Dear Lancashire, an Unplanned and Extended Visit

Alright che,

For me, living in Lancashire was never on the agenda. It was a region I had knowledge of as my family roots stem from Liverpool, a former chunk of the historic Lancashire region before it broke off and became Merseyside in 1974. Manchester too is formerly a part of the region, a city which has been the backdrop for many a night out.

Historic boundaries of Lancashire (Red), and the current county (Green)

Ever since I can remember, I’ve wanted to travel, live abroad and see as much of the world as possible. The county of Lancashire just wasn’t somewhere I’d felt inclined to visit. My impressions if you’d asked me a year ago? Rain. Despite learning much more about the area and its rich culture and history, I don’t think I was that far off.

According to the Telegraph, Preston is the 7th rainiest area in the United Kingdom. The Met Office also claim that on August 10th, 1893, 32mm of rain hammered down on the town within five minutes. Soggy.

I ended up in that waterfall (the area, not the time it happened – this would be a much more interesting article) by complete accident. Some family issues meant I left my home in Chester and after spending a great few months in Ellesmere Port living at my Grandads, I eventually moved up to Blackburn to be with my girlfriend where she was staying with her Dad.

It’s the guy that sang the A-Team! (Royal Oak, Blackburn, September 2019)

Blackburn itself doesn’t have the greatest reputation, but I really enjoyed my half a year living in the former mill town. After all, it had been home for King Kenny when he won the Premier League with Rovers back in 1995. If it was good enough for him, it was good enough for me. While north of the West Pennine Moors I performed my first open mic at the royal Oak in Pleckgate, looked for witches as I climbed Pendle Hill and was able to connect with my girlfriend’s family – and for that I’m truly grateful.

A standard Lancashire advert. Source: shittyfoodporn on Reddit (lol)

Blackburn also opened my eyes to some of the strangest northern scran I’d ever seen (that I would admittedly come to love). The best of all being the ‘butter pie’, a savoury pastry with the contents of potato, onion, and lashings of real butter. I was first served this delicacy piping hot within a ‘barmcake’, or a bread roll for those of you outside the county borders. Call it what you want, a ‘Wigan Kebab’ or a ‘Pie Barm’ – I had no idea how to eat the thing at first. I’d ‘tret’ myself to a Greenhalgh’s one afternoon and attempted to eat it as I walked through a ‘ginnel’. One bite in and my palms burned as the sloppy buttered potato clung to them like napalm, I couldn’t have looked like more of an outsider if I’d tried. I even sounded like one as my Cestrian accent bellowed from my ‘cakehole’ with “ooos” and “aaahhs” as my hands scorched that cold October day.

Fried Spam as an addition to the already perfect full English breakfast was another I failed to understand on first listen. Firstly, for the addition itself, secondly, because of the broadness of the Blackburn accent. My first month I think those who knew me only thought I could say the words ‘what’, ‘sorry’ and ‘pardon’. After trying it for myself, I can safely say Spam is a more than welcome replacement for when your ‘binlid’ is lacking sausage, but you do have to swat away some strange looks from elsewhere on this floating island we call Britain.

Oh, and on the 3rd day, God said let there be gravy. However, due to its viscosity it failed to leave the north, and so the Northerners celebrated as they were pretty chuffed it never reached the Southern fairies. They could stick to their jellied eels.

In the end we decided to leave Blackburn so I could be closer to where I worked. I had a job on the docks in Preston and it was taking me nearly two hours to get to work everyday (when Northern Rail decided to turn up) and another couple of hours back. In response to this we moved to Bamber Bridge, a wee urban village south-east of Preston. The obscure name of the place translates from the Old English “Bēam and Brycg”, which means ‘Tree-Trunk Bridge’. I never saw one and the name still puzzles me now.

Bamber Bridge Train Station, 1963 (Source: Ben Brooksbank)

Bamber Bridge had been home to the American 1511 Quartermaster Truck regiment in the Second World War, which was racially segregated. All the soldiers in this regiment were African American, except the officers in power who were white. Fighting broke out between the officers and infantrymen in the ensuing tensions of the 1943 Detriot race riot, the African American infantry with the local townsfolk on one side – the white American military police on the other. The violence actually started at the pub we lived next to while we were there. Today, it is known as the ‘Battle of Bamber Bridge‘. It is a scene that could be reported on yesterday as the Black Lives Matter protests roll on. Go Brig* for being on the right side of history!

*Brig – a term the locals use for the village of Bamber Bridge.

The village is perfectly situated next to Cuerdan Valley park, an absolutely stunning area of greenery, trees and rivers that is 100% a side-effect of the aforementioned rainfall in the area. For as much as people criticise the rain, it really does birth some stunning scenery. I don’t think I’ve inhaled cleaner air or drank fresher water from taps. Where I grew up each sip was followed by the unpleasant sting of limescale, even after a filter through the Brita.

