Saturday 30 June 2012

Bomber Command Memorial

I usually feel ambiguous around Rembrance day - and  I was even more troubled at the prospect of the unveiling of a memorial for Bomber Command on Friday. And today, realisng that it is Armed Forces day - an unabashed rehabilitated day of flag-waving and militarism - I am doubly so.

The story of the 'bomber boys' of the Second World War has been undeniably neglected. The popular image of the wartime RAF is the romance of the fighter pilots - a small band of  cavalier public-school boys saving us from invasion in the Battle of Britain.  Our own version of Thermopylae and the 300 Sparatans. On the other hand, the story of the bomber crews has been swept under the carpet.

For starters the bomber crews were more numerous and less glamorous. Their role was not to dash around the skies in aerial dog-fights but to sit in tight wing tip-to-wing tip formations every night like sitting ducks. Waiting to be picked up by searchlights or radar and shot down by night fighters or flak. Statistically they faced the most dangerous job on the allied side - one in twenty odds of not returning from a mission when an operational tour lasted thirty missions. It is not surprising that a kind of stoic fatalism and dark humour characterised  Bomber Command.

Their social composition was more diverse than Fighter Command - many sergeant-pilots were working class or at least lower middle class grammar school boys.  Becoming  an air-gunner was one route in which an 'erk' from the ranks could actually get into the air.

But most importantly, unlike the fighter pilots of 1940, they were not the heroic defenders preventing the bombing of women and children - they were the ones doing the bombing. Causing death and destruction on an industrial scale that between 1942-5 eclipsed anything seen in the Luftwaffe's attacks on this country.

It can be - and is - argued that the young men of Bomber Command cannot  be held responsible for the morality of decisions made by their political and military commanders. Maybe so - and maybe we are in no position to judge from the comfort of our peactime lives - although clearly many veterans did feel this responsibility for the rest of their lives.

It is an added tragedy that many wars seem to generate buried tales of  heroism. Perhaps in this case simply telling their forgotten story is more appropriate than commemorating them in stone. 

Wednesday 27 June 2012

Shake hands with the devil ?

In no particular order:

Shal Palavi of Iran. King Faisal of Iraq. Idi Amin of Uganda. Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. King Hamid al-Khalifa of Bahrain. Presient Mobutu of Zaire. King Faisal of Saudi Arabia. President Arap Moi of Kenya. King Khalid of Saudi Arabia. Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu of Romania. King Hassan II of Morocco. President Mubarak of Egypt. President Jiang Zemin of China. The list of brutal heads of state met and feted by Queen Elizabeth II just goes on ... 

And it's not just a question of a quick  meet and greet with these dictators either -  Her Maj's government has actively collaborated with these regimes who  are guilty of the systematic widespread and  brutal suppresion of their own peoples. Many on this motley  list of  dictators have been aided in their bloody business by the sale of arms, diplomatic support, and training given to these regimes by successive British governements.

I don't share  Sinn Fein's politics  - but can we get some fucking perspective about her 'historic' meeting with Martin McGuiness today ?

Sunday 24 June 2012

In defence of localism.

I helped an old friend move this weekend. He was relocating all the way from one side of the square to another in the funky little enclave  that bizarrely sits in the shadow of some very ugly seventies tower blocks n Vauxhall. And then the next day another old mate - who has swapped Brixton for a new life in Devon -  got  in touch about the possibility of collaborating on some sort of project that connects my urban life with his rural life. It's got me thinking. 

For a moment I was hard pressed to think of something to make the connection.  The superficial contrasts between inner city and sticks are overwhelming. But since I've been out of regular work I've become much more aware of the community that I am surrounded by. The time I have spent in local schools has helped. And so has getting off the commuting treadmill that took me in and out of  the West End and relegated my home turf for the past twenty five years to little more than a dormitory.

