Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Statues from Charlottesville to Westminster often represent a violent and racist political terrain

The recent violent events at Charlottesville,Virginia have ignited a worldwide debate about the role of statues in marking a nation’s history.

The violence at Charlottesville erupted, due to a mob of white supremacists and Nazis coming together to as they saw it to defend a statue of Confederate General Robert E Lee.

The statue was being taken down by the Virginia authorities due to its seeming to provide a remembrance to slavery in America.

There have been moves to remove such statues across America, since the shootings at a church in Charleston in 2015, when nine people were killed by white supremacist Dylann Roof.
Roof confessed to committing the killings in the hope of igniting a race war. He was found guilty or murder earlier this year, being sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.

At Charlottesville, those supporting the removal of the statue came out to oppose the white supremacists. There were violent clashes, culminating in the death of anti-racist protester Heather Heyer. James Alex Fields Jr has been charged with second degree murder.

President Donald Trump then fanned the flames of racism by failing to condemn the white supremacists. He chose instead to blame all sides. Universal condemnation followed, resulting in the President issuing another statement condemning the white supremacists more directly, only for him to go back to the original statement a few days later.

The situation of racial divide across America has become thus inflamed, not least by the actions of the President.

The President did though make a further point suggesting that if the issue were slavery then statues to the likes of past presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson could also come down, as they were slave owners. Others have suggested statues of President Harry Truman could come down, given his role in giving  the order to drop the nuclear bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
The valid point being made is that statues are not simply silent apolitical symbols of the past but marks of a highly politicised landscape – evidence of a form of organised remembering and forgetting of past figures and events.  

Few outside of America will have been aware of the way in which the erection of these statues reflect racial division across the land.

In my ignorance, I had thought the statues had been standing since the 19th century days of the civil war. However, it turns out they are all far more recent manifestations of malice, being erected in the early years of the 20th century, at the time of Jim Crow’s racist segregation laws, and during the civil rights protests of the 1950s and 60s. So there is a direct link between a racist agenda and the statues.

Given the nature of the Trump presidency and the constituency he has come to represent, maybe it should come as no surprise that the present violence should erupt during his presidency.

Events in America though have ignited debates elsewhere about the role of statues in marking history.

In this country, for many decades, the squares and roads around Parliament have been adorned by generals and others viewed as establishment heroes of the empire years. It always struck me as strange to see the likes of General Douglas Haig astride his horse, Clive of India and others dotted around the place.

The pre-eminence of these characters could be said to reflect the identity crisis at the heart of British society. A country that still believes itself to be a world power, hangs on feverishly to its own nuclear weapons of mass destruction in the belief that it in some way reflects greatness. A country, with one foot defiantly stuck in the past.

More recently, things have changed, with statues of the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela joining assorted British Prime Ministers in Parliament Square. In 2005, a monument was erected, near the Cenotaph, to the women of  World War II.

So there is change afoot. However, overall, the breadth of statues – especially in the capital – do tend to still reflect the interests of the British establishment and a version of history that it wants to promote.

The lack of Labour and especially trade union leaders with any mark of remembrance is remarkable. This contrast was brought home most adroitly recently, with the controversy over the grave of the Sarah Chapman, a champion of the Matchwomen’s strike of 1888. Chapman’s paupers grave had been discovered, forgotten in an east London graveyard.    

Instead of celebrating the life of Chapman as a great trade union leader, with a statue in Westminster, the remembrance is a paupers grave. What is more the area is to be flattened or “mounded over” to quote the official phrase in order that building can take place.

A campaign has been established to save the grave.

What this all goes to prove is that the erection of statues is an overt political act that says much about the country concerned. The eruption of violence and controversy around the Confederacy statues in the US is a reflection of the racial divisions that grow ever deeper in America today. In Britain, whilst there maybe a growing diversity of those we choose to erect statues to remember, at the centres of power the figures that remain are predominantly those that mark an imperial past, rather than the exploits of working people and those who represent them. Given recent developments, hopefully things might soon change.     

Friday, 18 August 2017

Take action at Wanstead Park

The ongoing decline of water levels in the Ornamental lake in Wanstead Park continues. Growing numbers of people are wondering when the City of London Corporation (CLC) will address this issue seriously?


The regular excuse is lack of funding. The CLC continually tell us they have no money, though it was recently proven that there was an underspend last year on Epping Forest.

We have also been told by Superintendent Paul Thomson that research has shown the footfall for Wanstead Park and the Flats is heavier than previously thought. The actual footfall entitles the area to one third of the £5m budget for Epping Forest - at present nothing like this figure is forthcoming.

The CLC keep dangling out the prospect of a Heritage Lottery bid that will be used to deal with the problems of the park. Trouble is this nirvanna is regularly moved further down the road. Most recently, the excuse was that there could be pending flood defence work required in the park by the Environment Agency.
Maybe we are waiting for Tesco to pay out again, as they did for the new seating in front of kiosk?


