Sep 29 2014

The American Empire, Iraq, Britain, Nelson,ISIS and the Arms Trade

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HMS VictoryToday on September 29th 1758 Horatio Nelson was born. After the battle of Trafalgar he became a national icon and London’s most famous square has his column in the middle of it and him on top. In 1805 he inspired his men to victory at Trafalgar with the message “England expects that every man will do his duty”. That battle was about the control of the seas and the British Empire. My father bought me a model of his ship, H.M.S. Victory, to make up when I was 7-years-old.

Today the British Empire is much smaller than the quarter of the earth it used to control but now enter the American Empire. The United States is the top military spender in the world with the United Kingdom a close sixth behind it out of around 200 countries in the world and the military of the United States is deployed in more than 150 countries around the world. The American Empire is maintained by this military spending.

Screen Shot 2014-09-29 at 04.15.34

And without understanding the nature of the American Empire we can’t understand what is going on in the Middle East today. Confining it to the beheading of a few Western individuals and an evil Islamic movement obscures the bigger picture.

And if you try to teach this bigger picture in schools you are told you are being too political.

But anyway the modern day Nelson and what he stood for:

Today, eleven years after its original invasion, the United States is back in Iraq supported again by Britain, bombing its own tanks, its own artillery pieces, and its own armored personnel vehicles — once provided to the Iraqi army during the eight-year occupation, seized by ISIS.

ISIS uses large captured US-made weapons and has access to anti-tank rockets supplied by Saudi Arabia.

On October 20, 2010, U.S. State Department notified Congress of the biggest arms sale in American history – an estimated $60.5 billion purchase by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

More than 2,000 people were executed in Saudi Arabia between 1985 and 2013.
At least 22 people were put to death between 4 and 22 August 2014 alone – more than one every day.

IS rose to prominence in the vacuum left by the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Saudi Arabia receives more British weapons than any other country. It is the biggest foreign customer, after the US, of BAE Systems, Britain’s largest arms company and biggest manufacturing employer. Export licenses worth £3.8bn have been approved for British arms companies’ sales to Saudi Arabia under David Cameron’s premiership.

Conclusion: Instead of voting to bomb Iraq, voting to halt the arms trade would contribute more to peace in the Middle East than anything else.

The Sunday Herald captured this well yesterday with its back to bombing front page masthead. It was the only mainstream paper in both England and Scotland to support Scottish independence and some people in Scotland were inspired to vote for Scottish independence as a way opening up a small window which could have turned into a bigger window which might have led to no longer being part of this wretched aspect of the British state.

sunday herald post referendum

Some of my friends told me that voting for Scottish independence would have been voting for a return to the politics of tribal nationalism. In the name of which nationalism did our MPs vote to go to war last week and are we doing our duty to England, the duty that Nelson expected, by supporting it?


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May 10 2012

London Calling Stand-Up Comedy in Croatia at the HUPE ELT International Conference

Alfie Brown, Jeff Leach and Paddy Lennox surrounded by admirers after the show

This was the fist time that the Croatian Teachers’ Association, HUPE, had invited British and Irish stand up comedians to their annual conference and I suspect it won’t be the last.  It was the first time that I had experienced stand-up comedy at an ELT conference and as the final event after David and Hilary Crystal’s Shakespeare show, it put the icing onto HUPE’s 20th birthday cake and created more laughs than I can ever

Ksenija about to cut the birthday cake

remember at any other ELT event I’ve been to.

In fact David and Hilary Crystal, sitting on the front row, were immediately drawn into Jeff Leach’s routine as he teased them on whether they were a couple or not, imitated David’s Welsh accent, shared banter about Macduff and invited them to follow him on twitter.

Marinko, asking David and Hilary Crystal to follow him on twitter

“Are you on twitter Sir?…You are?..Will you follow me on twitter? That would make my year.  Look how cool he is, he was like …maybe.  I’ve got to be honest,I’ll see how many people I’m already following and if I can fit you in, I will.”

Jeff was our MC for the night and the 250 or so female Croatian teachers along with a few other teachers from Serbia, the Czech Republic, Macedonia, Hungary, Bosnia and Slovenia, the US and the UK,and maybe the few random men in the audience, were quickly seduced by his charm as he invited them/us to room 505 on many occasions throughout the evening, although it was rumoured that one teacher mentioned after the show that she herself was in room 505 and was worried about how many people would be knocking on her door later into the night!

