Decoding the New (s) / Medway Free Skool

This was my first workshop as part of Medway Free Skool, which came about after several conversations with Phil Kane re community education and in particular horizontal learning and anarchist free skool / university projects. Phil had been put in touch with the people from AntiUniversity Now, who were look for people interested in running activites, workshops and experiments between the 9th and 12th June. Most of the activities happen in London and we thought it would be fun to add a bit of a Medway Fringe.

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On Thursday Phil put together Local Culture – A Symposium, which took place at Poco Loco, involving some beers, games, speed debating and interesting conversations about culture and cultural activities in the towns.

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Continuing frustration with the quality of journalism, and in particular the tendancy for sensationalised media that stirs up hatred, rather than reporting the facts to constructively inform people inspired me to put something together to examine this problem, this Decoding the New(s)

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I didn’t want it to be just another stodgy lecture and debate about the subject, especially as some of the inevitable conclusions, when facing the monolithic power of corporate news, can be quite depressing. Instead, I wanted to leave people feeling a bit more empowered to deal with all the pressures and negativity. I split the workshop between an open discussion, looking at stories picked from the days papers and a pleasantly disrespecful bit of cut up art / ad busting. Taking the headlines apart and rearranging them to undermine and change the original meanings. This is nothing new, but its always a lot of fun and the results can be quite cathartic.

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I arrived at Rochester Library somewhat nervous of what to expect. Being a new thing, Medway Free Skool isn’t massively well known, and despite a lot of interest, the Facebook event and a couple of Eventbrite bookings, I realised there was a high chance of me spending my afternoon on my own reading the papers. Fortunately, I love libraries and would have been completely ok with this. As it turned out I was soon joined by my first two participants, who had booked on Eventbrite. We dove straight into discussing some of the days stories and the inevitable subjects of bias, omission and the predjudices of various publications.

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It is impossible to read a paper at the moment without wading through the whole Brexit thing, with what seems to have become a competition to see who can write the most offensive or fear mongering article. It was interesting to see the efforts the Mail went to in order to bring a story about football violence in Marseilles round to Brexit, but at least they seemed to condemn it. The Sun seemed postively chipper about what they made sound like a nice little a punch up in the park with their headline ‘Biere we go’.  Their background imagary of St George’s flags and people enjoying themselves almost seemed to celebrate the clashes.

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During one of these conversations we were joined by a library member who only approached because he was after a copy of the Times. We offered for him to join us, but he declined, preferring a private read. However, after a few minutes of listening in, he was clearly gripped and joined us at the table for the rest of the event. This is the real sucess of holding events in public places like libraries, people outside your normal networks get to find out and join the conversation and as we weren’t exactly quiet, plenty more will have heard our conversations, which may have been good or bad for them. Personally, I welcome the livelier approach libraries are taking, but do recognise the need for quiet spaces sometimes.

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One thing that has caused me a lot of reflection this weekend (especially after attending other events with AntiUniversity) is my position leading workshops like this as a white, British, straight male, who lives a fairly middle class lifestyle, despite pretty much working class roots. I haven’t felt this more keenly than at the Strike! magazine party on Saturday night, with posters declaring white, middle class men ruin 1000% of everything, accompanied by performances backing this up. The simplistic instinct is to complain about this, because its not how I feel. I recognise the priviliges I have been born with and see the harm that has been caused, but I also see the harm and stupidity of arguing the ‘but we aren’t all like that’ case. Reflecting on my own potential for real and cultural violence isn’t meant to be fun, more a reminder to keep my priviliges in check.

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I also highlight this because all the other Decoding the New(s) participants were from ethnic minority backgrounds, and I would prefer to recognise this difference, rather than pretend to be colourblind and not think about my own advantages and predjudices. In this instance, difference opened up conversation, we discussed experiences of Ramadan, with all its struggles, its positivity as a discipline and mark of faith, as well as covering the media and subjects like the relationship between immigration and Brexit. We talked about the demonisation of Islam in western culture and particularly how this is effecting young Muslims in Britain, how incidents and negative issues are increasingly generalised to a whole religion and culture, especially when a scapegoat is needed. In the case of the child sexual exploitation cases in Rotherham, for instance, it is worth asking to what degree clearly un-Islamic acts might be more associated with mysogynistic gang cultures than the religion of disseffected young men from deprived communities. Race or religion corellating more with deprivation as a result of inequality than belief systems.

