Proms in the Dark

In 2013 Darlington held its first Proms in the Park concert; an event aimed at bringing the people of Darlington together and promoting a sense of civic pride in the town.  This weekend saw the fourth of these events and brought me back to the town’s South Park.

The local newspaper’s headline from the 2015 event spoke volumes “Best of British on Display” for indeed this is a quintessentially British event; deckchairs and picnic blankets, champagne and ice cream, the gentle jingoism of a military band proclaiming that

The Army, The Navy and The Air Force have made old England’s name

Our soldiers, our sailors and our airmen have always played the game

They’re steady, they’re true and always ready

They fight for you and me

The Army, The Navy and The Air Force leading us to victory.

The irony of British  service men singing of what they have done for England went over the heads of most, but this weekend it had a particular irony.  We are no longer a united kingdom.  We have endured a bitterly divisive political campaign over our membership of the European Union, a campaign marked by lies, distortions and utter disrespect on both sides of the argument and we face an uncertain future.  Both of our main political parties are now riven by in-fighting, and politicians who have long know that the public lacked confidence and respect in them have behaved in ways likely to see their standing eroded further.  I fear this will result in greater division within the population too as more extremism gains a voice.  I may seem needlessly pessimistic – but Michael White, a political journalist who I have always respected if not always agreed with puts it well here.

The regional splits in how the country voted mean that Scotland has a justifiable reason to demand a second independence vote; they voted to remain in the EU.  Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, will pursue this vigorously, but she may not be alone in wanting to break away from the UK.  _PW_1681Across the Irish Sea, a majority in Northern Ireland voted Remain too, giving Sinn Féin grounds to pursue their agenda of a united Ireland once more, the Republic of Ireland being the only part of the EU where we have a shared border.

_PW_1664The band leader who fronted the performance explained that in choosing his programme he had opted for the theme of “music from around the world”, yet we have just turned our back on internationalism in favour of division and subdivision.

I have no idea how most of the audience around me may have voted (though there were some obvious indications), but it already seems that those who desired a Britain apart may well have a Britain torn apart.  Those who wanted to reject a European flag in favour of the “Union Jack” had better enjoy their victory while it lasts.  That flag may soon be missing the blue and white of Scotland very soon.

All of that seemed far from the minds of those celebrating Armed Forces Weekend and enjoying the music.

Or maybe we were just fiddling while Rome burns.


Let me introduce myself…

I’ve written before about my work with students from overseas, and the way in which Asian students have a tendency to adopt “western” names.  Although it makes my life easier, I have mixed feelings about this.  Many Anglophones rely upon the fact that English is a universally accepted language to make not effort to learn another language, or even to reach for the phrase book when travelling abroad.  Deplorable as this may be, not being willing to try to pronounce another’s name seems to be just rude.

It isn’t just Asians who encounter this problem – at first sight many Polish surnames seem to contain more consonants than the tongue can handle, yet by taking the time to ask every Pole I meet how to pronounce their name, any fears have been dispelled.  I have some way to go with Sri Lankan names yet though!

The name of course is part of our identity, and in expecting others to change their names we meddle with who they are.  I am adopted, so the name I have used for the last 54 years was not the one given to me at birth.  I still remember how alien my “birth name” seemed when I first viewed my birth certificate.  I’m a Paul, not an Ian.  Also I use my middle name, because the first name given to me by my adoptive parents was also my father’s and grandfather’s first name, so Paul became the name of choice to avoid confusion.  The other name is meaningless to me.  Perhaps this explains my sensitivity to the name changes that others take on.

An article that I read in the Korean Times however suggested that the practice is perhaps not undertaken reluctantly.  Adopting a Western name gives many a feeling of being progressive and global, and so become like nick names, representing another facet of an individual’s personality.  We also forget that there a Christian communities around the world, and so many are actually christened with these names.  A hangover from the cultural imperialism of European missionaries, and one which is not exclusive to Asia as we shall see.

