On the South Downs, overlooking Brighton, is a monument to soldiers from India who died in the First World War. The Pavilion in Brighton town was used as a hospital for wounded soldiers and the bodies of the dead Hindus and Sikhs were cremated on this spot. The Muslim soldiers were taken to Woking for burial.
The word ‘chattri’ means umbrella in Urdu, Punjabi and Hindi. It stands here as a memorial to honour the fallen from India who died a long way from home. It was erected in 1921 and opened by the then Prince of Wales. There are three slabs where the cremations took place. These were below the monument itself and had wreaths of poppies when I visited.
As always when I see walls full of names, I tried to hang on to one that I could remember. Jai Singh was the name I picked out. Trying to keep one name in mind is a way of remembering this was a person; lists of names can be impersonal. One and a half million soldiers from India served in the forces of the Empire. About twelve thousand of the wounded were in hospital in sites around Brighton. Fifty three Hindus and Sikhs who died in Brighton were cremated here.
I want to pay tribute to the cartoonist Steve Bell whose work in ‘The Guardian’ newspaper keeps me sane in these uncertain times. He always seems to express a sense of fun and a glimmer of hope while skewering the self- righteous. Never has he been more needed than during this UK election period, an election that was unnecessary in any case and was little more than a vanity project for the current Prime Minister. When we wake up tomorrow, there might be good news. However, Steve Bell will have something to say/write/draw that will speak for many of us.
For most of my adult life I have been an Americanophile (if such a word exists). I dreamed of visiting. Obviously, growing up in the 60s and 70s much of my cultural background is American- the blog entries here show that! I finally made the journey there in the 90s, when I could afford to fly. I have been back many times since! San Francisco, Boston and Chicago all vie for status as my favourite city.
So what changed? First, the referendum in June 2016 showed me that my own country is divided. I am part of the 48% (this would be the near- half of the voting public discounted by the British Prime Minister as she tries to make Brexit work) and I am part of the majority (?) of people from around the world stunned by Trump’s victory in the USA. I have read acres of journalism on how we got to this point. I am tired of reading about ‘uniting’ as if the diverse views of broken Britain can be reconciled. Instead, I am finding my own way of coping with the current situation.
One of the slogans used by the Leave camp in the referendum was ‘Out and Into the World’. Given that many of the Leave voters were Little Englanders, I cannot believe they actually subscribed to this view but I accept the ‘Into the World’ part of that slogan.
I have decided I need to explore film from the wider world and read more books from, or about, other cultures. My gesture to the Brexiteers is to ensure I read more from Europe and see more European films. My gesture to the USA is to reduce its influence in my cultural life: fewer books from the States; fewer American films. In fact, the wider I spread the net, the better. We could all do with more of the world and less of America.
Others may think my gestures are futile. I will feel better.
The best thing about reading A Level textbooks for history is the knowledge that there is no exam at the end of it. Add to that the fact that there is no course work either! For both of these reasons studying units of the History curriculum for A Level is pure joy. Maybe this is what education used to be like before politicians got involved. Maybe studying for the sake of it is what is needed to produce good learners. I should not like to deny the students seeking validation the experience of exams but, for me, those days are over.
The A Level textbooks continue to provide the right level at which to access high quality information on a topic or period in history. The Access to History series I have used also directs you to particular historians if you want to study specific areas in greater depth.
I started a couple of years ago with a unit on the USA involvement in Asia after the Second World War, particularly in Korea and Vietnam. Since then I have studied a unit on Presidents of the USA in the later half of the Twentieth Century (but I did this before the last Presidential election), a unit on the Indian fight for independence and, most recently, a unit on Germany from defeat in 1945 to reunification.
I studied British and European history for my own A Level back in the 70s, before many of the events in these books had even taken place! This, though, is the way to study history without tears. I recommend it.
The late, great film critic Roger Ebert once said “I have seen untold numbers of movies and forgotten most of them.” I was thinking about this recently as, although I go to the cinema a lot (A LOT!) I rarely write about the films I have most recently seen.
Some films have an emotional punch and make me think about them for days afterwards. These are the films that I think will end up in my hinterland. The question is: when do they earn a place there? Even films which seemed important at first, fade away with time.
The hinterland is a place for the films, books etc that mean a lot to me and only the films that still resonate after a year or two can enter. In the spirit of Roger Ebert, the films that pass by like traffic are not to be noted. Instead, this blog will concentrate on the things which last.
I am the sort of person who has a pile of books sitting on my ‘to read’ shelf, all looking inviting. Most were bought because I was keen to read them and I just knew I would get down to them almost immediately. Why is it then that some sit around for a year or more? The same thing happens on my Kindle; I buy books because I want them rather than need them.
Last year, I made a concerted effort to read more female writers since a quick survey of my reading habits showed I read more men than women. I also aimed to read more writers in translation and/or from countries other than Britain and USA. It turned out to be the year of ‘balance’ since I alternated between male and female writers and between e-books and physical books. I also read more international writers.
This year, by way of a change, I decided to let chance and serendipity enter. So I have prepared cards with topics, themes and continents on them to pull out one at a time. Whatever is on the card has to direct me to a book that fits the theme. Cards include general ideas (diversity, identity etc), places (Asia, Africa etc) and specific sources (mentioned in an Observer review). Who knows if this is a good way to do things but I am going to give it a try. I might even reduce the number of books on that ‘to read’ shelf.
I intend one thing from this exercise above all others. The USA set itself on a new direction, starting today. It is not a direction I intend to follow. I intend to develop a wider world reading list and one that reduces the American presence on it.
Here is a moment from 2016 that should not be forgotten. It should stand as a reminder of how low we can sink in British politics. The UKIP poster showing non- white faces coming to Britain as a ‘flood’ was unveiled with a week to go in the EU referendum. That such a hateful and hate filled poster should even have been considered is a sign of the illness in our democracy.
Gary Younge, the Guardian journalist I admire, spoke of 2016 as the year that vulgarity, divisiveness and exclusion won. It should also be the point from which the recovery takes place. Surely, we cannot sink lower in our public discourse. So, for me, the unveiling of the poster should never be forgotten and should be the call to arms.
Fortunately, the Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell is on hand with the perfect visual riposte to such events. I salute Gary Younge and I salute Steve Bell and I hope 2017 shows the better side of Britain.