Cuerdan Valley Park in a rare moment of sun (March, 2020)

The town of Preston also has some killer nightlife. It is the only place I’ve seen where you can get a Tango Ice Blast cocktail. Odeon, if you’re reading this – make some notes.

The Ribble Valley and the Fylde coast also contain some fantastic spots if you’re ever around the area. Clitheroe, Downham and Lytham are some of my favourites. Not to mention the historically significant Lancaster.

The time came for us to move down south to enter the London lottery, but these slices of Lancashire will live on within me. Sure, it might not be the most eye-opening location of my life story, but for me it was just as much of an adventure.

Live life like a tourist and you’ll never be with ‘owt’ to do.

Ta-ra for now!


music travel

A Love Letter to King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut

Back in 2011, stressed during my GCSE’s but taking the first grasps at young adult life, I was sat in one of the media studies classrooms at lunch. Me and my friend Ryan were looking at upcoming concerts in Manchester. I’d wanted to start attending gigs regularly now I’d turned 16, being situated in Chester placed me in the perfect position to travel to both Liverpool and Manchester to see my favourite bands.

That day I was searching for emo-gamechangers Madina Lake, their album ‘Attics to Eden’ had been released a couple of years prior and the lead single ‘Never Take Us Alive’ had made the rounds on my iPod Nano since its release. I remember downloading the song illegally using some sort of YouTube to MP3 website like every other teenager at the time, in a forgotten world without Spotify and Apple Music.

The band that started it all, Madina Lake (unugunu, Wikimedia Commons)

Searching for the band on Google, we were met with their upcoming performance in Glasgow, at an amazingly named venue by the name of ‘King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut’. At the time I gave it a raised eyebrow, intrigued by its name, before ending our search due to the impending school bell. Little did I know however, that this was the beginning of a lifetime obsession with a venue in a country I had never even visited.

Since then, I have always noticed the venue on the touring schedules of the bands I loved, every time the name sparked my interest. Why did this North African Pharaoh have a venue in Scotland? What the hell was a ‘Wah Wah’? But most importantly – when could I go?

For those of you unaware, King Tut’s is a small cult venue situated on St. Vincent’s street, a short walk from the centre of Glasgow. Founded in 1990, the 300-capacity venue takes its name from a Lower East Side New York club and experimental theatre space from the 80’s. That iconic club hosted the likes of the Blue Man Group, whereas the one this side of the Atlantic boasts The Strokes, Biffy Clyro and Beck.

The original King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut in the Lower East Side of NYC (Lupo Rodriguez, Pinterest)

The venue has been voted as BBC Radio 1’s ‘Best Small UK Venue’ and NME named it “quite possibly the best small venue in the world”. It was even the location for Liam Gallagher’s ‘Come Back to Me’. My love for the idea of going to King Tut’s faded after a decade of life, until one weekend last December when I briefly mentioned my former infatuation to my girlfriend in jest. I didn’t think anything of it, but she did – the next thing I knew she’d booked me tickets to go on my birthday.

It was to see a band called IDER, a ‘post-genre’ indie band consisting of Lily Somerville and Megan Markwick. I’d never heard of them, but I didn’t care – that’s how you discover new music anyway. I was beyond excited. It’s still up there with one of the most genuine and thoughtful gifts I’ve ever received.

I was finally going to King Tut’s!

The walls of the blokes toilets in King Tut’s. The first and last time I’ve taken a photo in a bathroom. (February, 2020)

Before I waffle on, Glasgow as a city itself is phenomenal. The people are ace, I got rinsed in a comedy club after being selected as the ‘most Scottish looking person in the room’, only to hit the host with my brand of Cestrian English. He said to me, “Ginger and English? I don’t think you’re liked much up here or down there”. Bruised ego aside, the city is great – don’t let its reputation stop you from going. The ‘Dear Green Place’ is more than it’s cracked up to be if you give it a chance.

The venue itself is everything I wanted it to be and more. From the enormous logo outside, to the toilets plastered with signed setlists from gigs long ago. They have their own ‘King Tut’s Lager’ on tap, which was decently potent (especially after 4 of them). I was Captain Ahab, the venue Moby Dick – I’d fall into the water and let it take me wherever it wanted me to go. Luckily, it didn’t take 3 days to chase the venue down.

King Tut’s revels in its history. It bursts with an array of artwork, posters and instruments that preceded its famous steps; each one archiving the artists who performed there that year into its very foundations. A million memories condensed into a single footstep, only to capture a million more in the next.

The famous steps at King Tut’s (February, 2020)

The atmosphere buzzed for IDER. After getting acquainted with the aforementioned lager and being ‘that guy’ who took a photo of the stairs (I hate myself too) we spilled into the venue. Split between the bar, stage, and a raised mezzanine we we’re engulfed in the shadows of your typical venue – the features of Charlotte’s face only visible by the oozing red stage lighting as we waited patiently for the band in its eager glow.

