Posts Tagged ‘M Shed’

Two Books Showing Bristol Has Not Kept Secret Its Involvement in the Slave Trade

June 6, 2019

The week before last, Channel 4’s Britain’s Most Historic Towns was in Bristol, examining its history in the Georgian period. The show’s presented by Dr. Alice Roberts, who I believe is the Professor for the Public Engagement with Science at Birmingham University. She’s had a long career in television presenting programmes on archaeology, history and human evolution, beginning in the 1980s with Time Team. She’s a medical doctor, who I believe also taught anatomy at Bristol University. She regularly appeared on Time Team to give her opinion on any human remains that were recovered during their escavations.

Channel 4’s ‘Britain’s Most Historic Towns’

Time Team was finally cancelled after a very successful run several years ago, but like its presenter Tony Robinson, Roberts has continued fronting history and archaeology programmes. Each week the show visits a different British town and explores a specific period of its history. Roberts tours the town, talking to experts on its history and architecture during the period, and very often tries on the ladies’ costume at the time. Last year among the various towns the series covered was Cheltenham during its heyday as a regency spa. This year’s series started off with Dover, concentrating on it history during World War II. Last week it was looking at Cardiff in the early part of the 20th century, when the city became the major centre of the global coal industry. And the week before that they were in Bristol, telling its history during the Georgian period. Roberts has a personal connection to the city, as it’s her home town and she went to school here. She also had a personal connection to Cardiff, as it was at its university that she studied medicine.

Georgian Bristol

During the Georgian period – the age of the four Georges, from the early 18th century to the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1837 – Bristol was one of the leading cities in Britain. It’s a port, whose location on the Bristol Channel gave it an excellent position for trading with Africa and America. The programme covered other aspects of Bristol’s history during the period, like the emergence of gin, the 1827 massacre by the army in Queen’s Square in Redcliffe of a mob demanding electoral reform, and the development of the Clifton and Hotwells suburbs as genteel residential areas for the city’s new mercantile elite. But Bristol’s wealth at the time was largely produced from the immense profits from the slave trade. Ships from Bristol took trade goods down to west Africa, where they were bartered for slaves. These were then taken to the West Indies to be sold, and the ships returned to Bristol with West Indian goods like sugar and rum in what has become known as the triangular trade. And it was on this aspect of Bristol’s Georgian history that the programme concentrated.

The show is well done and the research is very thorough. Among those Roberts talked to was Dr. Steve Poole, a lecturer at the University of the West of England; a member of Bristol’s Radical History Group, who talked about the Queen’s Square Massacre; and a couple of distillers, who showed her how 18th century gin was made. She also talked to Dr. Edson Burnett about the slave trade, going through some of the ledgers left by the slavers itemising their ships’ human cargo in the city archives. Some of these are really shocking. They simply give the number of slaves shipped aboard, and the deaths during the voyage. Those taken were simply items of merchandise, with no names. The ledgers give brief descriptions of those who died and how the body was disposed of. They were simply thrown over the side. One of the most horrendous incidents was the scandal surrounding the Zong, a slave ship, which threw its entire cargo of slaves overboard during a storm, and then tried to sue the insurance company for compensation for them as lost cargo. It’s a horrific atrocity and injustice. She also mentioned how a number of plays were written during the 18th century attacking the slave trade, many of which were set in Bristol. She then spoke to the writer and artistic director of a modern play about the trade being staged by Bristol’s historic Old Vic theatre.

Bristol and the Slave Trade

The programme’s coverage of Bristol’s history during the period was fair, although there was much obviously left out because of the constraints of the programme’s length. It’s an hour long, and it could easily take that long to discuss the city’s involvement with the slave trade and some of the architecture that was built for the merchants involved in the trade. As it was, the programme showed only one of them, the house of George Pinney, a 19th century West India planter and merchant. This is now a museum, the Georgian House, open to the public in one of the streets just off Park Street. However, Roberts opened the discussion of the city’s complicity in the slave trade with a statement that was simply wrong. She said that it was a terrible secret.

Exhibitions

Well, if Bristol’s involvement in the slave trade is a secret, then it’s a very badly kept one! Bristol’s M Shed museum, which takes visitors through the city’s history and some of its industries, including aircraft and motor vehicles built here, has a display on the slave trade. This shows not only slave manacles and the manillas, bracelet-like items used for barter, but also maps of homes and other properties owned and occupied by the slave merchants and plantation owners. This follows an earlier exhibit at the City Museum in Queen Street, ‘A Respectable Trade’, which was timed to coincide with the TV series of that name on BBC 1, based on the book by historical novelist Philippa Gregory. The book and TV series were about the slave trade, and much of it was set in the Bristol of the time. The exhibition was staged by local council and showed the historical reality on which the fiction was based. Gregory also appeared in a TV programme at the time, exploring the city’s connection to the slave trade, in which she spoke to several Black anti-racist activists.

Books and Pamphlets

Since then there have been a number of books published on Bristol and the slave trade. The city library has published a catalogue of books and other materials it holds on the subject.  There has also been a book published on the City in 1807, the year in which the slave trade was officially prohibited throughout the British Empire. Dr. Madge Dresser, a historian at the University of the West of England, has also published a book, Slavery Obscured, on the persistence of the slave trade after its formal abolition, in which merchants from Bristol were involved. And back in the 1990s the local branch of the Historical Association published a booklet on Bristol’s Black population in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Society of Merchant Venturers, the mercantile organisation that dominated Bristol’s trade in that period, has also published a catalogue of its holdings, which included it’s members’ plantations in the West Indies.

Origin of Belief Bristol Keeping Slave Trade Connection Secret

I’ve been told by members of the city’s Black cultural and anti-racist organisations that the idea that the city council is somehow covering up the city’s involvement in the slave trade dates from the 1970s. A member of the community rang the council up to inquire about what they knew about Bristol and the slave trade, only to be told that the city wasn’t involved in it. Which is wrong. I wonder if the person, who answered the call genuinely didn’t know about Bristol’s history of slaving. But whatever the reality, this planted the idea that the city council was deliberating hiding the truth. I think it was partly to dispel this idea that the City Museum staged the 1995 exhibition.