This continuous process of inertia, which sees problems like the lack of water in the Ornamental lake not dealt with, cannot go on.  It is time for the CLC to take some positive action to resolve the outstanding issues

-published - Wanstead and Woodford Recorder/Ilford Recorder .-17/8/2017
Wanstead and Woodford Guardian - 17/8/2017

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Speed reading review for Tablet ..Utopia for realists and how we can get there, Dismembered:how the attack on the state harms and Confessions of a recovering environmentalist

Utopia for realists..and how we can get there (Bloomsbury, £16.99) lays out an optimistic  blueprint of a world, where there is a universal basic income, 15 hour week and open borders. Rutger Bergman calls for a massive redistribution of wealth, making for a more equal and just society. He  suggests that people are basically decent, not always trying to rip off the system. Bergman also questions some of the accepted dogma of our times, such as the adherence to GDP as a measure of well-being. The overall message though is one of hope in change.    

Whilst Bergman looks to how life might be, Polly Toynbee and David Walker’s Dismembered (Faber, £9.99) warns of what could be lost, if government continues to hack away at the state. The writers expose the lunacy of a growing population, requiring ever more from services, like the NHS, education and care services, whilst government continues to cut resources.

Statistics abound, as to how education, care, prisons, the police and the health service have all been dismembered. However, there are also positive stories such as Thurrock Council where services have improved, after being taken back in house. The authors call for greater articulation of the positive contribution that the public sector makes to the common good.

The least optimistic of these titles is Paul Kingsnorth’s Confessions of a recovering environmentalist (Faber, £14.99). Kingsnorth plots his path, via a number of published essays, from eco-idealist to a man disillusioned with much of the environmental movement. He criticises the reductionist approach that has seen the sole focus being climate change and the need to cut carbon emissions. Meanwhile, things like the mass extinction of many species tend to get ignored.
Kingsnorth himself has responded by moving his family to Ireland where they pursue a more self-sufficient life on a small holding. Questions over the nature of progress and the damage done by the domineering relationship that humanity has developed toward the natural world provide much food for thought.

published in the Tablet - 12/8/2017

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

A life long fighter for social justice - Kevin McNamara, MP

Former Labour MP for Hull Central, Kevin McNamara, has sadly passed away at the age of 82.
In his earlier life, Kevin studied for a law degree at the University of Hull, prior to going on to teach history at St Mary’s grammar school in Hull. He met his wife Nora, whilst studying law, marrying in 1960.

Following his school years, he did two years (1964 to 1966) as a law lecturer at Hull College.

Kevin unsuccessfully contested the Bridlington constituency in 1964, prior to winning Hull North in 1966. He then served as an MP until his retirement in 2005.

The Hull MP served as shadow Northern Ireland minister between 1987 and 1994 under Neil Kinnock. Then, Tony Blair replaced him with Mo Mowlem, when he became leader.

Kevin was a stalwart supporter of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, doing all he could to advance that agenda in Westminster and beyond. Widely touted as a republican in the British media, Kevin strongly believed that had successive British governments taken a different approach to Northern Ireland from 1969, seeking to accommodate the demands of the civil rights protesters, then the war, that brought the physical force tradition of the republican movement to the fore - under the guise of the IRA - could have been avoided.

He supported peace throughout his life in Ireland and beyond. Despite losing the shadow portfolio on Northern Ireland, he remained a key operator in the background, helping Mowlem and Blair bring about the Good Friday Agreement.

A keen student of all things Irish, Kevin took a particular interest in the McBride principles, for which he attained a Phd from the University of Liverpool in 2007.

His commitment to Ireland, though, did not stop him championing the cause of the families of soldiers killed at Deepcut and other British army barracks in the noughties.

The breadth of Kevin’s interests were nicely demonstrated at a Christmas celebration of the Agreed Ireland Forum (another group of which he was an integral part), which included leading members of Sinn Fein, the Labour Party and the parents of those bereaved as a result of their children dying in barracks serving in the British army.

Kevin’s commitment to the social justice teachings of the Catholic Church were a guiding principle throughout his life. He was a keen supporter of international development and the first chair of the All Party Parliamentary  Friends of Cafod group.

In the latter part of his Parliamentary career, Kevin championed the cause of gypsies and travellers, pushing for local councils to be forced to make provision for the travelling community. He was chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Gypsies, Roma and Travellers.

One of his last public pronouncements came in the run up to the 2005 general election, when in response to then Tory leader Michael Howard’s targeting of the travelling community, he described the leader of the opposition’s comments as having “a whiff of the gas chamber” about them.   

He was awarded a  Knighthood of the Pontifical Order of St Gregory the Great by the Catholic Church.

