Featured

Re-examining the slave trade is good for Britain

This week the statue of Lord Nelson was taken down in a dignified ceremony to be taken to a museum. The monument to the naval leader who had defended slavery had been a symbol of pain and humiliation, and its removal was described by culture minister John King as “a step towards the healing of the nation”. 

Despite the efforts of Black Lives Matter protestors, the statue wasn’t atop Nelson’s Column in London; it had been standing in the Barbadian capital Bridgetown for more than two centuries. 

Throughout the Anglophone world, calls are growing for the re-examination of the slave era. In Britain there is more public interest in Britain’s involvement in the slave trade and the industries that relied on slave labour now than at any other time in recent decades. This is partly because staggeringly little is known about it among certain generations and partly because attitudes have shifted away from the assumption that the Empire was simply a force for good, towards wanting to hear the experiences of the black and brown people who now call Britain home.  

And as historian James Walvin said in Enslaved, the recent BBC Two series with Samuel L Jackson, the reason that the British public tolerated involvement in slavery persisted so long was: “out of sight, out of mind”. 

Yet the newly rediscovered interest in Britain’s deep involvement with slavery has the power to disgust and revolt as it did 200 years ago, when abolitionists were travelling the country revealing to incredulous audiences the British-made iron shackles and torture implements being used in and en route to the Caribbean.  

After the statue of benefactor Edward Colston was dragged through the streets of Bristol and tipped into the city’s harbour in June, journalists reported that his employer, the Royal African Company, branded the West Africans it sold as slaves – men, women and children – with the initials of their owners. This detail was, to many people, news.

Portraits of the Georgian aspiring middle classes depict respectability. The Vigor Family by Joseph Highmore, 1744, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Just as Colston had a hidden side, so do many other figures and events we haven’t tended to associate with slavery. It was King Charles II who expanded British slavery into West Africa; it was the Industrial Revolution that enabled the mass production of restraints that were to be used on African slaves and the “manila” bracelets (often in factories in Birmingham) with which slaves could be bought. Our images of wigged noblemen dashing from stately homes to Georgian townhouses in pursuit of Jane Austen heroines all need serious updating. How did those noblemen make their money? What funded those mansions? The British economy was increasingly built around slavery, so even people not involved in human trade or forced labour may well have only been one step removed. 

Manilas such as these made in Birmingham were used as currency to buy slaves. Credit: Coincoin.com

The process of writing slavery back into our history is gaining pace. Last month the Financial Times told its readers about an “uncomfortable” walking tour of the City of London, a “financier of slave industries and a hotbed of abolitionism”. Institutions such as the Church of England and the Bank of England have apologised for their links to slavery. Other institutions’ links have been brought to light by recent academic work, while still others are hastily and nervously peering into their own archives.  

Of course, for this to become an academic exercise, or, worse still, just a reputation-saving one – would be a great shame. There is something deeply right, and therapeutic, about opening the door to reckoning when it comes knocking. Britain’s reputation here has not been good. Whenever someone (usually a black person) suggests reparations should be paid, some people (usually whites) roll their eyes and say history has moved on, and how would you know whom to pay and so on. 

Yet on the other side of the ocean, several institutions are just getting on with working it out. Let’s start with the Churches, whose historic involvement in slavery is particularly morally jarring. In the US, a number of Episcopalian (Anglican) and Presbyterian institutions have earmarked or collected funds for reparations. The diocese of Maryland has so far raised US$100,000 of a sought $1,000,000 and Long Island has pledged $500,000 to invest in education and training for local African-Americans. Georgetown (Catholic) University in Washington has undertaken a host of measures, partly under pressure from students, including raising tuition fees to support healthcare and education programmes in Maryland and Louisiana, which are home to many descendants of 272 slaves the university sold in 1838. 

These actions are striking because they reflect a heartfelt willingness to undo some of the long-lasting social and structural injustices erected by the slave era. What would the altruism seen at Georgetown achieve if it were replicated by banks, that have far more money than Churches, or governments? And what about the trade that continues today – how wealthy would the Caribbean be if every tonne of sugar or coffee it produces were traded at fair rates?

A fuller understanding of the black experience of slavery, along with the payment of reparations, could be an uncomfortable and costly process, but the result will be a more honest acknowledgement of possibly the most shameful chapter in Britain’s history, and an opportunity to affirm the rights of those who were so badly wronged.

Above: Nelson’s statue is driven away through the streets of Bridgetown. Via Sky News.

Featured

Letter from a Barbadian – topple structures before statues

The pulling down of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol by Black Lives Matter protestors has reignited the debate around Britain’s historic involvement in slavery as well as sparking fears of hasty revisionism and lawlessness. Here Barbadian blogger Safiya Robinson offers a different approach, calling for a deeper public understanding of the story at the heart of the controversy  

I had so many feelings when I heard that the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol had been torn down and thrown into the harbour. 

When I moved from Barbados to the UK in the 1990s, Bristol was the first place I lived, studied and worked. It was there I learned that my new university friends knew nothing of the enslavement and transportation of Africans to the Caribbean and Americas. Instead they had learned a whitewashed view of history.

As someone who studied Caribbean history in secondary school, I was puzzled. Isn’t history just facts of what happened when? Given the fact that so much of the history of former colonies is British history, I wondered how the historians had managed to gloss over this – especially given how much of the wealth in the UK was built from profits generated through the trading of enslaved Africans and their labour. 

