Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Entries Tagged as 'Brandon'

Interview #3: A Parent and Teacher’s Perspective

May 19th, 2010 · No Comments

In order to gain greater perspective on how a teacher and parent perceived the privatization of state education in the 21st century, I sought out an interview with a woman studying at UEA for her Master’s degree. She had taught (and remained employed part-time) at a local state secondary school in Norwich. Because of her ties to the state education system and pointed views on the subject, I have decided to maintain her anonymity.

Our meeting took place in two sessions. The first focused primarily on defining privatization (it remains in many ways elusive even to those who have been researching it for several months now) and the second addressed her personal feelings toward the subject as it has affected her profession as a teacher and intentions as a parent.

Privatization, as it applies to the merging of private companies/organization with state schools, can have one of many definitions. The variations mainly arise when considering the intentions of the private sponsor of the school. For example, a failing school could close and then be taken over by a faith-based organization. Given the basic definition of privatization and the establishment of academies, this faith-based organization would have absolute control over the financial allocations, curriculum, and general function of the school. Some, like the woman I interviewed, could find this potentially harmful, as it may directly and indiscreetly undermine a balanced cultivation of student opinion (having been inculcated with the very specific agenda of the school). Certainly, there are useful and relevant traits within this type of schooling (e.g. a vocational school preparing students for the workforce), but it still generates some unease about the intentions of the school and impact it has on students. (This issue would come up again in my interview with Richard Hewitt, who pointed out the issue many take with specialist schools and the limits they place on what a student learns in school.) In general, she emphasized the need for academies to consider what is sacrificed at the expense of propagating a biased curriculum.

Her thoughts to the fears of privatization and city academies led her to discuss her friend, D. Bookless and her relatively positive experience teaching at an oversubscribed and popular academy. Certainly, many question the “glossy cover” of academies and are right in doing so. Their assessment may not fully account for the positive experiences in academies, though.

To summarize her feelings on the fears and general sentiments shown by critics of privatization, she told me that “reputations last longer than realities.” In other words, people (parents, students, teachers) will likely stay attached to a school because of its general reception in the public and not because of its real intricacies (which may prove to be less than adequate). How does this relate to the subject of academies? Their introduction into the state education system creates a “consumer economy” in which many choose schools based on their charm, “glitz,” and general reception in the local community. (Of course, this is not always a proper way to gauge the success of a school.) Academies, in this way, provide a “quick fix” to the inadequacies of the state education system without creating lasting change.

Her less professional impression of privatization gave some sense of how a parent perceives the academy system. Certainly, academies can improve state education by boosting available resources (e.g. improved access of technology) and by refreshing a once-failing school. Still, there remains some hesitation. My interviewee said she would ultimately choose a standard school over an academy, for the latter can have a faith-based curriculum/instruction. Even if no strictly faith-based instruction is employed, academies and other specialist schools can still be less diverse and mixed than standard state schools.

Of course, this prioritization of diversity in state schools does not apply for all parents. In general, she noted that most parents would look for to the head teacher as a reflection of the school’s fit with the student’s personality. More immediately, a school’s academic calendar can influence a parent’s decision to send their child to a certain school (Academies often have a different schedule than other state schools, simply because they have the power dictate when school is in session.)

One of the interesting points she made regarding the supposed panacea of privatization and academies was its alternatives. She mentioned the simultaneous effort to encourage incredibly effective headteachers to move around from school to school in order to fix all the failures and boost results. While the program of “superheads” did not become mainstream or lasting, its success in Norwich schools (e.g. Hewitt School) shows how sometimes a school needs individualized attention, including those focused on leadership.

For having a bias against academies, my interviewee was able to acknowledge the recent successes of the academy program. The program makes many promises that, at least in the opinion of one teacher and parent, may be fulfilled immediately but will not last as funding and other issues begin to erode the purported “glossy cover” of academies.

Tags: Brandon

Interview #2: Mr. David Brunton

May 19th, 2010 · No Comments

Interview with David Brunton, headteacher of City Academy Norwich

Soon after my interview with Dr. Leaton Gray, I scheduled an interview with Mr. David Brunton, headteacher at City Academy Norwich. Before I go into the details of the interview and other observations I made, I felt it necessary to give some background on the “city academy” program (now commonly referred to “academies”).

In 2000, the New Labour government continued seek out ways to fulfil its initial campaign focus on “Education, education, education” by announcing the city academy program. The program seemed to imitate in many ways preceding programs to encourage the private sector (i.e. private companies, businesses) to invest in state education. According to David Blunkett, the Education Secretary at the time, the program was “a radical approach to promote greater diversity and break the cycle of failing schools in inner cities,” [Francis Becket, The Great City Academy Fraud (London: Continuum, 2007), 10] Each school (deemed failing or in “special measures” by Ofsted, the national school assessment organization) would be taken over and/or merged with a sponsor. This sponsor would be required to put forward two million pounds in capital invested in the academy and the government would fund the rest of the school (These public costs were expected to be about ten million pounds, but it often went well beyond this amount. Meanwhile, the private sector was only required to invest two million pounds – no more.). These sponsors could control many, if not all, aspects of the school including the hire of teachers, admission of students, use of the buildings/campus, and design of the curriculum.

