Some Thoughts About Slavery and the Culture Wars
Some Thoughts About Slavery and the Culture Wars
Slavery has been part of human life since the dawn of history. It is still with us today, as shown by American singer-songwriter Rhiannon Giddens’s twenty-first century re-write of ‘Barbados’, an eighteenth century poem by the abolitionist William Cowper.
What I hear of their hardships, their tortures, and groans
It's almost enough to draw pity from stones
I pity them greatly, but I must be mum
For how could we do without sugar and rum?
Especially sugar, so needful we see?
What? Give up our desserts, our coffee, and tea?!
Besides, if we do, the French, Dutch, and Danes
Will heartily thank us, no doubt, for our pains
If we do not buy the poor creatures, they will
And tortures and groans will be multiplied still
And Giddens re-wrote those lines as:
I pity them greatly, but I must be mum
For what about nickel, cobalt, lithium?
The garments we wear, the electronics we own?
What? Give up our tablets, our laptops, and phones?!
Besides, if we do, the prices will soar
And who could afford to pay one dollar more?
Sitting here typing it seems well worth the price
And you there, listening on your favorite device
This bargain we're in, well, it's not quite illicit
So relax, my friend, we're not all complicit
It might be argued that today’s western consumer, who also enjoys the ability to vote and influence political discourse, knows and cares far less about slavery than his or her eighteenth century counterparts. Our forebears, who by and large, were unable to vote, regularly packed town squares and churches to protest against slavery and used their economic power to boycott slave-produced sugar and rum. Why doesn’t the twentieth-century consumer do the same? Could we make a difference if every time we bought a garment from a high-street store, we asked whether it was made from cotton produced by coerced Uighur labour in China, for example?
However, to argue that slavery has always been, and by inference will always be, part of humanity, runs the danger of minimising what happened to thirteen million Africans at the hands of white Europeans from the sixteenth until, in the case of the Belgian Congo, the early part of the twentieth century. More than a million died on the journey to the New World, and those who were enslaved in the West Indian sugar plantations, once sent to work in the field, measured their life expectancy in months not years.
Today, a lot of political discourse is centred around the so-called ‘culture wars’. Crudely, the culture wars are presented as a conflict between older people, who are concerned about familiar and loved local landmarks being renamed or demolished; and younger people who are accused of trying to ‘re-write history’. The National Trust has come in for a lot of criticism for daring to examine the relationship between many of its properties and collections. Specifically, the Trust is researching whether the wealth that established some of its large estates was created by the ownership of other humans. This criticism is, in my opinion, entirely malevolent and unjustified. What is the point of a body such as the NT if it doesn’t carry out historical research on its assets? Why should some areas of research be deemed acceptable while others are considered beyond the pale?
In 1784 Samuel Greg opened Quarry Bank Mill in the remote village of Styal, which is now on the outskirts of Manchester. The Mill took cotton that was produced by West Indian slaves and spun it into thread using water-power from the River Bollin. Greg needed a labour force to work the new machinery, and within Britain itself, slavery was not acceptable. Greg needed to find a way of subduing labour without enslaving it, and the solution was to tour the workhouses of London to find children as young as eight years old to work ten-hour days in the mill. These children lived in the cramped Apprentice House, which was controlled by superintendents who, to be fair, did their best to educate them. However, industrial accidents such as severed fingers were common.
Quarry Bank Mill has been owned by the National Trust for many years, and the Trust has always presented visitors with an honest and balanced visitor experience about the role of coerced child labour in the mill’s early history. But how was the Mill financed in the first place? The Trust’s research concludes that the initial capital came from the Greg family’s ownership, over several generations, of slave plantations in Dominica and St. Vincent. When slavery was finally abolished in 1833, Samuel Greg’s son Thomas claimed £5,080 - more than half a million pounds in today’s money – as compensation for the loss of 210 slaves.
Slavery is only the most extreme form of coerced labour. The young boys and girls who were sent to Quarry Bank Mill’s Apprentice House from the workhouses of Hackney and Chelsea were also coerced, but by a lesser degree. In terms of the culture wars, those who criticise the trust should answer the question why they consider it acceptable to point out the Greg family’s involvement in the exploitation of children but unacceptable to point out their involvement in slavery. For a nation both to have an honest record of its history, and to understand its place in the modern world, we need to be able to hear, and be prepared to listen to, both stories.
Earlier this month I retired after 13 very fulfilling years as a board member and former Chairperson of
. Here are my thoughts:
Reflections on being an undergraduate in my seventies
Reflections on being an undergraduate in my seventies
In July, just one month before my seventy-third birthday, I heard that I’d been awarded my BA in History from Birkbeck, University of London. A ‘second-class upper division’ (or 2.1) to be precise. So, my student career is over. I can honestly say that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the experience and met many really interesting people of all ages who have come from many countries to teach or learn in London. How lucky we are to live so close to such a dynamic, cosmopolitan city.
Of course, the whole learning process was disrupted by Covid. In March 2020, towards the end of my second year, teaching moved online, and stayed that way until the end of my third and final year. I know that the teaching staff moved heaven and earth to make the process of mass online learning as fruitful as they could, but it’s just not the same from the student perspective. Online learning is a solitary experience. The main thing that you miss is chatting with fellow students before and after the lecture. From the teachers’ perspective, it must be even more frustrating as the teacher has so few body language clues about how his or her message is getting across. In theory, this year’s graduates should be attending a graduation ceremony in November, but we don’t know whether that too will be forced online. I will be really disappointed if it is.
In the first year of the course, students choose to study history by period, and there are nine periods to choose from, from classical times to the twentieth century, I chose to study three periods of world history covering from 1500 to the present day. My main interest is twentieth-century history, but I also thoroughly enjoyed learning about the early modern world (from 1500 to 1789), which is of course the period when Europeans first encountered other civilisations. Spaghetti Bolognese is a quintessentially European staple, but what would it taste like without pasta - from China - or tomatoes and chilli peppers - from the Americas - or basil - from Africa? What would be left on the plate?
In return for the indigenous Americans introducing us Europeans to tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, maize, and a whole host of other food staples, we gave them horses, which they found quite useful; but we also introduced them to measles and influenza, which may have killed more than forty million of them. If that wasn’t enough, we then sent thirteen million Africans to the Americas to be enslaved, but several million of them never arrived on American shores, because the journey was so dangerous. So much modern history is about slavery and genocide that it was a great relief to choose, as one of my second-year modules, a course called ‘Being Good in the Modern Age’ which is history of altruism and morality. This course began by examining why the Enlightenment philosophers considered kindness and politeness to be important, and went on to cover, inter-alia, the campaign to abolish slavery, the campaigns of the nineteenth century feminists, and, from the twentieth century, the disability rights movement, environmentalism, and the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I think that if I had to choose the course that I enjoyed the most, it would be this one.
