Love in a cold climate

12 Dec

Two of us from the Jewish Socialists’ Group were part of a convoy of 120 from across the country, going to Calais to deliver supplies to refugees who are trapped there, trying to get to Britain. Their camps have been destroyed, so they are hiding in woods and sleeping rough. Every few days the French police take their few belongings – clothes, sleeping bags, food, tents, tarpaulins – which they need to survive. Today it is freezing but at least it’s dry.

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Members of our group heading towards the woods where refugees are sleeping rough.

On the coach on the way there, a few of the participants, who ranged from school students to older activists like me, made short, off-the-cuff speeches. This is (approximately) what I said.

People often refer to the Kindertransport as an example of British generosity in welcoming refugees. In fact it epitomises the meanness of the government of the day, which allowed a few thousand children to escape from Nazi persecution on the Continent. The whole operation – from identifying the children, arranging and paying for their journeys, finding families to care for them or other safe places to stay – was organised by voluntary groups like this one going to Calais today. It didn’t cost the British state a penny. And the government only allowed children to come to Britain. Their parents were left to the mercy of the Nazis. And throughout that period, in 1938-39, the mainstream press were running scare stories about being swamped with foreigners.

This attitude to refugees was not a one-off. It is part of a consistent tradition of government hostility to immigrants. The very first anti-immigration legislation was the 1905 Aliens Act. That law was enacted against Jews who were escaping persecution in the Russian Empire. Those people included our grandparents. The Aliens Act established all the principles of British immigration law that are familiar to us today, including the powers to deport people. In the first four years of the Act, hundreds of people were rounded up off the streets and deported back to the Russian Empire, simply for having no visible means of support.

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The “kitchen” rigged up by a family with two children, aged 7 and 10, who are living in this makeshift shelter with no facilities of any kind except what is provided by organisations like Care 4 Calais and Médecins Sans Frontières

Like everyone here who got up in the dark this morning in freezing temperatures, we’re all wondering how on earth people survive physically and psychologically living in these conditions 24 hours a day. David and I from the JSG have just come back from a trip to Auschwitz organised by Unite Against Fascism. I wouldn’t make crass analogies between that death camp and what’s happening today. But Auschwitz didn’t happen overnight. It was the culmination of creeping authoritarianism that ended with the terrorisation of entire populations who were unable to stop murder on an industrial scale.

Resistance takes lots of forms, and people resisted in many different ways. Sometimes, just surviving the day was an act of resistance. Taking supplies to Calais today, refusing to accept the violence of our government and all the governments of Europe against these people, is also an act of resistance, and I’m very pleased to be part of it.

Care4Calais are doing the most amazing thing there, saving lives and giving support and hope to people who have nothing and no choices. If you want to know more about what they’re doing and how to support them, visit their website at http://care4calais.org/

This trip was jointly organised by Care4Calais and Stand Up to Racism. Thanks to both for everything you’re doing.

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Jeremy Corbyn’s speech on terrorism

27 May

This is what Jeremy Corbyn said on 26th May 2017 as the election campaign resumed after the appalling attack on concertgoers in Manchester at the beginning of the week. This speech has been lied about by the malign Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, and others who have neither the integrity nor the intellectual capacity to address what it actually says. Thanks to Another Angry Voice for publishing the whole speech, which is a resource for all of us who, like Jeremy, care about truth and about human beings. I’m making it available on my blog to help it on its way. 

Jeremy Corbyn at the vigil following the Manchester atrocity.

Jeremy Corbyn at the vigil following the Manchester atrocity. Theresa May did not attend and did not send a representative.

“Our whole nation has been united in shock and grief this week as a night out at a concert ended in horrific terror and the brutal slaughter of innocent people enjoying themselves.

When I stood on Albert Square at the vigil in Manchester, there was a mood of unwavering defiance.

The very act of thousands of people coming together sent a powerful message of solidarity and love. It was a profound human impulse to stand together, caring and strong. It was inspiring.

In the past few days, we have all perhaps thought a bit more about our country, our communities and our people.

The people we have lost to atrocious violence or who have suffered grievous injury, so many of them heart-breakingly young.

The people who we ask to protect us and care for us in the emergency services, who yet again did our country proud: the police; firefighters and paramedics; the nurses and doctors; people who never let us down and deserve all the support we can give them.

