Category Archives: Comment

Conquering the Croydon Mile for Sports Relief

Of all the  sponsored walks I have done so far, the Sports Relief was one of the easiest.
After watching an entire week of Sports Relief activities,  including Davina McCall’s gruelling  triathlon,  the Croydon Mile turned out to be quite easy in terms of distance.  (The only drawback was that I walked all over Brighton the day before,  so jogging or running was out of the question.)
Dozens of people turned up for the Croydon Mile, which took place at Croydon Sports Arena. We were lucky with the weather,  despite a few showers. Unlike the Cancer Research Race For Life,  which is  on public roads, the Sports Mile takes place on a track. You could choose to do one mile as I did,  three miles or six miles.
I found it was easy to lose count of how many laps I had done, but there were people posted along the route who kept track of our progress and told us how many laps we had completed.  We were also treated to a warm-up session before the “race”, and a bottle of water along with our Sports Relief medals.
My next outing will be the Race for Life with Team Heart again this year.  In fact, all my “races” or rather walks have been women-only Race for Life events. It was nice to be in a family atmosphere and not have to run or walk on public roads.

Pretty Muddy and the Race for Life

Tania Rahman is a Visitor Services Assistant at the British Museum and is studying creative writing at Birkbeck. In her spare time she volunteers for  Global Charities and Cancer Research UK. With this in mind we thought that Tania was pretty well placed to talk about how to juggle all these competing activities. Her first article for the lamp and owl describes her experience of taking part in last year’s Pretty Muddy event…

I had the opportunity to take part in Pretty Muddy in Finsbury Park, a 5km obstacle course introduced this year. Of course, like the original Race for Life, the series of events for cancer charity, participants can walk, jog or run it, and it’s for women only! That is the easy part. Finsbury Park is an uphill park which added yet another dimension.

The obstacles included: running or walking around traffic cones, climbing up and over a (thankfully) low climbing wall, and scrambling under a net through mud. It did wonders for my hair, and if you did not feel muddy and challenged enough you could run through a mud pit and get completely drenched in mud.

There were actually two nets on the course. I avoided the first one, but felt that I should at least try the second one. The net was a lot heavier than it looked and had been sitting in mud, which made it even heavier. A friend later questioned whether or not there was “anything else” in the mud, which I really did not want to think about, and another friend told me that people had told her how tough the course was. Of course being a Race for Life / Cancer Research event, it was really all about talking part and they did not mind if you skipped any obstacles as long as you “had a go”.

On the way to Finsbury Park I encountered a lot of women dressed in pink making their way there, and a lot of mud-drenched women on the way back (most of them wearing their medals).

Despite this being only my second year involved in the Race for Life, taking part in a charity sports challenge has always been on my “to do” list. I go jogging and to the gym to keep fit and lose weight (the usual goals) so training for Race for Life events helps me to aim for something else and makes sure that I keep up my training.

While I was still at school I took part in the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme. The required hike was one of my favourite parts (but I found camping surprisingly tough) because it was something that I always wanted to do. Even now living and working in a city means that I have little opportunity to find activities like this and activity holidays can be expensive.

For more information visit the Race For Life / Pretty Muddy on the Cancer Research UK website.

Tania will be following this article up with a series of articles as she prepares for the challenges that she is taking part in later this year.

Ramen: a potted history of the world’s favourite instant meal

Soup bowls filled with juicy Japanese nuggets are the world favourite instant meal. Lifelong Ramen devotee Kittie Walker explains why…

Steam filled with the aromas of oriental spices wafts across the room towards me. The anticipation builds as I sit and wait for my bowl to arrive. There’s nothing quite like stimulating all of your senses before indulging in comfort food that’ll drive away the winter chill. In fact, ramen is so versatile, it doesn’t matter how you’re feeling, what the weather is like or if you’re rushed for time – there’s a ramen for every occasion.

Like many office workers – and the entire universe, surely – I’m a fan of ramen. Not just the bowls filled with juicy nuggets. But even the instant packets of oriental noodles you reconstitute with boiling water.

It’s eaten all over the world including in Japan where it’s a cultural phenomenon and a celebrity in itself with manga, anime, songs, TV shows, films and events dedicated to it.

