One for Jamal: Not everything is lost

One for Jamal: Not everything is lost

Behind the counter at the newsagent, Jamal looked a little worse for wear: ‘I didn’t get much sleep last night,’ he said, explaining that the start of Ramadan always tended to knock his body rhythms for six. He’d got to bed late after evening prayers, and couldn’t sleep. Knowing he would have to be up at 3am to eat before morning prayers, he’d finally abandoned all thought of sleep. We went on to have an interesting conversation.

Jamal is a scouser whose Yemeni father would once deliver the newspaper right to our door. He says he’s grateful that his mixed ancestry has gifted him with two countries where he feels at home. He says he’s travelled to many countries and what he has found is that people are pretty much the same everywhere. He says all of us, whatever our faith – Muslim or Jew, Christian or Hindu – are taught by our religion that it is right to feed a stranger or look out for a neighbour. But now he is troubled: his Yemeni homeland is being torn apart in a war between Sunni and Shi’ite. His Muslim identity is being fractured. And anyway, there is more to him than just being Muslim. He is English and proud of it; he is Yemeni and proud of that too; he is Liverpudlian and proud of it; he is European and proud of that too. He is moved to tears by the Manchester bombing – but also by the ISIS bomb that killed 15 and wounded dozens last night as Muslim families in Baghdad broke their Ramadan fast at an ice cream shop.

I said to Jamal, ‘That reminds me of something I read by a Palestinian American poet. I will bring it to you.’ Continue reading “One for Jamal: Not everything is lost”

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Manchester: the reciprocity of kindness

Manchester: the reciprocity of kindness

In the aftermath of the Manchester bomb atrocity there were so many stories of the kindness offered by strangers to those who were victims, or were caught up in, the attack – the guy who drove through the night, giving lifts home to those stranded; the woman who guided children to the safety of a local hotel; and all those who offered food and shelter for the night. Then there were the gatherings – in Manchester and Liverpool – which were, as one young woman expressed it on Channel 4 News, ‘more about love and not hatred.’

In this respect there was nothing unusual about Manchester. The kindness of strangers, in Tennessee Williams’ memorable phrase, is a quality we see repeatedly after such terrible events. And though the gatherings and vigils that follow might seem, especially for those with a sceptical or cynical turn of mind, predictable, they do perform a valuable service. Not only do they bring us together when we feel at our most frightened and vulnerable, they also remind us, as George Monbiot insists in his column today, that ‘human cooperation and reciprocity are so normal we scarcely seem to notice them.’ It can be easy after this kind of atrocity – one in which children and young people enjoying their first taste of freedom and independence were sought out to be deliberately blown apart – to conclude that there is no humanity, that we are an intrinsically fallen species. Continue reading “Manchester: the reciprocity of kindness”

I Am Not Your Negro: James Baldwin’s words remain as urgent and relevant as they were when written

<em>I Am Not Your Negro</em>: James Baldwin’s words remain as urgent and relevant as they were when written

I Am Not Your Negro is not a film about James Baldwin: more like a séance presided over by director Raoul Peck in which he summons up from beyond the grave Baldwin’s voice ventriloquised by Samuel L. Jackson in a narration drawn entirely from Baldwin’s work. It is not one of those conventional documentaries cluttered with the thoughts of  friends, relatives or experts, but a work of literary archaeology that pieces together a book which Baldwin planned but never wrote, using his notes, plus words – and only his words – from letters, essays and books written in the mid-1970s. It is, perhaps, the best documentary I have ever seen. Continue reading I Am Not Your Negro: James Baldwin’s words remain as urgent and relevant as they were when written”

