Last night, via a Guardian news alert on my locked iPhone screen, I heard the news I knew was coming, but rather hoped might never appear. Nelson Mandela had died aged 95. [Actually, there were two Guardian alerts. The first got his age wrong by a year – classic Grauniad.]

I’d looked at my phone just as I entered my building after an evening out. I let out an audible groan and made my way up the 6 flights of stairs with more speed than usual in order to get the TV on and settle down for some rolling news coverage. I’m not going to lie, there were tears in the offing, which might have fallen, had my flatmate not appeared. Mandela has entered the ultimate freedom and the world mourns its loss.

Later this afternoon, I’ll take a walk to South Africa House to view the tributes. As I stand there, I’ll remember Theo – a South African woman at our church in the 90’s, who voted for the first time in that building in 1994. Previously, she’d watched as her passport was destroyed in front of her in the very same building, at the height of apartheid. I might go as far as Parliament Square to look at the statue of Mandela that stands at the corner nearest Westminster Abbey.

Mandela, Parliament Square

I could write a whole post about what Mandela meant to me, my family, our friends, the world, but I won’t. In fact, I wrote a post about my regret at never seeing him in the flesh over four years ago, so in a rare move, I’ll repeat it here. It deserves it.


Reading an excellent article in the Guardian today, a sobering thought struck me:

It is pretty inevitable that I will now never get to see Nelson Mandela in the flesh.

The article outlined how South Africa have recently done a poll similar to the BBC’s ‘Great Britons’ poll of a few years back. Thing is, with the top 10 announced, the winner is so clear that there will simply be a contest as to what order the other 9 will be in. As the article states: “Mandela is that rare thing: a man turned into statues in his own lifetime”.

Mandela is most definitely the living person I most admire. I can’t actually remember a time when his name was not in my brain. I grew up against a backdrop of parents passionately involved in the anti-apartheid struggle (even if the first I understood of this was why we didn’t buy Shell petrol or Cape apples). Watching Cry Freedom, probably aged no more than 10 (I blame the babysitters) had a profound affect on me. Aged 9, with a bad dose of the flu, I lay on a chaise lounge at a friend’s house, watching Mandela being driven into freedom.

He’s my mother’s ‘memorable figure in history’ for her bank security questions. (She should worry about how much info I have on her banking – pin number, special date, maiden name…) The sharing of this fact at a social function resulted in an awkward conversation. Someone present insisted that Mandela was a no good terrorist – I believe the phrase “once a terrorist, always a terrorist” was used. It went down like a lead balloon.

The thing that bugs me is that I’ve had missed opportunities to see this man in person. Whilst at university, he gave a lecture at my campus – but in the holidays when no students were around (or even informed). When he launched the Make Poverty History campaign from Trafalgar Square I was stuck at my desk in the first week of a brand new job. My last opportunity – his birthday concert this time last year – was a missed one.

In four days time he will turn 91. His health is failing and he rarely travels, let alone leaves South Africa.

There are plenty of people I’d like to meet one day, from George Clooney (on a shallow level) to Judi Dench or even Obama (I have met Clinton – of the Bill variety – that was exciting), but Mandelas come along once in a blue moon. In fact, less than that. His life brought hope to so many and changed a country some though unchangeable (no matter what has happened since).

I just hope that when the sad day comes and he is no longer with us, he doesn’t do a Mother Theresa and become overshadowed by the death of someone much less worthy.


I am thankful that that last line wasn’t a piece of terrible foreboding. In April, I genuinely feared that Mandela’s death might be overshadowed by Thatcher’s. I was perpetually concerned that a royal death might do it. But now that it has happened, there is suitable space for mourning, reflection and memories. I’m hoping that this will be an excellent opportunity for the generation born since his release from prison to understand more of just how important he was. How many in the 1980’s believed apartheid might never end, yet by 1994 a former prisoner was president.

Last night, someone observed that December 5th in the Church of England calendar has no saints day and perhaps Mandela would be a suitable addition. I’d be on board with that.

May the memory of Mandela never be allowed to die.

Division in life and death

Guardian front page 9.4.13I can remember exactly where I was when I heard that Margaret Thatcher had resigned as leader of the Conservative Party and thus was no longer PM. I was sitting in my classroom, having just returned from a day trip to the Commonwealth Institute with my fellow class of nine year olds. I don’t remember how the teacher reacted, but I do remember watching the news later that evening at a friend’s house, and there being some rejoicing. No one in our household had voted for her (though close relatives had), and for the first time in my lifetime, she was not in charge of the country.

I can also remember exactly where I was when I decided that, when she died, I would not be rejoicing. It was my first term at university, and still with some idealistic political aspirations, I’d joined LSE Labour. One of our first meetings of term involved a Q&A with Ken Livingstone (still 6 months away from becoming the first London Mayor). I’ve no memory of much of the meeting, though I can picture exactly where I was sitting in the small, stuffy seminar room, but I do remember that one student asked him the following question: “When Margaret Thatcher dies, will you send flowers and attend the funeral?” As far as I recall, the question got some chuckles – including from Ken himself. I can’t remember the precise words that Ken replied with, but it was effectively no, he wouldn’t, it would be a cause for celebration instead. I was a little horrified (my poor, naive, 18 year old self!) – how could you possibly contemplate rejoicing in someone’s death?

