The Old Course – St. Andrews

11 09 2012

“This is the origin of the game, golf in its purest form, and it’s still played that way on a course seemingly untouched by time. Every time I play here, it reminds me that this is still a game.” – Arnold Palmer

It is not often that when you go into something with high expectations that those expectations not only get exceeded, but blown out of the water. When Sean and I found out we would be playing on the Old Course at St Andrews we could hardly contain our excitement, by the time we finished the round we were wanting to play again.

The whole experience of playing the Old Course is unique and the experience begins long before you tee off. The course is open to the public, but because tee times are so difficult to secure you must enter a 48 hour ballot and wait to hear your fate. We unsuccessfully entered the ballot on Saturday when we arrived in Edinburgh, and had resigned ourselves to the fact that getting a tee time would be very fortunate. The next day we entered again and as we arrived home from golfing on Sunday afternoon we eagerly checked the list of tee times. Sure enough there we were!!! S. Akeroyd and J. Wynn Tuesday 28 August 6:30 AM. The first names on the schedule.

It was 3:45 AM Tuesday morning when we departed Banchory for St. Andrews, it felt much more like going to an early morning hockey practice in Canada as we loaded the car with our big bags in the chilly morning air. Armed with every map we could find we made the 2.5 hour trek to St. Andrews arriving there just as the sun began to rise at 5:30 AM. As we pulled up to the course all the memories of watching past Open Championships and playing EA Sports golf games were going through our minds as we both became quite nervous, we were about to be the first two people to tee off on the Old Course that day.

After showing the starter our handicaps were below 24 and paying our money to play we headed to the putting green to warm up and to soak in the atmosphere. It truly does feel magical as you look around and see the Old Course Hotel in the distance and the sun rising above the water. After rolling a few putts on the perfectly manicured greens, and taking a few pictures it was time to tee off. We were joined by two single players. Bob, a 60 something year old man from Florida, and Ed, a 30 something year old from Hawaii. Both of these men had been standing in a queue outside the starters hut since 3:00 AM hoping to get on the course. The ballot always leaves room for a few singles to play and these two men were lucky enough to get to the front of the line. Both Bob and Ed hired caddies to help them through their round and by the end of the first hole both Sean and I were glad to have the caddies along with us.

Despite having playing partners Sean and I still got the honour of being the first two to tee off for the day. It was easily the most intimidating shot I have ever hit, thinking of all the greats that have stood on the same tee box while being watched by a number of other golfers all eagerly awaiting their chance to join us on the course. We both managed to put our drives in decent positions and were on our way, slightly more relaxed as we walked down the first fairway.

The round moved very quickly, as the caddies are required to keep the pace of play as fast as they can, and the experience seemed to fly by. It was a surreal feeling playing hole after hole, recognizing landmarks from watching Tiger Woods and other greats play at the home of golf. I narrowly missed going into Hell Bunker on the 5th hole but wasn’t so lucky later on as I found myself in a pot bunker on the 8th hole. After failing at my attempt to get it out I had to play backwards out of the bunker just to salvage a respectable score!

As we made the turn on to the back nine what really stuck out to both Sean and I was the deceptiveness of the Old Course. It contains 112 bunkers but from the tee box you can barely see any of them. A course guide is a must, and caddies are close to essential but if you don’t make adjustments to your game and style then the course will eat you alive as it did to the legendary golfer Bobby Jones who walked off the course after 11 holes in 1921 and initially despised the course. Jones later went on to say of the Old Course “the more I studied the Old Course, the more I loved it; and the more I loved it, the more I studied it”.

The sun continued to shine as we approached the last few holes of the day and as Sean and I began to finally relax a bit and treat it like a regular round we got talking to Willie, one of our caddies. Born in Inverness, Willie had been at the Old Course for 27 years and knew it inside and out. When he found out that we were Canadian he began telling us stories of how he had caddied for Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and other hockey players. These stories made me more in awe as I had only thought about the golfers that had previously teed off there, I hadn’t even thought about the famous political figures, the celebrities and the other athletes! This was walking up the 16th fairway, making me even more nervous for where we were heading next.