It’s always felt like you’re not indulging in a naughty snack. But rather consuming a hearty meal to keep you fuelled – mind, body and soul. I don’t feel guilty when inhaling ramen, because it’s a traditional food from one of the healthiest cuisines on the planet. Or is it? I hadn’t really given that question much thought, until I met Barak Kushner, author of Slurp! A culinary and social history of ramen – Japan’s favourite noodle soup, who has completely changed my perception of the dish.

Kushner is an academic from Cambridge University who hails from America. He is open, jovial and passionate about his field of study – all things Japanese. Talking to him about the culinary evolution of Japan – and more importantly ramen – over the last two centuries is a real treat.

“It’s important to understand ramen is not a usual food on many levels for Japanese society,” says Kushner “Think about their food aesthetics – everything is visually pleasing and simple with each component of the meal coming in a bowl or dish of its own – ramen is the antithesis of this.

“And that’s because it isn’t a traditional Japanese dish at all. It’s a dish that’s evolved over the past two centuries as Japan attempted to forge a separate cultural identity from China.”

It turns out – somewhat ironically considering some of the most famous ramen dishes are pork-based broths with pork belly on top, for hundreds of years the Japanese consumed very little pork – only the very rich or those needing protein on medical grounds consumed it regularly. The Japanese often used imagery of the pig to denigrate their Chinese neighbours. “The Japanese associated food tastes with specific cultures and they despised foods like pork, chocolate and butter, looking down upon the countries that consumed them.”

It’s strange, considering the Japanese were trying to set themselves apart from the Chinese, that they adopted a dish that’s intrinsically Chinese in origin. “Nanking Soba, Nagasaki Champon and Shina Soba, all forerunners of ramen appeared in Japan from the mid-nineteenth century. They originally sprang up in Chinese restaurants in Japan. They were aimed at Chinese students and businessmen, but soon the chefs of these restaurants realised they could start to widen their audience by creating dishes that would appeal to the Chinese and Japanese alike,” reported Kushner enthusiastically, “and because as a nation the Japanese had gone through much of their history malnourished, this new hardy dish appealed to them. Over the next hundred years, they adopted and made it their own.”

During the 1920s, the immediate forerunner of ramen took off in a big way. It was served in small pop up restaurants, in Chinese restaurants and from food carts in the more disreputable parts of town. It was a dish specifically for the underclasses. “Proper people did not eat ramen. Women certainly did not eat noodles and were considered low class prostitutes if they were seen to be consuming them,” continues an animated Kushner.

“It’s not until after the Second World War that we start to see the ramen and sticky white rice that we all instantly recognise as Japanese today. In fact, there’s an interesting story behind the ramen that was born out of the post-war period. Japan was devastated during the Second World War. There was severe rationing, which led to food riots in the streets. America stepped in to ease the crisis and to stop them from going communist – a real concern at the time. They sent them vast amounts of wheat, not realising that the Japanese did not eat bread or cook using ovens.”

This cultural faux pas spawned a “food group that has entwined itself with modern pop culture like no other, instant ramen was born to solve post-war starvation and malnutrition. It took ten years to develop, by which time, economically Japan was doing a lot better. Ramen was an instant hit.”

Kushner is an animated raconteur. As we sit there, he goes on to describe how the ramen is still evolving today, with no sign of it abating as the world’s favourite instant or comfort food. The latest marketing innovations are tailoring the flavours by gender – lighter and citrus tastes for women and heavier styles for men. There are even “light” versions for the health conscious, because, as a carbohydrate-based dish, they are highly calorific.

Noodle bars in Japan go to extremes to get people lining up around the block to get in. The shops make your visit a cultural event and an experience that you’ll be sure to pass on to your friends. This has not yet appeared in venues outside of Japan, but with many more Ramen restaurants opening in the UK, maybe we’ll see one hear soon.

I’ve come across many ramen snobs in my time, declaring this ramen or that ramen not to be traditional or authentic and therefore beneath their consideration. I am now fully equipped to counter their condescension with a factual history lesson. With all my senses fully satiated, I’m ready to take on the world. As I leave the restaurant, I give a brief nod to the Japanese women who went before me, willing to brave the scorn of their society just because they fancied a bowl of noodle soup.