Familiar strangers: the black radicals who civilised Britain

Familiar strangers: the black radicals who civilised Britain

When the story of radical politics in Britain during the second half of the 20th century comes to be written by future historians, pride of place will surely be given to the black activists drawn from the post-war generation of migrants from the Caribbean and the Indian sub-continent. This thought occurs after reading reviews of Familiar Stranger, the recently published collection of autobiographical essays by Stuart Hall, who was – in Tim Adams’ words in the Observer – ‘perhaps the most significant figure on the British intellectual left over the course of the last 50 years,’ and learning of the death of Darcus Howe, who once described himself as having come from Trinidad on a ‘civilising mission’, to teach Britons to live in a harmonious and diverse society. Fresh out of university in the early 1970s and fired up by student and anti-apartheid protest, I drew inspiration from these black activists and the struggles they spearheaded, fused with the rebel music of reggae and 2-Tone music. Continue reading “Familiar strangers: the black radicals who civilised Britain”

Triggering Article 50: a historic moment of delusional madness and national self-harm

Triggering Article 50: a historic moment of delusional madness and national self-harm

‘This is a historic moment from which there will be no turning back,’ crowed Theresa May in her completely mad speech to the Commons this lunchtime. Yet in her speech and in the Article 50 letter to Donald Tusk, she reminded us of the value of what we are losing. ‘Europe’s security is more fragile today than at any time since the end of the cold war’, she intoned; yet the whole point of European integration has been to help maintain the peace in postwar Europe.

And after informing Tusk and the assembled MPs that the UK would not seek to remain in the world’s largest single market, she went on: ‘At a time when the growth of global trade is slowing, and there are signs that protectionist instincts are on the rise in many parts of the world, Europe has a responsibility to stand up for free trade in the interest of all our citizens,’ before asserting, ‘Perhaps now more than ever the world needs the liberal, democratic values of Europe – values that the UK shares.’

Is she completely bonkers? Or she displaying the symptoms of something more serious which some medical experts have suggested may sometimes be brought on by excessive use of cannabis? Doctors often describe schizophrenia as a type of psychosis in which a person may not always be able to distinguish their own thoughts and ideas from reality, and whose symptoms include hallucinations,
delusions, and muddled thoughts. Continue reading “Triggering Article 50: a historic moment of delusional madness and national self-harm”

From Messina to Rome sixty years ago: much ado about nothing said Britain

From Messina to Rome sixty years ago: much ado about nothing said Britain

Speaking to the BBC today, the president of the European commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, described Brexit as ‘a failure and a tragedy.’ The scale of the tragedy will be underlined this weekend when EU leaders – minus the British PM – will gather in Rome to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the signing of the founding treaty of European integration and add their signatures to the Rome Declaration, a two-page summary of EU achievements and the challenges which the organisation now faces.
Continue reading “From Messina to Rome sixty years ago: much ado about nothing said Britain”

Populism, tyranny, and the lessons of the past

Populism, tyranny, and the lessons of the past

In the opinion pages of this morning’s Guardian there’s an article by Timothy Garton-Ash on the worsening situation for free speech and human rights in Turkey as Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian regime tightens the screw. ‘To travel to Turkey today is to journey into darkness,’ writes Garton-Ash; ‘tens of thousands of state employees and thousands of academics dismissed, more journalists locked up than in any other country, and a chilly mist of fear.’

Erdoğan crops up in Jan-Werner Müller’s concise guide, What Is Populism? which I read recently. For the epigraph to his book Muller chose the words of Bertolt Brecht: ‘All power comes from the people. But where does it go?’  It’s a good question, and Muller provides a readable analysis of populism, a term that’s been bandied about a great deal post-Trump, post-Brexit, and in the context of fears of what might happen in Europe in 2017. Even more timely and urgent is On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, a brand-new, slim volume by Holocaust historian Timothy Snyder. Continue reading “Populism, tyranny, and the lessons of the past”

Ian McKellen reads a passionate speech by Shakespeare, written in defence of immigrants (reblog)

Ian McKellen reads a passionate speech by Shakespeare, written in defence of immigrants (reblog)

I’m re-blogging this item from Open Culture because it deserves wide circulation in these times when migrants are told they’re unwelcome, when borders are manned and walls are being built, when the Dutch prime minister says, ‘Behave normally or go away‘, and when outsiders are attacked or vilified. And because today is Holocaust Memorial Day.

