.”

And thus he treads that fine line that I so often miss.

A second example: Whenever I dare to whisper out loud about something personal to me such as my family or my partner I instantly clam up with dread. Exposing yourself on the internet’s oh so very social platforms, is something that I think people under-estimate. Just as standing on a stage to perform takes admirable courage, so I also think, writing about personal issues online does.

Musa, in an ever self-effacing way, manages to both perform and write about the most personal of issues with a confidence and coherence I cannot help but to admire. Here I would urge you to watch his performance of his poem, ‘Passport’.

But, it is when he integrates this personal with the overtly political does he really come into his own.

At this point, I would urge you to watch his performance of his poem, ‘Love versus Homophobia’. It is an articulate outpouring of anger at the ambivalence, arrogance and anger that some people hold for his understanding of love.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t think the Vatican will be playing this on loop. Nor do I think the US or UK government’s will be listening to his latest poem, ‘Monotony’.  But I leave you with this because, he has dared to whisper these words out loud not knowing who will hear them. All I can do is echo them and ask you to do the same.

This is our monotony:
They bring the most hateful of rainfalls,
And don’t make apologies:
They send storms from the jaws of a drone
To slay those who’d take the USA off its throne –
So each day, we’re preparing for rain;
For these drops not of water
But rage;
Wait –
All you’ll hear is the hum as they’re closing
A teenaged male isn’t safe in the open –
So we’ve taught them to run,
Our daughters and sons –
Taught them something most terrible:
That here in Yemen, it is never wise
To gaze up and daydream into our own skies:
This is –
The only way, we are told;
That’s not so bad as it goes:
No:
Shattered bone,
Shattered hope,
Shattered homes,
We all raise our eyes at the drones –
And so:
In many decades, our youth will explain
Why, when about town, they still walk with necks craned

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Filed under sexuality, Social comment, Spoken Word

The EDL is like the fluff that collects in my belly button

Dwelling on the EDL instead of Englishness as a whole is like meeting someone who is interesting and beautiful but only being interested in their belly button fluff.

English Defence League supporters protest against Islam after the murder of Lee Rigby in Woolwich

Photograph: Rob Pinney/Demotix/Corbis

The week’s papers have been filled by that notorious minority that have so abused the term ‘English’ – the English Defence League (EDL).  The same merry band of men who purport to defend ‘Englishness’ whilst with no sense of irony, exerting – and I use this next phrase carefully – a degree of ‘fuckwittery’ that most people in England find as repulsive as they do alien.

Watching a video of one of these men taking to the streets of Newcastle to tell “the Black cunts to go home” I felt a small bit of my soul crumble.  Watching it I desperately waited for someone in the crowd to pipe up with a retort such as, “What about Ashley Cole…or Oona King, or…Kelly Holmes, Lewis Hamilton, Lennox Lewis or John Barnes? Do they all have to ‘go home’?”

Alas, it never came.

However much we would like to pretend otherwise though, this merry band of fuck wits who fall under the sloppy title of the EDL to regurgitate their hatred and hyperbole are also part of ‘English culture’ – a culture that we all part of.

To deny them their place in contemporary English culture is to play into their idiotic rhetoric that ‘Englishness’ can somehow be defined by one group or persons’ understanding of morality.

Like it or not, the EDL are (a small) part of contemporary English culture.

We don’t however, despite what the front pages of the tabloids would have you believe, have to dwell on this one nasty bit of our culture.

Let me illustrate…

If I was to go on a first date, I probably wouldn’t show my date the little bit of fluff that seems to habitually collect in my belly button. That would be as disgusting as it would probably give my date the wrong impression of me.

In the same way, we don’t have to constantly project our far-right thugs into the international limelight.

On this hypothetical first date however, I might, if I was feeling lucky, flash my date a quick smile. Again, it doesn’t define me, but it is much more likely to set a good impression than picking the fluff out of my belly button.

In England, I think we have thousands of cheeky smiles that I would love the world to see more often. So, in a week where the world has focused in our metaphorical belly button fluff I thought I would show you one or two of our cheeky smiles.