Many of the students this week heralded from Lyon, and it is unusual for us to have more than one or two French students on the course.  It seemed appropriate (though incorrect in terms of gender) that one of the Vietnamese students should have adopted the name Bon.  Bonne n’est pas?  Three letters though; couldn’t be simpler.  However that is also true of her Vietnamese name Thi (pronounced Tea, and meaning poem).


It is also probably another sign of my cultural ignorance that I found myself saying “I love African accents” this weekend too.  I wouldn’t say; “I love European accents”, I’d say German, Spanish, Italian, Swedish (or as my female colleagues seemed to prefer this weekend: French).  However to my ear, which has been attuned to a few words of Kiswahili, but certainly no Yoruba or Setswana and yet regardless of the hundreds of miles that separate the nations I couldn’t tell distinguish a Tanzanian speaker of English from a Nigerian or Botswanan.

Anyway the bearer of the accent was Nigerian, with a fine Yoruba name.  I liked the catch lights in her eyes as much as the tones from her mouth so she agreed to be photographed too.  She has another name apart from the Yoruba.  This is Clara.APW_8587-Edit


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Degrees of Unrest

It’s that time of year again when I’m spending my weekends in the company of post-graduate business students, most of who are from overseas.  I love these weekends, though the days are long (up at 6.00 to cycle and 15 hours later I’m still processing the pics I took today in readiness for sharing with the students tomorrow.

One of the things that we’ve discussed today has been about where personal values originate.  In most cases this is with our parents, but if you ignore that source where would you say your values were most influenced?  For my part in the discourse I mentioned the impact that travel has had upon me, not just in my love of the history and culture of many of my European neighbours, but also in the contrasting riches I encountered in Nepal and Tanzania.

Weekends like these though are great for meeting people from other cultures without clocking up the air miles!

I’m not so crass as to keep a tally chart of nations whose people I’ve met, but I was lucky enough to meet two outstanding students today who each represented countries that were new to me.

Yusif is Bahraini, originating from the small island country of the Persian Gulf, a country that received a lot of attention from the world’s media during the uprisings that became known as the Arab Spring.  Protests were quashed resulting in calls for planned Grand Prix races to be cancelled.  This happened in 2011, but the race was reinstated the following year.  As far as the outside world is concerned the protests are unresolved, yet Yusif felt that after a short-lived flash point the conflict had dwindled to relative insignificance.  The world’s media had more important issues in Syria to focus upon and Bahrain has resumed its relative anonymity.

All of the students in my group introduce themselves with a very brief presentation and Yusif was so expressive I caught a series of candids that I really liked so he gave me permission to share them here.


APW_1489-EditIn contrast to the Bahraini situation, the human rights restrictions experienced by the second student featured here have been well documented, thanks to the actions of a small but remarkable woman.  Kay is from Burma, now known as Myanmar, where Aung San Suu Kyi has fought the military junta to bring democracy to the nation for many years.  Her political party won 80% of the seats in a democratic election over 20 years ago, but the military refused to give up their power.  Kept under house arrest for most of the period since then, she has recently begun to garner political power once more.

I asked Kay if she would have been allowed to study abroad during the height of the Junta’s power, and learnt that in contrast she had no choice but to do so as the universities had been closed by the military, so her parents sent her overseas to be able to continue her education.   In the spirit of paying it forward while studying here, she also undertakes voluntary work to support those seeking political asylum.

Sometimes my work feels like a privilege.APW_1564-Edit

J & P

According to Tom Petty, the waiting is the hardest part. 

Several years ago as part of my MBA, I undertook the Myers-Briggs personality questionnaire, normally a very reliable tool, whose results are more consistent over time than many other personality measures.  The trouble was that when I completed it, my personality was in complete turmoil resulting from a change of job, change of house, and death of my father.