It seems instead the focus was on the generosity of figures such as Colston, without mention of the source of his wealth. 

I have heard the arguments that slavery was legal, and that is why the economic and philanthropic contributions of figures like Colston were celebrated. However, not mentioning connections to the slave trade sounds more like shame than acceptance of their involvement.

The Trans-Atlantic slave trade is now an optional part of the British curriculum for 11-13 year olds, so I hope that the younger generation will consign the ignorance I encountered to the past. There is much that I hope is included, and much that I want anyone older to understand.

Teaching should include what took the Europeans to the Americas – a search for an alternative route to Asia, a search for riches and undiscovered lands, and how the people native to the Caribbean – the Lokono, Taino and Caribs – were enslaved to work in agriculture and largely eradicated by European diseases and firearms. It should include the use of indentured servants in the seventeenth century, often from Ireland, which was a precursor to slavery, and the sanctioning of the slave trade by the Church and government. It should include the triangle slave trade, the deaths of thousands of enslaved Africans en route, their bodies thrown overboard, and survivors traded as chattel. 

I would want people to understand that the measures used to maintain power and supremacy in the Americas were psychology and brute force, and that abolition campaigns were only one factor in the ending of slavery, alongside economic ones (a decline in sugar trade, the Industrial Revolution increasing cotton production in the UK) and resistance by the enslaved people throughout the Caribbean. The inequity that existed after slavery between the White Europeans, who still held the majority of power in the Americas, and the freed people of African descent who had fewer rights – this inequity continues. And the post-colonial legacy on the Caribbean islands left them largely dependent on the countries that previously ruled them. 

This should be basic learning for all Brits, not just an optional inclusion for children – an understanding that the wealth and power of an empire was built on the backs and work of enslaved peoples, who still fight to this day for equality with their White counterparts in the Americas, and in the UK, centuries after the end of slavery.

If we are unaware of our history, then we run the risk of it repeating itself, and speaking as a Black Caribbean woman, I have no interest in that. Instead, I hope for a greater understanding of the shared histories of the UK and the Americas, and the toppling of the structures that represent the whitewashing of history. I want more respect and honour for those whose lives were sacrificed through slavery and the slave trade, and for the descendants who play such a vital role in British society and are your neighbours, colleagues and friends. 

Safiya Robinson is an author and blogger who lives, works and writes in Barbados. You will find her blog at www.39andcounting.com. She is also a dentist and a keen world traveller. You can find her book “Everything is a thing – my journey to living a truly authentic life” on Amazon.

Above: The Parliament Buildings in Bridgetown, Barbados, were fashioned after those in London. The square opposite used to be called Trafalgar Square but in 1999 was renamed National Heroes Square.

Featured

What next after the toppling of Colston?

Edward Colston, the slave trader whose statue was toppled by protestors and rolled into Bristol harbour yesterday, was described the year after his death as “the brightest Example of Christian Liberality that this Age has produced both for the extensiveness of his Charities and for the prudent Regulation of them.” 

Colston’s wealth came from trade, including in slaves. It is estimated that while he worked for the Royal African Company around 84,000 men, women and children were forcibly transported to the Americans and the Caribbean as slaves on tobacco and sugar plantations, although around 19,000 perished en route, their bodies tossed overboard. 

During his lifetime (1636-1721) Colston was known as a generous philanthropist, supporting and founding schools. Yet his generosity extended only to those who shared his views. 

Only in the last two decades has the city begun to discuss its part in the slave trade and disentangle itself from bizarre array of traditions and church services that took place to maintain his honour. Councillors had got as far as to suggest adding a second plaque to the statue, addressing his slave links, but could not agree on what it should say

They have missed their chance. The Grade II-listed monument now lies at the bottom of Bristol Harbour following the actions of protestors of various ethnicities. Speaking yesterday, TV historian David Olusoga told the BBC: “Today should never have happened, because this statue should have been taken down. And it should have been a great collective day for Britain and Bristol when the statue was peacefully taken down and put in a museum, which is where, after all, we remember history properly.” Indeed – by all means display the statue in the city museum along with photographs and footage from yesterday, which are all part of Colston’s and slavery’s uneasy legacy. 

Disappointingly, Home Secretary Priti Patel viewed the incident only through a law and order lens, linking it unfairly with the few violent acts at otherwise peaceful protests in London. She descried the toppling of the statue as “utterly disgraceful”, adding that “it speaks to the acts of public disorder that have become a distraction from the cause people are protesting about”.

Does it? The protestors yesterday didn’t go on a looting spree through the city centre, they didn’t hit out at anyone. No arrests were made. They didn’t injure 27 police officers, throw glass bottles or light flares – that was in London. As for the statue, Bristol’s Labour Mayor Marvin Rees, who is of Jamaican descent, told Channel 4 News he “couldn’t support criminal damage or social disorder,” but he added: “We have a statue up to someone who made their money by sometimes throwing the bodies of his commodities, our people, into water. There’s a piece of almost historical poetry here.” 

And perhaps a sense of homecoming: after centuries of the most horrific forms of abuse of Africans, the Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota arrived in the city from where some of the earliest British slave ships docked from Africa and set sail for the Americas and the Caribbean.

Colston’s fall needs to be followed by dialogue and constructive action, and Bristol could serve as a model for the country and beyond. It is vital that black citizens explain the way they would like to see wrongs righted, rather than having non-black leaders decide what’s needed. Which structures and institutions reinforce and legitimise a worldview that puts whites firmly on top? Which street names? What else needs to be moved to a museum before it gets ripped down in frustration?

