What happened when I tried to book a holiday without flying

My extended family are meeting up in central Italy this summer. “Aha,” I thought, after reading one too many reports about the contribution of air travel to an environmental apocalypse, “let’s see if we can avoid flying. It might be a challenge with a small child, but what a great way to see Europe.” Surely it couldn’t be that hard? Could it?

“Agatha Christie would be delighted,” declared Michael Binyon in The Times recently in an article about cross-Europe train travel, because, “The age of the sleeper is returning”.

Perhaps it has left the sidings and is chuntering towards us, but there is little sign of it yet. I am not a train nerd, but I am trying to avoid flying after reading one too many reports about the contribution of air travel to an environmental apocalypse.

My extended family are meeting up in central Italy this summer. “Aha,” I thought, “let’s see if we can avoid flying. It might be a challenge with a small child, but what a great way to see Europe,” and, I modestly said to myself, “And what an example we’ll set!”

In April I started with the ever-mysterious-sounding Seat61.com, but the routes highlighted were already selling for 15 times the €29 the site publicised. And the timings would have sliced through our little one’s daily routine, with the risk of causing pain to all of us.

I searched online for “no-fly travel” and found carefully curated tours of European idylls, accommodation included, but the photos were of wine glasses and sunsets, not swings and miniature trains.

I contacted a no-fly travel agent (there is such a thing), and spoke to the helpful Catherine Livesley, founder and director of the No-Fly Travel Club. For her to get us off the starting block, she required a one-year membership fee of £79 for an individual or £149 for a family which “includes up to 2 hours of support on the itineraries of your choice”. If we wanted her to book the tickets, that would cost extra.

This came as a shock after the ease of airline and domestic rail websites. But we were dealing with a business model that required work by a human rather than a search engine, and paid up. And it would be worth it – the aviation industry is responsible for around 5 per cent of global warming, after all. And what an achievement if we could steam in to our holiday destination flight-free and brimming with tales of rewarding French stopovers!

Livesley quickly came back to us with two routes: one via Paris and Milan, back on a sleeper train from Nice, and a second via the ever-picturesque Swiss countryside. A sleeper train from Paris to Nice was already booked up, so we could only take it on the way home. She had thoughtfully broken the journey up into short-ish chunks to suit a young child, but these would require more hotel stays than if we were prepared to travel at any hour for any length of time.

So we turned to the possibility of driving. Around 1,000 miles. We looked up tips for long distance driving with little ones and asked friends and family and the internet. We found exciting looking car-trains that had ceased running in the pandemic. We found a car train that for some reason offered to transport your car – a day or so after transporting the passengers. Then we found a Motorail service that reached Italy via Düsseldorf and would have transported our car as well. My husband called out as he scrolled through the timetable, “What does ‘Nicht verfügbar’ mean?” “Not available,” I replied with an increasing sense of resignation. There were technical problems on the line.

What if we did the drive by ourselves – surely it couldn’t be that hard? Au contraire: it would mean 19 hours’ (at least) driving on the unfamiliar right, with the risk of Little One getting fidgety or uttering the words, “I need a wee.” After we had begun our investigations and many evenings of discussions, we did a four-hour drive that was twice punctuated by those peace-shattering words. Both times, into action we flew, eyes peeled for the first sign of a service station, cartoonishly skidding in to race towards the facilities. The thought of executing this manoeuvre in a foreign country was not appealing.

Exhausted, we gave up. Reader, I apologise. We have booked air tickets. We are already paying for our weakness – a lack of weekend flights means that our already expensive tickets (more expensive than the train) will require several nights in a hotel. We had an option to carbon offset when we paid for them and I confess, I felt so sore to be paying more that I declined. (I’ve since made a donation to Friends of the Earth.) And yet any peace of mind about our journey was quickly swept away: the airline with which we booked has been cancelling flights.

So what to conclude? That for all our efforts we are – this year – contributing to the problem, and that our spending habits are no different from those of people who don’t care about the environment.

But also that the age of sleepers can’t come soon enough, and that car trains need to get up and running in sufficient volume; that governments may need to offer subsidies to help companies to scale up quickly so that even those with little concern for the environment are persuaded to avoid the airport. And that one way to reduce the carbon footprint of a holiday is to reduce the journey distance so that no-fly options are more feasible. In the mean time I wish Livesley and her ilk all the very best in weaning us off fast, child-friendly, easy-to-book, cheap-if-you-get-in-early, air travel.

