It’s time! Viva Day – Reblogged

This is my guest post for the University of Reading ‘Engage in Teaching and Learning Blog‘. (Click here for original post)

There can’t be many more nerve-wracking oral exams than the PhD viva. A several-year build-up –and then… what? To give research students an impression of what’s it actually like on the day, Dr Carol Fuller from the Institute of Education has produced a short, entertaining and informative video. Using some Teaching and Learning Development Fund (TLDF) money, Carol, who is Director of the Institute’s EdD Programme, has teamed up with film maker Henry Steddman – a UoR alumni — to provide reassurance to potentially anxious candidates. Starring some IoE colleagues as well as professional actors, the video thankfully stays clear of vague and meaningless advice often found in self-help type viva-survivor tips, such as ‘just be yourself’ (which is fine if your self is a confident academic on top of your game, not so much if it’s a nervous wreck.  As Father Ted says to Dougal: never be yourself! That’s just something people say!)

So how should you be, then? First, let’s remember the cornerstones of the situation you’re in here:

  • You’re the expert on your thesis
  • The examiners have read your work thoroughly…
  • ….and they’re keen to discuss it with you.

On viva day:

  • dress smartly
  • refer to your thesis
  • keep eye contact
  • if unsure, ask questions
  • stay hydrated
  • ….try to relax!
  • at the end, if you’re asked whether you’d like to add anything, take the opportunity.

Then, you’ve done all you can for now, and there’s no more to than just wait, until… it’s time!

Hopefully, you’ll get the desired result, and will be awarded the degree of Doctor of Philosophy! Congratulations!

If UoR PhD’ers and EdD’ers find the video useful, Carol is keen to hear their feedback – via any means possible, be it the YouTube comment box, on Facebook or twitter, or via email.” It’s a good way to give students access to an easy-to-use resource”, says Carol. “If students tell us they like this video clip, we can make the case for funding to make more such short films, for example on epistemology or methodology.”

What do you and your students think of Carol’s video?

Brexit: A victory for ordinary people?


Words are distributed unevenly in texts. This is a lucky fact for corpus linguists, who study the nature of this distribution, and are often able to identify linguistic patterns which may otherwise remain hidden.  Why should we care?  Here’s an example, based on a) evidence from my collection of 40.000+ digital newspaper articles, aka ‘corpus’, and b) my heart.

This morning that same heart was broken, when I woke to the news that Britain had voted to leave the EU. I can’t even begin to tell you how devastated that makes me feel. Only yesterday I had such a happy day, because I’d reached a milestone in my PhD: I’d finished processing all my data and had excitedly begun to explore the above-mentioned corpus.

Some words have a tendency to co-occur with others, which is known as collocation. Corpus linguistics makes a strong case for collocations being a more helpful unit of meaning than words.  Take for example the collocation ‘friendly fire’: this phrase means something entirely different to just simply the sum of the words ‘friendly’ + ‘fire’.  So playing around with my corpus of British articles on German, the Germans and Germany, I made a list of frequent collocates of ‘Germans’. Right at the top of the list: ordinary.  When I looked at the concordance lines in detail, they showed that ordinary Germans was almost exclusively used in the context of the darkest chapter in German history, such as:

  • Did ordinary Germans know what was going on?
  • Ordinary Germans were more complicit in the liquidation of European Jewry than historians have previously supposed
  • There were widespread denials by ordinary Germans that they had known about the existence of internment and death camps
  • A television drama exploring the guilt of ordinary Germans during the Second World War
  • The issue of how much the inhumanity of ordinary Germans was an acquired survival response to the prevailing Nazi terror is sidestepped
  • Her account of ordinary Germans coping with life during wartime
  • At the time Nazism had a powerful appeal to ordinary Germans
  • Hitler didn’t use violence against most ordinary Germans
  • The Nazi party championed ordinary Germans

The Nazi party championed ordinary Germans.  As opposed to whom, extra-ordinary Germans?  Who are these ordinary people?  I don’t really know, but what I do know is that splitting any group or society in a polarised way is a very very bad idea.  Early this morning, an icy chill took hold of my heart when I heard UKIP leader Nigel Farage’s comment on the referendum result: “This will be a victory for ordinary people”.

When Sandi Toksvig asked me about my PhD


Can’t think of any character from Scooby doo. Not even Scooby doo.

Missing your regular dose of TV quizzing now that University Challenge is done for the season?!  No need to mope – Fifteen to One’s back on, hoorah!

I love this show – so much so that I seem to make a habit of exposing my lack of general knowledge publicly by appearing on it every ten years or so.  So against better judgement I did it again for the third time – and these days you get to go on three shows in a row!