Barak Kushner was a guest speaker at a meeting of the Birkbeck Food Group. Thanks go to Alex Colas and the Birkbeck Food Group for existing and arranging such informative and entertaining sessions. If you like to go to future events or join the groups mailing list email Alex Colas.

p.s. The book Slurp! A culinary and social history of ramen – Japan’s favourite noodle soup is outrageously expensive, but Barak advises that it will be available at a more accessible price in paperback soon. Ed. the book is actually coming out in paperback in February 2014 see the order form below for details. It costs 25 EUR, but you can get a 20% discount up until April 2014 by using this form:



image courtesy of By Sun Taro (Flickr: Honkamado@Sendai) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

A disturbing view from my library window

Although I support and wholeheartedly encourage the many different political debates and activism around my campus, I would not have entirely seen myself as politically active – until now.

When I come to my university, and I have been at Birkbeck for three years now, I spend most of my time in the library with my head in books trying to understand the intricacies of the law. The incredibly slow pace at which it takes me to put all of the law into my brain requires me to sit in the library from the moment it opens until my classes start in the evening.

I sit in my usual place every day, a window seat overlooking Senate House and Malet Street, and when my concentration lapses I stare out of the window watching the day unfold. This means I get to see a lot of what is going on campus.

I have seen all the protests go past Senate House. I have heard the samba band rousing the crowd, watched various causes gather at Malet Street and listened to the speeches on the steps of SOAS.

Even though all of these occasions may have distracted me from my studies, it has always excited me to see so many different people coming together to stand up for what they believe in. It gives me hope.

The University of London is probably one of the most pluralistic environments I have been a part of, with people from so many different backgrounds, cultures, ethnicities, sexualities and identities studying every day, coming together and joining in a constant dialogue and action. Being part of this environment has led me to learn about many different issues and ideas and made me, a person coming from a background of very little education and cultural diversity, a better, more worldly and confident person.

Due to my nosy and voyeuristic tendencies, at the beginning of term this year I started to notice a police presence on campus. At first I thought it was a one-off instance, but then I started to notice them on a regular basis. Every time I was walking around campus or staring out of my window, they were there. I saw them every day, sitting in vans next to Senate House, loitering around the Hari Krishna lunch queue (I don’t think it was dinner envy), walking up and down Malet Street. This disturbed me and I found it oppressive.

I started to notice that whenever any political activity started to stir around campus, the police were there like a shot. I am not talking about any “violent and intimidating” activity, as has been suggested by the University of London’s Chris Cobb. This was simply the same political activity that I have been used to seeing since I started university here. Even the smallest and I am sorry to say meekest of demos had a large oppressive police presence, with huge police vans next to it.

Why are they here, I kept thinking. What do they want? Why are they looming over a tiny group of people who are standing there peacefully protesting about causes and issues that they believe in? Causes and issues which have been taught by our lecturers, by the University of London. Lecturers who teach us to be critical of the law, of the police, of oppressive government policy, of capitalism, of neo-liberalism, and how all of these things have created so many injustices in the world.

Was it just me, I thought, am I just being paranoid? No. When I started talking to my fellow students they had noticed it too. They felt paranoid, oppressed; worried that their information had been recorded, it noted down that they were “political” and therefore to be watched.

Who had authorised this? Who had decided that enthusiastic students were a threat that needed to be curtailed?

It seems that our universities, which teach us to be critical of the world around us and to stand up and fight for what believe in, are now scared of the fact that they have taught us too much.

I started engaging with other students, listening to people I have never spoken to talking about the police always being on campus, butting into their conversations when I heard them talking about it, saying, “Excuse me, but have you noticed too?” and “Yes,” they would say, and we would all agree that something needs to be done about it.

The university has become more oppressive, more restrictive and the university condoning a constant police presence on campus has made us want to fight back against it.

Before anyone starts thinking, Oh, but you’re all just middle-class white students that don’t like it when it happens to you. No, we are not. We are students from so many different backgrounds, so many different races, some of us may be middle-class, but some of us are poor, some of us have experienced police oppression outside our campuses, some of us have come from communities where there is police brutality, some of us have been arrested, and some of us have been to prison.

Yes, the university may be a different environment to that on the streets in London, but what is happening within our campus is testament to what is happening elsewhere: surveillance, social control, breeding a culture of fear, silence and oppression by attempts to curtail any form of dissent, political action and dialogue.

The fight back against police presence on campus is not just about cops on campus. We stand in solidarity for all who have been oppressed by the police. It does not invalidate our fight because we are university students.

The university has enabled us in the past to stand up for what we believe and voice our issues in a safe space. By taking that away from us, you radicalise us even more.

