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The Fight They Won’t Win

On Monday night at about half past ten, hordes of teenagers and young children started to pour out of Manchester Arena following an evening enjoying an Ariana Grande concert. Some carried the pink balloons that had played a part in the show. Happy chatter and laughter filled the air. There was no warning of what was to follow as Salman Abedi walked in to the foyer filled with patiently waiting parents, and those starting to leave the venue, and detonated a horrific suicide bomb, filled with nuts and bolts – created to cause the most damage possible. The moment of the explosion was caught on a dashcam of a waiting car. The sound deep and unforgettable. A moment of violence that would change the lives of those standing around Abedi at that moment, and those who saw the carnage afterwards.

The UK has become used to hearing about terrorist attacks at home and abroad. We all know that the police have already managed to stop several attacks due to surveillance and intelligence methods, honed over years of dealing with IRA terrorism in the past. We knew that there was the chance of more attacks. But for an extremist to target an audience of predominantly young people, some very young indeed, has been the cause of deep anger and shock across the nation.

Abedi, whose family originate from Libya, was born in the UK. He has had the opportunity to free healthcare from our NHS, he has had free education and schooling, he has had the freedom we cherish in the UK. We took his family in when they needed to escape Libya and Gaddafi. He repaid that kindness by striking at the heart of what our freedom stands for – the chance to enjoy music and dancing, to gather with friends and family, to celebrate a female singer who stands for female empowerment and independence. That he chose to target a predominently young, female audience was surely no accident. Islamic State, as they choose to call themselves, are against the emancipation of women, against equality. I wonder what went through his mind in those seconds before he detonated his bomb. Did he see the faces of those around him? Did he feel for one fleeting moment their humanity and innocence?

As the investigation commences in to Abedi’s connection with extremists, this horrendous attack and the thinking behind it, must be a catalyst to stop this disease within our society. We value our freedoms and we value our diversity as a nation. We welcome those from other cultures who wish to share those aims, who wish to work here and contribute to our communities. But those who wish to come in to our midst and sow seeds of discord and violence are not welcome. There must be and has to be a clampdown on those who profess extremist beliefs, who wish to bring Sharia law to our shores, those who engage with radicals and are determined to boost their cause. These people must be removed from our communities. It seems that each time an extremist causes carnage, the police admit that the culprit had already been on their radar. Those on the radar must now be dealt with, and there has to be a determination from law enforcement and government to do this.

This is not about race. This is not about religion or culture. This is about refusing to accept extremist, violent people – CRIMINAL and ANTI-SOCIAL people who are against everything we as a nation stand for and believe.

And as we come to terms with the grief and shock of losing 22 people, who did nothing more than go out for an evening of entertainment, we must hold our beliefs dear. We must stand strong and show these inhuman extremists what love and faith and unity really are. For it is at the very worst of times that we see the best in human nature. We must continue to be tolerant and accepting and free people, the very opposite of the hate, intolerance and cruelty the extremists promote.

And in living our free lives, they can have no hold over us. It is a fight that they can never, and will never, win.

 

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When Pippa Married James…

As yesterday dawned – bright but with a hint of rain in the air, Bucklebury braced itself for an onslaught of media and celebrity as Pippa Middleton started to prepare herself for the wedding she has spent months organising. The run up to the special day had been picked over in newspapers until there was nothing left to pick at – with readers everywhere wondering how much hype exactly was needed for the wedding of a couple nobody would have heard of, if it hadn’t been for the sister of the bride having married a prince.

With the Beckham’s PR guru, the Queen’s cousin Lady Elizabeth Anson, Prince Charles’s ex valet and now consultant to all things, Michael Fawcett all enlisted to create the perfect spectacle with no expense spared, only time would tell whether the enormous glass marquee would cause the illustrious guests to be deafened by very English rainstorms or not.

As guests started to arrive, with smatterings of recognisable faces such as Roger Federer and Princess Eugenie, a small crowd waited to see if Meghan Markle would make an appearance. As time went on, it became clear that we wouldn’t get a glimpse of the eagerly-anticipated royal girlfriend, as Princes William and Harry strolled in to St Marks’ Church, Englefield alone.

