Blackfish: A Considered Response

Ever since I first saw the film ‘Free Willy’ as a child, I have been fascinated by killer whales (also known as orcas). The idea of being friends with a whale, of getting so close to such a magnificent, wild creature was thrilling. But even then, I found the idea of being in the water with such a huge animal, however gentle, somewhat unnerving.

When I was a few years older, I began avidly watching BBC nature documentaries and unfortunately these programmes completely destroyed my mental image of killer whales being lovable, friendly animals. The programs showed that orcas are highly efficient predators, capable of taking on almost anything in the ocean – seals, penguins, other whales, dolphins and even sharks. One of the most horrifying scenes I have ever watched in a nature documentary featured a pod of killer whales hunting down a grey whale calf, separating it from its mother and drowning it. Almost the worst part of it was that, after all the effort they put in to catching it (around six hours in total), the orcas only ate its lower jaw and its tongue. There are also tales of a pod of killer whales off the coast of Australia in the early 20th century who helped whalers to kill other whales and were rewarded with the dead whale’s tongue and lips. I have no idea whether that story is in fact true, but if it is, it serves as a striking illustration of the two seemingly contradictory sides of the killer whales’ nature – they are fearsome predators, but can also be remarkably co-operative, particularly with humans.

Two years ago, I watched a documentary called Blackfish. And once again I was having to reconsider everything I thought I knew about these animals and our relationship with them. For those who haven’t seen it, I will outline the main points as briefly as I can, before discussing its impact and concluding with what I feel are the most important points highlighted by the film.

The history of killer whales in captivity starts in 1961, when the first orca was captured in California, only to die two days later. The second orca to be caught, (named Moby Doll), lasted 87 days, which was long enough to draw in huge crowds and establish that there was a market for putting the animals on display. Before this time, orcas had been viewed mainly with fear – people knew them only as deadly predators. But it soon became apparent that orcas were in fact sociable and friendly, not to mention smart. People began to recognise their potential value to the entertainment industry and started capturing them in large numbers. Pods of whales would be surrounded by boats and planes, bombs would be thrown into the water, nets dropped to separate young whales from the adults and these youngsters would be hauled out of the water and shipped off to various aquariums, chief among them SeaWorld, which became renowned for its pioneering work with orcas. It was not unheard of for whales to be accidentally killed during these hunts – and when several orca corpses washed up on a beach in 1970, their bodies having been deliberately weighed down by stones and dropped to the bottom of the ocean to prevent their discovery, the public began to realise something of the true cost involved in removing wild animals from their natural habitat.

But even this controversy was not enough to prevent the continued capture of baby orcas for the entertainment industry. After it became clear that this method of removal caused great distress not only to the young orcas being taken, but also to the adult ones left behind, catching orcas in Puget Sound (the main hunting-ground for collectors) was made illegal. Unfortunately, the collectors simply moved to Iceland (where there were no restrictions on orca removals) and began taking them from there. This is where a young orca, later known as Tilikum, was caught in 1983, along with two other whales. He was shipped to Sealand of the Pacific in Canada, where he lived in a tank with two female orcas. The Blackfish film features interviews with former employees of Sealand, who state that the attraction was badly run and the animals’ welfare not a top priority. From about 5pm in the evening till around 7am the next morning (14 hours) the orcas were kept locked in a tiny dark tank with virtually no stimulation. This was done to prevent any saboteurs cutting through the net walls of their larger main pool and releasing them. It is still not known exactly how this may have affected the psychological health and wellbeing of the whales, but it is certainly not unreasonable to assume that this treatment must have had at least some negative effects.

In 1991, a young marine biology student and part-time animal trainer named Keltie Byrne slipped and fell into the main tank at Sealand, just after a show had finished. Horrified onlookers watched helplessly as she was dragged underwater by the three killer whales. She managed to reach the surface again and screamed for help, but to no avail. Divers finally retrieved her lifeless body from the pool several hours later, but it was too late to save Sealand’s reputation and it closed down a year later, having sold its three orcas on to SeaWorld. This was the first instance ever recorded of orcas attacking a human. It is difficult to say for certain what motivated the attack – were the whales being aggressive or simply playful? Did they understand that they were harming someone, or did they not know their own strength? This question has still not been resolved decades later and is source of fierce debate among animal behaviourists, aquariums and animal rights activists. One preventative method that can be used to prevent such attacks is desensitisation training – in which the whales are trained not to react when someone falls into the water. This is highly controversial, however, as it is virtually impossible to guarantee the trainers’ safety during the desensitisation process. Because of the risks involved, many theme parks and aquariums, including Sealand of the Pacific, have decided not to use desensitisation training.

Following his move to SeaWorld Orlando, Tilikum spent the next few years performing in shows with other orcas. In 1999, a man named Daniel P. Dukes somehow managed to evade SeaWorld security, remained in the park after it had closed and then got into the killer whale tank. The next morning his body was discovered draped over Tilikum’s back. The autopsy report showed that the body had received numerous bruises and contusions, but the main cause of death was recorded as drowning. However, the report seems to suggest that several of Dukes’ injuries occurred before death, which means that Tilikum may have been responsible for his drowning. Although SeaWorld has several nightwatchmen and security cameras on its sites, no one seems to know for certain what really happened to Dukes and whether Tilikum did indeed play a significant role in his death. Despite the mystery surrounding this incident, trainers continued to do waterwork with Tilikum and he still regularly performed in the orca shows – until five years ago, when Dawn Brancheau was attacked.