The first example comes in this heart-warming story from York. After hearing news that the EDL were planning a protest outside the local mosque, people scrambled to…make tea. The Guardian reports:

“A York mosque dealt with a potentially volatile situation after reports that it was going to be the focus of a demonstration organised by a far-right street protest movement – by inviting those taking part in the protest in for tea and biscuits.”

The story gets better with the little details. The report goes onto say:

“tensions were rapidly defused over tea and plates of custard creams, followed by an impromptu game of football”

Football and custard creams – how very very English!

Carrying on the food based theme (who says that the English don’t have a wonderful cuisine!), the second story comes from my home shire – Gloucestershire – and is based around the county’s finest product – Double Gloucester Cheese.

While hundreds of EDL supporters rallied outside 10 downing street to blame Islam for the Woolwich attacks, a few thousand Brits alongside a few hundred “foreigners” turned up to Cooper’s Hill in Gloucestershire to chase after wheels of Double Gloucester cheese.

I struggle to think of a more wonderful juxtaposition of illustrations of ‘English culture’. One on the capitol’s streets with half-pissed middle-aged men shouting slogans that condemn a faith that some 3 million fellow Brits peacefully follow with all the anger and arrogance they can muster; while the other sees thousands of people running down a near vertical muddy slope chasing a piece of cheese with nothing in their cider confused mind other than to have a good time.

I know which part of these contrasting glances at English culture I want the world to see.

The question then is simple, why do we focus in on, worry about, and obsess over England’s belly button fluff when it has such a winning smile?

England doesn’t just have a nice smile, it is also has a rich history, a melting pots of faiths, languages  and cuisines that collectively contribute to what makes it the country it is today. We should celebrate this.

Read my poetic take on Englishness here

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Filed under Food and Drink, Gloucestershire, Media, Social comment

An Englishness that appeals to me

Traditionally I was one who would rather sit on the fence,
take it or leave it I wasn’t concerned to jump to the defence,
of this rather dense idiotic abstract notion of Englishness,
but like a true Brit, against the odds, I defend this underdog.

Like it’s a demi-god I worship that afternoon cup of tea,
the crashing sea that laps up onto our shores for an eternity,
our punctuality, our sense of hospitality and our individuality,
this is what makes pride pulse through me, not the EDL’s idiocy.

You see, when those EDL thugs takes to the streets, to shout,
that those Muslims don’t know what Englishness is about.
What do we see, but those Muslims responding with, cups of tea.
What a fucking beautiful sight to see, an Englishness that appeals to me.

At the same time I listen to the EDL shouts, of ‘get those black cunts out’
and because they are defiantly not racist they clarify it aint the blacks,
they just seem to attract the flak, it’s those immigrants we want to go back,
it’s all those god-damn Pakistanis, corner shop owners, the free-loaders.

Well here’s the low down, and tell me if you need me to slow down,
my understanding of Englishness can be simplified to one question,
this question, asked when your chips are down and you’re nearly out is,
how’d you respond to adversity? With some anger and arrogance or…

a nice cup of tea.

Now that’s an Englishness that appeals to me.

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On happiness and being with the one you love

The candles flick in the warm breeze that circles in our courtyard. Glasses of wine sit on the table in between us as I watch with growing nerves my partner open the last of her birthday presents – the engagement ring that I have wrapped up. I had, in my mind’s eye every intention of getting down on one knee but in the end all I could manage was to meekly mutter the words, will you marry me, as she finishes unwrapping.

My nerves intermingled with a sense of excitement that I cannot do justice to with the words on this page.

Through this one symbolic, public and to become legal declaration I found a happiness that is hard to explain in any rational sense. In a way nothing has changed, we are still living together happy, content and confident about the future. But, love – and as such this declaration of love, engagement – is not rational. It is something much more special than that.

In the following 24 hours I have found an immeasurable amount of happiness at just glancing across and seeing a ring on her finger, of knowing that we have the rest of our lives together.

But in the midst of this happiness, I cannot help but to reflect on the millions of people across the world that are denied this basic happiness.