Given the heated controversy of academies (mainly the issue taken with the heavy reliance of public funds in the privately-controlled institutions), I went into the interview with Mr. Brunton seeking to gain some perspective on how academies can positively rejuvenate and improve state education, for I hardly expected him to criticize academies as the headteacher of one.

First, some observations I noted while sitting in the lobby and in an assembly Mr. Brunton held with students (The assembly interrupted our meeting, but it actually helped a great deal). Coming from a public high school, I did not expect the lobby to feel like an office. Some large print on the wall (a quote from Mr. Brunton) read “We will always work with you to achieve the best outcome for your child in every situation. This is the key driving force behind all of our work.” On another door a sign stated “Ties and Blazers on beyond this point.” I also found it odd that two representatives from Tropicana walked in for their appointment with another administrator a few minutes after I sat down in the lobby (I am sure state schools do meet with private companies for contracts – e.g. a Pepsi vending machine – but it came across as less like a school and, again, more like an office).

This was especially evident in the assembly held in the middle of our meeting. Seated in the back of the auditorium, I saw Mr. Brunton and several other administrators ask students to submit through hand-held keypads answers to questions ranging from “Would you use the canteen if different food was offered?” to “Do you feel safe at school?” to “Should there be a ‘Rewards Room’ to contrast the ‘Discipline Room’?” These questions, among others, were clearly meant to evaluate the status of the Academy in its first few months in existence. On the other hand, another perspective could see the assembly as a meeting among employees who are asked to evaluate their level of satisfaction with the company.

My interview with Mr. Brunton began with a history of the City Academy and its recent transition from Earlham High School in August 2009. The traumatic four years prior to August 2009 set Earlham HS down the route to an evaluation of “Special Measures,” or failing. One of the main questions we focused on addressed the motivations for private companies to sponsor an academy. Sponsoring an academy “tick boxes for” organizations by presenting tax breaks and a way to increase their presence in the local community. (I would also later learn that sponsors often gain an actual profit from sponsoring academies after renting out parts of the building when school is not in session.)

City Academy Norwich has improved, in the few months prior to my interview, many of the ills that once plagued Earlham HS. Besides generally offering a “fresh start” and a “clean slate” to the same student population, the Academy saw the following changes:

Ø    Attendance:  5% increase

Ø    Disciplined Students: Great decreases in all stages of discipline used

Ø    Students estimate to pass GCSE: was 19%, now 38%

Ø    Teacher days lost: was 598 days, now 61 days

Certainly these are marked improvements, but Mr. Brunton appreciates that there is much work to be done.

When asked about whether the privatization and the city academy is the only solution to the issues facing state education (e.g. inequality in admissions, parental discontent, relevant curriculum, effective management, etc.), Mr. Brunton rightly stated that something had to change. One of the most difficult things for some to accept is the concept of “change” and its many different forms. So far, the City Academy was doing its best to change the school to fit the needs of its students.

The controversy surrounding the city academy program seemed muted to some extent against the relative gains made by the new administration and programs instituted by the City Academy and Mr. Brunton. It will most likely take some time before their true impact takes form, but I would say they are off to a generally positive start.

Tags: Brandon

Interview #1: Dr. Sandra Leaton Gray, UEA

February 27th, 2010 · 3 Comments

Interview with Dr. Sandra Leaton Gray

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Dr. Leaton Gray is the course director for the B.A. program in the School of Education at UEA. She is a regular lecturer on campus, has written several publications on England’s system of education, and shows great interest in the sociology of education. Her research as well as her prior experience as a secondary school teacher at a private preparatory school made her insight into privatization and the general state of state education especially relevant.

We started by discussing the history of privatization, and she pointed out that the issue can be traced to the 1850s (see previous post). She also provided a comprehensive definition of privatization by exploring the role of politics in the presence and nature of private organizations. I had recently watched Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s speech on his educational reform policies (I can not find the actual video of the speech I watched, but you can find the relevant announcements here.), and it came up repeatedly as we explored how New Labour went from a campaign focused on “Education Education Education” to providing some real solutions to solve the inadequacies of English education. The expanded City Academy programme in 2003 sought to reinvigorate schools and largely echoed the privatization reforms of the 1980s. Today, PM Brown seeks to “brand” schools with different private organizations that will improve efficiency and success.

The term “business curriculum” often appears alongside privatization. I asked Dr. Leaton Gray about this term, and it essentially applies knowledge onto the student body. It also entails an increased network (technology) curriculum, but Dr. Leaton Gray described this as limiting, for instilling computer knowledge in a group of students who are already computer literate (consider the phenomenal growth of social networking websites) is not necessary. Priorities should be set on other subjects. Teaching English, for example, should have greater priority until it is no longer a subject for elite students.

