Category Archives: Politics

In or Out? An historic day.

Today is an important day. As you will probably be aware, it is the day of the EU referendum in the UK, where we decide whether or not we still want to be a member state of the European Union. As I went to vote on my way home from work this evening, I felt somewhat nervous, as I got the sense that I was taking part in something that will become a part of British and indeed world history. There was an aspect of fear, of whether I was making the correct choice, and of whether the decision that the country votes for will be the correct one in the long run.

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I have been undecided for a long time regarding the way that I was going to vote, but at the same time have known deep down the way I was going to go since the outset. I think it would surprise my younger self though. The thing that has annoyed me about the whole thing is that way that the immigration card has been played continually, and how people seem to think that pulling out will allow us to magically solve the problem.  If the country can loose track of several thousand people, why would this be any different if we pull out? Will border control suddenly be able to count again? No. Of course not. It is just closet and not-so-closeted racism on a scale that allows it to become legitimate. Our country has always been intimately entwined with the wider continent, and it is foolish that people should think it right for it to be any different. Hell, trace any ‘British’ person’s ancestry back, and you’ll find French, Germanic, Danish, etc. We’re all European, however much we may not like it.

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Tolerant traffic lights

Last Saturday was an annual event that I look forward to but which is pure torture for my wife, and which she falls asleep during most years. I’m talking about the camp kitsch-fest, the Eurovision* Song Contest. This year, it was hosted in Austria, and to celebrate the bearded lady who won last year, new traffic lights have been installed around Vienna that celebrate diversity and LGBT couples. There has been some controversy surrounding the cost of installing these new lights around the city, but they have been embraced by locals and are going to be rolled out to other cities across Austria. Personally, I think that they are a great idea, and wish that such things could be found here in the UK. I fear though that here there would be too much backlash, or they would be vandalised by individuals with too much testosterone and too much prejudice in their system to think straight (or in this case, think too straight). Despite the image that this country tries to maintain, we will never be comfortable enough and inclusive enough to institutionalise such views without falling foul of someone who can’t see past the stigma and who does not understand humanity in all of its many possibilities.

The new lights, depicting both hetero- and homosexual couples

The new lights, depicting both hetero- and homosexual couples


* Yes, I know that it was the 60th Contest, but how does that validate the inclusion of Australia? And since when have Azerbaijan and Israel been part of Europe?

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Life update #14.5

I’ve just realised after typing that last post why I’ve been feeling so morose. That bloody election result. It’s still bugging me, and it made me realise that I hate people. Five years of crap, and so what shall we do? Vote for five years of the same crap again. Why thank you very much.

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By Gove! I MUST apologise!

Following on from my post two days ago regarding Michael Gove and his horrendous idea for the GCSE English Literature syllabus, I must issue a correction and an apology. That great sociologist and educational reformer (cough) was not saying that American literature should be banned from the curriculum, but rather that there should be… well. I’ll quote from the DfE:

“It doesn’t ban any authors, books or genres. It does ensure pupils will learn about a wide range of literature, including at least one Shakespeare play, a 19th century novel written anywhere and post-1914 fiction or drama written in the British Isles.”

This new criteria also includes Romantic poetry, which is fine- but not a great vote-winner with teenagers, to be brutally honest. The Great Reformer (for it is he) has also said:

“I have not banned anything. Nor has anyone else. All we are doing is asking exam boards to broaden – not narrow – the books young people study for GCSE.”

Riiiight. So the possibility of studying a post-1914 US text still stands then, does it? Thought not. I can see their point that ‘Of Mice and Men’ is studied by the vast majority of schools, and that many students read this and no other novel whilst at school, with very few (around 1%) studying ‘Pride and Prejudice’, for example, but- I still don’t like the approach that has been taken.

Oh- wasn’t this meant to be an apology to someone who will never ever read or know of the existence of this blog? Okay- I’m sorry that I didn’t read all of the facts first. Big slap on the wrists for naughty little me. But everything I said in that previous post still stands. And I still think that Gove is a dick.

