Category Archives: Migrations

The Statue of Liberty, Trump, Georges Perec

The Statue of Liberty has suddenly returned to the limelight as something that embodies what is best of America and what is most under threat. The most shocking image I’ve seen yet is the new cover of der Spiegel, released yesterday:

Also released yesterday is this incredible cover from the New Yorker (or the day before? This shitstorm just seems to be growing everyday, making one of my favourite new websites the ‘What the Fuck Just Happened Today‘ blog.)

I know we never lived up to the ideal of the Statue of Liberty — it was a struggle just to get it erected. There are the complications of inviting the huddled masses to land that was never yours in the first place. But let us remember the ideal:

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
— Emma Lazarus

Let us also remember the complexities.

One of the essays I most loved from George Perec’s Species of Space was ‘Ellis Island: description of a Project’. He grounds it on Kafka’s story Amerika where the Statue of Liberty holds not a torch but a sword. Perec writes:

Perhaps this was very precisely what being an emigrant meant: to see a sword where the sculptor, in all good faith, had thought he was putting a torch. And not really to be wrong. (134)

I sit with that.

He writes of the continued, endless disjuncture between ‘bring me your huddled masses’, and anti-immigrant laws. He writes also of just what kind of place Ellis island is:

For me it is the very place of exile, that is, the place of the absence of place, the place of dispersal. In this sense, it concerns me, it fascinates me, it involves me, it questions me, as if the search for my own identity went via the appropriation of this depository where harassed functionaries baptized Americans by the boatload… (136)

He writes about being a Jew who survived Hitler’s genocide, and it seems to me this describes perfectly the experience of many whose countries now lie in rubble. The only difference being the active role America has played in today’s destruction.

It is an absence rather, a question, a throwing into question, a floating, an anxiety, an anxious certainty behind which there is the outline of another certainty, abstract, heavy, insupportable: that of having been designated as a Jew, and therefore a victim, and of owing my life simply to chance and to exile.

I might have been born, like my close or distant cousins, in Haifa or Baltimore or Vancouver, but one thing alone in this almost limitless range of possibilities was forbidden to me, that of being born in the land of my ancestors, in Poland, in Lubartów, Puławy, or Warsaw, and of growing up there in the continuity of a tradition, a language and an affiliation. (136)

For him, this is a kind of non-place, a fissure.

What I went to seek on Ellis Island was the actual image of this point of no return, the consciousness of this radical fracture. What I wanted to interrogate, to throw into question, to test, were my own roots in this non-place, this absence, this fissure, on which any such quest for the trace, the word, the Other is based. (137)

Yet a break, perhaps, that opens up towards a new future. That we should still attempt to live up to, especially as the bombs continue to fall. Especially as the threats of more death and destruction to come are being blustered about white house halls and awkward press conferences.  Until our protest manages to transform it all entirely, because what is happening now is unbearably unjust — though it has to be recognised the harassment is not new and never was bearable. We’ve entered a whole new world now, of power grabs and defiance of federal judges.

A few more images from the past weeks that I liked…

But I will end with my favourite picture of Georges Perec and a cat. My own version of hope and self care in struggle.

Septima Clark — The Glorious Complexities of Identity

Ready From Within - Septima ClarkSeptima Poinsette Clark’s background is found in the second part of Ready From Within, you can read more about the first on her life and work here. Once again I found myself bumping against my own unconsciously contained ideas of identity.  The editor Cynthia Brown noted her own surprise when she saw Rosa Parks let her hair down and it fell below her waist… Rosa Parks smiled at her, and said kindly she was part Native American. How had I never heard that before? Septima Clark’s background is just as wondrously complex — exactly the complexity that the U.S. brand of racism strips away by reducing everything to the absurdity of a drop of blood defining a status that whites have long tried to hold forcibly down at the bottom.

Clark writes that her mother was born free, and that she:

…had three distinct sets of brother and sisters. The first set was mulatto, two girls with soft curly brown hair. then came three ginger-colored boys with soft black hair. Then came three girls including my mother, Victoria. They were medium-brown with soft straight black hair. Their father was Indian, from the Muskhogean tribes who lived on the sea islands from Charleston to Savannah, Georgia.

Born free, her mother, and then raised in the heart of the 3rd great revolution (and much more revolutionary than the US revolution if we’re at all honest):

My mother was born in Charleston but reared in Haiti…those three little girls were sent to Haiti to be raised by their older brothers, who were cigar makers there. (89)

Her mother was very proud of this claim, that she never was in slavery. Very unlike Clark’s father who was freed by the civil war as a teenager, and remembered this freedom as a worrying time. His surname Poinsette came from his former master, a botanist for whom the Poinsettia is named.

I think about the connections between language, culture and place embodied in the intertwinings of this single family’s history — and the simple identity assigned to Septima Poinsette Clark fairly boggles the mind. How soon can we leave these damn binaries behind us?

There are also fascinating insights here into the early traditions of education and how they play into these complexities. There was a local public school, but Clark would have been one of 100 students for the one teacher. Her mother worked to get her into a private school:

There were lots of black women who had little schools in their homes–in their kitchens, in their dining rooms, or in little shed rooms. (98)

These schools ran on their own hierarchies — and this whole story of education resulted in a class pride that Clark had to work hard to undo through the rest of her life in struggle. She remembers that her teacher:

didn’t take  just anybody who had the money for tuition. She chose her pupils from the blacks who boasted of being free issues, people who had never been slaves. These people constituted a sort of upper caste. (99)

From there she went on to the Avery Institute, getting her teaching certificate in 1916. The Avery Institute is hell of fascinating — itself emblematic of the complexities of identity and the immense possibilities opened up by Reconstruction. Francis Louis Cardozo founded it, his father the Jewish editor of a newspaper, his mother half black and half Native American. They sent their son Francis to school in Europe; after his return he became the first black Secretary of State for South Carolina during reconstruction. (101)

The racist laws against marriage meant Cardozo’s parents never officially married — two such interracial families lived on Clark’s street while she was growing up, but her mother always looked down on them for living together outside of wedlock. Not everything was nice and friendly back in the day.