Two Books on Bristol from the 1950s and 1970s

But even before then, the city’s involvement in the slave trade was known and discussed. For example, the book Bristol and Its Adjoining Counties, edited by C.M. MacInnes and W.F. Whittard, and published by the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1955, has several pages on the slave trade in the chapter by MacInnes, ‘Bristol and Overseas Expansion’, pp. 219-230.

The 1975 textbook, Bristol: An Outline History for Schools, by H. Chasey, published by Georges, also covers the slave trade in its chapter on city’s 18th century trade, pp. 31-2. All the chapters are a page or so in length, with another page suggesting projects or containing questions for students on that period of the city’s history. The paragraph on the slave trade runs

Unfortunately, Bristol was better known at this time for its links with the slave trade. The “Blackbirds” sailed to Africa with various goods, exchanged them for slaves which were then shipped to the West Indies or North America. The ships then returned home iwth sugar and tobacco, the whole “Triangular Trade” bringing enormous profits to many Bristol merchants. Before 1760, Bristol carried about one-third of all the slaves, but this number died away by the end of the century as the anti-slavery movement made progress. (p. 31).

Few Obvious Monuments to Slave Trade in City

I also think that part of this misconception may come from the fact that there are few monuments from the time that obviously have direct connections to the slave trade. When I was studying archaeology at Bristol, one of the foreign students on the archaeology course complained to one of the lecturers that her housemate believed Bristol was racist, because there were no monuments for the slaves. The housemate was another foreign student, from Guiana, where I believe the buildings for landing and sale of slaves still exist. I think the student expected similar buildings to exist in Bristol. But they don’t, as the bulk of the city’s slave trade was with the West Indies. There were slaves in Bristol, but these were brought to the city as personal servants, rather than imported en masse as they were in the Caribbean.

Historic Buildings and Later Monuments Connected to Slaves and Slave Trade

However, there are architectural hints at the city’s connection to the slave trade all around. The city’s merchants decorated the exterior of their homes with carvings symbolising their connection to Africa or the Caribbean, such as pineapples. There are also coloured statues, representing the indigenous peoples of Africa, Asia and the Americas in St. Nicholas Market, one of which is a Black African. And several of the city’s pubs also claim a direct connection to the trade. The Ostrich, one of the pubs on the harbourside, had a cellar, in which, it was claimed, slaves were held ready for sale. When I used to drink there in the 1990s there was a poster up about it, along with reproductions of the advertisements of the time for runaway slaves. However, it may be the reality here was more prosaic. The 1995 exhibition said that many the connection of many of parts of Bristol to the slave trade may just be urban folklore. Blackboy Hill, for example, is probably not named after a slave boy, but possibly a racehorse owned by Charles II. The city has also made other gestures to commemorating the victims of the slave trade. There’s a slave walk along Bristol’s docks, and a plaque put up to those enslaved by city on one of the former warehouses by M Shed. A remarkable bridge built across the docks in the 1990s, which features two horn-like constructions, has been called ‘Pero’s Bridge’, after one of the slaves imported into Bristol. And there is a gravestone for Scipio, an African slave brought to the city by his master in one of the city’s churchyards.

Bristol has a very rich and fascinating history, of which the slave trade is one part. It’s a history that definitely needs to be told. And it has only been within the last quarter century or so that the slave trade has been memorialised in local museums, not just in Bristol, but also elsewhere. Bristol has joined Liverpool and Nantes in France in creating exhibitions and galleries on its involvement in the trade. Before then it’s fair to say that City Museum did not display anything on the slave trade. It was a period of the city’s history that most Bristolians probably would have preferred not to commemorate, but it was never forgotten nor kept hidden.

 

Rapper Fab 5 Freddy to Host Beeb Film on Renaissance Art

January 25, 2019

More arts news. Also according to yesterday’s I for Thursday, 24th January 2019, the New York rapper Fab 5 Freddy is due to hos a Beeb documentary about the Renaissance. The article, written by Adam Sherwin, ran

Move over Simon Schama, Fab 5 Freddy wants your spot. The New York hip-hop pioneer and former graffiti artist is the unlikely choice to present a BBC 2 documentary on Italian Renaissance Art.

Fab – real name Fred Brathwaite – was approached to do the film, ‘A Fresh Guide to Florence with Fab 5 Freddy’, after the BBC learnt that he was an art lover who worked closely with Jean-Michel Basquiat in the early 80s, curating the cult artist’s Manhattan shows.

“Amidst superstar artists such as Michelangelo and powerful patrons such as the Medicis, Fab discovers groundbreaking images of a multi-racial and multi-ethnic society that have slipped through the cracks of art history,” the BBC said. (‘A ‘Fresh’ take on the Renaissance’, p. 21).

It might be a surprising choice, but it seems to be a good one in line with current arts policy of getting different voices to open up the arts. A number of BAME artists have appeared in the news complaining that there aren’t enough Black artists shown in museums and art galleries, and that when they were small they weren’t interested in visiting them because there was nothing for them there. It therefore looks like the Beeb is trying to appeal to a younger, Black audience with Fab 5 Freddie in order to stop it being viewed as just something made by old White guys for White guys.

I am also not surprised that they chose a former graffiti artist for other reasons. Archaeologists have been working with graffiti artists for several years now in order to explore rock art and its links with modern graffiti art. I can remember attending an archaeological seminar at Bristol university at least six years ago in which one of the speakers presented a piece about their research about the graffiti in a particular area of one of the Spanish towns. And Radio 4 a few years ago also presented a programme about rock art which included comments from some of Britain’s leading street artists.

