Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Bedtime Story (29/6/2016)

Yep, that's my foot!  I am the dreamer of improbable dreams and always will be.

Here's hoping you all have lovely dreams after this little poem.  To hear it as a podcast, just click here!

I Am A Dream

When the sunshine fades into moonlight,
And the sky is black, but the stars are bright,
When the day is over and it's time to rest,
That's the time that I like best.

I am a dream and I'll keep you company,
All through the night, we'll play a symphony
Of magical sounds and sights and creations,
As I run wild with your imagination.

You can be anything you want to be;
A princess, a King, a bird in a tree.
We can fight monsters, or explore strange, new worlds,
Nothing's off-limits to sleepy boys and girls.

I am a dream and together we'll run,
Like the ribbons of light that shoot from the sun.
If you ever think you're alone in the night,
Remember your dreams keep you company and you'll be alright.

Nobody can ever tell you what to dream.
Your dreams are for your mind only to see.
If you want to fly, shrink or have magical powers,
I'll make that happen, for hours and hours!

I am a dream and all through the night,
I'll paint you pictures so vivid and bright.
There's no limit, you can dream of whatever
And they don't have to end; dreams last forever.

Your eyes may be closed, but your mind's open wide!
I am a dream and I'm there, inside.
Fairies, dragons, mystical lands,
Endless possibilities, right there in your hands.

Even when there's a new day dawning,
A dream stays in your heart long after morning.
Your wishes and dreams aren't just there as you sleep.
I am a dream.  And I'm yours to keep.

Saturday, 25 June 2016

We CANNOT Allow Racism To Divide Us.

Me and my little sister with our grandparents.  
Our grandfather came to the UK from Cyprus.

There are a lot of things that I speak out against.  Not because I just like shouting my mouth off (although a good rant now and then is healthy, if you ask me), but because it's right to speak out against them.  Those things include homophobia, Islamophobia and all forms of abuse.  Many of the things I speak out about (abuse aside), are things I have not personally experienced.  For example, I talk about tackling racism, but I had never experienced it, myself.

Until today.

Now, I'm fully aware that I have a massive amount of privilege.  I'm white, straight, cis and whilst I might not be wealthy at all, I have a roof over my head and an income of my own.  In no way, shape or form, is what I experienced this morning comparable to the racism that affects others in the world and I want to make it very, very clear that I am not about to try to paint myself as the tragic victim, or elicit waves of sympathy from communities who've had it far, far worse than I could dream of.  No.  All I want to do is talk about it.  Because the truly frightening thing about what I experienced today was that it came from fellow Brits.

Yesterday, I offered my thoughts on Britain's decision to leave the European Union.  They are, after all, my thoughts.  And seeing as I share them with sixteen million other people in the UK, I didn't feel that I shouldn't share those views.  I won't lie, I expected some comeback from Leave voters.  I expected to be told I was wrong, that this is a fantastic opportunity to make Britain "Great" again and that I should shut up.  And, sure enough, I woke up to several tweets saying exactly that.  What I did not expect, was abuse and - worse - racism.

And I got a truckload of it.

Bizarrely, the first round of abuse came from America.  I was "a dumb bitch," a "whining c*nt" and an "ungrateful idiot."  I was, they told me, failing to see that I had gained my country back.  Although, I'm pretty sure it was here when I woke up this time last week, so...  Anyway, every single one of the US-based trolls had Donald Trump in either their profile pictures, bio descriptions or their cover photos, so I figured it stood to reason that they would leap to the fanatical "MAKE BRITAIN GREAT AGAIN" side of things, without much to back it all up with.  Like butter from a warm knife, it slid off me pretty easily.

Then the British attacks came.

"EMMA TOFF!"  One simply said.  Now, I get it.  I'm an English speaker and I'm aware that "toff" refers to someone "posh."  And I'm aware that a lot of British people voted "Leave" based on the idea that they were somehow sticking two fingers up to the elite in doing so (and let's be real; this isn't a government who have put the working classes first ever, so nobody could blame anyone for being dissatisfied with the status quo and wanting to make a statement).

But my surname is "Tofi."  It's Greek Cypriot and, if you're interested, it's pronounced "Toe-Fee."  Throughout my life, I've had people call me "Emma Toffee," "Emma Toff," "Emma Too-Fee," "Emma Toe-Figh" and so on.  At school, it was deliberate.  As an adult, I'd like to think that I just happen to have a name that very few people can pronounce correctly on the first go.

So, with a worrying, niggling feeling in my stomach, I decided to respond.  I asked whether the person in question was calling me posh (and explained that I'm not), or whether they were reducing themselves to taking the mick out of my surname, based on it being obviously not British in origin.  I wanted it to be the first one.  I wanted - so badly - for them to respond, attacking me for their perception of me being wealthy and privileged, hence voting Remain.

What I got back, was this:

But... But... What did my ARSE do to you?!

Maybe they had originally been calling me "posh."  Or maybe they had deliberately chosen to sink to the playground level of mocking a surname that was unfamiliar.  Either way, there was no alternative manner in which to take the response.  I had a non-British surname.  I was, by extension, "not as British" as this person.

Now, I know what they all say.  "Don't feed the trolls" and so on.  But, well, since we're on the subject, I am part Greek-Cypriot and I do have a fiery side that makes itself known from time to time.  So, biting my tongue (as much as I could), I explained to this person that I was British born and raised and I contribute to our economy etc, I just happened to have Greek heritage. 