In the third and final year I wrote my dissertation. Those of you that are already familiar with my blog will know that one of my interests is disability rights, and that I have written the life stories of my parents, both of whom were disabled by polio as young children. So, you won’t be surprised at my choice of research project, which was a study of the foundation of the British Polio Fellowship in 1939 and its work between 1939 and 1970. This charity was a self-help movement which in many ways was years ahead of its time; as most charities with this kind of ethos did not emerge until the 1960s. Writing a dissertation during various stages of lockdown is not to be recommended; the library that holds most of the relevant material for a dissertation about polio is the Wellcome Library in Central London, but at no point when I was working on this project was this library open to new readers. Other students will have had similar problems, so I guess we’re all in the same boat. Anyway, these are trivial problems compared to what many other people have had to endure during the pandemic. At least it was my final year of university that was disrupted. I feel a lot of sympathy for those eighteen-year-olds who had to endure the stress of the 2020 A-level examinations fiasco, and then go into a university hall of residence to be solely taught online. They deserved better, and it’s not the fault of the colleges that things weren’t better for them.
The question that I’m asked most often is what next? Am I interested in a master’s degree? I have to say that the answer is no. There is no government funding for the over -sixties to go further, and while there are scholarships, I think that there are many younger people who deserve them more than I do. I will carry on writing and start to update my seriously unloved and dated blog more often, starting now. But would I recommend going to Uni to other seventy-somethings. You bet I would!
|Posted on May 20, 2019 at 7:30 AM|
Looking back over the year
Some of you may know that last October, just one month after my seventieth birthday, I began a three-year degree course in History at Birkbeck, University of London. The first academic year has just ended, and I thought I’d share my reflections. Birkbeck is an adult education college, so very few of the students are school leavers, most of them are in their twenties to their fifties. At seventy, I’m not even the oldest undergraduate in the department. One of my fellow students is eighty-two! So I’m pleased to say that I do actually fit in, which was one of my concerns before I started.
In the first year I’ve chosen to study three modules from a choice of nine; the Early Modern Period (1500-1789), Modern (1789 to 1914), and Contemporary (1914-2008). We study World History, which means we learn a great deal about slavery and genocide - both of which increased in scale exponentially as a result of the discovery of the Americas in 1492. Both subjects can be harrowing, man’s inhumanity to man seems to know no bounds. Thirteen million Africans were sold into slavery between 1500 and the mid-1800s, and in the twentieth century about fourteen million people were murdered in Eastern Europe by Hitler and Stalin. This number does not include another twenty million who died in combat, just those who were murdered because they were the wrong ethnicity or religion or were victims of famine caused by government policy.
I can honestly say that I’ve found almost every lecture to be stimulating and enjoyable; the quality of the teaching is first-class. I particularly enjoyed writing an essay on the birth of the welfare state, a subject which is very dear to my heart, and when, in 2021 I will have to write a dissertation then it’s quite likely to be concerned with this subject. Last week I had to sit three three-hour exams where the answers had to be hand-written. After writing by hand for three hours I can assure you that your wrist hurts. Since I bought my first computer about twenty-five years ago I haven’t hand-written anything longer that a birthday card or a post-it note. I won’t get the results until July, and I only hope that the markers can read my writing!
Why study history?
We are living in a period where political optimism in short supply. Some of our politicians who are extolling the virtues of a “no-deal Brexit” recall the period of World War II with nostalgia. Why anybody should be nostalgic about a period where over 30 million people died escapes me. George Orwell – in “Nineteen Eighty-Four” wrote:
“He who controls the present controls the past. He who controls the past controls the future”.
Orwell was warning us all against unscrupulous people who try to influence us with false narratives about our past. At least one British politician has claimed on Twitter that after World War II Great Britain received no money from the USA in the form of Marshall Aid; all of it went to the continent. At Birkbeck you learn the objective truth – Britain was the largest beneficiary of Marshall Aid. In one lecture last winter we saw a picture of a Soviet-era war memorial in the Eastern Ukraine. It had been recently vandalised, because it stated that World War II began in 1941. People in that part of the Ukraine consider that it began in 1939. The people who believe that it began in 1939 and those who believe that it began in 1941 support different sides in the current conflict in this region.
That’s what Orwell meant and that’s why I study history. It helps to understand and challenge the power of “fake news”.
|Posted on July 11, 2018 at 5:00 AM||comments (7911)|
On Sunday 8th July I managed to combine three of my enthusiasms - walking, human rights and literature in one event. My friend Hilary told me about something called "Refugee Tales" - a project that is concerned with the welfare of people who are detained by the UK immigration authorities in t detention centres at Gatwick Airport.
The United Kingdom is the only European country that permits indefinite detention of people who are thought to be in the country illegally. Detainees include asylum seekers, offenders and visa overstayers, as well as - as we now know - members of the Windrush generation who just cannot prove that they have the legal right to be here because the evidential requirement is set impractically high.
Most European countries can and do detain people suspected of being in the country illegally, but our green and pleasant beacon of democracy is the only country whose laws permit indefinite detention. Each year about 36,000 people are detained, many for short periods, but the record is nine years. Currently, over 3,000 souls are incarcerated. Some people may have been arrested, released and then re-arrested more than once. Each time they are released they are given £30 which is considered sufficient funding to rebuild their lives.
The Refugee Tales project was started as a way of publicising the plight of these people. It was founded by volunteers who visit detainees at Gatwick to support them, and is based on the Canterbury Tales. Some of the volunteers, as well as some former detainees and sympathisers such as Hilary and I take a day long country walk, and at the end of the walk there is a mini literary festival, where well-known writers who have been paired with detainees and volunteers tell the stories they have heard.
This year's walk lasted five days, starting at St. Albans on Saturday and ended at Westminster on Wednesday. There are literary festivals each evening. We joined the walk just for one day, walking about twelve miles from Hertford to Waltham Abbey. The people who are doing the five day walk sleep in church halls each night, and there is a porterage service that carries their luggage from one church hall to another. There were 120 people on our walk, and I think the age range must have been from about eighteen to over eighty. We were divided into four groups; every time we got to a stile or a kissing gate the progress of getting such a large number of people through the narrow gap was slow.
Some of the walkers are former detainees. To them, a twelve mile walk for fun is a new experience. Their previous experience of walking may have been a six month journey across the entire length of Turkey and the Balkans, Walking was a means of survival, not a leisure activity.
It was of course hot. The morning walk was mainly through Broxbourne woods so we were spared the direct sunlight. Lunch was at Broxbourne United Reformed Church, who provided endless cold drinks. While we were eating we were each handed a copy of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was signed seventy years ago this year. In a short talk a human rights lawyer reminded us that Article 9 specifically states that "no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile"; and that Article 29 reminds us that "everyone has duties to the community" . These are the reasons why we are here.
