Posts Tagged ‘Coventry’

‘I’ Article on Britain’s First Black Actor Manager in 19th Century

August 8, 2017

The I newspaper yesterday carried an article on a Black American, who moved to Britain in the 19th century to become this nation’s first Black theatre manager. The thesp in question, Ira Aldridge, has just been awarded his blue own plaque.

The article by Chantal da Silva, on page 19 of Monday’s edition, the 7th August 2017, reads

Britain’s first black Shakespearean actor has been honoured with the unveiling of a blue plaque in Coventry.

Ira Aldridge became manager of the Coventry Theatre in 1828. The actor, who died 150 years ago, put on performances which are believed to have inspired the people of Coventry to petition Parliament to abolish slavery.

Aldridge has now been honoured by the City: the Lord Mayor, Tony Skipper, unveiled a blue plaque celebrating his legacy as the UK’s first black theatre manager.

Professor Tony Howard, of Warwick University’s Multicultural Shakespeare project, said: “He’s been admired and respected for a long time as the first black Shakespearean actor, but people are less aware that the had also been the first black theatre manager.”

The ceremony, marking the 150s anniversary of Aldridge’s death, was attended by Earl Cameron, an actor who was trained by Aldridge’s daughter, Amanda.

Aldridge was born in New York in 1807 and worked as an actor in the US until the 1820s when he migrated to England and being brutally beaten in racist attacks. He rose to fame in the UK, managing to break down racial barriers, playing principal roles, including Romeo, Hamlet, Othello and King Lear.

The theatre building that Aldridge managed was demolished long ago, but the permanent memorial marks the site where it stood.

This is an excellent move, as Black activists have complained that there are too few blue plaques for great Black historical figures. I also think Radio 4 may have put on a programme about Aldridge way back in the 1990s. All I can remember of the programme was that it was about a Black American actor who came to Britain, and that he played Othello in whiteface. This sounds very much like Aldridge. As for playing Othello in Whiteface, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t, as at the time and for a very long time afterwards the part was usually played by a White actor in makeup. I think that tradition might have been ditched a few years ago, after people understandably complained.

Tim Peake and British Space Rockets

December 17, 2015

The big news in science this week as far as this country goes, was Tim Peake’s blast-off yesterday to join the crew of the International Space Station. He’s the first Brit to travel into space for nearly twenty years. Helen Sharman in the 1990s was the first Briton to go into space in a privately-funded mission in Russia. Unfortunately, the private funding didn’t appear, and she only flew thanks to the generosity of the Russian government. Towards the end of the decade, Tim Foale also flew aboard the Space Shuttle. He was not, however, technically British, as in order to participate in American shuttle programme, he’d had to take American nationality.

The launch was covered by the Beeb in their Stargazing Live programme, and there was a countdown to the launch, featuring various Beeb celebs and personalities. Down here in Bristol, even the local news programme, Points West, got in on the act. Their anchor David Garmston interviewed an Asian lady, an astrophysicist working as the education director for the @Bristol Science Centre. She had joined the competition to become the first British astronaut for over a decade, and had reached the final six before sadly being rejected. She graciously said that the better person had won, and wished Peake all the best.

In fact, long before Helen Sharman, Foale and Peake voyaged into the Final Frontier, from the 1950s to the 1970s Britain was manufacturing and experimenting with space vehicles as easily the third space power apart from America and the USSR. The rockets launched by Britain, many of them from the Woomera launch city in Australia, were the Skylark, Skua and Jaguar sounding rockets, the Blue Streak missile, Black Arrow and Black Knight. There was also a projected larger launcher, Black Prince.

Skylark

Skylark Rocket

These rockets were developed at the suggestion of the Gassiot Committee of the Royal Society, which in the 1950s became interested in using rockets to study Earth’s upper atmosphere. The committee invited members of the Ministry of Supply to their 1953 conference on the subject, and the result was that they were contacted by the British government to see if there would be any interest in developing such a vehicle. And from this came the Skylark programme.

