Being British

I’ve never been one for patriotism or national pride, because it strikes me that nationality is really just an accident of birth (and birth itself is more often an accident than most people would probably care to admit – even pregnancies which weren’t merely the unwanted side-effects of leisure activities often turn out to be regrettable mistakes in later life: a point to which I’m quite sure my own parents would readily testify).

Nonetheless, people often seem to have an unwarranted affinity for things which they consider to be national institutions, and thus many companies which trade in the UK have seen fit to bolt the word “British” onto their names. Obviously, some of these are or used to be nationalised industries: the British Broadcasting Corporation is still wholly British; British Sky Broadcasting has not long since resisted a hostile Australian takeover bid, and British Leyland is now long defunct.

Of the remainder, a great many appear to be British in name alone. To illustrate my point: British Petroleum has eighty-five subsidiaries in tax havens, British American Tobacco has forty-one subsidiaries in tax havens, The Royal Bank of Scotland (trading under both Royal and the name of a British colony) shelters from tax through one hundred and twenty-one subsidiaries, and Lloyds TSB (which used to be part nationalised and incorporates the Bank of Scotland) has one hundred and thirty-five offshore tax-dodging operations.

From my minimal investigations (because this stuff really does get quite boring pretty fast), British Gas, British Telecom, British Airways, British Nuclear Fuels and British Aerospace do still appear to pay the bulk of their tax in the UK – although, given the tax breaks and public subsidies which some of them receive, I guess that might be hard for them to avoid.

Then there’s the British Transport Police. Obviously, they’re still state-run, and thus in the pockets of the establishment, for nothing else could explain why they haven’t yet made any arrests of our past or present transport ministers, not to mention the directors of many of the privatised train operating companies. Of course, it is possible that I’m misunderstanding their role…

Another company still trading on public loyalties is the National Health Service. That name won’t be able to hold credence for very much longer, though: as privatisation bites, it will no longer be national or focused on health. Nor a service, for that matter.

As for celebrities, don’t even start me on Benjamin Britten or the somehow Swedish Britt Ekland. [And where in the hell is Ekland, anyway?]

By far the worst offender of all, to my mind, was British Home Stores, which wasn’t even based in Britain for tax purposes. Sir Philip Green (presumably knighted for his contribution to avoidance of contributions) nonetheless somehow managed to become a government advisor, despite routing all of his companies through his wife, who is a tax-exile resident in Monaco.

I am of the opinion that, if a body wishes to trade under a national association, then it ought to pay tax in that country. This would at least show some allegiance to the nation which it purports to represent. Which brings me somewhat clunkily to political movements.

First of these which I wish to address is the English Defence League. Pah! Never mind their politics, I’ve seen their placards: most of them can’t even spell or punctuate properly. I think I’d rather leave the defence of English to schoolteachers, thank-you very much.

My particular objection, though, is that the British National Party uses the word British in their name. This is especially wrong, I feel, because it suggests that they are in some way representative of the British people when, in truth, their membership consists almost exclusively of small-minded, unintelligent, minimally-educated, ill-informed and bigoted racists… Oh, hang on a moment, I think I get it now.

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The First Cut

As recent news stories have highlighted, female genital mutilation is a disturbingly common evil which needs to be urgently eradicated. It is, quite simply, a heinous abuse committed by those entrusted with a child’s care and protection. In truth, however, we must go further than merely ending that practice: all genital mutilation needs to be stopped.

Circumcision, as we euphemistically term the genital mutilation of boys – and, make no mistake, mutilation is what it is – is inexplicably tolerated by society, but it is also an egregious wrong performed on a child, and the acceptance of that practice normalises the act of genital mutilation upon children. Both procedures hark back to a time when sexual pleasure amongst all ages was considered to be sinful – an idea espoused only by puritanical zealots. Such dark-ages thinking has no place in modern society and it ought to be consigned to the history books.

As to those who will no doubt claim that the performance of these archaic rituals is demanded by their belief system: religion has its place, but that place should not be cowering in guilt, shame and fear but in celebrating life and the perfection of creation. The butchering of children should be no part of it.