As for the Renaissance, Florence was a major centre of trade and industry, but historians have pointed out in books like The Renaissance Bazaar that many of the commercial innovations that made the Renaissance possible had their origins further east in the Islamic world. This was also a period when Europeans were turning from the Slavic east to Africa for a supply of slaves, so that you do find Blacks portrayed in art in this period. Not that they weren’t here before, of course. A 12th century manuscript from London in the National Archives shows a Black person, while one of the books that used to be stocked in shop in Bristol’s M Shed was on Blacks in fifteenth century England.

I’ve no doubt critics of the programme will decry it as ‘dumbing down’ and complain about ‘diversity’, but this could be a programme worth watching because of the original insights Fab 5 Freddie could bring.

Richard Coughlan Debunks Holocaust Denial

September 21, 2017

More on the Nazis, I’m afraid, and one of their favourite tactics: trying to get everyone to believe that the Holocaust was faked and didn’t occur.

Richard ‘the Dick’ Coughlin is a professional stand-up comedian, who regularly posts on YouTube attacking the weird and twisted denizens of the far right and men’s rights activists. In this video he takes on the necessary task of refuting Holocaust denial, and does a very good job of it. The video begins with a warning that it contains material some people may find disturbing. These are black and white footage from the concentration and death camps themselves, showing the emaciated inmates, and the heaps of bodies thrown into mass graves. These are shown with appropriate Jewish music and hymns commemorating and lamenting those murdered by the Nazis.

Coughlan explains that modern anti-Semites and Nazis have moved on from denying the Holocaust outright, as there is simply too much proof that it did occur, although there are a few that will still try to do this. Instead, they try to minimize the numbers of people murdered. Instead of millions, they will claim that it was only a few tens of thousands. In some cases, they will try to claim that only 10,000 were murdered, rather than the real figure of 5,700,000+, which is rounded up to six million.

Nazis will then claim that there was no programme to exterminate the Jews, that they were not gassed with Zyklon B in death camps such as Auschwitz, and that the large halls in which the victims were butchered were instead morgues, or chambers where the bodies were deloused before burial. Coughlan cites the textual evidence from the Nazis themselves that the areas claimed to be morgues were where they poor souls were forced to strip before they were gassed, and the contradictions in the neo-Nazis’ attempts to explain away the other chambers. For example, the story that the gas chambers were only used for delousing the bodies is clearly contradicted by the fact that the bodies of the dead were burned. Why would you bother killing parasites on a body that was going to be burned anyway? Surely you’d just burn the body, lice and all.

He also points out that the Nazis deny that the Jews were deliberately exterminated, but merely died from overwork and malnutrition. This is completely false. He makes the point that Holocaust deniers are trying to stop people believing in the Holocaust, not by refuting it completely, but by placing tiny seeds of doubt in people’s minds, which they hope they can develop and encourage further. He also analyses the psychology behind the tactic of minimizing the scale of the Holocaust, comparing it to a naughty child, who has stolen from his parents, who then tries to excuse himself and cast the blame elsewhere by admitting that he stole a lesser amount of money some time ago, but has not stolen the full amount, thus casting doubt on his sibling’s protestations of innocence.

Coughlan also debunks the claim made by Holocaust deniers like David Irving that there is no textual evidence linking Hitler to the Holocaust. There is. There are reports from the Nazi einsatzgruppen tasked with carrying out the murder of the Jews stating that they have informed Hitler of their progress, along with other documents from the Nazi leadership. These can be read in a book of collected reports and documents from these death squads, which Coughlan shows to the camera.

As for the arguments that the infrastructure for the gas chambers don’t exist, Coughlan says that this is based largely on the example of Auschwitz. But Auschwitz is only one of the immense number of these murder factories. He emphasizes their colossal number by stating that most people would probably think there were only about seven or so death camps. Not so. There were 43,000.

He could have added here that the chimneys and other structures used for delivering and venting the Zyklon B at Auschwitz don’t exist, because they were demolished shortly after the war by the Polish government. The bricks were used to build the houses on a nearby estate. Channel 4 made this point a few years ago in a documentary in which they followed an engineer, who designed gas chambers to Auschwitz to examine the remaining structures at the invitation of the American/Canadian Nazi, Ernst Zundel. Unfortunately, he was taken in by the Nazis’ lies and the apparent lack of evidence. The programme also featured a Jewish expert on the Holocaust, who provided the proper evidence that showed where the engineer was severely mistaken in his conclusions. He cited not only the history of the site itself, but also Nazi documents and the deliberately evasive language they used to hide what they were doing. They almost never talked openly about the murder of the Jews. Instead, their mass atrocity was referred to as ‘deportations’ or ‘special operations in the east’.

The video also includes clips from the film dramatization of the court case between Deborah Lipstadt and David Irving. Lipstadt is an American academic who called Irving what he was – a Holocaust denier. Irving sued for libel and lost. There’s also a clip of the real David Irving speaking, stating that he doesn’t believe in the scale of the Holocaust as normally claimed.

As Coughlan is a stand-up comedian, he occasionally uses humour to make his points. He begins the video by joking that it is financed by ‘Jew gold’. This is a dig at the claim by Nazis that anyone arguing against them must be in the pay of the international Jewish conspiracy. The number that then follows is Coughlan’s patreon account, showing that he most certainly isn’t. At one point in the video, he also tries to get his viewers to understand what the Nazis are doing when they minimize the Holocaust by asking them to imagine for a moment that they in the Nazis place. What would they do?

This is clearly a rhetorical technique, and if you watch the video, obviously so. I am mentioning it here because of the danger that someone may try to twist this into an entirely spurious proof that this is article is promoting Holocaust denial. Mike over at Vox Political is a firm anti-racist and certainly not an anti-Semite. Yet because he defended those in the Labour party that were smeared as anti-Semites simply because they criticized the equation between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, or even Israel itself for its occupation of Palestinian territory and ethnic cleansing of the indigenous Arab population, he was accused by the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism as an anti-Semite. I am afraid that the loathsome people, who smeared him, may also try to smear me by taking some of the ironic rhetoric in this strongly and most definitely anti-Nazi video out of context in order to smear me.