They responded:

But...But... I'm not even wearing pink in my profile pic...

That's a British person calling me, a fellow British person, "foreign."  Because my surname's different.

I stopped screencapping and started blocking the most disgusting commentators at this point, which is annoying, because this is where it descended into nightmarish "leave our country" style nastiness (yes, someone actually told me to do that), when the troll got their fellow racists involved.  There were cries to "listen to the actual British people," as though I wasn't one of them.  There were people calling me derogatory names - "bitch, c*nt, twat" and so on.  And by this point, it had nothing to do with my thoughts on wanting us to remain in the EU.  It was based on my surname.  It was because I was, supposedly, "other."

It got personal.  One vile person even told me that they "can't tell whether (I'm) male or female," then referred to me as both "HE" and "she" (yes, the "HE" was capitalised).  For reference, my name is "Emma" on Twitter and this is my Twitter profile picture:

I can see how you'd be confused.

When I visited the original troll's page, in order to mute them (on the whole, I prefer to mute, rather than block, as nothing gives me more satisfaction than knowing a troll is probably still screaming into a void, with their words never reaching me), they were telling an equally racist friend: "Some far-left extremist bitch is attacking me."  Being infuriated and hugely upset by this point, I replied to both the troll and their friend, reminding them that I hadn't attacked anyone, but was refusing to tolerate their racist remarks.  Their response was to remind me that I'm "not even British."

Except I am.  I was born here.  Aside from a brief spell in Germany, whilst my father was in the military, I've lived here my whole life.  I drink tea, I get short-tempered over bad grammar on the Internet and I can explain the offside rule.  I am as British as they come.  

Am I proud of my Greek-Cypriot heritage?  Of course.  I love that it makes me a bit different and I even love the unruly curls it's blessed me with.  I would be a fool not to love part of my family history.

But I am British, first and foremost.  And to be attacked, patronised and abused by my fellow countrymen and women, based on nothing but the fact that I have a Greek surname, is a disgrace.

I was being calm, but I deviated...

Look, the vote has been cast.  It's done, now.  What we need is to become united to improve the situation we're currently in.  The pound has crashed, we're going to have an unelected Prime Minister and there's talk of another Scottish referendum and a Northern Irish one.  If we're going to make big changes that could define Britain for decades, we need to make them together.  And that means we have to work with one another, not against each other.

Already, in the past 24 hours, there has been too much talk of people snapping "pack your bags" to their fellow citizens, based on their ethnicity or even religion.  On buses, in offices, in the street...  Even a channel 4 journalist tweeted that as he stood in a town centre, ready to report on the referendum results, three people yelled "send them home!" within the space of fifteen minutes.  Already, we've had a woman on the teatime national news, proudly declaring: "It's the immigrants - get 'em out!"

Newsflash, guys:  Xenophobia is not going to make Britain "Great."

I mean, let's look at how STUPID racism and xenophobia is: you can't even tell whether someone's British or not!  My surname is Greek, but I'm a Brit.  Someone else might be wearing a burka, but of course they can just as easily be British.  A person who moved here from the EU years ago and has been working legally, contributing to our economy and enjoying British culture may consider themselves to be adopted British.  And if we think logically - hard for racists, I know - very few people can trace their heritage back and find only British ancestry.  We've invaded and been invaded over the centuries.  Our blood is mixed.  WHERE DO YOU WANT THE LINE DRAWN?!

I saw a woman on Twitter casually announce "I voted Leave so we can kick the Poles out - they're stealing our jobs!"  And then I did an eye-roll so hard that I almost saw the back of my skull.

At this point, it's best to welcome the insanity this result is driving me towards.

Here's the deal: if someone Polish - or from bloody anywhere outside of the UK - is here legally, working, contributing to society and our economy, then guess what, Little Miss Racist 2016: THAT'S ALLOWED.  We're a multicultural society and it's something to be proud of!  And if you can't see how much you rely on imports and creations from other cultures, you need to forcibly remove your head from your damn arse.  Ideally, yesterday.

Look, I'm not tarring everyone with the same brush.  I know and care for people who voted Leave.  Just because I am wildly opposed to their choice, doesn't mean I'm going to label them unfairly.  Not every Leave voter is racist and it would be completely wrong to judge them all by the foul-mouthed, intolerant actions of a few.

But the fact is, those few are there.  And we cannot - must not - ignore that fact, if we want to recreate a United Kingdom.

As one person yelled at me in shouty capitals earlier: "GET UP, SOLDIER, WE'RE LEAVING!" (I know, I laughed, too) That's the gist of it.  The die has been cast.  We're very unlikely to wriggle out of this; it's happening.  That's democracy - like it, or lump it.

But know this: whatever road we travel down from this point onwards, we have got to be travelling together.  Not with a few of us sticking our nasty little heads out of the window, gesturing at "foreigners" to turn their cars around and "get back to their own countries."  Not with people on the Leave side refusing to condemn the racist actions of a minority in that group (it's all well and good saying "nobody needs to speak out against nastiness, because everyone just knows it's wrong," but frankly, a lack of outcry just seemingly legitimises that nastiness).  And, as hard as it is, not with the Remain camp labelling everyone who voted Leave a racist and moving forwards with negativity and hate.

Regardless of which box you ticked, we're all in this together, now.  Whatever happens, happens.  We can either unite to force through positive changes as a result of the referendum, or we can sit and bicker, reducing one another to something as ridiculous as their bloody surname.