IDER were ace.

If you’ve ever attended venues like Parr Street Studio 2 in Liverpool, or The Ritz in Manchester – you’ll know there are certain venues that were built for music. This is one of them. The London duo’s voices bounced from the walls as they performed. They were that good that their current Wikipedia image is from the gig that we were at (see photo).

The name IDER comes from the character that “manifests itself when [they] harmonise“, although intended as a joke they named themselves after – this genuinely rang true. They intertwined melodies and swapped instruments with ease, it felt like a fever dream.  It was one of the best performances I had seen for a long time, in arguably one of the best gig venues I’d ever attended. As a bonus, the night concluded with the best drunk Five Guys burger on our way back to the hotel.

Give them a listen if you’ve got a spare 3 minutes and 45 seconds.

So, whether you’ve got plans to visit Glasgow already or if you’re travelling for King Tut’s itself, it is 100% worth the visit. This might be the decade of bias talking, but I think it might be my favourite venue in the country. Although I’ve got NME and Radio 1 on my side so I can’t be too far from the truth.


And I definitely didn’t buy a commemorative mug.

In the words of Liam Gallagher – “Why don’t you come back to me?”

I’m sure someday I will.

personal travel

My Experience with Catalan Independence

In late September 2017 I decided to take a leap and moved to what was then, and still is, Spain. I hadn’t done much research before I went; I just knew that I was moving to a city a couple of hours outside of Barcelona. I was ecstatic. Being 21 and a recent graduate, the years following the completion of my degree were what I had been looking forward to for some time. Free from the confines of Britain, I was ready to explore somewhere new, exciting, and sunny.

Following a brief flirtation with the idea of moving to Japan, I decided to take the plunge and move to the sangria state to teach English. This was because if things went wrong I was closer to home, similar to when students leave for a new city and don’t move too far away – so they can come back easily and get their mums to do their washing.

After arriving at Barcelona El Prat Airport and partaking in the initial training, all the teaching assistants were scattered across the Catalonia region. A handful of us and our bags were then placed in a tin-can with wheels and shipped off northward, to the city of Lleida. Some noteworthy things about the city of Lleida: It is located in what is called the ‘Catalan Central Depression’, La Seu Vella is one of the most stunning and dominating pieces of architecture I’ve ever seen and that it’s the city were San Miguel is brewed and bottled. I also discovered that drinking San Miguel is looked down on by the locals; Estrella or Voll-Damm are seen in a much better light and are considerably more potent. Another thing, in Catalan the pronunciation of the city is ‘YAY-dhah’, but due to articulation issues in the other regions, the city is called Lérida in Spanish.

The first day with my new host family (I don’t wish to mention their names, but they are incredible people who made me feel like their eldest son and we still keep in touch to this day! Et trobo a faltar) was encapsulated by a ‘correfoc’ or in English ‘fire-run’, in the city centre of my new home. Let me tell you right now, correfoc’s are a health and safety nightmare. People ran around dressed as the devil, flailing around enlarged flares on sticks above their heads until they burst into flames. The crowd that watched these events are urged to get as close as possible to the ‘creatures’ and run with the fire themselves. It was carnage and I loved it.

A castell mid-construction in central Lleida (September, 2017)

We had also witnessed a ‘castell’ during the day of these celebrations, this involved adults and children stacking themselves on top of each other in public places – building a human castle for the audience. It was capped off by an ‘enxaneta’ climbing to the top and reaching an open hand to the sky, before they all gradually dismantled themselves back to the ground below.

The region was insane, I had never seen anything like it. I was immediately hooked.

The next day I awoke under the pretence of a rest day. It had been non-stop since my arrival and I was excited to embrace a lazy Sunday from the comfort of my new bedroom. That did not happen. I was informed that we would be attending the kid’s roller hockey game that morning in the small village of Juneda. Sure, why not – my host-siblings were very excited for me to come, so how could I say no?

Roller hockey is actually one of Catalonia’s national sports. Barcelona has won 19 European League Championships with a ruthless domination, not unlike the world-renowned football team. I watched as kids a quarter of my age glided around the arena on their roller skates with such a finesse I could only dream of, screaming in Catalan as their parents roared them on. I would later attend a hoquei game for the local team in Lleida, I was nearly smashed in the face with a ball and I got to pound the fan-drum to the beat of the vivacious crowd. 10/10 would do again. Following the game, I was told that we were going ‘to vote’.

“To vote for what?”

“Per la independència!”

This was the 1st of October 2017, the day of the Catalan independence vote. The Spanish government had declared the vote illegal and unconstitutional, warning many people away from the polling stations. This resulted in many pro-Spanish and pro-Catalan voters who feared the backlash not turning up.