Carole Middleton appeared in pale pink, escorted by son and marshmallow entrepreneur, James. She appeared to wave with glee to the onlookers, smiling with what can only be described as a recently-filled face. Certainly, puffier than I have ever seen her before. She must rub her hands in delight at the conclusion sending her children to the ‘right places to meet’ the ‘right people’ has brought.

Michael Middleton, as ever, seemed less keen on the media but very proud of his youngest daughter. I wonder at times what he makes of the media storm other members of his family have whipped up. I wonder if he has a man-shed and a secret bottle of whisky somewhere on the Middleton Manor estate?

The Duchess of Cambridge turned up escorting the tiny bridesmaids and unfortunately pantalooned pageboys. She seemed stressed by having to get small people from the car to the church door, and was completely oblivious to the pageboy who decided to make V signals at the massed crowds. Wearing a peachy beige matchy matchy outfit that had already creased and wasn’t fitted properly around the bodice, Kate’s matron of honour role looked more than slightly awkward. By the time the party was leaving the church, she had already had to scold a weeping Prince George, control a confused looking, but very cute, Princess Charlotte and ineffectively manage a bunch of primary school children with rose petal baskets. Doting husband, William, was nowhere in sight, preferring to hang around with his brother and reality star best man, Spencer Matthews.

For the bride however, we must reserve praise. Pippa’s Giles Deacon designed dress was elegant and beautifully made, with delicate attention to detail. Her gossamer veil held in place by a deceptively simple, sparkling diamond tiara from Robinson Pelham. Pippa has clearly planned her bridal outfit for a very long time and her dogged determination paid off. She looked delighted by everything, and as she took her father’s arm to enter the florally bedecked church, she must have known her choice was a massive success.

An hour or so later, as bells rang out to celebrate this much-hyped union, the two people involved left St Marks looking full of joy. The photographers clicked and the other guests stayed back to allow the couple their moment. Apart from Kate, of course, who milled about at the front trying to look like she knew what to do with the tiny attendants while nanny Maria stayed out of sight. In the end, she got in a car and left for the reception – leaving the newly weds to lead the rest of the party over to Englefield House on foot. A champagne reception awaited.

Later, Pippa and James left in a vintage car for Middleton Manor in Bucklebury, in a scene reminiscent of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge driving Prince Charles’ Aston Martin from Buckingham Palace to Clarence House following their own afternoon wedding reception.

And as the Duchess herself returned to her parents house, to prepare for the rest of the celebrations, William was again nowhere in sight. I wonder if he was in the man-shed with Mike, hiding from wedding planners and photographers everywhere?

Finally, after a day of waiting, Prince Harry drove up with Meghan Markle in tow (not Merkle, as the unfortunate BBC News Reporter called her) – one solitary blurry snap the only proof that she attended.

As the expected Spitfire swooped over the venue, in a celebratory fly-past (one must keep up with one’s sister) and lights twinkled in the glass marquee, so large it could be seen from the other side of the valley, I wonder if Pippa raised her glass to herself for pulling off the media extravaganza of the year, while Kate – avoiding the canapes – searched in vain for the elusive William.

And readers everywhere sighed in relief.

 

 

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The Quiet GCSE Pandemonium

As students across the country commence their GCSE exams, there will be crossed fingers and chewed nails galore – and not just from the pupils. For it is the case that since the new specifications came in to being, following Michael Gove’s huge restructure of assessment methods, targets and curriculum in 2013, there has been much confusion, uncertainty and panic from those in charge of creating the new specifications and those left to teach it.

While in theory, it is useful to reassess what is taught and how it measures up internationally at regular intervals, this overhaul has been dramatic and in some cases, nonsensical. It seems in part to hark back to the teaching structure and examination methods of fifty years ago, which does not translate well to the internet-age of 2017. This year will be the first cohort to sit the new exams. They are in fact the guinea pigs, and I suspect that for many of them, the awareness of this has been troubling.

