The Brexit Files – Part 2

Or: Was Brexit a fault of the younger generation?

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Ever since the Brexit referendum, there have been accusations from the Millennials that the older generations voted Brexit and therefore have ruined their future. As I explained in my last post on the matter, nostalgia was one of the main reasons why so many voted in favour of Leave, but is the outcome really down to them?

In February this year, the BBC has published a statistical analysis of the Brexit referendum demographics and one of their key findings is that older people were more likely to vote Leave. However, the findings clearly indicate that education was a much bigger influence on people’s voting decision than any other demographic aspect. Of course, it’s easy and comfortable to blame the older generations for voting the way they did when they don’t have to live with the consequences for as long as their children and grandchildren.

However, Sky News published their analysis too and it reveals something many might have already suspected: There was a rather poor polling when it comes to younger voters. Only 36% of young adults between 18 and 24 years went to the polls – the lowest turnout out of all age groups. In comparison, 58% of all 25 to 34 year olds voted and 72% of the 35 to 44 made their cross. In short: only every third adolescent used their voice to express their political opinion.

So, is their anger over the outcome of the referendum justified?

Yes. Well, at least those who went to the polls and tried to shape the future of their country according to their own world view have every right to be angry. But it’s not the older generations they should blame, it’s their fellow peers who decided to remain silent that are responsible for Brexit. The date of the referendum, June 23, was in the middle of the semester and many students complained that they weren’t able to vote because they didn’t register for the city where they go to university.

In Britain, you can’t just head to the polls and vote as you like – you have to register first for the town, village, or community you live in. The process of a registration takes approximately five minutes and occurs on the internet at the official website of the British government. All you need for the procedure is your British passport and your National Insurance number. The deadline for the registration for the EU referendum was early June. David Cameron, the former PM of the UK, announced in February when the referendum would be held – more than enough time to look up all the information one would need in order to go to the polls.

Whether you are busy with university work or not, whether you’re in town or at home with your parents – five minutes of online registration won’t do you any harm; quite the opposite, in fact. The question why young people still failed to vote remains unanswered even now. But of one fact we can be certain: Those who made use of their voices cannot be blamed by those who don’t like their opinion, however debatable it may be. Those who wanted to punish the government, failed to register, or were simply too lazy – those are the ones who are to blame.

In TV interviews, some tried to defend their inactivity with how they never would have suspected such an outcome. Well, that’s the funny thing about elections – you suddenly realise how many people out there are actually thinking differently from yourself. Being presumptuous when it comes to your own future is a luxury that nobody should have the right to claim for themselves.

However, what’s past is past and there’s a new general election coming up on June 8. The deadline for your online registration is May 22 and if you’re unhappy with the Brexit referendum outcome, I suggest you use your voice as long as you still can.

Running up that Hill

Or: The Virgin Money London Marathon

“If you are losing your faith in human nature, go out and watch a marathon.”

– KATHRINE SWITZER

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No, this is not what rush hour in London looks like, though there are some striking similarities. Today, another beautiful sunny Sunday and St George’s Day, too, was the day of the Virgin Money London Marathon. A total of 40,382 runners filled the city’s streets to take part in the 37th event on British soil – a record-breaking high. There were actually a few record broken today, including women’s-only world record time (Mary Keitany), fastest Viking to win a marathon (Paul Richards), fastest male elf, and fastest crustacean. In my opinion, there should have been an award for creativity, too, but I was only one of 800,000 spectators cheering them on, so I’m probably easy to impress.

The race, separated into elite men’s and mass races, began at 10 a.m. and was officially started by the Duke and the Duchess of Cambridge, as well as Prince Harry. The 26 miles (42.195 kilometres) long route started in Greenwich, South East London and ended on the Mall near Buckingham Palace where the competitors were greeted with music, a very entertaining commentator, and the cheering of the crowd. I must say that I have never attended a sports event with an atmosphere comparable to this.

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Daniel Wanjiru, winner of the men’s elite race, on his way to the finish.