What has become clear in the two short weeks since the Black Lives Matter protests began is that us white people don’t even realise how we perpetuate racial inequalities. So let’s learn. 

Featured

In this crisis, the Church needs to reach out

We are often told that in times of need or distress, people turn to religion. The nation, pretty much the whole world, has been stilled and quieted by lockdowns to prevent the further spread of the Coronavirus. As the Queen pointed out, people have time to “slow down, pause and reflect”. One might expect the Church to pipe up with a message of hope. But what exactly is it saying?

Quite a lot, it turns out, but you have to know where to look. It is not, as Jonathan Clark argued recently in these pages, “the dog that failed to bark in the night”. But anyone expecting an archbishop or senior theologian to be regularly on the news offering consolation and wisdom will have been disappointed. So far we’ve seen a handful of appearances by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, on Newsnight. His successor Justin Welby and the head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, Cardinal Vincent Nichols have both appeared on ITV news.

BBC local radio are broadcasting “from-the-living-room” services by senior bishops, which the CofE is live-streaming on its website and Facebook pages. The Church says these have attracted some 2m viewers, not counting those listening via local radio. Unsurprisingly the most polished services come from the well resourced, well organised churches such as Holy Trinity Brompton. Other churches’ online offerings can be hard to find, variable in quality or both.

This article was first published on TheArticle.com. To continue reading, click here.

Photo: Pastorsline

Featured

Coronavirus and the common good

The coronavirus crisis has prompted a remarkable shift from the individual to the collective. It is incumbent on the government to recognise the power of this and ditch its Brexit-era rhetoric of division and scape-goating.

What were you doing on Monday, before the Prime Minister effectively introduced lockdown measures? Or a week ago before the pubs shut? Two weeks ago when employees were urged not to commute to work? One month ago when Coronavirus only seemed relevant to returnees from Italy and Asia? Freedoms have vanished at such a rate that it is hard to keep count of them.

Which freedom do you miss the most? One of the most unimaginable – at least until very recently – is the almost total lack of air travel. The effect of the pandemic on pollution is beyond an environmentalist’s dreams; the near constant hum of engines has been replaced by birdsong. Those most at risk from the grounding of air transport are not sun-starved travel junkies but the many thousands of airport and airline employees, caterers and taxi drivers. From the consumer perspective, freedoms such as travel and socialising in safety have been a great luxury that most of us took for granted. In Britain we may look back on the years leading up to 2020 and wonder why we spent them trying to “take back control”. We had more control than we knew what to do with, but didn’t realise it could so easily slip from our hands.

To continue reading, visit The Tablet’s website here.

Above: playgrounds and exercise areas have been locked as part of the measures to prevent people passing the virus on to others

Featured

What’s missing from the Christian creed

Christmas is behind us and the last leftovers have made their way from fridge to waist. Which means it is another 11 ½ months until we get to hear that festive wonder – of believers, agnostics and atheists belting out Charles Wesley’s exuberant Hark the Herald-Angels Sing: “Hail! the Sun of Righteousness! Light and life to all he brings, Risen with healing in his wings…”

Such lines have for me cast a shadow over other familiar words that inhabit our churches – the Creed. Every time I recite it, I feel more frustrated by it.

The Creed is clearly important in marking in stone the edges of Christian belief – what it is, and what it is not. Like a thick wall, it serves to safeguard the flock from non-Christian beliefs and distinguish Christianity from other belief systems.

But in all the times I have listened to Christians explaining their journey to faith, I have never heard anyone say, misty-eyed, they were attracted by Jesus’ being “begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father”. Instead they often talk about the help, comfort and hope they derive from their relationship with Him.

The Nicene Creed, adopted in the fourth century, or the older Apostles’ Creed, make sense when situated in the bustling marketplace of pagan and polytheistic beliefs of their day, and the Arian heresy that claimed Christ was effectively lesser than God the Father. But after centuries of monotheistic belief, our Western default setting hovers between Christianity and atheism, and the arguments against religion have changed.

As Rupert Shortt points out in his new book Outgrowing Dawkins, “by far the strongest argument against faith in a benign, all-powerful providence [is] the problem of evil and suffering.” Sometimes, underneath sophisticated arguments against the existence of God are highly personal ones about unmet expectations or unanswered prayers, leading to a conclusion that God either does not care or does not exist.

Another recent challenge to the idea of a loving God – possibly also borne out of grievance – has come from fundamentalist Islam. Muslims are the first to say that violent jihadists distort their religion; Christians likewise do well to reiterate that portraying God as murderous and petty is a modern-day heresy.

It is these cris de coeur I wish the Creed would address. My problem isn’t so much with what it contains as what it leaves out. God is creator, we are told, but his character – of mercy and generosity – are not mentioned. Much is implicit in a short phrase such as “for us men, and for our salvation, [He] came down from heaven,” but today that benefits from being unpacked. Could it not spell out that Christ came to bind up the broken-hearted, forgive sins, redeem mankind and destroy evil?

The Creed may have been written to fend off heresies but today its adversaries come in different forms. Maybe a new millennium warrants a revised version. I know we’re 20 years in already, but there are 980 left and these things can take a few centuries to agree. So I argue for a revision that is pastoral and poetic as well as didactic, to inspire and encourage, to engage heart and well as mind. The stone wall, if you like, muralled in enticing full colour interrupted only by a welcoming open door.

