‘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”

John Berger: ‘I can imagine a place where to be phosphate of calcium is enough’

John Berger: ‘I can imagine a place where to be phosphate of calcium is enough’

Reading a lot of the stuff written in the British press about John Berger following his death two days ago, I have barely been able to recognise the writer that I have known and loved from reading –  a writer whose bibliography, according to Wikipedia, comprises ten novels, four plays, three collections of poetry and 33 other books, an unclassifiable blend of ruminations on art, politics and the simple joys and beauty of everyday life. The writer I am familiar with was certainly not the ‘bludgeoningly opinionated man’ of the Independent’s write up, nor the person depicted in the Guardian’s shoddy and mean-spirited obituary.

Berger was certainly one who had very definite views, but who always, it seems to me, advanced them as propositions to be debated, rather than assertions to be simply accepted (for example, the last words of his celebrated TV series Ways of Seeing are ‘to be continued – by the viewer’). He never seemed to demand our agreement as his reader or listener, merely our engagement. Continue reading “John Berger: ‘I can imagine a place where to be phosphate of calcium is enough’”

In the dark times will there also be singing?

In the dark times will there also be singing?

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About the dark times.
– Bertolt Brecht, motto to Svendborg Poems, 1939

In an essay called ‘Undefeated Despair’, John Berger wrote of ‘Despair without fear, without resignation, without a sense of defeat.’ ‘However you look at it’, the Guardian editorialised a few days ago, ‘2017 offers a fearful prospect for America and the world.’ In the words of Paul Simon’s ‘American Tune’, I don’t have a friend who feels at ease when weighing the prospects for the year ahead. In the spirit that some solace may be found in poetry in these dark times, I offer a selection of poems or brief extracts – some have which have appeared in posts here before – which seem to offer meaning and hope; they may reflect Berger’s stance of undefeated despair, offering not ‘a promise, or a consolation, or an oath of vengeance (forms of rhetoric he states are are for ‘the small or large leaders who make History’), but rather insists that ‘One was born into this life to share the time that repeatedly exists between moments, the time of Becoming.’ . Continue reading “In the dark times will there also be singing?”

After 46 years, recognition for a moment in which we can take genuine pride

After 46 years, recognition for a moment in which we can take genuine pride

A long, long time ago – 46 years to be precise – along with some 300 other students I took part in an anti-apartheid protest at Liverpool University, occupying the university’s administration building for 10 days in the spring term of 1970. The key demands we were making on the university was for the resignation of the Vice-Chancellor, Lord Salisbury, a supporter of the apartheid regimes in Rhodesia and South Africa, and for the university to divest itself of its investments in the the apartheid regime in South Africa.  There were many sit-ins at British universities in this period, but in Liverpool it led to the severest disciplinary action of the time. Nine students, including Jon Snow, Channel 4 News presenter, were suspended for two years. But one, Peter Cresswell, was permanently expelled.

Yesterday, in an emotional ceremony following two decades of lobbying for restitution, Pete Cresswell, now aged 68 and retired from a career in social work, was at last awarded an honorary degree. His expulsion was finally recognised by those who spoke for the University as an injustice. As Pete observed in his acceptance speech, time had shown the protestors to be ‘on the right side of history’. Continue reading “After 46 years, recognition for a moment in which we can take genuine pride”