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.
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.
I have been exploring the excellent BFI archive recently and came across two documentaries about race relations in Britain. The first, from the 60s, was part of the ITV current affairs series ‘This Week’ and the second from the ITV current affairs series, ‘World in Action’. I may well have seen the second of these programmes, called ‘Black to Front’ since I was a keen watcher of ‘World in Action’ in the 70s as well as an awakening political activist.
‘Black to Front’ covered the by-election in Lambeth Central in 1978 when the threat of the racist National Front was all too real. The far right party had gone through a period of rising support, especially in parliamentary by-elections, often defeating the, then, third-party the Liberals into fourth place. This particular by-election was important as Brixton, with its increasing black population, was part of the constituency.
In Leeds in 1965, the late great Desmond Wilcox interviewed families for a documentary called ‘The Negro Next Door’. The attitudes of the white residents seem somewhat shocking today but Wilcox was a brilliant journalist and his questions kept gently probing the preconceptions.
Despite being a decade apart, both documentaries took one street to act as a microcosm of the whole nation. In both programmes, neighbours were brought together to discuss the issues. This was more awkward and revealing in the 1965 documentary since the attitudes had yet to soften or get hidden behind a veneer of politeness.
The BFI archive is fascinating with many programmes available free of charge. It acts as a fascinating resource for seeing how the country has changed (or not) and how social attitudes build national character. I like going through programmes from my younger years even if I missed them at the time. Watching the world as it once was, from traffic to fashion, is a way of revisiting my childhood and teenage years.
These documentaries from the BFI archive are in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
Kamila Shamsie is an amazing writer. I was blown away by ‘Burnt Shadows’ so was keen to read this novel, published this year. All the reviews refer to the story as a re-telling of Antigone and so it is but the contemporary setting works well and explores many of the dilemmas of young Muslims who seem to be judged in a way other sectors of our society are not. The unspoken expectation is that Muslims have to prove their loyalty on an almost daily basis. Step forward the newly promoted Muslim Home Secretary whose expedient pronouncements on how others should show their loyalty to the state serve his political ambitions more than they address the current tensions.
There are two families involved in this story: the Home Secretary and his privileged son; and the three children of a suspected terrorist, killed in action in some foreign land leaving them in London to move on and out of his shadow. The eldest child, Isma, is the sensible one, the studious one who has had to care for her twin siblings following the death of their mother and grandmother. The story starts with her and we start to piece together a story of brother and sisters from the Wembley area whose normality is striking.
In America where she is studying, Isma meets Eamonn (and deliberately not Ayman) the son of the Home Secretary. Drifting rather than working, he strikes up a friendship with her and through an offer to deliver a package ends up meeting the younger sister, Aneeka, back in London.
Aneeka is the most forceful of the characters and she sees in Eamonn an opportunity. Love gets in the way but the two develop a relationship that could make or break them.
Parvaiz is the brother who took a different path. His route to radicalisation is detailed in the chapters dedicated to his story but it is the impact he has on others that acts as the anchor of the book. All the other characters are ready to judge him for his actions but Aneeka, our Antigone figure, is the one who puts her views aside to do what she thinks is right.
This is a novel by a wonderful writer. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This novel by Naomi Alderman is one to set the mind racing. It was such a good conceit that I had to keep reading as I could not see how it could be concluded in a satisfactory way. The fact that the ending worked so well shows what an amazing novelist Naomi Alderman is.
In a world where it is girls rather than boys who have the power, the relationships and attitudes of the genders is explored through several key characters from different parts of the world whose lives intersect. It starts with teenage girls who discover an ability to transmit a sort of electric current through their finger tips. As the young women reach an age when they are finding a place in the world, it becomes an interesting idea that these girls flex their metaphorical and literal muscles. Some are kind and some are not.
What works best of all in this novel is that we are not immersed in an alternative reality but see the awakening of something new. Therefore, it is not a case of genders having switched places but rather a genuine power- play between males and females, with the females seeming to come out on top. In the small details is a larger picture revealed: boys educated in single sex schools for their own safety; some boys dressing as
Naomi Alderman encourages us to reflect on the imbalance of power between men and women but also explores deeper themes of morality of those who hold power, whatever their gender. The resulting novel takes us through several years of shifting ground until we reach a point where it is clear that boys and men will grow up as the weaker sex; the character of Tunde perfectly illustrates the change for young men who thought their world of entitlement was a birth right.
‘The Power’ by Naomi Alderman is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
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!
The work of Joe Sacco inspired me to find more graphic novels and graphic reportage so, after years of never going near the shelf with all the ‘comic books’, I now look out for new titles that are worth reading. This memoir by Marcelino Truong is brilliant. It follows an earlier work that I have yet to read but this volume covering the years 1963- 1975 is an excellent evocation of an interesting era. It makes it more interesting that the author/artist has dual heritage: his mother was French and his father Vietnamese. His father’s job in the Embassy in London brought the family to Britain and, although he changed jobs, this where they stayed.
Truong combines information about the Vietnam War with a personal family story. Where the two overlap, the most insights are to be found. In some senses, this is the story of every family. ‘Marco’ grew up in London at the same time I did so the references, both pictorial and written, to the changing times are of particular interest. So, too, is the invitation to consider the Vietnam War from a different angle. It isn’t the American angle but neither is it the contrary North Vietnamese view of things. Instead, Marco sees the radical students around him supporting the anti- colonial forces of the north and cannot understand why the communists are seen as benign. His position is one of concern for the family and friends in South Vietnam.
As his hair grew longer in the 70s so did his understanding of what was actually going on in Vietnam. When he moves to France as a teenager, he continues to find himself in the middle of the conflict between North Vietnamese supporting students and those who support the ‘western values’.
This memoir has a parallel story, though. It is one of being of mixed heritage and of living with a mother who has bipolar disorder. The effect of these two factors in his growing up and the directions taken by each of his siblings make for a poignant reminder of what family life can be.
‘Saigon Calling’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?