And the people who did their best to help on that dreadful Monday night – the homeless man who rushed towards the carnage to comfort the dying, the taxi drivers who took the stranded home for free, the local people who offered comfort, and even their homes, to the teenagers who couldn’t find their parents.

They are the people of Manchester. But we know that attacks, such as the one at the Manchester Arena, could have happened anywhere, and that the people in any city, town or village in Britain would have responded in the same way.

It is these people who are the strength and the heart of our society. They are the country we love and the country we seek to serve.

That is the solidarity that defines our United Kingdom. That is the country I meet on the streets every day; the human warmth, the basic decency and kindness.

It is our compassion that defines the Britain I love. And it is compassion that the bereaved families need most of all at this time. To them I say: the whole country reaches out its arms to you and will be here for you not just this week, but in the weeks and years to come.

Terrorists and their atrocious acts of cruelty and depravity will never divide us and will never prevail.

They didn’t in Westminster two months ago. They didn’t when Jo Cox was murdered a year ago. They didn’t in London on 7/7. The awe-inspiring response of the people of Manchester, and their inspirational acts of heroism and kindness, are a living demonstration that they will fail again.

But these vicious and contemptible acts do cause profound pain and suffering, and, among a tiny minority, they are used as an opportunity to try to turn communities against each other.

So let us all be clear, the man who unleashed carnage on Manchester, targeting the young and many young girls in particular, is no more representative of Muslims, than the murderer of Jo Cox spoke for anyone else.

Young people and especially young women must and will be free to enjoy themselves in our society.

I have spent my political life working for peace and human rights, and to bring an end to conflict and devastating wars. That will almost always mean talking to people you profoundly disagree with. That’s what conflict resolution is all about.

But do not doubt my determination to take whatever action is necessary to keep our country safe and to protect our people on our streets, in our towns and cities, at our borders.

There is no question about the seriousness of what we face. Over recent years, the threat of terrorism has continued to grow.

You deserve to know what a Labour Government will do to keep you and your family safe.

Our approach will involve change at home and change abroad.

At home, we will reverse the cuts to our emergency services and police. Once again in Manchester, they have proved to be the best of us.

Austerity has to stop at the A&E ward and at the police station door. We cannot be protected and cared for on the cheap.

There will be more police on the streets under a Labour Government. And if the security services need more resources to keep track of those who wish to murder and maim, then they should get them.

We will also change what we do abroad. Many experts, including professionals in our intelligence and security services have pointed to the connections between wars our government has supported or fought in other countries, such as Libya, and terrorism here at home.

That assessment in no way reduces the guilt of those who attack our children. Those terrorists will forever be reviled and implacably held to account for their actions.

But an informed understanding of the causes of terrorism is an essential part of an effective response that will protect the security of our people, that fights rather than fuels terrorism.

Protecting this country requires us to be both strong against terrorism and strong against the causes of terrorism. The blame is with the terrorists, but if we are to protect our people we must be honest about what threatens our security.

Those causes certainly cannot be reduced to foreign policy decisions alone. Over the past fifteen years or so, a sub-culture of often suicidal violence has developed amongst a tiny minority of, mainly young, men, falsely drawing authority from Islamic beliefs and often nurtured in a prison system in urgent need of resources and reform.

And no rationale based on the actions of any government can remotely excuse, or even adequately explain, outrages like this week’s massacre.

But we must be brave enough to admit the war on terror is simply not working. We need a smarter way to reduce the threat from countries that nurture terrorists and generate terrorism.

That’s why I set out Labour’s approach to foreign policy earlier this month. It is focused on strengthening our national security in an increasingly dangerous world.

We must support our Armed Services, Foreign Office and International Development professionals, engaging with the world in a way that reduces conflict and builds peace and security.

Seeing the army on our own streets today is a stark reminder that the current approach has failed.

So, I would like to take a moment to speak to our soldiers on the streets of Britain – You are doing your duty as you have done so many times before.

I want to assure you that, under my leadership, you will only be deployed abroad when there is a clear need and only when there is a plan and you have the resources to do your job to secure an outcome that delivers lasting peace.

That is my commitment to our armed services.

This is my commitment to our country. I want the solidarity, humanity and compassion that we have seen on the streets of Manchester this week to be the values that guide our government. There can be no love of country if there is neglect or disregard for its people.