Top image: via Queens University, Ontario

The Science Museum needs to catch up on the climate crisis

My three-year-old has developed a passion for wind turbines. Where better to show him one than London’s Science Museum, alongside all the other technologies that are helping to solve the climate crisis, I reasoned? I was wrong. And rather alarmed.

Who can predict what catches the imagination of small children? For my three-year-old, a lengthy trip up the M1 has ignited a passion for wind turbines. Otherwise endless grey miles were punctuated by cries of, “I want to see a windmill,” followed by squeals of excitement when the piercing blades became visible from the back of the car.  

I sought to capitalise on his new focus by taking him to the Science Museum. Where better to see a wind turbine if you live in a built-up city? And what a great age to start caring for the environment: I’ve heard plenty of parents say they have been nagged into better recycling habits by their conscientious children.

So, I thought, surely there would be a wind turbine on display at the Science Museum – full size, hopefully, alongside solar panels and all the other impressive ways scientific innovation is helping us out of the climate crisis.  After all, the UN says we have to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 45 per cent by 2030, so the clock is ticking. And maybe, I thought, we’d see a model of a windmill.  

But no. The same steam engines and beam engines greet visitors that have done so for years, still churning out the narrative that scientific progress has saved us from hard manual labour and slow productivity. This is course true, and we live in their debt every day. But there was no word of the problems caused by those engines’ unruly heirs. When I asked where I could find a wind turbine or a windmill, one member of staff asked around and eventually recommended I take my son to London’s last working windmill, in Brixton.

Only one part of the museum really focused on climate change: at one end of one floor, is a modest temporary exhibition called Our Future Planet that looks at technologies being developed to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and includes such quirky exhibits as “air vodka”. The museum’s Kids’ Handbook contained two pages on green energy, and photos of what were absent from the displays – a wind turbine, a solar panel and a hydroelectric dam.

Oddly, the handbook also devoted two pages to the jet engine and two to various single-use plastics, without any mention of the colossal environmental damage they are known to cause.

Photo: Blue Planet 2/BBC

Had the authors not watched those heart-breaking 2017 documentaries Blue Planet 2, in which Sir David Attenborough revealed the extent of marine plastic pollution? Had they not read the many news stories linking popularised air travel to dangerous levels of global heating? A government survey last autumn found that three-quarters of adults in Britain were worried about the impact of climate change.

Curious, I read around. I found that the sponsors of the museum, much of which is free to enter, include oil companies BP and Shell, and the coal conglomerate Adani. According to the Guardian, its contract with Shell included a clause committing the museum not to “damage the goodwill or reputation” of the oil company. And last autumn a member of the museum’s advisory board resigned over the museum’s “ongoing policy of accepting sponsorship from oil and gas companies”.

At the time, the head of the Science Museum Group, Ian Blatchford, said: “We respect his decision to step down from his advisory role and he will remain a critical friend, his view much valued in our assessments.”

More positively, I found the website to contain more of the messaging I would have expected from scientific expert, including a thorough treatment of the problem of plastic pollution, and videos of talks about climate change from last year.

Yet it still felt too little, too piecemeal. The climate disaster is the biggest science story, the biggest story, in a century – especially if it as allowed to burgeon into the catastrophic proportions we are told inaction and denial will lead to. What is going on?

The museum told me a new climate change gallery focusing on “energy transition” is planned for next year, and a temporary exhibition in the autumn celebrating technicians “includes a to-scale wind turbine tower” and was designed with input from local teenagers. It added that the Kids’ Handbook had been published in 2013 whereas the online article on plastics appeared in 2019, and that films, talks and blogs on the website demonstrate the museum’s commitment “to engaging people in this vital issue”. It added that the contract clause “appears in most sponsorship agreements the museum … drafts”, adding: “In all of our work we maintain editorial control.”

So, mystery solved: if you want to learn about climate change through the Science Museum this summer, you’ll have to wait a few more months or stay at home and switch on your computer. By the time the new gallery opens, one-eighth of the time left to reach the climate target will have passed. I hope the new gallery will report the ignored warnings honestly and outline the reimaginings and breakthroughs inspiringly, even if it is decades too late to be ahead of the curve of public opinion. If not, they risk losing credibility in the eyes of the generation whose lives will be most affected by the climate crisis. As for my son and me, we’re off to Brixton.

