What Makes you Laugh these Days?

What Makes you Laugh these Days?

I rather despair.  I long for something silly to listen to or watch but I find that so much of the humour is angry, classist, divisive and crass and so I switch off.  I used to enjoy the 6.30 Radio 4 slot but these days the level of humour is so pathetic it just makes me cross.  The News Quiz and the Now Show used to make me laugh but they are just rather cruel these days and very ‘lovey’ and full of anti-posh rhetoric. There’s Live at the Apollo if one can be bothered so stay up late enough but quite frankly after a few months it is all so much the same stuff of lavatory jokes, boring stories about children that what Michael McIntyre made amusing all those years ago has been taken to endless levels of repetition.

I just long to laugh more.  My childhood memories are of our family sitting round listening to Around the Horne or watching Tony Hancock or Morecambe and Wise and collapsing in laughter to the point that my Dad used to have tears streaming down his cheeks.

There was the gentle comedy of the soaps like I Love Lucy, Dad’s Army, The Good Life, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads, Til Death us do Part, Terry and June, The Avengers and idiotic humour like the Benny Hill Show, Eric Sykes, Marty Feldman, The Monkees, the Likely Lads, the Liver Birds, the Goodies, The Flintstones.  And of course Bertie Wooster and the Doctor at Large or at Sea series.  There was the classic Some Mothers Do ‘ave ’em.  We had so much choice!

The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin was one of the most brilliant comedy series of its day and I am not sure that there has been anything quite as witty since.  Perhaps The Office made an attempt to be as funny but I don’t think it matched up, in my view.

The original fly-on-the-wall Candid Camera could be brilliant but has been played to death.  And It’ll be Alright on the Night similarly ribbed ridiculous moments of theatre and television and made us laugh.

Along came Monty Python’s Flying Circus to take humour into another level of observation and idiocy that was radical and very funny.  Kenny Everett, The Young Ones and Dame Edna were equally radical and equally amusing.  Ben Elton and Victoria Wood combined pathos and sharp wit together.  And I am afraid I loved The Vicar of Dibley.

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A Mad New World?

I sometimes think I have woken up in some parallel universe where people’s minds are tuned in to some new radiowave of thought and I have been left behind.  Like someone has forgotten to update my software.  Did I really hear that:

  • The little green man on pedestrian traffic lights, so simple to explain to small children, is being replaced by two circles with arrows, the male symbol and/or the female symbol which is far less clear?
  • The Gay Rights organisation Stonewall has suggested that two biological men who choose to identify as women and are attracted to one another can call themselves lesbian?
  • The Freemasons, for ever a male-only organisation (thoroughly unfairly in my opinion) will now accept women but only if they started their membership as a man?
  • We have an American President who resembles a Court Jester (if only he was!)?
  • We might drop out of the EU without a deal?
  • A teacher who has decided that Maths makes students too anxious and could potentially be ‘racist’?
  • A convicted rapist, still a biological man, who can decide that he wants to ‘identify’ as a woman and gets moved to a woman’s prison where he carries out more sexual assaults?
  • There is a movement on both sides of the Atlantic to reverse the abortion laws so hard-won, forgetting how many women have suffered physically, mentally and financially (and actually died from backstreet abortions) while men walk away, oblivious of the high-handed nature with which they rule over women’s bodies and lives citing the law or religion?
  • We allow cyclists to cycle on our roads with no accountability, no insurance, no number plate, seemingly no reference to the Highway Code, slamming through red lights at pedestrian crossings and scattering toddlers and the elderly with no redress?
  • There are students who can erase the realities of history by tearing down statues and banning books and lectures?
  • There have been virtually no prosecutions for Female Genital Mutiliation that have taken place in this country despite many cases being reported?
  • By 2035 there will be more Muslim children in this country than Christian?
  • People don’t seem to consider, let alone acknowledge, the fact that using the phrase “male, pale and stale” is both racist and genderist abuse?
  • The number of referrals for transgender dysphoria has quadrupled in the last five years?
  • Apparently I can no longer have a fancy dress theme such as Around the World in 80 Days for my 70th birthday in 2020 because I might offend someone by dressing up in their country’s style?
  • Perhaps I can’t even write or use a recipe that comes from another culture as I might be accused of cultural appropriation?
  • According to some pearly words of politically correct wisdom I can’t write a novel about a black person because I am a white woman and may therefore misappropriate their culture. So presumably all my future work would have to only include white female characters?