Featured

We need a remembrance fit for the twenty-first century

With cascades of ceramic poppies, torches in the Tower of London moat, Danny Boyle sandpainting Tommies onto beaches, a new Carol Ann Duffy poem, Peter Jackson’s retouched footage of soldiers in the trenches and no end of documentaries, no one could accuse the nation of underplaying Sunday’s Armistice. Indeed, a retired man whose grandfather fought in the trenches mused to me that the elegance of Britain’s remembrance ceremonies almost obscures the horror of what is being remembered.

Young soldiers going off to war faced terrors we cannot imagine and made sacrifices unimaginable in our comfort today. It is healthy to express grief and loss, and in our reserved British way, we do that in spades. Because we congratulate ourselves with having been on the right side in both World Wars, we can celebrate the fallen as martyrs to a noble cause. Whatever losses we suffered – and unless you’re a forces family, those losses are becoming ever more distant – are validated and dignified by solemnity and royals and monuments and archbishops and parades and lone bugles. We don’t need to worry that Grandpa might have committed war crimes or that Grandma might have collaborated with occupying forces.

I recently interviewed Elke Schwarz, a London-based political scientist for an article I have written about the aftermath of genocides. Germany has done commendably, from reparations to Israel just after the war to Holocaust memorials in many major cities and visits to concentration camps for school pupils. But in addition to this quite burdensome weight of self-criticism, I asked Dr Schwarz if Germans longed for some kind of public expression of their sense of loss. After all, according to US statistics, some 1.77 million German soldiers died in World War One and in all, just over half the German soldiers who enlisted were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. And some 4-5m German soldiers died in World War Two and up to 2m civilians – although these include German Jews and people with disabilities exterminated by the Nazis. In addition, after the war 12m ethnic Germans were uprooted from their homes in east-central Europe.

No, she said. “It’s possible that some people would have liked a public forum to express the pain they’ve gone through,” but she questioned how to express public grief. “The blending of guilt and shame and pain is so raw that anything like a parade or a public forum couldn’t really do justice to it … There’s always a danger that when’s there’s a parade there’s an element of celebration rather than solemnity.”

poppies sign.jpg
Ceramic poppies displayed at London’s Imperial War Museum were planted in memory of British and Colonial lives

Dr Schwarz had been able to ask her grandfather about the war, and she remembers her grandmother struggling with wartime photos of herself looking carefree. By contrast, my own grandfather, who fought Rommel’s troops in Libya, did not speak about the war for decades after he returned; whatever he had seen and survived was expressed in his emotional isolation. I’m going to use a twenty-first century lens here: perhaps a little trauma counselling would have helped my grandfather – and his young family – more than our stiff ceremonies.

What frustrates me about British remembrance is that it still focuses on those who fought “on our side”. Take one of the documentaries broadcast – BBC 2’s 100 Days to Victory. It was a fascinating look at the collaboration between Britain, France, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. What were the German military leaders doing at that time? The programme shed no light on that question, as if the script had been written in 1918. Where were the German historians explaining the strategies the Allied commanders could not have known? Instead, by not explaining the actions of the Germans, they remain faceless, mysterious, threatening. My nephews are half-German. Much as they enjoy films featuring big battles, I would be embarrassed for them to watch something that portrayed the Germans in such a dehumanised way.

It is deeply unfair to contemporary, self-critical Germany to remember their country as only a threat, especially as Brexit tears at the fabric that has held Europe together. Surely Germany has deserved our bridge-building rather than our defences – maybe some of our own healing lies in building those bridges. A century has passed since the guns fell silent – can we not remember war as a universal tragedy and allow space for the loss of all who died? Not to mention giving thanks for 73 years of peace in Europe, its rebuilt, enriched nations transforming from military threat to political allies and friendly, affordable leisure destinations.

12 November update … a fairly happy postscript. The presence of the German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier alongside the Queen at both the Cenotaph and a service in Westminster Abbey was a long overdue first. Meanwhile in France another act of remembrance looked forwards and was the most valuable of all. President Macron told the leaders of Russia, the US, Germany, Turkey and other nations gathered in Paris that nations had to find new ways to build peace together in the face of rising populism and “selfish” nationalism. That surely is the most meaningful way to honour the pledge to “never again” let the world slide into such terrible war. Just one question – where was a British dignitary? Could we not have spared one royal or senior politician?

Top photo: 100 Days to Victory (BBC). 

Featured

Review: The Jungle – rich in humanity, short on easy answers

If the past is a foreign country, then the galloping pace of change can render even the recent past a distant land. Cast your mind back to 2015, before the news was clogged up with fights over Brexit and outrage at Donald Trump’s latest burst of unpresidential behaviour.

Back then, our news was dominated by Europe in a different way – all those migrants trudging north through Greece and Italy, thousands of miles to Germany, some of them even reaching the dreary patch of mud outside Calais dubbed The Jungle.

Or not actually The Jungle, but zangall, a word in Pashtun meaning “forest”. But Brits, characteristically tone-deaf to language, misheard how its inhabitants were describing their temporary home and, in doing so, reduced it to a threatening place associated with wild beasts.

Yet this shanty town was organised into sections named Afghanistan, Syria, Palestine, Kurdistan, Sudan and so on, after the origins of their inhabitants. Dirt tracks were named after the British and French leaders on whom their hopes were pinned, David Cameron and François Hollande, and then-Home Secretary Theresa May (told you it felt like a long time ago).