Photo: Wind turbines at Whitelee Windfarm outside Glasgow. Credit: Bjmullan via Wikimedia

Ukraine: why the post-war promise of ‘never again’ has failed

As a child of the Eighties I was introduced to the horrors of two world wars with the promise “never again”. Never again would a single despotic leader be able to invade another sovereign country with impunity; never again would an entire people face annihilation. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has shown these safeguards to be hollow.

As a child of the Eighties I was introduced to the horrors of two world wars with the promise “never again”. Never again would a single despotic leader be able to invade another sovereign country with impunity; never again would an entire people face annihilation. No – now we had structural safeguards to curtail malign power and protect peace: the United Nations, the International Criminal Court, the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction that argued that surely no leader would actually fire a nuclear weapon, given that Armageddon would quickly ensue. 

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has shown these safeguards to be hollow. He has invaded another sovereign country claiming to “deNazify” it; an entire population is left vastly under-defended in the face of his relentless shelling and air raids. And yet, like the villain holding the heroine at gunpoint before her rescuer, he has warned Nato not to involve itself unless it wants to see consequences “you have never seen in your history”.

Effectively, his warning suggests, we are all being held at gunpoint, and looking on in horror as his forces – sluggish as they may have been – bomb endless military and civilian targets: residences, hospitals, a shopping centre, even the humanitarian corridors created to get unarmed Ukrainians to safety. 

What of the UN Security Council? Where are its condemnations? Its hands are tied because Russia is a permanent member and currently holds presidency of it. Could Russia be kicked off it, or even out of the UN? No. According to the UN Charter, “A Member of the United Nations which has persistently violated the Principles contained in the present Charter may be expelled from the Organization by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council.” But Russia would never vote to be expelled.

Instead, Russia has obfuscated and misinformed, claiming at Security Council meetings that the US has biological warfare laboratories in Ukraine and denying it is targeting civilians. 

Some people would say the impotence of the UN institutions was already evident in earlier crises. Efforts to hold Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad responsible for crimes against humanity in 2012, early in his country’s civil war, failed because security council members Russia and China refused to back such efforts. (When an international chemical weapons watchdog found that Assad used chemical weapons against his own people, the US accused Russia of blocking an investigation into their use.) And what sanctions did Britain and the US face for invading Iraq in 2003 without the backing of the UN Security Council? 

Sadly the worst damage inflicted by the Iraq invasion was not that done to the hundreds of thousands of displaced or ended lives, or the destroyed homes, infrastructure and cultural symbols that nurtured those lives. No, the most serious damage was that by ignoring the Security Council, the US and UK inadvertently opened the way for other nations to replicate such destruction in other contexts. 

With Ukraine, clearly it is vital that other routes to a ceasefire are found. Targeted sanctions are welcome and must be strengthened; European nations must somehow, quickly, find alternatives to buying Russian fossil fuels. Lord Alton, a human rights lawyer, also suggests blacklisting Russia as a terrorist state and suspending it from the World Trade Organisation, and getting the global money laundering and terrorist financing watchdog involved.  However, sanctions that punish the Russian people as a whole are risky – while they could turn their anger against Putin, he could instead goad them to turn it against the West.

Worthy discussions about how to hold Putin to account are also under way: Gordon Brown favours a Nuremberg-style trial; the International Criminal Court is investigating possible war crimes in Ukraine. These are all very well, but feel rather academic when the death toll climbs daily. Short of a coup, how would you persuade a man such as Putin to pop down to the Hague to attend a trial? All these steps might spare the next country in Putin’s sights – but what is there to stop the onslaught now? 

It is clear that the UN Charter – passionately and altruistically crafted to prevent another world war – did not envisage that a powerful, nuclear-armed member would actually want to return to the sort of destruction we are now seeing daily on our screens. It aimed “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”, advocating “tolerance and liv[ing] together in peace with one another as good neighbours”. But as Putin has already ripped up the rules on what UN members can get away with, other member states need to rapidly recraft the safeguards that were supposed to ensure that violence on such a scale never happened again.  

Above: The port city of Mariupol, which the BBC has described as ‘the most heavily bombed and damaged city in Ukraine’s war with Russia’. Photo: Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine

I despair of the maleness of the Bible

The confrontational military imagery leaves me cold; St Paul’s legal arguments for the reasoning of the Gospel likewise. Women have had to shoehorn their experiences of God into men’s descriptions of Him for too long

O Lord, let me not be overwhelmed.

From without and within I am surrounded.

Mocking men belittle me, they judge me by standards they do not keep.

In their hearts are only lust and vanity.