Am I dreaming or just down a rabbit hole?  Is it that I have reached the stage of life similar to my parents moaning to me that the Rolling Stones looked hideous and sang dreadful songs? But surely all the above is far more serious than that?  Isn’t it?

The trouble is, I find, that if I raise any of these issues in a way that suggests that I am uncomfortable with some of the changes that are occurring I am looked at as if I am some kind of nearly-extinct pariah.  It seems to be very difficult to have any balanced discussion or debate with people because we are living in this binary black-and-white world where there doesn’t seem to be a middle way.  People just don’t want to hear concerns or questions on these subjects, let along views that differ from their own.

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An appreciation of the quiet grit of women through the ages

We went to visit Bletchley Park [https://bletchleypark.org.uk/] recently and were given an interesting tour of the huts and environment in which the codebreakers lived during World War II.  The conditions were tough.  The huts were freezing cold in winter, boiling hot in summer.  And full of cigarette smoke.  The women were mainly young, forced, at a time of their lives when they might expect to be dating and care-free, to concentrate for hours on the information coming in across the airwaves.  I felt in awe of them and what they did for us all.  Them and the men who fought, of course.  But these women kept silent and were not allowed to share their experiences even with their husbands.  There was no accolade or acknowledgement for many years of what they did for us.  They just quietly left and got on with life.

This made me think about the way women through the ages have just quietly got on with life, and still do, however tough.  The mothers in Syria, the Yazidis trying to re-enter life after kidnap ordeals, The Rohingyas, countless women who are subjected to violence and abuse in Africa, India, South America and nearer to home.  How they stoically knuckle down to do what they believe will protect themselves and their children.  We must not forget them and cannot imagine that any #MeToo or feminist movement that has occurred so far has solved these problems.

These messages were brought home to me also when we went to see the French film Les Guardians, about the women left behind to tend the farms while their men fought during World War I.  It was back-breaking work, tilling and gathering the harvest, making ends meet.  And it made me think of the women who have done this over the centuries, run farms, castles, palaces while the men went to war or off to Crusade.  Their skills unappreciated, often, and unacknowledged.  Bringing up the children unobtrusively on their own, while their men rampaged around the countryside or globe at the behest of some monarch, prince or baron.  There are few history books documenting their lives or explaining how they kept a country, community and family going in the absence of the menfolk.

Coincidentally I have also just finished the book The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, about the women left behind on their own in France during World War II, one fighting for the Resistance, the other defending her family and friends during the Occupation, finally being drawn to protect Jewish children.  These women, like the women in England and elsewhere, were living on bare scraps of food with little heat or protection.

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A Second Referendum: more questions than answers

I confess to being confused.  There is a lobby to hold a Second Referendum on Brexit but I question whether, in just giving us the terms of the UK-EU negotiations, we would have sufficient information to make up our minds?  Don’t we also want the EU to reform?  Do we really just want to go back to where we were, with our tail between our legs?  Even the most staunch Remainers I speak to agree that there are major issues within Europe that need addressing.  The argument is that it is more effective to do this by influencing from the inside but past evidence doesn’t back this up as our own attempts to influence Brussels have not been that successful.  And I don’t see much listening going on when other EU members have gripes either.  So what’s to be done?

The media debate seems to cover only our own appallingly incompetent negotiations with the EU and how it impacts the UK.  But what about what else is going on in Europe and how that might play out over the next decade?  I don’t read much in our press regarding what the EU’s strategy is to hold the members together in this radically changed world.  I only hear the same old narrative about the four principles, with no flexibility, it seems, to those countries who are struggling to manage to live within them.

Don’t get me wrong.  I want a close relationship with Europe but perhaps, having run a small business rather than having been part of a large organisation, I prefer to have the freedom to be flexible and act fast when necessary.  Within the EU currently, negotiations are cumbersome and long-winded.  As I said before, I voted Remain – but only just.  I think, like many others, including those I speak to who voted Leave (who, contrary to the narrative, are usually thoroughly intelligent global thinkers who are far from racist, and often immigrants themselves), there is a sentimental connection to the people who live in those countries and an enjoyment of the exchange of cultural history.  But the reality is that our history is so different, in that the majority of those countries who are now members were all either occupied by invading armies or governed by a Communist or Fascist dictatorship.  Living under an authoritarian regime shapes a very different mindset and lifestyle where people are careful what they say and often source goods or services on street corners or in corridors.  Trust and transparency takes time to build up.