I've seen something that strongly connects life in the inner city with life in the country: Life - economic, social and cultural - is local. And consequently not being bound by the necessity to rush from one area for work to another for sleeping, it is  slower. It can also appear to  involve more - for want of a better word - pottering.  

Nowadays all that strikes me as altogether more real and more civilised. And it needs to be preserved from creeping suburbanisation and homogenisation.

Thursday 21 June 2012

Jimmy Carr and the moral bankruptcy of business

It says something about the state of political debate when a Tory posh-boy points the moral finger at another posh-boy's financial morality - who happens to be a tax-dodging comedian. 

The irony is then further  compounded by the comedian Jimmy Carr  being  defended by none other that the leader of the Labour Party.

I have always suspected that Jimmy Carr is a bit of a cunt. He wants to have it both ways by playing the knowingly ironic post-modern liberal card whilst taking the money from playing up to lowest common denominator prejudice and bigotry. And working as a gag-writer for Jim Davidson - who of course we can unequivocally identify as a cunt.

Maybe Ed Miliband has a point about changing the law. Of course the law needs to be changed. Socialism can't and won't just be achieved through fairer taxation - but it probably won't be achieved without it. It's no accident that 'progressive taxation' is one of the  things mentioned in the programme of the 1848 Communist Manifesto. 

But at the same time, nobody should be allowed the ethical get-out clause of not having to take the consequences of their actions. Jimmy Carr is simply guilty of doing what most capitalists do - divorcing and compartmentalising the consequences of their financial decisions from their personal morality. In my former life I saw countless middle managers working for my clients - and come to that my own former employer - otherwise decent individuals who could still happily make business decisions without the need to refer to this inconvenient moral compass. 

And as I write this some reptile from a leading accountancy firm is being interviewed on Radio 4 about how it's not his firm's job to moralise only to help their clients be as 'tax efficient' as possible. Of course he's quite right. And it makes him a cunt too.

Monday 18 June 2012

'A damn near run thing'

I have another guest piece over at Dorian's On This Deity today to mark the anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. 

I've tried not to dwell on the military side of things but on the Napoleonic legacy and the struggle to secure the bourgeois revolution.

Saturday 16 June 2012

An Eastenders story that needs telling

Since volunteering in schools I've been struck how they don't seem to teach local history - at least not in the ones I've seen. Often there's just not the room in the national curriculum - and with Michael Grove's promotion of the LadyBird school of history I suspect there will be even less. Which is a shame because it has the potential to be a great way of telling the 'island story' he's so fond of. 

Of course here in London where there's every chance that a history class will have pupils from anywhere in the world 'local' does not necessarily mean what you might first assume. But then again, the flip-side of this is that London has always been like that. 

Which is why I have jumped at the chance to teach a couple of lessons about a subject very close to my heart - the changing face of London's docklands. With Chinese, Malaysian, Indian, Somali and Eastern European communities established there since the early nineteenth century, the history of the docks almost holds up a mirror to the  classrooms of modern London

So as a bit of preparatory homework I took myself to the excellent Museum of London in Docklands. Telling the story of docklands from Roman times to it's recent 'regeneration', this is proper 'warts and all' local history. Which is to say that it doesn't romanticise the thriving golden era of the docks - which were inextricably linked with the slave trade, nor does it omit the conflicts of he great dock strike of 1889 or the battles a century later between the displaced dock communities* and the London Docklands Development Commission. 

But sadly stuck in the shadow of Canary Wharf and the corporate barrenness that is modern docklands - the museum was almost totally deserted on a Saturday morning. At the end of the tour you are invited to take a post-it and stick your thoughts and impressions up on a 'comments wall'.  Someone has quite rightly suggested that all the bankers and traders who work at Canary Wharf should be compelled to spend half a day in the museum.

*My mum - who grew up around Wapping in the war years -  returned there in the early 1990s - she considered retiring to  one of the new flats. The flats themselves were lovely but she was very upset that she couldn't find the streets and squares she remembered as a child - because they simply weren't there any more. The LDDC had accomplished what six years of the Luftwaffe couldn't.

