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 October 22, 2014 at 6:10 PM||comments (95)|
I'd always thought that none of my relatives served in World War 1. But that's because I was thinking about young men, and the sacrifices they made. But I've started to read "Daughters of Mars" by Thomas Kenneally, which tells the story of two sisters - Naomi and Sally Durrance - who were brought up on a remote dairy farm in New South Wales and, when they were in their early twenties, joined the war effort as nurses; first of all at Gallipoli and then at the Battle of the Somme.
Reading this book made me remember that I had a relative who played some role in the health services during the war. I'll tell you Great Aunt Ethel's story a bit later.
Now, I'm less than half way through Kenneally's long, epic and gripping book. It's 1915, and so far Naomi and Sally have sailed on a hospital ship -the Archimedes - from Melbourne to Alexandria. The early days of their war are easy. All they have to do is to treat young Australian men who've caught venereal diseases in the brothels of Cairo, and their leisure time is taken up with tea dances and visits to Greek, Roman and Egyptian remains, in the company of Australian and British Officers, many of whom have studied classical civilizations at Oxford or Cambridge, and wanted impress these naive young women with their knowledge. The girls' experience of the world is already far broader than it would have been had they stayed on the farm.
Then the Archimedes makes its first voyage to Gallipoli. They've taken what was thought to be three months worth of morphine and bandages with them but supplies begin to run out after twenty four hours. Aboard the ship, country doctors are asked to perform major surgery of the kind they've only read about in journals in inadequate conditions. Kenneally's highly detailed and sometimes quite technical description of some of the injuries turns the stomach.
On the Archimedes' second voyage to Gallipoli the ship is torpedoed and the main protagonists have to take to the lifeboats - if there is room - or cling alongside while treading water if there isn't. This scene is depicted over forty highly turbulent, descriptive and emotional pages. The main characters are eventually rescued by the French navy and taken to a British Hospital on the Island of Lemnos to recuperate.
And that's as far as I've got - 167 out of 519 pages. But I know from the reviews and the cover blurb that the two sisters will eventually serve at the Battle of Somme, and they may or may not find love, and that some relationships will probably be terminated by sudden death. This book has prompted me to find out more about my mother's aunt Ethel - her mother's sister. So I googled "Ethel Bridgeman World War 1" and immediately got the result I was looking for.
Ethel was sixty-two in the year of my birth and she died when I was thirteen. A Londoner by birth, she lived in Edinburgh with her husband Sandy Stevenson and they had no children. I've always known that they had met during the Great War, and I think that Sandy may have been quite a lot younger than Ethel, who was twenty-nine when she became a Red Cross Volunteer. Family folklore says that they met when she was nursing him, and that she had continued to nurse him - whether he needed it or not - throughout their long marriage. I recall my Mother telling me that she had visited them at home in Edinburgh when she was a young woman, and had seen Ethel waiting hand and foot on her husband. "She used to blow on his soup to cool it" she said.
There's nobody around to ask any more, but could it be that Sandy's experiences in France had damaged him to such an extent that he couldn't function without this sort of attention? He came to our house only once after Ethel died, and was clearly totally disorientated and incapable of looking after himself without her. He died only a few months after Ethel.
Ethel and Sandy always made an annual trip by train to London, and they would stay with Ethel's sister-in-law Ada in Clapham. And during that trip the three of them would always come to afternoon tea with our family in North London. Ada was very old and very deaf and used an ear trumpet which both fascinated and horrified me as a small boy. It didn't seem to do very much for her hearing, as when she was in the house everybody had to shout very loudly to make her understand. She was , by far, the dominant personality of the three of them.
Ada was also very wealthy, unlike most members of my extended family. My Dad knew Ada years before he met my Mum because in the 1930s she used to knock on doors on the street where he lived to collect debts. She was a Great War widow who had, after her husband was killed, taken over the running of his family's business, which was that of a "Tally Man" - a firm that sold cheap clothes and household goods on credit to working class people on the 'never never', or hire purchase; and visited each household at the same time each week to collect the payments of just a few pennies or shillings. At some time after World War 2 she'd sold the business to Freemans of London, a public company that operated a mail-order catalogue business, and she was a substantial shareholder in Freemans. My mother bought from the Freemans Catalogue and so did many of our neighbours. Ada had no children , and when she died she left my parents a small legacy - £250. When they received this cheque they opened their first bank account. They were by then in their sixties.
But back to Ethel. I only dimly remember her from these childhood visits because of Ada's dominant personality - when Ada was in the room it was difficult for anybody else to get a word in edgeways and everything had to be repeated loudly several times before Ada got the gist. Ethel was one of over 90,000 people who volunteered for the British Red Cross during the conflict. She joined one of the Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs), which were attached either to the Red Cross, the St Johns' or the Territorial Forces. The Detachments were intended to be used for home defence only, but in the event they served in France, Belgium, Gallipoli and Mesopotamia. Each women's detachment consisted of a Commandant (either male or female), a Lady Superintendent (preferably a trained nurse) and 20 women (four of whom had to be trained cooks).
Twenty-nine year old Ethel joined her VAD in May 1916, and her first position was that of a lift attendant at the King George Military Hospital in Stamford Street, Waterloo. Reputedly the largest hospital in the United Kingdom, the King George Hospital was a converted warehouse that had 1650 beds. The convoys of wounded men were brought by boat train to Waterloo Station, and then taken to the hospital through tunnels which were built as an integral part of the warehouse. The tunnels enabled badly wounded men to be conveyed to the Hospital out of sight of the public, so as not to damage civilian morale. Perhaps that's when Ethel and Sandy first saw each other; maybe she brought this wounded man up from the tunnels in her lift?
The Red Cross and the St Johns' equipped the wards, operating theatres, dispensaries, the chapel, day rooms for the patients and sleeping quarters for the staff, all paid for by public donation. The British Farmers' Red Cross Fund donated £4,000 to purchase equipment for the operating theatres and the X-ray Department. There were 149 doctors, a Matron, 3 Principal Sisters, 10 Senior Sisters, 37 Sisters, 228 Staff Nurses and 80 female orderlies, including of course my Aunt Ethel.
