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Tuesday 22 November 2016


Every so often a student writes a poem in one of my workshops that makes me think that, were my career to end tomorrow, it would have been worth it. I'd like to share an amazing poem written by one of my students during my weekly poetry lunch club. We were writing poems comprised of sayings, based on this poem of mine and the poem 'Parents' Sayings' by Michael Rosen. These poems are humorous, but Safiyah took a different tack:

Things My Depression Says by Safiya (Year 9)

Do you really need a life?

You want to die, I know it
Pick that knife up and slit your throat
Ever day’s a disaster
End it, just end it
There’s no point
There’s no one there for you
No friends, no family
Why don’t you end your suffering?
These are things that my depression says
But I don’t care…
I won’t listen!

Image result for depression

Thursday 17 November 2016

Matthew Syed on Role Models in Sports

Matthew Syed is one of my favourite journalists. I first encountered him when I was a table tennis obsessed fourteen-year-old and he was British men's number one, and I came across his name later on when I started reading my parents’ Times newspaper, which Syed now writes for. He is a pretty inspirational guy, forging a success out of two very different careers. And his recent book Bounce is a great read, convincingly doing away with what he calls “the myth of talent” in favour of the idea that success in any domain is better explained by dedication and practice.

Nonetheless, there is an area in which I find myself consistently disagreeing with Syed. Pictures recently emerged of England captain Wayne Rooney drunk and disorderly at a wedding. Misdemeanours by leading sportspeople, especially high profile footballers, are of course nothing new, and whenever they are revealed in the press they are accompanied by proclamations to the effect that such people are ‘role models’, and it is in large part for this reason that their behaviour is unacceptable.

Syed disagrees with the idea of footballers as role models. From what I remember (he is very welcome to write to me for clarification!) he argues (a) that footballers sign up for the job to play football, not to be some kind of totem of morality, and (b) that in any case, we are misguided as a society if we use footballers as such totems. As Syed writes: “When did our culture start to indulge the ridiculous idea that because someone is good at kicking a football, they are also the kind of people to look to for guidance when it comes to personal morality?”

Now, I work full-time with children. In my work, I regularly come across children, young boys especially, who do model their own behaviour on that of their footballing idols. We can draw a distinction in Syed’s argument between the normative – i.e. what ought to be the case, and the descriptive – what is the case. It might very well be true that, as a society, we shouldn’t look to footballers as examples of how we ought to behave, but the fact is that we, and in particular children, do look at footballers in this way. To try to undo this would, it seems to me, require undoing some basic facts about children’s psychology: they see people they admire, and they try to emulate them. Children do not draw the kind of sophisticated, fine-grained philosophical distinctions that Syed does; children see, and children do.

I’ll give a specific example. Not so long ago I refereed a football match involving nine-year-old boys. The kids delighted in feigning injury, elaborately wailing and rolling around then nonchalantly getting up when their opponents kicked the ball out of play. They were constantly up in my face, aggressively challenging my every decision. They were pushing and shoving each other. They were spitting. They were swearing. And they were, all in all, very nice kids. Where did they learn this behaviour? From the telly, obviously.

Whether Syed likes it or not, the fact is that footballers are role models. They may not ask to be or want to be, but they are. Analogously, I may not want to become a father. Does that mean I am morally within my rights to just piss off when it happens (“I only signed up for the sex, not the fatherhood")?. Of course not: I undertook an action that I could reasonably foresee might lead to this consequence. Similarly with footballers: it is not unreasonable to expect them to recognise that their actions will be broadcast and publicised, and will have influence on people beyond themselves. Given the proliferation and globalisation of the sport, it almost seems as though moral rectitude should be part of the job description, rather than merely, as Syed states, “kicking a football”.

And we can bleat all we like that children should follow the example of Martin Luther King rather than John Terry, but so long as the likes of the latter penetrate our consciousness via screen and page, their example will be followed. This is just how children work. We can do various things: we can stop publicising the bad behaviour of footballers; we can teach children more about morality and personal responsibility; we can educate footballers themselves and demand certain standards of them; we can do all of this and more. But it is not enough simply to say that these guys are footballers, not monks, so let’s get on with it.  Try telling that to a nine-year-old who has just bitten his opponent “because Suarez did it.”

(As a final ad-hominem: I would be interested to know how much experience Syed has of working with and generally being around children, and whether working with them in a sporting context would influence his arguments regarding whether or not footballers are role models.)  

Wednesday 16 November 2016

[CENSORED] - fun poetry activity


The xxxxx in this xxxxx are not very xxxx
Like xxxxx and xxxxxx and xxxxx and xxxx

If you xxxxx it you just might be xxxxxx or xxxxx
And then you will xxxxx because of the xxxxxx

Beware of the xxxxx or xxxxxx xxxxxx
It’s not xxxxx houses xxxxxx big xxxxxx

xxxxxx goats xxxxxx licks xxxxxx xxxx xxxxxx
Eleven xxxxxx never xxxxxxxx stretch

xxxxxx bat xxxxxx complain xxxxx soup
Weirdly, xxxxx never xxxxx xxxxxx xxxxxx

So if you xxxxxx and then xxxxxxx xxxxxx
Remember to xxxxxx so that xxxxxxxx aubergine.