Clark’s first job was on Johns Island, part of a network of islands along the South Carolina coast. It took nine hours in a boat to get there from Charleston. She talks about the prevalence of African words, Gullah. She taught how that idiom as spoken related to ‘correct English’ (de to be written down as the…). She worked there several years, and then moved back to teach in Charleston.

How did she become fully radicalized? It took a little while:

I want to start my story with the end of World War II because that is when the civil rights movement really got going, both for me personally and for people all over the south. After World War II the men were coming home from fighting in Europe and Africa, and they weren’t going to take segregation any more. (23)

It was still some time before a fellow teacher introduced her to Highlander, the kind of space that encouraged her to step into her full potential and change the course of the growing civil rights movement. From there she never looked back, and never lost her faith in the ability of people to develop:

You know, the measure of a person is how much they develop in their life. Some people slow down in their growth after they become adults… But you never know when a person’s going to leap forward, or change around completely. (103)

One of my favourite quotes from her, and I’ve used this once already, is on growing old, and the opportunities that change and chaos bring:

But I really do feel that this is the best part of life. It’s not that you have just grown old, but it is how you have grown old. I feel that I have grown old with dreams that I want to come true, and that I have grown old believing there is always a beautiful lining to that cloud that overshadows things. I have great belief in the fact that whenever there is chaos, it creates wonderful thinking. I consider chaos a gift, and this has come during my old age. (125)

Maybe if more righteous elders were like her and celebrated such things, we would be in a better place. To end, the one thing we all have to remember:

The only thing that’s really worthwhile is change. It’s coming. (126)

You want to see my new favourite photos?

Septima Clark and Rosa Parks:

Image Courtesy of Highlander Research and Education Center
Image Courtesy of Highlander Research and Education Center

parks-and-clark-sitting

Senior power!

 

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Day 8: Sheep shearing and the beauty of labour

My last day at the farm, sheep-shearing day which I am so happy I got to see. It hardly seemed real to be leaving, hardly seems I was there now I am in Bristol. Everything fades so fast, though the soreness of my arms and tiredness implies it was in fact real.

Today as I sat at the train station — before being joined by an Afro-Carribean pensioner on a day-trip from Bristol doing her photography who boldly stated that Blair and Bush should be brought to the Hague for prosecution for their wars that were for nothing more than oil and was a bit taken aback I think when I wholeheartedly agreed so continued on with her arguments as if I had disagreed — before being joined by her, I was thinking how much I have enjoyed my time so far. I feel like I’ve been cracked open a little bit, horizons expanded a little bit so I have more room to grow. There is all this new experience that I can now own as mine, and the humility of knowing it could fill a thimble of what there is to know.

Today the sheep-shearer came. Martin. I watched him work and like yesterday herding sheep with T I was hit by just how very beautiful human beings are when they are in their element doing things they are expert in. I think sometimes this is the fascination of sport, because in office life, city life, you almost never see this. You forget just how amazing it is to watch someone with true expertise move and perform the very difficult tasks that they are best at. It seems effortless, every movement is sure, practiced, with the weight of years behind it. It looks easy, but you know it is the opposite.

It struck me that in this kind of physical labour you can find one aspect of true beauty visible nowhere else.

I will miss it the way I miss stars. Both of these things, I think, are things generally lacking in urban modern life, a reminder to be a little humbler in how we walk on the earth.

He had already done a few hundred sheep this morning before he came to do our 51 (the ewes with lambs will be shorn later in the summer) — most farms have several hundred at least. He spends three months a year in New Zealand shearing sheep like this every day — there are farms there with 80,000 of the things. Teams spend weeks shearing. Then there is part of his year traveling up and down England shearing sheep every day, and he has just added winter months in Finland and Latvia to the rotation — sheep there are kept inside for whole of the winter into the very late spring.

It never occurred to me that people could travel the world shearing sheep. A different kind of migration than what we usually hear about.

In England, where there is barn capacity (unlike the farm where I was working though plans are for that to soon change), ewes are often shorn in December before they lamb, and then kept inside until spring. They only need an inch and a half to two inches of wool coat to be perfectly happy outside in the winter weather, the rest of that immensely heavy fleece has all been bred for our own use.

Thank you.

The sheep file up this ramp — it was easier than I expected though often enough a ewe grew tired of waiting there and backed a waiting line right back into the pen. Often enough one of the stupid things sat stubbornly sideways across the entrance blocking it. They snorted and started around the pen when I got in to encourage them up. They act as if they are afraid of you every time you move, but when you are still you often feel their hot breath on your hands, and they will attempt to nibble away at wellies and sweater and jeans.

Farm 1.8

The shearer grabs them under their chin and by the foreleg and as he pulls them down he flips them over and there they lie strangely quiescent for the most part as he follows the same routine in removing their fleece, moving their dead-weight deftly to do so with practiced holds. Off the great thing comes. It is an amazing thing to watch.

I was expecting someone burley and older and grizzled. Not a rather puckish looking slender guy who is very possibly stronger than anyone else I have ever met.

The clippers are razor sharp and the skin very thin though the fleece is generally ready to come off at this point, seemed mostly to just peel away. From scattered conversation it also seems that certain kinds of sheep are much easier in this respect to shear than others, and some fleeces much more ready to come off. On one of the ewes who kicked there was a deeper cut, and he sewed it up himself there and then with something very thick and a huge needle.

That made me a little queasy I confess.

T rolled up the fleeces as they came off, into bundles that filled these massive great sacks that need massive muscles to haul into trucks and make this a bit more of a manly occupation than it needs to be. The sacks belong to the wool board, a cooperative that collects the wool from around the country and sells it all for the best price possible for large and small farmers alike. I love this, the only problem for T & I is that they don’t get a check for the wool until the following year. Not a huge problem for large farms, but often quite difficult for small holdings as you could imagine.

Sheep are so funny when shorn, but so clearly very happy and they even frisked a bit like lambs might — these were the year-old ewes who still hadn’t lambed, so still young I suppose.