We must all stand up to decry racism, regardless of which way we voted.  We must all understand that Britain is a multicultural society and that people can identify as "British" and have this country's best interest at heart regardless of their heritage.  We have to work together to decide what we want, going forwards.  We can't become a bitter, intolerant society, because that will benefit precisely nobody.

The nation is divided.  We cannot allow racism, Islamophobia and xenophobia to divide us any further.  

Friday, 24 June 2016

How Brexit Broke My Heart

Today, it was confirmed that Britain (I cannot, in all good faith, refer to it as "Great," in its current form) had voted - by a small majority - to leave the European Union.  Our exit, historic though it may be, comes hot on the heels of a campaign of scaremongering and barely masked xenophobia (Farage's Nazi style propaganda poster was a disgrace), and leaves us open to hugely uncertain times ahead.

The pound has plummeted to its lowest value in over thirty years.  We are facing the prospect of an unelected Prime Minister, following David Cameron's resignation.  There is a very real chance that Scotland and Northern Ireland - both of whom voted to remain in the EU - will want referendums for independence from the UK.  And worst of all, this appears to be a decision made - largely, at least - by a generation who probably won't be around in twenty or thirty years time, when the consequences may really start to bite.  Statistics appear to confirm that the younger generations were overwhelmingly in favour of remaining.  Older voters made up the majority of the crosses in the "leave" box.

Now, I'm not going to claim to be a political heavyweight.  I don't have all the figures and I don't know what will happen in a year, two years, five years, ten years from now, as a result of this.  Nobody does.  So, what I'm saying here comes from the heart.  And today, my heart is broken.

It's broken on behalf of the NHS, which this Tory government have been casually dismantling and running into the ground, and which the Leave campaign's propaganda focused on (posters saying "We spend £350million on the EU every week, let's put that into our NHS" were seen frequently), only for them to admit within an hour of their victory being declared that they were wrong about (funny old thing, that £350million won't be going to our National Health Service after all).  It's broken on behalf of the immigrants to this country, who call Britain home, who contribute to our economy and who've felt unwelcome due to racist/xenophobic rhetoric and are now unsure of where they belong (when the six o'clock news asked one Leave voter why she swung that way, her response was simply: "Immigrants.  Get them out.").  It's broken on behalf of the millions of young voters, who ticked "Remain," knowing that it's them who will be affected by the fallout from this decision, only to see an outcome the vast majority of them did not want.  It's broken at the mere idea that there may not even be a "United" Kingdom for much longer, in the wake of this.  With Scotland and Northern Ireland both pressing for referendums to leave the UK, how long before Wales follows suit?

Is this the England that I keep hearing people crow about "finally getting back"?  An island, struggling to carve out new trade deals with the rest of the world, dealing with a slumped economy, its population utterly divided in views and isolated from its nearest neighbours?

I'm patriotic.  I have plenty of friends who laugh at that notion; isn't the idea of flag-waving and national pride a bit old hat, these days?  But I'm patriotic, just the same.  That we could become a nation of people who spit "get the immigrants out" on national news bulletins, who actively choose a path of isolation, putting financial security, jobs and rights at risk, makes me feel incredibly sad.  I'm sure not all Leave voters ticked that box for xenophobic reasons.  And I'm sure that most of those people genuinely believe that cutting ties with the EU will make us a stronger country, somehow.  Perhaps it will.  Perhaps, a few years from now, I'll look back on this day and think "wow, they were right."  

But I struggle to see that, particularly right now.

The only thing we can do now is try to unite.  If we've isolated ourselves, it's not going to work if we're a country battling itself.  We have to carry on fighting for tolerance, fairness and equal rights.  We have to refuse to allow Britain to slip any further towards elitism or extremism.  We have to work together, because there isn't anybody else.  And above all, it's time to think about the future - what sort of country do we want to leave for generations to come?  What place do we want that country to occupy in the world?

Maybe we'll end up a stronger nation, someday.  Perhaps we really will put the "great" back in Great Britain. 

 I can only hope.  

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Bedtime Story (22/6/2016)

This week's story is inspired by own annoying habit of thinking the worst, at times...  Here's hoping I can be more like Will!

Click here to listen to this week's story as a podcast.

What's The Worst That Could Happen?!

Will was a worrier.  He didn't mean to be, but he was.  He stressed about school, he fretted over his friends and he was even tense about television shows.  Will was forever panicking that his best wasn't good enough, or that something bad might happen.  It made him sad and tired.

One day, Will's dad had some exciting news.  "Guess what?!  Your Uncle Brian is coming to stay!"

Will was over the moon.  Uncle Brian was his dad's brother, but he'd lived in Australia for nearly ten years, so Will hadn't seen him for a long time.  Of course, once the excitement wore off, Will had a lot to worry about.  

Would Uncle Brian remember him?  Would his plane be on time?  What if a big, poisonous spider crawled into Uncle Brian's suitcase and came with him?!  Will had heard about scary spiders in Australia and he worried about them a lot, even though Australia was miles away.

Finally, the day Uncle Brian was due to arrive dawned at last.  Will and his whole family headed to the airport to pick him up.  And to Will's delight, Uncle Brian's plane was on time, he remembered Will and had even brought him a present and there were definitely no spiders in his suitcase.  Everything was going well.