I hadn't realised that this declaration was signed in the year of my birth. So I'm the same age as both the UN Declaration of Human Rights and the National Health Service. I'm quite proud of that, it was a good year to be born!
Lunch over. we set out along the River Lea towpath to Waltham Abbey. Progress was fairly slow because we often had to stop to let cyclists through the crowd of walkers. There was much less shelter along the river, we were now walking in the blazing heat of summer. At Cheshunt there's a boat that sells ice cream, and the ice cream vendor couldn't believe his luck when over 100 people descended on him. It must have been his busiest day this year. I hope he didn't run out.
We arrived at Waltham Abbey at about 4pm. Fortunately Hilary's partner Dave lives in Waltham Abbey, and he supplied us with beer, food and a very welcome shower before we took a short stroll to the evening event at the library.
There, we were entertained by two authors, Gillian Slovo and Patrick Gale, and by the Citizens of the World Choir, a group of singers from over fifteen different countries, many of whom have spent some time in immigration detention. The two authors had both written Chaucerian "tales" about the lives of two people who were in the audience with us that night. Gillian Slovo is a South African born novelist, playwright and memoirist who came to this country as a refugee when she was a child. Her mother, Ruth First, was detained without trial by the Apartheid regime, and was later assassinated by order of the same regime when she opened a parcel bomb that has been sent to her office in Mozambique. Gillian read "The Listener's Tale", an account she had written about the life and experiences of a volunteer who visits detainees at Gatwick.
Patrick Gale is a Cornwall based bestselling author who in made his screenwriting debut last year with Man in an Orange Shirt, a two part drama which formed part of the BBC's Gay Britannia season. Patrick read us "The Embroiderer's Tale"; an absolutely riveting story he'd written about a young man who worked as a high-end bespoke tailor in Teheran. He fell in love with a Christian girl and secretly converted to Christianity. When his mother found out she reported him to the religious police. In Iran, the penalty for apostasy is death. Patrick, who is a charismatic speaker, told us about this man's journey through Turkey, Italy and France before he was arrested in Hemel Hempstead and detained on more than one occasion. Eventually, the authorities allowed him to live with one of the Gatwick volunteers while the claim was being processed and this volunteer took him to visit Hampton Court where he saw, for the first time, medieval and Tudor English tapestries. The bespoke tailor from Teheran became the first ever male student at the Royal School of Needlework and now earns a living restoring England's heritage.
Later this year Refugee Tales will publish an anthology of all of this year's tales , including those we heard from Gillian and Patrick. I shall of course buy a copy.
Thanks To Hilary King for suggesting the walk and for the photos, and to David Chapman for the beer, food and shower.
|Posted on January 23, 2018 at 6:15 PM||comments (9)|
On a bitterly cold, snowy day one March I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau. We were on a short break in Cracow at the time. I was in two minds whether to go or not; one part of me said that this not a tourist attraction, and treating is as such devalues the horrors that went on there. But another part of me said that I should see what went on; If we don't try to understand what happened, it can happen again.
All Auschwitz visits are guided. Joachim, our guide told us about the history of this terrible place with sympathy and conviction. In particular he told us that many of the officers who ran the camp were never prosecuted; after the war they went back to Germany and resumed their civilian lives as though nothing had happened. The obituary of one camp medical officer describes him as one of the most eminent, and most caring gynaecologists in Stuttgart.
The Museum gets over a million visitors each year, so there are several different routes that an individual tour can take to avoid congestion. On the route our group took, one of the very first things that you see is the Museum's collection of over 400 false legs, false arms, crutches, leg-irons and other surgical appliances. I hadn't expected this. One of my childhood memories as a very small boy is going into my parents bedroom early in the morning when they were still in bed and seeing their crutches and leg irons and my father's leather and steel spinal corset by their bedside. Now I was looking at hundreds of these appliances, all looted from those who had been exterminated. I took a deep intake of breath.
This picture is provided by courtesy of the Aushwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum; www.aushwitz.org
My mother and father, both of whom were seriously disabled by polio when they were toddlers, were twenty seven and thirty three in 1939 - just the right age group to have ended their lives in this hellish place if they had they been born in another European country. It is estimated that close to 250,000 disabled people were murdered under the Nazi regime. Persecution of people with disabilities began in 1933, but mass murder commenced in 1939. The 1933 ‘Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring’ allowed for the forced sterilisation of those regarded as ‘unfit’. This definition included people with conditions such as epilepsy, schizophrenia and alcoholism. Prisons, nursing homes, asylums, care homes and special schools were targeted to select people for sterilisation. It has been estimated that between 1933 and 1939, 360,000 individuals were forcibly sterilised.
Andrew Bradford with his parents, Charlie and Kathy Bradford in 1953
The organised killing of disabled children began in August 1939 when the Interior Ministry required doctors and midwives to report all cases of newborns with severe disabilities. All children under the age of three who were suffering from conditions such as Down’s syndrome, hydrocephaly, cerebral palsy or ‘suspected idiocy’, were targeted. A panel of medical experts were required to give their approval for the ‘euthanasia’ of each child. In the first few months of the program this was usually achieved either by lethal injection or by starving the child to death.
Many parents were unaware of their children's' fate, instead being told that they were being sent for improved care. After a period of time parents were told their children had died of pneumonia and that their bodies had been cremated to stop the spread of disease.
Not everyone who was selected for euthanasia died. Robert Wagemann and his family were Jehovah's Witnesses. The Nazis regarded Jehovah's Witnesses as enemies of the state for their refusal to take an oath of loyalty to Hitler, or to serve in the army. Robert's family continued its religious activities despite Nazi persecution. Because of this Robert was born in gaol where his mother was imprisoned briefly for distributing religious materials. His hip was injured during delivery, leaving him with a disability. When Robert was five he was ordered to report for a physical in Schlierheim. His mother overheard staff comments about putting Robert "to sleep." Fearing they intended to kill him, Robert's mother grabbed him and ran from the clinic. The family was hidden by relatives until the allied victory. You can hear Robert talking about his experiences here.
Following the outbreak of war the programme expanded. Disabled and chronically sick adults were now included. A more efficient method of extermination was now needed as the previous methods of killing - lethal injection or starvation - were too slow to cope with larger numbers. The first experimental gassings took place at the killing centre in Brandenberg and thousands of disabled patients were killed in gas chambers disguised as shower rooms. Now that a fast and effective method of mass-murder had been developed it could of course be used to exterminate gays, Gypsies, political opponents and of course over six million Jews.
But the Nazis weren't alone in thinking that the lives of people with disabilities had no value. they drew some of their thinking from the ideas of the Eugenics movement, which had its followers all over the world, including the United Kingdom. In 1930, Julian Huxley, secretary of the London Zoological Society and chairman of the Eugenics Society wrote:
'What are we going to do? Every defective man, woman and child is a burden. Every defective is an extra body for the nation to feed and clothe, but produces little or nothing in return.'
