When The Past Comes Down
Here the wearing of a mask is not a political act
(Today’s diatribe was inspired by watching statues toppled in Bristol and on university campuses.)
Growing up in Greenwich, South London, I would walk past the statue of General James Wolfe without even noticing it. So many ubiquitous statues of lauded military figures had been erected in the spirit of their time that they were no longer seen and had no relevance to anyone. They were hardly public art, and often celebrated British Empire conquests. Wolfe’s statue is modern. It was given to Britain by Canada in 1930. To this day I couldn’t tell you if Wolfe did good or harm, which is probably why the statue is still there.
To put yourself into the mindset wherein the looting of Spanish galleons was considered a noble and desirable thing is quite impossible now; acquisition by stealing worked for most Europeans, France and Spain and Italy, the Belgians and the Dutch. Subjugation and wholesale robbery – ‘the spoils of war’ – were part of the rules of engagement and existed alongside more ‘gentlemanly’ instructions like informing your enemy before firing upon them. We cannot fully understand the past from here without decades of study.
As a child I found the subject easier to avoid than engage with; we had no constitution, our civil war had been settled centuries earlier, having arisen from conflict between Charles I and Parliament over an Irish insurrection. Parts of the British Empire had been built on the traffic of slavery, which was finally abolished in British colonies in 1833 after a lengthy period of misgivings. Race was not a subject I felt equipped to understand simply because as a London child of the sixties I could see no conflict; our street had added West Indian, African and Indian families, and really all that meant was my mother had more interesting neighbours. The British were still insulate and prejudiced, but liked to suggest that these were working class afflictions.
If anything we suffered a reverse problem. When visiting the countryside (a rare event, admittedly) I felt uncomfortable around so many similar people. Without diversity it seemed to me that the world was smaller. Before this starts to sound like virtue signalling, I need to point out something; the other day I ran a Bryant & May quote on Twitter:
‘Stories are strange fruit that ripen and mutate,’ said Bryant.
An American lady politely pointed out that the phrase ‘Strange fruit’ stemmed from a powerful song about lynchings sung most famously by Billie Holiday. I played it – I had never heard it before, or even heard anything by that singer. It’s not my culture or my country and would have meant nothing if I’d heard it cold.
The lady who tweeted was simply pointing out a fact, not saying its usage was wrong – there are no connotations attached to the phrase in the UK; it means something that’s where it shouldn’t be, a cuckoo. But the song moved me, and I probably would have rephrased the line now.
I was initially confused by the show ‘Hamilton’ because although I knew nothing about the subject and was even less interested – years before another musical had been made from the subject; ‘1776’ was stultifyingly boring, but sufficiently successful to be made into a film. I did do some reading up on Hamilton and raised an eyebrow when I saw this very white man staring back at me. Was this appropriation? What if a white actor played Martin Luther King? Then I realised that this was the whole point of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s piece, brilliantly realised.
Now the colourblind casting of the phantasmagorical ‘David Copperfield’ feels liberating, and while it would not work in a production going for total historical veracity it is the perfect way to make us realise what we have been missing and who we have been excluding. Education has involved re-examining the immediate past. Andrea Levy’s Orange Prize-winning saga ‘Small Island’, about two couples caught up in Windrush and London’s post-war West Indian influx, found new readers (and as a play, audiences) who were not aware of this recent chapter of London history. To me it was close enough to touch, not history but memory, but such tales must be retold to the young in fresh ways.
As a child I saw ‘Song of the South’ and saw an avuncular Burl Ives-type in a far-of fantasy land telling stories about a cartoon rabbit. While I oppose all censorship I believe many stories need contextualising, although putting ‘Song’ on YouTube and running police brutality statistics over it (as one clip does) probably doesn’t explain much.
This week an American friend was horrified by a photograph she saw of Londoners in a sunlit park. Where, she wanted to know, were their masks? I explained that people were using their own judgement about outdoor safety because here the wearing of a mask is not a political act. The idea that health might be affected by political affiliation is anathema; admiring the NHS doesn’t make you a Labour voter anymore. (The above photo shows a Republican congressman trying to prove some kind of point about the foolishness of masks).
In times to come when the Trump era is recalled, it will need to be linked to Black Lives Matter and be shown up for what it was; a political power grab that ignored everyone outside its narrow white 1% agenda. We hope America will come back, but unless the lessons of the falling statues are learned, the outcome is not guaranteed.