I think we need some more makeup

Contestants were sworn to secrecy about anything to do with the casting and recording until the show you’re on has aired. Well it has, and the gagging order’s been lifted!  After a whittling-down process involving pen and paper tests and onscreen auditions, eventually whoever was left standing was invited to the BBC studios in Glasgow in October last year – yes I know it’s a Channel 4 show, but that’s where it was.  Extremely lucky for me, as Glasgow’s practically my second home!  Presenter Sandi Toksvig was hilarious and made a point of having a little individual chat with everyone.  “So, Heikie, what’s your PhD in?”  Now we’d been briefed that if Sandi asks you something, give a bit of detail.  So I droned on about my PhD until she could take no more – needless to say, that bit never made it onto the show.  But I’ll never forget the moment when Sandi put an end to my monologue with a desperate “that’s really interesting” and turned to the next person: “So, Vicky, I hear you breed bunny rabbits?”

If you really must, you can watch me on catchup for the next few weeks (13/14/15th April episodes).


The Glasgow Fifteen, with Sandi

German is like a mushroom…

This is my guest post for the Oxford German Network

Oxford German Network

This is a guest post by our PhD researcher, OGP coordinator Heike Bruton, who is investigating motivation for German learning.  You’ll know her as the author of our ‘Joining up German teaching in the UK’ newsletters, top tips, events and resources from the world of German teaching (to sign up for the newsletter click here; to see past newsletter editions click here).

German is like a mushroommushroom (2)

The year is 1994.  In a comprehensive school on the outskirts of London, a newly qualified German teacher takes up her first job.  She’s brimming with plans and enthusiasm, and she’s looking forward to her many questions being answered.  How do students in this country feel about learning German?  What makes some people here just take to all things German, and what’s the best way to share the love?

That teacher is me.  Two decades later I’ve taught countless numbers of…

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DATA! Or doing research in schools




I’ve created simply the most exciting folder of my PhD so far. It’s called DATA! Complete with capitals and exclamation mark – I just couldn’t stop myself. I’ve actually gone out ‘in the field’ and gathered some real data! I never thought the day would come, but it did, and here’s what I learnt:

Research in schools. Who needs it? Well yes, a lot of us, but don’t forget that everything about fieldwork in schools is hard, from A for access to Z for… it’s just hard, ok? Don’t get me wrong. I love education, I love schools. I’ve spent most of my life so far involved in some sort of educational establishment or other, be it as ‘educatee’, educator, or both. But the three top things to remember are:




  1. School teachers are busy, busy people. I should know, I used to be one. Make it easy and keep wordy emails and long lists of things you want done to a minimum. If you’re lucky enough that someone responds and offers you a time slot, take it, even if it means getting up a silly o’clock, finishing at silly o’clock or rushing madly from one appointment to the next, which will be at, yes, silly o’clock.


  1. Waste Spend your own time and money to make sure all documents are copied, stapled and ready to go. Don’t expect the teacher to take the time to prepare this, or the money for it to come out of the departmental budget. Put it all into one big bag and be prepared to hand over the bag as well – if you’re lucky you’ll get it back at the end, full of completed questionnaires. If you’re lucky, that is.


  1. Never been to this particular school before? Allow A LOT of time. Last week I was waiting outside of firmly locked electronic metal gates for what seemed like ages, worrying I might miss my appointment. And the parking! Parking’s always, always an issue. What’s legal isn’t always acceptable to the local community – if you’re parked in a side street, you’re almost certain to put someone’s nose out of joint. On my return to the car I found a handwritten note – impersonating a traffic warden – on the back of an envelope, telling me that my car was parked illegally (it wasn’t). The message was clear: “Don’t do it again”.


parking note


This was only day one of my data collection schedule. I interviewed two teachers at two schools – the text books say to only do one interview a day, but hey, see point 1) above. I’ll be back for more interviews, questionnaire sessions, lesson observations and focus groups – I can’t wait. So then, what to do with all this lovely, fresh and juicy data? Well, before you can crunch it all up and then spit it out again in some sort of (hopefully) meaningful fashion, it needs to be transcribed. But that’s a blog post for another day!


Are you conducting research in a school? How’s that going? Please post your comments below!

So you think you’re doing a PhD?