The 17th hole at St. Andrews. The most famous hole in golf. The Road Hole. We knew what to expect, but it didn’t matter. Walking up to the tee box brought back all the nerves from the first tee and it didn’t help that you can’t see where your tee shot lands as you have to go around the Old Course Hotel, or in Sean’s case over it. All four of us managed to find the fairway and as we walked towards our approach shots we saw our first glimpse of the Road Hole bunker. Three of us managed to avoid the bunker, Ed hit his approach directly into it.

The walk up the 18th fairway was an experience in itself. After safely hitting our tee shots we walked (and stopped for pictures) on Swilkan Bridge, where Jack Nicklaus so famously waved goodbye to the world of golf, we then walked up the fairway towards the town of St. Andrews, feeling like celebrities as we were the first golfers of the day to finish and all the tourists wanted a picture of people playing the 18th hole. After the customary handshakes I had a tough time leaving the course. I spent about 5 minutes in awe, just looking back over the 18th fairway and thinking about the fantastic day we had already had, despite it only being 11:00 AM

After a quick bite to eat we took a tour around St Andrews and went for a walk along the West Sands beach, where the famous scene in Chariots of Fire was filmed. It was then back in the car and back to Banchory.

It truly was a magical day at the home of golf and its hard to believe that the Old Course was one of the first courses ever designed. I have yet to see anyone design a better course after all these years. The creativity needed and the all around test it gives every golfer is like nowhere else I’ve ever played. I hope one day that I get the opportunity to play the Old Course again, but I consider myself incredibly lucky to have had the chance to do it once.

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Wimbledon – Olympic Style

5 08 2012

When I bought my Olympic tickets nearly a year ago the main selling point was that I would have the chance to experience the famous courts of Wimbledon. What I wasn’t expecting however was to be able to witness easily the greatest sporting event I have ever seen live.

It was an early start for my flatmate Sam and me as we made the cross London trek to Wimbledon with the intention of beating the inevitable rush but once we got there we were able to spend time walking around the famous grounds of the All English Lawn Tennis Club. It was a surreal experience seeing all the sites I had only ever seen on TV, especially as we managed to talk a volunteer into letting us roam around Centre Court and take a few pictures.

Our tickets for the day were for Court No. 1 and we were excited as the feature match was scheduled to be Andy Murray and Laura Robson playing mixed doubles for Great Britain. This match was scheduled to be fourth but the catch was that Murray was also booked to play in the Men’s semi final against Novak Djokovic earlier in the day on Centre Court. This didn’t concern Sam and I too much as the only way this would lead to a problem was if the first men’s semi final on Centre Court went long, and with Roger Federer playing the odds of that were slim.

The first matches of the day began, after a short rain delay, about 12:30. We were watching the Czech Republic play the USA in women’s doubles and Centre Court began watching Federer. Our match ended quickly and we rushed out to the famous Henman Hill to see what was going on. Roger Federer was being pushed to the absolute limit by his Argentinian opponent, Juan Martin del Potro, and as the match entered the third set we had to rush back into court one to watch the women’s semi final. As Maria Sharapova began dominating her Russian opponent we kept checking the score on Centre Court. We could hear the reaction from the hill on every break point or every long rally. It became quite a tense atmosphere as we realized, this match isn’t ending.

Our third match of the day began shortly after Sharapova`s victory and as Spain battled France in Men`s Doubles. Despite seeing world class players such as Jo Wilfred Tsonga and David Ferrer the buzz in court 1 had become all about what was going on next door. My friend Andrew was lucky enough to be in Centre Court and we were texting back and forth as the Federer match continued. He was texting me update after update and as Federer finally prevailed the cheers could be heard all around the Wimbledon grounds.

It was after this match that Centre Court began to empty out. Despite Serena Williams being featured in the Women`s Semi Final much of the crowd needed a break after the longest match in Olympic history. It was also at this point that Sam and I decided to try our luck at getting on to Centre Court! We knew that we were going to miss Andy Murray altogether if we didn`t try so we made the move and successfully managed to find some seats near Andrew.

What a fortunate move this turned out to be! The atmosphere on Centre Court as the players appeared was unbelievable and the tension built up as the players stayed on serve through the first 11 games of the first set. It was in the twelfth game that the match reached his peak with Murray breaking Djokovic to win the first set! Chants of “Murray, Murray” were reverberating around Centre Court for much of the second set which played out in exactly the same fashion, causing the place to erupt as Murray clinched the match and a medal for Team GB.