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News Review – a cockeyed look at the week that was

Blowhard Boris

At the start of the week Boris Johnson tweeted “Crumbling Corbyn betrays Leave voters”. What Boris seemingly fails to understand is that our political representatives are tasked with looking after the interests of our nation and its citizens – a concept which, admittedly, does appear to be somewhat alien to the tousle-haired one. Democracy can be fallible, as has been clearly demonstrated in recent history by the election of Donald Trump as US President, the near-naming of the UK’s polar research ship as Boaty McBoatface, and the aforementioned Mr Johnson having being elected Mayor of London. Twice. As it goes, the best interests of our trading nation might well be better served by remaining in a customs union with the EU after Brexit, in which case the true betrayal would surely be to leave without even considering that option.

Besides, were Boris Johnson genuinely concerned about politicians not “betraying” British citizens then perhaps he ought to be acting more conscientiously to ensure the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British citizen who continues to languish in an Iranian prison while her baby daughter Gabriella has spent the last 23 months without her mother. That’s the sort of thing a Foreign Secretary is supposed to be doing with his time, not concentrating all of his efforts on a stealth leadership campaign.

Notwithstanding that, Boris Johnson went on to argue that the UK had to come out of the customs union in order to be able to do free trade details because, in his words, “You can’t suck and blow at once.” Perhaps not, but he certainly seems to be giving it his best shot…

At Least they’d be Useful…

Also this week, in the Right’s latest round of increasingly fevered attacks, Liam Fox described Jeremy Corbyn and his fellow left-wingers as being “useful idiots”. Not a great commendation, I’ll grant you, but it still sounded like an outright admission that Labour would be able to form a more capable administration that the current incumbents.

Meanwhile, members of the public keep complaining that our government doesn’t seem to be committed to representing the British people in Brexit negotiations, despite the fact that David Davis, Michael Gove and Liam Fox reveal themselves to be hopeless, half-witted numpties at every turn…

Last week, you might recall, David Davis said that Brexit Britain won’t turn out to be anything like Mad Max. That’s a real shame because, given the paltry talent and ability on offer from the Brexit trio, not to mention the rest of the Cabinet, we most certainly do need another hero.

Charity Begins at Home

In response to allegations that those entrusted to provide vital help had abused their positions in order to take sexual advantage of those suffering hardship, the Conservatives have pledged to stop funding external organisations, preferring to “set up our own systems now.” Could it be that, after decades of dogma-driven outsourcing, the Tories have finally found something that they reckon they would prefer to do in-house?

Hairs and Graces

Politics aside, the story last week of the Great Yarmouth school which banned the haircut ‘Meet me at McDonald’s’ (a grade zero or one on the sides, then disconnected with a perm or curly on the top, set sitting forwards) inspired me to pick a name for my own follicle stylings. I have a grade one on the sides, then disconnected with virtually nothing remaining on top but for a tiny remnant of hair sitting forwards, which will henceforth be known as a ‘Meet me at KFC’

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Children in Headscarves

Fatima Laiba Aftab wrote a most eloquent and persuasive letter in the Evening Standard recently defending girls’ freedom to wear the hijab:

Girls should be free to wear the hijab

 I AM 10 and go to a primary school in London. I am so disappointed by the news about schools not allowing young girls to wear the hijab. I do not wear a headscarf at my Christian school but some of my friends choose to do so and the school has no problems with this.

I wear the headscarf when I go to the mosque but I know my religion does not teach me to wear one yet. I feel sorry for my friends who want to wear a scarf but aren’t allowed.

At school we are taught not to force our views or opinions onto others, so why are they doing this? It is so confusing and distressing.

School should be a happy place where we can learn, make new friends and respect each other. It looks like this is not true for religious people, especially Muslims, who keep getting targeted.

My friends and I do our best at school, help our teachers, raise money for charity and are good to people. This is what our religion, Islam, teaches us. Believing in a religion or wearing a scarf does mean that I am an extremist.

She’s quite right, it should not be banned – what kind of a society would we be if we started to legislate on the clothing that people were permitted to wear? – but there is nothing wrong with encouraging young girls to question the appropriateness of the garb. I have seen a number of letters and articles in various publications claiming that children under eleven years of age should not be encouraged to defy their parents’ beliefs, but the truth of the matter is that this is precisely when it is most crucial to reach out to children: while they still have questioning minds and before social conditioning can be indoctrinated into them.