I’ve been upgraded! Yes I know the old version of me did suffer from bugs and sudden crashes, cheers for pointing it out, so an upgrade was long overdue, and thanks to the procedures of the PhD machinery, I’ve now got one, hoorah! Confused? Then read on…

So you think you’re doing a PhD? Often, not so, at least not to start with. You might be registered for a lesser degree first, and only clamber up onto the PhD train, destination graduation, later. Or your status might officially be ‘PhD-initial registration’, and you need to have your registration confirmed. Who knew? Not me! So this is the CoR, confirmation of registration, aka upgrade, aka transfer. Requirements for this vary between institutions and departments, but often you’re asked to produce a mini-thesis, bar findings, and just a general intro-background-methodology-findings-discussion list won’t cut it, sorry, it’s got to contain some serious content. Then you get to discuss this with a panel, with your supervisors sitting in but not allowed to say anything. Sounds like scary stuff – so preparation is everything.

Anyway, for me, it’s over. I’m a officially a fully signed-up PhDer now, and I couldn’t be more relieved. When I was preparing for it though, it struck me that I can’t be the only person who was struggling to piece together some info about how the whole CoR process works, or that it even exists in the first place! So here are a few key points that might be worth knowing (NB this applies to my institution and my home school – do check how it works with your own uni/school/department). If you look for it, the info CAN be found out there, you just need to know a) where to look, and b) that you should look in the first place! Since you’re reading this, you got b) covered. As for a), here are some….

…Top tips re preparing for your CoR:

  • Check your VLE (Blackboard, Moodle, etc). Mine actually has a useful section on the CoR, but I only came across it quite late. So save yourself some hassle and have a look on your VLE as your starting point! It will probably also say what paperwork you need to complete. Look out for these forms (again, this might be different for your department):
  • CoR new paperwork (honestly, it’s called that in my case, yours might not be ‘new’ :-))
  • Example document (extremely useful: someone else’s completed report – hopefully it was someone who passed!)
  • Annual Review of Progress – CoR – student template (don’t think just because you’ve already done a review of progress report not too long ago you don’t have to do a new one! You can just update the previous report though, self-plagiarism rules don’t apply in this instance).
  • Learning Needs Analysis (update and submit to assessors)
  • Check your Graduate School website. Mine has useful links to forms, policies and procedures.  (Don’t switch off at the sound of this – knowing this stuff will help you navigate the PhD maze! Familiarise yourself also with the CoR section in the Code of Practice on Research students, or your institution’s equivalent.
  • Good practice guides are helpful too, e.g. Monitoring and Assessing the Practice of Doctoral Researchers. Knowing the criteria against which you’re assessed is rather essential, but this information isn’t always easy to come by, astonishingly.
  • Read your PhD handbook!!! This is worth its weight in gold and your starting point for every general PhD question you may have. Avoid feeling a fool if the answers to your questions have been in there all along.
  • Put your CoR document through Turnitin. On my VLE there’s a button saying ‘draft chapters’, which I ignored until after I’d submitted my CoR document. THEN I found out that you can check, completely confidentially, for instances of unintended (and intended, I guess) plagiarism, by uploading your work onto Turnitin. With trepidation, I did this – and it came back as 28% plagiarised! Shock horror! If this happens to you, don’t panic. When I checked each item, it was all references or template ethics documents form the appendix. Phew! I do recommend before checking your document before official submission though, not after. All official University student work is now put through Turnitin as a matter of course. Use this tool to your advantage.
  • Your institution’s researcher development programme might run a seminar on preparing for the CoR. I went to one and it turned out to cover the whole of the PhD assessment process, not just the CoR. Quite useful but I’d have liked to spend more time on ‘the thing that it said on the tin’. Still, it alerted me to the documents above, and that’s definitely as good thing.
  • In the actual CoR session (not sure what to call this: a chat, an oral exam, a mini-viva? Let’s stick with session), relax and enjoy discussing your project with academics in your field. I think it’s a real privilege to have someone read and comment on your work – make the most of it! I finished my session with a feeling of renewed energy and inspiration. It reminded of why I embarked on this project in the first place. I can’t wait to get out into the field and collect my data now!

So the last thing then is to be aware of the criteria used to assess your application for full registration (again, this might vary from institution to institution). At my university these are:

  1. Is the work presented by the student such as might reasonably be expected as a result of their having studied for the equivalent of around 12-18 months full-time for a PhD, depending on the timing of the confirmation process?
  2. Has the student shown that he or she is able to exercise independent critical judgement?
  3. Has the student demonstrated that he / she understands how his / her research topic is related to a wider field of knowledge?
  4. Has the student demonstrated the ability to produce an original contribution to knowledge?
  5. Is the amount and nature of the subject-specific and generic research skills training that has been undertaken by the student appropriate to his / her needs, as identified through a Learning Needs Analysis or similar process?
  6. Is the student’s work, and his / her understanding of it, of a standard that indicates that it will lead to the successful submission of a PhD thesis within 3-4 years full-time registration (or part-time equivalent)?