And it is in an Afghan restaurant in the camp that Joe Murphy and Joe Roberston set their play The Jungle, a National Theatre commission directed by Stephen Daldry. Showing at London’s Playhouse Theatre following a sell-out run at the Young Vic last winter, performances continue until 3 November. Set designer Miriam Buether recreates the makeshift eatery by covering the stalls with hardboard and inviting audience members to sit among the cast.

The script is fiction, based on the writings of Jungle residents who took part in sessions run by the Good Chance Theatre, an initiative in the camp pioneered by Murphy and Robertson, who spent several months living there. We meet the proud restaurant owner Salar, who has lost two children to violence in Afghanistan; Safi, our narrator and a Syrian academic from Aleppo, and Okot the 17-year-old Darfuri who recounts his horrific journey to Calais and exclaims that “a refugee dies many times”. Then there is the eccentric group of Brits who take it upon themselves to try to help them, from Barbour-jacketed Sam, fresh out of Eton, to Boxer, the Georgie drunk who announces he is a refugee – on the run from his wife.

Its mix of real events is convincing and powerful. We see how the defining events of that autumn impact on the migrants’ lives. When the image of the three-year-old Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi, washed up on a Greek beach, hits the media, sympathy for Jungle residents rises. Three months later when IS-linked gunmen slaughter 130 civilians in Paris, it falls again: screens around the theatre show real footage of international news outlets speculating that the gunmen entered France as refugees in the exodus from Greece. Later that night, when a fire destroys numerous makeshift cabins, tensions are high as it emerges the damage is not the work of xenophobic French but of an inhabitant going to sleep with a candle lit.

Unexpected moments of light break into the characters’ desperate limbo: The Times’ late restaurant critic AA Gill visited in 2016 and praised the delights of the (actually Peshwari) restaurant. He quipped that while some people moaned that a theatre project in the Jungle was “a monument to bleeding-heart liberal pretension”, “If ever I find myself lost and penniless, I hope it’s the liberals with leaky valves and a penchant for quoting Shakespeare that find me, and not the sanguine, pity-tight realists.”

Murphy’s and Robertson’s play evokes the chaos and the moral ambivalence of the place – characters are volatile mixes of hope, anger, trauma, humour, solidarity. They are living in the Jungle’s squalor because they refuse to accept asylum in mainland Europe and are fixated on reaching Britain. The few women there complain that they have had to sleep in the Ethiopian Orthodox “church” because they were being harassed by men as they tried to sleep. The Kurdish trafficker is a necessary part of Safi’s mission to reach England. (He swears to Safi that part of his high fee goes to Erbil to fight IS.)

After two hours seeing the camp from within, I found myself willing Safi to make it undetected and unscathed; I longed for the oppressive French authorities – lobbing tear gas and bulldozing shacks – to leave these vulnerable people in peace.

At the time, I felt that the Jungle was an accusing finger pointing to Europe’s (well, France and Britain’s) unwelcoming shut door, but I acknowledged that compassion for war-scarred refugees could be turned into a roaring trade by wily traffickers. So I watched from the sidelines as others rushed to the mud and cold and helped. I found the moral ambiguity confusing – entering Britain hidden in a lorry is a criminal offence; crossing half of Europe before claiming asylum here is playing the system. Yet if it is a matter of playing fair, many of the residents could have argued that they had been badly failed at home, law and order being either deeply unjust or absent.

What stemmed the flow of migrants into northern Europe was the EU’s deal with Turkey, and Italy paying off several Libyan militias involved in people-smuggling. Big action by governments vastly reduced the flow of newcomers to the Jungle (which was razed in October 2016), not small actions by altruists. And yet the altruists can with clear conscience say that they did something. Two years on, northern France is still sheltering almost a thousand migrants, and populist movements against immigrants of many stripes are simmering in France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic. History will no doubt cast its judgement on our collective response to the Jungle and what it should have taught us by now. I wonder what clarity hindsight will bring.

Above: Ammar Haj Ahmad as Safi. Photo: Marc Brenner

Featured

Five things you need to do if you’re going on holiday anywhere

Should we care about the human rights record of the country whose beaches we’re about to bake ourselves on? That is the question posed by the latest issue of the Index on Censorship, which pokes a light into the murkier side of some popular tourist destinations. Mexico’s drugs war and murder rate cast a shadow over its idyllic beaches; Sri Lanka has renewed powers to jail journalists; the Maldives has allowed radical Islam to flourish and democratic gains to wither.

A panel of travel journalists explored the ethics of travel journalism, and whether glossy, picture-led features should also mention a country’s dirty laundry. The popular format of ‘Ten Mexican resorts on a budget’ was considered too narrow a format to get into such things. In the discussion that followed it emerged that the flowers and candles left in Valletta in memory of the assassinated Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia have been cleared away at least 12 times; the number of tourists visiting Turkey not fallen since President Erdogan has clamped down on press freedom; in Sri Lanka efforts to offer tourists the experience of life on a tea plantation backfired when the local press savaged an initiative whereby tourists could spend a night in the home of a poorly paid, marginalised tea picker.

One problem panellists identified was in challenging a deeply carved narrative. Picking tea is not romantic. If section editors (and fat-walleted advertisers) want sun and flip-flops then they won’t want a piece complicated by mention of human rights abuses. Conversely, a section editor who believed Cambodia = genocide, an example cited by Harriet Fitch Little, was reluctant to hear how the country has stabilised over the last 20 years. Then there was the charge of “pink-washing”, mentioned in relation to Tel Aviv – where a destination’s self-promotion as gay-friendly distracts attention away from a complicated human rights record, in this instance Israel’s in the Palestinian Territories.