This was truly a memorable day for me as I was not only able to visit the hallowed grounds of Wimbledon but was also able to watch two of the top players on the planet compete for an Olympic medal!





Let the Games Begin!

30 07 2012

What a start to the Olympics! London is has been absolutely buzzing for a couple of weeks now and the first three days of Olympic events have been incredible!

I started my Olympic experience last week when I went to an African music concert at the Pontoon Dock in East London. It was further east than I had ever been in London and well worth the commute! The music was from all over Africa, as it was one of the “continent” stages set up throughout the city and the weather cooperated. An interesting cultural experience before I headed out of London for the bulk of last week to catch up with family. I ended up coming home late Friday night, just in time for the main event to kick off!

The Opening Ceremony, put together by Danny Boyle, was very impressive, incorporating British history, culture and humour to create a memorable show. I watched the ceremony at a pub in Covent Garden, which was filled primarily with UK residents who proudly belted out God Save the Queen when Queen Elizabeth II, the latest Bond Girl, arrived and cheered loudly at the comic relief provided by Rowan Atkinson. As a history teacher I quite enjoyed the theme of the night being a history lesson and thought Boyle did well to represent the many eras of British history.

Day 1 of the Olympics was an eventful one for me. I spent the morning around London Bridge as I had to pick up my Olympic tickets that I had purchased a few months back. Walking around the area and soaking in the atmosphere of the Olympic spirit got me quite excited as I popped into the ticket office and confirmed the tickets to gymnastics and tennis. I was lucky to not have to wait too long in the ticket queue as I had to rush from there to North Greenwich Arena (more commonly known as the o2) for the Men’s gymnastics qualification round.

After clearing the airport style security and making my way up to the last row of the stadium I settled in to watch a sport I am not all that familiar with, but was blown away by! Seeing the strength of the athletes on apparatuses such as the swinging rings, or the high bar was incredible. The balance and gracefulness with which they are able to move was something I never fully appreciated watching gymnastics on TV in previous olympics. The atmosphere in the three quarters full arena was very positive with the crowd getting behind all the athletes, particularly on the change overs where we would all clap in time as the competitors walked to their next apparatus. Team USA was easily the best team of the five I got to see and the American fans in attendance certainly felt the same way chanting U-S-A at any opportunity.

Day 2 was an early start for me as I headed over to west London to catch a glimpse of the Women’s cycling road race. The race began near Buckingham Palace before heading south of London and making its way back to the Mall for the grandstand finish. I wasn’t lucky enough to have tickets to the finish line but was able to stand about 2km away and see the cyclists as they started and just before they finished. The entire course was filled with supporters and it looked more like the Tour de France than a race through the streets of London, it is great to see the city getting so enthusaistic about the games! A Canadian, Clara Hughes, was one of the medal favourites but unfortunately, due to the typically British weather conditions, she wasn’t able to medal. I did however get to witness the first Great Britain medalist, Lizzie Armitstead, fly by en route to her silver finish.

In between glimpses of the road race we decided to head over to Hyde Park and see the live site for watching the games. Again we had to queue up and clear the airport style security before entering the venue which was filled with 6 or 7 huge TVs where people could sit down and watch the different events. While the site is a cool idea I felt it could have been developed a lot further by having more interactive activities for kids or having more entertainment throughout the park. The idea is a good one though and perhaps as the crowds really arrive in London next weekend the atmosphere of Hyde Park will pick up. I am looking forward to getting to Victoria Park, the other live site, to compare the two.

It was an eventful first Olympic weekend for me and London seems to be withstanding all of the tourists with relative ease. Outside of the venues the city seems oddly normal and the trains are running well. I think the true test will come today as the usual rush hour overlaps with the numerous events around the city, and as more people begin to arrive in London later this week it could be a different story, but so far all the talk of disaster and chaos has been overblown. How shocking that the British media would do such a thing!





Twickenham

13 06 2012

Growing up as the son of a South African father and a New Zealand mother I never had much of a choice but to love rugby. Throughout my childhood I would watch match after match with my parents and from a young age I was enrolled in rugby camps.  This love of rugby has been extremely beneficial in my life as, although I was far from a standout, I have been able to play and watch the sport all over the world. One thing that I always wanted to do as a rugby fan however was go to Twickenham (the main rugby stadium in England), and I finally got the opportunity a few weeks ago to go not once, but twice in the same week!

