The Raj Quartet

One of the pleasant side effects of turning my back on BBC news and the overpaid (male) presenters is that I have discovered new things on Radio Four Extra.  I thought I could never be without Radio 4 in the morning with the Today Programme a staple of my life since student days but it seems I can!  Radio 4 Extra has programmes from the archive and I recently discovered that they are broadcasting the 2005 production of Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet.

I have yet to read my way through the four books that make up Scott’s highest literary achievement but I started listening to the episodes that covered ‘The Jewel in the Crown’ and then carried on listening past ‘The Day of the Scorpion’ and on to the episodes that covered the final two books.

It was captivating radio in the way that radio drama can be; an intimate experience that is expansive at the same time.  Across nine hour long episodes it follows the story of the British in India and their effect on the Indians during the second world war when it is becoming increasingly clear that British rule must come to an end.

The books are not given equal exposure; while ‘The Jewel in the Crown’ is covered well, the third book of the quartet is only given one episode and large parts of ‘The Day of the Scorpion’ are left out.   This is why is worth reading as well as listening.  Scott may have been discursive at times but the back story of the end of empire is worth covering.

Mark Bazely played Ronald Merrick and Prasanna Puwanarajah played Hari Kumar.  Lia Williams was Sarah Layton and Anna Maxwell Martin was Daphne Manners.  My favourite performance was Gary Waldhorn’s Count Bronowski.

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The Brothers Size

I should have known when I booked my ticket and saw only single seats left that this was a play that would be well regarded.  Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, now more fanmous as the writer of the film ‘Moonlight’, has constructed a work of art that explores the tensions of brotherhood and the difficulty of maintaining a straight path through life when there are others to set you off course.

The names of the characters took a while to seep through my British brain but, once there, they added to the poetry.  Oshoosi Size lives with his older brother Ogun who has taken him in after his return from prison.  Older brother would rather younger had nothing to do with Elegba, friend and former cell mate of Oshoosi.  Yet we all need friends and there is the other sort of brotherhood to be thought about.

The three characters dance around each other, sometimes literally, as they learn to get along and they vie for the loyalty they feel they are owed.  The sense of the poetic is here all the time but so, too, is the sense of the dramatic even to the point where some of the stage directions are spoken out loud by the characters; I found this affected at first until it became affecting and then I loved it.

The pressures on young black men is a central theme.  Trying to earn a living, never mind respect, is hard work.  As the three actors move around the circle chalked on the stage in an opening act, the feeling that things will not end well grows.  Bijan Sheibani directed the play with Jonathan Ajayi, Sope Dirisu and Anthony Welsh as the three actors.  Manuel Pinheiro provided the music from the side of the stage.

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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North Facing

This book by Tony Peake is short but it contains a big story in the limited number of pages.  It is a story of awakening in 60s South Africa.  Young Paul is different from his contemporaries in many ways, not least because his parents came to the country to avoid a grim post war Britain.  Here, they hoped to build a life for themselves among the white population whose attitudes are alien and sometimes hostile.

Paul has to board during the week and is desperate to belong.  He is included in a select group of pupils by a teacher who aims to broaden the minds of his charges by getting them to discuss the news.  Of more worth to the young Paul is the attention from popular boy Andre Du Toit.  The gang that gather around this boy vie for preferment.  Du Toit encourages them by keeping a pecking order and regularly demoting boys so that their loyalty is always to them and not each other.

Paul watches as his parents also try to belong and the attention of Du Toit’s father.  What starts as acceptance turns into something else when the questions about the regime threaten to spoil a useful friendship.

The story is told in flashback so we have an adult Paul driving in modern day South Africa in search of a person who may have been more influential than he realised when he was a boy.  This person stands as a role model for the adult Paul and represents the moral code that was missing in apartheid South Africa.  The crossing of boundaries involves the race issue as well as class and nationality and, finally, sexuality.

‘North Facing’ by Tony Peake is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

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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

BFI Archive: Race Relations

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.

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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.

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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?

A Passage to India

I studied this book by E.M. Forster for A Level.  Exams, especially in literature, are designed to drain all interest from what might otherwise have been a good novel. So, my views on this book have always been clouded somewhat by the background knowledge that I spent hours trying to deconstruct the meaning rather than enjoy it.

Nearly forty years later and I think sufficient time has passed to read it again and this time as a reader rather than as a pupil.  I was surprised by how much I appreciated the story, especially the way the narrative had been constructed.  Another casualty of the ‘set book syndrome’ is that you end up moving backwards and forwards across the text to identify themes or gather quotes to support an essay statement. Quite soon, the idea that the book has an arc and that the deeper meaning is layered across the plot is lost.

I remember having a soft spot for both Aziz and Fielding as Forster himself must have done.  The Indian doctor and the British headteacher have a friendship not reflected elsewhere in the society in which they lived.  The visitors, Mrs Moore and Miss Quested, while central to the drama have an outsiders view of relations between the races in the Raj.  Their connection to the ‘real’ India is one of observation of the exotic.  Fielding’s answer that they should try seeing Indians if they want to see India is at the heart of Forster’s message.

I was glad to return to this novel so many years later.  I sourced the version I used in a classroom in the 70s; I needed the same cover, size of book and feel of the pages. It worked for me.

‘A Passage to India’ by E. M. Forster is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

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