Catalan flags draped over a building in Juneda (October, 2017)

The polling station itself had a strange atmosphere. The children ran around playing with tubs of fairy liquid blowing bubbles, while the adults were fearful of the police as they filled out their voting slips. A large barbecue was taking place, serving traditional Catalan meat like ‘butifarra’ and we were drinking from traditional ‘porróns’. If you aren’t aware, governments find acts of protest with traction irritating and normally try to quash them with force. Local farmers had tactically parked their tractors in the middle of the roads blocking entry to the polling station. There were murmurs that the police were going to arrive, but luckily, they never came to where we were.

It was a different story in the main population centres: Barcelona, Tarragona, Girona, and Lleida. We were watching the evening news about the vote; the numbers had been 92% in favour of independence. Over 2 million votes had been cast in favour of becoming an independent state – it is worth noting that the population of the region back in 2017 was 7.4 million. 43% of Catalans were able to vote in these elections, despite enforced polling station closures and excessive force from the Spanish police. The vote had been disregarded as a terrorist rebellion and police in riot gear had stormed cities. There are videos of them pushing elderly people down sets of stairs and hitting protestors with batons. One video showed these police officers attacking voters at the doctor’s surgery just outside of the flat we lived in.

Raw: Over 760 Injured by Police in Catalonia (Associated Press, 2017)

Walking down the streets of Lleida at night in the weeks following was deafening. Catalan independence flags were draped over balconies – men, women and children stood every night at 9 o’clock bashing pans together in protest of the Spanish police and their government.

The Catalan regional police, the Mossos d’Esquadra had allowed the vote to go ahead – which was what led the National Police Corps and the Civil Guard to enter the region and ‘take back control’. 893 civilians were injured that day. Spanish police action was heavily condemned by many players of the international community; including the Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel and SNP Leader Nicola Sturgeon, yet others including Boris Johnson failed to condone the violence…

Three years on, the situation remains largely unchanged. The leader of the independence party Carlos Puigdemont is currently living in self-imposed exile in Belgium, knowing that he will be tried and arrested should he ever return to Spain. Nine Catalan independence leaders were sentenced for their roles in the 2017 referendum on counts of sedation and crimes against the Spanish state. In turn this triggered more protests during October 2019 that are continuing today, slowed only by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Civil rights protests and independence movements are like tubes of toothpaste, when they are squeezed out, they are impossible to put back in. Especially when there are massive cultural differences between the region and their governments. Bull fighting is an internationally known form of entertainment enjoyed by the Spanish, yet it was banned in the region on the 1st of January 2012. The residents speak Catalan as a first language, and it is rare for two Catalans to converse in Spanish. Gastronomically, the region is more alike to France than it is to Spain. For more examples of how the culture in this region is so unique, go back and read this article again. This is a country/region/autonomous area close to my heart and whether within in Spain or outside of it, I just want the people to be treated right.

Visca Catalunya.

A banner at the Copa Del Rey match between Lleida Esportiu and Real Sociedad (Camp d’Esports, October 2017)

Why We Need System of a Down More Than Ever

“Following the rights movements, you clamped down with your iron fists. Drugs became conveniently available for all the kids” Prison Song, System of a Down, Toxicity, 2001.

These lyrics from the latter end of 2001 sound like they could have been written in the past week. How about another.

“Circumventing circuses lamenting in protest. To visible police, presence-sponsored fear. Battalions of riot police with rubber bullet kisses. Baton courtesy, service with a smile.” Deer Dance, System of a Down, Toxicity, 2001.

I think these words are actually more relevant.

Both of these excerpts are taken from Toxicity, the incredible sophomore album released by the Armenian alternative metal band – System of a Down. The record itself is now a staggering 19 years old. Yet, this album could have been released yesterday and wouldn’t feel outdated. The album, released a week before the 9/11 terror attacks took place, summarised the screams of a rising left-wing movement in the United States. One that protested the war on drugs, police brutality and prison overcrowding – as well as other artifacts of Americana.

The aforementioned 9/11 incident, as tragic and harrowing as it was, arguably further opened the doorway for an increased expansion of right-wing nationalism, mass deportation of citizens and large-scale surveillance of its people. The true extent of the latter only becoming apparent after Edward Snowdon’s NSA leaks back in 2013.

With Donald Trump at the helm, the United States looks more fractured than ever. The current Black Lives Matter protests are the latest in a long line of incidents that seem to be tearing the country apart at the seams. With the 2020 preliminaries on the horizon, the political spectrum for the candidates makes for grim reading for anybody leaning to the left in politics.

System of a Down, along with other contemporaries of the protest-rock genre such as Rage Against the Machine and Rise Against, managed chart success despite their incendiary sound. System went a step further with their unorthodox blend of Armenian folk, metal, jazz, and Greek influences. Songs such as the international smash-hit ‘Chop Suey!’ (aptly named after their record label had told them to ‘chop’ the original name of the track ‘Suicide’), ‘BYOB’ and ‘Aerials’ are common tracks on any Gen X or Millennial iPod. In a world that boasts a wide variety of rap and dance tracks, there is prime real estate for heavier music in the charts. It needs to be loud, and it needs to encapsulate the feelings of the disassociated youth – just as it did all those years ago.

