Change Writer

be the change you want to see

Month: October 2017

There’s a bit of Boris in us all

Back in 1890, a young Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem about Burma. The poem, The Road to Mandalay, was written from the perspective of a British soldier once stationed there. The soldier reminisces about the place, an encounter with a local girl, and describes his surroundings with the kind of paternalistic grandeur of someone who believes his empire, the British Empire, to be the ultimate expression of civilisation.

The text is also dismissive of Burmese culture and religion:

An’ a-wastin’ Christian kisses on an ‘eathen idol’s foot:
Bloomin’ idol made o’ mud 
Wot they called the Great Gawd Budd

For Kipling’s soldier, this is an uncivilised, heathen place, albeit alluring.

Interestingly, Kipling only visited Burma once, for three days, on his way elsewhere, and he never visited Mandalay.

This lack of experience didn’t prevent him from becoming influential in shaping the perspective of his countrymen on the place. The words he penned on paper describing this destination he barely knew became a go-to text for understanding what Burma is like.

A 20-year-old shaping one people’s understanding of another.

Which brings us to Boris Johnson, who, on a recent trip to Burma, began reciting The Road to Mandalay at the site of a Burmese shrine, while a Channel 4 camera crew filmed him.

The UK’s foreign secretary reciting a poem praising colonialism and dismissing Burmese culture, at a Burmese shrine which he is being invited to visit by his gracious Burmese hosts.

Fortunately, Britain’s ambassador to Burma stopped him before he had a chance to complete his recital and embarrass the UK further, but the episode was a glimpse into the attitude that Johnson has towards the Burmese.

Just days later, at a Conservative Party Conference event, he commented on how the only thing getting in the way of a “wonderful” group of UK businessmen turning the Libyan town of Sirte into the next Dubai was the dead bodies that needed clearing out of the way.

For Johnson, it seems that the British Empire still stands, and he’s happy to brush aside any dead bodies or cultural inconveniences that get in his way.


But this post isn’t just about Boris and his blunders. I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the very real ability that we each have to see people who are different from us as somehow less valuable than we are.

And how if we don’t pay careful attention, we can end up using other people’s small ‘incivilities’ as a way of building our own sense of superiority and worth.

In 1978 Edward Said wrote Orientalism, which looks at what happens when this natural human tendency becomes a system of thought. He demonstrates how literature and art shaped the way that Europeans understand ‘The Orient,’ and the effect that perspective has had on justice and international relations.

Orientalism in its essence is about seeing ‘Western’ culture as superior to other cultures, and the actions which accompany such a perspective.

One example from Said is how ‘oriental’ women are portrayed in colonial era literature. They are usually passive, rarely speak for themselves, and are usually there to serve the various appetites of the men around them.1)Orientalism, 1979: 187-188 They are objectified: helpless and inferior.

Said might argue that this way of understanding non-European women has paved the way for our attitudes towards them when they enter our societies. When it comes to discussions like enforcing a Burqa ban, the voices of the women who wear them are usually crowded out by those who choose to speak for them, in the name of justice.

While we would usually offer a European woman (in a similar scenario) the opportunity to explain why she dresses a certain way, the women of the Middle East are still seen as helpless and inferior.


From his many gaffes and blunders, it’s clear that Boris is something of an Orientalist. He adores Britain’s colonial era, and apparently has little respect for other cultures: Britain is best.

But this post isn’t just about Boris and how he is embarrassing the British people.

It’s about how easy it is to view others as inferior, and how much damage that can cause in a globalised world.

Because we each carry a bit of Boris inside us.

We’re all capable of dismissing people who are different from us as weird, uncouth, uncivilised, inferior.

It might be a neighbour. It could be a refugee. It could be someone who votes differently from ourselves.

And in coming to conclusions about people who are different from us before we’ve taken the time to get to know them, we carry perspectives about them which are, at best, naive, at worst entirely false. And we miss the opportunity to promote the kind of understanding upon which justice and change can be built.

(Image by Andrew Parsons)

References   [ + ]

1. Orientalism, 1979: 187-188

What no one will tell you about the Couch to 5K running plan

The wind in my hair. A smile on my face. It was so perfect. Legs supple and strong, covering kilometres effortlessly thanks to my newly developed running skills. Waking up each morning with the urge to JUST DO IT – to get out there and pound pavement – because I had broken through and was now more runner than walker. A natural athlete. Perfect.

At least that’s how I pictured my last week of the Couch to 5K program before I set out. The nine week program promises to take absolute beginners and get them to the point where they can comfortably run five kilometres (just over 3 miles).

After the birth of our daughter in December, and the accompanying sleepless nights (as well as a sleep-deprivation-induced chain of colds), I knew I needed to get fit if I was to be in good mental and physical shape for my new role as a Dad.

I had tried C25K several times before, but two years living in Amman, Jordan, a city built on seven mountains with summer time temperatures of around 40 degrees celsius and cultural associations between running and lack of honour meant that I had all but given up.

But now I was back in Sweden, with no such excuses. So in January I committed to follow the full nine week plan.

The first weeks of C25K are very pleasant. Week one you alternate between one minute of running and ninety seconds of walking for twenty minutes. Week two follows the same rhythm but with longer intervals, ninety seconds running and two minutes walking. By week five you are running for twenty minutes without stopping, and this gradually increases until by week nine you can run for thirty minutes (an average of 5km).

I liked this slow build up because it meant that by the time I was running for longer periods of time, my muscles were ready for it. I didn’t experience the aches and pains I used to when I would run 5km after a long period without running. I was happy because I felt like I was becoming stronger.

However, I still felt worn out after each run and wasn’t waking up with that “I can’t wait to go running today” feeling.

Nonetheless, I persisted – cheered on by the voice of Radio One DJ Jo Whiley, who has replaced the encouraging but slightly less motivating voice of Laura from the first release of the app.

“By week nine, I will definitely be addicted to running,” I assured myself.

But even with the elation of finishing the nine weeks, I finished my last run worn out and didn’t feel more athletic.

That’s when I started talking to the runners I knew who have run half marathons and more. I even spoke to one friend who runs ultra marathons.

What they told me was very helpful: “you become addicted to running somewhere around 10 kilometres.”

All this time, I’d been thinking that the Couch to 5K would get me to that natural born athlete zone, when I actually needed a lot more kilometres under my belt to reach this point!

So I carried on. I increased my running from 5km to 6km, then from 6km to 7km, and now I regularly run 10km, sometimes more. The best part of this is that when I started running 8km and more, I started to feel better when I ran than when I didn’t! I had discovered the tipping point!

(image by Hernán Piñera)

© 2014-2017 Jonathan Morgan