I asked about the role of increased international reforms in education (e.g. reforms emerging under the administration of President Barack Obama). England is motivated to some extent by international standards of practice and reform. It keeps the country on its toes. Dr. Leaton Gray made an interesting point about why models such as those in Sweden and other Scandanavian countries do not work in Britain. These models have been hailed in those countries as enormously successful. They are being implemented, however, in a largely homogenous society. If the Dickinson Humanities class has learned nothing else over the last few months, it is that Britain is far, far, far from homogeneity. The model cannot be implemented as successfully as it is in Sweden for this fact alone.

We discussed the role of local authorities in education as well. Local Authorities (once known as Local Education Authorities) display some powers over the schools in their region, but that has largely fallen away with increased centralization. When asked about which would provide more benefits, a strong central government or strong local authorities, Dr. Leaton Gray said that it would be dangerous for local authorities to have relatively free reign over schools without some regulation and prodding from the national government. An ideal relationship would see healthy school, local, and national economies with constant interactions and checks in the system.

She also made an important point about the role of private organizations in state education – simply that they could have overestimated influence. In some cases there is not enough influence of private organizations in education. In order to truly privatize education, the government needs to deregulate its control and limit the ‘red tape’ it leaves in schools across the country. This does not mean that private businesses do not have room to manoeuvre. Their influence, however, essentially involves much ‘cherrypicking’ and selective reforms to reinvigorate and excite the school with which they merge or sponsor.

Dr. Leaton Gray was not familiar with the impact of privatization on Norwich specifically, but she could speculate that it was an ongoing process that usually pleases the community (other than some who protest the new school out of loyalty for the school that will close).

One last point that she made will help you understand this aspect of education with greater clarity. It also neatly summed up my interview. Imagine the following hypothetical situation:

You are an entrepreneur seeking to take over or merge with a school that closed after failing reports and standards for several years prior. You introduce new uniforms, new programmes, new curricula, and a brand new website. You are left with these questions:

Do you encourage parental input in the school leadership and conduct? How do you do so?

Do you make the school accessible for all, or for some percentage of students meeting certain qualifications?

How do you ensure that teachers create thorough and relevant classrooms?

How do you ensure that the students succeed and meet all standards?

How do you empower the surrounding community and establish a school that functions as a point of pride?

The way some private organizations answer these questions compel authors to criticize the effectiveness of privatization. My interview with Dr. Leaton Gray showed me that perhaps their concerns do not fully appreciate the limited impact these organizations demonstrate in state education.

I thank Dr. Leaton Gray for her time and Nick Garforth for scheduling my interview.

Hours Logged: 1 hour 45 minutes

Total Hours: 1 hour 45 minutes

Tags: Brandon

The State of State Education

February 27th, 2010 · 2 Comments

In August 2009, Earlham High School in Norwich shut its doors. At the start of September 2009, those doors reopened, but this time onto the City Academy Norwich, the replacement for the former high school. Months prior to the transition, members of the community were sent the proposal for a new academy and the expedited process that would take place before the transition’s completion. They were told that Earlham High School was considered for the transition because of low test scores and poor reports from Ofsted, the national organization responsible for investigating the performance of England’s schools. Over the last six months, the City Academy Norwich seems to have functioned just as every other school academy in the country. It remains sponsored and assisted by several organizations in Norwich, including the University of East Anglia. The transition may be too soon to yield any tangible improvements, but the overhaul plans to reinvigorate what was a struggling institution.

This type of transition has occurred in many other parts of England. When did this process start? What is its impact? Is this the right way to achieve success in state schools? The debate on privatization in schools encompasses many nuances and uses several definitions. Moreover, it is the subject of my research for this project.

The history of privatization in England’s state schools traces back to the 1850s when a state system of education first began to emerge. Fast-forwarding to the end of the Second World War in 1945 (yes, it is quite a leap, but a necessary one, unless this post becomes another research paper) the roots of the current education system became much clearer under the Labour government under Prime Minister Clement Atlee. It was during post-war reconstruction that the state began to provide free secondary education. Also, the different tracks on which students could learn were solidified, including grammar schools (for white-collar professions) and modern schools (for more manual, vocational professions). Selective education (run by a “survival of the fittest” mentality) became prevalent in England and defended by many. It raised issues of equality, but the rise of selective education encouraged privately-funded schools. By the 1970s, schools not receiving public funding and under private control began to increase in number. This occurred amidst attempts by the government to implement more democratic measures into the state education. Its efforts could not stop the already falling educational standards from further decline.

The 1980s saw an increased use of big businesses to run state education in what resembled a relatively free market economy. Enterprise, self-reliance, and competition remained key components of educational legislation under the Tories and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Since the 1980s, state education has shifted again, but it remains pointed in the general direction of privatization. Schools are encouraged to collaborate with one another, and private organization (often non-profit) are called upon to improve the efficiency and success of schools. While many of these organizations align themselves with struggling schools like Earlham High School, this process seems to be popular across the country, especially within the last decade under the New Labour government.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

My project combines research and investigation  into what I have seen as a very contentious and complicated issue in state education. I will research the history of privatization in England’s state education from the 1970s onwards, with a particular focus on how it has effected Norwich and Norfolk.