Amazingly, the answer to all of these questions for me today seems to have been YES. So why do I still feel that everybody else knows what they’re talking about, whereas I don’t? To answer this, I’ve signed for a course called Imposter syndrome. But that’s a blog post for another day!


How is/was your upgrade experience? I’d love to hear from you via the comments form below!



The tentative German book prize 2015 connection

German Book Prize 2015: what have these two books got to do with it?!

So! The shortlist of the six novels in the running for the German Book Prize 2015 is out – winners will be announced on 12th October, can’t wait! Click here for a short description (in English) of each novel, the authors’ bios, and an audio-sample. Want to follow the prize and all its goings on in English? No worries, New Books In German (click on the words!), the prize’s English language media partner, has got it covered. Want to read about it in another language? The first website above can be changed to French, and the second to Spanish – the latter one even mentions Italian content but the link didn’t work for me. Still, quite the polyglot atmosphere! Sadly I haven’t read any of the shortlisted books, shame, but I just haven’t. Reading through the list though made me think of my encounters with the author of one of the shortlisted novels, well not with her directly, but with one of her previous books and with her portrayal in an interview-based article in the Guardian.

So this writer is on the shortlist then with her latest novel, Gehen Ging Gegangen/Go Went Gone, of course she is, seeing that in German book terms she’s – and I’m just stopping short of abusing the word ‘literally’ here – everywhere: Jenny Erpenbeck. Erpenbeck’s sixth novel Aller Tage Abend/The End of Days won the Independent Foreign Fiction prize earlier this year, and that’s just one of the many awards and accolades heaped upon her. If you’re interested in German contemporary writing, Erpenbeck is not a name you can easily avoid. My own ‘Erpenbeck experience’ hasn’t had the smoothest of starts ever since I meant to read Das alte Kind/The Old Child, her debut novel, but ended up mistakenly reading a book of the same title by Zoë Beck, I mean come on, same title, and, then, the author’s name, enough to get anyone confused. Beck, Schmeck, Erpenbeck. What didn’t help either was that Beck’s novel is truly, erm, awful, sorry, and I only finished it because of its twin location setting of Berlin and Scotland, which are both close to my heart. I know that’s not Erpenbeck’s fault, but somehow the momentum was lost.

This summer, when I read an interview with Jenny Erpenbeck in the Guardian, I was taken aback by two things she said. The first point is about growing up in the East and people’s attitude in the West:

“People don’t tend to believe me, but our default mode in the east was skepticism towards the government, especially among those who still believed that socialism deserved a better chance. When we read a newspaper, the first question was always “What does it really mean?” It gave us a much better training, alertness to manipulation. Sometimes I think that people in the west were much more streamlined, much more easily manipulated with their 100% faith in democracy while remaining largely unquestioning of the economic system”.

Wait a minute. Surely “what does it really mean” is everyone’s first question, not just if you grew up in East Germany? 100% faith in democracy? Unquestioning of the economic system? What is this? I don’t recognise it. Sounds like Erpenbeck herself was manipulated into subscribing to a simplistic view of each and every ‘Westbürger’ as an uncritical consumer of capitalism. Very odd indeed.

The second thing that strikes me as strange is the point she makes about the reception of her books in England (not the UK, mind, though it doesn’t look as though this is a deliberate distinction on her part, but rather a common European pars-pro-toto misconception):

“I sometimes get the impression that readers in England are more appreciative when you are brave enough to experiment with form. Not because that is more common here, but precisely because it is even less common than in Germany.”

Now apart from the fact that experimental writing is far from uncommon in ‘England’ – just look at contemporary writers Tom McCarthy, Stewart Home, Ben Brooks for starters. Also what puzzles me here is that no reference is made to Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life. Atkinson uses the same conceit of a character living out several different lives within the course of the novel, and she does this, in my (not so?) humble opinion, better.  There’s also a strong German connection running through it right from the start; the novel opens with the main character, Ursula, shooting Hitler dead. Bang, take that. Then I dare you to read Life after Life and not fall in love with Teddy, yes I know he is a fictitious character but somehow the understated brilliance of Atkinson’s writing makes you forget that, and yes he did bomb my home town of Bochum with his Halifax, but hey, we’re all friends now. Not keeping your critical distance comes at your peril but works out completely fine until right at the end of the novel’s companion piece, A God in Ruins, which came as a complete shock to me – although I do like to flatter myself as not exactly an uncritical reader. Maybe I should have seen it coming, but I didn’t, just as I never saw it 20 years ago when reading Atkinson’s first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum. Afterwards it’s so obvious that it was always there, running through the novel like red thread, but a slim, thin, easily missed one. No wonder Atkinson states that A God in Ruins is about fiction itself – that makes complete sense, and although I felt heartbroken and not just a little duped when I got to the end, I have to agree and admire the intelligence and crafts(wo)manship that went into it.