[Incidentally, this latter-day insistence that parents always know best and that we shouldn’t suggest otherwise for fear of causing offence is quite simply, and entirely demonstrably, wrong. The primary focus of teachers and of society as a whole ought to be protecting the interests and wellbeing of children, not tiptoeing around their parents’ sensitivities. Teaching is a skill and a calling; anybody can have kids – hell, Fred West had five.]

The wearing of the hijab, or of any kind of covering, is not a symbol of devotion or of modesty but one of oppression. The idea that women ought to hide themselves away from the world has nothing whatsoever to do with religion – it is not mentioned in the Koran or in any holy book anywhere – and, unless we are to presume that God is ashamed of half of creation, there can be no justification for it.

Resenting women taking pleasure in their appearance is the start of a road that leads to indignant disapproval of them enjoying sex, and it’s a path that is abundantly adorned with the victims of acid attacks and of female genital mutilation. Dressing for “modesty” has nothing to do with god or divinity and everything to do with men suffering feelings of inadequacy and jealousy.

The wearing of a veil is solely symptomatic of the engrained societal subjugation of women. Allowing young girls to be made to feel ashamed of their appearance is wholly wrong, and their covering themselves up is a retrograde step that is pressed upon them – a step that should be resisted most strongly. The imposition of inequality should never be regarded as a cultural issue: equality is a fundamental right and anyone who believes differently is, quite simply, wrong.

So did we ought to question primary schoolgirls about their wearing of headscarves? I’d say absolutely we should! Education is about teaching our offspring to question and challenge boundaries, not wrapping them in the ignorance of ages. Our children are our future – we need to let them choose their own paths and we need to impress upon them that they go on their way in the world as equals.

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Boris Johnson’s Vaulting Ambition

With his nakedly populist demands for more money for the NHS (with no source specified this time, in contrast to 350 million previous untruths), Boris Johnson has once again exposed himself as being a shameless blaggard. Surely nobody can now continue to regard him as a serious politician, given that he is quite evidently unable to apply himself meaningfully to any role (his manifest neglect of his duties as Foreign Secretary in the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe being a case in point).

Boris is self-serving, duplicitous and untrustworthy: nothing that comes out of his mouth seems to serve any purpose beyond that of self-promotion and yet, despite the truth of this being abundantly clear to all, it is quite apparent that this self-styled court jester still harbours ambitions of leadership.

I wonder if he’s considered joining UKIP…

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A New Hope?

We are living in an age in which we have had to adopt industrial farming techniques in order to sustain the diets of our burgeoning human population (resulting both in over-cultivation of the land and some dubious-at-best standards of animal welfare); an age in which our oceans are being flooded with litter and pollutants while our atmosphere is being choked with fumes; an age in which we are once again contemplating resorting to building on our precious green belts in order to accommodate our swelling (and swollen) numbers. Perhaps, in light of this, we ought to see recently reported falling male fertility rates as a good thing. The plain truth is that the survival of our species – and, indeed, our planet – may well depend upon this natural correction. Life is a fragile gift that we have taken for granted for far too long.

[Besides, a shrinking population is only really bad news for an economy that has become overly reliant upon a steady stream of cheap labour to supply the short-sighted capitalist model of continuously expanding markets, which is effectively a pyramid scheme. We would do well to remember that pyramids have only ever ended one way: entombing the wasted wealth of dead civilisations.]

Indeed, I would contend that we should see the forthcoming drop in birth rates as a fresh opportunity for humankind: the dawning of a new, post-industrial age in which we can aspire to develop a Utopian, peaceful society capable of stretching to greater accomplishments, freed from the need to compete with each other for diminishing resources and space – an age of art, exploration and invention: one in which we can leave a genuinely positive mark on the world, rather than just relying on our progeny to be our legacy.

After all, realistically, what other alternative do we have?

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A Trick of the Mind

I’ve been writing this for some time and kinda getting around to posting it, but it kept slipping my mind – for reasons that may become apparent. There’s a very good chance that there are gaps in the account below. Don’t bother asking me about them.