To give just three examples that spring to mind:

When I was living in the West Bank I met Palestinians who, because of the permit system that has been imposed by the Israeli government, were separated off from families and loved ones. Indeed, in January 2012, the Israeli Supreme Court endorsed a law banning Palestinians married to Israeli Arabs from obtaining Israeli citizenship or even residing in Israel.

This is an example of a state separating people who are in love, denying them the basic happiness of being together.

In my home country of the UK we have an immigration system that keeps families and loved ones apart. I won’t go into the technical details here but I would encourage you to read these testimonials of people who have had their lives ripped apart by arbitrary new immigration laws.

Once again, an example of a state separating people who are in love, denying them the basic happiness of being together.

Where I am currently living, Uganda, the state deems it illegal for couples of the same sex to not only marry, but to even be together. Uganda is just one of 76 countries around the world where homosexuality is illegal.

Once again, an example of a state separating people who are in love, denying them the basic happiness of being together.

With a small amount of research, you can find laws and customs around the world that keep millions of people apart. Why?

This is not a well researched policy blog about the need for immigration law reform, but an indignant reaction to state’s knee jerk acceptance that they have the authority to keep people who are in love apart.

I cannot explain to you the happiness that I have felt not just over the last few days, but the last decade that I have been with my now fiancé.

A happiness that I want everyone to be able to experience.

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Losing count

Speaking to no-one in particular, he says she’s spoken for,
but wanting something more her young heart breaks in two,
inside himself, to no-one else, he tells her that she’s the one,
but it’s been too long since he has spoken these three words.

Back home, she opens her mouth, and his anger and fists begin to rise,
she closes her eyes, and tries to hide, to put all of this out of her mind,
she pictures in her mind’s eye the softer touches of other calmer nights,
as she reaches out, with pleading in her eyes,  he reacts back, and

That was that. .

The morning after, her cheeks are bruised and smudged with mascara,
she goes to work and thinks of nothing but him and her cracking heart,
she knows her mind is crumbling and it’s not just her bodies that suffering,
there and then, she says, enough is enough, I won’t take this no more.

He stops in his tracks, he’s been walking the streets running from himself,
his mind is dwelling on the job he doesn’t have, and his fists are swollen,
He stops and stares, but does not dare, to dwell on his aching heart,
that is overflowing with the shame. Who is this man that he has become?

With his body numb, and this thought dwelling on his mind, tears starts roll,
down go his defences and down goes the possibility of carrying on as if nothing,
is going down. His hands tremble and his legs give way. Sitting there slumped,
he knows he can’t get much lower, and so he too decides to lift himself up.

Staring at her own front door she resolves that she’s worth something more,
turning on her heel she takes hold of herself and her trembling hands,
she strides with small steps away from her house and her home, all alone,
she walks and turns the corner of her street and her life and resolves that,

never again will he cause her mascara to streak….

Turning his keys, he realises his hands are shaking and his stomach is turning,
with flowers in hand, bought with an empty wallet he wipes away his tears,
stepping over the doormat, he resolved this would be the fresh start they need,
he drops his car keys onto an empty hallway table where her car keys should be.

The silence engulfs him. Finally, whispering to no-one, he says those three words,

she’s the one, and there and then, his heart starts to break in two.

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Respect

These are some thoughts on respect…

You talk too much about this word, respect.
You and your rude boys who run the street,
worried about getting respect in the eyes of your crew,
all the time using, abusing and excusing this notion,

respect.

You see, you neglect to respect those who walk,
on the other side of the street that you run,
you neglect to respect those who stay,
in their houses once the sun has set cos,

of your violent understanding of this term,

respect.

You see, my respect for you is gone,
when you see the street before,
the person who walks the street,
when you respect nothing but respect

You see, my respect for you is gone,
when your drive for respect sees you,
running from  another idiot with a knife
who has no understanding of this term,

respect.

So let me tell you about how I see this word,

respect.

Although it is bounded around on the street,
it starts next to the beat of a man’s heart,
you see it when you look into your own eye,
You see, it’s not about your boys or your crew,

just you.