I arrived just in time to witness the winners of the marathon enter the home stretch. But to be honest, I wasn’t that much interested in the Olympic winners and elite runners that made it look like these kind of races are part of their morning routines. Of course, it’s a fantastic accomplishment to win a marathon or to finish a 26-miles-run in only 2.5 hours and I congratulate them on their achievements, but they are professionals, right? They do this often enough for it to become part of their realities.

Part of the race were also some celebrities, media personas, and journalists who supported charities and ran for a good cause. I will edit this post again when I know the exact amount of money that has been raised, but right now there are no confirmed numbers.

Money aside, there were far more important moments to remember: To me, the most emotional one of the race was when David Wyeth collapsed only a few feet away from where I was watching. I’ll never forget the look on his deadly pale face, those eyes staring straight ahead towards the finishing line while his legs gave out from exhaustion. It was heartbreaking to witness how someone who has fought so much breaks down only 200 metres from the finish. Everybody around me kept cheering him on, encouraging him to get up again and walk the last few metres, but he simply couldn’t keep himself upright anymore. Paramedics were already on their way towards him when another runner, Matthew Rees, stopped and bent down. He must have said something because his lips were moving, but the crowd was too noisy to hear anything. It took only a few attempts and Matthew Rees dragged one of David Wyeth’s arms over his shoulder and carried him down the Mall. The crowd, of course, rewarded his selfless sportsmanship with a massive cheer until they both made it through the finish.

Not only did Matthew Rees stop to help another runner, he risked his own best time for a complete stranger. So Katherine Switzer is right after all: going out and watching a marathon does restore one’s faith in human nature. And it was worth the pain and the tears: The medals were awarded to the tired competitors by no one other than William, Kate, and Harry. I reckon it can’t have been comfortable to shake hands with someone who looks glamorous enough to step on the red carpet at any second when you’ve just finished a 26 miles run, flushed and sweaty. However, the runners managed to outshine any royalty with ease and I’m sure none of them cared about their appearance right then and there.

So here is a last salute to anyone who has and hasn’t crossed the finishing line today, no matter if it took you two hours or six – I could have never done what you did and I hope you’ve had all your favourite food for dinner. You absolutely deserve it for you didn’t run up a hill today, you climbed an entire mountain!

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How I started apologising to my cup of tea

Or: British politeness at its very worst

“Sorry, excuse me, please, sorry” is one of the most common phrases I have heard on the London underground, followed by an answering “So sorry, Sir/Madame, excuse me”. At first, I didn’t think much of it since the British are known for their politeness. I didn’t even mind when I started to mirror their constant stream of excuses. Only when I muttered an apology to my cup of Earl Grey after putting it on the table with more force than intended I began to seriously worry. It is one thing to say sorry to a person, but addressing an inanimate object takes apologising to an entire new level.

But when did I become so British that I completely forgot about my German ignorance?

Ever since I caught myself saying sorry to all kind of things, I started observing the British and what I now call their “sorry culture”. If I ever attempted to count the times an average British citizen apologises on one day alone, I bet it would be far more than one hundred times. To someone who comes from a society with a very direct way of saying things, it took me quite some time getting used to the British way of phrasing a polite request, never mind a sincere apology. The way of saying sorry is not only defining when it comes to the culture, but also the mentality of the two countries.

We Germans hardly ever apologise, at least not in our everyday lives. We communicate a lot through looks and facial expressions or acknowledging nods. There’s no need to voice your regrets when bumping into someone while exiting the train when you can communicate the feeling with shoving your way through the crowd. In Germany, people don’t care. It’s rush hour, the train is crowded, you have to get out, so you make your way through. It’s physics, isn’t it? Newton proved that there can only be one body in one place at a time. So we believe Newton and we just assume that our fellow train travellers understand and would do the same were the roles reversed.

In Britain, there’s one simple rule: never assume anything, not even laws of nature defined by an English physicist. Or if you do, then assume the worst case scenario and try your very best to prevent it. If you’re British and find yourself on a train at the peak of rush hour, it’ll likely be your worst nightmare. Bumping into the person in front of you is completely out of question because then they’ll think you did it on purpose and will report you to the police which will result in you ending up with imprisonment for assault. Following that logic, shifting back and risk bumping into the person behind you in order to prevent collision with person nr. 1 is not going to happen either. And don’t step onto the feet of the pregnant woman sitting to your right, because that will guarantee you the loathing stares of all passengers on the carriage – just like doing the same unforgivable thing to the old lady to your left. Vanishing into thin air or disappearing altogether are your only options, really – or at least pretend to look like you’re trying to disappear.