Dawn was one of SeaWorld’s top trainers. She was passionate and enthusiastic, with many years of experience and she always had a keen regard for safety, carefully following procedures and protocols. One evening in February 2010, after finishing the last show of the day with Tilikum, she lay down on a flat ledge just under the surface of the water to do some quiet social bonding with him. Eyewitness accounts differ on exactly what happened next, but all of them state that Tilikum dragged Dawn into the water and refused to release her. Just like Keltie Byrne all those years ago, Dawn drowned while trying to escape from the tank. Her autopsy report makes even grimmer reading than that of Daniel Dukes. Some witnesses said that Dawn was pulled in by her hair (she had a long ponytail) and there is some evidence to support this, because a portion of her scalp was completely ripped from her head. Others said that Tilikum had grabbed her arm and there is evidence for this too – her left arm had been torn from her body, or “avulsed”, in the words of the autopsy report. SeaWorld’s official statement supported the hair-pulling scenario. Many sceptics pointed out that this allowed the company to blame Dawn’s own actions for her death – the official line was that she had been lying too close to Tilikum and the sight of her hair drifting in the water had been too tempting for him to resist. Following Dawn’s death, SeaWorld mandated that all trainers should keep long hair in buns, rather than ponytails. For those who claimed that Dawn had been pulled in by her arm, this change would make little difference to the safety of SeaWorld’s trainers. Yet again, the differing accounts of what happened make it difficult to come to any definite conclusions about why the incident occurred. Tilikum had missed a couple of cues during the show and had therefore not received as much positive reinforcement as he might have expected. Had he simply attacked Dawn out of anger and frustration? Or was the sight of her long hair drifting in the water simply a new form of stimulation that had to be investigated? I personally find it difficult to believe that he would never have seen a trainer’s hair in the water before, so the idea of it being a novelty doesn’t seem to ring true – having said that, I am definitely no animal behaviour expert, so it is difficult for me to speculate.

Although the Blackfish documentary focuses on Tilikum, there have been many other incidents between orcas and their trainers – not least the death of another trainer at Loro Parque, in the Canary Islands, which occurred only two months before Dawn lost her life at SeaWorld. Blackfish also shows footage of at least two other incidents that resulted in major injuries – in the first, an orca slams its whole body down on a trainer riding on the back of another orca. The trainer sustained numerous fractures that required extensive surgery. The second incident involved an orca pulling a trainer under the water for up to a minute at a time, bringing him back to the surface and then dragging him under again, before finally releasing him – and even then the whale came after the trainer as he escaped from the tank. Apart from the death of Alexis Martínez at Loro Parque, which was during a show rehearsal, all of the other incidents mentioned occurred during or after performances – hence the fact that they were caught on film. But many more injuries occur during training, rehearsals, or even everyday interactions, when there is no audience there to film them. Despite the fact that trainers are no longer allowed in the water with any of their whales and do not have any physical contact with Tilikum, he still takes part in performances – this video shows him performing in January 2015, just four months ago. He seems to move in a very lethargic manner in comparison to the other orcas, possibly as a result of his current isolation.

Having discussed the content of the documentary, I will now briefly mention its impact. Blackfish received critical acclaim when it was first released in 2013 and is reported to have been directly responsible for a subsequent drop in SeaWorld’s profits, with fewer people attending the theme parks. In addition, several major bands, including The Beach Boys and Barenaked Ladies, cancelled their concerts at SeaWorld venues during 2014. Two upcoming movies – Paper Towns and Finding Dory – have had their marine park scenes altered or completely cut as a direct result of Blackfish’s impact.

Unsurprisingly, SeaWorld denounced the film, saying it was “inaccurate and misleading”. Of course, to a certain extent this may be true. After all, while documentaries are supposed to be factual, each film-maker has a particular story they want to tell and it is possible to cut and edit interviews and footage to make things sound more sensational and dramatic than they actually are. Film-makers are also free to indulge in cherry-picking, choosing the most dramatic pieces of footage and the most affecting scenes from various interviews. It therefore becomes difficult to say with complete accuracy exactly what is going on. Ironically, SeaWorld has also used this ambiguity to its own advantage, in order to play down the nature of killer whale attacks and claim that they are simply rare and regrettable accidents.

However, it is impossible to deny that there have been orca-related deaths at SeaWorld, as well as long list of injuries, ranging from relatively minor to extremely serious. Furthermore, both Blackfish and other similar documentaries (see links below) have highlighted the fact that even with the best care that humans can provide and despite all the controversy – SeaWorld’s facilities are world-class – orcas just do not do well in captivity. Tilikum has sired 21 offspring during his time in captivity, but only 11 of them are still living. This poor survival rate is just one indication of how difficult it is to keep captive whales alive. Some of them, such as Lolita (now about 50 years old) and Tilikum (now 34), can live for decades, but this does not necessarily mean that their quality of life is particularly good, especially when compared to wild orcas.

Orcas are highly social animals and remain with their family for their entire lives. Male orcas, in particular, stay close to their mothers. The capture of baby orcas and subsequent separation from their family means that their social structure is completely disrupted. This, on top of the stress of living in a small, artificial space, is said to lead to unnatural behaviours that are almost never seen in the wild, such as attacks on humans, repetitive swimming patterns and prolonged inert floating. The famous flopped-over dorsal fin is also mainly associated with captive orcas. Studies of wild orcas have shown that the rate of fin collapse in British Columbia waters is 1%, in Norway it is less than 5% and in New Zealand it is around 23%. The reason for such a high rate of fin collapse in NZ waters is currently unknown. In captivity, almost all male orcas have collapsed fins, as well as some female orcas. These two pictures illustrate the marked difference between the collapsed dorsal fin of a captive orca and the tall, rigid dorsal fin usually seen on a wild orca.

Dorsal Fin Collapse

Dorsal Fin - Wild Orca

In an attempt to be as rational and clear-headed as possible, I have made a note of what I perceive to be the three main facts that Blackfish serves to highlight.