You see respect in others who walk the street safe,
in the knowledge that their biggest concern is,
they’re latest attempt at some romancing, not,
constantly glancing, at what’s over their shoulder

Most of all though, my respect for you
rests on one simple question,
Can you hold a conversation with my ma,
with out her worrying who the fuck you are?

Cos in the end, it’s as simple as that.

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The State of Play: Education in Uganda

This is a guest post by Anya Whiteside who is the Education Advocacy Officer at the Forum for Education NGOs in Uganda (FENU).  She is also my partner and her blog can be found  here

I ask students what they think about their education in a learners workshopBack in 1997 Uganda was proud to lead the way in the provision of universal primary education. Enrollment boomed from just 2.5 to 8.8 million and this was seen by many as a major success.

Despite this seemingly rosy picture, Uganda is a clear example of how focus on access to education alone is not the be all and end all and is not the same as a good education.

It is generally recognised that in Uganda education is in crisis, a crisis that needs urgent action.

Although enrollment has remained high the drop-out rates in Uganda are also high. Uganda’s completion rates in primary education are only 25%. This is compared to 84% in Kenya, 81% in Tanzania and 74% in Rwanda.

Even for the minority of children who stay in school in Uganda the picture is not much better. A report recently released by the government confirms what teachers, politicians, parents and children already know; that even children who stay in school are not learning.

The NAPE report states that for P6 pupils who are at the end of primary school, only 45% of them have reached proficiency in numeracy and only 41% in literacy. As the report starkly puts it ‘less than a half of the P6 pupils have mastered most of the competencies in the P6 curriculum’.

Most worrying of all the results show that education results aren’t improving, and are worse than the results in 2009.

There is not doubt that Ugandan education faces many challenges. Uganda has the second youngest population in the world with 55% of the population under 18 years. When universal primary education was introduced children flooded in to access ‘free’ education with schools and teachers overwhelmed. There are no-where near enough teachers, classrooms, books or sanitation facilities to teach all these children.

It is not uncommon to have teachers attempting to teach classes of over 100 and children taking it in turns to use a pencil. Children often come to school without lunch and so are sat all afternoon hungrily waiting for the end of the day.

But political will is also an important element in this. The percentage share of the Uganda national budget dedicated to education has fallen from 17% in 2007/8 to 15% for 2013/14.

This situation is likely to only get worse after aid donors pulled out after allegations of corruption by the prime ministers office, leaving sizable holes in the education budget.

Funding to government primary schools comes in the form of a grant given per child, per year to each school. On average this is 5,000 Ush (about £1.25) per child per year, so it is unsurprising schools charge parents significant, often unaffordable extras for books and uniforms.

Unlike other countries, where even if they are not paid enough teachers are afforded at least some degree of respect in the local community, in Uganda teachers are considered socially at the bottom of the pile. In government primary schools teachers are paid an average of 260,000Ush a term (£65 a term).

To give you some context, VSO gives me a stipend of 895,000Ush (£223) a month which is meant to cover my basic living costs, excluding accommodation. So you can see that being a teacher is not exactly economically desirable.

When you add to that the appalling delays that teachers experience, waiting months for their salaries due to inefficiencies, it is unsurprising that teachers often don’t turn up or have additional jobs on the side.

Teachers are also not given good training and the style of teaching is extremely reliant on teaching by rote. A colleague of mine told me how she sat in on a teacher training course where the lecturer, with no irony, started by saying ‘in teaching the most important thing is to be interactive and not just talk at students’ and then proceeded to talk at the teachers for several hours.

Teachers are rarely, if ever, inspected and there is little support or ongoing training. On top of this they are blamed consistently for the poor state of education in Uganda – no wonder no one wants to be a teacher!

So is there any hope for education in Uganda?

I would argue that there is, based on all the people I have met who are dedicated to improving education. Everyone knows what the problems in education are and the buzz-word at the moment is ‘quality’ education.