I then plan to answer several questions surrounding the debate on the issue:

  • The benefits of private organizations in state education include improved efficiency, but at what costs?
  • To what extent do politics guide the prevalence of privatization?
  • I have read much about the presence of privatization, but to what extent are private companies really involved in state education?
  • On a smaller scale, how does privatization, when it does affect schools (like Earlham High School), affect teachers? Administrators? Students?

By conducting interviews with members of the UEA community, teachers and administrators from state and privatized schools (or academies) in Norwich, and the Norwich City Council/Norfolk County Council, I will try to gauge how different people view this aspect of England’s state education. Striking balance will remain my overarching goal. My posts hereafter will deal primarily with the interviews I conduct with various individuals over the next several weeks. The first with Dr. Sandra Leaton Gray will appear in the next post.

Tags: Brandon

“…and what’s the deal with this airline food?”

September 15th, 2009 · 1 Comment

Some say laughter is the best medicine. Others say “Laugh, and the world laughs with you.”

To be honest, I am not too sure what the British say.

My parents introduced me to British humour early on in my life (not too early, mind you), and after years of patiently watching and listening, I have no bloody clue what it all means. You know it is supposed to be funny, but what is there to laugh at? I still have no idea sometimes.

One of these moments occurred during my freshman year at Dickinson. I was in a show by N. F. Simpson, a well-known British playwright under the direction of a senior who had just come back from a year abroad in…you guessed it – England. She can safely fall into the category of anglophile, as indicated by her love for Monty Python – one of the most famous comedy troupes in the entire UK. She showed us a collection of famous clips from the group as “inspiration” for British humour (much of which appeared in the play I was in). Needless to say, the next 30 minutes were painful, for many of the skits went over our heads, never to be understood. We simply could not relate. Our director understood the humour, however, and laughed heartily at the sketches, occasionally stopping to look over at us as we sank into utter confusion.

Parrot Sketch

I do like some parts of British humour, do not get me wrong. There are sketches I reference in conversation, such as the one above, to either the delight or (as seems to be a regular occurrence here) utter confusion of the people around me. I laugh at Eddie Izzard, enjoy the humour of John Cleese, and I wish I could afford the 110-pound tickets for the Monty Python reunion at the Royal Albert Hall in October.

Is there really a better way to understand British humour? Will this be the one barrier that forever distinguishes us as American tourists? I will stop before my lamentations turn philosophical, but it something very important to reckon with. Take a moment to consider the enormous market for comedy in our generation. You have huge a huge fan base for the likes of Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, Steve Martin, Tracy Morgan, Jeff Dunham (random, but he is a very funny ventriloquist), and so on. We even have an entire channel dedicated to comedy (Comedy Central)! If the British market for comedy is half as large as that in the US, it will be a force that we will have to reckon with, whether we understand it or not.

The Ministry of Silly Walks

The skits and acts embedded in this post are very funny, at least to me. It has taken some awkward and often forced encounters with British humour for me to gain any interest in viewing it. Some surely can say it is just one variation of a larger, more universal type of humour, but I do not agree. Britain has established some very funny acts and humour that breaks free from any type of standard with which I am familiar. Quirky, interesting, and downright strange, these comedians, comedic actors, and others have been the pride of British society. I plan to discover why this is so.

Supermarket Psychology

Tags: Brandon

Tonight: Miles Davis @ St. Martin-in-the-Fields

September 15th, 2009 · 2 Comments

I have lost count of the number of churches in London. Yet, I would not be surprised if there were double (or triple) the number of churches I have seen in the city. Though numerous, I have not yet found a church packed with a local (or visiting) congregation. Sundays, according to tradition, mark the closing of many stores, leaving most streets barren and still. Though Sunday marks a day of rest in the United States as well, one essential difference remains – massive crowds can be seen going to pray at their respective place of worship. (I will mention here that Sunday is not the most important day of the week for many other religions. For the purpose of this post, I will remain largely within the Christian faith, which marks Sunday as a holy day or, at the very least, a day of worship.)

So, the expression “Put on your Sunday best” may not directly apply to my encounters with British Christians. I cannot speak at length to the prevalence of secularism in the country, but from my reading (see the BBC’s site on Athiesm here; see the National Secular Society homepage here) I can note its prevalence in the country. Even our tour guide noted at one point in his presentation of Westminster Abbey that the British are much less religious than Americans.

Regardless, I have come face-to-face with churches and cathedrals – sprawling and small, centuries-old and recently renovated. I have about 40 pictures of churches taken from the same angle looking upwards at the columns or Gothic style or high steeples that sweep the façade of these buildings. One that grasps my general impression of churches in Britain (thus far) could be St. Martin-in-the-Fields. Though the primary reason for visiting the church was to see the E.L.F. Trio, I was immediately impressed by the simple yet elegant design of the building. This was before our visit to Westminster Abbey or St. Paul’s, mind you, so my impression of London’s churches was limited. I remained thoroughly impressed with the church until we went into the crypt. What some consider a modernization of the crypt, I immediately saw as a cheapening injustice to the integrity of that part of the building. As a person of another faith, I was shocked. As a History major, I was appalled. As a tourist who had been in London less than a week, I could not have been more surprised.