1) Captive killer whales can and do seriously injure or kill humans. It is unclear whether killer whales intentionally attack humans, or if they perhaps just don’t realise their own strength/misread signals/become over-stimulated. Blackfish asserts that the first assumption is true, while SeaWorld avers that it is one or all of the other possibilities. In either case, the point seems to be largely irrelevant. The fact that such incidents happen at all demonstrates the importance of the issue. After an incident in 2006 involving trainer Kenneth Peters and an orca named Kasatka, an OSHA report stated:

“The contributing factors to the accident, in the simplest of terms, is that swimming with captive orcas is inherently dangerous and if someone hasn’t been killed already it is only a matter of time before it does happen. The trainers recognize this risk and train not for if an attack will happen but when.”

2) The unpredictable nature of such incidents makes it dangerous to be in the water with orcas. Blackfish seems to suggest that attacks are due to the long-term build-up of physical and psychological distress caused by being in captivity. SeaWorld would have it that such incidents are either accidents or due to ‘trainer error’. Whatever the cause, it seems to be virtually impossible to determine when and how killer whale attacks will occur – although whales that have shown previous aggression are, unsurprisingly, more likely to attack humans. Marine veterinarian Jay Sweeney wrote in the CRC Handbook of Marine Mammal Medicine in 1990:

“Aggression expressed by killer whales toward their trainers is a matter of grave concern…In a few such cases, we can attribute this behaviour to disease or to the presence of frustrating or confusing situations, but in other cases, there have been no clear casual factors.”

3) Orcas, on the whole, do not do well in captivity. All the evidence (based on observations of both captive and wild orcas) suggests that they are highly intelligent and social animals, who form strong familial bonds. Blackfish shows some absolutely heart-rending footage of orcas being captured in the wild, with the distress of orca family members being highlighted as particularly traumatic. It is also on record that SeaWorld separates babies from their mothers in captivity, something which can only lead to distress for the orcas, based on the strength of their family ties and the fact that they are already isolated from the rest of their natural family. In addition, there are reports of orcas self-harming or engaging in other unnatural behaviours, such as long periods of inertia (they can swim up to 100 miles a day in the wild) and repetitive swimming patterns. SeaWorld, on the other hand, insists that it provides the highest level of care for its orcas and that the animals do well in captivity. Whilst there are some orcas who have survived many decades in captivity, a great deal more die at very young ages – this is clearly illustrated by this comprehensive list of orcas that have died in captivity. The fact that even SeaWorld (which has arguably the most advanced cetacean care facilities in the world) does not have a good orca survival rate shows how difficult it is to keep these animals healthy and happy in captivity.

In conclusion, the fact that orcas are such intelligent, social animals and are clearly aware of separation from their relatives, when it occurs, suggests that they are poor candidates for captivity and I strongly believe that the capture of wild orcas and the continued breeding of captive ones should be banned as soon as possible. Many protest groups have argued for the release of captive orcas such as Tilikum and Lolita, who have spent the vast majority of their lives in theme parks, performing in shows almost every day. However, even people protesting against captivity recognise that many captive orcas are not good candidates for release back into the wild. The early death of Keiko following his release – and his failure to integrate with a new pod of whales – demonstrates that captive whales may not always do well if they are put back in the wild. Having said that, Keiko was not reunited with his own pod – if he had been, he might have been able to re-integrate properly. In any case, the best option for many captive orcas is for them to be released into an open water sea-pen, allowing them to be back in their natural environment but still under human protection – a kind of retirement home for performing whales. This would obviously be an extremely expensive operation and would probably result in a significant loss of revenue for SeaWorld and all the other marine parks, so it is unlikely that they will be spending any of their billions of dollars on this proposal any time soon. However, the story of Keiko illustrates that it is definitely possible – and could be achieved with the right amount of financial support and backing from various organisations. A law that would ban keeping orcas and dolphins in captivity has been proposed and although it is unlikely to be passed in the near future, perhaps one day our only interactions with these magnificent creatures will be on their own terms, in the ocean where they belong.

N.B. Although Blackfish is not (legally) available to view for free online, there are other documentaries about killer whales available on Youtube, such as:

The Free Willy Story: Keiko’s Journey Home –
Lolita: Slave to Entertainment –

You can also watch a few clips from Blackfish, with director’s commentary, here:

And lastly, here is a link to a video of SeaWorld’s older killer whale show, Believe, when trainers were still allowed in the water:


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A Request for Assistance #SaveRIAC

For the last six months or so, I have been volunteering at the Refugee and Immigrant Advisory Council in St John’s, Newfoundland. RIAC offers support for newcomers to the province and helps them to feel part of the community here. Newfoundland is pretty much 95% white, barely even has French as a second language and the climate is of the cold, damp variety. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for refugees and immigrants with little to no English, particularly those who move here from warmer countries.

The main services that RIAC provides are :
1) Free advice and guidance for people who are struggling with the immigration system and/or any other bureaucratic difficulties involving work permits, medical exams etc.
2) Free English classes three times a week for anyone who feels they need extra help with their English.

There is another organisation here that provides free ESL classes for refugees – but they don’t offer services for other types of immigrants e.g. the spouses of international students or people who have not yet received full refugee status. In addition, the Association for New Canadians (ANC) is affiliated with the government and is thus restricted in the amount of support it can give regarding the immigration process. This is why RIAC’s services are needed – for all those people who don’t quite fit the criteria and fall through the gaps of official services.

RIAC recently lost its main source of private funding and they are now in desperate need of a couple of thousand dollars to last them until their next lot of government funding and major grants comes in. If they don’t get this funding, they may have to close their doors. RIAC serves about 900 people a year through its various projects and programs – there is currently nowhere else for these people to turn for support.

I know it is a very, very long shot, but if anyone reads this blogpost and happens to have a few dollars/pounds/whatever to spare, please consider making a donation to RIAC. I know that many people do not have the financial capacity to be donating money to random causes, but on the offchance there is someone out there who can, it would be really, really appreciated. Retweets of this blogpost with the #saveRIAC hashtag would also be amazing.

Thank you.

P.S. The total amount donated so far is actually higher than that mentioned on the above website because some people made offline donations. The true total is now over $8,000, so we are not as far off as it seems!