My own personal recollection of Kevin was from his retirement do in 2005, when after a formal celebration in the Commons, a few of us went round the corner to his favourite Chinese restaurant - all you could eat for a fiver or some such figure. A warm celebration ensued well into the night.



Kevin was on holiday in Spain, when taken ill. He was quickly diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer, being transferred back to England. He died among family and friends at home in Formby, Liverpool.


He is survived by his widow Nora, three sons and a daughter.

(5.9.1934 to 6.8.2017)

published - 12/8/2017 - https://www.morningstaronline.co.uk/a-e2ab-Kevin-McNamara-A-man-dedicated-to-peace

8/8/2017 - obit - 8/8/2017

Monday, 7 August 2017

Story of the rise of the Sun newspaper...then came phone hacking, post truth etc

Review of play Ink by James Graham

The play, Ink, by James Graham offers a fascinating insight into the demise of the Daily Mirror and the rise of the Sun newspaper.

Owned by IPC, which also owned the Mirror and other titles, the Sun had made unspectacular progress since its launch in 1964. However, in 1969, Rupert Murdoch decided to buy the title. It was his entry point into the British newspaper market.

The play focuses on what happens, as Murdoch appoints former Mirror man Larry Lamb as editor. An anything goes approach to news, which effectively had a dumbing down effect on the whole newspaper industry ensued.

The Mirror, under its legendary editor Hugh Cudlipp, was viewed as the ideal of what a tabloid newspaper should be, standing up for the mass of people against injustice, yet also witty entertaining and informative. Cudlipp’s Mirror caught the spirit of Britain in the post war years.

Ink is an entertaining play with dark humour, illuminated by some excellent performances, especially from Bertie Carvel as Rupert Murdoch and Richard Coyle as Larry Lamb.

The play reminded me of John Pilger’s documentary Breaking the Mirror the Murdoch Effect (1998). I was fortunate enough to work on that program, which told the story of the Mirror and the damaging arrival of the Sun on the scene. Pilger’s programme was uncannily accurate in providing a critique of the Sun.

The ensuing years have seen the phone hacking scandal and other instances of journalism being drawn into the gutter. This form of journalism has in many ways led to the post truth world and fake news.

For a brief period in the early noughties under the editorship of Piers Morgan, the Mirror did try to return to its basic principals. Pilger, Foot and others came back, the readership responded positively but sadly the owners were not prepared to give the experiment time and normal service – as it had then become – was soon resumed.

The halcyon days of the Mirror when it boasted the likes of Pilger, Paul Foot and Keith Waterhouse  seem long since past. The present day incarnation of the Mirror does a reasonable job in keeping the red flag flying in a largely blue market but it is a pale shade of what went before.

Certainly today, we could do with a decent newspaper with the values of the old Mirror, prepared to stand up for working people against injustice. Such a publication would nowdays no doubt have online as well as a print presence but it would surely succeed if tried.

*Ink finished its run at the Almeida theatre on Saturday, it transfers to the Duke of York’s theatre on 9 September, running until 6 January  

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Film Dunkirk illustrates the futility of war and problemmatic nature of survival


The film Dunkirk provides a gripping expose of the reality of war. The futile loss of life and the problematic nature of survival is all laid bare. Dunkirk also offers a masterclass in suspense, never knowing what is coming next as you live every moment with those struggling to escape the beach.

There is relief as a group of soldiers appear to have survived on a ship, only to have that joy immediately torn away as a torpedo rips into the vessel, transforming in an instance the scene from one of celebration into that of a watery grave. The only way in which the suspense is tempered is when you realise that one of the film’s stars is not going to be killed in the first few minutes.

There is no glorification of war in this epic. Whilst the gory nature of war, with dismembered bodies is not part of the scene, the whole wasteful nature of conflict is well illustrated. Courage too is paramount, among sailors, fighter pilots and those who set off in the small boats from Britain to rescue the troops on the beach

Dunkirk should do much to open the eyes of some who glory in war. Those (usually male) who celebrate war and weaponry, often from a safe distance. The sight of someone being torn apart by a landmine or some such other weapon is not a pleasant sight to see.

War is the ultimate failure of the human condition, a failure to resolve differences without resorting to killing one another, not something to celebrate but remember in the hope that it will not recur again. Dunkirk contributes much to the process of active remembering.   

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Gender focus on BBC pay inequality obscures obscenity of people being paid £500k to read the news in a country where 1 million go to foodbanks

Whilst much has rightly been made of the gender gap in BBC pay, what really outrages the mass of people is the even bigger gap between these salaries and their own. How can it be justifiable in a country that has millions struggling by on the minimum wage, going to food banks just to be fed, to be paying people £500k to read the news. It is obscene.
 
published in Evening  Standard - 24/7/2017