It has been 15 years since the release of the ‘Mezmerize’ and ‘Hypnotize’ double release, two albums that, according to guitarist Daron Malakian, nearly ended up dead in the water before they had even begun. He told Kerrang Magazine:

“To be honest with you, Serj didn’t even want to make [them]. We really begged him to make those records. At that time, he felt like he was out.”

I had the pleasure of seeing System of a Down headlining at Download Festival Paris back in 2017. Although I enjoyed the set, I failed to shake the feeling that it was a fleeting cash-grab from one of the most revolutionary bands of the modern era. The passion in their performance seemingly gone, it was an extravagant act of going through the same material they had then been performing for over a decade.

System of a Down Performing at Download Paris (Brétigny-sur-Orge, 2017)

Nowadays the band are unable to agree on anything – never mind politics. Just last week Serj Tankian posted on Instagram, “Run Donny, run back to your bunker”, after the POTUS had entered the White House safehouse and turned off all the lights, as protests raged on outside. In stark contrast to his opinions, drummer Jon Dolmayan labelled the same man as “the greatest friend to minorities”.

The drummer said in a recent Instagram video:

“We have differing opinions in System of a Down. That shouldn’t be a shock to anybody, because you have four individuals: we’re not always like-minded and don’t always agree on everything. But you’d be surprised at how civil our conversations are, especially between me and Serj, who seem to have the most diverging opinions on things.”

We’re rolling suicide (Chop Suey!, 2001)

I for one would absolutely love to hear an album forged from the melting pot of opposing forces in politics, as I am sure many others would too. According to bassist Shavo Odidjian, he would have had 10 System of a Down albums released by now if it was up to him. He even told Consequence of Sound that the material that they had pre-written was some of the best they had ever recorded.

Stephen Hill at Loudersound sums it up perfectly when he writes: “This long without an album for a band that are meant to actually stand for something is embarrassing.”

All four of the band members are highly active on social media, but they did not rise to prominence as Instagram influencers. They fought against what they perceived as an unjust system with their own brand of metal. The world needs a new System of a Down album more than ever, but if they fail to answer the call now, when the United States is literally on its knees – will they ever? Perhaps we are just cursed for a lifetime of festival headline sets, where they slowly but surely squeeze every drop of monetary gain from the songs that roared them into limelight in the first place.

I’ll end this article with some words of wisdom from Serj Tankian himself.

You know you want to (Chop Suey!, 2001)

“Banana, banana, banana, terracotta. Banana terracotta, terracotta pie. Banana, banana, banana, terracotta. Banana terracotta, terracotta pie” Vicinity of Obscenity, System of a Down, Hypnotize, 2005.

Looking into those lyrics actually makes them all the more intriguing, but I think that’s the point as the song is Serj’s take on Dadaism. In all seriousness I adore System of a Down and their classics, I just want to hear what Serj, Daron, Shavo and Jon have got to say about the last 15 years outside of 280 characters.


The Politics of AID Work in Rural Tanzania

This blog was originally written in October 2018 and submitted to Raleigh International to be published on the blog section of their website. It was at their request that I wrote this blog, they never got back to me.

Bwawani is a village situated in the Kilombero area of Morogoro District, Tanzania. It was formerly a part of the much larger Nyamweze township. However, leadership issues in this very large community led to it breaking off into three separate villages – Bwawani, Nyamweze and Kiberege – back in 2013, with no jurisdiction over each other.

The border gore that exists between Belgium and the Netherlands in Baarle-Nassau-Baarle Hertog.

Now the village is stuck in a strange border situation where on one side of the road you’re inside one village, but when you cross it, you’re in another. An example I could compare this to would be the strange borders between the Netherlands and Belgium at Baarle-Nassau/Baarle-Hertog, where some houses are even split between the two independent nations. Luckily, the Schengen area allows this to be a non-problem, but my thoughts go out to the homeowners if the EU ever disbands.

Back to Bwawani, and these fledgling villages that were struggling to rally behind their new leaders. The group of volunteers that I worked in, Charlie One, worked in the ‘Kiberege School’ – which itself was a source of conflict between these communities, as both the schools namesake and Bwawani claimed ownership of the establishment. The school was initially built as a teaching and rehabilitation centre for the nearby Kiberege prison, but a government decree turned it in into a place of education for children. The school still had memories of prison ownership with its iron barred windows and chicken wire but was juxtaposed by the vibrant nature and creativeness from the excitable children. It is worth noting that the 40-minute walk from Bwawani to the school was through the prison fields where the inmates worked, fields that my Charlie walked through from Monday to Friday for five weeks. Most days there were no inmates working, but when there was, they would often shout, beg, or attempt to run over. Interacting with prisoners is illegal in Tanzania, so we just had to keep our eyes forward and walk. This was made all the more difficult as prisoners were hired to actually dig the hole for the septic tank of the new teachers’ toilets, little more than five metres from a classroom of bustling children.