Jan 26th 2014:
I woke up this morning and couldn’t remember what day it was. Or what month or year. I also couldn’t remember yesterday at all. I’ve had bits of it recounted to me by my wife but I still don’t have anything like a memory of any of it.

Everything was apparently fine until early Saturday afternoon in Tesco when I was emptying the shopping onto the conveyor belt and I just stopped while bent over the trolley. After a moment I stood up and a customer at the next till caught me as I was about to fall over. Staff got me a chair and, after five minutes, I asked why I was sitting down, stood up and finished at the till.

I loaded the car, drove home, watched TV and ate a curry, I’m told, but I was a bit of a zombie. No memory. It seems that I forgot I’d quit smoking and I wasn’t sure if my parents were still alive (they are).

Early July 2014:
One week before my holiday in a hostel in Athens (which was NOT as described!), I was emptying stuff from the trolley onto the conveyor belt in Tesco (notice the common theme here?) and the next thing I knew I was sat in the back of an ambulance-car on the way to hospital. Apparently I hadn’t passed out this time but I had been spaced-out and was talking nonsense and muttering something about Davros (Tom Baker era Doctor Who) and I was clearly disconnected.

I spent all afternoon in hospital feeling very vague while they ran various tests including further blood tests. Nothing came up. Disturbingly, I couldn’t remember lots of recent history (like having changed jobs in January).

At six forty-five I was released and I got a cab back to Tesco with my wife (who’d been with me all afternoon), picked up the shopping (which had been stored in a trolley fridge!) and went home.

Late July 2014:
I woke up on a Wednesday with no memory of where I worked or who I worked with, which was decidedly odd. I checked my emails in order to refresh my memory of the company and then I started to walk to the train, during which time I recalled where the office was situated and who my colleagues were.

Sept 18th 2014:
Yesterday I completed a series of cardiology tests (24-hour heart monitor, twice, ECG, other stuff) and nothing appears to be wrong with my heart – which is great news, because who ever dies of a brain attack? Next up, neurological tests in a month.

Dec 2014:
Right, well, I’ve had the results of my heart and brain scans and apparently they were unable to find anything (no surprise there, some might say). The best guess seems to be that I suffered incidents of transient global amnesia, for which there is no known cause or cure but at least it’s got a name.
http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/1160964-overview
http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/transient-global-amnesia/basics/definition/CON-20032746
http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/transient-global-amnesia/basics/symptoms/CON-20032746
Arguably this is better than a stroke or a seizure but it has now happened to me five times in just over a year. It’s quite terrifying while it’s happening. It might have been caused by stress. Anyway, it’s been fine for several months now and there’s nothing else that they can test for so that appears to be that. On the upside, I’ve been thoroughly tested and my heart and brain seem to be fine; on the downside, I’m now all out of excuses…

Dec 21st 2014
Damn, I’ve just woken up like this again. I was fine all day yesterday but when I woke up this morning I couldn’t remember the day or the month or that I’d changed jobs (again). I still have no memory of where I work even as I type this. Frankly, it’s terrifying – but what can I do? They’ve given me scans and run all the tests and found nothing. I’m fine again now, by the way – it only lasted for a couple of hours.

So anyway, having suffered the fourth of my deeply-unsettling episodes, I thought to myself: “You know what? A night without any alcohol probably wouldn’t do me any harm at all.”
Then again, why take the risk? [Shortly after this, I did actually stop drinking on work nights. It’s done nothing for my memory but has done wonders for my body weight. Having also quit smoking several years ago, I now have so few vices that sometimes I wonder if any of this is even worth the bother.]

5th Dec 2015
That’s a bit of a downer: my last “incident” of waking up with no memory was July 31st (undocumented here but insignificant, so far as I recall) so I had rather hoped that it was all over – and then I had it again this morning. Still, that’s over four months, so they’re certainly getting further apart. The worst thing about it now is the crushing sense of disappointment that I suffer as all the details of my life gradually come back to me.