On the 29th August 1919, just over eight months after the War had technically ended, Ethel was transferred to a "Casualty Clearing Station" in France. Her service record doesn't say where in France this was. There were over thirty such stations, which were generally located on or near railway lines, to facilitate movement of casualties from the battlefield and on to the hospitals. The job of the station was to treat a man sufficiently for his return to duty or to enable him to be evacuated to another hospital. The Wikipedia entry for this topic says that the station "was not a place for a long-term stay", but this cannot actually have been the case if Ethel was still working at such a centre so long after the end of hostilities.
Ethel was finally discharged on 16th March 1920, Her role was then a storekeeper. She married Sandy in her home town of Wandsworth in 1924 when she was thirty eight and went to live with him in Edinburgh. She died in 1962. This is her service record.
What a pity that the young boy she took afternoon tea with every summer holiday never asked her or Sandy more about their experiences. But those who served in the Great war became taciturn, they probably wouldn't have wanted to tell me even if I'd had the forethought to ask.
Finally, here's an image of Thomas Kenneally's great book that stated me on the on the quest to discover Ethel and Sandy:
|Posted on June 15, 2014 at 7:55 AM||comments (0)|
At a writers group I was asked to write something on that subject. At the time, Michael Gove was sounding off as usual. So I wrote this:
I can't believe it was thirty years ago. On the morning when we first arrived we were taken to our dormitories where we changed into our uniforms and were told to arrange the few personal items that we had been allowed to bring with us in, or on the top of our lockers. The instructions about how to arrange these things were very detailed and very specific.
Instruction 1 said that we could place no more than one personal photograph of our families on top of our locker. It must include all close family members and must not exceed 25 cm in height. Instruction 2 said that we should write our names in the cover page of any books we had brought with us, and place them in the green plastic containers provided. Any suitable material would be returned to us within twenty four hours; and any unsuitable material would be substituted with something more uplifting and positive. The third instruction told us to change into our party uniforms, fold the clothes that we had brought from home neatly and place them in our lockers.
There were lots more instructions, but I can't remember much about them. All of them were given to us over a loudspeaker by a disembodied female voice. It was impossible to guess her age or anything else about her, but we all called her Teresa. I can't remember who first called her that or why we chose that name over any other. Somebody said it, and it just sort of stuck.
Teresa's final instruction was to wait by our beds until someone escorted us to the great hall where the principal would address us. In the meantime there was to be no talking. Teresa informed us that we were all being monitored by CCTV, but of course we'd all noticed that anyway. We all knew about CCTV; it was installed in all the urban areas to monitor extremists. As we got to know each other we found that nobody in our dorm lived in the urban ghettoes, but of course all of our parents had installed CCTV on the perimeters of our properties. This was so that if extremists were loitering outside, the rapid reaction forces would get there in minutes. Because we all knew about CCTV, we all knew how to evade the cameras. We were too young to realise that if we could do that at the age of thirteen, then highly trained, highly motivated adult extremists who had access to virtually unlimited enemy funding would be able to evade the system as well.
We only had to wait a short time before an elderly man wearing some sort of ceremonial military uniform incorporating three red silk chevrons on his tunic sleeves and wearing a red peaked cap opened the door to the dormitory, walked in and looked around.
"Good morning Gentlemen" he said. "I'm Sergeant Cannon, I'll get to know all your names later. Welcome to the Party Academy. I will call each of you Sir, sirs, if you will address me as Sir, Sirs. Is that clear Sirs?"
There were ten of us in the dorm, and it took a few seconds for the penny to drop, but we all got the gist at about the same time. A bit falteringly we all, not quite in unison, replied "Yes Sir".
" I think we can do better than that" replied the Sergeant. "One more time, but this time together, please Sirs. Is it clear what I said?"
"Yes Sir" we all replied, this time in unison.
"Very well done Sirs. Now if you'll follow me I'll escort you to the Great Hall where the Principal, will explain to you how you are being groomed for the highest offices in the land and how to deal with success. Please form an orderly queue behind me"
We were the last group to enter the great hall. There were, I now know, about a hundred of us in the room altogether, fifty boys and fifty girls all aged between thirteen and sixteen. We sat in groups of ten, each group accompanied by a man or woman dressed in the same uniform as the Sergeant. Our group was told to sit in the left of the hall.
It was a very long time, over an hour, before Mr Gove, the Principal entered. While we waited a military band played music by Elgar, Purcell and Vaughan Williams. One of the women in uniform introduced herself as the music teacher. She told us that from now on we would only hear music written by British musicians. All forms of music were OK; Rock, Folk and Jazz were just as uplifting as the classics, but we should avoid listening to any classics written by Bach or Shubert as they were German, and the Germans were responsible for the crisis in what was then called the Eurozone. Bob Marley should be avoided as he had a perverted idea of what a Redemption Song was. Personal redemption can only follow national redemption.
Mr Gove didn't wear uniform in those days, he only started that when he was appointed national saviour after the second financial crisis. He was a very charismatic speaker. First of all he told us why we were divided into two groups. This was necessary because the people sitting on the right needed to have extra citizenship lessons to counter the influence of the extremist ideologies that they had been exposed to in the urban ghettoes, where they had spent their childhoods foraging for food. Our group, on the left had lived in the suburbs or the country and didn't need these extra lessons. Only when the citizenship course had been completed were the two groups to be allowed to mingle. People criticise the Academy system today, but the system catapulted some of our country's finest leaders from the fetid squalor of the big cities to the high positions in industry, medicine, academia and politics that they occupy today. The people in our dorm would probably have made it anyway, but I'm proud to live in a meritocracy. I thank Mr Gove for that.
Most of the rest of what he said was about literacy. He told us which books we had placed in the green containers would be confiscated. I can't remember them all. 'Of Mice and Men' was unacceptable as it conveyed the message that people with learning disabilities might have the same value to society as those of us who were being groomed for success, and Arthur Miller was suspect because he was almost certainly a Soviet agent. In our history lessons we would shortly learn about the Soviets - during the twentieth century they were the equivalents of today's extremists. I'd never heard of Steinbeck or Miller at the time so it all went a bit over my head. But he re-iterated. Steinbeck, Miller and Harper Lee would only fill our heads with left-wing negativity. Left wing negativity was incompatible with being prepared for success. Our language was great gift. We should be careful how we use it. I've never forgotten what he said.
|Posted on November 14, 2013 at 12:10 PM||comments (66)|
This week I decided to review a song that I've known and loved for years and years.
Plane Crash at Los Gatos Canyon (sometimes known as "Deportees" ) is a folk song written in 1948 by Woody Guthrie. I've known it since I was a teenager and I think that it may be the best political song ever written.