In the early 20th century, many public figures, including political leaders such as Winston Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt; birth control pioneers Margaret Sanger and Marie Stopes, and intellectuals such as H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, John Maynard Keynes, Linus Pauling and Sidney Webb supported the idea of eugenics.
They believed that anyone disabled or 'deficient' was a threat to the 'health of the nation'. The aim of eugenics was to eliminate human physical and mental defects altogether, in order to build a stronger society. People with disabilities would be segregated from everyone else in the name of 'perfecting' the human race. Between 1920 and 1940 compulsory sterilisation programs in mental asylums took place on a number of countries including Belgium, Brazil, Canada and Sweden.
Eugenics was discredited in most of the world by the revelation of what had happened in the German camps, but Sweden only stopped the sterilisation of asylum inmates in 1975. But these vile ideas are now being propagated by individuals such as Toby Young who have the ear and the support of cabinet ministers. In January 2018 Journalist Young was appointed to the board of the new Office for Students - a body which is intended to ensure that higher education institutions are accountable. Young was then severely criticised for comments he made on Twitter, most of which were deleted upon his appointment. He has since deleted 45,000 tweets.
A large number of them included what a London Evening Standard editorial called "an obsession with commenting on the anatomy of women in the public eye"; while another tweet was in response to a BBC Comic Relief appeal for starving Kenyan children. During the broadcast, a Twitter user commented that she had "gone through about 5 boxes of kleenex" whilst watching. Toby Young replied: "Me too, I havn't [sic] wanked so much in ages".
But he also write an article for the Australian publication "The Quadrant" recommending Eugenics:
"My proposal is this: once this technology [genetically engineered intelligence]becomes available, why not offer it free of charge to parents on low incomes with below-average IQs?"
as well as another article for "The Spectator" where he set out his views on people with physical and learning difficulties:
"Inclusive. It’s one of those ghastly, politically correct words that have survived the demise of New Labour. Schools have got to be ‘inclusive’ these days. That means wheelchair ramps....and a special educational needs Department that can cope with everything from dyslexia to Münchausen syndrome by proxy. If [then education secretary, Michael] Gove is serious about wanting to bring back O-levels, the government will have to repeal the Equalities Act because any exam that isn’t ‘accessible’ to a functionally illiterate troglodyte with a mental age of six will be judged to be ‘elitist."
Clearly, there will be little demand or either wheelchair ramps or special needs teachers in Young's brave new world. Because of the negative publicity that these articles and tweets generated, Young did not actually take up his appointment. But before his position became untenable, he was defended by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who described Young's comments as being merely "caustic wit". That is how close these reprehensible ideas are to becoming considered to be acceptable once again.
Our guided tour ended on the bleak plain of Birkenau, where hundreds of wooden buildings that housed those destined for the gas chambers once stood. At the end of the tour Joachim, our guide told us how to get back to our coaches. I was standing next to him when we began to walk back and we struck up a conversation.
Joachim told me that Auschwitz guides are sometimes heckled. Most of the hecklers deny that anybody was ever killed at Auschwitz or any of the camps. Guides are trained in how to respond to hecklers, and he wasn't too worried about putting the deniers down - the evidence to contradict them was all around them. The hecklers that he and his colleagues found really difficult to deal with were those who agreed that this was indeed a death camp, but that Hitler was right.
I'm going to finish this piece with pastor Martin Niemöller's Holocaust poem, which although it doesn't specifically mention disabled people, reminds me of the reason why I did decide to visit Auschwitz and why we all need to be consistently vigilant in our opposition to holocaust deniers and public figures like Toby Young. If ideas like his become acceptable in mainstream politics the future looks very bleak for vulnerable people.
First They Came - Martin Niemöller
First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist
Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me
Poem (c) United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
|Posted on November 30, 2017 at 10:25 AM||comments (4121)|
Charles Dickens first published A Christmas Carol in 1843 and since then his name has been indelibly associated with Christmas. This novel is credited by historians with reconstructing Christmas as a family centred festival of generosity.
I have my own childhood memories of Dickens at Christmas that I'd like to share with you, and I'd also like to share with you a tale of the remarkable generosity of a man I've probably never met, Mr J.G. Street. I have no idea what the initials J G stand for.
Every Christmas when I was a kid the Harrods van would turn up at our doorstep on the council estate where we lived in Edmonton. That was unusual, I doubt if any other doorsteps on the estate got such a delivery. On the van there were always three parcels for our family; a Christmas cake and a bottle of whisky for my Mum and Dad and a book, usually a Dickens volume, for me. The book was always inscribed in what is now to me obviously an old person's handwriting:
"To Andrew. from Mr J. G. Street. XMAS - year"
Mr Street was my Dad Charlie's pen friend and they'd been writing to each other for over thirty years by the time I was eleven in 1959. Charlie was then just over fifty, but Mr Street was then in his nineties.
Charlie was a working class boy from Edmonton who worked on an assembly line and Mr Street was a public school and Cambridge educated man who had been a successful barrister. We lived in a London council house, but Mr Street lived in a Surrey mansion that had servants quarters, and he still employed servants up to his death. I have no idea whether he ever married or had children, but I suspect he hadn't.
The original reason My Dad and Mr Street had started to write to each other in the late 1920s was because when Charlie was three he had caught the polio virus which left him disabled in both legs and his left arm. This meant that as an adult, before the birth of the NHS, he had to buy crutches, leg irons and wheelchairs and he - as well as countless others like him - didn't have the money to do so.
The Shaftesbury Society - a Christian charity - used to provide people like Charlie with a list of potential wealthy benefactors to whom they could write and ask for assistance, and Dad was given Mr Street's name. In other words they had to write begging letters. But Mr Street gave him financial support for about twenty years until the birth of the NHS meant that it was no longer needed. But these two men from such different backgrounds had become friends. They now wrote to each other as equals.
When Charlie married Kathy - another polio survivor - in 1945, Mr Street was an honoured wedding guest. His wedding present was an art deco seven day clock by Heal's that sat on the mantelpiece in our living room. When I was born in 1948 he sent me a christening present, and he sent me books every year until he died in the early 1960s. I must have met him when I was very small, but I have no memory of it. I do remember my Dad reading the letters from his pen friend and writing back, and the fact that Charlie's letters always began "Dear Mr Street" while the return letters always began "My Dear Bradford". I suppose that's how you were taught to write a personal letter at public school in the 1890s. I also remember having to write him a thank you letter for his Christmas gifts. It wasn't something that my eleven year-old self did very willingly of course.
I still have seven volumes of the Dickens books that Mr Street gave to me - I could never think of giving them away, but the book I really value most of all is my copy of "Treasure Island". It's probably the book that gave me a lifelong love of literature. It's inscribed "Andrew - from Mr Street -Easter 1955." So he must have thought of us at Easter as well as Christmas and birthdays.