Farm 1.8

He did the two ewes that didn’t lamb and the ewe whose lamb died and the four rams as well — those last cost quite a bit more trouble, and then one of them jumped the hurdles, a rather astonishing feat for something so heavy. An annoying one too as it meant a much more tiring day for us. Martin’s sheep-dog Jack helped round him up which was immensely helpful, but it meant he ended up penned separately with two of the shorn ewes so we had to separate them, get all the ewes into the orchard, get the rams together, load them up into the trailer, and return them to their fields.

We had the best bacon butties I have ever eaten when we finally had done. Showers and hot water seem extra special as well.

And then there I was waiting for the train. Feeling a little sad to be going I confess. Before I left I got a shot of the very helpful poster of sheep, cattle and pig breeds, though a bit of reflection from the sunny day

Farm 1.7

Wonderful thing to do, this farming malarkey, though I am quite happy to have a good long rest before me.

Farm 1: Sheep And Beautiful Gloucestershire

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John Akomfrah: Vertigo Sea at Bristol’s Arnolfini

John Akomfrah Vertigo SeaVertigo Sea, a solo exhibition of two films showing through 10th April, 2016 at Bristol’s Arnolfini, its UK premiere. Where better to see such films exploring the connections between oceans and Empire, slavery and migration and the killing of our natural world than this city built with slavery’s profits?

We saw Vertigo Sea first, sat confronting the sea and movement and death and forced migrations on film across three screens. The sounding of waves. The vastness of ocean. The smallness of our own stature in the face of it. The wonder of the creatures who live within it. I imagine the feeling of always being held, wonder if that sounding of waves is something that lives within you if you live within the ocean, if your heart beats to it. Birds, thousands and millions of birds swirl across its surface, like algae, like the shoals of fish that dive and spin.

John Akomfrah Vertigo Sea
John Akomfrah “Vertigo Sea” (2015). Installationsview. Nikolaj Kunsthal. Foto Léa Nielsen

Water is here too in the form of snow, vast expanses, glaciers, landscapes we all know are fast disappearing.

John Akomfrah Vertigo Sea
John Akomfrah: Vertigo Sea © Smoking Dogs Films. Courtesy Arnolfini. Photo Stuart Whipps

Always the vastness of the world, the ocean, the water. Moisture as great banks of cloud upon the earth. Then the vastness of death we ourselves leave behind. The killing of wild things, the carving up of whales, the rivers of blood.

John Akomfrah Vertigo Sea

There are those who travel oceans to kill alongside the desperation of others traveling the oceans prised lose from land by war and famine and searching for life and hope. The desperation of others traveling the oceans ripped from all they know, plundered for work and death in lands far away. The oceans connect us in so many ways. Look how we have moved across them, look how we have died in them, look how we have hunted and killed in them. This is a unique meditation on human violence in the face of great, impersonal force.

John Akomfrah Vertigo SeaFrom the exhibition guide:

The inspiration for the work came from a radio interview with a group of young Nigerian migrants who had survived an illegal crossing of the Mediterranean. They expressed the feeling of being faced by something vaster and more awesome than they had thought possible. While the sea is mesmerising, universally compelling and beautiful, it is also a uniquely inhospitable environment. It is difficult for us, as humans used to having control over our surroundings, to grasp the enormity of this constantly changing element, and the word ‘vertigo’ perhaps refers to this unfathomable reach.

Maybe it’s because I grew up in the middle of the desert, but I love the feeling of being small, love the feeling of being just a tiny part of the world, in the world rather than in control of the world. We are never in control of the world. But I imagine this installation feels different to me than to others, I wonder if it does provoke a sense of control being absent. An overwhelming. I hope so.

But how I mourned through this film, mourned the death and all of those lost. Now and then, too, I turned my eyes from the killing.

We couldn’t see both installations the same day, seemed to us Vertigo Sea was too powerful. So we went back to watch Tropikos two weekends later.

Situated in Plymouth and the Tamar Valley – locations with significant, though largely forgotten connections with the expansion of European power and influence – Tropikos is an experimental drama set in the 16th century.
Akomfrah’s starting point for the film was the connection between the waterways of the South West and the slave trade. In this film, the river landscape is transformed into an historic English port to re-imagine some of the first British encounters with people from Africa.
Again, the pounding of oceans. Elizabethan costumes vs white draped simplicity, the deep roar of passage and rending, black skin in water and warmth but there is the looming English presence behind and you long to call out, to warn. Too late.
John Akomfrah, Tropikos,
John Akomfrah, Tropikos, 2016 | Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Black faces are seen in frigid English landscapes, floating still and silent down the Tamar, landscape passing in emerald fields and grey skies behind these people stolen and surrounded by goods stolen with them. Bowls overflow with pearls and precious things, corn, roots and tubers. Dressed first in simplicity, but later boxed into new finery.

Tropikos-John-Akomfrah-Smoking-Dogs-Films-Courtesy-Lisson-Gallery1
Tropikos, John Akomfrah, Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Always there is the sounding of oceans.

Only one table shows what England gave in return: wildflowers, a bible, a sword.

Death is here too, it is hanging. Birds and fish with glassy eyes and bodies cut to let them bleed. Other trees hung with pineapples and daikon radishes. Always the cold arrogant English faces in contrast, husband and wife unable to speak to touch to share the same spaces. Sidelong glances at the others come among them.

Words from Hakluyt, Shakespeare, Milton, Gaston Bachelard….they mingle with Melville from Vertigo Sea. Both are powerful, both had moments so reminiscent of his other work, particularly Last Angel of History, but perhaps it is because I saw that not too long ago. But there are these stills, posed, surreal elements of physical things with a huge weight of symbolic meaning. The detritus of our lives washed up on the stones, yielded by the water. The ending of time.

john_akomfrah-vertigo-sea_2015_still_c_smoking-dogs-films_courtesy-lisson-gallery_3_0
John Akomfrah Vertigo Sea (2015). Still. © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy

Go see them if you can.