Image: stiffstiches.com

Image: stiffstiches.com

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The death of the Mockingbird (or ‘The best laid plans…’)

I dislike Michael Gove for a number of reasons. For one, he is a Tory. Also, as a member of staff in a secondary school, I can see first-hand just what an adverse effect some of his ideas and policies are having on the school, the teachers’ moral, and the students’ stress levels. However, as has been widely reported in the media over the last few days, he’s now decided that English Literature should be buggered about with. However, as with his views on the History syllabus several months back that got the country seething, this worries me due to its narrow, blinkered, and agenda-laden undercurrents.

It has long been part of the English GCSE syllabus taught in many English (state) schools that literature from other cultures and societies is compared and contrasted with that from our own. For example, when I was dong my GCSE’s, I studied a cluster of poems called ‘Poems from other Cultures’, which included works written by English speakers round the globe, and focussed upon issues that affected the society in which they wrote, such as apartheid, the Vietnam War (and its effects upon the Vietnamese people), superstition in an Indian village and homesickness when moving from the Caribbean. I also studied both modern and classic English/Irish poetry, John Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’, J.B.Priestley’s ‘An Inspector Calls’ and R.L.Stevenson’s ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’. It is perhaps clear from this little list that the focus of these texts was upon those written by English writers. Having just assisted several Y10 students through their GCSE English Literature papers, I can attest to the even greater focus upon English writers now, with the poetry not taking the form of two clusters, with one being foreign, but one cluster with predominantly English writers in it. The books studied are the same as those I studied, but again here the weighting is clearly 2:1 in favour of British writers (Stevenson being Scottish- he may class as foreign soon, I don’t know). However, Gove in his wisdom has decided that there is too much focus upon American texts such as ‘Of Mice and Men’, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and ‘The Crucible’, and these should be taken off the paper in favour of all English texts. Now- okay, I can sort of see his point: not enough students are interested in or know much about the English ‘greats’ such as Austen and Dickens, and they should learn about our own cultural heritage before concerning themselves with other people’s. However, this falls down for me in several ways. From the practical point of view, Dickens is loooonnnnngggggggg. Apart from the Christmas stories, Dickens wasn’t really known for writing concise works, due in part to their initial publication in serial form. This means that it would be impossible to study an entire text of Dickens at GCSE due to the other constraints of the course and the teaching schedules of schools, meaning that students would need to be taught key passages of chapters and have to fill in the blanks with brief summaries, or read the text in their own time (which many students wouldn’t bother doing). As such, it would not be possible for the overall feel of the text to be gleaned, or for themes, images and ideas to be traced effectively through the course of the text. ‘Of Mice and Men’, on the other hand, is a short text. It is easy enough to read in class, with a plot that can be held in the head amongst the million and one other exam topics that students have to memorise, and enough themes and literary devices to fill several exercise book of essays. It is a good text that easily grabs students attention, proves popular, and is a jewel to write about. However classic they may be, Dickens and Austen are not quite as student (and more importantly teen) friendly- pick the wrong text, and you could nurture a hatred of literature that could last a lifetime, rather than inspiring a love that lasts a lifetime.

However, the thing that bothers me more is the problems that such Anglo-centric teaching could cause. I also hold this view on the focusing of the History syllabus on the ‘Great’ in Great Britain, which brings this in nicely. It is a plain fact that Britain is a multi-cultural nation. There is no getting away from this, and is indeed something to be celebrated rather than derided, as some political parties seem to think. As a result, many children in our schools do not come from British backgrounds, and so by focussing the curriculum solely upon the British Isles, there is the very strong possibility of isolating a very big part of the school community. Do students whose families have come over to Britain following the outbreak of war in Afghanistan and Iraq wish to sit through a History lesson where theory hear how ‘Great’ Britain was when it had an Empire and ruled their homelands? Or would people wish to study world history that focusses upon the positives and negatives of a nation, period or event, rather than a biased victors tale? They say that history is written by those who win, but that does not mean to say that we should take this a Gospel. Good history involves the criticism of evidence and the balancing of facts. That is what history does. It is unbiased, and does not plug an agenda. If teachers now are unlikely to praise the leaders of Britain in the World Wars, it is not due to a lack of pride in the nation, but rather down to their ability to understand that what these great people may have done in the past was no always right. We can learn from the past and our mistakes. Should we teach that Hague was a good general who won the Battle of the Somme, and cover up the thousands of Allied and German dead, or should we assess how well he did his job, looking at both the positives and the negatives in order to make an informed decision? By removing this option from students through the glorification of our national past, we are doing our young people a disservice, and taking away from them an important life skill, of being able to critically interpret evidence and information to make their own interpretations and conclusions rather than blindly following one course and one message. Or is that what the Government want?