Benji Lanyado, the male panellist, recommended using Airbnb and spending time chatting to locals to find out what they considered to be the big local issues. In many cultures this is far more straightforward and less risky if you are male. Sri Lankan-born Meera Selva added that offering to listen to someone’s story can do more harm than good if you hear a tale of hardship, thank them and walk away.

Engagement is challenging. But among panellists and audience there was a strong desire for ethical, thoughtful travel that left consumerist escapism far behind.

Many holidays are marketed as one or two weeks of sunshine / pool / peace and quiet or [fill in the blank] in a mythical paradise which could be anywhere hot and affordable. But commodifying a place reduces it to its heat, its beach, its clubs. The people who live there become almost immaterial, reduced to staff, strangers or threats. Engaging with a place helps to ensure the people who live there are not dehumanised. True, it’s not easy to strike up conversation with a stranger that goes beyond directions or sales – especially across a language barrier. But such a conversation allows the humanising process to go both ways; Westerns are not just cash cows (however daft we get when we don a sun hat).

The most meaningful place I’ve found for engaging with people in a holiday destination was on a particularly difficult overseas trip. I was with my father, we had run out of motivation to be away, and on the Sunday we went to the local church, and stayed for its pot luck lunch. It was by far the best meal of the trip, though I couldn’t tell you what we ate. I do, however, remember home-cooked food from people who accepted us as we were. I’ve repeated that experiment on happier trips, and even without the free lunch, a humble, ordinary church service has offered a snapshot of a community and a way of hearing its concerns. But you don’t have to go to church; for me talking to a restaurant owner on a struggling Greek island in 2015 made the country’s economic crisis tangible.

So five things, if you like:

Before you go, look up a destination’s human or religious rights record (the consensus was against boycotting countries because engagement was considered more valuable). There might be heroes to celebrate, as well as white-washed narratives to look out for.

When you’re there, buy a local paper, assuming it’s in a language you can just about understand.

Don’t depress yourself with disaster memorials you’re not in the mood for but do stimulate your brain with a curiosity for what’s around you.

Try the local church/synagogue/mosque – whatever you’d attend at home.

Look for ways to have more meaningful conversations and let me know where you find them.

Featured

Rule, Britannia! Do we want peace with Europe or victory?

The bad thing about iPlayer is that we all end up watching something different. The good thing about iPlayer is that we all end up watching something different. You stumble across gems at the back of the digital cupboard with little idea of when they were broadcast or why. So it was that I found myself gripped by two-part drama The Sinking of the Laconia (which I’ve since discovered was first broadcast in 2011). Rather like Titanic, it relies on the writer’s skill to weave enough surprise and humanity around the inevitable plotline. And these writers did – a refreshing Anglo-German team involving the BBC, ARD and SWR – who told the aftermath of the torpedoing of a British cruise liner carrying PoWs and British civilians … from both sides.

I’m not sure I’ve seen a war film told from both sides before. Of course, when characters on both sides are humanised, there’s no clear line dividing goodies from baddies. There are more and less noble people on both sides, who behave well and less well at different moments. In other words, it’s like real life.

I was reminded of Afua Hirsch’s recent Channel 4 documentary, The Battle for Britain’s Heroes, in which she persuasively argued that Britain needs to re-examine its heroes and for a more rounded national narrative. She asked questions about the slave trade’s links to Nelson and Bristol benefactor Edward Colston. We saw her asking about Churchill’s role in the Bengal famine. Neil MacGregor, former director of the British Museum and founding director of the Humboldt Forum in Berlin, was the first white man she interviewed who agreed with her unreservedly. She then highlighted Germany as a nation that has re-appraised its heroes. I wanted her to take her ideas further, but it was clear she had had as much Twitter abuse for them as she could take.

Screen Shot 2018-06-11 at 11.30.29.png
Afua Hirsch called for a closer examination of Britain’s heroes

The more I look back at my history education the more I’m embarrassed by the gaps in it. Having gained an A at GCSE and then taken an MA in Middle Eastern studies 20 years later, I feel qualified to generalise, given that 30-40 per cent of pupils take history as far as GCSE, while only 40-50,000 get to A-level and beyond.

My GCSE covered the Tudors, and the history of medicine, so my pre-Year 10 knowledge of other episodes went like this: First World War = trenches; Empire = ¼ of the globe; Second World War = Blitz and Holocaust. One contemporary GCSE syllabus, for example, teaches about Germany from 1890 to 1945 – the turbulent, violent decades without the arguably more astonishing cultural, physical and spiritual rebuilding that followed.

The postwar period cropped up during my German A-level, which fewer and fewer pupils take now. I learnt about the slave trade while living in Bristol, stumbling across the appalling diagrams of how-to-fit-the-most-bodies-in-a-hull in the university library. The church I attended wrestled with the legacy of the trade, and later films such as Amazing Grace celebrated the reformers who fought and fought to get it abolished.

warschauer_kniefall_1970.jpg
Humble: Chancellor Willy Brandt knelt during a 1970 visit to the site of the Warsaw Uprising

In Britain we have crafted ourselves not only a narrative of military victory, but also of moral one. We allow ourselves nationwide Remembrance with all its pageantry and solemnity. We don’t worry about the damage we inflicted during the wars because we were fighting evil, so it was in a good cause. Neither do we readily recall that we won only with the Empire-wide coalition of Allies and Stalin’s Russia. We should know better.