For more on race, environment and empire…

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Controlling Worlds

Dr Barnardo of Stepney

IMG_2956Dr Barnardo has been both lionized and accused of a great deal over the decades, subject to innuendo, accusation and lawsuits while he was still alive, and a continuing source of interest to academics and historians. Because, quite frankly, he is fascinating, possibly terrible, and had a lasting impact on philanthropy in general, but more importantly a life-changing impact upon tens of thousands of poor children.

I never knew quite how many: 28,000 children alone he sent off to Canada (how many more did he send to South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, the territories of white Commonwealth?), at one point in time he was legal guardian to 87 middle and upperclass children, and in charge of 8,000 more. Many thousands more passed through his homes and shelters and villages. It is mind boggling.

Mostly that such a small island country should have had so many children in desperate need —  and this book seems to follow Dr Barnardo in never once asking why that should be.

Mostly that one man should have been allowed this kind of power over tens of thousands of children.

dr-barnardoSo much has been written about Barnardo around subjects of Victorian philanthropy and slumming, sex, his use of photography, the role of missionaries in the East End.  I used to teach a really interesting chapter from Seth Koven’s Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London, which I really need to reread in its entirety.

This is a very different kind of book, written by his secretary for the last seven years of his life — he knew him well, looked up to him, and shared his world view for the most part. It developed from several papers written by him in reply to requests as to what sort of man Barnardo was. I could imagine he did field a lot of those requests.

Above all reading it, it is hard to believe it was finished in 1942. It belongs entirely to an earlier age almost as far removed from WWI as it is from WWII — but in that gives more of a window to Dr Barnardo through the lens of the period he lived in.

The introduction from Christopher Fry is the same, he writes:

Almost as soon as he set foot in London he began to draw out from their dark holes-and-corners a race of wild, unloved, and outcast children, a race which had skulked and suffered there for generations while the life of the city went on around them. (7)

I almost threw the book against the wall. Another race? What, are they dead that they do not form part of London’s life? They must have been a ubiquitous presence, these children, shaping the city and people’s experience of it as hard as they might have tried not to see them.

Dr Barnardo – a secretary’s impressions

But back to Dr Barnardo —  born in Dublin 1845, he came to London in 1866 to study medicine with a goal of becoming a medical missionary to China. For some reason (I don’t even think Williams is indulging in irony here) he didn’t get on so well with his fellow students. They all thought him a bit odd, a “queer fellow” and always preaching.

His first year in London saw a great cholera outbreak, which he celebrated for turning people’s eyes toward the Lord. Williams writes:

He had personally undertaken the circulation of Bibles in East London, and in three months he had sold in the open streets, in public-houses and in market-places thirty thousand copies of the Scriptures. (65)

Whatever else he was, he was a man to be reckoned with. One who put selling bibles over more useful interventions. On one occasion he had two ribs broken when he was beaten after trying to sell bibles in the wrong place to the wrong people. It didn’t stop him. Williams writes:

As soon as I entered the Doctor’s room, I realized that I was in the presence of a man of commanding personality. He was short of stature, only five feet five inches in height, sturdily built, with a very fine head and shoulders. One could not fail to notice the firm chin, and the keen grey eyes that seemed to have the power of reading one’s thoughts. His massive forehead also arrested attention, and gave some indication of the marvelous brain behind it. He was quick and alert in his movements, and bore an unmistakable air of authority. (15)

The working conditions under him will be familiar to anyone who knows similarly driven people in the charity field, but with much less regulation.

That was my first impression of Dr Barnardo–a man who wanted half-an-hour’s work done in twenty minutes. (16)

It is a portrait of a man who pushes himself harder than he pushes his staff, beginning early in the morning in Surbiton trying to deal with a level of correspondence that I cannot honestly imagine —  ‘where an amanuensis attended him daily, so that he could get a certain amount of work done before leaving for Stepney.’ Once at work he sat at two large tables in L-configuration covered with baskets of letters, and worked late into the night, often midnight or beyond, dictating letters. But this is after his work back in Stepney, where:

A special staff of clerks used to come on duty each evening, and to enable the Doctor to continue his dictation without interruption, and to avoid delay in transcription, pages of shorthand notes would be rushed up to the typing room by a waiting messenger as fast as they were taken down from the Doctor’s lips… (26)

Williams writes of His ‘magnetic personality’ (32), that ‘he seemed to cast a spell over those who worked with him’ (33) and this (again, this sounds so familiar):

There were times when I got very tired of these long hours, but I was always conscious of the fact that however much the Doctor required of his staff, he was giving far more himself, and I was loath to complain. (33)

Beyond all question, Dr Barnardo was an autocrat. He knew it, and acknowledged it, but hoped he was “a benevolent autocrat.” (35)

He was also often quite deaf. Not that those things are necessarily connected, but he doesn’t strike me as a great listener.

There’s a nice awkward section about the women who worked for him as well, a little kindly misogyny thrown in:

Dr Barnardo employed a large number of women; some in administrative work; a number as clerks; others as superintendents, nurses, cottage mothers, etc. No one could have won the wholehearted devotion of these women helpers more than he did, or have made fuller use of their abilities. Some had a record of many years service, and he valued their help; yet he frequently declared in his humorous way that being “a poor ignorant male, a stupid common-sense kind of creature,” women completely mystified him, and he found them utterly inexplicable. (37-38)

Ah, women and the ways that they operate without common sense. He was inexplicably married — for convenience and to further the work really, his wife rarely appears in these pages. There are, of course, rumours of pedophilia, but at least at the last stage of his life, it honestly seems hard to see how he could have managed it surrounded by such a beehive of workers waiting upon his direction at all hours.

A missionary to East London instead of China

Reading this you get a sense of East London as foreign and in need of Christian redemption as the furthest reaches of what Europeans held (wrongly) as the civilised world. He became involved in the Ragged Schools in 1866, and Williams describes what he states is the well-known story of how Dr Barnardo came into his work through his encounter with his first ‘street arab’. (There is so much to be unpacked in that term alone). The little boy asked him if he could stay over night as he had nowhere else to go. Barnardo, so the story goes, didn’t believe there were homeless children — so he bribed Jim Jarvis with coffee and place to sleep to show him where other children hid away to sleep. Bob’s your uncle, the Dr Barnardo we know today began to emerge.