In all fairness, that was (only slightly) exaggerated and it was written with nothing but fondness for this charmingly awkward way of thinking. But the British will probably never understand what kind of minefields we Non-Brits are walking when entering a conversation with one of you. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve spent a lot of time vehemently declining things I really wanted out of sheer terror that I might be too presumptuous by accepting them on the spot with nothing but an honest ‘thank you’. I reckon that the rule of thumb of accepting a cookie only after the fifth time it’s been offered to you does apply. Therefore, being overly careful has turned into something akin to a mantra for me, settling so deep in my subconsciousness that I even started apologising to tea cups. After all, I don’t want to be a walking stereotype for German rudeness and being too direct.

For instance, on my way home I witnessed a scene on the underground so British it might as well have been straight out of a film. A man offered an elderly lady his seat. The passenger sitting next to her realised that she was accompanied by her husband and daughter, therefore, he stood up as well and offered the seat to the lady’s husband who politely declined. Instead, he motioned for the man to sit down again, but instead of doing so, the man went to offer his seat to the couple’s daughter who also refused to sit down. They argued for half of the time it took the train to travel from Oxford Circus to Warren Street until, eventually, the daughter took the man’s seat. In Germany, we don’t have these kind of problems because people don’t offer seats to others in the first place. In that conversation alone, it must habe been half a dozen excuses.

But what if you’re really sorry?

That question keeps haunting me because if you keep apologising simply for existing, then how is a ‘Sorry’ still of the same value it represents according to the Oxford dictionary? The definition says that ‘Sorry’ is a word referring to “feeling sadness, sympathy, or disappointment, especially because something unpleasant has happened or been done.” So maybe, there’s an urgent need in Britain to look that definition up once in a while and to remember that “Sorry” is not the equivalent of a conversation starter, another word to fill the awkward silence or a way to make other people realise that it’s actually them who should be the ones apologising.

For once, maybe the British can actually learn something from us Germans: Sometimes, a gesture says so much more than words, though maybe not an elbow to the ribs in an overcrowded underground carriage.

 

The Brexit Files – Part 1

Rule, Britannia or: Why people voted for Brexit

On Wednesday, article 50 was officially triggered by British PM Theresa May.  For the next two years, the UK and the EU are going to negotiate the consequences of Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. Back in June 2016, the lack of understanding how anyone would even consider leaving the EU was at its peak in many other European countries but is it really that incomprehensible?

If one desires to foresee the future, one has to understand the past and I am not going to break this rule. And as every great disaster in history, the Brexit referendum is a result of many factors playing into one.

Over the last couple of years, the German media has focused on the UK as a country of narrow-minded people who are disloyal to their European neighbours, self-centred and egoistic in their politics, and blind when it comes to the refugee crisis. Be that as it may, I have spent much time studying this country’s history and culture and I think we’re making it very easy for ourselves to judge them on their position without taking the British history into account.

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China Town in Soho is only one of many boroughs in London that has been built by immigrants.

Immigration

Immigration has always been a major issue in Great Britain. Looking back, the British Empire went down in history as a global superpower, claiming more than 1/5 of the world its territory at its peak. A country that owns most of the world cannot exist in isolation.

After World War II, Britain was in desperate need of workers in order to rebuild the country, and since they were lacking of young, fit men they brought in workers from the Commonwealth countries. In 1948, the British Nationality Act gave every subject in the Commonwealth the status and rights of a British citizen, which made it easier for people from the colonies to set sails for their mother country. The Empire Windrush, a passanger liner on voyage from Jamaica to the UK, served as a namesake to the first big wave of immigrants arriving in Great Britain. To ensure that foreigners would come to the country’s help, the British government established a campaign, claiming that better education, higher living standards, and better job opportunities would await those who decided to leave the colonies behind.