Wednesday 13 June 2012

Roots 5: Seamen & Papists

The last instalment tracing the family history of my four grandparents:

As a child I remember my paternal grandmother's family as pretty grim and forbidding. They came from Whitby on the North Yorkshire coast and consisted of a couple of elderly unmarried aunts - sisters of my grandmother. 

I recall going up there for one of their ninetieth birthdays. Although Whitby now seems Gothic and romantic - back then Hilda and Winifred seem to have scarily taken on the grim and grey bleakness of the wind-swept town. Both had worked in domestic service and both had ended up as doctors' housekeepers. Even in the 1970's they dressed the part of modern day Mrs Hudsons. And they lived together in a two-up two-down on one of Whitby's steeply cobbled side-streets - without phone or television - and with coal fires.

They were also extremely Catholic - and the height of Hilda's  birthday celebrations was a special private mass held  in her house by a visiting priest. Looking back there was some humour in this when in a panic Hilda had to hide a bottle of brandy (brought as a present by the same priest) from her friend who was 'chapel' and strictly temperance.

After their deaths, I effectively forgot about this branch of the family - they certainly weren't much fun when I was small - and in retrospect I probably held them responsible for the Catholicism which I came to regard as something of a stain on the family identity. With no living members of this part of the family, they were the last branch to get my attention when I started to look into my own history. 

In fact it turns out they were actually a bit  more colourful than I had given them credit for:

If the river dominates my maternal grandfather's arm of the family - the sea dominates my Whitby ancestors: Matthew, the oldest of them that I can trace, was born in 1811 and was a ship's master who went on to become an innkeeper when he married as his second wife was a widow who kept a pub.

Looking at their marriage certificate from the 1840's, they were married in the rites of the Catholic church. It looks as if, unlike my paternal grandfather's family where Irish immigration introduced Catholicism  -  they were part of that peculiar minority of English Catholics. Both were born locally, neither had Irish names, and this remote part of North Yorkshire was not a place that attracted Irish immigration at the time. Like parts of Lancashire, Cheshire and Cumbria pockets of Catholicism had managed to survive the reformation and produced crops of local martyrs - although the records of Catholicism amongst ordinary people who weren't recussant toffs or priests on the run are very hard to track down.

Most of the men of Whitby earned their living from the sea as whalers and fishermen. Mathew had three sons and the eldest two both went to sea. The middle son John drowned when his ship sank - a reminder of how precarious that life was  - and perhaps as a consequence, Robert the youngest stayed ashore and became a cabinet-maker. The eldest son, another Matthew went on to also become a ship's master. Amazingly the manifest book of his ship - the Mary-Eliza built in South Shields in the 1860's - has survived. The ship was a small coaster that worked the East Coast and North Sea routes with mixed cargoes - a kind of floating white van of its time.

Matthew had no family but his brother Robert the cabinet-maker did - and reading between the lines it seems as if son John was discouraged from or tried to avoid going to sea. He had a number of short-lived jobs ashore - including that of 'sewing machine sales agent' - but in his late twenties he too became a merchant seaman. He died at sea  in his forties when working as a steward on a small cargo ship bound for South America and is buried in the English cemetery at Buenes Aires. 

He left behind five children and life must have been extremely tough for my great grandmother on her own. The two boys left home to become engineering apprentices in Bradford - one of them becoming in later life a metalwork teacher in an approved school.  Two of the sisters - the forbidding aunts that I remember - went into service and the third, my grandmother, married and moved down to London where her husband worked on Fleet Street. 