My initial Twickenham experience was an interesting one to say the least. The world rugby sevens was in town and I headed out there with a few friends.

The only way to get to Twickenham from most of London is to take a train from Waterloo station. This is very convenient, but when you are heading out for an event it also tends to be rather congested. This was not necessarily a bad thing though as the rugby sevens provides a wonderful atmosphere. The theme for this round of the sevens was to dress as though it was the 1970’s, so after making a quick pit stop at Camden market for some pin stripped jeans, an afro and some aviators I made my way to Waterloo to board the train.

Having never been to the rugby sevens before I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but I quickly came to realize the true atmosphere of the day isn’t about the rugby but rather the people watching and the crowd. The rugby was excellent, and we were lucky enough to get moved to the front row, but it truly was about looking around, seeing all of the costumes and singing the songs. While this was a fantastic Saturday in the sun Twickenham was only about two thirds full and it wasn’t exactly the environment I had been picturing when I dreamed of going there. Fortunately, I only had to wait 7 days for the chance to engage in the full Twickenham experience.

The following Saturday three friends and I headed back out on the train, but this time for the Heineken Cup Final. For those unfamiliar, this is the rugby equivalent of the Champions League final and happened to be taking place on the same day.

The atmosphere for this match was far tenser as the two Irish teams took the field and the knowledge of the fans around us was very impressive. As the pictures below will indicate, Twickenham, while full,  is quite an amazing place and the atmosphere as the tries are scored would be very difficult to beat.

I was very happy to get the chance to go to Twickenham not once, but twice, and I hope I can get there again in the near future; it was certainly one thing to cross off the bucket list!





Slovakia

11 03 2012

For February half term I finally decided to make my first European excursion since arriving in the UK. I was fortunate enough to be invited on a ski trip to Slovakia with Ron, and three of his friends, Lydia, Sarah and Karel.

I have to say I had never envisioned my first side trip being to Slovakia but it was a wonderful experience and I thoroughly enjoyed being back on skis!

The trip got off to a bit of a rocky start as our Ryan Air flight from Stansted was at 6:25am Saturday morning.  Having done my research and finding out I could take the 45 minute Stansted Express leaving at 4 in the morning, I trudged out of my flat around 3am and headed for Liverpool Street. I boarded the train with time to spare and was well on my way to an easy connection. Then disaster struck! An announcement was made that the Stansted tunnel was malfunctioning and we would have to stop at Bishops Stortford, approximately 15 miles short of my required destination.

As time ticked away and the queue of 200 people waited agonisingly for taxis to arrive I began to think of alternate plans for my week off. Finally, after a 25 minute wait, a coach arrived for us and I was able to get to the airport, talk my way ahead of the ever growing line up, and rush through security. I made the plane, but only just. Crisis averted.

After an uneventful flight we arrived in chilly Bratislava ( -17 as we landed),  where we were able to pick up a rental car and make our way to Devin Castle just on the Slovakian border.  This was only a very quick stop but well worth it as the hilltop provided a stunning view of the Danube and the Austrian countryside.  We then hopped back into the car and set off on the 3 hour drive to Liptovsky Mikulas, one of the ski resorts on the Low Tatras.

Upon arriving in Liptov, exhausted and starving, we were greeted by Josef, a 70 something Slovakian man with very limited English. Josef was an interesting fellow to say the least, walking with a noticeable limp, an old war injury, he showed us to our bungalovy and we settled in.

The next day we headed up to the mountain, sorted out our rental equipment and hit the slopes on just a gorgeous day. I had not been on skis for 15 years and had been a bit hesitant on going on this trip at all for the fear of spending all my time on the bunny hill, but I managed to think back to my Grade 7 Whistler ski trip with Mr. Brown`s class and made my way down that first hill. As the week progressed my skiing improved dramatically and I was able to get down every hill, albeit not quite as fast as the Olympians.

The first 2 days of skiing were beautiful, but extremely cold. While it was a great time to take pictures by the end of the second day the mountains were very icy and we were in desperate need of snow. Our prayers were answered in a big way as on Tuesday morning the skies opened up and didn`t stop until after we left on Saturday! The drastic change from day 2 to day 3 on the slopes allowed me to gain a bit more confidence as falling in the powder didn`t hurt nearly as much!