Take for example, English Literature. Gove’s insistence that all texts studied must be British has meant that time honoured literary classics such as Of Mice and Men (John Steinbeck), The Crucible (Arthur Miller), To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee) are off the menu completely – they are all American writers. These texts were originally chosen for their usefulness in having a variety of themes to cover, interesting topics and relatively short length enabling 15/16 year olds to access them with ease. Teachers also knew them inside out, having taught them for years and knew how to best bring pupil’s abilities out through them.

I would argue that a good story that is well written is surely the aim of choosing an examination text, not the nationality of the author?

The specification has also moved from a part exam/part coursework structure to an all exam assessment. The coursework element had two uses, that I could see as a teacher. One – it taught pupils how to write essays while analysing texts, a skill they would then use again in the exam. Two – it gave pupils a chance to pick up marks from work they had done outside an exam hall, which is important for pupils who struggle with anxiety or retention skills.

Pupils are not going to be allowed to take texts in to the exam now either. This makes the exam a test of memory NOT a test of analysis which is what SHOULD be being assessed.

As someone who has been a teacher, and has also worked at a senior level for an examination board, I think it is fair to say that I have seen teachers floundering over the last two years trying to work out exactly what the mark bands equate to – since they have also changed from an alphabetical system (A, B, C…) to numerical (9, 8, 7…). They are not merely transferable either – for example, an A does not automatically equate an 8 for example. It did not help when an announcement was made changing what ¬†which level is now the same as an ‘old C’ – just a few months ago!

There is always ‘bedding in’ time needed for any new project. I just hope that the pupils who are sitting the new GCSE exams this year are not penalised for happening to be the first ones through the exam hall doors. In my view, pupils should be awarded justly for the work that they do – not judged and pushed beyond acceptable limits to satisfy some old-school urge to make exams harder and harder.

It is interesting to note that this year alone, mental health problems have risen massively amongst year eleven pupils. There is a sense of hopelessness, of pressure, of needing to meet targets they don’t understand – and some of this has led to tragic circumstances.

Let’s hope that this summer brings some reflection from those who make the decisions at the top, and a desire to increase understanding and confidence in the new system for teachers, examiners and pupils alike. Otherwise, our GCSE exam system will become a vehicle of the unattainable and the panic-driven, instead of the confidence building, success machine it should be.

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The Middleton Marriage Media Meltdown

And so… the Pippa Middleton Wedding Wagon rumbles on, with flags flying and whistles tooting. Every day, certain newspapers treat their readers to breathless updates and speculation about the day in question – from who is invited or not invited, who might wear the same colour and cause social pandemonium and which fence is being repainted to ensure Bucklebury is in gleaming form for the Very Important People who are attending.

With only a few days to go, this self publicised hype is only likely to reach fever pitch with no scaling down in sight. It seems to me that people all over the country who have read anything related to the forthcoming nuptials are simply desperate for it all to be over so that we don’t have to read any further gushing about the bride’s latest walk down the street or gym exit.

Originally, we were told that this marriage was a private event, taking place on a private estate and that therefore, public scrutiny was not welcome. Fair enough, I thought.

Until events took over my original thinking.

The very close up, clear series of photographs of Pippa Middleton and James Matthews apparently canoodling behind a bush in front of a Chelsea church seemed planned. The constant pictures of a smiling Pippa wandering about her neighbourhood in various poses might well underline that thinking. Then, we are told by the very knowledgeable Sebastian Shakespeare of the Daily Mail, that Pippa has hired none other than the PR guru who has worked successfully for the Beckhams in helping to create their brand. You might well ask why would a ‘private’ event require the hype that tends to be rustled up by hiring a very expensive PR guru?

I can only assume that the Middletons, who protest themselves to be quiet, private people who are simply hounded by media interest, are actually involved in creating the cloud of ‘public interest’ in themselves. Certain journalists have certainly confessed to having Middleton sources for stories in the past.