I saw tomb markers dating from the 18th century, faded and worn down to bare stone. Well, I should say this carefully, for I did not see all of the tomb markers, for steel chairs and tables prevented me to see many of them fully. The church has recently converted the crypt into a Café in the Crypt – a restaurant that provides a true British dining experience among the dead buried throughout the building’s history. (For music connoisseurs, try out the British jazz scene at the church’s “Jazz Night” in the Café in the Crypt.)

Something about seeing this crypt transformed into a tourist attraction bothered me, but I am not sure if I really have a legitimate reason. (I am a history major, so I would rather see these stones preserved, for instance.) By the same token, I understand that the church has undergone a massive renovation project (which continues to this day) in order to bring new life to the building. It remains a symbol of charity, community, and worship to many people – religious or otherwise. I understand this…yet I would still rather see a commemoration of the people who were buried in the crypt rather than an art display or a jazz musician.

Reading Peter Ackroyd’s thoughts on churches in the city in London: The Biography brings some better understanding to the subject. He describes, in part, neighboring Westminster Abbey as a “city of the dead” (39) and as a monument. The nature of Christianity has changed in London, he argues, and is not as fervent as it was at other points in the city’s history. It is not “lost,” however, for though holy sites across London have been transformed, destroyed, or renovated, they can never really lose their history as holy places (40-43).

I may never get used to the notion of flinging an identifying feature of a place of worship (e.g. a crypt) into the 21st century. Of greater relevance, I do not think I can quickly agree that, as Ackroyd argues, only the face of these sites changes, leaving the heart of the holy site intact. Since visiting the church, I can begin to appreciate their efforts to provide for the surrounding community some other outlet besides worship – such as music and art venues. St Martin-in-the-Fields does plenty of good for the surrounding community, and I would be interested to see how this project succeeds in continuing this tradition.


Tags: Brandon

Have You had the Meze Platter Yet?

September 14th, 2009 · No Comments

As discussed in several different capacities, the pub remains vital to the daily lives of Londoners and, as we will discover in time, the larger United Kingdom. Inns were common along the roads of Roman Britain, as they provided lodging for officials and others. There were also small hut-like establishments – a taberna – from which the word tavern is derived. Pubs have a long history dating back to the Roman occupation of the city. Over the course of the last 2,000 years, London’s taverns and pubs have adapted to fit every shift in London’s history. (As we have learned over the last few weeks, the shifts have occurred constantly and regularly.) This is why there is such a vast variety and selection of pubs and taverns in and around London; we have yet to find a model for the perfect pub. You can find them on almost every street corner, but each differ in some way. Some cater to an older crowd, some to college students, and still others to a wider range of ages.

In this blog, I want to briefly discuss the importance of the two pubs that most of the group has frequented: The Court on Tottenham Court Road and the Marlborough Arms just one block away from the Arran House. We first discovered the Marlborough Arms simply because it was in close proximity to the Arran House. Still reeling from the combination of shock and exhaustion, I had no expectations for the pub culture in general, except that they served alcohol (In addition to the shock of being in London, who was not the least bit shocked that we could legally consume alcohol?). We quickly learned the bar is not the only important part to the pub as a whole. In retrospect, it is one of the lesser significant aspects of the pub. Sure, the drinks have their place, but what of the atmosphere and history? It does not take much effort to recognize pubs as part of London’s social fabric – especially when you consider the sheer number of pubs in just the immediate London area. The pub acts as a place for friends, family, neighbours, coworkers, and complete strangers to come together and enjoy one another’s company in a relaxed and friendly setting. I have often remarked (somewhat incredulously) that more people frequent the pubs after the average workday. This shocks me given my experience in the US, I generally don’t see massive groups of people rushing to the bars on a Tuesday night. Everyone comes together to in an atmosphere that lends itself to laughter and fun. I admire and appreciate the pub culture here, as it allows people to look forward to something throughout the day and also enables another outlet for positive social interaction outside of the one’s occupation. Ultimately, when the alcohol is used appropriately, pubs generate a sense of community and belonging in a healthy and interactive way. These observations have mostly been from my experiences at the Marlborough Arms where the pub-goers are mostly middle to older gentlemen and women.

The Court breaks serves a much different age group, though. The majority of the crowd is generally an amalgamation of college students from the surrounding area. Large groups of friends come to hang out there not only to spend some time with one another but to meet new people as well. Pub life again creates an outlet and space for people to come together to enjoy some drinks and pleasant (though not usually quiet) company.

Now that I realize the significant presence of pubs within the greater social life of many Londoners, I have also discovered that these pubs remain vital at the local level as well. Pubs open for centuries draw in crowds simply based on their legacy. (Consider the Museum Tavern and how quick it will point to Karl Marx’s patronage while writing the Communist Manifesto. This example extends to large numbers of pubs – the only difference is the figure that visited the pub, be it Chaucer, Dickens, Shakespeare, etc. The Marlborough Arms has a rich history. The Court has yet to set its legacy among its neighboring and much more famous pubs. The history also of the beer has an interesting history if anyone is interested check out this site.