The organisation I work for (FENU) helped to set up the new ‘Parliamentary forum on quality education’. A few weeks ago FENU coordinated the first ever ‘Quality Public Education Week’ which saw Anglican, Catholic and Islamic leaders (70% of schools are linked to religious institutions) come together with trade unionists and politicians. This focus on quality is important, especially as it moves away from only focusing on getting more children into school and also looks at the education those children are receiving.

There are so many different challenges to education here, and I haven’t even touched on child labour, gender inequalities, capital punishment, secondary schooling or vocational training.

Nonetheless there are inspiring people working for change, and no end to the children keen to learn if they are only given the opportunity to do so.

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Filed under Politics, Social comment, Uganda

The imperfect feminist

I sometimes don’t call myself a feminist. Now, don’t get me wrong…I passionately believe in equality and will fight misogyny until my last breath. But, I still sometimes feel uncomfortable with calling myself a feminist for two reasons.

Firstly, the term is used and abused, it is kicked around to such an extent it can lose all value. What people hear when I say I am a feminist is more a reflection on that person than it is on me. Secondly, and this is hard for me to write, I know I don’t always live up to the standards that I set myself as a ‘feminist’.

It is this second point that I am going to take up in this article whilst at the same time hoping to offer a partial definition of how I see feminism.

Feminism, in my mind at least, is a negative principle – one that says your gender or sex should not stand in your way due to another person or groups prejudice. Being a feminist therefore, involves tackling this prejudice wherever you experience it.

It is in this sense that I aspire to be a feminist but I know I too often fail.

We do not live in a meritocracy – anyone who argues we do is either delusional or an idiot, or both. Women meet obstacles in their paths that men simply do not.

The more I think about it, the more intimidating it is to call myself a feminist. When you start to look, you begin to see what stands in the way of gender equality. The more you look, the more you see what needs challenging – this often includes your own friends and family.

Imagine you’re sitting in a pub with men start making inappropriate comments about a barmaid who looks uncomfortable but stands there because it is her job to stand there. What do you do? The person looking for an easy life blocks it out and enjoys their pint. The feminist finds a way to tackle the situation – not an easy thing to do!

Now imagine that it’s a mate or a family member making the comment, it then becomes even harder to tackle the situation.

I am the first to hold my hands up and say that I am not brave enough to always put my beliefs into action. Equally, I do not judge others who also fail. I, like many other men, too often take the easy route out, silence.

At least I sometimes spot the ‘situation’ even if I do not always act on it. I know many men who simply don’t spot the things they should be challenging.

For example, many male friends of mine would intervene if they saw a guy hitting a girl – rightly so. But, these same men would not think twice though about using sexist and discriminatory language that both perpetuates and justifies such overtly sexist behaviour.

Part of what defines me as feminist though, is being able to acknowledge my own and others imperfections whilst still striving for something better.

Like society I am aware that I have a long way to go fulfil the feminist goal – breaking down any obstacle that stands in the way of someone because of their gender. But feminism, if it is anything, has to be seen as a tool, a means in which to work towards this goal.

I know we are not very close to this goal and I know that society and I need to move a long way to get there. But I guess that is at least part of what makes me a feminist.

And so I finish this post by saying, ‘Yes I am a feminist’ but only in my own imperfect sense of the word.

This post was inspired by the writings and thoughts of Musa Okwonga on feminism.

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A response to: “May the wicked scum responsible for bombing the Boston marathon rot in hell”

This a guest post by my very good friend, Mike Assenti.

Yesterday someone I have a great deal of respect for posted the following on Facebook not long after the news broke of the Boston Marathon bombing:

“May the wicked scum responsible for bombing the Boston marathon rot in hell.”

This really pissed me off.

Far be it from me to undermine the serious and tragic nature of this horrific act – having run a couple of half marathons I know very well the fantastic and generous atmosphere of these sporting events, and can think of few times when so many people who have worked so hard to raise money for charity are all gathered in one place. At the time of writing, 3 people have died and over 150 have been injured, many terribly, and I feel nothing but compassion and pity for those affected. However, something about the extremity of the hate in this kneejerk reaction has really gotten under my skin, particularly given my affection for the person concerned. Unfortunately, they are far from alone, and so this blogpost is an attempt to counter the attitudes present in this and many other reactions to these and similar events.