Lastly, Coughlan is an atheist and was a part of the atheist movement on the Net. Hence his anti-theist farewell against God at the end. I don’t share or approve of his atheism. However, his videos against the assorted Fascists and maniacs on the far right are well informed, and do a very necessary job of debunking them and sending them up. He’s done an excellent job. He states at the end of the video just how many books he’s read about the Holocaust, including one 4,000 pages long, and encourages others to do the same.

This is a great video, and it’s of an appropriate length – 25 or so minutes. That’s long enough to cover the main points without becoming too drawn out. However, it does mean that it obviously can’t cover everything that the Nazis and Holocaust deniers try to do. But it’s an excellent start, entertainingly done.

Of course this video shouldn’t be necessary. In the 1980s an American judge ruled against one of the Californian Nazi magazines that the evidence supporting the Holocaust was so plentiful that it couldn’t be denied. But that hasn’t stopped them trying. The Alt Right is on the rise, and the Holocaust deniers will try to criticize any attempts to present the facts or commemorate this horrific mass murder. The M Shed in Bristol, one of the city’s museums, put on a display about the Holocaust a few years ago. They then had two Holocaust deniers turn up, who tried to argue with the museum staff.

In many European countries Holocaust denial is a crime. There are problems with such legislation, as many people fear it’s an infringement of the right to free speech, however odious that speech is in the case of the Nazis. They also criticize such tactics has being too heavy-handed, and allowing the Nazis to position themselves as the oppressed party suffering official state persecution. They argue instead that a better tactic is to be informed, and refute their specious arguments using confirmed facts and evidence. This video helps to do this job.

Bristol’s Real Steampunk Car: The 1875 Grenville Steam Carriage

May 26, 2017

And now, a bit of fun before I return to hammering the Theresa May and the Tories for their seven years of misgovernment, malice, and general misery.

Steampunk is the subspecies of Science Fiction, which wonders what would have happened if the Victorians had invented computers, flying machines, space travel and so on. One of the founding texts of the genre is William Gibson’s and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine (London: Victor Gollancz 1990), which imagines what Britain might have looked like if Charles Babbage’s pioneering mechanical computer, the Difference Engine, had actually been built and use by the British government. It’s set in an alternative history in which the Duke of Wellington and the Tory government of 1829 have been overthrown by a party of Industrial Radicals, led by Lord Byron. Instead of government by the landed aristocracy, the country is instead ruled by a scientific elite. Foremost of these is Byron’s daughter, Ada Lovelace, who wrote the first computer programme for the machine. Apart from the Difference Engine itself, which is used by various government departments to solve not only statistical and technical problems, but which also records images and information like a modern computer, the streets are packed with steam carriages, and the British army also uses steam driven armoured cars to carry troops to suppress industrial unrest.

In fact, as I’ve blogged about previously, a number of steam carriages and cars were built throughout the 19th century before the emergence of the internal combustion engine and the modern car.

R.N. Grenville in the steam carriage with his family and servants outside Butleigh Court c. 1895.

One of these vehicles, the Grenville Steam Carriage, was designed in 1875 by Robert Neville Grenville of Glastonbury in Somerset. He was aided by George Churchward, who later became the chief mechanical engineer of the Great Western Railway. After taking part in the 1946 London Jubilee Cavalcade in Regent’s Park, it was presented the following year to the City Museum in Bristol by Grenville’s nephew, Captain P.L. Neville. Over twenty years later the Museum’s Technology Conservator, F.J. Lester, carried out an overhaul of the vehicle with the ship repairers, Messrs Jefferies Ltd. of Avonmouth. It took part in the Lord Mayor’s Jubilee Procession in Bristol in 1977, before being displayed in the Industrial Museum in Bristol.

The City Museum published a leaflet about the vehicle, written by the director of the Industrial Museum, Andy King, the Curator of Technology, P. Elkin, and with a drawing of the carriage by F.J. Lester.

The leaflet states that Grenville and Churchward had been engineering pupils together at the workshops of the South Devon Railway in Newton Abbott, and remained friends throughout their lives. Most of the carriage was probably built at Grenville’s home in Butleigh Court in Glastonbury, where he had an extensive workshop. Some parts of it, such as the wheels, may have been made under Churchward’s supervision at the G.W.R.’s workshops in Swindon. Although the vehicle was designed in 1875, it was actually built over a period of 15 years, as components were adapted and altered according to a lengthy process of trial and error.

The carriage itself was more similar to the railway engines of the time than horse-drawn carriages. The boiler, engine, shaft-bearings, rear spring brackets and front suspension were supported by a frame of 4″ x 2″ girders. It had three wheels, composed of sixteen section of teak banded with an iron tyre. This was the same as the ‘Mansell’ wheel used in railway carriages from 1860 to 1910.

It possessed the same type of vertical boiler used in the steam fire engines of the time. It was believed that this was made by one of the companies that made them, Shand Mason & Co. The steam carriage also had one of these boilers after it was renovated. The boiler was supplied with water from a tank slung underneath the carriage by an injector.

The carriage was originally powered by a single cylinder engine mounted on the boiler. This was later replaced by a twin-cylinder engine.

Photo from The Garage & Motor Agent showing the steam carriage and an 1898 Benz in the 1946 Jubilee Cavalcade of Motor Manufacturers and Traders.

The carriage was operated by a crew of three – the driver, brakeman and a fireman, and there were also seats for four passengers. The driver steered the vehicle using a tiller system, as on ships; he also controlled the throttle, cut off levers and a whistle, which he worked with a pedal. The law stipulated that vehicles like the steam carriage had to carry a brakeman, who sat on the right-hand side of the driver and controlled the brakes, which were wooden blocks. The fireman also had his own small seat in the engine compartment.

The car consumed five gallons of water and 6 pounds of coal per mile, and on the flat could reach the astonishing speed of just under 20 miles an hour on the flat.