I can’t say that I feel like that about Aller Tage Abend/The End of Days. Yes the style is seductive in its consistent curliness, which feels both old-fashioned and post-modern, and that’s not a bad thing at all. But altogether though I felt more annoyed than intrigued, especially when the number of a spider’s legs are referred to as six, not eight, call me petty, do, but I’ll still feel the same. And the repetitions, and the repetitions… not for me, no really, not for me, for what it counts, and it probably doesn’t, and that’s ok, and not a bad thing either.

Have you read any books with a German connection lately, tentative or otherwise?


And the winner is (deep breath):

Die Erfindung der Roten Armee Fraktion durch einen manisch-depressiven Teenager im Sommer 1969/ The Invention of the Red Army Faction by a Manic-Depressive Teenager in the Summer of 1969 by Frank Witzel. Ohne Witz.

Read more about the winning novel here. I’ve ordered my copy – have you?

A tumour in my humour


Croyde Bay, North Devon

A few weeks ago I gave birth, by caesarian, to a baby-sized tumour weighing 2.3 kg. My womb and one ovary came out with it. It had variously been referred to by the doctors, amongst other oddly random objects, as a football and a watermelon, though when it came out, it looked like a plucked chicken, only more red. (How do I know this? I asked them to take a picture during surgery, which they did, and I’ve got a copy on my phone. Don’t worry I stopped short of posting it here so do go on enjoying your dinner).

Am I ok? I’m fine, recovering from the op, making good progress. Was ‘it’ ok? Still not 100% sure – no straightforward cancer cells were found, hoorah, massive relief, but there were ‘atypical features’ and the chicken, as I fondly like to call it, was sliced up and sent to the Oxford Cancer Centre, with no news as yet.

There, I said it, the c-word. Once the c-bomb’s been dropped, everything changes. One minute my world was as I knew it, at worst I felt slightly annoyed at the prospect of having to undergo abdominal surgery which would be grossly inconvenient for my summer plans, my work and my fitness, but hey, no big deal. The next I felt myself bobbing up and down on soup-like murky waters with the doctor’s rhubarb rhubarb noises floating all-around me, whilst being pelted by big loud scary words coming out of his mouth in capital letters: suspected CANCER. URGENT referral. 2-WEEK pathway. You might need CHEMO.

Turns out no sinister diagnosis was made, ever, and while that’s obviously a very very good thing, being in limbo-land between perfectly fine and really not at all fine isn’t great. I couldn’t shake off the ominous dark cloud that followed me around wherever I went, constantly hovering above my head: would it pass and take its shadow with it, or… They say let’s not go there. But when you’re halfway, ‘there’ seems very much within walking distance.

To start with there was lots of activity. Tests, scans, phone calls, googling. The internet is a blessing and a curse. Diving into a world which previously was ‘for other people’. Short-term my productivity increased, my decision-making became clear and fast, no faffing, don’t have the time. I became slightly obsessed with throwing out household chemicals, particularly ones you put in or on your body. Aluminium: bad. Mineral oils: bad. Nano-particles: bad. Some smelly days later the aluminium-laden deodorant was back. Life’s a grey area, so forgive my inconsistency. My priorities crystallised: keep calm and carry on, don’t make it harder for the kids, family, friends. Then the process seemed to grind to a halt. My notes were lost. My scans weren’t sent on. Appointments weren’t made. Essential blood tests weren’t done, though I was jumping up and down trying to make myself heard like a toddler with a one-track mind: Give me a blood test. Give me a blood test. Give me blood test. No one listened. Delays, delays, and more delays. I could feel my lump growing bigger and bigger. People said: ‘at least it’s not a diagnosis yet. Say what you like about the NHS, but when things are urgent, everything moves fast’. That’s not been my experience. My experience has been somewhere between farcical and Kafkaesque. My CT scan took place, steampunk-style, in the back of a lorry, literally, I kid you not. Inside was a flashy whirry machine from the future, which spoke to me in a female voice. Before ‘she’ was switched on, the CT guy asked: “Have they told you what’s wrong with you”? I hesitated. Why’s he asking that? What does he know that I don’t? ” …Yes?” I ventured. “Well, what is it?!” “I have a large tumour in the uterus?” Relief flooded across his face. “Ah, the uterus! That’s helpful. I can’t read the writing on the form”, waving a piece of paper at me, which looked like a bird had stepped into a footbath full of black ink and then walked across it.