Naturally, the migrants arrived at Britain’s ports with the expectation that their new and better lives were awaiting them. Little did they know that the British had no intention of allowing them to stay. If they weren’t sent back to the colonies after their service, they fell victim to a society of classes and discrimination.

Sadly, there has been only slow progress over the last decades. Today, immigration is still a major concern of many Brexit voters, in urban areas less so than in the countryside. The fact that Britain never managed to fully integrate foreigners despite its long history of immigration casts long shadows over the glorious Empire and it raises the question whether this inability is a result of unwillingness or incapability.

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On the market, property in central London is currently at an average price of £1,5 million.

The housing crisis

After the Credit Crunch in 2007, life in London has become extremely expensive, attracting millionaires and billionaires from all over the world – and chasing working people away.

In 2015, it was unaffordable for a family with an average annual income to buy or rent a flat or house in London, resulting in foreign investors ‘buying up’ the majority of town houses in the city centre. Most of them are of Arabic or Russian origin and tend to buy property without ever using it, resulting in thousands of empty houses and flats while others are struggling to find a home closer to work. Inequality is, most of the time, a reason why people tend to favour populism over liberal political ideals. While there is no direct connection between inequality and racism, it does tend to play into the hands of the likes of Nigel Farage and the Ukip party.

Adding to the strained situation, many international banks have settled down in the financial metropolis that London has turned into. Due to this gentrification, property prices skyrocketed in only a couple of years. In the event of Brexit, many people predicted that these banks would move to other financial cities such as Frankfurt or Paris and thus leading to a lowering of house prices.

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The Welfare State

Compared to Germany, Britain’s welfare state is almost non-existing. In fact, it has never been popular in politics since no government ever accomplished a successful attempt to create a welfare state. In 1942 during World War II, William Beveridge identified the five “Giant Evils” in British society that had to be tackled: squalor, ignorance, want, idleness, and disease. This report, also known as the Beveridge Report, proposed a reformed system with better National Insurance and a better social welfare. Despite its high popularity with the public, the only long-term solution resulting from Beveridge’s report was the founding of the National Health Service (NHS).

Margaret Thatcher, one of Britain’s most controversial political figures, and her neo-liberal politics have ignored the needs of the poor and strengthened the class system in the 1980s – an impact Britain still struggles with today. While health care is provided for free (there hasn’t even been a need for health insurance until Brexit), many social contributions aren’t available that are being taken for granted in Germany. In the end, it always comes down to social inequality, and the lack of a Welfare State – or even a poor version thereof –  can have major influence on the rise of populism.

Too expensive or unfair for those who work hard in order to afford a better lifestyle – the arguments have always been the same debate after debate. The geographical regions that backed Brexit the most have been (in most cases) the ones that are the most dependent on EU support in terms of economic support. If the UK had faced its inequality problems years before, maybe Brexit would have never happened.

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The Empire and the Commonwealth Nations

What surprises me the most about the outcome of the referendum is the fact that many immigrants voted in favour of “leave”. Yes, it does sound incomprehensible, but it needs a change of perspective to understand the thought process behind this twisted way of thinking.

As I explained before, the Empire Windrush brought immigrants from the Caribbean to the UK so they would serve as temporary workers before being sent back to the colonies they originally came from. In said colonies, the youth was educated by British standards and they were given the impression that with the education they received, they’d be able to make a new life for themselves in Great Britain. But since their dreams never came true – again, this applies to the majority and not all of the cases – they thought European citizens had a geographical advantage. By voting “Leave” in the referendum, many immigrants from the Commonwealth Nations expect to now have an advantage on the job market due to their still existing connection to the UK.

However, people tend to forget about the past far too easily. If the British had any interest in letting these immigrants stay in the UK in the post WWII era, they would have done so without giving it a second thought. The fact that this hasn’t happened back then is down to a major education difference between Commonwealth colonies and Europe and the unwillingness to accept foreign nationalities as part of the British culture. Just because the UK is no longer a member of the European Union won’t change anything about the partly racist, partly narrow-minded way of thinking.