Grenville probably lost interest in the steam carriage just to its poor performance. It appeared at the same time as more efficient steam cars were being built in America, and the modern cars, driven by petrol and the internal combustion engine also appeared.

Before it was acquired by the City Museum, the carriage was used from 1898 to 1902 as a stationery engine to drive a cider mill at Butleigh Court. It was lent after Grenville’s death in 1936 to John Allen & Sons of Cowley in Oxfordshire, who rebuilt it, replacing the boiler and rear axle.

Next week on Radio 4 there’s a programme discussing the lack of people studying engineering, and asking what could be done to inspire more students to take up the subject.

I wondered if part of the solution might be to harness the immense interest the public has in cars, motorbikes and other motor vehicles as well as steam punk enthusiasts. Many proud owners of cars and bikes spend hours caring for and repairing their vehicles as a hobby, quite apart on the volunteers who give their labour and support to organisations like the former Industrial Museum helping to restore historic vehicles and other machines. There’s quite a large community of people, who design and make their own steampunk SF costumes and machines. And some of them have already built their alternative steam punk cars as a hobby. It might be possible to encourage more budding engineers and inventors of the future by showing some of the amazing machines built by the Victorians, which have formed the basis for this genre of Science Fiction and the worlds of wonder its writers have imagined.

The Industrial Museum was closed long ago, and its site is now that of Bristol’s M Shed, which has many of the old exhibits from its predecessor. I don’t know if the Grenville Steam Carriage is one of them, but it may well be, either on display or in storage.

Poverty Journalism and the Media Patronisation of the Poor

March 9, 2014

Thackeray Snob Cover

W.M. Thacheray’s The Book of Snobs (Alan Sutton 1989)

I’ve just reblogged Jaynelinney’s article criticising the media’s use of the poor as a kind of zoo, who can be patronised on camera by visits from ostensibly well-meaning celebrities and TV producers, expressing concerns about their plight. Her piece was inspired by the article, to which she links, in ‘Independent Voices’ in the Indie, about how the middle classes have been regularly traipsing into slums and working class poverty to see how the ‘other half’ live for almost 200 years now. That article mentions, amongst others, Henry Mayhew, the author of London Labour and the London Poor, and George Orwell’s classic, The Road to Wigan Pier, as well as more recent works by Polly Toynbee. Orwell comes in for something of a bashing as he undertook his journey to the heart of industrial darkness as a journo in search of a subject, not as a social campaigner. The book that followed annoyed a member of the National Unemployed Union so much, that he wrote his own book, tracing the journey in reverse, so that he travelled from the depressed areas to the leafy suburbs of Epsom. For the writer of the Independent article, what we need are fewer middle class writers patronising the working class, and more working class writers casting acerbic, jaundiced prose and writing at the Middle and Upper classes and their lives of wealth and luxury.

Thackeray and Snobs, Ancient and Modern

This would, actually, be an interesting experiment, and could produce something really radical. In the hands of a good writer, it could produce something like Thackeray’s The Book of Snobs, but with added social bite. Thackeray was, of course, solidly middle class, and certainly didn’t deny it. The book is subtitled ‘By One of Themselves’. It was originally published by Punch, when it was still slightly subversive, more like Private Eye today than the eminently respectable, establishment organ it later became. Each chapter describes a particular class of snob, who were defined as ‘someone who meanly admires mean things’. Reading it I was struck by how modern it still sounds, despite having first seen print in 1846-7. For example, Thackeray’s chapter on ‘University Snobs’ has this to say about the ‘Philosophical Snob’.

The Philosophical Snob of the 1840s and Their Modern University Descendants

Then there were Philosophical Snobs, who used to ape statesmen at the spouting-clubs, and who believed as a fact that Government always had an eye on the University for the selection of orators for the House of Commons. There were audacious young free-thinkers, who adored nobody or nothing, except perhaps Robespierre and the Koran, and panted for the day when the pale name of priest should shrink and dwindle away before the indignation of an enlightened world.

If you think of the earnest young people, who discovered radical politics at university, or who joined the Student Union and the various political associations with a view to starting a career in politics, or simply read Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Uni before joining the staff of an MP on graduation as a researcher, then Thackeray’s description above actually isn’t that different from what goes on today. Robespierre, of course, was the leader of the dreaded Committee for Public Safety, responsible for killing hundreds of thousands during the French Revolution in the name of republicanism, democracy and Deism, so you can easily see a parallel there between the snobs earnestly reading his works, and some of the radicals in the 1960s, who joined the various Communist parties and loudly hailed Mao’s Little Red Book. As for the free-thinkers, who used to toast the day when the last king would be strangled in the bowels of the last priest, that reminds me of the various atheist and secularist societies that sprang up on campuses a few years ago, all talking earnestly about the threat of religion to science and quoting Richard Dawkins and Lewis Wolpert.

the Upper Classes at Uni, and the Perils of their Lower Class Imitators

But it is the poor university students who try to copy their far wealthier social superiors, about whom Thackeray is most scathing. He states:

But the worst of all University Snobs are those unfortunates who go to rack and ruin from their desire to ape their betters. Smith becomes acquainted with great people at college, and is ashamed of his father the tradesman. Jones has fine acquaintances, and lives after their fashion like a gay free-hearted fellow as he is, and ruins his father, and robs his sister’s portion, and cripples his younger brother’s outset in life, for the pleasure of entertaining my lord, and riding by the side of Sir John And though it may be very good fun for Robinson to fuddle himself at home as he does at College, and to be brought home by the policeman he has just been trying to knock down-think what fun for the poor old soul his mother!-the half-pay captain’s widow, who has been pinching herself all her life long, in order that that jolly young fellow might have a university education.