No government can prevent every terrorist attack. If an individual is determined enough and callous enough, sometimes they will get through.

But the responsibility of government is to minimise that chance, to ensure the police have the resources they need, that our foreign policy reduces rather than increases the threat to this country, and that at home we never surrender the freedoms we have won, and that terrorists are so determined to take away.

Too often government has got it wrong on all three counts and insecurity is growing as a result. Whoever you decide should lead the next government must do better.

Today, we must stand united. United in our communities, united in our values and united in our determination to not let triumph those who would seek to divide us.

So for the rest of this election campaign, we must be out there demonstrating what they would take away: our freedom; our democracy; our support for one another.

Democracy will prevail. We must defend our democratic process, win our arguments by discussion and debate, and stand united against those who would seek to take our rights away, or who would divide us.

Last week, I said that the Labour Party was about bringing our country together.

Today I do not want to make a narrow party political point. Because all of us now need to stand together.

Stand together in memory of those who have lost their lives.

Stand together in solidarity with the city of Manchester.

And – stand together for democracy.

Because when we talk about British values, including tolerance and mutual support, democracy is at the very heart of them.

And our General Election campaigns are the centrepieces of our democracy – the moment all our people get to exercise their sovereign authority over their representatives.

Rallies, debates, campaigning in the marketplaces, knocking on doors, listening to people on the streets, at their workplaces and in their homes – all the arts of peaceful persuasion and discussion – are the stuff of our campaigns.

They all remind us that our government is not chosen at an autocrats’ whim or by religious decree and never cowed by a terrorist’s bomb.

Indeed, carrying on as normal is an act of defiance – democratic defiance – of those who do reject our commitment to democratic freedoms.

But we cannot carry on as though nothing happened in Manchester this week.

So, let the quality of our debate, over the next fortnight, be worthy of the country we are proud to defend. Let’s have our arguments without impugning anyone’s patriotism and without diluting the unity with which we stand against terror.

Together, we will be stronger. Together we can build a Britain worthy of those who died and those who have inspired us all in Manchester this week.”

Auschwitz selfies

18 Mar

Image: Still from a short film, Selfies at Auschwitz (the Yolocaust problem)

The phenomenon of the Auschwitz Selfie became a cause célèbre in 2014 when a teenager’s picture of herself against a backdrop of the death camp triggered widespread condemnation. The debate re-emerged this week, in the run up to the UN International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on 21st March. As well as calling “on all world states and organizations to participate in a program of action to combat racism and racial discrimination”, the day is observed across the world “to remind people of racial discrimination’s negative consequences. It also encourages people to remember their obligation and determination to combat racial discrimination”.

On Holocaust Memorial Day in January, artist Shahak Shapira, produced a website challenging the fashion for Holocaust selfies. And in a thoughtful and angry New Statesman article earlier this week (“Smile for the Auschwitz Selfie”, 13th March 2017), Tanya Gold argued that, if the rise in racism and fascism and the fate of refugees are any yardstick of success, “attempts to memorialise the Holocaust have failed and may even be counterproductive”. She cited the cynicism of Home Secretary Amber Rudd in tweeting a picture of herself writing “We must never forget” in a Holocaust remembrance book just two weeks before announcing that the Dubs Amendment, to allow in 3,000 refugee children, was to be discontinued.

That a racist Home Secretary of a racist government behaves cynically, dishonestly and cold-heartedly is hardly worth saying. There’s also a bigger discussion to be had about the burden of responsibility Gold places on memorial sites – or memorialisation in general – to undermine the racism that is woven through our political system.

What interests me, though, is how difficult it seems for ordinary individuals to resist the pull of the commodification of Auschwitz, which David Rosenberg explored in his blog. However compelling the marketing, I’m sure that most people who visit Auschwitz, do so with at least a degree of anti-racist and anti-fascist intent and there are many, too, who go on group educational visits, who are already anti-fascist activists. I’m sure that, however little or much they know of the history, visitors approach that site aiming to respect the people who suffered and died there. So I can understand that they might want to take photos to convey or bring home a visual reminder of the camp that has come to represent such incomprehensible inhumanity. What intrigues me, though, is what motivates people to take selfies there.