Uncle Brian was tired, but he was hungry, too.  So, the family decided to go out for dinner.  Going out for dinner was one of the many things that worried Will; what if he didn't like the food?  But Uncle Brian was so cheerful about the whole thing that Will forced a smile and went along with everyone else.  

At the restaurant, Will's younger sister Beth ordered something she'd never tried before.  Will's older brother Rob ordered the same thing as Uncle Brian - a steak.  Will did what he always did; he ordered a bowl of chips.  He knew he liked those.  But, to Will's surprise, his Uncle Brian looked at him and frowned: "You can't just have chips, surely?  You'll be hungry!  Why don't you at least have a burger with them?"

Will shifted uncomfortably in his seat and shook his head.

A waiter came along and gave Uncle Brian and Rob steak knives.  Straight away, Will started to worry.  Those knives looked very sharp.  What if they cut themselves?  Uncle Brian noticed the way Will was staring and asked if he was okay.  Will blushed and looked away.  He heard his dad explain: "Will worries a lot..."

Uncle Brian frowned at Will.  "Are you worried about dinner?  What's the worst that could happen?"

Will stared at his knife and fork and muttered: "What if I don't like something?  What if I get food poisoning?  What if you cut off your finger with that steak knife and we all have to go to hospital?"

And so, when everyone tucked into their delicious dinners, Will was left picking at his small bowl of chips.  And he was still hungry, afterwards.

When they all got home, Rob and Beth wanted to show Uncle Brian the tricks they'd been learning on their skateboards.  Will had a skateboard, too, but he decided not to go on it.  Uncle Brian gave him a look.  "Aren't you going to go on your skateboard, mate?  What's the worst that could happen?"

Will folded his arms and sighed.  "I could fall and break a leg, or bang my head and lose my memory, or get hit by a car."  He shook his head and trudged back into the house.

Before bed, Rob told Uncle Brian all about a football match he'd played in at school.  He'd scored three goals.  "Do you play in any teams?"  Uncle Brian asked Will.  

Will blushed and shook his head.  "I can't..."  He began.

"Why not?"  Uncle Brian asked.  "What's the worst that could happen?"

Will shuddered.  "I might miss a goal and the crowd will boo me.  Or, I could fall over and everyone would laugh."  He said goodnight to everyone and went to bed, early.

Later that night, Will lay in bed, staring into the blackness of his bedroom.  He couldn't sleep.  He was too worried.  What if Uncle Brian didn't like him as much as he liked Rob and Beth?  Will sighed.  His tummy was rumbling, too.  He wanted to sneak downstairs for a midnight snack, but he was worried he'd wake Uncle Brian up; he was sleeping on the sofa in the lounge, after all.  Besides, it was dark and Will was scared that there might be a burglar or a monster, lurking somewhere in the gloom.

After a while, however, hunger got the better of Will and he crept down the stairs.  When he reached the bottom, he was surprised to see that the kitchen light was on.  He tip-toed towards the door and saw Uncle Brian, sitting at the kitchen table, drinking a mug of hot chocolate.  "Hello, Will.  What are you doing up?"

Will stuck out his lower lip.  "I'm hungry," he confessed.

"I thought you might be," Uncle Brian replied.  "Would you like some hot chocolate and a cookie?"

Will nodded, as Uncle Brian poured the drink and passed him the biscuit tin.  "Why are you awake?"

Uncle Brian smiled.  "I was too worried to sleep."

Will's eyes almost popped out of his head.  He couldn't believe that someone as confident as Uncle Brian ever worried about anything!  "You were worried?!"

"Everyone gets worried, sometimes," Uncle Brian said.  "The trick is to only worry about the important stuff.  That's why I always ask 'what's the worst that could happen?'  Because more often than not, the worst thing isn't going to happen and in a lot of cases, even if it did, it wouldn't be anywhere near as bad as we think.  For example, were you worried about getting out of bed and coming downstairs in the dark?"

Will bobbed his head.  "I was scared there might be a burglar."

"But you came down here in the dark anyway," Uncle Brian reminded him.  "Because deep down, I think you knew that there wasn't anything nasty.  And now, you've got a delicious mug of hot chocolate and something to eat.  I bet you feel better, don't you?"

"I do, yeah..."

"Well, just think how you'd feel if you'd let those worries stop you from coming down here,"  Uncle Brian went on.  "You'd still be up in your bed, with your tummy hurting because you're hungry and you'd be tossing and turning and then you'd be tired tomorrow, wouldn't you?"  He smiled at Will.  "If meeting a burglar was the very worst thing that could have happened, I think you knew that it was pretty unlikely.  And you didn't let that fear stand in the way of your midnight snack!"

Will sighed.  "But I do worry about stuff and it does stop me from doing things..."

"I know," Uncle Brian replied.  "It stopped you from eating a nice dinner, earlier.  It stopped you from showing me your skateboard tricks and it's stopping you from joining your school football team.  I think you're so busy thinking about the worst that could happen, that you're not thinking about the best.  What if you discovered a food you absolutely love?  What if you'd learned a trick that Rob and Beth couldn't do?  What if you joined the team and scored the best goal anyone's ever seen?!"

"But those things aren't very likely..."  Will began.

"Is it really likely that the worst will happen?"  Uncle Brian asked.  "I think you've proved to yourself that you can face your worries head-on, just by coming downstairs in the dark, even though the idea scared you.  Having doubts and being cautious about stuff isn't necessarily bad; it's what keeps us from doing things that are dangerous, after all.  But you need to pick what you worry about.  If you're sweating over the small stuff, then you're missing out on a whole heap of good things."