Unfortunately, little also seems to have changed here in the last nearly 170 year since Thackeray wrote that. I did some voluntary work a few weeks ago for M Shed here in Bristol. Many of the other volunteers were also university students and graduates, who were hoping to find a career in museum work. Discussing the country’s problems, one older lady stated very forcefully that the problem was that none of the country’s leaders now came from the working class. Just about everyone agreed with her on this point. One of the university students made the point very many have also made, about politicians coming directly from Oxford, where they studied PPE, and haven’t done a proper day’s work in their lives. The girl told us that one of her friends, who was ‘a little bit posh’, had gone to Oxford and been shocked at how dominated it was by the aristocracy. And have I heard of students, who have managed to irritate their fellows by copying the manners of Oxford upper crust.

Domination of Society by the Upper Classes, regardless of Merit

As for the chapter ‘What Snobs Admire’, where Thackeray describes the life and career of a fictional snob, Lord Buckram, who goes and gets flogged at Eton, studies at Oxford, and then marries well on graduation to a rich heiress, before taking his place among the gilded youth. Thackeray could be describing modern snobbery in all its pomp today, especially, but not exclusively, amongst the cabinet:

Suppose he is a young nobleman of a literary turn, and that he published poems ever so foolish and feeble; the Snobs would purchase thousands of his volumes: the publishers (who refused my Passion-Flowers, and my grand Epic at any price) would give him his own. Suppose he is a nobleman of a jovial turn, and has a fancy for wrenching off knockers, frequenting gin-shops, and half murdering policemen: the public will sympathize good-naturedly with his amusements, and say he is a hearty, honest fellow. Suppose he is fond of play and the turf, and has a fancy to be a blackleg, and occasionally condescends to pluck a pigeon at cards; the public will pardon him, and many honest people will court him, as they would court a housebreaker if he happened to be a Lord. Suppose he is an idiot; yet, by the glorious constitution, he is good enough to govern us. Suppose he is an honest, high-minded gentleman; so much the better for himself. But he may be an ass, and yet respected; or a ruffian, and yet be exceeding popular; or a rogue, and yet excuses will be found for him. Snow sill still worship him. Male snobs will do him honour, and females look kindly on him, however hideous he may be.

Snobbishness Revived, and Britain Going Back to 19th century

This just about describes the social privileges and the expectations of immediate public deference of the entire Tory front bench. All this was, of course, supposed to have been done away in the ‘white heat’ of the ’60s, when, along with the development of new technology, and new classlessness was supposed to have swept through the nation. Well, that may have been the case then, but things have since gone backwards. There are now fewer Labour MPs, who come from a working class background, than there were before the ’60s. Hugh Massingberd, in one of his essays in the Times in the 1980s, celebrated the revival of the fortunes of the aristocracy and the country house under Maggie Thatcher as ‘a new social restoration’. The Libertarians have emerged from out of the Union of Conservative Students to preach Von Hayek and Von Mises’ revival of classical economics, with all its faults, with the exception that in general the 19th century economists approved of trade unions. Well, the new classlessness of the 1960s has thoroughly died down, and the Coalition is leading us forward into the 19th century.

Sue Marsh on TV Bias against Covering Welfare Issues

February 5, 2014

I’ve reblogged Mike’s article and links to Sue Marsh’s post, over at Diary of Benefits Scrounger, on her experience of being downgraded from panel member to a simply member of the audience for Channel 5’s The Big Benefits Row. It’s entitled, ‘The Big Benefits Row’. Like Mike, I can’t reblog her post, but it is definitely worth spreading. All of it is well-worth reading for the insight it gives into the values of ‘medjar’ folk from a woman who has appeared and tried to present the experiences of the disabled themselves on a long line of shows. As a result, she has seen herself side-lined and her views silenced in favour of the usual right-wing ignorant loudmouths. The piece begins

As many of you may know by now, last night was the Big Benefits Row on Channel 5. “Roll up! Roll up for the spectacliar sight! Real life poor people for your viewing delight!”

I was contacted by the show’s producers early. Would I be on a panel to discuss welfare changes? They assured me it would be balanced and to their credit, I do think they worked very hard to make sure a range of views were represented in a way that shows like Benefit Street and On Benefits and Proud neglected entirely. Had I been a beleaguered austerity-junkie audience person, I think I would have had a rare taste of how it feels to find oneself outnumbered.

As the days passed before the show, I got that sneaking feeling I was being downgraded. Perhaps I should explain. I’ve done a lot of media now. Newsnight, BBC News, Sky, Radio 4, Radio 5 Live, LBC and many, many more. The pattern is almost always the same. I’ve learnt never to tweet about bookings until I’m in the actual studio getting miked up. For every 5 approaches, I suppose one might actually come to something.

Initially, the plan is always for real a debate, or a full feature on welfare cuts or a hard hitting doumentary. As the producers of the shows try to get guests to appear to discuss disability welfare cuts in any serious kind of way, they realise the task is almost impossible.

For some time now, the DWP and No.10 have refused to put anyone up against me. (and presumably other campaigners) at all. At first, 3 (all BBC) went ahead, but the various researchers were all genuinely shocked at the lack of government engagement. All said they’d never known such blanket refusals to debate an issue.

Perhaps more sinisterly, they were shocked that invariably the DWP refused to take part unless the stories were edited their way. Iain Duncan-Smith has written repeatedly and furiously to the BBC about their lack of balance in reporting welfare issues. Anyone who follows the debate with even a flutter of fleeting interest will know just how ironic that is. If ever there has been an issue so poorly reported, with so much ignorance and so many lies, the current “welfare” debate must be it.

But it’s clever isn’t it? Refuse to debate at all and generally it will mean there can be no debate. You can shut down any and all opposition simply by saying nothing at all.

Later in the article she describes her experience of selective editing, having her piece cancelled without anyone ever telling her, and finding the show’s format changed to allow the usual media loudmouths to present a diatribe of abuse against her and the disabled in general.

I’ve been edited to make me look like a “shirker”, I’ve hauled my crohn’s riddled butt all the way to London only to be told “Oh, sorry, it’s not happening now, did no-one let you know?” I’ve been booked for shows under the pretence that a particular subject-du-jour is the subject only to be ambushed scrounger bashing vitriol the moment we go live. (Yes Nick Ferrari, I do mean you.) I’ve been made to walk to locations, despite pointing out repeatedly that I can’t walk far or stand for very long. “If you could just manage…..”