This is not the beach at Sorrento or the Duomo in Florence (a wonderful city which, incidentally, has been made utterly unbearable by the forest of selfie sticks). This is not even “just” a graveyard. It is not an artefact. Although there is a museum within it, it is not a museum. And it’s not very old. It is a real place where more than a million real people were eliminated like rats, and whose real relatives are still mourning and trying to come to terms with the enormity and cruelty of their fate. So, aside from horror junkies, and teenagers, who are caught up in selfie culture and may not get the subtle difference between a Nazi death camp and a tourist destination like the London Dungeon, what are people trying to show their friends when they post a picture of themselves there? What responses do they expect when they upload images of “me at Auschwitz” on social media? Likes? Sad emojis? Angry emojis? Is it to demonstrate how brave they are to face the demons of this place? Is it a misplaced attempt to personalise the story of what happened here? Or is it just an electronic version of “Kilroy woz here”?

I genuinely don’t know any better than anyone else what the correct manners are for visitors to the sites of former concentration and death camps. Auschwitz is not an accessible place that a tourist could casually wander into without a grain of understanding, so the fact that so many people do want to visit it is a good thing. But behaving as they would at any other tourist destination once they’ve passed through its the iconic gates seems not only to trivialise whatever meaning we can derive from such a visit, but to be at best disrespectful of the people who suffered and died there, and, at worst, to add to the objectification, and even further dehumanisation, of the victims.

I’ve written this in the hope that it will add something to and encourage debate about memorialisation, what impact it can (and can’t) have and how we derive from our history the strength and confidence to be effective antiracists and antifascists.

 

 

You wait ages for an anti-Trump coalition, then two come along at once

12 Feb

Do you know the one about the two Jewish men stranded on a desert island? Twenty years go by, then one day a ship comes towards the island. The captain comes ashore and is amazed to find that they have built three beautiful synagogues – one on the south of the island, one on the north of the island, and a third on the east of the island. “Tell me,” says the captain, “why do you need three synagogues?” They look perplexed that he should even ask such a question, and patiently explain: “There’s one for each of us and one that neither of us would be seen dead in.”

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On Thursday I went, on behalf of the Jewish Socialists’ Group, to an organising meeting of an incipient coalition called Stop Trump, which was to be publicly launched the same evening (though I didn’t get to the launch itself). This is an immediate and ongoing task, which will need every bit of energy, intelligence, creativity and persistence we can muster.

I was impressed with the way the meeting was organised – based on a broad range of activist groups, with people genuinely encouraged to voice their views, listen to others and widen their vision. The discussion included the first few careful steps in a delicate process of negotiation to find common ground between groups and individuals from a wide variety of backgrounds, cultures and views. One of the participants was a representative from a group that was organising another meeting the following day to launch a separate Stand Up to Trump initiative, and a number of other participants were also going to be involved in that. So we were all hopeful that the commitment to embark on the difficult process of finding a way to collaborate would be echoed at that discussion.

There were points of agreement and disagreement at the Stop Trump organising meeting, but people were, for the most part, listening to each other and considering the issues thoughtfully. Some of the discussion was uncomfortable, and heralded more complex and difficult negotiations to come in order to create a coherent movement – or perhaps a looser, less definable set-up that encourages outside-the-box initiatives by people none of us have heard of – from a range of disparate groups and what may appear to be competing initiatives.

Those of us who have been around the left for a long time need to look, listen and learn – and particularly to reflect on what works and what doesn’t, and what we even mean by success. Is a march of 20,000 a success simply by virtue of the numbers? What is the impact of three people replacing adverts in the tube with anti-deportation posters? How can we maximise the effect of a vigil? And if a tactic works once, does that mean we should keep repeating it? Is a flashmob worth all the organisation and training?

The protests so far, here and across the USA, are having an effect. We have something to build on – and that something is the inspiring and often spontaneous variety of actions that people are taking. They are opposing Trump in the streets, at the airports, in their workplaces and on social media. It’s happening at every level of American society. School children are sending his representatives packing. Factory workers have forced him to cancel visits. Foreign-born delicatessen workers have closed their shops and come out on the streets. Senior journalists in respectable publications are attacking him. CEOs of global corporations are challenging his actions. The opposition is at every level and in defence of all the people and institutions under attack. All of that is making a difference. No one is dictating its form and the people protesting have a good understanding of how the different issues are linked to each other.