Little Englanders, Brexiters, Daily Mail keep them out and send them home types: these are the words of Shakespeare, our national poet and treasure. Worth a listen? Continue reading “Ian McKellen reads a passionate speech by Shakespeare, written in defence of immigrants (reblog)”

‘Change has come to America’: how I saw the Obama inauguration

‘Change has come to America’: how I saw the Obama inauguration

I wrote these posts on 20 and 21 January 2009. No further comment required, I think. Continue reading “‘Change has come to America’: how I saw the Obama inauguration”

Ava DuVernay’s 13th: from slavery to the mass incarceration of African-Americans in privatised prisons

Ava DuVernay’s <em>13th</em>: from slavery to the mass incarceration of African-Americans in privatised prisons

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
–Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution

Ava DuVernay makes documentaries, though her most celebrated film is Selma, a dramatisation of the story of the historic 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery and their place in the struggle for black voting rights. Last night I watched her most recent film, a Netflix documentary about the American prison system that goes under the title, 13th.

The film takes its title from the 13th amendment, which outlawed slavery but left a significant loophole which continues to permit involuntary servitude when used as punishment for crime. In meticulous detail, DuVernay shows how this loophole was exploited in the aftermath of the abolition of slavery at the end of the Civil War and continues to be abused to this day.

In Selma, Stephan James portrayed John Lewis, the SNCC activist whose skull was fractured by police who attacked the marchers on the Edmund Pettus bridge on ‘Bloody Sunday’, 7 March 1965.

That’s the same John Lewis whose reputation was besmirched in a tweet by Donald Trump the other day, and it’s the same Donald Trump to whom DuVernay devotes a powerful sequence in 13th. Continue reading “Ava DuVernay’s 13th: from slavery to the mass incarceration of African-Americans in privatised prisons”

Remembering Liverpool’s anti-slavery campaigner Edward Rushton: ‘Sometimes silence is not an option’

Remembering Liverpool’s anti-slavery campaigner Edward Rushton: ‘Sometimes silence is not an option’

When I first arrived in Liverpool half a century ago, the large white stone building opposite the Philharmonic pub at the top of Hardman Street served as the Merseyside Police headquarters. Then, for a decade or so its function changed dramatically when it became the Merseyside Trade Union and Unemployed Centre. Now, reflecting the social and economic changes of the past decade, the building houses a swanky hotel and several popular restaurants, one of which is called The Old Blind School.

Because that was what the building was originally, when erected in 1851. The Liverpool School for the Indigent Blind had been founded in 1791 by Edward Rushton, one of Liverpool’s great radicals. He was not only a founder of the first school for the blind in the country, but also a campaigner against slavery and poverty.  He wrote poetry, and became a tireless campaigner against slavery and against the press gangs. He was a revolutionary republican, supported the American War for Independence, the French Revolution, and the struggles of the Polish and Irish people for self-rule. Recently I was lent a copy (thanks, Pete!) of what is, I think, the only book dedicated to this remarkable man – Forgotten Hero by Bill Hunter, published in 2002. Continue reading “Remembering Liverpool’s anti-slavery campaigner Edward Rushton: ‘Sometimes silence is not an option’”

Brexit: What the Hell Happens Now? Essential reading that will scare your socks off

<em>Brexit: What the Hell Happens Now?</em> Essential reading that will scare your socks off

Now that Jeremy Corbyn’s radical new populist approach is revealed – agreeing with the Conservatives on Brexit and immigration and promising that Labour would give the £350m of EU payments that never existed to the NHS – whether one of the 48% or the 52% all of us need clear answers to the question we’ve been asking since last June: What the hell happens now?

Set aside a couple hours to read Ian Dunt’s analysis of the Brexit mess in his aptly-titled book Brexit: What the Hell Happens Now? and you’ll get some answers. Unfortunately, they’ll scare the living daylights out of you. The question of whether we (that is, the government) know what we want, and whether we have enough people with the degree of negotiating skills to get it are key questions explored in Dunt’s book which ought to be required reading for everyone. The issues he raises are ones that should have been uppermost during the referendum, but which were hardly voiced by the lacklustre Remain campaign. Continue reading Brexit: What the Hell Happens Now? Essential reading that will scare your socks off”