These rockets were 25 feet long and 17.4 inches in diameter. They were built by the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough and the Rocket Propulsion Establishment, Westcott, which made the Raven solid rocket motor which powered it. The first Skylark rocket was launched from Woomera in 1957. By 1965 over 100 such rockets had been launched. The rocket was modified, and the Raven motor replaced by the more efficient Cuckoo, so that it could lift a payload of 330 pounds 136 miles into space.

The rocket has been used to study wind, the temperature of the upper atmosphere, the ionosphere, radiation and micro-meteorites.

Skua

Skua Rocket

This is another sounding rocket used to study the atmosphere. It was 8 feet long, 80 pounds in weight, but could carry a payload of 11 pound 46 miles into the atmosphere. Like today’s hobby rockets, it was re-usable, coming back to Earth via parachute, so that it could be given another load of charge and used again. A second variant of the rocket, Skua 2, could take the same payload up to 62 miles. The rocket was built by Bristol Aerojet, and was launched from a 32 foot long tube mounted on a Bedford truck.

Jaguar

This was developed to research the problems of aerodynamics and heating in hypersonic flight. It was a three stage rocket developed by the Aerodynamics Department of the Royal Aircraft Establishment in Farnborough, and the Aerodynamics Division of the Weapons Research Establishment in Australia. The rocket motors for the vehicle were produced by the Rocket Propulsion Establishment at Westcott.

The first stage was powered by a Rook motor, which takes the rocket to 80,000 ft. The second stage Gosling motor is fired, which increases the rocket’s speed from 3,000 ft/s to 5,500 ft/s. After this is used up, the final stage Lobster motor accelerates the rocket to 10,000 ft/s. It was capable of taking 20 pounds to an altitude of 500-600 miles.

Black Knight

Black Knight Rockets

This was developed as the test vehicle for Blue Streak, an independent nuclear missile launcher. Blue Streak was abandoned in 1960, partly because they wouldn’t be anywhere in Britain suitable to launch it from in the event of a nuclear attack. Black Knight, however, continued to be developed as rocket for scientific research. It was used for a further five years to study problems in re-entry, the upper atmosphere and carry experiments later incorporated into UK and US joint scientific satellites.

The rocket came in single and two-stage versions. The single stage version was powered by a Gamma 201 liquid rocket motor burning a mixture of High Test Peroxide and Kerosene. It was 32 ft 10 in. in length, and three feet in diameter. The rocket could reach a maximum height of 147 missiles. The rocket motor was produced by Armstrong Siddeley, and based on an existing Gamma motor developed by the RPD at Westcott.

The two-stage version of the rocket were flown from August 1964 to 25th November 1965. It was 38 ft 8 in. in length. The first stage rocket motor was powered by a Gamma 301 engine, and then by a Gamma 304, developed by Bristol Siddeley. The second stage was powered by a version of the Skylark’s Cuckoo motor, and was three feet long and 1.4 feet in diameter. It was fire back into the atmosphere so that the effect of the re-entry speeds could be studied.

A larger version of Black Knight using Gamma 303/4 motors in a vehicle 54 in. in diameter was under development in Bristol in 1963. There was also a plan to build a three stage rocket, Black Prince. This was to use Blue Streak as its first stage, a 54 inch Black Knight as the second stage and then a small, solid rocket third stage. The rocket would be 97 ft 10 in. tall, and be able to send 1,750 pound satellite into polar orbit 300 miles above the Earth.

Between September 1958 and November 1965 22 Black Knight rockets were launched from Woomera. Saunders Roe on the Isle of Wight were responsible for the rocket’s overall design, construction and testing. Armstrong Siddeley of Ansty, near Coventry, were responsible for the rocket engine, and De Havilland of Hatfield were to supply the test team at Woomera. The rockets were subjected to systems checks at Highdown on the Isle of Wight, before being flown or shipped out to Woomera.

BK 10, the spare for the rocket BK 11, was returned to Britain, and donated to the Science Museum, while High Down is now the property the National Trust.