It's poetic, with remarkable imagery. It's written from experience and from the heart and the political message is just as relevant today as it was when it was it was written sixty-five years ago.
Woody Guthrie was born in Oklahoma in 1912, and was one of the "dust bowl refugees" described by John Steinbeck in "The Grapes of Wrath" who sought work in the orchards of California in the 1930s. He and Steinbeck knew each other. When he wrote the song Guthrie had just heard that a plane had crashed in Los Gatos Canyon, California its way to Mexico, killing all those onboard. The plane was carrying four American crew members and twenty-eight illegal immigrants who had been working in California's orchards. The plane had been chartered by the Immigration Authorities specifically to deport the twenty-eight and did not have enough seats for them all.
In the first verse Guthrie deals with the pointlessness of it all. Too many crops have been picked and some of them left to rot, and next year the people who've been deported will pay hard earned money to people traffickers to get back to the USA so that the whole process can be repeated:
The crops are all in and the peaches are rotting,
The oranges piled in their creosote dumps;
They're flying 'em back to the Mexican border
To pay all their money to wade back again
Guthrie read about the crash in the New York Times, whose report printed the names of the crew members and a security guard, but simply described the passengers as "deportees" and didn't print their names. These people had no worth - this is the point that Guthrie stresses in the chorus which is repeated at the end of each verse:
Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita,
Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria;
You won't have your names when you ride the big aeroplane,
All they will call you will be "deportees"
The next two verses continue to describe the lives of the illegal immigrants that America depends upon to bring in its harvests:
My father's own father, he waded that river,
They took all the money he made in his life;
My brothers and sisters come working the fruit trees,
And they rode the truck till they took down and died.
Some of us are illegal, and some are not wanted,
Our work contract's out and we have to move on;
Six hundred miles to that Mexican border,
They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.
The next verse reminds me that little has changed in sixty-five years, and that Guthrie's words are just as applicable to Europe now as it is was to America then. It reminds me that this year hundreds of people have died in ill-equipped boats in the Mediterranean trying to enter Europe illegally, and it also reminds me of the fate of at least twenty-one Chinese cockle pickers , all illegal migrant workers who were killed by an incoming tide at Morecambe Bay, England in 2004:
We died in your hills, we died in your deserts,
We died in your valleys and died on your plains.
We died 'neath your trees and we died in your bushes,
Both sides of the river, we died just the same.
In the next, penultimate verse, Guthrie returns to the fact that the press refuse to name the victims of this disaster and uses the images of "scattered dry leaves" to describe the plight of the deportees. He convinces us that these people are his friends. It is unlikely that he did know any of them personally as he'd been living in New York for a decade by 1948, but of course when he was a migrant worker in the California orchards of the 1930s he would have known many people like them:
The sky plane caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon,
A fireball of lightning, and shook all our hills,
Who are all these friends, all scattered like dry leaves?
The radio says, "They are just deportees"
In the final verse Woody Guthrie continues the dry leaves imagery to rail against the system that caused the deaths of the thirty two passengers and crew.
Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards?
Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit?
To fall like dry leaves to rot on my topsoil
And be called by no name except "deportees"?
It's very clever imagery - just who or what is falling like dry leaves and rotting on whose topsoil? This is what makes this song such a profound criticism of the system that feeds us and these few lines are what makes the song so relevant to today:
The song ends with a final chorus which begins:
Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita,
Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria
By giving names to the nameless, Woody Guthrie has empowered them.
You can listen to Joan Baez singing "Plane Crash" here:
English folk singer Kevin Littlewood has written a very powerful song about the Chinese Cockle pickers. If you enjoyed "Deportees" you'll probably like that too.
|Posted on October 16, 2013 at 7:00 AM||comments (77)|
About two weeks ago Marilyn and I were tidying up the front garden in Bishops Stortford and a passer-by asked us if we knew anything about the history of our house.
We only moved to our current home in April, so we said that we didn't. The passer-by introduced himself as David, and told us something that really surprised us. Basically he gave me the idea for a true story, and a target date for publication, the anniversary of the events he told us about are just eighteen months away - 14 March 2015.
So here's a sneak preview of the story that David told me:
In the early hours of Sunday 14 March 1915 Private George Harrison of the Sherwood Foresters died as a result of inhaling his own vomit. He died at the house where I now live, and where I am writing this story. George Harrison was a twenty-seven year old soldier from Nottingham who was attached to the North Midland Divisional Cyclists’ Corps. Seven members if his unit were billeted at my house the previous evening.
Harrison's senior officer, nineteen year old Second Lieutenant Albert Ball was also billeted here. Ball was also from Nottingham and would go on to join the Royal Flying Corps, where he became the most decorated airman of World War I. Ball was awarded the Victoria Cross, the Military Cross and three Distinguished Service Orders. He was killed in action a few months before his twenty-first birthday on May 7th 1917.
I intend to write something about these two men, and the five fellow soldiers they were sharing our house with. Ball's story is well documented, as is the sad but brief tale of George Harrison. But what about the other five? did any of them survive the War; are there people still alive who remember them?
It's very early days in my quest to write something about these men and those times. At the moment I'm not sure whether to write pure history or to try to fictionalise something about that evening.
I'll keep you posted as I go along.
|Posted on July 30, 2013 at 9:40 AM||comments (385)|
This time last year I wrote a number of blog essays on the subject of the Paralympics, the final one expressed three hopes for the future:
- Rio must continue what London began.
- The Olympic park legacy must be to provide homes, jobs and recreation for the people of East London.
- The right-wing press must stop demonising disabled people.
Last weekend (26 to 28 July) saw the first athletics and para-athletics events in the Olympic Stadium since last summer, as well as the Open East Festival in part of the Olympic Park. On Monday a substantial part of the park was re-opened to the public for the first time. So this is the right time for an update how well we are doing in these three challenges. Let's take them one-by-one:
Rio must continue what London began.
I was referring to the fact that London 2012 was the first time that para-sports had sold out large stadiums, attracted sponsorship and mainstream TV coverage, and was asking whether this could be maintained?
So far, it's looking good. The week before the London Events saw the staging of the International Paralympic Committee's Athletics world championship in Lyon, France. 1300 athletes from 94 countries competed, French mainstream TV (which had been widely criticised for giving inadequate coverage in 2012) gave it 2 hours of coverage each evening; while in the UK Channel 4's More 4 affiliate provided 5 hours of live coverage each day.