Day after day I have tried to make peace. I seek no glory for myself; boasting is never on my lips.  

My thoughts swirl around me like a storm, and fear overtakes me.

My hormones crush me to the point of sorrow.

“Your God is good?,” they laugh. “Has he really prospered you?”

Silence them, O God.  

My body is weakened but my hope is in you. Restore my strength, O God.

Have you read this Psalm lately? Me neither. My pastiche may be humble but my point is that anyone reading the Bible is handed a book 100 per cent written by men. Not one single Biblical author is a woman. Not even the books named after women – Esther, Ruth (all two of them).

We know the reasons why: until the last century or so, women were less likely to write anything, or even to be taught to write. And Judeo-Christian traditions are historically built on male priesthoods. Female spiritual writers crop up by the Middle Ages, mystics such as Hildegard von Bingen, St Julian of Norwich, St Bridget of Sweden, later St Teresa of Avila. But they are still a tiny minority.

So what? Because over the centuries Christians have gone to the ends of the earth to ensure that believers can access the Scriptures in their own language, in order to demonstrate that the Messiah is for all and is close to all. And yet sometimes when I open my Bible its maleness sometimes feels like a foreign language to me. The confrontational military imagery leaves me cold; St Paul’s legal arguments for the reasoning of the Gospel likewise.

The Song of Solomon, which includes lines for the female lead (described in the passive as “the Beloved”), was not, as far as we know, written by Solomon and one of his hundreds of wives – nope, it was just by him. Would the “friends” of poor Job have been quite so lacking in empathy if they had been women? Even the Psalms, which I find more accessible than many of the books in the Bible – not a single one is written by a woman, so they all reflect the worldviews or faith-views of men. God is a Father, God is a rock, God is a shield, God is a horn – big, strong things. (They remind me of the imagery plastered all over my toddler son’s clothing: diggers and dinosaurs unlike the fairies and unicorns in the girls’ section.)

A few years ago there was a grave concern in that the charismatics were “feminising” the Church. There was a genre of contemporary song jokingly described as “Jesus is my girlfriend”. I’m not a fan of songs so vacuous that the word “Jesus” can be switched for the word “baby”, and would look at home in the charts. But if you are talking about songs that might speak to over half the congregation (and women usually make up way over half in churches) then why be so dismissive? Women have had to shoehorn their experiences of God into men’s descriptions of Him for centuries. Isn’t it time men did the same for a bit, without moaning?

Many people now read their Bible in inclusive language, so the most obvious instances of excluding women have been addressed. But these are small changes that don’t address the substance of what is written. If the Bible more accurately described the faith-experience of women, perhaps there would also be a better understanding of what a woman is. She is not simply a man with different bits. She has her own way of seeing the world and processing it, based on experiences unique to her. Therefore the Church cannot simply put male-written bits of Scripture into her mouth and assume they adequately express how she wants to relate to God.

I am not saying I don’t believe Scripture is divinely inspired. But I do wonder how it would read if those God had inspired had been women rather than men: female Psalmists, female chroniclers, female wisdom, an account by one of the educated women in Jesus’ or Paul’s circle in the first-century Roman Empire? Instead of Psalms to be sung on the eve of battle, how about a Psalm that described the fear around giving birth? That would at once be historically illuminating, spiritually honest, and would right a tragic historical wrong by showing women’s bodies to be incredible but frail, rather than sinful or intimidating and not to be talked about. (Giving birth is, of course, just one experience that’s more about woman than man.)

I would like to hear more from Miriam, Ruth and Esther; from Mary, the mother of Jesus; from Mary and Martha; from Mary Magdalene; from Pilate’s wife (whatever her name is); from Phoebe. It is too late, but let us at least hear from female authors and theologians today imagining what they might have said, or interpreting biblical authors such as David and Paul. A touching example I recall comes from Bridget Plass. In her book Dear Paul, am I the only one? she imagined a social worker of a teenage girl writing to the Apostle. The girl had destroyed effects to do with her birth family on the advice of the enthusiastic church she had joined, that had advised her to “forget what is behind and strain towards what is ahead” (Phil 3). I had always found that passage impossible, even irresponsible. Plass imagined Paul replying that he was writing only what he as a man on death row had found helpful.

Such contextualisation I had never heard from a male preacher. Plass’s pastoral touch made Paul more palatable and allowed compassion to be read between the lines. We need more of these voices today.  

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.

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.

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. 

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

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

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.