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Farewell to Sir Terry Pratchett

I wasn’t going to write anything about Terry Pratchett at all – and then I saw this picture* (see below) and it was just so perfect that I couldn’t resist posting it, along with a few words.

And now I can’t think of anything to say…

I love his books so much. I have learnt so much from them – and from him – about kindness, goodness, wickedness, ignorance, fear, bravery….everything, really. His stories are warm, witty and wonderful and he always had such compassion for his characters, whether they were good, bad, or somewhere-in-the-middle – as so many of us are.

Thank you Terry. You will be deeply missed, but never forgotten.



*Apparently the drawing was done by Paul Kidby, who has worked as an illustrator for the Discworld series since 2001.

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A Little Bit Of UK History

This post follows on from my last one, A Brief Introduction to the UK. Having talked about the four countries that make up the UK, I shall now mention some famous UK landmarks and their history. All of these places are in London – since it is the capital city, it naturally has a number of historically significant buildings, most of which are huge tourist attractions. There are, of course, plenty of other fascinating places to visit all around the UK and if you are planning a visit here, I strongly suggest that you try and fit in trips to other places outside of London as well.

The first landmark is Buckingham Palace, main residence of the current reigning monarch Queen Elizabeth II, pictured below with two of her corgis. The photo may possibly have been photoshopped, but I can neither confirm nor deny this!


Buckingham Palace was not actually built by or for the royal family, but was originally the townhouse of the Duke of Buckingham. George III bought it in 1761 for his wife to use as a private residence and it only became the official royal palace after Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1837. You can actually go inside and visit various rooms of the Palace on guided tours – I’ve never done one myself but I imagine it would be fairly expensive.

Buckingham Palace

The guards outside Buckingham Palace are famous for their discipline. They are not allowed to move or even smile while they are on duty. The ceremony of the Changing of the Guard takes places at about 11am every day, or every other day, depending on the time of year and crowds of tourists gather to watch the New Guard marching in, accompanied by a military brand.
When I did my presentation on UK culture at the local school, I got a couple of the kids to come up and pretend to be guards and tourists – the tourists had to try and make the guards laugh and the guards had to keep a straight face for as long as possible – it was highly amusing!


On a side note, I was astonished to find that the celebrity magazines here in Canada are obsessed with the royal family – there are pictures of Princess Kate on almost every front cover, all the time! I wouldn’t have thought that other countries would have been particularly interested in our royal family, unless there was a wedding or something, but clearly I was very much mistaken!


The next famous London landmark on my list is the Tower of London. This dates back to the 11th century, with the original White Tower being constructed by William the Conqueror in 1078. It has a long and bloody history involving torture, treason and murder along with many other dark misdeeds. The Tower has been used for many different purposes over the last 1000 years, including royal residence, mint, treasury, menagerie and, perhaps most famously, as a prison.


The Tower is also the place where the Crown Jewels are kept. They were moved there from Westminster Abbey in the 14th century after a successful attempt to steal them – most of the jewels were recovered. After Charles II came to the throne in the 17th century, it was possible for members of the public to view the jewels by paying a fee to the guard who looked after them. However, after a notorious attempt to steal the jewels in 1761, this practice was – understandably – abolished. The Crown Jewels are still kept at the Tower of London today – although they are very heavily guarded, they can be viewed by the general public.

The Imperial State Crown: Cullinan II

The story of the 1761 plot to steal the Crown Jewels is an excellent one, being blessed with exciting subject-matter, a villainous anti-hero with a name so perfect that it’s almost too good to be true AND a surprise twist at the end, so of course I simply have to relate it to you, dear readers.

The man who guarded the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London was called Talbot Edwards and he lived in an apartment with his wife just above the locked basement room in which the jewels were kept. Our anti-hero, a cunning rogue by the name of Colonel Thomas Blood (told you it was good!) disguised himself as a clergyman and hired a female actress called Jenny Blaine to pretend to be his wife. They went to the Tower and asked Talbot if they could view the jewels. He escorted them downstairs, unlocked the door and let them in. While they were admiring the jewels, Blood’s ‘wife’ feigned a fainting fit. She was led upstairs to Talbot’s apartment to recover and Blood took the opportunity to ‘case the joint’, making a close inspection of the room. He and his companion thanked Edwards and his wife for their kindness and departed.


Following this episode, Blood returned to the Tower, bringing some white gloves as a gift, to better express his gratitude. After this, he and his accomplice paid several more visits to the Tower and cultivated a friendship with the guard and his wife. The next time Blood visited, however, he brought a group of friends with him. He told Edwards that his friends also wanted to view the Crown Jewels and the guard agreed to escort them to the room. Upon unlocking the door and allowing the men to enter, Edwards was attacked by Blood and his gang, who bound and gagged him, before stabbing him in the stomach. The men attempted to break some of the pieces, such as the sceptre, into smaller parts and Blood flattened one of the crowns with a mallet, the better to hide the jewels inside their clothes. Reports differ as to how the alarm was raised, possibly the thieves were disturbed by other guards arriving on the scene, or Edwards may have managed to cry out and raise the alarm. Either way, Blood and his men realised the game was up and they would have to run for it. They were chased from the Tower by guards and had almost reached their horses, positioned ready to assist their escape, but the guards caught up with them and they were apprehended, although some of the precious stones were apparently lost in the struggle.

Blood and his fellow gang members were imprisoned at the Tower of London. Everyone took it for granted that they would be executed, as stealing the Crown Jewels counted as treason. However, when Blood was brought before the king and questioned, Charles seemed to have been amused by Blood’s audacity and his charming manner. He actually pardoned Blood and his fellow conspirators – and, even more incredibly, Blood was given an income of £500 a year and a position at the king’s court! Several people were, understandably, very upset by this and it was a matter of great debate as to why the thieves had been let off so lightly. Edwards himself didn’t do nearly so well – he survived the attack, but became infirm and the government refused to grant him a pension until just before he died. It must have been bitter for him to compare his own treatment with that of Colonel Blood, who not only escaped punishment, but was practically rewarded for his crime!