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In the end, there are many reasons why people voted in favour of Brexit and I have just scratched the surface with my little analysis. Lies, empty promises, and hatred played a significant role as well, of course, but this part of the referendum campaign has been explored well enough by the mass media. And some voices shouldn’t be given a louder voice than they deserve.

Happy frosty Birthday, EU!

“We hope to see a Europe where men of every country will think of being a European as of belonging to their native land, and… wherever they go in this wide domain… will truly feel. ‘Here I am at home’.”

– Winston Churchill

Yesterday marked the 60th anniversary of the European Union and while politicians were celebrating themselves and the idea of unity in Rome, people were marching in the streets of London. And even though they were marching for Europe, there was an atmosphere of change in the air, a desire for a different EU than the one that currently exists. Moreover, iIt was a protest march not only against Brexit, but also against the British government.

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11 a.m. on a beautiful and sunny Saturday morning. Tens of thousands of people have gathered at Speaker’s Corner at Hyde Park, EU flags fluttering in the wind above their heads. Brexit is a dog’s breakfast, I want mine continental says the sign of an elderly lady with EU stars on her shirt and a look of determination on her face. We are the 48%, says another sign, and All I want for Christmas is EU. London is one of the most diverse cities in the world, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that people here are particularily furious about the outcome of the Brexit referendum. And even though they are shouting at the top of their lungs, the message they are trying to send still goes unheard – not only by the Westminster government, but also by the media.

John Riley tells me, that he and his wife came all the way from the countryside to not only protest against Brexit, but also to show solidarity with EU citizens living in the UK. “We are very happy to have them here, very happy indeed, and we need them.” He talks very passionately about the EU and how much it has achieved, also for the UK, and that Britain is making a great mistake in leaving the union. His opinion is the one that is most often reflected on the news as the aim of the protests: revoke the referendum, revoke Brexit.

However, that is not the only reason why people have come together to show the world how much the European Union and being a European means to them. Sabine Voigt, originally from Germany, lives in Great Britain for more than 20 years and she has joined the masses to protest against the way the British government has treated EU citizens living in the UK. “We don’t want to be treated like bargaining chips,” she says and her fellow German friends nod in agreement.

After talking to quite a lot of EU immigrants from mainly Germany and Poland, it quickly transpires that their main goal is not holding a second referendum or stopping Brexit altogether, although they’d definitely prefer staying in the EU. No, the main point they are trying to make is that Theresa May has to come clean on the consequences of Britain leaving the EU for citizens of a nationality that isn’t British. For the entirety of the Brexit campaign, nobody ever referred to what will happen to immigrants and migrants should Britain decide to vote “leave”. And now that article 50 is triggered on Wednesday, there’s still no plan – at least, it’s not known to the public.

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A Polish family struggles with the uncertainty particularily since their children are both born in the UK but don’t have British citizenship. Being born in Great Britain doesn’t make you British by birth – something that differs from e.g. Germany and is hardly ever explained in the media. A few weeks back, a two year old child was denied permanent residency because they didn’t fulfill the minimum UK residency of five years. So what will become of these children? Would May’s government go as far as to rip families apart just to appeal to a small number of people who have been falling for the lies of the “leave”-campaign? And when you listen to the stories of these people that are marching for a united Europe, the stories they are happy to share because they need to be told in order to understand the far-reaching effects of Brexit – you start to see the complexity of this ongoing conflict in the UK and the questions that are now surfacing. What makes someone British if not being born on British soil? What does nationality and citizenship mean?

The EU, as it currently exists, has a lot of work to do if it wants to exist for another 60 years. And since its leaders are so clueless about where to begin, maybe they should start by listening to what the people on the streets have to say. In the end, the decisions of few determine the destiny of many and unity is certainly a term on which all parties agree. If there were clearer indications about what being a European means, there were three million EU citizens less who have to worry about their future.

While marching past Trafalgar Square, choirs of the European anthem Ode to Joy echoed through the streets of Westminster. It’s a beautiful sight to see so many people on the very streets that were closed off only a few days ago due to an attack on the same unity and freedom these people are now raising their voices for. This is not about the stupid decision of few, but the demand for rights of many. And I, for my part, have never felt more European in my life, more welcome, and more at home than on that day at Parliament Square.