In Gove’s manifesto on History, he also claimed that we as a nation should be proud of the Empire that we once owned an the position that we held on the world stage. Well- I’m sure that UKIP and the BNP would love that view of our past, but it is incredibly naïve and somewhat foolish. It is difficult to read an anthropological ethnography such as Evans-Pritchard or Malinowski without finding the shadow of Colonialism looming omnipresent and yet unmentioned over the texts. Much 20th century anthropology is tinted with its effects or after-effects, and indeed many of the world problems are due to the repercussions independence has had on these countries. We would be blind to try and pretend that the time of Empire was one of fearless explorers claiming savage lands for Queen and country, rather than seeing it for the danger, violence, barbarity (on our part as colonial overlords) and cultural repression that it was. Read ‘Heart of Darkness’, ffs.

Another thing that Anthropology teaches us is that to understand ourselves as people and as a society, we need to first understand the world. This is where Gove and his removal of American literature from the syllabus falls flat. Yes, we need to learn about our own culture in order to appreciate it, of course we do- but we also need to understand and appreciate other cultures in a reciprocal manner, to learn and grow as people. We can learn lesson from American and German, Chinese and African literature that we never could from our own. We use the Greek and Roman Classics as the foundation stones to much or our culture an society- should we dispense with these too? The key thing that Gove seems to be missing out, is that English Literature is not the study of Literature that is English (if it was, then we couldn’t study Yeats, or Heaney, or Stevenson), but the study of Literature written or translated into English. We should embrace and value the diversity and colour of language and the written word, and foster this passion and love in our pupils and students and children, not whitewash it.

Just one last point. Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’ is set after a global economic recession, and focusses upon two itinerant farm workers on what are effectively zero-hour contracts, unable to move socially and unable to reach their goal and dream of owning their own property. The work suggests that dreams and ambitions are useless and futile, with circumstance being the cause of people’s misfortune rather than the desire and perseverance of the individual. Gove wants to drop this. Go figure.

Image: timeshighereducation.co.uk

Image: timeshighereducation.co.uk

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Books from the past few weeks

A few more books purchased over the past couple of weeks:

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  • Mary Wolstonecraft –  A Vindication of the Rights of Men & A Vindication of the Rights of Woman     50p
  • Iain Banks –  The Wasp Factory     40p
  • Oscar Wilde –  The Happy Prince     20p
  • Ernest Hemingway –  The Old Man and the Sea     99p
  • Jeanette Winterson –  Sexing the Cherry     50p
  • Virago at 40: A Celebration     50p
  • George and Weedon Grossmith –  The Diary of a Nobody     50p
  • Laurie Lee –  Cider with Rosie     50p
  • S.E. Hinton –  The Outsiders     Free (swapped with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland)
  • Ross Raisin –  God’s Own Country     Free (swapped with Through the Looking Glass)

The last two came from a book swap we’ve had at work for the past week, and I swapped my individual copies of Lewis Carroll’s wonderful work, as I’ve also got an Oxford Classics edition with both volumes in one book.

Interestingly, the Hinton book is one that I recognised but didn’t know why, and eventually realised it’s because I’d seen it advertised on the Penguin Classics website. This, however, is a Puffin edition, which I thought was interesting, showing again that the distinction between children’s books and adult texts is often blurred. I feel that I should do a post about that soon.

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A big thumbs up to Google- Winter Olympics 2014

It can’t have escaped the attention of many people that the XXII Winter Olympics have begun in Sotchi, Russia, and that there has been a large amount of tension due to the ridiculous, barbaric and utterly repulsive anti-homosexuality laws that their ruling dictatorship has put in place. So yesterday I was impressed and warmed by the actions of Google, who in their usual fashion produced a ‘Google Doodle’ to celebrate the opening of the games, but which looked like this:

2014-winter-olympics-

Image: google.co.uk

In an incredibly bold move, they used the colours of the LGBT flag as the background to the Doodle, blatently showing their support for all athletes, irrespective of their sexuality. Similarly, the broadcaster of the Winter Games in the UK, Channel 4, have had a rebrand for all of their coverage:

Channel 4 LGBT

Image: theguardian.com

Indeed, Channel 4 have gone even further, placing an advert at the beginning of all of their coverage with a cabaret singer performing a song that celebrates diversity and wishes the athletes of any orientation good luck in the games. It is insanely camp, but a rather disturbing and yet joyful two-fingers to those who have a problem with other people on shallow and prejudiced grounds.