There are a number of issues here, one of which is the general response to atrocities that take place in the West compared with the far more everyday occurrences elsewhere in the world. In the run up to elections this weekend in Iraq, a spate of car bombs have killed dozens (http://goo.gl/22imY), and injured hundreds more, but the mundanity of these events demotes the story way below Boston and Thatcher, and I have no reason to think that it won’t continue to do so.

I can’t remember seeing a single Facebook update from my friends or family on these bombings. To be clear, I am not making any sort of judgment on those people who have not erupted in outpourings of sympathy for those victims in Iraq – I am as guilty as anyone else of allowing the whole event to pass by as another unfortunate background event. Lurking somewhere in the back of my head is the Scroobius Pip lyric from ‘Thou Shalt Always Kill’ (http://goo.gl/JFGV)

“Thou shalt give equal worth to tragedies that occur in non-English speaking countries, as to those that occur in English speaking countries”.

Another issue is the condemnation of this attack when considered next to other, ongoing killings, such as continuing US drone strikes. This is summarised, amongst other related issues, far more eloquently by Glenn Greenwald in his first point from this article: http://goo.gl/wKgbK. He writes,

…”it was really hard not to find oneself wishing that just a fraction of that compassion and anger be devoted to attacks that the US perpetrates rather than suffers. These are exactly the kinds of horrific, civilian-slaughtering attacks that the US has been bringing to countries in the Muslim world over and over and over again for the last decade, with very little attention paid.”

There are a number of pretty astonishing statistics when you look at the death tolls from US drone strikes, not least the 174 children killed in drone strikes in Pakistan alone over the last decade (http://goo.gl/QU1qi). The quantities of these attacks have ballooned under Obama’s presidency, no doubt devastating countless lives and families, the vast majority of which are civilians caught in the crossfire. Should President Obama be held accountable for these deaths? There’s certainly a strong argument that he should, but until recently the silence on the issue of the very principle of these drone strikes has been deafening.

I think that the most important part of this is the need to refrain from jumping to conclusions before there is sufficient evidence to form an opinion. Already many in the American media have been unable to resist speculating whether this is an Islamic Jihadi attack (http://goo.gl/tVtz6) in the same vein as 9/11, despite there currently being no evidence to support this. Having said that, the sheer lack of evidence so far in this incident means that most have little choice but to remain open minded at this point. We simply do not know who set off these bombs or why they did so.

In Norway in 2011, Anders Breivik set off a car bomb killing 8 people, and shot a further 69 at a youth camp, most of which were teenagers. In response to his ultra-right wing views and apparent lack of remorse during his fair and open trial, the vast majority of Norwegian people displayed astonishing courage and conviction by maintaining their support for the democracy and tolerance to which Breivik was so opposed (http://goo.gl/ZRF1H). They reacted to a terrible tragedy calmly and sensibly, with compassion for the victims and justice for the perpetrator (true justice, not a mob lynching), and in doing so displayed remarkable strength as a society.

Whatever the investigation into these bombings reveals, it is likely that the reasons behind this attack are complex and multi-faceted. Obama’s drone program takes place for a multitude of reasons, many of which would seem reasonable to those of us in the West, but likely less so to the victims of a drone strike.

In my personal opinion, little is gained from the expression of hate by ANY party, whether verbally or through violence. The attack on Boston last weekend was a despicable, tragic, pointless act, and those responsible must face justice in a fair, transparent way with all of the complex evidence present, whoever they are. Similarly, we must try to look through this same prism when considering these other acts around the world, regardless of their frequency, and regardless of who commits such acts. Better still, the people of Norway have demonstrated that it is possible to do so with courage and magnanimity even in the face of great tragedy and loss.