It has been suggested that the king himself may have been behind the plot – Charles was in desperate need of money, having run up a huge amount of debt. Had he hired a group of thugs to steal the Crown Jewels and sell them in order to make a bit of ready cash? His lenient attitude to Blood certainly raises suspicions about the king’s possible involvement in the plot, but we may never know for certain who was really behind it.


Last year marked 100 years since the start of WWI. To honour this anniversary, a special exhibition was put on at the Tower of London. Over several months, 888,246 ceramic poppies were planted in the grass moat surrounding the Tower – each commemorating a British soldier who died during the Great War. When the exhibition finished, the poppies were sold for £25 to anyone who wanted one and the proceeds, around £15 million, went to six different charities who support military personnel and their families.

The Tower of London is also home to the famous ravens, who are looked after by the Yeomen of the Guard. There is a legend that says that if any of the six ravens leave the Tower of London, the kingdom will fall. To prevent this calamity, the ravens are extremely well cared for and they have a spare seventh raven, just in case anything happens to one of the others! They are fed on a mixture of raw meat and blood-soaked biscuits. Mmmmm, scrummy!


The next and final London landmark I will mention is the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. I think they can count as one landmark because they are so close together and you can’t really see one without the other!


Anyone who has grown up in the UK will know the story of Guy Fawkes, but just in case there is anyone reading who doesn’t know it, I will now relate the tale. Back in the 17th century, there were two main religions in England, the Protestants and the Catholics. Generally, if there was a Protestant monarch on the throne, Catholic people were persecuted and if there was a Catholic king or queen in power, then the Protestants were the ones being persecuted. In 1605 James I was on the throne. He was Protestant and therefore disliked by many Catholics. One such Catholic was Guy Fawkes. He and some friends hatched a plot to assassinate the king and his government by blowing up the Houses of Parliament when the king came to open them in November. The conspirators bought several barrels of gunpowder and hid them in a room they had rented, which was right under the Houses of Parliament.


Unfortunately, someone sent an anonymous tip-off to Lord Monteagle, warning him to stay away from Parliament because “they shall recyve a terrible blowe”. His suspicions were aroused and he took the letter to the king. The rooms beneath the Houses of Parliament were searched and Guy Fawkes was found in the gunpowder room with a watch and a match, waiting to set off the explosion. He and his fellow plotters were taken to the Tower and tortured for many days in order to obtain a full confession. They were convicted of treason and sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered. There’s a lesson here kids – you might get away with stealing the Crown Jewels, but if you try and kill the king, you definitely won’t be rewarded!

To celebrate the king’s escape from death, people lit bonfires on November 5th, and the day was designated as an annual celebration, which is still marked today. It is also customary to set off fireworks and many events also involve an effigy made of old rags known as a ‘guy’ (symbolising Guy Fawkes), which is burnt on the bonfire.


So there is a little bit of UK history for you all. And now to end this post, I have a Mr Bean cartoon! It features several of the places I have mentioned – and also the Queen! See how many you can spot – and if you’ve been to London yourself, you may also notice several other classic London features, including red buses and black cabs.

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A Brief Introduction to the UK

A few days ago I discovered that there are now 30 people following this blog and I immediately felt guilty for not writing more regularly! Admittedly, I doubt that there are 30 people out there pining away and suffering for lack of my blogposts, but still, the fact remains that a small group of people have decided to follow my blog because they found what I had to say in previous posts interesting and I feel that, by not providing new material, I am somehow disappointing them.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t think of an informative and entertaining topic to write about (well, I did have one idea, but I know it will take a good deal of research and I don’t think I have time for it right now). In the meantime, I thought I would cheat a bit and use some previous material. A couple of weeks ago I was asked to give a presentation about UK Culture to a local primary school here in St John’s. I agreed and then spent the next couple of weeks agonising over designing a presentation that was both amusing and educational. Honest to God, I don’t know how teachers ever manage to plan lessons for five full days every week. My presentation was only an hour and I spent AGES on it! Anyway, I thought I would use some of the pictures from the powerpoint I made to firstly give a brief introduction to the UK (this post) and secondly to talk a little bit about famous London landmarks and their history (next post). I know that a lot of this might be fairly old hat to anyone who lives in the UK and/or has a good grasp of geography, but I promise I will try and write something original next time!

So first of all, here is a map of the UK. It is important to note that although Northern Ireland is part of the UK, the rest of Ireland is independent. The reasons for this are complicated and involve religion, colonialism and other difficult subjects which I won’t go into here.


I will now go round each of the four countries in turn and talk about an attraction or custom that is unique to that country. First, England. Capital: London. Patron Saint: George.


Here we can find Stonehenge – a famous prehistoric monument that also featured prominently in a children’s book called “Stig of the Dump”. I’ve never actually visited Stonehenge, so my own impressions of it have been gleaned almost entirely from this book and a couple of BBC documentaries!


There are numerous theories as to why the stones were positioned in that particular spot and in that particular formation – and probably even more theories about how the monument was constructed by prehistoric people who only had primitive stone tools to work with. The main origin theory involves the sun and its yearly cycle – the idea was that the standing stones would act as a sort of gigantic sundial, tracking the sun’s movements throughout the year and culminating with the summer solstice, which is why you will find groups of Druids and other New Age folk gathered there on Midsummer’s Eve. It’s a big tourist attraction and VERY expensive to get in, but apparently there is a little-known road that takes you very close to the monument for free – or you can visit the other stone circle at Avebury, which is not only in better condition, but attracts much fewer tourists, due to being relatively unknown.

The next country is Scotland. Capital: Edinburgh. Patron Saint: Andrew.