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We also talked about the tendancy to homogenise groups of people, applying the same characteristics to all members of a race or religion, despite how a brief examination of the diversity of opinion within our own communities shows how ridiculous this is. This being as true whether it’s white people assuming all Muslims support ISIS or Muslims assuming all Jews are Zionists. The main result of all this is hatred and division. When the mainstream media works so hard at achieving this, its only sensible to question their motives and what they (as large businesses) get for their trouble.

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The internet has a key role in how we receive news and opinions. It enables wider and more international conversations than ever before possible. Yet the act of communicating online can also dehumanise and political or philosophical debate can quickly fall into name calling and abuse. When put in a room together people have far greater potential for listening and respectful communication; it is much easier to consider someones feelings when you can see what is happening on their face. I think this is the beauty and power of events like this. As consumers, on social media we talk in our closed groups, confirming our existing beliefs, bias and predjudice, but when people with no other connection are brought together they create new possibilities to listen, learn and understand and maybe even make change.

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After all the serious conversation, we got down to the fun of destroying the headlines and making our own. Everyone took a different approach, whether continuing with analysis, cutting up and using individual words or juxterposing larger chunks of text with contrasting or ridiculous images. I had wondered whether this approach would work or if it might be too odd, but it turned into something quite exciting, full of laughter and occupying us all for the remaining 3 hours!

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Medway Free Skool hopes to continue running events throughout the year. I will definitely be running some more, but more importantly we are looking for others who would be interested in putting together an experiment, workshop, activity or similar that we would happily help promote and organise. If enough people get involved this has the potential to be something quite special and benefit anyone who gets involved. The main criteria are that any events should attempt to be inclusive, celebrate participative approaches to education and run in line with anti-discriminatory practice. Activities could be anything from serious philosophical or political debate to radical hat making or the science of cheese, you don’t have to be an expert teacher, just have an interest in sharing your passion or starting a conversation. Contact us on the Facebook page or email: roy_smith@hotmail.co.uk to express interest.

Block the sun

I block the sun for no good reason,
not to hide scars or distract from suffering,
but perhaps, dodging it’s glare has become a sport.
Avoiding hope and all the trouble it can bring,
when every day is everyday.
Shielded under a blanket of gloom,
imagining macabre happenings rule my life,
I dream.

And so protected from the savage storm,
I face a gentle breeze, and thrive.
Romanticising destruction,
holding the end of days dear.
Painting a fearful vision of worse to come,
my imagination tumbles, so don’t have to.

In the rueful wake of my own becoming,
I wonder what might lie off this path?
In fields of green and joyous moments,
searching for beauty instead of pain,
might there be a truth worth finding,
through gentler pursuits, on a lighter page?

Yet I wander in the woods, still creeping,
disaster ever close behind,
hoping for a blast of thunder,
quaking in the candlelight.
In the darkness, bright lit moments,
catch my ever skulking eye,
begging to be brought to surface,
and pull others to the shadow side.

Savor #280415 On the sofas of my lethargy*

  
My parent’s had three sofas when I was little.
I lay on them all, sat and slept,
but on none as well as the first.
Made from rough cord, mixing blacks and browns and greys,
it softened with age, and the stains of childhood incontinence.
It was my sick bed, my fort,
and the platform from where I explored imagined realities and television dreams.
I do not remember its demise, 
but hated its replacement’s dark mauve pretensions of style over comfort,
trimmed with a mahogany rim, 
to knock my shins;
I broke its arms.
There were correct ways to sit, not lay, but we found ways round,
kicked out against the change and eventually murdered the interloper.
The later, flowery one was harder to despise,
more cushioned than its predecessors, but wrapped in rougher stuff,
with room to stretch, but it was somehow harder than the rest.
We were drifting away by then,
into our rooms and off to other places,
to sofas unknown,
still, it held me through some early hang-overs,
and was not unkind.
I write this sprawled out on my own settee,
having slept, sick for a second night,
I feel it softening, shaping to suit my bulk.
Black and grey cord-like material stretching over stylised bones,
smelling faintly of my dog,
it is probably half ruined,
just the way I like them.
*Supergrass (1995)