For the first time ever, Will began to understand that he was worrying too much.  He felt a strange lightness, as though his feet weren't entirely on the floor.  He felt happier than he had in ages.  Uncle Brian was right and Will was tired of missing out.  "I've never tried peanut butter," he announced, suddenly.  "I've always worried that I might be allergic and I'd get ill."  He rushed to the cupboard and pulled out a jar.  "Shall I try it?"

"Only if you want to," Uncle Brian replied.

Will grabbed a spoon and scooped out a very small amount of peanut butter.  He popped it in his mouth and grinned: "Delicious!"  

Suddenly, Will flung his arms around Uncle Brian's neck and hugged him tight.  "Thank you, Uncle," he whispered.  Will let out a loud yawn.  "I think I need to go back to bed, though."  He padded to the door and then turned at the last minute.  "Hey, Uncle Brian?  I never asked you what you were worried about?"

Uncle Brian smiled.  "Never you mind," he told Will.  And as Will disappeared up the stairs, Brian took a slurp of his hot chocolate.  "I think he's going to be okay from now on.  No need to worry about Will."

And he went to bed, to sleep a worry-less sleep.  Just like Will.


Tuesday, 21 June 2016

"How Would I Feel If...?"

I'm not perfect.  I make mistakes, I say things and then regret them and I - like all of us, really - have been guilty of getting angry or upset over something silly, in the past.  We're only human and none of us can be 100% perfect, 100% of the time.

But lately, I've not felt great about myself and it's not because of my own behaviour.  It's because of the way other people behave.  And that sucks.

When we realise that we've acted rashly, snapped a little too harshly or done something that could upset someone we care about, it's only natural to question ourselves and our behaviour.  When we come to question ourselves and everything we do, based on someone else's negative attitude towards us, it can be incredibly hurtful.  As much as we're told "it's their problem, don't let it get you down," all-too-often, it's near-impossible not to brood over the nasty way others choose to treat us.

And so I do.  Rain is optional.

We hear the phrase "put yourself in their shoes," with regards to other people, but how often do we really act on it?  I mean, not literally, unless the person has an extensive Irregular Choice collection...

But seriously, have people just forgotten the importance of stepping outside of themselves and imagining what their behaviour would feel like, were it reflected back at them?

It's such a simple premise, but if we could all just spend a few moments thinking about how our words and actions might affect the people on the receiving end of them, I genuinely believe it might make a big difference to the way we choose to behave in the first place.

Imagine if, before we took our bad mood out on an innocent bystander, we considered how confused and annoyed we'd be if someone else did that to us.

Imagine if, before we gave someone the silent treatment, we thought about how hurtful it feels to be isolated and ignored.

Would we still want to do those things, knowing how cruel they can be?  Would we change the way we treat people?


I need to watch Friends.  It's been way too long.

I'm not saying that nobody would ever snap at someone unfairly, or get oversensitive about something trivial ever again, just by asking themselves that question, but it's got to be a good place to start, right?

We hold more power than we realise in this life.  Our words - or lack of them, our actions and our attitude towards others might seem insignificant to us, but to the person on the receiving end, it could be the difference between a good day and a very bad one.  

We all make mistakes.  But just by asking ourselves how we'd feel if someone behaved towards us, the way we are behaving towards others, perhaps we just might make fewer.

So think.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Bedtime Story (15/6/2016)

Every now and then, there comes a day when I feel like it's time for another story about my favourite animal.  Today is one of those days!  I love all dogs - big ones, little ones, neat ones, shaggy ones and everything in between!

A podcast version of this story is available here!

A Shaggy Dog Story

"Mum!  Dad!  Guess what?!"  Melissa came barging through the front door, with a slip of paper in her hand.  She waved the paper in front of her parents and beamed.  "We're having a Summer Fete at school next Saturday and it's going to be amazing," she explained.  "There'll be an obstacle course, a barbecue, a cake stall, games and even a dog show!"

"Sounds fun," Mum smiled.  "You'll have to save your pocket money, so you have something to spend when we go."

Melissa nodded.  She turned to grin at the sleeping dog in the corner of the room.  "And I'll brush Harvey's fur and maybe even give him a bath, so he's all ready for the dog show."

Mum and Dad glanced at one another.  Dad cocked his head to one side, the way Harvey did when you gave him a command he didn't quite understand.  "Melissa... I don't think Harvey's a show dog," he said, slowly.  "He's almost ten, he's not as light on his feet as he used to be.  I don't know that he'd like it."

Mum nodded in agreement.  "Besides, he's a mongrel.  We don't even know what breed he really is; even the people at the rescue centre couldn't be 100% sure, when we got him all those years ago.  Dog shows tend to favour perfect little puppies and pure breeds.  I'd hate for you to get your hopes up over him winning a prize, only to be let down, sweetie."

Melissa's face fell.  "But Harvey's a really special dog," she insisted.  "It doesn't matter that he's not as pretty as the others, or that he's a bit older..."  Her words trailed off and she stood, looking utterly miserable.

Finally, Dad took a deep breath.  "Okay," he told her.  "If it means that much to you, we'll take Harvey with us and we'll see about entering him in the dog show.  Just remember that it doesn't matter if he doesn't win.  We'll all love him, just the same."