It would be interesting to get a sense of what age group George Orwell would have preferred to see at his imagined and idyllic Moon Under Water pub. He certainly prefers “regulars” to “rowdies,” but would he find himself more comfortable with the regulars at The Court or the regulars at the Marlborough Arms (if, let’s say, those were the only pubs in the entire city)? Age plays a not-so-surprising role in determining how well one enjoys the atmosphere of any pub. Simply put, just as the people in a pub help define the image of a pub, the ages of those patrons further defines the inherent nature of a pub. The younger generations of pub-goers will usually enjoy pubs like The Court (except when a Meatloaf music video comes on….or of course, for some people, even more so…). If I were to imagine the group of individuals to comprise the crowd at The Court, George Orwell may be THE last person I’d picture there.

We (Maddie and Brandon) do not know how to find the perfect pub, or if you can even pin down a pub as “perfect.” Each has a different personality, to its immediate advantage or disadvantage. Some prefer a roomful of George Orwells. Others prefer rowdy pubs filled with cheering football fans. Still others can settle down with their familiar drink and “chew the fat,” whether or not Meatloaf plays in the background.

Tags: Brandon · Maddie

Into the Not-So-Wild: A Story by Maddie and Brandon

September 14th, 2009 · No Comments

As a five year old, I preferred the swingset in my backyard to the television (unless the Power Rangers was on…but that is not important). As a seventeen/eighteen year old, I gained a whole new appreciation for the outdoors thanks to Valley Forge Park – the enormous, deer-ridden oasis in the middle of suburban Pennsylvania, home to hikers, bikers, picnics, and monuments (telling the park’s oft-told story when it was home to the Revolutionary Army). I have stayed in that park for hours on end – reading, laying, walking, and just being lazy. The ability to lay out on the grass surrounded by huge trees brought me closer to nature and the elements.

I should take a step back. I am not a hiker, nor do I spend every day longing for the outdoors. I am not about to mimic Christopher McCandless’ journey through Alaska and “Into the Wild”. Sure, I enjoy spending summer afternoons outdoors. Yes, I will absolutely take a trip to the park over a movie. That’s about as far as I go, though. That said, London’s parks immediately appealed to my sense of nature. They were beautiful and awe-inspiring. Only 48 hours prior to this post, I told a whole group of people that I could spend every day in these parks as long as I had a book in one hand and a warm drink in the other.

After closer investigation and reflection, I begin to wonder if these parks are not as idyllic as I had thought.

The parks in London have very different personalities. How can a park have a personality? Consider the sprawling grassy area of Regent’s Park. This area houses limited (if any) space for concert venues – the only area that sticks out is a playground for children. Rarely anyone takes a seat on the well-kept grassy areas (This was shown by the looks of confusion and sounds of incredulity as people passed by as we discussed Mrs. Dalloway and the Blitz.).

This directly contrasts with the immediate impressions of the even larger Hyde Park, which has areas that remain overgrown, raw, and certainly less manicured than other Royal Parks. Perhaps this is a reason this park is used more often for big venues and frequented by large crowds. Regardless, the park gives off a much more functional and natural, for lack of a better word, perspective of nature. Now Maddie will briefly discuss the importance of recreation in the three parks that I have just described.

“The Regent’s Park consists of two circles, which are intended to communicate with each other, but an experienced person is sometimes puzzled to discover how. The houses which nearly surround the outward ring are looked upon as wonders of architectural design and execution. The liberality of the genius employed is manifested in the generous conglomeration of style which is everywhere apparent. The Corinthian and Ionic are continually contrasted with the simple Doric and the street-doric.” -1842

These are the first few comments given by locals who visited Regents Park around the time it was first established in the early 19th century. The area was beautiful even then, filled with flowers and beautiful buildings encompassing the wide-open spaces. Yet, when I think of “parks” I imagine people running, playing frisbee, riding bikes, and enjoying the sunshine. I imagine laughter, games, and little kids. However, from my numerous visits to Regents Park (as well as St.James’s), I really haven’t noticed this kind of innocent, healthy fun like I have in Hyde Park. Therefore, in this part of our blog, I’ll discuss what is acceptable recreation in a these three London parks.

In Regents Park, as Brandon noted before, there was plenty of open space but few people laying the grass (such a crime). Even during our class discussions outside, I noticed many runners but few families taking little kids on picnics, playing tag or simply running around. The runners themselves ran through the beautiful park but seemed too focused on their exercise to really pay attention to the beautiful landscape. Or maybe that is just what Regents Park is to them: a beautiful landscape, a perfect and idyllic area to safely run through, but never stop to take in. Therefore, Brandon and I came to realize that although this park is majestic and lovely, it lacks a purpose. Parks are meant to be more than simply a gorgeous place to jog about, they are meant to be used to relax, catch time for oneself, and rejuvenate and quench the soul’s longing for peace and quiet amidst the busy city life.