He just happened to be at a dinner with Lord Shaftesbury soon afterwards — he convinced him to come along and see for himself the state of these children, and they agreed something must be done.

Dr Barnardo’s rescue operation started in a donkey stable, moved to Bale Street and expanded to Hope Place in Stepney. In 1870 he expanded to Stepney Causeway — and although the building was demolished, Williams states that the door now sits in entrance hall of Barnardo Headquarters. I wonder if it’s still there?

No.10 Stepney Causeway
No.10 Stepney Causeway

Describing the early days, Barnardo wrote:

“Many a happy hour was spent in whitewashing walls and ceilings, scrubbing floors, and otherwise putting the place into a suitable condition for the reception of my first family. Then I spent two whole nights upon the streets of London, cast my net upon the ‘right side of the ship,’ and brought to shore twenty-five homeless lads all willing and eager to accept such help as I could give them.” (74)

His language is, of course highly biblical. Williams describes his forays, and again you think to yourself, he might as well have been on a mission in China given how they describe these neighbourhoods in their own city — resulting from desperate poverty and inequality and exploitation.

It was customary for him to sally forth at midnight, clad in great coat and top hat, and carrying a dark lantern, to take his way through filthy, loathsome slums; down alleys where a policeman stood at the entrance and warned wayfarers not to proceed; into the communal kitchens of the common lodging-houses with which London abounded at that time, and where thieves, rogues and vagabonds of every kind gathered. (76)

It seems a waste of a policeman honestly. Still, the one nice thing about this book is that it allows some sense of resistance, and the irrepressible humour and bravery of the children themselves to occasionally peek through:

As a rule the help the Doctor offered was thankfully accepted, but it was not always so. Sometimes he found it difficult to persuade a homeless youngster, in spite of the sufferings and hardships of a street life, to yield up the freedom to which he had become accustomed, and which he had come to prize. (78)

East London – Dr Barnardo’s hunting grounds

His descriptions of East London and its people are quite infuriating:

We learn that people were ignorant and untaught. The streets were only dimly lit at night-time by feeble, flickering gas lamps, and were indescribably filthy. The gutters were filled with fetid water, and decaying cabbage leaves, potato parings and other refuse damned the gratings. The gin shops kept open until all hours of the night. (80)

And here is how he saw its inhabitants — wild animals seeking their own. As if people had multiple options, as though poverty were their choice.

A more unsavoury, ignorant and generally repellent rookery it would be hard to find. Street traders had made the street, with its many courts and alleys, their chosen home. The successful thief, resting in ill-gotten plenty, was neighbour to the luckless adventurer whom disease and famine had driven into his last earthly retreat, to die unheeded and unpitied by the great world without. Birds of a feather flocked together in this degraded colony. When a choked water pipe leading from the roof of a building was examined, it was found to be blocked up with empty purses which had been tossed on to the roof…People herded there whose chance of getting their daily bread each morning was more precarious than that of wild animals who picked up their sustenance in the open country. The lowest depths of all we seen in the precocious depravity of the juvenile population. (80)

It’s almost amusing then, when Dr Barnardo — recognising that lodging houses held many children — did not last one night when he himself attempted to stay in one as ‘research’. He dressed as a tramp, and one of ‘his boys’ took him to one, where he was apparently bitten so badly by insects it was three weeks before he was fit to be seen. It is reminiscent of Mary Higgs’ research, but she was hardier and much more thorough.

A little more on the subject though — Williams tells of the time (this is highly anecdotal as you might imagine) Barnardo was trying to rescue messenger boys (their souls really I believe) from a lodging house in Drury lane (and no, that’s not the East End, he really got around). He found out that they were relapsing because girls from the neighbouring lodging house were paying a bribe to the deputy to allow them in three nights a week for carousing. Dr Barnardo put a stop to that by convincing the boys it was immoral, and even to move into other lodgings. He of course blamed the dissoluteness of women — I can come up with a few rather more likely explanations, most of which involve pimps.

Anyway, on his return to original house to check after the souls of the boys, the girls found him there alone in the kitchen and beat him up. You almost rejoice that he was house-bound for a month. He writes:

“To anyone who may smile at this recital of my timidity I would say, ‘Have you ever been thrashed by a woman?’ For, if not, let me remark that few things can be more humbling and fear-begetting than a vigorous chastisement administered by female hands before an approving female audience. (85)

I agree with that statement, but he definitely needed some chastising.

From Stepney he expanded on an ever growing scale. Again the funny Victorian notions of sex and propriety emerge

When the Doctor began his work of rescue on behalf of destitute children, being a young unmarried man he confined his operations to boys (93)

But he soon opened a Village Home for Girls at Barkingside, a number of youth’s labour homes beginning in 1881 (training ‘camps’, probably most problematic). He started a boarding out system, first instituted 1886, where children were sent into the country to live with families until they were 12 or 13, then brought back to London to begin apprenticeships/training. Again, looking at the scale of these operations, the heart quails. For every child given to a good home, I feel fear even at this late date for those children put into the complete power of strangers.

The Uses and Abuses of Empire

Even before this he had begun to send children to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa — it was 1882 when the first party of 51 boys sailed to Canada.

Everything is here: the power of the wealthy to control the bodies and the futures of the poor, the role of the colonies to soak up those the ruling classes did not want to help or even look at, the land stolen from indigenous peoples in order to provide these children a new start and a new hope based on their citizenship and the colour of their skin. Those children sent into uncertain futures, entirely at the mercy of their new families.

Just to recap: 28,000 boys in total sent by Dr Barnardo to Canada. The book mentions in passing the many other societies then started up to do the same thing, but not as rigorously or as well.

A different kind of migrant crisis. It hurts my heart.