Blue Streak

Blue Streak Rocket

Although it was cancelled as an independent nuclear weapon, there was an attempt to salvage it by using it as the proposed first stage for the proposed European rocket launcher, Europa 1. It was built by Hawker-Siddeley Dynamics and Rolls Royce. It had a Rolls Royce RZ-2 engine, burning a mixture of kerosene and liquid oxygen to produce 300,000 pounds of thrust. Unfortunately, this also came to nothing as the European rocket launcher project was cancelled due to the failures of our European partners to produce effective, functioning second and third stages.

Black Arrow

Black Arrow Rocket

After the cancellation of the Black Knight programme, Britain continued developing its own independent satellite launcher. This was Black Arrow, a three stage rocket standing 42 feet 9 inches tall. The main contractor for the spacecraft was Westland Aircraft, which was famous in the West Country for manufacturing helicopters. The first stage was powered by a Rolls-Royce Gamma Type 8 engine, burning hydrogen peroxide and kerosene. The second used a Rolls-Royce Gamma Type 2 engine, while the third was powered by a solid propellant rocket, Waxwing, made by Bristol Aerojet. Sadly, the project was cancelled after it successfully launched the 220 pound Prospero satellite into a 300 mile polar orbit in November 1971.

And Now the Politics Bit

These projects were cancelled and the accumulated knowledge effectively thrown away, because the mandarins at the British Civil Service saw no value in them. They were considered too expensive, and it was believed that using American rocket launchers would be a cheaper and more cost-effective option. In fact Britain has lost out because, at least in the 1990s, it looked as if there was going to be an international market in space vehicles. Even the Indians were developing them. The launch of British satellites by the Americans meant that Britain depended on their goodwill and available space aboard their rockets.

The French, who I believe were responsible for the second stage of Europa I, the European rocket launcher, forged ahead to produce the cheap and successful Ariane, launched from their site in Kourou, French Guiana. The French rocket is actually cheaper, and more economical, than the Space Shuttle. The Shuttle, however, had the advantage in that it was heavily subsidised by the American government.

It’s therefore ironic that David Cameron should try to show the world how keenly he is supporting a British astronaut, when this is precisely what British governments have failed to do since the 1970s. Maggie Thatcher was all for Helen Sharman’s voyage into space, as that was supposed to be managed by private enterprise. Until private enterprise wasn’t able to do the job. Cameron’s government has carried on this daft and destructive policy of closing down Britain’s manufacturing base, and preferring to buy in from outside rather than develop our own industries. Way back in the 1960s Harold Wilson made a speech about Britain benefiting from the ‘white heat of technology’. Those in power never listened to him, and despite Cameron mugging on Twitter, they still aren’t. You can see that from the way they’ve sold off our industries, including the defence contractors that were able to create such magnificent machines as Black Arrow. And our country is much the poorer.

Further Reading

The Encyclopaedia of Space (Hamlyn: 1968)

John Becklake, ‘British Rocket Experiments in the Late 1950s/Early 1960s in John Becklake, ed., History of Rocketry and Astronautics (San Diego: American Astronautical Society 1995) 153-64.

John Becklake, ‘The British Black Knight Rocket’, op. cit. 165-81.

T.M. Wilding-White, Janes Pocket Book : Space Exploration.

In this clip below, Alice Roberts from the Beeb’s Coast TV series, interviews members of the Black Arrow team on the Isle of Wight. One of them tells her how he was told to tell the rest of the team the project was cancelled and they were sacked immediately after the launch. Hansard, the parliamentary newspaper, records that the mandarin, who made the decision did so because he could see absolutely no future in the development of satellite launchers.

Here’s a British newsreel report on the Blue Streak programme from 1964. It shows the rocket being tested at Spadeadam in Scotland, and its launch in Woomera. It talks about the European Rocket Launcher programme, and some of the dignitaries attending the launch, such as the French general in charge of the European project. It also shows what a thriving community Woomera was back then, and follows Mrs Lawrence, a housewife with a part-time job as a camera operator tracking the rocket on its launch, as she goes on her 300 mile commute each day from home to the launch site.