St. James’s Park acted very similarly, though arguably more unfriendly than Regents Park. In my own personal experience at St. James’s, I found it to be “stuffy” so to speak. The grass was trimmed perfectly; the walkways clean, the pigeons even kept away. We had to pay to sit in the chairs. I visited the website that describes St. James’s Park and of course the web designers discuss the picnics in the park, the alcohol served in the restaurant in the middle of the park, the outdoor activities that take place, and the free concerts. Yet still no bikes are allowed, ball games are restricted to specific areas of the park, and people may only gather together in at very most groups of 20 to avoid “over-crowding”—this means our humanities group would not be allowed to sit and hold class there and enjoy the surroundings.

The final park that we decided to discuss was Hyde Park which both Brandon and I found to be the most “park-ish” if I may. This means that we both felt it to bring in a wider variety of people, allowing and encouraging more recreational activity. We also noticed more people strolling around the extensive 350 acre landscape instead of just running through. Another plus is that everything about this park is free; you don’t need to pay to sit in chairs or benches and you don’t need to pay to enter. Hyde Park also contains the Serpentine Lake, a spot for swimming, boating, picnicking and fishing and it is open to the public to use often. Also, Hyde Park is host to a variety of free concerts during the summer and encourages people to visit, both locals and tourists.

Overall, recreation is an important part of any park. However some parks are more successful at creating an atmosphere in which a diverse group of people are welcome to sit outside and enjoy nature. Instead most of these parks boarding on feeling rather synthetic and fake (excluding Hyde) and therefore we were interested to see how each of these three parks incorporated and valued recreational activity.

Tags: Brandon · Maddie

Music Makes You ____________

September 10th, 2009 · 3 Comments

Once again, I will attempt to describe my direct encounters with British culture in order to better understand this city we’ve called home for the past several weeks.

“What kind of music do you listen to?”

It’s the question everyone asks me, and it’s among one of the questions I enjoy answering the least. I don’t have a favorite band, hold a subscription to Rolling Stone magazine, or know the title/artist/lyrics/history of any song on demand. I have learned that without this information, your answer to this question quickly turns into a rambling exploration of your taste in music, ultimately ending in “…Well, I guess I kind of like everything.”

Do not misunderstand me – I enjoy music. I love music. I listen to a broad list of genres, have my own taste in music, enjoy certain bands, and could not imagine not having my iPod with me whenever I wanted it. When I came over to Britain, I looked forward to opening my ears to new sounds and listening for the definition of quintessential “British music”. Maybe – just maybe – I could finally find a band in Britain I could use as my answer to the above question.

London did not immediately provide the new sound I was expecting. I often feel as though I have not left the music world of the USA. I walk into a restaurant, and “Snow ((Hey Oh))” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers is piped in through the speakers. I wander through Boot’s to pick up some toiletries, and I suddenly find myself humming along to Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young.” The Tube walls are lined with adverts for Illinois-based Wilco and their upcoming album. What does this lasting presence of American music in London mean?


I did some research into the subject, and my search showed that I am not the only one to write on this subject (Though while I write a small post, they write 400-pg books on the ebb and flow of American and British culture.). The music in the US during the twentieth-century has always been played to some extent in Britain. This influx of American music was so influential that in 1935 the BBC went so far as to ban people from using the word “hot” as a descriptor for popular American jazz music. American musicians needed special authorization in order to play at any venue in Britain (Part of this was due to the era’s inherent racism and prejudice toward many black jazz musicians.) These measures were probably meant, in large part, to bolster the native music population, rid the public from the potential destructive elements of the new American music, and curb a continued domination of American music in the British market.

One can easily pose the question asking why the protectionism of the early twentieth century has not continued to this day. Personally, I point to the truly ‘British’ musicians that have swept up a frenzied fanbase in Britain, Europe, and, most importantly, the US. Anyone ever hear of Elton John? How about the Rolling Stones? Queen? These bands and many, many others have moved Britain to the forefront of the music industry and, in turn, posed a challenge to the flood of American music from across the pond. Accordingly, Britain can rest easy knowing it has held its own in the vast music market.


Back to the initial point of this post – music in Britain and why it’s so…familiar. I have come to the conclusion that music, while inherently localized to some initial extent, will eventually cross borders. If Billy Joel can play to sold-out concerts in Tokyo, he can be popular among the staff in the local Boot’s. If people in Liverpool can be so uncontrollably excited to get their hands on The Beatles: Rockband – a new game allowing people to sing as their favorite member of the Fab Four – you can only imagine how packed the lines will be outside the GameStop in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania.

I am still trying to listen for a sense of modern British music, for I have only encountered it by chance. Occassionally,I have the happy fortune of sitting next to someone who just happens to be blasting what sounds like a non-American pop song on their iPod.