They had to do some work to set the ground to justify all of this, and it is hardly surprising that they did not look too closely at the causes of poverty. The book mentions that children were bought and sold and traded, beaten, made to work, to beg after being made as pitiful and hopeless looking as possible, to thieve… They needed saving. Having read multiple other accounts of poverty, I don’t doubt many did, but it is curious to me why it was able to take this form.

Also curious, though I suppose Victorian morality makes it less curious, is that nowhere is there any mention of sex work even when talking about the buying and borrowing of children, where others like Flora Tristan note that sexual exploitation was often the primary motive.

Speaking of Flora Tristan, who described gin palaces in great fury, it is also curious that Dr Barnardo managed to buy what he describes as one of the most notorious Gin Palaces and Music Halls in Limehouse — the Edinburgh Castle. Dr Barnardo wrote of it:

Here was a powerful force for evil, with seductive charms that some of us can scarcely estimate the force of. I remember well coming to the old place when around the wall, in the intervals between each window, were niches, and in every niche was an indecent statue. On the platform or stage in front a number of girls engaged in dances. In the middle of the room was a bar for the sale of drink. There was a door that led out to the tea-gardens, where all kinds of evil practices went on. Almost every one of the houses overlooking this place were houses of evil character. There were one or two exceptions, bit nearly all were full of persons of infamous life. (90)

They turned it into a hall, churchly entertainment centre, and held ‘waif suppers’ there, you can read a lot more on The Children’s Homes website.

Edinburgh Castle site, Limehouse, c.1896.
Edinburgh Castle site, Limehouse, c.1896.

Stepney Causeway, and his provision for children

I liked the descriptions of what his complex on Stepney Causeway was once like, it is all long gone now of course and I think probably better so.

A large building had been erected in Bower Street, which runs parallel to Stepney Causeway, and this building was linked up by a bridge with the Causeway premises. The Doctor’s Board Room was situated on the first floor of the Bower Street building, and had a fine bay-window overlooking a large paved yard. This yard, with a small extension under a couple of railway arches, was the only playground for four hundred boys…They played cricket and football within its narrow confines, with special rules to fit the circumstances.

It was in the yard at Stepney that they went through their daily physical exercises and drill under the supervision of a retired army instructor. It was there that the Medical Officer would sometimes conduct an open-air inspection of eyes, ears and teeth; and if a boy in the Hospital passed away, the little funeral cortege would cross the yard on its way to the chapel where the funeral service would be held. (28)

At the top of the building was a photographic studio where every child was photographed on admission and again on leaving. Some striking contrasts were obtained in this way. (30)

Those photographs — definitely one of the things that most got him into trouble. That and his habit of taking children from their parents and families with impunity. There was one lawsuit as he sent many of these children to Canada. It is tan ugly side to this work, and his world view that seemed to hold axiomatic that poverty was the fault of the parents, and he had to save children from both. This book recounts only stories of criminal, abusive and gin-sodden relations who would pawn the good clothes given to their children (though boots or bread, a hard choice) for whom there might have been a case the child needed to be removed for their own wellbeing. Yet clearly many more must have simply been poor and desperate. There is little to no thought to conditions or opportunities for these families as a whole. Much of me revolts in an enormous ‘how dare he’.

The enormous and ugly class prejudice is most obvious when Williams discusses Barnardo’s guardianship over boys who were not poor. He writes:

There was one special feature of the Doctor’s work which impressed me very much. He was frequently approached by parents or guardians of young people of the middle and upper classes for advice and assistance in difficult cases; boys and girls addicted to dishonest habits or tainted by the bad example of servants, or who, through lack of proper management, had become uncontrollable and defiant.

Never the bad example of upper class parents, or abuse or alienation, oh no. He blames servants. It’s quite extraordinary.

There is, finally, a quaint sentimentality that pervades all, this will give you a sense of it:

Children turned to him instinctively as though they understood his love…”Boys and girls have always been fond of me,” he wrote on one occasion, “and I need not say I have always been very fond of them. I don’t quite know what it is that makes children so attractive to me; but although I have had many who have been crippled and sadly deformed, and some who have been afflicted with dreadful disorders, I think I may say of a truth I have never seen a really ugly child!” (47)

There are several stories of helping crippled children that have a polished and well practiced air to them, which is quite distasteful. There are many stories of his relationships, but then you read this:

In his later years Dr Barnardo had nearly eight thousand children in his charge, and one could not help being deeply impressed by the personal interest he took in each member of his great family. (50)

and you have to question them. I confess after reading this I am less interested in the character of Dr Barnardo himself, or the charges often raised against him. Instead I question the position he was allowed to fill, the sentimentality and prejudice that made it possible, the sources of the conditions that justified a means that would never be acceptable today. This is vastly different than the work of say Father Potter, who also took in boys and helped raise them. As always for us now suspicions are raised, but in his case it is also clear why it was that he could not see a boy asleep in the street and not give him a home. That makes sense to me without being in a position to much judge any ulterior motives (and I like to hope there were not) — unlike the wholesale removal of tens of thousands of children from either the streets or their own homes and families. Their repatriation across the world to further build empire.

There is so much to think about here, and the impact this one man alone and the organisations he set into motion were able to inflict on so many kids. Never even imagined here are the gaps left in the community, the holes in the hearts and the homes left by those children as they were shipped off abroad. The trauma of those events. The ways they facilitated the maintenance of an illusion of a prosperous society and eradicated the elements that might call this illusion to account, while also consolidating the empire.

How dare they, I think again.

[Williams, A. E. (1953) Barnardo of Stepney: The Father of Nobody’s Children. Liverpool: Guild Books.]

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City and Country in Adam Bede

Evans published Adam Bede in 1859, describing events set in 1799 — it was 1721 that the first machinery was introduced into a silk mill in Derby and 1771 that Arkwright opened his cotton mill in Cromford. This is a turning point in industrial history and one she references, though fairly tangentially more’s the pity.

One of the things I got out of reading this, was that it continued the process of doing away once and for all with one of my stubborn blind spots — and I appreciate things that do that. Especially a blind spot that has continued in the face of constant small revelations — my simplistic working binary of clean pastoral countryside with its lovely clean towns and villages vs great dirty smoggy cities as centres of industry and innovation.