All the Whitby relatives were extremely Catholic but unusually they either didn't marry or  had small families, and I am the last one of the line left. I have little evidence of any of them other than some sepia photos, the ship's manifest  and  an odd collection of missals and other prayer books - one of which is a Latin text of Thomas Aquinas' 'Imitation of Christ' dated 1720 - which in itself must carry quite a tale. For someone like myself who has a bit of an obsession with the civil war and seventeenth century radicalism, it is rather disturbing to find that one section of my ancestors would have probably been found at that time in the ranks of some of the most fanatical Royalists.

And that last instalment pretty much now rounds up my family story.

The hap-hazard nature of public records means that for the majority of us ordinary folks  it is pretty hard to trace our antecedents beyond the late eighteenth century, but I will go on trying. It is a great window into social history. Although my background is relatively stable and ethnically dull (other than an unexpected Irish influence) certainly in comparison to my partner's family - this in itself reveals something about the lives of ordinary working people: Three generations of print-workers, three generations of soldiers, and at least three generations of seamen and five of boatmen.

It's a story that takes in the ports of the North coast, the mills of West Yorkshire, London's East End and suburbs of West  London. It also covers the full range of working class historical experience from prosperous artisans to others who sought refuge from poverty in soldiering. I had no expectation or desire to find any connections to the famous or notorious - and said when I started that I just hoped not to find any 'toffs or Tories' lurking in the family closet . I haven't really found either - although these English Catholics were possibly the very first Tories - from whom the name was first derived as a term of abuse for anyone outside the Whig and Protestant consensus.

Wednesday 6 June 2012

Raining on the parade

So that was the jubilee. 

I did my best to escape it. I saw some bunting but I didn't see any street parties. And I don't know anyone who did. 

I did my best to avoid the interminable television coverage. The endless slow-paced boat race nonsense  and the parade of the mediocre and middle-of-the-road music stars of yesteryear. It did nothing for me - nor by the looks of it did it do anything for Her Maj either who throughout the whole circus looked as poe-faced and miserable as ever. In the evening I sought distraction from the rolling news saturation coverage of these non-events by watching some slashers on the pay-for-view.

Yesterday - the first time I can remember having a bank holiday on a Tuesday  -I went for a ride out to see George Bernard Shaw's cottage deep in the hear of moneyed Hertfordshire. It was shut - obviously the National Trust were confused as to whether it was a bank holiday (when it is usually open) or a weekday (when it isn't). So I came home - and get wet riding back in the rain.

That was my jubilee - all pretty appropriate really - and much I suspect like most people's experience of the 'feel good weekend of the year'. 

Right now though I am savouring the PR home goal of using benefit seekers to do security at the event  for nothing, get changed in the open  and sleep under a bridge for the privilege...

Saturday 2 June 2012

Happy to reign over us ?

The royal jubilee is getting into gear, and whilst the tabloids are giving us advice on how to make our street parties swing, the broadsheets are ruminating  about the legacy of the 'New Elizabethan Age'.  Inevitably it is a time for comparing 'then and now'. 

Of course there are undeniably significant contrasts with the monochrome Britain of 1952 and today. Most of all we are now a multicultural society and women's role in the workforce has been changed. And no doubt those are probably the things that still  most piss off the red-white-and-blue brigade who are hanging up their bunting this weekend.

But it seems to me that essentially the jubilee is a celebration of sixty years of the same bastards being in charge: 

Back in 1952 we had a Conservative government dominated by public schoolboys who didn't know the price of a pint of milk. Looking back it looks like society was rigidly bound by class, but in fact the gap between the richest and the poorest then was then considerably smaller than now - and the prospects of social mobility actually much greater.

At home  the government of toffs was desperately trying to undo the  previous reforms of the 1945 Labour Government. And on the world's stage they were  trying to justify a place at the table of top nations by crushing independence in Malaya and Kenya, developing their own Atomic bomb and playing second fiddle to the USA in Korea.

Plus ca change. For most of us it's been sixty years of putting up with the same old shit - perhaps with a brief respite in the1960's. And the only real reason to celebrate is to show  solidarity with another old pensioner forced to work well past her retirement date.