How appropriate that so many of his books were by Dickens. Prior to the publication of A Christmas Carol most families simply celebrated Christmas by going to church. They didn't give gifts to each other, and they didn't see it as a reason for giving to Charity. But by the spring of 1844, The Gentleman's Magazine attributed a sudden burst of charitable giving in Britain to Dickens's novel; in 1874, Robert Louis Stevenson waxed enthusiastic after reading Dickens's Christmas books and vowed to give generously. In America in 1867, a Mr. Fairbanks attended a reading on Christmas Eve in Boston, and was so moved he closed his factory on Christmas Day and sent every employee a turkey.
So let's remember just how much Charles Dickens has influenced the way we celebrate Christmas, and I'll also remember the way he influenced the remarkable Mr J G Street.
Let's also remember that the period that I'm recalling - the 1950s and 60s - was in some ways a golden age for people whose disabilities meant that they needed to use expensive mobility aids such as wheelchairs and mobility vehicles. Quite simply, these were just supplied by the state - the user never entered into a financial transaction. It is of course true that the equipment the state supplied was very basic; there was little choice and little innovation, but the commitment to supply these products rendered the generosity of people like Mr Street redundant. But his friendship was never redundant, even twenty years later.
Today, the state provides cash to people with disabilities in the form of Personal Independence Payments , and it is out of these cash payments that the users are expected to purchase their own mobility aids. It is true, that this form of support provides users with choices about what aids they purchase and from whom they purchase them, and it is also true that this encourages more innovation. However, for many people PIP payments do not provide sufficient funds to purchase what the user needs; assuming of course that they can jump the significant hurdles to qualify for this assistance in the first place
On Facebook today you can see crowdfunding appeals to provide wheelchairs and other mobility aids. These are the twenty first century's equivalent of the begging letters of the 1930s and they are being responded to by a new generation of Mr Streets.
|Posted on November 13, 2017 at 6:40 PM||comments (330)|
Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, 1994-95
Few cities have such a strong sense of both time and place as Jerusalem. This is not only because of its religious importance, it's also because it has been continually inhabited, conquered and reconquered since the iron age.
More than three thousand years ago Abraham sacrificed his son Isaac in Jerusalem. King David conquered the city in about 1000BC and made it his capital. Since then it has been conquered and lost by Babylonians, Romans, Persians, Byzantines, Muslims, Crusaders, Marmelukes, Ottomans, British, Jordanians; and since 1967 by the Israelis. It is of course the City where Jesus was crucified and Mohammed flew off to the skies. No other city has such a continuous history of settlement, faith, and conflict. Ironically its Hebrew name means 'city of peace'; but Jerusalem has almost never been peaceful.
I've been there twice. My second visit was in the spring of 1995, when Marilyn and I and our two only just teenage children went as tourists. We saw all the famous sights - the Wailing Wall, Temple Mount, the Via Dolorosa and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre - as well as the Church of the Nativity in occupied Bethlehem. I'll never forget the sights of the Dome of the Rock and the Orthodox Church of Mary Magdalen as we stepped out of the coach. These are the buildings that gives Jerusalem its soubriquet " The Golden City".
My first visit, was almost exactly a year earlier. It was more memorable even though I didn't see any of these iconic sites. I was working for a software company and was part of a team that responded to an enquiry for one of our products from an Israeli bank. I was accompanied on this visit by Murali, a colleague from our New York Office, and Murali and I met at Heathrow for our flight to Tel Aviv, Israel's commercial capital. Murali is an American who was born in Bombay, and like me, he had never visited Israel before.
Both of us expected that the security on our BA flight would be intense, but both the departure and the arrival security was just like any other flight. When we reached our hotel at about seven pm there was a message from Ari, our client - who we had never met - that he and five others would like to meet us for breakfast at the hotel the following morning at 7.30.
The Street names of Tel Aviv - King George Avenue, Balfour Street and Allenby Street - remind you that Palestine, as it then was, was once part of the British Empire. Breakfast over, the eight of us walked a short distance along Allenby Street to the bank's art deco offices for discussions that carried on until well after ten o'clock that evening. When the bank closed its doors at about six thirty we continued the discussion at the home of one of the participants. Somebody ordered a Chinese takeaway. Murali works in New York, and I work in London; and in both these cities high value business meetings can be very intense and pressured, but this is the only time that either of us had been in a fifteen hour meeting. We retired to bed exhausted. The following day was a Thursday and the meetings only went on for six hours. That evening Murali had to return to New York. My flight was the following evening and Friday is not a working day in Israel. Ari asked me what I would be doing tomorrow. When I said I would just write up my notes and when finished I would just stroll around Tel Aviv he replied "But you can't come all this way and not visit Jerusalem".
I asked him about buses. "Ach!, I'll take you" he replied. "Meet me outside your hotel at seven." I had hoped for a lie-in.
The following morning Ari and I had breakfast in the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv - a kind of Camden Lock/ Borough Market-like labyrinth started in the 1920s by Yemeni and Russian Jewish immigrants. Ari mentioned that his father had walked to Tel Aviv from the Yemen at about the same time. We then set out on the ninety minute drive through the desert to the gates of Jerusalem. On the way he asked me what sights I wanted to see. This phased me, as I had not given it any thought, so I replied with the first place that came into my head "What about the Dome of The Rock?
Ari winced."It's the Muslim day of prayer, there may be violence. Not a good idea, my wife would never forgive me if anything happened to you."
After a pause. "I know what we'll do. We'll go the Mea Sharim". He explained that the Mea Sharim was the ultra orthodox quarter and asked If I knew Stamford Hill. I said I did, and he told that it would be like Stamford Hill on a much larger scale.
The Oslo accord, which was supposed to end fifty years of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians had been signed a few months earlier. As we drove into occupied East Jerusalem we saw the black white and green Palestinian tricolor flying. Ari was clearly shocked. He said that he never thought he would live to see that sight. He was fifty, and was still a reservist inthe Israeli Army. He didn't want his children to still be serving soldiers when they were his age. This was a short-lived time of optimism in the region, which is why we went as tourists the following year. I don't know whether I would want to go now.
The Mea Sharim is one of Israel's most deprived communities. The poverty is visible when you look at the food on sale. Like most Mediterranean countries the rest of Israel has wonderful, colourful food markets - the most famous being the Carmel Market. But the fruit and vegetables on sale here were poor in quality, sparse in quantity. According to Ari the reasons for the deprivation include large families, lack of women in the workforce, the fact that most men prefer to devote their time to studying the Talmud rather than earning money, as well as strict adherence to purchasing food from growers who observe Jewish dietary laws to an extent that makes it difficult to provide modern wholesome food.
Ari 's opinion of the ultra-orthodox residents was scathing. He openly detested these men in their frock coats and fur hats, and the women with shaven heads, wigs and headscarves. He was still a serving soldier prepared to die for his country, but these "ants" as he called them were exempt from military service. They didn't recongnise the state of Israel which gave them security. This was not his Israel, it was just as alien to him as the Arab West Bank.