Our toilets halfway through the project. Bwawani, Tanzania (October, 2018).

A village that formerly had two cycles of volunteers, the community of Bwawani was already educated on the benefits of hand washing and hygiene, with the Village Executive Officer (VEO) enforcing a TSH50,000 fine if your home did not contain hand washing facilities with soap.

The school was also well versed on the dangers of poor food preparation and personal hygiene. Countless songs regarding these important messages could be heard echoing from the classrooms. Strangely for Kiberege school, the toilets Raleigh had spent six months and two volunteer cycles constructing remained unused and were beginning to fall into disarray.

We in Charlie One believed this to be strange. The children, so excitable and informed on the issues of hygiene were still using the old and decrepit drop-hole toilets that lacked any sort of sanitation. All the while the new and freshly built, flushable latrines fell to the wayside, it made little sense. Why were we here?

After a week in Bwawani things became increasingly clear, we had heard murmurs from the students that the teachers were not allowing them to use the toilets. This was despite the teachers informing us that the opposite was true, that the students were refusing to use them due to being “intimidated” by their new and shiny design. Which was strange considering the students had been using them daily since we had arrived.

Charlie One with their host families in Bwawani (October, 2018).

The day of our first School Management Committee (SMC) meeting arrived, and everything came to a head, like a lifting of fog. The headteacher and the committee denied all knowledge of an opening ceremony for the new toilets and claimed that they had never received ownership of them, despite being in the presence of our District Operations Manager Kim, a team leader on the last cycle who had worked on these exact toilets.

This was all in-fact false information. Infuriated by this, Kim informed the red-faced SMC that she was present and led those events herself. Faced with this, they admitted their defeat and confirmed that they had not touched the toilets in one year (the reason for this was unclear and lost in translation, and I do not wish to assume incorrectly – but we were building a set of teachers’ toilets for this particular school so I will leave the assumptions to you dear reader). As a result of this, the toilets had become infested with maggots and were slowly reaching the point of becoming unusable. In the end, after the previous (and supposedly final) cycle had left, the SMC had virtually disbanded and the district leaders that were bestowed with checking up on the cubicles had failed to do so. The school had not been held accountable for their lack of toilet maintenance and they had essentially been left to rot.

We were all gobsmacked at this revelation, but we were on the ground here for another four weeks and work had already started on the new toilets. These kids could not be left with the toilets in the state that they were, and the surrounding community were still engaging in traditional acts surrounding women’s menstruation that no longer had a place in modern society (one of which will be detailed later). Whatever the motivations of the school organisation we still had a job to do.

We held a community ‘Action Day’ to discuss issues surrounding water and sanitation hygiene, with particular focus on the normality of women’s menstruation health management (MHM). Over 300 people attended and backed the cause. Epitomising this was our men’s MHM corner; we had the idea to have two ‘corners’ during our Action Day and take shifts occupying them. The purpose of these were for men and women who had questions on MHM to come and privately ask us advice and guidance.

Action shot of me very stressed at the Action Day – Bwawani, Tanzania. (October, 2018).

During my shift, a man approached me and my Team Leader Sarya and asked us whether female periods were healthy. We explained to him their normality for all girls around the globe. His face was visibly shocked; he informed us that he had been locking his daughters in a ‘red-room’ for seven days a month and not letting them out until their menstruation period had concluded. This is because in certain segments of rural Tanzania there are beliefs that ovulating women can make men impotent. These opinions are influenced by decades of enforcement, tradition and cultural differences. It was not his intention to mistreat these young women, but to protect the ongoing heritage and future generations of his family. It shows that even a simple conversation can make a massive difference to a domino effect of people. He swore to us that he would never do anything like that again.

With this fresh in our minds we took this to the SMC at Kiberege school, we told them the importance of MHM, and they allowed us to teach it in their school with the additional support of the parents. We also stressed the importance of a consistently clean and monitored MHM room (one was constructed with the toilets) and the importance of hygiene materials in the schools such as soap, toilet brushes and bleach, to which they agreed. Things were finally beginning to look up.

It was around this time that nearly all of my teams work boots were stolen. During the night they were kept in the locked storage room of the school. Fortunately for me, I had taken mine home that evening to clean them. The next day we returned to see no signs of struggle or forced entry, the padlock was still on the door and all the school’s belongings were still in place. Many of these boots were purchased by both my British and Tanzanian counterparts, and work had to stop for about a week until we could get replacements.

Community mobilisation meetings followed, we gathered up groups of elders, women and young adults to conduct in-village surveys on their current knowledge. We contacted local businesses to see what stock they supplied regarding hygiene. In Bwawani, there were few shops that supplied sanitary pads and puritabs, yet all of them stocked bars of soap and its powdered variant. We then invited all of these business leaders to a meeting at the school and openly encouraged the SMC to pursue business relations with them to keep their toilets stocked, because, and this was stressed – we were not coming back again.