We are currently having our house in Kew refurbished by builders who come from Eastern Europe and they still report that there is enormous corruption in Bulgaria, Romania and other countries where the former Communist regime politicians have found their way back into government and milk the proceeds.  We heard this story in many of the countries we visited along the Danube two years’ ago.  What is the EU’s strategy to tackle this corruption?

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Teaching values, ethics and empathy in a secular age

As a child of the 50s I sat through endless school assemblies and Church of England services drumming home to me the message of “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you” (Matthew 7:12).  I am not sure I totally understood the detail required within that statement, in terms of personal action.  I know I have said and done things I have regretted but there is no doubt that I have felt a sharp sense of guilt when I have done so.

Values and ethics are not the sole domain of religion, and in other ways religious beliefs can divide us.  And yet those Ten Commandments that I heard repeated so many times in my youth remain in my mind and are surely positive messages for our young?  Our lives depend on the majority of people behaving well and those core beliefs of not killing, stealing, telling lies or coveting one’s neighbour’s wife or possessions help shape social behaviours.

In an era of false news and social media people seem to forget the Golden Rule of “do unto others” and instead threaten people who say or do something they don’t like with death, rape and hatred.  They seem incapable of considering or imagining how it might feel to be at the receiving end of this kind of behaviour.

Cyber bullying translates into objectifying people in real life.  Guns, knives and porn seem to be part of a trend whereby the perpetrator never considers or is faced with the appalling damage they do to a victim and their family.  The lyrics of the drill music rap songs encourage people to violence and seem to laugh at the pain they are causing.  Why do we tolerate this?  Why do we turn a blind eye to the everyday put-downs, the so-called ‘funny’ comedians spitting vitriolic personal remarks that are laced with envy and unpleasantness?  Why do we not silence the preachers inciting jihad, division and hatred?  It’s not just up to Government.  It’s up to each and every one of us to act where we see injustice.

The messages we receive as children get sewn into our neuronal networks.  We may consider them, analyse them and reject them as we enter adulthood but they will have had some influence on our thinking, development and behaviour.  I am concerned that education has become more focused on being ‘clever’ than being wise.  And we are getting very little example from the world leaders of today, I fear, who seem to value power more than doing the best for their population.  Erdogan, Putin, Kim Jong Un, Trump, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, and many others seem to be willing to distort democracy for their own personal power goals. Sports stars get drunk and aggressive.  Video games project endless violence.  Advertisements continue to diminish women.  Porn debases both genders.  These are the images our young people are seeing and I wonder how it will influence their behaviour in future. Read more →


Finding our Way

I must be getting old.   I have moved many times in my life but never found it as exhausting as this move to Kew.  The selling of Hampshire, the decluttering and then moving in to a house with a conservatory in 30 degrees of heat has been somewhat demanding, to say the least.  But we have landed here and are adjusting to our new life and it feels good.

There is a reality to be accepted when one ages and that is that one simply doesn’t have the energy one had when one was younger.  We resent the fact, of course.  We try to deny it and soldier on but, when we do, our body just packs up and shouts “STOP unpacking those cases and sit down!”.

And as we move in, we hear of friends who are ill and dying and that’s another reminder of our age.  But it’s also a reminder of why we are pleased to be here in Kew, where we find neighbours of exceptional kindness and friendliness.  That feels so good.

And so we have found our way from Hampshire and are now busy finding our way around the new area, which brings us into contact with plumbers, carpenters, wardrobe fitters and more.  And in this we learn much about customer service and those who care and those who don’t.  We were truly disappointed by our experience of shopping for beds in the major department stores of Oxford Street.  There were plenty of assistants but none of them seemed in the slightest bit interested in selling us anything or helping us find our way to a department.  They were much more interested in talking to one another.