However, the biggest thumbs up has to go to the German athletes, who entered the Winter Olympic stadium like this:

Image: huffingtonpost.com

Image: huffingtonpost.com

They are not following the LGBT flag exactly, but you can see where they are going with this, and it seems that the rest of the world was clear on the message that the team were giving.

In 2014, there is little room for such intolerance, prejudice, small-mindedness and simple hatred of our fellow human beings. Hopefully through such bold acts as these, certain individuals and groups may open their eyes to the reality of our present world, where people and nations are valued for who they are and who they can be, rather than judged on baseless propaganda and hatred for not conforming and being different. We all know where it got us in WWII, when prejudice and irrationality took hold over common sense, compassion, decency and morality.

To end, a quote from the Olympic Charter, which accompanied the Google Doodle on Google’s homepage yesterday:

 “The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.”

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Political intolerance

Before I start this post, I will say that this is based on personal observation and opinion- so don’t moan at me for what I say!

The reason that I’m writing this is because yesterday I came across an interesting string of comments regarding a uni friend’s choice of political party, and found the whole episode irritating to say the least. This was for two reasons: 1) Their grasp of British politics was rather shaky, despite professing that they knew what they were talking about, and  2) I am now unsure how their staunch views affect my relationship with them, as I would be a prime example of someone their party wouldn’t like.  Now, let me explain.

I am a supporter of the UK’s Labour Party- I do not hide this fact. However, I can see that other parties leaders may have been decent in the past and done their jobs well. For example, I can see that for the most part, Churchill was a good leader and Prime Minister during WWII, but this would not make me instantly vote Tory or Liberal, even though he belonged to both of these parties at various points of his career.  I say this because the said Facebook rant seemed to take the line that because Margaret Thatcher had been an effectual leader and caused a change for the better in an Eastern Block country, then the party she belonged to would therefore be the best thing for the UK 20 years later. Just by reading that, you can probably see the flaw in the reasoning. It wasn’t that no knowledge of politics was exhibited per se, but it showed a lack of knowledge and regard for the country- any argument made against this view that tried to show the way people are worse off under the present Lib/Con coalition was ignored or attacked on personal grounds. Now, personal attacks are not okay in political debates or discussions and have no place in politics. However, the lack of seeming regard for the fact that many areas of the UK are in poverty, with families living on the ‘bread line’ and unable to find work or any form of help under the present government, seemed to me insulting. As I said above, the fact that a past Tory leader may have been good for another country does not mean that the present Tory party’s policies are good for the country now in the present. The cuts the coalition has made so far hit the people at the bottom of the social pile first and the hardest. Rather than cutting the bonuses that banks and the BBC are allowed to give to present and former, ineffectual and disgraced chiefs, the government would prefer to cut benefits to those worst off, or make people in council housing pay more rent by giving them less housing benefit if they are deemed to have too many bedrooms. They would prefer to pay several billion pounds on a high-speed rail network (‘HS2’) that is not needed and would only benefit a select few, and make it easier for big businesses to pay no tax through loopholes in the law than  give help to those millions of families who need it. For someone who has only ever seen the privileged, middle-class side of the UK and has only spent time with middle class individuals from the ‘Oxford Bubble’, the cuts by the government may seem to have no relevance or may not matter, but I can personally see the effect that such stupid policies have in an area such as Stoke-on-Trent. Which leads me on to the second point that I detailed at the beginning of this post.