The efforts we had made finally started sticking in the final few days of our project.

The opening ceremony of the new teacher’s cubicles – Bwawani, Tanzania (October, 2018).

This was worth pursuing at Kiberege school for the benefit of the children who studied there; the next generation always deserves a chance. The opening ceremony of our very own teachers’ toilets followed and was a complete success. We ensured that they had the keys and could not claim that they “didn’t have any”. We left Bwawani truly feeling that we had made a difference against all odds. We headed into our next adventure after a quick recharge in Morogoro. The next stop was Chimlata School in the Kongwa district of Dodoma.

Upon re-reading and re-editing this article I find myself frustrated at myself for not further pursuing what was going on under the surface at Kiberege School. However, the situation me and my colleagues were under was very difficult both physically and emotionally. After the departure of my team, the School Management Committee fell back into old habits, however this time there were repercussions from the now rejuvenated district and their passionate Village Environmental Officer. The headteacher of Kiberege school has since been sacked and replaced. Here’s hoping that their new hire places the children first, investing in their futures – rather than insisting on ‘business as usual’.

I truly believe that Raleigh International does fantastic work, but it does highlight the difficulties of AID work in third-world countries with regards to potential corruption. That is not even touching on the ‘white-saviour complex’.

But that is a topic for another day.

Finally, I just want to give a massive thank you to Amy Pragnell, Phoebe Nelson and Bryn Williams for their invaluable assistance in writing this blog post. You guys rock.

philosophy tv

Nick Miller: A Modern Example of Taoism

After two months stuck in Coronavirus induced lockdown, I, like many others have binge watched the series ‘New Girl’. The series was long forgotten to my pubescent memory. As a 16-year old during its run, I saw the words; ‘Adorkable’, ‘Girl’ and ‘Zooey Deschanel’ and gave it a hard and closed-minded pass. Only for it to be pushed so heavily on the home screens of Netflix and Amazon Prime eight years later.

Succumbing to the corporate media machine, I decided to do as I was told. I ended up bingeing all seven seasons in a single week. My actual review of the FOX series could be a separate blog, but to limit the word count here – it is a fantastic show that deserves your viewing. I highly recommend it (Note: there are going to be some spoilers in this article, so here is a heads up if you’re planning on watching).

However, I’m here today to write about my personal favourite character, Nick Miller. Schmidt is a very close second, he is hands-down the best part of the first season. Admittedly, by the actor Jake Johnson himself, the character did not come into his own until the second season. This was because the writers weren’t sure how to write his character yet. But I digress. Outside of the kooky wackiness of ‘New Girl’, the character of Nick is an unorthodox and frankly great example of the effect that the ancient Chinese philosophy of Taoism can have on our lives.

“Excuse me?” I can already hear you ask through your screen. How is this relevant to Nick?

Taoism is a way of thinking about life that dates to at least 2,500 years ago. Tao is the name given to the ‘way’ or the force that puts everything in life and existence into motion. Words themselves are claimed to be unable to correctly describe what ‘Tao’ is. However, a key belief in Taoism is that of ‘flow’ – that actions should not be forced. You should not strive in existence. You should live with the least amount of effort, prioritising what you want to do and investing your all into it.

When we are introduced to Nick, his friends see him as a lazy, alcoholic law-school dropout working at a dive bar claiming to be a writer. He is not taken seriously and is seen as a bit of a failure. Nick is a character I am sure many, including myself, can identify with. That is the core pull of the show ‘New Girl’ – most people can see themselves within one the shows characters. Middle-to-late twenty somethings who haven’t grown up into stereotypical adults yet, without kids or a family and are desperately trying to find their calling in life.

Despite his perceived shortcomings and lazy behaviour, Nick is just following the ‘flow’ or ‘Tao’ of his own existence. He is not forcing the things that don’t come naturally to him so he can be perceived as more well-off or successful, if he doesn’t actually want them. Many people in modern society chase jobs that they don’t actually want deep down, they just want the finances and the status that comes with it. I don’t recall ever talking to a child who yearns to grow old and become an Investment Banker. They want to drive trains, write stories or fly to the moon.

Nick actually did pass his bar examination while at law-school, yet instead of dropping out because he couldn’t – he decided being a bartender was more ‘him’ and chased that avenue instead. After sharing this advice with his friends, Winston leaves his job at the radio station and eventually becomes a cop. Jess decides to stay on as a teacher instead of taking the fundraising position, even though it pays more. Schmidt even visits the Christmas tree farm that he loved working at before getting a career in marketing – which he only has for the money, status and power.

Nick Miller at Law School. New Girl. Clavado En Un Bar ( Series 3, Episode 11)

This is averse to what most young adults are taught nowadays. I’ve worked in retail and catering and actually quite enjoyed them. However, I have always been taught they were bottom of the food-chain, despite both my parents working for decades in these environments. The definition of success and status in the western world right now is wrong. We should be praising these types of character decisions, not looking down on them with a sigh and an utterance of ‘lost potential’ at a family dinner.