It recalls the era as one of optimism, of a time when Australia itself, its rugged landscape and sheer vastness, were a source of fascination and wonder to Brits, long before the arrival of soap and pop stars like Kylie Minogue.

Coventry Tories Attack Food Banks and the People Who Need Them

June 29, 2014

Lady Godiva posted this video as a comment to the post I reblogged from Unemployed in Tyne and Weare about one of the Tory councillors for Coventry, Lepoidevin, blaming the people using food banks for their own predicament. She claimed that some of the people forced to turn to them did so because they chose to indulge their own selfish desires for drugs and alcohol over paying the rent and feeding their children. This video shows her actually saying that. It begins, however, with her colleague, Councillor Blundell, claiming that the rise in food banks is due to the ambition of the Trussell Trust to have a food bank in every town. Blundell then says they’re going to ‘thwart’ the Trust’s ambition, partly by ‘growing the economy’. Here’s the video:

Now, as Untyneweare’s article made clear, some of the people referred to the food banks do come from an agency dealing with those issues. However, the person, who has to spend his or her rent or money for food on alcohol and/or drugs, has gone way beyond using them for pleasure. They’re addicted. There’s a lot you can say about alcoholism and drug addiction. One of the most important is that it’s not a pleasure, it’s a clinical illness. The countries that have the best recovery rates for these diseases, like Switzerland, treat it as such. And part of the reason they succeed, is that while some people might find defying the law for forbidden and dangerous pleasures attractive, no-one really wants to be sick.

And we are dealing with severe sickness here. A friend of mine once told me he knew people, who were hooked on heroin. They once literally sold the clothes off their backs for a fix. No-one ever goes through that stage of addiction voluntarily. Somebody that does clearly needs help.

As for doing it for pleasure, the impression I had from the people, who spoke at the Uni about a project the archaeology department did in Bristol with the homeless, is that many of those on the streets, who have alcohol and drug problems, have severe psychological problems. In the case of the children and young people, they’re quite often fleeing violent and abusive home. In psychological parlance, they’re ‘self-medicating’. They’ve started using drugs and alcohol as a way of escaping from some of the inner, mental torment. They’re sick on all number of levels. Councillor Lepoidevin is basically kicking people who are severely ill, based on nothing more than the folk wisdom and morality peddled by the Daily Mail and the Express.

Just before Blair won the 1997 election, Channel 4 showed a programme ‘The Dinner Party’. This consisted of very middle class types simply talking round the dinner table about, well, Life, the Universe, and Everything. But with precious little of the late Douglas Adams’ wit, humour or intelligence. Instead, it showed them as a bunch of profoundly ignorant, sneering misanthropic snobs with a complete contempt for their social inferiors and an absolute complacency about their own status in society. The picture was so revolting, that several TV reviewers joked that Channel 4 had deliberately screened it to boost Blair’s campaign by showing how utterly disgusting the Tories were.

It’s precisely the reaction I have to the crew in this video. One of the contributors to Lobster once asked one of his friends, what the global financial elite were after the friend attended a high level banking conference. The friend said simply, ‘Worse than you can ever possibly imagine’. This shows them without the mask. And it’s ugly. Very ugly.

Union Action for the Unemployed: The Invasion of the Ritz and in the 1980s

March 16, 2014

Unemployed Union pic

One of the pieces contained in Colin Firth and Anthony Arnove’s selection of radical and democratic texts from British history, The People Speak: Democracy Is Not A Spectator Sport, is Jack Dash’s account of the invasion of the Ritz Hotel in 1938 by himself and other members of the National Unemployed Workers Movement. Dash (1907-89) later became a docker and trade union leader. He said at one point that his epitaph should be ‘Here lies Jack Dash/ All he wanted was/ To separate them from their cash. His account runs as follows:

We decided to invade the Ritz Hotel in Piccadilly. Everything was well planned. The press – that is, the London and national newspapers (and in those days before the swallowing up of the little fish by the big ‘uns under free enterprise there was quite a number of them) were all informed in advance. At the appointed time about 150 of our unemployed members, all dressed up in such remnants of our best suits as had escaped the pawnbroker, walked quietly into the Grill and sat down. This did not have the quite hoped-for effect, for due to a mistake – the only organizational mistake I can remember on the part of the campaign committee – we had overlooked the fact that the Grill was never open in the afternoons, only in the evenings. However, we continued as planned, took our places at the tables which were being set by waiters in readiness for the evening, and then pulled our posters from beneath our coats, with slogans calling for an end to the Means Test and more winter relief for the aged pensioners.