Even when we were willing to spend £800 on a bed the somewhat grumpy assistant suggested we go home and order it on line.  Why?  Surely there must be some added value offered in bothering to go into the store?  Surely the assistants should smile and offer to help?  Surely they should know what they are talking about and not say “I don’t know how that guest bed works”.   Perhaps I am just old fashioned in my expectations of service.    Perhaps I am turning into Victor Meldrew.  Either way, sadly it’s not surprising that these retail stores are struggling to make a profit.  We won’t be going back there any time soon. Read more →


Divide and Rule: Beware the methods of autocrats

I woke up at 6.30am this morning wondering what is happening to democracy?  Have people got complacent about it or so disenchanted that they are comfortable with leaders like Trump, Putin and Erdogan taking so much power?  Have they forgotten what happens when leaders over reach their power and become monarchs or Tsars?  It’s a long time since Charles I was put in his place and I worry that we are not being alert enough to ensure that there are blocks in place to prevent a leader simply changing the law to remain in power as long as they choose and somehow convincing a gullible population that this is good for them.  The younger generation may not fully appreciate what happened in the build-up to Hitler, or to the Communist state and if they don’t then we need to inform them!  The generations that were close to these events are dying out and getting older.  The young need to know more about how power gets snatched from before their eyes without them realising it.

I am just re-reading Dr Zhivago and it paints a miserable picture of life under a Communist ideology – long queues, people thrown out of their homes, the elite pilloried, doctors regarded as ‘professional elite’ and thrown out of jobs, academics and writers sent to Siberia.  It didn’t happen overnight but it can – President Erdogan has thrown some 160,000 people into prison over the last year and yet what is the rest of the world doing to question this?  President Trump puts people in cages.  Putin gives himself more powers and woe betide those who challenge or stand against him.  And Duterte in the Philippines just kills those he dislikes from what I understand.

Watching the “Fourth Estate”, a BBC documentary about the New York Times’ reporting of Trump’s first 100 days, we were reminded of how Trump has insidiously but blatantly tried to turn his people against the free press, describing them as “the enemies of the people”.  He questions the expertise and knowledge of academics and those who have worked their way up to senior positions through knowledge, questioning facts and speaking downright lies himself.  He sacks anyone who disagrees with him and if one of his staff won’t lie or follow his lead they go.  He is endeavouring to build a powerful group of followers around him, the better to build his own power base.  This is dangerous stuff.

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Political correctness stifles creativity

On Mariella Frostrup’s Open Book programme on Radio 4 last week she interviewed Nell Dunn, the esteemed author of Up the Junction and Poor Cow.  She mentioned that Dunn had been accused of ‘appropriation’ due to the fact that she wrote about working-class women and yet herself had come from an aristocratic home.  I admit that I was shocked by this idea.  Are none of us now allowed to write about people who are different to ourselves?  How will any author who is not a murderer write a thriller?  How will a male author include female characters and not be accused of ‘appropriation’?  Surely this is total nonsense?

But similar trends of thought are being spread about judges and politicians with the suggestion that they cannot make professional decisions about others if they have not lived the kind of lives of the people they judge or govern.  I am not sure exactly who is spreading this intolerance but it strikes me that it demonstrates ignorance of human imagination and is also potentially thoroughly dangerous, as it threatens free speech and creativity.  Dictatorships have been formed by such edicts.  Think of the Russian dissidents in Siberia.  Cast your mind towards the countless writers and journalists thrown into prison by President Erdogan in the last year or so, those assassinated on Russian streets.

The kind of thinking that rules that you cannot write about someone unlike yourself denies both empathy and creativity.  It seems in direct contradiction to the concept of integration and diversity. How could any author have written a masterpiece or best-seller unless they imagined characters unlike themselves?  Khaled Hosseini’s book A Thousand Splendid Suns comes to my mind.  It describes the lives of Afghan women with great poignance: was this ‘appropriating’ their experience?  Men have written as women and women as men.  Russians have written about the French and the English about Italians.    The examples are endless.

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Betwixt and Between

Firstly a very big thankyou for staying with me and choosing to read some of my Thinking Aloud blogs.  GDPR was rather scary – I was worried I might end up with only 4 people still subscribing.  In fact I lost less than a handful, so that feels very heartening!