Being that I was on a holiday with 2 other Canadians one night we decided to take advantage of the fact we were in a country where ice hockey is a popular sport once again. We spent about an hour driving from Liptov to the city of Martin, where we watched a Slovakian Hockey League game between Martin and Dulka Trencin.  While the level of hockey reminded me a lot of the UBC Thunderbirds it was the atmosphere of the crowd that I particularly enjoyed. Singing all game and whistling instead of booing, it was much more akin to a European football crowd than an Ice Hockey crowd. It, like everything else in Slovakia, was very affordable and well worth seeing.

Another cultural experience was dining out in Slovakia. There was no kitchen in our bungalovy so eating out became a must. This experience was made much easier by the fact Karel is from Slovenian background and was able to speak enough Slovakian for us to get by. It certainly made ordering much easier.  One of the popular choices  for lunch was Klobasa (sausage) and hronolky (French fries). When I first ordered this I wasn`t sure if I was getting French fries or a French rugby player but eventually I learned to not rely on Karel too much and try to order for myself.

It was certainly a very memorable week in Slovakia and I am really looking forward to February half term next year when I will hopefully get another opportunity to hit the slopes! Attached are a few pictures from the trip, I hope you enjoy them!





Football culture in the UK

6 02 2012

Anyone who knows me knows that I am very passionate about sports and have affection for sports all over the globe. It should come as no surprise to any of you then that the following blog post will be focussing primarily on football (or soccer for you North American readers).

The aim of this post however is not to focus on whether Manchester United or Manchester City are going to win the Premiership, but rather it is to tell you a bit more about the culture of the United Kingdom. While on the surface this post will focus on football, the goal (pardon the pun) is to provide a commentary on how significant football has become in Britain. Throughout this post I will attempt to cover contentious issues such as geographical division, race, and the idea that football is “religion” in the UK. This is a topic that fascinates me, and while I don’t intend to write a book, or a PhD thesis, here I feel as though I could.

My first experience with the significance of football culture in Britain dates back to my days as a Year 9 student at Matthew Arnold School in Oxford.  As a new student I was constantly ridiculed by my classmates for my lack of knowledge of the sport and quickly realized that I must learn to love it or suffer through a very tough year. After watching a match on TV with my Dad about one month into the school year, I decided that I would support Chelsea and happily went along to school the next day thinking that this would stop all the comments and I could begin my quest to make friends. Was I ever wrong!

Once you support a football team it then becomes a matter of how knowledgeable you are about said team. You are quickly asked why you chose that particular team, you are asked to name your ideal starting XI and you are expected to know every player on the squad, how they were acquired and how much money they make. Who knew that memorizing the incomes of Dan Petrescu, Dennis Wise and Gustavo Poyet would be the most crucial homework I had throughout my year 9 experiences?!

As I have mentioned in my previous posts, I have now settled into my new home in Highbury/Islington. Those of you that know the football geography of London will be chuckling at the moment as you will know that my new home is smack dab in the centre of Arsenal territory.  While I thoroughly enjoy the area I live in, it can be downright scary as a Chelsea supporter. On one of my first trips to work following my move from the Chelsea friendly suburb of Hammersmith I noticed a young boy, probably about 10 or 11, wearing a Chelsea hat and scarf.  What I saw next was shocking.  As this boy walked into the tube station with his father he was being verbally abused by business men, dressed in suits, on their way to work. Insults I will not repeat in this blog were being shouted at this poor boy and it was drawing laughs from the ever growing crowd of people that were making their way to work. The boy and his father eventually got on their train, physically unharmed but perhaps emotionally scarred.

Now I realize that if I were to wear a Vancouver Canucks jersey in Toronto or a Crusaders shirt in Auckland that I would hear the occasional comment, but having done both in the past I never have had the same fear for my safety as I would walking around the streets in the Arsenal area wearing a Chelsea kit.  This is the fundamental difference I have noticed in the UK. The football club you support has become more significant than your religion, your race, your hair colour, and your gender.  While it is no longer socially acceptable to make a comment about someone’s physical appearance or sexual orientation, it appears to be perfectly fine to judge somebody solely on the football team they support.