From there things spiralled downhill in a catalogue of errors and incompetence. Wherever I went, whomever I saw, ‘how to complain leaflets’ were shoved into my hands. Please complain about the other department, about the other consultant, the other hospital. Do complain, do. I may do later, I may not: I can’t help feeling complaints are encouraged under an obscure agenda which is somehow part of the system. The main problem as I see it is that it’s no one’s job to join the dots, and good luck to you as a patient if you try to join them yourself. I won’t bore you with all the details now, but luckily I kept records including hard fought-for test results (‘We don’t like to give you those; you’ll just google it’). I took a print-out of my (20-pages, and growing) tale of woe to every appointment, and seeing no one ever had my details, I ended up, every time, surrendering them to whatever member of medical staff I was seeing. Handily, on one occasion, I could quote a certain person verbatim, after they denied something they had told me earlier, and on top of it demanded “Who told you that?!” Well, you did! Look, I wrote it down. The power of the word, the pen, language.

Once you submit to the creaking and groaning NHS machinery, it quickly becomes very clear that you turn into ‘a case’. ‘Your case’ is discussed, not you are discussed. Who deals with your case? ‘They’ do. If you squint a bit, ‘they’ turn into ‘us; it’s very much us and them, and more fool you if you think there’s much love lost between the two sides. Nothing illustrates this better than when I mentioned that, earlier, I didn’t know about referral pathways. “To be honest, you’re not supposed to know”, I was told. “That’s just for us”. Language is used to set up an unbridgeable chasm between the ‘experts with the jargon’ on the one side and the ‘patients with no voice’ on the other.  The former invest themselves with a sense of agency, painting the latter into a silent and lonely corner somewhere near the receiving end.’Talk to us!’ urge the complaints leaflets. I’ve been trying. ‘You’ aren’t listening.

Post-surgery, advice on hysterectomy recovery is framed in terms of housework. Don’t pick up anything heavier than a kettle, peel your vegetables sitting down, don’t hoover just yet, though a little dusting is ok. Hm, pretty sure it doesn’t say things like that for post-prostate removal. There’s work to be done here, and I don’t mean housework. 

So after all of that, I felt pretty exhausted and down-hearted. From March to July this year things were pretty pear-shaped. What made everything infinitely worse was that the human factor seemed absent – I understand the restrictions of the health system pushed to breaking point but why does that have to go hand in hand with such coldness, lack of common sense and inability to listen? I was ready to throw the whole NHS out with the bathwater. Then, I discovered what I thought were signs of an infection. Reluctantly I went to see a GP – really I didn’t want to see another doctor for a long long time. But we never know what’s round the corner, and here I was greeted by an entirely unexpected experience, a doctor who listened, and who answered all my questions honestly. She took one look at me, straight through my liberally applied bronzer (if you don’t feel it, fake it) down to the ghostly pallor beneath, and although she’d never seen me before, she suggested I might be anaemic – a blood test showed that I was. In a 10-minute routine appointment, she restored my faith that there are good people behind the anonymous facade of the NHS after all. I so want to love the NHS, but it seemed that the concept and the practice had drifted apart irreconcilably. Then my faith that the human factor does exist was restored, and although somewhere deep down I knew it all along, I was well on the way to burying this knowledge under a growing pile of horrible experiences.

Anyway, I got through it. I’m on the road to recovery. ‘Recovery’ has always sounded to me like it’s a beachy place in Ireland, what with a road leading to it and all. Go on, try saying it with an Irish accent! My own personal recovery took a major leap forward not in Ireland, but in North Devon, of all places. Ages ago we booked a family holiday: 15 people from 4 countries, 4 generations aged between 3 and 75, 3 caravans. I hadn’t thought that I would be able to go, but then it turned out I could, and I was overjoyed. It happened to be my birthday that week, and, without wanting to make it sound too cheesy, it did feel like a new beginning, celebrating with my family, no us and them here, and that’s the most important thing. It made me sing in my head (luckily for everyone else not out loud, and in no way reflecting my taste in music, but sometimes meaning can be found in the unlikeliest of places!)

Don’t let it get you down

Everybody lives for love

Come and live a love supreme

Family holiday in Devon, July 2015

Family holiday in Devon, July 2015

Song lyrics credit: Robbie Williams; Supreme

If you have a spare 20 mins or so, you can watch a video I made of our holiday by clicking here

Get off! These seats are for Germans only


Rosa Parks on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, after segregation on public transport became illegal. Behind her is a reporter.