GB came sixth in the medal table winning 11 golds, ahead of China but behind, among others, Brazil who won 16 golds. I think it's important that the next host country is doing well at this stage - if they weren't I'd be pessimistic. In Alan Oliveira Brazil has a potential iconic figure who could become the face of both the next Olympics and Paralympics, and that's very encouraging.
The day after the Lyon games closed many of the elite paralympian athletes were facing each other again in the Sainsbury's International Para Challenge in the Sainsbury's Para Challenge in London. This event was once again sold out; over 75,000 people were watching the events in the stadium. Sainsbury's sponsored the event and Channel 4 covered it live.
My party had tickets to the Open East Festival in the Olympic Park (more about that later) so we were thrilled to see things on the big screen. We watched Hannah Cockcroft easily win the T33/T34 100 metres event, David Weir win another victory as he clocked a time of 3:16.40 minutes to win the mile, and the thrilling T43/T44 100 metres race that saw both Alan Oliveira and the USA's Richard Browne break world records, and our own Jonnie Peacock take the 'bronze position.
So I think that the future for participation and coverage of para sporting events still looks very bright.
The Olympic park legacy must be to provide homes, jobs and recreation for the people of East London.
Well the Open East Festival was a definite hit with me on the culture and recreation front. Tickets for each day were only £9.50 and the vent was packed with people of all ages and ethnicities. On Saturday there was a wealth of World Music; headline artists included Vieux Farka Touré - son of the late, great Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré - as well as Malian superstars Amadou & Mariam. We went on Sunday and the highlights for me were the acrobats Una Via Aerial Circus, a walkabout by Joey, the horse from the National Theatre's War Horse play, and The brilliant Graeae Theatre Company's staging of Ted Hughes's "Iron Man" Here are some of the pictures we took:
Some of the people we saw at the Festival
Iconic view of the Stadium from the North Bridge
Joey from "War Horse"
Graeae's "Iron Man"
There's a much longer review of the Festival here - courtesy of the "Daily Telegraph."
On the jobs front, BT are converting the old press centre into TV studios, and as far as homes are concerned apartments in the former Olympic Village will be offered for sale this Autumn. Will these flats be affordable for local people? Prices haven't been announced yet but I have to say that I doubt it. I'll report back when I get more information.
The right-wing press must stop demonising disabled people.
Well, This was always going to be a tall order. Up to half a million people with disabilities are likely to lose financial support as a result of the replacement of Disability Living Allowance (DLA) with Personal Independence Payments (PIP). Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson, writing in the Daily Telegraph, stated that these people are " now at risk of being unable to get the social care support they need to do the basic things in life. What is at stake here is the independence of hundreds of thousands of disabled people." You can read Tanni's full article here.
So how do I score progress on a scale of 1-3?
My current score is 2.75 - I think that para sporting events will continue to be high profile vents, I'm encouraged about the future of the Olympic park site but concerned about the cost of housing, and desperately concerned about the place of people with disabilities in British society as a whole.
|Posted on June 18, 2013 at 11:50 AM||comments (361)|
Last month I attended the excellent Greenacre Writers Literary Festival in Finchley for the second year. Last year I was one of the speakers, this year I was a member of the audience, but I feel "one of the family". At the end of the day a few of us who are associated with Greenacre Writers agreed to post a few good reading suggestions on our blogs. My suggestions follow, some other Greenacre Writers people have also made recommendations.
You can find Wendy Shillam's suggestions on her blog here:
My selection is a list of fiction or non-fiction books that I've either read in the past eighteen months, or intend to read before the end of summer. I try to make sure that my book-pile consists of fiction and non-fiction, and includes a variety of points of view; so I try to include authors from many countries.
1. Walking Home, by Simon Armitage
Next month I'll be walking a part of the Pennine Way - my intention is to complete it in short sections before I'm seventy, so I've got five years to go. I started last year and did about forty miles. So I'll begin my reading suggestions with "Walking Home" by poet Simon Armitage, which I read a month or so ago:
Armitage lives at the Southern End of the Pennine Way and in 2010 he decided to walk the length of the footpath North to South (the opposite direction to most walkers) carrying no money, and finance his walk by giving poetry readings in all sorts of venues - pubs, public halls, cafes and private houses. At the end of each reading he passed a walking sock round for donations to raise money for food. A quirky book, it's a must for anybody who loves the rugged Pennine countryside and enjoys reading events.
2. The Dark Road by Ma Jian
Since I went to China for the first time three years ago I've been fascinated and concerned by China's "one-child policy". Two months ago I read a review of "The Dark Road" in The Guardian and felt compelled to download the book to my Kindle so that I could read it there and then.
The Dark Road is a very bleak, profound and disturbing fictional polemic against the one-child policy and a repressive, brutal and corrupt bureaucracy. Ma Jian is a London-based Chinese dissident and writer who spent several months posing as a vagrant and a journalist researching what happens to Chinese peasants who "go on the run" to avoid the attention of the Fertility Police.
Meili, a simple peasant girl married Kongzi, a village school teacher when she was just sixteen. they have a daughter, Nanaan, who is two years old at the beginning of the story. It's very important to Kongzi to have a male heir. He's determined to impregnate Meili enough times to make this happen, despite any objections she may have, and (more significantly as far as the plot is concerned) despite the attentions of the Fertility Police.
Near the beginning of the book, Kongzi remarks "If a panda gets pregnant the whole nation celebrates, but if woman gets pregnant she's treated like a criminal." Nearer to the end, Meili observes "Men control our vaginas; the state controls our wombs.” This book contains graohic descriptions of cruelty -it is certainly not for the faint-hearted.
I've written a previous blog post about China's one child policy, which incorporates a longer review of the Dark Road. You can read it here
3. And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini
I've just been given this for Father's Day so I haven't read it yet. Khaled Hosseini's earlier novels "The Kite Runner" and "A Thousand Splendid Suns" gave the children and women of rural Afghanistan a voice that is seldom heard in the west, or indeed in Afghanistan itself, so I'm looking forward to reading this much longer family saga that traces an Afghani family over fifty years and across three continents.