I decided to stick rigidly to stereotypes for this one, using the picture below to illustrate the national costume AND the most famous Scottish musical instrument, the sound of which is supposedly the aural version of Marmite i.e. you either love it or hate it. The odd, bag-like thing hanging on the front of the kilt is called a sporran and is commonly made of animal fur or hair – this one is probably horsehair. It was used in olden times to carry coins or other small items – rather like a bumbag!


The third country is Wales. Capital: Cardiff. Patron Saint: David.


I couldn’t think of any national landmarks – at least, not any that would be particularly well known by many people outside Wales – so I decided to use a picture of a red kite. A few decades ago this bird was virtually extinct throughout much of the UK, apart from a small population in Wales. After an intense breeding program, the population has recovered and can now be found across the British Isles. A couple of places in Wales have red kite feeding stations where tourists can watch the birds guzzling down large amounts of meat and get a lot closer to them than is usually possible.

The Welsh language was also seriously endangered for a while, but now that the Welsh government has made it compulsory for every child who goes to school in Wales to learn Welsh until the age of 16, the language is unlikely to die out any time soon – although most Welsh people still use English as their primary language. Welsh is infamous for its impossible spelling and unusual sounds – “ll” being a prime example (it’s pronounced a bit like the English sound “cl”, but not really). One small town in Wales holds the distinction of having the longest place name in Europe. Take a look at the picture below (you can click on it to make it bigger) and see how far you get in pronouncing it!


The name literally means: “The Church of Mary in the Hollow of the White Hazel near the Fierce Whirlpool and the Church of Tysilio by the Red Cave”. For convenience, the name is often shortened to “Llanfairpwllgwyngyll”. If you want to learn how to pronounce it, have a listen to the audio clip below:

The fourth and last country that makes up the UK is Northern Ireland. Capital: Belfast. Patron Saint: Patrick.


I have to confess that apart from a vague knowledge of the religious “troubles” there, I know next to nothing about Northern Ireland, but I did remember that it has a very famous national landmark – the Giant’s Causeway.


This geological marvel is made up of around 40,000 mostly hexagonal columns of basalt, produced by a volcanic eruption and subsequent erosion over several million years. The Giant’s Causeway is a big tourist attraction and is now owned and managed by the National Trust. There is also a legend attached to the Causeway – the version I will relate below is taken from Wikipedia, but there are a couple of others (easily accessible via a quick Google search) that differ slightly from this one.

The Irish giant Finn MacCool* (awesome name!) was challenged to a duel by another giant called Benandonner, who lived in Scotland. Finn accepted the challenge and built a bridge across the sea so that Benandonner could cross over to Ireland and meet him in battle. However, when Benandonner began his journey across the water, Finn saw him coming and suddenly realised how massive the other giant was. Overcome with fear, he decided to hide so that he would not have to face his opponent. His wife (named Oonagh) disguised him as a baby and placed him in a cradle. When Benandonner arrived and saw the “baby”, he thought it was Finn’s son and understandably assuming that if the child was that size, the father must be even more enormous, he turned tail and fled, destroying the causeway behind him so that Finn could not pursue him.

There are numerous plotholes in this story and neither of the main protagonists comes out of it well, but everybody loves a good legend, so I’ve included it anyway. It is interesting to note that there are similar basalt formations across the sea at Fingal’s Cave in Scotland – supposedly the other side of the Giant’s Causeway that Finn MacCool built.

Lastly, I will briefly mention the UK flags. You will notice that the flags of three out of the four UK countries are represented in the Union Flag (see pic below), but Wales has been left out. Possibly the people who created the flag felt that it had enough going on already without a large red dragon in the middle of it, but I personally feel they missed out on a good thing by not including it**.


And that concludes my brief introduction to the UK. As you can see, I kept it very short and tried to include as much amusement and interest as I could manage, seeing as the age of my original audience ranged from 7-11 and I didn’t want to inundate them with facts and figures that they would never remember! My next post will use the part of my presentation that I devoted to London landmarks and their history – it even has a cartoon episode!

*Fionn mac Cumhaill, in Irish.

**I mean, come on. This is much cooler, right?

The Union Jack proposed by Ian Lucas.

(I just had a quick google and discovered that Wales isn’t represented on the Union Flag because it was originally counted as a principality rather than a kingdom like the other countries. Which means we’re missing out on having a dragon because of a minor technicality! To whom should I address my strongly worded letter??

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Somerset Day

As some of you may already know, despite having lived in London for the past couple of years, I am actually from Somerset, a beautiful county in the South West of England. Although I absolutely loved being in London, a part of me has always felt drawn back to the place where I grew up and I still think of Somerset as my true home.

I read an online article by the Somerset County Gazette a few days ago, which announced that in 2015 we will have the first ever “Somerset Day” – a day to celebrate all that the county has to offer in terms of business, tourism, natural beauty etc. I assume the idea is to make it an annual event from next year onward. I personally think it’s a wonderful idea, because Somerset does have a lot going for it, as a county, and it could be even better, with a bit more investment and promotion. Devon and Cornwall are seen as being the main holiday destinations in the South West, but Somerset, (whilst perhaps not having such high-quality beaches), has some special attractions of its own – the West Somerset Steam Railway and Dunster Castle being just two that spring to mind. In addition, Somerset is well known for its Cheddar cheese and cider, which are world-famous foods.

As it says in the County Gazette article, the public are being asked to vote on which one of four possible dates should be selected to mark Somerset Day. I decided to do a bit of research on the four dates and their associations, because I knew almost nothing about any of them! I have included a brief description of each date and why it is relevant below – and then mentioned my own personal favourite and my reasons for choosing it. Of course, my choice is purely subjective and I’m not trying to suggest that everyone else should vote for the same – in fact, I would be delighted if you would let me know your own opinions in the comments – particularly if you too have lived or are living in Somerset!