The Women’s March was interesting from this perspective. Why did all those people come out of their houses without receiving daily exhortations from an established organisation to “make this demo massive”? In fact, there was a great deal of ambivalence to start with, but they came out despite – and to give the lie to – some rather dodgy utterances from organisers they’d never heard of, because they were angry, they knew what they were angry about and it was a chance for women and men to protest across the world in their own voices, and make it their protest. We all surprised ourselves, as well as the police, the organisers and Trump and May.

It is this mosaic of responses – and the sense of power that people have over their own actions – that makes it so effective.

Of course we need to be united in the sense of not competing with or undermining each other – but unity is a difficult business. We all say we want unity, but simply declaring that over and over again in rising decibels, is both dangerous and useless. We should be able to unite in action if we recognise that this can only come from a grown-up conception of the complex, empathetic and imaginative process that is required to develop fruitful working relationships. We need to start by acknowledging that there may be deep differences of opinion and of approach that either need to be resolved or put on one side for a while. A thin veneer of unity will not withstand the attacks that Trump is mounting against us and our world.

We need to resist the temptation to impose a spurious unity on this incipient movement, based on either lowest common denominator politics or by focusing on one single issue and relegating others. Instead we need to nurture and encourage the energy and understanding that so many people have of the connections between all the attacks Trump is making, and the determination to fight back in defence of all the targets simultaneously.

The people who have been on the protests and who are arguing this out on social media get the link between Trump’s hatred of women, his racism and his attacks on the judiciary; they know why he is going for Muslims first, and why he has gathered neo-Nazis around him; they understand how his destruction of the environment relates to the struggles of indigenous people and the poorest populations; they can see all too clearly why he is sabre-rattling and threatening war – and they understand the voracious corporate greed underlying all this.

This understanding is precious and it comes from below. So I was surprised that Stand Up to Trump has defined its first public meeting as a “summit”. I may be wrong, but this seems to imply a top-down approach, which prioritises leaders and experts. If so, I hope instead that I and other people will be able to put the case there for grasping the great opportunity we have here to draw on the varied, imaginative and creative, intergenerational grassroots activism we have seen over recent years, and assessing how we can amplify the energy that’s bubbling up from below. Slogans and speeches are the end of the process, not the beginning.

There are deep cultural and political differences between us. None of us can predict whether these differences can be resolved or respected – but if we have the maturity and sensitivity to face up to them, they could be a source of strength and inclusivity. One of the points of disagreement is about the significance given to famous individuals in any political movement. Some people argue that celebrities are needed to get people – and particularly young people – in through the door. Others point to a danger that these “names” become confused with the movement itself and both they and the participants have an inflated idea of their role in it and try to colour it and control it. To a degree, both of these are right. In an online discussion about all this, one friend argued for celebrities, recalling the influence of Tony Benn on her and other young people when they were in their teens, encouraging them to become activists and change the world. I take her point about young people being attracted and reassured by names they know, and Tony Benn changed many people’s lives and perspectives. But although he was very famous, and his name was an attraction, he influenced his audiences because he didn’t see himself as a star or picture himself leading the masses to glory.

The reason why everyone who heard him speak remembers what he said is because he was brilliant and enlightening; although he had his own characteristic turns of phrase, he was never predictable, vain or self-congratulatory. If anyone disagreed with him, he didn’t override them, publicly attack them or get insulted. He didn’t think he was beyond criticism but listened to, respected and learnt from other people, however old or young and whatever their background.

Famous people do have a role but they need to be there because they have something real and specific to contribute – not just as a marketing device. And if experienced activists have a role, it is to prioritise and facilitate the difficult, messy and painful process of finding common ground, to create contexts in which we can all open our minds to new ideas and develop the strength and motivation to act.

Leading from the front without leaving anyone behind

3 Sep

A  friendJulia+JeremyCorbyn_Highbury_150816_AZI_5607 I haven’t seen for a long time contacted me out of the blue to ask who I was voting for in the Labour Party leadership elections. She was torn, she said, because, although she basically agrees with Jeremy Corbyn, she thinks he’s “a lousy leader”. This is the line being put by his opponents, including the charismatic Owen Smith himself. To paraphrase what seems to be the entire campaign: “Jeremy’s a nice chap, principled and all that, but not a leader.”