4. NW by Zadie Smith
I thought that Zadie Smith's first novel "White Teeth" was a celebration of the London that I love; and it made me laugh as well as moving me. I wasn't quite as impressed by her next two novels, but in "NW" she returns to the London where she grew up. The novel follows four Londoners - Leah, Natalie, Felix and Nathan - after they've left their childhood council estate, grown up and moved on to different lives. After a chance encounter they each find that the choices they've made, the people they once were and are now, can suddenly, rapidly unravel.
5. A Delicate Truth by John le Carre
I've been reading le Carre since the 1970s - I've just checked that there are twenty le Carre novels in my bookcase. He's simply the master of moral ambiguity and the architect of the complex plot that grips the reader.
A counter-terror operation, codenamed Wildlife, is being mounted in Gibraltar. Its purpose is to abduct a jihadist arms-buyer. The operation is so sensitive that even the Minister's Private Secretary, Toby Bell, is not cleared for it.
Suspecting a disastrous conspiracy, Toby attempts to forestall it, but is promptly posted overseas. Three years on, Toby is questioned by Sir Christopher Probyn, retired British diplomat, in his decaying Cornish manor house. Toby must now choose between his conscience and his duty to the Service.
6. Breath in the Dark by Jane Hersey
Jane Hersey is a friend of mine who I met through an online writing peer review website. Jane lives in Blackpool, is married with a grown-up son and enjoys music and gardening. Nothing remarkable about that until you read her moving and disturbing childhood autobiography “Breath in the Dark” and wonder how she survived into adulthood at all.
Jane was born into the ultra-orthodox Jewish community of Cheetham Hill in Manchester in 1953. She was the middle child. Shortly after the birth of her younger brother her father abandoned the family, leaving the children in the care of their mother Annie.
Annie simply couldn’t cope. She suffered from depression, asthma, diabetes and a compulsive eating disorder. She was addicted to prescription drugs and spent most of her life asleep on the sofa. The family survived on National Assistance payments and handouts from Jewish welfare agencies. When Jane was just six years old Annie depended on her daughter to cash the National Assistance money, blag the doctor or the chemist to give her more amphetamines and to sell the second hand clothes that the community provided for her children in order that she could afford to binge eat.
Jane’s childhood was non-existent. All her waking hours were devoted to her mother’s and her brothers’ needs. She was socially isolated, physically and emotionally neglected, and sexually abused by her father on the few occasions when she came into contact with him.
Jane tells her story through the unmoderated voice of her childhood self. The voice is intense, innocent and powerful. The book begins when she is six and ends abruptly when she is fifteen and breaks away from the community that had failed her so miserably.
Jane has now written "Full Circle"; a sequel to "Breath in the Dark" which I reviewed here. She plans to publish the third volume of her life story next year.
7. Looking for Transwonderland by Noo Sara-Wiwa
Noo Sara-Wiwa is a travel guide writer. Born in Nigeria and educated in England; she's also the daughter of Ken Sara-Wiwa, a human rights activist who was executed by the Nigerian government in 1995, on charges widely viewed as entirely politically motivated and completely unfounded.
So though she's written several Lonely Planet Guides to African countries, she's never wanted to write a tourist guide to the country that killed her father.
Instead, she writes "Looking for Transwonderland"; a very moving but humorous personal journey back to the land of her birth. Her compassion and keen eye for the ridiculous shine through the book.
8. A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali by Gil Courtemanche
A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali is a moving, passionate love story set amid the turmoil and terror of Rwanda’s genocide in 1994.
All manner of Kigali residents pass their time by the pool of the Mille-Collines hotel: aid workers, Rwandan bourgeoisie, expatriates, UN peacekeepers, prostitutes. Keeping a watchful eye is the narrator, a cynical middle aged French-Canadian journalist Bernard Valcourt. As Valcourt slips into an intense, improbable affair with Gentille, a young hotel waitress with the slender, elegant build of a Tutsi, the delicately balanced world around them - already devastated by AIDS - erupts in a Hutu-led genocide against the Tutsi people.
Valcourt’s efforts to get Gentille to a place of safety end in their separation. It will be months before he learns of his lover’s shocking fate. Like "The Dark Road" this book is not for the faint hearted - it's incredibly graphic and the imagery is some of the most disturbing that I have ever read, but it's humanity shines through.
Good reading everyone!
|Posted on May 30, 2013 at 11:05 AM||comments (0)|
On October 1st 2010 I was in Tiananmen Square, Beijing. There were twenty-three of us, all British tourists, and we were accompanied by our tour manager, a young man from Shanghai, and a local guide who was in her late thirties. Our tour party happened to be in the square on China National Day; the first day of a week long holiday that celebrates the Communist victory in the civil war of 1945-1949.
According to our guide, over 300 million Chinese people make journeys in that week. That’s more than half the population of the European Union. Some people will take time off from their factory jobs, lock up their new skyscraper apartments in sprawling cities such as Shanghai and Beijing and return to the rural villages where they grew up. Back home they will be re-united with their parents, and very often the children that they’ve left behind. Other people will travel from far-flung cities and villages to celebrate their national identity right here in the square. Estimates of the number of people in the square this year range from half a million to a million.
Beijing has sixteen million citizens living in an area the size of Belgium. The city is built on a grid-iron pattern with all roads running either strictly north-south or strictly east-west. And Tiananmen Square is the one square kilometre rectangular bulls-eye in the very centre of the city. It wasn’t always there. Prior to 1949 it was a sprawling mass of homes, offices and workshops that was demolished by Chairman Mao in order to create a theatrical space where the communist victory could be celebrated. To the north is the Tiananmen Gate leading to the Forbidden City where the Emperor used to live. Above the Gate is a huge portrait of Chairman Mao. To the east is the Hall of the People, to the south is Mao’s mausoleum and to the West lays the Monument to the People’s Heroes.
Some of the visitors have come from rural villages. They’ve brought picnics with them and squat down in any free space they can find to eat pot noodles. The whole crowd is making its way north, so that each individual can be photographed with Mao’s portrait in the background. Considering how large the crowd is, it’s remarkably quiet. In the background, we can hear piped patriotic music being broadcast, but the volume is low. The picnickers are very careful to pick up their own litter and carry it away with them, and there are no particularly strong smells that I can recall.