Whatever the truth of the story, room 505 has now become legendary on Facebook amongst HUPE conference goers and can never be mentioned again without a big smile and many fond memories of a sex addict half Russell Brand and half Tin-Tin. Has anyone at any of HUPE’s 20 conferences ever got up in front of an audience and declared themselves to be a sex addict? It didn’t happen in any of the talks and workshops I’ve attended.

The Role of Stand-Up Comedy

I asked the guys about what stand-up comedy was all about two days later in Rijeka. Jeff started off by saying:

Jeff next to the Slovene harvest (Paddy's gag)

“Something that speaks directly to you, for me personally, empathising with a comic on stage, finding something what they’re saying inside yourself and making a personal connection and, like I say, just good laughter. You need to make people laugh, you can make them think but you wanna make them laugh first.” And Jeff at the end of the evening while still on stage said:

Interviewed on Rijeka waterfront

“Outside of being funny as well I guess it’s the idea of learning a bit more about English culture and about how we share stories over there and how that transposes to what you do in your classrooms every single day which we are grateful for, cos you teaching young people how to speak English better than us means that they can come and enjoy our comedy, so thank you…..” .

Paddy’s take on this:

“The grandest way we can justify what we do, and not that I want to justify what we do, is that you had the court jester,

All that coffee and chestnuts....

the only person given license to make fun of the king, we’re the ones who reflect what people are thinking, and might on the ground be thinking, that’s alternative comedy, it’s

The Role of Stand-up Comedy

observational stuff and poking fun at politicians…we’re kind of getting a little bit more political now…I don’t do political stuff though, its not my bag ..that’s the currency it has that makes it valid. It shouldn’t be racist or homophobic though.”

Teacher reaction

I asked a few teachers what they thought of having stand-up comedy at ELT conferences and these were some of the answers.

“Having stand-up comedy as a part of the social event at HUPE conference that was held in April this year was a real refreshment. Talking about social events at ELT conferences in general, this one really made a difference, and what’s more important, it provoked a very

Mirna and Paddy

enthusiastic response. It showed that introducing modern and not so mainstream forms of art at a “serious event“, such as a conference ,can be very exciting and inspiring. We all stepped outside our comfort zone, something a teacher must be ready to do. We all laughed at witty and cheeky humour, and laugher, as Jeff Leach said at one point is a “fantastically healing aspect of society“, it helps us bond, and it did so. What also crossed my mind was that stand-up comedians and teachers have quite a lot in common: establishing a relationship and developing rapport with the audience/students, the importance of both verbal and body language in doing so, mixing things prepared with spontaneity, “sharing stories, ideas and trying to empathize with each other“, creating both a relaxed and thought-provoking environment, which might ultimately result in a chuckle, giggle, laughter, belly laugh or a roar and  taking risks, that’s what we have in common as well. both stand-up comedians and teachers try and experiment a bit in order to find out what might work well with their audience/students.”

Mirna from Serbia.

Aneta and Alfie

“It was such a breath of fresh air to have a colorful threesome of comedians at an ELT Conference that I’m even considering they should become a staple at such gatherings! Jeff, Alfie and Paddy left their hearts on the stage at HUPE 2012, and I would be more than happy to see them perform in Macedonia very soon! Yet what we were all wondering about the next day before leaving for home was if anybody had entered Room 505 and left it in one piece!”

Aneta from Macedonia.

Daniela and Jeff

“Campaigns promoting products and services are trying to make us believe that innovation is everywhere. However, the reality does not often fullfil one’s expectations. Personally, I am a great fan of innovation of any kind whether in teaching, learning or in one’s personal life. I like changes. There are certain cases when an innovative idea is not promoted in advance but it turns out to be indeed revolutionary. And this is the case of including stand up comedy at ELT conferences. If performed with cultural awareness and sensitivity, as it was at HUPE conference, an innovative approach might gain a lot of fans. Stand up comedy at the HUPE conference was a bright and successful idea. I suggest it might serve as an inspiration for others not in the sense of copying but rather in the sense of enforcing creativity.”

Daniela from the Czech Republic.

“I liked it a lot. it was great having that amount of laughter after two days of learning through different kinds of workshops. And what I liked the most is how they, the comedians, prepared for their stand- up, making jokes about teachers, Croatians in general and they

Ana and Paddy

compared it to situations in England. So, we could, in a way, learn something as well. they connected with us, the audience, talking about their lives.”