I will no longer be watching from the window. I will be joining the demonstrations and we won’t stop until we regain our universities and our communities as places of free expression.

Alice Gambell


On Mandela

As I visit the various news websites and absorb the tributes, as I read the numerous posts on Facebook from all different kinds of people, it occurs to me that the most expected expression of grief, “RIP Nelson Mandela” (Madiba), followed by “a Light has been extinguished” is, for me, simply not appropriate.

Madiba spent his life fighting for the rights of all peoples to be treated justly and with respect and dignity. For this fight, he forfeited his own rights and freedom for 27 years. He emerged from his experiences not only to change his homeland, South Africa, but the world.

For this reason, I wish not to see his legacy rest in peace, but rather, that what he lived and breathed for continues to thrive in all of us in one way or another. May we continue to pursue justice not just for ourselves, but for each and every one of us. Let us practise the lessons of peace that he taught us, let us practise showing honour to one another, and let us practise treating each other with respect and dignity. Madiba was just not a friend to dignitaries and world leaders; he was a friend to all humanity. May his light continue to shine for the rest of our years and let us remember him by educating future generations to come, with the principles that he has taught us.

As I look further at the posts on Facebook, I note that he has been an inspiration to the generation to which the torch of leadership is soon to be passed.

From what I’ve read of this, I am reassured and hopeful that the light of Mandela is far from being extinguished.

Is Birkbeck in danger of being ‘lost in translation’?

From time to time the arts remind us of a history that we may have forgotten, or relate to us a history we may not have known.  Such was the case with the play Blue Stockings that I saw recently at the Globe Theatre.  The play is written by Jessica Swale and based on the novel Blue Stockings by Jane Robinson.  The story of the founding of Girton College in Cambridge in 1869 for women scholars is compelling and relevant as it touches upon many of the issues that surround access to education in our times.

What struck me after watching this play was that women across the world are still fighting for access to education.  I did not know whether to be amused or disgusted that it was only in 1948 that the first women graduated from Cambridge University.  Women around the world are continuing to fight for access, equality and quality of education, but it takes a case like that of Malala Yousafzai for a significant portion of the media and public bodies to focus on the issue.  Blue Stockings shows that this country has come a long way in 65 years.  The play also prompted me to consider access to education and quality of education in modern Britain.

Access to quality education, especially at the tertiary level, is becoming increasingly difficult as higher education costs soar.  As a result, many students who wish to continue their education at the university level have had to look at alternate ways in which to achieve their goals.  One of those alternatives is by continuing their education on a part-time basis.  As a student of Birkbeck for the past few years, I believe that you could not have a more diverse student population, and the diversity of both students and lecturers is a big attraction here at Birkbeck.  Most recently, however, we have had more younger students who in previous years would perhaps have been horror-struck even to contemplate having to attend Birkbeck, which traditionally has had an older student body.

While I welcome sitting in a classroom with young students who express fresh, optimistic ideas and approaches, I cannot help but wonder if these students are being properly cared for by my beloved institution.  Are they enjoying what is on offer at Birkbeck?  The Birkbeck experience is not necessarily the same as it would be in the type of institution they had perhaps envisioned themselves attending, but it does provide quality education for all its students.

Education at the university level certainly is not the right choice for everyone, nor is it a necessity.  We all know, or should know, that a university education does not guarantee employment and if you wish to increase and/or ensure a chance of employment then a vocational or technical institution may be a wiser option.  However, universities offer the opportunity for students to explore varying interests and, as such, attendance should be accessible to those students who wish to pursue higher education.  In short, our education system needs to ensure that there is equal access to quality education irrespective of financial means for everyone.

As a person who was unable to complete university in my youth, I am delighted that Birkbeck runs the programme that it does.  I believe that education around the globe at any level should not be exclusive or restricted to the privileged but that all should have access to education according to their abilities and desire.  Right here at home, I am particularly interested in British students attaining a level of education that allows them to contribute to British society in a meaningful way and to be competitive in the global market.

For centuries, the halls of Oxford, Durham or Cambridge were closed to students not belonging to the dominant religious, ethnic and social groups in England.  Male students from these “other” groups began graduating from Cambridge in the late 19th century.  The women of Cambridge had to wait until after WWII.

Blue Stockings reminds us that to preserve the legacy of the women of Girton College is to support all groups who seek access to be educated.