*some of the words in this poem have been blanked out by MI5 for security reasons. Can you fill them in?

Image result for spy

Monday 14 November 2016


When I checked my emails this morning I found this amazing blog post in my inbox. The author discusses Donald Trump, and the battle we all face between Love and Fear. In today's poetry workshop students wrote poems on the theme of 'Love'. We started off with a quick warm up exercise, in which I asked students to complete the following sentences: 'Loves tastes like...', 'Love sounds like...', Love looks like..., 'Love feels like...' and 'Love smells like...'. We then looked at two pieces of writing: Love Is by Adrian Henri, and this passage from Corinthians. Students then wrote their own poems. Here are two fantastic examples that I'd like to share.

Love is… by Nazifa

Love is the sickening feeling
that starts to grow in your stomach.
Love feels like a warm spark
going on in your heart.
It sounds like fireworks or wedding bells
quietly ringing in your ear.
Love is when your mum throws
the first thing she sees at you.
Yes, this is love.
Love is letting your favourite chocolate
melt in your mouth.
You can’t grasp love.
You can’t see love.
You probably can’t even taste love.
Love is blind.
Love is love.

Love is… by Zainab

Love is.
Love is fireworks and butterflies
Exploding in my stomach.
Love is colourful
Love is blind
Love is.

Love is feeling,
Feelings you can’t touch
Love is exciting
Love is dumb
Love is

Love comes in different forms
My form
Your form
It doesn’t matter –
Everyone experiences love.
Love is.

Love is
Oozy chocolate fondant
And that chocolatey smell
I hope it cooks well.
Love is.

Love is
When you’re turning 13 tomorrow
And you’ve got the embarrassing lessons
Where you’re gonna go red
And receive 100 presents
In a delicious Turkish restaurant
Just me and 4 families and a Turkish waiter
Singing Happy Birthday to me,

Bringing in the cake. 

Saturday 12 November 2016


Recently I have been working with a lot of RE classes. The aim of these sessions is to engage students in the curriculum through the medium of writing and discussing poetry. Many of the classes are focused on the nature and attributes of God, which has led to me researching poems on these themes. This has been a journey of discovery for me: I specialised in the philosophy of religion at university, at the same time as being an amateur (and not very good) poet, but at no point did I think to combine these interests and view one through the lens of the other. 

My recent research has led to the discovery of some interesting poems. One of these poems is Langston Hughes’ short piece, ‘God’, which goes as follows:

I am God—
Without one friend,
Alone in my purity
World without end.

Below me young lovers
Tread the sweet ground—
But I am God—
I cannot come down.

Life is love!
Love is life only!
Better to be human
Than God—and lonely.

I used this poem as a springboard for discussion by focusing on the following three questions: (1) why might God be “without one friend”?; (2) why might God say “I cannot come down?”; and (3) is it “Better to be human/Than God – and lonely”? There are some fairly interesting philosophical objections to Hughes’ piece: if God is omniscient, then he would know everyone, and he wouldn’t be ‘without one friend’; if God is omnipotent then it wouldn’t be true that he couldn’t ‘come down’ if he so chooses; loneliness is a human emotion, and to attribute it to God would be to anthropomorphise Him. Perhaps to pick apart a poem through analytic philosophy is to commit a category error; nonetheless the poem sparked some interesting discussion.

Another poem I discovered was ‘The God Who Loves You’ by Carl Dennis. This poem is too long to reproduce on this blog, but it can be viewed here. I strongly urge you to check it out, as it is a wonderful poem. It uses colloquial, conversational language to paint a picture of a man driving home to his wife after work, and a 'loving god' who is "harassed by alternatives" regarding how the man's life might have turned out had he chosen different paths. In particular, this god is disturbed by the notion that, had the man made different choices, he might have had a life that was "thirty points above the life you're living/On any scale of satisfaction." We are into quite meaty philosophical territory here, and questions are raised that have to do with free will and God's omniscience. I drew solace from what I perceived to be the final, redemptive message of the poem - that instead of focusing on what we might have done differently, we, and perhaps God, are better served by embracing the actualities of a "life you can talk about/With a claim to authority." I found this comforting and empowering.

It seems, however, that my optimistic reading of the poem is not universally shared. I did a bit of casual Googling in order to ascertain how other people interpreted what, like all good poems, is somewhat ambiguous, and came across this blog, whose author interprets the message of the poem not as one of empowerment but of fear. She discusses "the great risk God took when he endowed us with free will. Not only do we have the power to succeed, we are equally as likely to fail." The author, evidently a religious person, goes on: "Dennis's poem scared me. I don't want to live like the man in the poem, and I don't want to abuse the free will God gave me."