Savor #150415 Deluge

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Droplets form, clinging to my chest,
as white noise surrounds me, sunlight cuts through the thin plastic curtain,
that shields me from the rest of the day.
Noticing a thin smear of purple gel,
I rinse it down into the tray, and with a wave of my hand it is gone.
Water covers my eyes,
dribbling past my mouth, and soaking my beard,
its cold touch on my chin, will be the final sign,
a saved memory.
I stand still for a moment.
Breathing slowly as the last slicks of soap drain,
my toes curling on the hard wet ground.
They attempt to grow roots that would crack through this shell,
and finding succour in the earth below,
leave me rested, content and perpetually fed.
Branches reaching out through the crumbling mortar to taste the heat,
I press the button and it is all gone.

Rant #140415 ‘The Real People’

  
He says he’s working for ‘the real’ people.
Well that’s me fucked then.
I am a robot,
a symbiant,
a withered apparition,
the collective expression of other people’s ideas,
jammed into a man shaped hole and trapped there.
I am the product of a system,
and he would not like to meet me.
There might be discussion,
or disagreement,
I might offend his religious devotion to a set of ideas,
to the principles of his private club,
set up for ‘the real people’,
the ones who agree,
who play nice,
who appreciate his practiced smile.
They flock around and their saviour,
scrape and bow,
until something changes,
and they are not ‘real people’,
or he finds himself less ‘real’,
exposing the lizard within,
hidden inhumanity tends to frighten the electorate,
so best keep that skin suit zipped mate,
and don’t look too deeply into their eyes,
or they may see the monster inside.
I am happy in my tin,
insulated,
distant,
immune to the disease of ‘the real people’.
I am no longer flesh and bone, waiting to be ground,
I see,
I think,
I feel,
but I will never be ‘real’.

Rant #110415 Bin Raiders

  
I read an article in the local news.
It made ME mad, but I’m dimly aware I ought to be.
Anger is the appropriate reaction to the state of things.
Anger brewed slowly in the mind,
anger at the twisted truth,
anger created to inspire hate.
Plucking at emotions, at people’s dreams of Shangri-La,
to feed their fears with the visions of usurping hoards.
Those who batter down YOUR door, and take what’s YOURS, 
so YOU will have to pay for them to rise.
YOU will be small, as they pick through what you’ve thrown away,
they will crawl through mountains of YOUR shit to steal YOUR gold.
YOU say there is nothing you can say,
that YOU are gagged by rules to which you never subscribed. 
Did you sleep as we became more civilised?
Or did YOU benefit from the opportunities, as the ladder burned beneath?
But it is ok to be angry,
it’s good to be angry,
it’s right to be angry,
but don’t forget to think.
When I think of a family scouring through the bins,
searching through abandoned debris,
I wonder why visions of the apocalypse are troubling me?
And I wonder why this is happening?
And I wonder what happens next?
YOU have been violated, and I can understand.
YOUR bits of paper contain the key to YOUR happiness, security and hope,
they have been taken and the remnants left strewn down your castle path.
I don’t mean to make you seem pathetic,
that meanness would miss the point.
YOU have the right to be angry, when the end of the world is nigh,
as I have the right to be angry at the comment’s section of a local rag.
It is not my garbage that has been scavenged,
but then I am not the one scavenging and neither are YOU.

Rant #020415 – On waking up with a hang-over after missing the election debate

I rise with a sore head, pounding,
dimly aware, 7 met last night.
Probably argued,
probably sniped,
probably wasted too much breath on how they’d put the world right.
The small and larger box inform me,
tell me who won,
explain the situation, so I can understand it,
without digging deep into the charade,
the hopeless,
pointless,
tedious drama.
I flick through the channels and tilt my head,
letting the pain drip to the other side.
But reminders keep flickering,
tainting my periphery,
a blood vessel throbbing, almost delicately,
I reach for the off button, but this horror is consuming me.
Watch, learn, fear.
Burying my head in the pillow,
I assume the position.
Choose to give your permission to whoever caters for your particular set of hopes, dreams and prejudices,
wear your team colours proudly, at least until you decide to put on a different shirt.
We are all unreliable witnesses to our own destruction,
so we might as well enjoy the ride.
I don’t care who holds the keys,
as long as I can still make my own sandwiches.