The morning of the Summer Fete finally arrived and Melissa was up early, practising playing fetch in the garden with Harvey.  Harvey had never been the brightest of dogs and getting him to follow instructions wasn't easy, but Melissa was determined to make sure that everyone saw him the way she did - in her eyes, it didn't matter how old, shaggy or silly Harvey was.  He was perfect.

The school was only a short walk away, so Mum put Harvey on his lead, whilst Dad put Melissa's baby brother, Billy, in his pram.  They set off in the sunshine, full of smiles and with Harvey wagging his tail every step of the way.

There were lots of people already there, by the time Melissa and her family arrived.  The school field was decorated with flags and there were lots of exciting looking stalls dotted around the edge.  The scent of burgers and sausages wafted through the air.  In the centre of the field, a big rectangle had been fenced off, with a sign saying "Dog Show."  Melissa's teacher, Miss Finchley, was sitting at a little table, writing down the names of dogs that were going to take part.  A big queue of owners and pets had formed by the table, already.  Melissa patted Harvey's head.  "Time to shine, Harvey!"

Mum and Dad spotted their friends over by the cake stall and went over to say hello.  Melissa took Harvey and rushed to register him for the dog show.  When she arrived, two other girls from the school began to snigger.  "What kind of dog is that?"  One of them chuckled, as she held on tightly to the little puppy in her arms.  

"He looks a mess," the other sneered, stroking the coat of her perfectly clipped pooch.

Melissa ignored them, as she gave Harvey's name to Miss Finchley.  "Don't worry, Harvey," she whispered.  "It doesn't matter what they say.  You're going to show them, aren't you?"

But, as the dog show got underway, Harvey seemed reluctant to join in.  As the owners lined up with their dogs, Harvey pulled on his lead and tried to run back to Mum and Dad, almost knocking Melissa down as she struggled to keep him with her.  A huge crowd had gathered around the big rectangle in the centre of the school field and Melissa could feel everyone's eyes on her.  She could hear people whispering and giggling.  Everyone had left the stalls so that they could watch the dog show.  Even Melissa's headteacher had left the barbecue to come and watch and every time Harvey yelped and tugged on his lead, Melissa's cheeks got redder and redder.

The dogs and their owners had to walk from one end of the rectangle to the other.  The dogs were supposed to walk calmly beside their owners, but Harvey just pulled and pulled, not wanting to budge.  Melissa practically had to drag him along.

Next, the owners had to command their dogs to "sit" and "lie down."  Everyone else gave the commands and their dogs obeyed right on cue.  But when Melissa told Harvey to sit, he just barked at her and tried to make a run for it, again.  Melissa sighed.  This really wasn't going well.

The final test was for the owners to take their dogs off the leads, command them to "stay," walk to the other end of the rectangle and then call the dogs to come back to them.  Melissa nervously unclipped Harvey's lead.  Straight away, he bolted away and leaped over the fence around the show area.  "Pfft, he's not very good," one of the girls from earlier laughed, icily.

"Harvey!"  Melissa called.  "Harvey, come!  Harvey, come back!"  But Harvey went on, barging his way through the crowds, barking as loudly as he could.

"That dog is out of control!"  One of the girls cried, but Melissa shook her head.  

"Smoke!"  She yelled, pointing.  She began running after Harvey.  The dog had pushed his way through the crowds, to where the headteacher's unmanned barbecue had caught fire!

The grumbles and sneers from the crowd quickly turned into horrified gasps, as people rushed to find water to throw over the flames.

When the fire was finally out and everyone had calmed down, Melissa threw her arms around Harvey and hugged him tight.  "You weren't just being naughty," she said, proudly.  "You could tell something wasn't right and you were trying to warn us, weren't you?"  She let Harvey lick her hands as she stroked his wise, old head.  "You're a superstar, Harvey."

"He is," a voice said, interrupting Melissa.  She spun round to see Miss Finchley and a whole crowd of people standing behind her.  Miss Finchley smiled and held out a rosette.  "That's why I'm awarding him Best In Show.  Goodness knows what would have happened, if Harvey hadn't known something was wrong."

Melissa proudly stuck the rosette onto Harvey's collar and walked him back to the big rectangle in the centre of the field, to thunderous applause from the crowd.

The two girls from earlier came over to stroke Harvey's fur.  "He's actually very cute," one of them said.

"We were wrong to judge him, just because he's older and shaggier than the other dogs," the other girl went on.  Harvey responded by giving both the girls a big lick and wagging his tail.  Melissa and the girls stood back, smiling as all the dogs from the show ran around, playing together in the bright sunshine.  And as Melissa's Mum and Dad came over with baby Billy, Harvey bounded back to them, with a look of what Melissa was sure was pride, as he showed off his rosette.  He may have been older and shaggier than the rest, but every dog has his day. 

 And this was Harvey's.  


Monday, 13 June 2016

An Open Letter To The NRA

An open letter to the NRA...

America has experienced another tragedy.  Another massacre of innocents.  And, as is so often the case, it happened because of a person with a gun.  That person - a man who is now being labelled as an Islamic extremist, despite his family insisting that he wasn't religious and openly admitting that he was deeply homophobic - went into a gay club and took the lives of men and women who were just having a night out, enjoying themselves.  They expected to dance, have a few drinks and enjoy the company of friends.  They didn't go out, expecting to die.

The night before those innocent men and women were needlessly slaughtered, singer Christina Grimmie was shot dead, whilst meeting fans after a show.  

The fact that we could go further, highlighting other fatal shootings in the previous week, let alone over the course of the past year, is, quite frankly, shocking.  America is a great nation, but those statistics are shameful.