Unfortunately, as of today (November 29th), voting has not yet been opened, as the plan has yet to be fully formalised. However, once voting does open (hopefully in a few days), this is apparently the website you will need to go to: You can also follow Passion for Somerset on Twitter at @passionsomerset.

The Four Choices:

May 11th – to mark Alfred the Great’s gathering of ‘all the people of Somerset’
May 19th – St Dunstan’s Day

July 6th – Battle of Sedgemoor

October 21st – Apple Day

The first date refers to Alfred the Great’s stand against the Danish invasion of England in the 9th century. The kingdom of Wessex (what we now know as the four counties of Hampshire, Dorset, Wiltshire and Somerset) was the last remaining part of England not under Viking control and the invaders were closing in, determined to complete their conquest of England and crush the native people once and for all. King Alfred emerged from his stronghold in the marshes of the Somerset Levels and rallied the people of Somerset to his aid, managing to drive back the Danish and negotiate a peace, thus ensuring that Wessex remained independent and undefeated.

The second date, May 19th, marks the feast day of St Dunstan, who was born in the Somerset village of Baltonsborough around 910. He showed much promise as a young boy and when he grew up, he spent some time at court, before becoming a hermit at Glastonbury Abbey. Later, he was summoned to court by the new king and appointed a minister. After various different monarchs had come and gone, he was finally appointed Archbishop of Canterbury and taught at Canterbury Cathedral School for many years. After his death, he became the most popular saint in England for more than two hundred years.

The Battle of Sedgemoor took place on July 6th, 1685. It was the final battle of the Monmouth Rebellion, which was a doomed attempt by James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, to usurp the crown from King James II. Scott came to England from the Netherlands, landing at Lyme Regis in June. After a series of battles around the south west, culminating in the Battle of Sedgemoor, Scott and his poorly trained army were defeated. The subsequent trials of those who had participated in the rebellion were known as the Bloody Assizes – 500 of these prisoners were sentenced at Taunton Castle by Judge Jeffreys.

Apple Day, on October 21st, is “an annual celebration of apples and orchards”. It was initiated in 1990 by a charity called Common Ground, whose aim is “to explore and the relationship between nature and culture”, particularly in matters of “local distinctiveness” – traditional customs, folklore and practices that are linked to a specific area of the country. The Common Ground group is based in Dorset and the first Apple Day celebration took place at Covent Garden in London, but the Somerset connection is obvious because, as I mentioned earlier, the county is famous for its apple orchards and cider.

Whilst I love the connection to a well-known Somerset food (and drink!), I think that October 21st is far too close to Halloween and Bonfire Night to be a viable option for Somerset Day. In addition, Apple Day is already an annual UK festival and I feel that Somerset Day should be something that is completely separate from any national event, because it’s a local celebration – and one that should ideally focus on more than just apples.

The other three dates are all in the summer, which is great because it means that would (hopefully!) mean there is a better chance of good weather for whatever events take place, plus none of these dates, so far as I am aware, are close to any other annual events – apart from possibly May Day, which in any case isn’t as widely celebrated as it used to be.

With regard to May 19th, I’m not sure how many people have heard of St Dunstan and although he was a very popular saint and it’s great that someone so famous originated from our county, I would guess that hardly anyone would know who he was now – I certainly had no idea until I googled him. I feel that the Somerset connection needs to be a bit more meaningful than the feast-day of a saint who lived several hundred years ago.

The Battle of Sedgemoor is certainly more widely known and the fact that a Somerset location featured so prominently at a decisive point in the history of the monarchy is really interesting. However, this seems to be more of a chance association – after all, the Duke of Monmouth didn’t actually come from Somerset, as far as I know. Moreover, it seems a shame to choose July 6th as a day of celebration when it involved a bloody battle and some (arguably even bloodier) trials that resulted in the death or deportation of hundreds of people, including local Somerset folk.

It would have been interesting to have chosen a day such as the date in 1903 when Cecil Sharp first heard John England singing the Seeds of Love in Charles Marson’s back garden, prompting Sharp to start collecting Somerset folk songs, which would later be published and distributed to every school in the country. But I suppose this perhaps might not be particularly well-known, although I would argue Sharp deserves more recognition for his part in saving valuable cultural history that would otherwise have been completely lost. Having said that, I’m not sure if the exact date for Sharp hearing “The Seeds of Love” is known, thus it would be difficult to have this as an option for Somerset Day!

Personally I think I would vote for May 11th for Somerset Day, partly because everyone has heard of Alfred the Great and it would also link very nicely to the county’s motto “Sumorsǣte ealle”, meaning “all the people of Somerset”, which is taken from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and obviously refers back to Alfred the Great summoning “all the people of Somerset” to help defend Wessex from Viking invaders. This further emphasises the fact that Somerset Day is a chance for the whole county to unite in celebrating the very best that Somerset has to offer and also ties in very nicely with an important piece of ancient local history.

If you agree, disagree, or have any other comments to make, please let me know, I would love to hear your thoughts on this!

EDIT: Voting for Somerset Day is now open from 5-16 January at!

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The Rights of the Reader by Daniel Pennac

This post is not so much a review of the above book, but an exploration of the themes and ideas which are touched on by the author. Daniel Pennac is a French author, teacher and parent who writes with clarity and wit on the subject of literacy and how to encourage children to read more. He has worked with many disadvantaged children in inner-city schools in Paris and has a rather novel (excuse the lame pun) approach to the challenge of supporting and encouraging kids to engage with literature.

Why is this so important? Why is it so vital that children learn to read – and learn to love reading? Pennac spends a considerable portion of the book ripping into the old cliché of children nowadays being much more interested in watching television or playing computer games than reading and how it’s all the fault of the media, or our consumerist society which prioritises products over culture, or the innumerable flaws in the education system…

Below is an extract from a fictional conversation that Pennac describes – I imagine this taking place among a group of middle-class, middle-aged parents.

“It’s not just the programmes, it’s the medium itself. It’s passive. It makes the viewer lazy.”