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The Westminster attack

As it happened

“Our response to this attack on our city, to this attack on our way of life, to this attack on our shared values, shows the world what it means to be a Londoner.”

–  SADIQ KHAN

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I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to start this blog post and it’s incredibly hard to find the right words. While I understand that writing about the events of Wednesday afternoon on a blog might seem a bit disrespectful, it is my belief that ignoring it and continue as usual would be far worse. I feel obliged to pay tribute to those wounded and killed in the attack because it might as well have been me. In fact, it could have happened to anyone in this city, had the circumstances and nature of the attack been different. Therefore, here is how I experienced Wednesdays afternoon and everything that followed thereafter.

It was around three o’clock in the afternoon and a rather quiet day at the office. I had just begun sorting files into folders as ambulances or police cars, going by their sirens, rushed past the windows of the ZDF building, but I didn’t pay them any attention. The St. Thomas’ Hospital is right on the other side of the Westminster Bridge and not that far away, so it’s nothing unusual that sirens are echoing through the borough of Westminster. Then someone in the room next to me suddenly turned the TV speakers on and it was only seconds later that I was told that there had been shots fired in front of the Palace of Westminster. I immediately switched on my TV and saw the aerial view of the Houses of Parliament, police officers, someone on the ground, the BREAKING NEWS letters floating from one side of the screen to the other.

When you watch the TV footage of a terrorist attack, no matter how horrifying it is, you think that the miles between you and the city it occured at don’t matter because you’re shocked and you feel affected. After all, in most cases it’s an attack on the values and beliefs of  a democratic and liberal society just like the one you’re living in, and therefore an attack on your own values and beliefs. However, when you watch the TV footage of injured people and chaos, of an action of such hatred happening only a few hundred metres from where you are – it’s something completely different. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Three days ago, I walked down the very same pavement people were currently lying on, injured, some of them even dead. Outside, I could hear the helicopters seconds before they appeared on the TV screen and my mind went completely blank.

Maybe it was good thing that the following hours were packed with work because there was no time to think about what had happened. I can’t remember much of what was going through my mind that afternoon and evening, but when I went home that night, everything was strangely quiet. It was like someone had put a cloche over the city, muting all sounds to a dull background noise. At every tube station, there were armed police officers, people with a look on their faces that is hard to describe. It was neither fear, nor horror – rather an expression of being withdrawn. And all of a sudden, what had happened at Westminster felt so much closer to home, and it made me feel more vulnerable than at any other point of my life. It was then that I realised how lucky I, we, the whole city had been to avoid even worse and I don’t dare to imagine what might have happened had Keith Palmer not heroically given his life for the safety of others.

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The next day, it was strangely intimidating walking through the streets of Westminster that weren’t closed off. No traffic allowed, only pedestrians – on one of the busiest streets in London. It must be mentioned, of course, what a fantastic job the police and paramedics have done. It’s down to their fast and curageous actions that worse was prevented.

Standing on Westminster Bridge, seeing all the flowers, the media, the photographers… it felt so wrong. People taking photos of people taking photos, passers-by rushing past, in between the flowers and candles. The atmosphere of disbelief that a deadly attack happened here of all places probably represents the mentality of the British better than anything I’ve ever witnessed before. No matter what shakes the foundation of Britain, they will always stand up again and fight back with a stiff upper lip and an amount of determination that I find admirable.

That evening, many Londoners came together at Trafalgar Square at 06:00 p.m. for a minute of silence and remembering those who were injured or killed during the attack. It was moving to witness a British man angrily silence a journalist who was quietly talking on the phone. And to me, it was the most human and most emotional moment since Wednesday afternoon because for the first time, it became visible how deeply this attack has hit this city. It’s not about the number of people who have been killed or injured. It’s about the fact that it has happened in the first place. However, it would be wrong to remain in a state of shock or fear, so let’s do it the British way and jolly well carry on while remembering the pain of loss that ripped through the nation on the 22nd of March 2017.

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