Let me tell you a story.  In 1996, a man named Thomas Hamilton burst into a primary school in the small town of Dunblane, Scotland.  Armed with four legally owned handguns, he proceeded to fire rapidly and seemingly randomly.  In the horror that followed, sixteen children were killed, most of them just five years old.  Their teacher was also shot dead.  Hamilton then turned the gun on himself.

The class of Primary 1 at Dunblane, with their teacher, Gwen Mayor.

By 1997, in response to the tragedy, the UK government had banned handguns.  They reasoned that logically, the only response to gun violence was tighter gun control.  It worked.  In the 19 years since handguns were banned in Britain, we've had just one mass shooting, when a licensed firearms holder named Derrick Bird shot and killed 12 people in Cumbria in 2010.  

How many mass shootings have you had since 1997?

You see, the response you give to tragedies - and there have been many over the years - is that "the only person who can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."  So, tell me: why was the armed officer working security at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando on Saturday night unable to stop the "bad guy with the gun"?  Could it be that your logic is skewed?!  After all, most attackers will aim to neutralise an armed threat before continuing shooting innocents with impunity.  If they're successful in neutralising that threat, how does the "good guy with a gun" save any lives?!  

Your answer to gun violence is, seemingly, more guns.  Shooting at a school?  Arm teachers.  Shooting in a shopping mall?  Arm everyone.  But here's the thing: throwing a grenade at another grenade just makes a bigger bang.  It doesn't stop the destruction.  One gun doesn't magically cancel out another.

It's a cup of tea.  Because I'm British, see?

Every nation, no matter how much we try to avoid it, has a stereotype.  I'm British, therefore you'd probably view me to be someone who enjoys queueing for things, drinks lots of tea and whose upper lip is permanently stiff (I quite like a cuppa and I queue for gigs, but just so we're clear, my upper lip quivers all over the place, particularly when I get emotional about stuff like this).  Were I Dutch, you might imagine me to be wearing clogs.  If I was Italian, perhaps you'd think of me as being passionate and mad-keen on pasta/pizza.  But what about the American stereotype?

That's it.

This is going to sound harsh, NRA, but you need to hear it: THIS IS WHAT YOU LOOK LIKE TO THE REST OF THE WORLD.  You look like a nation who clings so stubbornly to your guns that you refuse to tighten control in order to protect your civilians.  You look like a nation who puts your "constitutional right to bear arms" above the rights of men, women and children to go to school, to the mall, to the cinema, to church or on a night out, without the potential for it to be the last thing they ever do.  In the hours after a mass shooting, there were already comments appearing on Twitter about how wrong it would be to have tighter gun control.  And the rest of the world?  The rest of the world is doing that thing, where they're so horrified by something that they laugh, because they can't believe it could possibly be serious.  The rest of the world is laughing at the NRA.  Except it's not funny.  It's not funny when people are being slaughtered every week, because you'd rather protect the right to have guns than the right to be safe.  And it's not funny when more and more American citizens are expressing their desire to have the issue of gun control looked at seriously.  More and more Americans are calling for action.  You're ignoring them.  You're ignoring them whilst your citizens die.  You're ignoring them whilst mothers grieve in front of TV cameras.  You're ignoring them whilst the rest of the world shows you their statistics on mass shootings and proves time and again that greater control is necessary.

Your advocates trivialise the issue by making statements such as "well, baseball bats can kill people, too.  Want to ban those?!" in the wake of tragedies such as the one in Orlando.  But comparing a blunt, wooden implement to a weapon firing bullets capable of tearing a human body apart is immature at best, deeply disrespectful to the dead, at worst.  You go into a nightclub with a baseball bat and try to kill fifty people before you're stopped.  Do you seriously think you'd succeed?

You claim guns make people safe.  You seem to believe that in an America with gun control, your president wouldn't have armed guards.  Your police wouldn't have the fire power to protect civilians from violent criminals.  I CALL BULLSHIT.  In the UK, where we have strict gun controls, our security forces are armed.  Our politicans are protected by guards with guns.  We have specially trained fire-arm officers in our police force.  Those who require protection are protected.  And you know what?  Mass shootings are so rare in this country that I didn't have to Google the name of Thomas Hamilton and I only had to Google the date of the Cumbrian attacks.  We remember.  We learn.

Nobody is suggesting that you live in an America in which the president isn't protected by armed guards.  If you still want to have your police force carry guns, I'm sure that doesn't have to change, either.  But just who is being protected by having weapons and ammunition on sale in stores where families do their weekly shop?  Who needs the freedom to buy bread, milk and a rifle?  How many incidents can you list in which a family has saved their own lives and the lives of others by having easy access to a gun in their home?  And does that number of incidents even remotely compare to the number of violent shootings your country has had this year alone?

The word "ammendment" refers to a change.  If you want to spare the tears of yet more families torn apart - if you want the world to see America as great again, to quote the man I pray will never be president - then another change is needed.  It's time for the NRA to wake up.  The ridiculous number of shootings in America can be dramatically decreased.  It's just a question of whether you're prepared to put human lives before guns.  

Wake up.  Make a change.


As it happened, several hours before the shooting in Orlando, I filmed my latest YouTube video, which just happened to be about respecting one another's differences, rather than hating one another.  Should you wish to see it, it's here: 

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Bedtime Story (8/6/2016)

This week's bedtime story is also available as a podcast.