11th January 2016
And again today – which is a lot closer together again. The weird thing is that, as the episode passes, over the next few days I’ll get memories popping into my head that I haven’t recalled for years, and they’ll be really vivid – almost as though I’ve been revitalised as a direct consequence of the incident. On the other hand, I do seem to struggle during this period to form any new memories or learn new processes, and I also forget the names of colleagues. It’s as if my memory is fragmented. There are a few areas of my memory which I have no recollection of but which I can be prompted into: someone will begin to relate an incident to me and, while I cannot remember the event itself, I can recall the anecdote, as though it had been related to me rather than being my own. Watching TV, I will forget who characters are between scenes and often have no recollection of what the plot is. I have largely given up trying to read books for the same reason. Occasionally I find myself getting confused over simple things and I have a quick temper as a consequence of this. I forget big things, too: the other night my wife was talking to me about the holiday we had in Yorkshire and I couldn’t remember ever going there. I checked for photos on my PC and there were dozens. We went in 2013 – less than three years ago. I recognise the images but they don’t feel like my memories.

Obviously I have mentioned this to a few colleagues, in case an episode occurs while I am at work but, perhaps surprisingly, the issue has never arisen in the office. Indeed, the incidents all seem to have happened in situations which demand little or no attention, when I have effectively been mentally parked – although both supermarket episodes occurred after I had spent a couple of hours exercising in the gym.

20th March Ultrasounds appointment.

23rd May Neurology appointment.

4th June 2016
I was given a second MRI to see if there were any differences from my December 2014 scan. I’ll get the results when I get back from holiday.

13th June 2016
I woke with no memory while on holiday in Madeira. “This isn’t our bedroom! Where are we? Where am I?” Once again, somewhat unsettling since I had no idea where I was. Luckily the missus was able to set me straight and I was back to what passes for normal quite quickly.

18th June 2016
Results:
“The gentleman’s repeat MR brain scan showed no significant abnormalities.”
No significant abnormalities? Well, ain’t that rubbing salt in the wound! Presumably this might relate to the damage I suffered in my teens (when I was run over and suffered a fractured skull, resulting in a twenty-five day coma and then had to learn to speak again. Yes, I know: what a mistake that was!).

18th July 2016
Blood taken to test for neurosyphilis (who knew?). Some of the symptoms are: abnormal gait, sudden personality changes, changes in mental stability, dementia, depression, irritability, memory problems, mood disturbances, poor concentration. Yeah, I know, I know…

21st July 2016
Woke up in the night and my wife wasn’t with me (she was away, visiting family) so I searched the house for her. Twice. When I woke properly, this was followed by a significant memory episode and a day in which I was, once again, virtually unable to form any new memories. For a couple of days afterwards, I notice – not for the first time – I have a significantly heightened sense of smell.

12th September 2016
Another episode. “Fortunately, transient global amnesia is rare, seemingly harmless and unlikely to happen again. Episodes are usually short-lived, and afterward your memory is fine.” Pah.

You might think the worst thing about TGA is feeling utterly displaced in the world, with no sense of the present or my place in it, but actually it’s the crushing disappointment as the reality of who I am and where I am are revealed to me afresh.

29th January 2017 Woke with no memory. Eleventh episode in three years. And my memory has holes in it but when I ask people questions they just ridicule me so I sit stewing and I withdraw from communication and start to despise everyone around me. Maybe trying to look on the funny side should help but all I’m feeling is isolated.
Curiously, just recently I’ve been getting long-ago memories popping-up fresh in my mind again, so now it seems that they’re a prelude (rather than a postlude) to the event.

1st April 2017
Well, it seems that my brain at least has a sense of humour, deciding to screw with me on All Fools’ Day. I woke up feeling displaced from time, unaware of the year or my age or my job (but at least it was on the weekend this time) or my place in the world. Once again, I struggled to form new memories during the day – though I went to see a play in the evening which I can recollect just fine). Because I am, at least, always able to recognise these incidents now, I am also able to explain to people that my behaviour may seem a little out of sorts because of the phenomenon that I am experiencing. Alas, by the next day (which is when I am writing this), I have no recollection of who these people were. I suspect that it may have been an inappropriate level of over-sharing (although that’s actually quite normal for me anyway – mental conditions really are wasted on me, I swear).
I noticed, once again, a strange chemical smell seemed to pervade everything – and I haven’t had any chemicals up my nose for years now*. [* footnote to parental units: this references the industrial cleaning job I had at Waldens in the summer of ‘86] Additionally, I seem to be very emotionally laid bare; certainly I don’t recall ever crying while watching Superman before – not even back in 1978.