The thing was, between 1990 and 1999, something happened that made Margaret Thatcher human to me. True, I’d already worshipped in the Methodist Church she had grown up in (it’s where my grandparents now go) and on every trip to Grantham we’d drive past the shop her father owned. But, most importantly, half a decade after her resignation, my mother attended a wedding where the former PM was sister-of-the-mother-of-the-bride. All of a sudden we knew someone who was a relation. Someone who, when Margaret Thatcher eventually did die, would be grieving – just like any one of us who had lost a member of their family. I worked alongside this person for several years and yesterday, it was her and her family that I was thinking of as Twitter exploded in a cacophony of vitriol.

I said nothing about Margaret Thatcher on Twitter or Facebook because I didn’t want to become part of that noise. An American friend lured me out of hiding by asking me my views on Facebook, but he kind of knew what I was going to say, because I think I’d already ranted at him on the subject.

Twitter and Facebook were not nice places yesterday (still aren’t, for that matter). On the one hand, the “ding dong the witch is dead” is crass; but it’s also patronising to ask “the left” or “socialists” to behave nicely. For a start, it’s not just those who are left-leaning who disliked Thatcher’s policies or who were hurt by them – whole communities were. But also, don’t get me started on the many ways in which “the right” have rejoiced inappropriately in similar situations. I don’t want this post to be seen as sanctimonious either – I saw way too much of that on Twitter too and it drove me up the wall. Many of my Tory friends (I say ‘many’, I don’t really have that many to begin with) retaliated with lists of all Thatcher’s achievements and amazing political initiatives – but I can’t agree with those either. I don’t agree with her policies and I don’t like the way in which some of them seem to be returning in the current government. I wish there was a way of separating the political commentary from the mourning – like having a week-long mourning window, before the political sniping begins – but that’s unrealistic. Is it too much to ask that people simply think, albeit briefly, about those who are directly affected by someone’s death?

Thatcher divided the country while PM and those divisions will never disappear as long as those affected by them are alive – or for as long as Thatcherism is an influential political ideology. We always knew the population would be divided in her death too, but couldn’t we have had a bit more grace in the process?

Thank goodness for the NHS

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve had more contact with the NHS than I’ve had cause to have for a couple of years. Two visits to the dentist (for one filling & a tooth filing – fun); one trip to my new GP; one prescription; a series of blood tests; and an x-ray.

I spent less than half an hour – in total – waiting for all these appointments and tests. In fact, my dentist is so good, I was out of the chair 1 minute after my first appointment was due to start, because he called me in early. Even the dreaded walk-in blood test clinic involved no more than 5 minutes waiting. (Usually, such trips are like visits to the most boring and painful deli counters in existence.) The longest wait was for the x-ray, but that seemed to be because I’d never been a patient at the hospital before and needed to fill in even more forms.

The total financial cost of all of this? £56.10 – and all bar £7.60 of that was spent on my teeth.

It’s at times like this that I am inordinately grateful for the NHS. I walked into my GP’s surgery with a list of ailments I wanted checking out. I didn’t need to worry that the cost of any treatment I might need would be prohibitive to receiving it. (Unless I happened to need a vast quantity of prescription meds.) I even got to be a guinea pig for a med student, so I was doing my own bit for the education of future generations of doctors.

If only more doctors looked like this…
On Saturday, I read an article about a student in the US who’d just been diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. [Not going to lie, the reason my eye was drawn to the article was less about the topic and more about the fact that the image that accompanied it was of George Clooney in ER, c.1997.] It explored the cost of her disease and stupid, innocent, British me, thought that the article would explore how it’s affected her physically. But no, it was about the financial costs and it was horrific reading. The medical bills for the hospital stays and tests that resulted in her diagnosis amounted to $13,246.53. I barely understand the workings out of how this was covered, but clearly she was lucky to have good insurance. 
The thrust of the article was that she now faced the dilemma of how to remain insured, as a soon-to-graduate postgrad and as someone no longer eligible to be covered by their parent’s insurance. It’s terrifying that dilemmas such as whether or not to be uncovered for 6 months, just to qualify for a particular type of insurance, have to be faced. Isn’t someone’s health more important that an insurance company making money? But thus speaks the voice of someone raised by the NHS…
What terrified me even more was the fact that none of the comments on the article complained about the state of US healthcare – they simply accepted it and provided helpful hints for generic medications or insurance loopholes. 
Why oh why do Americans accept this state of affairs? I know that’s a massive generalisation and that many are fighting it, but why aren’t more people? Why are people against Obama’s healthcare legislation that enabled those who couldn’t afford healthcare to have it without financial worries? But, perhaps most importantly for those on this side of the Atlantic, why oh why is our current government so determined to destroy one of our country’s greatest social assets? 