Summer Runs Away

Summer Bunny was the smallest out of all her brothers and sisters.  She was never allowed to stay up as late as the others, or play in the meadow by herself.  She sometimes wished she was bigger, especially when she got told off for things the older bunnies had done.  And it felt like that happened a lot.

One warm morning, Summer was sitting in the meadow, daydreaming, whilst her brothers and sisters hopped through the long grass.  She heard her mum calling her: "Summer!  Be careful you don't go too far from the burrow!"

Summer's whiskers twitched and she scrunched up her little face.  She was tired of being the small one.  She was tired of being told what to do.  She was tired of being at home.

So, Summer packed a bag and decided it was time to go out into the world.  "Goodbye, everyone," she said, as she hopped away.  "I'm going to run away and live by myself!"

And before anyone could stop her, Summer had bounced off through the meadow, to the path beyond.

The sun shone brightly on Summer as she made her way down the path.  Before long, she heard a rustling in the leaves.  She stopped and frowned.  "Who's there?"

A wet snout appeared and a snuffly voice replied:  "Just me, Harry Hedgehog.  And who are you?"

"I'm Summer Bunny," Summer replied.  "And I'm running away!"

Harry wrinkled his nose.  "Okay," he said.  "I'll join you."

So, Summer Bunny and Harry Hedgehog carried on making their way down the path.

After a while, they reached a pond and stopped to take a rest.  Soon, they heard a quacking sound.  From behind some reeds, a duck came bustling out.  "What are you doing by my pond?!"

"Sorry," Summer Bunny replied.  "I didn't know it was your pond."

"Well, it is," the duck insisted.  "Everyone knows this is Delilah Duck's pond!"

Summer nodded.  "Oh..."  She began.  "Well, we won't stay long," she promised.  "Harry Hedgehog and I are running away!"

Delilah rubbed her chin with one wing.  "Hmm...  Running away, you say?  Well... Now you mention it, that sounds like it might be fun.  I'll come with you!"

And so, Summer Bunny, Harry Hedgehog and Delilah Duck carried on walking, not quite sure where they were going.

Soon, they arrived at the entrance to some woods.  They heard a rustling in the trees and everyone looked up.  A pigeon swooped down and landed on the ground in front of them.  "Hello," she said, excitedly.  "You're new around here!  What are you up to?"

Summer smiled and waved.  "I'm Summer Bunny and this is Harry Hedgehog and Delilah Duck," she told the pigeon.  "And we've all decided to run away."

The pigeon frowned.  "Run away?  From what?"

Summer sighed.  "Well... From being the smallest and from being told what to do," she explained, although her reasons didn't feel all that important, anymore.

"Hmmm, I see," the pigeon replied.  "Well, I'm Penny Pigeon and I'm not doing anything important right now.  Mind if I join you?"

So, Summer Bunny, Harry Hedgehog, Delilah Duck and Penny Pigeon started making their way through the wood.

They hadn't been walking for long, when they saw a face grinning at them from inside a bramble bush.  Summer peered closely and a badger popped his head out.  "Hello," he smiled.  "I'm Barry Badger.  You look like you're all off on an adventure.  Where are you going?"

Summer glanced up the wooded path ahead and shook her head, slowly.  "I'm not sure," she began.  "I'm running away and everyone's sort of... Coming with me."

Barry crawled out from the bramble bush and shook himself until his fur stood on end.  "Running away?  Why, what happened?"

Summer shrugged.  "Nothing really," she explained.  "It's just... I'm the smallest and I'm never allowed to do anything and..."  Her words trailed off.  Truth be told, she was starting to miss her mum and dad and her brothers and sisters.  She liked how safe and warm their burrow was - not like the dark, creepy woods ahead.

"Okay then," Barry said, interrupting her thoughts.  "I'll come along, too."

So, Summer Bunny, Harry Hedgehog, Delilah Duck, Penny Pigeon and Barry Badger continued their way through the wood.

Eventually, they came to a shadowy den.  Everyone slowed down.  Nobody spoke.  A pair of eyes glinted at them from inside the den.  Slowly, a big fox began stalking out of the den, looking at the animals and greedily licking his lips.

"Well, well, well..."  He began.  "What have we got here?"

Summer Bunny gulped and glanced at her new friends.  "Um... Er..."  She stammered.

The fox peered closely at her.  "What are you all doing here, in the woods, right by my house?!"

Summer felt her breath catch in her throat.  "We... We're running away."

The fox bent his head even closer.  "From what?"

Summer yelped.  "From you!"

And with that, Summer Bunny, Harry Hedgehog, Delilah Duck, Penny Pigeon and Barry Badger all went scurrying back down the woodland path. 

On their way, Barry dived back into the bramble bush.  Penny flew back up into the trees.  Delilah went splashing back into the pond and Harry snuffled back beneath his cosy pile of leaves.  

Summer didn't stop running until she reached the safety of the burrow.  Her brothers and sisters were still playing in the meadow.  Her mum was still keeping an eye out for her.  When she saw Summer, her ears twitched and a smile appeared on her face.  "Hello, Summer," she said.  "I thought you were running away?"

Summer flung her arms around her mum and squeezed her tight.  "I did," she said.  "And then I ran all the way back again."

From then on, Summer didn't mind so much about being the smallest.  She knew she'd grow in time.

And she didn't mind not being allowed to do as many things as her big brothers and sisters.  She'd had enough adventures to last her a very long time!