It’s just wrong.

It was especially wrong several hundred years ago, because multiple small villages served as dirty centres of industry and innovation. Many more held quarries, tanneries, and mines and etc — coal dust transformed whole landscapes that are today green and peaceful. I am ashamed that I have still been carrying that binary shit in my head and the only reason I know it was still there is because books and museums and unexpected clusters of mills and mines encountered in my ‘peak district back-to-nature holiday’ surprised me.

What is curious now, I suppose, is how much closer to reality it has actually become in ‘developed’ countries. How the dirt and grime and exploitation and innovation have been centralised and separated from daily life, its laborers moved to the cities, pollution’s existence in naturally beautiful peripheries cleaned up, and industry’s stories retold or simply erased in much of the countryside. This means of course, that the dirt and toxicity moved along to other places, other countries. So in a way my blind spot is the result of a great deal of effort, but whose? And why?

This isn’t even an attempt at an answer because I know it’s a whole complex combination of things that I could probably start listing right now involving capitalism and labour and etc. One place to start might be Lumsdale Valley, which held all kinds of toxic industry starting in the 1600s and is now a lushly and eerily beautiful series of preserved ruins.

Matlock Walk

Instead here are just some interesting passages from Adam Bede. In this one the man himself, country carpenter and half-peasant half-artisan (as described by George Eliot) praising the industrial revolution. Why? Because it’s happening within a few miles of him.

And there’s such a thing as being oversperitial; we must have something beside Gospel i’ this world. Look at the canals, an’ th’ aqueduc’s, an’ th’ coal-pit engines, and Arkwright’s mills there at Cromford; a man must learn summat beside Gospel to make them things, I reckon. But t’ hear some o’ them preachers, you’d think as a man must be doing nothing all’s life but shutting’s eyes and looking what’s agoing on inside him.

A view of Masson Mill set in its landscape:

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And the setting of Cromford Mill and its canal:

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It is so hard, now, to understand that this was once ‘industrial’.

Sadly, this novel in almost its entirety takes place in ‘Hayslope’ which is really Ellastone, on the border of Derbyshire and Staffordshire. So eagerly awaiting references to Wirksworth, I was despairing (as already noted) several hundred pages into Hetty’s beauty as adorable as downy ducklings and the constant passive-aggressive wailing of Adam Bede’s mother and Dinah’s sermons on goodness and Methodism. But finally, we get to some descriptions of this beautiful stone town, quite rural and lovely to my own eyes. Here is Rev. Irvine to Dinah:

“Ah, I remember Snowfield very well; I once had occasion to go there. It’s a dreary bleak place. They were building a cotton-mill there; but that’s many years ago now. I suppose the place is a good deal changed by the employment that mill must have brought.”

She replies (and oh, if only this had centred on her life in ‘Snowfield’):

“It is changed so far as the mill has brought people there, who get a livelihood for themselves by working in it, and make it better for the tradesfolks. I work in it myself, and have reason to be grateful, for thereby I have enough and to spare. But it’s still a bleak place, as you say, sir–very different from this country.”

I suppose this is as much a shift in common perceptions of what is beautiful and what is country as it is my own blindspot. It’s also an interesting note on labour, those who moved first to smaller towns like these, seeking better lives. This happened alongside the importation of primarily children (not noted by Elliot of course) to work the mills. Both groups must have transformed these places.

This is the view over ‘bleak’ Wirksworth from Black Rocks — whose other side was once the site of a lead mine to be sure:

Wirksworth Walk

Curiously Dinah goes on to describe her own views on what the town-country distinction means for her preaching and gathering of souls, and Irvine responds.

“But I’ve noticed that in these villages where the people lead a quiet life among the green pastures and the still waters, tilling the ground and tending the cattle, there’s a strange deadness to the Word, as different as can be from the great towns, like Leeds, where I once went to visit a holy woman who preaches there. It’s wonderful how rich is the harvest of souls up those high-walled streets, where you seemed to walk as in a prison-yard, and the ear is deafened with the sounds of worldly toil. I think maybe it is because the promise is sweeter when this life is so dark and weary, and the soul gets more hungry when the body is ill at ease.”

“Why, yes, our farm-labourers are not easily roused. They take life almost as slowly as the sheep and cows. But we have some intelligent workmen about here.”

These are common enough prejudices against cities and people of the country even now of course…and perhaps Eliot had more of a hand in forming them than I know.

Here is Adam’s perception of Wirksworth — and it makes me think perhaps I am not quite so far off:

And when at last he came in sight of Snowfield, he thought it looked like a town that was “fellow to the country,” though the stream through the valley where the great mill stood gave a pleasant greenness to the lower fields. The town lay, grim, stony, and unsheltered, up the side of a steep hill, and Adam did not go forward to it at present, for Seth had told him where to find Dinah. It was at a thatched cottage outside the town, a little way from the mill–an old cottage, standing sideways towards the road, with a little bit of potato-ground before it. Here Dinah lodged with an elderly couple; and if she and Hetty happened to be out, Adam could learn where they were gone, or when they would be at home again.

I could have gone to see that same cottage, but I didn’t. We just didn’t get round to it. But here is where Mary Ann Evans visited her aunt:

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It has more than its share of quarries to be sure

Wirksworth Walk

But look at this village:

Wirksworth Walk

Wirksworth Walk

Hardly dreary.

Eliot did occasionally write something I really liked, and this is one of them. I’ll end with another quote from Adam and something I definitely miss in the city:

I like to go to work by a road that’ll take me up a bit of a hill, and see the fields for miles round me, and a bridge, or a town, or a bit of a steeple here and there. It makes you feel the world’s a big place, and there’s other men working in it with their heads and hands besides yourself.

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Brick Lane

117664There is such a richness to be uncovered here in Brick Lane, and I fail to uncover it in this post. I just collected a few quotes I particularly liked about life in London…that’s what you get, reading for enjoyment. I did enjoy this exploration of immigration and grappling with culture as they intertwine with character and expectations, and of course, the city itself. I loved its focus on women’s experience, enjoyed Nazneen’s attainment of strength and freedom, how it compares to her sister’s, how it connects to politics and race and self and place.