I’ve uncovered vast and shocking welfare stories only to find I can’t get them published anywhere. Bumped for Egypt. Bumped for Syria. Bumped for chickens in cat outfits. (That last one’s not even sarcasm!?!) Repeatedly I hear in a loop “But welfare isn’t a story.”

Well no, why would it be? The current social security cuts are stripping away an eye-watering £28 BILLION from the support and services sick and disabled people rely on just to get through the day. That’s a full FIFTH of the entire deficit reduction plan falling on those who often have no voice to defend themselves. One pound in every five!!!

She also notes the problem she and four other wheelchair users experience just getting into the building, and then the highly patronising attitude of the studio staff over where they should be put. Now, as I’ve mentioned, I’ve been on a course at M Shed, one of the Museum’s in Bristol. When you volunteer to help them, they give you training on how to talk and interact with members of the public. Much of this is simple common courtesy. The guidelines state that when a disabled person turns up with a carer or non-disabled person, you talk to both of them. As I said, just common courtesy, and hardly rocket science. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to have occurred to the TV professionals charged with presenting these issues to the great British public.

Having only needed to use a wheelchair for just under a year, the reality of disabled access has shocked and appalled me too. Did you know for instance that most trains only have ONE disabled space and so can only take one wheelchair user? No, I had no idea either. And did you know that you can’t get in to most restaurants and shops despite access being a legal responsibility? Nope, nor me. Or that supermaket aisles often make it impossible to get around a shop independently? Or that you can’t use almost any of the London Underground?I didn’t know any of that stuff

When we got to the Channel 5 studio an epic confuddle broke out. As I’ve also learnt, they often do when some people are faced with several people on wheels all at once. They could only take 3 wheelchairs. 4 would apparently tip the building over into a dangerous and unforgivable fire risk. They couldn’t evacuate four of us!

I’d been trying not to cry for about two hours by this point and the only way we were all going to get in was if I left my wheelchair in the foyer and hobbled down to the basement studio. I was the only one who could walk at all.

Once on the set, even bigger confuddlement broke out. “You can’t put them here, they’re in the way of the cameraman” (I thought the “them” was a nice little dehumanizing detail eh?) “You can’t let them sit at the front, it makes them look too important” (I precis) etc etc. After at least 10 minutes of this infathomable conundrum, Mik shouted to the audience who were now in their seats ready for the show to begin. “Get a job they say?? Are you watching this? Most of the time, we can’t even get a bloody seat!”

She states she found the show remarkably unbiased, but was naturally intensely disappointed about not being allowed to speak about the problems faced by the disabled. She includes some of the facts that you won’t see on the news anytime soon.

However, I could barely breathe with pent up frustration. As each part of the show went live again following an ad break, I’d pray that something would be said about disability and every time it wasn’t, I deflated further and further (DON’T be a crybaby on national TV…DON’T be a crybaby on national TV….DON’T be a crybaby on national TV, repeat) How are you suppoed to have a debate about social security and not include sick and disabled people? We rely on it more than any other group! Here’s a few facts, just in case you’ve never read this blog before

Disability Living Allowance (DLA) is being cut by 20%
The criteria to qualify for DLA slashed has been by 60%
1 MILLION people are to be stripped of Employment and Support Allowance
The Independent Living Fund has bee scrapped**
1500 people lost their jobs as Remploy factories were all closed
Just 3% of the entire welfare budget goes to unemployed people
Social security fraud is around £1.2 Billion per year – less than half of 1%, or 0.15% of total welfare budget. That’s just £1.50 lost for every thousand or 0.15% of the total welfare
The DWP pay out much more in their own errors – 2.2 Billion
A whopping £16 BILLION goes unclaimed, generally to avoid the stigma of “welfare”
We have some of the toughest criteria for claiming social security in the developed world.
Is our UK social security systemn too generous? No again. In international terms we come just 46th out of 51, paying some of the lowest benefits anwhere
440,000 sick or disabled people will be hit by the Bedroom Tax. That’s over 2 thirds.

She concludes her post by saying that she believes the neglect of disabled issues and the effects of the government cuts is simply due to the fact that most media people simply don’t see it as an issue, rather than anything similar. She does, however, ask her readers to publicise and retweet her article to spread awareness of it and the intensely harmful effects of the Coalition’s cuts.

‘And yet again my friends, we shall have to make our own news. If you’ve read to this point, PLEASE don’t close the page until you’ve shared it with your networks. You can use the buttons just below to retweet or post it to Facebook. But PLEASE, if you can support us in any way, sharing this article can show producers of shows like the Big Benefits Row that we DO have a voice, we DO matter.

As campaigners we’ve often reminded ourselves that “Alone we whisper, but together we shout.”

I imagine that the producers of last nights BBR got a better offer than me. Someone with a higher profile who they thought might attract more viewers. Some suggested it could be more sinister than that, but I’m convinced that for most affluent, white, able-bodied producers, long term ilness or disability simply doesn’t come on to their radar. Another genetically-programmed response means we simply cannot believe in our own mortality or believe that any harm can ever cast shadows over our lives.

We can show them – and the public – that on social media if nowhere else, sick and disabled people can -and will – be heard.’

The whole article needs to be read. It’s at http://diaryofabenefitscrounger.blogspot.co.uk/2014/02/the-big-benefits-row.html.

As an aside, regarding her comments on Nick Ferrari, I’ve got a feeling that, like Kelvin MacKenzie, he’s another escapee from the Sun or similar tabloid. They’re too of the reasons why my parents no longer watch Alan Titchmarsh’s chat show in the afternoons. There’s only so much prejudice, ignorance and bile you can take at that time of day.