“But reading is different, reading is something you do.”

“But with TV, and cinema for that matter, everything’s handed to you on a plate, nothing has to be worked at, they just spoon-feed you.”

As an avid reader myself, I know I would have automatically subscribed to this viewpoint too – particularly because I am the sort of person who would actually rather read a 1,000 word article about something than watch a two-minute video on the same topic. I have no idea why I should have this odd prejudice – although actually, viewing it now through the lens of this book, I think I’m beginning to understand…

Anyway. Later in the book, Pennac suggests that actually, TV and film can make you think and feel and dream in the same way that a book can –

“…And (he) wonders if some films haven’t, in fact, made the kind of impression on him that books have. Images from these films seem to him loaded with symbolic language. Of course he’s no expert. But he could see, with his own eyes, that the meaning of these images would never be exhausted, knew that his emotional response to them would be fresh every time.”

So if that is the case and the new and apparently more popular mediums of TV and film are equally engaging and important, why is there so much emphasis placed on Reading? Why do adults bemoan all those hours their kids spend watching TV and playing video games? Is it just the result of cultural snobbery – books are an older medium and therefore automatically have more value and importance? Or is there something qualitatively different about the reading experience?

As far as I can see – and I believe this is what Pennac was trying to explain – the difference between reading and watching something on a screen is that reading can be shared in an incredibly intimate way – namely by one person reading the book out loud to an audience of perhaps one person, maybe more. This act of love (for no one wastes precious time and energy on reading to someone if they don’t truly care for them) is something that many children experience from a very early age. The sheer joy of hearing your favourite stories straight from the lips of a loving parent (or carer) and knowing that this time is just for you and them is what creates that atmosphere of intimacy which makes bedtime stories so special. And, as Pennac so beautifully puts it, stories give us freedom. They provide us with a respite, however brief, from our daily struggles and allow us to escape for a short time into another world. Through reading, we liberate the characters on the page and allow them to live out their lives in our heads. And in turn, we ourselves are set free. Children need this outlet just as much as adults do – particularly when they start school and are faced with the quite staggering challenge of learning the Three R’s – reading, writing and ‘rithmetic – along with making friends and obeying school rules and all the other trials and tribulations involved with their absorption into the educational system. And that’s even before mentioning such problems as marital discord, sibling disputes or illness.

Of course, one could argue that films and TV also act as a form of escapism and they would be perfectly right to do so. We must look a bit closer at the act of reading itself to explain why reading a book is slightly different. As Pennac observes:

“…Reading is ultimately a retreat into silence.”

We can discuss the books we’ve read with others, we can read extracts out, or even the whole book, if we choose. But the connection between the reader and the author is ultimately very private and personal. Reading is an activity that requires solitude and the time to build that relationship with the author, to enter the world they have built for you and explore it fully.

“Time to read is always time stolen….from what? From the tyranny of living.”

So why do some people find reading so difficult? One might as well ask why anyone might find it difficult to read something. No matter how voracious a reader you might be, you will still encounter books that are too long, too dull, too intellectual, too silly – books that, for whatever reason, failed to grab your attention. Books that seemed too confusing or books that you were afraid to even try because they seemed far too complicated and difficult. The fear of not understanding is a huge barrier to reading. And, as Pennac so astutely observes, books are looooooooooooooong. They have so many pages, so densely packed with words and that mass of black marks on white paper stretching endlessly away can be completely overwhelming, especially for those who may not be quite so confident in their reading skills.

When does reading become a burden, something unrewarding and unfulfilling? Perhaps when the bedtime story becomes a chore for parents who (quite naturally) want those precious minutes back at the end of the day or maybe when children – who were initially thrilled with the independence that learning to read gave them – start to feel overwhelmed by the huge amount of effort it now takes for them to absorb a story on their own, without help or guidance. It might be that literacy was not particularly well taught in their school, or by their teacher. Possibly they didn’t receive any reading support at home from parents or carers…they might even be dyslexic or have another form of learning difficulty.

So how do we help people fall in love with reading again when they have become so disillusioned – betrayed, even, by the written word? Daniel Pennac suggests that the key to helping children to read is to awaken the desire to read, but admits that this may not necessarily solve all problems. His method, when working with teenagers who are perceived as “failures” and have, for whatever reasons, not attained the results expected of them, is to read aloud to them. He insists that presenting books like this – not watered down, abridged or even given much in the way of introduction – just letting them experience the books as they were written, letting the story unfold naturally, waiting for that curiosity to awaken inside them – what happens next, who are these people, when is the story set? He perceives the teacher’s role as that of matchmaker, gently introducing his students to literature, showing them its joys and wonders and then watching and waiting while they slowly fall in love with reading again and race to finish the book themselves before the teacher has got to the end of it in class. I’m not sure how easy this would be for most teachers to implement – as Pennac himself says, there is a certain skill in reading aloud, of not putting too much of yourself in the reading and just letting the author’s voice shine through in the way you say the words. Facial expression, tone and enunciation are all very important when reading aloud – it isn’t acting, exactly, but something close to it. In order to “make a gift of your treasures” you need to have a thorough knowledge and understanding of the story and the characters – and be able to convey that with passion and enthusiasm to a class of perhaps twenty or thirty students. No easy task.

But the magic that he describes when it does happen, when the connection is made, something clicks and the students really do fall in love with reading again – that, I can imagine, makes every little bit of effort all worthwhile.

However, as Pennac points out, it is important above all to remember that everyone has the right to NOT read. And if someone chooses not to read, this does not make them any less intelligent or compassionate than those who love reading. When a particular activity is held up as somehow more morally right and as having more worth than another activity, inevitably the joy and delight in that activity will diminish (particularly among those who want to be seen as cool and rebellious). The most important thing is that people are free to choose whether or not to read. The worst-case scenario is not someone deciding that they can live without books. It is someone being isolated from books because they have never been given the opportunity to fall in love with reading.


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