Screen Shot 2018-06-11 at 11.40.51
Another view of Empire

Watching Laconia brought home to me just how dangerous a simplistic narrative is. The drama tells the remarkable story of the U-boat commander who rescues hundreds of survivors from the liner he torpedoed, and invites Allied forces to pick them up, promising not to attack. He has a Red Cross flag draped over his sub. Italian and Vichy-French craft collect the Italian PoWs. The British in Freetown tell the Americans to look for remnants of the liner but cynically neglect to mention the sub or the mainly British survivors in need of rescue, some of whom are sitting pathetically in lifeboats. The Americans send out planes with pilots who, despite seeing the flag, drop two bombs on the sub, sinking two lifeboats, killing dozens of survivors, damaging the sitting-duck sub and potentially committing a prima facie war crime.

Who were the goodies there? Who were the baddies?

Towards the end of the dramatisation of the Laconiastory, the character of the hero, Commander Hartenstein, says he looks forward to peace. “Not victory?” asks a British junior officer.

The distinction could not be more important. And I wonder what our country still hankers after. Peace with the nations all about it, or a sense of victory over them, bolstered by an isolationist, even supremacist, outlook?

If we believe that our goal is victory over our threatening neighbours, we will see the EU as a threat to sovereignty and Brexit a blessed release. If we believe our goal is peace with our flawed neighbours, we will see the EU as a modern-day miracle and Brexit a potential tragedy.

Featured

‘It has felt like a house under siege’

 

My piece published in the Church Times, 1 June:

Abigail Frymann Rouch speaks to clergy victims of stalking, and asks whether enough is being done to support them

IT WAS trauma that brought the Revd Graham Sawyer into closer contact with one of his female parishioners: she witnessed her husband killing himself, in front of their children.

“I then exercised the pastoral care that would be expected of any priest,” he recalls. “Unfortunately, she became very dependent on me, and it became a sort of infatuated obsession. . . Her demands on me became impossible for me to meet, which gave her a pseudo-legitimacy to turn her obsession into hate.”

Continue reading “‘It has felt like a house under siege’”

Featured

Barry Humphries, the Nazis and the revealing generation gap

Every so often you start on a project believing to be about one thing, and end up miles past your original destination having discovered a totally different story. I had that pleasure when I saw advertised a programme of music that had been banned by the Nazis. Continue reading “Barry Humphries, the Nazis and the revealing generation gap”

Featured

The real culprit in the Rudd deportations scandal

So Amber Rudd has resigned, saying she had “inadvertently misled” MPs over whether she knew the Home Office set targets for deportations of illegal immigrants. Cue unusually widespread outrage. This could only have happened right after the Windrush scandal had come to light. Thanks to the diligent reporting of the Guardian, alarming stories emerged of long-term tax-paying, law-abiding, UK residents being treated like illegal immigrants: facing eviction; withdrawal of benefits, eligibility to work or NHS access; and being threatened with forced returns to countries they had not lived in for decades.

Dunkirk_migrant
The man wearing this rather striking top was a Kurd I met at the camp at Dunkirk shortly before it burnt down last year. He was hoping to reach Dover by hiding in a lorry. But using ‘migrant’ as a general term fails to distinguish between legal and illegal arrivals, and the many reasons behind them

Theresa May said yesterday that regarding illegal immigrants, the Government was “responding to the need that people see for the Government to deal with illegal immigration”. Her “hostile environment” comment followed an election pledge to reduce net immigration to the “tens of thousands” annually – that was not an example of her going out on a limb, but formed part of her party’s manifesto in 2010 and again in 2015.

Former home secretary Ken Clarke on yesterday’s BBC Radio 4’s World at One [13’07”] said: “There are hundreds of thousands of people here who get smuggled in on lorries or overstay their visitors’ visas and work in the black economy, get sent to prison sometimes, and still don’t leave. The Home Office doesn’t talk very much about the illegals that we have, mainly from the Middle East, some from the Sub-continent and a lot from Africa, and to persuade ordinary, sensible, civilised people that we do have some control, you need to tackle that.”

What if Rudd had done more to explain that last week, albeit with more temperate language and precise figures, and making the distinction between the various categories, instead of trying to deny that there were targets for deportation?

Certainly, the usually anti-immigrant parts of the press made that distinction, expressing outrage at the appallingly unjust treatment of Windrush citizens.

Last night Tory MP Oliver Letwin, grandson of refugees, told BBC Newsnight that politicians had for decades downplayed the benefits that migrants bring to this country.

What is the reason that successive governments have instead pledged to reduce (totally legal) immigration – and then not done so? At the most mercenary level, because they appreciate the economic argument for migrants’ labour and skills, given our own ageing population, skills gaps, low birth rate and so on.

A positive legacy from last week, as Sajid Javid takes over from Rudd, would be a more nuanced public discourse on immigration that includes the humanising and informative distinctions of who, when and why. Ken Clarke’s breakdown didn’t give the full spectrum of why people come here: work, study, family, or to claim asylum because of war or persecution – or that some people who are trafficked may be victims of modern slavery in need of rescue, not arrest.