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Filed under Far-right politics, Human rights, Middle East, Politics, Social comment

The freedom to insult those in mourning

Liverpool fans hold up a banner during the club's match against ReadingThe Guardian reports that:

Commander Christine Jones… warned that officers had power under the controversial section 5 of the Public Order Act to step in if non-violent action was the cause of “harassment, alarm or distress” as Thatcher’s coffin makes its way through London to St Paul’s Cathedral.”

So what constitutes causing “harassment, alarm or distress”?

Section 5 of the Public Order Act defines it saying:

Harassment, alarm or distress. (1) A person is guilty of an offence if he —
(a) uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or
(b) displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting,
within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.”

Any thinking person can see problems with this definition. Which is why the word ‘insulting’ will soon be removed from the act altogether. 

Assuming that the Commander was not referring to the concept of being insulted, which will soon cease to be illegal, we can assume she was suggesting that people could be arrested for being ‘threatening or abusive’.

But, she also clearly states that she was referring to those practising ‘non-violent action’. What does she imagine will constitute ‘threatening and abusive’ behaviour that could also be described as ‘non-violent’?

Of course there may be examples of non-violent threatening and abusive behaviour. I disagreed with liberal blogger Sunny Hundal when he argued that the now infamous ‘My Tram Experience’ rant was not threatening or abusive. I think those around her did feel threatened and potentially abused.

Commander Jones’ comments though are in the context of protestors planning to turn their backs on the coffin as it passes and to organise a “right jolly knees up”. Both actions could insult people, and I would argue are disrespectful and unhelpful, but cannot be interpreted as ‘threatening or abusive’.

Which leads me to the only logical conclusion available; the Commander was referring to the soon to be obsolete ‘insulting’ section of the act.

She has given a public warning to those planning to protest (which we should remember is their right to do) that they may be arrested for simply insulting someone.

Everyone from staunch Thatcherites through to liberal lefties should be up in arms about this. It simply cannot be justified for the police to make any arrests under this outdated and discredited clause.

We all have the freedom to insult those in morning – it is up to the individual, not the state, whether or not we exercise this freedom.

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Thatcher is dead, but Thatcherism is alive: If only it could be the other way round

So thousands of views later and literally hundreds of messages (most of which assume I am some sort of die hard Thatcherite) about my original post I feel like it is time to respond.

I believe in freedom of speech – passionately so. If you want to tweet about Thatcher within hours of her death, then knock yourself out – it’s your right.  This, in line with my freedom of thought, does not stop me thinking that you are tasteless to show such little remorse or humility in the light of a person’s death.

There is little politically that Thatcher did that I agreed with. But I am not about to spend my time jumping up and down on her grave (or tweeting not very good jokes) about her. People are in mourning for fucks sake.

Her life and now her death were political and many think that justifies a public argument within seconds of her death. Personally I take her death as a reminder that behind every politician is just an ordinary person that has friends, family and yes….even emotions.

Imagine if you will that your mother had just died, would you appreciate this sort of public reaction?

Ah, but as Mark Steel tweeted “It’s fair to complain about my lack of compassion, if you have no compassion for victims of apartheid, Pinochet, sinking of Belgrano…” Grow the fuck up. ‘She showed no remorse to others so I can’t show her any remorse’ …really? What playschool of ethics did you attend Mark?

Using her death as a political football moves us no closer to dismantling the toxic legacy that she left.

This though can wait until another day.

For now, my thoughts go out to all those who knew her and are mourning their loss.

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Thatcher dies and the left responds

Mark Ferguson tweeted within seconds of Thatcher’s death:

Sadly, many on the left seem to have missed this:

By 4:36pm #dingdongthewitchisdead was trending across the globe. Others contributed:

https://twitter.com/ChiTownPhilly/status/321285725205184512

https://twitter.com/BritJohnny/status/321234593887956993

I will continue to add to this list throughout the day….

* For clarity, I don’t think this is a left right thing, but a decency thing. This is why I put together this article.

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Hollie McNish on mathematics and immigration

Some things are worth sharing…

This is from UK poet Hollie McNish on mathematics and immigration. Have a watch:

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Filed under Economics, Social comment