Ana from Croatia.


“I think that social events at conferences are meant for fun after whole day’s sessions and serious stuff. I also think that our lives in general are getting more and more difficult in all respects, so we sometimes need to forget about everything and let things go. There are also some of us in our let’s say “golden age” and if we can forget about this fact for only a moment, we have done a wonderful thing…”

Dubravka from Croatia.


“Laughing at someone’s jokes makes you live longer – so, why don’t we do it more often…Laughing at London Comedy stand up comedians makes you die laughing – not everyone can do that.That was an amazing evening that we’ll all remember for the rest of our lives. Seeing a couple of them doing it so easily and then hundreds of people laughing at them so hilariously made me forget everything bad in this world, at least for an hour or two. The jokes they just let out of their sleeves, their stories that made us love them just a bit, and, finally relaxed people and the whole atmosphere…”

Lidija from Croatia.

Marinko and Paddy

” Apart from bringing great fun to the conference, the stand up comedy is also very authentic as it brings language and cultural references from the native speakers. On the other hand, it was great to see comedians adapting their materials to the audience which reminded me of us teachers doing the same things in our classes. Also, comedy is often produced from the subtlety and intricacy of language and as a language teacher I really enjoyed some of the puns and witty remarks.”

Marinko from Croatia.


“It was great to see live English comedy. Everybody was having fun and it was good  to relax after hard work (teachers need that, too :)”

Irena from Croatia.

“Well, we heard genuine English humour and could test both our language & culture… Some people of my generation said it was too loud & too much dirty language… but, like always, degustibus… Most of the people liked one guy in particular, the ladies will remember the number of his room on their death bed! They were refreshing, genuine and every conference should have something like that!”

Višnja from Croatia.


Ksenija getting some relaxation with Alfie and Jeff

“I think that people at the conference need relaxation after the whole day of working, sitting, listening…and there is no better way than LAUGHTER!!  People expect HUPE to be fun, and not only hard work…
So, that was the main reason for inviting them…Also, you know that we always try to have smething new at HUPE, so I BET it was really something BRAND NEW!! It was a bold thing to do but having guts paid off well!”

Ksenija from Croatia.

London Calling Live

And here is some of the show for your enjoyment or to enjoy again:

Nino Bantić, a Croatian journalist working in London and the guy who brought the comedians to Croatia, believes that stand up comedy is an important part of British culture and well worth exporting. “When I was a student we were not

Nino Bantic, the driving force behind the whole event

only learning just the English language but about English culture, this language that is quite alive… but stand up  is also an important part of English and British and English speaking culture and I think this is a natural choice.”

What is obvious is that lots of people liked it at the HUPE conference and I think if you have a session after the stand up where people have a chance to talk to the comedians about stand up comedy then that would be an added attraction enriching and deepening the whole experience.

Rapport, Reflection, Risk, Respect, Empathy, Spontaneity, Humour and Hrvatska

The areas of developing rapport, spontaneity, empathising with your audience, respecting your audience, the role of humour and laughter, pushing back the boundaries and moving into areas which involve a certain amount of risk but which engage and involve people and getting people to consciously reflect more on everyday familiar things, but from a different perspective, are areas which we as teachers certainly share with stand-up comedians. And it may be that we have a lot to learn from each other, especially when we go to other countries and enjoy their hospitality.  And wasn’t it Lidija who said the more we laugh the longer we live?

Jeff captured us on camera at end of the gig and got us to do a Mexican wave. If you were there, click on the photo and see if you can find yourself and if you weren’t there click on the photo and see if you can see any of your friends. Can you spot the Welsh linguistics professor who’s still thinking about following Jeff on twitter?

Jeff's photo of us doing a mexican wave at the end of gig

Finally, this was the interview I did with Jeff, Paddy, Nino and Vince before their next gig in Rijeka. Am looking forward to the next ELT event with some stand-up comedy,these guys would,I’m sure,be definitely interested in bringing their wicked, playful,charming and engaging brand of humour to your conference at the mere drop of a glass of rakija,a bite of burek or a strong shot of coffee in one of those wee squirrel cups Paddy has grown to love so much, provided he doesn’t mix it with too many chestnuts.

