On writing the past (once again) through the lens of the present

My boys-only grammar school was a microcosm of overwhelmingly white, Establishment England. In a Geography lesson, the deputy headteacher justified Thatcher’s sending of the Task Force to the Falklands with a rant about how his best friend at school had been beaten and starved to death in a Japanese POW camp, without any consciousness that both events were colonialism in action. The irony was compounded by the fact that the only teacher of colour at the school was Japanese. The headteacher refused to allow me to put the University of Ulster as one of my UCCA choices because it wasn’t the school’s type of destination; by hook or by crook I went there anyway. In History, there was next to no teaching of the evils inflicted around the world by British imperialism, let alone its legacy. For History A-level, one of the three modules was ‘the Scramble of Africa’, with the book of that title by Thomas Pakenham, now Lord Longford, as the main text, which at least, but only minimally, shone a little light on some of the atrocities, but the real  focus of the syllabus, and of what was subsequently tested by examination, was how the actions in Africa of Britain, Belgium, France, Germany and other European nations were a precursor to the First World War, and not that they devastated the lives of millions of Africans – and  likewise the First World War had been taught, for O-Level, only in terms of the fighting in France, with no assessment of its impact elsewhere.

My mother’s maternal grandfather had fought in two colonial wars, as a regular Private in the Chin Hills campaign in India, in the 1880s, and as a reservist Colour Sergeant in the Boer War. I’ve written a poem about the latter; in doing so, I kept my revulsion at his participation in that ‘White Man’s War’ simmering below the surface. Harsh though it may be to judge the actions of one’s forebears, in hindsight I regret not bringing it to the fore. As background reading, the only book on the Boer War I could find in the shops was Pakenham’s history of the conflict, published in 1979, drawing on interviews he’d conducted in the 1960s with the last surviving participant soldiers. Glaringly absent were the voices of any of the black Africans, or their relatives, whose lives had been so expendable as to be, apparently, of less value than those of the horses which pulled the Maxim one-pounder guns. When I was young, my father’s father often spoke as if he was the Alf Garnett of Sussex, openly racist in his language and attitudes, which, in my memory at least, my parents didn’t have the nerve to challenge. Yet, when I was 11, my father insisted that I watch the adaptation of Roots and bought me a copy of the Autobiography of Malcolm X, a book which I found inspirational because of Malcolm’s refusal to be cowed by oppression and, ultimately, his rejection of intolerance of any kind.

The outcome of Thursday’s election has brought all this into sharp focus in my head. Others more qualified to analyse the reasons why 13 million voters voted ‘to get Brexit done’ have stated their belief that, in doing so, many of those voters deliberately or implicitly rejected the values of inclusion and diversity, espoused by Corbyn, Abbott, McDonnell and other progressive politicians, and instead harked back to a time when the white British viewpoint was the only one which was heard; when the only successful people of colour were predominantly entertainers or sportsmen. (Labour, as we know, have only themselves to blame in not having supported electoral reform to a system which would allow every vote to count.) The Politics Live confrontation between Mark Francois and Will Self included Self’s point that whilst not everyone who voted for Brexit was racist or an anti-Semite, every British racist and anti-Semite voted for Brexit. (It then culminated with a famous staring match. It was notable, incidentally, that the first Conservative politician wheeled out on BBC1 on Thursday night to crow about the exit poll was that same Francois, who’d been kept in a cupboard with Rees-Mogg for the duration of the campaign.)

In her Citizen: An American Lyric (2014), Claudia Rankine, citing the execution by the Met of Mark Duggan, threw down a gauntlet to privileged white liberal poets like me to write about the oppression of, and everyday racism, towards people of colour in Britain. That’s a challenge which comes with a degree of difficulty: no white person has the right to appropriate the experience of a person of colour of course, but to me it seemed legitimate to write about it objectively, if not passionately. My poem ‘The Triumph of Sylvester Clarke’, in The Evening Entertainment, was based on a real experience which my father and I witnessed at The Oval in 1980: the monkey-noise chanting of thousands of Yorkshire cricket fans at the great Surrey and West Indies fast bowler, who responded by bowling the most skilfully ferocious spell I’ve ever seen.  The poem also draws on the irony that in order to make ends meet, Clarke felt he had no option but to take part in the West Indian rebel tours of Apartheid South Africa. My feelings about that choice are innately bound up in the fact that my great-grandfather fought in the war which directly engendered Apartheid.

In some recent poems, which I hope will be collected in my next book, I’ve tried to explore further the endemic racism fuelled by the British colonial legacy, most notably the shamefully inadequate facing-up to the impacts, historical and contemporary, of slavery.

Before anyone labels me as one more white liberal being ‘right on’, I just want to add that that surely ought to be the default position of every person in this country: kindness, tolerance and a rejection of hatred are the values we’re born with, and which are taught in primary schools but then get gradually diluted for some by the ‘pluralistic’ discourse of secondary school and the reality of adulthood. Much has changed for the better in this country in terms of a shift towards tolerance; positive discrimination has helped in that, but where are the leaders of colour? In my own workplace, whilst our workforce overall is proportionate, our senior leadership team is almost exclusively white. Several colleagues of colour have shortened their first names to make them sound less ‘foreign’ and easier for white folk to pronounce. Again, I have no wish to appropriate others’ experience, but it is essential to point it out.

As this year nears to a close, any reader could do no better than to read Candice Carty-Williams’s magnificent novel Queenie, a hugely entertaining but also deeply serious portrayal of a young black woman’s experiences in urban England today. It’s a brilliant reminder that in these difficult times, respect for others and valuing and celebrating difference should be foremost among our concerns. That must be the case for poets and other creatives as much as it is for anyone in their everyday lives.

8 thoughts on “On writing the past (once again) through the lens of the present

  1. Thanks Matthew, this is a interesting post – on a difficult subject. I’m also trying to find a way of writing about race and Empire, especially after listening to Akala read his book ‘Natives’ on Audible recently (which has really opened my mind to how insular my experience of British life and history has been). One thing is sure, any discussion between white people on this needs to be informed by discussions between people of colour (as you point towards with your mention of Rankine and Carty-Williams) and it also needs to avoid trying to speak ‘above’ those pre-existing discussions. White people are the students here, and we need to acknowledge that.
    Thanks again for the post. Food for thought.

    1. Thanks, Greg. Yes, it’s scary to remember how prevalent racism was on the terraces in the ’80s – I can well remember being on one platform at Charlton Station in c.’83 with loads of other QPR fans whilst loads of Charlton fans on the other platform were singing about how their club was all white and doing Heil Hitler salutes. So much for being a cuddly family club as they were always portrayed in the media. I’ve long thought it can’t be a coincidence that Stephen Lawrence was murdered in Eltham, well within Charlton fan territory. But then racist crimes, including murders, happen everywhere – https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/ricky-reel-died-after-a-racist-attack-16-years-ago-now-his-family-says-a-new-witness-could-prove-he-8531759.html. No-one’s yet been brought to justice for that and the Met seem completely disinterested in doing anything about it.

  2. A thoughtful and thought-provoking piece Matthew. I find myself as much, if not more concerned about the attitudes that the recent election result seems to legitimise, as I am by the potential policies of the elected party. While I have the privilege of being white, I tick a number of other minority boxes – and I fear for the increasing intolerance that has been growing year on year.

    Intelligent and respectful reflection and debate, itself rare in the arenas of social media ‘discussion’, seems like a precious thing, and I hope that literature and the arts in general can offer one areas of brightness and hope for people to turn to and add to when they are feeling at a loss.

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