If Katie Melua’s song is correct and there are nine million bicycles in Beijing, then there are even more cameras. Practically everybody carries a compact digital camera. Some people have never seen Europeans before. Our party attracts attention. As we move slowly towards Chairman Mao people clamour for us to stop, so that they can have their photographs taken with people who look like westerners they’ve seen on TV. They’re fascinated by our blue eyes, big noses and above all by our height. We oblige the photographers willingly, but we have little choice. The crowd is moving so slowly that we couldn’t escape their attention if we wanted to.
I can’t help noticing how young most of the people are. There are a few old people dressed in the drab uniforms of the Mao years, but at least three-quarters of the crowd must be under thirty. Whenever these young people pose for a photograph they adopt highly staged poses; arms outstretched, exaggerated smiles, silly expressions, pointed fingers. Some of the younger children are in ethnic or regional dress, and many others are dressed in a cacophony of styles and colours – stripes, checks, plaids, browns, blues and pinks. A lot of the teenage boys are androgynous with dyed bouffant hair. Their girlfriends are dressed in a plethora of (probably fake) designer labels such as D&G, Burberry and Abercrombie and Fitch.
Two thoughts occur to me. The first is that I have never been a part of such a large crowd before, and probably will never be again. I am just one in a million. The second is that I’ve heard somewhere about China’s ‘one child policy’. Does this mean that hardly any of these young people have brothers or sisters? It seems incomprehensible, far-fetched.
I’m intrigued, because I was an only child myself, and have always felt something of an exception. According to popular myth in the West, only children are spoiled, self-centred and lonely. While I don’t agree with these stereotypes I wonder what the effect is on a society if all the children of a given generation are singletons?
I ask our tour manager about the one child policy. He corrects me. China has a ‘family planning policy’, not a ‘one child policy’. This means that the state does indeed restrict the number of children that married urban couples can have to one, although it allows exemptions for some rural couples, ethnic minorities, couples who have re-married after divorces, or parents without any siblings themselves. It doesn’t apply in Tibet. Couples who breach the policy are fined, and may also be sacked from their jobs.
He tells me that parents who have given birth to handicapped children may try again – but only after four years. My parents were seriously disabled from their early childhood as a result of the Polio virus, and I’ve always felt strongly about how people with disabilities are treated by society, so this disturbs and confuses me. What constitutes a disability? Does the child have to be born with it? What happens if they contract it later? Why four years and not three or five? What is the official value of a person with a disability?
I don’t know what to make of any of this. On one hand I think it’s an appalling, sinister intrusion into people’s private lives that may have all sorts of unintended consequences; but on the other hand it may very well be true that this policy has contributed to better healthcare and greater prosperity for many millions. Since the policy was introduced in 1979, China’s population has increased by over 300 million, and we’ll never know what would have happened without it.
The policy was of course introduced as a response to famine. Between 1958 and 1961 the Great Leap Forward Famine killed about thirty million people. In this period Mao Zedong reorganized Chinese agriculture on a collective basis. Private farming was prohibited. Those engaged in it were labeled as counter revolutionaries and persecuted. Millions of peasants were ordered away from agricultural work to join the industrial workforce. Rationing was introduced, in some cases leaving rural Chinese with less than of 250 grams of grain per day. It took years to recover. By 1970, food production was still only 70% of the 1958 level.
Mao blamed sparrows for eating the grain, and official policy was to eliminate these enemies of the people. Peasants were ordered to bang pots and pans and run around to make the sparrows fly away in fear. Nests were torn down. Eggs were broken. Chicks were killed.
Despite Mao’s share of the responsibility for the famine he is still revered, though not considered infallible by any of the guides we met. Our tour manager said that in his opinion the Cultural Revolution was the greatest disaster to hit China in modern times. But Mao wasn’t wholly responsible. Mao was a great hero who was misled in his later years when his faculties were no longer what they were. He recommended us to read Jung Chang’s ‘Wild Swans’ if we wanted to understand modern China. I asked him whether it was available in Chinese. No, it isn’t. He’d read it in English. It was given to him by one of his customers. Most people have never heard of this book and couldn’t get hold of a copy if they had.
We’re now making our way through the Tiananmen Gate to the Forbidden City under the Chairman’s watchful gaze. I can’t help thinking of the time, twenty one years ago that I first heard the name of this place. I was watching the now iconic TV images of a solitary student carrying two shopping bags who had stopped a line of tanks that had been sent to crush a demonstration. Our guide has been telling us what a happy occasion today is, how thrilled everybody is to be in the square, and what we have seen confirms that. So I ask her whether she’s ever seen this famous, more sinister image? Is it ever seen in China?
She tells me that she has seen it, and that she was one of the students in the square that day. She adds “Of course, we didn’t really know what we were protesting about.” At that point the whole crowd has to move to the right to get through the security turnstiles of the Forbidden City, our guide has to count heads and make sure that all her party are following her, and I didn’t get to continue this conversation.
I originally wrote the above piece a few days after we left Beijing. at the time I was prepared to give China the benefit of the doubt - the "family planning policy MAY have contributed to better healthcare and greater prosperity for many millions.
But earlier this month, Penguin published "The Dark Road" by Ma Jian, translated by Flora Drew. This is a very bleak, profound and disturbing fictional polemic against the one-child policy and a repressive, brutal and corrupt bureaucracy. Ma Jian is a London-based Chinese dissident and writer who spent several months posing as a vagrant and a journalist researching what happens to Chinese peasants who "go on the run" to avoid the consequences of the one child policy.
Meili, a simple peasant girl married Kongzi, a village school teacher when she was just sixteen. they have a daughter, Nanaan, who is two years old at the beginning of the story. Because Kongzi is a direct descendant of Confucius, it's very important to him to have a male heir. He's determined to impregnate Meili enough times to make this happen, despite any objections she may have, and more significantly, despite the attentions of the Fertility Police.
To escape the persecution of the state fertility agencies, The family flee their home and live on the margins of society. They eventually make their home in Heaven Township, a polluted dystopian community where unwanted electronic equipment is sent from Europe to be recycled. Virtually all of the recyclers are illegal immigrants in their own country, many of them, like Meili and Kongzi are fleeing from the Fertility Police.
Meili becomes the victim of forced abortion, imprisonment and rape. The novel hints at still more darker forces such as the adulteration if infant feeding powders with toxic chemicals, the selling of unwanted children to foreigners, the deliberate maiming of healthy girl babies so that they will attract more sympathy as beggars, and cannibalism. Ma Jian is highly critical of Kongzi, who is determined to produce a male heir despite the consequences to his wife and daughter, but even more critical of the brutal, corrupt and repressive Chinese state.