Hvala za zve! Stand up ELT, comedians and teachers of the world unite, where will the next ELT comedy be…… Čakovec?

Mark x

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Dec 19 2011

Václav Havel “What will our schools be like post 1989?”

A book I read and re-read many times and used in my methodology classes with students in Czecholovakia in Pardubice and Olomouc after the revolutionary changes in 1989/90

Following the death of Václav Havel many things have been flashing through my mind, recalling those monumental days in Olomouc and Prague in November and December 1989.   Over the last 24 hours I’ve been in touch with several people who experienced that time together, some of them are teaching, some are in journalism but all of them were heavily influenced in their attitudes and values by what happened when they were involved in shaping the future of their country during the university strike.

Students on strike in 1989 in Czechoslovakia

During the revolution, although the students were on strike, the classrooms came alive.  They drew and painted posters,produced a student newspaper almost every day and held meetings about the strike. In fact, the students were actually more active and involved when they were on strike than they had been before! I found myself thinking that the task of teachers after the revolution will be  to try to harness the same kind of energy that was there in the making of the revolution for the purposes of  English language learning and English studies in general.  In those six weeks I learned a lot about what my role should be as a teacher afterwards and those events have  informed my teaching methodologies ever since.

I felt that I had gained an enormous amount from the revolution and afterwards asked a group of students what they themselves had gained from the whole experience of  taking part in the strike and this was one of the replies I got:

One personal anecdote from one of my students

“It was all very dramatic for us: the work at school, typing, painting, drawing posters, going to villages and towns in the whole of Moravia and talking to people, taking part in demonstrations and meetings at the theatre, in the hostel and in the sports hall. Every day nearly the same.  But during the month I learned and got to understand a lot of things.

I understood the meaning of some phrases and words which had been empty for me until then. I think I have learned (a bit at least) to listen to people, to consider their opinions and mainly to tolerate other opinions. And generally we have learned how to discuss, thinking while speaking and hearing, not to be scared of voicing our own opinions. I am proud of being a student now.”

I  know that those were very special conditions back in 1989 but the skills which were developed during that strike amongst students are the same kinds of skills and values that I think are central to teaching and teacher development today.

Linking the revolution with the English classroom

When I returned to Czechoslovakia in 1992 after doing an MA in ELT at Lancaster University and writing my dissertation on teacher development in Czechoslovakia there was one quote I always used to use and work with in both pre-service sessions and at conferences. It was a quote by Václav Havel and one we used to discuss at length. I think it is still relevant in teacher training today. I am convinced that English can  be a subject which develops the kind of critical thinking and involvement in civil society which Václav Havel was  trying to encourage.

The student newspaper in Olomouc which came out almost every day following the beatings in Prague on November 17th

” The most basic sphere of concern is schooling.  Everything else depends on that.  What will our schools be like?  I think that in ten years they should be fully reformed and consolidated.  The point, understandably, is not just the reconstruction of school buildings or the supply of computers and new textbooks.  The most important thing is a new concept of education.  At all levels schools must cultivate a spirit of free and independent thinking in the students.  

Students during the strike in Olomouc co-operating and reflecting on the changes in their society in the way Havel would have wanted


Schools will have to be humanised, both in the sense that their basic component must be the human personalities of the teachers, creating around them a “force field” of inspiration and example, and in the sense that technical and other specialised education will be balanced by a general education in the humanities.

Students in Olomouc taking responsibility on the eve of the student strike that led to the revolution in Czechoslovakia

Posters of Václav Havel were everywhere in the last two weeks of 1989 and people were encouraged to sign them if they supported him becoming President

The role of the schools is not to create “idiot-specialists” to fill the special needs of different sectors of the national economy, but to develop the individual capabilities of the students in a purposeful way, and to send out into life thoughtful people capable of thinking about the wider social, historical, and philosophical implications of their specialties.”

Václav Havel 1992

Two of my former students in Olomouc had this to say in the last 24 hours

” I was crying all day long yesterday because it all came back. If you haven’t been through it, if you haven’t felt the atmosphere penetrating your skin, you can’t understand as the experience was so unique, that’s for sure.” Lenka

Chatting yesterday with one of my former students from Olomouc 1989

And there was always a very special relationshiop between Havel and Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground. I still have the ticket of the Velvet Underground concert I went to in June 1993 on the wall of my flat that Havel also went to.


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