And now our house in Hampshire is under offer and someone loves our beautiful quirky home as much as we do.  And that feels wonderful and yet poignant at the same time as it reflects the end of an era, brought into greater focus by our grandchildren who make remarks like “we love your house!”  “Your house is the best house in the world!” “Will your house in Kew have a swimming pool – we LOVE your pool!” … and the heartstrings get pulled.

Inevitably the Kew house will not have a swimming pool – in a garden of about 12 x12 ft this would be challenging!  And we will just about be able to have our children and grandchildren to stay but certainly not more than one family at a time, whereas here in Hampshire we have been able to accommodate, on beds, sofa beds, camp beds, futons, David’s four sons and their families, adding up to some 14 to stay.  It was exhausting, with the shopping, catering, the sheets, the washing, ironing and vacuuming afterwards but it was great fun and everyone loved and appreciated it.  My two sons and their families also had some good times in this wonderful adaptable space and my three grandchildren and David’s seven grandchildren all loved it and had a ball.

I can still remember my grandmother’s house, still walk around it in my mind and get the sense of being there with her, chatting in the kitchen, chasing after her with an ashtray when her cigarette ash looked as if it would fall in the soup (this seems to be a common experience for people of my generation!), crawling into her double bed, playing in the garden.  Hopefully our grandchildren will also remember this lovely place and have some fun with us in the next.

And so on to a new transition and inevitably I think of my parents moving from a big house to a small one towards the end of their lives, as David thinks of his moving from Doncaster to Barnes.  It reminds us that we are our parents’ age.  How can that have happened?!  And it feels both like a closing down and yet also an opening up of many new opportunities and a fun lifestyle in Kew, where there is so much on offer.

We spent the weekend in Kew for David’s 75th birthday, staying at the delightful Coach and Horses Inn on Kew Green.  We ate chocolate birthday cake cooked by Kate Comer, photo attached, we were entertained by a magician, Steve Rowe, and the blended families chatted happily and the grandchildren have come away practising their magic tricks on us all.  We walked by the river, had a picnic in Kew Gardens bought at the very buzzy and vibrant farmer’s market in Kew Village on Sunday.  We tasted our new life and liked it.  But there will be both gratitude and sadness at leaving Hampshire Hunt Cottage as it has been the scene of many happy occasions.

In the meantime though we are betwixt and between, stuck in the ghastly limboland that is selling a home in England.  A process that can leave you in stress and uncertainty for weeks at a time while surveys are carried out, mortgage companies decide whether or not to give you a loan, searches have to be completed and lawyers ask stressful questions like “where is the woodworm certificate?”.

And one has to scramble around to find the cash to pay exorbitant amounts of Stamp Duty for a house half the size of the one we are currently living in, not to mention removal costs, agent’s fees and the rest.  We Baby Boomers are berated for not selling our houses but it isn’t that simple.

I feel I have half my heart in one home and half my heart in the next and yet I don’t dare get excited about our new life because we have not yet exchanged contracts and until that is done, nothing is certain.  I have had so many experiences of moving that I know that even the most seemingly simple chain – which ours appears to be – can break a link unexpectedly.  Why does it have to be so difficult in England?   Everybody complains about it but nothing changes.  In France, and I believe Scotland, things are more-or-less firmed up within 14 days.  Why can’t we make this process less stressful?

My brain is scrambled and my nights are filled with to-do lists.  We are endeavouring to downsize and declutter from 3000 sq ft to approximately 1500 which is not easy.  When I mention to David that we won’t have room for something he just looks at me with sorrowful eyes and says “but I am rather fond of that …” or “it’s not very big…” But how many small things, or sentimental ones, can one fit into a smallish house?  Chatting to my sister the other day, whose dear late husband Leo, was not dissimilar to David, she told me how, when they were moving to France, she would spend the day filling black bin bags with things she didn’t think they should take, only to discover Leo pulling them all out again at the end of the day.  Hey ho … I know the feeling!  And I can’t really talk – I find it near-impossible to let go of books.

But I shall miss many things about Hampshire and especially our book club, which we have hosted for several years and has provided many jolly occasions and stimulating conversations; the writing group of which I am a part in Petersfield which has changed my life, supporting me in becoming a poet and writer; the Loose Muse poetry evenings in Winchester so well run by Sue Wrinch.  And for David his tennis and Warrior exercise group, not to mention for both of us, local friends, Alresford, Winchester Cathedral, the Watercress Line, plus some exquisite countryside.