Labour History at M Shed, Bristol

November 26, 2013

The M Shed museum in Bristol is also the venue for a series of public seminars on various aspects of the city’s history. These are held jointly by the Museum and the Regional History Centre at the University of the West of England. UWE is Bristol’s second university. It was formerly Bristol Polytechnic. I took my MA there, and it does have some extremely good, lively teachers. Many of them had a background in women’s and social history. I can remember that one of the courses run by the history department is on the Slave Trade, taught by Madge Dresser. Dr Dresser has also organised conferences at the university on the subject, and was one of the organisers of the ‘Respectable Trade’ exhibition on Bristol and the slave trade way back in the mid 1990s. Other courses included Bristol Corporation of the Poor, which looked at the operation of the poor law and the workhouse in Bristol from its establishment in the mid-17th century to its abolition in the 20th.

The talks for this academic year, 2013-14, include the following:

Peter Fleming, (UWE), Bristol’s First Historian? Robert Ricart’s Maire of Bristowe is Kalendar and Notions of History Writing in 15th-c Bristol, Thursday, 24th October 2013;

Nigel Somerville (Bristol Record Office), The Dreadnought Journal: A Cruise Against the Enemies of Great Britain, Thursday, 21st November 2013;

Nick Rogers, (York University, Toronto), Naval Impressment in the South West in the Eighteenth Century, Tuesday, 10th December 2013;

M Shed Curators’ Roundtable, Moved by Conflict: Collecting and Curating the First World War, Thursday, 16th January 2014;

Richard Coates, (UWE), Place-Names and History in the Bristol Area, Thursday, 20th March 2014;

Kent Fedorowich (UWE) ‘Returning Home to Fight’: Bristolians in the Dominion Armies, 1914-1918, Thursday 17th April 2014;

Paul Tobia (UWE), Life Stories and the Photograpic Image: Patients in the Bristol Lunatic Asylum in the Nineteenth Century, Thursday 15th May 2015;

Andrew Flack (University of Bristol), Animal Commodities: Bristol Zoo, the Wild Animal Trade and Imperial Networks in the Nineteenth Century, Thursday 19th June 2014.

The seminar on the 20th February 2014 is on a piece of the city’s labour history. Given by Mike Richardson of UWE, this is on Bristol and the Labour Unrest of 1910-14. The description for this seminar in the Museum’s pamphlet on them states

‘1910 witnessed a renewed outbreak of industrial strife in Britain, as significant sections of the trade union rank-and-file began to express their frustration at the lack of progress made in their struggle for better working conditions and a new social order. Strikes reached levels not seen since the ‘new unionism’ upsurge of 1889-92. Workers unrest combined with clashes over Home Rule for Ireland, and the militant tactics of Suffrage campaigners, which added to the problems of the ruling class. Confronted by these parallel rebellions, the ruling class feared their convergence, and some warned of the dangers of revolution.

This talk will focus on Bristol’s experience of labour unrest between 1910 and the outbreak of the First World War. Rather than focus solely on Bristol’s famous union leaders, Ben Tillett and Earnest Bevin, this seminar will examine the events from the union rank-and-file perspective.’

The pamphlet notes that Mike Richardson, who gives the talk, is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Centre of Employment Studies Research at UWE.

The seminars run from 18.00 – 19.30, or from 6 O’clock to 7.30 in the evening. Admission is free.

M Shed is down on Bristol’s docks. It’s at Princes Wharf, Wapping Road, Bristol, BS1 4RN.

Paid Internships in the Cultural Sector in Bristol

November 26, 2013

And now something rather more positive, I hope, after the news of yet another death due to ATOS.

I’ve been going on a course here in Bristol at ‘M’ Shed, one of the City’s many fine museums. It’s run jointly by the museum and South Gloucestershire and Stroud College, and is designed to give people some of the employment and job seeking skills they need to get them back into work, as well as the opportunity to do some voluntary work at the Museum. I’m aware how close it is to workfare, but nevertheless I decided to go on it as I’m interested in working in the heritage/ museum sector. I’ve met a lot of very interesting people on the course, who’ve come from a variety of backgrounds and with different skills. And it’s been extremely interesting hearing their experience of the current job situation, and their views on the disgusting policies of the government. The lecturers running the course are by no means blind to the failings of various employers. When a few of the people on the course started discussing the truly terrible and exploitative employers they’ve had, one of the lecturers joined in with some other tales of bad employment practice, though diplomatically naming no names.

Yesterday they announced that they, along with the other museums and art galleries in Bristol, including the Arnolfini, had come together to form a scheme that has created 72 paid internships for young people in Bristol aged between 18 and 24, who wish to work in the heritage/ cultural sector. They urged us to spread the word about it, and pointed to one of the lads, who was assisting them on the course, as one of the interns.

I have to say that I have very strong reservations about internships. All too often they’re simply a way for already wealthy firms to profit from the unpaid labour of idealistic young people wishing to work in that industry. Private Eye has run several pieces in its ‘Street of Shame’ column covering the use of internships and extremely poorly paid junior posts in newspapers like the Times, which enable Murdoch to award himself the vast pay rises he and the rest of his board and senior editorial staff enjoy. The worst offender for this is actually the supposedly Left-wing Guardian, which is presumably trying to use them to stop it from losing even more millions by actually having to pay its journos. These internships are paid, and so, I hope, different from these other exploitative schemes.

I don’t really know much about them, apart from the fact that they exist, and are for people between 18 and 24. Thus they don’t benefit middle-aged people like me. Still, they may offer someone else a start in the museums and cultural sector, and so I thought they were worth mentioning.

The Arts Council page reporting the establishment of the scheme is at http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/news/arts-council-news/creative-sector-offers-new-employment-opportunitie/.

They give the following websites for finding out more about apprenticeships, internships and applications for wage funding cep@ccskills.org.uk and http://www.creative-employment.co.uk #sthash.QojyaxEU.dpuf.

Also according to the website, more information on Bristol’s Creative Employment Programme can be found from Sam Thomson at sam.thomson@uwe.ac.uk.