At the BBC PROMS concert, I found the British works to be extraordinary. This ties back to the sense of music as truly universal. At one point during Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ pre-concert talk, he mentioned his appreciation and eventual love of Aboriginal music, which he in turn used as an inspiration for some of his pieces. This is just one example of the capability of music to blend, to some extent, many local, national, and international boundaries. [I hope this does not come off as a way to skirt the issue by saying “Oh, well, I do not know too much about British music, but look at how wonderful ALL music can be!” This is one of my goals for the next few months, and one I will probably have a better chance of fulfilling once we settle in Norwich.]

For the recording of Tuesday night’s pieces, I encourage you to take a listen here (you’ll find the recording at the bottom of the page, but I am not sure for how much longer).

Feel free to comment, offer some better understanding of British music, or simply type out a list of songs I should be listening to more often. Many people have defined music in different ways, but I think I have yet to create/find my definition. I do not know when I will be happy with my definition of music (or my iTunes library), but I am more than happy to take steps in some general direction.



Kaufman, Will and Heidi Slettedahl Macpherson. Britain and the Americas: culture, politics, and history. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 2005. 623-26.

Parsonage, Catherine. The Evolution of Jazz in Britain, 1880-1935. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2005. 180-81.

Tags: Brandon

“The Construction of Identity,” or “The Most Difficult Topic”

September 7th, 2009 · No Comments

The notion of ‘identity’ cannot be pinned down as having one definition. For the purpose of this post, I define identity as a socially and personally created label one can embody, shed, defend, create, and mold (not necessarily used at all–or at least not in this order). When used in terms of immigration, the presence of identity can move in one of many ways:

1. Relying on the Traditional and Comfortable

Mrs. Suri, one of the minor characters in Tarquin Hall’s Salaam Brick Lane resides in London, yet she remains solidly committed to the Indian views and traditions regarding marriage. She lives in a city among millions of people from all backgrounds. She does not adapt; she surrounds herself with the familiar. Some would confuse this with stubbornness. Committing to the comfortable is a choice you make when you reflect on your own identity. You can let outside perceptions to mold how you carry yourself, or you can resist. The latter results in a situation similar to that of Mrs. Suri. You stick to your identity you created for yourself long before immigrating to a new place defined by very different identifying features.

2. Voluntary Adaptation

The Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in London has in many ways voluntarily adapted itself as a modern place of worship set several thousand miles away from India and, more importantly, the Ganges River (one of, if not the most important site in Hinduism). They expect non-Hindu visitors to the mandir, as indicated by an extensive exhibit tracing the main tenets of the religion. Certainly, places like St. Paul’s or Westminster Abbey have taken on a revised role as a tourist attraction, but you will not find there a museum describing the history or practices of Christianity; that’s left for the history books. The massive Hindu temple stands out in its relatively modest surroundings (except for a slight view of Wembley Stadium in the distance), so naturally it will garner some attention. The mandir, however modern, does not seem to lose much of its traditional identity. Hinduism thrives there; thousands are said to pray in the building during the day and more so during holy days.

The BBC has a link to some of the other ways Hindus have had to adapt to a new identity in 21st century, but I am unable to access it on my computer. I suggest taking a look, for it looks informative and will certainly give a much more comprehensive understanding than I can.

3. Hesitatant Adaptation

While the Hindus have voluntarily adapted themselves to modern London, the Sikh community – as understood after a visit to the Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sahaba in Southall – has taken some hesitant steps as enforced by British law. For example, one of the five tenets of Sikhism calls for the carrying of a sword for the defense of the weak, justice, and as a representation of God. British law forbids this, so this tenet cannot be fulfilled in 21st century Britain. A second tenet of Sikhism calls for uncut hair, as to symbolize, in part, one’s comfort with how he/she was physically created by God. For many jobs in Britain, one’s hair must be cut and trimmed, and some Sikhs decide to cut their hair accordingly. They lose part of their identifying features as a Sikh when faced with the new identity demanded of them by surrounding British culture. The gentleman who showed us around the gurdwara expressed his desire for all Sikh men to be allowed to carry their ceremonial swords, for, on that day, the two conflicting identities can coexist without having to forego one or the other.

Post-colonial literature points to this hesitant adaptation, but from a different perspective. Buchi Emecheta’s Second Class Citizen traces the difficulties several Nigerians face when trying to willingly adopt the British culture. Racism, prejudice, and misconceptions form a glass ceiling that essentially blocks the immigrants from moving away from their status as a ‘second-class citizen’. The hesitation can be drawn from the communities themselves or from a host identity defined by prejudice; one party cannot take full blame for the contrast between different peoples.


The construction of identity in the London of 2009 immediately appears like a forever mixed jumble of different practices, rites, and customs fighting for its own place of comfort. I see it as being in a state of disequilibrium, where the role of prejudice and anti-immigration compete with the openness and accommodating nature of some Londoners. Some want to enjoy their own separate community and their own traditions; others are willing to adapt and let their surroundings mold their identity. Neither is wrong, neither will prevent one from having a fulfilling life.


I still question my views on this topic, for it is a dense subject to write about. I look forward to the day I come to some brilliant understanding of identity construction and its adaptation/resistance when facing a new identity. Until then, I remain confused, frustrated, and exhausted.

Tags: Brandon