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.




Taylor Wessing Photographic Prize 2017

I have been going to this exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery for 9 years.  This was the tenth exhibition so I must have missed just the very first year.  As usual, I was impressed by so many pictures and played the game of awarding my own first and second prizes.  So often, my selection is different from the judges but, even though I bow to their greater knowledge and expertise, I use just the criterion ‘do I like it?’.  It works for me.

The winner as identified by the official judges was an amazing portrait of a refugee rescued from the Mediterranean.  His face conveys so many things but the context makes it a powerful portrait of hope and determination.  The young man stares at the camera. The photograph was taken by Cesar Dezfuli.

My personal favourites were the two young men locked in an embrace that seems both brotherly and strong.  This image by Baud Postma was on the front cover of the catalogue.  The third image that impressed me was also more to do with the context.  Craig Easton photographed sixteen year olds from around Britain.  The subjects also wrote about themselves.  Paddy couldn’t write so his sister did it for him.  He ‘spoke’ about being a traveller and about the loss of his brother and then father in a powerful testimony.

This annual visit to the National Portrait Gallery has become a fixture in my year.

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!


This is London

BlogThisisLondonHaving read Ben Judah’s excellent book on Russia under Putin, I was keen to read his insights into London in the twenty- first century.  As a Londoner, I am a keen Londonophile even though, like all enthusiasts, my affection is kept intact by no longer having to live there!

This is first class reportage of life in the capital as experienced by those on the fringes, politically and economically rather than geographically.  Apparently, over 40% of the population of London was born elsewhere in the world. Yet London remains a magnet and the route to the city is well worn by those with great hopes.

Ben Judah states that he needs to see things for himself.  He distrusts statistics.  So, in this book, he beds out for the night with rough sleepers near Hyde Park and meets people in diverse situations across the capital.  One of the most interesting interviewees was a policeman, offering his views from one side of the law.  His insights are made more interesting by the fact that he is Nigerian.

It becomes clear that there is a congregating of ethnic groups in particular corners, a fact that is articulated by many of the subjects interviewed here.  Sometimes this is for safety and companionship and other times it is the economics that keeps people in their place.

Judah does not often pass judgement on what he sees; he communicates his findings which are all based on what he encountered by crossing London.  At times, things seem grim yet this is still a city that welcomes people.  London is continually renewed by the injection of differing cultures.  The views of the migrants on the British are illuminating.

The interviews are thorough and Judah’s gift is to let people speak for themselves.  The stories they tell show that there are many Londons; some are places worth visiting and others you might wish to avoid.

The Gustav Sonata

Rose Tremain is one of my favourite authors.  Her work is always thought provoking and she writes with fidelity to her characters.  This novel has an air of sadness hanging over it as we trace the life of Gustav who grows up during the time of the Second World War but in neutral Switzerland where the war should not affect him.  The fact that his late father was a policeman who died when Gustav was still a child shows that neutrality does not mean free from harm.

BlogGustavSonataTo his mother, Gustav’s father was a hero and this is how his story is told but there is a darker secret that Gustav unravels later in life; a story of moral courage in times of difficulty.  His father helped Jewish refugees enter the country when the government had closed the door.  This act had implications for his livelihood and possibly his liberty but it is the mother and son who suffer.

When Gustav makes friends with the Jewish boy, Anton, who has ambitions to be a concert pianist, he enters a world with a mother and father who dote on their son.  That their family life is so different from his own leads to reflection on fate and fairness.  The friendship endures even though their lives take different paths.  While Gustav makes friends, his mother cannot build bridges with a Jewish family when Jewish people were significant in the fate of her husband.

The novel is about settling for things in life.  Gustav grows into adulthood, reasonably successful in his chosen career yet with a gap.   His friendship with Anton endures despite the latter’s departure for bigger cities and it is only towards the end that the gap for Gustav is filled in a way that is unexpected but completely appropriate.

There is a cast of characters around Gustav who represent the various reactions to life’s vicissitudes.  ‘The Gustav Sonata’ is ultimately a sweet novel if that word can be used without it seeming to dampen the praise.  Let me say that, at the end, I was so pleased the way it turned out for Gustav.

Any Known Blood

BlogAnyKnownBloodThis novel by Lawrence Hill made for fascinating reading.  A novel, it follows the story of Langston Cane as he researches his family background in preparation for a novel.  This metacognition is heightened by the fact that each of the (male) relatives he follows are also called Langston Cane.

‘Our’ Langston is number five and working for a government minister when the book opens but a misdemeanour with a speech he prepares for his boss finds him out of work. As his wife has also left him, he is without a purpose until family history sends him from Toronto to Baltimore and his aunt who is estranged from her brother.  She has information about her father and grandfather and Langston uses this to piece together a story of race and civil rights across the generations.

Both world wars feature as does the underground railway to Canada used by slaves escaping the USA.  The civil rights movement and interracial marriage are here, too.   An African illegally resident is a key character while historical figures such as John Brown and Frederick Douglass pop up.

What makes the book work as more than a fictionalised family history is the story of Cane trying to navigate the present while looking into the past.  Lawrence Hill avoids giving us a chronological version of the past Cane’s revealing bits of the past out of sequence before providing ‘chunks’ of the story of previous Langston Canes.

‘Any Known Blood’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?


Paddington Bear

The death this week of Michael Bond, creator of Paddington Bear, marks another part of my childhood passing away.  I loved the books about the bear from Peru who comes to London, where I lived as a boy, as a refugee and who learns how to fit in with the British. The first book was published in 1958 and I read many of them in the 60s.  Yet, it was an animated version broadcast by the BBC in the 70s that seared an image of the bear in my mind.  With the late great Michael Hordern as the voice of Paddington, the series of short programmes was the definitive interpretation of the stories.

The greatest animation of all time must surely be ‘Paddington Bear Goes to the Movies’ when the young bear performed a version of ‘Singing in the Rain’. Sublime!  Thank you Michael Bond.