Can you imagine the looks on the faces of the waiters! They stood still in their tracks. Up rushed the management supervisor demanding to know what it was all about. He was politely told by our elected speaker, Wal Hannington, that we would like to be served with some tea and sandwiches because we were very tired and hungry, but he was not to be anxious and could present the bill which would be paid on the spot.

When the supervisor regained his breath he said, in a very cultured, precise Oxford-English voice: “I cannot permit you to be served. You are not our usual type of customer. You know full well that you are not accustomed to dine in an establishment of this quality. If you do not leave I shall have to send for the police.” (This had already been done.) In reply our spokesman informed him that many was the Saturday when wealthy clients of the Ritz would drive down to the East End workmen’s caffs in their Rollses and Daimlers and have a jolly hot saveloy, old Boy7, what! Slumming, they called it, and they too were in unusual attire and frequenting establishments that were not accustomed to such a clientele; nevertheless, said our spokesman, these gentlemen were treated with courtesy and civility and nobody sent for the police. The Ritz, he added, was not a private members’ club but a public restaurant ; he requested the supervisor to give orders to the staff to serve us with the refreshments we had asked for.

The appeal might just as well have ben addressed to the chandelier which hung from the ceiling. The supervisor stood there with a look of scorn, waiting for the police to come and throw us out. We refused to budge, insisting on our right as members of the general public, with legal tender in our pockets, to be served with what we had ordered. Meanwhile Wally had mounted the orchestra platform to address us; waiters and kitchen staff stood around dumbfounded at our temerity. But our speaker was incensed and in good form, and the issue of class privilege was clearly put. I noticed several of the staff members nodding their heads as the speaker touched on salient points. His speech was never finished, however, for the Grill was soon surrounded by the police. A couple of inspectors came over and consulted our organizers; we were ordered to leave, and did so in an orderly manner. As we filed out several of the waiters came up to wish us luck in our campaign, and pressed money into our hands.

‘Jack Dash, The Invasion of the Ritz Hotel (c.1938)’ in Colin Firth and Anthony Arnove, The People Speak: Democracy Is Not A Spectator Sport (Edinburgh: Canongate 2012) 296-7.

The invasion of the Ritz Hotel was also featured a little while ago in a previous episode of the One Show on BBC 1.

The authors of Socialist Enterprise: Reclaiming the Economy, Diana Gilhespy, Ken Jones, Tony Manwaring, Henry Neuburger, and Adam Sharples also note the establishment of centres for unemployed workers in Brmingham, Coventry and Sandwell, as well as the establishment of a Birmingham Trade Union Resource Centre and support given to a Workshop in Coventry to support unions campaigning against the closure of their firms. West Midlands County Council also had an Economic Development Unit had a trade union liaison officer. It also produced a ‘Jobs at Risk’ information pack for workers whose companies were either in difficulties or about to close down. (p. 59).

I’m sure there are organisations like the National Unemployed Workers Union campaigning for the unemployed. Unfortunately, the trade unions have been decimated by Thatcher and successive administrations, while local authorities have found their spending savagely attacked. No doubt part of this was to prevent Left-wing councils spreading such subversion by empowering the hoi polloi. We could, however, do with a few more very visible protests and campaigns to raise the profile of unemployment, and just how savage, degrading and inadequate current welfare provision is. Pointing out that IDS’ reforms are leading to deaths of 38,000 per year, so that no-one can claim ignorance, would also be an immense help. I do wonder if a mass march on Chipping Norton, or invasion of the Carlton Club following the example of Jack Dash and the Ritz wouldn’t do any harm, either.