As previous posts have alluded to, I have studied at Oxford, but come from a working class background in a dead city. It is frustrating that as a write this, I am currently without a job and my family is scraping by on several forms of benefit. I am not proud of this, and as I have said before, my partner and myself aim to make the most of our life for the sake of our own happiness and for our children’s future- we want to return to university at Oxford, and then write, lecture and be successful sociologists  and priests (my partner); archaeologists and poets (myself). However that is the state at present, and the current government are making the situation worse for us. Now, in posting the views regarding the Tories as mentioned above, and by ignoring the effect their policies are having on those less well off in society, I cannot help but feel as though my friend shares the Conservative view of people of benefits and those at the bottom of the heap. Am I in a situation of my own making? Should I have to carry out community service for every penny of my Jobseekers, which I could end up doing, instead of carrying out volunteer work at excavations to gain important skills that could give me the experience that allows me to apply for the jobs that I hope to do? I cannot help but feel that this is how they silently view me; as a chav with kids who’s arsing around instead of working, or as a scrounger who should help myself instead of being helped. Perhaps I shouldn’t have even been to Oxford, coming from a working class area. Here, I could start with the Labour propaganda, as it is thanks to them and their introduction of Student Loans that I was able to go to uni; in much the same way as the Facebook comments suggested Thatcher should be lauded for making it possible to reach the University of Oxford from Eastern Europe.* However, I had hoped that my friends knew my family and I better; taking us for who we are and not what the government may say we are. It saddens me, and frankly hurts.

I do not have a problem with people holding different views to mine, whether this be political or religious. I just don’t like it when it is ill-thought out and personally insulting. Anyhoo- feel free to comment on here or on the Electric Puppet Facebook page. I would love your input.

Thatcher cartoon

Image: Shooty/Caglecartoons.com

* I could also add that Labour’s Student Loans made it possible for foreign Tories to study here… but I won’t.

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Egypt and the threat that won’t go away

https://www.facebook.com/StopTheHeritageDrain

I am currently in the process of looking up some information for another blog post when I came across the above page on Facebook. Following on from the vaguely optimistic post I published regarding the mess that Egypt is in at present, there is a Facebook page dedicated to disseminating images of stolen antiquities and artifacts from museums within the country in the hope that these can be tracked down and returned. All of these have been stolen since the start of the civil unrest, on a scale that seems ridiculous. And there is nothing that we can really do to stop it. It saddens me that transient political disagreements in the present should have such a fierce effect upon the past; we should be able to change the actions of the present.  Once the past is gone, though, this is irreversible.

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Egypt and the threat to Archaeology

As an Archaeologist, the mindless destruction of the 12th century Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo, Syria during the civil unrest in April 2013 made me feel sick and realise just quite how all-encompassing and total the violence was becoming. UNESCO World Heritage Sites weren’t safe from the threat of modern conflict. We saw back in 2003 that the American entry into Iraq led to the looting of the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad, and subsequent desert sites became pockmarked with hundreds of pits dug by desperate civilians hoping to find treasures that could be sold. Well just today the death toll in the Egyptian violence has come to over 600, and with all of this unrest, i have wondered how Egyptian archaeological sites and antiquities will have fared; Egypt being renowned for the trade in illegal antiquities. It must be going on at sites that are left unguarded and unprotected in the desert, especially when armed forces and police will be being moved to areas of violence and so leave historic sites unprotected. Dr Zahi Hawass, the head of antiquities in Egypt, left his post in 2011, citing his inability to protect the material and sites during the troubles as one of the reasons (being a supporter of Mubarak may have been another), and so the situation at present could be quite dire- no-one can really know.

However, today I saw an article offering some hope on ahramonline (http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/9/40/79035/Heritage/Ancient-Egypt/Egypts-archaeological-sites-and-museums-closed-ind.aspx), which I will quote in part:

Minister of State for Antiquities Mohamed Ibrahim established an emergency operation room to follow up on security measures taken at archaeological sites and museums across the country, in order to protect them from looting or encroachment.

During clashes, pro-Morsi protesters destroyed guard kiosks at the entrance to the National Museum of Alexandria, and at the Malawi National Museum in the Upper Egypt city of El-Minya.

Ibrahim told Ahram Online that both museums are safe, however. “Thank God, nothing happened to the museums themselves,” he said.

We can but hope that he is right, and hope that this awful mess in every sense- political, personal, social, as well as archaeological- is sorted soon before we end up with a replica of Aleppo and a gaping hole in the shared heritage and history of the world. It is something that all archaeologists should be concerned about, and which the international community should speak out about before it is too late, more culture is destroyed needlessly, and more lives are thrown away.

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