In London so I crossed to the Holborn area on my way to the British Museum because I wanted to seek out the statue of Fenner Brockway. It was created by Ian Walters and unveiled by Michael Foot in 1985 when the subject was still alive; he died in 1988 at the age of 99.
Throughout his life he campaigned for race equality, peace and anti-colonialism. He was a conscientious objector in the First World War but later thought that taking up arms might be necessary. His change of mind was influenced by the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War.
He served as a Labour MP twice but with a twenty year gap between his two periods in the House of Commons. He lost his seat in 1964 which was surprising as it was a year of a Labour victory but he was considered to be a supporter of immigration to his constituency. He later served in the House of Lords and he continued to be a campaigner until his death.
In Manchester on Armistice Day so I went to the Imperial War Museum North in time for the eleven o’clock two minutes’ silence. I am a frequent visitor to the IWM in London but this was my first visit to this northern version. I was impressed. It was the right place to be to mark the eleven o’clock silence.
I spent the time beforehand looking at the exhibits which focused on the effects of war on the innocents who got caught up in conflict through no fault of their own. The exhibits of the Kindertransport were particularly moving but so too were the artefacts of evacuees and the stories of families torn apart by wars of one sort or another.
The Cold War exhibit just seemed to serve as a reminder that the actions of politicians at these times lead to untold misery for so many. The museum is careful to stick to facts and not apportion blame but the inclusion of a ‘room’ specifically on the impact of war on people other than the military is a wise move.
In one corner of the museum, a doorway of suitcases acted as the perfect reminder that war always leads to upheaval and, for many, the loss of home and security.
The Imperial War Museum North is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
The Royal Pavilion in Brighton is an amazing building if only because it looks so out of place in a southern English seaside city. The gateway at the southern end was not part of the original John Nash design although it complements the exotic aspirations of the building. Rather, the gate was a gift from the people of India for ‘caring for her sons’ during the First World War. The Pavilion was used as a hospital for the wounded so, leaving aside the idea that the Indians came to the aid of the Empire when Britain was under threat, it was a generous gift from the people of India.
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 have long thought that Gertrude Bell’s life would make an amazing film. Not only did she tread a path that few women had in her time but she also was another Westerner who fell in love with the East. In the ways of the British Empire, she was in love with a part of the world that the British controlled and aware that there was a conflict in admiring the people who were subjugated to British rule. No matter how benevolent the rule was, it was rule nevertheless.
The documentary has Tilda Swinton reading extracts from her letters, usually to those ‘back home’ while archive footage and photographs of Bell are shown on-screen. That we never see Tilda Swinton ‘as’ Gertrude Bell is a wise move since the photographic image of her is not affected. Other people feature, people who knew her well, such as T. E. Lawrence, but these people are played by actors and we see them in black and white addressing the camera. Bell’s non- presence is all the more powerful because of this technique.
The story of the young woman who gained a First in History and who then turned East is a wonderful one. Her knowledge of the people and places of the Middle East made her a key figure in the peace conference following the First World War. Her role in setting up a country called Iraq before serving the government there in the field of archaeology illustrates well the way women were treated and viewed. In many cases, she was referred to as a ‘right hand man’. She understood she did not fit in when the social occasions were put on, organised as they were for the men and their wives. She was not really accepted in either group.
The film is in black and white throughout making the archive footage stand out. It is a very good introduction to the life of an amazing woman. ‘Letters from Baghdad’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I heard Jonathan Dean, the author of this excellent book, speak at the Bath Festival this year. Having heard him talk about identity and nationality I was keen to read his story of a search into family history; his grandfather and great- grandfather had both been refugees in their early lives. What makes this book stand out from others of a similar vein is the background in which he is writing. The UK referendum on EU membership has changed the way we talk about belonging and foreigners. There is a new found assertiveness among those who voted Leave for saying what they think about people who are different. This raises questions which Jonathan Dean uses in his exploration of his own family: would they be welcome now? Would Britain accept people fleeing for their lives or does the fact that modern refugees mostly have different coloured skin make a difference?
Using his grandfather’s diaries and letters and his great- grandfather’s memoir, the author shows that leaving home is never easy. Trying to make a new life in a new country is full of difficulties. What does it mean to fit in?
Throughout the book, he traces their steps, taking in significant places on both men’s journeys. Heinz, his grandfather fled Vienna for Britain before the start of the Second World War. With his brother, he left his parents behind to be sent to concentration camps. Being Jewish, the need to escape to safety was obvious but they had to go without their parents. Heinz’s story is one of becoming British. He stayed here and raised his family as British.
David, his great- grandfather, lived out his life in the Vienna from which Heinz fled. But this was not where he was from. Just as his son made Britain his home, the father found sanctuary in Austria as a refugee from a town in what was then Poland but is now Ukraine. It is one of the fascinating aspects of this book that he returned to live in Vienna after the concentration camp experience, living among people who had been happy to see him carted off.
The book is an important one. The rise of a new nationalism is fed by the Leave result of the referendum but casual xenophobia should not be allowed a free ride. This book reminds us of the humane reasons for refuge and the fact that for many people seeking asylum is a necessity, not a choice.
‘I Must Belong Somewhere’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
Reading Anthony Sattin’s book reminded me of this television drama from 1992 with the excellent Ralph Fiennes as T. E. Lawrence, otherwise known as Lawrence of Arabia. In this particular film, the drama revolves around the post- war peace conference in Paris where the victorious allies carved up the world. This was the stage on which Lawrence, acting as an adviser to Feisal, the would- be leader of a new Arab nation; one that they believed had been promised by Britain during the war in return for Arab support.
The Ottoman Empire collapsed and the spoils were there for the taking by Britain and France. Both countries wanted influence in the area and the claims of the Arab peoples, themselves, were forgotten.
Denis Quilley played Lord Curzon and Nicholas Jones played Lord Dyson. The fact that both key players on the British side were Lords says a lot about the times! Feisal was played by Anthony Siddig.
The film shows clearly the growing British exasperation with Lawrence, especially over what they see as his disloyalty, while Lawrence shows his contempt for duplicitous politicians. The peace conference is the perfect setting for the political manoeuvering of nations. It also shows how the establishment deals with outsiders.
At this stage of his life, Lawrence is famous. A stage show in London portrays him as a heroic figure in the Middle East. Whether the man himself is happy to be portrayed in this way is left open but the film does show that identity can be forced on people as well as embraced. By showing how awkward he is with women, the implication is that he prefers men for intimacy. I prefer Anthony Sattin’s conclusion that we do not have the evidence on which to conclude whether or not he was gay. I suppose in a way it proves its own point: identity can be forced upon people.
‘A Dangerous Man: Lawrence After Arabia’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?