As I have mentioned in previous blogs, other families who ‘married in’ to the royal family managed to remain pretty low key. I am verging on certain that none of them ever needed PR guidance to ramp up interest or indeed, wanted it.

The rather ironic thing about the self-publicism of the wedding and the run up to it, is that no matter how much fanfare the media gives or on whose orders, there isn’t the public interest to back it up. Pippa is not a much-loved character, the nation is not overly interested in what she does (or doesn’t) do, her attempts at writing in the past have been ridiculed and her lack of direction is baffling to most.

For me, the only interest I have in the wedding is that we may possibly see George and Charlotte, those secret royal children whom we know exist but hardly see; along with a chance to see Prince Harry with Meghan – incidentally, whose wedding WOULD bring similar hype but on much more solid, public-interest level, ground.

And so… get your hard hats ready. I think we are in for a bumpy few days. Roll on Sunday.

 

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Marina Litvinenko

Whilst watching the recent documentary about the murder of Russian defector and spy, Alexander ‘Sasha’ Litvinenko, I was struck not just by the inhuman tragedy of his death, but also by the magnificent stoicism of his widow, Marina.

With quiet strength and great eloquence, she told the story of her husband’s fight for freedom – and then his fight for life and justice against his killers. The Channel 4 documentary, Hunting the KGB Killers, told the haunting tale of the death of Litvinenko and the subsequent medical and criminal investigation in devastating detail, using the medical team and police investigators who were on the case.

But it was Marina, speaking with her gentle Russian accent, was the one who really drew me in.

Not only for her strength in standing by her husband throughout his career and his fight to tell the truth about his dealings with Russia, but also her determination to bring his killers to justice. To give them a name as criminals, even if they were never legally charged.

With no fanfare or self-publicity, this elegant woman’s only aim was to bring a rightful and just conclusion to the traumatic loss of her clearly much loved husband. In an age of media greed and celebrity, I found her not only charming but deeply impressive.

Never asking to be in the spotlight, it is the campaign which takes priority, not her own image. She acts in response to a conversation she had with her husband just before he died. He asked her to tell the truth, and that is her intention. She knows she is monitored, she is watched by those in Russian government – yet, her desire for justice and truth remains unchanged. In this, she is following her husband’s path. It is ironic and worrying that his determination to shed light on Russia’s underhand dealings led to his demise. Her bravery cannot be overstated.

Protecting their son, Anatoly, while continuing the fight for Alexander’s assassins to one day face justice for their actions, is Marina’s aim in life. She hopes they might one day be able to return to Russia, but so far this has been impossible for safety reasons.

As Marina said in the documentary, those responsible may never be physically punished for their crime – but at least they were named in the verdict at the Royal Courts of Justice:

“Even if you are not in prison, you are already punished. To wake up and go to sleep, to know people knew you are criminal, you are a murderer.”

And for Marina, some semblance of justice is better than none.

 

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Who Will Fill Phil’s Shoes?

Amongst great speculation and media frenzy, Buckingham Palace announced last week that HRH The Duke of Edinburgh is going to retire in August this year. At the age of ninety five, I think most people would agree that this is a reasonable decision for the royal consort to take, after many years of supporting HM The Queen with great diligence. The monarch and her husband are now of an age when most people would expect to be sitting back and enjoying life in the slow lane, but ruling is another game entirely. The Queen cannot step down, she will be Queen until the day she dies. That is what monarchy is and always has been in the United Kingdom. Abdication is not something likely to ever be considered, although a regency of sorts might be if the situation demanded it. For the consort, however, there are slightly different rules.

The question remains though – who will step in to this new vacancy? Prince Philip, along with starting the Duke of Edinburgh scheme, has hundreds of charitable patronages which will have to be covered by other members of the royal family. Prince Edward has volunteered that all the family will work as a team to ensure that the work goes on – but frankly, it seems that some of the family are more team players than others. It is well known that some of the family are genuine work horses, their numbers of engagements are always high in the court circular and their commitment and duty cannot be questioned. I fail to see how such people, like the Princess Royal, could possibly do more. There are, however, other members of the family who appear to be sadly lacking in this department.