Friday Fun with animals and politicians

Ahhh, the first Friday of the school year. All around the country, teachers will be breathing a sigh of relief that it’s the weekend, while parents are bemoaning the return of their children after only just giving them back to the education system again. On both counts, it’s a day in need of fun…

It’s been a while since the last Friday Fun and as a result, the notes in my phone of things to highlight have become a little mysterious. I’m particularly disappointed that, despite Googling, I can’t work out what gem ‘hamsters eating popcorn’ referred to – but fortunately, I have another hamster gem that fills the void. I believe the title – 2 hamsters, 1 wheel – says it all.

Animals are traditional Friday Fun fodder, as are amusing musical videos. Occasionally, Star Wars themed things are fun too, so this re-interpretation of Call Me Maybe using all six Star Wars movies is doubly fun. (Warning: features Jar Jar Binks.) 
Moving on to some slightly more niche fun, many of you will be aware that election season is hotting up over the pond. Most of the time, us Brits watch proceedings with disbelief at who is considered a potential leader of the free world, but every so often we get inspired too – like after Michelle Obama and Bill Clinton’s speeches to the Democratic convention this week. I’ll always have a soft spot for Bill Clinton, partly because he made my A-level in US politics so much more interesting than it might have been thanks to the Starr Report and the impeachment process, and partly because he’s the only US President I’ve ever got close to physically. [No, not in *that* way, obviously, well, maybe not that obviously given it’s Clinton we’re talking about…] He gave a lecture at my university in my 3rd year and I got to see him walk into a building – that was pretty exciting as far as I was concerned. Anyway, the niche fun is a trove of campaign videos from the winner of ever Presidential election since 1952 and it makes for fascinating watching.
Being the geek I am, I watched them chronologically from 1952 onwards. I’d recommend starting in that year, if only because Eisenhower’s film was short, animated and had a catchy song. After that, skip through the others until you get to Nixon whose films – in hindsight – are quite frankly creepy. Courtesy of the Museum of the Moving Image, The Living Room Candidate is a brilliant resource. As well as the films, the details of each candidate and the results of the election are covered too, so it’s both fun and educational. 
If you need a little antidote to that rather high-brow fun, I’ll close with another clip I’ve realised I’ve had opened in a browser tab for about the last month (possibly longer) presumably so I’d remember to include it for Friday Fun. It combines two of my favourite things: The Muppets and When Harry Met Sally. I’ll leave you to figure out the rest…

Friday Fun from the archives

Friday Fun is getting political. I know we’re nowhere near an election (unfortunately), but I spotted a real gem courtesy of John on Twitter and it amused me so much that I had to share. It tickled me for several reasons:
1. It’s a public information film from 1949 – there is always humour to be had from such things.
2. Much of it (if you’re of left-leaning sympathies) will have you laughing hard at the Conservative party, which is a great thing in the current climate.
3. By the end of it, you will actually have learnt some useful political skills that may stand you in good stead for future life.

The film in question is ‘The Personal Touch’ from the Yorkshire Film Archive and was made by the Conservative party to teach its members how to canvass effectively in the run up to the election that eventually took place in early 1950 – this being the election following Labour’s landslide in 1945. (In case you’re unfamiliar with the concept, canvassing is a means of establishing who votes what in which neighbourhoods and is also an opportunity to plug your party’s cause. The British seem to be obsessed with it – not sure if it actually happens in other countries.)  As the film itself states in its introduction:

Very true. Dated, but educational – for a whole host of reasons…

Many of its lessons do still ring true today. For example, the film tells us not to assume that someone is a socialist just because they live in a small house. The opening dialogue involving a Tory canvasser and an innocent occupier of a small house is delightful:
“Most of the people on this street are socialists. I assume from your house that you must be one too…” 
[She declared that she wasn’t. Neither was she a Tory.]
“If you’re not a Socialist or a Conservative, I suppose you’re a Liberal. I’ll put you down as an ‘L’ – look! It looks like you’re a learner! You’ve got a lot to learn if you’re a Liberal…”
[She wasn’t a Liberal either. We never do find out who she intended to vote for – I’ll bet it was the Monster Raving Loony Party.]
Also, one should pay little attention to the party broadcasts from the opposition. There’s the usual scaremongering about how society will continue to deteriorate under a left-wing government (what with the awful things they initiated, like the NHS) and what disasters will occur thanks to the pressure of the Trade Unions…the familiar right versus left stuff. 
Plus, there’s a whole lot of legal rambling about what you can and can’t do during canvassing and how this changes during an election. Knowing the way the British political system works, this is probably still the case now – we love having rigorous election rules. (We just aren’t so keen on having the fairest voting system…) 
Anyway, do watch and enjoy. It’s long (over 20 minutes) but well worth it. If that wets your appetite for a little more archive film amusement, I highly recommend ‘Journey by a London bus’ (buses are so simple to use that even Africans from ‘Keenya’ can use them…) and ‘Growing Girls’ (a terrifying insight into how ‘gals’ in the 1950’s grew up) from the BFI YouTube channel. Both have been mentioned on the blog before, but they stand up well to multiple viewings – trust me. 

If this is all far too educational for you for it to be fun, then spend the next four minutes being mesmerised by a Japanese water fountain – you’ll be serene for the rest of the day.