He took me into one of the many shops that sold nothing but objects of devotion, or as Ari put it "They don't sell anything that's been invented inthe last three hundred years". Inside, an elderly man, who was in a state of some distress, was complaining to the shopkeeper about something they were looking hard at. Ari was listening intently to a language he didn't know well, because Hassidic Jews speak Yiddish, not Hebrew - which is reserved for religious observance. He made me buy something for one shekel, the cheapest thing the shop sold. Once outside he told me what he had understood. The man had bought a mezuzah from the shop. A mezuzah is a piece of parchment contained in a decorative case and inscribed with specific verses from the Torah which is fixed to the doorpost of Hassidic homes. The complaint was that there was an error in the calligraphy, which had brought pestilence to the family, fulfilling a biblical prophecy. The two of them were searching for the error. "Superstitious garbage!" in Ari's opinion.
I looked at my watch. I had a plane to catch. We decided it was time to drive to the airport. I thanked Ari for his hospitality; I had had a once in a lifetime experience on so many levels. Then I encountered Israeli security. Before I could board I was questioned by an extremely polite, extremely insistent security officer. The interview took forty five minutes. Quite simply he asked me to account for every second that I had spent in Israel, to give him the name and job title of every bank employee who I had met, and to explain where my hold luggage was when it was not with me for the whole three days. Had I intended to deceive, I would have failed, he would have picked up any inconsistency.
But I had it easy. The following Monday I was at my desk when Murali rang. He asked whether I was questioned at the airport and I told him what had happened.
"Hmm." he said. "
Was that all?" I could hear the indignation in his voice.
"Yes, what did they ask you?"
" He asked 'Where were you born?' I answered Bombay. His next question was 'What happened next?' "
|Posted on May 12, 2017 at 10:40 AM||comments (20)|
Two days in Cape Town
At the end of March Marilyn and I visited Cape Town. One Monday morning we took the ferry to Robben Island, the bleak outpost in the Indian Ocean where the Apartheid regime, like the British Empire and Dutch empires before it incarcerated its political prisoners.
The Robben Island Prison Entrance
Each group of tourists is given a talk by a former prisoner. Given that the political prison closed over twenty five years ago, I was surprised how young our allocated prisoner seemed. In a bleak dormitory with grey walls, grey ceilings, barred windows and a grey floor covering, our prisoner told us that he arrived there as an eighteen year old in 1986. He had been sentenced to seven years for sabotage.
He never told us his name, but he did tell us that his offence had been to set fire to a rent office in a township one night. The people who lived in the Township were on rent strike. They had all been resettled there against their will when their former homes had been demolished to make way for white people, and they considered the rents changed by the regime to be excessive. By burning the rent office down, the regime would no longer have any records showing the rent arrears.
He talked about the Island's most famous prisoners - the "Rivonia Six" - Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Elias Motsoaledi , Raymond Mhalaba and Ahmed Kathrada - who were convicted of treason in 1964, and, in Mandela's case, not released until 1990. Our prisoner said what an inspiration these men had been to him during the period he shared their place of internment.
Five of these six prisoners were classed by the regime as "Bantus", while Kathrada was classed as an "Asiatic". In the complex hierarchy of racial groups that was a cornerstone of Apartheid, Asiatics were considered to be superior to Bantus; which meant that only Kathrada was allowed to wear long trousers and eat meat, and he also had a larger bread ration than the others.
Poster at Robben Island showing the ration rules
The purpose of not allowing Bantus to wear long trousers was to infantilise them. If they were treated as children they wouldn't be a threat. And this absurdity is one of the reasons that the system collapsed. The founding fathers of the Apartheid regime could see no reason why they should educate the majority of the population to become anything than gardeners, labourers or maids, but a modern economy needs engineers, scientists and doctors. This contradiction was one of the reasons why the system collapsed in the 1990s. It was no longer sustainable.
That night, Ahmed Kathrada, who , like his friend Mandela, had spent eighteen years in custody, died aged eighty nine. His funeral was held the following day, and all the South African TV stations gave it blanket coverage. The country's controversial president, Jacob Zuma, another Robben Island alumnus, was told by Kathrada's family to stay away as he was not welcome.
On the day that Kathrada was buried, Marilyn and I went on a tour of the Cape Peninsula. We'd hired a taxi for a day, and Abdenir, our driver, stopped his immaculate Nissan saloon over twenty times to show us spectacular sights. We saw long sandy beaches with great white breakers, green mountains, rugged cliffs and wide blue skies. I remember one inspiring view of both the Atlantic and Indian Oceans as we headed back from the Cape of Good Hope. He stopped the car so that we could admire a herd of Ostriches walking along an Atlantic beach, the three of us laughed at three young German tourists who decided that the best way to avoid the attention of the baboons is to run away from them, and Marilyn and I walked the length of Boulders Beach, home to a large colony of Penguins.
Abdenir is both a good host and an interesting travelling companion. He is a refugee, a legal immigrant from Somalia. He is one of over a million South African residents who are refugees from war zones. His father was killed in the civil war, and he and his wife, who are bringing up four children of their own, have adopted another child, the daughter of friends who both lost their lives when the little girl was only eight months old . Some of the conversation between the three of us touched the subject of human rights. Abdenir is both an optimist and an Anglophile. He looks forward to the day when it will be safe for him to return to Somalia and thinks that many young people who have been part of refugee families in the United Kingdom, and have benefited from its education system will return and make great contributions to Somali civic society. He was full of praise for David Cameron and William Hague - who are hardly my political heroes - who he told us had given significant amounts of time, as well as funding, in an attempt to find a resolution to the conflict in his country.
We said goodbye to Abdenir almost eight hours after we had got into his car, went back to our hotel and turned the TV on. the local stations were still covering Ahmed Kathrada's funeral. We watched as former president Kgalema Motlanthe received a standing ovation and loud cheers as he read out parts of an open letter that Kathrada has sent to Jacob Zuma asking him to resign less than twelve months earlier.
Abdenir and I
Ostrich on an Atlantic beach near Cape Point
Boulders Beach, Cape Peninsula
|Posted on March 9, 2017 at 10:15 AM||comments (1)|
The first thing that Elliott Roosevelt did when he arrived at the Democratic Party's convention in Chicago in 1932 was to make sure that the curtains were fully drawn across the front of the stage. He had to ensure that the audience of thousands were not in a position to sneak a view of what he had to do in thirty minutes time.
Satisfied that his actions would not be visible, the twenty-two year old son of the former governor of New York then introduced himself to the sound engineer and made sure that the recording would be played as soon as the curtains opened, and hurried back to the stage door where his father was waiting in the car. He lifted his father's wheelchair out of the trunk, pushed it to the front passenger door and opened it.