I wasn’t convinced by the results (one of the things that is consistent about me is that I like to (over) analyse everything.)  I took the test again.  And then again.  Three results in the space of a month, with a different outcome each time!

The test measures against four criteria, each of which can be seen as a continuum, so for example Introvert/Extrovert.  I am firmly in the introvert category, being well towards that end of the scale, whereas others who are seen as introvert may be just passed the halfway point.  The description refers to the way in which I think (introverts mull things over to themselves, extroverts through interacting with others) rather than whether I’m a wallflower or diva.

I don’t recall the scores now, but I’m guessing that many of my results were balanced somewhere in the middle, and therefore more likely to tip either side of the divide during a retest.

The last of the four categories rates whether I prefer judging or perceiving in terms of how I make decisions and react to information from the outside world.  My score put me as judging which is certainly true of my need for a structured and decided existence, and yet from a creativity perspective, one of the precepts that I espouse is living with looseness; keeping plans and decisions to a minimum to facilitate flexibility and responsiveness to change.

The judging score relates purely to my outward life, how I present myself to the world, and discounts what I may be feeling internally, so this perhaps explains some of my confusion.

Anyway, to the point! One of the ways in which the judging element is manifest is in a need to be punctual.  I hate being late, to the point where I will often arrive ridiculously early for things such as flights, medical appointments, training courses and so on.  This has been advantageous on many occasions when it has given me time to recover from potential disasters, but more often than not it just results in waiting around.

My friend J has a different take.  Whenever we have met, she has been on time once (inevitably the time when I hit heavy traffic) but more often than not I arrive early and she arrives late giving me a window in which to get stressed and annoyed if I’m really  a judge, or respond flexibly to the circumstances if a perceiver.

Yesterday was a case in point.  I arrived about 10 minutes early, Jane was running late, and added to the delay by driving past the turn off to the bar we were meeting at.  Navigation could be a whole other blog!

My reaction?  Get out the camera, look around, find the opportunity to grab some images and think about a blog entry before Jane arrives to be greeted by the paparazzi.    Judge… or Perceiver?


Nominally British?

The British journalist Sangita Myska recently produced a programme about British attitudes to “foreign” names, based on her own experiences and those of other prominent Brits who can trace their roots to other cultures.

The inability of many of us to cope with these less common names can make even the most straight forward of tasks a challenge, and in the programme there are recordings of attempts she makes to book a table at different restaurants.  “Did you say Francesca?” being one response to her name.  Whilst it is understandable that anyone may have difficulty in pronouncing or understanding a name of word that they have never encountered before, it is the accompanying attitude that concerns.  A name is part of our identity and something to be treated with respect surely, yet the attitude often seems to be that “It’s your fault for having a difficult name.”

And then there are the prejudices that names can trigger.  An engineering company in Birmingham is run by a Richard Brown.  Nothing out of the ordinary there, until you discover that Richard is actually Shahid Iqbal, a Muslim who found that applying for jobs in his real name led rejections, yet doors were opened to the same applicant when he adopted a more Anglicised approach.  He continues to use Richard Brown now when approaching new clients as it gets him past initial barriers to the point where he can meet clients and promote his company.

While he is happy to take this approach, many others feel very uncomfortable at having to “abandon” their identity to make it easier for the ignorant.  I’m not sure which is the answer.  Over the last decade I have worked with hundreds of overseas students, many from South East Asia, who find it easier to adopt Western Names when in this country rather than put up with the mangled consonants that result from our attempts to pronounce their Chinese, Vietnamese or Malaysian equivalents.

I feel bad at not taking the time to correct this, but in a room of 10 students with tight timescales to work to I would quickly find myself behind schedule if I learnt every name with its correct pronunciation, only to have to begin again later in the day when we change the team compositions.  So when these students arrive armed with names like Winnie, Eric, Tim, Celia, Tommy and so on I’m happy to use them.  Interesting that so many of the names chosen, although very traditional, would probably not be used very often by English speakers today.