I didn't interpret the man in the poem as committing such an 'abuse'. It is worth noting that, throughout the poem, 'god' is not capitalised. The 'god who loves you', the one who is "pacing his cloudy bedroom, harassed by alternatives you're spared by ignorance", may thus be viewed as just one of a litany of possible conceptions of 'god'. The power of the poem lies not with this god, but with the man, who has the capacity to "come to the rescue by imagining him [god]/No wiser than you are." It must be admitted that, if you have a prior belief in a god who conforms to certain religious traditions, you might not be at liberty to "come to the rescue" by simply imagining a different type of god into existence. Furthermore, this idea relies on what, in the jargon, is called 'doxastic voluntarism' - the idea that people can simply decide what to believe through a mere act of will. 

All this is murky and confusing. Was my initially optimistic, comforting reading of the poem wrong? Faced with the ambiguity within the poem, it became apparent that I was being offered exactly the sort of opportunity to practice the self-trust that, to my mind, the poem exhorted in the first place! I am the captain of my own ship. "For all you know", the poem states, "[this] is the life you've chosen." In other words, we do not and cannot have all the information, so the best we can do is just live our lives, the ones we can talk about "with a claim to authority". And how are we to do this? Well, let's go back to Langston Hughes' poem. In the final stanza, Hughes highlights the human capacity for love - "life is love!/Love is life only!", which he contrasts with God, who is "lonely" through lack of participation in this human love. Thus, to practice love is to love the life we have, "the life you've witnessed", as Dennis states. And the protagonist in Dennis' poem does seem to be a pretty good sort of bloke, the sort who "tries to withhold from [his] wife the day's disappointments/So she can save her empathy for this children." This man's imperfect, bumbling sort of love is good enough, provided he consents to "sit down tonight" and write to his "actual friend", a metaphor for accepting the reality of his life. This is what I took away from Dennis' poem. 

Why am I writing all this? I have had OCD for as long as I can remember. It hasn't always been particularly virulent, but the tendency has always been there. It has an unwelcome habit of flaring up at crucial junctures and transitions in my life, causing me endlessly to doubt myself and to navigate a mental labyrinth in which I question everything I thought I knew. It sometimes threatens to derail everything good in my life (of which there is much) by causing me to question whether it is good. It is a vicious and unproductive form of mental gymnastics, spurred in large part by a terror of going against what 'the god who loves me' might have chosen for me. (This is a metaphor - I am not religious.) In other words, it is a toxic form of the 'grass is always greener' syndrome.

The anxious brain, in its best-intentioned misguidedness, tries to protect us from the possibility of error. For me, the path to liberation lies in dispensing with the very notion of 'error' in the first place. Thus, what we have, instead of a choice between a right and a wrong path, is a choice between love and fear. As psychologist David Richo writes: "Love is a total yes. Fear is no. Love gives us access to the unconditional being that is our endless potential." And notice that, for the man in Dennis's poem, his past is foreclosed but his future is one of just such potential: he can either choose to write to his erstwhile friend, or keep him shut out; he can either embrace the actuality of his life, or live in the realm of unknown and unknowable (to him) possibilities. 

Richo goes on to state: "Fearlessness brings with it the conviction that everything in our lives is part of our destiny, exactly what we need in order to become who we really are. Not only is it all right to be myself, it is really alright to let events be themselves." The 'loving god' of Dennis's poem is not really loving at all, if love implies acceptance of what is as opposed to what might have been. At any rate, the words of poet Derek Walcott spring to mind: "Sit. Feast on your life."

Tuesday 8 November 2016


I am writing this in anticipation of the results of the American Presidential election. In today's workshops, I asked students to imagine would they would do if they were in charge of things. Here are a couple of poems that resulted (the first one is by me)

If I Was Prime Minister

If I was Prime Minister
walks would be compulsory –
at least an hour a day.

If I was Prime Minister
all we’d ever do
is run around and play.

If I was Prime Minister
fetch would be
our national sport.

If I was Prime Minister
question time would be
very short. (And loud.)

If I was Prime Minister
I’d put all criminals
on a tight leash.

If I was Prime Minister
I’d growl a lot
and bare my teeth.

If I was Prime Minister
I’d be big and bold
and bad.

But will I ever be
Prime Minister?
You must be BARKING mad.

 I Will by Sathana (Year 9)

I will introduce a system called ‘No GCSEs’
I will have every front door decorated with bluebells
I will

I will vanish homework
I will make people sell fruit smoothies
at the end of each road
I will

Vote for me and I will promise to you these things
Vote for me and life will be so much easier
Vote for me and I’ll find ways to improve society
for everyone
I will

Everyone has zeal
Everyone has potential
So why not me?
Why not you?
Why not try?
Not trying to be quarrelsome
Just trying to make a slight difference
And also remember
That I will.