30th April 2017
And today I woke with it again. I’ve been ill for a few days, which didn’t help, but I awoke with no idea of where I work or who with. Or the date, or the year. The thing about it is, it actually seems quite trivial in retrospect – I imagine that reading it is getting quite tedious – but I can envisage how this is going to leave me neglected in a home at some point, patching together seemingly random, disconnected days while waiting for death. On the other hand, this is the thirteenth episode but I haven’t bothered reporting them since last summer because each one seems less severe. Once again I note that I am emotionally fragile – especially as, looking back, I recall how everything once seemed possible and now I can see how that’s worked out.
There used to be hope. That’s what I miss about being young: the belief that there was another world out there to be discovered. I suppose that’s how religion works too: allowing people to believe in possibilities. I miss the illusions. Without that pretence, there’s nothing.

1st July 2017
I’ve decided to post this now because I haven’t had an episode in absolutely ages. Except I have, of course: it’s just that I didn’t recall that until I re-read the whole blog just now. Whatever, I’m done with sitting on it.

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Theresa May’s Claim to British Values

Theresa May got a lot of praise for her speech in response to Wednesday’s terror attack, and rightly so. In that speech, she stated that “democracy – and the values it entails – will always prevail. Those values – free speech, liberty, human rights and the rule of law – are embodied here in this place, but they are shared by free people around the world.” Quite right. Never were truer words spoken.

However…

Perhaps I’m being over-simplistic here but it strikes me that a lot of those values have been under sustained attack by those specifically entrusted with their protection: our elected government. This has been attempted under the guise of Ms May’s own notorious Snoopers’ Charter, which can most certainly be seen as a threat to free speech; in her party’s continued insistence that Britain withdraws from the European Convention on Human Rights; and, most recently, in the shameful challenge that Brexiteers mounted against the Supreme Court’s ruling that Parliament was entitled to a vote on the implementation of Article 50 – a ruling which protected the proper parliamentary process and a challenge which therefore posed a threat both to democracy and to the rule of law.

Let us hope that, in response to this week’s attack, the Conservative government has now determined to uphold these cherished values upon which our British sense of honour and justice is founded.

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Free School Farce

So it seems that, in the face of continuing austerity and deepening cuts to public spending, Philip Hammond has managed to find hundreds of millions of pounds to splurge on Theresa May’s pet project: free schools. One of the supposed freedoms which these schools enjoy is that they don’t have to follow the national curriculum, although quite what purpose that serves is anybody’s guess. I cannot imagine how it could be in the best interests of the pupils – unless the national curriculum is not fit for purpose, in which case I would suggest that it is in urgent need of review.

These free schools can be set up and run by independent (which is to say, private) schools or by people who really know what they’re doing, like parents or faith groups – because, in the Brexit age, everybody’s had enough of experts.

What free schools truly represent is the channelling of public money into the Tories’ cherished private sector, and their propagation contributes to the further undermining (and under-funding) of state education. Free schools are purportedly not-for-profit but that merely means that they are run as charities, which is the same outrageous tax-avoidance scam that schools in the private sector have been pulling for years. Tax free schools. Indeed, since free schools are also able to set their own pay and conditions, there can be little doubt that this programme is about little more than the creeping privatisation of state education by the back door.

As ever, the Conservative vision of a small state serves only to lead to a widening of the divisions in society – and yet somehow it always ends up being subsidised by the taxes paid by ordinary working people.

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The Great British…

Now that the BBC is set to lose The Great British Bake Off, I thought the time might be ripe to propose a slight variation to the format. As it happens, I have an idea for a programme featuring the competitive making of traditional Jamaican chicken and pork dishes, ideally to be hosted by that Boris Johnson fellow.

Unfortunately, I’m rather stuck for a title. I wonder if anyone might be able to suggest something apt…

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