Near the beginning of the book, Kongzi remarks "If a panda gets pregnant the while nation celebrates, but if woman gets pregnant she's treated like a criminal." Nearer to the end, Meili observes "Men control our vaginas; the state controls our wombs.” This book is certainly not for the faint-hearted, and had caused me to think again about China.
|Posted on May 9, 2013 at 10:25 AM||comments (2)|
Three weeks ago - on 17 April - Marilyn and I moved house - for the first time in twenty-three years. That's why there haven't been any updates to my blog since late February and I've been unusually quiet on Twitter - for the month before the move and ever since there's simply been too much to do.
Twenty-three years ago we bought Belle Vue, a Georgian House set in just under half an acre of garden in Cheshunt, Hertfordshire, just outside The Greater London Boundary. Here's a picture of Belle Vue as it was when we moved in. Just out of the picture, on the left is the very large conservatory that joins the house to the old stable block where Marilyn ran a pottery, and above the pottery was a self-contained apartment where Charlotte lived while she was a student:
Belle Vue was a wonderful place to bring up our two daughters, Victoria (aged eight at the time) and Charlotte (aged six); but now that they've left home we just wanted something smaller. We wanted both the house and garden to be easier to maintain and cheaper to run. We also wanted to be in a town that had a proper town centre and a good rail service to London; I needed a study where I could write and Marilyn needed an outbuilding that she could convert into a pottery.
In September last year we found a four bedroom Edwardian detached house (The Old Lodge) in the Hertfordshire market town of Bishops Stortford. The Old Lodge was originally a very small house that was extended and modernised about six years ago. It has a decent sized garden which we have plans for - every house we've ever owned has had apple and plum trees and soft fruit, but here we'll have to start our fruit garden from scratch. The house has a detached double garage that Marilyn will convert into her Studio, and the smallest bedroom is my office where I'm writing now. Elpheba, our cat, has made her home on top of the printer as you can see:
But buying and selling houses in England is far from straightforward and not a process for the nervous. The first buyer we found for our house couldn't find the funds, so Belle Vue went back on the market in January and sold a few weeks later. Luckily for us the house we wanted in Bishops Stortford was still available, but there was an anxious few months while we waited for our buyers to be granted their mortgage on Belle Vue.
The reason that I had to stop writing for two months was because we had to downsize radically. If you live in a house that has two reception rooms, a large conservatory, four large bedrooms, two utility rooms, a stable converted into a potter's studio, a self contained apartment, a greenhouse and a garden shed for twenty-three years then -take my word for this:
you do collect a lot of clutter!
We gave away two sofa beds, a victorian sofa, two tables, a double wardrobe, a rocking horse, a welsh dresser and two chests of drawers to friends and relatives, A couple of hundred books and numerous other possessions went to charity shops. Over 100 vinyl albums were given away, and I've driven a estate car full of rubbish to the dump about a dozen times.
And de-cluttering on this scale is a very satisfying, cathartic process. We are really glad we did this; but doing it, as well as packing about 100 boxes to bring with us and then unpacking them at the new house is hard, physical work. For four weeks we were working twelve hour days, even though friends helped with both the packing and unpacking, and Kean's Removals could not have been more professional, friendly and helpful .
People ask me if there was any element of sadness at leaving a house that we had loved and had lived in for so long. I have to say that we were just too busy to be nostalgic - and we were looking forward to our new home, not looking back. Here's one of the last pictures I took of Belle Vue. After one of the longest and hardest Winters in living memory, Spring finally came to Southern England on the day we moved:
The late arrival of Spring has meant that we've been able to enjoy working in our new garden, and occasionally even just sitting in it. Sometimes it feels as if we're just renting a holiday home for a short time, and the holiday might suddenly come to an end.
We were fortunate to move into a house that had been recently painted throughout in colours that we can quite easily live with, so we were able to unpack our 100 boxes of books, ceramics, photographs and pictures fairly quickly. Unpacking these objects, and finding new positions for them in new rooms has been as satisfying as de-cluttering was in the old house. Some of these possessions seem to have come to life again. We've had to order a new sofa - smaller than the one we gave away - for one of the reception rooms and we're waiting for that to arrive before we can complete the process of furnishing the house. Other than that we've dozens of pictures still to hang, loads of garden reconstruction to do, and we have to convert the garage into a pottery. But before we can do the conversion we need our daughter Victoria and daughter-in-law Helen to collect all the furniture that we've given to them which is currently stored in the garage. Victoria and Helen are also in the process of moving house, they hope to complete their purchase soon.
So we've started work on the garden. Here are a couple of "before and after" pictures. the first was taken a few days before we moved in and the second was taken today. While I am writing the tree surgeon has just phoned. He's coming round to give us a quote for taking down a large Holly tree that's stopping us planting fruit trees:
|Posted on February 27, 2013 at 6:45 PM||comments (12)|
In June last year I reviewed "Breath in the Dark", Jane Hersey's childhood autobiography. Jane was born into the ultra-orthodox Jewish community of Cheetham Hill in Manchester. Shortly after the birth of her younger brother her father abandoned the family, leaving three children in the care of their mother Annie. Annie simply couldn’t cope. She suffered from depression, asthma, diabetes and a compulsive eating disorder. She was addicted to prescription drugs and spent most of her life asleep on the sofa. When Jane was just six years old Annie depended on Jane to cash the National Assistance money, blag the doctor or the chemist to give her more amphetamines and to sell the second hand clothes that the community provided to pay for food.
Her childhood was non-existent. She was socially isolated, physically and emotionally neglected, and sexually abused by her father on the few occasions when she came into contact with him. By the time Jane was thirteen her mother had died and Jane was already showing symptoms of mental illness, including traits of OCD and Bulimia. She was regularly being fired from badly paid dead-end jobs partly because she had missed so much education that her work-skills were limited, but also because her social skills were almost non-existent. She simply didn't fit in anywhere. She was without a friend in the world.
Jane's first book ends abruptly when she is sixteen. Almost on a whim, she leaves the ultra-orthodox community of North Manchester to take a job as a chambermaid in a hotel in Windermere in the English Lake District. "Full Circle" continues her story from the age of 16 to the age of 28.