If you need another example, it is Nick’s writing career. When he is teased by his loft mates for calling himself a writer and not writing anything substantial, he forces himself to stay up for 14 hours straight and churn out the last half of his first err… novel, ‘Z is for Zombie’. In his book he misspells the word ‘rhythm’ no less than 38 times and adds in a wordsearch that does not actually have any words hidden in it to ‘subvert the readers expectations’. Winston dubs it the worst thing that he is ever read but is proud of him for finishing it.

There is an argument that the metaphor here is, your first draft is never your best, but you learn from it and try again. I am not fighting that at all. I truly believe this is what the writers were going for, but it is a testament to the show and its writers that we can look further into their work. Taoism teaches that the act of ‘flow’ is a means to all things. We should not focus on the end-product of our workings, nor the potential reward, only the act of enjoying the things we do.

“He gives but not to receive

He works but for no reward

He competes but not for results

He does nothing for himself in this passing world

So nothing he does ever passes.”

(Verse 2, Tao Te Ching)

Like an athlete entering the ‘zone’, Nick taps into his creative energy during his stay in New Orleans with Reagan. He claims that the city resonated with him and he was able to tap into something special. The result? As he claims himself in his third person ‘About the Author’ page:

“He has also lived in New Orleans, [although] that was mostly a frenzied barely remembered fever-dream, during which he wrote the majority of his magnu[m] opus the Pepperwood Chronicles.”

Bourbon Street, New Orleans, Louisiana (Mark Souther, Wikimedia Commons)

The accidental pre-teen masterpiece about a detective wresting with his inner alligator was not a forced piece of fiction. It is unique and he wrote it because he wanted to. Not because his actions were forced by external influences such as his friends or societal pressure. He pretty much let the book write itself and found success. This is because his end goal was not to write the book, it was to get his story out into words.

This can be seen again when he attempts to write a sequel to ‘The Pepperwood Chronicles’ in the final season. His publisher tells him in no uncertain terms that his new material is garbage. It is because it is forced, he is writing Pepperwood to fill the criterion of a book contract, not because he wants to – he’s going against his natural flow.

The point of this article? I think Taoism is more useful now that it has ever been. We all need to be more like Nick Miller. He disregards modern society as egregious and does his own thing because it makes him happy. Sure, in his case it is beer for breakfast and refusing to pay out for repairs of the loft, but he gets where he needs to through innately being himself. If we all just did what we enjoyed, we would all live much happier lives than we do striving for something perceived as ‘greater’ by someone else. The current COVID-19 pandemic has shown us more than ever that every line of work is important, we should be celebrating the character of the people we have become instead of the number on our payslips at the end of every month.

Check out New Girl on Netflix or Amazon Prime here:

Or read the Tao Te Ching:

short stories video games

A Roy of the Rovers Story

As I wandered in off the street and into the poorly hidden local coffee house underneath this town’s much fabled museum. I was overjoyed to catch the sight of a lone guitarist performing a soundcheck on the cramped rectangular stage.

I eyed a closed piano; obviously not a part of this musician’s repertoire. Instead he fiddled with the decaying guitar perched on his lap. His grubby paws wearing away the fine craftsmanship of the neck, my assumption – he’s been playing for a long while.

I approached apprehensively, it was late and I was exhausted after a hard days graft. Despite being a local resident he claimed he was “glad to see new cats on the scene”. His apparent smugness grew fonder as he exclaimed that it must have been my birthday, as I had been lucky enough to stumble in for a special song he was playing tonight. I scoffed under my breath.

With nothing better to do, I ordered a hazelnut latte from the silent server and took my seat. The coffee shop was empty but for me and the barista. Let’s see what this boy can do. He announced to the vacant room that this song was being performed in my honour. The worker cooed quietly, as if looking for something behind the counter. A tumbleweed would have been massively fitting.

The gentle plucking of the guitar was melancholic, his voice unlike anything I’d ever heard. His rough tone juxtaposed near perfectly with the bark of his guitar in a perfect blend. The barista simply stared, he’d seen this act too many times, becoming so used to perfection that he found it tedious. I infectiously nod my head with his melody. He howls sweet nothings, I can only sit and listen.

His nameless song ends abruptly, like the ending credits of a personal favourite movie. I hadn’t realised the passing of time with this performance, I’d been glued to my seat. My eyes were infected with the same substance as I’d failed to avert my gaze.

“Cool,” he uttered before pawing off one of his CD’s into my hands.

“Play it when you get home,” he demanded, before packing away his guitar into its holder. One song didn’t satisfy – I caught a glimpse of a worn poster on the damp walls of the establishment.

He plays every Saturday at 8pm, his name – K.K. Slider.