Anti-migration pledges have long felt like crowd-pleasers – and that’s just it. Why have politicians made such pledges? Because that’s what they think will tickle voters’ ears. Why do right-wing tabloids put negative stories about migrants on their front pages? Because that’s what they think their readers want to read. So the villain of the piece is not Amber Rudd, or even Theresa May before her. Politicians were doing what they believed a substantial chunk of the electorate wanted, and this, whether we like the result or not, is what it looked like.

Top photos via Wikipedia 

Featured

The free speech – hate speech dilemma

Populism is fuelled in part by political correctness that tells people their views cannot be aired. That was one conclusion of a panel of experts last week at a launch of a report by the think tank Demos. Those discussing the report, “Mediating populism”, thought that if views are silenced, they do not disappear, they only go underground to reappear more vigorously in the future, trampling on bounds of “acceptable” discourse. For example in Germany, where the Third Reich is taught as the most sombre warning, the suggestion that ordinary soldiers could be remembered well has morphed into a recommendation from a far-right leader that alarmed many Germans. The co-founder of the increasingly popular Alternative für Deutschland said Germans should be proud of soldiers’ actions in the two world wars just as Brits are proud of Nelson or Churchill.

Continue reading “The free speech – hate speech dilemma”

Featured

What the snow isn’t telling us

The thermometer outside my window this morning read minus 3 degrees Celcius, or so I discovered once I had dusted off the overnight snow fall from it. A mile from central London.

People say we’re experiencing a winter “how it used to be”. One could dream that Nature had forgiven us our decades – centuries – of burning excesses and had graciously turned the clock back.

Continue reading “What the snow isn’t telling us”

Featured

Archbishop Welby’s Lent author rejects ‘lazy’ formula of God as ‘He’

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent book this year comes from an Italian academic and Benedictine monk called Luigi Gioia, who chided himself as “lazy” for not finding ways to describe God other than “He”.

The book itself, Say it to God: In search of prayer (Bloomsbury), is an insightful and thought-provoking meditation on dialogue with God, which Lord Williams, presenting it in his successor’s absence (Welby was in Switzerland), hoped would become an “instant classic of the English-speaking world”.

Continue reading “Archbishop Welby’s Lent author rejects ‘lazy’ formula of God as ‘He’”

Featured

Priests, Savile, Weinstein, Oxfam: What do the abuse scandals have in common? And it’s not sex

It happened in the Catholic Church and the Catholic Church was blamed.

It happened in the Anglican Churches and the Anglican Churches were blamed.

It happened in the BBC and its most loyal defenders cried, “Surely not!”

It happened in football clubs and a helpline for victims was quickly overwhelmed.

It happened in Hollywood and people began to talk of a culture of exploitation.

Now it has happened in the aid world and reports this week are urgently examining why.

Continue reading “Priests, Savile, Weinstein, Oxfam: What do the abuse scandals have in common? And it’s not sex”

Featured

What’s curious about the Presidents Club dinner

Forgive me for being late to the afterparty with this, but the now-notorious the Presidents Club charity dinner touches on more issues than first meet the eye.

It’s easy to be appalled by the dinner, where women working as hostesses were instructed to wear skimpy dresses, and its afterparty, at which some of the guests – wealthy business leaders – harassed and groped some of them.

Continue reading “What’s curious about the Presidents Club dinner”

Featured

Why do people say stupid things on Twitter?

If you had 140 characters with which to say write something that would be visible across the whole internet, why would you say something petty or offensive? Yet our habits on Twitter, which has 330m users, suggest we often do just that.

Toby Young, journalist, schools pioneer and Twitter abuser, enjoyed a reign shorter than Lady Jane Grey’s before quitting as non-executive director on the board of the new regulatory Office for Students.

His comments about women’s breasts, lesbians, another man’s breath (guess you had to be there) and apparently underworked teachers, ranged from vile to unfortunate-given-his-new-role-involving-students. He has since deleted thousands of tweets, but opponents have treasured up a choice few and republished them. Nothing really dies in cyberspace – except dignity.

Continue reading “Why do people say stupid things on Twitter?”

Featured

Brexit: why a rematch is democratic

When is the will of the people not the will of the people? Daniel Finkelstein argued in The Times yesterday that a second referendum on Brexit could not be held because “the damage done to trust in democracy would be huge”. He also characterised the June 2016 vote as when millions of people “challenged the interests and attitudes of the political establishment”.

But he depicts a simpler picture than – and the politicians he cites failed to foresee – the fractious muddle we have ended up with. For a start, we are talking about the will of 52 per cent of voters. And it has since emerged that more than 400 fake Twitter accounts believed to be run from St Petersburg put out tweets about Brexit. So we may be falling over ourselves to uphold a result that reflects the will of some wily Russian hackers.

Continue reading “Brexit: why a rematch is democratic”

Featured

ISIS and the Reformation

This morning’s Times contains a heartening piece that reports that a statue smashed up by members of ISIS at the ancient site of Palmyra in Syria has been reconstructed using laser technology. The same wizardry, which has been pioneered by the Oxford-based Institute of Digital Archaeology means that reconstruction of other artefacts destroyed by the group can be “done in an afternoon, while a traditional reconstruction can involve years of research, academic argument and highly skilled craftsmanship”.

And, the Times article continues, the technique is being used to recreate buildings and religious objects smashed during the English Reformation, including Newstead Abbey, ancestral home of the poet Lord Byron.

Ron Inglis, of Nottingham city council, said: “The destruction during the Reformation has parallels to how Isis dealt with religious monuments. What we want to do is to try to recreate what the interior of the priory church would have been like.”

Continue reading “ISIS and the Reformation”