"You ready Dad?" he asked. Franklin D Roosevelt nodded his approval.
By this time Franklin already knew that he had the won the nomination to be the party's presidential candidate by a landslide, but this was to be the first time that the successful candidate had appeared at the convention to accept the nomination in person. The Roosevelt family had flown to Chicago from Buffalo that morning in a cramped Ford Trimotor plane. Passenger air transport was in its infancy, and the journey through thunderstorms had been arduous. Several members of the family were sick, but their father seemed to relish this new experience. Elliott and his brothers had had great difficulty in carrying their six foot three inch father to his seat, and it was even more difficult to get him off the plane without revealing the full extent of his disability to the waiting press. Elliott and his father were relieved that there were no newsreel cameras at the airport.
As Franklin reached for the top of the car door for support, Elliot reached into the bottom of the footwell and grabbed his father's surgical boots to swing him through ninety degrees so that he was facing him. He then felt for the locking mechanisms on both his father's leg irons, straightened his legs and lifted him out of the car into an upright position. His brother James then brought the wheelchair nearer and Elliott swung his father through one hundred and eighty degrees so that he was in contact with the wheelchair. As Elliott found the locking mechanism on his father's leg irons to put him in a sitting position, James lifted him by the armpits to make sure he was correctly seated.
Elliott began to push his father toward the stage door when his father cried out "My cane, Son". They had forgotten that soon to be president's walking cane was still in the trunk.
Once Franklin and his cane were reunited, Elliott continued the journey. It was still difficult; the corridors were narrow and there were six steps up to the rear of the stage. Elliott, James and a couple of stagehands had to the nominee in his wheelchair onto the stage.
Today would be the first day of a frenetic campaign in which Franklin would visit over twenty states, travelling by car, plane and train. At each stop his sons would have to manhandle him in the same way that they were doing today, and each time they did so aides would be deployed to make sure that no press photographers were around to see the full extent of the candidate's physical impairment. In the FDR presidential library at Hyde Park, New York there are over 35,000 photos of Franklin D Roosevelt. Only one of them shows him in his wheelchair. He was concerned that if the full extent of his disability became public knowledge, he would be unelectable. Before 1932 presidential candidates did not campaign on the road, they stayed at home and wrote articles for newspapers. FDR would change campaigning for ever because he wanted to be seen as a man of action. Firstly he needed to convince the American public that despite surviving Polio eleven years earlier he was physically capable of doing the job, but secondly he just loved campaigning.
When they reached the podium James straightened his father's legs and lifted him out of his wheelchair into an upright position. FDR grabbed the podium to support himself and the wheelchair was taken out of sight. Elliott signalled to the stage manager, and the as the curtains opened the recording of "Happy Days Are Here Again" began to play to the audience, but was drowned out by applause.
FDR lifted one arm from the podium to quell the cheers and began his speech with the words "Let us now and here resolve to resume the country's interrupted march along the path of real progress, of real justice, of real equality for all of our citizens, great and small."
The new deal had begun. A few months later FDR won the presidency by a landslide.
After the convention was over the Roosevelt family went to their hotel. In the hotel bedroom it was Elliott and James who helped their father undress, taking the leg irons off one by one, standing them in the corner and lifting their father onto the bed.
This photograph is reproduced by courtesy of the Franklin D Roosevelt Memorial Library and Museum, Hyde Park, New York
|Posted on February 15, 2017 at 5:55 AM||comments (929)|
In March 1942 George Orwell wrote in his diary: " All propaganda is lies, even when one is telling the truth". In 2016, Oxford Dictionaries declared "post-truth" to be the word of the year. Here are some examples of Post-truth:
• Obama founded ISIS
• George Bush was behind the 9/11 attacks
I wonder what Orwell would have had to say about this subject?
Since Donald Trump's election as President of the United States, sales of Orwell's "1984" have rocketed to the top of the best seller list in the United States. 1984 gave birth to a number of memes that have entered our consciousness, including of course "Big Brother", "Room 101" as well as "doublethink" - where a person can accept two contradicting beliefs as both being correct. The phrase "Orwellian" is used to describe an idea or action that is destructive to a free and open society.
Much of Orwell's writing is concerned with distortions of the truth that were made for political reasons. In his own lifetime he witnessed Stalin's Russia, where political opponents were put on trial, and at those trials the victims falsely confessed to heinous crimes, usually as a result of torture, or in response to threats of actions against loved ones.
Also in the USSR, the famine of 1932–33 affected the major grain-producing areas of the Soviet Union, leading to millions of deaths in those areas and severe food shortage throughout the USSR. While this was going on, official soviet sources denied that the famine was taking place, so any discourse on this issue was classified as criminal "anti-Soviet propaganda". The results of the 1937 census were kept secret as they revealed the demographic losses attributable to the Great Famine. Official statistics showed continually improving crop yields. Both of these events were parodied by Orwell in "Animal Farm".
A few years after Orwell's death, exactly the same events were replayed almost identically in China, during the "Great Leap Forward" famine of the 1950s, where it is believed that as many as thirty million people starved to death, and Mao's Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s, where millions of people were persecuted in the violent struggles that ensued across the country, suffering a wide range of abuses including public humiliation, arbitrary imprisonment, torture, sustained harassment, and seizure of property.
What seems to be the most worrying difference between our time and Orwell's time, is that the offences against the truth that Orwell satirised were committed by totalitarian states which could not remotely be considered democracies; while today's offences are being committed by individuals and political parties who claim to be democrats, in societies with a long history of democracy.
A few weeks ago, Donald Trump's press secretary, Sean Spicer, accused the media of underestimating the size of the crowds for President Trump's inaugural ceremony. Spicer claimed that the ceremony had drawn the "largest audience to ever to witness an inauguration, period – both in person and around the globe." But as many sources immediately pointed out, that claim was false. Spicer then falsely accused the press of altering images of the event to minimize the size of the crowds. He said floor coverings over the grass were to blame for a visual effect that made the audience look smaller, and stated they had never been used before; however, they had been used in 2013 for the inauguration of Barack Obama. Spicer took no questions after his statement. Later, he defended his previous statements by saying "sometimes we can disagree with the facts". He was then defended by Kellyanne Conway, another Trump mouthpiece, who told NBC's Chuck Todd that Trump's inauguration crowd numbers could not be proved nor quantified and that the press secretary was simply giving "alternative facts". Todd responded by saying "Alternative facts are not facts. They are falsehoods."
Kellyanne Conway went on to invent a series of so called facts so egregious and so dishonest that the USSR and Chairman Mao would have been proud of her. In a television news interview where she was attempting to justify President Trump's immigration ban, she referenced an event allegedly perpetrated by Iraqi terrorists which she termed the "Bowling Green massacre". She described it as an attack carried out within the United States by terrorists who had been admitted as refugees. These are the words Conway said:
"I bet, there was very little coverage—I bet it's brand new information to people that President Obama had a six-month ban on the Iraqi refugee program after two Iraqis came here to this country, were radicalized—and they were the masterminds behind the Bowling Green massacre. I mean, most people don't know that because it didn't get covered."