The cycle starts to repeat itself - she's fired from one job after another, fellow workers steal from her because she's too gullible to notice, her odd behaviour gets worse and worse. She's sexually abused and ends up living in Liverpool, married to the father of her son. It's a shotgun marriage, her husband regularly beats her to a pulp and his working class Catholic family are anti-Semites. Chillingly, her father-in-law describes seeing "The Angel of Death” in the bedroom, because. “She's a Jew." It's hard to believe that words like that were spoken in England in the 1970s.
So she flees the marital home in Liverpool and returns to Manchester with her baby son. At one point she takes a room in a brothel because she's too innocent to know why the landlady has taken her in. The landlady takes Jane's social security payments. Finally she returns to the ultra-orthodox community that had let her down so badly in the first place. The same cast of characters - relatives, social workers and community leaders who proved unable to help her in "Breath in the Dark" are still unable to come up with the help she needs. Things are complicated because she has "married out" to a gentile. This leads many members of the community to ostracise her, and one solution that is tried a few times by community leaders is to marry her off to old widowers who need to be taken care of. But her behaviour is too bizarre even for that plan to succeed.
She has sporadic contact with the mental health services. A middle aged Jewish psychiatrist describes her as being "of low intelligence". A more sympathetic psychologist explains to her "Someone shows you kindness and you reject them. Another rejects you and you smile.....You have things the wrong way round."Finally a psychiatrist gets to the bottom of Jane's problems. " She needs a mother. She's never been nurtured."
By the time Jane is twenty eight she's coping -just - by doing cleaning jobs and collecting glasses in pubs, and bringing up her son who's now at junior school. Then she meets the man she's now been married to for many years, and finally gets the consistent and regular psychiatric help she's needed for all of her troubled young life.
The psychotherapeutic community she is given a place in at the age of thirty recognises that she is far from being "of low intelligence" and shows her how to use writing as a form of therapy. "Breath in the Dark" and "Full Circle" are the result. They are both deeply disturbing and harrowing books to read, but they do show positive outcomes are possible even for the most distraught, abused and alienated children of our society. I wholeheartedly recommend these books.
"Full Circle is published by Matador Publishing, price £7.99 ISBN 978-1-78088-429-5. An e-book is available from the Kindle stores.
|Posted on February 19, 2013 at 5:25 AM||comments (2)|
Since the middle of December, at least twenty-five people taking part in polio eradication campaigns have been murdered by Islamist insurgents in Pakistan and Nigeria. A few of these were foreign aid workers, but most of them were local health workers and volunteers. During the same period only two new cases of the disease itself have been reported worldwide. So what does this mean for the final stages of the thirty- year old campaign to eradicate polio?
The recent assassinations of polio immunisers
On December 18 four women and one man were attacked by gunmen in three separate incidents in Karachi, Pakistan's largest city, and a woman was killed in the north-western city of Peshawar. Peshawar lies close to the tribal areas, and is a haven for the Taliban and other militants who ordered a ban on polio vaccinations in June.
On January 1 in Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province (the same conservative province where last October militants seriously wounded 15-year-old Malala Yousufzai, the outspoken young activist for girls’ education) gunmen on motorcycles sprayed a van carrying employees from a community centre with bullets, killing six women and one man. The victims were killed on their way home from a community centre where they were had been vaccinating children at a medical clinic and primary school. Their driver was injured but a young child was removed from the van by the assassins before they gunned the rest of the occupants down.
This month at least twelve women who were taking part in a polio vaccination drive have been shot and killed in northern Nigeria, where women volunteers often go from house to house to carry out the vaccinations as Muslim families feel more comfortable allowing women inside their homes than men. It also signalled a new wave of anger targeting immunisation drives in Nigeria, where clerics once claimed the vaccines were part of a Western plot to sterilize young girls.
The first attack saw gunmen arrive by three-wheel taxis and open fire. At least eight female vaccinators died in that attack, witnesses said. The second attack, saw another four people killed. The witnesses spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of angering the radical sect known as Boko Haram. Boko Haram, whose name means "Western education is sacrilege" in the Hausa language, has been behind a series of violent attacks across northern Nigeria as part of its fight against the country's weak central government. It is blamed for killing at least 792 people last year, including a single attack in Kano last January that killed at least 185.
Suspicion of Western motives
Some communities have long-held beliefs that the motives of the polio vaccinators are not benign. In South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa militants have been spreading paranoid conspiracy theories about vaccines for years. Parents and families have been told that they are pointless, poisonous, covert shields for nefarious government agendas meant to do children harm. In 2003, a group of imams in the Nigerian state of Kano began preaching against polio vaccination, contending that what purported to be a protective act was actually a covert campaign by Western powers to sterilize and kill Muslim children. The president of Nigeria’s Supreme Council for Sharia Law told the BBC: “There were strong reasons to believe that the polio immunisation vaccine was contaminated with anti-fertility drugs,...certain virus that cause HIV/AIDS, ....with Simian virus that are likely to cause cancers.”
The Hunt for bin Laden and the covert operators who posed as vaccinators
Such accusations undoubtedly caused years of delay to polio eradication, but by the end of 2010 the End polio Now Campaign truly felt that it had succeeded in winning over hearts and minds in the last three countries where polio was still endemic - Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Then in 2011, according to The Guardian and The New York Times the CIA decided to use a fake vaccination program for Hepatitis B in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. The CIA needed to prove that the family in the compound in Abbottobad were the bin Ladens, and the idea was that a local doctor would somehow obtain DNA samples from children in the compound while they were being vaccinated, and these samples could then be compared with the DNA of Bin Laden's sister, who died in America in 2010.
There is no evidence the “vaccinations” produced DNA that helped identify bin Laden. The physician named in the article has been arrested by the Pakistani security forces, and the CIA has understandably refused any comment. But the allegation that a vaccine program was not what it seemed — that it was not only suspect, but justifiably suspect — has been very widely reported.
This is truly awful. The use of a vaccination campaign as part of a covert espionage operation, and the subsequent discovery of the fact that a campaign has been used in this way has played into to the hands of the most paranoid believers in conspiracy theories.
Thirty years ago, when End polio Now began, there were over 350,000 new cases every year in over twenty countries, this declined to 222 cases in five countries last year. A decade ago, Nigeria was forced to suspend polio vaccination for almost a year because of these paranoid rumours. This sparked an explosion of polio cases, not just in Nigeria, but in 20 other countries that previously had been declared polio-free. Let us hope that this doesn't happen again.