When, on 1 December 1955, African-American Rosa Parks steadfastly refused to give up her seat for a white person, little could she have anticipated the far-reaching consequences of this quietly powerful act. Not only did it lead to the abolition of the segregation law in the US, but it also inspired a so-called social experiment on a modern-day bus in Essen, deep in the heartland of Germany’s industrial Ruhr-area.

Filmed by secret cameras, a bus conductor in official day-glow vest was heard loudly telling some passengers to move to the back of the bus, as apparently the seats they were sitting in were ‘reserved for Germans only’, pointing at some stickers that seemed to confirm what he was saying. The people he singled out were variously black, or wearing headscarves, or displaying some other supposedly ‘foreign’ characteristics. What the other passengers didn’t know: the conductor and the ‘non-Germans’ were all played by actors, set up and filmed by local TV channel WDR.

I read about this with growing trepidation. Oh no. What if no one protested? I hardly dared to read on. But then, relief. It never took longer than 30 seconds for some uninitiated passenger to speak out on behalf of the apparent ‘foreigners’. Phew for that, good on ya, German bus passengers. Racism case closed. Sleep easy in your beds.

Bogus sign on a bus. Patronisingly, the Arabic is completely bogus too.

But that’s not all there is to it. Still left with an uncomfortable feeling? You should be. Pretty much everything about this ‘experiment’ is flawed. Let’s start with the signs. “This sign is unequivocal”, writes notorious German tabloid BILD. Only it isn’t. It reads “Diese Plätze sind für Inhaber eines gültigen deutschen Personalausweises reserviert“  – these seats are reserved holders of a German identity card. What kind of definition of nationality, or indeed identity, is this? Many Germans, including myself, don’t hold such a card. It’s not compulsory, in fact, for German expats it’s only been possible to apply for one for the last couple of years. There’s another sign. “Ausländer und Asylbewerber benutzen bitte nur die hinteren Sitzreihen!”, complete with exclamation mark and passive-aggressive ‘bitte’. Foreigners and asylum seekers to sit only in the back rows please! Foreigners AND asylum seekers? Can you be a non-foreign asylum seeker? Why the distinction?

This is why. They don’t mean foreigners. They don’t mean Germans who happen to not possess an identity card, or Brits, or any other Western European. They mean the ‘wrong sort of foreigner’, the visually identifiable sort who wears a headscarf or other religious dress, or has black skin. One recurring statement about the gunman who killed 38 tourists on a beach in Sousse on Friday, was that “he didn’t even normally wear Islamic dress”. If you can’t identify a terrorist by their clothes, what can you identify them by? And that’s exactly the crux of the matter. Passengers who spoke out on the Essen bus meant well, but the real challenge of the experiment’s concept would have been to point out that you can’t make judgments about people based on some sort of vague, visual notion of foreignness, of otherness. There are plenty of black Germans and Muslim Germans, there’d be something seriously wrong with society if there weren’t. It’s not ‘us’ standing up for ‘them’, but rather ‘there is no us and them’.

Police separates ‘for’ and ‘against’ protesters outside refugee accommodation in Freital, near Dresden

It feels to me as if Germany is going through a painful birth-like process of transitioning into the postmodern, multi-cultural and multi-identity times that we live in, some dragging their feet and hanging onto the old ways by their fingernails, some taking the initiative, jumping and pushing the inert masses towards the future, with much kicking and screaming by all parties along the way. It’s an inevitable and necessary journey. Pegida (the loathsome ‘patriotic Europeans against Islamisation of the West’) and its kind, protests against a new home for asylum seekers in Freital, Saxony – these movements are real, at best embarrassing, at worst fear-inducing on many levels. It’s one thing to stand up to a mild-mannered middle-aged bus conductor; it’s another to confront a horde of slogan-bellowing Neo-Nazis on the warpath. Reassuringly, this happens too. Kudos. It’s outside those refugee camps and buildings that we need the oft-quoted ‘Zivilcourage’, not on a bus in some bogus reality-TV experiment. Germany, it’s hard to keep calm, but you must carry on. The world is watching the places where it matters.

Click here for a local German newspaper report which includes a 2.5 minutes video of the TV show (scroll right down to the bottom of the page).

The full version will be broadcast as part of the new TV programme ‘Quarks und Du’ on 25 August 2015, 9pm GMT+1 (8pm UK time). WDR TV can be viewed online, live and via catchup, here.