The reason that it didn't get any press coverage was, of course, it never happened. Just like the huge increases on food production during the famines of Stalin and Chairman Mao never happened. This is pure fiction dressed up as history.
Is it happening in our country? To some extent. My own view is that the EU referendum campaign included lots of alternative facts, mostly but far from exclusively on the "out" side and most notably the claims that 1): sixty million Turks would become eligible to come to the UK, and 2): £350 million would be able to be invested in the National Health Service each week.
If claims like this are not challenged, our democracy is in danger. There is nothing unique about our society that means that totalitarianism cannot succeed. Challenge false claims when we hear or see them. Remember, as Orwell said, " All propaganda is lies, even when one is telling the truth".
|Posted on January 12, 2017 at 8:55 AM||comments (1151)|
Most of the scenes in George Orwell's Animal Farm take place in the Big Barn of Manor Farm, Willingdon. Orwell never states in which county Animal Farm is set, but it is almost certain that Wilingdon is based on the tiny Hertfordshire village of Wallington, near Baldock, where Orwell lived on and off from 1936 to 1944.
Small villages and towns such as Haworth and Hawkshead are today almost entirely defined by their connections with the Brontes and Beatrix Potter, but Wallington wears its literary associations lightly. I discovered Wallington by accident, while walking the Icknield Way footpath from Baldock to Royston. The national trail skirts the village, but Orwell's House is only a few hundred yards off of the trail. There is no souvenir shop, no cafe, no pub and no National Trust sign.
The house where Orwell moved to in April 1936 was known as the Stores, and had been the village store until the owner went bankrupt in the 1920s. It was a very basic dwelling, this is how Miss Esther Brooks, one of its later occupants, describes it:
"The medieval Lords of the Manor built their barns in composite units of eleven feet since that was the space needed for a yoke of oxen. They built the cottages to match....They were constructed of lath and plaster on a timber frame with thatched roofs. The materials were local beechwood, chalk and wheat straw."
By the time that Orwell lived there, the thatch had rotted, and a corrugated iron roof had been erected over the thatch. Miss Brooks continues:
"Each cottage has two room up and two rooms down, with a lean-to at the west end. This cottage was special in that while the downstairs rooms were the usual height of six foot three inches (the same height as Orwell) the upper rooms rose to that height before sloping to a very pitched roof. Downstairs, the floor is now sixteen inches below ground level. Two steps rise to the sill. The height of the door was three foot nine inches....A ladder gave access to the upper storey, smoke curled up through a hole in the roof. Hams hung from hooks embedded in the centre beams. Water was fetched from the Church Well."
As well as no water, the house had no electricity or gas, Calor gas cylinders provided fuel for cooking and heating, and The Road to Wigan Pier was written under a the light of a Tilley lamp. Orwell re-opened the shop. He sold a few groceries and sweets as well as eggs laid by the hens that Orwell kept, together with goats, on a piece of rough ground that he rented opposite the cottage. At the time Orwell was a struggling writer and the reason that he moved into the cottage was that it was cheap - the weekly rent was only seven shillings and six pence - and he made about thirty shillings a week from the shop. He had to invest in a bacon slicer, and his letters to his friend Jack Common show that he took the role of shopkeeper quite seriously.
Or at least one member of the family did, because he was too busy - writing The Road to Wigan Pier during 1936, fighting as a volunteer in Spain from December 1936 to July 1937 and in a sanatorium being treated for tuberculosis for six months during 1938. So the shopkeeper was probably Orwell's wife Eileen O'Shaughnessy, an Oxford psychology graduate whom he had met at a party in Hampstead the previous year and whom he married at Wallington Parish Church in June 1936. A villager recalled:
"The occasion was very simple. Eileen and he walked down the road from the cottage together. George vaulted over the churchyard wall so as to be standing inside the gate to pick up Eileen and carry her to the church door; having plainly got his folklore muddled."
After the wedding there was a lunch at The Plough, which was next door to the cottage. Eileen later recalled Orwell's mother's advice to her daughter-in-law on that day:
"Mrs Blair shook her head & said that I'd be a brave girl if I knew what I was in for, & Avril the sister said I obviously didn't know what I was in for or I shouldn't be there."
Both the Orwells chain smoked. Imagine the atmosphere in that cottage. Rotting thatch, Calor gas, paraffin lamps and hand-rolled shag tobacco. This very basic environment must have contributed to Orwell's TB which would kill him at the age of forty-six, at the height of his literary powers. Eileen would die even younger, in March 1945 when she was only thirty nine. Her death certificate reads "Cardiac failure whilst under anaesthetic of ether and chloroform skilfully and properly administered for operation for removal of uterus." In June 1944 she and Orwell had adopted a three-week-old boy they named Richard Horatio. After Orwell's death in 1950 Richard was brought up by Orwell's sister.
But did Wallington actually become Willingdon? There is a competing claim from the village of Willingdon in East Sussex, but there's no evidence from the Orwell archives that he'd ever been there or even heard of it. Wallington is a much more likely explanation. The biggest farm in Wallington is Manor Farm, and one of Manor Farm's most historic buildings is a medieval barn called the Great Barn. Every time that Orwell went to the village well to fetch water he would have passed the great barn, and he almost certainly used that building on that farm as the setting for the big barn at Manor Farm in Animal Farm. The Plough at Wallington has become the Red Lion at Willingdon, which is where Farmer Jones got so drunk one night that he forgot to shut the pop-holes on the barn. The rest of the story is Orwell's. Willingdon East Sussex does actually have a Red Lion though, and the pub's owners are careful to make the Orwell connection on their website.
There are no pubs left in Wallington, though and you can't go in to the barn as its privately owned, as is Orwell's much modernised house. You can't but a coffee or a beer in the village, let alone of Orwell's own books or the many biographies of the man. In St Mary's Church you can leave £2.50 in the honesty box for a facsimile of his marriage certificate, as well as a few local history booklets describing his life there. There are no longer any people alive who remember him. As long ago as 1975 a local historian asked elderly locals of they remembered George Orwell and none could. However one old timer remembered Eric Blair (Orwell's real name) who kept the shop and had a dim recollection that the shopkeeper might have written a book.
The commemorative plaque on Orwell's House
The Great Barn at Manor Farm
|Posted on October 21, 2016 at 9:05 AM||comments (0)|
I am a member of the Boxbourne U3A Creative Writing and Poetry Group, and am dlighted to tell you all that we have just published our second volume of short, stories, poems and memoirs - Tales2Tell.
Tales2Tell costs £4.50 plus postage, and is available here. All proceeds will be donated to Macmillan Cancer Care.