I remember first coming to the city from the desert — nothing like a village full of verdant green, but still this critical view of the East End strikes a chord. Of course, I moved to L.A. first, the bits with far fewer parks and green spaces, so it’s harder to be so critical of London in face of that sprawling concrete disaster (much as I love so much of it).

There was a patch of green surrounded by black railings, and in the middle two wooden benches. In this city, a bit of grass was something to be guarded, fenced about, as if there were a sprinkling of emeralds sown in among the blades. Nazneen found the gate and sat alone on the bench. A maharanee in her enclosure. The sun came out from behind a black cloud and shone briefly in her eyes before plunging back under cover, disappointed with what it had seen. (58)

This is an East End without all the lovely and curious things in it I have come to love, an East End restricted to estates and concrete — all the problems of social housing without much to redeem them:

She turned into the Berner Estate. Here, every type of cheap hope for cheap housing lived side by side in a monument to false economy. The low rises crouched like wounded monsters along concrete banks. In the gullies, beach-hut fabrications clung anxiously to the hard terrain, weathered and beaten by unknown storms. A desolate building, gouged-out eyes in place of windows, announced the Tenant’s Association: Hall for Hire. (468)

That said, I have seen a number of these Tenant Association halls, and they really are entirely dire. I always wondered about that. They, more than anything else, show that estates weren’t always built with the most respect for the people they were to house. Many were, of course, but not these perhaps.

The meeting was in a low building at the edge of the estate. It had been built without concession to beauty and with the expectation of defilement. (236)

Even so they contain so much life, friendships that matter, families and tragedies and love and plans for the future and organising for better or for worse.

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Traces of the Irish in Paris

We feel ubiquitous to me sometimes; there were many traces of the Irish in Paris, and our great poverty and casting to the winds. We wandered past the Rue des Irlandais — so named because the Irish College could be found there beginning in the late 16th Century and for three more centuries eduacting Irish people. Extraordinary, more to explore there. The Irish Cultural Centre sits here now.

We wandered past the Quiet Man Pub — complete with men inside on this ridiculously hot day drinking Guinness.

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I didn’t care so much for the film as John Wayne is a dick and Maureen O’Hara was asked to play a kind of woman I hardly admire — still, there is nostalgia here as it was filmed in the next village over from where my family is from and visited by us for that reason.

On a trip across Lough Corrib to Inchagoil Island, we were serenaded by a villager there, who had been an extra in the film:

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Such lovely memories.

More intriguing is the Flann O’Brian Irish Pub, given my immense love for Flan O’Brien. I surely would have gone in there to raise a toast, but it was closed.

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Flann probably would have liked this addition to its window’s however:

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If only they had been on bikes.

We were staying across from the Jardins des Plantes, near the rue Cardinal Lemoine. Joyce lived there, and we made an aborted attempt to see the place, but then realised it was up the hill rather than down…

It was very hot you see.

That’s all I got for now on Irish people in Paris.

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Americanah

20939941I quite loved Americanah — this story of Ifemelu and Obinze, funny that the fact that it has become a best seller gives me a little more respect for people in general and possibly also the literary establishment. Funny also that my love of it made me realise what a wonderful book it is, as so much of the dramatic arc is centered on relationships in a difficult world and that is not usually something that will grip my attention.

I like my relationships solid and healthy and consisting of mutual respect and taking care of each other — I like them as things I don’t have to think too much about but can just trust. I hate drama in them. I don’t like to spend time talking through them or thinking about them or knowing about how other people do it (or fail to). So I kept wanting an element of the fantastical, a crime, I kept bumping into my own limitations. But I loved this book all the same.

Of course, it is about lots of other things, race and class and loneliness and immigration and shame and the things we do for money and the things that break us and how we heal those breaks or fail to, how we name our integrity and keep it, what we do when it slips. It is about love. It is about change. About being brave.

There was lots to think about, I loved the stories of Nigeria, of the US East Coast, but perhaps because I live in London now, am a little more removed from everything that I was in the US, I can’t help but quote these:

In London, night came too soon, it hung in the morning air like a threat, and then in the afternoon a blue-grey dusk descended, and the Victorian buildings all wore a mournful air. In those first weeks, the cold startled Obinze with its weightless menace, drying his nostrils, deepening his anxieties, making him urinate too often….Sometimes he would stop outside a tube station…and watch the people brushing past him. they walked so quickly these people, as though they had an urgent destination, a purpose to their lives, while he did not. His eyes would follow them, with a lost longing, and he would think: You can work, you are legal, you are visible, and you don’t even know how fortunate you are. (227)

This too rings so true, breaks my heart:

The wind blowing across the British Isles was odorous with fear of asylum seekers, infecting everybody with the panic of impending doom, and so articles were written and read, simply and stridently, as though the writers lived in a world in which the present was unconnected to the past, and they had never considered this to be the normal course of history: the influx into Britain of black and brown people from countries created by Britain. (258)

I also loved Ifemelu’s blog posts on race in the U.S., they were both funny and perceptive, a bit like Black Girl Dangerous:

Job Vacancy in America — National Arbiter in Chief of “Who is Racist”

Here’s the thing: the manifestation of racism has changed but the language has not. So if you haven’t lynched somebody then you can’t be called a racist. If you’re not a bloodsucking monster, then you can’t be called a racist…Or maybe it’s time to scrap the word “racist.” Find something new. Like Racial Disorder Syndrome. And we could have different categories for sufferers of this syndrome: mild, medium, and acute. (315)

This quote is just because I know someone like this:

There were people who were born with an inability to be tangled up in dark emotions, in complications, and Iloba was one of them. For such people, Obinze felt both admiration and boredom (249).

My disinterest in complicated relationships has nothing to do with lack of emotions, and this made me smile as I feel the same.

Anyway. I am looking forward to everything else she has written.

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