The Queen in Germany and other traumas

bergen image

If you happen to be researching UK discourses around Germany, Queen Elizabeth I’s current visit to the land of her and Prince Philip’s ancestors means rich pickings indeed. Tomorrow the royal couple will visit the memorial site of the former concentration camp Bergen-Belsen. Before liberation by the British in April 1945, more than 50 000 people from all over Europe were killed here. The British monarch’s first-ever visit to such a site will be “personal and reflective in tone”, Buckingham Palace tells us. Now I know the Queen’s schedule must be highly managed and pre-planned to the ‘nth degree, but announcing the tone of your response to a former concentration camp long before you ever get there seems a step too far. Or is it? What is the correct response? Maybe, when faced with the prospect of an experience so outside the realm we like to call normal, we feel we need to have a pre-planned reaction up our sleeves, just in case?

It got me thinking about ways of dealing with the traumatic past, and the memorial sites I’d visited: several former concentration camps in Germany and Poland, as well as, more recently, sites in Cambodia and Vietnam. Apart from the obvious and widely publicised images, the strangest things stick in my memory. The ordinary buses around Weimar, displaying the name Buchenwald as if it was just another bus stop. Endhaltstelle indeed. In Poland, another bus and matching stop sign, looking eerily familiar yet out of place, shuttling visitors between Auschwitz 1 and Birkenau: it is run by a German public transport operator. The row of neat and tidy detached family houses, surrounded by wooden crisscross fencing, the epitome of German Kleinbürgertum, with a premium view of the former concentration camp Sachsenhausen. When were those houses built? Who lives there? The mind boggles. I’ve organised many school trips in my time as a teacher, but the single one which I shall never ever forget was with a mixed group of German and British teenagers to Auschwitz. Afterwards the students worked through this experience using drama and poetry, culminating in an exceptionally profound assembly performance. As often, art comes to our rescue and allows us to somehow express the inexpressible.

Killing Fields at Choeung Ek, Cambodia

Another continent, another genocide. Cambodia is still bristling with the trauma of the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot 1975-79, when over 20% of the population died. Over 20%. That means every single person alive today is affected in some way or other. The rugged earth of the killing fields at Choeung Ek conceals as well as displays remains of the victims. “Try to be respectful and not step on the clothes and bones”, our guide, Heng, tells us. I try – it’s not easy. They’re everywhere. Heng points out a jawbone, complete with teeth. “When it rains, the big pieces come up”. It rains a lot in Cambodia. We make our way back accompanied by the abrupt sound of machine gun fire, which makes me flinch. It’s from a nearby shooting range, “another tourist attraction”, Heng explains. “Do you want to have a go?” No. No thank you.

Something that connects many of these atrocities across time and space is the violence. The rape, the torture, the unimaginable pain of seeing your loved ones killed before death finally comes. On to Tuol Sleng in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Phen, better known as Security Prison 21, or S21. This is no prison as you may know it. A former school, it was turned into a particular kind of hell built on the twin pillars of torture and death. Of the approximately 17000 people ‘imprisoned’ here, only twelve survived. Two of them are still alive, in fact, they’re right here, as you follow the arrows to the finishing point of the walking tour. This way to the survivors please. To the left, close to the exit, a silver-haired man sits behind a pile of commemorative books, including his own memoirs. He’s surrounded by a group of American tourists, shaking the hand of one of them. “I’m so pleased to meet you” says the tourist. A little further along, to the other side, is another man behind a similar-looking pile of books, including his own memoirs. No tourists for him. What’s wrong with him? Is it just the seating position or has the other one the edge? Are they good friends or bitter rivals? “They don’t get any money from the state” explains Heng. “So if you’d like to meet them and buy something from them, they would appreciate it. They will shake your hand”. Awkwardly, we slip out of S21.



Last stop, the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, aka Saigon, capital of Vietnam. Housed in the former US Information Services building, it used to be called ‘War Crimes Museum’, hinting at issues of language and power. “Events are told from a Vietnamese perspective” the guidebook informs us. Not half. But at least they make no secret of it, unlike the much more dangerous Western habit of pretend-objectivity. Many horrors of the Vietnam War are exhibited here, or as it’s known in Vietnam, the ‘American War’, or the ‘War against the Americans to save the Nation’. Perspective is everything.


Visitor ‘information’ in the War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City


How we deal with the past matters. Once the business of pure survival is done, we have to start dealing with the trauma. There’s no right or wrong way, but deal with it we must. Do something, write something, say something. Silence allows evil to fester. What would the Queen say if she met a Holocaust survivor at Bergen-Belsen tomorrow? I imagine she might shake their hand, and say, in a personal and reflective tone: “I’m so pleased to meet you”.