Fenner Brockway

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.

 

 

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Migration Museum

The concept behind the Migration Museum is such a good one and is needed more than ever in our divided Brexit broken country.  This exhibition in temporary accommodation in Lambeth shows how seven major migration moments changed Britain.  The title of the exhibition is ‘No Turning Back’.

It is useful to be reminded about the history that has forged Britain especially when the version of history portrayed by many in the EU referendum is one rewritten to suit the Little Englanders currently in the ascendant.  Here we see that Britain has been connected to the world over the centuries with migrations in and out.  Seven critical moments are represented here through artefacts and artistic responses.

I was struck by how the events that formed my own political education have become ‘history’.  The Rock Against Racism movement of the 1970s was represented with magazine covers and posters that fought back against the racist comments from some musicians (ones I admired!) in an age when people thought it was okay to make such comments.  Also here, though, is the formation of the East India Company and the start of a strong connection between Britain and India as well as the expulsion of the Huguenots from Europe.  Migrations of which Britain should be proud include the refuge granted to Spanish children during their civil war of the 30s and the German Jewish children who were brought to safety to escape the Nazi regime in Germany.

The section which I liked the best was the celebration of mixed race Britain.  The 2011 census showed this to be a growing area of self-identity. It is the obvious next development of a multi-racial and multi- cultural society.

Photographs, art works, personal recollections and quotes all add up to an amazing exhibition in which to get lost on a wet afternoon.  I loved it.  As I finished, I was struck by a huge poster with a statement below it of a young man, who might be mixed race but who was not white,  who voted for Brexit.  I wanted/needed to know more.  Why did he?  What statement does it make that he is concerned about immigration in a society where he and others like him have been beneficiaries?  It troubles me still but maybe I need to be challenged in my assumptions.  In any case, there was no more from him on offer.

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Black and British

David Olusoga’s book has the sub-title ‘A Forgotten History’ so his work is timely since it sets the record straight in terms of the multi-cultural nature of British society.  Since Roman times there has been a black presence on these islands and, as he shows in chapters that proceed chronologically, there has been a black participation in the life of the country ever since.

Some of the participants were not voluntary members of society, of course, since they were here as slaves.  One of the sad trends related here is the fashion for young enslaved black boys or girls to attend the rich in their houses only to be cast out when they have grown older and less appealing.

The noble history of the campaign to end the slave trade is given a lot of space but so also is the less well known accommodations given to the merchants who built their fortunes on slavery.  Compensation was paid!  The role of Thomas Clarkson was given prominence even though the sons of Wilberforce tried to play down his contribution at the same time as promoting the part played by their father.

The chapter on the second world war was informative in terms of the racism debate and the extent to which British attitudes were shaped by the insistence that the American colour (color) bar was maintained over here.  It is pleasing to think that the British were less prejudiced but the subsequent history, including the reluctance of the Attlee government to import black labour in the post war period, suggests that it was not an exclusively American attitude.

This was an excellent ‘opening up’ of an important part of British history and I was glad to have read it.  BlogBlackBritish

The Jewel in the Crown

I am late to the Paul Scott ‘Raj Quartet’ party!  I remember the fuss around the television series in the 80s, the first time I heard about the series of novels, but I didn’t read them back then. It has taken many years to get around to starting them and over fifty years since the first novel was published.  I am glad I did!

The novel is about the dying days of the British Empire rule of India and centres on Hari Kumar (or Harry Coomer as he once styled himself) a young Indian, brought up in England and sounding more English than the English, and Daphne Manners, a young British woman serving in India since the war back home took the lives of her immediate family.  Their growing relationship causes many other people to notice, on both sides of the racial divide.  There are other characters who exemplify the strict British code of living apart from the Indian people and Indians who are suspicious of anyone who gets close to the British. Then there is Miss Crane, deemed eccentric because of her willingness to treat Indians as people, and Ronald Merrick, the Chief of Police who believes that liberal attitudes will be the undoing of the Empire.

Told in a form of research gathered into a case of an attack on Daphne Manners and the aftermath, we have diary extracts, letters and interviews.  There is an exploration of the back story of key characters, especially Hari Kumar and Daphne Manners and over the course of the novel we piece together the story of the attack.  The book works well because it maintains interest in the central drama despite revealing this information on the first page.

The British rule in India in the early 40s was one of expectation that the people of India would support the war effort; why would they not be loyal to the throne in the time of need?  Not every Indian understands why a war involving the British should involve them and the Japanese threat is less of a threat to fellow Asians.

With themes of identity, race and Empire, this book remains essential reading.  It is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

 

 

 

King Alfred in Winchester

In Winchester so I had to walk down through the city to the statue of King Alfred which I first saw on a boyhood visit.  It is reassuring to see him still in place.  The King of Wessex was a fifth son so was never expected to rule the kingdom; he became an active student instead and devoted his time to learning.  He earned the title ‘great’ because he had a unique combination of statesmanship, scholarship and military skill.

The statue looking up the main street of the city shows him holding his sword in a gesture of victory or authority or both.  He stands at 17 feet from the plinth so is an imposing figure.  The artist Hamo Thorneycroft was a member of the Royal Academy.  His statue of Alfred was erected in 1899 to mark a thousand years since his death.

Despite being clean shaven in most other depictions of Alfred, including coinage from his reign, this sculpture has him with a full beard; the type of beard those late Victorians thought befitted a King!BlogKingAlfredWinchester

Frome in Palestine

This exhibition in the Somerset town of Frome was planned to coincide with the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration in 1917.  The interesting angle taken by the organisers was to place local history onto an international picture.  The main part of the exhibition was actually called ‘Britain in Palestine’ and was displayed at SOAS in London a few years ago.  This exhibition has a local element added with memories and photographs of Frome people who served in Palestine during the British Mandate in the police or the army or people who now live in Frome who had relatives or past connections with the country.

The photographs are black and white as you would expect and there is a large amount of writing to wade through but it is an important period. Once again, it seems, the ending of the British rule of part of the world ends in an ugly way; the complications of the promises made to both Jewish and Muslim leaders did not help matters.

The people included here were soldiers, policemen, refugees, clerics and people of faith, tourists and civil servants.  Some went there because they were commanded to while others headed to the country for the heritage or the promise of a new life.  The hopes of Jewish people, some desperate from the effects of war, were hard to reconcile with the hopes of the Arab inhabitants who lived there.

At the centre of the problem was a British politician who believed he had the right to make decisions about a part of the world his country ruled. Oh, the British Empire!

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Casuals

In Manchester so off to find the sculpture called ‘Casuals’.  It is on the canal side on land that used to be industrial when the Manchester Ship Canal was at its height.  Designed by the artist Broadbent, it is a representation of the union cards dock workers needed to be able to gain employment.  The conditions were harsh, though, and the men were not guaranteed work.  They needed to line up every day to see if they would be taken on. The casual nature of this employment made it very difficult for people to know if they could support their families. It also led to conflict when the same group of men were competing for the places on a job.

Names and photographs of some of the workers are included in the artwork which now sits on the walkway along the canal near to the regenerated Salford Quays.