Underneath it all though, when I allow myself to be, I am deeply excited and look forward to new adventures and to being closer to grandchildren.  But how I long to get out of this conveyancing limbo-land and to arrive there in our new life!  The provisional date for moving is Friday 13 July, which is my mother’s birthday and lucky for some, so I am hoping that this is a good omen.


Integrating change with an open heart

I had cause to take the tube at rush hour two mornings last week – a rare event now that I am retired.  It was packed, of course, but I was so struck by how companionable we were as we stood pressed next to each other like sardines.  Men and women of all nationalities stood up for pregnant women and I was offered a seat several times (it has taken some adjustment to accept I look old enough to be offered a seat!).  I accepted with the graciousness with which it was offered.

The journey from the tube door to the escalator at Oxford Circus was a slow one through the endless tunnels and up the steps and yet everyone slowed to an orderly snail’s pace.  All colours and creeds cooperating, no pushing or shoving, just individuals quietly in their own space yet acting as a united crowd.

It occurred to me that the experience of being on the tube has changed radically since I first came to London in 1967.  The number of passengers has increased exponentially and yet the good will remains, bar the odd bad behaviour.  The diversity of the passengers travelling has also altered exponentially and yet my feeling was that although people inevitably find the experience of travelling on very crowded tubes or trains more tiring and stressful than travelling on empty ones, it didn’t seem to matter who these crowds consisted of.  They could have been any colour or background.  It was the number not the ethnic diversity that caused discomfort.  Everyone on those tubes seemed perfectly amicable with one another, perfectly comfortable despite the environmental discomfort.

It surprised me, therefore, when I read an interview in The Guardian with the poet Linton Kwesi Johnson who said that he felt that “racism is in the DNA in the UK since imperial times”.  Of course there are pockets of racists here as there are anywhere and everywhere else in the world but this blanket statement of racism didn’t ring true to my experience.  What it doesn’t allow for is the fact that there are tribal factions, alienations and enmities in all kinds of areas of human life and that the concept of friend or foe is buried deep in our unconscious threat-alert system whether we are black or white or simply of a different creed or tribe.  It is a natural human function to be wary of strangers and difference.

We too can feel like a minority and this change has happened within my own lifetime.  A recent report has shown that the number of pupils from ethnic minority backgrounds in English secondary schools has soared by more than fifty percent in a decade.  Figures show that black and Asian children account for 17 per cent of pupils aged 11-16 and in inner London white British pupils are now in the minority.  A considerable number of schools have more ethnic children than English in several areas of the country.  And yet, on the whole, daily life is companionable despite the odd flare-up of bullying or problems (and one mustn’t forget that bullying can occur white on white or black on white as much as white on black or ethnic).

The outrage at the treatment of the Windrush Generation came from a sentiment that these people are now one of us, as are so many others who have come here from Asia, Uganda and many other parts of the world.  And interestingly some of those immigrants also voice their own concern at the numbers entering the country today.  I have known ethnic families who were not at all happy when a son or daughter brought home a potential spouse who was white English!  Wariness of change works both ways.

When I have travelled in Nigeria, Egypt, India, the Middle East I am inevitably the one who is different and endeavour to align my behaviours to the culture in which I am living or working.  In the area of London in which I have lived I rarely heard an indigenous English voice in recent days and did rather wonder, as I got older and more vulnerable, whether anyone would be able to help me or know how to phone 999 if I fell in the street.  Perhaps silly of me but nonetheless a consideration.

A programme on Radio 4 this week discussed the 1970s-80s policy introduced by the Labour party of ‘bussing’ ethnic children to white schools, with the intention of supporting greater integration.  Some had seen this as having the unintended consequence of ethnic children feeling singled out.  Others said that although it had been difficult they had, in fact, learnt a great deal more about English life and had integrated better with the culture as a result of this policy.  Today some head teachers are concerned that the changing demographics of English secondary schools are leading to a kind of unhealthy separation and that perhaps there should be a return to a policy of positive integration where there is an imbalance of ethnic mix.   Certainly we all need to work out the best way to help people feel at ease with one another.                                                                                                                    Read more →