Today’s portrait is of one of my colleagues who has also delivered this training for a number of years and whose name is Janet.  At least that’s what I’ve always called her…


Having photographed people of many different nationalities during the course of this project one of the challenges has been getting skin tone exposed correctly. I have a good sense of what looks right for Caucasian skin, and for most of the South East Asians that I have encountered, but for those of African origin, or from the Indian sub-continent, there are so many shades that this is more difficult.

In simple terms, a camera that automatically sets an appropriate exposure level does so by measuring the light coming in through the lens and comparing this to some expected average, and adjusting accordingly so that the bright areas and dark areas of your picture considered in total match that average value.  This is where some digital correction may be required later, but of course the more extreme that correction the more the quality of your picture suffers.

I encountered this issue at the weekend when I was shooting group photographs that included Edwin, who is of Nigerian descent.  Against a white background my camera decides that it has quite enough light thank you, and so under exposes which leaves Edwin as a silhouette and captures little of the detail of his wonderfully expressive face which is why when we had a short break I asked him for a portrait.

The sloping windows in the roof gave the only natural light in the room, but at six foot six I was able to position him under one of them to put him in some good light pretty easily.  (He chided me for referring to him as the gentle giant so I was tempted to write about Simon Dupree and the Big Sound, but that might have been too obscure a link even by my standards!).  I was happy with the portrait as was one of my colleagues who viewed it on my camera back.   This was how Eddie should look.

And that might have been that, had Celia, a pretty Vietnamese student not asked to have her photograph taken too.  At approximately 18 inches shorter than Edwin she was never going to reach the same pool of light, so taking the inverse square law into account the picture has much flatter lighting which to my mind doesn’t do her justice so well. 

Luckily I had another picture taken as a candid earlier in the day which I processed in monochrome. For me, that moody look leads to a more beautiful image.

Eine schöne Türkin

Recent  football headlines have been dominated by an issue that many had thought was in an advanced state of decline.  Racism.

John Terry‘s mealy mouthed denials were not believed by the Football Association, England players were subjected to “monkey chants” in Serbia, and “Kick it Out“, the campaign which aims to end racism in soccer has come in for criticism for not doing enough to speak out against the issue.

Things have improved over the years certainly.  The same moronic Newcastle United supporters who once threw bananas at visiting black players are now doubtless delighted by the performances of Demba BaPapiss Cissé and even Shola Ameobi when he scores against local rivals Sunderland.  Sadly it seems that the improvements are not so great, the outward behaviours still mask the discrimination beneath.

I had an interesting discussion about racism yesterday with a German girl.  German, because she was born in Germany, educated in Germany and has her home in Germany, yet despite this she was branded a “foreigner” whilst at school because her ancestry is Turkish.

In the same way as the UK encouraged an influx of West Indians to meet demands for labour in the decades that followed the Second World War, so Germany created its Guest Worker programme at the beginning of the 1960’s.  The Germans thought this would be a short-term influx, the Turks (and other nationalities who came) saw it as a temporary way of generating an income before returning home after a few months of well paid work.

Life of course is not so rational.  People put down roots and 50 years later there are third generation Turkish Germans.  The German national football team is testament to the significance of the Turkish community there with players such as Mehmet Scholl and Mesut Özil making their mark, and whilst Wikipedia’s list of famous German Turks is dominated by footballers, many are still made to feel like outsiders and so choose to play for the Turkish national team instead.

Yasemin’s experience of racism seems not so far removed from that of Muslims in the UK.  The problem is a global one that we must all tackle.

One of the contributors to our discussion was a young Namibian guy called Rex who predicted that in 50 years the world would be far more accepting of different races and cultures. Perhaps he’ll be proved right.  Yasemin may not be what was historically seen as an ideal German, but this intelligent and beautiful young woman demonstrated this weekend how much she has to offer.  I hope she is given the opportunities to fulfil her potential.