I refuse to add Prince Harry to this list, because despite low(ish)numbers in the court circular, many of his charitable endeavours are apparently ‘not counted’ as royal work – the Invictus Games, for example. I think Harry will step up where needed anyway, it is his character to do so and I feel that he is accepting of his role within the family, within the nation and his duty to fulfil that as best as he can. I hope I am right.

There is, however, a growing issue within the family which must be dealt with – and that is both the media interpretation of the Duke of Cambridge as unwilling – and the actuality of his limited amount of work for ‘The Firm’. There is a sense that William is not a safe pair of hands, and that is a worrying factor for those within the Palace who do succession planning. The Cambridges have marketed themselves as a happy, nuclear family. A couple who met at university, married and had two children – one of each. The problem is that this little family is not like the little family who live next door. When Kate Middleton married William Wales, she was also marrying a role and a job. The recent Heads Together Campaign and accompanying media showed just what can be done with the sort of influence and inspiration the royal title bestows. It is a shame to waste that sort of platform, when so much good can be done.

Recent newspaper articles have suggested that Kate intends to be the new Prince Philip, and that she models herself on him. While hoping that this might be true (minus the grumpiness/swearing/unfortunate remarks, one hopes), it seems a little far fetched at present.

Another idea was that the Duke of York might step in to the breach. While he might have the unfortunate remarks element covered, he is not a popular royal, with a difficult reputation, and I can see no benefit to him stepping up in a more public manner.

And so, as they line up in this brave new world, with some edging more to the back of the line than others, it remains to be seen who will really fill Phil’s shoes – and who will say they fit while refusing to try them on.

Ready?

 

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The Meaningful Marketing of Meghan

With a confident, easy smile on her face and some very well placed confidantes at her side, Meghan Markle looked every inch the official royal girlfriend last weekend, as she watched Prince Harry play polo at Coworth Park in Ascot.

The Audi Polo Challenge was attended by both Prince William and Prince Harry, so it was hardly a low key event. The very presence of Meghan Markle might be seen as a typically tactical royal nudge to observers and media alike that:

A. She and Prince Harry are definitely a ‘thing’.

B. They don’t really care who knows it.

And

C. Their partnership might well be heading for a more official status.

Despite Prince Harry releasing a statement last autumn describing Ms. Markle as his ‘girlfriend’, some royal watchers have taken it upon themselves to believe that the relationship was already over/never really began. If you don’t believe me, check Twitter! Personally, this seems an odd presumption, since the couple have been seen on various occasions since – a date in London, Meghan wandering around near Kensington Palace, the pair attending a wedding together etc. It seems pretty clear to me that there is something going on, and actually something pretty serious. Sorry, Harry fans – but there it is.

Having been a royal watcher since the heady days of Lady Diana Spencer in her pie crust collars, I think it is fair to say that this semi-official polo appearance has quite big implications. Not only was Harry’s brother, William, also in attendance, but Meghan was standing alongside Mark Dyer, the Prince’s trusted friend and mentor for many years.

Quite an endorsement.

And let’s face it, would Prince Harry – a man who grew up with frequent pictures of his mother in the media while sunbathing, sitting on car bonnets, playing with her sons at polo matches – not know that those moments when he decided to cuddle and kiss his girlfriend next to his car would be captured and shared by any photographer present?

The royal family like to send messages without saying a word. They like to micromanage our beliefs about them without actually saying anything. Who remembers a certain Sarah Ferguson being asked to accompany The Princess of Wales on a visit to HMS Brazen to see Prince Andrew in 1986 before any engagement had been announced? That was a big indication that Miss Ferguson was being accepted in to the family as an ‘official girlfriend’.

I see this polo match attendance as a similar move. The reports that Meghan will also attend the wedding of Pippa Middleton and James Matthews as Prince Harry’s partner is also a significant step.

Perhaps we are being prepared for a move from ‘official girlfriend’ to something more?

I, for one, very much hope so.