I’m so fed up with this claim that, with apologies to my poor friend who wrote me a quick three-line note and got this long reply, I decided to revive my old blog and publish my response to her.

Photo: Aziz Rahman

Yes, I’m not only voting for Jeremy Corbyn, I’m campaigning for him. I left the Labour Party in the 1980s because I couldn’t stand the unprincipled machinations of the leadership then (nor of my branch at that time, which was full of racists, baying for the blood of the travellers who lived in our ward). In the intervening years, huge numbers of people have left the Party for similar reasons and particularly over the Iraq war.

I’ve known Jeremy for a long time. I have continued to vote Labour all these years, despite the careerism, corruption, and indifference to ordinary people’s lives of so many of the Parliamentary Labour Party, because he is my constituency MP. I’ve seen him turn up to campaigns large and small, local, national and international, not for the photo-opportunity but because he understands the issues, knows about ordinary people’s lives and, as an MP, is able to help. I rejoined the Party after he won the leadership contest last summer because he is a principled socialist, anti-racist and defender of human beings and human rights – not just here but across the world.

His opponents say on the one hand that he hasn’t got “leadership qualities”, whatever they are (I assume they mean something like David Cameron or Tony Blair  or Margaret Thatcher – “leaders” who are detached from the people who did all the work to get them where they are); and on the other hand, he is like a cult leader and his followers are just mindless fans who can’t think for themselves. Well my experience is that his supporters are thinking, enthusiastic, hopeful people, young and old, and from many different income brackets and backgrounds who, for the first time since we were conned into the Iraq War, feel there is a possibility of retrieving what the Labour Party is meant to be.

I don’t know how he has managed to keep going given the relentless attacks there have been against him – his opponents were briefing against him as he was giving his victory speech after last summer’s leadership contest. They have displayed complete inhumanity to him and his family on a personal level, and an utterly cynical attitude to the membership of the party who have worked to win them their seats in parliament. And despite all this, over the last year, Labour has won every Mayoral election and every single by-election it stood in, some with increased majorities. And, above all, the party has recruited hundreds of thousands of new members.

Under Jeremy’s leadership the Labour Party has also won some crucial victories in the House of Commons such as the Tory U-turns on tax credit cuts and on Personal Independence Payments. And he has changed the Labour Party from a party that supported austerity a year ago, to one where every single member of the PLP, whether they are friends or enemies of Jeremy, now says they oppose austerity.

In my opinion, the coup is not just against Jeremy Corbyn or even his leadership team, but against all of us who dared to elect a socialist to lead the Labour Party. He is just saying what many people think but haven’t dared say during all these years of cuts and rising inequality: that we need to take back our money from the people who are siphoning it out of our public services and into offshore tax havens, depleting our housing stock, selling off our health service, running down our transport system, dismantling the education system and undermining controls on environmental degradation.

As for Smith, someone said to me that “voting for him would be like voting for a cardboard box”.  He just seems to be the only person they could find who didn’t vote for the Iraq war. Unfortunately he doesn’t seem to have much else to recommend him.

I meant this to be a short note but I was at a meeting last night with John McDonnell and a panel of others, some of them very young, in a packed hall in Walthamstow, an area I know quite well. It was standing room only, and many of those people were standing for two and a half hours listening to speeches which described ordinary people’s real experiences, struggling to house themselves, resorting to food banks, and all the rest of it. For the first time they can see a prospect of reversing the cuts that are undermining their lives, and they are being encouraged to participate and collaborate in making that happen.

London Russian Choir in Charterhouse Square 5 June 2014

6 Jun
Great performance by the London Russian Choir last night in the lovely surroundings of Sutton’s Hospital, Charterhouse Square. An amazing achievement for a choir that’s only been going just over a year. The event was a benefit for HealthProm, which works for children with disabilities in Russia.
The London Russian Choir, led by Polina Skovoroda-Shepherd, is open to all, and you don’t need to know Russian. http://londonrussianchoir.wordpress.com/
Here are two of the songs and some photos.

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Education is not a commodity

26 Apr

I’ve just written a feedback form for my campaigning journalism students about the educational and developmental merits or otherwise of the course. It is only for me so, in the event of the university employing me again, I can improve on the module and my teaching. It will spray indelible red paint over anyone who attempts to use it to market or advertise the course.