The football culture of London as a whole is one that is worth describing as it is quite astonishing how divided the city has become over their football.  Currently, five teams in the twenty team Premier League are located in London and next year that will likely increase to at least six. While I live a stone’s throw from Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, (I can hear the crowd noise from my house) I am only two tube stops from White Hart Lane (Tottenham). Recently I have been teaching in Hackney which is located right between Arsenal and Tottenham.  The other day I tried to use an article about Arsenal winning their recent FA Cup match to teach the students about recounting the past. While this was particularly engaging for half the class it was as upsetting to the other half who were Tottenham supporters. As a supply teacher I have to be conscientious of what part of London I am in when I discuss football.

The schools I supply teach in are exceptionally diverse from a cultural and religious standpoint. Many of the schools embrace this by educating the children about holidays such as EID, Hanukkah, and Christmas.  From my experiences in inner city London schools there are rarely any issues with racism or people poking fun at other people’s religion. While I am not naive enough to think these problems are a thing of the past, it is apparent that the major point of contention amongst kids is what football team they support. Often times as I enter a classroom I am asked instantly what team I support and why I support them. I have to be careful, as in some schools I have said Chelsea and the class will immediately turn on me. I have learned to answer this question now by telling the students I am new to Britain and haven’t picked a team yet. This leads to a day of them trying to convince me to become a supporter of their local team, but it is better than the alternative.

While the people in the suburbs of London are very passionate about their football teams the centre of London is a totally different environment. Central London can only be described as sort of a neutral ground where all fans interact with one another without too many problems. There are no teams located in Central London, and in fact the most common football team paraphernalia you see is Manchester United. This has inspired a famous football chant when London clubs play up north in Manchester: “we’ll race you back to London”. This implies that many of the Manchester United fans are actually living and/or working in London, something that is in all likelihood true. London is the financial hotbed and most of the big companies seem to work out of a “London office”.

The idea of the London business man filling the seats of Old Trafford (Manchester United) not only provides a commentary on the variety of people that work in London, but it also is a good example of the north and south divide that exists in England. The supporters making the trip up to Manchester to support their particular London club are chanting this partly to say to the working class city of Manchester, that unless you work at a “proper” job in an office in London you can’t afford football tickets.  The north/south divide is a very contentious issue in England and will probably be the focus of another blog post somewhere down the line.  I am currently reading a book that focuses primarily on this issue and as someone who has only lived in the south of England, but has a very northern family; it is another issue that interests me greatly.

I had the opportunity to attend my second Premiership match this week and, as I was only 14 when I went to Stamford Bridge, (Chelsea) I was far more observant this time of the crowd and the atmosphere that surrounds a football match. With a few friends I went along to Craven Cottage (Fulham) to watch a midweek match against West Bromwich Albion. Not being a rivalry game and because it was mid week, the crowd was slightly tamer than the typical football match until Fulham put away a goal early in the second half. It was great to hear the crowd chanting in unison “you’re not singing anymore” to the West Brom supporters who had made the journey and had been singing all match.

Listening to the various crowds around the Premiership and even in the lower leagues is actually quite a good way to learn about England. One of the more famous examples occurred back in 2004 back when Wayne Rooney was playing for Everton. Prior to his transfer to Manchester United he was playing a game in Old Trafford and the crowd chanted “He’s fat, He’s Scouse, He’ll probably rob your house, Rooney, Rooney”.  While this was a personal attack on Mr. Rooney, it also poked fun at people from Liverpool (Scousers) and the stereotype that crime is abundant there. The creativity of the football crowd and the rivalry between cities is unlike Canada or New Zealand and creates a very enjoyable atmosphere for watching a match…just don’t get caught on the wrong side!

Football and the culture that surrounds it is a good metaphor of London as a whole. The teams these days are very multi-cultural and primarily owned by foreigners but all that truly matters to the football fan is the badge on the front of the jersey.  While there are still religious divides and racially motivated incidents in Britain the far more common identifier is what football team you support. While in Canada or New Zealand supporting the rival team might result in a joke or two the choice of football team is no joke to many Britons. Some rivalries are based on religion, the most famous being Rangers versus Celtic in Glasgow, while others based on simple geography, but wherever you go in the UK the rivalries are intense and often very heated. It is a major part of the British cultural identity and this is why I felt the need to write about it.








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